September 12th 2014
Words are powerful little creatures. Even by themselves, the right words, curse words for instance, carry power. Leashed together in the form of sentences they can provoke a feeling of dread in the listener. The sentence that always provokes the most dread in me is, “There’s something you should know.”
Cayla Wyrick uttered that exact phrase while we were rocketing away from the damaged remains of the Orbital Supermax.
“Can this wait?” I asked. We’d finished refueling from the tanker and I was just about to answer a transmission from Morgan. He was currently at the controls of the second fighter in our fleet of three ships.
“I don’t think so,” said Cayla. “I know who Martin Browning is.”
I slowly eased off on the thrust. Martin Browning was at the heart of everything that had happened to us over the last few days. He was the reason the Nova Dogs had attacked the station in the first place. The deaths of hundreds of people could be directly attributed to his presence on OSP-4. “I was starting to believe he doesn’t exist.”
“He doesn’t,” said Cayla. “He’s an alias. That’s why he didn’t show up in your initial search.”
That made no sense. Lots of prisoners, if not most, have aliases. “I thought aliases were included in searches by default.”
“They are. That was what threw me for a loop. But there’s not much to do when you’re a hostage, and the Tevarin had a direct connect to the server room. His file was blacked out, but I was able to bypass it.”
I’d tried to search his name earlier and Cayla had been dead set against it. What had changed?
“I had a lot of time to think,” she confessed when I asked. “Kilkenny is risking a lot. With every hour the chance that someone alerts the UEE to his little operation rises. But he’s still here. Why? What makes this Browning so special? I looked him up, but not because I wanted to turn him over to the Nova Dogs. I thought he might be able to help us. And it turns out he has been.”
“It’s Morgan isn’t it?” I asked, with cold certainty in my heart. He’d been one of the only two prisoners in Maximum Security. If he was Browning, then he’d stayed silent as hundreds of people had been killed. On the other hand, without his help, we would never have made it off the station and there was no way we were going to be able to run the Nova Dogs’ blockade without him.
“What do we do?” she asked.
I had no clue. “What was he arrested for?”
“It didn’t say. That part of his file was locked up so tight I couldn’t access it even with the codes I was assigned when Kilkenny destroyed the Command Deck,” Wyrick confessed.
I heard Morgan’s voice hiss over the comm. “Everything okay, Nylund?”
I looked to her, but Cayla’s face had no expression. I tapped on the comm. “Everything’s fine. Konicek’s with us. How’s your fuel?”
“Half mast,” he said. “Good news/bad news. Scratch two bogies. On the other hand, I’ve got three in tow and that freighter is sitting between us and the jump gate. Care to assist?”
I hesitated for only a moment. I could see Morgan’s rocket exhaust and three fast-moving stars breaking away from the starscape to follow. The targeting computer highlighted all three, plotting vectors and analyzing them for weaknesses.
“Konicek, we’re uncoupling.” The fueling umbilical retracted from somewhere above me and spooled back into the tanker.
“This is Corporal Smythe, sir. Mr. Konicek has been “… staring into space for the last twenty minutes. I’m afraid to wake him,” came the reply over the comm. Smythe was one of the techs who’d helped Konicek fix the tanker. I felt some pity for him and the others. “Stay away from the fireworks. Morgan’s coming in to refuel. When he’s done get your ass out of here.”
The dark shadow that was the fuel tanker lifted up and then rolled over like a breeching whale and disappeared beneath us.
“All buckled up?” I asked.
“Are you sure about this, Avery?” asked Cayla. “All we’d have to do is tell Kilkenny that Morgan is Martin Browning and he’d let us go.”
“We don’t have a choice. We need Morgan to run the blockade. We’ll deal with this Browning thing on the other side of the jump point.” I couldn’t help muttering ‘if we make it’ under my breath. The bulk of the Nova Dogs were far behind us, but two antiquated fighters against three modern craft and an armored freighter were not good odds. Added to that, there were a few suspicious smudges on the long-range radar that I didn’t like thinking about.
I gunned the Cutlass’s engines. Our fighters had been configured to run down escaping prisoners and I knew I’d have to keep an eye on my power consumption, but the extra speed gave me a huge advantage in a dogfight. I swung wide, hoping the three fighters were so intent on Morgan that they wouldn’t notice me coming up on their six. When it looked like I had escaped attention, I maxed out my thrust and unloaded on them. One of the fighters went up after only a few pulses and the other two scattered. I jinked left to track one and spotted Morgan chasing after the other bogie. After we finished them off, he rendezvoused with the tanker and began to refuel.
I was about to radio him when I realized the comm was still open. I tried to remember the last transmission I’d sent. No one had said anything during the battle. I felt the blood drain out of my cheeks. It had been with Corporal Smythe. That meant that Morgan and everyone on the tanker had heard Cayla identify him as Martin Browning.
My hand hovered over the comm button. We had enough fuel to disappear into remote space before Morgan could start after us. We could outrun him if we left now. I closed the comm and hit the throttle.
“Uh, Avery?” Cayla asked from the back seat. “Shouldn’t we wait for Morgan and Konicek?”
I kept my hand where it was. I set my shields forward. It would be difficult to get past Kilkenny’s armored freighter on my own, but we didn’t have a choice. There was no way Morgan would let us live now that he knew that we were in on his little secret. “He knows we know.”
“Oh,” she said. I could hear her slump back in her seat. She’d always been bright. I’m sure she figured out what had happened.
The freighter loomed large in my vision. The HUD brought up its specs, and highlighted the wicked looking particle weapon I’d seen on the Flight Deck. She wasn’t very maneuverable, but she was sitting right between us and the jump point and had enough weaponry on her to pose a serious problem to anyone trying to get by. “This is going to get rough,” I warned, checking the shields.
Suddenly the freighter lurched into motion and blasted away from the jump point. But not towards us.
Greetings my old friend, my old nemesis, said a voice on the public channel that I recognized as belonging to Captain Martin Kilkenny of the Nova Dogs. Are you surprised that I know you for who you are, Martin Browning? You wear the skin of a pirate king, but the man beneath belongs to the UEE. I have come to eat your flesh and wear your skin and I will rule the pirate kingdoms in your stead.
“He’s a live one isn’t he?” asked Cayla.
“The livest,” I replied. “Corporal Smythe must have sold Morgan out to Kilkenny. But the good news is that we appear to have a clear shot at the jump point.”
Instead of gunning it, I cut the throttle and let us drift. The freighter dwindled behind us. It was clearly too powerful for one fighter to handle on its own. My hand moved towards the throttle and then dropped again. I tapped on the controls. Looked over my shoulder. Looked back at the construct that was the jump point.
Cayla said nothing, not questioning why we’d stopped.
“Dammit,” I said as I turned us around and hit the throttle at full burn.
“You’re doing the right thing,” she said.
“That’s great. I’m glad my therapy is progressing so well,” I shot back and then immediately regretted it. Cayla had become far more than my therapist. I respected her. No, it went deeper than that. I didn’t know the word for it exactly. Or at least I wouldn’t admit that I did.
Morgan was still refueling. Smythe must have slowed down the process to entrap him.
My console lit up with dozens of signals from the direction of OSP-4. Kilkenny had found his man and was collapsing the net around him. Things were about to get very hot, very quickly.
Suddenly I heard a shot over the comm system and then some fumbling. “You’re all clear, boss,” said Herschel Konicek. The madman had come back to life at just the right moment.
“I knew I could count on you, Herby,” said Morgan. “My gauge is filling fast.” There was a pause. “You get lost on the way to the jump point, Nylund?”
“Yeah, but while I’m here, we might as well clean up a little,” I said, locking on to the freighter. I fired at it, but it didn’t even try to evade. Instead, rear-mounted cannon returned fire and we were the ones who were forced to jink. We were fast, but without missiles I couldn’t direct enough firepower on the freighter to bring down its shields.
Luckily, Morgan detached from the fueling umbilical and pulled away from Konicek. With a burst of thrust he was back in the fight.
Suddenly I was thrown violently against the canopy. The starscape swung wildly around me and I realized that we’d been hit with the massive particle beam cannon on the front of the freighter. While I’d been watching Morgan she’d swung around and fired. My controls were unresponsive and my instruments dead. A terrible thought occurred to me. “Cayla?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “A little shook up, but fine.”
I did a quick survey. Our shields were down and there was a wicked dent in the hull, but we weren’t leaking air and the plant, while powered down, appeared to be undamaged. Could it be a main controller? I had no idea.
“What can I do to help?” asked Cayla.
“I don’t know,” I cursed. My fist pounded down on the instrument panel.
Kilkenny’s freighter turned away from us, focusing on Morgan’s fighter. Gunfire flew back and forth between them. The freighter was all fight and no flight. Instead of evading Morgan’s blasts it sat there and took them, unworried. It began to drift towards us.
I rebooted the system and, after it cycled, my instruments flashed and came up. Weapons and shields were still offline, except for one gun that flickered on and off. It was the mate of the turret gun that had been damaged in my encounter with the station.
We were so close to Kilkenny’s freighter that we couldn’t miss.
“Let it fire,” I prayed and then mashed the trigger. Energy pounded the freighter and there was a bright explosion of light. We were jerked back in our seats and then everything went dark as the canopy polarized. When it returned to normal, we saw the punctured hull of the freighter spinning away from us.
“I thought we were dead,” said Cayla breathlessly.
“Not. Quite. Yet.” I said as I punched thrust and followed Morgan towards the jump point. As we neared, twin lasers leapt from the Hornet, and we were suddenly without a jump drive.
Then his voice came through the comm. “Now, don’t panic, but you and the good doctor are going to have to stay in-system while we leave, Nylund. Don’t worry, the Nova Dogs have nothing else they can send after you.”
“Why are you doing this?” I asked.
“Nothing personal. I just can’t have you following me. There should be a UEE team on the way to the Supermax right now. They’ll find you before you run out of air. So sit tight. I’m sure you two lovebirds can think of some way to pass the time.”
And then he left us. We watched the bright streak of his exhaust flash into Interspace.
“He called us lovebirds,” said Cayla with a hint of curiosity. “You don’t …?”
“Isn’t there a thing about dating your patients?” I asked, looking back at her.
“Yeah,” she said, a little crestfallen. “I guess there is.”
I unhooked my flight harness and inspected the cockpit. There wasn’t much room, but after everything we’d been through, I was sure we could make this work. I raised an eyebrow and smiled broadly. “In that case, you’re fired.”
Jordan Ellinger has been called a “standout” in a starred review in Publishers Weekly. He is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA), is a first place winner of Writers of the Future, a graduate of the prestigious Clarion West writers workshop, an award-winning screenplay writer, and author of more than twenty works of fiction, including popular series and media tie-ins (i.e., “Warhammer” and “Star Citizen”). He has collaborated with internationally best-selling authors like Mike Resnick and Steven Savile (with whom he co-authored “Martyrs,” a military thriller). He is also a game designer. His most recent game, Dragon Assault, has just been released on Facebook.