Commandante Gungnir Odinson, thirteenth member of the Olympiad Council, towered over me by two or three feet, easy. There was an off-green undertone to his skin that made him look sallow and pale, like he had spent years in space and never touched down long enough to see any natural light. His eyepatch was inlaid with a ruby, cut like an eye, and he grinned as he drew nearer my cell, his massive smile white and oh-so sharp.
“We finally have you in our grasp, Quinn Lehar,” he said, voice rumbling, one hand stroking his beard.
“You have no idea how happy you’ve made me.”
“Eat me,” I said, and spat at him.
A single gob of saliva landed on his cheek, and he considered this for a moment as he wiped himself clean.
“I doubt I’d get anything but indigestion from you,” he said.
“No, we’re well aware of your various tricks, Miss Lehar. You’re free to roam about back there in the prisoner chambers, but any attempts at escaping this vessel will result in the bomb collar around your neck exploding. You’ll also be assigned a personal ROVR to watch over you. I would not attempt to test its military capabilities. The last prisoner aboard this vessel to make that escape is still partially matted into the grout. We’ll have to get it detailed when we reach the Institute.”
Said ROVR yapped in the corner, a visor for eyes. Its body and head were made of white space-grade plasticine, hovering in the air. Ugh, I hated ROVRs. Relentless as terriers, with none of the kindness.
“Where are you taking me?” I demanded.
“The Huginn Institute,” he said.
“For… research purposes.” I didn’t like the sound of that. The Huginn Institute was spoken of in hushed whispers all over The Stretch. One part research and development, one part crazy scientist’s lab, or so I heard. I was on a one way ride to get an Administration-sanctioned lobotomy, I supposed.
“And why me?” “The real question you should be asking yourself is why aren’t you being executed. Tampering with Administration military property is grounds for treason.” Treason? I could feel my heart sink to my stomach. So knocking over a few abandoned watch stations and stealing their weapons caches, that was supposed to be treason?
“Look, I’ll admit I shouldn’t have taken stuff that wasn’t mine,” I said. “But you have got to be kidding me. This is petty larceny. Or grand theft, at most. Treason?”
“Billy Braigher told us all we needed to know,” Odinson boomed. “Your partner-in-crime. Or should I say ex-partner, if the look in your eye means anything.”
“What did he tell you?” I asked, breathing hard.
“Everything,” Odinson said.
“When I get out of here, I’m going to kill him,” I snarled, through the bars. I grabbed two of them in each hand and shook them as I spoke for emphasis.
“I wouldn’t try it,” Odinson said.
“Not if you want to stay a-head of the game.” He chuckled to himself with his stupid, corny pun. I rattled the bars one more time.
“One of these days, you and I are going to cross blades,” I said.
“And you won’t have any of these tricks to keep me from cutting you open.” He drew closer to the bars, extending a hand. I felt a hard push shove me to the back of the cabin, plastered against the wall. His hand was still raised, and I felt myself rising into the air. When I hit the ceiling, he clenched his hand and broke the Resonance. I fell, hard, right on my tail-bone. I felt like a rag doll that had been tossed. Well, that was one thing at least. I knew for sure that there were no Resonance dampeners in place. Even if it hurt…
“Our mercy is exceedingly kind, considering your circumstances. You, my dear, are a space pirate with a record a Mafia Boss would blush at. And so young? A seventeen-year old girl, barely a whelp, and already a criminal mastermind. You continue to threaten me, and I’ll Resonance grab you and smash you through the exterior hull. Perhaps we’ll see if Space Pirates can really breathe in space…”
With a flourish of his cape, he turned and strode from the room, out of sight and into a different part of the ship. I could hear the door hydraulics hiss as he left, and cursed to myself.
“Language, Miss Lehar,” the ROVR buzzed. I sneered at it and sat back on my bunk. Isn’t this great? I thought to myself. Trapped, betrayed, imprisoned, and currently en route to getting my brains dissected at the Huginn Institute. Someone, somewhere, must be really pissed with me right now… An hour or so later, a hidden door behind me opened onto a viewport corridor. I could see all of Sector Seven-Delta before me: a vast purple supernova pulsing against a backdrop of stars, and its seven moons and asteroid belt circling gently. A man froze, face confused, hand over a keypad outside my door. “This is not the Emergency Escape room,” the strange man said, and made to shut it again.
“Wait,” I said. I looked back at the ROVR. No warning klaxons. Hmmm…
“What do you want?” The man pushed his glasses up on his face. “I’m just not sure if I can leave this room,” I said. “Not my problem,” the man said, and started pressing buttons again.
“Wait a minute,” I said. He had the same collar on as me. “Are you a prisoner?”
“Yes,” he said. “But not for long. If you’ll excuse me—”
I stuck my foot in the door. It started closing, then re-opened within inches of my in-step. I let out the gasp I had been holding. I slid an ankle out into the corridor gently, testing the waters. Looked back at the ROVR. Still nothing. Well, Odinson did say I was free to roam around the prisoner chambers… I popped my head through the door frame and half-expected my brain to burst. When it didn’t, I turned around and nearly jumped backwards through the viewport glass. The ROVR had moved, silently, its visor eyes thisclose to me.
“Can I go out here?” I asked.
“These are prisoner-assigned quarters,” it buzzed. “You have free entry.” The man from before was turning a corner, looking frazzled. I walked, stepping quite fast, up to him again and tapped him on the shoulder.
He jumped. “Jeez!” he said. “What did you go and do that for?” “I was trying not to scare you,” I said. “Well, you failed. Miserably. If you’ll excuse me, I really must be going.” I darted around in front of him and held my hand out.
“Wait a second,” I said. “Didn’t you say something about escaping earlier?” My ROVR floated silently behind me. The man pivoted his waist, leaning around me and looked at my Watch-dog, then leaned back and stared into my face.
“I said no such thing. I’m merely looking for the canteen. If you’ll excuse me…” He pushed his way past me, walked around the ROVR, and gestured with his hands when I turned around. In his left hand he held his glasses outstretched, which he dropped. They clattered under the ROVR. “My mistake,” he said, crouching down.
“Let’s see…” His hand slapped around the undercarriage, making various symbols. The red lights on its visor changed to blue, and then before I knew it the ROVR buzzed and puttered back off to my cell.
“Can you teach me how to do that?” I asked. “Come quickly,” he muttered. “We don’t have much time.”
“What are we doing?” I hissed. “Escaping,” he said. “Shut up and follow me.” We huddled together against walls. The ship lights switched over; from a bright fluorescent to a muted red. The whole ship rocked. A thought occurred to me.
“Can’t they see us on the cameras?” I asked. “I disabled them already,” he muttered. “Do you think they brought our personal effects on-board?” He paused and thought about this. “What, your makeup kit? Ow!” he said, rubbing his shoulder. He tossed a reproachful look my way. “I want my Resonator,” I said. “It’s important to me.”
“If it was gonna be anywhere it’d be in the Munitions room on the other side of the corridor. That way.” He gestured behind himself. “Will you come with me?” I asked. He snorted, and shook his head. “Absolutely not,” he said. “There’s a very short window before the security system resets itself. I don’t have time for all this.” “It’s really important that I get it,” I said. “I’ve had it since I was a little girl.”
“Well, good for you, you can alert every ROVR on this thing breaking in. See ya around!” And he headed away, further down the corridor. I cursed him in my mind, then turned and treaded back down the other way. Munitions room… munitions room… Ha! I found it. It was the very nondescript door with an ‘Emergency Only’ sign on it. I peered through the round little window inside it. A few ROVRs paced backed and forth, wagging their tails and occasionally scanning for threats. A keypad stared at me from the side. If I were a member of the Olympiad, what would my password be? I tried something—and with a click and a whoosh, the door opened, much to my surprise.
“Huh,” I said. The ROVRs turned to look at me. I had a few brief milliseconds to consider my options here. Odds were, they would scan my biotic data and alert the emergency system within thirty seconds. The whole ship would be up in arms. Then again, if there were only a way to disable them… I really didn’t want to rely on my party trick here of all places, right under the observation of a Huginn Institute prison transport. But hadn’t the glasses guy said something about the cameras being off? I made my decision.
“Octales,” I cried out. “Be my steel!” I could feel the Resonance field around me activate, and a small, quiet voice muttered in my head. “Thought you’d never ask, Boss!” I heard back. He manifested, Resonance energy coalescing into an obsidian blade in my right hand. The local warning klaxons went off from the ROVRs. I tossed Octales right through the visor of the first one, impaling it against the far wall, and ran and slid under the second one. Octales phased back into my hand and I held it out and up, slicing the second ROVR in half. It buzzed and sparked as its parts fell. I got to my feet again, looking at the overhead alarm system. Nobody had made a sound. No overhead klaxons. A little part of gut twisted up. This all seemed a bit too easy… I dug around in the munitions room. Weapons, ammunition, old repair parts here and there. I pulled box after box out, snatching through everything.
“Come on, come on,” I muttered. “Octales, I could really use your help.” The blade shimmered where I had stood it on its end in the corner, and Octales himself spun into existence. A baby imp-thing, wearing a diaper for some sense of decency. (I had insisted on this part myself.) His little wings flapped, and his pitbull-looking face frowned at me. “I was ready to leap into action when that huge guy started tossing you,” he pouted. I pulled another box down, and slid it behind me. “I need my Resonator,” I said. “Help me find it.” “Of all the people who actually need one, you don’t,” Octales said. “Why are you so insistent on finding it?”
“We’ve been over this a hundred times, just help me look!” I snarled. Muttering to himself, he floated up and up, to a high shelf. “This bucket up here has your name on it, Boss,” he called out. “That might be it, toss it down.” He groaned and pulled with all his might, and with a mighty crash of ammo and circuitry scattering over my head, my Resonator bounced at my feet. “This is it,” I called out.
“Great,” Octales said, looking behind me, and phased out. “Because we have company.” The warning klaxons started sounding overhead just as my sword reappeared in my hand. I cursed and spun around. Gungnir Odinson stood there, surrounded by Administration officers on every side. He, too, had his blade drawn. “Clever,” he said. “I won’t ask how you found your way here, or how you got inside. I will tell you to drop your weapon. You have three seconds. I’d sure hate to cut down someone of your skill before we can have you properly analyzed.”
“Try it,” I said, and stood in position. He inhaled, and then with a push and a slice, a Resonance wave came barreling straight at me. I rolled to the right, barely avoiding it, and used my Resonator to send some phaser beams from my hip. Two officers that had been drawing nearer were down, circuitry malfunctioning, suits shaking. Then I aimed at Odinson, squeezing off a few shots as I got to my feet. These he reflected easily, knocking them around; his own blade was something similar to mine, though I could tell he himself was using a Resonator to manifest it. One of the beams hit a dangling waistbelt of sonic grenades, nearly head-height…
“Miss Lehar, I’ll say this again. You would do far better if you cooperated with us. The Administration only has the best interests of mankind at stake.” “Oh, I’m sure,” I said, and squeezed off another shot. It hit the grenades, and with a concussive blast, Odinson and the rest of the officers were knocked backwards and into side-tables. I had raised my own Resonance field into a sort of shield to protect myself. As they were stirring, I lowered my shields and ran, foot stepping right on Odinson’s face as I catapaulted over the pile of guards in the entryway.
“Why are you running?” Octales asked. “Because we’re outgunned,” I panted, turning a corner. The nebula outside was pulsating. Something clicked in my head, then—something about pin-jumps and timing. I ran past the viewport. Two officers stood in front of me, but I sliced as I ran, not breaking my stride, and turned another corner. A big ‘emergency exit’ sign was over one doorway, and I stabbed Octales right into the console. It buzzed and opened, and the man with glasses and I stared at each other. He was in the single escape pod, and there was steam and vapor hissing. I banged on the viewport. “Let me in!” I cried.
“There’s no room!” he said.
“Where are you going?”
“Timing a pin-jump,” he said.
“Will it mess up your calculations if I wear a suit and grab on?” “Are you insane?” he called.
Not insane, so much as desperate. I grabbed a suit and watched the countdown timer hurriedly. The air lock was screaming. Zipping up, feeling the auto-seal technology burp its own air, carbon-recycle filters engaging. Helmet on. Careful! Can’t get your hair caught in the seams… The countdown was at fifteen seconds. I grabbed some electrical cord hanging from the wall which was sparking and ripped, tying it to one end of the escape pod’s handle and the other around my waist.
“This is not a survivable situation,” he yelled.
“Untie yourself!” “Just find somewhere safe to land nearby!” I said. He opened his mouth to say something, but the launch sequence had engaged. I pulled my Resonance field up and around me, solidifying it as tightly as possible, and soon felt the sucking pull of oxygen behind me escaping into the void of space. We floated for what felt like minutes before the boosters engaged. I prayed and prayed and prayed as we took off, feeling like an ant that had grabbed onto the tail feathers of an eagle… An icy cold penetrated my suit. “This is it,” I said to myself. “No more following strange men around, Quinn.” The nebula winked as we floated onwards into the galaxy…
A loud bang and a rumble roused me from unconscious and I felt the ship veer dangerously to the left. I tugged at the iron restraints, but they held firm. Typical empire steel. I used to be able to pick the simple handcuffs they used planet-side, but these were reinforced, with a complex mechanism. I’d already chaffed my wrists red trying to pull out of them.
The ship righted itself but I could see smoke out the windows.
One of the guards looked nervous. He was standing at the end of the hall with a lazer cannon, trying to stand still as the ship leaned one way, then the other. Whatever was happening, it wasn’t part of the plan. It was way too early to land on Xenon, where I’d get an unsympathetic trial and a swift execution.
“Maybe you should go check on that?” I asked. Just as a large explosion rocketed the ship. This time the guard fell, before running down the hall towards the cockpit. Great. We were going to crash in some random nebula. Might be preferable to the empire’s so called justice, and a firing squad, but still not a pretty way to die. The cabins would be ripped open, my limbs frozen, my eyes would crack like glass then explode. In a few months I’d be space dust and join the rings of some backwater planet. Poetic, but not ideal.
Movement caught my eye and the cell door down the hall creaked open slowly. I didn’t even know anybody else was being caged in this cell block, but I guess it was vanity to assume they’d make this trip just for me.
Out stepped another prisoner – I could tell by the handcuffs he snapped off his wrists and tossed to the floor with a clank. How had he gotten them off? How did he get the door open?
Our eyes connected, but then he frowned and turned away.
“Wait!” I said. “Let me out – I can help!”
“Doubtful,” he said, rubbing his wrists. He took a few steps closer and I eyed him over. Shaggy blonde hair, glasses, and he was wearing unmistakably earthling clothes, like he’d just stepped out of a JC Penny’s – khakis and a light blue button down. They stood out against the dark steel of the ship’s interior. Totally impractical for space travel.
“You’re obviously new at this,” I said. “Looks like you got captured on your first run. Probably don’t even know why or what you did wrong.” His expression flickered, letting me know I wasn’t far off.
He looked over my chart and his eyes widened.
“Space pirate? Espionage, terrorism, theft? If I let you out you’d just kill me.”
“Most of that stuff is made up.”
“You can’t be that good or you wouldn’t have gotten caught.”
“My last partner was a douchebag,” I glared. “Forgot to pay off the right people. You know how it is.”
“Sorry,” he said, turning away. I shouted at him to come back but he already ducked down a side hall. Another explosion rocked the ship and I’m sure I saw one of the engines fly past the viewpoint. I could smell smoke, and red alarm bells and sirens started blaring.
Just when I was sure I was going to die here, the doors popped open. I scrambled to my feet, racing to the cockpit, but the door was sealed. Through the glass I could make out a few charred bodies and a broken window – the whole bridge was sealed off. This ship was going down. I headed past the crew’s quarters to the emergency pods. My heart sank when I saw the empty docking areas, but then flared when I saw one pod left. I raced to it just in time to see the door shut and the earthling step behind glass.
That bastard was going to leave me here to die.
I pounded on red button to open the door but the countdown had already started. 90 seconds until the last pod left. Out the window I could see the looming surface of an alien planet – purple, pretty but way too close for comfort. Maybe I wouldn’t end up frozen in space afterall. Maybe I’d die in a blazing fireball when the ship entered the atmosphere, or smashed into the rocky peaks I could make out below.
I only had one other move, and it was a bad one.
I opened the hatch containing the space suits and strapped one on quickly. I found a wrench and cracked open the access panel to the side of the pod, crawling through it on my hands and knees. I was lucky the empire had the new models – a sleek, tight-fitting one piece and helmet – or I would have gotten stuck. I made it to the loading dock with thirty seconds left and opened the hatch, holding on tightly against the sudden vacuum pulling me out into space. I crawled along the exterior of the ship, my fingers straining against the tiny handholds. The whole ship was vibrating and bumping now.The escape pod lit up, preparing for launch, the blue flame of its thrusters shining brightly against the orange landscape of the nearest sun. I wasn’t going to make it. I made a few mental calculations, angled myself towards the pod and took a deep breath, then launched myself into space. For a second I thought I was too early, but then the escape pod hissed and delocked from the ship, inching out in front of my path. I managed to grab the exterior handle with one hand, just barely reaching it with my fingertips and hauling myself up to the side before the boosters kicked in.
I pressed myself flat against the steel – which was cold at first but soon warmed as we entered the planet’s atmosphere. The suit protected me against the worst of the temperature but I still felt like a roasted chicken. My vision blurred and I felt nauseous as we plumed across the sky leaving a trail of white smoke behind us. We were falling, too fast, I was sure something had gone wrong with the landing mechanisms. The ground rushed up at a dizzying speed. Then I heard a pop, and looked up to see a red parachute with the empire’s seal on it, fill the sky above. Blood rushed to my ears as the pod slowed it’s descent, and my fingers went limp as I lost consciousness.