Stranded - Part 4
I hate space. Even the word is a misnomer. There’s nothing vast or open about it. Two years on board this ship and it’s still all I think about. I feel it pressing against the hull, cold and heavy. Hear it in the thousand creaks and moans of the Ingress as she pushes deeper into the smothering black.Read story
The corridors on the way back to my compartment are empty, but elsewhere on the ship people are busily going about their work. There is no room for passengers on board a Thukker caravan. Everybody contributes. Outsiders, as I’ve come to learn, doubly so.
Fatigue hangs over me like a lead jacket. But even tired, I know when I’m being followed. I glance back. Nothing. During the downshift cycle the strip lighting in the corridors is turned low. Good for saving power, great for sneaking up on someone. I keep walking. The day Neera died - The day you killed her – I left. When I was done mourning, I stood up, walked outside and just kept going. I guess I always knew someone would come for me.
As I walk, the fatigue burns away, replaced with the savage anticipation of the fight to come. I round a corner, then immediately turn and step back into the corridor just in time to see a silky shadow disappear into the darkness of a small maintenance alcove. A shiver of familiarity crawls up my spine. Run. Something uneasy in the movement. Fear scratches at the back of my mind, frantic as a caged animal. Run. The shadow moves again, and this time the oil-slick motion triggers a star burst of understanding. The lab on Khabi VIII. The fight flushes out of me. RUN! I turn to run just as the heat of the explosion surrounds me. Scorching tongues of it licking my face and then gone, sucked out of the gaping hole in the corridor wall into the suffocating emptiness. And me along with it.
I wake in darkness. Gasping for air. Sucking in hungry mouthfuls that hammer spikes of pain through my brain. Lights spasm and arc across my vision. Dizzy. I reach out a hand to steady myself, but only succeed in falling over. I throw up. I lie there for a moment, floating in the center of my own spinning universe. Slowly, in the faraway galaxy of my mind, nebulous recognition forms. The spinning slows and confusion coalesces into anger.
“What the hell did you do?” I scream the words, but they wither in the darkness and barely reach my own ears. I try to stand, but the spinning starts again and so I lie back down. “That’s not how it happened!” I yell. Again, the darkness swallows the sound of my voice.
I feel numb. Every part of me heavy and slow, like being underwater. My mind slams into my skull as though it’s had enough of all this and wants out. I want to die. Instead, I focus on the ground. The ground is solid. The ground is real. Need to keep moving. But where? Forward, chintaku. People should always move forward. Even in my head, the sound of her voice is enough to make me cry. I start walking.
The darkness pushes against me. I lean into it. I’ve fought in heavy gravity before, but never felt anything like this. It tugs at my arms and leg. Clings to my ankle like a desperate lover. I walk for hours (Days? Minutes?), but each step feels no closer or farther than the first.
“Well, you would know, Traveler. They are your memories after all.”
I bow my head into the invisible storm and press forward.
“You can’t outrun them you know. Not forever.”
The darkness rises. A wave of shimmering heat and pressure, the tide of it carries me back to the ship and the fire and the screams.
The corridor is just the way I remember it. Burning, but intact. Up ahead, a woman runs past, a cloak of flame billowing behind her. She doesn’t scream. As the fire swallows her, she simply hunches closer over the small bundle she’s carrying in her arms. I turn away from the sight. There are some things even I don’t want to see. Thukker caravans carry entire generations on board. Families live and die without ever leaving the ship. But most live longer than this.
An arm reaches out of a darkened doorway and pulls me inside. The door’s still sliding shut as I reach around and twist the wrist on my shoulder, and in one smooth motion pinion my attacker’s arm and slam him into the wall.
“Hey! No, wait!”
He tries to turn around, but I apply more pressure and he grunts in pain.
It’s me! Jet!”
Jita. Calls himself Jet. I remember now. Strong kid. Worked a couple shifts down in the Skews together. His parents named him after the system he was conceived in. Parents can do shitty things to their children sometimes.
I let go.
“What’s going on?”
He squeezes his shoulder. “You almost broke my arm!”
“You’ll live.” I say, knowing I’ve hurt his pride more than his arm.
“We’ve been boarded.” He says, finally. “I was running a diagnostic suite when the entire board lit up. They blew a hole into the maintenance bay on Deck 4.”
“What! Who?” I imagine Valklears storming through the corridors. If this is my fault... If I brought this on these people... I shut the thought down before it can go any further.
“Does it matter?”
“Yes!” I say a little too loudly. “Yes it does.”
“Well, sorry, but I didn’t stop to ask. Vartigin says he heard you were a soldier before. Is that true?”
I ignore the question. “How many of them?”
“I don’t know. Maybe ten?” Still rubbing his arm.
“For a ship this size? They’ll need a lot more. And I’m going to need a weapon.”
Jet walks across the room, does something with a panel that I can’t quite make out and comes back holding what might as well be a rock for all the good it’ll do me. A Gistii-10. Small, compact and horribly inaccurate at range.
“Where did you get that?”
He shrugs. “This isn’t the first time something like this has happened.”
“Stay here.” I say, and snatch the weapon from him before he can object.
I count sixteen. They’re armed and efficient - in ten minutes the entire sub-section is locked down - but they’re not Valklear. Dressed head-to-toe in black. No insignias or markings of any kind. Whoever they work for, they don’t like to advertise. Everything about them is low-key. Everything except the weapons they’re carrying. Shiny, hi-tech. I look at the aging Gistii in my hand. With no better option, I wait.
Eventually, they split up. I watch as the larger group disappears around the corner, give it a few minutes just to be sure and then, with a silent thanks to whichever miser son of a bitch insisted on the low lighting protocol, move round the corner in a bent-knee run, closing as much of the gap as I can.
Twelve meters out someone sees me, but three shots center-mass puts him down before the others even turn. I get one more shot off, tagging one of them in the ribs, before the shouting erupts and the shooting starts. The corridor boils with the hungry hiss of gunfire. A wild spray of shots. The sick sizzle of metal to my left. I ignore all of it, focus instead on the nearest target. The Gistii jerks in my hands. Once. Twice. And then he’s falling back, grabbing at the wall, collapsing. One of them is screaming into his headset, but as the others go down he pulls a rifle and rakes it across the corridor. The stutter-whine of impacts all around me, metal shards sting my face and arms. I blink something warm and wet from my eyes. Focus. I get the Gistii back on target and empty the clip. He jolts, staggers, still firing wildly, and then is down on the ground, bleeding over his friends.
If they didn’t know I was here before, they do now. Shit, the whole ship must have heard that. I need a new weapon. I need to find cover. I know what I should be doing, but instead I’m screaming into the face of the only raider I can find alive.
“Who sent you?”
“Damnit! I said tell me who se—“
Something slams into me from behind and a warm wetness blossoms across my chest. I sink to my knees.
A voice, from what seems far away, “How did this Thukker trash get in here? Fuck. Look at this mess.”
Lying on my back, looking up at the ceiling, the corridor seems suddenly very bright. “I won’t let you take me.” I try to say, but my tongue feels too thick for my mouth and it comes out like a groan.
The voice looks down at me, weapon still in hand. “There’s always one isn’t there? Way to go, hero.” Then he turns back to his men.
“C’mon. Get that container on board and let’s get the hell out of here. G’dammit! Be careful. He wants it undamaged.”
I watch them leave through the makeshift hole in the wall.
Out into the crushing dark.