--- A Totally Unabashed Fully Loaded Space Opera ---
/ Planet Tagabu. /
“How is it we always end up at this same damn bar, on this same damn mud-hole planet?” Alex says, handing me a drink.
“Because the Noble’s officers don’t like to get their boots dirty?” I chuckle.
We tap our cups together.
“Stayin’ alive, with money to thrive,” we chime in unison.
This has been our victory chant ever since our first days of smuggling. Call it superstition, but it works.
“The Noble’s patrol ships were all over this run,” Alex says.
“I noticed. I had to use a dirty jump point to get by them, and that's a bumpy ride through hell.”
“You ever wonder what it would be like to run legal, without criminal charges looming over your head?"
“I don’t know, Alex. You and I have been in this game for so long, I’m not sure what I would do with myself. Can you see me living a normal life? A wife and a couple kids?” I laugh.
“I’m serious, Tyler. It's getting harder and harder to make any real credits.” Alex pauses. “How long can we survive this?”
I want to say something, to offer some solution, make a joke, anything, but I know he's right.
We have run contraband since we were kids. We weren’t born into a nurturing world. The streets were our parents. We became brothers through the struggle. We always had each other’s back. This was our pact.
“Check out what just walked in,” Alex says, desperate to lighten the mood.
It is a human, her cloak and hood singed and tattered, but the rest of her is pristine. A cyber mask hides her face, but the skin on her hands sparkles like a native of Soren.
Her presence causes a stir for a moment, then the usuals go back to their business.
Sitting by herself, she inspects the room. She is looking for something.
“Space to Tyler,” Alex says, poking me out of my stare. “You should go buy her a drink.”
“And look like an idiot? This isn’t the type of place where people hook up.” I reply.
“Come on, lover-boy, you know Gort over there loves humanoid women. As soon as he downs that last drink, he will be over there. You don’t want a Shug giving us runners a bad name.” Alex says, winking at me.
“I’m not getting involved.”
“I dare you.” Alex interjects “In fact, if you get as far as buying her a drink, I’ll pay you a quarter credit.”
"It’s your loss, my friend."
I stand up and walk over. I'll probably get shot, or worse, make a giant ass of myself.
The woman looks up at me as I approach.
“Hello, you seem new. Welcome to the Cove.” I say, hoping she doesn’t burn a hole in me or my ego.
“I’m, Tyler. Can I buy you a ...”
“Are you a pilot?” She asks.
“Are you looking for one?” I reply.
“I need to get to Anthropia,” she whispers.
“ I have credits, I can pay,” she says, pulling her cloak down to hide her face.
“Anthropia? That is a neutral planet. Commercial ships go there all the time.” I reply.
She hesitates “I need to be discrete.”
"What is the name of your ship?" She asks.
“STS 909X,” I reply, “but I call her Alice.”
“Hey.” I hear from behind me, “Are you bothering this fine human?”
It is Gort the Shug. He is drunk and coming to woo his female prize.
“Gort, don’t be rude.”
Gort’s pig nose snorts in annoyance.
“Stupid meat sack. Move aside. She is mine.” Gort spits.
“Not going to happen,” I reply.
"Enough with talking." Gort grunts and he swings at me. His arms are twice the size of my legs, but move slowly. I duck and he rolls sideways. Losing his footing, he falls into a table of quadra-peds, who pull their weapons, at which Gort swings at them. Soon the entire bar joins the fight as Alex and I retreat outside.
“Where is my quarter credit?” I ask.
“You never bought her a drink,” Alex responds “So no deal.”
“You are a shit. If Gort hadn’t interrupted ...” I reply.
“Where did she go?” Alex asks.
“I don’t know, probably left the moment the fight started.”
“Well, you win some, and you lose some, I guess. See you in the stars, buddy,” Alex says.
“Likewise, my friend,” and we depart to our ships.
/ STS 909X/Alice. Deep space. /
Two parsecs into my trip home. I set the flight console on auto. It is time for some much-needed rest.
Walking by the galley, I notice the lights are on. They are motion-activated.
Someone is on my ship.
I scan each of the ship's sections for life signs. There are two, mine and the one behind me. I turn to find the woman from the bar standing at the other end of the galley. I pull my gun.
“I’m not armed,” she says.
“What are you doing on my ship?”
“I needed to get off of Tagabu, the Enforcers were coming.”
“I will pay you for safe passage.” She says.
“If the Enforcers are looking for you, then you are a serious enemy of the Noble, and I’d like to stay off of his radar. I can drop you at the next inhabitable world.”
“I am the Noble’s wife,” she responds, “and I need to get to Anthropia.”
“I’m guessing the Noble didn’t sanction this trip?”
“He will kill me if he finds me, but I would rather die than live subjected to his depravity.”
“What are you talking about? The Noble is the most honored ...”
“He is a monster.” The anger in her voice is unmistakable.
“Ok,” I reply, trying to calm the fire.
“I am Sela 7. I am the seventh wife of 20. The Noble genetically cloned us from human and Soren DNA, because this was his desire. My body is human, but I am mostly Soren.” She removes her mask to reveal golden, shimmering skin, her eyes a pale purple.
“He is an evil man. He brainwashed us into thinking he was God, then tortured us for his pleasure. When we organized an escape, he hunted and killed us. I am all that remains.”
“Then why go to Anthropia? I’m sure the Noble has allies there. They will just send you back to him.”
“I have information that proves he is corrupt, that he has been secretly orchestrating war between the fertile trade planets. He wants to rule the supply chains. If he can get that, he will have the power to overthrow the Council of Planets.
In two days, the council members will gather on Anthropia to vote on the resolution of these conflicts. If the Noble sways them to vote his way, he will have control.
I lost my sisters to him. I would gladly die with them to prove he isn’t a God. To ruin him.”
“OK. Well, considering this trip will probably get me killed, it’s going to be expensive. You said you could pay?” I ask.
“I have a thousand Noble credits.”
I almost choke.
That is enough cash to buy a fleet of new ships and crew them all.
More than enough to retire.
“That’ll do,” I reply.
“What do your friends call you?” I ask as I show her around the ship.
“The wives were all named Sela, so we used our number.” she replies “But I am now the only one, so Sela will do.”
“The ship accommodations aren’t the best,” I reply “but here is a shower and sleeping quarters, and anything you need from the food replicator, I can program for you.”
“You have a kind soul,” Sela says, smiling at me.
I smile back, but I can’t agree. I’ve done a lot of shitty things.
She removes her cloak, revealing her bare arms and legs. Her scars are in the hundreds, cut lines and burns. A seven branded into her beautiful shimmering skin.
“Did he do all this?” I ask.
“The scars on the surface are not the worst,” she replies.
My head is a mess. Sleep is not an option now. I need to stay focused if we are going to make it to Anthropia in one piece.
Entering the bridge, the main screen flashes 'Message from Alex Benson'.
"Decode message," I say.
“Where are you? We need to talk.” the text reads, nothing more.
This is unusual. I slow to a stop and send him my coordinates.
Minutes later, a jump gate opens and his ship drops into view.
“Alice?” I call to my ship’s computer “How many are on board that ship?”
“One human detected, Tyler,” Alice responds.
“Open a channel.”
“Alex, is everything ok?” I ask.
“You’re a long way from home,” Alex replies.
“I took another job, an easy run to Anthropia.”
“Is it the girl?”
“Why are you really here, Alex?”
“The Noble has put a bounty on her. He promised any tracker that finds her will have their record cleared of all crimes. We could finally be legit, Ty. We wouldn’t have to run anymore.”
“You're tracking me? After everything we have been through?”
“The entire bar saw you talking to her. I’m not the only one out here looking for you.”
“I’m not giving her up, Alex. The Noble will torture and kill her.”
“Not our problem,” Alex replies.
“Tyler, the SSW450 is charging weapons,” Alice reports.
“Alex, what are you doing? What about our pact?”
“SSW450 has ended communications,” Alice reports.
“Defensive maneuvers!” I yell, jumping into the pilot’s seat.
We barrel roll as the first shot sears our right engine. Any closer and it would have destroyed it.
Alice moves vertically as the SSW450 counters with a side slant, trying to hit us from the underside, just missing our thruster ports.
“Tyler, he is trying to disable my engines,” Alice reports.
“Alice, can we hyper-jump?”
“The engines will need 12 seconds to prep. That would leave us immobile too long.”
“I have a plan. All shields to engines. Prep for the jump.”
“The rest of the ship will be unprotected,” Alice replies.
“He won’t shoot to kill, at least I hope not.”
“Prep begins now,” Alice responds.
Alex takes several more shots at the engines, which the shields deflect. There is a pause.
“Alice, he is deciding his next move. We need to go now!”
“I am ready, Tyler,” and a moment later we disappear into the darkness of space.
What just happened? My best friend, my brother, turned on me. I can’t deal with this right now. Half the galaxy is looking for me. One thing at a time.
“Alice, we need to re-route.”
“What route do we take, Tyler?”
“Through the Krux Delta.”
“I would advise against that,” Alice responds.
“I know, but it’s our only option.”
/ The Krux Delta /
We run on auxiliary power, easing in and around hundreds of broken and lifeless ships. The nearest star is a pinpoint in the night. This is true darkness.
The Krux Delta is a dead zone, a ship graveyard. Ages ago, a harsh battle raged here. They say ghosts haunt these blackened hulls, but I’m more concerned about the bleeder mines still hiding out there in the dark. If they detect our warp drive, they will tear the ship apart and suck our power core dry. We will drift and die with the rest.
Slow and steady, we just have to stay the course.
“I made you some Soren tea. It is very soothing.” Sela says, sitting next to me in the galley.
“I overheard the conversation you had with your friend. I would understand if you returned me to the Noble.”
“I’m doing what is right for once,” I reply, staring into my tea.
“Explain this to me, though.” I continue, “What if we don’t get there. What if you can’t deliver that information? You will have thrown your life away for nothing. Right now you have a chance to be free, that's a rare opportunity.”
“The universe is vast, and I am barely a speck. If I can change one thing for good, even if I only try, I will have peace in death.” Sela says. “Fate has a purpose for us, Tyler. I felt it the moment you approached me on Tagabu. We will see this through.”
“After all the pain you have endured, how can you still have faith in anything?” I reply.
“Tyler, you have a recorded message,” Alice interjects. “It’s from the SSW450.”
“Alex? Again? Play it.”
“Hey Ty, yeah. I kinda lost my head there, sorry. I hope you can forgive me. Anyway, I’m sending this to warn you, there is a Noble warship at the Anthropia jump point. You should wait this one out, maybe hide somewhere? They will burn you the moment you drop out of hyper. Be smart on this one, my friend.”
“End of message,” Alice replies.
That complicates things.
My brain hurts.
I have been trying to come up with a strategy. Over and over I run the plan and nothing works. We can’t fly sub-light to Anthropia, that would take months. We can’t jump there, because the Noble’s warship will incinerate us. If we hide out until all this is over, then it will all be for naught.
I have one idea that keeps resurfacing. Sacrifice the ship. We set behind in the shuttle. Tell Alice to hyper-jump to Anthropia. If she comes in hot with guns blazing, they won’t have time to scan for life. They will react and obliterate her. We then wait a couple of hours, jump the shuttle to Anthropia, and hope to God the warship has claimed victory and gone home.
“This is our last run together."
"I need you to hyper-jump to Anthropia. A warship class vessel waits on the other side. They will destroy you. Give them all the hell you can.”
“I understand, Tyler.”
Sela and I watch from the shuttle as my ship drifts out ahead of us.
“Alice, you are far enough. The bleeder mines are sure to notice, so power up quickly and fly. Drain the core on this one.”
“Goodbye, my friend,” I say, and close the comm channel. She is on her own now.
We watch as her rear thruster ports glow blue. The jump prep has begun.
In an instant, a thousand red lights appear in the surrounding darkness.
“My god,” Sela whispers.
The bleeder mines are awake and moving to intercept their prey.
“They will try to hold her here, clinging like a disease,” I say.
The jump hole opens in front of Alice. She is almost there. More and more mines attach to her hull. They interlock into a net, pulling her back.
The hole increases in size and strength as Alice pushes harder.
She is giving this everything.
The hole grows to three times the size, the surrounding debris slowly drifts toward the opening, drawn in by the gravity.
Alice inches forward, pushing. Her torrents are white-hot.
A large mass bumps us gently from behind. A dead hull is being pulled into the opening and taking us with it.
Caught in the turbulence of drifting debris, all we can do is go with it.
This wasn't part of the plan.
The hole is now massive, Alice is about to crack when the gravity finally takes her, the mines, our shuttle, and half the graveyard with it.
The wormhole chaos is intense. It is hardly moments before it spews us wildly out into space above Anthropia.
Alice finally burns out.
The Noble’s warship reacts immediately, firing on the graveyard wreckage thrown at it from our jump hole eviction. With Alice dead, the bleeder mines release their grip. They are hungry for the power of the heavy vessel ahead of us.
This would be a great turn of events, except our shuttle is still being pushed toward the giant as well.
The warship blasts debris around us, trying to stop it from slamming into them. The mass behind us will crush the shuttle against their hull if we don’t escape.
“Sela, hang on, this is going to be a wild ride.” which sounds absurd considering we just came through a jump hole sideways, pushed by a ghost ship hull into a firestorm.
I start the engines The debris ahead of us reaches the warship first, smashing against it.
What happens next I can only describe as insanity.
Moments before being crushed, I engage the thrusters, and we scrape along the underbelly of the mammoth warship. The mass behind us explodes against their hull. I punch it and we barrel into the Anthropian atmosphere. The shuttle shakes violently as we dive at an alarming rate.
“Brace yourself!” I scream as I apply the braking thrusters.
Our shuttle slams onto the Council Center landing pad, leaving parts in a trail all over their pristine white platform, finally sliding to a stop.
Troops rush us as we step out of the shuttle, our hands up.
“I am the Noble’s wife,” Sela calls out “I have critical information for the Council that will affect the vote.”
“I’m with her,” I say.
/ Anthropia. Several days later. /
“Looks like the Noble has a fight on his hands,” I say.
“He is being investigated. He will probably escape retribution.” Sela replies.
“Where will you go from here?” I ask.
“I've just been fighting to survive, to deliver this message. I hadn’t thought beyond that.”
I hesitate on my next thought.
“How about we visit the Soren system? I hear it’s nice.” I say, looking for her reaction.
“You would go with me?” she replies.
“Well, you were looking for a pilot, weren’t you?” I smile.
“I was," she replies, "but I found much more.”
Author’s note: Please don't flame the science accuracy, I'm not a damn astrophysicist! :)