Stars . . . points of light in the empty blackness of space stretching out before us. And it must be out there somewhere.
Damn it, where did I put that thing? Victoria mumbled to herself. Standing up she hung her guitar on its wall hook. The grav's on so it didn't float away.
The ship's command console was a jagged landscape of buttons and dials, small display screens and more buttons that had been taped to the surface. Loops of wire protruded from the edges where some of the modules had been installed. But it wasn't there.
Beneath the console was a slightly more impressive tangle of wires, most of them fully insulated. Suspended by the wires, and two pieces of string, a pair of interface modules hung in limbo between the floor and the console. Empty beverage bottles, food wrappers, and one rather vicious looking dust bunny were wedged into place between the wires, but it wasn't there either.
There was a knock at the door.
The air seal creaked and Nathan slid the door open. I've never seen Vallen look so pretty.
What do you need? I'm playing. And I don't know what you're looking at, the planet's behind us.
Nate dropped to a whisper, even though there were two airlocks between them and the Engine Room. You know how we've been docked for three days, and Kyle barely came out of his room?
Well . . . he seems to have picked up a little. He's working on the engine.
Vik shrugged her shoulders with her palms upward as if to say, And . . . you had to interrupt me for that because . . . ?
And I couldn't say it across the Comm in case he's listening. And of course Vallen is behind us. It's reflected off the station's bubble. There go your blonde roots again. He pointed out the window.
Vik collapsed back into the pilot's seat. You seem happy. I guess Kelly's in a better mood?
Nate smiled and nodded. Want me to dial her up so you can say, 'Hi'?
Maybe another time. Right now I just need to find that damn thing.
You know. She pointed at Midnight up on the hook and made a wrench-turning motion with her hand.
It's under your seat. Nate turned, walked out, and sealed the air lock behind him.
Sheesh. She reached under and felt around for the crank. Can't get a moment's peace out here in deep space.
She took the guitar down again and hit the Comm button. Kyle, we ready to fly?
After a bit Kyle responded. Yeah, why?
My dials are lookin funny. Can you check the connections?
Oh. Well, I'll get it reconnected in just a sec.
Vik didn't say anything. She started changing out her A string.
I fixed the vibration in the left compressor.
And I'll have it back to together in a minute.
Does 'a minute' mean today or tomorrow?
Um . . . twenty minutes. Maybe.
Sek's, check the Hold for me.
Secka joined the conversation. Sure thing boss lady. Just finishing up here.
# # #
Secka took off her vid helmet and it retreated toward the ceiling. The game was bright with color and decoration, but in her quarters the only ornamentation was a Dream Catcher and her very great grandfather's bone handled knife hanging on the wall. She unhooked herself from the game chair, buckled on her weapons belt, and punched on the grav. What's that loon gotten us into this time?
Stepping into the hall she popped the nearest door seal to The Hold and floated gently into the weightlessness of the ships cavernous belly. Kyle?
Yeah? Kyle was belted to the far wall. At that distance he looked like a red-tipped match surrounded by a halo of free-floating tools and engine parts.
What in twelve suns do you think you're doing?
I fixed it.
No, you took it apart.
I'm almost done.
Secka pushed off the wall to catch an energy regulator that was floating toward her. When Vik takes us out of orbit, we're going to explode. Right?
We will if you don't put this back. She pushed off for the far wall, headed toward where Kyle's slim form floated before the access panel to the engine.
Kyle turned his head. Oh. Yeah, we need that!
If I help you put this all back together, can I get back to my game before we leave orbit?
Kyle put the drill he was holding in his tool belt and looked around at the parts slowly drifting away from him. Yeah. How's it going, anyway?
Secka clipped the regulator to a tether near the engine. It's so awesome. I just unlocked Krandal's Lair. I heard there's some great loot down there. I'll probably sell most of it to get the boots I need, though.
Kyle took a part in each hand and pulled the tether with his foot to draw himself back toward the wall. Good thing I didn't have to cut the power. Then you'd
Kyle found himself cut off in mid sentence by Secka's hands around his throat.
Snap your neck and throw your skinny carcass out an airlock.
Kyle nodded. He gasped when she let him go. You should let me add a power backup to . . .
If you lay one slimy finger on my system it will be the last mistake you ever make.
Kyle nodded, and received a sweet smile in return.
# # #
Nate was in the kitchen, eating a pale piece of pie that contrasted nicely with his dark skin. If there's one good thing about being on this ship . . . He took another bite.
Near his plate on the table, a small hand-screen displayed a series of check boxes. As he chewed he tapped the the list, checking off items received.
He wiped his mouth and pressed the Comm button on the wall behind him. Vik, did we order the extra rivets?
Kyle put rivets on the list: said we're about to run out.
Then we sure as blazes ordered 'em.
Well, we didn't get 'em.
I'll call the store. They'll give us double credit next time. Hey, did V dock up?
He got back an hour ago: left a pie in the galley. It's probably made out of
I don't want to know. But save me a piece! No promises.
We need to fly if we're gonna make that performance.
How long do we need?
Let me crunch it . . . we're fine, if we can make at leasta hundred C.
Nate took the last bite of pie.
Kyle? Vik sounded irritated.
Nate stacked seven other dirty plates from the table on top of his and started to put them into the Sanitizer.
Secka joined the conversation. We're almost done down here. We've got reserved seats, right?
Yeppers. Morris owes me. And he still thinks he has a shot with me.
Nate chuckled as he turned on the unit. Slobs.
# # #
This system never gets much traffic, and most of it lands on the planet anyway. Just us and Rivera station. Nice and quiet.
Now. The concert. As Vik spun her chair, her hair arched out in a pale purple halo. She powered on the info system and pulled up the layout for Bryant, her home planet. Parking, parking. She scrolled through the list with one hand and nibbled the guitar crank with the other. Here we go. Drop ship parking. Aaannd . . . wow. Better not be any traffic on the road or we'll miss the whole first act. Patrick would just kill me.
She re-read the message from her brother. Second-row seats. VIP. She scanned over the layout of the theater. Looks safe, I guess. I hope.
Vik opened the airlock to the rest of the ship. Unlike their personal cabins, in the hall there was no off button for the grav. But at least the halls were efficient. The flight deck used more power just for the gravity than most of the ship's other systems combined. Fred, what were you thinking? I swear you were a genius. But sometimes . . . I just wonder.
She followed the hall around the barrel of the Hold, stepping over air vents, making sure the wall sockets were closed and sliding open portholes to gaze out at the stars now and then. She passed the buffalo painted on Secka's door. Nate's door displayed a hologram of him and Kelly dancing on a mountain top, his deep brown skin matching perfectly with her glowing tan.
The barrel-shaped Hold and the Bridge comprised the entirety of the original ship. The main cargo door to the Hold could be opened in orbit for large containers to be loaded and unloaded. A series of smaller personnel hatches ran around the perimeter of the barrel. The hallway had been added later, as a halo between the Hold and the pods which comprised the crew quarters and other living spaces.
She opened a hatch and pulled herself into the Hold. How's it coming?
Kyle turned and grinned from ear to ear. Fixed it.
The compressor. Speck of something got stuck in the cylinder.
And we're ready to fly? Vik pushed off the wall toward where they were working.
Yep. Just gotta bolt the panel back on. Hand me the drill, Secka.
# # #
Rivera Station, this is Lynx Titanius requesting departure.
Lynx you are cleared to disconnect. Should I log a destination for you?
We're hot-footing for Bryant. My brother's playing Hamlet in the big Hall in Tagor City.
Well, the Heavens are wide open. You're the only traffic in the system. And it was good seeing you, Vik.
Vik adjusted her earpiece and put three straps across Midnight to keep her on the hook during thrust. You too, Anders. We should be back in a couple weeks or so. Lynx Titanius out.
The walkway had been closed off from the station for half an hour. Vik pressed the button to disconnect the Standard Link.
Shit! She switched her Comm to external radio. Rivera Station, come in. Lynx Titanius again.
Missing us already?
Ha ha. Just some rivets. We ordered, we paid. We no gots.
Neither do we. Ran out a month now. We should have refunded you.
I'll check the numbers when we're back this way. That won't leave you floating in the dark, will it? Nope. Lynx out.
She switched back to internal Comm. Okay people. We've got all green lights. Are we strapped down for a burn?
Four yeses came back, and one Just a sec . . . okay, go.
Vic pressed Return on the keyboard. The coordinates had already been programmed and the open space scanned. At sixteen points around the ships exterior, the thrusters began to pulse their synchronized bursts.
Vik held her breath.
The ship inched forward. Away from Rivera Station, away from the planet, toward the stars. Joints creaked, beams shook, tables rattled. Her guitar pulled against the straps in a futile attempt to execute a swan dive onto the floor.
Nothing happened. The ship moved but nothing fell apart. No explosions, no lights flashing red. No one flew out an airlock.
Four affirmative responses came back.
Okay. We've got about twenty 'til we Jump. Secka, I'm sorry but we're in a rush. You can catch that wave next time.
That's okay. Workin on my castle.
Kyle, I guess you got all the parts back together. We've got power.
Yes, Ma'am. Ran the scan twice. Nothing's out of place. And we'll see about a one percent power gain on the jump.
Vik set the proxies to maximum, tilted her chair back and closed her eyes. The computer would navigate to clear space and slow them to a stop so she could make the jump. Fred, how in the hell did you do it?
# # #
Have we stopped, captain?
Yes, Kyle. We're all clear.
Then let's punch it. We'll be so early we'll get great seats.
We've got reserved seats, remember? Are you sure my engine's all green?
Run the scan one more time.
Cap, we're all good. I swear.
Just do it.
Okay. Okay. Give me a few minutes.
Vik took her guitar down again. Thrust was the most dangerous part of a journey. You couldn't raise a Field safely with anything nearby, so first you had to use thrusters to get into empty space. And something could rattle or fall off. Once, back when Fred had been captain, one of the hallways had disconnected from the barrel of the Hold during thrust. That's why it was important to reseal every airlock.
Interstellar flight is a cakewalk. One time in ten thousand you may hit a stray rock and explode. Otherwise you never feel the movement, you just stare out into the gray glow as space moves with you.
Vik finished checking that the thrust hadn't un-tuned any of her strings. Taking a pick from her pocket, she pressed the Comm. Okay, people, settle in for a nice smooth cruise to Bryant. And boys, remember to shave. The theater is no place for five days of stubble.
Nate came back, Better get your land-legs ready.
She fingered a chord on the guitar neck with her left hand and pressed Return on the flight computer with the other. She closed her eyes and started to play.
Her calloused fingers danced their waltz across each fret, gently commanding the strings to their task. The pick ran its laps, begging from the strings those sweet vibrations which ran down the cable, through the amp, and up to her headphones.
Vik jammed as the Telmar Field distorted time around them and accelerated the Lynx Titanius into the blackness.
As she finished the first song and was thinking of what to play next, something brushed her cheek. She gasped and opened her eyes. Hey!
Candy wrappers and a computer manual were floating in the air before her eyes. Outside the glass she could see pinpricks of starlight. Where's the Field?
She looked down and saw that her bottom had disassociated itself from the captain's chair.
Grav! She pushed the Comm button, which was barely within reach, and found herself floating away from it. Kyle!
Nothing. The light on the Comm didn't flash. The screens were all blank. The buttons were dark. Beside the dim starlight the only light she could see by was the indicators on the door seal.
The guitar was making its way toward the ceiling. She took Midnight in one hand and the chair-arm in the other and pulled herself down.
Okay. Okay. What do I do?
No one answered. She was the captain. She was the authority. She was supposed to have the answers.
But I don't. I just have the bridge. And my guitar and my purple hair. I don't have any answers! She gripped Midnight by the neck until her hands hurt.
A flashlight. Do I have a flashlight?
Her eyes were beginning to adjust; she could see around the cabin. No flashlight. Buttons and screens and floating garbage. And lights that should be working.
Had she ever seen a flashlight up here? Probably not.
She plucked one last chord. Sounded fine. The little amp had its own power. Disconnecting it, she stood on the chair and hooked one foot beneath the armrest. She pushed against the chair with the guitar to lean herself forward. She placed the Midnight back on its hook, secured one of the straps, and pulled herself back down with her foot. Okay.
The only place on the whole bridge she hadn't looked since coming aboard was the footlocker behind her chair.
With one hand on the back of the chair to maneuver herself in the weightlessness, she vaulted across and opened the compartment. Instruction manual. String. Yo-yo. Energy bar. A . . . a . . . gross. Yes! Flashlight!
Okay. Now. She pushed off and floated to the exit. Before she hit the door, she was able to read on the display that both sides of the airlock were pressurized.
Vik grabbed the release handle and pulled to the side. The door Hissed and sprung outward.
And she fell on the hall's rubber matting, landing on the flashlight and breaking it.
Gravity. The cockpit had no lights and no power, but the hallway had both. What in the Heavens is going on?
Vik! It was Nate, calling from his room down the hall. Is that you?
Yeah. The hell happened?
Lost grav in my room, that's what. You steer us into something?
Vik was standing. She opened a porthole and looked out. Stars, but not from any vantage she was familiar with. No go, no radio.
The hell happened? I'm bouncing around in here!
There's grav in the hall if you can make it out here.
Oh. After a series of Umph's and crashing noises, Nate's wide shoulders fell into the hallway. So, we're stopped?
And you can't get Kyle on the Comm?
Everything is dead up front. No Comm, no grav.
Well then. The engine must havebut why are we able to stand out here?
Vik shrugged her shoulders.
Nate went to security officer's door. It was sealed. He knocked. Secka, are you in there?
He pulled the hatch open. They saw their security officer strapped into her chair, gaming away in her helmet like nothing was wrong.
Secka. Again, no response. Nate drifted over and tapped her on the shoulder.
Shit! She pulled her headset off and it recoiled into the tether above her head, leaving the black skullcap to cover her hair. What are you doing in my room?
Vik called in from the hallway, We wanted to see if you're okay, Sek's.
And you couldn't call me?
Vik floated into the room. She hadn't been in this room in . . . ever. It smelled funny. Comm's down. We're stopped.
The hell are you talking about? Secka released her straps. We've got power.
Not up front. We no go.
Why that little piece of
# # #
They opened a hatch to the Hold. Kyle was at the far end, tethered to the top of a large cargo box, using a scanner on a light housing.
Kyle, Vik shouted, pulling herself in and holding on to the nearest wall. Could you tell me what you're doing?
Checking the lights. Couple of 'em went out when we jumped.
Secka launched herself in, headed for the engine. Did you try checking the engine, dirtbag?
I scanned the whole thing three times!
Well your ginger ass did it wrong. We're stopped!
I lost grav in the cockpit.
You what? Kyle unhooked himself and kicked off from the wall. Halfway across he yelled back, Hey. I forgot my scanner.
When Secka made it across she grabbed the spinning screen and threw it at the mechanic.
Smooth as a dancer, Kyle grabbed a handhold on the wall, latched a tether to his belt, snatched the scanner before it could hit him in the face, and started the scan.
Engine's working. Power plant is up.
Are you sure? Vik asked.
Look. Right here. Scanner talks to the engine's controller. Controller talks to the scanner. We have power.
Not up front.
Well, we're stopped. Just look out the window.
Kyle pocketed the scanner, unhooked, and climbed out the nearest hatch. Grav's on.
That's just in the hall. Look out the window.
Holy shit, we're stopped! He ran toward the side hall to the cockpit.
Vik and Nate came round from the other direction and beat him there, leaning in from both sides of the door.
Kyle was out of breath when he got there. Nate, I can't exactly see through your biceps. Do you mind? They backed away so Kyle could lean in. Everything on the other side of the door was still floating around.
Nate reached up and put a hand on Kyle's shoulder. Look on the bright side: no pressure loss. We're still breathing.
Secka dashed past and dove into her cabin. I'd better save and shut down while I still have power.
Kyle scratched his head. She. . . she has power. Grav's on in here. But
Let's go back to the engine. Vik popped a hatch and jumped into the Hold, gripping the sides of the door at the last moment so her momentum was angled toward the engine. Kyle, gimme the scanner.
Okay. Let's see. Rotor voltage. Coils. Everything's working, but very little of the power is being used. So nothing's going to the Telmar Field.
Let me see that. Secka grabbed the hand-screen. It says you ran the system scan four times. Three times before we left and once just now. Aaannd . . . the engine updated to the latest software while we were docked. So we know it scanned properly. No bugs in the code.
Vik took the scanner back. Looks good. Kyle, take a walk outside, see if we burned up a cable or something. Secka, go with him.
Kyle held up his palms. Outside?
Sheesh. The Field worked for a few seconds. We're a million miles outside the system. There's no ships or rocks to hit you. You'll be fine.
Well, okay. Let's see, I'll need the scanner. Some wrenches. Sticky. Bolts. Tethers . . . don't know if we even have enough tethers.
Just find the problem. Take the scanner, tape it to your arm.
# # #
Bro, we'll be fine. I do this all the time.
That's what worries me, Secka.
Are your boots working? Fully charged?
I . . . I think so
Look, you can only lift one boot at a time. They talk to each other.
So where are we supposed to look?
Vik leaned into the Chamber. Everywhere. Check every cable. Whatever got burned out or disconnected, your eyes will see it.
Okay. Kyle clamped on his helmet. Let's do this.
Plus, we're stuck here 'til it's fixed anyway.
Secka pulled the chamber closed and started de-pressurization. Uh, Captain. There's something outside the window.
Is it a loose cable?
I don't think so. Looks more like a ship.
Vik tried to push herself toward the door to the hall. She barely had a grip on the wall and ended up pushing on Nathan's curly black hair withone hand.
Vik stumbled into the hall and shifted the shade on the nearest porthole. Holy shit, we've got neighbors! She waved, but doubted that anyone could see her through the tiny window.
Secka opened the door to the chamber. Kyle, can we talk to them?
If the Field is down, sure. But, if there's no power up front . . . the Comm's deadno radio.
Vik was floating back into the Hold. Do we have a handheld that can pick up Galactic?
No. Kyle was quickly removing his space suit. All our handhelds are tuned to one frequency range. Guess we'll have to press the button and hope they're listening.
Secka put a hand back on the chamber door. Guess I'm going outside after all. Just hope they're friendly.
Vik clenched her fingers into her own hair. Now, wait a minute. What do we have that is working, Kyle?
Well, lights. Grav in the walkway. That's it.
My game's working, but you guys aren't touching my system. Anyway, when I update, it just hooks into the radio up front to download. That's down, so yeah.
Vik released her scalp and threw her fingers out. Nathan, what about Kelly?
What about her?
Kyle pointed a finger at the Captain. She's got her own backup power.
Nate shook his head, She's only on local radio.
Vik scratched her chin. Whenever we're at a station or whatever, she finds the local network. She downloads stuff and sends your mail, right?
But . . . but
Kyle grabbed both of Vik's shoulders. If she can access their message system directly, then we can talk to them!
The four crew mates all crashed into each other floating toward the door.
# # #
Nathan led the way into his room. Kelly?
Only one of the ten screens in the cabin turned on, showing a beautiful blonde stepping out of the shower. Yes, honey?
Nate covered part of the screen with his hand. Uh, could you put a robe on? We've got company.
Of course. Hello, Captain. Nice to see you again. Is there something wrong, Nathan?
We're having trouble with the ships power.
I noticed. I have been conserving resources.
He took his hand away. We can't move and we have no radio.
Oh, honey, that's terrible!
But there's a ship that stopped to help. Can you talk to them?
I was conserving resources, so my radio was off. But their messaging system is accessible. The woman on the screen turned to address Vik. Captain, how may I be of assistance?
You have the frequency for our handheld Comms? You talk to Nate on them, right?
The girl on the screen nodded.
Can you send them the frequency? Tell them our situation? Say we'll be listening for them on a handheld.
Kelly blinked. Captain, I do not have access to their user list. So, I just sent a message to every possible address on their ship up to twenty characters in length, marked Most Urgent. And since I am already tuned to that frequency, I can patch you right through when they call.
Kelly, I think I could kiss you . . .
Sorry, Captain, I only kiss black guys. And I would need
A man's voice came out of Kelly's screen. Lynx Titanius, this is Captain Russell Hogan of the Constellation Nine. We heard your engine distress. We've been hailing you for the last half hour.
# # #
When you dock with another ship in deep space, you have a drink with the other captain. It's just what you do.
Vik found herself in the galley, sitting across from Captain Hogan. But what she found herself looking at was the room. Seating for twenty. Eight drink dispensers, warm and cold. And a freezer! She could die happy on a ship this nice.
That's some ship you've got there. Lynx Titanius. Captain Hogan sat across the small table, clutching a beer. With that dark military haircut and that chin, if she were looking for a boyfriend . . . We're in a bit of a hurry: can't spare much time. But a ship like that? What the hell is she anyway?
Who . . . oh. Trillex G-29b.
Really? He raised his eyebrows. Never heard of it.
Practically ancient. They quit making 'em . . . well, I don't know how long back. It's just an inner-system transport for a lone pilot to haul goods from planet to planet.
But you're way out here?
Crew quarters, Telmar, extra life support: all added later. She'll jump.
Damn and I thought I'd seen everything.
There were a few other crew members lounging about having meals and beers.
That girl that sent me your Comm frequency . . . he took a long sip of his beer.
Kelly? She's just a digital.
Oh, I know. She sent that message to most of my crew.
It was video. Her sitting there in her robe, brushing her hair, telling us your engines were out and your Comm frequency. I think half of 'em are in love with her.
There went any shot Hogan may have had with the other captain. Well, seeing as we've got as much crew as we need . . .
I'm thinking I could offer a nice pile of coin for
Captain Hogan's wrist radio chirped. Captain, this 'ship' is a big pile of garbage held together with string and spit.
Hogan smiled. Vik blushed.
What's the point, Jenkins?
It's the engine, sir.
Vik grabbed the other captain's wrist and addressed the Comm. But the engine's running. I checked it myself.
Ah, sorry, Ma'am. There was a software update at your last stop.
Some of these parts . . . the update doesn't recognize them. One of the condensers looks like it was made by hand.
Hogan took his wrist back. What's the bottom line, Jenkins?
Whoever built this thing must have customized the software by hand too. I can't imagine how much
Sorry, sir. Voltage. It couldn't figure out the right voltages for some of the systems. Blew out the relays.
Both captains asked at the same time, Can you fix it?
Almost done, sir. The relays were easy, but we can't fix the software. We're adding some voltage regs in between to level things out.
Good work, Jenkins.
But they'd better not try upgrading the software again.
Victoria stood up. Guess I should be getting my skinny butt back to the bridge.
# # #
Stars. Nothing before them but beautiful stars. And the grav working again in the cabin. And the halo of trash had resettled on everything. I really need to have someone clean up in here.
Okay, Vik, Kyle came across the Comm. We're patched up and sealed off. I guess we can go.
Did you run the scan twice?
I can if you want.
That's okay. Everyone else good? Make sure they didn't touch your stuff.
Kelly's good. I disconnected her during the repairs. They had to depressurize the Hold, so we just hung out in the kitchen. Our rooms stayed sealed up.
Cools. Vik switched to an external broadcast. Russell, you guys back far enough?
If you're going forward, we should be well outside your Field. I've got to see for myself if that old thing can fly.
You sure you won't consider selling that girl? We'd give her a good home.
I think Nate will be with that girl 'til all the suns have gone cold. Lynx-Titanius out.
She switched to internal. Guys, my brother's gonna kill me. She took her guitar down off its hook again. We missed the whole show. It started five minutes ago and will be over by the time we could get there. Let's go somewhere else.
Secka came on the Comm. I'm strapped in. Hey, that whole time did anybody check on Velth?
A voice like wind on dry leaves came across the Comm. I am fine. Did something important happen?