25 October 2326
Sejora and Neeshu woke up, their sleep interrupted by the soft beeping of the alarm they had set.
Neeshu rolled over and grabbed her MFD from the small side-table. The device read 01:00 Tarhinan Standard Time. She then rolled over once more, back into her husband’s arms.
“Good morning,” she mumbled, still half asleep.
“Good morning to you too,” Sejora replied, and placed a quick kiss on his wife’s lips before she could pull away, “how are you feeling?”
“Mostly dead, but otherwise okay. So we’re really doing this?”
“We are really doing this,” he said with conviction, before adding, “let’s get up and get ready. If we hurry, we’ll make it all the way there before the guard shift changes.”
They both got up and took turns in the small bathroom, spraying cold water in their faces to wash away what little sleep persisted. After putting on fresh jumpsuits, Sejora and Neeshu double-checked that they had packed everything they wanted to take with them.
Due to the lack of space aboard the remote observatory that had been their home until recently, they had not been allowed to carry any kind of personal item. Being together at all times made mementos to remember the other by unnecessary anyway, so this restriction had not been an issue.
It now came in handy, since they were able to limit their packing to what was absolutely indispensable. They each packed a change of clothes, and filled the rest of their backpacks with as many nutrition cubes and hydration tablets as they were able to carry.
Sejora stood by the bed and stared at his backpack. He absent-mindedly shifted his weight from one leg to the other and ran his hands through his hair.
“You’re stalling, aren’t you?” Neeshu asked her husband.
“How can you tell?”
“I’m married to you, remember? Why would you think that I can’t tell?”
“Fair enough,” Sejora laughed.
After a moment, he added, “I guess I am a bit apprehensive. There’ll be no turning back once we step through that door.”
“We’ll be fine,” Neeshu said softly, while walking up to Sejora and hugging him from behind.
He leaned into her embrace and sighed deeply.
“Alright. Let’s get out of here!” he said after another minute had passed.
“I like that attitude a lot more,” his wife commented and smiled.
They both shouldered their backpacks, and Sejora cautiously slid the cabin door aside. Neeshu had previously deactivated the magnetic rail that would automatically open the door, allowing them to open it manually. This enabled them to be quieter, and would prevent potential surveillance mechanisms from being triggered.
Sejora stuck his head through the opening and observed both sides of the corridor. The dimmed lights made it hard to make out details, which would work in their favour.
After a few silent seconds, he gestured to his wife to follow him. The couple ventured out into the corridor, making sure to stay close to the wall, and walking behind each other in an attempt to minimise their visual profile.
Even though they were on a warship preparing to engage the enemy, they knew that security aboard would be relatively lax. TSNS Hunter was on hold in the middle of nowhere, and everyone aboard had been thoroughly vetted before even being considered for this mission.
As it was the night before combat operations would begin, the ship was operating with minimal crew, and most of the personnel were off-duty in order to be well-rested when their offensive began.
Of those who were awake, most would be focusing their attention outwards, as the only thing that could potentially endanger their mission was an enemy strike force.
Sejora and Neeshu expected the occasional security patrol. This was a military vessel after all, and protocol had to be followed. These patrols would be few and far in between, however, and the couple estimated that they should reach their destination without too much trouble.
“Famous last words,” Sejora muttered under his breath while advancing through the dark corridor.
Neither of them spent much time reflecting on their current situation. As trained soldiers, they approached their endeavour like any other mission, and focused on their objective: getting off this ship.
This helped them deal with the emotional conflict of defecting from their side, or at least push said conflict aside and save it for later. There would be plenty of time to confront that aspect of their decision once they had put some distance between them and the Tarhinan strike force.
They continued down the deserted hallway, pausing every now and then to listen for any sign of an approaching patrol. So far, they had been lucky, but that luck could run out at any moment.
While planning their escape, Sejora and Neeshu had initially been worried about electronic monitoring inside the ship. At some point during their meal, however, Neeshu had overheard some of the crew talking about most secondary systems being powered down for maintenance before the upcoming battle.
This meant that they had one less thing to worry about, and it would make reaching the transport a lot more straightforward.
After a few minutes, they reached one of the ship’s main staircases.
They came to a halt and exchanged a quick glance. It was time for them to decide whether to continue to the upper deck here or change levels at one of the secondary access shafts.
The couple needed to go up three decks. This sounded easier than it was, because the places in which they could do that were limited, which meant that the likelihood of encountering patrols or random crew members was much higher.
They waited, crouched down just around the corner of the staircase itself, wanting to find out if anyone was nearby.
After five minutes, they heard footsteps and muffled voices coming from above.
Sejora peeked around the corner, and spotted a three-man patrol, most likely on its way from the upper deck all the way to the bottom.
He and his wife held their breath instinctively while the patrol crossed the deck they were on.
They waited until everything was quiet once again, and continued straight ahead, towards the corridor on the opposite side of the staircase. The close encounter they just experienced made them opt for the longer but more discreet route towards their destination.
The journey to the access shaft they would use to reach the upper deck was blissfully uneventful. They reached the narrow ladder without incident and paused briefly, again listening for any unwanted presence.
Sejora nodded to his wife, letting her know that she should climb ahead, while he made sure no one was following behind them.
Neeshu grabbed the ladder and began to climb. After a few moments, she had entirely disappeared inside the narrow tube that was barely wide enough to accommodate her and her backpack.
Having spent the past few months sleeping in what was for all intents and purposes a wardrobe, the restricted environment was not a problem for either of them.
After having climbed for a minute, however, they both felt that their bodies were still struggling with the increased gravity. As soon as they had stepped out of their cabin, they had to endure the 1,1g that was the standard aboard all Tarhinan ships, reflecting the gravity of their central world, Lias.
The speed at which they climbed through the narrow access shaft towards the upper deck decreased notably, as they each had to pause on occasion to catch their breath.
They took a break before crossing each deck, allowing them to regain some strength, and also making sure that no one was around to see them climb up to the next level.
The ascent took them much longer than anticipated. They had, however, accounted for unforeseeable delays, which now came in handy. There were still a few hours left before activity aboard the flagship would resume, giving Sejora and Neeshu more than enough time to reach the auxiliary hangar.
Sweat formed on their brows and their palms became damp as they progressed. Combined with the chill from the ship’s ventilation system, they had to hold in a sneeze more than once.
They avoided the section of corridor lined with escape pods, since such a vital part of the ship would definitely still be monitored, even while most of the systems powered down. The detour through a series of secondary corridors took them an extra half an hour, but they eventually stood in front of the door that led into the small hangar.
Neeshu knelt down next to the door’s control panel. She then retrieved her multi-function display from her backpack, pulled out the hardwire connector, and plugged it into the small port used for local electronic maintenance. She had deliberately turned off her MFD’s wireless capabilities in order to prevent the signal from being detected.
Sejora stood watch, making sure that no one would disturb them, while his wife worked on the door’s electronic lock.
Ultimately, the sliding door was no match for Neeshu’s training and experience, and it popped aside, allowing the couple to open it completely by simply pushing it open.
Once inside the hangar, they switched on their torches to avoid interracting with the room’s electronics as much as possible. Sejora closed the door back behind them after Neeshu had disconnected her MFD and made sure that, from the outside, the door would appear locked and untouched.
Sejora and Neeshu stood next to each other, arm in arm, while the light from their torches wandered across the hull of the Comet-class transport shuttle.
“I can’t believe we made it this far,” Neeshu whispered, squeezing her husband’s shoulder.
“We’re not out of here yet,” Sejora replied, “would you check on the bay door while I open her up?”
Bannerman Sejora walked along the misshapen and bulky craft, evidence that this shuttle had not been designed for atmospheric entry. Once he reached the front end, he knelt down by the emergency access hatch placed directly beneath the cockpit.
In his experience, this would be the easiest point of entry, as it was designed to allow fast access to the small ship’s interior should a rescue of its occupants be necessary. While he had no proper training on this particular model, he was qualified to pilot a number of ships that were similar enough.
Some systems would always be identical in order to streamline production and make it more affordable. On top of those reasons, any modules linked to crew evacuation had been standardised across the entire fleet, simplifying emergency procedures, and thus increasing the chance of a successful rescue.
Sejora removed the small piece of anti-meteoroid shielding that protected the control panel linked to the hatch. This revealed a series of levers and knobs, the use of which was straightforward for someone with the proper training.
The controls had been kept low-tech on purpose, guaranteeing that the hatch was operational at all times, unless the controls themselves were damaged in some way.
After a few minutes, and a few expert manipulations by Sejora, the hatch hissed softly and eventually popped open, allowing him to fold it aside and stick his head through the opening in order to inspect the shuttle’s interior.
Meanwhile, Neeshu had settled down in the small hangar’s control pod.
The auxiliary hangar had been designed to make the most out of what little space was available. With that in mind, it did not feature any airlock. Instead, its walls and doors were reinforced to withstand repeated changes in atmospheric pressure, and the crew operating the hangar’s systems would take refuge in a small sealed-off and pressurised compartment.
There they would endure, while the bay doors were open, venting the entire hangar to outer space.
It took Bannerwoman Neeshu a few minutes to familiarise herself with the controls, and another half hour to reprogram the software to suit their needs.
Once she was done, she left the control pod and joined her husband inside the small shuttle.
“Watch out for that...”
“Ouch!” Neeshu rubbed her head, her husband’s warning not having reached her in time.
“Sorry. The same thing happened to me. There really isn’t much space in this thing’s crew compartment,” Sejora explained.
“I’ll live,” his wife replied, wincing slightly, “how are we looking?”
“We’re looking good, I’d say. She’s all set and ready to go, we just have to wait for the right moment. How are things on your end?”
“Good too. I’ve set up a timer that’ll secure the doors, activate the venting pumps, open the bay doors, and finally activate the magnetic catapult in sequence. It’ll also allow me enough time to run from the control pod back to the shuttle and lock the hatch behind me.”
“I love how resourceful you are.”
“Yeah, well,” she shrugged, “what choice do we have, right?”
“Right,” Sejora smiled brightly at his wife. He then checked the time and said, “we have a little over two hours left before the jump. I think we should take turns and each get an hour of sleep while we can.”
“Sounds good to me,” Neeshu said, “who goes first?”