“I’m going to die,” I said softly, sitting with my chin in my hand, watching the small suspended artifact slowly rotate on my desk. It was a remnant of an alien civilization found on a planet near the station.
“Oh god, Anders,” Zhang said with exasperation, her leg slung over her chair. “what is it now?” She never seemed to have any sense of propriety around me in private, which was a refreshing change from the corporate vassals who served the family like royalty. Perhaps in a way we had become so. All of the galactic range had become a free for all when Earthbound Dominion collapsed, with only the wealthiest corporations carving out territories and systems as their own. The Esselle family was one of the strongest, innovators in weaponry and cutting edge ship designs.
“You say that you’re going to die from everything,” she continued in mocking tones, “Oh, my soup is too salty, I’m going to die. Oh, my new boots aren’t the right color, I’m gonna die.”
“For your information, that soup was absolutely disgusting,” I said, placing the idol back onto the platform where it sat previously. “This time, I speak the truth. If I must stare at these glossy white walls for another moment, I will die.”
Zhang sat in her chair properly, then leaned forward, narrowing her eyes even further. “This is the bullshit I am talking about,” she hissed, “If it bothers you that bad, get a fucking decorator.” She rolled her shoulder, adjusting under the dark blue armor she wore. It resembled tinted glass, but it absorbed energy and protected from most ballistic force.
“You don’t understand,” I said solemnly as he reached for the MagneGun that I kept affixed to the bottom of my desk. I’ve never used it, scarcely even had chances to hold it. “If I don’t leave this place, I will kill myself.” I brought the energy-weapon to my head, and locked my gaze onto her ebony eyes.
“You don’t even know how to spark the cartridge,” Zhang said with a scoff. The levity of her tone was betrayed by the tensing of her hand and twitching of her facial muscles.
I used my thumb to turn the small lever on the handle, activating the magnetic cartridge. I felt the thrumming of its power coursing through my hand. “I will not abide another moment in this gilded cage,” I said. “if I do not escape, I will die. As you are my bodyguard, you will be held accountable.”
Zhang’s gaze darted from my hand and back to my face. “You little shit,” she said after a moment of contemplation. “you truly are your father’s son.”
“It is what I have groomed to be,” I replied sadly.
“There are worse fates,” Zhang said, “Would you rather go live as a salvager, or swear your life to another autocrat and toil away in menial tasks till you die?”
I sighed and shifted my grip in my sweating palm. “I will make my own life,” I said, “I have enough liquid funding to ensure we can both live until the end of our days without want.”
“Do you even have a plan?” Zhang asked, “It’s probably a stupid one, if I know you as well as I do.”
“We steal the Hummingbird,” I said, “it has a state of the art Alcubierre drive and a self actuating neuro-processor. Laboratory grown, of course.” The use of living tissue from sapient sources was considered barbaric by most reasonable peoples, but cloning provided an alternative despite the wait for initial and replacement specimens.
“The thing is a prototype,” Zhang replied. “they’re going to hunt it down more than they will us.”
I waved the gun in the air dismissively, and I could see Zhang eyeing it, contemplating how she could snatch it from my hands. “I have my father’s codes for leaving the station,” I said, “and it’s tracking beacon has already been removed.”
Zhang shook her head. “How did you manage that one? Did you give a maintenance worker a handjob?” she asked.
“Please, Zhang!” I said incredulously, “a face like mine? It would be a bribe for them to have the honor.” While I am indeed conventionally handsome, I am quite certain that the compliments I receive were more to do with gaining my favor than truly being that good looking.
“Well, we steal the ship. What do you have planned next?” Zhang asked.
“Everything is loaded on the ship already,” I replied, lowering the gun, “we ditch any security, then we fly to a nice planet of our choosing and think about it from there.”
“To be frankly honest, I was getting ready to lose my damned mind in here,” Zhang replied, “I used to be a pirate -”
“Yes, yes,” I interrupted, “you’ve told me a thousand times. Kidnapped my father, betrayed your crew when he offered to pay more.”
Zhang flashed a rude hand gesture before bouncing to her feet. “Let’s steal a ship!”
“Stop looking around like that,” Zhang hissed, “I honestly cannot think of a single thing you could do to look more suspicious.”
I frowned and straightened my back. It wasn’t enough that I was doing my very best to appear as casual as possible, but if I was so readily betrayed by my outward appearance perhaps I am more nervous than I had thought.
A crew of maintenance workers looked at us and smiled as they passed, while I stared ahead, resolute. They turned down the well lit corridor and entered the elevator. He slid his access card and entered the hangar as his destination. The elevator began its rapid smooth descent, pausing occasionally to slide horizontally through other shafts closer to the hull.
The station itself was a cutting edge in Dysonian design. The cold fusion core produced enough backup power to keep it in operation for over a year, and the built in Alcubierre drive provided not only transportation, but shielding.
“Where do you think we should go first?” I asked.
Zhang shrugged. “I would say Trimoon Station in the Novunian system,” she mused. “but I don’t think that is a good example of the outside world. You’d probably die from the shock - for real this time.” She smiled and folded her arms before finishing wistfully. “Those Novun sure do know how to party.”
“I was thinking somewhere a little more idyllic,” I said, ignoring Zhang’s whisper of ‘boring’. “we will need to start plans. Make a base of operations.”
The elevator halted, playing a pleasant chime over the intercom. They stepped out and walked through the hangar halls. “Let’s go back to the Sol system,” Zhang mused, “lots of industry and trade still going on. Seedy enough that we won’t get recognized too easily.”
“Not a half bad idea,” I replied as he approached the large bla-steel doors that guarded the prototype striker. There was little left on Old Earth after the solar winds whisked it’s damaged atmosphere away three hundred years ago, but some foolish nostalgic conservationists insisted on bringing it back through artificial terraforming. Most people with common sense abandoned planetary living for the Dysonian lifestyle which afforded customized environment and modular adaptations. Most such spheres were no larger than earth’s moon - though some, such as the Eselle’s home station were twice as large.
The card terminal flashed red as I scanned his card a second time. “I don’t… it was working before,” I sputtered, trying it again repeatedly.
Zhang produced her own card and flipped it in the air before pressing it forward, which prompted the terminal to flash green.
“How the hell do you have clearance and not I?” I demanded.
“I fucked the chief of security,” Zhang replied casually, “rode him till he passed out. Borrowed his card and used his personal terminal and fingerprints. I changed my clearance level to maximum. I figured I might need to make an escape some day, just not like this.”
I shook my head and rotated the small lever on the door, making it slide open. Within the wide hangar sat the Hummingbird. It looked vaguely like one if you squinted very hard and didn’t really know what one looked like. We approached the opened loading door and entered the ship.
I quickened my pace as we passed into the airlock. The interior would easily be considered garish - with corridors of white gloss and mirrored chromus accentuations. The flooring was liquid black, adding to the nearly sickening glare of light.
“Systems, activate,” I commanded when we entered into the wide hallway that preceded the command center. Screens materialized in a sudden flash, a pale blue interface surrounding them as seats rose through slits that opened in the ground.
“Is any of that really necessary?” Zhang scoffed as she took a seat in the pilot’s chair. As soon as she had settled in, the seat’s arms extended from the rear. Each arm displayed holographic controls for reflexive navigation. “Ah, well. I’m not complaining about this.”
I beamed with pride as I settled into a chair beside her. “Pushing the edge of innovation with every step,” I said, “besides… they’re damn comfortable.”
“I should have stolen this thing sooner,” Zhang mumbled to herself as she activated the external camera, which brought a view of the rear hanger on the screen that appeared before them. “Open Hangar Four One Zero Four, access code Zhang Six Nine.” The warning lights flashed in hues of red and yellow for several moments before the massive magnetic doors that led back into the station snapped shut.
“Seriously?” I said, my face etched with feigned disapproval.
Zhang only shrugged and placed her hand over the holographic display as a pleasant voice rang over the intercom. “Decompression complete. Forcefield dropping in ten seconds.”
My stomach fluttered with excitement as I leaned towards the ship’s view module. The large shimmering wall of blue began to ripple and darken. The vast, eternal black of the galaxy spilled out before us. “It’s even more beautiful now than out of the windows,” I said softly.
“Once we’re out of range, I can give you a better view from the airlock,” Zhang said with a smile, “I’m joking, stop giving me that look.”
I leaned forward, watching the screen’s view rise as the ship’s engines activated. The lights in the hangar dropped to blackness, save for the red alarm lights that flashed suddenly. “Damn, they must know!” I said frantically.
Zhang punched her fist down into the display, prompting the ship to lurch forward into the void of space.
“Alcubierre drive initiating, please stand by,” rang the system’s pleasant voice.
“Hummingbird, return to hangar now,” said a hasty voice over the intercom. Their tone was frantic, knowing that the most esteemed ship was stolen. I couldn’t deny my satisfaction.
“Hummingbird, do you copy!” the voice said again,a demand more than a question.
Zhang turned to Andor with a toothy grin, “Ignore them.”
“Hummingbird, multiple gravitational distortions are on approach vector. Return to the hangar now.”
Zhang’s smile slid from her face, her brows knitting together in concern. “They’re bluffing us,” she said matter-of-factly as she manipulated the controls, prompting a negatory beep from the system. The soothing voice giving a chiding reminder that the engines were not yet primed.
The ship began to rattle violently, but the holographic display of the ship did not indicate the forming of it’s gravitational bubble, or the necessary shielding being active.
All the excitement that boiled in me died, replaced fear. Cold and unyielding fear.
The forward display showed a ripple in the blackness, making stars dance wildly before the individual bubbles collapsed. More than two dozen assault ships burst into existence.
“Return to the hangar bay!” the voice called out again. “We’re dispatching strikers, you’ll get in the crossfire!”
Zhang, who sat in the captain’s chair was stunned in silence, but I could tell that her dark eyes were calculating. “Our strikers aren’t enough to fight them,” she said. “Andor, put on your restraints!”
I looked to the woven metal straps and the minor grav array. I opened his mouth to admit that I didn’t know how to apply them, but Zhang rushed to my side and secured me in.
“I’m going to override the engines, we will be running off with a very small bubble. It’s going to be rocky,” She said as she ripped the metal paneling from beneath the display.
“We can’t leave!” I cried out. “You said yourself - the strikers can’t repel them!”
Zhang looked at me incredulously. “We’ll die if we don’t,” she said. “That’s a fucking armada.” A look of realization crossed her face. “System, take a record of the registry of every ship nearby.” She pulled some of the wires away, causing the displays to flicker until she grasped and pulled a small level buried within.
The displays turned from blue to magenta, the words “DEBUG MODE” scrolling across the bottom. Zhang didn’t hesitate in placing her hand in the display once more. “Initiate alcubierre drive, set destination forward, 2 A.U.”
I sat in silent terror, watching the holograph in the central desk show the small bubble enveloping the ship. I didn’t know damn near anything about being a pilot, or engineering, but I knew a small protection bubble within the negative vacuum could mean the ship melting to slag mid journey. Maybe it wouldn’t be strong enough to repel a small meteor, or any sort of space junk between here and our landing. It would shred through the hull and blow us out into the void. I turned away, watching Zhang buckle herself into the seat. Before she pulled the last clasp together, the sirens returned and the ship’s portrayal expanded, showing the shielding begin to warp and pull back.
Eselles station had activated its own grav shield, pulling the Hummingbird’s into it. “No!” Zhang shouted. She ripped away at her bindings and grabbed the switch.
It was too late. The display began to waver, the ships before them blurring. All I felt was was burning. Burning and light, searing through my flesh.