Episode 14: Right place, right time

Click to see catch-up summary

Samantha has made it from the planet into orbit, arriving on Starview Station, one of the largest civilian travel hubs around the capital of the empire. Everything hinges on her getting to Decker's ship and jumping out of the system.

The private shuttle set down on the floor of one of the Starview Station’s pressurized arrival hangar pods. Thick doors snapped shut behind it and the pod filled with atmosphere, removing the need for an airtight docking tube. The pressure indicator on the shuttle’s passenger display changed from red to green, and the elegant, velvet-lined door of the Radiance’s shuttle slid open, a cursive ‘Thank you for your patronage’ showing on the screen. 

Once Decker confirmed he’d take the job, Samantha had called the Radiance’s guest services and asked Adoni if any shuttles were available to bring her to Starview. There was no Nighthawk available to spirit her away this time, and public transport was an unnecessary risk. Adoni had been delighted to inform her that there was a single, private shuttle available, chauffeur pilot included. No automated transport here; the Radiance was too careful for that. They never knew when the chauffeur would be required to tap into their flight-combat training. Predictably, it wasn’t cheap. But for Samantha, getting off of Kestris discreetly and without incident was non-negotiable; she would spend as much of the seized Imperium funds as she needed to make sure her mission didn’t end before she left the system.

Samantha grabbed her duffel and computer bag and slung them over her shoulder, giving a nod of gratitude to the pilot who had known better than to make small talk. The Radiance, Adoni, and the pilot had already been paid before Samantha set foot on the resort’s private airfield. Successful arrival was guaranteed; after that, it was up to the guest.

Samantha ducked out of the shuttle and walked the scant distance to the station entry airlock. The thick metal doors sealed shut behind her. Halfway there. She’d gotten into orbit, now it was time to make sure she left it.

Samantha exited the airlock and stepped into the expansive concourse that connected the planet-side arrivals to the rest of the station. Starview was busy today, and everyone seemed to be in a hurry, working to be first in lines or weaving through crowds. The din of voices blended with the music that played overhead, occasional announcements of arrivals and departures being made by the artificial voices of the station’s systems. 

Starview was one of the largest commercial transportation hubs orbiting Kestris, but even with the near infinite amount of space outside its hull, space inside was always a premium resource. Add in the stress and irritation elicited by station travel, and you had a mass of tightly confined people all in a state of simmering frustration.

An artificial bell sounded over the station announcement system, the simulated daylight shifting from the pinkish-hue of late morning to the brilliant glow of midday. Samantha paused and watched, sizing people up, analyzing each person’s gait, their body language, where they were looking, what sort of luggage they were carrying. On this concourse alone there were hundreds of people of every description, age, gender, and socioeconomic appearance. Nothing unusual caught her attention, but the hypervigilance was a habit. As soon as she had accepted Clarke’s mission, she had felt it switch on, and she didn’t think it would switch off until her mission was complete.

Samantha stepped into the flow of foot-traffic and walked briskly toward the security checkpoint to reach the interstellar terminals. Decker’s message had instructed her to meet him at the docking tubes in terminal 18, one of the station’s civilian terminals available for private ships. He had indicated that a planet-side pickup wasn’t possible, and his ship was not equipped for any ship-to-ship docking. So, before exiting the system, she would have to pass through the station security checkpoint just like everyone else. 

The crowd thickened, the security bottleneck forcing them to line up and wait. It had been some time since Samantha had travelled like this. It seemed more congested than usual. She leaned her body around the group of people in front of her. Ahead were automated sensor arches, similar to what was used at the entrance to 5E headquarters, operated by station security agents who were joined by a couple of technicians. She couldn’t hear their words, but she could see the technicians gathered around the arch’s control desk, speaking to the flustered security agents. The arches—all of them—were dark. Next to the desk, temporary barriers were being set up, guiding the flow of travelers to a new, human-based screening zone. 

System malfunctions were uncommon but not unheard of. Her plan had been to pass through the automated checkpoint and let Julian’s handiwork on her identity and consumer-grade comm do its work. Looked like she would need to improvise. On missions, it was Julian’s job to hack the systems, but when technology wasn’t the obstacle, that was when Samantha’s years of social-engineering training came into play.

In front of her, a middle-aged man dressed in business-casual attire huffed and craned his neck to get a better look. “Ah, what’s this? They’re making us wait for individual screening? Dammit. I don’t have time for that.” He turned and looked for an ally, finding Samantha’s eye. “Can you believe this? Can’t they afford some sort of backup system?”

Samantha wrinkled her nose, mirroring his disgust. “For what a ticket off-system costs these days, you’d think they could.” She sighed, bringing up a hand to twirl her dyed-black hair while the other went to her hip, elbow out in the universally acknowledged posture of impatience. One of the most important things 5E agents were trained on was not appearing like skittish, hypervigilant spies when needing to blend into the public. As far as anyone was concerned, she was Olivia Sadorus, Julian’s hand-crafted identity, just as perturbed and selfishly impatient as  everyone else. 

The line kept moving forward, the shrugged shoulders and increasingly frustrated expression of the station technicians indicating that the arches did not seem to be returning to functionality any time soon. Samantha chose her path, subtly holding her two bags close to her body; the computer held more valuable information than anyone on this station could imagine. She could buy more clothes, but without the kit Julian had prepared, things would be much more difficult.

Samantha checked her comm; no new word from Decker. He’d be waiting by now. She’d wondered how it would feel to see him. It had been years, she wasn’t sure how many. She wasn’t proud, but she also wasn’t ashamed. Things happened between people. Angry things. Hurtful things. But he’d taken the job and come to get her. That meant something. Maybe his anger had faded. She didn’t want to have to apologize. Even if she tried, he wouldn’t believe her. 

She pushed the musings from her mind. Stay on task. Decker was a mission asset. Personal issues could wait until they were clear of the Imperium.

In another line across from her, a group of men appeared to be watching Samantha closely. She made eye contact, and they turned back to their conversation. They stood with their feet flat on the floor, their bodies tensed in all the wrong ways. She watched them long enough to be sure that anyone who had actually taken notice of her would have done a double-take by now. They didn’t. They were probably just weary travelers, tired from being crammed and rushed, looking around for others to empathize with their plight. Even if it felt like there was something suspect around every corner, that didn’t mean there was. 

Behind Samantha, the line grew while her turn neared. There was nothing to fear; Julian’s attention to detail on fraudulent identities was some of the best in 5E. She’d used them in hundreds of instances on missions across the sector. Those times, though, he’d been there watching, the power of the agency backing her up if something went wrong. Not now. She had less than a day until Agent Samantha Mori was declared section-42 and a traitor. There was no room for error. She had to get off the station.

People made their way through the improvised checkpoint, dragging weight-reduction hovering suitcases and distracted children behind them, the station security agents doing their perfunctory interviews and bag-checks one after another. Each check went quickly, the security agent’s expressions remarkably calm as they faced the ire of each person they were forced to delay.

The middle-aged man in front of Samantha stepped forward, passed his interview, and was cleared. Samantha was up. She placed her duffel and the computer bag on the table where gloved security agents slid it down for inspection. The security agent held up a datapad and pointed to Samantha’s comm. She presented it without delay. On a temporary display panel set up behind the table, the photo of Olivia Sadorus appeared. Her name and basic citizen information showed beside a smiling, black-haired image taken from the catalog of Samantha’s alternative appearances Julian maintained off-record for just such an occasion.

Her partner may have created the credentials that the technology would validate, but Samantha had her own mental catalog of personalities she used when face-to-face interaction was necessary. For Olivia, she’d chosen a set of personality traits that would make dealing with the overworked, underpaid agents of station security as smooth as possible. Olivia was a little confused, a little flirty, and very impressed by everything going on around her.

Samantha summoned a smile, engaging all the proper face muscles. “Hi, that’s too bad about the sensor arches. I know you all are doing your best,” she said, watching for the security agent’s response.

He glanced up at her and nodded, pressing his lips together in a flat smile. He quickly ran his gloved hands over the duffel and computer bag, opening each and peering hastily inside.

“Anything you need to declare?” he said, zipping the bags shut before he’d even finished the question.

Samantha’s mind went to the karambit she had in a sensor-resistant smuggling case disguised as a handheld personal-entertainment device. While having a knife wasn’t exactly arrest-worthy, it had been a risk. Her plan had been to toss it before the checkpoint if security looked too hot; the agent hadn’t even looked at the case. “Nah, just normal stuff. Making a quick trip out—”

The agent cut her off. “Yeah, uh-huh. Proceed to the inspection zone, please.”

Samantha flashed a grateful smile and stepped forward to where the agents were performing pat-downs. That shouldn’t be a problem. The only prohibited item she had was the karambit, and that had just been skipped. This was turning out to be easier than expected, a fact that triggered every single one of her 5E operative instincts. The idea that the sensory arch had been tampered with entered her mind. But even if it had, what was she supposed to do about it? She was less than a day from being declared a fugitive, the mission she had accepted from Clarke was irreversible. There were no contingencies, this was a one-way, one-time exit. She needed to focus.

Samantha stepped onto a mat with a pair of yellow-painted footprints and the diagram that instructed the traveller to stand with their arms outstretched. Samantha grinned shyly as the security agent stepped forward and conducted the routine pat-down. Normally, she was on the opposite end of a frisking, and she’d had enough training in detainment techniques to know that the security agent seemed to have no idea how to search someone; she could have gotten at least three prohibited items past him, maybe more.

The guard stepped back and waved her forward. “You’re clear.”

Samantha gave him an embarrassed shrug and snatched her bags off the table. Maybe it was his first day, or maybe the security agents relied on the sensor arch and didn’t take pat-down training seriously. And why would they? Who would expect to have to frisk someone here? Either way, it didn’t matter. She was through and it was time to get to terminal 18 and off of Starview. Slinging both bags over her shoulder, the shy smile faded from her face and she waded into the sea of travelers once again.

The end of the security checkpoint opened to the bustling central concourse; brightly lit, glistening white surfaces covering the floor, the walls, and the ceiling far above. The central concourse had an entire array of restaurants, shops, hotels, and recreation options for travelers to enjoy. Huge curved windows lined the outer walls of the enormous central ring. The ones to Samantha’s right looked down to the planet below, the ones to her left out to the stars. 

She walked to an enormous display panel suspended from the ceiling and checked the animated station map that stretched across it. She traced the route from her location to terminal 18 and committed it to memory; no Julian to speak directions into her ear. Music and occasional terminal announcements sounded beneath the din of travellers. Tourists gathered to take photos of themselves against the windows, posing in front of the view of the planet below with handheld datapads and wrist-comms outstretched.

Everywhere she looked, Samantha saw people of distinct cultures, ages, shapes, and sizes. The people on Starview Station were a true representation of what the Imperium had created, eleven systems unified, and an empire that could serve them. It had to be worth something. She couldn’t let the likes of the Red Kestrels—or really, the Imperium insiders that were behind them—bring it all down. 

None of these people had any idea how delicate the situation really was. That was her burden. People like her, the ones who dealt with the dirty business that let the Imperium maintain its stability, walked among the crowds but could never truly be a part of them.

Samantha took a slow breath—enough musing—and pulled her attention away from the windows, veering toward the nearest restroom. She needed to make one quick stop before proceeding. This part of the terminal was less bustling, people having the room to spread out and take advantage of the station’s amenities. She approached the unisex bathroom door, stopping to check her surroundings before entering. Everything looked normal, so she pushed the door open and stepped inside.

Samantha walked behind the people standing in front of the row of mirrors, fixing their hair, cleaning their teeth. She entered the first available private stall and twisted the computer bag around to rest against her stomach. She reached inside and pulled out the personal-entertainment device, its flip-up screen and controls all authentic and functional. She powered it on and navigated through a series of seemingly random places in the interface, the last location causing the back of the case to click and pop open. She snapped the lid shut and flipped it over. Inside the shielded compartment was the sensor-inert karambit, its curved blade and handle resting in the molded sheath. 

A grin bent her lips. If the weapon had been discovered, the Olivia identity she was currently using would have had a hard time explaining it to station security as they questioned her in one of their sealed interrogation rooms, section-42 countdown dwindling away as she tried to talk Olivia’s way out of detainment. The lax security had made this a virtual non-risk, though. 

Samantha removed the weapon and flipped it in the air, catching it with the curved blade facing downward. The feeling of the karambit in her hand was reassuring, and she slipped it back into its sheath, tucking it into her waistband at the small of her back, under her shirt and jacket. Now, she was ready.

An unexpected sound from the concourse reverberated through the bathroom stall door—muffled shouting from outside mixed with the concerned inquiries of the other travelers standing at the mirrors. Samantha’s head snapped up. She couldn’t quite make out the words, but her instincts told her it was not something to ignore. She twisted her bags back around and exited the stall, joining the rest of the people who had also taken notice.

From the other side of the bathroom door came muted murmurs and the recognizable din of confused commotion. Samantha dropped her Olivia act and hurried to the door, the sound clear now; it was people shouting.

A man standing at the mirrors came forward, comb still in his hand. “What’s going on? Is there something—”

Samantha abruptly brought up a hand to quiet him, standing with her back to the wall as she crept toward the door. He gulped down whatever he was going to say, the rest of the bathroom’s occupants watching Samantha’s strange reaction, but remaining quiet. She cracked the door open and peeked through. 

People were moving in one direction, all away from the station’s central hub. There were shouts and cries of confusion. People moved frantically forward but kept turning to look at whatever they were running from. Samantha opened the door further and leaned out, her hand going to the bolt pistol holstered beneath her jacket, her hand grasping around only to remember it wasn’t there.

Samantha cursed beneath her breath. She needed a better look at the situation. This could be anything. She motioned for the people in the bathroom to stay put and eased herself out the door. The crowd kept streaming by. People on space stations frightened more easily than normal. If something went wrong on a station, there was nowhere you could go. Even being sunk while out at sea, you could swim or float in the water until help came. On a station, all that stood between you and hard vacuum was a wall of metal or steel-glass and the hope that maintenance crews had done their jobs. A faulty airlock triggering a lockdown could be the cause of the panic. This was no time to assume the worst, because if this were an incident of concern, Samantha was in no—

A man tripped and fell into her. She stepped back and caught him as he stumbled, holding him up by the arm. He scrambled to his feet, not even looking up to see who he had run into. She grabbed his shoulder and turned him towards her.

“Tell me what’s happened,” she ordered, angling her face to try and make eye contact, but he continued looking back over his shoulder.

“What? There’s-there’s—some people came out of one of the space-bridges, they had guns. Started shooting into the crowd.”

Samantha pulled his arm closer, forcing him to look at her. “How many people? What else did you see?”

The man looked at Samantha and pulled against her grip on his arm, his face twisted in confusion at the strange woman who was accosting him. “I don’t– I don’t know! I just saw the flashes and heard people shouting, telling everyone to run.” He looked down at her hand holding him in place. He jerked his arm, trying to break away from her. “What are you doing? Let me go!”

Samantha glared at the man before realizing what this civilian-detainment must seem like to him. She released his arm and stepped back. He took off running. People continued to stream by, looking increasingly panicked. There was no use pretending that the sensory arch malfunction and lax security were unrelated now. She needed to know what was happening, but Decker would be waiting, and if there was some sort of security disturbance, he may feel compelled to take off and leave her. Or worse, station security and orbital patrol would shut everything down and they’d all be stuck, and no doubt every person on the station would be detained and questioned. Julian’s attention to detail with the Olivia Sadorus identity was exceptional, but once the section-42 hit the Imperium law enforcement’s most-wanted feeds, Samantha Mori’s face would be on every interrogator’s datapad, and no hair-dye job would stand up to that. There were no other options; she had to get to Decker’s ship and out of the empire.

People were running now. She could see station security guards appearing and moving in the opposite direction as the crowd, bolt rifles out and held at the ready. Not good. A security disruption that required firearms instead of medical equipment would mean an immediate lockdown, but there was no sign of that yet—no security doors sliding down, no airlocks slamming shut. Even the overhead music was still playing underneath the panicked cries of the crowd. What was going on?

Through the enormous steel-glass windows, something outside the station caught her eye. She pushed her way through the crowd to the window and came to a stop, hands against the transparent surface. Ships were breaking away from docking clamps and careening off in random directions, ignoring space traffic control and normal safety procedures, initiating jumps far too close to the station. But these panicked jumps weren’t the only flashes of light that dotted the black, star-filled view. What had caught Samantha’s eye wasn’t the exit jumps, but entry jumps. Other ships were arriving.

Her eyes widened. Silent in the distance, white-and-gold Imperium Navy warships were jumping into the vicinity of Starview Station, their brilliant hulls lit by the Kestris sun. The navy had scrambled vessels this fast, actual navy warships, for a station incident? Orbital space was civilian jurisdiction, handled by the well-equipped and completely capable Kestris Orbital Patrol that would—

A new flash erupted in the distance, but not from a jump. A silent explosion filled Samantha’s view, followed a moment later by the rumble of the blast that thrummed down the concourse like the momentarily delayed crack of thunder after lightning. A vibration shot up through her feet and she instinctively crouched and covered her head with her arm as the station shuddered. She looked back out the enormous window. Near the central hub where all the concourses met was a glittering field of debris. A plume of venting atmosphere shot debris and bodies out of a jagged hole ripped into the side of the station, twisted metal curving outward like flower petals. It had been an explosion from inside the station.

Shouting and screams from the crowd of travelers swelled as people realized what was happening. This hadn’t been some accident. This was an attack.

Samantha’s instincts screamed to run toward the activity, but her mind told her to leave Kestris and carry out Clarke’s orders. She had no authority, no backup, and was equipped with only the karambit and the bodysuit hidden beneath her clothes. She would be useless.

Her angst rising, she quickly replayed the last few minutes in her mind, estimating time between events. If station security had requested military support at the earliest sign of trouble—unlikely—the navy warships could not have scrambled a response this quickly.

But even if they could… they had arrived seconds before the explosion.

Samantha’s eyes narrowed, her growing understanding rapidly overshadowed by anger. Someone in the navy must have already known what was going to happen. She remembered Clarke’s words from two days before about the Dauntless; ‘total compromise, the Kestrels had everything they needed to shut it down remotely and leave it helpless.’ The station security failure, the navy ships jumping in; Starview Station was being set up just like the Dauntless. Not only was Clarke right about her need to leave immediately, she may have been too late.

She needed to stay smart; the time to stop this attack had been weeks ago. It was time to think tactically, immediate objectives only. Samantha scanned the area. There was still air-pressure in this concourse, meaning the bulkhead airlock emergency doors had engaged immediately after the explosion. The station had mechanical safeguards that would activate when depressurization was detected, a safety system that a saboteur would not have been able to tamper with. She had air, which meant she still had options.

Samantha looked toward the central hub. Terminal 18 was the opposite way of the blast. Her body quivered with rage, teeth and fists clenched tight. She could do nothing here. A ship was waiting for her, a ship that would take her out of here. Samantha raised her comm and shouted a message into it. 

“I was delayed but am inbound to your location. Do not egress. Repeat: do not egress.”

Ignoring the destruction in the window behind her, Samantha sprinted through the flow of crowd to terminal 18. She hoped Decker got the message.

An artificial bell sounded over the station announcement system, the simulated daylight shifting from the pinkish-hue of late morning to the brilliant glow of midday. Decker sat at the bar in the terminal 18 lounge just outside the docking tubes, leaning forward against his folded arms on the bar’s surface. In front of him, a half-empty glass of Kestrian whiskey gathered condensation. Vidscreens on the wall behind the bar played various sporting events, newsvid reports, cleverly disguised shows that were really advertisements for various vacations and cruises one could depart for right here on Starview Station. He ignored them and took a swallow from the glass. Manu sat next to him, facing outward with his back against the bar, watching the station’s guests pass. He shook his head and turned to Decker.

“This is it, right? We told her terminal 18, lounge in front of spur B?”

“Right place, right time,” Decker said, shrugging and casually pointing to the sign that said they were in ‘Terminal 18, Private Transport.’

Manu leaned forward on his stool and looked down the terminal’s central concourse. “Did you get an actual confirmation that she was still on?”

Decker snorted. “Samantha ain’t the type to miss an appointment. If she said she’ll be here, she’ll be here. Unless she’s locked up or dead somewhere, but knowing her, I wouldn’t assume that.”

Manu grunted, shaking his head. “I just want out of here. Being here, in the central system—I haven’t been this close in years, Deck. Years. And we pull up in a ship that’s still got a mangled hole in the side of it, getting ready to pick up someone of very questionable intent…”

Decker brought the glass to his mouth and sighed. “Yeah, I agree. Central does have a feel to it, don’t it? It’s too clean. There’s too much here that reminds you that you’re in the Imperium.” Decker swirled the ice in his glass. “It’s not just the government. It’s like space itself belongs to it. Everything swirls around Kestris down there,” he motioned with his glass, “the emperor sitting on some golden throne, controlling everything.”

“I’ll be glad to be gone.”

Decker raised his eyebrows in agreement and finished his drink. His shoulder still ached from the bolt wound, the pain a persistent, throbbing reminder of the mess they were in. Sitting here, waiting at the terminal 18 bar, gave him too much time to think. He needed something to distract him. Things never seemed so bad when he was busy. It was the idle times that got him down. Having time to think about his situation, that’s when everything felt heavy. Too heavy. 

Speaking of… Decker raised his comm. “Heavy, Matilda all set to bail on this place?”

There was a moment of silence, then Heavy’s voice came back. “Hey Deck, everything checks out. We’re warm and ready. Eliza’s in the rig and Sellivan’s at navigation, just need the two of you and the passenger.”

Decker sighed and nodded to Manu. “Okay Hev. We’ll be along as soon as we can.”

Decker turned around on his stool to face the corridor, putting his elbows on the bar and leaning against it with Manu. “They all look so clean and pretty. Nice clothes, combed hair, designer tech. Wealth and status on full display.” He looked down at his thick, canvas pants with little stains here and there. His scuffed and worn jacket covered his tattoos, just the edges of the artwork spilling out onto the backs of his hands. “Nope, we’re nothing like these people. They’re sophisticated. Proper.”

Manu chuckled. “Yeah? And what are we?”

Decker shrugged. “We’re the outsiders. They don’t call it the Fringe for nothing. The closer you get to Kestris, the nicer things get. But just the things, not the people. Out on the Fringe, folks are authentic. They understand what life is like outside of the Imperium’s shadow. These people… well, they can keep the  empire.”

Manu stood and jutted his head toward the concourse. “Hey Deck, you gotta look at this.” 

Decker shook himself out of his musing and leaned out from the bar. He squinted, then stood. “Those people running? Like running running?”

“They’re fleeing. Look at their faces.”

Decker took a step forward, eyes narrowing on the distant clump of people down the concourse who had separated from the crowd, their reactions catching the attention of more onlookers as they neared. He jerked his head around to the vidscreens above the bar. They were still showing the same advertisements, same sports. The cheery station background music was still playing overhead.

“If it was something serious, there’d be some sort of security warning,” Decker said, pointing hesitantly to the ceiling. “They’d be sharing instructions if it were an actual emergency, right? Tourists startle easily. Could be anything. Leaky airlock triggering an alarm, or some exotic animal got away from it’s owner. Maybe a sewer conduit burst.”

Manu shook his head. “No, Deck. This ain’t right. We’ve seen combat. They’re running from something.”

The crowd of people was moving closer to them, more and more people seeing others react and joining along. Decker could see faces clearly now; Manu was right, this was a stampede.

Manu turned to face Decker. “Deck, we gotta get back to the ship. If we get caught here…” Manu stooped to look his friend in the eye. “We’re in the center of the Imperium.”

Decker looked at the tide of panic coming their way, then down at this comm. Samantha should have been here by now. “If we bail out, we’d be leaving her to the fate of whatever is going on. She hired us for some tactical support, waiting for her is a part of the job. We have to give her a few more minutes. I’ll stay here, you go to the ship. Have Selli get entry coords loaded—”

Manu grabbed Decker’s shoulders. “Decker! She hasn’t given us exit coords! We don’t know where she wants to go!”

“Damn! Okay… Okay just, well—” Decker was stumped. Secrecy and withholding information; same old Samantha. “Okay, uh,” Decker stammered, running through the mental checklist of friendly systems in his head once again. No, no, no, no. Yes. “Mentaryd. We know scrappers there who can get us parts. It’s as good a place as any to fix Matilda.”

“Deck,” Manu waved his arms at the crowd, raising his voice over the din, “what if this is Samantha’s doing? What if we’re about to be dragged into all this!”

Decker shook his head, eyes locked onto the increasing chaos on the concourse. “No, Samantha is capable of a lot, but she’s Imperium, these are her people. It can’t be—”

A notification came through on Decker’s comm, transcription only. He read it aloud.I was delayed but am inbound to your location. Do not egress. Repeat: do not egress.” He looked to Manu, grin doing nothing to mask his anxiety. “See? She’s almost here.”

Manu’s attention turned to something behind them, and Decker turned to look. Two station security guards sprinted down the concourse, bolt rifles held in ready positions, shouting for people to clear out of their way. The sight of the weapons caused more panic as people scrambled to part.

Decker clapped Manu on both arms. “Look, just be ready to rip us away from the dock the moment I’m aboard. De-clamp now and have Heavy hold us in place with his hands if he has to. I can’t leave her.”

Menu frowned. “You don’t think she would?”

Decker shrugged. “Maybe, but I ain’t her, and that’s why she contacted me. Now go.”

Manu started to say something, but stopped, a pained expression creasing his face. He threw his hands up in defeat and sprinted toward the docking tube where the Matilda was waiting.

Decker took a few steps back from the crowd. Some people were gawking down the corridor, frantically asking each other if they knew what was happening. Others were not bothering to ask and were hurrying toward the docking tubes. The word ‘bomb’ and ‘shooting’ surfaced from the din. Decker looked back up to the vidscreens. Still no change. What was happening?

“Okay, okay,” Decker said to himself, fists clenching and unclenching. Security would respond to almost any type of disturbance, it could be an accident, a drunk pilot veering off course and poking their ship through the station walls. But the bolt rifles out and ready, that gave him reason to worry.

Decker looked toward the docking tube that Manu had disappeared into. People were running down it to their own ships, making the smart move and leaving. Decker continued to scan the crowd, looking for the pale blonde head of hair he remembered.

“C’mon, c’mon. Don’t make me leave you.”

A loud clunk sounded overhead, like a giant switch being flipped. Emergency floodlights switched on and red guidance indicators on the walls flared to life. The music stopped, replaced by the artificial, placid voice of station emergency systems instructing people to stay calm and proceed to the nearest emergency zone. Above the bar, the vidscreens all switched to show the same emergency message.

Decker’s fists clenched and held.