Episode 15: A foregone conclusion

Samantha weaved through the crowd, dodging the panicked station visitors as she ran toward terminal 18. No one paid any attention to her pushing and squeezing through the mass, too concerned with getting themselves away from the center of the station, or worse, refusing to believe they were in serious danger. Standing like stationary buoys bobbing in a storm, they appeared more annoyed that their travel plans were disrupted rather than believing their lives were in jeopardy. These inner-system people were not able to comprehend that they—here in the heart of the empire—were under attack.

The simulated midday light had been replaced by harsh floodlights and red emergency guidance indicators. All signage now displayed instructions and the background music had switched to an artificial voice urging everyone to stay calm and proceed to the nearest emergency zone. Whatever potential tampering that had delayed the station security responses was over; Starview was now in a state of emergency. 

Just ahead, Samantha could see where the concourse opened into a large shopping plaza from which the private terminals radiated. To reach terminal 18, she had to cross the plaza, make it down one more concourse, and then she would be at the terminal’s narrow space-bridge where Decker should be—must be—waiting at its nearby lounge bar. Each new segment of the station had airlock doors between the bulkheads, but until there was a loss of pressure they would remain open to allow access to the emergency zones. As long as there was air between her and Decker’s ship, she could make it off the station. 

Samantha came to a stop against the threshold between the concourse and the shopping plaza. Pressing her body against the edge of the bulkhead, she peeked around the corner, scanning for obstructions or hostile activity. 

The plaza was a large circular room with a high domed ceiling above two levels of stores and eating establishments that were arranged around the perimeter. In the center of the plaza were dozens of mobile shopping kiosks, dining and lounge areas with countless scattered tables and overturned chairs. The space between was divided by rows of concrete planters filled with trees and plants. People were fleeing in random directions, running into each other and tripping over fallen chairs, some even standing in place. The floodlights and red emergency indicators cast harsh shadows that made it difficult to see, and the clamor of people and the commands from the announcement system echoed off the domed ceiling.

Samantha looked up to the plaza signage; it no longer showed the entire station map, only routes to the nearest emergency zones. 

“Julian, send-,” 

She snapped her mouth shut, wincing at the mistake. There was no Julian in her ear to send a map of the station to her visor. There was no visor, either.

The urge to contact her single friend pulled at her mind; Julian was down on Kestris with no idea what was transpiring above, one comm-call away. No. She had to maintain compartmentalization. If Julian was being monitored, receiving a contact from his soon-to-be disavowed, section-42’d former partner while she was on Starview Station amid a terror attack would blow Clarke’s entire mission and make this all for nothing. Besides, Julian was even more incapable of doing anything about the situation than she was. This was a mission obstacle she had to overcome alone.

She recalled the route she had traced earlier in her head. The private vessel side of the enormous station had twenty individual terminals that were connected to four trunk concourses, five terminals each. Terminal 18 was on the fourth trunk, the furthest from her location. 

Samantha quickly gauged the distance and traffic of her possible routes. Cutting diagonally across the plaza was shorter but crowded with the sea of disorganized people. Sticking to the curved perimeter of stores and eateries would be longer, but the path was clearer. She chose the direct path; no sense worrying about shoving past panicked travelers at this point.

She launched forward into a sprint just as a staccato of bolts arced across the plaza from one of the other terminal spurs. Dozens of encapsulated bursts of energy slammed into kiosks, furniture, and people, the white-blue flashes reflecting off the overhead dome and crackling through the air. Samantha threw her body to the ground and slid to a stop against one of the tall concrete planters, one of the few objects that would hold up against bolts. People screamed and ran, abandoning what little sense of order there had been. The direct route across the plaza was no longer an option.

Samantha rose to a crouch and shimmied her way to the edge of the thick planter. Station security wouldn’t have a weapon with that level of lethality in their armory. She peeked around the planter to get a look at where the shots had come from. Concealed in the corridor just beyond the threshold to the first terminal trunk was a group of three hostiles, one of whom was firing a military-grade repeater rifle into the crowd. People fled from the source of the bolts, smashing into each other and creating bottlenecks at every corridor. More bolts screamed across the plaza, herding people away from the terminal spurs and back toward the central hub. 

Samantha slid her travel duffel bag off her shoulder and set it on the ground, keeping the more-important computer bag tight against her body, then drew the karambit from its sheath at the small of her back. The bodysuit beneath her clothes might let her survive a single bolt, maybe two, but not a volley from that repeater. There would be no crossing the plaza without taking out the shooters.

Another round of bolts erupted from the corridor where the shooters were concealed, perpendicular to Samantha. Her way forward would lead her directly into the path of the bolts; the indirect route would not. 

Samantha lunged away from the planter and sprinted back toward the concourse she’d just come from, sliding to a knee behind a square column that bordered the entrance of one of the plaza’s stores. If the hostiles still faced the direction the shots were firing, Samantha would be just outside of their peripheral vision. She stayed low and crept quickly, keeping her left shoulder pressed against the wall as she traced the irregular shape of the storefronts around the perimeter, moving in and out of the shooter’s potential view.

Samantha stopped at the edge of a darkened store entrance when the bolts stopped, and peeked around the corner for another look. Most of the crowd had been dispersed back into the other concourses, a few remaining travelers obscured by the smoke from fires started by the energy blasts. Just ahead of her, Samantha could see the three hostiles in the darkened entrance to the first group of terminals. 

The trio did not appear to be pursuing any stragglers. They must have been there to create chaos and keep people from the terminals rather than to eliminate them. Samantha looked for a route to the hostiles, and a zigzagging path appeared in her mind. There was enough cover to obscure her most of the way until she was within engagement distance, a mere eight paces. Eight paces and she could have the karambit on them before they could target her. If they saw her just a single pace early, a spray of bolts from the repeater at point-blank range would be a quick death.

The silhouette of the bulky repeater rifle swung upward, the outline of its wielder assuming a relaxed stance, checking its charge. Samantha didn’t wait for another sign. She pushed off the wall and sprinted to her first source of cover, one of the shopping kiosks. Spinning and landing her back against it, she crouched and hurried to a concrete planter, pressing her shoulder to its surface as she crept along the waist-high barrier, hidden in the broken shadows of the manicured hedges just above her head. Reaching the corner, she leapt across an arm’s-length gap between the planter and a row of couches, her body exposed in the floodlights for only a fraction of a second. Not stopping to check if she’d been spotted, she sank to crawl on her elbows and knees, stomach flat against the floor, computer bag dragging beside her. 

The last source of cover was just ahead, a recessed storefront just to the right of the concourse from which the hostiles were firing. All she had to do was cross twenty feet of smoke-filled space lit up brighter than day by a floodlight. An estimated two seconds without cover.

Samantha took a breath, making sure the computer bag was secure against her back. Karambit still in-hand, she rose to a runner’s crouch, cleared her mind, locked her gaze on the column of shadow that was her target, and shot forward.

One second.

The floodlight bathed her in its glare, the illuminated haze from the smoke reducing her vision to a few feet in front of her.

Two seconds.

Samantha came to a dead stop in the column of shadow, pressing her body flat against the store’s entrance. Less than two seconds. She froze and waited. There were no bolts. No frantic shouts of spotting a target. She could hear the low voices of the hostiles murmuring to each other. It was time to validate her hunch as to their association.

She slid her body to the corner of the storefront and peeked around the edge. The three hostiles were crowded close together, just outside of the plaza’s floodlights. They wore bulky combat gear, the outlines of angular plates of body armor visible in their silhouettes. Good for dissipating bolts and projectiles, but it still left plenty of options for the more-than-razor sharp karambit. A nearby display flickered, spraying sparks that briefly illuminated the trio. Hanging around each of their necks were loose, sash-like scarves. Red scarves.

Kestrels.

Samantha’s jaw clenched, her pulse pounding in her ears. She forced her breathing to slow, storing her anger in her muscles for a moment longer. They were speaking, the hushed tones of pressured speech audible between the buzzing of broken display screens and the pop of scattered fires. Two men, one woman.

“…we clear them out, send them back toward the hub…”

“…Hannen said when the navy arrives, each team is to make it back to their ships…”

“…he never checked back in… I don’t know where he…”

“…the entire place will be snowed. They stole the pattern so no one can jump out but us…”

“…the navy won’t fire. The inversion pattern makes it look like we’re one of them…”

Samantha pulled her head back. The Kestrels—multiple teams of them—were planning on jumping out once they had completed their mission, and it sounded like they had a way to circumvent any navy attempts to stop them; just like with the Dauntless. Samantha couldn’t wait around for them to retreat to their ship, she had to reach a ship of her own.

But even if she could, she wouldn’t. Their journey ends here.

The trio had moved slightly since Samantha first spotted them. She counted the smoke-filled paces between her and the closest Kestrel, a woman with her back turned to Samantha. Nine.

Close enough.

Knowing it would slow her down, Samantha let the computer bag slide silently over her body onto the floor and stepped through its strap. She would be back for it. With that, her fingers tightened around the karambit.

Go.

Samantha spun out from the shadow and sprinted toward the three Kestrels, releasing her anger into the karambit in her outstretched left hand. The nearest Kestrel turned at the same time Samantha slammed into her, the karambit ripping through an exposed section of unarmored neck visible just above the scarf, and her bleeding body flew forward. The other two Kestrels started in confusion as their gurgling companion crashed into them and slumped at their feet, her neck arteries ejecting blood onto the floor.

The next closest Kestrel—the one not holding the repeater rifle—attempted to raise a short-barreled bolt rifle from a strap over his shoulder. Samantha shoved the barrel outward, raising the man’s arm and exposing his unarmored armpit. The curved blade of the karambit poked through the material and dug into his flesh. Samantha pressed her body forward, hoping the blade found the axillary artery and the cluster of nerves wrapped around it. 

The man screamed and his hand released the rifle’s grip, letting it slide off his arm to the floor. He brought his other hand across his body to paw at the wound; not at Samantha. She took a half-step forward and hooked her heel behind his, pushing against his body with her shoulder and tripping him to the ground.

The third Kestrel, repeater rifle still in hand, advanced on Samantha, not firing the weapon but swinging the butt-end at her head. Off-balance from tripping the still-screaming Kestrel, the stock clipped Samantha across the cheek, whipping her head to the side. Her vision went white for a moment and she stumbled over the discarded bolt rifle, falling to a knee. The pain from the impact invigorated her; she couldn’t stop the attack, but she could stop these three.

Another swing of the repeater rifle’s stock sliced through the air just above her head. The force of the swing caused the Kestrel to stumble past Samantha, his side momentarily angled toward her. She scooted herself back and grabbed the bolt rifle she had tripped over with her free hand; it was charged and ready to fire. Bringing the weapon up to her cheek, she balanced the barrel with her karambit-weilding hand and fired.

A flash of energy lit the alcove, the bolt striking the Kestrel in the side. He yelled and dropped the repeater rifle, staggering backwards from the surge of energy his body armor couldn’t dissipate. Samantha rose to her feet, bolt rifle still in her grip, and took aim again.

A pair of bolts impacted the wall behind Samantha. Across the plaza, two station security guards were firing towards her. She looked at the trio of Kestrels on the ground around her, the one she had just shot making a move for the repeater. The guards weren’t just firing toward her, they were firing at her.

Samantha crouched and fired the rifle across the plaza at the display screens directly over the station security guards. The bolts flashed on the ceiling over their heads and sparks rained down on them. The guards returned fire from around the same barrier Samantha had used when she’d arrived. Their shots slammed into the plaza walls just in front of her and the Kestrel still struggling to recover. She couldn’t finish him now, she needed him to act as a decoy while she retrieved the exposed computer bag.

The third Kestrel had regained enough of his faculties to recover the repeater rifle and was aiming it back toward who was actively firing at him; station security, not Samantha. A series of rapid-fire bolts fanned across the plaza, offering Samantha the suppressing fire she needed. Station security took cover and fired back, but not at her. They were focused on the more pressing source of the bolts.

Samantha leapt past the third Kestrel—now distracted and exchanging bolt-fire with station security—and ripped the scarf from the second, bled-out Kestrel’s neck as she passed. She stuffed it in her jacket as she ran back to where she’d dropped the computer bag.  She slid the karambit back into its sheath and scooped up the only thing she’d be taking off Kestris; the duffel full of Olivia’s clothes and personal items would be lost to the station.

With her Kestrel-provided bolt rifle in hand, Samantha took off running through the plaza toward terminal 18, leaving station security to battle the surviving Kestrel on their own. She wanted to finish off the Kestrels herself, but her mission was to thwart the Imperium insiders and prevent further attacks. She couldn’t save the people of Starview; she would be lucky to save herself. The only possible retribution was to strike back at the traitors who had enabled this attack and the one on the Dauntless.

“Throw down that weapon!” one of the security guards cried out to her, his voice nearly drowned out by another round of bolts spraying into the smoke-filled plaza. Samantha fired another round of bolts across the plaza toward the guards as she moved, careful to keep her aim high above their heads.

She sprinted down terminal 18’s concourse, people running in fear when they noticed the weapon in her hand, giving her a clear path. Through the scattering crowd at the end of the concourse, she saw the passenger lounge for terminal 18, and the outline of a familiar figure standing at the entrance to the docking tubes.

The sound of distant weapon fire echoed down the concourse, each new round causing people to scramble. The terminals had no other exit; the choice was to head toward the sound of bolts whizzing through the air, or to board a ship connected to one of the docking tubes. Seeing the telltale strobe of automatic repeater bolt fire, Decker knew that he’d waited as long as he could.

A group of people hurried past him toward the docking tubes, panicked voices calling out for passage, begging for a way out. Decker looked back to the dock where Matilda was waiting, dock seven. The door was sealed closed. Only his or Manu’s comm had the private access token they had received when they’d rented the space.

“Decker, are you seeing what’s happening outside the station?” Manu called through the comm. Decker pulled his attention away from the concourse and ran to the window at the edge of the terminal. His mouth dropped open; there was an Imperium Navy frigate—no, several—on the other side of the station, some sort of debris cloud visible behind the central hub.

A warship within spitting distance from a civilian station over Kestris? Unheard of. He remembered serving on ships like those, but that had been in active hot-zones with clear rules of engagement. He could imagine the sound of orders being given over the ship-wide intercom channels as crew executed their tasks from plush, swiveling console seats, each of them wondering how they were supposed to effectively engage against their own people. He hoped.

One of the frigates had its small hanger bay open. A pair of personnel-deployment craft were making their way toward the station, cutting torches and ad make-shift ports ready to create forced airlock entries through the station’s hull. 

Decker remembered those kinds of ships, too. Cutting would have been an engineer’s job. The navy had teams ready to breach this soon? If station security and the orbital patrol couldn’t handle whatever was happening, and the navy was deploying personnel to quell the situation, that meant—

“Decker, we need to go! Now!” 

The voice interrupted his thought. Someone pulled on his arm and spun him around. He brought his fists up, ready to repel whoever was assaulting him. At the sight of her, a mix of relief and anger flooded his system. It was Samantha, black hair instead of pale blonde, but it was her. Decker cursed loudly and rocked his head back. 

“Samantha! What the…?” He paused, registering the bolt rifle. “Where did you get a gun?”

“I took it from the people who are attacking the station, Decker. We have to get out of here. Now.”

Decker looked to where Samantha had come from. “What do you mean ‘attacking’? Who’s attacking?”

Samantha stepped forward. “The kinds of people my agency is supposed to have stopped. This is happening because we failed, and if I want to prevent more events like this, I have to get out of the Imperium.”

It had been three years, and now here she was, out of breath, strands of black hair stuck to her sweaty forehead and what looked like the start of a nasty bruise on the side of her face. And, of course, an inexplicable bolt rifle held comfortably in her hands. Decker’s brow lowered, noticing the rifle’s partially depleted charge indicator.

Samantha returned his gaze with an annoyed glare of her own. Her eyes shifted over his shoulder toward the terminal. “Decker, which dock is yours?”

Decker looked the direction Samantha had come from. People were still running, lights were still flashing, the intercom was still insisting people get to the emergency zones. He turned his attention back to her. He might have considered this a strange reunion; but not for them. This felt like familiar territory.

“Yeah. Yeah, okay. This way. Number seven.” Decker brought his comm up to his mouth, shouting as he ran. “Manu, I’ve got her. We’re incoming. Be ready to break away the instant we’re in.”

Decker and Samantha ran down the docking tube, its tunnel-like design narrowing the further it got from the terminal. People ran and shoved past one another when they saw the bolt rifle in Samantha’s hands. Decker had to admit it, it did make clearing a path easier.

Decker and Samantha came to a crowd of people clamoring to get through an open airlock two docks over, number nine. Through the small round windows, Decker could see an enormous passenger ship start to pull away from the tube, docking clamps still attached as it struggled to rip itself away from the station’s tentacle-like grasp. If those people didn’t get inside the door, they’d be blown out whichever end separated first.

Cries from people that their ‘ships had left them’ and to ‘please let them aboard’ came from every direction. Most of the airlock doors all down the terminal were beginning to close, though some were still open in spite of the safety systems. Everyone was looking for life rafts off the station and weren’t finding any, a realization that only increased the frenzy.

Decker and Samantha reached the area in front of the closed dock-seven doors, the final barrier keeping them—and everyone else—from boarding the Matilda. A group of frantic people stood in front of it, confused and frightened looks on their faces. The doors to the dock were sealed, accessible only with Decker’s comm. Setting his expression stern, he waded forward toward the access panel.

The group became animated as he approached; Decker was the only one not demanding to know if someone else had a way off the station. One man reached out and grabbed him by the jacket. “Is this your dock? Do you have a ship? You have to help us! We have to get out of here!”

Decker kept pushing forward, swimming through the pack, trying his best to avoid a response. “Uh, hey sorry, I need to get—” he mumbled, voice lost beneath the pleas of the crowd.

“Is this your ship? This is his ship! Please, we can’t stay here!”

“There’s nowhere to go. You have to let us on.”

“I just need to get to the door, okay? It’s not really a passenger ship but… if you let me get to the panel I can think,” Decker said, forcing his fear to the back of his mind as he continued to push his body forward, trying to avoid overtly shoving anyone out of his way. The Matilda could carry all of these people in its cargo hold. It wouldn’t be comfortable or safe, but it could hold them, and it would certainly give them better chances than staying here on the station, trapped in a narrow corridor waiting to be shot by bolts or jettisoned out into space.

He looked over his shoulder for Samantha but couldn’t see her, the crowd beginning to crush him against the airlock door. What would happen when he opened it? How many could the Matilda hold?

The station’s structure groaned, the sound of flexing metal reverberating like a deadly musical tone. Decker lurched for the panel. Another man stepped in front of him, pleading. He looked for Samantha again, only to see that she’d positioned herself with her back against the closed airlock doors, bolt rifle held in front of her chest.

“Everybody back,” she shouted, raising the muzzle of the rifle slightly and staring down the crowd. “This ship is restricted and can take no passengers. Go to the emergency zones and wait for station security.” 

“Who are you? Are you with the station? Why do you have that gun?” someone forcefully asked from the back of the crowd. More voices joined in. People from behind pushed against those at the front who were too scared of the rifle to proceed further. Decker felt his gut twist. He held up his hands, palms outward.

“Hey, look, everyone, we can try—”

He didn’t get a chance to finish. A boom reverberated through the docking spur and the floor vibrated beneath their feet. The lights flickered and there was a horrible sound of metal creaking and snapping, the sickening wails of a structure preparing to be torn. A feeling of inertia pulled at him, the sensation of movement in directions that weren’t ‘down.’ If the grav generators went, the possibility of survival went from small to nonexistent. People stumbled and fell as the deck heaved beneath them. Someone screamed. Manu’s voice crackled through the comm beneath the cacophony, shouting something Decker couldn’t understand over the shouting.

“Decker, open the door,” Samantha ordered him. He looked to her, then the crowd, then the gun. Cursing again, he entered the code into his comm and the door slid open. As soon as it did, people rushed forward, trying to enter. Decker gritted his teeth and braced himself against the surge of bodies. What had she thought was going to happen?

A pair of shots burst from the bolt rifle, blinding everyone and raining sparks down from the holes they blasted in the ceiling. Some people cowered, awaiting another shot. Some ran, frantically trying to escape in any direction they could. Samantha’s face remained impassive, bolt rifle at her cheek and trained on the retreating crowd. Samantha shuffled backward toward the Matilda, stepping behind the yellow line on the floor indicating where the airlock doors would close, weapon still raised. Decker hesitated, pointing back to the scattering crowd.

“We can’t just leave these people. The Matilda can hold plenty!” he shouted.

Samantha lowered the rifle. She lunged forward, grabbing the front of Decker’s jacket and yanking him across the airlock line into the docking tube, her voice full of what appeared to be… genuine regret?

“We can’t help these people, the outcome today is a foregone conclusion. If you want to help people, help prevent the next attack like this. There’s nothing we can do to help here, you have to believe me.”

Decker scowled and looked down at Samantha’s hand still gripping his jacket. Enough. It was still his ship. He wrapped his hand around her wrist and shoved her arm away. “Foregone conclusion? What are you talking about? These people are going to die! The Matilda is huge. We can fit dozens of people in the cargo bay and jump them out of here.” 

 She stared at him, her expression softening slightly. She exhaled and let the bolt rifle hang to one side. “Decker. We are in an active-combat situation. Do you remember what the navy landing parties who are cutting their way through the hull right now would have been instructed do? They’re here to suppress the situation; collateral damage will not be a concern.”

“Oh?” he said, bringing a finger up to her face. “I remember it would have been my job to cut through the plating in order to help the people who were under attack. I can’t do nothing.

“You’re not doing nothing. This is the start of something bigger than a single attack.” A rare tone of exasperation filled her voice. “Deck, you have to get us out of here.”

He looked to the crowd, then back to her. The bolt rifle was lowered; she wasn’t threatening him, she believed what she was saying.

“This is bullshit. It’s my ship, I don’t care what you’re paying or what insane mission you think you’re on. And I’ll tell you—”

Another groan filled the docking tube along with the sound of rending metal and a deafening cyclone of depressurization. A sudden lurch threw Decker against the wall. He stumbled to his knees, looking across the terminal. There was a breach forming in the terminal’s outer wall, a rip in the metal slowly widening as the torsion of the station’s failing stabilizers worsened. Debris and air rushed out the narrow gouge. Rotating warning lights flashed orange over all the airlock doors as they slammed shut.

“No!” Decker reached for the door panel but it was too late; the doors were programmed to close when a section was lost to vacuum. They were sealed off, alone in the docking tube, everyone else on the other side of the windowless doors doomed to their fate.

He turned and shouted at Samantha, “We could have done something!” He could feel his heartbeat in his ears as he stood, moving toward her. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do once he reached her, but his anger propelled him forward. Before he had time to consider his next move, she pulled something out of her jacket and held it up to his face. It was a red scarf, dark patches of blood spattered across it.

“I am doing something. This is who I got the weapon from, Decker. This is who is here. Why do you think I contacted you? It’s them, Decker. It’s the Kestrels,” she said through clenched teeth, more pleading than angry. 

 Decker stopped, too stunned to speak. He hadn’t seen one of the red scarves up close in a long time. He brought his hand up to touch it, but Samantha ripped it away and shoved it back into her jacket.

“This is the start of something bigger than one attack. If we had helped those people, we’d be dead. If you want to be around to help people in the future, we need to leave now or we’re going to die along with your crew and everyone else.”

Decker looked back to the sealed door. She was wrong. They could have taken some people. Maybe. Or, maybe she was right and he’d be suffocating in hard vacuum right now on the other side of that door. It was too late to know; Samantha had made a call, that was on her. But, if it really was the Red Kestrels who were responsible for this…

Decker cursed and slammed his hand against the wall. Would he never be able to escape his legacy? He glared at Samantha, finding his balance as the docking tube shook. “It was a coincidence. You were going to leave those people either way.”

Samantha did not break her stare. “It was necessary.”

Decker scoffed, disgusted with them both. “We’ll never know.” He turned and ran down the dock, speaking into his comm. “Manu, we’re here. Disengage and prepare to jump.”

Decker came bounding onto the command bridge, sweat covering his face as he gasped to catch his breath. Each crew member was strapped into their station seats, other than Heavy, who was down in the Matilda’s power plant.

Manu twisted his body around in the pilot’s seat. “Deck, what is happening?” He craned his head to look past Decker. “Oh, no. Don’t tell me we’re in this shit and she didn’t even make it.”

“I told her to stay out of the way in the ship’s lounge. We have enough to worry about,” Decker said as he fell into the tactical station seat, hastily pulling up the Matilda’s camera feeds and sensor readouts. He willed himself to focus on the moment; dwelling on the pains of the past would need to wait until after he’d made sure they were in jumpspace.

He squinted at the system status, then looked to Manu. “Why aren’t we moving?”

“I tried to tell you over the comm. While you were taking your time getting here, the navy and orbital patrol got their shit together. They’ve issued a no-fly directive. The navy, Deck, not orbital patrol. They’re pinging every ship’s tag and now they’ve snowed the whole area. Navigation can’t get any solid reading on entry coords.”

Decker raised his arms in disbelief. “Well then fly us somewhere that isn’t snowed!”

Manu smacked a hand against the pilot console. “There’s nowhere to go! If we try to exit the snow, that frigate’s guns are going to make sure we don’t go anywhere ever again.”

Eliza stood in the weapon rig, goggles over her eyes, gazing at a scene only she could see. “It doesn’t matter either way, we’ve got navy interceptors swarming with weapons hot. We’ve got nothing that can touch hardware like that.” She pulled off the goggles and tossed them onto the console, a bitter grin across her lips. “We’re stuck.”

Decker looked to Eliza, then to Manu, then to Sellivan, who was unusually quiet even for him. They were all staring back at Decker, waiting for an answer he didn’t have. The Matilda was a bulky industrial transport with questionable credentials in what had effectively become an active war zone. Eliza was right, they were stuck.

Samantha’s voice sounded from the stairs. “I can get us past the directive.”

Everyone’s heads turned. Samantha wasted no time in making her way to one of the vacant control stations next to Decker. She pulled a computer out of the bag on her shoulder and set it next to the console. The crew all exchanged glances.

“What are—hey, I told you to wait in the lounge until we’re out of here. No passengers on the bridge,” Decker said as he rose from his seat and stood behind Samantha.

She ignored him, running her hand over the various outdated buttons, knobs, and switches that covered the Matilda’s secondary control station. “Don’t you have an optical port on here? Where is your auxiliary access bus?” She entered a command into her computer, and lines of text scrolled across the screen.

“An auxiliary what? Look, I know you’re used to something a little fancier, but the Matilda isn’t exactly up to date on—”

Sellivan was standing beside him, holding a decidedly more modern looking cable than anything Decker remembered seeing on the bridge.

“Here is an optical auxiliary. I have a port on my station,” Sellivan said, his usual cynicism replaced by what Decker could only describe as exuberant fascination.

Samantha yanked her computer off the station and placed it next to Sellivan’s navigation console. Sellivan attached one end of the cable to a port Decker could have sworn he’d never seen before while Samantha connected the other to her computer. If it were anyone but her—anyone—he would have already yanked them off the bridge. Not her, though. He knew that her talent for self-preservation was their only chance to get out now.

He leaned in and kept his eyes on the screens in front of her, projecting a tone of authority into his voice. “Manu said we can’t fly around this. We twitch in a way they don’t like, and we’re done. You’re… uh, you’re doing what?”

Samantha frowned as she gave him a sidelong glance as she kept working. Her eyes darted back and forth between the two screens. Decker growled; authority projection failed. 

Sellivan chimed in with an uncharacteristic tone of approval, his eyes locked onto his own console display. “She seems to be establishing some sort of secure tunnel between us and the frigate. A bidirectional data flow. It’s encrypted all the way from the frigate to her computer. I can’t read anything, but it appears we are connected to the navy systems. They are aware of our presence and have a positive tracking lock on us.”

Manu started to exit the pilot’s seat, hastily unbuckling his harness. “Tracking lock? Okay Deck, I don’t care what we’re getting paid. I’m not going to end up in a navy brig or become orbital debris. Sellivan; shut it down. She’s going into the hold.” 

Decker turned to block his way; Manu wasn’t as familiar with Samantha’s capabilities in hand-to-hand combat as Decker. Any confrontation between Manu and her would be a short, one-way conversation that would end poorly for his business partner.

“Please get ready to jump,” Samantha replied flatly. “You’re going to need to hit these entry coordinates in a couple seconds.”

Decker held up a hand, silently imploring his friend to back down. Manu’s hand gripped the headrest of the pilot’s chair, fingers digging into its cracked rubber. Eliza’s head whipped back and forth between the two sides of the bridge, eyes wide with excitement. Decker knew he had only a few seconds of leeway left before he’d have to admit that Manu was right about severing the connection.

Sellivan broke the silence. “Remarkable. We’re receiving a coordinate pattern-inhibitor inversion algorithm. It’s negating the effects of the snow.” Sellivan turned and raised his eyebrows at Samantha. “She’s given us a way out.”

Manu shook his head and huffed back to the pilot’s seat. Decker exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Eliza clapped and laughed, pulling the weapons-rig goggles back onto her head.

“While we’re connected to the frigate, the interceptors will not target us. I’m sending you our exit coordinates,” Samantha said.

Manu turned and looked at Decker, his eyes saying ‘you tell her.’

Decker cleared his throat. “About that exit, we’re already locked in. We had a good reason to calculate the exit beforehand and—”

“Locked in where? Change it,” Samantha demanded, her eyes drilling into Decker’s.

“Mentaryd,” Decker said defensively. “You are the one who never gave us an exit with the job.”

Samantha’s mouth dropped open. “That’s at least three days—”

“One hundred and six standard hours, approximately,” Sellivan interjected. Decker glared at the gaunt navigator who seemed to be a little too impressed with Samantha’s technological capabilities.

Samantha’s angry voice cut through the silence. “Why didn’t you wait for my exit coords?”

Decker placed his hands on the console. He had almost lost his ship and nearly been killed twice in under a week, and here he was staring down the barrel of a third close call.  Samantha had forced him to leave the people on Starview Station, but she wouldn’t keep him from getting his ship and crew safely to Mentaryd. He leaned forward, not needing to manufacture an air of authority this time.

“You kept that information from me. I needed to make sure this ship, its crew, and even you had a jump exit when one was not provided. We’ve had our fill of unplanned jumps and weren’t going to be caught without a way out.” He returned to the tactical station, sitting back down and turning his attention to the viewscreens. “Be glad I waited for you at the station. One extra hop isn’t going to kill you.”

Manu’s voice cut through the debate. “Deck, we are being hailed by one of the frigates over the secure tunnel. I think they’re realizing that a freighter built before the Imperium even existed isn’t exactly a part of the fleet.”

Decker turned to his co-captain and, in a flat matter-of-fact voice, said, “Manu, hit the entry coords. We’re leaving.” 

Samantha’s expression darkened, but she said nothing. 

The command bridge went silent and still. Decker turned to watch the image of the Matilda on the console display careen away from the station toward the nearby entry coordinates. He centered the Matilda’s external cameras back to the station. Navy warships fired on vessels that were not complying with the no-fly directive. With the stations stabilization thrusters no longer able to keep it in perfect balance, compartment after compartment twisted and decompressed, erupting their contents out into space. Plumes of combustible gases burned from conduits ripped apart by the twisting of the structure, the spherical balls of fire burning as the depleting back-pressure acted as thrusters and made the destabilization increase. Bright flashes of energy discharged as the station flexed and its power systems shorted, the lights behind the station windows going dark.

Starview Station was lost.

“We’re at the entry point. Full stop. Engaging jump drive,” Manu said, his voice solemn beneath the Matilda’s humming systems.

Eliza removed her harness, her cybernetics making her virtually immune to jump sickness,  and walked to the center of the bridge, eyes wide on the overhead display. “Who would do something like this?” she said, her normally exuberant face somber.

Decker folded his arms. His stomach knotted up at the dismal terror of the image on the screen, worsened by the oncoming wave of nausea. It was fitting that he and Samantha, of all people, would be here to witness this attack. After all that he had done to run away from his legacy, it came right back in the most horrible way possible. His mind went to the red scarf in Samantha’s jacket, to all the other scarves he’d seen in the past, to the one he used to wear.

He spoke without looking away from the screen. “It’s the Kestrels. They did this.”

Eliza shook her head in disbelief. “How can you know that,” she pointed at the screen, “from just seeing that?”

Decker eyes meet Samantha’s.

 “Show them.”