Episode 50: Just a little push

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Samantha and the crew get ready to leave the Matilda. Next stop: Kestris.

Decker ran his hand over his newly smoothed chin, inspecting his first proper shave and haircut in weeks. The trim made him look a little younger, but only in comparison to the accelerated aging he’d felt over the last few weeks. The effects seemed to cancel each other out and Decker was left with the face he vaguely recognized, even if he was living a life he didn’t. 

“Eh. Good enough,” Decker muttered, turning away from the mirror and crossing the short distance to his bunk. Laid out on it was the all-black set of multi-pocketed combat pants, jacket, and shirt he’d rummaged out of his built-in locker. It had been buried beneath a mound of ragged clothes. He usually dressed for comfort, and to prove to everyone that he did not need anything fancy. Given his next appearance on the ground might involve dodging bolt-fire on a Republic-occupied Kestris, these considerations were pushed aside in favor of utility. Besides, both Samantha and Eliza had their slick tactical gear, he figured he might as well join them.

Decker pulled on the pants and shirt, the bolt would on his shoulder stiff but healed enough he could ignore it. It had been years since he’d purchased the outfit, and probably as long since he’d worn it. He inspected himself in the small mirror, giving each arm a quick flex of the bicep. Still fit; at least the Matilda’s makeshift gym was turning out to be a sound investment. The shirt sleeves covering his tattooed arms down to his wrists reminded him of the tight-fitting underclothes he’d worn beneath his Navy uniform. The Imperium Navy. 

He supposed those days were long gone. At least one benefit of this new regime was that the records of his desertion would no longer be relevant. Not unless the new people in charge carried over the old records, that is. Either way, it didn’t matter. If he wasn’t an official enemy of the Republic already, he would be after today.

Decker’s eyes strayed to his lucky brown jacket draped over the chair. It would have to stay behind this time, the combat jacket having the more practical lightweight armor-plating sewn into its energy resistant fabric. Relying on luck had become a questionable tactic, it only seemed to kick-in after he was neck-deep in some sort of disaster. For once, he’d like to be lucky right up front. No waiting. Just an easy, low-effort instance of the universe tossing down a freebie.

A cynical grunt pushed that notion aside. Decker let his eyes wander over the rest of the possessions he’d hauled throughout the Fringe and former empire alike. The old books he’d read and re-read, the guitar he still meant to learn to play, all the knick-knacks and keepsakes collected from various jump-side space stations, the dirty dishes and clothes. It was all evidence of the Decker he’d become after leaving the brand of his upbringing and misguided detour into the Imperium Navy. The Matilda was his home, a place not tainted with the legacy of the Red Kestrels or the Imperium.

Well, until now.

He placed a hand flat against one of the cold, metal walls. He’d be leaving it—her—behind. There have been plenty trips down to planet surfaces on shuttles, or jaunts down a docking tube to hang out on a space station casino. But leaving a ship in orbit for a few hours was not the same as jumping away in some six-seater micro-vessel like the Nighthawk. In fact, as best as he could recall, he’d never left the Matilda since he and Manu purchased it at an auction for repossessed or abandoned spacecraft.

It’d been in a sorry state. The seller had asked if he and Manu intended to use it for parts. Decker had told them no, that he knew an engineer looking for a change of scenery. Heavy had come on first, eager to get the Matilda livable.

For a while, it had just been the big man, Manu, and Decker working day and night to restore the ship. Sellivan had joined up next, having answered the advertisement Decker had placed in a Fringe newsfeed. There had been four other potential navigators and technicians who had come aboard to inspect the ship, each of whom found plentiful reasons to turn them down. When Sellivan first set foot on the Matilda, he’d asked if he would have a private cabin. Decker had told him yes, and that was all Sellivan had needed to hear.

Soon after, Eliza had joined, having known Manu from before her accident and cybernetics. She’d been looking for a laid-back place where her skills in the field would let her spend days or weeks at a time lounging around without any responsibilities, broken up by the chaos of a job every now and then. The pay was pathetic, but she hadn’t protested. Decker found out later she still drew a pension and benefits from her past life. After he’d done some quick math, he reckoned Eliza didn’t need what he paid her; she was just there for the adventure.

And now Decker was leaving the ship, Manu, Heavy, and Sellivan behind to venture off with his formerly estranged half-sister to rescue some Imperium fugitives he’d never met, right as some crazed warlord was instigating an insurrection in order to install his own regime to replace the bad-enough-as-it-was empire.

It was a tough admission, but the Red Kestrels hadn’t been wrong about the Imperium, on the surface at least. They’d just lost whatever integrity they’d had once Reed sold them out as scapegoats. The average, rank-and-file Kestrel gutting out a life on some back-sector Fringe planet would never have guessed it was Reed Casto who set them up in cooperation with Gallow and his conspirators. That would really taint the Kestrel legacy.

Decker grunted. What legacy? He thought of his father. Jak Sagan had founded the Red Kestrels as a way to push back against the growing Imperium. Was Decker doing the same thing against the Republic, hoping it was for better reasons? Forming a little group to push back against the big-bad establishment. Maybe he and Samantha would end up the co-founders of their own version of the Red Kestrels. Wouldn’t that be something.

The thought caused Decker to snort with disgust. He’d leave the poetics of that kind of journey to the stack of fiction books on the table. This was nothing like what the Red Kestrels had intended when they started out. Decker, why he was just helping Samantha give a few people a lift out of a bad situation. That was it. He was no visionary and, unlike Reed, was certainly not attempting to start a war with the new Republic.

“Hey Deck! You ready to go start a war with the new Republic?” Eliza said, her head poking through his open cabin door.

Decker’s shoulders fell. “Why’d you have to go and phrase it like that?” he groaned.

Eliza gave him a bemused look. She stepped through the doorway and feigned amazement as she scanned him up and down. “Well, look at you, all lean and mean. If I didn’t know otherwise, I’d think you were quite the commando.”

Decker exhaled and picked up the combat jacket, stopping in front of his easy chair to rummage through the inside pocket of his lucky brown jacket. He fished out the last of the extra-strong Mentaryd nether cartridges and placed it on the desk, gently patting it with a fingertip. 

There; now he had something to look forward to.

He gave his cabin one last look, then exhaled heavily and followed Eliza into the corridor, shutting his cabin door, but leaving the lights on. He’d be back, and that warm glow and fresh nether would be waiting.

One quick jump, in and out. They’d pick up Samantha’s friends and be back aboard the Matilda before he knew it.

Samantha stood at the front of the crew lounge, all five of the Matilda’s permanent residents gathered with her. She’d changed into her tacsuit, burn marks from the bolts she’d taken on Senali scrubbed off. Eliza wore the same gear they’d used on Mentaryd, though it appeared she’d tailored it to be more form-fitting than Samantha remember. Even Decker was properly outfitted and clean-shaven, with a shaved head that reminded Samantha of his younger days in the Imperium navy.

A flutter of melancholy—nostalgia even—hit Samantha at who she saw. If she imagined Decker wearing the Navy whites of an Imperium crew member, he was the Decker she remembered, and the one she’d lost contact with so many years ago. She’d pushed him aside, along with all her other personal connections, letting her world shrink down to just the next mission, then the next, all the while losing her grip on everything but the Kestrel hunt. 

Thinking back to when she’d accepted this mission in the Kestris slums, the thought that she’d be reunited with her only living family member, and that he’d be helping her rescue Clarke and Julian from a collapsing empire, it was almost too implausible to imagine. And yet, here they were. Maybe it was Sellivan’s Creator nudging them along, or maybe Decker had been the only person left who would give Samantha this much leeway. Maybe some of both.

The three black-clad Matilda field operatives each checked and adjusted the various buckles and straps of their tactical getups. The rest of the crew were ready to see them off. Sellivan was seated at his customary corner table, monitoring the Nighthawk and Matilda’s jump and transmitter status. Manu was leaned against the galley bar, and Heavy stood across the lounge, the oversized man wearing an equally oversized EV suit and what had to be a custom-sized helmet tucked under his arm.

Samantha pulled one last strap on her tacsuit tight. “Sellivan, time to drop?”

Sellivan looked up from his computer. “Twenty-eight minutes. Telemetry has our exit precisely on the edge of the Nighthawk’s jump range, six hours from Kestris.”

Samantha nodded. “Good. Anything we’re not thinking of? 

“Well, if you’re asking that…” Manu muttered through a scoff.

Samantha shot him a wry grin. “Any of the stuff within our control, I mean.”

A round of shrugs from the crew was the answer. Eliza waved her hand toward the lounge vidscreen behind them, muted news anchors reporting on the developing situation in the Kestris system. Scenes from former Imperium planets played with text headlines scrolling across the bottom of the screen.

“Well look at that. It’s not just us looking to cause a ruckus. One of the Imperium planets is already rejecting the Republic and claiming they are now a sovereign system,” Eliza squinted at the screen, a strange affectation for someone with a telescopic eye. “Dai’Reen.”

Decker hummed, pulling awkwardly at his jacket sleeves. “They’re the ones with all the money and guns. Seems about right they’d not take too kindly to a new regime when they don’t have to.”

“Fantastic place to vacation,” Eliza said, smacking her lips. “It’s all hedonism and violence.”

Samantha turned to the vidscreen. The Dai’Reen governor—dressed in a pleated sapphire tunic lined with sparkling gems—was speaking from their planet’s capitol building. Samantha picked up the vidscreen control and turned up the volume.

“…we viewed ourselves, the people of Dai’Reen, as allies and equals to the Imperium, not subjects. As the Imperium no longer exists, so has any alliance been dissolved. Should this new Republic prove itself to be of adequate virtue and solvency, further discussions of a mutually beneficial alliance may be considered. We will establish an embassy on Kestris, and we warn those in power to leave our people unharassed…”

Manu shook his head, cynical chuckle under his breath. “That’s their way of saying until Gallow and Archer prove they can come out on top and afford to keep up all the arms contracts, they’re facing a renegotiation of terms. They’ll probably start selling ships and weapons to any systems who want to put up a fight. Why sell to one when you can sell to eleven?”

Decker shrugged. “Dai’Reen had the guns, but the Imperium had the numbers. With the old empire divided, the Republic doesn’t even have that anymore. I’d bet most of the ships I served on came from Dai’Reen shipyards.”

Samantha watched the scenes from Dai’Reen, the ornate architecture and lavish dress a veneer over the former Imperium’s most fiercely-armed and business-minded citizens. The last place she’d had beneath her feet on Kestris was the Radiance hotel.

An idea formed in her mind. She took a step forward, pointing at the scenes on the vidscreen. “This works in our favor. Their resistance to the Republic is going to help us set down on Kestris.”

Decker tilted his head, planting one hand on a hip. “How so?”

Eliza joined him, mimicking his pose. “Yeah, how so?”

Samantha’s plan formed as she spoke. “I told Julian to make his way to the southern hemisphere, not only because it is on the opposite end of the planet from the capital, but because the Dai’Reen essentially self-govern a province with a private hotel they own called the Radiance. But the whole place is a front. It’s a fortified stronghold covering a huge chunk of land with enough firepower and shielding to fend off almost anything the navy could throw at them from the ground.”

Eliza tilted her head. “Are we getting a suite? Maybe hitting the bar? I presume there’s a great bar.”

Samantha smirked. “There is, and we aren’t. The Radiance has private rooftop landing pads for guests’ personal ships and cars that have to be able to come and go with impunity. The landing pads are guarded and restricted, no patrols will approach their artillery. When the Nighthawk leaves orbit and breaks through the atmosphere, the Radiance is the perfect shadow to hide in.” 

Decker folded his arms. “You want to fly the Nighthawk right to the rooftop?” A low growl rumbled in his chest. “If they and the Republic are already feuding, won’t accepting new guests be way down on their list of priorities? They just said on the vid they’re pulling back.”

Samantha nodded. “I am betting on it being a standoff. The Radiance is too well-defended, and Kestris is already under Republic control as long as the Terminus is overhead. If the Republic believes they already have Kestris surrounded with the blockade, my instincts tell me they’ll want to focus their attention on the planets they don’t fully control. And, at any given moment, the guests at the Radiance include corporate business leaders, visiting politicians, and high-ranking members of what’s now the Republic. They won’t want to attack a place filled with their own people.”

Manu stepped forward, standing next to Decker, his arms folded. “That’s a possibility, but why will the Radiance accept your request?”

Samantha shrugged, sly grin on her lips. “Because once we’re in the Nighthawk and nearing the Kestris system, we’re going to call my contract there and offer them something in exchange for a reservation.”

The crew each seemed to be chewing on the proposal. Only Heavy seemed to be accepting her rationale, the big man smiling pleasantly in his puffy orange EV suit.

Samantha raised her eyebrows, planting her hands on her hips. “If anyone else wants to propose a different plan on how we do this, let’s hear it. Otherwise, we go with what we have.”

Samantha waited. The scattered grumblings all ceased with a few mutterings of ‘no’ and ‘okay fine’ muttered beneath breaths. 

Samantha gave them all a curt nod and smile. “Okay then. We’ll contact the Radiance from jumpspace just before the Nighthawk drops outside Kestris orbit.”

Decker raised an eyebrow. “Seems like we’re cutting it close. Sure you don’t want to call ahead? ”

Samantha shook her head. “I’m sure. With what is happening on Kestris, hours will be like days. I want to minimize the amount of time between getting a confirmation and potentially having to pick an alternate location.”

Decker grimaced at the notion. Samantha reached across and slapped him on the arm. “C’mon Deck. It’ll be fine. One quick jump, in and out.” She turned to Heavy. “Flight-deck chief, ships ready?”

Heavy stepped forward, raising an enormous hand to emphasize his words. “Alright, listen up. Once you’re in the Nighthawk and we bleed the cargo bay’s air, you’re going to be stuck in there unless you put on the EV suits and come back to the bay’s airlock. Exiting the Nighthawk will leave it in a vacuum as well, so you’d have to make the jump in the suits until you enter Kestris atmosphere. Let’s make sure we don’t have to give this a second attempt.”

Manu nodded. “Yeah, that and I prefer we aren’t adrift in Imperium space for any longer than we have to be.”

“It’s Republic now, Manu. Keep up,” Eliza said.

Manu shrugged. “Hey, Republic, Imperium. No different. Same people in a change of costume.”

Decker raised a placating hand. “Let’s keep focused on what Heavy needs us to do. Being strapped into the seats of that little thing for six hours is going to be uncomfortable enough. Being jump-sick with a helmet on is not something I need to add to my list of unpleasant life experiences.”

Samantha grinned, looking to Heavy. “Understood.” She turned to Decker. “And the Nighthawk’s jump drives are substantially gentler. Can’t have 5E agents jumping into dangerous situations  jump sick or passing out.”

Decker grimaced, his expression not of one convinced. Samantha gave her tacsuit one last inspection, securing the bolt pistol holstered under her arm, making sure the tacsuit computer and comm were functioning properly. Her hand went to the empty magnetic sheath on her thigh, where the karambit usually went. She felt strange without it, but it was buried beneath the burned ruins of Kat Basara’s building on Senali. A small sacrifice, given what might have happened.

“Missing something?” Eliza said, sauntering toward Samantha.

Samantha shook her head. “No. Everything’s fine.”

Eliza shrugged. “Well, okay, I suppose. I was going to offer this.”

Eliza’s cybernetic hand came up, expertly spinning a karambit—Samantha’s karambit—around one of her cybernetic fingers. She flipped her wrist and caught the knife’s handle in her white, polymer fist, blade downward.

Samantha’s eyes narrowed. “Where did that come from?”

Eliza pursed her lips. She held the karambit in front of her face, examining it with an appraiser’s eye. “Well, Deck was dragging you out of that building, I saw it on the ground and felt it would be a shame to leave such a piece of hardware behind.” She flipped the blade in the air, catching the flat, convex edge of the blade between her cybernetic thumb and forefinger. “You want it back?”

Samantha smirked, sighing playfully. “Yes.”

Eliza extended her arm, then pulled her hand back slightly. “No decapitations.”

Samantha nodded. “No decapitations.” She grabbed the handle and admired the curved tritanium blade, unmarred and clean. She flipped it expertly in her hand and then slipped it into the magnetic sheath on her thigh.

Eliza gave her a wink. “You know what? Do what you want with it. Who am I to judge?”

Samantha smiled, then she, Eliza, and Decker proceeded down the Matilda’s metal corridor steps toward the cargo bay, Heavy stomping behind them. Having the karambit returned gave Samantha a new sense of confidence. Somehow, it had made it back because of Eliza’s help, the same sort of help that was going to make this mission a success.

One quick jump, in and out. They’d be back aboard the Matilda before she knew it.

The rotating orange lights in the Matilda’s cargo bay created an oscillating glare through the forward steelglass viewports in the Nighthawk. Samantha, Decker, and Eliza had boarded the Nighthawk while still in the jump, enduring the Matilda’s drop from within the confines. Samantha watched from the single operator’s seat in the front as the safety indicator lights in the cargo bay went from green, to yellow, to red as the air was evacuated into storage tanks, and when those were full, out into space.

Heavy stood behind one of the bay’s long console stations, tether strap clipped to his EV suit’s built-in harness. “We’re in hard vacuum. Opening the big doors now, then we’ll disengage grav. Tighten all your straps if you haven’t already,” Heavy said over the intercom.

“Copy that,” Samantha said. The rotating orange lights lining the walls of the cargo bay turned red. Samantha looked down to the array of control surfaces and display screens wrapped around the operator’s seat. She brought the feed from the rear-facing camera to the main display, watching the cargo bay doors slowly open in total silence, the star-filled expanse of black all that could be seen.

Behind her in the fold-down passenger seats that turned the Nighthawk into a makeshift shuttle, she could hear the rustling of fabric as Decker and Eliza settled in for the ride. 

“I didn’t really think about this until now, but this little ship has no gravity generators,” Eliza said.

A grunt prefaced Decker’s voice. “Huh. I… didn’t think of that either,” he added, the sound of strap-tightening again audible.

Samantha turned and looked back over her shoulder. “You’ll be glad for that the longer you are stuck in here. Once we jump, you can stretch out and nap against the ceiling if you want. Just be sure to strap back in before we enter into Kestris gravity.”

Decker grimaced. “Great. I can be sick in a whole different orientation.”

“Just be sure that gravity is pulling things to the floor before you do,” Eliza said, hands mimicking the path of floating debris.

Samantha turned her gaze back out the forward viewports. “Don’t worry too much about it. The Nighthawk’s jumps are nothing like the Matilda’s. You’ll be fine.”

At the control console, Heavy crossed to a new station, inputting more commands with his gloved hands. He waved his arm at them, his voice crackling over the intercom. “Okay folks, doors are clear. Sellivan, how’s our telemetry?”

“The ship’s gas thrusters are maintaining a position precise enough a coat of paint could be measured from a parsec away, if the hull had any paint,” Sellivan’s voice called back over the intercom.

Samantha saw Heavy’s shoulder bounce with had to be a laugh. His voice came back. “Perfect. Engaging magnet-boots and disengaging artificial gravity. Folks, it’ll be hard to reset, so this is it. The rear winch at the bay doors will pull you back until it’s almost fully spooled up, then the clamp is going to do an emergency release and your inertia is going to glide you clear of the doors.” Heavy said, quickly adding under his breath. “I hope.”

“What was that, Hev?” Decker asked.

Heavy’s helmeted head quickly looked up from the console. “Uh, just a little intercom chatter. Nothing to worry about, Deck.”

Samantha watched one of Heavy’s gloved hands purposefully press a button on the console, the open intercom light on the Nighthawk’s console turning off. She grinned, looking back over her shoulder. “We’ve got our EV suits for when we return, but you can put a helmet on now if that would make you feel better.”

Decker frowned, pointedly averting his gaze. Samantha returned to looking out the forward viewports. She was usually alone during her Nighthawk infiltrations, with 5E and Navy crews handling the launch. Julian would have been in her earpiece, briefing her on the mission or making pedantic smalltalk. Having Decker and Eliza here with her was different. Normally, everyone else involved in these launches were responsible for her success. Now, she felt something new… she was responsible for them.

The red lights of the cargo bay were joined by it’s additional bright floodlights that indicated zero-grav. The feeling of weightlessness was not apparent at first, but as Samantha shifted in her seat and broke her stationary inertia, she felt the straps tighten slightly against her shoulders.

“Engaging winch,” Heavy said.

A feeling of pressure grew against Samantha’s chest as her body’s inertia resisted the pull of the straps. The walls of the cargo bay began to slowly recede, Heavy getting smaller as the Nighthawk was pulled backward.

Eliza snorted through a chuckle. “Like the slowest slingshot in the universe.”

The empty cargo bay filled the forward viewports, Heavy seeming so distant at the back. For a moment, Samantha got the impression she was facing downward with her back strapped against a ceiling, Heavy laying on his back at the bottom of an enormous metal pit. She closed her eyes, forcing the flash of dizziness away. The drugs Sellivan had given her were helping the taze-withdrawal, but the concussion was something that couldn’t be helped.

Samantha brought her chin to her chest and back up, opening her eyes to once-again see Heavy across from her, not below her. Hopefully Decker was faring better.

“We’re near the end of the cable. The emergency de-clamp uses an explosive pneumatic blast, but you won’t notice anything. In a few seconds, you’ll be looking at the Matilda from outside.”

“Got it, Hev,” Samantha said. She looked back to her passengers. “Almost out.”

The three waited, the entire cargo bay almost visible through the viewports as they floated back.

“De-clamping… now” Heavy said. The Nighthawk continued to float backward, the last of the cargo bay walls drifting by, then stopping.

A feeling of pressure pushed against Samantha’s back. The cargo bay was still visible, but no longer crept across the viewports. At the front of the bay, she could see Heavy bent over the control panel, his gloved fingers working the controls.

Samantha’s eyes narrowed at the immobile view. “Status report,” she said. She saw Heavy bring a hand to his helmeted head.

“Ah, well, seems like the de-clamping wasn’t timed right and you reached the end of the line before it was initiated. Stay put, nothing to worry about.”

Eliza laughed. “Sounds like maybe we should worry a little.”

“Hev, we going to be able to recover this?” Decker said, his voice having none of Eliza’s levity.

Heavy had one hand up to his helmeted chin, the other holding his elbow. “I didn’t have a lot of time to rig this system. But, you’re so close to crossing the threshold, I think we can push you out the last little bit.”

“Hev, you want me to fire the gas thrusters and get the Matilda moving forward?” Manu’s voice called over the intercom.

Heavy waved his arms. “Negative, Manu. I don’t want to add the Matilda’s mass vectors to my calculations. This is delicate enough as is. Nighthawk, I’m coming to you,” Heavy said, magnetized boots carrying him forward at a surprising pace.

“Negative, Heavy,” Samantha said firmly. “Do not approach. You’re a fine engineer, but zero-G flight-deck protocols are an entirely different thing. It’s too dangerous.”

Heavy did not slow his pace. He bounded forward, disappearing beneath the Nighthawk. “Just taking a gander here… yep. Clamp de-clamped too hard, jammed in here. Let’s just give it a little pull…”

Samantha looked side to side, thwarted by the limited field of view through the viewports. She grimaced and brought up the downward facing landing camera.

The distorted, convex view of Heavy beneath the Nighthawk filled the display screen. The winch and clamp were now free. Heavy was bracing his shoulder against the Nighthawk, the heels of his boots wedged against a crevice that ran the length of the cargo bay. He placed his hands against the Nighthawk’s hull, his body compressed into a squat.

“What… no,” Samantha said. Both Eliza and Decker released their straps and pulled their way forward, each looking over one of Samantha’s shoulders. “Heavy, you can’t push the Nighthawk. Even in zero-grav the mass is too much.”

“Nothing… nothing to worry about. It’s physics. Just needs a little… nudge,” Heavy grunted out over the intercom.

Samantha huffed. She looked out the viewports; the cargo bay walls remained stationary.

She turned off the intercom. “This isn’t going to work.”

Eliza’s hand appeared on Samantha’s shoulder, giving it a gentle cybernetic squeeze. “Now, now, Samantha. That’s not just some oversized engineer you’re seeing. That’s the two-time All-Fringe Smashball League defensive lineman of the year.”

Samantha turned and glared up at Eliza, in no mood for a joke. As she looked, the painted yellow safety lines on the cargo bay walls began to move against the viewport, beginning to recede once again. Sure enough, the big man was muscling the Nighthawk out.

“Aaaand… there!” Heavy grunted over the intercom. The view of the open cargo bay floated into view, the Matilda surrounded by a frame of stars. “Just a little push.”

Decker pushed himself back into his seat. Eliza gave Samantha another shoulder squeeze and cackled. Heavy stood at the edge of the bay, one hand on the tether cable connected to his harness, the other raised in a big thumbs-up. “Nighthawk has cleared the doors and is away. Manu, ease us forward.”

The Matilda’s nacelles glowed faintly as the ship crept away at minimum thrust, the cargo bay doors sliding shut. Samantha activated the Nighthawk’s drives. The two ships drifted apart, the much larger Matilda seeming to shrink against the unmoving, star-filled sky. There was no frame of reference to determine if they were moving away from it, or if it was moving away from them. Or both. Either way, the three Nighthawk passengers were now on their own.

“I haven’t seen the Matilda from a distance like this in… I don’t even remember. It looks so lonely,” Decker said.

Eliza sighed. “Can you imagine being stuck there alone with Manu? Or worse, Sellivan? Heavy truly is the bravest among us.”

Decker chuckled. “I don’t think he could fit in here, anyway.”

The Matilda continued to shrink in the distance. Samantha checked the navigation systems. Entry and exit coordinates were set. Manu’s voice came over the intercom.

Nighthawk, we’re clear for you to proceed to jump coordinates. We’ll wait for you to vanish.”

“Acknowledged, Matilda.” Samantha turned to her two passengers. “Any last concerns?”

“Aside from everything? No,” Decker muttered.

“Good enough.” Samantha entered a series of commands into the Nighthawk. “Activating jump drives. We will see you all at the designated rendezvous.”

“Counting on it,” Manu replied.

“Engaging drives. This is it,” Samantha said. The jump warning lights pulsed in the Nighthawk’s interior. There was no turning back. The next set of constellations outside the viewports would be the ones over Kestris.

A mild sense of disorientation swept over her body. The warning lights turned solid. A thumping feeling hit her chest as the stars disappeared from view.

“That’s it? That little tickle?” Decker said.

Samantha loosened her seat harness, floating slightly under the straps, then spun the operator’s seat around to face the rear of the small ship, aisle between the seats just wide enough that Decker’s and Eliza’s knees didn’t touch.

Samantha shrugged. “That’s it. We’ve got six hours to get comfortable.”

Eliza pushed off and floated toward the ceiling, stretching her legs straight. Decker pointed toward the cockpit viewports.

“No, uh, curtains or anything? Being this close to oblivion in every direction is a little much.”

Samantha reached to her side and pressed a button on one of the Nighthawk’s smooth control panels. The windows went opaque, resembling the same black, dull metal as the rest of the ship’s interior.

Decker pulled his jaw to the side. “Slightly better, thanks.”

Samantha pulled a datapad from a storage pocket at her side. “Let’s review what we’re planning, but given the nature of the situation on Kestris, it will probably end up being meaningless once we hit the ground.”

“We’ll improvise. After all, we’re an experienced commando team now,” Eliza said with a wink.

Samantha thought back to her actions on Senali, how she had led them into danger, then left them behind. Running off to do things on her own had failed her.

She nodded and met eyes with both of them.

“Yes. We are.”