Episode 8: Better luck next time

The sound of zipping plastic undercut the captive’s grunts as Decker tightened the cable-tie around Jerith’s wrists.

“Come on, do you really have to do that? I’m not gonna run when she’s got that thing ready to stick me,” Jerith grunted.

Decker hooked a hand under Jerith’s elbow and hoisted the scrawny man to his feet. “If you’re good, maybe I’ll cut them off back at the van. If not, then yeah, I’ll have my friend here zap you. This ain’t a rescue,” Decker smiled and leaned close to Jerith’s ear. “It’s a kidnapping.”

A snicker sounded from near the room’s broken door. Eliza, Decker’s lookout and enforcer, swayed casually from side to side. In one hand, she held a compact bolt-rifle while the other—a sleek cybernetic hand connected to an equally sleek cybernetic arm—twirled a collapsible stun-baton. On the ground in front of her, the two IoCorp bodyguards who were supposed to have been guarding Jerith lay unconscious, charred stun marks on each of their jackets. 

“Fioli didn’t say you had to be in one piece,” Eliza said, punctuating the statement with a chortle. She held up the baton and an arc of electricity crackled across the metal contacts on its end, lighting up her face and revealing the bands of dark makeup across her eyes and mouth.

Jerith’s gaze flitted between Eliza, the baton, and then back to Decker. He pulled away, but Decker’s thick, tattoo-covered arms were triple the size of Jerith’s. “Look man, w-what’s he paying you? I’ll double it if you let me go,” Jerith pleaded. 

Decker gripped Jerith’s arm and pulled him along, stepping over the downed bodyguards. “Wow, first time I’ve even heard that one,” Decker replied, not bothering to look at his captive. “You stole from Fioli and hid out here on Talius hoping he’d lose interest, but his corporate spies are well-paid and don’t give up. I’m not making that same mistake.”

“Triple! I can go triple.” Jerith turned to face Decker, continuing to resist his captor’s pull. “I can transfer it right now, then we both just disappear.”

Eliza lowered the stun baton, squinting in contemplation. “Triple, huh? Deck, maybe we should consider this.” 

Decker huffed, shaking his head. “Not gonna happen. Spoiling IoCorp’s little revenge ploy by delivering him back to Fioli is going to put us at the top of their shit-list already. I can deal with that; IoCorp doesn’t have our names. But if we take this cretin’s offer, then we’ll be on Fioli’s shit-list, and he already knows exactly how to find us. We picked our side on this job and that’s that.”

Eliza shrugged, chuckling wistfully as she tucked the baton into her belt. “Welp, you heard the boss. We better get going.”

Eliza raised her bolt rifle and crept forward into the hallway, Decker pulling Jerith along behind her. There were no lights—Eliza had taken care of the power before they barged in—and the few small windows were dark. The industrial district on the outskirts of Talius City where Jerith had been lying low was mostly deserted at this time of night. Sneaking up to the warehouse office when no one knew they were coming had been easy. Sneaking back out after the few seconds of ruckus they’d caused, that is what had Decker worried.

Stopping at the double-doors that led to the street, Decker held Jerith out of view while he and Eliza peered around the corner. The van Decker had rented was parked just across the street, it’s dull gray exterior blending into the darkness. Decker scanned the street, hearing nothing but the din of the city in the distance.

“Psst. Eliza?” Decker whispered, tapping his ear. Eliza turned the left side of her head toward the street. Instead of an ear, there was a round, white, cybernetic disk in its place, set flat against the rough scar tissue that covered most of the left side of her head. A moment passed before Eliza nodded in satisfaction. Decker took a breath, then pulled Jerith out into the street.

Jerith resisted, making no attempt to keep quiet. “He’s gonna kill me, you can’t just send me back to him. You’re mercenaries, right? What happened to working for the highest bidder?”

Decker pulled him close, speaking inches from Jerith’s face. “Keep quiet. You’re the one who got yourself involved in a corporate prank-war. Maybe if you can return the painting, Fioli will go easy on you. You risk your life just for a painting?”

Jerith’s face wrinkled in annoyance. “Painting? That artifact was two-thousand years old, worth well over five-hundred thou! I’m an antiques dealer–”

Decker yanked on Jerith’s arm. “antique dealer who killed two of Fioli’s people while making an escape?”

Jerith’s face crumbled. “Okay, antiques thief. I didn’t know I was lifting it from gangsters. And they shot first. I was just trying to get out of there!”

Eliza turned, whistling softly. “Deck, if he’s got some of that money, that’s like—” she squinted one eye, counting on her cybernetic fingers, “—more than twenty times what we’re being paid.”

Decker grimaced, hurrying Jerith forward. Eliza had a point, Jerith was offering considerably more than they were getting paid for this job. A job he had not wanted to take in the first place. Was pissing off two corporations really that much worse than pissing off only one? He exhaled and shook his head.

“We agreed to this job and we’re finishing it. Who is going to hire us if we build a reputation of selling out to a high bidder before we’ve even finished the job?” Decker narrowed his eyes at Jerith, adding a threatening edge to his tone. “And they’re not gangsters. They’re corporations; much worse.”

Jerith dug in his heels and pulled back against Decker’s grip, raising his voice in panic. “Shit man, you can’t do this!”

Decker lunged forward, crossing the final distance to the van and slamming Jerith against its side. “Okay, hard way it is. Eliza?”

Eliza smiled, letting her rifle hang on its sling while she pulled out a length of cloth and a balled-up rag from her backpack.

“No, wait!” Jerith yelped as Eliza’s mechanical hand squeezed his jaw—much harder than any flesh hand could—and stuffed the rag into his mouth. She looped the length of cloth over his head and tied the gag in place.

Jerith grunted, still struggling, but now unintelligible through the gag. Decker sighed and looked to the sky, then pinned Jerith against the van with one tattoo-covered arm, pulling out his bolt pistol with the other. He pushed the end against Jerith’s head, flipping on the charging coil and letting the high-pitched whine of the weapon emphasize the words he growled out.

“Enough. Fioli’s a businessman. If you can steal him a three-thousand year old painting, maybe he’ll let you live. Honestly, Jerith, I don’t care. You made this mess yourself. I just have to deliver you. So get up, right now, or I’m going to let Eliza here make it very easy to transport you.”

Eliza raised her cybernetic hand and slowly closed it into a fist, her face twisting into an exaggerated scowl. Jerith’s eyes were locked onto the black-and-white polymer fingers. He bowed his head and his posture relaxed. 

Decker clapped Jerith on the shoulder. The bluff worked. “Excellent choice. Now, let’s move.”

Eliza tapped the van’s entry panel and the side door slid open. Decker had made sure to rent a van with removable rear seats—better for abductions—and pay with anonymous credits. He also spent an equal amount to buy-off the attendant who let him take the vehicle without leaving a name. He shoved Jerith through the door into the empty rear of the van, Eliza crawling in over their collapsed bounty and shutting the door behind her.

Decker stood at the driver’s door and tapped the comm on his wrist, opening a private channel back to his ship, the Matilda. “Manu, we’re at the van. Tell Heavy to warm up the mains and be ready to burn as soon as we arrive. Keep the comm channel open,” he murmured.

“Got it. Readying for ascent,” Manu’s voice sounded in Decker’s ear.

Decker opened the driver’s door just as a flash and loud crack came from the building they had just vacated. A bolt streaked across the street, slamming into the van, tendrils of energy arcing around the hole it left in the vehicle’s side. Decker ducked and leapt into the driver’s seat, slamming the door with one hand while the other frantically searched for the ignition. Eliza reopened the sliding door and fired a string of energy bolts blindly back toward the building.

“Hey Deck!” she shouted, eyes wide with excitement. “I think IoCorp’s mad we stole their guy!” She leaned down to Jerith, speaking directly in his face. “Maybe we should give him back!”

The van’s hover generators came to life and the van lifted from the ground. Another bolt slammed into the van, causing the dash panel displays to flicker. Decker looked back to the building. Two figures who he presumed were Jerith’s now-recovered bodyguards were running toward a garage on the side of the building.

“Eliza! What happened to the stuns?” Decker shouted, setting the van to maximum acceleration.

“You said you wanted it non-lethal, so I turned down the power! Maybe a little too much!” Eliza called back, still firing her rifle blindly out the open door.

Decker cursed as the van lurched forward, blinding flashes from Eliza’s rifle strobing in the vehicle’s interior. The muffled sound of Jerith’s screaming was audible through the gag. Decker swerved back and forth, doing his best to dodge the energy bolts as the van continued to accelerate, the living cargo rolling around on the floor.

Manu’s voice erupted in his ear. “Deck, what’s happening?”

Decker pressed a button on the dash to shut the side door, Eliza sneaking out a last shot before it slid closed. Another bolt of energy streaked past the driver’s window.

“Uh, yeah, we’ve got contact with what I have to assume is IoCorp and they aren’t happy. We’ll be coming in loud and hot.”

“Ah, shit. Copy that,” Manu replied, his voice more exasperated than worried.

Decker whipped the van around a corner that took them out of the industrial district and onto a long highway that led straight to the airfield where the Matilda was—hopefully—preparing to ascend into orbit. He kept the van near the ground, there was no point in trying to use a skylane; the automated traffic control systems would force them to move much too slow. Or worse, ground them for violating safety limits. Besides, if IoCorp shot out a hover generator, he’d rather be a few feet from the ground than a few hundred.

The airfield was not far from the industrial district. Decker had chosen it because of its reputation for lax security and convenient proximity to where Fioli’s spies had identified Jerith. Just like with the van rental, he’d prepaid and offered the airfield manager a healthy bribe in exchange for no documentation. Looking the other way while Decker brought a gunfight in the middle of the night, however, was probably not covered in the deal.

“Hey Deck, don’t be alarmed,” Eliza said as she climbed over the struggling Jerith and squeezed her way into the passenger seat. She looked back at the smoking holes left by the bolts. “I don’t think we’ll get the deposit back on this van.”

Decker gave her a sidelong glance and a single, snorted laugh. Not the smoothest job they’d ever done, but a payday was a payday. He brought up a map of the city on the van’s dash display. The airfield wasn’t far and the streets were still relatively clear this late at night. They just had to get Jerith on the ship, and they’d be free to jump away from this place.  He stole a glance at the van’s rearview camera display. They’d lost the IoCorp pursuers for the moment.

“I was trying to stay impartial, Jerith. I really was. But this,” Decker waved his arm back at the still-smoking holes in the side of the van, “makes it difficult.”

Jerith tried to sit up, but could only flop around in futility as the van jostled him back to the floor. He was still trying to shout through the gag.

“It’s funny how you can tell when someone is pleading with you even when you can’t understand their words,” Eliza said, turning to smile at Jerith. “But what else would they be saying?” She mimicked the sound of Jerith’s pleas, then shook her head in mock-pity.

Decker sighed and kept driving. They had been so close to pulling this off without incident. So close. He understood Jerith’s impulse to escape; he’d be doing the same if their positions were reversed. But, they weren’t. Jerith had gotten himself into this, and Decker’s job was to bring him back, willingly or not.

The view of the airfield grew as the van sped closer. Ships of all sizes were parked along tarmacs that stretched far into the distance; small suborbital vessels, civilian pleasure craft, and giant interstellar ships interspersed with enormous hangars. Row after row of tall light-poles created evenly-spaced circles of illumination along grids of access roads leading to landing pads. Decker could see the Matilda right where he had left it, its enormous primary engines glowing and the four stabilizer thrusters aimed downward, ready for liftoff. He smiled. Almost there.

“Looks like IoCorp found a car,” Eliza said, leaning forward to get a look at the rearview camera display. “I swear to all the gods, Jerith, every single one of them, if you have a tracker implanted in you, I’m reaching in and pulling it out—no anesthetic!” she said, her mechanical fingers snapping shut like a trap.

Decker winced at the image. It was always impressive, and more than a little unsettling, to see the artificial limb move with a speed and power well beyond organic capabilities. He’d also seen what happened when the arm was powered down, nothing but dead weight. That convinced him to stick with flesh and blood.

Decker kept his attention from the road as the hover car sped up behind them, easily outpacing the van’s budget accelerators. The airfield’s entry gates were closed, Decker slowed the van as they approached the automated barriers.

“Manu, we’re here, we’ve still got our friends with us,” Decker said.

“Want us to come out and lay down some cover?” Manu’s voice called back.

“No, start liftoff, I’m pulling the van right up to the gangway. Throw a rope down and we’ll grab on if we have to.”

Decker turned sharply into the airfield’s main entrance. He brought the vehicle to an abrupt stop while the gate’s automated sensors scanned them. A dramatic crashing through a flimsy barricade wasn’t an option; the reinforced barriers would have left the van a crumpled mess. For a few agonizing seconds, they waited as the airfield’s systems validated their landing pass, watching as the IoCorp car closed the distance in the rearview display. A light signaled and the barriers slowly pulled apart. A high-speed escape was clearly not a design consideration.

Finally, the barriers were open enough to fit through. The van lurched through the gates, Decker’s grip nearly crushing the controls.  He glanced at the rearview display; the IoCorp car was close.

“Eliza, if IoCorp gets through, use whatever you’ve got to give us space. I don’t care if you hit them, just keep them back while I get Jerith on board.” Decker could hear more gagged pleading from behind. 

Eliza brought her rifle to her chest and checked the charge level. “Not a lot of juice left, regeneration is damn slow,” she said as she knocked her cybernetic knuckles against the rifle’s metal side. She reached the artificial limb over her back in an unnatural arc and rooted around in her backpack. Her hand emerged gripping a new weapon; an antique, nickel-plated semiautomatic lead-thrower. “Still got this, though,” she said with a wink, pulling back and releasing its mechanical slide.

Decker winced at the sight of the weapon. “You’re gonna fire a banger like that in here? You realize I’ve still got eardrums I can’t switch off?”

Eliza squinted, tapping the end of the pistol against her cybernetic ear, pretending not to hear. She flipped the weapon in her hand, holding it by the barrel to offer its handle to Jerith.

“You want to help?” she asked. Jerith stopped making noise, eyes widening at the offer. He nodded and started to say something through the gag. Eliza lightly pat the gun against the side of his face and shook her head in disappointment. “Come on Jerith, really?”

In the rearview display, the IoCorp car had made it through the barrier. With the pull they had on Talius, Decker assumed one call to the owners of the airfield was probably all it took; it was fortunate they hadn’t made the call before the van had made it through. 

Decker grimaced at the deteriorating situation. “Okay everyone, I figure someone here at the airfield is going to alert the authorities as soon as the shooting starts, and I’m sure all of IoCorp knows that we’re making off with their guy.” He slammed a hand against the steering controls. “Damn it, Jerith, you’re not worth this.”

The van raced along the access roads toward the Matilda, hovering just a few feet above the asphalt. Along the landing pads, Decker could see figures come out of their ship, gawking at the van hurtling through the darkness away from its pursuers. Talius was known for being one of the more sophisticated Fringe planets; a high-speed chase was going to draw all sorts of attention.

Decker whipped the van around one final access lane, and the Matilda came into full view ahead. The freighter ship’s massive cargo bay was lowered on its extended pylons, the main access doors open wide, gangway ramp leading down to the asphalt. 

The ship’s four rotating stabilizer thrusters were like thick, stubby legs, one on each corner of the enormous freighter’s hull. They each glowed blue as they blasted a stream of kinetic energy into the tarmac, kicking up clouds of dust and grit. High up at the rear of the ship, the pair of primary propulsion engines glowed with white-yellow energy, waiting for the moment they reached orbit and could unleash their fury. It was a beautiful sight, the Matilda looked like an overweight metal beast, tensed and ready to leap into the air. It brought a genuine smile to Decker’s face. They’d made it home.

The van came to a crooked stop right up against the gangway causing Jerith to slide forward and crash against the front seats. Decker jumped out and ran to the side door while Eliza crouched behind the corner of the van and raised her rifle, firing a last round of bolts before the weapon went silent. She whooped in excitement and raised the semiautomatic with her cybernetic arm, blasting a string of shots at the IoCorp car as it came to an abrupt stop at the end of the landing pad. Decker held his bolt pistol in one hand while he pressed the panel on the van’s side door with the other.

“Manu, lift off!  Lift off!” he yelled. The van’s door slid open. “Let’s go, you son of a—”

Jerith burst through the opening and crashed into Decker, knocking them both flat against the ground. Jerith scrambled to his feet and started to run toward the IoCorp car, hands still behind his back. Did he think IoCorp wouldn’t consider him an unfortunate loose-end to tie up at this point? Decker got to his feet and lunged after him, catching Jerith’s shirt and yanking him harshly back. Jerith screamed through the gag and shook his head, jerking his body wildly back and forth. Apparently he still hadn’t accepted his fate.

Bolts whizzed past. The IoCorp men had exited the opposite side of the car and were using it as cover, firing wildly across its roof. Decker fired blindly with one arm while he dragged Jerith along with the other.

“Deck, get him in, I’ve got us covered!” Eliza shouted over the clamor of energy guns and the roar of the ships engines, firing round after round from the thunderous semiautomatic. Lead slugs sped across the tarmac, the combination of Eliza’s cybernetic eye and arm making her an uncannily accurate shot. One of the shots found its target, the IoCorp man falling back out of view, his weapon firing into the air.

The Matilda began to shudder as the thrusters pushed the gigantic ship upwards a few feet off the ground. Seeing the gangway lift off from the tarmac, Decker wondered if Manu would really make them grab onto a rope.

Bolts continued to slam into the van, the ground, and the Matilda’s hull. Small arms fire like this wouldn’t do much to the ship, but the thin-skinned panels of the van were not built to endure this type of assault. Its surface was covered in smoking, blackened bolt holes, and the entire vehicle was tilted forward, touching the ground, a hover generator apparently disabled in the fray. Eliza was right; there was no way they were getting back the deposit.

Decker and Jerith were halfway up the ramp when a surge of bolts burst past him. A flare of pain ripped across Decker’s shoulder. He fell to the metal surface, dropping Jerith and firing back toward the IoCorp car. He looked down at his shoulder; he’d been grazed, though it felt like he had lost the entire arm. Thankfully, the arm was still there, though the bolt had taken most of his sleeve and a wide chunk of tattooed skin, leaving behind a charred, partially cauterized burn wound in its wake.

“Damn it!” Decker gritted his teeth together and pushed the pain out of his mind, firing back toward the IoCorp goons. A bolt struck one squarely in the chest, sending him collapsing to the ground as the energy tendrils rippled across his body. Decker used his good arm to raise to a knee, but fell to the side. Eliza leapt onto the gangway and grabbed Jerith with her cybernetic arm, fingers clamped down around his collar as she dragged him into the cargo bay, her semiautomatic booming one last time as the antiquated weapon’s magazine emptied. Decker abandoned his attempt to right himself and simply crawled the rest of the way up the ramp, finally collapsing on the metal cargo deck.

“We’re on! Go, go, go!” Eliza yelled, her cybernetic ear already tapped directly to the Matilda’s open comm channel. She slammed her hand on the bay’s emergency close button to force the doors shut, overriding the normal take-off safeguards. The gangway ramp retracted back while the enormous doors swung closed, the ship continuing to ascend as a few more stray bolts from the remaining IoCorp goons snuck through the quickly closing gap.

The whole chamber rumbled as pylons retracted the cargo bay back up against the ship’s hull, the sound of wind and atmosphere filling the space. The cargo doors slammed shut and sealed, the boom reverberating through the cavernous empty space as they rose into the sky.

Decker breathed heavily as he sat up and winced at his shoulder, sweat running over his brow and down his face. He gave the arm a test move, shouting in pain through clenched teeth. “Damn it, Jerith. You are not worth this!”

“Hey Deck?” Eliza said, the familiar sound of a suppressed giggle  making Decker squint his eyes shut in denial.

“What?” Decker groaned, pulling himself up to his feet. “We gotta get to the bridge. Let’s chain this bastard up. He can sit and think about what he’s done.”

Eliza grimaced and sucked in a breath, making little pointing motions with her finger. Decker reluctantly looked where she gestured. Jerith was on his stomach, unmoving. Decker groaned again and used his foot to roll the man over onto his back.

Decker sighed. A bolt hole the size of a fist was seared into Jerith’s  chest. Hands still tied and the gag still in his mouth, Jerith lay on the cargo deck of the Matilda quite dead.

 “You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Decker groaned. Behind him, Eliza snorted as she suppered her laughter.

The command bridge of the Matilda shook wildly from the turbulence of the atmospheric ascent. Decker staggered through the entryway that led up from the cargo hold, sleeve ripped off his shirt and a fresh dermaseal patch stuck to his shoulder. Eliza bounded in behind him, crossing the shaking deck and spinning to land in the articulating seat of the ship’s weapon rig, pulling the bulky targeting goggles down over her head. The other two members of the crew were already strapped into their seats, Manu in position at the pilot’s station while the ship’s technician, Sellivan, was hunched over the navigation center. The ship’s engineer, Heavy, was absent, his work best done from the ship’s gigantic powerplant at the stern where the jump drive and primary engines were located.

“How long until we clear atmo?” Decker shouted over the rumble as he scrambled to seat himself at the tactical station. He pulled the harness straps over his head with his good arm while the wounded one awkwardly stabbed at the hard-plastic console keys, finally bringing up the Matilda’s sensor map on the black screen in front of him.

“A few minutes, maybe. We’re dragging hard. Sky’s too thick. Our non-existent aerodynamics aren’t designed for this rate of ascent,” Manu said from the pilot’s station.

Decker spun the view of the Matilda on the console screen. Two tiny blips trailed on the glass; a pair of Talian Orbital Patrol interceptors were in pursuit. He slapped his hand against the console, sending a shock of pain through his injured arm. “Ah, damn it! How’d they get on us so fast?”

“Corporations. I bet IoCorp owns the patrols here. They must have had them on an intercept path as soon as they saw where you were heading,” Manu called out over his shoulder. “Deck, they’re sending us an order to immediately land and prepare to be boarded.”

Decker grunted a laugh. “An order I am sure they expect we’ll follow. Can we try anything fancy? Create a little distance?”

“Not until we’re clear. Anything but ‘up’ will just be more drag,” Manu shouted back over the rumbling. 

Alarms went off as the ship pushed past its structural stress capacity. Decker grimaced and quickly pressed a series of the oversized plastic buttons, silencing the sound. He felt for what he was putting his ship through, but it would hold. It had to. He jabbed his finger against a button on the console and opened a channel to the ship’s power plant.

“Heavy, any chance you can get us moving faster? Those interceptors can’t match us once we’re up to speed in hard vacuum.”

Heavy’s voice crackled over the intercom speaker. “We’re at full burn, Deck. Can’t fire the primaries while we need to keep going up!”

“Nothing? Come on, Hev, get creative! We just need to squeeze out some seconds here!”

There was brief pause on the comm that felt like minutes. Heavy’s voice finally broke through. “I could turn off maneuvering thrusters and push that to the stabilizers. Might give a little boost.”

Manu turned his head and yelled. “I just said the sky’s not thin enough yet. We cut the thrusters and I’ve got to balance us with just the stabilizers, we’ll be thrown off course.”

“If we get forced down by Talian Orbital Patrol and we’ll be thrown right into a cell,” Decker yelled back.

“I am sure either they or IoCorp would find a way to kill us first,” Eliza called out, face hidden beneath the targeting goggles.

Decker pointed a finger at Manu. “Look, those interceptors are about ten seconds from firing range. Just keep the front of the ship moving up until you can blast the primaries and we can engage weapons.” He opened the channel to the power plant. “Heavy, do it!”

Decker turned back to the sensor map. The command bridge was in the center of the ship, so the only view of the outside was via instruments and monitors. Modern ships would have had holographic projections, but not the Matilda. Curved glass was as good as it got on the antiquated freighter. On the tactical station screen, the two interceptors were closing in, their aerodynamic shapes much faster than the bulky Matilda when flying through atmosphere. 

Decker pressed the comm again. “Heavy, what are you—”

Decker was cut off as the Matilda lurched forward, the burst of thrust pushing the crew against their harnesses. The shaking increased. Decker grabbed onto the console and leaned in close. The vibrating display readout showed that the distance between the Matilda and the interceptors was increasing.

“There we go!” Decker slapped the console. “Eliza, get the guns ready. But just give them something to think twice about. We really, really don’t need to be wanted for downing orbital patrol.”

Eliza spun in the swiveling target-rig. The goggles let her use her hand and head movements to guide the Matilda’s rotating pulse cannons, showing her a view only she could see. “I’m not gonna be hitting anything until we level out. Someone ordered the maneuvering thrusters off,” she called back.

Decker waved his hand in her direction and kept his eyes on the sensor map. “Sellivan, you have the jump coordinates ready?”

“I am unable to calculate a starting position until we stabilize,” Sellivan said, his voice unexcited and barely audible over the ship’s rumbling. And yet, Decker still identified a touch of annoyance in the navigator’s tone. He exhaled in exasperation.

“Okay, I get it. Thrusters are important. Just how long, Selli?”

“I will send you the coordinates as soon as they are ready. We’ll be needing an exit destination, of course,” Sellivan said, now clearly irritated.

Decker jerked his head around. “Exit destination? Sellivan, just get us out of here!” 

Sellivan frowned. “Decker, an exit destination was never specified, and our hasty egress has left us half an orbit away from our original entry point. To compound that, the atmospheric interference prevented me from getting any satisfactory lock on our precise location.” Sellivan raised his thin eyebrows. “You’re the captain–”

“Co-captain,” Eliza interjected.

“–where would you like to exit?” Sellivan concluded.

Decker stared at the ship’s navigator. “What? We were due back on Sennus for—shit. That’s where Fioli is, can’t go back there now. I don’t know, how about…”  Decker’s mind quickly scanned the outer systems. Names of planets floated by. He owed money on that one. Had enemies on that one. At least two of the crew had arrest warrants on that one. Authorities scanned hulls a little too closely on that one. The list was getting short when a system they hadn’t made too much trouble in came to mind. “Clarita. That’s pretty much as far from Talius as it is from Sennus. Get us to the system and we’ll pick a planet to set down on once we exit.”

“Clarita is on the edge of Imperium space, Deck. That’s getting a little friendly,” Manu said.

“It’s gonna be fine. We can regroup and jump right back out. Just a quick stop,” Decker called back, then repeated softly to himself, “It’s gonna be fine.”

“Clarita system it is,” Sellivan said. Again, Decker heard an annoyed sigh as the navigator input the coordinates. “Jump time will be forty-six hours and seven—”

“Two days, got it!” Decker said, returning his gaze to the tactical screen.

The Matilda pushed through the remaining stretch of atmosphere, the violent movement and noise bleeding away as the air around the ship became thinner and thinner. The sensation of erratic movement ceased, artificial gravity equalizing the sensation of weightfulness as they careened away from the planet. Finally, through the last layers of atmosphere, the bridge returned to its normal relative silence, save for the errant beeping of new alarms and computer warnings. 

The crew looked around at each other, feeling a gentle rolling sensation as the maneuvering thrusters came back online. Manu engaged the primary drives and the Matilda surged forward, finally able to take advantage of its considerable powerplant in the vacuum of low-orbit.

Manu laughed in triumph. “There we go, thrusters are back! Selli, get me some entry coords,” he said over his shoulder. Sellivan stayed silent, deftly inputting commands into the navigation computer, his fingers flying over the clacking plastic buttons.

“Stabilizers are back, Deck!” Heavy blared over the bridge’s intercom. Decker turned his attention back to the sensor map. The interceptors, still in pursuit, had cleared the atmosphere and were closing the distance. The Matilda might outmatch them in top speed, but until the hulking freighter overcame its inertia, the small interceptors’ acceleration could render that advantage useless.

“Okay everyone, we’re not done. Those interceptors will be within firing range any second. Heavy, bleed what you can from the stabilizers and put it to the polarizers. Eliza and I will keep them at a distance, but we’re in for a scrap until we can jump.”

“Keep distance? I’m going to blast em’ into a bloody debris field. Hah!” Eliza said, smiling broadly beneath the targeting goggles. 

Decker sent the view of her goggles to one of the screens on the tactical center. “Just warning shots, Eliza.”

Outside the Matilda, the guns flared to life. They spewed out bolts of charged plasma, spraying wildly in the interceptors’ direction. The two pursuers increased their speed and fired a barrage of their own. Eliza kept up the pressure. The guns spit out the bolts in rapid succession, creating a stream of energy toward one of the interceptors. It rolled and pulled away, but a series of bolts dotted its starboard side.

“Eliza! Warning shots!” Decker pleaded. Eliza waved her hand dismissively in Decker’s direction. He turned to Sellivan. “Selli, where you at on coords?”

“Estimating our stopping distance at this velocity is proving to be more difficult than expected. I do not usually calculate a jump entry in the middle of a firefight.” His annoyance wasn’t subtle anymore.

Decker nodded, tapping his hand anxiously on the console. “Next time we’ll do our best to avoid it. Manu, keep the speed up until he can get you an approach.”

“Planning on it!”

The tactical station reported bolt impacts across the Matilda, the hull plating polarizers doing their job of neutralizing some of the effect at expense of pulling power away from the engines. The interceptors veered around to make another approach from beneath the ship, and another volley smashed into the Matilda’s outer plating, lighting up the impact display on the screen.

The comm from the power plant opened. “Deck, polarizers are putting a drain on the plant here. We can go fast, or we can have shields,” Heavy bellowed.

“We’re working on it, Hev. They just have to last until the jump. Turn off grav if you have to, we’re all strapped in.”

“Damn it Deck, we need to get this ship some more guns! Bigger ones,” Eliza said as she continued to track and shoot. The Matilda pulled farther and farther from the planet, building up speed, Manu pushing the ship as hard as it could go. They didn’t have anywhere specific to fly to until Sellivan could plot an approach path and entry point for the jump. Until then, there was no choice other than to absorb damage and hope that orbital patrol was more interested in arrests than kills. The impact display lit up with another volley and Decker got the feeling they were fine with either.

Each time the Matilda took hits, its energy reserves drained as the polarizers on the plating diverted energy away and the lights on the bridge dimmed. Decker pleaded with his navigator. “Sellivan, please tell me—,”

“Entry point locked in. Sending approach path and coordinates to the helm,” Sellivan said, seemingly unaffected by the pressure of the situation.

Manu let out a cheer as the coordinates were sent to his station. “Heavy, we’re going to hit the approach path fast, I’m going to need everything we’ve got to go full reverse.”

“I’ll give it as much as I can,” Heavy shouted over the comm. “A stop like this is going to be torture on the frame.”

With that, the Matilda shifted its course and entered into the approach path Sellivan had created. Decker could see the ship spin on the sensor map to face backward, its inertia carrying it the rest of the way. All Manu had to do was hit the jump point right on the dot, backwards, and they’d be out of there.

A new warning wail sounded from the tactical station. Decker’s eyes widened. “Manu, we’ve got a torpedo lock!”

Manu turned in surprise. “Torpedos on ships that small?”

“They must be really mad.” Decker squinted at the screen. “Sensors are putting its mass at… huh, it’s not too big.”

Manu scoffed. “You saying it’s a small torpedo?”

“I’m saying it might just blow off part of the ship and not vaporize the entire thing.” Decker pointed to Eliza despite her eyes being hidden inside the goggles. “Eliza, if there was ever a time for some sharp-shooting, now is it.”

Eliza pulled her aim away from the fighter and zeroed in on the oncoming projectile. Bolts streaked across the viewscreens as she fired a non-stop stream at the torpedo, the targeting computer overlay doing its best to calculate the predicted path.

“This thing is too fast, bolts aren’t meant to work like this. We need a beam cannon,” Eliza said. Decker looked at the tactical screen; she was right, the Matilda had no way to avoid what was coming for it.

“Manu, burn?” Decker shouted over the blare of the warning alarm.

“Re-engaging primaries! Just a few seconds!” Manu said. Decker gritted his teeth. They weren’t going to make it. The Matilda began to slow as the primary engines fired to reverse their acceleration.

“Heavy, shut off everything and put it into the polarizers. We have to absorb whatever we can. It’s heading toward the stern. Shit, looks like it’s locked onto a primary, no, the nacelles. Starboard secondary stabilizer! Here it—,”

The Matilda shuddered subtly as the torpedo impacted. Damage alerts sounded and the overhead lighting pulsed red. Decker brought up the external camera view of the ship’s stern. There was a visible chunk of plating blown away from the nacelle, mechanical guts ripped apart and trailing in a wake of debris behind them as they continued decelerating toward the entry point. It was a solid hit, but they didn’t need the stabilizers to make a jump.

“Took off half a nacelle. Heavy, what are you reading?” Decker called into the intercom. There was a pause. Decker felt a pang of worry in his stomach until his engineer finally answered.

“Deck, that whole stabilizer is down. I cut all power to it. That’s more that I can divert to the polarizers!”  That was Heavy, always an optimist.

The crew was uncharacteristically silent as Manu slid the Matilda into the jump coordinates. No way to dodge, no guns, no time to pick a new entry. They would just have to soak up the damage and hope the ship held. The interceptors fired another round, the command bridge’s lights dimming as the polarizers did their best to give them a few seconds.

Manu gave the engines a final burst of power to cancel out the enormous ship’s final bit of inertia. The mains flared to life and the Matilda lurched to an absolute stop. The image on Decker’s tactical screen showed the Matilda at precise spot the jump coordinates indicated.

They were dead in the water.

“We’re at full stop. Initializing jump,” Manu said. The crew all grabbed tight to whatever they could. Decker hoped that Heavy had heard and was doing the same. The nausea began to build as the jump drives whined. If the torpedo had done any damage the jump field generators, none of them would live long enough to find out.

“Now!” 

The whine of the generators filled the ship. The interceptors raced toward the Matilda’s position, releasing a final volley of bolts at their motionless target. Decker could see on the viewscreens the streaks of blazing energy coming right at them.

The surge of nausea crashed into him. He smiled at the screen, seeing the interceptors vanish along with the stars, Talius, and everything else. Nothing but darkness.

“Better luck next time,” he muttered, just as he felt himself start to wretch.