CHARLES ALBRIGHT was bored rigid. They had now entered Alioth space, and were headed directly for Edinburgh, where the AJN's headquarters lay. It had been weeks since they had left Andceeth. It didn't help that the stardreamer was not working. The problem with space travel, concluded Albright, was that there was an awful lot of space with nothing in it.
Winston and Albright had taken to keeping watch with twelve hour shifts. Albright thought that the boredom must have been doing something bad to Winston's state of mind. Winston had hardly said a word since they had left, and Albright was finding the lack of communication rather awkward. The only thing to break the boredom had been the occasional pirate attack, but since they were just trying to get to Alioth as quickly as possible, they hadn't done anything to make their ship look like a tradeship. Bounty hunters often disguised their ships electronically as lightly-armed traders so that they would attract pirates. With their ship being seen for what it was, the only pirates that had attacked were inexperienced ones without advanced deep-space scanning equipment on their ships, and Albright had managed to dispatch the ones which had attacked during his watch with such ridiculous ease that he hadn't even called Winston out of his sleep to assist. The only other item of interest had been their follower. A Cobra Mk.3 had been following them ever since they had fled from Andceeth. The Cobra, a slower craft, had been unable to keep up and they hadn't seen its hyperspace entry cloud for the last three jumps.
Inevitably, the sheer boredom had allowed his mind to wander. Not a day went by without him re-living their terrifying escape from Andceeth, although it now seemed as if it had happened in the last lifetime...
We hurtled towards Diamond's maintenance hangar at high speed. The tiny autoshuttle was aimed straight at its steel walls. I felt the ground rushing up to pulverize us, and I held on to the sides of the autoshuttle's seats tightly, not that it was likely to do a lot of good. Suddenly, Winston flipped the tiny craft, and used its main thruster as a brake. The craft came shuddering to a hover, a few feet away from the hangar's light blue walls...he then set it down on the ground without finesse.
"Let's get the hell out of here!" Winston yelled.
Wordlessly, I complied, throwing the autoshuttle's door open, not even bothering to wait for the mechanism to do its job. We ran into the hangar, and into our ship. It seemed to take agonizing seconds for our Asp's main door to close and lock...and all the while, we could hear the sounds of pursuit - the engines of maybe a dozen autoshuttles screaming at high power. We didn't waste any time running up to the flight deck. Winston strapped himself into the left seat, and before I could even clip my harness together, he'd brought up the viewscreen, and we suddenly seemed to be hovering as we were surrounded by a holographic image of the inside of the hangar. It was always an odd feeling when the 360 degree viewsystem was first switched on...
"Hang on, this is gonna get rough!" Winston yelled.
Some subconcious process in my mind had just predicted what Winston was going to do next. I sincerely hoped that I was wrong, but as I finally clipped my harness together, and cinched it down so tightly it hurt, my fears were confirmed. Winston was already halfway through the main drive startup sequence. He palmed the main drive toggles, and there was a rumble as the bottom thruster came alive...
"Hang on!" he yelled.
Winston had always taught me to be smooth with the ship's manual controls, but he seemed to be ignoring his own advice for the moment. Switching control to full manual, he suddenly wrenched the lift lever up to the top of its travel. The bottom thruster responded with a tremendous roar. Every object in the hangar that wasn't nailed down began to fly around in response to the hurricane the bottom thruster was creating. The ship lurched upwards. Quickly, I reached down to the instrument panel and diverted all shield power to the upper hull. I looked upwards and saw the roof of the hangar rapidly coming towards us! Involuntarily, I ducked as we crashed through. Our ship violently threw debris into the surrounding streets as we made our dramatic exit. To my satisfaction, I noticed that Winston also ducked just before we crashed through the roof. I switched the shields back to their normal configuration, as Winston aimed the ship directly upwards. He savagely wound on full power. The blast from the main thruster obliterated what was left of the maintenance hangar as we rocketed skywards. The ship's systems growled loudly in response to Winston's control inputs...
"Oh shit, we have a new problem!" I exclaimed, as the scanner confirmed
my view out of the rear.
The scanner showed that Police Vipers were pouring from Diamond's spaceport. There were too many to count, and the scanner had taken on a churning texture as the targets all merged into a large blob. There must have been fifty or more. Our rear laser was a one megawatt pulse laser, barely adequate for keeping a Krait off our tail, let alone a fleet of Vipers. I anxiously glanced at the altimeter, which was winding upwards in a crazy blur. We were only 6,000 meters above the snow-covered ground, and the Vipers were almost in firing range. Our rear laser had a 15 degree gimbal on it, so I swept it around randomly and fired, trying to keep the Vipers back a bit. This turned out to be as effective as trying to swat a hornet with a wet noodle. The Police ignored my attempts to fend them off and began to form up behind us, getting into firing position...
The piercing orange shafts of four megawatt beam laser fire started to come towards us. We were definitely going to die. I watched the shield power instantly go from 100% to 4% as we took a particularly strong volley of fire. Winston managed to dodge a little, but it was wholly inadequate. Most of the Vipers launched a missile in response. The ECM uselessly tried to negate the Navy grade missiles.
So this is how it ends, I thought. I no longer felt fear, just a little sadness that I would soon be dead, and tomorrow's news would carry nothing but a short footnote to the destruction of two criminals, Charles Albright and James Winston, as they fled from the law. It would all end in two brilliant white flashes - the first, as the Asp's drive exploded, and the second as the continuing laser fire destroyed our defenceless escape capsule. We would feel no more than a brief moment of intense heat as their lasers skewered our unprotected bodies.
Another volley of laser fire homed in towards our hapless ship. Our shields instantly discharged, and there was a muffled whump from somewhere in the rear of the ship, almost hidden by the general din of the drive at full power. The instrument panel lit up red as warning lights came on. I realised that Winston had been running the prime mover at 110% and it was about to overheat.
Suddenly, there was a brilliant white flash.
I felt nauseated and disoriented. It seemed like we had begun to tumble. Everything went black, and the cacaphony from the ship's equipment section ceased. I could hear the dismal tone of the laser interlock warning as I held the trigger down - the ship was preventing me from firing. I realised it was probably because the escape capsule had no weapons. I let go of the stick, and slumped back in my seat, waiting for the Police lasers to slice our escape capsule.
I turned around to my left, and saw Winston slump back in his seat, and wipe his forehead.
"That was close. Very close," he said quietly, his voice shaky.
I didn't understand what he meant. I looked at the instrument panel, and apart from the depleted shields, I noticed everything seemed to be indicating normally. The ship's chronograph was racing forwards at high speed...high speed, because we were in hyperspace...the white flash had been our entry into hyperspace! We had survived!
I nearly vomited as I came down from my adrenaline high. Fear now washed over my body, and I realised I was sweating, despite the cool air from the ship's environmental system. I could barely control my shaking hands, as I tried to loosen my harness. After half a dozen tries, I finally released it, and slumped in my seat, drained phyically and emotionally. I noticed that Winston's hands were shaking too, but it gave me no comfort that an Elite combateer had just been as frightened as me. It meant we had come very very close to meeting a violent death.
But we were still alive. In a few minutes, I would be able to regain my composure and find that bottle of Tionislan 12 year old whisky.
"Jas, damage report please," said Winston.
Albright broke out of his daydream, and watched the instruments. Edinburgh was less than two hours away, and the ship had almost slowed to orbital speed. The planet gleamed in Alioth's light, the Potomac Ocean shining like a polished marble. He zoomed the forward view in on Edinburgh, showing it covered by thick layers of swirling clouds. It looked like there was a good storm brewing. Moisture was blowing off the ocean, and was promising a few days of warm, wet weather.
The sound of the flight deck door sliding open caused him to swing around and look behind. Winston was entering, dressed in his AJN blues. Albright chuckled to himself as he noticed that Winston still hadn't got the hang of doing a tie up properly.
"We're almost at Edinburgh," Albright said.
Winston lapsed back into silence, loosely buckling his harness. Albright felt uncomfortable again. Something wasn't right with the man. He was just sitting there, idly flicking through the weather forecast, and that was it. Conversation seemed to be beyond him.
"Um," said Albright hopefully.
Albright pulled the courage together to give Winston a bit of an interrogation session.
"I can't help noticing, but you've been, er, a little uncommunicative
lately," observed Albright.
Winston looked at Albright with mild amusement.
"Well, you can talk to Jas you know, she is sentient. Perhaps she'd like
a bit of company too, hmm?" asked Winston, mockingly.
Albright leaned back in his seat. If Winston was going on about being dead within a month, he meant it. Obviously, that's why he had diverted to Alioth halfway on their journey to Enedlia. At least Alioth had been more or less on the way.
"Well, surely if this is just an embezzlement case, it's not really different
to the routine antipiracy stuff?"
© 2001 Dylan Smith.