She put thruster to a 110% the moment she was sure that they wouldn’t cause too much damage to the Gargle. The ship’s AI wouldn’t allow it for long, but the faster she could put some distance between herself and the ship, the better. For a moment she held her hand on the coms control, but there weren’t any words coming out. The image of Aish and the ambassador on the floor, the blood pooling, was lurking behind her eyelids. Every time she closed her eyes, she could see them as through a low-resolution spy camera. The details were too much and too little at the same time. Most likely they were already dead, the guards would have made sure. Although she was sitting in the pilot’s chair and the artificial gravity was on, she still felt as if she was floating. If they had prepared for this scenario, a rocket would very soon overtake her and relieve her of this misery. She would only have time to fake surprise and then, nothing.
She screamed until her voice gave out.
It hurt so much in her throat that she thought she was going to throw up, but somewhere in the pain there was focus. The radar showed no ship coming after her yet, but every public com channel werebeing hailed. She turned off the alarms and gave no reply. The only thing that would do would be to confirm her presence on the ship. Everyone probably knew that already, but why remove the uncertainty. She took the data crystal out of her pocket and inserted it into the ship and connected her Glas to the ship as well.
“Ship, access crystal and identify contents.”
“Data crystal is encrypted, it cannot be accessed.”
“Can you transfer the data?”
“Negative, crystal is using compartmental matrix encryption. I cannot access whole of crystal with a standard read interface.”
“Try these four words as a key: Bitch. Hopeless. Human. Futile.”
Every word stung to be said, and she could feel the anger rise with each uttering.
“Key not accepted.”
“What?! You got to be fucking kidding me. You tried them in that order?”
“Yes. It was not accepted.”
“Try all 24 combinations as the key.”
“None of the combinations were accepted.”
Emma smashed the flat of her hand down into the controls. Of course there was another layer to the key, most likely something that had been agreed in advance. The hand burned. She had to start focusing. Whatever information she had, someone was willing to risk all-out war with the Vanduuls to get it. They had killed her team to get it. If they got it, it would all be for nothing.
“Ship, get me a secure channel to all of the navy ships.”
“I don’t have that capability. My strongest encryption can easily be broken by military standards.”
“Then hail them on a public channel.”
The picture was in front of her immediately. He was an elderly man, the edges of his hair turning grey. He stared at her with a pair of brown eyes that made no mistake that he was a man in control. She wasn’t surprised to see the rank of vice admiral on his uniform.
“This is vice admiral Asimov of the UEE Nimrod. Please identify yourself.”
“My name is Emma Acord, working for the Ark and attached to the ambassador’s party.”
She almost added sir. It was obvious she hadn’t told him anything he didn’t already know. Most likely he knew her father.
“What’s the situation on board? Are you alone?”
His eyes flickered down for a moment.
“I’m alone and unhurt. The ship has no damage.”
“Four of Kri’s honor guards attacked the ambassador, Aish and myself right before they were about to leave. They engaged the emergency airlock protocols while attacking us with blades. I was lucky and managed to escape to the hangar.”
“What happened to the others?”
“I… don’t know. I think it’s likely they are all dead. Have you heard anything from them?”
“I can’t offer you any information Ms. Acord. Not at this point.”
She should have protested, but she didn’t have the energy to put into a façade and the way he added the last part seemed like a promise.
“Can I ask where you are headed, Ms Acord?”
“Towards you I hope. I am heading in your direction, aren’t I?”
For once the vice admiral showed a hint of any feelings as his lips almost smiled.
“You are. I have three Hornets on patrol very near you. They will escort you to the Nimrod. They should reach you in a few minutes. I have sent their channel to your ship’s AI. Please stay on channel with them at all times. We will soon have you here.”
“Thank you. Can I ask if anything has happened with the Horde ship or Kri’s ship?”
“I assume you mean the transport ship that brought you to the Gargleblaster. Both ships are stable and still.”
Something took the vice admiral’s attention again, and this time for a lot longer. She had no trouble reading the anger on his face. His smile was anything but gentle.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Acord, but it seems that two fighters has broken away from the Horde ship and are heading your way.”
Her lack of surprise did not stop the chill running down her arms.
“What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to stay alive, Ms Acord. I have the feeling that you being alive is the only thing that has any remote chance of not turning this event into one gigantic cluster fuck. Pardon my language.”
“I’ll try. But if not, tell my family that the only easy day was yesterday.”
The vice admiral nodded.
When the connection broke, it left an emptiness she hadn’t felt in a long time.
She stood up and checked her suit. It seemed to have no damage. She plugged into the seat and activated all protocols required for combat flight. The ship had neither offensive nor defensive means, but it was still a fighter ship. She asked the AI to open channels to the Hornets, while configuring her Glas so that it gave her vision directly behind her.
“Hi Hornets, this is Emma Acord. I am very pleased to see you on my radar screen.”
“Ms. Acord, this is Magnet. With me are Pipe and Velcro.”
He sounded like mid-thirties perhaps. Another guy and a girl said hi on the coms.
“What do we do about the two fighters incoming? I can assure you that they will never even ask.”
“Pipe and Velcro will engage them, while you come with me. You will be in front. I’ll just tail you. Try to make the best out of that nice ride of yours.”
What was it that attracted cocky guys to piloting?
“No, I think we will do this my way. You take the lead, I’ll follow.”
“You sure about that, ma’am?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure.”
She could see the lights from the ships now. Soon two lights blurred past her, while the other started on a very large u-turn.
“That’s not an efficient way to turn, Magnet. I’ll have to slow down now for you to catch up.”
She couldn’t help keep the annoyance out of her voice. There was no response on the coms, which said it all. The radar showed that the four fighters would be within missile range in 30 seconds, but heading straight for each other the missiles would not have an easy time hitting its mark. She counted down the seconds.
Four, three, two, one.
“They fired!” Pipe said. “But there is no weapon’s lock?”
“Fire back, for fucks sake!” Magnet said.
“Acquiring lock. And firing,” Velcro said.
She sounded much younger than Pipe, but was much calmer. Emma hoped the vice admiral hadn’t sent her rookies.
“There’s still no weapon lock?!” Pipe said.
Oh, those bastards.
“Magnet, I need you here now. Those missiles aren’t for Pipe and Velcro, they’re for us!”
“What do you mean?” Magnet asked.
“Because those weapon locks aren’t on!”
Emma slowed her ship even more for a couple of seconds. The missiles were still accelerating and if they found their lock after passing Pipe and Velcro, she was dead.
“Oh shit! I’ll put myself in between and be ready with some decoys.”
“We missed!” Velcro said.
Emma recognized the humming sound that came from a cannon being fired on the coms. All four fighters were now zigzagging towards each other. It was a tactical error to send the two fighters straight ahead Emma realized. They could not slow down, because they would become easy target for the Vanduul fighters. That meant that they would shoot past fast, and be very far away from where they needed to be.
“Vice admiral Asimov. I think you better send more fighters. We are by all practical means already down two.”
“Ms Acord, this is captain Degas speaking. We have already launched more fighters.”
“I hope they are fast.”
What she would have given for a fully equipped fighter ship.
“Magnet, come up next to me.”
He did, taking standard formation distance to her ship.
“Ok, next, please lock your course towards the Nimrod, no manual flying until I say so, ok?”
She took her ship so that she was completely on a line with Magnet. Then she locked her axis and turned the ship upside down.
“Ms. Acord, what the hell are you doing?”
“I told you, you will see.”
She reconfigured her Glas so she would not be flying completely blind. AIs could not do this maneuver, simply because it violated every safety rule they had to follow. She slowed her speed, so that Magnet was a little in front of her again. The clue was to stay just outside of the engines’ areas of effect. Then she did a mental exercise and switched her perception of what was up and down. Even with the fake gravity, for some reason she always had to do it like this. Inch by inch she moved closer.
“Are you fucking insane?!” Magnet said.
“Not yet. But if it’s any consolation, I’ve done this before.”
“Why in god’s name would anyone allow you to do this!?”
“At least tell me why.”
“Can you see me on your radar anymore?”
“Of course I…”
“And our engines are impossible to differentiate from a distance. Which is a good thing considering that we have two missiles coming our way, and I have zero defenses.”
She tracked the missiles and the AI estimated they would be on them in around 45 seconds.
“Magnet, you’re going to hold on to your decoys until the last moment, and immediately after we are both going to do a hard turn upwards, in our separate directions. You get what I mean?”
“And you have done this before as well?”
“That part is new, but it’s the best we got that can keep us both alive for a little longer.”
“So now we wait?”
“It’s 30 seconds. I could probably ask you some serious question, but knowing guys, you’d never answer anyway.”
“Oh, I’m a serious guy.”
“So you will answer me seriously?”
“Ok, sure. Ask away. I will answer. It could perhaps be the last thing I ever do.”
“People, we’re fighting here!” Velcro said.
“Come on, you’re playing chicken with someone who doesn’t have to play, while we have two missiles coming to us,” Magnet said.
“Decoys now!” Emma said.
Magnet was at least smart enough to have prepared. Two decoys shot out and he was just a little slower than she was in turning the ship away. One missile went straight for one of the decoys and exploded in a brilliant, silent firework. The other one managed to avoid the decoys, but got confused when its target split in two. It shot straight down the path they had previously followed.
“Ok, so that actually worked, but we won’t have a chance to do that again,” Magnet said.
“You still owe me a serious question.”
“Well, if we both survive this, you can have two.”
“That’s very generous of you. Or do you think that I might actually not make it? Considering my disadvantage that’s an unfair bet.”
“It wasn’t a bet, it was a promise.”
“And now you’re going to tell me you’re good looking as well.”
“He’s ugly as hell,” Pipe said.
“Go back to your non-existing dog fight,” Magnet said.
“About that, they have now passed us and will be catching up with you fast enough,” Pipe said.
“Thank you, 2nd lieutenant Obvious. We do have radar screens,” Magnet said.
“I’m just trying to save you the embarrassment before she asks to see your picture,” Pipe said.
“Perhaps I’m ugly as well,” Emma said.
“It’s enough that one of us is ugly. Our children will be normal looking then,” Magnet said.
“People, do you actually have a plan? Those fighters are coming awfully fast,” Velcro said.
“Apparently my plan about children just fell away. Shame really,” Emma said.
“Seriously, what’s the plan?” Velcro asked.
“I’m in a civilian ship, my options are limited to flying,” Emma said.
“I can turn around and delay them, so you guys can catch up,” Magnet said.
“That won’t delay them much,” Pipe said.
“Any better ideas?” Magnet asked.
The silence was answer enough.
“Ok, here I go,” Magnet said and turned his ship around.
Emma checked the distance to the new fighters the Nimrod had launched. They were still far enough away that they would not reach her in time, if the Vanduul fighters made it past Magnet, which they probably would. Magnet would buy her some time, but not enough.
The waiting was horrible.
She could see the ships closing in on each other, Magnet making them shift courses while he sent everything he got after them, but that ugly word crept into her mind again. Futile.
“Ok, I’m going to do something stupid,” Magnet said.
“What?” was all Emma managed to say.
“It’s probably not going to work anyway.”
“What are you doing to do?”
“Ram one of them of course. I’m all out of ammo.”
“Appreciate it, but you are right. It’s not going to work.”
“I’ll still try.”
Emma watched two of the blips come together fast. Then a metal screech came through the coms.
“Wooooo!” Magnet’s voice so high pitched that he sounded like a boy. Holy fucking Ganesha!
“That’s not possible!” Pipe said.
The radar showed that two ships had passed extremely close, and judging from the sound they had actually touched. Pipe was right. It shouldn’t be possible, not at that speed. Even the smallest crash should obliterate them at those speeds.
“You actually did it,” Emma said.
“Something is wrong with my ship, but so it is with his. And I’m fucking alive!”
“You increased my chances from virtually zero, to a little above zero, so thanks!”
Things happened fast. The Vanduul was within range and whoever was piloting the ship did not waste time. One missile came towards her and would catch up fast. The pilot also fired his cannon a couple of times, but probably more to test it. She had one more trick up her sleeve, but if Magnet’s trick was stupid, this was plain suicide. Still, it was what she had.
She had to time it perfectly, and make sure the AI was prepared. Her body would be a wreck afterwards, so she needed a cocktail of drugs to be ready. She had the AI calculate the speed of the missile. Then she gave it permission to do a 14 G break. If it was timed right, it would crush the missile before it could explode.
Then the feeling of euphoria as the drugs hit her system and made her more awake than what should be possible. She was still here. She checked the radar. The Vanduul was closing in and soon use the cannon for real. That didn’t worry her, she could avoid being hit from almost any pilot, but another missile would be the end. The pilot would take measures against that trick again.
Missile number two.
It would hit her in exactly 23 seconds. She didn’t even have time to go to an airlock and jump ship.
“Guys, I’m done for. I had my share of luck. Vice admiral, I assume you hear this. Whatever you do, don’t attack the horde ship. This is not an unified act of the Vanduuls.”
“Come on, there has to be something you can do,” Magnet said.
“I wish, nice meeting you guys, thanks for the run. Please make sure the two bastards don’t get away. And take the damaged one alive if possible and give him to the Lady.”
“We will get them both, but who the hell is this lady?”
“Long story, but…”
She saw it long before she felt it. It was almost like watching the stars in the sky, except with a lot more colors. Then she heard it. It took her some time to realize it was her own voice. It was beautiful. She was singing, if that was the right word for it. She had no control of it, but she still felt like she knew what she was doing. Except that no human voice could do what she was doing. She didn’t know what to call it, but she was singing not with one voice, but with three, even four at times. The song spread out all around her, but not like sound waves. She could see everything around her change. It was like a bubble that spread out. It rippled like water through the ship, every motion following her voice. It seemed to last forever. Then it all went away.
She coughed and tasted blood on her tongue.
What the hell had happened?
“Emma, are you there?!”
Magnet’s voice was frantic. She tried to respond, but she had no voice anymore. She signaled yes and then remembered the missile. It was not there anymore.
She had no signal for that. What had happened? She signaled no.
“Are you ok?”
There was that fighter on her tail, but she could handle that. She had done something to the ship, or perhaps more correctly, the music boxes had done something to her. She brought up the keyboard on the console and typed.
Can’t talk. What just happened? Where’s the missile?
“You tell us. You disappeared from the radar screen for a whole 5 seconds. The missile just disappeared for good.”
What the hell is that supposed to mean?
“You disappeared from the radar! What kind of ship is that really?”
A normal ship. Are you serious? I disappeared from the radar?
“Yes! Careful of the fighter now.”
Had she cloaked the whole ship somehow? That didn’t explain the missile disappear though.
The Vanduul fighter came within range and opened fire immediately.
That made her relax. It was a rookie mistake, especially with the advantage he had. She went through a couple of standard evasive moves. She tried to remember the feeling she had had when singing, she knew the song had intention, but it was intention in a language she didn’t know. Or apparently she did. Whatever it was had saved her life.
“Ms. Acord, this is Maverick. We’ll be taking that bastard out very soon. Nice flying by the way.”
Four new fighters showed up on the short-range radar.
“I would really like to learn that trick you just did.”
Me too.I have no idea what happened. Guess it’s my lucky day.
“Judging from the flying you are doing, you have had some flight academy training. Can I ask for your call sign?”
Maverick just laughed.
“Of course you’re Zero. Well, if you don’t want to say, that’s fine with me.”
Emma felt no need to reply to that. She was safe.