Seven days before everything went to hell, before she started shooting up a bar in the heart of Eagle City, Captain Mara had been standing in the middle of Sector B, one of the vehicle launch platforms.
Staring at her new ship. A thing of freaking beauty.
Nothing like the pint-sized survey craft they'd been crammed in for the past few months. She shuddered at the memory, cold nights, power system shut downs, drive malfunctions, weapons locking and unlocking at random. Jacky nudged her in the ribs and she smiled.
No. By the heavens, she wasn't dreaming.
She walked along the length of the ship, all eighty meters of her. Wedge shaped and shiny in the launch bay, clamped to the platform. She looked at Jacky and giggled.
He gave her a mock inquiring look and laughed as well. He waved her forward. "After you."
She nodded and almost skipped forward. An eighty-one tonne hull, she could see the upgrades that Mink was talking about. Blaster canons at rear and starboard arcs, missile launchers, swivel mounted lasers. State of the art. She had a feeling she was going to love it on the inside too.
She leaned back, looking above her, behind her. But she and Jacky had been all over this hangar and the facility that housed it. For hours. There was no-one. Vibiat had been right. It was abandoned. No-one would ever find them here.
"I think we should go in, don't you?" Jacky said from behind her. She felt a shot of warmth and turned round just in time to see Jacky's wide grin. She turned back. Too soon. Mara looked down at her hands and found that she was clutching them. She pulled them apart and took a deep breath and stepped some more coiled cable and came closer to the ship.
She passed a palm over the hull, feeling the cold tingle her fingers. Tough. Durable . not likely to be torn apart in a G-storm. They'd been lucky to get out of the last one alive.
She waved a hand and there was a hiss of air as the door opened, greeted with the whirring sound of recycling filters, display screens bleeping and blinking in unison in the darkness. Then there was the canned air that made you feel you were back on the space ports of Krill Back when the universe made sense and wasn't a war zone.
"Wow," Jacky said behind her. Mara reached behind her and clutched his hand. Wow was right.
The lights sputtered to life. Standing in the middle of the cockpit, was their benefactor. The Amphibiot.
She felt herself stiffen even as Jacky fell in beside her. "What are you doing here?"
The Amphibiot smiled, as much as anyone could smile with leathery lips and a wrinkled face could smile without looking like something from one of her worst visions. "Good evening, Captain Mara. How do you like your new ship?"
She gave Jacky a quick side-long glance, just in time to see her co-pilot, reach for his holster, slide his thumb over his weapon. She couldn't see him from that angle, but she knew he would set it to stun. Not because he was afraid of killing , but killing Vibiat wasn't a particularly smart thing to do. He was their benefactor after all and also because Vibiat might kill them both before Mara had a chance to draw her own weapon. But it might amuse him, their pathetic show of strength.
She stepped forward. "I thought we agreed to this. No sudden appearances."
"This is my ship...Captain."
She swallowed. Hard. "Yes. But how do we get the job done if you pop up in the middle of nowhere."
"This isn't nowhere. This is Gatar. This is my ship. You work for me now."
"The more we distance ourselves from each other, the harder for us to be traced."
Vibiat gave a short laugh. "You mean the harder it is for me to trace you. No. That isn't going to work, Captain." He nodded at Jacky. "Put that down friend."
She glanced at Jacky who still had his hand wrapped around his weapon. At other times she would go all weak at the knees at the sight of her co-pilot going all protective and manly, But not now, not when the stakes were this high. "It's okay," she said, injecting a light-heartedness into her tone.
"Vibiat isn't trying to screw us over. He's just checking on his investment, that's all."
She turned back to the Amphibiot. "Right?"
Vibiat regarded her with a slow, cool gaze. She felt a tight knot in my belly but held her ground. She should used to the chunky-bodied alien by now. A six-footer with a body covered by scales and rough protrusions- she could only imagine old wounds- his head a fully-fleshed mass; his eyes peaked by a slit of flesh, slits where his nose and ears should be, lips pink. It didn't matter that he hid his grotesquely huge form under a dark robe, she could still see his limbs ending in curved webbed digits.
He turned away from them in a kind of slow, cautious movement and walked further into the cockpit, and stared up at the blank screen. Then he crossed his hands behind him. Mara squinted at the spaces between his fingers, glistening webbing. Deadly poison dripped from them during physical combat, a fact that had helped Amphibiots be a thorn in the sides of Krill for over a hundred years."I want to make sure everything is understood one last time."
"Everything was understood," Jacky said. Mara felt a glimmer of warmth. That's right Jacky, tell this fat toad-
"I would like to hear it from your lips, Captain. Now. "
Mara swallowed again and the glimmer of warmth disappeared . "It's a snatch and grab."
" We wait for the most opportune moment, obtain the target from his place of residence and disappear." She smiled. "We've taken fat bureaucrats from the home world before."
"Our plans have changed," came the smooth reply.
Mara held back a snort and gave Jacky another side-long glance.
Obviously Vibiat had snorted some frog-juice on the way here or maybe he just wanted to screw with them. See how much we remembered of their last encounter. "Um...No."
"You're not going to Sector B2."
"You're going to Earth."
"Earth doesn't exist anymore."
The Amphibiot turned round slowly, the smile on his face cold and hard, his hands still clasped behind his back. "In our dimension. Yes."
Mara felt a scuttle of movement behind her. She turned round just in time to see Jacky head for the computer panels on the far side of the bridge and tap on the controls. The panels lit up and gave out a low hum. He spun back toward her, his eyes wide with shock and something else. "It's got an ID drive."
"What?" She spun toward their benefactor, her heart slamming against her ribs. "Are you trying to get us killed?"
"Calm down , Captain,"
"Space jumps are illegal. We can't do that."
"You can now."
"You are fugitives."
"This is not what we talked about."
"Things change, Captain. You should know that by now."
She blinked, trying to think while Jacky sucked in his breath beside her.
Madness. This is all madness. " You don't do a space jump without someone knowing about it."
Mara closed her eyes. Opened them again."The Krill..." She began, trying to be calm.
"They've got tracker IDs on everyone of them."
"They can't watch all of space, Captain."
"They can't scan for illegal ID drives if they can't find you. And they won't. Not where you're going."
Jacky stepped forward suddenly, surprising Mara. "There are only four jump points that are known, Amphibiot. Heavily guarded. Heavily armed. You want us to take that risk?"
The alien blinked. "Those are for crafts that do not have ID drives. You do."
But Jacky didn't stop. "There's a reason why those ships don't make those jumps on their own. They don't survive. Or-" Jacky pulled on Mara's arm, him forcing her to face him."They don't come back."
Mara tore herself from Jacky's grasp. She had to take control of this situation. Had to show that she was in control. Negotiate. She wanted that ship. "Look, Vibiat." She said, attempting a smile. "All this talk of inter-dimensional travel. Earth. It's a bit out of our league. We...we do the small stuff. Freight jumps. Dump some jara weed. Give some poor rich fool a trip to the pleasure worlds for a small price-"
"The odd kidnapping."
"Yes. That too. This is too much."
The Amphibiot's face was unreadable. "Your answer is..."
Mara closed her eyes. Damn. She loved this ship. She opened her eyes."No."
"John Hughes," the alien said quietly.
Captain Mara Dee felt herself go numb. The U-shaped bridge, the computer panels chirping, the holographic interface dark and silent behind Vibiat. She wanted to fall to her knees and empty her insides all over the smooth floor, curse the toad in front of her. But she did not.
This was the beginning