Nailah half-scrambles and half-falls into the cockpit. Raven is designed for maximum cargo room so there aren't any passenger areas. The cockpit is cramped and mostly dominated by the pilot's seat and the manual control console. After some jostling, Nailah ends up seated on one of my legs, facing away from me. She proceeds to bawl her eyes out while I do my best not to disturb her. I am very relieved that I can interface with the ship’s computer without having to make any physical movements.
I've got much more to worry about than the sobbing woman in my lap anyhow. I'm keeping the Raven flying at a normal speed toward the gate but part of me just wants to put the thrusters on full blast. Not that that would do as much as I wanted. The junk is painfully slow for such a small ship. I desperately scan the space around the gate as if that will tell me anything.
Then it happens. Messages start pouring in. From ground control and from gate control. Ordering me to halt and shut down my ship. I have no idea if this is about the niao I attacked or the fact that I am illegally transporting a convicted human from the colony. It really doesn't matter. My answer to them is to kick my thrusters to max. Their answer to that is to dispatch a corvette to stop me by force.
I hit the gate at the Raven's pathetic maximum speed. It won't matter. The corvette is right behind me. The fact that I slipped into the wormhole ahead of them gives me a little time. Half an hour maybe. The corvette is faster, bigger and much better armed than the Raven. No way to fight it ship to ship. Psychopomp could take the damn thing apart with surgical precision.
"What is happening?" Nailah asks, snapping my attention back to my immediate reality. I stare at her for a moment, wondering what she means. Her eyes are red-rimmed but it looks like she has regained her self-control. It hits me that there is no way she knows what is going on. All she can see is the little bit going on outside of the viewport and whatever face I am currently making. She would have had no way to hear the messages ordering us to stop.
"The niao have dispatched a ship to capture us," I say evenly.
The way her faces pales makes me wonder if I could have said that with a little more tact. "What?" she screams, grabbing two fistfuls of my shirt. "What to do you mean?"
I brush her hands away from my shirt. "I mean what I said. What did you think would happen when you jumped on my ship like an insane person?" That is a little unfair but I am feeling annoyed.
Nailah sits up and brushes a hand through her hair, wild-eyed. "Well, can we escape?" She looks out the viewport. "Are we escaping?"
"No." Nailah groans at my tart response. "Now leave me alone for a moment here. I need to figure something out." I open a map of the nearby star systems and study it. I search through the few that I can reach before the corvette is on top of me and pick out the likeliest one. After ordering the computer to take me there, I refocus on my immediate vicinity. Nailah is kneeling awkwardly on my leg with one foot on the floor, staring backward out of the viewport. "You won't be able to see them," I scoff.
She shoots a glare at me. "Sorry. The last and only time I was in space, I never got a chance to see outside the ship." She returns to gazing out the viewport. "There's light everywhere so why is it so dark in here?" The only lights in the cockpit are dim blue panels on the floor. Even though the walls of the wormhole are defined by swirling light, the wormhole itself is pitch black.
"Things don't behave right in the river," I offer as my only explanation.
"Bizarre." Nailah sighs. "I guess I could do worse for a final sight."
I snort. "They won't blow us up. The corvette is big enough to tractor us inside."
Nailah sits down hard on my other leg. Her head drops into her hands. "I can't believe this. My whole life. Maybe it would have better if you did just leave me on top of the ship."
"Well, you’re welcome to pop out anytime you feel like it."
She scowls at me. "Why aren't you more worried about this? You certainly seemed terrified of being caught back in the city."
I shrug. "I would have had very little chance of escaping when planet-bound." I smile. "It's a much different story out here."
She squints at me. "You said we weren't escaping."
"We aren't. The corvette after us is at least twice as fast at full speed than the Raven. We’ll have to take it out if we want to live."
This obviously doesn't make her feel any better. "I don't exactly know what a corvette is but it is a warship, right? This does not seem like a warship."
"It is not. In fact, this little junk possesses no weaponry of any kind. Humans are not allowed to own armed spacecraft after all."
"So we're not escaping and we can't fight?" Nailah shakes her head. "So why are you so damn smug?"
I smile thinly. "I guess you'll just have to wait and see."
"Great." She looks away from me. "I'm stuck with a fucking bananas person." She mutters. "Maybe I can tell them I was kidnapped."
"I'm sure they have video of you leaping on top of my ship like a 'fucking bananas person.'" I put in quietly.
We both lapse into silence at that. I'm not sure why I'm not divulging my plans to her other than simple habit of never showing more cards than I have to. She is right that I am feeling more confident than I did on the Crescent. The simple fact of the matter was that I was upset about my own actions and had no control of what happened next. Whether I escaped before they found me. It almost didn't matter how it turned out, I just wanted the uncertainty to be over. Now I know where I stand and I can control my response to it. I also think I have a pretty good plan. Even if it would be suicide for just about anyone else.
An alarm sounds in my head, letting me know that we are approaching the exit gate. A few moments later, we exit the river into the star system. It is a red dwarf with a few planets and other random stellar debris. It doesn't matter. The only reason I chose this star system was that it was the closest uninhabited one to the Crescent. I accelerate a little ways from the gate and then cut the engines, leaving the Raven drifting away from the gate, dead. I systematically shut everything down but the emergency life-support.
Including the floor lights. Nailah gasps and I say, "Don't worry. This is part of the plan. We still have heat and oxygen."
"Alright," Nailah says tightly.
Not that I can blame her. This will be the worst part. The waiting. I can't see anything and all of the ship's sensors are off. I can do is count the seconds so that I can assure myself that time is indeed moving forward. The corvette cannot have been too far behind me but I can imagine that they are wary of some ploy. There is no reason, after all, that my ship should be powered down. There are easier ways to signal my surrender and no obvious damage.
My second count is at twelve-hundred and thirteen when I feel that telltale shudder of my ship getting caught in a tractor beam. I breathe a sigh of relief. I was a little worried they might simply blow us to pieces. I also believed the odds of them doing that went up if we were actively trying to escape.
"What was that?" Nailah whispers.
"Tractor beam. Corvette's got us," I say in a normal volume.
"Oh, no," Nailah moans.
"It’s fine," I say. "It's what I wanted to happen."
"Are you fucking with me?" Nailah hisses.
"Who knows?" I laugh. "Here, get down." I maneuver us around so that I am squatting in the pilot's seat and she is crouched on the floor. There isn't a whole lot of room between the pilot's seat and the control console but that will actually be helpful in this situation. "Get ready to brace yourself I say." All I get back is a look of helpless confusion but I have to trust she will do so when I command. After a a few more seconds, I feel the Raven set down with a clang.
I stand up a little on my seat so I can examine where we are. Like I thought, we are in the hanger of the corvette. There is a troop transport on one end of the hangar and ten niao to the right of my ship. The niao wear leather skirts, arm-braces, carry two-handed disrupters and have uniform gold and blue crests. That would be nearly the entirety of the niao marine squadron on board. Lucky me. Their leader is commanding me to exit the ship but I ignore him and duck back down.
I have options here. I sincerely wish I had my sword but the disrupter cannon in my arm is always with me. There are also the goodies I picked up from the Crescent. The two vials of biologic agents aren’t an option. To unpredictable, especially with Nailah here. Instead, I decide to go with one of the explosives. I fish into one of the hidden inner pockets of my shirt and pull out a small cylinder. I depress the small button on top and watch the red and violet chemicals mix for a moment. Then I pop the hatch open and chuck it out.
"Hold on!" I shout, quickly reclosing the hatch. A second later a roar and a wave of force smash into the Raven, twisting the ship and then flipping it over. I was not expecting quite that level of force and barely manage to anchor myself in place with one hand and catch Nailah with the other. The violence is over almost as soon as it starts, however and for a long moment, there is only the sound of ragged breathing from Nailah.
I lower her down to the hatch, which is now underneath us and then carefully follow. I yank the manual release for the hatch and the scent of scorched metal floods the cockpit. "Stay here," I whisper before slipping out of the ship. I stay in a crouch and survey the hangar. Luckily, the bomb didn't damage the integrity of the hanger, otherwise the Raven would have been sucked out into space already.
The bomb did do for the ten marines, though. Most of them had been flung against one wall, some so violently that they scarcely left more than a red spatter behind. Not one of them, even the ones that seemed to be mostly intact, seem to be breathing. I file away the name of the person that sold me the explosive. It's rare to find the arms dealer that doesn't overstate the power of his weapons. "It's alright to come out," I call, standing up.
Nailah exits the ship and gasps, "Oh, Christ," she whispers, her eyes running over the ten corpses. I guess I might have prepared her for what she was about to see. Nailah grabs the back of my shirt and presses her head into my back, gulping for air.
"If you're going to vomit, I would really prefer you do it elsewhere," I say.
"I'm not going to vomit..." she mumbles. "I just..." She takes another deep breath. "I'm alright." She lets me go and moves beside me. Her eyes occasionally flick over to the corpses but she is obviously trying to keep them on me. "What do we do now?"
I smirk. "What do you think? We take over the ship."
Nailah laughs mirthlessly. In fact, there seems to be an edge of hysteria to it. "Just like that?"
I grin and almost claim that I could take over a corvette like this in my sleep. My reflexive habit of obfuscating everything about myself kicks in, however, and I just say, "Look, I just killed the on-duty marine squadron. There is probably only one more on board. Two at most. The other thirty or forty niao on board won’t be as dangerous. We're talking ship's cooks, janitors and engineers." And naval officers and gunners, I add in my head. While I talk I move from body to body, inspecting their disrupter rifles. Most of the them are broken beyond repair but I manage to find three that are operable.
I toss the one least covered in viscera to Nialah. She catches it and holds it awkwardly. Which is understandable. "And what?" she asks. "We can kill all those niao easy because most of them aren't highly-trained killers?"
"We don't have to kill them all. We just need to get to the bridge. I can take care of things from there." In fact, I've been working on taking over the ship since I was close enough to connect into the ship's network. I've been feeding a variety of viruses into the corvette's network that are working on shutting down security cameras, making bulkhead doors inoperable and jamming communications. The communications are still up at the moment but I'm counting on the niao captain to have enough of an ego to refrain from reporting that his corvette is being hijacked by two humans.
"I’m assuming you've never used a disrupter before," I say, walking up to her.
"Sure I have. I was the vigilante of the Crescent. Fighting for human rights. You just caught me without my fucking mask."
I raise my eyebrows. "Well, Miss Vigilante, that is not how you hold a disrupter." I adjust her hands so that she is holding the gun as comfortably as possible. Niao arms and fingers tend to be larger on average than humans' so the grip is a bit awkward no matter what. I explain the triggering stud and the sights. "Keep your thumb to the side of the stud so you don't accidently fire," I say. "Try to keep the barrel pointed at the ground. Under no circumstances aim it at me." I shrug. "And if you see a niao: point and shoot."
Nailah sighs. "Just point and shoot, huh?" I can hear the strain in her voice.
"Exactly," I say, trying to buoy her spirits. "I'll take the point. Follow close behind and watch our backs. Call out if you see something." I knock the barrel of her disrupter with my own. "And remember. Keep that thing pointed backward or at the ground."
I take off right away, before Nailah can voice any more protest. We've tarried too long anyway. Good thing for her, she catches up and keeps right on my back. I glance at her every once in awhile and she seems to be keeping her eyes and gun pointed in the right direction. I have the schematic of the ship active in my brain and choose the shortest route to the bridge. The occasional closed bulkhead door makes me change my route more than once.
The worry that I may be heading toward an ambush eases slightly when I turn a corner and see a niao running in my direction. She stops and screeches in alarm. Before she has the chance to do anything more, my disruption wave hits her. The niao is blasted off her feet and tumbles away a bloody mess. A short while later, another niao crosses my path and then another and another, all with the same result. I wonder what the niao captain is doing. The loss of the security cameras must have crippled his ability to herd me toward the marines. Or at the very least, his non-martial crew away from me. Yet at the same time, he hasn't seen fit to sound the general alarm.
A shout from Nailah spins me around but before I can do anything, she triggers her rifle. The wave clips a niao that was running toward us, pistol in hand, and nearly severs the arm that was holding the gun. The niao reels, gouts of blood gush from the torn arteries in his shoulder. He sits down against the wall, shrieking with pain. I nod my head. "Not a bad shot. You should finish him off."
"What? I didn't mean to...He scared me. I don't want to kill him," Nailah says haltingly.
"It's more cruel to leave him like that," I say. "He'll bleed out and die anyway in few minutes. Save him some pain."
Nailah hesitantly raises her disrupter. It is noticeably trembling. After a moment, she whispers, "I can't."
"Let's go, then," I say and turning and marching back toward the bridge. Nailah catches up to me a few heartbeats later. Moments later I get a ping letting me know that the communications on the corvette are down. I almost laugh in triumph. No help coming. By the time Crescent command gets worried enough to send somebody to find out what happened, I'll be long gone.
I stop at the last turn that leads into the corridor to the bridge and quickly glance around the corner. I can see directly into the bridge and am delighted to see that they do not have the blast doors closed. "Stay here and keep an eye out," I tell Nailah. Before she has a chance to respond, I race around the corner. I sprint up the corridor, running for all I am worth. As I approach I can hear the niao talking amongst themselves. They are arguing about how to deal with me and what to do about the trashed communications. I start laughing, unable to help myself.
The niao closest to the doorway looks up and sees me. Instead of shouting an alarm, he simply stares at me in what must be disbelief. I leap into the air the moment I reach the bridge and crash into him, my left knee colliding with the niao's right eye socket. Hurts like hell when I hit the floor knees first. The niao's skull crumples under the force though. A quick glance tells me that I am dealing with nine more niao; the captain and his bridge officers as well as two marines.
The marines are obviously my first concern. I take aim and shoot one while scrambling to the left and to my feet. Then I throw myself over one of the consoles, tackling a niao engineer. A short, savage chop to her neck ends her struggling and her life. I put my back to the console as the collective naio finally begin to respond. A few disruption waves fly overhead but I am safe for the moment. Disruption waves are fantastic for damaging living organisms but the low-level waves from pistols and rifles have trouble generating enough energy to damage the durable kind of composite the console is made out of.
Still, the longer this goes on, the worse the odds I have. I seize the corpse of the niao I just killed and fling her into the air. At the same time, I push myself sideways and land on my right shoulder, disrupter pointed back toward the center of the bridge. The niao take the bait and focus on the corpse of their compatriot. I trigger one shot and then another, taking out the remaining marine and an officer. Then I quickly sit up, returning to the cover of the console.
One area that I find frustrating about disrupters is their inability to do a massive amount of damage quickly. They don't need ammunition the way human firearms do but there is a brief pause between each shot, which hampers their ability to provide covering fire. Disrupters are more precise than projectile weapons but I go back and forth about whether that makes them more valuable to a smaller force facing a larger or vice versa. I do know that a projectile weapon spitting a hundred bullets a minute would be very valuable right now.
Fortunately, I am always packing a more devastating version of the disrupter rifle. A mental command has energy flowing into my false arm. I have to be careful how much of a charge I generate. The disrupter cannon in my arm uses energy from the nanobots floating around in my body. If I suck too much from them, some very nasty things would probably happen. At least the Doctor claimed such and I have no reason to doubt him. I let the energy build, though, until my arm is actually vibrating. Then I stick my hand up above the console and let loose.
The blast lasts for about five seconds and I can hear the shriek of it pulling up metal fixtures. My arm is tingling and nearly numb by the time it's over but I immediately vault over the console and survey the situation. All the niao are down and it looks like at least two were killed outright. One from the blast and another from a piece of shrapnel lodged in his throat. I judge the three remaining and kill two of them quickly.
The last of the ten alive, happily for me, is the captain. I kneel down next to him and grab him by the front of his shirt, levering him up so he is sitting. He is squawking vaguely and his eyes look unfocused. I place the barrel of my disrupter just above one eye. That brings him to full awareness. "Tell me how to activate the self-destruct sequence." The self-destruct is hard-coded into the ship and there is actually a physical, analog button that I have to push.
"What?" the Captain whistles softly.
"The self-destruct sequence," I repeat. "How do I activate it?" At least that is what I hope I am saying. I know the right series of sounds to make but I am not sure if they are coming out of my mouth correctly. The phrase has a particularly high-pitched trill.
The panicked look the niao captain's eyes suggests that they are not. "Please don't kill me!" He shrieks. "What do you want? What do you want? Please, my ship is crippled. You can leave and we won't pursue."
"Well, unfortunately, my ship is also crippled," I mutter in English. In niaospeak I say, "The self-destruct sequence." while pushing the disrupter harder against his temple.
"Maybe I can help," a voice says softly behind me.
It is rare that person gets the drop on me and I nearly blow the captain's head right off. "Nailah!" I shout, my eyes flicking between her and the captain rapidly. "I thought I told you to stay back."
The woman simply shrugs and squats down next to me. "What are you trying to ask him?"
"I want to activate the ship's self destruct sequence." Nailah looks startled but repeats the question to the captain in much better niaospeak than I could.
The niao's gaze swings between we two humans and he eventually says, "I can't tell you that."
I dig the barrel harder into his cranium. "I will activate it, one way or another," I spit. "If you tell me where it is, I will let you live and sound the evacuation alarm. Otherwise, every niao on this ship dies."
The captain stares at me for a long time and then a high-pitched, keening wail emerges from his beak. I rap him with the disrupter. "None of that." The captain gets to his feet and slowly walks over to a relatively undamaged computer console. He takes one long look around the bridge and begins entering commands. I keep him covered with the gun and watch him carefully, trying to follow what he is doing.
Almost out of nowhere, I loud siren sounds along with a repeated, automated warning to evacuate the ship. I smile and trigger my disrupter, sending the niao captain sprawling across the console.
Nailah cries out. "I thought you said you would let him live!"
Resting the gun on my shoulder, I say, "He was too dangerous to let live. Besides, a captain should always go down with his ship. It's a human tradition." I chuckle. "Now let's get out of here before we share his fate."