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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 5: Abrupt Departures

    “Gravity, antigravity and inertial drives have run test cycles, all show ready. Hull integrity check came back positive.” Joseph was listing off test results to Tyrone, who sat in the pilot’s position. Allison was mostly just listening as they went through pre-flight checks. She only understood about half of what they were saying.
    “Fuel looks good, autopilot off, throttle at minimum. Firing standard engines.” There were two light thumps as Tyrone entered the command, and then a quiet, pleasant hum filled the ship. “Port engine green.”
    “Starboard green.” Joseph leaned back. “Now we just have to wait while they spool up.”
    “And hope the inertia drive can keep the trees in one place.”
    “That too.” A startled look crossed Joseph’s face. “Oh, Allison, I forgot to mention that to you. Did you put all your things away in your cabin?”
    “Not everything.” She half-rose from her seat. “That’s important, I take it?”
    “For anything that isn’t soft, yes. Even if we aren’t maneuvering hard and the inertia drive is keeping up, things can jump around a bit. It’s rare for things to move more than a couple inches, but if you didn’t put things like your computer in some kind of latched compartment, it would be best to go do that.”
    “Okay. I’ll take care of it.”
    She walked swiftly down the corridor from the cockpit. It went straight back about two thirds of the distance to the cargo bay with rooms on either side, then branched into two corridors at forty-five degree angles to the original that finished the distance. Her cabin was down the angled corridor on the port side.
    Allison scooped her computer off the bed and stored it in the top drawer of the cabin’s small desk, then looked around for any other unsecured items. There were a few more things to straighten up. It only took a minute to store them all and lock up.
    She looked guiltily at the wardrobe as she latched it. She’d left her other possessions unsecured, but had carefully hung, folded and stored every piece of clothing she’d bought that day. It had been fun and a little exciting, but she’d clearly spent far more time on it than necessary. She couldn’t have known it would matter though, and Joseph had implied as much. It had been a pleasure to pick out the nice things she actually liked to wear instead of the work clothes she’d brought from home. 
    In the months working behind the bar in the strip club she’d been glad to have them, of course. She’d always felt the need to cover as much of herself as possible, both to separate herself from the girls on stage and to keep the patrons from noticing her. Happily, those days were over now.
    As she closed her cabin door and started back to the cockpit, she had a sudden, instinctive perception that something was off. Some slight sound or odd air current alerted her to something behind her. Just as she turned to look, she saw a hand reaching around to cover her mouth!
    Allison lunged forward, away from her would-be captor. The split-second reaction didn’t quite carry her away from the man. She felt a hand seize a handful of the left side of her shirt, and the one reaching for her mouth grabbed her shoulder instead. But her mouth was still free. She shrieked at the top of her lungs.
    The man attacking her cursed. Joseph yelled something from the cockpit, but the words didn’t register. She tried to break her captor’s hold on her, but couldn’t. She screamed again, then he managed to clamp one hand over her mouth.
    A brief struggle followed, as the man tried to seize her around the waist with the other arm while she tried to twist out of his grip. They turned an awkward circle as they struggled, and when he finally managed to restrain her they had turned around so that she was facing down the corridor to the cargo bay. He started dragging her backwards up the corridor toward the corridor intersection, and she wondered irrationally through her panic if he was lost.
    Allison tried to slow their progress and kept thrashing around, attempting to break his grip. When they neared the intersection, she grabbed onto a doorframe with both hands, bringing their progress to a halt. The man tried twice to wrench her off, but she stubbornly hung on to the gray metal of the starship’s wall.
    The hand clamping her mouth shut suddenly released as he shifted his grip to get more leverage. She considered screaming again, but as that occurred to her heavy footfalls from the direction of the cockpit told her it wasn’t necessary. Before her captor could pull at her again, Joseph’s fist drove into his face.
    Allison pulled harder at the doorframe, trying again to free herself by brute force. A few moments ago it would have been impossible; the man had more strength in the arm holding her than she had in her whole body. Now that he was distracted, she could feel his grip slipping. For a few seconds the man tried to hang on to her with one hand and fend off Joseph with the other. Several more blows from the starman made him reconsider, and suddenly she was loose.
    Spinning to face her captor, she finally recognized him. It was the man with the red jacket and the muscle car that had tried to tail her and Tyrone, now dressed in the coveralls of a dock worker.
    Unencumbered and with his full attention now on fighting Joseph, he was getting the better of the brawl. Joseph wasn’t as fast, and couldn’t dodge all of the attacker’s punches. He was also, Allison realized with a jolt, trying to stay away from the knife in one of his opponent’s hands.
    Allison watched in horror as they fought, with no idea what to do to help. If she tried to join the fight she was sure she’d only get in the way. Joseph retreated from the gangster’s thrusts, but the man managed to trip him as he backed into the corridor intersection. Joseph fell backward into the corridor to the cockpit. With a cry of triumph the attacker knelt on top of him, pinning him down, and Joseph grabbed the wrist of the man’s knife hand to keep him from driving it into his chest.
    Distracted by his apparent victory, the gangster didn’t notice what Allison saw and Joseph had known all along. Tyrone, who was significantly more muscular than his friend, was rushing down the corridor toward the fray. His eyes flashed dangerously and he held a piece of metal pipe as long as Allison’s arm with both hands. He swung the end of the weapon into the fingers holding the knife, and the blade clattered to the deck.
    The gangster cried out in pain. He tried to rise again to face the newcomer, but Joseph was clenching his wrist in both hands and yanked him back down. Tyrone brought the pipe down on his back several times, then swung it sideways into his shoulder and ribs. There was cracking noise as at least one bone broke, and his head smacked hard into the metal wall.
    The gangster’s motions now had a feeble quality, and Joseph rolled out from under him. He was thrown to the floor where he knocked his head again. Joseph rose, breathing heavily and bleeding from the nose.
    Tyrone discarded the pipe and closed his hands around the dazed man’s throat, squeezing enough to convey the new state of affairs to the gangster as he as he came around. He tried to say something several times, but as soon as he started Tyrone would clamp down harder, cutting off speech. The intruder got the message and settled into compliant silence, other than occasional pained groans.
    “Are you alright?” Joseph asked Allison.
    She nodded numbly as the panic subsided. “Yeah. He was trying to drag me out, not hurt me.” She examined her hands and arms, surprised to see several scratches. “I did that myself, I guess.”
    “Whatever it takes. Which way was he trying to drag you?” The starman gave a confused look down the corridor toward her cabin.
    It surprised Allison that she actually had to think to remember events that occurred mere seconds before. “Toward the starboard side, I suppose. He grabbed me right when I left my cabin, and then started toward here instead of the cargo bay.”
    “You’d better check the exterior cameras before we decide which door to throw him out of.” Tyrone’s voice was an angry growl. “He could have friends waiting outside. I don’t know why else he’d come back toward us, unless he was just lost. Or an idiot, a possibility I’m not willing to rule out. He was trying to follow us around the stores today in a bright red leather jacket.” The gangster glared at him, but didn’t have enough air to make any reply.
    “I’ll check from the cargo bay,” Joseph agreed with a nod. “You may as well bring him along. Allison, stay with us. If there were any more of them onboard they would probably have come to help him from the start, but I don’t want you alone until we check the rest of the ship.”
    She nodded and stood aside so they could pass her down the port side corridor. The intruder gave her a malevolent stare as he was propelled past, and she shrunk away from him. Tyrone caught the exchange and shook the man roughly, causing him to groan in pain again.
    When they were about even with Allison’s cabin, Joseph paused, opened a compartment in one of the bulkheads that Allison hadn’t known was there and withdrew a rifle. Allison’s eyes bulged as she watched him check the magazine, as did the thug with Tyrone’s hands around his throat.
    “Allison, I’ll show you this a little more thoroughly after we’re off planet, but remember where it is.” She nodded as Joseph met her eyes. He turned to address their captive. “As for you, remember that however many bones we broke, this could have gone worse for you. I passed six of these spots on my way from the cockpit. Most Tetonite ships are lined with them in case the ship is boarded, something you should bear in mind if someone asks you to do this again.
    “In exchange for your life, you will carry a message to Terrence for us. I have no doubt he read our destination off the information panel in the docking bay. If he sends anyone else after Allison, he shouldn’t send anyone he needs. They’ll come back in a coffin or not at all. Clear?” The captive nodded. “Good.”
    In the cargo bay, the other three waited while Joseph used a computer terminal to take a look at their surroundings. “That gray sedan is back, sitting by the entrance to our docking bay. I suppose that’s why you wanted to go out the starboard side?” The thug nodded. “Good to know. Allison, come over here.”
    Joseph showed her the panel of buttons that controlled the six massive doors to the cargo bay, among other things. It had a red outline of the ship painted on it. Most buttons and switches placed by what they controlled, with a representation of that item painted in green.
    “We’re going to use this door.” He pointed out the buttons for the one furthest forward on the port side. “They’re a long way back on the starboard side, so they won’t see it opening, and once they see him fall out they’ll be too far away to get there before it’s closed again. Green button is to open, red to close. Open it when I wave at you, and close it again as soon as Tyrone pushes him out.”
    “Okay.” Allison nodded. She examined the other controls as Joseph and Tyrone marched the gangster up to the door. The only ones whose function she had time to determine were the switches for the ramps, positioned next to each set of door controls.
    Joseph waved, and she mashed the button to open the door. The starman shifted his rifle to firing position to confront any threat in the docking bay. Once the door opened completely, which took a good fifteen seconds, Tyrone shoved their attacker out. Allison hit the close button immediately, and the tension in her gut eased. The ship felt safe again. Joseph, less satisfied, kept his rifle ready to fire until the door had sealed shut.
    “What now?” Allison asked as she met Tyrone and Joseph by the door out of the cargo bay. 
    “We’re ready to take off.” Tyrone closed and locked the door to the cargo bay after they passed through. “Let’s get into space and on our way to our FTL jump point. We should have about an hour and a half of travel time before we jump, which is plenty to sweep the ship for any more intruders.”
    Joseph nodded his agreement. “Also, the port is going to start wondering about the delay if we don’t move soon. I’ll lock down the other door to the cargo bay and meet you up there.”
    Soon they were all strapped into harnesses in the cockpit waiting to exit the atmosphere. Allison looked around in nervous excitement, torn between watching what the two men were doing and looking out the windows. She gazed down at the port as the ship lifted off, gently floating up a couple hundred feet while Tyrone waited for the landing struts to retract. Beyond the port, she could see most of Nevarris in the sunset.
    Their ship accelerated and began to climb. She watched out the side windows as they passed over first the grassy plains around the port town, then the nearby coastal wetlands, then the ocean.
    The ride wasn’t as rough as she had worried. It was no worse than a car ride, but she knew they were going much faster and should be feeling far more force. The inertial drive the two starmen had mentioned must have been doing its job. Finally they emerged from the atmosphere and the only thing she could see out the windows was the vast, star-strewn black sheet of space.
    Tyrone locked the controls and flipped on the autopilot to take them toward their jump point. Joseph rose and picked up his rifle again, then reached past Allison to call up a set of images on the screen at her station. After a few moments she realized they were the ship’s internal cameras.
    “One more chore to take care of. We’ll lock the cockpit behind us. Keep an eye on those, and if you see anyone other than us, broadcast their location on the intercom.” Joseph pointed out the controls, and Allison nodded.
    “Hurry up Joseph, if we finish quickly we might still have time for dinner before we jump.” Tyrone was next to the cockpit door, checking a rifle. Allison could only guess where he’d pulled it from.
    “Good plan.” Joseph joined him, and soon she was alone in the cockpit. 
    She leaned back in the chair with a sigh and unstrapped as well, watching as the two men moved through the ship, meticulously checking every compartment. She smiled to herself as she watched. She was on a ship headed into deep space, with two people she’d only met that day, and she was going to sleep better tonight than she had in months. It was funny how these things worked out.

Published: February 4 2018

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