“It’s not going to work,” Grist grumbles, now tied to the boarding ramp railing by his hands and neck. “Captain’s going to devour you.”
“Shut up,” Wei snaps. “Remind me why I haven’t removed your head like I did with your friend?”
Grist grumbles. “You think that I’m leverage.”
“Is he leverage, Hank?” Wei asks. “Really?”
Henry Saito fiddles with the deck of cards nervously and gazes out into the depth of space.
“Men that serve together often form bonds,” he replies. “On the outside chance that Devlin has a heart in his chest, he might not want another dead crewman.”
The deck of cards rolls over in Henry’s hand, he loses his grip and the cards flutter into the air, covering the floor with sextants, squadrons, constellations and orbits. He smiles sheepishly and climbs down onto the cockpit floor to put the deck back together.
Grist laughs, chokes, coughs and laughs again.
“I think it’s worth a shot,” Henry adds. “Is all I’m saying.”
“You’ve clearly got it all figured out,” Grist adds.
“Didn’t I just say ‘shut up’?” Wei responds.
She gets up from her seat, crosses the cockpit, and slaps Grist across the face.
“You made a special trip for me?” he asks, ignoring the palm mark on his cheek.
Wei slaps him again, turns and walks down to the crew quarters.
“Nope,” she calls behind her. “You were just on the way.”
She looks in on Tomas Ek, laying still on the bed. The gash on his face has clotted, and his breaths are deeper. He even mumbles in his sleep. Satisfied, Wei turns back and ambles down the corridor to the cockpit. When she reaches Grist again, she raises her hand to him.
The pirate flinches, his eyes blinking tightly shut, his eyebrows jolting downward.
Wei doesn’t follow through. She lowers her hand to her side, and waits until Grist opens his eyes. Then she smiles and winks at him.
“I’m in your head,” she says.
Grist says nothing.
“Ek looks okay. The med kit seems to have helped,” she says to Henry.
Henry nods. He touches his sore jaw and pokes at his ribs. “Worked wonders for me,” he says. “We’re as good as we’re going to be. I say we hail him.”
Wei agrees and sits down at the com. She turns it on and scrolls to the last incoming signal. A connection sound, like sonar, pings from the speakers. After a pair of cycles, a garble pixelated static replaces the pinging. Wei feels the color slide down her face toward her chest, a cool wave of nerves burbles in her gut.
“Grist? Wyzern? What’s the fucking problem?” Devlins demands. “I’m right in the middle of something.”
Faint moans fill the background of the soundscape.
Wei and Henry look at each other.
Grist chuckles behind them. “The captain loves his movies.”
“Captain Devlin,” Henry says. “This is Henry Saito of the Aurelius. I’m here with Wei Parker. I assume that you know what our contacting you means.”
Devlin mumbles something and fuzz fills the com. Suddenly the background moaning stops.
“So, you plucky kids got out of detention?” he says. “Are my men dead?”
Wei leans forward. “Wyzern lost his head. But Grist is just tied up at the moment.”
“We were hoping to make an exchange with you, Captain,” Henry adds. “Your living crewman, for our freedom and safety.”
Riotous laughter overwhelms the com channel, breaking down into digitized grunts and hiccups. The interior of the cockpit feels briefly haunted by Devlin’s mad, cackling spirit. Wei takes a deep breath and looks at Henry, who shrugs.
“Not good,” Wei mouths at Henry.
Henry smiles boyishly and nods.
Eventually the laughter dies down, and its cycling echoes disappear with it.
“Let me get this straight, you want to give me Grist in exchange for your ship and your lives?” Devlin asks. “What part of Grist’s exemplary performance as a prison guard gives you the impression that he’s worth anything to me?”
“Men that serve together often form bonds?” Henry Saito tries.
More laughter. More digital sound pollution.
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to find decent muscle in the System?” Devlin replies. “It’s not like I’m offering benefits and company starships.”
“The thrill of adventure must be an incentive,” Henry replies.
“Bah,” Devlin gasps. “The only folks who pirate these days are murderers, scam artists, and other non-pardoned convicts. Grist? I assume Grist is nearby. Grist?”
“Yeah,” Grist growls.
“You stole, what, forty personal cruisers in your day?”
“That’s right,” Devlin says. “See, Grist here stole himself some spaceships, but he got himself caught. That’s a strike against him. Of course, now he’s gone and got himself caught again. But he’s no longer on his own. He’s a liability to me. That makes two more strikes in my book. You might as well just execute him now. That’s what I’d do to a serial liability.
“Nothing personal, though. Only a matter of cutting loose a failing a investment.”
“Then we’ll trade you the opportunity to execute him for our freedom,” Wei offers.
Not as hearty as before.
“You just don’t get it,” Devlin responds. “This situation hasn’t gone as planned, so my sole focus right now is ring whatever profit I can out of that ship. I don’t care about Grist, or killing him. Hell, it saves me the mess. The only reason I’m still here is because my salvage guy is coming to take your stupid freighter off my hands.”
“Salvage guy?” Henry asks.
“Is there an echo?” Devlin responds. “Yes. Fucking. Salvage. Guy. See, he’s going to buy the ship from me, tear it to bits, rebuild it and resell it. I am going to take a nice transfer of credits and get back on my way.”
“And what about us?” Wei demands.
“What about you?” Devlin says. “You’re part of the package, so my buddy will do what he pleases with the contents of his ship. Now, if you want a guess, I’d say labor for the able men, and probably something softer for the girl, you know, relatively.”
Wei mutes the com.
“We have to do something,” she says.
“If we can get the ship free,” Henry says.
“You’re not doing shit,” Grist interjects. “The inhibitor on your engine keeps you here for as long as the captain wants. You all are supremely fucked.”
“You’re fucked right along with us,” Wei replies.
“Maybe,” Grist snarls. “But I deserve it.”
Wei unmutes the com.
“So there’s no way we can make a deal here, Captain?” she asks.
“I’m afraid not. My friend is already on his way. Shouldn’t be long now,” Devlin replies. “You’ve probably got time for a quick roll, if you read me.”
Devlin starts laughing again, rattling the com signal with garbled static.
“Now if you’ll pardon me,” he says, choking on laughter. “I’d like to finish my movie. Goodbye.”
The moaning returns to the background just before the com switches off.
Grist starts laughing.
“Captain loves his movies,” he repeats.
Wei stands up from the com console and waves for Henry to follow her. They pass Grist in silence and rumble down the corridor to the engine room. Wei stands beside the cubic tritium fusion engine, sitting cold and quiet. On the engine casing, attached between a heat sink and one of the coolant lines, is small hexagonal device with a slowly pulsing red light.
“How do we remove a fusion inhibitor?” she asks Henry.
Henry shrugs. “Not really my department. Sorry.”
Wei grips the inhibitor and pulls, but its magnetic seal to the engine casing is too powerful and her fingers slip with each attempt. She runs over to the tool locker and opens it. Inside she finds a laser saw, a powerhammer, two sets of ratchets; one metric, the other Martian, and an auto-adjust hyperspanner. Wei takes the powerhammer by the handle, turns it on, and carries it over to the engine.
“Be careful,” Henry says.
“Would you rather do it?” she replies.
Henry shakes his head.
Wei raises the powerhammer over the inhibitor, carefully lines up her strike, eyeballs it, realigns her strike, and then raises the tool above her head. As she swings downward, the powerhammer’s key feature activates and the tool compounds her swinging force and then multiplies it through momentum surges inside the handle. The result is that Wei hits the inhibitor with ten times her normal strength, contacting dead-on with the tool’s head. The impact rings through the tool, down its neck and into her hand with such vibration that she drops the powerhammer to the floor.
The inhibitor, however, is unmoved and undamaged.
“It must be shielded somehow,” Henry says.
“Yeah,” Wei answers, panting and clutching her stinging palm. “Any ideas?”
“We could storm the pirate cruiser and make them do it,” he says.
“I don’t think that will do it,” Wei says.
“Nah, that wasn’t one of my best ideas.”
Wei turns toward the engineering station and scans the console for anything that might be helpful. She doesn’t expect to find anything, but then no one does when searching for the improbable. Henry opens and closes the engineering lockers, and slides around the outer edge of the room like an animal seeking prey.
Then out of the corner of her eye, Wei catches a faint blue light, partially obscured by the bulk of the engineering station.
The neural cap.
Its light is illuminated.
“Hank,” she says.
Henry Saito turns and watches her lift the neural cap from its stand. The crisscrossing metal looks almost radiant in the wake of faint blue emanating from its processor compartment.
Wei Parker raises the neural cap overhead, and lowers it onto her skull. The familiar jolt of connection zips between her temples. Her eyes close involuntarily, open, flutter, and close again. She sees her fourth birthday party, and piñata in the shape of a classic 2190s Princessa convertible space cruiser. She hears herself arguing with one of her university professors over the impacts of civilian colony growth in the System. She feels a tingle of a memory of a sensation that gives way to a moment of powerful longing. Her eyes open, and she sees Henry standing across the room. She hears Henry asking if she’s okay. She nods. And deep in her head she knows things the ship’s computer knows. Past crew rosters. Destinations. Diagnostics. Com conversations. She feels it all inside her. But missing, in a kind of shadowy blindspot is any information about the last mission, the last several weeks.
“Is it working?” Henry asks.
Wei nods. “Oh it works. Maybe too well,” she tells Henry. “There’s something seriously strange about this interface.”
She moves through the shared processor menus, entering each of the Aurelius’s systems, digging as deep as she can, and coming back empty handed.
“What does that mean?” Henry asks.
Wei blinks hard and repeats her old mantra in her head “Welcome to Hyperion Station… Welcome to Hyperion Station…” to stay grounded in her own body.
“Well, Hank,” she says through heavy breaths. “I can look at almost everything, but I can’t make any changes. Every switch and circuit, every program and system, is locked at the last possible moment.”
“That’s not normal?” Henry asks.
“I’ve been using neural caps for three years,” Wei replies. “And I’ve never seen anything like it. All this awareness and access, but no control. It’s strange. I don’t know why anyone would design it this way.”
“Somebody has something to hide?” he asks.
“There are numerous redactions in here, so I’d vote yes,” she answers. “But it’s more than that. It’s like something is in here with me, deadbolting the doors right before I try to open them.”
Henry replies with a confused, but concerned look.
“Is there anything you can do to remove that inhibitor? I don’t think we have a lot of time left,” he adds.
“I’m trying, Hank,” Wei replies. “I swear I’m trying.”
She retreats to the top of the engine maintenance database. She grows short of breath. Her heart beats like she has run for miles. Her eyes begin to hurt. Wei digs back into the maintenance routines, looking for anything on inhibitors, overrides, workarounds, bypasses, reroutes… Anything to get the engine working again. She chases each string of information to their ends, sprinting in her mind, taxing her own neurons, and still she comes away with nothing. Nothing but a sharp, fiery headache and a strange numbness that pulses in her face.
Then, she finds something. Or maybe something finds her. In the deepest core of the maintenance subroutine she finds a note on the inhibitor. It’s not a file. It’s merely a whisper, or a makeshift note scrawled haphazardly in the depths of the ship’s processor core.
Wei approaches the note, and it becomes more clear, more defined.
It’s not a note.
It’s a voice.
Something is here trying to communicate to me, she thinks.
As she moves closer, the connection intensifies. Her lips curls on its own. Her right eyelid flutters.
“Inhibitor,” the voice repeats. “Inhibitor here.”
“Here?” Wei says.
Henry darts to her side. “Here?” he asks. “What’s here?”
Wei doesn’t hear Henry, her mind is occupied by other things.
“Inhibitor disable,” the voice says. “Remove inhibitor how.”
“How?” Wei asks. “How do I remove it?”
Henry gazes at Wei fearfully. He waves his hands in front of her eyes. She doesn’t respond.
“Here,” the voice tells Wei. “How to remove inhibitor here.”
Wei moves closer still to the voice, and something comes into focus. A silhouette of something. A person? No. It’s not a person. It’s something recognizable, but Wei knows she has never seen it before. She runs at the object, waiting for it to reveal itself. She needs to see the source of the voice. Her lungs ache. Her head feels like it will split apart. Darts of something like pain, but colder, shoot down her neck. And still she plods forward.
There it is. Almost clear. Almost something she recognizes. Wei reaches out for it, and suddenly it disappears, traceless, as if it was never there at all. And in its place there is a sudden sense of clarity, as if Wei already knows the answers to her problem.
And then, the inhibitor, floating there before here, highlighted with a silver glow.
Wei reaches out and grabs the device. It feels real in her hand. She turns the inhibitor in her hand, observing all sides. She looks closer and sees through the device, into its core, deep into the processor that’s keep the Aurelius immobile. Wei reaches inside it, and tears at the connections, the signals, the nodes, and elements. Pieces of inhibitor float around her. They spark and fizzle and turn to a vapor of particles. Then the inhibitor itself flashes hot white, dissolves, and disappears.
Somehow, Wei knows that it’s done.
She slides up through the levels of the ship’s processor, up through the menus and systems, until she is back at the entrance. She remembers her chant.
“Welcome to Hy--
“Welcome to Hyperi--
“Welcome to Hyperion Stat--
“Welcome to Hyperion Station…”
In a headrush, Wei is back inside her own mind. She swallows. She blinks. And she looks at Henry Saito, hovering over her in worry.
“Wei,” he says, loud enough that he’s been trying for a while. “Are you okay? Come on.”
Wei exhales hard and nods.
“I think so,” she says.
“How did you do it?” Henry asks.
“Did I do it?” Wei asks.
She looks behind her on the engine casing, and sees that the inhibitor is in pieces on the ship floor.
“I guess I did,” she says.
“Well? What happened?” Henry demands.
“I don’t really know,” she answers. “Something helped me find it, and take it apart. Something big.”
“What do you mean ‘big’?”
“Like, a massive processing power, deep inside the ship, telling me what to do.”
“Maybe you need to lie down,” Henry says.
“No,” Wei exclaims. “I know what I saw. It doesn’t matter. We have to start the engine.”
She engages the powerup sequence on the engineering console. Inside in the neural interface, Wei watches the system light up step-by-step. She smiles. Behind her she hears the tritium fusion engine load with coolant, and hum to life.
Henry pats her on the shoulder.
“Goddamn,” he says.
“You’re telling me,” Wei replies.
Wei takes off the neural cap, and hangs it up on the console’s hook.
She breathes deep and exhales long again, touches her chest, feeling her heartbeat return to normal, and then stands up.
“We’re in business,” Henry says. “If we crank this up to full power, their tractor beam won’t hold.”
Wei smiles, and slides the power level to the top.
“We’ll do a little damage to them in the meantime too,” she says.
The Aurelius engine hums louder and louder. The coolant pumps faster and faster. The ship inches forward, then jumps, then hits peak velocity. The Polo-class freighter zips forward. It rattles and shakes, overtaxed by its own propulsion. The attached pirate ship, as a counterweight, whips around in a circle. Wei and Henry grab onto the engineering console, holding with all their strength as the two ships, connected as a binary, chase each other in circles, the focus of the Aurelius’s engine force concentrated on the pirate tractor beam and docking arm. The tethered ships spin. And spin. And spin.
Inside, Grist tumbles down the corridor. Tomas Ek, and the bed he’s on, slide into the outer wall of the crew quarters. Henry and Wei cling to the engineering console.
The ships continue to spin.
The com lights up.
Devlin screams at them, but they only hear distant echoes from the hallway.
Then the docking arm snaps, cable and titanium and hydraulics splinter away into space.
With nothing solid holding the ships together, the tractor beam stretches and thins.
And finally breaks into sparks and vapor.
The Aurelius slingshots away, under the combined power of the engine and momentum. In seconds, they are clear of the pirate cruisers. Devlin’s ship spinning out of control like a top. In minutes, they can’t even see light reflecting from the ships.
Wei dials the engine back down to prime. The Aurelius stops shaking. The ship stabilizes.
And the auto-pilot light illuminates again.
“Did you do that?” Henry asks, point at the auto-pilot.
“No. I think the ship did,” Wei responds.
She lets go of the engineering console and walks toward the cockpit.
“We have to do something about Grist,” she says.
“Oh, I have an idea,” Henry says.
Wei and Henry haul Grist to his feet. The pirate looks at them dazed.
“You guys could use some muscle. I could be useful,” he says.
“Not so sharp-tongued now, are we?” Wei asks.
Grist smirks. “I’m a survivor.”
Wei and Henry drag Grist down the corridor to the emergency airlock. They pressurize the room. Then they open the door, and activate one of the ship’s two escape pods.
“Hey what’re you doing?” Grist says.
“Don’t worry,” Wei replies. “You’re a survivor.”
Henry and Wei shove Grist into the pod. The pirate, still tied up, tumbles inside. While he tries to gather himself, Henry and Wei return to the crew quarters. They take one leg each and drag the headless corpse of Wyzern down the hall. Together, they prop the body up onto its feet and heave it into the escape pod with Grist.
“What the fuck?’’ Grist yells. “What the fuck?”
“We figure that since you probably knew him best, you’re the ideal guy to give him a proper burial,” Henry says.
He and Wei back away from the escape pod, and activate the launch sequence. From the corridor, through a window in the airlock door, they watch the pod eject from the ship, and tumble down into empty space. In a few moments, the automated thrusters fire and propel the pod far from the freighter.
When they turn around, they see Tomas Ek standing in the crew quarters doorway. The businessman lightly prods at his healing cheek, and touches the side of his aching head.
“What happened?” he asks.
“We got away, Ek,” Wei says.
“Actually, Wei saved us,” Henry adds.
Ek stares at them perplexed.
“It’s your turn to man the cockpit, Ek,” Wei says. “I think Henry and I need to get some rest.”
Wei pushes past Ek into the crew quarters. She pulls up the sheets on one of the unoccupied beds, and sits down. She feels simultaneously electric and exhausted. Henry Saito stumbles in behind her. He aims himself at the bed Ek had occupied, and flops down on the rumpled sheets.
“Close the door,” Wei says.
Henry rolls over and looks at her.
“Close the door?”
“Yeah. Ek doesn’t need supervision. He can’t do anything. And he’s recovering nicely,” she says. “I want some privacy.”
“I can go,” Henry responds.
“No,” Wei says. “You should stay.”
“This isn’t what I think it is, is it?” he asks.
“It might be,” Wei says.
She opens the sheet on her bed.
“I like the way you handled yourself,” she adds. “I didn’t think you had that in you.”
“It was nothing,” Henry replies. “Anybody can get punched. You were the impressive one.”
“You don’t need to be so humble,” Wei says. “But, good answer.”
Henry sits down on Wei’s bed.
She sits up and kisses him.
Far behind the Aurelius, Devlin’s pirate cruiser pursues.