Chapters:

Moonfall

The Smugglers

Ant heard the transmission being decoded by the computer seconds before the words came out. “You have entered Tet space. Power down and prepare for inspection.”

They were entering orbit of Tet Prime’s largest moon, Cirrante. Typically customs would have told them to queue closer to the customs station, which was in geosynchronous orbit around the equator of the planet. The fact that they were coming all the way out here to inspect them concerned him, as it meant they were likely watching for his ship. Not a good sign.

Inspection meant deep scans and a likely boarding.

“Tone, we have company. We’re about to be boarded.” His second-in command’s reply floated down the hall from the cargo bay.

“We’re good, chief. Cargo’s secure.”

By secure, he meant locked in a graphene-lined case and sealed with a host of anti-sniffer nanites. They’d cost a fortune to have programmed, but he’d make his money back on delivery. The coffin-sized case had been lowered into a void in the maintenance deck and filled with scramble pellets, which were designed to confuse scanners.

When under examination, the scramble pellets would appear to be just another insulated void in the bulkhead of the ship.

Ant had also hired a master hostweaver to program the nans inside the case to filter any stray molecules of the cargo out of the air so that inspections sniffers couldn’t detect them, even during an up-close examination.

While the Tet were known for their rigid command structure, they could also be counted on to underpay their inspectors, which would hopefully work as a last resort if somehow they managed to detect the illicit cargo.

Ant was always willing to spread the wealth if it meant keeping him out of a prison sentence of asteroid mining. Better to make a little less money and continue having one’s freedom than that.

Ant heard Tone’s heavy footfalls clanking down the hall to the bridge of his ship, the Devil’s Advocate. He was a tall, stocky man with dark brown skin and a close cropped fade. He’d lost an eye before ascension, during one of his derelict’s many wars, and wore a variety of eye patches to cover it. Today he was wearing a plain black leather patch. He sighed as he eased his large frame into the copilot’s chair next to Tone’s.

They’d met at a deep space trading post, the kind where the patrons met to avoid official scrutiny and the exchange of information was the currency of favor.

Ant and Tone had been on opposing sides of a transport deal which had soured when Ant, Tone, and the buyer had all been arrested upon entry to the delivery port. Under direct pressure from the authorities, neither had snitched on one another and in a profession where trust was a scarce commodity, had learned a bit about each other.

After being released due to insufficient evidence, they’d become fast friends. They were both named Anthony, for starters, but both had been given different nicknames growing up. Ant was what his grandfather had called him, during his pre-ascension childhood.

Tone had gotten his nickname when in the military. His squaddies had started calling him Tone because he liked to sing in the showers and had a horrible voice. It had started as Tone Deaf but via continued usage, had been shortened to Tone.

The proximity alert on began to chime a medium, repeating note. Ant flipped a toggle to disable it and pressed a button to transmit to the Tet inspection dinghy.

“Powering down. Lock is green.”

Ant nodded to Tone and they both flipped several dials and toggles, the hum of the engine slowly winding down, but not completely.

Ant had spent several million credits to create a fast ignition system for the interstellar drive that was undetectable by scanners. It prevented the ship’s quantum drive from completely shutting down and reduced the restart to full power to a mere fifteen seconds.

The reason inspectors had cargo ships power their drives down was that it took several minutes to re-warm the drive to a level where propulsion was available again. Smugglers didn’t want that limitation, and the best smugglers could afford to purchase the modification.

Ant had it installed a month before, in preparation for this job, but this would be the first time actually depending on it, and his nerves jangled just a bit.

A little preparedness goes a long way, Ant thought to himself as he turned the mod on, then slid the throttle down to the zero percent mark.

The drive’s hum rumbled to a stop. If Ant didn’t know any better, he’d think it was completely off. He glanced at Tone, who nodded, sharing his unease, then turned back to the instrument panel, finalizing the docking procedure.

They’d been through inspections before. It wasn’t the inspection that had them on edge, but the cargo. If it was discovered, they would likely be on the run for the rest of their lives, if they were able to escape in the first place.

The people who’d hired them were not the kind you failed. While the contents of the container they were smuggling weren’t specifically known, just smuggling for an anti-government faction then getting inspected by said government would put them on the short list for a long prison sentence.

The ship gave a slight shimmy as the Tet dinghy’s dock attached to the Devil’s port.

Ant stood and walked back to the port to greet the inspectors while Tone stayed in the copilot seat.

As Ant approached the door, he saw that the Tetian inspectors had an armed guard with them. The inspectors themselves were cookie-cutter Tet, with the olive-skinned complexion typical of their race. They wore the black uniform with three glyphs on the front, the symbol for the Tetian Customs Bureau. They were both average height, and one of them was chubbier than the other.

Ant’s brain was whirring and calculating. Typically Tet customs were understaffed, and he’d done this run several times, but he’d never been boarded by more than a single inspector. The sheer volume of ships coming into Tet space and transporting cargo to Tet Prime was too high. More than half of his crossings at the Tet border had been met with a wave-through and no further inspection.

The fact that they’d sent two inspectors and an armed guard was concerning.

It was hard to get an inspector to accept a bribe when his there was a witness, much less an armed guard. This would make his job much more difficult if things went sideways.

Just have to hope they don’t find the cargo.

One of Ant’s gifts was that he was pretty good at reading people and extrapolating intention. He could read them within seconds of seeing them. It was immensely helpful in his profession, and had saved him several times.

He walked up to the door and looked the the dinner-plate sized viewport, pretending to fumble with the controls while he got a good look at them. The chubbier inspector wore glasses and had an unkempt mustache and a shade of whiskers on his cheeks, more than one night’s worth, and he glanced nervously at the other inspector, who was clean shaven and gazed intently at Ant while he pretend-fumbled with the mechanism. Ant noticed he had a pip on the collar of his uniform, a signification of rank.

Skinny one’s in charge, Ant thought. Probably some type of probation auditor or something. Chub’s likely in trouble, hence the supervisory figure. The audit was surprise for him, since he didn’t shave this morning- had he known he would’ve trimmed the mustache. Armed guard is so they can make an arrest if they need to, and the guard answers to the skinny one.

So the chubby auditor got caught stealing or accepting a bribe. They’re watching him because they think he’s taking bribes or stealing and they want to catch both parties in the act.

What’re the odds? Ant thought, That I get the dirty inspector who’s being supervised, when I’m transporting the biggest job I’ve ever attempted?

Ant finally opened the lock to a hiss of air and puffs of condensation. The inspectors didn’t have environmental masks on, though the soldier was wearing standard issue face armor and helmet to go along with his body armor.

The Devil’s Advocate ran a universally approved human formula of environmental gas, its ratio of elements and microbes carefully monitored by the ships computer to be passive and non-harmful to human life. Occasionally Ant would have the computer mix in some mild stimulants if they were doing a long run that required heightened wakefulness, but usually purged it when approaching an inspection port.

“Hey guys,” Ant greeted them. “How we doin’ today?”

Chubs answered first, while Skinny turned to watch his interaction. The soldier stood with his weapon hanging loosely by his side, seemingly disinterested in the whole interaction.

Chubs cleared his throat nervously and announced in a too-loud voice: “On authority of the Tet Customs Bureau, you are hereby ordered to submit to an inspection.”

Ant nodded, chuckling under his breath. He could almost see Tone rolling his one good eye at the false bravado of the inspector.

Chubs continued, realizing he’d spoken too loudly, and overcompensating by speaking in a too-quiet voice, “I’m Inspector Garza. This is Senior Inspector Orantes. Show us to your hold, please.” Beads of sweat were forming on Garza’s forehead.

Ant looked back at Orantes. He was watching Garza closely.

Ant gestured broadly toward the aft of the ship, down the hallway.

“Right this way, gentlemen.” He stepped to the side and allowed the inspectors to pass. The soldier stopped and nodded at Ant to go ahead.

Intimidation tactic or security protocol? Ant wasn’t sure which.

Chubs, or Garza now, cleared his throat as he approached the cargo hold. “Is there anyone else on board?”

Ant nodded. “My copilot is in the cockpit monitoring the ship.”

“Very well. Do you have your documentation?” he asked as the group entered the cargo hold, dozens of magnetic anodized barrels stacked in neat rows and columns, webbed over with elasticized poly cargo nets to hold them in place in case of an inertial event.

Ant nodded and pulled out his tab, flinging the documents to the inspectors. The documents appeared on the tablets hanging from the inspectors tool belts.

Garza lifted the tablet and began to sort through the papers.

“Mr. Brava, dba Devil’s Advocacy, LLC, from the Solarian System, transporting Helium 3 to Tet Prime, si?”

Ant nodded in confirmation. Garza was speaking more confidently now. Apparently whatever he saw in the documents had made him more comfortable with the interaction. Orantes watched the conversation casually, hands on his hips, one hand resting on his tablet, much like a cop would rest his hand on the butt of his pistol.

I guess a tablet is a bureaucrat’s weapon.

“We’re going to need you to unpack one of these stacks so we can scan them,” Garza said, gesturing to one of the stacks of barrels. They were organized in rows of four by five, twenty barrels apiece.

“Sure thing,” Ant replied, trying to keep his tone light. He walked over to the wall of the cargo hold where a control pad lit up as he approached. A few taps on the pad and the net relaxed. He returned to the stack, flipping the net off of it and unstacking a few barrels so that the inspectors could access the inside of the row.

“Stand back please,” Garza said, activating the scanner on his tablet. A purple beam extended over the barrel and then the stack, slowly scanning over the barrels.

Garza tapped a button on the screen and a tube dropped out of the bottom of the tablet with a port on the end of it. He approached one of the barrels and connected the port on his tablet to the port on the barrel with a sharp, quick hiss.

A chemical structure popped up on the screen which he compared to the structure on the cargo documentation.

“Mr. Brava, come here, please.” Garza extended the tablet. “There is a discrepancy between your reported cargo and the contents,” he said.

Ant approached and looked at the tablet intently. He wasn’t worried about these barrels, he was worried about the package beneath their feet. He knew the cargo in the hold was legit, one hundred percent. If there was a discrepancy, it wasn’t in the paperwork Tone had filed.

The chemical structures were identical. Garza must have misread the structure. Ant looked up at him just in time to see Garza glance over his shoulder, and in the reflection of Garza’s glasses, he saw Orantes approaching silently from behind, a long combat knife raised. With sudden intuition, he understood. The two inspectors, armed guard, everything. He had completely misread the situation.

He dropped and turned as Orantes’ blade dove for him. Rather than stop the momentum, Ant grabbed his arm and pulled it over his shoulder, drawing Orantes’ chest tight against his back. The skinny inspector held the blade in a downward-stabbing grip, much to his disadvantage. Ant pulled the arm downward sharply, using his own shoulder as a fulcrum, bending Orantes’ elbow backwards, dislocating it as he pulled the knife into the safe area between his arm and his side.

Orantes let out a surprised squeal and dropped, clutching his ruined elbow, while Garza reached for his own weapon. It had to be a hidden blade, Ant hadn’t noticed any weapons on them when they’d boarded- which brought two discomforting thoughts to the front of his brain.

The first thought was that this was the reason Orantes had been standing with his hands on his hips, angled away from him. He’d been shielding the blade with his body so that Ant didn’t notice it.

The second thought was that the soldier was still behind him, and he had a deadly weapon that could be used from range.

As Garza drew his own knife from the hidden sheath in his black fatigues, Ant didn’t dare take his eyes off the chubby inspector. The soldier announced from behind him, “Hands on your head! Get down on your knees! I won’t ask twice!”

Ant dropped to his knees slowly. “You’re gonna regret this, fellas.”

Orantes moaned on the floor, clutching his backward-jointed arm, face white and shiny with sweat.

“Shut the fuck up!” Garza shouted, but Ant wasn’t sure whether he was speaking to his partner or him.

“Who sent you?” Ant asked. “You’re not customs. Uniforms be damned. Did you kill the real team or just steal the uniforms?”

Garza shook his head and addressed the soldier behind Ant. “Go do the copilot. No need for silence now,” he nodded. Ant heard the soldier’s footsteps begin to recede as he turned and went back across the cargo bay. The intimation was clear- Tone was about to be murdered by the soldier.

Well, shit. Not many options left. He called out,”Cookie! I need you! Code Red! Extreme prejudice!”

Garza looked at him, then looked over his shoulder toward the soldier, who was about two-thirds of the way back to the hallway leading to the cockpit.

A segment of the wall was unfolding, expanding into a humanoid shaped automaton. It unfurled its limbs, head rising out of its armored torso, and a large retractable blades sprang out of the end of its arms. A smoldering halo appeared around its gold-glowing eyes, which shifted to a red glow, signaling its aggressive intent.

“Fuck!” Shouted the soldier, who began to shoot at the droid, backing up slowly. Bullets ricocheted off the carbon ceramic armor plates of the machine as it advanced with deadly efficiency, each step larger than a human leap. It closed the gap in two strides, unfazed by the storm of bullets from the soldier.

Cookie reached the soldier in under a second, driving a blade into his torso and swinging upward in an arc, sundering the man’s ribcage, blood and effluvia misting through the air as the torso of the soldier was nearly cleaved vertically in two.

Without missing a beat, the droid propelled itself with both arms and legs, adopting a loping, animal-like gait as it turned toward the two living invaders.

Ant saw Garza’s eyes widen as the mechanical monster galloped toward him, and he backed up, managing to retreat a total of one step before Cookie was on him, driving one of the large blades through his neck and withdrawing it, blood spraying from the exit wound as his heart pumped its final beats.

Cookie’s torso rotated to face the final intruder, who by all indications, was going into shock.

“Wait, Cook,” Ant said. The droid’s stance immediately relaxed, but the blades didn’t withdraw. It stood, watching silently, with the exception of the quiet thrum from its core.

“Senior Inspector Orantes,” Ant said quietly, “Who sent you?”

Orantes pale face blanched, eyes looking from the droid and back to Ant nervously, fresh rivulets of sweat dripping from his chin to the grated floor of the cargo hold.

“Th-they didn’t tell us,” he replied weakly.

“Well, what use are you to me then?” The implication was clear.

“We r-received an intel p-package with your hull sig-signature and p-pictures of the crew,” he shivered hurriedly, “w-with orders to elimin-nate you.” He shook his head. “Don’t know who h-hired us.”

Ant dropped to one knee to look the man in the face. “How much?”

“T-ten million for each of us,” he glanced at the shredded corpse of Garza. “Not enough,” he grunted.

No amount of money is enough when you got yourself killed, Ant agreed.

How’d you get the money? From where?”

“N-none y-y-yet,” Orantes replied, his eyes rolling around in his head.

“So you morons take a job with no upfront based on a potential ten mill payout? Last I heard industry-standard for hits with the guild were two-thirds up front, one-third on completion.”

Orantes’ shivering was shaking his whole body now, and his eyes were almost all white, his pupils rolled up into his skull.

Ant rose and stepped over the quivering assassin, walking back toward the hallway. “Cookie,” he said over his shoulder, “Dump these out of the airlock and clean this mess up.”

“Yes, sir,” Cookie’s electronically female voice responded.

He walked over the remains of the soldier, strewn across a ten foot swath, pausing to pick up the combat rifle. No need to waste it.

“And, Cookie…” Ant said, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, sir,” She said cheerfully, driving her blade through the torso of Orantes’ prone body.

As Ant approached the cockpit, he saw that Tone had lowered the blast doors to prevent entry. Tone was just as capable as Ant in a fight, but he knew that he wouldn’t have to fight once Cookie got involved.

She was illegal, of course. Ant had gotten her in a black market swap for payment when a buyer had been short on their delivery fee.

She’d been part of the Solarian government’s expansion into space after the ascension. When humanity had learned how to travel faster than light, two problems presented themselves. How to explore the vastness of space with such a limited populace, and how to keep our people safe and alive in space.

The government had responded by dumping massive amounts of resources into developing artificial intelligence, which could aid in the colonization and protection of the colonists. Instead of creating moral codes which consisted of many minute rules, they had created ones which were broad, then created AI to interpret those rules.

The issue was that computers don’t think like people. The government created the self-teaching artificial minds, but they evolved into massive neural networks which could come to their own conclusions in completely inhuman and alien-seeming ways.

These overarching decision-making processes ended with several human lives being taken or ended when an AI made a zero sum determination with regard to a moral imperative that a person would subtract from the good of mankind rather than add to it, therefore he must not continue to live.

Once these reports came to the public view, the droids were discontinued, and replaced with strict, shackled programming. AIs which were completely autonomous such as Cookie were extremely rare and very valuable as a consequence.

She’d certainly shown her value today. They always powered her down and tucked her into her hiding place during inspections.

If they detected her power source and discovered that the Devil’s Advocate was hosting an illegal AI housed in an outlawed droid, it would mean major prison time for everyone on the ship, not to mention the destruction of Cookie herself.

Ant approached the door to the cockpit and found that Tone had closed the blast doors. As he reached for the control, the door opened, the portal irising like a giant pupil. Beyond, Tone sat in the co-pilots chair, plotting a course, by the appearance of it.

“Code red, huh? Been a while since that happened.” Tone’s voice was urgent but precise.

“They weren’t inspectors,” Ant replied. “Fucking assassins. Got lucky.”

“Yeah,” Tone said, “I saw.” He nodded to the viewscreen, where Cookie was carrying the remains of the hitmen to the airlock, where the stolen inspectors’ ship was in synchronous orbit with the the Advocate. As he watched, the droid dropped the corpses inside the ship and closed the door.

A high-pitched alarm sounded from instrument panel. Tone flicked a toggle and turned a dial.

“Two…no, three small craft gating in, two hundred klicks. Heavy armament.” He turned to Ant. “I think their buddies are here to finish the job.”

“They’ll be here before we can get the umbilical unhooked,” Ant grumbled. “Ant to Cookie,” he called out to the ship’s intercom.

“Yes, Captain?” she replied. Ant was watching her through the viewscreen, placidly hosing down the area where she’d sliced a human nearly in twain a few moments ago.

“I’m gonna need you to blow the dock and then the ship as soon as we’re clear of the blast radius.”

“Yes, Captain.” Same words, confirming this time.

Ant saw her eyes glow yellow as she interfaced with the ship’s systems and heard the cannon’s servos as it emerged from the Advocate’s hull, rotating to target the umbilical connecting the two ships.

The bulkhead vibrated as two bursts of rounds sprayed out, a muffled chattering as the inspection ship’s docking umbilical was shredded in half.

“Cookie to Captain Anthony: accelerate when ready.” Her calm voice belied the proximity alarm of the three ships which were emerging from their gates and pushing rapidly toward the Advocate.

Brace yourselves,” Ant broadcasted. “Floor it, Tone. I’ll take over. I have a feeling we’re gonna need you on a pod.”

Tone pushed the con-throttle forward in one quick movement. The Devil’s Advocate, like most interstellar craft, was a dual-drive system: the conventional drive, and the quantum drive. The conventional drive was used for sub-lightspeed maneuvering, while the quantum drive was used to gate long distances.

The two were pushed back in their seats as the massive drive opened up, roared and began to exhale a long tongue of blue flame, expelling trillions of energized ions- the expended reactor fuel.

The massive, overpowered and over sized con-drive was another modification that Ant and Tone had installed, specifically for situations like these. The drive, not to mention the massive engine bay restructuring and reinforcement, were from a ship used to ferry large asteroids, and put out nearly three times the amount of thrust that the stock drive did.

The modifications had been expensive, requiring massive re-engineering, but had more than paid for themselves multiple times over. Hopefully again today.

“Our three friends are closing rapidly. They got some fucking speed, Cap!”

“Shit,” Ant’s reply came through clenched teeth. Whoever these guys were, they’d done their homework and brought ships capable of outrunning the Advocate. They had slim, aggressive hull profiles with massive con-drives running nearly the length of the fuselage- the equivalent of a seat strapped to a rocket.

Ant nodded toward the rear. “Get back there and get on a pod.”

Tone unbuckled and rose, hastily retreating back down the tunnel and into the cargo bay where the cannon pods were.

“Cookie, I’m gonna need your brains in a minute!”

Times like these made Cookie indispensable. Her ability to mesh her neural network with the ship’s targeting subroutines made them very difficult to beat in combat. The ship’s own computer wasn’t a slouch, but adding the nimbleness of an  unfettered combat AI made it exponentially more powerful.

“Understood, Captain,” she replied. Ant saw her eyes turn yellow as she re-interfaced with the ship, her Host linking her to the computer. He saw the flux around her begin to flow like a roaring waterfall as the data exchange between the droid and the ship widened bandwidth to encompass petabytes of information per second. Cookie stood, unmoving, while her Host raged around her in a tumultuous cloud, trillions of nanites doing her bidding as she interfaced with the ship.

“Ant, enemies within firing range!” Tone’s voice came through the ships comms, tinny with electronic compression.

“Hold on to your asses,” Ant replied. “Cookie, try to get Tone a good shot, I’m going to try to keep us alive while we get the hell out of here.”

He saw clamps unfold from Cookie’s legs and clank into place, gripping the grated floor of the cargo hold as she prepared for high gravity flight maneuvers.

Ant jerked the flight control to the right, spinning the Advocate, then swept left, cutting perpendicular to the pursuers paths. As the ship lurched right, several streams of auto-fire came in from the three pursuers, most spraying wide, while a few managed to find the ship, bouncing harmlessly off the nano-shields.

Ant’s sudden movement had opened up the three pursuers, their formation a flying-v, to the firing radius of Tone in the starboard cannon pod.

Tone opened fire. The cannons of the Devil’s Advocate were capable of firing sixteen hundred rounds per minute, and there were two cannons attached to the pod. It was like shooting a wall of bullets.

Tone’s heads up display was holographically projected into his optic cortex by the ship’s interface with his Host, transmitting the display into his head. It showed critical statistics such as barrel temperature, remaining rounds, target position and ship attitude in green, and overlaid a red square outlining the critical damage points of the pursuing craft, which on these low profile light craft was mainly the fuselage and the wings both. They weren’t equipped to take much fire, but they were fast, light, and maneuverable. Compared to them, the Advocate was a tank.

Ant’s ship had enough rounds to fire the cannons for over two minutes continuously, and eight ship to ship missiles. Tone wasn’t sure the missiles would be able to keep up with these fast little ships, and Ant’s erratic evasive piloting wouldn’t allow him to lock his target, so his best strategy was to throw a stream of bullets and hope that one of the little ships couldn’t get out of the way in time.

As soon as he pulled the trigger, the three ships split and went in different directions. He had to choose his target quickly. They were attempting to flank the Advocate.

Tone heard the port cannon pod open fire, the low thrumming vibration shaking the bulkhead in between Tone’s own bursts of fire. He could still see two of the pursuing ships, which meant the other was on Cookie’s side. They’d reformed and were approaching wingtip to wingtip.

His pod had a roughly one-hundred-eighty degree firing sphere, and he picked one target to aim for. He was an excellent shot in the cannon pod, but couldn’t aim at two targets at once, and they were fast- they must have some state-of-the-art computers, perhaps even a fettered AI, because the turns and twists the ships were making were superhuman.

Suddenly, his heads up display turned yellow, indicating that the ship (or Cookie) had take over control.

“Apologies,” he heard Cookie say. Tone knew better than to respond, if Cookie took over his pod it was because she had an idea of how to take these guys out.

A firing pattern overlaid on his HUD, enveloping the two pursuing ships, predictive patterns flowing in curved threads based on their capabilities to outmaneuver the incoming streams of bullets. The pursuing ships continued to weave and dodge, all while firing back toward the Advocate. Most shots went wide, some hit the shields, but none were able to strike metal, due to some excellent piloting by the Captain.

Tone sat, a passenger in his pod, while Cookie’s calculations whirled in front of him. The sheer volume of mathematical models she was mapping to three-dimensional space was difficult for his organic brain to comprehend.

Then he saw it the moment before she fired, her reason for taking over- the ships were too fast and far enough away to dodge any incoming fire. Cookie’s solution was elegant.

The pod turned and rotated precisely and spurted two less-than-one-second bursts of fire, then immediately rotated another precise turn to the right, firing a two-second burst, then turned about halfway between the two posts and unleashed a steady torrent of bullets, then elevated, still firing.

The ship to the left banked to its left, narrowly avoiding the first burst of bullets. The ship to the right banked to the right to avoid the second stream. The ship that was previously on the right was now aligned in front of its running mate, effectively blinding the rear ship’s line-of-sight sensors.

As the last stream of bullets flew toward it, the front ship pulled up, and the ship behind it wasn’t fast enough to dodge, taking several hundred bullets traveling at near-light-speed. The front ship pulled up hard, but was not fast enough to avoid the stream of bullets which had cut off its escape path. Cookie had used the ships against each other.

Both ships were hit nearly simultaneously, giant round spheres of fuel and shrapnel exploding, continuing on the previous vectors of the pursuers, a rolling cloud of shrapnel and burning drive fuel.

When ships explode in a zero-g vacuum, the momentum of the material doesn’t disappear. The exploding cloud of fuel and shrapnel continues moving in whatever direction the ship was moving.

“Nice shooting, brother!” Ant’s voice echoed over the comms. Tone didn’t bother to correct him, Cookie didn’t care if he got the glory for her amazing salvo.

“Two down. Ant, we’ve got a debris cloud headed up our drive plume,and another rising off starboard,” Tone said.

“Got it.” The ship adjusted course slightly, slowing, then spinning toward the third, and final, enemy. It had stopped firing and appeared to be fleeing, a long tail of exhaust spewing as it turned tail and flew away at full speed.

“I’m not sure we can catch him,” Ant stated.

“He’s faster than us, and more maneuverable,” Tone replied. “Let him go?”

“I’m not sure we have a choice,” replied Ant shakily, his adrenaline still high.

“What now?” Tone asked, unbuckling from the cannon pod. “Do we still attempt delivery?”

“Of course we do,” Ant said, his voice reverberating through the comms. “Right?”

Tone climbed down out of the pod and started back across the cargo bay, where Cookie was unclamping from the deck and resuming her cleanup.

“I mean, that’s a lot of dough we’d be giving up if we didn’t,” Tone said, then laughed. “Just because someone tried to kill us doesn’t mean we don’t deliver.”

“Isn’t the first time,” Ant laughed in reply. “Probably won’t be the last.”

“Captain,” Cookie’s robotic voice came over the ships comms, “Atmosphere breach in the drive bay.”

“Where, and how bad?” Tone asked.

It appears the atmospheric sensors were damaged during the fight,” Cookie responded. “A visual inspection will be necessary.”

“Balls,” Ant cursed. Drive leaks were potentially fatal to everyone on board, due to the massive nuclear explosion which would occur if the coolant levels dropped too low.

“Cookie, Tone, meet me in the drive bay,” he said, flipping the ship onto auto-pilot and leaping out of the Captain’s chair. The drive bay was down one deck, but the ship wasn’t that large.

He slid down the rungs of the ladder onto the engineering deck, and jogged down the corridor toward the drive room.

Halfway down the corridor, the alarm sounded. On a scale of one to shit yourself, it was an eleven, the sound reserved for imminent death. He felt his stomach curdle as he heard the triple barking alarm, then the ship’s computer state the words he dreaded: “Drive coolant level critical,” followed by the same three barking notes.

He broke into a run, coming around the corner to find Cookie and Tone standing at the sealed engine bay door. The air beyond was glowing bright green- drive coolant.

One of their attackers bullets had managed to sneak through the shields and the hull, piercing the coolant array that ran lengthwise through the drive bay.

“Fuck!” Tone said, turning to face his captain. They met eyes, acknowledging what both knew to be true.

“Cookie! Eject the drive, now!”

Cookie’s eyes flashed yellow, and several red lights began strobing in the drive room. The ship’s drive bay doors unhinged and opened, as the drive mounts and struts unclicked and peeled back in unison, and with a compressive thump, the drive shot out of the rear of the Advocate like a bullet being ejected from a gun. The bright green coolant flushed into the void as well.

“God damn it,” Ant said urgently, watching millions of credits spin out into space. He’d never witnessed a drive explosion in person, but he’d heard tales about the shockwave. Being in a vacuum near an explosion of this magnitude was likely to be fatal to everyone on the ship. “Cookie, get us away from that thing ASAFP, it’s gonna blow any second.”

“Agreed. You two should secure yourselves, this will be vigorous.”

Cookie took control of navigation and the duo retreated about a third of the way down the corridor, stumbling drunkenly as the ship veered and accelerated away from the imminent drive explosion.

Tone reached up and pulled a yellow lever in the corridor, and Ant did the same on his side. The corridor’s panels lifted and slid sideways, crash chairs pushing out of the wall. It was a total body safety chair, with full arm and leg coverage.

“Computer, set host for maximum force absorption. Set safety threshold and energy consumption to minimum human survival requirements.”

A confirmation chime beeped twice. “All crew? Confirm.”

He looked at Tone. “Confirm.”

“Order confirmed. Host reconfigured.”

Ant stripped his jacket off and climbed into the crash chair in his pants and tee shirt. He saw Tone doing the same. The idea behind the crash chairs was to allow any impacts or high inertial events to spread over the surface of the occupant, ensuring higher survivability. Bunched up clothing or bulky equipment during such an event could lead to punctures of the skin or broken bones, at the very least a nasty bruise.

“Drive explosion imminent,” Cookie’s far-too-calm assessment of the situation echoed down the corridor.

After ensuring he had nothing bunched around him and all of his extremities were clear, he slapped his hand down on the big red button in the right palm of the crash chair, and the pumping mechanism began to whir. The surface of the chair expanded and enclosed over his limbs, torso and head, leaving only an open hole over his face, where a breather mask rotated and clamped into place, a hiss of oxygen pulsing in, his ears popping painfully.

The cushions of the chair were filled with shock absorbing gel which would hopefully take the brunt of any impacts.

He watched as Tone did the same thing. They looked like two ginger bread men wearing astronaut’s helmets. It was claustrophobic, but still their best odds at surviving the blast.

Ant heard Cookie’s clamps fasten her to the floor with a metallic clunking sound, just a second before he saw the flash- a white hot glare brighter than anything he’d ever seen, and he clamped his eyes shut instinctively, but it was so bright he could see the veins in his eyelids from the sustained white light, which faded over the next few seconds to an almost normal level.

He strained his ears, but couldn’t hear anything or detect any attitude changes in the ship which would indicate movement or course corrections.

“We good?!” Tone asked, fear raising his voice by a couple octaves. Ant had never heard him scared before.

“Shockwave impact in three seconds,” Cookie said mildly.

Am I about to die? Ant thought detachedly, two seconds before the world exploded into chaos.

The shockwave struck the tail of the retreating ship like the wrath of a Grecian deity. Ant understood, in that moment, why the ancient Greek sailors had thought that the violence of a sea storm was an act of Poseidon. It was nearly unfathomable in its violence and power.

He felt the impact gel flatten against his flank as the ship was batted on the crest of the shockwave, propelled away from the impact site, then struck again and again as the explosion battered them forward.

Ant’s view was fixed on Tone in his crash chair, unable to move and powerless as the wave of explosive energy tore the ship apart. Cabling and conduits fell from the ceiling of the corridor, and sparks flew as critical wiring and atmospheric ducting were sheared. Gases vented into the vacuum as the ship was rent and the atmosphere exploded outward.

The grated corridor flooring jumped, welds breaking as the frame of the ship twisted, the grating tossed into the air, then sliding across the floor, then wall, then slamming back into the floor. Ant watched the deadly projectiles flipping and crashing, miraculously missing himself and his first officer.

Hull breaches: all decks. Atmosphere offline. Computer offline. Navigation offline.” Cookie’s litany of the ship’s injuries may as well have been a funeral dirge for the smuggling vessel.

No coming back from this, Ant thought, his back pressing down hard against the impact gel, shortly before his chest took a hard push. The ship was spinning erratically.

He heard Tone’s grunt from across the corridor as the inertial changes of the ship’s unpredictable movement pushed him into the gel, first one way, then the other, his gritted teeth clamped together.

“Orbital decay detected,” Cookie stated. “Entering upper ionosphere in thirty seconds. Distance to surface: one hundred thirty kilometers.”

“Cook!” Ant said through clenched teeth, “How long until impact?!”

“Eighty four seconds,” She replied instantly.

“Can you slow us down?” His eyes locked with Tone’s. The big black man’s eyes were open extremely wide, adrenaline bursting through his veins. Sweat was pouring down his forehead.

Two seconds passed.

“Yes,” Cookie replied, “Odds of survival are-”

“Shut up and do it, whatever you have to do!” Ant said. Thirty seconds left, maybe. He could do nothing, stuck in this gel mummy. He wasn’t sure what she was going to do, but navigation

“Already on it,” She replied, her tone never changing.

Ant heard the cycling of hydraulics as Cookie implemented her plan to slow the ship.

Of course, he thought suddenly.

All other subsystems were already offline, but apparently the hydraulic lines were still intact and had power to the pumps. The pumps were directly attached to the ships capacitor array, so the odds of the connection between the two being damaged was slim.

The hydraulics and capacitors ran down the center of the ship, between decks two and three, in the area of the ship which got the least torsional movement during the buffeting it had received.

 The communications array, cannons, landing gear, cargo bay doors, and de-orbital ailerons were all operated hydraulically. If Cookie could use the various surfaces of the ship as control surfaces to alter their descent, she might be able to bring the broad surface of the ship to bear, allowing them to glide lateral to the surface of the moon, scrubbing off some vertical speed and translating it to horizontal. It was a difficult plan to pull off, and likely one which he wouldn’t have thought of in time to save them, much less with enough expertise to pull it off.

Ant added another hash mark on his mental scorecard entitled Times Cookie Has Saved Our Asses.

From the sound of the hydraulics, the comms array was extending as the ship hurtled toward the surface of the Tetian Moon. That meant they were entering the exosphere, followed shortly by the ionosphere. There were enough atmospheric molecules to start producing drag, and Cookie was using the comms array to harness that drag, and hopefully turn the ship.

The sickening cycle of the ship push-pulling him to the front, then rear of his crash chair slowed, and the spin of the ship slowed. He saw a red glow begin to arise from the rear of the ship, where the now-empty drive bay and Cookie were located. Re-entry.

With a rending shriek, the comms array tore from the hull, the ship began to spin the other direction. Ant’s heart sank. That was the biggest control surface the ship had. If it was gone…then their chances of not impacting that surface at hundreds of kilometers per hour just decreased significantly.

Cookie entered his field of vision to the right, her prehensile clamping feet allowing her to move down the floorless hall, grabbing onto various pipes and beams to navigate. She clomped up the corridor and reached down into the space beneath the decking, manually turning off the hydraulics to the comms array.

Ant saw her host flash around her as it fled to do her bidding, manually activating the cargo bay doors to open.

“Captain, reconfiguring your hosts for thermal energy absorption. It’s going to get hot in here.”

Ant saw his host light up amber for a moment, then collapse over his crash chair in an airtight, glowing, shrink-wrapped field, trillions of nanites working together to form an array designed to nullify, transfer, and dissipate heat.

“Whatever you need, Cook. You hold our lives in your hands.”

He glanced at Tone, who was looking particularly ashy, his eyes closed. He may have been praying. His host flashed amber briefly as Cookie’s updates applied to it.

“Opening Cargo Bay doors,” Cookie said. The hydraulics began to hum mechanically. “Opening Drive Bay door,” she continued.

A current of air began to whip through the corridor. The cargo bay and drive bay were on opposite ends of the Advocate. She was going to route the atmosphere through the fuselage of the ship, like a wind sock- using it to guide the ship’s attitude as it descended through the atmosphere.

The red glow increased as the density of the atmosphere grew. The ship was burning up, the moon’s atmosphere finishing the job that the assassin’s bullet started.

Was that their plan? Ant thought. Is that why the third fighter went freelance? To fire a single, armor-piercing shot through the coolant array?

It was difficult to see, but it seemed like that was what had happened. The two ships they’d destroyed had been a high price to pay, but it seemed as though they’d managed to accomplish their mission.

But how had they gotten through both the hull and nano-shields with enough power to pierce an armored coolant array? Ant had heard of black market anti-nano shield rounds, but had also heard they were prohibitively expensive, not to mention the fact that they had to be programmed to the specific nanite configuration of the shield they were attempting to penetrate- to be specifically programmed for the one single target they were shooting at.

The implications were chilling. If he survived this, he was going to stop at nothing to track down whoever was responsible. It was likely they didn’t want to be found, but being dead was bad for business. Not to mention the fact that his beloved Devil’s Advocate was melting into a pile of slag as he made an unplanned deorbit to the surface of the Tetian Moon.

The air began to ripple in front of him, and he felt flashes of heat as bursts of fire began to erupt through the air of the corridor. He felt sweat running down the insides of his clothes, but the ship had stopped spinning.

If it was this hot with his host configured to absorb the heat, he could only imagine what the temperature actually was. He looked at Tone and saw his co-pilot had his eyes squeezed tightly shut, face shiny with sweat, his lips moving, teeth clenched.

“Cook, ad-hoc a visual of our attempted landing zone to my HUD,” Ant said, the heat increasing inside his host-shield.

A semi-translucent image popped up over his view of Tone across the corridor, showing the view from Cookie’s host on the upper side of the ship’s hull, which, due to her maneuvering, was facing the surface- it was all relative, but they were descending upside down. They were traveling parallel the shoreline of a large ocean, which had a narrow strand of blond sand abutting a thick green forest.

They were maybe twenty kilometers from impact, and Cookie’s unconventional use of the cargo and drive bay doors to funnel the air through the Advocate had leveled the ship off somewhat.

Instead of a direct vertical drive into the surface, they were now at a slower descending angle, not quite gliding flat, but near it.

As he observed, the hydraulics began to hum again and the landing gear pushed out of the bottom of the ship, glowing orange instantly as the air ripped past them. Cookie slowly pushed them out, using the drag on the landing gear to adjust the angle with which the ship was descending.

The attitude of the ship shifted slowly, leveling the remaining few degrees. It was brilliant. They were gliding up the coastline of a forest moon, upside down, in a ship that had never seen oxygenated atmosphere since being built at a Solarian in-orbit shipyard fifteen years ago.

“Fifteen seconds to impact,” Cookie announced.

“Dismiss HUD,” Ant said, not wanting to see what was about to happen.

He looked at Tone, who gave him a wink. It was what he could manage, being completely immobilized by the crash chair. Ant knew what it meant.

See you on the other side, Ant thought.

“Five.”

His mind went blank.

Four.”

Isn’t your life supposed to flash before your eyes?

“Three.”

Ant closed his eyes.

Two.”

If this is it, I’d do it all again.

“One.”

Fuck you.

He didn’t know why he thought it, but it seemed an appropriate last thought.

The ship struck water first, the broad top of the ship skipping atop the waves of the ocean, flying high into the air before slamming back down onto the water. It began to rotate, and water shot through the heated corridor, causing steam to rise from the hot metal surfaces.

The two men in the crash chairs were momentarily weightless before the ship came back down on the water again, then weightless again as it skipped off the water, the rotation increasing with each bounce.

After the third skip, the ship’s momentum gave out and it caught the water, dragging its right side, causing the ship to change direction, flinging it up onto the shore in a cascade of  exploding metal and sand.

The open cargo bay caught land and turned the ship violently, the magnetic cases of Helium 3 finally giving up their fasteners and slinging across the beach as the ship blasted into the sand. Large portion of the hull and cargo bay ripped from the vessel as its momentum drove it into the shoreline.

Ant felt the impact gel compress from one direction, then another, then another, as the ship was torn apart by the combination of speed and inertia, as well as collision with the surface of the moon’s shoreline.

He was upside down, then right-side up, then on his back, then front, finally coming to rest on his left side.

The ship had stopped. He was alive. He was fucking alive!

Ant opened his eyes, looking to his left, where Cookie had been a few moments ago. He couldn’t see her.

Then he realized that Tone wasn’t awake, or moving.

Hurriedly, he wiggled his fingers around in the left hand of the crash chair, feeling around for the twist lever under the gel padding which would release him from his gelid prison. After what seemed an eternity, he was able to twist the lever. The chair’s pumps activated, shooting in the chemical catalyst which would dissolve the gel back to a liquid form, allowing him to extricate himself.

“Cookie!” he called, sitting up out of the crash chair, “I need you, Tone’s hurt, I think!”

No answer. Shit.

His knee howled in pain as he stood out of the chair. Must’ve wrenched it during one of the high g spins the Advocate took.

He started across the corridor and his knee collapsed. It couldn’t bear weight. Not a good sign.

Hobbling, he managed to hop across the corridor and release Tone’s chair. As the catalyst pumps whirred, he noticed red fluid running out of the left leg of the crash chair. Blood.

“Tone,” he said, shaking him. “You gotta stay awake, man!” Ant felt for a pulse. It was there, barely detectable. As the gel cushions retracted, the extent of the damage was revealed.

Apparently during the crash, a sharp piece of hardened alloy had sheared through the left leg of Tone’s crash chair, severing it wholly, as cleanly as if someone had taken a giant scalpel through it. The speed that it must have been traveling to accomplish this was incredible.

Ant leaned against the wall of the corridor and stripped off his belt, wrapping it around the end of the remaining stump, just above the knee, strapping it down as tight as he could muster. The torrent of blood slowed to a trickle, but he would still need immediate medical attention.

The lower half of Tone’s leg finally released from the gel and toppled out onto the grated floor.

Ant felt his stomach lurch and his vision grew dim around the edges. That was a part of his best friend that just fell on the floor.

He took a couple deep breaths, steadying himself and wiping the sweat from his eyes.

“Stay with me, brother, stay with me,” he said quietly, knowing that Tone was unconscious, but speaking the words anyway.

“Cookie! I need you!” he shouted. No answer. The floor where she had been standing was pulled up, the grate missing. If the welds had broken where she was clamped, then she was likely swept out at some point while they were over the ocean or spinning up the beach. She could be miles away.

“Fuck!” Ant said, slamming his hand into the wall. He reached over and checked Tone’s pulse again. It was barely there.

His mind raced. If Cookie or the ship’s computer were online, he could have sent his host into first aid protocol, and his nanites could at least stop the bleeding and stabilize him.

Ant had removed his tablet before getting into the crash chair. Who knew where it was now? Somewhere burned up in the Tetian moon’s atmosphere or sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

Where was the first aid kit? There was one on the wall of the cargo bay, one in the drive bay, one in the cockpit. Both the cargo bay and drive bay had been compromised during the landing, which left the cockpit.

Ant turned and tried to move down the corridor, but his leg was unable to function. Not just painful, but literally unable to mechanically function. Something was torn inside there, preventing the muscle from contracting and applying power to the lower leg. He could feel it grinding as he attempted to move the knee, accompanied by a burning sensation in his hamstring. No way he was going to make it up a ladder with no leg.

He turned back to Tone, who still lay unmoving. No choice but to try.

As he turned forward to go toward the cockpit, he heard the sound of depressurization from the rear of the ship, where the drive bay had been. For the first time, he looked out of the gaping hole where the drive had been, a view down the beach littered with smoldering wreckage.

Their cargo, the nano-sealed crate, was standing at an angle, where it had apparently fallen into the sand and stuck at a weird upward angle.

The sound had been the lid unsealing.

An eerie blue light emerged from the rim of the container as the lid rose from its seal and was flung aside. The blue light became blinding, then faded, a golden mist swirling around the container.

Ant recognized flux from an active host. Their cargo had a massive host, and that host was working hard on something, based on the instensity of the flux.

He stared, pain in his leg forgotten, mouth hanging open, as he watched a beautiful Native American woman emerge from the container, her eyes blazing the blue glow he’d seen emerging from the edge of the container, her host a swirling cloud of gold around her. She looked as though she had been plucked, in her mid-twenties, out of a tribal encampment, and placed several hundred years in the future.

She wore a traditional deer skin tunic, hand crafted, and a beaded necklace, with two bracelets of turquoise and jasper. Her hair was in a braid on one side, but the other side had come loose in the crash and was flowing around with her movements as she rose, no, glided out of the container and towards the ship.

Her expression was unreadable, especially with the way her eyes were glowing, but Ant didn’t think her intentions were hostile.

He suddenly found his voice. “Help,” he said weakly, weaker than he would’ve liked. “Please, help us,” he repeated.

She drifted closer, her legs unmoving. Ant noticed that her feet weren’t touching the ground, they were hanging, as if she were being suspended.

She approached the hole where the drive had once resided and looked at the jagged metal barring her from entering the ship’s shattered hull. She made a gesture, her host flashed golden, and the bent shrapnel of the ship’s re-entry peeled back and out of the way.

Ant had never seen anything like it. Her host was responding to her in a way that was astounding. She was commanding them directly.

The blue glow around her eyes faded as she saw him crumpled on the floor next to his best friend, who was still in the chair, ashen and unmoving, and his best friend’s leg, which was laying next to him on the corridor floor.

She had intelligent brown eyes that took in the situation quickly. Her moccasin-clad feet touched down on the floor of the corridor and she knelt down to assess Tone’s leg.

“You gotta help him, lady. There’s a trauma kit in the cockpit-” he gestured behind him to the ladder, “I tried but my leg is all-” she stopped him with a finger to her lips and a stern shh sound.

Ant stopped talking. The woman took up Tone’s severed leg with her left hand, and laid her right on his thigh, just above Ant’s makeshift tourniquet. Her eyes began to glow blue again and he saw her host flux brightly as she slowly brought the leg up to the damaged stump.

The golden light of her nanites’ expended energy flashed brilliantly, then cleared. The leg was reattached, a white scar where previously it had been severed cleanly.

She placed her hand over Tone’s heart, and her host flooded into his chest, radiating outward in a golden spiderweb pattern as the nanites ran through his cardiovascular system, restarting and strengthening his heart, replicating erythrocytes, stabilizing his blood volume, stimulating vasodilation and restoring a normal blood pressure.

After a few moments, she withdrew her host from Tone and turned back to Ant, kneeling down next to him and his shattered knee. Again her eyes glowed and her host swarmed into his flesh, repairing his torn tendons and ligaments, removing bone chips, reattaching and restoring him to his former self.

The pain in his knee faded as the woman withdrew her hand, the blue glow of her eyes fading. Ant realized his mouth had been hanging open the whole time, and he clamped it shut with an audible clack of teeth meeting.

“Thank you so much…” he trailed off, then pointed to himself. “Anthony…or Ant.”

She looked at his face, then his hand, which was still pointed at himself. She mimicked the gesture and gave a small smile.

“Asha,” she said.