June sat up abruptly. Something wasn’t right. She coughed and rolled out of the bunk as the smoke overtook her. She stayed for several moments as she coughed and hacked trying to get a clear breath. Vic hadn’t moved, but Joey’s bunk sat empty.
She braved the smoke and pulled Dexter from the upper bunk and dropped him to the floor. He may end up with a concussion, but at least he wouldn’t die from smoke inhalation.
The smoke-filled passageway blocked her vision. Even on her hands and knees the haze blurred everything. For the first time she closed her eyes and reached out with her mind. Always the emotions she’d felt from others, she’d never gone in search of them. If Joey wasn’t in his bunk, he could be in danger.
She reached out and felt an immediate grip of terror. Not fear, but absolute terror. Something terrified Joey to the point he was certain he was about to die.
June crawled toward the cargo bay. Something told her that’s where Joey was and he needed help. As she crawled along his feelings changed. His emotions shifted from fear of dying to sadness to acceptance of his peril.
Emerging into the cargo bay she saw what scared Joey to death. Joey hung off the end of one of the containers and Mike — how had Mike gotten out of Tootsie’s stasis field? — pulled on his leg. Mike wouldn’t fall because of his spider appendages, but Joey, Joey would fall to a certain death.
Then Joey let go, grabbing onto Mike as he fell. He punched, kicked, and finally freed Mike from the side of the container. Both of them tumbled end over end down toward the floor of the cargo hold
“No!” she screamed in futility.
Mike punched back, but never stopped Joey’s relentless fury of blows. All the way down Joey punched and fought. June wanted to turn her eyes away, but couldn’t. She had to know how it all played out.
Joey, by nothing short of a miracle, ended up on top of Mike. Mike hit the floor first, his abdomen bursting and spraying yellowish gore in all directions. Joey bounced off of Mike and hit his head against the container.
She lost him after that. He had to be alright. He just had to be.
The ladder’s rungs took forever for her to climb down and the intense heat stopped her half way down. The first container burned and sent acrid, black smoke up into the cargo hold and finally into the rest of the ship.
“Tootsie!” She screamed. No response returned. Tootsie’s systems were still tied up navigating the ship. It just wasn’t worth it any more. Not at all.
“Computer? Whatever your name is!” The computer from the Iron Butterfly had kept the fires under control. It didn’t respond either.
As quickly as she could, she made her way down the rest of the rungs. Dead or alive, Joey would have to wait until she got the fire out. They kept some basic fire fighting gear in the weapons room. She just hoped it would prove enough to extinguish the tower of flame that now threatened the cargo doors of the SS Acid Rat.
She ran into the weapons room, grabbed the extinguisher — it had a shape like a rifle blaster except with a wide opening at the end — and ran back to fight the fire.
June aimed and pulled the trigger. Flames disappeared instantly, but still expelled a glut of smoke into the cargo bay. She worked the tool, aiming it higher and higher, but she couldn’t be certain if she moved too fast to get all the flames out. The black smoke grew thicker as the fire died out.
When she thought all the fires had been extinguished, she collapsed to the floor. Her eyes burned. Her lungs burned. Her head throbbed. Her muscles ached. She wanted to fall into a deep sleep and never wake up.
She couldn’t do that. Vic and Dexter were still alive and hopefully Argmon was as well. Their position in the ship demanded that she evacuate the smoke and refresh the air. She’d have to do this manually as well as Tootsie and the Iron Butterfly’s computer were both out of commission.
She crawled and clawed her way toward the engineering room. Her body didn’t want to move, but she had to. She just had to get there and flip the switch to turn the ventilators on and refresh the air inside the ship. She had…
A hand grabbed her wrist. She started. She looked up the arm and into Mike’s hairy face.
“No! I saw you die.”
Mike didn’t respond. He only had three arms left, and of those three, two hung limply on the sides of his decimated body. One eye twitched and refused to open and his lips peeled back in a wicked sneer as if he could actually stop her.
June shook Mike’s hand free and he collapsed to the floor. The fright had forced her to take several quick breaths, refreshing her slightly. She stood and staggered into the engineering room.
The controls had been jammed, most likely by Mike, but she easily regained control. She hit the switch to activate the ventilators. Once the light came on and she saw the graphic on the screen showing the air being recycled, she crumbled into the engineering seat and passed out.
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“What are you two laughing at?” Sheriff Justice asked with an air of annoyance. They’d been giggling and snickering like a couple of school girls for nearly five minutes and his patience had been pressed. If he had his riding crop he would have whipped them into silence.
One of the officers turned and looked up, his eyes wide with fear and he swallowed hard. “Well, sir, we were just looking at the speed at which the SS Acid Rat was pulling away. We’re already moving at the limit the ship will move yet they’re pulling away.”
“Am I on a ship of idiots? Are all of you that stupid? Of course they’re pulling away from us. They’re near a black hole and it’s pulling them along. It’s called gravity! We’ll move as fast as they do in a few minutes. If we were to try and go around, they’d get away.”
“But sir,” another officer chimed in. “Won’t our ship fall apart?”
“If that old hunk of junk can go in between two black holes and come out on the other end, so can we. The Apprehension is…”
A force caused the ship to lurch and Sheriff Justice lost his balance. He fell into the lap of one of the officers. He fought to regain his balance.
“What was that? Were we hit? Did they fire at us? Oh, tell me they fired at us.”
“Sir, they’re over two light years away. We’re far out of range. We came into the gravitational range of the first black hole. They’re on the other side now and we’ll lose sight of them for about an hour, maybe two, until we come out on the other side.”
Finally reports that he could use. “What’s our current speed? And what’s their speed? I want to know if we’ll be able to over take them before they reach Planchar.”
“Based on calculation, our speed is nominally above top hyperspeed. Their speed is currently three times normal hyperspeed and increasing.”
“Okay, will we gain on them?”
“Taking normal hyperspace theories into account along with the fact that no one has ever traveled at this speed, let alone come this close to a black hole, and survived…”
B.T. Justice took off his hat and started hitting the officer with it. “I asked a simple yes/no question. I don’t want a dissertation on quantum physics. Will we gain on them?”
The officer cowered and shielded his head from more hat assaults. “It’s not quantum physics,” he said and ducked more. “But no, we won’t gain on them. We’ll get there about thirty minutes after they do.”
Thirty minutes. They could do a lot in thirty minutes. They could leave the planet again. They could hide the ship as well as themselves. They could get away and he’d return home and have to face Pitrine with his hands empty. If he showed up with the crew of the SS Acid Rat then he’d be able to sway the government on Bamda to allow him to stay and not face prosecution. He had to catch that ship under any circumstances.
“Open a channel to Planchar. I need to place a call.” Justice seated his hat neatly back on his head. “We’ll get them this time. Oh yes, we’ll get them this time indeed.”
Something pressing into Joey’s chest woke him up. A fog still clouded his mind as he opened his eyes and saw Mike sitting on him. Several fast heartbeats passed before it registered the danger.
“Ah, you’re awake,” Mike said with a wicked smile. “I prefer my food to be awake.”
Joey reacted as fast as he mind would allow. His knee came up and connected with Mike’s abdomen. A hushed curse through gritted teeth earned a wider smile from Mike. If Mike had been human, he’d have been hit in a sensitive area, but as it was, the blow only glanced off his body.
With widened eyes Mike leaned his back and dropped his fangs. Joey gasped as the long white teeth descended. Without a thought he wrapped his hands around the fangs and pushed up. The fangs were smooth and slippery, but only pointed, not sharp as Joey had suspected they would be. His hands slid to the base of the fangs and kept going.
This appeared to catch Mike by surprise and the sudden burst of adrenaline that surged through Joey’s body helped him force Mike’s head up and into the rack above. Joey couldn’t think of anything to do once he had Mike held there, only slightly pinned.
Mike could think and reacted. He punched Joey in the stomach. Joey’s hands slipped slightly and Mike dipped down. Mike punched again and lowered more.
Joey forced back and pushed mike back up. He couldn’t let the fangs come any closer. Tiny drops of poison had already started to flow to the ends. Yellowish drops of death.
He raised his knee again, blocking another punch from Mike, and rolled his body away from the wall. This pinned Mike against the wall and Joey nearly fell out of the bed, but he held fast to the fangs.
Mike punched with three balled fists and knocked Joey out of the bed. He felt the air escape his lungs in one huge huff and he bumped his head on the floor as he fell.
He had to get up. If he didn’t, Mike would surely kill him. Where was Vic? Dexter? June? Had Mike already killed them too? Was he the last? Too many questions and no time to stop and ask. He stood as quickly as he could. Mike still struggled to get out of the rack, his arms tangled in the blanket in the confined space.
“I’m going to enjoy sucking your innards out, boy.”
Mike’s fowl tone frightened Joey. He did the only thing he could think to do. He grabbed the top bunk and kicked Mike, twice for good measure and ran from the bunk room. He had seen Dexter asleep in the top bunk, but if Mike wanted to kill Dexter, he’d have done that already.
In the passageway Joey thought of running up to the cockpit. Perhaps Argmon could help him. But what if Argmon was already dead? He’d be no help. The lounge would also be a dead end. He didn’t like the sound of that and turned and ran toward the cargo bay. The thick black smoke made it difficult to judge distance. He didn’t know how close to the edge he was. And where did all the smoke come from? They had put the fire out and he could see the scorched control panel that had exploded. That was the last thing he could recall.
Joey coughed and ran. The black smoke tasted oily and bitter. It made his eyes water, but he ran for his life. Mike surely wouldn’t pause. Joey didn’t even dare a glance back for fear that Mike would be upon him.
Through the smoke he could just make out that one of the four large containers that now filled the cargo bay loomed in front of him. The gap from the top of the ladder to the top of the container, which conveniently sat about two feet below the level of the passageway floor, was about fifteen feet away. Joey had never been the athletic type, but being driven by fear and a desire to stay alive, he chanced the jump knowing that going down the ladder spelled certain death.
He kicked off the edge without pause, certain his heart stopped as he flew. When he crashed to the top of the container and his heart started up again, he tried to breath relief, but the black smoke in the cargo bay was thicker and made breathing difficult. He coughed, trying to clear his lungs. That’s all he needed was to escape a killer and be killed by smoke inhalation.
He didn’t have enough time to think about his lungs filling with smoke before he saw Mike spring from the passageway to the container. Joey rolled out of the way as Mike landed.
“I love to play with my food,” Mike said, the wild look in his eyes letting Joey know he wasn’t fooling around. The smoke didn’t seem to be affecting Mike. Not at all.
Joey looked at the next container. The smoke wasn’t so bad on that one. If only he could get up and run, but Mike would be on him. He would have to fight. He would have to fight Mike and his truly powerful spider body. It hadn’t been so difficult defeating Mike by sitting on his back and pounding his head with Tootsie’s metal box. He didn’t have any such luxury this time.
“I’m going to kill you slowly. Don’t think this will go quickly. I think I’ll take an arm first. That’ll slow you down. Just one arm.”
Mike’s fangs retracted and twitched out as he advanced. Joey backed up and fell on his rear. Standing and looking at Mike’s crazed expression terrified Joey, but sitting and looking at Mike, eye to eye with the insane spider with a man’s head, Joey gave up. He could feel the tickle of nausea and his vision blurred and darkened. He was passing out. God he was about to die and he wasn’t even going to see it coming.
No! Joey steeled himself and sat as upright as he could. If he was to die he wanted to see it coming. He couldn’t just take death lying down. Slow, fast, whatever, he didn’t want to just fall over and let Mike kill him at his leisure.
Mike crouched and sprang at Joey. Joey laid back flat and Mike, who had been aiming high at Joey’s head, flew over him.
“No!” Mike screamed and grabbed Joey’s arm with one of his hind hands.
Mike’s flight dragged Joey along and over the edge. Joey lashed out and took hold of the edge of the container. Mike’s grasp on Joey’s arm slipped, but he managed to catch his leg. Joey reached up and held on with both hands as if his life depended on it, because his life did depend on it.
“Don’t worry, I can hold on for both of us,” Mike said with an evil laugh. He had grabbed onto the side of the container and started pulling hard on Joey’s leg. “Perhaps I’ll start by taking a leg!”
Joey felt his fingers slip. He took a deep breath of fresh air. He could catch his breath, but how long would that last? He was certain he’d be dead at Mike’s hand any moment.
Joey kicked and planted his free foot in Mike’s bearded face. The fangs retracted fully and Mike pawed at his face. Joey kicked again landing another full force kick. Mike howled in agony.
Joey had a sudden thought. He could die by Mike’s hand or die by asphyxiation, or he could be killed by Mike and if anyone else was still alive, they’d have to face Mike.
Joey kicked again.
He had to do something. Joey felt his foot grabbed once again. Mike pulled fiercely. Joey knew, deep down, that he was going to die be it at the hands of Mike, this fire, or the ship plunging into a black hole because everyone else certainly must be dead. He wasn’t meant to be in space. He shouldn’t have pushed that button. He didn’t belong here. But he didn’t belong back on Earth either. All those years of torment at the hands of bullies.
Joey let go.
As he fell, Mike pulled hard. Joey reached out and grabbed onto Mike and punched him hard in the face. Joey grabbed Mike from behind and planted his feet on the side of the container and pulled Mike off as well. Mike lost his grip and the two fell, end over end, toward the hard, steel floor below. Joey continued his barrage of blows into Mike’s face as they fell. He wasn’t going do die without a fight and he wasn’t about to end up a meal for a spider. He punched once for Brad, once for Chad, and once for Thad. Mike’s face changed into all those faces that had done him wrong over the years.
Joey felt them hit the floor and heard the awful squish below him as Mike’s body exploded. Joey bounced off Mike’s body and into the container, hitting his head and knocking him out.
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In her past June had felt alone. She’d also felt frightened. Even frightened and alone. But sitting in the bunk room aboard the SS Acid rat with three unconscious crew members and a third that didn’t have the ability to help, she was consumed by it. It ate at her very being as she fought back tears to bandage Joey’s head.
Dexter also looked to be in bad shape, but not as bad as Joey. Of course it could just be the amount of blood coming out of Joey’s head, or it could be that despite being on board with Dexter longer, she liked Joey better. She enjoyed having his company and talking coherently with someone and not fighting.
The bandage was already red, but she needed to tend to Dexter and she also needed to take care of Vic.
“Just stay out of the way.” June wiped tears from her eyes. “Actually, get pillows and blankets if you can.”
“Yes.” Joop-Nop galloped to the storage locker in the bunk room. His locomotion would prove to be a benefit.
The computer from the Iron Butterfly chimed up. “All fires have been extinguished.”
“All? I thought the one in this passageway was the only one.”
“No. Three more fires are burning.”
“In the cargo bay.”
In the cargo bay? Why would anything down there catch fire? “What started the fires?”
“I don’t know. I don’t have full access to Tootsie’s systems.”
“What do you have access to?” She asked. “No, never mind. Can you put a stasis field over these three?”
The computer paused. “No. I do not have access to that field.”
June finished with bandaging Dexter and pulled Vic into the bunk room. Joop-Nop returned with two pillows, dropped them to the floor, and left to get more. Finally the little slime ball was being useful.
The vibration of the ship worsened. June tucked a pillow under Joey’s head and one under Vic’s. Joop-Nop returned again.
“I need you to keep an eye on these three while I see if Argmon can come back and help me move them into the racks.” She felt bad after she said it when she looked at its only eye stalk, but she didn’t have time to say anything better. She ran from the bunk room and up the ladder. She raced along the passage way and to the cockpit with Argmon.
“Argmon,” She tried to catch her breath. “Vic, Joey, and Dexter are all hurt. I need your help getting them into racks so they don’t bounce around. The ship is shaking a lot and I’m worried they’ll get hurt even more.”
Argmon shook his head almost imperceptibly, but he wasn’t going to move. In the view screen the stars moved faster than she’d ever seen them move before, even when Vic and Argmon pressed the ship to its highest limits of speed. So far Joey had been right with the ship being able to withstand the forces of gravity from the black hole, but soon they’d pass into the pull of the second black hole and would be pulled from two sides and not just one. Would the ship hold up then?
“Argmon, it’s not worth it. We need to stop.”
Argmon motioned with his snout to a rear view from the ship. June had to squint to look through the blackness, but something sat hidden there. She touched the display to make it larger. She gasped and made the image larger again.
The police cruiser from Bamda in its blue and gold glory followed them, though it was far behind in pursuit. If they stopped now, they would be overtaken and, of course, arrested.
“I guess it’s do or die now, huh?”
Argmon didn’t respond but instead steeled his glare at the view screen and the display of numbers across the top of the control panel. June didn’t know what the numbers meant, but she knew that the ones in red weren’t a good sign.
She would have to get the others into the bunks on her own. She didn’t know how, but she’d have to try. Without a word she left Argmon to pilot the ship.
Another rock of the ship slammed June into the wall causing her to hit her head. Her vision blurred for a moment and she nearly lost her balance. A second jolt and she stood upright again, her eyes seeing double.
She fought the shaky floor, but managed to get back to the bunk room.
“I know what they need Joop-Nop!” June snapped. Her ears were ringing. She needed to be lying down as well, but there wasn’t time for that. She had to do what she could to get them back into the racks.
“Another fire.” The computer interrupted. “Now extinguished.”
June hefted Dexter, easily the heaviest of the three, into a lower bunk. She more pushed and rolled him into it, as lifting Dexter proved an impossibility.
Next she struggled to get under Joey. Although in his youth, he weighed nearly as much as her. She’d never tried to lift her own weight, and it proved to be quite a feat. She placed him in the bunk just above Dexter.
Vic she also didn’t want to carry, but he needed gentler handling. Dexter and Joey had only been knocked unconscious by the blast from the computer. Vic had deep wounds and his delicate condition wouldn’t hold up to too must jostling.
As gently as she could, she dragged him across the floor, holding him by his feet. When she got him near a bunk, she dumped his feet into the bunk and sat on the floor. Her breath came in short gasps. Her mind reeled and her vision still hadn’t fully returned. The vibration of the ship didn’t help matters, nor did her frayed nerves. She wanted to go home. Just go home. Why were they all so stubbornly trying to get this shipment back to Planchar? Why?
June took a deep breath and righted herself and got her arms under Vic’s body. Only a few inches she had to lift him. Only a few inches. Vic weighed only slightly more than Joey, but after getting Joey and Dexter into bunks, Vic’s slack, un-cooperating body didn’t go up high enough. She struggled to hold him in the air. She didn’t want to drop him for fear of hurting him more, but she had to put him back down.
Gritting her teeth, she tried again. Once he was in the rack, he would be alright. Possibly even safe from the vibration of the ship. With her last ounce of strength she lifted Vic up and leaned forward, pulling, pushing, and getting Vic into the rack.
Once he was in place, she laid upon his chest. She didn’t have the strength to move off him.
Had she the power left in her, she would have leapt off of Vic, but her movements were considerable slower. Still, she got off him and lay on the floor.
“Another fire in the cargo bay.” The computer reported.
“Where are all these fires coming from? June asked, gasping for breath.
“The fires are…” the voice faded into a static followed by a loud feedback and then silence.
June sat up. “Computer?”
“No kidding. I never knew you were a genius.”
June instantly regretted snapping at Joop-Nop like that.
“Thank you Joop-Nop. I’m sorry I snapped at you.”
“Well, I am. I need some rest. I’ll be right here in a rack when you get back.”
Joop-Nop left the room and June crawled in the rack just above Vic. She didn’t want to, but she closed her eyes and fell asleep; a deep, dreamless sleep born of exhaustion.
Mike tossed the remains of the Iron Butterfly’s computer to the ground. He’d trash Tootsie too, but he needed her to keep the ship flying, even if it had to be by force. The Iron Butterfly he didn’t. They’d swapped out the computers, that much Mike remembered. A good ruse, but a failed one.
With Tootsie too occupied with keeping the ship flying, and as best Mike could tell at great speeds, even beyond regulation hyperspace speeds, he would finally be able to get a good fire going. The Iron Butterfly’s computer had kept putting them out. The only way to get them all off this ship without damaging the ship too greatly would be to fill it with smoke. Tootsie, too occupied with keeping the ship flying, wouldn’t be able to ventilate the ship.
He had also gotten into the engineering room and set the controls so Tootsie wouldn’t be able to slow down, even if she wanted to. Not until the crew left the ship and he was the only remaining occupant. The boss would be so proud.
Mike scurried around the cargo bay and collected all the flammable material he could find. He’d nearly run out of items to burn and had resorted to lighting the containers Vic had gotten from Raado. It didn’t matter what they contained, just as long as the paint on them would burn. That’s all that mattered.
The blaster he’d gotten from the weapons room, one of June’s, had been adjusted to produce a fine, hot point. He focused the point on a small pile of already-scorched tarp. It took several seconds, but finally caught. Mike unclenched his jaw and backed away to admire his work. The fire spread quickly onto the container’s painted exterior and black smoke billowed up from it. He had picked the container closest to the ladder to the rest of the ship so the smoke would spread quickly.
Mike wheeled about. Something with strange branch legs and an eye stalk stood at the top of the ladder to the cargo bay staring at what Mike had just done. Mike noticed a small amount of greenish slime in the middle of the body.
Mike leapt with astonishing speed and scrabbled up the ladder. He had to catch Joop-Nop before the creature could reveal the plan. The boss wouldn’t tolerate another failure. Mike wouldn’t allow himself to fail this time. Even though the boss said no more killing, this one had to die.
At the top of the ladder, he saw Joop-Nop slip into the bunk room. Mike raced across the floor and without a thought of anything else he reached and caught Joop-Nop by one of its branch legs.
Mike paused. He saw Dexter, Vic, Joey, and June all in bunks and apparently sleeping. His eyes darted from one to the next. The all looked hurt. Beyond that, they all looked like easy prey.
Mike grabbed two more of Joop-Nop’s appendages. His breathing had slowed and he didn’t notice the black smoke now filling the passageway. All he could see was food. Involuntarily his fangs lowered slightly. He needed to eat. Just one. How could the boss know one of them didn’t die in an accident. Especially if the body never left the ship. His own people wouldn’t question.
He ripped off one of Joop-Nop’s appendages causing a squeal of pain. Mike hardly noticed. With four of his hands he slowly, mercilessly tore Joop-Nop to pieces despite the squeals of pain and protest. When he dropped the limp, slimy goo that remained of Joop-Nop and wiped his hands on the floor, he looked over each of the bodies.
The boss expected at least Vic and June. He had no intention of eating either of them. He focused on Dexter for a moment. He would love to eat the little one. It was his fault that everything had gone wrong in the first place. If Dexter hadn’t knocked Mike out, he would have been able to kill off Vic and June with no trouble and would have done away with the rest of the crew as well.
But no, Dexter would have to await his fate with the boss as well. That left one. Joey. A tender young human. Soft and sweet. Mike’s fangs dropped down and his eyes widened. Yes. Just a bite. Something to satisfy the craving. Killing Joop-Nop hadn’t done anything. He wanted to feel his prey squirm and fight. Joey had fight. Joey had also been instrumental in the failure. The boy had to die. Mike crawled up into the rack with Joey and raised his fangs.
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Each time the SS Acid Rat crossed a dense magnetic field the ship rocked and rolled, but not in a good way. Vic sweated both from poison fever and stress. He’d never been so on edge before. But then he’d never had this series of circumstances to deal with.
He could tell they were moving significantly faster based on the speed at which the stars moved and the size of the blackness on the side of the ship that grew with each passing minute. Nearly half the visible star field had been engulfed by the rapidly growing darkness. Vic felt the need to ask a stupid question again.
“Any sign of another probe from that police cruiser?”
Argmon growled and with good reason. Vic asked this question at least fifteen times over the past two hours and the Shathar needed to concentrate. Tootsie also failed to respond to even simple commands. Vic sat and felt useless.
June’s sweetness to make Vic feel useful hadn’t gone in vain. He did feel somewhat useful, yet he watched Argmon taxing himself to the point of exhaustion. Vic knew Argmon’s dedication could be nearly limitless, but even his yellow fur looked strained.
“You need a break? It’s been nearly three hours of this and we’re not even up on the second black hole yet.”
Again Argmon growled.
“Well, I need to get up for a minute. Can I bring you some food or something?”
Argmon didn’t even move. They’d been flying for nearly nineteen hours and all of them had been awake for most of that time. He got up and looked back at Argmon. He tried to think of something clever to say. Nothing came.
He pulled out a cigarette and lit it up as he walked back toward the kitchen. The vibration of the floor made walking difficult and he’d nearly lost his balance more than once. It was odd having to open doors on his ship, but he grabbed a food tube from the kitchen and headed down to the lounge. A smoke, a beer, and a bite to eat. That’s all he needed. Well, maybe a dose of medication too, but beer first.
He stumbled into the lounge and nervous faces greeted him.
“Hey, why the long faces? We’re about halfway there, right? We’ve held up this long.”
A massive jolt shook the ship and Vic fell into a nearby chair.
June snapped at him. “Just sit down and buckle in.”
“Hey, I’m doing the best I can.” Vic took a drag from his cigarette as he righted himself. “I just needed to get something to drink.”
“No! Not on the medication you’re on. You need rest, not beer.”
“Who said I wanted a beer?” Vic defended himself. He knew that she knew he lied, but he suddenly didn’t care. Waves of exhaustion overtook his body and he fell to the floor.
When he woke up, he found himself strapped in a seat barely able to keep his head up.
“Vic! Vic, I’ve given you more medication.”
“I need something to keep me awake.”
June leaned over him. “What you need is rest. I can see it in your eyes.”
“Where’s my cigarette? Did I drop it?”
“Yes, about half an hour ago. Now either stay in that seat and relax, or go find a bunk and lay down.”
“How long has it been since you slept?”
“Me?” June laughed an incredulous laugh. “You need to start worrying about Vic. The rest of us are in…”
A flashing light turned on and a loud blasting siren brought Vic as close to fully conscious as he could be in his medicated state.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“I was hoping you could tell us. I’ve never heard that siren before.”
“I haven’t either.”
June groaned. “Tootsie, what’s that siren?”
Tootsie didn’t respond with anything more than an abrupt buzzing noise.
“Vic, Tootsie is too busy keeping the ship together. Where’s a panel where I can look up what that siren means?”
Vic thought. He’d just been at that panel, hadn’t he. He started to get up, but June pushed on his shoulder to hold him down. The pain shooting through his upper body took him to the brink of passing out.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you.” June leaned over him and inspected the bandages.
Vic’s vision faded in and out as he struggled to keep his head up. “Passageway,” he managed to say and he pointed into the hallway.
June, Joey, Dexter, and Joop-Nop all exited the lounge. As they did, three intense bangs rocked the ship followed by an explosion. Vic groaned. It sounded like gravity finally had its way with the ship as the sounds of metal scraping against metal reverberated throughout the inside of the ship.
“Vic!” June screamed from the hallway. About that time the acrid smell of burning electronics confronted Vic’s nose.
Pain forgotten Vic got to his feet. Something bad had happened. Possibly fatal judging by June’s yell. She sounded frightened.
In the hallway Vic felt his heart sink. Joey and Dexter were on the floor, both of them bleeding as fire erupted from the control panel.
Only the buzz responded. Tootsie’s systems were all locked up keeping the ship on track. No amount of money was worth this aggravation. Vic rubbed his temples. Something had to be done quickly and he didn’t have the strength. He didn’t even have SPX-39 anymore.
There was one hope. The computer from the Iron Butterfly.
“Computer thing from the Iron Butterfly. I don’t remember your designation.”
The sound of the annoyed voice chimed up. “I’m T-11…”
“I don’t care what your designation is. Can you access Tootsie’s systems and put this fire out.”
A long pause ensued before it responded. “Tootsie is busy and I cannot ask her permission.”
“I don’t want you to ask permission, I want you to put this fire out.”
“But I cannot do so without proper authorization from the host system.”
“Put the fire out or you’ll find yourself floating back to Planchar!”
The rage in Vic’s head caused his temples to throb. He had to lean against the wall to hold himself up.
June had dragged Joey and Dexter out of harm’s way. Sparks flashed and sprayed them, but didn’t do any real damage. Smoke had filled the top of the passageway.
It seemed to take an eternity, but finally the fire system sprayed and extinguished the fire.
“Thanks, now what about this smoke?”
“It’s not bothering me.”
“No, but you’re starting to bother me. Recycle the air in the passageway.”
“But I’d require an advanced authorization…”
“You tell me one more time about an authorization and I swear I’ll rip you apart with my bare hands.”
“You haven’t the strength.”
“No, but Argmon does.”
No hesitation this time as the air evacuated from the passageway and was replaced with fresh air. Vic had finally found a way to make this computer subservient.
“Would you like me to put the other fire out?”
“The one that prompted the siren and lights to turn on.”
“Yes and turn the alarms off.”
The lights and siren halted. Vic crumpled to the floor.
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Joey gripped June’s hand. This jumping in and out of hyperspace still unsettled him. The speed didn’t bother him, but the feeling of his guts being ripped out of his body, twisted into a knot, and shoved back in the wrong end did.
The view, though, was spectacular. June had given the command to make the walls semi-transparent and to dim all the lights. All around the small lounge, just as Vic had shown when Joey first arrived, they were surrounded by billions of pin-points of light. Joey felt like a child as he craned his neck around as if he needed to see each and every one of them.
Two occupants of the room didn’t share Joey’s child-like view of the universe, Dexter and Joop-Nop. Both stared at Joey, Dexter with his three eyes blinking out of unison and Joop-Nop with a freshly grown eye-stalk. Joey hardly noticed.
Instead, he found himself distracted by the myriad of stars in view. They shifted slightly as the ship moved, not nearly as fast as he had thought, but then astronomical distances had to be taken into consideration. He tried to find anything in the sky that looked familiar, but laughed to himself. He’d have to be back on Earth for that.
Earth. Would he ever see it again? Did he really want to? No, he needed to. Until he did, nothing in the galaxy would ever feel real. The only thing that felt real was June’s hand in his. He liked how it felt.
“Alright folks, hold on. We’re approaching the first black hole. Let’s see if this bucket of bolts holds together.”
Argmon growled at Vic’s comment.
“I know what…”
Vic turned off the con and his voice cut out.
“Time to see if you’re right,” June said.
“Based on some simple computations, the gravity of the first black hole should nearly double our speed.”
“You did take into account that the gravity of the second is stronger than the first, didn’t you?”
“Tootsie helped me out with that. It should be like being shot from a sling shot.” Joey smiled.
June now gripped his hand tighter.
A shudder rocked the ship. For a moment the lights came on inside the ship, then dimmed again. A constant rattle came from inside the bunk room.
“What’s that?” Joey asked.
“Something must not be secured in there. Tootsie, seal off the bunk room.”
Without a response the door to the room slid closed.
“Maybe we should close off all the doors,” Joey said.
“Tootsie. Seal off the ship.”
The door to the lounge closed, still Tootsie said nothing.
“Why doesn’t she answer? Doesn’t she usually say something?”
“She must be really busy keeping the ship together. There’s more for her to do besides flying. Millions of tiny adjustments and calculations.”
Joop-Nop looked at Joey. “The…ship…is…not…designed…for…this…kind…of…stress.”
“Yes, but airplanes on Earth aren’t intended to be flown through excessive weather, but they can hold up.”
“It’s not important,” June interrupted. “What is important is that the ship should be able to withstand more than normal forces.”
“Such as the gravity of this black hole.”
The vibration intensified. Joey’s teeth rattled inside his head.
“Hey kid! Did you plan on all this vibration in your calculations?” Vic’s voice wobbled up and down with the vibrations of the ship.
He hadn’t. “Um… yes!”
“Our speed has already doubled. I’m not opposed to speed, but I don’t think anyone has ever tried this before.”
“The ship will hold up!”
“Well I won’t be able to do anything to you if it falls apart, just keep that in mind.”
The shaking unnerved Joey. He had anticipated a little vibration, but nothing to this extent. If it grew worse on the second black hole, he wasn’t sure the ship would stay together. All his simple calculations for speed would be accurate, as for the stresses on the ship, he’d left that up to Tootsie. Based on her estimates the ship would be reaching its normal operating limits and he’d just added ten percent to that and assumed everything would be alright.
“Joey?” June snapped him back to the present.
Joey swallowed hard. “I’m fine. Based on Tootsie’s estimates for the stresses on the ship, it should hold up. I just didn’t know there would be this much vibration.”
“Eep. Eep. Eep.”
“I know Dexter,” June said. “This will pass. We’ll be on Planchar in no time.”
That no time lasted far longer than Joey wanted. He wiped a bead of sweat from his brow and settled in for the ride. He knew the next few hours were going to last a lifetime.
Mike shook his head. No, he wasn’t shaking his head, something else took care of that.
Opening his eyes, he found himself to still be inside the little, black cruiser. His head ached. That boy, Joey, had hit him over the head with something. Not just once, but so many times. June had almost been done in, but Joey stopped everything. Great pleasure would be taken when Joey was killed.
The vibration roused Mike’s sluggish mind. The cruiser sat inside the cargo bay of the Acid Rat once again. Mike looked worriedly about.
“Why am I not in a stasis field as they had done before?”
Time had obviously passed him by, but they should have taken precautions. He didn’t want to look at this freedom lightly. He had to take action before they discovered him.
Mike shoved himself into the storage compartment of the cruiser and pulled the communication box closer to him. The boss would know what to do. Twice he’d failed to kill. Twice Mike would need to redeem himself.
Mike turned the box on.
“Boss, this is Mike.”
No longer did he need to worry about being quiet. He pulled the box into the cockpit of the cruiser and made himself as comfortable as his body could be. The seats were not designed for him, but for a more human form. He stroked his beard as he waited for the boss to respond.
“Boss, I’m back on the SS Acid Rat. I tried to kill June, the girl, but I didn’t succeed.”
“Where is the ship heading now?”
“It’s shaking a lot. Something might be wrong with the ship. They’d put me in a stasis field, so I lost some time.”
“I need to know where your ship is.” The boss’s tone was flat and unreadable. Mike hated that about him.
He pulled up a display on the cruisers console. With a few commands he found the flight path of the Acid Rat.
“It looks like they’re passing by two black holes on their way back to Planchar. Why are they doing that?”
“I would think for speed’s sake. That does not matter. I want you to scuttle the ship.”
“Disable, destroy, anything. See what you can think up. Be creative. Do they have escape pods on board the ship?”
“Yes. A few.”
“Excellent. See to it that they evacuate the ship. Judging by my calculations with their course, they’ll be in an orbit around the black hole. That will give me time to get there and retrieve them.”
“What should I do?”
“Once they are off the ship, you can do with it as you please. I will no longer have need of your services. You reward shall be waiting for you back on your home planet. Go retrieve it.”
“So that’s it? You don’t want me to kill any of them?”
“You may kill any except Vic. I shall extract my revenge in a more…subtle way. Just get them off that ship.”
The box switched off. No more killing. No killing at all in fact. But how would he get them off the ship? It had to be something they wouldn’t suspect. Something, how had the boss put it? Subtle?
Mike smiled. He knew exactly what he needed to do.
The ship lurched violently, then resumed its steady vibrations. Mike had to hurry. This vibration would surely tear the ship apart. He couldn’t let that happen if he needed it to get home. After a year he’d finally be able to retire. If this was to be his last job, he had to do it right.
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Vic’s eyes opened at June’s alarm. Through the wall he saw the black drone heading toward the ship on an intercept course. It would never come in contact with them, but it would give their position to whoever left it here. Had to be that Sheriff.
Vic rolled over and struggled to get out of bed. “No rest for the wicked, eh?” He smiled at June.
Where had he gone wrong with her? At one time they were so close. They would just sit for hours and talk and talk. Business had to be done and slowly she just kept more and more to herself. She spent a lot of time talking to Dexter, but that couldn’t be it. That was an effect, not a cause.
He had to put her out of his mind for the time being. She’d made it pretty obvious that she fancied Joey anyway. What could he do? Fight Joey for June?
Think about the drone.
Vic stood up and shuffled over to June. She took his arm and put it around her shoulders and helped him to the cockpit. They hadn’t walked this way in a year or more.
Think about the drone.
“Argmon, do we have any drones of our own?”
Argmon growled and shook his head. They’d have to do this the hard way.
“Tootsie! Can you pilot the Iron Butterfly?”
“Can you get it out there and get that drone off our tail before we get up to this first black hole?”
“I don’t see your point, Vic. The drone could have plotted our course by now.”
“Yes, but they’re not going to expect us to go in so close to the black holes.”
“That little drone won’t be able to follow us around the black hole either.”
“Tootsie, I didn’t ask for an argument. If you’re not going to go out there, what else can you do?”
“I can shut down all systems for five minutes. It’ll fly past us. Then we continue on and trail it instead of it trailing us. The drone only has front facing radar and tactics. If we’re behind it, it’ll circle around and by that time we should be well beyond its range.”
“But if you shut down for five minutes, won’t we all die?”
“Vic, I’ll leave life support on for you. It’s looking for engines, power transmissions, things like that. If we’re only running with life support, we’ll be fine.”
“Kid, how close does that put us to landing on Planchar if we’re down for five minutes?”
“No good. We’ve only got four minutes and thirty seconds as it is. And that’s just an estimate.”
Vic looked up and took a haggard breath. “Tootsie, can you do this with less time?”
Tootsie clicked. “Yes. The least amount of time I can do it for and still assure it passes us by is three minutes.”
“That gives us one minute to get onto the ground once we hit the atmosphere of Planchar. Tootsie, I need you to signal ahead to Planchar as soon as we’re back up. I want you to signal that we need a landing vector and possibly a crash course.”
“Shutting down all systems.”
The lights went out and the view screen darkened. They’d dropped out of hyperspace. Vic knew it was going to be a long three minutes. The only light in the entire ship emanated from softly lit console. Argmon sat upright with all four arms ready to get the ship back on course.
Vic faltered, but June held him up. He wanted to hug her. He wanted to apologize again. He couldn’t be angry at Joey, it wasn’t the kid’s fault he was here. It wasn’t his fault that June liked him.
Joey suddenly stood up. “Hey Vic, I’m sorry, I should have let you sit down.”
“No you’re not,” June reprimanded and unceremoniously dropped Vic into the seat.
“We’ve only got another minute or so. Joey and I will go back to the lounge and buckle in. Argmon has the plot.”
“Yeah, you two go and get ready. This is going to happen fast.”
And she left. Happy for the darkness, Vic took a little comfort that they had left. Perhaps June had even knew he didn’t want to be around them right now.
But he didn’t want them to go away. Hell, even he didn’t know what he wanted right now. If he had his way, he’d just sell the ship and call it quits. The only one he was certain of in his loyalty was Argmon. They’d been at this together since the start. He knew he could put his life in Argmon’s hands and never be disappointed.
Well, he could do that with any of them, but it wasn’t his life he worried about. His heart, now that was another matter.
“I need to stop brooding.” He told himself.
“Thanks for agreeing. Is it that obvious?”
Vic could just make out the hint of a smile on Argmon’s snout.
“Just keep your eyes on the road. As soon as Tootsie is back up we need to move. I sure hope the kid’s right on this one. Do you think he’s right?”
Argmon’s gaze never shifted, but he didn’t answer. That spoke volumes to Vic. Argmon had enough confidence, or bravery. Either way, they were going to go fast around two black holes. No one had ever tried anything like this and very likely no one ever would again.
Tootsie’s lights came back up.
Argmon hit the controls and the ship took off.
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“Report from a drone, sir!”
Finally, good news at last. Sheriff Justice stopped his pacing and strode over to the officer. “Report.”
“Actually we’ve got a second, confirming report as well. We have their course. They made a correction.”
“Are they going to go through the blockade?”
“They’re going around the black holes?”
“Well they’re not coming back, are they?”
“No sir, they’re on a course to pass close by the black holes.”
“It looks dangerous. The ship is too small to pass through there without incident.”
Where are you going? Sheriff Justice thought to himself. Only one speed existed in space and when you passed into hyperspace, you went as fast as you could. Passing by the black holes wouldn’t do any good, in fact, it could even slow them down.
“What do you want me to do sir?”
Justice blinked. “What are the odds of them making it through there alive and intact?”
The officer punched a few buttons on the console. “It looks like they have better than a ten percent chance to make it though on their present course.”
“Why?” Justice asked himself rhetorically.
“Well,” Junior piped up. “I think it’s because there’s a theory that the gravitational force of a black hole will accelerate a ship even one that’s traveling at hyperspeed. In fact,” Junior pulled up a three dimensional map. “If they go around the first, the speed they gain could swing them around and the second could continue their acceleration and…”
“Shut up! There is no reason they’d put their ship at such risk just to go faster.”
Junior looked up, his mind twisted in thought. “Maybe they just want to get away?”
“They’ve eluded us enough without going faster thanks to the pathetic crew I’ve got.” Justice raised his hand to strike an officer with his riding crop, but his hands were empty. He had to go and break his favorite tool.
“What if they’re on a tight schedule?”
“If they had to get a shipment back to Planchar in an abbreviated time frame…”
“Beer? Are you telling me that someone sent them on an intergalactic beer run and they want it as soon as possible? I have trouble with that one, Junior. Of all the lame-brain ideas you’ve had, that has to be the worst.”
Idiots. He was surrounded by idiots. Did anyone on this ship even have two brain cells to rub together? No, strike that, if they did, they’d be dangerous.
“Sir, GCP Central Office calling.”
“Damn. Bad timing.”
“It’s being sent urgent on a secure line. Counselor Pitrine is demanding an audience.”
Justice loomed over the officer, but didn’t respond.
“Sir, he’s sent the request again. He demands an audience.”
“Put it through to my quarters. Junior, come with me. And keep this ship right behind the SS Acid Rat. I don’t want to lose them because you didn’t know what to do. I don’t care where they go, you stay on their tail. Do you understand?”
He didn’t wait for an answer. Sheriff Justice knew this wasn’t going to turn out well. Sheriff Esconso must have contacted GCP Central office. The last thing this pursuit needed was unwelcome company. Justice cleared his throat as he pushed the door open to his room and left it open for Junior to close.
“Put it through.”
The screen lit up with Pitrine’s visage. The man appeared irate beyond compare. Definitely he knew what was going on.
“I have a report that you are no longer in the Raado system, but I also discovered that you are not in route back to your own system.”
Justice smiled. “We’re taking the…scenic route.”
“Your scene will be more twelve by twelve if you don’t return to your own system.” Pitrine’s nose twitched as he talked.
“I assure you, that as long as we were in the area, we’d check out a couple black holes. You can plot our course if you like. It’s not too often my crew and I can take a look at two black holes on the verge of colliding.”
“That’s not all that will be colliding, I assure you. Make course corrections now and head back to the Bamda System. This insolence will not go unpunished, I can assure you of that.”
“Insolence? I assure you that I am doing nothing wrong.”
“Sheriff Esconso stated otherwise. He said you’re on a vengeance pursuit. He said you’re trying to track down the SS Acid Rat. I hope I don’t need to state the Galactic Central Point Central Office’s stand on your leaving your system. This is your last chance to return to your own system Sheriff. I will have a cruiser waiting for your arrival and they will remain with you until such a time as this office deems you able to patrol your system on your own again. Have I made myself clear?”
A tick found its way to B.T. Justice’s right eye.
“Perfectly.” Justice straightened himself and smoothed his uniform. “If there’s nothing else.”
“Actually, there is. Even if the SS Acid Rat is in your system, you are not to arrest them under any circumstances. If I discover that you have apprehended any of its crew, or detained the ship in any way, I’ll have your badge. Do you understand?”
The tick twitched Justice’s eye again. “Yes.”
Justice stood and waited for the grimacing image of Pitrine to fade. Once it disappeared he turned to Junior.
“You know that nifty little trick the SS Acid Rat pulled on us?”
Junior’s jaw fell in amazement.
They were interrupted by an officer over the con. “Sheriff, a drone has taken pursuit of the SS Acid Rat!”
“Order the drone to lock on and stay in constant contact. Also, I want to prepare a special drone to send to Bamda. Junior is on his way to explain everything.”
Junior headed to the door.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“But you said…”
“I need a hamburger first.”
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As Argmon entered in the course corrections to take the SS Acid Rat near the black holes, June helped Joey sit in Vic’s seat.
“You stay here. I’m going to go and check on Vic.”
June pressed her fingers to his lips. She was already having a difficult time dealing with everything around them, she didn’t want any words from Joey to confuse things.
“Just stay here and enjoy the view. Argmon may need help, but I doubt it. Either way, you just stay up here.”
She kissed him on the forehead and left to go check on Vic.
How did everything get so messed up? If that police cruiser hadn’t followed them out of Bamda, and Vic hadn’t taken on this stupid challenge, and Mike hadn’t been in cahoots with someone he called the ‘boss’, none of this would be happening. Could someone really have planned for all this to happen? Could the person Mike contacted be orchestrating all this?
No. Even if they planned for months and months they couldn’t have expected all these events to fall into place so well. No one could possibly plan anything that well and arrange for all the contingencies.
June entered the captain’s sleeping quarters. Vic had never kept anyone from sleeping in this room if they wanted to. He held a loose, almost flippant attitude when it came to formalities. He only expected for his orders to be obeyed. Beyond that, the crew had extreme liberty to do what they felt best.
She and Joey had challenged Vic and they hadn’t done so lightly. They had taken away any little bit of self esteem he might have had left after getting bitten by Mike. It was now her responsibility to talk to Vic and boost him back up. She’d only seen him sulk once before and he could be a stubborn one.
“Vic?” she asked softly as she entered the darkened Captain’s quarters. Vic had made the walls semi-transparent. He apparently wanted to watch the trip around the black holes. June hoped that boded well for this conversation.
He didn’t answer. Instead he lay on the bed with his back to the door. She could feel that he wasn’t sleeping.
“Vic? I need to talk to you.”
Still he didn’t respond.
June pressed a button on the wall and a padded shelf slid out of the wall next to the bed. She sat and put her hand on Vic’s shoulder. He winced in pain.
“I need to check those bandages and change them before they dry and we have to rip them off of you.” At least that sounded like a good excuse for her being there.
“I’m fine,” Vic grumbled.
“Look, those bandages won’t work like a poultice forever. I need to change them so they can keep the wound clean and not get infected.”
“Don’t they make a pill for an infection?”
“They do, but we don’t have any.”
Vic rolled over. “Yeah, but the kid will have us back on Planchar in no time, won’t he?”
June opened her mouth to respond with a snippy tone, but that’s not what she was here to do. She came to build Vic’s confidence back up, not tear him down further. Instead she put her hand on his head. He was burning up.
“Vic, do you feel alright?”
“I’m fine. I told you. What did you want? I need some sleep in case we make it back to Planchar.”
“Now don’t talk like that.”
“Why not? This is my ship and I’ll talk how I like.”
“We’re going to make it.”
“Have you seen what the gravitational forces of a black hole can do to a planet let alone a little ship like this?” Vic coughed from outburst.
“It’s our only shot at making it back on time.”
“It’s only a little bet. It doesn’t matter.”
“It mattered to you when we took the challenge.”
“Yeah, well maybe I’ve had time to think things over.”
That set June back. Vic had never been so upfront before. He’d get defensive or sarcastic, but this, this was new.
“Take your shirt off. I need to check your bandages.” At least that would give her time to process what had just transpired. Vic and thinking weren’t two things that always went together well.
Vic coughed again and struggled to get out of his shirt. The bandages, soaked with blood and poison, definitely needed changing. June steeled herself for the task. The Doctor had shown her what to do, but that didn’t make the task any easier.
She’d stored fresh bandages in the drawer nearest the bed guessing that Vic would choose this room to rest in. He didn’t know it, but she knew he liked to be in this room and look outside.
“It’s all my fault,” he said abruptly.
“I know it’s all my fault. Everything. If it hadn’t been for my father…”
“It’s not your fault that Joey and I are here.”
Vic never looked up as he spoke. “No, but it’s my fault we’re being chased by the police. It’s my fault that Mike joined our crew. It’s my fault we’re on a tight schedule and I gave the kid the idea we could make it back and now he’s trying to prove that we can make it back. Chances are we’ll all end up dead.”
“Don’t talk like that. Joey is really smart. He may be young, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
“I know he’s a sharp kid, but seriously June, he’s inexperienced.”
The smell from the removed bandages was rank with infection. The doctor had given Vic a shot, but the wounds still oozed badly. She dropped the bloody mess onto the floor. SPX-39 could clean it up later. Damn! The robot wasn’t going to do anything.
“Listen, Vic. You need to stop taking this so hard.”
“Taking what so hard?” Vic looked up.
“Everything will be fine once we get back to Planchar. You’ll see.”
Without another word, June finished dressing Vic’s wounds, put a fresh shirt on him, and helped him lay back down.
“Take a nap. You always feel better after a nap.”
Vic grunted and fell silent. She turned off the light.
Joey and Argmon had the cockpit and she watched how Joey leaned away from the four-armed pilot.
She reached inside her outfit and pulled out a pamphlet. The tri-fold advertisement said in bold letters across the front, “Start your own interstellar shipping business.”
-Another dream I won’t see happen. I was so close, but I’m going to have to let this one go too.
She turned and looked back at Vic lying on the bed. His breathing had grown irregular and he looked so helpless. Fighting back tears, she started to tear the pamphlet into little pieces. She’d never have to tell Vic what the little appointment back on Munchkada had been about.
Something caught her eye. Just through the semi-transparent hull stars blinked and came back into focus, but did so rapidly as if… as if?
“As if something is passing in front of them! Joey! Argmon! We’ve got company coming in fast!”
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Argmon growled and pushed Joey’s hands away from the console. With Vic unconscious, the Shathar didn’t want to take any instructions from Joey.
“But I’m telling you we can make it back in time.”
With bared teeth intended to intimidate the boy, Argmon flexed his four arms and snarled. If Joey hadn’t known Argmon he’d be certain that the beast could eat him.
“Calm down. I know you haven’t tried anything like this before, but look here.”
June pressed a button on the console for Joey and a display of the area appeared on the screen.
“See these two black holes?” Joey pointed to the two black holes just on the outskirts of the standing blockade. “We can use the first to speed us along and swing us near the second black hole and then use the neutron star here to correct our course and bring us back on track to Planchar. With the gravity from the black holes and the neutron star we should be able to gain enough speed…”
Argmon shook his head and growled.
June magnified the map. “Look here Argmon. Right there. This is the course Joey plotted. It takes us close enough to the black holes to use their gravity, but stay far enough away so we can pull away if anything goes wrong.”
Still Argmon wasn’t convinced.
“Tootsie,” June called out.
After a beep and a whir Tootsie said, “Yes June.”
“Did you see the course that Joey plotted?”
“What is your estimation of this course?”
“It’s dangerous. The ship may not hold up to the stresses of the acceleration.”
“But it might, right?”
“Would you like me to calculate the odds that the ship would survive?”
“No!” June yelled. “I want to know if this course would give us sufficient speed to get us back to Planchar before the time is up. That’s what I want to know.”
“You’re putting the ship in considerable danger.”
The computer went quiet all except for a slight ticking noise. Joey smiled and put his hand on June’s shoulder. She had done nothing but impress him since he’d arrived. Since she’d kissed him, Joey could think of little else.
She returned his smile and her pale blue eyes sparkled. Joey knew he’d been smitten and he liked it.
Tootsie interrupted his thoughts. “The ship would arrive at Planchar with four minutes, thirty-two seconds remaining.”
June jumped up and hugged Joey. “You’re right! We can do it. Vic will be so proud of you.”
“So proud of who?” Vic asked as he staggered into the cockpit. “And what are all of you doing up here? Argmon needs to fly this ship.”
Vic looked like hell warmed over, his face pallid and sweaty, his body slack as if he didn’t even have the strength to remain standing. That fact was accentuated by Vic’s hand on the wall to remain upright.
June and Joey both moved out of the way and helped Vic sit down. He fell heavily into the chair. He rolled his head around and looked up at June. “So, who am I supposed to be proud of?”
June beamed and held Joey’s arm. Vic gave a disapproving frown, but didn’t say anything.
“Joey found, and Tootsie verified, a way back to Planchar that’ll get us back to the planet before the time expires.”
Vic’s face twisted and he looked back and forth between June and Joey. He focused on Joey. “You did? Tell me.”
Joey couldn’t read Vic’s expression. Perhaps it was the poison, but he didn’t look or sound hopeful.
“See these two black holes? Well, we can use their gravity…”
Joey explained the course and even had Tootsie confirm it. All the while Vic sat expressionless. When Joey finished, Vic crossed his arms across his chest.
“So you think everything will be ok? You don’t think anything will happen to the ship? Or the crew?”
“Well, there’s no friction in space…”
“But there’s gravity.” Vic struggled to sit up, but fell back into his chair. “There are forces that you don’t understand. Black holes can tear a ship apart and you want us to go up against two of them? Do you understand how dangerous it is?” Vic pointed at Joey. “Have you ever navigated a ship?”
“Well, in my astronomy class we…”
“In class, kid, not in real life. You’re dealing with theory. This is real life. One miscalculation and we’re all gasping for breath in the great wide open. Kid, what you’re proposing could kill us all.”
“It could also get us to Planchar on time.”
“Kid, I don’t like the odds.”
“You don’t even know the odds.”
Tootsie chimed in, “I could calculate the odds.”
Joey and Vic yelled together. “Shut up.”
June stepped in between them. “Stop it. This arguing isn’t going to get us anywhere. Vic, we need to know right now, have you given up on winning this little bet you took? I wasn’t big on you taking it in the first place, but we’re all in the same boat here. If we don’t get back on time, we get nothing. I’d rather take home a nice prize. You did, after all, cause me to miss my appointment.”
“Speaking of that, what did you have an appointment for?”
“That’s not important right now. What is important is are you going to step up as captain of this ship and get us back on time or are you quitting?”
Vic narrowed his eyes. “I don’t know that I like your tone.”
“I don’t care if you like it or not.”
“Hey, I came back to save you from Mike.”
“And now Joey and I are trying to help you save this mission.”
Vic sighed and looked at the floor. He looked defeated. Defeated physically, mentally, possibly even spiritually. He’d failed to notice that Mike deceived the crew, nearly costing him his life. He failed to get the shipment back on time on his own. He’d let everyone down by being tailed by the police.
When Vic looked up, his eyes were hollow and devoid of emotion. “Argmon, set the course.”
Joey tried not to smile. The victory felt wrong and bittersweet. Joey only wanted to help. Instead he made Vic look, and very likely feel, useless.
Vic started to stand up and Joey lurched forward, hesitated, then helped Vic stand up.
“I’m just going to go lay down. I don’t feel so good.”
“Okay,” June said softly.
Argmon narrowed his beady eyes at Joey, causing him to swallow hard. Maybe they’d all be happy once they made it to Planchar on time. Maybe.
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Once the Iron Butterfly’s hull dipped through the Acid Rat’s magnetic seal over the cargo bay, June let Tootsie land the ship and breathed a sigh of relief.
“We’re back. We’re safe now.”
Joey obviously didn’t share the sentiment. He eyed Mike’s limp body warily. “Can we put him in stasis now?”
June gave him half a smile. Her body ached. She had anticipated Mike would attack her first, but she had no idea he would do so with such ferocity. It had taken every ounce of her strength to keep him off and when Joey had climbed on top, Mike’s fangs dipped within inches of her chest. She would have been dead long before the venom had a chance to do its evil work.
“Tootsie, do you have access to the stasis field?”
Tootsie let out a small beep. “Yes.”
“Please suspend Mike until further notice.”
A grinding noise emitted from Tootsie. “Done.”
Joey visibly relaxed and the Iron Butterfly settled down in the same location where it had taken off from. June waited. She had thought the doors would be closed right away, but that wasn’t happening.
“Tootsie, why are the cargo bay doors still open?” she asked. “Is something wrong?”
“My sensors detect that Vic has accessed my control panel. He is not conscious.”
June wanted to get out of the ship, but couldn’t. Not until the doors were closed. “Can you close the doors and deactivate the magnetic seal?”
“I have access to those functions. It appears that T-11 XR34 Q14 WMN912…”
“Who is that?”
“That’s the computer from the Iron Butterfly.”
“What about it?”
“It cannot close the doors.”
“But you can?”
“And I am.”
June looked up. Indeed the doors were closing. Slowly. June would relax when she was certain that Vic wasn’t hurt. Joey suddenly looked ready to leave the ship. She’d told him that nothing existed between her and Vic, that she looked to him like a big brother, but Joey only wanted to sulk, but with a little less aggressiveness to his sulking. June found his jealousy cute, but she would have to deal with him later.
Once the doors were closed and the cockpit cover opened, June bounded out. Her arm and ribs screamed at her for doing so. Mike had punched her several times. She’d need to get checked out once this was all over.
A flash of green escaped from the weapons room and flew up the ladder from the cargo bay. Dexter must have known something. June rushed up the ladder as quickly as she could, her arm protesting all the way. At the top Dexter had Vic over his shoulder as he escorted the incapacitated captain into the lounge.
Argmon barked something from the cockpit.
“What?” June had never really learned enough about Argmon’s nuances of speech. She listened more intently the second time. He said something about police and approaching.
“They’re back! They followed you back?”
Argmon chuffed agreement.
“Dexter, charge the engines. I’ll get Vic and Joey strapped in. Argmon! Get ready to go to hyperspace.”
Joey helped June strap in Vic. “Um…this may sound like a stupid question, but doesn’t this ship have something to, I don’t know, make the police think we went in a different direction? Defensive counter-measures or something like that?”
“You know what, I think I know just what to use. Argmon! Ready the beacons. We’ve got to throw this ship off our tail and now!”
“Glad…to…see…you’re…back,” something said. June didn’t recognize the voice and instinctively reached for a blaster that wasn’t there.
Joop-Nop, or she had to assume it was Joop-Nop, walked out from behind the couch on four stick legs. Several other branches projected from its back. “Joop-Nop?”
“You look, different.”
“Yes, he attacked us.” June strapped Vic in and then strapped herself in. She heard Dexter notify Argmon that the ship was ready. “Argmon! Use the hyperspace beacons. Set them for all different locations.”
Argmon barked back something. June assumed it meant agreement.
Joey buckled himself in as did Joop-Nop. His body no longer slime, he must require the dampening field now.
“The boss? About what?”
“I wonder if he was supposed to kill us all?”
“Hey June, I don’t know much about what’s going on here, but how long do we have to get back to Planchar? Aren’t we running way behind on the time?”
“Hold on, Joey. One thing at a time. So Joop-Nop, Mike was in communication with someone outside the ship? How?”
“So you found this box?”
The Iron Butterfly. If Mike had stowed away on the cruiser, it must be there. June grabbed at her seat belt, but Joey reached for her.
“Don’t! We’re about to go into hyperspace. Can you answer my question now?”
Too much was happening at the same time. June wanted to deal with one thing, be it Vic, or Mike, or Mike’s boss, or getting away from the police. Just one thing. But since she couldn’t deal with any of those, she may as deal with Joey. She smiled at him.
“Can you tell me your question again?”
“How long do we have to get back?”
“Tootsie, countdown until we need to arrive back on Planchar?”
“Eight Hours, forty-four minutes, forty-seven seconds.”
“Thank you.” June looked back at Joey. “And?”
“I think we can make it back in time.”
“Joey, we took the fastest way here and had to take a detour. Vic lost time coming back for us. We don’t have enough time to make it back. May as well accept it. We lost this one.”
“No, I think we can get back in time. I just need to talk to Argmon. We can do it. I tried to explain it to Vic, but he didn’t think we could do it.”
“What makes you think we can?”
“Well, we’ve got nothing else to lose. It’s worth a shot, isn’t it?”
He was right. She’d just given up as soon as she heard Tootsie give the time. What did they have to lose? “Okay, once we’re in hyperspace, get up there with Argmon and see if you can give him directions.”
Joey’s boyish grin was infections. June smiled back, but resisted the urge to kiss him again.
“I don’t want to hear excuses. I want the tractor beam locked on them and I want it now!” B.T. Justice fumed.
“Sir, we’re not in range.”
“Range, schmange! If the range is a problem, move faster.” Justice swatted the officer with the riding crop. “Move! Move! We’re not losing them again!”
They had lost the SS Acid Rat, or its decoy, and found it again, then lost it again. But they had the other ship. The one that Justice was certain hid the SS Acid Rat’s identity.
“Sir, that ship doesn’t have hyper…”
“Just move! Get me that ship or I’ll have your badge. Do I make myself…”
Justice heard the collective gasp from those on board the renegade ship as it slipped into hyperspace. Gone. Just like that the crew of the SS Acid Rat slid through his fingers again.
“Plot their course and follow. I want all the drones set up to intercept them and pursue.”
Justice’s scowl darkened the longer he glared at the star field on the screen, now absent of the ship they were looking for. How could he have such an incompetent crew?
“Sir, they’re headed for the Noir system. Isn’t that…”
“Yes, it’s a black hole system. It’s also near another black hole and a neutron star that’s nearly a black hole in its own right. What are they thinking? What?”
The Munchkada system sat near a black hole system. Could it be that the captain of the SS Acid Rat felt so confident in his ability to navigate near such an anomaly that he fearlessly headed into the face of danger?
B.T. Justice gripped his riding crop with both hands and snapped it in half.
“Set course to follow. We’re going after them.”
“Set course!” Justice’s veins protruded from his reddened face.
The officer turned back to his console and plotted the course that would take the Apprehension dangerously close to the two black holes. The gravitational forces between the two stars could easily tear apart a planet. What would it do to a ship?
It didn’t matter. Whatever would occur would happen to the SS Acid Rat first. B.T. Justice snorted a small laugh. He wanted to be there when the ship was torn apart. He had to be there.
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