DISCLAIMER: This is an original work of fiction. All characters are the property of the author and cannot be used without permission
THANKS: To my beta, Heather, for her thoughtful comments. I'm now adding an annex to the library out of sand to house my second book.
FEEDBACK: I'm always open to comments, preferably nice ones, so let me know what you think at: email@example.com.
Of course you are most welcome to join me at my Yahoo Group at:
"Why are we doing this?" Malt asked seriously.
"Well, it's an opportunity to get some stuff with little risk to us." Jordana's eyes shifted over the instrumentation panel in front of her quickly. A report had come in about a derelict ship that had been floating aimlessly in a nearby sector. J was surprised that it hadn't been stripped sooner but she wasn't going to let the opportunity go to waste.
Jordana could feel Malt's intense stare on her and she began to squirm. "What's wrong? You didn't have to come along you know, because Sash will be joining me there once she'd dropped off her cargo." When Malt didn't answer, J added, "Are you saying we don't need this stuff? And even if we don't, we can take it and sell it. We can always use the money," J clarified.
Malt's fingers began to drum the seat, intensified by the fact that she had four sets of fingers to drum with.
"What is your problem, huh? It's a simple enough mission. Nothing can go wrong." Jordana stole another glance and saw the knowing smile on Malt's lips. There was no fooling the kid. "Okay, so you caught me. It can't be any more dangerous than living with those women, can it? I needed a break. Besides," she reached out and patted the dashboard, "Bessie and I haven't been out on a decent trip for ages. She thinks I'm ignoring her."
Malt shook her head and directed her gaze toward the void of space. "Did you ever wonder why the ship is still out there?"
"They couldn't be bothered stripping it I suppose." Jordana checked her holomap and could see that the derelict was exactly where it had been reported to be. She prepared to bring Bessie to sub speed, slowing the vehicle as they approached their destination.
"Couldn't be bothered... or unable to," Malt muttered.
"Quit with the horror stories. Besides, I'm not afraid of ghosts."
"You should be."
Jordana barely heard Malt's words as she concentrated on bringing Bessie up beside the huge vessel hanging in space. She didn't recognize the make or the style. "It's not from the nearest three universes, that's for sure." Bessie flew along the underside of the monolith, sliding in and out of deep shadows as J looked for an airlock hatch.
"This is not a good idea," Malt complained.
"Come on, Malt. There's nothing there but cold metal and empty air."
"There's something else," she warned.
"Like what?" Jordana spotted the airlock and pulled Bessie to a stop, using the maneuvering jets to gently nudge her into place. The ship touched the behemoth with a loud clunk, a second before the locking clips grabbed hold of the rim and pulled Bessie in tight against the hull.
"I don't know. Just..."
"Just. That's it? Just?" Jordana stood and looked down at the teenager slumped in her chair. "Are you coming?" Malt refused to budge. "Fine. You sit there and sulk while I go and investigate. Sasha should be here in..." J glanced at her chronometer, "... about three hours. I'll be back by then."
Jordana left in a huff. "Geez... why bother coming at all?" she grumbled. She stopped at the hatchway and looked over her shoulder, observing Malt curled in a ball on the seat and gazing out the window. "Your loss..."
She made quick work of getting into her space suit, hearing the satisfying click as the helmet locked into place. J grabbed a torch off the wall and her gaze caught sight of something else. While it was a simple foraging trip that didn't stop her reaching for a weapon. Malt wasn't one to scare easily and if she said there was something, well she wouldn't completely ignore the warning.
After closing Bessie's outer hatch and standing on the small ledge between the two ships it took a minute or two to figure out how the hatch opened, but once the locking mechanism had been breached the panel slid away silently. The metal was still new and in good working order, so the ship hadn't been a derelict for long. Where were the owners of the craft? The vessel was large and imposing and seemed to be still a viable ship. It was not something one would abandon on a whim.
J stepped inside and immediately felt it. It wasn't the drop in temperature that she felt because her suit would compensate for that, but it was something else. Something that she couldn't put her finger on. Her suit contracted and pulled tight against her skin, like someone had drawn out all the air out of it. The metallic fabric sat flush against her and drew a shiver from her in reaction. "Shit!" she hissed. As if by magic the hatch door closed swiftly, cutting off all light from Bessie's docking lights.
The silence and darkness set Jordana's nerves on edge as she fumbled around in the dark to activate the torch. Her senses didn't like working like this and she wanted to at least be able to see what was coming. "Get a hold of yourself, woman," she muttered. But that didn't stop the goose bumps rippling over her skin. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all. Tentatively she stepped further inside the derelict.
"I told you it was a bad idea."
"It's all very well for you to talk, Malt, but you're sitting safe and sound in Bessie." Jordana knew very well it was her conscience talking so the touch on her back sent a jolt of fright through her body. A moment later she peed in her pants. "Just great," she mumbled.
"Malt," Jordana said, "I thought you wanted to stay put. What are you doing here?"
"You mean, besides scaring the life out of you?"
"Listen, kid, one more smart crack out of you and I may just ask Floric to tell you about the birds and the bees."
"The birds... and the bees?"
"He'll give you THE talk, you hear me? The sex talk, Malt, and I'll make sure he includes lots and LOTS of pictures."
"Why him? Why don't you give me the talk?"
"Because it's your punishment not mine, Malt." Jordana waited while her sky-rocketing heart rate slowed. "What are you doing here? I thought you didn't like this place."
"You need someone to watch your back. I can do that."
"You sure can, kid." Jordana couldn't argue the point. If it wasn't for Malt she would have been dead ten times over.
"Besides...," Malt grinned behind the visor of her helmet, "... you'd just get lost. I thought I'd come along and lead you back to Bessie."
"Don't get smart, kid," Jordana snapped.
But it was a hollow threat. Malt had suffered a lot of crap in her short life. Being born a mutant was not the ideal start, and being sold into the slavery to a pig of a man who beat her just about every single day was the icing on the cake. Any threat that Jordana made was usually ludicrous and obviously pointless. She just couldn't punish the kid for being curious and smart.
"What have you got in your hand?" A glint of metal caught her eye.
Malt held up a small laser. "Just something to help mark our way." To prove her point Mal moved to the wall and etched an arrow into the wall. "Can you lift the light?" As Jordana did so, Malt's gloved fingers tapped the panel next to the carving. Luminescent symbols winked on and off before the panel lit up. She consulted the environmental band on her wrist. J was about to remove her helmet when Malt yelled down the comlink. "Don't!! It's not oxygen!" Malt warned.
Jordana lifted her wrist and looked at the metallic band. Amongst other things the band told her whether the air was breathable or not. Malt was right. While there was gas circulating in the vessel it wasn't oxygen. "What is it?"
"I don't know. It has one or two elements that are familiar but I don't know how the combination works and what it's mixed with. It's safer to use the suit."
Jordana was impressed with Malt's obvious grasp of the situation. She had grown so much in such a short time. "So it may be breathable, but then again it might not," Jordana surmised.
"Do you want to find out?" Malt countered.
Jordana pursed her lips and sputtered. "All right smart ass, now what?"
"Can't we just go home?" Malt pleaded.
"I have to at least find something to pay for the gas, Malt." While Jordana couldn't shake the chill in her body she wasn't going to give up so easily. Her own boldness, and greed, just wouldn't let her cut her losses and run. "Come on."
Jordana stepped into the corridor that ran down the length of the ship. She looked one way then the other, but she was unable to see anything past the thirty-odd feet of artificial light emanating from her torch. "Can we do something about some light in here?"
She aimed the beam back at the panel while Malt studied the alien technology. "No can do." Malt stepped back and dropped her head admitting defeat.
"Can't figure it out?" Jordana said smugly. It was nice that Malt had finally found something she couldn't make work.
"Nope." Malt lifted her head and turned the face plate toward Jordana. "It's busted." She grinned.
"Why... you... you..." There was a loud bang. "What was that?" The light beam jagged across the wall of the corridor as Jordana jerked around. "Where..."
"It came from down there." Malt's hand rose and a forefinger pointed down the left hand corridor. A series of taps vibrated down the ship's skin, and Malt's finger began to shake.
Jordana pressed the loudspeaker unit on her suit before she spoke. "Hello?" Waiting in the silence was wearing on her nerves. "Is anyone there?" The air pressed down, tightening the suit against her skin even further. "Let's go this way." She turned right and headed away from the source of her apprehension.
"We could always go this way." Malt indicated the hatchway back to Bessie.
"You're not scared, are you?" Jordana joked.
"Are you?" Malt shot back.
"It's okay to go back to Bessie. There's no loss of face if you do." Jordana watched Malt's face as she spoke, but she knew the words were directed as much to herself as they were to the kid standing beside her. "Now me, I'm not worried about a little noise." Malt continued to stare at her and she knew she had backed herself into a corner. "Okay. Stay close."
Jordana tried to find her scattered courage and stuff it back into her spacesuit. What was it she had told Malt earlier? "It's nothing more than cold metal and empty air," she muttered to herself as she changed direction and headed down the left hand corridor.
She began to sweat. Jordana checked the environmental controls of her suit and found everything to be in order. Despite what she felt, the temperature was a balmy sixty seven degrees.
It was an eerie sensation as she moved down the corridor one faltering step at a time. The light beam broke up in the foreign atmosphere, bouncing off random clouds of gas and spraying across the walls and ceiling in bizarre patterns. This phenomenon only heightened Jordana's anxiety. She was waiting for something to jump out at her and she was ready to bolt in the opposite direction at a moment's notice.
"Are you sure you don't want to change your mind?"
Jordana could hear the near-panic in Malt's voice. "We'll go a little further." She stole a glance at her chronometer. "We've still got two hours before Sasha arrives."
"I'm prepared to wait in Bessie."
"There's nothing stopping you."
"Yes there is. You." Malt defended valiantly.
So it seemed that Malt wasn't returning to Bessie without Jordana, but J's pride wasn't going to let her back away just yet. Whether Malt liked it or not she was bound to go on, at least until J called it a day.
The tapping started up again, echoing down the corridor wall. Jordana placed her hand against the cold metal and felt the vibration. It was not a random sound by any means. Someone... or something... was on board.
"Do you think this is all part of some plan to attack us?" Malt posed.
Jordana was thinking the same thing. "Not unless it's all part of some bizarre game, Malt. It would be a lot quicker, and easier, just to blast us out of the sky."
"Maybe they want to cut us up into little pieces."
"Malt!" Jordana stopped and faced her companion. "Where do you get such ideas?"
"Well? Don't you think this is just a little too creepy?"
"Atmospheric," Jordana amended. She wouldn't admit 'creepy' to the girl. "The ship's broken down. Let's see if we can find any survivors."
"If there were survivors, this ship would have been long gone by now." Malt offered. "If there were survivors then why didn't they hail us? If there were survivors why weren't they waiting at the airlock for our arrival?"
"Malt! Please!" Jordana decided that Malt had a good enough imagination to write a really nice horror story. "Maybe they're injured or something." Jordana took another step forward.
"Yeah, right. Or something," Malt muttered.
Suddenly something flew by them, streaking through the gas-filled corridor like a tiny blazing comet.
"WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT??!?!?!?" Malt screamed down the comlink, nearly deafening Jordana in the process.
"Malt!" Jordana tapped her helmet, the high pitched yell still ringing in her ears. "It's a trick of the light."
"What light? We're the only ones with light, J, so don't go telling me it's an optical illusion."
Jordana was about to ask for an explanation when her brain finally caught up with the words. This was one time she thanked the ochre in her veins. Since the tattoo her vocabulary had improved in leaps and bounds so 'optical' and 'illusion', both separately and together, finally meant something to her. "It's probably gas."
"Yeah, the ship burped. Like that's going to stop me from getting the Carn out of here." Malt turned to leave and came face-to-face with a ball of flame hovering two feet in front of her visor. Before she had a chance to scream the flame shifted, going back down the corridor it had originated from. "Don't go telling me that's a trick of light, J." Malt's voice trembled.
"Okay, I won't." Jordana knew her bravado was held together by spit and hope. "Come on."
"You... must... be... joking." Malt stood there and planted two of her hands on her hips.
If her four arms were free, Jordana knew that her other two fists would be doing the same thing. She had a random thought about getting Malt a special spacesuit so that she could utilize all four arms instead of making do with a regular one and only accommodating two. "If I were joking Malt, I'd say a Pleurian, a Habat and a Consortium guard walked into a bar..."
"Jordana!" Malt barked.
Jordana held up her free hand in surrender. "Okay, no jokes. Maybe it wanted us to follow it."
"Or maybe it was saying 'Get lost!"," Malt countered.
"Obviously something is alive on this ship and we need to find out what it is," Jordana explained.
"We do? When did it ever say that, huh?"
"I'm not asking you to go, Malt. Go back to our ship." Jordana hoped that Malt would take the chance to leave, so at least then if she panicked the kid wouldn't be around to see it. But unfortunately Jordana knew Malt pretty well. She had made herself J's official protector and 'stupidity' alerter, so Malt was going to go even if it killed her.
Malt's spacesuit shifted up and down as she heaved a huge sigh and shrugged her shoulders. "Let's get this over with."
They had only taken a dozen steps when another piece of the puzzle came into view. Someone had been here before them and was lying still on the floor. Jordana crouched down to the body and felt it. The creature inside was spongy with a hard center. "Hold this." Jordana handed over the torch to Malt then reached for the helmet.
"He may still be alive."
"I don't think so." Jordana fumbled with the catches and disconnected the air supply before removing the helmet. The human inside was indeed dead. She poked his skin. "He sort of looks char-broiled."
"Ewwwww," Malt moaned. "You don't think..."
"Could be," Jordana cut her off. Had the ball of flame flambéed its enemy? Could they be next? "Time to go..." Jordana stood up and turned around to go back the way they came, but their escape was cut off by four vaporous flames.
"What do you think?" Malt whispered.
"I think I should have listened to you earlier," Jordana replied. But the creatures didn't attack, instead seemingly content to just float in front of them. She slowly lifted her hand to her loud hailer and pressed it. "What do you want?"
When there was no response, Malt asked, "Maybe they don't understand us."
"You think?" Jordana replied sarcastically. She again activated the loudspeaker. "We wish you no harm." She had barely finished the last word when one of the fireballs slammed into her, easily passing through the skin of her suit and into her body.
Malt rushed to her, "J!"
Jordana reached out and pushed her aside. "Keep away!" She so wanted to tear her suit off to try and cool her rapidly burning body and it took everything she had to focus. What do you want? She hadn't realized that she had even asked the question.
The heat was bordering on unbearable. Whatever this creature was it was seeking out every corner of her being - questioning, studying and testing. Something told her it meant her no harm but its very nature was toxic to her. It was slowly burning her alive.
Please! You are killing me!
Would it understand? Could it communicate? While these were questions that needed answering Jordana wondered if her body could stand the pain and heat before they could be answered. Images flew through her mind's eye in a microsecond, barely long enough for her to even acknowledge that they had been there.
"M...Ma...Malt," she ground out. "Tell B... kid... I'll m... mmisssss..."
"Let her go. Please!" Malt pleaded.
Jordana slumped against the wall, slowly sliding down to the floor. Her heart was thumping painfully now, each beat feeling like someone had kicked her in the chest. "Sash... knows... what... to... do..." She lay silent and unmoving on the floor.
* * * * * * * * *
Jordana opened her eyes slowly, letting her awareness slowly spread out from her abused body. Now she knew what a Castan meat steak felt like. She was medium rare on her way to being well done. How had she survived? Or maybe the question was more why she had survived.
"Malt," she croaked. Her voice was raw and broken, and her head jostled as she spoke. It seemed that she was in Malt's lap, the kid's arms lying over her chest.
"Oh Carn, Jordana," Malt squeezed tightly and J moaned in protest. "Sorry," she whispered. "I thought you were dead."
"I may as well be." Everything hurt in a way that made her feel she was still in the oven, slowly roasting over a radiant heat that set her skin on fire. Something cold circulated inside her suit, soothingly touching her abused nerves and numbing them. "What...?"
"Just a little gas," Malt replied.
"You were out for a few minutes. I went back to the ship." Malt's voice trembled as she talked. "Oh Carn, J..."
Jordana struggled to raise her hand to Malt's helmet. "Don't worry kid," she mumbled. "I'm still here... just."
"Don't know." The images that had been in her head had flown by too fast for her to make much sense of them. "Lots of pictures. Couldn't..."
"I'm taking you back-"
"No!" Jordana grabbed Malt's suit and squeezed. "It was trying to tell me something."
"And next time it'll kill you."
Malt was right. She barely survived this time. "I think that stuff Grit gave me helped." The ochre that the healer had given her had already saved her life once. Had it done it again? If she started believing that, it could lead to all sorts of crazy ideas, like maybe she was invincible, and it wasn't a good place to be in. Her ego was big enough as it was, and believing she couldn't die could very well push that ego into unrealistic expectations.
"Please, J, let's leave now while we can," Malt pleaded.
"Fine." Malt's hands stopped roaming over Jordana's prone body. "What?"
"That was too easy."
"You're right, Malt. I was lucky this time. Let's go." Jordana felt the quiet strength in Malt's lean body as she helped her up. Like most aspects of her, Malt had an understated strength and resilience about her that a lot of people underestimated, including herself.
Jordana struggled to stand, despite Malt sturdy assistance. Whatever it was that had invaded her had taken its toll, and if she was smart she'd haul her ass back to Bessie and get the hell out of there. She leaned against the wall heavily. While her body tried to compensate for the shock to her system her gaze swept the floor in front of her. The light was low but something caught her eye in the dimness. "There." She barely had the energy to point at it while Malt picked it up.
"It's a chunk of metal," Malt observed as she rolled it in her palm.
The spot the metal had sat was faintly illuminated with a red glow. Jordana's gaze rose to see a fireball hovering in front of her. She pushed herself away from the wall and held up her hands in front of her in surrender. She slowly backed away from it, taking small steps backwards until she felt it was safe to turn around and head back down the corridor. "Don't run," she mumbled to Malt down the comlink.
"Geez, J. I am so not enjoying this trip."
"I know, kid." She wasn't enjoying it either. "Let's go wait for Sash."
Luckily, Malt's etched marks weren't needed for the walk back to Bessie. It was relatively straight forward, except for the exhaustion Jordana had to battle to get there. She had never felt so relieved to be back in Bessie than when the outer hatch finally closed and she could remove her helmet. Jordana thought she had seen steam escape the seal around her neck as the air touched her skin.
Malt had already fetched the medic kit and had laid it out on a nearby shelf. Gently she helped Jordana remove the suit, wincing as she saw the raw skin come into view. "Carn, J!" Her voice wavered as she observed the damage done and a lone tear slid down her cheek.
"Hey," Jordana cooed, her hand patting Malt's shoulder gently. "It looks worse than it is." It wasn't really, but Malt seemed to need comforting more than she did. The fact was that it stung like shit. She didn't need a doctor to tell her that she had lost several layers of skin. "Do we have enough atomizers in the kit?" This was a matter of 'been there and done that' for J. When she was on Rigeus she had the gravel rash from hell and had to replace the graze with synthetic skin. It looked like she was going to repeat the process. She could only hope that it wasn't becoming a habit.
Jordana stood there in her underwear, glad to feel the cool air flowing over her boiled ass. She held out her arms to maximize the area of skin she could cool, standing silently as Malt proceeded to cover her entire body with the synthetic skin. What Malt couldn't reach Jordana left for later when she felt inclined to strip down to nothing. Not that doing such a thing worried her, but Malt seemed a little prudish about such things lately.
"Malt," Jordana began, taking the opportunity to ask a question that was best asked only between the two of them. "Is there anything you want to ask me? You know, about sex?" Now what brought that up?
"Sex?" Malt's voice shot up another register.
"Yeah," Jordana said flatly. "It's what makes the universe go round. Aren't you curious?"
"Errr," Malt hedged. "Yeah?" But Malt couldn't look at Jordana.
Jordana chuckled. "Listen, kid, I'm not going to kick you up the ass or something. I suppose what I'm trying to find out is if you are interested in guys."
"Guys?" Malt repeated.
"You know, guys - boys - men - the male of the species. Do you like girls or guys, Malt?"
"Well, I haven't seen you spend any time with either. Don't you know?" Jordana asked.
"Maybe, but why do you want to know?" Malt countered.
"Fine. Forget it." Jordana dropped the subject and stood silently as the spray's local anesthetic effect started to work.
"No." Jordana held up her hand to stop Malt talking. "I shouldn't have asked. It's none of my business."
"Why is it important for you to know?" Malt asked.
"I don't know. We're getting to that point in your life where something's going to happen. I just want to know so I don't put my foot in it and say something stupid." Jordana said. "Not that it'll stop me from doing that anyway." Jordana took a step closer to the girl. "I suppose what I'm trying to say is that I'll respect whatever decision you make, just like I hope to understand my decisions in life. I won't apologize for who I am, Malt, or my choices, but don't feel that you have to follow in my footsteps. You have been given a gift and I'm very proud of what you and Floric have accomplished. I'd be dead if it wasn't for you, Malt."
Jordana clasped Malt's shoulders and ignored the sting as her palms cupped the girl's skin. "Whether you prefer men over women, or women over men, I'll l...," Jordana took a deep breath as she stumbled over the word she was trying to say, "...love you anyway. You hear me?" She shuffled her feet and dropped her gaze. "What's keeping Sasha? I better go hail her and see where she is." She left the room before she did something monumentally stupid like cry.
Jordana threw herself down into the pilot's chair and instantly regretted it. "Oh fuck me!" she screamed and stood bolt upright.
"What???!?" Malt appeared in the hatchway.
"Can you find me something soft to wear please?" Jordana begged.
"Sure," Malt smiled at her before she left and Jordana's heart melted. The kid was well and truly under her skin.
Jordana touched the comlink. "Sasha? Come back."
"J. How's it going?" The familiar voice of Sasha came over the com.
""Don't ask. How far away are you?"
"About an hour. What's going on?"
"I'll explain where you get her. See you in an hour." Jordana cut the transmission before Sasha could ask anything more. Suddenly she felt tired, very tired. The adrenaline had worn off and her body now had to contend with the shock and injury. Luckily the spray had helped with the surface pain but a deeper ache filled her body. Jordana reached for the emergency kit and took out another canister, slipping the vial into the injector. She placed it to her neck and pressed, feeling the intense cold as the pain killer absorbed into her skin.
"This was all I could find," Malt announced as she walked through the cabin door. She flicked out a shabby jumpsuit "Do you want some help?"
Jordana was about to say 'no' but changed her mind. "Yeah, that would be nice. Thanks." She observed Malt's surprised expression and smiled. "Surprised you, huh?"
"You never want help," Malt answered as she slid the suit up Jordana's legs. She waited for J to stand and eased the material over her tender skin.
"Just don't tell the others, okay?" Jordana smiled as the kid finished dressing her, allowing Malt to bring the front closures together.
"Do you trust me?"
Jordana laid her arms over Malt's shoulders. "Honey, I trust you with my life."
"Really?" Malt's eyes widened.
"Of course I do." She ruffled Malt's shaggy head and pushed her away. "Sasha will be here in an hour. The injection I just took is kicking in so I might take a nap. What about you?"
Malt put her hand in her pocket and took out the rock she had picked up earlier. "I might find out what this is."
Jordana took it out of her hand and examined it. "Pretty enough. Let me know what it is." She tossed it back to Malt's outstretched palm. Jordana watched Malt leave the cabin and chuckled to herself. The kid was proving to be a joy in her life, and it was one that she had nearly missed. If she hadn't interceded in Malt's life they would never had had the opportunity to find each other.
Jordana sat down gingerly in the pilot's chair and put her feet up on the instrumentation panel. She didn't fight the medication flowing through her system and relaxed. Before she knew it she had dozed off.
* * * * * *
"Hey, sleepyhead. Wake up."
Jordana felt the incessant tapping on her shoulder. How long had she been asleep? Obviously long enough for Sasha to be standing behind her. "Whaaa...?"
"Lying down on the job I see."
Jordana dropped her feet to the floor and stood up, turning to face Sasha.
"What the hell happened to you?"
Jordana raised her hand to her face, feeling the heat there. "Yeah, had a little accident."
"Accident?" Sasha reached for Jordana's suit and pulled it gently aside to see the burn continue down her throat and across her chest. "Looks like you stepped into an oven."
"Something like that." Jordana smiled. She remembered the phrase fondly. Fen had used it often in her early days with the Noorthi. "I did a little poking around in the derelict. Came across something that tried to broil me."
"Broil you? And you're still here?"
"I was waiting for you."
"You could have done that a thousand miles from here. It was a simple matter of contacting me."
Jordana knew Sasha had a point. What was keeping her here?
"I tried to tell her that," Malt said as she stood in the doorway. "This place is creepy."
"She's trying to scare me with ghost stories," Jordana explained.
"And what do you call those things in there?"
"Sentient?" Malt asked and Sasha laughed.
"What? You think I don't know what 'sentient' means? So did you find out what that rock was?"
Malt tossed it in the air. "Yeah. It's something called-"
"Nassemite," Sasha answered. "Where did you get it?" She extended her hand for Malt to hand it over. "Holy shit!"
"Found it on the derelict. Nassemite...," Jordana pondered, "Why does that sound familiar?"
"Because it's extremely rare and very expensive. This rock alone could be worth five thousand credits."
"Five... thou..." Words failed Jordan. "Fu... crying out loud." She barely held back the expletive that wanted to jump out of her mouth.
"Why is it so expensive?" Malt asked.
"Don't know, it just is. Probably some Consortium plot to corner the market," Sasha replied, "not that anyone can afford it. In fact, it's illegal to have the stuff." Sasha handed the rock back to Malt.
"Really?" Jordana's interest was piqued. "And how do you know that?"
"I just know, that's all." Sasha glanced uncertainly at Malt. "From the old days, J."
"Let's go look for more."
"You are a troublemaker, you know that?"
"That's what you love about me, Sash." Jordana grinned.
"You're not going back in there, are you?"
"No, Malt. I'll stand here and think the stuff out to our ship. Of course I'm going back in there."
"After what that thing did to you? Are you crazy?" Malt plopped herself down in the co-pilot's seat.
"I'm not asking you to go." Jordana took a step toward the cabin exit.
"Maybe the kid is right, J. By the looks of you, you shouldn't be taking any more risks. You might have internal damage."
"If there was any internal damage I'd have felt it by now." Or so Jordana hoped. "Besides, there's nothing I can do about it here."
"Beri is going to kill you." Sasha waved her finger at Jordana.
"Yeah, I know. But she's got enough to worry about with the baby and all. Let's not tell her, okay?" Jordana pleaded.
"You know," Malt peered around from behind the chair, "she's going to notice the burn. She's pregnant, not blind."
"Then the sooner we get in there the sooner we can leave." It was a sentiment Jordana hoped would be true. "We'll need the suits," she told Sasha as she reached for her helmet hanging on the wall.
Sasha silently got dressed and snatched up a light on her way to the hatch. Jordana dressed a little slower, ever mindful of the burn she had suffered in the name of greed. As the door slid open Sasha looked at her. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Not you too! This is not some ghost story, all right?"
"Malt seems like a level-headed kid to me. She's not the sort of person to scare easily."
"I got too close to the fire. There's nothing to worry about."
"That's not what I heard. That thing got inside you and tried to turn you into fricasseed halmet." Sasha laid a hand on Jordana's arm. "I don't want to be the one to tell Beri the news, J."
"I'll tell her the news myself."
"Not if you're dead."
"Stop worrying," Jordana said easily. The hatch to the derelict slid open and the errie darkness met her. "Yeah," she repeated uncertainly, "stop worrying." Her suit contracted against her skin once more.
"No wonder Malt was freaking out." Sasha's voice had an edge to it.
"She didn't have to come. I told her to stay in Bessie."
"Since when does she listen to you? We all know she's decided to be your bodyguard, come acid rain, meteor hail or supernova shine."
"Yeah, I know."
"You do realize that I can hear everything you two say," Malt said over the comlink.
The outer hatch closed and they were standing in complete darkness. Two beams of light cut through the blackness. "To the left."
The two beams curled along the wall as they turned left into the corridor. Jordana remained silent as she walked, her heart pounding as she moved closer to the spot where she had found the dead intruder.
"What the hell happened to him?" Sasha asked as the body came into view.
"He didn't survive."
"Not like you, you mean? Why did you survive?"
"Lucky?" It was a question that Jordana had asked herself.
"You ran out of luck years ago, champ. What did the Noorthi do to you?"
"Re-built me? How the hell do I know?" How much should she tell Sasha? Maybe it was time. "After my collapse in the bar, Grit gave me something."
"Something mysterious?" Sasha asked.
"Something very Noorthi. Whatever was in that muck she gave had a special herb in it, something from their home planet."
"Ahhh." Sasha nodded her head then remained silent.
"That's it? Ahhh?" Jordana stopped and turned around to face Sasha.
"We're talking about the Noorthi here. One thing I've learnt in the short time I've known them is to not underestimate their faith."
"Their faith or them?"
"It's one in the same, isn't it?"
Jordana thought about that for a moment. "I suppose it is."
"Errr," Sasha's hand rose and her finger pointed to something over Jordana's shoulder.
"Oh oh?" Jordana asked, knowing very well what Sasha was looking at. She slowly turned to face the floating flame inches from her face plate, the remaining three floating a short distance away. "Hi there." She lifted her hand slowly and held it up, palm open, in a conciliatory manner. "Oh shit!"
The flame invaded her again, this time the heat was nothing more than a mild warmth. The images that had raced through her mind at warp speed in the first attack and slowed down, and were now passing through her mind's eye at a reasonable pace. They were of the flame creatures and their predicament.
"Malt, get yourself in here!"
"Trust me on this one."
"Yeah, right. I know what's going on there. I'm not going to become a fried-"
"MALT!" Jordana yelled, "just get your butt in here, all right?"
"Was that really necessary?" Sasha slapped the side of her helmet. "Are you trying to scare her?"
"I know what they want, and I need Malt to give it to them."
"I knew it!" Malt grumbled. "You're going to sacrifice me-"
"Will you stop talking nonsense? I've got a repair job for you."
"What is going on?" Sasha scratched her helmet. Something hit the floor with a thud. The beam from her torch moved to the source of the sound, revealing another nugget of nassemite. She chuckled. "Holy shit!"
"You can say that again!" Jordana let out a belly laugh. "If that don't beat all."
"Beat all what?" Malt said as she arrived.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"You... you..." Malt took a step or two back.
"What?" Jordana looked from Malt to Sasha.
"Your eyes," Sasha commented.
"My eyes? What's wrong with my eyes?"
"Besides the fact that they're glowing red in the dark you mean?"
"That's probably because of that thing in me."
"Again? Didn't I say it was a bad idea? But you won't listen-" Malt was nearly in a panic.
"Malt! Shut up!" Jordana waited for her to settle down. "They need our help. But first..." Jordana stepped down the corridor, heading toward the front of the monolith. She reached a closed hatch and looked at the small panel next to the door. "Damn."
"What?" Sasha asked from her position behind Jordana's right shoulder.
""I don't think we can open it."
"Let me look," Malt moved around Jordana and stood in front of her to examine the lock. "I think I have something that might work." She turned around and trotted down the corridor toward Bessie, the presence of the flames momentarily forgotten.
Sasha let out a laugh. "She's wrapped up in her own little scientific world."
"True." Jordana looked over her shoulder.
"Will you stop looking at me? Those eyes are creepy!" Sasha turned away from Jordana's gaze. "Those things are making me nervous." Sasha nodded her head toward the hovering balls of flame.
Time passed without a word being spoken. Jordana leaned against the wall calmly while Sasha hopped from one foot to the other.
"Where is that kid? Has she gone back to Heaven to get the equipment?" Sasha's impatience was showing.
"Probably. Anything to get away from here." Just as Jordana finished talking a beam of light snaked its way across the floor. A moment later Malt appeared out of the darkness.
"You took your own sweet time," Sasha grumbled.
Malt ignored the comment and moved over to the door lock. She hooked up what Jordana would have called her electronic gizmo to the available port and waited for some sort of response. The small screen came alive with symbols.
"It's some sort of code."
"But can you understand it?" From the images she had glimpsed in her head Jordana knew Malt wouldn't be successful. Their language would be beyond Malt's comprehension, as would be their technology. If she had time, J knew Malt would eventually figure it out, but it was something they didn't have.
"Here, let me." Sasha stepped forward and drew her pistol. The flames burst into life, glowing nearly white hot.
"Whoa there!" Jordana lifted her hands to stop everyone. The heat in her body shot up dramatically. "Calm down! We're not attacking." She turned her thoughts inward and tried to placate the flame inside her. "Slowly, Sash."
Sasha activated her laser pistol and drew it down the join in the metal, separating the locking mechanism and releasing the door. It slid aside effortlessly.
"Sorry for the damage," Sasha said to the flaming ball staring at her with hostility. She holstered her weapon slowly then stepped aside.
On the far side of the door lay what looked like some sort of android. It had no legs, so J assumed it hovered as a mode of transport. One of the flames approached it and floated nearby. To Jordana, the creature's face looked like something akin to sorrow. She felt a twinge of anguish inside her. But how could she ask the question she wanted an answer to?
As if reading her thoughts, an image appeared in her head and she understood. "That is the flame's physical self."
"The thing lives in that?" Sasha pointed at the fallen machine.
"Sort of. It's more a symbiotic relationship. The robot performs all the physical tasks while the flame is the intelligence."
"Nah," Sasha replied, "that's not a relationship. You jump into Bessie and drive her."
"Are you trying to say that Bessie is a hunk of metal?" Jordana stared at Sasha and saw her eyes widen. "I didn't think you did. The flame thing showed me in pictures how they interact."
Malt was already on the ground and examining the robot. She carried out a diagnostic. "There doesn't seem to be anything visibly wrong. Maybe it's in the mainframe." She stood and wandered off into the darkness, the only indication of her position was the wandering beam of light.
"Should we go after her?"
"We can't do much more here." There was another thud as something dropped to the floor.
"They sure do crap a lot."
"Imagine how much of this stuff is lying around?"
"Maybe you should ask them if we can have it," Sasha asked excitedly.
"And what do I say? 'Hi there. We've fixed you up now we'd like to take away your shit?"
"Something like that, although it would probably sound better without the sarcasm."
"Let's see if Malt can fix this before we start asking for favors." Not that J doubted Malt's ability.
"Of course the kid'll fix it. She can fix anything."
"Except your bad manners," Jordana quipped.
"What did I say?"
Through the visor Jordana could see Sasha's perplexed face.
"Hey!" Malt called over the intercom.
"You gotta see this!"
Jordana walked calmly down the corridor. She had no need for light for the present because the creature's night vision made the journey easy.
Sasha walked along side her, the beam of light arcing back and forth with every step she took. "Like I said, she's in her own little world."
It took another couple of minutes for them to find Malt, who was bent over an inert android.
"What's got you all excited?" Jordana asked, which drew a snicker from Sasha.
"Look at this!" She shone her light around the room. It was full of the androids. Lots and lots of them. "There must be over twenty here."
"And there's four of them," Sasha announced as her head nodded toward the floating flames. "Is that all that's left?"
Jordana sought the answer inside herself. She could feel the loss. "Looks like it. No wonder they're edgy." Jordana turned her attention to Malt. "Can you fix it?"
"If I have time..."
"You don't have the time, Malt, or at least they don't."
Malt looked from Jordana's glowing eyes to the three flames hovering over their fallen comrades. She gazed at Jordana again and nodded, a steely look of resolve crossing her features. She clutched her toolkit to her chest and stepped over to what Jordana assumed was the heart of the derelict beast.
Jordana felt some pride for the girl as she lay down on the floor and cut out a square panel in the console with a small laser. Malt unfurled her kit and removed the tools, training her light source on where she was working. She spent a few minutes with her hands in the hole, her body rolling gently as she moved around inside the console's circuitry.
"Can you try pushing something so I can see if there is a flare-up?"
"A flare-up?" Jordana moved toward Malt.
"It's hard to see if anything's wrong when it's dead. Maybe if there's some power in it something might spark."
"That sounds dangerous."
"I thought you said we didn't have time for slow and careful," Malt replied.
Jordana turned her thoughts inward, looking for some sort of guidance. While having someone in her head wasn't new, what she was about to do was. Show me.
She tried to relax and let go of her instincts to take charge. It took a moment for the creature inside her to understand what she was offering, slowly spreading through Jordana's body. She felt the heat travel down her arms to her fingertips, her hands moving of their own volition. Jordana let the creature lead her to a blank panel, her arms rising to allow her fingers to find the invisible activation points.
Jordana remained a passive observer of what her body was doing. It should have been a terrifying experience to her but she found it fascinating. The universe was full of wondrous things and this was one more inexplicable action that kept her from becoming jaded.
Symbols illuminated the dark surface, blinking on and off as her fingers touched them. There was a bright flash where Malt was working and Jordana stepped back. She wrestled back control of her body so she could crouch down to Malt and pull her away from where she was working. "Are you okay?"
Malt sat up and rubbed her eyes. She blinked a few times and stared vacantly at Jordana.
"Shit! Can you see? Malt?" The kid didn't answer her. "Say something!"
"Your eyes are still glowing."
"No kidding?" Jordana could feel the heavy thumping of her heart. "Don't scare me like that." She reached out and slapped Malt's helmet. "What happened?"
"Do you know what it is? Maybe it's what is causing the problem."
"I was about to do that when you grabbed me."
But Malt smiled at her brightly. She could see that the kid appreciated her concern, and for that she wouldn't apologize. Jordana stepped back and allowed Malt to return to her work.
"What?" Jordana leaned closer as Malt's body shifted. "Did you find something?"
"Maybe. I don't really know."
"Just do your best, kid." Jordana knew that Malt's best would be good enough. She glanced at Sasha who stood by the wall and observed the scene with interest.
It took several minutes of grunting and groaning before Malt emerged and held up with a pair of tweezers what looked like a strip of wire. "I think this is the problem. It looks like it's separated from its connection. Maybe it overheated and burnt out."
"So what do you need? Another one of these?"
"Well, yeah, but I don't know what sort of metal this is. If we substitute it with something of ours it might not be strong enough to survive whatever power they use to run the ship.
Then again, it might not have anything to do with the ship's drive and could be just one of a number of problems."
"Great, Malt. Thanks for being so optimistic." Sasha commented.
"Look, one thing at a time," Jordana interceded. "Let's replace it and see what happens. If we can get one of the robots up and running they might be able to do the repairs themselves." Jordana took the wire out of Malt's hands and examined it. She wished that Rales was there. He was the one who knew every inch of Bessie and what she was made of. "What do you think?"
Malt strolled over to Sasha and put out her hand. "Give me your weapon."
"Just because you can't solve it doesn't mean you have to blow it up." Sasha replied as her hand rested on her pistol.
Malt looked over her shoulder at Jordana asking silently for help. "Just give her the weapon. We'll buy you a nice new shiny one."
"We're wasting time, Sash."
Grumpily Sasha drew her weapon and the flames reacted, their muted orange changing to red in alarm. She slapped it into Malt's waiting gloved palm.
Jordana tried not to laugh as she watched Sasha's forlorn face. The woman had grown an attachment to a weapon. How stupid was that? At this point she chose to ignore the fact that she had given her own ship a name and talked to it constantly. "You don't have to watch."
Sasha's gaze was riveted on Malt as she took it apart. She winced as the shell was breached to reveal the inside. While Malt prodded around inside with her tweezers looking for something suitable, Sasha was scuffing her feet restlessly and Jordana had to turn away to snicker. She knew she shouldn't laugh. After all, if someone was doing to Bessie what Malt was doing to Sasha's favorite weapon she'd be crying too.
Malt found what she was looking for and lay back down to put in the replacement wire. "This might not work."
"And you sacrificed my weapon to find that out?"
Jordana had never seen Sasha so upset about losing a possession. "We can get another wire just for you and it'll be as good as new."
"But it's not the same, J. I got this on my first trip. I sort of ... errr... 'won' it when I was with Jack's boys. It was a very special trophy. It's my... lucky charm, J. I'm not comfortable without it."
Jordana knew what 'won' meant. Sasha claimed it from her first fight as a renegade. Sasha never talked about those days, especially around her dad, so for her to admit as much showed how much the weapon meant to her. "We'll fix it, okay. You'll get your gun back."
"Try it again," Malt called from under the console.
Jordana let the flame take control again to touch the tabletop. The console flickered on and off. Malt stood a second later and observed Jordana's fingers as they skimmed over the shiny black surface. Malt tilted her head to one side then lashed out with her foot, kicking the panel hard. It sputtered into life and hummed. "I learned that trick from Rales."
Suddenly Rales' uncanny ability to fix Bessie came into sharp focus. Jordana only hoped that he kicked Bessie with a lot of love.
She felt the air come live. Even through her suit she could feel the hairs on her arms stand on end. Whatever the energy was, it had the desired effect. One of the flames entered a downed robot and it stirred sluggishly, rising until it was level with Jordana's chest. What she assumed was its face glowed with a muted red, as if it wasn't running on full power.
"You may have started the emergency backup, Malt." Jordana glared at the hovering machine in front of her. She pointed to the console. "You don't have much time, my friend." Whether it understood the words, the intonation or the pointing finger, the machine moved to the console and began its work. She backed away to allow it room and motioned for Malt to do the same.
They stood against the wall as one by one the other machines came online. They busied themselves around the console, each one attending to an assigned task. The color in their faceplates had strengthened to bright red, giving Jordana a good indication that full power had been restored, at least temporarily.
"I think they'll be all right on their own. They just needed someone to re-boot it." She stood there waiting for the thing inside her to disengage. It stayed for a moment, giving her a warm fuzzy feeling, and Jordana took that to mean 'thank you'. "You're welcome," she whispered. The warmth inside her dissipated as the flame left.
"That's better." Malt shifted closer when the flame left Jordana.
"You found the source of the problem pretty quick."
"It was an easy decision."
"Really? And how did you come to that conclusion?"
"All these robots are in this one room, so it must be important. Secondly, this is the largest thing in the room, which means it's probably the main console and it was a good place to start."
Jordana reached out and pulled Malt in. She enveloped the kid in a hug and kissed her helmet. "Don't get too cocky," she whispered over the comlink. Jordana looked over Malt's shoulder at Sasha and winked at her.
"So, now what?" Malt shifted in Jordana's embrace.
"Now? Now we go home."
Jordana glanced at Sasha who was busy bartering with the creature for the nassemite, her gloved hands indicating what she wanted.
"Looks like it. Come on." Jordana waited for Malt to collect her tools and rejoin her. She threw her arm over Malt's shoulder, both of them walking out of the room to head back down the corridor to Bessie. Jordana looked over her shoulder and waited for Sasha to give her the 'thumbs up'.
"What was it like with that thing inside you?"
"Hot." Jordana was pleased to hear Malt's easy laugh. Now that it was all over Malt was relaxing.
"Errr... she's picking up the pieces of her pistol. She wants it back. She'll be along shortly."
Malt remained silent but Jordana suspected that Malt knew what was going on. The kid was anything but stupid.
Jordana took her time making preparations for departure, allowing Sasha as much time as she could. She returned once to collect a sack then disappeared for another twenty minutes. Luckily, Malt had found something on the ship's terminal to occupy her, so Sasha was able to secret the nassemite away under some rubbish in the cargo bay.
Sasha appeared in the cockpit doorway. "Are we ready to go?"
"Sure am. Everything strapped down?"
"I found out some stuff about the nassemite," Malt announced from the co-pilot's seat.
Jordana glanced at Sasha. "Really?"
"It's used in the reactor core of the new starlight drive. From what I understand, they pass a neonite beam through the nassemite and it causes a reaction. It releases a massive explosion of energy that expands exponentially to fill the container field. You can use the starlight drive indefinitely without loss of power."
"Hmmm." Jordana didn't understand every word Malt said but she did get the idea. "So that means a ship with this drive can hyperjump to anywhere in the cosmos in one go without having a down time in between."
"This could be trouble," Sasha said seriously.
"Indeed. If the Consortium is trying to corner the market on it, it could be trouble, yes. Imagine if they could adapt it to weapons. No one could stop them."
"We can discuss this at home. I don't know about you but I think I'm ready to see the Noorthi again."
Sasha laughed out loud. "You're sick of them. You're not sick of them. Make your mind up woman."
"Well, I'm not sick of them until the next time I'm sick of them."
"And what are we telling them?"
Jordana smiled. "Tell them we found the derelict and came back with shit."
Sasha laughed even louder as she left Bessie to return to her own vessel.
"Let's go home."