By Vicky Morgan-Keith
The Mako’s Run slewed abruptly to one side, rocking Paz violently about despite being strapped securely in her seat in the cockpit. Several control boards at her station sparked and flared brightly before all but one went out, followed immediately by the interior lights. Emergency lighting kicked on, dim amber glows that did little to push back the darkness that enveloped the young female Alanti captain, but Paz’s eyes were accustomed to the dark waters of her ocean home world, Oshiana. Her pupils dilated until her eyes were huge circles of black ringed with the barest edge of gold. She kept working, her webbed three digit hands darting across what few controls still functioned. Her mouth grimaced in dismay at the information they gave her, exposing rows of diminutive, but razor sharp teeth.
Paz was of the pyswan subrace of her kind–slim and lithe, possessing a quickness and agility not often matched by the more powerful and often brutish pyscrif or the malformed and physically fragile pysci. Her ship was a modified Alanti Manta-class freighter, a prototype crafted by her deceased father. Government officials had attempted to confiscate the freighter, but Paz had managed to spirit the vessel away before they could do so. She’d been on the run ever since.
Since her escape, Paz had only managed to access a few of the Mako’s secret design files after breaching considerable security encryptions and protections. Those snipets of data alluded to alterations her father had made to the vessel, but Paz had been unsuccessful in determining exactly what those modifications entailed. Although she was considerably skilled in technological security codings and how to bypass them, several of the files remained unavailable to her. Those she had managed to retrieve were either partially erased or severely corrupted due to her abrupt departure from the experimental vessel testing station orbiting Quantus 2. And unfortunately, as far as she’d been able to discover, augmented weaponry did not appear to be among the improvements her father had given the Mako.
Even worse, her crew–if one could call them that–consisted solely of one unlikely, but very game Illyrian pilot, and a young Shrinaar refugee. The Illyrian, called Sparg, she had found stranded on a refueling station looking for work. He’d jumped at the offer to pilot the Mako’s Run. Paz had wondered about his reliability, but was forced admit to herself she was hardly in a position to quibble. Despite her suspicions, Sparg had proven quite capable, getting them safely away when a couple of Alanti pursuit ships closed in. Although they escaped to the relative safety of jump space, the ship incurred damage, forcing them to set down for repairs upon one of the many uncharted moons in the little known Sorn system. There they encountered the little Shrinaar, Shre’ka. Paz still didn’t know what to make of her, or if bringing her along had been such a good idea.
Still, she was captain, and they were her crew. They would be looking to her for guidance. And she wasn’t about to let the Mako’s Run go without a fight. Franticly flipping switches, she managed to reroute power to the boards, punching the intership com as she went.
“Sparg! Get up here! Shre’ka…get somewhere safe!”
She got a garbled response that sounded like an affirmative wrapped in a curse and kept running checks as fast as she could push buttons and hit toggles. A row of ominous red indicators swiftly got her attention. Paz drew a sharp breath over even sharper teeth. Their jump drives showed complete shutdown! A chill ran up her spine like a wave on a beach.
What in the depths of the Freezing Fathoms had happened? If their jump drives had failed out here on the underside of the Reaches and they couldn’t get them repaired, they’d probably never even make it to the nearest star system before their supplies ran out.
Another indicator red lighted. An audible alarm sounded hard on its heels, pinging away faster and faster. Proximity alert! There was another ship out there! Paz was astonished. Someone had managed to drag the Mako’s Run out of its jump field into real spacetime! Were they pirates? Government authorities? Or something worse? She shook her head. Whoever they were and whatever they wanted, they were closing in fast!
“Sparg!” She yelled again, unbuckling herself from the pilot’s seat. She turned as she heard the door to the cockpit hiss open and he rushed inside.
“I’m here, Captain!”
Paz vacated her seat, motioning for Sparg to take the controls even as she drew her sonic blaster pistol from its holster at her hip. “Secure the door after me,” she ordered as she prepared to head to the main deck. “May be pirates, though how they hauled us out of our jump field is beyond me. Only the GDF are rumored to have equipment like that, but maybe pirates got lucky on the black market. Do what you can to stop whatever they’re up to, and don’t let anyone up here–I don’t care what they do!”
“Aye, Captain, but–!” Sparg protested as the door hissed shut on the rest of what he meant to say. Engaging the locks with a curse, the Illyrian ran to buckle himself in the pilot’s seat and got to work, his one eye squinting in the dim light.
Once satisfied the cockpit hatch was secure, Paz stepped lightly across the decking, searching the shadows, her weapon ready. No sign of young Shre’ka. Most likely she had retreated to hide in her quarters. Paz could have used her help, but supposed it was better she was out of the way. The Shrinaar was oddly unfamiliar with technology and had insisted on transforming her cabin into a small metal terrarium, filled with thriving plants from her home world. Paz hoped the little felinoid could remain fairly well hidden in her peculiar little garden. The ship shuddered and she pushed that worry from her mind, gripping her pistol tightly.
Something clanged and thumped against the hull, startling her. Grapples most likely, as their attackers secured an access in preparation to board. How many of them are there? Paz wondered. She cursed herself for not thinking to hire someone to provide security for the ship. Even a bot would have been better than nothing. She’d been floundering along with the Mako, uncertain of everyone and everything since her parents and brothers had been assassinated. Yes, assassinated! The young Alanti female bared her teeth in anger. She couldn’t prove it yet, but her family’s deaths weren’t merely a “tragic accident” as Alanti authorities claimed.
She heard a loud thud against the main hatch and felt the ship shudder again. She crouched down behind a partition near the main hold lift for cover. Paz rested her weapon on a crate shoved up against the short wall, giving the pistol a cursory glance. Sonic weapons were an Alanti innovation, their compressed blasts of sound capable of throwing targets back or even knocking them off their feet in addition to doing damage. The stun setting on Paz’s weapon was disabled, had been since her family was destroyed and she first began her flight from the life she had known. Paz had vowed in her grief to never let an enemy come at her more than once.
Another heavy clang resounded against the hatch. Paz thought she heard faint cursing and she grinned a fearsome smile. She reasoned their unwelcome guests had attempted to bypass the security codes of the hatch’s locking mechanism and had run into a bit of trouble. Paz had coded those locks herself after fleeing from her home to discover the truth about her family’s demise. If the intruders did manage to find a way around them, which was unlikely, Sparg had proven fairly competent in ship security systems as well. Hopefully he could delay them a bit more. Perhaps if they were thwarted long enough they would give up and leave to find easier pickings, or before someone else happened along to witness their piracy.
Paz shook her head, berating herself. That was a fool’s thinking. No one was going to show up to help her and her crew. Not out in the midst of a jump through the belly of the Outer Reaches. If something or someone did show up, they would have more to worry about than pirates. If pirates indeed they were. Paz’s nerves jangled, and she fingered the grenade she had clipped to her belt. Despite her assurance to Sparg, she held little confidence their attackers were indeed pirates. Something didn’t add up. They were well away from normal shipping lanes. Equipment that could force a ship to drop its jump field was not only rare but expensive. Only the most powerful flagships of the GDF were even known to possess such equipment. It was highly illegal for non-military vessels to possess such a thing. Paz’s heart thudded in her chest. Perhaps she had finally been found by the Alanti authorities. She had covered her tracks carefully, believing herself free of pursuit, but perhaps her cousin had betrayed her.
An angry buzzing began, followed by yellow sparks cascading from the hatch seam onto the decking. Paz took a deep breath and let it go, holding her pistol at the ready. It appeared the intruders had given up on finesse and avoiding damage to the Mako. They’d resorted to cutting their way in with torches.
“Sparg?” She called over the open ship com. “You watching this? They’ll cut through shortly! Fire on their ship!”
“Been tryin’, Captain,” came the Illyrian’s static-ridden reply. “They’ve got someone tryin’ to take over ship’s controls, probably to cut off our life support. I’m tryin’ to keep ’em out while I get the top turret alined to fire, but–” he broke off into a string of curses. “You did NOT just clear that, you scum–!” The rest was unintelligible.
“Do your best, Sparg,” Paz muttered, leaving him to his work and focusing her attention once again on the door.
It was fortunate she did. Without warning, the hatch shot abruptly up, recessing into the hull with a thump. Immediately, several individuals garbed in mismatched armor leapt through. Paz fired instantly in response, her first shot striking a human in the chest. The bolt left a scorched hole in his armor and flung him back into the access tube they had connected to the hatch. He did not get up. Her second shot merely glanced off the battered armor of an enormous Shrinaar who dodged the body of his fallen comrade without so much as a glance. He charged toward her with a roar, swinging a bizarre looking axe studded with blue stones. Paz ducked, the weapon whistling just above her head to bite deeply into the metal of the partition. The powerful felinoid yanked the weapon free with a snarl as an Illyrian with a particle beam rifle moved to flank Paz on her right. If she tried to retreat down the corridor to her left, the Shrinaar would cut her down before she got two strides. Paz despaired, engaging the countdown timer on the grenade she now clutched in her off hand. No one would take her father’s ship!
An Alanti pyswan male stepped through the hatch waving impatiently at his henchmen. “We’re only interested in the female,” he announced. His voice was sibilant and harsh. “Kill any others.”
Paz’s blood froze. They were after her! She prepared to toss the grenade, hopefully right at the Alanti male’s feet, when an energy bolt struck the big Shrinaar. He staggered, grunting in pain, and both he and Paz looked in surprise down the main corridor of the ship.
Shre’ka stood in the darkened hallway, the pistol she’d fired still smoking in her paw. The weapon looked completely at odds with the primitive leather loincloth and halter she wore, and Paz marveled that the little Shrinaar had managed to fire the weapon at all. Shre’ka’s ears were back, her eyes wide with shock as she stared at the feline intruder in astonishment. Oddly, Shre’ka’s target stared back at her, equally transfixed, appearing even more astounded than she was.
Paz took advantage of the diversion and fired at the Illyrian intruder while the felinoids were distracted. She dropped him, but the Alanti cursed and swung his gun around. Paz started to lob the grenade, even though she was certain the Shrinaar would cut her down with his axe. She stopped as she realized the Alanti pirate wasn’t aiming his weapon at her after all.
The next moment he fired, his shot going wide into a wall partition, setting the circuitry behind it to sparking. The lights dimmed even further, but Paz still made out her target going down beneath a furious axe-wielding ball of fur, fangs, and claws. She hastily deactivated the grenade, watching the brief struggle in bewilderment.
Shre’ka padded softly up to stand beside her.
“The ro’at…the hunter…he has changed his prey,” the little Shrinaar told her with a smile.
“Yes, he has,” Paz agreed, keeping her pistol trained on their remaining intruder, crouched over the body of the Alanti male.