O Sister, Where Art Thou?
"Blast it, boy, what were you thinking?"
Lumikko took half a step back, instinctively relieved that her uncle's wrath wasn't directed at her. He was not easily upset as a rule, but he was a massive man and quite impressive when he was angry. He was certainly angry now, leaning over his desk and glaring at his nephew.
"I'm sorry, Uncle Vernon", Arreldon said, adding defensively, "Hiding in the asteroid field seemed like a good plan to get rid of those Imps."
"And of course you just happened to find the one asteroid that had a mine on it", Vernon thundered. "Just like last month you happened to pick the one faulty power generator in the entire batch for Kitty, or that shipment of droid parts... oh, never mind." He took a deep breath. "How much of the cargo were you able to salvage?"
Arreldon hesitated. "About a third", he admitted finally.
Vernon dropped into his chair, which squeaked dangerously under his weight. "A third", he repeated bitterly. "With any luck, I'll get enough for that to pay for the repairs." He looked sternly at his nephew. "I'm sorry, boy, but that just about does it. This is the third time you've endangered my ship, the cargo, and above all your life. I know I promised you would have Kitty when I retire next year, but I just cannot do it. I'm putting your sister in charge, effective immediately. I hope she'll do a better job."
"But, Uncle Vernon..." Lumikko protested, but he cut her off. "No buts. He had his chance, and he messed it up. I don't want to have to explain to your parents why I let him continue risking his neck despite these failures. You take the ship, girl, and I hope you'll be more reasonable."
Arreldon stared at him. "You're cutting me off?" he said incredulously.
"I didn't say that", Vernon corrected him. "You're still my kin. I can get you a job in the cargo bay, or..."
"No, thanks." Arreldon's eyes flashed. "I don't need your charity, uncle. I can handle myself out there, and I'm going to prove it, to you and to everyone else!" Without another word he whirled around and stormed out, banging the door behind him.
Lumikko looked helplessly at her uncle. "Was that really necessary?" she asked. "You know how much Kitty means to him. He always dreamed of being a captain."
"Dreaming isn’t enough", Vernon said curtly. "I’ll concede that he’s a good pilot, but that isn’t enough either. A free trader doesn’t only need to know how to handle a ship - sometimes he just has to be lucky. And I’ve yet to meet anyone who is more prone to bad luck than Arreldon." He leaned back in his chair. "I'll have the necessary repairs made and I'll see to it that Kitty is back in shape as soon as possible. I have the next shipment coming in a week from tomorrow, and I want you to handle it. Come back tomorrow, and we'll go over the details."
Lumikko knew from experience that it was useless to argue. Besides, her uncle clearly needed to blow off some steam, and it was best to leave him alone when he was in one of his rare bad moods. "Alright", she sighed. "I'll see you tomorrow then." With that she went to search for her brother.
"There you are".
Arreldon didn't even look up from his drink as his sister slipped onto the stool next to him and signalled the barman. "I'm sorry", she said quietly. "I tried to reason with him, but he wouldn't listen."
"Thanks for trying", he said with a visible effort to pull himself together. "I know it's not your fault. It just seems so unfair. And he really didn't have to add insult to injury - I've always wanted to fly, and he's offering me a job in cargo?!"
"He wanted to help", she began, but he interrupted. "Help? I don't need that kind of help. I'll make my own way."
She placed a hand on his arm. "Calm down. We'll find a solution. Give it a few weeks to blow over, and maybe we can convince him to let you back on board."
He snorted. "With you as a watchdog? No offense, sis, but I'd rather not. I've made up my mind, and I'm leaving."
"Leaving? Where to?"
"I don't know yet, but something will come up. Something always comes up."
"Don't be a fool", she said. "You can't just run off with no money and no idea what you'll do." His mouth took on that stubborn cast she knew all too well, and she threw up her hands in defeat. "Alright, alright, do as you must. But at least take this." She fished a credstick from her pocket and handed it to him. "That's my share of the profit we got from that deal we finalized yesterday. It should be enough to buy you a passage, if you're really bent on leaving."
"I can't-" he started to protest, but she cut him off with an impatient gesture. "Consider it a loan, if that appeases your conscience. You can pay me back when you return home rich and famous."
"Thank you", he said quietly. "I hope Kitty treats you well. She's a good ship, even though she does have a few quirks." He managed a weak smile. "Now you'll get your chance to be a second Hylo Visz, like you always dreamed when you were a kid."
She threw her arms around him and hugged him. "Good-bye, brother", she whispered. "Take care of yourself, okay?"
"You too", he said, and deliberately returned his gaze to his glass while she got up and hurriedly left the cantina.
The cantina was crowded and noisy, a welcome change after two weeks on the ship with just her crew and a droid for company. Lumikko looked around, then made her way to the bar.
"Hey Captain", her Second greeted her.
"Evening, Ren", she replied and eased onto the stool next to him. "Spending your share already?"
"Can't let it sit around and go bad", he replied and pushed his glass towards the droid barkeeper for a refill. "Who knows if we get a chance to spend it tomorrow, with the Empire being on the move again." He waved in the direction of a holoscreen where an artificial looking young woman was reading the news.
"The situation at the mining colony on Qoresh 5 is escalating", she said with an appropriately concerned look on her flawless face. "Reports of a virus outbreak among the miners have been arriving as the Empire tightens the blockade of the moon, preventing not only ore from being shipped off but also medical supplies from arriving. The miners have stated their intention to hold out, and it is to be hoped that their determination will not waver once the plague claims the first lives."
Ren shook his head in disgust. "I wouldn't be surprised if the Empire introduced that virus somehow", he grumbled.
Lumikko shrugged. "I don't see how they could have got anyone down there, with the energy shields in place. If they could get through them, they wouldn't waste time with a blockade, but simply land an army and take the colony. It's just a small moon after all, and quite off the beaten path."
"It might be possible to land one man where you can't land an army", Ren objected. "Don't underestimate the Empire's agents."
Lumikko looked thoughtfully at the holo. "You know, those miners would probably be happy to pay double for a shipment of vaccines."
"Are you crazy?" Ren stared at his captain. "You can't be seriously considering to break a blockade with one ship?"
"Don't be silly", she replied disdainfully. "Of course not. We'll take two ships."
"Hi sis, nice to see you." Arreldon's holo smiled at Lumikko. "What's up?"
He was looking well, she thought. He had managed some good deals lately, and having his own ship and moving up in the world certainly became him. "I could use your help with a run", she said without preamble. "If this works out, people will fill up your ship's cargo bay with credits."
"Whoa, slow down", he replied with a laugh. "Give me the full story."
"I've acquired a batch of Anthenon vaccine. And there are people who really need the stuff right now."
He raised an eyebrow. "You want to take the stuff to Qoresh 5? Break the blockade?"
"Not break it, more like slip through it. My contacts have arranged to get the delivery through the energy shield, I just need to get close enough to it and drop the stuff off. Of course, getting close enough means getting past the Imps somehow, and that's where you come in."
He nodded slowly. "You want me to create a distraction."
"Exactly. It will be enough if you can pull three or four ships away from the cordon. I'll need about ten minutes to slip through, make the drop, and get out again. Can you do that?"
He grinned at her. "Of course I can. Good thing I had those shield generators upgraded last week. When do you want to start?"
"Transmitting rendezvous coordinates. I'm going there right now, meet me as soon as you can. We'll go over the last details once we meet and get started. From what I've heard, the first miners have died from the virus, it's high time they got that vaccine."
"Coordinates received. See you soon, sis." He waved at her. "Arreldon out."
"Mark V interceptors spotted, Captain", Ren announced. "The Imps are getting reinforcements."
"Blast it", Lumikko swore. "Where's Arreldon? We need to get through that cordon now, or there will be so many ships that his distraction will be worthless."
"Captain Arreldon is not answering his holocom", C4-J8 reported. "I have been trying to contact him, but the comm channels appear to be jammed."
Lumikko paced up and down the narrow walkway of the bridge, her eyes riveted on the holoscreen. "This is no use", she said finally. "We're going in."
"What?" Ren whirled around and stared at her incredulously. "That's suicide, Captain."
"No, it's not." She threw herself into the pilot's seat and started working on the controls. "Strap in, everyone. It's going to be one hell of a ride, but we won't get another chance. We can do this, and we will do this."
Ren shook his head in disbelief, but wisely refrained from commenting further. "On my way to the turret", he just said, and vanished up the ladder.
Lumikko turned around to her droid. "Still no word from my brother, C4?"
"Okay." She drew a deep breath and flicked a switch. "Let's dance."
"Interceptors ahead, Captain." The droid's voice was emotionless as ever.
"I see them", Lumikko said between gritted teeth. "What's our status?" She turned the ship sharply to the right and down, narrowly avoiding laser beams from two interceptors. The enemies shot past, coming to a halt and turning around on the spot behind her. Lumikko accelerated and sped further to the right, using one of the Imperial battleships as cover. "We have taken two hits so far." C4 reported stoically. "Minor damage to the hull, all systems fully functional."
"Hah, got you!" Ren's voice came over the intercom as a fireball blossomed where another interceptor had been a moment earlier.
"Good shooting", Lumikko acknowledged. "Keep going, we're almost there."
The ship did a barrel roll, diving sharply downward between two more enemy vessels. Lumikko's eyes were on the distance meter. "Just a little, just a little... Now! C4, release!"
The droid pushed a button and a small cargo pod shot out of the bay. For a moment it was visible as a tiny speck of light, then it vanished among the ships and the debris crowding the space around Qoresh 5.
"Delivery made", Lumikko announced in relief. "And now let's get the hell out of... what's that?"
"Interceptors coming in, Captain", the droid reported. "15 and counting, they are directly ahead of us."
"Curse it, have they been waiting for us?" Lumikko executed a series of maneuvers that sent the ship rolling wildly, but she couldn't evade all of the beams that were fired at them simultaneously. Two impacts made the Grey Cat shudder and set off an alarm.
"Ren, damn you, why aren't you shooting?" Lumikko shouted over the noise. No answer from above.
"Escape pod launched", C4 reported. "I believe Master Renard has abandoned ship."
Lumikko slowly lowered her hand which had been reaching for one of the controls. "He has what?"
"Captain, with all due respect, you should focus on evading those enemy vessels and ask questions later", the droid advised.
With an effort she pulled herself together. "Right. We will-" She never finished her sentence. Another blast shook the ship, and the screeching noise of tearing metal rose over the din of the alarms. Smoke started filling the bridge.
"We have taken a full hit", C4 stated. "Main power supply failing, secondary systems at 60%. Shields are out, comm system is out, engines are failing."
Emitting a steady stream of curses, Lumikko let her fingers dance over the controls. The Grey Cat responded sluggishly and much too slowly, and Lumikko could only watch helplessly as two more interceptors closed in on her and opened fire. The hull groaned like a wounded animal under the impacts.
"Captain, I recommend immediate evacuation. The second escape pod is ready and waiting."
"No way", she cut him off. "I'm not abandoning Kitty, and that's-" Suddenly the shrieking intensified, following by a rumbling sound. Lumikko screamed as a sheet of metal crashed down on her, smashing her chair and burying her under it.
"Captain!" C4 hurried over and tigged at the debris while the ship began to lurch again. The lights started flickering and the smoke became so thick it was hard to make out anything beyond the immediate vicinity. Lumikko's face was covered in blood and she seemed to be only half conscious.
Another hit shook the ship and dislodged some of the debris, and C4 was finally able to free Lumikko. "I am getting you out of here, Captain", he said as he picked her up and carried her out of the ruined bridge.
"No", she protested weakly. "Can't leave Kitty..."
"I am sorry, Captain, but I have to insist." He opened the escape pod and gently placed her inside. "I was designed to make your well-being my highest priority." He closed the pod and secured it. "Good-bye, Captain." Then he hit the release, and as the escape pod shot away from the exploding ship, Lumikko's world turned black.
Arreldon flipped the comm switch as his ship dropped out of hyperspace. "Hey sis, sorry I'm late, but- what the hell?" He stared at the holoscreen where a fiery blossom was unfurling against the black sky, then he frantically pressed the comm buttons. "Come on, answer, blast you."
"Signature readings confirm the Grey Cat, Captain", his droid said behind him. "She has taken massive structural damage and is at present not maneuverable."
Arreldon couldn't take his eyes off the burning wreck. "Any life signs on board?" he asked quietly.
"Negative, Captain." The droid paused for a moment. "However, I am receiving a homing signal. It may be coming from an escape pod."
"Locate the pod", he commanded immediately.
"Already on it, Captain. Retrieving coordinates."
"Strap in, R3. If she's in that pod, she may still be alive. She must still be alive."
The Hawk's engines hummed as she accelerated. "I have a lock on the pod, Captain. It is coming towards us, and the sensors detect one life form aboard. The vital signs are weak though, and getting weaker."
"Get ready to grapple it", Arreldon said as he changed the course towards the pod. Three interceptors left the cover of a destroyer and started moving towards the Hawk. "Jenna, you ready to fire?" he called.
"All set, Captain", his Second answered from above. "I'll get the bastards out of our way, don't worry."
"Hang in there, sis", he murmured as he closed in on the weakly flashing point ahead. "Almost there."
Another fireball appeared to the left of the Hawk, accompanied by a triumphant whoop from the gun turret.
"Grapple engaged, Captain", R3 said. "The pod appears to be undamaged."
"Haul it in then", he snapped impatiently and made the Hawk dodge a missile. "Hurry up, there's more of them coming."
Two more interceptors exploded, one of them close enough that small pieces of debris hit the Hawk's hull. "Pod secured, Captain", the droid's voice came from the speaker.
"Let's get out of here then", Arreldon said and shifted a lever. Seconds later, the "Hawk" reached jump speed and vanished into hyperspace.
The light was much too bright, and the noise around her sounded like it was filtering through a layer of wool. Lumikko opened her eyes and tried to focus, but immediately became dizzy and shut them again.
"Look who's coming around", a voice said, sounding strenuously cheerful. "Welcome back, sis."
"Arreldon?" she tried to say, but only a hoarse croaking sound came from her throat.
"Shh." He placed a hand on her arm. "It's okay, you're safe."
She drew a shuddering breath and forced her eyes open again. "Where are we?"
"Remember that run I did half a year ago for a doctor named Sirash? We're at her clinic. She owed me one for that favour I did her."
Slowly his face became less blurry, and her hearing adjusted as well. She blinked once and looked around. The hospital room was small and machines took up every available space. Most of them were blinking, but since none of the lights were red, she guessed that there was no immediate danger.
Lumikko tried to move and found that bandages were restraining her tightly. "I feel... strange", she managed.
"Yes..." he said hesitantly. "Doctor Sirash says you'll get used to it. You see, you were almost dead when you got here. To save you, she had to give you implants."
"Implants? You mean, cybertech?"
"Yes. There was some brain damage, and lesions in your nervous system, not to mention the broken bones, cuts and bruises. Doc says the implants are working as planned though, and you'll be restored to full health in a couple of months."
She closed her eyes again. "Any more good news? What about Kitty?"
He was glad she wasn't looking at him. "I'm sorry", he said softly. "I don't think she'll ever fly again."
"The bastard", she whispered. "We could have made it if he hadn't turned tail."
"What are you talking about?"
"Ren", she said grimly. "He jumped ship as soon as those Imps appeared in our way. We could have blasted our way out of there, but without a gunner, we were trapped."
Arreldon slowly shook his head. "I can't believe he'd do such a thing. Not to mention that it seems incredibly stupid to move through a hostile fleet in an escape pod unless you really have to."
"It's much less stupid if the fleet isn't hostile", she stated flatly.
He gave her an incredulous look. "You think he sold you out? Ren?"
She tried to shrug and winced at the pain that immediately shot through her shoulder. "Who knows. But something is fishy about this whole thing, and if he really struck a deal with the Imps, I want him to pay for it."
"One step at a time, sis", he said, worried that she might overexert herself but relieved that she didn't give in to despair. "You get back on your feet, and then we'll get him."
Despite the pain, she managed a weak smile. "Promise?"