Seth crouched in the corner as the soldiers' weapons pounded at the door. It exploded inward, into the kitchen, chunks of roof falling all around him as the cold night air rushed in, black-clad, masked and goggled soldiers just behind it.
Alarms blared; the Isolde was under attack. The ship was damaged, couldn't move, and the captain lay spread-eagled on the floor, under a broken strut.
His mother lay under the smashed remnants of the kitchen island.
Any moment now they would fire again. The Isolde would be destroyed. The soldiers would kill him.
He screamed, and there was a terrible explosion of red light, and a terrible, all-engulfing silence.
Seth's eyes flicked open and he gasped once, quietly but sharply.
"Morning, boss!" said Izzy merrily.
Seth cursed, not for the first time wondering why he'd designed the Isolde's computer with such a bright, perky voice. "Blarg." He rolled over.
"You had the nightmare again."
"You know," Seth said, voice slightly muffled by the covers, "they have this thing called 'privacy' now. It means computers not watching their crews in their sleep just because they can."
"Aw, you're not really mad. Those centers of your brain aren't getting hardly any blood."
"Don't watch me in the shower!" Seth warned, rolling out of bed and stomping to the stall--one of the perks of being captain was getting his own. Not that it mattered, since currently he only had two crewmembers to use the two crew showers. On the way to the bathroom, he stubbed his toe on one of the many piles of mechanical junk, broken electronics, and tools covering most of the floor, and swore again, vividly and at length.
"Gasp, my virgin microphones!" He never could tell when Izzy was being sarcastic. "It's not like I can't see through your clothes if I want to, anyway. Not that I do--guys made of meat aren't my thing."
"You've been talking to Vix again," Seth muttered, turning on the shower. "Now leave me alone for a bit."
A few minutes later, he stomped out of the bathroom in his boxers, a toothbrush dangling from his mouth. "Hey! Since when do you have an MRI?"
"I don't," Izzy giggled. "Just messing with you."
Vix sat back in her chair, feet up on the navigator's console, watching Imaginary Space drift past.
"Ten minutes to the Bethel Gate," Wehj reported from behind her. "Everything's running smooth, for once."
Vix waved acknowledgment. "Great."
Wehj looked forward. "It's beautiful, isn't it? Creepy, but beautiful. Red and orange ribbons of light, slowly drifting and curling, all around us, going on and on forever. A whole universe of them, hiding behind our own."
"Eh," said Vix. "I always thought it looked like somebody threw up a bunch of blood right after eating cotton candy."
"Hate to interrupt your poetry jam, but the captain's on his way up," said Izzy. "And would you quit putting your feet on me?"
"Yeah, yeah," said Vix, sitting up.
"Hey, Izzy, don't we put our feet on you every time we stand up?" asked Wehj.
"Don't remind me."
The doors at the back of the bridge hissed open and Seth walked in, a short, wiry young man in a black bomber jacket, with close-cropped red hair and messy bangs. He flopped into the captain's chair behind Wehj and raised it to nearly ceiling height. "What's our status?" he asked.
"Six minutes to Bethel Gate," Wehj answered. "Toll signal just coming in."
Seth punched it up on the armrest and authorized payment. He frowned as the money disappeared from his dangerously small account balance.
"So," Vix drawled, "we gonna get paid on this stop, cap'n?"
"Well, maybe. If I don't buy any food or fuel."
"Shit," said Vix, "we barely have enough fuel to make it to Ur-Chaldis after we're done here! How're we supposed to salvage anything if we can't fly? And I am not eating another one of Wehj's bean and yeast-culture surprises."
"Hey!" said Wehj. "It's not my fault we're out of everything else!"
"So, we're agreed," Seth said. "I'll give you an IOU."
"You know what I think?"
"Yes, Vix, we know what you think," said Seth.
"They'll pay a lot of good money for medical supplies on Artaxerxes. A lot more than the Federation's paying us to deliver them."
"I told you before, Vix," said Seth. "We're not pirates. We're not going to steal."
"And cheating's so different? Not two months ago you sold an antique dealer a random piece of scrap metal claiming it was a chunk of the Woglinde! Hell, for that matter, how different's being a scavenger? Isn't that stealing from the dead?"
"We collect debris from battlefields and sell it. That's a lot different from taking medicine from refugees!"
"You're right. This is safer and more lucrative!" countered Vix.
"Forget it," said Seth. "We're delivering these supplies and fulfilling our contract. That's final!"
"Approaching Gate," said Wehj quietly.
A point of darkness directly ahead of them suddenly expanded into a spherical window, through which they could see stars and the occasional chunk of rock. Then they were through, and the Gate collapsed, the only sign of it a tiny red point at the center of the slowly rotating Generator station.
"Ah, man!" Wehj groaned. "
"Can it!" snapped Seth, kicking Wehj's headrest from his position above and behind the mechanic--as near as he could tell, the only reason the ship's designers had put the captain's chair on a movable arm. "It is lucky. We can do a big curve in, do a sensor sweep of most of the system before we get there. Maybe we'll find something left over from the war!"
"Yeah, right," said Vix. "This system's been picked clean a thousand times. Setting course for
"Hey, my grandma always told me, where there's life, there's hope." Wehj rubbed the back of his head, though his headrest had absorbed almost all of the captain's blow.
"My grandma always said, where there's life, there's shit," Vix countered. She added thoughtfully, "Then she'd get drunk and start screaming about Realians."
"All right, that's enough sharing time for me, kids." Seth returned his chair to ground level and hopped off. "I'm headed below. Let me know if you find anything interesting."