This story is copyright © 1998 Samuel Marshall. All rights reserved. May not be distributed without permission of the author.
[musical accompaniment: seefeel 'quique', ltj bukem feat. mc conrad 'progression sessions vol. 1', aphex twin 'i care because you do', everything but the girl 'walking wounded', portishead 'dummy', sneaker pimps 'six underground' (single; richard h. kirk, nellee hooper mixes), aphex twin 'selected ambient works volume 2']
* * *
"Over here, Captain," Ros shouted, waving to the tall, angular figure that was outlined in the doorway. Somehow, her call must have penetrated the clashing, grinding noise of synth-metal, or her gesture pierced the semilegal narcotic smoke clouding the air; Jhelisa nodded and headed towards their table, via the bar.
Finally, clutching a tall glass of dark, bubbling liquid, the captain arrived. She'd been forcing her way through the throng that was beginning to crowd the establishment; a big ship must've come in. The tall woman had a commanding presence - scarred face and a reputation like hers could only help - and most gave way to her. Even so, she sank into the chair that Ros had been saving with a sigh of relaxation.
"This place gets busier every time."
Ros shrugged. "Lot of trade comes through Halcyon these days. Hell, we're here."
The captain agreed with a grunt. She raised the glass to her lips, took a long pull of the contents, put it back on the table with a clink and looked around her. "Haven't wasted much time, have you? Next time you do the docking paperwork. Who's the cute guy?"
Across the table from Ros sat the mentioned individual, a small pale man dressed in nondescript black jumpsuit, but with a strikingly handsome face; fine-boned symmetry and smooth skin, amidst perfectly combed shoulder-length black hair. The hand which curled around a liquor glass was long and slender, smooth like the rest.
"Calls himself Aksha Perront. And so much for my powers of attraction; he's been asking to see you."
Jhelisa nearly choked on a mouthful of drink. Coughing, she put down her glass and stared at the man. "You're the Aksha Perront?"
He merely nodded, seeming to take neither pleasure nor amusement at her reaction. Gracefully he brought a drink to his lips and took a sip.
Ros looked between the two with some bewilderment. "Captain, I never heard of him. What's the big deal?"
"You were a pilot," Jhelisa said, "you'd have heard of him. This is the guy who was the best pilot in the navy, until after a couple years he got bored and quit. Then he was the best blockade-running smuggler in the quadrant, nobody could touch him, he did some mad crazy runs. That was a few years ago; since then, nobody I know heard of him, 'cept vague rumors."
"I got bored," the small man said. "And quit. Again. What was the point?"
Jhelisa shrugged. "Money, maybe? Guess I quit too, but that was 'cause I was gonna get caught. You didn't need to worry about that, man. If you are the real thing, anyway."
"You want to see my ID?" he asked, pulling a card from his left pocket and passing it across the table to the captain.
"I got twelve like that." Despite the cynicism, she took the ID and slipped it into her reader, peering at the screen. "Looks like you okay, scan checks out. Nice job, if it ain't for real."
"It's for real." He took back the card, repocketed it. "Anyway, I didn't need the money. I had enough to get the banks to listen, get a loan for a ship of my own after I bullshitted them a business plan. Guess I fell behind on the repayments since then - somehow those fast passenger runs never brought in the cash."
"You were doing passenger runs?" Jhelisa said, disbelieving.
Aksha shook his head. "No. That's why they didn't pay. I've been out looking for challenges, not work."
"Lemme get another beer," Ros interrupted. "You guys okay?"
Aksha nodded something noncommittal, and Jhelisa didn't even appear to notice the question, she was so intent on conversation. Feeling left out, Ros struggled through the crowd - bunch of layabout crewers signed on with some big corp, ship fresh in - with more difficulty than her impressive captain. She managed to attract the bartender's attention, skipping ahead of half a dozen waiting company guys by virtue of indy-cred priority here stationside, got her beer and left amidst angry mutters. Back finally at their table, nothing seemed to have changed; her captain still seemed locked tight by the strange man's words.
Jhelisa was talking, her voice hushed. "You flew through the rings on Kayler Eight? Both rings?"
"Twice, actually. I thought I might as well go back the same way I came."
"Shit," Ros said, surprised she actually knew what they were talking about. "I've seen those rings. Nobody goes through there, nobody."
He shrugged. "If it was easy, I wouldn't bother."
"So why'd you do all that?" the captain asked. "Sure you ain't found some way to cut cash on this?"
"No cash. I'm living off loans, plus a few favors I'm owed."
"Last I heard, I don't owe you nothing," Jhelisa said quickly. "And I sure as hell ain't in the position to hand out money."
He smiled slightly, a tight controlled smile. "I'm not after your credits."
Ros broke in. "You didn't answer that last question. Why'd you do that stuff?"
"I pretty much told you already, or you could guess," Aksha said. "I'm a pilot. What's left to do? I've done all the rest, all the stuff that had a point and made some money. Flying's all that's left now."
"And when you run out of impossible things to do?"
That got a brief half-laugh. "I'll be dead. If not, well, hell, I'll be same as dead anyway."
Jhelisa shook her head. "Crazy, man, plain crazy. And whaddya want with me?"
"You fly pretty well, I've heard. I could use you soon as copilot, if you think you can help dodge a few rocks."
"A few rocks?" the tall, muscled captain asked cautiously. "Like where?"
Aksha shrugged and looked down a little, almost seeming embarrassed. "Like Halcyon Five, in this system. I plan to orbit real close."
Jhelisa paused, blinked, and lost her breath. The dark, cutting intro screeches of a popular new death punk track had just blasted from the bar's sound system, and for a few seconds the music's tearing pulse claimed back the space from idle conversation. Then the scarred captain regained control. She leaned closer over the table and hissed, "You must be out of your fucking mind. I ain't going there for nothing."
Ros was thinking similar. Halcyon 5 was a lifeless rock, pitted with impact crater piled upon impact crater piled upon impact crater. The planet, a remnant of some previous collision, was surrounded by a dense cloud of asteroids and orbiting debris that started a kilometer above the surface and was thirty k's or so thick. Orbiting there, inside the surrounding rocks, would be impossible.
"Nothing's all I can offer," Aksha said undaunted. "I'm broke, remember? But you're a pilot, one of the best. Don't you want to be one of the team that first made that landing? Nobody ever did this before."
"I can think of better ways to kill myself," Jhelisa muttered, but it was under her breath. There was a pause for some moments; Ros saw the captain look deep into Aksha's eyes, catch some glint there that transferred across the gap, speaking of legendary accomplishments and the sheer mythic power of the impossible. Something that belonged to the strange brotherhood of pilots everywhere, something that Ros herself - tech and numbers guru - would never be more than tangentially close to.
"Well?" the small man asked.
Jhelisa paused a second. "You really think you can do this?"
Aksha nodded. "With a good copilot, yes. On my own, probably, but I'd rather be sure."
Ros blinked, wondering how far gone the man was with his definition of 'sure'. Her captain, though, hadn't batted an eyelid, and she suddenly felt a twinge of anxiety. Maybe Jhelisa would say yes and go suicide with this crazy guy and leave her, Ros, alone looking for another pilot and another ship...
The captain seemed torn. "I - can't," she said finally. "I got a ship and a cargo and a crew." She gestured vaguely at Ros. "I can't go."
Aksha caught her gaze and held it. "Yes, you can. You know you can."
Jhelisa looked away, looked down. Said, almost too quiet to hear, "Yeah. But I've got stuff to lose... and I'm scared."
He waited a few seconds, to see if she would change her mind. Then he shrugged, accepting it reluctantly. "I'll go alone, then. Tonight, twenty-three hundred local." Saying nothing more, he got up from his chair and left the establishment, attracting no attention as he slipped through the crowd and away.
Ros watched until he'd left, then turned to see Jhelisa staring into the bottom of her glass, thoughtful. "Captain, that's one crazy guy."
"Yeah," the tall, muscled woman agreed absent-mindedly. She looked up. "Wish I could be that crazy, too."
"I'm glad you're not," Ros said. She shivered, felt silly for doing so. "Else I'd be out a captain and a ship."
The captain laughed a little. "You'd manage. C'mon, I don't much feel like relaxing any more. Let's go get the cargo offloaded. We got a couple hours, then I want to watch."
Ros didn't ask what she wanted to watch, it was obvious. Together the two made their way to the Dervish's docking bay and started keying instructions for the transport robots, dispatching cargo to the warehouses and stores of its recipients. As she watched a metal pallet - laden with a shipment of high-tech goods - disappear into one of the narrow transit tunnels that crisscrossed the station, she realized how much she took for granted its safe arrival. What a contrast to the small, strange man who would later attempt an insane feat of skill, or chance, or both...
* * *
Jhelisa toggled a switch, flipped the screen she was working on to the main view. "That's him. Pilot's Luck, cleared for undock twenty-three hundred tonight."
The viewscreen showed one of Halcyon Station's external feeds, looking onto a docking area with gantries clamping their magnetic hold on a small, sleek craft. Pilot's Luck looked to be aerodynamically sound - capable of launching from atmosphere - and it had a simple, solid design that indicated it could take a few knocks. But the ship was tiny, dwarfed by the docking gantries even more than their independent trader. Pitting that against the debris surrounding Five made a distinctly uneven match.
Ros touched controls at her own screen, sending it to the main viewer as an inset. This was Dervish's own telemetry, long-range pictures of the ball of rock in question. A swirling cloud of asteroids and boulders circled Five in ever-changing patterns that seemed to make some kind of sense for a few seconds, until some unexpected change. Every few minutes there was a minor collision, two rocks bouncing off or breaking apart into smaller chunks; Ros supposed that after a few thousand years, the cloud of satellites would be little more than dust particles.
"Twenty-three hundred," Jhelisa said unnecessarily; all the monitors showed local time in the corner. As her voice died away, there was movement in the picture; clamps released and pulled away a little from Pilot's Luck, the gantries themself folding apart like the opening of a skeletal metal-girdered flower. With a brief puff of expelled vapor, the final connections at the rear end also released the ship, sending it drifting slowly outwards from the station. A few seconds' pause, and then its thrusters sparked to dim life, angling the ship a little and pushing it out and away until it disappeared from view.
"She's coming round the station," Ros reported. "Should be in Dervish's view soon." A few seconds passed, the main screen showing nothing other than the retracting gantries, folding back into the fabric of the orbiter. Then, as the tech touched controls, the view abruptly jumped to a different angle; a crisp picture of Pilot's Luck seen from their own position. In the sharp lighting of space, one side of the craft was brilliantly visible, reflecting a bright glare from its hull and the few communications dishes. The other side was pitch-black by comparison, seen only by starlight and some spreading of the glow from thrusters.
Rear engines lit brightly, accelerating the ship away from Dervish, the station, and the planet - Halcyon Four - that it orbited. On-screen the image, a rear-view of the ship, stayed roughly the same; increasing distance gradually and almost imperceptibly blurred the picture as the maximum magnification fell short of requirements and the computer had to enhance an ever-tinier image.
Twenty minutes later, and halfway to the close smaller planet, the small craft neatly flipped end-on-end, burning its engines now to brake - by the time it reached its destination, its relative motion would be zero. The computer had given up now on the large image, and Pilot's Luck was visible as little more than a point of light within a green box graphic. Text floating outside the square indicated the ship's name and class.
The center of the display still showed Five and its deadly satellites. Jhelisa had spent the time so far in silence, staring at the chaotic mess of interconnected patterns - each by itself predictable, but the combination surely too complex for anyone to understand. And Ros had spent the time watching Jhelisa, knowing that her captain wasn't in the mood for conversation. Watching Jhelisa watching the screen, noticing the lines of tension that wrinkled the scars on the captain's face as she considered the asteroid field - she must be imagining herself there, faced with the task that this insane pilot had invited her on and now undertook alone.
Time rolled by, flickering hundredths and fast-cycling tenths and gradual seconds and crawling minutes. Finally the other spacecraft's movement - iconized in a graphic Ros had called up screen-center - reduced almost to a halt, a few tiny kilometers from the surface of Halcyon 5. A few tiny kilometers, and a suicidal dash through the debris cloud.
The craft seemed to pause there for a moment; not hesitation, Ros knew, but waiting for the correct time and path. Then it burst forwards again, movement invisible from the actual picture inset but clear and impressively fast on the diagram that she'd generated from distance measurements. Jhelisa was gripping the edges of her chair tightly, staring unblinkingly at the screen as if her will could transmit success across such a distance.
Pilot's Luck steered a fast, complex curve, with minor wriggles that must have been taken to avoid rocks - rocks which were absent from the diagram because they didn't contain ID-tag transponders. At every tenth second, Ros expected to see the flash of light from an explosion, or to see the ship's tag blink out from the screen. But, incredibly, at every tenth the craft was still there, still surviving the ride. Finally, it passed the inner boundary of the asteroid cloud, entering an area that was relatively safe.
Jhelisa breathed a sigh of incredulous relief and awe. "I cannot believe he just did that," she said quietly as if to herself, her eyes still on the mesmerizing display of the orbiting rocks that surrounded the planet. "Ros, you recording all this?"
Ros nodded, then realized her captain hadn't turned away to look. "Yeah, everything."
Pilot's Luck was making a leisurely close-orbit of Halcyon 5. Its circuit complete, the tiny craft turned out and back in the direction it had come. Again, there was a slight pause, choosing a moment, and then the ship burst once again into the region of danger.
Ros glanced at Jhelisa; the normally impressive captain was again clutching the sides of her seat tight enough to leave a mark, and Ros could swear she was mouthing words, some silent mantra to assist Aksha's task. Asteroids on the screen-inset spun and whirled in their paths, small glints of light forming a dizzying, shifting cloud. The green square highlighting the Pilot's Luck was the only way to tell that speck of brightness from the surrounding blur.
On the diagram, the small craft wove another complex path, something that started as a curve but grew with twists and whorls into something almost fractal. The two watchers held their breaths...
...and there was a sudden, tiny bright flash of light from the screen-inset. The diagram disappeared and the transponder's green square winked out. For a moment, all was silence.
"Fuck," Jhelisa said quietly, loading the word with heavy associations of a myth gone wrong, a legend turned tragedy.
Ros paused a time in silence, letting the moment ease a little, lose some of its sense of history. Finally, she spoke. "Glad you weren't on that ship to die?"
"No," the captain said. Jhelisa turned to face her uncomprehending tech, scarred face showing a barely-readable expression. Pale screen-light glinted from the track of a solitary tear. Her voice was low, almost inaudible, charged with some complex emotion. "I wish to hell I had been."
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