This is my 21st year participating in NaNoWriMo. Different years it means different things to me, but it’s always a low-pressure opportunity to just kick back and write something stupid.
I’m pretty excited by my story this year. it’s not unusual for me to have a great setting, but this time I feel like I’m starting closer to an actual story than I usually do. You might recognize this from a recent post for a bit that comes later.
This is only part of my first-day output; I decided to omit the very beginning, where we learn that Sasha and Mags are lovers, that scavengers like these three usually die poor, and that all three on the boat understand table odds – the idea in poker that the value of your bet is affected not just by the odds of winning; it is adjusted for the pot to be won. That calculus also recognizes that anything you have previously put on the table is not yours anymore. On Hell’s Balls, Mags and Sasha recognize that they put their lives on the table long ago. Just more chips in the pile.
In that chapter, I don’t abuse the poker metaphor nearly as baldly as I did just now. It was more the logic behind their decisions.
Anyway, there’s this alien tech, and it’s worth a lot, but every example up to now has been blasted to shit. The possibility of intact Gamma tech is a life-changer. Enough for three small people to walk away from the table. Now they just have to go get it.
So here’s where they do.
Sasha started the pumps to pull the atmosphere out of the ship, back into storage tanks, an hour before the jump. Tommy tried to relax in his chair, watching the readings from all the internal systems as they splashed on the underside of his cornea, augmenting his understanding of the ship that was to be his salvation or his coffin.
He was twitchy, nervous, but it was a feeling he knew. Let’s just get this started.
Sasha was sure something was here. Something unprecedented, something that could change three small lives. Tommy trusted her. Mags was sure she had found the spot. She was a bullshitter, but not about something like this. The analysis was solid. Tommy trusted her, too. They just needed to put the boat right in that spot, then get out alive. That was his job. It was time to validate their trust in him.
He watched the timer count down, and as the moment of truth approached his heart slowed, and the calm of action took him. “Full thrust,” he said to no one, and the subspace thrusters roared to life, throwing a trail of near-lightspeed plasma behind the ship just as the jump drive engaged.
None of the systems were built to make a jump while the jumping body was accelerating in real space. The ship hammered into its new location, gratifyingly close to its projected position, but spinning through a giant corkscrew as the computers struggled for a fix and a solution. Tommy slammed his stick to the right and fed unwise amounts of power into the port thruster while flaring the steering jets on the nose to stop the spin as the ship catapulted forward. “Tell me where to go!” He shouted at Mags.
A beacon appeared in his vision. “Whatever that is, grab it,” Mags said in his ear. “Because that is some kind of weird shit.”
Warning signs appeared in his vision, red outlines around critical parts of Hell’s Balls that were shaking apart, stressed to breaking by the jump. Then the warnings were gone. “I’ll take care of that shit,” Sasha said over the comm. “You just fly.”
The shaking stopped as the ship seemed to fully accept its new position in space and time. “Object is rounded, roughly cylindrical, four meters long,” Mags said. “Mass… uncertain. Confirmed Gamma. No signs of damage.”
Tommy heard Sasha gasp over the comm. “Bogeys?” He asked.
“Fed ship crapping its pants and lighting it up, twelve minutes before it’s a problem, off our vector. A bunch little commercial shits dancing around but nothing with a gun I can see.”
“I’m gonna slow down for the grab,” Tommy said. “Without a mass reading I don’t want to tear our grapple off.”
“Your call,” Sasha said.
Tommy swung the ship around to put the thrust of the engines into their path, as the harnesses in the ship strained against the crew and the three sank deep into their acceleration couches. Tommy knew that the object they were collecting was impervious to any force humans could muster, but he was careful to keep his exhaust plume well away from the artifact, instead choosing a broad loop of a course that simultaneously minimized the difference in velocity between them and the target at the crucial moment, and put the Fed ship squarely behind them on their run to get the fuck out of there.
His eyes were blurring from the acceleration, and his heart felt like it was going to implode, and he smiled.
Tommy worked with the fight computer, and it was perfect. They swept through space in an arc that could only be described as beautiful, the perfect solution to many overlapping problems, from engine heat to Fed cruiser to the uncertain mass of the object that soon would be theirs.
Until is wasn’t.
“Fuck!” Tommy said. “What the fuck?”
Mags shouted, “The fucker moved! It moved!”
“It’s active tech,” Sasha said calmly.
There was silence in the cockpit for a second, before Mags said, “Active. Holy…”
Tommy flung the ship into a new arc, to pass by the artifact once more, directly across the path of the Fed destroyer.
“What are you doing, Tommy?” Sasha asked, eerily calm.
“Gettin’ the thing,” he said.
“You doing this for us, kid? You know how Mags and I feel. But you don’t have to die here.”
“I… I’m sorry. But I don’t think they should have it.”
Sasha chuckled. “Fair enough.”
“Kid’s growing some ovaries at last,” Mags said. “Don’t worry too much about it, but if we survive the destroyer we’ll be heading straight toward a cruiser that’s acting plenty pissed off.”
“First things first,” Sasha said.
Around on the new course, full thrust, there was pretty much no way the grapple would be able to capture the object, no matter what its mass was. At that velocity difference, it wouldn’t be able to capture a fart. As he approached he waggled the ship a little, then did a roll and a dip.
“What the fuck, Tommy?” Mags asked.
“Just trying… to talk to it,” Tommy said. “Trying to look fun.”
Sasha laughed, but the strain of acceleration and danger showed through. “You’re fucking flirting with it?”
“It’s dancing back,” Mags said, almost a whisper.
Tommy couldn’t help but laugh. “She’s worse at dancing than I am.”
“I think we can blame the teacher,” Sasha said.
Mags was strangely calm. Calmer than Tommy had ever seen her. “It moved again.”
“Goddammit, where’d it go?” Tommy shouted.
“It’s in our hold, kid. I think she likes you.”
The ship was suddenly far more nimble. Tommy asked, “Mags, you got a read on the mass of that thing?”
“Um… negative. As in negative mass.”
“Well, that’s something,” Sasha said.
Tommy wasn’t listening. Mags put the fed ships into his vision and he felt the ship move to his instructions, more responsive than ever before but they were boxed between fed ships and failing engines. And… shit. Strike craft were launching from the cruiser. Four total, fast, nimble, and closing exit options quickly.
“I got the little guys,” Mags said, lighting up the ships meager point defense systems. “You just fly, Tommy.”
Tommy just flew. One of the strike craft blasted past, cutting holes in unimportant parts of Hell’s Balls, and at the end of its run Tommy twitched the boat and caught the fighter in her exhaust plume, by far the most potent weapon their boat carried.
He used that turn to swing the boat to put Hell’s Balls directly between cruiser and destroyer for one critical moment, preventing them from using their big guns, but that reprieve lasted only a heartbeat and even though they were accelerating beyond any spec for their boat and even though the Feds were crossing their path and would take minutes to achieve a useful vector, the fastest ship ever made couldn’t outrun light.
Tommy jinked and juked, but it didn’t matter. The first hit tore through the starboard thruster and opened the cargo hold to space.
“Cargo’s sticking with us,” Mags reported.
The next hit cored the ship from stern to stem, directly through Mags. One moment she was there, the next she was plasma. Behind him Sasha was crying out in pain, then wasn’t, and Hell’s Balls was no more, and they were gone, and Tommy was still connected to his acceleration couch, but it wasn’t attached to anything, and he was tumbling in the terrifying silent void.
His optic interface was telling him that his suit was no longer intact. As he tumbled, he became aware of another presence, that didn’t seem to interact with light correctly. He smiled, and waggled his arms. Arm. One seemed to be missing. Distantly it hurt like hell but his suit had flooded his blood with morphine. He waggled some more, and laughed when the thing he almost couldn’t see waggled back.
Then his boat’s reactor went up, and there was light beyond imagining, and finally blessed darkness.