tagSci-Fi & FantasyTales of the "Pink Mist" Ch. 00

Tales of the "Pink Mist" Ch. 00

byQeda_Charlemaigne©

PROLOGUE

She'd fallen asleep again. Upright, strapped in to the flight chair, the blackness of space outside the cockpit window. She yawned, blinked her eyes, ran her hands through her short red hair, and scanned the instrument panel, noting that all ship's systems were in the green.

"Okay, Ship, Talk to me. How long was I asleep this time? Where are we? Anything unusual happen? Did I miss dinner?"

"Pilot entered REM sleep seven point three hours ago," the flat monotone of the ship's computer, totally devoid of emotion replied. "Current location is one million, four hundred twelve thousand, twenty seven statute miles past the nearest earth-type planet. A black hole was detected and course adjusted for avoidance and optimal trajectory. You have not eaten in fourteen hours, seven minutes,"

"Pull up a population density on that planet. Anything like I might want?"

"Planetary population is currently ninety-eight billion, three hundred fourteen million..."

"Skip it. Find the next one. Preferably one with under a million, worldwide. I want it to be a lonely place. I hate people."

"Affirmative. Continuing scan."

Quillan unstrapped from the chair and went into the kitchen to get some food. Passing the port side airlock, she cast her eyes firmly to the deck plate as she always did, eying the path worn into the paint.

Each time she passed the airlock, flashbacks leading to this point in time occurred.

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"This tribunal finds the Federation Flight Academy to be in serious violation of the health and welfare of its students and hereby awards full damages sought by the plaintiff, Quillan S. Margoles, in this case. Damages to be paid within twenty four hours. This tribunal further finds the Academy training standards vastly below established norms and orders a full investigation into all courses, classes, equipment, and academy sponsored programs. Administration, starting with the institution president on down to the third sub-level stockholders, will undergo a thorough financial and background check by an investigation team of this court's choosing. Investigation to start no later than thirty days from this date, and end no later than one calendar year from today. Military records will show that the plaintiff was discharged under honorable conditions and is entitled to full military benefits, as well. No appeals are allowed in this case. Thus it is scribed and recorded.

"Miss Margoles, please allow this tribunal to express its deepest apologies for the injuries you sustained during the final test flight of your class. While the job itself is inherently dangerous, the students are valuable assets and not to be 'thrown away.' The government invested several million credits because you proved that you had the necessary skills for your chosen field. You do not owe the government anything in recompense and are free to take the skills you have learned into the private sector, if you wish. It is truly a shame that your injury, however slight you might think it, precludes you from military service, but the government does have requirements, one of them being that your limbs and extremities must all function normally. Even the fact that your little finger does not work...well...I'm sorry. Thank you for your service.

"This tribunal is closed. Judge William Z. Harrison, presiding."

Quillan turned to her lawyer with a big grin and hugged the man.

"You and I are very rich people," he said. "I just might retire, even if I only get the standard thirty-three percent." He reached behind her and tugged her flaming red ponytail.

"So, what happens now?" she asked, self-consciously smoothing her dress.

"If you don't get notified that your account's been credited by this time tomorrow...set your alarm...call me and I'll take care of it. If they don't want the damage settlement doubled, they'll pay. If they wait until the end of the week, they're fucked and you own a federally funded school. The government doesn't have that much money."

Twenty three hours and fifty eight minutes later, just as Quillan picked up her morning coffee cup, the electronic door chime of her one-room mazecube sounded. Carrying her cup with her, she crossed the small room, turned on the video monitor and saw that it was a courier. She opened the door and the courier handed her an envelope, presenting a small pad for her to press her thumb against to verify delivery. Behind him stood four heavily-armed, very capable-looking guards who looked everywhere but at her. They carried phased-pulsed laser rifles, reactive thermal armor, concussion and fragmentary grenades. Heavy shit. MilCom Special Forces, probably.

She handed the courier a twenty-credit chip for gratuity and closed the door.

Her hands shook as she opened the envelope and dumped a small dull black chip into her hand. Moving to her computerminal, she slotted the chip as she held her breath. It was a good thing she was sitting down. As she watched, the indicated amount quavered as the system adjusted the numbers. The Academy had cut their time too close. The system had automatically doubled the awarded amount as penalty.

Her lawyer was getting thirty-three percent of the original amount.

Quillan fainted.

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"Here we are, CAPTAIN Margoles," said the salesman with an easy smile, emphasizing the word. "Terms and conditions, taxes, licensing, registration as 'Hawk's Wing,' et cetera, et cetera. If you agree with it all, your thumbprint, please."

She quickly scanned the readout as she had been taught in the Academy (the Academy had its uses) and pressed her thumb to the pad. A green light indicated confirmation.

Her thumbprint was instantly relayed to the bank in order to debit her account, to the government in order that she be taxed for said purchase, and lastly, to the ship so that she could open the door manually. In turn, the ship automatically accessed certain databases and began the preparation for the arrival of its new owner. It set internal temperatures to her preferred comfort level, ordered her favorite foods (which would be delivered within the hour), and keyed itself to her vocal pattern. The small cargo ship was hers.

----------------------------------------

"Hey, sweets," said Ilana, clad in her bulky atmosphere suit, helmet in hand and hanging loosely at her side. "Ship reports that the housing on the port side stabilizer's loose and we won't be able to make landfall until it's fixed. It'll take me about 15 minutes to repair. We'll still make the scheduled run. Be right back."

"Hang on just a sec, babe. Let me start the calibrations for re-entry," Quillan replied, totally absorbed in her work.

The hiss of the airlock door as it opened didn't register on her, so engrossed was she. Finishing, she turned in her seat and looked around for her business partner and bed mate. The olive complected beauty was no where to be found. Quillan swore under her breath.

"Dammit....told her a million times to let me check the suit before she went out..."

That was one of the many things that the academy had drilled and drilled and drilled into her until she started dreaming of doing suit checks. She would wake up in the morning, hands "smoothing" thin air as if running them over an imaginary suit. A pinhole leak could become a major rent in the suit and the occupant of said suit would turn into red gelatin as he or she was sucked out due to the massive pressure differential. All of the joints had to be checked to insure proper seating or the individual would burst as a result of the pressure difference.

Taking a step into the hallway, Quillan made her way aft towards the airlock and spotted Ilana, her helmet on, turned toward the outer door, hand moving for the pressure button. Quillan's blood froze. Ilana hadn't worn the prescribed hood and some of her long dark hair was protruding through the helmet joint. This would cause a tiny gap in the tight fitting collar and allow...

"ILANA! STOP! REPRESSURIZE! REPRESSURIZE!" Quillan screamed into the intercom. "YOUR SUIT'S COMPROMISED! REPRESSURIZE! ILANA!"

The O2 indicator next to the hatch on the far wall began its descent as the air was evacuated from the chamber in order to match the vacuum of space.

Ilana turned to wave at Quillan, and caught sight of the wide-eyed terror-stricken face on the other side of the airtight door. She cocked her head quizzically, remembering that she hadn't turned on her helmet-com, then her own eyes grew wide with horror. She whirled towards the panel to hit the emergency pressurization button.

Quillan scrunched her eyes closed, but couldn't close her ears as a steady stream of blood and brain matter splattered obscenely into the door and glass surrounding it. Alana's skin had burst, her internal organs being sucked out to jet into the door.

Quillan had kept her hair cut short ever since.

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She ate woodenly, thinking of the past. Fork to plate. Open mouth. Insert food. Chew. Swallow. Repeat. She didn't taste it. She didn't even care what it was. It was food. It satisfied the basic instinct of survival.

"Captain, there is an Alliance distress signal with a repeating plea for aid," said the emotionless voice of Ship. "The signal lies one quarter parsec distant. It is barely discernible. Your orders, please."

"You're fucking with me. No one's out this far but us." Quillan picked up her glass of juice and wandered back into the cockpit, leaving her plate on the table. "All right, let's hear it."

A pleasant female voice, unhurried and quite calm, issued forth from the speakers. The signal was very weak and quite broken.

"This... Alli...Dre...ught ...mas A Park...r...any...ip...within...nge. Ple...ackn...edge."

"Ship, head on over there. Give me about a three-hour arrival time. Their transmitter's fucked. Any idea why?" She felt the ship alter course and increase speed in response to her command.

"They are on the edge of an asteroid field. Hull breaches in several places. The four antenna array points have been destroyed. Attempting to read the registration identification. It's a dreadnaught class."

Quillan rolled her eyes. Great. Dreadnaught class meant military. It was the military's fault she was out this far in the first place. She wanted to get as far from them, or anyone else for that matter, as possible. She was sorely tempted to let them rot, but decided that whatever crew was still on board the distressed ship had nothing to do with her situation.

"Dreadnaught? The military should be all over them. Anything on the news nets or milcoms?"

"Negative," came the flat reply.

"Send a reply to let them know somebody heard them. Inform them that we're coming. Let me know when you have a strong enough signal to carry on a decent conversation," Quillan said, draining her glass and heading back into the kitchen to wash the dishes.

"Approximately two hours, thirty minutes until full signal acquisition."

Quillan dropped into her pilot's chair and propped her feet up on the console. Ship had reported that the signal was clearing up and would be fully understandable in just a few moments.

"This is Captain Quillan Margoles, commanding 'Hawk's Wing.' You guys look to be fucked over in the most trashmatter way. What can I do?"

Indeed, the dreadnaught looked totally dead in space, surrounded by the Clovis Asteroid Belt. How the hell had they gotten stuck in THAT? That asteroid belt was listed in every known space chart and database. Her hull was dented and scratched beyond belief; it was hard to tell what the original color had been as the paint had been scraped off in great sections. Enormous rocks, some the size of the "Hawk's Wing" herself, were embedded in the hull. Quillan shivered. How many people had died?

"Captain Margoles, I am First Mate Alice Nine of the Alliance Dreadnaught Thomas A. Parker. Thank you very much for responding. I am the only one aboard this ship. The escape pods have all been taken. I wish to leave the asteroid belt and any help will be rewarded by the Alliance," came the smooth unhurried female voice. Sounded kinda sexy.

"Ship," Quillan ordered, "hold position a thousand miles from the edge of the belt. Scan for life on that thing, display only."

"Affirmative." The display showed the proper information. No life signs? Must be interference from the asteroid belt.

"First Mate Alice Nine, what sort of reward is in the offing for a dreadnaught class?"

"I'm unsure of the exact amount, Captain," came that sexy voice again, "but it will be worth your while. I am immobile at the moment and can't get to the main power system. There is enough power to run this transmitter and life support for four more hours. If our main was online, things would be a lot better."

Quillan's eyes and hands flashed over the various panels, flipping switches and checking readouts. Lastly, she dropped her feet to the deck, sitting upright in her chair and fastened the five-point seat belt, making sure it was cinched tightly. She hated bouncing off of hard objects like walls.

"Alright, First Mate Alice Nine," Quillan said matter-of-factly, "I'm coming in. Have you got enough power to open an outer door for me? Can you even get to a panel to do that?"

In response, a cargo door opened slightly, then froze about halfway up.

"You gotta be shittin' me," Quillan muttered to herself, then spoke up so the vocal pickup would transmit. "Dreadnaught Thomas A. Parker, can't you open the door a little wider?"

"I'm sorry, Captain, but I can't. I'll need the power to close the door to prevent an asteroid from penetrating. That will also decrease the current battery supply. If you wish to abort the attempt, I won't hold it against you."

Quillan sighed. She hadn't been particularly good at "thread-the-needle" drills at the academy, but always managed to pass the tests. Now, she was getting to do it for real.

"Sit tight, First Mate. I need to loop to get in the proper position. I'll be coming in hot. Margoles, out."

Fully fifty times the size of the "Hawk's Wing," the dreadnaught was a war wagon, pure and simple. The unofficial motto of the Dreadnaught Class was, "Kill It. No Prisoners." Quillan's training had given her extensive knowledge of the Alliance fleet and the dreadnaught in particular as she was groomed to fly one. Dreadnaughts sported massive firepower and high-altitude atmospheric capabilities which allowed them to act as aircraft carrier, battleship, or bomber. It wasn't agile enough for a destroyer role, but with its suite of weapons, bombs, and fast attack fighters, no one in his right mind was dumb enough to mess with one. The armor plating was heavy enough to repel light plasma fire. How it had been breached by an asteroid was beyond Quillan's understanding.

Quillan took the flight stick and accelerator lever in hand and spoke to Ship.

"Take it off automatic. I'm in control."

"Manual controls engaged. Caution is advised." Standard reply from a standard ship in a standard universe.

Quillan banked the ship and swung into a wide loop to line up with the half open bay door, which was a mere pinpoint of light from this distance. She disengaged the empty cargo container to make her ship more maneuverable. The container's own "dumb" computer and thrusters would hold it stationary; she'd come back for it later.

"Ship, scan the field and let me know if anything's gonna intercept us. I don't want to fly into a rock."

"At current trajectory, nothing will interfere for another six minutes. Afterward, there will be a two-minute window of opportunity, then the path will be blocked for nine hours, twenty eight minutes."

Quillan slammed the accelerator to the stops.

Arrowing in, Quillan's focus was wholly on the open door, her hands making small corrections to trajectory and speed. The "Hawk's Wing" shot forth at more than eleven thousand meters per second. Either she would succeed, or she would die. No leeway.

"Ship, prepare for collision. At this rate of speed, I'll probably pass out when we get inside. Full forward defense shields. Zero shields anywhere else."

Shit...shoulda called up the schematics on that bay first...find out how much room there was to play with. Too late now.

"FULL BRAKE!"

Collision alarms. Door. Light. Wall. Noise. Dark.

That hurt. A lot. Deep breath. The ship smells funny. Too clean-smelling.

Quillan opened her eyes and focused them to see a white medibot perched atop the instrument panel, one of its many arms holding an oxygen mask over her mouth and nose. Her head was held in place by two of its other arms. Flicking her eyes downward, she could see that a fourth and fifth arm were tending to a deep gash on her upper thigh. Looking back up, she saw past the medibot to the transparent aluminum windshield. A huge hole had opened in it and she realized that part of the seat next to her head was totally gone. The hole in the windshield had been patched, rather hastily it appeared, with an opaque airpatch. That meant that the bay hadn't been repressurized and she would have suffered the same fate as Ilana and countless other space travelers.

Remaining still, she let the bot do its job. It would let her up soon enough.

"Ship, give me a damage report," Quillan ordered, her voice muffled by the oxygen mask.

"Forward thrusters, inoperative. Dorsal thrusters, inoperative. Ventral thrusters, inoperative. Starboard thrusters, inoperative. Port thrusters, one half. Reverse thrusters, destroyed. Forward view port, destroyed. Forward telemetry, destroyed. Scanning suite, destroyed. Search beacon, inoperative. Hull integrity forward of cockpit, zero percent. Forward defense shield generator, destroyed. Main engines one and three, inoperative. Main engines two and four, one quarter. Starboard airlock integrity, zero percent. Port..."

"Cancel," she said rapidly. "What blew past my shoulder and ripped the seat apart?"

"A plastic bottle containing potable water. The bulkhead behind you is no longer airtight."

The medibot finished the job on her leg and retracted its arms. Still holding her head immobile and forcing her to stay seated, it retracted the oxygen mask, determining that since she was fully conscious, she no longer needed it. It spoke in a pleasant, sexy female voice; that of First Mate Alice Nine.

"Hello, Captain. Welcome aboard the Alliance Dreadnaught Thomas A. Parker. Atmosphere has been cleared from all decks and directed to the bay in which you now sit. It's safe to exit your ship, if you wish. As you move through the ship, I'll pressurize the section directly in front of you. Please pause for a few seconds between sections, so that I can do this effectively. I assure you that once the main power has been restored, the entire ship will be fully pressurized. Please follow the medibot as it takes you to the proper areas. I will see you shortly."

The medibot extended two legs to the decking, retracted all of its arms, and climbed down from the console. Once there, it extended four more legs and began moving toward the port airlock. Quillan stood gingerly, placing her weight on her damaged leg. There was no pain. She bent slightly to look at the hole in her pants, expecting to see stitches closing the gash. A smooth bare leg. The gash was gone; completely healed. She turned to look at the hole in the wall. It was smaller than the one in the windshield and a little more ragged. The wall of the airlock on the other side was still wet from the water, and had a large dent from the impact. At high speed, water could be as hard as concrete.

It was a tedious trip to the generator deck; having to stop every 12 seconds in the dim emergency lighting and wait for the door ahead of her to open so she could proceed through the ship. The medibot dutifully waited at each door, gently tapping a foot in an impatient way. Odd. Nice mimicry of human impatience, though. Quillan surmised that what should normally have been a five minute walk, took close to a half hour.

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