Suspense R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
G etting    killed    wasn’t    in    Toni’s    plans.    Notoriety    wasn’t either,   but   the   design   of   her   ship   in   dry-dock   alters   what engineers   thought   they   knew   about   faster-than-light   travel. With     pins     holding     her     spine     together,     independence shattered,   she   takes   on   a   crew   that   flings   her   into   galactic intrigue.     She’s     hounded     for     her     technology.     Ticks     off revolutionaries    who    want    the    Earth    Union    out    of    their space. She needed a Plan B.
Urban Fantasy
Chapter One ~ T oni’s   hand   trembled   as   she   executed   the   transaction.   It   was   official.   She   was   in debt   to   the   round   figure   of   one   hundred   and   twenty-two   million   EU   credits   to finance her own ship. The   rush   of   emotion   made   her   lightheaded.   She   swiveled   out   of   her   chair   and gave   her   old   dog   a   hug.   Molly’s   tail   throttled   the   rusty   grate   of   what   was   a   sorry excuse   for   a   bureau.   The   loud   bang   echoed   in   the   tiny   stateroom.   Flakes   of   paint and rust fell to the deck. Figured   she’d   get   stuck   with   such   a   decrepit   piece   of   junk   on   her   last   gig.   Toni’s stomach   churned   a   little.   She   and   her   three   crewmen   had   a   fifty-fifty   chance   to reach   their   destination   without   a   breakdown   that   could   cost   them   their   lives,   or   at least   an   extensive   delay.   If   the   corporate   owners   weren’t   so   greedy   and   cheap   the scow would have been recycled two decades ago. “We   won’t   be   stepping   foot   on   anything   like   this   ever   again.   I   promise   you,   girl. I’ve accepted my last crap assignment.” This latest gave her the down she needed for Kory Mae . “Nothing   but   the   highest-tech   everything   for   us   after   we   get   this   load   to   Earth. Easy Street now, Molly Molly.” She   gave   the   old   hound   a   brisk   scratch   under   each   ear   and   another   hug   before she   returned   to   her   seat   and   back   to   her   viewer.   She   pulled   up   the   exterior   design   of her   future   ship.   Kory   Mae    would   be   a   beautiful   thing.   Nothing   like   her   in   space. Nothing faster. More maneuverable. There was no word to describe her. Fourteen   staterooms.   She   could   be   called   a   luxury,   touring   liner.   A   main   cargo hold   that   could   accommodate   a   couple   of   the   wonders   of   the   ancient   world,   she could   be   called   a   cargo   ship.   However,   she   was   neither,   and   both.   Toni’s   arms   and face tingled with goose flesh. Other   than   veterinarian   bills,   toys   and   food   for   Molly,   and   a   couple   pair   of overalls   and   deck   shoes   for   herself   in   a   decade,   every   credit   of   every   contract   went into wise investments. Not a single credit squandered. She   had   accepted   some   very   well   paying   gigs.   They   were   the   worst   jobs   in   the galaxy.   They   had   to   pay   well.   Like   the   current   hell   with   a   faster-than-light   drive that    she    found    herself    on,    they    were    absolutely    the    worst    jobs    anyone    could imagine. No   doubt   the   owners   of   the   Oceana    assumed   her   credentials   were   a   fabrication. Why   else   would   anyone   who   graduated   at   the   top   of   their   class   from   the   Merchant Academy, an accomplished engineer with doctoral degrees, step foot on such a tub? Even   she   found   it   hard   to   believe   she   had   taken   the   assignment.   It   would   take her   six   weeks   to   coax   the   piece   of   crap   the   distance   her   dream   ship   could   jump   in minutes. Sighing,   she   flipped   through   the   final   design   she   had   just   delivered   to   Billings Shipyard.   Four   FTL   drives.   She   was   going   to   kick   some   major   butt.   The   whole   time she   would   be   living   in   luxury,   taking   whatever   assignments   she   wanted,   putting   up with no shit. Kory   Mae    was   so   state-of-the-art   she   wasn’t   going   to   need   anyone   else   on   the ship. She   clicked   back   to   the   second   page   and   zoomed   into   the   graphic   rendering,   to the   bow,   and   the   italicized   lettering—the   ship’s   name.   She   pressed   her   fingers   to the   viewer   as   though   she   might   be   able   to   feel   the   edges   of   the   paint   that   scrawled out the name Kory Mae. Her eyes welled. The    intercom    blared,    making    her    jump.    “Captain.    Authority    operations    has certified the containers,” the engineer reported over the scratchy interface. “I’ll be on the bridge in a sec,” she shouted back. The   com   crackled,   making   the   engineer’s   acknowledgment   inaudible.   She   didn’t have to hear his, “Aye, Captain,” to know what he said. “That’s   another   thing   we   won’t   have   to   put   up   with,”   she   told   the   Labrador. “Stinking   intercom   systems   you   have   to   shout   at,   that   you   can   only   understand every third word from.” She   unplugged   her   computer   from   its   docking   station,   slid   it   into   its   place   on her   hip,   and   walked   to   the   hatch.   Molly   followed   her   as   she   crossed   the   corridor onto the bridge. Toni   emotionally   flinched   to   find   the   second-shift   pilot   sitting   at   the   helm.   The man   had   gone   out   of   his   way   to   cross   her   every   chance   he   got   since   she   stepped aboard   the   previous   week.   She   understood   the   man   thought   he   deserved   first   chair, but it wasn’t his. Coming   aboard   she   reviewed   his   file.   Couldn’t   believe   he   was   still   in   the   corps, much   less   held   a   pilot’s   license.   He’d   been   placed   on   probation   five   times   in   the past    decade,    had    twice    the    infractions    usually    allowed    before    a    license    was permanently pulled. Somewhere the man had a powerful protector. Their   first   conflict   originated   with   his   move   into   the   captain’s   stateroom   before she   arrived.   He   refused   to   move   out,   claiming   he   had   served   on   the   ship   for   fifteen years and as the senior pilot it was his right. How   could   anyone   have   languished   on   this   sorry   excuse   for   space   transit   for fifteen years? She   laughed   in   his   face.   He   pulled   back   to   strike   her.   Towering   over   her,   he   no doubt   expected   the   petite   little   dwarf   to   fall   back   in   fear.   She   stared   him   down,   in front of the third-chair pilot. He   had   sniveled   as   he   collected   his   gear.   She   stood   in   the   middle   of   the   room watching   him,   her   duffle   at   her   feet,   and   Molly   smelling   everything   he   picked   up. He motioned to slap the dog once, but quickly looked over his shoulder at Toni. Un-fucking-believable. From   that   moment   she   knew   it   was   going   to   be   a   miserable   assignment.   More miserable than usual, even if she dismissed the sewer of a ship. She   stepped   beside   the   pilot’s   chair   and   cleared   her   throat,   but   the   man   ignored her. He was actually initiating the docking maneuver. She couldn’t believe his gall. “Stand down, sir.” “I’ve got this. You go play with your puppy.” “Stand down!” she repeated, trying to stay calm. The   com   hissed   from   the   harbor   master,   demanding   to   know   what   they   were doing. For a moment, Toni was too shocked to react. What did the man mean? Oh, shit. Not   only   was   the   ass   taking   the   helm   as   a   direct   discourtesy   and   breaking Transit Authority protocol, he had neglected to get final Master approval. The   man’s   face   displayed   his   own   panic.   Sitting   in   the   grungy   pilot’s   chair,   his expression cracked the moment he decided to lie. He shouted at the open com. “You gave me permission to dock! You gave me permission to dock!” “Harbor   Master,”   Toni   jumped   in.   “We   seem   to   have   had   a   miscommunication here. My apologies, sir. We are backing off, Master. I repeat. We are backing off.” While    the    Oceana     plowed    toward    the    space    dock    in    front    of    them,    Toni furiously   waved   at   the   man   to   reverse   course,   but   he   shoved   the   helm   forward without   reversing   thrust.   In   horror,   Toni   saw   the   image   of   the   gigantic   lead   barge racing   toward   them   in   the   viewer.   With   all   her   might   she   shoved   the   man   out   of   the chair onto the floor and pulled back on the helm and reversed thrust. On the com, the Authority screamed, as was the engineer below. It   seemed   as   though   an   eon   passed   before   the   sluggish   helm   finally   reacted.   The image   on   the   viewer   slowed,   however   the   tractor’s   attitude   had   rotated   bringing   the starboard-coupling    diaphragm    swinging    toward    the    barge.    There    just    wasn’t enough   power   in   the   old   ship’s   anti-gravity   drive   to   pull   back   fast   enough   to   keep from   colliding.   No   matter   how   hard   she   pushed   on   the   helm,   it   wasn’t   going   to   stop them. Only one option came to mind. Toni    flipped    on    the    com    connecting    with    Engineering.    “You    there?”    she shouted,   disconnecting   as   soon   as   she   heard   the   first   hiss   of   a   reply.   She   repeated the   same   thing   to   determine   where   the   third-chair   pilot   was.   Confirming   he   was   in his   quarters,   her   eyes   frantically   moved   across   the   control   board   looking   for   the right manual switches. She threw them as quickly as she could. The   exterior   hatches   at   the   port   and   starboard   diaphragms   opened.   A   hundred alarms   blared   as   the   ship’s   environment   gushed   through   the   open   hatches.   Molly howled,   but   Toni   focused   on   the   con.   On   the   main   display,   the   space   between   the tractor    and    the    barge    filled    with    the    fog    of    expanding    gas    escaping    from    the Oceana . Toni   braced   for   impact.   The   seconds   passed.   She   watched   the   diagram   mapped by   the   ancient   sensors   but   they   were   so   near   the   barge   the   separation   didn’t   even display. Time crawled. The collision didn’t come. The   extra   propulsion   provided   from   the   vented   atmosphere   was   enough   to   push back.   Toni   pressed   back   in   the   pilot’s   chair   as   she   realized   her   ears   hurt.   She   closed the hatches and madly worked at equalizing the pressure on her eardrums. “Engineer! Are you all right down there!” she shouted. “Man!” It was quiet. “Repeat. The com broke.” “No it didn’t. I’m just trying to compose myself,” came the embarrassed voice. Another   shouted   voice   came   over   the   com   before   she   could   check   on   her   third- chair.   The   call   from   the   Harbor   Master.   Between   expletives,   Toni   was   ordered   to pull   back   three   thousand   meters   and   come   to   RDS,   relative   dead   stop,   and   prepare to be boarded. Toni slumped, resigned to the freaking, first mark on her record. This was going to be a big infraction, too. “Son of a fucking bitch!” She   put   behind   it   all   of   her   hundred-twenty   centimeter   frame.   Her   last   contract gig   and   she   was   going   to   get   written   up.   She   looked   up,   searching   for   the   SOB   that caused   it.   Nowhere   to   be   seen.   Good   thing.   She   might   have   kicked   his   ass   out   a hatch. ~ T he   Master   let   her   sweat   for   over   three,   freaking   hours.   Perhaps   he   was   just   trying to   calm   down.   Though   there   was   nothing   he   could   have   done   to   avoid   the   incident, the fact it became a statistic for his site still reflected upon his record. The   Transit   Authority   didn’t   let   a   Master   get   many   incidents   on   their   record before   they   were   banned   for   life.   There   were   higher   paying   gigs,   but   there   was   none with more prestige than that of a station’s master. The   rumble   of   the   coupling   pulling   the   Authority   umbilical   tight   against   the   hull was   emotionally   symbolic   of   a   coming   storm.   Toni   shooed   Molly   into   the   captain’s berth   and   told   her   to   stay.   The   dog   whined   pathetically.   The   sound   never   failed   to tighten   Toni’s   throat.   That   moment   it   was   worse   than   usual,   as   she   thought   of   the inspection and throttling she was going to get. She   trudged   down   the   corridor   and   stood   patiently   at   the   umbilical   hatch.   It opened   with   a   whoosh   and   fog   of   condensation   as   the   environments   equalized.   Two officers   wearing   Authority-orange   vests   entered   the   corridor.   Toni’s   heart   sank   as she   saw   the   white   uniform   behind   them   as   the   first   two   moved   aside   and   Toni caught the stripes on the man’s shoulder boards. It was the Master himself. He   strode   past   her   for   the   bridge   without   a   glance.   She   turned   and   followed.   In angry,   chopped   syllables,   the   man   demanded   she   pull   up   the   record.   He   glared down   his   nose   about   the   small   chamber   with   disgust   on   his   face,   as   though   he hoped he didn’t have to touch anything. At least on that Toni agreed with the man. He   stood   watching   the   recording,   shaking   his   head.   The   blurry   image   showed the   second-chair   move   the   tractor   to   dock.   The   master   opened   his   computer   and checked   his   records,   no   doubt   looking   up   who   the   second   pilot   was,   not   bothering to ask. When   the   video   reached   the   point   she   pushed   the   man   out   of   the   chair,   he replayed   it   a   second   and   third   time,   zooming   in   on   the   con.   He   turned   to   look   down at Toni for the first time and glared into her eyes. “That   was   a   gutsy   move,”   he   mumbled,   before   turning   away   from   her,   looking back up at the viewer, hooking his hand across the back of his neck. He   stood   there   quietly   shaking   his   head.   The   moments   slogged   agonizingly slowly,   the   hum   of   the   electronics   the   only   sound   in   the   cabin.   Finally,   the   master pulled   out   his   computer   and   studied   it   for   several   minutes.   He   exhaled   hard.   At last, he turned back and faced Toni again. “I’ve   never   met   anyone   with   over   a   decade   behind   a   helm   without   a   mark   on their   record.   You   have   two   decades   without   a   mark.”   He   worked   his   mouth   as though getting part of his lunch out of his teeth. “The   problem   is   I   can’t   avoid   writing   you   up   as   the   responsible   officer   on   the bridge   if   I   document   this   as   pilot   error,”   he   continued   after   a   long   pause.   “I’d   like   to shoot   the   idiot   who   caused   this.   But   I   happen   to   know   why   he   still   has   his   license   in the first place.” Again,   he   shook   his   head.   He   was   in   pain.   Toni   stood   patiently,   waiting   to   hear the   but.   She   was   shocked   he   wasn’t   ranting.   The   hanger   they   could   have   collided with   was   probably   full   of   hundreds   of   people.   A   rupture   would   have   put   all   of   their lives   at   risk.   Financially,   lawsuits   could   have   been   overwhelming   for   the   small   pier. Operationally,   it   could   have   shut   down   the   gate   for   weeks,   even   months   if   there wasn’t a local crew certified to execute repairs in zero-g. The   master   continued   looking   at   her   and   Toni   wished   he   would   get   it   over   with. He   flipped   open   his   computer   and   recited   the   boilerplate   that   went   with   an   incident report.   When   he   got   to   the   specifics   of   the   incident,   he   surprised   her   by   citing   the out-of-date     technology     and     underpowered     drives     of     the     ship     as     the     sole contributing factors to the near-collision. This   was   an   explanation   that   wouldn’t   hold   up   under   any   kind   of   scrutiny.   He was putting more at risk than simply avoiding a site incident. Toni’s   entire   body   thrummed   with   anger,   appreciation,   and   frustration.   She opened her mouth to tell him, “No.” But the word wouldn’t come out. Was it pride? So be it. He   completed   the   boilerplate   conclusion   and   drew   his   thumb   across   the   bio strip   to   close   the   report.   He   held   the   computer   out   to   her.   Toni   stated   her   name   and TA certification and drew her thumb across the biosensor. The   master   told   her,   “Good   day,”   turned   briskly   without   another   word   and   left the bridge. Protocol   dictated   she   escort   him   to   the   hatch.   But   Toni   plopped   down   in   the pilot’s chair and laughed, nervously. The   sound   of   the   umbilical   retracting   from   the   docked   ship   reinforced   what   just happened,   really   happened.   She   turned   and   watched   the   sleek   little   four-seater   on the forward viewer, heading for the planet below. ~ T he   next   morning,   the   engineer   and   third-chair   were   in   the   galley   when   Toni   and Molly   walked   in   for   breakfast.   The   two   men   stopped   talking   and   looked   down   a little sheepishly. It   didn’t   take   a   genius   to   imagine   they   had   been   talking   about   the   mishap   the previous   day.   They   had   been   fairly   cool   to   her   when   she   boarded,   not   too   ready   to embrace a temporary captain. Had   they   bothered   to   watch   the   black   box   recording?   Probably   not.   Heard   her on the bridge. The debacle clearly her fault. I don’t care. At   least   she   told   herself   she   didn’t.   That   was   her   life   story.   Let   them   think   what they   wanted.   She   grabbed   a   cup   of   coffee   and   headed   for   the   bridge   without   saying anything. The   engineer   not   so   subtly   followed   her   into   the   passageway.   He   cleared   his throat   to   get   her   attention,   handed   her   a   wafer,   turned,   and   hurried   back   toward his   station,   aft.   She   looked   at   the   data   drive   in   her   hand,   not   the   least   curious   what would be stored on it. On   the   bridge,   she   threw   the   wafer   on   the   con,   convinced   she   would   disregard it.   By   mid-day   though,   her   curiosity   was   compounded   by   boredom.   She   picked   it   up and slid it into the port of her computer. She   was   stunned.   It   was   a   u-mail   the   second-chair   mailed   before   they   went   FTL the previous day. She   didn’t   have   to   research   who   the   addressee   was.   She   recognized   the   name, incredibly, an officer rather high in the Transit Authority pecking order. “Dear   Uncle   Charles,”   it   started.   She   read   the   despicable   fantasy   describing   his view of the event. That a mind could be so contorted was un-fucking-believable. How   could   such   a   man   remain   in   a   position   where   lives   depended   upon   his decisions?   Her   skin   crawled.   She   was   glad   she   downloaded   the   black   box   recording to her computer, in case the man thought to modify reality. Going to be a fucking-long six weeks.   © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
Dystopian Fantasy SCI FI
R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
Persona Kory Mae Chapter One ~ T oni’s   hand   trembled   as   she   executed   the transaction.    It    was    official.    She    was    in debt   to   the   round   figure   of   one   hundred and    twenty-two    million    EU    credits    to finance her own ship. The      rush      of      emotion      made      her lightheaded.   She   swiveled   out   of   her   chair and   gave   her   old   dog   a   hug.   Molly’s   tail throttled    the    rusty    grate    of    what    was    a sorry   excuse   for   a   bureau.   The   loud   bang echoed   in   the   tiny   stateroom.   Flakes   of paint and rust fell to the deck. Figured    she’d    get    stuck    with    such    a decrepit    piece    of    junk    on    her    last    gig. Toni’s   stomach   churned   a   little.   She   and her   three   crewmen   had   a   fifty-fifty   chance to     reach     their     destination     without     a breakdown    that    could    cost    them    their lives,   or   at   least   an   extensive   delay.   If   the corporate   owners   weren’t   so   greedy   and cheap   the   scow   would   have   been   recycled two decades ago. “We      won’t      be      stepping      foot      on anything   like   this   ever   again.   I   promise you,     girl.     I’ve     accepted     my     last     crap assignment.” This    latest    gave    her    the    down    she needed for Kory Mae . “Nothing        but        the        highest-tech everything   for   us   after   we   get   this   load   to Earth. Easy Street now, Molly Molly.” She   gave   the   old   hound   a   brisk   scratch under   each   ear   and   another   hug   before she   returned   to   her   seat   and   back   to   her viewer.   She   pulled   up   the   exterior   design of   her   future   ship.   Kory   Mae    would   be   a beautiful   thing.   Nothing   like   her   in   space. Nothing      faster.      More      maneuverable. There was no word to describe her. Fourteen    staterooms.    She    could    be called    a    luxury,    touring    liner.    A    main cargo    hold    that    could    accommodate    a couple    of    the    wonders    of    the    ancient world,   she   could   be   called   a   cargo   ship. However,     she     was     neither,     and     both. Toni’s   arms   and   face   tingled   with   goose flesh. Other   than   veterinarian   bills,   toys   and food    for    Molly,    and    a    couple    pair    of overalls   and   deck   shoes   for   herself   in   a decade,    every    credit    of    every    contract went   into   wise   investments.   Not   a   single credit squandered. She     had     accepted     some     very     well paying   gigs.   They   were   the   worst   jobs   in the   galaxy.   They   had   to   pay   well.   Like   the current   hell   with   a   faster-than-light   drive that    she    found    herself    on,    they    were absolutely    the    worst    jobs    anyone    could imagine. No    doubt    the    owners    of    the    Oceana   assumed       her       credentials       were       a fabrication.   Why   else   would   anyone   who graduated   at   the   top   of   their   class   from the   Merchant   Academy,   an   accomplished engineer   with   doctoral   degrees,   step   foot on such a tub? Even   she   found   it   hard   to   believe   she had   taken   the   assignment.   It   would   take her   six   weeks   to   coax   the   piece   of   crap   the distance    her    dream    ship    could    jump    in minutes. Sighing,   she   flipped   through   the   final design   she   had   just   delivered   to   Billings Shipyard.   Four   FTL   drives.   She   was   going to   kick   some   major   butt.   The   whole   time she    would    be    living    in    luxury,    taking whatever       assignments       she       wanted, putting up with no shit. Kory   Mae    was   so   state-of-the-art   she wasn’t   going   to   need   anyone   else   on   the ship. She    clicked    back    to    the    second    page and   zoomed   into   the   graphic   rendering, to       the       bow,       and       the       italicized lettering—the    ship’s    name.    She    pressed her   fingers   to   the   viewer   as   though   she might    be    able    to    feel    the    edges    of    the paint    that    scrawled    out    the    name    Kory Mae. Her eyes welled. The     intercom     blared,     making     her jump.   “Captain.   Authority   operations   has certified    the    containers,”    the    engineer reported over the scratchy interface. “I’ll    be    on    the    bridge    in    a    sec,”    she shouted back. The       com       crackled,       making       the engineer’s      acknowledgment      inaudible. She     didn’t     have     to     hear     his,     “Aye, Captain,” to know what he said. “That’s   another   thing   we   won’t   have   to put    up    with,”    she    told    the    Labrador. “Stinking   intercom   systems   you   have   to shout    at,    that    you    can    only    understand every third word from.” She   unplugged   her   computer   from   its docking   station,   slid   it   into   its   place   on her   hip,   and   walked   to   the   hatch.   Molly followed   her   as   she   crossed   the   corridor onto the bridge. Toni   emotionally   flinched   to   find   the second-shift   pilot   sitting   at   the   helm.   The man   had   gone   out   of   his   way   to   cross   her every    chance    he    got    since    she    stepped aboard        the        previous        week.        She understood   the   man   thought   he   deserved first chair, but it wasn’t his. Coming   aboard   she   reviewed   his   file. Couldn’t   believe   he   was   still   in   the   corps, much   less   held   a   pilot’s   license.   He’d   been placed   on   probation   five   times   in   the   past decade,   had   twice   the   infractions   usually allowed   before   a   license   was   permanently pulled.     Somewhere     the     man     had     a powerful protector. Their   first   conflict   originated   with   his move   into   the   captain’s   stateroom   before she    arrived.    He    refused    to    move    out, claiming   he   had   served   on   the   ship   for fifteen   years   and   as   the   senior   pilot   it   was his right. How   could   anyone   have   languished   on this    sorry    excuse    for    space    transit    for fifteen years? She    laughed    in    his    face.    He    pulled back   to   strike   her.   Towering   over   her,   he no   doubt   expected   the   petite   little   dwarf to   fall   back   in   fear.   She   stared   him   down, in front of the third-chair pilot. He    had    sniveled    as    he    collected    his gear.   She   stood   in   the   middle   of   the   room watching   him,   her   duffle   at   her   feet,   and Molly   smelling   everything   he   picked   up. He    motioned    to    slap    the    dog    once,    but quickly looked over his shoulder at Toni. Un-fucking-believable. From    that    moment    she    knew    it    was going   to   be   a   miserable   assignment.   More miserable      than      usual,      even      if      she dismissed the sewer of a ship. She    stepped    beside    the    pilot’s    chair and    cleared    her    throat,    but    the    man ignored    her.    He    was    actually    initiating the     docking     maneuver.     She     couldn’t believe his gall. “Stand down, sir.” “I’ve   got   this.   You   go   play   with   your puppy.” “Stand   down!”   she   repeated,   trying   to stay calm. The     com     hissed     from     the     harbor master,    demanding    to    know    what    they were doing. For   a   moment,   Toni   was   too   shocked to react. What did the man mean? Oh, shit. Not   only   was   the   ass   taking   the   helm as     a     direct     discourtesy     and     breaking Transit      Authority      protocol,      he      had neglected to get final Master approval. The     man’s     face     displayed     his     own panic.   Sitting   in   the   grungy   pilot’s   chair, his    expression    cracked    the    moment    he decided    to    lie.    He    shouted    at    the    open com. “You   gave   me   permission   to   dock!   You gave me permission to dock!” “Harbor   Master,”   Toni   jumped   in.   “We seem    to    have    had    a    miscommunication here.   My   apologies,   sir.   We   are   backing off, Master. I repeat. We are backing off.” While   the   Oceana    plowed   toward   the space     dock     in     front     of     them,     Toni furiously    waved    at    the    man    to    reverse course,   but   he   shoved   the   helm   forward without   reversing   thrust.   In   horror,   Toni saw   the   image   of   the   gigantic   lead   barge racing   toward   them   in   the   viewer.   With all   her   might   she   shoved   the   man   out   of the   chair   onto   the   floor   and   pulled   back on the helm and reversed thrust. On   the   com,   the   Authority   screamed, as was the engineer below. It    seemed    as    though    an    eon    passed before   the   sluggish   helm   finally   reacted. The   image   on   the   viewer   slowed,   however the   tractor’s   attitude   had   rotated   bringing the         starboard-coupling         diaphragm swinging    toward    the    barge.    There    just wasn’t    enough    power    in    the    old    ship’s anti-gravity   drive   to   pull   back   fast   enough to    keep    from    colliding.    No    matter    how hard   she   pushed   on   the   helm,   it   wasn’t going to stop them. Only one option came to mind. Toni    flipped    on    the    com    connecting with      Engineering.      “You      there?”      she shouted,    disconnecting    as    soon    as    she heard     the     first     hiss     of     a     reply.     She repeated    the    same    thing    to    determine where       the       third-chair       pilot       was. Confirming    he    was    in    his    quarters,    her eyes   frantically   moved   across   the   control board     looking     for     the     right     manual switches.    She    threw    them    as    quickly    as she could. The   exterior   hatches   at   the   port   and starboard        diaphragms        opened.        A hundred     alarms     blared     as     the     ship’s environment    gushed    through    the    open hatches.   Molly   howled,   but   Toni   focused on    the    con.    On    the    main    display,    the space   between   the   tractor   and   the   barge filled     with     the     fog     of     expanding     gas escaping from the Oceana . Toni   braced   for   impact.   The   seconds passed.   She   watched   the   diagram   mapped by   the   ancient   sensors   but   they   were   so near   the   barge   the   separation   didn’t   even display. Time crawled. The collision didn’t come. The    extra    propulsion    provided    from the    vented    atmosphere    was    enough    to push    back.    Toni    pressed    back    in    the pilot’s   chair   as   she   realized   her   ears   hurt. She   closed   the   hatches   and   madly   worked at      equalizing      the      pressure      on      her eardrums. “Engineer!    Are    you    all    right    down there!” she shouted. “Man!” It was quiet. “Repeat. The com broke.” “No     it     didn’t.     I’m     just     trying     to compose   myself,”   came   the   embarrassed voice. Another   shouted   voice   came   over   the com   before   she   could   check   on   her   third- chair.   The   call   from   the   Harbor   Master. Between   expletives,   Toni   was   ordered   to pull    back    three    thousand    meters    and come    to    RDS,    relative    dead    stop,    and prepare to be boarded. Toni       slumped,       resigned       to       the freaking, first mark on her record. This   was   going   to   be   a   big   infraction, too. “Son of a fucking bitch!” She   put   behind   it   all   of   her   hundred- twenty      centimeter      frame.      Her      last contract    gig    and    she    was    going    to    get written   up.   She   looked   up,   searching   for the    SOB    that    caused    it.    Nowhere    to    be seen.   Good   thing.   She   might   have   kicked his ass out a hatch. ~ T he   Master   let   her   sweat   for   over   three, freaking     hours.     Perhaps     he     was     just trying   to   calm   down.   Though   there   was nothing   he   could   have   done   to   avoid   the incident,   the   fact   it   became   a   statistic   for his site still reflected upon his record. The     Transit     Authority     didn’t     let     a Master     get     many     incidents     on     their record   before   they   were   banned   for   life. There   were   higher   paying   gigs,   but   there was   none   with   more   prestige   than   that   of a station’s master. The   rumble   of   the   coupling   pulling   the Authority   umbilical   tight   against   the   hull was    emotionally    symbolic    of    a    coming storm.     Toni     shooed     Molly     into     the captain’s   berth   and   told   her   to   stay.   The dog   whined   pathetically.   The   sound   never failed     to     tighten     Toni’s     throat.     That moment   it   was   worse   than   usual,   as   she thought   of   the   inspection   and   throttling she was going to get. She    trudged    down    the    corridor    and stood   patiently   at   the   umbilical   hatch.   It opened     with     a     whoosh     and     fog     of condensation       as       the       environments equalized.         Two         officers         wearing Authority-orange       vests       entered       the corridor.   Toni’s   heart   sank   as   she   saw   the white   uniform   behind   them   as   the   first two    moved    aside    and    Toni    caught    the stripes   on   the   man’s   shoulder   boards.   It was the Master himself. He    strode    past    her    for    the    bridge without      a      glance.      She      turned      and followed.   In   angry,   chopped   syllables,   the man    demanded    she    pull    up    the    record. He   glared   down   his   nose   about   the   small chamber    with    disgust    on    his    face,    as though   he   hoped   he   didn’t   have   to   touch anything.    At    least    on    that    Toni    agreed with the man. He     stood     watching     the     recording, shaking     his     head.     The     blurry     image showed      the      second-chair      move      the tractor    to    dock.    The    master    opened    his computer    and    checked    his    records,    no doubt    looking    up    who    the    second    pilot was, not bothering to ask. When   the   video   reached   the   point   she pushed    the    man    out    of    the    chair,    he replayed    it    a    second    and    third    time, zooming   in   on   the   con.   He   turned   to   look down   at   Toni   for   the   first   time   and   glared into her eyes. “That   was   a   gutsy   move,”   he   mumbled, before    turning    away    from    her,    looking back   up   at   the   viewer,   hooking   his   hand across the back of his neck. He    stood    there    quietly    shaking    his head.   The   moments   slogged   agonizingly slowly,    the    hum    of    the    electronics    the only    sound    in    the    cabin.    Finally,    the master     pulled     out     his     computer     and studied   it   for   several   minutes.   He   exhaled hard.   At   last,   he   turned   back   and   faced Toni again. “I’ve    never    met    anyone    with    over    a decade   behind   a   helm   without   a   mark   on their     record.     You     have     two     decades without   a   mark.”   He   worked   his   mouth   as though   getting   part   of   his   lunch   out   of   his teeth. “The   problem   is   I   can’t   avoid   writing you   up   as   the   responsible   officer   on   the bridge   if   I   document   this   as   pilot   error,” he   continued   after   a   long   pause.   “I’d   like to   shoot   the   idiot   who   caused   this.   But   I happen    to    know    why    he    still    has    his license in the first place.” Again,   he   shook   his   head.   He   was   in pain.   Toni   stood   patiently,   waiting   to   hear the     but.     She     was     shocked     he     wasn’t ranting.     The     hanger     they     could     have collided      with      was      probably      full      of hundreds    of    people.    A    rupture    would have     put     all     of     their     lives     at     risk. Financially,     lawsuits     could     have     been overwhelming       for       the       small       pier. Operationally,    it    could    have    shut    down the   gate   for   weeks,   even   months   if   there wasn’t    a    local    crew    certified    to    execute repairs in zero-g. The   master   continued   looking   at   her and    Toni    wished    he    would    get    it    over with.   He   flipped   open   his   computer   and recited   the   boilerplate   that   went   with   an incident     report.     When     he     got     to     the specifics   of   the   incident,   he   surprised   her by   citing   the   out-of-date   technology   and underpowered   drives   of   the   ship   as   the sole    contributing    factors    to    the    near- collision. This   was   an   explanation   that   wouldn’t hold   up   under   any   kind   of   scrutiny.   He was    putting    more    at    risk    than    simply avoiding a site incident. Toni’s     entire     body     thrummed     with anger,   appreciation,   and   frustration.   She opened   her   mouth   to   tell   him,   “No.”   But the    word    wouldn’t    come    out.    Was    it pride? So be it. He         completed         the         boilerplate conclusion    and    drew    his    thumb    across the   bio   strip   to   close   the   report.   He   held the   computer   out   to   her.   Toni   stated   her name   and   TA   certification   and   drew   her thumb across the biosensor. The     master     told     her,     “Good     day,” turned   briskly   without   another   word   and left the bridge. Protocol   dictated   she   escort   him   to   the hatch.    But    Toni    plopped    down    in    the pilot’s chair and laughed, nervously. The   sound   of   the   umbilical   retracting from   the   docked   ship   reinforced   what   just happened,    really    happened.    She    turned and    watched    the    sleek    little    four-seater on    the    forward    viewer,    heading    for    the planet below. ~ T he     next     morning,     the     engineer     and third-chair   were   in   the   galley   when   Toni and    Molly    walked    in    for    breakfast.    The two     men     stopped     talking     and     looked down a little sheepishly. It   didn’t   take   a   genius   to   imagine   they had    been    talking    about    the    mishap    the previous   day.   They   had   been   fairly   cool   to her   when   she   boarded,   not   too   ready   to embrace a temporary captain. Had   they   bothered   to   watch   the   black box   recording?   Probably   not.   Heard   her on    the    bridge.    The    debacle    clearly    her fault. I don’t care. At    least    she    told    herself    she    didn’t. That   was   her   life   story.   Let   them   think what   they   wanted.   She   grabbed   a   cup   of coffee   and   headed   for   the   bridge   without saying anything. The    engineer    not    so    subtly    followed her   into   the   passageway.   He   cleared   his throat   to   get   her   attention,   handed   her   a wafer,   turned,   and   hurried   back   toward his    station,    aft.    She    looked    at    the    data drive   in   her   hand,   not   the   least   curious what would be stored on it. On   the   bridge,   she   threw   the   wafer   on the   con,   convinced   she   would   disregard it.   By   mid-day   though,   her   curiosity   was compounded   by   boredom.   She   picked   it up     and     slid     it     into     the     port     of     her computer. She   was   stunned.   It   was   a   u-mail   the second-chair     mailed     before     they     went FTL the previous day. She    didn’t    have    to    research    who    the addressee   was.   She   recognized   the   name, incredibly,   an   officer   rather   high   in   the Transit Authority pecking order. “Dear   Uncle   Charles,”   it   started.   She read   the   despicable   fantasy   describing   his view   of   the   event.   That   a   mind   could   be   so contorted was un-fucking-believable. How    could    such    a    man    remain    in    a position   where   lives   depended   upon   his decisions?   Her   skin   crawled.   She   was   glad she   downloaded   the   black   box   recording to   her   computer,   in   case   the   man   thought to modify reality. Going to be a fucking-long six weeks. © R. Mac Wheeler 2017