Starshine, Chapter 2
Antonia Ross, Smuggler
Nia is a pilot, a damn good one. Her day started just peachy; it was supposed to be a routine smuggling run to a remote Martian canyon, and the delivery part of the whole disaster had her feeling sorta high on the thrill of success, until the crash.
She and her dad had to split forces to complete one job and hook another at the same time, so Nia got to sell drugs while Tony met with his contact in the Martian senate. He sent her down from orbit in their sleek little two-seat fighter ship to rendezvous with the buyer, and the deal went as smooth as you could dream. Nia held her own, bantering with half a dozen sketchy dudes, got the cash, and scrambled. It’s when she hit the big thruster to leave the atmosphere that everything went to shit.
That moment is always the most dangerous. For one, if your ship ain’t well maintained you’ve got the risk of exploding. But for Nia, being a smuggler, it’s also the moment you’re most visible. The ass end of your ship lights up with the luminosity of a star and the radiant heat of hell itself. It only takes a quick minute to leave the atmosphere, but when someone’s looking, it’s hard to hide. You have to pick the right location, the right time, it has to be perfect. Tony got access to the planet’s defense systems so they could find and map the invisible holes to slip through, and until she lit up, she wasn’t expecting anything different than last time.
The communications panel flashes an incoming message alert as soon as she begins the ascent, and she pokes the screen to play the recording. Her dad’s voice fills the cabin. “Nia, honey, I want you to stay on the ground. Something’s gone wrong, find a spot to lie low and I’ll call you soon. I love you.”
Well shit. Nia doesn’t have time to think about a response because her radar lights up with a whole lot of threatening little dots, and then the incoming missile alarm shrieks in her left ear. She cuts the main engine and fires the side thrusters, putting the ship into a corkscrew. A shockwave jolts her as missiles collide in the exact spot where she just was. Her body strains at the straps of the harness, trying to obey some centrifugal shit as she spirals toward the ground.
Nia taps frantically on the communications panel, opening up the restricted government frequency. “Hey hold your fire! For heaven’s sake I’m like seventeen and I’m not ready to die!”
A fuzzy voice responds. “This is Valles Marineris landing port security. Identify yourself, you are using a restricted frequency.”
“Yeah, no shit.” Nia gets out of the corkscrew dive just above the ground, and drops over the edge of the canyon. Radar shows she’s got four drones on her tail. “Listen, this is an emergency and I’m probably about to die, so if you could call off these drones I’d feel obligated to kiss you or something.”
“Identify yourself, or you will be fired upon.”
“I’m Nia, you poodle, now call off the death machines!”
“Knee…Uh…is not a valid call sign.”
“Fuck you and your stupid drones.” She pulls up sharply into a loop, coming down in the middle of the drone pack. As soon as she has them in sight, she fires homing charges at the front two, and then swerves hard left to take a smaller branch off the main canyon.
Three of the dots on the radar disappear, as the missiles come home and the drone just behind fails to make the turn and smashes into the cliff. “Oh yeah, take that!”
“Miss, you need to ground your ship immediately.”
“Yeah man, I don’t think so. I just destroyed three of ‘em. I’ll stop shooting if you do.”
A different voice comes through the communicator without identifying itself. “Antonia Ross, you are wanted for piracy, conspiracy, and murder. Ground your ship at once and your safety is guaranteed.”
She clenches her jaw and pauses to focus on making another tight loop and shooting down the fourth drone. Then she hisses through her teeth. “The name’s Nia, and I guarantee you can suck my balls.”
She switches off the communicator and scans the canyon for anywhere to hide a spaceship. She’s just spotted a promising rock formation when the radar goes wild again. This time it isn’t drones, but a fleet of fighters from the military base. They’re outside the canyon, so she’s got seconds until they reach the rim and have a straight shot at her. There’s no time to weigh options, she needs to act immediately.
With one hand she hits the master switch to cut all power, with the other she deploys the nose cone shield. Her stomach lurches as the ship settles into the heavy embrace of gravity. It turns nose down, and plummets toward the rocks hundreds of meters below.
At the last second she hits the power again, just a quick blast to lift the nose and give her a shallower angle to the ground. She braces for impact, and then the shield plows into sand and rocks and the jolt breaks her grip on the yoke. Her right arm flops around and smashes against the control panel, setting off a couple secondary thrusters that flip the ship upside-down.
With one final terrific crash, the ship turns back up onto its side and comes to a stop. The cabin fills with smoke and a pressure alarm. Nia is hanging sideways out of her seat and all she can see through the window is swirling dust and the canyon rim far above.
She yanks the emergency release in the side of the seat; the harness breaks loose and she falls against the window. She flips a switch to activate what they called hiding mode, which will make the ship mostly invisible against the ground, at least from a distance, and shut off any trackable instruments. Reaching blindly into the storage compartment at the back of the cabin, she feels for a pressure suit, and finds nothing but a duffel bag full of cash. A sinking feeling of dread settles in her gut. They have her now, if she doesn’t suffocate first.
And then her fingers find the sleeve of the pressure suit. “Oh sweet mother of god, thank you.” Her hands shake as she squirms into the suit, and then she unlatches the cabin door that faces the ground, waits a moment for pressure to equalize, and kicks it open.
Nia lands on her feet and turns a full circle to assess her position. She’s hidden from sight among some towering rock formations with her ship half-buried in sand. They’d have to fly directly overhead to spot it from the air with infrared scanners before it cools down, but if they do a systematic search that won’t take too long. She really doesn’t want them to take the ship, and it would be nice to hang onto that cash. But she’s not sure how to stop their search other than putting some distance between her and the ship, and then turning herself in.
Yeah, fuck that. Capture means execution in a place like this where oxygen is so precious. Maybe an explosive option would work. Her mind races, the plan comes together, and she smiles. It’ll just be a small nuclear detonation.
The ship has a standard set of power sources: retractable solar arrays, ion thrusters, the main fusion drive, and a black-market dirty nuclear battery. Ok, standard for the Ross family at least. All she needs is a neutron reflector, and that battery core will go supercritical in a flash. The beryllium alloy housing from an ion thruster will be perfect, and in the crash one of the thrusters got damaged. Nia climbs up on the ship and finds the round housing intact, attached by just a few wires, which she snips with her ever-present multitool. A panel at the rear of the ship opens to her fingerprint and the battery pops out halfway. She grabs it and runs.
The search is getting uncomfortably close when Nia reckons she’s sprinted a few kilometers. Near the center of the canyon, where the jagged slopes give way to a plain, she finds a flat rock and sets the battery down.
“All right. Now the incredibly dangerous part.”
Nia’s fingers tingle and her stomach churns as she uses a shard of rock to prop the metal bowl over the battery. She draws out the entire hundred meters of her pressure suit’s tether, coiling it on the rock. Then she clips the end to the shard, holding the metal part and her breath. The contraption is ready. All she has to do is run, and hope the tether uncoils smoothly.
“Breathe, girl. Breathe. This ain’t going well if you pass out.”
She runs, pushing her body to the limits of what it can do. Ten meters. All is quiet. Twenty, she hears the buzzing of a drone coming over the ridge. Fifty, her judgment is good, she’s more than halfway there. Seventy, and the rest of the fleet joins the drone.
Eighty. A voice comes through her suit’s communicator on the mandatory emergency channel. “You are target locked, drop your weapons and lie face down or we will shoot.”
Ninety. The ground disappears from under Nia’s feet as she goes over a small cliff. “Enjoy the EMP, motherfuckers,” she shouts, and then the sky turns to pure light. The initial shockwave passes overhead a second later, and then Nia lands hard. She hits the sandy ground feet first, but allows her legs to buckle and dives into a roll. The impact still blows the wind out of her lungs and possibly fractures some bones. She lies for a moment, stunned, and the echoes of the blast finally reach her.
A mayday signal comes through her communicator, and seconds later one of the manned ships flies over the edge of the cliff in near freefall. Nia sits up and watches it smash nose-first into the ground, and then she’s up and running again. Her feet hurt like hell. She estimates she’s about ten kilometers from one of the several cave hideouts her dad set up in the canyon. The trick will be getting there without being caught or leading them to it, and she has to lose the suit’s communicator so they don’t eventually hack it to track her location.
She checks to make sure she has enough oxygen to reach the hideout. There should have been enough, but with how hard she’s been running, the math is not looking good. Then the readout refreshes and she knows for sure she doesn’t have enough.
“Well fuck me.” Nia stops and sits in a gap between two boulders to rest and think. She got them away from her ship, that’s a win. But even with a slower pace, she can’t make it to a source of oxygen on foot before she runs out. Her only choice is surrender. She’ll get a trial, and there will be a delay before the execution, so there’s at least a chance for escape.
Her body aches, but she is emotionally numb, dissociating and trying to process her situation. Death seems overwhelmingly inevitable. It always lurks in the back of her mind, as risky as her life is, but never has it seemed so unavoidable.
A figure on foot, limping seriously, appears in the distance, and Nia stares as they approach. They carry a gun with a giant scope, and she’s already in range. Her last chance to avoid capture has gone, and she just sits there until the person reaches her, holds out handcuffs, and motions for her to stand.
In a daze Nia rises, puts her hands behind her back, and then the metal straps tighten around her wrists.
“Antonia, you are under arrest for conspiracy, piracy, and murder.”
“It’s Nia, asshole.”
“Enough, bitch. I’ve heard enough. Shut your damn facehole.”
“You think I’m gonna listen to you? I just destroyed four drones and knocked all your ships out of the sky with a battery. Loser.”
He casually lifts a stun gun from his belt, and she has just enough time to spin around and flip him off with both hands before he fires. Her body seizes and she blacks out as she hits the ground face-first.
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