Between the Devil and the Deep

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The dark side of Forseti II was lit up by searchlights dancing like wayward embers over the dismantled corpses of ice freighters. Chunks of ice drilled from below the surface of the moon floated alongside the shattered remains of demolished ships. All was silent except for the sound of Jasvinder’s breathing as she hung, suspended from what used to be the Clouded Leopard. She held the remains of her ship with one hand and her lifeline with the other. She considered praying that one of the searchlights would find her. If it did she would be blasted into so much space dust and feel no pain. If she was not found, she would suffocate.

“What’s your position, Jas?” The silence was broken.

“Vikram?” The ghosts were singing to her. Her oxygen was getting low.

“Oh, by the grace of the Saint! I’m glad you answered. I thought you were dead. Can you see me?”

“Vikram? It’s really you? No. I can’t see anyone. It looks like we’re all dead in the water from where I am.”

“Maybe we are. Confirm your position, Jas.”

Jasvinder studied the golden glow of her faceplate readouts. “I’m one point three by point oh six by four according to my readings. I’m between the devil and the deep of what’s left of Clouded Leopard. I was repairing the turrets.”

Vikram laughed over com. “Did you put yourself on that job? Well, don’t worry. I’ll pick you up. These bastards don’t even know what they’re looking for.”

Jasvinder looked up and over her shoulder. It looked like the entire Sunna Fleet had arrived to deal with poachers in their system. Jasvinder knew better. The Sunna Fleet was one of the largest in the galaxy and the three hundred ships glinting and shimmering outside of Forseti II’s shadow were the least of a fraction of the Fleet.

“Hurry up, Vikram, my oxygen is low.”

“Better keep your mouth shut, then.”

Jasvinder caught movement in her nine o’clock and turned to see Vikram piloting an Ice Crawler. The eight-legged mobile drilling platform spidered its way across floating glaciers and debris. Each of its legs was tipped in gripping spikes that were intended to punch through and cling to ice. They worked just as well on steel. Vikram was creatively maneuvering the exhaust ports to leap from one piece of junk to another. A frozen corpse was impaled on one if its spikes.

The Clouded Leopard—if it could still be called that—shook violently as the Ice Crawler landed on it and picked its way around to where Jasvinder hung. It was all she could do to cling on for her life. She held her breath as a searchlight flashed over them. It kept moving and no blast came. No doubt the massive Sunna Platforms would never read an Ice Crawler as a ship let alone a threat of any kind. Jasvinder pushed against the twisted steel for momentum and leapt for one of the Crawler’s legs. She caught it, but the force nearly knocked the air out of her lungs. She scrambled up toward the Crawler’s cockpit. It had two seats; one for the pilot and one for the hydrologist. The hydrologist’s compartment slid open and she slipped inside.

“Vacuum sealing in 3…2…1…”

Jasvinder felt like she was being crushed with the force of the air that was being pumped into her compartment. She unsealed her helmet and pulled it off, breathing the recycled oxygen deeply. It was freezing. Her skin stung and her hair, which had been soaked with sweat, stiffened and froze. She broke off a piece and held it up before her. It looked like a thin black dagger.

“Why isn’t the heat on?” White, frosty clouds formed in front of her mouth and nostrils.

“I don’t want to leave any signature for them to detect.” Jasvinder could not actually see Vikram, though she would have loved to. His voice was piped into her compartment through speakers behind her head. “I was repairing the Crawlers when the Sunna showed up. No one else on the Bengal made it. I had been tuning into everyone’s individual frequencies to dead air until I found you. You’re lucky you put yourself on outside repairs.”

“Yeah, lucky. We lost every single ship. Everyone but us is dead. The shipment is just floating in space being zapped by radiation. Even if we could get it back, it’s useless now. We needed that water, Vikram!”

“Hey, hey, I know! I know. But that’s a tertiary concern now, Jas. What are we going to do next?”

“What are we going to do next?” Jasvinder wanted to strip Vikram down. He had done the rescuing after all. He should have had a plan. But she outranked him. Vikram was a drilling engineer. On the surface of Forseti II he called the shots. Up here, Jasvinder was a Captain. “Give me a minute,” she said.

The hydrologist’s compartment had all the computers except for the navsys and terrain readouts. She pulled up the internal systems menu and studied it. She could hear Vikram praying to the Lord through the com. It was a soothing, rhythmic sound. It was reassuring. “Your defensive weapons are malfunctioning,” she said, after waiting for a lull in his prayers.

“I know. I said I was fixing it when we got hit.”

“We don’t have any defensive weapons. We don’t have enough fuel to get back to the surface. We sure as hell don’t have enough to get home. All we have is a drill.”

“I know all this. You’re depressing me.”

“The only way we’re going to get home is on one of those.” Vikram could not see her point, but he took her meaning.

“How—?”

“You’ve gone undetected so far. You managed avoiding the searchlights on your way to pick me up. This thing was never meant for maneuvering out here, but you made it work. Get us on one of those ships and we might live.”

“But what then? If they find us, they’ll execute us.”

“Vikram, let’s worry about that when we get there!”

“Yes, Captain.”

Jasvinder could not keep down her smile. She felt her compartment casing tremble as Vikram fired up the exhaust ports and began shifting them. The body of the Crawler lurched as it leapt into space and shook painfully when it clung to…whatever it clung to. Jasvinder had no way of telling without access to the terrain readouts. She could do nothing but hold on.

“Alright, Captain. We’ve got one floating about five hundred meters out. None of my jumps have been that long, but theoretically we should be able to make it. We might make some noise when we land.”

“How well can you steer those jumps?” Jasvinder asked.

“I’m not firing a laser, but I’ve made all my marks so far. Hitting tiny pieces of floating, spinning debris was a lot harder than hitting one of those Platforms is going to be.”

“Alright, Vikram. Fire up the terrain readouts. Set up seqmap and input the modifications for internal/external sensors.”

“Are you sure? They might pick that up.”

“Do it.”

“Aye, Captain! It’s done.”

“Good work. Can you see the bridge?”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Thirty meters below it there should be a compartment no larger than fifty meters across.”

“I see it.”

“That’s our mark. Go.”

Jasvinder’s stomach floated. Her body clenched, bracing for impact. It took longer than she expected. She was about to ask Vikram what went wrong when the Crawler landed alongside the Sunnu platform with a dull metal thud and a bruising impact. Jasvinder started the drill immediately and felt the whole Crawler shake as it pierced its way through meters of steel and gel protective casing until it popped a hole in the Officer’s Meeting Hall. When the drill pulled free the Crawler trembled as the contents of the hall were sucked out of it and slammed up against the bottom of the Crawler. The Crawler held firm.

“They’re going to know we’re here for sure now,” Vikram said, his crackling voice surprisingly calm.

“Damn straight they are.” Jasvinder tuned into the Platform’s com signal. “This is Captain Jasvinder Thakral of the Clouded Leopard. Put your Captain on.”

A tinny voice responded. “Captain Darling was sucked out into space just now. This is Second Commissioner Red.”

“Second Commissioner, my crew and I are boarding. When we get there we’re going to kill all of you. Before long your only option is going to be blowing up your own ship to stop us.”

“We have 299 other ships, Captain.”

“He has a point,” said Vikram.

“He does,” said Jasvinder, pulling her helmet back on. “They’ll sing songs about us, Vikram. They’ll call us fools and they’ll write us as legends. Our deaths will be glorious. Now say your prayers, beg for the Holy Saint’s grace, and put your damned helmet on.”

Copyright 2014 © J.F.High
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except in the case of a reviewer, who may quote brief passages embodied in critical articles or in a review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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