Starsea Interlude 1
Mira Abrantes sat in the wardroom of the L.S. Refuge, a cup of hot coffee in her hand. The room, bathed in soft, artificial light, was occupied by various officers on their lunch breaks. Through the wide viewports, the intricate defenses of Starbase Centauri were visible on one side, while on the other, the planet Chiron gleamed blue in the distance, a cerulean orb suspended in the void. It was another quiet day in the fleet, and after a few weeks back, Mira was finally adjusting to the routine.
She listened as Tara Lohman, her navigator aboard the Barcelona, recounted a vivid scene of their narrow escape from a pirate ship in the Suebii System several years ago.
“So, there I was, starboard thrusters failing, and this pirate scum thinks he’s got us. But then, whoosh!” Tara’s hands mimicked Barcelona’s nimble maneuver, her eyes alight with the thrill of the tale.
Vena Milos, the youngest of Mira’s officers and Barcelona’s medical officer, watched with bright, curious eyes. “What do you mean by whoosh?”
The medical officer was scarcely two months out of Luna Base’s officer program, and her fresh-faced youthfulness reminded Mira distinctly of Lucian. Mira harbored concerns about Vena’s lack of experience, but she, too, had once been a young officer, and so far, Vena hadn’t given her any cause for concern.
Marco Alvarez, Barcelona’s chief engineer, possessed arms that seemed to be wrought from steel cables. He leaned forward, a smile breaking across his face. “Whoosh means I got the damned thrusters working after that ion torpedo disabled our power. After that, our own ion torp stopped the pirate ship cold.” A deep chuckle resonated from his chest. “You should’ve seen your face, Tara. You thought we were goners for sure!”
“Well,” Tara responded, a bit heatedly, “someone had to utilize all that extra engine power.”
“Let’s call it a team effort,” Mira said diplomatically.
Marco’s gaze met Mira’s, and he offered a sly wink. “This is why you’re our captain, eh?”
John Reid, Mira’s systems analyst, completed the assembly at the officers’ table. Tall, lean, and weathered, a smirk played at the corners of his lips. Watching Tara being teased was one of the few things that would elicit a chuckle from the veteran. She held her piloting skills in high regard, and not without reason. “You missed the best part of the story.”
“What’s that?” Vena asked.
Marco chuckled. “The entire time, we were tracking this pirate we’ve been hunting for years. The ship’s specs matched our database. It was Fightin’ Freddy alright. Or so we thought. So here we are, battling for our lives, when we make a textbook stop with that torp. When they don’t respond to our hails, we realize something’s up. We gear up to board and apprehend, and then . . .”
Everyone anticipated the punchline.
Marco chuckled again. “The damned ship was empty! Completely automated.”
Vena laughed nervously. “An automated ship gave you that much trouble? Really?”
Tara’s cheeks reddened. “It was my first mission.”
Laughter rang out at the table.
“So, what happened to Freddy?” Vena probed.
Marco chuckled once more. “Turns out he wasn’t much of a fighter. We hacked one of the computers and tracked him down to a nearby asteroid. A pasty fellow in a control room, operating drones and automated ships. He treated piracy like some damn video game. Either way, they sing our praises in the Suebii System to this day.”
As the others laughed, Mira’s smile was strained. Always in the back of her mind, she worried about Lucian. He was almost certainly at the Volsung Mage Academy by now, but the lack of communication left her uncertain. After sending three messages asking for news, with no response, she could only assume he’d arrived safely. This was not ideal, of course, but the Academy’s masters prohibited any communication with the outside world. So, he had to be there, safe and sound.
Or at least, that’s what she told herself.
The absence of news was a constant splinter in her heart. It seemed to be the curse of mothers, always to be worried but forced to maintain steady resolve in public. As a captain of a Vanguard-class destroyer, she needed to be firm and decisive, concealing the turmoil within.
Mira’s gaze drifted to her slate, the screen of which displayed an old still of her and Lucian son on the beach. It was hard to believe that was just over a decade ago when he was eight. Watching his care-free smile, her worry deepened beneath her composed exterior.
Seeming to sense her mood, the others elected to remain silent.
“We have drills soon,” Mira said, signaling an end to the break. “We need to be suited up and back on the Barce in half an hour.”
Everyone was about to stand when suddenly, the serene ambiance was shattered. Klaxons blared, interrupting the officers’ conversations. A violent jolt rocked the deck, throwing everyone off balance.
“Swarmers!” someone shouted over the deafening alarms.
A moment later, the official announcement pierced the commotion: All crew to battle stations! All strike teams prepare for launch!
Mira’s reaction was instant. “Everyone to the Barcelona's deck, now!”
Her crew sprang to obey as Mira relayed the same order via her slate. All fifty of her crew would be on board and ready for action in less than five minutes.
Mira led her team into the outer corridor, red lights flashing and the ship heaving beneath them, as they navigated around other League sailors.
“Follow me,” she instructed. “Stay close!”
They hastened aft toward the hangar where Barcelona was berthed. The carrier continued to quiver under the relentless assault. Mira couldn’t dwell on the fact, the impossibility, that a Swarmer fleet was here without prior warning. How had they bypassed the Gate without triggering any alarms?
It was a question for another time. Mira noted the tinge of burned metal, a clear indication that the fusillade was intense enough to have penetrated the ship’s energy field to reach the hull. There was no doubt: the Refuge was under a barrage of concentrated fire. She had fought the Swarmers before. It wouldn’t end until the League stopped them, or the ship they were standing on was annihilated.
She kept this to herself. There was no need to panic her crew. What mattered was getting to Barcelona and getting underway. Only then would things be under her control again.
The corridor ahead was blocked by debris. Mira spun to her left, to take another corridor that would lead them to the ship’s port side and around the obstruction.
But as soon as she relayed the order and ran a few steps, a deafening explosion erupted from behind.
Mira was pushed forward and onto the ground, all while feeling the merciless lick of heat on her back. She staggered up to check on her crew, only to find Vena had fallen behind, apparently not having caught her previous order.
Mira watched in horror as Vena was being consumed by merciless flames. And as those flames spread, she knew there was absolutely nothing she could do to save the young ensign. Her heart pounded as cold dread seized every inch of her body, as she forced herself to tear her eyes away and give an order that went against every instinct.
She gave each of her crew a push down the corridor, all of whom were silent and stunned. Mira had to be leader, even if she wanted to do nothing but scream.
Vena’s wails became cracked as the flames continued to consume her, as the fires swept down the corridor and claimed more agonized sailors.
“You seeing this shit?” Marco asked.
“Don’t focus on it,” Mira said. “The Barce. Focus on the Barce!”
It was all she could say, all she could do. One of her crew had gone down, but that didn’t mean the rest had to.
Every moment of hesitation decreased their odds of survival.
Mercifully, Vena’s screams ended as they gained distance, replaced by the cacophony of further impacts and blaring alarms. Despite her words, Mira’s heart wrenched at the fleeting image of Vena’s youthful face being engulfed by the inferno. Marco and John’s faces, normally so stoic and in control, were now afraid, unaccepting of this new reality. Tara had tears streaming down her face.
“This ship’s going down, and soon,” John said as they ran. “Ain’t no way we’ll reach the Barce in time!”
“Fucking A,” Marco said. “Cap, what the hell’s going on?”
“Swarmers,” Mira said. “Can’t be anything else.”
Tara’s brown eyes, usually steely and resolved, now looked lost.
She had to be strong.
Mira nodded ahead, drawing a breath to calm her nerves. Abandoning their plans to get to the Barcelona felt like a betrayal, not only to the ship, but to the crew already gathered there.
And yet, they had reached a decision point. If they continued for the destroyer, they would be moving away from the pod bay.
Saving four lives versus the few that managed to reach the Barcelona. Mira had to choose the sure thing.
She raised her slate to her mouth, which was connected to the destroyer. “Get the ship into space, now. Engage the autopilot if you have to. We . . . won’t be able to make it. Godspeed.”
She left it at that. There wasn’t time for anything else.
“Captain?” Marco asked, eyes wide.
Mira shook her head. “John’s right. The pods are our only chance, and we’re closer to them than the ship. There won’t be any ship by the time we get there. It’s about survival now. We need to move while the grav-field is still active.”
Tara nodded, her voice quavering. “Let’s not waste time, then.”
With that, the crew raced through the labyrinthine passages of the Refuge, chaos unfolding around them. The ship felt like a dying leviathan. They came across dead bodies, fires, and twisted corridors. Within a minute, it became abundantly clear they had made the right decision. Every few seconds, the ship rocked from a new attack. The rip of metal and the harsh blasts of the Swarmers’ volleys resonated throughout the smoky corridors.
As long as they could keep running, as long as the gravity field maintained, as long as no breaches opened up . . .
As soon as that thought occurred, Mira heard the telltale hiss of escaping air.
Warning, an automated voice droned. Section 52 will be vented in: 20 seconds. Proceed to the nearest neighboring section.
Twenty seconds. It wasn’t nearly enough time.
“Fuck this shit,” Marco breathed.
His powerful limbs propelled him ahead. Mira let him run; of the four of them, he was the fastest. He reached the doors with seconds left in the countdown, dodging debris the entire way.
“Hurry!” he screamed. “Go through.”
With the air rushing out of the section, Mira could hardly breathe. John was also lagging, the older man reaching the end of his strength, helped along by Tara.
Three . . . two . . . one . . .
As the countdown ended, the doors began sliding shut. But amazingly, Marco wedged himself between the closing doors, holding them open with steely arms that bulged in defiance.
“Go! Now!” he roared. The vein throbbing on his left temple looked as if it would explode.
Mira, John, and Tara slipped through the narrowing gap just in time.
Marco moved to follow them, but even his strength could not delay the inevitable. His arms gave way, and a guttural cry preceded the cruel meeting of those doors. Mira heard the sickening crunch of bone as the pressure increased. His wide eyes bulged and reddened, his doom sealed.
Mira’s heart was a stone in her chest. There was no time for sorrow. Two of her crew had died before her eyes, but there were still two she could save.
“Come on,” she said, pulling on John. The older man’s face was pale from the lack of oxygen, but Mira wasn’t about to leave him behind. “We can’t stop now.”
The two women helped John along, dodging falling debris as they continued their harrowing journey to the carrier’s port side. They were close now, but as the ship swayed back and forth, threatening to rip down the middle, Mira wondered if it was close enough.
Her thoughts drifted to Lucian and the dwindling possibility that she might see him again. He was the reason she kept running. The reason she kept fighting.
The corridors were dark, smoky, practically unrecognizable in their twisted state. Mira was the only one helping John now, while Tara brought up the rear.
As they entered the final corridor, which led to the pod bay, they faced a mountain of debris with hardly any clearance at the top to squeeze through.
“I’ll go first,” Tara said. “I think I see a way through.”
Mira took the opportunity to catch her breath, leaning John against the wall. She watched as Tara picked her way carefully up the pile. She went for the largest, most obvious opening, the one Mira would have chosen.
Except, a shower of sparks issued forth, causing Tara’s body to jerk and convulse.
“Tara!” Mira screamed.
The scream did nothing. Tara gyrated madly, unable to control herself, a puppet without strings. After about ten brutal seconds that seemed to last an eternity, she slid down the pile. Her wide, bulging eyes and the acrid tinge of burned flesh told the entire story.
“Wire,” John rasped. “Must be a live one in there . . .”
Mira’s breaths were ragged as she looked down at Tara, disbelieving. Ten years of camaraderie, all gone in a single instant.
Only John was left. If she could just save one of them, it might be enough.
“There’s another opening on the other side,” she said. “Smaller.”
The ship rocked again; the debris pile shifted, creating even more space.
“Come on,” Mira said. “We’re almost there.”
But the older man made no move. He continued sitting against the wall where Mira had left him. He gave a small, defeated smile.
“I’m . . . much too tired, Mira. I’ll only slow you down. Go on. You have a son. Get back to him.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. On your feet, officer. That’s an order!”
But John simply closed his eyes again, as if in meditation. “I’m not moving a centimeter, Captain Abrantes. It . . . was good to serve with you.”
She pulled on him, but he was dead weight. And another reeling of the ship only reminded her she was running out of time.
Tears staining her eyes, she shook her head, every part of her shaking.
“Go!” John said.
Once again hardening her heart, Mira turned to face the debris. She could not let herself look back.
She picked her path up the pile carefully, easily fitting through the wider opening on the right side with no incident. As she slid down the other side, she found herself directly in the empty pod bay. Her eyes roved along the exit ports, only to find that every single one had been jettisoned.
All, but one. It was waiting at the very end of the line.
Mira sprinted while the deck heaved beneath her. She surged forward, somehow catching her feet. But this time, the heaving didn’t stop.
The entire pod bay twisted around her. Her feet rose off the deck as she flew forward. The gravity field was gone, and with that realization, she madly scratched at the metal wall, where handholds had been built in, working desperately to propel herself toward her goal. It was about ten meters away.
The ship was coming apart at the seams, and the death throes of the Refuge would take her down with it if she didn’t enter that pod. Every part of her screamed in pain, but she needed to survive; she had to make it for her son.
Beyond the viewport, a Swarmer fighter screamed by, quick as lightning, making another attack run with a line of green lasers, the projectiles seeming to connect on the deck beneath her. The ship shook with the impact.
At last, she made it, guiding herself inside the pod to the nearest seat, strapping herself in with shaky hands. She flipped the panel next to her, activating a display screen. She heaved a sigh to find it was still operational.
Her hand mashed the release button. The door slammed shut and locked, and not a second later, she was thrust into the void of space, leaving behind the twisted remains of the ship. Out the porthole, she watched as the carrier continued to split in two, as the fires exposed to space were quickly snuffed out by the void. The Refuge, one of the largest carriers in the League Fleet, was no more. Had she been a few seconds later, she’d be dead with it.
As the pod gained distance and her view expanded, she saw the battle was still in full swing; their carrier had merely been the first major vessel struck.
She watched in shock as more battleships, cruisers, and carriers of League make came into view, while the massive ovoid Swarmer carriers emitted streams of tiny fighters to unleash their fury. It was impossible to tell who was going to win. Starbase Centauri formed a constant backdrop, from which issued more League reinforcements. She’d never been in a battle of such scope or ferocity.
She returned her attention to the escape pod. There wasn’t enough fuel or velocity to get her to Chiron, the closest orbital body. So, she cut off the fuel, steering the pod to the periphery of the battle. It wasn’t likely she’d be picked off by the Swarmers there.
At the same time, she didn’t want to stray too far. That would make it harder for the League to pick out her distress beacon once she was ready to fire it.
Silent tears streamed down her cheeks. She reached for her slate, intending to get updates, only to find she didn’t have it.
She searched madly in her fleet jumpsuit, but after a few seconds, it became increasingly clear she had lost it somewhere in the smoldering ruins of the Refuge.
Mira couldn’t bring herself to curse her bad luck. There was always the distress beacon that came with every escape pod. Once things had cooled off, she would trigger it.
But for now, all she could do was watch the battle through the porthole as her pod threaded a silent symphony of destruction.
Hours passed, and the silence stretched. There was little Mira could do but watch as she gained distance from the battle. The pod was not equipped with enough propellant to guide her toward Chiron. Eventually, the sights of the battle were gone, lost to the void of space, and she was truly alone. The only sounds were the heater, the life support vents, and her own breathing.
She figured she’d most likely be picked up within a couple of days. Of course, this was assuming the League won this engagement. But even if not, she had about ten days of oxygen. The pod had been designed for four people, and running the numbers, that was the figure Mira had calculated.
Without her slate, her only hope was the distress beacon. Once toggled, everyone within one AU would easily detect her.
But that, of course, included the Swarmers. It was best to wait for things to settle down, but not so long that running out of air became an issue.
To keep herself distracted, she took stock of her resources. It was a simple pod, little more than a personal prison. There was a small cabinet filled with water and rations, a vacuum toilet between two of the seats, and another cabinet with some basic medicines, including some nano-pills that would protect her from increased radiation exposure while also delaying the atrophy caused by zero-g.
The medicine cabinet contained something else, should rescue become impossible. But she wouldn’t allow her mind to go there. Not yet.
She closed her eyes, trying to rest, but all she saw in her mind’s eye were the fires, death, and the crew she had failed to protect.
Mira’s mind plunged into the deafening silence of space, a tempest of emotions and what-ifs. The agony in her chest tightened as everything replayed in her head in a continuous, torturous loop.
She saw Vena, eyes brimming with youthful curiosity, replaced by the haunting visage of her being consumed by merciless flames. Her screams echoed through Mira’s psyche. Was there something she could have done to prevent such a horrifying fate? Vena had thought her whole life was ahead of her. Her enthusiasm for her new role had been infectious, reminding Mira of her first fleet assignment over two decades ago.
Marco’s powerful arms had always symbolized strength and protection. But those arms had become a symbol of sacrifice. The way he had wedged himself between the closing doors, the ferocity in his voice as he held them, all replayed in vivid, brutal detail. His final guttural cry while being crushed was a painful reminder of the price of her failed leadership.
Tara’s steely resolve and John’s quiet strength were now just hollow memories, their faces forever etched into Mira’s conscience, staring at her in silent accusation. John’s acceptance of his fate, and Tara’s shocking demise, only left Mira with questions. Could she have been quicker, sharper, more decisive? And if so, would they still be alive?
Her only answer was gnawing guilt and the silence of the stars outside the porthole.
Every breath she drew seemed like a travesty, a disrespect to her crew’s memories. She knew it was survivor’s guilt. She’d even received training to cope with it.
But now, faced with it, all that training seemed useless. Words and refrains that had no place in her new reality.
She didn’t deserve the air around her, but she breathed it all the same.
Last of all, Lucian’s image swam before her. This was the son she’d seen just weeks ago, older, and wiser, no longer believing her lies and excuses about coming home. Those eyes looked at her severely. If he knew that she’d led her crew to their deaths, what would he think?
And just as she couldn’t protect her crew, her family in space, she couldn’t protect her own son from his fate at the Academy. The thought of never seeing him again, never knowing if he had made it safe, twisted the knife of guilt even deeper.
She fell in and out of fitful sleep. She didn’t dare try the distress beacon yet, telling herself that at least three days needed to pass. Until then, her escape pod would be her prison, and it was an isolation that only amplified her torment.
The silence of space was louder than any explosion, any scream. It was the silence of thoughts, of self-condemnation, of grief.
After a full day in the pod, tears no longer came, only a reserved coldness from which it seemed she could never escape. There were too many questions, and those questions haunted her every waking moment.
Nor in sleep did she get relief as she swam through nightmares, the death scenes replaying with brutal intensity, almost as if she were there again, forced to relive it over and over.
Mira opened her eyes, only to find that nightmares did not just happen in sleep but in waking life.
She peered out the porthole, Chiron growing ever more distant, with Starbase Centauri no longer visible. She floated among some of the wreckage.
She could no longer stay here, could no longer wait. If she was triggering the beacon too early, well, then she would deal with the consequences when they came.
She opened the panel, hesitating. The simple act of flipping the switch became an agonizing dilemma between salvation and eternal silence. Did she even deserve to be rescued?
The stars outside were cold, indifferent witnesses to her torment, their flickering lights mockingly mirroring her fading hopes.
Her fingers, trembling with dread, grazed the beacon’s switch, cold sweat covering her palms. There was only one reason to pull the lever. One hope. Lucian was alive, and this was the only possible way she’d get to see him again, improbable as it seemed.
Do it. For Lucian.
She held her breath, a mix of anticipation and fear hanging before her, as her fingers flipped the switch.
Nothing happened; no feedback or assurance from the display that the beacon was active. The silence remained.
A second later, a message materialized: Error. Hardware failure.
Panic clenched her gut, her breath hitching as her mind raced. Her shaking hands quickly ran a diagnostic, the rapid beeping of the display the only break in the silence.
A schematic of the pod appeared, along with a red highlighted area near the top.
Hardware failure. Beacon antenna undetected. Please reattach antenna and ensure power supply is connected.
Mira stared at the message dumbly, toggling the beacon repeatedly, each flip increasing in intensity and frustration. Finally, the scream that wanted to manifest ripped from her lungs, deafening in the pod’s narrow confines.
There could only be one reason for the error. The antenna must have somehow detached during her escape, or the power supply was somehow severed.
With this realization, despair clutched her heart, the walls of the pod seeming to close in around her. An icy wave spread outward, starting from her heart.
She worked for hours, poring through menus and submenus, until she’d given every command she could possibly think of. And every answer pointed back to one truth.
There would be no rescue. No salvation. This pod, once a symbol of escape, would become her tomb, an eternal prison in the soundless abyss of space.
Mira’s gaze returned to the porthole. The distance between her and Chiron seemed to symbolize her isolation in a universe that had been robbed of warmth. Another scream built within her chest, but it ultimately went unvoiced.
Most escape pods didn’t have EVA suits; certainly not this one. They had enough air, food, and water for occupants to survive a few days, more than enough time to await rescue in normal circumstances. Suits only added weight, and Mira doubted the door could even be opened while it detected a vacuum outside.
Her thoughts clung to her son, Lucian, and the guilt of all the years spent away from him. Her regrets were like a physical pain, stabbing her heart repeatedly. She would never know his fate, never hear his laughter, never see his smile again. She would float alone in this vast, indifferent universe, her only company her failures and the silent screams of her crew.
The coldness within her deepened as hours passed. Her existence oscillated between this waking nightmare and the horrors of sleep, an eternal dance between guilt and despair.
The thought of eternal silence seemed like a mercy.
She checked the display. Three days had passed. One week of oxygen left. About the same for food and water.
She wondered if there was any point.
In the medicine cabinet, there was another answer. Something that could take all the hopelessness away, end the perpetual agony in an instant.
The small pill, unassuming yet ominous, lay tucked away, hidden among the basic medical supplies. In military parlance, it was called an “off pill,” what you took in an inescapable situation to off yourself when there was no other recourse.
All she had to do was break the seal, and in just a minute or two, eternal and painless darkness would greet her.
It was her choice. Her salvation or condemnation.
Her hand wavered over the cabinet, tears coming hot to her eyes, a tidal wave of thoughts crashing through her consciousness. The cabinet blurred before her, intermixed with images of Lucian from the whirling tempest of her mind.
His smile, his laughter, every moment they had shared, became her anchor in the storm.
“Just one more day,” she whispered, clenching her fists tight. “One more day. I can do that, right?”
She sat down and closed her eyes. And waited.
She waited another day, and another after that. Time was only measurable by looking at the display screen before her.
Mira had always preferred an enemy she could look in the eye. That was the appeal of the fleet. Shoot down bad guys and get paid for it. It was simple enough.
But she never imagined she’d have to fight a battle with herself, against her own failures, her own thoughts, with each day being a more grueling trial than the last.
Hope waned as Chiron grew ever more distant, continuing its celestial path around the twin suns of Alpha Centauri A and B. Every day, her hand grazed the medicine cabinet as a voice whispered the sweet promise of eternal silence.
And every day, the thought of Lucian brought Mira back from the brink.
One more day. One more day.
Even if hope was almost nothing, it was there, a tiny star in an eternally dark void. As long as that star shone, it was worth fighting on.
Her body weakened with each passing day, despite the effects of the nano-pills. After a full week had passed, the air was growing discernibly heavier, and Mira’s breaths shallower. She jury-rigged the life support program to filter more slowly, which might give her an extra day or two. She stayed utterly still to use the least amount of oxygen possible.
But as the days passed, she questioned the wisdom of this decision, as every thought was lost in a haze of stale air.
Her mind flickered between the real and surreal. Among the pain, her only beacon was the love for her son. She could barely distinguish between hallucinations and reality, her senses dull and warped by dwindling oxygen.
At last, she woke up on what she knew must be her last day. Eleven days had passed since the battle, and by all rights, she should be dead. The air was stifling, practically poisonous. Her breathing was ragged, the air a suffocating cloud. Every thought, every movement, was a colossal effort.
If there was a time to give up, it was now. The off pill was waiting. She needed to get it while she still had the coordination to do so.
And yet, the will to survive to the very last breath was not something she had reckoned on.
Another hour, and then she would take it.
But once that hour had passed, she hadn’t the strength, or the will, to move from her seat. Lucian swam in her vision. She saw him as he had been when he was younger, his face becoming her world, his memory her lifeline.
“Just hold on,” she panted, her voice a ragged whisper. “One . . . more . . .”
Her eyelids fluttered, fighting the encroaching darkness. Her heart thudded weakly in her chest. Every ounce of her being screamed for release, yearning for the mercy of oblivion. But she clung to the image of Lucian, her love intertwining with fading life.
She smiled, feeling a peace such as she had never known.
She was on the beach with him; it was the same memory as the picture on her slate. He was eight, building a sandcastle, a rising wave claiming it as he shouted his dismay. Mira laughed and held him close to comfort him, and just a minute later, he was laughing again, running and playing in the surf.
It had been the perfect day. The day Mira would give anything to go back to and change the course of her life . . .
As her consciousness dimmed, the porthole came back into focus for a moment, where new images manifested. There was a long white tunnel, a radiance that was blinding to behold.
Mira reached toward it, and within the light came something most unexpected.
The outline of a ship, with search lights roving. The tunnel’s light settled on her face.
She attempted to see whether this was really salvation, but already, she had given up and was ready to move on, to go back to the beach. The ship was receding, replaced by the scene with Lucian. She desperately wanted to go there, to be with him. She wanted nothing more in all the Worlds.
Lucian . . . I . . .
She never completed the thought as everything faded.
The first thing Mira heard were the voices, male and gruff.
“A fine catch, ain’t she?”
She kept everything exactly the same, not changing any of her motions. She took shallow breaths and lay utterly still. This was what she needed to do, at least until she could assess the situation.
“The markets of Brennus will fetch a good price for someone like her,” quipped another, making Mira’s skin go cold. “On the older side, but still shapely. Aye, I reckon we can get one-fifty for her, maybe two hundred for the right buyer.”
Mira resisted the temptation to open her eyes and sneak a glance. The action would not go unnoticed. It was just her luck to be rescued by pirates, who must have been scouring the wreckage for anything of value.
Mira sensed a third person was there, and that the other two were waiting for his response. She breathed slowly. Though there was an acrid tinge of unwashed bodies in the air, it was the perfect balance of oxygen, nitrogen, and trace gases to which the human body was accustomed.
At last, the third man broke his silence.
“I think we may have just caught ourselves a fleet officer, boys. If that’s true, she’s worth more than two hundred. Depending on rank, we might get as much as five hundred. Maybe two thousand or more.”
“Two thousand, Cap?”
“It’s possible. Depends on who she is. What she’s worth. Nothing some pointed questions can’t find out.”
One pirate guffawed, clearly not believing his luck.
“The markets of Brennus would pale compared to the bounty of a fleet officer,” the Captain mused. “We’re lucky we picked up on her signal. Had we come along a day later, she’d be colder than a comet’s tail.”
Her signal? Had the beacon worked after all? Or has the pod been emitting some other frequency she wasn’t aware of?
“What do we do, then?”
“That’s easy, Roarke. Get some distance. League’s thick in this area, so we’ll have to run the ship real quiet-like. If we can get to Astravan, that’s when we make our offer. We’ll have to play it by ear.”
“She moved,” the first pirate, Roarke, said.
“No, she didn’t,” the other pirate said, thus far unnamed.
Mira felt a boot on her side, and she couldn’t help but groan at the pain.
“We’ve got a live one!” Roarke almost squealed.
Mira rolled away, standing and balling her fists, only to find she was face-to-face with three greasy pirates. Roarke had to be the one on the left. He was a wiry man, with a gnarled beard and eyes like a wolf, cunning and relentless. She sized up the one on the right as the second underling, a bulky brute with a face lined by a myriad of scars.
In the center of the two could be none other than the captain, a tall, lean man with a cybernetic arm and a patch over one eye. He studied her with a predatory gaze.
The Captain flashed a yellow smile. “Never you mind these two. I’m Captain Moros, and this is The Raven Marauder. Fastest sloop this side of the stars.”
Mira knew not to believe that one. Every pirate said their ship was the fastest. “Leave me alone, and there won’t be trouble.”
“We’ve no intention of harming you, Miss . . . Abrantes?”
Mira realized her nameplate must be showing on her uniform. Glancing down, she saw a smudge of dirt had hidden the “Captain” bit. The less information they knew, the better.
“What’ll we do with her, Cap?” Roarke asked, his hungry eyes never leaving her.
A tense pause ensued as Captain Moros pondered, his gaze measuring Mira, assessing her worth.
“Those lapels say you’re a captain. If you play nice with us, we’ll have you back in League hands inside a month.”
“I heard you aim for Astravan,” Mira said.
“Aye, we are. How much of that did you hear?”
“Enough to know that it’s a good plan. A damned good plan.”
“She’s sucking up,” the unnamed pirate said.
“Shut your trap, Daven,” Captain Moros said. He turned back to Mira. “You’re a Captain, yes? Any advice on avoiding the League’s movements?”
“That’ll be tough. You’ll need my help for that.”
“And you’ll give it to me if you want to eat and drink. And have certain . . . crewmembers . . . kept far away from you.”
Mira arched an eyebrow.
“Play nice, and you’ll make it home safe,” Moro said. “All of us can get what we want if we just work together.”
Mira’s eyes flicked between them. The sound of voices beyond the airlock staging area suggested that these three weren’t the only ones here.
As much as she hated it, she had to play along.
“How are we on fuel?”
“Completely topped up.”
“Then I’d head out to Caelus. Spend a few days in the rings there and make sure you’re completely off the League’s scopes. From there, you can come out and burn for the Astravan Gate.”
“Hmm,” Captain Moros said. “Takes away from the League, for the most part. What’s the catch?”
“No catch,” Mira said. “Like you said, we both want the same thing.”
“That’d add a week to our journey at least,” Roarke said.
“Better than being ripped apart by a torpedo,” Mira said. “Which is what would happen if you made straight for Astravan?”
“Nah, we won’t be doing that,” Captain Moros said. “The plan is good. I’m pleased you’re interested in living.”
Mira was confident the Captain had no plans of killing her, at least for now. As long as he believed she could be ransomed for a big payday.
“Of course,” Moros said, “we’ll need to keep you in the brig. Since you’ve been good so far, Daven will make a fine guard. But if you question me, even once . . .” He nodded toward Roarke. “He’ll be your jailer. Understood?”
Mira resisted the urge to swallow. “I’ll cooperate.”
“Good girl. Now, lock her up.”
The men grabbed her roughly, and Mira didn’t move to stop them. She allowed herself to be led toward the stern of the ship, catching sight of one other pirate, a woman with spiked purple hair, drinking in the galley.
A few seconds later, she was pushed into a small room, the door slamming shut and locking behind her.
She glanced around to find herself in a space not much larger than the pod she’d left behind, with a toilet and no benefit of even a viewport.
Mira’s heart hammered against her ribcage as the cold silence wrapped around her like the inescapable shadow of a black hole. Here she was, confined to a new cell—albeit surrounded by air she could breathe—yet still a prisoner. Her mind spun, wondering if escape was even possible, or whether she just had to stick it out and hope for the best.
The air felt choked with tension, a sense of foreboding tainting the oxygen she breathed. Yes, she was alive, but at what cost? Every fiber of her being recoiled at the thought of what could happen. Within seconds, at these pirates’ whims, she could be suffering a face worse than death itself.
She almost wanted to curse herself for getting into this situation. There was a good chance that death in the escape pod, or even on board the Refuge, would have been preferable. And for good reason.
She knew one thing these pirates didn’t, something she had done her best to hide: The League didn’t negotiate with pirates. So, what happened when they discovered she couldn’t be ransomed? Either she would be killed, enslaved, or sold like some commodity to the highest bidder. Astravan was a solid month away with the detour she had proposed.
Time enough, perhaps, to devise an escape plan.
Her thoughts circled back to her brief interaction with the pirates. Captain Moros, she discerned, was calculating and pragmatic. Roarke was predatory and feral, his intentions less than honorable. And Daven was a mere brute, his motivations simple. Would her cooperation be enough to keep her safe from them, especially from Roarke’s obvious intentions?
Amid her racing thoughts, a glimmer of hope flickered in the recesses of her mind. She was a trained fleet officer—skilled, resourceful, and resilient. She was well-versed in almost every kind of space weaponry and hand-to-hand combat. There were always opportunities, paths she could weave through this tangled web if she thought hard enough and identified the right openings.
Could she possibly create a rift between the pirates, playing them against each other? Could she communicate with the League without the pirates knowing, or even overpower Daven with a surprise attack during one of her meals? Find a way to the controls and lock down the bridge before navigating to safety and sending out a message?
Captain Moros had mentioned the ship was a sloop. In League parlance, that meant it was probably crewed by ten and twenty. On a ship of such size, there might even be an escape pod. Though her spirit quailed at going through that again, it would be unlikely for the radio to fail a second time. If she could get close to a planet, such as Astravan, the pirates would be unlikely to pick up her trail if she entered the atmosphere quickly enough.
Every possibility seemed laced with danger, but Mira was no stranger to adversity. She had faced the vast, indifferent expanse of the cosmos and survived. She’d been locked in a metal coffin, left to die among the stars, and yet, she survived. She’d dealt with pirates before, knew how to negotiate with them. They could be placated when their favorite vices were dangled before them.
If the universe and its boundless darkness couldn’t break her, this scum wouldn’t either. She simply had to believe it was possible.
As she sat there, the rhythm of her heart aligning with the hum of the ship, she was not merely a captive.
She was a fighter, just as she had been all her life. A game of chess lay ahead, a dance between life and death, freedom, and captivity. The stakes could not possibly be higher or more unpredictable.
But Mira wasn’t out of the game yet. As long as she drew breath, she would fight with everything she had.
And Stars willing, it would be enough.