A Starship Fairfax Prequel Short Story
By Benjamin Douglas
Copyright 2017 Benjamin Douglas, all rights reserved. No portion of this story may be duplicated or distributed without the author’s permission.
Ada Xander woke up cold, stiff, and standing up in pitch darkness. She tried thrusting her hands out in front of her, but they were stopped by a wall of metal. Her mind raced. She tried to slow her breathing, remembering where she was. Oxygen was limited. If she hyperventilated she might pass out and never wake up.
Slowly, cautiously, she ran her fingertips down the right side of the wall until her hand met the small perturbance. There you are, she thought. The latch wasn’t meant to be opened from the inside. It had been installed as a redundancy, no doubt, in case the ship operators had ever needed to smuggle persons, but most of the time small cabinets like the one into which Ada had stuffed herself were probably crammed full of ill-gotten goods or illicit compounds. Her fingers locked around the latch. She pulled, it clicked, and the wall swung outward.
Ada blinked. Dull white running lights along the top and bottom of the opposite wall cast the corridor in a cold sort of glow. She began falling forward, her legs too stiff to respond to her will to walk. Instead, she leaned in against the left wall of the cupboard, grasping the edge of it as her body swung out and around. She belly-slammed the corridor wall, gasping. No one else was in sight, the hallway quiet. She stood there a moment, just breathing. Letting the blood flow back to her legs.
Of all the risky stunts she had pulled, so far this one had to take the cake. So much of the fact she was still even alive came down to luck: lucky the cupboard had been empty; lucky they hadn’t checked it before takeoff; lucky they’d kept minimal life-support running in this corridor. Minimal, she reminded herself, shivering. Her teeth chattered and she almost laughed. Lucky or not, she was alive, and that was something.
She resolved to find a better hideout than the cupboard. She had no idea how long the ship would be out, or where it would take her, though she could hazard an educated guess or two. They were almost certainly headed in-system, and anything in-system was good enough for now. Anything away from the Colonies.
She stepped away from the wall, testing her legs. They were sore, but they held her up. So far, so good. The corridor curved out of sight in either direction, doubtless following the curvature of the hull. She decided to explore first to the left.
She’d made it about thirty meters when the corridor turned sharply, a hatch around the bend. Turn around now, or try the hatch? If she could get out of this hallway, maybe she could find a section of the ship kept warm with more than just residual heating. The decision was made for her when the hatch began to hiss open. Ada froze, her heart leaping into her throat. She’d never make it back to her cabinet before being seen. She leapt to the right and tested the wall for more hidden latches, moving frantically up the hallway, but her fingers found no purchase. Any second now and it would be too late.
Groaning inwardly, she jumped toward the hatch and threw herself against the wall beside it, flattening her back. She was out in plain sight, but it was the best she could do. Maybe whoever it was would come in without glancing to the side of the door. Maybe her luck would hold.
Two figures passed through the hatch and into the corridor. Both were of a medium height and build, both clad in dark, nondescript clothing. They were chatting in muted voices about the virtues of the ship’s sim-ale, specifically the headaches it had given both of them after a night of celebrating their current haul. Neither of them spared Ada a glance. Hope flickered in her heart.
They’d taken a few steps when she made her move. She sucked in a quiet breath and spun on the balls of her feet, slipping through the open hatch. It hissed behind her as she dodged into a new hallway and ran right into a tall, broad-shouldered hulk of a man.
“Whoa!” he rumbled. She tried to back away, but his hands around her arms held her in place. “Do I know ya?”
“Let me go,” she hissed, struggling to get leverage. She kicked in futility. The man peered down at her, frowning.
“Ok.” He released her.
She turned to run, but all that stood before her was the closed hatch, and she knew what lay behind it. So she turned again, but there was no room to get around the man; he fully blocked the narrow hallway. “Can I get by?”
“Well, now, I dunno.” He scratched the back of his head. “It ain’t everyday I find a beautiful young girl down in the cargo pipes, ya know. Somedays, sure. But not everyday. So it begs the question. Who are ya, and what are ya doin’ down here?”
Ada pursed her lips. The man didn’t sound overly bright. She wasn’t used to that. Back in the family mine on Cyron-2, between her father, her mother, and her younger sister, she’d been surrounded by brilliance. All this guy seemed to have going for him was the fact that he was too large to sneak past.
“Uh…” she fumbled, “maintenance?”
“Hmm.” He narrowed his eyes. “I don’t remember anyone putting an order in. Think I’da remembered that, seein’ as how I’m the one typically does that sort of thing.” His frown deepened. Ada swallowed a lump.
“No?” she said. “Well, who are you? I haven’t seen you before. Are you supposed to be on this ship?” Desperate, she knew.
He laughed, a good, deep belly laugh. She hadn’t expected to hear it from a pirate. She thought they all laughed like a passel of spiders about to descend on the prey trapped in their webs, but this hulking doofus laughed like an honest man. It was a sound that instantly made her want to like him.
Something beeped, and he stopped laughing. He slapped a device on his wrist, opening a comm.
“Bone Crusher,” he growled.
“Crush, you gonna join us down here or what?” The voice that came over the channel was pinched and nasally.
“Yeah, yeah. On my way.” He shut it down. “Well, sweetheart, sounds like duty calls. So what’ll it be? Come clean to Crush, or come with and face the committee? Time’s a-tickin’.”
Ada cursed in her mind. Well, what was there to lose? She couldn’t escape right now, anyway, and he clearly wasn’t buying the lie.
“Ok, look. I hitched a ride on Cyron-2.”
“Put that much together myself.”
“I was in danger.” His eyes narrowed again. “No, really! I was being hunted down by, by… I don’t know, I think they were sent by the Council!”
“Now you’re just tellin’ me what ya think I wanna hear.”
“Hardly. Look, I may just be a stowaway to you, but I’m telling you, I’m running for my life. And I don’t need anything from you. Just let me lay low until you stop someplace in-system, and I’ll be out of your hair. Promise.”
He laughed again, a little less raucously this time. “No, no, that won’t do at all. Maybe if I was in charge, sure, but that ain’t how it works. We ain’t got a stop planned for at least a week, see, so you’ll need things. Food. Water. Place to sleep. And I can’t get you all those without bein’ noticed. Ship ain’t no place for a pet.”
She recoiled a little at the idea of being his “pet.”
“We got what ya might call a standard practice with stowaways,” he went on. “Know what we do with ‘em?”
“Umm… feed them breakfast and put them on dish-duty?”
“Huh. Nope. We space ‘em.”
Her mouth went dry. She’d feared things might go this way if she were discovered. Every muscle in her body tensed as she began considering how best to tackle him. Not that it would do any good. She doubted she’d be able to so much as scratch him before he subdued her.
“Thing is,” he said, “I’m the only one knows you’re a stowaway like that, see. So what if the others never found out you hopped on board for a free ride? What if they thought you were brought on as a recruit, ya know, like a cabin boy… er, girl… and I just hadn’t gotten around to tellin’ ‘em yet?”
Her eyes widened. “Are… are you serious?”
He shrugged. “Never much cared for spacing folks, myself. I’d rather squeeze the life out’ve a man while I’m lookin’ him in the eye, good and honest-like, ya know? ‘Sides, I couldn’t do either to a cute little thing like you.”
She frowned, worried she knew where this was going. “What’s the hitch?”
“No hitch.” He raised his hands. “No stowaway, no spacing. That simple.”
The comm crackled to life again. “Crush, what’s the hold-up? Need some manpower down here!”
Ada raised a hand to her face, spit in her palm, and held it out. She could worry about the fine print later. Bone Crusher smiled, spit in his own meaty hand, and took hers for a firm shake.
“Bone Crusher,” he said.
“Ada. Pleasure. So what now?”
“Follow me! And follow my lead.”
Bone Crusher squeezed past her, not taking too much trouble to prevent himself from rubbing against her on his way, opened the hatch, and ambled through. For a moment Ada considered running, but where could she go? Now that her presence was known, there was no hope in hiding. She took a breath, leaned into her luck once more, and followed through the hatch.
“It’s bull.” The nasal-voiced man spoke around a mouthful of sim-oats. Most of the rest around the table ignored him. One or two nodded. Ada, sitting at the opposite end, felt incredibly awkward. “She’s a stowaway and everybody knows it. And everybody knows what we do with stowaways.”
Bone Crusher cleared his throat. “And everybody knows what happens to little frog-men who insist on gettin’ on old Crush’s bad side. I’m lookin’ around the table and I’m not seein’ any stowaways, Dax. Notta one. I do see a sour little man who needs to find some feminine companionship on his next layover.”
A few snickers around the table, a guffaw or two, Dax’s face blushing. The end of the conversation. This had been going on the past two days since Bone Crusher had announced to the rest of the crew that he’d taken on a cabin girl on Cyron-2. They’d all seemed reticent to accept her, but none of them seemed capable of denying Bone Crusher anything. Ada wasn’t sure if it was his brawn or the fact that everyone seemed to like him so well. Everyone except for Dax, anyway.
For her part, Ada had tried to find little ways to be useful. She had helped Bone Crusher organize cargo while Dax and the others checked it against the manifest. She’d wanted nothing more than to spend her time holed up away from the others, especially after the first night. Her oversized benefactor had awkwardly tried to insinuate she might best fulfil her duty as cabin girl by keeping him company in his bunk. She shut that down quickly, telling him she’d prefer to be spaced. His face had fallen in an odd way, like he’d never heard no before. Let him hear it, she thought. She wouldn’t buy her ticket that way. So she’d been relegated to a tiny bunkspace across the hall, with a bunk not much bigger than the cupboard she’d hidden inside. At least in the bunk she could lay down, though. And it was heated.
There were other perks to having been discovered, like the bland but hot sim-oats she was staring at on her spoon.
“Gonna eat that?” Bone Crusher asked. She shook herself from her thoughts and put the spoon in her mouth. “Hurry up, now. Gotta job down in the engine room, need a hand with it.”
He had conveniently “needed a hand” with everything since he’d found her. Not that she minded, since she wanted to prove herself useful to stay on his good side. But part of her had begun to wonder, as she pondered Dax’s words, if Bone Crusher was keeping her near for her own protection.
Ten minutes later they had dropped down a greasy service ladder into the engine room. It was dark, stank like sweat and metal, and the noise was overpowering. Ada felt right at home. Bone Crusher ambled to the far wall, removed a piece of shielding, and stared at a vast array of dead and blinking lights. Power relays, Ada realized. This must be where the power generated by the core was channeled from the wireless router to each section of the ship. She cocked her head to the side, fascinated.
Bone Crusher scratched his neck, then seemed to notice her. He yelled something, but she couldn’t hear him over the noise. She met his eyes and read his lips as he repeated himself. “You see somethin’?”
Stupid question. Anyone could see at a glance that there was a problem with the relays. About half had gone dead. Ada had a pretty good guess as to why, too.
Bone Crusher shook his head, grabbed one of the relay sockets, and yanked.
“What are you doing?” Ada yelled. But of course he didn’t hear a word. He looked at the socket in his hand, the puzzled look on his face tightening into one of comical concern. Ada bit her lip to keep from laughing. She patted his arm to get his attention, then nodded at the ladder.
“Why’d you pull it out?” she asked him once they’d emerged and could hear again.
“Well I dunno, this one looked broke to me. What do you reckon?”
“I reckon it was fine. The problem was obviously systemic, not coming from any one socket. Didn’t you see the pattern?”
He looked at her like she was full of it.
“Here,” she said. “Watch. Don’t touch anything.” She dropped into the room again, Bone Crusher clamoring down behind her.
She scanned the room. Multiple shielded panels ringed the space, each one doubtless hiding its own cluster of relays. She nodded, imagining the circuitry that must run from the core to the router. Then she crossed opposite the panel Bone Crusher had opened. If her hypothesis was correct, she’d find an identical pattern of dead relay sockets behind this one. She got his attention and had him open the panel to see.
The adjacent wall was covered in much more serious-looking shields, presumably to protect the circuitry, some of the only wired components onboard. She picked the shield right in the middle and pointed. Bone Crusher shook his head, frowning.
“Do it!” she yelled with all her might.
Sighing, he crossed to the panel. After unlocking a latch at either side, he braced himself against the floor, and leveraged all his weight to break it free. Even in the thunderous cacophony, Ada thought she heard the squeal of metal as it came loose.
Once she found the circuit in question, it was a simple problem with a simple fix. One of the lines—the one that carried power to the routers connected with the dead sockets—had blown a nano-box, a tiny cube full of microchips that were specifically designed to malfunction in case of a power surge. A fuse, more or less. Ada pulled out the nanobox and presented it to Bone Crusher, whose eyes opened wide in recognition. He left her alone in the room for a moment, and returned with a replacement. A few seconds later and all the relay sockets were up and running again. All except the one Bone Crusher had ripped out, that is.
“Drinks on me,” Bone Crusher said, the shorted nanobox in hand. They had crawled back out and left the mech deck behind, heading for the mess hall.
“I’ve seen the drinks you have onboard. Think I’ll pass.”
“Alright, so what, then? Captain’ll be pleased. Figure ya could use the situation as leverage for a little somethin’.”
Ada considered. “Let it slide. I need all the goodwill I can get.”
Bone Crusher chuckled. “Probably true. All the same, I’ma go tell him we fixed her up. See ya in a few?”
He tossed her the blown nanobox, and she watched him trot down the hall. She’d heard him speak of the captain, Brant, with comingled awe and comradery. He must have been excited to give him the good news of a repair gone well.
She had just slipped into her bunk to rest when she heard voices out in the hall, one of them tinged with a familiar pinched nasality. She crept to the door and pressed her ear against it. Her stomach flipped. Should she have gone with Bone Crusher to see Captain Brant? What if she got caught by Dax and his sympathizers without her guardian angel? She fumbled for the place where a toolbelt used to hang, back in the mines. She found none. But her fingers did find a lump in her pocket. She reached in and pulled out the blown nanobox. Huh, she thought. She must have stuffed it in there after replacing it, without realizing. Some good it would do now.
“…don’t care what he says. As soon as Brant’s out of the way, the others will fall in line.”
Ada held her breath. That was Dax. What did he mean, as soon as Brant was out of the way?
“Good luck with the walking mountain,” a dull voice replied. She recognized it as one of the crewmen who seemed to agree whenever Dax complained about Ada being onboard.
“I intend to eliminate that problem at the same time.”
Ada’s heart leapt into her throat. Were they talking about Crush?
“Gonna need the right bait for a big fish,” the dull voice said.
“Now you understand.”
The horrible realization washed over Ada; they were about to enter her cabin and take her. She would be bait, if she was caught. She couldn’t let it happen. She backed up, looking for a way to lock the hatch. Instead of a console at the door, there were old-fashioned latch controls, with no sign of a locking mechanism. But that didn’t make sense. There had to be a way to seal the hatch; it was a redundancy built into every hatch in virtually every ship in the system. She turned her attention to the other side of the hatch, and saw that there was a panel over part of the wall. She began to pry it open.
It didn’t want to budge at first. She had to wedge her fingers in just so, and even then she felt as though she nearly lost a nail before it finally popped off. But it did. Her eyes immediately found the lock, attached to—she breathed a sigh of relief—a nanobox. Quickly, she reached in and ripped out the box. The lock slid closed just in time.
“Huh?” Dax’s voice from the other side of the hatch sounded perplexed. They were trying to get in, and clearly could not. He cursed profusely.
“So much for the plan,” the dull voice said.
“Stick to the plan,” Dax spat. “Just a hiccup, nothing more. Corrigan saw Crush heading to Brant’s quarters not five minutes ago; this is the opportune time. We’ll just have to forego the bait and go straight for the fish.”
“Whaddya mean by that?”
Ada wondered what happened in the silence that followed. It was punctuated by a guffaw from the dull voice, who then said, “Alright, then. I’ll gather the rest, make sure they see who’s in charge now.”
“Wish me luck.”
“You don’t need it, with that.”
She heard the sound of footfalls die away as they left, heading off in opposite directions. Then she plugged the nanobox back into place and opened the hatch.
It had to be a weapon, she reasoned. Some kind of continuous-fire blasting pistol? Something that would inspire confidence, even against both Crush and Brant. She knew what she had to do. If they were caught unawares by a mutinous, armed Dax, they might both be killed in seconds.
She trotted lightly, up on the balls of her feet, careful to make as little sound as possible, and staying close to the wall so that she could flatten herself against it at a moment’s notice. All of the hiding and running she’d been forced into since escaping the family hab had transformed her into a survivor, something she’d never thought she’d need to be. Everything had been so simple back on Cyron-2, before the day the soldiers had come and left her orphaned.
You don’t know that he’s dead, she reminded herself for what felt like the hundredth time. It was true. Her father could be alive and well, for all she knew, and she clung to that hope, letting it drive her to head in-system to seek word of him. But she knew in her objective mind that the odds were not in his favor. She would be lucky if she could so much as find out what had happened to him before the end. Maybe that would be enough, though. Maybe it would be the key to let her put all of this horror in the past, and move on.
Or maybe she was deluding herself about the prospect of ever resuming anything close to normalcy, part of her suggested. Maybe what she really ought to do was to find herself here, in the now, where she was—onboard a pirate ship, no longer an innocent girl working the family mine, but a cabin girl and ruthless-pirate-in-training. She shook her head at the thought. Could there be a place for her here?
She slowed, realizing she was close to the bridge, and probably to Brant’s quarters. Directly ahead there was a bend in the hallway, and beyond that, voices. She crept to the edge of the bend and listened.
“I’ve had enough,” Dax said, “and so have the others. If you won’t step down peaceably, you’re forcing my hand. Don’t doubt me, Brant. I’ll do it.”
“Sure you will,” Bone Crusher growled, a sneer in his voice. “Cause you’ve got the spine? Tryin’ to prove somethin’, Dax?”
“Shut up, Crush.”
Ada peered around the corner. Just beyond her, the door to Brant’s quarters was open. She saw Dax, his back to her, hefting a massive blasting rifle with both arms. Beyond him, Brant and Bone Crusher stood on either side of Brant’s desk. In the crosshairs.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t ya?” Crush yelled. Dax juiced up the rifle and shot. Ada leapt past the corner, wanting to stop him, not knowing how, and almost yelled to distract him. But the blast was a warning shot. It burned into the desk, instantly cleaving it in half, leaving a smoldering shell. The sound of the shot seemed to have masked Ada’s advance. Dax did not turn.
“Next shot is a real one,” he said.
Ada found her hands fumbling around her waist again. She really needed to arm herself with a decent multitool. Instead, she once more found the burned-out nanobox. It fit snugly in the palm of her right hand, compact but with a healthy amount of weight. She turned it over, wondering.
“I think I’ll do you first, Crush,” Dax said, turning the rifle on Bone Crusher. “Any last words? Maybe something for your pet? I can coo it in her ear while I’m having some fun with her in my bunk. You know. Before we space the bitch.”
Ada gulped, anger seething through her. It was now or never. She squeezed the nanobox tightly, wound up her arm, took a quick, careful aim, and let it fly.
It was just too easy.
Like skipping rocks over the ice-fields back home.
The nanobox met the back of Dax’s skull with a satisfying crack, and he fell forward, stumbling, losing his grip on the giant gun. It was enough. Bone Crusher was on him in an instant, his enormous fists making sure Dax didn’t get back on his feet. The gun fell away, unused. Brant came around and kicked it out of reach. Ada breathed a sigh of relief.
The dull-voiced crewmember arrived with all the others just in time for them all to see a beaten, bloodied Dax on the floor between Bone Crusher, Captain Brant, and Ada. “Gentlemen,” Brant said. “I believe we’ve stopped a mutiny. Thank you for all coming to my assistance, as I’m sure you were about to do. But our new cabin-girl seems to have the situation well in hand. Isn’t that right, ah—”
Ada cleared her throat. “Ada. Call me Ada.”
“Right,” Brant said. “Ada.”
Everything changed after that. There were no more threats, no more whispers or bellyaching about Bone Crusher’s stowaway. The crewmen gave her approving nods when she passed by. Not approving her body; approving her. She liked the way it felt. She began to walk with a bit of swagger, starting up conversation with them, learning their names and habits. She began to talk like them and even, at times, act like them. She became, in short, part of the crew.
“I never thanked you, proper.” Bone Crusher stood in Ada’s open hatchway. It had been a week since the incident, and she was just bedding down for the night.
She shrugged. “Gonna have to be more specific than that, Crush. I’m pretty sure I’ve saved your engines a dozen times in the last forty-eight hours.”
He sniffed. “You know what I’m talkin’ about, Ada.”
“Yeah.” She nodded, smiling.
“So anyway. Thanks.” He turned to go.
“Wait, that’s it? You’re not gonna do me some great service, like be my cabin-boy and keep me warm in my bunk tonight?”
His eyes widened. “Wha—?”
She waved him off. “Relax, I’m pulling your leg. Just thought you might like a taste of your own medicine.”
“Oh,” he laughed, scratching the back of his neck.
“You’re welcome, Crush.”
“Ya know Ada, it’s a funny thing. From the moment I saw ya standing there in the cargo tubes, I knew I was going to be looking out for ya. Just knew it. Ya know, that ya would need me. But I was wrong.” He shook his head. “The other way around, wasn’t it?”
She shrugged. “Nothing’s over till it’s over. But for what it’s worth, it’s nice to be needed.”
“Yeah. Goodnight Ada.”
She lay in the darkness for some time, thinking about what he had said. When she slept, she slept better than she had since leaving Cyron-2. It did feel nice to be needed again.