“Hurry up! Tacy! Marka!”
The ragged threesome scrambled under the high shaking domed ceiling dodging and jumping over raining debris as the sky rumbled and rocked from shuddering booms. Ducking under a fallen beam, Marka dragged her younger sister who stared about with horror at the cracked gaps in the ceiling above that revealed the battle overhead in the night sky.
“Come on! We have to find a ship before they blow this whole place to pieces!”
“And us along with it!” their senior classmate, Larke, shouted back. He hurried through the tunnel of toppled railing and chunks of concrete beckoning them to the other side, his panic equally shown on his flushed face as sweat dribbled down his neck covered in dirt. They passed a sprawled body. Tacy yelped, jumping back before being dragged further to the other side of the arched ruin where they stared out at what was left of the fighter ships in the military bay. Shining and yet charred shrapnel lay everywhere among the speckled and flagged ships.
“This is stealing!” Marka shouted at Larke, holding back as her eyes fell on the fighter jets.
“When the Gardo are done with us, do you really think there will be a military? I don’t know about you, but I want to live!” Larke rushed into the open hangar. The roof was clear off, open for the previous launches. Most of the ships on the outside runway and hangar were in pieces, though others were just buried by debris.
“There!” Larke pointed, also gesturing for the two cadets to hurry. “I knew one was still here!”
Marka gasped. “But that one is experimental!”
Tacy stepped forward, staring at the burnished brass and powder blue elliptical shaped craft as Larke rushed ahead to the outside hatch. “A Neodiver?”
“It’s not a diver, Tacy.” Marka pulled her along by her wrist, shaking her head as she followed Larke straight to the experimental ship where he was already opening the hatch that was more like a doorway.
No security. No guards at all. All the other surviving pilots must have already taken off anyway for the battle. This unguarded piece of top military space material available for the stealing was sitting like a duck unaware of the hawk overhead. They had to take it. It would be a waste otherwise.
“It is a subspace flier. Experimental. Didn’t you read the memo on it?”
Tacy made a face and rushed up the steps that suddenly folded out as the hatch opened. “That silly piece of data. Yeah. I saw it, but I considered it none of my business. We’re cadets, not top secret pilots.”
“We’ll all be dead cadets if you two don’t get in here now and shut that door!” Larke already darted down the hall into the cockpit and turned the pilot chairs around to slide his rear in. He clicked on the nearest digital display for instruction, delving straight into its database.
Marka grimaced back but did as he said, shoving Tacy aside as she pulled the door shut and turned the manual seal before setting the computer operated control to latch it tight. Tacy squeezed to the side so her sister could get by. Then noticing flashes of white light through the front view panel, she dashed to the cockpit, peering out. Up above the ship, explosions lit the sky as well as the tin roofing overhead.
“They’re coming back this way.”
Larke’s brow dug deep crevices in his forehead as he inspected the words scrolling down on the screen. He stopped on one place, drawing in a breath. “A gel interface?”
“Was that in the memo?” Tacy asked, whipping around to face Marka who hurried to peer at the view screen also.
Marka shook her head and then immediately turned toward the wall in the narrow hall they had just passed through, feeling for the panel where the gel interface ought to be. “I’ll find it and get in.”
Like a spring, Larke practically leapt from his seat and grabbed hold of Tacy’s arm as he did, pulling her with him to bar Marka’s way. “No! The best pilot ought to be in there!”
Swinging around with a look of horror, Marka’s eyes turned to her sister who looked just as startled. “Tacy? No! She’s still a kid!”
Tacy’s face contorted from surprise to one that said quite clearly that sixteen years old was not a kid, but Marka wouldn’t even give it a glance.
“It’s gotta be me,” Marka said, still feeling for the door that ought to unlatch and slide open easily for the pilot to get in.
“It has to be Tacy!” Larke shouted back as he barred Marka’s way with his shoulder and then the rest of himself. “Do you want to die? They’re veering back down on this place! The best pilot has to be in the interface! This is how the ship works!”
“I was not born to be a co-pilot! Besides, I told our mom I’d watch out for her! They said this thing was experimental. That the interface—”
“Get out of the way, Marka. I’ll do it.” Tacy felt to the right of where Larke was standing and undid the catch herself. The door slid open.
In front of them quivering like an electro-charged sheet of green Jell-o was what they were looking for—the interface. Larke turned to lift Tacy up, taking her by her waist. The interface was built for a large man, not a tiny sixteen-year-old girl.
“You have to go in backward,” he said, helping her slide into the goo that already oozed around her backside with a clinging sensation that drew her in. “Your face should always be out so you don’t suffocate.”
“But the memo said the interface takes over! Larke! That’s my sister! She shouldn’t have to do this!” Marka had not given up. She pulled on Tacy’s jacket sleeve to get her out of there, though her strength could not overpower Larke and Tacy together.
Tacy lifted her eyes and met Marka’s, looking morose as well as determined to go on. “I have to. Momma would want us to live.”
Larke shoved Marka out of the way with his elbow. “Yeah. You go to the manual pilot seat!”
Marka dropped her arms, hanging them from her shoulders with a stricken look at her sister who was slowly being swallowed up in the rippling green gel, her feet now fitting in so that she could barley see her toes. Larke had to take off Tacy’s boots as well as her gloves, whispering to Tacy that she needed skin contact with the gel for the interface to work. He had just barely taken her jacket, her bare arms shivering as they were enveloped in the goo. With one backward step towards the pilot’s seat, Marka bit her lower lip hard. Her sister’s eyes were already staring ahead as the interface started to connect with the back of her head. Then Tacy went rigid.
“Larke!” Marka lurched forward again, suddenly watching Tacy shake; her fingers, her toes, her entire body rippled with the gel. Larke held Marka back with his arm, his own expression tense.
“It’s ok. The interface is connecting.” He pulled Marka towards the cockpit and stood back himself, watching Tacy’s eyes dilate. Then Tacy suddenly slipped back into the gel, the goo sliding along her face until only the front strip of her face around her eyes nose and mouth showed.
Shoving hard, Marka tried to force her way past Larke, but he seized her arm.
“Come on! She’s interfaced! We have to guide the ship out now!”
He pulled Marka to the front seats, shoving her in one. “Now fly us out of here!”
“Me? But you said that Tacy would—”
“Someone has to be in the interface for the ship to work. Two pilots, Marka! Now fly us out of here, or we’re all going to die!”
Already the walls to the hangar were crashing down around them like a child’s blocks. Near the far end an explosion rocked the earth, flinging debris against the ruined ships. Marka sobbed as she grasped the controls to start the engine.
“Fly,” Tacy whispered before closing her eyes.
Her mind slipped into the interface as blackness filled her vision with electronic flashes that winked like stars among green lines rippling with energy. Nothing else went before her eyes, not even the wall in front of her.
She felt a jolt. Then a lift.
They went up.
Her eyelids were heavy as if they were sheets of chain mail protecting her eyes from things that would pierce them. Tacy lifted her lids up with effort, staring at the wall. It was the same sheet of pieced metal and fiberglass she had seen as when she had gone into the interface. Shifting a bit, she noticed she could move her head somewhat in the gel but still not completely pull it out from the goo. Inside the gel all she could hear was the hum of the engine, which sang much like a lullaby that had kept her asleep for who knew how long. Drawing her ears from the interface gel, Tacy immediately heard the hollow echoes of the open ship’s cabin.
“….more supplies. But where do you think is the safest place to make port?”
The voice sounded like her mother’s, but that was impossible. They were in space. Their mother would never even set foot on a space ship let alone be in the one they stole.
“I’ve scanned just about every moon around that gas giant, and I think I saw some uranium on B468.”
“Uranium? Larke, we can’t scavenge moons for fuel. We have to find civilization.”
“They’ll have our heads if we go there.”
“I’m willing to risk it.”
“What? Like pirates? I want to keep my head, thank you.”
“What about food stores? What about—”
“Marka?” Tacy tried to lean forward, but was unable to dislodge her head any further. The gel clung as if her hair was now attached wire to the machinery, pulling painful threads the further forward she leaned out.
Immediately heavy things clattered to the ground as if dropped. A scruffy looking man and brown haired woman with bits of gray rushed over to where Tacy was stuck, panting as they stared at her. The woman reached out and touched Tacy’s face.
“Oh! Tacy! You’re finally awake!”
Tacy blinked at her. The woman had a face similar to her mother’s but also to Marka’s. “Who—” She shook her head. “How long have I been asleep?”
“A while now,” Marka said.
“You look so old.” Tacy squinted at Marka’s face where there were now crow’s marks at her eyes and a few wrinkles along the sides of her mouth showing how much she had frowned and perhaps wept. Her eyes had dark circles under them.
“Just weary,” Marka said with a smile. Her hand felt bony, cold, and just as tired as she looked.
Tacy looked at Larke. The lower half of his face was covered in a thick beard, trimmed somewhat but mostly just managed with brushing and two ties. Their clothes and hair looked equally as worn and ragged.
“How long is a while?” Tacy looked back at Marka more sharply.
Marka merely gave that tired smile and said, “Doesn’t matter. You’re awake. That’s all that counts.”
“Can you step out?” Larke asked, reaching towards the gel.
Immediately a ripple of energy from inside the interface jolted across and connected with his hand with a shock, sending sparks. Larke drew back his hand, cradling it.
Tacy gently shook her head as the gel quivered. “I can only move a bit. How long have I been asleep, really?”
Marka lowered her head and stared at her feet, her lip trembling.
“Years,” Larke said.
Looking right at him, Tacy frowned. “Years? How many?”
He ignored the question. “Once the integration was finished, you should have been able to climb in and out at will. Are you sure you can’t get out?”
Tacy cast him a glare for avoiding the question while she wriggled in the gel to see for certain. It still clung to her body as if attached to her with fibrous cords growing out from her skin. When she tried to pull against it a searing sensation ran up her flesh, threatening to tear long cracks down to her bone. Letting out along sigh and settling back into the goo, Tacy shook her head. “No. I can’t.”
He frowned. “Then the integration is not complete. Tacy, I’m sorry.”
“It’s not complete? After how many years?” Tacy’s throat choked with saliva. “How long have I been out?”
His frown deepened. “Eleven years.”
Marka sobbed. “We thought you were dead at first. Then Larke found your vital stats on the monitor. It also marks integration, but it said you were already complete—only you didn’t wake up.”
“Eleven years?” Tacy whispered aloud, not even sure she had heard it.
Larke nodded. “I’m sorry for making you do it.”
Tacy lifted her eyes to his, feeling strangely supported in the gel despite standing in a cabinet for eleven years. “But did I do anything?”
Immediately both Larke and Marka nodded their heads as vigorously as dashboard dolls.
“Are you kidding?” Marka’s eyes flashed with a great deal of pride as a grin spread across her face. “As soon as we launched out from the bay you practically took over. Those Gardo ships had nothing on us.”
“You did maneuvers that neither of us had ever seen,” Larke said, smiling also.
Tacy stared. “Me? But I was aslee—”
“Your brain was in the computer. You may have been unconscious to the ship’s cabin, but you were flying the ship,” Larke said.
“And took us all the way out here,” said Marka.
“And where is here?” Tacy looked around at what she could see in the cockpit and hallway. She could barely even bend her neck to look into the pilot’s seats. The threads from her scalp pinched.
Marka winced. “We don’t—”
“Momma! Cobie took my video game, and he won’t give it back!” A boy perhaps barely nine in age ran from the depths of the other part of the ship and grabbed Marka’s shirt hem with a vigorous tug. He was wearing an under shirt to one of their cadet uniforms with nothing else to cover him, barefoot on the metal grate floor.
“Momma?” Tacy stared at Marka and then Larke, who suddenly blushed.
“She talked!” Seeming to fly, the boy jumped behind Marka, now clinging to the back of her ratty pants.
“Dan, that’s Aunt Tacy,” Marka said, trying to draw him forward. But her efforts were fruitless unless she also wanted to tear also the back of her pants just to pull her child forward.
“Be polite and say hello to Tacy,” Larke said with a fatherly look.
Tacy just blinked at the boy who stared straight back up at her with horrified blue eyes. Then she closed her eyes. “He doesn’t have to.”
“He sees me as part of the machine.”
Tacy then blinked. Her eyes suddenly dilated again as somewhere in the back of her head she saw something else entirely from where she stood. The cabin itself faded away from her sight like a fog, a sharper more demanding image coming to her mind. She said aloud, “We are approaching a spherical structure with a clear dome. It glows.”
“The view screen, Marka! Quick!” Lark’s voice seemed to echo from somewhere else.
“Right on it!” Marka’s voice answered, going distant also as if entering a tunnel.
No longer feeling herself inside the cabin, Tacy turned and looked in front of herself, feeling her body floating as if she were alone in space. In front of her, Tacy could see what they came upon, an image that also showed on the manual pilot’s screen; a large glistening space station that rotated like a giant top among a speckle of stars in the vastness of eternal blackness. The spherical structure’s bottom scooped round like a bowl. The top of the rotating structure looked more like a glass ceiling to an open-air stadium for baseball games they used to go to when they were little. She could even see in. It scooped down like a stadium with levels all the way down to a broad open center. Tacy just stare at it, wondering what it was, wondering where she was.
“Oh crap!” Larke’s voice echoed from somewhere else. “We’re on the edge of Gardo territory.”
“We have to move fast.” Marka responded to him, her voice sounding much more mature than Tacy remembered. Their voices were like all those adults that trained them in the flight school back home.
“Tacy? Are you still with us?” Larke shouted out.
Tacy tried to respond with her voice, still staring at the space around her as if she were just swimming in it, but somehow her answer came out into the computer on the screen first. “Yes. I’m here.”
“We need a quick escape!” Larke called to her while also typing it in as if he could not reach her anymore through her ears.
“To where?” Tacy murmured as her words relayed back with a flash of electrons on the screen.
Tacy heard the child her sister had been talking to just a moment before gasp. “Dad! She’s sinking back into the gel!”
Larke did not seem to hear him. “Back into our territory, please! And fast!”
Back home and fast. Tacy could feel the energy swelling over her again as she turned the ship in the void of space that she could see all around her as if she were not lodged in a compartment filled with bioelectric gel. Once more the world immediately around her spun into nothing but blackness and flashes of light.
It was a deep breath.
She could feel her chest rising and falling.
Tacy opened her eyes expecting to see the cabin wall in front of her and perhaps one of Marka’s boys running around. She had had visions of them, blinks and flashes of their motions around her.
Occasionally, as if in a dream, she saw Larke and Marka talking to her, both looking at her face with worry that she would never be able to speak to them again. Larke often told her how sorry he was for forcing her into the gel. Now, as Tacy pulled forward from the gel, she heard an irregular melodic hum. In front of her face was a dark metal sheet.
The door was closed.
Her hands pulled from the gel. It was easy, as if the gel itself had shrunk somehow. Pressing her palms against the sheet in front of her nose, feeling for a latch on the inside (hoping for one on the inside at least) Tacy heard the catch detach. The hummed tune she had heard from outside the door became clearer, then switched into a childlike song.
Must feed the Tacy or the ship won’t run.
Must feed the Tacy or the ship won’t run.
And what will we do if the ship won’t run?
Don’t wanna know when the day is done.
Tacy drew in a breath, feeling the door slide as she pushed it open. She peered out through the small gap, breathing in the fresh air that flowed in from the hall. It was even fresher than normal.
Striding past the crack in the door with a hop in his step, Tacy saw a man dressed in what looked like a bright orange repair suit carrying a shiny stainless steel canister in his hands. He was whistling to himself that same tune as before.
Quietly sliding the door open further aside, Tacy lowered one leg to the floor taking care not to make a noise. The drop looked a good ways below from where she had been standing in the goo, the same height Larke had to heave her over. After all that time, and she had not gotten even an inch taller? Tacy frowned, wiping the residue of the gel off the back of her neck as she pulled herself entirely from it. She glanced back at the tall compartment watching dull surges in the gel quiver with filmy ripples of light as she detached herself completely, the goo shriveling against the walls like popped bubblegum; then very gently she slid the door shut.
“Hey! Cadet, what are you doing in here?”
Tacy turned. There in front of her, the man in the orange jumper stood in the hall just next to the manual pilot’s cabin holding the lid to an open canister in his hand. His eyes fixed on her face, almost immediately going wide. He suddenly seemed to choke.
“Are you Dan?” Tacy asked, surprised to find her own throat not dry from disuse.
He still stared.
“Cobie?” Tacy tilted her head and looked around the hall to see in the cockpit if Marka was there. The cockpit looked desolate.
The man shook his head slowly.
Tacy blinked then looked around at the rather clean and strangely shiny metal works inside the ship once more. The metal had been getting quite tarnished the last time she recalled opening her eyes. “Where are Marka and Larke?”
He swallowed, his hand shaking as he still clutched the canister lid. “You’re Tacy, aren’t you?”
Tacy retreated from him. “Where are Marka and Larke?”
The man turned slightly put the lid back onto the canister. “You’re asking about Marka Jensen and Larke McCain the ship thieves, aren’t you?”
“Ship thieves?” Tacy’s mind raced. She had taken them back into their space as Larke asked, but to what? They had stolen the experimental ship; now they would be executed as traitors—or worse, they were already dead.
Tacy covered her mouth with her hands when she thought it. She killed them. “No!”
Spinning to the right Tacy, rushed to where she saw light, hoping it was a way out. The open hatch was where she remembered it, the stairway extended as if they had never gone in and shut it behind them when they stole the ship. Slipping as she ran, Tacy grabbed the edge of the doorway to brace herself as she went feet first out the door and over the steps into the open hangar, leaving green drips every where she made contact. She heard shouts after her, but Tacy did not look back. The slap-slap of her bare feet against the concrete hangar floor echoed in huge open space as she looked around for a way out.
Her eyes fixed on the clean new models of fighter jets all around her first. These new ships were much like the old ones that had been abandoned in the bay during their escape, only the shape of these seemed altered, rounded and oval-like where the aerodynamic trends before were more angular, like arrowheads. Along the ground between ships were numerous tubes and wires used for servicing the crafts. Barrels of bright orange plastic rested in between these, matching the men who worked among them, most hefting and moving things with worn expressions of boredom in their eyes. Tacy ducked down and around several of the barrels, weaving away from her ship with a feeling that grew on her as she scurried for safety. Somewhere inside she could feel that man in the orange jumpsuit walk across the hall to the door. In a way, she could see him touch the inside of the compartment where she had slept for ages in the gel. Somehow she could sense that the ship itself was tired and in need of rest, but that she was not leaving it no matter how far her feet were taking her away from it.
“…a jerk. If I were you, I’d….”
Tacy ducked lower behind a set of barrels as two men passed by. Moving further from her ship, her heart raced. What were these feelings? Where was she? It looked like a ship hangar, but feeling around her from the ship she had been in, it was strange that the ship itself felt so settled in its spot. Peering over the barrels at it, Tacy blinked and lifted her head higher. Alongside it she saw number of experimental subspace fliers just like it. All of them were parked along a far wall, each of them marked with decorative pilot tags like ShaZaam, The King, and Wizard along with their serial numbers. Looking at her own ship as she ducked under a new model fighter to get farther away from it, she saw her own name printed on the side near the cockpit with a serial number like the rest of the subspace fliers. No fancy tag. Just Tacy.
Her arms shook from a cold that came from within. A dead feeling inside told her that more time had passed than she had wanted. How many years had it been now? How old was she now? Marka and Larke were undoubtedly dead.
“Hey! Why don’t you Integ’s look where you’re going?”
Tacy whipped around. Another orange uniformed man stood there glaring at her. She backed off.
“Oh. Newly hatched, huh? Wasn’t your handler supposed to take you to briefing?” The man rolled his eyes as he reached out for her arm. “Jeeze, do I have to do everything myself?”
Hopping back, green drips scattering as her bare feet landed on the cold concrete, Tacy pulled her arms close to her body. The liquefied goo from her hair started to drip into her eyes. She wiped it away looking to the right and then the left as she backed off from him.
“Come on. Who’s your handler?”
She shook her head, retreating further. “Get away from me!”
Inside her mind’s eye she caught sight of her ship hallway again. Her so-called “handler” had jumped out, peering around the bay with a look of ash white panic holding the canister still.
Ducking, Tacy dodged behind a large fight class jet’s triple barrel gun ports, hurrying away from the sour faced worker who rushed after her with a look of tedious annoyance not unlike a babysitter chasing a naughty child, swiping at her arm.
“Tacy!” She heard in the hangar as well as from around her ship sensors.
She jumped, hurrying farther away.
The man she had been dodging face suddenly changed, his expression going from annoyance to a look of horror as he stared at her dripping trail of green. “You’re Tacy?”
He reached out for her again.
Somewhere she saw it. A door. Darting from him, Tacy scrambled through a stack of barrels to the only way out. The far bay doors were shut and locked, and above to her left where she had noticed a landing with a railing dividing it from the hanger it overlooked did not seem to have a stairway. Barrels were stacked in front of it, but they looked too unstable to climb in her slimy condition. It was that door or nothing.
Her heart pounded as she ran over the concrete floor, jumping over the hoses and wires, weaving around the barrels and ships, hearing shouts echo after her. She would have thought standing in gel for years upon years would atrophy her muscles or something, but her adrenalin was driving her so much that she hardly even noticed the cold floor or the quick distance she had covered in seconds. She found the door, opened it with a twist of the knob and a jerk, and ran straight though. The bare hall she found herself in full of white lights shining so brightly that she could barely see. Along the sides she saw other doors, all leading to several rooms labeled with brass plaque, but she ran the length of it to the other side where there was yet another door.
Jerking that door open, Tacy discovered herself in yet another hallway with another series of doors.
Inside the back of her mind, from her ship she could see that orange suited man set down his canister as another man shouted for him to meet him at the far door. Their voices echoed strangely.
“She’s gone into the hallway! Come on!”
Hurrying as if the devil were on her heels, Tacy reached the end of the second hallway, yanking that door open. Here she entered into a cold concrete vestibule with five doors and no signs to indicate where they led. She opened one and saw a set of stairs. They went up.
Scrambling immediately up them, she rounded the first bend to the next floor. There she saw a sign. Basement level 3. Groaning, Tacy, hurried up the other steps, rounding again and passing the sign after two more levels for basement levels 2 and 1. Mid running up the stairs towards the ground floor, Tacy bumped into three people wearing white technician coats. One yelped, dropping something as another one swore at her, staring at his now green stained suit as if it were infected.
“Watch where you’re going!”
“It’s an Integ,” One of technicians growled out with a glare at her.
Cringing, the one who dropped her computer pad shook off the goop that was also on her arm, and declared, “Hurry up, you Integ! And put something on! You’re disgusting!”
Not asking what they meant by any of that, Tacy, only rushed up further to the set of doors on the main floor, yanking them open with relief that they had not chased after her also.
She staggered in.
First she saw the soft pile gray carpet under her feet. Next she lifted her eyes to the broad room this carpeting filled. Resting on the carpet in widest, highest tech room of computerized screens and cubicles, were just as many chairs with people seated in them. Only a few looked up at her when she entered, but then they turned their eyes back to their computer screens as if she were nothing more than an insignificant gopher in a corporate office. At the front of this rather substantial cadre of technicians in matching uniforms of pea soup green stood a mock-wood railing separating the tech area from an observation seating area filled with padded swivel chairs, the occasional chair seated with a man or woman in pressed suits.
Tacy staggered back, looking straightaway for another door. So far the only one she saw was across the room on the opposite wall several yards away.
“You! Why aren’t you dressed?”
Jerking her head to the right then retreating from a tall woman holding what appeared to be the electronic equivalent to a clipboard, Tacy’s heart raced. The woman walked over her on spiky heels making small indentations in the carpet as she approached.
Looking further to her right Tacy saw a man with glowing green stripes running all the way down his neck under his shirt like wire strips on a microchip, throbbing as pulsing veins. She could also see them on his arms, his hands, and up each of his fingers. He extended one of those hands to her.
“My name is Steven. What’s yours?” He smiled as the lines pulled from his face, flickers of light sparking in the whites of his eyes.
Still keeping her arms close her body, Tacy just stared at him. “Marka.”
“Marka?” He tilted his head, his eyes narrowing slightly. “That name is not a ship on file.”
“That’s the name of the ship thief,” the woman with the electronic clipboard said with bite, lifting one perfectly plucked and shaped eyebrow at Tacy in sharp inspection.
Tacy drew back, fixing her eyes on the woman as also she attempted to move closer towards an exit, sliding her feet nearer the technicians in their cubicles. “What happened to Marka?”
Narrowing her cold steely eyes, the woman lifted her pointed chin. “You must be Tacy. Your handler should have alerted us you were awake.”
“And hatched,” Steven said with a genuinely amused smirk on his lips as he looked Tacy up and down once more. His body’s green lines seemed to pulse more as if excited.
Recoiling, Tacy shouted it out again. “Where is my sister?”
Several heads looked up from their work, inspecting the cause of the noise. But the room reverted back to its silent hum. They turned their eyes to the computer screens again.
“Prison,” the woman said.
Steven’s smile fell, turning with a look to Tacy. “Sister?”
The room suddenly seemed cold. Her ears picked sounds up from far away, though inside they felt as near as her own heart beat.
“…Derned pirates. The ship barely is fit for use because of them. I tell you. If it had been up to me, they’d have been executed.”
“What for? They saved the ship didn’t they? Provided a surviving pilot too. What are the chances of that? Fifteen out of the seventy-five trained for it died.”
Inside her head she could see two men in blue uniforms standing outside her open hatch. One had a patch of gray hair on his temples where the other had shifted his hat over a bald spot just behind his ears. Their wrinkles and furrowed frowns she could only see from a high angle, as if she were standing over them.
Tacy shuddered, her eyes flickering on the open room and the far door.
The door behind her opened. Both men in orange jumpsuits came into the room. One sighed with relief though the other grunted with a turn and walked back out again as if satisfied.
“There you are.” The oppressively self-important woman marched past Tacy to the man she knew was her handler with a stomp in her step. “Get her some clothes and move her over to briefing.”
“The chances are low. I agree. Alright? But that ship could have been salvaged without a cadet at the controls.”
“Oh, come on. That entire hangar was destroyed by the Gardo. We wouldn’t even have it now if they hadn’t stolen it.”
“A pitiful reason to spare those traitors.”
“My sister is alive?” Tacy’s knees suddenly grew weak.
Her handler caught her just as she fell. Lifting her with a great deal more care than she had expected from one who would arrest her, he set her in a chair somehow he conjured up. Her eyes found it hard to focus on the faces around her while in her mind she hovered over the two military leaders discussing issues so much more pertinent to her distress.
“You call it pitiful? But what about their choice of pilots? We were lucky they put that little girl in the interface, otherwise it would be a loss.”
“A child in a man’s machine? That is even more pathetic.”
“Put your mouth on that and breathe in,” her handler said, lifting a small canister with a mouthpiece up to her lips.
“You are looking at her size and not her abilities, General. All the stats on Tacy Jensen are on file. She was top of her class—”
“For a first year cadet—”
“Better than a first year cadet.”
“I don’t have asthma!” Tacy snapped back as she batted the small air piece away from her face as her eyes focused back on the room around her. The woman with the superior look gave one of her eyebrow-lifted smirks and silently snorted to herself. “I want to see my sister!”
“A cadet is a cadet. We made those ships for trained military pilots. I still think we ought to cut her out of the system and reprogram the interface for another autopilot.”
“Tacy, the ship thieves are gone,” her handler said.
“You must be joking.”
“She’s my sister!” Tacy shouted back, trying to get onto her feet again. “I’m just as much guilty of stealing that ship as she and Larke were!”
“Do I sound like I’m joking?”
“True,” the woman with the electronic clipboard said, peering down at Tacy as she inputted information into the machine. “But you are now the pilot to that ship. Lucky for us, those thieves put a good one into the gel. Otherwise we would have had to scrap the whole thing. Millions of good money down the tubes….”
“Money?” Tacy jumped up from her seat again. Her handler could not hold her down this time. He backed off as if giving up. “Is that all you care about? We were running from the Gardo, and all you care about is money?”
“We defeated the Gardo years ago. That machinery is more valuable than you were,” the woman said.
“Have you really had a look at the pilot? If you had, it would be a joke for you to think that.”
“You know, if they hadn’t taken the ship, you wouldn’t have it now,” Steve said with a wink to Tacy.
But Tacy was in no flirtatious mood. With her eyes focused half in her ship and half in the room, she calculated together the meaning of both conversations. The voices of the men in her brain had also gotten louder. They had entered through the ship’s hatch and were climbing inside. It was the strangest sensation; the metal bending under their feet sent tingles of feeling into her nerves, almost as if she were being violated.
“I’ll show her to you myself. Look. She is the most integrated with her machine than any of the other pilots I have ever seen. She is the ship.”
Her body shuddered. Tacy pulled her arms into herself as if it would protect her from these men climbing inside the machine parts of her metal shell out back in the hangar. Around her, the world in the gray-carpeted room was filled with dreamlike sights of people approaching her. Several of them had glowing lines on their bodies like Steven. She closed her eyes, still seeing those glowing green lines that pulsed with the beating of her heart and the rippling of her thoughts. Opening her eyes, she looked down at her own arms.
“What happened to me?” Tacy’s legs felt unable to hold her again.
“Wait a minute? Where is she?”
“She must have hatched. She was long in the interface—longer than most. This is bad.”
Her arms had the same green pulsing lines as Steve did, only close up Tacy could see that they were not just marks on the surface of her skin, but actual currents of energy flowing within her skin, deep within even her muscles and bones—all the way to her nerves where she felt an outside sensation of feet thumping on metal racing to exit the ship, where in the back of her mind she saw two men in military uniforms calling out to the workers in orange jumpsuits in the docking bay for attention on a serious matter. On the surface all she saw were her pulsing green lines in her flesh right through her somehow translucent pant leg covered in residual goo.
Steve reached down, setting an arm over her shoulder as he whispered into her ear. “You are now an Integrate. One of us.”
“What is that?” Tacy looked up at him and then at the pulses that ran up her arms with the beating of her heart and the pulsing of her thoughts.
“A biological, neurological, cybernetic experiment,” the woman said in her cold voice, not even looking up as she continued to input information into her computer interface. “You are the autopilot.”
“We would have preferred a trained military pilot,” the woman said with the same dryness. “But for a thief, you proved you could handle the ship.”
“Handle it?” Steve said with a laugh. “We couldn’t catch them at all until they made port.”
He winked at Tacy. “Caught you sleeping.”
Tacy felt her face flush, her cheeks feeling hot.
Her handler suddenly came back, though Tacy had not even known he was gone. He draped a coat over her shoulders. “You need to clean up and then dress in the uniform they give you.”
He pointed to an open door across the hall where a young woman was standing.
“Go with him,” the woman with the clipboard said not even looking up.
Tacy felt her chest heave, her anger still not gone. “Where is my sister?”
“I told you. Prison.” The woman then walked away, now talking to another technician who looked just as disgusted with working with Integs as she was.
Steven helped guide Tacy to the far door, whispering calmly as they walked with her handler going behind like an anima herder. “Don’t worry. Because they didn’t damage the ship they only got life. You’ll like it here besides. Us Integrates really are treated well. Good food. Good housing. We just freak the norms out because we can speak to our ships. No controls, you know?”
“Norms?” Tacy went with him, though all she really wanted to do was run.
“Normal boring folk. They’ve got norm pilots too. They’re cool, but they envy us,” he said.
Tacy somehow felt that was a lie.
“Come on, Tacy,” the man in the orange jumpsuit said, leading her like one would a dance partner, resting his hand on the small of her back. “Once you are clean and dressed, you can be briefed. They’ll pair you with a captain as soon as we have your health stats in.”
“But what about Marka?” Tacy looked back wondering which prison they took her and Larke too. If it was military prison that would be the end of it. No one broke out of military prison.
The man sighed low. “I’m sorry, but they stole that ship.”
“I stole that ship,” Tacy murmured.
He nudged her through the door and into the hall where already nurses were waiting for her.
Tacy sat stiffly on the chair. It was cold, plastic—hard against her tender skin even through the soft uniform made specifically to cushion the tender skin of Integ bodies.
Her arms throbbed, the pulsing of the green lines singing a strange electrical song that no one else in the room but she could hear, and she could feel in the back of her head the echoes of her ship as its parts were treated by men in orange jumpsuits. One man out there stroked her machine controls. He accidentally bumped a button. Mentally, she nudged it back into place, setting things to right again. The ship was at rest. Unfortunately, she was not. Their conversations ran in the back of her thoughts like strange echoes of a sometime else.
“…Do you understand? Because you are not military you lack the proper training. Therefore, you will undergo training with Captain Stoneman starting tomorrow.”
A sergeant dressed in a crisp green suit had been lecturing at her for the past three hours. He repeated himself a lot, but then he seemed to think he needed to. His disgust at talking to an Integ was the same as the others. On his lip was a snarl. In his eye was a dark glint that said he’d rather shoot her for touching military property than brief her on her new life. His neck held stiff as he glared down on her, his chest thrust out.
Tacy looked away, her mind’s eye taking her back into the ship where she could see the internal scanners shift to survey the finishing touches to the ship’s renovation.
“You are part of the machinery, understand?” the sergeant said again.
He had said that about five times. Tacy had not misunderstood what he meant by it either. The implication that she was military property too was all too clear in her ears. But those ears also heard the echoes of what people said in her ship’s cabin. Her sister and Larke were being called ‘pirates’ rather than just ‘thieves’. It had a romantic ring to it.
“Are you even listening?” The sergeant shouted at her, his face now in hers.
Pulling back, Tacy nodded her head. “I heard you. No need to shout so loud.”
He clenched his teeth with a glare. “You Integs, if it were up to me, I’d have scrapped the whole project.”
It was another thing Tacy heard over the course of the lecture. Gel interface technology had come and gone with the Gardo Wars. It had not worked fast enough for the military generals, and it proved too risky for the test pilots. Out of the seventy-five ships commissioned in the project only fifteen survived. The fail rate was phenomenal, or as the stiff cold woman who came from the surveillance hall with her computerized clipboard said, it was not cost effective.
Her handler, a man who said to call her Jim, nudged Tacy to urge her to stand. “Come on.”
Tacy did as told. She was a military captive regardless of now being an integral part of priceless machinery. Larke’s apologies echoed in her head like scraps of a distant dream, sorry for what he had done to her. Absently as her handler walked her back down the hall towards the hanger to meet Captain Stoneman, Tacy wondered how Larke was enjoying prison food. At least they were alive, as he had said.
And what of poor Marka? She hadn’t wanted this at all? Tacy looked at her hands again, watching the green lines pulse full of energy, feeling more like live wires yet easily grasped like strings on a marionette. The skin around it was still young, young like a sixteen-year-old. Once Tacy had looked in a mirror and had seen what her body had become. She had not aged a day. Eternally sixteen? It was no wonder she had not grown. They said the gel also worked like a cryogenic preserver. Would she grow now? Tacy lowered her hands to her side. Was she more machine than human now?
Standing back in the open hangar full of ships, watching crewmen and pilots work together, some landing, some taking off, Tacy stared over at them all, picking out her own ship like finding a private suit of clothes she had lived in for years. Her name in black paint on red shone with reflection from the lights on the walls. Her skin shivered with goose pimples as she stared at the repainted craft.
“Look at that. She found it already,” her handler murmured under his breath.
“Of course, she did. Integs know their shell like a hermit crab knows its new home.”
Tacy turned and blinked slightly at the young looking man in uniform who grinned back at her.
He gave a nod then saluted. “Captain Stoneman, at your service.”
She said nothing, looking back to her ship. Then she drew in a breath to say, “Hermit crabs steal their shells.”
Captain Stoneman winked at her. “And so did you.”
He turned to walk down the set of steps Tacy had not seen earlier. They switched back behind a large bus like shuttle and ended up near several fuel barrels. Tacy with her handler followed him.
“Are you saying you approve of what we did?” Tacy was just a few steps after him.
The captain gave a small chuckle. “I’m saying nothing of the sort.”
She remained silent.
They walked to the ship’s doorway. Tacy listened with
her inside ears, hearing the murmurs about pirates again, echoes of remarks including mentions of the Gardo whom their military has had skirmishes with on a front somewhere. The lies the cold woman had told her about their winning the Gardo Wars refuted with whispers and gossip made Tacy’s green pulse quicken. The Gardo were not finished yet. Larke knew that. The Gardo were powerful yet.
The captain stopped at the doorway and turned with a nod to her, extending an arm like a gentleman. “After you.”
Her handler huffed somewhat tersely as Tacy rolled her eyes as she walked up the familiar steps. He then tried to follow, but the captain blocked the way with his arm, covering the rest of the space with his body.
“I need to speak with Tacy alone. You can wait outside the door.”
“But I’m her handler! She barely is out of the gel! She needs me!”
“Tacy is not a weakling. Sergeant Freeman has entrusted her to me. This means we do things my way,” the captain said.
The handler stepped back, still glaring at the military captain. However, he knew his place. “Fine. But call me if she gets weak.”
Captain Stoneman smirked, turned and walked inside.
Tacy sat in the hollow space where her gelled cell used to be. The green film was even washed off. There was nothing left inside but a machine brace with pads, newly installed. She noticed that she could sit in it, but Tacy only sat on the edge, staring at the wall. Captain Stoneman paused in the hall, watching her.
“This is all I ever looked at when I opened my eyes,” she murmured.
His feet shifted on the metal flooring.
“Sometimes I’d see Marka and Larke. Her kids would skirt around as if terrified I’d move. Most of the time I’d just see the space around us whipping by like a dream. Was it real? Was I real?”
Captain Stoneman glanced out the door and then smiled slightly. He walked past her towards the pilot’s chairs, extending a hand to Tacy to follow. “You wanted to sit here?”
Tacy had followed him, even sitting in one of the chairs she had seen Marka use. It felt so empty now.
“How many years has it been since I last opened my eyes?” Tacy stared at the blank screen, able to see outside the ship even without it. Men in orange jumpsuits busied themselves as usual, though her handler looked incredibly put out standing outside the door by himself. Another man jogged up to him dressed in a blue military coat and a hat. The young man was smiling with a tip of his hat to her handler.
“I couldn’t tell you,” the captain said with a sigh.
With a hop, that blue suited man was up the steps, grinning broadly at the pair of them and then at the doorway, which he promptly pulled closed.
“Ah! You’re here!” Captain Stoneman hopped out of his seat, reaching out to the other man. “Come on then, take a seat.”
“Oughtn’t we start the engines?” the young, what looked like a lieutenant with his suit and badges though his face made him look more in his late teens, man suggested as he thumbed towards the door.
Tacy stood up, blinking at the images she saw outside the ship. Another green uniformed man marched with a team of armed men across the bay, going what looked like directly towards her ship. She looked up to Captain Stoneman.
“You aren’t the captain?” She blinked at him.
He grinned wider, leading out towards her compartment again. “We never exactly met, Aunt Tacy. But Dan and I are taking you home.”
Blinking, she turned to look at the tall version of the ragged child that had clung to her sister’s pants. “Aunt?”
But Tacy took her place in the hall with the fake captain’s help. He did remind her a bit of Larke, though his eyes were like Marka’s.
“I’ll strap you in so you won’t fall,” Cobie said winking at her.
Tacy nodded, grabbing the armrests to the strange sitting mechanism and then looked inward to see outward. She nodded, lifting her chin. “They’re getting closer.”
“Alright, Dan! Start up the engines!”
Tacy started them for him.
Dan glanced to his brother and then shrugged. “She got them. Like Mom says, Aunt Tacy’s the pilot!”
Laughing, Cobie nodded, strapping on his own belt as soon as he hopped into his seat. Turning on the view screen and steering towards the opening above, he called out. “All right Aunt Tacy! Let’s take her out!”
Tacy heard the rapid fire. She even felt the bullets puncture some of the hulls, though none important enough to worry about. As the ship lifted and she was up again flying into the sky towards space where she belonged, Tacy turned and dodged like she had before in dreams. She was the ship. The ship was her. They were integral.
And now, she was free.
For the Novel version, go to Lulu.com
Tag der Veröffentlichung: 02.12.2009
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