Distance

A voice whispered in the darkness. “Not yet”.

As it ebbed away, a green flash appeared in the almost infinite distance.

“Not yet,” the voice said again as it swelled through the space and the light began to grow.

“Not yet!” the voice urged.

The darkness faded, the light exploded, and what happened after no one knew.

***

The Flotilla swam through the murky depths of space a mishmash of differently sized ships on its ever-lasting trek to the next galaxy over. Between the frontier and reserve fleets sputtered the Chariot, a waste barge on a journey of its own to collect precious, horrible cargo.

Charlotte Allard skulked through the bowels of the ship, which was one of the most overworked in the flotilla, towards her quarters. She stretched as she walked, wincing as her sore arms protested. The warm, cleansing waters of her shower beckoned and so too did her bed.

“If one more thing goes wrong with the communication array, I’m going to take a hammer to it,” she mused.

System after system had been going down on the ship for the last few days with the communications array being the latest victim. One of the engineers said there was rumour that a virus was spreading across the entire fleet, but at the moment Charlotte couldn’t have cared less.

One of the few perks of being the ship captain’s only daughter was having first pick at living accommodations. The Chariot was small, yes, but all ships in the fleet had been designed with ample living space. Turns out people living in space weren’t big fans of claustrophobic quarters.

Charlotte, not usually one to take advantage of her father’s position, had the largest space on the deck, which was usually reserved for diplomats, but the Chariot, being a smelly waste barge, didn’t see too many of those.

It wasn’t like living space was tight on the ship, she thought.

There was plenty of room, although everyone else had a roommate, but after spending a month living with Eve Winters, the ace pilot in the fleet who lived aboard the Alliance, Charlotte could finally be somewhere you could actually see the floor.

Charlotte took the same philosophy toward cleanliness as she did waste management. Vaporize everything you didn’t need.

She slapped the biometric scanner on the outside of her door and yawned as the door slid open.

“Oh, hey there!” someone said as Charlotte entered.

“Hey,” Charlotte replied while rubbing her eyes. “I’m just going to grab a shower to scrub off some of this filth.”

“Ok!”

Charlotte disappeared into the bathroom then reappeared.

“Who the hell are you?”

***

The guest smiled sheepishly as Mackenzie Allard, the ship’s captain, scowled at Charlotte. You could feel the walls creak as the ears in the adjoining rooms pressed up against them.

“Sit,” Mack said gruffly.

Charlotte huffed and took a seat at the desk in the room. “I’m sitting because I’m tired,” she hissed. “Not because you told me to, by the way.” She crossed her legs and looked out of the porthole into the depths of space.

Charlotte was used to roughing it in the depths of space and had survived in some of the harshest conditions possible. At times, she had gone entirely without quarters like the time when the engine waste tanks ruptured and filled the lower decks with deadly radiation. As things calmed down on the ship and she remembered how much she cherished being alone in her room. It was a place of peace and solitude, respite and reflection.

“Now some girl is going to be living here with me and I’m going to lose everything again,” Charlotte said.

Mack looked at the guest whose brow furled slightly. “You’re inner monologue is spilling out, Char,” he said.

Charlotte covered her mouth.

Mack looked back at the guest. “‘This girl’ just so happens to be one of the most talented intelligence officers in the fleet. By rights, I should have kicked you out of this room and given it to her for the duration of her trip.”

“So, she’s not her permanently?” Charlotte asked.

“For a few days,” Mack growled. “Please excuse my daughter, Commander. She shouldn’t,” Mack said as he looked at Charlotte, “be a problem. I’ll leave you to it.”

Charlotte grimaced as she watched her father go.

The commander smiled. “He seems like a really nice man,” she said.

“Yeah, sure,” Charlotte said with the same gruffness of her father. She looked at Shelly with disdain, but her face softened. “Sorry,” she said, now resigned to her fate. “This is just… a surprise.”

“It was for me as well,” the commander said leaning back. “The official shuttle was in for repairs and no other ship was heading to the front except for the Chariot. It’s an interesting ship from what I read in some of the reports,” She brushed a hand through her curly, brown hair.

“How so?”

“Well it’s seen battle about eight or nine times over its term of service,” the commander said. “Someone in the rear fleet said it’s the punching bag none of the aliens can seem to break. They also said it’s a piece of shit or at least smells like one.” She smiled. “It has character.”

“It sure has something,” Char said, but inwardly she was beaming to know the Chariot had earned itself a reputation.

The commander sighed and stretched. “I should get changed,” she said. “I’m a little smelly.”

“That’s just the ship,” Charlotte said looking at the commander’s pristine uniform.

Dress uniforms aboard the Chariot were a rare sight, but so too were officials from the reserve fleet. She had to be someone special to be such a high rank at such a young age.

Shelly’s amber eyes turned to Charlotte.

“Did you say you were going to take a shower? I wouldn’t mind hopping in myself at some point,” the commander said.

“Oh yeah,” Charlotte replied. “I’ll head now, ma’am,” Charlotte added remembering her new roommate’s rank.

“Shelly, please,” Shelly replied.

“Shelly, all right.”

Shelly crawled across the bed, pulled up a small bag, and placed it on her lap. On it was the official seal of the Hawks, one of the most feared units in the fleet.

Charlotte’s eyes narrowed as she walked into the bathroom and closed the door behind her. Making a bad impression on a commander like Shelly could be a bad idea. You never knew whose ears bigwigs like her could reach. She might even know Garman, the captain of the Alliance. One report could seal her fate and ensure she’d never get to go back to the flagship. Garman needed just one excuse.

Hot water spilled from the mouth of the shower head as Charlotte stepped in.

The Chariot was a simpler place with down-to-earth people. No one cared about rank, no one cared about file, and no one certainly cared about sucking up.

Thoughts about the near future swelled. There were pipes to fix, coolant tanks to install, manifolds to… manifold, and waste tanks to purge. That was always the shittiest job, pun intended. Anxiety rumbled in her stomach. Worries about work were usually far behind her at this point, but her sanctuary felt off with another person in it.

As Charlotte toweled off, she looked at herself in the mirror. The ghost of hours and hours of work haunted her eyes. Every glance up made her feel more and more tired. There was a guest so she couldn’t just waltz out of the washroom and flop onto her bed. She had to do up her hair, put on clothes, and be respectful.

“Hey, the shower is free— what the hell is this…”

***

“Hope you don’t mind,” Shelly said as she sat down at the newly erected work terminal in the room. “I’ve got some work to catch up on before we reach the frontier. These things wait for no one.”

Charlotte struggled to reach the bed. Wires crisscrossed the floor and through the air. The terminal whirred away as data from across the fleet poured in.

“Nothing here you can’t look at… at least for now,” Shelly said with a smile. She pulled off her glasses and set them down. “You’d be surprised how often prospective pit stops want to know about our fleet’s demographics.”

“Yeah,” Charlotte said. “I-uh-yeah…” She flopped down on her bed. Her eyes narrowed suddenly. “Wait, how are you getting data from the fleet? We haven’t been able to contact the Alliance or the rear since this morning.”

“We have our ways,” Shelly said with a wink. She tossed her bag onto the bed. “I had a look at your datafile,” Shelly said. “I hear you’re quite the engineer.”

“Not really,” Charlotte said as she eyed the bag. “What else did you find out about me?”

“Oh lots of stuff,” Shelly said. “There were some particularly interesting reports from Captain Garman aboard the Alliance.” She paused noting the look on Charlotte’s face. “I know him and he’s an ass,” she said.

Charlotte laughed, “Wow didn’t expect that reaction from you.”

“He has a reputation shittier than the Chariot,” Shelly said with a wink. “You can take a look,” Shelly said noticing Charlotte’s attention. “It’s actually pretty special.”

Charlotte grabbed up the bag. It was metallic, but not rigid. It was flexible like the metal plating on her seldom-used combat armour. She looked in. The interior was pitch-black. She slid a hand in and a horrible sense of vertigo hit her.

“There’s no bottom,” Charlotte said astounded. “How—”

“Wish I knew the mechanics of it,” Shelly said. “It’s a prototype and, unfortunately, there won’t be anymore like it anytime soon.” Shelly rubbed her shoulder and groaned. “You can put almost anything inside of it, but it gets heavy.”

Charlotte turned the back this way and that.

“I’ve heard of interior space generation before, but I thought it was practically impossible to create,” Charlotte said. “Only the Centurians have been able to create something like this, but on they’ve only been able to double the size of the container.” Charlotte turned the case trying to see what was going on.

“We have some pretty amazing engineers in the reserve fleet,” Shelly said. “If only command would give them a bit more freedom. They’d be able to make some pretty amazing stuff without all that red tape.”

“Who was the main engineer behind it?” Charlotte asked.

“Bartlett,” Shelly said. “Theodore Bartlett.”

“I’d love an introduction,” Charlotte half-sang as she turned the bag this way and that.

“That won’t be possible?”

“Why?”

“He’s dead,” Shelly said.

“What? When? Why?”

“Few weeks ago,” Shelly said. “An experiment went awry and he was vaporized.”

“That’s awful,” Charlotte said.

“It was a shame,” Shelly said, a flicker of sadness entering onto her face. “He was a brilliant scientist, but his research methods were deemed unacceptable.”

The silence was palpable.

“What was wrong with his methods?” Charlotte asked.

“That’s classified.”

“Unacceptable,” Charlotte said with a huff.

“Classified… it’s a very convenient word,” Shelly said with a giggle. “’How are you feeling today, Shelly? That’s classified’, it usually gets a laugh out of people in intelligence.”

Charlotte grimaced, but then cracked a smile. Inside the cogs were turning already thinking of all the different reasons someone like Shelly could be heading to the frontier.

“A scientist creates a device far superior to anything we’ve ever seen, dies in an experiment gone awry, and you, one of the fleet’s top intelligence officers, is now travelling to the frontier fleet with said bag in one of the most inconspicuous vessels we’ve got.”

Shelly stretched in her seat. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s about the gist of it.”

“Nothing suspicious about that at all,” Charlotte said and smirked. She passed the bag back to Shelly who threw it down by her feet.

Keeping casual, eh secret agent?, Charlotte thought.

Shelly sighed and rubbed her eyes. “Quitting time. Thanks in advance for tolerating me and my… stuff,” she said panning a hand around the cluttered room.

“No problem,” Charlotte said looking around at the blinking and beeping sleep-depriving instruments. “No problem at all.”

***

Charlotte downed her second cup of coffee in the mess hall the next morning as Shelly dug into a BLT opposite her. Despite the lack of sleep, she was loving be able to gossip about the crew to Shelly. Newcomers were always so curious about everyone and everything, and Charlotte actually had the upper hand in intelligence this time.

Despite the politics being much simpler compared to the Alliance, the interpersonal politics were just as complex aboard the waste barge. It was fun to watch people and listen in when people gossiped about you.

“That’s Anderson,” Charlotte said. “He runs the brig and I heard from Chanel who heard from Effie that he’s got a thing for being a prisoner… outside of work hours. If you know what I mean.”

“I don’t,” Shelly said.

“What?” Charlotte said somewhat beleaguered. She sighed. “It was an innuendo.”

“Sorry,” Shell said. “Sometimes things like that don’t register.”

“But you’re a spy,” Charlotte exclaimed. “I thought you guys lived through code speak.”

“I’m an intelligence officer,” Shelly said. “I’m not a spy who skulks around stealing information.”

“Well I’d prefer to think of you as a super spy,” Charlotte said.

“Is it true though?” Shelly asked. “Does he like that kind of stuff?”

“I guess so,” Charlotte said now calling into question almost everything she knew about everyone on the ship. “Chanel is a pretty good source of information.”

“Have you ever talked to Anderson?” Shelly inquired.

“A few times,” Charlotte said somewhat defensively.

Shelly grinned. “Watch, I’ll find out for sure,” she said.

She stood and before Charlotte could stop her, she was sitting opposite of Anderson.

Five minutes later, Shelly sat down opposite of Charlotte. Everyone in the mess hall was staring. It wasn’t a very big space and conversations travelled. Anderson smiled sheepishly as he left, but waved at Shelly who waved back.

“I got a date tonight,” she said beaming.

“Yeah,” Charlotte said turning her attention back to her cereal. “At least we all know what Anderson is really into now and you too…”

“I find that the easiest way to get information out of someone is to offer up something about yourself in exchange,” Shelly said. “For instance, when I was young my dream was to become the greatest star fighter in the fleet.”

“Oh yeah,” Charlotte said.

“Yeah,” Shelly said. “I was the first to take flight classes and even broke a few records during simulation, but…”

“But…” Charlotte said.

“I had troubles with space sickness,” Shelly said with a shrug. “There was a lot of name calling of course, but the trouble is you can’t fly if something obstructs your view.”

“I’m sorry,” Charlotte said. She knew all too well the challenges that came with owning a fighter. The call to action often caught you unawares and you needed to perform at your peak; otherwise, you’re space dust.

“My father was happy when I failed out of school,” Shelly said. “I had a chance to work with him a lot more, which made him happy. I always wondered what might have happened if I had chosen that life instead of the one I’m following now. Thinking about it scares me a bit.”

“What about your mom?” Charlotte asked.

“She… died,” Shelly said quietly. “When I was pretty young. She and I didn’t talk much near to the end.”

“I’m sorry,” Charlotte said extending a hand.

“Your turn,” Shelly said with a teary smile.

“Oh,” Charlotte replied as she put a finger to her chin. “Um… I once spilled an entire bag of my friend’s coffee beans and she still won’t talk to me.” She smiled.

“Unacceptable,” Shelly said with a laugh.

“Ok,” Charlotte said thinking a little more deeply. “When I was eight-years-old, I decided I wanted to be a star fighter too. We didn’t have lessons to take or test ships to fly around, but my father and mother gave me a little encouragement. I remember being so excited when we’d get parcels from my mom containing broken parts. I’d spend hours trying to get them to work only to find out it was meant for a food synthesizer. I spent the better part of a decade sifting through garbage in order to find the parts to build myself a ship, but I finally had my ship.”

Charlotte looked at her cup of coffee. She placed a sugar cube into the center and gave the coffee a stir with her spoon.

“Five minutes out into the depth of space, I was attacked by a group of Synthians,” she said. “It happened so fast. I was so sure that I was going to die and what scares me the most about that was how little I was thinking about the people closest to me. When you’re out there like that you can only think about what’s going on immediately around you. The ships firing and the shields buckling. I didn’t think about Mack or my mom… and knowing that my last thoughts could have been focused entirely on fear still haunts me to this day.”

Shelly closed her mouth. “What happened? How did you escape?”

“The captain of the Alliance, a guy named Garman lead a strike against the Synthians and repelled them,” Charlotte said. “Of course, he owes me big time because as he was lecturing me about being out in space on my own a Synthian appeared out of nowhere and attacked him. I rammed the enemy ship and saved his life.” Charlotte laughed. “I’m never going to let him live that down.”

“Wow,” Shelly said. “When did this all happen?”

“About a month ago,” Charlotte said with a smirk.

The two sat in silence for a few moments. Both realized that there was something more going on than just breakfast.

“There’s a movie playing tonight,” Charlotte said. “An old one, but a good one if you’d like to ditch Anderson.”

“He’ll be disappointed,” Shelly said with a laugh. “But that sounds perfectly acceptable to me.”

“I promise I’m a better date too.”

***

The next day, Shelly sat by one of the consoles looking through a list of battles the Chariot had taken part. The numbers just didn’t add up. She looked at the weapon manifests and frowned.

“So you have two fighters,” Shelly said in an astonished tone to Mack. “Frigates like this are supposed to have a standard compliment of at least ten.”

She looked over the data flowing on the screen. “What’s happening with the extra space?”

Mack stroked his beard and looked at his data manifest. “Storage space,” he said. “We’ve got a retrofit going on of the coolant tanks right now and the defectives have to go somewhere.”

“Who pilots the other one?”

Mack pursed his lips. “That’s actually Charlotte’s old one,” he said. “It doesn’t have a floor and it’s not safe, but we only use it for hull repairs.”

Shelly blew a curly lock of hair out of her face. “It doesn’t have a floor? That’s not safe,” she said.

“I know,” Mack said. “It’s what we have to do to survive. Speaking of, how’s my daughter treating you? Hope she’s treating you with respect.”

“She’s great,” Shelly said. “It’s not often I meet people my own age working with the Hawks, so she’s been… refreshing. She’s very curious about my work though and asks what could be too many questions.”

“Char made a strange bet with me that we’ll likely be attacked by Centurians because of you,” Mack said.

“We have long-range sensors installed on all ships to detect imminent attacks for a reason,” Shelly said.

“It would have been helpful if we weren’t going ‘dark’ on your mission details,” Mack said. “Though if you told me, Char would find a way bribe it out and then the entire ship would know soon enough.”

“I’ll be as open as I can be,” Shelly said. “By the way I look at it, there only suspicious thing around here is Charlotte herself.”

“Wait, what are you saying about my daught—”

“Nothing, not a thing at all,” Shelly said holding up a diplomatic hand. “I’m just saying that Charlotte may be the single luckiest person in the fleet. Look at these numbers. She’s been in countless battles, away missions, accidents…, and she, and the people around her, have come out mostly unscathed.”

“I have noticed a certain spotlight on her,” Mack said gruffly. “She can handle it,” he said confidently.

“You never worry?”

“Of course I do!” Mack said affronted. “What kind of father would I be if I didn’t. ‘Course half the time she leaves the ship it’s because there’s some kind of fleet-wide emergency. Then she’s back in a few days after the alerts have stopped.”

The captain and the commander paused.

“It is kind of weird now that you mention it,” Mack said.

“There’s probably more to it than just luck and all I know if something happens during this trip, I’m sticking close to Charlotte,” Shelly said. She looked sideways at Mack. “She’s lucky to have someone like you around,” she said.

Mack blushed. “I’m just doing my job as a captain and father,” he said with a grin.

“Captain!” the helmsman called out.

Mack turned.

“Sir, we’ve got a problem!”

***

The Centurian fighters cut through the stars as it careened toward the Chariot. The pilot signaled the four around him to be ready to attack. Bolts of light shot out from their vessel and collided with the hull of their target. Bits of metallic shielding twinkled in the darkness. The squad leader smiled.

“No fighters,” one of his squad mates said over the communications channel. “Easy pickings.”

“Perhaps too easy,” the squad leader said. “Stay aler—”

Before he could blink, his fighter was careening out of control. A silver streak flashed past him and his squad broke off into pairs.

“Uh oh.”

***

Commander Shelly and Mack surveyed the captured fighters. She burped as she checked the datapad excusing herself. Her flight helmet sat on the bench nearby, but it would have to be cleaned.

“Damage?” she asked out of breath.

“Repair teams are on it,” Mack said. “Nothing we can’t handle.”

Shelly eyed the squad leader. He scowled behind the energy shield. Centurians were a proud race of warriors well accustomed to the thought of dying in battle. Being taken prisoner was unacceptable.

The door to the brig slid open and Charlotte stepped into the room. She took off her chest plate and smiled. “Centurians,” she said with a wink to her father. “What’d I tell you.”

The squad leader bared his teeth and his mane bristled. “Is this the one who shot me down?” he asked.

“Yes,” Shelly said.

“I demand it faces us in hand-to-hand combat,” he said, claws extending from his fingers. “Then we will find the true victor.”

“Anytime, anywhere,” Charlotte said stepping up to the shield.

“Not now,” Mack said pulling her away.

Shelly looked to Mack and nodded.

Charlotte turned to Shelly. “I suspect that’s the signal that you want to talk to them alone,” she said.

“Yes it is,” she said.

As Charlotte reached the door, she turned. “Thank you,” she said. “For what you did out there.”

Shelly smiled.

***

Mack and Charlotte walked in silence. She wiped the sweat from her brow once or twice taking a look at her father as she did.

“What happened out there?” Mack asked finally.

“I–,” Charlotte began, her brow furled. “I panicked.”

“Our defense systems could have handle them,” Mack said. “You could have died out there.”

Charlotte balled her hand into a fist, but calmed herself down. There was a moment out there in space where she had slipped up. One of the Centurian ships had locked onto her. She could still see the beam of light careening toward her.

If it hadn’t been for Shelly, she would have bought it. She’d have to thank her properly later on and find out how she got the other fighter working.

“I know,” Charlotte said quietly.

“I’m just glad you’re all right,” Mack said. “Don’t be so quick to be the hero all of the time,” he said. “Shelly’s got me worried about you. More than usual.”

“I’m worried about her to be frank,” Charlotte said. “That bag of hers was made with Centurian technology. It’s the only way they could have done it and now five show up. I don’t believe in coincidences.”

They walked a few paces in silence and then walked onto the bridge. The crew was finally settling down after the attack. The repairs were almost complete.

“What did she say to you?” Charlotte asked.

Mack grimaced. “Something along the lines that that luck eventually runs out,” he said darkly.

The ship rocked suddenly and the bridge crew held onto the railings until the ship righted itself.

“Got reports of a blown coolant tank,” one of the engineers shouted out.

Charlotte ripped off the rest of her flight suit and grabbed up a toolkit from the wall. “I’ll take care of it,” she said.

“No,” Mack said suddenly. “I’ll get Park on it. You head over to communication and see how things are going on that front.”

“Communications,” Charlotte said as her brow furled. “I’ve done all I can there. Besides I’ve been installing the coolant tanks myself over the last few weeks.”

“It’s too dangerous,” Mack said. “Char, please, follow orders.”

She turned to her father as she reached the door. “I make my own luck.”

***

The brig swayed as the explosion rocked the Chariot. Shelly looked to the Centurian squad leader.

The two eyed one another for a moment.

“I told you to wait.”

***

In the bowels of the ship, Charlotte smacked a fused connection with a wrench. The engineer in charge of the area held his hand, which was starting to blister from a chemical burn.

“I don’t think that’s safe,” he said.

“I told you go to sickbay,” Charlotte yelled as the connection finally came loose. Gas spilled out onto the floor. At times like this, Charlotte was thankful for the standard issue boots everyone got. She liked her toes. The gas did not like toes.

She grabbed up a secondary connection from her kit and rammed it on top. With the connection tightened, the alert level in the area went down a notch. “Go to sickbay,” she yelled at the engineer who scrambled off.

Charlotte grabbed up her kit and trudged through the hallway. Down a corridor, she found another loose connection.

“I’m going to kill that guy,” Charlotte hissed as she wrenched the connection off and rammed on the secondary, but then quickly removed it. She looked at the original connection and her eyes narrowed. The rings that made the seal were gone. Someone has taken a laser to them.

Another explosion rocked the ship and the lights turned off.

“Great,” Charlotte hissed.

Charlotte fixed the connection as the red emergency lights turned on. A shadow stood before her, wreathed in smoke.

“I thought I told you to go to sick—”

A claw sliced through the smoke and caught her shoulder. Charlotte jumped back and grabbed up her wrench with her good arm. Blood poured down the bad one.

The Centurian squad leader stepped out through the smoke. The red emergency lights flickered in his eyes.

“I did say anywhere,” Charlotte said through her teeth.

***

Mack slammed on the intercom and ordered repair teams to a new sector. He swore as issue after issue cropped up across the ship. There was no way the ship could have sustained this much damage just from the attack.

A feeling chilled him to the bone.

“Anderson!” he yelled over the intercom. “Anderson, you there?!”

The brig’s officer didn’t respond. The ship-wide intercom system fired up, but fizzled out.

“Intercom is down,” an ensign yelled out.

Mack grabbed a laser pistol from a secure compartment under his chair. “Sloan you’re in charge until I get back,” he said.

The wide-eyed crewman was sat down into the captain’s chair and could only protest to his retreating figure.

Mack ran through the ship and toward the coolant systems below decks, his vision redder than the emergency lights.

He slowed as he reached the deck and crept through the smoke. It was quiet. Around a corner, he spied a shadowy figure standing over another. As the smoke cleared, he saw it was Charlotte and his heart rose in his chest.

“Charlotte,” he called out.

As he approached, Charlotte fell to her knees. He caught her just before her head hit the deck plates.

“Oh god,” he said looking at his daughter.

From out of the smoke, a figure approached. A low growl emanated from the darkness. Charlotte’s hand rose and pointed toward the coolant tank.

“I’ve got you,” Mack said.

Mack grabbed her up and threw her over his shoulder. He pointed his pistol at the connection and fired. Gas spilled out onto the deckplates. The Centurian on the ground disappeared in the caustic haze. The other shadow backed away and disappeared.

In the gloom, Mack took off. Time was of the essence.

***

Shelly entered into sickbay. She brushed off a nurse who tried to apply first aid to her wounds. She was bleeding profusely. “We got two of them,” she said to Mack. “We’re still looking for the third. We’ll find him.”

She paused as a few other people filtered into the room. “How is she?”

Mack looked at the commander. “The doctor said she could lose an eye,” he said grimly. “I trust the old saw bones to not let that happen.”

Charlotte had been sedated not that she wanted to be. The doctor had been left with a nasty bruise from trying to stop her from leaving.

“She’s lost a lot of blood,” Mack said. “Anderson is dead,” he said. “You were in the brig, what the hell happened? We have redundancies on the energy shields.”

“I can’t explain it,” Shelly said. “Once the energy shield went down, the Centurians took off,” Shelly said. “We stopped one, but the others…” she held her arm. “I’m sorry, Mack.”

A nurse swooped in while Shelly’s guard was down and started to treat the wound.

Mack wiped his eyes and headed for the door.

“It ain’t your fault,” he said looking at Charlotte. “Keep an eye on her,” he said as he stood. “Lots to take care of on the bridge,” he said as he left.

Shelly held Charlotte’s hand. “I’m sorry for all of this,” she said.

***

Back on the bridge, Mack relieved the ensign and sat down on his chair. The repairs were finally on track.

“Intercom is back online,” an officer yelled out.

“Engineering,” Mack called out. “How are those coolant tanks looking?”

“Coolant tanks?” an engineer responded. “We just finished dealing with plasma manifolds on deck two!”

“You telling me you didn’t know? They connections have burst!”

“The intercom went down!” the engineer replied. “We’ll get on it now!”

Mack leaned back on his chair. Only the bridge crew and Charlotte knew about the coolant tanks.

“Sir! We’ve got an unscheduled launch!”

The bridge monitor tracked the spare fighter as streaked away from the ship.

“Who’s in it?” Mack asked, although his stomach churned.

“The Centurian and Commander Shelly…”, he pointed to a figure clinging to the back of the ship.

They watched as the ship shrank into a spot of light and as two others converged on it. They were firing on it.

“Can we do anything?” Mack hollered.

The bridge crew was silent. Engines were down. Communications were down. Weapons were down. The fighter exploded. The two lights lights in the distance jumped away.

Mack slammed a fist down onto his console and stormed off the bridge. He burst into Charlotte’s quarters. The room had been torn apart and the bag was missing.

“Damn,” he cursed.

***

“The communications blackout screwed us over,” Mack told Charlotte as she tried to sit up. He pushed her back down onto the recovery table. “Lie down or you’ll tear your stitches. Her name was Shelly Bartlett and her father is thought to be behind everything that’s happened from the Centurian attack, the damage to the Chariot, Anderson… and a vaporized frigate in the reserve fleet.”

Charlotte winced as she adjusted her eye patch. “I look like an idiot,” she swore. “I’ll kill her for this.”

“She’s dead,” Mack said despondently.

“She’s not!”

 

The fighter that had been given to Charlotte by Eve Winters wasn’t just inoperative. It was junked.

The loose Centurian had gotten to it and destroyed every system it could get its claws on. The Chariot, despite the name, just couldn’t catch up to the ones that escaped.

“What did you say about a frigate?” Charlotte asked.

“Went up in a green ball of light,” Mack said. “They thought no one had made it off until they heard about Shelly.”

“Damn,” Charlotte swore.

“We also finally got into contact with the Alliance. They hadn’t heard about any orders from the Hawks regarding the transfer of an intelligence officer,” Mack said.

“We should go after them,” Charlotte said sitting up. Her head spun a little, but Mack caught her.

“It’s out of our hands,” he said.

“Like hell it is,” Charlotte hissed. “We can find them and her!”

“How?”

“We saw the wreck of the Centurian fighters,” Charlotte said leaning her head back. “They were short range likely launched from a space station nearby. I know they’re close.”

“How close?”

“Next star system over is the furthest she could go,” Charlotte said.

Mack stroked his beard. “Say if we do find them, what then?”

“We bring them to justice,” Charlotte said darkly.

“All right,” Mack said with a sigh. “I’ll inform the crew. Anderson was a good friend to them. They won’t object.”

Charlotte’s stomach sank as she thought about the brig officer. She barely knew him and now she never would.

***

The Chariot didn’t do stealth. With its bright yellow colouring and black stripes it blended against the background of space like a Gantham at a Tyris convention. In other words, there was no way you couldn’t see it.

The flotilla had its fair share of ships designed for espionage and reconnaissance. They were made of a material so dark that it was nearly impossible to see with the naked eye making them ideal for sneaking up on other ships.

If the Centurians just looked out of their cockpits, not to mention simply using sensors, they could see the Chariot from a light year away.

Despite this, Charlotte had ordered the crew to go dark. It was a technique that she had picked up from Eve, which entailed, basically, shuttering all windows and portholes with blackout curtains.

Even the bridge was required to have only emergency lights. Sloan, the ensign who had commanded the Chariot for a brief time, looked to Charlotte. In the darkness between the brief, red glow of the emergency lights, her head and turned to look directly at him.

He shuddered and looked back to his console.

Mack sat in his captain’s chair. He grimaced as the repair crews and sickbay continued to send in reports. The damage to the ship could be repaired, but the crew couldn’t be so easily.

They’d have to drop off a fifth of the crew on the Alliance. That is if they ever made it to the fleet’s flagship. The Centurians could descend upon them the second they spotted Shelly.

“There,” a member of the bridge crew whispered. “In orbit of the third planet from the sun.” He looked closer at his screen. “The world’s barren, but we’re picking up a signal from above the surface. A space station. Centurian made.”

Charlotte stepped up beside the crewmember and looked at the screen. The station clearly had its lights on, but more than half of it was missing. It looked as if something had scooped the metal plating away.

“It looks like someone vaporized half the station,” Mack said. “Ensign, anyone on board?”

“Two life signs,” the ensign said. “Centurians, but I think they’re dead. Captain…” the ensign’s voice trailed off.

The planet turned and the far side sent a chill through the bridge crew. Just like the space station, it looked as if something had scooped out a chunk of the planet. The molten core of the planet shone in the darkness of space.

“Dock us,” Charlotte commanded. She looked over to Mack who nodded curtly.

Charlotte made to leave the bridge, but her father was close on her heels. “You’re not going it alone with that eye,” he said with a smirk. “Frankly, we should leave this to security.”

Charlotte said nothing, but her silence spoke volumes.

***

The station’s airlock had been rusted shut, but a crowbar made easy work of it. Charlotte and Mack entered what looked like an embarkation lobby laser pistols at the ready.

Charlotte’s good eye scanned the room as they proceeded in. The air was stale, but breathable. The station was being brought back to life.

Mack grunted as he moved across a barrier. It had been a long time since he had worn his full combat armour.

Past the lobby was a promenade filled with businesses mostly restaurants and weapon shops. The Centurians weren’t big on fashion, but they were big on hairstylists.

“This way,” Mack said as he pointed to a directory. “Operations. I bet this is where they’ll be.”

Outside of the operation centre, Mack and Charlotte ground to a halt. There was a faint hum, which seemed to be growing louder.

Charlotte looked inside. All that was inside of the room was the bag, a green glow emanating from within. She signaled to her father who took up position on the other side of the doorway. Together they stormed in.

Laying in the darkness of the room was the Centurian, a hole blasted clean through his chest. Mack prodded the alien.

“Dead,” he said. He turned his attention to the bag. “What the hell is this?”

Charlotte looked at the bag. “Do you think?” she mused. “Could Shelly be inside of it? There’s an almost infinite amount of space in there. She could be…”

Mack prodded it with a foot and propped it up. He leaned over the bag and looked inside. He looked up at his daughter. “Do you think happens if we—” Mack gasped suddenly as he lost his footing. His heavy combat gear had left him unbalanced and he fell headlong into the bag, and disappeared.

Charlotte yelled out and dove headlong for the bag.

***

A strange, full-body sensation of ‘blargh’ filled Charlotte and she soon found herself in another room almost identical to the one she had left.

She groaned as the vertigo settled in. There was something weird going on in this place. She looked behind her to find a strange, white portal behind her. Outside of the main viewport, however, was a piercing green light.

“Charlotte!” Mack called out.

On the floor amidst a strange green glow was Shelly with Mack kneeling beside her. Charlotte scrambled over.

“Shelly!” she said giving her a violent shake. “Shelly!”

The commander awoke and recoiled as she saw who was holding her. She was shaking and gibbering, but her voice soon turned into sobs.

“I told him not to do it,” Shelly said. “I told him not to!”

The green light grew as Shelly lost consciousness. Mack grabbed Charlotte’s shoulder. “There’s no time for this,” he said.

“Charlotte,” Shelly whispered as consciousness flooded back. “He’s here.”

Mack picked up Shelly and made for the portal back to the operations centre. Before he could reach it, a man stepped in front of them.

He pointed his laser pistol at them.

“Hands up,” he commanded.

***

“She’s dying,” Charlotte screamed as she watched Shelly’s chest rise and fall. The Centurian had hurt her badly.

Theodore Bartlett paced around the room looking from sensor to sensor as the Chariot’s security team streamed onto the promenade back in the outside worlds.

“The cavalry,” he said darkly. “Now where are the other station’s automated security functions…”

“You bastard,” Mack said as he rose. The light from laser pistol’s barrel made him sit back down. “Why are you doing this?”

“Like I’d tell some Flotilla lackeys,” Theodore growled. “You wouldn’t understand. No one understands.”

Charlotte looked to her father. They had to do something. Charlotte’s gaze pressed her father to keep questioning the man. To keep him distracted.

“Try me,” Mack said. “Or do you want me to piece this together?”

“Oh please do,” Theodore said. “Ah, there are the security functions. Can’t have anyone interrupting my work.”

On the monitor, lights began to flash as the Chariot’s security team took fire.

“Bastard,” Mack growled. “You traitorous bastard.”

“Traitorous?”

“That’s right,” Mack spat. “You worked with the Centurians on this stupid piece of technology only to have them try to steal it back,” Mack said. “You used your daughter as a mule to smuggle you onto the frontier where you could disappear beyond he reach of the Centurians and the Flotilla.”

“Ha!” Theodore laughed. “Your version of the truth couldn’t be further from it.”

“Enlighten me,” Mack said.

***

Theodore stepped away from the console and turned his attention to Mack. “Despite what you may think, the Centurians were quite happy to have me working on this technology of theirs, or rather the technology they pilfered from an ancient civilization,” he said.

“When I sent them two prototypes that exploded quite intentionally, they were furious… as was I,” Theodore said. “I’d hoped the explosion would have vaporized them all and left the secrets of this technology solely with me.”

“So they wanted revenge?” Mack asked, fury rising in his voice. “We saw the damage that the explosions did the station and the planet. How many died? How many have you killed?”

Theodore laughed. “The funny bit is the Centurians jumped at the chance to have me back,” Theodore said. “No price was too high if they could smuggle weapons across the galaxy in their pockets. So much for familial ties.”

“Why have them attack the Chariot?” Mack inquired. “Why not just jump in an escape pod?”

“They weren’t meant to just attack your ship,” Theodore spat. “They were supposed to destroy it with me safely tucked in this container. They jumped the gun against my order jeopardizing the mission.” He looked to his daughter with disdain. “The Centurians think in such… small terms about the technology they pilfer as do the bureaucrats on the flotilla. They’d have us languish behind red tape as we carelessly floats across the stars toward oblivion.”

Mack’s eye caught Charlotte’s subtle movements, but he kept his attention on Theodore.

“A sun,” Theodore said turning his attention to the large monitor. “This place holds a single, beautiful sun capable of powering an entire fleet. We can capture every bit of energy it exudes. While we peddled away our belongings for conventional fuels, I gave us another option. A way to find agency among the stars! When I told them of my discovery they said it was ‘too dangerous’ and that it needed ‘proper vetting’ before a plan could be developed and my work would be put into limbo forever! I insisted to be able to continue and they cut me out! Stole my research! Revoked my privileges! Left me to die!”

Theodore looked away from the screen and to Charlotte who was holding Shelly. The anger in his eyes faded for a moment, but reemerged at the continued questioning by Mack.

“What about the frigate that was destroyed in the reserve fleet?” Mack asked.

A flicker of concern passed across Theodore’s face and then disappeared, crushed by the weight of something dark.

“On the road to any success there must be sacrifices,” he said grimly.

“Is your daughter one of those bumps in the road?” Mack asked.

Theodore said nothing and returned to the consoles in the room. The green light continued to grow and a sudden fear appeared in Theodore’s eyes.

“That frigate was destroyed by this… experiment, wasn’t it?” Mack asked.

“I can control it this time!” Theodore yelled suddenly. “I can shrink this universe further! Just like I did before! No one else can do it! I can save my experiment!”

The man scratched at his head and scrambled with the control panels in front of him. “Where are those codes?” he yelled.

“Who was on that frigate?” Mack asked loudly to cover up Charlotte’s subtle movements.

“Everyone!” Theodore bit out. “Everyone and everything that ever was on that frigate. My work, my codes, my notes, my experiments, my wife…” He sagged as memories swirled in his head. “Sh-she was one of the only people who believed in me, in my work, but they started to pressure her as a way of getting to me!”

“She wasn’t able to work and soon she lost her ability to speak,” Theodore said in almost a wail. “Then she lost her will to live! She lost everything because of this star in a bottle. They killed her! Not me!”

“What about your daughter? She’s dying!” Mack pressed.

Theodore eyes glanced over to Shelly. “She..” he stuttered. “She’s played her purpose—” his voice cracked as he turned to look at her.

“Put your hands up,” Charlotte said as she pointed the barrel between his eyes. “Nice and slo—”.

“You do not want to threaten me,” Theodore said.

“Try me,” Charlotte said.

Theodore went to lower his pistol, but threw a fist at Charlotte, catching her on the chin and sending her weapon flying. She recovered and knocked him to the ground. The other pistol careened off to the side of the room.

Theodore scrabbled across the floor toward one of the laser pistols, but Mack was soon on top of him. He held the scientist down, but the station rocked violently as the star grew outside. Theodore grabbed up the laser and pointed at Charlotte. He looked over to Shelly who lay still on the ground. He wailed at the sight of her.

“I lost my daughter!” Theodore screamed. “Now you lose yours.”

Charlotte braced. There was a flash of light. She looked up. Theodore’s eyes glazed over as he looked down at his chest. There was a hole. He gasped and crumpled.

Charlotte and Mack looked over to Shelly who was kneeling on the floor, laser pistol in her hand.

***

The growing star rocked the space station. Charlotte grabbed up Shelly.

“Leave me,” Shelly wheezed.

“Shelly,” Charlotte said. “I can’t do that.”

Shelly pointed the laser at her. “Leave me here. The star will escape the bounds of the space and consume the station, the planet, and the Chariot. No one else should have to die for us. Enough people have already.”

“We can get out of this,” Charlotte said. “I know we can… you just have to believe me.” She looked at Shelly’s wounds and her heart sank. “You’ll make it, I know it.”

“You’re a bad liar,” Shelly said as she pulled herself up and walked over to the consoles. She pressed a few commands and turned back to Charlotte.

“For years, I worked with him to finish this experiment. Completing it was our way of getting back at the people who we blamed for my mother’s death,” she said. “I worked blindly as I climbed the ranks gaining more and more access to the information my father was forbidden from seeing himself. I never spoke to anyone without wearing my mask. I couldn’t even tell people my real name… if they knew who I was they would have thrown me out. I reached a point where I was respected among my colleagues. I could have done anything, but I owed everything to him.” She looked to her father.

“You’re your own person,” Charlotte pleaded. “Don’t throw your life away because of his mistakes.”

“This isn’t a mistake,” Shelly said. “We made this situation ourselves. Building this station and trying to complete his life’s work wouldn’t bring my mother back. And when he decided to run, I knew this is how things would end.”

“Shelly…”

“At least now I can die thinking about the people I can save rather than all of the people we wanted to hurt,” Shelly said.

“We can still—”

“Charlotte, I see you and the life I wish I had lived,” Shelly said as she half collapsed onto the console. She raised the pistol at Charlotte’s approach.

Mack pulled at Charlotte’s arm. “I disabled the security on the other end,” he said.

Charlotte looked to Shelly whose hand was shaking. She was trying to keep Charlotte in her sights, but couldn’t keep her aim steady.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Shelly said. “Don’t try to save me. There’s no other way out of this, not for me. You have to live,” Shelly commanded. “For me.”

Charlotte’s eyes swelled as Mack pulled her away away and toward the swirling portal behind them. “Shelly,” she said reaching out. “Come with us. I know things look bad, but we can outrun this thing if we try.”

“I’ve been trying to outrun this for a long time,” Shell said. “Take care of her,” she called out to Mack. He nodded. “I’m sorry,” Shelly said. “I’m glad we got to talk. I needed a friend.”

The station rocked as the light overtook parts of the bridge. “Go!” Shelly wailed.

Charlotte and Mack stepped through the portal.

***

On the other side, the Chariot’s security teams grabbed up Charlotte and Mack. The green light emanating from the bag was growing faster than they could run and vaporizing everything behind them.

As the group ducked into the airlock and the Chariot pulled away, the light had consumed the entire station.

Back on the bridge, the helmsman turned to Mack. “I don’t think we’re going to make it,” he said desperately. “Jump drives are offline!”

Mack and Charlotte watched out of the porthole as the light grew. It pierced through the windows and filled every square inch of the Chariot in its glow. Charlotte held her father’s hand and closed her eyes.

The glow dissipated.

Soon all that was left was the void of space.

***

The Alliance arrived onsite and sent repair teams to the Chariot. Despite Shelly somehow stopping the sun from consuming the entire ship, a good chunk of the hull had been vaporized. Bulkheads had sealed off the damaged compartments, which, luckily, had all been vacant at the time.

Mack looked through various reports and costing sheets on the repairs. The flotilla’s resources were limited, but they had always found a way to make do with what little they had.

He put down the datapad and flipped on the communications system.

“Charlotte, how are things looking down there?” he asked.

“Engines should be back online in an hour,” she said over the channel.

“You be careful down there,” he said.

“Ok,” Charlotte replied. “Thanks.”

Mack sighed as he looked out of the porthole. The planet beyond was a mess and it was only going to get worse at the core cooled. A single moon orbited the sphere and came into view. Despite the planet’s new hole, its orbit continued unabated.

His eyes narrowed in thought.

The control panel pinged. A new report had just come in and another repair.

Mack whistled as he assigned a crew and then sat back in his chair.

***

Charlotte stepped into her room greeted only by eerie silence.

All of Shelly’s belongings had been placed into storage and would be sent back to her nearest relative whoever they were.

It was often so hard to tell whom you were related to in the Flotilla. Sometimes you had a distant aunt somewhere off in the frontier while you had a half-brother doing research in the reserve fleets.

The people who were closest to you were often the people who were the closest in proximity. Jackie who ran the mess hall, Clay who ran the weekly betting pool, and Anderson who once ran the brig were just a few people she thought she knew. Knowing that one of them was gone and that she hadn’t actually been too close to him in the first place made Charlotte’s chest hurt.

She felt strange looking at the desk where Shelly had sat up on nights like this looking at reports and sending off her findings back to the reserve fleets. Intelligence officers were often a quiet bunch who toiled away on their own. Was she invested in her work? Did she really care about the Hawks? Did they care about her? Would anyone else miss her as much as she did right now? Was Shelly even her real name?

Charlotte flopped down onto her bed and stared at the ceiling. She had gotten to know Shelly over the last few days, but how much of it was the truth? Charlotte wanted to think that all of it was. That she had wanted to become a star fighter, that her father was once a brilliant scientist, and that the bond they shared over the fate of the mothers was genuine.

Maybe it was because of her bond that Shelly had botched the attack against the Chariot by calling it in early. According to her father, the plan was for the Chariot to be destroyed. Charlotte and the crew would have disappeared and their deaths would have been explained away as a routine, but tragic, raid from an alien race.

She hugged a pillow and looked to the desk. On it sat a little crest in the shape of a Hawk. She had found hidden in her pants pocket. Charlotte reached out and held it up into the light.

A thought scratched at her brain.

Charlotte grabbed up her tablet and keyed in a number.

There were few people she could consider family. The last thing she wanted was to think any one of them could be gone in an instant with their last thoughts about you being angry ones.

It was unacceptable.

“Eve,” Charlotte whispered in the darkness. “You there?”

***

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