Anywhere but Here, by Mayumi Hirtzel
Serve or die: that’s life in the Imperium. But how far will a girl go to escape that life…and how far can she get, before the Imperium’s Hounds catch up to her?
I hadn’t meant to participate in NaNo for 2012, but, what can I say? A percolating idea demanded attention, and I felt like I needed a bit of a change of pace from Fearless.
It had been a long time since I’d written science fiction (or any approximation thereof), but I’d grown up with Star Wars and “Star Trek,” and had my love for the genre rekindled by the likes of Starship Troopers and “Firefly,” I thought it might be time to stretch my wings again. The plight of Lelie and her fellows – and the conflict that arises from their run-ins with Captain Aral and his Hounds – actually made for a fun bit of otherworldly adventure.
Interested? Read the first two chapters below!
If They Were Lucky
When his CO had come to him with datapad in hand, with that shit-eating grin on his face, Sirk should have known something was sketchy.
“It’s a promotion,” Rink had told him as he’d passed the datapad over. “No more taking orders directly from me. From now on, you’ll be giving them.”
Sirk had barely waited for the ghost of his thumbprint on the pad to disappear before he’d started to pack his standard issue duffel.
Had that really been only a few weeks ago? If only he’d known…!
Some promotion: first shift on the Institute space station, babysitting a bunch of snotty-nosed kids not even fit yet for service. If Rink had told him that his first command would mean chemical drink jolts, bleary-eyed troops, and punchy reports from the false night crew – who’d had to monitor the non-events of three thousand, four hundred eighty-six Institute enrollees in their beds all night – he’d never have accepted the job.
Now, he stepped into the command center, his boots (which he’d polished to shining…because off-duty on the station might as well have shared a definition with “aimless”) clacking across the metal plates, swiftly enough for a commanding officer but not so swiftly to eat away at the interminable minutes of this shift. Swiping his hand over the main data terminal, he glanced through the third shift reports, his mind more focused on what he could send Rink in suitable appreciation for this assignment. An empty box, maybe. Or a mug full of shit.
“Nothing much to report,” Gan told him as he pulled at the fingers of his gloves. “A few incidents of lewdness in Courtyard C, but that’s soldiers for you.”
Sirk squinted at his Executive Officer. “What are these?” he asked, and pointed to a list of names highlighted in red.
“Just some no-shows from lights-out,” Gan answered wearily.
“Why didn’t they report in?”
“They get out during the night, sometimes.”
Sirk blinked. “What do you mean, they get out? We’ve got security protocols. How do they get out?”
Gan shrugged, disinterested. “Some of ‘em figure out how to crack the doors. We reprimand the kids and change up the codes, but it lets them feel like they’re getting away with something. It’s good for morale. Nothing to worry about.”
Sirk tapped one of the red names, watched a secondary data screen come up with the picture of a girl. Eighteen, pretty; almost ready for service.
“Inamorata,” Sirk muttered, before looking at Gan again. “Their kind get out a lot?”
The XO snickered. “Wouldn’t you like to see that tight little ass slutting through the gardens at night?”
Now, Sirk scowled. “You let them fuck?”
“That’s what they’re for, isn’t it? Besides, it’s not like they’re not on suppressor meds, like everybody else. Let ‘em have their fun; they’ll be doing it for service soon enough.”
Sirk merely grunted. He scanned the rest of the names, did some tapping – a soldier caught urinating in one of the garden fountains, another inamorata found “lost” in the barracks, an engineer detained for scrawling his name across one of the sim-shuttles with a fork – then squinted again. One of the red names was oddly familiar, though he couldn’t recall from where. Had it been in another report, a security issue recidivist of some sort? Tapping the name, the ident photo of a pale, white-haired girl came up, along with her data scroll.
Sirk almost lost his footing.
The cypher was one of the no-shows.
He grabbed Gan by the shoulder. “You’re telling me that’s good for morale?”
The other man wasn’t snickering any longer. “Shit. How the fuck did she get out of her habitat?”
I guess she cracked the codes on her door, Sirk thought with a snarl at the incompetence around him.
He snapped himself free of those thoughts with a shake of his head. Tossing blame wouldn’t find the cypher.
“When was the last report for her?”
Gan was already swiping through the files. “Dinner,” he answered after a second. “She socialized at dinner, with an inamorata, a comitatensis, and a kid from the engineers’ circle.”
“An engineer?” Sirk echoed. “What kind?”
Gan scanned the report again, when his face blanched. “A pilot.”
Sirk swore. Sliding over to one of the security terminals, he tapped the archive of the false night cycle of closed-circuit feeds, then swore again. Some of the secure-cams weren’t what they used to be (too many vandalism incidents over the years tended to scratch lenses and short wires), but they all functioned; the Imperium made certain of that, especially since the cypher. Except not for the last four hours. For the last four hours, a steady run of the cameras had failed, staticky fuzz talking back to the control center’s terminal.
“The cams don’t fail,” Gan said from over Sirk’s shoulder.
“Unless you let a cypher at them,” Sirk said, snarling again.
“Shit,” was all Gan could say, as the point finally seemed to settle in his muddled head.
“Are all our shuttles accounted for?” Sirk barked, pointing toward one open-eared net-jockey. Via or Vida or something, her name was; he’d remember in a moment.
“Hangar’s quiet, sir. No dock activity since the last freighter took off.”
Sirk felt his stomach sink. Freighters. Who knew where they were going.
“How long ago was that?”
“Oh-four-twenty,” the tech replied, and Sirk grimaced. Two hours was a long time to make distance.
“Should I request a Hunter?” Gan asked then, his voice pitched to a mutter. “To go get them?”
“Are you insane?” Sirk hissed. “The last thing we want here is a body count!” He pulled a breath, his thoughts fighting to align themselves. Finally, he turned to Vida (yes, that was right).
“Have security run a bio-sweep. I want to be absolutely certain those kids aren’t just playing hide-and-seek somewhere on the station.”
The tech nodded and started to talk into her mouthpiece, while Sirk looked at Gan.
“We need to keep this quiet, for now. No Hunters.”
“So, what do we do?” Gan asked.
Sirk chewed briefly on his lip. They couldn’t just let the kids run. A soldier, a courtesan, even a pilot wouldn’t be missed too badly. There’d be reprimands, maybe a demotion. But if the Imperium found out their cypher was missing, they were fucked. Straight up the ass, with no lube or sweet words like his favorite inamorato used.
“We need a Hound,” Sirk said in a low voice. “A discreet one. You know any?”
Gan seemed to think a second (something new for him, apparently). “There’s Captain Aral. He’s got a small team, based off of Arcadia.”
“Never heard of him.”
“You said you wanted discreet.”
Sirk took a moment, then nodded. “All right, fine. Get me a link. A secure one. I want him on this ASAP.”
“Yes, sir,” Gan said, and tapped quickly at the nearest comm terminal.
“Sir?” Vida said, turning in her seat; Sirk nodded wordlessly. “The no-shows’ bio-signs aren’t coming up on the sweep. They’re definitely not on the station.”
Sirk slumped back against the bank of terminals and covered his mouth, to keep from screaming, or throwing up.
If they were lucky, fucked was the only thing they’d get for this screw-up.
Temperature meant little in the vacuum of space. But that didn’t make the cargo hold of the tramp-tanker feel any less chilled. Large enough to hold a week’s worth of supplies for a population of almost four thousand (or a collection of contraband worth three times that value), it stood dark, now, and empty, and silent.
In a corner of the hold, beneath the angle of ragged metal stairs leading to the upper deck, one of the old rust-colored panels creaked, then rattled, then seemed to give a belch of held-in air as it clattered to the floor.
A tall girl stepped out, placing her feet carefully upon the deck as she gave an easing stretch of her smooth, limber limbs, kept cramped beneath those stairs for the last few hours. Giving a quick warming rub of her arms (which did little good, given her lack of protective clothing), she glanced around, trying to take in everything around her.
She hadn’t bothered to investigate their surroundings when they’d sneaked on board – too much risk, too little time – but, now, feeling a bit safer away from the Institute, she indulged the moment.
Sturdy, grimy, and dim, freighters like this one had enough power to travel, but they were low enough on the radar not to arouse any undue suspicion. With a little luck, they’d be able to hide out here until they broke atmosphere on the next planet or space station (no, planet – planet was better: more options, more avenues, for occupation or, if necessary, dodging any nosy parties).
A fine choice, if she would say so, herself.
The baritone hiss from behind her made her turn, to watch the young-muscled older boy step out from the pen, too, the veins in his neck and arms standing out in his seethe.
He silenced her with his hand around her upper arm. “I’m the soldier, here, not you,” he told her. “You need to let me go first.”
Lelie looked up at him, holding her arm steady. Despite her training as an inamorata, she’d never thought a man’s clutching grip could feel so…precious. But hadn’t that been her reason, the why of this risky escape? To leave that life of conscription behind, and find a new one, with this boy who was more man than any with which she’d trained and practiced at the Institute?
“I’m sorry,” she whispered to him, and felt the clench of his fingers loosen in reply. “I just wanted to take a look around.” She smiled a bit, coyly. “I’ve never been on a ship before.”
Stoll’s demeanor eased of a moment; she saw the tendons in his shoulders relax, and the corners of his mouth turn down in a kind of gentle frown.
“This isn’t a pleasure cruise,” he whispered back to her.
“I know,” she said, sidling up closer to him; his warmth radiated. “But it’s safe.”
Stifling a sudden sniff, Lelie stepped back and looked to the next of them to climb out of their impromptu escape pod: short, narrow Tych, his nav-computer goggles pushed high onto his head, making his hair spike in unruly tufts.
“Well,” Lelie said with a sudden huff, and she placed her hands on her hips. “I’m sorry this ship isn’t to your liking.”
“It’s not the ship,” Tych said. “The ship’s fine.” He scrunched his nose up, nearly into his shallow brow. “But you said I’d get to fly! So far, all I’ve done is crawl through a bunch of conduits and cram myself between Stoll and Imien in that crawlspace for the last two hours.”
“You should be used to small spaces,” Stoll muttered, as he twisted his neck with a distinct crack.
Tych didn’t seem to hear him, instead looking up at Lelie again. “When do I get to fly a real ship, Lel? You promised-”
“Later,” Lelie snapped. “Right now, we need to figure out where we are, and where we’re headed.”
“I can do that,” Imien said, as she slipped cautiously from the shadow of the pen, at last. Rising to her full height with a fall of white hair, she padded forward, slowly, hands half-raised before her. “If one of you can get me to a terminal of some kind. I should be able to talk to the central computer from there.”
“You can find us the way to the helm controls?” Tych asked with an eager smile.
“Yes,” Imien said, nodding forward.
Lelie stared into the other girl’s blank, blinking eyes and managed to hold her tongue. She knew Imien was right – she was their best bet for getting information – but it still irked.
“And guns,” Stoll said.
Imien turned her head toward his voice. Lelie did, too. “No,” she said, almost hissing. “No guns.”
“Lel,” he rumbled, leaning toward her. “I can’t protect us without a gun.”
His bulk and size were menacing by nature, but Lelie didn’t back down from him.
“No guns,” she repeated, emphatic. She laid her hand on his chest, trying her best not to let her fingers dally across the muscles (now wasn’t the time for that) and lowered her voice. “The only thing guns will get us is killed,” she murmured. “I didn’t risk everything getting out of the Institute just to get ourselves shot on some nameless cargo ship. Did you?”
That quieted Stoll. Glancing once at their fellows beside, he shifted back, his spine straightening up again, silently.
“The Ridout,” Tych said of a sudden.
Lelie looked to him. “What?”
Tych blinked at her. “You said this was a nameless cargo ship. She’s not. She’s called the Ridout.”
“Who cares?” Stoll said, turning his glare on the smaller boy.
“I care,” Tych replied. “She’s a Liberty-class, multipurpose merchant freighter.” He glared back. “And she wouldn’t have any guns.”
This time, Stoll didn’t back down. “I’m not talking about those clunky jackhammers they install on bulwarks,” he growled. “I mean guns for us. For me,” he corrected himself quickly, as he looked the pilot up and down. “Since I don’t think you can handle one.”
“Stoll, please,” Imien said. She reached out, just as Lelie had done, and touched his arm, which almost seemed to move up against her fingers. “We can’t afford to fight among ourselves. Not now.”
Lelie watched with a frown as the deep lines in the soldier’s brow relaxed at the other girl’s light caress. A knot tightened in her belly.
“Okay,” Stoll said simply, as he looked at Imien’s face. He let go an audible breath, then lowered his shoulders and glanced at Tych. “Sorry.”
Imien nodded as she gazed off into the dimness of the hold. “Tych,” she said softly. “Do you know much about these kinds of ships?”
Tych answered with a proud and ready nod of his own: “I had a whole class on naval architecture last year.”
Imien smiled a little as she tilted her chin toward him. “Do you remember if these freighters are built with terminals in the cargo bays?”
“Not control type,” Tych said, the bridge of his nose wrinkling in thought. He snapped to then, with a knowing sparkle in his eyes. “But there should be a communications box around, somewhere down here.”
“That’s good enough,” Imien told him, nodding again. “Find me one of those, and I can get you to the helm.”
“Aye-aye,” Tych said, throwing her a salute before he pulled his goggles down and started off along the closest wall.
“There might be an armory, as well,” Imien murmured to Stoll. “I doubt anyone running supplies for the Institute doesn’t arm themselves in some way.”
“Okay,” Stoll said, though Imien was quick to interrupt again.
“But Lel’s right,” she said, and, now, her hand moved down his arm, and she grasped firmly at his fingers. “Guns will make everything more dangerous.”
“I need to protect you,” Stoll whispered. He seemed to notice Lelie again then, and added, “I need to protect all of us. I can’t do that without a weapon of some kind.”
Imien pressed her pale lips together for a long second. “Just promise me you’ll be careful,” she said.
“I won’t let anything happen to you,” he said, and shot a glance over at Lelie, now. “That’s what I’m here for.”
Imien smiled again, gently, but Lelie could only feel her belly twist at the sight of it, and at the sight of Stoll’s simple devotion.