Hiding was the only option left. No time to think, no time to regroup, no time to reach under her cumbersome skirt to retrieve the gun strapped to her thigh. The box in her arms seemed to grow heavier with every step she took and whatever sloshed around in there didn't make it any easier to deal with the ship's already sub-par gravitational fields.
Nova Whiteside halted at an intersection where the main hall split into what appeared to be service tunnels. The carrier was mainly a cargo scow - surely some shipping containers or supply closet down here would let her hide the glass box and get her bearings before someone else decided to shoot.
She chose one of the passages for no particular reason and pushed onward, aware that her arms were growing weaker and her shoulders seemed ready to pop a joint or two. She would have to put this thing down, and soon.
She elbowed a key plate to her left and laughed frantically when she found the door unlocked. The room beyond it was a narrow platform with a few steps leading down into a payload area crammed with cargo bins. She set the box onto a wheeled cart with a loud groan of relief.
The Myrid creature in the tank thrashed around in its cloudy matrix, agitated by the commotion that had started when their ship was boarded. Just as they had prepared to secure the decks of the Dyona for entry into the jumpsite toward Magra, five cruisers had overtaken them, their demands simple: Stand and deliver, the call of pirates over millennia and in all corners of the galaxy. No commercial carrier stood to make profit by being destroyed by pirates and her captain had been all too willing to surrender. Nova cursed him and his descendants. He had of course no idea what he was shipping out from Pelion but she felt better for having cursed him, anyway.
Nova leaned over the platform railing to see no exits below other than a massive loading door. Nowhere to hide the tank, and no way to hide herself. She peered at the frightened Myrid through the glass. Could she leave it here? Surely no one would want to harm such an inoffensive individual securely sealed in a tank. If she stayed they were both trapped and, if anything, she would only draw attention to it.
The mollusk had been serene and nearly immobile in these past few hours that Nova had guarded it, shifting only occasionally when someone moved nearby. Now it seemed to want to break
out of its confines and escape as badly as Nova did.She went back to the door and found her decision made for her. "Damn!"
Voices in the hall. Rough talk, curses, shouts. And then they stopped.
"Lights down," she whispered, using a common trade language. The ship's sensors obeyed and the room plunged into absolute dark. She leaned against the wall beside the door and fumbled under the long, multi-layered skirt to draw her gun. The sound of her labored breathing seemed dangerously loud in this otherwise silent room and she fought to calm it.
"She's in here," someone said in heavily accented Centauri. "Look at that heat signature."
"I like 'em hot like that," another man replied and then the door sprang open, followed by the boot that had kicked it.
Nova leaped aside, her gun raised. She fired at the bright rectangle of light spilling from the hall, aiming at the silhouettes outlined there. One of them dropped to the floor. The other slipped into the shadows. She lost sight of him when the third man retreated into the hall, leaving her blinded by its light. A fist came out of the dark and caught the side of her head and she stumbled back, momentarily stunned by the blow.
"Lights!" someone shouted.
Nova looked up into the face of a Centauri pirate of considerable size who didn't seem too concerned about possibly breaking a few fingers in wrenching her gun away from her. Her hands, still weakened from the strain of carrying the tank, released it.
"The girl has some fight in her," he said. He turned and shouted into the hall. "Did you run away, Briggs?"
The other man, a Human, came back into the room. He grinned and closed the door behind him when he saw Nova. "Now finally something worthwhile on this bucket of bolts."
Nova tore out of the Centauri's grasp and backed away. When the pirate followed her he stumbled over the corpse on the floor. He looked down at it and then at her, anger now clear on his face. "You did that, bitch?" He struck her with the back of his fist. Nova reeled backwards and collided with the trolley that held the Myrid's tank. She tried to reach for it but the cart slammed into the platform railing and she, and the box, tumbled over it and into the cargo area below.
Nova landed hard beside the tank. It had not shattered on impact but its lid had cracked and the corner gaped. Something begun to leak from it. She was slow to gather herself and the two pirates vaulted the railing and dropped from above before she was able to get up.
"What, by the ghosts of Niedra, is that?" They could all see the Myrid's undulating limbs writhe frantically in the murky, yellowish fluid. The Human crouched down to tap the tank and then leaped back with a surprised squawk when a large, bulbous eye swam out of the amber substance to slide along the glass.
His companion laughed. "Scared you, Briggs?"
The pirate kicked the tank as if to punish the creature within it. Still, it did not break. He stomped on it again as if its passive resistance meant a personal affront.
"Stop it!" Nova yelled. "What are you doing?"
"Shut up." He aimed his weapon at the container. "Let's take a look at that thing." He fired his gun several times until, at last, the lid of the tank melted and sprang open. A surge of fluid oozed over the floor, carrying with it the amber-colored Myrid.
Still sprawled on the floor beside the tank, Nova was unprepared when the creature slid toward her with surprising speed and wrapped some of its long limbs around her arms. The substance inside the tank seemed to be a very fine powder that sifted through these limbs as quickly as water and made them just as slippery. There was no moisture and, as Nova watched in disbelief, some of the powder dissolved into the air.
Then one of the boneless limbs wrapped around her neck. She gasped when it tightened and a searing pain dug deep into her skin. Every muscle went rigid; she was unable to move, unable to pull the creature away. An intense heat spread from her neck throughout her body.
It was gone just as suddenly. The pirate had used his gun to push the Myrid away and then his heavy boot to crush it against the metal floor. To be sure, he raised his pistol and shot it several times. Nova slumped once released from the strange seizure, her hand pressed to her neck.
"Now I saved the Human's life," the Centauri grinned and gripped her arm to haul her to her feet. "You be sure to thank me nicely."
His companion coughed. "Let's get her back to the others. This stuff is making my throat itch."
Nova felt little else as she was manhandled along the cargo ship's corridors and back to the main concourse. The sting on her neck was excruciating and she registered the scattered bodies of her fellow travelers with only passing interest. She was pushed into a hallway where many of the other passengers already huddled in dread, lined up against the walls. Pirates guarded them, guns drawn and heavy boots ready to kick those who dared to move from their spot.
The threat of pirates was an inevitable hazard during any interstellar journey, especially in rebel-held territory like this region covering the Pelion system all the way to Magra just one jump away. A successful journey was a matter of odds and firepower. But piracy existed for profit, perhaps to collect slaves or to confiscate vessels. Rarely did attacks result in the sort of carnage she had seen here today. Usually, passengers of no interest the pirates were let go with their ship or dropped off elsewhere.
Nova touched her neck and then examined her hand. Blood, certainly, and also the powdered substance that had filled the tank. Her skin burned as if branded and the inside of her nose felt raw.
She sat on the floor between a woman whose weeping soon grated at her nerves and a man who stared listlessly at nothing. Settlers, merchants, smugglers, runaways and petty thieves. No one here was on vacation. She caught the eye of Joran sitting along the opposite wall and raised her eyebrows in question. He lifted four fingers and then brushed them across his throat. Four of her squad members dead. That left her, Joran and one other. She raised three fingers and wiggled one of them. He shrugged. He had no idea where the missing one was.
They both turned their heads when raised voices travelled along the corridor. The pirates moved among the passengers and crew, jabbing at some, cursing at others. Some of the captives were hauled to their feet and led toward the loading docks. Among them were a few handsome women, one or two crew members and two children. Nova and Joran exchanged glances when the pirates selected a blue-haired man and shoved him after the others. The Delphian made no move to defend himself, apparently resigned to his fate.
Nova peered past them down the hallway to see a handful of pirates standing by a prone body. One of them wore a respirator tied over the lower part of his face.
"Why are you killing passengers?" he snapped, his voice muffled. "Did Gwain order that?"
"He said to take out the armed ones. We lost four of ours. Were we supposed to let them pick us off one by one?"
"Leave the rest alone. Where is the box?"
"With the slimy powder in it? Got smashed."
The masked man muttered a string of profanities. He leaned down to turn the dead man onto his back and looked through his layers of clothing until he found a communication device. "Union soldier." He straightened up and turned toward the rows of captives. "Any more of them?"
"None in uniform, so who knows."
Nova turned abruptly when one of the armed men loomed over her. His boot nudged her leg. "Here's a pretty thing." Rough hands pulled her to her feet and then she felt those hands move over her body. She glared at the Human but said nothing. Resistance was as likely to excite someone like him as it was to enrage. Neither toss of the dice would increase her chances of escape. Her hand moved to her back and slipped into the waistband of her skirt until she felt the handle of the knife that was secreted there. She would not give it up so easily, either.
"I'll take this one," a low voice intruded upon the thug's inspection. Nova looked up to see the pirate with the respirator. The eyes above the mask seemed to glow with a violet luminescence as they reflected the overhead lights, marking him as a Centauri. The neural interface node at his temple identified him as pilot and was only partially hidden by loose waves of black hair.
"When I'm done with her."
The Centauri reached out to grasp a handful of Nova's hair and pulled her toward himself. He released his mask to look into her face. Nova gasped. He nodded briefly and replaced the respirator.
"Let her be," someone called out behind them. Joran had come to his feet and strode toward them, apparently ready to take them all on at once. The pirate who had groped Nova pulled his gun and leveled it at the Lieutenant.
"You want to sit down in a hurry," he said. Joran halted.
"Do as he says," the Centauri advised. He put his hand on the pirate's arm to push the gun aside. "I'll take the redhead with me," he said to him. "I think Gwain will like this one. Let the others go. We came for the damn tank, not a bunch of migrants."
Nova stumbled along with the Centauri, fighting the hand twisted in her hair. He hurried along the concourse, away from the pirates loitering there, and into a lounge near the locks where the enemy ships had docked.
He released her once out of sight of the others. Looking around, he strode to a bulkhead and used his gun to smash the lock on a box of emergency supplies. He found a respirator and handed it to Nova.
She stood in the middle of the room, wondering if the blow to the head she had taken earlier was affecting her in strange ways. She felt a little dizzy but was she now also hallucinating? "What the hell is going on?"
"Put that on, Nova." He went back to the door and looked out into the hall. "We have to get out of here."
She slipped the mask over her face. "I said: What the hell is going on, Seth?"
He grinned. "Didn't expect to see me after all these years, Sweets? Get rid of your jacket."
"Because that powder on your clothes is going to be seeping through the entire ventilation system any moment now. How much of it did you breathe in?"
"A lot. It's making my throat hurt." She stepped out of her skirt. She was glad to be rid of the disguise. Beneath the skirt and loose jacket she wore tight gray breeches, solid boots and a brief leather vest over a long-sleeved shirt. She gathered and tied her long hair at the nape. "Is it dangerous?"
"Very. Lean forward."
"Do it!" He grasped her neck to bend her down and squirted her neck and chest with a bottle of saline he had pulled from the medicine cabinet. She sputtered when some of it ran into her respirator and fought his grip when the liquid burned her open wound. The floor below her turned pink.
He pulled her back up. "Sorry about that, but we're in a hurry." He handed her a wad of clean cloth to place over the wound on her neck. He taped it to her skin with almost absentminded efficiency before striding back to the door. "We're going to make our way down to lock four. They won't follow."
"Who, your pirate pals?"
"Not my pals," he said, again looking out into the hall. He grasped her arm and dragged her outside. They raced toward the docks, meeting no one.
"What about the others?" she protested and tried to slow down. His iron grip on her arm was unyielding. "I've got two other squad members here. And there are civilians. We can't just leave them!"
"No choice, Nova. Come on." He pulled her along. "The air here is poison."
"How do you know it's poisoned?"
"The tank broke?"
"What? Yes, it broke."
"Then the air is poisoned."
"We've got to warn them! There's got to be portable air on board. Order your people to take the passengers off the ship."
He hesitated. "They don't take orders from me."
"Try anyway! They can just dump them back on Pelion. We're not that far."
He shook his head in resignation and they turned to run back up the main concourse where they had left the others. Both of them came to a sudden stop when they rounded a bend. People, both pirates and passengers, were stumbling along without direction, gasping in the caustic air now moving through the ship's conduits. They watched some of them drop, clutching their throats. A woman nearby saw Nova and raised her arms toward her, pleading silently for help.
"Too late. Let's go." Seth whipped her about and they hurried back to the freighter's docking ports. Once there, he propelled her into the airlock and closed the gate. "Nova, meet the Dutchman."
She released the opposite door and entered his ship through the umbilical.
"Where are we going?"
"Out of here, mainly. Your captain will have sent a distress signal. Sit down." Once through the cargo area, Seth crossed the untidy main cabin and stepped into the cockpit. The Dutchman, a small private cruiser, whined into readiness. Seth barely waited for Nova to drop into the co-pilot seat before tearing away from the freighter, warning lights flashing their protest when her thrusters pushed it away from the larger ship's hull. They raced away, toward the jumpsite beacons.
"Ten seconds to entry," Seth snapped at her and connected the neural interface at his temples to the ship's sensors. When she did not reply he slammed his fist against the lever above her head. The crash guard came down hard on her collarbones. He revved the Dutchman for the jump and steeled himself against the freefall across the reach, putting all of his faith into the ship's crossdrives. Nova looked over the cockpit indicators. His acceleration exceeded anything she would have expected from a ship of this size.
He closed his eyes. The plane entered the breach through the power of complex calculation and survived by the strength of its shielding but it took a sentient mind to find the way out again. There was a long, silent moment of nothingness. No light, no sound, nothing remotely like the tangible reality they had just left, now many light years away. It was a long jump, reaching from Pelion all the way to Magra Gate, still within the rebel-held sector. But it was well-charted and the Dutchman crashed back into normal space before too long. Seth slowed the ship and began a systems check, hoping for the best.
"Not a bad jump. I just about drained my coolants, though. We'll have to land on Aikhor." He disengaged his connection to the ship's processors and set the autopilot.
Nova stumbled out of the cockpit to fall into one of the chairs in the main cabin, a cluttered combination of living and work space. She tossed her respirator aside. The dizziness she had felt earlier had subsided but an annoying scrape in her throat remained. He followed and sat down across from her. "What a ride, huh? Does your neck hurt? It's still bleeding."
She leaned toward him and slowly pulled his gun from its holster. She regarded it thoughtfully and then pointed it at him. The safety catch went off audibly enough. His eyes widened.
"I am going to give you about five minutes to explain why you attacked our ship and killed six Union officers along with over forty civilians and the crew. Not to mention how you knew about the tank and its contents. Then you are going to set course for Targon or I will kill you now and go there by myself."
Seth swallowed hard. Nova's accusation had been delivered with all the emotional involvement of a weather report. The barrel of the gun was aimed levelly at this head. He knew quite well that she was capable of using it to kill even him.