ESCAPE FROM CAPTIVITY
Renwald Legroeder’s eyes darted frantically, scanning for traffic as he guided the scout craft away from the spacedocks. His heart pounded with fear. No general alarms yet, thank God; but how long could that last? The scout’s flux reactor hummed, alive and ready. The rigger-net would spring to life at his command; but first he had to get clear of the outpost.
The raider outpost loomed like a threatening mountain cliff over his back as he powered the tiny ship away. The spacedocks were an enormous, malignant structure, blotting out most of the view of the Great Barrier Nebula that stretched across the emptiness of space behind him. He felt terribly alone.
He snapped on the intercom. “Maris—if you can hear me, we’re away from the docks!” She couldn’t answer, and probably couldn’t hear. She was the only other person aboard—the only one with the guts to flee with him.
Guts—or insanity? Don’t be distracted. Switch over now…
He lurched out of the pilot’s seat and climbed into the rigger-station, yanking the secondary maneuvering controls into position over him. The scout crawled toward the departure area; he dared not go faster. Don’t draw attention.
Had they been spotted yet?
Their only hope was stealth. Any of a dozen ships of the pirate fleet could destroy him at a moment’s notice. Clear of the docking zone, he popped thrust toward the inner marker. Gently! He ached to punch full power…to sprint away…Keep it slow, keep to the traffic patterns, don’t arouse suspicions…
About ten minutes had passed since their shootout with the guards at the maintenance docks. Only a miracle would get them away from here and out of pirate space alive.
Was Maris alive even now? He risked a glance, toggling a monitor to the first-aid compartment. Maris lay in the med-unit, eyes closed, arm flung across her chest. Neutraser burns ran down her neck and shoulder. Life signs flickered on the screen…urgent: shock: imminent neural failure …He’d started the suppression-field; there was nothing more he could do.
The com blasted, jolting him back: “SCOUT SIX-NINER-SEVEN. STATE YOUR CLEARANCE.”
His breath caught as he jabbed down the volume. He stalled, keyed the mike, held it as Departure Control repeated its demand through the static. Every second took him a little farther out. If stealth didn’t work, confusion might.
He drew a ragged breath. “Departure Control, Scout Six-Niner-Seven, emergency departure Bravo Eleven Alfa. No delay, please—answering an emergency call from sector—”
Something lit up behind him, and he choked off his words. A blaze of lights in the central docking region, and at least one large craft moving out. After him? He scanned hastily. Weapons arrays were coming to life at three key defense points.
“SCOUT SIX-NINER-SEVEN, TERMINATE YOUR VECTOR AT ONCE. WE HAVE NO EMERGENCY CLEARANCE ACTIVE. BRAKE TO DEAD STOP! PREPARE FOR INSPECTION! REPEAT—”
Legroeder cursed, shut his eyes for an instant, and hit the fusion thrusters.
The scout ship rocketed past the marker buoys, shot across traffic lanes, leaving a plasma trail in its wake. Scan ahead, behind…The weapons arrays on the station were opening fire now, a cluster of neutraser bursts glittering against the dark of space. He veered far out of the departure path, away from the direction they’d expect him to flee, and aimed for the guard field that flanked the channel, all energy and spatial distortions. A neutraser beam flashed over his screen.
Hold tight, Maris!
Another blaze of neutraser fire caught his port-side sensor, partially blinding him. He veered left, then down, and right. The ship tumbled as it hit the guard field. The hull shuddered, and he nearly lost control. Then he was through the field, into the Dead Man’s Zone that enclosed the departure lanes.
Clouds of plasma swirled over the ship’s prow. There was a reason for this place’s name. The spatial distortions were nearly impossible to maneuver through. But if he could manage it, pursuit should be impossible.
A neutraser burst leaked through the field and spun weirdly around the ship. His viewscreen and console began to glow with St. Elmo’s fire. He couldn’t wait any longer. He slammed the maneuvering controls shut, drew a deep breath, and closed his eyes. At his silent command, the rigger-net billowed out into space, a shimmering sensory web. He caught some fragmentary words on the com: “—Going under in the Zone—must be crazy—!”
And then he reached out with his arms in the net like wings on a plane, and banked the ship down out of the fiery cauldron of normal-space and into the chaos of the Flux.
* * *
The star rigger’s Flux: a higher-dimensional realm where reality and fantasy became strangely merged, where landscapes of the mind intersected with the real fabric of space, where space itself flowed and surged with movement—and where a rigger’s skills could vault him across light-years, or send him spiraling to his death.
Legroeder was flying in a thunderstorm, wind shear and lightning buffeting and rocking him. His senses stretched through the net into the Flux, as though his head and torso were the bowsprit of the ship. His arms embraced the storm, mists of streaming air coiling through his fingers. He drew around him the only image he could think of: a stubbywinged airplane bouncing through cumulonimbus, stubbornly refusing to surrender.
The craft bucked violently. It was hard to keep a heading in the turbulence—but he had to, if he was going to get through the Dead Man’s Zone and out the other side. The raiders had sown mines throughout the Zone, which was almost redundant; the place itself was a natural minefield. Everything was distorted here, normal-space and the Flux alike. A fragmentary remnant of some ancient violence of creation, it was a perfect place of concealment for the raider base. Only a maniac would try what Legroeder was trying now…
He fought back a rush of fear as he skidded through the wind shear. Why had he thought he could do this? It’s impossible!
No sooner had he thought it than the turbulence grew worse. He realized why, and fought to control himself. His mere thoughts could reverberate disastrously into the Flux; he dared not allow panic or fear.
He drew a long, slow breath and tried to refocus the image. Keep flying the ship. Whatever happens, we’re away, better off than before.
What lay ahead? Mines. Treacherous shoals. Dead ships. But where? Change the image: make it transparent. Sooner imagined than done; the energies swirling before him were too powerful to easily remap. He blinked once to alter the contrast, and now he could make out distant flecks of darkness against the glowing whirlwinds of the storm. Shipwrecks? He couldn’t tell.
Something blazed off his port-side, a mine exploding. He veered hard, avoiding damage. His heart raced. The explosion had opened a path through the storm, a shadowy tunnel in the clouds. A way through? It wouldn’t last long. He circled back, scanning for pursuit. Nothing: maybe they’d given him up for dead. Fly, now—fly! The currents were tricky; he had to scull with his arms to bring the ship back.
As he banked into the tunnel, the winds seemed favorable—but at once he sensed his mistake. A trap. He banked hard the other way, back into the current. It was too strong now—it was pulling him into the passage. He cursed and hit the fusion motors—dangerous in the Flux!—and continued thrusting until he’d veered past the opening. At that instant the passage twisted closed, then erupted with a belch of fire. The blast caught his wingtip and snapped him head over heels.
The storm clouds spun around him. By the time he pulled the ship out of the tumble, he’d lost his bearings completely. He felt a rising panic.
And then he heard a voice softly, distantly, in his mind. You must keep your center…stay calm. Legroeder, you’ll find the way through. Aren’t you the one who showed me, after all?
His heart stopped as he recognized the voice-from-memory, his old shipmate Gev Carlyle, as clear as if Gev were right here looking over his shoulder. Keep your center…stay calm…how often had he said those things as the younger Carlyle had fought to master his instincts and fears?
Keep your center…
The storm clouds tossed the little vessel like a wood chip on a pounding sea. He again breathed deeply and focused inward, and then from his center focused outward—and as he did so, the clouds shimmered to transparency, just for an instant. He drew another breath. Center and clarify…illuminate…
For a moment, he felt the almost tangible presence of his old friend. The feeling was so powerful, it drove the fear back a little more, and the storm clouds grew pale. Through the twists and turns of the moving currents, he began to glimpse a path: a fold in the Flux, and a current slipping through…
* * *
The escape had happened so fast Legroeder had scarcely had time to think. For seven years since his capture, he’d looked for a chance to make a break. But the guard was too tight, the fortress impregnable and light-years from anywhere. No one had ever escaped alive; that was what they said. Everyone said it; everyone believed it. A few had tried: they were dead now, or being tortured, in solitary.
And yet…even as he’d piloted their raider ships for them, preying on innocent shipping in the wilds of Golen Space, even as he’d worked for the bloody pirates, to stay alive, he’d never stopped watching, planning, ready to bolt if the opportunity ever arose.
He never dared talk about it with the other prisoners. But he’d sensed that Maris was of like mind. He’d had a rough time among the pirates, but she’d had it worse. At least he hadn’t been raped and abused, in addition to being forced into labor. She was a tough woman and an angry one. He’d thought often of Maris as a friend he’d not really gotten to know.
When the chance finally came, he had just seconds to make up his mind. They were coming off a ship-maintenance detail in the outer docks—Jolly, Lumo, Maris, and Legroeder—when a Flux capacitor in the main docking room blew, spewing a jet of blazing plasma across the room. Two of the guards, caught in the discharge, went sprawling. Several other workers helped the injured out of the compartment, leaving two guards with four conscripts. Through the haze and confusion of the leaking plasma, Legroeder spotted a fallen handgun lying under a console. He glanced at Maris, who stiffened as she saw it, too.
Legroeder thought furiously. The remaining guards were occupied by the plasma leak, and behind Legroeder and the other prisoners, just down a short corridor, a small ship was docked, its airlock doors open. His crew had just finished checking it over; it was ready to fly.
Maris’s eyes met his; they both shifted to the far side of the compartment, where the guards were shouting, trying to cut off the plasma discharge. Maris gave a shrug that seemed to ask a question. Legroeder nodded. He looked at Jolly and Lumo, standing to one side watching the plasma jet. Neither was likely to be of help. When he glanced back, Maris was moving toward the gun.
One of the guards finally noticed. “Hey, what are you doing?” he shouted, unslinging his neutraser rifle. The plasma plume partially obscured his view, but it wouldn’t block his shot.
Legroeder barked a warning.
Maris came up with the gun.
A crackle of neutraser fire: Maris cried out and spun around, wounded. But not too wounded to fire back: from a crouch, she fired three times. A shriek of pain told Legroeder that she’d hit one of the guards. She dropped the gun, staggering.
Legroeder snatched it up and caught her by the arm. The second guard was c toming around the end of the dying plasma jet. Legroeder aimed and squeezed. There was a flash: the guard staggered back. Jolly and Lumo were flattened against the wall, dumbfounded. “Come with us?” Legroeder yelled.
Jolly shook his head. Lumo was frozen with fear.
Legroeder squeezed several bursts into the guards’ com panel. “Then don’t try to stop us!”
Jolly nodded, terrified.
“Let’s go,” Legroeder grunted, straining to support Maris with his shoulder.
“’Kay,” she gasped. “Let’s go.” Her face was taut with pain, but she was already struggling toward the airlock.
It took about five minutes for him to get them both onto the scout, seal the airlock, secure Maris in the med-unit, and get to the bridge to power up.
* * *
The scout ship dashed out of the Dead Man’s Zone like a fish through a broken net. Legroeder steered furiously, searching for currents leading away from the raider outpost. They were past one danger, but hardly in the clear.
The ship shuddered violently.
He kept flying as he scanned for the source of the explosion. The crimson and orange clouds of the Flux billowed past like foaming surf over the prow of a submarine. But he needed to stay fast and maneuverable. He reshaped the image to one of a jet fighter, fast and sleek, streaking through the misty clouds. He veered left and up, then right and down, trying to make them a difficult target if anyone was aiming. They were back in the main channel, on much the same course a raider ship might take in leaving the area. If the raiders were still pursuing…
Light flashed in the clouds to the left, and Legroeder banked hard away. Three raider ships burst out of the clouds in pursuit. Hell’s furnace! he thought. They’d been waiting to see if he made it through the Dead Man’s Zone. He was damn sure he’d surprised them.
He barreled over into a steep dive, pulling away, but only momentarily. They’d never get out by the main route—which left just one other way.
Maris! he shouted into the intercom. We’re going out through the Chimney. If you can hear me, hold tight!
Ignoring the lurch in his stomach, he pitched his dive past the vertical, undercutting his own flight path, then rolled the ship upright for a view of the raiders that were coming around in pursuit. They were not quite as desperate as he was, or as crazy, and they took a wider turn. They were firing, but accomplishing nothing but lighting up the clouds. Legroeder rolled inverted again to search the clouds below, and finally spotted a region of shadow that marked the opening of the Chimney, a passage so narrow and hazardous it was known as the Fool’s Refuge. He stretched himself into the longest, fastest fighter plane he could imagine, and aimed straight down into the murky darkness of the Chimney.
Pounding waves of energy suddenly assailed the net. TURN BACK! TURN BACK! OR YOU WILL DIE!…DIE!…DIE! The raiders were broadcasting into the Flux.
It was the booming of a steel kettle drum, projected so as to come right up out of the Chimney, reverberating through the very fabric of the Flux and booming into the rigger-net as though he were inside the drum. Legroeder knew the source of the thunderous noise, knew it well—he’d used it himself, against others—and yet, even knowing that it was only a trick to inspire fear, he couldn’t help being shaken. He was doing something insane.
WILL DIE…WILL DIE…WILL DIE…
There was no escaping the echoes. He could only try to ignore them. Try not to be afraid.
A deep, dark fissure was opening in the clouds below. That was where he had to go—and if he had any doubts, they were erased by bright flashes of light behind him—neutrasers and flux torpedoes. He took a sharp breath and spun down into the fissure. Into the Chimney. From this moment on, the pursuers would be the least of his worries. If they were stupid enough to follow, maybe they would all die together…
Suddenly he was in darkness—midnight in the Chimney. Glints of light flickered in the cloud walls ahead. Deadly Flux-abscess, or other terrible ways to die.
He glanced back. Damn. They were still coming after him. No time to worry; he was dropping at tremendous speed through a shaft of raging turbulence. He fought vertigo as the cloud walls flashed abruptly light/dark/light/dark, until he could scarcely focus on them at all.
Something flashed past him from above, a coruscating veil of light that turned and rose back up toward him like a vast fishnet of energy seeking to ensnare him. He grunted and narrowed the rigger-net to a needle and arrowed straight down. The fishnet veil billowed up and around him again with a twinkle and a whump. The ship bucked but kept moving—until a blast of secondary turbulence hit him.
With a shriek, the ship lurched out of control and careened sideways toward the deadly Chimney wall.
Copyright © 2000 by Jeffrey A. Carver