Crimson stomped up the grated catwalk to the bridge, her robotic foot clanking heavily. Andross’ summons had crackled over the intercom only moments before the Rival Bay had begun to tremble. She had been asleep—as asleep as her cybernetic implants let her anyway—mostly unconscious, with a routine diagnostic running checks in the background; it was like counting sheep. Incessantly.
Now the trembling of Rival was more pronounced. Crimson supported herself with her human hand gripping the rail, and her robotic one clumsily pressed against the other. The bridge hatch in sight she called to the mercenary pilot, “What is it?”
“Gravity well,” Andross replied, “Unknown specs. Not charted in this system.”
Crimson dropped herself roughly down the single step into the bridge with her metal foot, and clumped to the view screen. Looked like empty space. “Are we stuck?”
Andross—buckled into the pilot seat—had his hands over the controls, making continual course corrections. “Kind of.”
“Diablos,” grumbled Crimson.
“Still in the shallow end, I think. Rival’s a big girl. We ain’t sinkin yet. But close.”
She fell into the co-pilot seat and grabbed a head set.
The intercom met her as the ear piece clamped into place. Old-fashioned radio static mixed with the bass rumbled of Gator’s reptilian growl in a half-discernable transmission for the engine room, “… what’s going on up there, Bridge?”
“Unknown gravity anomaly,” Crimson snapped, “Standby. Andross, status.”
“We’re three hours from system jump, when this sucker pulled us off course. Lucky I was flying manual…”
The intercom interrupted again, “Green House to Bridge, this is Keffler. My plants are all wilting down here, any chance you can stop whatever you’re doing?”
“Get off the line Keffler,” Crimson growled. To Andross she snapped, “Scans!”
“Think I was born yesterday,” retorted the merc pilot. A 1U Missile Pilot from the gambling tracks of Talcomis VII, Andross was a hot-headed brawler and a show-off who raced for high stakes. He had a knack for driving things, fast and accurate. The monolithic converted seed-ship Rival wasn’t really his cup of tea, but of the three qualified pilots on board, everyone had to pitch in. The MiPie already had the sensors sweeping the area, and a second after she said it Crimson knew it; but she didn’t regret irritating him. Andross continued, “Sensors got nothing’. Star charts got nothin’ on this system either. Could be a cloaked Mag Mine, but I’ve never heard of one big enough to pull in the Rival.”
Mag mines: magnetic traps left by scavengers and pirates hoping to score a load of booty from hapless transports or lone luxury yachts. A mine large enough to catch the Rival wasn’t impossible, but the size of it would require a cloaking device of impractical mass. Not to mention the pirate ship and crew needed to board a vessel like Rival would border on battlecruiser.
“What’s on the Star Log from Berkotal? Anything on the recent newsnet?” They had just cashed in a bounty on Berkotal . It had provided them with some interesting farm goods to trade out-system. Keffler had grumbled a bit, but made room the Green House for the artificial Rain-Pods, to keep the… bubble spoors… safe and happy. Standard orbit procedures, and the Rival was supposed to interface with the local planet’s newsnet and flag anything pertinent to in-system flying.
“How should I know?” Andross’ dark eyes stabbed her way, “Rival didn’t catch it, I sure as spit didn’t.”
Crimson spun the nav-ball and her display rotated the recent newsblasts to the front. She rested her robotic arm on the console edge to relieve her tired shoulder, and used her right hand to stroke the nav-ball over the headlines.
She heard the clicking on the metal bars and rungs behind her even before the insectoid voice of Clidjitt burbled and clicked into his translator. The comically high voice of the translator chirped, “What’s going on?” Rival shuddered again against the gravitational pull of the invisible force.
“Don’t know. Gravitational anomaly.”
She didn’t have to look to know the third pilot was suspended halfway between the floor and ceiling; his rotating thorax, abdomen, and torso, permitted him to cling like a spider from his six arms/legs and peer over their shoulders with his compound eyes. The bug might even be able to see the gravity field for all she knew.
The intercom crackled again, “If we’re broadsiding a star,” rumbled Gator, “I’d like to know…!”
“Standby for full thrust,” Crimson replied curtly.
“Nothing on the newsblasts,” Clidjitt narrated unhelpfully. He reached his stickly insect arm past Crimson and stole the nav-ball from her, with his spindly four-clawed hand. A line of wiry insect hairs poked close to her face, and Crimson dodged the prickly embrace with a curled lip. She unhooked her robotic arm from the ledge and weaved under the nosy insect, levering herself to standing behind Andross. Clidjitt floated over the back of the chair and lowered himself into an awkward perch on the co-pilot seat, his claws flying over multiple control panels at once. Already he was giving his eerie, hypnotic stare out the front view port, but probably reading every display at once, including Andross’. “…Checking last known logs of surrounding systems,” Clidjitt continued.
Crimson left the bug to it. Andross’ display bleeped, and he announced, “Scans got nothin’. A mini black-hole for all the sensors know.”
Crimson’s Mindframe grasped for references: “’But when she swallowed the sea water down, we saw the funnel of maelstrom…’” Dammit, Homer.
Impatient, Andross asked, “What do we do now?” Hardly compliant, it was a challenge. He’d already decided what he wanted to do, but wanted to know if she was ‘man enough.’ They’d had the ‘captain of the vessel’ discussion before. Fortunately a rematch would have to wait; they wanted to same thing.
“Angle us out. Full thrust. Inertia shields to full. Drain what you have to.” Into the intercom she announced. “Gator, Keffler, we’re raising the inertia fields—hafta break a gravitational pull. Buckle up; prepare for full thrust.”
“This’ll be fun,” Gator’s voice replied.
The Rival Bay had only lifted off from a planet, breaking its gravitational field, twice since Crimson had taken command. Once leaving the shipyard planet, and once the first time they’d had to refuel and purchase a shuttle so they’d never have to do it again (They bought the shuttle then on credit, being than broke; it’d since been paid off, but the Rival had several more centuries of ship loan). Both lift-offs they thought Rival was going to break up. Seed ships were meant for one voyage only. Taking off again hadn’t been part of its design plans.
Clidjitt swiveled his head (or torso) to look towards Crimson. She wasn’t sure if it was a necessary gesture, or a learned one. His translator buzzed, “Nothing on the system news, but interstellar reports have rumors of a baby-black hole, or a ‘gravity monster’ that’s been eating ships and things from Khibarra System.”
“Gravity monster?” Crimson and Andross asked simultaneously.
Three of the insectoid’s six knobbed palms turned upwards in a shrug. “Local space authorities, and stellar-biologists disagree as to whether it’s a live creature, using gravity to capture ships and asteroids as its prey to compress into food.”
Besides the ambient trembling of the Rival’s decks and hull silence greeted the insectoid.
“It’s only a theory. All attempts to gather data from the mini black holes have been captured and crushed. But it disappears, moves and reappears…. Or else, this chunk of the galaxy has a case of intermittent black-holeitis.”
The joke might have been funny another day.
“Right,” Andross growled, turning to his instruments. “Full thrust. Grab yer guts.”
Crimson dropped back to the auxiliary seats. “Inertia shields to maximum!” over the intercom she announced, “All crew, strap yourselves down!”
Clidjitt was reaching across and making the adjustments on Andross’ panel while the pilot wrestled the Rival into the correct orientation. Already the engines were warming up, and the familiar rattle 800 meters away echoed up to the cockpit. Andross swatted the insectoid’s hand away. He grabbed the thruster control.
“No lunch for you, monster.”
Crimson set her jaw. “All hands, brace.”