The distant roar of the Rival Bay’s engines was additionally muted by the bizarre effect of the inertia fields. Even as the hundreds of g-forces barraged her from the front, a peculiar electro-magnetic tingling pulsed through her, trying to convince her biological components that she wasn’t being squashed. The familiar shaking of the Rival’s cockpit, however, did not seem to lessen under the influence of the structural support fields. First the cabin surged forward, the old ship bending beneath the colossal force, then it began to shake like an epileptic in a fit. Crimson had thought they would both die when she and Gator had broken gravity that first time, and launched the Rival into space after getting a deal on the derelict seed ship. A seed ship wasn’t the typical fare of a free-lance pilot-for-hire, but it was better than nothing; and Gator was large enough to turn half of the nuts on the engine coils by hand, without the old-fashioned hydraulic wrench the spotty salesman had thrown in. It had seemed like their only viable option at the time. But it was die or starve to death back then; so they took the chance.
Now as the mercenary pilot Andross, a 1U Missle Pilot—or MiPie—gunned the thrusters, Crimson grit her teeth. Com’on ol’ girl. I promised I wouldn’t do this to you again; don’t fall apart now. Back then she and Gator didn’t know if they would have a comet’s chance in the universe. Now they knew. And they had a crew. It’d be a shame to lose it to a baby black hole…
“Are we moving?” Crimson shouted over the rattling cabin. “Clidjitt! Where’s the event horizon?”
The insectoid in the co-pilot seat didn’t even seem to have buckled in. Andross’ movements appeared sluggish in the mega-tons of conflict gravity and energy. But the bug with the exoskeleton seemed nonplussed, his three free arms spinning the nav-ball, and flicking switches easily. The whirring clicks of his insect mother-tongue proceeded the funny high-pitched voice of his translator box hung around his neck by only a second or two. “Calculating…! Black holes are something of a mystery—about 500 kilometers aftward!”
“Chicken spit!” Crimson twisted her waist away from the cybernetic portions of her pelvis and used the left arm, the robotic one, to flick on her own display. Already her Mindframe was calculating faster than the shaking onboard computer could load. How many megatons of output did Rival ha—
Andross wasn’t calculating, “Five hundred and one! Five hundred and two! Com’on, baby!” The human pilot was a high-stakes racer from a gambling planet. Humans were few and far between out in the wide galaxies. When you met one, it usually meant something. Andross stood for act first, think later.
“Confirmed!” Clidjitt burbled, “We are gaining distance of the event horizon!”
A deep groan from the bulkheads behind the cockpit confirmed the stress load the miniature black hole exerted on them. Crimson grit her teeth harder. A shower of sparks burst from a door console behind her.
Then, with an exponential tail-off the terrifying rumble of gravimetric pressure eased, like the popping of a vacuum seal.
“Yeeeehaw!” Andross cheered.
“We are exiting the gravity well,” Clidjitt announced. “Distance to event horizon 500,000 kilometers and rising.”
Crimson blew a sigh through her teeth. “Next time Charybdis. Status?”
Clidjitt flicked his way through a number of routine checks. “All major systems appear to be functioning… damage to three external sensor arrays, and some minor systems seemed to be fried.”
Over the intercom Crimson called, “Report, all sectors.”
Gator’s crocodile snarl asked, “Sooo, did we go planetside, and I missed it? I was hoping for shore leave…”
“Black hole. What’s your status?”
“Black hole!” His voice trailed off in a series of expletives. Crimson envisioned the Megladyte’s massive jaws craning this way and that as he scanned the engine bays for answers, his voice dropping away from the intercom mic. “As good as can be expected after a full thrust. I’ll be knocking things back into place for a while… Structure’s holding, s’long’s you don’t need right angles anywhere…”
“Let me know,” Crimson nodded.
“Keffler here,” came the chief botanist’s voice. Crimson thought she heard him swear. “I prefer earthquakes! Everything’s tossed like a salad…”
“Injuries? Damage?” Crimson growled. Grumbling was the botanical prospectors favorite pastime when he wasn’t farming some rare vegetable or nursing some poisonous flower. But he knew how to keep the Rvial’s kitchens stocked with plenty of fresh foods, and that was something in space. She just didn’t let him run the place.
A raspy sigh resigned his answer. “Sunflowers are flat as a hurricane… hafta check the bubble spores.”
“Do that. Report when you know. I’m coming ‘round.”
Shaak-Rom reported all were fine in the crew cabins, despite minor bruises or scrapes; Crimson sent him to check the armory. Braevel accounted for Medical Bay. Cort reported the cargo bay was fine; mostly empty at the moment anyway.
Crimson unbuckled from her seat and levered herself up. She hovered over Andross’ shoulder like a cloud of dark matter. “Care to explain?”
The MiPie didn’t intimidate easily. He swiveled his chair around. “Hey! I was on course when the blammed thing opened, or whatever it did. Maybe if your ship had seen it on a newsblasts or something…!”
“You flew us into a black hole—within 500 kilometers of the event horizon. A piece of cosmic dust could’ve knocked us into the pancake factory!”
Andross sneered through a sarcastic squint, “Sensors can’t see Nuthin’! I was on course and flyin’ straight. Don’t think you appreciate how hard it was to control this boat while we waited for you to climb up here and make your decision. You ‘don’t want anything happening with your say so.’”
They were her words. The pilot had called her to the bridge when the black hole latched onto them. They probably had the MiPie’s quick hands to thank for not drifting to their doom. She sometimes found it irritating that he wore his Missile Suit whenever on duty. The pressurized pilot armor made him look like a space pirate ready to hijack a passing freighter; but if it got him in the zone…
“Well done.” She sneered back, “If anyone on his ship ever authorizes a full thrust without my say so, it won’t be gravity you’ll have to worry about crushing you.” She raised and flexed her robotic hand. “You have duty ‘til system jump. Make sure that gravity monster doesn’t chase us.”
Andross winced in defiance. Clidjitt was more helpful. “I shall stay and help watch for further anomalies.”
“Fine. And send an advisory to the Berkotal Space Traffic Commission. They’ve got an issue out here.”
“Righto!” chirped the insectoid.
Sometimes she wondered where his translator got its vernacular.
She turned and clumped out the door, smelling the electric ash of the fried door console. As the step-clank of her cyborg gait echoed down the grated catwalk, Andross quipped, “You’re welcome!”
In the Imperium Navy that would be insubordination. But this wasn’t the Imperium, or any other navy. Besides. He’d done a good enough job; he could be afforded the last word…