This is the version of this story that I submitted for my OU A363 Creative Writing module last month – it was originally 6.7k words but I had to cut 4k from it in about 16 hours in order to make my word count and deadline. So this super-compact version is not my favourite of the four edits but it’s the one I’m sharing for now. Eventually this story will get to grow *way* beyond the confines of a short story, which I’m quite excited about. In the meantime I hope you enjoy 🙂 Ray x
It’s not the first time I’ve been woken in the dead of night by the proximity alarm screaming through the ship.
‘Ada…’ I groan. ‘That better not be because a certain someone has hacked the airlock again.’
Before the A.I. can respond, there’s a low chuckle that is way, way too close. My hair stands on end, I know that laugh.
‘Lights!’ I bark, scowling as the cabin illuminates my favourite nightmare in the doorway, pointing a goddamn plasma pistol at me.
‘What the fuck are you doing here Katya?’
She gives me a smug grin that makes me want to punch her. ‘It’s always such a delight to see you Eliss.’
I fling myself out of bed. Yanking a jumpsuit from my dresser I turn my back to Katya and zip it to just above my breasts. I take a few breaths before facing her.
‘What do you want Kat?’ Shit.
Katya holsters her pistol, giving no sign she heard me slip up. Not that I could tell. I’ve met androids who emote more that she does.
‘I need a pilot for a job,’ she begins. ‘And a ship…’
‘Are you fucking kidding me?’
‘It’d only be for a week or two, you’d be in control.’
‘Like that’s any reassurance,’ I laugh.
She sighs, ‘I know you don’t trust me Eliss. Stars know, I’ve given you dozens of reasons not to. But I need a pilot with a quick ship. I promise, once the job is done you’ll get enough Unicreds for a one-way trip through the Centauri Portal, like you always wanted.’
My mind blanks.
‘Wait, what? You’ll pay me to get half a galaxy away if I pilot my ship for a fortnight? That’s it?’
Katya nods. ‘When this is done I’ll be out of your hair for good. My only condition is that you pretend you don’t know me; the other crew think I’m hiring some Academy dropout, not the golden girl.’
I shrug. ‘I’ve pretended I don’t know you for the last 18 months so it shouldn’t be too tricky.’ Stars what a filthy lie.
‘It’s settled then,’ Katya says. ‘I’ll ping Ada the details shortly.’ She turns to leave.
‘What’s the job anyway?’ I ask.
She glances back, with a hint of a smile. ‘We’re jacking hyper-diamonds from a Russiliano transport for the Korresk Syndicate.’
Of course we fucking are.
A week later, I’m at the trading port, pacing the ship’s entry ramp waiting for Katya. I can deal with whoever she brings on this idiotic heist, what’s less certain is whether I can deal with being around her. I’ll either kill her or…
‘What the hell have you done to yourself?’ Katya frowns at me, dropping her duffel bag as she approaches, taking in the mods I got before I set off.
I touch the buzzed side of my head, ‘Thought they’d suit the cover story.’
‘Shaving half your head, getting some tattoos and a nose ring?’ She laughs. ‘Oh stars, that’s cute.’
‘Thank you for the insightful feedback,’ I snap.
I head back towards the cockpit, ‘You’re in the engineer’s quarters so dump your crap in there. I don’t want you near enough to strangle in the night.’
‘You’re no fun anymore,’ she mutters.
Whose fault is that?
I mostly avoid Katya until the other crew turn up. There’s the monstrously beefy twins – Castor & Pollux – who come from one of the rougher mining planets judging by their beat-to-shit faces and second skin of dust. The other guy is a part-cyborg called Riggs.
There’s vague introductions as they arrive. I do my best impression of a surly but brilliant pilot, it’s my default face anyway.
Once the ship’s fully fuelled and supplied to the rafters we’re good to go. I settle into the pilot’s chair, fire up the sub-light engine, and begin lifting us clear from the port.
Katya slides into the chair beside mine, keying co-ordinates into the hyper-drive computer to calculate the jumps and cool-downs we’ll need to get there. The view-screen displays the route to a seemingly empty portion of space.
‘So we’re flying to the middle of nowhere for this idiocy?’ I say drily.
‘Not nowhere. It’s the middle of the Russilianos’ smuggling route, all their contraband goes through there. Everything’s on autopilot, no crew, nothing within a day’s hyper-space travel to stop us.’
Katya looks remarkably confident. I don’t want to know how she knows about Russiliano smuggling routes. Whatever keeps Unicreds in her account I suppose.
Shaking myself, I focus on making the first jump to hyper-space. From the corner of my eye I see Katya’s shoulders slump before walking off.
Her feelings are not my problem anymore.
I activate the hyper-drive. The ship lurches forward as we run away into the stars.
I discover there’s a problem with the hyper-drive as my head smacks the edge of a cargo container. Stars burst across my vision, my teeth biting into my bottom lip. Cursing and spitting blood I stagger for the door. Katya appears as I reach the corridor, she stares while the ship’s alarm screams.
‘Liss?’ She reaches for my face, it’s a mess undoubtedly, but there’s no time. For that or dwelling on when she last called me Liss.
‘I’m fine,’ I say. ‘The ship won’t be if we don’t get the core fixed.’
We sprint to the engine deck, I start slamming levers down taking as much of the core offline as I can while Kat runs diagnostics.
‘It’s probably one of the converter coils,’ she yells over the alarm. ‘They always crapped out when we tried to do long-haul stretches.’
‘I don’t remember it throwing us out of hyperspace like that before!’
‘Maybe it’s more than one? I hope I’ve enough spares to fix it.’
I pull the last lever, the alarm cuts abruptly. ‘You better fix it or we’re fucked.’
‘Aye Captain,’ Kat snaps me a salute with a grin that stabs to a place I didn’t realise could still hurt. She clambers behind the core.
Something clangs and Kat yells triumphantly. Her greasy hand waves a mangled lump of metal I assume used to be a functioning converter coil. She drops it and walks backs to where I’m slumped on the floor, head reeling.
‘It’s only one coil that’s trashed thank—’ She looks at me in horror, ‘Fuck, Eliss! We need to stop that bleeding!’
‘But the core…’
‘It can wait,’ Kat replies. ‘It’s no use, if our pilot’s unconscious.’ She hoists me up. I sway while darkness dances on the edges of my vision.
The next thing I’m aware of is being sat on my bed, Kat approaching me with the ship’s Med-kit.
I can feel every one of her fingertips on my chin as she dabs my lip clean. She’s so close I ache in ways I’ve craved for months. Our eyes lock as she applies the Nano-gel, my lip tingling as it heals. Endless seconds later she brushes her thumb over my mouth, her gaze scalding my skin.
‘Good as new,’ she murmurs.
My mind short-circuits and I’m rigid as she leans closer.
A fist hammers on the door. We jump apart like we’ve been electrocuted. My heart beats harder than it did only ten minutes ago when we all nearly died. I’m sure dying wouldn’t be as stressful right about now.
‘Eliss? What the hell’s going on?’ Riggs asks. ‘Felt like the ship was tearin’ itself apart!’
Kat replies, ‘It’s fine, Riggs. I’m coming to fix the hyper-drive now. Eliss was injured when it malfunctioned but we’ll be moving again soon.’
‘Sure thing Katya, I’ll let the twins know they can stop praying.’
We’re left in yawning silence trying to compose ourselves. I look away, dizzy at what almost happened. Stars, that was too close. Fingers force my face round. It takes all my willpower not to kiss Kat until I stop hating her.
‘My birthday? Seriously?’ She’s smiling. ‘It’s like you’re not even trying Liss.’
The door clicks shut and I gape at the lock keypad as I realise how Kat got me in here. My cheeks flame. First priority is changing the key-code, after I take an ice-cold shower.
I’m in the pilot chair a few days later when the proximity alarm sounds, a ship blinking into view on the main screen. There’s a triumphant gleam in Kat’s eyes as I glance over. Her sneaky sub-routine hack worked. The guys are already by the airlock with the gear but I hear a whoop echoing through the ship.
‘Let’s steal those hyper-diamonds.’
We close the distance, the transport looming large ahead. I throttle back the engines and bring us alongside the access hatch we’re using. I hold my breath as I complete the final manoeuvers, connecting the ships with the airlock tunnel.
The trickiest part of my job is over.
Kat waits on the other side for me. My face must show my nerves as she pats my shoulder before gesturing to follow her.
The guys are laser-cutting into the cargo hold door when we arrive. Kat hooks a tablet into a panel and brings up the camera feed from inside.
‘Those thin black cases,’ she says, pointing. ‘There’s twenty in total so we take four each. Make the hole just big enough for Eliss.’
‘Me?’ I yelp.
‘Yes, you. It’s easier. Any arguments?’
I shake my head. Ten minutes pass with just the crackling of the torches cutting through steel. Kat works on her tablet while I pace.
‘That’s got it!’ Riggs shouts, snatching up a Mag-handle. Castor grabs another, clamping them on they haul the square free, the hole left behind glowing white-hot.
Riggs douses the door with liquid nitrogen. The metal groans as it cools rapidly. It looks wide enough for my hips but it’ll be tight. I unclip my pistol holster, attaching two Mag-handles above the hole so I can get out.
Kat gives me a brief smile. ‘You got this,’ she mouths.
I put one leg through the hole, holding my weight from the handles as I lift the other. Slowly I slide inside and let go, my momentum carrying me down.
I find the black cases. Grabbing the first four, I take them back to the hole.
‘Order up!’ Hands take them.
As I pass out the third set I hear Kat tell the guys, ‘Take those, then come back for the cutting gear.’
I’m giving Kat the final cases when there’s the unmistakeable sound of a plasma pistol firing, three times.
‘Stay there,’ Kat says, freeing her pistols. ‘I’ll go check it out and come back for you, okay?’ She sprints off before I can reply.
‘That’s not what happened last time,’ I mutter.
It’s painfully quiet. I strain my ears listening for Kat’s return. Eventually my fear and impatience wins out and I scramble for the handles. I pick up my pistol, gripping it so hard my gloves creak.
I’ve barely taken two steps when a hand closes about my throat from behind and cold, humming metal jabs against my temple.
‘Now where is the last rat?’ a deep voice growls in my ear. I shudder at the Russo accent.
A pit opens up in my stomach. This shouldn’t be happening. I drop my pistol and he kicks it away.
Kat careens round the corner and gets half-way down the corridor before spotting the man holding a gun to my head. She staggers to a halt, her face like thunder as she points her pistols at him, at me.
‘Let her go Miroslav,’ she says and my body turns to ice.
No. Stars, please no.
The man laughs, pressing the pistol harder against my skin. ‘Katerina it’s been too long since you came home! Your father was worried that you were going to betray us. How disappointed he’ll be!’
‘Katerina?’ I whisper, disbelief knifing deep. Was anything she told me true?
Her jaw clenches. Stepping closer she speaks to Miroslav again.
‘It’s me you want. She’s just the pilot I hired, she has nothing to do with this.’
‘Oh? I’m not so sure Katerina.’ Miroslav pulls me closer, squeezing tighter. ‘She trembles so beautifully, I think she has everything to do with this. Is she the one you abandoned after Mikhail spotted you on Valencis 9 last year?’
Kat’s face twitches but her hands hold steady. ‘There was no one to abandon,’ she says carefully ‘Mikhail was mistaken.’
‘You hear that?’ Miroslav sneers at me. ‘You were nothing to her. I could wring the life from you and she wouldn’t care at all!’
My heart splinters in my chest, tears flowing down my cheeks. I will her to look at me. ‘Kat,’ I choke out. ‘Please.’
‘Shall I put her out of her misery, Katerina?’ There’s a click by my ear, the pistol’s humming grows louder.
I take a last shuddering breath.
Kat’s expression wrenches as she points her Tesla pistol at my chest. My heart stutters.
‘I am so sorry Liss,’ she says. Then squeezes the trigger.
Lightning rips through me, my back arching as I scream. I can’t breathe, muscles seized in blinding agony. I strain to see Kat one last time but her attention has already left me. As oblivion rushes in, there’s-
I’m so light. I could drift amongst the stars like cobwebs of supernovae. I’m free.
Not once in all the years I knew her did she say sorry. Not to anyone.
Was she sorry for killing me?
I wish I could ask her. I wish I could tell her that I never stopped loving her. Even when she left. Even when she kept showing up at my door. Even when she shot me. I never could stop.
There’s a sound. A growing hum.
A jolt pierces me.
I feel heavy. Everything aches. Then – a flutter of a heartbeat.
I gasp. Stars, oxygen has never tasted so sweet. Arms cradle me as I greedily gulp air. Something drips on my forehead. I wrestle my eyelids open, blinking until I make sense of what I’m seeing.
Kat’s crying. Flat-out bawling as she clutches me to her chest. Her heart utterly exposed and it’s like a star is flaring into life before me. It’s the most wondrous thing I’ve ever seen.
I can’t help laughing, it’s more of a wheeze but it shocks Kat into silence.
‘Liss? Oh stars I’m so, so sorry, I never meant for this to happen!’
‘You didn’t mean to shoot me? I think your first mistake was pulling the trigger.’
Kat trembles. ‘I didn’t mean to kill you! Your exo-suit took most of the damage like I hoped but the shock still stopped your heart. I’ve never been more terrified in all my life.’
Her eyes are fixed on mine and I believe every word she says.
‘Liss, Miroslav lied. You know that don’t you? You are not nothing to me. You are the beginning and the end of everything I treasure in this universe. It almost killed me to leave you like I did.’
‘To protect you. If they knew how I felt about you then they’d have the key to make me do whatever they wanted. They’re the kind of people who’d gleefully destroy you to hurt me. If you hated me – wanted nothing to do with me then you were safe from them.’
The last eighteen months rearrange themselves in my mind. She was shaken after our stop on Valencis 9, the week that followed we barely slept for clinging to one another in ecstasy. She’d been trying to say goodbye in her ridiculous Katya way.
‘You fucking idiot,’ I tell her. She flinches but I cup her face with my hands, bringing her closer. ‘You could’ve just told me! All you had to say was “Liss, my family’s a bunch of crazy mobsters who want to drag me back into their underworld of space crime. Also my name is really Katerina”. That wouldn’t have been so hard, surely?’
Her lips crash into mine and for three incredible seconds my universe quakes. She pulls back so our noses are a hair-width apart.
‘Liss,’ she whispers against my lips. ‘My family is bunch of crazy mobsters who want to drag me back into their underworld of space crime. Also my name is really Katerina. Will you run away to the stars with me?’
‘I thought you’d never ask.’