Featured Story: “To Catch a President.”

The following story is a selection from World Unknown Review Volume III (2016).

To Catch a President

by James Wylder

       The ship was spiraling out of control. Zhang Han gripped the armrests and gritted her teeth. The inertial dampeners were clearly fading out, and if they failed, they’d all be ripped apart at the speed they were going. The pilots were yelling something she couldn’t make out. The viewports lit up in a brilliant flash of energy. Her aide was beside her, terrified, clutching his tablet to his chest.
       “It’s going to be okay.” She said. She didn’t actually remember his name. He looked over at her as though this statement was revelatory, and then the ship was hit by another rocket, and he lurched forward, retching as the whiplash flung him forward into his safety restraints.
       “President, they’re moving to dock. Sending security,” the co-pilot yelled back. She made a signal to her bodyguards, and they armed themselves, as did she. Her aide looked terrified again. She couldn’t waste time reassuring him now. She heard the sounds of boots moving towards the hatch; standard procedure was for a portion to guard the door, another portion to line the entryway, and a third to move between the hatch and the president. The security detail moved quickly, perfectly. She listened.
       The hatch blew. They’d sealed the dock, unfortunately. Martian ships had long ago learned that pirates would try to blow the hatch into a vacuum, and there were certain precautions taken that made that advantageous. These guys had to be either pros or the rankest amateurs. She listened.
       There was no sound of gas or flash grenades. Her guards were suited up for a possible vacuum breech with helmets that would negate the effect of such devices. Instead, she heard the sound of —
       “Pill bug!” she heard a guard yell. Now, how did pirates get one of those? Those were Centro droids. She pulled out her phone and pulled up the security footage. The droid was an armored orb, like all “Pill Bug” droids, officially the AA-94 Orbital, but it seemed to have been shot and patched up. These had to be pros. If you could take out a Pill Bug and stitch the thing up, you were no spring chicken. They blew up if you tried to disable them, after all.
      “Aim for the patches,” she said into her comm. The droid had already steamrolled a few of her troops, jamming a vibrating electrified spike with a mono-molecular tip through them the instant it made contact. Energy blasts seemed to splash off its curved surface, plasma literally so. But as her troops focused their fire on the patches, the thing stopped moving, and instead of exploding, it stopped moving, smoldering on top of a still twitching son of Geru Ghara.
       “They’ll be sending in the next wave, watch it,” Commander Gupta said.
       “We have Gremlins on the hull.”
       Oh, for fuck’s sake, really? Zhang stood up, unsnapping her restraints and drawing a pistol.
       “They have to be really cocky to think they can take us with Gremlins.”
       “These are pros.”
       She felt the small buzz as the hull electrified, and then shot a magnetic pulse out.
       “We took out a few of them, but a few managed to dig grips onto the hull.” Pros. Zhang listened and pointed at the ceiling. She and her guards stood silently as they heard the sounds of fighting over by the airlock and the sounds of someone cutting into the hull from above.
       “They’re going to space us?” the aide cried.
       “No,” Zhang replied. A circle dropped from the ceiling, revealing an airtight structure made of Gremlins, plate sized hexagonal droids with spindly legs that could crawl along hulls and latch themselves together.        She could hear the pilots cursing as they tried to turn the ship, but to no avail. There was a nudge as a second vessel locked into the makeshift airlock, and Zhang sighed. Why did everything have to be complicated?

* * *

       This was supposed to be just a simple trip to a Martian outpost in the asteroid belt. They’d managed to hold off a Centro blockade for two months, even though they didn’t have the supplies for it on the base. She’d heard that after the water filters broke down, the troops there had drank their own piss. She’d felt a duty to visit them; it was bravery and perseverance like that that made their freedom from Centro possible. But no, someone had talked. And now she was going to have a bad day.
       Filament Joe’s left eye lit up, literally. He didn’t really have an eye there, just a raw old style filament bulb that he turned on to shine on things. It could have been more effective, but he liked how it freaked people out. Kali had never asked him how he’d lost it. Krimson Kali checked her blasters in each of her four hands. 3 Sins checked that their armor plating was screwed onto their skin right and drew their ax. Kentaur roughly polished the shields on their arms and stomped their four metal hooves in anticipation.
       “Everyone ready?” Kali asked. The rest nodded. The capsule attached itself to the Martian ship, and even though it made no sound in reality, she imagined the noise the little Gremlins made as they scurried to make an air seal.
       “3, 2…” The seal was made. A big green light shot on.
       “1! Go!” Kentaur went first and dropped down through the hole. He didn’t crush anyone, disappointingly, but he did manage to swing a hoof at someone standing too close and send them sprawling with a broken dislocated jaw. Filament Joe landed next, shooting rapidly at everything in sight as he dropped. Then 3 Sins fell, taking point to guard Kentaur’s back. Finally, Kali dropped down. The fighting was fast; so fast she wasn’t sure she could have followed it if she didn’t have a combat micro-computer installed in her brain. Kentaur was charging, smacking guards left and right, while 3 Sins batted away guards from the flank. Filament was bulls-eyeing people. Kali swept in to finish the job, her four guns going off like a rain storm, her electronic eye pinpointing targets and taking them down faster than she realized it was doing it.
       “Stand down,” she heard a woman say. From the end of the compartment, the President of Mars walked towards her. Her troops dropped their weapons with a touch of hesitation. Only then did Kali notice there was a sword sticking out of Kentaur’s mechanical rump. That wouldn’t be fun to fix.
       “I’m President Zhang Han of Geru Ghara. You must be either the strike commander or the whole leader of this operation,” she said to Kali, as though the rest of the team wasn’t in the room.
       “Yeah, I’m leading this.”
       “Good. I surrender.”
       Kali squinted. What?
       “Did you hear me? I said I surrender.”
       “Er, yeah. I heard you.”
       “Stand your crew down, then. Now.”
       She pulled up her comm. “We’ve got the President, cease hostilities.” The President said something similar into her comm.
       “Excellent. Well, then, please take me into custody. And if you harm any more of my people, I’ll kill myself.”
       “Excuse you?”
       “You heard me. I have a suicide device wired into my body. If you kill any more of my people, I’ll activate it.”
       Kali looked over at the other three. What was she playing at?
       “Do you not understand me?”
       “I understand you, certainly. But your people will send ships after us.”
       “As if every Martian ship in the solar system isn’t already trying to make a beeline for you. My terms. I surrender, you spare my people, or I die.”
       They could certainly get a decent pay cut from Zhang’s corpse, but they both knew that wasn’t where the money was.
       “Fine. Cuff her and get her on board.”
       “Don’t resist,” Zhang said to one of her guards.
       “But Madame President —”
       “Don’t.” Filament Joe came up behind her and put on the shock cuffs. Zhang didn’t resist, and they led her through the halls of the ship back to the main airlock. The injured troops saluted if they could as the prisoner and her captors passed, shamed looks on their faces. Zhang nodded at them. They had done their jobs. There was really only so much they could have done here. She stepped through the airlock into the pirate ship, followed by a cohort of grim looking thugs, and listened as the air pressurization happened. This wasn’t over.

* * *

       Kali laughed as she clanked mugs with 3 Sins. The mess hall was uproarious, and alcohol was sloshing every which way as the ship made an impossible-to-follow zig-zag into blank space.
       “That was way easier than I expected. She just gave up!”
       “That makes me nervous, though. She knew we’d want her alive.” Joe said.
       “Anybody could have figured that out. Of course we’d want her alive. Alive she is a bargaining chip, dead she’s a martyr.”
       “Not for Violent Vidyul.”
       “Viscous Vidyul.”
       “Voracious Vidyul.”
       “Vidyul Throat Biter.”
       “Okay, yes, Persephone is a crazy, crazy lady, but she still wants Zhang Han alive so she can roast her alive and eat her eyeballs on toast or whatever the hell she wants to do with her. Now it’s just a matter of who is willing to pay us more.” She pulled up her tablet and looked over the message again. Two recipients listed: her bounty contacts on Olympus Station and at Centro Systems. Kali clicked the button while her third arm raised her mug up to her mouth again. Time for a bidding war.

* * *

       It took the a while to come to a conclusion. Vidyul’s people on Olympus were much more direct about the amount of money they were willing to pay, while Centro was more cautious at first and needed more proof of the captive’s existence. Centro soon outstripped the bidding by far. The rich bastards, but no complaints from Kali today.
       “Ladies, gentlemen, and others, we have ourselves a winner.” Kali grinned, gesturing widely with all four of her arms. They wouldn’t just be able to retire on this, they’d be able to buy a damn asteroid for themselves. The crew cheered loudly, and she forwarded their location to Centro.

* * *

       Captain Alex Hirsh wiped his brow. This wasn’t a call he’d expected to ever get, ever.
       “You want me to do what again, Admiral?”
       Admiral Carthage bridged her fingers on the hologram.
       “A group of independent space pirates have captured Zhang Han, the President of the Former Colony World of Mars.” Alex noted she made sure to use Centro’s full formal name for Mars, which still struck him as being a bit unnecessarily bitter about Centro losing it in their revolution. “I need you to go to the coordinates I’ve sent you and retrieve her.”
       He’d already sent the coordinates to the pilots and told them to move with maximum speed, but he still couldn’t quite believe it.
       “Ma’am, may I ask a question?”
       “Of course, Captain.”
       “The Gutenberg is a battleship. Wouldn’t a smaller ship attract less attention?”
       “A smaller ship attracting less attention is what got the President of Mars in the situation she is in right now. I’m going to be sending more ships to rendezvous with you as soon as possible, but you’re the closest ship we have to the location. The only way we’re going to hold onto this prize is with force, not subtly. If anyone is going to jump us there, they already know where we’ll be. Be on alert.”
       Hirsh nodded. “I’ll be on guard, ma’am.”
       The Admiral nodded. “Good. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for us. We catch Zhang, we can pull the Martian government apart from the inside. It would take someone with an ungodly amount of persuasion to hold those clowns together if she died. Foundation would certainly declare itself an independent state. But I digress. Get to it, Captain.”
       Hirsh saluted. This was going to be an interesting day.

* * *

       The Battleship Gutenberg docked with the pirate ship Vishnu Videodrome, utterly dwarfing it. “We could just blow that thing out of the sky,” Commander Monelle Raye said.
       “The captain isn’t that dumb. Centro always honors its agreements; that’s what separates us from Rimward trash,” Ensign Ayaana Muhammad replied, “…ma’am.”
       Monelle supposed she was right, sort of. She didn’t see why they shouldn’t just blow that traitorous scumbag to vapor where she was.
       “Ensign, we’re going to be suiting up.”
       “Ma’am?”
       “Get the squadron ready. I don’t trust Rimwards either. I want you in your fighters, ready to launch at a moment’s notice.”
       “Yes, ma’am!” She saluted her commander sharply and then moved to go get the squadron ready from barracks. She reached under her hijab to scratch her head and tried to push the nervous rush out of her head. Outside the window, the pirate ship, huge for a Rimward vessel, blinked its exterior lights. She couldn’t tell if it was threatening or welcoming. She couldn’t worry about that; she had to focus. Straightening her back, she charged into the barracks.
       “Okay, people, time to get to your launch tubes. Cautiousness never killed the cat!”

* * *

       Krimson Kali had a reputation as a slit-throat thug. She had killed more people than she could count on her four hands, but she still felt intimidated in the rich interior of the Centro battleship. No one was disrespecting her, everyone was being polite, and that somehow made it worse. If they were being rude or petty, that would probably make it much, much easier. But no, they were all treating her like she wasn’t a weirdo with four arms and a camera for an eye, and she wondered if they knew their politeness was having this sort of effect on her. She was ushered through a door into a lush conference room, followed by Joe and 3 Sins (she figured Kentaur would cause a bit of a hassle, since he was the size of a horse).
       “Captain Kali?” A very hunky looking man with light brown hair said from the back of the room. It was like he was from the cover of a cheap romance novel. His uniform was so perfectly tended it could have fed a family of 12 if it had been a farm. His lush blue coat was perfectly brushed, his red tech shoulderpad perfectly polished. She tried to get her focus back together.
       “Captain Krimson Kali, yeah,” she said pseudo-firmly.
       Captain Hirsh tried to focus, but wow, was the pirate captain a looker. He’d in truth never actually talked to a Rimward before. That was usually left to the lower level officers. Were they all this pretty? I mean, she had four arms, but — no, keep it together, Alex. Commander Raye raised an eyebrow at him ever so slightly. She’d noticed and probably would never let him hear the end of it.
       “Welcome aboard the Gutenberg. We have your payment all ready to be transferred to your accounts.”
       “We also would like, uh, guaranteed safe passage. We’re well aware this isn’t going to make us friends. We want to follow you back to Earth and then depart from there once this has blown over.”
       He resisted the urge to shrug. That was frankly a very easy request to accept, easier than he wanted her to know, of course. This cost them nothing. He scrolled through his tablet aimlessly for a moment, pretending to think it over.
       “Done. We can accommodate that request.”
       Kali exhaled deeply. “Can I see the credit transfer?”
       Hirsh nodded and handed her the datapad. It was all in order. Perfect. She looked relieved, as though thinking, “I really hadn’t had anything to worry about.”
       Then one of her entourage got a comm, and their eyes lit up. At the same time, Commander Raye’s eyes lit up as she got presumably the same comm.
       “Oh, shit,” 3 Sins said.
       “Sir,” Raye began, “a ship has just come out of cloak.”
       “Release the snub fighters. If it’s a cloaked ship, it can’t be —”
       “No, sir, I mean a battleship.”
       Alex’s eyes got cartoonishly large. “No ship that large has a cloaking device!” He turned and told the screen on it to activate. It revealed a large battleship, neither Centro nor Red Martian, larger than the Gutenberg, somehow.
       “What on god’s green —”
       “Captain, we’re getting a comm.”
       He pointed at Raye for her to put it through.
       “Hello, Battleship Gutenberg. If you don’t want this to become a book burning, I’d hand over your captive. Now.”
       “Who am I speaking to?” he replied.
       “Oh, gosh,” the woman’s voice replied, suddenly childlike. “You really didn’t know? Oh, dear…” Then she started laughing, laughing for far too long, really. “You’re talking to the Goddess of the Underworld.” Her voice turned suddenly stern. “And I will cut off the hands of every member of your crew and leave you to bleed to death if you don’t comply.”
       “Its Violent Vidyul,” 3 Sins whispered.
       “Vidyul Throat Ripper,” Raye said, as though it was an invocation.
       “Why did no one tell us she had a battleship? We don’t even have a cloaking battleship!”
       “That’s probably how we didn’t know, sir.”
       Fair enough, really. Kali looked dumbfounded.
       “We’re going to have to fight. Get the fighters to their launch tubes. Captain Krimson Kali, you need to get your ship ready to help us.”
       She nodded and turned to Filament Joe, but Joe was smiling.
       “Joe? We need to get the ship ready.”
       “Sorry, love, but the Vishnu Videodrome is under me and Kentaur’s control right now. You’re straight out of luck.”
       “Joe, you and I served together for years, you can’t just —”
       “You think I’d let you sell that woman to a Centro rat? They’re not our kind, and they never will be. One of them took my eye out, you know, thanks for asking.”
       She’d thought it was none of her business.
       “You better hope Vidyul is merciful to you. Maybe she won’t torture you too —”
       Joe’s other eye was burned through with a plasma bolt, leaving a hole out to the other side of his head. Captain Hirsh holstered his pistol.
       “Captain Kali, please attempt to wrest control of your ship before it undocks. I’m going to attempt to get us out of here alive.”
       She nodded, and she and 3 Sins began to run for the door, yelling into their comms. The battleship’s weapons had powered on, the fighters were in their launch tubes. Hirsh and Raye made their way to the bridge and waited to time their first move.

* * *

       Kali and 3 Sins sprinted down to the airlock at full speed, but by the time they got there, it was closed. A tech with a light beard was at the hatch, and she ordered him to open it.
       “We’ve got them magnetically locked to our dock at the moment, ma’am, but they’re probably going to —”
       A dull boom faintly came through the metal of the hatch.
       ” — blow the connection.”
       There wasn’t any way back onto her ship. 3 Sins ran their hands through their short hair, and she tried to give them a reassuring look but failed utterly. Kali really hoped that Centro’s military really did honor their word.

* * *

       “The ship has disconnected,” an ensign yelled up at the Captain.
       “Send a flight group out to intercept them. Disable them, if at all possible.”
       The battleship in front of them loomed.
       “Commander, assessment of the enemy ship.”
       “Heavily armored, heavily armed. It outclasses us in nearly every regard.”
       He sighed. This was not the way he’d planned to go out.
       “What way doesn’t it outclass us, Commander?”
       “Rotation speed and fighter capacity, sir.”
       That was it? That was really it? This was a disaster. The reinforcements he’d been promised were nowhere near close yet. If he engaged this ship in a battle, they’d get crushed. But they already were close.
       “Move the ship at ramming speed directly under their bow at maximum rotation.”
       “Sir?”
       “You heard the order. Prepare all fighters to launch along the hull facing away from the enemy battleship in the same direction as our rotation. Turn internal gravity to low, and put that energy towards increasing our gravitational pull on the outside of the ship.”
       “Yes, sir!”
       This was going to be a tricky maneuver. He wasn’t sure he could pull it off. But if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have to worry about failing. As they began spiraling, the enemy ship began pelting them with fire, which was not all dampened thanks to the power they were chucking into different systems, so they were lightly jostled around the bridge like in a cheap sci-fi drama. Then they reached the ship, and the fighters began to launch. They were slingshotted out of the ship and accelerated out like curving bullets, zipping in circles around the enemy battleship, peppering it with fire.
       “Focus on the propulsion,” he yelled as a particularly well-aimed missile hit the Gutenberg. The enemy ship tried to focus its fire on the fighters, but they were simply going too fast. Some of the pilots were probably losing their lunches; they weren’t made to go that fast, and some were missing their mark and their attacks were going off into space, or worse, strafing the side of the Gutenberg. But they only kept spiraling faster, and the big battleship, for all its technical know-how, didn’t have a crew of Centro trained soldiers. They couldn’t coordinate the way Hirsh could, and even as they launched their own ships, they had trouble keeping them in formation as the Gutenberg‘s own flak guns began to pummel them.
       “Sir, Vidyul is on the line. She is screaming at you.”
       Hirsh smiled, even as the ship was rocked again.
       “Er, also sir, Deck 24 has been totally vented.”
       He reminded himself that they were, in fact, still massively outgunned despite his clever trick. Looking down at the damage report, he could see there were several massive holes in the Gutenberg. He’d probably lost ten percent of his crew. He stopped smiling.
       Hirsh had only been a captain a few months. He’d only ever seen minor combat. He hadn’t fought at Mars, and the realization his order had just killed 10% of his crew, people who trusted him, was horrifying. His hands shook slightly as he gave the next order. He couldn’t back down.
       “Aim all guns at their propulsion. We don’t need to kill them, just stop them dead in the water.”
       The fighters corkscrewed around the ship to its engines and began unleashing missiles on the engines, as the Gutenberg‘s front cannons unleashed every bit of hell it could on it.
       “Focus on one side, er, starboard,” he yelled. They complied. The starboard side lit up, even as he watched another deck vent on his own ship’s light-board. 15%.
       The starboard engines didn’t so much explode as fall off. It didn’t look particularly impressive, but he didn’t care.
       “Recall the fighters. We need to get out of here. Put everything we can into rear shields, thrust, and fire support for the fighters. We’re heading in the direction of the Vishnu Videodrome.”
       “Sir?” Raye said incredulously.
       “We can’t let those people’s lives be in vain, Raye. We’re getting our target back.”

* * *

       Zhang Han was laughing as Kentaur tried to order the crew to stay to their posts. The Centro fighters, RY-23 Lindberghs, were too fast for their guns to hit, and their guns were too much for their hulls.
       “This is Ensign Ayaana Mohammed. Order your ship to stand down, or I’ll blow another chunk out of it.”
       “This is Captain Kentaur. You can take your orders and stuff them —”
       The ship was rocked again, and Kentaur’s four legs scrambled to keep him up. Zhang’s laughter increased.
       “Is something funny? Do I need to hit you again?” Kentaur cursed and hobbled over to the pilot.
       “Ram them.”
       “Uh, what?”
       “They come around again, jink up and hit them. There are only three of them.”
       The pilot looked unsure but nodded anyways. The fighters made a pass, and the pilot jerked up. The ship clipped one, taking the wing off, and nicked another on the tail, sending it spiraling with a dead engine, but the third hadn’t moved at all from its course and just plowed right into the Vishnu Videodrome. Kentaur didn’t even have time to realize he was dead.

* * *

       Ayaana said a prayer, cursed loudly, then said another prayer as she tried to stabilize her spinning ship. She was getting pulled in towards the weak gravity of a loose chunk of space rock, as was the wreckage of the pirate ship. Whatever happened, she’d be crashing. Making sure her suit was sealed for when the cockpit was inevitably breached, she tried to keep as much control as she could of her fall. It didn’t help much, but it didn’t really need to, as she ejected before impact. Close enough she’d get gently drawn back down to the rock if she engaged the ejector seat’s maneuvering thrusters, but not close enough she’d get cooked. For what a disaster the operation as a whole was, at least she’d crashed well. The seat popped out, and she zoomed towards the star speckled blackscape of space then pushed the thrusters back and careened down towards the rocky surface of the celestial body. Landing her chair fairly gently, she unbuckled herself and tried to judge how far away the pirate ship had crashed. It couldn’t be that far; it wasn’t a big rock. Estimating the direction, she pulled out her emergency rifle and began the march over to the wreck.
       She’d been off by a few degrees but still found it, a few hundred feet to her left. The ship was a total loss, and she was fairly certain the President of Mars was dead. Not that she’d be sad about that, but it would be a pretty big diplomatic incident. Still, she needed to check. The ship was still together enough that there could be survivors. She clenched the grip of the pistol tighter and let out a breath. Time to venture into the tomb. The side of the ship was cracked in several places. There couldn’t be any atmosphere left, which supported the whole “everyone is dead” theory fairly readily. Still, she looked for the best way in and found a nice big crack she could walk though without squeezing too much. She stepped through the hole and turned her suit’s lights on brighter. It was too dark in here to really make much out.        Then she felt a hand on her shoulder and a tap on her helmet.
       She turned her gaze as much as she could to her left to see a middle-aged Martian woman holding a gun to the side of her head. She was wearing a hastily thrown on spacesuit and still had on a breath-mask she’d thrown on underneath the helmet. Resourceful, she had to admit. The woman held the arm that wasn’t holding the gun out in front of her faceplate, showing a small screen displaying her suit’s comm code. Her suit’s computer instantly recognized it and inputted it.
       “Are we connected? Can you hear me?”
       “Zhang Han?”
       “Naturally,” she replied coolly. “Who are you?”
       “Ensign Ayaana Mohammad, Battleship Gutenberg, Centro Navy Spacefleet.”
       “You’re going to drop your gun, Ensign.”
       “Or?”
       “Or I blow your brains out like I did the other survivors of the crash.”
       Ayaana glanced down. Indeed, the people there had wounds that were not consistent with a starship crash, like a burnt hole in the side of their helmet.
       “You’re awful rough and tumble for a President.”
       “I led a revolution, and I led it by example. Now drop your gun.”
       She did, and it floated out of her hand, “I’ve already sent a signal for my people to come pick me up. They’re actually very close. A group of soldiers that was willing to drink their own piss rather than surrender to Centro, so if you’re smart, you’re going to stay on my good side.”
       “And be your hostage?”
       Zhang made a spiteful pop of her lips. “Nothing so crass. I’m going to leave you here with a transponder and enough air to last you till you’re picked up. Why don’t you take a seat?”
       She gestured at a chunk of ship that was not a bench but sort of resembled one. She edged over to it and sat down. She narrowed her eyes at Zhang.
       “Do you want me to send some sort of message to Centro or something?” Ayaana asked.
       “You really don’t get it, do you?” Zhang sighed.
       “You murdered your own people after you won your revolution. Your government doesn’t even deny it. You’re not exactly a person I’m up for trusting.”
       Ayaana’s eyes showed some real fire; Zhang Han could respect that.
       “Ensign Muhammad, do you know what the difference between your world and mine is?”
       “We don’t go into philosophical monologues?”
       “Capitalism was built on the backs of genocides and slavery. It was built out of rampant exploitation and horrors in order to achieve advancement. And yes, it did achieve advancement. But all the while, you try to pretend the ends don’t justify the means. When the exploitation makes you uncomfortable, you don’t stop it. You just try to make it acceptable, justifiable. Easy. Ignorable. I understand that the ends do justify the means. That any advancement has costs. But because I’m not lying about it, I understand the cost and the value of every sacrifice. Killing is something you do to survive, not something you do to get a new armchair. If you try to kill me, I’ll shoot you down before you can blink. But if not, your life is more important.”
       “That does not make any sense whatsoever,” Ayaana replied. Zhang shook her head, and a big light started blinking from the console.
       “My ride is here. Have a nice life, Ensign. Make the most of it.”
       Big spotlights poured onto the wreck, and a group of commandos poured into the hull. They said something to Zhang Han that Ayaana wasn’t privy to hear on her comm channel, and then one ran out and came back in, letting an air tank and a beacon float lazily through the low gravity towards Ayaana. She took them, and as the president and her entourage filed out, activated the beacon.

* * *

       By the time the Gutenberg arrived, the Martian battleship Genji had already scooped up the shuttle ferrying the president and was preparing to depart. Hirsh cursed. They could have taken the ship on a normal day, but the Gutenberg was currently being held together by duct tape and good intentions. He slammed his fist into the console.
       “Captain, the Martian ship is comming us.”
       Probably to ask for their surrender. He took the call.
       “This is Captain Naan of the Genji.”
       “This is Captain Hirsh of the Gutenberg.”
       “A book and a bookmaker. Interesting.”
       He hated when Martians said shit like that. They all had a tendency to.
       “What do you want, Captain Naan?”
       “You have a pilot down on the rock. We’ve provided her with air and a homing beacon. Please extract her before you depart. We also have noted a second fighter with disabled engines at the following coordinates.”        They appeared on his command console. “Best wishes, Captain. You made a brave attempt today.”
       The comm closed. He stared silently at the Console. Raye looked stunned.
       “Orders, Captain?”
       Hirsh looked up at her. “Let’s go get our people. That’s our top concern.”
       Raye nodded and relayed the order. “Of course, sir. What should we do with the pirates? Put them in the brig?”
       Hirsh shook his head. “Centro always keeps its word. We give them safe passage. That’s what makes us different from the people we fight.”
       “Maybe not as different as I thought, sir.”
       Hirsh could only hold her gaze and then turn back to the Console. He had a ship to fix. He needed to save as many people as he could out of this disaster. The pilots were retrieved, and the ship began to limp its way towards Earth.
       “Even if it doesn’t make us different, it still makes us… Us.”

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James Wylder -is the author of An Eloquence of Time and Space: A Doctor Who Poetry Book, as well as the novel 10,000 Dawns, several plays, and other books. James is also the co-owner of Shotgun Angel Games LLC and lives in Elkhard, Indiana. He is a graduate of Hanover College in Southern Indiana. You can learn more about him at jameswylder.com.