“You out of your fucking mind, man?” Abe hissed. Challenging Parnell to defend himself.
Looking at the floor of the docking bay, Parnell shook his head. “She’s the best person for the job.”
“And ah, what do you think that job is? Huh? Flying tourists around Raven Cluster? We need a fucking combat pilot and you know that so what the hell are we doing here?”
“She can fly the ship,” Parnell persisted. “She can handle herself…,”
“She’s sixteen!” Abe shouted, stabbing a finger at the girl who no longer pretended she couldn’t hear the two men arguing across the cavernous bay.
Parnell looked at Abe. “She deserves a chance.”
“Deserves?! She deserves a mom and dad who give a shit. She deserves college or whatever. Money. Guy who’ll buy her a nice…you know. Deserve is bullshit man, where did that come from?”
“She came out here on her own, Abe,” Parnell defended himself. “It’s not like we won her in a lottery man, she looked us up. You telling me she’s not the best pilot you ever saw?”
“I haven’t seen a goddamned thing,” Abe said, “that was a fucking simulation.”
“Well let’s try her out on the real thing, you got the keys.”
“This,” Abe said, pointing a finger very close to Parnell’s forehead, “is your goddammed hero fixation. You wish someone said ‘yes’ to you when you were a kid. Let you go off on a ‘big adventure.’ You read that King Arthur shit, cowboy movies. Fucks with your head.”
“And that’s fine! Whatever. It’s good for you. Works for you. But it’ll get that girl killed.”
“We all share the risk,” Parnell said.
“Killed,” Abe said, folding his arms against his chest.
Parnell took a long breath. “How about…,” he wanted to appease Abe. “How about we put it to a vote?”
“We don’t need no goddamn vote! We need you to exercise some restraint. Show some…perspective or whatever.”
Parnell was confused. “I thought…,”
“Whatever man…a vote? Come on. These assholes will do whatever you want, and they already know you think she’s got the job. I give up."
"Give her a chance," Parnell said. "You'll see."
Abe was already walking away. When he passed Sunny, he tossed her the small round chip that allowed whoever held it to pilot The Sword. “Congratulations kid, you got the job. Don’t fuck it up.”
Two years later....
The hull of the pirate space-station shook, vibrated like a bell. The deck plates shuddered under their feet. The demolition charges kept firing like distant artillery, the sound reverberating through the hull The station would soon buckle and break apart in the gas giant's gravity.
"We got about three minutes, man!" Abe shouted over the din. They stood before an airlock, the massive window next to them showed nothing but space and stars.
"Where the hell's Sunny?" Dietrich barked. She tried to crane her head to see past the curve of the station's hull through the window.
"She'll be here," Parnell said.
"Don’t matter," Abe said, unslinging the rifle from his shoulder. He prepped it in anticipation of the Corp Pirates coming for them. "Takes ten minutes to spin the drive back up anyway. Even if she showed up now...."
Parnell looked down the hallway they just came from, to the empty window. "Really thought she'd make it."
“The Resolute is no joke,” Abe said, aiming down the hall. “Can’t fight corp pirates and Hub at the same time.’
The pirates blew the bulkhead at the end of the hallway. Abe started firing into the smoke. Parnell launched a grenade. It wasn't clear if the pirates were trying to kill them, or get off the dying station. No one was in a hurry to find out.
"Hey!" Dietrich said. "Hey look!"
They turned to the window.
The Sword appeared as though dropped into a pool by an unseen hand. Space itself splashed around the ship, revealing it, eddies and currents flooding around it. The fabric of reality revealed.
The reason for the Sword's late arrival was apparent.
“Holy shit,” Abe said.
The Sword did not emerge from its dive alone. It was docked with the defeated Resolute. The docking clamp gripping the dead ship like a vise. The engine lights on the Resolute sputtered in a semblance of life.
"What the hell...." Parnell gaped.
"Who's idea was that!?" Dietrich couldn't believe it.
"I think I got an idea," Abe said. "Come on, we gotta find an escape pod."
"Escape pod? We're supposed to be picked up!"
"She can't slow down!" Abe shouted. "The docking clamp will snap!" Using The Sword's sublight engines to brake would cause the Resolute to rip off and shoot forward under its own momentum.
"Why is she docked with it in the first place!?" Parnell howled as the three men ran, following the outer hull of the station in a long, gentle curve. The floor decks under their feet shook and buckled as they searched for the escape pods.
The Sword and Resolute sped toward them, growing larger in the window, barreling toward the station like a comet.
"What the hell is she doing with my ship?" Parnell glowered, trying to run and look out the windows at the same time.
"She's playing it really fucking tight is what she's doing, but I'll be damned if I can think of another way."
Parnell saw the engine lights of the Resolute and understood. The Sword's engines were spent, but while Resolute was defeated, her engines were live.
"You're kidding," he said.
"We gotta meet her halfway or everything goes to shit!" Abe shouted, running down the hallway. Sunny’s plan depended on someone on the demo team realizing what she was doing, and deriving the other half of her mad scheme.
They found an escape pod and barreled in, Parnell covering them, his grenades keeping the corps pirates at bay. Abe closed the hatch behind them.
The escape pod shot out from the dying station, Parnell wedged into the only seat, madly flipping switches, trying to coax the largely ballistic vessel closer to a rendezvous point with The Sword.
"Where's the ship?" Dietrich asked, holding on to the bulkhead. "Parnell, where the hell are we...."
"Let the man fly!" Abe shouted.
Gimbals and gyroscopes in the ship's hull spun. Attitude adjusters were pressed into service as main thrusters. Parnell's gaze snapped back and forth in tenths of a second. The Sword. The pod controls. The Sword. Seconds stretched to eons.
The docking bay of The Sword was not where it needed to be. And there was no way for Parnell to maneuver the bullet that was the escape pod into position.
"We're not gonna make it," he pronounced coolly.
Dietrich looked at Abe, her face betrayed her fear. Abe shot her a look back. A warning.
Then, another miracle. Dragging, wrenching the burned-out husk of the Resolute around, The Sword rolled. Slowly. Agonizingly. Exposing its belly to the escape pod. The docking bay crept into view.
Sunny had seen the dilemma, and desperately worked to create an intercept trajectory.
"Hang on," Parnell said.
"Jesus Christ," Abe said. They were going to make it. The Sword spun around its axis. The docking bay opened.
"We're coming in too fast!" Dietrich said.
The escape pod and The Sword sped, in two different directions, at two different angles, toward an intercept window barely larger than the pod itself.
"We're out of thrust," Parnell said, grabbing the restraining harness and locking himself in. "Grab something."
The escape pod shot into the docking bay.
Resolute’s engines flared into life.
The Sword and her unwilling partner Resolute vanished. Diving into Cherenkov space, sinking below the real.
The pirate space-station exploded in a silent fireball of metal.
The inertia-dampening memory foam that briefly filled the inside of the pod returned to its original liquid state, drained out, leaving Parnell, Dietrich, and Abe choking, but alive. Then the air filled with smoke.
Abe went to the escape hatch, but it would not open. It was now impossible to breathe. Parnell finally got the restraining harness off and fell backward, grabbing at this throat, desperate to get any air in his lungs. There was a fire somewhere outside the pod. It was eating all the oxygen.
Suddenly light and a deafening noise and the acrid smell of acetylene.
Someone had burned the end of the escape pod off, sliced it off with SALGE torches. The noise was the slam of a ton of metal hitting the deck of The Sword. The pod was open. They could breathe again.
Smoke billowed out and around filling the hold of the ship. Out of the smoke, walked a girl.
"Hey everybody ok in here?!" Sunny said, her smile beaming out through the smoke.
The demo team fell out of the escape pod.
Parnell stood up, almost twice Sunny's height. His eyes still watering from the smoke. She looked up at him.
"I'm sorry sir, you don’t have a ticket for this flight," Sunny said, unable to suppress her smile. "You'll have to get off at the next stop."
Parnell, the tallest on the team, towered over Sunny, the shortest.
He held out his hand. She took it.
"Hell of a pilot," he said.
"And I keep the engines running," she said, cocking her head to one side.
"What the hell?" Dietrich got to her feet, gasping, shaking. "What the hell just happened? What the hell did she do?"
"Spun up both drives," Abe explained between coughs. "Used The Sword's engine to get to the station, then fired the Resolute's dive engine once we were on board."
“Twin drives,” Dietrich said, unbelieving. “Dangerous.”
“Not as dangerous as letting everyone die,” Parnell said.
Sunny had done the impossible. Revitalized the burned out engine of the Resolute, linked the two ships together, creating a makeshift twin-drive ship.
“Not bad, huh?” Sunny asked, smiling hugely, looking at the demo team, all alive.
Abe, still in shock, just stared at her as though she wasn’t there. “Not bad, kid,” he said. And blinked, seeing the ship around him again. “Fuckin’ A. Not bad.” He laughed, realizing what he’d seen, what she’d done. “Goddamn, kid.”
"How did you...," Dietrich coughed, "how did you take Resolute?"
"Well, we couldn't fire the main cannon," Sunny said, "so Mason's team just...went for it," Sunny said. "He said 'get us close,' so I did. They boarded her!"
"Through the vacuum!?" Dietrich squeaked.
"Mason," Parnell said shaking his head. "That's crazy."
Abe said nothing, just listened to Sunny.
"Well, they had rebreathers on," Sunny explained, "standard anti-anti-boarding, but yeah. Just," she made a gesture, one hand slapping off the other and then flying away, "phew! Out the airlock, across the gap, and onto the hull of Resolute. Like Basilisk soldiers! Crazy! Would have liked to see Resolute's crew when they showed up."
Thirty minutes later Abe walked into the engine room, where Sunny and Mason's team were congratulating each other.
"Abe, man!" Mason shouted when he saw Abe. "We took Resolute, you blew Fortune Station, and Sunny got us all the fuck out. Are we a fucking team, or what?"
Abe walked up and extended his hand. Mason took it. "Heard about your dumbass stunt, out the airlock," Abe said, smiling. "You're fucking crazy, man."
"You said 'fuck Hub!' So we did!"
"Yes you did," Abe said, slapping Malik on the shoulder, shaking hands with the rest of Mason's team. "Fuck Hub."
"Hey," Malik said, "how about we stop at Roman Station before we hit Sirius Hub?"
"Man we can't party before we collect the bounty," Abe said, but without malice. "We're all broke!"
"Tthat's what credit's for!" Malik said. The team laughed.
Mason started to leave. His team followed him. "Best pilot in the Arm!" he said, pointing to Sunny. As he walked past Abe he slapped the man on the shoulder. "Best fucking weapons man in the Arm."
Abe slapped Mason on the back. "Craziest fucking boarding team anywhere," he said, smiling.
Once the boarding team was gone and the door was closed, the smile dropped and he turned to Sunny.
She was also not smiling. She was waiting for Abe's reaction.
"'Couldn't fire the main cannon?'" he asked.
"It happens," she said.
"Why couldn't you fire the main cannon, Sunny?" Abe asked, already knowing the answer.
She shrugged. "I dunno," she lied. "Wasn't fully charged."
"Wasn't fully charged, or wasn't charged at all?" Abe challenged.
"Come on," Sunny said. "Who cares? We got it done. Besides, if we'd fired the gun we'd have fried Resolute's engines. This way was better."
"The fuck you think happens we surface and find a fleet of corp pirates, Parnell goes to pull the trigger and nothing happens?"
"It was one time!" Sunny said. "He made a mistake, happens to everyone."
"Not like that it doesn't," Abe said. "Where was Mason last night?"
Sunny turned around, started checking the engines. "You know where he was."
"I want to hear it from you," Abe said.
Sunny stopped, her shoulder slumped. She turned back around to face Abe.
"Mason and his crew were out all night at Basis Station."
Abe turned and walked out of the room.
The confrontation happened in the weapons locker.
Mason turned around, and Abe was there.
"You knew we had a fucking op," Abe said.
Mason blinked. "What?"
"You knew we were live-fire, and you got shit-faced last night." Abe took another step toward the man.
"Come on, everyone does it, what?" Mason said, holding up his hands, unable to back away.
"Bullshit, 'everyone does it!' And if I check the log, what am I gonna find out?"
"Man what are you..."
"I'm gonna find out they were all back at, like, 2, and you just rolled in before we left. Aren't I?"
"Hey, what I do on my time is...."
"Did you black out again?" Abe asked.
"What?!" Mason objected.
"Don't lie to me, man, I know what happens. Answer the fucking question. Do you remember anything that happened before the op this morning?"
Mason was sweating, but tried to bully his way through.
"What we do before the op is between me and my team."
"They're not your fucking team, Mason. They're Parnell's team. And they weren't the ones on deck for weapons prep, you were. And you fucked it up. And it wasn't the first time. What happens when Parnell..."
"Abe," Mason tried to interrupt. "Come on, Parnell don't give a shit...."
That was it. Abe grabbed the larger man and slammed him against a locker.
"It's our lives, you asshole!" Abe said. "We could'a all died if we needed the gun! Because of you! Because you can't keep your shit together!"
"Jesus, Abe that ain't how it is, we were...."
Abe pulled Mason away from the bulkhead and slammed him back into it.
"You don't get to say how it is, you fuck. I ever find out we're dry on a cannon again, I don't give a shit who did it, it's your ass!"
Mason stared down at Abe, terrified, stunned. Mason was a big man, but Abe was a ruthless killer.
Abe slammed him into the bulkhead again.
"Are we fucking clear?"
The door opened behind him. He saw the look on Mason's face and knew who it was.
"Yeah man," Mason said. "Yeah whatever you say man. I'm...I'm sorry. It won't...won't happen again."
Abe let Mason go. Mason walked through the door, past Sunny, avoiding her gaze. This did not go unnoticed by Sunny.
"Abe what the hell are you doing?" Sunny demanded.
"Drop it, kid." Abe tried to turn to leave but Sunny blocked his way.
"I'm not going to drop it! Mason saved our asses and you're acting like he's a criminal."
"I'm not the one got a problem with how he acts. Someone's gotta keep an eye on these assholes."
"So he made a mistake, so what?" Sunny asked. "So have I! You going to beat me up? Parnell will forgive him, probably already has."
Abe pressed his palms to his forehead. "I swear to god I'm the only person on this team with the sense God gave a goose.” He put his hands down and looked at Sunny.
"Parnell don't give a shit if someone screws up. Hell, I fucked up so many times I oughtta get an award. But he finds out Mason fucked up because he was out all night? That's...it's..." Abe couldn't figure out how to say it. "You don't get it."
"So explain it to me," Sunny said.
Abe took a deep breath. "It'd be disloyal, you understand? To Parnell it's like...like Mason was telling the whole crew to fuck off. The team needed him, and he fucked up. And Parnell can't stand that shit. Can't stand the idea of someone letting the team down."
"Mason's not disloyal," Sunny said. "And you know that."
Abe just stared at her.
"If someone dies," Abe said, his voice suddenly low, "and Parnell finds out it was because Mason's a black-out drunk, do you know what he'll do? He'll fucking space Mason. He won't even think about it. He'll grab the guy and throw him out the airlock."
"Why would he...what? That's not who he is. I know him, he's not like that."
"You don't know him. He can't stand to see...he doesn't think like other people. He expects everyone to live up to his bullshit standard. Eventually someone'll let him down and he'll see red, and when it's all done he will fucking hate himself, do you get it? He'll hate himself because he killed a guy and he will blame himself for Mason's screw-up. He'll blame himself for letting us down. He'll say 'If I'd been a better leader...!"
Sunny tried to take this all in. It was overwhelming.
"He's never regretted anything, do you get it? He's never had to deal with failure, I mean real failure the kind where someone dies because of it. He's fucking sailed through the last three years like he's Robin Hood and we're his merry men or whatever. But it won't last. One of these days, someone will fuck up, someone will die, and then Parnell will do something he regrets and when that happens for the first time, it will fucking kill him."
"I didn't...," Sunny said. "That's not how...."
"I'm not gonna let Mason or anyone else be the one that lets Parnell down. You don’t have to worry, you don't got it in you to let anyone down. But someone's gotta keep those assholes in line."
He walked past Sunny, leaving her alone to think in the empty room.
Abe dropped himself into the copilot's seat next to Parnell. He knew the older man would be at the helm. Want to fly his ship for a while after the Resolute and the station.
"I dunno," Abe said. "Bunch of ignorant savages."
“Abe, you might want to give the rest of the guys a break, man.”
Had Parnell heard about what happened between him and Mason? No. No this wouldn’t be his reaction if he had.
“Someone’s gotta keep these assholes in line,” Abe said.
“See, like that. Why’s everyone on the team an asshole all the time?”
“I dunno, why’d you recruit a bunch of assholes?”
"They're a good crew. Best in the Arm. Last two years? We done a lotta good man. Put down a lot of shit, needed to be stopped. These are the good guys Abe. Why you gotta act like they're the bad guys?"
“Someone’s gotta keep ‘em in line,” Abe muttered.
“Well that’s my job, man. It’s my team.”
Abe turned to his best friend. “No, see, that’s it. You’re the leader. You ain’t the guy keeping anyone in line, you’re the one inspiring everybody. Mostly inspiring everyone to run balls out all the time like nothing bad could ever happen. Competing for your…approval or whatever. It’s how we got this far and that I ain’t gonna argue with.
“But you don’t got it in you to, like, police these guys. Keep ‘em in line. Which means I gotta do it.”
"They don't need 'policing,'" Parnell said. "They take care of themselves. That's why we hired 'em."
Abe looked at Parnell for a few moments. The stars speeding past the window beyond.
"You don't know how people work, Jim," Abe said, getting up out of the copilot seat. He put his hand on Parnell's shoulder as he left the cockpit.
"Don't reckon anyone who did could lead this team."
Sunny pulled the door to the armory open. Abe was stacking the gear. She watched him. He knew she was there, but said nothing. When it was obvious that he wasn't going to say anything, she broke the silence.
"I want to know what happened back at Hub."
He glanced at her, went back to work.
"Lots of shit, what are we talking about?"
Sunny's mouth became a thin line. So that's how it's going to be.
"Everyone else on this ship is falling all over themselves to tell me their life story. Except you and Parnell. Him I think I got figured," she said.
"Hah!" Abe barked, his back to her.
Sunny stopped and stared at Abe.
"Everyone says you killed someone back at Hub," she continued eventually. "So what? People die all the time, what's so...I don't get it."
"Nothing to get," Abe said, slamming another depleted weapon into its charging slot.
“Parnell said you killed a guy in cold blood, I don't...what's he talking about? He said it like...,” she didn't know how to describe it.
This stopped Abe. He forgot sometimes she was still just a kid in a lot of ways. Hell she’d spent her whole adult life on The Sword.
"He said it like what?" Abe said. He knew the answer. Wanted her to finish what she started.
She took a deep breath. "Like he was disappointed in you. Like you let him down."
"I let people down all the time, kid," Abe said.
"No," she said, pointing at him. "Not Parnell. Anyone else? Me? Yeah, sure. I'm not stupid. But not Parnell. You'd die before you let him down. So what happened back at Hub?"
“Nothing special about Hub,” Abe muttered. “Mostly assholes anyway.”
“Parnell's upset at you because you killed some random asshole? No.”
"Believe what you want," Abe shrugged.
He could feel her eyes on him. She wasn't letting him off the hook, and the non-answer didn't sit well with him. She deserved an answer. All the times she’d saved his life? She deserved an answer.
He turned finally to look at her. She stared at him like she could drill the truth out of him, but it didn’t matter. He didn't feel like evading.
“Yeah,” he admitted, and nodded a little. “I smoked a guy on Triton while we were doing a job. Point blank. Guy was on his knees, hands behind his head. This was, ah...before I met Parnell.”
She could see there was more, wanted to draw it out of him, wasn't sure how. "So who was he?" she asked. "Why'd you have to kill him?"
Abe held her gaze. Shook his head slowly. “I didn't have to kill him. He wasn’t anyone. He was just some asshole in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I blew him away.”
"There must have been a reason."
“I don’t know,” Abe couldn’t look her in the eye now. “Why does anyone do anything? I was young and stupid and full of...I don’t know.”
Sunny didn’t say anything. He hadn’t answered her, so she waited. The cargo bay filled with silence until Abe couldn’t take it anymore.
“We were stealing something. Something we shouldn’t...something unusual. Even for us. This was...like I said, this was before I met Parnell. It was a ship. Luxury ship. We had a contact at the company who made it and we thought...thought it’d be...cool," he said lamely. "Our own ship. So we decided to take it.
“You know, you boost stuff, you smuggle, the people guarding it...they know the drill. There’s insurance, they got families. The good ones...they’ll look for an opening. Look for us to make a mistake, and sometimes we do. Then it gets interesting. But mostly they stand down.
“This guy was different. He didn’t stand down. He didn’t stand down, because he wasn’t a guard. He was the guy who built the fucking thing. Designed it. Beautiful ship. Poured his...his life into it.
“So he put up a fight. Idiot. We took care of him. But there was something in his eyes. The way he...the way he looked at me, you know? There was fucking hate in his eyes and I knew that...he’d come after us or.... Whatever. I told myself he was going to make a move on us right then. But I knew he wasn’t. I just wanted to...."
Abe closed his eyes and saw the man die again. Saw the look on his own face, imagined how he looked, how he was sneering when he pulled the trigger, and he deflated. Something in him, something keeping his back straight, fled, and he sagged.
"Turns out this guy was important and so I had Sol Hub after me. I didn't think nothing of it, I was a real outlaw now. Seemed cool. Seemed natural.
"Then I met Parnell and...he was out from Sol Guard and putting a team together for the Arm and I couldn't go back to Hub, so I signed up.
"And after a while...," Abe said, and stood up a little straighter, "I sorta started...seeing things from his point of view. The stuff I'd done. There was something about him. The way he treated me...made me want to be...better.” He shot a sideways glance at Sunny. “You been here long enough, you know what I mean.
"I started regretting what I’d done. Never done that before. Never thought about anything other than what's next. So I...I told him. Didn’t feel right, him not knowing what I was running from and who was coming after me.
"And he...ah...he forgave me, I guess. He said I wasn't that guy anymore and all of a sudden...," Abe shrugged. "I wasn't that guy anymore."
Abe stood in the weapons locker, looking at nothing. Sunny looked around, her face expressionless
"I get it," she said.
He looked at Sunny. She was the only woman he'd known for any length of time who hadn't thought he was a complete shit after two days.
"Maybe I overreacted with Mason," he said, holstering his gun.
She nodded. "Yep."
"Doesn't mean I won't do it again," he said, with a shrug and something like a smile on his face.
Sunny shrugged. "I don't want to be there," she said, "when Parnell does something he regrets.” There was silence between them for a moment. Then Sunny smiled. A little. “Someone's gotta keep these assholes in line."
Abe smiled. "You get it."
Sunny’s smile went away. “Everyone loves Parnell," she said, looking around the weapons locker. "Sooner or later, someone's gonna let him down."
The Sword, Part Two