Jack sat in the cockpit of the Animo, feet resting on the left hand side of the console. Long practice ensured his battered leather boots rested in a space where they didn’t actually touch any of the buttons and switches, and anyway, the left bank of the console held all the docking controls which were inactive until the Animo was in range of a station, or planetside. Docking at a station was a rare enough occurrence, but Jack had never taken the little ship down into atmosphere. Couldn’t remember the last time he himself had stood on rock, in fact. Not in a long, long time, not since…
The sharp beep of the proximity alarm pulled him out of his thoughts, and he shifted himself in the seat, dropping his feet to the floor as he reached out to tap a flashing button on the right console.
“What’ve we got, buddy?”
Jack regularly spoke to his battered little ship, even though he’d never receive a reply; he’d never forked out for the expensive ship AI voicepack extension. The habit was born out of solitude, not a desire for conversation. A green overlay blinked on, filling the edges of the viewscreen with details of ship status, current flightpath details, and the reason for the alarm; an incoming ship.
A rendering of the ship was displayed, and Jack sighed; he recognised it.
“Fucking pirates,” he muttered, and typed in the activation code for the jumpdrive. It would have to warm up, however. “Let’s hope they’re feeling talkative today, eh?”
He called up a chart of the surrounding area, his eyes settling on a nebula not too far off. “That should work…”
The blip of the approaching ship moved closer, and as soon as it was within comms range the call light started flashing. Jack glanced at the jumpdrive counter; 18%. He’d have to keep them talking as long as he could. He let the call light flash til he saw the ship itself come into visual range. The real thing looked more threatening than the rendering, the nose of the ship painted with a snarling face, and three sets of vicious looking laser cannons. The pirate ship was at least twice the size of the Animo, and where Jack’s ship was a basic wedge shape with some aerodynamic curve to the edges, the pirate seemed made only of angles.
As the familiar ship came to a halt five hundred metres away, Jack took a deep breath and thumbed the flashing call button. The comms screen on the console blinked to life, and Jack saw two familiar figures sat in a dual cockpit. One figure was humanoid but reptilian, its mouth a curve of jagged fangs set in a grey-blue lizard face, eyes cold and calculating. The other was human, or close enough; there was something rat-like in the man’s features.
“Fungus and Xith,” said Jack, and the man, Fungus, smiled wider.
“Jacko! I thought it was you!”
“What do you want?”
Jack had encountered this pair once before, when they’d stolen his whole shipment of axis crystals and left him crippled and drifting in space.
“How you doing, kid?”
“I was doing great. What do you want?”
“Whatever you’ve got,” hissed Xith.
“What you carrying, Jack?” Fungus’ smile was turning malevolent.
“Nothing you can make much profit on, Fungus, so don’t bother.”
Jack glanced at the jumpdrive counter. 49%. Back on the screen, Fungus was looking offended, Xith murderous. They began flicking switches on their consoles, and Jack’s sensors began to give more warnings as he saw the cannons begin to shift their aim.
“Is he telling us what to do, Xith?”
“I think he is, Fungus. I don’t like that.”
Unobtrusively as he could, Jack eased his feet into the booster grips and settled himself, powering up the engines and his own two tiny cannons. He placed his hands on the sticks and rolled his shoulders.
“Look, guys, it’s lovely to see you again, but I really can’t talk. I’ve got farming supplies to deliver to the Atreyan Outpost. Just tools and seeds, that’s all.”
“Maybe you have, and maybe you’ve got more axis crystals. Either way, it’s ours now.” Xith’s sibilant voice sent a shiver down Jack’s spine, and he forced himself to smile at her.
“Go fuck yourself,” he said, and threw the engines to 100%. The Animo shot forward and upward, skimming the hull of the pirate ship as it soared over the top. Jack saw Fungus and Xith actually duck in their seats before he closed the call and pressed his feet down hard, firing the boosters and making his little ship leap forward.
The jumpdrive counter was at 56% as the proximity alert flashed again; Fungus and Xith were following. Suddenly the black above the Animo was peppered with blue laser fire as they let rip with their cannons. Lifting one foot off the booster Jack sent the Animo into a spin and then flipped the ship around, driving straight at the oncoming pirates. He let them have both cannons on constant fire as he spiralled towards them, though he knew they’d barely scratch them; it was a bluff and a surprise more than a real attack. The Animo shuddered as some laser fire hit, but the shock tactic worked and they steered out of the way of his apparent suicide run.
The jumpdrive counter was now at 73%, and Jack brought the ship around, centring the snub nose on the distant nebula and opening the throttle. The call alert was flashing wildly but he ignored it, hands and feet shifting wildly as he tried to make himself hard to hit. 82%. The pirates were gaining, so he spiralled again. 93%. They dropped back, letting him gain ground, and Jack’s chest tightened with a sickening feeling. 95%. A new alarm blared; the missile sensor. On the radar he saw two small dots rocketing out from the larger ship and streaking towards him.
“Come on, buddy,” he muttered, as the counter flashed to 99%. He stabbed a button on the console and a spray of flares was released behind the Animo. The two missiles, confused by the heat signatures, exploded just as the jumpdrive counter flashed to 100%. Jack slammed his hand on the button to engage the drive, and the stars in the viewscreen elongated as the Animo shot forward, vanishing from the chasing pirate ship’s sensors. Jack breathed a sigh of relief, and after ten minutes disengaged the drive. The nebula he’d passed through would block all traces of his path, and when they realised that, he felt sure Fungus and Xith would give up any chase.
He switched over to autopilot, setting the Animo back on course for the Ateryan system and adding instructions to alert him if anything else came within range. Then Jack stood, stretching himself, then headed down the short corridor to his cabin. He lowered himself onto his bunk, placing his hands behind his head and closing his eyes. He’d had more than enough excitement for one day…
* * *
Cathy watched Jack for a few moments longer as he lay on his bunk, and then she turned away from the small screen and looked at the figure in the bed. The man’s body was frail, his limbs atrophied from lack of use, and the rough stubble which stood out starkly on his pale face was developing into a beard. Cathy made a mental note to arrange for him to have a shave again soon. The top of his head was covered with a criss-cross arrangement of metal and wires and tiny lights, feeding into pads attached to various key points on his cranium. She bent closer to examine the connections, and nodded to herself, satisfied.
She moved to the door, turning back once to look at the man in the bed. A black and silver cable stretched from the cranial cap to a small black box on the bedside cabinet, and two lights on the black box blinked constantly, as the microcomputer within processed the received signals and fed them back. The screen on the wall displayed the results of the process, allowing any visitors to watch.
It was a new technology, and had its objectors, of course. But as far as Cathy was concerned, it was the right thing to do. It gave the patients a life to live that would otherwise be impossible. She made some notes on her clipboard and stepped out of the room, heading down the corridor to the next patient’s room.
In the hospital room, the man’s broken body slept a deep, regulated slumber.
In the comfortable hospital bed, Jack dreamed.
And in the small black box on the bedside table, he lived.