Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Week 17 - Free

Michael Salsbury
Ethan Crosby stood at the front of a line of criminals being marched past a Sylkaran audience onto one of its fleet of prison ships.  From the moment he was arrested, he knew it could come to this, but he had been hoping it wouldn't, hoping he was a better spy than that.

As an Alliance intelligence agent, Crosby knew full well what happened to those sentenced to "life" on a Sylkaran prison planet.  The life sentence lasted only as long as the medical experiment or prototype weapon they tested on you took to kill you.  He hoped the information he'd fed the Alliance saved others, because it certainly wouldn't be saving him.

The guards motioned for him to start walking toward the prison transport, and he did.  The shackles on his wrists and ankles, while mostly for show, were effective at slowing his pace.  The Sylkaran onlookers jeered, threw things, and tried to spit on him.  He breathed a sigh of relief when he entered the transport.  His shackles were removed, replaced by thick bands of metal welded to the seat in which he sat and the floor.  The engineer in him calculated the amount of force it would take to break loose or cut through these restraints.  He stopped when he realized that much force would probably rip a hole through the hull.

The other prisoners filed into the hold and were fastened into their own chairs.  There were about forty of them on this transport.  Most were Sylkaran, or at least he guessed they were.  Humans and Sylkarans look alike until you run a medi-scanner over them.  The internal organs are arranged differently and the Sylkarans don't have an appendix.  Otherwise, the two species are hard to tell apart.  Crosby recognized a Bradoran among the other prisoners.  The Bradoran reminded him of a cross between a bulldog and a bodybuilder.  Bradoran prowess in the galactic fight scene was legendary.

Crosby's espionage training taught him to subtly monitor and analyze the opposition.  He counted only four guards, an engineer, a navigator, a first officer, and the captain as crew.  Given the strength of the restraints in use on the transport, four guards were probably enough.  It was unlikely anyone would be getting out of the restraints.  If they could, however, the odds of gaining control of the transport were in their favor.

Satisfied that he had gained all the intelligence he could through observation for the time being, he turned his attention to his fellow prisoners.  An attractive woman to his left caught his eye first.  She looked it at him, too.

"You're that resistance leader... Crosby!"

Crosby shook his head, as best he could with the restraint around my neck.  "I am Ethan Crosby, but I'm no resistance leader.  That was something the Sylkarans thought up to make the Alliance look bad.  I just gathered and shared intelligence."

"I'm surprised you admit to that."

Crosby shrugged.  "Even if I was innocent, it's a little late to be protesting now."

"I suppose you're right."

"What's your name?"

She smiled.  "I'm Arden..  Arden Monroe. Convicted smuggler."

"That sounds like a human name."

"That's because it is."

"Nice to meet you.  I didn't think there'd be any other humans on this flight."

A man two rows over, with dark hair, turned to face us. "Add one more to your tally.  Dan Mills."

Crosby could barely see him. "What's your story, Mills?"

"Hacker.  I'd heard Sylkaran computer security needed work.  I made my way here and tested it.  The rumors were true.  I took the Sylkaran Treasury for a hundred million dinari."

Arden looked at Mills.  "If you did that, how'd you end up here?"

"A random medi-scan at the spaceport.  When they found out I was human and carrying a briefcase full of their money, it didn't take them long to guess the rest."

"That was some bad luck, Mills."

"Tell me about it."

Another voice joined in.  "Sounds like what happened to me.  I'd been casing this bank for a couple of weeks. Got the timing of their security robot patrols down pat.  Broke in, cracked the safe, loaded up the cash, stepped out the vault door, and right into a security robot.  Their central computer picked that night to change up the patrol schedule.  They had me before I could move another step."

"You should have shut down the central computer," Mills told him.  "Wouldn't have taken you ten minutes."

"No," the man said, "You might have done it in ten minutes.  I crack locks, not computers."

"Pity we hadn't met earlier.  Neither one of us might be here."

"Yes.  Too late now.  My name's Brell, by the way."

"Nice to meet you, Brell.  Is that a Sylkaran name?"

"Yes... but don't hold it against me."  He smiled.

The others laughed, or at least the humans and the Bradoran did.

"What did they get you for, Bradoran?"

"Tork.  My name is Tork.  I was on a Mutai Wrestling tour in Alliance space when the Sylkarans invaded our world.  When I went back there to check on my family, they arrested me as an Alliance spy. I lost control at my trial.  Killed a lot of Sylkarans.  I was famous. They didn't kill me. Put a chip in my head."

"A chip?" Crosby asked.  "A computer chip?"

"It's called a behavioral restrictor," Mills said.  "It short circuits certain neural activity in the brain, prevents you from doing whatever the restrictor doesn't want you doing.  Nasty piece of technology."

The doors at the front of the hold opened.  The ship's captain stepped through.  She wore the same drab gray uniform worn by all the Sylkaran justice system employees, except that hers had four small gold pins indicating her rank.

"I am Captain Jarn," she said, her eyes panning across the room, her lip curled upward.  "You are lowest criminal scum in the Sylkaran Empire.  I know because we're taking you to Colony Twelve.  They have some lovely activities in store for you there."  She stared at Crosby.  "Especially you, human spy.  You thought you could take down our government.  I expect they have some real treats in store for you.  As for the rest of these losers, medical experiments."

She put her hands on her hips.  "Listen very carefully, scum.  I don't care if you think you were wrongly arrested.  I don't care if you have rich relatives who'll pay me big money to let you go.  I really don't care one bit about any of you.  If it was up to me, I'd space the lot of you and save the Empire the fuel and salaries for the trip.  But it's not up to me.  There's one thing I do control, though, and that's this ship.  Get out of line, even a little, and I'll toss you out the nearest airlock.  If you want to make it alive to Colony Twelve, sit there quietly and do as you're told."


Captain Jarn ordered the ship into space and toward Colony Twelve.  She'd made this run thirty times since the Sylkaran fleet discharged her from active duty.

"I'm going to my quarters," she told the pilot.  "Wake me if you need me."

Moments later, the transport was on its way.


"Hey, Monroe," Crosby said.  "You never told us how you got caught."

She shook her head.  "No, I didn't.  I was smuggling Alliance medicines to a human colony on the planet Mengazi IV.  I'd landed and unloaded the stuff.  When I went to take off again, Sylkaran Police showed up and arrested me."

"Does smuggling into Sylkaran space pay well?"

"Not really.  I do a little better than break-even."

"Then why do it?"

She looked down at her lap.  "My brother.  Two years ago he lost control along the neutral zone between the Alliance and the Sylkaran Empire.  The Alliance couldn't find any wreckage, and of course the Sylkarans wouldn't answer any questions.  I started coming into the Empire to ask people about him.  When I ran low on credits, I started taking things back and forth across the zone."

"I hope you find your brother someday."

"Not too likely now," she said.  "But thanks."


Jarn awoke to the abrasive chirp of the ship's comm system.

"This better be good," she said into the comm panel.

"There's something big on the long-range scanner."

"How big?"

"About five times the size of this ship.  I'm getting power readings."

"Life signs?"


"Stay on course and try hailing it.  I'm on my way."

Jarn put on her uniform and headed toward the bridge.


While many of the prisoners chose to remain silent and stay out of the conversation, the rest had begun sharing their stories.  Crosby felt as though he knew several of the others very well.  He imagined that several of them, working together could accomplish a lot.

Mills could take control of any computer system they ran into.  Brell could open any door or crack any safe they encountered.  Crosby himself could handle explosives, ship repairs, and any number of other engineering tasks.  Monroe was an accomplished pilot with Alliance fleet training.  Tork could help them lift the heavy stuff.

With Colony Twelve and their own deaths drawing closer, Crosby's thoughts drifted back to his own uncertain future.


As the prison transport approached the spacecraft, Captain Jarn could stop her eyes from opening wide.  "Look at the size of that!"

"I've checked the recognition system, captain.  There's no record anywhere of a ship like this one.  We'd get a fortune in salvage if we brought this to an outpost or military base.  I'll bet it's worth ten million dinaris if it's worth one!"

"You're right," Jarn said.  "We need to get a couple of guards aboard and check it out.  If it's spaceworthy, we'll detour to Outpost 82 and drop it off there.  We'll only lose a couple of hours."

"I don't see any exterior signs of damage.  No life signs, either.  Just a power source and some faint electronic activity.  I think it's a derelict."

Jarn nodded.  "Maybe.  Let's find out."  She pressed the comm panel button in her chair.  "Dint and Graylo, meet me at the airlock."

"Aye, captain."

She suppressed the urge to run to the airlock, trying not to get her hopes up.  When she arrived, Dint and Graylo were waiting for her.

"Here's the situation.  We're maneuvering into docking range of an alien spacecraft.  No one's ever seen one like it, so this might be a first-contact situation.  You two are the best I've got, so I'm sending you over.  If anyone or anything is alive over there, we've got to help them.  If it's empty or they're all dead, find out if that ship can fly.  If it can, we're taking it to Outpost 82.  Tomorrow, we can probably retire."

"Aye, captain!"

The Transit Tube, a thin plastic tube, extended from the side of the prison ship toward an airlock on the side of the alien ship. Once connected, a metallic strip running the length of the air-filled tube allowed Dint and Graylo to walk across it using magnetic boots.  At the other end, they found manual hatch controls and opened the hatch into the alien ship.


Crosby looked at the guards at the front of the room.  "Excuse me.  Why has the ship stopped?"

The guard laughed.  "Worried you'll be late getting to Colony Twelve?"

"No, just curious.  The captain didn't mention any stops."

"Yeah, well, she didn't mention any beatings, either.  Shut up or you might get one."


Jarn looked at her chronometer.  Dint and Graylo had been gone fifteen minutes and hadn't checked in.  She tapped the comm-link button.

"Dint, report!  Graylo, report!"

There was no response.

She looked at her first officer.  "I can't spare any more guards.  We'll need what we have to get the prisoners unloaded at Colony Twelve.  But I don't want to leave Dint and Graylo on that ship if they're OK."

"If I might make a suggestion, captain?"


"You have a hold full of prisoners.  They're expendable.  Send some of them over."

She nodded.  "Excellent idea.  I know just the one.  Have them send me that human spy, Crosby.  If he dies over there, they'll probably give me a medal."

Moments later, the guards brought Crosby to the captain's office.  She leaned back in her chair behind the desk and motioned for Crosby to sit down.  He did so.  Captain Jarn looked down at him.

"How would you like to get off this ship?" She watched for his reaction.

"That would suit me just fine."

"Here's the deal.  We're currently attached to an alien spacecraft. This one's totally alien.  Doesn't match anything in the recognition database.  I sent two guards over to check it out.  It's been almost a half-hour, and they haven't checked in.  I want you to go find out what happened to them."

"And in exchange for this?"

"If my crew and I can claim salvage for that ship, I'll arrange for you to be left aboard when we leave the outpost.  You're on your own after that."

"You won't alert anyone I'm aboard?"

She shook her head.  "No.  If we get that thing to an outpost, I'll have enough dinaris to retire.  I could care less where you go or what you do as long as you stay the hell away from me."

"On one other condition."

"Which is?"

"I pick a team of prisoners to go with me."


"If whatever's on that ship killed or incapacitated two armed guards, they're going to be more than match for me.  I'm assuming you won't be giving me a gun?"


"Then at least give me backup.  If I take a team over, there's a lot better chance of bringing back your men and figuring out what happened."

"Who do you want?"

"Let me see..."  He knew who he wanted, but didn't want it to seem as though he did.  "Monroe... she's a smuggler so she might find stuff hidden on the ship.  Brell... since he can open locked doors.  Mills... in case we need to crack their computers.  Oh, and Tork.  He's probably strong enough to carry your men back by himself."

Jarn thought it over for a moment.  "Agreed."

She ordered the guards to bring Crosby and the others to the airlock, then went there herself to see them off.

"Here's the deal.  You find my men.  You bring them back.  You assess the threat.  Bring so much as a grape back from that ship for yourself, and I shoot you as an escapee.  The minute you're through the hatch, I'm attaching a bomb to the outside.  If I have to, I'll set it off and decompress that thing.  You'll all be suffocated or sucked out."

"Got it, captain," Crosby said, and stepped into the airlock.  The others followed.

Since the prison-issue shoes weren't magnetic, and there was no artificial gravity in the transit tube, they had to carefully make their way across to the alien ship.  Once there, they stepped through the hatch and were greeted with a gravity and atmosphere similar to that on the prison ship.  It smelled better, though.

"Ever seen anything like this?" Crosby asked the others.

"Only in the vids," Brell said.  "It's amazing."

"No kidding, Brell.  Wonder what the computer system on this thing is like?"

Monroe chuckled. "A ship like this and you're wondering about the computers."

"If this thing was operational, wonder how it would compare to the Sylkaran fleet?"

"Ever the spy, Crosby.  Always measuring and comparing fleet sizes."

"It's my job, Mills."

"Maybe you could give it a rest sometimes."

Brell shrieked and pointed down the corridor ahead of them.  Crosby ran toward him.

"Crosby to Jarn."

"Jarn here."

"We found your guards. Can't tell if they're dead or just unconscious.  Moving closer for a better look."

Crosby stepped closer, cautiously, as the men were armed.  As he stood over them, he could see that they were no longer breathing.  He knelt down to feel for a pulse, but there was none.

"They're dead, captain."

"Dead?  How?"

"From the look of it... to be perfectly honest... it looks like they shot each other."

"You're wrong.  They were best friends."

"Maybe.  Looks like they might have gotten into a fight, too... their uniforms are torn and there looks like some signs of bruising."

"Something must have attacked them.  Bring the bodies back here."

"Tork, that's all you, buddy."

Tork grabbed the men, one in each arm, and started toward the airlock.

"Lets make our way to the bridge.  Get a look at what this thing can do."

"Who made you the captain, Crosby?"  Mills gritted his teeth.  "I didn't pledge allegiance to you."

"You've always been a jerk, Mills.  Someone really ought to knock you down a peg or two."

"Stop it, both of you," Monroe said, stepping between them.  "There's enough testosterone here to float a boat on."

"No one asked for your opinion," Mills said, pushing Monroe aside.

Crosby felt the sudden urge to hit Mills, and he did, right in his annoying mouth.  Mills wiped his chin, then planted a fist in Crosby's eye.  Monroe kicked Mills in the back of his knee and he fell to the ground.  Brell kicked at Monroe.

When Tork returned, he found the three of them scuffling.  Mills seemed to be trying to choke Crosby, and Monroe seemed to be choking Mills.  Brell was kicking and punching all of them.

Tork grabbed Mills by the neck and pressed on an artery until he fell unconscious,  A moment later, he did the same to Crosby, Monroe, and Brell..


When Crosby regained consciousness, he found himself in some kind of prison cell.  To his right was Monroe, in a cell of her own.  To her right was Mills, also locked up.  Brell was in the last cell.

"What's going on?" Crosby asked the others.

"We don't know," Monroe said.  "We all woke up here.  What do you think we should do?"

"Get out, to start with.  Wait a second.  Did either of you see Tork?"


Tork sat in a chair on the bridge of the ship.  A panel on the wall displayed a swirling pattern that changed when the ship spoke.

"Tork, I regret that I attempted to use intruder control circuitry on you when you came aboard.  That usage was inappropriate.  I thought you were like the others."

He looked at the panel.  "What others?  You mean the two guards?"

"No, the others who were with you.  They were invaders.  You were not."

"What?  They weren't invaders.  They were with me."

"They are different species.  My scanners confirmed this."

"Different or not, they are my friends.  They are nice to me.  I didn't like knocking them out."

The color of the panel changed slightly, as did the pattern, which flashed along with the ship's words.  "You locked them away as I suggested?"

"Yes.  But I'm going to let them out."


Jarn looked at the lifeless bodies of Dint and Graylo.  A tear started to form in her eyes, but she quickly wiped it away before the others saw it.

She pressed the button on the nearest comm panel.  "Crosby!  Crosby, come in."

There was no response.

She pressed the button again.  "Crosby, I've had it.  You haven't answered me for the last twenty minutes.  I'm blowing the hatch in two minutes unless you respond."

Jarn watched the timer count down.  When it reached zero, she pressed the button and looked out the window at the alien ship.

Nothing happened.

Jarn screamed.  "Fine!  If I can't blow the thing open, we'll rip the transit tube off.  Let's see how they deal with the vaccum of space."

The prison ship turned away from the alien craft, tearing the transit tube off near the hatch on the alien ship.  Air and debris flew out the open hatch on the alien ship's hull.


Tork opened the cells and let his companions out.

"What's going on here, Tork?"

"I'm not sure.  I took the bodies back to Captain Jarn.  When I got back here, you were all fighting and trying to kill each other.  I used an old wrestling trick and knocked you out.  The ship told me I should lock you away until the... uh... intruder control thing wore off."

"Intruder control?  Designed to make us kill each other?"

Tork nodded.

"You did the right thing.  Have you see the comm-link Captain Jarn gave me?"

Tork shook his head.

"I must have dropped it back where we fought.  Can you take us there?"

"Yes," Tork led then back to the corridor where they entered the ship.

Suddenly, the ship shook violently.  The air began pulling then down the corridor, toward the open hatch.  They grabbed whatever they could and held on with all their strength.

The air grew thin, and they began to have trouble breathing.

One by one, they lost their grip and began being sucked toward the open hatch and the dangling bits of transit tube outside it.

Without warning, the hatch closed and the air started becoming more breathable.

"What happened?" Tork asked Crosby.

"Looks like the captain's given up on us.  She must have ripped the transport loose from the transit tube.  Figured it would suck us out into space or suffocate us."

"She was almost right," Brell said.

Tork's face contorted a bit.  "We need to go to the bridge."

"Why?"  Crosby looked at him.  "What's going on, Tork."

"The ship says Jarn's about to attack it."

They ran to the bridge.  The wall panel changed color again.

"I am Cora, this vessel's artificial intelligence system.  The vessel you boarded from is about to fire on this ship."

"What can we do?"

"I can fire pre-emptively, and--"

"No," Crosby told Cora.  "There are innocent lives on that ship."

Monroe made a "Ffft" noise.  "Innocent.  Yeah."

"Cora, can we get out of here?"

"No. My engines are offline."

Crosby ran toward the door.  "Guide me to the engine room, Cora.  The rest of you, get ready to get the hell out of here."

It was a struggle to reach the engine room.  Jarn used the prison transport's defensive systems well.  The ship shook violently, knocking Crosby off his feet several times on his way to the engine room.  Once there, he called up a schematic with Cora's help and identified the problem.

"There is a repair part in the closet to your left," Cora told Crosby.  He found the part and put it into place.  The engines whirred to life.

"Repairs complete," Cora said.

Crosby ran back to the bridge to find the others celebrating.  They stopped and turned to face him.

"What's next?" Monroe asked.

"Why are you asking me?  I'm not in charge here."

"I suggest we take this ship to the Alliance and sell it, then split the proceeds and retire."

"That's certainly one option, Mills," Crosby said, turning toward Brell.

"Getting out of Sylkaran space sounds like a good idea to me.  We're fugitives here."

"True.  Monroe?  Tork?"

"I'm with you."

"Thanks, Arden."

"Me too."

"Thank you too, Tork."

Mills looked at Brell.  "It would appear that we are outnumbered, Brell."

Brell nodded.

"So, cap-i-tan... what would you have us do?"

"Monroe, if you're staying with me, I promise I'll help you find your brother, or what happened to him.  Tork, I can't promise anything, but we'll see what we can do about getting the Sylkarans off your homeworld.  Brell, Mills... if you really want to go back to Alliance space, we'll get you there.  But if you stay with me, we might just be able to have a go at the Sylkaran Treasury.  That'll build your retirement fund!"

Mills and Brell looked at each other, the back at Crosby.  "Fine, but let me be perfectly clear.  I am not here to take part in your idealistic struggle against the Sylkaran.  I'm here for the money.  When my share of the take is sufficiently large, I will be leaving your company.  I have no desire to die for your high ideals.  I suspect that Brell feels similarly."

Brell nodded.

"Understood.  We are free.  We have a ship.  Let's find out what we can do together."

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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