The third time the airlock door yawns open, it’s down to me and Fitz.
If she has an opinion about the maw that’s unfurled before us and whatever might lie beyond it, she certainly isn’t sharing. Not many people can look indifferent in a fluorescent blue prison jumpsuit with their hands locked behind them in mag cuffs, but Fitz stares into her oblivion perfectly blank and perfectly still.
“After you?” I offer, just to see if I can get her to break.
She doesn’t even twitch. “Hark said you’d go next, Murdock.”
I glance back over my shoulder at the pair of enforcers floating in the tunnel behind us. They’ve got their shock batons primed for action, but the one on the left is looking a little green around the gills. Probably well-born with no null sense to speak of, shuffled onto this mission by a short-straw draw.
“What if we dance to a new tune?” I ask. “Little number in A minor.”
Fitz raises one perfect platinum eyebrow.
Behind the safety of the enforcers, the magistrate clears her throat. “We don’t have all day, ladies,” she calls, and I can’t help but scoff at the note of fear in her voice. Is she anxious? Are we ruining her afternoon? How horrible that must be, to be latched onto this monstrous ship for one second more.
“Forgive me for trying to savor my last taste of freedom,” I grumble, testing my own cuffs with a stretch that pulls them tight. We’ve been locked into them for the past ten hours—save for a too-brief lav break—and the stiffness in my shoulders isn’t ideal for what I have in mind.
“If you’re set on savoring it, the quiet one goes through first,” the magistrate declares. She reaches for a handhold strap and uses it to edge herself forward past the enforcers, the electromagnetic cuff release spinning lazily around her other wrist.
Fitz meets my eyes. I pass her a nod.
Then I kick hard against the tunnel wall. The momentum propels me into a spin as I tuck my legs up against my body and throw the cuff chain under my feet to bring my hands in front of me. The enforcers lunge, but I already have a strap in hand, using it to wrench my canvas shoes hard into Greenie’s wrist, nullifying the arc of the shock baton he was trying to swing. Satisfaction hits like a supernova—then sputters out the moment I realize Fitz’s doing absolutely nothing but staring.
“A minor—I said A minor!” I grunt, barely dodging the less-green guard’s thrust. This one’s got at least a bit of null sense—they know to make direct, forward motions rather than wild swings that’ll only twist you in directions you didn’t intend to go—but they’re still painfully slow, too cautious of the thin tunnel walls around us and the void beyond.
Under other circumstances, I might share that fear, but this is my last chance. I’m not slowing for anything. And if I have to make this work without Fitz, so be it. Her loss.
With another well-aimed kick off the tunnel wall, I send myself rocketing clean through the shuttle airlock, reaching out to slap the door release as I sail past it. It seals in an instant—I’d expect nothing less of a space-facing door in a shuttle of this make—and the inner door of the airlock opens with similar haste. I kick off one of my shoes and stuff it in the latch as it tries to seal. The ship’s intelligence won’t risk depressurization by opening the outer airlock door when the inner one’s jammed. That sort of thing can be easily overridden given time, but it’s the time I need.
I’m through the shuttle’s cabin in a blink, sailing past the rows of benches we were cuffed to on the journey up and clean through the cockpit door, which the magistrate foolishly left open when she first emerged. Hark noted it, and because I’ve been watching her every move, I noted her noting it. Started putting together a plan, just like she’d do.
Just didn’t have the particulars sorted out until now, with her and Bea already on the other side of that airlock door.
Bea’s the one who gave me the second part of my scheme. Even from her position tethered to a bench in the cabin, she could tell our flight was fully auto. A human pilot would take some convincing to abandon their post, but an intelligence can be brute-forced—and that’s what I do best.
I seal the cockpit door behind me and lock it, adding an extra three minutes to the clock running in my head.
“All right, gorgeous, work with me,” I mutter, taking in the console. There’s an emergency set of manual controls, but that won’t do me a lick of good until I’ve cracked the intelligence. I clock the cameras and other sensors one by one, building a map of how I’m being perceived. No doubt the ship’s throwing emergency alert after emergency alert into the immediate vicinity, but no one’s around to hear its sputtering distress.
No one but the behemoth we’re latched onto—and through the cockpit windshield, I get my first glimpse at the monster that’s supposed to devour me. Gun mounts bristle like thorns along a flank that stretches beyond my capacity for rational thought. Theoretically its structure is a torus, but at this distance, I can barely pick out a curve. It’s built vicious and unyielding—in short, imperial.
It calls itself the Justice, and it’s come to collect my soul. I’m not going to give it the satisfaction.
I tear myself away from the view and drop beneath the console, running my hands along the paneling until I feel a catch. With a tug, the plastic swings open to reveal the shuttle’s core systems. Relief floods me. I recognize this layout from Bea’s lessons in hot-wiring. All I have to do is reconfigure the way the system handles owner authentication and the shuttle might as well be mine.
The question of whether I can get that done before they get through the doors remains to be seen. Already I can hear clatters and thumps coming from the rear of the shuttle—undoubtedly the enforcers trying to manually override the little jam I’ve created back at the airlock.
“Shuttle nav, you online?” I call, shoving my arm deep into the compartment for the first maneuver.
“Online,” the ship’s system confirms.
“Grant me pilot control.”
“I do not recognize an authorized pilot in the cockpit,” it replies. Its tone is stilted, impersonal—cheap, if I had to guess. A cost-cutting measure that’s not gonna shake out great for these people, because cheap is practically synonymous with easy to crack.
I find the wires that lead to the authorization fob and pull them free with a judicious yank. “Grant me pilot control,” I repeat.
“I do not recognize an authorized pilot in the cockpit.”
I pull a face. Guess it’s not that cheap. But the authorization system is, in the end, passing a lone binary bit to the rest of the ship’s governance, and if I can just replicate that signal, I can convince it to grant me access. I’ve got a wealth of input devices to choose from, but Bea always told me to go for the simplest—and nothing’s simpler than the switch that toggles the cockpit’s running lights. With another hard tug, I wrench its wires free.
The cockpit plunges into darkness.
“Shit,” I hiss. That’s textbook rust-bucket wiring—and now I’m stuck fumbling in the dark, wasting precious seconds as I try to pull my wires out into the dim light reflecting off the Justice’s surface.
Panic is a self-fulfilling prophecy, I hear Hark whisper in my ear.
But Hark’s fate is sealed already. She’s on the other side of the Justice’s airlock door. And maybe if she’d panicked just a bit more yesterday, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. Maybe I’m panicking exactly the right amount—the amount that’s going to get me free before I’m swallowed.
I feel in the maw of the console’s guts, tracing wires, thumbing along the raised indents that denote inputs and outputs, building the mental map. One of Hark’s earliest lessons was to always lock in your layout first, whether it’s a floor plan, a seating chart, or an entire city’s streets. A good plan succeeds on known terrain. With that established, I ease the switch’s wires into the appropriate connections for the authorization fob, jamming them down with the flat of my palm to ensure I’ve made contact.
It’s ugly work, work that’ll certainly fall apart the second I’m not pinning it down, but it needs to function only long enough for me to get control of the ship. “Grant me pilot control,” I grunt for a third time, flipping the switch the instant I enunciate the last syllable.
“Authorized pilot detected. Manual control granted,” the ship’s intelligence announces.
I let out a whoop, swinging myself out from under the console. A prod of the controls confirms the steering system’s loose and manual, ready to take my input the moment I flip the ship from docking to flight mode. “All right, gorgeous, let’s get this show on the road,” I announce, using a toe bar to slam my ass down in the pilot’s seat. “Give me engines.”
Copyright © 2023 by Emily Skrutskie. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.