Aya’s feet hurt, and her neck ached from a whole day hunched over the workshop bench fixing up grav-plates. It was the simplest job for the scavengers, but it was also boring and frustrating.
Mr Mendoza let her listen to music, and she could even choose the radio station while he was out of the shop. But right now, the news was droning on about the Jovian war games, and her grav-plate still wasn’t generating the field strength she needed. Aya looked over the boxes of grav-plates needing to be fixed and the neat pile of grav-plates ready to sell or fit on one of their ships for resale. She’d probably done enough for today. Maybe she could chuck this one in the recycling and be done with it.
A call sounded on the communication console.
Aya glanced around just in case one of the other scavengers was still in the workshop, but they were all down in the hangar gutting the burned-up 2240’s corvette class shuttle. That was going to be a dream once they’d restored it. But it meant she was on her own up here.
Aya leaned over and took a deep breath, settling the tightening in her stomach before flicking the switch. It was no good ignoring the call. Mr Mendoza would only find out.
“This is the Ceresian Scavenger’s HQ. How can I help you? Erm… over?”
“This is Tellus Tower Two,” replied an abrupt voice crackling through the speaker. “We are showing an unauthorised ship docked at landing tower three with your company’s transponder signature. Please remove it. Over.”
“What?” That didn’t seem right. Mendoza would never go against the spaceport regs. It wasn’t worth his rent or his licence to mess with them.
“Are you sure? There’s been a lot of glitches today.” There were a lot of glitches every day, but she didn’t want to antagonise them. They didn’t sound too sympathetic. She pulled up the company records on the closest paper. The Starblazer was on tower three, but she had the approval sheet right there in the records. “We do have a ship on the landing tower, but we have authorisation for it.”
“You have authorisation for landing pad eight. You have an unauthorised ship on tower three.”
“What the—?” she was looking right at the approval sheet. This place was such a crap house. Some rich git had likely sent a few credits to the right inbox to switch their authorisation and get a docking tower instead of a crappy landing pad. “Our approval code is 545784. I have the forms right here, over.”
“You have authorisation for landing pad eight. You have an unauthorised ship on docking tower three.”
‘Thanks, very helpful.’ There was no talking to these people. They may as well be one of the security droids littered about the spaceport for all the charm they had. It would be better if they were droids. You couldn’t bribe a droid. “Okay, thank you for letting us know. I’ll tell my boss. Over.” Aya sighed. Mendoza wouldn’t be happy, but it wasn’t as if he could blame her for it. Dealing with authorisation codes was one of the many jobs Aya was strictly forbidden from.
“You will get that ship moved now. We have incoming.”
A cold sweat broke out across Aya’s back. “You have incoming?” She repeated dumbly. “Can’t you grant them authorisation to use landing pad eight, since we aren’t using it?”
“You do not have authorisation for docking tower three; we have a ship incoming to docking tower three. You will move your ship or we will have to impound it and bar your access to all mooring and storage, do you hear me?”
“Okay, hold on.” ‘Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.’ Aya scrambled for her radio. “Mendoza, come in? Mendoza, we have an issue?” She listened to the static, her heart pounding in her chest. “Mr Mendoza, can you hear me?” ‘Please pick up. Please. Please. Please.’ “Mr Mendoza, this is Aya. We have an issue with the Starblazer, come in?”
“Aya, we are in the middle of an engine scrub here. I don’t want to hear it. Whatever the problem is, sort it. Over and out.”
“Mendoza?” She tried again, but her stomach twisted. She knew ‘over and out’ meant he’d flicked off his radio. “Shit.” She contemplated calling Jakob. But the beeping sounded again. Traffic control was calling her.
‘This is not my problem. Mendoza deserves to be towed.’ For the briefest moment, Aya considered walking out. Just quitting her job and abandoning them to it just so she wouldn’t have to deal with this call.
But where else would she go? Where would she earn a steady income? She had worked at almost every job in Tellus. Shops, restaurants, hydroponic farms, cleaning agencies, mech heads, drone repair. She even earned a few credits playing for the Tellus Tachyons.
Maybe she could volunteer for the water mines.
No. She needed to pull herself together. Sit out this job until a big payday. Then she could get her own damn ship, and leave Tellus, Ceres, and the asteroid belt behind. For good. She just had to take this call. Just one little call.
“This is Tellus Tower to Ceresian Scavengers. We are calling for a tow. I repeat we are calling—”
Aya flicked the radio to transmit before the woman could finish her sentence.
“No. No. No. I’ll move it, I’ll get it moved.” Mendoza would never forgive her if he got a ship towed. Not a ship this good. Not on the day they were meant to be handing it over. Shit.
“We have incoming. We do not have time to wait. We have a ship circling.”
“Give me ten minutes, please. I beg you, I will get it moved.” Aya listened to the radio crackle for painful seconds before the voice came back on the line.
“You have five.”
Aya flicked off the radio and threw down her goggles, dashing for the doors and skidding through onto the busy concourse. She didn’t have time to think she had to get up to docking tower three before the spaceport towed a ship worth over a hundred thousand credits. This was their big six-figure payday, and she might be the one to get it pulled into a nightmare of paperwork and fines. Shit.
As she skidded past ambling tourists, Aya pulled the lanyard from her neck, waving it at every droid she went past. Security was backed up as usual, but she dashed for the staff security check and hit the scanner with her lanyard. Once. Twice. Screaming internally, she hit it again, and the green light flashed, letting her through.
She skidded to a halt in the middle of the busy departure area. Which way? She spun on the spot, the tower signs. Eight. Five. There it was, three! She hopped over a pile of luggage and ignored the angry cries that followed her as she dashed toward docking tower three.
She slammed the button for the lift, and the hoisting gears ground into action. Even as she watched the elevator descend through the glass, she tapped the button continuously, needing to feel she was making it go faster.
As soon as the lift doors opened, she slipped inside. But Aya still had to wait for them to open fully and think about closing for a minute. “Come on!” she muttered, repeatedly hitting the button for the departure floor.
“Hold the elevator!” A woman with a red face hurried toward her, mounds of luggage and children in tow.
Aya took one look at the woman’s angry red face and hit the button again. This was life and death. She did not have time for misplaced compassion. The doors slid closed, and the woman banged on them, gesticulating wildly at Aya as she rose upward and out of her view. There was a good reason that Aya never lasted in customer service.
Even with the sacrifice, Aya wasn’t sure if she’d make it. She paced the lift, catching her breath as she circled the small floor. Finally, the elevator clicked into place, the glass doors slid open with a ping, and Aya dashed toward the boarding gate.
Stewards and security droids wandered here and there, with passengers sitting and queuing as they boarded for docking tower four. But it was the gate to the docking tower three she wanted. She jumped the barrier, slamming her lanyard across the ID scanner and hurtling through the unmanned body scanner toward the airlock.
The doors hissed open, and the airlock walkway clanged underfoot as she dashed for the Starblazer’s airlock on the far side. She scanned her lanyard. Nothing.
“Shit,” she muttered. Aya froze in panic for what felt like a hundred years as her terrified brain caught up with her predicament.
Her lanyard wasn’t working on the Starblazer because the lanyard was Tellus Spaceport Security, not Ceresian Scavengers Security. She was locked out of the ship. Only Mendoza could enter when he handed it over to the new buyer.
She’d run all the way here for nothing. She couldn’t get into the ship.
She looked up through the clear windows of the folding airlock walkway. Ships circled, overheard. The ones waiting to land or ones ready to tow the Starblazer away. Either way, it didn’t matter.
Aya pulled back the sleeve of her jacket. Glancing back along the walkway to make sure no one could see her using the illegal Jovian tech. She pressed her forearm against the scanner. A wheel appeared on the JPC screen for a moment.
“New Device Detected.” MAX’s voice startled until she remembered she’d uploaded him to the JPC’s database. Was it really him? Or was the JPC just using his voice pattern?
“MAX?” she whispered, aware that she would look and sound like a lunatic to anyone with a good view.
“Hello, Aya. How are you today?”
She grinned. Just the sound of her old friend’s voice calmed her nerves. “I’m great, MAX, but I’m in a bit of a pickle. Can you get me into this ship?”
“There is a security lock on the ship, Aya. I would have to break it. That is against the rules.”
“That’s okay, MAX. I’ve just been locked out. It’s an accident. I need to be let back in, okay?” Lying to MAX was an old habit. She knew she could rewrite his code so he would be less of a stickler for the rules, but somehow, she knew it would change too much of who he was.
The door hissed open, and Aya let out a laugh of relief.
She pulled the lever on the airlock walkway to disengage the locks, then slid inside the Starblazer, sealing the door behind her.
She loved this ship. The sleek Cronian design was exquisite with its white ceramic corridor, with no visible joints, just smooth lines broken only by the mounted touch-screen monitors along the interior.
It was one of the best ships they had ever worked on, and it was agony to let it go. Especially to Captain Haruka, who seemed like the type of woman who abused everything she touched. She wasn’t about to take care of this rare beauty.
But right now, the Starblazer wasn’t going to anyone unless Aya got it out of there.
She dashed up the gangway and onto the compact but beautifully designed bridge. Aya slipped into the helm command chair, though she would have given her right arm to sit in the captain’s chair for real.
“Okay, MAX, are you still connected to the Starblazer’s computer?”
“I am connected, Aya.”
“I need you to hand over control of the ship to me.”
“I cannot do that Aya, you do not have the authorisation or the correct pilot’s licence.”
“I’m not gonna argue with you over this MAX, but I need to fly this thing or we’ll lose this ship, Mendoza loses his big payout, and I lose my job and any chance I have to get off this rock. So hand me control, and maybe I’ll upgrade your whole body this time and not just add a few mods.”
MAX was silent. Damned traitor. Shit.
What could she do? Any second now, they would likely tow the ship with her on board. She’d controlled this ship before, she’d had access before. What did Mendoza do with the old wrecks that had no one to hand over the security codes?
“MAX?” Her skin tingled with the possibility. “I need you to place the main computer into repair mode. We need to run a test flight.”
She waited. Seconds passed.
“Tech Authorisation Accepted. Entering repair mode.”
“Yes!” The viewscreen flashed to life, and the control panel in front of her twinkled with system operations. “Thank you, universe.”
With just a few taps, Aya had the systems up and running, even if they were in safe mode. She powered up the engine, grabbing hold of the cold, ergonomic manual controls to disengage the Starblazer from the dock. The hull clanged as the clamp released.
She breathed a sigh of relief as the Starblazer floated free. Then she glanced out of the viewscreen and saw the other ships coming and going around the port.
The easy bit was done. Now she had to actually fly this thing.
Aya’s heart raced as she manually manoeuvred the ship out of the dock and into the open air. She had never flown a ship solo before, let alone one this big. But right now, she had no choice. The alternative was unthinkable.
She steered the Starblazer away from docking tower eight and toward the landing pads in the far corner of the spaceport. She probably should have called traffic control to warn them she was taking flight. Never mind. Stretched out in front of her, she could see the giant rectangular landing strip covered in the familiar grey-brown Tellus dust. Each pad had a giant white number emblazoned upon it, barely visible through the coating of dust. She hovered over landing pad eight. Doubting herself for a moment, but no, this was the correct landing pad.
She flicked over the monitor screen to get a visual from the underside of the Starblazer; if she was over the line of the landing pad lowering mechanism, things could get messy.
The dust cleared as the thrusters lowered, and Aya had a clear picture of the giant white number eight just before the entire ship rocked. She was down.
The Starblazer had landed.
Aya breathed out a deep sigh of relief.
“Good job, Aya,” MAX said.
“I know you have to say that, buddy. But thanks.” She powered down the engine, relieved to be back on solid ground. “Can you connect to the landing pad docking gate and bring us in?”
The moment she said it, the ship jolted and began its descent into the hangar below. The horizon disappeared, and the ship was lowered into the black well of the docking shaft as the airlock sealed overhead.
Then they were through the airlock and descending into the giant hangar below the spaceport, crammed with ships, wrecks, spare parts, and tech droids.
Aya allowed herself a moment to enjoy herself; she had just flown a ship. Alone. For the first time. And she had done it well. Maybe the idea of being a pilot or even a captain of her own ship wasn’t such a far-fetched scheme after all.
But then she saw Mr Mendoza. He stood with his arms folded, a wrench in one hand, and flanked by Jakob and Celeste as they all watched the Starblazer descend with Aya sitting red-handed at the helm.
The docking elevator clamped into place, and Aya paused, knowing she had to face them but unwilling to move. Would he listen to reason? He didn’t look as though he was in a good mood.
Aya reluctantly left the bridge and took a deep breath before opening the airlock and rolling out the metal walkway.
“So,” Mendoza watched her as she disembarked. “You thought you could just steal my ship and take it for a joyride!”
“Spaceport traffic control called—”
“You don’t have a licence, Aya!” he threw his hands up. “You could get me thrown out of the spaceport. You could have been killed. You could have crashed the ship. You are completely irresponsible!”
Aya had never seen him so angry and wondered if steam would start blowing from his ears. Her mouth wouldn’t let her reply. She hadn’t planned for this. She didn’t know what to say. He stared at her for a long moment, then turned and stalked off.
She felt sick. Had he fired her? He hadn’t said he’d fired her, but surely he would fire her.
“You shouldn’t let him talk to you like that.” It was Celeste, Mendoza’s daughter, with a smudge of grime across her cheek. “You should stand up for yourself.”
Shame and then anger rose within Aya. Celeste shouldn’t have seen that exchange. She shouldn’t have been watching, and she certainly shouldn’t be passing judgement, as if dealing with her father was easy. He was a madman.
“My shift is over,” Aya said quickly, unable to put into words any other thoughts surging through her head. She turned and headed toward the hangar doors.
“You don’t have to put up with his crap,” Celeste said, falling into step beside her.
Aya’s cheeks burned, and she wanted nothing more than to escape the HQ. All the excitement of flying the Starblazer had simmered away.
“Well, maybe,” Aya replied, turning to Celeste. “You should stand up for me instead of just letting your dad shout me down before I can explain.”
Aya didn’t wait for Celeste’s reply. She was already in too much trouble as it was. Instead, she stalked off toward the hangar doors, already planning her resignation letter.
“Good luck with the game,” Celeste called after her.
Aya halted for a second but couldn’t think of anything to say, so she headed out of the hangar and ran along the service corridor back to the HQ with a whole new set of nerves kicking in.
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