I was starting my day in the bookshop the next morning, enjoying the rose-gold tones of the mock sunrise in the dome and watching the constellations fade into the calm tones of morning, when the helper bots zoomed over to hover beside me. Both of them, which is weird in itself; as far as I’ve observed, they don’t tend to leave their stations unless you ask for something.
Or get knocked flat on your back by their evil-bot cousins.
Out of character though it was, the bots started circling me like unfed cats, their energy frantic and nagging. Only they didn’t run against my ankles; they did spirals around my torso, hover-hopping up and down. Kind of panicky.
“Are you puppies?” I asked them. “Do you need to pee? What—”
The original bot, the one that saved me—yes, I can tell the difference; I should name them—clamped hold of my sleeve and dragged me across the shop and through a section of stacks until we reached one of the bookshop’s many reading nooks. This one’s got some round tables lined up against a wall. Cute and cozy, like everything else I’ve managed to get dusted in here so far, but nothing special.
Until the second bot did something to the wall, and it… changed.
To a window.
One minute, the thing was made of grimy green paint. (I’ve been busy with the fighter. The cleaning over here’s going slowly.) The next? Well, it shifted into a sweeping vista of starlight, the change so drastic and sudden that it swooped my heart straight into my stomach. I teetered on my feet for a second, in the face of all that vacuum.
Based on the location of the bookshop within the station, it’s possible it was a screen. But it looked like a window, crystal vantage and all, and that was what mattered.
Because in the distance, I could make out the forms of three Hub ships approaching the station.
You know when something’s stamped so indelibly in your mind that your gut knows what it is before your brain catches up? Yeah. I fought enough of those ships during the war. No matter how far out they were, I couldn’t mistake the shape of them.
If the missile-loaded ships that took out Mandel looked like dragonflies, these Hub second-classers always reminded me of spiders. Oh, they’re armed all right, but they haven’t got the grace of the flies. They’ve got bulbous bodies, which make them arrogantly slow, and a few spindly arms that extend out into the black.
Science vessels, in theory. But you know as well as I do how packed they run with arms.
I cleared my throat. “Are they real?”
The bot tugged at my sleeve.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” I said. “How did they find us?”
The bot didn’t have an answer for me. And I didn’t have the time to hear it, anyway. I whirled away from the window and ran for the door, the bot still hanging onto my sleeve like a toddler. “Thanks,” I said, “I’ve got it from here.”
It let go of my sleeve, but it stayed right by my hip as I stormed into the market area, shouting for everyone to wake up as I ran toward the fighter.
Because that was the only answer: to meet those Hub ships with our new secret weapon. See, there’s a reason I didn’t promise I wouldn’t fly it.
The bot pinched my shirt, trying to pull me back. Maybe to slow me down, for unknown reasons; maybe to show me something. I shoved it back, a bit more harshly than I probably should have. “Go back to the shop,” I said.
The thing chirped at me, insistent, but I ignored it and dashed out of the market sector. It fell behind, and I assumed it’d given up.
Until it returned, a minute later, with David in tow.
“The Hub found us, or some of its scouters did,” I said, not waiting for him to ask. “We need to get everyone to a safe spot. Center station would be good. The jungle.”
“While you do what?” We’d reached the crumpled hallway, slowing my progress. But only a touch. “Fly an alien ship you’ve never flown? You can’t even read the controls!”
“Well, when you put it like that,” I said.
“This isn’t a joke.”
I reached the tunnel and turned back to face him. He was looking at me with the most earnest expression, the deepest concern, and it yanked at something in my chest.
I grabbed his hand and held on tight, willing him to understand. “No,” I said. “It isn’t. I’m the best pilot the Alliance ever had, David. Trust me.”
“I do.” His voice was soft as he clasped my hand, like he could use that grip to hold me back. “I trust you. I just don’t want you to face them alone.”
I let go of his hand and headed for the tunnel. “Alone is what I do best.”
Always has been, if I’m being honest. No matter how much I try to fool myself otherwise.
I half expected David to follow me through that hole, to keep arguing. Maybe even try to hold me back. But he must’ve had something more important to do, though—like getting everyone else to safety, or so I hoped—because he stayed behind.