"That rancid sack of festering shit!”
The verbal explosion caused a few heads to turn in the sedate hostelry lobby, and evoked a deep frown from the woman behind the desk. Over the centuries, as mankind has passed from sea to space faring, some aspects of the human condition have never changed. Fionna MacPhearson after eight years of service in the Eco-Corps, six of them in the Space Service as a pilot, could certainly swear like a sailor.
"That soulless, slim infested, misbegotten military motherfucker!"
At this, some of the elderly patrons present actually crossed themselves, and the woman behind the desk released a long suffering sigh. She turned, hesitantly to address the pilot, as though she were not certain that her verbal eruptions were at a hiatus.
"Am I to take it," she ventured, "that you have no other funds with which to pay for your accommodations?"
"I should have two terms worth of termination pay in there -that's over 1,500 credits! If it's not there it's because someone's been tampering with my account!"
"The only information I can get here is a code that says it means," the concierge scrolled down to the bottom of the credit register's screen to find the key, " means ... 'irregular termination'."
"There was nothing irregular about my termination!" Fionna all but screamed. "I did two terms and opted out. I'm allowed to do that, you know! Listen," Fionna leaned across the counter now, pleading with the concierge, "it's the same account I drew off yesterday, to pay last night's bill. I swear it'll be straightened out in a day or two. Even he can't hold up my pay forever without a reason.
" Shit,", she went on, oblivious to the disinterested gaze of the concierge, "This is so like him, to leave me stranded on the most remote outpost of humanity in the universe, with no money, so I'll have to call him up and beg for help. Well, there is no fucking chance that I am going to do that!"
In the silence that followed it slowly dawned on Fionna what an idiot she'd just made of herself. Now, if she wished to depart the premises clutching any shreds of dignity at all, she was stuck playing the self-righteous bitch, and the best she could hope for was a good parting shot.
"I'm sorry, Miss," the archaic address that Fionna had found so quaint yesterday now seemed as annoying as the concierge's insincere obsequiousness, "but I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to refrain from any further outbursts of this sort. Our patrons have come to expect a more civilized atmosphere at Our Lady of Serenity Hostels. And I'm afraid I can't give you a room until you give me the number of an active credit account, though if you know the identity of the criminal mastermind who broke into your E-Corps credit account," she continued cattily, "then by all means, go to the authorities. "
"Oh, I know his identity all right." Fionna muttered through clenched teeth as she gathered her scant belongings, and then realized that she'd actually been given an opening for that parting shot she'd wished for.
"Criminal mastermind?" Fionna remarked as she turned to go. "That's pretty funny, considering that you've maybe even heard of him. His name's MacPhearson too, Admiral J.P. MacPhearson. He's my father."
Leaving the Our Lady of Serenity hostel, (across the corridor from the Good Shepherd hostel, and one down from the Three Graces ) Fionna strode down the corridor with a hard, tight, deck-eating gait, looking neither to the right nor to the left. Her juggernaut like progress drew attention to her in the crowded, bustling business district, though ordinarily little about Fionna's appearance was remarkable, and that was her preference.
She was of average height and build, and quite fit, after eight years of active military service, though the still crisp off-duty fatigues she wore tended to obscure the wiriness she had acquired over that time. Her hair was blond, and close cropped, but just beginning to show that she had missed her first bi-weekly haircut in eight years, just a month ago. Her pale 'spacer's tan' complexion might have set her apart in a planet-side crowd, but here, on mankind's oldest and largest inhabited space station/arcology, hers was only one of countless pale faces in the crowd.
Fionna was especially attached to her spacer's tan because with the least exposure to sun and wind her freckles came up. She hated her freckles. It was one of the many things that her father encouraged in her, that she hated. Her father (the Admiral) actually spent regular sessions under a UV lamp to acquire that 'weather-beaten' look that he thought authority figures ought to have. To Fionna it was one more example of the self destructive macho bullshit that father told her was her legacy.
"For ten generations the MacPhearsons have been career military." he would say with Spartan pride every time Fionna showed an interest in anything else. When she had been preparing for her first four years of mandatory service she had expressed some interest in Health-Corps, where her mother was a career administrator. That, Fionna had been told, was not an option.
Four years later, her mandatory term finished, Fionna made, with no small difficulty, arraignments to continue flying, but with a different service: Ed-Corps. Getting into the elite pool of pilots who ferried teachers and Ed-Corps officials between earth and her outer colonies was considered a plum assignment, but it wasn't good enough for the Admiral.
"Ten generations of MacPhearsons!" he'd repeated, after he had, with only a few calls, put an end to what had taken Fionna months of carefully cultivated connections and acquaintances to achieve.
"What makes you think you're so special, you can do away with that heritage?" he'd asked.
"Maybe," she'd retorted at the time, "I'm the first MacPhearson in ten generations to be born with a brain."
And what, she'd wondered time and time again, over those next four years, was so special about Eco-Corps, besides the fact that ten generations of MacPhearsons had served in it ?(Well only three, actually - the other seven had served in various old regional military forces: United Europe, and something called NATO.)
The largest of earth's three planetary service organizations, Eco-Corps' primary mandate was the defense and maintenance of the earth's eco-systems, and 80% of it's human resources were spent on clean-up of mankind's past excesses. It's second, and more glamorous mandate, authorized ten years after the initial formation of the Corps service system, was planetary defense. This sector employs about 10% of E-Corps' personnel, about 20% of it's budget, and boasts only a tiny standing defensive fleet.
It's pretty hard to get people worried about the possibility of attack by hostile aliens, Fionna had frequently mused, when we've only met one space faring alien species (and no non-space faring sentient species at all), and Mere-koons are about as non-agressive and non-threatening as one could possibly imagine in an alien species. Add to that the fact that neither the Mere-koons nor humans had ever encountered any other aliens besides each other, and you get a political environment that just doesn't give much priority to planetary defense.
So there really wasn't much you did in the Space Service Defense Division except run drills against non-existent hostiles, and hang out with a bunch of crusty old windbags whose primary interest in life was comparing the size of their egos (among other things). Still, this was what Admiral J.P. MacPhearson meant when he talked about Eco-corps, and Fionna's so-called heritage, and after another four years of that life, nothing he said was ever going to convince Fionna that the whole thing was anything other than a dinosaur reserve, and going nowhere fast. She was getting out, no matter what it took.
So when the time came for her next re-upping, she made no elaborate plans. When the Admiral asked about her plans for re-enlisting, she put him off with vague assurances, and by the time he learned that she had, in fact, not re-enlisted at all, she was gone.
Fionna hated the idea of running away. She preferred to think of it as relocating her base of operations. Nonetheless, finding a location for a base of operations that would be free of the influence of Admiral MacPhearson was no simple task, and in the end the Gypsy Ring was the only place that held out any promise. And so, Fionna MacPhearson became one of the many exiles, outcasts, oddballs, fugitives, visionaries, and fortune seekers who came to the Gypsy Ring as a port of last resort.
To be exact, the term gypsy ring was used to describe two separate, but related phenomenon. More generally, it describes the galactic distribution of the flock of slower than light inter-system ships that left earth in the early twenty-third century (against all conventional advise, as faster than light travel was only 50-70 years away).
If this 'gypsy ring' is a navigational phenomenon, the other, and more renowned, is a bizarre cultural one. Of those who sought to strike out for parts unknown with the advent of the reliable, affordable, nearly light speed drive, most belonged to groups that could readily be described as idealist. It was, after all the first real opportunity to experiment with human society in true isolation, since the European discovery of the 'new world'. At the peak of this unusual exodus, ten of the better funded and well organized groups chose to seek their destiny among the stars together.
Ten separate habitat sections - fifteen kilometers long, two km wide, and seventy stories deep, were assembled in orbit at the L-5 ship yards, and set end-to-end in a circle, like a giant Ferris wheel, 50 km across. Once set spinning for artificial gravity, this Gypsy Ring headed out in a direction none of the others had gone: straight "up", away from the galactic plane, on the shortest route to intergalactic space. Of course, it would have been hundreds of years before they passed the upper edges of our galaxy, but fate intervened. In 2237, about 30 years ago, in an unexplained incident which was still providing fodder for untold numbers of conspiracy theorists, the entire station was caused to travel approximately 15,000 light years (in the direction in which it was already traveling) overnight. The builders, and inhabitants of the Gypsy Ring had truly meant to head as directly as possible into the Great Beyond, and now they were.
And in the way of great self-fulfilling prophecies, just by being in an area of space, and headed in a direction where no one else wanted to go, the Gypsy Ring became humankind's 'Great Beyond' destination.
Like any 'frontier' establishment, Fionna knew it was no place to be without marketable skills, or financial resources (though many did, which accounted for the Gypsy Ring's extensive and varied flesh markets). Fionna hoped, however, that in absence of one (the financial) resource, her (marketable?) skill as a crack E-Corps pilot could be made to serve. That, as it turned out, was to be Fionna's next big disappointment.
The Gypsy Ring, being the magnet for vagabonds that it was, had been, since the days of cheap faster than light travel, a destination for "space hippies": families or small clans having one or two members with a class 'C' (minimal) pilots license, and a pile-of-junk ship barely sound enough to make the trip. The customary practice, upon arrival, was to permanently weld their ship onto the outer hull of the one abandoned sector of the Ring (or to another ship already anchored there). This would turn the now worthless ship into a home for one more handful of new citizens of the Gypsy Ring with no resources, and few marketable skills. Of course, if these new arrivals had no other useful skills at all, they always came with at least one licensed pilot.
Hence, as Fionna quickly learned, licensed pilots without their own ships were a dime-a-dozen on the Gypsy Ring. Not even her top rated, class 'A' license was sufficient to spark the interest of an employer.
It wasn't for want of trying. Fionna thoroughly canvassed the port districts in three different sectors that morning, starting with the sector she'd spent the night in, operated by the Orthodox Order of St. Justinian of the Boundless Compassion (known locally as 'the Order'). After she failed to find any prospects there, she caught a Circumfral Transit Line (CTL) car that took her one sector anti-spinward, but she had no better luck in the Latter Day Saints Extra-Solar Mission No. 1's port district, nor in the enormous port district of Speculative Capital Investments Inc. (SCI Corp.), one sector beyond.
In the SCI Corp. sector, however, Fionna did learn several important things. One was that the CTL was no longer truly circumfral, as it did not continue through the next sector, once operated by the Brothers of Aten because some forty odd years ago someone, as yet unknown, had (accidentally?) exhausted their anti-matter engines over their sector, fatally irradiating nine tenths of their population (sterilizing the rest), and rendering the sector largely uninhabitable. Much of this she learned from the recording in the CTL car as it stopped at the edge of the SCI Corp. sector (though the details she did not learn till later).
From the friendly security guard at the SCI Corp./Brothers border station, where the car had stopped, she learned that you positively must 'know someone' to get hired as a pilot on the Gypsy Ring. But, he suggested helpfully, if she was trained on an EVA suit while she was in the E-Corps Space Service, she could probably get hired to do 'debris reclamation' for one of SCI Corp.'s many recycling contractors. Fionna didn't know what debris reclamation was, but she was getting pretty desperate by now, and wasn't inclined to be picky.
She rode the CTL back to the edge of the SCI Corp.'s port/industrial district, where the guard had suggested she might find a few places who were hiring. Debris reclamation, she learned at the first place where she inquired, meant being ferried out to a spot in the vast field of garbage and other cast aside material that drifted along like space flotsam, caught in the Gypsy Rings faint gravitational field between 15 and 50,000 kliks in the arcology's wake. The reclamation technician's job there was to collect everything in their assigned region that they could, before being picked up seven to ten hours later by the ship that dropped them off. It was lonely, boring, dangerous work, and required someone skilled in the operation of a very sophisticated and powerful class of EVA suit. In spite of that, the first place she stopped at didn't need her, but the second place did.
She hesitated before signing her contract, though. This place looked seedy and disorganized, and overall less than promising, but she was tired and hungry, and wouldn't be able to remedy either one until she had some credits. Capetti Bros. Reclaimers/Resource Dealers would put her to work right away, pay her at the end of her shift, and let her store her stuff in security while she was out working. It was exactly everything she needed, so she signed.
The suit they issued her was a model she'd trained on in her second year in the Space Service, which was good, because she was familiar with it's various quirks, but the downside was that the equipment was now over 8 years old. Which would be okay, Fionna thought as she zipped into her suit liner, if they've kept up on the maintenance. What Fionna had seen of the Capetti Bros. operation so far though, did not inspire confidence on the front.
She tried to check the suit's maintenance logs as soon as she'd settled in and activated it, but her shift foreman came and told her that the next shuttle out was loading, and she was hurried on her way. She did manage to access the logs as she stumped down the corridor to the loading dock, but it offered nothing to set her mind at ease.
"These logs don't show a complete maintenance check on this equipment in the last 500 hours of use.", she complained to the foreman as she boarded. "These CP-72s are supposed to have a complete check every 100 hours."
The man glanced up at her as though she were of slightly more consequence than the grime he was picking out from under his fingernails, and shrugged.
"'A'ss jest what the maner'facter says so's y'carn sue 'em. 'E'll be fine.", he dismissed her and went back to his manicure.
It was the closest thing to a conversation Fionna got from anyone there. The other half dozen suited 'trash pickers' crowded into the battered airlock with her spared her a cursory glance at most. Fionna imagined the turnover here might be fairly high, at any rate there was nothing like any workplace camaraderie to be found among this lot.
Stepping onto the shuttle, when the airlock finally opened, Fionna got an idea of some of the other reasons for the low workplace moral. To Fionna's first glance, this 'space vessel' was scarilly patchworked and jury-rigged. No one would work here if they could possibly work anywhere else, Fionna thought with dismay. She was, she calculated, breaking at least six personal professional standards, just by stepping over the threshold of this monstrosity. It didn't bear thinking about how many she was breaking by agreeing to take this suit on an extended EVA, and solo at that.
Other than the sealed pilot's cabin, the interior of the shuttle consisted of an empty shell with wide benches on either side where Fionna and the other trash pickers sat, and open bins in the back that held the collapsed wire mesh bags they'd use to collect what they gathered. The others seemed to regard the 40 minute trip as an opportunity to nap, and Fionna eventually decided to follow this example. She awoke with a start upon hearing her suit number (not her name) called loudly. When she rose, she was handed her mesh bag, and shuffled into the airlock. The moment she was unceremoniously deposited outside, the shuttle sped off, leaving Fionna alone in a vast and widely dispersed field of garbage.
She drifted motionlessly for a moment, still waking up from a nap that had done little beside remind her of how tired she was. Simultaneously, she found herself waking to the realization of just how low she had fallen. Yessiree, this'll sure show the Admiral what I can achieve on my own. Way to make a new start, she thought bitterly as she directed the suit to the nearest piece of debris on her scope, about 4 kliks away: a frozen lump of organic material whose origins were best not speculated upon. She deftly maneuvered the lump into the net bag with her suit grapples. The wire mesh bag would expand to the size of one of those CTL cars, and the suit's propulsion was hefty enough to counter it's inertia when full.
The debris field she drifted in was pretty dense, one piece of garbage might be 5 kliks or less from the next. If she worked diligently over the next ten hours she could probably fill her bag, and her new employer would probably look favorably on her if she did. Glancing back at the scope, Fionna tried to select the next piece of garbage to gather... and found that she somehow couldn't.
Why not just stuff yourself in the fucking bag?
This is just where I belong, isn't it, Fionna concluded. One more powerless piece of crap drifting along in the shadow of something huge and powerful and which could give a shit about you. You are no more going to get the Admiral out of your life than one of these frozen turds is going to book first class passage to New Polynesia.
There is no telling how long Fionna might have hung there, drifting among the garbage in a quagmire of self loathing, had she not been the experienced and consummate professional that she was. Not even the blackest of foul moods could distract her from her regular checks of the suit's status screen, and when she did, about 45 minutes after she'd been left off, everything changed.
"And you thought it couldn't get any better." She said aloud as she double checked the suit's systems directly, to confirm what she feared, and did. Her aged and ill-maintained suit had a bad seal, and she was now going to run out of air about three hours before her pickup was due.
Fionna MacPhearson did a long slow burn. She was already way past anything she might have previously thought of as her limits. She knew she'd passed the point where mere panic was possible when she took her seat on the shuttle. Her anger with her father was such an old stale thing that she hardly noticed it any longer, even when it was exacerbated as it had been recently. But never before in her life had Fionna felt so wronged by the universe.
"I do not, in any way, deserve this amount of Crap!" she shouted aloud, uncaring in her fury.
"This fucking sucks! Do you hear me? It sucks! Tell me what am I fucking supposed to do? What in the stinking, mother-raping universe am I supposed to be doing here?"
Fionna fell silent, feeling suddenly emptied, hearing in the following quiet, only the sound of her own harsh breathing in the voice pickup.
All you have to do now, pilot, is live.
Of course.
A simple goal with a simple condition: do anything you can, everything you have to, to live. The emptiness in her became active - calculating, sharp, cool and in control. She'd been here once before, she remembered, the one time she'd seen combat. She'd lead a group of fighters: lead them into battle, into trouble and, at length, out again. It had taken everything she had, but not more, and she'd gotten them all back, all. That had been important to her. Now all she had to get back was herself, but that's just as important.
With every bit of Fionna's formidable skill and experience bought to bear on her situation, a plan of action began to emerge. It was around 20,000 kliks back to the Ring, and her suit could easily (theoretically) carry her there in about five hours or so. The CP-72's had enough fuel and boost power to haul 50 metric tons of garbage back and forth over a 100,000 cubic km. area of space for ten hours. The practical difficulties would lie with navigation and acceleration.
The suit's on-board navigation unit was set on an inertial reference format, centered on her drop off point. That meant that all the navigational information the suit could give her would be based on how far away, and what direction her drop-off point was. This didn't make the nav unit entirely worthless though, since Fionna could work out, from her remembered estimation of the Gypsy Ring's coordinates, the bearing at which she should be moving away from her drop-off point. She confirmed this bearing by making a visual location of the distant point of light that was the Gypsy Ring, on her suit's (under powered) locator scope. Because her helm control might be described as inexact at best, she would have to check her progress, both on the suit's nav board, and visually on the scope, every 15 minutes or so. That, Fionna thought, would be manageable, but the acceleration problem was stickier.
To get back to the Gypsy Ring as quickly as possible, (and that was a priority because she had less than seven hours of air left, and still no idea as to how she would re-enter the Ring once she had arrived) she would need to accelerate continuously, with all the power the thrusters had. In order, however, not to go flying past the Gypsy Ring at some terrifying rate of speed, (or go crashing into it!) she would need to start breaking, by turning around and firing her thrusters in the opposite direction, as soon as she passed the halfway point of her journey. The trouble was, she didn't really know exactly how far out she was.
Oh, she could approximate the distance using her estimation of the Gypsy Ring's coordinates, but the answer could hardly be considered reliable. Of all the challenges she faced in this fiasco, the acceleration factor was the one with the least margin for error, and the one for which she had the least dependable information. Worse, she wouldn't be able to tell if she'd gotten it wrong until it was far too late to correct any but the smallest of errors. Anything but the smallest of errors would cost Fionna her life. Start breaking too late, and she'd overshoot her goal, and waste precious hours getting back; start breaking too soon and she'd slow to a stop before she reached her goal, and she'd waste precious hours getting speed up again. Fionna's hours were too precious, and too few.
All she could really do, then, was watch her scope, mark her distance, and based on what little she knew, and assisted by a short lifetime of experience, she'd make a gut call, and hope for the best. Fionna MacPhearson was a good pilot. She knew that, and knew it didn't have anything to do with her father's strange ideas about her destiny. She would make the right call because she was a good pilot, and she would live.
Having arrived at this resolution, Fionna released her cargo net, oriented her suit with the small attitude thrusters, and directed the main thrusters to fire at full power. She directed the scope to give her a rear view as she began to move away, and saw the discarded net bag catch in the wash of her thrusters. It spun about and flared open from the centrifugal force, disgorging the one bit of rubbish she'd stashed there. It flew out of the net like a rock out of a sling, propelled out and away from the debris field, never to return.
Fionna felt a moment of camaraderie. That makes us two little pieces of space flotsam what made a break for it today. I wonder what the future holds for either of us.
Hours marked off in fifteen minute segments go by pretty quickly, at first. When set on full, a CP-72's thrusters deliver about half a Gravity. The suit's legs automatically lock into a sitting position, and the arms lock down to the side before the thrusters engage, so the occupant can't really move around too much. Aside from the one-half G of 'weight' there isn't much to suggest that you're moving at great speeds, or moving at all, for that matter, so you really need to have something to occupy your mind, if your going to do this for long stretches of time. Fionna watched her progression on the suits nav screen until she'd moved far enough from the drop-off reference point that the screen's scale -in order to show both Fionna and the reference point- became so large that her visible progress on the screen had slowed to a crawl.
She made her first two navigation checks, and made the tiny course corrections required. She rechecked the suit's systems, making sure that her assessment of remaining life support was still correct, which it was. She made her next navigation check, and course correction. She played with the suit's comm systems, even though she knew that nothing was likely to receive the signal from the tiny, under-powered comm unit the suit was equipped with. She made another nav check and course correction. She wondered if there was any point to the minuscule course corrections she'd been making, but it was better than doing nothing. She discovered with dismay (but not surprise) that someone had uninstalled the Solitaire program that comes with the CP-72's standard operating system. She found the tiny speck of light on the scope that was the Gypsy Ring and stared at it, willing it closer with all the strength of her desire to live, though it had not the least effect. She made another nav check and course correction.
The Gypsy Ring was easy to spot in the stars above (ahead of) her. It had a distinctive yellowish cast to it, for one thing, but for another it was one of only a few points of light in the direction in which Fionna was headed. Beneath and behind her, the Milky Way spread out in every direction -the Western Spiral Arm curling past under her feet. But above her was the void -the dark reaches of intergalactic space. About half the 'stars' that Fionna could see in that direction were actually other galaxies, still farther away to human kind now than our own galaxy's other star systems were to us three hundred years ago.
Time for the next nav check yet? No. She'd been traveling for over an hour, and the debris field was ghost of a memory to her now. There was only the carpet of stars beneath her, and only a glimmering of hope ahead. Some people, Fionna reflected, don't do well in this kind of solitude, but not her. At times like this she felt more in her element than in a room full of people, or anywhere on earth, for that matter.
She had not ever, she had to admit, been so far distant from anything, or anyone, for so long, before, not even in all her time in the Space Service. After her first few experiences with deep space EVA work, Fionna had tended to avoid assignments that involved a lot of it. Not because it troubled or disturbed her in any way -it did a lot of people, even in the Space Service- but because she was afraid she liked it too much.
The technical term for the experience a very few, odd people have, of giddiness, disorientation, or euphoria when exposed for any length of time to deep space and solitude, is nihlo-narcossis. The popular term is 'rapture of the void'. Being officially diagnosed as having 'nihlo-narcosistic potential' would permanently limit her to a class C pilot's license. She would never be allowed to fly solo, never be allowed to carry passengers, never be allowed to own her own ship. Fionna had taken great care to make sure that neither she nor anyone else had the opportunity to discover whether she had 'nihlo-narcosistic' tendencies, or not.
The trouble was, that in her heart of hearts, she already knew. Most of the time she just didn't think about it, but at the moment that was becoming increasingly difficult. In a triumph of pure will, Fionna spent the next half an hour (with a break for a nav check) recalling all 28 basic maneuver patterns from her beginning space-flight classes. After another nav check, she figured she'd discovered a workable technique for passing the time, and started in on the 35 basic group formation maneuver patterns. At the next nav check, however, she saw that, according to her inertial locator, she'd traveled about 8,700 kliks. She was approaching her halfway point.
Make or break time pilot, she thought. This is where you make the call that saves your life, or ends it. Fionna took a deep breath, and cut the thrusters. Almost immediately the 'weight' from her acceleration disappeared, and Fionna was in free-fall again. Though she was still traveling thousands of kilometers an hour, she felt as if she were hanging motionless in a silent void.
The stillness that descended upon her when the constant rumbling vibration of the thrusters finally ceased was stupefying. She only realized that she'd held her breath back so as not to sully the sanctity of that silence when the need for air made her gasp. So beautiful, she thought, this empty, lonely stillness.
Don't, she commanded herself savagely. It's not beautiful, it's fucking dangerous and hostile, and it'll kill you if you don't stay sharp. She had yet to start her thrusters for their reverse, breaking burn -it was too soon still, she felt certain. A little while longer, she thought, I just need to wait a little longer. Stay sharp and we'll make it, but we've got to stay sharp!
Though she knew it wasn't time to start her breaking thrust, she decided to reorient herself now, supposing that, as a view, the busy star-field behind her would be less alluringly empty than the open reaches ahead. She adjusted the attitude thrusters to rotate her 180 degrees, the Milky Way swung into view, ...and fell on her, all at once.
She felt as if a galaxy of stars were raining on her, pummeling her senseless with their brilliance. She was swimming in stars; there were stars inside her eyes, stars in her brain. And the colors, Mother of Light, the colors! Warm glowing amber stars, rose red, and copper green stars, burning titanium blue stars -she wanted to hold them in her hands, or even more ridiculously, put them in her mouth.
This thought struck her as funny, some how. At any rate, it made her laugh, and then, as she began laughing she felt as if she'd tapped into some pressurized reservoir of laughter in her belly, one that evidently ought to have been tapped for some time, because now it was venting out of control. She found herself shrieking with laughter, sobbing with it, so that the tears ran unchecked down her cheeks and blurred her vision. She was giddy with the release of it. She felt the laughter pouring out of her in a golden light, suffusing her entire body with joy and life. She felt divine.
Oh God, oh god, oh god, oh god, you can't do this now, you can't, this is insane, you can't go insane now, you can't, you'll die, you'll die if you don't stay sharp, you'll die!
"I don't care!" she laughed aloud. "Why should I fucking care anymore? She stretched out her limbs to greet her siblings, the stars.
Stay sharp?! I'm a fucking Goddess! What in the whoremongering universe do I need to be 'sharp' for?
*What ... for?* The stars echoed back at her, as though it were all the greeting they would deign to give her.
Yeah, what for? Why do I always have to be 'sharp', always on top of the game, always in control ... always, always in control?
"Well, I'm outta control now!", she shrieked hysterically. "and I can't be stopped! Look out Universe!"
*Look out!*, the stars echoed back again, but this time not in her voice.
*"Col. MacPhearson, look out!"*
That voice belonged to the past.
*"Big bank of guns on your port side, Sir. 'Bout one-thirty. Be sharp!"*
That voice belonged to Tam Davitt, her wingman in the squad of Orbit-to-Atmosphere Enforcers with which she had served during the disastrous six week "Livelyist Revolt".
"Already got it, Sir!"
Sunita Parker, her other winger. Carlos Chen and Kazuko Nakamura covered their tails, and usually that meant with the Enforcers' Maser pulse-cannon, but not today.
"Good work, Sunita! Let's keep the data clean as we can, but for fuck sake, stay out of the range of those big guns!"
Intelligence said that the Bad Guys were dug in at the end of this canyon. Intelligence also claimed that they were only defended with two high power cutting lasers and a few projectile launchers. The first assertion had yet to be born out one way or another, but by the time it was her squad's turn to make the run down that canyon, Fionna had been pretty sure that the second piece of information was not accurate.
Three squads before hers had tried the run, and not one had reported any success. Not one had reported back at all. Mind you, none of the pilots out here today had ever seen live combat before, either. Neither had Fionna. Eco-Corps Defense Space Service had only ever been called to serve in a real action once before, and that was 20 years ago. There was no such thing as an experienced combat pilot in today's Space Service.
There were more than a few experienced combat pilots in E-Corps' terrestrial police forces, however. That's why most of the instructors in the Space Service's Tactics class weren't from the Space Service. Fionna remembered how thrilled she'd been to finally have an instructor who was not just another Space Service windbag, and committed all of his advice to heart. Some of this advice had come to her mind then, as she struggled with how she and her wing would not follow the fate of the squads that had preceded them into the canyon.
When confronted with seemingly impossible, or pointlessly suicidal orders -something that every officer that actually sees action will eventually face, he'd maintained -the officer will face a choice: fail, or refuse to follow the orders and reap the consequences (generally severe) or get creative.
"Follow your orders," went Col. O'Higgens' maxim," and re-interpret your mission goals." Although her mission briefing had not suggested that better intelligence would be required in order to successfully neutralize the Livelyist compound, clearly it was, and Fionna knew that if she came back with proof she'd have no trouble with Space Service command (in the long run).
Her orders were to make a run down the canyon to neutralize the enemy base. Her new interpretation suggested that a run with data gathering gear was required before an effective run could be made with weapons. It was a tight call, but Fionna figured she could stand by it, and so she had passed the order down: guns away, 'ears' up.
"You're too close, Sunita! Get back away from that..." Fionna broke off to yank her ship out of the path of her winger as Sunita's Enforcer careened in front of her, barely escaping a vicious Maser burst.
"Sorry Sir!" came Sunita's voice on the comm. "I was getting a freight-load of data..."
"Gotta bring it back, Parker. Y'gotta bring it back." Fionna had admonished, as she herself took a chance to cut in close for a reading in a spot where she was only mostly sure was out of range.
It would not be true to say, at that point, that Fionna felt no fear. Rather, that a sense of almost stark terror had settled itself into her bones and veins as the first rounds of hostile fire had opened on her squad, and from there it had somehow energized her body and mind, heightening her awareness, reflexes and senses. Time seemed almost to stand still for her, allowing her to dodge her ship around hostile cannon fire, and call warnings to her squad-mates -seeing fire coming at them almost before it would leave the enemy weapons. This was an ecstasy the like of which Fionna had never known or even imagined before, and yet all along, there was the high undercurrent of fear, real tangible fear, singing in her veins.
Never before had she been so far out on the edge -on the edge of legality, on the edge of safety (maybe even a little over it) and, truth be told, on the edge of sanity. They'd all already seen more than a few long violent gouges in the canyon floor and walls -testament to their predecessors (literally!), and Fionna knew of no reason why she and her squad had not yet joined them. In fact, she'd fully expected to at any moment, and yet, she continued. She remembered wondering why she wasn't immobilized with terror, as two new weapons platforms, each carrying firepower greater than what they'd seen so far, had come into view (and range). And yet she and her squad continued, dodging Maser lances, e-pulse bursts, and smart missiles, and taking detailed sensor readings the entire length of the canyon.
Granted, that by the time they had pulled up at the far end, and away from the heavily defended Livelyist compound at last, Fionna had been fighting the urge to laugh hysterically for some time. She'd screamed like a banshee as she and her squad had soared away from the surface and -by report- had yelled: "Fucking Fuck-Shit!!" and the like, over and over on the squad's comm for at least three minutes. Nobody had called her to task over it though, and Fionna honestly didn't remember.
As the stars shifted and danced around her, it was that state of fine tuned, heightened awareness that she remembered now, recalling it more clearly than she had ever been able to before. She had been existing at the edge of control then, and flying even higher than she was now.
*Higher... now?* The stars were echoing her thoughts again.
Sure, she thought, why not? Why not go as far as I can? I mean, what's the point of being a Goddess if I can't go as far as I want? What if I could...? The memory of that vibrant, heightened vision beckoned to her and she delved into it again, hoping to find the thing that was missing now.
Hostile fire exploded around her! Objects careened into her path from every direction! Below her she could see the deep, jagged gouge left by a doomed craft, just like hers. Her own view of the scar and its horrifyingly abrupt and violent conclusion, so close now that she could too easily envision the last few seconds of its pilot's life, too readily imagine herself ending in that blackened crater. The sick dread that filled her seemed to move through her body, sinking into her bowels and weakening her knees, but then, transforming within her somehow, began to rise again. It traveled up her spine, straightening her back and sending fire along her nerves. It spread across her chest, quickening her breath and her heart. She felt a pang as it moved past her throat and filled her brain like a swarm of bees, opened her eyes, and fired her thoughts to move with the speed of light.
The stars coalesced to orderly pinpricks of light before her eyes, and the Maser bursts and hurtling canyon walls faded away. So. after a few moments, did her heightened apprehension, but the knowledge remained.
Fear was the knife's edge, upon which she balanced. Fear was the strength that allowed her to keep a grasp on those very last vital shreds of control, when the force of her high 'G' maneuvers threatened to tear it out of her grasp. Fear was the catalyst -to subvert the potion of endorphins in her poor distracted brain, creating the miraculous witch's brew that would lift her up to that preternatural state.
But the dizzying ecstasy she had drunk in her cup of stars had driven the fear out of her. What could there be to fear in the comfort and safety of the open reaches of space? The giddy Goddess in her had no fear, even of her impending death. No, death wasn't something she'd ever feared, overmuch anyway. She'd faced death in space before, and where she could see it coming, it didn't hold any particular terror for her, outside of the general inconvenience of one's own death... There was something there though... Where she could see it coming... That was important.
This was an issue that came up for a lot of people in the Space Service, because most ships' emergency med kits contain a number of weight rated 'near lethal' doses of sedatives. Officially these are for use in loss of life support situations, where it has been shown that victims can extend their window of viable rescue by heavily sedating themselves, thereby extending the duration of remaining life support. Unofficially, they're there because a lot of people, even a lot of seasoned pilots, really hate the idea of being conscious as they asphyxiate. A considerable number of other people, however, veteran space-hands included, have an equally strong aversion to dying in their sleep. Fionna MacPhearson fell, rather pronouncedly, into the latter camp. And for Fionna, like many others, being inebriated, mind altered in any way, or anything other than eyes wide open and both feet on the floor (or what passed for it) was just as bad.
And here you are, blasted out of your mind, waiting to laugh yourself out of air in another 3 or 4 hours. Is that a comforting thought?
The fear quickened in her throat, but it wasn't enough.
Of course it's not enough. Do you know how whacked out you are? This is how you are going to die.
She seized on an image, the imagined sound of her idiot giggles turning to chokes and gasps as she dazedly and pathetically wondered how the Goddess couldn't breath anymore... She felt the fear take root in her belly, gaining strength.
But how can you be afraid of anything, out here among the loving stars? Surely she was beyond being troubled by whether her death was noble or pathetic. She didn't care about any of that, any more.
You do so care! Look at yourself, look! You don't want to die like this, not with your head all fucked up, you know you don't. Not like this! It scares the crap out of you, admit it!
She assaulted herself with the ugly vision of undignified and ignoble death again, and felt the desperation of barely controlled panic spark something in her brain.
How long?! how long have I been drifting out here gibbering? Is it too late already?
That thought gave birth to a sickening lurch of dread, inspiring, in turn the realization that the data panel in her suit would tell her if it were too late or not.
Data panel
It took a little while. The stars were still singing in her brain, and it made it hard to think, still hard to fear even, but the dread that Fionna had tapped was a real and powerful one. It ate away at the edges of her euphoria, and undermined it, until she felt the waves of giddiness subside. At length, after a few distastefully moist sniffles, Fionna managed to blink enough tears out of her eyes to read the suit's data panel, and managed to clear enough fog out of her brain to make sense of it.
"Mother god, help." she murmured as she struggled to remember what she was supposed to be doing. She called up the nav screen first. It had been 38 minutes since her last nav check and course adjustment (shit!), and she was now 12,872 kliks from her drop off. It took Fionna another couple of seconds to remember why she'd wanted to know how far she'd traveled. When she did, the panic she'd thought was helping nearly overwhelmed her.
Mother of Dark, I'm supposed to be breaking! She started to bring the propulsion control screen up and then stopped herself, remembering that she'd missed two nav checks, and needed to confirm that she was still headed for the Gypsy Ring before she fired up her thrusters again. Making the check helped her focus and calm down a little. Yes, she was still headed for the Gypsy Ring, and she did seem to be only a little over half way there (she hoped with all her heart). Now she bought up thruster control and started the firing sequence, finding yet more comforting rituals as the suit automatically locked down her arms and legs in preparation for full power propulsion.
It took the thrusters about five minutes to get up to their full one half G, by which time Fionna was thoroughly distracted by the disturbing illusion that she was now being driven away from her goal, and safety. She could, after all, feel the force of her thrusters pushing her with the force of half the earth's gravity, away from where she needed to go. No matter that she had been accelerating towards the Ring for over two hours, and had attained so much momentum that the full power of her thrusters was, in fact, barely slowing her down -she knew that. But none of that mattered, because every time she closed her eyes, (and it was getting awfully hard not to do that) she could feel herself being pushed away from her only safe haven, could readily see herself running out of air, gasping out her last breath, hopelessly lost, in the middle of nowhere, never to be found, even by the luckless trash pickers.
So she didn't sleep any, and looking out at the stars still made her head spin, but she found that she could take great comfort in watching the nav screen, and seeing her distance-from-reference-point number continue to increase steadily. The nav screen also
displayed her course, a satisfactorily straight line, away from the reference point. If she stared long enough she could even see the trace on the screen inch incrementally forward. After about forty minutes of this she was bored out of her mind.
It was with something like resignation that Fionna finally lifted her gaze to look on the star-field below her head. The stars greeted her this time, not with giddy ecstasy, but a bone deep contentment that warmed her soul like a fire on a rainy day. She caught herself smiling, and let it go.
Relax Pilot. The job is done -for good or not- but since you won't even know for another couple of hours, you might as well kick back.
She resisted for a moment, holding on once again to the fear of Death stealing her away while her back was turned, but logic, not euphoria allayed her fear. You're not going to be blissing out after the suit's Low Atmosphere alarms go off, she reasoned, and you're not going to find the void so enrapturing when the Gypsy Ring comes into view. She took further comfort in knowing that even after she'd missed two nav checks she'd still been pretty much dead on target for the Ring, so at least she knew the burners on her thrusters were balanced well (for a wonder), and that meant that even if she never remembered to make another nav check, she almost certainly wouldn't miss coming within close visual range of the Ring. If, on the other hand, she were to spend the next couple of hours tying herself into little knots, she would be a complete basket case just when she'd need to be her most clear and collected, in order to figure out how to get on and into the Gypsy Ring.
Fionna closed her eyes, and then opened them to look back up and out at the stars, her heart asking a desperate, silent question.
You are my friends, aren't you?
And they answered: Yes.
Of course, they had been, from the beginning, from the first time an eight year old Fionna MacPhearson had greeted the stars from their own realms, in space. From her first vision of a sky unobscured by atmosphere, seeing bright, beaming, steady stars, as she had never before seen them, from that moment Fionna knew she'd do anything she had to to live and work among those stars, so thoroughly had they claimed her heart.
Her father, naturally, had been encouraged by her early interest, but had never understood, then or in the years that followed, that her love was for the stars alone, not for any prestige, or status that came with a Space Service uniform. Fionna had never cared about the uniform. Fionna had never wanted anything but to be among the stars.
Well, and here you are, she thought with a laugh. And you know what? It's still great. I still love it, and I still belong out here like I don't belong anywhere else.
What's more, she realized, this wasn't just some 'space rapture' nonsense, this was her, this was truth. Okay, so maybe she didn't have these conversations with herself real often, she chuckled in spite of herself, but what else was there to do? The fact remained that she, Fionna MacPhearson, was a creature of the stars. Period.
And further more, I am one fucking good pilot, and I am going to bring me home alive -wherever home is. Anywhere with life support will do for the moment. Mother, I wish I knew how I was going to get onto that station.
Accordingly, Fionna spent most of the next hour visualizing her approach to the Gypsy Ring, and figuring how it might be accomplished. When she had figured at least a dozen different ways she could get herself in trouble during this procedure, she gave herself a break, and trained her scope on the Gypsy Ring. Low and behold, it had finally gone from being just another big dot on her scope, to appearing as an actual ring. Her salvation seemed close enough to touch.
As expected, the last lingering traces of euphoria fled as the Ring became larger and more defined in her scope. And it did seem to be, Fionna frowned, getting larger and more defined awfully quickly.
Mother of Dark, I should have started breaking sooner, she worried, but there was absolutely nothing to be done about it at this point. She would find a way to dump the excess velocity before she ran out of air. There would be a way -if she even needed one. She would still be breaking at one half G for another hour at least, so it could still work out just right. She checked the life support screen just the same, though. She had a little less than two hours left.
For the next hour she occupied herself watching the Gypsy Ring getting bigger and bigger in her scope. It was much more satisfying than monitoring her progress on the nav screen. That, added to her anticipation of the difficulty she might have in boarding the Gypsy Ring, caused the time to pass quickly.
When, at last, the Ring was so near that all of it would no longer fit into the scope's view field, Fionna figured it was time to start maneuvering. She was approaching the Ring from it's side, the ring shape clearly visible, but she needed to board on the edge, so she would have to move over to the ring's edge to approach effectively. Furthermore, she realized, she would need to match velocity with the Ring's spin. There was the solution to the extra velocity problem, anyway.
No, the real problem was, and always had been, that she was operating equipment designed for moving very large masses at low speeds, and she was, herself, a relatively small mass, moving at fairly high speeds. She had slowed to only a few hundred kliks per hour, but this was still a lot faster than the suit was designed to be maneuvered at, and still quite a bit faster than the Gypsy Ring's rotation. And, of course, as if her task weren't tricky enough, she had to do it all facing backwards, for as long as she needed to keep her thrusters firing to break her speed.
Eyes focused on the image on the scope's screen, and not the bright stars visible through her face-plate, beyond it, Fionna carefully bought the attitude thrusters on line again. Standard procedure is to cut main thrusters when altering suit attitude, but Fionna couldn't afford to lose one second of breaking. She had 48 minutes of air left. Knowing that one misstep with the attitude thrusters while under full power would send her spinning out of control, she nudged the attitudes a hairsbreadth, and it bought her arcing over the ring's edge, and moving spinwards, fast.
She maneuvered herself to about two kliks 'above' the dockside surface of the spinning ring, but to Fionna, the ring appeared to be still as she sped around it. This would be where things got really tricky. As close as her goal seemed, it would be much easier now either to crash into the Gypsy Ring, or go flying away from it, than to continue to circle it at this distance.
This is where you show 'em pilot, Fionna told herself with determination. This was where she would do the thing that no one else could do in a million years, and save her butt, though on reflection, maybe she'd rather think of it as a mere 'feat of remarkable piloting skill' rather than something 'no one could do in a million years'. She was pretty sure she was up to a feat a remarkable piloting skill, at least.
Scope locked down to the back of her thruster pack, sites focused on the on the Ring ahead, horizontal attitudes locked down and firing to break, Fionna operated her vertical attitudes with the lightest and most expert of touches. Eyes steady on the image from the scope, showing her attitude in relation to the Ring, she fired the thrusters in one second bursts every few seconds or so, as the Ring's 'horizon' would start to sink below a certain point on the scope's field. Fourteen grueling minutes later she had gone nearly once around the Ring and had nearly slowed enough to match speed with it. She now had about twenty-two minutes of air left.
Two kliks below her, the surface of the Gypsy Ring seemed to pass by at a crawl now, and she moved closer: one klik,... five hundred meters,... two hundred fifty... As she got closer she seemed to be speeding up again, but of course she'd been traveling faster all along, keeping even with the larger 'ring' two kliks out from the station. She still needed to lose speed. She could add her vertical attitudes to the breaking efforts, but before she did, she thought she'd cruise ahead and look for likely entry ports.
She had no idea where on the band of the Gypsy Ring she was, but the surface below her looked pretty featureless, with only a few possible airlocks or space-bay doors, all tightly closed.
You can't, Fionna had already figured, go knocking on closed airlock doors and, expect much. Mainly, you won't be heard at all, and if you are, you can't expect that most people, even if they can see you on a monitor, are going to be inclined to let you in. There's a whole host of reasons, she knew, in as lawless a territory as this was, for not opening your airlock door for a stranger.
Fionna had been hoping (against hope) to find some big docking bay in the midst of releasing or admitting a ship. Parts of this station did quite a bit of commerce, so it hadn't seemed too much to hope for, but if there were any lively port districts to be found on this ring, they certainly didn't seem to be any near where she was.
Twelve minutes of air left.
She was continuing to slow, moving at what seemed a jogging pace over the surface beneath her, there was still no sign of any opportunity for entry, and still no clue as to who's section of the Ring she was over. And then she saw them on the scope, coming up over the horizon like monstrous termite mounds on the heretofore virtually featureless surface of the station, and she knew at once where she was.
These were 'anchor-outs', the unregulated coagulation of derelict ships whose owners had managed to weld, fuse, or epoxy them to the outer surface of the Ring, or to another anchored ship. Large groups of anchor-outs like this, Fionna had learned from the chatty station guard, were only found at either end of the lethally radioactive "Brothers'" section of the Gypsy Ring.
On one end of this section was the SCI Corp. sector, where Fionna had been earlier that day (was it really still the same day?), on the other end, (Fionna struggled to remember the name on the CTL map) were the somewhat isolationist Crystal Temple of the Somethingerother. It seemed likely that this was what she was passing over just now, because on the other side of the abandoned sector that followed it, should be the busy, bustling SCI Corp. sector, where her prospects of finding a way in would be about as good as they got. She might even get within her suit's feeble comm range of her employers' main offices, and call for a rescue, ... except, Fionna thought bitterly as she checked the suit's life support screen, that I've only got seven minutes of air left, and it'll take a bit more than that just to cross the abandoned section. I'd die before I got there.
She still had a fair chance though, Fionna knew, with the anchor-outs. A lot of airlocks, a lot of residents, and one of the few places anyone is likely to hear me bang, she told herself. It might even be her best chance to find someone crazy enough to let her in.
Quickly, carefully, she fired the vertical attitudes to bring her closer to the surface, and when she was about midway up on the approaching stack of derelict ships she fired all her thrusters to break, slowing her approach to the anchor-outs. A few meters from the nearest ship she cut all her thrusters and let the last of her momentum carry her forward to make contact with only a mild impact. She was down, and suddenly subject to one full gravity, throwing her, or trying to, away from the surface of the Ring, now definitely above her. She immediately engaged the suits grapples to get a hold on any grabable feature of the derelict upon which she had landed, and fortunately, these were in plentiful supply. So, it seemed, were airlocks, though the one nearest looked dark. She banged anyway, waited for only a moment, and moved on to one with a light.
The suits grapple arms pulled her from handhold to handhold over the tower of dead ships, as the Ring's artificial gravity continued to tug at her, threatening to tear her away from her hard won goal.
When she banged on the next airlock the lights went off. Well, Fionna thought, at least I got a response. She had decided not to look at her life support status screen any more, concentrating on moving on to the next airlock. On the backside of the pile of derelicts she was climbing on she discovered a narrow, irregular chasm, or chimney, possibly leading all the way up to the surface of the Ring. From what Fionna could see, there were enough lighted windows and airlocks that they dimly lit the passage all down it's length. It was just wide enough to admit Fionna's suit, and so in she went.
By the time she had caused two more lights to be extinguished, frightened a band of raggedly dressed individuals, and a couple of children and some small animals in another room, and incited another party to throw something dark and sticky at their airlock's interior window, she could tell her air was starting to smell bad. At least, she comforted herself, my body won't end up in that fucking debris field. Probably be collected by one of the poor jerks I just scared the shit out of, but I'd as soon it went to one of them than to the bastards that gave me this piece-of-crap suit.
She came upon another airlock window -lit, but fogged over, apparently with moisture. A condition, Fionna couldn't help thinking, unspeakably irregular in her own experience, but not, it seemed, here. Desperately, she knocked, beginning to feel just a little light headed as she did so.
Running out of time...
There was a movement behind the fogged window! A rag swiped across the fog a few times and was then replaced with a pale, grime smudged face. Afraid to hope, Fionna lifted both hands to her neck -the space suit language gesture for 'out-of-air'. Immediately the face was replaced with a hand, thumb and forefinger touching to form a circle, and then it was quickly gone.
Fionna stared, rapt with disbelief and amazement as, before her eyes, the moisture on the inside of the window formed into crystals of ice. More of these puffed out in a glittering shower of snow as, incredibly, the airlock door opened. She pulled herself in without another thought, spending the very last of her strength yanking the decrepit hatch shut, and sealing it.
Kneeling on the floor of the airlock, Fionna tried hard to will her racing heart to calm, and her lungs not to gasp air that was largely oxygen depleted, and failed thoroughly. It was certainly one of the longest three minutes of Fionna's life, if not the longest, and when she could see, with blurring vision, that the suit's exterior atmosphere light had gone green, her hands were too clumsy to find the release catch for her helmet. But then, the interior door of the airlock opened, and her rescuer found the catch and released it without a moment's hesitation. Lifting Fionna's helmet away, her savior placed it on the deck, a few feet away from where Fionna knelt, now drawing in great gulping lungfulls of air, and perched on it, waiting patiently.
The room beyond the airlock, slowly revealed as Fionna's senses came into focus again, seemed small, quite warm and extremely damp. It smelled of mold and mildew, of bodily waste (probably human), and of human body odor in the extreme, and to Fionna it was sweeter that the air she'd loved to breath in the open country near her family's summer home in Scotland. Some part of her, as well, was just beginning to realize that she'd actually survived, but mostly she was still in a state of mild shock.
As it became possible to think about something more than just gasping for air, Fionna turned her attention to her rescuer. The person sitting on her helmet, across from her, was small, of indeterminate gender, wore her hair close shaved, save for a tiny beaded braid at the back of the skull, and wore a heavily stained and patched pair of multi-pocketed denim overalls. Stained and patched, Fionna noted, but not tattered, and a whole array of tools and technical instruments, some quite sophisticated, could be seen protruding from the many pockets.
The small room beyond the airlock, Fionna could now see, was full of plants. That would explain the moisture and mold smells, she thought, but she remained completely mystified as to the nature of the situation she had arrived in. She might have solved her life support problem, a last, but she was essentially at the mercy of her rescuer, as well as deeply in their debt.
At last, thinking her breathing might have steadied sufficiently to attempt speech, she managed to gasp out, "thanks" between breaths.
"Ben’t no problem, Sistah", replied her rescuer, whose voice now led Fionna to guess her gender to be female.
"Had'a vent some excess humids 'nyhow, so you been handy." she explained good naturedly.
This struck Fionna as an appalling waste of resources, but now was not the time.
"I be th'Tinker," Fionna's diminutive rescuer said, standing and extending a hand. "An' you?"
Fionna opened the front panel of her suit, to free her hand and arm, and replied, still a little out of breath, "MacPhears...,Phearson, ... Fionna, Ma ... Mac ... Phearson."
They shook, Fionna's agile pilot's hands clasping Tinker's wiry, work hardened ones.

"You be a mercen'ry -a sod'jer?", Tinker asked.
Fionna shook her head, confused by the question. "Pilot.", she replied between somewhat
calmer breaths.

"Who ben't? How you be come out there, tho?" Tinker waved at the outside airlock door.
Fionna laughed, only a little breathlessly now. "Debris reclamation." she stated, indicating with a gesture the company logo and registry number on the suit's left shoulder.
"You been a trash pickah?", Tinker exclaimed with disbelief. "You come in from the trash trail in that?" Fionna nodded, grinning.
"Barkin' magnificious, Sistah!", Tinker cried. "I did never hear o' 'nyone who bragged on that did before. Ben’t no easy thing, ney?"
"No, not an easy thing.", said Fionna, climbing, at last out of the despised suit. "Fortunately, I am one fucking sharp pilot, because otherwise I'd'a ended up another piece of the 'trash trail'."
"Then a pilot you be, I'm to hear.", shrugged Tinker. "So, how's be the name?"
"The name?", Fionna asked, confused again.
"The badass name: Fierce One. You be havin' a bad temper?"
"Fierce One?" Fionna understood now. Tinker must have misheard her as she gasped out her name.
"That's...", she began, and then stopped herself before she finished her correction.
She's given you a new life and a new name -take them both, and you can leave the Admiral's cursed daughter to die out there in the trash trail. You can finally be free of him and your whole old life, and just think, all you had to do was lose everything but your life, even your name...
"That's ... just on account of my, ah... fondness for... 'colorful' language times.", Fionna recovered.
"Oh yeah?", Tinker probed, "Let's hear some."
"Some ... what?"
"Colorful language. Seein' as it's been give you a name, I feature it's pretty colorful, an' I wanna hear some.", Tinker demanded, arms crossed over her chest.
"Well, I can't just...", Fionna groped. "I need,... you know,...inspiration."
"So,", Tinker asked slyly after a moment, "How come you been had to burn all the way back here from the trash trail in yer suit?"
Here, indeed, Fionna had to admit, was inspiration a-plenty. With what she hoped was a fiercely gleeful grin, she launched into a classic rant.
"Oh, that would be on account of the plague infested, shit-sucking, mother-rapin',
sons-of-whoremongers who gave me this maggot riddled, piece-of-crap suit with a *fucking* bad seal."
"Sistah Fierce One!", Tinker cried with approval.
Taking the Tinker's proffered hand to help rise, Fionna stood.
"My friends, ", Fionna lied magnanimously, "call me Fierce."


Copyright 1999 C.S.Chandler & Laughing Unicorn Publications

Acknowledgments: Thanks first to Mr. Colin Boyce for his indispensable
technical advise and consultations. Thanks also to John and David
Chandler for their editorial advise and time, and of course an extra round
of thanks to Mr. David Chandler who never asked for his home to be
filled up with so many fictional housemates.

Dedicated to my Tinker, who mysteriously conjured herself into my life
just as this tale was being born, and then just as mysteriously conjured
herself away again (tho not, I hope, for good).

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