Vrrrp! Vrrrp! Vrrrp!
Alarms shrieked throughout the Cormorant. Van Orskey flitted deep in the confines of the explorer-class cybership, in the control room he’d built with his mind. Nothing but white walls at the moment, instruments, and viewscreens. “Why the hell can’t we get to our bodies?”
Tayn focused on the ship growing larger by the second in their main viewer. “No numbers. They’re not responding to our hail. Definitely a Federation ship though.” His voice remained deceptively calm, but in cyberspace who could tell reactions without giveaways such as a pounding heart and a sweaty forehead?
Federation ship. Holy hell! Why couldn’t it be a curious transport vessel? No, white hull, blue lettering—the motherfucking Federation.
They’d make one hell of a lot of credits for hauling in the Cormorant and her crew.
Van and Tayn’s physical bodies lay side by side in stasis pods, tubes and wires protruding from their skin. Not of any help at all.
Van chanted, “C’mon, c’mon!’ Somewhere his pulse spiked. Gods-forsaken ship needed to pump the necessary drugs through his physical veins faster and release him from the ship’s innards to return to his flesh.
“They’ve locked onto us.” This time anger raised Tayn’s normally soft voice.
“Give them a warning shot. Not too close, but close enough for them to know we mean business.”
Determination creasing his brow, Tayn hunkered down over the console. “Motherfucking, fuck, fuck, fuck!”
Van turned from his own observation of the approaching ship. “What?”
“No response from tactical. Our shields aren’t responding either.”
“Why the fuck not?” Van and Tayn’s consciousnesses ran this ship, every system, every sensor. Why wasn’t the Cormorant responding? They were the Cormorant!
“Diagnostics are showing jack shit,” Tayn barked, calmness wavering.
Not good. Not good at all.
The vacant look in his bright blue eyes spoke of Tayn’s concentration as he wended his way through sensors, searching for the problem.
“Can you override?” Van tried to keep his desperation to a minimum, but they were well and truly screwed.
“Working on it.” Tayn gave a triumphant, “Whoot! Got it!”
Not a moment too soon. “How much more time until reconnection?” Outside his confines, ship functions came online: physical life support, climate control, air and atmosphere. Gravity. Everything they’d need to make the switch from incorporeal brainwaves to sentient Terrans.
“Five minutes, twenty seconds.”
Five minutes, twenty seconds too fucking long. Van pushed his consciousness, testing his bounds.
Tayn swatted his shoulder. “Stop! You know if you move too fast you could damage your mind. Besides, what if you get there and the ship isn’t ready to support life? You’d still be stuck in the pod.”
Yes, but if he didn’t move fast, no telling what might happen.
Vulnerability. Damned vulnerability. Van’s greatest fear.
The ship shuddered.
Words weren’t needed. They were being boarded.
Van spared a portion of his thoughts for the counter, ticking off precious time far too slowly. Every few seconds he tried again, willing himself out of the circuitry and back into his slowly reviving form.
“Our luck just ran out, Tayn.” Van gusted out a breath he didn’t actually need in this form. In a distant connection air whooshed out of his lungs.
Hey! He felt. “It’s time!” Focusing all his attention on fingers, toes, and other body parts he hadn’t needed in twenty-eight days, he pushed with all his might. “C’mon!” he shouted at Tayn.
Tayn’s eyes went wide. “I… I can’t. Something’s wrong.”
Tayn’s face faded from view.
“…t?” The claxons jabbed like lasers into Van’s newly awakened eardrums. Every nerve ending blazed fire. Van jerked, opening his eyes and aiming a shaky hand at the panel in front of him. Wires and tubes retreated, pulling free of his veins and nerves, leaving the sting of needle pricks in his extremities.
Some already hung loose, entry points in his flesh ripped and bleeding as though he’d tried to break loose prematurely.
Faster, damn it, faster! Pins and needles raced up his arms and legs, circulation returning to normal.
“Tayn!’ He whipped his head around. The other seat sat empty. What the hell? Tayn always woke before him. “Tayn?”
“Still here,” came a voice through the ship’s speakers, in a voice synthesized to sound like Tayn’s.
If Tayn remained in the system, then…
Razors slashed at Van’s insides, and not merely the agonizing chill of chemicals now roaring through him, putting all systems back online. Tubes hung from the empty chair to the floor, leaking precious fluids—the fluids used to keep his and Tayn’s bodies alive and requiring minimal resources while their minds guided the craft.
“Tayn!” The sensors showed barely livable climate and oxygen in the now-waking ship. A quick slap opened the pod door and Van sucked in stale air. Trails of blood-tinged fluid led down the hall. Hell, no. “Tayn!”
Cold metal floors beneath his bare feet, Van stumbled naked down the corridor. “Tayn!” he screeched again. “Stop them! They’ve got your body.” Fuck, fuck, fuck.
The ship came alive, Tayn screaming “Motherfuck!” He opened and closed doors, giving Van the best route to intercept the thieves. The panels slid back too slowly. “I don’t know how, but they’re fighting me for access!”
Van charged ahead. What the fucking hell did they want with his partner’s body? Plenty of cargo filled the ship’s hold. He stopped by his room long enough to grab a blaster, then hauled ass to the cargo bay, the most likely point of entry. His heart hammered in his chest.
Viewscreens showed suited figures, humanoid in shape, but faces hidden by their helmets.
This couldn’t be happening. All the early warnings, the security. Someone slipped past their defenses? Impossible!
The wires and tubes kept his muscles from atrophying, but he’d not recover full strength for another few days. He stumbled, grasping a doorway to keep himself upright. He should be in recovery right now, not pushing his muscles past the breaking point.
Grabbing the ladder railing, he positioned himself over the hole in the floor, slung his weapon over one shoulder, and dropped to the deck below. “Seal the cargo bay doors,” he yelled to his partner. He charged down the too-narrow passageway, feet slapping against the deck plating.
“Can’t. They’ve got some kind of override.”
Fuck. No use being stealthy. Van needed speed.
And for the gods-forsaken claxon to stop.
As if on cue the ship fell silent, except for the normal pinging he wouldn’t stop to identify, and noises made by the three figures who’d boarded the ship.
“Who are they?” he shouted.
“Two humanoids and a Neelonian.”
Neelonians. Bah! An entire race of mercenaries, for sale to the highest bidder. Much like half the people he knew.
Outside the hull the engine hum grew louder, the Federation raiders preparing to leave. They’d breached the ship’s defenses without pinging the sensors. How? Every inch of the Cormorant cost a fortune, nothing but the finest.
He slammed his hand against the cargo bay door. One second too long, two seconds too long…
The door swished open. Van aimed his blaster, swung around.
The engine noises revved. No! Without his body, Tayn would be stuck in the ship’s circuitry, unable to leave.
Why? If the raiders wanted the closely guarded technology of keeping a body alive and in stasis while the person’s intelligence ran the ship, minimizing the need for life support on deep space missions, they should have taken the whole pod.
Why not simply take the ship, since they’d somehow managed to render the Cormorant powerless?
They’d gone through a lot of trouble for a humanoid body. Judging by the state of the pod connections, they’d tried for Van’s too.
Younger and smaller, Tayn’s body would likely fetch a better price if they intended to sell on the black market—if it survived being ripped out of stasis. They’d only want a physique like Van’s for use as a soldier. At thirty, Van passed prime age for a recruit a few years back. Tayn’s could be used in a futile attempt to give some rich asshole a shot at a longer life, or whatever the fuck experimentation the Federation conducted these days. Still, unless they possessed one hell of a lot of tech on the raider ship, Tayn’s heart wouldn’t last long.
Each passing moment reduced his chances.
Van charged toward the control room, plunked down in the physical captain’s chair, and flipped one button after another. The viewscreen illuminated on a wall. Good. At least Tayn managed to regain control of some of their systems.
The marauders powered for hyperjump. Once they made the jump, Tayn’s body would be gone forever.
“Tayn, we gotta go after them. We can’t let them get away.” Van strapped in while the Cormorant’s engines roared. Only two of them, but a faster, smaller ship. They might catch the raiders, but no telling where they’d end up. Federation space meant a death sentence for two Coalition smugglers if the marauders put out an alert.
“We’ll never catch them,” said a disembodied voice throughout the ship.
Yes, they would. Or die trying. “We can’t afford not to.” Nor would Van consider the possibility. Until the Federation shot them out of space, he’d keep trying.
The ship in the viewscreen wavered. Hyperjump in five, four, three…
The forward gun moaned to life.
Oh, shit. Van’s blood froze in his veins, colder than what waited on the other side of the airlock. “Tayn, what are you doing?”
A pause, and then, “What I have to.”
Deep in the Cormorant’s belly a shudder grew.
A flash hurdled toward the marauder’s ship.
No, no, no, no, no! Van balled his hands into helpless fists. “Tayn! What the hell are you doing?”
His horror grew as the missile locked on target.
The contraband warhead they weren’t supposed to have slammed into the raider vessel.
White light filled the screen.
The raiders’ ship blew apart.