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A pulse of unimaginable energy lanced from a first-class military ship. That lethal but narrowly focused emission failed to destroy the lifeboat plunging towards the surface of Columbia. Fierce joy at having escaped being annihilated suffused the operator of the damaged boat. Merline instantly divined that the Columbian crewman must have aimed and fired manually, rather than taking the time to lock onto her craft, so that the weaponry would automatically fire down the radar beam. The bastard missed by a matter of meters, she exulted grimly. Her joy died moments after it registered. Desperately, she strove to regain control of the crippled craft by rewiring a bypass around a failed component on her board.
That pulse annihilated the cloud of ice crystals left in the wake of my ruptured fuel tank, the Gaean spacer-fighter surmised accurately. He's far out in space. No doubt he'll assume that he scored on this boat itself, so he won't fire again. I hope!
Columbian-accented voices issued from her transceiver, as the enemy exultantly claimed to have wiped the intruder. Merline heard her shipmates bitterly curse the foe whose strike on an unarmed craft they assumed to have succeeded. Unable to broadcast, the lone Gaean spacer-fighter aboard the lifeboat thrust from her mind the ominous realization that her shipmates now thought her dead.
At that moment, the Earth-armed Gaean warship, maneuvering at a considerable distance from the planetoid, launched a light-speed pulse at the Columbian vessel, and dodged the return blast by a dangerously narrow margin.
Deft fingers completed the repair carried out under gut-wrenchingduress. Moments later, the woman pulled the small craft out of the uncontrolled spiral trajectory hurtling boat and occupant towards certain death. Feeling the vehicle respond, she savored a transitory relief, but a glance at her fuel gauge set her heart hammering harder than ever.
A crystal-clear assessment of her situation flashed through a mind operating at a white heat of concentration. Choosing the slimmest of chances over certain death not only for her own self, but also for the innocent noncombatants destined to perish when the boat crashed into a bank of Columbian habitats, the Gaean activated the component that broadcasted a distress signal used only in dire emergencies. In so doing, she informed those manning the board of the municipal unit towards which the boat plummeted, that an operator of a lifeboat with a non-functioning transceiver planned an emergency docking.
The woman's gut knotted despite her certainty that the craft stolen five Earthyears earlier from the Columbian military would transmit a standard signal nowise likely to arouse suspicion in the minds of the civilian officials receiving the transmission. My uniform will shriek my identity as a Gaean spacer-fighter, if I'm spotted, she agonized. Well …if I'm captured, I'll be classed as a prisoner of war. They can't accuse me of being a spy!
Ten minutes later, the spacer still monitoring the cross-talk of the men controlling the civilian traffic above Wales Municipal Unit heard them reply to a question posed by the duty-officer on the board of the military base: a facility possessing locks situated back-to-back with those used by commercial and private operators.
"The damaged craft will land on Municipal Lock Two," a civilian in the employ of the Docking Authority announced. "I'm alerting the Local Division's Emergency Squad, in case the boat crashes, and vaporizes part of the habitat. I've evacuated the corridor fronting the locks. I'm rerouting any traffic seeking to dock, to the Military Lifeboat Locks, for the duration of the emergency. Got that?"
"Right. Carry on. We've no boats incoming, but we'll broadcast a continual alert."
Lock Two. Evacuated corridor. Might I be able to evade capture? Steal a boat?
Grimly, the woman focused her entire mind on making the dangerous emergency landing. She felt the automatic traffic-handling system wrest control of the boat away from her, but knew that she must nonetheless do the crucial matching of boat to lock. Exerting a formidable degree of skill, she managed to align the stem-like docking module of the mushroom-shaped craft to the cylindrical, up-thrusting lock before enduring the ensuing bone-jarring impact.
I survived! she marveled.
The instant the clamps secured the miraculously non-breached craft to the rim of the mooring site, the seasoned warrior let the air into the inner lock below the boat. Her nerve-endings tingling, she waited until a flashing green light signaled the completion of that process, before opening the hatch. Bared sword in hand, she descended through her docking module, and climbed down the grillwork to the deck of the inner lock. Warily, she proceeded through the outer lock to emerge in the evacuated corridor.
A hasty glance in both directions assured the spacer-fighter clad in the slate blue uniform of the Gaean Military Force that no body of security men awaited the occupant of the damaged boat. Exquisitely conscious of racing against time, she made a decision. At a dead run, she headed for Lifeboat Lock One, rather than racing towards Lock Three, and inspecting however many other locks lay in the distance. That choice limited the likelihood of her encountering an unoccupied boat on the single lock she must pass, but it improved her chance of exiting the corridor before being apprehended by the security force she knew could materialize at any second.
Sprinting up to the entry of Lock One, she beheld the heavy pressure-proof door start to swing open, and begin its passage through a one-hundred-eighty-degree arc. Exerting her athletic body to the utmost while aided by a formidable rush of adrenaline, she passed the slowly widening aperture before its width exceeded ten centimeters. Her heart pounding erratically, she determined on hiding in the only refuge available: the narrow space which would remain behind the door ponderously sweeping out a half-circle before coming to rest against the ridged, inwardly-curving wall of the cavernous corridor.
Two black-uniformed Columbian corpsmen emerged, and mounted guard outside the lock.
Judging that the tubular corridor's side wall offered space enough to accommodate her compact body between hull-plates and door without the door's crushing her, Merline flattened her body into one of the shallow concavities in the wall arching upwards, and stayed put. Scarcely breathing, she strained to listen.
"Slade had better get a move on," one guard rasped worriedly. "The last thing we need is a brush with Security!"
Copyright © 2007 Mary Ann Steele.