Deep inside the Juggernaut a young woman raced along a dark corridor. The few light panels which still worked cast their weak glow along the tunnel before her. Darkness crouched in the recesses untouched by the light, and ahead of her the shadows pooled together like black mercury.
It was warm here in the depths of the city, warm and dank. The woman was dressed lightly in loose clothing and she carried only a small bag, strapped close to her body to prevent it leaping about as she ran.
Tucked securely into the straps on her back was what looked like a short pipe, about fifteen inches long. Her dark hair, secured in a tight braid, whipped around her as she pounded the deep and dangerous corridors of the Juggernaut.
Tila was twenty now but she had stopped counting the years since the colony disaster twelve years ago.
She had survived that day, and every day since. Now she was older, leaner, harder.
The little girl was gone.
She was desperately quick. She dodged pipes and ducked low ceilings without slowing her pace or breaking her stride. She stopped at a junction and breathed easy despite the run. A sheen of sweat on her dark olive skin sparkled as it reflected what little light there was in the tunnels.
This was not the first time she had run.
She made her decision and turned left into a new corridor. Yet another monotonous passageway lined with endless doors. She kept running. Under her breath, she began to count.
Seconds later two men burst into the same junction, following the same path, hunting the same quarry. They looked right, then left and saw Tila. They renewed their chase, calling threats and warnings, but they panted with the effort of the pursuit. They overcame the same obstacles as Tila but with far less grace. One ducked too low under a crossbeam and lost his balance. He stumbled into his companion, bringing them both to the ground.
Glancing over her shoulder, Tila watched them clamber to their feet before she rounded another corner and her lips twitched into a rare smile.
She found an open doorway and hopped through, and then she stopped.
She poked her head back out into the corridor, silently counting off the doorways she had passed. She heard the footsteps of her pursuers pounding along the corridor and stepped back to hide among the deep shadows.
They ran past Tila and she shook her head as they charged past, then she sprang through the doorway and sprinted back the way she had come.
They heard her, tried to turn too quickly and crashed against a wall. They exchanged angry glances. One of them shoved himself away from the wall and gave chase. The other narrowed his eyes, swore, and followed, ignoring the bright new pain in his knee.
This time after Tila passed the junction she slapped each door as she ran by, counting again, looking for where she had made her mistake. Then she saw what she had missed. In the dim lighting was another hidden doorway. It was different to the others.
Most internal doors were constructed in the same way. An uninspired industrial design concerned only with utility and cost and nothing else; the sort of thing you would find on any starship. Yes, this was the door she was looking for. It was square and heavy with thick seals designed to withstand the vacuum of space.
She couldn’t see any controls to the left or right of the door. That was unusual but not unheard of. Not every ship that had been absorbed by the Juggernaut was properly aligned, assuming you subscribed to any ideal about what the ‘proper’ way was to fuse one starship to another. Some scalpers just weren’t fussy about the finished job. Others even preferred the odd layouts which resulted from disoriented ships.
Tila never understood the appeal. Who would want a floor to become a ceiling because one ship had been attached upside down? And at times like this it just made her life harder.
She looked above the door. There it was. She jumped up, slapped the single button with her palm and waited.
She tried again, one quick hammer stroke with the heel of her palm. A weak light flickered in the centre of the button and the door gave out a horrible shriek as if angry to be disturbed after all these years.
It opened eight inches and stopped.
How close were the others? Tila cocked her head to listen for the oncoming footsteps.
She pulled the metal bar from her back, and inserted it through the small gap. She tested it to make sure it was secure and then grabbed it with both hands. She pulled as hard has she could to lever the door open and hoped she was strong enough.
The door moved another inch.
This wasn’t working, and the footsteps were coming closer.
She pulled the bar free and held it away from her body. Fingers squeezed it in just the right way and it sprung open to four times its original length with a sudden snap.
Give me a lever long enough.
She tried again, the longer staff multiplying her efforts and the door opened a few more inches, but it still wasn’t enough.
The two breathless men staggered around the corner at the end of the corridor. Too tired to shout any more they stumbled toward her as fast as they could.
She was running out of time and she needed this door open.
Sometimes you have to pull, sometimes you have to push.
Tila swiftly pulled herself up and over the bar and braced her feet against the ceiling. She grunted with the effort, arms and legs straining against the corrosion of the years.
This time she felt something give. It was only a few more inches, but it was enough.
She dropped to the floor, tossed her staff through the doorway and pulled herself up by her fingertips. She wriggled through the opening which was now big enough, just, to admit her.
She crossed the threshold and fell. Not down, but sideways.
The intensity and sudden shift in where down was supposed to be caught her by surprise. Her shoulder crashed into the floor that a moment before had been a wall.
She picked up the staff and climbed to her feet. Looking back through the door which was now oriented correctly, she realised she should have expected this shift in the gravity shelf. Bulkhead doors don’t open top to bottom. That should have been a clue.
Still, at least the floor wasn’t the ceiling this time.
Tila looked away from the vertical slit in the bulkhead. The sight of the corridor outside at right angles to her floor was disorientating.
She rubbed her sore shoulder where it had taken the brunt of the impact and she squeezed the staff again in just the right place. It snapped back to its former length with a metallic sigh and a satisfying click.
The weak light from the corridor behind her was the only illumination Tila had. The first thing she noticed were the low, dark shapes scattered throughout the dim room. The light knifed its way through the dusty air, barely enough to show her the storage lockers built into the far wall.
Shadows suddenly flashed through the light beam. Tila turned and saw the hands of her pursuers tugging at the bulkhead door in an effort open it wide enough for them to climb in. She heard one of them pick something up from the hallway and together they tried to force the opening wider.
They strained against the old door mechanism until their improvised tool snapped. Like the rest of the Juggernaut it was too old and worn to be of any real use. They resorted to brute strength instead, and little by little the opening grew wider.
Unhurried and unconcerned while they tired themselves out, Tila scanned the room. Her eyes adjusted quickly to the gloom, and the room was growing brighter by the second as the door behind her yielded inch by inch.
She saw now that the dim shapes scattered around the room were bed frames, now more rust than metal. If this was a bunk room then the bulkhead couldn’t have been an airlock door after all, she thought.
At one time, something had breached the wall to her left. Messy repair work had made no effort to conceal the gaping hole in the wall. Something, maybe another ship, had ripped through the wall like a fist through a paper bag.
Micro-foam sealant decorated the wall in splashes of pink and blue. The bright pastel colours were too cheerful for this dingy apartment.
As Tila moved through the room she noticed something glinting on the wall to her right. A brass plaque. Years of grime had long since hidden the surface of the polished metal but a recent scratch had uncovered a sharp, bright line which winked at her in the darkness.
Tila stepped though the light beam and wiped away the worst of the dirt with her sleeve. It read in bold letters ‘Eclipse’. Underneath, in smaller text, it said ‘Registered and licenced by Mirador Port Authority’.
The bulkhead door finally crashed open and the room suddenly brightened. The men’s shadows leered into the room like dusky ghosts.
One of them moved too quickly and in the darkness and his haste made the same mistake as Tila. He fell awkwardly, caught off balance by the shifting gravity plane and landed on his back.
The other cautiously rolled into the room, his feet aligned with the wall to his left. He cleared the lip of the door and neatly turned his feet to meet the oncoming wall.
The first man struggled to his feet, swearing and blaming the other for his mishap.
Tila considered her options. They had been following her for some time now, so it was unlikely she was escaping this without a fight. She could just give them what they wanted, but even that had its risks. In her experience men always wanted more than what was on offer.
She quickly tried to prise the brass plate from the wall but it was too firmly attached.
Typical, she thought. Everything else in this city falls apart if you so much as look at it wrong but this plaque had to be well-made.
Tila turned to face the two men. They had stopped bickering and were advancing, separating to approach her from the sides.
She stared them down, and held her ground. Defiant, yet ready to move.
“Que pasa?” she said cautiously. They didn’t reply. “You can’t have it,” she told them.
“You don’t even know what we want,” said the one on the left. He was the handsome one, she decided, but it was a close call either way. He had fewer scars and most of his teeth.
“You know this isn’t my first day, right?” said Tila.
“Maybe we want to give you something instead,” said the other. He gestured obscenely with the only three fingers of his right hand.
Tila rolled her eyes. Amateurs.
Handsome pulled a knife. A short, broad blade with a hooked point. “Just give us the staff, and we’ll let you go.”
“Promise,” lied the second man. His fingers still twitched.
Tila looked at the knife. Handsome held it properly, like a weapon and not a toy.
These men were more serious than she thought. Fine. Better to play it safe and live again another day. She held up a hand.
“Okay, okay.” She reached over her shoulder with her other hand and pulled out the compact staff. “Here.” She made as if to pass it to them, then dropped it. It clanged on the metal floor with an unusual sound and rolled forward to stop by their feet.
She held their gaze. “Oops,” she said.
Handsome snapped his fingers at his companion and pointed at the staff. “Get it.”
Tila fixed her eyes on Handsome. She had learned the hard way to never take her eyes off the man with the weapon. Fingers obviously thought the same, because his eyes were locked on Tila while his crippled hand scrabbled around on the floor. He found something, and with a triumphant smirk closed his hand over his companion’s foot.
Handsome glanced down.
In the half-second it took the men to react, Tila slammed her knee into Fingers’ face, then stamped on Handsome’s foot, jabbed him in the face with her left to knock him off balance, and finished with a swift right-hook. Handsome hopped backward with yelp. On the back swing Tila brought her elbow down as hard as she could onto Finger’s head.
Handsome shook his head and rushed back in, swinging wide with brute force and unthinking rage. Tila turned her shoulder to meet him, grabbed his knife-hand and forced his arm painfully over her shoulder. She twisted his wrist the wrong way until she felt something give. Handsome yelped in pain and dropped the knife; it fell from limp fingers and skittered away.
Now Tila faced the plaque again. Keeping her tight grip on Handsome’s wrist she lunged toward the wall and dropped to one knee, pulling Handsome with her. His head bounced off the brass plaque and he dropped.
Tila turned, ready for Fingers. He was on his feet again. He ignored the knife and instead held Tila’s compact staff over one shoulder like a baton.
He charged, swinging high.
Tila went low. She dived between his legs and rolled, then kicked to her feet, knife in hand. Fingers yelled and swung again. Tila ducked and stabbed him in the foot, plunging the knife home. She felt the blade scrape on the metal floor. Fingers screamed, and dropped the staff.
He collapsed to the floor and struggled to pull the knife out, whimpering in pain.
Tila crouched, yanked the knife from his foot, and grabbed a fistful of hair to pull back his head.
“Don’t… don’t…” he pleaded.
“You’ll live,” she said, and slammed his head into the floor.
Tila wiped the blood from the knife on his filthy clothes and turned her attention back to the brass nameplate. There was a dent where she had introduced it to Handsome’s skull. Not so handsome now.
Tila used her sleeve to wipe the dent clean and ran the knife around the edges of the seal. She took her time to cut it away, being careful not to nick the metal with the blade. It was the work of a few moments to loosen the plaque enough so that she could lever it free with the flat of the blade. It finally, reluctantly, came free from the wall with a satisfying pop. She secured the plaque in her bag and threw the knife into a dark corner of the room.
She saw Handsome was waking from his stupor. He saw the staff on the floor and chanced it, reaching for it with unsteady fingers. Tila stepped forward, putting her full weight on his hand. Fingers splayed beneath her boot and he gave up a pitiful cry as he tried to tug his hand free.
Without taking her eyes off him Tila nudged the staff out of his reach, then stamped down. Her toes clipped the staff and it skidded away. Backspin and momentum fought for the upper hand. Backspin won. The staff slowed, hesitated and rolled back to her. Tila bounced it onto her foot and flicked her leg sideways. The staff hooked between her ankle and knee and spun up to eye level. She caught it with one hand and slotted it home under her backpack.
The she stepped over Handsome and headed for the door.
Handsome pulled himself to his knees, clutched his broken fingers and spat at her. “Next time we see you we’ll kill you.”
“I hear that a lot,” said Tila as she adjusted her pack for comfort and started toward the doorway. “But next time I’ll still let you live.”
Confusion overcame anger. “Why?”
“Because life hurts more,” she said.