The Flight of the Medusa by Anna Sykora
Editor’s Note: So we launch the first story of 2012 with an awesome SciFi thriller by a new FFJ author who has been widely published. In 2012 we continue to see growth in quality of fiction just as 2011 was a big boom year for us in fiction quality and quantity. If you missed out on that action or wish to treasure it in a classy print paperback – get hold of our Annual Anthology Vol 03 out now with 196 pages of A4 size fun. Cover image is a class apart, by award winning photographer Eleanor Bennett. Also check out the past Anthologies at our site.
Synopsis: In space, your spaceship is your best friend, especially if you are the sole soul onboard.
About the Author: Anna Sykora has been an attorney in New York and teacher of English in Germany, where she resides with her patient husband and three enormous cats. To date she has placed 101 stories in the small press or on the web, and 197 poems. Writing is her joy…
In this SciFi thriller, a woman fights dark evil in the deep darkness of space.
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The Flight of the Medusa
by Anna Sykora
Sleek and black like a huge, wet beast under the floodlights, the Medusa filled the Veracruz Space Station’s largest bay. Ava’s heart beat harder as she stepped towards the freighter, boot heels ringing on the steel-plate floor. Ready for another passage through the rings? Mother, you won’t believe our cargo.
The young woman stepped onto a platform that raised her smoothly to the open hatch. When she waved to the yellow bots below they rolled away in single file. Stepping inside the softly-lit pilot pod, she checked its glowing, concentric circles and leaned back into the full-body interface, whose mesh rose to fit her like a skin.
“Good morning, Ava.” Speaking from the nearest of a hundred ports, the Medusa’s built-in bot sounded husky, like an old-fashioned smoker from Terra.
“Hi, Mother. Are we ready?”
“Sure. Why are we so heavy, dear? Doesn’t feel like a load of protein bars.”
“Our cargo today is classified. I can’t tell you what it is till we reach Alhambra.”
“Oh a secret. I love secrets.”
With her foot Ava opened a channel: “Veracruz 1, we’re ready for flight.” A green light pulsed above the bay’s outer doors, which started sliding open. Ava took a deep breath, willing her muscles to relax… With Mother’s help she’d make this passage. Fingertips quivering, mind serene, she shut her eyes and reached for the ignition—
A siren shrilled outside: launch interrupted. Why? Steel gates quivered shut on starry space.
“Hey, Erwin, what’s the problem?”
“You’ve got a last-minute passenger for Alhambra, Ava: a VIP.”
“Great. President Pond’s planet-trotting nephew?”
“No, Ambassador Troll.”
She groaned. “You know I can’t handle protocol.”
“Just get him safely to the capital. He’s negotiating with the Luddite fanatics, who took 100 hostages. I’m sending him aboard with his bot assistants.”
“But we’re not configured for passengers. They’ll have to sit in the bio-pod.”
“He knows and it doesn’t matter, Ava. Please try to hold your famous temper.”
“OK,” she said glumly. “I’m opening hatch 3.”
After ten minutes she got fresh approval to launch, and smiled as the gates slid open on the clean blackness of outer space, lit by near planets like swirl-patterned jewels. The Medusa’s engines rumbled and roared, and away the big ship bounded like a predator chasing prey.
Pressed back into the full-body interface, Ava felt like a goddess on a magic steed; she felt ready to face the universe, even the Rings of Stone, whose unpredictable asteroid collisions had killed 40 pilots of the fleet–men who flew by logic alone. Their mile-high obelisk towered next to the Congress Palace in the heart of Alhambra City…
Already Veracruz Station looked like a minor moon circling tawny Steinmetz. The mining planet’s surface, almost waterless, looked drab beneath pale swirls of clouds. Its precious ores sustained the Union, though, which had long since abandoned paper money…
Ava touched open the channel to Mother again and left it open: “Confirm: 32 minutes till we enter the first ring?”
“That’s correct. Time for a courtesy call on our passengers.”
“Well please scan the web for Ambassador Troll. Why did the Union choose him to talk to the Luddites, who want to turn us all back into drudging farmers?”
“A universal scan will take me 20 minutes.”
“You can report when I get back.”
Down in the bio-pod, Troll’s bots flanked him like guards, twin golden frameworks with eye-buds on jointed, silver stems. The ambassador, wearing long, purple robes, reclined on a mobile passenger berth, his face concealed by a golden mask, his small eyes green as bile. His thin lips twitched when Ava introduced herself, and he didn’t stand up.
She felt a shudder down her spine. His mean mouth reminded her of somebody. Who?
“Pilot Steele, I trust that conditions look good for our passage through the Rings today.”
Why did his voice sound so familiar? “I’m not concerned, Ambassador. I’ve been making this crossing for almost two years.”
“You’re supposed to be one of our fastest pilots.”
“I’ve trained hard to reach my astro-rating.”
“I see you grew up on Steinmetz though. You’ve got that physique: short and thick.”
Yes, she’d grown up battling the mining planet’s gravity. She’d never have the grace of a native Alhambran. “The Fleet chose me from an orphanage on Steinmetz when I was six.”
“Who was your trainer?” Troll asked abruptly.
“Ray Nero,” she said bitterly. “Maybe you’ve heard of the man: a great pilot, later a traitor to the Fleet.” Troll chuckled unpleasantly, and his gold-plated bots made tut-tut noises. “Please excuse my plain speech. I need to get back to the pilot pod. If you’d like anything to make your trip pleasant, please ask our shipbot, Mother, using any of her ports. We stock a full range of pharmaceuticals.” Ava pointed at a white wall cabinet adorned with a red cross.
“Thank you.” Troll’s thin lips twitched. “But I’d rather stay sober on this flight.”
“As you wish.” She spun on her heel and stalked away, feeling his green gaze probe her back.
Halfway up to the flight deck, she doubled over breathless; her head felt squeezed in a giant vice. A harsh voice warned, “Pay attention, girl–or I’ll make you wish you still lived in a public hut on Steinmetz.” Ray Nero’s voice?
Gasping, Ava clutched at a bulkhead’s grip, and the awful pain passed like a dream. How could this happen? She stumbled forwards. She’d just passed her annual medical exam in perfect health, the doctors said.
Reaching the pilot pod, she sank back into the interface, trembling. Entry to the first ring, minus 12 minutes… She needed to prepare herself; Mother’s report on Troll would have to wait.
Already in her mind Ava saw a 3D image of this sector of the first ring. The bald stones hurtled themselves at each other, smashing with the force of ancient wars. No computer, working alone, could figure the trajectories of wreckage spewed by these collisions, and that’s where her long-practiced art came in: the art to which she’d devoted her life.
Passage through the rings was like a dance of life and death, with partners ranging in size from tall buildings to dwarf worlds. You had to anticipate their every move, and then glide the Medusa safely away; you couldn’t cramp up, which would slow your responses, risking your ship, your cargo, your life.
Suddenly Ava felt a qualm, as if she were a raw trainee again. The concentric circles of the indicator lights swam before her eyes.
Post traumatic-stress syndrome? How could the Fleet doctors miss this problem? Why was it cropping up today? What was special about this passage?
Entry minus 6 minutes. “Hey Mother,” she called out, sounding calm. “You find anything on Ambassador Troll?”
“I note one discrepancy,” the shipbot replied right away. “He’s supposed to be human, born on Terra, but his brain waves look terribly distorted–almost like those of some pre-human beast.”
“Maybe he’s just having a bad day in outer space, like me.”
“I’m monitoring your heart rate and your breathing. You are feeling uncommon stress, and we haven’t reached the first ring. Ava, what is provoking you?”
“I don’t know. Please keep a few sensors trained on our passengers though.”
Inside the first ring, a small, egg-shaped asteroid hurtled towards them. Several seconds before impact–and using low energy, to save costly fuel–Ava nudged the Medusa out of the way. She took a few, deep breaths then and settled down, relaxing into the all-absorbing work of navigation. Breathing rhythmically, after a while she felt calm and clear again; running the obstacle course in space she’d trained for all her life.
Now she focused on Q62, a crater-faced asteroid the size of Alhambra City. Mapped, its trajectory well known, in a minute it would slam the Medusa. As seconds ticked away though, Ava froze, and simply watched the jagged block veer nearer.
“What is the matter?” Mother demanded. “Shall I override you?”
“No.” At the last millisecond, Ava dove the sleek ship under the asteroid, like a swimmer diving beneath a wave. The Medusa shuddered from head to tail.
“Ava,” cried Mother irritably. “Would you like to tell me what happened just now? It felt like you were playing with doom. What’s the basis of your self-destructive compulsion?”
“That wasn’t me.” Her eyes filled with tears. “It felt like someone fighting for control. Someone with telepathic powers.”
“How is that possible, Ava? With nobody aboard but Troll and his bots.”
“And you. Has somebody sabotaged you?”
“My functions are normal,” Mother said tartly. “Yours are not, my dear. Go ahead and run a thorough check on me.”
“We’ll hit the second ring in 17 minutes.”
“Then trust me to fly this ship alone. I need to check your nervous system.”
“OK,” Ava groaned, and stuck her head into a hanging helmet like an old-time dryer of hair. She heard a buzzing, and then loud clicking, and in a minute Mother said smugly:
“I found an anomaly under the skin of your neck, just above the bone of your right shoulder.”
Probing with her fingers, Ava felt the pellet, small and round as a Terran pea. “An implant? I got my physical Tuesday. Somebody could have placed it then.”
“Well I suggest we pull it out, right now. Would you like a pain killer, dear?” And the door of the red-crossed cabinet in the pilot pod popped open.
“No thanks, Mother.”
“Well, can you reach it all by yourself?”
“If you hold a mirror for me.” A stem of light emerged from one of Mother’s ports, plucked a small, square mirror from the cabinet and held it up.
Using an all-file, quickly Ava picked open her own neck. She ripped out the implant with its wires, and slapped a no-bleed patch over the wound. She’d stitch it up later–after clearing the last ring.
Already the Medusa was dodging and weaving, piloted expertly by Mother.
“You’re doing fine,” said Ava softly.
“We share a common vision. Take a little rest, dear, before the third ring. It’s the hardest one, you know.”
Ava settled back into the interface and slowed her breathing, trying to compose herself. Though her neck ached from the crude incision, already her mind felt clear and calmer.
Why would somebody try to tap into her mind? Who would have the technical ability? Did somebody want to hijack the Medusa, with its heavy load of pure gold ingots? The ransom for the hostages the Luddites would surely massacre, if she failed to reach Alhambra…
She’d take no chances; she’d face Troll. Somehow she didn’t trust this man.
“Ambassador, I’m confiscating your bot assistants on my own authority. I need to disable them both until we land safely in Alhambra City.”
“You have no right.” His snake-like eyes narrowed behind his mask of polished gold. “We’ve got full immunity. We’re on a diplomatic mission for the Union.”
“But I’m responsible for your security, and someone’s interfering with my steering. I’m not accusing you, but maybe someone has tampered with your bots.”
“Pilot, that’s ridiculous.”
“Then will you permit me to search them now?”
“Then I’ll have to use force. I’m sorry.”
Eying Ava uneasily, the gold-plated bots had shifted apart. When one turned suddenly as if to flee, Mother shot a magnetic beam from a port, immobilizing the bot. When its twin tried to pull it free, she blurted them both out a hatch, into space.
“How dare you?” shouted Troll. “Those were custom models, programmed to my specifications. I’m going to seek damages from the Fleet.”
“That’s your right,” said Ava hotly. Cursing, he plucked up an oxygen pack and smashed it to pieces on the deck, and his mask slipped, baring his bloated face and bulbous nose.
“Ray Nero,” she gasped, “in green eye-lenses. What have you done with Ambassador Troll?”
“We buried him down a mine on Steinmetz.” He pulled a blaster from under his robes and aimed it at her heart. “My triad needs this vessel’s cargo.”
“Trainer, are you threatening me? I’m the only pilot who can fly this freighter. We still have to transit the third ring.”
“I want you to divert to Ferris 2. You should have ample fuel.”
“I’m not going to fly my ship to that nest of pirates.”
“Ava, you’ll do what I say. I’m your trainer.”
“Not anymore. I’m free.” She kicked the blaster out of his hand, and wheeling he ran towards the propulsion chamber, smashing out the Medusa’s panels and lighting as he ran.
“What’s going on?” cried Mother anxiously.
“We’ve got a traitor to the Fleet on board: my ex-trainer, Ray Nero. He joined the criminal triads from sheer greed.”
“He’s shutting down all our communica–” Mother’s voice broke off.
“At least I know my enemy,” Ava muttered. “And I’m not crazy.”
“You’re weak and inadequate,” Ray’s voice boomed. “You’re the worst pilot I ever trained.” Amplified down the long passageway, he sounded like an angry god.
“And you’re a disgusting traitor and swindler! I’ll throw you into deep space, like your bots.”
“No, I’m gonna fly this ship to Ferris 2. I don’t need your help to truck a load of gold.”
“You’re not taking over my ship, Ray!”
“I helped design it. I can fly it.”
Then he’d have to bypass the main controls and steer from the ES interface… Ava raced down the darkened corridor, feeling her way towards the emergency station. How crippled was Mother? Could they still make contact, before they reached the third ring?
Never had she felt so alone, not since her childhood at Ray’s mercy, crying out her eyes in her bare niche in the basement of his hidden training barracks, the barracks surrounded on all sides by the thick, grey slag of Steinmetz.
No, she wouldn’t let him destroy the new life she’d made. She wouldn’t let him hijack the Medusa. Reaching a storeroom, she grabbed a pair of restraints and a heavy wrench, and groped on towards the emergency station…
Tripping over a cable spanned in the dark, she fell flat and split her lip. She spat out the rusty-tasting blood. Had she forgotten Ray’s cruelty? Warily now she inched towards the ES.
The pale glow of a flashlamp lit the emergency station like a lantern down a mine. With quick, deft motions Ray was splicing chips in a panel hanging loose from the wall.
Creeping up, Ava slammed the wrench down on his skull–and the heavy tool passed through his body. “A hologram,” she groaned as the image faded.
“Hands up.” He poked her in the back with his blaster’s muzzle. “It’s still so easy to trick you, Ava. Didn’t I train you better as a girl?”
Her cheeks were burning, her ears buzzing with fury. How dare he humiliate her. I’m a top-rated pilot of the Fleet.
“Now I’m going to tie you up,” he was saying, “for the rest of our journey–little Ava.”
She took a deep breath, focused her mind. “There’s no need, master,” she said softly. “I see that you have beaten me.”
Hugging her tightly from behind, he cupped her small breasts in his hands. Skin crawling, she felt like vomiting, and voices in her head cried, “Kill him, or die! You can’t live, if he does what he wants to you, again.”
“Sit there now, like a good little girl.” He folded down a seat from the wall for her. “While I divert our ship to Ferris 2. It’s not as bad there as people say. I’m sure you can get used to the life.”
She forced herself to say evenly: “Whatever you wish for me, Trainer Nero.”
When he turned away, she flew at him again, chopping the back of his neck with her hand. He crumpled to the deck and then grabbed her knees, pulled her down and rolled on top of her.
“You’re hurting me.”
“I’ll show you who’s boss,” he growled as she breathed in his sour breath. “Just like I did when you were a snotty, disobedient brat.”
She punched him in the crotch and he roared; she grabbed his head and tried to bang it on the bulkhead.
“Now I’m going to have to hurt you.”
“Ray, you’ve hurt me enough.” In a flash she clicked plastic cuffs around his wrists. As he gaped she secured his ankles too, and his bloated, once-handsome face split into a demonic snarl:
“Honey, you’re making a big mistake.” She tugged his blaster from the under-arm holster. “Like when you walked out of my training early.”
“It wasn’t enough for you to abuse me. You boasted about it to your friends.”
“You loved it, Ava; you wanted it! Such a precocious little girl.”
“You’re less than an animal, man.”
“But I chose you from that orphanage on Steinmetz. I chose you for your toughness–little Ava.”
“Don’t tempt me to kill you,” she hissed in his face. “You’ve been my bad dream since I was six. Wherever I fly, wherever I go, I’m burning my rage at you as fuel.”
With a piece of cable she secured his cuffed hands to a steel handgrip on the bulkhead. Snatching up the flashlamp, she left him alone in the darkness and rushed back towards the main pilot pod, hoarse laughter ringing in her ears.
It took her an hour to bring the Medusa back on course and navigate the third ring alone. Then she worked on restoring communications with the ship-bot. Poor Mother needed an overhaul. It would have to wait until they landed.
Exhausted, Ava sank into the interface and let herself take a healing rest, and when she awoke, the golden capital planet loomed in the distance like a full moon. Soon Alhambra filled her entire vision.
“Hey Mother,” she said hopefully, “if you can hear me now–”
A hairy hand clamped over Ava’s mouth, and a foldable bot, spider-shaped, went capering over the ceiling.
“You should have searched me,” Ray Nero leered. “I kept him in my robe, just in case.”
“The thought of touching your body makes me sick.”
“But you can’t escape, you know.” He tugged her out of the interface and pushed her down on the deck, on her knees. “Stay like that now, or I’ll have my friend here paralyze you with his toxic sting.”
Ray shoved himself into the interface. The Medusa shuddered and accelerated.
“What are you doing?” Ava cried.
“Crashing us into the Congress Palace.” His bloated, yellow-tinged features seemed to sag. “I’m dying of cancer anyhow.”
“And what will you gain by crashing this ship?”
“I’ll be famous down the centuries, and you will be famous–as my victim.”
Ava saw the Pilot Obelisk on the horizon, the many-spired Congress Palace beside it.
“I won’t let you.” She lunged at him and forced him from the interface, and the ship veered sideways like a bucking horse. Thrusting her aside, he tried to push back in–but lighting flashed from the interface mesh, writhing around him like thick snakes while Mother cried like a spiteful little girl:
“Oh no you don’t.”
He sagged to the floor, shocked, eyes still open.
“Mother, stabilize us,” Ava pleaded. The spiderbot cowered in a corner. Grimacing Ava stomped it to pieces, under her steel-soled boots. The hot desire to kill her abuser raged in her heart like a poison storm.
She stooped over Ray Nero on the deck, his bulbous nose seeming to dissolve in his flaccid cheeks, his face already rotten as a corpse in the ground, rotten from his long life of evil.
“I’m not going to give in to you, Ray,” she hissed. “I’m better than you. I have to be.”
She wound his hands and feet with several lengths of cable, and then pushed his head under an oxygen hood so she didn’t have to see his face.
Now she almost felt a touch of pity: this broken-down monster had no future.
She sank back into the cool, soft interface and steadied the Medusa’s controls. Thank you, Mother, for being here for me when I needed you.
Below, the golden capital of the Union spread to Alhambra’s far horizons, spire upon delicate spire, more beautiful than any passing dream; and she, Ava Steele, was bringing in more gold from Steinmetz, gold to redeem 100 innocent lives.
“Han 1, can you give me clearance to land,” she asked Alhambra Flight Control.
“You’ve got it, Ava of Steinmetz,” a strong, young voice sang back.
“Please have some wardens waiting at the spaceport. I’ve got a dangerous prisoner–Ray Nero, who plotted to hijack my ship. I’ve stowed him in fuel tank number 3. Please don’t let him escape again.”
“We’ll be standing by–with a max-mobile prison.”
The long landing strip unrolled before her like a ribbon of satin. She steadied the huge ship, dipping low, till with a gentle bump, like a lover’s tap, the Medusa touched down at last.
**** THE END ****
Copyright Anna Sykora 2012
Image Courtesy: Ebenezer