“Of all the things to sell off to keep this hulk running, the inertial stabilizers wouldn’t have been my first choice,” Dob said. His knuckles popped up white as he clutched the stick hard enough to hold the ship steady, blasting a short burst of left thrust to nudge the ship back on course.
“Them dampeners are enough,” Lugas spat, lunging past Manny to the co-pilot’s chair. He looked back, thrust his chin at Manny, and said, “Why’nt you go about and do your job re-securing that cargo.”
Dob said, “Inertial dampeners are enough to keep the g-forces from tearing us apart, but I prefer a smooth ride.”
“You knew this ain’t no fighter when you signed on,” Lugas snorted.
True enough, Dob thought. But he’d been told that Lugas ran a profitable company. It turned out that company was a single cargo ship running between the mining outposts and the ship yard orbiting Mars. The barge had been making that same run since before First Contact, with Lugas skimping on regularly scheduled maintenance to keep the cargo moving. He always thought by the time she broke down, he’d have rolled in enough for a replacement. Had the Invasion War lasted just a year longer, Lugas might have been right. Then again, if it had, Dob would have made rank and wouldn’t have to rotate in and out of the Space Force to keep flying them fighters. Instead, Dob was just a temp, piloting this one run during his downtime. As soon as he could sign back up with the Space Force, he’d be piloting a real ship: a fast, furious little fighter. Not that there was much to fight since the Invasion War’s abrupt and unexplained end, but it sure beat the slow drag of Lugas’s cargo run.
As Dob aimed the barge to skirt the edge of the Graveyard an explosion rocked the ship. Alarms rang the cramped cabin like a gong. Lugas cursed a stream of expletives that burned Dob’s ears. He lurched out of the cabin and down the narrow hallway. Dob concentrated on controlling the ship. But the left thruster wouldn’t burn. So much for fuel quality! The cargo ship veered into the Graveyard, the long stretch of space where all the ships Earth could muster made their last stand before the overwhelming force of the invaders. Debris from human and alien ships drifted however the competing gravity wells pulled them. Mixed among the broken ships were the remnants of asteroids the aliens had gathered from the Belt to confuse the humans’ less sophisticated sensors. Dob dodged the wreckage as best he could without the left thruster, moving the hulking ship right, up and down in subtle thrusts that vibrated through the vessel.
“We got to call this in,” Dob yelled as Lugas wobbled back into the cabin.
“Just do your job and get us through.”
Dob muttered to himself, dodging the ragged remnants of a squadron of dead fighters maintaining formation even now. The nosy half of an alien vessel filled their view. Dob ignited the rear thrust as hot as he could. He could have done somersaults across the thing if he had a fighter to fly, but this barge couldn’t do somersaults across the Milky Way. Still, the barge climbed with everything it had to offer, Dob adding a prayer for luck under his breath.
The long horn of the alien ship’s nose jutted through their trajectory and the cargo ship lacked the thrust to rise above it in the few seconds that remained. Dob groaned, peeling his fingers off the stick long enough to initiate the beacon.
Lugas slapped his hand away. “No distress call,” he snapped.
Dob looked him in the eye. “No way I’m dying with this hunk of junk,” and he flipped the switch before Lugas could stop him.
The spike clawed the bottom of the ship with luck enough to miss everything vital. Dob sealed off the damaged areas and kept climbing. They just might make it. Then, the back thruster blew—not just the injection unit, but the whole damned thing. Radiation blasted so far in the red the needle popped off. Lugas, who hadn’t bothered to net himself in, crashed into the controls with concussive force. The ship sank back onto the spike like a stuck pig, gored on space junk.
The patrol found them before Lugas came to. They pulled the hauler off and towed them out of the Graveyard before boarding. Just Dob’s luck, his old commander was the first to step onto the boat. He took one look at Dob and busted out laughing, but he stopped grinning long before he finished his sweep of the ship. Apparently old Lugas turned smuggler in a last ditch effort to buy that new ship. Still, his commander took in Dob and Manny without charging them. He left the cargo ship, with Lugas still passed out in the infirmary, to drift slowly back to Earth—the only destination the military lock-out would allow.