Faster Than Light

I walked along the star base corridor, mentally preparing for the culture shock I always felt when leaving a human conclave. Physically, I was in top shape. I admired my reflection from the polished metal walls as I continued to the space dock area. Long firm legs, wavy blond hair, an emerald green jump suit that showed I wasn’t ashamed of being a woman - I always looked my best after shore leave. A group of menials (human, of course) walking towards me seemed to agree, judging by their whistles and semi-lewd comments as we passed. I put an extra wiggle in my walk as I continued on my way, smiling at the increased noise from the group behind me. When you spend most of your time as a pilot in a galaxy filled with people who look at your kind as a bunch of balding monkeys, you need to get your ego boosts whenever you can.

Like that guy last night - Bruno, Bradly, whatever his name was - he was just what I needed after half a year in space. My partner, Tiny, can never understand why I insist on these little escapades; he thinks it’s a waste of time and energy. Of course as a Dremin he comes from a race that mates only for procreation, so he doesn’t know what he’s missing, poor fellow.

The sight of the portal connecting the human areas to the main base brought my mind out of the bedroom and back to the present. I carefully attached my Free Traders League badge to my jumpsuit to avoid any hassles. Humans were pretty much considered second class citizens throughout the galaxy, but my status as a pilot in the FTL usually kept me from being harassed. Still, it doesn’t pay to take chances (unless money’s involved, of course) so I kept my eyes down as I walked to the bar where I was due to meet Tiny.

I arrived at the seedy dive we had picked as a rendezvous point without incident. The bouncer, a Tzrek Gren with a mild case of mange, growled something about this area being reserved for Traders only. I gave him a bright and cheery smile as I flipped up my FTL badge and sailed on through the door. He twitched his tail in annoyance but had to let me pass. I blew him a kiss as I went by, which he pretended to ignore, but it obviously pissed him off. I never miss a chance to annoy another race. One of the few perks of being human is that everyone expects you to be obnoxious, and I feel obligated to uphold the tradition.

A quick look around the area showed Tiny wasn’t here yet, so I went to the automated bar and chose a seat facing the door. Like any Trader joint it had several computer screens that listed available jobs in the sector. I started scanning through the list, looking for something suitable for my partner and I. Tiny had some odd notions of morality, so there were certain companies we wouldn’t work for no matter what the pay. He absolutely refused to do business with any party that had dealings with the Haga, since they’re racial enemies with the Dremin, and he expected me to research every background before accepting a job. Tiny could be a righteous pain in the ass, but he sure had his uses, which is why I put up with him.

My musings came to a halt when a furry paw reached in front of me and turned off the viewing screen. "We don’t like your kind here," a raspy voice informed me. I spun around angrily to confront the asshole and came face to snout with another Tzrek Gren, who looked like he might be the bouncer’s bigger, uglier brother. A quick glance over Ugly II’s shoulder showed me that Ugly I was carefully ignoring this side of the room. Looks like it’s up to me to get out of this mess on my own.

"Hey brother," I whined, letting a little fear show in my voice, "we’re all friends here. Just a bunch of Traders, hanging out together in peace and harmony. What’s wrong with that?". All Gren are suckers for this whiny human ploy; it has something to do with their kitty cat urges to play with their prey. I was counting on my little show of fear to distract Fuzz-face while I snuck my hand down to my jumper’s thigh pocket. That’s where I keep my rumble gun, a little one shot needler pistol of my own creation. It’s completely illegal, usually costs a small fortune to smuggle it through customs, and is worth every penny when I’m in these kind of situations.

Unfortunately, Fuzz-boy must have dealt with my sort before. He ignored my clever distractions and grabbed both of my arms, leaning over me and pinning me against the back of my chair. He was obviously trying to intimidate me, and was succeeding admirably. "You hairless chimps are supposed to know your place. This bar is for people - you animals take the tables."

"Hey, no problem. You let me up, I go to a table, no harm done." Groveling can be a useful skill, and a little pride is a small price to pay for keeping one’s teeth intact. The problem was, Fuzzy wasn’t done with his fun yet.

"Too late, animal," he growled. "I need to make an example of you to keep the other apes away." Oh, great, kitty wanted to play. Murder is a serious offense, one that keeps Traders grounded, so I knew my life wasn’t in danger. Brawling, however, is only a minor offense, and I was pretty sure I was about to be thrown about this joint like a cheap pet toy. I hoped I could get a few blows in before I passed out, and braced myself for the first strike.

It was at this auspicious moment that my green backed partner/savior showed up. Tiny came up behind the Gren, casually palming his head with a three clawed hand. One claw rested on either side of Kitty’s neck, with the middle one landing firmly between his furry ears. "Is this creature bothering you, Shi-Shi?" he rasped in that snaky lisp that all Dremin seem to have. Catboy had no problems understanding the situation, since he immediately released my arms and froze in place. Gren are a big race, easily 2 meters tall, but this fellow was dwarfed by the lean, reptilian monster that was my friend and partner for the last ten years.

"Not at all, Tiny," I said as I stood up and petted the shaking Gren on the cheek. "My new friend here was just going to buy us a drink, weren’t you?" Catboy mewled something in agreement with my outrageous lie.

"No time for drink," my ever practical partner hissed. "Time for preflight check. We leave soon."

"What a pity," I said with a sigh. "Maybe next time, Tabby. Mind if I take something to remember you by?" I reached up and grabbed one on his whiskers, looking him right in the eye. He wanted to protest, but with his head palmed by a 300 kilo pissed off lizard, he just grit his teeth and waited. I plucked off one whisker, smiling as he winced. "And don’t even think of following us," I whispered sweetly in his ear.

At this point Tiny and I walked out of the bar, leaving the bouncer to calm down his angry companion. I knew they wouldn’t follow, since no one with any survival instinct would attack a Dremin bare handed. Tiny shook his head as we walked to our ship. "Why you go to such dangerous places?"

I knew this was a rhetorical question, so I didn’t bother to answer. I had met Tiny in an even worse place, a dirtside bar on one of Handel’s moons. I was leaving out the back door of this place (don’t ask why) when I came across the foulest stench it has ever been my misfortune to encounter. My watering eyes could just make out the scuffling figures in the dark alleyway. One Dremin was being accosted by four Haga, two of which were flat out on the ground. The lizard wasn’t looking too hot, probably because the stinky Haga were letting off their pungent gas defenses, which explained the smell I was choking on. Normally, I would have stayed out of such massive trouble, but I have this soft spot for underdogs - guess it comes from being a human. I pulled out my rumble gun and took out one of the remaining Haga with the tranquilizer dart, while lizard boy finished off the other with a crack of his tail. After that, one thing led to another and we both wound up on my ship, headed out system, one step ahead of the authorities. It was a situation that hadn’t changed much in the last ten years.

As we passed through the portal to the docking section, something Tiny had said in the bar sunk in. "You didn’t mean it when you said we were leaving, did you? I mean, we don’t have a job lined up yet, do we?" I was starting to get worried. The last time Tiny brokered a job on his own, he forgot to negotiate for food and living expenses, and gave no thought to a return cargo. We barely broke even on the deal. Dremin may be combat fiends, but they’re pussies when it comes to negotiation.

"I got us a job. Good one. Honor and money." Tiny was shaking his head in that Dremin way that means he was pleased with himself. Now I was definitely worried.

"I’d better hear the details then," I replied gloomily, bracing for the worst.

"Small group. Lost pilot. Needs ride to next sector. Leader is Kelsha, Dremin. Much honor." Tiny had to switch into Dremin talk for the rest, since IGC Standard doesn’t cover the Dremin concepts of honor, duty, and obligation. A lot of the Dremin ‘speech’ is really body language, which makes it hard for those of us without a tail to speak it well; however, after ten years with Tiny, I could damn well understand it. Basically, by chauffeuring this chump around, Tiny’s fame, and that of all his descendants, would increase, making him and his just a little bit better than the average lizard. Seemed like an easy way to move up in the ranks, and I suspected there was more to this than Tiny was letting on.

"This sounds a little too easy. What’s the catch?"

Tiny looked me over and lapsed into our own peculiar brand of Dremin/IGC speech, something that we just gradually developed over ten years of working together. We’d spent enough time together that we understood each other’s poor accents combined with FTL lingo and IGC slang, but I doubt if anyone else in the galaxy could have followed our conversation.

"Lotsa catches. First, gotta take their ship. Second - "

"Stop right there!" I interrupted. "What makes you think I’ll drive someone else’s hunk-a-junk? And please, please tell me you charged them for the Tugger’s dock fees." The Tugger is our ship, a FTL frigate we’ve modified over the years. I didn’t want to leave her behind, and I was shocked that Tiny would even consider it; we had a lot of cash tied up in her.

The big lummox just grinned at me (a scary thing to see in a Dremin) and went on. "I’m big, not dumb. Charged them time and a half for dock fees. And you’ll wanna drive this one. Trust me. Second catch: these guys got enemies, they scragged the last pilot. Third - "

"Stop again! Wattaya mean they scragged the pilot!?! I AM the pilot!!! What are ya thinkin!!?!"

"Keep your skin on girl, molting season’s months away," my annoying partner chuckled, throwing my favorite insult back in my face. "Don’t I always gotchyer back? You gonna let me get to the best part or you gonna bitch all day?"

"You mean it gets worse??!? Oh, go on, I can tell you’re dyin’ to."

"We’re workin’ for the Goon Squad." The Goon Squad was our term for the Andromedain Marine Corps, the biggest, baddest, most viscious armed force in the galaxy. Supposedly, the AMC fought to protect the rights and territories of the planet Andromeda. In reality, they were the enforcement arm of the Andromedain Conglomeration, the FTL’s biggest competitor.

"Nope. No way. Think about it Tiny. Where ever they’re going, it’s going to be dangerous. Assuming I can get us there in one piece, what happens next? The AC hates us like poison! No way they’re gonna pay us off and ship us back here. Do you wanna spend the next six years in a Conglomeration holding cell on some trumped up charge?"

"Kelsha swears this is the up and up. We performed the Tsun-Tsoon." Tsun-Tsoon is a sort of blood oath between Dremin. I’ve never heard of it being broken. It meant they were legitimate and desperate, which meant the pay would have to be good. My senses of greed and caution were fighting with each other. Caution won out.

"Whattar they doin that they need us so bad?"

"Fighting Haga," he replied, and I swear he had a patriotic tone in his voice. "This Goon Squad raided a Haga nest and grabbed a prototype blaster gun. Pilot got messed up in the scuffle, croaked on the way into this station. AMC transport’s the only thing that can stand up to a Haga assault team, and they gotta get to an AMC safe house with the goods pronto. We take off, drop em off, and buy a ride back - week and a half round trip. Kelsha swears there’s no strings on this one."

"Yeah, beyond the obvious. If I can’t out fly the Haga, we all wind up space debris. I dunno partner, this sounds like a double or nothin run. Are you sure..." my voice trailed away as we rounded the corner and I caught sight of the most awesome creation ever built by a space faring race. The AMC 3000 transport sat before me in all its glory, the dock lamps highlighting its sleek and economic design. The gunnery ports sparkled faintly in the refracted light, showing this beauty’s dangerous bite. The perfect combination of speed and offense, she relied more on avoiding enemy fire than soaking up damage on shields, but could ram a quad 50 blast down the throat of any adversary and get out before they knew what hit them. The only thing I like better than a hard, fast man is a hard, fast ride, and Tiny, damn his scaly hide, knew it. He gambled that once I laid eyes on that sweet machine, there was no way I was going to back out - and he was right.

"What’s the pay?" I asked in a reverent voice, still drinking in the radiant glory of the ship before me.

"200 kilo-creds." That was more than enough to get the new Cyberdine drive for the Tugger, something we’d been talking about for months.

"Whattar we waitin for? Let’s get this bird in the sky!"

As we headed towards the looming form of the Dremin sergeant, I forced myself to forget drooling over the transport and review what I knew about marines. The conglomeration may hate all Traders, but the marines just plain hated everyone. In their eyes, you were either a marine or a target, and that went double for civilians. Strangely enough, race was never an issue, and even humans were known to make good in the Corps. Assuming they survived basic training, of course, which had a 10% mortality rate. I’ll take the Free Traders League any day.

Tiny went right up to the sergeant and made the introductions. He had switched back to his clipped IGC Standard phrases (Tiny always said that mammal talk made his tongue hurt, so he used as few words as possible). "Kelsha, this our pilot, Shi-Shi. She has questions about ship." I pretended not to notice Kelsha’s head bob of laughter at my name (it means ‘tidbit’ in Dremin - my partner’s answer to ‘Tiny’) and proceeded to greet him with a Dremin-like bow. He automatically responded in kind, but I cut my action short, making it look like he bowed lower - a sign of submission in Dremin-talk. It was a petty enough retaliation on my part, but if they were really in need of my skills, old scaly here would let it pass. He did, although his tail twitched in annoyance. "Renner is ship tech. On bridge. He answer questions," Kelsha snarled at me, and then turned away to talk with Tiny in private. I went on up to the bridge, feeling pretty smug; it wasn’t every day you could piss off a Dremin and walk away clean.

I eagerly climbed up the ladder and made my way to the bridge, where I met up with Renner, and had to do a double take. He was worth a second look - two meters tall, 100 kilos, sandy brown hair, blue eyes, and 100% human! Before I could even introduce myself, Renner gave me a visual once over, snorted in disgust, and muttered ‘civilian’ under his breath. Ooooh, I was going to have to find a way to make him pay for that.

"My name is Shi-Shi, but you may call me ‘the pilot who’s destined to save your sorry marine asses’," I stated sweetly, slipping into the pilot seat. "Take me through the preflight checklist and let’s get ready to roll." The murderous look in his eyes showed that I had managed to annoy him somewhat, but he immediately slipped into a professional manner and went through the preflight check ‘smooth and by the numbers’; military guys have no imagination.

I was glad for the chance to familiarize myself with the control board. I have the Tugger set up in my own configuration, but this wasn’t too different. I prefer my thruster controls on my armrests, but the transport class has so many (for added maneuverability in combat) that they had to be mounted on the board. I could also see an extra half dozen weapon systems controls, but they were my partner’s problem. I flew, Tiny rode side gun, and between the two of us we had a half dozen tricks to throw against any pirate, cop, or Haga ship that came our way. Looking at the state of the art equipment in the cockpit, I almost hoped we would see some action on this flight.

As we worked our way through the checklist, I came across a closed compartment. I opened it up and almost had a heart attack; inside was the severed head of a Chemise Gren floating in some clear liquid! Renner glanced over when he heard my choked cry and smiled coldly at me. "That’s our pilot, Corp. Jenner. She refuses to leave the pilot’s room." I had read about the Marine cloning program, but I had no idea it would be so gruesome. Basically, the AMC has the technology to clone anything, and if they have the intact brain patterns of a creature, they can imprint them in a clone and presto! a whole new copy. It’s supposed to be a recruitment point that the Corps will bring you back from death, but I’d just as soon not get hurt in the first place.

Anyway, Renner obviously expected me to freak out over this bobbing head, but I decided to try and get his goat instead. " Well then, she should be able to look in on the action," I replied, pulling out the grisly container and fixing it to the top of the control panel. Renner favored me with his first friendly grin of the day, and placed a pilot’s cap with corporal bars on top of the container. Guess he didn’t want her out of uniform.

Just as we were finishing up, Tiny came into the control room. It was immediately obvious that the co-pilot seat was not going to accommodate the massive Dremin. "Renner, we are cleared for take off in 20 minutes. That leaves you 19.5 minutes to change that seat before Tiny rips it out."

"There is no way in hell that some civilian is going to take my place in combat," Renner snarled, eyeing up Tiny. Tiny eyed him back, not about to be backed off by anyone, even a marine. To my surprise, Renner wasn’t backed off either, and actually seemed ready to take on my partner bare handed. Much as I like a good bloodbath, I realized I had better disarm the situation.

"There is no way in hell I’m flying this bird without Tiny at co-pilot." When that didn’t seem to phase him, I added "Did you want to be the one to tell Sergeant Kelsha why we aren’t leaving, or shall I?" That worked. With snarl and some muttered cursing, Renner got up and adjusted the seating to accommodate a Dremin; since the AMC caters to every known race in the galaxy, this wasn’t too hard to accomplish. By the time all was said and done, Tiny was firmly strapped in place and looking over the weapons controls, while Renner set up an additional seat where he could cover the aft weapons. Tiny glanced at the floating head and looked a question at me. "Good luck charm," I told him. He shrugged and went back to studying the control board. I took this chance to turn on the camera to the passenger bay. All the marines were strapped in and ready to go. Man, what a motley bunch! Humans, Kiranian, Tyrellian, another Gren, the Dremin sergeant and even a little Mog rounded out the cast. "Passengers, prepare for lift off," I called back. Kelsha signaled their readiness.

I adjusted my seat harness and got ready to depart when I realized I didn’t even know the name of our vessel. "Hey Renner, what’s this bird called?"

"We’re the Bloody Raven," he said proudly. I just shuddered; military minds have no imagination. Within minutes, we were off station and headed into the great unknown.

"Which way ya wanna go, bud?" I asked Tiny, slipping into our usual dialect. "Fast n narrow, long n sneaky, or somewhar inbetween?"

"Talked it over with Kelsha. Better be sneaky. Take the long route. Haga’ll expect us to run in balls out, all guns blazin. We take a longer way, go fast and quiet, they may not find us."

"Surprised to hear that partner. Thought you’d wanna piece of Haga ass."

"Piss em off more if we sneak by. More glory." He broke off to humm something that I think is the Dremin national anthem.

"Sneaky it is," I agreed, and we set about laying in the hyperjump coordinates. Renner just watched us with a puzzled look. I figured he wanted to know what was up, but couldn’t bear to ask a couple of civilians what the plan was. I took pity and clued him in. "We’ve decided to take the scenic route. Maybe we can avoid any Haga patrols altogether."

Renner sneered at this concept. "Figgures a couple of civilians would turn tail from a fight."

I chuckled back at him. "Actually, it was your sergeant's idea." Renner looked pissed at that, but at least it shut him up.

We were ready to make the leap to hyperspace when Tiny spoke up. "Wounded chicken?" he asked. I was startled, but it made sense. Usually, when someone comes out of a hyperjump, they continue on a straight line for several minutes, to make sure they’ve got their bearings. Unfortunately, if someone on the other side knows you’re coming, then they can set up shop at the jump point, target the entry site, and blow you to bits as you come out. However, we were going to act like a wounded chicken, meaning as soon as the jump was completed, I’d hit the thrusters and make random steering motions, just to throw off any trackers. The danger in this is that if you try it at a busy jump point, you can run into other traffic. Since we were going to a quiet site, it made sense to give this dodge a try. I was surprised Tiny thought of it before I did; guess I was too excited at the prospect of driving such a sweet bird.

"You got it partner," I replied, and pushed the buttons that took us into hyperspace. Just as we were about to come out the other side, I put my hand over the upward thrusters and got ready to make a sharp left. "Up and left, we’re flyin the coop."

Good thing we did. The first thing our sensors noticed when we popped out in regular space was a load of missles, headed our way. Lucky for us they weren’t trackers, as they drifted by and out of our range. I looked around for the source of the attack and wasn’t too surprised to see a Haga battle cruiser covering the entrance. "Loop de loop," I warned, preparing to take us into a variable-gee oval around the enemy ship. Tiny would fire heat seeker missles as we went, both to attacker their ship and to mess up any heat trackers they sent our way. I dimly heard Renner signal the troops that we were entering combat; I’m not used to having passengers and forgot all about warning them.

This maneuver would have worked brilliantly except for one thing: the Raven was much more peppy than our little Tugger. I slammed us up to 4 gee without realizing it (the Tugger maxes out at 2.5 gee) straining against the seat harness and leaving bruises everywhere. With the thruster controls on the board instead of the arm rest, there was no way for me to hit the cutoff switch. I was barely able to steer us away from crashing into the enemy, and was helpless to let up the thrust. The worst thing was, any steady speed would allow their tracking system to lock on and blow us out of the sky. I could see the Gren’s severed head pressed up against the edge of the container, seemingly glaring at me for trying to destroy her ship.

Tiny, bless his bulging muscles, was aware of the problem and somehow managed to slap his tail up to the thruster controls. I could hear his tail bones snap as he hit the disconnect controls, dropping us suddenly into free fall. We started spinning clockwise as a shot hit our port side, knocking us into a downward spiral. Thankfully the head had spun around as well, and I was no longer under its baleful glare. Careful to keep my eye on the gee rating, I worked with the flow of motion, eventually pulling us into a corkscrew maneuver that pulled us onto the Haga’s left flank.

The rest of the battle consisted of flashy escape maneuvers while Renner and Tiny plucked away at the Haga’s shields. I believe I mentioned the lack of imagination in the military mind. Well, that goes double for Haga. I knew that as long as we kept acting unpredictably, they’d have a near impossible time hitting us. The problem was, I was starting to run out of ideas, and the high gee tactics were turning me black and blue. The boys were making good headway on the enemy shields, but one more good hit on the Raven would leave us disabled. It was time for a desperate trick.

"Follow the leader and chute-the-chute," I sang out, ready for Tiny to tell me I must be crazy.

"So who wants to live forever?!?" he called back, barking out the creepy version of a Dremin’s laugh, and breaking into the Dremin National Anthem again.

The plan called for us to slow down enough for the enemy’s trackers to latch on. Then we race towards the enemy in a collision course maneuver, diving down at the last second, so the missles latch on to the bad guys and blow them up. This requires precise timing and magnificent piloting skill to keep ahead of the missiles and to avoid ramming the ship. I knew the Raven was up to it; but could I pull this off?

"Only one way to find out," I muttered to myself, slowing down and waiting for the alarm that meant missile lock was on. All too soon, the dreaded tone rang out, and I prepared for the most dangerous run of my life. Tiny’s patriotic hissing nearly drowned out Renner’s horrified gasp as we raced towards the Haga cruiser. "Wish me luck, corporal," I whispered as the head bobbed silently in benediction.

All I can say is that sometimes I amaze even myself. The maneuver went off perfectly, leaving us alive and whole, while the Haga ship burst into star dust. Some of the shrapnel bounced off our transport, but the tattered remains of our shileds kept the hull intact. Tiny let out a whoop of triumph, ending in a shout of pain as his broken tail whipped into the back of his chair. I silently collapsed in my chair, happy to be alive and wondering if the bruises left by the battle harness would ever heal. Renner looked my way and said "Pretty good job - for a civilian." but it was obvious he was impressed.

I checked the passenger cam and saw everyone was in good shape. Better than Tiny and me, that’s for sure. "Think we can get a medic up here?" I asked, relieved when the Mog unbuckled and headed up front. I looked over at my partner, who was as beat up and washed out as I’ve ever seen him. "Guess we earned our pay on this one, bud. Remind me not to let you get our jobs anymore."

Tiny grinned over at me, trying to ignore the pain in his tail. "Don’t kid me, Shi-Shi, you loved it. But I think it’s time for another vacation. Think you can get this bird to nest?"

"After that, I think I can do anything!" I happily set course for the nearest AMC base, glad to have our latest adventure behind us.