Aerin tried to ignore the bloodstain on the control panel of the Fugitive. Her father’s ship. And his blood. She thrust the image away, cramming it into the small chest at the back of her mind, then slamming shut the lid. Enough memories.
The aged ship rattled as though its exterior had hit turbulence, but the cockpit window showed only the clear black emptiness of space sprinkled with distant stars. Aerin checked the fuel. The dial remained in the same slot it had been in when she had taken off hours before. As did the arrow on the pressure monitor.
The rattle grew more intense, every piece of the former trade ship seeming to move. Metal sheeting wobbled back and forth on rounded screws. Exposed wires trembled from open patches in the wall. Cords swung from the ceiling.
The message was clear. She was not going to make it. Not to the next planet. Not even to the next space station. If only the ship’s computer would tell her what was wrong. Then she might be able to fix it. But though the autopilot functioned well enough to complete take-off and follow a course, the screen remained a sullen blank.
The hasty repairs she had completed in her final moments on Vizhan had been enough to get the rickety ship off the ground, through the atmosphere, and into space. They were not going to be enough to save her life. Not without help.
Mouthing a silent plea, she switched on the radio. A green light glowed. Thank you, she whispered in her mind, then turned the volume dial with shaking fingers. A soft hum grew louder. Working! At least it sounded like it was working.
Aerin typed in the code for the distress signal. Beep, beep, beep, beeeep, beeeep, beeeep, beep, beep, beep—the code entered the machine and began repeating the same message over and over.
She tucked her bare feet beneath her and slumped back in her chair. Nothing she could do now. Just keep the ship aimed for the coordinates marked in the logbook as those of the nearest space station and hope someone came out of the vast void.
Her eyelids grew heavy with the weight of exhaustion. Perhaps it would be better just to crawl into one of the ship berths, her father’s since her own cot would now be too small for even the skinny limbs of her seventeen-year-old body.
Maybe she should just go to sleep. Let herself drift, thankful she would die free, here in her father’s ship as he had. Free from the hunger and violence of Vizhan. From the terror.
Fear is not the enemy. Love is—she recited the mantra that had kept her alive these past six years. Neither her conscience nor the ship’s vibrating hull would let her rest. She would sit here, she knew, staring out the window, adjusting knobs and dials, fighting this cranky piece of machinery as long as she could.
Until help arrived or all breath left her body.
Time seemed not to move at all. Starlight failed to mark the passage of the hours, and the clock in the corner remained dark. She unscrewed the timepiece, then checked the tiny bulbs. The filaments were black. Broken. No surprise there. Far stronger objects had come apart during the crash.
Aerin fell back in her seat, once again staring into the distance. Waiting. For life. Or death. Her eyes on the window.
It was the radio, though, that finally brought hope. A crackling, then a faint voice through the static. Words fading in and out. Unrecognizable. Syllables lost in a netherworld without context.
She bent forward, snatching the mouthpiece. It came away in her hand, the cord severed. She hurled it and watched it bang off a wall, hit the floor, and skid fifteen feet to crash at the rear of the cabin.
The voice on the radio came again, yanking her back from frustration. The words grew stronger, clearer. “This is the Envoy, answering your distress call. Do you read?” The same message repeated over and over several times. She looked down at the radio, knowing there must be a way to respond in code.
But once again she fell victim to her own ignorance.
Still the voice did not give up. Instead, the message changed. “This is the Envoy, tracking a distress call at coordinates 09-74-6002. No verbal response received. Changing course to intercept call.”
The voice faded and Aerin whispered the final sentence aloud, clutching at the words intercept call. Would the ship come then? To help? She waited, counting the seconds, aching for a sense of control.
Then the Envoy emerged, hundreds of feet of sleek blackness from nose to tail, its dark hull blending so thoroughly into space that it first made its presence known by blocking the starlight from her view. The vessel tilted toward her, pancake-flat edges outlining a pointed nose and wings that swept back from the sides like slick feathers on a fletched arrow. Then the ship rolled up, revealing a straight, narrow side.
Aerin’s inner censor splintered the nerve endings in her brain. What had she done? Whom had she invited into her world? Her heart rattled at the same pace as the panels on the wall. She was caught, immobile, trapped in the spectrum of fear.