"I still don't like this" the young woman called down the corridor before turning and walking in the opposite direction. She paused at the open outer hatch. Shielding her eyes from the harsh sunlight piercing the gloom of the ship's interior, she peered out at the sand dunes towering over the ship. Above the sky was a cloudless blue. A constant breeze picked a plume of sand up off the crest of the dunes, reminding her of the huge ocean breakers of her home planet. This pang of home-sickness made her turn away from the view and head for the cockpit. There she checked the scope for any activity. A few moments later she was joined in the cramped space by a man. Clearly twenty years her senior, he wore a neatly cropped beard and short, dark hair. Both showed the first signs of grey. He passed an experienced eye over a few of the ships dials and read-outs.
"Things like this just don't happen. Normally we'd expect to be looking for four times as long to source an item like this. I suppose they just happened to trip over a crate of the stuff, even though normally you'd only find it under the highest security, locked away in the heart of a military arsenal." The fire in her eyes betrayed the comparative calmness of her voice. The man laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
"It'll be fine. Everything they said has checked out, hasn't it? We're a bit early. They'll be here by dusk, we make the trade and we'll be away. Easy."
He turned and headed back towards the hold.
"That's what bothers me. It's never this easy." She muttered to herself.
They had picked a high latitude, almost 80( south, for the exchange. At this time of year the days were short and dusk came soon enough. Although the daytime temperature matched that anywhere else on the planet, at night the temperature plunged. By morning a heavy dew or even a frost would cover the dunes. The sun was dipping behind the high walls of sand surrounding the ship when the proximity scope broke the tense silence.
"Two ships approaching. Close formation, low altitude. Looks like our friends."
The man jumped up form his pilot's seat and jogged towards the hatch. "Get the hold prepared and start the pre-flight" He called over his shoulder as he went. The girl keyed a few commands into the flight ops panel to the right of the co-pilot's seat before following him down the passage. Passing the hatch, she saw him stepping off the ramp onto the sand and for the first time heard the approaching craft. Putting all her doubts to the back of her mind she headed into the hold. It was empty except for a unit sitting in the centre of the floor. Several power cables snaked off to couplings in the wall. Kneeling down at a panel, she checked that the cooling unit was doing its job. Happy that the read-outs were in limits, she headed back to the hatch. By now the two ships were down. Both were smaller than their freighter, but obviously better armed. She stepped down the ramp and onto the ground. The sand shifted easily below here feet and she was surprised to find her breath condensing in the air. She approached the small group that had gathered at the foot of one of the other craft.
The arrowhead shaped ship had come out of hyper-space at the edge of the system, sneaking in where no-one would be looking. It had spent the next twenty hours calibrating systems, verifying its positions and plotting its course. An internal clock had counted down to a precise moment when with a surprising fury its main engine light and the ship was hurled forward towards the faint star close to its final target. Over the next one hundred and fifty hours the ship burned its path through the system, using three gas giants to slingshot and a terrestrial planet to shield its approach into the heart of the system. Now, barely a million kilometres from its goal, its targeting and guidance systems came to full operation.
"You can't just raise the price like this. We agreed the sale last time we met."
"Yes, but that was for three cylinders. We could only get four, and they're on a single valve control so we can't separate them. I'm afraid its all or none, and we certainly aren't going to sell four for the price of three. Ah, who do we have here?"
The speaker was a tall, well-dressed man. By the look of him he was probably the oldest person of the group. His two companions had a much rougher look and carried obvious side arms. Another two or three people were busy around the two ships.
"This is my assistant. She is a cargo specialist and will be responsible for checking the merchandise before we accept delivery. If she is happy with the device, we may be able to come to an arrangement over the quantity."
"Ah, a cargo specialist." He stepped forward and took her hand, touching it lightly to his lips. "Do you have a name? Mine is..."
"No names" her companion cut in abrasively. "That was agreed to, remember, for all our sakes." He stepped between them, cutting of the physical contact. "I'd like a moment with my assistant, just to appraise her of the situation. If you could prepare the cargo, we will be with you in a moment."
He took her arm and marched back to the ship with rather more force than was necessary.
"What's going on?"
"They're trying to pull a fast one."
"I told you this was too good to be true."
He paced around her, obviously annoyed at the situation, or maybe annoyed at being proved wrong.
"Yes, but this should prove to you it isn't a set-up. We asked for three cylinders, but they've brought four. They say the cylinders are on a single valve control, so obviously we can't just take one off the rack. He's right, though, it's either all or none. We've got enough to cover the extra expense."
"Let me take a look at their rack. Maybe they're just trying to con us. I need to check it out anyway."
They headed back down the ramp towards the other ships. By now the sun had set and night was creeping quickly across the landscape. The only light came from the trio of ship'' running lights. The blinking reds, ambers and yellows cast eyrie shadows all around the landing area. The others were huddled around a large crate at the rear of one of the ships.
"Please, take as long as you wish, my dear. Your boss and I will discuss payment." The two men headed into the ship through the open rear hatch.
Suddenly feeling cold and alone, the young woman cast her eye around suspiciously, but everyone else seemed pre-occupied with their own tasks. Kneeling down, she began to check the cargo.
The black, arrowhead ship fired braking engines for the first time on its journey as it began to calculate its orbital path and target approach. The engines did nothing to actually slow the ship, merely change its approach angle as it headed towards the atmosphere. Its powerful sensor array searched the southern hemisphere, seeking a homing signal at a particular, little used frequency. Two seconds later it detected two identical sources. Triangulation, ranging and final course corrections took less than a second. The ship fired its main engines for a final push and began its descent.
All parameters were within tolerances. The cylinder pressures were even dead on, suggesting they were less than two hundred hours old. Useful information on their source, perhaps. Unfortunately they were connected through a single valve which precluded detaching any one. It was all or none. Deciding the job was done, she stood, and momentarily time stood still. Every sense was heightened for a second. The people working near-by looked like they were walking in zero g. Every move was cumbersome. The lights seemed to take an age to flicker on and off. Then, as quickly as it had come, the sensation passed. All that was left was an uncontrollable desire to leave. Leave this place, leave this world. Just get away. Running without really knowing why, she searched out her companion. He was stood near the front of the ship talking to the old stranger. He turned and recognised the look of worry on her face.
"Is something wrong?"
"No," she replied, even attempting a smile, but taking his hand.
"The cargo is fine. In fact, it's the best I've ever seen. We need to take it. It's a shame we don't have enough. If we hurry we can go north, make a fund transfer and be back before dawn."
"But..." he began, but stopped short, seeing the look in her eye and feeling the squeeze of her hand.
"If you think I'm going to let you leave without a down payment..." The young woman turned on the speaker. "You knew we were expecting three cylinders, but you brought four, and expect a full payment. Well, you're going to have to wait a couple of hours. If you can't wait, then fine, leave before we get back. You know how much we want this. Its up to you." Turning full circle she dragged her companion back towards their ship.
A dark dagger sped through the upper atmosphere, its hull becoming super-heated in less than ten seconds. The sensor array was lost in less but the target area was programmed into its computers. There was no need for any more corrections. As the atmosphere thickened the hull turned from black, through red, to white and a trail of fire stretched out behind it.
"I don't know. Just get us out of here."
By now the two were in their seats in the cockpit. Casting a worried eye at his co-pilot, he pushed the point.
"You must have some reason for leaving. You know what's at stake."
"Can we go?" She asked, ignoring the comment.
"Are the pre-flights done?"
"All systems ready."
He reached forward and pushed the sub-light engines forward. Meanwhile she activates the repolserlift to give them ground-clearance. Suddenly the proximity scope screamed out.
"What the hell is that?"
"Just punch it. Now." She cried out.
The white hot dagger tore through the air. It covered the last few kilometres in a second before plunging into the sand a few hundred metres from the remaining ships. The impact sent a shock wave rippling through the sand like a tidal wave. A hundred metres high and propagating at a thousand metres a second, this wave picked the two ships up and hurled them high into the air. By now a column of sand had erupted three kilometres up into the night where the ship had impacted. As this column began to fall back an explosion ripped up from its heart. The huge ball of flame and sand swept out, following the initial shockwave and starting a second after it. This air-born shockwave met the tumbling ships three hundred metres up and tore them apart in an instant. Once the sand settled and the fires died a huge scar in the dessert emerged where the impact and explosion had torn the sand up off the bedrock. But already the ever shifting dessert was beginning the process of healing, filling the scar and erasing the sings of the impact.
"How did you know?"
He hugged her, comforting her.
"I don't know. I never know." She wept uncontrollably. Holding her, he waited for what seemed like hours while she expelled her fear and anger. Then, exhausted, she slept.
Seated in the pilot's seat, the brightness of the distant stars reflecting off the canopy, he talked to the comm in a hushed voice.
"Well, she saved us both. No doubt about that. It was a ship of some sort. We had no warning, except for her."
"What about the cargo? We need those cylinders." The voice was a smooth female voice, quiet but full of power.
"There's no point trying a salvage. Nothing survived that impact. We caught the back end of it and we were fifty klicks away by then. We'll have to find a new source."
"I now where to look."
Startled, he looked round to see her standing in the doorway, hugging a blanket around her body but smiling slightly.
"I know where to look" she confirmed.
More original work by Assa