A fast post tonight — straight to the good stuff. I cannot believe we’re already up to Episode 8 of Erik Weck’s 10-part serial story, Gravlander. Episode 8!
If you’re just finding this, below you’ll find some links to the first seven episodes… get to reading, because things are getting GOOD! Once you’ve caught up, keep reading because here’s Episode 8… and Jo’s current predicament is resolved!
Episode 8: Tethered
“Honey, I hate to disappoint ya. What happened to you is what they call an NDE—a near death experience. Scientists have known about these here visions for a thousand years. They ain’t new, and they ain’t miracles. The brain just don’t know rightly what it ought to do when it runs low on O2. It’s just trying to make you comfortable before it says goodbye. Think of it as one final hug from your unconscious mind.” Ohlson fell silent waiting for a response.
The stars still slowly wheeled above Jo as she drifted in the void. Her only connection to humanity remained the thin line that tethered her to Ohlson. She didn’t answer. She felt little need. She was a nurse. She knew about NDEs. She’d watched them be produced in one of her classmates back on Gallant. Yet, somehow this felt different. It was in some way her own experience and not simply a phenomenon.
Since she didn’t speak, Ohlson went on. “These here delusions happen in all sorts of peoples who find themselves without oxygen. Every one of these visions is unique, except the way the scientists figure it, they’re all just the same.” Ohlson paused for effect. “Every one of them there visions shows us exactly what we want to see when we die. Heck, honey, when I get ready to kick off to the great nothing, I’ll probably be beautiful and tall, handsome as a dandy, and I know I’d get to have a pretty lady all to myself for a few hours.” Ohlson laughed with such a rasp in his voice, at first Jo thought he was coughing.
“It could be both, physics and something else.” Jo heard herself say the words. It came to her that someone else had said them to her not that long ago, but she didn’t really have time to think because Ohlson interrupted her thoughts.
His voice had lost its humor. “You said that before you left the Ghost Fleet, that they gave you a locator beacon?”
Hearing the fear in his voice, Jo instinctively twisted her body, trying to see back toward the Bertha Mae, still gripped in the talons of the Unity fastboat. It didn’t work. All she did was send her body careening in a different direction. Her feet ran cold. “It’s on your ship?”
“Small round disk, painted silver. With a little protective cover to keep it from getting activated accidentally?”
“It’s in a box of your things.”
“What do we do?” Even as she said the words, Jo knew what needed to be done. Prince Jonas and his family had been so kind to her. She felt scared, but the fear no longer had all the say. Jo realized she had a choice.
Ohlson answered her question. “Well, that depends on you. What do you think we ought to do? If we go back, there’s no getting off again. We’d have to hide until they left and put the boat up for recycling. That’s when my friends can come in and get us. Heck, if we turn around, there’s a decent enough chance the fast boat notices and just shoots us for spite.”
“We have to. We can’t let them get that beacon. It would lead them right to the Ghost Fleet. I can’t do that. I have to try to stop them.”
Ohlson remained silent for a while. “Then we go back.”
Jo felt the line between them tighten and tug gently on her weightless body as Ohlson reeled her back in and prepared to take them back to the Bertha Mae.
Once they had a hold of each other, Ohlson climbed behind her, careful to keep her in his grasp, and then clipped her on to the front of his suit. “This is crazy, you know. That ship is going to be crawling with Korpi bastards, spoiling for a fight. Chances are we’re just going to lead them right to that beacon.”
“Well, they’ll find it anyway when they go to recycle the ship.”
Ohlson sighed. “True enough. Poor, poor Bertha.” He clipped himself onto the back of Jo’s pressure suit.
Jo suddenly realized that she knew little to nothing of the man attached to her suit, now slowly guiding them back toward his stricken ship. “Why are you doing this?”
“It’s the right thing to do.”
“I says, that’s who. I was a soldier, once upon a time. I served in the war. There’s lots of us who don’t exactly abide by the rules when it comes to the Korpi way of thinking. The more they squeeze us, the more people will come around. It won’t be long before the whole galaxy will just be tinder, waiting for a right spark. I don’t know of anyone else who could provide that spark, other than Prince Athena and the Ghost Fleet. It’s just the right thing to do to help ’em.”
Then he laughed bitterly. “Besides, most likely get killed doing it, but I can think of lots of worse ways to go. Better dyin’ while tryin’, I always say.”
With that, Ohlson slowly used the jets on his pack to orient them toward the Bertha Mae.
The ship was only perhaps three klicks away. Still, it looked small compared to the kilometer-long fastboat sitting on top of it. Jo tried to keep an eye on the fastboat’s rail guns to see if any of them responded to their change in motion. She couldn’t see anything move, but that didn’t mean much at this distance. The good news was she figured she would probably die before she even knew anything had happened. Ohlson put them in a slow drift back toward the hull of his own vessel.
The trip seemed achingly slow. “Ohlson, at this rate, they’re going to be able to pick the ship completely over before we even get back! Let’s get a move on.”
Ohlson answered in an irritatingly polite tone. “Now, honey, I can’t move any faster than I already am, or the sensors on that big, hungry whale up there would notice, and that will get us dead. So just hang on, sweetie. We’ll get there soon enough. You’ll see. Yer precious beacon is in the hangar bay. They won’t enter there until it’s recycling time, ’cause it’s got a big, giant hole in its side. So be patient, sweetie, but seeing as I can’t see anything much since I’m behind you, I’m going to careful-like hand you this fletch pistol.”
A hand appeared over her shoulder with a gun. The weapon was made slightly oversized so that it could be aimed and fired while wearing the gloves of a pressure suit. Unlike the stunners she had used on the Gallant, the fletch pistol was no energy weapon. Filled with darts designed to explode on impact, the pistol would easily tear an irreparable hole in a pressure suit.
Ohlson continued speaking. “Now don’t use it ‘lestwise there’s no other way. ‘Cause once the shooting starts, we won’t be stopping until that whole ship is empty of people, and long before then, they will have just moved off somewhere and melted us to glass. Ya get me?”
Heart pounding in her throat, Jo nodded in her HeFar and then remembered to speak. “I understand.” She sounded far more confident to herself than she felt.
It took perhaps another fifteen minutes to drift back across the distance between them and the ship in front of them. All the time, Jo waited for death to strike.
With the barest of adjustments in their course, Ohlson expertly guided them around the debris from the explosion that left a ragged hole in the side of his ship. As they approached, Jo recognized the red emergency lighting of an already fading memory.
As they got near the ship, Jo reached out her hand to take hold of the side to guide them in. Ohlson interrupted. “No, sweetie! Don’t do that! Those ceramics will be sharp as glass, and the metal’s ragged enough to cut your glove, too! Just keep yourself tucked nice and tight, and we’ll just drift in.” Slowly, they entered the hole in the side of the vessel, which Jo recognized as the one she had seen when Ohlson had pulled her suddenly from hibernation. The chamber was still there with its emerald-blue fluid, now spattered and drifting about the compartment, all of it turned to ice.
Once inside, Ohlson gently pushed himself down onto the deck and then engaged his magnetic boots. He carefully unclipped from Jo and helped push her down onto the deck. “OK, now I’m going to get to your beacon. What I want you to do is to stand by the door. In fact, why don’t you carefully walk up the wall and crouch on the ceiling.
Certainly, Jo hadn’t had as much time to play in freefall like other kids had. She wasn’t a spacer or anything. Her life hadn’t left much room for that sort of thing, but she’d had enough experience to know what to do. Slowly and carefully she climbed the wall. It wasn’t long before she crouched above the door.
In the mean time, Ohlson carefully worked his way across the debris-filled room to a corner where he removed a panel from a wall and climbed inside. He was gone perhaps five minutes when he reappeared carrying Jo’s fleet-issued gear box. “The beacon was in this…” Ohlson’s voice trailed off, and even from this distance, Jo could see the look of terror on his face. Jo felt the door below her shudder, and she watched as a Korpi soldier entered, weapon pointed at Ohlson.
Jo raised the fletch pistol and pointed the barrel down from her position, near the ceiling where she crouched. Ohlson’s words rang in her head. “…once the shooting starts, we won’t be stopping…” She hesitated. There seemed little reason to start shooting if it only ended in her death.
Ohlson was clearly terrified. He let go of the box in front of him. It floated there in the space between them. He lifted his hands into the air and then made a mistake. He glanced at Jo, perhaps wondering why she hadn’t fired on the solitary soldier.
The Korpi commando noticed. He stepped to the side and spun.
Jo kept her weapon aimed at her target, just as she had been taught to do in her military training. She prepared to fire and then saw inside the space suit—the young woman there might have been perhaps a couple of years older than herself. Terror filled her eyes. The soldier knew she looked at her own death, and in that moment, Jo decided, for whatever reason, that she didn’t want to kill her. She lowered her weapon, allowed it to aim at the ground, and then raised her hands.
The shock in the soldier was palpable. For just the briefest of moments she raised her weapon, pointing it at Jo. Her face hardened, and then it melted. She lowered her rifle.
“What’d ya do that for? Now we’re in for it! It’s a re-ed camp for us!”
Jo concentrated on the soldier, ignoring the panicked cries of her companion. She watched as the soldier conversed for a moment with her commander on her heads-up device. When the conversation ended, she was white as a sheet, but there was a look of grim respect in her eye. She saluted Jo, and then, raising her weapon, signaled for her to stand over with her companion. Jo nodded and carefully climbed down the wall, still holding her own pistol, pointed at the ground.
Jo panicked. She wondered if she had done the wrong thing. When she got her magnetic boots on the floor, she let go of her pistol, instinctively expecting it to fall to the ground. It didn’t. The Korpi soldier stepped forward and took it from where it drifted. Then she gestured with her rifle for Jo to go and stand by Ohlson.
Ohlson mumbled, “Dear God…” and then trailed off.
Jo crossed the small cargo bay of the stricken freighter and came to stand next to her companion. Not like this, thought Jo. Not here with strangers. With both her prisoners lined up against the cargo bay wall, the Korpi soldier leveled her weapon, and then suddenly took aim at the wall next to them, firing twice. Silent explosions of fletch rounds blasted bits off the steel plating next to Jo. She flinched.
After she fired, the soldier grinned slightly at the stunned faces of her prisoners.
Shock and relief washed over Jo. She was still struggling to comprehend what had just happened when the Korpi soldier started gesturing wildly. It took Jo a minute to understand.
Ohlson got there first. “She wants us to get in the smuggling compartment.”
Jo didn’t argue.
Once they were both inside, the Soldier replaced the wall panel, locking them in the dark.
Four days later, Jo sat in the cabin of the scrapper Torchlight. It was a reasonable space she shared with two other women on the crew. In a few days’ time, they were scheduled to dock at a port on Jersey Prime. Jo had been assured by Ohlson that the two of them would be able to find quiet passage to Tortuga from there.
Jo was lonely.
She stared at the small, metal disk in her hand.
I could go back, thought Jo. They probably would still let me into medical school.
If she didn’t go back, she really had no idea what would happen next. She was on her own, an unwelcome citizen in a galaxy owned by the corporation who hunted her. She had no money and really no place to land.
Jo sat staring at the disk for perhaps another minute and then put it back in her bag.
She spoke quietly to the dark and empty room. “Kree Pa, Josephine. Kree Pa.”