This short story was originally published on richardholliday.co.uk on March 18th 2013.
The Lone Star Express
by Richard Holliday
“Cornella, are you ready yet or what?”
Travel satchel in hand, Marzilli stood at the edge of the gate which was the threshold between the Station and the Train which waited. Time was ticking by, inexorably toward the booked departure time. He called again to his colleague. “We’ll miss the departure window!”
Indeed, and it wasn’t a fate that was welcome. Certainly, Control would be more than happy to relieve the company of several thousand credits in fees. They would have to wait for another day to extract those costs; Garth Cornella, the junior attendant, raced through the passageway toward his senior colleague.
“Ready away, Paul!” he chirped, and a beaming grin was stretched from ear to ear on his round, puffy face.
“That’s Mr. Marzilli to you, young man!” Marzilli scolded half-playfully. “And why are you so happy anyway?”
“First time out!” Cornella whistled cheerfully.
Marzilli remained stony. “You’ve attended Trains before.”
“Yeah, but not the Express!”
This assertion was correct. Cornella had rolled it lucky in securing this assignment – the Lone Star Express. Even though it was a relatively new service, it was without question the most prestigious space-train of them all: from one side of the Ampersian Alliance, across nearly half a galaxy to the hub of the whole Alliance itself, the planet Ampersia-I.
“You’ve never been to the Hub, have you?” asked Marzilli as they crossed into the first Carriage, with the airlock door shutting behind them.
“No, sir,” Cornella replied. “I hear it’s good!”
Marzilli’s eyes rolled knowingly. “Maybe. Now, have you checked the consist?”
Cornella looked at a tablet in his hand. “Five Carriages in the consist, carrying two-hundred and eight thousand litres of liquid dirinium.”
“Is that all?” Marzilli coughed, knowing it wasn’t. Cornella looked across to the far carriage and checked again.
“And one representative of Varantex Celestochemicals. A Mr. D. Mace, I believe.”
Marzilli nodded, looking at the curious passenger who was already firmly belted into his seat and tranfixed by whatever he could see through the porthole and into deep, dark space. He seemed disinterested in the two attendants, and seemed impatient to leave. This reminded Marzilli, who shuffled through the bulkhead door into the attendant’s compartment in the first Carriage.
Each Carriage comprised a two-hundred feet capsule that was in effect its own self-contained spaceship, and with the ability, with the appropriate refit, to hold nearly any cargo. For the Express on this occasion, five Carriages were assembled together and linked; the first being the Control Carriage and containing the crew and passenger deck and cockpit. The other four were loaded with dirinium tanks from floor to ceiling.
“Ready away,” Marzilli said to the computer, which beeped into life from a console that dominated the space under the sweeping front windows of the Train. A plethora of lights and displays flashed into life, and the entire cab was bathed in sweeping blue and green lights.
After the system started, no further input was required. The display went from blank to a steadily-blinking display of ‘ESTABLISHING CONNECTION’ while a connection to Control was made via microwave links through dozens of photon signal stations that plotted the route of the Train. This took seconds only, and the display showed that the Train had indeed acquired the correct identifier from Control and was preparing to depart. Marzilli motioned to leave the cab, to Cornella’s surprise.
“Aren’t you going to watch?” the young attendant questioned.
“Why?” Marzilli grunted as he went through the doorway. “It’s all automatic. Come on, we’ll grab a drink.”
Cornella shrugged hesitantly. “If you’re sure.”
“I am,” the older man grunted again. The Train jolted as the ion engines started propelling it through space toward the first Signal. “See, all automatic.”
“Heh, alright then,” Cornella sighed, relieved by the motion. “I’m a bit thirsty, really ya know.”
Marzilli broke a smile and led his young colleague back through the passenger area toward the dispensary. The man from Varantex was still glued to the view outside, and with a quick flourish of his eyebrows and nod, Marzilli silently acknowledged him before the thought of warm coffee returned to his mind.
Across the stars, the great satellite that maintained stationary orbit high above the planet Ampersia-I twinkled with thousands of incandescent lights sprinkled about its exterior. It was not quiet up here; hundreds of little spaceships zooming around the planet veered around the satellite, their lights blurred into smears of white and yellow by the atmosphere lower down.
The atmosphere inside Control, which occupied the entirety of the satellite, was at odds to the cavalcade of traffic outside. It was cool, with only the whir and hum of computer terminals interrupted by the footsteps of he two Signal Supervisors who monitored them making their rounds. This one station gave command to the entire Train system across the Ampersian Alliance; and silently it had given the Lone Star Express, scores of light years away, clearance.
Not that the two Supervisors had noticed; their three-month stint was over and the relief ship was arriving any moment. By the airlock were their packed bags; after three months of tedious monitoring, a return home was very much welcome.
Clicking and thudding came from the other side of the thick metal door.
“Ready, Edwin?” one of the controllers asked of her older companion.
“Sure, Tosh,” the man said, bending over to pick his bag up. The door hissed and began to open. A cloud of carbon dioxide from the mechanism whooshed into the lobby where Tosha and Edwin were waiting, holding their breath almost, ready to inhale the sweet, fresh air of the planet surface.
Footsteps came barrelling down the passageway. Edwin looked sceptically at Tosha, but there was only a second or two to exchange a confused look before the older man was knocked violently to the floor.
“Get down! Down on the floor! All of you!” a masked man, face and body completely obscured by dark, military-style clothing, demanded. He punctuated this demand with quick jabs from a pistol he held in his hand. Edwin, the older man, was already reeling from being flung to the floor by the masked man’s entry, and Tosha quickly surrendered.
“Wh-what’re you doing?” she stuttered.
“Shut up and stay down!” was the response from the intruder. “I’m taking control of this Train!” A buzzer sounded from the Control room. Edwin motioned to get up, but his now-captor demanded he stop. “Don’t move!”
“There’s Trains that need authorisation to enter Home Space. I’ve gotta approve them!”
“I said don’t move!” the captor barked, but thought for a moment. “What Trains?”
“Pr… probably the Lone Star. The Express, from the Varantex sector. Loaded with dirinium,” Tosha reeled off. She’d approved it on this run twenty-four times, all at the same time, during this tenure. The captor’s face lit up, and she noticed this. “You’re gonna let it through?”
“No. Touch those computers,” the masked man threatened, jutting his gun out to punctuate every syllable, “and I’ll blow your faces clean off. You understand me?”
Vast tracts of space were reduced to grey blurs by the ion engines of the Train as it roared along the predetermined path between Signals. This was a photon path, invisible to the attendants and passengers who occupied the trains but very visible indeed to the intricate detector equipment that kept the Train on track and gleaned motive power from the invisible beams.
In the crew compartment, the intercom system pinged, successfully piquing the attention of Marzilli, who lazily got up from his seat. Cornella, his younger associate, looked up.
“Routine control check. I’ll be back in a second.”
Marzilli slouched up and dragged his feet along the floor toward the door, opening it and shuffling into the small passenger area. Train Carriages could be reconfigured with ease; on this run it was only a few seats, of which only one was occupied. The sole passenger had stopped staring out of the window at precisely nothing and had dozed off, woken only by the sound of shoes on the synthetic floor. His eyes fluttered, just in time to see Marzilli scoot into the cab at the front of the Carriage.
The console was glowing orange, the colour of attention. Marzilli flicked his fingers across the touch-sensitive panel and the system attempted to contact Control. No response. Marzilli tried again, with the same outcome, and a third time. Puzzled, he reported back to the crew compartment.
“Say, Garth,” he asked his colleague, “can you get hold of Control on the auxilary monitor?”
Cornella opened a cabinet and tried, using the secondary communicator set stowed there in case of irregularities with the primary system in the cab. The response was the same – there wasn’t one. “No, sorry.”
Marzilli hummed, sitting down again. “We’ll try again later. Just some interference I expect.”
“You hope?” Cornella murmured, but Marzilli didn’t react.
Outside, a beeping came from a pocket somewhere in the sole passenger’s clothing, and he woke with a jolt. His ambivalence to the journey so far was a memory; a look of devilish determination swept his face as he woke.
There was a bag under his seat, and carefully the man unzipped it, pulling out a pistol a lot like the one the Signallers were being threatened with halfway across the galaxy. Briefly checking it, the man lazily held it beside him as he strode toward the door to the crew compartment and forced the handle. It didn’t move, and with a grimace the man silently cursed.
The rattle took Cornella by surprise. Marzilli was vacant and disinterested as his colleague looked over the little table that separated them.
“Maybe he’s hungry?” the older man huffed before adjusting himself in the chair in the search for comfort.
The door rattled again.
“Well, go and answer it!” Marzilli said. Cornella got up, but was stopped by Marzilli. “Oh, while you’re there, try Control again.”
Cornella sighed. “Alright then.” He reached for the release button on the door frame. With a hiss, the mechanism activated and the door slid open. Nobody was there. “Strange…”
Cornella took a step out, and the door closed behind him. However, a foot obstructed the doorway and tripped the young Attendant up and he fell to the floor with a thud. With a gasp, a syringe plunged into his skin through his uniform, and his body went limp. The kerfuffle aroused the suspicion of Marzilli, but before he could respond, the passenger in his brown suit swept through the door and expertly overrode the automatic closing system before leaping through the space and grabbing Marzilli’s arm. The older man had gotten up to investigate, and seeing the passenger bursting in, went to parry with him; however, he was quickly dispatched with a twist to his forearm that was punctuated by a definite crack.
“Oh…” Marzilli whimpered pathetically, but didn’t have time to cradle his snapped wrist before he too was syringed and flopped like a ragdoll over the chair that he’d been so comfortable in seconds before.
The man in the brown suit walked back toward the passenger area. “Sleep tight,” he snorted derisively as he assumed his seat once again and pulled the communicator out of his pocket that had beeped a few moments before. He glanced down at it and smiled at the simple message it displayed.
CONTROL NO LONGER HAS CONTROL
Springing to his feet once more, the suited man returned to the crew compartment. Marzilli and Cornella were twitching as their nervous systems fired back up again. Looking around, the man found some synthetic rope on a shelf and duly bound the two attendants’ hands behind their backs and took the liberty of opening a bottle of soda that had been sitting on the little countertop, about to be drunk.
And outside, the Train screamed past Signal after Signal until the great ball of light that was the Ampersian sun got bigger in the distance, and in turn heralded the speedy approach to Ampersia-I. One thing remained the same despite the hijack: the destination. The means of arrival… maybe considerably different to what was planned.
Control was no longer silent now that its resident Signallers had forcibly ceded control to the Separatist terrorists. Edwin and Tosha had tried to sleep while their captor, a man who described himself only as Clay, waxed lyrical about the revolution that soon would come about once the Lone Star Express sailed through the Signal barrier and burned up in the atmosphere in flaming dirinium. Dirinium’s very nature as a potent but hostile reactor fuel, coupled with its scarcity, made it both a very valuable cargo but also extremely dangerous. If the Separatist plan succeeded, the Express would be transformed into a burning meteor rendering a third of the massive planet uninhabitable and hundreds of thousands maimed and dead.
But sleep was to be deprived; at each sign of eyelids falling, whether voluntary or not, a kick of savage ferocity would result. Edwin drifted off again, his head falling and his chin meeting the top of his chest.
The kick came, as Edwin knew it would. “Don’t fall asleep on me, old man!” Clay hissed, punctuating the end of his threat with another harsh kick.
Edwin sighed and decided to try to reason with his captor. “It’s been hours. We’ve had no food, water or rest. What is it precisely do you want?”
Clay turned back. “Just shut up, old man.”
Edwin coughed. “Typical Outer Quadrant pondlife. Central Cluster folk like myself knew when to respect our elders.”
Clay kicked Edwin again and yelled. “I said shut up!”
Edwin looked steely up at his captor. “And I said, young man, that your ilk are pondlife. Scum.”
The venom in that last syllable hit Clay hard, and his pistol raised itself until lined up with Edwin’s eyes.
Tosha was sobbing with a mix of fatigue and despair, empowered even more by the sight of the gun trained on her colleague. “Don’t shoot him,” she pleased, “Please don’t shoot him! I beg of you!”
Clay relented after giving it a moment’s consideration. “Maybe it’d be better if you two did sleep for a while,” he sighed with relegation.
Edwin and Tosha weren’t going to complain, and put their heads on the cold floor and enjoyed a brief, uncomfortable rest.
Gravitational forces of the nearing planet system made the Train shudder. This roused Cornella, who found himself bound and locked in the crew compartment. Finding it difficult to move, ht squirmed on the floor. His bindings were tight but not infallible to repeated movements. On the other side of the room, tied to an upturned chair, was a bloodied Marzilli.
“Marzilli!” Cornella whispered as loudly as he could without attracting attention. No response. The young man wriggled over to his prone and unconscious senior colleague. “Marzilli, wake up!”
The older man gurgled, fresh blood trickling down his chin atop dried blood from before. The Train shook once again, and this motion fired his brain up and his lips moved. “Control. Get Control…”
“Yeah?” Cornella breathed. “Get Control?”
“You must!” Marzilli stuttered. He was still waking up from the concussion. “It’s the Home Signal. We’re in Home Space…”
“Near the planet?!” Cornella interrupted to Marzilli’s annoyance.
“Shut up and listen! The system is,” he winced in pain, “… all auto. We’re crashing into the planet. Control can issue the override code.”
“Control didn’t answer.”
Marzilli sighed. “Of course not, they’ve one of these loons there. Gotta be a concerted effort. Ow!” His head wound was doing him no favours, and fresh blood was starting to seep from his broken skin. “J… just get through.”
With a light thump, Marzilli’s head rested back on the floor and he struggled for breath, his chest rising and falling like a great set of bellows.
He was no use. It became immediately apparent that Cornella would have to raise the alarm himself. By this time his bounds had started to work loose and, after a few more minutes of fidgeting and friction against the floor, the knot became untied and Garth Cornella was able to let blood become reacquainted with his hands. After that, his snoozing feet were roused back into action and he put weight on them. They were sore but his overcame the discomfort and tried the door out to the passenger area of the Carriage.
“Huh, well and truly barricaded,” he mused, but it might as well have been to himself. Marzilli was gurgling unintelligible gibberish in a semi-conscious state, but there was nothing Cornella could do. The primary control console was seemingly a million miles away in the cab, separated by locked doors and an armed lunatic. Primary… Cornella suddenly remembered. Primary meant that there was a secondary… and that was in this room!
Elated, Cornella busted open the cabinet and looked to find, forgotten and overlooked, the secondary communicator that Marzilli had used to try to contact Control. Luckily it had been replaced in it’s out-of-sight container, Cornella thought, before dialling. He didn’t dial control; that would be counterproductive – if he didn’t get through, maybe the Separatist lackey there would alert his friend on the Train of the attempt to signal for help… and the consequences and possibilities of life after that were both unwelcome and short-lived in Cornella’s active imagination.
The communicator buzzed and fizzed with current, and a crackly voice on the other end broke through the headset. Cornella held his breath, wanting to keep the noise as low as possible. “This is Enforcement Complex Beta, respond.”
“Ah, this is attendant G. Cornella aboard LSE-006,” Cornella hushed into the microphone. “Train is under Separatist control, request assistance. Signal Control not responding, presumed besieged. Approaching Ampersia home space at dangerous speeds. Please help us.”
“I see,” the Enforcer hummed. “Thank you, Attendant Cornella aboard Train LSE-006.”
The line went dead. Cornella only hoped that help would be swift enough.
Ampersian Enforcement forces didn’t waste time when news of a runaway Train filled with chemicals was on a collision course with the seat of government. Three transports filled with strike troops made for the Control satellite high above the planet. It was shrouded in an eerie shadow that seemed to emanate from within. The space around the station had fallen strangely silent, and the lights shone out toward the planet and the cosmos beyond with a hollow emptiness, as if they knew deep inside something was wrong.
The strike transports glided sneakily past the station, careful to avoid drifting past the portholes that were illuminated – presumably this was where the lone Separatist and his captives were holed up.
“Like taking candy from a baby…” the sergeant mused in his helmet. The visor was clouded with mist, and he hoped he was right. Hopefully it was just one lunatic with a gun, However even this one lunatic was determined to spell disaster.
Time was running out. There was but a hundred minutes before the Train would warp through the Signal beacon and smack straight into the bustling, heaving planet below, causing untold calamity as it’s chemical cargo dissipated and burned away the atmosphere. In turn the transports docked at the bottom of the Control station, at the old service jetty. It would be extremely foolish (and predictable) to enter through the main entrance; besides, the Separatist’s hijacked supply ship was blocking the landing pad.
Quietly, the strike teams waited for the order to strike from the Capitol on the planet. It hadn’t been given – negotiations had begun. They were a formality really, with neither side prepared to budge an inch. The Separatists wanted the dirinium shipments stopped, their planet reimbursed for the ‘theft’ of it and immediate unilateral secession from the Ampersian Alliance. The government response? They could go to hell… in the most polite terms, of course. The Prime Counselor laughed nervously – nervous due to the grave danger the Train posed, laughing at the incredulous demands he could and would never assent to.
Cornella hid in the crew compartment aboard the speeding Train. Lying prone against the floor, he daren’t move in case the footsteps were somehow perceptible to the Separatist terrorist in the front. However, stars were streaking past relentlessly, slowly turning blue with the atmospheric haze of planets coming into view. Every so often, a streak brighter than the last would whizz past, indicating a passing sun. There was only a finite number of outer suns before Home Space was breached, and cataclysm followed.
Knowing he had to take advantage, the scared young Attendant observed his surroundings. The little kitchen area was a mess of cups and crocks, the table he had sat at now overturned. One of the legs seemed to hang off… and the glinting metal called out as a natural club to Cornella. Slowly he slid over to the table and pulled the leg clean off, with only a scratching of screws as they rubbed against the sockets that gave little resistance. Typical, cheap stuff. Finally, Cornella stood up and swung the broken table leg in his hand. It felt somewhat weighty, and would have to do for the purpose it was intended.
It would have been extremely stupid for Cornella to simply burst into the passenger compartment to be gunned down, or blown up, or lasered, or any number of grisly, painful fates his imagination could conjure. Garth still felt stupid for being ambushed in the doorway, and decided to test of their assailant, Clay, was equally gullible.
With a deep breath, he rapped the table leg noisily against the wall. The metal shrieked rhythmically, not too loudly, but certainly loud enough to attract attention in the otherwise silent Train.
Taking another deep breath, Cornella heard footsteps hastily closing toward the door. There was no returning from this point now, and the young man winced as the door slid open, and Clay’s hostile face poked through the gap.
“Whassa…” the gruff man growled, but was cut short as the table leg fell with great force into the top of his head. “You punk!”
The blow didn’t quite knock Clay out as Cornella had hoped and intended, but it had knocked the stars from him. The initiative was there for the taking and the table leg was still in Cornella’s shivering hands. A surge of animalistic rage swept through Garth; he brought his makeshift club down three more times, twice on Clay’s head as he stumbled toward Cornella in an attempt to fight back, and finally on his back. A sickening but meaningful and strangely satisfying crack whipped about the compartment and Clay found himself unable to move and fell motionless to the floor, falling with a thud.
With one lucky strike, Cornella had shattered a vertebrae and paralysed his captor. He wouldn’t need binding now; his broken body would do the job quite adequately.
A dark cargo bay at the bottom of the station was the entry point for the strike team. The hangar was filled with disjointed piles of metal crates from floor to very near the ceiling, which itself was punctuated with angular ribs that formed the floor above and fluorescent light fittings that cast gloomy, sterile light about the room to form gaunt shadows. Anyone could be hiding in here, waiting for the opportunity to pick off a few of the troopers. They knew it acutely; their armour and infrared-augmented vision would have to combat this disadvantage as best it could.
“Area clear, Commander. No heat signals,” the lead scout whistled over his radio. The trooper next to him, in a subtly different grey armour suit, nodded, lifted his goggles from the brim of his helmet and hummed.
“Must be upstairs. Stealth up there. They can’t hide.”
A spiral staircase led up to a wide, round landing that in turn had doorways for five main rooms that all contained photon computers – the brains that really ran the photon signalling system of an intergalactic Train system. This was the intermediate level between cargo downstairs and the Control room that dominated upstairs. Each room would need to be methodically searched, but there was no time. Fifty minutes were left until the Train really did cross the threshold and this entire operation would have been moot. There had to be a quicker way of sweeping the massive Station, and searching, the Commander found it.
“Soldier, operate this computer terminal!” he whispered authoritatively to his technical officer, in a yellow uniform. He did so, stepping forward and prying open the hinged unit to reveal a screen on the opening flap that obscured a keypad.
“Security computer!” the technical officer gasped involuntarily, but was hushed down by his Commander.
“Just operate it.”
The technician did so, and in a matter of minutes that dragged like hours, the camera grid was at his fingertips. A cursory scan showed nothing on the entire station. The technician reported back. “Nothing, sir.”
The commander smiled a tiny bit and tapped his goggles with his gloved paw. “Try infrared. Heat detection. They can’t hide.”
Cameras on the lower two levels showed no life signs bar the assault squad, so by a process of elimination, the two hostages and, presumably, multiple hostage takers, were in Control upstairs. The Commander gave a knowing glance to the floor above his head.
Somewhere they were up there, and there was no way out for them.
“Got ’em!” the technician called out, catching the Commander a little. He looked over. “Three human figures, holed up in an office on the far side of the room.”
“Anyone else, soldier?”
“Negative; only three sentient lifeforms on the uppermost level.”
The Commander gave another wry smile. “Just one. Easy.”
He glanced at his digital watch, which showed the time remaining till impact. With a resigned, somewhat apprehensive sigh, the grizzled soldier cocooned somewhere under the armour realised that the time was now, and gestured for the rest of the group to prepare to assault the Control Room.
Thirty soldiers creeping up the spiral staircase was an intricate dance to behold. The stairway wanted desperately to creak, however, the squaddies were well trained in the art of balance, and felt the subtle movements in the structure and were able to compensate with only a tiny squeak emanating from the metalwork, something easily missed by an apprehensive, lone gunman with nothing to lose. The top of the stairs loomed and opened out at a side entrance to the main loading dock, from where the presumed supply ship had turned out to be something quite different. Blood was dried on the walls from the brief but decisive overpowering of the two fatigued Signallers who’d hoped for relief but had gotten something much worse.
Everything in this room was bathed, in contrast to downstairs, a seemingly-infinitesimal amount of bright light. This left no shadows and no cover for the strike team to work with.
“Report,” the Commander grunted.
“Lobby clear!” the sergeant coughed. “Targets at rear of station on last reported heat scan.”
The Commander peeked back along the wall and through the archway that led into the great, open Control chamber that dominated the centre of the station. It was deserted, but on the far side were offices that were all darkened and behind closed doors. Getting across the ocean-like expanse of space in a stealthy manner would be nigh-on impossible.
Glancing at his clock, the Commander’s time to strategise was running out fast. “Teams of three. Storm each office.”
“When, sir?” the sergeant asked in a peeping tone.
The Commander raised a hand and counted down from five with his digits before silently mouthing the final word. “Now.”
Shuffling across the floor and through the arch, the strike team scrambled across the space, weaving through desks and consoles in a race against the clock to make it to the offices before… it was too late. The door on one flung open and the lone, desperate Separatist fell out into the great space, clutching Edwin tight with a pistol to his head.
“Move or I kill him! Move or I kill him!” he squealed like a primate, waving his pistol erratically. Edwin was slumped, his chin resting on his neck, obviously unconscious. There was blood dried about his face, and it looked like the older man had taken a battering.
Thirty pulse-phason rifles simultaneously levelled against the Separatist’s eye line, and in turn his fluttering pupils looked down each of those thirty barrels into oblivion. The Commander stepped forward, not lowering his own weapon a millimetre.
“Release the Signallers,” was the order that came from his lips. A demand, cool but chilling.
“N… no… you give us what we want!” the terrorist stuttered, paralysed with fear. “Killing me won’t stop that Train.”
“Your associate is dead,” the Commander said, stretching the truth a little bit, for his own purposes. He saw the resolve in his adversary drain from his face.
“Liar! He’s not dead!”
The Commander could secede on a technicality there, but it suited him to keep with this narrative. “Your mission is a failure. You’re under arrest, in accordance with the Decree on the planet Ampersia and it’s allies…”
With an exultation unlike anything the assault squad had heard before, the Separatist melted down. “You won’t need no Signallers then!” He jolted his pistol to one side and fired, blowing Edwin’s temple apart and spattering brain matter everywhere, ruining the clinical, pristine look of the room with an unimaginable stain of red and crimson chunks.
Retribution was instant, and within a second the Separatist lay dead on the floor atop the decapitated body of his innocent hostage. Remembering the system of Trains, he’d killed Edwin to prevent the authorisation code from being assigned and the Train, approaching the planet in a smear of red heat, from being diverted.
The Commander turned, his face ashen. “We failed.”
His command looked back, awkwardly avoiding both each other’s gaze and sight of the planet from the viewports. It would be too painful to watch their homeworld burn from such a perfect vantage point. The Commander looked at his countdown. “Eighteen minutes,” he sighed in resignation, before tossing his gun to the floor.
A scratching, scraping sound grew from a whimper to itch out the ear canals of the Commander.
“Can someone shut that off?” he growled, not wanting his thoughts interrupted by this raspy, ratcheting noise.
There was nothing to turn off; the sound came from the office in which the Signallers had been taken hostage, and with a flash of memory the Commander recalled the number of heat signatures: three.
Pouncing in, he found the room a wreck of upturned furniture and equipment all smeared in blood and grease. Bruised and barely conscious was Tosha, against the far wall. Her head was bleeding and she tried to speak when she saw the Commander enter the room but found her words mixed and confused.
“Miss, are you able to stand?”
“I… I think so… I heard a shot or… or two,” Tosha mumbled incoherently.
“Yes, well… you will be debriefed later. I must ask you a very important question.”
Tosha squinted and looked beyond the helmet directly into the Commander’s eyes. “Yes?”
“The Lone Star Express… it’s minutes away from calamity…”
A sudden surge of clarity and focus swept through Tosha’s body. A wave of adrenalin gave her strength seemingly from nowhere and her face regained a sense of purpose and understanding. “Get me to a console.”
The Commander nodded but was wary to keep his optimism private. Realising the dead, decapitated body of her friend and colleague was still outside, he realised he had to preserve Tosha’s resolve. “Can I ask you to close your eyes as we leave the room?”
“Why?” Tosha asked, and then realised. “Oh. Okay then.”
Holding onto the Commander, she tiptoed forward out of the office and into the central space. Her foot kicked a lump on the floor, like a satchel; Tosha knew what it was and said nothing, instead gulping down to preserve her strength. She could grieve for Edwin later; the planet and it’s thousands of inhabitants, including her family and friends, and those of Edwin too, were down there, totally unaware of the danger that was screaming toward them.
After feeling the bump, Tosha knew that whatever she’d been prevented from seeing was behind her, and she opened her eyes. Immediately she scrambled for the nearest control console, and fell into the chair. Her arms still worked and, with a labour, she accessed the system.
“Authorise!” she gasped. The display shone coldly back. As a security measure, the computer used speech recognition to validate that a Signaller was allowing a Train into Home Space. “I said authorise!”
The display reluctantly agreed and the signal was sent; just in time, too. Tosha’s temporary strength was depleted and she fell back in the chair, sound asleep as her body started the process of self-repairing. If she’d not been able to send the Signal in time to divert the Express from it’s crash course, she’d at least sleep through the entire fiery mess below.
The Commander gave a nod to his forces. He only hoped there was enough time left for the signal to be acted upon.
Garth Cornella had been slumped across the console in the cab of the Train as he watched the great planet Ampersia-I – and his own death, along with many others – loom closer until the view was dominated by the pale blue giant. He thought Marzilli fortunate to be unconscious for this, for as deaths go, this was probably one of the most spectacular ways to die. Burning at a thousand degrees until one’s body disintegrated and fell to home.
Slowly the life essence was packing its bags in Cornella’s head, and he dozed, to be woken only by doom. Unexpectedly, the control console woke him, and it showed a green code.
Authorisation! And at that, an almighty lurch as the Train’s computer flustered, trying somehow to slow the vehicle down and, failing that, adjust the trajectory into open space. The computer was trying to effect a slowdown without deviating from the photon track the Train was programmed to run along, but couldn’t, so threw all of it’s effort into an emergency override – to go anywhere but the planet and stop as it had been commanded to by Control.
The last Signal beacon flared past, but the Train kept moving up and away, and the planet fell below the window, before, with a burning of gases accumulated outside, it seared around the great planet once… twice before finally killing the engines and falling into orbit.
With a cheer, restless and tired from Cornella and loud and jubilant from the strike team who watched with amazement, horror and all things in between, relief was finally accomplished, and the crisis averted.
The Station Lounge was busy as it always had been. Passengers and cargo bustled and heaved with a hive of activity. The Star Express kept plying the Outer Quadrant route, but under armed guard now. Tosha retired after putting Edwin to rest in a peaceful plot in South Ampersia, where the clouds above were like candyfloss in the gentle breeze.
Median-local Trains always held a lot of people, who all needed feeding on the trips across the stars.
“Ow!” Marzilli exclaimed, as the catering trolley rolled over his foot, and not for the first time. “Watch it, you clumsy git!”
“Sorry, sorry!” Cornella said hurriedly, as he wheeled the trolley behind his colleague and into a waiting Train – a Varantex corporate shuttle – which zoomed off into the distance toward a sole, lone star.