A spaceship flies over a moon near Jupiter

Kesha Cherian swore as alarms blared. A blip inched toward her ship on the sensor display. Another ship, running without transponders, was on a collision course with just the right amount of momentum for boarding. Pirates.

“No you don’t,” Kesha muttered. Her hands flew over the controls. Maneuvering thrusters rotated her ship 180 degrees. She fired her fusion drive, and gravity pushed her down into the pilot’s chair. Her ship, the Opposite Reaction, fought its own inertia. Not enough. She’d been on an unpowered ballistic course too long, invisible to the eyes of any authority, and the pirate was right in her path. No way they were there by accident. Someone in the Organization had set her up.

Distance shrank between Kesha and the pirate: 4,000 kilometers, then 3,000. Kesha punched equations into the computer. No way out. The pirate had her pinned, positioned perfectly at the midpoint of her run between Titan and Ganymede. She switched tactics, comparing the pirate’s profile with the Reaction. The pirate was a modified cargo tug with long grappling arms welded to the frame for grabbing and holding prey. She grinned. Her ship sported the more powerful drive. Not enough to escape – not with all the momentum behind her – but enough for a secondary plan.

Kesha rotated her ship so it pointed into the heart of Jupiter’s gravity well. Only a rogue asteroid obstructed her new flight path, and at her current angle she’d miss it easily. The pirate would catch her, but in less than 20 minutes it would have to disengage or be pulled into the gas giant. When it let go, her ship would still be able to escape.

The hull shuddered. The alarms died. On Kesha’s sensor display, the hostile blip merged with her own. She was caught. New alarms sounded, alerting her to a breach in the ship’s computer. Kesha threw a bank of switches, locking down her ship before the intruder could take control of navigation.

A woman’s voice piped from the com system, “Nowhere to run, Kesha. I’ve got you.”

Kesha froze. The familiar tone – both lilting and acidic – she would recognize anywhere. Samantha Ogawa, Kesha thought. Sam. Oh no.

Anticipating Sam’s first move, Kesha dove for the cockpit suit locker. A gentle hiss, barely audible over the ship’s rumbling engines, came from the air recycler vents and confirmed her suspicions. Gas. Kesha tore open the locker and pulled a form-fitting suit over her shorts and tank top. Her vision blurred. Her limbs turned to leaden weights. Kesha bit the inside of her cheek. She needed to stay awake, just a few seconds.

She pulled the helmet down and locked it into place. The suit’s air supply rushed into the transparent plastic bubble. Her vision cleared. Her mouth tasted of blood.

She reached under the console and brought out one of her two flechette pistols, which were powerful enough to punch through anything short of the outer hull. She switched off the safety. With Sam here, every second counted.

“Still awake?” Sam’s voice rang in Kesha’s helmet. “You always hated to wear suits on a long flight.”

Kesha didn’t answer. Metal shrieked further down the cockpit access corridor as something forced the airlock open. She lurched forward, still unsteady. She had to get to the cargo bay and make a stand there until almighty Jupiter forced Sam to retreat.

Ahead of Kesha, a drone jetted through the ruined airlock from a tunnel created by the docked ship. A dozen flexible appendages protruded from a hovering, spherical core. Each appendage ended in something wicked and sharp – tools or weapons, Kesha couldn’t tell.

When the drone turned toward her, Kesha put a burst of flechettes through the machine’s core. It dropped in a shower of sparks and shrapnel. She sprinted past the fallen drone as more piled into the corridor behind her.

“Not sleeping?” Sam asked. “Good. I want you to watch while I reclaim what you stole.”

Kesha dove through a hatch and clambered down a ladder onto the next deck. She slammed the hatch closed above her. It pinged as drones attacked the locking mechanism. She looked down the next ladderway: the Opposite Reaction’s fusion drive, her bunk, the emergency airlock, and a cargo bay full of copyright-violating computer processors. Not much to hide behind.

“Closing doors won’t stop me,” Sam said. “My drones’ll cut this whole ship open if they have to.”

Orange and red spots blossomed on the hatch. It would be slag in minutes. Kesha had to buy some time. She climbed down toward the stern, stopping at the next hatchway and said, “Sam, come on, tell me what you want. We’ll work something out.”

“What I want?” Sam shouted. “I want to leave you in the lurch with nothing, like you did to me.” The hatch bent inward, pieces of it dripping off into molten slag. “But I’ll settle for taking your cargo and letting you explain to the Organization how you lost it.”

Kesha’s neck flushed, and she clenched her teeth. “I left you? You made it pretty clear where we stood.” That cheating asshole! The money Kesha had taken from their account had been hers anyway. Most of it.

Drones poured into the ladderway from above, a dozen at least. Kesha shot the first one down. More pushed through around it, their appendages collapsing and expanding, searching for her. She ducked behind the door, expecting return fire. None came. As she closed the hatch, a single drone shot through the narrowing hatchway.

“You can’t put that on me,” Sam said.

Focusing on the drone, Kesha brought her pistol up, but the drone knocked it aside. An appendage folded its razor-sharp tools inward and struck her in the stomach. Kesha struggled to breathe, but she was still alive. A thought broke through the fog of pain: Sam didn’t want her dead.

She twisted away from another appendage and dove for her fallen pistol. The drone lunged after her. She pressed the pistol against its core, fired, and kicked the ruined machine away from her.

“I never cheated on you,” Sam said. “It was your idea to bring more people in.”

Kesha groaned, from the throbbing in her gut and the rehash of an old argument. “We were supposed to talk about it first, not just go out scoring,” she said. “If you’d listened to me-” she stopped. “Never mind, forget it. Do what you’re going to do.”

She turned off the suit radio and considered the wrecked drone at her feet. At least 10 more were trying to make their way through the hatch above, which was already turning a hot orange. She needed to hold them for 20 minutes, but she wouldn’t last half that.

She dug through the drone’s ruined frame with shaking fingers. There. A tiny transponder, offline since the drone’s batteries were shot to bits. She tore it free. Defending the cargo bay wouldn’t get her anywhere. She opened the hatch down to the next level anyway, just to buy a little more time, and ran for the emergency airlock.

Kesha’s helmet brushed the lock’s interior. She clicked on her magnetic boots and punched in her access code to cycle the chamber. The outer hatch opened, and she stepped out onto the Opposite Reaction’s hull.

Her boots fought the ship’s acceleration to keep her from flying off into space. As she wrapped her hands around a protruding sensor node, the suit’s mag-gloves kicked in. Kesha let out a breath.

Above, Sam’s ship pressed against the Opposite Reaction, long grapple arms holding them together. Past it, Jupiter filled the sky. Her suit beeped a warning. It wasn’t rated to protect her for long against the gas giant’s fusillade of radiation. Kesha’s gut spasmed where she’d been struck. She climbed.

When she reached Sam’s ship, Kesha locked her boots in place, drew out the drone’s transponder, and connected it to power from her suit computer. The transponder linked with the airlock computer, identifying her as a friend. She overloaded the airlock’s default protocols, cycled it open without sending the normal notification to the cockpit, and clambered inside.

Compared to climbing the hull, taking the ladderway a few decks up was nothing. Kesha threw the cockpit hatch open and leveled her pistol. “Don’t.”

Sam’s hand stopped halfway to her own weapon. The other woman blinked at Kesha from beneath short cut bangs. Sam looked good, even slouched in her chair. Taut muscles stood out underneath her space suit. Kesha couldn’t help but flush at how thin her own frame had become after many months of under-exercising. She focused her attention on relieving Sam of her weapon.

“If you kill me,” Sam said, her voice trembling, “my drones will go berserk. They’ll tear both our ships apart.”

Kesha sighed. She removed her helmet and tossed Sam’s gun away. “I’m not going to kill you, Sam,” she said. Though a leg shot might– she didn’t finish the thought. “I’m just going to set you on an auto course out past Saturn. In a few weeks you’ll crawl back to port, and-”

A com alert lit up Sam’s control board. The drones? No, it was a ship-to-ship message. Kesha raised an eyebrow at Sam. “Friend of yours?”

“Yes,” Sam said. “That’s my backup, heavily armed and ready to take you down if you even try to-”

“Please, Sam,” Kesha said. “You’re babbling. You always babble when you lie.” She edged around Sam and pressed the controls. “Hello? Who is this?”

“Unidentified tug, this is USF frigate Nigeria,” a synthesized voice replied. “You are engaged in illegal boarding of a private vessel. Detach your ship and prepare to be boarded.”

Kesha’s eyes widened. She looked at Sam. Sweat beaded on the other woman’s forehead, and her mouth twitched the way it always did when she was scared. The Nigeria wasn’t part of her plan, then.

Kesha stared at the sensor panel. The frigate burned toward them, but where had it come from? She adjusted the sensors to project the new ship’s course. The asteroid she’d seen – the Nigeria had hidden behind it, invisible to anyone who didn’t know to look for it. Clever.

The thought of turning her ex over to the USF tantalized her. She tried to remember what the penalty for piracy was. No, that would be going too far. “Nigeria,” she said. “I’m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding. My name is Kesha Cherian, and the Opposite Reaction is my-”

“Kesha Cherian,” Nigeria said. “You are suspected of carrying Titan-manufactured computer processors in violation of Applesoft Incorporated’s copyright.” Warning sensors chimed. Two dots on the sensors streaked out from the Nigeria towards the coupled ships. “Eject your fusion drive, or our torpedoes will destroy your ship.”

Kesha shut off the communicator. “Not my day,” she said. The torpedo-blips burned closer, minutes out at most.

“Let me help,” Sam said.

Kesha looked at her. “Are you serious?”

“I don’t want to die either!”

Kesha kept the pistol raised, but she moved away from the controls. “Fine. What are you doing?”

Sam’s hands flew over the board. “Sending out my drones. They can double as point defenses in a pinch.” More dots emerged from the Opposite Reaction, accelerating toward the torpedoes.

Kesha snorted. “They’ve got plenty of torpedoes. That won’t hold them more than another minute or two.”

“Why do I have to think of everything? You’re the ace pilot. Fly us out of here!”

Kesha ran the math in her head. On the sensor display, the torpedoes and nearly half of Sam’s drones disappeared. Impossible. She could outrun a USF frigate in a flat race, but their torpedoes would catch her before she’d even cleared Jupiter’s magnetosphere… She stopped. “Set your ship to detach from mine by remote,” she said.

Sam blinked. “What?”

Kesha grabbed the other woman’s arm. “No time. Do you want to get away or not?”

Sam pulled back. “Fine.” She punched in a quick series of commands. “Done. I can signal it from any radio.”

“Now rig up a second signal that will overload your ship’s drive,” Kesha said.

“No way, I killed my savings to get this ship.”

“We’ll need the explosion to buy us time,” Kesha said. She checked the display board, making sure the knockout gas on her ship had fully dissipated. “We’ll get away on the Reaction.”

The other woman glared at her. They saw more torpedoes streak toward them from the Nigeria on the radar.

“Sam, we don’t have time for this,” Kesha said. She adjusted her pistol and offered it out, grip first. “Here, you keep the gun on me. Just hurry.”

Sam gave a grudging nod and took the pistol. With her free hand, she adjusted the controls. “Okay, the ship is set for remote detonation. What’s the plan?”

“This way,” Kesha said. She sprinted for the main hatch where the two ships were joined. She let out a relieved breath when she saw that while Reaction’s primary inner airlock had been physically breached, the outer lock was merely overridden. She waited for Sam to follow her and then slid the lock closed.

With Sam at her heels, Kesha dashed up the cockpit ladder and sat down hard in the pilot’s chair.

“Now, Sam, detach us.”

Sam fell into the little-used navigator’s chair. She holstered the pistol and keyed in a command to the Reaction’s radio. The cockpit shuddered. The Opposite Reaction sprang forward, free of the other ship’s mass. Acceleration pressed both women into their seats.

“What’s. The. Plan?” Sam said, teeth clenched against the high g-forces. “You can’t outrun torpedoes.”

Kesha watched her sensor screen. The last of Sam’s drones vanished. More torpedoes raced out from the Nigeria.

“Same as my first plan to get away from you,” Kesha said. “Dive so deep towards Jupiter that they have to give up.” She rechecked her flight path. “If you hadn’t ambushed me, I’d have flown right into their teeth. So. Thanks.”

Warnings blared their proximity to Jupiter. Hull temperature gauges shot up as the Reaction plowed into Jupiter’s outer radiation belt. “It won’t work,” Sam said. “We can’t outrun torpedoes.” She let the pistol fall. “I, I’m sorry I cheat-”

“Detonate your ship,” Kesha said. “Now!”

Sam keyed in her code. The retreating blip on her screen became an expanding cloud. The Nigeria’s torpedo volley vanished in the explosion.

Radiation alarms trilled. Kesha fired bow thrusters, adjusting the Reaction’s course to skim the surface of Jupiter’s deadly emissions. The Nigeria fell away to stern, too large to pursue.

Kesha and Sam both whooped, standing up in their chairs. Kesha’s heart pounded. She looked at Sam, whose muscled body was outlined in the control panel’s glow. Their eyes locked. They leaned in close, lips brushing together.

Sam drew her weapon at the same time Kesha grabbed her second pistol from under the console. Both women pressed their weapons against the other.

Sam grimaced. “Well, this is a wonderful stalemate.”

“Not really,” Kesha said with a smirk. “I switched on that pistol’s ID system before I gave it to you. It won’t fire without my code.”

Sam checked the pistol’s readout. She dropped the weapon with a defeated groan and stared at the sensor display where it showed the expanding wreckage that had been her ship. “That’s it for me, then.”

Kesha slapped her on the back. “Come on, we’re alive! Doesn’t that feel good?”

“I was never as into thrills as you,” Sam said. “Everything I had, I sank into my drones and that ship.” She glanced at Kesha and then lowered her eyes. “And the information for where to ambush you.”

“Damn,” Kesha said. “You really held that grudge. Look, I’m sorry I took the money, okay?”

Sam shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. You win. Just leave me with nothing. You’re good at that.” She slumped down to the deck, head in her hands.

Kesha almost left her to stew.

“Sam, it doesn’t have to be like that. Come back to Titan with me after we drop the processors at Ganymede. The Organization will pay good money to know who sold my flight plan to you, and to the USF apparently. Enough to get you back on your feet.”

Sam looked up. “You’d do that?

Kesha rubbed her side, still sore where the drone had struck her. “Sure. But you’re confined to the extra cabin for the trip. I’m a sap, but I’m not stupid.”

Sam growled and stomped toward the cockpit hatch.

Kesha swiveled back to her controls. She grinned.

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