Keelia Black of the Swan Clan watched through the domed glass of the hanger deck as her ship, the Black Light, exploded in a fiery blossom, beautiful and silent against the inky blackness of space. In front of her, Easton, her second oldest brother, dropped to his knees and began the Prayers for the Damned.
“You have just violated intergalactic law,” said Niall, the eldest, his voice hoarse with rage.
Fang Nazari laughed. It wasn’t a mad laugh. Or even particularly evil. Fang was delighted, as if Niall had promised her double desserts after dinner. “I know!” She drew a deep breath, as if inhaling the smell of victory. “And wasn’t it fun!”
Keelia turned and examined their captor more closely. Fang was nearly eight feet tall—either space-born or modified—and she didn’t walk so much as glide. Or perhaps it was her dress that moved? The fabric, if it could be called that, moved around Fang as if made of millions of tiny green iridescent insects. Occasionally, bits of her dress broke away from the mass and crawled up into her turquoise hair and sometimes into her mouth, where she ate them with an audible crunch.
Keelia and her six brothers, Niall, the twins Easton and Graves, Jedidiah, Anwell, and Mataxlen had arrived in the quadrant earlier in the week. Alliance surveys had indicated that it was uninhabited, but likely to hold profitable asteroids. The Black children had harvested two ice rocks and were looking for dwarf star alloy when their scans picked up an asteroid the size of a small moon with multiple alloy pings. They had landed, prepared to do a survey and a little exploratory digging with their father’s newest invention—a sonic drill.
What they had found was a moon base, a mad woman, an army of robots and what appeared to be a seven-foot man-alligator. Fang Nazari, as she had introduced herself, had wasted no time in launching one of her robots armed with a detonator and a cubic meter of the highly explosive dwarf star alloy at their ship.
And now their ship, and their way home, was dust and debris.
The circular hanger was a donut shape. At the center was a shaft dug into the side of the asteroid—meant for venting engine exhaust into space. A force field kept the atmosphere in the hanger deck and out of the shaft, allowing them all to breathe. Deep below them, Keelia could see that the turbines and grav-shields were inert, meaning the shaft wasn’t in use at the moment. She couldn’t imagine what kind of engine would require a vent shaft that big. Above them, inside the shaft and exposed to space, a complex arrangement of scaffolding, handles and cables proliferated, allowing only glimpses of the dark expanse of space beyond.
Around them stood a cadre of robots, led by the commands and tail flicks of the alligator-looking creature that was almost as tall as Fang. He snarled at every move the Blacks made, but once their mistress had called a halt, neither he or the robots had moved.
Behind Fang stood three humans, none of whom had taken part in the fighting. The first was a man with dark-fringed eyes, a thick beard, and long black hair tied up in a knot on his head. He held his hands in front of him as if they were in chains, although no cuffs were in evidence. The second was a woman with broad shoulders and green hair. The third, an older man, had short white hair, red-rimmed eyes, and gnarled hands. All three of them were filthy with dark dust and watched the Black children with flat, impassive expressions, as if they had seen this show before.
“Your actions indicate that you would like war with the Alliance,” said Niall. It was a stall. Everyone knew that this far out, the law of the Alliance wasn’t worth the data stream it was imprinted on. It was really just to give Easton time to make contact. Every morning the telepaths on each ship of the Swan Clan received an image of who the Swan Emergency Beacon would be that day. Today it had been their mother, her hair, red like Keelia’s own, vibrant in the rendering. Easton was attempting to calm his mind and send a distress call. They all knew what the odds were. Their mother was a very long way away and no one could possibly reach them for months. But, at the very least, the Swan Clan would descend in fiery retribution. That seemed like cold comfort at the moment.
“The Alliance doesn’t exist here,” snapped Fang. “There is only me or space. So now you have a choice. If you’ll notice, there are escape pods around the room.”
“Mat,” said Niall, pointing at their youngest brother. Mataxlen jogged to the nearest pod, jostling past the cylindrical robots who creaked in protest.
“The pods are standard issue: enough fuel for a short directional thruster burst, twenty-four hours of air, and only short-range communications,” said Fang pleasantly. “Or so I’m told.”
“Air and fuel tanks look full,” said Mat, running back. “She’s not lying. Also, Dura-flex coating and a docking arm.” There was an exchange of looks. Dura-flex coating was resilient, flexible and could withstand the outer corona of a sun, such as the one located a short distance from their position. A docking arm meant that the pods could be linked. Their possibilities for escape had just expanded.
Easton chanted softly, leaning against his twin’s leg for stability.
“You got here in a very lovely, very large ship with a lot of air and fuel. I’m sure you know exactly how far those pods will take you,” said Fang, smiling gleefully, unaware of the subtle shift of mood in the Blacks. “I’m sure you will acknowledge that the pods are simply a prolonged method of suicide. But I do have another option for you.”
“What’s that?” asked Niall.
“Work for me,” said Fang, crunching a piece of her dress between her teeth. “I’m in need of experienced diggers.”
“Pods,” said Niall, without hesitation.
Fang looked mildly surprised. “Interesting choice. You did hear me state twenty-four hours of air, right?”
“Pods,” said Niall again.
“Before you commit, I feel I should point out a few little… problems with the pods.”
“Such as?” Niall’s face had hardened into angular planes, his jaw clenched so hard that Keelia was worried for his teeth. Of all of them, he looked like a true Swan—thick, white-blonde hair, light brown skin, aquiline nose and a square jaw. Her brothers were all variations on the theme—some more brunette than others, but all with the same blue eyes. She was the one who stood out, with her mother’s fiery red hair and her father’s green eyes.
“Well, for instance, there is no internal release. In order to eject, someone has to manually release each escape pod. And of course, there is the fact that the release buttons are all inside the exhaust shaft.” She pointed upward.
“You mean, someone has to stay behind,” said Niall.
“Is that what it means?” asked Fang with a wicked grin. “I should also point out that whoever stays behind would have to use this air canister and it only has three minutes of air.” She patted a breather mask and canister next to her.
“Our suit tanks all had more air,” said Niall pointing to the collection of canisters that had been ripped from their suits along with their helmets when they had surrendered.
“What tanks?” asked Fang, and the droids promptly began to crush the tanks in pinching claws, the tubes popping and leaking the air out in angry gusts.
“Right,” said Niall.”
“The other problem,” continued Fang, “is that the computer estimates that it would take someone five minutes,” she traced an arc from right to left in the air, “to make it around the entire circle. Five-minute trip. Three minutes of air. You might want to factor that into your decision making.”
Keelia looked up at the path that Fang had traced. It made sense that the computer would estimate that route—it was the safest. But safest also meant slowest. She could do it faster. But how much faster? Within three minutes?
Niall turned his back to Fang and surveyed his siblings. Keelia did the same. They were all fighters. Even Jed, who was their medic, was a better fighter than Keelia was. They all had more skills in piloting, flying and ship maintenance than she did. She did have one thing that they didn’t—a childish talent based on stubbornness.
“Easton?” Niall asked.
Easton abruptly stopped chanting and stood up. “Mother says: Quicquid capit.”
They all nodded—they knew the family motto.
“Who stays?” asked Niall.
“That’s me,” said Keelia.
“Can’t be you,” said Anwell. “Everyone knows Dad wants to leave you the business.” It was a family joke. Everyone knew Dad didn’t have a business. He had a lab, mad dreams and crazy inventions that Mom turned into a business. Langston Black invented things. Rayna Black kept them all flying. Keelia had been the first in the family to go to an official school. She was only working with her brothers until the Engineering Guild reviewed her test scores and approved her license.
“I’ll be faster,” said Anwell. “I’ll do it.”
Keelia shook her head. “Yes, you and Niall are faster than me in low grav, but I can hold my breath the longest,” said Keelia. “The best shot for everyone is if I do it.”
They all looked to Niall. She didn’t have to add that she would be counting on them to come back for her. That was a given. Niall reluctantly nodded once and then all nodded together and began to move, running for their pods.
Niall hugged her tightly, for only a second.
“You stay alive,” he whispered in her ear. “Whatever it takes.”
Then he was gone.
Keelia turned back to Fang who was watching open mouthed as the brothers dispersed. Behind her she heard the sound of running feet and the first pod slam shut.
“You must be just the biggest wet blanket at crew parties,” said Fang, staring down at Keelia as if she were a new and disgusting form of mold.
Keelia steadied herself, trying not to feel the loss of her wall of brothers as she stared up at the pale face of Fang Nazari, with her red slash of a mouth and deep black eyes. Keelia didn’t answer Fang. Her voice would probably shake anyway and she didn’t want to embarrass the family. Fang would never know that she was scared, that her mouth was dry and her palms were wet inside her space suit. She marched past the towering woman and picked up the breather apparatus, weighing it in her hands.
Fang slid around in front of her, watching her with eager eyes. As if genuinely interested to see what Keelia would do next.
“Three minutes of air?” Keelia asked, looking up at the levers and buttons.
“Three minutes,” said Fang reassuringly. Behind her, the man with the long black hair shook his head in a small negative gesture and held up two fingers.
“Good to know,” said Keelia, and strapped on the face mask.
Niall was stepping into his pod. Keelia tightened down the straps on the mask, started her watch and hit the oxygen apparatus to start the flow. Then she sprinted across the access ramp to the exhaust shaft and launched herself upward into space.