It’s release day for STARLIGHT!
I’m very excited to be writing science fiction again. It is my true love and very close to my heart.
Reviews are great so far! Thanks everyone for picking up a copy during early release week.
For those of you who haven’t heard of STARLIGHT yet, here’s a free preview of the first chapter!
Mia squinted in the bright light, clutching her communication pad as she rushed through the space station hallway. The orders to get to her first star cruiser had just appeared in her private inbox, and the sooner she got to her new baby, the better. If she fueled up and took off by the time command realized they’d just assigned a deep-space search and rescue mission to a five-day-old academy graduate, it would be too late for them to call her back.
The mission brief said they were heading out into the black sector, past the line where most of space had been charted—with the directive to retrieve. Retrieve what, she didn’t know, but she wasn’t about to ask questions when she had just thirty minutes to make the departure schedule. She hadn’t even had time to pack a proper bag. She’d just grabbed her emergency essentials and run out the door.
She stopped to let a group of cadets running formations pass her in the hall. She’d been one of them not too long ago, and she’d been in front, outpacing the rest both physically and academically.
She straightened, adjusting her bag on her shoulder. This assignment wasn’t a mistake. She’d worked her ass off at the academy. She deserved to pilot her own ship.
She forced herself into a swift walk rather than a full-on sprint. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself. One wrong move could set off a chain reaction, resulting in her being slapped back into basic training. Best to keep calm and in control, even if her entire body felt like it might take off on its own.
She’d been ready for this since she’d first seen a ship high in the sky over Calla Station. She’d looked to the stars all her life. Now she’d know what it felt like to sit behind the controls of a beautiful piece of engineering, capable of speeds beyond a normal person’s comprehension.
She stopped at the edge of Bay Number 194 and took a deep breath. This was it.
The Alpha Cent was a Class Nine Reclaim and Rescue vessel, with long, high lines and sleek edging for added maneuverability in combat situations, and boy, was she a beauty.
Holding back her smile, she saluted the ground crew. A few narrowed their eyes at her, and she shifted her shoulder bag to reveal her pilot’s stripes. Those simple marks brought them to their feet. Not that she needed anyone fawning over her. After all, most of these people were twice her age. It was kind of fun, though, to be recognized for a position she’d earned.
Mia ducked onto the boarding ramp and walked up the steep slope. Her heart rattled in her chest. It almost seemed surreal, experiencing the cool steel beneath her boots rumbling as the engineers tested the instruments.
The resonance seemed slightly off, but the next rattle proved smoother.
Good. The engineers were taking good care of her baby.
But… Where was the captain and the first officer? Protocol dictated that they should be here to greet her.
“Ground test complete,” a man’s voice sounded over the intercom. “I want to lift off within twenty. Has the pilot checked in yet?”
Twenty? She looked down at her communication pad. She was right on time, reporting as called. They should be here waiting for her.
“Start the sequences, Bernard,” the voice said. “I am not missing this liftoff window.”
“Yes, sir,” another voice called.
Dang it! Mia dashed down the hall. Luckily, she’d done a short tour of duty on the same model ship and knew how to get to the pilot’s station on her own.
But what in goodness’ name was the rush? Not welcoming the pilot onboard… Well, it just wasn’t done. She should be shown around, briefed on the ship, the mission, and the flight plan.
Two crew members turned into the hallway, huddled in conversation. They both wore light gray maintenance uniforms. Mia slowed so she wouldn’t plow into them.
“Yeah, but her? What is she, like, twelve? She’s barely out of flight school,” one of them said.
The other shrugged. “She can’t be that bad if they’re letting her pilot.”
“Yeah, but where we’re going, I don’t want to be anyone’s guinea pig flight. I—” His gaze met Mia’s before lowering to the stripes on her shoulder. His eyes widened before he saluted. “Welcome aboard, ma’am.”
Mia gave him a curt nod, grinding her teeth. He didn’t look all that much older than her. How dare he criticize her for just completing her training? Swallowing her frustration, Mia managed a smile. “Thank you. I’m happy to be here.”
“We’re happy to have you here too,” the second crewman said, saluting her. “I’ve heard so many great things. Top of the class.”
At least someone knew of her accomplishments. “News travels fast. I won’t keep you two from your work. We’ve got to get going.”
“Yes, ma’am.” They both gave her another salute.
She trudged past them, gripping her shoulder bag tighter. She’d worked hard for this position, and she’d earned it as much as anyone, despite her age. Everyone on board should have been honored to serve with her. Cream of the crop was becoming harder and harder to find these days. Sure, there were plenty of more experienced pilots out there—pilots who had more important missions to run than a search and rescue.
But to Mia, nothing could be more important than saving those who put their lives at risk every day to make the galaxy a safer place.
Mia continued down the hall and stopped at the wide, polished door of the cockpit. This was it, the moment of truth. She pressed her hand to the door. If she truly was meant to pilot this mission, it would open without a problem, responding to her DNA and her fingerprints.
The door slid aside, allowing her entry. Her heart fluttered, and she closed her eyes for a moment, reveling in the confirmation that she truly belonged here.
She stood in the archway, taking in her new office. Yes, she’d been in the cockpit of a similar ship before when she’d toured with Pilot Reynolds, one of the more senior pilots left in the fleet. It was different, though, knowing she would soon sit in that coveted chair.
“Beautiful,” she whispered, taking in all the twinkling lights. Each blink represented a reading, a button, or a signal—all waiting on her.
“You barely made it,” a rough voice said from up ahead. The co-pilot chair spun revealing a young man close to her age with tightly cropped, wiry black curls. When his gaze caught sight of her he groaned loudly. “It is you. I thought they were messing with me.”
Mia folded her arms in front of her chest. “Excuse me?”
The guy rose from his chair and stormed over. He had a good foot and a half of height on her, though that didn’t take much. When he peered down at her, she made sure to hold her ground.
“I’m Bernard, and I don’t expect you to remember me since I graduated from the academy a year before you did, but I’ve heard of you. Pretty much everyone in the academy has.” He grabbed her helmet and connection tubes from off their storage rack. “It’s important we stay on schedule or we’ll miss the safest orbiting pattern.”
She took the helmet and put it on before snapping all of the tubes into place. “You’re only a year out of the academy and already a co-pilot?” Despite her early advancement, most people took years before getting anywhere near the controls of a ship this large.
“Not a co-pilot,” he grumbled. “My official title has been junior assistant since I left the academy.”
She glanced at him. “You’re sitting in the wrong chair then,” she stated. “Get my co-pilot here so we can go through the pre-flight checklist.” She eased into her seat and butterflies took flight in her stomach.
Bernard sat in the co-pilot’s chair and snapped on his own helmet. His voice popped into her earpiece nice and clear over the private communicator system. “You got this job because our previous pilot landed a snap promotion. When you were named his replacement, your co-pilot walked off. I got promoted an hour ago.”
Mia cringed, but she guessed she couldn’t blame the guy. If she were a co-pilot and her pilot got a promotion, she would have expected to get the pilot job, too.
She shifted in her seat. It was probably better this way, though. The last thing she needed on her first mission was a co-pilot with a bad case of sour grapes.
Bernard pointed to the comm panel. “Captain Stevenson is ready on the bridge. He said to get started as soon as you got here.”
Lights started flashing on the display panel.
This was it. She just had to hope Bernard had been paying attention while he’d sat at the assistant’s station. If not, though, she’d done enough simulators with a dead co-pilot that she could probably fly this thing alone with her eyes closed.
“Let’s go through the check-list so we can get going. I’d hate to miss the safest orbiting pattern the captain is shooting for.”
Safest orbiting pattern… These were not always the easiest words to digest. The pilot was supposed to be briefed on the mission. She should have spent time running specific simulations if headed into a danger zone. Hopefully, once they were in route she’d be able to get some answers.
“Engines,” Bernard said.
Mia observed the readings. “Good.”
“Two points above required parameters.” She flipped a switch. “Pressurizing for separation from the station.”
Bernard gazed at the meter. “Pressurized. Oxygen levels are good. Ready to request permission from the captain?”
Mia nodded. She hit the flashing button that read Bridge. “Sir, this is your pilot, Mia Walton. We’re ready for deployment.”
“Thank you for getting here so quickly,” Captain Stevenson said. “I thought we were going to miss our window.” The light flashed twice. “Sit tight. We’re almost there.” A few seconds later, his voice sounded over the intercom for the entire ship. “Crew of the Alpha Cent, we are ready for lift off. This is your last warning to strap in.”
“Medical bay, ready.”
“Engine room, ready.”
One by one, each department of the ship sounded off. Mia tingled all over, her fingers at the helm, eager to guide the Alpha Cent out into the vast reaches of space.
“Pilot, we are go for launch,” Captain Stevenson said.
Go for launch. Three words she’d dreamed of hearing since she’d been a little girl. A lot of pressure rested on her shoulders—pressure she relished, pressure that drove her to excellence. With the grace of a ballerina, she navigated the ship out of the docking bay.
Her eyes widened when they cleared the hangar, and stars stretched into infinity.
A simulation didn’t do the experience justice. The metal framework of the docking bay disappeared from view within minutes. Other ships navigating their way to the space station became fewer the farther away the Alpha Cent moved, and then only a black blanket speckled in shining diamonds surrounded her.
Away from the station, the galaxies were so much more defined, each creating a distinct outline of shimmering reds and golds. It was all so much to take in, and it left her breathless. It seemed hard to imagine that only twenty years ago this immense, peaceful place had been a battleground.
The United Galaxy Alliance had started out as the galactic police when space piracy had been rampant enough to hinder the supply flow to the outer rim colonies. When the Hiverian Pirate settlement on Caspian Four had finally been discovered and taken out by the UGA, the Alpha Cent, like other C9R&Rs had returned to their roots as deep-space reclaim-and-rescue ships.
Now here Mia was, just one step closer to Heaven.
Bernard cleared his throat. “This really is your first time out, huh?”
Her cheeks burned. “Like you didn’t do the same.” He was right, though. She needed to focus and do her job.
She checked the vitals to make sure they were in fact still good before taking off her helmet. Chin-length blonde hair whipped around her face as she shook her head to combat some of the stiffness in her neck.
Bernard also took off his helmet. “It’s an appreciation that won’t last, sorry.”
He didn’t laugh. “Captain Stevenson asked to see you on the command deck as soon as we’d cleared the station limits.”
Mia nodded and tapped the bridge button. “This is the pilot. Transferring control to the navigators in five. Please confirm.”
“Confirm,” a woman’s voice said.
Mia held her finger over the button. “Five, four, three, two, one.” She pressed the button and the ship jolted as the bridge took control for the easier part of the flight.
Taking a deep breath, she stood. Under other circumstances, she’d have met the captain long before takeoff. The suddenness of their departure was a huge break in protocol. Now, maybe she’d find out why.
The Alpha Cent might not have been the largest star cruiser in the galaxy, but it was certainly big enough. From the cockpit, she had to climb a flight of stairs to reach the command deck.
Elevators were for the weak. Not to mention, she didn’t want to be sidetracked by another member of the crew who wanted to thank her for her service or remind her that she’d just graduated.
Upon reaching the command deck, she found the door locked. That was strange. The passage between the deck and cockpit should only be sealed if under attack. That was protocol.
Again with the protocol infractions. What was going on with this ship?
Mia knocked on the door firmly and waited to be allowed in. A good minute passed before the door slid open.
“Is the door broken?” She stepped inside.
The command deck itself had ten times the floor space of the cockpit. Navigators inputted routes into the system while a tall man in captain’s stripes spoke to a woman with hair pulled back into a tight bun wearing the first officer’s insignia. Everyone ignored Mia.
Since when was a new pilot something to brush aside, as if unimportant?
She cleared her throat. “Officer Mia Walton reporting, sir.”
Captain Stevenson gave her a glance, whispered something to the first officer, and then graced her with his full attention. “Officer Walton, thank you for joining me.”
“Is the door broken?” she asked again.
“The door.” She pointed to where she’d entered from. “Is it broken? It didn’t open for me.”
Captain Stevenson pursed his lips. Tiny lines marred his face, drawing attention to the graying hair at his temples. “I’ll have someone inquire about the matter.”
The tone made the back of her neck itch, like he had no intention of inquiring about the matter. Still, she had to take the words at face value. It wasn’t like she could call her new captain a liar. “Thank you, sir.”
He pressed two buttons on a control panel. “Officer Walton, I’d also like to extend my thanks to you for taking on this mission on such short notice. As you know, our previous pilot was promoted, and all of the others at the station, frankly, had more important things to do with their time.” He looked up. “You were the top recommendation from the academy.”
Mia cringed. So she’d gotten the job because no one else had wanted it? Where could they possibly be going?
Captain Stevenson waved for her to follow him out of the command deck. “Now that we’re cruising, would you like something to drink?”
Mia shook her head. “No, thank you.” She took in the softer lighting on this part of the deck. The lower-level halls were mainly used for maintenance and quick access to the living quarters. These upper levels were frequented by the crew, and the softer light was supposed to simulate sunlight. Nothing was like the sun, but it was much better than the stark lighting downstairs.
She quickened her pace, realizing she’d fallen behind the captain. “Pardon me asking, sir, but what do you mean, the other pilots had better things to do?”
Captain Stevenson unlocked the door to his private office. He sat at his desk and pointed to a chair on the other side. She took a seat, though she’d have preferred to stand. Sitting implied they’d be speaking for a while, and she wanted to be back in the cockpit so she could keep familiarizing herself with her new station.
He leaned back. “Thirty-six hours ago, a relevant particle scan revealed a life signature in Sirius Alpha Nine.”
The Kraken Nebula. Her stomach clenched.
“It was only there for about three seconds, but it was long enough to confirm a carbon-based life form, and three beats of what may have been a class seven sequential homing beacon.”
She licked her lips. “Class seven would be a fighter plane.”
His face remained placid. “That’s what I’m hoping.” He stood and walked to a star map posted on his wall. He ran his hands alongside five pins forming a circle. “What do you know about Sirius Alpha Nine?”
Mia shifted in her seat. “Well, it’s a nebula, and we’ve lost a lot of ships there. One of my instructors called it space’s Bermuda Triangle. I’ve also heard it referred to as the Kraken—”
“It’s a death trap, that’s what it is.”
The weight in the room pressed in on all sides. “That’s why you couldn’t find another pilot? That’s why you took off before telling me where you were going?”
He held up his hands. “You certainly could have asked questions first. No one dragged you onto this ship.”
Fair enough. She had been well within her rights to make inquiries, but the window of opportunity had been slim. Now that she was here, though, she needed to be the officer she’d been trained to be.
She sat back. “A carbon signature is not much, though. It could be anything, and the last time we lost a fighter in that nebula was—”
“Thirty years ago.”
Yes, thirty years ago. She remembered watching the news feeds. Of course, she hadn’t been born yet, but her father had been obsessed with Jason Griggs, the fighter pilot who’d vanished into that colorful abyss. She’d sat with her dad day after day as he’d recounted all Griggs’s accomplishments.
Her father had watched the footage of the mission where Griggs had disappeared over and over, hoping to find something that would tell them more about what had happened to the legendary pilot.
Even then, Mia’s heart had been in the stars, and she’d watched, frozen, as one of the greatest heroes Earth had ever known disappeared over and over again.
The captain returned to the map. “What do you know about the Crengine disaster?”
Too much. She’d taken up her father’s infatuation with Jason Griggs, the man known to the entire world by his callsign, Captain Starlight. Many thought her fascination with the incident, and the pilot who had died that night, was unhealthy.
Instead, she played it smooth, cocking her head. “You mean the Crengine Rescue?”
He shrugged. “Rescue, disaster—I guess it’s all relative.”
She preferred the word disaster too, if she were being honest, but the history books used the word rescue, and facts were all that were required at the moment.
She took a deep breath and imparted what she knew. “The Crengine was a luxury liner. It had been hit by an uncharted piece of debris that left it disabled and adrift headed toward Sirius Alpha Nine.”
She gripped the edges of her chair. The history books probably tamed down the horror, not wanting to discourage cadets, but she’d heard it called The Crengine Disaster before. Five fighter pilots had lost their lives trying to save that cruiser, the most notorious being Captain Starlight—the man whose photos had graced her bedroom walls since she’d been old enough to know what a hero was.
The captain turned to her. “I was a five-year veteran fighter pilot on a basic run on the outskirts of the nebula when that call came in.” He rubbed his chin. “We were trained for combat, not rescue, but there was no one else close enough, so we went in.”
Mia straightened. “You were in the 123rd? Did you know Jason Griggs?” The question slipped out before she could stop it. She gripped the arms of her chair, hoping to quell her excitement some.
Captain Stevenson shook his head. “Griggs…we all hated his guts.”
Mia’s jaw dropped. “Wh-What?”
“It was jealousy, really. That rat’s ass got away with everything. He had no sense of rules or regulations. He just did whatever the hell he wanted to do, and he got away with it.”
She stared at him for a minute. “B-But he was a hero—decorated twelve times before the age of twenty-five.”
He waved his hands. “You don’t have to tell me. He mentioned it. A lot. One thing that flyboy wasn’t short on was ego.”
A wave of nausea built in Mia’s throat. Jason Griggs had saved hundreds of lives single handedly. He’d discovered new worlds, albeit somewhat unconventionally at times. How could his team not have loved him?
The captain looked back at the map. “Two of us had finished our cable runs, pulling the cruiser from the danger zone, when a piece of the ship broke off and careened into us. There wasn’t a damn thing we could do. We were too close to the damaged ship to engage thrusters.
Mia shuddered. She remembered the cameras on those ships, and the frigid ice shooting into space as the air vented from the cabin cruiser.
“We were both disabled and careening straight for the nebula.” He grimaced. “Starlight’s ship came out of nowhere. He was singing some ridiculous song from the ancient radio era.” He rubbed his face. “He bumped my wingman’s jet twice, pushing him close enough to get grabbed by the cruiser’s technicians.”
Mia nodded. “I saw it on news reels. That was some amazing flying.”
He nodded. “It was. I was there, watching it, and I still can’t believe Griggs pulled it off.” He stared at the floor. “Meanwhile, I got caught in the nebula’s pull.”
Mia’s hands whitened on the armrests of her chair. No. It couldn’t be… “He-He went back for you.”
“I told him to back off, that I was lost.” Stevenson grimaced, closing his eyes. “He laughed and said not to worry. After all, Starlight was here.” He rubbed his face with his hands. “He spiraled around my ship at full throttle and bumped me so hard I landed in the infirmary with a concussion.” He closed his eyes again. “He got me out of there.”
Mia choked down the ball building in her throat. “And Starlight got sucked into the nebula.”
The captain held on to the edge of his desk. “I hated that little piece of shit, and he had to go and die saving my life.” His lower lip trembled. “I’ve been living with this for a long time.” He pointed out his window. “That beacon is his. There is no other explanation.”
Mia swallowed. “You can’t possibly expect him to be alive in there. That was thirty years ago.”
“If anyone can survive in an uninhabitable nebula, it would be that crazy son of a bitch.” He looked at the map again. “But even if he’s dead, we can find the ship and bring it back, give his family a chance to bury him.”
It would be a hero’s homecoming. Everyone loved him. Well, maybe everyone except the people on his team. Mia herself had a Starlight action figure and fashion doll. He was the stuff of legends and folklore.
Captain Stevenson chewed the inside of his cheek. This was more than a search and rescue to him, though. This was personal. He had a debt to repay, and he probably felt like a space worm for being jealous of the man who’d died saving his life.
Stevenson threw a folder on the desk. A few papers slipped out with her name on them. “You ran close to a thousand hours in simulators during your last two years of pilot training.”
Mia looked up from the folders. “Yeah. And?”
“Ninety-eight percent of the simulations dealt with high convolution omni-gravity piloting and hostile environment landings.”
She gripped the chair again. “Yeah. So?”
“There was a reason you were at the top of my list, Walton.”
Her lips parted. “I thought no one else wanted to go.”
“True. No one else the UGA approved wanted to go on this suicide mission. You were the next person on the list who was qualified to fly into that nebula.”
Holy shit. He’s serious.
She glanced at the map. The nebula was like space’s boogeyman. People had nightmares about it without even stepping foot on a spaceship. No one in their right mind would go within miles of that place, but he’d picked her in case they needed to actually go in. “Do you really think he could still be alive in there?”
“Honestly, no. But I need closure as much as his family does.”
Mia took a deep breath. Was this man seriously considering risking his ship and his crew on a mission to retrieve a body? Even the body of a decorated hero?
She shivered. The UGA’s motto was to never leave a man in space, but not at the risk of more bodies needing to be recovered.
Now the lack of protocol and possible maintenance issues were clear. This guy might not be all that right in the head.
She straightened. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”
Okay, here it goes. “You know how dangerous this is. It’s fine for you to risk your own life, but what about the rest of the crew?”
He laughed. “Half of them are thrill-seekers, a quarter are anomaly freaks, and there are an easy twenty-five people who just want to be a part of history…and if we find that ship, we will be a part of history.” He laughed again. “Go ahead and ask around. Everyone onboard is here because they want to be. The rest left in a rush when they found out I was serious.”
Like the previous pilot? Maybe that sudden promotion had been a stroke of luck for him.
This was insane, but Stevenson was right. If they found that ship and brought Captain Starlight’s body home for a proper burial, every one of their names would be immortalized in the historical databases.
This was the insane type of mission that Captain Starlight never shied away from. That was what made him a hero. He had always stepped up when others were too afraid to try.
The captain held out a palm to shake. “What do you say, pilot? Are you ready to make history?”
She stared at his hand for a moment before she stood and shook it. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
“Good. The first run will be over the outskirts of the active zone. When the singularity eases back, we zip in, we take another reading, and we get out. The less time we spend that close, the better.”
She understood. “Take the reading, get out quick.”
“Not a problem.” She saluted. “Thank you for your time, sir.”
Captain Stevenson gave a slight nod, but his gaze was already on the map on his wall.
Mia took her leave and hurried to the cockpit. Everything about this was insane, but she picked up her pace. She was about to fly near the most dangerous nebula on record.
A smile burst across her face as she opened the door to the cockpit. She couldn’t wait to navigate a real intergalactic storm.
Bernard had refitted his helmet and pushed a number of buttons on the dashboard. “I guess you just got the bad news?”
“You mean the exciting news? This is exactly what I signed up for.”
His face paled. “You do realize that the pilot and the co-pilot, meaning you and me, are both a year or less out of the academy.”
She settled into her station. “So?”
He pointed out the window. “We’re headed for the star-blasted Kraken Nebula.”
Mia looked out the window and nodded. She probably should be scared, but instead, a tingling sensation rushed through her veins. This was it, the real thing, and she’d never been one to skirt a challenge.
She gave him a level gaze. “Should I tell the captain the co-pilot wants to be let off at the nearest supply station?” Not that there was one near, but she needed to make sure where Bernard’s balls hung. If he couldn’t handle it, she’d rather know now.
His lips twitched before he strapped himself in. “No, ma’am. I just really hope you are as much of a hot shot as everyone says you are.” He looked over at her. “Meant respectfully, of course.”
She smiled and hit a few buttons on her control panel. She was a hot shot, and then some. Like the captain had pointed out, while others had been partying, she’d been in a simulator. There was a reason she’d been top of the class by such a high margin, and now she got to prove why.
Bernard called up the viewscreen. “This part of the outer fringe is filled with a lot of debris.”
“I know. There used to be a large planet here that got blasted to pieces several thousand years ago.” Mia put her helmet back on and checked her screens. “We’re right over the point where the captain’s initial readings were recorded.” And only a few thousand miles from where Captain Starlight had disappeared with an entire world watching.
“Right, so we’re supposed to go in and—”
“Check for any signs of UGA equipment, or carbon signatures.” The tingling returned to her body. They were minutes from the spot where Griggs had given his final transmission. Even being here felt like absorbing history.
From a distance, the nebula swirled, a massive black-and-orange gas cloud with twisting fingers, earning it the name of the Kraken Nebula. UGA scientists believed the nebula had formed after a star explosion millions of years ago. Up close, the pockets of gas were full of planetary debris from a star system long dead. The Kraken Nebula didn’t only look wicked, it also was home to the majority of space disasters in the galaxy. Only fools came close, and only imbeciles entered.
“Okay, crew. Let’s get our reading and head to our next location,” Captain Stevenson instructed. “Air pilot Walton, bring us in closer.”
“Call off when you can confirm there are no readings so we can get out of here,” Bernard said. “This thing creeps me out.”
Mia suppressed her smirk, wondering if he’d had the Kraken Nebula nightmares, too.
A red light started to flash on the dashboard. Mia drew out her tablet and pulled up the data to inspect. “Captain, are you seeing this?”
“Yes, we’re analyzing it now,” Captain Stevenson said.
She frowned. The readings were hazy, but her analysis was solid. “There’s life out there.”
“There’s also the possibility of a wormhole, or a black hole, or who knows what else,” the captain said.
“But there’s life out there,” she repeated. “Our mission is the retrieval of life. That is our priority—always.”
Captain Stevenson didn’t respond for a long, agonizing moment. “You’re right. Crew, prepare for exploration and possible retrieval.”
“Preparing crew,” came a woman’s reply.
“Yes!” Mia settled in, resetting her grip on the controls. She glanced over at Bernard. His hands gripped the armrests of his chair tightly. “You okay?”
“I can’t believe we found something,” he managed. “You can fly, right?”
“Of course I can fly.”
“I mean, really fly.” His gaze remained glued to the floating rocks before them. “It’s going to be hell in there.”
Just like the asteroid simulators. Mia rolled her shoulders. “I promise you’re in good hands.”
She grabbed the controls and led them deeper into the gas cloud. The Alpha Cent sailed smoothly. Mia glided between the debris, maneuvering the ship closer to the point of life on her navigation system.
The nebula swirled around her. Pink, puffy clouds sparkled, emanating their own light. It was hard to believe anything so beautiful could have been the cause of so many deaths.
She eased up and over a charred piece of metal, maybe a piece of a ship.
She shivered. The beauty of this place was a mask for the monster lying in wait. Too many had lost their lives here. The Kraken demanded respect, and it ate the unwary.
“You doing okay?” Bernard’s voice sounded shaky.
She nodded. Actually, she was. She’d expected this to be a lot harder.
A large asteroid spiraled into view, rotated, then whisked toward them.
She banked right, but the controls froze, locked in place.
“What are you doing?” Bernard made a grab for the steering mechanism as a smaller asteroid scraped across the bottom of the ship. “Newsflash: We’re not supposed to hit things.”
“I can’t move the controls,” she said. “Well, I can, but the ship isn’t reacting to my movements. The systems are just going—”
Dozens of lights flashed on her panel, and a red warning beep filled the cabin. A blue-green planet filled her viewscreen. “Where the snog did that come from?”
“We’re caught in some kind of gravitational pull.”
Yeah, great. Thanks for the info. Mia’s hands shook on the controls. She grit her teeth, gripping harder, trying to pull up. “Come on!”
Captain Stevenson’s voice came over the comm. “Pilots, see if you can get us out. We need to turn around.”
Mia wanted to get them out, but she couldn’t. The controls shook in her hands until deafening static filled her helmet. She grimaced, trying to tune it out, while Bernard yanked his helmet off.
“Get your gear back on,” she said between grunts.
Bernard dropped his helmet and pressed his palms against his ears. “What?”
“Your helmet.” She moved one hand off of the controls to point where it lay on the floor. “Get it back on.”
He shook his head. “Hurts.”
“Get your gear back on now.” Even if he couldn’t hear her, everyone could read the word now on someone’s lips.
Logic won over in the end. He placed the helmet back on and essentially became worthless, cowering in his chair with his head in his hands.
Mia would be on her own.
She tightened her grip on the rattling controls. Not that it did any good at this point.
“Walton!” the captain screamed over the speaker.
Did she tell him the controls were locked?
Did she say the obvious, that they were caught in the planet’s gravitational pull and there wasn’t a star-blasted thing she could do about it?
The ship started to shake. The controls shifted in her hands…
Wait. They’d shifted.
Mia pulled up, but the ship started to spiral instead.
The planet raced toward them.
A thousand hours of simulators had brought her right here, and all she could do was accept the inevitable.
“Brace for impact!”
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