Taz was wrapping her ankle in her bunk when Up came in after a long meeting with the Commander. He sat down, pulled his boots off, and watched her wind the bandage around her foot.
“Not like that,” he said. “You’ve got to support it.”
She silently held the roll of bandage out to him. He moved to sit on her bunk, gently lifted her foot, and unwrapped what she’d already done. She winced a little.
“Sorry,” he said, and started wrapping it again. Taz had been quiet today, but he thought he knew why.
“Tomorrow we arrive at the Academy, si?” she said now.
He didn’t meet her eyes. “Si.”
“And then you take me to the refugee centre, si?”
“That’s the plan.”
“Up,” she said, so that he had to look at her. “I don’t want to go.”
“I know,” he said.
“I want-” she hesitated. “I want to enrol at the Academy. I want to be a Starship Ranger.” She lifted her newly wrapped ankle and flexed it. “Like you, Up.”
He took his time replying. “I know,” he said finally. “I’ve already asked the Commander if you could enlist.”
Her eyes lit up, and it was the most wonderful and tragic thing he’d ever seen. “But she refused, Taz,” he said hurriedly. “You’ve got to be eighteen to join. And the G.L.E.E. is not so big on exceptions.”
It was a little like watching a candle flicker out. Taz seemed to shrink even smaller as she hugged her knees.
“Eighteen,” she said.
“It’s only three years,” Up offered. “You can keep training, and by the time you enlist, you’ll shoot straight to the top of the class. Taz, you’re already the best student I’ve ever had.”
“You – you mean that?”
“Hey,” he said, pointing at the respectable bruise purpling on his cheek. “Do you know how many opponents have left a mark on Lieutenant Up?” He struck a pose, and the corner of her mouth twitched. “I can count them on one hand.”
There was a hint of a smile on her face. What he wouldn’t give to see a true one there.
“CODE RED CODE RED CODE RED! ALL RANGERS TO BATTLE STATIONS!”
Up jumped to his feet. Taz scrambled out of her bunk as the emergency call repeated, testing the weight on her foot. “Code red? Lo que es code red?”
“We’ve been boarded,” he said tersely, swinging his gun over his shoulder. “Stay here.”
“Boarded? Up, wait-”
There was no time for waiting. In the hallway, red lights glared and Rangers were running, shouting orders to each other. Up hailed another lieutenant on his way by. “Where’s the breach?”
“They’ve got the Commander and flight crew held hostage on the bridge. Nobody knows how they got in. Rogers thinks there may be more-”
The unmistakable pew, pew sound of a laser and a look of surprise came across the lieutenant’s face. He sunk to the floor, a hole smoking in his chest.
Up lifted his gun and fired two, three, four times. The robot, at the end of the corridor, exploded in a mess of wires and burned metal. There was only one, thank dead God.
Up turned on his heel to find Taz behind him, looking at the robot, her mouth a very round “o.” “Dammit, Taz, I told you to stay in the bunk!”
She crossed her arms. “You’re not my commanding officer yet, sir.”
He glared at her, and she glared back.
“Fine,” he said. “Just stay out of my way.”
He took off down the corridor with Taz close on his heels. They had to pause at one or two intersecting points – Up put his finger to his lips, and they waited for a robot to pass. The robots were all heading in the same direction – for the bridge. Might as well see what they were up to before blowing them all to hell.
They had just reached the last bunker before the bridge when the wall to their left exploded. Reacting out of instinct, Up rolled and landed hard against the far wall.
He shook himself as got to his feet, squinting through the acrid smoke. There were other people here, other Rangers coughing and struggling to get up. Lieutenant-Commander Rogers emerged from the haze.
“We’re caved in,” he said, slinging his gun over his shoulder. “Explosion took out at least four decks above us. It’ll take hours to move all the debris.”
Up was listening, but his eyes were raking the darkness. “Dammit, where’s Taz?” he burst finally. If the stupid girl had gotten in the way of the explosion-
“Estoy aquí,” she said, coming up beside him. “I’m here, Up.”
His shoulders relaxed, and he gave her a rough pat on the shoulder before turning to the Lieutenant-Commander. “What’s the situation on the bridge?”
Rogers, looking at Taz with a question in his eyes, jerked his thumb at the far door of the bunker, the one that led to the bridge of the ship. “They’ve got that door sealed off from the inside, there’s no way to open it from out here. Don’t think we can do anything but start working on that pile of rubble.”
“Or hope the robots open the door for us,” said Up.
“I don’t think that’s something I’m going to hope for,” said Rogers.
“Lieutenant-Commander!” called an ensign in a stage whisper from across the bunker. “Look here!”
The ensign was crouching at a metal grate at the bottom of the wall. “This vent leads directly into the bridge,” he said when they got close. “And see? It comes out behind the science station. They don’t have a sentry stationed there. I reckon a Ranger could sneak through there and unseal the door before they knew what was happening.”
Rogers knelt, peering through the grate. “They’d have to be quick,” he said. “Up?”
Up shook his head. The vent was barely a foot and a half wide. “I’d never fit.”
“I could,” said Taz.
They all looked at her. She held herself tall and looked at the Lieutenant-Commander. “I can fit, and Lieutenant Up can tell you I’m fast. I can do it. I can open the door.”
“No,” said Up.
She glared at him. “You said yourself that I’m the best student you’ve ever had, no?”
“This ain’t no lesson, Taz, this is the real deal,” Did she have a death wish? “You can’t go in there.”
“No, you can’t go in there,” she said. “Look around. None of these hombres can.”
Rogers was eyeing her with interest. “Have you ever handled a gun before, young lady?”
“No,” said Up.
“No,” she admitted, her eyes flicking toward Up.
Rogers turned to Up. “It’s this or digging, and they’ll certainly have managed to break our access codes by the time we get out of here. They’ll have full control of the ship. Have you got any better ideas?”
Up expelled all the air in his lungs. “No,” he said finally.
“Get the girl a gun,” said Rogers, “I’ll assemble the Rangers at the door. We’ll be ready.”
Up pulled a pistol from the holster at his belt. “This will be simplest for you to handle.” He showed her the grip, the safety, the trigger. She listened intently. The ensign finished unscrewing the grate.
“Ready, sir,” he said.
“Don’t shoot unless you absolutely have to,” Up said, as she took the pistol in her hand. “And for dead God’s sake, don’t shoot yourself.”
“Do you think I’m estúpido?” she said.
“No, Taz,” he said. She was anything but stupid. “Stay low, stay out of sight. Wait for their attention to be elsewhere before you make your move. Remember, these aren’t humans you’re dealing with, these are machines, and they have sensory equipment we can’t even dream of.” He caught her arm as she crouched to enter the vent. “Be careful in there, Taz.”
Her eyes were very big and dark against her pale skin. “I will.” Neither of them moved.
“Ready, Lieutenant?” called Rogers.
Taz nodded, her eyes not leaving Up’s face.
“Ready,” he said. Reluctantly, he let her go.
To be continued, naturally… read Chapter 5 here.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy! Comments?