[Rules 2] Breaking the Rules (Part 3/5)

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Malika crawled through the ship’s network of ventilation ducts with a new sense of purpose. It wasn’t just her who needed rescue now; there were at least twenty other crew, including Admiral Bell himself, held prisoner, just like she had been. And the Admiral had given her orders to find a way to contact the fleet, so that was what she was going to do.

That was easier said than done, of course.

At first, she’d thought she might be able to use one of the consoles built into the walls all over the ship, but – obviously – the interface had been in a language and alphabet that wasn’t even remotely similar to anything she’d ever seen before, and had proven completely indecipherable. If she’d had more time, she might’ve been able to work out what some of the buttons did, and eventually find a way to access the communications systems. Through that, she could’ve contacted the fleet, but each time she’d tried, Neanderthal crewmembers had come closer than she’d felt comfortable with and she’d been forced to retreat back into the ventilation system.

So now, she crawled through the vents, up and down the gentle slopes leading between decks, and avoiding passing near any crew – especially the Marines, with their bulky strength-enhancing exoskeletons. She didn’t even want to think about how it would turn out if she was caught by one of them. Probably messily.

Taking a left here, and a right there, a straight on at the “crossroads”, up the ramp to a higher deck, and on and on, picking her path through the identical bare steel ducts almost entirely at random, she eventually found her face practically pressed against the grille where the vent opened onto one of the ship’s many corridors.

She was about to start crawling back to look for another route through the ducts when she heard a Neanderthal’s heavy footsteps coming from somewhere to her left. She froze, realising the mistake she’d made, just as a humanoid only slightly taller than her, but much wider and more heavily built, entered her field of view.

She didn’t breathe, moving only her eyes as she watched him pass. He was alone, and was walking slowly, his eyes fixed on a tablet computer held in both hands.

If I could get hold of that tablet… she thought, a plan beginning to form in her mind.

He didn’t notice as he passed her and, once he was out of sight and his footsteps were beginning to retreat into the distance, Malika pushed herself backwards into a wider section of the vents, where she rotated 180 degrees so that her feet were pointing towards the grille. She slid towards it on her back then, bracing herself against the walls with her hands, kicked the grill with all her might.

The grille clanged and dented, and tore from the wall slightly, but stayed attached. The footsteps stopped, paused, then started up again, now much slower and more cautiously, heading back towards her. Malika bent her legs back, ready to kick the grille again. The footsteps increased in volume until they were right next to the grille, then a face with the characteristic sloped forehead and jutting brow of a Neanderthal appeared from above as the crewmember peered into the darkness of the vent.

When he saw Malika, his eyes widened.

“Hi,” she said cheerfully, before kicking the grille once more, ripping it from the wall and sending it, and her feet, crashing into the Neanderthal’s face. He staggered backwards and toppled over onto the floor, and Malika moved her arms frantically, trying to get out of the vent as quickly as possible.

Either she was too slow or the Neanderthal recovered quicker than she’d expected, because a pair of strong hands gripped her ankles and she felt herself sliding out of the vent faster than when she’d been pushing herself.

“Let go!” She yelled, trying in vain to shake her ankles free of his grasp. As her head was ejected into the open space of the corridor, the pressure on her ankles was suddenly released and she felt herself slide to a stop. She scrabbled to try and get to her feet and face her foe, only for a kick to the chest to send her back onto the ground, gasping for air. The Neanderthal stood over her, and before she even knew what she was doing, she rolled over to the right, as the Neanderthal launched a powerful punch at where her head had been with a roar. His fist boomed as it impacted the floor, and she felt the deck plating flex and dent.

Fuck, that could’ve been my head! she thought, as she flailed her arms to find some kind of weapon. As her opponent raised his fist out of the indentation it had made in the deck with an angry snarl, her fingers gripped the edge of the vent cover she’d just kicked off its mount, and she roared as she swung it with all her might.

The corner of the grille caught the Neanderthal in the temple, making a hideous crunch and spurting an arc of blood through the air. As her stunned opponent fell, Malika clambered to her feet, and, without thinking and with a howl of primal fury, she swung the steel rectangle down again and again, until it was nothing more than a bent piece of metal and one side of her opponent’s head was caved in and pulped.

Realising what she’d done, Malika dropped the grille to the floor with a clatter and staggered back, her now-bloody hands going up to her mouth.

Oh, shit, she thought, staring in horror at the scene before her. I just killed him. Ohshitohshitohshit. Sure, she’d killed plenty of Neanderthals in the battle out in space, but that was in a fighter where her enemies exploded in a quickly-dissipating cloud of fire. It was nothing like the sheer brutality of…this, where she could see the face of her victim and feel his blood as it splattered all over her hands and her uniform and her face

She snapped herself out of her trance, knowing that they would’ve been heard and that more crew would be coming to investigate soon, perhaps including some of those Marines with their exoskeletons and enormous melee weapons. She’d been incredibly lucky to survive here, so she really didn’t fancy her chances against one of them. She turned away from the body and slowly growing pool of blood of her victim, picked up his tablet from the floor, then crawled back into the air vent and far, far away from this awful place.

 


 

1500, 12 days ABAC

TAS Providence, Bravo Alpha Centauri System

 

“Jump complete,” the Sub-Lieutenant manning the fleet navigation station announced. “Current location is the Bravo Sol Jump Node in the Bravo Alpha Centauri system.” She turned to look at Vice Admiral Oyebanji over her shoulder and smiled. “We’ve made it.”

Collectively, the spacers crewing the secondary flag bridge aboard the TAS Providence breathed a sigh of relief. Oyebanji sank into his chair, exhausted, the stress and sleepless nights of the past three days finally catching up with him.

None of this had gone how it was supposed to. He’d asked to be given this posting – and had his parents talk to the right people that he would get it – as what he thought would be an easy way to get himself promoted to Admiral. The youngest Admiral the Alliance had ever had, in fact. He’d have to do a lot of Bell’s boring paperwork, get the combat experience he needed, and return home a hero, whereupon he’d be promoted and given a nice cushy job in an office.

Either that or he’d be too dead to care.

But, of course, it hadn’t worked out like that. First, they’d found themselves stranded in another universe, but he’d been confident that Admiral Bell would be able to find a way home, while Oyebanji did the bare minimum he had to to help. But now, Bell was missing in action, over thirty of the two hundred ships Task Force 23 had started out with had been destroyed or captured and the only hope they’d had of getting home had blown up in their collective face. And Tosin Oyebanji, the twenty-nine-year-old son of a prominent Nigerian politician and a powerful businesswoman, a man with next to no combat experience and training equivalent to that of a Lieutenant, had been left to clean up the mess that was left. Before, he’d understood why the rest of the crew – and his superior – had disliked him; he just hadn’t cared. Now, he deeply regretted ever having been assigned to be Bell’s deputy. He wished someone more qualified had been given the job instead.

“Captain,” he said, shakily standing up and turning to Captain Yahui Xun, his Executive Officer, “you have command of the fleet.” He saluted.

“Aye, Sir,” she said, returning his salute. “I have command.”

With that, he stepped past her and towards the door of the secondary flag bridge, stopping briefly to salute the pair of Marines standing guard, and headed for his quarters. Captain Xun watched him go.

When he got to his quarters, Oyebanji methodically stripped off his uniform and plunged headfirst into the cascade of warm water that was his shower, trying desperately to relax. But, try as he might, he couldn’t, and he threw himself into bed without bothering to get dressed, feeling just as tense as he had before his shower.

He didn’t sleep. He couldn’t sleep. His mind ran over all the problems and seemingly insurmountable odds faced by his fleet, problems that he would have to find a way to overcome. And, try as he might to see some hope of emerging victorious and getting the fleet home, he couldn’t help but think about the best way to break the news to the crew that they would be here for the rest of their lives.

When the General Quarters alarm sounded, he didn’t react, and he ignored the frantic calls for him to return to the secondary flag bridge. When the General Quarters alarm ended, his reaction was much the same as when it started, and, when someone pressed his room’s doorbell, he didn’t answer, hoping that they’d just go away and leave him to wallow in self-pity.

They didn’t and, after five rings, he finally forced himself to climb out of bed, throw on a uniform and open the door.

The door hissed open, and Captain Xun marched in, her face like thunder.

“Sir,” she snapped. “What are you doing?”

He shrugged. “Letting someone else fix all our problems.”

“Admiral Bell has been captured, and as the next ranking officer, that puts you in command of Task Force Twenty-Three. You don’t get to ‘let someone else fix our problems’. We just had a hostile-“

“I am not qualified to-“

“We just had a hostile ship jump through the node and, as commanding officer, your place was on the secondary flag bridge. But instead, you left me to handle it.”

“And looks like you handled it pretty well.”

“That’s not the point! Your job is to command this fleet-“

“I’m not qualified to command this fleet!” He shouted. Xun stared back in stunned silence. “You know what rank I was before this? A Lieutenant. I was a fucking Lieutenant, with the training and experience to match! And when I saw that I wasn’t much less experienced than the few officers left to take the job of Bell’s deputy, I decided that that was my path to becoming an Admiral. I had my parents pull a few strings, and here I am. I’d go home a hero, or I wouldn’t go home at all. A flawless plan.”

He laughed. “There are officers in this fleet more qualified to have my job than I am, such as you, but I managed to get it because I just happened to know the right people. I guess this is karma.”

“I know,” Xun replied quietly. “We all do. Why do you think you are so hated? You’re less experienced than most of the other spacers in this fleet but managed to get the job you always wanted because you’re a spoilt brat with rich and powerful parents. You are arrogant and selfish, and the crew don’t like you; Admiral Bell doesn’t like you; I don’t like you.”

She took a deep breath. “But the fact is, there is a chain of command, and right now, you are at the top of it. You could step down, but it wouldn’t do the fleet good to see everything shaken up like that, not to mention the damage it would do to your career, damage even your parents wouldn’t be able to fix, so for the time being, that is where you are going to stay.

“Now.” She composed herself before continuing. “An enemy ship jumped through the Node, but was quickly dispatched by our bomber squadrons. The good news is that our engineering crews were able to study the energy signature when the ship jumped in, and they think the enemy is using this stabiliser thing they need. And there’s more good news: a comm drone from the Raven has just arrived from Bravo Sol, and they report that a pilot downed and captured while defending the Unrelenting – one Sub-Lieutenant Malika Karim, of the Eight-Thirty-Sixth Squadron – has managed to establish contact. She says Admiral Bell is still alive.”

 


 

0113, 13 days ABAC

Unknown Location

 

An insistent beeping from Malika’s stolen tablet woke her suddenly, and she jolted up into a sitting position – or rather, partway to a sitting position – banging her forehead on the ceiling of the ventilation duct in the process.

“Shit!” She swore, lying back down and groaning, raising her hands to her forehead until the pain went away. Once it had subsided, she listened out for signs that she’d been noticed – the clang when her forehead hit the steel ceiling panel had been loud – and, hearing nothing, let out a sigh of relief. She looked at her watch. “One-fifteen?” She whispered to the tablet on the floor next to her. “Really? You couldn’t have waited until morning?”

It didn’t say anything in response, of course, so she rolled over, picked it up and turned on the screen, angrily grumbling something about how whatever it was notifying her of had better be worth losing sleep over.

It had taken three days, but she’d managed to work out how to operate the alien technology, to a small extent, at least. She still couldn’t read the language it was written in, but she had a rough idea what some of the words meant, or at the very least what the buttons did. The icons were a huge help, and had made it almost easy to navigate the surprisingly simple interface, and she had, most importantly, managed to find out how to transmit a video message in order to make contact with the fleet.

She’d stolen food and water from various storage rooms throughout the ship. She’d had to guess as to what was in the packets, and though she’d initially been concerned that the food might not be compatible with her biology – this was an entirely different universe, after all – most of it had actually turned out to be very similar to what she was used too, especially things like fruits and vegetables. The rest…well, there were some areas of the ventilation system she wouldn’t be returning to any time soon. Though even here, she occasionally got whiffs of the smell.

Of course, her escape would have been noticed by now, as would the body of the Neanderthal she’d killed to steal the tablet. Thankfully, the ventilation system was huge, with hundreds of ducts just large enough for her to fit through and others that were just a little bit more comfortable, and the crew of the ship had clearly never even considered the possibility of having to find an escapee who was hiding in the system. Still, she didn’t let her guard down, expecting a maintenance robot to crawl out of the darkness at any moment, or for the airtight doors separating her section from the rest to suddenly close, trapping her where she was. It hadn’t happened yet, but she knew it could, so she never stayed in one place for long enough that they were likely to find her, and slept lightly so that she could be up and ready to move in response to the slightest sound.

As it turned out, the sound that had woken her on this occasion was important. The screen of the tablet lit up and, once her eyes had adjusted to the sudden increase in brightness, she could see two different notifications: one was what she’d decided was some sort of file-sharing service, while the other was a video message. After a moment’s careful deliberation, she decided to watch the video first.

After a moment of waiting patiently for the video to load, the screen changed, revealing a face she recognised. That of Vice Admiral Tosin Oyebanji. He started talking but, clearly anticipating her predicament, there was no sound. Luckily, the Vice Admiral had thought to add subtitles.

Sub-Lieutenant Karim,” he began, “I am delighted that you were able to escape and make contact, and to hear that Admiral Bell and some of the rest of the crew are still alive. You have given all of us hope that somehow, we might all make it out of this alive. Unfortunately, I will have to keep this message short, since a larger file will increase the chances of you and the ship from which this is being transmitted being located.

You will see that we have transmitted you a file. I’m not going to go into the details, but I can tell you that it’s something our engineering teams whipped up over the last few hours that should translate the device you are using into English. It won’t be perfect, and it will be buggy as Hell, but it should make your job a little bit easier. We have also uploaded a simple virus onto the ship’s main computer system, which will hide any transmission carrying the right access code from the ship’s cybersecurity systems. All you have to do is run the program, then it will install onto the device and restart it automatically. After that, you should be good to go.

Once you have done that, I ask that you transmit an acknowledgement to the coordinates this communication was received from. You will receive further orders an hour or two after that.

Stay safe, Sub-Lieutenant. Oyebanji out.

The video ended, and Malika didn’t waste any time in running the file the Vice Admiral had mentioned. A word in the same script as everything else on the ship appeared on the screen, in the centre of a white circle and above some more symbols that she had by now worked out were probably numbers. Starting at the top and moving around in a clockwise direction, the circle changed from white to green – the equivalent of a loading bar – and the probably-numbers changed rapidly as it did so. She watched the circle change colour, getting increasingly impatient as time wore on. When it turned fully green, nothing happened, and stayed like that for what felt like hours. Some things are exactly the same, whatever universe you’re in, she reflected.

Just as she was considering restarting the tablet manually, the screen went dark, and she had to remind herself that that was what Oyebanji had said would happen. Sure enough, the screen came back on, revealing a logo she didn’t recognise, and after several seconds of that, returned to the familiar home screen.

Familiar, except for one thing: all the writing was now in English.

It worked, she thought happily, smiling as she transmitted a message acknowledging her receipt of Oyebnaji’s transmission and that the file had worked as intended. With that done, she switched off the display and, tablet in hand, began crawling as far and as fast as she could. She chose her route more-or-less at random, and after going what she felt was far enough, she finally came to a stop in a wider and taller duct and sat against the wall while she got her breath back.

All that was left to do now was wait.

Time seemed to slow to a crawl as she waited for Vice Admiral Oyebanji’s instructions, and Malika found herself checking her watch after what she thought was two hours but actually turned out to be only five minutes. It wasn’t really impatience, but more a sense that the longer she was kept waiting, the greater her chances of being detected. That and a desire to have the decision-making no longer rest on her own shoulders.

She considered trying to sleep while she waited, but quickly found it to be impossible, so she instead occupied her time by sitting still and studying every millimetre of the opposite wall of the duct, absentmindedly tapping her fingernails against whatever hard surface her fingers decided was best – the walls of the duct, the tablet screen, her watch face – without even realising she was doing it. She would’ve tried using the newly-translated tablet for entertainment, but didn’t want to risk draining the battery of her only way of contacting the fleet.

So she sat in quite possibly the worst state of boredom she’d ever experienced, analysing the seam between two of the panels on the wall in front of her for what must have been the hundredth time. Yes, it was still exactly the same as it had been all the other times. The turbulence in the air flow from a fan to her left blew some of her hair into her face and, spluttering as she blew it out of her mouth and brushed it back behind her ear. She checked her watch one more time. Surely it’d been about three hours since Oyebanji’s message by now? Nope. It was only 3:15. Five minutes since she last checked

“Oh, come on,” she muttered to the tablet on the floor next to her, crossing her arms in frustration. “You said it would be one to two hours, and it’s been two hours. I can’t just sit here doing nothing for this long!”

Exactly as she’d expected, the tablet didn’t say anything in response. She groaned exasperatedly and looked up – or forwards, depending on your reference point – and threw her hands into her lap, her fingers involuntarily returning to their tapping.

At long last, the tablet chimed.

Finally,” Malika grumbled, looking at her watch one last time and picking the tablet up. She turned on the screen and, sure enough, there was a video message waiting for her.

She didn’t waste any time in playing it and, much to her relief, it was Oyebanji’s face that appeared on the screen.

Sub-Lieutenant Karim,” the subtitles said, “I hope that you have still been successful in evading capture, because right now, we are all depending on you.”

“No pressure, then,” she muttered.

I do not want to go into the details, just in case we were sloppy and this transmission is intercepted,” Oyebanji continued, “but what I will say is that we are coming for you. We will shortly begin a rescue operation, with the intent of liberating you, Admiral Bell and all the rest of the crew held captive aboard the enemy vessel.

However, there is another, far more crucial objective in this operation. Our engineers inform me that the hostile ships’ Jump Drives use what is called a ‘Dixon-Lee Point Stabilisation Device’. In case you haven’t heard, this is the component we require in order to repair the Unrelenting’s Inter-Universe Jump Drive. What we don’t know for sure is whether the ship you are on uses one of these components.

The Raven – the stealth ship stationed in Bravo Sol to observe the hostiles and relay orders and intelligence between you and the rest of the fleet – has already attempted to determine this by hacking into the hostile ship’s computers, but, even though the enemy’s cybersecurity is decades behind ours, it seems they’re not that stupid. Our engineers believe that information on the ship’s specifications, including details of the Jump Drive, are stored on a different computer, one isolated from the communications system, to stop precisely this type of thing from happening. They also believe that this information should be accessible from inside the ship.

“Oh, I don’t like where this is going,” Malika grumbled.

What I – what we – need you to do is find some way of accessing this information, then relay it through your device and send it to us. Assuming they are using a stabiliser, this will enable us to both rescue you and the other prisoners and secure the component we need.

Good luck, Sub-Lieutenant. I suspect you will need it. Oyebanji out.

Malika lowered her tablet and considered her next move. Her best guess as to the location would be somewhere near the engine room, which would be…where, exactly? Down, I guess? I don’t know; I’m a pilot, not an engineer!

It wasn’t lost on her that Oyebanji hadn’t mentioned what it would mean if the ship didn’t have one of these…stabiliser thingies. She knew enough, however, to understand what would happen. The Vice Admiral had implied that he didn’t think he had enough Marines or ships to rescue the prisoners, steal the stabiliser and secure the Unrelenting if the prisoners and stabiliser were on different ships. That meant that he would have to make a choice between the lives of the crew of the fleet and those of the prisoners. She was under no illusions as to which would take precedence, especially considering the fact that, even if the prisoners were rescued, they, along with everyone else, would die.

There was, of course, nothing she could do about it. She couldn’t make the ship have a stabiliser, and if it didn’t have one, there was no way she would be able to convince the fleet’s engineers that it did. And she couldn’t just not follow the orders she’d been given in the hopes that Oyebanji would just say, “Ah, fuck it, let’s go and rescue them anyway.” She knew he would hold off until he received the information from her. And even then, the ship’s jump drive not having a stabiliser would mean that she’d never make it home – never see Shareef, or her parents, or her little brother – again, rescued or not.

No, there was nothing she could do. Nothing except whisper a brief prayer – could God hear her in a whole different universe? – gather up the tablet and packets of food and water she had with her, and head downwards through the vents, towards the ship’s engines.

She crawled for hours, and the air seemed to get hotter and drier the further down she went. It was almost as if Hell really was down, only on a ship instead of underground. She knew it was just the heat of the engines and the reactor, of course. It did slow her down, however, as it meant she had to stop for rests far more frequently than before, and she consumed her water supplies at a far greater rate. Before long, she was seriously contemplating removing her flight suit altogether, but instead opted to merely roll up the sleeves and unfasten it at the neck. Doing something like this completely naked was something she had nightmares about.

And after 3 days wearing only her flight suit and without showering, she probably already smelled terrible.

After a lot of wrong turns and almost getting caught a few times, Malika finally reached her destination after four-and-a-half hours of travelling through the ventilation system. Drenched in sweat and out of breath, she stopped crawling and leaned up against the practically red-hot wall of the vent, panting and wiping sweat from her brow. She took a swig of water, then tucked into a packet of what she thought was some kind of meat casserole-type-thing – probably best not to think too much about exactly what was in it.

Her meal finished, she tossed the empty packet to one side and turned to crawl the final few metres, round one corner and forwards a bit until she was able to look through the grating leading into the engine room.

The morning shift seemed to be just arriving, which meant that all she could do for now was watch and observe.

The room was enormous, with steel catwalks suspended above ground level on multiple levels. Five massive cylinders – presumably the engines – extended from the floor far up towards the ceiling, before bulging outwards at the top where they were connected to the main reactor. Neanderthal engineers entered the room on all different levels, some carrying drinks that Malika assumed were something like – perhaps even identical to – tea or coffee, heading for the consoles and control panels dotted throughout the room. She watched them for what ended up being five hours, trying to determine which of the consoles had access to the ship’s specifications and schematics. After all, she reasoned, the engineers would be the crewmembers most likely to need that information.

Almost as one, the engineers finished off what they were doing, stood from their seats or, if they were standing, stepped away from their control panels, and headed towards the exits. Yes, getting this information to the fleet sooner rather than later was important, but it was also important that she ensure she had enough time between one shift leaving and the next arriving that she could find the correct information, transmit it and leave without anyone noticing. So instead of using this opportunity to get onto one of the consoles, she pressed a button on the side of her watch, setting three small dials ticking.

After 2 minutes, 54 seconds, she saw movement in one of the doorways and the hulking figure of a Neanderthal sauntered into the room.

She would have less than three minutes to find the right console, locate the file she needed and transmit it in its entirety. There was no way she could do that in such a short time.

What she needed was a distraction.

She ate another meal while she thought, still watching the team of engineers and scanning the room for something that might serve as a suitable distraction. Finding some way to cause a radiation leak from the reactor would work, but she didn’t really fancy giving herself radiation poisoning. Fire might work, but if they had a policy of venting atmosphere to extinguish fires, that would cause its own problems. Causing some disturbance elsewhere on the ship would never work; there were plenty of other crew who could investigate, and even if the engineers did go to have a look, it wouldn’t be all of them. So maybe she could try capturing it by force? Yeah, Malika, great plan, she thought. Storm a room full of sort-of men who are far, far stronger than you, on your own and with no weapons. I’m suuuure that’ll end well.

Okay, so maybe a distraction wouldn’t work. So what other options did she have? She could try and find somewhere else where she could access the files she needed, but she didn’t have the first idea where that would be. The Captain’s office, perhaps? Unlike the engine room, that wouldn’t be as simple as just going down and following the rumbling, and even if she found it, that room would probably be watched constantly. She’d only get about five seconds before she was caught. But the fact was, she’d already wasted several hours, so she didn’t have time to search the entire ship for the right type of control terminal. She needed to come up with something in this room.

Since a distraction was impossible, as was all-(non-existent)-guns-blazing, and it had to be something in this room, she decided on the only other option she could think of: stealth. Finishing her meal, she hid the empty packet with that from her breakfast, then returned to the grating and studied the room once more. She was searching for a console that was both isolated from the rest of the room and that wasn’t used as frequently as the rest, settling on one on the second level – it must’ve been 100 metres up – and recessed in a little alcove that kept it more-or-less hidden from the rest of the room. With any luck, those Neanderthals who caught a glimpse of her wouldn’t bother to look closely enough to notice she wasn’t one of them.

Another five hours passed before the crew once more left the room. Malika reset the timer on her watch and started it once again, then, with a pair of strong kicks, knocked the grating off the opening of the air vent. She waited for several precious seconds to ensure she hadn’t been heard then, satisfied, slithered out of the vent. She carefully replaced the grating in such a way that a cursory glance wouldn’t notice it was no longer fixed to the wall, then hurried up the two long flights of stairs.

Once at the top, she paused to catch her breath and glanced at her watch once more: she now had less than a minute before the next shift arrived. She stood up straight and-

She froze. Though only barely audible over the constant rumble of the ship’s reactor and engines, Malika thought she heard the light clanking of footsteps on the steel stairs. She turned slowly…and found herself face-to-face with a Neanderthal.

They stared at each other for several long moments, neither of them moving, then Malika finally remembered that she was supposed to be running away from him and spun around on one foot before sprinting in the opposite direction. At the same moment, he realised that she was an intruder, and the escaped prisoner, at that, and launched himself at her, bellowing something universally recognisable as a war cry. Unfortunately for him, he was built for strength and brute force, and had only ever fought opponents the same as him. But humans were faster, and Malika was no exception: he leapt towards her with his arms outstretched, and at the last moment, she threw herself to one side, avoiding him entirely. But his momentum still carried him forwards, and he ended up sailing over the railing at the edge of the catwalk and down the hundred metres to the floor below.

Shit!” Malika hissed, sitting up as she heard the Neanderthals’ screams as he fell, then wincing at the sickening thud when he hit the floor below. At least you’ve got your distraction now, she thought, instantly feeling guilty about it but knowing it was true: the rest of the engineers would be too distracted by the broken body on the floor of the engine room to notice her working at one of the consoles. Of course, the crowd down there would make it more difficult when it came to escaping… I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, she decided.

She had to move quickly; how much time she thought she had left was irrelevant now, since the rest of the shift would now be arriving faster to investigate. She rolled over to rest on her toes in a crouch and pushed off, using her hands to stop herself from falling flat on her face, running for the console she’d chosen. One of the doors below opened, and she threw herself into the alcove just as a Neanderthal walked through, using the wall to stop.

She peered down to the floor below and, satisfied that they were all too concerned with the body to notice her, turned to the console. It was, of course, all written in the totally illegible language used by the crew of this ship, but after examining the console for some time, she noticed a wire emerging from the front of the terminal at about waist-height, ending in a connector that looked like it might fit her stolen tablet.

She attempted to plug the wire into the tablet and, sure enough, it clicked into place. She turned on the screen and, after several moments, what she could only assume was the terminal appeared on the list of connected devices.

She tapped it…and instantly had access to all the schematics and specifications of what she thought was the ship she was on. She didn’t know for sure, so she brought up the file that had been translated as “floor plans” and studied them carefully. By now, she had a good idea of what was on which floor – or at least, where the engine room, brig and food storage room were – so that was the best way she could think of to determine whether it was what she was looking for.

Between occasional glances over her shoulder (to check she hadn’t been, and wasn’t about to be, noticed) and at her watch (she couldn’t afford to lose track of time, since the longer this took, the more likely she’d be seen), she examined the floor plans until she found what she was looking for. Everything was where and how it should be. As far as she could tell, these schematics were the right ones; she considered also checking the diagrams of the ventilation systems, but decided she’d spent long enough on this.

Once more, she looked over her shoulder then at her watch – the engineers were still preoccupied with the body, presumably while they waited for the medical and security teams to arrive, and she’d taken up five precious minutes so far – then exited the floor plans and scrolled through the dizzying array of files. There were so many: floor plans, schematics of the engines and reactor, wiring diagrams, power logs…they seemed to scroll on forever. Malika knew it was going to take a long time to find the diagrams of the jump drive, and would probably take longer to transmit all of them.

Certainly longer than she had.

Thankfully, it turned out that search functions were universal – Multiversal? – and that “jump drive” was something that had been translated. Finding the right file was as simple as entering the correct search term.

She checked over her shoulder again, then quickly sent that file and the floor plans to the file transfer application and instructed it to transmit to the coordinates she’d been given. Unfortunately, it was a reasonably large file, and the progress circle turned green at a painstakingly slow rate. She glanced over her shoulder and…

She froze. Another of the Neanderthal engineers had come up to her level from below, and was now staring at her, red-rimmed and tear-filled eyes wide in shock. He said something unintelligible.

Shit… “Uh…Hi!” Malika said cheerfully, smiling in as friendly a way as she could manage, turning to face him fully.

His expression changed from shock to anger, and he said something else in his guttural language, then his eyes flicked down to the tablet resting on the flat part of the terminal next to her. Following his gaze, she, too, looked down at the tablet, noting that the progress circle was now just over halfway full, then sidestepped to stand in front of it. “That’s…err…nothing. Nothing you need to worry about. Really.” She tried to maintain her smile, but it wavered when he took a step forwards. “No, really,” she said, taking a step forwards herself and holding her hands palm-outwards so as to appear non-threatening. “It’s nothing. Completely innocent. Why would I transmit schematics to-“

He roughly pushed her to one side with his strong right arm with seemingly no effort whatsoever, then continued past her and picked up the tablet. Ah, well, it was worth a try…

The Neanderthal growled angrily and turned his head to look at her, his face like thunder. She looked down at the tablet in his hand: the circle was now fully green and a box had appeared on top, displaying the words, “Transmission complete”.

“Uh…that wasn’t anything important?” She attempted.

She didn’t even see the punch that knocked her unconscious.

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