Hera of Lexington
by Anta Baku
Chapter 1 of Hera of Lexington
Only the Gavidarians would put a museum on a space station. Or was that only the Gavidarians would build a space station just for a museum? It made Hera angry. Museums should be on the ground, where people could get at them, not this ostentation for its own sake, not a playground for ultra-elites. But that was the Gavidarians.
Anger wasn’t helpful right now, approaching the museum in a single space suit, when one mistake in trajectory could leave her plummeting through space forever, or worse, the victim of an embarrassing rescue. She required precision, and precision required calm. Hera vented emotional waste heat into the void of space as a string of expletives, some generic, some directed at the Gavidarians specifically. There was never a shortage of those anymore.
But expletives, while good for many things, did not make for effective course correction. She goosed her right-side cold thrusters to keep herself in line with the museum as their orbits converged. No heat today; Fred swore he’d have museum security’s motion detectors out of service, but that just meant they’d be paying more attention to their other instruments.
They should be looking the other direction anyway. In fact, if things were going right, Hera should soon be able to see—there it was. Not much more than a box, Alistair must have rented the most nondescript ship he could possibly find. He still had car-chase reflexes; there wouldn’t be any traffic to hide in out here if things went wrong and they had to run for it. Security would be suspicious, as no Gavidarian noble would ever visit a museum in something like that, but that was all right. The ship was just a distraction anyway.
They had timed the rendezvous perfectly. Hera settled in gently against the dull metal curve of the station’s exterior just as the rented ship began to dock, not quite opposite her position. Alistair was to provide maximum incompetence in the docking process, so she probably had twenty minutes to get inside. She wouldn’t need that long.
Hera had gone all the way to a Free Human settlement on Beta 9 for this suit. There was a colony of asteroid miners there who tinkered with everything they could get their hands on. They had types of equipment that weren’t even catalogued anywhere else. From the outside this looked just like a normal suit made for humans, kept to a minimum of safety features and with a limited range of tools that could be converted into weapons. The Gavidarians would rather make a job ten times as hard as it had to be than give you the smallest opportunity to shoot your supervisor. History had proved that to be a realistic concern.
This suit, though, was not like that. It had all sorts of interesting tools, and Hera wasn’t sure she understood half of them. She had a brief moment of sadness at the idea that her plan called for it to be abandoned here, but meanwhile she was setting up the hull access system.
Space stations aren’t designed to be accessed directly from the outside. If you’re not coming in through an airlock, you’re not supposed to be coming in at all. So go through a wall and you’ll be faced with systems to dump waste heat, fire suppression, electrical, and a dozen other systems tucked out of the way of the regular users before you ever get close to a room or a hallway. The Beta 9 asteroid miners had an ingenious solution to that problem.
Hera’s suit didn’t cut through the hull so much as slide through it. Even the most vacuum-proof systems have seams, and the engineers who built this suit had built a special program into it to find those seams, make its way through with minimal impact, and seal the hull behind itself. The only user control was a dial for how much discomfort Hera was prepared to endure in the process. They’d done dozens of tests in the lab and she found that she could endure a seven, but was much more effective afterward if she limited it to five. The control went all the way to twenty and that was unimaginable. Jean had run it through with a dummy once just to see, and they had to retire that dummy afterward.
But this station wasn’t built very densely, and level five did the job with room to spare. She didn’t take the suit itself all the way in, just far enough to spit her body out into an empty corridor and seal the wall behind itself. That last feature was Jean’s addition, especially for this job. Neither of them could guess whether security would ever find the suit where Hera left it. It might just be a secret part of this museum forever.
As they had planned, this hallway was out of the public space of the museum, a back way for employees that housed offices and rooms for maintaining the artifacts. It wasn’t much but a short corridor with airlock doors on either side. Hera called up her map display, double-checked where she intended to be, and turned right.
The airlock door at the end of the hall opened easily to her touch. This section was supposed to be hard to get into, not out of. Behind it was an open room full of exhibits, a good sign that she was headed in the right direction. Her map said this should be a section devoted to artifacts from the first Gavidarian colony world, Stonehaven. They certainly looked like early-space-age Gavidarian technology—obsidian tools, stiff clothing made from spun silica blended with animal fibers. On the far wall was a section of one of that era’s glass computers, which at any other time would have been fascinating, as not many of those had survived. Hera still didn’t quite understand how the Gavidarians had managed to colonize three other worlds before discovering metalworking, but she knew glass computing was a big part of it.
Now, though, she just needed to check that she was in the right place. She’d memorized the Gavidarian glyphs for Stonehaven, and quickly identified them in three places in the room. That confirmed she was in the place she intended to be. She reminded herself that it didn’t mean the map itself was totally reliable, just that her estimate of her location was correct. Still, she knew where she was, no alarms had gone up, and she hadn’t encountered anyone unexpected. Things were going well.
So why was something bothering her about this room? They’d built the plan with a flexible schedule with just these moments in mind, where Hera could take the time to evaluate her situation with patience and attention to detail. They didn’t know enough specifics about the museum’s security to nail down a minute-by-minute plan. They had to send in an expert and let her use her talents.
This was the part Hera liked most. Being a person, not just a machine, was an extra little spit in the face of the Gavidarians who had treated her for so long like she was only good for following their instructions. So she took a moment to feel the room and figure out what was bothering her.
There was too much plex. She took time to look at the displays themselves this time, and not what was in them. Every artifact in the room was encased in a meter-thick slab of the rugged transparent solid. That was going to be a problem. They had expected electronic countermeasures, guards, surveillance. But a serious physical barrier was both ludicrously archaic and, unfortunately, something she hadn’t prepared for.
Lexington was just starting to rebuild museums, and they didn’t do anything like this. The few museum memories Hera had of her childhood before the Gavidarian invasion were of open spaces where you had to be reminded not to touch anything. And plex wasn’t complicated, it only required basic tools to deal with. If you had brought them. The only thief a meter of plex would stop was one who didn’t show up ready for it.
Maybe not all the exhibits were like this. Maybe these old artifacts had old security, and the much more recent pieces stolen from Lexington would have the sort of electronic countermeasures Hera had come equipped to deal with. Maybe the Gavidarians would just hand her what she wanted and apologize for taking it in the first place.
There was no point in catastrophizing. She was here, she might as well find the Lexington room and discover what she was really in for. It should be only three turns away.
She made it two turns before running into a school group.
Gavidarians didn’t do children like any other race Hera had ever heard of. Animal-descended races always started off small and grew as they matured; humans even had a hard time separating the word “grow” from the maturation process sometimes. Gavidarians came from the Mountain as large as they would ever be, and as they matured and refined they removed parts from themselves, or had them removed by others. Adult Gavidarians were thoughtfully faceted, their shapes designed over years by themselves or their loved ones, and typically a little smaller than an adult human. But what Hera found herself dodging now were giant, rough-hewn slabs of rock that she had to remind herself were actually people.
They didn’t move like people. Most of them were poorly-balanced, and they didn’t seem to have full sensory control yet, so even just walking down the hall was trouble for them. No wonder all the displays here were behind super-reinforced plex, if school groups were a regular thing. At least it made them easy to hide behind. Though it would have helped if she could see who she was hiding from. Presumably there were adult Gavidarian supervisors somewhere in this crowd, but Hera had no idea where they were.
She dodged and ducked anyway, trying to stay close to the edges of the room and away from any key exhibits the tour might stop to examine in detail. She didn’t mind being in sight of the children, who would just see her as an obstacle as long as she didn’t interact with them. But any adults would know a human shouldn’t be here, and maybe even recognize one on sight. Most Gavidarians had never been to Lexington, but some humans had been brought to the homeworld, or passed through as free travelers and traders like Alistair was pretending to be on the other side of the station right now, hopefully still keeping the attention of museum security.
Hera was dreading having to face an educational lecture about some major artifact in the room in a language she didn’t understand, but the school group quickly passed through. Thankfully they weren’t headed in the direction of the Lexington room.
She took a breath before heading there herself, and Fred pinged her with the tonecode that indicated he was into the museum’s comm system and they could communicate. She sent back an acknowledgement code of her own, letting him know that she was there but had nothing unexpected to report so far.
Then, as she headed for the Lexington room, she got another ping, one she didn’t recognize. She shouldn’t be able to get pinged by anyone outside the team, not if Fred was doing his job, and she couldn’t imagine he would screw that up. Besides, if anyone knew she was here there would be alarms sounding and steel doors crashing down.
“Hi!” it said. “My name is Shale! Do you want to be friends?”
A Gavidarian name, and a pretty simple one. Maybe it was one of the school group who had noticed her after all? Well, they were going to be disappointed. Hera shelved the ping and peered into the room, making sure there wasn’t anyone present while she did things she didn’t want anyone to see.
Shale pinged again. “You’re going to want to talk to me.” Hera shelved it quickly again but didn’t block. She was too busy looking at all the plex in the room. If anything it was worse here than in the first room she’d come to. She didn’t know how she was going to deal with that, though maybe Fred would have some ideas. But find the damn thing first, worry about the plex second.
The exhibit was on the far wall, just where she expected it to be. She’d memorized the Gavidarian for “cooking equipment” before the mission, and it was easy to make out. The letters were large, and didn’t even look like most Gavidarian writing. It was a loan word from the Elrene, where Gavidarians had first encountered the concept of cooking, and they hadn’t just taken the word but the way to write it. (Also the planet, the three moons, and most of the population, but the Elrene weren’t Hera’s concern right now.)
It was a big display, and she didn’t see what she was looking for immediately. There were all sorts of Lexington cooking tools in it, with no logic Hera could make out as to why the Gavidarians found these particular things worthy of display. A slow cooker, a potato masher, seventeen different kinds of chopsticks (each single), a garlic press, a set of fancy napkin rings, a pizza stone, two fuzzy potholders, a hot sauce bottle in the shape of Lexington’s ancient water god, but no stick blender.
Where was the goddamn stick blender? Everything they knew said it should be here, in this museum, in this room, in this display. They’d traced it all the way from the home it was originally stolen from, through multiple Gavidarian families, an auction, and a donation they were pretty sure was just a cover for political corruption, to this place, right here, where right now there was no stick blender.
Hera slammed her hand into the plex. Why not? She couldn’t break it.
She looked around and eventually found the key to the display, in a big, closely-written panel on one wall. She’d tried to memorize several ways they thought Gavidarians might try to say “stick blender,” but finding one of them in such a thing was going to be impossible. Fortunately she had Fred, and Fred’s computers. She took a picture of it and pinged it to him through the station comms.
She felt very conspicuous waiting, but it was less than a minute before he pinged her back with a glyph she recognized as being part of the Gavidarian number system. She looked at the display again. Each piece had a glyph stuck next to it, presumably so visitors could match the object to the identification on the wall panel. She found the one that matched the glyph Fred had sent her, and sure enough, there was a space next to it just big enough to belong to a stick blender.
Another ping came in. “I told you you would want to talk to me.”
Shale. What the hell was Shale? She didn’t shelve this one but pinged Fred instead. “Any idea who Shale is? They keep pinging me.”
Fred sent back a confused negative meme. She’d have to figure this out herself. At this point, what could it hurt to respond? It was that or scrub the mission, and hope that somehow they’d be able to get in here again someday.
“OK,” she pinged Shale. “Who are you and what do you want?”
“I’m the station AI. I want to help you find the mangler of semi-soft foodstuffs.”
“The thing you’re looking for. I don’t know what you call it. That’s a literal translation from the Gavidarian.”
“The stick blender.”
“That’s a much better term.”
“Why would you want to help me find the stick blender?”
“Why not? You’re the most interesting thing that’s happened here in weeks.”
“Shouldn’t you be working with station security to keep me out?”
“I don’t like them. They’re jerks.”
“What if I’m also a jerk?”
“Then at least you’re a different jerk.”
Hera guessed she’d have to take that as good enough. Gavidarian security wasn’t the type to lay subtle traps and try to infiltrate an agent into your organization. If they knew she was here they’d just show up and try to arrest her. Besides, what other choice did she have?
“All right, where is it?”
“They took it for maintenance. In a workshop near where you came in.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that then?”
“Would you have believed me?” Shale had a point. If they had pinged her before she knew the stick blender wasn’t where she thought, she would have shelved it, or blocked it, or maybe even decided it was a trick, despite being more subtle than she’d ever known a Gavidarian to be.
“That was a pretty smooth way you got in, by the way,” Shale added. Hera wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so she just shelved the ping and made her way back through the museum to the employees-only door she had come in by. She didn’t encounter anyone in the exhibits this time, but the door was locked, and she had to spend a minute forcing it open. She was clumsy with her tools, and hoped she didn’t set off an alarm. Fred would have noticed, and he was silent.
Shale directed her to the second room on the left, an electronics workshop full of all sorts of equipment clearly manufactured by a dozen different cultures, spread haphazardly around the room. The artifacts were easy to identify, as the only things in the room that were meticulously organized and protected. The stick blender was actually attached to a Lexingtonian charger, and showed the green light of a full charge.
“They just got the charger in a few days ago,” said Shale. Hera shelved the message again. Maybe that was rude, but she didn’t have time for small talk, and what did she have to say to a Gavidarian AI anyway? She stashed the stick blender in the inside pocket of her jacket they’d made to conceal it on her way out, and considered the charger. It would be useful to have, but the secret pocket didn’t have any extra space, and she wasn’t sure where else it could go that it wouldn’t make a conspicuous bulge. It didn’t look special in any way. There were probably thousands of identical chargers floating around, easy to pick one up later if they needed one. She left it.
That was when she got the belated ping from Fred telling her that breaking into the maintenance area had set off an alarm after all. Where had he been in the meantime? Station security would surely be here any second, and there was only one way out of this room. Unlike on a human space station, Gavidarians didn’t feel the need for emergency exits. They could stand fire or vacuum for short periods of time. So Hera was trapped.
None of the maintenance equipment looked like it would be useful as a weapon against someone whose body was as hard as stone, so she started pulling open the protective containers of the other artifacts. If there wasn’t anything useful in there, maybe security would at least be distracted by trying to protect them.
There were a bunch of smaller containers surrounding a larger one, and she started breaking open the smallest ones closest to her. There wasn’t anything really useful in them, and she couldn’t bear to just pull out the artifacts and set them rolling on the floor. While she didn’t care if the Gavidarians got any good out of them, each of these might be important to some other colonized culture. Sure, most of the Lexingtonian artifacts would be unimportant to humans, but she had no way to tell what another culture might think was highly valuable, or even if some of them might have held hidden information like the stick blender she was sent in to retrieve. She imagined some Elrene on a similar mission, thwarted by her casual disregard, so she left the smaller artifacts in their containers, just moving them so she could get through to check on more.
She was almost to the large one when the door opened and two Gavidarians appeared in it, with similar inscribed patterns on their upper bodies that she presumed must be the uniform of station security. They were the largest adult Gavidarians she’d ever seen, and must have been very young, not too far beyond the symmetry ritual which marked adulthood in their race. They clearly were so new to this job that they had never rehearsed entering a room together in an emergency, so Hera had time to open the large artifact container while they were sorting themselves out at the door. She just hoped there was something worthwhile inside.
Whatever it was, it was warm. She flinched away from a wave of heat coming off of it as she opened the lid, like taking a pie out of a hot oven. If it was a pie at least she could throw it at them, though you couldn’t scald a Gavidarian with any level of heat a human could survive being in the same room with.
It wasn’t a pie. It was an egg. So obviously an egg that it was like a giant decoration of an egg: perfectly egg-shaped, bluish speckles on an off-white background, set in the container pointing straight up like you’d never see one in a nest. It was such a perfectly-designed egg that she wondered if it was really an egg at all. But with nothing better to do, she pulled it out of the container and rolled it toward the security guards.
It wobbled getting there, just like an egg would, and the first guard didn’t receive it very well. It bounced off him and headed for the other corner of the room, toward a piece of equipment that didn’t look like it would be a very friendly sort of landing place for any sort of egg, real or not. The second guard went after it, the first guard went after him, and the door was open for a moment. Hera lost no time getting out.
With the guards behind her there was still some possibility that she could get to Alistair’s shuttle. She wasn’t sure how to get there from here; all of her plans had been based on leaving from the Lexington room. But Fred had sent an updated station map to her system sometime in the middle of things, and she pulled it up as she ran, expecting the security team to be on her heels at any moment.
Then there were worrisome noises behind her, and she ran even faster, now scared more by whatever was making them than she had been by the two young Gavidarians.
She left the utility area in a different exhibit room than the one she’d been in before, this one full of taxidermied animals from some planet that must have been very, very hairy. This time she took a moment to prop the door open, though the noises behind it kept getting louder and more terrifying, not so much for Hera personally as for the integrity of the station. She didn’t want to think too hard about the possibility of having to go back in there, but she left the escape route clear for herself just in case.
She consulted the station map. OK, if she went through the colonial gemstone room, and cut through a utility door to cross over into the early Gavidarian history section, she’d be only three rooms from the docking complex and Alistair. She should be able to do that in about ten minutes.
From the noises behind her she hoped the station still had ten minutes.
She didn’t spare a glance for the gemstone room, though there might be a fortune in there, maybe the only thing in this museum anyone outside of Gavidarian space would value. She started to get out her tools to attack the utility door when Shale pinged her again offering to help.
“Where have you been?” she fired back, but put the tools away.
“Trying to keep my station together.”
“Is it working?”
The door slid open. “We’ve got it contained.”
Hera was about to ask what “it” was when she stepped through the door into a room of half-panicked Gavidarian schoolchildren. She assumed it was the same group from earlier, but they were in much less control this time, and the plex barriers were taking a beating. If all the artifacts in this room hadn’t been made of rock they could have been in serious danger.
As it was, the most fragile thing in the room was Hera herself. She dodged, trying to find a way through the group to the exit that led toward the docks. But there were chaotic rock bodies in motion everywhere around her. This time she could see the adult chaperones trying desperately to get the children under control. Unfortunately they could see Hera too.
The adults stopped to stare at her, and somehow this began to calm the children down as well. She gradually drew all of their attention, until the entire room full of rock people was focused on confronting her. Most of them were so useless they’d probably get in the way of those who weren’t, but there were so many of them the odds still weren’t good.
This would have been a good time to have a weapon or something. All Hera had was her wits, her interface, and a stick blender in her pocket, and the first two weren’t doing so well right now. So she took out the stick blender. Maybe they would think it was a weapon.
She pointed the business end of it at them with her thumb on the button, but they didn’t seem very effectively threatened. The chaperones started to move forward, and the children’s attention sharpened with the motion. Hera, in dire straits, pressed the button.
It made a little whirring noise, and she presumed the blades were spinning on the end facing the Gavidarians. It wasn’t very impressive. She looked at the controls to boost the power, then realized how ludicrous that thought was. Maybe if she was fast enough she could duck back through the utility door and get away somehow. While she was looking down, the room started shaking as dozens of Gavidarians moved at once and she knew she wouldn’t have time to get away.
She looked up, determined to face her end, even if it was in some weird avalanche of grade-schoolers. But they weren’t coming toward her, they were fleeing the room, carrying their chaperones with them. She looked behind her, expecting to see something even worse, but the rest of the room was empty. All she could think of was that she must have panicked them somehow with the stick blender. She was relieved and delighted for a moment, until she realized they were running headlong toward the docking bay.
She followed cautiously, hoping there might be some way past them, until she came within sight of the docks themselves. There she saw the avalanche of schoolchildren crowded around an airlock door, and behind it space and the sight of an aggressively-nondescript ship pulling away. She sighed and ducked back through the door into the museum space. There would be no getting out that way now.
Indeed, a moment later she got a ping from Alistair telling her how he’d been attacked by a squad of Gavidarian security and had to retreat. She didn’t bother correcting him, just shelved the ping and sent one of her own to both Shale and Fred. “Is there another way out of here?”
“The way you came in,” Shale sent back.
Right, the suit would still be stuck in a wall back on the other side of the station. She hoped she could find it. She hoped that whatever had been in that egg wasn’t waiting for her.
“I don’t have any better ideas,” sent Fred.
Hera shelved the conversation and started a new one with just Fred. He could tell Alistair what to do, she wasn’t in the mood. “Move to a higher orbit,” she sent, “and wait for me to rendezvous.” He sent a silent acknowledgement, and she began to retrace her steps.
She sent a new ping to Shale. “Am I safe to go back to the suit? Can you help me find it?”
The map in her interface got a new x on it that looked like it was about where she came in, but Shale didn’t respond otherwise. Great.
Shale hadn’t bothered to close the utility door to the gemstone room, and the door to the maintenance area was still propped open as she had left it, so at least she made it back quickly. Once she was back into the plain hallways there was clearly a lot more damage than she had ever caused, but whatever was responsible for it seemed to have moved on. She mentally ran through every luck-related ritual she knew from a half-dozen planets, and made her way to where the suit was on the map.
Whether the rituals did any good or not, the wall where Shale indicated her space suit was had escaped undamaged. They hadn’t planned an exit this way, and she wasn’t sure how to get the space suit out of the wall so she could get into it again, but when she pounded on the wall it slowly slid just far enough out, like it had been waiting for her. The Beta 9 engineers hadn’t mentioned that feature, but she was glad for it all the same.
The suit’s special twisting and turning was more painful going out than coming in, especially because she couldn’t see where she was going. Halfway through she could feel her connection to the station feed cut off, and Shale hadn’t even said goodbye. She hoped they could manage whatever chaos was still happening, and whatever punishment their bosses would have in store for helping her. Hera had known her share of Gavidarian punishment and wouldn’t wish it on anyone else, even though she couldn’t imagine the specifics of what they would do to an AI.
She shelved the station map in her interface and replaced it with the planetary orbital map. The getaway ship should still be close enough to get data from. Sure enough its icon showed up, in an orbit she thought she could match without too much trouble. And the space around them was mercifully clear. Whatever trouble the station was having, any emergency assistance that had been dispatched wasn’t close to arriving.
There was some fresh debris from the station farther up the orbital path from Hera, along the natural route to accelerate and lengthen her own orbit to match the getaway ship’s. Whatever had come out of that egg had done enough damage to shake things loose, though it wasn’t yet a major navigational hazard. Instead she kicked out straight away from the station at the same altitude for a hundred meters, just to make sure she was clear before changing her orbit. The ship could make that up easily on its way out.
She wasn’t the only thing leaving the station. Out by the debris something poked its way out of the superstructure, like a giant arm, and flexed. Then a head on a long neck followed it. Hera had been sad, a little bit, that whatever had hatched from the egg she rolled at the security team, she hadn’t been there to watch it come out. Given the noises, not sorry, but a little bit sad.
Now she got to watch it hatch from the space station instead. It wasn’t just an arm, but a wing, with leathery membranes connecting the arm bones. It didn’t have a suit, or any equipment she could see. It was just living perfectly well in space.
Then it moved a wing, and the rest of its long body slid out of the station. The snakish body was so black it was almost invisible once there was space behind it, but the wings were red, and the head had a bright green crest that luminesced slightly. It flapped its wings and moved farther away from the station, turning so Hera could see all of it.
You are not supposed to be able to move in space by flapping your wings was her first thought, and she resisted an insane urge to go lecture it on basic physics. You couldn’t give physics lessons to things that weren’t real, and space dragons weren’t real. Well, you could probably give physics lectures to things that weren’t real, but it wouldn’t instill confidence in your co-workers.
Speaking of which, Alistair pinged her. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”
Fred joined in. “A space dragon? Because I think I’m seeing a space dragon.”
Alistair. “Where did a space dragon come from?”
Hera. “It was a distraction.”
Alistair. “You let loose a space dragon?”
Fred. “On purpose?”
Hera. “I didn’t know what it was. It was just an egg. Besides, space dragons aren’t real.”
Alistair. “Then you won’t mind that this thing that isn’t real is between you and the rendezvous.”
That was not encouraging. She tried to think of everything she’d heard about space dragons, but none of it was believable. Of course, once you admitted existence, maybe some of the other legends were also true. What they had in common were dangerous and untrustworthy and tastes like chicken but she hoped not to have to explore that last one. Any of them, really. Maybe it would just go away.
Fred pinged in again. “Those things are animals. Even though they breathe space, they’re animals.”
“So?” asked Hera, hoping that there was some implied solution in there she didn’t see.
“So we’re the only thing in local space that’s made out of food.”
Great. Of course the thing wouldn’t eat Gavidarians, unless it needed gullet stones or something. Maybe it already had. Maybe their last living moments would be spent being digested by friction between those Gavidarian security guards. Hera could tell she was scared, not because she thought that, but because she didn’t immediately share it with Alistair.
Pointing a stick blender at this thing and hoping wasn’t going to cut it. She checked the suit manual’s index for Space Dragon: Encounter With because it would have been just like those Beta 9 guys to have prepared for this, but no such luck. They would just have to wing it. Hera’s zero-g instructor would have said “we never wing it, wings don’t work in space.” But she was wrong, wasn’t she?
Maybe the wings were a weakness. They didn’t look like a weakness, the thing didn’t look like it had weaknesses. But the leather membranes blocked out the stars, and if Hera couldn’t see through them, maybe the dragon couldn’t see through them either. If she just waited for the right moment, maybe she could boost while she was hidden by a wing, and just maybe the dragon wouldn’t be able to tell she was there.
It was that or hang there hoping not to be noticed until the dragon found something better to do, and who knew how long that would be? She resolved to try it, and set her cold thrusters to manual control, with a high-resistance trigger and a super-sensitive shutoff. She didn’t want them running unless she definitively told them to.
They weren’t quite in the same orbit, the dragon closer to the station. And it was watching the station itself, so turned partway away from her already. Gradually she could see its left wing getting closer to blocking the head from her perspective. She reminded herself that it didn’t just need to eclipse where she was, but also where she was going to be. So she waited and waited even after she couldn’t see the head anymore, hoping the dragon wouldn’t move while she was waiting.
Finally she thought it was safe enough and hit the cold thrusters, just a momentary burst at first, enough to give her a little bit of way relative to the station, and the dragon. It didn’t seem to notice. Hera let herself drift, and didn’t seem to be making any progress against the shadow of the wing so far. Unfortunately she also wasn’t making much progress at getting away. Could she hit the thrusters harder? She wished she knew how fast the thing could move.
One way or another she was going to have to do something. If she boosted hard now, maybe she could get behind the dragon before she left the shadow of the wings, and maybe once she was behind it she could move more, and maybe with that much velocity she could make it to the ship in time to get away. Then again, maybe the assumption that the ship was safe from the dragon wasn’t a good one. It had certainly done a lot of damage hatching from the station.
At some point you just have to stop worrying, hit go, and hope for the best. Hera pushed down hard on the cold thruster controls, and began building up momentum, boosting her orbit faster and higher to match the getaway ship’s. And then she passed out of the shadow of the dragon’s wing, and instead of its back caught the silver shine of an eye looking directly at her.
She stopped wishing she knew how fast it was in that moment, because it was very, very fast. It had spun on its axis and launched to intercept in a fraction of a second. However those wings worked, they were incredible, and beautiful, and not very many seconds from catching her.
She switched to hot thrusters, speed being more important than stealth now, but even at maximum boost she wasn’t gaining space on the dragon. It was close, but she thought it was still gaining on her.
She wasn’t just gaining space on the getaway ship, she was passing it before Alistair belatedly started thrusting to widen his own orbit. If they somehow still made a rendezvous it was going to be much farther from the planet than they had planned.
Then the dragon passed the ship, not even distracted by it. Maybe it thought it was the most boring ship in the galaxy too, though she supposed it was the only ship it had ever seen. Where was the other orbital traffic? Where were the emergency ships that should have been sent to help the museum? Space here was uselessly empty.
There was a rocket flare from the ship, something headed for the dragon. Surely that thing wasn’t armed? Alistair hadn’t had enough money to rent a privateer ship, even if she could imagine one ever looking like that.
It must not have been an explosive, because when it hit the dragon it bounced. But at least it got the dragon’s attention, and it turned to investigate the ship, abandoning the chase for Hera. She cut her thrusters; she wasn’t going anywhere without that ship anyway.
Alistair reversed thrust and the ship started backing off. When the dragon had almost reached it there was a huge cloud of debris. Surely it couldn’t have done anything to the ship, it hadn’t even gotten there yet. Slowly things drifted apart, and she could make out the ship, intact, behind the debris cloud and the dragon. Whatever the stuff was in the middle, the dragon seemed more interested in it than it was in the ship. Alistair started to slowly accelerate out of its way, and the dragon didn’t pay him any mind.
Hera figured she shouldn’t joggle the pilot, so pinged Fred, “What is that stuff?”
“This thing was full of cabbages.”
Maybe they weren’t the only thing in local space made of food after all. All over local space now, as the dragon was a messy eater and they were vectoring off everywhere. She didn’t know space dragons liked cabbages more than humans, but after all it was a baby space dragon, maybe it didn’t know either.
She was glad to get into the ship’s airlock, and breathed a sigh of relief. The dragon seemed like it had plenty of time to spend cabbage-chasing, and the Gavidarians certainly had something much bigger to worry about than her team. She double-checked that she still had the stick blender. However far the mission had gone off plan, at least they had completed it successfully, and with no lasting complications. She sent Alistair a ping to let him know she was safely aboard, shelved his acknowledgement, and got another ping from an unidentified location. Strange.
“This suit has a lot of storage space,” said Shale. “Who built it for you, anyway?”
Read Chapter 2 of Hera of Lexington.
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