This is a sample chapter for the forthcoming novel “Escape from Red Tower” by Ira Heinichen – release date is tentatively scheduled for February 2018. Please keep in mind this is from a ROUGH DRAFT…so there will be typos and whatnot. ENJOY! 🙂
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The raiders were standing right above them, and Barry had to sneeze.
There were three of them, and they were so close Barry could see their greasy, dirt-stained skin underneath their mishmash of self-made armor that clinked and jingled as they tentatively made their way down the main corridor of the Red Robert. These were the third group of raiders in as many days to board the crippled Red Robert. They held their black weapons high on their chests, and stepped ever so carefully, crouched low. So close were these intruders, that it was impossible not to smell them, a mix of sweat, grease, and whatever horrendous food they last ate. It was that musty, sour smell that was tickling Barry’s nose and threatening to expose them all.
He lifted a finger to his nostrils in a desperate attempt to stop the noxious flow of air, and the rustle of his clothing earned him a dagger-ed look from Suzy. Balta crouched behind her ridiculously, her round frame cramped into the tiny space beneath the deck grating, and looking very much like a pancake stuffed into a sewing thimble. Barry thought back to when it had just been the children hiding down in this crawl space that led to the ventilation system; it had been incredible they had fit down there. That Balta had squeezed herself in these same cramped quarters was a minor miracle.
Or very stupid.
Barry felt the sneeze coming, and he realized with horror that there was nothing that he could do about it. The sneeze was happening. It swelled from deep in the back of his nose and pulled tingling up from his chest. The stuttered inhale the followed made the raiders freeze above him. That made Barry’s heart skip a beat and he squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the sneeze to finish and bellow forth, ruining everything. He could hear the curses Suzy and Balta were thinking like shouts.
…But the tingle remained instead, stuck halfway from the deepest recesses of his nostrils and his mouth, and he was left holding his breath. The raider on top of him glowered back and forth, crouched defensively, listening. It felt like the ship itself held its breath, and waited.
By the time they finally, blessedly moved on, Barry was light-headed. He let out his pent-up breath as slowly and silently as he was able and finally dared to look at Suzy. She was white-faced and shaking her head, but relieved.
The raiders were a few paces further down the grating now, and standing directly on top of the sweating captain. He saw Balta flex her fingers on her precious golden gun, looking oh so lonely without its twin companion—that gun was in the hands of Haber, deeper in the ship. Barry gripped his own makeshift weapon with both of his hands. It had barely enough power in its tiny cobbled-together energy pack to push someone to the ground…but it was better than nothing.
The halted tickle was still alive in his nose, but it was lessening as the intruders receded down the hallway. They passed over the hiding captain of the Red Robert and continued cautiously down the curve of the hallway, and then blessedly out of sight. Suzy and Barry both looked at the hiding Balta, her face up against the grating. She had the best vantage point to keep eyes on the progress of the pirates. She hadn’t yet made a move.
Barry ran the plan through in his head. It was the second time they’d be trying this drill, turning the tables on their would-be thieves. They’d drifted and appeared to be abandoned, hid when the pirate ship came into contact and boarded, and now they’d jump out and pin them into a deep section of the ship while Colossus rummaged through their ship for parts and devices.
Barry looked away from Balta at the gangplank airlock that the pirates had attached their grappling hatch to and boarded through. Set neatly in the hallway corner by that airlock was a rather large, shiny, chrome metal box. If one were to look closely at it, as Barry was doing now, one might think something of it. It was so clean, so shiny, completely unlike the dingy, grimy floors and walls around it. But the pirates hadn’t noticed it. They’d walked right past it, keeping an eye out for threats made of flesh and blood. Their mistake.
Barry recounted the raiding parties they’d suffered over the past several days, or was it weeks now? The first they’d been completely unprepared for, Balta and her crew of Barry, Suzy, Haber and Colossus. The implosion of their starstuff at high speed had been catastrophic, disabling their core and nearly breaking the ship in half. The raiders had caught them in the middle of trying to make repairs to the hull. It was a task Barry had found to be imminently uncomfortable with the hot torches, sharp edges of scrap metal, and the bulky EV suits. He was still trying to scrub himself clean of the sweat and bandage-strip all the nicks and gouges to his skin. But, the fractures to the hull had been impossible to ignore. They’d been losing atmosphere and all their power, and sent out a call for help; the EV suits had given them the air to seal up the ship one section at a time. And then the raiders had come.
The first group took pretty much everything except their lives. Balta said they were lucky in that regard. She’d wounded several of them, despite being taken by surprise, but they hadn’t shot back or seemed interested in a firefight. They’d overwhelmed them with sheer numbers instead, dozens of them, and they’d tied them up, including Colossus and Haber. They picked the ship clean of its most crucial technology: the food constitutor and most of its stores, their long-range radio, the heads-up display in the cockpit, their weapons, and most devastatingly of all…their star drive core, which Balta had been working on fixing.
It was their distress beacon that had drawn those pirates to them, but rather than turn it off and lick their wounds after that first devastating raid went down, Balta had insisted they keep it on and draw more raiders to them. It wasn’t immediately clear to Barry why she’d wanted to do so, but things got dire very quickly after that. Haber had been able to scrounge enough parts from the second food constitutor to get it half-working, enough to make cold fold anyway, much to Barry’s despair…but they had only food enough for another week or so, at most. And less than that in water and battery power to keep them warm.
Balta’s solution: lure in more of those damned raiders, and take back what had been stolen from them.
The first try at this dangerous gambit had been an unmitigated disaster. The raiders had been too fast, and they’d immediately started ripping everything in the ship apart…including their hiding places. They’d never had a chance to send Colossus to the other ship, and they’d lost more equipment. The raiders had nearly taken Haber, who they seemed very interested in, until Balta had showed them their medical bay and its healing equipment. They’re stripped that bare instead.
Now, the crew of the Red Robert had a second chance.
Barry noted that this group of raiders seemed much more cautious and slow than the last. That was good. And, most importantly, they hadn’t found anyone yet; Colossus, the hiding humans, or Haber, who was their lure in his hiding place, deeper in the ship.
Confident now that there were no more raiders to emerge from the hatch opening to their ship, Balta silently moved a hand from her gun, slipped into one of her deep trench coat pockets, and emerged with the small, silver cylinder. It was the comm-link she used to communicate with Colossus. She keyed in a couple quick commands. Barry whipped his gaze back in the other direction towards the shiny metal box by the airlock door. It began to move.
Barry watched with his heart pounding in his chest as the box unfolded itself; one long stalk, then a second, uncurling in three or four sections, then two more protrusions growing out to the side. Those pressed down against the floor, and the box stood up on two thick metal legs. A head popped out from the top, and Colossus was standing in the hallway. Despite their dire circumstances, with actual pirates on their ship and all, Barry couldn’t help but think that it was awesome that Colossus could fold himself and hide like that. Balta had called it ‘storage mode.’ Barry wished he had a ‘storage mode,’ one that would make crouching beneath the deck like this less ache-inducing.
Colossus took a heavy step forward, and Balta hissed at her chrome companion. “Quiet!”
She was unfolding herself too, grunt by grunt, from beneath the deck grating. She had the section of deck grating above her head lifted with two thick hands, and she slid it ever so gently behind her. Barry had seen Balta move precisely when she needed to, and this was one of those times. With a few silent grunts and screwy expressions running over her ruddy face, she hoisted herself back into the hallway and then motioned for Suzy and Barry to follow her out.
“It’s time,” she said, eyes flashing.
Colossus was standing hesitantly looking at the trio of humans, which Balta caught, and with an annoyed and urgent wave she motioned for him to make his way through the open airlock door and into the intruder’s ship beyond. It was Suzy’s time to wrinkle her nose as a draft from that other ship breezed into where they were standing.
“It smells like rotten gropples over there,” she said.
“I don’t know what that is,” Balta said back, giving her gold gun a once over.
“Oh, gropples are these delicious fruits about this big,” Barry explained, making a fist and running his other hand over it to show the size of the Indacaran fall-season fruit. “You can make pies with them, or just have them by themsel—”
“I wasn’t asking for an explanation,” Balta said with a click of her gun, indicating it was ready to spit fire. She pointed with her eyes to Barry’s gun, which he’d put in the crook of his elbow to make his grapple demonstration. “Keep your finger ready by that trigger, kid.”
Barry sighed, and did as he was told. He talked when he was nervous. Too often that habit made those around him more anxious as well. It was a vicious cycle, one he didn’t really know how to break. He put the make-shift weapon back into his right hand and took a deep breath to try and slow the pounding in his chest.
“I thought you were going to get us all caught with that sneeze,” Suzy whispered at Barry’s side, just loud enough for him to hear.
Colossus lumbered away as quietly as he could, which wasn’t very, into the stench of the raider’s ship. He disappeared out of sight to hunt for valuables, first and foremost being a new core.
“Move out,” the captain said once the robot was gone. She raised her gun, and it gleamed in the low light. “Let’s show these bastards who runs this ship.”