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Today's Story by Melissa Kirkpatrick

Searchers will be there within 3 hours. We are locking down the facility in the interim. Expect questioning and disciplinary action.

Maintaining Her Hold

The lights faded out on the console, cuing Alika that she had waited too long to respond.  Their words had struck her forcefully and sent her into a reverie.  She should have expected them to track him this far, but she had hoped he was careful enough they couldn’t.  Foolish of her – Darian was never careful.

They would know from her lack of response that they had hit a nerve somewhere inside her.  She could only hope they were on the wrong track about exactly why.

“Damn,” she muttered.  “Way to slip up in simplicity, Alika.  All this elaborate planning and now you tip your hand.  Great.  Good job.  Brilliant.  Fantastic.”

She decided to respond honestly… that is, with a grain of truth.  “Yes,” she typed, “Darian Astani has been here.  I confess I allowed him to hide for one night.  I didn’t have the heart to turn him in… he was a friend of mine a long time before the wars… it was foolish of me to do that at all, but I made him leave when I came to my senses.  That was two mornings ago.”

She could practically feel the upheaval on the other end.  They would be sending searchers any moment.

But Darian would be safe.  She had taken extra measures this time.  He was well hidden in the ship, near a heat source that would shield his own heat signature, and in a deep drug-induced coma that would keep him from reacting even if they did come near.  That last part was the most important.  Darian never could keep his cool.

Their message came through at last.  “Alika, this is unacceptable.  Searchers will be there within 3 hours.  We are locking down the facility in the interim.  Expect questioning and disciplinary action.”

“So noted,” she typed back, then sat back with a sigh.  She pressed a panel on her right and a sequence of menu items, resulting in a whiskey delivered one minute later.  She had long ago hacked the system to allow that even during working hours.  No one had said anything, though she was sure the logs still showed her orders.

“It’s a beautiful life.”

Alika had been hiding fugitives for years, and making excellent money doing so.  She was damn good at it.  She wasn’t going to make any money from hiding Darian, but she would be rewarded nonetheless.  She was glad she had had so much practice over the last few years, thanks to the increasing heavy-handedness of the dictatorship — all that practice added up to a perfect plan today, for the most important of occasions.

It helped her feel at ease to know that she was invaluable to the dictatorship, too.  Barring their actually finding the fugitive on board, it was unlikely that she would be truly reprimanded.  No one in the empire could do the things she could do for them.

She sipped her whiskey down, lost in thought, and finally decided on a nap while she waited.  She couldn’t go anywhere, so she curled up on a bench in the back of the console room.

When the searchers came in, she got up groggily, then saluted.

“Alika Broadman?”

“Yes, sir.”  She stifled a yawn.

“We have some questions for you.”

“Permission requested to order coffee, sir.”

“Permission granted.  At ease.”

Alika walked over to the ordering panel and reversed her earlier drink order.  “Whatever mood you need,” she mused to herself, “you can get in a cup.”

She sat down across from the searchers.  The questions began.  She wasn’t too worried and kept her cool even as she was winging it, improvising the story as she answered their questions.  She knew hiding fugitives was unacceptable in any light, but she also knew there was little they could do to her.  She was already living out what amounted to a life sentence of servitude here on this station.

Finally they trickled out.  Next would be the reprimand, she thought.

Instead the searchers stood up at a signal from the questioner.  She blinked up at them.

“Alika Broadman, you are hereby under arrest, per the authority of special order X0967XC17.  Come with us.”

“What?!” she exclaimed in disbelief.  “I have work to do!  If I don’t maintain this station, it will disintegrate under the forces of gravity.  It’s our highest producer.  Don’t you realize what I do here???”

The man just nodded.  The searchers put her in restraints and began walking her toward the doorway.

“You see, Ms. Broadman, harboring a fugitive is treason.  You’ve had a lot of special privileges given to you because of your unique abilities, but the council has decided that because of who this particular fugitive is, and therefore the severity of your crime, that you must be made an example.  The value of this station, substantial to be sure, is nothing compared to the impact it will have when everyone sees that even you, the Emperor’s little pet, is held to the law.”

She gaped in disbelief.  “Does the Emperor know what you’re doing?”  He couldn’t, she was sure.  No way he would let this station go.

“An astute question… the council is none too fond of the Emperor at the moment, you see.  What better way to make him see that we mean business than to ensure he no longer has his best producing station and his little pet?”

Alika’s shock overwhelmed her and she dropped to her knees.  She hadn’t considered the politics of the dominion in years… and now they had caught up with her in a very personal way.  The searchers picked her up and carried her between them as if she were still walking.

“But… but…” try as she might, Alika could marshal no further defense.  The grain of truth she had told had been too much.  Darian and everyone else on this station would die, crushed into oblivion, because of one error… because of her… because she had thought she was safe from consequences.

They put her in the shuttle brig.  She blinked back tears furiously and tried to focus her energies on maintaining the station, which she could see through the shuttle windows, for as long as she could.  It was too much to hope that Darian would somehow awaken and get out, but she was going to try to give him as much chance as she could.

The shuttle sped away ever faster from the station.  She could feel her mental grip gradually loosening its hold.  Tears welled up as the connection slipped further away.  Through her tears, she thought she saw another shuttle leaving the station, a tiny dot of light moving away from it.  Maybe, just maybe, Darian had gotten out.  Maybe one of her servants had helped him.  Alika prayed for the first time in her life – please, please, please, let that tiny dot of light be Darian.

The station began to crumple agonizingly into itself.  It was horrific, the groaning metal being twisted and compacted into shapes that should never exist.

But that was nothing.  Alika could only watch in horror as the dot of light she had hoped and prayed was Darian slipped back toward the destruction – it was too close to the event horizon.  She tried to reach out with her mind and propel them away from the danger.  All her energy was screaming back toward the black hole.  She felt her heart racing dangerously.

She kept trying until she felt something crumpling in her.  She fell gracelessly to the floor of the brig, staring blankly at the emptiness.


Melissa Kirkpatrick is a writer and editor in Colorado Springs, CO.  Most of her words are owned by ghosts, but occasionally a few are snatched from the ether.


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