The following is the first chapter of a story for NaNoWriMo. It's also a first draft.
They were doing what they always did before a run: They were together in the ship's barracks pulling on their gear, lacing up boots, making sure all of the seals were air-tight on their mask, goggles, helmet, all of which snapped together into one coherent piece.
Bex stood in the middle of them all, she had already been dressed and as their Captain, was generally supposed to be ready at all times. The photon handcannon at her hip, something that Skae had constructed for her, was always present. As far as she was concerned, they were always at war.
"Sure wish we were back on Zora," said Whims, the fat-faced eunuch who Bex had rescued from a farm ship about four years ago. "I was just beginning to feel like the sun was a real thing."
"All kinds of suns out there," said Bex, jerking her thumb through the bulkheads in the general direction of space.
"Not the same and you know it," Whims scoffed in his soft-spoken, high-pitched voice. He showed the signs of captivity the most. He was engineered for size, seven feet of it, but he ran towards fat, because he was also engineered for the right amount of marbling. But he worked as hard as anyone, and his strength was often an asset. He could not really help that he was the largest of them. He had been the hardest to deprogram, and several times during his initiation, Skae had recommended throwing him out of the airlock.
Bex saw the Rashrati at the back of the room, watching them with inscrutable lidless eyes. Skae was the ship's engineer, and the reason they held together in space at all was entirely due to his own mastery of the components of the ship. He had equipped himself much the same as the rest of them, except he wore his multi-tool around his left wrist. Part security tool, part computer, part matter creator, he would be essential to them getting in and out and making it through this alive.
His photon rifle, which he had named Ikele for some reason, was currently collapsed, over his left shoulder.
Skae gave her a slow, unblinking nod. He was solid.
That left the remaining two.
Nod was their eldest. He had been the one to rescue her, a debt she could never repay. He had been naturally raised, which was a rare thing these days. He had the best overall combat skills, not that combat was of much use against the Takers. Still carrying that heavy plasma laser, bit and scorched from use. They'd wrestled it from the Takers in their escape, since the only thing that seemed to work on the Takers was their own technology. He had a bandolier of power packs across his chest, clearly prepared to throw down heat, but locked one of them into the plasma laser and gave Bex a sawtoothed grin.
"You know I'm ready, Captain," he said.
That left little Zee. A small, long-tailed climber with near-human features, and hands, although she only had three fingers and one thumb on both hands.
Zee made tiny squeaks, and chewed on her furry back leg. One hand adjusted the harness that Bex had made for her, and checked the tiny little bomblets that had been attached to the harness, ready for her use.
Zee was an unconventional demolitions expert, but would be incredibly effective at deploying her payload. It was mostly a game for her, despite the deadly seriousness of the crew's mission. But Murials did not really worry about death, or anything else. Worrying wasn't even in their vocabulary.
And then there was the ship herself. Bex and Nod had named her The Defiant. It was a craft repurposed from the Takers, one of their transport crafts for the numerous species they enslaved and bred for their own consumption.
"Intercept course for Jump engaged. Trajectory of target vessel will intersect with ours in two minutes," the ship said, in her cool, mechanical, feminine voice.
"Don't be nervous, Bex," Nod said, with a reassuring grin. She gave him a hard, even look in return. She hated the Jump, and Nod knew that, too, but she would appreciate it if he didn't make a point of bringing it up in front of the crew every time. Nod saw the flint in her gray eyes, and raised one hand in surrender and apology. But the faint grin still hung around his lips.
The old ones were often inscrutable, and though she did not appreciate his insubordination (would it kill him to call her Captain?), there were few enough of humanity who survived to the ripe old age of thirty. She could afford to stomach his eccentricities.
She just wasn't sure she'd stomach the Jump.
Humanity had been very pleased with itself when it discovered the ability to initiate a Jump and leap across the wormhole it created in space. What gods they must have felt like, she thought.
But it was not long before they discovered that jumpspace was a place that other species had discovered long, long, long before humanity was even making fire. Before humanity even existed.
The Takers, unfortunately for humanity, spent a great deal of their existence within the Jump. Humankind had a limited tolerance for it, but the Takers seemed capable of existing there indefinitely.
Which was why they now had to make a quick jump, with perfect timing. What they were planning was risky, and even though they had done it before, many times, that did not make Bex feel any better about it. The smallest miscalculation and the best case scenario was that they would miss the Taker craft entirely--the worst was that they would plummet right into the side of the Taker vessel, or go too far and end up inside of a supergiant sun on some far corner of the galaxy.
They had been lucky so far, but the rescue crews typically counted their successful missions on one hand before they met their end in the Jump. If they were lucky, they died before the Takers could get to them.
Bex tried to quiet down her misgivings, find the place within her where there was her center.
"We could bring the others out of cryo," suggested Whims. "We could use the muscle."
"No," Bex said. "We've done it with a team of five before. And as much as we value your muscles, Sergeant, this isn't really a muscle job. You know that."
"We've never done it without Kase before," Whims persisted.
"We did before you were on the crew. Besides, Kase is wounded," Bex snapped. "He's taking some well-deserved R&R. Plus the nanites haven't finished patching him up. If we survive this, we'll need him later. If we don't survive this, he'll appreciate dying in his sleep."
Nod started to chuckle. Bex gave him another look, but he was mostly immune to any attempts to stifle his sense of humor. "You and I both know," he said, "That's a lie."
It was, and she shook her head, determined to be stern and angry, and failing. She stopped holding on tight for a moment, letting the nerves go, shivering out a deep breath, and a faint smile came with it. "His insistence at being a part of every mission...I get it," she said. "But it's why he got hurt in the first place. He pushes too hard."
Skae spoke up this time. "He is reckless. It will be nice to complete a mission without him going off on an errand of revenge against the Takers, and almost getting us all killed."
Whims shrugged. "He sure makes a hell of a distraction."
"So do Zee's explosives," Bex countered. "Look...we have a team of five. We can do it with five. And we have to be adaptable. You can't rely on anyone to be alive when you need them to be. You all know that by now."
There was no argument at that. Every one of them knew what it was like to be helpless and watch as those you'd come to love were sent off to slaughter. The memories and regrets came hard at that, never far from the surface. They all knew what it felt like to be raised for food, to watch your friends become food, knowing that your day would soon come.
But each of them had escaped that fate. And unlike most of the rescued humans they would pull off of this ship, they chose to go back to their place of imprisonment, their place of torment, over and over again, to free others.
Bex understood why Whims wished they were still on Zora. It's what they continued to work for, continued to build--a sanctuary, a home for humanity, for the Rashrati, for the Murials like Zee, and all of the other species that had been earmarked by the Takers as food. They spent only enough time there to refuel and get a day or two of R&R before heading back out again.
Some rescue crews returned and vowed never to return, promising to serve Zora in some other way. No one could blame them.
The Defiant was the pride of Zora. Under Bex's leadership, they had successfully completed nineteen rescues--a number three times as high as the next ship in humanity's rickety fleet, Lady Luck.
But it also meant that her crew kept busy, and spent very little time on the homeworld they had struggled for so long to build.
And that led to another reason Kase was camping out in cryo, one she would not share with the others. He had been on the last twelve rescues, and had grown increasingly erratic with each one. Even when they stopped to rest on Zora, he barely left the ship. He could not wait to get back out there.
It had led to his injury, and they had barely hauled his comatose near-corpse back to the safety of the ship with their rescues in tow and escaped in time.
Skae had suggested leaving him behind, asserting the odds that there was no way they would all make it back to the ship and escape the Takers if they had to drag Kase's dead weight.
It had turned out that Skae had been wrong, and they had beaten the odds. It had been a near mutiny that trip, but in the end Skae had accepted her leadership, as he always did.
But it had been close. Very close. And Skae told her privately that if Kase was on their next mission, then the tech-savvy Rashrati would not be.
So she'd left him in cryo, and decided to take Zee in his place. Zee had been a new recruit, but the Murials were crafty and resourceful, and Zee in particular had always had a fondness for Bex, after she had rescued her and six of her friends from a Taker ship during the last Zoran cycle.
What was that...eight rescues ago? Had it really been that long?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the ship. "Trajectory of target vessel approaching. Fifty-nine seconds until Jump."
"Shit," she said, muttered under her breath. She'd like to think the Jump was the worst part, but it wasn't. It was only the beginning.
"Equipment check," said Nod. "Everyone got oxygen?"
Zee wouldn't, but Zee didn't actually need to breathe.
Everyone else switched on the oxygen, securing their masks tightly. The time to check for leaks had really been long before their ETA with the Taker ship, but better late than never.
To her relief, everyone confirmed that their life support was functioning properly.
"Weapons loaded?" asked Nod, and each of them did another check of their weaponry.
"We're good," Bex said, noticing the readout on her HUD. "Brace yourselves."
"Ten seconds until Jump. Nine. Eight. Seven..."
They all strapped themselves in. Zee came over and curled herself around Bex's neck, fingers digging tight into the scarf she was wearing.
"Three. Two. One. Jump initiated."
And with a horrifying lurch, and a shudder, the feeling of vertigo, of directionlessness, as the stars and bulkheads of the ship peeled back and folded and the gibbering screams of madness clawed at her ears and battered her face, the ship and everything in it seemed to fold in half, and then expand outward in size and distance even greater than it had been before.
It felt like being torn in half, and all rational thought being torn apart with it.
Bex ground her eyes tightly shut. She'd learned the hard way that keeping them open was an invitation to madness.
And then the disorientation was over and there they were, drifting in jumpspace alongside the Taker ship, more massive than any she'd seen before.
"Nice work, Skae," she said.
"The ship did the real work," he said.
"But you wrote the algorithms. Don't be so modest. The only reason any of us can do this is because of you."
There was no way of reading Skae's expression, but the flit of his tail seemed pleased.
"Time's a wasting," she said. "Let's move!"
The ship began maneuvering itself towards the Taker vessel, and they all moved for the airlock, weapons out and ready. It was time to go to work.