This is a revision of my winning entry in Short Story Competition 22, the theme of which was a Chase.
Virgil Lambreaux was a dead man, and he knew it. He had nearly a sixteen hour lead, but there was no possibility of escape.
His fate was sealed the moment he walked into the Icarus Base transport bay and recognized the brunette near the cargo lockers. “Rissa! What brings you down here of all places?” He hurried toward her, but his grin faltered at the cold glare she gave him as she turned and pointed at him. He dove to the deck and scrambled for cover behind a crate. A searing pulse from the plasma pistol in her hand barely missed his head and charred an elliptical pit in the deck plate. He crawled quickly between a loading jack and a mobile welder. Rissa cursed loudly from near where he had been standing.
Virgil moved behind the welder, and silently picked up a wrench left by one of the workers. His stomach tightened as he saw a motionless figure on the floor nearby. The smell of burned hair invaded his nose and his stomach lurched. Sensing movement behind him, he spun around. The wrench struck Rissa’s elbow. The plasma pistol jerked away, and then swung back toward him.
He swung the wrench again, hard, and felt bones crunch. Blood from Rissa’s head soaked Virgils hand, and she crumpled to the deck. Virgil gripped the side of the welder unsteadily, and retched convulsively.
This was not the Rissa Swan he thought he knew, had admired and flirted with. Surprisingly, her attempt to kill him dampened his attraction toward her. She had also killed three workers in the transport bay, and had been breaking into one of the cargo lockers when he arrived.
Rissa had always been passionately outspoken in condemning her notorious father, Colby Swan, who was widely believed to be in control of most of the organized criminal activity in this region of the Belt.
The cargo lockers along the wall were airtight safes for valuables. The one Rissa had been working on was damaged but still secured. Whatever she was after, it had to be worth a lot, judging by the carnage she had inflicted.
But Rissa was Colby Swan’s daughter, and he would take Virgil’s life for ending hers. So Virgil picked out the fastest scout vessel in the bay, and fled for his life.
An hour out from Icarus, he berated himself over his decision. He’d have stood a better chance losing himself among the population of the base. The ion-driven scout ship was leaving a trail of charged atoms that could easily be tracked, no matter what course he followed. And as fast as the scout ship was, there were faster ships, especially if his pursuer had the resources of Colby Swan.
It was too late to turn back. Rissa’s corpse could already have been discovered. Virgil closed his eyes and tried to dispel the image of her lovely body, mutilated through his actions. But it was self-defense! he thought. She was about to kill me. His conscience answered with a single word, repeated insistently: murderer. Virgil sobbed, and began a frantic search for cached booze or drugs. But there was no oblivion to be found. He altered his course toward a dense cluster of asteroids and cometary debris, hoping against hope to find a hiding place among the drifting rocks and ice. Then he curled up in a fetal position and slept fitfully.
Eighteen hours out from Icarus, Virgil was torn awake from a nightmare by a deep voice, as smooth and dangerous as an oiled dagger. “You may as well shut down your drive now. You cannot outrun me.”
Virgil flailed in panic, and gasped as his arm struck the pedestal of the flight seat. Then he realized that the sound was coming from the comm. panel. No one was on board the scout ship but himself.
Virgil recognized the voice of Colby Swan. The top man decided to kill me himself, he realized, and an icy fear flooded though him.
Colby spoke again. “I know you have it. I want it back. I’ll even let you live, if you surrender now.”
Virgil did not expect this. He didn’t for a moment believe that Swan would let him go free. But what was it that Swan thought he had? What had Rissa been trying to steal?
Someone else must have finished what Rissa had begun, he realized. And Virgil was left to take the fall.
For the first time since he left the transport bay, he felt a glimmer of hope. If Swan thought he had – whatever it was, Virgil might have a bargaining position. At the least, it would probably mean Swan wouldn’t fire on the ship and risk destroying the prize.
Virgil turned the scout’s sensors back toward Icarus. The pursuing craft was shaped like a squat cone, with the apex pointed toward him. He could see the glow from the three fusion engines mounted on the base of the cone. Swan must be pushing the engines hot to reach him as quickly as possible. Virgil estimated that Swan would begin his deceleration within two hours, and catch up with him in four, maybe five hours. He scanned ahead, and found a large, jagged wedge of frozen ice and rock, but his heart sank when he realized it would take him seven hours to reach it. Finally, he saw another, smaller mountain only three hours away. The scans indicated that it was approximately eight kilometers along the longest dimension, a slab of frozen methane, ammonia, and water ice studded with rocks, and riddled with crevasses and deep pits. He altered course toward it and set to work modifying a mining sled for his purposes.
Colby Swan’s rage threatened to swallow him. Whoever this thief was, he would never see home again. Swan and his personal guard had entered the cargo area to collect his property. The buyer was primed, ready to pay nearly twice what the prototype was worth. But the locker stood gaping open, mocking him. With a feral growl, he slammed the door so hard it jammed with a screech. Then he saw his daughter, lying in a sticky stain of her own blood, and his fury turned glacial. She must have surprised the thief, and paid with her life, he realized.
Swan ordered his guard to make sure his yacht was ready for him. As he hurried to his personal docking platform, he wondered if the thief knew whom he had killed, and how personal this had now become.
The yacht was designed for comfort, but also for speed, and it was discretely armed. Swan used the small vessel for smuggling and other illicit operations, and he had spared no expense to ensure that it had the teeth for a fight, and the legs to avoid one. His guard began to board behind him, but Swan turned and glared. The guard backed away without a word. One of Swan’s flight crew, on board making the final preflight checks, didn’t notice Swans mood, wrapped around him like a thundercloud.
“Out!” Swan spoke quietly, but the man nearly fell over himself in his haste to get out of the ship.
Now, several hours later, Swan was approaching the frozen asteroid where the ion trail ended. He couldn’t see the ship itself; the rugged surface had too many places to hide. He began scanning the surface for stray signals. Finally he found a faint electronic emission, emanating from a cluster of sponge-like holes in the surface. He set down on the far side of a nearby ice ridge, and shut down the engines. Then he donned an EV suit, chose a pair of sidearms, and disembarked.
The brittle frozen surface crunched under his boots, even in the low gravity, and wisps of vapor curled up from his footprints. Several minutes later, he stood on the rim of a deep pit at the source of the signal. In the shadows, a mining sled was half buried in the grey wall of the crater. Coward, Swan thought. Ok, I’ll secure the prototype before I end his miserable life. He climbed down to the sled, and cleared off the debris.
His rage flared as he realized that the sled contained only spare suit radio, rigged to emit low level static. It was a decoy, to waste his time and give the thief a chance to escape! He hurried back to the yacht. No more games! He would destroy that arrogant sonuvabitch, even if the prototype was destroyed along with him!
Back on board, he removed his helmet but did not even take the time to remove the pressure suit. He strapped in and powered up the engines. But the yacht didn’t move. He cursed and applied full power.
The comet lurched sharply under the scout ship, and Virgil rebounded painfully from the bulkhead. He caught hold of the flight seat and steadied himself. Outside the viewport, he was floating free of the frozen asteroid surrounded by tumbling comet debris, and a bright sphere of expanding ice crystals swept by him. The scout ship had suffered some minor damage, but nothing critical. As he started the repairs, he speculated on what had happened.
Virgil had concealed the scout vessel in a crevasse nearly three kilometers from the sled. He had hoped that Swan, who had never mined the belt, would land with the engines still hot. With any luck, he’d have melted the surface, which would then have refrozen around the engine cluster, trapping the ship on the surface. Starting the engines might have damaged them in the confined space, but nothing short of a full power launch could have caused a catastrophic failure. The comet fragment itself had been fractured into three major pieces and numerous smaller fragments. Virgil could not identify any debris from Swan’s ship.
Soon the repairs were complete, and Virgil pointed the scout back toward Icarus and brought the ion engines back on line. As he began his flight back toward a home the had thought he would never see again, Virgil harbored fond thoughts toward whomever had outwitted both Swans and walked off with the stolen goods.
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