As she did so, she broke. Running as hard as intermittent gravity allows down the one quiet corridor, she smashed into an Imperial engineer leaving a docking bay. Gambling that the ship had finished maintenance, she put a blast into his stunned head, slammed the door control and... faced a guard.

She didn't have the gun ready, the engineer's body was obscured by her but only for now, and the guard's armour was not the sort that a small hand weapon would trouble.

"About time! The test flight is late and the general doesn't like to be kept waiting!"

He'd seen her pilot's overalls and assumed she was the assigned test pilot. This might actually work. She saluted him and went past. This was a much larger vessel than her old one and much newer. It looked experimental, although she recognized the basic controls.

Before the real test pilot could arrive, or the guard could discover her, she slammed the hatches shut and instructed the space station to transport the ship to the main bay. As it did so, she strapped herself in, ready for the flight of her life.

Clamps released, drives activated, engines set to rather more than they should have been. The vessel launched gracefully from the pad and sprang towards a slowly closing entrance.

Missiles armed, lasers brought online, power diverted from systems to weapons. A long, sustained blast by four beam lasers, followed by two missiles, ripped the entranceway open. The station had minimal shields, good enough for micrometeorites, but it was simply too old, too decrepit, too poorly maintained, to handle the punishment inflicted.

They were obviously not ordinary weapons, either. The power drain was too severe, for a start. These seemed to be closer to the weapons she'd expect on a Space Dredger or a battleship.

Throwing everything onto engines, she raced forwards and into space.

The scanner showed two ships in pursuit. They were faster than her and would catch up. Any dogfight would buy time for additional launches. So she did the only thing she could.

An uncontrolled jump.

This ship handled it better than her Cobra had, but things were starting to power down. Quickly, she pushed power back to systems.

No sign of pursuit, but no obvious way out of this pocket of space. Finding that the ship had modern planetary scanners and a ground vehicle, she opted to find somewhere to hide so that she could rest, get her mind back in one piece and think of a solution.

The perfect planet, right ahead. Possibly. She couldn't detect anything through the atmosphere, so was confident nobody else could either. However, that meant she didn't know if she could land, if anyone else was there, if she'd be charred by volcanoes or other natural phenomena.

It was that or be in the open, relying on the size of space to make it hard. Only this space lacked that crucial ingredient, size.

Landing blind, not knowing if you would see the ground before hitting it, would normally send a person into fits of anxiety. She was beyond such rational concern. Spiralling towards slowly was her only concession to normal thinking.

She had to descend as far as the lower atmosphere before there was any indication of where she was. It took getting to ten kilometres above the surface to see anything at all. After that, it was almost easy. Finding a spot to land required finding somewhere flat, sheltered and devoid of distinguishing marks.

Fortunately, that described quite a few places. She chose a narrow valley, limiting directions of visibility or attack by air or ground.

Then she slept for almost 36 hours.

On waking, she ate some of the on-board rations before trying to logically work out a way to get clear. She doubted she could fight the Empire and win. If she survived, it would not be under any condition she would accept.

If these alleged wormholes existed, one had to be in the system the space station was in. They couldn't move the space station and she doubted they could move the wormholes either.

Only, she wasn't terribly sure of where that was relative to her current position.

Punching up the charts gave her the answer. They'd replaced the database with one for this pocket space and the computer could navigate via that. One star showed at the centre and a quick check of the system map showed it did have a Dodo listed for it.

It also listed the wormhole, one light year from the star. A long way to fly, if you're being chased. Even in this ship, thirty minutes flight time ignoring interceptions and detours due to planets getting in the way. Long enough for messages to be sent to any craft in the vicinity, should she be detected.

She hunted around for anything that might help. This ship was intended for raiding, raiders needed ways to be harder to see. Aside from the traditional controls, nothing was labelled.

Ok, change of plan. Instead of a direct flight, she'd fly at right angles to the plane of the solar system. Up, or maybe down, into pure nothing. After forty minutes, she could then fly to the wormhole outside the detection range of any vehicle. Nothing would be that far out. It would then be a fifty minute run to the wormhole, but with greatly reduced risk of interception. Three times the duration, but at one ninth the risk.

Her guilt for the deaths, three at her hands directly and an unknown number from her ship exploding that may have included other prisoners or other innocents, was assuaged in part by the fact that you don't collect elite combat troops or build raiders if you intended to sell fish. Nor do you take innocent explorers prisoner if your motives are pure. The gender ratio of those she had seen had not escaped her.

She rather suspected Steed had set her up. However, there were plenty of easier, quicker ways for the station to be... supplied. Therefore Steed intended for her to get information or act as bait, rather than as a gift. Her training, though, was to explore. Ah! Then it was to get information.

A cursory search showed two planets, in different systems, with ground bases. She was capable of grabbing images discretely and running a scan on the planet. She only had fuel for one, if she intended to get home, so she calculated the most fuel-efficient route and programmed the computer with the target system.

Blasting off was uneventful. The hyperspace journey actually peaceful. Dropping out near the sun of her target world, she spun and headed clear of the plane. Once safely away from the sun, she brought up the details and targeted the world. She would be detected, so she breathed deeply to ease the stress before inevitable combat, checked to see what weapons actually existed, and tried not to think about it. She wasn't a natural born killer, just uncomfortably good at it.

Close to the planet, she dropped into normal space as soon as she got close to the base and programmed the next hyperspace jump as a way to escape. Planetary scans take a while, but so do launches from the planet. She was also close enough to capture images, this ship was clearly intended for spying as well as raiding.

Three ships on scanner, near the surface. It was now a race. Could she complete her own surveillance operation before they got in range? It was going to be close. She diverted some energy from the engines to weapons and brought the lasers online. She couldn't target anyone, yet, though, without interrupting the scan.

The seconds ticked by. The lead ship entered range and she detected weapons being deployed. A laser blast rocked her ship, weakening her shields slightly. A second blast triggered a few minor alarms but nothing more.

The scan completed. She targeted the lead ship, still in the atmosphere, and let loose. The lead ship stopped registering. The laser energy banks were drained in a matter of a couple of seconds and the weapons array was severely overheated, but where there had been three ships, there were now two - heading in different directions - and a smudge.

She hit hyperdrive. She wasn't confident she could take on the two remaining ships, as she had no idea how long it would take for the weapons to cool. Running was better. If you could run, you were still breathing.

Lasers danced around her hull, devouring more of her shields. Pushing the power to systems and engines, then hitting the throttle to get as far away as possible until hyperactive kicked in, she raced within a meter or two of one of her attackers, entering hyperspace just as she got clear.

Once in the new system, she had moments to spare. She had to enter hyperspace again, but not in any place visible. The system she had chosen to make an intermediate stop was one of the pulsars she had observed. If she timed it right, she could fly into the very narrow jet of extreme x-rays that formed the pulse at the precise moment she entered hyperspace and the moment the jet wasn't there.

Her idea was simple, stupidly reckless and next to impossible. You can't scan in half a second and the x-rays would block the scan, so it would be impossible to locate where the hyperspace trace led. At least, that was the idea. But it required precision. And if you're far enough to the side of the x-rays, you can't see them precisely because it's a narrow beam.

Of course, that meant pursuers couldn't, either. Flying near pulsars is dangerous.

She got as close as she dared and looked for the tell-tale glow of ionized gas. It was faint but just visible, allowing her to estimate where the beam was. The question was, was her estimate accurate enough? It takes a quarter second to get safely in to hyperspace and one full sweep of the beam took just half a second. Allowing for dangerous energies to either side and a margin of error, she needed to get this right to within a tenth of a second.

Good thing that her reactions were that fast. But that only made it possible, she now had to do the calculations and start the run, before her pursuers got there. Getting shot at would be enough to make the run impossible.

She began the hyperspace countdown, pointed the ship at a glowing cloud of dust, and kicked in the engines. All power went to the shields, non-essential systems shut down. That way, a slight error wouldn't cause a massive power overload on something unimportant and kill her.

Two seconds. She was on course, but slightly too slow. Engines got an extra boost.

One second. Enemy ships on scanner, but not close enough to be a threat. Three quarters of a second away, too fast, that would get her bone structure broadcast to the universe.

Half a second. Weapons deployment by enemy detected but they're out of range. The target spot is not glowing, which means it'll not be glowing in another half second.

Quarter second. Shields taking damage from secondary radiation, but it's well within their capacity. The enemy are turning to face her, but it's much too late.

Zero. Hyperspace entered. She was now heading back to the world with the space station.

Behind her, the pursuers broke off. They'd seen a bright flash as the stolen vessel had passed over the pole of the pulsar. The wake had been ripped apart by the energies, so they never saw it. They returned to base, satisfied it was either destroyed or crippled if it had made it into hyperspace.

In fact, the ship was operating just fine. At least, for an experimental ship she had only a nominal idea on how to control.

The next part of the journey was uneventful. All that remained was that one final wormhole, possibly guarded. She couldn't divert power to everything, although with non-essentials still off, she did have more power.

She needed to maintain systems and shields, the wormhole journey would be rough. Maximum power there. She now had a choice - if it was guarded, run or fight? Engines or weapons?

She bit her lip. One enemy and she'd destroy it. Never mind who or what. Ethics would have to wait again. That way, she could take her time and get it right. More than that and this was the wrong ship for it. Everything left to engines.

She re-entered normal space. The wormhole was invisible to her but showed up on the scanner. There were no other ships. She'd made it. Engines it was.

She cautiously approached the wormhole. It was barely visible, even close. It was like looking through a raindrop a mile across, showing up only as distortions of the view behind.

Calmly pointed the ship towards the exact centre and threw the engines onto maximum.

Hitting water at high speed is like hitting a solid surface, but it's east to comprehend both. Hitting a negative gravitational non-simply-connected space-time anomaly is like hitting nothing you could possibly imagine. Forces in every direction, including time. The ship buckled, rolled, span, stretched, shrank, shuddered, creaked and groaned.

The ship re-entered normal space about a quarter light year from her home. At least, most of it did. Two external pods now floated alongside as shrapnel.

It took ten minutes for Cally to regain consciousness. When she did, she discovered the computer lacked any maps for the primary universe. However, that was not too bad. She activated the repair pods and patched up a few of the systems. Enough for a short uncontrolled hyperspace jump.

The question was, where to go? To see Steed or to the planet where her brother was?

She needed the maps and she needed the pay. That meant the space station.

Getting there didn't prove too hard. Getting docking permission for an unregistered ship was tougher. However, the flight controller was eventually coaxed into asking Steed. She reckoned he could override such concerns.

Which he did.

On landing, she met up with him. "That was not an exploration of a dwarf planet."

"Oh, I'm sorry. It's just we don't get too many volunteers for studying invasion fleets."

"You get the images I took, the scans and any technical data on the ship, but that lie costs you the ship, any legal cargo and double pay as danger money."

Steed laughed. "No, you don't get the ship."

"I came in a ship, I leave in a ship. I collected it, it wasn't part of your bargain, so it's mine."

Steed's expression hardened. "You don't want to push your luck."

"Do you have agents in the space station there?"

"I can't give you that information."

"Not that I left much space station."

Steed winced instinctively. He had heard the reports. One of the two agents dead, along with over a hundred Imperial operatives, all told, counting primary and secondary explosions on the Dodo. Another fifteen dead amongst the crew of damaged and destroyed vessels. Cally had been somewhat messier than anticipated. But very effective. The whole training centre and invasion complex had been compromised, with key personnel killed. It had set the campaign back decades.

"Alright, but you have to work for us when needed."

"In that case, you pay for the repairs and database upgrades as well."

"Fifty fifty."


"You strike a very hard bargain, young lady."

"No, just a fair one."

"Life isn't fair."

"Gravity works the same for everyone. It's people who don't."

Steed considered that.

"Perhaps. We can discuss philosophy another time, though. Your money has been transferred, minus half the repair costs. Registration will be complete by the time you get back."

She returned to the planet, knowing she'd get rollicking for losing the Cobra. But this new ship would mean a lot. Mining lasers had been added, so it could now do everything the original could.

Things could get interesting.