Year 353 A.E., Rotation 250: Breaking the System

Vincent took a deep breath, his hands clamped tight around Shelby’s steering wheel. The were docked aboard the rim ship, but he hadn’t been this nervous about a rescue since his first. This was it. His chance to prove himself, and his chance to take the first step toward breaking down the tier system that had kept him down his entire life, even if it was out here beyond the borders of the City States.

He’d been sure he was being called in for some disciplinary action when his commanding officer had called him into his office and told him to close the door. He was so busy replaying the past several weeks in his head, trying to pinpoint exactly what point of protocol he’d breached, that it took him a long time to notice that the document Captain Shln had tossed down on the table between them was the proposal he’d submitted to the HEC.

In fact, he didn’t read the header properly until his Captain cleared his throat and shoved it two inches closer to Vincent’s side of the table. “They’re giving you a chance, Coastrunner,” he said, by way of explanation.

Vincent had looked down at the paper, then up at him, still not understanding.

“There’s a ship passing through quadrant 9T next week. No notables on board, but it’s one of the newer models. Rimward Inc.’s been cutting more corners every year, and our engineers estimate this one only has a couple more weeks before catastrophic failure of the engines. High Command figures why not let you pick a target on this one?”

“You mean…” Vincent shifted his letter to the side, revealing a folder of dossiers. Everyone on the crew manifest, from the Captain to the janitors.

“You get one,” said Captain Shln. “Doesn’t have to be a famous artist or scientist or mathematician, just someone who you believe can contribute to Etelutian society in some meaningful way.”

“I can save an edger? Or a baker?” Or a little girl with colors in her hair, he didn’t add. “They can be some Tier One nobody?”

“It’s time to give them an opportunity to be someone here. You might be right, Coastrunner. We shouldn’t let humanity’s barbaric class structure determine our definition of personal worth.”

Vincent just sat there blinking at the dossiers. He wished he could shove them in Nim’s face, shout “See, you can change the system from the inside!” He just hoped he wouldn’t deserve to have the papers shoved right back at him when none of this worked how it did in his head.

“Someone listened,” he said, almost to himself.

“Who knows?” said Shln. “If this target of yours does well enough in Etelu, maybe this won’t be a one-off thing.”

“That would be amazing,” said Vincent. He’d picked up the papers, and suddenly been struck with the weight of them. 

Since that meeting, he’d done almost nothing but pour through them. He had to pick someone the HEC would never give a chance to without him, but they also had to be someone who would prove his point–that low tier citizens were every bit as capable and worthy of saving as accomplished legends, that together they could build some sort of integrated society out here among the stars. But they also had to be the most deserving person on the vessel, and they also had to be someone who’d be happy living out here, and he would hate it if they were someone he could enjoy having a drink with, and, and… He’d been avoiding the temple where he normally meditated so that his priestess friend wouldn’t be able to tell him she’d told him just how hard a situation like this would be. 

At several points, he’d shuffled all the dossiers together with his eyes closed and picked one at random, and then when that one didn’t feel perfect, he’d done it again. After he’d sat on Shelby’s floor managing to draw nearly every passenger’s name out of the hat after hours of trying, Shelby had sent him home to rest, where he’d stared at a sandwich for an hour, his stomach twisted into too many knots to take a bite.

But, finally, he’d come to his decision, and he wasn’t allowing himself to second guess it any more. He looked down at the photo he’d taped to his desktop on the way to quadrant 9T. Sana. She had dark hair that she kept cropped short, round cheeks and brown eyes that he’d stared into for so long over the past couple of days that he almost felt like he knew her. She was Tier One, single, 170 centimeters tall and weighed 58 kilograms. She’d made average grades in primary school, and she’d trained under her father to be a factory line worker, but on her eighteenth birthday, instead of starting her assigned career, she’d claimed the last place aboard a rim ship leaving that day, making her the youngest passenger aboard this particular ship. (Thank the Giver they hadn’t assigned him a ship full of families he’d have to decide whether to break apart). There wasn’t much more to know about her than that, from the dossier, which was perfect. She hadn’t done anything to “earn” her place here. She was a perfectly average, unremarkable person who he might have sat across from him on a trolley or shared a toast with at a bar without a second thought. She was the sort of person the Etelutians needed to see was capable and valuable in her own right. Plus, it wasn’t right that she would only have a couple hundred days of adult life to enjoy before her ship met its inevitable fate. It wasn’t fair to anyone, but objectively speaking, she had the most future ahead of her in danger of being taken away.

“I’m coming, Sana,” he said, then finally let go of his death grip on Shelby’s wheel and unbuckled his seatbelt.

He made his way to the secret entrance hatch built into every Rimward Inc. ship for just such an occasion, and lowered himself inside, making his way to the small, empty room that would serve as his headquarters and exit door during the operation. He didn’t have long, he realized, as he surveyed the small room. He touched a hand to the door, allowing himself to feel the dormant spirit of the ship. It was tired. Achingly so. He could tell as much without even bringing it to life. He opened the door and looked down the hall. The metal was cheap and poorly welded, but even so, the immensity of all this was a disgusting waste. The Rim Ship program had started out as a kinder alternative to imprisonment or execution when it came to the Perfectorate’s undesirables–those who exceeded the strict population limits imposed by their status as a prison colony, those on the verge of knowing too much, those who might incite rebellion, those who simply, dangerously, longed to explore the void beyond the lines drawn in an alien treaty they knew nothing about. It was meant to give them a real adventure, one long, last hurrah, even if it was on a carefully charted course meant to ensure they made no real discoveries they weren’t meant to make.

But, seeing as no Rim Ship ever made a return voyage, it was more profitable for manufacturers like Rimward Inc. to cut corners, and better for society, too, they argued to their shareholders, as they would waste fewer resources on people who weren’t contributing to the economy. Slowly, the colony ships designed to last a lifetime were replaced by ones meant to last twenty years, then a decade. Now, they were lucky to last a year.

Vincent slipped into the jump suit left waiting for him in the closet, and picked up the tool kit left for him. It matched the tool kits used by mechanics aboard this particular ship, but instead of wrenches and drill bits, it contained a pistol, a taser, handcuffs and a tear gas grenade and a vial of flavorless powder capable of knocking a human out cold. Vincent prided himself on the fact that he’d never needed any of these tools to make an extraction–one of the perks of infiltrated a human ship as a human–but his superiors insisted he carry these items on him as part of standard procedure. Here he was across the universe and he still hadn’t managed to entirely escape pointless bureaucracy. 

Sana was easy enough to find. He’d timed his arrival to match up with the time she was released from her shift in the cafeteria. He blended into the crowd of workers making their way back to their quarters through the narrow hall until he was within arm’s reach of her. To his relief, she turned away from the residential quarters toward the common areas of the ship. That made her far easier to follow, and when she took a seat at the ship bar, it was easy enough to ask her if the stool beside her was taken.

She shook her head, barely giving him a second look. She exchanged a ration coupon for a drink and cupped it in both hands, closing her eyes as she brought it to her lips. Her face, drawn from an exhausting shift, eased slightly as she swallowed. He remembered that feeling all too well. Knowing it was all pointless, trying to find some small escape in that brief breath of freedom between work and sleep.

He pulled a ration coupon from his own pocket and handed it to the bar keeper. He scanned the bottles for coconut rum, but there weren’t any left. There wasn’t much of anything left. “I’ll have what she’s having,” he said, then turned to her. “Long day?”

“Aren’t they all?” she said with a laugh.

“They don’t have to be,” said Vincent.

“Oh yeah?” she said, bemused. “How do you figure?”

“Come back to my spaceship with me and I’ll tell you,” he said with a smile.

She snorted. “What kind of a line is that?”

“What would you say if I told you it wasn’t a line?”

“I’d think you were crazy,” she said.

“I wouldn’t blame you, but I’d try to prove you wrong,” he said. 

“You’re bad at flirting,” she said.

Before he could come back with a playful retort, the ship shuddered under them violently enough that he had to grab his drink to keep it from spilling.

He swore under his breath and reached out to the ship’s spirit, but all he could feel was pain. The engineer’s predictions were usually right, but usually wasn’t always. Was he too late?

“It’s just a little turbulence,” she said. “Stop looking like you saw a ghost.”

“That’s normal then? The ship just does that?” That was a bad sign. A really bad sign. There was no turbulence in the void.

She gave him a weird look. “I’d think you’d know that. We’ve all been listening to the Captain’s briefings at morning announcements.”

“I guess I let my mind wander during those,” he said, trying to save his break in character.

“And during…every turbulence episode?” she said.

“I guess,” he said, forcing a laugh and a shrug. He threw back his drink, praying it would clear his head faster than counting rivets would.

She was staring at him with a look you didn’t want the girl you needed to trust you enough to let you take her through a maintenance duct to show her your spaceship to be giving you. The ship shuddered under then again. This time he could hear a clank from the engine room. He didn’t have time to build a rapport.

“I’m going to be frank with you,” he said, lowering his voice so the bartender couldn’t hear. “You are in extreme danger, and I’m here to save your life. Come with me now, and I promise to explain everything.”

She laughed out loud this time. “Hey, Pol,” she called to the bartender. “Bring my desperate friend and I another round. I’ve never seen a guy strike out this hard, and I’m feeling sorry for him.”

Vincent flushed. “I’m sorry. We’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. I’m really not trying to hit on you.”

“Sure.” She took a sip of her drink, then set it down, bouncing her knee as she stared at him. “I don’t feel like I’ve seen you around before,” she started, and before he could come up with a plausible lie, she pursed her lips and continued. “But you look familiar somehow. Who the voids are you?”

“Vincent,” he said. “I don’t come by the bar often but I stay in room 515.”

“Vin…” Her mouth dropped open. “That was one of your aliases!”

“My what?”

“You’re aliases! You’re that guy from the posters! Vinyarlo Cast…no…Coastrunner!”

“What are you talking about?” he said, but his laugh sounded absolutely robotic at this point. This couldn’t be going worse. The other ships he’d boarded had set sail long before he’d been declared a traitor to the Perfectorate. He couldn’t believe he’d forgotten to account for how new this vessel was.

“Oh my voids the inquisition is looking all over for you.”

The engine shuddered again, and as Sana looked away from him in disbelief, he made a decision to do something he’d promised himself he’d never do. In a motion he’d been forced to practice during boot camp, he palmed a pinch of powder into her drink. He hated himself for doing it, but his cover was blown and it was better to put her to sleep than have to use the other tools in his case to make a getaway. 

“How the voids would I have gotten a ticket for this ship if the inquisition was looking for me?” said Vincent. “It’s not the first time I’ve gotten that, to be honest, but that asshole isn’t the only Gladyssa Brushdipper fan in the universe.” He gestured to the incredibly distinctive tattoo on his face, then almost fell off his stool as the ship hit another bout of turbulence. He caught his balance to find that Sana had grabbed both of their drinks to keep them from spilling like it was second nature.

“You can see how I made this mistake, though,” she said with an expression that was hard to read. She handed his drink back to him and raised hers. “To striking out.”

He tried to keep the guilt off his face. She was the perfect target, whether she liked him or not, he told himself, and he was saving her voids damned life even if he didn’t have time to do it properly. “To striking out.”

They both took a drink. He felt sick. He knew his intentions were good, but she didn’t. All he could think about was how helpless he’d felt in that bar so long ago when The Red Ribbon Strangler had spiked his rum and whisked him away to almost certain death. He took another large swallow. He felt worse. He looked up, and saw Sana’s face swimming in front of him, a mean spirited smirk spreading over her features.

“Drink up, asshole.”

“I feel…” he started. His words were coming out slower than they should be.

“That’s right. I saw you slip something into my drink so I switched them. You think I’ve never been to a party before?”

The ship is about to crash into the void with us on it, he tried to shout. An alien race sent me here to save someone, anyone, and I chose you. You have your whole life ahead of you, and it shouldn’t end here. But all he managed was a whimper. The last thing he heard was her calling for security.


When Vincent woke up, his head swimming, he was lying on the floor of a tiny room. There was a toilet in the corner and a bench that might be supposed to serve as a bed. There were bars on the door.

He tried to do the match for how much time had likely passed given the dose of sedative he’d likely consumed, but he was feeling too sick and fuzzy to make much of the numbers. He pressed his palms against his eyes, trying to come up with anything close to a plan for getting out of here. That’s when it donned on him that someone was calling his name. Or something like it.

“Vinny!” There was a strange rattle of metal against metal, and he opened his eyes to see a pair of bionic hands rapping against the bars. “Vinny!”

He stood up too fast and had to balance himself against a wall to keep from falling, but he had to get a better look at the person on the other side of the door. He didn’t recognize the hands, but he sure as hell recognized the face, the red curls falling around it, fading softly into gray.


“Seems like you’ve been busy, kid,” said Giana Coastrunner.

He stumbled forward and pressed his forehead against hers through the bars, tears of more than panic pressing against the backs of his eyelids.


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