I sat up slowly, rubbing oily grease from my eyes and aches from my bones. Blearily, I looked around me, and groaned in horror.
The control room was in ruins. The once luminescent walls, smooth and gleaming, were now an explosion of wires and plastic scattered across the floor. The ceiling had partially collapsed, and metal beams and girders were scrunched between the floor and roof, creaking threateningly as if the ceiling was about to give way completely. Air vents hung lazily above my head and belched clouds of steam. The controls themselves were in an even worse shape. The metal panels had been reduced to slabs of charred shrapnel, broken beyond repair. Starbursts of shattered glass glittered in the weak half-light, and wires poked out at odd intervals. A few warning lights flashed weakly; apparently we were way to close to the ground, and the engines were much too slow. Sparks flew angrily from smashed circuit boards, and oil steadily trickled across the floor, forming puddles around several battered chairs, one of which I used to be sat in before the crash.
Typical. One trip to Proxima Centauri and back, and what happened? A bunch of space pirates shot down the ship. Now how was I supposed to get back home?
As I surveyed the carnage, something didn't seem quite right. Lara was missing. She always manned the controls, and I wasn't so much as allowed to set a toe within the control room without her dogging my every move, let alone actually use the controls myself. To be fair, she was twenty-one, and so the legal holder of the Intergalactic Space Travel Permit (ISTP), but that still didn't mean that I didn't want a go.
I forced myself to stay calm. Lara was probably fine. Of course, she would've gone down into the engine room when the ship crashed to throw coolant over the generators and tighten valves. She generally kept her head in tricky situations unlike me, and kept calm in stressful situations, whereas I ended up sobbing uncontrollably, or attempting to kill someone.
I stood up cautiously, the cricks in my legs crackling painfully as I straightened them out. Almost immediately the control room blurred into a kaleidoscope of hazy colours and shapes, and swung around me in unsteady spirals before steadying itself. I staggered dizzily at the sudden pain that rushed to my head, and I felt something warm run down my cheek. I hesitantly reached up to touch it, and pulled back to find my fingers scarlet with my own blood. I swallowed bile and tried not to throw up, instead rubbing my fingers on my trousers and pretending nothing had happened, whilst focusing on the task of moving into the hallway.
Each movement was agony as my sore limbs protested about being used, and as I made my way to the doorway, a small whimper of pain escaped my lips. My heat throbbed in time with my heart, and blood still wormed its way down the side of my face and matted into my hair.
The corridor wasn't much better than the control room. Bare tubes and pipes once fixed to the ceiling now hung loose like plastic vines in front of me and dripped suspicious blue fluid. Steam gushed from the metal grating beneath my boots and engulfed me in a scalding mist that burned my skin. The floor clanged desolately as I limped forward nervously.
"Hello?" I called. "Lara?" My thin voice echoed piteously off the walls and whispered creepily among the dented metal and singed wires.
No call came back, no voice filled with relief and reassurance. Was she unconscious? Or maybe she was… No. I couldn't think like that. She had to be alive. Maybe she couldn't hear me? This was a desperate thought, as this was a very small ship built for planet day-trips instead of deep space voyages, with only one small control room, a very basic engine room, and a frankly minuscule living cabin. It was built for speed, not distance.
Suddenly, footsteps clattered from further down the corridor, a horrid mass of loud noise that made me flinch and cower back against the wall. Could it be Lara? No, there was too much noise for it to be from just one person, more like four or five people? I couldn't be sure, but I just knew that there had only been me and Lara on this ship when it had set off.
The only way away from the noise was behind me, back to the control room. I fled as fast as I could back into the room, which wasn't very fast, more of a limping trot. I wildly looked around. There had to be somewhere to hide, somewhere safe. Could I maybe squeeze into a cupboard, or crush myself behind an air vent? Perhaps I could sink into the pools of shadows and hope that that would be enough to conceal my presence. Then it came to me. The control panel!
Terrified, I madly crawled forwards underneath the panels of smoking buttons and flashing lights until I was in a forest of tangled wires and metal panels, all searing hot and smoking, some occasionally spitting sparks at my face. It occurred to me that if one of those sparks came close enough, I could be blinded.
I crouched behind a column with my knees tucked up to my chin, and I could only wait, shivering, as the footsteps got closer and closer. The ever-coming banging rattled painfully against my ears, and I shut my eyes and curled up tighter, wincing at each footstep.
Then the noise was in the control room, and I opened my eyes to see the newcomers. From my hiding spot, I could see five pairs of sturdy black boots with thick soles, ringed with the hems of camouflage trousers. A voice bellowed out:
"Spread out. Salvage any technology you find, it could be valuable. Remember, we're looking for survivors, and I want them alive, unlike last time." General mutters met the last comment, but one whiny voice stood out among the others.
"Boss, there ain't nobody alive on this ship. We ain't found no bodies, dead or alive!"
"There has to be somebody on board this craft, otherwise how would it fly? And I want you to find them." The logic made perfect sense, but the whiny voice still objected.
"Are you disobeying orders?" the other man cut in softly, a hint of feline menace in his words, almost a purr. I quivered with fear.
"No Boss," the other man said shakily.
"Well back to work!"
The thunderous footsteps shook the control room as the men set about searching, roughly opening cupboards and forcing locks, some even delicately picking pieces of machinery apart and storing them in separate plastic bags. Someone whooped and I heard the jangle of metal; they'd obviously found the tool kit packed with enough alien technology to fry a Dalek. But that wasn't likely to satisfy them. I still didn't like the sound of taking prisoners alive. I mean, sure, I wanted to stay alive, but what did they have planned for me? And the first man spoke as if he'd done this sort of thing before. The more I thought about it, the more I didn't like my situation. I needed to get out and fast. I was a sitting duck. All it would take would be one movement or noise, and I was done for.
And of course, that's when they found me.
One of the men ducked down to my level frowning at some of the circuitry and collecting scraps of the controls and circuit boards. I shrank back into the shadows, my breathing hard and fast and my heartbeat so loud I was sure he could hear it. He scanned the workings, collecting a small pile of wires and samples of oil, when he saw my terrified eyes gazing at him out of the black. His own eyes widened, and we were locked in a silent staring competition: mine versus his, glittering turquoise versus soft brown.
"Hey guys! I found a survivor!" he crowed to his comrades, turning back to gaze at me hungrily. All the men crowded round to get a look, and I was surrounded by greedy eyes and poking hands.
"Let's have a look," someone called, and they backed off so that a new man could come to the front.
He was old, with brown hair streaked with silver and deep-set green eyes that examined me coldly. He spoke again, and I realized that this must be Boss, the man giving orders before.
"Young female, probably a Clafnax given the style of the ship. Fine specimen, but she's injured. Could earn us a lot, possibly ten mill on a good day?" He whistled through his teeth. "We've got ourselves a right little earner, that is if we get her cleaned up." He looked me in the eye. "Hello," he said.
I stared back at him in petrified silence. How could he know so much?
He sighed. "You can obviously understand me Clafnax, give a little back."
I pressed my lips together. I was shivering with a barely concealed fear, and I didn't trust myself to speak in case I gave my terror away, and handed them the advantage.
Boss sighed with irritation, before climbing back to his feet. "Get her back to base, but carefully. We don't want any more damage. And hurry up. I want to be back at base by morning before anyone discovers the ship. We'll soon get her talking with a little persuasion."
By persuasion, they evidently didn't mean bribery or plain begging. I had images of me strapped to an operating table, me in a cage left to starve, unspeakable horrors they might apply in order to make me talk. A single tear trickled down my cheek and I wiped it away quickly before my captors could see.
Boss was still talking. "Remember, use steel handcuffs," he advised. "And be careful. Clafnai are notoriously fiery-spirited and vicious, but as soon as the handcuffs are on, it's child's play to manage them." He turned and strode out of the room, leaving me alone with the rest of the men.
Strong hands pulled me roughly out of my hiding place, and I was helplessly dragged out into the open space.
As soon as I was out in the open, I went ballistic.
I jumped to my feet, ignoring the way the control room seemed to lurch dizzily around me, and the pain screaming through my body, and drew on my final reserves of strength. Leaping up had caught many of the men by surprise, and I took advantage of their confusion, lashing out at the nearest man, kicking him in the groin, a universal weak point, before slamming him to the floor.
The others behind me suddenly snapped into action and grabbed my shoulders, hauling me back in order to push me into submission. I could almost feel the steel approaching my wrists, and I squirmed madly, snapping at the hands on me and hissing like a wild cat. But the men around me were strong, and seemed to know exactly what I was about to do. Together, they managed to bear me to the floor, pinning me there with a knee in the small of the back, and hands grasping my neck and arms. Their combined body weight was too much for me, but I still had fight left in me, and I writhed and screamed savagely, trying to escape their grip.
As soon as the steel was snapped around my wrists, it was all over. The will to resist drained out of me like water from a sieve. I lay there limply, unable to move, weakly trying to cry out, but the steel had me in its cold grip, and wouldn't let me go. I was picked up and half dragged, half carried towards the door. I twisted weakly, trying to bite at thumbs and fingers, the only defence I had left, before someone punched me on the jaw in a fit of anger at being bitten. I rolled with the punch, remembering what someone had once told me, but I still saw black spots over my already marred vision, and my cheek smarted as if someone had held a poker to it.
Yells and shouts started as the offender was pushed away from me, and I was hoisted over someone's shoulder, their unfamiliar small clogging my nostrils. A cloud of black overcame me, and I fell with relief into dizzy unconsciousness.