The Lone Helios
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Through the window, the spaceport is approaching, growing larger and larger as the fighter dips through the atmosphere and rushes towards the ground. The jostling and atmospheric burning that’s so common upon re-entry has long since passed, and the ship moves smoothly and quickly through the sky.

From her cockpit, Elena can see most of this, though some of the view is obscured by the controls of the ship and the metallic bars separating each of the panes of glass. The sight is familiar, and she’s able to navigate easily. Of course, she has some help. The flight paths of other vehicles aren’t as predictable as the stress of re-entry or the process of landing. And so, the onboard AI guides her, warning her of incoming ships with enough time for her to maneuver out of the way.

For a moment, as the AI rattles its info out in monotone, Elena swore she hears its voice change. It sounds like Cyrus for a short moment, his dry voice quipping about traffic being worse than usual. Then, she shakes her head, and the robotic voice is back. It’s like it never changed in the first place.

About 5 minutes later, with no issues, the ship touches down, landing gear extending from the underbelly to find purchase on iron, the impact sending a gentle jolt through the ship’s frame. Faint quips and laughs that are not there ring in Elena’s ears as she gets up and goes down to the cargo hold.

They’re all tucked in safely. Her quarries, each in a metal, human-sized box, each behind an orange field. 7 in total. Some of them have their eyes closed, their bodies in a constant state of sleep. Others have their limbs locked in place from when they were struggling. They’ve never known stasis before. When they’re let out, their limbs will ache like no tomorrow. One is awake, but has remained still, his eyes the only thing able to move in his body. He’s a repeat offender. It’s easy to tell, especially when Elena’s seen so many people shoved into these boxes before.

As she’s inspecting, the AI opens the hold’s doors, and the muffled sounds of spaceport activity outside become sharper and clearer. Elena steps out, and sees her contractor standing there, a look of hopeful expectation painted across his face.

“So?” he asks, trying to peer over her shoulder into the hold.

“Get your transport modules. 7 escaped fugitives are in stasis.” Her voice isn’t flat, but it’s not excited or dejected either. She speaks like she’s reading from a textbook, all business.

“They’re back in the law’s hands now. Thank you, Ms. Harker.” He holds up a credit chip, and places it in Elena’s hand. “Your payment, as promised. You’ve done us a great service. Police are spread too thin these days.”

The man keeps prattling on as workers run into the hold, getting the stasis boxes prepped to be taken into the city beyond. Elena doesn’t listen. Her mind’s elsewhere, in a time where such conversations would’ve been held with a smile on her face as she discussed the next job, or what would be done with the prisoners.

Eventually, the sound of his voice takes on a more important tone, and Elena’s thrown back to reality. He asks her to deal with one more loose end, a freighter that one of the fugitives owned. It’s something about contraband, another partner running it, the Helios being the ship to stop it. It’s all the same shit, the buttering up and assuring her that she’s the best (they say that to anyone who’ll take a job), when all Elena wants to hear is the pay. It’s all she needs to know these days.

When she inevitably accepts, and the man profusely thanks her and walks away, she turns around for a quick second, and sees Daigo and Jackie standing in the hold, right by the ramp. They’re talking about something and laughing, Daigo smoking a cigarette like he always does, never mind how the crew always asked him to put it out, and Jackie fiddling with her datapad as she talks, multitasking, checking the ship’s integrity. For a moment, a corner of Elena’s mouth upturns into a smile. She looks down, then back up, and they’re gone. She can’t even see the cigarette ash that should be there, slowly falling to the ground.

Space is empty and cold and silent. Most of all silent. In some ways, it’s comforting, the lack of any passerby with their stories and comments and gossip that can so often become overwhelming. In more ways, it’s suffocating. Elena hears the hum of the ship’s engines, feels the soft vibrations it sends through the hull, and wonders if she’s gone mad from hearing almost nothing but these sounds over the past 5 months. It’d explain a lot of what she’d been seeing. And hearing.

The cockpit’s HUD is guiding her towards the last known location of the freighter, everything on the screen showing as it normally appears. Everything, that is, aside from the camera feed on the bottom right, showing Elena exactly what her contractor is seeing, the camera feed that will be used to verify her kill. Yes, kill, not capture, like she usually does. She doesn’t remember the reason, there’s always one or the other to justify more extreme force. It’s all blended together in recent years.

The freighter eventually becomes visible, though it’s little more than a pinprick in the distance at first. At this distance, Elena activates the ship’s cloak, and the hull is swallowed up by the blackness of space.

From here, it’s easy. The freighter gets larger and larger as the Helios gets closer and closer. Elena guides the ship under the freighter’s hull, rotating herself so the nose of the ship is facing the bottom of the freighter. She hits a button, and the scan begins, the hull is analyzed, weaknesses are spotted. She wished that Argo was here. They were the tech expert, they could do this sort of analysis without any need for AI assistance. But the AI will do. It’ll have to.

The scan finds it very quickly, a loose panel, a single screw sitting restlessly, inching its way out of the plate it was attached to little by little. All it needs is one big yank, and it’ll come loose, taking its fellow screws along for the ride.

The first thing Elena does is she activates the EMP wave. The freighter’s defenses, engines, everything is disabled. She can imagine the pilot, whatever they look like, freaking out, panicking as they’re plunged into darkness. Now, she can do her work without them pulling a fast one on her.

Next is the tow cable. From the underbelly of the Helios, the cable gun extends and fires its payload, a harpoon that lodges itself firmly in the panel, holding on and not letting go under any circumstance. The pilot is probably trying their best to gun the engines, or checking what’s wrong. There’s probably a few minutes left before the EMP wears off and the ship’s engines and shields come back online. They have those few minutes to panic before they either get away, or they’re turned into mist and debris scattering through the void.

Elena’s systems work just fine though. The cable isn’t strong enough to reel the whole ship in, but it can yank on a panel. It tugs and tugs, and the panel grows looser and looser, until it finally snaps off, and the ship’s underbelly is exposed. This freighter’s an older model, the type that kept its batteries and power sources in easy-to-access places, when space travel was still being discovered. It was easier to work with, sure, but people like Elena are the reason that no one sees them around much anymore. Too easy to sabotage.

The power core glows a soft blue light, pulsing in the darkness of space. It’s probably fusion, nuclei over nuclei combining and giving off intense energy and light, the latter dimmed by the metallic casing covering the innards. An easy target. One of the easiest she’s seen in a long time. The cable gun retracts, and the laser extends in its place. As Elena lines up the shot and prepares to fire, she again thinks of Argo, how useful they’d be in this case, their aim and knowledge would be invaluable right about now. But she can manage on her own.

She moves her own ship backwards a klick or two, enough space so that she can get a clear shot without getting her own ship blown up in the process. Deep breath, eyes closed for a second… and then they snap open, and Elena pulls the trigger once, twice, three times. Three bright bolts of light sear the empty space in front of her, hurtling towards the reactor. It takes less than a second to reach the reactor, even less time to impact and cut through. Those nuclei, their every movement and combination planned out, they’re all interrupted, and their anger is immediate and explosive. Elena can’t hear it, but she can imagine the freighter rumbling for a moment or two before it explodes in a brilliant ball of light, so sudden and vibrant that Elena has to turn away and cover her eyes.

In a flash, all is bright, and in another, all is dark. Elena looks back and sees debris and metal and, she assumes, whatever is left of the poor sap aboard that ship. A second later, she gets a message, displayed on the HUD, congratulating her for a job well done, assuring her that her payment is being wired to her account as they speak. She doesn’t care right now. She’s had a long day. What she really wants is rest.

The ship is on autopilot now. Elena knows that it’s leading her back to the planet she was just on hours ago. It’ll guide her through the atmosphere, into the spaceport, its automated voice will clear all of the required entry protocols while its lone pilot gets her well-needed rest. But it won’t be there for another few hours.

Her quarters are as silent as the rest of her ship, only more so. The hum of the engine is muted, the vibrations are quelled by specially designed walls and floors. It’s suffocating, but Elena can’t sleep any other way.

“Lights out,” she says. And just like that, the light strips set into the room’s wall shut off, and total darkness envelops Elena. There’s nothing else to do as the ship hurtles through space, except for let her eyes adjust to the black, and wait for sleep to overwhelm her. Still, even in the blackness, Elena can make out parts of her room, by intuition alone. She knows the door is opposite her, her list of confirmed kills and greatest moments as a bounty hunter is to her right… and her nightstand with the photo is on her left.

Elena tosses over, facing the photo that she cannot see, but knows is there. She looks at the five people standing there, and memories begin to flood in, just as they do every night. She remembers. She recalls. She plays back.

She remembers Cyrus Wrayburn, the witty pilot and XO of the Helios. He never stopped quipping at any opportunity, even neck-deep in danger. They could be surrounded by enemies on a ship who’s nuclear core was about to melt down and explode, and he’d still find a way to crack a joke. It seemed annoying to the outside observer, but you needed that sort of thing in a job like this. He was protective too. So protective that he’d put himself in harm’s way to protect his family. And the Helios was the best family he’d ever had.

So of course he’d taken the bullet from a serial killer stalking a city somewhere in the Outer Reaches. Of course he let himself be bait to draw out the killer, despite everyone else pleading, begging him not to. They didn’t have time for a different plan, and he didn’t want to see anyone else get hurt. They hadn’t been able to get him to a hospital in time. The wounds were too deep to heal on the ship. Impulsive and loyal to the end.

She remembers Daigo Ray, the enforcer, the bruiser. He was what some would call the dumb muscle, always ready to punch his way out of a problem. But he was wise, wise beyond his years, and he kept the crew straight and on a good path. He always had a proverb at the ready, or a reassuring word.

His time had always been limited, the cigs he smoked ensured that. But nobody had expected his end to come so soon. They didn’t know the cockpit of the ship they were raiding had bombs in it, traps laid for intruders. He was first in. He was the only one in. Elena remembers screaming his name as she watched him look at his friends, pure fear etched on his face.

She remembers Jackie Foster, the ship’s engineer. She was quieter than the rest of them, soft-spoken and kind. She didn’t like to get her hands dirty, often staying in the ship and monitoring everyone else to make sure that they didn’t put too much strain on their bodies. She’d hack doors open for them, keep the ship running smoothly. She was vital, more vital than any AI could ever hope to be.

Electronics and mechanics were her life. They were also her downfall. A short circuit lead to a strong electrocution. And just like that, she was gone. It happened faster than Cyrus and Daigo’s ends, but it left the remaining crew with more time to mourn. It hit harder. Far harder. Elena misses her. She misses her the most.

She remembers Argo Marquet. They had joined the crew last, a weapons expert seeking revenge for the untimely end of their former crew at the hands of a notorious group of space pirates, the Steel Cutters. All they wanted was to get a bounty to take the fuckers down. So they manned the weapons of the Helios, kept its aim steady, handled all the tricky weapons tech that none of the other members could. They were always in business mode, it seemed. Elena can still remember the others jokingly telling them to lighten up a tad.

Argo hadn’t died. When it was just them and Elena left, they had finally gotten the quarry Argo had prayed for: the Steel Cutters. By then, the Helios was well-known, a ship and crew that could easily handle most jobs. The last two members were experienced and hardened after years of jobs and dangers. Taking them down was easy. The payment was sweet as all hell.

Things continued onward for a month or so, and during that time, Elena could tell Argo was thinking about something. Eventually, they came clean to her: they didn’t want to be a bounty hunter anymore. They had achieved their goal, and there were other horizons that seemed a bit more promising. Tears were in their eyes, and they said how much they wanted to stay, how kind Elena had been, how she was the sibling that Argo never had. Elena remembers pleading with Argo, begging them to stay, to not leave her alone. But their mind was made up. And when Argo’s mind was made up, you couldn’t change it.

Argo promised to keep in touch. And they still do, but Elena finds it hard to look at the messages. It reminds her of the past, and the people she lost.

And Elena can’t help but remember Elena Harker, the woman she used to be. Bright-eyed and ready to make her mark, the young bounty hunter had received the Helios as reward for years of work in a mechanical factory. From there, she had set off trying to make her mark. Eventually, she found Cyrus, then Daigo, then Jackie, then Argo found them. They worked together and lived together, a family kicking ass and taking names.

Elena had been the brightest of them in those days, the happiest, the most energetic. And then Cyrus fell. Then Daigo. And a change began to come over her. The harsh realities began to set in, and Elena felt her spark growing cold. But she had nothing else to do. So she, and the rest of the Helios, soldiered on. Jackie died. Argo left. And Elena couldn’t see herself anywhere else but this ship. So here she’s stayed. The job’s lost all meaning. But it pays well, and she’s damn good at it.

The memories flood through her as she lays there. Eventually, she has to turn away from the picture. And in the darkness, the feelings finally overwhelm her. She starts sobbing. Loudly and heavily, the gasping breaths in between sobs sending shivers and spasms through her body. Her stomach hurts after only a few seconds. But she can’t stop. She curls up and lets the tears flow. For a second, she imagines the arms of a crewmate around her, telling her it’s alright, crying with her. But then the arms disappear, and she’s alone once more.

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