So now we're back in space, the engine is held together with the equivalent of glue and duct tape, I have no idea where we're going and I'm not entirely certain if Ramon does either. There's a dozen ships from Planet Barracuda on our tail and they're chasing the literal holy namesake of their people. A couple beams shoot over the roof of the car.
But, there are more improtant things to consider first.
I turn to the backseat and say, "Alright, you two. We've got to set some responsibilities straight."
Klunk is sitting with her arms folded defensively while Aristede has his face buried in his tablet computer. He looks up and says "Continue."
"Aristede, you're the one with some experience handling the controls for this vehicle. So you push the buttons. Klunk, you're the one who knows how to fix this things, so you handle repairs. Help each other out but don't get in each other's way. Is that clear? I don't want a repeat of what happened on Planet Barracuda."
"Who died and made you queen of the car?" says Klunk.
"I thought I was queen of the car," says Ramon. "That's how it works, right? I choose where to go, I pick the radio stations, I roll up the windows...sometimes...And yet, someone picked two extra passengers, and it wasn't my decision. So I'm feeling a little usurped. I'm feeling like there's a rebellion going on. Maybe I need to chop some heads?"
Another beam shoots over the car. They're giving us warning shots, maybe. I don't understand why they refuse to just drag us in with magnets or something.
"No queens, no lords, no masters in here," I say. "Not here in the free land of 1970 manual transmission Hemi 276 Barracuda. Here, we are a family. I'm just trying to help everyone get along, okay? I don't want to have to deal with two people in the back seat who refuse to get along."
"Alright, Mom", says Klunk, "but you could just sit in the back and give me the front."
"My shotgun seat. I called dibs for life."
Another beam shoots over the roof. Something explodes about 500 meters in front of us. Strange. I hadn't seen anything out the windshield.
Suddenly there's a Mace Head starfighter 600 meters away. Then another one. Then another one. And another one. One by one a vast squadron of Mace Heads pops into our sight. And behind them all, all of a sudden, is one of the 200-Kilometer-long Tower Ships of the grand Student Loan Company fleet.
Klunk, Aristede, and Ramon scream.
'Wherever you say we should be going," I say, "Let's get going there now. Aristede, can you warp us out of here?"
The beams from behind us are firing at every target besides us. Plenty of Mace Heads are exploding. Plenty of them are firing back. A few of them at us. I glance at the dashboard. The Check Engine light is on. Well, that's a big help. I look back to see Aristede fanritcally pushing the warp button. "No luck," says Aristede. "We must have busted the warp drive at some point."
"How fast can we repair it?"
"You're looking to repair a warp drive," says Klunk, "in the middle of a space battle."
Outside the scene keeps spinning around as Ramon pitches us up, down, left, right, and sideways to evade the Mace Heads.
"How hard can it be?"
"Under ideal circumstances the fix takes from twenty minutes to an hour," says Klunk.
Aristede is frantically swiping through his tablet computer. "It wouldn't be easy," he says. "Most spacecraft has its engine hatch within the vehicle. But we're dealing with a Barracuda. Everything is under the hood."
"I can hardly ask you to get out and fix it," I say. "We might as well just try to blast our way through. Does this thing have weapons?"
"Damn if I know," says Ramon. "It's not like we can escalate the situation any worse by shooting, right? Maybe there's a weapons console in the glove box."
"I'll get out and fix it," says Klunk.
"No!" says Ramon at the same time I do.
"We're going to lose this thing if we don't do something!" says Klunk.
"We might lose you if you try to fix the warp drive," says Aristede.
"Better me than the car."
"Klunk -- "
"I'm serious!" says Klunk. She points out the windshield at the swirling chaos of speeding starfighters and spinning spaceship parts. "Look at this mess! Do you honestly think we would have survived for three minutes if they'd meant to kill us? Look at the shots! They're all going wide! ALL of them! Look!"
It's true. Every time we get close to a Mace Head it swerves away. None of their shots get near us, except by accident, and only once or twice does a blast actually rattle us around. The shots from the Planet Barracuda fleet are going wide as well.
Everyone knows we're here.
"They want us alive!" says Klunk. "They want the car intact! If we don't manage to warp out of here they're going to have us both once my people have been beaten on the field. The Barracudans and the Mace Heads think they're fighting over us as a prize. If we don't fix the warp drive, they'll be correct. None of you want that. So if you will kindly let me fix the damn engine -- "
"Just so we're clear," I say, "You're going to try to fix an engine, in space, while the car is running, while there's a battle happening right behind your ass."
"My life is worth less than the car."
"Jesus Creezy, we need to talk about that later. Fine." I throw up my hands. "Fine. Ramon, how far can you extend the shields and life support?"
"To a distance of two meters," says Ramon. "Gonna use up a lot of fuel, though. Klunk, make your fix as quick as possible."
"Will do," says Klunk, and she crawls out the open window.
One of the wonderful things about relativity is that out in space, you can be travelling along at a million miles per hour and if you toss a rock up it will also be travelling a million miles per hour forward, but it will be in the same direction you're going, so relative to you the rock is only going up. Which means that Klunk is in little danger of being shaken off the car, unless Ramon decides to take a turn too fast, which he doesn't need to do anyway since nobody's shooting at us or trying to get near us.
Not intentionally. There's the occasional piece of spaceship that bounces off the shield once or twice, and the occasional errant laser beam. Those almost rattle Klunk off the car. She's getting pretty sweaty out there in space as well, esspecailly since she's basically trying to fix a furnace while it's on fire. Ramon has the car coasting and he's trying to keep the engine temperature as cool as possible, but he can't shut the car off because that would mean we lose shields, which would mean we lose Klunk. I make a mental note to get some actual space suits at our next stop.
I stick my head out the window. "How's it going, Klunk?"
"Stupid warp drive built with proprietary parts," says Klunk. "I can't fix it without the right screws. I can't believe this. I can't believe my people would be willing to pour their heart and soul into this thing and yet buy a damn Mango-brand warp drive, I can't believe they would risk being unable to fix one of the crucial parts of the engine -- "
"Would duct tape work?"
"Are you nuts?"
"I'm talking to a woman who's floting in space in the middle of a space battle trying to fix a running engine. Who's nuts here?"
"Duct tape it is. Not a good fix by any means. Maybe it will work. For a few seconds. Alright, tell you what. I'm going to wrap as much duct tape as possible around this thing, and as soon as I say go i want you to hit the warp button. Got it?"
Aristede sticks his head out the window. "How many seconds are you going to give us before you say go?"
"Go is as soon as the tape is on."
"Klunk," says Aristede, "we might lose you if we warp when you're outside the car."
"I'll hang onto the car, then."
"And get exposed to the cosmic whatsit that we go though every time we warp this thing?"
"My life is worth less than the car! I told you that!"
"Make up your minds," says Ramon, "The battle is wrapping up."
There aren't many starfighters shooting at us now. Most of the Mace heads are gone but most of the remaining starfighters are mace Heads. And they're heading towards us.
"I am not pushing this button," says Aristede, "Until you are in the car. Is that clear?"
"You have approximately three seconds between my duct-taping the warp drive and having it burn off," says Klunk. "I don't think I can get back in the car in that time."
"Fine," I say, "Ramon, here's what we do." I lean my body mostly out the window and extend my arms to Klunk. "Grab my feet. When I say pull, pull. Klunk, the instant you get the tape on, grab my hands."
The car is bathed in yellow light, and we being to move towards the great towering ship.
"Is the tractor beam going to interfere with the warping?" says Ramon.
"Only one way to find out," says Aristede.
Klunk finishes wrapping the warp drive and grabs my hands.
We drag Klunk back into the car. She's still halfway out the window when Aristede hits the warp button.
The universe turns inside-out again.
And when it resolves, the stars look all blue, and Aristede looks blue, and Ramon looks blue, and Klunk...
Klunk's lower half has been replaced by a mess of something that looks like a cloud of blue lightning.
"Well, we made it," says Klunk, "But where are we?"
Ramon and Aristede have their hands over their eyes. The view through the windshield is bright. We must be near a star.
But the star isn't the reason for the brightness. The brightness is coming from a spot relatively close. A bright ring, wider around than the star.
The accretion disk of a black hole.
And beyond it, at a distance of maybe ten million miles, is a bright line running across our field of vision, from a distance we cannot see, into a distance we cannot see.
"Did you mean to bring us here?" says Ramon. "Because this isn't exactly a good place to be if we're talking long-term hideout. Setting Sun is a place for the mad and the desperate." He points to the planet in front of us. Half its mass is gone and much of the rest is crumbling away. "You only come here as a last chance."
"I was hoping to get close to the galactic core," says Aristede. "I figured we could get quick repairs at a planet on the edge, and then get away. This is a lot closer than I calculated for, but, hey, what do I expect when the warp drive is held together by tape? be grateful we didn't warp INTO the literal center of the galaxy. In fact, this is good. The Student Loan Company won't follow us this close to the edge."
The car is bathed in yellow light.
"Spoke too soon," says Ramon.
I turn around. The source of the light is a little difficult to make out, but I don't see any ship that looks like the ones we escaped. In fact, I barely see any ship at all, save for the occaional yellowish glint on black metal. Whatever we're dealing with, they're not bold intimidators like the Student Loan Company. Whoever we're dealing with, they would prefer not to be noticed. At the very least, not until they make their move.
"Pirates," says Aristede. "We're being hijacked. Hey! Maybe they can fix the car!"
"Or strip it for parts," says Klunk. "Where's my pistol -- oh hell."
I glance at Klunk. The blue glow has faded from Aristede and Ramon, but Klunk's lower half is still a cloud of electricity. Her pistol belt is gone.
"This is why we roll up the windows when we drive," I say. "Klunk, are you okay?."
"There are a few things I might have to figure out," says Klunk. "But I feel fine for now. Let's focus on the problem at hand."
As we drift toward the pirate vessel, I being to wonder if what we ran from was worse than what we found.
Hm. Deal with pirates, or pay student loans.
Which would you choose?