Jessica, too tall but still lovely, was not sure she would or should drop the whale. I stood in the grass outside her window, arms outstretched to catch the tiny plastic bath toy, as though it was a priceless Faberge egg. We were children, tiny people playing serious games. I was the fireman, and she was the trapped damsel with her smooth gray baby, dangling precariously out of the second story window of her pink bedroom, fleeing imaginary flames and blinded by nonexistent smoke. I remember the look that danced on her features before she jumped, all those years ago. She was testing me, measuring my commitment to her safety. Would I catch her with my tiny arms, would I break myself to preserve her? A womanly test, hatched in the deep dark places of her newly churning desire to find a mate, to carry on her legacy, to father her unborn children. I let the plastic whale/baby fall away and threw myself at her falling body, but I was too small a cup to catch the spill.

Her eyes told me I failed when I saw her in the cast.

"The baby died."

I wake up with a start, kicking my flight boots against the blunt console. I have a fine sheen of unwashed body slime all over the inside of my helmet, greasing my hair uncomfortably. I had been in the suit way too long. My ass felt like somebody had been punching it in my fitful sleep and the back of my head buzzed like a hive of angry bees. Too many chewed balls of amphetamine gum where stuck in patterns on the dash. I've been in here for days. The fuzzy red of the gas giant outside the cockpit makes the panic roll up my throat. I want to claw my way out of the stale air and flee.

Okay man. Get a grip. Check off what you know.

I rub the itchy days-long stubble on my chin and pick the sleep from my eyes, blinking madly. Deep breath. Slow. it. down. You're OK man. You're alive. Just put it all together.

I was on a delivery run. I look around slowly, taking stock of the environment. Cramped gauges, big square heads-up display panel, stubby nose outside the tri-fold window. I'm in a Thump-bug. A little gate-jumper designed to hop cargo between capital ships. The fuzzy red globe outside the window is a gas giant. I must be orbiting a gas giant.

OK. Delivery. Doing a Thump-run, delivery...

Why is everything powered down?

Goddamn I have a headache.

I feel all used up. I reach for the prime power switch and pause. I must have jammed that piece of gum on there for a reason.

OK. Fuck. Think man.

In a Thumpbug. Strapped in a Thumpbug. Delivering stuff. I've been here for days. I've been chewing amp-gum to stay awake. I gummed up the power switch. So, I'm dead in the water, orbiting a gas giant. I'm getting pressure psychosis because I can feel my skin crawling. OK. OK. Thumpbug. I'm a Navy fly boy. Gotta be, gotta be. Cargo Manifest!

I thumb my wrist comp on and the cargo listing pops up. Thumpbug full of...

Military probes?

OK. OK. Got a belly full of Mil-probes, and I'm orbiting this shit hole with the lights out... Think. Think...

My hand goes for the gum. I'm clouded up cause I've been tweaking for too long. The scrubbers are off so I'm breathing my own stink. Slow down Jimmy, remember the regs. Assess before action.

I pop the gum in my mouth before I realize what I am doing. I can taste the medicinal cherry mix with the copper tang from my bleeding gums. Woah. Ride the wave.

I breathe deep through my nose for a bit before passing out.

When I come back to reality, I feel a bit more normal, or at least less fried. I jam the gum up into my upper lip and have another go at the facts.

In a thumpbug, running probes to somewhere... Tau Ceti! I came off the TSS Europa and I am running these spy probes to Tau Ceti. I jumped at the Proxima Galopi gate, so this must be... Soxus Prime? I thumb the star chart on my wrist comp and confirm. It shows a dot trace a tiny 3 dimensional path from the Proxima Galopi jump gate, and then jump twice more to here, the Seebo-Ulani binary system.

The map shifts from blue to red.

Holy crap. I am way behind enemy lines.

I close my eyes tightly and press my thumbs against them to try to clear my head. Think, god damn it! What happened?

Slowly, like figures emerging from fog, I piece together the details my last several days. I'm racing against my own buzz.

OK. Jumped from Proxima G, booking it for Tau Ceti with a load of probes for the spooks to have a look at. If I get caught, I'm dead. The enemy doesn't trade for spies or their messenger boys. Jumped to Aopia, ran into a Losac patrol. I played hide and seek for a bit and then blind jumped to Betelgeuse. Well, almost.

Oh yeah. The minefield.

I took a stupid blind jump and tagged a Losac minefield. Seebo-Ulani Orbital Dockyards. That's why the juice is off. Magnetic sleeper mines.


So, that makes this Seebo-Ulani 3, I'm stuck in a ship full of military probes behind enemy lines, and if I toggle the jump drive, however many sleeper mines I got stuck to the hull will pull me apart into my constituent quarks.

The skin on the back of my neck crawls.

I feel the sticky switch through my glove.