Drake made it to the bridge first. He ran through the door and vaulted over the railing, landing in Everson’s seat. The control panel flashed all of its lights. A good sign.
Drake turned on the comm. “Engine room, this is the bridge. Dirk, do you read me?”
“Dirk! Answer me!”
“I don’t know if you can hear me, but we’re getting out of here. Give me everything you got.”
Pamela and Janna showed up next, both panting and sweating. Pamela went to Drake’s side, but Janna noticed something else. She peered out of the window and pushed her glasses up the sweat-slicked bridge of her nose. “What is that?”
Drake looked up and saw two things: first, they were finally nearing the core of the ghost planet, and some kind of structure floated there; and secondly, a ship was approaching them. The Vespucci, main vehicle of the Raleigh Project.
“That is our most recent task,” a voice at the door said.
Drake whirled around only to find Snichlo standing behind him, aiming a rifle at the captain’s head.
“We want bodies, right?” the alien asked. “What good are bodies without a world upon which to live?”
“You’re building a new planet?” Janna asked. “From what?”
“Mostly from supplies provided by the Raleigh folks. Some parts will be the very few remaining fragments of the original planet. It will also be made from pieces of the Duke 12 when we dismantle it. It won’t be the same as home, but it will be a place for us to survive.”
“And the Vespucci?” Drake asked.
“My friends,” Snichlo said. “They’re going to help me sober you three up, then clear the way for your . . . spiritual conversions.”
“Why’d you kill LT?” Janna asked.
Snichlo ignored her. “As for this unfortunate problem with power . . . .” He touched the control panel, and everything went dark again. The ship’s energy-hum faded away, and the one good engine ground to a halt.
Drake saw his chance and took it; while Snichlo smiled at his own work, the captain clocked him across the cheek and put a follow-up on the jaw-line. Both were powerful punches, and if Jason had still been Jason, he would have been floored for sure. But Snichlo merely recoiled out of surprise, then turned his dead stare on Drake.
Drake sighed. “Did you even feel that?”
“A little.” Snichlo put the butt of his rifle into Drake’s face, and the captain slumped back into his chair, unconscious and bleeding.
Pamela shrieked, holding both hands to her mouth, and Janna touched her shoulder. “It’s okay,” the scientist said.
“We’re going to die,” Pamela whispered.
“Not really, my dears.” Snichlo approached them. “You’ll just be trapped in your own heads while we take over. It will be like sitting in the backseat of a ship someone else is piloting.”
“Yeah,” Janna said. “That sounds like fun.”
“Now, shall we go down to the common room?”
“We can find our own way.”
Snichlo smiled. “Of course. But wouldn’t you stop off somewhere on the way for more alcohol? That would prolong my plan, as you well know.”
“So what?” Janna said. “We know we’re doomed. Might as well have some fun before we become prisoners in our own bodies, right?”
“Wrong. We’re on a time schedule. Let’s go.” He nodded toward the door.
On the way down to the common room, Janna wished she could talk freely with Pamela. Ms. Goody-Goody’s hair looked like a bird’s nest, and her eyes stared off into space. Whenever someone made a sudden movement, she flinched. She’d clearly given up hope.
If Snichlo hadn’t been pointing his rifle at their backs, Janna would be able to reassure her and mention what she’d learned on the bridge. Snichlo knew that they knew about the booze, which was bad enough, but he didn’t know what Janna now suspected.
Snichlo pushed them forward, through the door to the common room. “Lisg, keep an eye on these two. Mplifsy and his crew are almost here. I’ll be in the docking bay, should you need me.”
The door closed, and Janna said, “You guys want to play poker?”
The air lock clicked, and Snichlo opened it up to let in five men wearing spacesuits. When they removed their helmets, two of them revealed themselves to be women, but all five were surprisingly large. Pillars of muscle, they stood and waited for their instructions.
“As soon as we can inhabit the three remaining survivors,” Snichlo said, “we’ll tow this ship in and start dismantling it. Mplifsy, how is the planet restructuring coming along?”
“Good,” a blond-haired giant said. “The Duke 12 got here just in time.”
“We should contact earth,” one of the women said. “We’ll probably burn through this new equipment fast. I don’t want to take a break while we wait for more supplies.”
“Right,” said the other woman. “We don’t know a lot about these bodies, so who knows how long they’ll last?”
“It will all be taken care of,” Snichlo said. “Mplifsy, take your crew and start evaluating the Duke 12.”
“I’ll be on the bridge.”
“So . . . you’re Pamela Reilly.” When Pamela didn’t respond, Lisg stood behind her and stroked her hair. “Winter really, really hates you.”
“Leave her alone,” Janna said.
“Shut up, cunt,” Lisg said, her voice even and soothing. “You’re kind of homely, and that’s putting it politely. I’ll bet Snichlo just kills you.”
Janna, who had grown a thick skin over years of being made fun of, laughed. “You’ll have to do better than that, bitch. I don’t scare easily.”
Lisg paused. “I’m not trying to scare you. It’s fact. Why do you think Aladnadine killed your lieutenant?”
Janna opened her mouth to say something, but in the face of such information, she had nothing.
Lisg turned her attention back to Pamela. “That Captain Drake is quite the hunk. Winter thinks about him all the time, although she’s troubled by how much he looks like her father. He raped her, you know.”
Pamela blinked, but she offered no further reaction.
“I think I’m going to fuck the shit out of Drake,” Lisg said. “Before he’s inhabited and after. Just so I can compare.”
“He’s got a big dick, but does he know how to use it? Eh, Pammie?”
Finally, something sparked behind Pamela’s eyes. Lisg didn’t see it because she was standing behind her.
“Maybe I’ll take you for a spin,” Lisg whispered. “What do you think?” She licked Pamela’s earlobe.
Pamela’s lips compressed, and she reached behind her, instinctively grabbed Lisg’s hair and pulled forward, squatting down as she moved. The alien gave a cry as she hurled over Pamela’s shoulders, where she fell to the floor.
Janna scooped up Lisg’s rifle and turned it on Winter’s body. “Don’t move.”
Lisg grinned, a rivulet of blood running down from a cut on her temple. “You wouldn’t kill your friend.”
Pamela leaned forward and punched Lisg in the face, hard, on the tip of the chin. The alien slumped, unconscious. “Winter’s not my friend, bitch.”
“Uh . . . ,” Janna said. “Great work.”
Pamela panted, trying to catch her breath. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that. I hope Winter’s still in there, and I hope she felt that.”
“Can I leave you alone with her?” Janna asked. “Because I need to get that vodka.”
“I won’t kill her. I’m satisfied. For now.”
“Okay. Do you need the gun?”
Pamela sat down on Winter’s chest, pinning the unconscious body’s arms with her knees. “I’m good.”
“Before I go, there’s one more thing—-“
“Don’t worry! She’ll be alive when you get back!”
“Not about that,” Janna said. “There’s another way we can beat these things. Their leader doesn’t want us to escape from the magnetic pull of their ghost planet, otherwise he would have left the power on.”
“I don’t think they can move beyond this place. If we can get out of here, I think they’ll be forced to vacate our friends.”
“Oh.” Pamela looked down at Winter’s face. A bruise was spreading across the dimple in her chin. The thought of Drake kissing that dimple set Pamela’s heart on fire. “Better get that vodka. Just in case.”
When Drake came to, he was sitting next to Snichlo, who gazed out the window at the galaxy around them. “It’s a beautiful sight, Captain. But it wears off after floating among the cosmic dust for the first year.”
“It’s only a bunch of stars,” Drake said. He rubbed his face and felt some dried blood crumble and fall away. His palm now looked like a pale solar system filled with maroon planets.
“You lack a sense of wonder,” Snichlo said. “Maybe that’s why your race took so long to wander this far from your planet.”
“Nah. We’re just too busy doing important things. You know, getting laid and killing each other.”
Snichlo turned to Drake. “Joking aside, don’t you want to leave all that bullshit behind? You can. Just let us take over your bodies. We can be gentle.”
Drake snorted. “Don’t worry. I’m just gonna’ put the tip in.”
“Fine. Laugh about it while you can. You’re going to be very bored when you’re locked deep down in your mind. There aren’t many chuckles to be had down there.”
Just to keep up his devil-may-care front, Drake continued to laugh, but he decided that he would kill himself before letting any of Snichlo’s buddies take over his body.
Janna propped the rifle next to her desk and picked up the glass of vodka. She still had a bit of a buzz going, but she wanted to play it safe. Two quick, big gulps went down her throat. When she reached for the bottle, she saw a plastic water container, and inspiration struck.
In her bathroom, she dumped out the water and replaced it with vodka. Since the container’s label clearly said DRINKING WATER and had the manufacturer’s label on it, she thought the trick might actually work.
There was still an inch of alcohol in the bottle, so she thought she might finish it off before going back to the common room. She stepped back into her bedroom only to see, sharply illuminated by the beam of her flashlight, Rico standing in the doorway to her quarters.
How often had she fantasized about something that started like this? She had to remind herself that this was not really Rico, and she forced her mind to replay the scene in the commissary.
“I don’t see it,” Fyub said. “Rico thinks you’re an ugly bitch, but you’re not that bad.”
“Uh . . . .” Janna felt a sudden heat between her legs, and she knew thinking about Rico and Winter was not working.
“I know you want this.” Fyub waved a hand over Rico’s body. “It’s yours, if you want. And you don’t even have to deal with Rico. He’s kind of an asshole, don’t you think?”
Fyub approached, and Janna wanted to throw the vodka bottle at him. The heat said no. The heat knew she’d never have another chance at Rico’s gorgeous body.
Softly, Fyub took the bottle from her and set it on the desk. He leaned forward and gently planted a kiss on Jeni’s lips. She let their mouths touch for a moment, then kissed him back. Their hands wandered all over each others bodies, and Janna could feel him growing hard against her palm, marveling at how big he was.
He pulled back. “Baby, your lips are kind of dry. Do you have any lip balm, or something?”
The spell broke. Janna licked her lips, and they were kind of chapped. But now she knew how stupid she was acting. Since when did she start looking at Rico merely as a sex object?
“I . . . uh . . . have some water here,” she said. She set the flashlight aside and lifted the container to her lips. Her mouth filled up with vodka, and she mocked gulping it down. She leaned forward for another kiss . . .
. . . and spat the booze into Fyub’s mouth. He gagged, swallowing most of it, and staggered around, holding his throat. He tried to cough it up, but it was too late. He turned his hateful glare on Janna, and he tried to say something, but no words came out.
Finally, he collapsed, and when he looked up, he was Rico again. His face was strained, red, and snot and saliva caked his mouth, but he was Rico.
“Sorry,” he said. “What he was talking about . . . you know. I’m sorry.”
What did I ever see in him? she wondered. “No time for apologies now. Let’s get out of here and save everyone, okay?”
As the Duke 12 came closer to the ghost planet’s core, the project became clearer. Drake felt stunned by the magnitude of their work. It would never be an actual planet, of course—-it would be more like a giant space station—-but it was big. Bigger than the captain could have ever imagined.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Snichlo said.
Drake’s cheeks burned, embarrassed to be caught admiring something that belonged to an enemy. “Eh. I’ve seen worse.”
“This is just phase one. Imagine how grand it will be when we complete it. Hell, you’ll be here. You’ll be inhabited, but you’ll be here.”
Drake grunted. “Right.”
“Do you still think you can defeat us?”
“Probably not. But I’m an optimistic guy. How long do we have before we get possessed?”
Snichlo frowned at the p-word. “I’m going to guess ten hours.”
Drake looked at his watch. “We have fourteen before we suffocate. Maybe less now that your goons are on board, taking up oxygen. Cutting it close, don’t you think?”
“When you’re all ours, I’ll turn on the engines. We’ll be fine.”
Drake eyed the pulse rifle leaning against the wall. He’d never get it, but he could live with that. It wasn’t suicide-run time yet. He wanted to use these remaining hours to think of a plan.
Pamela yanked Winter’s mouth open unnecessarily hard and pinched her nose shut while Janna poured some vodka down her throat. Winter gagged, and when she tried to spit it out, Pamela clamped her hand down on her mouth. The booze had nowhere else to go, so Winter swallowed.
“Are you you now?” Pamela asked.
The hatred in Winter’s eyes answered her sufficiently. When she could talk, Winter said, “Why’d you have to hit me so hard?”
“Sorry,” Pamela said, smiling. “The alien’s strong. We had to make sure.”
Winter sat up, probing the inside of her mouth with her fingers. “You fucking bitch! One of my teeth is loose!” She wiggled a lower front tooth to demonstrate.
“Lots of people have fake teeth,” Janna said. “All of my uppers are implants because of a sickness I had when I was a kid.”
“Shut up,” Winter said.
“Never mind that shit now,” Rico said. “I have a plan.”
“That’s awesome,” Pamela said. “I was starting to think we were doomed.”
“Not yet,” Rico said. “There’s seven of them, right?”
“No, two,” Janna said. “FNG and Ben.”
“Five more just arrived,” Winter said.
“Right,” said Rico. “To dismantle the Duke for parts. You guys did real good tricking Fyub and Lisg, but we are waaaay outnumbered. Deception’s not going to work.”
“What else do we have?” Pamela asked.
“It’s a good thing we’re all drunks. There’s a metric shit-ton of whiskey on board.”
“But it does us no good without a delivery system,” Janna said.
“Ah, but we do have one. In the wash bay, there’s a pressure gun. It’s loaded with soapy water right now, but all we have to do is replace it with booze.”
“Two problems. First: the power’s out.”
“It works on a manual pump. Crank it up, and it’s ready to go.”
Janna nodded. “Okay, but what about number two? The hose doesn’t reach outside the wash bay.”
“Lure them down there,” Winter said. “When Rico and I first got possessed, we practically ruined the commissary while fucking. These things haven’t been laid in a long time, so Pamela and I could get them there with sex appeal.”
Pamela grimaced at the thought of working with Winter like that. But it had to be done, if they were going to survive.
“Two are women,” Rico said.
“So you go with them,” Janna said. “I’ll wait with the pressure gun and spray them down.”
“Do you know how to use it?”
“It’s a pressure gun. How hard could it be?”
“Sounds like a plan,” Winter said.
“Let’s get down to the supply room,” Rico said. “We’ll need just about every bottle we can find."
To be concluded!