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meta Writing Challenge: A Long Way Home - Feb 1 2020 - Feb 22 2020


Welcome to the resurrected (again) Writing Challenge!

In line with previous ones, this includes a topic, a prompt, and also a challenge.

  • Topic

The topic of this challenge is a difficult journey home. It could be about someone stuck in traffic, a pet lost in the woods, a traveler stranded in an airport, or (cough) about a group of users migrating to a new site after the old one turned evil.

  • Prompt

At first, he/she heard no sound but the whispery hiss of the snowflakes landing.

You are free to modify this as long as the general sense is preserved.

  • Challenge

Use "lurching", "argument" and/or "hypnotic".

So to enter the challenge, you simply write something, and post it below. It can be a work in progress, and continue working on it while receiving feedback, or it can be a finished work - anything goes.
And of course, if you encounter any doubts related to the writing process, don't be shy and open a question on our main site!

You can submit your entries until the end of the three weeks. After three weeks, we'll choose the next prompt and put up a new post.
You can either post the whole thing here, or, if you usually post your writing somewhere else, you can put a link here - although I'd advise putting something in to get people interested.

Remember: this is not a contest. This is merely for fun, and for some practice writing. There will (hopefully) be writers of all different skill levels posting - I'm certainly not super good.

You're welcome to provide feedback, but please make sure that it's constructive. And remember: Be Nice.

Remember that the age limit for the site is 13 - so please avoid excessive graphic content or strong language.

I look forward to reading the submissions!

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In the last two hours, Stan Woodward had learned to truly hate Christmas carols.

Just before the crash he'd been punching the buttons on the radio, trying to find a station that was playing real music. Stan had never been a fan of carols to begin with – boring, sappy tunes with as much life and energy as the roadkilled deer he'd just limped past – but he hadn't truly loathed them until tonight.

First, you couldn't avoid them. The carols were everywhere this time of year, floating around in the air like the flu, waiting for an unwary soul to infect. And once you caught one it stayed, buzzing around your head like a mosquito.

And second, they were nothing like real life.

Stan was now fully convinced that the guy who'd written that song about the winter wonderland – it was stuck in his head right now, mocking him - had never seen snow before, except in pictures. He'd obviously never found himself lurching down a snowy, deserted road on a cold winter's night, or else he'd have written a few verses about numb toes and cold wet socks. And the guy who'd been dreaming of a white Christmas? He'd never tried to drive to work in a blizzard, much less scurry around a warehouse at 3 A.M. while cursing all the idiots who'd waited until the last minute to order gifts.

Yeah, let's see him try to pull a double shift now, when everyone else is on vacation.

That was the worst part. Even if his phone had survived the crash, who could he call? His leg would have to be left untreated - the doctors would all be on vacation. Probably the tow-truck drivers, too. No one sane would venture out into the cold and snow to help a foolish man with a busted leg and a wrecked car.

Stan groaned. His leg felt like it would explode. He knew he should have stayed in the car, but he thought his leg would be able to make the trip. Since then it had swollen, straining against his pant leg.

It's bleeding inside. I can feel it.

He knew he shouldn't sit down – it might be too hard to start walking again – but the pressure inside his shinbone was too much to bear.

He groaned again and slumped down in the middle of the road, straining for breath.

At first, Stan heard no sound but the whispery hiss of the snowflakes landing and his own ragged breathing. No animals, not even a lone owl. Animals weren't stupid enough to go out in this weather, just people. I should've been a bear. Just go to sleep when winter starts, and wake up when it's over.

Sleep. Now there was a tempting thought. Stan looked up at the sky, snowflakes melting on his face. It was actually sort of peaceful, the snowy road at night. Far more than his shift would have been. It would be so easy to just lie down in the soft snow, close his eyes, and go to sleep. He had seen no other cars all night, he didn't need to worry about traffic-

Yeah, great idea. Until a snowplow comes along, and then I'll wind up like that deer back there.

He needed to get moving again. Sitting in the road wouldn't help him get home any faster.

And the snow was only getting deeper.

Stan crawled to the edge of the road, where he knew the ground was littered with fallen branches – casualties of last week's ice storm. With luck, he might find one that he could use as a crutch.

He shivered. It was cold, and the night would only get colder. For the fifteenth time, he wished he'd stayed in his car.

No, he should have done more than that. He should have called in to work and pretended to be sick, but he didn't want to risk another argument with his boss. Now he had no car, one working leg, and he would probably lose his job anyway.

He reached into the snow and pulled out a branch. Rotten. He tossed it aside and pulled out another. Too short. Another one, too thin. Another one, split.

He shivered again. It wasn't doing any good for him to sit still. How long is this going to take?

Stan glanced down at his watch. He was missing work right now... but not, he thought, missing it. Tonight's shift would have been brutal. Since they were short-staffed – Wanda, Alan, and Kyle were all out with the flu – the rest of them all had to pull extra hours. His co-workers were probably cursing him right now, and he knew he could expect to find a flood of angry messages from his boss when he got home.

Stan muttered a quick apology that his co-workers could not hear and continued his search.

Branch number twenty-eight looked like a solid choice. He stood up, bracing himself against the branch. Come on. One last hill. After that, it should be a nice, gentle slope downhill to his driveway.

Stan set his crutch on the ground, and leaned forward-

He spun in a clumsy half-pirouette, lost his balance, and landed facefirst in the snow. Cursing, he dragged himself into a sitting position, clutching his injured leg. All right, so he would need two crutches to make it home.

Shivering and cursing, he dug through the snow, searching for another branch. He tossed the rejects over the fence as he went.

Thirty-eight, needs a fork. Thirty-nine, also rotten. Forty... how does a tree branch even grow like that? Forty-one... aha. We have a winner.

Stan hauled himself upright, leaned into his crutches and swung forward. Both branches held. He swung forward again. The branches still held.

Step by careful step, the final hill shrank. He tried not to look up – the falling snowflakes were oddly hypnotic, and he was already tired. His arms began to ache – they were used to physical labor, but not to being a mode of transportation. But he was so close. He had less than a quarter-mile to go.

He reached the top of the hill, made his way around the turn... and at last, he could see the light up ahead.

He had a fern growing on his windowsill, illuminated by a single plant light. That light promised much – warmth, a change of dry clothes, the comfort of a hot meal.

For the first time all night, Stan smiled.

When he got home he would quit – he wouldn't be able to work anyway - and take a vacation. Someplace warm and sunny where "Jingle Bells" is outlawed. He did have some money stashed away, for emergencies, and this certainly qualified. And then, once his leg was better, he would find himself a new job. One where he actually got to see daylight. Last summer his daughter had offered him a job with her landscaping company. Maybe that was still open. He could ask her tomorrow – she was planning to visit him for Christmas Eve, after all.

He crutched on, down the hill, humming a tune to himself as he went.

Bit by bit, it began to replace the one in his head.

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The Earth was not at its place. That was of course impossible. But Alice had checked all the data several times, and the space ship definitely was at the place where the Earth should be. Except that there was no planet at this place. Just empty space.

It had been her very first interstellar flight. Indeed, it had been the first time she had left the gravitational field of Earth at all, as all flight training and tests had been done either in orbit or in simulators. Tests that she had passed with perfect grades. Otherwise she would not have been allowed to pilot a ship anyway. Too many ships had been lost recently, therefore the spaceflight regulation agency had raised the bars for space pilots.

Alice had been enthusiastic when she finally had gotten the job as space pilot. OK, it was just cargo transports, and she was alone on the trips, but then, a typical trip only lasted a few days, and after all, she was in space. Flying a space ship. Much better than her previous job as web designer on an astronomy site she had taken only because she needed the money. After all, she had not majored in space flight in order to put images of planets onto computer screens. She wanted to see those planets for herself.

Now this turned out to remain a dream. Not that she hadn't passed by several planets, but the cargo ships had no windows, for cost reasons. So while passing, still all she would see of the planets were images on the screen. Well, at least they were live images, directly from the camera, not those overcompressed jpegs she had to position on the web site. She wondered why in all those centuries after its invention, nobody had ever bothered to replace that image format by something better. There was no lack of superior formats, after all.

But anyway, now she had different problems. Her current problem was not that the image of Earth showed compression artefacts. Her problem was that there was no Earth to be imaged to begin with.

For a moment she had thought it was an electronic malfunction caused by leaving hyperspace. Always when leaving hyperspace, all electronics stopped working for a mere fraction of a seceond before continuing to work as if nothing had happened. Nobody knew why. But given that the malfunction never had any lasting effects, people just got used to it. Only newcomers like Alice even consciously noticed it, for more experienced pilots it just didn't enter their consciousness any more. After all, the time was too short to react in any way anyway.

Alice always feared that one day there might be a lasting effect. So maybe that was what had happened this time? But there was no reasonable way a malfunction could just make the Earth disappear from the data completely. No, this had to be something different.

"Computer, open the flight chart." She carefully compared the data with the tracking data the ship had collected during the flight. It was in perfect agreement. The energy signatures of the hyperspace tunnels matched the values on the flight charts. The durations of the hyperspace passages matched. The inertial navigation data between hyperspace travels showed correct navigation also in ordinary space. Everything was as it should be.

Everything, except for the missing Earth.

But maybe the flight chart had been erroneous? "Computer, external camera image to main screen, centered on brightest star." If this was really the position of Earth, the brightest star should be the sun. Seconds later, a very bright spot appeared on the screen, with a label "Magnitude -27.52". That was the expected value for the sun as seen from space at Earth orbit.

"Computer, block brightest star." She watched a shield move into the picture until it hid the sun, so that the surrounding stars could be recognized. She recognized the star constellation as Lyra. Another sign that she was at the right place. The fact that she recognized Lyra at all proved being in the right part of the galaxis, as too far from the sun the constellations would look different. Moreover, at this time of the year, the sun as seen from Earth should indeed be in Lyra.

"Computer, manual camera control." She grabbed the trackball and moved the camera in the direction where Centaurus was to be expected. Alpha Centauri was so close to the sun that it should not be in its place when viewed from any other star system. But there it was, at exactly the place where it should be. There was no doubt: She was in the right place. But where was Earth?

Maybe the time was wrong. Time shifts were a common occurrence with wormhole travel, but should not happen during hyperspace passage. But then, humanity had discovered the hyperspace tunnles only five decades ago, and the first time the effect had been observed in wormhole travel was after several centuries of regular use. So it was definitely possible that it existed in hyperspace, too.

"Computer, locate third planet from the closest star." It took about a minute, then the computer reported: "Planet identified. Distance to the star: 1.5 astronomical units." That was the distance of Mars. But Earth should be the third planet! Mars was the fourth. But then, maybe Earth was currently right behind the sun, then the ship's system would not be able to find it. It was very unlikely, but still much less unlikely than Earth simply being gone.

"Computer, show image of the planet, maximum zoom." A small red disc showed on the screen. The colour was right for Mars, too.

But there was something wrong with it. She couldn't quite tell what, but something in her unconsciousness told her that there was some issue with this image.

"Computer, maximum magnification." The red disc now filled the screen, each pixel individually recognizeable. And now she saw what was wrong: There was a straight vertical line going right through the planet's image, along which its colour showed a sudden change. An effect that she knew all too well from her previous job. It was a compression artefact.

There was only one possible conclusion: This image did not come straight from the ship's camera, it came from somewhere in the data storage. Someone had manipulated the computer. Probably all data was fake. And she couldn't rely on anything the computer said or did.

But she also couldn't just switch off the computer. Without it, absolutely nothing in this ship would work. She wondered how such a ship design could ever have been approved by the spaceflight regulation agency. But then, it was an open secret that the SRA was corrupt; surely Spaceships Limited had paid a substantial amount to the right hands for getting the space ship type approval. Anyway, considering these questions now was moot. She had an immediate problem to solve, and that was to get home.

As a first step she had to get reliable information about where she was. Information that didn't go through the computer first. The very first thing to do was to find out where she really was. She had to get an impression of the space around her. Not a faked camera image, a real view, with her own eyes. She started to walk to the nearest airlock.

The noises of the bridge vanished as the door closed behind her. Not that the bridge had been loud to begin with. During travel, the sound was dominated by the whining of the engines, but the engines were off right now. The only thing that was to be heared was the humming of the computers which filled the bridge, and the noise of the fans cooling them. But now, in the corridor, everything was silent. The only thing she still heard was the sound of herself walking, and as her ears adapted to the silence, also her own breathing.

She shivered. Was it getting colder? At first she wasn't sure, but soon enough there was no doubt. The computer must have shut down the heating. It would get the colder, the closer she came to the hull.

And indeed, as she proceeded, the temperature fell rapidly. She couldn't tell how much it was because of her getting closer to her destination and how much it was due to the ship getting colder overall. But one thing was for sure: Her clothing was too thin for the temperatures currently on the ship. She started to walf faster, both to save time, and to warm herself through the movement.

The ship now got colder rapidly. Did the ship have something like active cooling? Maybe for the case it had to stay close to a star. She didn't know about any cooling system, but then, for her trip that knowledge would not have been necessary anyway. But if there was an active cooling system, she was sure it was activated.

The falling temperatures also broke the silence of the ship. At first, she heard no sound but the whispery hiss of the snowflakes landing. Then, she started to hear cracking sounds. Could it be that some structural elements were failing due to the cold? They for sure were not made for this temperature.

Suddenly she had the impression that the air got thinner. Or was it only imagination? Without any thought, she asked "Computer, control air pressure." The answer came prompt: "Air pressure normal." But then, she had already established that the computer wasn't to trust. But then, what interest would the hacker have to kill her? Well, now was not the time to ponder this question, now was the time to get a space suit as quickly as possible. There would be one at the airlock, so she hurried up.

To her mind came those many ships lost recently. Was that what happened to them? Hacked and programmed to go who-knows-where, and then systematically kill the pilot by manipulating the life support systems? But why?

Now the reduced air pressure was already noticeable. She had to slow down a bit because she didn't get enough air. How long until she would turn unconscious due to lack of oxygen? She had the impression that the ship started to move erratically. Was that the work of the computer? Or was it just her perception due to the lack of oxygen?

Her pulse went fast as she finally reached the airlock. It was the only thing that went fast. She was lurching towards the space suit and tried to get into it. On the third try she succeeded. She put on the helmet and opened the oxygen valve. Normally she hated the smell of that breathing gas, but today she felt that a breeze from the ocean could not smell better.

Quickly she recovered. The ship felt steady again, so it had been just her perception. Looking at the air status of the suit, she saw that she had about four hours of air. Four hours during which she had to resolve the problems, or she would die.

The integrated heating of the space suit made her more comfortable again. She checked the energy status. Only three hours of energy left. So she would have to solve her problem a bit faster.

She entered the airlock and closed the inner door. There wasn't much air left inside the ship, but she didn't want to increase the losses further. Then she opened the outer door, carefully left the ship, and connected the safety tether besides the door.

Following the standard protocol for space walks, she then closed the outer door of the air lock. Right after she did it, she was angry at herself. What if the computer wouldn't let her open it again? But then, the computer could have closed it all by itself. Anyway, now thjat it was already closed, better to not touch it again until necessary.

She boosted a bit away from the spaceship and looked around. She was far away from any star, in absolute darkness. There was none of the familiar constellations. Whereever she was, she was very far from Earth.

Then she noticed something else: Another ship leaving hyperspace, not far from hers. Surely a rescue team! Someone would have noticed the wrong course of her ship and followed her. She had to contact them and warn them about the ship's condition. After all, who knew what the ship was doing next, maybe fire the main engines when the other ship tried to dock? Whoever that hacker was, it was clearly a malicious person, so everything was possible.

She activated the communication system of the space suit. First only the listening part, to save energy. She would activate the sender as soon as she figured out the right channel.

Frantically she tried one channel after the other, until she picked up a carrier signal. She checked the signature. It was her own ship that she had picked up. But the signal was not strong enough to pass more than one hyperspace tunnel. It certainly couldn't be picked up by someone back on Earth, and probably not by anyone on the usual travel routes either.

The suit's computer identified digital data, and she put that data on the Head-up display. It was a set of space coordinates, temperature and pressure data, and the string "no life detected."

She needed a moment until she understood. The coordinates were the current location of the ship, the true location. It was there to specifically tell someone nearby where to find the ship. The rest was there to tell them that the job was done, the pilot was killed. That's why the other ship had only left hyperspace after she left the airlock: Her ship's computer had detected and broadcast the loss of life signal, and they had interpreted that as her being dead.

Now it was clear to her: It was definitely not a good idea to contact that other ship. If she wanted to survive, they should not know that she was still alive. She dragged herself with the safety tether back to the ship where she could not be seen. Using the suit's boosters would give her away. She didn't enter the airlock again, as then the ship would again identify her life signs and the other crew would be noticed of her still being alive.

She now was glad that she had closed the airlock. That way it didn't give away that she was outside there. But just in case, she moved away from the airlock using the handles on the ship's hull. She also re-attached the safety tether a bit further from the airlock. That was against the standard safety rules, but this was no standard situation.

She felt how the other ship docked to hers. Instinctively she checked her HUD again: As expected, the ship didn't pick up her life signals. Good. Now they would probably enter the ship, and givent the ship's current status, they would need to use space suits. So she switched to the standard suit-to-suit channel. The data on her HUD vanished.

At first, she picked up no signal, and she considered whether she should switch to the ship's channel again. But then, she heard a male voice: "Can you hear me?"

Another male voice answered: "Yes. You can now enter the ship."

"In a moment. I just get my blaster ready, just in case."

"Don't be silly. Didn't you see the data? The pilot is deat. No danger."

"Better safe than sorry. I'm ready to go now."

"OK, but hurry up. We need to be finished in an hour."

An hour. So at least she would not run out of air or energy while they were in the ship. But she would have to find a solution to her situation in that time.

"I'm in. It's a bit hard to move. Everything is full of ice here."

"As it should. Now on the left there should be the door to the freight room."

"OK, I see it. I'm entering. Do you know where the light switch is?"

"According to my plan, it should be on the left, right after the door. It might be a bit hard to operate from inside the space suit."

"OK, I've found it. Wow, that's a lot of machines."

"Yeah, five hundred, according to the company's tracking system."

So that was it. Space pirates. Alice had heard some rumours about those, but nobody had ever seen them, so she had thought they were just that, rumours. Well, as she now realized, the truth was that nobody had survived to tell about them.

The voice continued: "On your left, you should see the cargo hatch."

"I see it."

"Open it. I'll then do the rest using the loading crane of our ship."

"How do I open it?"

"Do you see the big red button?"

"Yes. I press that?"

"No, that's for closing the hatch. There's a smaller blue button below it. Press that."

"OK." Alice heard thesound of the hatch opening.

"Great work! Now go to the bridge."

"Why can't I just go back to our ship? We take the stuff out and fly away. Nobody will find the ship anyway."

"But what if they do? Then they'll analyse the ship computer and find our manipulations. And then they'll install software on their ships that prevents it. We can't risk that. You have to reset the computer to normal, so they cannot determine what went wrong."

"But what if the pilot is alive? Will that not allow him to fly back?"

"Don't be silly. The pilot is dead. By the way, according to the flight plan, it's a woman. A quite pretty one, from the image. Selling her to a brothel would surely have made us a pretty nice sum if we hadn't had to kill her."

Alice smiled. No, she was definitely not dead. Those pirates were just too sure of themselves. So sure, they were going to restore the ship's computers. After they left, she would just enter the ship and fly home.

The voice continued: "And anyway, we're going to take all the fuel, so there's no chance to go anywhere anyway, even in the unlikely case the pilot is still alive."

Alice stopped smiling. She somehow had to stop those pirates from taking away the fuel. And if possible, without revealing herself. She wanted to end up neither dead nor in a brothel.

Where again was the filling port? Ah yes, right besides the docking ring. Where the other space ship was currently docked. In other words, possibly the most dangerous place for her to be at in this moment. But she had no other choice. If the pirates stole her fuel, it was game over for her.

She decided to remove the safety tether from the ship. Having to move it continuously to different handles would be too time consuming.

Carefully she moved around the ship. Fortunately there were handles all around it, in case it had to be repaired in space. Alice sent a silent thank you to the regulators that required it. Since the ship never entered any atmosphere, drag was no concern, and handles were an obvious enough feature that they couldn't be easily avoided without raising questions in the general public. Approval officers could be bribed, but the public opinion couldn't.

In the communication system she heard the two voices exchanging arguments whether there wouldn't have been a good way to capture her instead of killing her. Good, that should keep their attention away from what happened on the ship's hull.

She reached the point where she could see the pirate ship. She knew all to well that this meant that the pirate ship now could also see her. She had to move slowly to not draw attention.

On the other hand she saw that the fuel hose was already connected. Any second she came later meant less fuel left. Thus she had to move as fast as possible.

Fortunately the pirates were still busy moving the freight from her ship to theirs. Another thing that should take their attention away from her.

She moved with the maxim speed she thought she could afford without being detected. Which was a rather slow speed, actually. She concentrateed on the handles that moved below her with almost hypnotic speed. She knew she couldn't afford to miss a single one, as she was not tethered any more, and the boosters would literally highlight her in the darkness of space.

She hardly noticed that one pirate reported the ship's computer being restored to normal state. She only noticed in passing that the pirate ship had finished the cargo transfer and closed its hatch. She barely registered that the pirate reported return to his ship. The fact that the pirate ship undocked didn't enter her consciousness. All that was in her mind was to reach the filling port.

She was only a few meters away from the filling port when the unthinkable happened. The pirate ship released the hose and dragged it in. She immediately knew what that meant. They had finished removing the fuel. Her ship was empty. She was stranded. She would slowly starve.

Following a sudden inspiration, she fired up her boosters. It made no longer sense to stay hidden. If they decided to kill her now, it would save her a long, painful agony.

But that was not what she hoped for. She hoped for the pirates' greed. Hadn't they argued about the money they could make from selling her? Well, she would give them the chance. But for that, they would have to get her on their ship. Alive. And as soon as she was on the ship, the game was again open.

And indeed, she saw how the outer door of an airlock opened on the pirate ship. Her tactics had worked! She boosted towards the ship and entered the airlock. On the inner door, one of the pirates awaited her with his blaster. Well, that was expected. She showed no resistance as the pirate brought her to a cabin.

"Are you virgin?" asked the pirate.

"Yes." This was a flat-out lie. But she knew that brothels paid a multiple for virgins, and she hoped that this way the pirates would not dare to damage that value. And at least for the moment it worked. The pirate closed the door, activated the electronic lock and went away.

Alice tried to use the door's open button, but of course it didn't work. Well, it was worth a try.

Shortly after, she noticed the typical feeling og being in hyperspace. She felt it in every part of her body. It was a feeling unlike any other feeling she had ever experienced. She couldn't describe it, nor could anyone she ever had met. If you had ever been in hyperspace, you knew that feeling, if you never were in hyperspace, there was no way to even imagine it.

Alice had also noted something different, something that nobody else she had spoken to had noticed. Abount three seconds before leaving hyperspace the feeling changed slightly. It wasn't a big change, and easy to miss if one didn't explicitly pay attention to it. But if she did, she could predict the exact time they would leave hyperspace, without looking at the instruments.

And currently she did pay attention. Which wasn't hard anyway, as there was absolutely zero distraction in this cabin. They stayed an awful long time in hyperspace, but finally she felt that change. They were about to leave hyperspace.

Now every moment counted. Alice's right hand hovered at the open button, while her left hand rested on the door. At the very moment they left hyperspace, she pressed the button and immediately tried to move the door. And indeed, the door slided to the side. At that moment, the normal operation of the electronics set in again, and a blaring alarm was emitted by the door. Alice started to run and looked for a place to hide.

She noticed an open door to her left. As she entered, she saw that it was the freight room. All the machines that had been on her ship now were standing here, although not quite as orderly as they had been on her ship.

She noticed that on one machine, the cover was open. And below the cover, there was a cavern, large enough for her to hide in if she removed some of the stuff that was there. This would destroy the machine in question, but who cared at this point. And the parts she removed could be idden in some of the other machines.

She put the cover on that machine back. She didn't want the pirates to get the same idea, after all. Thenn she selected one of the machines not immediately visible from the door, and started to empty its cavity. It took her not too long to prepare the machine so she could hide in there. Just as she slipped in, she heard the pirates approaching, searching for her.

"I really did lock the door" complained the one.

"I don't want to repeat myself again, but you still didn't tell me how she could then escape."

"Because I have no idea how. It should be impossible. It must have been a malfunction."

"Enough from your excuses. You're now searching the freight room, while I look in the machine room."

Alice heard one of the pirates enter the room and systematically walking by all the machines. She held her breath as he approached the machine she was in. From the noise, she concluded that he was looking from all sides, but fortunately it never occurred to him to look under the cover.

Finally, the pirate left the freight room without finding her. She was relieved. For now she was safe.

After a while without hearing anything, she dared to leave her hiding place. She was thirsty, and also had some other urgent needs. Carefully she walked along the corridors, seeking a toilet room while watching out for the pirates. Finally she found what she searched for.

As she opened the door, she found there a drunken pirate in deep sleep. That was an unexpected opportunity. She looked around, and found something to tie him up with. One pirate less to deal with, at least for the moment.

While using the toilet, the made a plan. She was pretty sure that there were only two pirates on the ship, as she had never heard a third voice. If that was true, she had to only defeat one other pirate. At least if she found him before he found the other one.

She heard the door open. Then a voice: "What ... damn drunkard, can't even defend himself against a woman!"

Alice knew she would have to be fast now. She had the advantage of surprise, but even while drunk, the other pirate could still pose an extra danger if she let him get untied.

She ripped open the toilet door and jumped onto the pirate who just had started to unleash his accomplice. The startled pirate had no time to react before her fist hit him unconscious.

She tied him up as well, and started heading to the bridge, still being on the watch in case there was a third pirate on the ship. However she encountered no one else until she reached the bridge.

The spaceship controls were password protected. What would a pirate use as password? Of course the main thing on a pirate's mind was money, so she tried that. It didn't work. She tried some alternate terms for money. No chance. She tried the names of several currencies, but to no avail. Maybe something other valuable. Chest? No. Diamonds? Wrong password again.

Then she found the right word. It was so obvious that she wondered why she didn't try it right away. It was four letters, and it described perfectly what pirates were after: Gold.

She first did a check on the life signals on ship. Three life signals detected. So she had been correct in her assumption: There were only two pirates on the ship; the third life signal was her own.

Now the rest was a piece of cake. She programmed a course to Earth, and then she just had to wait. A few hours later, she finally saw the image of a planet pop up on the main screen. A blue planet. Earth. Home.

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