From the Inside Flap
"Welcome aboard!" said the ship. "I'll walk you through the pre-launch and ejection procedures today. Why don't we get started by introducing ourselves? I'm Botticelli Station Lifeboat Two, as you may have guessed! Tee hee."
"Dumb freaking machine," dos Santos snarled. She bent over the console. Beams of white light stabbed from her eyes and converged on the instruments. She moved her head until her eyelamps illuminated a barely visible rectangular cover. She pried this up with her fingernails to reveal a smaller screen. Her lips moved, subvocalizing commands.
"Excuse me," the lifeboat said. "Are you attempting to access my manual operation mode? I really can't recommend that. Tee hee. Without proof that you're a qualified pilot--"
The heads-up screen went dark, and the lifeboat's voice fell silent.
Dos Santos said in satisfaction, "That code cost me a bundle in favors. Good to know it was worth it."
Elfrida said, "Aren't you ... ma'am, aren't you authorized to take the lifeboat?"
"Nope. But I do know how to fly it. I think." Dos Santos mouthed silent commands. Her fingers dashed across the master screen. Elfrida leaned over from the co-pilot's seat and saw systems checks flashing past.
Without warning, the little craft shuddered so hard that Elfrida's couch tightened protectively on her body. She imagined projectiles striking Botticelli Station, fragging the shield, rupturing the inner torus. That could happen. It did happen. It happened quite often in the Belt, and it was a matter of pure luck that it had never happened where she was before.
Voice shaking only a little bit, she said, "Those eyelamps are pretty cool, ma'am."
"Self-defense. They also come in handy when you haven't got a flashlight."
The lifeboat's airlock clanked shut.
"Ma'am, didn't the scanner recognize you? So why didn't the lifeboat know who you were?"
"I hacked the scanner, Goto. I didn't want it to know who I was. Just in case, you know."
Just in case, Elfrida thought, we get caught stealing a life-boat.
"Ma'am, what if--"
"Quiet! Sorry. Please don't distract me." Dos Santos hunched over the screen.
Strip lighting came on all the way down the cabin. Then it went off again. A chemical toilet started flushing: clack-FLAP, clack-FLAP.
"That's not what I was trying to do! Damn fiddly interface."
Elfrida wished they could hear the tannoy in here. Lousy as the station hub's information was, she yearned to know what was happening. Her contacts weren't working, either--the rock shield messed with the station's wifi, and the lifeboat had stopped offering a signal when dos Santos switched into manual mode.
The toilet ceased flushing. "That's better." Oxygen masks tumbled from the ceiling. "Oh, puta merda!"
"Ma'am? Ma'am? Dos Santos! Could we see outside?"
Dos Santos glanced at her, hair falling over one eye. "That I can do. Nothing simpler. Here you go."
The heads-up screen lit up again.
Elfrida immediately wished it hadn't.
It showed Venus, and nothing but Venus. Only a sliver of black in one corner gave a sense of the curvature of the planet towards which they were falling.
Someone's idea of defensive maneuvering was apparently to slip into a lower orbit.
But even that was not the scariest news from the screen. The rest of the picture was straight out of a nightmare.