A klaxon sounded out, and the passageway lighting faded from brilliant to dark and back to brilliant in time with the klaxon’s wail. It had been less than twenty minutes since an explosion rumbled the Matsue’s deck plates, triggering the alarm. The crew of the Matsue wouldn’t stand for saboteurs aboard their ship any more than Erika or her surviving Kerwood shipmates would, and the Matsue crew was determined to stop the mutiny. Mutiny, Erika Ängström thought, as if they would call it anything else.
“Stop!” A Matsue crewman burst around the corner, leading with his tranquilizer gun. He dropped to one knee, his forearm resting on the other knee. He sighted the running form of Captain Winchester Hayes, of the crippled Kerwood. “Don’t make me shoot you, Captain Hayes!”
Erika stepped out of an alcove where she watched the scene unfold and thrust a syringe into the security man’s shoulder. The hiss was more felt than heard as the syringe discharged the sedative directly into the man’s skin. He had only a moment to look up at the new threat before he collapsed onto the deck.
Captain Hayes returned to the scene and eyed the pair of launch suits in a pile in the alcove that Erika had hidden. His eyes kept wandering to Erika’s missing hand on her right arm. The suit glove was required to maintain suit integrity, but her glove was limp and ineffectual.
“Stop staring,” Erika grumbled and flipped her launch helmet over her head with her good hand. She rotated the collar of her suit and helped Captain Hayes into his launch suit. “We’ve only got six or seven minutes, so get your slag together.”
Captain Hayes’s eyes were blank and uncomprehending. Erika reached up with her good hand and rotated the captain’s collar. “It’s a race against time,” Erika said over the private communication link that she and Captain Hayes had created. “We’ve got to be through the umbilicus by 17:30 Kerwood time.”
Captain Hayes gave her a thumbs up. He shifted to look at Erika’s flaccid glove. She rolled her eyes, pushed the captain away with her good hand, and jogged down the passageway. Captain Hayes fell into step beside her. When they arrived at the makeshift airlock that the Matsue was using to shift goods and matériel from the Kerwood to the Matsue, they stopped to see two suited figures guarding the temporary airlock. One was rotund, and the other was so tall he had to stoop in the Matsue passageway.
A pair of Matsue security personnel lay at their feet. A third figure knelt over the prostrate guards and was affixing oxygen-breathing apparatuses over their noses and mouths. The figure turned, and Erika heard her over the COMS, “Just in case this goes sideways.”
“Move it, Funky!” Captain Hayes ordered over the COMS.
Femke rose and placed her hands on her hips in defiance. She turned to respond to her captain, “Stealing the Kerwood is one thing, but if anyone dies, it’s all our asses.” Femke pulled the recessed handle in the hatch, swung it open, and stepped through.
“It’s our ship,” Captain Hayes grumbled. “We’re not stealing anything.”
“We’re stealing their supplies and delta-V,” responded a female voice over the COMS. “Quit your bellyaching, and get yourselves on the other side of that hatch.”
Captain Hayes appeared to ignore his Main Propulsion Assistant. “Is everybody here?” he asked.
Erika looked at her forearm cluster. “Three minutes,” she yelled. “If they’re not already in the umbilicus, then they’re staying on board the Matsue.”
The five pirates crammed themselves into the airlock, and Erika worked the controls. Because the airlock was large enough in diameter to accommodate wheeled carts, it took longer than the standard sixty seconds to oxygenate and pressurize the airlock.
“Ninety seconds,” Erika chimed over the COMS as a light on the outer hatch switched from red to green.
One by one they launched themselves past the hatch and into the umbilicus. Erika was the last one through, and she pulled the hatch closed. She wedged a device into the panel already pitted by exposure to the black. Over the COMS, she said, “Fire in the hole!”
Everyone stopped their exit and looked toward Erika. She had wrapped copper mesh around her forearm cluster and pressed a button on the device. Lights along the circumference of the round hatch winked out. Erika tapped a button on the device and patted it lovingly before following her comrades.
The umbilicus was translucent on three sides, with a solid carbon fiber deck. It was actually translucent below the deck, but to make a flat surface to work on, the plates that made up the deck were overlapping allowing the umbilicus to spiral around to the floating Kerwood. This imparted a fraction of the gravity the Matsue enjoyed and allowed ingress and egress to a ship they had written off as scrap.
Erika looked “up” to see the Kerwood floating as if it were a kite caught in the wind. She smiled when she saw the Kerwood’s running lights flicker on, and a trail of exhaust flare into existence from the maneuvering thrusters. The Kerwood was maneuvering into a station-keeping position with the Matsue.
“Good work, Gauge,” Captain Hayes said over the COMS. Erika doubted that the navigator-turned-pilot heard the captain’s praise, as he was no doubt on a separate encrypted communications channel with the ChEng and Crazy Ade.
As they floated “down” the semi-gravity of the umbilicus, Siebert and Telly pried up the plates, handing one to each of the Kerwood pirates. The loss of each section allowed the umbilicus to bend at an even sharper angle, allowing the Kerwood to roll, and produce its own gravity. Each plate removed allowed the Kerwood to roll over them, rising over the hull of the Matsue like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Rika thought that that was an apt description given their circumstance.
“Time!” Erika shouted as an indicator flashed on her heads-up display.
Everyone stopped in the microgravity and held a section of decking over their heads with their feet planted on the remaining deck.
The first pop resulted in the umbilicus detaching from the Matsue’s hull. If anyone was standing there, they would’ve seen a surge of green electricity that melted the translucent wall. The umbilicus bucked as the atmosphere within leaked out the breach. Erika stared down at the deck markings and realized she was on the wrong side of the apex marking that indicated the halfway point between the Kerwood and the Matsue. She felt the tug of outgassing and the Matsue’s gravity.
Telly dropped his deck plate and stumbled toward Erika, fighting against the new gravity field the Kerwood created as she increased her roll. The umbilicus started to “fall” toward the Kerwood and wrap around its hull. Erika was caught between competing gravity fields. She knew she would be all right if she could just stay within the umbilicus as it wrapped itself around the Kerwood. Telly lost his fight against the Kerwood’s gravity, and she saw the pained look in his eyes as he plummeted toward the Kerwood’s hatch. Erika turned toward the breached end of the umbilicus and saw only the endless black.
* * *
Days Until Home: 82
Gauge and Jeremy Thompkin wrestled with manual control. “Now,” Adelaide yelled over the 1MC at the navigator and pilot. Jeremy could see an indicator light up on his panel as Adelaide activated a sequence in Main Engineering.
Jeremy could feel the gravity shift in his knees. When the Kerwood fired her station-keeping thrusters, the gravity from the spin with the Matsue shifted as the crippled tin can rotated in the opposite direction. He smiled and looked down at the magnetic boots he “liberated” from the Matsue’s stores. He felt bad injecting the Matsue’s quartermaster with the sedative, but he had no qualms about restraining the young man. If the quartermaster had warned the Matsue about their piracy, everyone would’ve spent the remaining time on the journey back to Earth in the brig instead of the hastily readied quarters that were provided to the Kerwood survivors.
As it were, no one questioned the Kerwood’s Chief Engineer when he headed back to his ship with a repair kit and a clanking duffle bag. Jeremy had been worried, leaving the man tied up for over six hours, but the final phase of the repairs to the Kerwood had to have the higher-quality magnetic boots. When Jimmy and company arrived in the trunk with four crates of foodstuffs, Jeremy knew for certain that their timetable had been accelerated. When he asked Jimmy if he had been discovered, Jimmy replied with a wide grin and his arms spread wide. The twinkle in Jimmy’s eye wasn’t what told the whole story, though, the green-haired woman on his arm with a hickey on her neck told Jeremy all that he needed to know. She self-consciously tore the Velcro Matsue patch from her uniform shoulder and liberated Jimmy’s to replace it.
As they disappeared into the hatch leading to the passageway to the cargo bay, Jeremy stared at the floating patch as it sailed and tumbled on currents of microgravity. The last he had heard of Jimmy and his new girl was a pointed comment about hearing the sound of more Velcro tearing before the day was through.
Jeremy’s Main Propulsion Assistant interrupted his reverie. Even over the 1MC her voice had a certain grating quality to it. His eyes darted to his console, and he raised his eyebrows. “Do it,” he commanded is MPA.
Adelaide acknowledged over the 1MC and the confirmation sequence scrolled across his screen.
Jeremy felt his stomach lurch as “down” became “up.” He could feel the deck plates rattle as the two remaining Kerwood thrusters and the temporary thrusters installed by the Matsue rumbled to life.
Jeremy patted the flat bulkhead that the pilot’s panel mounted to. He had been leaning against it and chit-chatting with Gauge only moments before they liberated the Kerwood. That’s a good girl, he thought. They can’t keep you down. The Matsue Conglomerate wasn’t being magnanimous when they installed the pair of multi purpose chemical thrusters into the Kerwood. They needed the Kerwood to “orbit” the Matsue to augment ship spin, and the thrusters to assist in propulsion. When Captain Hayes confided in the Matsue Conglomerate’s plan to pick the Kerwood clean and jettison her, Jeremy was furious.
Her spine is broken, Jeremy, Captain Hayes had said.
Just because someone’s old and a little persnickety, we don’t just throw them away, Skipper, Jeremy had retorted.
Jeremy, Captain Hayes replied, and placed his hand on his shoulder in a rare display of human behavior, we call her a ‘she,’ but she’s just metal and plastic. She’s not a real person.
Jeremy still remembered the heat of anger he felt as he scowled at the captain and brushed his hand away. Look, Captain, Crazy Ade and I have been on this ship almost the entire time we’ve been here. The EXTs are fully operational, and thanks to the Matsue Conglomerate, most of the breaches are sealed. She’ll still hold an atmosphere. She’s begging to deliver us safely to Luna with our cargo. Jeremy felt the ghostly flare of the impact of his open hand into his palm as he emphasized the word “with.”
Captain Hayes had smiled a wolfish grin and said, I’d hoped you’d feel that way. I have a plan.
Now, that plan had reached fruition.
“Full mixture,” Adelaide’s voice echoed out from the overhead. Jeremy nodded absently and complied.
Gauge’s eyes twinkled, and his devious grin couldn’t possibly have gotten any bigger. “Let’s wake them up,” he declared.
Jeremy swiped a control widget on the pilot’s panel. Gauge nodded and mimicked his movements on the navigator’s panel.
“Time!” they heard Erika Ängström shout from a speaker embedded in the overhead. Jeremy forced his stomach to stop churning as the Kerwood thundered out of the Matsue’s gravitational field. At that exact moment in time, it was as if there were two different “downs.” The gravity from the Matsue was what someone would expect to be “down,” since the Kerwood orbited the Matsue with her wounded belly exposed for all of creation to see. The new “down,” that was something else entirely. It was off to the port, and aft of the bridge. They couldn’t justify to the Matsue bean counters the necessity of repairing the artificial gravity of the bridge sphere, so they all had to have the best magnetic boots to pull off the heist.
Over the secure COMS link, Jeremy heard the gasps of excitement. Or was it, terror? he thought as the captain and the remaining crew in the umbilicus detached from the Matsue.
“Increasing roll,” Jeremy declared and worked a mechanical lever between him and Gauge.
Each grunt or exhale of air from those still in the umbilicus caused Jeremy to cringe. Whoever was in there, they would be exposed to the black until he could get them safely inside the Kerwood. He hated being responsible for so many souls. The crew in the umbilicus would need to rely on the modular deck plates to protect them from the collapsing shell and the deadly solar radiation they’d be exposed to repeatedly during their escape. They weren’t able to move atmosphere around properly without alerting the Matsue crew still on board to their plans. Speaking of the Matsue crew on board, he thought.
He tapped an icon on his forearm cluster. “Jimmy,” he threw his voice to a microphone embedded in the bulkhead behind him, “how are our guests doing?”
“Uh,” came a breathless croak from Jimmy over the COMS, “they’re not too happy that we’re taking mom and dad’s Porsche for a spin.” A dull thud followed by an echoing clank could be clearly heard in the background.
Slag it, Jeremy thought, but before he could reply, a female voice sounded over the COMS. “Hey, this is Rebecca, Jimmy got hit by some falling junk, and he’s out cold. You’d better send someone down here, or this jailbreak is going to be short-lived.”
* * *
Days Until Home: 82
“I’ll just pop the cargo bay ramp.”
“We’re not sentencing them to the black, Adelaide,” DeJoseph hissed and looked across the gap at the Matsue crewmember that Jimmy had recruited. “She did drag Jimmy back here so that they couldn’t hold him, hostage.” He crouched behind Adelaide to the left of the open hatch leading to the cargo bay. DeJoseph had been ordered to help Jimmy and Rebecca, but Adelaide felt the need to be involved. She needed to resolve the situation quickly and get back to engineering.
“‘She’ has a name, and it is Rebecca,” Rebecca declared. She crouched behind a stack of crates two high and two wide with the prostrate body of Jimmy. She ducked each time a thud echoed in the passageway and one of the crates moved slightly. She was only separated from Adelaide and DeJoseph by two feet, but she couldn’t drag Jimmy across the gap before one of the Matsue loaders could hit her.
Adelaide did her best to stop the roll of her eyes. “Well, Rebecca, your former shipmates are launching chunks of slagging Egeria-13 at our only food for the return trip.” She lowered her hand from the ramp control console embedded in the wall. DeJoseph seemed to relax visibly.
Adelaide turned to Rebecca, who flinched as another projectile whizzed over the crates, rebounded off the passageway bulkhead and clattered onto the deck. It left a dent in the door with a red X hastily painted across it. Adelaide took notice of the red X and matching ones along the passageway at each indentation as far as she could see. “Do they have helmets?” she asked Rebecca.
Rebecca smiled and held up a pair of helmets. “They can’t talk to anyone either,” she declared.
Adelaide reached up and tapped an icon on the panel.
DeJoseph’s eyes followed her every movement.
“We can vent atmosphere from the bay,” Adelaide whispered loud enough to be heard above the din.
“Bloated and burned is just as bad as the black,” Rebecca retorted.
Adelaide threw up her arms. “I’m not popping the ramp,” she insisted.
“We can’t get to the atmospheric controls,” DeJoseph replied.
She tapped a few more commands into the panel. “We have access to the atmospheric controls for this passageway,” Adelaide offered.
She looked DeJoseph in the eyes and he flinched. It wasn’t the first time in Adelaide’s life that she received that kind of reaction from someone who told her that something couldn’t be done; or that she wasn’t good enough at something. The list went on and on.
“What’re you thinking?” Dejoseph asked.
“Sorry, man,” Adelaide replied and placed her own helmet on her head. She tapped a sequence into the panel, rotated her collar and ignored the suitless DeJoseph as he ran down the passageway away from the cargo bay airlock. He staggered as all the doors in the passageway opened simultaneously. Atmosphere washed into each room like she was Poseidon, and had unleashed her oceanic might. Each time he passed a doorway, he staggered first into that space, and then back on his path to the hatch at the end of the passageway. Beyond it was the escape trunk and the passageway to Main Engineering.
“Is he gonna screw this up?” asked Rebecca over the COMS. She crouched down low as the rush of atmosphere pushed against the top two crates.
Adelaide gripped a recessed handle under the panel. She shook her head in response, realized that Rebecca probably couldn’t see her, and replied over the COMS, “No, I locked the rest of the doors and hatches in this area.”
“You could’ve let him get into the airlock before you pushed atmo around, ya know,” Rebecca said as she struggled to maintain her grip on a strap that joined the crates together.
Adelaide shrugged and turned to see DeJoseph tapping on a panel at the end of the passageway in vain. His actions slowed, and he tried to punch the panel in a last desperate attempt to override Adelaide. His swing was wide, and he slumped face first against the door. He slid down the smooth metal and left a trail of blood on it.
“Is he gonna be all right?”
Adelaide returned her attention to the newest addition to the Kerwood. “He’s got some sort of weird capillary thing in his nose or something. He gets nosebleeds all the time.” Adelaide pointed at Rebecca and jerked her hand toward the cargo bay.
“Why me?” came Rebecca’s voice over the speaker in Adelaide’s helmet.
Adelaide sighed. “Because,” she replied keeping her voice steady, “if they shoot me, then we’re dead in the water. This boat don’t float. You do know what happens to mutineers in the black, right?”
Rebecca’s lips moved in a silent curse, and she raised her helmeted head over the crates.
“Slag it, woman, hurry up! I could give a slagging slag about those two clowns in the cargo bay, but we need to get the O2 back up so DeJoseph doesn’t asphyxiate.”
Rebecca turned to her taskmaster and Adelaide pointed toward the cargo bay again.
Rebecca flinched at the harshness of the Kerwood’s Main Propulsion Assistant. She looked down at Jimmy’s helmeted form and stepped into the gap between the safety of the crates and the edge of the hatch. When she didn’t fall back, Adelaide peered around the bulkhead. The Matsue crew were slumped over, a long metal tube on the deck between them. A crate of minerals from Egeria-13 lay on its side with fist-sized chunks of its bounty strewn about.
Adelaide nodded to Rebecca, who then walked up to the Matsue pair and gingerly pushed the metal tube out of their reach with her foot. An atmospheric control panel just beyond them blinked red and shrilled an alarm as it tried in vain to pump O2 into the entire deck of the Kerwood.
Satisfied that the Matsue crew in the cargo bay was no longer a threat, Adelaide returned to the panel outside the cargo bay and typed in a sequence into the illuminated keypad. The X’d doors along the passageway slid shut.
Rebecca got to work binding the Matsue crewmen with a length of cargo strap. She looked up from her task and said to Adelaide over the COMS, “How did you know that would work?”
Adelaide checked a reading on her forearm cluster and compared it to the display on the panel before she replied, “Why spend the resources to keep atmosphere in every ship space if you’re just going to lose it when you cut the dead weight loose?”
Rebecca looked up to Adelaide towering over her. There’s that flinch again, thought Adelaide as she motioned for Rebecca to bind her own hands. When Rebecca refused, Adelaide reached down and rotated Rebecca’s collar. When the collar seal broke, Rebecca started gasping and clawing at the breach in her suit.
Adelaide grabbed Rebecca’s hands and pressed them together. “Knock it off,” Adelaide commanded. “There’s enough O2 in here that you’ll only feel funny for a few minutes.” Adelaide wrapped the strap three times around Rebecca’s wrists and then around the length of strap between those wrists. She finalized her securing of Rebecca by knotting the strap onto the unconscious Matsue crewmen.
When Rebecca finally had control of herself, she sputtered, “No wonder they call you Crazy Ade.”
Adelaide smiled, nodded, and walked into the passageway to check on Jimmy and DeJoseph. She walked to the airlock at the end of the passageway and slapped DeJoseph’s cheek a few times to rouse him. “Clean up on isle four,” she whispered to DeJoseph before she stepped into the now-open airlock and hurried back to Main Engineering.
* * *
Days Until Home: 81
“How is she?”
Female voice. Femke? No, it’s Jessica.
“She took a heavy dose of radiation, but next to Lady Marmalade, I think she’s the toughest chick aboard this tin can. Well, maybe you and she are tied for second place.”
Male voice. Gauge?
“To be honest, I’m astonished that we didn’t lose her to the black,” the male voice continued.
“Why’s the monitor freaking out, Gauge?”
“Alpha waves,” Gauge replied. “She can hear us.”
“Your machine can tell you that?”
“It detects the modulation of the alpha waves in the brain. Alpha waves influence speech comprehension in everyday hearing situations,” replied Gauge. “That means that she hears us and her brain is comprehending what we’re saying.”
A machine somewhere beeped.
“Erika, it’s Jessica, can you hear me?” Erika felt Jessica squeeze her hand. She squeezed back. “Gauge! She squeezed my hand!”
“Of course, she squeezed your hand, she’s not in a coma or anything. She’s just exhausted from exposure and the rigors of spending a Terran day stuck to the hull without food and water. You smelled her when they brought her in here…”
Erika heard the rush of breath across Jessica’s lips. “Not something to discuss at this moment, Gauge.”
Erika felt the corner of her mouth quirk up. She didn’t know the female miner very well, but their paths crossed again and again on the small ship. It was nice that the solidarity of women went beyond the division of labor aboard the Kerwood.
“Gauge! She smiled!”
“She’s probably laughing at your incessant clucking over her. I’m gonna start calling you Mother Hen.”
“Head wound or no head wound, you start that slag up, you won’t be able to stop me from spacing your ass.” Erika could hear the smile in Jessica’s voice.
Slag it, my shoulder hurts.
“You got tangled up in the end of the umbilicus. Skipper said a partition bolt got wedged between your cluster and arm. It kept you with us, but you dislocated your shoulder and elbow when you collided with the hull,” Gauge replied to what Erika thought was an unasked question.
Did I say that out loud?
“Yeah, hon, you said that out loud too,” Jessica replied.
Erika tried to smile, but her lips felt chapped. She could feel them cracking and bleeding.
“As much as we want to see your smiling face, try to contain yourself,” Gauge commented dryly. “Your lips, nose, and half your face are burnt from ionizing radiation.”
Jessica took over. “A deck plate was caught in the umbilicus with you and lodged against some sort of antenna thingy-”
“The aft telemetry array,” Gauge corrected her.
“Yeah,” Jessica continued, “the aft Teletubby array.”
“You said that wrong just to annoy me, didn’t you?” Gauge demanded.
Jessica’s voice raised an octave to a shrill falsetto. “But Doctor Gauge,” Jessica mocked, “I’m only a space chick, how could I know any better?”
“I’m not a doctor,” Gauge replied.
“Ain’t that the truth!” Jessica retorted in the same falsetto as before. Her nervous laughter betrayed the levity that she tried to inject into the situation. “Anyway,” she continued, “the shadow from the array and the deck plate caught in the umbilicus shielded you from most of the radiation, but not all of it.”
Erika coughed and winced. “Why can’t I open my eyes?” she croaked. She could hear shuffling, and assumed that Jessica and Gauge were looking at each other. In her mind’s eye, Erika imagined a lot of eye movement and aborted gestures. Each of them probably demanded in unspoken pleas that the other break the bad news to her.
“Just tell me,” Erika growled.
“Your eyes are open, Erika.”
Gauge must’ve lost the battle of wills to be the one to break the news to me, Erika thought.
“I think-” Gauge started to say but aborted it with a thick swallow.
Jessica cleared her throat loudly, so Gauge continued; “I believe that when you hit the hull, you walloped your head hard enough to force your eyes open.” Gauge paused, and it sounded as if he were licking his lips. “I had to look it up in the medical database. It’s called lagophthalmos.”
“We don’t know that hon,” Jessica replied. “If we were still on the Matsue, we would have a better idea.”
“If we had stayed on the Matsue, she wouldn’t be in her current predicament,” a familiar voice intoned from somewhere beyond the swirling blacks and grays. The sound of the door to the medical bay closing reassured her. She may be a blind gimp, but slag it, her engineer hearing was alive and well.
“Hey, uh,” Gauge began a greeting, but Jessica interrupted him.
“Jay Dee Jay!” Jessica squealed her pet name for Josh DeJoseph, the Kerwood quartermaster. Only a few people aboard, Erika included, knew DeJoseph’s Christian name. Most referred to him as simply DeJoseph. Jessica continued her greeting of the second person that entered the medical bay with noticeable less exuberance. “Uh, and Mister Thompkin,” she amended when Jeremy apparently followed DeJoseph through the airlock.
“Jeremy,” intoned Jeremy in his gravely voice. “Go ahead and finish with my engineer, we can wait.”
“Hey, ChEng,” Erika croaked and started coughing. The coughing led to more pain. The pain caused a machine nearby to beep loudly. Her voice sounded just as gravely as the ChEng’s.
She felt warm breath next to her ear. She didn’t tell Jeremy that his breath caused her pain. “I’d hold your other hand, but you seem to be missing it,” he whispered. Despite the pain and fresh bleeding, Erika smiled at the Chief Engineer of the Kerwood.
Gauge cleared his throat and paused for a moment. “You could have retina damage, or nerve damage, or-”
Jessica cut Gauge off. “Or, you could just have really dry eyes!” Erika could tell that the resulting giggle was a forced one.
“Missing hand, dislocated shoulder and elbow, and I’m blind. Am I missing anything else?” Erika wheezed.
“I’m afraid in addition to the burns on your face, your throat is in pretty bad shape,” Gauge replied.
Gauge, Captain Hayes’ voice sounded out from a speaker in the overhead. Or is it in the bulkhead? Erika thought. Gauge, I need my navigator on the bridge. The Matsue is pissed, and she’s hot to trot.
“Go ahead, Mister Schneider,” Jeremy ordered Gauge. “I can handle this lot of malingerers.”
Erika heard movement, but still only saw splotches of blacks and grays.
“I’m on my way, Skip,” Gauge said in a raised voice. Erika knew that it was unnecessary, but no one paid any attention to the lowly engineer that made all the tech on this forsaken tub work. Before the disaster, she was just one of many engineers on the Kerwood. Now that number was three.
I just hope we’re enough to get us all home, Erika thought with a level of pessimism that felt oddly comforting with everything that had already happened on the doomed contract.
* * *
Days Until Home: 81
“I’m on my way, Skip,” Gauge said. He took another look around the medical bay and walked briskly to the airlock.
“Let Captain Hayes know I’ll sit with these guys for a bit before relieving Adelaide in Main Engineering,” Jeremy called out to Gauge.
Gauge nodded curtly before the hatch closed.
Jeremy heard a moan, and moved to reassure Erika, but it wasn’t her that was making the noise. Jimmy stirred in the bed adjacent to hers.
“What happened?” Jimmy asked to no one in particular. He rubbed his chest where a chunk of Egeria-13 hit him when the Matsue crew in the cargo bay tried to stop the mutiny.
Jeremy cleared his throat, but didn’t respond to the troublesome miner.
Jimmy pushed himself up on his elbows and surveyed the walking wounded congregated in the medical bay. “Slagging slaggity slag,” he declared in reverent tones. He met Jeremy’s eyes. “Uh, sorry, Mister Thompkin.”
Jeremy waved his hand, dismissing Jimmy’s nervous apology. “No worries, Jimmy. ‘Slag’ about sums it up for us.”
Jimmy’s eyes went wide. “That ain’t good.”
DeJoseph muttered something under his breath and helped Jimmy to his feet.
“Where’s Rebecca?” Jimmy asked.
“That’s what I came to talk to the Chief Engineer about,” declared DeJoseph. He eyed Erika’s vacant stare. “Is she-?”
“I’m alive and well, DeJoseph,” Erika announced.
DeJoseph nodded and continued, “Chief, can I talk to you in private?”
“You can say what you need to say, DeJoseph,” Jeremy replied. “We’re all on the same team here.”
DeJoseph looked around the medical bay. Jessica met his eyes. It was as if he expected someone to challenge him.
“What is it, Mister DeJoseph?”
“It’s that Bähr woman, Chief,” DeJoseph said. “She’s got the Matsue crew locked down in one of the stripped rooms along the cargo bay passageway.” He looked to Jimmy. “Including your Rebecca.”
Jimmy stepped away from the medical bed, staggered over to Erika and waved his hand over her face. Jessica slapped his hand away and hissed something. It sounded like rude, dude!
Jimmy stood beside DeJoseph and said, “What’re we gonna do about that, Chief?”
“Right now, nothing.”
“But, Chief-” Jimmy protested at the same time that DeJoseph said, “Surely, we can’t-”
“Look, men,” Jeremy started. It occurred to him that out of all the survivors of the Kerwood disaster, only he and Captain Hayes had any military training. He sighed. “We’re still not away from the Matsue. This beautiful hunk of junk should get us home, but we all need to be on the same page. In case you all forgot, the Matsue morgue has quite a few of our comrades on ice for the return home.”
DeJoseph nodded. “Those that stayed with the Kerwood,” he declared in a solemn voice. He made the sign of the cross, pulled a medallion out from his undershirt, kissed it and returned it to its hiding place.
“You know it, Boss,” Jimmy declared and gingerly placed a hand on the Kerwood quartermaster’s shoulder. Jimmy’s declaration was just as heartfelt as when DeJoseph kissed his Saint Christopher, patron saint of travelers medallion.
“Look, guys,” Jeremy declared after a short sigh, “after we deal with the Matsue we’ll deal with our staffing situation.”
DeJoseph frowned. “Just keep that… woman away from me and mine.” It was evident that when DeJoseph said ‘woman,’ he had entirely something else in mind.
Jeremy noted and cataloged that. It was very much unlike the easy-going Kerwood quartermaster to have an issue with anyone. DeJoseph was known for going with the flow. The only person that could get past his bristly exterior was Old Vicky or the former Operations Manager, Conner. Well, thought Jeremy, Conner’s not with us anymore. He supposed that if it had to be someone that DeJoseph would have an issue with, it would have to be Crazy Ade. She was not universally liked aboard the Kerwood. Damn fine engineer, but a poor people-person, he thought. Jeremy was glad to see the solidarity remain between DeJoseph and Jimmy – although it wasn’t really unexpected, especially after DeJoseph’s involvement with that prank Jimmy pulled on Old Vicky back on Egeria-13.
“We’ll table the conversation about the Matsue crew for the time being.” He raised a hand when DeJoseph appeared to want to contradict him. “You both can drop in on our guests on your way to the cargo bay to get it in order. They stay confined for now, and make sure you’re both wearing launch suits with helmets. I want your collars locked at all times when you’re around the cargo bay. Is that understood?”
Jimmy and DeJoseph shuffled their feet and looked at one another.
Jeremy raised his voice, “I said, ‘is that understood?’”
Both men mumbled something along the lines of Yes, Sir. Jeremy was only mildly surprised that he could still muster the voice of authority he had mastered so many years ago. “Good, now get out of here, I have an engineer to talk to.”
Both men meekly made their way to the same airlock that Gauge retreated through earlier. When they were both gone, Jeremy turned back to Erika. The previous authoritarian attitude was replaced by what he expected a father concerned about a cherished daughter would act.
“So you gonna tell me the sordid tale of my rescue, ChEng?”
“Nothing to say, really,” Jeremy said. “Everyone else in the umbilicus decided to stick to the plan. They used the deck plates to create a tunnel and crawled their way back inside the Kerwood. Only Mister Bianconi suffered a minor injury, and that was mostly to his pride.”
“ChEng-” Erika began.
“The real story is how Siebert and Bianconi donned magnetic boots to retrieve you from the hull. I had to order DeJoseph and the rest of the Kerwood crew to stay behind. They were raring to go after you too. Apparently they all thought that the Matsue would give us a few moments to rescue you. As you know, the dorsal escape trunk hatch was attached to the umbilicus on our end, so the two of them exited the ventral escape trunk hatch and walked to you carrying deck plates to shield themselves when we rotated into the sun’s fiery embrace.” Jeremy paused for effect. “But, even with the damage to our spine partially repaired courtesy of the Matsue Conglomerate, they couldn’t walk straight to you. No, they had to walk aft around the EXT to get to you. As an engineer, you already know that when they were by the ion stream, their suit electronics stopped working. Even the fancy magnetic boots we stole from the Matsue don’t work while ions were pissed out beside them. They used tethers and hand signals to get around the EXT dead zone. I’m not one to bandy about the word ‘hero,’ but those two are most certainly of the hero designation. If we were in the ADF back in the day, they’d both receive commendations and some fancy aluminum to pin to their uniforms once we got home.”
“If we make it back to Earth, Chief,” Erika rasped.
Before he could properly chastise Erika for thinking negatively, the deck rumbled. That was something to behold since the medical bay sphere was isolated from the rest of the ship. He squeezed Erika’s leg. “I better see what we’ve gotten ourselves into now.”
The Kerwood shuddered again, and the 1MC chirped. CheEng, Adelaide’s voice intoned, I could use a hand in Engineering against those that wish to reacquire their men and matériel.
“Get better, Erika,” he said and tapped an icon on his forearm cluster. “I’m on my way, Adelaide.”
* * *
Days Until Home: 81
The Kerwood lurched to starboard, and an alarm indicator flashed on the engineering console.
“CheEng,” Adelaide said into the 1MC, “I could use a hand in Engineering against those that wish to reacquire their men and matériel.”
“I’m on my way, Adelaide,” the Jeremy’s voice responded over the 1MC.
Hurry up, old man, Adelaide thought as she entered a series of commands into her console.
An alarm sounded, and a steady stream of data flashed across her screen. She scowled at what she saw. She punched an icon and the 1MC activated again. “Captain, the Matsue is launching kinetic charges at us. It’s slagging up our spin something fierce.”
“We’re aware of that, MPA,” Captain Hayes responded. “They’re going to kill their own guys when they kill us.”
“Skipper, have Femke stop our roll completely, they’re using a rotational algorithm to target only our thrusters.”
“They don’t want to mess up the ones we borrowed,” Jeremy declared from the half-open hatch to Main Engineering.
“ChEng,” Adelaide replied, “I need you to eyeball the EXT and the chemical thrusters while I get a surprise ready.”
“Close the slagging channel, Bähr!” Captain Hayes yelled over the 1MC.
Jeremy punched an icon on the panel that severed the connection to the rest of the ship. He grabbed the console with both hands as the Kerwood bucked again. “Our rotation is slowing,” Jeremy declared and flexed his knees. “Where are you going?” he demanded of his Main Propulsion Assistant.
Adelaide spun on her heel. “I have to do this by hand,” she spat. “This tub wasn’t designed to do what we’re going to do.”
“The same thing that happened to Siebert and Bianconi.”
“I’m going to manually disable the ion targeting apertures.”
Jeremy stood straight up, his mouth agape. “That’s not a smart thing to do,” he declared.
No slag, Sherlock, Adelaide thought. “It’s the only thing that’ll stop them from waltzing over to us and kicking our butts,” she said out loud to the Chief Engineer.
“How long?” Jeremy asked.
“Seven, maybe eight minutes,” she replied and punched a few icons on another console.
Jeremy hit a button to reactivate the 1MC. “Skipper, we need the Matsue to catch up to us, but not actually catch us.”
“Crazy Ivan?” Femke suggested over the 1MC.
“Not with the EXT running,” Adel called out, half buried under a removed bulkhead cover. She could only see the ChEng’s legs from her vantage point. She shimmied out from the port EXT access panel and stumbled to the starboard as the Kerwood shook again from another barrage from the Matsue. “Two Crazy Ivans in a row will tear out our maneuvering thrusters.”
The 1MC remained open as Captain Hayes gave the orders. “Give me controlled bursts forward to slow us down.” Femke acknowledged the order and the Kerwood lurched forward.
“They’ll be sniffing up our tailpipe in about five minutes, Skip,” Femke declared.
“That do it for you, Jeremy?” Captain Hayes asked.
Adelaide nodded as she extricated herself from the starboard EXT access panel. She ran to the back of Main Engineering, tore a deck plate up and disappeared below.
“We’re about to find out,” Jeremy called out.
Adelaide stretched to her full length and pulled matching fiber optic cables from the Master Control Unit of the Electrostatic Xenon Thruster assembly. She glanced at the gleaming wires for a moment before dropping them. The Kerwood shuddered again.
“We should see the whites of their eyes,” Femke declared over the 1MC.
“ChEng,” Adelaide screamed, “cycle the power grid, now!”
The Chief Engineer must’ve obeyed Adelaide because the light on the fiber optic cables faded. She twisted two manual knobs and alarms started shrieking all over Main Engineering. Matching alarms sounded over the 1MC, as the bridge received the same alert.
“What the Hades?” Captain Hayes’ befuddled voice had sounded over the 1MC before the entire ship went dark.
Main Engineering was eerily silent as the Kerwood literally rebooted.
Come on, come on, thought Adelaide as she climbed out of the bowels of Main Engineering, stepping over covers and panels strewn about.
“Ninety seconds,” Jeremy called out to Adelaide.
The bridge was oblivious to what was going on. All the integrated electronics aboard the Kerwood went dark while everything power-cycled.
“Sixty seconds,” whispered Jeremy.
It was humorous to Adelaide that he whispered it as if the Matsue could hear him. Maybe they can, thought Adelaide, they spy on everyone on board, and they probably have fancy listening devices that can hear what happens on the Kerwood.
“Thirty seconds,” Jeremy continued the countdown.
This had better work, thought Adelaide.
“This had better work,” declared Jeremy.
Adelaide smiled and covered her ears with her hands. She couldn’t hear Jeremy’s countdown, but she watched his lips move.
He covered his own ears, and Adelaide was confident he didn’t know why. He was just mimicking her.
Adelaide closed her eyes and mentally continued the countdown.
The 1MC came to life, and ear-splitting static sounded from every speaker at once on the Kerwood. Every LED on the ship shined brightly for a moment, and if anyone were aft of the EXTs, they received an unregulated dose of electrostatic noise. The Kerwood felt as if it were suddenly caught in a spider web – a spider web of ionic chains. The Kerwood propulsion computer tried to regulate and direct the steady stream of ions, but with the ion targeting apertures failing to initialize, the EXT just bled ions and electromagnetic interference in every direction, but mostly to the aft.
No one would know if it worked unless they were to run to a portal and look back at the Matsue.
The propulsion computer finally gave up and cycled into a diagnostic mode. The noise generated by the EXTs ceased the same as it started, but with the opposite extreme.
Adelaide walked over to the Primary Thruster Control panel, gripped the edge of the plexiglass with both hands, and tore it loose. She reached in with one hand and grounded out the bridge override circuit.
The noise of all four of Kerwood’s thrusters was deafening. She had been concerned for a moment that the chemical fuel regulators might not have cycled in time, but she wouldn’t be alive to regret that decision if it went tits up. She had no chance of staying upright as the Kerwood bucked and pushed everyone to the deck. The unregulated thrusters would burn their entire supply of fuel before flaring out.
Maneuvering, even if they did reach Earth orbit, was now impossible, but the Matsue, at best, would be two minutes or more behind them. Adelaide wagered their entire supply of chemical propellant that the Matsue would be much more than two minutes it took to reboot a space-faring vessel. She smiled; imagining the time it would take for the Matsue to affect repairs. The Matsue still had their forward velocity, but with the extra boost from the thrusters, she would never overtake the Kerwood now.
“-the Hades is going on down there?” Captain Hayes shouting over the now-functioning 1MC brought an even bigger smile to Adelaide’s face. She had cheated death once again.
She mock saluted Jeremy and disappeared back into the Kerwood’s innards to repair and reboot the EXTs. As long as they didn’t starve or kill each other, they’d be home in less than four weeks.