Days Until Home – Chapter 19

days-until-home-A

Days Until Home: 18

“A mutiny is not what I am suggesting,” Viktor said.

“Then what are you saying?”

Viktor took a sip of coffee to give himself a moment to think. It tasted like water scooped up from the bottom of a muddy hill. The five miners arrayed around him–well, four miners and Rebecca–weren’t getting it.

“I am saying tensions are high right now, and people are becoming suspicious of one another. It is dangerous. We all need to carry protection, just in case.” He hefted the heavy wrench to give the others an idea.

Jessica frowned, the skin on her forehead moving the white bandages of her head. “Won’t carrying weapons escalate the issue?”

Viktor nodded. “Which is why we need a simultaneous show of good faith. To help everyone relax.”

“Like, backrubs or somethin’?” Jimmy said. Nobody laughed. Viktor let the silence stretch a moment before continuing.

“I am going to surrender my personal encryption key to the Captain. I have nothing to hide. Let him see the communication logs with my wife on Luna, all personal computer activity, everything. It’s the only way to set their minds at ease. I think all of you should do the same.”

“Like slag I’m doin’ that,” Jimmy said. “I don’t need Hayes creepin’ through my net logs. A man’s search history is between him and God.”

Viktor ignored him and focused on the others. Siebert, ever the follower, nodded immediately. It might make him uncomfortable, but he’d do it if everyone else did. Jessica took longer. She stared off at nothing for a long thirty seconds. For a while Viktor considered saying something, to make sure she wasn’t still showing symptoms of her concussion.

“Yeah,” she finally said, closing her eyes. “I don’t have a better idea, and I’d prefer Hayes probing my history instead of my physical body.”

Viktor gave her a thank you smile, then used a wall handle to spin himself around in the microgravity to face Jimmy.

“Aww, hell, if I’m the only one who doesn’t do it I’ll look guilty by default,” he said.

“Perhaps.”

“Perhaps you’d throw me to Hayes to save the rest of your skins? After all we’ve been through, Vicky?”

Viktor spread his hands in as reasonable a gesture as he knew. “Hayes is already losing his mind. We’re trying to do whatever we can to defuse it.”

Jimmy looked around the room for support. Jessica and Siebert stared back expectantly. Knowing that Jimmy was the kind of kid to react unpredictably when backed against the wall, Viktor said to the others, “Give us a minute. I’ll meet you in the galley.”

Siebert immediately pushed off the nearest wall and swam up the hatch. Jessica lingered a few seconds longer before departing. Viktor gave Rebecca a pointed look, which she either didn’t understand or chose to ignore. She floated over to the corner and began picking her nails.

“Jimmy,” Viktor began, “Hayes is not in a right mind. He’s close to doing something terrible. We need to disarm his paranoia.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” He ran a hand through his brown hair. Sweat matted it along his temple. “Give me an hour and I’ll do it.”

“In an hour we might all be dead.”

“I gotta clear the logs between Rebecca and I. And a few other parts. thirty minutes, maybe. Alright?”

Viktor opened his mouth to argue, then closed it. What logs? Jimmy was looking everywhere in the cargo bay but at him.

“Jimmy…” He let go of the wrench and let it float in the air next to his head.

“You gotta believe I didn’t mean to. Alright? It was supposed to be simpler than all this.”

“What was?” But the hollow feeling in Viktor’s gut, which had nothing to do with his wound, told him that he knew the answer.

“I overheard Connie talking to HQ. Vicky, they were gunna short-change half of us outta a portion of our shares! I confronted him about it and he lied to me. Lied, right to my face. Said I musta misheard him. But I didn’t mishear nothin’. What he said was clear as crystal carbon.”

“Jimmy, what are you saying?”

“The drilling candles are more potent in atmosphere than in a vacuum. Or it had something to do with the xenon leak. I dunno. It shoulda only taken out the engines, left us drifting right in the shipping lanes for the Matsue to find. Nothing else.” He glanced at Rebecca for support. “How was I supposed to know it’d blow us half to kingdom come?”

Viktor realized he was holding his breath. He let it out, slowly to give the illusion of calm. He felt himself beginning to sweat, at the pits and forehead. None of this was real. It couldn’t be.

Jimmy’s face changed from guilt to anger as quickly as Viktor had ever seen anyone change emotions.

“Look, I did what I had to. Nobody has a right to take away what was agreed upon. Not after I signed the papers, flew out here to the edge of nothin’.” He smacked the wall, sending himself drifting in the other direction. “Right, Vicky? What’s the fairness in that?”

In the corner, Rebecca gave a nod while cleaning her fingernails. Everything fell into place. Almost everything.

“Then why did you help capture the Kerwood back? If you wanted her picked up by the Matsui anyways, why switch back?”

“I didn’t. Not really.” Jimmy gave a wry grin. “Rebecca’n I were over here doing our own recon on the goods when their little mission to take back the ship happened. Got swept along with it, just like you did. Couldn’t out ourselves, then. Too late for that.” He gestured around the room. “And here we are. Back to square one.”

Jimmy gave an emphatic nod, as if that completed matters. “I’ll wipe the logs and we’ll turn them over. Wind the Captain down a few turns. Hopefully it’ll work. Guy’s like a grenade without the pin. And really, I’m sorry for everything. Especially Connie. You believe me, right? But I did what I had to do. It’s a big universe. If the little guy doesn’t stand up for himself against the big corporations every once in a while…”

“It was me, Jimmy.”

Everything seemed to stop. Jimmy’s eyes widened while he floated between the floor and the ceiling. Rebecca froze in place, nails ignored. Even the sound of the air recyclers seemed to pause.

“I went to Connor and suggested proportional shares. They are standard on many ships. I did not think it was fair that some worked hard and others slagged off, and that they were paid the same either way. It appears Connor agreed with me.”

Jimmy recovered from his shock quickly. “I work a bit slower cause I’m new. I don’t have all the experience you do. Can’t expect a rookie to be as efficient as a veteran, and to shift around the pay just cause–”

Viktor cut him off like he was a child. His tone was a mixture of derision, scolding, and disgust.

“You’re lazy. Not just new, though there is some of that. You do 45% less work than me or Jessica because you’re lazy. You jabber on at every stopping point. You spend more time on pranks–which risk the lives of everyone else, including me!– than you do your actual work. You take breaks to ‘rest’ as if you weren’t working in nearly effortless microgravity. You’re the last one out of the changing room on shift, and the first one back, and are hardly an asset to the corporation in between.”

“Hey, wait a sec. You take smoke breaks too–yeah, we all know about it.”

“And yet I’m still that much better of a worker than you.” It was like a stopper had been pulled, and the tank that held all of Viktor’s anger and frustration were pouring out against his will. “Breaks are fine when you’ve put in an honest shift of labor. You? You’ve always been lazy, from the moment you showed up at HQ on Luna. It’s like a game to you, always trying to work a little less, eat a little more than everyone else. You act like it’s a skill to be so dishonest. But this… this! I wouldn’t have expected even you of sabotage. You’ve killed people, innocents who have families and homes they will never return to. I nearly died. Jessica was almost decapitated. And you did it all for money?

Viktor sent a hateful glare at Rebecca. She still floated in the corner, but now her hands were balled into fists at her side.

“I hope the money was worth it. Money you will never be able to spend. When I tell the Captain, you will be lucky if he does not throw you in the airlock right away. And when the others hear of what you did, the only one who will try convincing him not to kill you, the only person in the room insisting that you be brought home alive, will be me.”

Viktor let the word hang in the air for a moment. He wasn’t sure if he believed his own assertion: he was so angry that just then, if the button were in front of him, he could have spaced Jimmy himself. The thought frightened him. So far from home, but not so far from the eyes of God. He resisted the urge to grab the pendant of Saint Sergius hanging around his neck and poured all of his emotion into Jimmy’s accepting eyes.

He saw the motion at his peripheral just in time. He couldn’t move much without leverage, but he twisted enough that the heavy wrench smashed into his shoulder instead of his skull. Agony ran down his arm like electricity. Rebecca swung the wrench again, but the first blow propelled her backward enough that it hissed through the air a few centimeters from Viktor’s face.

There was a long stalemate where Rebecca drifted toward one wall, and Viktor the other. Jimmy floated between them, one hand grabbing a handhold in the ceiling, indecisiveness painted on his face.

“If he turns us in, we’re dead,” Rebecca quickly said. And just like that, Jimmy chose sides.

“Jimmy, be reasonable,” Viktor said, but he was already preparing to defend himself. He bent his legs as his feet touched the wall, absorbing the momentum like a spring. He grabbed a handhold and crouched there, waiting as Rebecca lunged at him, wrench held two-handed like a bat. Viktor feigned like he was going to push off, which had the desired effect: Rebecca began to swing the 20 kilogram hunk of metal, then tried to stop herself mid-swing. It caused her to tumble, and that’s when Viktor sprung forward with all his stored energy, shoulder bulling into Rebecca’s chest. The pain from his already wounded shoulder was so great that he cried out, but it had a greater effect on Rebecca, knocking her violently backward. The wrench came free, spinning away. Viktor plucked it out of the air.

Jimmy screamed and crashed into him, arms wrapping around him and carrying him into the inner airlock door. All the wind in Viktor’s lungs was forced out in a grunt. He gasped against the feeling, trying to urge a trickle of oxygen down his throat. Begging his incapacitated diaphragm to contract.

Light exploded as Jimmy punched him in the temple. It must have hurt him more than Viktor, because he cradled his hand and moaned. In a burst of anger he grabbed the ceiling with his good hand and kicked downward, striking Viktor twice in the shoulder and head. Swinging halfheartedly, just to get Jimmy away from him, Viktor brought the wrench above him in an arc. It was like a freight train hitting a deer. The wrench smashed Jimmy’s knee and barely slowed.

“Ahhh!” Jimmy screamed.

Viktor turned in time to see Rebecca floating his way with another piece of metal, this one sharp. He brought his wrench up to deflect the blade but with his other arm injured the move left him vulnerable. Rebecca punched him in the gut just as he was beginning to breathe normally. She followed it by holding up her palm and smashing his nose with the base of her wrist. Again everything went white.

Vertigo took Viktor as he tumbled through the air. He tried to breathe through his nose but inhaled liquid instead. The iron smell of blood was suffocating. His vision was still all stars so he swung blindly across his body, hitting only open air. He swung again, if not to hit Rebecca then to keep her at bay.

To his left came a humorless laugh. “Stupid Russian. Stupid to go to your Captain, and stupid to warn us first.”

The soft sound of air moving was Viktor’s only warning. He blindly swung into nothing, and this time he hit something. The sound was like an egg being dropped on the ground, with a low grunt-like exhale after. Viktor waited for something to strike him. Nothing did.

It was an eternity waiting for his vision to return, clutching the wrench like a safety harness.

Rebecca floated to his left, arms out in front of her in the riposte position. A bruise was already forming on the side of her head where her hair met her ears. To the right Jimmy was breathing rapidly, clutching his knee. He was no longer screaming, and kept his eyes shut tight against the pain.

Viktor considered saying something to him. No words seemed adequate. He left the cargo bay instead.

He closed the inner airlock behind him and tapped in his override code to lock it. To his surprise, it worked, the light on the panel turning red. At least Hayes hadn’t shut down his access to the ship yet.

His shoulder ached, but worked well enough to pull himself down the hallway along the wall handles. He would have moved faster with both hands but he couldn’t bear to leave the wrench behind. He tried very hard not to look at the blood on the end.

“So now what?” Jessica asked after Viktor found them in the galley and filled them in. He had planned on asking if they knew about it, or had any hand in the sabotage, but their shocked reactions to learning about Jimmy told him everything he needed to know. Siebert stared wide-eyed, looking between the two of them.

“Now we go to Captain Hayes.”

* * *

Days Until Home: 18

Viktor led the way with the calm resolve of someone with justice on their side. The finality of the march to the Bridge would have had more emphasis if it were a march, and not them floating through the halls in zero-g. They passed a few of the other crewmembers, who paused and watched them go with curious and fearful eyes.

There is no reason to be afraid, Viktor thought. The saboteurs are captured. There is no more threat.

We are all safe.

The thought disappeared the moment the hatch opened and they floated into the Bridge.

The normal Bridge crew were at their stations: Telly, Femke, and Vega. But the Chief Engineer and Adelaide were also there, floating next to Hayes. It was clear they had been discussing something before Viktor’s entrance interrupted them.

Everyone was staring at him. He realized what it looked like: he with his monstrous wrench, Siebert with his chemical welder, Jessica with what looked like a handheld bolt gun. They looked like mutineers come to take over the ship. Viktor also realized he didn’t care. It was time to end all of this paranoia.

He tucked the wrench into the waistband of his pants and said, “We need to talk.”

The look on Hayes’ face was pure smugness. “Telly. Please retrieve the special crate we brought from the Matsue.”

“Yessir.” He floated deeper into the Bridge.

Viktor didn’t know what that meant, so he brushed it aside and took a deep breath to address the entire room. “It was Jimmy. He sabotaged the Kerwood. He was upset about the share proportions, so he planted mining explosives in the engine compartment to disable the ship and set it drifting where the Matsue could pick it up.

Hayes smiled and nodded. “Uh huh.”

“Rebecca was his contact on the other ship. They are presently subdued and locked in the cargo hold.” No point in telling them about the scuffle. His bruises probably spoke of that enough.

Hayes began nodding more and more vigorously. He almost looked like he was listening to a song nobody else could hear. His words were slow and certain.

“I knew we couldn’t trust you all. Contract-bound miners, beholden only to your paycheck. Not a real part of the ship’s crew, you ask me. No tasks or concerns for the journey. Idle time makes for evil hands. Now that the three of you are here you can surrender. Do it peacefully.” He raised his voice. “Telly, once these three are restrained take Femke to round up the others.”

Viktor blinked. “No. Jimmy is the only one. None of us knew, or were involved in any way.”

“Sure you weren’t,” Hayes said. “Although you were the one so obsessed with share portions. You were the one worried enough to go to Conrad with it on multiple occasions, which you’ve admitted yourself. Awfully coincidental of you three to show up now with a lamb to sacrifice.”

“Coincidental how?” Jessica asked.

Hayes gestured to Jeremy. “The Chief Engineer was just telling us how they suspected Erika Ängström of being the saboteur.”

Siebert snorted. “She was hurt more than most in the explosion. She’s been damn-near incapacitated this whole time!”

“And then you come running,” Hayes said, “to point us in another direction. To take the heat off Ängström. I’ve been doing this a long time, Sharapov, and I don’t believe in coincidences. Tell me: how did you two plan it? Was it long-term, or concocted on the spot while we were lounging around Egeria-13?”

Hayes seemed certain, and Adelaide had a content glare, but there was confusion among the other crew. The Chief Engineer’s face was a mask, which for him meant uncertainty. Femke watched from her station, eyes darting all around.

Viktor tried to keep his voice calm, but he sputtered the attempt. “Jimmy. Jimmy is the saboteur. He and Rebecca are locked in the cargo hold. All you need is to apprehend them.”

“What proof do you have?”

“He admitted it to me.”

“So it’s your word against his?”

Their word, if both he and Rebecca deny it,” Adelaide said. The corner of her mouth twitched toward a smile. “That’d be two against one.”

Viktor looked over his shoulder at his fellow miners, but the Chief Engineer headed him off.

“Were either of you two present to hear this admission?” he asked carefully.

“It… was after we left,” Jessica admitted. “Siebert and I were in the galley.”

“So,” Hayes said, drawing the word out into half a dozen syllables. “You were there with them. In the cargo hold. Then you left, and then Sharapov heard this confession. Coincidences piled upon coincidences.”

Telly returned to their part of the Bridge, a one meter crate in tow. He steadied himself with a handhold, rotated the crate until it was upside down, then snapped it to the ceiling with magnetic clamps. He popped the fasteners along the sides, and the hinge swung open.

And in a burst of sudden insight, Viktor knew what was inside.

“Wait!”

“Surrender and go to your airlock quietly,” Hayes said. “You’ll honor your families back home by accepting your fate in peace.”

There will be no peace for Helena. “Captain, please, do not do this thing,” Viktor said. “We are innocent!”

Hayes twisted to face Telly and the crate. He reached inside and pulled out a low-velocity pistol, made to fire slugs in the narrow range to pierce skin and bone but not the hull of the ship.

Viktor could have bulled into them. The crate wasn’t far, and he had good leverage from his ceiling handhold. He thought he could get there before they had a chance to load the guns. Telly held his like it was a foreign object, or like a rubik’s cube to try to solve. Viktor was bigger than any of them. It would have been easy.

But he was weary, deep down in his bones. Weary of the trip, of the stress and death. Of the suspicions and violence and murder that had already happened to them all. Mentally, intellectually, and physically, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

So instead, Viktor turned and metaphorically ran, yanking himself through the hatch and into the hall.

Shouts followed him as he grabbed handholds and accelerated down the hall, recklessly fast, like a bullet through a rifled barrel. If anyone wandered into the hall at that moment he’d crash into them with enough force to shatter bone. A high-pitched sound shimmered through the air, and somewhere behind Siebert cried out. He couldn’t turn around enough to look, not without slowing down or stopping, so Viktor kept his eyes focused on the cross-hall ahead where he needed to stop. Just before reaching it he grabbed a handle jutting from the wall and yanked, spinning him ninety degrees into the next corridor, a five meter space before the door to the galley. He slammed into the wall, but nothing broke.

He sensed movement right behind him, so he raised the wrench. The gauze-covered head announced that it was Jessica. She fearfully pulled herself next to Viktor.

“Siebert?”

She shook her head. “I think they got him. He–” She cut off as the man appeared around the corner, his face painted with pain. Globules of red followed him and their original trajectory down the hall, quietly splashing into the walls and ceiling as if fired from a shotgun.

“My leg,” he said, obvious since he was clutching his right quad. He sounded surprised. “Didn’t hit the femoral. I don’t think.”

Jessica ripped off a strip of cloth from her shirt to tie off the wound. To emphasize things, two shots echoed down the hall, hissing through the air.

“What the hell? What the hell, man?” Siebert said.

“We need to get to Jimmy,” Jessica said without looking up. “Get him to confess, somehow.”

Viktor chanced a glance around the corner, ducking back as shots rang out. “They’re still at distance. We have some time.” He moved to the galley door and punched in his access code. It flashed red.

Of course. They’d locked them out of the ship controls, now.

“That thing,” Viktor said, pointing at the chemical welder strapped to Siebert’s shoulder. “It can double as a cutting torch. Right?”

It took him a moment to realize what he was talking about. “Yeah. It’s got a cut setting. Burns through steel like…” He trailed off as he read Viktor’s mind. He waited until Jessica finished tying his leg and then floated to the galley hatch. The welder flashed like a tiny supernova as he focused the tip. Sparks flew from the door and molten metal ran down the side like grease.

Viktor began to look around the corner again when another low-velocity round zipped by. The tiny corner of the wall felt like safety, and every instinct told him not to leave it.

The shipwide comms crackled to life, echoing from everywhere and nowhere all at once.

“This is Captain Hayes. All members of the mining team are hereby declared enemy combatants. They have attempted to take control of the ship. Resist them at all opportunities.” A pause, then: “Sharapov. It’s not too late to surrender peacefully. You can end this.”

The only way I can end this is by getting to Jimmy. He shared a look with Jessica. She was thinking the same thing.

“How much longer?”

“I dunno. A minute?” Siebert yelled. “I don’t have my goggles, so I can’t really see what I’m doing.”

A new sound floated down the hallway toward them. Viktor realized what it was in time to react. Instead of swinging with his wrench–which would have probably killed them–he grabbed a handle in the ceiling and swung his legs out into the hall, temporarily exposing himself. His timing was perfect: he kicked into the air just as Telly appeared, floating head-first down the corridor. Viktor’s boots caught him in the ribs and sent him spinning. The pistol in Telly’s hands flashed three times, slugs shooting randomly and bouncing off the walls with high-pitched pings. One sounded like it barely missed Viktor’s head. Telly hit the wall, careening off out of control, flailing around for something to grab.

Since his hands still gripped the handle, the momentum of the swing carried Viktor in an arc toward the ceiling. He bounced off and returned to the safety of the galley corridor just as new shots cut through the air. Whoever was shooting from the Bridge didn’t care that they might hit Telly. Somewhere deep down, hidden beneath the layer of shock protecting his consciousness, that disturbed Viktor more than anything else they’d seen.

“Stop shooting!” he called out in vain.

“Almost there,” Jessica said.

Viktor strained his ears, waiting for someone else to charge from the Bridge, or for Telly to appear from the other direction. They must have been hesitant to get within reach of them because neither made an attempt.

“I’m through!”

Viktor turned to Siebert just as the torch light disappeared. A splotch of green afterimage stuck to Viktor’s vision when he blinked. A centimeter-wide groove was carved into the hatch, shaped like a rounded square. Jessica grabbed the wall for leverage and kicked at the metal. Three kicks and it gave way.

The inside of the galley never looked so good.

One of the Matsue crewmembers who’d gotten stuck aboard the ship was strapped into a chair, his half-eaten protein bar floating in the air in front of his face. He held his hands up in the age-old sign for I’m not a threat.

“Get somewhere safe,” Viktor said. “Hide!”

The man hesitated then began fumbling with his chair straps.

They approached the opposite hatch out of the galley, which was, of course, also closed. “Cut it open too,” Viktor said.

“Not sure if I have enough juice for a full cut.”

“Then make the hole smaller,” Viktor said. “We can squeeze through if need be.”

Before Siebert could start, the hidden hatch locks disengaged and the door slid horizontally into the wall. The confused face of Erika Ängström stared at them without seeing, eyes milky white.

“Hello?” she said to the air above Viktor’s shoulder.

Jessica moved forward first, voice soft and motherly. “Hey. It’s me. What are you doing out of medical?”

While the hatch was open, Viktor and Siebert pulled themselves through.

“I heard the noises, and then the Captain on the 1MC,” Erika said. “I know the ship enough to get around by feel. What’s… what’s going on?”

“We’ll explain later. Come on.”

Jessica nodded to Viktor, who led them down the corridor. Being with Erika would only increase the Captain’s ridiculous paranoia, but it couldn’t be helped. And maybe it was better that she was with them now, instead of alone somewhere where Hayes could do something drastic.

The trip down the hall to the cargo bay seemed endless. Viktor remained tense, waiting for gunfire to sound behind them and slugs to tear through their skin and flesh. Somehow, none did.

Viktor and Siebert arranged themselves on either side of the cargo bay door, weapons held at the ready. He looked a command at Jessica, who gently took Erika’s hand.

“Here. We need your code to open the door. Yeah, there we go. Right there.” Distantly, it occurred to Viktor how shortsighted it was of Hayes–or whoever–to remove Viktor’s own shipwide controls but leave Erika’s in place. It emphasized the sloppy paranoia currently gripping the crew.

The door began opening. He pulled back his wrench, hoping he wouldn’t need to use it.

The cargo bay stood empty.

It was trivial to search the bay; there were only a few crates large enough to hide a person. It took less than a minute. Nobody was there. Jimmy and Rebecca, the true saboteurs, were gone, and with them any chance of proving Viktor’s own innocence.

A gunshot, the whizzing sound of a slug searching through the open door. The four of them moved to the side walls for protection.

“Well okay then,” Viktor said out loud, letting his wrench-arm go slack at his side. Three more slugs flew into the cargo bay. “This is not good.”


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Next: Chapter 20

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