Chapter 16

Louis and I wait for the airlock to cycle through, then open the inner hatch.  Four men walk in.  We show them where to doff their spacesuits.  The captain told us to watch everything these people do, so we hang around as they remove their suits.  Two of them look like average lunies, with the grungy mismatched clothes and the hungry look in their eyes.  Neither has shaved for a while.  One is tall and slim with a receding chin, the other is short and squat with a round face and nose so turned-up that you can look right down into his nostrils.  Like a pig.  Chinless and Pig-nose of the Kestrel.

The third is the biggest, widest man I ever seen.  He has a cone-shaped bald head resting directly on thick shoulders with no apparent neck, and with massively veined, beefy arms squeezed into a form fitting lunar gray camo shirt.  But his eyes are his most remarkable feature.  They are unnaturally small and far apart.  Add to that the effect of his bony, overhanging brow line, and the immediate impression is of a human rhinoceros.  When he turns his head, I see that he has a slender plastic tube running up from somewhere under his shirt.  The tube snakes up the side of his neck and, at a spot behind his right ear, enters his skull.

The last man out of his suit had fussed longer than the others with the latches of his helmet, as if he hadn’t worn one in a while.  When he finally lifts the helmet off, I recognize him immediately.  “Marshal Baumann!” I exclaim, surprised to see a familiar face.

“Hello Straker,” he replies.  He looks down and away from my gaze.  “But I’m not a marshal anymore.  I work for the Malapert administration now.”

I step back and shake my head in disbelief.  “You left the government?” I ask.

“Yes, Straker.  Maybe you don’t know this, but a ProvGov marshal is not paid very well—not well at all.  And with all the travel between the colonies, it was just too hectic for me.  And I have expenses.  Nifty Jim offered me a good deal so I took it.”  I am shocked.  Did he make this switch before, during, or after he asked me to transmit to the government?  Was he in Nifty Jim’s pocket the whole time?  I think I done been had.  I shake it off and hand them each a pair of sticky shoes for use in the ship.  I gotta keep my misgivings to myself for now; I don’t want to advertise my own double-dealings to Louis.  If I get Baumann alone, I’ll settle scores with him then.  “Where’s your captain?” asks Baumann.

“This way,” replies Louis, his eyes studying the four, sizing them up.  We all walk and float through to the galley, where the captain and Nastez are already at the table, perched on saddles.  Baumann sits across from her, rhino-man at his side.  Chinless and Pig-nose stand behind those two, while Louis, Katya and I keep back against one of the bulkheads.

“Holy crap,” whispers Katya, looking at the size of the man seated. “What is that?  Is he even human?”

“Yup,” replies Louis, in barely audible tones. “Started out human, anyhow.  Earthman.  He’s been enhanced.  Junkie too; that’s what the tube is for.  Not medical—it’s recreational.”

If the captain is alarmed by the man’s appearance, she doesn’t show it.  She calmly leans forward towards the table and fixes her eyes directly on Baumann.  “Hello Devian,” she says, her voice dripping with cool condescension.  “I see you’re not wearing your marshal’s badge today.”

“Nice to see you Freya,” Baumann replies.  He looks into her wary eyes for a moment, then looks down at the table.   He points to the rhinoceros at his side.  “This is Armand Gristle.  He’s in charge of the mission.  I’m just here as a liaison at the request of the Malapert administration.”

The rhinoceros smiles a carnivore’s smile.  He is a man with no good features, and his teeth ain’t one of them.  “Yea, Freya Jemison,” he says in an unnaturally low-pitched voice.  “Heard a lot about you.  Like Baumann says, I am in charge of the Kestrel’s mission.  I’m the big man, ya might say.”  Nobody attempts to shake hands; the captain’s contempt is only too obvious on her face.  Chinless and Pig-nose look at each other when Gristle claims he was in charge, but I ain’t sure what to make of that.  I get the impression that these Kestrel people are not all on the same page.  “The two guys behind me are a couple of Nifty Jim’s boys; they don’t matter; you’ll be talking to me.”

The captain raises her eyebrows at that.  The two lunies flush but don’t say nothing.  Captain Jemison folds her arms across her chest and looks back at Baumann.  “Not here in an official capacity?” she asks.

“I no longer work for the government,” he replies.  “I am here on behalf of Malapert.”

“One of Nifty Jim’s boys,” hisses Nastez.  “Nifty Jim make you a nice offer, did he?  Did he pay you a bunch of cash?”

The captain waits a beat, then says, “Never mind all that.  I think we all know what’s going on here.  Say what you came to say Devian.”

Baumann clears his throat.  “Here’s the bottom line.  Malapert has laid claim to this asteroid.  The provisional government supports that claim, but of course the Consortium is welcome to appeal…”

“Appeal to the government,” interjects Nastez.  “What good would that do?”

“…and of course,” continues Baumann, “the claim would then be adjudicated in accordance with current law.”

“Bull!” exclaims Nastez.  Strong language for him.  “You’re here to steal our cargo.  Without our ore, the Consortium will have to default on its bond.  Then Nifty Jim will move in and demand payment in full.  He’ll own Shacktown and the Scope.”

“Whether the bond is payment is defaulted or paid is not my concern…” protests Baumann.

“The hell it isn’t!” asserts Nastez, slamming his fist on the table.  “This is Nifty Jim and so-called Administration moving in on Shacktown!  This is him stealing the Big Scope and everything and everybody in the whole colony!”

Baumann’s face is burning.  I ain’t sure if it’s from anger or guilt.  “This is preposterous!” he protests.  “I did not come here to be insulted.”

The captain holds her hands out.  “Hold on, let’s all…”

But Nastez won’t be calmed.  His leans forward into Baumann’s face, a deep disgust in his eyes.  “You corrupt, slimy trench rat.  You are a disgrace!”

Without another word, the red-faced Baumann unstraps and heads for the airlock.  Nastez moves to pursue him but the captain puts her hand on his shoulder and Nastez sits back on his saddle.  The captain opens her mouth to speak but Gristle interrupts.

“You can just let him go,” says Gristle.  “We can handle this from here.”

The captain looks at him for a second, then speaks.  “So, you are in charge of the mission, is that correct Mr. Gristle?”

“Yup,” grunts the rhino.

“Well, all right then.  We need to take this down a notch.  Let me start by introducing my crew.  This is my first officer, Alonso Nastez.”  Gristle nods at Nastez, but his rhinoceros’ eyes regard him coldly.

“And over to my right are my second officer Katya Navolska,” continues the captain, “Apprentice Louis O’Neill, and Recruit Straker Yuuta.”  The captain squints at Louis as her right hand makes a subtle palm-down motion as if to say keep it frosty.  Louis makes a tiny nod but his eyes don’t blink.

Gristle looks directly at me and grins.  “Ah, yea, the Yuuta boy.  Thanks for all your help.  You’ll get everything coming to ya.”

My stomach falls to my knees.  “Um, what?” I ask.

“I’m the one you’ve been transmitting to, Yuuta.  Ya did great.  Couldn’t have made it here without ya.”

Nastez glares at me with cold fury.  “Is this true, Yuuta?”

My throat tightens up.  My lower lip trembles.  I can barely choke out my response: “I transmitted to the Provisional Government,” I say, “not you people.”

Gristle rolls his head back and laughs, deep and loud.  His laughter gives me cold chills.  “Did…did you really believe that?” howls the rhinoceros, his toothy mouth grinning so wide that it splits his face in two.  Louis and Katya both stare at me, shocked.  I feel about six inches tall.  Is there any way I can get out of here?

The captain, though, doesn’t seem ruffled at all.  “So, Mr. Gristle, are you the person responsible for this illegal action?”

Gristle turns back to the captain.  “Like I said I’m in charge.  Ain’t nothing here illegal according to Nifty Jim.  But I don’t give a crap, it’s all the same to me.  Give us what we come for and we all go in peace.” The captain lifts her eyebrows and tilts her head at the threat.

“Oh, it most certainly is illegal,” exclaims Nastez, his voice steadily rising in impotent anger, his slender finger pointing and shaking.  “Under the law, we are entitled to mine this asteroid and establish our takings as private property.”

Gristle turns towards Nastez, rotating his whole body since his blended neck doesn’t twist.  “I got my law right here,” he grunts, patting his massive right bicep.  “I ain’t Baumann and I don’t give a crap about no law.  I been hired to do a job.  I’m only talking to you ‘cause Nifty Jim told me to make nice if I can.  So here’s what I’m talking: you go get the rest of your cargo and drive this boat back to Luna.  You take these two lunies on board and they will be my eyes and ears.  Once we get to L-1, we’ll take the ore and you work out the rest with Nifty Jim and ProvGov.”

The captain shakes her head gravely.  “No.  We will not surrender our cargo, and I will not have your goons on my ship.  I may decide to grant you a small percentage just to get you off my back.  That’s as far as I’ll go.  Otherwise we end up in court.”

The man stares at her, his face again splitting into a smiling maw of gray and yellow teeth.  It’s a wild animal expression—he looks well over the line of crazy and firmly into psycho.  Ain’t good.

“Court, huh?  Well ain’t you sweet,” he says, and bends forward over the table and pats the captain on the cheek.

Captain Jemison rears back, her gray eyes glaring, her face beet red.  She stands up from her saddle, makes a tight fist and belts Gristle, hard, right in the mouth.  Gristle is caught off guard.  He loses his perch on his saddle and he drifts towards the steel wall, catching himself at the last moment with his right hand while touching his stinging lip with his left.  A stream of blood curls around his fingers.

“That’s it, bitch,” he growls, and a fist the size of a pie plate slams into the captain’s belly.  The captain gasps and falls back on her saddle, doubled over in pain.  Louis has unstrapped and is moving towards Gristle when Chinless and Pig-nose pull out a pair of weird-looking guns; Chinless holds the fat muzzle of his gun inches from Louis’s face.  Pig-nose is covering me and Katya.  Without waiting a beat, Gristle rears back and brings his fist up again, this time into the captain’s face.  The crunching sound is sickening.  Big red droplets splatter the bulkhead behind her. The captain flips onto the floor like a bean bag.  She’s making gurgling noises and her eyes are glazed over.  Katya squeals in terror.

Nastez screams: “You struck the captain!  You brought guns on our ship! How dare you! For the love of…”  Gristle turns on Nastez, his face a mask of contempt.  His big fist slams into Nastez’s nose.  Louis moves to help Nastez but Chinless presses the muzzle of the gun hard into Louis’s cheek.  Louis steps back in silence but his eyes are fixed on Chinless.  As for me, my blood is boiling, but Pig-nose has moved his gun so close to my eye that I can see down the barrel.

Nastez collapses against a console, eyes wide with terror, his nose bloody and flattened against his face.  Gristle squats down and grabs him by the collar while his other hand produces long stiletto knife.  Its slender steel blade zips out with a click.  Gristle taunts Nastez with the knife, waving it before those panicked eyes.  “You want some of this?  You look like someone who wants it.  You look like someone who needs it.”  Gristle gets a solid grip on the handle of the knife and sticks it into the center of Nastez’s chest, just an inch or so, but deep enough to make it stick.  Louis starts to move in but Chinless jerks his pistol.  Louis steps back, frustrated, but his gaze at Chinless is steady.  Katya is frozen in fear.

Nastez gasps, helpless.  Gristle’s thick lips twist into an obscene frown, his little eyes puffed out as if to explode in madness.  A puddle of blood surrounds thin blade of the knife embedded in Nastez’s heaving rib cage.  Gristle’s thick arm pulls back, massive palm forward, and strikes the hilt of the knife, burying the full length of it into his victim’s convulsing chest.

Nastez gasps.  Blood spurts out from his wound. The knife handle trembles rhythmically, pushed by the futile throbbing of Nastez’s dying heart.  Nastez’s eyes lose their look of terror and relax, staring lifelessly at the ceiling.  Gristle scoops a spot of blood from Nastez’s chest with his index finger and holds it up to the light in fascination, squinting with his tiny eyes.  He licks the blood and savors the taste.  “Needs pepper sauce,” he says with a chuckle.

The flight deck is dead silent.  Gristle appears satisfied with himself as he gets up from Nastez’s body and sits on a saddle, his face relaxed as if deep in thought.  I am trembling.  I never seen nobody murdered before.  And what’s worse, I’m to blame for all of this. Me.  I thought I was buying myself a better life and cooperating with the authorities.  But all I did was bring death and misery to these people.  I grit my teeth push the feeling back.  Can’t panic now.  I owe it to the captain and the others to keep my wits about me.  Time to bring out my inner crafty bastard.

“Wait a second,” I say, holding my hands out, “I’m one of you guys.  You ain’t holding me, are you?”

Gristle grunts and regards me thoughtfully for a moment. “You know how to fly this thing?” he asks, dubiously.

“Been taking training on it all the way out,” I reply.  Which is technically the truth, although I ain’t nearly ready to pilot the ship.

“Hmm.”  Gristle ponders a moment, then points to Pig-nose and says: “You…take Yuuta here, go sit in the pilot seats.  Get the cargo and blow the moorings.  Then take us up.  The Kestrel will follow us.”

“Aye,” I say.  Can’t bring myself to call him Captain.  Pig-nose and I push off for the flight deck, me in front, him half-way covering me from behind with his gun.  They don’t trust me but maybe I can get the jump on this guy if I keep moving.  As much as anything I’m stalling for time, giving my mind time to think, hoping for a break.  I slide onto the captain’s saddle and bring up the primary flight display.  It’s been left with the command to blow the moorings still on the screen, just waiting for a final click.  Pig-nose and his gun are sitting not more than a meter to my right, watching everything I’m doing.  I flip back to the screens that control the drones.  I command the prop drone to pick up the final cargo boxes.  I don’t know what else to do but press the final button to execute.  “Here goes,” I say.

I push the button on the display.  Nothing happens.  Command Authority Disabled, it says.  Insert Command Token and Try Again.  I look down at the little slot where the captain’s token should be, but ain’t.  Only an empty cavity.  “What’s going on?” asks Pig-nose.  “Why ain’t the drone flying?”

“Command key is gone,” I reply.  “It’s a little chip with a complex code.  None of the major functions will work without it.”

Pig-nose shakes his head.  “Oh, Gristle ain’t gonna like that.  He’ll kill somebody again.  You sure?”

“See for yourself,” I say, pointing to the vacant slot.

“Shiz and double shiz,” he says, and motions with his gun for me to move.  We pull ourselves back to the galley, where Gristle is sitting where we left him, and Louis and Katya still being held at gunpoint.  Nastez is still dead, and the captain looks like she’s maybe gonna join him soon.  I am standing near the captain’s collapsed form.  She’s struggling to breathe.  I fight the urge to bend down to help her.

“Well?” demands Gristle.

“Ain’t gonna work boss,” says Pig-nose.  “There’s a missing key.”  I nod in agreement.

“That right,” grunts Gristle.  “Missing key, huh.  I bet that’s the captain’s key, am I right?”

“That’s right,” I say.  “Want me to search her?”

Gristle’s eyes narrow.  “You stay put,” he says. “I’ll do it.”

He maneuvers his massive frame over to the captain, who now appears unconscious. He bends over her and methodically searches through each pocket in her jumpsuit.  He tosses pens and bits of loose paper aside as he pulls them out, then a picture of her daughters which he examines and tosses with a dismissive grunt.  He pats down her sleeves and pants for hidden pockets.

No key.  He searches Nastez’s corpse.  Still no key.  Gristle stands his bulk up to full size, nearly grazing the ceiling, then faces the rest of us.  “Well, well…looks like we’re playing a little game here.”  He smiles.  “Key, key, who’s got the key?”  He strides over to Louis.  Only Gristle’s sticky boots interrupt the utter silence with their ripping sound.  He looks Louis hard in the eyes, then as Chinless pushes his gun into Louis’s cheek, Gristle wraps his massive hand around Louis’s neck.  Louis holds his head high and struggles to breathe against Gristle’s firm grip but does not flinch and his eyes show no fear.

“Search him,” barks Gristle to Pig-nose.  Pig-nose walks over and pats Louis down, turning out each pocket.  The only thing he finds is the folded copy of the poem Louis had written for Katya.  He shows it to Gristle, who glances at it and snickers.  Louis doesn’t resist, doesn’t blush or squirm; he just watches.

Done with Louis, Gristle turns and fixes his attention on Katya.  She is trembling in rigid terror.  He hums appreciatively at Katya’s slim but womanly figure.  “Well, now, what a nice, nice thing you got there,” he says, staring at her chest.  He reaches down and plants his big hands on her.  Both Pig-nose and Chinless watch intently, sardonic grins on their faces.  Gristle bends down, his thick lips within inches of Katya’s neck. He inhales deeply of her scent as a predator might when sensing up his prey.  “Hmm yes, I’m gonna get to know you real good,” he whispers, “I’m gonna have everything you got.  And it’s such a long, long trip back…”  Gristle rubs his massive hands over Katya’s breasts.  The two lunies chuckle with delight.  Katya jerks in involuntary revulsion, her neck stiff with silent fear, her eyes dark with fear and rage.

Chinless is distracted; he allows his gun to sag from Louis’s face.

Louis’s left elbow flies out in a blur and catches Chinless across the side of his face, knocking his head back hard.  At the same time, Louis’s other hand grabs the muzzle of the gun, and when his left hand comes back from Chinless’s face, Louis has both hands on the gun.  In one practiced motion, he twists the gun by the barrel between Chinless’s fingers and the gun is Louis’s hands.  Pig-nose catches on to what is happening; he starts to bring his gun around to aim at Louis’s chest, but Louis is operating at a completely different speed.  Louis has anticipated the move and uses the butt of the gun in his own right hand to bash Pig-nose in the face—twice, in rapid succession—as his left hand grabs Pig-nose’s gun-hand and pushes it up towards the ceiling.  Pig-nose reflexively fires his gun, hitting nothing except ceiling insulation and stainless steel.  The blast of the gun is deafening but the bullet shatters upon hitting the steel.

Chinless recovers from the hit to the head and comes at Louis. While holding Pig-nose’s arm, Louis’s gun fires with a deafening bang.  Chinless’s head explodes in a shower of skull, brains, and blood.  His body does a slow half-somersault before falling.  While Chinless is falling, Pig-nose pulls to free his gun hand.  Louis knees him hard in the solar plexus; Pig-nose gasps, then falls helplessly, his face red with agony.

This all happens within a second or so.  But Gristle stops leering at Katya and moves. While Louis is bringing his gun to around to point at him, Gristle jabs Louis hard in the kidneys.  Louis grunts and staggers back. Before Louis can recover, Gristle punches him in the face with his huge hand.  Louis’s gun clatters to the floor and bounces up and over at an angle, out of his reach.

I move in to help Louis when I feel a tug on my leg.  I look down…it’s the captain, looking up at me.  She has a finger to her lips.  She reaches up to her collar and pulls the key out from a pocket concealed in the fabric.  She presses the chip into my hand, then brings up her other hand to close my fingers around it.  Her hands are trembling.  She is weak; I do not resist.  Her eyes flutter and she slumps back against the bulkhead.  I am in shock.  Why would she trust me with this, after what I’ve done?

I put the key in my arm pocket and fasten it shut.  Gristle is standing over the battered Louis, quietly inspecting his handiwork.  Louis is alive but badly beaten.  I look for a weapon—there are guns on the floor but I’m afraid I won’t figure out how to work them in time.  So I grab a plate.

Gristle turns his huge face towards me.  I’m standing there with a plate in my hand and immediately the fire in my blood fades and I feel really stupid.  I can hit him with the plate and be killed, in which case he’ll get the chip and the game will be over for all of us.  Or I can run and find a better weapon.  “It’s in his collar!”  I say, pointing to Nastez’s body.  “I saw him hide the chip somewhere in his collar!”  Louis looks up at me with his one eye that isn’t swollen shut, looking mystified.  Gristle kneels down to Nastez’s corpse and starts feeling through his collar.  I dash out of the galley, into the dressing room.  I close the hatch and use a crowbar to keep the latches closed.

The crowbar will slow him down but not stop him; it will only be a few minutes before Gristle finds the other path to the dressing chamber below decks.  I whip on my backpack and hiking boots with trembling hands, expecting to see his monstrous face pop up from the lower hatch any second.  But it don’t.  I tumble into the airlock and start the vacuum pump before I’m even sealed into my helmet.  The outer hatch rotates out to a hazy and pitch-dark world.  I don’t dare turn on my helmet lights—not sure who’s out here.  I feel my way through the dust to the external tools cache, open the door, and frantically pull out everything, anything that might help me in the battle I know is coming within seconds.

I see a glimmer on the rocks beside me.  I look back and see lights, four of them, arranged in a rectangle, coming from the Kestrel, small at first, growing larger.  I see bright flashes of thrusters as the lights move up higher.  It wanders right, then left, but in my general direction.  It’s a drone, I mutter to myself.  Not a mining drone, neither.  Something bad.  And it can move much faster than I can.  I ain’t sure if it can see through the dust any better than me.  Maybe not.

I take a step.  The drone detects movement and shoots but it’s too far away and the visibility is too bad for it to be accurate.  Its weapon is a laser, short burst, very powerful, the invisible beam setting the rocks close to me aflame for a few seconds.  I get mad.  “Hey you piece of crap!” I yell, and throw a rock at it.  That move helps it locate me and now it’s coming directly towards me on columns of thruster fire.  OK, not the smartest thing I’ve ever done.  Stupider even than the plate thing.

I can’t run faster than my boots will let me, but I climb over a low rocky wall and stoop way down to get out of its line of fire.  The headlights continue to follow me, searching for a pocket of warmth to shoot.  In the dim flickering light, I see an opening ahead; a black hole in the surface, like the ones I seen before we landed.  I commando-crawl to the cusp of it, using the ridges in the wall to hold myself down.  I kneel at the edge of the opening, dip my helmet down into it, and look around.

The pit is as black as it can be.  I barely see an initial drop of maybe 3 meters, then a craggy, lopsided door to a deeper passage.  If I turn on my lights, they will surely attract the drone.  I stay dark and switch the helmet’s camera to infrared, but that just shows a meandering path leading deeper down.  I can’t see how far it goes.

The lights come around the rocky corner, casting long, moving shadows.  I have seconds before I am hit by a heat beam that will either kill me or melt a hole in my suit and drain my air and then that will kill me.  I got no choice: I plunge into the pit.