Chapter 20

Step by step I travel, rock by rock, staying low and watching my back.  My feet hurt and my calves are cramping but every second I spend out here is another second that Louis, Katya, and the captain are under the thumb of Nifty Jim’s thugs.  The mining drones are scattered, dusty and idle on the wide, flat plan that stretches below me.  A mountain of waste gravel is off to my right side.  I’m climbing down from the rocky passage, using the angles to keep obstacles between me and the two spaceships moored on the other side.  The quakes in the ground are coming more frequently now, but I’ll make it.  Once I’m down, I’ll linger behind the tailings, then when night comes I’ll keep close to the line of rocks and ditches that surround the periphery of the flat plane and approach in darkness.  That’ll get me close, at least.

Daylight never lasts long here: the sun is already low on the horizon, elongating the shadows cast by the tailings and machines into long and sinister shapes striping the stony ground.  I am pushing myself to time this right.  I’ve been hiking in the sun for a half an hour now and I am wet with sweat.  The suit tries hard to compensate by sucking the moisture into its ventilation system but I’m pushing it beyond its specs.  And soon, soaked as I am, with night coming on instead of baking I’ll be freezing.  To make matters worse, the mechanical prongs on my boots are wore out.  The last quake bent a few of the blades and some of the gripping fibers are torn.  The boots have covered more kilometers and subjected to more stress than they were designed for.  Structure is compensating best he can but he can only do so much.  My right boot is especially bad.  It slips sometimes.

I’m down at the level of the spaceships now.  I peek out from behind the tailings and see the CM.  Her external lights have come on automatically.  As I’m watching, the Kestrel’s floods click on also, illuminating the area around her malevolent hull.  There are three men with guns patrolling the area, sticking closer to Kestrel than Allgood.  With their comrades still battling the materia, they are stationed defensively around their base, crouched and chattering about the shaking ground beneath them.  The low haze surrounding the ships will surely compromise any infrared camera imaging.  Just to be safe, I kneel down and scoop up fistfuls of regolith.  I smear it over my suit as thermal camouflage: arms, legs, trunk.  The very thing that Katya tried to prevent, I’m now doing intentionally.  Dust is my friend.

The black line of Hrothgar’s shadow overtakes me as the sun dips below the jagged horizon.  I am now in night.  My visor lights up, showing me the path ahead.  I crouch down and start at a fast walk, hoping that the Kestrel’s cameras don’t spot me.  I make it through the line of boulders, staying low. keeping waste rock between me and the two ships until the last minute.  The ground jerks again and a large boulder comes loose from a tall rock on my right—I jog to my left to miss it.

Now I’m crouched behind the last big rock, as close to the CM as I’m going to get.  The last bit of the walk is on exposed ground.  The CM’s decontamination tent and airlock are facing me, lit up by her floodlights.  The thing is, I’m not sure what to do now.  I’ve been thinking about it, turning it over and over in my head, but without a small army or at least some kind of weapon, there ain’t no way I can turn this situation around and rescue Katya, Louis, and the captain—if they’re even still alive.  I could just run out there, onto the floodlit field, try to find a way in, and hope for the best.  But it ain’t in my nature to hope for the best.  This is experience talking.  Luck just don’t happen for me.  Except for Sophia—meeting her was pretty lucky.  Don’t get distracted, I think to myself.

Running to the airlock would just get me killed.  I’d also be dooming my crewmates.  I curse quietly in my frustration, even though I know ain’t nobody can hear me.  After coming all this way, blundering into the center of the stroid, meeting an alien, and getting past the two Kestrel gangsters, I don’t know what to do next.  I’m all kinds of exasperated.  So I squat here behind this boulder, watching the men patrolling between and around the two ships and ponder the thing.  The ground shakes again; this time more violently.  I look around warily at the rocks above me, but they’re staying put.  That’s when I notice a dim flash coming from the distance, then another flash, then I pick out a quick series of flashes, following the line of rocks.

Thrusters.  It’s another damn drone, flying in the dark. How many of those things do they got?  An infrared searchlight is shining from a turret on the drone’s bottom and sweeping back and forth as the machine patrols the rocks.  It’s headed my way.  Now what?  I crawl back along the line of rocks until I find a sheltered spot, bounded on three sides by boulders, and I move into that.  I shovel regolith frantically onto my legs and arms; even my helmet, although I know the stuff won’t stick to its slick surface.  Then I wait.   I keep my head down, knowing that my visor is the hottest part of my infrared signature.  And then I hope for the best.  Yea, right.

I can see the drone inside my helmet by watching its tiny orange avatar floating above the virtual boulders, flitting this way and that, checking out the myriad odd shapes that it is encountering against some internal database.  It’s looking for me.  They know that I have to come back here.  The drone approaches, closer and closer.  I am helpless to stop it.  I can’t run.  I hold a rock in each glove to throw at it, but even if I hit it, a rock would probably not even dent its steel skin.  In my visor, the drone’s avatar is right on top of my symbol.  I see the infrared light illuminating the area around me.  The jig is up.  I explode out of my hidey hole and fling both rocks at the hovering drone in rapid succession.  One rock flies off uselessly into the night, but the other hits.  As expected, it just bounces off. The drone flinches, then recovers and aims its laser at my head.  “Drone has found something,” says a radio voice in my headset.

“Make it hold.  Let’s get over there,” comes a reply.

So there I crouch, covered in dust as the ground vibration frees pebbles from the tall rocks around me—they ping and clatter against my helmet as they hit.  There’s the big, armed drone not a meter away.  The machine has got me pinned down, with barriers on three sides and it’s covering the only opening—not that I could outrun it anyway.  In my visor I can see the avatars of two Kestrel thugs coming my way with slow, deliberate steps.  They’ll be here in minutes.  The drone turns on its twin white floodlights to get a better look at me.  They are blinding.  I stretch my left arm out to shield my eyes from the light.

I feel the materia leap from my arm.  It has jumped from my wristy onto the drone.  The goo forms into an octopus’s shape, grasping the drone with its tentacles.  The drone doesn’t react—not something it’s programmed for.  Soon one of the drone’s floodlights is covered with the stuff and for a moment the beam shines through the translucent red mass.  But within seconds the octopus morphs into something flatter; it squirms around the hull of the drone and finds a gap.  Quick as anything, it seeps through the crack and disappears into the machine.

At first the drone just hovers there, as malevolently as before.  Then it starts listing to the left.  Then it starts wobbling.  The wobble becomes more and more violent, until with a jerk the machine goes dark.  The machine’s thrusters go cold and it tumbles gently to the ground.  I approach the dead machine.  I stomp it with my boot.  “Take that you evil piece of trash,” I say.  A red amoeba emerges from the top of its hull.  The materia squishes into a thumb with two crystalline eyes.  It looks up and me and blinks.  “Good job,” I say.  I hold out my arm and the little blob leaps back to its place, once again becoming my wristy.

“The drone has got some kind of fault, over” says a voice in my headset.  I freeze, not sure if I should run or what.

“What kind of fault, over?”

“Eh…dunno.  Thought it had found something, I told it to hold position, then telemetry just stopped.”

“Damn.  That’s the second drone today.  Them things ain’t cheap.  Gonna be hell to pay when we get back, over.”

“If we get back.”

“Roger that.  Let’s go find the carcass if we can.”

But even as I listen to their conversation, to my horror the running lights on the drone snap back on.  I step out of the cluster of boulders that had entrapped me, tip-toing around the machine as its thrusters blaze to life.  The big cube swoops up from the ground and hovers right in front of me, its laser turret pointed at my eyes.  This is it.  I’m out in the open.  If I run, it will blast me.  If I stay, the Kestrel men will catch me.  But then I see that the laser isn’t pointing at me at all—it’s off to the right a bit, not aimed at anything in particular.  The drone just hovers there, atop the smoky plumes of its spitting thrusters, then swivels around to its right, and goes on busily with its patrol pattern as if nothing had happened.

“Ah, it’s back, over.”

“Really?  The drone came back up, over?”

“Roger that.  Guess it had some kind of proton hit or something.  I don’t know much about how those things work.”

“Me neither.  Does it still have its target, over?”

“Na.  Mischaracterization it says.  Just a rock that looked like man.  Stupid machine, over.”

“Oh, good.  Probably the ground vibrations confused it.  I didn’t really want to go on a chase no ways.  Our shift is almost over.  Let Ned and Gary take it up, over.”

“Roger that.  Vodka time.  I’m ready for this whole damn mission to be over.  It’s been a disaster.  Plus this stroid is coming apart and you-know-who is chafing my ass.”

“Careful, over.”

“Roger that.”

I peek up over the boulders and see the two men, not far away, standing idle, butting helmets.  They’ve gone off the air.  Another private conversation.  The drone is to my left, scudding along the line of rocks.  I still don’t have a path to the airlock without exposing myself to the floodlights.

“I need the lights near the airlock to go dark,” I whisper, hopefully.

Immediately, the drone deviates from the line of rocks and rockets towards the Allgood.  It collides with the thick hull of the spaceship.  One of the drone’s metal corners hits and shatters a flood lamp.  The lamp flares and goes dark in the hazy mist.  The drone turns and tumbles chaotically, spinning over and over, around the airlock and colliding with a second lamp, which also flashes and goes black.  “What the hell is going on with the damn drone, over?” demands a voice.  With that, the drone stabilizes and floats serenely back to the line of rocks and dutifully resumes its patrol.

“Another fault.  This time with the guidance system.  Telemetry says the drone fixed itself.”

“Wha, another fault?  Fixed itself my ass.”

“Look, what can I say, the telemetry says it’s fine now.  It’s the only drone we got left.  You wanna try to fix it, do you?  If you can, you’re a damn sight smarter than me.  Over.”

“Sheez.  It’s a wild goose chase, over.”

Another fine job by my devious and gloopy friend.  Now the area around the decontamination tent is dark. I wait for the two disgruntled Kestrel men to make it back to their ship, then slink across the open field, favoring my defective right boot with a slight limp.  I crouch in the tent.  In my visor I can see that the Kestrel has had a changing of the guard; two men are crossing from the Kestrel to the Allgood.  It looks like they’re carrying tools.  They’re probably going to try to fix the flood lamps, which will bring them directly to me.  “I gotta have a distraction,” I say.  “I need the men coming from the Kestrel to find something else to do.”

Immediately I hear a voice in my headset.  “Target!  Drone found the target!  It’s the Yuuta kid!”  Oh no, how did they find me?  Panicked, cursing, I peak out of the tent.  The drone is hovering over a rocky spot in the distance.

“All right, it’s about time,” says another relieved voice.

Must be Gary this time.  Could be Ned but I’m calling him Gary.  Ned and Gary are chasing the wild goose, as they say on Earth.  Apparently that’s a thing there.  The liberated drone should keep the boys in the busy for a while.  I walk past the decontamination sprayer and the air shower.  No way am I gonna stop and decontaminate now; no time, and it makes a racket.  I step up the short ladder and pause with my hand on the airlock latch.

And I think about Mr. Ickes back in the Shacktown hanger, and his chronic cough and the trickle of bloody spittle constantly dribbling from the corner of his mouth.  I shrug: this one time won’t make a difference.  Katya and her fastidious hatred of dust will yell at me if I come inside.  Presently, I’m covered in the stuff.  She’s going to be pissed, even if I rescue her.  OK, OK, I stop and brush myself off, sweeping the stuff off of me so that it falls to the ground rather than make a cloud.  I make one pass through the air shower.  That’s all I’m gonna do. I don’t care how much she complains.

I check the indicators: the airlock is unoccupied and unpressurized.  I pull open the outer door.  Quietly.  I close it behind me and open the valves to let in air.  I adjust for a slow, hopefully quiet flow of gas.  I wait for the pressure to come up, hoping like anything that I haven’t alerted anyone.  I unlatch my helmet and lift it off my head.  It’s usually liberating to take off my helmet but this time it makes me feel more vulnerable: I’m leaving behind Structure’s visor display and eavesdropping of suit-to-suit radios.  Oh well, that stuff won’t help me in here anyway.

I listen for a few seconds: nothing.  I crack open the inner hatch.  Nobody in the dressing room.  I breathe a sigh of relief.  The crowbar I had used for my escape is now lying on the floor at my feet.  I take the hard steel bar up in my gloved hand.  At least now I have a weapon.  Won’t stand up against a gun, or against the mountain of Earth-meat freak Gristle, but at least it’s something, and in close quarters maybe I got a chance.  My best guess is that, whoever is here, they are in the galley or on the flight deck.  That’s where the food and the head is.

I take the long way: the hatchway down to the lower deck.  I slide down the ladder slowly, quietly, leaning in head first, so that if there is somebody down there I’ll hopefully see them before they see me.  I maneuver the big crowbar carefully down the narrow passage so that it don’t clang against a wall.  I sneak through the lower deck, walking on the sides of my feet to minimize noise.  I walk past the avionics bay, electrical power closet, the cots, and storage areas.

I hear a voice above me coming from the flight deck.  It’s a man’s voice; I don’t recognize it, and I can’t make out the words.  Crowbar firmly in my fist, I creep up the ladder to the upper hatch, which is closed but ain’t latched.  At the top of the ladder, I wrap my crowbar arm around the railing to steady me and reach my other hand up the hatch above.  I push gently, slowly, gritting my teeth and praying that the hinges don’t creek.

The hatch cracks; silently, thank God.  I press my head up against the metal to see through the crack.  I’m facing Katya’s engineering station.  I see the back of a Kestrel man, holstered gun at his side.  He’s talking, his hands moving as he speaks, agitated.  He moves to the side, oblivious that he’s being watched.  Then I see Louis.  His hands are behind him and he’s restrained to one of the saddles, slumped over.  His face is swollen and red; a stream of dried blood streaking the side of his mouth.  He looks exhausted, and barely conscious.

Katya is in the other saddle, facing me, her arms also restrained.  Her eyes are sunken and half closed, her face white with fatigue.  Kestrel man is talking and gesticulating to her.  I can’t make out what he’s saying; he’s turned away from me, his words lost in the ambient noise and of the flight deck.  I crack the hatch a little wider and look to each side.  I see the captain lying on the floor to my left, but I don’t see Nastez nowhere.  He’s dead, so they most likely took his corpse outside.  Which also makes it likely that the captain is not dead, since she’s still here.

Katya spots me.  Her eyelids flutter open in recognition at first but then drop back down to half open, like they were before, but her eyes stay on me.  Smart woman.  I crack open the hatch a little wider.  I lift up the crowbar so she can see the end of it.  Her eyebrows come down and up to signal me that she understands.  She looks over at Kestrel Man.  She has suddenly developed a wide-eyed interest in his long-running monologue.  “Oh, I know what you’re saying,” she says.  “Nobody listens to the working man.”

Kestrel Man looks pleased with himself and speaks up with new authority.  “Damn straight,” he says.  “I mean I would say to Nifty Jim, I would tell him myself, I’d say why can’t we just make a deal with the Consortium?  I’d say why can’t we just do that?  Because all this fighting is just costing money, you know, and word gets out, and when word gets out it scares the tourists and they stop coming.  They’ll just stop.”

“Would you really?” asks Katya, a new fascination in her tone.  “Would you tell Nifty Jim to his face?”

“Hell yea I would.  I ain’t scared of him.  Ain’t scared of nobody.  I would tell him straight up, no bull.”  His shoulders move back on his frame and he nods his manly head to Katya.  I open the hatch all the way. It’s still quiet.

“That’s very brave of you!” exclaims Katya.  “And you are so right.”  I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a woman flutter her eyelashes before, but there it is.  Not a myth.

“So I ain’t as bad as you thought, huh?  I ain’t all that bad am I?  Just trying to make a livin’ ya know.”  I slowly pull my right foot off the ladder and plant it on the upper deck.  Katya smiles at the man.  Nice, big, friendly smile.  She can really be dazzling when she wants to be, and she dazzles me all the more since I know she’s putting on an act.

“Oh no,” she says.  “In fact, you’re the cutest guy I’ve seen from the Kestrel.  There are only two young men in our crew, and they’re both such losers.”

“Ha ha, losers huh?  Even the big jock over there?” he says, cocking his head towards Louis.

“Oh him, he’s really lame,” she giggles.  “He writes poetry, for crying out loud!”

Kestrel man laughs too. They laugh together. Nice.  Lots of noise to cover the sound of my feet as I creep slowly across the deck, crowbar now in both hands.  Kestrel Man starts to turn my way as he laughs.  “Hey, it’s hot in here!” exclaims Katya.

Kestrel Man turns back to her.  “Hot?  Oh yea?”

“Yea.  My hands are tied; can you pull the zipper down on my chest?  This jumpsuit is very…constricting.”  She sticks her chest out for maximum effect.  Her eyes look directly into his.  Her lips part slightly.  I raise the crowbar.  I brace my knee against a console to hold me down.

“Oh, uh, yea, how far down do you want it?” Kestrel Man asks Katya, with a cocky smirk.

“Ooo, all the way down,” she says.  “Bring it down right now.”

“Huh?”  With that, the man knows that he’s been had.  He swivels and looks directly at me, his eyes wide, hand reaching for his gun.  Too late.  I swing the big bar down on the crown of his head.  Thud.  Home run.  Kestrel Man’s body goes limp; he collapses to the floor.  I kick him out of my way and whip out a pair of heavy clippers from my utility belt.  With a snip, Katya is free.  First thing she does is grab her med kit and bind the hands of the thug with biotape.

“Get Louis!,” she says as she’s wrapping the tape, then: “Oh my god you’re covered in dust!”

“Sorry,” I mutter, as I clip Louis’s bindings.  He starts falling from his saddle, but I catch him before he hits the floor.  “How’s the captain?” I ask.  Katya shakes her head I don’t know.  She kneels over the captain’s prostrate body and lifts her eyelids.

“Unconscious,” says Katya.  “But alive.”  Blood is dried on the captain’s face and she looks whiter than I’ve ever seen her.  Katya gently palpitates the captain’s abdomen, then pulls the captains zipper down to expose her belly.  It’s purple.  “Internal bleeding,” she grimly whispers.  “She needs blood right away.” Katya whips around and starts pulling out the contents of the medical stores cabinet.

I’m cleaning Louis up, best I can, until Katya can get to him.  He comes to.  “Hey Straker,” he croaks through his bloody lips.  “Glad you could make it back.”

“My God Louis,” I say, “Gristle really beat you up.”

“Ugly dude ain’t got no sense of humor.”

Katya has retrieved a med kit and sits cross legged on the floor by the captain.  She slams her first into the emergency blood bag to break the internal barrier and mix the oxygenator with the blood-substitute, then slides the needle into the captain’s arm and starts the tiny pump on the bag.  “Hold this,” she says, handing the bag to me.  “Up high!”  I grasp the bag and hold it above my head as the little pump churns away.  Katya starts on Louis, wiping down his wounds and looking him over, checking for lacerations and broken bones.

“You took on two guys and nearly whipped Gristle too!” I say to Louis.  “I ain’t never seen nobody fight like that.  Where did you learn that?”

“Long story,” he says.  “Maybe I can tell you about it someday.  If we live.”  He looks up at Katya through his swollen eyes.  She’s carefully cleaning the blood from his temple with a small pad.  “You OK?” he asks her.  No answer, just wiping and cleaning.  “Did they hurt you?” he asks, this time with more concern in his voice.

Katya shakes her head no.  She swallows hard, then speaks in a soft voice, not meeting his gaze.  “So, those missing years after high school…”

“A medical thing,” he replies.

“And the workouts.  And the black-belt fighting I saw.  And knowing all about military lasers.”

“Just stuff I do.”

“And the jock-talk and the stupid jokes.”  Katya looks in Louis’s eyes.  “It’s all cover, isn’t it?  It’s all some big secret, isn’t it?”

Louis gazes at her with total devotion, lifting his eyebrows, causing a single drop of blood to flow from the gash above his eye and meander down his cheek.  His face is broken and bloody, but even in his pathetic state a blind man could see how much Louis wants to tell her everything.  But he can’t.  He silently shrugs his shoulders, and even that looks painful.  Katya wipes the fresh blood from his skin, but her lower lip is trembling.  She stops and puts her hands over her face.

“What’s wrong?” Louis asks, his eyebrows knitted in concern.  Katya’s face turns red behind her hands.  She is shaking.  Louis reaches up and puts his hand on her arm.

“I’m…I’m sorry,” she blurts out.  “I’m so, so sorry.”

“What?  Why?”

Katya pulls her hands away from her face.  “I was…I was such…I was such a bitch to you!”

Louis struggles but sits up next to her, propping himself against a console.  He looks into her face.  She drops her hands and looks up at him with big, sorrowful eyes, her shame welling up and spilling from the lids.  Louis simply smiles at her.  Katya breaks up and sobs openly.  Big tears part from her face and float slowly towards the floor.  Each is a perfect sphere, transparent and lovely as glass, glinting with the reflection of the ceiling lights.  Louis gently embraces her, stroking her hair.  That moment seems to last forever: the woman, the man, and the tears.  I believe I ought to be somewheres else right now.  But then I hear a squawking coming from the unconscious man’s headset.  I walk over, grab the set, and put it on my head.

“Ned?” says the headset.  “You there?  Need your status, over.”

I look at Louis and Katya.  “What should I do?” I ask.

Louis shrugs. “If they want status, give them status.”

There’s a jolt in the floor, I nearly stumble.  I grab onto the console to steady myself.  I tap the headset talk button.  “Ah, yea, Kestrel,” I say.  “This is Ned.  Ah…situation under control, everything is A-OK, over.”

“Yea well your telemetry says you’re unconscious, over,” says the voice.

Oops.  Busted.  Gotta improvise, fast.  “Kestrel, this is Ned again…ah…some kinda malfunction…anal thermometer fell out my butt…well, uh, yea.  Over.”

“Anal what?”

I drop the headset on the floor.  “They’re coming,” I say.