Chapter 21

“Can’t we just blast off?” asks Louis.  “Propulsion is ready to go, ain’t it?”

“Yes,” answers Katya, wiping her eyes.  “We can lift in 20 minutes or so, if we start now.  But what about Romeo over there?” She nods towards the unconscious Kestrel thug.

Louis ponders for a moment, then responds: “We can put him in his suit and leave him out on the surface.  Let his own goons come get him.”

“OK,” says Katya.  “His suit has plenty of O2.  I’ll make sure he’s stable and get him out of here.”  She hands Louis a cold compress.  “Hold this on your face; it will help with the swelling.”

“Wait,” I say, “What’s to keep them from just blasting us with their laser?”

Louis nods, holding the compress painfully to his swollen right cheekbone.  “Right…right.  They could put a hole in our hull.  They could do it either now, or anytime on the trip back.  The Kestrel is much faster than our ship.  They don’t have the fuel to steal our cargo outright, but they could wait until we’ve gone through our first big burn and expended most of our delta-V, then kill us, then just take our cargo in tow.”

After all this.  Is there no way to get away from these freaks?  The three of us are silent for a moment, pondering what to do, when the floor suddenly drops a couple of centimeters.  A ceramic sippy falls the top of a console onto the floor, with a crash, and I hear the clatter of things falling in the galley.  Louis looks up at the films.  “Don’t know what’s going on out there, but I got a feeling the sooner we’re off this rock, the better.”

“We need to smash that laser before we go,” I say.  “We need to do it now while they’re still chasing their drone.”

“They’re chasing a drone?” asks Katya, leaning over the Kestrel man and pushing an injection into the sliver of neck exposed by his helmetless spacesuit.  Something to help with concussion, I reckon.

“Yea, they’ll be chasing it for a little while,” I say.  “So now is a good time, if we’re going to do it.”  Never mind how I know that.  Louis’ eyebrows go up in a question.  But then he nods.

“So how do we disable the laser?” asks Katya.

“Wouldn’t take much,” says Louis.  “Break the main lens, or even just scratch it up.  They’re actually pretty fragile.”

“I’ll go, I say.  “I’m already suited.”

“Na, I’ll go,” says Louis.  He struggles to get up, unsuccessfully trying to suppress his moan from the pain.

“No!” says Katya.  “Don’t be ridiculous!  You are in no condition to go.  You can’t even get into your suit.”

Louis pauses, then nods, looking like he nearly blacked out from the pain of that small movement.  It’s just the truth.  He would be the best person to go, since he’s obviously a trained fighter, even though he won’t say how.  But his face looks like it’s been through an ice mill, and that’s just the part I can see.  Probably has broken bones that we haven’t had the time to find yet.  “Could I use your gun?” I ask.  “Blast the lens with it?”

Louis thinks for a minute, then shakes his head.  “Na, that gun is really tricky.  Without training you’re more likely to blow a hole in yourself than in the laser.”

“Then I can use the crowbar,” I say.  “Take a good swing at the lens, maybe break it, or at least scratch it.”

Louis shakes his head again.  “That might work, but better use something heavier if you can.  Like a hammer.  There’s that big one in the tool bin outside the hull.  One big hit should do it.  Lock your boots down tight first.”

“Roger that.  OK, hammer it is.”  I say, arranging my own headset back over my hair.  “Once I do this, they’re going to come after us like mad hornets.  We better be ready to go.”

“I’ll spin up the nav and pressurize the prop system,” says Katya.  “Louis, you can help me with the checklist. We’ll blow the moorings and launch as soon as Straker is back in the airlock.”

“All right.  That’s it.  I’m going.”  I stand up and start for the hatch.

“Wait,” calls Katya.  “The key!”

“Oh, right.  I have it.”  I pull the chip from my arm pocket and hand it to her.

“Good luck, Straker,” she says.  Her face is white, her tone fatalistic, like this is the last time she’s going to see me alive.  Maybe it is.

Louis nods gravely to me and holds his bloody hand up in farewell.  Then he gives me a thumbs up.  “Good hunting,” he says.

With my trusty crowbar in hand, I head past the galley for the dressing area.  I feel my heart pumping in my chest, knowing that I will soon be in mortal danger once again, not knowing what form it will take.  But I’m getting used to fighting.  Besides, it’s time for doing, not feeling.  My adrenalin will get me through.  I’m in the dressing room.  I step into the backpack and put on the chest piece.  My helmet is on the floor, where it must’ve fallen after that last quake.  I grab it and take a couple last luxurious breaths of free air.  I latch it down over my shoulders, step into the airlock, and slap the switch to pump out the air at max flow rate.  My suit reacts to the vacuum like a living thing, bulging out, then pushing in on my body, until it finds equilibrium.  The suit’s function is to maintain a programmed volume within limits, so sometimes it responds to sudden pressure changes like that.  “Structure, you still there?” I say to my headset.

“here” text appears on my visor, then fades away.  The suit-to-suit conversations of the Kestrel crew start coming over my headset again.

“Where is this stupid thing leading us?” says one nasal voice, exasperated, judging by his tone.

“I can’t keep up!” comes another voice.  “The ground is shaking like hell, my feet nearly broke free a minute ago!  Over!”

“Keep going dammit!” says the nasal guy.  “Without that key we’re going back empty handed!”

I open the outer hatch and look around.  We’re back in daylight, but the shadows are already long again as the sun is moving down into the yellow ground haze.  Won’t be long before night comes again.  Nobody is patrolling at the moment; I reckon the liberated drone is still keeping them in the busy.  I keep low and close to the hull of the CM, trying to stay out of view of the Kestrel’s cameras.  I feel ominous vibrations in my feet—the ground is trembling almost constantly now.

The unpressurized tool compartment hatch is just ahead; it’s a big space on the side of the hull where we keep the tools for outside work–in this case, a yellow-handled engineer’s hammer, just right for knocking hardened rocks out of a mining drone’s digging teeth or smashing laser lenses.  I pull the handle on the latch and the bin door swings open and down.  A corpse tumbles out.  It bounces once in the low gravity then settles, the body disappearing into the billowing dust that covers the ground.  I lift up its head: It’s First Officer Nastez, still in his bloody jumpsuit, his glazed eyelids staring at the alien sky above, mummified from the vacuum.

I shudder and take a step back and for a second I think I’m going to heave in my helmet.  But I grit my teeth and grunt and fight the urge with everything I’ve got.  I should have expected this.  The feeling goes away.  My initial shock over, I examine the body and my revulsion is replaced with cold fury.  Nastez was not my favorite but he deserved a more dignified end.  For now, I’ve got to get him out of the way.  I slide him in the dust a few meters around the side of the hull.  “Sorry,” I say.

I go back to the tool bin and poke around, looking for the hammer.  First I have to get through all the other stuff in my way: ratchets, drills, wrenches, the foaming repair gun—I throw them all to the ground.  I find the big hammer, held in place by straps against a bulkhead.  I release the toggles holding the straps and yank it down.

Even in this low gravity, I can feel the heft of the big, long-handled hammer.  Its raw power makes me feel like a Neanderthal.  Nice.  The oldest weapon of war known to man against one of his newest.  I can’t help but grin—it seems so ludicrous—but whatever works, works.  Holding the hammer in both hands, I creep around the side of the CM, keeping my body as close to the hull as possible, sliding my backpack against the smooth steel.  I come just to the point where I can see the other ship squatting in the dust.  I stay there and wait.

I don’t have to wait more the five minutes.  The night slides in and I find myself standing right in the beams of CM’s floodlights. The Kestrels lights have snapped on too, glowing through the haze not far away.  Now is the time.  I can’t stop them from seeing me as I trek across to the other ship but they still don’t know how fast I can move on foot; so maybe they’re not paying close attention to their displays.

I see two suited figures leaving the Kestrel’s airlock, slowly trudging towards the CM, no doubt to check up on their man Ned.  I hear the patter between them in my headset; concerned about the quakes and complaining about the ‘Big Man’ bossing them around.  They’re talking about Gristle.  Wonder where he is.  Thankfully, they’re going around the other way to the CM’s airlock, so I just have to wait.

Now.  I bolt across the open space between the two ships as fast as my boots will allow, the hammer heavy in my fists.  I come up close to the Kestrel’s hull.  I slink along the side of the ship hoping that I’m out of view of their cameras, and make my way swiftly to the point near the stern where the laser blister protrudes down from the stern.

I stand by the blister. The laser’s big lens is obscured by the retractable dust cover of the blister.  I try to pry back the cover with my hands but my gloves are too clumsy to grip the smooth metal.  I pull a screwdriver from my belt and go to work on the joints and have better luck; I get a flap of metal to fold out from the cover and take the rest with a big pair of pliers.  The lens is exposed, looking like a big malevolent glass eye.  I stand back from the laser and position my hammer.  I stomp and shuffle my feet past the dust onto the rocky ground underneath, signaling the boots to establish maximum grip.  I feel the claws digging in tight.  I rear back, take a breath and swing.

The iron head of the hammer hits the lens and bounces.  My body reels back at the knees from the reaction but my boots stay firmly planted, so I recover.  I stoop down to examine the damage.  The lens is scarred but not broke—probably good enough to ruin the laser but I ain’t in the mood for half measures.  I stand, pull my arms back, preparing to swing again, when I feel movement on the left arm.  The blob of materia has jumped off my wristy again and has fallen into the dust.

Oh great.  Did the shock of the hammer strike damage or piss off the little guy?  But no, the goo immediately stands up in a tall thumb, then while I watch it reforms into a shape like an oversized, double-headed golf tee.  “What are you doing?” I ask.  The golf tee turns and looks at me with its shiny eyes and blinks once.  It turns towards the Kestrel, bends head over tail, and in a blur, swiftly summersaults its way to the hull of the ship, kicking up a swirl of dust as it goes.  It finds an access panel and in it goes; within seconds, the blob has disappeared.

I got no clue what it’s doing.  Maybe that’s the last time I’ll see it.  I refocus on the center of the laser’s lens and swing again, this time with my teeth gritted and a loud grunt of anger.  The hammer slams squarely into the center of the lens.  The lens shatters.  Big shards shoot out explosively from the impact.  One fragment hits me but bounces off without cutting my suit.  Good thing.

Mission accomplished, I drop the hammer in the dust, turn, and hoof it back to the CMI’m not bothering to sneak around this time.  Now it’s all about speed.  I push the hiking boots as fast as they will go.  My right boot is getting worse; it’s slipping a lot now, making my walking gait slower and asymmetrical.  My visor is back to operating in ordinary infrared, since my fair-weather Gumby left me.  But the sun ain’t been down long, so the dust and rocks are freshly hot and I can see good.  I cut across the area between the ships at an angle since the CM’s airlock is on the far side of the hull.

The sooner I can get in the hatch, the sooner we can be getting off of this rock.  I can’t wait to see those big engines flare and see the Kestrel, from above, disappear in the haze.  But once I get to where I can see the airlock, I spy the two thugs I had seen earlier.  They are both about my size and indistinguishable from each other except for the color of their armbands: red on one man, orange on the other.

They are kneeling down next to their comrade, who’s laying prostrate in the haze.  He’s the horny creep who’d put the moves on Katya.  She dumped him out of the ship like she said she would.  Parting in such sweet sorrow.

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou, forsooth, alas!

I’m down in the dust Juliette, got knocked on my ass.

They see me.  Orange Armbands is pointing in my direction.  I pivot on my right foot.  It slides out from under me; I catch my balance and plant it down again and head for the side of the CM.  Maybe I can get around the other way, pop in the airlock, and lock them out.  I glance back towards the Kestrel.  There are a half dozen men headed my way, plodding along but determined, each one with a gun on his hip.  They were on their drone-directed snipe hunt but apparently had not found me.  But now they have.

If I can beat them all to the airlock, it will be game over.  I limp along the side of the ship, exposed fully by the floodlights.  To make matters worse, with my broken boot I’m not much faster than they are, and with the ground jerking back and forth, I’m slowed down even more.  Once again I’m pushing the ventilation system of my suit beyond its capacity.  I’m short of breath.  I can smell my own stink from being way too long in the suit.  The suit’s water is depleted and my throat is dry, and I’m exhausted in spite of my panic.

I round the hull and see the airlock, but the two men are already there!  Crap crap crap, I say to myself.  I’m toast.  The posse of Kestrel men gaining on me at my back, and those two goons are ahead of me, guns in hand, hoofing it towards me.  I got seconds.  They’re gonna kill me.  What do I do now?

I drop to my knees.  The haze that covers the ground now covers me.  I can’t see nothing; even the infrared is useless in the thick dust.  I ain’t never been underwater—ain’t been around much water all in one place since I was little—but from the videos I seen, this is what it must be like.  The dust is thick as syrup; I almost have to swim through it to make progress.  I know the hull is to my left, so I crawl on my hands and knees in that direction.  I feel the trembling of the ground through my kneepads.

My glove bumps against one of the metal feet that holds the CM above the ground.  I bump my helmet up against the steel hull.  I can’t see jack, but I know the skin of the CM curves down and forms the bottom of the hull.  The feet and trusses hold the whole thing a bit less than a meter off the ground.  Somewhere down here too are the moorings that fasten the feet to the rocky surface, the moorings that will blow up when Katya ignites them.  Hoping she doesn’t do that right now.

I get down from my knees to my belly.  I slither down into the gap between the skids and the bottom of the hull, feeling my way with my gloves, trying not to tear my suit on any sharp rocks.  I don’t know if they’ll follow me down here, but at least if I can’t see them, they can’t see me neither.  I aim to where I think the airlock is.  I’m going from memory.  The space is tight; my helmet and backpack keep hitting the bottom of the CM as I creep along, pushing a wave of dust before me, with my chest plate scraping the rocky, uneven ground.

I don’t even try to see where I’m going.  There’s nothing to see anyways.  I keep my head down and inch along.  I could get stuck down here.  I could die down here.  Would anybody ever find me?  Probably not.  I can’t see nothing except the mustard-colored powder trying to push its way into my helmet.  I think of Sophia’s remarkable face, her olive skin and feminine voice, her perfect modeling of the beautiful actress from long ago.  To me, the fact that her body was artificial doesn’t detract from the wonder I feel for her.  After all, it was the face and body she had chosen.  If I could look like anybody in the universe, past or present, who would I choose?  I sure hope she is OK.

My left glove touches steel: it’s another foot.  I have come out the other side.  The hull above me is curving up now.  I breathe a sigh of relief and say a silent prayer of thanks; I’ve made it through.  But I don’t know what’s waiting for me above the dust.  I roll over on my back because I need my visor and my eyes to be the first things rising out of the dust.  Maybe I can see them before they see me.

I sit up, slowly, letting the billowing haze curl lazily off of the clear plastic in front of my eyes as I push my face out of the cloud and into the clear.  I see the CM’s spotlights blooming through the fog, then I see the black sky.  I turn my head slowly.  Nobody around!  I can’t believe my luck.  They must all be on the other side of the hull.  But they won’t be for long.  The decon tent and airlock are close by, to my left.  I bring my feet under me and stand, with rivers of dust falling from my body.  I stomp towards the tent, planting each foot carefully to compensate for my broken right boot.  I round the corner to the entrance of the tent and look inside.

There, by the ladder leading to the airlock, is a very, very big spacesuit.  It’s looking directly at me through its dark visor.  The person is leaning casually against the ladder, one hand on the railing.  With his free hand, he waves.  It’s Gristle.