The horizon felt so close on the asteroid, the area around her illuminated only by the Hopper and her own helmet light. Everything else—darkness. Clarissa imagined herself stepping off into space, arms outstretched. Floating…
She shook her head. She ought to return to the Hopper in case a rival hunter ship arrived. Even this far in the trans-neptune system, she didn’t have the luxury of fantasizing on the job. Her crew deserved better. She bounded back to the small reconnaissance craft.
“Captain,” came a deep East African voice over her helmet comm. “How much of a sample do we need to lay claim?”
“At least two tubes, Coop. I can give you a hand if you need.”
“I’m the astrogeologist, right? I can handle it.”
“All right, geist. Just make sure to keep your gravboots on so you don’t float away like last time.”
“Like, like last time? Wh—”
She cut the comm off. Overhead she could just make out the Artemis, its inelegant, bulky shape barely visible in the pitch black of space. As she entered the Hopper, she made a mental note to have Enoch turn down the external lights. No point in standing out more than they already did.
She thought of her crew as she waited in outer airlock for the pressure to equalize. A smirk spread across her tired face. Her crew. Three misfits who called Luna home but spent most of their time chasing asteroids.
While fighting amongst themselves, of course, she thought. Sergey had thought her style too permissive, particularly compared to Gennaji. But then again…
The all clear light blinked, and she entered the command module. Removing her helmet, she let it float next to her then sat in the command chair. Time for a systems check. It never hurt to be prepared, especially when former colleagues were gunning for her.
The comm light blinked on the panel above the main screen. She searched the control panels, flicked a switch.
“Riss. This is Enoch. We just got pinged.”
“Yeah. Coming in soon. Listen to this.
The familiar baritone voice echoed around the Hopper.
“This is the Captain of the Sagittarius. That’s my rock you’re standing on. Get off.”
Shit, Riss thought. He’s here already.
“Alright, Enoch, stall for time. I’ll call the others.”
“Right. Get back to you in a minute.”
She flicked another switch to change the comm channel.
“Coop, how we doing on those samples?”
“Almost there,” the astrogeologist’s voice sounded over the comm. “This old soil sniffer takes time to analyze the—“
“Cut it short, geist. Grab what you can. We gotta go.”
Abruptly she cut to another channel.
“Just about back to Coop’s position.”
“How many tractors did you find?”
“Two. Both in pretty bad shape.”
“Crap. OK, we’ll have to come back for the rest.”
She cut the channel again. No response from the Artemis. Enoch was still stalling, she guessed. She hoped he hadn’t been attacked. Surely Gennaji wouldn’t go that far.
A clanging noise from the chamber next door, then a muffled curse. Riss smiled as she plotted the return course. Other captains would have let their crew handle the asteroid landing. Not her. She had to be first. Just like Sergey.
Let it be ditrium, not just iron, she prayed. Just like his.
The inside ship door slid open and her pilot emerged. She threw a misshapen piece of metal on the floor behind Riss then closed the hatch.
“What’s left of one of our anti-rotation grav tractors, I assume,” Riss said.
“Yeah. The other one was too heavy, so I left it.”
Riss sighed. It couldn’t be helped. Expensive to lose, but first they had more important things to take care of.
“Where’s that geist?”
“Said he wanted to pack up things.”
Riss flicked the comm switch again.
“Coop, forget the damn sniffer. Get those samples in here!”
She cut the switch. Next to her Sanvi began to strap into her flight harness. Riss checked the controls. Ready to go.
The hatch opened again.
“You got the samples?”
“Yeah.” He held up the tubes.
“Good job. Strap in.”
The Hopper lifted without a sound from the asteroid. Riss relaxed as Sanvi took over the controls.
“Coop. Anything interesting?”
Cooper shook his head. “Haven’t had a chance to finish the analysis yet. I’ve got more equipment on the Artemis that can handle it.”
“Better than the sniffer?”
“About the same, but faster.”
“Riss, look,” Sanvi cut in.
They could now see the Artemis clearly. Facing her was a smaller, older ship. The Sagittarius.
Cooper got up from his seat for a better view.
“Wow, that thing looks ancient,” he said.
“Like old friends,” Sanvi said. She adjusted the thrusters as they approached.
Riss said nothing. She folded her arms and stared at the Sagittarius.
“Wait, you know these people?” Cooper asked.
Sanvi glanced at Riss, who still remained silent.
Cooper looked back and forth at both of them. “Am I missing something?”
Sanvi finally spoke. “The Sagittarius is Riss’s old ship.”
“Sergey’s ship,” Riss finally said. “Not mine.”
“Sergey!” Cooper said, punching his hand. “Captain Sergey Bardish! Of course!”
Sanvi and Riss both turned to look at him.
“What?” he said.
Riss turned back to the window. “I was only in command temporarily. Because Sergey asked me to.”
“That’s not what Gennaji thought,” Sanvi replied, flicking switches. “Altering course.”
“Let’s just find out what he wants,” Riss said sharply. She touched the comm panel. “Enoch, what’s the situation?”
“Gennaji is still insisting that we let him board. Says he wants to talk to you.”
“Oh? So he doesn’t know I was on the rock?”
“I thought he knew your MO, but looks like—”
“I don’t care what it ‘looks like,’ and I care even less to have that bastard on my ship.”
“He says if we don’t let him board, he’ll report us to the Council as thieves.”
“The Coun—” Riss turned red and sputtered. “We got the lottery fair and square.”
Sanvi interrupted. “Gennaji probably doesn’t see it that way, Riss.”
Riss took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
“All right, Enoch. Tell him he can board. But only him.”
“OK, I’ll tell him. But he won’t like it.”
“Whatever. Prep Airlock 1. We’re coming in.”
Riss cut the comm off. The Artemis loomed in front of them, almost entirely upside down. The Sagittarius wasn’t straight up, either, floating at a sideways angle to the Artemis.
“This,” the geist said. “This, uh, isn’t what I expected ships would look like in space.”
“You thought they would meet face to face or something?” Sanvi said.
He looked at her and nodded quickly, then stared back out the window.
“There’s no up or down,” she said. “No left or right. Only Space.”
“Kind of makes my brain hurt.”
“You get used to it,” Riss said. “Take us in.”
Sanvi nodded, moving her hands quickly. “Cutting port thrusters.”
The Hopper adjusted course. They were on top of the Artemis now. Or underneath, from the Artemis crew’s perspective. Cooper craned his neck. His dark skin seemed to have grown paler. Riss guess that the prospect of going down into the ship and then suddenly being right-side-up did not appeal much to his stomach.
“Have a seat.”
The geist strapped himself in. Riss glanced back. He tugged at his suit collar and rubbed a hand over his head. Must be feeling queasy, she thought.
“Coop,” she called out with a touch of sympathy. “Take a breath. Focus. Think of the rocks.”
He nodded, then closed his eyes.
The Hopper shuddered as it touched the Artemis.
“Automatic guidance engaged,” Sanvi announced. “Lock established. Seal firm. Good to go.”
“Good work,” Riss said. “OK, everybody. Prep your sidearms. We have a rock to defend.”
Next week: Chapter 2: Luna Base