Unaware of events on Mars, Gennaji was hurrying to help Sergey, his old captain, on Luna. But the unexpected happened, and now the Sagittarius is minus one crew member. And an unidentified object approaches..
“…Be happy. Be free.”
The transmission ended. Gennaji felt liquid on his cheek.
Not tears. A blood bubble had alighted. He brushed it off angrily.
“Ory, what’s the source of this message?”
He grabbed the navigator’s seat and strapped in. Another splotch on the panel. He wiped it off with his forearm and turned on the aft video feed.
The lifepod had slipped behind and below them. Who was in it? Surely not Sergey. The old man had always said he’d rather die than—
Gennaji snapped his head up.
He unstrapped and bounced to another console. Fingers dancing, trying to remember. He slapped the console in frustration. Lena had always been better than him at controlling the drones and the arm for rock retrieval. He had relied on Andrej too much. Relied too much on others. If only there were an easier way to learn how to do this. He shouldn’t have to do menial work. He was the captain! He should give the orders and the others should follow! He…
The arm extended at last. He sighed. Was it too late?
“Ory, can you open the cargo doors while I try to grab the pod?”
She nodded. Looking like a small frightened animal.
Gennaji grimaced. Not surprised. He probably looked like a maniac. Blood floating in the area. Disheveled and anxious. And she hadn’t even spotted the bo—
Ory gave a high-pitched shriek. Looks like she finally saw Karel. What was left of the man, anyway.
“Ory,” he said firmly. “The doors.”
“And where’s the source of that message?”
“Just. Just a minute, sir.”
He fiddled with the aft video controls and changed the angle. Not a great view, but good enough. The pod had just slipped sideways underneath them. He punched the panel in front of him. Twice. Slowly the ship turned, pitched down. The pod came back into view again. Not directly behind but close enough.
The arm reached for the pod, glanced off one end. No sound in space, of course, but Gennaji imagined what the grind of titanium on aluminum would sound like. He tried again.
Grabbed it. But poked a hole as well. Vapor escaped the pod.
Shit. He might kill whoever was in the thing. Or maybe whoever it was had already died and the vapor was just engine coolant.
She sniffled. Nodded.
The cargo doors opened slowly. The arm dragged the pod toward them. Gennaji dared not release the pod just yet. The arm might accidentally fling the pod over the ship. He waited.
Closer. Minutes went by.
Closer. The arm was nearly at the open doors. Gennaji checked the location of the rocks so carefully tied down by the robots of Ceres.
Gently. He released the controls.
The pod was lifted, scraped the roof of the cargo, flipped end to end. Settled down and slid on the floor. The Sagittarius protested and he felt the vibration of the cargo hold groaning at the metal on metal friction.
But it was soon over. He collapsed the arm back into its holding port, closed the port door.
“Close the doors. Pressurize.”
Ory nodded. Tears trickled down her frightened face. She obeyed his commands, then shrank back. Balled up her trembling hands in front of her chest.
He released his breath. Only then did he realize he had been holding it. He looked over at the woman. Not his first choice, but he needed her. Wanted her. Would never hurt her.
He said so. She nodded, still shaking.
He thought of holding her in his arms, but shook his head. Too soon. He needed to calm himself. Clean the ship.
“Ory, stay here. Direct a cleaning unit to vacuum the air and ionize any particles. I’ll…I’ll deal with the body.”
He stood, stared at the empty-headed Karel floating just above the command center floor. The body had moved back, then to the right. Rigor mortis already set in. It looked bloated and didn’t smell all that great, either. From both ends.
That’s what he expected to find in the pod, as well. Death never was a clean, noble thing. At least Karel had his eyes wide open. Staring death in the face. Smiling.
Damn him. Damn me.
Grabbing the body by the back of the belt, he dragged it into the corridor. Found a garbage chute. Dumped it. Good riddance. He’d dispose of it all later, jettison the refuse into space. After the clean up, no one would know the difference. For all they could tell, Karel had simply finished his contract and then decided on a career change. Moved to Triton, perhaps. Or Europa. Somewhere there was profit to be made from methane or other natural gas extraction, compression, distribution.
He reached the cargo hold. He paused, reflecting. Remembering.
Once, three of them had entered the hold. Sergey, Lena, and himself. Ildico up in the command center holding down the fort.
Now it was only him.
Ory had never told him the source of the transmission, but he knew.
He checked the air pressure. After another minute to make sure, he opened the door.
Entered the hold.
There it was. Just like before. Only there was no small child waiting to be awakened, waiting to ruin his life.
The pod lay on its face. It’d have to be cut open like a tin can, unless he could somehow push it over. But he was just a man. No special powers like that geist or that Loonie with the strange eyes. No kung fu or martial arts tricks.
Only his anger. His rage.
And his miner’s exoskeleton. He’d almost forgotten about that.
He opened a locker door next to where he kept the hollow point. The external mechanical frame was a bit rusty, but it seemed functional. He yanked it out, started unfolding it. At best, he’d only irradiate himself with a few microsieverts from the nuclear-powered suit. At worst, he might accidentally break his kneecaps or pull a lat. Either way, he’d get what he wanted.
If only there were a way to use the exoskeleton more efficiently, as part of his body and not as an external support. He supposed a smarter man than himself would figure it out someday.
The final adjustments for height made, he immediately felt stronger. Also felt his spine compressing under the weight of the frame. He’d better do this quickly.
He bent down and flexed his knees. No pain so far. Tested the arms, shoulders. Everything fine. Now for the pod.
He placed both hands underneath the side. Squatted. Waited for the exoskeleton to absorb the full weight of the pod. Then slowly stood. Little by little, the pod lifted. He could feel the strain, his elbows shake momentarily. The suit compensated, pressure valves releasing air as the power converter worked its magic. His feet felt like lead anchors digging into the metal floor of the cargo hold. The ship groaned. He was nearly standing straight.
The pod slipped away from him. It landed. Slight bounce. The floor groaned again, and he fell forward. Caught himself on top of the pod.
There was a window. A door.
He lifted himself up.
Tears came unbidden. He cursed.
He cursed Sergey.
Most of all, he cursed himself.
When he came to, he was prone over the pod, arms extended across the window through which his mentor seemed to sleep. He heard a sound behind him.
He turned. Ory.
She walked toward him. Hesitantly. Expressionless.
“Captain,” she said in quiet voice. “I didn’t have the chance to tell you.”
He closed his eyes. It wouldn’t have mattered. He had already known. There must have been no other option for Sergey. He must have been kidnapped. Shanghaied into coming with another miner, or a hunter. Some other viper from Ceres.
Who had gotten away.
“Where will we go?” Ory asked.
Gennaji stood. He flexed his knees, elbows. Everything seemed alright.
He slowly detached the exoskeleton from his ankles, then waist. “I don’t know,” he said. He continued with the wrists, then the shoulders. The neck.
The suit dropped on the floor behind him with a dull clang. He looked back at the lifepod.
Sergey, I will never understand you. Why? Why throw away your life for her? Why throw away your life for anybody? Everyone makes choices. It’s not your job to save everyone else. Let them do what they want. Whatever they get, they deserve it. Kill or be killed. Survive or die. That’s the way of the universe.
He shrugged. “We can’t go back to Ceres. Luna is probably under martial law now. I can’t stand the UA.”
He said nothing. Massaged his wrists and then elbows.
“At least we can bury the Captain.”
He nodded. Then grimaced again. Far into the red planet’s interior, away from the poles, away from the Colonies, where no one would ever find Sergey. But after fulfilling his duty to his former captain, where else could he go? Besides far away from that bitch, Riss.
There was only one location left. And he had to hope nobody knew what the Sagittarius had set up there, years ago.
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 40: United Mars Colonies — The Sundering Begins