(This week’s installment is over 3000 words long, so I’m splitting it into two parts for posting. Enjoy!)
“Airlock 2 engaged,” came the navigator’s voice over their helmet comms. “Seal confirmed.”
“Thanks, Enoch,” Riss replied. “Take up your position on the catwalk.”
Riss removed her helmet and placed it on top of the cargo hold’s control computer stack. Riss surveyed the hold. Designed to safely transport small to medium-sized asteroids, the vast space was shaped like top half of a dodecahedron. Which, in fact, it was. The bottom half comprised the fuel storage for Artemis’s ion engines.
Behind the control computers, the main door to the hold remained closed. Wrapped around the entire cargo hold area, the walkway could be accessed only through a small square portal directly above the main door.
The hold had two access ports. Port-side, Airlock 1 was reserved for the Hopper. Starboard-side, Airlock 2 served as a backup. Riss hated using it. While Airlock 1 was almost flush with the floor, Airlock 2 was several centimeters up the wall. After several initial attempts trying to leave the airlock without spraining an ankle, she decided never to use it for the Hopper. On the other hand, the airlock was perfect for unwanted guests.
Riss motioned for Sanvi and Cooper to stand at either side of her. She readied her sidearm, an old tazer rifle. Riss prayed she wouldn’t have to use it. From the sound of things, Gennaji must still be holding the old grudge, from near the end of her time on the Sagittarius.
At the thought, her eyes hardened. Lena, I’m sorry.
The three of them kept their eyes trained on Airlock 2 several meters across the cargo hold from the Hopper’s dock port.
The hatch opened with a pop and dangled mid-air. A figure emerged, slowly lowering itself down inch by inch and feet first to the floor. The yellow spacesuit bore the emblem of the old Ukranian Union and had large black and brown patches covering the knees. The tall figure stood and looked around quickly before focusing on Riss.
“Clarissa,” he responded.
“Still wearing that old uniform, I see,” Riss said, indicating with her chin.
“Still carrying that antique, I see,” Gennaji replied.
“What, this?” Riss said in mock surprise. “Just a precaution. You understand.”
Gennaji nodded. “Yes. Yes, I do.”
A second figure slid down from the airlock into the room, followed by a third.
“This wasn’t the agreement, Gennaji,” Riss said. “Get them off my ship.”
He crossed his arms as the two figures came to his side. Both men looked like miners. Shorter than Gennaji, but stocky and probably stronger. Both carried sidearm laser pistols, but probably had little experience fighting, Riss guessed. Simply a show of force.
“You expected only me, alone, on a hostile ship?”
Gennaji motioned the two to approach. “My new crewmen. Andrzej. Karel.”
Sanvi began to step forward, but Riss held out a hand to stop her. Gennaji’s men came to a halt just behind him.
“What do you want, Gennaji?” Riss asked. “And why are you out here, anyway? The Sagittarius couldn’t have beat us to the rock. It’s too slow.”
Gennaji shrugged. “We were already here. That’s why the rock belongs to us.”
“We found it first!” Cooper said. “First rights!”
“No, no, schwarze,” Gennaji said, shaking a finger. “You got first prize in the lottery. But we were closest.”
Riss cut him off. “That’s your reasoning, Gennaji? That won’t stand up in Council and you know it.”
“Lottery,” Gennaji said. “What a joke. Of course, Clarissa Kragen wins the lottery. Always rigged for the protegé of the great Captain Sergey Bardish. As if being a half-breed makes you special.”
Riss gripped her rifle tighter. Son of a—
“No one from the Sagittarius was there when the lottery decided,” Sanvi said. “You lose.”
“You still need a sample analysis to stake your claim,” Gennaji snapped. “Got one?”
“Right here,” Cooper said, holding the tubes up and shaking them.
“And the analysis?”
“Coop,” Riss said over her shoulder. “The analysis?”
“Um. Analysis,” the geist muttered, searching his pockets.
Gennaji’s crewmen put their hands on their pistols and took a step forward. Riss leveled the tazer rifle at Gennaji.
Gennaji gestured to his men. They stopped, but kept their weapons ready.
The geist withdrew a folded piece of paper with a hastily scrawled table of numbers on it. He read, “Based on mass calculations, the variation in mineral composition was well within the tolerance levels—”
“Ah. Trace amounts of nickel and iron. Tholins. Methanol. Lots of hydrocarbons.”
Gennaji laughed. “A great big chunk of ice. So much for your big catch.”
Riss lowered her rifle and turned to the geist.
“Coop,” she whispered. “Are you sure?”
He whispered back, “Not a hundred percent. The sniffer wasn’t done.”
So there might still be something there undetected, she thought with hope still. Above them, she heard movement on the catwalk. Enoch, in position.
She turned back to Gennaji and gestured toward the airlock. “Time to go, Gennaji.”
“You always were good at giving orders,” Gennaji said with a smirk.
“And you were always bad at taking them.”
Gennaji took a step closer. One of his men, Andrzej, grabbed his arm, whispering something to him, but Gennaji angrily yanked his arm away and took another step towards the Artemis crew. Sanvi quickly interposed between the taller man and her captain, striking a defensive pose.
Gennaji paused, looking at her.
“That supposed to impress me?” he asked.
Sanvi squinted briefly. “Yes.”
Gennaji laughed and put his left hand up as if to push Sanvi aside. She slid diagonally right towards him, grabbing Gennaji’s arm with her left hand, then striking at his eyes with her outstretched right hand’s finger tips. Her opponent’s head went backward to avoid the strike. Pivoting on her right foot, Sanvi spun around while striking down hard on the straightened arm with her right forearm. Gennaji buckled at the knees and held out his right hand to halt his fall to the floor. Sanvi twisted his arm upwards with the left hand and squeezed down with the right in an arm bar. Gennaji grunted and grimaced in pain. His crewmen immediately pulled out their weapons and trained them on Sanvi.
The high-pitched whine of an energy pulse weapon discharge filled the cargo hold. Karel yelped and dropped his laser pistol. Riss noted that Andrej did not seem fazed in the least. Instead, he looked up and calmly aimed his pistol at the source of the energy burst. Enoch waved from his prone position on the catwalk, then seized his rifle again with both hands.
“My navigator is a pretty good shot,” Riss said. “Care to see a stronger beam?”
Sanvi pushed down harder. Gennaji slapped his hand against the floor and snarled. “Enough! Andrzej, drop the gun.”
Gennaji turned his head as Sanvi stubbornly held his arm immobilized.
“Drop the gun!” he shouted, wincing.
“I would do as he says,” Cooper said.
Gennaji glared at the geist but said nothing. Behind him, Andrzej slowly lowered his pistol to the floor and spread his hands. Karel wrung one hand and raised the other.
“Now,” Riss said pleasantly, raising her rifle again. “You will get off my ship.”
She nodded to Sanvi, who released her opponent and assumed a defensive pose again.
Gennaji stood quickly and backed away. Massaging the affected arm, he stared at the Artemis’s crew one by one.
“Easterlings,” he spat out. “Schwarzes. Loonies. You will make the hunters weak.”
Both Cooper and Sanvi started forward, but Riss held up a hand.
“My crew has skills,” she replied coolly. “As you have seen. You have your crew, and I have mine.”
“Your crew?” he repeated. “Remember what happened the last time you had a crew?”
He pointed a finger at Riss.
“I haven’t forgotten what happened. And I never will. You can tell that to Sergey next time you see him.”
He motioned with his head to Karel and Andrzej. As they turned to go, Riss kicked the dropped pistol over to them.
“Take it,” she said. “Never know who you might run into out here.”
Andrzej looked from Gennaji to Riss, then stooped and picked up the weapon. Gennaji did not turn back.
The three clambered up into the airlock, first Karel, then Gennaji. Andrzej went last. Before leaving, he turned back once again. He opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something, then shook his head and yanked himself into the airlock.
Riss walked over and swung the hatch shut. She pressed a touch panel to seal it.
Cooper let out a huge sigh. “Man, that was tense!”
Sanvi snorted. “Understatement of the year, Coop.”
“Hey,” Enoch called out. He shouldered his rifle and jumped down from the walkway. His magnetic boots caught the floor and he jerked to a halt.
“Loonies,” he said. “That mean me?”
“Once a loony, always a loony,” Riss said, patting him on the arm. “Don’t take it seriously. Gennaji has harsh words for anyone…different.”
She examined her rifle charge meter and leaned it against the control stack. “Time we got that rock into the thrower.”
“So, uh…” Coop said.
“So, what’s with him?” Riss completed the thought, giving the geologist a curt glance.
Sanvi shook her head.
Riss simply shrugged. “Nothing. Just old history.”
She turned back to the computer, skipping through various preparatory procedures for the retrieval.
“Coop, I’ll need you to go back to the rock and retrieve the sniffer. Sanvi, you go with him.”
“Riss,” Sanvi said. “Are you—“
A look from her captain made her swallow her question.
“The sniffer is too heavy for one person,” Riss said shortly. “Fix the broken tractors while you’re at it.”
Sanvi nodded. “You got it.”
“I want to get that rock airborne by 1830 hours,” Riss continued. She bent her attention to the computer. “Another sample or two wouldn’t hurt, either. Coop, see if you can carve off a chunk of ice for the ship’s water reserves.”
“What you want I should do?” Enoch asked.
“Get the thrower ready,” she replied. “This is a big one.”
She returned her attention to the computer. The others stared at Riss, then at each other. Then separated to perform their tasks.
When Riss looked up, she was alone in the cargo hold. Complete silence.
She put the computer into sleep mode and turned off the cargo hold lights. Time to head back toward the command center, she thought. No sense in wasting power here.
Closing the door to the hold behind her, Riss touched her wrist console to switch off her magboots. She immediately began to feel herself slipping forward in the ship’s microgravity. With a kick she propelled herself through the corridor, occasionally touching the walls and ceiling to maintain speed. “Swimming” felt more natural to her than walking. She supposed that was due to growing up on the Sagittarius, which had even less gravity than the Artemis.
An older, but sturdy design.
If only Lena hadn’t…
(Continued in Part 2 on October 31st…)