“This is slim, Lu. When I gave the okay to cut the rations, I was assuming it would be about 500 calories.”
Winchester Hayes paced the small space like a panther as he looked at Angelo with some frustration. “This sort of thing could get messy. You’re a small guy, so it works out for you but imagine a man my size trying to live off of this.” He gestured with a block of hardened nutrient paste.
Lu slicked back his hair and looked around, then leaned in to the captain and whispered, “You can always get more if you like, Captain. It’s the—”
“Not the point,” Winchester said, his voice loud and commanding. Angelo Lu looked around frantically and then resigned himself to listen.
“Captain, we had no choice with the food supply going bad all of a sudden. You told me to always plan for the worst case scenario and with our trip, these reduced rations will get us all the way through. I’m not trying to see my crew mates hungry, but we’ve been generous with rations the entire time here.”
“What about the packets from the esprISSo coffee maker? Is there something we can do with that?” Winchester said.
“In a pinch I suppose, if we deplete all our rations. But I don’t see that happening now. We caught it just in time and everyone gets to eat … really, Skip, it’s not that big of a deal.”
Winchester Hayes considered the situation and decided that Lu knew what he was doing—
Femke Gerhardt slipped in through the narrow passageway and placed her back on the bulkhead near Angelo Lu. “We can hear you guys in here discussing the rations. Do you mind if I give you my two cents?”
“What you got, Funky?” Winchester said, and he folded his arms defensively.
Femke said, “This is going to sound like paranoia, but hear me out. I have a hunch that someone purposefully sabotaged our supplies.”
“Oh boy,” Angelo said and rolled his eyes, “Do we really want to go down this path, Skip?”
“FIFTEEN MINUTES!” Gauge yelled out from the bridge and Winchester winced at the lack of time.
“Got it, big man,” Winchester yelled, “We’ll be right there.”
“Listen Cap,” Femke said, “You should talk to Marisol. There’s a rumor that we have a Lunar baby onboard the ship. Now, I’m not saying that he means to sabotage the mission, but what if he could make us sweat, you know, to meet some sort of anarchist agenda?”
“I don’t like to tell people this but I have an uncle who was a member of that church,” Angelo said. “People make mistakes. Come to our house and he’d dote on you until you begged him to stop. Just because someone’s parents were a part of that sick cult does not mean that they are out to poison our food supply. I mean, really, Femke? That is your enlightening addition? We just lost five minutes of strategy listening to your bigoted opinion.”
Femke hopped forward and got in Lu’s face and it took a calculated choice for Winchester not to hold her back. “How am I a bigot, Lu? I think that it’s a valid concern. How is it that after all this time our rations go to shit and, AND it’s conveniently near the time when we’re heading home?”
Angelo inched away from her. He was a man that disliked confrontation. “Look, I hear you, Fem—Funky, I—I just,” he stopped to collect himself. “I just want us to be rational with all of this. That is all.”
“Rational?” Femke laughed, “So, I’m irrational to you?”
“Oh boy,” Winchester said and looked out at Gauge. The big man threw up ten fingers and Winchester answered with a thumbs up. Stepping out into the pathway, he grabbed the transmitter attached to his helmet.
“Ten minutes to departure. No exceptions. Anyone who breaks a limb because they weren’t in their launch chairs will be required to reimburse the Kerwood for medical expenses.”
Winchester used his hand to wipe away a smile then ducked back into the space to see if Angelo was still alive. Femke was asking Lu to explain what he meant by the word ‘rational’ and the Chief was still trying to back away even though he was pressed firmly against the bulkhead. He glanced at Winchester, begging for a lifeline.
“Hey, Lu, Femke, we have to go,” Winchester said, “but I’m glad we got to have this talk. We’ll make it work somehow and get everyone home.” He waited for Lu to walk past him and patted him on the shoulder. “Femke, hang back a second. Lu, I’ll see you on the bridge.”
Angelo gave him a friendly wave and a shrug, then slipped through the small passageway to the bridge. Femke began speaking rapidly, “I know what you’re about to say and I’m sorry that I popped off. I just hate when that guy starts in with his Vulcan B.S. and the ‘rational’ thing … I tell you, that is one way to see me get ugly.”
Winchester said, “Calm down. I just wanted you to catch your breath before you strap in, butterfly. Now take a deep breath and we’ll get through it.”
“Okay, Captain, I’m ready. Let’s get this show on the road. I swear, I don’t get you sometimes…”
“You’re having me calm down and breathe when you should be kissing me,” she said under her breath.
* * *
Days Until Home: 41
Kerwood, this is it, we’re about to shove off. I hope that you’re all strapped in, suited up and ready to go. We will begin the countdown sequence in just under five minutes now and I would really like for us all to have a safe trip.
Winchester Hayes removed his finger from the transmitter button and looked around to see how everyone was doing.
Five bodies sat in orange LES Launch Suits, each in their designated grooves within the octagon. Even Marisol Vega was in an LES, and she preferred to be as comfortable as possible. She flexed her rebellious muscles by keeping her helmet off unlike the other crew members who were fully dressed. But Winchester was used to her flying around free and was confident that that she would don the helmet as soon as countdown started.
There was light banter between them all as they stood ready for lift off. They seemed to be antsy and Angelo Lu was actually smiling in anticipation of their leaving. Winchester could understand their need to get off of the asteroid. The scenery there was as exciting to watch as stand-still traffic.
Lu started scanning the crew’s situation and buzzing the unoccupied seats to tell crew members to hurry and buckle in. He scrolled through every row of the Kerwood’s passengers then stopped when he reached the miner level. He hissed his teeth audibly and then exhaled with frustration before looking over at Winchester Hayes.
“Let me guess. Lady Marmalade is not in her seat,” he said, and Lu tilted his head down a bit to show how frustrating it was.
“Maybe you want to go teach her a lesson, Cap,” Marisol said without looking. “I’d put up cold hard cash that she will actually thank you for it. She got a thing for you. You don’t want to believe me—”
“That’s enough, Ms. Vega. I’ll take that under advisement,” he said. Winchester looked over at Lu to establish eye contact, then shrugged helplessly and shook his head. Lu managed to stifle a laugh before getting annoyed again.
“Then there’s this guy Jimmy with the miners,” Lu began, “every single time with this guy. I’m starting to think that he likes hearing my voice telling him to strap in.”
“Maybe he wants you to be his daddy,” Marisol chimed in again.
“You know, Vega, I’m starting to question the type of communication you came up here for,” Booker said.
“Want me to be your daddy, Book?” Marisol said and Femke turned to face him to see how he’d respond.
“Okay, can we get back to the launch?” Winchester said, giving Marisol a glance. He found it amusing and wanted to laugh but fought to keep a straight face before continuing. “That’s enough now, Vega. Let’s get our game faces on.”
“Anything for you, Captain,” she cooed at him, and he exhaled slowly feeling as embarrassed as the rest. His eyes drifted over to Femke, but she still had her back turned to him. Either she was impervious to Marisol or she was making a fight out of keeping her cool.
“Is Jimmy and what’s-her-name in their seats yet, Lu?” Winchester asked and Angelo held up a finger as he finished yelling into his transmitter for a man to strap in.
“We have all green, Skip. It’s never easy, is it?”
“Eh? Sometimes it is, Lu. When you have a crew with the right attitude. We’ve got tired miners who don’t want to be here and engineers who think that they can run my ship better than me. People do what they can, you know, to stick it to the man—”
“Stick it to the man, Captain?” Booker asked, smiling.
“You know what I mean, smart ass. They do annoying shit. Like take their time when we’re about to launch. Anyway, we’re at a minute. Vega, that’s your cue.”
“One minute till lift-off, Kerwood,” Marisol’s sugary voice intoned. She then leaned back in her chair, dropped her boots down noisily and blew a raspberry into the air. She looked as if she was bored out of her mind but it was just an act. Winchester had picked up on this after working with her for some time.
Marisol Vega was a brilliant woman who hid her love for her work behind a mask of sexual innuendo. She was the one that organized the sequences that they were now going through. Sequences that had made launching and landing a well choreographed dance.
Marisol’s social awkwardness—because that’s what he thought it was—had to be the most bizarre thing that he had ever seen. It made the other women hate her while the men did as she commanded—though some were intimidated by her overt, say-it-like-it-is posturing. Winchester always wondered about her, if it was truly all an act. Angelo Lu had certainly tried but burned out faster than a joint in late April.
Still, he liked Vega, she was pleasantly different and a welcome contrast to the robotic personality of his navigator, Gauge Schneider. As if on command Gauge started speaking. “Navigation received and ready for your command, Captain.”
His report had come in after a lengthy series of check-ins from all the necessary stations that comprised the Kerwood.
Winchester Hayes switched his transmitter to the Kerwood intercom. “Prepare for lift-off!” he barked and then switched it off. “How’re we looking Book?”
“Looking good, Cap,” Booker Hawkins replied, his jovial mood never seeming to wane.
Hayes said, “Alright then. Miss Vega,” and he turned to meet her eyes as she glanced back at him through her freshly donned helmet. “Activate sound suppression and start our countdown when you’re ready.”
“Aye-aye, Captain Hayes,” she said in a voice that was a tad too silky. Every man on the bridge seemed to smile or glance at one another, but Femke Gerhardt was not amused and stared into her darkened screen to see the reflection of Winchester Hayes.
Had he seen her watching him he would not have winked at Marisol. He didn’t mean anything by it but it had come as a reaction. One could call it a volley in a sport of flirtatious tennis that they had been playing since day she came aboard. But to Winchester it was just a wink. An “off the record” acknowledgement of how fetching she was. And he knew that it was appreciated by the sliver of tongue that broke past her lips to wet them in preparation of her countdown.
Marisol announced, “Sound suppression activated. Commencing countdown. T minus 10 …” and she activated the automatic countdown for the Kerwood. Her recorded voice picked up on the sequence, “9… 8… 7,” and she switched her transmitter off.
“All yours, Captain,” she said finally, but didn’t bother to turn around this time.
“Thank you, Marisol,” he said and nodded at Booker.
The thrusters came alive and the artificial gravity was removed. The growl of the engines fought past the sound suppressors and it sounded as if they were inside of the world’s largest washing machine. Kerwood shuddered and Winchester couldn’t help but grin. This was his favorite part of space travel, the part where he couldn’t hear himself think.
The thrusters burned hotter and hotter, locking horns with gravity but won out with no real contest as it separated the mass of the Kerwood from Egeria-13.
“We’re headed home, Kerwood!” Booker shouted suddenly but the crew on the bridge could barely hear him over the noise.
Home, Winchester thought. What’s home to a burnout whose entire reason for living had been removed so many years ago? He thought of Lu and his ambitions and he tried to recall when last he had ever looked forward to the future. Future. The word was a joke. What future? A future with the Kerwood, doing job after job?
Maybe a future with Femke. A second chance at the nuclear thing? No, I’m too old, he thought. She will be done with me as soon as we get back to Luna Station. No future there, we’re just an old frigate and a pretty schooner helping each other to get through to the end of the trip. Plus, what could I do for her? he pondered. Nothing, that’s what, I have nothing left inside of this heart to give.
Things used to make sense back when his money had meaning. A future for Colt, his son … fancy university; Colt’s first home; maybe a luxury car or two. He recalled the anticipation he felt for seeing his son with someone he loved. Playing it forward … with his own family. Doing everything that he couldn’t.
Winchester Hayes would have put in 90 years on the Kerwood just to see that happen. He’d give his own life up if that’s what it took. Right now. Dead. Just for a glimpse of it. But Colt was gone with the love of his life, stolen away by the one vehicle he couldn’t control.
There had been World Wars that were more humane than the battles he had with Cheyenne—his wife, about her drinking. She had a penchant for getting liquored up and driving Colt around. He loved her, but she had a lot of demons and the only peace she ever found was in the bottle.
He looked past it. Tried everything he could to help, and forgave her when he found her in bed with one of her Jr College students. Well, he eventually forgave her, which was all for Colt. That was the night that he struck her and put the .357 to her head. But “till death do us part” were not just words to Winchester Hayes and he forgave her …
Everything for Colt.
She had made him a cuckold which put strain on their marriage, then when she got in trouble at a local bar she made him into a murderer too. Keeping a secret that dark does things to your heart, and she became even more of a drunk for harboring the guilt of what he had done.
But Cheyenne Hayes was his wife and he forced himself to believe that she was worth it. All of the embarrassment, the fights, and the money she burned … it was all worth it because she had given him Colt. But as fate would have it, her sphere of disaster would consume the innocent too.
Winchester still had nightmares about the carnage he saw when he was called to identify the bodies. He never thought that with all the things the municipal traffic organization did to keep drivers safe, that he would see a wreck like the one that Cheyenne caused.
She had taken his son away from him. That was the end of his life. He remembered standing in the funeral home, feeling numb, not knowing what to do with himself. Drinking reminded him too much of her weakness, and drugs would mean that he would lose the Kerwood too. The only thing he had left in life was this ship. A ship he became captain of in order to guarantee a future for Colt.
Now the money meant nothing but there was something about being away from civilization that brought him peace. So, as they pushed away from Egeria-13 he felt a pang of anxiety. He would be back among everyone, grounded and waiting for another job. He would have to deal with the nightmares, and the memories of the sins that he had committed for his love.
The engine noise lost its luster and he felt the invisible walls pushing in. The whispers began anew, and they sounded like Cheyenne, begging and pleading for him to forgive her. He thought of being under the thrusters when Booker hit the switch. It would remove all the memories and pain of his loss. He could be a ghost, out there in space, enjoying the quiet away from everyone.
Fire and death would be a welcome respite, he thought, and closed his eyes against the whispers, fighting back against her pleas to let her know that he was done.
He came back to the present and focused his eyes. It felt as if an entire hour had passed with him remembering his family. He looked over at Femke, expecting to see her calmly enjoying the ride, but he almost flinched when he saw those ice-blue eyes locked in on him. She had been watching him brood but he didn’t know how long, and his 1,000 yard stare into the painful pathways had made him impervious to everything.
Femke seemed to be struggling with the idea of saying something, but when he caught her looking he shook his head and looked away quickly to Angelo Lu.
“You alright, Skip?” Booker asked and he noticed that he too was looking his way. He didn’t like the way that everyone was looking at him and he worried that he seemed mad to them. He tried to ignore the whispers as they grew louder to fight the engine … Marisol’s brown eyes were staring at him with pity…
“Turn around and get to your jobs,” he growled.