“Hey Skip, this is the guy that I was telling you about. Booker Hawkins,” Angelo Lu said as he approached the lone, dark table in the back of the lounge.
Winchester Hayes kept his eyes on his coffee for a few more seconds before looking up to acknowledge him. Goddamn it Lu, he thought, you know that I need prep time before meeting these candidates. He inhaled and tried to not make it look obvious that he was doing so and checked his speech to make sure that he was coming off professional.
“Mr. Lu, always a pleasure to see you, Chief.” He got up and shook the shorter man’s hand and applied the squeeze in a way to let him know that he wasn’t happy.
He noticed for the first time the handsome black man that was standing behind Lu. He was his height, 6’ even, broad shouldered, and wore a look of determination across his smooth, shaved face. Winchester stepped away from Lu and shook hands with Booker.
“So you’re Dacascos’s old pilot eh?” he remarked, noticing that Booker’s shake was strong but not as firm as he expected.
“Yes sir, that’s me, alright. I piloted the Shirley for Captain Dacascos for three long years. Good to meet you, Captain Hayes.” He seemed to want to get off the subject as fast as they had wandered into it.
“The Shirley … what a dumb name for a ship – don’t worry Booker, me and Dacascos are tight. I wouldn’t sit here badmouthing his sweetheart with anything new. You know what I mean? I break his balls about that ship every time I see him. You do know why he named her that, right?”
“I dunno, Captain Hayes, I’m thinking it was an ex-wife, mom, something like that?”
“It was his damn dog back on earth. That clown had one of those annoying chihuahua hybrids. Rat dogs I call them. Loved that beast more than his own damn wife, and then it ups and dies on him.” He reached back for his coffee mug and drained the rest, then looked past Booker to the waiter and raised it up to let him know that he was empty. “So, yeah. A beautiful piece of machinery like that ship of his, he names it after a rat dog.”
“I’m sure the Kerwood has a noble history behind its name, Captain,” Booker said, and Hayes looked at him as if he had just insulted his mother.
“First rule, Booker T—”
“Just Booker, Captain—”
“First rule, Book. Keep it respectful like you’re doing now, but other than the Kerwood, my orders, and the mission, you and I are still two men. So, stow the pleasant wafting of smoky fumes up my hairy, earth-born ass, please. I know that some of these douchebags love that shit,” Winchester swept his arm across the room to indicate the numerous officers and ship owners that were enjoying their meals, “but I ain’t one of them.”
“So I hear, Captain. No smoke up your ass, I got it,” Booker said, smiling for the first time and looking as if he was stifling a laugh.
“So you hear, huh?” Winchester said and handed his cup to the young waiter, who looked as if he was pouring wine into the goblet of a cruel king. Winchester looked over at Lu, “You tell him stuff about me, Lu? I’m assuming Book here got his intel from my first mate, since none of these assholes on this leaking station would have the gall to talk about me to a future member of the crew.”
Angelo Lu shrugged and sat down, motioning for the waiter to take his order. “Come on, Skip, cut the shit. Booker did his homework, he knows that you’re breaking balls. You’re, how do you say it? ‘Running game’ on a seasoned player. He’s excited to join the Kerwood, especially since he has a chance to fly with you.”
“Is that so?” Winchester said, and took his seat smiling. “Sit down, Book. I have a few more questions. Serious questions that I need you to think about before you answer. Got me?”
Booker Hawkins removed his sports coat and draped it on the chair, then sat down quickly and interlocked his fingers. He did have a look of someone that was prepared to get the third degree. Winchester Hayes took in his mannerisms and decided that he liked the young man, a lot. He was a ‘regular guy’, not a robot or an ambitious faker. Maybe he does belong with us, he thought to himself, then fought back the sudden urge to smile.
“I don’t see a ring on your finger so I’m gonna assume that you were fucking miners back on the Shirley. If I’m wrong, tell me, but keep in mind that the only thing I hate worse than a faker, is a goddamn liar in my company. Are you a playboy, Book? You flying girls as hard as you fly our ships, or is it boys with you?” He sat back with his large coffee mug and rested his right ankle on his left knee.
Booker glanced quickly at Angelo Lu as if he sought a lifeline, but Lu merely smiled and shrugged at him, as if to say, “answer the question.”
“It’s girls, and yeah I’ve been with a miner or two. We kept that sort of stuff private on the Shirley. Not to say that I intend on sneaking around your ship being some sort of pervert, Captain, but we’re out there a long time … naturally things … well, come on, even you must be tempted to—” he grabbed the water that the waiter had brought to the table and gulped it down quickly, looking around as if he had buried himself in the deepest dung pit.
Winchester watched him crack and then grinned widely. “I like you, Booker, welcome aboard. Now, the type of ship that I operate, isn’t the ‘sneak around and sleep with miners’ kind, okay? We’re out there for a long time, I hear you, but as long as you do your job, keep us on course, and keep it classy, you can go do your pilot thing down in population with whoever you want.”
“Pilot-thing, Captain? I don’t think I understand,” Booker said, looking again at Lu for a lifeline.
“Captain Hayes and I have known a lot of pilots, Booker,” was all Lu would offer up before returning to his coffee.
“You’re all hounds for new snatch or peen, Book. That’s what I mean. You being a young, good looking dude with stripes on your belt … it is what it is.” Winchester watched Booker’s reaction and was quite surprised to see him still looking embarrassed.
“Weren’t you a pilot when you were younger, Captain Hayes?” he asked after a while.
“Drink your water,” Winchester replied and moved on to more professional topics.
* * *
Days Until Home: UNKNOWN
There’s a lot of places that your eyes go during the first few minutes of a launch. If you’re bashful, you tend to scan the readouts inside of your mask, or you close your eyes while you try to put your mind somewhere else. Lovers lock eyes and lend one another their strength, and then you have the cool cowboys who will look at everyone, taking it all in, seeing how they are dealing with it.
On the bridge, Winchester Hayes’s bridge, it was all business. You had your fun. You laughed and enjoyed it. But you returned to business. That was how it was. For a launch, it was sit still, hold in your food, and enjoy the ride. If there was a time for peaceful self-reflection, the minutes following the boom that took you off into the black was where you’d find it.
There were smiles all around. The crew, now facing one another with their backs against the panels of the hexagon, each had different rituals for their eyes. Marisol Vega was the cowboy, seeing how many of the men would break from her soul snatching gaze as she challenged them to give her eye-contact. Gauge wasn’t interested in playing, his eyes closed tight as well as Angelo Lu’s who didn’t seem to like this part of their journey. Femke Gerhardt glanced at Booker, who winked at her with confidence, and Winchester Hayes watched them both, wondering if there was something going on that he had somehow missed.
The bridge upon takeoff had lost its deck. A result of the rotation that the room would perform while the panels below them folded down in order to give them quick access to the second level. During a trip, it wasn’t unusual for the crew to unlock themselves from the seat—now a padded area of the bulkhead—float down to work on something below, and then float back up to strap themselves in.
The Kerwood was built with adjustment in mind, and while many of the rooms could lose their tops and bottoms during anti-gravity, the captain only demanded that the second level be compromised.
It was from this open floor beneath the six members of the bridge that the fireball emerged. Hayes was watching Femke and fighting internally with his feelings when hell opened up and he was torn from his seat and plastered against the overhead.
The room became unhinged and spun around rapidly, causing him to experience whiplash while his back scraped hard against a protruding handle, and the flat side of a panel slammed into him from below. His helmet twisted and the skin on his face pulled down as if it wanted to tear itself from his skull as his consciousness left for the next train running. He didn’t know how long he was out, but when he came to, with his eyes wide as if he had seen death, the panel was gone and he was floating, bumping rhythmically into the bulkhead.
As his eyes regained focus he struggled to see how bad it was. The main lights were out and there were red flashes everywhere. Inside his helmet the transmitter was screaming and there were readouts running vertically on the left side of his mask.
He immediately felt guilty about ignoring the whispers from before. I let them convince me that I was off my shit, and now look what has happened to my goddamn ship! He thought. Desperately he clawed the air and grabbed a hose that had gotten loose after a panel had been ejected. He scanned his body carefully, frightened that he would look down and see things missing, then looked around to see if anyone had gotten hurt.
Femke was hunched over, touching her toes, as if she was draped on an invisible bar. She floated into one of the bulkheads and jolted like a rag doll as her momentum took her to the other side. The panels below them had blown apart, and some of them had acted like bullet scythes, cutting into anything weaker than metal. Hayes wondered how it was that he, Femke, and Gauge had been spared. The big German had Marisol Vega hooked in one arm and he was barely keeping them steady as his other hand gripped a strap from his seat. There was blood inside of her mask.
Both Lu and Booker were dead and floating. Lu’s torso was against the overhead, and his bottom half was stuck against an airlock, the left leg wedged beneath the large red wheel of the lock. Booker was still in his seat but there was a bloody hole where the glass of his mask should have been. The bulkhead was charred and splattered with blood, a mélange of horror, broken up by the blinking lights and bright screens that displayed a log of what had happened.
There weren’t many things that could shock a man as seasoned as Winchester Hayes. Death, he’d seen over and over, including the twisted bodies of the two people that he loved the most in this world. Accidents, suicides, explosions, and sabotage, if the captain hadn’t been there to witness it, he had been close enough to feel its impact on more than one occasion.
Who would do something like this to us? He wondered, he was the captain, and if something was wrong with his vessel, shouldn’t he have been the first to hear about it? Not unless … no, he thought. No-one would dare pull a stunt like this with me at the helm. This had to be some sort of equipment failure, this has to be—
“Cap,” the voice was a whisper in his helmet and it took everything within him to hold it together when he realized that its source was Lu. “Why, Cap? After all this—” the sound of blood being gargled into finality was the last horrific sound that he got from his Chief Officer.
“No, no, no, no, Lu! Come on brother, you can do this. Tell me you’re still there, Lu. Come on, man!” He screamed even though he knew the reality of the situation. What was Lu about to tell me? He thought, It almost sounded like he blamed me for—no, this has to be some sort of twisted dream. He knocked his hand against his helmet several times, but the jolts were not waking him up from this reality.
A person can tell when he’s awake and not dreaming. It is the small nuances of being awake that makes it so easy for us to know when a dream isn’t happening. The annoying tugging in your mind to remove the mask and suit, to defy science and set yourself free from the restrictions of staring out from behind a glass. That same realization that you can only move so far in the giant tin can. That you aren’t really breathing air, not the air from the planet that you were born on, and that you would be locked inside this thing for a very long time.
You know that you aren’t dreaming when you admit to yourself that you are ignoring Femke in order to preserve your sanity. The reality that you’re now staring at Booker’s missing face, because the corpse of one’s pilot is a lot easier to accept than the co-pilot you love being worse than unconscious. That same nagging that wants you to check her vitals. To pull up the menu that will give you that information and accept the chance of her being dead.
Winchester Hayes knew that he could not exhale with relief at this being a nightmare. His people were dead and dying, and Egeria-13 was a distant memory. He unlocked his straps with a bit of effort and then placed his feet against the bulkhead and pushed off towards Femke. When he got near her he grabbed a strap, then used his other arm to hold her to him. She felt slight and vulnerable within his arms, and he summoned the strength to check her vitals. Using his tongue to touch the controls inside of his mask, he cycled through the menus and ran a status checkup on his crew.
ANGELO LU: BIO SIGNS MISSING – MEDICAL BAY ON CALL
GAUGE SCHNEIDER: SYSTEMS ONLINE
BOOKER HAWKINS: CONDITION CRITICAL – LOW HEART-RATE – MEDICAL BAY ON CALL
MARISOL VEGA: SUIT INTEGRITY COMPROMISED – SHALLOW BREATHING – MEDICAL BAY ON CALL
FEMKE GERHARDT: CONDITION POOR – MEDICAL BAY ON CALL
She’s alive, he thought and closed his eyes. He could feel her slight body through both of their suits and he wanted nothing but to get her healthy. He put her against the seat—which had once belonged to Lu, and strapped her in securely. He then looked over at Gauge to see how he was holding up, but the German looked as hopeless as a rat in an empty house.
“Gauge, can you hear me?” he asked, and Gauge looked at him to respond but no words were being transmitted to his helmet. “Equipment busted?” He pointed at his head and Gauge nodded affirmatively. “Well stay put and keep Vega steady. We’re going to have to get her out of that suit. I’m unlocking the third level, so prepare to move. I’ll grab Book, but I need you to get Femke down there as well.” He closed the channel and floated over to a computer panel. He leaned in close and punched in a series of codes, then touched a button that appeared on the screen.
More sirens wailed as the charred floor below them spun counterclockwise, as a large panel opened up to the next level below them. Gauge Schneider found one of the ladders on the bulkhead, climbed it to the opening, then slipped Marisol inside before popping back out and jumping towards Femke. Winchester slid down towards Booker and unfastened his restraints, then worked himself over to the ladder and entered the space to join his mates.
They were in an area that was adjacent to the medical bay and they unlocked the hatch, resealed it upon entry and adjusted the atmosphere to allow for them to move around. Femke stirred once and Marisol woke up, kicking and screaming. Winchester Hayes removed his helmet then calmed her enough to inform her that she had to take off the helmet.
“You smell that, Gauge?” he said as he twisted and removed Marisol’s helmet slowly. Gauge placed Femke on one of the beds, and removed his helmet as well.
“Yes Captain, I smell it. Do you think that’s it or can we expect another explosion?”
“Hell if I know. I’m still trying to figure out why we’re alive. Lu never did anything wrong in his life and that poor sunovabitch was split like a goddamn wishbone. How’s Femke looking?”
“She’s breathing and wincing. Looks like broken ribs and, well I’m hoping no internal bleeding.”
“Damn if this ain’t the worst,” Winchester mumbled as he completed the removal of Marisol’s helmet and examined the damage to her face. “Broken nose, I think, Gauge. I’m sorry but can you—”
The big man walked over and examined Marisol. There was a dark bruise on one side of her crooked nose and dried blood on her top lip. “How bad is it?” she whispered.
“We have to set it, Marisol, it is going to suck,” Gauge said.
Marisol began to whimper, “Fucked, we are all fucked, Skip,” she kept repeating this as Gauge placed his thumbs on either side of her nose and in one quick motion, straightened it out. He took a damp cloth and dabbed around her face and then handed it to her and pointed towards his nose. “Thank you,” she whispered, and wiped her nose as fresh tears fell from her eyes.
“I need to see the status of everyone below, Gauge. Do you think you can handle it here?” Winchester asked.
“I’ll do what I can, Skip, especially for Booker. He has a gash that goes all the way down to his skull, hemorrhaging. It may be too late for him. Do you understand?”
“You’re all we got big man, and there’s only four of us left. I’m going topside. Get my pilot back up, will you. If anybody has the skills it’s you.” He put on his helmet and checked his suit, then glanced over at Femke one last time.
Gauge seemed to appreciate the confidence placed in him and went back to where Booker lay. Winchester climbed up the ladder, unscrewed the hatch leading up to the second level, then once inside the airlock, pulled it shut, and then unscrewed the latch leading up into the ravaged room. He squatted and pushed off, floating up through the gap past Angelo Lu’s legs.
When he was back in the bridge area, he found a computer, wedged his feet in a way that would keep him stationary and accessed the internal camera system. He looked in on the miners to see how they were faring, and was taken aback by the amount of death that was reflected on the screen.
Parts of the hull had been breached and the atmosphere was shot, so floating bodies, frozen and alien in their appearance were on every screen that he switched to.
Winchester looked in on the engineers, and it was the same thing. In the hallways, in the smaller spaces, and in the sleeping quarters where a few hard-headed lovers strapped in. The few survivors that he saw were just too little in number. The explosion had taken one hell of a toll on human life.
He went back to the miner’s level and scanned the supplies, they all seemed intact with none destroyed by the blast. The area where they stored the rations was a different matter, it was a charred up version of its former construct and would not be usable by anyone.
Winchester began to do the math in his head. How close are we to another ship? Is there any chance of a rescue before we starve? Who would have done something like this?
He moved to his old computer to see if he could get in contact with Adelaide or Jeremy from engineering. But then his transmitter buzzed and he quickly answered it in hopes of hearing some good news.
“Cap’ Hayes?” It was Gauge.
“Gauge, hey man, I see you got the transmitter fixed. What’s the status on our team?”
“Femke’s still out, Captain, and Marisol is talking to one of the engineers … it’s bad, Cap. Lots of people dead and they’re throwing around the word, sabotage. There’s one other thing, I hate to bring this up now, but—,” Gauge’s voice cracked and he stopped himself which made Winchester’s heart start to race.
What the hell is going on, he thought, what could be so bad? “Just tell me Gauge, just run it out. It’s the easiest way to deliver bad news.”
“Booker’s dead. He fought till the end. The-there was nothing I could do to help him.”