Days Until Home: 84
Viktor was moving down the hallway toward Siebert’s transponder signal, cringing with every magnetically-enhanced boot step that sent jolts of pain through the bundle of fabric and flesh fused together at his belly, when laughter drifted through his helmet.
Jimmy paused and turned around, giving Viktor a confused look. He heard the laughter too. “What the…”
“Attention all Kerwood crew,” came Captain Hayes’ voice, clearer but still twinged with levity. “I have an important announcement to make.”
“Then make it already,” Jimmy said on the private channel only Viktor could hear.
“We’ve established communication with the commercial mining vessel Matsue. They are plotting an intercept course to provide assistance. Folks, we’re being rescued.”
Hayes must have opened up the channel to everyone, because a scattering of cheers filled Viktor’s helmet, some weary, others halfhearted, all of them hopeful. Jimmy grinned like an idiot and pumped his fist in the vacuum.
“The Matsue,” Viktor breathed, staring off at a point past Jimmy’s shoulder. “That’s my old ship.”
“Who fricken cares what ship it is,” Jimmy said. “It’s a ship, and it’s rescue, and it’s safety. I thought I was gunna die out here, and no offense Vicky, but I was terrified your ugly face would be the last thing I saw.”
His laughter took the sting out of the words, and Viktor surprised himself by joining. For a long while they stood there and laughed, along with the remnants of the crew throughout the crippled Kerwood.
It took eight hours for the Matsue to reach them, hard-burning all the way on chemical rockets. Viktor imagined the chest-crushing g-forces the crew must be suffering just to reach them as quickly as possible. Viktor and Jimmy were able to cut open the mangled door and retrieve Siebert. The big miner appeared unconscious at first, but came to once they patched into his suit comms. He seemed to hear everything they said, and he nodded or shook his head to answer their questions, but he had a thousand-meter stare in his eye that Viktor recognized as shock. There was no sign of Adelaide, so they escorted Siebert back to relative safety before his brain could process everything that had happened.
They huddled in the med bay while waiting for the Matsue. The video screens that would normally show the view outside the ship were down, so they had to use their imagination, with occasional updates over the radio. The Matsue matched their relative velocity, then closed the distance until they were only a few meters apart. Though the engineers had done a pretty good job at negating the Kerwood’s spin by opening and closing airlocks, the ship still was unstable on one axis, so the Matsue used engineering arms to clamp onto the crippled vessel and then negate the spin with its own maneuverability jets.
An emergency airlock attached to the trunk entrance. It sounded like a dozen woodpeckers hammering the outside of the hull, creating the temporary seal. Viktor had the absurd image of old earth pirates on the open seas, throwing hooks onto a vessel before they boarded. He laughed, and when Jimmy asked what was so funny he only shook his head. Part of him knew he was so far beyond exhaustion that his brain was barely functioning. The larger part didn’t care.
Men and women in clean white spacesuits boarded the Kerwood like angels escorting children to heaven. One woman in the largest spacesuit Viktor had ever seen slipped an arm around him, patching into his suit and speaking in a calm but firm tone. Viktor tried to study her face, but his vision was blurred by tears of joy. He imagined she looked like Helena.
The Matsue boasted a full med bay with eight beds and enough technology to perform a robotic heart transplant. Viktor didn’t remember being laid in the bed, but he was horizontal, staring up at one of the harsh lights. The walls were made of a plastic enamel that shined almost like metal, and the instruments hanging out of the ceiling–which were metal–were brushed so clean they looked like mirrors. Everything seemed too nice to be real.
Men cut away Viktor’s exterior suit with heavy scissors, then the insulation layer underneath. Something stank awful, which surprised Viktor in such a clean place. Soon he was nude, except for a square patch of suit fabric around his belly.
“Jesus,” said one of the medical officers. “You ever see something like this?”
“Like a birth defect,” said another. “Or the twisted fetuses on Ganymede.”
“Yeah. This will be rough.” His tone changed. “Hello, Mr. Sharapov? Can you hear me?”
Viktor made a noise.
“Okay. That’s fine, just relax, okay? We’re going to work on your abdomen. You just sit tight and relax.” His voice changed to that of someone in charge. “We’re going to need to cut this apart, but I’m worried about bleeding.”
The other man said, “Vitals aren’t great.”
“Yeah. Blood pressure’s too low for analgesics.”
“What about a local spray?”
“It’ll burn off with the laser, get in the air. You don’t want to be breathing that stuff. We’re going to need the straps to hold him down.”
The man took Viktor’s good arm and pulled it perpendicular to his body. He heard velcro, and felt something pull tight against his wrist and ankles. Viktor let them maneuver his body without resisting. He didn’t ask any questions, though he felt vulnerable on the cold table.
The med officers talked over him, sometimes asking him questions. He nodded along, whether they were talking to him or not.
He heard the laser before he felt it, hissing and pulsing with energy, red glow fighting against the bright white light in the ceiling. Then came the smell, foul and appetizing all at once.
Pain, charging through the door of his mind like a bull, tearing his nerves apart. He screamed, and thrashed, and fought against the straps, and eventually the room and his senses went black.
* * *
Days Until Home: 84
Viktor woke to an earth sunrise, the ball of orange climbing above an ocean horizon and sending lances of light away in all directions. For a few blissful moments he forgot. For a few moments he was home.
He looked around to find Helena, but that shattered the illusion. He was in the med bay of the Matsue. He’d been sleeping on his side staring out the window. Except it wasn’t a window; it was a computer screen, playing a recording. The warm ocean sunrise faded away and was replaced by the vibrant greens and browns of a redwood forest. Ambient noise drifted from the ceiling. Birds chirping, and an unfamiliar animal making a cooing noise in the distance. Viktor wondered where the scene had been filmed. Or if it was a computer rendering.
He tried to sit up, failed, and then used his right arm to push himself up. The bandages and tape at his belly crinkled at the movement. Which is also when he became aware that his left arm was now free, although the hand was wrapped in so much gauze it looked like a white club. He tried to wiggle his fingers. The pain was so great that for a moment he saw stars across his vision. He didn’t try it again.
Four other beds were occupied in the med bay. One of the engineering women lay motionless in the bed closest to his. Jessica was in the one beyond that, the fresh cloth wrapped around her head a giveaway. Her eyes were closed. She looked peaceful.
We did that, Viktor thought. We kept her alive. A warmth grew in his belly, a satisfaction more complete than any mining job.
“Quit smirking,” Jimmy said. He sat in a chair next to Viktor’s bed, legs extended out in front of him. “I know what you’re thinking, and yes, she’s clothed under that blanket. Just cause she’s unconscious don’t mean you can ogle her up and down with a goofy grin on your face.”
Viktor’s jaw hung slack. “I wasn’t…”
Jimmy laughed. “You’re too easy, Vicky. You know that? Just yankin’ your beets.” He pointed. “Which you can yank yourself, now that you’re not some cronenberg freak show anymore.”
Viktor must have had a confused look on his face, because Jimmy threw his hands up.
“Your arm. You’re normal again.”
“Great digs here,” Jimmy said, looking around. “Never seen anything this fancy on a mining ship.”
Viktor was just as surprised. He’d spent twelve years under contract with the Matsue, and the med bay never looked like this. Everything seemed new because it was new, upgrades outfitted after Viktor had signed on with the Kerwood.
“She’s not just a mining ship,” Viktor said. “She has a cargo hold three times the size of a standard driller, so she can double as a freighter and run supplies at the same time. One route, two sources of income.”
“Three sources of income, now.”
The voice came from a burly looking man in the med bay doorway. His uniform hung on him like a banner of war, and he stood with his hands on his hips. The smile on his face didn’t match the intensity in his eyes.
Viktor grinned in spite of himself. “Richard.”
The man strode into the room until he stood a meter from Viktor’s bed. “That’s Captain fucking Sayid to you, drill-monkey.”
He stared at Viktor a moment longer before his faux-anger melted away. With a laugh he wrapped Viktor in a hug, strong but careful enough to avoid the wound in his belly.
“They promoted you?” Viktor said when he finally let go.
“Don’t sound so surprised. If the corporation was smart enough they’d have given me my own ship ages ago.”
“Captain Arbolest finally retired, then?”
Sayid’s face softened. “No. Lost her in an EVA three years back.”
“Yeah. Remember the station fire on Mimas? The Matsue was sent to clean up some of the damage, salvage what we could, pick through the ash. We were there ten days, and on the tenth a secondary explosion occurred in one of the station’s air tanks. Nothing big, just enough to send some debris at us. Wouldn’t have been any worse than hail on a truck, but to someone on the outside in a suit…”
Viktor nodded solemnly. “She always liked to walk the hull, check for damage herself. Said it cleared her head.”
Jimmy cleared his throat with three long coughs. He looked at Viktor expectantly.
Viktor extended his club-hand at the kid. “Captain Sayid, this is Jimmy Andrews. Fellow miner.”
“Nice to meetchya,” Jimmy said, shaking his hand. “So, three sources of income, huh? You gunna send Vicky a bill for his stay, or somethin’?”
Sayid’s tight smile returned. “Not quite.”
The captain of the Matsue dove into what sounded like a well-rehearsed pitch. It had been fifty years since earth’s space elevator was completed, a gateway out of its gravity well that suddenly made space travel cost-effective for more than just exploration. The New Goldrush followed, with orbital shipyards selling affordable craft that could make the transfer to Mars or the asteroid belt without a problem. They cranked them out by the hundreds.
But the ships had long since passed their operational life expectancy, and even well-maintained ones were breaking down. Running in a vacuum might cause less wear-and-tear than a car on asphalt, but machinery was machinery. Engines broke down. Pipe gaskets wore thin, seals broke. Ships became stranded, crewmembers drifting through the black, pockets of dense atoms in an otherwise endless expanse of nothing.
It was an inevitability, just as the need for roadside service was an inevitability after Ford gave cars to the world. And it was a business opportunity.
The corporation, Sayid explained, refitted the Matsue with that goal in mind. Extra crew quarters were carved out of the cargo bay, and the med bay was upgraded with state-of-the-art equipment. The ship would still perform its normal routes, hauling goods or taking mining contracts, but if the opportunity for rescue came along they could reroute and assist as needed.
“Shit,” Jimmy said, drawing out the word so that it was four syllables. “I was just kidding about you sendin’ us a bill. I, uhh, seem to have left my wallet in my other spacesuit…” He patted his pockets for effect.
Sayid smiled. “Not quite what we had in mind. The Kerwood Corporation will be billed for services rendered. Their insurance policy covers events such as this one.”
“We appreciate your benevolence,” Viktor said.
“Nothing wrong with helping people, and nothing wrong with making money. Always nice when you can do both.” His face grew serious. “Listen, now that everyone’s safely aboard the Matsue, I’m going to meet with Captain Hayes and a few of the other senior officers. Go over the plan, what happens next, all of that. It’d be nice to have you there, too.”
“I don’t see how I could be of any help,” Viktor said. “I’m just a miner. I don’t make decisions.”
“Well, it would comfort me to have a familiar face in the room. You won’t have to say anything. Call it a personal favor to an old friend. Alright? Go get a hot meal in the galley, then make your way to the bridge.” He slapped Viktor’s good arm. “It’s great to see you again. I’m glad you’re okay.”
Jimmy watched Sayid leave the room.
“Nice guy,” he said.
“One of the good ones,” Viktor said after a moment. “More reasonable than most, and always fair. He will make a fine captain.”
“So why’d you leave?”
Viktor shrugged. “Money.” That was only one of the reasons, but it was the obvious one.
“The Kerwood paid you more?” Jimmy snorted. “So that’s why I make so little.”
Viktor swung his legs over the edge and slid off the bed until his toes touched the floor. Just the simple act of holding his own torso upright sent fire across his belly. Nobody realized how important the core muscles were until they were compromised.
Jimmy helped him put on a plain grey jumpsuit, stepping into each leg and then zipping it up from groin to neck. The cloth had no tears or faded spots on it, and even smelled new. That alone made Viktor feel like a refreshed and refurbished man.
The crewmember on cook duty handed out bowls and spoons as they entered the galley. The line led to a container that looked like a water cooler, cylindrical and with a spout on the bottom. Something brown and suspect oozed into Viktor’s bowl. He and Jimmy took seats at a table–there were three tables altogether, with six chairs each–and tried a tentative spoonful. The stew tasted better than anything he’d ever had in his life, thick and savory with what even looked like real bits of beef. Before he knew it the bowl was empty except for the bits sticking to the edge. Viktor wiped them off and licked them off his fingers.
Jimmy sat back down and grinned. “Dude. There’s no calorie restrictions. They let me get seconds.” He took a quick spoonful while looking over his shoulder, as if they might suddenly change their mind and take it back.
Viktor’s stomach rumbled, but he thought about what Sayid had said. “I’ll get more later.”
Jimmy shrugged and shoveled stew into his mouth.
Despite being refitted, the layout of the Matsue remained the same as before, and Viktor’s feet knew the way. Out the galley to the right, down the spine of the ship toward the bow. The Bridge doors were open, a strangely welcoming sight.
The entire far wall was a single curving window, with the cockpit chair positioned to give the pilot a 270 degree view. The stars seemed especially vibrant, maybe because they were the only thing visible. In the space between were half a dozen computer stations with various crew staring at screens of data and punching at keyboards. Hard at work analyzing the damage to the Kerwood, no doubt.
Captain Sayid sat in a chair to Viktor’s right, in an alcove with seats arranged in a semicircle. Sayid had one leg crossed over the other, with his hands in his lap. He looked like a psychiatrist. Another Matsue officer, a strong-looking woman with her hair in a tight bun, sat next to him. She appeared more tense. Viktor recognized her as the woman who had been the one to escort him onto the Matsue.
The Kerwood crew didn’t sit. The Captain and the Chief Engineer stood, arms crossed and legs spread apart, like animals ready to take flight. One of the other engineers–Adelaide–leaned against the wall, trying to appear relaxed but coming off more tense than any of them.
They all looked up at his entrance. Viktor felt conspicuously unimportant by comparison. What was a miner doing at a meeting like this? Where were the others?
“Alright, we’re all here,” Sayid said.
That’s when Viktor realized: there are no others. Beyond the few in the room, all the officers were dead.
“Firstly,” Sayid said, “let me officially welcome you aboard the Matsue. The circumstances aren’t the best, but I’m confident you’ll find us hospitable hosts.”
“We’re delighted to be here,” Adelaide muttered.
Sayid took her sarcasm at face value. “Now, some background on the circumstances that brought us here. Our manifest had us hauling soil bacteria to the Jovian moons for the outbound trip, and hauling water ice back to Luna on the return. However, the ice never made it on the first leg from Saturn, so our return contract was cancelled. We remained in berth on Callisto Station while the big wigs that make the decisions tried to find us a new one, but we were burning money just sitting in port, so after a week of twiddling our thumbs they ordered us to return home. Which put us only a few million miles from you when we saw your beacon, still at the beginning of our twenty day acceleration. Lucky timing, and lucky to have an empty cargo hold when we did.”
Hayes stared implacably. Adelaide rolled her eyes.
“Why do you say that’s lucky?” Jeremy asked, confused. “Because an empty cargo hold means less mass to accelerate and decelerate in the intercept?”
“Well, partly that. And partly because an empty cargo hold means we can do a complete job of rescuing you,” Sayid explained. “We’ve got accommodations for your crew, and plenty of emergency reserves in stock to keep you all fed. And, last but not least, room in our cargo bay for your haul.”
“Wait,” Adelaide said. “I don’t understand. What haul?”
Hayes widened his eyes. “The minerals we mined from Egeria? You want our cargo?”
Sayid held up his palms in a placating gesture. “We need to move the cargo from the Kerwood to the Matsue. Better center of gravity when we tug you home. All that mass makes things lopsided if it stays where it is. My navigator says it’ll save a few thousand delta-v.”
But Hayes was shaking his head. “And when we get home? What happens to the cargo then?”
Sayid took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Well. That is currently a point of negotiation between the Matsue Conglomerate and the Kerwood Corporation. Cargo is only valuable if you can deliver it to where it needs to go. Everest Corp owns half the ice in Saturn’s rings, but until they transport it to a place to sell it’s worthless. Right?
“The Kerwood has a few billion credits worth of yttrium and scandium sitting in its hold. But it’s currently on a crazy-wide elliptical orbit around the sun, and has no way of delivering it to its destination.”
Jeremy’s eyes narrowed. “How do you know what we’re hauling?”
“It’s on your public manifest,” Sayid said, a hint of dryness in his voice. “Yes, the primary purpose of moving the cargo to the Matsue is physics-related, but it would also be a nice symbolic transfer of ownership as well.”
Each of the Kerwood officers reacted differently. Jeremy scrunched his face, considering the truth of what Sayid said.
Hayes jabbed a finger in the direction of the other captain and said, “This is goddamn piracy. You’re pirates, boarding our ship and stealing our loot. You may pretend you’re here to help, but your true colors are clear to us all.”
Adelaide threw up her hands and argued with nobody in particular. “Tugged home? Like a cart being pulled by a horse? You don’t know what you’re talking about. The Kerwood isn’t that bad off. We just need help getting on our feet, plugging some leaks. We’ll take ourselves home, thank you very much.”
Viktor watched it all with the clear head of an objective outsider. They were worrying about cargo, or getting the Kerwood up to make the trip home itself? All of them had nearly died. Dozens had perished. Was Viktor the only one with any context for the situation? He locked eyes with Sayid and saw that the man was thinking the same thing.
Viktor opened his mouth to say so, but Sayid beat him to it.
“Excuse me. Adelaide, is it? My own engineers are currently performing diagnostic analysis on your ship. We only have preliminary data, but the Kerwood will not be flying anytime soon. Even after we tug you back to the Luna shipyards, in all likelihood they’ll decide repairing the ship isn’t worth the cost, and scrap the entire thing instead.” He spread his hands. “Let’s all be reasonable, here…”
Hayes was yelling, then. “You can go to hell if you think we’ll let you do this. I’d rather die on the bridge of my own ship, floating forever in the black, than be a prisoner.”
Sayid barked a laugh, an act that Viktor knew was meant to be light-hearted but which the others would almost certainly mistake for mockery. “Prisoners? Winchester…”
“Captain Hayes,” he corrected through gritted teeth.
“…you are not prisoners. Please do not be melodramatic.” He gestured. “Viktor and I have a long history together. He’ll tell you that I can be trusted. That we’re here purely as a rescue mission, with everything else simply minor details.”
The three other Kerwood crew swung their heads toward him as if just remembering he was present. Viktor shifted his feet uncomfortably at being put on the spot.
“Yes,” he finally said. “Captain Sayid is an honorable man. We should all trust that his motivations are genuine.” He paused. “I just want to go home. Don’t all of you?”
They stared at Viktor like he was some sort of traitor. Sayid nodded to himself and changed the tone of his voice.
“Frankly, at this point, the decision isn’t yours. It’s your corporation’s. You’re just passengers now, and I’m telling you all of this strictly as a professional courtesy.” Sayid nodded to the woman next to him, who hadn’t so much as moved during the entire exchange. “Carol is our personnel officer. She’ll get you and your crew situated in your cabins, and answer any additional questions you may have.”
Sayid stood, and Carol stood with him. He looked at each of them in turn. “You’ve all experienced a terrible tragedy. I can’t imagine what you’re feeling right now. You need time to process everything. Get a good night’s sleep. We will discuss everything again in the morning. I promise you’ll see things in a different light then.”
Hayes stared a moment longer before allowing Carol to lead him from the room, with Adelaide and Jeremy in tow, arguing to themselves. Viktor stayed behind. Adelaide sent one final glance at him, confused and angry, before disappearing into the hall.
Sayid let out a long sigh. He smiled wearily at Viktor. “That could have gone better.”
Viktor rounded on him. “You only wanted me here because you knew they wouldn’t trust you.”
Sayid nodded. He wore a pained expression. “It’s always a difficult transition. Especially with a fellow captain. They’ve lost their ship. It died under their watch, the way a person dies, its carcass stranding them and theirs without hope. Sometimes there are actual deaths, real bodies of bone and blood ripped apart or flash-frozen in the black. It’s difficult to understand, with the true understanding that only comes later. The captain’s mind locks it all away for the time being, packing it down like a cube of trash to later be recycled. They focus on their immediate problems, because it’s the only way they can push on. Putting out fires. Saving stranded crew. Getting critical systems back online. Returning home. Because despite what may have transpired, if the captain can just get the ship righted, sails up and prow pointed home, then the sting of unpacking that box later will be lessened. Even in defeat, the survival will absolve them. The whisper of that dream keeps them going.
“And then a man like me comes and takes it away.”
“What do you mean?” Viktor said.
Sayid got a faraway look in his eye. “While Hayes is in charge, he feels like he can fix it. Turn it all around. Help the crew, restore their opinion of him. But the moment rescue arrives, even though it was the hope and the goal all along, he realizes there will be no salvation for him. Men and women died, and it’s his fault, and until the stars wink out one by one and the temperature of the universe approaches zero he will always bear the burden.”
Viktor shook his head. “But it wasn’t Hayes’ fault. At least, it doesn’t seem that way. Something exploded…”
“It’s always the captain’s fault,” Sayid said sadly. “I didn’t realize it myself til I sat in Arbolest’s chair. Whether the captain can control it or not, they bear the responsibility. Both to themselves, and to the crew of their ship, and the corporation bosses back home. Which is why I had hoped my relationship with you would help soften the blow when it all hit him at once. I’m not some foreign pirate, falling upon a helpless prey. None of us on the Matsue are. We’re men and women just like you, here to offer our help in a sea where help is scarcely found.”
“I don’t think the others will see it that way.” Beyond the arguments there on the bridge, many of the other Kerwood crew were already suspicious about the circumstances surrounding the disaster. They would mirror Hayes’ and Adelaide’s response, Viktor knew, and a good night’s sleep wouldn’t change that.
“You’re probably right,” Sayid admitted. “It rarely goes smoothly. You’re not our first rescue. Hey, listen.” He stepped closer. “I’m not involved in the current negotiations between the two companies. I’m just the delivery guy. But I do have some leeway with the contracts, and I’ve been asked to pass along a proposal. The way the Matsue Conglomerate see it, there are two parts to a mining operation. Extraction, and delivery. The first part, drilling into Egeria-13 and pulling out its prizes? You and the other miners came through. You did the work, put in the effort. You met your part of the contract. It’s the delivery that fell through.”
“What does that matter?” Viktor didn’t understand what the point of all of this was.
Sayid grinned the way he used to grin when they worked together. “You always missed the forest for the trees. Assuming we haul the goods back to Luna base, the Matsue Conglomerate would still honor the Kerwood miners’ shares. At the very least, a partial payout. A show of good faith.”
“A way to pry the best miners away for future contracts,” Viktor said.
Sayid smiled and shrugged.
“And in return, you want cooperation?” Viktor looked back in the direction of the hallway. “Help convincing the others on the Kerwood to play nice?”
Sayid put a hand on Viktor’s shoulder and looked deep into his eyes. “We’re all on the same side here. We want the same thing. What’s wrong with helping everyone else accept that?”
Viktor considered it, but only for a moment. “Forget the shares. At least, for now. Just get us all home.” He felt his throat constricting. “Get me back to Helena.”
Sayid embraced him, still careful of Viktor’s wounds. “Of course, my friend. That’s why we’re here.”
Out in the hall, a strange feeling of relief came over Viktor. It took him about twenty steps to realize what it was: relief at his position as a lowly miner. The weight of responsibility on Sayid’s shoulders was a physical thing, visible in every wrinkle and muscle of the man. It was something Viktor had never thought about. Random disasters happened. It was part of life. For someone in a position of power to feel responsible, even when they could not control anything about it… it was a depressing thought.
Maybe that explained why their own Captain Hayes acted so strange. No man could handle that much pressure and remain stable. Just thinking about what Sayid had hinted toward made Viktor shiver involuntarily.
I’ll stick with the rocks and drills.
The contract shares was also a thought that had escaped him. An afterthought. It felt so unimportant after everything that had happened. Death, bodies and limbs floating through the launch hallway, globs of frozen blood all around like red candles in a cathedral. How could anyone think about shares, or cargo, or anything else beyond simply getting home alive?
Besides, even if the Matsue honored the partial shares, it almost certainly wouldn’t be enough for what Viktor needed to retire and start the fungus farm on Luna with Helena. He’d need to pick up another contract regardless. So even if he did care about the shares, they were inconsequential to his goal. Helena would be disappointed to learn, but he knew she’d smile and tell him that all that mattered was that he was safe.
He stopped in the hallway. That was what he should have asked from Sayid: not honored shares, but a chance to contact Helena. They would all receive time on the Matsue’s radio array to contact family, he was sure, but it would have been nice to send Helena a message immediately. Tell her he was okay before news of the Kerwood disaster spread. Spare her a sleepless night of worrying.
Viktor continued on. He would ask Sayid later.
The Matsue crewmembers nodded to him in the halls–none of whom he recognized, sadly–but he began to notice something strange from the few Kerwood crew he passed. They each eyed him in passing, sideways glances without any acknowledgement or comment. Viktor saw Siebert turn down a corridor, and called out a greeting with a wave, but the man pretended not to see him and continued on.
The med bay was more crowded than when he’d left it, with more beds filled with injured crew. Two doctors hunched over one, its occupant someone from the bridge crew whose name Viktor didn’t know. Next to it, Jessica remained horizontal and still, with Jimmy sunken into the adjacent chair. Erika was awake and sitting up in her bed. Adelaide stood next to it, bent down and speaking quietly to her.
Erika’s eyes locked onto Viktor as he entered, and she quickly said something. Adelaide stopped speaking and faced Viktor, giving him a long, blank look. The normally jolty woman seemed oddly in control of her emotions just then. Like a mask.
“Come on,” she said, turning to help Erika out of bed. The latter had her arm in a sling, and walked with a slight limp.
“What was that about?” Viktor asked after they left.
Jimmy shifted in his seat. “Well…”
The kid shrugged as if what he was about to say didn’t mean anything. “You’re awfully cozy with the captain. Captain Sayid, I mean.”
Viktor frowned. “Of course I am. We worked together for a decade.”
“Yeah, but… I mean, don’t you see, Vicky? Why everyone is on edge about this whole thing?”
“We’re all on the same side, Jimmy. We all want the same thing.” It surprised him how much he sounded like Sayid, then. But the words were true, and he was sick of all the distrust.
Without warning, Jessica’s shape convulsed in a rough laugh. “They think you were part of it,” she said.
Jimmy jumped up, and Viktor smiled his way over to the bed. She was okay! The doctors had said so earlier, but it was one thing to be told that and another to see real signs of life from the woman.
Viktor’s happiness melted away as her words sunk in. “They think I’m part of what?”
She spoke slowly, as if each word pained her. Her eyes remained closed. “What happened to our ship.”
“I don’t understand.”
Jimmy looked uncomfortable. “You don’t think it’s suspicious that in all this big black nothing, the ship that comes to our rescue, and happens to be within reasonable distance, is your old ship?”
“That’s not suspicious at all. Most of us have worked at other corporations at some point,” Viktor pointed out. “Someone was bound to have a history with whatever ship came to our rescue.”
Jessica opened her eyes. The look she gave Viktor was one of pity. Jimmy’s was much the same.
“Do they think I… do they think the explosion was something I caused?” Viktor blinked. “Crippling the Kerwood, so the Matsue could come in and take everything?”
“I don’t know what anyone else believes,” Jimmy said flatly. “And I mean, I trust you, big guy. Right? But there’s a lot of weird stuff that might need explaining. It turns out you know Sayid. You chose the fun seat during launch, and magically come out unharmed during the chaos…”
“That was random luck. I could’ve been killed just like the others. And unharmed?” Viktor unzipped his jumpsuit so that the bandages along his abdomen showed. “Out of all the survivors, I’m more wounded than anyone but her.” He jerked his head toward Jessica.
“Yeah, but you stabbed yourself, right? That’s what you told us? Could be you did that to lower suspicions.”
“It’s tough to believe someone stabbed themselves trying to cut off their straps,” Jessica slowly said. “I’ve seen some dumb shit on contracts. But you’re not some rookie…”
The accusation in their voices left a hollow pit in Viktor’s stomach. He stood, and felt his good hand ball into a fist as he towered over them.
“Woah,” Jimmy said, raising his palms. “Easy now, buddy. I’m just tellin’ you what the others are sayin’. Me and Jessica don’t believe…”
His words trailed away as Viktor stormed out of the med bay. He made his way toward the galley, but instead of escaping his fellow miners’ comments, he found himself being watched by everyone he passed.
Viktor gritted his teeth and resisted the urge to proclaim his innocence out loud. Their silent stares of accusation followed him through the ship, louder than any shout.
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Next: Chapter 14