“So let me ask you this. If the Matsue hadn’t shown up, what were you going to do to get the crew and cargo home?” the gruff voice said with a hint of frustration behind it.
Winchester Hayes sat at the desk with his arms in front of him, one on top of the other, and his head bent low over the intercom. His face was a mask of determination, and the upper arm blocked the view of his hand crushing a ball of paper. He was squeezing it so tightly that it was becoming painful, but it kept him from falling off the precipice and becoming something that he had sworn not to become.
He inhaled slowly and began his retort, “My chief engineer and his brilliant staff were on it. We weren’t down long enough to need rescuing and—”
“Do you hear yourself, Hayes? You lost more people on your watch than a wartime captain handling a destroyer. How do you think the Lu and Hawkins’ family feel about you not being ‘down long enough’? I think that they would be very annoyed to hear the man responsible for—”
“Hey, that’s enough. I may be contracted with you, but I am not your toady. If you don’t want to reconsider the green light on us being stripped and salvaged while we’re down on one knee, then, I am very disappointed. I have had a long, successful run with the Kerwood. Even you with your nasty opinion of me would have to admit that. We have been the ship that the superstars ask to be transferred to, because, we get things done. I removed every facet of a life to dedicate myself to this ship and your organization, and what do I get? A call for help answered by some spineless shit, who sits comfortably in an air conditioned building, telling me what the family of my friends would think about my refusal to take an ass—”
“That’s enough, Captain Hayes. I owe you an apology, and I just want to clarify that I am not in an air conditioned building. I am home with family. I took this call as a courtesy. Anyway, I fully understand your position, and it is a regrettable and unfortunate position that nobody could dream of being in. Not in their worst nightmare. But the Kerwood Corporation wants you home. The losses that we have suffered already are far greater than we can afford. You called because you’re a great man with tremendous pride, but the ship is crippled, Captain. Allow your rescuers to do their job and when you get back we can help you put the pieces together.”
Winchester adjusted his seat and began to rub his forehead with frustration. Bitter-sweet doesn’t quite describe it, he thought. We’re in a bigger ship that can get us back home, fast, but the reason we came out here will become null and void. I can’t have Booker and Lu’s lives become the result of a worthless mission. “Thanks for taking my call. Enjoy the rest of your day,” he said flatly and disconnected the communication.
He sat back and scanned the room. It was spacious, clean, and meant for important guests whenever the Matsue’s captain would have one along. When his eyes found the bed, he thought about Femke, and how waking up on the Kerwood had been the stuff of dreams on their trip. One minute happiness, the next, death and total anarchy. It was funny how life was so unstable, and no matter how many times it happened, he could never prepare himself enough for it.
He picked up his personal comm, gifted to him by the woman, Carol, that had shown him to his room. Gauge Schneider answered in a tone that could best be described as low and defeated, which added another dry log to Winchester Hayes’ fire of fury. “Where are you, Gauge?” he asked.
“I’m in Vega’s room, bringing her up to speed,” he said, then a small voice intoned “hi there, Skip,” and Winchester couldn’t help but smile.
“It’s good to hear the two of you, brother. Carry on with your conversation. I was just checking in, and it sounds like you’re already making the best of this thing.”
“You always said that attitude and the willingness to see things through can overcome anything, Captain,” Gauge began.
“That isn’t what he said,” Marisol Vega interrupted. “Captain Hayes said that we need spice in our veins to get through life. Because even when life serves you up a crap sandwich on moldy, soggy bread, if you apply a little spice, and a dab of ketchup, you will find a way to eat the disgusting thing. Ain’t I right, Captain?”
“I think you both got the gist of it,” Winchester said. “Oh, and this sandwich that we’re eating, just got an extra side of moldy Parmesan fries. The two of you get some rest. I’ll bring you up to speed soon enough when we’re all in a room together.”
Hayes got up, looked at his bed, and saw a change of clothes that had been laid out for him. He hadn’t noticed it before and he assumed it was by whomever prepared the room for him. Carol perhaps? There were long black pants with a blue stripe on the sides, a white short-sleeve button-up, with buttons that had the Matsue’s insignia on them. To complete the ensemble was a pair of shiny black shoes, polished to perfection, at the foot of the bed.
Winchester smiled despite himself, because it looked like the type of outfit that someone would expect a captain to wear on any one of the TV shows that depicted life on a ship like the Kerwood. He took a quick shower and donned everything, except for the shirt. He looked inside one of the lockers, and found a blue tank-top and a black faux leather jacket with the insignia of the Matsue on the back.
He pull on the jacket, zipped it up, and then checked his appearance in the mirror. He hadn’t realized that something had struck him across the face, and he saw for the first time, the thin red line that ran from his nose towards his right cheek. He reached up and touched it but couldn’t feel any pain. “Humph,” he said and then made a quick exit out of the room.
The Matsue’s size allowed for the passageways to be quite wide, but there weren’t very many people in this particular passageway, and Winchester assumed that this was because it had been given to the Kerwood’s crew.
He glanced at the doors, trying to guess at who was within each. His room had no neighbor on the right, since it was the last one in a row. The passageway ended in a plain bulkhead, but across from him was another room which he assumed would be reserved for someone important.
Winchester walked past twelve rows of rooms before stopping to try one of them. He touched the small buzzer by the lock and stood back with his hands in his pockets, curious to see who would answer.
A young man with messy black hair, opened the door and peeked out. He gasped which shock when he recognized the captain, then composed himself before he spoke. “Captain Hayes, it’s you. How can I help you, sir?”
“Hey, uh, how are you feeling?” Winchester asked, after realizing that he didn’t know the man’s name.
“Feeling hopeful, I mean, good, sir. I mean, we’re on a ship that can actually get us back,” he said without thinking and a grin covered his features to reinforce the fact that he was happy to be on the Matsue.
I wonder how happy you would be to learn that all the mining and lonely nights that you spent out on that rock was for nothing, Winchester thought. I wonder how much of a grin you would have if I told you that you weren’t getting paid? “Do you know Adelaide Bähr?” Winchester asked and the man nodded in earnest.
“She’s about five doors down, room M53 I think.”
“Thank you,” Winchester replied. “Try to get some rest. We’ve all been through a lot and you never know when something else will come up and you’ll need your strength.”
Winchester walked down the passageway to M53 and he paused to collect himself before touching the buzzer. It was a long pause and shuffling sounds that could be heard through the door, then Adelaide Bähr was in front of him, her anger turning to surprise when she realized who he was. “Skipper? What’s up? I thought that they moved everyone from the bridge crew closer to the end.” She stuck her head out and stared down the passageway to where his room would have been.
“Didn’t expect Winnie the Pooh to pay you a visit eh?” Winchester said, and Adelaide’s face turned as red as a tomato.
“I don’t have the faintest clue what you’re talking about,” Adelaide said, trying her best to appear genuine. “Winnie the Pooh? You mean that old children’s book character with the yellow bear? Why would I expect him at my door?”
“No, I mean that clever little nickname that you all have given me behind my back,” Winchester said, sternly. He watched Adelaide’s face struggle to find a proper reaction, and as expected she chose to counter with an attack of her own. As her brow knitted and her body tensed to tell him something insubordinate, Winchester smiled and Adelaide stopped, confused on how to process any of it.
“How come you haven’t changed? I would think you’d want out of those dirty coveralls now that you can relax,” Winchester said.
“I belong to the Kerwood, just like it says right here on this hat,” she jabbed a finger up at her dirty, discolored ball cap, and a part of him felt humbled by her loyalty. The Kerwood’s insignia was on both her cap and coveralls, and it made him realize how much he had neglected the people that weren’t on his bridge.
“Can I come in, Adelaide?” he said quietly. “I promise you that I won’t waste your time.”
“Hold on a sec.” She closed the door and went back inside. When it reopened, an attractive young woman quickly made an exit. Winchester assumed that they had been plotting, since the woman seemed too embarrassed to acknowledge him during her egress. Adelaide watched her leave, then switched her eyes back to the captain. “Come in. If you think it’s messy, keep it to yourself. Whoever they kicked out of these rooms to put us here, that person didn’t seem to get enough time to put the room back in order.”
“Really? They made it seem as if they had room to accommodate us easily,” Winchester said under his breath.
“Yeah, they have all the room in the world, remember? So much room in fact, that the crap we mined off of Egeria-13 can be transferred over here, to help our poor Kerwood get under control.” She was talking through her teeth and looked more agitated than normal.
Winchester suddenly stepped up to her, and placed his large hands on her slender shoulders. Adelaide’s eyes widened to the point of becoming saucers, and her body stiffened at his touch. He leaned in close and whispered into her ear. “They’re listening, I know you know this, but if they think that we’re lovers, they will understand your need to have this room go radio silent.” Adelaide nodded in response, and made a noise that he assumed was her attempt at a moan.
“One sec, sweetheart,” she said sweetly, and then stepped away from him, their hands being the last to break, as Winchester extended their touch. It felt absurd, but he needed to be careful, and if anyone was to help with what he planned to do, he knew that it would be “Crazy Ade”. She hopped up on top of the small table and then reached up and dislodged a section of the overhang.
Winchester was impressed, he hadn’t noticed that there was a loose panel inside of the smooth, eggshell, surface. She pulled out some wires, moved things around, and after ten minutes of doing this, hopped down.
Winchester reacted to her jump and moved in to help her steady herself. Roughly, Adelaide pushed him off, and then backed up a few paces with her face a mask of warning. “We’re alone now. They wouldn’t think to waste an expensive bug on this crappy room. Your room on the other hand is probably loaded with snooping devices. You were smart finding old lowly, Adelaide, cause if—”
“Hey, I apologize for the lack of warning when I touched you, but I needed them to see it,” Winchester said, feeling more than embarrassed after Adelaide’s shove.
“No, its fine, I knew what you were doing. Just never thought that I would have the captain in my room, trying to peel me out of my Kerwood blues. Guess I can add you to the list.”
“The list of horn dogs on the ship, trying to see if they can put me on my back.”
Winchester looked at her through slatted eyes, “I know that it’s all about the story for you gossip types, but keep my name out of that mess. Listen, you mind if I sit? I’ve got some heavy shit to lay on you, and I can’t find a way to say it.”
“Sit where you want, I don’t own this room. Hell, I don’t want this room. I don’t want any part of this ship.”
Winchester sat at the table and Adelaide sat across from him, and he looked over at her for a long time before speaking. “Okay, where to begin?” He said. “It is a mess on the Kerwood, and I’m not talking about the explosion or the loss of life. I can’t believe that I’m in here talking to you about this. That’s how unbelievable all of this is. Not gonna sit here and try to pretend that I know how you feel or what you lost in that explosion. Someone near and dear to my heart got killed. I was ready to hand over the ship to him once we made it home. That’s how much I respected that man.”
Winchester Hayes realized that he was rambling, so he paused and looked at the door but Adelaide could see that his mind was somewhere far away. As his eyes glazed over to take on a look of stunned distraction, she wondered if someone as hard as the captain was capable of choking up over the loss of a friend. But once Winchester got a hold of himself, he turned back to her and his eyes had a look of strong determination.
“When they brought us on board to tell us how lucky we were that they showed up in the nick of time … to save our skins from a ship that—just so happened—to ‘accidentally’ become disabled. I looked over at you and I recognized something. The same thoughts that was going through my head were going through yours as well.”
“You can read minds, huh?” Adelaide quipped. “Is that how you know about Winnie the Pooh?”
“I know about the Winnie the Pooh thing because my communications officer is one of the best in the business. She may not tell me everything, because she knows what it is you guys want to keep away from me, but she tells me enough so that I know how you all are doing with your morale.”
Adelaide smiled, “Now, you see, I knew that Vega was spying for you. She always came around being so friendly and nice, acting as if she understood me, and going above and beyond, if you know what I mean.” She stopped to give a sly wink at Winchester Hayes. “That girl is good, she’s really good. She has something about her that makes you just want to like her. You know what I mean? So, spy or no spy, we were ourselves around her, but now you have me concerned about how much you really know.”
Winchester Hayes couldn’t help but smile. Up until now he hadn’t realized that Adelaide had more of a chance with Marisol Vega than any of the men on the bridge that routinely flirted with her.
“I brought up the name calling to let you know, Adelaide, that I know more about you than you think. I know enough about you to know that when I needed a friend in that room earlier I could look towards you before I looked at the other two guys. Do you see where I’m going with this?”
“Yeah, you’re looking to break the rules and you need someone that’s good at that,” she said.
“It’s more than that,” Winchester Hayes said. “I need someone that is willing to look at things in an abstract way. Someone that isn’t tethered to the rules of these conglomerates, and doesn’t share this head in the clouds notion that getting home safely is all that matters at this point. I need a leader, Adelaide.”
“What about the ChEng? You can trust him. Actually if you want I can call him over and then you can talk to both of us together.”
“Jeremy’s a good guy, a brilliant guy. But what I want to discuss with you, Adelaide, is something that I don’t want to go beyond this room. I haven’t told Gauge. I haven’t told Marisol. In my long years of life one of the only guarantees I know is that the more people in on anything, the less likely it will remain a secret. You have more secrets than anyone else on the ship, so adding one more to that list is nothing for you at all, is it?”
“Now you really have me concerned about what you know?” Adelaide smiled. “Are there any hidden cameras on the Kerwood that I don’t know about?”
“If you think that I’m worried about your past, or who you share your bed with, you really do underestimate me. So, let’s get serious for a second here. Adelaide?”
“Do you think that you can rig this fancy ship to go the way of the Kerwood?”
“Are we talking fireworks?” Adelaide Bähr smiled. “We all could use some celebration.”
* * *
Days Until Home: 83
When Winchester Hayes left Adelaide’s room he had forgotten his jacket and stepped outside wearing only his tank top. One of the other survivors got a glimpse of him as he rushed back in to grab the jacket and when he emerged she glanced down quickly but couldn’t mask the smile that came across her face. Just what I need, Winchester thought, rumors that Lady Marmalade and I are thing.
He made his way to the med bay, thinking about the discussion that he had earlier with Adelaide. He was very happy with what had come of it. He and Adelaide were definitely on the same page when it came to the Matsue, and though he wasn’t positive that she would not tell Jeremy, he knew that she would be careful enough to only inform those who could actually help.
When he walked into the med bay all of his thoughts disappeared in a flash. Femke was up and was having light banter with an injured woman in the bed next to her. It was the first time in days that he actually felt happy, and he rushed over, fighting to restrain himself with every single fiber in his body.
“Funky Gerhardt,” he announced as he reached her bed, and she turned over slowly to look at him.
“Winn … I mean, Skip? What happened? Lila here, was catching me up, but the only thing I remember was arguing with Angelo and then I woke up, here. We’re on the Matsue, is that right? B-but, where’s our Kerwood, since we’re on this ship?”
“There’s a lot to tell you, Femke, but don’t you want to rest up first? I don’t want you to feel any additional stress, hell, we thought we lost your for a while back there.”
“I’m good, Skip, I promise. I just want to make sense of where I am. Can you give me the highlights? We can talk about all the specifics later, but I’m floating around in the dark on this thing, and I don’t like feeling so clueless.”
Winchester slipped a hand under her sheets and Femke took it. Her soft, warm palm put life back into his, as they finally made contact after what seemed like ages. He glanced around subconsciously to see if anyone was watching, but between the patients and their visitors, no one seemed interested in their conversation.
Reluctantly he began to recant the situation, starting from the beginning when it all fell apart. “We had a good lift-off. Everyone was in high spirits. The Kerwood was in good shape, and then something exploded. Even now we don’t know the cause, but we’ve been through theories ranging from freak accident to sabotage. Nobody can say for certain what happened out there. We lost the majority of the crew, Femke. Angelo—”
She squeezed his hand tightly and began to weep. “Oh no,” she whispered, and shook her head. “I’m sorry, Winn, I mean, Skip. Please continue.”
“Angelo died and eventually Booker. He was a soldier to the end, fighting against an injury that we had no means of helping. Our miners and engineers got the worst of it, and we all had to travel the length of the ship to find spaces that were still intact. Gauge helped me get you to the med bay. Then I went out and found the survivors in the trunk, of all places. One of the survivors put out a beacon and so the Matsue came along to help us out. There’s more of course, but that was the quick and dirty version. Femke, you’ve been the only good thing I’ve seen in what feels like a week.”
“You look tired, Skip. When was the last time that you slept?”
“Sleep seems so trivial, considering everything that is going on. I appreciate the concern, but I don’t think that any of us have slept. We’ve been putting Band-Aids on the big girl, and now we’re trying to absorb the fact that we’ve been rescued by a ship with an interest in our cargo.”
“An interest in our—what do you mean by that?”
“Exactly what I said. We’ve been rescued at a price that may be too high to pay, but the Kerwood Corporation is letting it happen.” Winchester looked up from Femke’s face to scan the room around him. “This is a newer ship, with top of the line equipment for your medical needs. The fact that they came along to help bring you back to me, that makes me happy. I don’t want you to think that I’m not grateful for us being found when we were losing people left and right.”
Winchester sighed and sat on the bed, keeping his hand within Femke’s. “You know me though, Femke, so I don’t have to say much more. Just try to recover as fast as you can, so that when you need to move, you will be able to do so comfortably.” He squeezed her hand reassuringly, and she reached up and caressed his lower back. “I better get up before I decide to throw caution to the wind and get in this bed with you,” he whispered.
She smiled up at him when he said this and winked. “I’m glad that you’re okay.” She and then looked up at the overhead as if in deep thought and Winchester realized that she was still processing the death of her friends, and he was only a distraction by being there.
“I’ll let you rest,” he said and patted her hand gently. “Have they spoken to you about your condition? What happened to you that caused you to be out for so long?”
“Trauma to the head and hypoxia,” she said. “Apparently we all had a bit of that, but I took it the hardest, somehow. They say that I should be up and about in a day or two, barring anything new showing up in my readouts. Before you go though, Winchester Hayes, I have a question for you on another matter.” She spoke in a low tone, to where he could barely hear, but the expression on her face made him wonder about the question she was about to ask. “I’ve been awake for a while, and I overheard things, one being a little rumor about you, sir.”
“Rumor, what rumor?” Winchester asked, leaning in.
“This Adelaide woman. Who is she? And why were you in her room for an hour?”