Viktor bent to pick up a crate of ore from the Kerwood hold while considering the question he’d been asked. When he turned around the Matsue worker, Harry, was waiting for an answer, as if it were a question at all.
“Yeah, it was bad,” Viktor said over the suit comms. “The worst thing I have ever experienced.”
Harry bobbed his helmeted head in agreement. “I mean, yeah, it had to have been, right? I saw the launch hallway. Hell of an explosion. Must’ve been quite the sight.”
The third guy on the shift, who hadn’t bothered to volunteer his name to Viktor, stood in the corner taking a breather. He didn’t seem to care about the tragedy that had befallen the Kerwood, beyond annoyance at needing to do work.
Viktor only nodded at Harry and carried the crate toward the hatch of open black, his mag-boots clomping along with each step in the semi-gravity. They were bundling the crates into groups of four to later be moved and rearranged in the most efficient arrangement of mass according to the computer algorithms and laws of physics. For now they were just stacking them close to the ramp door.
Viktor didn’t need to help, but he was sick of waiting around like a passenger. It felt good to work at something, even a job as monotonous as moving cubes of rocky money from one area to another. And the low-G work wasn’t so much hard as it was tedious; even with his wounded arm unable to grip anything with real strength he was able to move the heavy crates without issue.
“Quite a sight,” Harry repeated, staring off at nothing. Viktor got the impression that he was bored, and wanted some sort of excitement to break the dullness of spaceflight. It was the kind of restlessness that only came from youth, when one hadn’t experienced true tragedy yet. When one hadn’t learned that excitement was a bad thing out in the black. With some guidance and nurturing that sentiment would be trained out of him, hopefully without any real crisis.
For a brief, painful moment it made Viktor wish he and Helena had had children.
He smiled sadly and said over the comms, “Stay sharp, Harry. The boots are tricky if you’re not paying attention.”
Harry followed him to the edge of the cargo hold with his own crate. The kid’s steps slowed as he approached, his hesitation at nearing the black edge palpable in the airless air. Viktor kept his movements steady and confident to show him how it was done.
“You want to stop at the edge, here,” Viktor said, just as everything went wrong.
Red and orange klaxon lights around the border of the bay began flashing in warning. It must have scared Harry, because he took a jerky step, one boot detaching from the ground, and then he was tumbling through the air.
Over the comms, Harry screamed.
Cursing, Viktor let go of his crate and moved to intercept him. He didn’t tumble through the space fast, but even still when Viktor grabbed his leg Harry’s momentum yanked him out toward the open expanse. Viktor loosened his calves and quads, allowing the muscles to absorb most of the whiplash, sending jolts of pain up his legs but lessening the force enough to keep his boots from unsnapping.
Harry screamed and thrashed, ignoring Viktor’s calming words. The third man yelled too, his words lost in the chaos.
The twin horizontal doors began closing from either side, along with the ramp on the outside, which was all wrong. Proximity sensors should have detected them and ceased action, unless they were manually shut as in an emergency protocol. Which, again, was wrong, since the Kerwood was not even occupied. They wouldn’t have been able to do that even from the Matsue’s control room.
“Harry,” Viktor said, alarm trickling into his voice as the doors neared. “Harry, stop squirming. I need to pull you in, but with you moving like that…”
“Harry!” shouted the third man.
He had no ears for their pleas, and squirmed and wobbled in the air. Physics was a pain when it came to absorbing and shedding momentum. With only seconds until the doors cut them in half, Viktor tossed caution aside and swung the kid in an arc to bring him inside the hold, mag-boots tilting dangerously but mercifully remaining connected. The unnamed Matsue worker pulled Viktor the rest of the way inside.
The doors closed shut on Viktor’s abandoned crate, bending the material as if it were cardboard. He imagined he could hear the doors groaning with the effort of unseen machinery. The crate bent, buckled, and then the doors won.
The crate exploded in a shower of metal and rocky material. A shard of the crate missed Viktor’s face by centimeters and wedged into the internal bulkhead. Raw ore tumbled through the room, glistening like a curtain of uncut diamonds. Harmlessly, they pelted Viktor’s faceplate like frozen peas.
Harry was hyperventilating so loudly it sounded like static. The diagnostics panel on his suit showed everything was fine, so Viktor led him into the adjacent hallway and cycled the air so he could take off the helmet. Harry’s face was red and puffy as he sucked in the fresh air eagerly.
The other Matsue man took off his own helmet and lightly patted Harry in the face. “Calm down, buddy. Relax. Deep breaths. You’re okay.”
“Excitement,” Viktor said with heavy meaning, “is not exciting.” He rose. “Stay here.”
But when he went to exit into the main Kerwood corridor, the door beeped in denial. Viktor punched in his authorization code. Same thing.
Over the next hour they tried their suit radio and shipwide comms, to no avail. A sound like banging hammers drifted through the ship, and at one point they began accelerating ever so slightly in one direction. Viktor thought he heard a shout, muffled through the dozens of metal layers.
Something was happening in the ruins of the Kerwood.
Eventually the electronics went out and came back on, winking on control panels like stars. A system reboot. The door opened then, and Viktor marched toward the closest noise he heard.
* * *
Days Until Home: 26
The door to Engineering slid open and the smell of barely-recycled air hit Viktor in the face, the result of overloaded scrubbers doing their best to clean the CO2 from the atmosphere. The few occupants ignored him, or didn’t see him in their focus, or both.
“I have to do this by hand,” Adelaide spat. “This tub wasn’t designed to do what we’re going to do.”
Viktor felt the door trying to close on him, so he took a step inside. A mixture of anger and foreignness swirled in his head, with a healthy dose of nausea. Were they trying to move back onto the ship for the return journey, instead of staying on the Matsue? It shouldn’t have mattered.
“Crazy Ivan?” said someone.
Adelaide spoke with her head inside a removed panel, muffled by all the wires. “Not with the EXT running. Two Crazy Ivans in a row will tear out our maneuvering thrusters.”
Someone tried to move past Viktor, pushing him roughly. The miner sidestepped until he was against a wall, out of the way. He still wanted to yell, to cry out against the actions unfolding in front of him, but his voice found no strength. The crew before him moved like a machine, one with a single purpose well-practiced prior to execution.
“Thirty seconds,” Jeremy called out. Viktor had missed what they were counting down towards. He felt like he was moving in slow motion relative to everyone else.
“Ten seconds.” A pause. “Five. Four. Three, two, one…”
Piercing static cut the air, sharp in Viktor’s ears and everyone else’s, judging by the hasty hands covering ears. Lights flashed and screens flickered and the Kerwood was alive.
They weren’t moving back to the ship. They were taking the ship.
I need to talk to Hayes.
Viktor turned to leave. The hallway provided welcome solitude.
He made it ten meters when the ground lurched and threw him into the wall like a loose crate of ore. He barely got his hands up in time to keep from splitting his skull, and tumbled like that until he ran out of hallway.
Viktor had been on a dozen mining crafts of all sizes. Three-man drifters with primitive pre-fabbed solid-fuel thrusters made for one-way journeys, all the way up to hundred-man longtails that could haul enough water ice from Enceladus’ geysers to quench the whole Luna population for months. He’d experienced every kind of thrust in every magnitude of delta-v humans could control, or enough that he felt comfortable enough boasting of the experience.
The roar and punch of chemical engines was unmistakable, and familiar. They were burning their chemical engines, and they were burning hard. Hard enough that Viktor was pinned to the corner between a hatch and the bulkhead, trapped as thoroughly as if an elephant were sitting on him. He remained there, cheek pressed against the cold steel, for what seemed like an eternity but was probably only a minute.
The thrust ceased as suddenly as it began. Over the 1MC the Captain’s voice demanded, “What the Hades is going on down there?”
Nobody knows what’s going on. Ignoring his screaming joints and still tender arm, Viktor pushed to his feet, determined to find out.
The Bridge was once again a crowded place. The crewmembers there seemed relaxed, content with their mutinous actions. It filled Viktor with unease. This was planned. He found Hayes and went to him, feeling more and more like an outsider.
“Captain,” Viktor began.
Hayes cut him off with a relieved grin. “Smooth sailing from here on out. Couldn’t have asked for better execution.”
So he had known. All of them had, and nobody had deigned to tell Viktor. “Captain. Why are we stealing–”
“Stealing?” Hayes snapped. “We’re not stealing anything. It’s our ship.”
It sounded like something he’d said several times already, either to convince others or himself. The stubbornness in each word gave Viktor pause, and he reconsidered his words.
“When was this decided?” he asked instead. “To reboard the Kerwood and fly her home ourselves?”
“There was never any other option,” Hayes said. “This was what we were always going to do, and damn the suits back home for thinking otherwise. We never needed any help, and if anyone had asked us we would have told them so. Is there a problem?”
By the end he was squinting. A few other crew had turned in their seats to eye Viktor suspiciously.
“I was not aware of the plan, is all,” Viktor said. “I was helping move supplies when it all happened.”
The suspicious looks around him deepened. He saw something twinkle in Hayes’ eye, weighing and measuring what to say.
“We knew you were down there. That’s why we timed it when we did, of course.”
It was a lie. Viktor wanted to scream at him, to tell them all they were insane for stealing the Kerwood back–because that’s what this slagging was, no matter how Hayes wanted to spin it. They were stealing the ship because they were too stupid, or too stubborn, to allow the Matsue to escort them back. And now they were flying in a glorified salvage wreck, glued together and barely holding atmosphere, needlessly risking all their lives for arrogance and pride.
Hayes’ men and women wanted it. The Chief Engineer and Crazy Ade wanted it. Viktor suddenly felt very alone in his opinion. His every instinct told him to go along with it, that it was too late to do anything else so he might as well appear cooperative.
“This is all a mistake,” he found himself saying.
Hayes looked surprised, and Viktor continued, voice raising in anger with each word as he addressed everyone on the Bridge. “You have made a terrible mistake. The Matsue was taking us home! We were safe aboard her, with food and room and oxygen. What is the point of leaving? How are we to get home safely? The Kerwood was crippled. Torn apart! Do we even know what caused the explosion? That it will not suddenly happen again? Richard’s engineers were going to do a full evaluation to discover the cause, yet all of you have thrown that care aside to stumble home alone like stubborn children.”
Anger flashed from half a dozen faces. Telly spoke first. “You? Not us? Which slagging side are you on, miner?”
He threw his hands up. “There are no sides! What part of this do you not understand?”
“How many Captains are you on a first name basis with?” Hayes asked, dangerously soft. “Richard is not your Captain. I am. And I’m taking us home, with all the resources we earned on Egeria-13.”
“The resources do not matter. The ship we fly home on does not matter. All that matters is getting home by the safest method.” Viktor looked around. “How am I the only one who understands this?”
“You say the resources don’t matter,” Telly said, with the look of a chess player who had just checkmated his opponent. “But Adelaide overheard you arguing with Connor about the contract shares. You wanted a bigger share than everyone else.”
The change of subject caught him off guard. “No. I wanted proportional shares, determined based on workload and time spent in the black. Plenty of other corporations use that system. Other miners would have benefited. Jessica, and…”
“Other corporations,” Hayes snarled. “You’re sounding less and less loyal with every breath.”
“No. This was all before. When the ship was whole and the job half done. Once the explosion occurred everything changed.”
“An explosion you miraculously survived.” Telly took a step toward him and pointed at his chest. “Jimmy told me you intentionally chose one of the malfunctioning seats in the launch hallway. The fun seat. One you’ve always avoided before.”
“My mind was elsewhere,” Viktor said. “I wasn’t thinking, and by the time I realized what chair I was in it was too late to switch.”
Two of the other bridge crew were on their feet then, forming a semicircle around Viktor. “Convenient? The explosion sent the seat through the bulkhead and into the next room! I was nearly decapitated.” He held up his bandaged arm. “My suit was compromised in the blast. I had to use industrial sealant. It fused my skin to my suit, so that I could smell the pungent stench of burned flesh inside my helmet! I nearly died half a dozen ways.”
“You stabbed yourself, I heard,” one of the others said.
“I was trying to remove the seat straps before–”
“It’s sounding more and more like a choreographed plan,” Telly said to Hayes.
The Captain pursed his lips and eyed Viktor.
What the slag? How could they think his surviving the explosion was something he planned? Unless…
“You think I caused the explosion?” he breathed, the words spilling out against his will.
Hayes was the one to answer, standing and moving close to Viktor. “This ship has run fine for years without any critical error. I’ve got a good crew who keeps the Kerwood in tip-top shape. Xenon is a safe, inert gas, I’m told. For there to have been such an explosion would require a nearly impossible combination of events, and impossible odds. It must have been sabotage.
“And within two days of being stranded, the first ship that comes calling happens to be your old pile of steel, whose Captain you’re still buddy-buddy with. A ship so close it was able to reach us with a quick, hard burn, and oh by the way: she happens to be recently outfitted for rescue.”
His eyes shone with the light of certainty as he challenged Viktor to deny it. The silence was like the calm before a stormy wind.
“Winchester,” Viktor began softly, but the Captain was already responding.
“I am your Captain, Sharapov, not your friend. You had the means: access to lockers full of drilling caps and other rock-penetrating targeted explosives. You had the motivation: a higher share percentage demanded from Connor, and you probably were working out a share distribution with the Matsue big-wigs.” Hayes took a step forward until Viktor could smell his sour breath. “Admit it, Sharapov. Admit that you crippled my Kerwood for your own personal gain.”
Viktor could sense their certainty, feel his own ground slipping away from him as swiftly as if a landslide were washing it away. They’re insane. All of them were, that was clear, either from space sickness–which most spacefaring men didn’t truly believe in–or general paranoia brought on by stress. After everything they’d been through, no sane collection of people would abandon the safety of a rescue ship and accelerate back through the black on their own way home.
There would be no reasoning with them. No angle to defend himself.
He’d heard of military tribunal style judgements, in extreme cases. It wasn’t legal, not on commercial vessels, but in the harshness of the black there was little love lost for someone suspected of sabotage or mutiny. Most ships weren’t meant to hold a prisoner. A kick out an airlock and sixty seconds of vacuum was a quicker, easier solution than holding someone for the entirety of a return journey. It was an action that probably felt intuitive and comfortable to men with a military background. Men like Hayes.
Viktor took a deep breath to say what was starting to feel like his last words. He stood up straight and stuck out his chin. “I am an honorable man, Captain Hayes. I have worked hard my entire life, on Luna and the Jovian bodies and all the belt in between. If you believe me guilty of these accusations, there’s little I can do to stop you. But I will go to my fate an innocent man, loyal to the Kerwood and my wife Helena, no matter what you may believe. I am scared, and just want to go home, like all of you. Do with me what you will. Captain.”
A pregnant silence stretched. The sound of computer drives and ventilation fans hummed in the background while they all stared at Viktor and the big Russian stared back.
There was a length of metal debris leaning against the bulkhead in the corner, triangular and sharp. If they came at him, he thought he could dive toward it and swing it around before anyone stopped him. He might have a chance. He readied himself to do just that with the resignation of a man who has no choice.
The radio crackled to life, severing the moment. “Hey, I need some help down in the ancillary cargo room. Pronto!”
Viktor was the first one to move to the nearest comm device on the wall. “Jimmy? What’s going on?”
“Adelaide’s losin’ her mind on Rebecca. Just get down here.”
Viktor looked a question at Hayes, a resumption of the previous moment. The certainty in Hayes’ eyes had disappeared, replaced by concern.
It was all the confirmation Viktor needed. He turned and left the Bridge, letting out a long exhale that he didn’t realize he’d been holding, his hand trembling with the aftershock of adrenaline.
* * *
Days Until Home: 26
He found them in the cargo room, which was foreign and familiar to Viktor all at the same time. Rebecca, Harry, and four other Matsue crew were tied up on the floor in various uncomfortable positions. Siebert stood against the far wall, holding Jimmy’s hands behind his back, confusion and uncertainty on his face.
Harry saw Viktor enter first, and tried yelling through the cloth stuffed in his mouth. All that came out was a muffled moan.
Adelaide crouched over Rebecca, the latter woman’s shirt ripped at the shoulder. A flash of steel shone in the Kerwood engineer’s hand. Dark red dripped from the tip, and trickled down Rebecca’s arm.
“It’s not hard,” Adelaide said. “Just a few words. The right words, though. No more of these lies.”
The Matsue crewmember let out air through her clenched teeth. “I don’t understand…”
“Those aren’t the right words!” Adelaide said in a melodious tone, moving the knife through the air like a fish.
Jimmy wrestled against Siebert’s grip, then saw Viktor. “She’s torturin’ them! They don’t know nothin’, they’re just crew…”
“How are we supposed to know that,” Adelaide said as if it were obvious, “unless we question them?”
Viktor stepped toward the woman, careful to keep her knife a safe distance away. Things were getting out of control. Viktor held his hands up in what he thought was a placating gesture.
“You can question them without cutting them. Everything is okay.”
Jimmy sputtered. “Everything is not slagging okay, Vicky!”
Siebert cleared his throat. “She was mouthy,” he said in explanation.
“Mouthy,” Viktor repeated. “That is not a crime.”
Adelaide whirled and pointed the knife at Viktor. “What about blowing up the Kerwood? Huh? Is that a crime?”
Viktor remembered Hayes’ accusations only moments before. The certainty with which everyone on the Bridge looked at Viktor. “We’ll figure out what happened,” he said.
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to do.” The knife lowered a few centimeters.
“We can do that later, if need be,” Viktor said. “But for now, we have plenty of other ways. Examining the engines. Figuring out what caused the explosion. Diagnostics on the entire Kerwood when we return home. Home, Adelaide. We will arrive there, safe and happy, and everything will be fine.”
The entire thing felt like a hostage negotiation. Or trying to talk a suicidal person out of jumping from a building. Except there was no down out here in the black, and whichever way they fell they’d fall forever, a never ending free fall around their roiling sun.
Viktor’s mind scrambled for a way to connect with the woman. A memory bubbled up, something he had once heard. A nickname. “Let’s just go home, Sapphire.”
Something changed in Adelaide, like a twig snapping beneath a boot. She snarled at him and said, “You don’t know me, you worthless rock-hauler. Alright? So don’t slagging say things like you–”
And then, as quickly as it had begun, all tension disappeared like it was turned off from a switch. Adelaide flipped the knife in her hand and tucked it into her belt, not bothering to wipe off Rebecca’s blood.
“Sure thing,” she said with a nod. “Home, safe and happy.”
She left the cargo room, whistling as she went.
Jimmy broke free and ran to Rebecca to make sure she was okay. Viktor approached Siebert.
“What is wrong with you? Allowing this to happen? Torture?”
Siebert ran an embarrassed hand through his hair. “She had a knife, boss. And she seemed so certain and calm about it. I wasn’t really sure how to say no, and then Jimmy started losing his mind…”
“Losing my mind?” Jimmy said, crouched by Rebecca. “Not wanting to see a woman tortured counts as losing my mind, now? What friggen planet were you born on, pal?”
To his credit, Siebert looked ashamed. Viktor patted him on the arm and said, “It is fine. That woman is not okay. You wanted to avoid confrontation.”
Siebert smiled weakly.
Viktor looked around the room at the other prisoners. Because that’s what they were, now: prisoners, kidnapped from the flagship of a rival corporation and held against their will. Forced to make the journey home on a barely functioning ship that could suffer catastrophic failure at any moment. Simply standing there while the ship accelerated toward earth filled Viktor with a growing sense of unease, like a bomb was slowly ticking down inside the walls and nobody could hear it but him.
“I just want to go home,” Viktor said to nobody in particular.
Jimmy gave a bitter laugh as he helped Rebecca to her feet. “In case you haven’t noticed, we don’t have many friends right now. I’ll settle for just surviving the next few hours.”
The anxiety in Viktor’s chest deepened as Jimmy’s words sunk in. They were weeks from home, and yet it might as well have been years.
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Next: Chapter 17