A new bridge crew, thrown together out of mere necessity, and lacking the glue that he was used to. Winchester Hayes glanced over at Femke, she had been uncharacteristically silent since they took back the ship and hadn’t even bothered to look at him.
Gauge on the other hand was a different man. Smiling, offering up jokes—JOKES—Gauge Schneider, the navigator, was telling jokes. Winchester remembered a time when he, Angelo, and Booker had a wager going that Gauge was secretly an android that the Kerwood brass had snuck aboard to spy on their activities. None of them could prove it, but needless to say, the last thing Winchester Hayes expected out of his brilliant navigator was a joke.
He thought about the time on the Matsue when he had called his room and Marisol was in there with him. That would explain it, he thought, but the motivations of Marisol Vega were only understood by Marisol Vega. They were family now, they had bled together, and they had fought side by side to win back the Kerwood.
“Listen up,” he said, standing and grasping the back of the splintered seat. “I know that this is crazy, not what any of you signed up for, but we did the thing and we’re getting home.” He looked over at Femke, trying to read her eyes, but he couldn’t decipher what was reflected there.
“Tempers are hot,” he stopped and laughed, “ooh boy,” he began to pat the seat violently, “when I find out who did this—” he had to stop and collect himself. “The Matsue had no slagging right to offer up one-sided bargains when we were crippled and reeling for this … this … violation.” He shook his head and bit his bottom lip, struggling to keep things professional and somewhat positive.
Every muscle within his body wanted a fight. He wanted to punch someone or something, hard, for what happened. He never could talk when he was angry, and the thought of Angelo Lu only made his heart race with anticipation.
Telly spoke up, “we’re with you, Skip. You don’t have to go through this alone.”
“I appreciate that, Telly, but I just wanted to thank you all. Now let’s get to the silver back gorilla in the room. We have some strong concerns about Mr. Sharapov, don’t we? Mhm, yeah buddy, we have some strong concerns. We’re going to have to deal with that one way or another, and I don’t think it can wait—especially now that he knows we’re onto him.”
“Skip, he may actually be innocent,” Femke spoke up for the first time. “He seemed pretty scared when we questioned him, and he was actually shaking. You may not know it, but you’re pretty frightening when you’re angry … plus, Telly chiming in. Well. Let’s just say that most of us would have melted if we were in that same situation. It’s only fair to have him tell his side of the story, if anything we’ve accused him of even sticks—”
“I was just getting to that, Funky, I’m not about to airlock the man. I just want answers before we get home. There are countless lives lost due to one person’s selfishness on this ship. I can’t have that, the dead can’t have that, and we need to make sure that it isn’t going to happen again.”
Marisol Vega raised her hand and Winchester nodded, “Skip, um, the Matsue’s still trying to get a hold of you. I’m not good on insults and they’re getting nasty.”
Winchester furrowed his brow and slatted his eyes, “Marisol, you don’t have to answer just because they call.”
“No disrespect Winn, but what the slag? Let’s have you sit over here and wear this thing, and have it buzz in your ear over and over. I answer the darn thing to maintain my sanity, and as you can tell, by the way that I am talking to you right now, I AM ON THE VERGE OF—”
Winchester punched a finger into the panel of his chair and donned the earpiece attachment. “Put ‘em on, Marisol, and check the way you talk to me.” He looked around at everyone else, “you’re embarrassing me in front of the staff.”
Marisol Vega exhaled slowly as his joke settled in, and connected the Matsue to his channel.
“You won’t get away with this, Hayes!” said an angry voice which was a high-pitched version of Richard Sayid’s normally smug tone.
“Looks like I did, and now you’re upset. I’m guessing your next response will be a bunch of threats and promises of what the suits on Luna will do with me. I’m tired, brother, and you knew that I was tired, but even a tired old cowboy knows the difference between a friend and a snake looking to capitalize. I lost people on this—”
“You have some nerve,” Sayid scoffed, “you were dead in the black. To think I came to your aid because I respect you and your crew.”
“You came to my aid because you have a buddy below deck here. A buddy who knew what we hauled, how much of it we collected, and how much he stood to gain by having you and your crew come ‘rescue’ us from sabotage. I’m sure you sung up a nice ballad for the boys and girls up top. Told them how poor Captain Hayes was floating around on life support, and you were only concerned with providing us help and a soft bunk to sleep.”
“Even if any of that was true, you are a criminal! What you’ve done is a crime. You’ve stolen parts from my ship, kidnapped my crew. Kidnapping, Hayes? Even I don’t have to tell you the penalty that comes with kidnapping people. Tell me how you intend to explain that little bonus to your theft, eh? Did they willingly go with you? Are they even alive, Hayes?” he scoffed again, a sound that was very close to being a laugh. “In a couple of months, the only magnetic boots you will be wearing will be the ones holding you down inside a cell on Usteria Prime.”
“Don’t call me again, Sayid, and pray that I don’t ever see you again. I’m not the type for words, if you get my drift, and as for the so-called prisoners, slag happens. We felt threatened, you told us openly that you intended on robbing us, and we took our ship and left yours, peacefully. As long as those crew members of yours get home in one shape, it will be our word—as in us, the victims, against yours.”
He closed off the COM channel and brushed back his hair, looking at the remains of the bridge that was once one of the most impressive areas of the Kerwood. The deck was a patchwork of metal, welded hurriedly in place, sealing holes that had been blown out in the explosion. His seat and a few others held the black scuffs from the shrapnel, and the entire space had a filthy look that was hard to ignore.
Computer screens, once dancing in emerald and cobalt lights were now dead and dark. There were wires running across the overhead, pinned in place by electrical tape, and something kept rattling, incessantly. Gauge and the Kerwood’s engineers had performed a miracle, and he felt good for gambling on the genius of Adelaide. Adelaide… His heart skipped and Savid’s threat echoed in his head.
“Marisol, can you head below? I’m a bit concerned with that call that Sharapov answered. Tell the engineers to go light on the Matsue staff. We don’t know what they know about all of this, but it won’t do us any good to harm them. You understand?”
Marisol Vega unbuckled her seat and worked her way hurriedly towards the rear of the bridge. She opened a locker, grabbed her helmet, pulled her helmet and secured it. She pulled open the first hatch, descended the ladder and then closed it shut behind her. Winchester Hayes watched her go and then retook his seat with a heavy sigh.
* * *
Marisol Vega sealed the lock on the first level, then punched in her password on the second. These emergency precautions always amazed her, because it seemed as if the people who built the Kerwood had literally thought of everything. When everything was functional they kept two of the central hatches open, giving the illusion that you merely opened a door to walk down the passageway into another room.
With the second level compromised, there was no more illusion. She had to close the hatch and seal it before getting access to the second which gave the disorientating sensation of walking and then realizing that you are facing the wrong direction. With no artificial gravity, she pulled herself inside, did a front flip acrobatically, then reached up to close the hatch.
She gripped the rungs of the ladder and pulled herself along, until she was at the airlock, which she quickly accessed and pulled herself through to the medical bay. Closing the hatch and opening the next, she got inside and looked around.
The medical bay on the Matsue was a palace compared to the Kerwood’s, but nothing was out of place in this room. She walked its length, examining the beds, until she got to the hatch that led down to engineering.
When Marisol finally found the area where they kept the prisoners, she was already regretting the trip. She stepped inside the door where the prisoners were tied up, and she looked over at a young man who was consoling a woman.
“Who’s in charge here?” she asked, to no one in particular, and they all exchanged glances as if confused. “Captain Hayes does not want the Matsue crew members hurt. They are our guests until we are safely docked at the station. Wait, is that blood?” she said and rushed over to Rebecca, but Jimmy stepped in front of her defensively. “Figured it would be you,” Marisol said to Jimmy, “if there’s something off going on down here, I can almost guarantee that you’re in the middle of it.”
“Vega, you’re alive?” Jimmy asked, surprised, “man, I thought that everyone with sense was dead on the bridge.”
“I’m sure that Captain Hayes, will appreciate you calling him crazy, but seriously, Jimmy, what’s going on down here?”
“Everyone is on edge,” Viktor Sharapov said, “The Captain isn’t aware of what is going on down here. That crazy engineer was torturing this woman. I came down here and she had a knife to her throat, trying to see if she knew about the explosion.”
“You didn’t bother to tell her that you were the one who did it?” Marisol said, “or did the sight of that knife force you to hold your tongue?”
“Vicky, what’s she talking about?” Jimmy asked suddenly, and Siebert began to back away as if he expected something to happen.
“IT WAS NOT ME!” Viktor Sharapov shouted, “I have wanted nothing else but to go home to my wife, Miss Vega. How would blowing myself up get me home faster? Can we please get back to reality, everyone. Can we reason like human beings instead of resorting to baseless finger pointing? What happens if you kill me, an innocent man? Will it bring back your friends, or set the Kerwood back to being a whole ship again?” His shoulders fell as if a weight was on him, and Marisol saw why the name ‘old Vicky’ fit.
“Good speech, Vicky,” Marisol said, “but you’re on the radar for a reason. I really don’t think the Skipper would feel comfortable with you being around these Matsue people. If you’re guilty, it would mean that you were in league with them all along. This could mean trouble, so why don’t you shove off so that I can get these folks situated into their new digs.
She gestured at Jimmy and he froze for a time, indecisive on what to do as he stared after Viktor. The older man left the room looking tired and pathetic, he was rubbing at his arm as if it was in pain.
“You didn’t have to talk to him like that, Vega, he couldn’t have done this. Vicky is the—”
“Not in the mood, Jimmy, I’m merely his messenger. Untie these folks and put them in the spaces that no longer have owners. Listen up folks, this is it for a while, I only have a few ration bars, so divvy it up however you feel, and get yourselves comfortable in your new bunks.”
Jimmy went through the motion of untying the crew, while Marisol walked over and examined Rebecca’s neck. “Who did this?” she whispered and the woman flinched, looking around at the men and women that were watching the exchange.
“A woman … Adelaide, I think? I-I honestly thought that she was going to kill me.”
“It would be her,” Marisol sighed, then patted Rebecca on her shoulder. “She owes you an apology, I doubt that she’ll give it, but this was never the plan – you understand?”
* * *
Days Until Home: 24
Winchester Hayes had taken a break to talk to Femke Gerhardt about the Kerwood. This was the official reasoning, but in reality, he wanted to see how she was doing.
They chose the same small space where they had met with Angelo Lu, only moments before lifting off from Egeria-13. Winchester was leaning against the bulkhead, and when she got close, he pulled her into him and kissed her.
“I missed you too, Winn, but what could I do? We’re in a room full of strangers working ‘round the clock.”
“I’m tired, Femke, this has been one helluva haul. I don’t know what the Kerwood’s future entails but I’m thinking that it doesn’t involve me. Speaking to that woman, Adelaide, made me realize just how much my crew really cares for the ship. We stayed to ourselves for so long, as if we had hamsters manning the engines.” He paused and shook his head as she stroked his hair, his face was lined with stress. “She and all the people that died were damn near insignificant to us. That makes me a poor leader, doesn’t it? I let my crew down, and now the same people who I’ve neglected have given us a chance to make it home.”
“Winn, that’s not true, it’s why you have Vega. She has always communicated to them that you appreciate their work.”
“That’s not the point though, is it? It’s what’s going on here,” he hit his chest. “I could barely remember Adelaide’s name, let alone the fellow members of her staff that died.”
Femke touched his cheek and kissed him again, letting the nails of her right hand comb gently through his messy hair. “What’s going on, Winn? You’re not yourself. What is really bothering you?”
Winchester Hayes let out a sigh as if he had been holding his breath the entire time. “My chest hurts, doll, my mouth stays dry, and my thoughts are all jacked up. I’ve seen some dark slag in my life, I’ve done my share, and I think it’s a wrap for Winchester Hayes.”
“Winn, you’re scaring me, what do you mean ‘a wrap’? Explain it to me as if I was eight years old.”
“From the time that explosion went off and I saw Angelo’s body, I knew that this was it. If I’m being honest it was only a matter of time, really. What do I got Femke, really? A junker ship hauling rocks back and forth to Earth territory. Hell of a life, right? People that do this have things back home that keep them grounded. A wife, kids, a nice piece of property … something that says, there’s more to life than the black. I lost all of that a long time ago to a drunk piece of slag, upset over losing his job.” He got quiet and looked at the bulkhead as if he could see through it.
“We have something, don’t we Winn? Isn’t what we have something to look forward to?”
“To be honest, Femke, before you asked that question, I didn’t really know that you considered this real. We’ve been sneaking around, getting it on, but I never knew what to think. May be too late for even us, Femke. We screwed up with the prisoners, Sayid was right about that, and they’re going to put that and the lost crew on me, one hundred percent. I’ll lose the Kerwood, that’s for sure, and if I’m lucky they’ll only throw me in a cell for about ten years.”
“Not if we make sure that those Matsue ‘guests’ of ours see the torture as something that you’re completely against. Have Adelaide take the fall for it, show them that you won’t have it. If they can be convinced to see this as a situational mess, the whole kidnapping bit will not have to be in play.”
“Come on, Femke, you know me better than that. You know that I would never sell her out. Adelaide acted out of loyalty, she was thinking about us. Sure, her methods are a little unorthodox, but she was looking out for the Kerwood.”
“Seems to me that you and Lady Marmalade have gotten a bit close—”
“If they’re going to put someone’s head in the noose I’ll happily give them mine. I’m responsible for what goes on here, anyway, so blaming her was never an option. As to the Matsue crew members, there’s no fixing that. Imagine if it was you, and they did that to us. You would be fired up about being forced to travel home inside of their rig.”
He sat on the floor and hugged his knees, feeling tired and worn. “Last ride of Captain, Winchester Hayes,” he said. “It was a good run. Sorry to sound so pitiful, but, it really hit me today, do you know what I mean?”
Femke plopped down in front of him, rubbing her ankles as she watched him brood. “I think this is the part where I tell you that no matter what happens I’m your first mate. I gotta tell you Winn, I’m not really okay. You’ve been through tragedy several times over, so you know how to find a way to move on. I fight second after second not to break down crying … for Booker, Angelo, and all the people who died. I don’t understand why I made it through, when so many, much more important people had to die.”
Winchester extended his hand and she took it readily, crawling to his side so that they could embrace. “It takes time, okay, but it’s a wound that never heals, just take your time and don’t blame yourself for it. Either way, I’ll be with you. Whatever you want. I’ll be with you, okay?” She sobbed into his shoulder and he kissed her in the top of her head, his body now numb with the acceptance of his fate.
When they were back on the bridge, the numbness still gripped him, but he went through the motions that were necessary. Picking up his transmitter, he connected to the ship’s system and spoke into his microphone with authority. “Kerwood, this is Captain Hayes, we’re twenty four Earth days until home. If that isn’t cause for celebration, I don’t know what is, so take a moment and let the reality of where we are sink in. Okay. Listen up. The crew members of the Matsue are to be treated as guests on this ship. We all have questions,” he paused and considered his words, “and we’re going to get answers, but let’s keep it classy and fair.
“For those of you who are confused about our decision to retake the Kerwood, let me tell you why. The Matsue Conglomerate wanted to take our supplies, all the work that we put our lives at risk to perform on Egeria-13. They were going to take our stores, and you were not going to get paid.
“Well, that doesn’t fly with me, many of you know this. I will not see our work be handed over to this ship that conveniently appeared right after a sabotage. Yes, I said sabotage, that wasn’t a freak accident, and someone is going to answer for what they have done. If you’re guilty, we will find out, but I offer terms to whomever did this, if you would but turn yourself in and save us the time.
“Come clean and I promise you that all I will do is hold you for the authorities back on Earth. If you force me to find you and take the coward’s way out, it won’t end well for you … that is all I have to say. Lastly, I need my Chief Engineer and Adelaide Bähr to meet me in the Med-Bay, ASAP. Victor Sharapov, and Marisol Vega, I need you there as well.” He replaced the intercom and rubbed his brow roughly with his hand.
“Mr. Schneider,” he announced, and Gauge turned expectedly. “You have the bridge until I return. This may be a lengthy interview, but maybe having Marisol there, we can make it quicker. Anyway, you have the bridge, just keep us on course while I deal with this slag.”