Science Fiction and Fantasy

Drifter

Recovery specialist Gil Rojers smiled grimly as he gazed out the starboard portal...

Drifter by Ryan Link

Recovery specialist Gil Rojers smiled grimly as he gazed out the starboard portal at the rod-shaped spacecraft in the distance. There it was, the Leaper 4, the very lost ship they had been chasing for two months. He squinted, trying to bring it into focus with his naked eyes, but from this vantage, three kilometers away, the craft appeared little more than an oblong speck of dust spinning aimlessly in space . . .

It was drifting, to be exact, crippled so that it was unable to steer or adjust its speed in order to alter course. All of Saturn Command’s analyses had agreed that the ship would never arrive at any inhabited body on its own accord and definitely not in time to save the passengers within. Starvation had claimed them weeks before.

“Command, we have visual on the craft. Requesting authorization for chem-rock stabilization,” said Rickard Luther, captain of the two-man crew. He scratched his graying sideburns and shook his foot as he spoke, a nervous twitch that Rojers had grown well accustomed to on their sixty-one-day journey.

“Please advise,” Luther said.

Rojers sighed and settled back in his seat; the reply from Neptune Station would be a while in coming. In the pilot’s chair, Luther crossed his legs and began chewing at his fingernails, producing a particularly aggravating noise. Rojers tried to block it out while he stared out into the void, waiting.

The better part of an hour passed before a voice broke out over the command cabin speakers. “Dewery, this is Command. Authorization granted. Use your MCR-5. It’s large enough to provide stabilization, and it should have enough left over to send the Leaper to the sun.”

Luther leaned forward and spoke. “Authorization received. Thank you, Command.”

The two men looked at each other at once. Rojers snorted and shook his head. “I still wonder why the old lady demanded sun disposal after recovery. It just seems overdone.”

Luther laughed and threw his hands up. “Yeah it’s a helluva thing to do. She must really want to get rid of that son-of-a-bitch . . . and his little plaything.”

Non-orbital recoveries were rare, and follow-on sun-disposal was almost unheard of. Both were extraordinarily expensive. When a recovery like this was called for, it usually meant that something on board the wayward vessel was disastrously irreplaceable. In this case, that something was purported to be a data chip implanted under the skin of a Mr. Lew Canang, the presumably late owner and captain of the Leaper 4.

His wife, Wi Canang, had been the one to order the recovery and had done so only hours after the ship had been declared a drifter. Mr. Canang, at that time, had still been in active communication with Saturn Command, and he had vigorously protested his wife’s decision to attempt a recovery on the chip. Strangely, he had refused to give any reason.

But one week later his motives became clear when a female passenger started to openly communicate with Saturn Command from on board the Leaper. She identified herself as his girlfriend, amidst pitiful and vain pleas for rescue. Mrs. Canang had little sympathy, though. She was irate, to say the least, and in an open display of revenge, immediately demanded the sun-disposal of Leaper and all its contents as soon as the chip was recovered.

In short order, the doomed pair of lovers and their ship were destined for the fiery heart of the sun. As the surviving owner of a drifting ship carrying unsavable passengers, Mrs. Canang, according to intra-solar treaty, had complete jurisdiction over its fate and the fate of the remains of those within, so no one was in a position to argue. The only thing left was for the employees of the Jovian Recovery and Deployment Corporation to carry out her wishes.

“I’m sending out the chem-rock,” Luther said.

Rojers watched him closely. Within a few seconds the white tube of a mobile chemical rocket floated into view through the left cabin view-port just behind Luther. There had been no external sign that Luther had given any command at all to the ship, something still unnerving to Rojers. Luther was fitted with an extra-biological interface chip–an EBIC, not entirely uncommon but still quite expensive. Their particular ship was the first one Rojers had ever crewed that allowed for complete EBIC control. He himself preferred command goggles and voice control, so far unwilling to hand access to his brain over to a computer.

A bright light flared through the view-port as the chem-rock set off for the Leaper. Rojers looked past his captain to observe its flight. When the mobile rocket had covered half the distance, the on-board thrusters spun and fired the opposite direction, decelerating the rocket for rendezvous with the other craft.

Soon, the rocket and the Leaper appeared so close it seemed as if they were touching, though the ship was still spinning. As programmed, the chem-rock’s thrusters fired in a prolonged burst that angled the rocket into a circular path, exactly in sync with the tip of the other ship. Seconds later, the thrusters went quiet.

“Rendezvous,” Luther said. “I’ll send the command to stabilize.”

The main engine of the rocket fired briefly, bringing the rotation of the Leaper to a sudden and complete halt. Luther turned from the view-port and smiled.

“Our turn.”

With that, the on-board ion drive awoke, pushing Rojers into his seat-back. As a matter of habit, he pulled down his command goggles and assessed the ship’s charge reserve. The tera-capacitors were still over half full, enough to get them back home to Neptune with plenty to spare. He felt comforted at that, though he knew well the frailty of their situation, and not just theirs, but anyone’s outside of planetary or lunar orbit. Mr. Canang and his girlfriend were fine examples of that.

Upon approach to the Leaper, Rojers began to make out a black scar and some shredded shielding at the rear of the ship near the main drive. According to the best assessment, an attitude thruster pressure tank had exploded, damaging the main engine and leaving the Leaper unable to decelerate toward the Saturn system, its original destination. As a result, the ship had sailed past Saturn and its moons, deeper into the outer solar system toward Neptune. The on-board food stores had lasted seventeen days from the time of engine failure, after which time the passengers starved over the course of two additional weeks. The girl on-board, Cyr Green, was the last to be heard from.

“I wonder what’s so important about this data chip in Canang’s arm,” Rojers said, raising his goggles.

Luther sucked in through his teeth. “I don’t know, but the Canang woman is shelling out a shit-storm of money for us to come get it.” He shrugged. “It’s the only thing she wants back from him . . . must mean something to her.”

Rojers chewed on his lip and stared out of his view-port. The tiny swirling crescent of Neptune shone back at him as he intensified the magnification of his goggles.

“But really, I’m more interested in seeing this girlfriend of his,” Luther said, smoothing his ponytail, which floated freely behind him. “She’s probably not much to look at these days, though.” He grinned and winked at Rojers, hoping for a laugh. But Rojers just wrinkled his nose and turned back to the distant glow of the blue giant.

Minutes passed in silence, broken only by Luther’s sporadic and habitual sniffling. Then the walls of the ship hissed with a number of short bursts. Rojers’s head swayed as the attitude adjusters imparted quick minor jolts of acceleration, angling them alongside the lost ship.

“OK, we’re here. I’m sending the mating boom,” Luther announced. Through his command goggles, Rojers watched the view from the camera at the tip of the boom as it telescoped out towards the Leaper, finally sliding into the mating receptacle near the airlock door.

“Command, we have made rendezvous,” Luther said. “Specialist Rojers will be making the recovery shortly. Requesting final authorization.” Leaning back, he pulled down his drinking tube and stuffed it between his lips. He turned to Rojers, and out of the corner of his mouth, he said, “Mind if I put on some tunes while we wait?”

Rojers narrowed his eyes and growled. “Fine . . . I guess.” Immediately, loud distorted guitar sounds erupted through the ship. Luther smiled.

During the next forty minutes, Rojers suited up and collected his gear under the pounding of Luther’s background music. At length, though, the raging melodies cut off, and the reply from Saturn Command played back. “Protocol dictates one final communication attempt. After that, you are cleared for recovery activities.”

Luther grunted under his breath. Then, politely he said, “Yes. Yes, of course.” He flipped off the communication channel. “Shit, they’re going to mark that one against me. Protocol, protocol,” he mocked. “As if there’s any chance these people are alive in there.”

Pursing his lips, Rojers reached under his seat and grabbed his helmet. “Still, got to call for them. Then I’ll go on over,” he said, lowering it over his head. As it snapped to the collar of his suit, a panel indicating suit integrity appeared in his goggle-view: all clear.

Luther let out an exaggerated sigh and hailed the ship one final time. “Leaper 4, Leaper 4, this is Captain Rickard Luther of the JDRC ship M. Dewery. Specialist Gil Rojers is preparing to board your craft. Please respond.”

The pair sat in silence for exactly one minute. As the time expired, Luther clapped once and said, “OK, buddy, it’s all you.”

Rojers snatched his worn-out tool bag and floated to the airlock door, just off the command cabin. “Wish me luck,” he said dryly. He gave a voice command, and the airlock door swung open. Pushing off from the opposite wall, he floated through the portal. Another command and the door swung shut, sealing with a dull thump. A rushing sound enveloped him as the chamber emptied of air. By the time he had made one final check of his tools, the outer door began to open, revealing the fifty-foot boom connecting the two ships. He latched himself onto the magnetic collar and relaxed as the hitch carried him to the other ship.

Following a moment of smooth deceleration, he found himself at the entrance to the Leaper. Rojers instructed his goggles to request airlock access, which was immediately granted. With practiced skill, he made his way through the airlock cycle and into the command cabin of the Leaper.

“All right, Luther, I’m in. No sign of Canang or the girl so far. You patched into my suit cam?” he said inside his helmet.

“Yep. What you see, I see,” Luther replied, “piped right into the EBIC and into the old noodle.”

“Lovely,” Rojers said, scanning his surroundings. The command cabin of the Leaper was dim and silent, though a few lonely red lights still flashed on the main control panel. The navigation equipment was all turned off. Rojers’s goggles told him that the air inside was breathable and that the temperature was on the low end of comfortable, but he kept his suit sealed, not wanting to smell the stench of death that must certainly be in the air.

Pulling himself along the wall, he made his way to the main ladder and looked up. A brightly lit, tubular passageway loomed above him past an open portal. He could see little but white walls.

“They must be up there,” Luther said over the comm channel. “Below you, the door only leads to the capacitor bank and water storage.”

Rojers looked down, found a closed hatch, and nodded silently. He had studied the general schematic for this particular ship design many times during his training as well as on previous missions. It was fairly small; in addition to the main command cabin, there were two bedrooms, one kitchenette, and one bathroom.

“Up it is then,” Rojers said, grasping a rung of the ladder. His suit was cumbersome and made climbing difficult, but eventually he made it through the overhead portal and into the vertical passageway. Once inside, he twisted to the side to look in the first door, the bathroom. It was empty.

“Bathroom clear. Carrying on.”

A little higher up, the second door, the one leading to the kitchenette, was closed, but he ignored it.

“I’m gonna keep going on up. Hopefully they’re in one of the bedrooms,” he said and climbed onward. Arriving at the third door, he turned and pressed down and inward on the handle, but nothing happened.

“Hmmm. First bedroom is locked.”

“Great. You mean those bastards locked themselves in there to die?” Luther said.

Rojers asked his goggles to request the Leaper to open the door, but the ship demanded the general pass-code. “Let me check the other bedroom. If they’re not in there I’ll check the kitchenette,” Rojers said, pulling himself hand-over-hand farther up the hall. The second bedroom was open, but it was almost entirely empty. He laughed at a single plastic chair floating in the center of the room. During a normal transit, interplanetary ships like this were either under small constant acceleration or deceleration, providing a gravity vector. They were not designed for weightless habitation in general, though usually, most major items were bolted down.

“All right, back to the kitchen. See if you can get Command to request an override pass-code for this ship from the manufacturer . . . in case we have to get in that room.”

“Aye aye.”

Rojers spun fully around to face the opposite direction and started back down the vertical hall. But from his new perspective he noticed something he had missed on his way up: red smears on the inside of the bulkhead separating the hall from the command cabin. Instantly he recognized it as blood. Some of his recoveries had involved the violently dead and even the murdered, so Rojers was well acquainted with the look of multiple bodily fluids.

“We’ve got blood,” he said. Glancing up and down the hall, he noticed even more, smeared here and there. “Damn, one of them must have been really hurt.”

“Could’ve been a suicide attempt,” Luther suggested. “Or maybe they killed each other.”

“True.” Rojers continued on past the locked bedroom door toward the kitchenette. Bracing himself for the sight of death, he pushed the door in. It peeled away from the interior wall with a sticky sucking sound. What appeared within was not death, directly, but something altogether more troubling. The kitchenette was coated in numerous swaths of dried blood, some containing the imprint of a human hand.

“Whoa!” Rojers cried out, pulling the door shut.

“What the hell was that?” Luther yelled over the comm channel.

“I don’t . . .,” Rojers began, but he was interrupted by the sound of the locked bedroom door opening. He looked up, and in a rare instance of vertigo, he felt dizzy and nauseated. Terror gripped him as a human hand wrapped around the lip of the portal and a disheveled and feral-looking woman peeked out.

“Holy shit, Luther! She’s alive in here!”

drifterknife

Image Courtesy of Anna Trang

Her eyes bulged wide with fury, and her jaw trembled. “Get out!” she screamed, bearing a kitchen knife, crusty with dried blood.

“Hold on, lady! I’m here to help,” Rojers said over his suit speakers, ducking partly into the kitchen. But the woman didn’t wait. Instead, she swung from the bedroom and clawed her way down the ladder toward the kitchen, slashing ahead of her. Rojers retreated, scurrying into the kitchen and pulling the door shut. He cranked the deadbolt lever, and it engaged with a clang.

“What? Did you say she’s alive in there,” Luther asked, clearly agitated.

“Yes! She’s got a knife. She came at me,” Rojers replied. His heartbeat sounded in his helmet.

“Impossible.”

“Apparently not,” Rojers said, rummaging through his tool bag. “Damn, I left the stunner in the ship. You’ll have to suit up and bring it over. We have to stun her and get her back on board the Dewery.”

Luther’s breath hitched in his chest. “Excuse me? You said she slashed at you with a knife, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, she’s not coming aboard this ship. Are you crazy?”

A sharp banging sound rang through the portal of the kitchenette coupled with a hateful, ragged scream that caused Rojers to jump in his suit. After collecting himself, he leaned in towards the door. “Cyr?” he asked. “Can you hear me?”

The sound of metal on metal reverberated through the kitchen. It sounded like she was stabbing the door with the knife.

“Cyr, we are here to help you.”

For a moment the banging stopped, and there was silence. Then she said, “Help? Why? Don’t you know?”

“Know what?” Rojers asked as calmly as he could manage.

“There’s no saving us. No one can make it in time.” Cyr mumbled something and began chanting, “. . . two weeks of food . . . two weeks of food . . .” Soon, the metallic knocking resumed, and Rojers turned from the door.

He looked down and put his hands on his hips. “You know we have to attempt to save her. We are bound by convention,” he said to Luther. “We can’t leave her here.”

Luther was silent for a moment and then moaned.

Rojers continued, “You’ll have to suit up anyway to come stun her whether we take her back or not. I’m not risking injury trying to get out past her. We’re a good month out from Neptune. If she cuts me bad . . .”

“Shit. Fine. Give me a few minutes.” The comm channel popped closed.

Rojers took a deep breath and looked around, marveling at the sheer amount of blood. Most was smeared on one surface or another, but some floated around in dried clumps. In the center of the kitchenette sat one bolted-down plastic table and four thin, wiry chairs. Some plates and silverware hung in the air near the refrigerator unit. Rojers paused and listened; the refrigerator was still humming. His interest piqued, he picked his way towards it, attempting to steer clear of the blood.

Once in front of it, he bent over and tugged at the door. It resisted, but he strained against it, grunting. On the third attempt it swung open, and after a few seconds, the internal light woke.

What he saw within was at first confusing, not registering with any of his past experience. However, once he realized what he was looking at, he gagged; the chunks of meat inside were human body parts. Quickly, he slammed the door shut and tried to squelch his reflex to retch by coughing.

“Luther,” he said hoarsely.

In a moment there came an irritated reply. “Yeah, I’m suiting up. I’m coming.”

“She’s been eating Canang. That’s how she’s alive. Pieces of him are all in the fridge.”

The low hiss of background noise filled the comm channel.

“Say again,” Luther said.

Rojers swallowed and said it again.

“Are you sure?” Luther asked.

Rojers opened the refrigerator once more and inspected the chunks. Canang’s hands and feet were in the top bin; his worn and scratched wedding ring reflected the interior light. In the bottom bin an unidentifiable mound of flesh sat next to what appeared to be a half-consumed arm.

“Uh huh. I’m sure.”

Luther was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “You know what’s happening? I’ve heard of this. She’s got isolation madness. That’s what’s happening. She’s been on that ship waiting to die for two months, spinning. And she’s been eating her lover. She’s lost it, man!”

“Yeah, maybe. Just come stun her so we can get on with this,” Rojers said. “In the meantime, I guess I have to see if the chip is here.”

Hesitantly, he reached in and grabbed what was left of Mr. Canang’s arm. It was soft and yielded sickeningly under his gloved grasp. From what he could make out of the forearm and the angle of the elbow, it seemed like the left arm. That was the one they wanted.

Rojers twisted at the waist and, with his other hand, felt through his tool bag. After a moment, he pulled a thin metallic wand loose and waved it over the mangled limb. Nothing. Even as he rotated the arm under the sweeping stick, he garnered no response.

“Wonderful,” he said. “The chip isn’t in his arm. She must have eaten it.”

“Figures,” Luther said. “That’s a third of the contract, you know?”

“Yes, I am aware of that,” Rojers said under his breath. “Why are you not here yet?”

“I’m on the boom. Once we get her sedated, we need to find that chip.”

Rojers didn’t answer. The chip was about one millimeter square–nearly impossible to identify with the naked eye. There was a chance they would have to sweep the entire ship with the proximity probes, something that would likely take a day or two. Rojers pinched his brow at the thought of having to check the human waste dehydration tanks. But that was the next likeliest place.

Rojers snapped his head to the side as Cyr’s banging stopped. Letting go of the arm, he nudged it away with the back of his hand.

“Where are you?” he asked into the comm channel.

“I’m entering the Leaper’s airlock. Where is this bitch?”

Rojers listened but heard nothing. “I don’t know. I can’t hear her anymore. Just cycle the airlock and open the door, but don’t come out. Have the stunner ready.”

“Yep,” Luther replied. A distant rushing sound came over the comm channel as Luther filled the airlock. “Here goes,” he said. Rojers waited, holding his breath. After a number of seconds, though, his diaphragm began to ache and he sucked in. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“Nothing. It’s really dark. I’m requesting that all ship lighting be turned on.”

A few auxiliary lights flickered to life in the kitchenette causing Rojers to glance around. The half-eaten arm had come to rest against a far wall.

“OK, I see into the command cab . . . shit!” Luther said. Rojers heard the muted thump of the stun gun firing, loosing a projectile loaded with a quick-drop electric charge and a strong sedative. Then he heard it again . . . and again. Something was wrong. Luther screamed, and the sound of more rounds being fired echoed through the door and the comm channel.

Finally, silence.

“Luther?” Rojers asked. “Luther, are you OK?” His voice carried tones of panic.

“Yeah, I got her,” Luther responded, breathless. “Before I knew it . . . she had my arm . . . and she started sawing at it. Suit says it’s OK, though.” He breathed in deeply and exhaled. “For fuck’s sake, man . . . I’ve never seen nothing like this before.”

The sheer absurdity of it all made Rojers chuckle as he pulled open the kitchenette door and floated into the hall. Below, in the command cabin he saw the puffy, suited form of his shipmate and waved. Luther held up one hand in response while the other fumbled to re-holster his stunner. Cyr floated nearby, her hair a wild, stringy mass.

“That should keep her out for a few hours at least,” Rojers said as he crawled through the hallway portal and down to the command cabin. “Did you bring a vac-bag so we can take her back over the boom?”

Luther’s faceless helmet nodded.

“Good. I’ve got some ties we can secure her with once we get her over there.”

Rojers dug in his tool bag, grabbed a second proximity probe and handed it to Luther. “Here. I say we go back and scan the kitchenette for the chip before moving to waste storage.”

“No objection from me,” Luther said, holding the probe out like an alien artifact.

“Switch is on the base of the handle,” Rojers said with a private smirk.

Luther grunted, turned the device on its head, and mashed the tiny white pushbutton. Immediately, his probe began to scream. In response, he waved it back and forth and side to side, causing the wail to undulate.

“Here, give it back,” Rojers said, holding out his hand.

The noise stopped as Luther handed it over.

“Huh, that’s weird.”

The two juggled it back and forth, and every time, the probe signaled as Luther took it. Rojers stood and stared in confusion until the obvious sprang forth.

“It’s gotta be by you,” he said. “The chip, I mean.”

At that, Luther began to look around him, as if to find the chip by sight, flailing the probe about as he searched. Rojers watched for a while, noticing a pattern in the signal volume. His stomach lurched as he realized what was happening, but he also felt a wash of relief.

“Turn around,” he said. “No . . . yeah, yeah, that way.”

Luther froze as the electronic wail reached a climax. “No way,” he said. The tip of the metallic probe reached out to a point only inches from Cyr’s abdomen.

“There you have it,” Rojers said. “Let’s bag her up.”

Luther laughed incredulously, reaching into his pack for the vacuum bag. While he worked to free it, Rojers floated over to Cyr and spun her around so that she was face up. Her fingernails were long and covered with a brownish-red crust. She wore loose pants and a stained and ripped T-shirt. She was filthy, and Rojers was glad he couldn’t smell her from within his suit. Still, he had to admit that Canang had good taste in mistresses. With a bath and some mental rehabilitation, she just might recover.

Curious, Rojers activated his probe and swept it over her body. It seemed that the signal was the loudest at a point right beneath her belly button. Implantable data chips were made to survive indefinitely in the human body, and this one was no different. It was possible she would expel it at some point, but it was most likely latched on to the wall of her intestine. A pinpoint surgical extraction would be necessary in that case–something that could only be done after they arrived at Neptune Station. Admittedly, Rojers was glad at the speed with which they had located the chip, but he couldn’t help feeling an inkling of anxiety at the prospect of keeping a prisoner on the Dewery for a number of weeks.

“All right, here,” Luther said, handing one end of the unfolding vacuum bag to Rojers. The shape-memory material was smooth to the touch, flexible, and easy to handle. Together, the two men maneuvered Cyr into an upright position and started bagging her from the bottom. The loosely fitting vac-bag glided easily over her feet and up her legs with hardly a hitch. But as they reached her hips, a ragged inhaling sound erupted, and Cyr’s body arched. Before they could react, she kicked the bag away and attacked Luther in a mad, primal fury. Both men screamed.

Cyr wrapped herself around Luther, arms encircling his shoulders, legs squeezing just below his waist.

“Get her off,” Luther screamed. From the side, Rojers pulled at her arms and struggled to slip his thick gloved hand between the combatants, but he couldn’t. There was nowhere to gain any leverage, besides. So he took to pounding at her head. He continued his barrage for a good twenty seconds, though his padded fists seemed to be having little effect. Then, suddenly, she coiled and kicked off of Luther, sending them floating apart. Rojers’s face contorted with shock as Cyr lifted her hand and pointed the stun gun directly at Luther. Rojers reached for her and grasped her ankle, but he was too late. A rapid series of pops exploded as she emptied the weapon.

When the noise abated, Rojers clamped down with his fists and pulled at her leg, twisting at the same time. Her body spun in response and lurched toward him. As her torso came within reach, he wrapped his arms around her from behind and squeezed.

With Cyr flailing in his grasp, he turned his head to look at his companion. Luther had definitely been shot; his faceplate showed numerous impact points wreathed in spiderwebs of cracked glass.

Rojers cried out. “Luther!” Spittle spotted the inside glass of his helmet as he screamed, “Are you with me?”
“Luther! Are you OK?”

Rojers felt a wave of relief when Luther finally moaned in reply. Rojers checked Luther’s suit condition on his own goggles. It had lost integrity but had apparently absorbed all of the projectiles. He was lucky; that many rounds could easily kill a man.

“Wake up!” Rojers yelled as he struggled with Cyr. She was loud and raging. Her fists and feet swung wildly, slamming into his legs and helmet with each pass. There was little else he could do, though, besides calling out to Luther, trying to rouse him.

Only after a number of further attempts did the first intelligible reply come. “What happened?”

Rojers spoke quickly but clearly, as best he could with the mad woman in his arms. “You were shot, but you’re OK. Your suit was damaged. You have to get in the bag so we can get you back.”

“Huh?”

“Get in the vac-bag!”

“The bag?”

“The bag! Get in it!”

Luther grabbed the wadded up vac-bag and began a groggy attempt to straighten it.

“Hurry,” Rojers cried. His mind reeled and his arms burned, barely maintaining the force he needed to control the woman. Still, somehow he managed to keep ahold of her until Luther was able to slide the bag up to his neck.

“OK, I’ve got to let her go if we’re going to get out of here,” Rojers said. Even through the suit, her kicking and clawing was beginning to hurt.

Luther sealed the bag over his head and replied, “Do it quick.”

With all he could muster, Rojers heaved Cyr toward the ceiling, sending himself crashing into the floor a few feet away. She made a thump as she hit the bulkhead above, but almost immediately she began scrambling to grab hold of something solid.

Rojers looked ahead and kicked off the floor toward Luther, who, thankfully, was in the path to the airlock. As Rojers flew past, he grabbed hold of the lip of the vac-bag, tugging Luther along at half his original speed. In seconds they approached the airlock door, and Rojers clasped the lever.

As he rotated the handle, he looked above and behind him. Somehow Cyr had reoriented herself and was clawing her way around the perimeter of the command cabin. His eyes widened in shock, as she pushed off from the far wall and flew, wailing, straight for them. The kitchen knife was stretched out in front of her. Luther screamed from the bag; what Rojers saw, he saw.

Frantically, Rojers pushed the door open and tossed Luther through it, into the airlock. Luther yelled something into the comm channel, but Rojers made no attempt to reply; Cyr was on him. She slashed and thrust at his faceplate with a horrible ferocity. The sound inside was deafening each time the knife made contact.

Fearing gravely for his suit and himself, Rojers kicked and clamored his way backwards into the airlock. Once fully inside, he verbally commanded the ship to open the outer door, but it refused, citing the open state of the inner door, currently blocked by Cyr. He growled as she continued to assail him. It was time to end this.

Filled with adrenaline, he thrust his hand into his tool bag. His fingers fumbled around for precious seconds until they found what they were looking for. With a deep guttural cry, he swung his hand loose and slammed Cyr in the face with a stainless steel socket wrench. Blood and teeth splattered against the inner wall of the airlock, and the woman floated back into the main cabin, unconscious. Rojers pulled the inner door closed and re-commanded the ship to open into space.

Air rushed out and the outer door swung open, revealing the boom and, at the other end, the Dewery. The vac-bag became rigid under his grasp, protecting its contents against the harsh lack of atmosphere. Hurriedly, Rojers fought to attach them both to the hitch. Before he could, however, another torrent of air rushed by, pushing them fully out of the airlock and free of the Leaper. Rojers barely managed to wrap his arm around the boom, saving them from being tossed loose. His other arm held tight to the bagged mass of his captain.

“What was that?” Luther cried.

Rojers thought he knew, but he couldn’t believe it. Would she really? Was she completely suicidal?
He got his answer when Cyr’s insane form squirmed into the airlock chamber. Blood spewed from her face into weightlessness, forming blobs of floating liquid.

“Holy shit! She opened the inner door,” Rojers screamed out. “She’s coming out into vacuum.”

With astonishing dexterity Cyr closed the inner door against the still escaping air and leaped from the ship, latching hold of Rojers’ flailing feet. She hung there, gagging and gasping for air, but still swinging the knife at his legs. How long would his suit hold up to this? He kicked and twisted, but she hung on.

“I can’t get her off! She’s gonna get through the suit!”

Luther called out from the bag. “The hell she will. Hold on!”

Rojers redoubled his grasp, unquestioning. Through his gloved hands, the boom vibrated as if something had happened on one of the ships. Seconds later a blinding flash erupted from below him, causing him to close his eyes and clench his entire body.

And then, Cyr was gone.

Rojers screamed with joy, reopening his eyes and scanning all around him. In the distance, he watched as the white hot torch of a small chemical rocket rose up from behind the Leaper and made a wide arc around the two ships. The lifeless form of a human body was draped over its nose. He laughed uncontrollably, regaining his composure after nearly a full minute.

At last he said, “Rickard Luther! You could’ve warned me you were going to do that.”

“I did,” Luther responded flatly. “I told you to hold on.”

Rojers closed his eyes and breathed deeply. “You and your damn EBIC . . .”

Free of assault, he hitched them to the boom, and they rode smoothly back to the Dewery.

* * *

Once safely aboard and fully unsuited, Rojers strapped himself into the chair next to Luther. The captain motioned to the overhead view-port.

“Look. She’s away . . . next stop, the sun.”

Rojers glanced up and saw the Leaper sailing past, angling starward under the powerful guidance of the MCR-5.

“Good riddance,” he said, massaging his eyes.

With a chuckle, Luther reclined in his chair, and the ion engine flared to life at the tail of the ship. There was only one more outstanding item to address before they could head back to Neptune, and both men knew what it was. Luther tilted his head and spoke from the corner of his mouth. “All right, man, let’s scoop up that corpse and get the holy hell outta here.”
 

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