The inside of Gayle’s environment suit was already becoming uncomfortable as he clambered over the refuse of five or six generations of human habitation. He marvelled at how much crap people produced in such as short space of time. He carefully avoided sharp edges that might penetrate his suit and abruptly end his meaningless life. At the base of the cliff, directly under Arega’s base, were all kinds of artefacts that might have found themselves in a museum were it any other time. Gayle was searching for anything of use, having been given permission by Arega himself to take whatever they required to repair Achilles.
He breathed heavily, “I’m going to take a look at that liner.”
“Roger. Switch on your headCam,” Meron replied.
Gayle spared a glance up the towering cliff to where he knew she was observing his progress. Though he couldn’t see her directly he felt comfort at the thought she was there. Meron had convinced the others to enjoy Arega’s hospitality while they overhauled the ship so he was relying upon her should anything happen. He started to hum a tune he hadn’t since before Phobos.
The liner was an antique of a romantic time when the solar system was still virgin territory, when such defenceless ships could plough the lanes between Jupiter and Earth unaccosted by pirates. Gayle examined the wreck looking for the tell-tale signs: blast marks. Here they were like scars on pristine skin, great blackened slashes puncturing the hull. The pirates had been good at their work. He ran his gloved mitt over the hull reading the story of the vessel’s downfall.
He reached a titanic split in the side of the liner and peered within, his head-lamp illuminated the interior. It was some kind of mess hall. Tables and chairs, covered in filmy layer of dust, lay strewn and broken on the floor. Slouched on one of the nearby chairs was slung a ruddy jacket faded with age which crumpled under his outstretched hand. He flinched back as human bones drifted weightlessly onto the floor. Now he saw many other jackets scattered about the room and it dawned on him the ship was a tomb. It was an ironic epitaph, a violent end to a more peaceful time.
“Stop messing about.” Meron ordered over his comDev. He’d forgotten she could see everything he was doing through his headCam.
“Alright, keep your panties on,” he replied. Inwardly he imagined what type of panties she wore and then shook the thought away.
Moving through the wreckage he found a sealed doorway that at first refused to budge. Grabbing hold of a broken chair leg he levered it open. Inside the doorway ran a corridor which was clean and as pristine as the day the ship crashed. He followed it to starboard and soon found it ended at a lift the door s of which were jammed shut. He looked for the emergency stairs but where they should have been was a rocky outcrop that had tore through the hull during its crash.
Meron interrupted his train of thought, “You’ll have to force the doors and descend the shaft. The engineering deck should be the floor below you.”
“Thanks. Patch though a map to my visor screen,” He replied. Beetle had managed to download a generic plan for the liner – they were publicly available on Juno satNet along with a couple of thousand other blueprints; so far this one matched the plan perfectly.
Using the same chair leg he forced the lift doors open and peered anxiously over the edge. It was not a long drop but there were broken bits of wreckage jutting like barbed teeth from the shaft walls, if he caught his suit on anything it could tear open and he would be history.
“Damn it’s getting hot in here.” His own voice, amplified inside his helmet, heightened his sense of claustrophobia.
“What are you waiting for?” Meron urged him on.
“You only live once.” He complained. After a few baulks he lept for it, grabbing the lift cable as he fell, using it to control his decent.
“Not so bad.” He said as he drifted down; his shallow breathing betrayed his anxiety.
At the bottom of the shaft he landed close to the lift doors that lay splayed open and broken as if smashed from by a giant. With a grunting effort he clambered between and over them and found himself in a corridor that was marked with a red-lettered sign, which he read aloud, “Engineering – no unauthorised personnel beyond this point.”
“I’m not sure I’m authorised to proceed.” He joked.
“Yeah, yeah, you’re a funny man. Keep moving.” She replied. He could tell she was doing something else at the same time.
“Come on, that was funny, you should laugh at least. How about a giggle?” he complained. Meron wasn’t a giggler.
“Ha. Ha.” She responded flatly though he could tell there was at least some humour in her voice.
“So what are we going to do if we get this drive to work anyhow?”
“Well, let’s say it gives us options. For one thing Meyconte won’t be able to catch us.”
Gayle snorted, “as long as we don’t land anywhere. We could just sell the ship and buy the protection of another warlord?”
“I don’t think any other warlord would want to go up against Meyconte.” Meron said. “Let’s just get it working first.”
He advanced down the corridor into a vaulted semicircular chamber, it was filled with an array of heavy equipment. In the centre, an entanglement of coils and wires trapped the skeletal remains of one poor soul who had died at his post. Above this grisly scene a series of panels hung open.
“This place has already been done over.” He scanned around, pulling on several of the loose cables that had at one point been attached to something important. He read through the labels on each panel as he explored further into the room.
“The avoidance systems are missing, so are three of the shield generators – there is one left but it’s damaged, I’ll see if it’s worth taking. I can use some of the optical cables anyhow.”
“Damn. What about the nav computer?” Meron asked.
“That’ll be on the computer deck.”
“I’ll mark it on your map, updating that now.” The map refreshed on his screen and both his current position and the position of the ship’s mainframes were marked.
He clipped out cables he thought might be usable as well as the remaining shield generator coil and placed them into his pack, had he been in an earth-like gravity it would have been impossible to lift but as they were in the vacuum of space it required only a fraction of the strength otherwise required.
With little difficulty he found the mainframes, they were enormous and outdated but the deep space navigation software and data were still of use; these old liners had massive databases in case they veered off course by accident – with billions of objects to avoid when travelling at high speeds it was vital to have a good catalogue of what lay ahead. He examined the system and powered it up using a portable power source which he connected with a minimum of fuss, it would give him a few minutes power to check it out; there was no point taking it if it was dead. Gayle nodded with satisfaction as the system booted up and its screen flashed to life.
The screen displayed the immediate region of space around them, the other Trojan asteroids marked dimly – he noted a few dots – some marked with question marks, others with a class of vessel. He scaled out to see Jupiter and its moons – a mass of dots appeared. “Juno is busy today.”
“The database looks good, copy it off.” Meron ordered.
The ship’s system of course was protected, but fortunately the encryption string was short enough for the cracking software on his comDev to bypass in a couple of minutes. He downloaded the contents and detached his device. He was about to remove the portable power when the screen flashed red for a second and zoomed out so that he could see the whole system. “What the…?”
“what is it?”
“Not sure,” He stared at the screen confused, “maybe some kind of error?”
On the edge of the screen, well beyond the Oort cloud, appeared an arc of large dots each with question marks. There must have been thousands.
“What are those?”Meron said.
He zoomed in but the screen blacked out before he got a good look. “Damn, out of power.”
“Nevermind, it must have been a some kind of anomaly – nothing is out that far, let along a whole fleet.” Meron said. “You may as well pack up and head back.”
“Ok, I’ll see you shortly.” Gayle replied. He couldn’t think what might have caused such a strange anomaly but put it out of his mind and set off back to the base.
“You’re very brave,” Saran said brushing back a lock of her wild brunette hair. She sat watching Gayle as he stripped out of his gear. When he’d come in the airlock of the base she had been there to greet him.
He turned red with embarrassment, “I’m no hero, trust me.”
She came over to him, “You’re very modest too. Here, let me help you with that.”
He allowed her to unzip his inner suit, a skin-tight polymer layer that had kept him warm outside the ship, now it was warm with his sweat. She slipped a hand over his shoulder and let it linger meaningfully on his chest. “You know, it’s lonely out here…”
She placed one leg between his and pressed herself against him lightly. It surprised him and it must have showed on his face as she responded with an impish grin. His gaze flickered down to her breasts. “Ahh, yes.”
She stepped back, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to unsettle you – I’m just – “
“Lonely?” He laughed.
“Quite.” She grinned and taking his response as an agreement to take the situation further, pressed against him again, this time more urgently.
Damn he was confused. The woman was making it very clear she wanted to fuck him but to him it felt wrong somehow. He knew it had to do with Meron and their relationship. What relationship? There was no relationship there – Meron made it clear she wanted nothing from him. Why should he feel limited by her. He felt angry even, like she was deliberately creating these feelings within him.
He gently pushed her away, holding her shoulders, “Look, I’m sorry. I like you a lot…”
Saran looked downcast, “…but?”
“…but I’m confused at the moment.” he shrugged.”I don’t know what I want.”
She gave him a half smile and touched his nose, “I know what you need, but I can wait till you work it out.”
“Thanks,” he sighed and she turned and left to his thoughts.
Gayle took his time making his way back up to Arega’s bar. He detoured past many abandoned parts of the base. A number of the accommodation wings were completely sealed off and all of the themed amusements shut down, he recalled most of these had been idle when his family had visited it twenty five years ago.
As he approached the bar he noticed that there was a bit of activity, music was blaring and party lights were spraying prisms of colour over a group of figures who were dancing recklessly. In the middle of the clone girls he spied Weavel groping their half-naked bodies. What surprised him however was Ty amongst them. One strap of her singlet hung over her shoulder while her head swung rhythmically with the pulsing music, her eyes glazed.
Arega greeted him at the open doorway with snake-like charm, “Ah, the intrepid salvager returns! We started a little party, care to join us?”
Gayle returned a nervous smile as he spotted Norton slumped in one of the booths; a scattering of various pills and vials littered the table in front of him.
“The old man can’t handle my wares it seems,” Arega sighed. “Your other friends are letting their hair down.”
“Wares?” Gayle looked at him confused, he glanced around looking for Meron, though he couldn’t see her anywhere.
“My dear fellow, how else do you think I afford to live here?” Arega waved grandiosely. “Care to try a free sample of my latest product?”
Gayle shrugged at the drug dealer, “Maybe later.”
“Suit yourself but your missing out,” Arega replied, though he peered at the greaser with cold eyes. “Excuse me wont you, I for one hate to miss a party. Help yourself to anything behind the bar – the whiskey is particularly good – there’s a good single malt.”
Drugs never settled well with Gayle, he knew all too well how easily he might become addicted – his dependency on alcohol was proof enough of that, and his bad experiences with other friends too… friends who were no longer friends.
He watched Arega drift across the dance floor. Incredulously, approaching Ty, the man ran his hand through her short-cropped hair and, lifting her slumped head, kissed her full on the lips. He then grabbed one of the other girls and escorted them both towards a nearby booth, stumbling as they went, where they disappeared into shadow.
The whole situation seemed totally bazaar to Gayle and he couldn’t grasp why the crew would put themselves in such a vulnerable position, especially as they hardly knew the man, but they had been under a heap of misery lately and he couldn’t really fault them for relaxing given the chance. Hell knew he need a break. His eyes drifted to the bar, surely one glass wouldn’t hurt?
Just as Arega had said he found the whiskey on a glass shelf behind the bar. A lonely bottle with a hand-scrawled label identifying its contents greeted him. Ah, Moonshine, where ya been old friend? Gayle thought wistfully. He unscrewed the cap and took a whiff, the aroma sent unhappy memories flooding into his brain like wet concrete. The old demons. Carelessly he took an experimental swig from the bottle then, as an afterthought, snatched a shot glass.
He settled into one of the booths and poured the shot. This glass he left untouched and instead took a long draught from the bottle. A few minutes later his body fell into a comfortable numbness and the world grew distant and blinked out.
Gayle awoke confused and without an idea of how much time had passed, he was spread-eagled face down on the floor, his head in a puddle of his own drool. What the hell was wrong with him? He always handled his whiskey. Around him the party had died, though the music continued to blare to the stale room. In the middle of the bar he spotted Weavel’s carrot-coloured hair. The stooge was sprawled half-naked on the dance floor, he was unconscious with a clone girl under each arm. The rest of the crew were nowhere to be seen, at least as far his bleary mind could make out.
He pushed himself up got to his feet and immediately fell against a wall, smashing a low-light with his elbow. What the hell did I drink? He held his head. In his stupor he stumbled through the bar, bouncing off furnishings. The next instant he was at the base of some stairs leading up to a mezzanine. At the top he thought he saw a shifting figure beckoning him. It was Meron, her dark hair flowing freely over a shimmering chiffon, but the room spun out of control and he had to look down in his giddiness; he steadied himself to stop the nausea. By the time he looked up again she was gone.
He began to feel an odd euphoria growing inside of him. Damn drink – spiked! On all fours he somehow negotiated the stairs, his heart thumped in his chest driven by desire. The mezzanine was darkened and in the dimness he could just make out a blissfully-sleeping outline on a couch. Meron, he thought; his vision of her twisted and spun wildly. As he approached she stirred and his dull senses detecting something different about her, about the way she moved – it was sultry and more feminine than he expected. Any deep thought was silenced as she reached out a hand and touched his lips drawing him down next to her.
Gayle opened his eyes with the sensation that he was being watched. Over him, with arms folded, Meron stood like a statue. It was a savage look that could kill and one he’d seen before. He tried to blink away his stupor, to remember what he did wrong. Her flushed face quickly changed to unreadable and she spoke mechanically, “If you’ve quite finished here there’s work to do.”
“Wha?” Gayle stammered, he floundered in the couch on which he had been sleeping. His brain finally caught up with his senses and he became aware of the curve of flesh under his numb arm. Saran began to stir and nestled into his shoulder. It slowly dawned on him that in his drunken state he’d mistaken the two woman. He felt sick, how could he be so stupid?
Saran’s eyes popped open at the disturbance and she drew up a twisted blanket over her naked body. “Oh! Do you mind?”
Meron blinked with embarrassment. She backed away flustered.
Gayle sat up and tried to piece together what had happened. “I, err…this isn’t…”
“It’s no concern to me,” Meron said coolly. He went to get up, completely forgetting he was naked.
“For Hesu’s sake, put some clothes on!” She turned abruptly then charged off down the stairs.
Saran sat up next to him and kissed his back. She slid her hands slow and deliberate around his hips, “Oh, don’t worry about her, she’ll get over it. Last night was wonderful.”
He tried not to flinch and turned to face her, but he couldn’t hold her gaze. How can I tell her I slept with the wrong girl? What an arse-hole, no doubt about it, he scolded himself. Instead he over- smiled, “yeah, it was wonderful.”
It was a full week before Gayle had the drive completely fitted into Achilles – it had been a mission to get in into the confined engine room and an even greater challenge to link it in to all the various systems without frying the whole deal. He shuffled back, as far as he was able and admired his handiwork. It was a hack-job no doubt about it but it was the first Near-Light-Speed capable vessel in over 200 years. He might even go down in the archives of humankind, he thought proudly, that is if anyone ever found out about it. It was sad he wasn’t going to get to enjoy the glory of it. Meyconte would take care of that.
Meron had hardly spoken to him in the past few days. Saran on the other hand had made it clear that she had claimed him, at every opportunity she appeared next to him with some meal or treat that she had whipped up. He was enjoying the pampering, he’d never been treated finer. However, the claustrophobic feeling made him squirm in his skin. It was a male instincts not to be trapped he supposed; or maybe it was just that he’d always been a drifter? Either way he’d never let a woman tie him down. Part of this attitude came out of seeing his parents open dislike of one another – he wondered if they had ever liked one another. What was the point of that?
Ty appeared on the access ladder, sombre and bleary-eyed, chewing on a protein bar. She nodded to Gayle, “What’d you do to it?”
She had been notably absent and quiet during the past week. Over the past month he’d come to the conclusion that she preferred the company of woman, just like him. He’d caught her checking out both Saran and Meron in the same way he did. But he’d been surprised to find her the night of the party with both Weavel and Arega. Perhaps she liked both sexes? Either way he was finding a bond with the hard-nosed warrior; he guessed it was because they found solace in how screwed up each others lives were.
He casually waved the spanner in his hand, “installed a few parts from the wrecked liner.” Neither he nor Meron had let on to any of the others that they had taken one of the NLS drives from The Ares.
“Looks like a monster.” She examined it warily. There was no way to hide that it was a different drive, especially with the old one was sitting right next to it. “So you completely replaced it?”
Gayle laughed. “Yeah, it was well past it’s prime. We were lucky to make it to Sedna and back.” He slapped the new drive, “this may be old but it was barely used.”
“So how fast will it go?”
Meron appeared behind her, and Gayle wondered how long she had been lurking. She twisted up her mouth, “fast enough to outrun anything that Meyconte can throw after us.”
Ty looked at them both with snake eyes, “This drive didn’t come from that liner did it?”
Gayle grimaced, “Well, Not exactly.”
“So your telling me this crate can do light speed?!” Ty hissed – he face was a sneer of disbelief. The three of them were seated in Arega’s bar. Weavel was paying them little attention with the three girls keeping his focus.
“You weren’t listening were you?” Gayle frowned, trying to keep his voice down. Last thing they wanted was for Arega to take an interest. As far as the drug baron was concerned Achilles was a rust bucket with no redeeming features. “Near light speed. And no it can’t do it – not yet. We need a decent power core. Reaching those speeds takes a shit load of power and Achilles puny core wouldn’t handle it, it’d be drained in a couple of minutes.”
“Yeah but we could go really bloody fast right?” Ty said. She pointed a finger at each of them, “I ought to shoot you both for keeping this from me.”
“And then who’d fly this thing?” Meron quipped. “It was too much of a risk to tell anyone about it and frankly we didn’t know we could install it. We still don’t know if it will fly.”
“It will fly,” Gayle conceded with a wry grin, “but I can’t say we wont hit something at that speed – even with the navigation databases from the liner.”
Without warning Arega appeared from around a corner, he had a blaster pointed at them. The three glassy-eyed girls appeared behind him too, weapons targeted at them. “I knew there was something about you lot – a near light speed ship eh?!”
Meron sighed, “I suppose you’ve got this whole place bugged?”
“Not the whole place.” he clicked his tongue. ”I thought my drugs might loosen some lips but all I heard was a whole lot of sob stories – not my thing really.”
“So what are you planning?” She asked. Gayle noticed her glance meaningfully to Ty.
“Well I figure that ship of yours will sell for quite a few credits – even if it is a flying crate. It’s expensive living out here you know.”
In a fraction of a second the place erupted. Ty launched herself towards the girls, somersaulting through slashes of blaster fire. She stopped just short of two of them knocking one over with a well-placed kick and smashing the other with a lethal fist – pleasure clones did not make good security. Meron stumbled as everyone else scattered.
Caught flat-footed Gayle padded himself down. Damn it, no gun! Instead he found a power-spanner in his back pocket.
It had become a habit of his to keep a tool in easy reach and not just for its practical uses – with his lifestyle he never knew when he might have to defend himself. He hurled it as hard as he could at the third girl who was aiming at him. It collected her in the head as she fired and ricocheted away. She fell backwards from the blow and the shot speared harmlessly into the ceiling.
He turned in time to see Arega snatch hold of Meron who had stumbled. He thrust a blaster into her face.“Lay down you arms, or she dies!” He said through clench teeth.
Gayle looked at Ty who stood ready to take a shot. He signalled that they should give up, without Meron to fly the ship they might as well forget it. In slow motion he raised his hands.
“Alright, take it easy,” he said.
“Ah good, someone has some sense.” Arega said.
Like a ghost Norton appeared from behind Arega, he held Gayle’s spanner over his head and brought it down on the drug dealer’s head. “Keep your hands off my daughter!” He roared as he brought the tool down on the man’s head.
The dealer jolted from the blow then his eyes rolled in his head so that only the whites showed. He then fell in a pile at the gardener’s feet.
Weavel turned up to see what all the fuss was about, “Awww, why’d you go do that for?”
Gayle raced over, “Shit, I think you killed him!”
“Good.” Ty said. “He was a bastard.”
Meron reached over and felt his wrist, “No, he’ll live, but I can guarantee you he’ll hold a grudge.”