Gayle sipped his cup of lukewarm coffee and stared out the viewport. “Man, a whole lot of nothing.” Straining his pathetic human eyes he imagined Sedna out there, somewhere in the black.
“Hey, haven’t you got work to do?” Meron said, agitation clear in her tone. She blocked the narrow hallway that connected the main habitation space from the engine compartment. “Those stabilisers are off; we’re still drifting toward the right.”
Gayle scratched his nascent beard. He thumbed aft, “The stabilisers are fine now. It’s the drive timing, those things are antique – they keep drifting in and out of sync with one another.”
Meron flicked her ponytail, “I don’t want excuses, you’re a greaser, fix it!”
Gayle stared into his now-cold cup of coffee, he wished it were whiskey. “Well, you stop by the nearest dry-dock and buy us a couple of new ion drives. Then I’ll fix it,” he pushed a matted dreadlock out of his eyes. “Till then you’ll just have to be a pilot.”
“Hey, keep it down! A female voice groaned from the infirmary, an open doorway a few yards away. Gayle had nearly forgotten that Meyconte had loaded them with Tyana; as far as they knew she was a loose cannon.
Meron looked in through the doorway. “Ah, the dead rises,” she mused.
They had strapped the olive-skinned woman down to the sole bed in the cubicle following Meyconte’s warning that she might be hard to handle.
“What? Who the hell are you?” The warrior groaned, her head lolling to the side. ”Where…where the hell am I?”
“Take it easy,” Meron said coming to the bedside. “I’m Captain Meron Landar. This is Achilles, a transport ship.”
The warrior narrowed her eyes at Gayle in his greasy overalls. He got the impression that she was assessing the level of threat he posed to her.
“And I’m Gayle,” he said when the Captain failed to introduce him. “Ship’s mechanic, or should I say ‘medic’?” He added, his lip curled.
The warrior lifted her lip in a half smile, her eyes rolling. Gayle thought she had gone back to sleep when she spoke, “Let me out of these.”
“Ah, well, not sure that is such a good idea at the moment.” Meron leaned against a bulkhead. “I need to explain a few rules to you first.”
In a flash Ty snapped. “You better let me out or I’m gonna fucking kill you!”
“Now that doesn’t exactly encourage me to let you out?” Meron half-smiled. “Does it now?”
The warrior let out a low growl and strained against the straps; they looked like they might give at any second.
Gayle had to hand it to Meron, she had balls of steel. The thought of letting this thing out almost made him sweat. He shrunk back behind Meron, “Errr, maybe we should put her out again?”
Meron blocked him with a stern hand, an annoyed look on her face. “Now Tyana, you need to calm down.”
The warrior twisted in the straps for a few more seconds before she realised it was useless to struggle, the straps holding her firm. Relaxing back into the table she eyed Meron like a wolf.
Meron went on, “I don’t like this arrangement any more than you. Meyconte, in his infinite wisdom, has seen to it that we are lumped together.”
“Why the hell for?”
“Turns out he wants something retrieved off Sedna that’s where we are headed now – and his flunkies have failed him. He thinks we have the grit to make it in and out.”
“What the hell’s out on that chunk of ice?”
“Must be one hell-of-a-ship.”
“Yes, yes it is.”
The warrior narrowed her black-and-blue eyes. Gayle guessed that she was trying to work out if she could kill them, dump their bodies in the black, take command, and head for some backwater where no one asked questions.
“I take it you’re a pilot?” She said looking the captain up and down.
Behind Gayle, Weavel appeared. ”What’s the rucus about?”
“What the fuck is he doing here?” Tyana nearly burst the straps.
“He’s Meyconte’s eyes and ears.” Gayle explained. In the days that had passed since leaving Coolands Station the three of them had come to an uneasy truce, they had all realised that it was going to be a very long journey if they stayed at each other’s throats in such as small space.
“I’m gonna kill you Weavel.” Tyana bared her teeth like a rabid dog. “Don’t think I’ll forget what you did.”
Weavel looked unsettled; after a while he spoke his voice cracking, “Well… not if I kill you first.” He fumbled for his blaster.
“You’re a weak little pissant Weavel,” Tyana spat.
“Alright, enough!” Meron snatched Weavel’s gun from him. “None of us like this, but we have little choice. You all know that if Meyconte doesn’t get what he wants he will hunt us down. So, for now, we must work together, save your grudges for after we deliver the ship.”
Gayle and Weavel nodded their agreement. Tyana grunted, “Aright, but I don’t take orders from that shit.” She pointed with her chin. “And call me Ty.”
“No fucking way!” Weavel began to howl, “Lord Meyconte ordered me to —”
Meron cut him short, “I’m flying this ship. Unless you want to wander aimlessly through space till we run out of air you’ll answer to me!” Meron stabbed at his chest with a pointed finger. She glared at each of the others, letting them know that they were included too. “Otherwise you can explain to Meyconte why we failed to get this ship he wants.”
Weavel’s fury melted away with a hollow groan and he gave Ty a glare. Ty returned the glare two-fold.
Gayle nodded approvingly at Meron who, catching the look, shook her head.
“Cut her loose.” Meron ordered.
Gayle obliged. He moved in uncomfortably close to release the bonds and felt her eyes boring into him like a fifty-ton core drill. He wondered if her bite was as good as her bark.
Ty sat up rubbing her wrists and glance up at Weavel stewing in the doorway, “I’m still gonna kill you Weavel, just as soon as we’re through here.”
Flustered, he turned on his heels, “I… I’ll be in my cabin if you need me Captain.”
For nine days everything went smoothly as they sped towards the icy mass of Sedna, apart from some small asteroids which set off the ship’s collision alarm. Meron, taking no chances, steered them well wide of these.
On the tenth day the sound of raised voices in the corridor jarred Gayle awake. He jumped to his feet and stuck his head out to see what the fuss was about.
“You took it you mongrel, give it back!“ Ty, wild-eyed, had Weavel bailed up against a bulkhead, a serrated hunting knife poised above his eye.
“I swear it wasn’t me!” Weavel shrieked like a boiling kettle.
“What’s going on?” Gayle blinked, his eyes not yet adjusted to the harsh light in the corridor.
“This worm stole something from me.” Tyana looked manic, she was drenched in sweat.
“I…I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about!” Weavel whimpered.
“What’s missing?” Gayle asked, scratching his dread-locks.
“It was in my locker, in my cabin!” She screamed at Weavel who was now delirious with fear.
“I didn’t do nothing, I swear!”
From the direction of the cockpit Meron appeared holding something transparent, it looked like a pill box and it was empty. “Looking for this?”
Ty’s eyes locked on the empty box, “Where…where are they?”
“I spaced them.”
“You wha?” Tyana’s mouth fell agape.
Meron pointed out the window.
“We’ll be in orbit around Sedna in five days and I’ll need you functioning at 100%, on Eupho pills you’re a liability.”
“You can’t touch my stuff!”
“They were on my ship. I don’t carry drugs on my ship.”
“You … “ Ty growled, her eyes became daggers. She was now drench in sweat and staggered,”…you…you shouldn’t of done that.”
“You have five days to get your head clear.” Meron said with a false smile dropping the empty pill box; as it clattered on the grated floor she turned and walked back up the hallway.
Ty fell on her knees slumped against the wall. ”Fuck!”
Weavel took his opportunity to escape and scampered after the captain.
“She’s a bitch hey. You’ll be alright in a few days.” Gayle offered as he backed away.
Ty hissed at him and slid to the floor. “GO AWAY!”
In the galley, some hours later, Gayle was seated with his feet up on the table peeling the foil wrapper off an out-of-date protein bar. Through the passageway, backlit against the lights of the cockpit, Meron sat with her knees tucked in her arms. Gayle had found that despite his attempts to be friendly towards her she tended to disappear into the cockpit for long stretches at a time, only coming out to get a bite to eat or to order them around.
Weavel appeared in the doorway, “Is she calm now?”
Gayle looked at him, “Who? The Captain or Ty?”
“The nutter,” he frowned.
Gayle raised his eyebrows as if nothing had been clarified, “Captain’s been in there for hours; I dragged Ty into the infirmary after I found her unconscious in the hallway and cuffed her to the bed.”
Weavel nodded. “Look,” He dragged over a chair, it made a scraping sound on the metal floor. He placed it uncomfortably close to the mechanic. “I know we haven’t seen eye to eye in the past.”
He put his arm around Gayle. “I’m a reasonable guy and I ain’t got nothing against you. I can forget about the bike and what happened on Coolands. The way I see it Landar has caused us both a lot of trouble.”
Gayle grimaced and leaned away, but he had to admit Weavel had a point. If it had not been for Meron coming along, swinging those hips, he would still be working in Serd’s garage. He grinned.
“We got to stick together, you and me. Landar: she’s a loose cannon, she’s going to get us all killed. And that gunwoman, she’s already dead the bullet just hasn’t caught up to her yet.”
What irked Gayle was that he knew Weavel was right. He had been thinking the same thing for several days now and was starting to wonder how he was going to get out of the situation alive. Most of his life he hadn’t had a choice, driven one way or another by fate. At least that’s the way he looked at everything bad that had ever happened to him.
Gayle didn’t have a chance to complete the thought however. He was flung across the room like a ragdoll and smashed into the wall.
The alarm blared in the pitch darkness and Gayle could hear Weavel groaning somewhere in the room. The reserve power lights came on, dim light illuminating the chaos. The tables and chairs, and anything else not secured had instantly become lethal weapons.
Gayle pushed the table off his chest and felt his ribs; the pain was agonising when he breathed, “Damn it, what the hell was that?”
Meron charged into the room. In the flickering light he could see a dark blaze of red across her cheek. “Rogue rock, hit us, everyone ok?”
“I’m alive, Weavel’s over there somewhere,” Gayle waved vaguely in the direction of the refrigerator and a pile of chairs.
“Dig him out. Ship’s dead in the water. We’re going to need all hands!” Her eyes were wide, Gayle saw fear in them. It was serious then, he thought.
Meron turned back to the cockpit.
From the main corridor Ty appeared panting. Apart from looking like she’d been swimming she appeared unharmed. He glanced at the cuffs hanging from her wrist and wondered if the collision had broken her free or whether she had broken herself free.
“Ship’s in trouble we were hit by something.” Gayle managed to draw himself free though his ankle ached. He hobbled over to the pile of chairs.
“Help me get Weavel free,” he said.
In a few seconds they had extracted him from the chairs and other debris but he seemed incoherent.
“He took a blow to the head, look at the mark there,” Ty pointed.
“Could be serious.”
“That would suit me fine,” Ty said.
Meron walked back into the galley, “forget Weavel. Gayle, suit up. We need to plug an air leak and I think the primary power conduit is cut, if we don’t fix them we’ll all be dead in a few hours.”
Ty scoffed, “this gig gets better every second.”
“Great, so no pressure then?” Gayle’s laugh was hollow.
“Oh yeah, you might want to check the suit, last time one of them failed diagnostics, can’t remember which.”
“You’ve got to be joking!”
Meron smiled, “I never joke, get cracking.”
There was something unnerving about floating in space with only a few millimetres of material, foil and plexi-glass between you and the black void. Instant death, Gayle thought bleakly.
He’d checked the suits over as carefully as possible, particularly the air lines to the oxygen-tank, and ended up picking one that looked well used.
Ty raised an eyebrow as she chewed on a piece of gum, “That one? Looks like a piece of shit.”
“Yeah, I figure if someone used it that much then it must be have something going for it.”
She shrugged, “your funeral.”
Without another word Ty had helped him into it and had seen him into the airlock. She gave him a disconcerting salute. Gayle began to doubt his decision.
Ty radioed him as air began to drain from the airlock, “Wanna hear a funny story?”
Gayle guessed what Ty found funny wasn’t a joke to anyone else.
“Back when I was in the corps doing Zero-G training we used to draw straws, shortest got the crappiest suit.” She smirked as she hit the button to open the hatch, “Yeah there’s a few unlucky rookies still floating among the rings of Saturn somewhere.”
“And thanks for that comforting thought.” Gayle replied.
Fortunately his suit had turned out to be sound. He anchored one end of his safety line to a ring near the hatch the other was attached to his suit.
“Here goes nothing.” He pushed off at an angle from the hatch.
Reaching the end of the line the momentum swung him in a slow arc so that he would end up on the opposite side of the ship where the damage had been identified. As he drifted he hauled himself back in so he could make a safe landing near the site of the damage.
“Man, you should see this mess!” Gayle whistled.
Ty’s replied came over in a crackle, “how bad is it?”
“Looks bad.” He whistled again, “I tell you we are lucky, lucky, lucky.”
“There’s a massive dent in the hull, we’ll need a sheet of synth-patch. The power conduit is a wreck, I’ll have to rewire it and the air line is trashed – I don’t know, there’s all this tangled mess. Tell the Captain to shut down everything, I mean everything I don’t want to get a shock when I start work.”
“Roger that.” Ty said.
Meron’s voice patched in, “can you fix it?”
Gayle tried to make sense of the confusing mess, “I don’t know…”
He shuddered at the thought of floating dead out here, far from human kind. So much space yet he felt intense claustrophobia.
“You’ve got to,” Meron said. “We’ve got less than ninety minutes before the air vacs out.” She added.
While untangling it, Gayle discovered the flight control hydraulics were shot too, greasy globs floated off into space, some clung to his suit. So they had no power, no air and no control, it couldn’t get much worse, he thought.
Inside his helmet condensation formed making it difficult to see, “Damn visor keeps fogging up, my suits moisture evaporator can’t keep up!”
“Easy, don’t breathe so much.” Ty responded. Gayle could see her watching through the observation windows holding her nose.
“We’ll I can try that if this patch job doesn’t work out,” he said, his laugh was clipped strangely by his suits comDev.
“Tell the captain the hydraulics are bust too, I’ll plug it for now – it will have to wait till later to fix properly.”
“Good plan.” Ty clicked back.
Gayle worked fast but he struggled with the lack of fine motor control of the antique suit. The gloves were bulky and what took a few minutes inside the ship took almost an hour to do outside. However, in the end the air line proved to be relatively easy to fix using a spare piece of piping that they salvaged from the ships plumbing.
Gayle clicked his comDev, “alright, that’s the air line, run a diagnostic check to check it is holding.”
A few seconds passed before Meron replied. “Looks good.”
Gayle could hear the relief in her voice. He clicked off, ”I’m coming in.”
Ty had seen him safely back in through the hatch and had helped him out of the suit. He was soaked with moisture from his own salty body. “Phew, you stink.”
“Hey nice, I just saved your ass and you insult me.” Gayle replied.
“Get over it.” Ty returned to check a console which was flashing red and orange.
He sat down heavily. He’d spent the last few minutes looking through the visor at an odd angle to avoid a fogged up portion. He rolled his neck around and rubbed it. “How about a neck massage? That would do as a reward.”
“Not gonna happen.” She scoffed.
Meron came marching in, “I’ve still got no power!”
Gayle shrugged, “Yeah, but we’re not losing air, and I need a break. He took off his soaked T-shirt, his arms felt like lead and he shook them out.
The Captain shifted irritably, “we’ll freeze to death while you take your break!”
“We’ve got three or four hours,” he said between gritted teeth. “I’ll fix it, OK.”
She looked at him hard. Her eyes lingering flickered to his bare chest for a moment. Picking up a rag she tossed it to him, “Dry yourself off, looks like you took a bath.”
“Go on. Back to that cockpit of yours,” he called to her back.
Ty waited till the captain was out of ear shot and gave him a wry grin, “you two sound like two old ducks.”
“Have you got an electrical diagram for this thing?” Gayle called over his comDev, “the wires are a mess, nothing seems to match!”
For an hour Gayle had been struggling with over a hundred wires that needed resplicing. Not just that, but the wiring had clearly been hacked, rerouted and altered ad-hoc over Achilles long years of service, which meant Gayle didn’t know for sure what went where.
Meron replied from the cockpit, “No dice. You’ll have to sort it out. I can run a diagnostic on each connection you make though.”
For the first hour they methodically tested each wire, checking what it supplied, and reconnecting it. Eventually Gayle was forced to return inside briefly to change his oxygen tank by which point the temperature had dropped to below freezing.
Meron, pale-looking and wrapped in several crumpled foil blankets, handed him a lukewarm cup of coffee. “We have maybe another seventy or eighty minutes before the cold will become unbearable.”
Ty, who hadn’t put on anything warmer yet, connect up the new tank, there, that should last you till we freeze to death.”
“I don’t plan on dying just yet,” he replied, “Not on this heap anyhow.”
He put his helmet back on and stepped back into the airlock to finish the job.
The last few wires took Gayle longer than he’d planned but finally he connected the last of them and wrapped insulation tape around it to stop it shorting out. It wasn’t his finest work but he hoped that it would do till they made it to a station.
He spoke into his comDev, “ok, all done here.”
There was no response from within.
“Hey, I’m done here.” He repeated, this time more loudly.
Then it occurred to him, how long have I been out here? He looked at the chronometer displayed brightly on his comDev.
“Oh, Christ!” It had been two hours. Concentrating on the task at hand he had completely forgotten the time. How the hell was he going to get back inside?
Gayle looked at his air meter; it was way into in the red. At most he had five minutes.
“Fuck, fuck!” He swore as he spun his way back to the ship and clambered back to the hatch, becoming acutely aware of each breath.
At the hatch he switched on his comDev, “hey! HEY! Anyone; let me in!”
For the next few minutes he battered away at the hatch but already exhausted and aching all over he slumped in the suit against the side of the ship. It was useless, he resigned himself.
“It’s too late, I’ve failed,” he panted, sucking in the dwindling oxygen. He turned to look at the sun, at his distant sun. It was beautiful. He’d never thought too much about it, but in his light-headedness it seemed to come into focus. It was an incredible piece of nature, a ball of fire and like himself slowly dying.
And then it all went black.
“Hey, hey!” A distant voice was hammering away at his skull.
“Gayle?” The voice was irritating and familiar. He felt a sudden sharp stinging on his cheek. “Wake up you filty sloth, you owe me a bike!”
Gayle drifted but his subconscious reacted to the affront, “Who the hell are you calling me a filthy sloth?”
“Hey, I thought you were dead.” Weavel seemed relieved. “What the hell happened here?”
Gayle opened his eyes, he was laid out on the floor. Weavel was holding an oxygen mask to his face. Though he was the last person he wanted in his face right now, in a way he was pleased to see anyone familiar. Weavel took the mask off Gayle and took a breath from the mask himself.
“I woke up in a thermal blanket, everyone asleep and no oxygen. Lucky for you I found this tank and I bothered to look out the window!” Weavel explained.
“Yeah lucky,” he groaned. “Where’s Ty and the Meron?”
Weavel rested a hand on his shoulder, “Yeah I thought of spacing them but hell, I didn’t know if you were going to make it; they are recovering. You just take it easy.”
Gayle closed his eyes and sighed; by some miracle he was alive.