“Fortunately for you I woke up in the nick of time!” Weavel said for the fifth time in as many minutes. He slapping Gayle, who was straddling a chair facing a small bare wall, on the back. he held a pack of dog-eared cards in his hands.
Gayle looked down at the dog-eared pack of cards in his hands. As it turned out, no one else liked card games so Gayle played a game he’d learnt as a kid which consisted of tossing cards against a wall with the aim of getting as close as possible to it.
“Yeah, whatever.” Gayle replied, flicking another card. He was pissed off at the lack of respect his heroics to restore the ship had received. He’d saved their lives, and not one of them had offered any words of praise. In fact, Weavel had been lauding it over him for days.
“Hey, you owe me!” The stand-over man snapped, strutting over him.
“And I owe you too,” Ty said, not looking up. That shut Weavel up. Ty was busy sharpening a long serrated knife, the scraping sound setting Gayle on edge.
Meron swung on a chair staring intently into her comDev, paging through public records on Sedna, “It says here there were once fifty thousand workers on Sedna.”
“Fifty thousand? Do I have to fight them all?” Ty grinned demonically.
Meron’s mouth curled in a smirk, “That was in its heyday, before the fleet was launched for Ipsulus Prime. Place would have been buzzing with colonists, technicians and support staff. Most of them left after the launch except a skeleton colony of five hundred or so.”
“Wonder how many are there now?” Gayle asked.
“Who knows, last records show that they closed off contact with the outside world over fifty years ago, succeeding from Earth Government. The place must have been too remote for the government to care about; they had other problems closer to home to worry about.”
“Yeah, we all know how that turned out.” Ty added, testing the knife on the edge of the table.
Gayle mused, “So while the rest of the system was fighting it out these guys were nicely bunkered down – how did they survive?”
“The place was designed to be self-sufficient in every way, no expense was spared … or so the legend goes.” Meron replied.
“So they are like a mini-Earth?” Weavel asked.
She nodded, “They have, or at least had, everything they needed to subsist.”
“There are some things they would need, when machines broke down they’d need parts.” Gayle yawned.
Meron got up and stretched, the aluminum chair scrapping behind her, “Yeah, they would have had parts to keep the aging facility running for a while but that would have been exhausted many years ago. “
“They just don’t make things like they used to,” Ty joked.
Gayle nodded sagely, “That’s where traders come in.“
“So what? We’re going to pose as traders?” Weavel asked.
Meron nodded, “Seems like the best chance to get in.”
“I thought they trusted only a few?” Weavel shook his head.
“They do. Fortunately I received a transmission from Meyconte.” She smiled knowingly. “A Swift class freighter called the Manatee carrying electronic parts left eight days ago from Nelpur Station.”
“And let me guess it’s heading our way?” Gayle grinned.
Meron nodded, “Nelpur is in orbit over Io, my calculations for that type of vessel suggest that it should reach Sedna in no more than three days.”
“What? Do you plan to board it like Blackbeard or something?” Weavel snorted, exposing his fractured teeth.
She glared at him, “That’s exactly what I mean to do.”
Gayle hated the idea of agreeing with Weavel, “It’ll never work, they’ll detect us on long range scanners long before we get anywhere near them. With their superior drives they will high tail it away from us.” he said.
“I’ve thought of that.” She laid down her comDev on the table, pushing aside some unwashed dishes; the others gathered around. She began to draw on the screen with her finger. “This is us, we fly and set ourselves between Sedna and the path this ship must take. We set a distress signal, their proximity alarm will pull their ship out of autopilot. By solar law they must come to our aid.”
“Yeah, but no captain in their right mind stops for a distress signal these days!” Weavel said.
“They will for this one.” Meron screwed up her mouth. “That ship is Captained by Edward Meers.”
“Meers?” Gayle’s eyebrows almost leapt off his forehead. “The war hero?”
Meron flicked her ponytail over her shoulder, “The one and the same who led the defence of Redhouse.”
Gayle rocked back in his chair and shook his head, “reduced to shuttling cargo; how the great fall.”
Meron’s jaw hardened, “He will always be great and he can’t help but stop.”
Weavel, who hadn’t really been listening, picked up the crack in her voice, “Wait a second, you know this guy don’t you?”
Meron’s face blanched, she pushed a loose strand of her hair out of her eyes. “Yeah.”
Weavel threw his arms up, “Oh, yeah – so you’re planning to team up with your old buddy Meers and take the ship yourself?”
“No, not at all, that would be pointless. Meers is no one of consequence these days. Lord Meyconte would hunt us down in the long run.”
Weavel chewed on a fingernail, “I don’t know… I don’t like it.”
“Look, I haven’t seen the man in twenty years and even then I wasn’t on his radar. He probably won’t even recognise me anyway.”
Gayle eyed her suspiciously, though he spoke softly, “How exactly do you know this guy?”
Meron looked down to her feet, her voice was quiet. “He was my senior officer and my husband’s best friend.”
Gayle recalled the picture she kept. He examined her face, the faint lines in the corners of her eyes suggested she wasn’t as young as he first thought. Given that her husband died during the war, which ended twenty years ago, she must have been in her forties or even fifties. Not bad for her age, he thought.
Ty broke the awkward silence, “Ok, so we pull a gun on your friend, will he be a problem?”
Meron shook her head. “I don’t think so, from what I hear he’s not the idealist he used to be, risking his life for a few electronic parts wouldn’t make sense.”
“This is all great but what if Meers doesn’t turn up?” Weavel sneered.
She gave him an icy stare, “Well, we will just have to rely on your diplomatic abilities then won’t we?”
For two standard days they continued until they were within striking distance of Sedna but far enough to be out of the planetoids scan range. Meron cut the engines so they could lie in wait for the Manatee. Meers’ ship would be an easy intercept as it would have to pass relatively close by them to reach the icy world that was now visible in front of them like a badly-constructed snowball. It was criss-crossed with dark slashes and pocked with impact craters created over millennia of bombardment by its neighbours.
Gayle sat in the co-pilots chair with a panel of the cockpit open, wires exposed like the intestines of a dead animal. “Ok, that’s it, I’ve amplified the ships scanners with the auxiliary power to identify anything fast moving in the vicinity. It will set off the proximity alarm as soon as anything moving fast and of reasonable size comes within range.”
Meron, sitting foetus-like with her legs pulled up in her chair, did not respond. Her eyes were fixed somewhere in space as she chewed on a finger nail.
“Hey, alarm is set.” He pushed back a dreadlock and banged the panel closed.
Meron responded slowly, “What’s that?”
He drove the screws back into the panel. “I’ve set the alarm for when Meers’ ship comes close.”
“Oh,” she said. “Ok, good.”
He could sense something was on her mind, “What’s up?”
“Gayle?” Her voice was odd, distant.
He finished the last screw and looked at her. “Hmm?”
She pursed her lips. He noticed her hair had come loose from its usually tight pony-tail, a lock hung arched over reddened eyes. “You know…”
Before she could finish what she was about to say the ships alarm interrupted. Both Weavel and Ty appeared, jostling like school kids in the hatchway. Weavel had put on too much aftershave and Ty flinched back allowing him to enter first.
“Nevermind,” Meron snapped, pulling her hair back. “Sooner than we thought, but that must be Meers.”
Gayle checked the range, “about three million clicks.”
Ty groaned, “That’s not far.” She turned and raced off, presumably to arm herself.
Weavel panicked, “Shouldn’t you send out the distress signal?”
Annoyed, Meron glared at him, “It’s done. Gayle you can switch off that alarm now!”
A few minutes later, Meron jumped when the vidCom flared to life indicating an incoming signal. She lightly tapped the touch screen, then more heavily a second time when it did not respond and finally she rammed her finger repeatedly at it to get it to register her touch, “Come on you piece of…”
“…shit?” Gayle offered.
She rolled her eyes. “Shut up and listen.”
“Greetings crew of the Achilles, this is the Commercial Freighter Manatee, and I am Captain Meers, I understand from your signal that you have a … problem?” The figure that appeared was hard to make out in the darkened cockpit and with all the noise and interference, but the owner’s voice came across deep and rich like treacle, the inflection at the end suggesting the owner had some doubt about the matter.
Meron whispered to Gayle, “you answer.”
Gayle hissed and threw up his hands, “What? This is your plan, no deal!”
Meron gave him an exasperated look and locked down the vidCom button to begin the transmission, “Err, thank you Captain Meers for answering our signal, this is Captain Landar, yes our primary drive coupling has given up, wouldn’t have a spare would you?”
There was a pause and the figure on the video image came in close on the screen so his grey-flecked, bearded face was large and illuminated. “Meron Landar? Is that you?”
Meron winced and came into the light herself. “Hi err, yes it is. So it is you Edward!” She feigned surprise.
The man roared, “My god! It must be ten years since we saw each other last!”
“Twenty,” She replied.
“Yeah, well, who’s countin’ anymore?” His eyes were squinting into the screen, “war seems like only yesterday. Was a shame about Charlie – he was a good man, the best.”
Meron nodded like a robot, “Yeah.”
“So you’ve got a bit of trouble? What the hell are you doing out here? Thought I was the only one crazy enough to come out to this patch of space.”
“Well, errr, as it happens I’ve got a load of velumium to deliver to Sedna.” Meron lied.
Meers shifted in the screen, “velumium to Sedna eh? Strange, never thought they would run out of that stuff but what do I know? I guess I should come over there and see if we can get your crate flying.”
“That would be much appreciated Captain,” Meron said. “I’ll set my docking computer on.”
“Roger that.” Meers replied. ”Docking commencing.”
A few minutes later the crew of the Achilles had gathered at the docking hatch. Meron cracked open the arms locker releasing a cloud of dust. The locker was full of a mad collection of antique weapons and armour. Ty, the first in, grabbed a solid-looking blaster which she tucked inside a blue and black armoured jacket she had just put on. Weavel, who had his own blaster in hand, rocked from foot to foot anxiously. Meron slipped her own small blaster into her back pocket so that the ‘guests’ wouldn’t see it.
Gayle took a battered armored vest that stunk of mildew and withdrew a stock-standard piece from the jumble with the distinct Lamtrex Ballistics branding; he preferred the older projectile technology – to him it was more threatening somehow, hearkening back to a savage age. He found a box of matching ammo and slapped a rusty 9-shot clip into the grip.
The groan and shriek of metal on metal finally came, followed by a series of clicks as the docking mechanisms locked into place. Air hissed into the airlock and a few seconds later a green light flicked on above the hatch. With a flick of her head Meron ordered each to take their places out of view.
In the window of the hatch the bearded face of Edward Meers appeared, he slapped a hand on the plexiglass and grinned. Meron stepped up and matched his hand, though hers was like a kittens to his bear paw. She pressed the release button and with a clunk the hatch door swung free.
Meers pushed through, his huge frame arched over to get through the low hatchway.” I hate these old crates, too damn small for an old timer like me, give me the room of a swift class any day,” he muttered. “Ah, it’s the lovely Meron Landar, how are ya sweetheart!”
Closely following Meers came three of his crew, two hollow-faced men and another Gayle thought had a desperate look about him. As this last man past through Gayle and Ty came from either flank with their weapons drawn at the men’s backs.
Meron came forward to kiss Meers, distracting him. Gayle, from his position behind them, heard her whisper in his ear, “I’m sorry Edward.”
The last man turned sharply and attempted to draw his weapon but Ty was too quick. With a lightning kick she disarmed him. With a dirty sneer he swung wildly at her but she ducked easily and plunged a fist into his belly, sending him to his knees. She was about to finish him off with blow to the back of the head when Gayle held her hand.
“I think we got ’em,” he said.
Weavel appeared late from behind a crate, his voice lilting with practiced bravado. “Alright, hands in the air folks and no one gets hurt!”
Meers shook his head slowly, “I’m disappointed Meron. Charlie would be saddened to see you now.”
“Check them for weapons.” Meron ignored him.
“What has brought you to this?” Meers continued as Gayle padded the man down. “Must be something big?”
“Big enough.” Gayle replied in her stead. He tied the man’s hands behind him. “Don’t worry we’re not going to kill you. Well, I’m not anyway.”
“I’m too old for surprises.” Meers said.
“It’s Weavel isn’t it? You’re that worm who works for Darius Meyconte aren’t you?”
“What of it?”
Meers turned back to Meron, “Never thought you, of all people, would stoop to work for that tyrant.”
“We all have mouths to fill.” Meron spat the words out like bitter lemons.
”You do this for money?” He scrutinized her face, “I can’t believe that.”
Weavel, who had been busy bullying the other men couldn’t resist the opportunity to laud it over Meron, “Aww she ain’t doing this for money, Lord Meyconte knows where her husband is and offered to help her find him.”
Meers’ eyes widened, “Meron, is this true?”
Her face dropped like a stone.
“You don’t believe him do you? It’s a lie, I saw Charlie …” He didn’t want to say it.
“Die?” Meron’s eyes questioned him. “Maybe he survived the crash?”
Meers closed his eyes and shook his head, “One chance in a million.”
She stared him down, “That’s all he needed.”
“We’ve been through this before. I thought you had moved on.” Meers’ eyes pleaded.
Meron turned away from him to his crew, “Ty, take them through to the Manatee’s brig.”
Weavel jumped in and pushed them forward, “I think I can handle this lot.”
Ty folded her arms and stepped back allowing him to pass, “Suit yourself.”
“Give me a moment with Captain Meers.” Meron muttered to the others. It wasn’t a request. Gayle backed away, his gun still trained on the man.
Meers whispered, “How do think you are going to pull this off? It took many years to gain the trust of the Sednans. They’ll kill you.” Meron remained quiet.
“What is it that Meyconte wants anyway?”Meers continued. ”The water? It’s a rich source there locked up in the ice – but surely he controls enough water resources elsewhere?”
Meron’s voice was weak and almost inaudible, “I can’t say.”
“Meyconte is manipulating you,” Meers sighed.
“Yeah, I know, but if there is a chance Charlie is still alive…”
“Meron, he’s dead, we both saw it.”
“Either way, I’m doomed.” She said. “If I do not retrieve that ship…” She stopped short realizing what she had just said.
“Ship? So Meyconte is after a ship. What kind of ship is down there?”
Meron shook her head and pursed her lips tightly, “I’ll not say any more.”
“If you ask me to help you I will,” Meers said. “It is the least I owe Charlie.”
She shook her head, “Meyconte is a clever man, he knows how to get what he wants. I can see that he’s played me to get to you.” She said. ”This is my mess and I’ll deal with it.”
“Then you are doomed.” He said. ”Let me go with you and we will get this ship and find a way to outsmart Meyconte together.”
“He’d hunt us down.”
“There are places to hide.”
“Fewer and fewer.” She looked down.
A clang of metal echoed through the ship.
“What the hell was that?” Meron spun around.
Gayle, jumped up and pulled out his blaster, “It ain’t mice, if that was what you were thinking.”
Ty sighed as if expecting this, “the prisoners.”
“Useless Bloody Weavel!” Meron muttered. Her gun in hand she bolted out of the mess and down a set of stairs heading towards the sound but was stopped short when a shot angled upward blasted past her, narrowly missing Gayle who had followed hard on her tail.
“Shit!” Gayle stumbled back against the wall.
Meron deftly stepped back as a few more random blasts came from below.
“BACK OFF!” A voice below screamed.
Meers whispered, “It’s Grimsley – he’s a dangerous one – don’t trust him.”
Meron called back, “You can’t win, you’ve only got one blaster.”
“I Got your friend here, come down the stairs and he cops it!” Grimsley replied.
“Shit, we can’t lose Weavel, Meyconte wouldn’t accept that.” Meron whispered to the others who had gathered around her.
Gayle swore, “What the fuck are we going to do?”
“Let me think!” Meron roared.
“Why don’t we just go back to Achilles?” Ty offered.“We don’t need the ship if we have Meers.”
Gayle nodded, “A different ship shouldn’t make a difference.”
Meron looked at Meers, “Sorry Edward.”
Meers groaned, “I knew this was going to cost me.”
“I’ll make it up to you.” She replied.
He half smiled, “This is a big one to make up.”
Meron returned to the edge of the stairs and yelled out, “Hey, I’ve got a deal for you.”
“Yeah?” Grimsley called up. “Go on but you better not try anything, I got a gun to this guy’s head.”
“Alright, here’s how it will go. We’ll return to our ship and take Meers with us – he is what we want and some of the cargo. You hand over our man and you get the Manatee to go on your way.” She offered.
It went silent for a moment but Gayle could hear heated voices below in discussion. Eventually Grimsley replied, “Alright, it’s a deal but try anything funny and this guy gets it.”
Meron rolled her head back, “Ok, I’m sending down two of my people to get the cargo we need.”
Meers spat, “I knew Grimsley was scum, didn’t even try to bargain for me back!”
With some frayed nerves the transfer back to Achilles, with enough of the cargo to be convincing, was achieved without further trouble. At the last Grimsley and the other men released the unconscious body of Weavel, allowing Gayle and Ty to haul him away.
Maneuvering through the hatchway Weavel’s head slammed against the hatchway door, Ty ruefully smiled at Gayle, “Oops.”
Meers gave his former employee, who was standing pointing Weavel’s blaster at them, a dirty look, “Be seeing you Grimsley, be seeing you soon.”
“Not likely Captain,” Grimsley laughed baring a mouth of disheveled teeth as he pulled shut the airlock door.
“Well, not exactly to plan but …” Gayle began.
Both Meron and Meers spoke together, “but what?”
Once the ships were separated Achilles continued on its way towards Sedna. Over the next few hours it grew rapidly in scale through the cockpit until it filled the viewport. Looking down Gayle couldn’t see any obvious settlements on the icy surface.
“The place looks deserted?” Weavel said from the hatchway, a bandage wrapped around his head.
Meers looked out scanning the view, “Don’t worry, they are there. It’s far too cold on the surface, the settlements are well below ground.”
Ty came up behind Weavel making him jump, “We can drop you off out there if you like.”
“There’s a nice spot over there.” Gayle indicated an enormous crater, earning him a vengeful look from the criminal.
Surprising all but Meers the crater launched a trio of interceptors, small but highly maneuverable ships which fanned out and sped towards them.
“This’ll be your honour guard Weavel,” Ty grinned.
“Quickly hail them! Or well be rubble, they don’t take kindly to uninvited visitors.” Meers said over Meron’s shoulder.
Meron slapped the com button, “Gayle, man the canon just in case.”
“No!” Meers jumped, but Gayle had already powered up the gun. “They’ll detect that our weapons systems are active!”
Immediately the three vessels responded, two banking hard to the left and right, the third continuing straight for them.
“Turn off the gun!” Meers pleaded.
Meron slapped the hailing button again.
Gayle looked at Meron, “Captain?”
A shot from the lead vessel zipped past them, narrowly missing as Meron swerved Achilles downward. A millisecond later two more shots followed.
“Meron, that was a warning, the next won’t be so friendly – switch off the canon!”
Without waiting for orders Gayle disarmed the canon.
“What are you doing!” Meron cried.
Gayle shook his head, “We’re dead if we try to fight.”
Meers lent across Meron and pressed the hail button.
This time the screen lit up and one of the interceptors’ pilots appeared, his eyes covered by a reflective visor. “This is Flight Lieutenant Vargus, this is restricted space, identify yourselves immediately,” he spoke mechanically.
Meers pushed his way in front of Meron, “This is Captain Edward Meers of the Achilles, I’m delivering a cargo of electronics, please hold your fire!”
The monitor went dead for a moment before a response came back. “Explain yourself Captain – where is your usual ship and why were your weapons systems active?”
“Apologies Lieutenant, my usual ship sustained damage on my last return trip and is presently being repaired. As for our weapons system, I have a new weapons officer who accidentally activated our weapons but as you can see they are now offline – we mean no harm and only seek to conclude our business.”
“Captain Meers, this is highly irregular. Cut you engines and hold position, any deviation from this will result in immediate termination of your ship. Please forward your security code now.” The lieutenant said.
Meers pulled out a card that he had concealed on a lanyard beneath his shirt and inserted it into a slot on the control panel. “Acknowledged.” He replied.
“Captain Meers, I am referring this to Icarus command, please standby.” Immediately the screen flicked off and on cue everyone took a breath.
Meron was about to berate Gayle for not following orders when the screen flickered back to life, “Achilles, you have been cleared to land. Please follow my lead. Any deviation will result in immediate termination of your ship.”
Meers responded, “Acknowledged.”
The lead interceptor banked sharply in front of them and circled gracefully back towards the crater, guide lights flashing. The remaining two took up flanking positions behind and alongside Achilles.
Gayle lent forward to watch as they plunged into the crater. It evolved into a vertical shaft, the icy walls closing in around them. Traveling downward his thoughts drifted back in time to his youth among the asteroid mines around Ceres. Life was simple then, dragged around by his prospecting parents into forsaken places like this – a lot of holes in the ground. Everything panned out well enough in those days, until the war interrupted lives and ended others. He clenched his teeth with trepidation. What awaited them here he had no idea but he bet there was trouble ahead.