Aphelion Issue 217, Volume 21
May 2017
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
   

Pop Fly

by N. J. Kailhofer


"Jack, take the deal" he said, rubbing the stubble on his chin. "You really screwed up this time. You could be tossed into space for this. Plus, you could lose the boat. You know how long that thing's been in the Graham family. Christ, your grandfather and your great-grandfather borrowed or stole everything that wasn't nailed down to keep that old military tug running and convert it for the Outfield, and look what you've done to generations of work."

He paused to straighten the round glasses on his nose before he continued. "Take the deal, Jack, and I won't have to rule on this. Please don't make me execute my own son."

"Dad," I said, "I've had to sit in this room with you since I was nine -- more times than I can remember. For Christ's sake, I know you're the judge on this station. I didn't do anything wrong this time, and even when this proves me right, I'm still only gonna have a fifty-fifty chance of surviving afterward. So stop giving me your guilt trips!"

"Don't be dramatic. It won't help you. Look, once I push that button, there won't be a way out. You will be a part of the system, and that machine won't stop until everything is out in the open. Everyone plugged into that channel of the Net will know. Take the deal, and I can keep it from getting out."

I squinted at him across the table in the dim room. "What are all these things you have hooked up to me?"

He frowned at me. "This is what we do in capital crimes. That patch on your skin gives you a chemical to make you experience the truth -- the whole truth. It makes you remember everything you said, everything you saw, even everything you thought. All those 'things' on your head scan every electromagnetic impulse of your brain and translate it for the computer record. By the time you are done, we will both know everything there is to know about the mess you caused."

He picked up a cable that ran from his panel and stuck it into the input port on the back of his head. "Since you've always refused to be fitted with the standard input device, the leads on your head will feed data into your brain the old-fashioned way."

"It's gonna hurt."

He continued, "The computer will automatically feed in time-encoded depositions, so we will both experience the viewpoints of all those involved, in the order they happened."

He had to be kidding me! "That's stupid. You can't know it all because the other guys ain't here!"

Dad folded his wrinkled, shaking hands on the table in front of him. Man! He looked so old compared to when I was in trouble as a kid. He was, what? 85 now? If we were back on Earth and he had to fight gravity, he could have been pushing up the daisies already.

He said, "Since they were SkyCom, a military inquisitor forced depositions from two of them. When I upload the depositions together with your own and your co-pilot's, we will have a complete picture of what really happened."

"Last chance, Son. Take the deal?"

I looked him square in the eyes. "I've got nothing to hide."

He pressed the button. "Think about what happened."

####

"Count is three and 'O'. Ryan at the plate." I leaned over the scanner. "Vaughn checks the runner. . . Gets the sign. . . Here's the delivery. . . Swing and a hit deep to center! Anderson back to the wall! He jumps! Way back -- "

"Jack, do you have to do that?" Bobby Anderson asked.

I thought Bobby looked nervous, but he always looked that way. I never knew what he was so skittish about; he was only nineteen, fer crissakes. Sure, I didn't pay him much, but it's not like anybody else offered him a job. Christ, it took him a whole year to pick it all up in the landing bays. Standard tugboat duty sucked, believe me. Those stuck-up liner captains always thought you were some dumb hammer-banger that was gonna scratch the paint on their rich-people toys when you parked 'em. Now that Bobby had his crap together and we moved out to the outfield, we were finally making a little dough.

"Kid, get out more. Enjoy life, why doncha."

Maybe I ain't as young as I used to be. My middle had an extra couple of inches, but so what? Last year I finished 3rd in the zero-gee wrestling competition at LaGrange. I've won that thing four times. Not bad for a 60 year old. People told me that I ought to start acting my age, but I said to heck with 'em. There's no place I'd rather be than where I was, out there in space in my flea-bitten rust bucket, God bless her.

"Not our lives, Jack. Nothin' ever happens to us."

I laughed at him. Bobby is a good kid, but he's got no vision. You hadta think big picture out here or you got tired of just catching these rocks and then leaving them for other people to work on -- or maybe you went nuts. Every asteroid we grabbed was money and another step towards something bigger. I mean, I may have been just another outfielder, but someday this old magsail and I were gonna be more than this.

I figure we were pretty shrewd. The sun did all the work, not us. The sun gave us the power for the magnetic sails, and they're just big loops of cable with a little insulation on 'em. The solar collector kept the lights on and the computers running. The sun pulled the rocks with gravity. We used the sails to push against the solar wind, but the sun did that work too. All we hadta do is think a little and put some sweat in now and then. We were our own bosses. We didn't live that great, but not that bad either. Lotta folks did a lot worse than us.

Bobby poured over the instruments. "You turn on the radar?"

I nodded.

"Why?"

The Proximity Alarm interrupted my reply.

"I'm on it," Bobby said. "Large mass, negative six by eighteen. Ten thousand kilometers." He looked downright startled. "It's a rock."

I sighed. It's his fault for not readin'. "Duh. Left three degrees, eighteen degree up angle."

"How come it's outta the slot?"

"Pop fly." Christ. He shoulda known that. "Don't they teach you kids anything?"

"No. How can it go through The Burner and not be in The Slot?"

If he wasn't gonna read the manual, I wasn't gonna do his work for him. "You work for me, kid, not the other way 'round. Get on the horn to LaGrange and see if anybody else called it. If not, flash a Fielder's Choice."

####

Thevin must have been blind. It was as plain as day on the instruments. It was his duty to monitor things, to observe this. I detected them hours ago. I won't do his work for him.

That slovenly scum should never have been put aboard. La Chouannerie was a good ship, the finest one I'd ever been on. If only they had waited a year, I could have outranked him when we sailed.

The alarm wailed.

Now, I had to tell him. "Sir, radio contact! Twin-sail outfielder, ten thousand kilometers. They have just flashed a Fielder's Choice on our cargo. There is no indication that they detect us."

Francois Thevin swore, probably at me. "Where, Lieutenant?"

"Dead ahead." I cursed him silently.

All anyone had to do was look at him. His uniform was a size too small, but he swaggered around as if he was trying to make up the difference. No Calvain would dare show his face if his uniform looked like that. His hair was starting to gray and you could see the fear in his eyes. If his father wasn't so important, I didn't think he'd still be breathing, let alone a Lieutenant Commander. He was always so sure he was better than the Captain and me.

I would have killed him myself if I could've gotten away with it.

"Where's our Russian today? Stumbling around, still looking for the right words?"

"The Captain?" He should have shown some respect. Captain Petrova had a fantastic career, and more decorations than Thevin would see in a parade. It was not fair of Thevin to mock the Captain's English -- there was not time to learn French before we left. "The Captain is outside the ship, repairing damage to the sixth feed line. Shall I call on the radio?"

Thevin's fingers drummed, probably as he tried to pick the least risky action. "No radio. Change course, Y minus thirty degrees."

Idiot! "We had to drain the sail charge to complete the repairs, sir. We have no navigation power."

Thevin pounded the arm of his chair. "Turn on the reactor!"

"Sir," I said, "the Captain is working on bare cable. Do you want to be accountable for what would happen if you turned on the reactor?"

That set him back.

My senior officer headed for the airlock. "Mark my words, Nicolai. I'll teach that Russian how to sail this ship if it kills me."

I knew he would misunderstand what I really meant, so I told him, "I would like to see that."

Pausing before the military-gauge doors, Thevin said, "Compute the course change and ready the reactor. When I signal you the Captain is clear, make the turn."

I bit back my reply. "Yes, Commander."

As soon as the doors closed, I said what I thought he could do with his signal.

####

Jack was watching me. I knew how to do this. This was not the first Fielder's Choice I've called. Ok, the others were in a simulator, but I knew how.

All you had to do is call the LaGrange Station in Earth's orbit or one of the relay stations. LaGrange -- now, that was a scary place. I didn't see how Jack could've liked it so much. It was just this big plastic and ceramic ball in space, filled to the brim with the scruffiest-looking pilots and asteroid miners you'd ever see. Every single one of them would scrounge or steal anything that wasn't nailed down to keep their buckets running.

A magsail looked like a butterfly with a picnic basket on its back. They had wings made of cable, about a kilometer long, in a loop. They ran parallel to the ship, stuck out from the main body of the ship about a hundred yards by these long towers. Once powered up, they produced huge, invisible magnetic fields that worked like sails, pushing their fields against the constant flow of energy from the sun. It was a lot like sailing on an ocean.

We spent almost all our time in the control pod, which was this windowed bulb at the head of this butterfly-like ship. The pod didn't have a lick of shielding to keep the mass down, so the only thing that kept you from being cooked were those invisible sails. They blocked the radiation. What made this thing seem even more like a bug was the radio and radar array, which looked like big antennae in front of us.

The main torso of this big bug held the bunks, which were just mesh that held you against the wall in the zero gravity, so you felt like you were a fish caught in a net. Under of the ship were big tanks. We called them 'lamprey' because they kinda looked like big parasites hanging off Jack's boat. Really, they were just bottles for air and the fuel for the engines, which we only had to use when we fired the perigee boost.

On the ship's back was the mitt. It was really this enormous ring of hooks with hinges in the middle of them so they could open to allow a rock inside of them, or at least, enough they held it in place. They closed like a hand around a ball.

All in all, the Uecker was a ship held together more on hope than on molecular bonds, but I knew Jack wouldn't have traded it for a mountain of gold.

"Fielder's Choice confirmed," I said. "You just signed on the dotted line."

Jack smiled. "Don't sound so glum, Kid."

"You're gonna lose your shirt, Jack."

Jack's happy demeanor faded. "What're you talking about?"

How couldn't he have seen it? It was right in front of his nose. "You took the contract to catch the rock next week. You can't catch this one, park it, and catch the one next week -- there isn't enough time. If you crash and burn on this, what am I gonna do? It's not like I could ever take Earth's gravity again, and there aren't many jobs out here I'm qualified to do, you know."

Jack glided back to the pilot's chair and strapped himself in. "Are you kidding? You'd make a great paper weight." He laughed. "Seriously, Venus will catch that rock for three long orbits. We've got more than enough time to park this one and grab the other for a big fat bonus. Enough dough for a set of circulation pumps or new auto pilot, or replace the plumbin' with something from this century."

I swore Jack lived in some kind of rosy dream world. I knew he did. "You're dreaming."

Jack shook his head. "Think in baseball terms. You're in the minors, like us out here in the Outfield. You're good, but nobody knows about you. Then comes a big game. Things go down to the wire. Bottom of the ninth and the ball is hit. It's goin' deep, to the top of the wall. You jump. Scouts are looking at you and they wanna know if you can snag it. If you miss, you stay a nobody. But if you make the grab, that momentum can carry you right to the bigs. To change your life, all you gotta do is make that one catch. You just hafta think this rock could be our big play."

Jack had a way of making things come out ok, but not without some big time scrambling on the part of yours truly. It's certainly not like he flew this thing by himself.

"I think that's pretty 'iffy', Coach. That rock is fast. I betcha this tub can't even catch it. You should have let it go."

Jack looked at me crossways. "Kid, since they started tossing rocks outta the belt, not one pop fly has gotten away. Not one. I'm not gonna miss this grab."

Another thing about Jack was that he never let me win an argument. He always had that inner attitude that he could work anything out if he took long enough. But this wasn't something that could be done quickly. The other rock was only going to wait for three orbits, and then it would fly out of there so fast nobody would catch it.

"I've done it before, Kid." Jack reversed the polarity of his sails so they began pulling against Venus' magnetosphere, slowing us down. "Look, it's not like nobody knew it was coming. The Ryan pitched this one."

"The who?"

Jack looked disgusted. "The Ryan pushed this rock straight at the burner, but then their batteries gave out before they could turn away. Their whole power grid fried, or something like that. They had live coverage for a week on the news, them trying to raise sail, trying to build an escape podů"

Jack paused. "They had satellite footage of the Burner melting 'em. It was horrible."

The Burner was the biggest reflector ever made by man, but mostly by accident, of course. A rogue rock bore down on Earth, and when they lobbed nukes at it, all that happened was to make a big hollow space in the asteroid belt, like a bowl lined with stones. That rock kept coming, and if it wasn't for Jack's great-grandpa and a couple of other early rock miners, that asteroid would have darkened everybody's day -- permanently. Before all that leftover radiation killed them younger than they shoulda gone, the miners were able to shove rocks in the gaps in the sides of the bowl and spray everything that was too dark with nickel and aluminum mined from the rocks around them. Took almost thirty years before it worked well enough.

That bowl-shaped cavity focused sunlight on a point roughly an eighth of kilometer wide. Asteroids are rotated on their axis and then shoved through the focal point on a trajectory we called Sagan's Slot. The energy from all that focused sunlight heated the rock to nearly white-hot, and the force of the spin concentrated the heavier mineral ores on the outside edges of the rock. After that, the rock coasted through The Slot on a year-long trip to Venus, where the we and the other Outfielders caught them and then threw them toward Home Plate, which was the orbit where the processor ships were.

"Nobody could reach 'em?"

He swatted my arm, hard. "You know how long it takes to get through space. The closest ship was three weeks away."

I swallowed. He was going on about this like it actually happened. It woulda been horrible if it had, but sometimes Jack pulled your leg. "How do you know that?"

Jack frowned, patting the arm of his chair. "This old bucket and I were dry-docked at LaGrange when it happened." He shivered. "Ancient history. Crank up the scanners. How fast is this mother spinnin'?"

I flipped two switches. "Laser tracking on-line."

At that instant, I simply could not believe what my eyes were telling me. It was impossible. I mean, it was totally impossible. "What the?! It's not -- "

A dozen alarms sounded.

####

"Captain!"

The doors opened before me. "Combat seating," I ordered.

I tried to take in the situation as I strapped myself into the five-point harness of the command chair. It was uncomfortable, as it always was. Why couldn't they invent something better?

Still, it was just a chair. An Orbital Captain could certainly handle an uncomfortable chair. I handled growing up a poor girl in Azerbaijan. I handled being a leader in a political movement. I handled being in the war that turned my birthplace into a crater half a kilometer across. I handled how hard it was to get ahead in the service as a woman. I even handled the lousy hand life had dealt me.

People I could not handle. Only in the icy wastes of space was there enough quiet to forget the unforgivable cruelty of human beings.

It took a long time to get out here. I crewed on a dozen vessels before joining these French. My experience made me a senior captain, and that was enough, regardless of their politics or plans. Their constant scheming hadn't made my hair gray all the way yet.

"Lieutenant Calvain. Status?"

"We have completed the turn, but they are in close proximity." Nicolai paused. "Captain, our fields will collide."

I turned to my first officer with contempt. "You didn't steer clear. Time until collision?"

Thevin spoke from the navigator's station with an embarrassed tone. "Four minutes."

Thevin was a sloppy officer. He didn't keep his brown hair combed, ate too much, and his breath stank. Once, just once, when I was very drunk, I slept with him. He was sloppy at that, too. The only things he had going for him were his family connections and the size of his manhood, both of which he bragged too much about.

I ran my hands through my short-cut hair. The short length kept it out of my way, and that was all that mattered. "That ship. What course?"

Thevin scanned. "They're climbing and turning to starboard."

It was tough to decide what to do. We certainly couldn't hide, not with an enormous asteroid on our back. I wouldn't abandon this mission. I wouldn't give up this life. Yet, I couldn't just destroy the other ship. At least, not yet. They were just men trying to earn a living as I would. They lived alone in the silence of space, just as I did.

I thought for a moment and ordered, "Turn port five degrees, ten degree negative plane."

Nicolai spun in the pilot's chair. "Captain, we'll head right for them! The interference!"

Calvain was a good officer. He was neat, efficient. He kept his blond hair well, and his slender build looked good in his pressed black uniform. Heaven only knows how he managed to keep it free from wrinkles in zero gravity. I don't really know why he wanted to live in space. I think it was to gain the status of a Captain one day. Whatever his reason, he was quiet enough for me, and he hung on my every word.

"Make turn, Nicolai."

My voice was calm. I had a plan. I always had a plan. "Mr. Thevin, Order 117 in three and a half minutes."

Thevin raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure?"

"Batteries only," I ordered.

####

"Talk to me, Kid!" Holy crap! Everything was wrong!

"It's a high-frequency mono-sail! They're putting out one heck of a field!" Bobby shouted over the wailing alarms. "No transponder! Christ! They're not supposed to be there! Look at all those gun ports! What're they doing?! They're turnin' right for us!"

"Radio!" Somebody really screwed up. When we got outta this I was gonna shout so loud the kids of these bastards would hear it. "Calling rock! Calling rock! We're gonna hit sails! Go low! We're going high!"

"No reply!" Bobby shrieked.

"Close the bulkheads!"

There was a burst of light from the panel in front of me. Just as I started to focus on it, soft burnt pieces struck me in the face. My eyes stung, and for a couple of seconds I couldn't see. When I could see again I saw sparks flying everywhere.

The sails struck each other! A hundred kilometers ahead two magnetic fields collided and the feedback was wreckin' the place!

The lights gave out. Bobby screamed as two streaks of electricity traced his body, searing a black streak across his fireproof coverall. I could hear pipes bursting inside our ship. The sound reverberated though the decking.

It was hard to breathe. The only lights were systems short-circuiting, flashing the room like strobe. Then it stopped, just like that.

I pulled a small tube from a pocket. Cracking the phosphorescent tube, I quickly mixed the ingredients and lit it up. Through the inky black smoke that was half-choking me, I could see Bobby in his chair. He was shaking all over.

"Kid!" I asked, grabbing his shoulder. "You gonna live? Are ya bleedin'?"

"J-Jack." Bobby had wide eyes. "I used my water ration to clean my pants this morning."

"So?"

"I need a new ration."

I struggled to read the instruments that still worked though the smoky haze. "What happened?"

Bobby regained some composure. "I think the batteries are out."

Oh, crap! "They blew up the batteries. The emergency system drained the sails for power, but the old status monitor didn't know we had a second sail out. When it switched, we lost the sails and all that juice was too much for the power couplin'. It fried the controls. They blew by us like we were standing still."

"I think I can get the blowers working," Bobby said, floating over to a maintenance panel.

I struggled to think, reading at the damage control terminal. "We lost the batteries and the secondary oxygen tank. D Module -- D Module doesn't even register. Radio is out. No radar -- " Spasms racked my body as the smoke overcame me for a minute. "Huh. Laser tracking works. Transponder circuits are shot. . ."

There was one of those ice-cold pauses before I could get the words out.

"We're losin' air."

Bobby turned as pale as the grave. "How bad?"

Jesus! Like I could tell from there! Probably really bad, in a 'we're all gonna die' kind of way.

Man, Bobby looked scared. He was staring at me with those eyes, begging me to save the day.

I forced my voice to be calm. "It should be fixed sooner rather than later."

I wondered what should I have him do. What should I do?

"Suit up. Shut everything off. Collector power to sail one only."

Bobby propelled himself toward the main breakers. "Why the sail?"

I rubbed my eyes. "It works."

"So?"

These jerks were gonna pay, by God. I didn't know how, but I was gonna revisit all this damage on their ship, so help me.

"Look, making off with our cargo is piracy. Law says we gotta find a way to stop 'em."

Bobby blinked. "How do we do that?"

I swore at him. "I don't know yet! One thing at a time!"

The power winked out. My tiny tube cast the only light. Ominous, eerie shadows flirted around the room.

"Ok, Boss. What next?"

I tried to think. I tried to think what grandpa would do if this was still his boat. "I'm gonna go out and check the main tank. You take a look at the batteries and see if there's anythin' you can do with 'em. When you get that done, check the ductwork to see if we're losin' any air there, and then fix the water pipes. String bypasses with that flexible hose."

####

"Report, Mr. Thevin."

"Captain, I hit the battery compartment, destroyed the radio and radar array, damaged the air cleaners, and there are marks on the far side from an explosion -- probably their power coupling." He grinned. "One little burst."

He disobeyed me. "Explanation, Mr. Thevin."

"What?"

I glued him to his seat with my stare. "Explain me how such was damaged. I told you only hit batteries. Explain me how you not calculate course right so must fire on unarmed craft at all. Explain me why you not pick up magnetic field hours ago! Explain me how you forget we must remain undetected!"

Thevin shrank. "It was unavoidable, Captain!"

"Then," I said, "explain me why we must leave two pilots, men like us, to suffocate in space!" My voice was as cold as space itself. "Loud, stupid bastard."

Thevin sneered, "It's not like they can call for help."

I was sure that at that moment, my face must have seemed cold as stone, but underneath I was boiling with rage. "Contact made is end of mission. Entire solar system will know your family secret."

Thevin turned in his seat, swallowing hard. "I would remind the Captain that she has as much at stake as the rest of us." He paused, and then resumed his swaggering fašade. "Kill them. They won't be missed for at least a month."

"I should kill for you? Wasn't last time I kill for your cause enough?" I wanted to loose a string of profanity that would peal the paint off of the walls, and some of the insults that came to mind I hadn't thought since I was a street urchin in a place that didn't exist anymore. Back then I wasn't supposed to even know to think them, let alone bark them from the rooftops at the other side. "You lose too much time for us when you miscalculate course at belt! We're too far away to board them, to make look like accident, and we can't launch missile -- SkyCom would detect such. Few options now for me."

Nicolai called out, "Target is slowing and will soon reverse its direction." His face was full of surprise. "Captain, I think they are trying to follow us."

"How?"

Thevin read the analysis. "They're raising a sail."

A sail? I was glad they were not dead, but then again, I could soon have had to kill them to conceal us.

I felt old, weary. "Flight time to Brittany Station?"

Thevin computed the course. "Four days, twenty-one hours."

"Time until target intercept at half speed us?"

"Thirty-four hours."

"Very well," Petrova said. "Slow to half speed."

"Captain!" Thevin shouted, "We're already a day behind schedule. We've only six days, you know!"

"Control your tone, mister."

His face was red. "What the hell does my tone have to do with it?"

I ignored him. "Nicolai, contact Brittany Station on scrambler, narrow beam. Tell them we changing to emergency rendezvous point. Will reach objective seventh day and transfer cargo on way to Dauphin Major."

"Aye, ma'am."

"Delay good for us. Gives time to handle things more quiet." I unstrapped myself. "When maneuver complete, drain sail charge so repairs may be done." I turned to my first officer and drilled with a voice as hard as steel. "Mr. Thevin, you come outside with me now."

####

His fingers drummed the table. "Jack, are you sure that no one had called the rock before you?"

"What, your fancy instruments didn't write that part down?"

He was unfazed. "What did you do to make sure that this was an available catch? It was out of the slot, in foul territory where you weren't supposed to be."

I think he used to be smarter. "We called LaGrange and confirmed a fielder's choice. If someone else had called it, we would have heard about it."

Dad took off his glasses and stared at me. "Military missions are not logged at LaGrange. They're SkyCom. They're classified. Did you scan the rock for power emissions or other electronic signatures?"

I paused. "No."

"It is part of the rules. Rules that you should know by now."

My dander was getting up. "I did everything by the straight and narrow."

He gave me a patronizing look. "I'll be the judge of that."

####

When he came back in, Jack had looked better. "Gimmie the news."

I paused and looked around. My control panel was half-smashed. Spreading out from the panel, tiny scorching fingers of fire had left their mark as they had leapt across to my chair, and up my arms. The ceiling was black with soot, the walls outlined with scorched and blistered power conduit lines. One of the blades on the air fan was dribbled at the edges from the heat, causing it to lurch as it ran. About a third of the data lines functioned. Half the systems of the ship weren't talking to each other. Those that still worked carried on their last task, even if it was something bad for the systems around them. They were all slowly starving, dying without the electricity that could spring us all from the grave.

I swallowed hard. "Good or bad first?"

"Bad." Jack took off his helmet and left it slowly rotating counter-clockwise in air near the airlock. My own was stuck to a piece of Velcro on the bulkhead next to it.

"The air scrubbers are shot. CO2 poisoning in four hours."

I didn't want to die. I've always been afraid that I'd do something wrong out here and get myself or Jack killed. I mean, it was a harsh place, space. Zero error margin. And here I didn't even do anything wrong and we were still goners.

Jack looked old. I mean, sure, he was around sixty, but I never saw him in quite that way before. He had wrinkles by his eyes. How did I miss them before?

He sighed. "Can we flush through the airlock and cycle with air from the tank?"

I frowned at him. "No good. We have enough air to breathe for two days or for the Venus boost. Not both."

Jack rubbed his eyes. "So what's the good news?"

"Four of the batteries are ok. We've got some power."

"You call that good?" Jack grabbed the handrails by the lock door and butted his head against the wall. "Four out of eighteen batteries!? That ain't enough to run the head!"

My throat was dry, and I felt kind of itchy. "Please tell me we got a chance, Jack."

Jack didn't answer for a long time. Every second he waited my throat got worse.

"Kid, were you any good in Bio?"

Bio was not a bragging point of mine. "I passed. Barely."

"That's better than me. We got a chance."

He swam ahead of me down the weightless corridor. He stopped at the workshop, a half machine shop, and half storage space. He immediately set about digging through the bags, crates, and monstrous snarls of cabling.

"Got it!" he shouted, pulling out a small, sealed plastic pouch with biohazard warnings all over it.

"Got what?"

He shrugged. "Spider Moss."

Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

I shuddered at the thought of it. "Where did you get that? That's been illegal for more years than I've been alive."

There was an awkward pause before he answered. "This is an old ship."

Well, ok. In theory, I knew what to do. "If it's still alive," I said, "and if I can make it work, we'll still have to spend a lot of time in the hospital. Months."

Jack sighed. "But we'll be alive, Kid."

"Ok, so we get this to work. Then what?"

"Call SkyCom for help."

I blinked at him. Did he get sudden, temporary Alzheimer's? "How? No power, remember?"

He paused. "If I can rig a bypass, we can dump power from number one sail. Number two oughta be up by then."

That didn't make any sense. "Our system won't do SkyCom protocols. That stuff is hush-hush -- classified. We don't speak the same language. And besides that, Earth is on the wrong side of the friggin' sun."

Jack's sarcasm hurt. "'A+' for astronavigation, Kid, but before my grandpappy bought it, this boat was a patrol tug."

"So?"

"The control linkages are still all there. We can call any SkyCom base, not just LaGrange."

Holy crap! "You mean we hook the laser from the tracking system into the old links and call them using the SkyCom Mars satellite. That's slick, Slick."

Jack grabbed the second last air pack and his helmet. I slalomed to the galley, where I started to set up shop.

####

I found Bobby three hours later. "Kid," I said, hovering in the Galley doorway, "it's awful stuffy in here."

He was squatting in front of the table, his chin on the tabletop. He was staring at a centrifuge in front of him. Strapped to the 'fuge were three Petri dishes that were slowly spinning. The inside of the dishes were overflowing with a black substance with the consistency of tapioca and the smell of rotten eggs.

All he said was, "Took you long enough. I'm ready."

Holy Mother of God. I sure hoped I was right about this. "You sure you got it the recipe straight?"

He didn't look amused. "Well, if you don't trust my cooking, go without it."

"Gotcha." I pulled myself all the way in the room. "What do I do, breathe it in?"

"No, I don't think you want risk getting it in your eyes." Bobby said. "That might blind you."

Spider Moss was some scary stuff. It was moss that was genetically engineered to live inside your lungs. The spores wrapped themselves around the alveoli in your lungs, converting the carbon dioxide. It used glucose from the bloodstream for energy to strip the carbon atoms from the oxygen, so you always had the munchies. It was hard on your kidneys to handle all that carbon floating loose in your blood, and your pee turned black. Even so, you could get used to that.

The scary part didn't happen for two or three years. Grandpa had the scary part happen to him.

Something bad happened on some trip on this boat. The circulation pumps gave out or something like that. Grandpa picked up some moss, and he packed it somewhere. Probably the same place I found it, in the same pile of spare parts. This stuff was brand new, so nobody knew about the mutation yet.

So, he and Grandma used it. It got them through their scrape ok.

I laughed to myself. Grandpa used to win free drinks by betting people he could hold his breath longer. Of course, he could hold his breath for a year.

Then the moss started killing people. It mutated, and some of the spores started feeding on oxygen, growing inside your lungs like a tumor. After it grew big enough, it broke outta your lungs and into the rest of the body, feeding on and supporting the rest of your body. Grandpa said it was like having that feeling you got when your foot's asleep. Only you had it in the palm of your hand, behind your eyes, in the small of your back, all over. It was a long, and painful death as you slowly lost control.

They figured out a cure, sure. Two years after they were both dead.

The cure was to transplant a cloned set of lungs into the body and inject some enzyme that changed the molecular code on the surface of the moss so that the body's white blood cells identified the moss cells as an infection. In the end, you got a 50-50 chance of living.

Bobby began loading a syringe from a millimeter-thick fluid layer on top of the moss.

That was a damn big needle!

"Kid," I said, "I don't like needles."

"Don't look at it, Old Man. Take your suit and shirt off."

While I was wriggling out, the Kid grabs the syringe and stabs himself, right in the chest! Before I could get to him, he shot all that crap inside.

I have never heard anybody cough that hard or long before. The thought makes me shudder.

"Kid! Kid! You ok?"

Bobby shook his head 'yes.' When the fit was over, he began to load another syringe. "Coughing helps spread them around the lungs. They take about two hours to grow."

Whoa! "We don't have two hours."

Bobby nodded. "Yes, we do. We can buddy breathe off the last suit tank. I hooked it up while you were outside."

Oh, man. I didn't want to do this.

God, I was such a freakin', chicken-hearted screw-up! That crap killed them.

I couldn't think of anything else to do. If I didn't do it, I was dead.

What was that, like, a two-inch needle? And it got stuck right in my chest?

If I did this, I'd only have a 50-50 chance of living. Of ever having my own grandkids.

Bobby caught my eye.

I started breathing heavily. "Do it, Kid."

Bobby jabbed in the needle.

####

"What the hell were you thinking?!" Dad shouted.

"I was thinkin' I didn't want to die."

He jabbed a finger in my direction. "Spider Moss is forbidden for damn good reasons. After what happened to your grandparents you never, ever, should have taken that stuff!"

"Maybe you don't remember your grandpa waiting at grandma's bedside week after week for her body to die all the way because parts of her were dead and rotting while her brain was still alive!" After a second, he sat down. "So, you admit to taking an illegal substance that could have begun to affect your judgment. Maybe even right away."

I growled, "It won't try to take me out for at least two years."

He shook his head. "That moss was fifty-seven years old, Jack. It's probably in the advanced stage already."

####

I was in over my head. "Jack, where do I point the laser?"

He scowled at me. "SkyCom Mars is over the north pole."

Well, that was frigging helpful. "How high up?"

He shrugged. "You're the apprentice, not me. Figure out how high a satellite needs to be to stay in orbit and point the laser there."

I calculated as best I could. I really wished I had done better in math. "What do I say when I do figure it out?"

Jack scribbled a note. "Send that, and then we wait for them to tell us what to do. Send for fifteen, then wait fifteen. Keep it up 'til we get an answer."

I fed the message into the computer. "Did you get rid of the rest of that moss?"

"Yeah." Jack coughed. "That crap makes my chest hurt. Is it supposed to do that?"

I shrugged. All that I knew about it was a couple paragraphs in a history book and the directions on the bag. "I don't know, Fearless Leader. It could be bad moss or it could be the way it's supposed to work. It's before my time, ya know?"

Jack looked nervous. "Well, are my eyes supposed to burn?"

I thought about it. "I'm guessing since your eyes take in some O2, but there's not enough oxygen in our air, your eyes hurt. They'll probably keep hurtin' till we get new air."

"Oh, joy." Jack slid back in his chair, running out of steam. He surveyed the controls. Only half of them still worked. "This," he said to himself, "is gonna be expensive to fix."

Why was this happening to us? I didn't do anything worth getting killed over. "Who do you think they are?"

Jack shrugged. "Nobody from LaGrange would go for it after we called it, so it's gotta be somebody else. No independent I know of is desperate enough to kill over a rock. And they had guns, don't forget that. It's probably drug runners."

"Drug runners?"

"Yeah," he explained. "Hollow out a rock, build a tug around it, and you've got a moving drug factory that cops can't catch."

I scratched my noggin. "I didn't know you could do that."

Jack grinned. "Sure. You can do anything to a rock if it's made outta the right stuff." He unhooked himself and glided to a small locker at the rear of the cabin. He dug through it until he found a thick book. "What's the number of this rock, anyway?"

I found the number while Jack strapped himself back in. "30992748. What are you looking up?"

Jack flipped pages. "Chart of '87. It's not good for much anymore, but it's got a listing of all the surveyed rocks and what they were mostly made of. 3099-what?"

"2748."

Jack found the page. "That's weird. It's almost solid magnesium. That's only valuable to those French terraforming outfits, and they have their own suppliers. What would anyone want this for?"

This was probably the wrong time to be materialistic, but I had to know. "We're gonna lose the bonus on this one, aren't we?"

Jack sighed, frowning. "I dunno. We're sure gonna try, that's for certain."

"Yeah," I agreed, chewing on my bottom lip.

I tried to ask another question, but Jack was out. My adrenaline ran out then, too.

####

She returned to the cabin in her space suit. "Lieutenant, there's been a terrible accident. First officers' tether broke while outside the ship. Is gone."

Thank God, I thought, smiling with relief. "You promise he will not come back?"

"Afraid," she said with mock tragedy, "that impossible. And even if so, I don't believe him in shape to continue duty."

I nodded, feigning sympathy. I really hated that sloppy idiot. "Shall I log the death?"

The Captain shook her head. "No. They might plot back course by date of entry and find him. You are relieved."

Good. I was really tired, and floated toward the door.

"Nicolai."

"Yes, Captain?"

"His father very important. Watch what you say."

The thought was almost insulting. "Captain, I have always been proud to serve with you. I would not tell if they tortured me."

She looked at me crookedly. "I hope won't happen that way, Nicolai. Thank you."

As I started to close the door, I saw her switch the monitor so it zoomed in on Thevin's tumbling body. I don't think she knew I was still there, since she zoomed in until you could see where the bullet had pierced the helmet.

"Death takes all," she told the image. "Today, he took you, you loud bastard."

####

Fourteen hours later, the reply came. I didn't know if I was happier that we had help or that I had actually pointed the laser at the right spot.

SKYCOM MARS: IMT UECKER ACTIVATED PER RESERVE CLAUSE 947.1 PARAGRAPH C. PATROL CRAFT SGT. YORK EN ROUTE, ETA 256 HOURS. IDENTIFY UNKNOWN VESSEL AND DISABLE IT WITH WHATEVER MEANS NECESSARY.

Jack swore.

"What?" I asked. "Talk to me, Skipper -- what does it mean?"

"You just got drafted, Kid."

I said, "I became a pilot so I couldn't get drafted for Titan. What are you talkin' about?"

"Ever read the fine print of a tug license?"

"No." Suddenly, that seemed like a bad thing.

"Well, somewhere near the bottom it says that you and your tug can be drafted when they need you. All pilots carry the reserve rank of corporal." Jack began to think aloud. "Identify and then engage an unknown vessel. Why would we do that and not the York?"

Jack looked like he had something else on his mind.

"Jack," I asked, "you used to be a military man, didn't you?"

"Sure."

There was something important I needed to know. "Do you know how to fight and kill somebody?"

He paused. "I've never killed anybody, but I did make sergeant before my hitch was done."

I figured, just as long as he didn't win his rank in a poker game. "So, what do we do?"

He scratched at the stubble under his chin. "We need to slow them down until the Sgt. York gets close enough."

"What?" I pressed. "You got that look in your eyes. Tell me you got an ace in the hole."

Jack shrugged. "Maybe. If we get both sails up, we move like a B-class, right? If we rig up a radar dish so we can see if they're shootin' at us, we might be able to do somethin'."

####

On my monitor screen, I watched the two space-suited pilots working on their ship. Although they were mostly obscured behind the cabin, one appeared to be hooking up a makeshift radar dish and the other moving the tracking laser to an empty mount.

Nicolai entered and looked at the screen. "What is the big one doing?"

I wasn't sure. "It possible laser tracking damaged."

Nicolai assumed his post. "Captain, our weapons are on-line."

"Yes." He was very observant. He just needed experience. I wondered if the Commandant would let him live as a witness.

Probably not. Probably not me either.

"Has something happened?"

My head shook, almost imperceptibly. "No. Nothing for next thirteen seconds."

"You're going to fire on them?"

He seemed so surprised. I had to fire. I had to silence them. And even if I didn't succeed, they would soon catch up with us, and we would finish it. "They are behind cover. When returned to cabin they find no air to breathe."

Nicolai swallowed. "I do not understand, Captain."

"Difficult to shout for help when you don't have breath." He still seemed shocked, so I spun on him. "Point of shooting someone is silence, Lieutenant. Our strategy will fail if we discovered. Cargo must be safeguarded or Dauphin Major will not meet quota. Your government will lose Venus contract, and your faction will not win against your Parliament. Cost will be trillions, bankrupt your country."

He still wasn't getting the point. "Five thousand men in Service, like us, on Venus. Five thousand comrades to return to madness that is Earth."

"Ma'am?"

I lost myself in remembrance. "Stupidity of standing in hail of rocks to protect row of houses no one lives in, when poor have no homes, or blunder of troops safeguarding grain from rebels so that such can rot on docks instead, or madness of controlling crowd at funeral for man who shot at your platoon day before -- such is insanity of Earth."

These were my words, but they were not the images in my mind's eye. I saw instead a face, a tiny face with eyes that sparkled with delight as the giggles shook its diminutive frame. I saw... I saw...

My voice wavered. "My daughter was killed in Gyandzha. Did you know?"

"No, Captain."

"She three years old." I said. "A death squad took her. They shot me in leg and husband in head because our politics were not matching theirs. They left us on braided rug on living room floor and took her from our home."

My voice shook, and broke. "That morning I had done her hair in pig-tails. She was so pleased with them she could not wait to show to her friends."

Orbital Captain Alexandra Zakharevna Petrova. That was supposed to make it better. To quiet her cries in my dreams. It took a moment, but my stony mask hung itself in its usual place. "They took her outside to marketplace, and showed her some policemen. They tell her that if she take package to them she could go home."

I couldn't stop the vision of it. I couldn't stop the cacophony of sudden sounds and thoughts in my mind. How I had crawled to the window, saw them giving her the package, how I screamed and screamed for Lilia to stop. She couldn't hear me over the hundreds of people in the square below.

"This package was bomb."

Nicolai's eyes were wide. "I -- I didn't know. I am so sorry."

The hatred on my face must have been unmistakable. "In space is peace. Is silence."

"Yes, Captain."

"Earth is cruel place, with injustice blaring" I had to get out of here -- I had to get control of myself again. "You have watch. Wake me if situation changes."

####

I noticed something was wrong right away. "Kid, the airlock isn't cycling."

Bobby read the gages. "It says there's no cabin pressure inside the ship."

All that work and we still lost our O2? I wished I'd stayed in bed.

"Come on, youngster. Let's go to work."

Bobby goggled at me. "What?!"

We were right back at him being slow on the uptake. "Kid, we don't need air."

Bobby slapped the side of his helmet. "That's right. Because of the moss, we can breathe in our suits 'till hell freezes over."

As soon as I stepped into the control room, I let out a whistle.

"What?"

The Kid was blind. I hired a blind kid.

I pointed at the holes in the ceiling.

"Jesus. Why would they shoot at us more?"

I shrugged. "These guys are out to kill us. We musta found something we weren't supposed to and now they want us dead."

Jesus. They were going to kill us if I didn't get them first. I didn't see how I could disable them like SkyCom wanted. If I stopped them without killing them, they'd open up with that cannon of theirs until we looked like Swiss cheese. There were only a couple things that could stop a ship anyway -- "Get that radar up before they do it again."

Bobby strapped himself in and I started removing a section of wall panel.

"What're you doing?" he asked.

"Captain stuff." I unhooked the linkages to the damage control terminal and began running bypass cables into the tangled mass of wires and circuitry inside the wall. "That second sail up yet?"

He read the gauge. "One minute to maximum charge. Radar is on-line."

"Get me the best fix you can, Boy Wonder, and do it right."

The main view screen flickered as new characters began to flow along its edges.

"Hey!" Bobby said. "I didn't you know you had tactical display on this bucket."

I didn't think it still worked. Well, sorta worked. The screen was supposed to be showing different views of their ship, pointing out little tactical bits of info, stuff like that, but only part of that worked. I re-routed a dozen connections. It didn't do as it was supposed to, but the targeting display came on. I punched a few more buttons. Nothing.

"Let's see if this works." I said, yanking a big piece of conduit out of the wall. I ran it and a bunch more connections into the circuit breakers in front of me.

A warning light lit in front of Bobby. "Sorry, Miracle Worker. Electrical short."

"Shift to auxiliary control path C."

He frowned. "Negative. Whatever you're doin', it ain't workin'."

Where else could I get power? "Re-route it through the air pump control. We sure don't need air pumps."

His face brightened. "Green light. You got a hot connection. What are you doing with it?"

I strung a bypass and floated over to his station. I pulled a portable breaker box on a cable with me.

"Kid," I asked, "what do you get if you bypass the main resistor housing on the tracking laser, disconnect safety circuit four, and run it through the pump control unit?"

"Circuit four? That's for grounding out power surges with the hull capacitors."

The smile on my face was ear to ear. "It's elementary, Watson."

"That would mean," Bobby thought aloud, "that if something went wrong the sails would send their juice into the -- you made a gun!"

I patted Bobby on the shoulder. "And I thought you were brain dead when I hired you. Gives us one, maybe two shots."

Bobby worked the controls. "Uh-uh, Boss, it's a washout. Tracking doesn't center on them. Your old hookups must not talk at the same speed as the rest of our system."

I watched the screen. "It won't have to. See where that's pointin'?"

"Yeah. At their sail hub. So what?"

"Heat wave!" I stabbed at the breaker switch.

####

"Report!" I shouted as I butterflied myself through the doors and into the howl of wailing alarms.

Smoke billowed from the central computer stack next to where Nicolai struggled to put the last of the fires out. "The sail is no longer superconducting! Feedback to all systems!"

The sudden screech of the radiation alarm caused me to tumble, attempting to change direction in mid-leap. I flailed out for a handhold. I grabbed the first thing I could make contact with -- a burning piece of half-melted conduit.

The sound that came from me was not me. It was shrill. A shriek above all the alarms as I desperately tried to get away from it. I balled myself around my hand, struggling to extinguish the thick layer of burning-hot plastic across the palm.

I felt something grab my legs, something not hands. I saw Nicolai's feet grabbing my legs and pushing me toward the reactor panel. His knuckles were white as he tried to hold himself at the damage control terminal. His face told me how bad it was.

My eyes bulged as I tried to bite back the pain and reach the reactor controls. After three tries to reach the panel with my right arm, I jerked away from against my co-pilot's legs, torpedoing myself toward the panel.

I stabbed out my left arm, slapping the hand against the wall. The burning plastic bonded to the wall, gluing me in place.

I jabbed at the emergency shutdown buttons.

The readouts screamed at me. "Steam scramming to space from forward baffles! Jet force to push us backward into target! Fire aft boost boosters!"

Nicolai's fingers scatted over the keys in a desperate jumble to hit the right choices. "I'm trying! There's no response!"

The temperature gauge in front of Nicolai displayed the worst of it. "Oh, God, Captain!"

The thunder of the oxygen tanks rupturing chiseled my face into a stony, placid mask. I planted my feet on the floor and turned to wait for the fiery doom to flash into the room. I held one arm against the wall as if I was leaning against it, and the other held straight out from my side.

I said with a voice from beyond the world, "Mommy comes to you, Lilia."

####

I don't think Dad liked what he heard.

"Jack," he asked, "do you have any idea what a mess you've left me with?"

I shrugged.

"You single-handedly discovered a conspiracy that killed the crew of the Ryan and stole a commercially-claimed rock. Because of you a military vessel fired on an unarmed merchant, and that's gonna play badly on TV. Then you did some freaky stuff and blew up that rock and the ship crewed by the son of the head of SkyCom. Through your actions, the biggest superpower on our planet is going to go bankrupt, and the Venus terraforming project sold off. I have to arrest Commandant Thevin -- he ordered you to attack instead of The York, and that's against regulations. He probably figured you'd be slaughtered, concealing the evidence, and protecting his son, Francois."

"If their heads hadnĺt been recovered in the debris field, he might have gotten away with it. They all might have."

"This is some major league mess you stirred up. Is that what really happened?"

"Yes, Dad."

He did something he hadn't done since I was eight. My father smiled at me.

"I'm really proud of you, Jack."

####

I think I took it well. As soon as I got outta there, I found a noisy room full of people, lit a cigar, and bought a round of drinks.

Bobby fished into the room. "What're you so cheery about? We've got three months of hospital ahead."

I snorted. "Forest through the trees, Kid. SkyCom is gonna pay for it. And because we were put on active duty, we're not bound by that contract to catch the other rock."

Bobby smiled for the first time in days. "Maybe we can file an insurance claim to get the payment for the Ryan's rock, since we were technically in the military when our cargo was waxed. Or maybe we should file for payment and then go catch all four pieces and get the money for them again. And maybe grab that rock we were supposed to get, too."

I don't think I've ever been that proud. "Now, that is a big league idea."

I paused. "Partner."

Grinning, I stuck out a hand, and Bobby accepted. "But I'm still gonna call you 'Kid.'"

He smiled. "I can live with that."

THE END


© 2009 N. J. Kailhofer

Bio: By day, N. J. (Nate) Kailhofer is a plant manager for a small print shop in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. By night, he lurks the Aphelion Forum, seeking ways to be the bane of the Short Story Editor... He's been published in AlienSkin, Planet, and of course here at Aphelion, where he was recently made Flash Fiction Editor after many months of devising and administering the Flash Fiction Challenge in the aforementioned forum. He's been writing stories for over 25 years. Nate's most recent Aphelion appearances are The Game (Feb. 2008) and, in collaboration with some fellow members of the Usual Suspects, The Blind Collaborators (Sept. 2007).

E-mail: N. J. Kailhofer

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.