One Night at Kedasi 2:3
3. A Shrimp in a Vacuum
Tom waited in the cargo bay and scrolled through the protocols that came along with an official UCP distress beacon. There were too many to read in one sitting. For brevity, at the top of the list, in simple, bold type was: You have to stop. While all ships were equipped with UCP distress beacons, the cost of using them was prohibitively expensive. They were meant as a call of last resort and often had the captain weigh a decision of death or bankruptcy. From what Tom could read in their short approach, crew members were required to attempt communication, and if they received no response, board the distressed ship. There was a vague clause that allowed for retreat in the event of ‘undue danger’, but with the maddening lack of clarity, it was clearly more performative than a guiding principle.
To avoid the headache that followed reading UCP paperwork, Tom switched over to a view of the distressed ship. It’s callsign was the Bison-M, but the craft looked nothing like a beast of burden. Some ships, it seemed, favored functionality over style. Shaped like an oblong brick, the Bison-M was made up of gunnery decks and miniscule crew compartments for those that manned the gunnery decks. At one end, a slightly larger than average room was reserved for the bridge. The crew manifest wasn’t listed, the mission wasn’t listed, and the captain wasn’t listed.
“Bison-M, this is Zip Turbine of Nana’s Hog, do you read me?” They were well within boarding distance, but even so, Zip continued to try the comms. With each passing minute, her desperation became clearer.
“No one’s home,” said Lars. “But whatever caused that distress signal might be.” He pulled the slide back on a large assault rifle with an audible click that echoed through the hangar bay.
“Such a sunny disposition.” Zip checked her weapons as well.
Tom held a standard issue UCP Peacekeeper, the favored rifle of all ‘diplomatic’ missions throughout the galaxy. Zip had more than a few stashed away on trips as she conveniently ‘lost’ them on every expedition. Arms dealing was only a fraction of The Hog’s bottom line, but necessary all the same. The rifle was awkward in his many appendages and getting a finger anywhere near the trigger was a marathon task. Tom hoped that they would only need the weapons for intimidation, or better yet, wouldn’t need them at all.
“Bison-M, last chance or we’re coming aboard.” Zip paused. Five long seconds passed. “Right, I guess we’re doing this. Prepare to breach, two by two formation, everything goes by the book. No one splits up, no one gets lost, and if we see something we don’t like, no one plays the hero. A UCP distress call only mandates that we do a welfare check on those inside. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Techni holstered two submachine guns that attached to her arms by a series of chrome cables. “We’ll be model citizens.”
Zip cracked a smile. “I’d expect nothing less. Helmets on, let’s get this over with.”
Tom went to grab the oblong helmet for his vac suit, forgetting that he was holding the rifle. The weapon fell to the floor with a loud crash and he flinched, waiting for the report of gunfire. In his haste, he accidentally kicked the helmet, sending it rolling across the cargo bay floor where it landed at Lars’s feet with a hollow thunk.
Lars shook his head and bent to pick up Tom’s helmet. “Try not to drop this too many times. One hairline crack and you won’t have time to remember that you made a mistake.”
Tom grabbed the oblong helmet with multiple appendages, making sure he had it in a firm grip. “Thank you. I will be careful.” He lifted the helmet onto his head, and it attached to his vac suit with a snap hiss. In a turn of luck, everything fit. On Prota, there were tailors for every species imaginable. The problem was the universe was big, and human imaginations were small. While there was nothing quite like Tom on Prota, there were always people that were willing to try. Usually, he ended up with some ill-fitting mess that drained his bank account. The vac suit from The Manchesters felt like it had been made special just for him. A cool mist drifted out of the interior pores, moistening his skin, and making his nervous anticipation comfortable if nothing else.
Tom picked up his rifle between several limbs, treating it like a fussy toddler that might suddenly throw a tantrum and blow a hole in another crewmate. Then, he made his way to the airlock. The chamber was squat, square, and had a single glass window in the center. They were close enough that the only view was the polished black surface of the derelict ship. The Hog’s approach lights looked like the eyes of an angry god. Fear, plain and simple, rushed through Tom. Looking out the porthole, he had the all-encompassing sense that something had either gone wrong or was about to.
“Ok, just a short walk between ships. No big deal.” Zip pushed a large red button at the edge of the air lock. A metal door slid shut behind them, sealing off the rest of the cargo bay, and a hiss filled the room as the air left. Gradually, the sound died, replaced by the silent austerity of space. The airlock door opened.
In his year aboard The Hog, Tom had performed a few space walks, but never in high pressure situations. As a rule, Zip didn’t like directly docking with other ships and preferred the short spacewalk between them. It made for quick getaways and conformed to her rule of ‘no one comes on my ship’. So, Tom trained in vacuum often. Even still, staring out at the reflective surface of the Bison-M was different. The ships were only a few hundred feet apart, but in the intervening gap, there was nothing but stars. The derelict ship’s sleek surface reflected them, giving the impression that Tom was about to dive headlong into the void.
Zip jetted forward, small puffs of compressed air coming out the back of her suit.
Tom thought about diving deep beneath the ocean and did the same. This was no different than The Dropoff on Crustacea, and he had survived that. He left The Hog’s hold, feeling his stomach turn as gravity gave way to float. A wave of dizziness swept over him and he tried to focus on Zip. The trouble was, the closer he got to the ship, the harder it was to see anything but the reflection. Looking out before him, he could see only himself and the stars surrounding him. The dizziness came back in a wave.
Keep calm. The world was spinning now, he was sure of it. Tom adjusted his jets, trying to stop his rotation, but with each pulse, it got worse. He could hear muffled voices coming over his comms, but all he could see were stars. There were so many stars, and he was falling into them, end over end.
“Tom!” Zip’s voice cut through the haze, clearly aggravated.
Why would she be aggravated? Tom found it hard to remember why he was out in the void in the first place. Stars rushed towards him, fast, far too fast. The fear of falling forever gripped him, sending his heart into a mad flutter. How long would the oxygen last before he simply went to sleep and froze to death?
“Tom, slow your approach!”
Tom’s eyes snapped forward. The shining black surface of the ship was far too close, he was going to hit it, he could see that now. Tom reversed his thrusters in a panic. The top of his suit kicked backward, reversing his spin and sending him in a tight backflip. Overhead, he watched as the black form of the derelict ship passed him by, sliding through space like a silent leviathan. Tom stopped his thrust, but the spin continued in a sickening, ever turning spiral. “I can’t—” he started, but the nausea and G-force were too much to make coherent words.
“I’ve got him,” came a voice that might have been someone he knew, but it was impossible to say.
A series of small, aggravated beeps sounded in Tom’s suit, followed by a mechanical voice saying: “Exterior override. Exterior override.”
That can’t be right. The world continued to spin, the stars and the dark ship faded into an equal void, all black, devoid of anything but the deep need to not be awake any longer.
All at once, the world snapped back into existence, cold, and disorienting. Zip’s face floated before his, lit by the glow of her helmet lights. “Tom, you with us?”
“His vitals say he’s with us,” answered Lars.
“I… Yes.” What had he been doing? He could barely remember. Looking around, he saw the black surface of the ship once more. Ah, yes, that’s right. The stars were still there, but he was close enough to the ship now that he could see the surface.
“Thank hell for that.” Zip blew out a sigh of relief.
“Thank hell for me,” responded Techni.
Zip put a hand on Tom’s suit. “Techni just saved your life.”
Tom looked to Techni. She seemed the same as ever, cold, aloof, but she was looking at him. In her eyes, he could see something, even if he wasn’t sure what it was. “Thank you, Techni.”
She nodded; the gesture muffled by the restrictive motion in her suit. “We’ve still got Kedasi, and we can’t afford to be down a team member.”
Suddenly, Tom remembered the danger they were in and looked down for his gun.
Zip shook her head. “You let go of it in the spin. Stay close and stay behind me. We’re starting my spacewalk course from the beginning when we get back to Prota.”
Shame bloomed in Tom’s heart. “Yes, Captain.”
There was true apology and pity in Zip’s eyes, but it flickered and died as the captain returned. “Alright everyone, form up on this lock, we’re wasting air.”