By Aaron Gallagher
It took concentration to perform delicate work in the cumbersome gloves of the suit. The rounded fingers were metal-tipped, and bulky. Elise painted the tips of her gloves with luminous paint for ease when working outside.
The octopus found the wires and shorted the alarm. The device glowed green and she triggered the manual release. The door popped, expelling a breath or two of oxygen.
Elise slipped into the airlock and closed it behind her, shutting the door on the endless black of space. The inside porthole looked into the cargo hold. She glided through the cargo room with three kicks.
The head-up on her helmet showed schematics in blue. She found the environmental control room.
She flipped open the airtight seal on a container holding a large slab of green gel. She snapped open a metal vial sprayed dark liquid onto the slab. She sealed the container, turned the machinery to full, and crouched by the door out of sight.
At thirty minutes, Elise headed upstairs for the cockpit. Empty. She looked for the captain’s cabin. In the cabin’s refresher, she found his body slumped in a large rubber bag.
Great. He passed out in the shower.
Elise wrestled the naked man out of the rubber shower. Round globules of water drifted around them. She pulled a sedative pad out of her bag and slapped it onto Holland’s arm. The chemicals seeped into his bloodstream.
He’d sleep twenty-four hours in a chemical coma. She left him in his bunk pouch, cinch closed around his neck. His balding head bobbed in the breeze from the vent.
Back in the environmental control room, she worked the o2 scrubbers at full blast for thirty minutes. She broke seal on her helmet and sniffed the air, ready to clamp the helmet down the moment she felt dizzy.
The ship was hers.
Elise floated through the ship to familiarize herself. It didn’t take long. It was a small Beech Skimmer, cargo capacity of around five metric tons. The craft was cylindrical, with two floors. Cargo, environmental, and engine room below. Main floor above was one long corridor, sixty meters long, with the cockpit at the fore, two staterooms to each side, a combination kitchen, dining room, and recreation area at the other end. The ship was roomy for one, comfortable with eight, rated for a maximum of sixteen.
Down below she examined the engines, because no pilot she knew ran a ship within recommended specs. The big Beech was tuned up to 122% efficiency. She studied the specs to learn what he had done. She shook her head. Sure, he’d managed to coax more power from the big engine, but it would need an overhaul twice as often. She shut off the display with a shrug. They never thought of the bottom line.
She finished her inspection and sealed her helmet. As she kicked out of the airlock, she paused to admire the view. It was worth admiring. Pluto, with her single, sickly colony. The dock in orbit, half-full of ships in port, lit like Vegas, and shining like diamonds on velvet.
She slipped under Adage to where her Betty was Remora’d to the hull and went inside. She plopped into the pilot’s couch. All her controls were custom, larger than normal. She spent a lot of time in her suit. Only two hours had passed since she used thrusters to come alongside the bigger ship. She watched the displays as she worked the controls by feel. Her deft touch meant hardly a small thump when she triggered the electromagnet and sealed to the hull of the bigger ship.
She looked around the small cabin, dingy with use. The Betty was a work-ship and looked it. She kept it neat, but it was still messy in that lived-in way.
After a last look around, she grabbed her bag and thumbed the power-down sequence, keeping the power plant only alive enough to keep the electromagnet on and her wine unfrozen.
In the cockpit, she entered her flight plan and engaged, then she removed her suit. She shook herself out, tugged the simple grey shipsuit straight. It was a relief to scratch. She scrubbed her fingers through her brown free-fall short hair. Her eyes itched from the low-humidity atmosphere of her suit.
Twenty days from Pluto dock to Lunar orbit. It took one hundred forty minutes to get to full thrust.
Elise rooted through Holland’s stores. Among his other qualities, Efram Holland had surprisingly excellent taste in both wine and coffee. While the plastic didn’t improve the flavor of either, it wasn’t intrusive.
She opened a box of 2105 Chateau d’Yquem. She put a clip in the reader and stuck herself to the wall. She squeezed a globe of wine into the air and leaned forward to sip from the bubble. The reader displayed the text of Jane Eyre.
“Chapter nine,” she said, and the reader skipped ahead. She crossed her legs and arms and got comfortable.
“Holland. Holland!” She slapped his cheek.
“What… what?” Mumbles and grunts.
“Wake up, Holland.” She patted his cheeks again.
“Where? What?” His voice was slurry, drunk.
“You’re in the bathroom, Holland.”
His eyes fluttered open. They flicked around the room. Sink, toilet, the bag shower, and Elise.
“What am I… what?” His eyes were starry. He had blue eyes and shaggy blond hair.
“You have fifteen minutes. Take a shower. You need that. Use the refresher. Drink some water. I’ll give you some food. Then you go back to bed.”
He blinked at her.
“I… do I know you?” His burry throat ground out the words, roughing their edges like freshly-hewn pine boards.
“Nope. You gonna make good use of the time, or what?”
“Wait. Just will you wait a second?” He thrashed as he awoke more fully. “Just wait.”
“No. Fifteen minutes,” she said.
“Will you wait a sodding minute? Who the hell are you?”
“Elise,” she said. “Why do you care?”
He stared. “Never mind. I don’t care who you are. You turn me loose right now, or so help me-”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, you’re scary. Do you need the refresher or what?”
Holland tried to raise his fists. His bound hands were not threatening. He looked down at them. He was cuffed. He was also naked. He looked up.
“It’s easier to clean up if you mess yourself,” Elise told him cheerfully.
“You… you stripped me?”
“Nope. You were already naked. I found you in the shower.” She looked at her chronometer. Looked at him.
“Fine. Fine. Bitch,” he said to the bulkhead.
“Watch your mouth. Hurry up.” She floated backward out the door. “And keep something in mind, Holland.”
“My job would be far easier if I stuffed you in the recycler.” She shut the door in his face.
Fifteen minutes later she rapped on the door.
“Come on out. Slowly.”
The door opened and he drifted out.
“There’s a pack of soup here, if you want it.” He grabbed the bulb.
When he finished she said, “Get in your pouch.”
“Wait a minute-”
She showed him a double-shot holdout, loaded with low velocity soft-nose ammo. It wouldn’t pierce the walls, but it would do fine on him. Holland swallowed. He kicked to his pouch and climbed in. After he cinched the bag closed, she held out another sedative patch. He narrowed his eyes, but said nothing.
“Good boy. See you tomorrow.”
She slapped it against his neck. In seconds, his eyelids drooped.
She back to the kitchen panel. He did stock good stuff. She wouldn’t take from his ship– she was honest– but she would eat it while on board. Cost of business, she figured.
“Lunar Control, this is outbound 625, Luas, ready for departure.” Wilder sent his all-clear to the station.
“Copy, Luas, you’re cleared. Safe one.”
“Thanks, Lunar. Luas out.”
He nudged the drive and pulled away from the dock lane, eased the ship into exit vector, and hit the go-button. The five-second countdown gave him time to settle back. The thrusters fired and an invisible hand that pressed him into the plush seat. After an hour of hard thrust the engines pulled back to a whisper. Gravity got off his chest and he checked his board. All green.
The cabin air was cool on his skin. He always launched naked if he could help it. A wrinkle five gees was a knife in your kidney, and you’d piss blood for a week.
After fixing a drink he studied the documentation. His target was a light freighter last seen out near Pluto. The intelligence being days old, the ship was likely gone by now, but that was the place to start.
As he floated in lotus, the screen on the wall displayed a picture of the Beech-Aerodyne private freighter Adage.
Nine days in, Holland made a break for it.
He managed to cut the plastic cuffs on the folded metal edge of the sink. He had been scoring them a little every day, and Elise hadn’t seen the wear. When she left him to his business, he started the shower but did not get in. He twisted his wrists, grinned with pain, and the cuffs snapped. He tried hard not to pant. He played the water wand over the inside of the rubber shower bag to cover any sounds. He was out of shape. His muscles here slack, and his belly had gone a little round. Most pilots practiced isometric exercises– the only kind that work in freefall– but he hadn’t kept up. It was too easy to float around. Dangerous. By the time you realized how much bulk you had built up, you were stuck in orbit. You went down a gravity well and your heart stopped from the sudden strain.
He braced against the wall and propelled himself through the door, hard. The plastic panel banged outward. He reached out for–
For what? Elise watched him, startled, having just come from heating his meal in the kitchenette. Before he could orient on her she drew on him.
He glowered at the pistol.
She dug into her pocket and tossed him another cuff.
He had the sense to not fight. He cinched his wrists together, showed her how tight they were, and went to his pouch. She waited until he sealed in before she flew over with the new patch.
“Hey…” he said. “hadda try, you know?”
“No hard feelings, Efram. Good night.”
In a perverse fit of pique, she slapped the patch to his forehead. His eyes rolled up to stare at it as he drifted off.
After he was asleep, she fashioned an ankle cuff and a lead out of scraps in his repair bay. She floated his pouch to the refresher and secured the lead to the wall with pseudo-metal epoxy. At least he wouldn’t be able to cause any more trouble.
She kicked to the cockpit to check the radar. Ten days left until she pulled into Lunar Dock’s orbit.
There was a blip on the radar. She stared for a second. She zoomed in, tried to isolate the ident number. The speakers crackled, and a voice said faintly, “Emergency. Emergency.”
The word set her teeth on edge and spiked her blood pressure. ‘Emergency’ is a dirty word in space.
She thumbed the transmit button and said, “Unidentified pilot, this is B-” she stumbled over the name. “This is private vessel Adage, what’s the nature of your emergency?”
“Repeat: private vessel Adage-”
A feedback whine cut her off, then: “…peat, emergency. My oxy unit’s screwed. I can’t… I can’t repair it, me. Anyone out there?”
She sent again, “I hear you. Can you squawk ident?”
A hopeful voice responded, “Is… are you there? I-I thought I heard someone, me.” It was tinny, but clear. She couldn’t place his accent.
“I’m here. What’s your situation?”
“Thank God. My ship is the Luas. I’m out of Luna headed for Pluto and the belt, me. About two hours ago, my oxygen unit malfunctioned. I’m in a bad way. I don’t suppose you’re a mechanic?”
“Not that kind. What happened?”
“I’m not sure. I think my algae colony died.”
“What? What happened to it?”
“No idea, Adage. I changed it out at Callisto base a week ago. Now it’s dead.”
“Sounds bad. I’ve never seen that happen. Guess there’s a first time.”
“Copy that, Adage. I don’t suppose you have a spare?”
She scrolled through the ship’s stores.
“Your lucky day, Luas. I have a spare colony. You have to evac yours and purge the tank, in case it’s a virus.”
“Well, I’m already suited. I can dump it and scour. I can pay for it, me, I’ll be happy to pay for it.”
She could afford to be generous.
“Don’t sweat it, Luas. Call it goodwill. Your best bet’s gonna be exposing it to vacuum. Got any perishables?”
“Not that I’m upset to lose under the circumstances, me.”
“All right. I’ll pull along. You do what you have to, and afterward I’ll tether. You can wait it out in here. I’d suit up and help, but…”
“No problem, Adage, I understand. You’ve already stuck your neck out. I’ll stop and prepare for a hard dump, me.”
“Roger, Luas. Keep me posted.”
She thumbed off the link and watched the radar. The Luas killed speed. She did the same. Adage slowed and came to a stop thirty kilometers off his port side.
She pulled up what she could from the computer. Luas was registered out of Luna, a rental, just like her mysterious visitor said. Rated for prospecting. No red flags, no warrants.
She never expected company out here, but no way could she cruise past someone with a life-threatening emergency. Many would, but she had to sleep every night. Holland wouldn’t complain if she raided his stores. She’d have to explain right off who she was but that was okay. She had the warrant and the badge.
Wilder watched the ship, just in visual range, from inside his emergency suit.
He hadn’t planned on luck. Running across the adage en route like this was pure, blind luck. His information showed that Efram Holland was captain of the Adage. Maybe he brought a woman with him. It was a long way to Earth. Quill hadn’t said. Maybe he hadn’t known. Didn’t matter. He wasn’t here to write a biography.
He knew the oxygen plant story was thin, but he had been caught short, and forced to improvise.
Every ship carried an oxygen plant. Super-accelerated algae converted carbon dioxide and produced breathable oxygen. the generators were automatic, and generally trouble-free. When trouble happened, most pilots never get beyond the ‘check the manual’ stage. Wilder was not ‘most’ pilots. He knew how the plant worked, how to change the colony out, and what kinds of chemicals to keep away from it. Most ships carried a caustic epoxy puncture sealant he could use to kill it.
He knew the setup seemed fishy. The pilot was wary, but willing to help. Wilder waited until the conversation was over before he injected the sealant into the slab of algae. It started to blacken at the edges as the chemical colony died off. By the time he was ready to eject the mass, it was almost all black. He recorded it with his suit cam in case it came up in conversation.
He scrubbed out the tub with a sterile cleaner. It was ready for a fresh colony. He double-checked the computer to make sure the ship would stay parked.
He tugged the bio bag full of dead algae to the airlock and cycled out. He kicked the bag away toward deep space.
He didn’t admire the beautiful, empty space around him. He fixed his gaze upon the Adage and crossed the gap.
She floated well back of the door as the airlock cycled. Her sidearm wasn’t pointed at him, exactly. He peeled off his suit. His face was ruddy and rough with a week of reddish beard. He wore a tight blue jumpsuit. He was a thin, muscular man and she couldn’t see a gun anywhere. His green eyes had circles under them.
“I’m Elise,” she said. “Elise Rosemonde.”
“Wilder. And thank you, Elise. You saved my life.” Wahlder. An’ thank ya, Eleeze. Y’saved mah lahfe. She smiled. His accent turned a simple phrase into something akin to a song, tempo rolling gracefully between soft syllables. He stared at the gun but didn’t comment.
“Welcome, and glad I could help. Where you headed?”
He grinned. “I was headed out to Charon. I saved for two years to get that boat. I’m out to be a prospector. Hope to strike it rich, me.” His thickened accent distracted her. The trick served him well in the past. Some stereotypes died hard.
“Rough life in the belts,” Elise said.
“So I hear. But I leased a ship, arranged for a dock, and I’m gonna keep on till I hit, or I have to go home.”
“Or you die?”
He frowned. “Well… yeah, I suppose.”
Elise put her gun back in the clamshell holster at the small of her back. She kicked toward him with her hand out. He took it gratefully.
“Welcome aboard, Mr. Wilder.”
“Just Wilder is fine, me. Thanks.”
“It’ll be a minute while I dig out the new slab. Meantime, you hungry?”
He nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Funny; two hours ago I was sure I was gone. Now I’m famished.”
“Come on.” She led him to the galley. She displayed several food packets and a bottle of wine. He chose, and she set them cooking. While they waited, Wilder said, “You’ve got a nice ship.”
“It’s not mine,” Elise said.
“I’ve got the owner tied up in his bathroom.”
“Uh huh.” He eyed her warily. He held very still.
She smiled. “It’s ok. I have a warrant.”
“What?” It threw him off. He almost lost the accent.
“I’m a property retrieval technician. I’m licensed to intercept and apprehend.”
Wilder blinked. “You’re a bounty hunter?”
“Kind of.” The machine chimed and she pulled out their meals, parked them in the air, and sipped from her bulb.
“Wow. So… that’s why the gun?”
“Necessary precaution. Never know, do you?”
“Yeah. I see what you mean. What did the guy do?”
“Does it matter?” she smiled. “It was enough to get me out here and I don’t work cheap.”
“I see,” he said.
“Try the wine. It’s not bad.”
He sipped from his clear bulb of wine. He nodded in appreciation.
“Good.” He looked around. “Where’s the guy?”
“Like I said, refresher in his cabin. He’ll sleep anesthetized for the rest of the trip.”
She nodded. “I used a surgical disc. It induces chemical unconsciousness.”
Wilder ate some beef stew.
“That’s pretty handy.”
“I think so.”
“Can I see him?”
“Why?” She nibbled a pastry.
“I don’t know. Curiosity?”
“Well…” he said. “You say you’re here to get the guy. I never heard of that, me. It sounds fishy, you know? A little… creepy.”
“You’re welcome to go back to your ship,” she said.
He put up his hands. “No, no! I’m not… I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m just… this is weird, you know? I’m a dirt-buster. I took a six-week course in piloting and survey. I’m not really a space man, me.”
Elise said, “Yeah, well. I have a warrant. I’m a duly-appointed representative.”
“Appointed? By who?”
“Never mind,” she said. “What’s with all the questions?”
“Nothing. I got time to kill, me.”
Elise finished and tossed the containers into the recycler. She said, “Come on, then.”
Wilder followed. He watched her go, eyes on the gun. Grabbing it was risky. Try it? Or wait for another opportunity?
They hovered in the air before Efram Holland. She watched Wilder poke the man.
“Wow. He’s out.”
“Yep.” She didn’t move.
“Well, okay.” He turned to look at her appraisingly. “So, can I get some more stew?”
“Sure,” Elise said. “Come on.”
She turned away. He caught her from behind and encircled her neck with one arm, pressed the tip of a small knife against her throat. It lived inside the sleeve of his suit, which looked cheap and disposable, and was neither.
“No sudden moves,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I will.” The patois was gone.
She smiled, though he couldn’t see it.
“I could say the same to you,” she replied. He felt movement at his belly as she cocked the pistol. He had been so busy at her neck he missed the draw.
They rotated in the air.
“Well well. You’ll shoot me?”
She nodded. “If you cut my throat, you die. If you don’t get that knife off my neck, you die. Either way, you die. Which would you prefer?”
“You have five seconds to get that knife off my neck, mister.”
Wilder said, “Seems like a bad deal. I let you go, you shoot me anyhow.”
“I won’t if I don’t have to,” Elise said. “One-”
Wilder pushed off. Elise spun, the gun never left his midsection.
“Toss the knife here.”
He floated the knife to her. She grabbed it. It was hardened ceramic hull shielding, small and permanently sharp. The hull material from which it was constructed repelled micro meteors, and diamond couldn’t score it. She put it in her belt.
“That was ballsy. You stupid?”
“Calculated,” Wilder said. “You don’t seem the type to shoot me in cold blood. You said so.”
“You wouldn’t have stopped to help if you were. You could have ignored me, or waited until I ran out of air and salvaged the ship.”
“I’m not interested in what you have.” She nibbled her lip. “What are you really out here for, Wilder? Is it Wilder?”
“It is. I’m here for the same reason you are.”
Elise shook her head.
“No way. They don’t double-book a job like this.”
“I don’t think it’s a double-book. I think we’re just two working stiffs with different bosses who want the same package.”
“That’s too bad for you.”
“So it seems.” Wilder crossed his arms. “Now what?”
“Is your oxygen unit shot, or was that a line?”
“Had to make it look good,” Wilder said. “Killed the colony myself, though. No accident.”
Elise nodded. “The stamp of verisimilitude.”
“Right,” Wilder said. “I like to cover my bases.”
“So you have a spare?”
“No,” Wilder admitted. “I don’t. This was a last-minute plan.”
“You either don’t think ahead, or you have an over-developed sense of optimism,” she said.
“I prefer to think of it as motivated self-interest,” he said. “If I had a back door, I might be tempted to use it.”
“Ship stores are two doors down. Get your slab and get off this ship.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Does it matter? I don’t want to kill you. Besides, I said I would. I keep my word.”
“Thank you for that,” he said. She didn’t know whether to trust his sincerity.
“Let’s go,” she gestured. He set off down the hall. She kept distance between them. He pulled the slab out of the storage rack and turned to look at her. She motioned for him to come out. They floated back to the airlock. He let go of the slab to pull on his suit.
She wasn’t surprised when he drew a pistol from his suit. Over the barrel of her pistol, she watched him aim.
They both laughed.
“Doesn’t change a thing,” she said.
“Maybe. Maybe not. You might not hit me.”
“Same goes for you.”
“Look,” he snarled. “this is pointless. Let it go and walk away. You seem a nice girl. I don’t want to have to kill you. I guarantee my bosses are a lot nastier than yours. I’ll go all the way to the wall. If you do kill me, then what?”
“Who’s to know? I clean up, jettison the trash, and continue on my merry. Over, done with, gone.”
“Never happen,” he said. “You’re soft.”
She laughed at him.
“Wilder, you don’t know me. A judgment based on a single day’s knowledge, like to get you killed.” The gun never moved. “I was happy to help out someone in distress. I’m just as happy to remove a threat. Or competition. Now get in your suit and get the hell off this ship before I shoot you for the hell of it.”
Wilder didn’t blink; she didn’t flinch.
“Look…” he stopped, embarrassed. He raised eyebrows at her.
“Elise,” she supplied.
“Right. Elise. I’m sorry. I won’t forget again.” He looked pained. “But you’re in an untenable position. I’m about to lose my patience. You don’t want that to happen.”
“Make your move, tough guy,” she said.
“You don’t want to piss me off, girl,” Wilder said.
“Jam your condescension,” she said.
He was certain he could put two through her, but he wasn’t close enough to the wall or floor to kick out of her way. He estimated maybe a ten percent chance to avoid a fatal shot.
She watched him nerve himself for the shot. Her attention focused on his trigger finger. One twitch, and she would put a bullet in his head, followed by two more.
“Don’t try me,” she warned.
He laughed. “I’ve had enough of your mouth.”
“Zip it, jerk.”
“You don’t get it,” Wilder said. “You don’t win this, girl!”
“And you don’t get away with all your brain cells, boy!”
Their patience broke at the same moment.
“I’m taking this ship!” she snapped.
“I’m taking Holland!” he snarled.
A long, quiet moment passed.
“What?” they both said, and laughed again.
“You’re here for the ship? I’m here for him. Holland,” Wilder said. “We’re all bollixed up because of a miscommunication.”
“You drew first, Wilder. That’s no miscommunication.” Elise said. “I’m here for the ship. Holland decided he didn’t have to pay the rest of his lease.”
“Are you serious?” he guffawed.
He lowered his gun and tossed it to her. She snagged it with her left hand. Her pistol never wavered from his head.
He put up his hands.
“If I’d known, I’d have just said, no games,” he smiled. “I don’t see any reason to fight.”
She didn’t move.
“You can put yours down now,” he said.
“Because I gave you mine. I would have-”
“Why do you want him?” she clarified.
“Does it matter?” he countered. “You don’t need him. It has to be a pain to keep him quiet.”
She allowed that it was that.
“So let me have him. I slagged my oxygen unit because I thought I’d set a beacon on my ship and fly his back. Give me Holland and the replacement slab, and I’ll be on my way. Everyone wins.”
“It would solve some problems,” she replied. “But what did he do?”
Wilder shook his head. “Even if I knew, that wouldn’t be part of the deal. Client privilege. As it happens, I don’t know. My interest began and ended when my boss said ‘fetch.’ I don’t know what he did and I don’t care.”
“Cold-blooded, aren’t you?”
“Elise, it’s a job. I’m sure you’ve done things you didn’t want, just because the money said so. No difference here. They sent me to find Efram Holland, and I did. The question now is, what’ll it take for you to hand him over? Money? I have some.”
She sniffed. “I won’t take money. Not for a person. That’s not what I do.”
“You draw the line in strange places, you don’t mind my saying,” Wilder said.
“It’s my line to draw.”
“So it is,” he replied. “I didn’t mean to offend you. It was a legitimate offer.”
Elise lowered her gun.
“I want some wine. You want some wine?”
“What’s your deal with wine?” he asked.
She shrugged. “You know what gets recycled on a small ship. I don’t drink the water unless I have to.”
“Reasonable. I knew a pilot once who wouldn’t eat food that wasn’t artificial. He didn’t trust real food. Everyone’s got a bug about something,” Wilder said meditatively.
“Oh,” he said. “I have a problem with rice.”
“Yeah. When I was a boy, I had a dog used to sleep under my bed. You know how little kids are. Slipped my mind. Two or three days, I remember I used to have a dog. I looked under my bed. Not there. Under the porch. I thought he was moving. Thought he was maybe sick. I pulled him out and realized he was dead. Maggots.” Wilder shuddered. “Since then, I have a problem with rice.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
They passed a globe of white wine back and forth in the kitchenette. She handed him his pistol.
“You’re trusting,” he said. “But thank you.”
“Not that trusting,” Elise shook her head. “You don’t get the clip until you leave.”
He looked down. Sure enough, she’d palmed the ammunition. He laughed.
“Nice move, that.”
“Listen,” he started, “earlier, we got a little rough with each other. I wanted to apologize. I try not to be rude unless it’s necessary.”
She smiled. “It was all an act intended to intimidate the helpless little girl, is that it?”
“You’re not helpless. Yes, though. I don’t have hard feelings.” He stuck out his hand.
She thought about it for a second, and shook with him. They both had firm grips.
“Thank you for the apology,” she said. “I meant every word I said, by the way.”
He laughed and she smiled.
After a moment or two, she said, “What happens to him?”
“I told you-”
“I know what you told me,” She cut him off. “Don’t bullshit me.”
“Probably he’ll die,” Wilder said. “I don’t know the particulars.”
She rolled her hand in the air.
“If it were simple, I’d be here to kill him. Wouldn’t need to get aboard for that. I could kill him anywhere or hire it done wherever he stopped. They send me, or men like me, when they’re particular about the how.”
“You don’t strike me as a thug.”
“I’m whatever my employer needs me to be.”
“So the question is, can I live with that?” She toyed with her wine.
“That’s the question,” he agreed.
She drained the bulb.
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m pretty sure that I can.”
“All right,” Wilder said. “Good deal.”
“First thing, we need to get your life support up. You want to start that? Or don’t you trust me here alone?”
Wilder shook his head. “That’s fine. Shouldn’t take me but an hour.”
“I’ll get our boy suited and ready to go. Let me know when, and I’ll float him over.”
“Good enough,” he said. At the lock he slipped into his suit. He dogged the helmet, grabbed the sealed slab, and cycled the airlock.
She watched him go. The moment he was out the lock, she kicked for the bedroom, moving fast.
The radio crackled as Wilder pressed the chin plate in his helmet. “Installed. I’m activating the colony now.”
“Roger that. Holland is suited.”
He waited until the board went green. As soon as he confirmed the algae would bloom he headed for the airlock.
Outside, he jetted toward the Adage. He rounded the hull to find Elise was already outside the airlock, with Holland’s suit trailing along behind her. She hadn’t seen him approach, exactly as he intended. He emergency-burned his suit jets and collided with her. She bounced toward the aft of the Adage with a scream. He stopped his momentum.
“Sorry, but I decided I want the ship too,” Wilder said. He snagged Holland’s tether. Breath fog obscured the man’s faceplate. He watched Elise drift across the hull. She swore as she bounced.
“Sorry, sweetheart, but I won’t drag this guy back only to find that what the boss is after was in the ship the whole time.”
He tapped a control on the suit sleeve. He had preprogrammed the Luas to activate thrusters and put more kilometers between itself and the Adage, out of reasonable range of Elise’s suit thrusters. The Luas pulled away.
He shook his head. Bad luck for her.
“You shouldn’t have trusted me,” he said.
The channel crackled and her calm voice said, “I didn’t. The suit is empty.”
He grabbed for Holland’s suit. He could tell as soon as he shook it that it was true. She must have stuffed a damp cloth in the helmet to fog the glass.
“Where is he?”
In a muffled voice, Elise said, “I told you: I didn’t need him. I jettisoned him without the suit.”
Wilder thought hard. She’d be trying to get back inside the Adage, of course. He thrust toward the airlock. He sealed it from the inside so she couldn’t follow. He headed for the second airlock, aft. When it was sealed, he covered the inside of the vessel as thoroughly as he could. She wasn’t in the ship.
He went into the cockpit. He hoped he could put a quick end to her; she had shown him mercy. He couldn’t let her live. Out of the question. A quick scan showed the Adage carried no weapons. Maybe he could orient the engines and crisp her. It was a quick death, preferable to asphyxiation. He said as much.
“You’re all heart, you son of a bitch,” she spat. “But I’ll take my chances.”
“Please yourself,” he said. “It’s a dead-end either way. I thought I’d give you a quicker way out.”
“No smart-ass comments?”
“No begging? Good,” he smiled. “I like a woman with dignity. It’s just bad luck, Elise. Believe me, I am sorry.”
“I’ll record a message for someone back home, if you want.” The silence grated. “Come on, Elise. No last words? I thought you had more pluck than that.”
The speaker crackled.
“Nice ship you have here, Wilder,” Elise said. “Not sure about the décor. A bit cramped, weren’t you?”
He ground his teeth. Somehow, she had made it to the Luas! No matter. Even with Holland dead, he might still salvage the mission.
“Don’t see many ship-to-ship missiles on runabouts this small. By the way… how far do you think you’ll get before I blow you apart?” Elise’s voice gave away her smile.
Wilder growled. “What do you want?”
“You know what I want. I want the ship. I couldn’t care less about you. I don’t want to destroy the ship and I don’t want to kill you. But you have what I want, and that drops your stock significantly. We work it out, or I blow you to atoms and sell this ship on Phobos. They’re always looking for ships.
“Even if I felt like it, what makes you think I won’t just blow you up after the exchange?”
“I’ll shut down all your non-essentials except life support and emergency power. You’ll have to power up before you can get to the weapons systems. That gives me, minimum, twenty minutes to get gone.”
“We’re seriously going to do this?” he asked.
“I’m almost back now. I’ll meet you there.”
“Fine.” The woman had been fair with him. Even he would admit she had been fairer than he deserved. So much the worse for her.
She was waiting outside the airlock, well out of combat range.
“Get a move on, Wilder,” she said. “and you’d better make sure I don’t see you on my screens again.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You won’t see me coming.”
The implication hung there.
She gestured, and he activated his suit thrusters.
“Sooner or later,” he said to himself. “Sooner or later.”
Elise watched him go. She didn’t trust him as far as the end of her nose. Once he was aboard the Luas he’d see her bluff. She hadn’t been aboard his ship at all.
She scrambled into the airlock. She needed to move. She readied the ship. Time was short.
As soon as he reached the Luas he realized something was wrong. The cockpit was dim, but the readout panels glowed with full power.
The systems were fine. Checking the main screen, he saw he had full power and a clean atmosphere. She hadn’t powered the systems down. She hadn’t been in his ship at all!
He laughed aloud.
“I can’t believe I bought that!”
“Okay, so I was bluffing,” her reply came over the open channel. “Sue me.”
“What’s to stop me now, Elise?” he asked. “I’ve got all the marbles.”
“I don’t know. Good will?” she replied. “I’ve been straight with you, Wilder. You could just walk away.”
“Sweetheart, you don’t know me very well.” Strapped into the pilot’s chair, he reached out and readied his weapons.
“Oh, I know you better than you know me.”
“Yes, Wilder, that’s so.” She sounded distracted.
“Well then, tell me what you know?” He turned off the safeties.
“You just powered up your missiles,” Elise replied.
“Thank you. Now it’s your turn. Want to guess what I’m doing?”
Wilder narrowed his eyes.
“Go ahead. Speak.” Elise’s voice was playful.
“What? What’s your game?” Wilder sounded startled over the open com.
“Oh, sorry,” Elise said. “That wasn’t for you, Wilder. Go ahead, Holland,” Elise said. “Say ‘hi’.”
Wilder clenched his fists as the hesitant voice, slurred but intelligible, said, “H-hello. Hello, Wilder. Did Mr. Quill send you?”
“I’ll be a son of a bitch,” Wilder said. “How…?”
Elise retorted, “Does it matter? I’ve got Holland, I’ve got the ship. You blow up the ship, you lose. You need him alive, right? You raised on a busted flush, Wilder. Call it a learning experience and let it go. Turn your ship toward Pluto, and burn hard.” Her voice tightened. “You have ten seconds.”
“Don’t try to bluff me again. Adage has no weapons. Sure, you fooled me with the suit trick, but you can’t fool your way around a missile.”
“If you’re so sure,” Elise said, “fire.”
“You’ve got no chance,” Wilder said. “I can do whatever I want. You’re out of this.”
“If you’re sure, then make your play. Five seconds, Wilder.”
“No deal, bitch,” he said, and heated up a missile. Quill wanted Holland alive, but would settle for his death. He could still count this as a success. He readied the missile.
Before he could launch, the com relayed her last words to him.
“Watch your mouth.”
As he reached for the firing stud, the Betty shot around the hull of Adage. She closed the distance and fired her own missile at Wilder’s ship.
He had just a moment to realize what happened.
The Luas was a fireball.
In the cockpit of Betty, Elise shut down her weapons systems. She craned her head to look at Holland. She had taken the sleep inducer off him and slapped him awake to speak to Wilder. She gambled on that, but it paid off. It kept Wilder stunned long enough for her to get the Betty moving. Holland clung to the wall.
“Ready to head back?” she said.
“I have a choice?” He was very still.
“You have two choices. Go home or stay here.” Elise gestured at the debris field. The cloud of scrap didn’t resemble a ship at all.
Holland had made his choice already. There were times to press your luck, and times not to press your luck. It seemed to him that all the recent times not to press his luck involved this woman.
“Ma’am, if it’s all the same to you, I’d like to go home.”
She smiled and tossed him a fresh patch. He slapped it on his neck without comment and went limp.
She brought the Betty back around and reattached to the underside of the Adage. Elise shut down again. She walked Holland through the airlock and sealed it.
Once he was back in bed, she resumed course for Lunar orbit. After the initial burn, she drifted into the kitchenette, liberated some more of Holland’s wine, and settled in to finish Jane Eyre.
Eight days later, she guided the Adage into a private facility on Luna’s far side. After docking, she transferred Holland to the Betty and eased her ship away. She backed out of the hangar, swung around to the bright side, and pulled into her berth.
Two men dressed in military blues met her at the dock. They took Efram Holland from her.
“Welcome back, Elise,” the older man said.
“Good to be home,” she replied. “The ship’s delivered. And he’s alive,” she said. “Make sure I get the bonus.”
“Absolutely,” Smith said.
The younger of the two said, “Any trouble out there?”
“Naah,” she said with a shrug. “Nothing to speak of.”
By Alasdair Stuart
I LOVE this one and like it’s two flotilla-mates this month it takes a couple of established tropes and does all sorts of really interesting things with them. We’ll get to Elise, Wilder and the hapless Holland in a second, but first let’s talk about the common ground these stories share.
Science fiction is haunted by Ellen Ripley. She’s the spectre at the feast, a near-future Banquo endlessly invoked by so many stories and movies that want to get their ‘Strong Female Character’ tick and aren’t that bothered by their ‘Female Character’ one. That’s one of the things I find refreshing about these stories, especially when viewed side by side like this. Brian Trent’s The Nightmare Lights of Mars is intimately concerned with the collision between art, personal safety and alien ecology seen through the eyes of a female artist. Kameron Hurley’s Women of Our Occupation casts its female characters as an intimidating physical presence of the sort normally exclusive to men but even then gives them individuality. Here, Aaron Gallagher finds some fascinating middle ground between the two. Elise goes off into space to make her fortune on, it seems, her own terms. She isn’t caught in the path of an oncoming biological storm like Nightmare Lights of Mars’ Clarissa Lang and she’s very much a protagonist not an antagonist although her quietly seething resourcefulness certainly does echo Hurley’s women. Elise occupies a middle ground between the two and does so in a manner that’s as surprising as it is, in a dark way, fun.
Elise is a game player and a very, very good one and the only one she runs more of a game on than the hapless men she faces in the story is the listener.
Elise understands theatre, and also understands fear and her actions in the first act embody that to a tee. She carries a warrant, and sits behind everything that word implies to give her more authority than she actually has. She’s no more an officer of the law than the lead character of Boris’ Bar from last month but she carries herself like one and she rises to meet her problems, safe in the knowledge that, unlike her fellow pilot, she has the resources to deal with them.
This is the first trick the story plays and it’s a good one. So good in fact that the entire middle act and a good third of the final act are all about Elise being pushed by Wilder but not pushed quite far enough. This is a meeting of if not equals then certainly contemporaries and for a while it exists in a fascinating space between genres, much as the ships sit between planets. Go one step to the left and this is a meet cute which finishes with them going off to both fight and commit crime together. Go one step to the right and this is a slasher movie in zero gee. As it stands, the initial sparring gives way pretty quickly to some familiar, and very Earthbound language and thoughts. Elise wins, in the end, for two reasons. The first is she never shows her full hand and the second is the way she uses Wilder’s deep-seated anger at having to even deal with a woman against him. It’s a lovely piece of narrative Aikido, redirecting his misogyny so it dooms him rather than her.
Somewhere Ellen Ripley smiles approvingly.
Elise is a fantastic character, subtly reminiscent of Hurley’s Nyx and Hail Bristol from KB Wager’s Indranan War trilogy. She has Nyx’s hard luck and noir sensibilities and Bristol’s cheerful fondness for winning a game before it starts and if you’re interested in this sort of story I’d recommend both series unreservedly.
But a heroine is only as good as her adversaries and Wilder is a worthy opponent. One of Gallagher’s best choices here, and it’s an interesting one in that it also echoes noir and crime fiction, is it starts in the middle. We find out about Elise’s past at the end of the story, and even then, it’s sketched in. We find out what she and Wilder do for a living in a moment that’s both very funny and tells you everything about this world. To borrow a line from classic of the giant shark oeuvre Deep Blue Sea, this is a solar system of gliding monsters. Endless streams of stolen ships piloted by stolen people and running from every call because every single one could be the bounty hunter sent to bring them in. That’s what makes Wilder fascinating and dangerous too. He’s exactly as good as Elise, and he knows it but he’s never smarmy with it. It would have been so easy to make Wilder an oily sleaze and in fact he presents as a clean cut, amiable sort whose eyes aren’t quite alive. It’s interesting too to see the way Gallagher shows us they’re equals. Elise’s trick with the suit, Wilder’s with the algae tank especially emphasize that these are folks used to working with what they have because their lives depend on it. And when viewed that way it’s clear Elise isn’t just good, she’s also just a little lucky too.
Holland on the other hand is anything but. The hapless Captain of the ship is little more than a trinket to be fought over here and that’s honestly the point. He plays to me at least as the end case of the horrible situation the lead in Boris’ Bar is in. He’s got very little agency beyond the ability to decide to help the person who wants him alive. That’s not a failing of the story either but a feature of the world. This is The Expanse with the cruelty turned all the way up. This is Killjoys without the bloody smile.
And then, having taken us all the way out to the edge of survivability, Gallagher hits us with two bombshells at once. The first is the heavy implication that Elise isn’t even a bounty hunter, but rather a retrieval specialist, someone who excels at finding and recovering things whatever the cost. The implication of authority the warrant gives revealed to be exactly as wide as the warrant is. And then as we’re still reeling from that, that final line:
“Nothing to speak of.”
This is the twist this story brings to space. This is the explosion of biological life on Mars two weeks ago. This is the invasion last week. Near death, a battle in interplanetary space. A series of desperate gambits, all of which had to work, all of which did, rendered down into this. That ells us more about how dangerous this universe is than anything else in the story and shows us how it differs from the other two. Here space isn’t the edge of human understanding or the home of a relentless arm. Here it’s just a workplace. And one where every day is terrifying. The best example I can think of recently for this sort of fiction is the award-winning video game The Outer Worlds but this arguably has even more bite than that excellent use of your time. So, good luck, Elise, you’ll need it. And massive thanks to Aaron, MK and Mat for the original work on the episode.
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I’ll see you next week when as now we’ll be a production of Escape Artists inc and released under a creative commons attribution non commercial no derivatives license and we leave with this quote from Stupendium’s excellent song, The Fine Print.
Were you expecting adventure?
Were you hoping for fun?
My friend, you’re indentured
And pleasure’s exempt from your tenure
So venture back down to your slum
That’s provided at generous prices
Your worth is determined by your sacrifices
About the Author
Aaron Gallagher is a person that exists.
About the Narrator
M.K. Hobson is a writer extraordinaire whose work has appeared in many publications such as Realms of Fantasy, The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Interzone and Sybil’s Garage. Her debut novel The Native Star was published to critical acclaim in September 2010 by Ballantine Spectra.