Mac Wallen was a short, stocky man. It wasn’t a build most people associated with zero gravity work, but his heft was deceptive. Mac had been an asteroid miner before embarking on a life of crime, and he and his crew were old hands at working in zero gravity environments.
That was what convinced Captain Vindh to bring them on. It hadn’t been an easy decision, from his perspective: he didn’t know anything about them, Mac and his crew had a history, and ship mutinies were on the rise. Vindh decided to take the risk—after taking great pains to describe what had happened to the other hires who’d tried to mutiny on his boat—and after a few months Mac thought the rest of the crew was starting to warm up to them. Cyrus more than the others, Amys significantly less.
“We are ready, Digger.” Sargrumshak cocked his head to one side, a natural reaction for Ggrlsha, but it looked awkward in his vacuum suit. Sargrumshack had worked with him for five years, first as a miner in the proto-ring of Obin, then as another hired gun on whatever ship would take them on. Ggrlshans came from a high-gravity world, but unlike most heavy-worlders they were quite adaptable in low gravity environments.
“Ready to go.” Fyis Kalik had joined Mac and Sar three years back, when they were doing a lot of security work for the Nyst Barony. She flashed a reckless smile and nudged the fourth member of their group, who was just finishing up fastening the seal of his helmet. “Junior is too.”
Adro Byt was actually a few years older than Fyis, but he joined the group a few months after she did and the nickname stuck. He bore it stoically. “Let’s get this done.”
“Hear that, Cap? We’re ready to cross.”
Captain Vindh’s voice cut in on the line. “Right, well, first things first. This just got more interesting.”
They were new to the crew, but they’d been around long enough to know that when Vindh called something “interesting” it was safer to think of it as “complicated and dangerous.”
“OK,” Mac said cautiously, “we already know she’s half a ship and tumbling nose over end. How much more interesting is it getting?”
Captain Vindh coughed apologetically. “OK Mac, here’s the deal. When the gunboat blew it turned into a cloud of radiation and bits of really sharp metal… and Amys just told me the cargo ship is going to pass through it in about… four and a half hours.”
Four and a half hours. Mac did some quick calculations in his head and estimated it would take half an hour to board, half an hour to return. That gave them a little less than three and a half hours to do any actual exploring.
“Not a lot of time to look around,” he said.
“No,” the Captain agreed. “Get to the bridge, or some kind of central station, and try to copy as much data as you can. Morgan thinks there might still be juice in the auxiliary power cells.”
“So we do as much as we can in three hours and come back before we pass through a cloud of sharp, pointy death.”
Vindh’s voice grew cheerful. “That’s about right.”
“Shouldn’t be too bad, really,” Mac said—as much for his own benefit as it was for the others. “I’ve had tougher jobs mining rock in the Tyrelos system.”
“That is true, Digger,” Sargrumshak agreed, “but we had equipment better suited to the job.”
Ggrlsha had an annoying habit of bestowing people with names that they felt best reflected their nature. Mac, for example, was called “Digger.” He’d been a miner for most of life, and according to Sar had never really left that life behind. Most Ggrlsha had another annoying habit: they were painfully blunt. While his observation was true, Mac wished he hadn’t pointed it out on an open channel.
Fortunately, the Captain didn’t find it insulting. Instead, he laughed. “I always planned on stocking up on some proper salvage equipment, just for situations like this… never got around to buying it. Tell you what: after this is over, make a list of all the things that would have made your life easier, and I’ll try to come up with some good excuses not to buy them.”
Mac grinned; Fyis and Adro laughed. Sar shrugged, obviously not understanding what the others found so funny.
“All right,” Mac said, “let’s get started.”
The apex lock took them to the outer hull of the Fool’s Errand. In the distance they could see what remained of the cargo ship. The front of the ship was mostly intact. Midship was where the hull cracked open; behind it a debris field of polymer and twisted metal spread out like a billowing cloud.
That wasn’t the tricky part. The tricky part was that the nose of the ship was tumbling. The other tricky part was that in a few hours it would tumble right through the remains of the gunboat.
As a miner he knew there were ways to stop or slow the rotation of an object in space. It usually took time and and significant amount of explosives, however, and they had neither on hand. This meant they were going to have to match its rotation the hard way.
Mac hated doing things the hard way.
“Let’s go.” Mac gripped the propulsion sled in front of him and felt his arms lock into the armrests. He hit the release button, then lifted it gently so it rose slightly above the hull. He looked at the others to make sure they were doing the same thing. Satisfied, he squeezed the sled’s grips and felt himself being pulled forward.
Leading the way, Mac glided through space, the wreckage of the cargo vessel growing ever larger. He watched the instrumentation on the propulsion sled carefully, monitoring radiation levels. The suits could handle everything they would be looking around, assuming Morgan’s sensor readings were correct—and as far as Mac could tell, the old man knew what he was about. But the levels were still high. It wasn’t likely that there would be any hot patches that exceeded the suits limits, but detox was unpleasant and cancer meds had very inconvenient side effects.
As they closed in, Mac realized that more of the ship was intact than he’d originally thought. Perspective in space was tricky: what had looked like only a very small piece of the cargo ship moments before was almost the size of the Fool’s Errand.
“Looks like there are six or seven decks to go through,” Mac said. “About 100, 150 meters per deck.”
“Good,” Vindh said. “That means there’s a chance all the burning and exploding stopped before it reached the bridge. You might actually find some intact computers.”
“I wonder what it was carrying,” Adro said. “Not that we’ll find out. The cargo bay didn’t survive.”
“If we can get a computer to work,” Sar growled, “we can look at its manifest.”
They were almost at the hull now. Mac angled the sled parallel to the hull, approaching the gaping hole at the end. This was tricky, because the ship was tumbling, and he had to constantly adjust his course to keep from crashing into the hull as he flew.
“Almost at the end.”
A stream of junk poured out behind the ship: twisted alloy of all shapes and sizes trailed out, making a great arch across the vacuum. Mac angled his sled to move behind the ship, and had to dodge quickly to avoid a large chunk of free-floating hull that appeared suddenly in his field of view.
“Still a little messy down here,” he warned. “Stay alert.”
One advantage of the ship’s tumbling was that the back of the ship was moving away from most of the debris. The main danger would be from bits of the remains that shook themselves loose, like the bit of hull he’d just dodged.
“How much time?” Mac asked.
After a short delay, Vindh replied “three hours, forty minutes.”
Mac gritted his teeth. It took them twenty minutes longer to get to the ship than he’d planned.
He adjusted his sled to keep pace with the ship, and when everything lined up he shot a line from the sled to the ship. He could see Sar do the same thing a little farther down, while Adro and Fyis moved into position to do the same.
“I’m reeling in.” The line attaching the sled to the ship began to retract, pulling it and Mac closer. The spot he’d attached himself to was a piece of exposed deck that looked stable—assuming he was right, it would allow him access to the interior of the ship while making it easier for him to leave when the time came.
The sled managed to keep pace with the ship—even more important, now that it was connected to the ship by a cable—and Mac didn’t turn off the propulsion until he was five or six meters from the deck. When he finally did, he was able to land on the deck and activate the grips on his boots without too much of a shock. Then, after securing the propulsion sled to the deck itself, he began to take a look around.
“I’m in,” he said.
Adro, Fyis, and Sar chose other decks to explore. Splitting up on a salvage operation wasn’t necessarily the safest thing to do, but they were pressed for time and used to cutting corners when it was necessary. Each called in when they touched down, then exploration began in earnest.
Mac saw an interior hatch—what was left of it—and stepped through. The other side was a different world: it was difficult to tell that anything had happened to the ship at all. The passage was dark, and the terminals on the walls were dead, but aside from the hatch there was no sign of structural damage.
“It looks almost normal here,” Mac said. “It’s a little creepy, to tell the truth.”
“Not down here,” Fyis said. Her voice was light and cheerful—pure bravado. That was the voice she used when she wasn’t enjoying herself. “Hull breach here. Lots of explosive decompression. Dead bodies everywhere.”
Mac stepped into a small, empty common area, hatches on each side.
“This is definitely a Tylaris Barony cargo ship,” Sar growled. “I have found the captain’s office. The door bears the Baron’s mark. There is also some auxiliary lighting. If I can enter the office, the computer should work.”
“That’s great,” Captain Vindh chimed in. “The captain should have access to all the logs. That’s what we want right there. Can you get in?”
“The door is locked,” Sar said, “but I can burn through it. Twenty minutes.”
“My deck was general quarters, I think,” Fyis said. “No auxiliary lighting. Lots of personal effects and clothes. Plenty to take if we had more time. No point, given our window.”
“Rec area here,” Adro chimed in. “No bodies, though. Makes sense: you don’t find too many people hanging around the the rec area when your ship’s being blown to bits.”
“Mostly useless stuff here,” Mac groused. “Empty rooms, no purpose that I can see. Maybe some maintenance stations. I think I’m wasting my time up here, Captain, maybe I should give Sar a—”
Mac stopped in his tracks and frowned.
“Give Sar a what? Mac?”
“Uh… hold on. I think I found something interesting.”
Mac stepped through the hatch into what looked like a miniature hangar. It was ten meters to a side, and in the center sat a platform with moorings that looked like they’d been released with explosive charges. The roof was gone—probably blown apart, but the interior showed no signs of scorching.
Captain…” Mac looked around the room, then up through the hole in the roof. He could see the Fool’s Errand from here, slowly moving out of view as the ship tumbled on. “I think I found a squib.”
A squib was an escape pod, rigged so it would look like detritus blown off a ship during a fight. The exit path was rigged to explode, causing bits of the hull to fly off in all directions. It was also usually a non-standard shape. If it launched powered down it could fool a sensor tech into thinking it was just another piece of scrap. If the squib was launched correctly, it could be hurled quite a distance before it needed to activate onboard navigation and engines.
“Did you now?” Captain Vindh sounded very surprised. “That’s interesting.”
“Yeah,” Mac agreed. He walked over to the platform and knelt to look at the moorings. He found scorching on the platform, and made note of the pattern it burned into the floor. “Definitely a squib. I found the burn pattern from the launch charges.”
“Right…” There was a moment of silence on the other end of the channel as Vindh considered his options. “I want whatever records Sar can pull from the captain’s office, but other than that I’m scrubbing the rest of the salvage. If there’s anything good to get it’s going to be on that squib.”
“Aye aye, Cap’n,” Mac said. “Team, you heard the man. Let’s help Sar, then go back home.”