The Captain’s Passage



            Captain Bill Grosny stood on the bridge of his command, looking at the stars through the fore windows.  His command was a medium sized hauler that could barely turn and was on her way from Earth to the asteroid belt beyond Mars.  His mission was an unremarkable one, taking cargo to an asteroid mine.  In the hold were a few small boxes of food and supplies and one cargo container of confidential contents.  The container was large enough to hold a small passenger spacecraft and nearly filled the cargo hold.  Captain Grosny knew that the company could never get away with shipping cargo without knowing what it was on Earth, but there were no regulations off-planet.  He had been doing this for twenty years, having started as a steward on a spaceliner to the moon and back, and worked his way into the company’s astronaut school.  He had enough in the bank to buy his own ship, but the company had offered to make him a captain, which meant he owned any craft they gave him, for all practical purposes.  It was much easier than being an independent shipper and scrounging for his own customers. 

            He was forty-five years old, tall, lean and dressed in an outdated military-style uniform.  His short hair and beard were black, sprinkled with gray.  Unlike most of the crew, he did not own a razor and simply had the hair on his face and head shaved off at a barbershop between jobs. He was standing in front of his station because of his hangover.  If he sat down, the bridge would spin around him much faster.  He hid his condition from the crew.  The other four crewmembers were all there at their posts, belted snugly into their seats.  None of them used the old-style magnetic boots that let the Captain stand in weightlessness.  They would rather push off the walls and float around than be clanking through the metal corridors.  All of them were correct people, dressed in the same striped overalls and having the same side-shaved haircuts that someone on Earth had decided was the correct fashion this year.  Consuming alcohol was medically incorrect, not to mention illegal on Earth and against company policy.

            The Captain was a closet Ex and secretly sought to create his own reality, to decide for himself what is or is not correct.  As he stood thinking, he complained internally, as if explaining it all to an imaginary confidante.  He knew why people were correct, now.  They made him learn it back in school.  The Terror Wars of the twenty-first century had provided the motivation.  Religious fanatics had attacked innocent people in each other’s countries in retribution for attacks on their own countries, or even over insults.  It had worked.  The attacks had spread fear.  Soon, terrorists would attack anything someone wanted attacked in the name of God, in exchange for donations.  When the more moderate elements of Earth society had had enough, an atheistic backlash brought about consensus. Religious ideas were not based in scientific reality.  Therefore, religion was incorrect and had to be stopped.  Society would no longer tolerate incorrect ideas or lifestyles.

Anyway, that is how it was told in the history books.  The Captain had often wondered how much of the history he had learned was real, and how much had been corrected.

Now, society provided a correct procedure for every aspect of life on Earth, right down to haircuts.  Many of the medically and socially incorrect practices had been made illegal, along with politically incorrect speech.  Even if you obeyed the law, if you listened to psychologically incorrect music or bought incorrect food, you would soon find yourself unwelcome and unemployed. The laws protecting citizens from anyone who wanted to look up what they purchased had quietly disappeared along with cash money and an employer, or even a friend or potential lover, could find out what you buy, watch, listen to and eat.  The Ex’s had found secretive ways around the system.  It was the secret network of like-minded people who spread philosophy and re-labeled purchases that had allowed Captain Grosny the incorrect pleasure of getting drunk and watching pornography in his quarters.

            Grosny knew that the crew did not respect him.  It gave him a warm, mischievous feeling inside that he had gotten away with incorrect behavior right under their noses.  He knew they would tell management if they caught him, to earn points with the company by weeding out an old thistle.  They were oblivious as they busied themselves at their posts, barely speaking to each other.  They were more tolerant of his idiosyncrasies than they would be of a younger man’s.  It was socially correct for older people to be set in their ways, just as it was socially correct for adolescents to look down on their parents.  Grosny did not even know their first names, with the exception of the pilot, Anthony Griggs.  He was second in command and he had done the correct thing when he tried to start a friendship with his Captain.  Griggs had made a point of spending an afternoon with him before they left.  He had presented his views, which were a copy of the monolithic perspective of Earth’s news media.  Grosny let him do the talking and he soon started to discuss the pirate problem. Griggs saw them the way the news stories showed them to Earth, as misfit criminals who escaped into space and stole to stay out there doing who-knows-what.  Grosny kept his grudging admiration for this splinter under society’s fingernail to himself.  He did comment that the pirates would be a threat to avoid on the mission and reiterated company policy.  Fight with the armaments you have, but give them what they want if boarded and don’t risk your life.  Grosny allowed himself the pleasure of speculating on what the pirates might do to a captured crew, so he could watch Griggs squirm and fake the correct amount of confidence in his own skill.  At that point, Griggs had decided they should review the crew’s files.

            One person could operate the hauler if necessary, but the crew typically included specialists for each function.  Grosny was the management specialist, giving the crew a single decision-maker to coordinate their activities and having control of all communication with other vessels.  Technically his authority was absolute, but official authority only went as far as the crew would accept once you were alone in space.  Any experienced astronaut knew that.  Griggs, an experienced crewman himself, would be the pilot, taking control during takeoff, unloading and in any situation that would cause the crew to turn off the autopilot.  The copilot, Lambert, was a young woman, freshly trained in all the latest technology and discoveries.  Either Lambert or Griggs would be on the bridge and ready at all times.  Then there was Hollaway, the maintenance specialist.  He was an office-dwelling software expert who had been lured into taking a voyage by a generous salary and benefits.  The last file Griggs presented for review was Mundo’s.  She was navigator, a teacher and astronomer who had taken the mission in order to make observations.  Except for Griggs and Grosny, the eighteen-month expedition was the crew’s first assignment. That was not unusual.  Not everyone wanted to be a career astronaut and most crewmembers took their pay and went back to their lives on Earth.

            The Captain’s thoughts were interrupted as Lambert, at the secondary pilot station to his left, undid her seatbelts and floated out of her seat. He was momentarily transfixed, watching her as she turned and pushed away.  He pretended not to notice how attractive the young black woman was, even in her striped overalls.  The pink soles of her bare feet caught his eye as she swam through the air toward the only exit.  “Bathroom?” he wondered vaguely. There was no real need for both the pilot and the copilot to be on the bridge, but there was also little to do in the crew quarters.  Grosny had not wanted to spend most of his time in his quarters either.  He tried to remember how long they had been traveling.  He had stopped keeping track after six months, Earth standard calendar.  In practical terms it had been long enough to know that craft and crew were under control and shortly before the time when the crew would have to be alert for the pirates that haunted the space just out of range of help from Earth.  Last night had been the best time for his one indulgence and soon he would have to be at his best.  In spite of his training and experience, he still thought in Earth terms, day and night, up and down, right and left, not in first, second and third shifts or fore, aft, starboard, port, above and below.  He still thought of the navigation and maintenance stations as being bolted to the ceiling because they were over his head when he was at the Captain’s station.

            Grosny clanged over to his station and strapped in, enjoying the relaxed snugness of sitting in familiar weightlessness with his boots stuck to the floor. Although painful, the headache he was hiding made him feel secretly outrageous.  He pretended to be doing something important as he opened the hauler’s self contained e-mail program.  There was nothing addressed to the hauler, but he amused himself by reviewing the communications data, reading other people’s e-mail that the satellites that made up Earth’s web insisted on broadcasting in every direction.  When he was tired of keyword-searching other people’s messages, he clanked back to his quarters for a private nap. 

When he woke, he grabbed the wireless keyboard fastened to the floor of his quarters and turned on the computer embedded in the wall without freeing more than his arms from his sleeping bag or unfastening it from the floor.  He ordered a robot to bring him a crate of food and the little round peanut with arms let itself in, carrying a plastic box.  The robot was equipped with a thruster, but was using its electric propeller to hum through the atmosphere without leaving a trail of exhaust.  It presented the box and waited.  Inside were neatly labeled bags of food and drink, vacuum packed and sterilized, cold from sitting in the airless hold.  Grosny selected a bag of meatloaf balls and a small carton of simulated orange juice before closing and re-sealing the box.  The robot hummed out of the room, through the corridor, past the environment suit locker and into the airlock that lead back to the cargo bay.  Grosny could hear the craft’s machinery closing and sealing the airlock as he slurped liquid through the bag’s straw.  He read the instructions for the meatloaf balls and placed the package in the microwave oven imbedded in the wall across from the door.  He had taken his boots off before his nap, so he floated lazily, waiting.  A loud, hollow pop sounded from under the oven’s easygoing hum.  Grosny’s spirits sank slightly with the realization that he had not opened the bag before cooking it.  The gray plastic balloon now filled the oven, with a hole in its side, hemorrhaging round drops of gravy into the weightlessness and bouncing against one side of the microwave as if it were trying to get out.  The programmed cook time ended and the oven quit, hiding the shameful mess it housed in darkness.  The Captain pulled out the disposal hose in the wall next to the oven and started vacuuming up the mess and salvaging what he could of his meal.

            The phone on his belt suddenly played the friendly music of an incoming call. The unexpected sound burst Grosny’s bubble of concentration and made him exclaim “Yuhu!”  He flipped the phone open.  “Yes.”

            Mundo’s nearly accentless voice and friendly tone was on the other end. “Captain, we are not alone.”  The small screen on the phone came to life, showing video of another spacecraft taken by the ship’s long-range camera array. She was sleek, shaped like a private pleasure craft built for speed and maneuverability.  She had wings which could be extended if she had to enter an atmosphere and carried four weapons that he could see, missiles that were too big to hide in internal launchers, and who-knows-what else stashed in weapon ports.  She could belong to one of the many militias that protected miners as they made their living hunting natural resources in the asteroid belt and anywhere else in the solar system they could stake a claim, the vigilantes that Earth’s governments and corporations secretly funded to solve the pirate problem or she could be a pirate craft.

            “I’m on my way,” Grosny said into his phone.  He grabbed his meatloaf balls, holding the bag so the hole was closed as he pushed his way back to the bridge without bothering to put his boots on. He entered the bridge and aimed himself toward the Captain’s station, narrowly avoiding a collision with Lambert, who was floating sideways while looking out a window at the stars.  She pulled her knees up and spun out of his way, brushing a wall with her bare feet. 

            “Strap in, Lambert,” Grosny said, his formal tone hiding the thought of how much fun a mid-air collision with her could be. 

            “Our friend is following a parallel course, less than a light second to starboard-below,” Mundo informed him without looking up. 

            “Close enough to light us up with a laser before we can turn,” Griggs added. “Mundo spotted her while using the cameras for her observations.”

            Something is Griggs’s tone implied that they would have been quicker to detect the other vessel if Mundo was not using the cameras for astronomy.  Even if the cameras had spotted the vessel a few light seconds distant, the hauler could barely turn, anyway.  If the other craft did shoot, hitting the target would not be a challenge.  Grosny addressed him sharply.  “Don’t cancel the autopilot yet.”  Griggs’s perplexed shrug said that he was not planning to.  “Mundo, keep an eye on them and let me know if they extend a weapon. Griggs, prepare to cancel the autopilot on my order.”  Both crewmembers responded “yes, sir.” 

            “Are they broadcasting an ID?” Grosny asked. 

            “No sir,” said Lambert, now at her station.  “But neither are we.”

            “Good,” Grosny replied.  “Hostile craft usually let you know they are hostile.”  Usually, he thought.

            Captain Grosny composed an e-mail to the other craft, asking if they had claimed the area and requesting permission to proceed.  He sent it through a communication laser aimed at them.  No answer.  After a few long moments, Griggs broke the silence on the bridge.

            “Should I launch pulsers?”

            “Don’t be so trigger happy,” Grosny urged quietly.  “Pulsers”, he thought to himself.  Since blasting another spacecraft into oblivion was not psychologically correct, the hauler’s armaments consisted of missiles whose warheads let out an electro-magnetic pulse that would overload any electrical system that was running at the time.  The hauler had half a dozen hidden inside her weapon ports, pointed at different angles. She also had two weak lasers facing aft, but they could barely melt a maintenance robot.  If Captain Grosny had had his way, they would carry the same kind of nuclear weaponry that the pirates, militias and vigilantes used.  It would be better to simply be disintegrated than to be left to drift until you ran out of air. 

            What the unidentified ship had was anyone’s guess.  Missiles all looked the same.  Probably nuclear, but they could have been pulsers or heaters.  Heaters were designed to detonate near a craft and produce a large dose of radiation on a selective wavelength.  Crewmembers explode, but not much else on board is damaged.  Pirates love them.  Still, there was no answer to Grosny’s message.

            “We could get closer,” Hollaway suggested.  “That way we could launch with a chance of getting them before they hit us.”

            Grosny was tempted to tell him to simply follow orders but, without an explanation, he was not sure Hollaway would.  “Closing in might provoke them,” Grosny explained.  “Besides, they would see us launch and we don’t have anything that could stop a missile.  We should keep going and watch them.  For all we know, that craft is automated.”  He had seen that before.  Small operations sometimes had more craft than people, so they would program a ship to patrol their claim.

            “That would give them the initiative,” Griggs pointed out.

            “Initiative or not, they’ve got us if they want us.”  Grosny let irritation show in his voice and punctuated the statement by squeezing a meatloaf ball into his mouth through the hole in his overstretched bag.  It was dry and he wished his juice carton were in his hand, not floating around in his quarters. 

            The crew followed orders and ignored the unidentified craft.  The other craft seemed to ignore them, but matched course and speed with the hauler.  Shifts went by, but neither craft made a move.  The crew was tense, but life on board the hauler returned to normal.  Each shift brought them closer to their destination.  Grosny made sure they all knew their orders.  No hostile moves or communication and stay on course.  He told his crew that there would be friendly craft at their destination, but that the unidentified craft would know it if they asked for help and help could not get to them in time.

            Mundo spotted the second unidentified craft closing in from behind when the hauler was less than six shifts from the asteroid mine, forty-eight hours at current speed.  Lambert had checked the fuel consumption and done the math, so they could get there as fast as possible with the fuel they had.  She and Griggs were facing the challenge of avoiding asteroids as they entered the belt.  Mundo had worked out a schedule of turns and times, so crewmembers would not be surprised by sudden changes in inertia.  Griggs and Lambert were taking turns, putting themselves on short shifts to keep from becoming fatigued.  Captain Grosny had practically lived in the seat of his station, even sleeping there and annoying the crew with his snoring.  The unidentified ship was with them like a shadow, responding to their movements and always at about the same distance away. 

            The newcomer looked like a cargo hauler, but judging by her speed and the tightness of her turns, she was empty.  As she approached, Mundo looked her over with the camera array.  She may have started out as a large cargo craft, but on closer inspection, she had way too many concealed weapon ports and must have been hiding an impressive arsenal of missiles and lasers.  Grosny recognized her as a typical vigilante craft, but was surprised to see her here, far from Earth. 

            Grosny’s computer chimed, letting him know he had new e-mail.  It was from the vigilante Captain, informing him that they had been dispatched to assist and that his craft would deal with the “bandit.”  Grosny read it out loud for Mundo and Lambert.  Griggs and Hollaway were off duty. 

            “I hope the bandit only targets them,” Lambert mumbled, sounding resentful.

            Captain Grosny considered trying to talk the vigilante out of firing and taking the risk that the bandit would be indiscriminate, but he knew that vigilantes were paid by the kill and paid well.  They would assist, like it or not. 

“Mundo, set all computers on auto-save,” Grosny ordered.  “Lambert, seal up.”  Mundo and Lambert worked at their stations.  Metal sheets covered the windows, ending the process with a hurried mechanical thump.  Mundo set the auto-save so that the computers would save their programs as often as possible, then adjusted the input so that the view of the bandit and vigilante appeared on all computer screens.  Captain Grosny got ready to push the button, opening the hinged plastic cover that hid it.  The power interruption button, known to astronauts simply as “the button”, was a tricky combat control.  It would cut off all power to the ship, to protect against an electro-magnetic pulse. Of course, all ships systems would cease functioning until it was pushed again.  Weapons, targeting, navigation, life support, everything would be out. All craft hulls were insulated from pulses, but a sufficiently bright pulse, from a pulser or nuclear detonation near the craft, would still overload any electrical system that had not been deactivated.  A captain had to gamble on whether or not pushing the button was worthwhile.

The bandit overheard the messages and responded by releasing one of the missiles clinging to her exterior.  The missile spun itself to aim at the vigilante and rocketed toward her. Captain Grosny watched the launch on his screen.  He knew the bandit was not an automated craft.  If she were unmanned, the whole ship could rotate to aim and launch without taking the time to let the missile aim itself, but such a maneuver at speed would knock out or kill flesh and blood crewmembers.  Mundo switched the view to infrared.  The bandit was connected to the vigilante by angry red lines of laser light.  Both ships had lasers extended, heating each other’s hulls and more beams from the vigilante groped for the missile as it danced a high-speed dance of programmed evasion.  A laser beam kissed the missile occasionally, but it continued.  As the missile neared its target, its tip popped off and hundreds of spheres scattered, pitched forward by the rocket’s momentum.  The vigilante’s lasers swung through the deadly flock, cutting glowing lines of liquefied machinery, but failed to stop all of them.  The on-screen view dimmed automatically as it was filled by a nuclear detonation that made the missile, spheres and vigilante disappear in and instant.

Captain Grosny pushed the button and the bridge became a lightless cave.  The pulse from the explosion probably would not penetrate the hauler’s insulation, but he wanted to be sure.

“They did not even get a shot off in time,” Lambert observed sadly in the darkness.

Grosny groped his controls, finding the button and pushing it again.  The lights and computers flickered back to life.

“How many people were on board?” asked Mundo, turning to look around the bridge for an answer. Her voice was tight with grief. Grosny saw the whites of her eyes, not liking that crazy look.

“Keep it together, Doctor Mundo,” he said gently.  He hoped that using her academic title would remind her of who she was. 

Lambert shook her head.  “Every life is precious,” she commented.  It was the correct thing to say.

The Captain chose to keep his opinion to himself.  He was thinking what a nice shot that had been.  Impressive.  He had seen enough action to know what had happened.  Someone on board the bandit had reprogrammed the missile’s evasion pattern, someone who knew how.  The vigilante had probably guessed that a missile that size would unload scatter bombs with proximity fuses.  They had held their own missile fire to avoid setting it off early and tried to melt the missile with their lasers first, hoping to turn it into a harmless blob of hot metal.  The improved evasion routine made the incoming missile too slippery for that.  Checkmate. 

“We’re probably next!” Mundo observed ominously.  “We can’t just let those murderers get away with this!  How many ships have they destroyed and how many more deaths will there be if we do not act?  We have responsibilities!”  She squirmed fitfully under her seatbelts.

Lambert turned to Captain Grosny expectantly, without looking overhead at Mundo.  The Captain kept his incorrect thoughts to himself.  The Vigilantes knew the risk they were taking, or they should have, and would still be alive if they had not provoked a fight.  They had been overconfident.  An experienced crew would not have broadcast their intentions by sending an e-mail and would have focused all lasers on that missile, rather than lighting up the bandit at the same time.  He paused, thinking of what to say.

“We have little choice.  My first responsibility is to keep my crew alive, so I am not going to provoke a fight.  If they wanted us dead or boarded, they would have acted by now.  Continue on course and maintain communication silence.  Those are orders.”

Hollaway drifted onto the bridge.  “That craft is falling behind,” he commented.  His smug look reproached the rest of the crew for failing to notice. Everyone studied the screens at their stations.  The bandit had slowed down and changed course, steering away from the hauler.  Thrusters on her side strained to turn her back on course as she drifted.

“Engine trouble,” Holloway chortled.

“Increase velocity,” Grosny ordered.  “Let’s gain some ground while we can.” 

“If we speed up, we will run out of fuel before we dock,” Mundo complained.  “We should launch now.”

Hollaway winced. “Bad idea.  There’s nothing wrong with her weapons.”

“Agreed!” said the Captain.  “Lambert?”

Lambert turned back to her station.  She poked buttons and rolled the track ball, carefully manipulating her computer. The hauler laboriously accelerated. Mundo concentrated on updating her turn schedule. 

The hauler hurried to its destination.  The bandit fell behind, righted herself and picked up speed, creeping up on the hauler slowly, moving delicately thought the outer reaches of the asteroid belt.  Several hours later on board the hauler, Griggs spotted their destination, a seemingly unremarkable chunk of rock that showed no outward signs that it had been gutted from inside by miners.  He turned the ship and plotted a straight line toward the rock.  An alarm sounded urgently, the words “fuel level critical” wrote themselves on all of the computer screens. Griggs’s fingers clacked urgently on his computer.

“We are not going to make it,” he pronounced.

Captain Grosny quit the puzzle game he was passing the time with on his computer without bothering to save.  “How far away are we?”

“Would have been two shifts at our current speed.  We will have to drift and hope they can tow us or fuel us here.”  Mining operations rarely had tanker craft or anything that could tow a spacecraft the size of the hauler. 

“Shsst,” Grosny almost swore.  “What if we jettison cargo?”

“That cargo is the reason we are here!  Those miners won’t like having to get it themselves and that unidentified craft is still following us,” Griggs complained.  “Mission failed.”

“Just answer the question.”

Griggs fiddled with his computer.  “We’d have to drift a couple kilometers, but we would make it.  I might be able to save a few drops for docking.”

“Do it,” Grosny ordered.

“But that’s our mission we’re leaving in our wake!”  Griggs was fuming.

Grosny typed on his computer.  He sent a message to the mining colony and dumped the cargo himself.  The hauler began to move forward with noticeable ease. The bandit’s engines flared in the darkness.  The sporty craft raced forward and slowed, hovering over the container that Grosny had jettisoned. The bandit sat on it like a mother hen, waiting for it to hatch.  The hauler moved on, steadily.

As they neared the asteroid, it opened up to greet them.  On the side facing the hauler, a camouflaged doorway slid open, exposing a giant, robotic beam that rose at an angle and extended clamps crossways, inviting the hauler into its grasp.  It was Lambert’s shift and she maneuvered the craft as slightly as she could, drifting toward the rock and its clamp.  She waited and watched as her craft floated on course.  She was also keeping a camera trained on the forsaken cargo and movement on her computer screen caught her attention.  One side of the container broke away with a flash. Was that a thruster?  She squinted at her computer.  The container crept forward and then its contents eased out into space.  The contents consisted of a short-range spacecraft, of the kind people back on Earth often called a bus.  She must have been sitting in that container during the mission, with her own life support system running for whomever was hidden inside.

The bus flipped herself over and attached to the bandit, hanging on tight and extending a hose-like corridor for passengers to use to get from one craft to the other.  The two spacecraft floated together for several moments.  The bus let go and eased toward the hauler.

Grosny’s computer chirped, announcing that there was new e-mail.  Grosny read it and opened the cargo bay so that the bus could slip carefully on board.  “We’re going to have boarders,” he announced.

Lambert spun around in her chair.  “Who?” She grunted the word.

            Captain Grosny silenced her with a look.  “Just be cordial to our guests.  That’s an order.”

            An elderly man floated onto the bridge, carrying a weapon.  Behind him were three flamboyantly dressed young people, with clothing and hair that was incorrect in the style of underground musicians.  The elderly fellow wore a plain gray T-shirt and blue jeans.  His head was bald and he appeared to have used none of the socially correct products or methods that would make him look younger.  The weapon he carried was one that Lambert, Hollaway and Mundo did not recognize.  Grosny knew what it was. It was a weapon rarely seen anymore, because its need for air in order to function made it useless in space and it could easily punch through a wall or send lead pellets bouncing around in an enclosed area.  It was a shotgun.  Griggs entered the hallway from his quarters, following the newcomers.  He looked like he had just awakened.

            “Nice to see you again, Howard,” Grosny addressed the old man.

            “Good to see you too,” Howard chuckled.  “Ready for retirement?”

            “I can’t go home after this,” Grosny declared.  He turned to the younger people.  “Are you three OK?”

The three young newcomers exchanged glances.  The one in front answered, “Doin’ great and glad to have escaped.”  He laughed raucously.  “Marvelous idea, packing our bus and shipping us here using your own company.  No way we could’a made it off Earth without you.”

            Grosny shrugged, still at his Captain’s station with the chair swiveled around in their direction.  “I’m just a fan of the band.  Howard here is the one who operates the asteroid retreat.  He’s giving us a place to escape to.”

            The three youngsters grinned at old Howard.  Griggs spoke up.  “I know who you are!  You’re those Ex musicians who were convicted of moral corruption for spreading your psychologically incorrect music.”

            “In the flesh!” one of the young musicians responded.

            “And you used our ship for a prison break!” Griggs protested.

            Howard leveled his shotgun.  “So?”

            Griggs took a huffy posture but said nothing.

            “Please don’t pop off that antique in here,” Captain Grosny requested.  He addressed his crew.  “I’ll be staying here.  Howard?”

            Howard spoke up.  “The Captain will be our guest.  If you want to stay here with us Ex’s, you may, but I wonder if you would be comfortable in such an incorrect environment.  Our rock used to be a mine, but now it is a retreat and home to about ten thousand of us.  We have our own thrusters, so if you tell anyone on Earth where we are, they won’t be able to find us, anyway.  We intend to refuel you and send you home.”

            “It was you who followed us?” Mundo asked, disapprovingly.

            Howard nodded.

            “You murdered those people,” she accused.

            “My crew defended themselves,” Howard stated.  “Look, if you intend to cause problems, my crew and I could hold you prisoner.”  Mundo blanched. 

Lambert spoke up, “This is just our job.  We don’t want trouble.”

            “I’ll get my stuff and be going,” Grosny told them.  “You are in command, Griggs.”  He unbelted himself from his seat and rose to follow Howard and the band off of the bridge, clanking in his magnetic boots.  He stopped by his quarters to grab his luggage, which he had packed with the few things of his that were not company issue, and boarded the bus using the tube that connected the bus’s side door to the hauler’s airlock.  Howard piloted the small craft gently out the aft door of the cargo bay, through space and into the hidden spacedock that now hung open and inviting on the face of the asteroid.  The hauler drifted into the embrace of the retreat’s clamp.  Robotic equipment filled their fuel tanks and let go before retreating back into its hiding place.



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