Milky Way Repo
by Michael Prelee
Copyright © 2015 by Michael Prelee
Barrigan Three was a dump of a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A. Nathan Teller hated visiting this planet but repo agents went where the work led them. This trip out was for a potentially lucrative payday on a cargo vessel that had made its last delivery to Barrigan Three so this was where Nathan and his crew found themselves. The world was habitable only in the sense that there was air to breathe and water to drink. The air smelled of sulfur due to constant volcanic eruptions at the equator and the water had to be filtered to clean out the rotten egg taste. Nathan had spent the past week on the planet and was glad to be high above it now. He was on the orbital shipyards that serviced the ore freighters carrying Barrigan Three’s iron and nickel to other planets.
He and his companion were dressed in the dirty gray coveralls of the mechanics that occupied the shipyards. Nathan was the shorter of the two by a few centimeters. A couple of decades of sitting in the pilot’s seat had left him with a slight paunch and his short brown hair was just starting to show some gray. Cole Seger was in considerably better shape, leaner and harder than his captain. They approached a hatch leading to a dock. Through a small window they could see a large container ship secured outside. Four hundred meters long and painted a ghastly bright orange, the Martha Tooey looked like every other long distance freighter that moved cargo containers full of goods from one planet to another. Nathan double-checked the dock number and looked at his companion. The larger, quieter man gave Nathan a barely perceptible nod and they opened the hatch.
The gangway was long and narrow, ending at an airlock that connected the shipyards to the freighter. A guard sat on a chair outside the airlock snoring loudly. Nathan and Cole walked quietly past him to the small window at the end of the gangway. They stared outside and stole a look back at the guard.
Nathan pulled a bottle out of his coveralls and took a pull on it. He passed it to Cole who did the same. The guard continued to snore.
With a look of exasperation on his face, Nathan looked at the unkempt deck, spotted a crushed can and kicked it the length of the gangway. It skittered along the rusted metal, clanging and banging as it traveled down the way they had come.
The guard woke up, startled to see he wasn’t alone. He stood, grabbed a metal pipe, and waved it in the direction of Nathan and Cole. “What are you doing here?” he said. “You ain’t supposed to be here.”
Nathan hefted the bottle. “We’re lookin’ for a place to drink. We were at Moochies but he threw us out. He said my buddy couldn’t bet on the dog races in his place.”
The guard considered this. “Moochie don’t like bettin’. He threw me out last week because I was bettin’ on the dogs.”
Cole passed the guard the bottle. “Look, we don’t want any trouble. We just figured nobody would be around.” He gestured at the freighter outside. “That bucket hasn’t moved in weeks.”
The guard nodded as he gulped down a long swallow. “The dock boss has this heap tied up because of some pay issue.” He burped. “I’m here to make sure no one takes her.” He pointed out the window. “Just look at it. Who the hell would want it?”
The guard turned back to see Cole holding a gun on him. Nathan stepped forward. “We would, friend. Now we need you to be cooperative. If you are, you can go home with a little money in your pocket. If you’re not, you probably won’t go home at all.”
The guard stammered. “What’s going on?”
“Not that it concerns you but the Martha Tooey’s owner doesn’t see things the dock master’s way and wants his ship back,” Nathan explained. “We’re going to take it and you’re going to sit here while we do it.”
“I’ll lose my job! Mickey will––”
“Mickey? He’s the dock master, right?” Nathan asked.
The guard nodded.
Nathan pulled out a wad of credit markers and held it out to the man. “Tell Mickey you quit. Take it and follow us.”
The guard looked at the markers. They were Nathan gestured again. “What’s your name?”
“Frank, look at this money.” He counted off the markers. “What’s that pay you?”
“About three month’s salary,” he answered.
This place really is a dump, Nathan thought. “Take the money, Frank.”
The man considered his options and then reached out and snatched the wad from Nathan’s hand. Nathan gestured to the airlock. “Is there anyone else on board?”
The guard shook his head. “I’m the only one. There were a couple other guys but Mickey caught ‘em selling the freighter’s fuel on the black market. Since then I’m the only one.”
“And your relief?” Cole asked.
“I’m on for another four hours. Jimmy won’t be around ‘til then,” he explained.
That matched what Nathan and Cole knew from their surveillance over the last few days. “Okay, then,” Nathan said. “Open her up.”
They entered the freighter and made their way up to the bridge. It was a mess.
“What the hell happened in here?” Nathan asked as he kicked dirty clothes out of his way.
The guard shrugged his shoulders. “Them other guys that were sellin’ the fuel? They were livin’ up here.”
Nathan removed a key from his pocket and inserted it into the master control panel. Lights came on around the ship. Gauges and monitors on the bridge glowed to life and he checked one after the other.
“How are we doing?” Cole asked. He was sitting in the elevated pilot’s chair but still had his gun in his hand.
“Good enough,” Nathan said as he tapped a gauge. “The batteries are okay but the fuel’s a little lower than I’d like. We’ve got a little less than one full bunker out of four. This guy’s friends must have made a fortune selling as much as they did.”
“They did all right,” Frank said.
“What was your cut?” Cole asked.
Cole nodded and looked at Nathan. “Do we have enough to get under way?”
Nathan did some quick calculations in his head. “I’d like a little more but it will do.” He entered some commands into a computer and a deep throbbing sound filled the bridge. “Looks like we found the one thing on this planet that works like it’s supposed to.”
“Can I go?” Frank asked.
Nathan didn’t look away from the gauges. “Not yet. Just be cool. It will take about five minutes for the plasma to generate and another five to reach drive pressure. You can go as soon as we’re ready to launch.”
Nathan turned back to the controls and settled into the pilot’s chair. The gauges were coming up nicely and the board was green. He checked the cameras for the cargo holds and saw they were still full. Perfect. He was getting the ship and her load.
“Is this what you guys do? You’re pirates?” The guard asked.
Nathan looked at Cole with a raised eyebrow and then turned to the guard. “Do you see an eye patch? Is there a parrot on my shoulder? We aren’t pirates,” he said. “There’s a payment dispute about the load. The customer doesn’t want to pay for it now that it’s delivered so he bribed the dock master to hold the ship. The customer thinks the owner of the ship will give in just to get the ship back. That guy, Mickey, had the crew taken off and locked the ship in the dock. We’re here to repossess it.”
“You’re repo men?”
Cole smiled. “The best there are.”
Nathan turned back to the control panel. He pulled a small lever and the ship lurched sideways. “Uh-oh.”
“What’s up?” Cole asked.
“The docking clamps didn’t release like they should have. Frank, what’s up with the docking clamps?”
“They’re controlled from the dock master’s office. That’s how Mickey likes it.”
Cole gestured out the window. “We’ve got company, boss. There’s a pod coming over the bow.”
Nathan turned and saw a bright yellow work pod speeding across the hull toward the elevated bridge of the freighter. It was a small thing, big enough to carry one man and some tools. It had two mechanical arms attached at the rear with various attachments secured to its mid-section. Nathan leaned over to the switch on the wall and shut the interior lights off. “Well this is heading south in a hurry,” he said. “Cole, get Duncan on the radio. We’re going to need him and Marla sooner than we thought.”
Cole relayed the message while Nathan and Frank watched the pod approach. “That’s going to be Mickey,” Frank said as he moved away from the wheelhouse window. “He can’t see me here. If he does he’ll have me arrested.”
“Be cool, Frank.” Nathan said. “Just duck out into the corridor. He won’t see you there.” The guard turned to leave and Nathan grabbed his arm. “Don’t go too far, I don’t want you changing your mind and coming back with a bunch of friends. Stay in the doorway where I can see you.”
“Duncan and Marla are on the way,” Cole said. “They’ll be here in a few minutes. What’s this guy up to?” He pointed at the work pod floating toward them.
“I don’t know. Furthermore, once Duncan and Marla get us disconnected from the dock I won’t care.”
“Does he have any guns on that thing?” Cole asked.
Nathan squinted out the window. “Nah. It looks like your standard work pod. They use them for welding and hull repairs. Stuff like that.”
“Mickey’s crazy,” Frank said from the doorway. “You don’t know what he’ll do to keep his cut of this ship.”
Nathan turned to him and realized the guard was not only hiding in the shadows of the doorway but he was kneeling down as well. “We just need to keep him confused for a few minutes. Once my ship gets here Mickey will get the message.”
“He’s crazy, I’m tellin’ you,” Frank said. Nathan ignored him.
The yellow work pod settled in front of the bridge, slowly sliding right to left as the pilot peered in. Nathan and Cole hunkered down behind the pilot’s chair and a map table. Nathan could see the pod had dirt streaks and burn marks on it. Like everything else in this dump, it wasn’t maintained well. Suddenly a spotlight flooded the bridge with bluish-white light.
“Ah!” Frank shrieked, sounding like a teenager caught sneaking in after curfew. Nathan glanced back to see him scurry out of sight into the corridor. Cole snorted.
The light moved around the room as the work pod slipped around a corner. Nathan and Cole moved ahead of it, keeping the pilot’s chair and map table between them and the light.
“He knows we’re here,” Cole said. “He just wants to see who it is before he decides to call the law.”
“The law’s pretty easy to buy off here,” Nathan said. “I gave them two thousand to go on break an hour ago. We got about a half hour before they show up.”
Cole looked incredulous in the reflected work light. “When did you have time to bribe the cops?”
“Last night,” Nathan answered. “You were down at Moochies trying to hook up with that burly lady welder.”
“I don’t see any reason to mock my date’s profession.” Cole responded.
“It’s not her profession I’m mocking. Tell me, did you get away without bruises?”
Cole slid around the map table to escape the moving light. “She was a powerful woman. Let’s leave it at that.”
Suddenly, the hatch slammed closed. Nathan looked toward the doorway as the wheel began to spin. He leaped from his hiding place and grabbed the wheel but it sealed as his hand reached it. The light from the pod outside blazed in and illuminated him. “Open this door, Frank!”
No one answered.
He threw his weight against the wheel. Nothing. “Damn, it’s locked,” he said.
“Locked from the outside?” Cole asked.
Nathan pulled on the wheel again. “He’s got it tied off, the deadbolt is on the inside with us. I can feel it giving a little but…” He pulled again. “No, it’s not going to give.” He pounded on the door. “That greasy punk. If I ever see him again I’ll airlock him.”
Cole stepped from behind the table. “This is what you get for being a nice guy. Instead of bribing him you should have let me knock him out.” He glanced at the service pod hovering outside. “Can this guy hurt us?”
Nathan looked the pod over as the spotlight swung back and forth between himself and Cole. “Not unless he rams us but that would hurt him too. Still, I’ll see if there are any pressure suits in here. Why don’t you check in with Marla and Duncan again?”
Nathan stepped to the storage locker in the rear and pulled the door open. It was clear that the same workers who had been selling fuel had stripped out whatever the locker held. A lone helmet with a cracked visor sat on a shelf. “Nothing here, Cole.”
Cole held his mobi up to Nathan. “Marla says they can see us so they should be here any second. What do we need them to do?”
“This tub is only connected to the station at two docking pylons. If Marla gets in position over us, Duncan can break us free with the cannon.”
Cole looked at him with wide eyes and muted the mobi. “You want Duncan to shoot us free? Is that the plan? Really?”
Nathan shrugged. “It’s plan B. Plan A was for us to use the controls here on the bridge to release the freighter. That didn’t work so now we have to resort to plan B.”
“You’re sure there’s no plan C?” Cole asked.
“I’m sensing you don’t have any faith in your crewmates.”
“Look, I’ve tried to train him. You know I have. He’s great with the computers and he redesigned the Blue Moon Bandit from the ground up, I know, but have you seen what happens when he gets near guns?”
“There’s no other way, Cole.”
The larger man opened his mouth again but was interrupted as the bright work light shut off. It flickered rapidly and the container ship’s comm system chimed. Cole pointed to a red blinking light on the panel. “I think he wants to talk to us,” he said.
Nathan nodded and stared out at the pod again. The work light flashed again. Someone seems angry, Nathan thought.. He walked to the comm console and pressed the button marked “SEND”. “You’ve reached the wheelhouse of the Martha Tooey. How can I direct your call?”
“What are you doing on my ship?” The voice boomed from the speakers around the bridge. It didn’t sound like a happy voice but Nathan knew that wasn’t unusual for this stage of repossessions process.
Nathan smiled. “We’re duly authorized repossession agents hired by the ship’s owner to retrieve his property. In this case the container cargo vessel Martha Tooey.”
“Can’t have it. The ship’s been seized due to non-payment of the loan on her. The owner didn’t make his payments and the bank wants her back.”
Nathan looked at Cole. “Why can’t they try something original? Every time we go out on a job these guys always try the same line.” Cole shook his head. Nathan hit the button again.
“The owner and the bank holding the note on the ship hired me. You have no grounds to hold her. Furthermore, I have a letter from the owner, co-signed by the bank, authorizing me to locate, board, and return this vessel to its homeport. Now release the clamps.”
There was a moment of silence that confirmed what Nathan already knew; this guy was nothing more than a thief. The question was how far was he willing to go to get his cut of the freight?
“You aren’t going anywhere,” Mickey said. “I don’t care what your letter says. I’m the dock master and I say when and if a ship leaves.”
Cole angled one of the ship’s long range cameras out into the yard and pointed at a monitor. “Nathan? I think this guy whistled for some help.”
Nathan looked past the work pod and sighed. A mid-size freighter was moving into position in front of the Martha Tooey, no doubt called out by Mickey. He checked the drive pressure. It was just about where he needed it.
“Tell Marla to get the Blue Moon Bandit between us and that other freighter,” Nathan ordered. “I’m betting they won’t hit her.”
Cole spoke into his mobi and Nathan shook his head. This guy had finally gotten his temper up. No way was some pissant dock manager coming between him and a six-figure retrieval. He saw his own ship do an elegant turn and slide in front of the larger freighter bearing down on them. He punched the button on the comm console.
“Look, Mickey, we’re taking this ship. I suggest you move that work pod before you get run over.”
This time the voice coming back was almost cheerful. “I don’t think so. In a few seconds you won’t have the room to move.”
Nathan shook his head with exasperation. “Your road block is blocked, Mickey. I have friends too. If you turn around you’ll see your big freighter blocked by my little freighter. Of course, my little freighter has a cannon. I don’t believe yours does. That’s a fact that I’m sure my crew is letting the pilot of your ship know of right now.”
There was silence for almost a full minute. Cole confirmed that Marla and Duncan had already communicated with the freighter and that it was stopped. That was news Mickey was probably just learning. The speakers crackled again.
“You think you’re smart?” the voice asked. “You think I’m letting you move this tub without putting up a fight? That’s not how I do things.” The signal snapped off and the spotlight went out. Suddenly a bluish flame splashed against the window. Nathan stepped forward to get a better look.
“Do you believe this? He’s trying to burn a hole in the glass.” Burning hot gas from a cutting torch flared from an extended arm on the maintenance pod. Nathan could see the demented grin on Mickey’s face as he worked the torch back and forth over the thick glass.
Cole spoke quickly into his mobi. “Uh, Duncan, this guy is trying to vent us into space by burning a hole in the windshield.” Cole nodded as a voice responded. “Yeah, I know it’s not really glass. Mm-hmm, crystalline polymer designed to provide protection against solar flares. I understand but…do you think you could just fly over here and bump him out of the way before it gets really hard to breathe in here?”
Nathan held out a hand, “No, I don’t want them to move. If they do that freighter will just get in our way.” Nathan shielded his eyes with a raised hand and stepped toward the window. It was beginning to glow and minute cracks were spreading outward from the point of the torch. He could see Mickey was having trouble keeping it centered in one place because the thrust generated by the cutting torch was moving the maintenance pod around. Still, Nathan knew the window was going to buckle before too long.
“Strap in,” he said to Cole as he climbed into the pilot’s chair. “We’re leaving.”
Cole walked over to the window and waved a single finger at the work pod. He fell into a chair and pulled the safety harness tight. “Any time you want to go, Nathan.”
“Hold on.” Nathan pushed the thrusters to max and the ship lurched but stayed stuck to the dock. A vibration built up and the debris on the bridge floor started skittering around. Empty silver beer cans rolled forward and then back as the ship rocked. Nathan smiled and slapped the comm panel.
“It’s now or never, Mickey. If you maintained the dock clamps as badly as you did everything else in your yard, you know they won’t take this for long. I suggest you get out of the way.”
Nathan watched as a melted gob of transparent glass broke away from the window and floated off into space. The work pod cutting torch left a black burn as it skittered across the window.
Cole tipped his head at the damage. “Time to go, Nathan. The window’s melting.”
Nathan nodded. “I’m trying. Apparently they maintained the docking clamps pretty well.” He pushed another lever and the ship rocked violently to port. Cole grabbed the arms of his chair as the bow began to move left.
“I thought so,” Nathan said. “I can apply some torque with the steering thrusters.” He grinned and hit the comm button again. “Hey, Mickey, enjoy the rest of your time here on planet dirtball. We’re leaving!”
Nathan jerked the steering thrusters to starboard and the big ship broke free. Cole held up his mobi and filmed their get away as the pod banged off the wheelhouse and began spinning. It looked like it was intact but Nathan was sure Mickey felt the impact. He grinned and watched as the bow heaved over to the right and then they began moving forward. They went past their ship, the Blue Moon Bandit, and then past the freighter that had tried to block their way. Cole stopped recording and called Marla.
“She wants to know if you’re ready to jump?” he asked Nathan as they accelerated away from the docks.
Nathan checked the gauges one final time and nodded. “Tell her we’ll see her and Duncan at the rendezvous point.”
Cole relayed the message just as space in front of him flashed bright white, then black. There was a familiar moment of disorientation as the freighter folded back into normal space. As far as light speed jumps went, it hadn’t been too bad.
An hour later Nathan and Cole were free of the locked bridge and back aboard the Blue Moon Bandit. Nathan relaxed as he walked the decks of his home away from home. He flew a lot of ships on this job but the Bandit was the only one that felt right.
Nathan was in the galley sliding chopped vegetables from a cutting board into a tall pot of chili when Marla walked in. His co-pilot was tall and plain but not unattractive. Her brown flight suit hung loosely on her frame and turned her into a shapeless person. She didn’t wear makeup and her long auburn hair was pulled back in a ponytail.
“The Martha Tooey is slaved to our control system,” she said. “We can jump her back home and put her in orbit remotely but we’ll have to board her again to dock her.”
Nathan considered that. “How long do we have until the next warpgate?” Marla held up three fingers. “We’re on course to get there in three hours unless you want to make a light speed jump.”
Nathan shook his head as he tasted the chili from a spoon. “Yeah, light speed jumps are out of the question. Some morons back on planet dirtball were selling the fuel out of her bunkers but I figure we’ve got just enough left to get to the warpgate at sub-light speed and then cruise to Saji’s place on fumes.”
Marla dipped a piece of bread in the pot and tasted it. “You need more cayenne pepper.”
Nathan shook his head. “No, I don’t. Last time you made chili it kept everyone in the head for two days.”
“But it’s bland.”
He smiled. “You just don’t appreciate the flavor. You’re one of those folks who think anything not visibly on fire doesn’t have enough spice. You need to educate your palate.”
“My palate’s fine,” she teased. “It’s your old stomach that needs attention.”
“My stomach’s not that much older than you.” He shut the burner off. “Dinner’s ready.”
“I’ll tell the boys,” Marla said with a smile.
Nathan smiled back. “They hate it went you call them that.”
She walked out the door and called back over her shoulder, “I know.”
Dinner was a festive affair. Repossessing vessels paid well but repossessing stolen vessels with their cargo intact paid even more. Nathan’s crew would soon have fat wallets and time off to enjoy them. After dinner he sat back and enjoyed a hazelnut coffee and the easy confidence of a job done well.
The fourth member of the crew, Marla’s husband Duncan, leaned forward in his chair and picked up a roll from the basket on the table. His long dreadlocks fell toward the table. He was the ship’s chief of the boat and engineer; black, stocky, and a couple centimeters taller even than Marla, which made him a giant in Nathan’s view.
Cole put his feet up on the unoccupied chair between himself and Duncan. “Do you and Kathy have plans when we get back to Go City?”
Nathan nodded. “She was a little out of sorts when I left so I was thinking a little vacation would be in order. Maybe some time alone will help us. This here today, gone tomorrow lifestyle of ours isn’t really her thing.”
“She knew this is what you did before she moved in, though,” Cole said.
“Yeah, well, that doesn’t mean much,” Nathan answered. “I get the feeling that she thought things would be changing.” He shrugged. “Maybe I’m not cut out for domesticated life. Maybe Celeste was right when she divorced me.”
Cole set his cup down. “Nathan, I’m feeling too good for this right now.”
“For another round of self-pity. You want to be maudlin about your ex-wife, do it by yourself.”
“Have you heard from Celeste lately?” Duncan asked.
Nathan nodded. “She sent me a message about three months ago. She’s first mate on an ore carrier for a mining consortium.”
Duncan whistled. “She’s not flying that luxury liner anymore?”
“No, better pay.
“I always knew she would do well,” Duncan said.
Nathan set his drink down. “As long as she wasn’t here, right?”
“That’s not what I meant,” the big man said. “And you know it.”
“Yeah, I know but it’s the truth. She had too much going for her to hang around here,” Nathan said. “Obviously that big mining outfit recognizes talent when they see it.” He waved his hand around. “Chasing repo jobs on this bucket was a waste of her time.”
“It’s been two years since she left you, Nathan,” Cole said.
“I’m sorry. I just wondered if you’d heard from her,” Duncan said. “She’s still a friend.”
Nathan looked at Duncan. “She’s your friend, huh? You ever talk to her?”
Nathan could swear that he saw the engineer blush. Duncan leaned back from the table before answering. “Well, I send her notes, you know, just to keep in touch.”
“He’s allowed to keep in touch with friends, Nathan,” Cole said. “It’s not like he’s being disloyal to you by talking to her.”
“I know that, Cole. Old friends keep in touch.” He turned a glare toward Duncan. “Of course, you would think that one old friend would bring it up if he heard from another.”
Duncan grinned. “I don’t bring it up because you get like this.”
“Like what?” Nathan asked.
Marla walked into the cramped eating area from the cockpit. “We’re on course for the warpgate, everyone. Our ETA is just under two hours.” She sat down at the table. “What are we talking about?”
“Celeste,” Duncan answered.
Marla stood back up. “You know, I better check the universal positioning settings again just to be sure. That gas giant we’re coming up on has a hell of a magnetic field.” She quickly ducked out of the compartment.
“See?” Duncan said motioning at the retreating co-pilot. “This is why no one brings her up. You get all moody and irritable. Everybody knows it.”
“I don’t get irritable,” Nathan said. “And not everyone thinks I do.”
“Yeah?” asked Cole. “When’s the last time Fat Eddie asked about her?”
“Or Kenny the Mooch,” added Duncan.
Nathan poured another drink and looked at them. “That’s all you got? A bartender and the captain of a tugboat who’s older than everyone at this table combined? It’s not like either of them are my closest friends.”
Cole and Duncan looked at each other and then turned their gaze toward Nathan. He looked at the two of them with irritation. “What?”
Cole cocked an eyebrow at Duncan and the big man shook his head and then nodded at Cole. The muscle-for-hire turned to Nathan. “I don’t know how to put this delicately but our circle of friends has sort of…um”
“Shrunk,” Duncan offered.
“Yeah,” Cole said. “Shrunk is a good word. Our circle of friends has shrunk over the last couple years.”
Nathan played with a glass saltshaker, spilling some on the tabletop. “It’s not like we run with the best people, fellas. Petty criminals, corrupt customs officials, and alcoholics don’t generally constitute good company. Besides, our line of work keeps us away from home for weeks at a time. It’s difficult to maintain relationships in that kind of atmosphere.”
“That’s true,” Duncan said.
“Very true,” Cole agreed.
“Don’t patronize me,” Nathan warned.
“We’re not,” Cole said. “What you said is true. Our lifestyle is not conducive to relationships outside of work.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Nathan responded.
“When’s the last time you heard from Celeste?” Nathan asked.
A pained look crossed Duncan’s face. “It’s not really important.”
Nathan grew concerned. “When was it?”
Duncan exhaled heavily. “About two weeks ago.”
“And?” Nathan asked.
“Her assignment is going well. The captain likes her and she’s making a ton of money.”
Nathan leaned forward and Duncan noticed he was biting his lower lip. “If you knew that, why did you ask me if I had heard from her?”
“Well, I just wanted to talk about it. Once I saw that you hadn’t heard from her in a while and that you were going to get how you get I decided to drop it. Then you got how you get. And here we are.”
Marla passed back through and stepped into the galley. She returned a moment later with a steaming travel mug of coffee. She tightened the lid down and looked at the three men around the table. “Are we done with the discussion or have we just reached the uncomfortable silence stage?”
“Does she ever mention me?” Nathan asked, ignoring Marla’s question.
“Well sure,” Duncan answered. “It’s not like she hates you. I told her about that luxury yacht we nabbed last month. She got a kick out of that.”
The mobi on Marla’s hip started to buzz. She pulled it free of its holder and set her coffee down on the table.
“What is it?” Nathan asked.
She tapped the screen a couple times. “It’s the motion sensor we set up on the Martha Tooey. Someone is moving around the wheelhouse.”
Cole looked at Nathan. “There was a lot of garbage in there. It could be the beer cans rolling around.”
Nathan shook his head. “Duncan cleaned that garbage up while you and I were doing our walkthrough of the crew’s quarters.”
Marla tapped the screen again. “I reset it and I’m still getting alarms. Are we going to check it out?”
Cole looked at Nathan. “We didn’t see anyone.”
Nathan shrugged. “There could have been someone hidden in the engineering spaces or even in the hold. We better get over there and check.”
Cole stood up and thumbed the lock on the equipment locker against the wall. He pulled out two sawed-off shotguns and tossed one to Nathan. “Okay. Let’s go.”
Marla docked the Blue Moon Bandit with the Martha Tooey. Nathan and Cole boarded her for the second time that day, this time in a much worse mood. They made their way down a dark corridor toward the wheelhouse. Nathan took the lead, walking calmly but purposefully. He was leery of stowaways but determined that nothing was going to come between him and his payday.
Nathan and Cole slid quietly along the wall near the hatch. The door was closed. Nathan leaned in, his ear nearly touching the metal door. It was quiet, but he waited patiently. He was rewarded when he heard something bump inside. He stepped back, nodding at Cole.
Both men took a position against the far wall. Nathan held up his hand and raised three fingers, one after the other. When he reached three, he spun the wheel on the door and pulled hard. The door opened toward him and Cole peeked inside and then pulled his head back. He held up one finger to Nathan, indicating only one person was inside.
Nathan stepped to the door. “Whoever you are, come on out. No one will hurt you. This vessel has been repossessed and is being returned to its owner. We have no quarrel with you.”
They heard a chair squeak from inside. A voiced asked; “Where are we going?”
Nathan thought the voice sounded young. “What’s your name, son?”
Another squeak of the chair. “Richie Pearson.”
Nathan stole a look inside. A young man about twenty years old was sitting in the pilot’s chair. “Richie?”
The young man nodded. “Where are we going?”
“Go City,” Nathan answered. “On Earth.”
Richie nodded. “Okay.”
Nathan, Cole, Duncan, and their new passenger sat around the table in the galley. The kid was on his second bowl of chili. They figured it had been a while since his last decent meal.
“What were you doing on the Martha Tooey?” Cole asked.
The new arrival pushed himself back from the table. “I’m a machinist mate on the Martha.”
“Why weren’t you put off and sent back with the rest of the crew?”
Richie swallowed some of his coffee. “I hid down near the coolant tanks. I didn’t know what they were going to do with the crew, whether they were going to be let go or press ganged into service on some other ship. You hear stories of that happening, you know?” Nathan nodded. Everyone knew the stories. “Anyway, the guys that seized the Martha weren’t real bright. They never looked around too much after the crew was taken off so I was able to stay hidden.”
“But you got trapped by those guys selling the fuel?” Duncan offered.
Richie nodded. “Man, those two idiots wouldn’t leave. They partied in the wheelhouse and crashed in the crew quarters. They didn’t bother me too much because I could keep out of their way but they cleaned out the galley. After the first week there was nothing left. They couldn’t have eaten it all so they must have sold it. These last few weeks I’ve been surviving on emergency ration packs from the life boats.” He held up his bowl of chili and spooned more into his mouth. “This is definitely an improvement. It would be damn near perfect with a little more cayenne.”
Nathan smiled. “We can take you as far as Go City. There’s a union office there. They’ll help get you home.”
“I don’t have much home to go to. I need a job. How about you guys? You need a machinist? I’m very good.”
Nathan shook his head and stood up. “I’ve got all the crew I need. Duncan will get you settled into a bunk. You can sack out until we get back to Go City.”
Richie dropped his spoon on the table and it clattered loudly at the mention of their destination. The young man picked it up and put his bowl in the sink.
“Is there any chance we’ll be stopping at one of the orbital stations before we get back to Go City?” Richie said.
“No,” Nathan said. “We go straight down.” He noticed Richie had a furrowed brow and was chewing his lower lip. “Is anything wrong?”
Richie shook his head. “No, it’s all good. I’m going to grab some sleep.”
“Sure,” Nathan said. “It will be a few more hours.”
As soon as Duncan and Richie disappeared down the corridor leading to the crew quarters Nathan turned to Cole.
“Is it just me or did he seem a little worried?”
“Oh yeah,” Cole said, hefting a coffee mug to take a sip. “Something is most definitely up.”