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Golgotha

Golgotha

by J. Brandon Barnes

 

Distributed by Shakespir

 

Copyright 1998, 2016 J. Brandon Barnes

Chapter 1

 

Twenty anxious minutes had passed since contact with the prison camp below ceased abruptly. As the small space station orbited high above the massive asteroid’s surface, several workmen inside peered through hazy portholes, scanning its rough terrain for anything unusual.

The only features visible below were a few deserted mining camps. The prison site would not crest the rotating horizon for several minutes, so they instead looked for any sign of the evacuation shuttle.

“Over there,” pointed a dockman, leaving a greasy fingerprint on the window.

“No, that ain’t it,” said another. “Look for a red flame moving over the surface.” The two continued jockeying for the best position at the window while several other men floated nearby.

On the other end of the cylindrical, boxcar-sized module, station manager Roger Cory gripped the radio’s microphone. “Can anyone down there hear me? There’s still no sign of that shuttle. If you don’t get it up here now, we’ll have to leave the passenger behind.”

No reply.

He slammed his fist on the comm console. “What’s going on down there? Don’t they understand there’s no time left?”

Cory spun around to face the rest of the crew, accidentally dislodging a large wrench from a magnetic tool strip on the wall. It tumbled through the air until it reached the meaty hand of the lead tech, Ramon Torres. He had just entered the module from the long central shaft at the station’s core, and closed the hatch behind him. He secured the wrench in an elastic strap on the hip of his coveralls and moved toward a cluster of his crewmates.

“Cory, man, you want me to check on those air recyclers in Module D?”

A burly dockman named Jackknife jerked a newly lit cigarette from the corner of his mouth. “You’re one crazy Mexican, Ramon. We’ll all be dead in a few hours, and you’re worried about maintenance?”

“Nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen.”

Jackknife’s face twisted with disgust. “Those paper pushers in Operations say they don’t know for sure ‘cause they don’t want to tell us the truth. We’ve got a comet the size of a small moon headed right for us, Ramon. It’s probably a thousand times bigger than the one that killed the dinosaurs on Earth. Even if it misses us, it’ll hit the sun and cook us with radiation.”

“ That’s enough, Jackknife,” snapped Cory. “We can do without hearing all this again. The official story is that we’ve got a 20% chance there won’t be an impact.”

“And that’s exactly what it is: a story. We all know it. You’d better believe this station, the bases below, and everything in sight is gonna go up in one giant fireball.”

“Then until it happens,” Cory said, “if it happens, I’m in charge, and I’m telling you guys you’d better all cool off and give each other some space. We’ve spent the last year working together like friends. We’re not going to die together fighting like enemies.”

He shot an accusatory look at Jackknife and a nearby dockman, both of whom bore bruises from a nasty scuffle earlier that day. “You’ve always been a bunch of hotheads anyway, so you’d better just back off and let everyone deal with this in his own way.”

Cory put a hand on Ramon’s shoulder. “You can spend your time doing whatever you want, so check those recyclers if you must. But I’d rather you stay here and help me keep an eye on things until we locate that shuttle.”

Ramon nodded and assumed a position at the comm panel while Cory launched himself off the wall and sailed to the module’s aft window. Jackknife withdrew in disgust and returned to the solace of his stale cigarette, daring anyone to mention he was breaking station rules.

Cory studied the landscape for several minutes before finally spying a tiny form lifting above the surface. “There it is. See if you can make contact, Ramon.”

Before he had a chance, the radio came to life on its own. The transmission, they soon realized, wasn’t from the shuttle below, but from the last evacuation transport still docked outside the station.

“Fellas, this is Norm Casper. We can’t wait much longer for that shuttle of yours. If we’re going to get away from here in time, we’ve got to leave now. Otherwise, all 58 people on this transport will die anyway.”

Jackknife swooped down on the radio, and wrested the microphone from Ramon’s hand.

“Hey, Ab-Norm,” he sneered, “Jackknife here. Explain it to me again. Why was it that you get to live and we get to die? You know how us lowly dockworkers are. We need things told to us real slow and simple-like. Maybe you ought to come back inside for a few minutes and explain it again—just you and me. I promise I’ll give you my full attention.”

He shared a malicious grin with the men around him. Everyone in the room looked his way, waiting for Norm’s response.

“Look, Jackknife, we can’t go over this again. How many times do I have to say it? I’m the only one who can fly this transport and maybe save the lives of the people onboard. Nobody else has both flight and medical experience. If you or anyone else did, I’d consider stepping aside to take my chances here with the rest of you.”

The men began to clamor and Jackknife quickly fired back. “What chances? All us are dead! There ain’t no chances about it.”

Norm continued, angrier now. “I’ll remind you, again, that our odds are slim at best. We’re so low on oxygen that everyone but me has got to be sedated to conserve air. I don’t even know if we’ve got enough fuel to outrun the shockwave. I’ll have to burn everything we’ve got just to get us up to speed, and then coast all the way to the Golan station. There won’t be anything left to maneuver or stop, and I only hope they can send out tugs to grapple us and bring us in.

“And I’ll say it again, that’s if we can make it. If we don’t leave now, none of us will. I don’t know who we’re waiting on to come up from the surface, but I say we leave without him. We can’t afford the time, the weight, or the air.”

Ramon snatched the mic back from Jackknife. “Good thinking, Norm. Throw a priest off the transport for good luck. You think you’re gonna make it then?”

“Priest, baker, or mailman—I don’t care. Just get him on board within twenty minutes or we’re leaving without him. Twenty minutes and not a second more.” His tone was final, and when the radio’s carrier signal light dimmed, it was clear they had heard the last from him.

As Cory continued tracking the shuttle’s progress up to the station, several crewmen joined him at the window. They watched outside impatiently for a while and someone finally asked, “How long, Cory?”

“Shuttle flights usually take about 15 minutes. I’d say it’s got about 12 to go. Ramon, are you having any luck contacting that shuttle yet?”

Ramon made another attempt, but couldn’t establish a signal lock. “No luck, man. Their radio’s busted or something.”

“First we lose contact with the prison, and now the shuttle? I don’t like it. Keep trying.” He pushed off the wall and sailed out the door, heading for the shuttle docking module.

The dozen remaining crewmen fell silent for a while. A few strapped themselves into seats at the tables that ringed the room’s perimeter. Others floated limply, lost in melancholy thought. Two or three, following Jackknife’s example, produced cached cigarettes from hidden pockets in their coveralls.

Eventually someone spoke up in a somber tone. “Don’t you think we ought to at least say goodbye to the Babe?”

“Yeah, let’s hear her one last time,” said another.

Ramon, still at the comm console, selected the audio channel designed for visitors taking the shuttle flight down to the base camp. A warm female voice filled the room.

“The Golgotha asteroid was first mined for its rich iron and oxygen content, both precious resources in deep space. Years later, it also hosts the first penal colony outside our solar system.” Her voice was soft and smooth, conjuring alluring images in the minds of men too long in space.

“The prison is located some 20 kilometers from the mining base camp,” she continued, “and is reserved for the most hardened of criminals. In its 15-year history, it has never had a single escape, due in part to a no-landing policy. All arrivals and departures are ferried through the small space station circling the asteroid. Each shuttle is auto-piloted, effectively eliminating the chance of escape. All mining is prohibited within three kilometers of the prison, further separating inmates from the mining companies that share the asteroid.

“When checking in at the security desk, please have your bags ready for quick processing, and don’t hesitate to let us know if there’s anything we can do to make your stay more pleasurable…”

The men listened intently for several minutes more, occasionally smirking at each other when something she said could be construed as suggestive. The end of the recording was followed by deep silence. Ramon cut his nails with a small pocketknife. Jackknife took deep drags on his cigarette and slowly blew smoke spheres that rolled through the dank air.

One of the electricians spoke up. “Ramon, you say it’s a priest on the shuttle?”

Always eager to find fault, Jackknife quickly jumped in. “Only Catholics have priests, Ramon. He’s a minister. Don’t you know anything?”

“Shut up, redneck. Rabbi, preacher, whatever. He’s a holy man, okay?” Ramon turned back to the electrician. “You know, he’s the one that held that big crusade on Mars a while back. Been making the rounds to all the colonies for a year or so.”

“How come you know so much about him?” Jackknife asked.

“‘Cause I read the news, man. He came last week to visit the prison. He went to see the miners, too. Ask Biggs. He worked down there.”

“Nobody better talk to Biggs about nothing,” Jackknife said. “Soon as he lost out getting on the transport, he got drunk as a Russian skunk. A couple guys tried to talk to him about an hour ago and he threw a pipe at them. Hard. The guy’s messed up in the head or something. Locked himself in the crew quarters, which is fine by me. Saves me ever having to look at his ugly face again.”

“Well, anyway,” Ramon said, “somebody like Biggs could probably tell you more than I could, since he was down there and I just hear about some of this stuff from the dudes that work at the prison. They say that the preacher went to see death row first thing. Even spent time with that guy they were going to space next week.”

“The one that killed that miner a while back,” Jackknife added.

“Yeah, that’s the one. He made a real point of going to see that guy.”

“That won’t help him now,” Jackknife said. “He’ll be spaced with the rest of us. One thing’s for sure. It don’t matter what you’ve done up to now, or what you do in the next couple of hours. We’ll all end up the same.”

After a short pause, a squat little plumber with a pronounced lisp leaned into the table. “You scared, Ramon?”

Ramon looked away. “I wish I could at least talk to my mother. It ain’t right that she won’t know until it’s over.”

The man turned to Jackknife. “I know you ain’t scared.”

“No, I ain’t scared of nothing. I’m just mad! Mad that Cory didn’t transfer me two months ago when I asked—a long time before they ever spotted that miserable comet. Mad that Ops took so long to send the rescue transports, and that we had to be the last to leave. And then ours never got here.”

“And who are you gonna blame that on?” Ramon asked. “Engines fail all the time. We’ve seen plenty of dead ships get hauled in here. It ain’t anybody’s fault, it’s just bad luck. Besides, you should be glad the one outside hadn’t left yet and there was still room for some of us. We all had our shot to get on it, man. Some of us won and some of us lost.”

“Drawing straws is a sorry way to decide,” Jackknife said. “At least we could have played cards. If it was up to me, we would have arm wrestled for seats. And who says there was only room for 20 of us anyway?”

Ramon stuck his knife back in his pocket. “Smarter guys than me and you. We don’t know about fuel and air and things like that. If they said they could only squeeze an extra twenty men on a forty-man transport, we couldn’t say different.”

Jackknife crushed his cigarette butt defiantly on the table and flicked it to the far side of the module. “Did you see that punk, Shaver when he drew his straw? He giggled like a schoolgirl. Then he looked around and saw how many of us weren’t going, and he got real quiet. I held my straw up in his face and he just looked away. He knew.”

“Knew what?” Ramon asked.

“Knew I saved his sorry life. Twice. Once when a seal blew in Module C and I pulled him out, and last month when that tanker’s engine caught fire. I was the one that dumped the halon and put it out before he roasted. And he couldn’t even look me in the face an hour ago when he climbed on that transport. If it hadn’t been for me, he wouldn’t even be here and that seat mighta been mine.”

“So what do you expect?” Ramon said. “You didn’t walk into the fire for him. You just pushed a button. If you’d thought it would cost you your life, you would have looked the other way, and you know it. So now you think he’s supposed to just give you his seat? You think any of those guys would? They all felt bad for us, yeah, but nobody said they’d stay behind. People don’t just die for people, and you wouldn’t either. That’s not the way it works. Not now and not ever.”

A faint rumble traced through the station, and one of the men peered out the window. “The shuttle just docked. Think Cory needs us down there?”

“Nah,” Jackknife said, “let him handle it himself. He’s just gotta take Mr. Lucky to the transport and wave goodbye. He don’t need us for that.”

The conversation soon dwindled and each of the men fell into quiet thought, wondering how the end would come. Would they survive the sudden jolt and rapid depressurization as the station broke apart? They had all heard a man could live up to half a minute in the vacuum of space. They would get their chance to find out soon enough.

The ventilation system rattled as it removed CO2 from the air and vented it into space. A water pump cycled on and off. The time system chimed three a.m..

Suddenly Cory’s voice broke over the radio. “I need some men down here on the double! We’ve got to get the preacher to the transport before it leaves. Somebody’s beat him up pretty bad.”

 

Chapter 2

 

Inside the shuttle, Cory switched off the comm and turned back to the first row of seats where the beaten minister was strapped in. A quick check revealed a strong pulse, so he was in no imminent danger, but his appearance was shocking.

His clothes were ripped, his hair tussled, and his jaw bore a ripening bruise. A cut over his left eye had been bleeding for some time and, in the absence of gravity, the blood had pooled up in his hair. Presumably he had taken part in some struggle before taking off and had barely managed to strap himself in before losing consciousness, but Cory had no time to speculate about the details.

Checking his watch, Cory saw that only four minutes remained to get the minister aboard the transport before Norm’s deadline. He released the seat belt, pulled him free, and took several luggage tethers from under the seat. He quickly wrapped one around the man’s torso to restrain his arms, and two more to bind his legs together. Once he was easier to manage, Cory took him by the waist and tugged his freefloating body out of the shuttle and into the docking bay.

Within seconds, the door from the main station shaft opened and the crew came pouring in. “Out of the way!” shouted Cory, and they cleared a path to the door. “Jackknife, grab his feet. Ramon, watch his head. And somebody get his bags. Now!”

Everyone scrambled into action. Several men helped to thread the minister down the station’s long shaft toward Module A, where the transport was already charging its engines. The others formed a water bucket brigade, passing his bags to each man down the line.

Once the crew reached Module A, they ferried the minister to the sealed airlock. Cory checked the radio and found that Norm had indeed shut off all communications. The rumbling of the transport’s engines steadily increased and everyone realized it would soon undock and slip into space.

A single thought seemed to strike them all at once. They grabbed whatever was available—pipes, wrenches, hammers—and began beating on the airlock with all their might. The noise was deafening. A torrent of vile curses aimed at Norm was nearly lost within the wild din of steel on steel.

Finally Ramon signaled for everyone to stop. “Look, look!” he shouted, pointing to the lock wheel that was slowly being turned from the other side. They cheered and stepped clear as the door swung open.

Norm Casper, a wiry man with thick glasses and close cropped gray hair, emerged from the airlock. “All right, all right, get your preacher in here. But he may be the reason the rest of us die.”

“No,” Ramon countered, “he’ll be the reason you live.”

“We don’t have time to argue. Just do it. And no bags!” He kicked a canvas bag out of one man’s hands and back into the docking bay. “Haven’t you heard a word I’ve said? We don’t have enough fuel to carry anything else. Probably not even to carry him. If it were up to me—”

A young, black, zero-G welder named Tyrell Richards jumped in. “Look here, man, it ain’t up to you. We didn’t bring him all this way just to have you say no. There’s more of us than there is of you, so get out of the way.”

Norm backed down. Tyrell and Ramon flew past him with the minister between them.

“Are you crazy?” Norm shouted at Cory. “No bags and no corpses!”

“We don’t know what happened to him,” Cory said, “but he’s alive. You can tend to him once you’ve left.”

Norm shot Cory a vicious glare and then turned away without a word.

Inside the transport, Tyrell went ahead of Ramon in search of somewhere to put the unconscious man. The interior had been stripped down to the hull, and everything but the cockpit’s instrument panel and pilot’s chair had been removed to lighten the transport.

Tyrell found himself inside a large open area with dozens of sedated men lashed to the floor, ceiling, and walls. The dim lighting and motionless bodies lined in neat rows had a chilling effect on him and he turned back to Ramon. “Let’s get the preacher man tied down and get out of here. This place is like a morgue.”

Ramon nodded agreement and Norm came up from behind a moment later. “What happened to him? Looks like hell”

Tyrell locked eyes with Norm instantly. “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know to show respect?” It took Norm a moment to realize his gaffe, but he showed no concern over it. Tyrell looked back down again. “It looks like somebody done beat him up pretty good, though.”

Norm released an exasperated breath. “You know what this means, don’t you? It means I can’t afford to sedate him until he comes to on his own. Not only have you cost us more fuel, but now you’ve cost us more air.” He threw his hands up in disgust. “Now, just tie him down and get out of here so we can leave.”

Tyrell looked around and saw that all the other passengers had been laid on foam pads and secured to support beams running the length of the transport. He removed his belt, and Ramon followed suit, lashing the minister to the floor just outside the cockpit. Then Tyrell took off his jacket and gently laid it under his head.

Without a word to Norm, they rejoined the crew in the docking bay. The steel door shut behind them, the lock spun closed, and within a minute the transport had departed.

Silence lingered for a long moment as everyone stared blankly at each other, uncertain what to do next once the emotional intensity had subsided. Then Jackknife, the tireless antagonist of sobriety, broke the silence with a loud shout. “Beer time!”

“On duty?” asked one of the men with pungent sarcasm. They all turned to Cory for a response.

“Why not? Put it on my tab.”

The room burst into cheers, and everyone spilled into the station’s main shaft, racing for the kitchen at the far end.

Cory smiled, possibly for the first time that day, and turned his attention to the window. He watched for a full minute as the transport slowly faded from view into the darkness of space. When no trace remained, he turned to leave and found he was not alone. Tyrell floated several feet away, an unmistakable longing in his eyes.

“Tyrell, I thought you’d be with the others.”

“Now’s the time for thinking, not drinking,” he said. He continued peering intently out the window, never meeting Cory’s eyes. Cory looked back to the window, thinking some trace of the transport must have still been visible, but only a dusting of stars adorned the blackness.

“It’s gone, Tyrell, and no amount of wishing is going to bring it back.”

Tyrell continued to stare out the window. “It’s funny. When I was in that transport, all I wanted to do was get out. It was spooky. But now—”

“Now you want what we all want, and what we can’t have. Look, we all knew the risks involved in coming this far out in space, so far from even the nearest colony. That’s why we were rewarded with the highest level of hazard pay.”

“But that don’t help the family we leave behind.”

“The money? No. Nothing’s going to make their loss any easier to deal with, but at least you can rest assured that the insurance will take care of them for the rest of their lives.”

Tyrell flinched and quickly looked away.

“Tyrell, you do have—you didn’t get the mandatory insurance waived, did you?”

Tyrell looked back up with a flash of anger in his watery eyes. “I had to, okay? I had to! It was more money up front. It was my first real job and I didn’t know no better. I saw how much it cost and knew we needed the money then. I argued and stopped up my ears when they told me I shouldn’t do it, but we owed money. Lots of money. You should see my momma, Cory. She was already pretty old when she had me, and now her hands are all knotted up and her back is stooped. She can’t support herself and my pop left a lot of bills when he died. Who’s gonna take care of her now?”

Cory was silent for a moment. “What you did was a mistake, but you already know that. As for what you can do now, I don’t know. I’m wishing I could say or do something, but I don’t know what it would be, son. I’m at a loss, and I can only hold out hope that they were telling us the truth—that there really is a chance we’ll live through this. But if there’s thinking left to be done, I hope you can come up with an idea nobody else has thought of yet.”

Ramon’s voice broke over the intercom. “Cory, you still there?”

Cory’s eyes remained locked with Tyrell’s for a moment, then he turned toward the intercom panel. “Yes. What is it?”

“We’ve got a problem.”

“Other than the obvious?” He glanced at Tyrell with a gentle smile, but got no response.

“Yeah, there’s more,” Ramon said. “When we met you in the shuttle bay, I went into the shuttle and tossed the preacher’s stuff out to the guys. Then I followed everybody to Module A. Nobody else went inside—I would have remembered.”

Cory’s face took on added gravity. “What are you getting at, Ramon?”

“The door to the engine compartment in the back of the shuttle was locked. I know, ‘cause I tried to open it and look for more stuff. Sometime since then I lost my pocketknife, so I went back to check on it. The door was wide open.”

“So maybe someone went in after we got the preacher on the transport.”

“No way, man. When you say ‘free beer,’ nobody turns that down. Everybody but you and Tyrell made a B-line for the kitchen. The only other guy onboard is Biggs, and he’s been holed up in the bunkroom for hours. Somebody else was on that shuttle. I’m positive.”

Cory rubbed his chin absently as he thought it over for a moment. “Then it would have to be the guy who attacked the preacher, or at least someone who knows what happened to him. Maybe a convict that planned to throw him off board and take control of the shuttle?”

“Yeah, could be. Or maybe he was already on board when the preacher came in, so he hid. Then the autopilot program locked the doors and lifted off. But whatever he was up to, I’d say he took out the preacher for sure. There was plenty of blood back in the engine compartment, too.”

“And now that he’s on board, there’s no telling where he is or what he plans to do.”

“Cory, it’s a problem—him being here and all—but I just don’t know how big a problem. Is it worth—”

“Look, Ramon, I’ve always been an optimist, and I plan to be one for another few hours yet. I won’t have that cut short by a wrench to the back of the head from somebody who’s got nothing to lose. And as long as it’s still my watch, we’ll have order on this station, and maybe justice, too. Besides, if this really is the last crisis we have to face, it’s also the last mystery we have the opportunity to solve. Meet me in my quarters.”

 

Chapter 3

 

Ramon arrived at Cory’s quarters ten minutes later. After a customary knock, he listened for permission to enter and slid back the smooth panel door. The station commander was the only person afforded private quarters, but even so, they were modest and not much larger than a walk-in closet. A writing table, media center, sleep hammock, and storage bins along one wall. A few magnetized pictures on the other wall sported a nautical theme, and a small plaque above the desk displayed a poem entitled “Crossing the Bar” atop the image of a schooner setting sail.

One oddity of the station was the frequent lack of alignment among the modules. Cory’s quarters were rotated 90 degrees from the main shaft, so Ramon spun himself a quarter turn as he entered to match its orientation. Cory sat strapped in a seat in front of his desk, holding an old mariner’s compass inherited from his grandfather. “What took so long, Ramon?”

He entered and slid the door shut behind him. “I radioed down to the prison, and this time I got through. I wanted to see what they could tell me about the shuttle, but those guys have their own problems right now.”

“So big that they couldn’t answer us for over half an hour?”

“Pretty big, yeah. Like they say, it’s the inmates that run the prisons, and now they’ve got nothing to lose. They pulled out their shanks about an hour ago and killed one of the bosses in a riot. The two that are left are holed up in the guard station.”

“At least we know why they weren’t answering us. I don’t suppose they were able to tell you what happened to the preacher.”

“No, he wasn’t with them when things busted loose, so they thought he was probably killed. They couldn’t figure how he even made it out of there. As for who might have snuck onto the shuttle with him, they don’t know and they really don’t care. Like I said, they got their own problems and ain’t about to call roll for us.”

“So what can they tell us, Ramon?”

“Just this: since all the cons know about the rescue transport, he’s probably armed with a crude weapon and plans to force his way onto it. Of course, he doesn’t know the last one’s already left. Once he finds out, there’s no telling what he’ll do.”

Cory nodded. “It’s no secret that the inmates and miners have had bad blood between them for years. The inmates resent working occasional details under the miners, and the miners object to subsidizing the prison when it cuts into their profits. Add a few nasty skirmishes like we’ve had around here recently, and you’ve got the makings of a feud.”

“And now that we’ve got a con on board who’s got the chance, he’s probably gonna want to bust some heads. Maybe ours when we go out this door.”

Cory fingered the compass lightly. “So let me make sure I’ve got this straight. An hour ago, all we had to worry about was everybody dying suddenly. Now we may have to look forward to being picked off one by one without warning.”

“Ill luck seldom comes alone.”

Cory’s face entertained a glimmer of surprise. “What’s this? A little Shakespeare to confirm our tragic lot?”

Ramon shook his head. “Cervantes.”

Cory thought for a moment as Ramon’s eyes scanned the room. Then Cory’s features adopted a calm resolve.

“We need to find whoever’s on board. I know we don’t have much time left, but I believe it’s the right thing to do. First, it will give the men something to focus on instead of themselves. I think we’ve had enough introspection around here. Whatever they haven’t worked out internally the last few days won’t be resolved in the next few hours. Besides, their anxieties are erupting into too much violence.

“Second, most of them probably know what’s going on by now anyway, and there’s no doubt they’ll form a posse. It would be better to make this a sanctioned, organized hunt. Besides, my control over the crew has been waning the last week. Since I need to keep them working together, I may as well order them to do what they already want to do. At least I’ll make sure they do it the right way.”

“You’re right,” Ramon agreed. “Jackknife started talking big as soon as he found out, and he’s probably got half the crew stirred up by now. They might not be churchgoers, but they don’t like to see no holy man beat up either. Maybe they figure it would be a last good deed to find this dude. Or maybe they just want to beat up a con. Who knows.”

“Then let’s start the search.”

Ramon started to leave and then turned back to Cory. “One more thing. You know what’s gonna happen when these guys find him. And there’s no way to stop it when it starts.”

Cory stared at the compass in his hand for a moment, and then met Ramon’s eyes without a word.

“You gonna look the other way?” Ramon asked.

“Just start the search.”

Ramon nodded. “We’ll do what needs to be done.” He unclipped the crucifix from his short necklace, slipped it into his pocket, and left.

 

 

Ramon alerted the crew to the plan, then broadcast a phony message shipwide, instructing all remaining transport passengers to meet in docking bay D for boarding. With any luck, the fugitive would come out into the open as he made his way to the docking bay, containing not a transport, but a group of armed crewmen.

Then he sent four men to wait there, and divided the rest of the crew into six two-man teams. They were to begin at the center of the station’s central shaft and work outward toward its extremities, checking each of the arms that branched off here and there along its length. He and Tyrell would check the maintenance shaft, crew quarters, and exercise module.

Tyrell impatiently waited at the door for Ramon. “Come on, man. If we’ve got to waste our time on this stupid hunt, then let’s get it over with. Everybody else is gone already.”

“Okay, hold on. I’ve just got to set up the comm system to repeat the message every few minutes. Give me a minute and…” Ramon’s face indicated a problem.

“What’s up, Ramon? Something wrong?”

Ramon stared down at a screen that was out of Tyrell’s view. “I don’t know. Maybe. The system’s showing a coded message was sent a few minutes ago.”

“Sent where?”

“Can’t tell. It was definitely an external message ‘cause it went to the outbound message queue. It could have gone anywhere, maybe back to Earth.”

“Or to the prison,” Tyrell said.

“Yeah. Or maybe to the transport. It’s hard to say. Give me a minute, and I’ll see if a copy was saved in the archive.”

Tyrell marked time impatiently as Ramon typed quickly and inexpertly. Short bursts of fast keystrokes were invariably followed by excruciatingly slow backspacing. “If you’d type slower, you wouldn’t make so many mistakes. Here, let me do it.”

Ramon didn’t look up. “You wouldn’t know what to do. Besides, I said it was encrypted. Only me and Cory can open coded messages.” He continued keying commands.

Tyrell looked back and forth in an unfocused, restless way. “Man, I just can’t believe it. I finally get me a real job, a good paying job, and it’s got to be here. And then this gotta happen. It just don’t seem real. How come there’s never ever been anything like this happen until it’s my turn? They say this comet’s like a one in a million thing.”

Ramon remained glued to the screen. “There’s one thing you have to remember, Tyrell. It always takes the one to make those odds.”

Tyrell thought this over for a minute. “So I guess even if it was one in a billion, as long as you’re the one, it’s all the same to you.”

“That’s how it works. Somebody’s always got to be the one, and when it’s you, the odds don’t matter much.”

“Well, all I know is I been trying everything I can think of for two days. Nobody listens to my ideas. Not even Cory. Everybody treats me like a kid, and they’d rather tell me why my plans won’t work than come up with some that will. I guess they all want to die, or else they’d be bustin’ their tails to do something instead of look for this guy.”

Ramon didn’t reply, but worked steadily for another minute. Then he announced with satisfaction that he had found the file. “Stand by a second and I’ll decrypt it.” He applied several passwords from his mental list and eventually found one that was accepted.

Tyrell’s prior apathy yielded to anticipation once Ramon had the file open. “Come on, man. What is it? Who’s it to?”

“I don’t know. It’s a text message, so give me a second to read it.” Ramon dumped the message to the screen:

 

To: Central Benefits

From: Roger W. Cory

 

For 11 years I’ve held a life insurance policy through the company because I was told it was required, even though I have no family. At the same time, a young man in my crew named Tyrell Richards was allowed to waive his, even though he’s all his family has.

 

I’m not very good with legal talk and I don’t have much time, so don’t give me any static on this. I am instructing you to make Tyrell’s mother the beneficiary of my policy, effective immediately. Since this message may not reach you until after my likely death, a copy is being sent to my Earthside lawyer and power of attorney, Robert Ward. I have full confidence in his ability to ensure that my intentions are upheld.

 

Sincerely,

 

Roger W. Cory

Golgotha Station Manager

 

“So what is it?” Tyrell demanded another time.

Ramon hesitated. “Huh? Oh, it’s nothing after all. Just some station diagnostics that run once a day and get sent back to Earth. I can’t believe I forgot about them. Come on, we’ve got to get moving.” He nodded toward the door and Tyrell took his cue. Before joining him, Ramon verified the message had been sent successfully and cleared it from the screen.

 

 

Jackknife and his partner were slated to search the “East Wing” cargo bays, as they were termed in station parlance, but he pressured another team into giving him the section with the kitchen. He wasted no time in smashing open a locked cabinet where the best alcohol was hidden.

“Cookie thought nobody knew where he stashed the good stuff,” Jackknife told the fat little dockworker named Lopez. “He might not a’ been no French chef, but he sure knew his booze.”

“And he could make a steak like nobody’s business,” added Lopez. “So how’d he get all this liquor?”

“He knew how to work the system,” Jackknife said, pulling back a foam pad to reveal half a dozen collapsible bottles of expensive liquor against the back wall of the cabinet. “He ordered the cheap stuff for us ‘cause that left room in the budget for a few nice ones, like these.”

“Hey, let me have that one,” Lopez said.

“Nah, that one’s mine.”

“How about that one?”

“That’s mine, too.” He pointed to the second row. “And those are for later.”

“So which one isn’t yours?”

Jackknife made a quick survey. “You can have this one.”

Lopez eagerly took what he could get while the offer was still good. He took a long swig and let out a satisfied aaah, then asked Jackknife how he had found the stash.

“I walked in on Cookie one day and he slammed the cabinet shut. He looked suspicious and, you know me, I’m just kinda nosey that way. We worked us out a little deal.” Jackknife grinned. “Yeah, one thing about ol’ Cookie, he sure knew how to work the system. He was slick, alright, and he had the connections. You don’t think it was luck that got him on the first transport, do you? Nah, he was an operator.”

Jackknife sampled from several bottles before he spotted one in the far back. “Oh, man, look at this!” He extracted his prize and held it up for Lopez to see. “And it’s none of that ‘space ready’ stuff—a real glass bottle even. This one comes with me. I’ll have it finished off in five minutes and then, well, you never know when broken glass might come in handy once you catch a prisoner.”

Lopez grinned and took a long draught from his own bottle. Then he began unloading the refrigerator. Jackknife turned around to see him forcing a large turkey leg into his mouth.

“Hey! What do you think this is, Cinco de Mayo? Put that stuff back. We’ve gotta get a move on.”

Lopez stopped in mid chew, a bewildered look on his pudgy face. “I thought we were just gonna hang out here for a while. I thought—”

“Yeah, well that’s your mistake. When I’m around you don’t need to think, you just need to do what I tell you. Now you can take the booze, but we don’t have time to waste on food. This con’s gonna be caught, and I’m the guy who’s gonna catch him. Let’s go.” And with a kick off the wall, Jackknife sailed toward the door.

“So how come you even care about this guy?” Lopez shouted as he carelessly tossed the food back into the cooler.

Jackknife paused at the doorway. “Cory and Ramon—they’re out to uphold justice. They want to go out of this life knowing they were good citizens and never let a crime go unpunished. But me, I just like blood.”

 

Chapter 4

 

Ramon and Tyrell approached the small crew quarters located near the far end of the “West Wing,” just beyond the exercise room. Ramon led the way and was first to reach the door, finding it sealed and locked. He struck it as hard as he could several times with his fist, but realized he would never be heard that way.

“Here, try this,” Tyrell said, handing him a length of pipe he had been carrying as a weapon. Ramon took it and hit the door several times, pausing as the dissonant tones of vibrating metal plates faded.

“Watch out,” Tyrell warned. “I think that miner guy, Biggs, is still in there. I heard he throws stuff when he’s drunk. And you don’t get no drunker than when there’s no tomorrow for a hangover.”

Ramon nodded. “Biggs, open up!” he shouted. “It’s important. You need to let us in.” He rapped the door again several times. The noise died away and the silence that followed spawned a grim thought: what if it wasn’t Biggs inside? Ramon swiftly handed back the pipe and motioned for Tyrell to step off to the side of the door out of sight. His eyes swept the area for an intercom he could use in case of trouble. Just as he spotted one some five meters down the corridor, the door unlocked and slid open with thunderous force.

It was Biggs. The drunken miner filled the doorway with his impressive bulk. Under the same beard restrictions as dockmen, he had let his sideburns grow down until they connected under his jaw in what was called a chinstrap. After two full days in complete weightlessness, he had acquired the usual puffy cheeks of newcomers, giving him the look of an overstuffed junior high bully who hangs around the schoolyard looking for trouble. His piercing eyes warned that he was the type of man that alcohol made unpredictable and mean.

“Leave me alone!” he bellowed. “Get out of here or I’ll break your neck, you stupid dock rat!”

As Tyrell tightened his grip on the pipe and stayed out of sight, Ramon backed away from Biggs slowly and smoothly, trying not to alarm him with any sudden moves. “It’s cool, it’s cool,” he said, both hands open in front of him. “We just need to check the crew quarters real quick. There’s somebody on board and Cory wants—”

“I know all about it,” Biggs slurred. “Beat up a preacher. Heard it on the inner—” He stumbled over the word a second time and then gestured to the intercom on the wall behind him. “He ain’t in here. But if you find him, you bring him here. You bring him here to me. You got that?”

“I think Cory has different plans,” Ramon said.

“You just bring him here, you understand? Forget what Cory says. I know what to do with him. I’m not stupid. I’m not no stupid guy, you know. You’re not saying I’m stupid, are you?”

Ramon quickly assured him that he wasn’t.

“That’s good, ‘cause I’m not. I’d hate to think you was saying I was, ‘cause I’d have to put an end to that. You understand what I’m saying? I can’t have people saying things about me when it ain’t true, and that ain’t true. I ain’t stupid, cause I remember things. Lots of things. And I know what those cons done and I don’t forget anything. And I’d teach ‘em all a lesson. Don’t you think I wouldn’t, ‘cause I would.”

Ramon used his smoothest voice. “You sure would, Biggs. I can see that now. So I’ll be sure to let you know just as soon as Cory’s done with him, ‘cause I can tell you’re a really smart guy. Thanks for your help, and I’ll let you get back to, uh, whatever it is you were doing.”

“Cause they’re all trash,” Biggs continued. “Sorry, low down, no good…”—he searched for a better word, but gave up—“trash. That’s what they are, a big bunch of trash, every stinking one of ‘em.”

He leaned forward, closer to Ramon, nearly overpowering him with his rancid breath. “Let me tell you something. I ain’t ashamed to be no blue collar working man. It was good enough for my Pop and good enough for my Grampa. I ain’t no Alfred Einstein, but I ain’t stupid. I just punch the clock and do what the boss man says and get my pay at the end of the week. I bust my hump for every dollar I make.

“But that ain’t good enough for those cons, those trash types. See, they think they’re smarter than me—better than me. They think they’re too good to work an honest day like me. I might not have much, but what I got I earned. Then they want to come along and steal what’s mine. Take what don’t belong to ‘em ‘cause they won’t work an honest day. ‘Cause they got hands only for swiping things instead of for working. Little delicate hands that ain’t never been dirty or banged up or cut up from real work.”

Biggs gestured out with his massive hands and Ramon glanced down at them. They indeed showed the history of a working man’s life. Rough as coarse sandpaper, chapped and callused, with bruised knuckles and numerous cuts in various stages of healing. The dirty grime of mine work had worked its way deep into every crack in his leathery skin and into the cuts that had healed over, leaving permanent lines like tattoos. Ramon’s own hands, which were amply muscular and work-weary, looked soft and ineffectual in comparison.

“Look, Biggs,” Ramon started in a pacifying tone, but his appeal was ignored.

“And it ain’t bad enough that they won’t work like the rest of us. Once they get caught and locked up, they still ain’t got to work half as hard as we do. Most of the time they just sit in their cells watching vids and reading magazines ‘cause some convention says it ain’t human to make ‘em work more than six hours a day. And when we run short on a job and need some extra hands, we got to pay the prison regular wage for every man we use, even though you can’t get half the work out of ‘em you could from a free man. They’re lazy and they talk back, and you got to watch ‘em every minute. They call us “moles” and talk to us like we’re stupid. Like we work hard ‘cause we don’t know no better, and if we was smart like them, we’d be living the easy life. And if the guards look away for even a minute, they’ll spit on you. Or worse.”

Here he paused for a moment—almost long enough for Ramon to interrupt, but not quite.

“A couple months ago they busted a few guys’ arms. And about a week later, they jumped ol’ Zeke and put a knife in his back. He’s dead, and we ain’t forgot about it!” Biggs appeared to swell before Ramon’s eyes. Ramon tried to inch back and give him space, but found his back up against the wall of the narrow corridor. He saw Tyrell moved in as close as he dared.

Biggs stared at Ramon with his penetrating eyes for what seemed like an eternity, and then slowly began to deflate. He hesitated, as if to say something else, but the thought seemed to escape him. Instead he squinted in a directionless way, gazed blankly for a moment, and fumbled the door shut.

Ramon let out a deep breath and looked over to Tyrell with relief. Tyrell lowered his pipe and scowled at him. “Ain’t you going in? Cory said check everywhere.”

“Did you see how big that guy was? Jackknife may have muscle and a mean streak, but this guy could take him with one hand. If you want to go in there then have at it, but not me. No way.”

“But what if the guy we’re looking for is another miner and Biggs is hiding him?”

“No, the mining companies got their guys out of here first thing. Only a few guys were left this long to shut down the camps, and they all came up when Biggs did. There’s nobody left down there but the cons and a couple of guards. Besides, Biggs is only looking out for one guy: Biggs. I can guarantee there’s nobody else in there. Let’s keep moving.”

“I’m tired of this!” Tyrell erupted. “Tired of nobody listening to me, and tired of everybody fighting, and tired of this stupid hunt. We’re gonna die, Ramon. If we don’t do something, we’re gonna die for sure. You understand that? In a few hours, you’re gonna be dead, and I’m gonna be dead, and everybody here is gonna be dead, dead, dead! And not you, not Cory, not nobody’s doing nothing about it.”

Ramon affected a thin veneer of patience to cover his growing frustration. “Tyrell, we’ve all done what we can do, and we managed to save an extra twenty people by lightening the transport and overfueling it. I don’t think you’d be complaining that no one’s done anything if you’d been onboard.”

“Well, that’s the problem, now ain’t it? ‘Cause I ain’t onboard. I’m not saying I don’t care about nobody else, but I’ve got people counting on me being alive, and I ain’t gonna give up until I figure out how to make that happen. If you want to help me, maybe we can both find a way out of this. But if you want to give up and waste what time you got left on this stupid duck chase, you can do it without me.” Tyrell flung his pipe down defiantly.

Ramon’s face reddened, but he maintained an even tone. “There’s such a thing as dying with dignity, Tyrell. Dying the same way you tried to live, by doing your duty and doing justice to the end. Keeping your cool and knowing that a whole life spent in control is a lie if the last hours are spent like a wild animal caught in a trap. You can kick and scream and fight all you want, Tyrell, but it won’t change anything—except maybe the truth about who you were all along.”

“I’ll tell you who I was all along, Ramon, a survivor. I never was a quitter and I never will be. If you’re saying that the end shows who you were all along, then that’s all we agree on. And it’s gonna show me being somebody that survives, or a least dies trying. Dying with dignity is still dying, Ramon, and once you’re dead it don’t matter how it happened. So if we both die here, your ‘dignity’ ain’t worth nothing. But if I find a way out, that’ll be worth everything.”

“Tell me, Tyrell, what are you going to come up with in the next few hours that nobody else has thought of in the last two weeks?”

“I don’t know, cause I ain’t come up with it yet. But it’ll come to me—it has to. Don’t look at me that way, Ramon. I know what you’re thinking. You think that just cause all the smart guys couldn’t come up with something, then I don’t got a chance. But maybe they were thinking wrong. Maybe they were thinking too big. They were looking for ways to save twenty people, but I only got to find a way to save one. I figure that made their job twenty times harder than mine, so I got an advantage. And since nobody around here seems to care what I think, and nobody wants to help, then I’m gonna have to do it alone. Nobody’s been looking out for me, so why should I be looking out for them?”

“You know that’s not true, Tyrell. Cory’s hardly slept for nearly a week. And ever since the word came about that transport breaking down, all he’s done is work this from every angle. He managed to save twenty extra guys, and that’s all he thought he could do without risking the forty already on that transport. If he could have saved even one more, he would have done it. And if he could have picked one person himself, you would have been at the top of the list. You know he’s always looked out for you.”

“Cory ain’t done nothing for me!” Tyrell hissed. “I got what I got cause I work hard. I would’ve got the same anywhere I worked.”

Ramon’s fists clenched as he took a deep breath. “Don’t say Cory hasn’t done anything for you, Tyrell. There’s things you don’t know.”

“What I know is that he slaps me on the back and calls me ‘son’ and says he likes me. But whenever there’s a dirty job that nobody else wants to do, I’m the one that gets stuck with it.”

“That’s because he trusts you to do it right,” Ramon said. “You and me are probably the only guys he really trusts, so, yeah, he expects more from us. But he also treats us good and rewards the extra effort. You know how many people on this station got a pay raise in the last two years?”

“I’m sure you’re gonna say two.”

“That’s right—you and me. And it wasn’t any five percent raise like anyone else would have got, Tyrell. He had to pull strings to get us twenty. He had to call in favors on that one, but he did it.”

Tyrell was unmoved. “You’re acting like it was his own money or something. He might have had to bend the rules, but it’s still the company’s money he was spending. I don’t see anything personal he’s done for me. I just know that he worked me like a dog and I let him get away with it ‘cause he’d throw me a little bone sometimes. Tell me one thing he ever did for me that was more than business, Ramon. Go ahead!”

Ramon held his breath for a moment. When he finally released it and spoke, he did it in a controlled tone. “Cory’s done more for you and your family than you’ll ever know. But as for details, it ain’t my place to say.”

Tyrell’s face was the picture of disgust. “That’s what I thought. He ain’t really done nothing for me, so I don’t see no reason why I ought to waste the time I got left doing what he says. I don’t owe him nothing. He didn’t listen to me, and I can see you’re not gonna help me either. Go ahead and die with your dignity if that’s what you want.” Tyrell reached for a handhold on the wall, and a strong tug sent him sailing down the corridor. “From now on, it’s every man for hisself!”

“And God for us all,” Ramon added softly. “I hope.”

 

Chapter 5

 

The lights were off in the main cargo bay when Jackknife arrived. He barked an order to Lopez who dutifully hugged the wall and felt his way toward the light panel in the thick darkness. Jackknife waited behind and searched his pockets for an unemployed cigarette.

“What’s taking so long?” he asked after a few minutes. “It’s on the back wall to the left of the air vent. Unless you got turned upside-down by now—then it’s on the right. You do know left from right, don’t you?” If Lopez answered, Jackknife didn’t hear it over the sound of his own laughter.

“Heckuva place to put a light panel, if you ask me. They musta had this module built south of the border where the labor’s cheap. Strong backs and weak minds, eh Lopez?”

“Whatever you say.”

“Hey, how many Mexicans does it take to screw in a light bulb, Lopez? Now’s a good time to find out, huh?” He hovered in the doorway, stroking his goatee and dragging on a stale cigarette as the shifting of crates echoed inside. “Haven’t you found it yet? What’s your problem?”

“There’s too much stuff in the way,” Lopez shouted back. “There’s all kinds of containers and things all bunched up in the back. I can’t get behind them.”

“I think you just got turned around and you’re scared to admit it.”

“Naw, I know where I am. There’s just all this junk piled up back here, is all. A bunch of freight containers and stuff. I think the panel’s back behind them. Can’t you give me a hand?”

Jackknife released a disgusted growl. Rather than feel his way along the wall as Lopez had done, he pushed off from the doorway and glided through the middle of the module, arms extended in front of him. He traveled about five meters before both hands hit a large obstruction. This was followed by the sounds of several cargo containers knocking into each other. Since microgravity precludes the stacking of containers, they were usually netted together with short cables to keep them closely grouped. Moving one translated the motion to all of its neighbors as well.

“Hang on a minute,” Jackknife said, “there’s some containers in the way. I don’t know whether to go around, over, or through. I could kill the idiot that shut off the lights. Can’t you see anything yet?”

Lopez explained that he could see only a little light through the doorway and, by moving from side to side, he could see the silhouette of numerous crates that lay in-between. Jackknife grunted acknowledgment and continued fumbling his way through the dark maze, slipping through open areas and squeezing between tightly spaced containers the size of refrigerators.

“Lopez, you should have told me all this stuff was here. I’d have gone around the edge of the room if you’d have bothered to let me know. Next time try to think about somebody besides yourself. Now I’m all pinned in here, so I’ll have to find my way back to the door and follow the wall around to where you are. And just so I can find a light switch you’re too dumb to find on your own.”

Concealed behind several rows of containers and cloaked in darkness, Lopez allowed the slightest trace of irritation in his voice. “I ain’t dumb, Jackknife. I just can’t get past a bunch of containers all strapped together any more than you can. If I could just shove a couple out of the way without the rest—”

The sounds of numerous steel and plastic containers crashing against each other filled the room. Jackknife found himself far removed from whatever was happening on the far end of the module. “Lopez, what’s going on over there?”

The banging continued and Lopez shouted back, “Jackknife, get over here! There’s somebody back here. I’ve got a hold on him!” This was followed by more violent crashing of containers.

“Hang on to him, Lopez! Bash his freakin’ face in if you can, but don’t let him get away!” Jackknife looked in all directions, searching for the light from the doorway, but found himself completely surrounded by crates, uncertain where the door could be found. The wild thrashing and sporadic shouts from Lopez only served to whip Jackknife into a frenzy. Boxed in, disoriented, and separated from the one place he wanted to be most, he swore vilely and pounded every object around him with all his might. The entire network of connected containers swayed back and forth, each container repeatedly crashing against those around it.

Amid all the movement, Jackknife briefly glimpsed a sliver of light from the doorway and regained his bearings. He charged in its direction. “Hang on, Lopez, I’ll swing around!”

Several more crashes were heard from the far end of the room, and Lopez shouted back. “Hey man, I lost him!”

Jackknife ordered him to stay put, and said he’d be right there. They would sandwich the intruder between them if they could. He could already see the door clearly and had only to squeeze between two closely spaced crates and he’d be free. His shoulders were too wide, so he rotated 90 degrees and tried to squeeze through. The whole web of containers was heaving one way and then the other, compressing and expanding like a chain of railroad cars as the locomotive starts and stops. The space before him briefly widened and he pulled himself mostly through before it contracted again.

The two crates on either side of him closed on his leg and pinned him in place. As he stared at the open doorway less than ten meters away, he saw a black silhouette racing toward it. He told Lopez to follow as he raged at the fleeing figure. Just as it slipped through the door, the crates began to separate. He freed himself and kicked as hard as he could toward the doorway. Once he was in motion though, the door ahead of him slid shut, leaving the room in absolute darkness. Jackknife smashed into the closed door and collapsed in a crumpled heap.

He was uncommunicative beyond the level of groaning once Lopez arrived. Lopez tried to locate him in the dark and assess his condition, but once he got close enough to touch him, his efforts were rewarded with several reflex jabs from the angry dockman.

“Get away,” Jackknife ordered, and Lopez backed off.

“Okay, whatever you say. You wait here. I’ll get the lights turned on so we can find an intercom.”

Jackknife didn’t reply. He hung motionless in the air as he focused on overcoming the pain. Within a few minutes, Lopez shouted back that he had found the light panel and pushed every button on it. The familiar hum of the lighting system returned as it began charging the mercury vapor lights. Jackknife watched for the dim glow of the lights as they slowly began to warm. Before long, he could make out the faint outline of objects in the room.

Lopez returned with a triumphant air. “I told you I’d find it.”

Jackknife looked up scornfully at his shadowy form. “Lopez, you stupid fathead. How could you let him get away?”

“Hey, you try wrestling somebody in the dark with no gravity, nothing to hold onto, and things crashing all over. You might as well try to hold onto a greased pig. I did the best I could.”

“And it obviously wasn’t good enough,” Jackknife said. “You’ve always been sloppy, and now that I count on you to do one important thing, you blow it. Why, I ought to—”

Once again within arms’ length of Jackknife, Lopez assumed his usual deferential manner and tempered his tone to match. “Look, man, I really did try. I’m sorry. It was just tough, and I’m not as strong as you are.”

Jackknife grimaced, unable to decide which was worse: rank insolence or insincere praise. He looked down, rubbed his eye sockets with his fists, and gazed back up at Lopez. “So, was he punching you back pretty hard?”

“I don’t know. I guess. Everything was just happening so fast and things was banging into me from all over. I think he was probably just trying to get out of there ‘cause he knew there was two of us. I had a hold on his belt for a while, and then his hair, and then all I could hang onto was his shirt. Look, he ripped clean out of it.”

Lopez handed the torn prison shirt to Jackknife, who examined it in the dim light. “Just like I told you dimwits, the preacher didn’t escape from any riot down there. If he’d still been down there when it started, he woulda been toast. This guy ambushed him and then got locked in when the shuttle took off. And here’s the evidence that it wasn’t no guard or miner that did it. The only question now is what kinda con he is. If he’s the regular kind, then he just saw a chance and took it, and he’ll probably hide out now that it didn’t pan out. But if he’s the other kind—”

“What’s the other kind?” Lopez asked hesitantly.

A killer. If he’s the kind that enjoys killing, he’s gonna have a field day up here with the time he’s got time left. And there’s nothing more them cons would rather do that take shots at us. They hate us as much as we hate them. If that’s what’s going on, then you just lucked out. ‘Cause if it had been light in here, he’d have killed you before you knew what hit you.”

Lopez froze in place like a man who was told he just walked through a minefield unaware. “Is he a—a killer, Jackknife?”

Jackknife handed the shirt back to him. “No way of knowing from just a shirt, but I’d say you were lucky either way. If there’s a God, then he must spend time looking out for stupid people who can’t take care of themselves. And that’s you, Lopez.”

Jackknife turned his attention to the door, looking for any way to open it from the inside. It had several sliding bars, turn wheels, and release handles on it, but he couldn’t budge any of the moving parts. Like much of the station, they were corroded, and the gears could no longer be turned without an extraordinary effort. Both he and Lopez threw their backs into it, but couldn’t unfreeze the locks.

“This is gonna have to be opened from the outside,” Jackknife said. “There’s no point in us killing ourselves doing it this way when any wimp could unlock it with one hand from the other side. I hate to let them find us locked in here, but we’ve got to let everybody know we’ve run into the guy. Go find an intercom. Now.”

The lights had almost reached their full intensity, so Lopez had no trouble locating the small intercom panel on the other side of the module. He contacted Cory and informed him of their encounter, and asked for someone to open the door.

Jackknife remained in place, rebuilding his strength. Under the bright white floods, the bruises on his right brow and forehead were now nearly phosphorescent. His right eye squinted a bit, but he seemed as untroubled by his wounds as a stray mutt that takes frequent abuse with indifference. While he waited for Lopez to return, he occupied himself with injecting as much nicotine and alcohol into his system as possible. When Lopez returned, there were already two crumpled cigarette butts and a small whiskey flask lazily drifting toward an air vent several meters away.

Jackknife ignored him. He drew in a long, steady breath that brightened the end of his cigarette and burned down its length like the spark on a dynamite fuse. He held the breath inside for a span with his eyes tightly shut, and then expelled it in a long, smoky blast. This he repeated until nothing remained but a scorched filter.

He looked up at Lopez severely. “If there’s one thing in this life I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t trust nobody but yourself. Not your boss, not your woman, not your next-door neighbor, not even your old man. And every time you go out on a limb to help somebody, it always comes back to bite you.”

Lopez hesitated and then began in a self-conscious tone, “Sometimes I think…”

“I could name a couple dozen guys,” Jackknife continued, “that owe me for things I done, and not one of ‘em done me a good turn. After a while, you learn it just ain’t worth it to look after anybody but yourself, and that’s why I don’t. Not unless helping them helps me. And I’ll tell you God’s honest truth: there ain’t a man that ever lived that didn’t help somebody unless he knew it was going to help himself more.”

Jackknife searched his pockets for a certain alcohol flask and, once he located it, he took a large swig. He looked up as if to say more, but his eyes locked onto something, and a look of delayed recognition followed. “Lopez, you sorry sap. Give me that shirt.”

Lopez flashed him a bewildered expression, looked down at the prisoner’s shirt in his hands, and handed it over.

Jackknife shook his head incredulously. “Maybe God does look out for the stupid after all. You see this?” He pointed out a name tag sewn onto the shirt, now visible in the bright light.

Lopez looked at it but gave no sign of recognition.

“It’s Isaacson, the guy we were all talking about at the table a few hours ago. The death row con they were going to space next week. Isaacson is the guy that took out that miner a few months back. He’s a killer, Lopez.”

 

Chapter 6

 

Four heavily armed men stationed themselves alongside Cory as he unlocked the main cargo bay door and heaved it open. Bright light streamed out into the dim hallway, and they squinted for a moment as they peered inside. They lowered weapons when they saw no one but Jackknife and Lopez inside.

Jackknife shook his head in an exaggerated display. “We told you he ain’t here any more, Cory. You didn’t have to bring a whole freakin’ platoon with you. Of all the places those guys ought to be, this ain’t one of them ‘cause they won’t find him here. You ought to lock this bay up tight, seeing as this is the only place we know he ain’t at.”

Cory looked past Jackknife and scrutinized the room with a sharp eye. The system of interconnected containers hung in its center like a gill net full of choked salmon Hundreds of small objects that had been ejected from smashed units filled the empty spaces. A thick, oily substance exuded from a nearby container, trapping passing debris in a tangled glob.

“Are you sure there was only one person in here?” Cory asked. “Seems like there’s plenty of room for someone else to hide.”

“Beats me, but I only saw one guy go out the door, and I’m sure we woulda heard something by now if there was somebody else in here with us. You can send in your girl scouts to check the room if you want.”

Cory motioned to the men at his side. “We’d better make sure. If it’s clean, we’ll seal it off like Jackknife said.” They entered and began sweeping the room for any sign of another intruder. Cory turned back to Jackknife. “You look rough.”

“I’ve been better, I’ve been worse.”

“And you, Lopez, you okay?”

“Me? Yeah, I’m all right. Man, it was pretty wild around here.” He discreetly glanced over at Jackknife and then shrugged apologetically. “I had a hold on him for a while, but I kinda let him get away. Jackknife was on the way to pin him in, but I sort of lost my grip and he shoved me into a bunch of containers. By the time I got free, he was long gone. Then he locked the door, and then Jackknife—” he paused briefly as he weighed his words, “—well, he almost had him, but not quite. I mean, he was right there but just a little behind, and then—”

“He got away,” Jackknife muttered.

“Uh, yeah, he got away.”

“Did you see which way he went?” Cory asked.

“Not through a closed door, I didn’t. But I’m pretty sure it was right or left.”

Cory ignored the attitude. “And how long ago was it?”

“About ten minutes ago.”

Lopez spoke up cautiously. “Probably more like twenty. Jackknife was sort of, well, out of it for a while.”

“Okay,” Jackknife snapped. “Ten, twenty, whatever. He was here then, he’s gone now. He’s out there and we’re in here. He’s moving, we’re talking.”

Cory stiffened slightly but didn’t push back, instead directing his next question to Lopez. “Did he say anything to you?”

Lopez thought for a moment before he spoke. “Mostly he just kind of made noises. You know, like everybody does in the middle of a fight. Like when you hit ‘em in the belly and they grunt ‘cause they weren’t expecting it. But now that I think about it, he did say something once, back when I had him in a tight hold. What was it now? Oh yeah, something like, ‘not now’ or maybe ‘not yet.’ It’s hard to say.”

“What do you think he meant by that?”

“Hmmm. I guess it was kind of like a threat. Like I caught him off guard and he was saying he was going to deal with me when he was ready and not before. He probably didn’t want to wrestle in the dark any more than I did, so he was probably upset he didn’t get a clean shot at me.”

Cory nodded his head and looked Lopez in the eyes. He spoke in the plain, direct manner one uses with a child. “It’s important to tell me everything you can remember. Any information you recall could help us. Did you see or hear anything else?”

“No, Cory, that’s all. He might have said something else, but there was things crashing all over the place. I know Jackknife was yelling from across the room, but I couldn’t even make out what he was saying. I just held on and—oh yeah.” He reached behind his back and produced the ripped prison shirt. He turned it over a few times and then held it up with the name tag visible. Cory studied the name for a moment and then acknowledged its significance with a grave nod.

The other men returned from searching the bay and reported it clean, assuring Cory there was no other way in or out. He agreed they should leave the room and designate it off-limits. After ordering everyone out into the corridor, he shut the door and set the deadbolt.

“The only problem is that the lock—as you know—can be opened from the outside. That could allow our guest to get back in and hide where we’ve already looked. We’ll have to put a padlock on it to seal it off for good.” He took an appraising look at the men around him and addressed the pair on his right. “You two, I want you to head back toward Docking Bay D where the others are. We know he didn’t get that far, so you can start from there and work your way back. I want every cubic inch searched. Understood?”

They nodded in unison and left. He turned to the other pair. “And you two, I want you to head back the other way toward the mess hall. Stop when you run into the nearest search team, and work your way back this direction. Got it?”

They followed their orders, leaving Cory alone with Jackknife and Lopez.

“Lopez, I want you to find Ramon and tell him everything you told me. He’s heading up this search, so he needs as much information as you can give him—don’t leave anything out. And update him on the two teams I just sent out. It may be wise to pull in the others from the extremities and have everyone search within the new bounds. But Ramon knows this station better than anyone. If there’s any way this guy could slip past through a maintenance shaft or air duct, Ramon would know about it. I’ll trust his judgment in placing the teams.”

Lopez flashed him a broad, gaptoothed grin as if he had been entrusted to carry Caesar’s orders to the battlefield. He beamed proudly to Jackknife, and deflated only slightly when he received no response. A graceless kick off the doorway sent him sailing down the corridor.

After Lopez left, Cory turned to Jackknife. “As for you, I want you to get down to the supply module and round up as many chains and padlocks as you can. I’ll wait here and keep this door secure until you get back, so make it fast.”

Jackknife didn’t stir. Cory hesitated for a moment, like a boy whose rocket failed to launch when the fuse burned down. “Is there a problem?”

“Yeah, as a matter of fact, there is. It sounds a lot more like you’re telling me what to do than asking me. That’s a problem.” As he drew closer, the final words were punctuated with thick smoke that curled around Cory’s face. “‘Cause I don’t work for you no more, Cory.”

Cory’s expression perched between anger and disbelief. “Jackknife, this is not the time—”

“No, Cory, this is exactly the time. The time I got left belongs to me. Not to the company, and not to you. I’ll spend it as I see fit, and that don’t include taking orders from you.”

Cory discreetly reached back and felt the wall close behind him. He maintained his ground and tightened his fists in case they were needed, but softened his tone considerably. “Look, Jackknife—”

“No, you look. You might control paychecks around here, but I don’t see as that counts for much anymore. The one thing you definitely don’t control is me.”

Cory drew a deep breath and continued in a placating tone. “What I’m saying is—”

“There you go again, Cory. You just don’t get it, do you? I ain’t interested in anything you’re saying. Now, if you take a notion to start asking, I might be inclined to listen. Or I might not, depending on my mood. But I won’t be ordered around any more like you’ve done me for the last year. If I decide to go back to the crew quarters and drink myself into a coma like Biggs, that’s my business and there ain’t a damned thing you can do about it. But if I decide to find this guy, it’s because I want to, not because you’re telling me to, so don’t even waste your breath.”

The struggle between protocol and expedience played itself out in the shifting lines on Cory’s forehead. The final arching of his brows in conditional surrender signaled that expedience prevailed. “We can’t afford the time to argue about this, so how about telling me what you want to do.”

Jackknife responded with a self-satisfied smirk. “First I want to go back to the mess hall for some supplies. After that, I plan to settle a little score I got with somebody that slammed a steel door in my face. Now, there happens to be some other guys around here that are looking for him, too, so it’s in my best interest if they help me find him. Since the supply room is pretty close to the mess hall, it wouldn’t be much of a problem to grab a few chains and padlocks and give you a couple, as long as you realize I’m doing it on my schedule, and because it’s what I want to do instead of what you’re telling me to do.”

“I can live with that,” Cory said.

“Good, I thought you could.” Jackknife smiled broadly and started to leave. “Oh, and if you have any more… suggestions, just let me know and I’ll consider them.” He turned and gripped a set of handholds along the walls. With a large tug, he launched down the corridor and out of sight. Once he was gone, Cory contacted Ramon on the hallway intercom.

“Yeah Cory, what’s up?”

“Are you alone?”

“I can be, yeah.” The sound of Ramon clearing the room followed, after which he told Cory to continue.

“I sent Lopez your way to relay some information. I’ll let him go ahead and do that when he gets there, but there’s more to tell. In short, Jackknife and I just had a confrontation, and he made it clear that he’s done taking orders from anyone.”

“That’s bad news. What’s he plan on doing?”

“For now, I think he’ll cooperate with us as long as he doesn’t feel pressured. We need his help, so if you can keep him working with us, then do it. Tread lightly though, because we can’t afford to let him make a scene in front of the other men. They might take the cue to bolt, too. I’m hoping he just wanted to blow off some steam and tell me off, so I let him. But if he’s planning on writing his own rules and interfering with what we need to do, we could have yet another problem on our hands.”

“Every problem has multiple solutions,” Ramon replied.

“Then I’ll trust you to handle things as you see fit. Now, as soon as you can spare him, send Tyrell my way. You and Tyrell are the only guys I know I can count on, and I could use Tyrell’s help sealing up the rooms we’ve already checked.”

Ramon hesitated so slightly than not even a close friend like Cory would perceive it. “Hmmm, it might be a while. I’ve got him and another guy checking some of the maintenance shafts on the outer part of West Wing. No intercoms down there. Can I send someone else?”

“No, that’s okay. Just send Tyrell whenever he’s done. I can handle it by myself for a while, and I sort of wanted to talk to him personally. I know he’s not handling this very well. We’ve always had a pretty close relationship, I think, and I know he could use some encouragement.”

“Roger that. I’ll send him when he shows up. Out.”

Cory gave the door another perfunctory check and then hand-tightened the locking mechanism. The wheel budged reluctantly and he managed only a quarter turn out of it. Confident he had done his best, he settled into waiting.

Several minutes passed as he kept silent watch over the empty corridor. When it seemed that no one would appear anytime soon, he reached inside his vest pocket and produced a worn envelope bearing his name in feminine hand. He opened it with the greatest reverence, and removed a letter dated some eight years prior.

 

Dearest Roger,

 

There’s a chill in the air, and the leaves are beginning to turn lovely shades of red and orange. The sun is just setting as I sit curled up in front of the fire with a steaming cup of Chamomile tea. I’m thinking of you.

Yesterday I took a long walk through Goodale Park and passed all the beautiful old houses we loved to look at. I went to the small studio where you bought me the hand blown glass last time you were here, but I started to cry and had to leave. On the way home, I saw that same older couple out walking their little Spaniel through the park. They always ask where my “young man” is. I smile and say you’ll be back soon.

You know how dearly I love you, but you must also understand that I can’t wait forever. When we last parted at the gate, you told me you could find a technicality to end your enlistment, but I wouldn’t want a man who compromised his word and walked away from his duties. My mind tells me you are right, even though my heart wants you here, no matter the cost. I pray there is some other way, but it seems less likely with every passing day.

My hair is long now, and I’ve set aside the blue dress you’ve always loved. I will wear it on the day you return, or never again. Should you fail to come back to me, you will always have my heart.

 

Love forever,

Laura

 

Cory felt the texture of the paper before carefully placing the letter back inside its envelope. A faint noise echoed nearby and he slipped the envelope back into his vest. He looked down the length of the corridor in both directions, but saw no one.

He unconsciously held his breath as he listened. This time he distinctly heard the sound of metal parts clanging, like someone rummaging through a toolbox. It stopped after only a few seconds, but that was long enough to determine that it came from behind one of the doors just a few meters down the corridor.

 

Chapter 7

 

Cory approached two closely spaced doors and found the first one slightly ajar. Like all bay doors, it opened outward so a sudden loss of bay pressure would pull it shut rather than blow it open. He tested it cautiously, moving it just a fraction, listening for noise. To his relief, it moved silently. He pulled it back slowly, just far enough to slip through.

The lights inside the module were at quarter strength, giving enough light to define the room’s contents, yet casting deep shadows against the grim walls. A smell like kerosene hung thick in the air. As the designated repair bay, it housed half a dozen medium to large transport engines in various stages of repair and offered the only place to test them in vacuum. Once the bay was depressurized, technicians could monitor engine performance through the window of the adjoining control room.

Cory advanced slowly and listened. Again he heard a dull metallic ring, but its source was impossible to divine. He slipped behind a large engine—one Tyrell had wanted to attach to the last transport in another of his desperate schemes—and he slid along the wall toward the other end of the bay. A shadow moved in front of him and he stopped cold. Where was Jackknife? Would he return at all? Cory half-regretted coming in alone, but couldn’t leave yet without first determining whether he had found their convict. He scanned what little of the room he could see, squinting into dark crevices in search of an intercom, and came up empty.

Once more a fleeting shadow brushed the wall and Cory decided he would investigate it alone. He could always fall back to the corridor and call reinforcements. Weaponless, he searched around him for something to fill his hand. The exposed engine in front of him offered a wealth of rods, pipes, and sharp edges, but nothing that could be pried loose. A nearby toolkit looked more promising, so he moved closer and opened it quietly. Empty.

He probed the underside of another engine without luck and then chanced across the remains of an old antennae array. The central shaft was an aluminum rod about two centimeters in diameter, and he found that it easily unscrewed from the element, making a solid staff nearly a meter long.

Now armed, he returned his attention to the moving shadow. It played on the wall behind him, its source some distance beyond the huge engine he was using for cover. Just to his left, a support rod ran floor to ceiling, designed as a handhold for weightless mechanics moving equipment. He could use it to take a quick look over the top of the engine and then retreat quickly, but it lay within a bright shaft of light. The other option was to move a short distance to his right. There was no handhold, but he would be cloaked in darkness. This he did.

He rose smoothly and silently from behind his cover and saw the light from the control room as it streamed across the tops of engines and assorted containers. Through the window, Cory spotted an unknown figure. Dressed in dark gray pants and white undershirt, the man was no more than ten meters away and was occupied with something below the window’s lower edge. A quick comparison of simple mass indicated they were evenly matched. Unless he was also armed as well, Cory had the advantage.

As Cory assessed the man before him, he forgot he was still rising. At length he realized he was fully exposed and the top of the engine was almost beyond reach. To be left helplessly drifting in the open was to be worse than a sitting duck.

A quick twist in mid-air sent his feet flying out behind him and crashing into an empty fuel tank strapped to the wall. The sudden clatter broadcast his presence effectively as he emerged into the light. He caught a handhold and looked up to see that the man across the glass had spotted him. Their eyes locked for a moment as each man’s initial surprise quickly gave way to calculation. The situation was clear. Separated by wall and window, neither man could reach the other.

Cory approached the window and noted that the audio system on the wall was active. “You’re Isaacson,” he accused.

The other man paused, visibly processing Cory’s words and tone with a slight grimace. He hung motionless in air, just a meter from the cloudy glass window. “And you?”

“I’m Roger Cory. I want to know what you’re doing on my station.”

The stowaway cast a furtive glance one way and then the other, as if expecting the answer to lie somewhere within the control room. “Tell me this first: is the last transport still waiting to leave? I keep hearing announcements that it’s ready, but not that it’s left.”

Cory remained true to Ramon’s plan. “It’s docked in Bay D at the end of the corridor. They’ve got a few more things to load. Why do you want to know?”

“How long until it leaves?” he asked, unconsciously tugging at his open collar like a boy noosed with a Sunday tie.

“That’s not your concern. It’s full, and you’re the last person they’d make room for. You have to know that. Unless you plan to take on an entire station of men all by yourself, I don’t know what you can do about it.”

“But you’re certain it’s still here?” he persisted. “And he—the preacher—hasn’t gotten off the station yet?”

“What is it with you and the preacher?” Cory demanded, sailing up to the glass planting his fists firmly on its cold surface. “What are you up to, and why are you so determined to keep him from leaving? I don’t know what your plan was in coming up here, but I can just about guarantee that you signed your own death warrant by what you did on that shuttle. Once my crew catches you, there’s not much I can do to hold them back. If you’ve got an explanation, you’d better give it to me now. They won’t give you the chance.”

“I have my reasons.”

Cory’s eyes narrowed. “And what if I ordered that transport to leave right now and sealed your fate along with the rest of us? What would you do then? Waste the remaining few hours of your life carrying out a vendetta against my crew because of some stupid inmate/worker feud? Does life mean so little to you?”

Isaacson took a breath and glanced away thoughtfully for a moment. He turned back to Cory with just the hint of a wry grin. “Would you believe me if I told you that I’d find a nice quiet place to myself?”

Cory chuckled at the attempt. “No. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t. It’s obvious that you had a plan in what you did—”

“A method in my madness, as it were.”

“That’s right. So I don’t think you’ll just fade out of sight now. Besides, you lost that option the second you laid a hand on the preacher.”

“Along with a tooth, I’m afraid. I read he was a boxer in college.” He affectedly rubbed the side of his jaw.

“You’ll lose more than a few teeth before it’s all over. I’ve got the entire crew scouring this station, and they all want a piece of you. Whatever you’re up to will fail.”

He shook his head solemnly. “No, I don’t think so, Mister Cory. I have it on good authority that it won’t and I have the help of someone who is known for getting results.”

“If you’re so certain of that, why don’t you just tell me why you’re here and what you’re up to?”

“Not while that transport is still here.”

“Again with the transport!” Cory said. “Do you really think you have a chance in a million of getting on—” He snapped as if slapped by a glove. “Or is it something else you’re after? If you knew you never stood a chance of escaping yourself, maybe you wanted to make sure no one else did. Is that it? Did you plan to put a bomb on the transport?”

He smiled broadly. “Yes, I suppose you could say that. Something incendiary, to say the least.”

Cory felt a cold sense of dread slip over him like a sheet. “It was clear from the second I saw you that you were no ordinary criminal. Most of them are simple street thugs. Ninety-five percent, maybe, but not you. From your mannerisms, I’d guess you to be a practiced con man, but they don’t lock people up on Golgotha for that. It takes something a whole lot worse. That makes my next guess some type of sociopath. Is that it? Boyish charm, disarming smile, and smooth talk to hide a missing conscience?”

“You give me far too much credit, Mr. Cory. I’m just your garden-variety evildoer. A man much like you, but with my own particular outlook and priorities. Let’s just say that they may run counter to convention, and therein lies the rub.”

Cory discreetly slid one foot up against a nearby engine housing, preparing to use it as a launch pad. He intensified his gaze into the convict’s eyes, ensuring he would not look down and see any movement. “Is that all other people are to you? Is that all a man of the cloth was to you? An obstacle to your priorities?”

“I appreciate your devotion to justice, Mr. Cory, I truly do. But for reasons I can’t discuss at the moment, I’m afraid this conversation needs to end.”

“I couldn’t agree more!” Cory sprang like a rattlesnake, his arms outstretched toward the door he had left ajar. He resisted an irrational urge to kick his feet and paddle his arms like a swimmer, understanding his speed was fixed at the moment he launched. Remaining streamlined would save him the fractions of a second he would need. He anticipated every motion needed to get through that door into the corridor and around to the control room door before Isaacson could lock it.

At eight meters from the door, he twisted his body and narrowly skirted past a support rod. At six meters he took a deep breath in preparation. Then at four meters it happened, and he shuddered at the loud thunderclap behind him.

Red lights began flashing as Cory heard the unmistakable howl of air rushing out into space through the vents on the wall behind him. Within a second, the door ahead slammed shut against the growing vacuum. Cory swore an oath that was lost within the roar of rushing air, and he reached the door a second later. He grasped the handrails on each side of the doorway and planted both feet on the door, straining against it with all his might, but to no avail. The pressure difference made the task impossible.

He recalled that the module took about five minutes to depressurize, and figured he might remain conscious for half of that. Already he was struggling to keep his ears cleared. He did not want to think about the final effects of a perfect vacuum on the human body.

The door wouldn’t open—that was certain. Was there another way out? He surveyed the room quickly and confirmed there was not. The internal wall had only one door, while the external wall had two narrow windows, a large bay door, and a row of vents. The wall opposite the control room held an array of controls, one of which he knew could save him.

He launched across the room, his destination a large, conspicuous sign posted above an array of controls. It seemed impossibly far, and reaching it would deeply tax a dwindling supply of precious seconds. The key lay in fighting the panic urge, just like an airless diver who can’t find the surface.

The pain in his left ear intensified as it failed to equalize with the plunging room pressure. He pinched his nose and blew. He struck the side of his head with his palm repeatedly and ineffectually. Only a few more seconds to reach the panels. He could almost make out the words on the sign. It would tell him how to repressurize the room.

Unlike a drowning man, he was able to breathe, but his efforts were growing pointless. Still he persisted, inhaling deeply, trying to capture every last air molecule before there were no more to be had.

As he sailed onward, something was overcoming him. Lightheadedness? Vertigo? Déjà vu? Some debilitating mental state encroached, and he was at a loss to identify or fight it. Time was flowing at a different rate, though he wasn’t sure if it was faster or slower—it was just wrong. Strains of fact and fantasy merged as he fought to keep them separate. Sound was attenuating in the thinning air, and the flashing lights had a hypnotic effect.

At last he reached the wall. It was called a wall, wasn’t it? And why was he so eager to get to it? The reason eluded him for a moment as he pondered what caused the vague sense of urgency he felt. Then he looked up and saw the bright yellow sign with red block letters and it all came back to him like a man roused from a doze by a barking dog.

With rediscovered determination, he fought to maintain his focus as he read the sign:

 

WARNING: DEPRESSURIZATION ZONE. THIS AREA MUST BE CLEARED OF ALL PERSONNEL AND PRESSURE-SENSITIVE DEVICES BEFORE BEGINNING AIR EVACUATION. FAILURE TO OBSERVE SAFETY GUIDELINES MAY RESULT IN SERIOUS INJURY OR LOSS OF LIFE. PERSONNEL MUST EVACUATE AREA PRIOR TO DEPRESURIZATION AND REMAIN CLEAR UNTL 10 MINIUTES AFTER RERPRESURIZATION IS COMPLETE TO PREVENT INJURY FROMN LATENT PRESSRE STRESSES LEADNG TO UNEXPECTD RUPTURESS.

IN THE EVEMT THAT A DEPRSURIZATON SEQUENNCE IS INTIATED WH1LE CREW MEBMERS ARE INITIATD WH1LE CREW MEMBRES ARE WITHIIN THE DANGEER ZONEZ, A MANAUL 5HUTDOMN SH0ULDD TO BE ATTEMTPTEDD. AM EMGRENCCY SHUTDOBS COLNTRLO IIS LOTACED ONN HTHE TIHRDD PALNELL OFF HHTHHE CDNTROOL PPANFLL FRROMN TTHEEE TTTOPP WHEHER THHETEH FEPQMTT IIINDIICARTRR SSIIS LLOOCTAC TTEÐDD FF FFAAA AÆEERL RRRL…

 

Nothing remained but a tangle of half-recognized letters and arcane symbols, withdrawing any offer of hope they had once given. Cory also realized that the sign was no longer yellow. The flashing lights were no longer red. All sense of color had vanished as the oxygen-deprived cones in his eyes failed.

He was now vomiting air uncontrollably and his waist had expanded beyond his belt. The shooting pain in his sinuses was staggering. He knew the shutdown control was within reach, but couldn’t guess where. A dozen levers and a hundred switches stared back at him, and there was no more air. As reality began to slip again, he grasped for something—anything—in a desperate, panicked attempt. The scene started collapsing as tunnel vision set in, and he scanned across the controls one small row at a time.

A familiar sight, an intercom panel passed into his narrowing field of vision. He felt an instinctive need to hit the white button under the metal speaker grille, but wasn’t sure why. He mashed it clumsily, having no idea what to do next.

His eyes drifted to a large lever with some inane writing above it. He watched a pair of shaky hands reach up and fumble for it, waver, and then limply slide down the wall. It was unclear not only whose they were, but even what they were as rational thought ended.

His failing vision settled on one of them, and he found it had an uncertain number of fingers attached. One had a piece of metal wrapped around it. The metal had several shiny, flat surfaces. They reflected a light that was flashing slower and slower and slower. And then the tunnel collapsed into darkness.

 

Chapter 8

 

Jackknife wiped a mustard smear off his cheek with the back of his hand. He wrapped the remainder of a corned beef sandwich in a napkin and shoved it into one of the spacious pockets of his coveralls. After restocking his personal supply of food, cigarettes, and alcohol flasks, he figured he had left Cory waiting long enough to make his point. With a twisted knot of heavy chains and padlocks in his left hand, he guided himself along the corridor handrail with his right.

A door ahead opened and an electrician in a green jumpsuit kited out. A gangly man with wiry hair, he looked up to see Jackknife steaming toward him and moved aside deferentially. He grinned meekly as Jackknife neared and was bypassed without a glance.

Jackknife rounded a bend and headed for the main shaft junction. A few months prior, the B Shift had spent a solid week refurbishing this section of West Wing, buffing the stainless steel panels, repainting the piping, and replacing the light fixtures. Every two meters they had installed plastic tie down hooks for securing equipment. Jackknife found that they made a crisp snap as he broke them off one by one.

As he neared the main shaft, he noticed the faint traces of a flashing red light somewhere off the tee junction. With his interest piqued, he increased his speed and tried to recall what the lights meant. A yellow light indicated heavy equipment, a bright strobe high CO2 levels, and spinning red and blue was a hull breach. He could now clearly see it was a slow throb like a heartbeat. Not an emergency light, just a status indicator of some sort.

He turned the corner and found the source located above a nearby bay door. Then he recalled what it meant. “Decompression?” he said aloud. “Who’d be decompressing a bay now?”

He used a nearby tie down to secure the mass of chains he had been hauling. He gave the bay door a solid tug and found that it was tightly sealed. The control room door next to it opened easily, so he peered inside, finding it fully lit and vacant.

Entering cautiously, he took in the scene. Nothing seemed suspicious, aside from the flashing red lights on various control panels throughout the room. He eyed a few instruments here and there and then approached the room’s far end for a look through the observation window.

“What the—?” Jackknife pressed against the glass with palms and nose. “Cory?” The slumped form he spotted in the bay was facing away and barely moving. “Cory?” he repeated to himself as he watched his boss’ hands slide slowly down the wall panel and lose contact with it completely.

Jackknife quickly checked the pressure indicator on the instrument panel in front of him and swore. Operating in panic mode, he searched for the emergency shutoff switch amid the myriad controls. His finger made contact with the large red switch, began to apply pressure, and then hesitated.

His eyes shot another look into the adjoining bay and lingered on the lonely figure inside. The alarm continued to flash in one-second intervals, casting a red glow across Jackknife’s face as it steadily hardened into grim resolve. Then the finger lifted.

Jackknife moved back to the window and stared impassively. Cory hung limply in the air, slowly drifting toward the air vents.

A few seconds later, Ramon appeared in the room asking, “Hey, Jackknife, what’s going on in here?”

Startled, he backed away from the window. “I was headed to—uh—and then I saw an alarm…”

Ramon continued toward him. “Yeah, I got a strange intercom message. Nobody there, but I could hear an alarm and air blowing. I checked the system to see where it might have come from, and saw somebody was depressurizing the bay.” He reached the window and took a casual look into the bay. “What I can’t figure is how—Dios mio! There’s somebody in there!”

Jackknife feigned disbelief admirably. “What? That’s impossible.”

In an instant Ramon was racing for the control panel. “Next to that Transvac engine—it’s a body. We’ve got to repressurize fast.”

“You’ve got good eyes, Ramon. Looks like that con went off and spaced himself for us. Should’ve been more careful which buttons he was pushing.”

“ All I could see was his back, and it looked like a crew uniform to me.” Ramon hit the red button and the alarms died as the space vents slammed shut. A few more button pushes fired up roaring turbines that began pumping oxygen back into the bay. “I don’t think it’s too late. There was still 20% air pressure.”

“Nobody can survive that,” Jackknife said. “And even if he did, pressurizing him would be just as bad.”

Ramon kept his eyes trained on the panel in front of him. “You could dive 50 meters and come back up without the bends if you did it fast enough. He might make it just because it happened so fast that his body hasn’t depressurized yet. The best thing is to get the pressure back up quick.” He watched the pressure gauge a moment and then flipped another switch, sending the turbines into deafening overdrive.

The needle on the pressure gauge rose briskly, passing from the red region to the yellow, and soon into the green. Jackknife kept watch at the window and Ramon said he would place a call for help. Since Norm Casper had been the only medically trained crewman, his departure in the transport left them few options. He decided their best hope was either Nijinsky, the mechanic, because he knew CPR, or Schnell, the electrician, because he had once seen him set a broken arm without flinching. Ramon called for both. He also called for Cory.

 

As the bay pressure approached nominal, the turbines began to ramp down. Ramon rushed into the corridor and over to the bay entrance. He tugged at the door repeatedly and hardly noticed that Jackknife had followed him.

“You’ll hear it unlock when it’s ready, Ramon.”

Ramon continued pulling. “It doesn’t need to unlock ‘cause nobody locked it in the first place.” He motioned toward a configuration of gears on the door’s exterior that somehow should have made that obvious to Jackknife. “Looks like the door slammed shut and sealed on it own against the vacuum. That means it’ll open when both sides equalize. It’s close enough that we ought to be able to force it open.”

Jackknife pitched in and, after a few attempts, they were just able to crack the seal. Ramon wedged a steel-toed boot into the opening as air rushed into the bay. They continued to pull, finally forcing the door fully open.

A brisk current rushed into the room and Ramon took advantage of it, allowing it to whisk him to the far end of the bay where he latched onto a vertical support beam. From there he launched over to a large deep-space engine, scrambled over it, and made for the corner where the body had drifted.

The first thing he saw was the soles of the man’s shoes. He reached out for the legs and cautiously rotated the man to bring his face into view.

“Cory?” he gasped. “Cory? Oh no! What happened to you? Jackknife, get in here! It’s Cory, man! It’s Cory in here!”

“He’s dead?” Jackknife shouted back.

“I don’t know. Hold on.” Ramon drew Cory’s limp body close. It was still and lifeless.

“I swear to God, Cory, I wouldn’t do this for any other man.” Ramon pressed against Cory’s pale blue lips and blew. He felt the ribcage slowly expand, and then he squeezed out as much air as he could and repeated the process.

After several attempts, he began to strike his chest with the heel of his hand. “Come on, Cory. I don’t know what to do here. Make your heart beat. Start breathing or something. You were always telling me to be optimistic. Don’t let me down, now.”

“Ramon,” Jackknife said as he approached, “he’s gone. He was probably gone a long time ago. There’s nothing either of us could’ve done.”

Ramon inflated Cory’s lungs again and expelled the air. “I owe him my best shot.”

Jackknife’s tone hardened. “Cory’s dead, Ramon. It’s not my fault, it’s not yours. It’s just what is. And in case you’ve forgotten, we’re all dead men anyway. You’re trying to bring back the dead just so he can die again in a couple of hours?”

Ramon ignored him, waiting on Nijinsky and Schnell to tell him when was too late. They arrived quickly and, although they didn’t share Ramon’s hopefulness, they aided him with better technique.

“Wait,” Ramon said, “I heard something that time. Like a pop in his throat.” Nijinsky said he heard something, too. After a few more attempts they all heard Cory start to cough faintly. With newfound determination, the three of them worked in concert to revive him.

“I can’t believe it,” Jackknife finally said. “He’s either the luckiest guy I ever saw, or the unluckiest. Like winning the lottery an hour before you have a heart attack. I say he was better off dead, if you ask me.”

“Nobody’s asking you,” Ramon said, and Jackknife kept his distance.

They continued working on Cory until his breathing became regular. After several minutes, he seemed to gain a dim awareness of his surroundings.

“Cory, can you hear me?” Ramon asked, squeezing his hand.

“Cold,” he whispered. “So cold.”

Ramon wrapped him in an army-green tarp from a storage bin on the wall. He continued talking to him, reassuring him he would be okay, and watching strength and alertness reappear in his features.

Cory reached up to feel the left side of his face, running his hand along his jawbone and up to his ear. “Can’t hear,” he said slowly. “Not on this side.”

“And on the other?” Ramon asked.

“Ringing. It’s screaming, howling. Like a gunshot in my head. But I can hear.”

Nijinsky shook his head and made a discreet motion toward Ramon like breaking a twig. Ramon nodded and moved to Cory’s right side. “Cory, I think your eardrum’s probably busted. Does it hurt?”

“I don’t know. Everything hurts. I can’t say it hurts more or less. With or without both ears, I’m glad to be alive.”

Jackknife groaned and Cory turned toward him. “I can hear well enough to hear you, Jackknife. You might not understand this, but life is a gift. Every minute of it, down to the last fleeting second.” His eyes closed and it looked like he might drift off to sleep, but a few seconds later they reopened with renewed focus. “Plants and animals know it instinctively, only people give up. I fought with everything in me to survive. I intend to live, come what may.”

“I see you’re well enough to lecture,” Jackknife quipped. “You’ll live.”

“What happened, Cory?” Ramon asked. “Do you remember anything?”

“It’s like remembering a dream,” he said. “There were flashing lights and then a door slamming shut. There was a window. A face—but whose? Let’s see…” The strain on his face was clear as he sifted through his memory. “Yes, it was him.”

“Isaacson?”

“Yes. He was there, over there in that room, across the glass from me. I came in because—because I heard a noise. But I picked the wrong room and he was on the other side of the glass. Neither one of us could get across to the other, and there was no way to call anybody. If I had turned my back or left the room, he would have been gone. I talked to him—stalled him—hoping somebody would show up, but nobody did.”

“How did this happen?” Ramon asked, gesturing to the air vents.

“It’s all kind of fuzzy. I think that, at some point, I knew nobody would show up in time. Or maybe I sensed he was about to disappear. I don’t recall. But I think I made my move first, hoping to get out of the bay and to the control room door before he could lock me out. I never made it to the door.

“And now that I think of it, I’d appreciate it if you would get me out of here. I almost died in this room, and what I wanted more than anything was just to get through that door.”

Ramon gave him a dubious look, but Cory returned a reassuring nod and pushed the green tarp aside. He moved slowly and deliberately at first, but soon loosened up and moved more freely. Ramon and the others helped him to the door, all except for Jackknife, who went to retrieve the chains he had left down the hallway.

“See, I’m as good as new,” Cory said as they passed through the doorway.

“I doubt that,” Ramon said, “but it’s good to see you moving. Cory, you’re the strongest man I ever knew. Jackknife’s got more muscle, but you’ve got more drive than anybody. No telling what you’re feeling right now.”

Cory’s expression teetered between a smile and a wince. “I’ll tell you what I feel, Ramon. Grateful. To you, especially. At some point I realized I wasn’t going to make it on my own. I knew the next face I would see, if it wasn’t God’s, would be yours.”

Ramon began to reply with something heartfelt, but noticed Nijinsky and Schnell looking on. “No problem, boss. Glad you’re okay.”

He turned and closed the bay door behind them and spun the lock wheel. “Might as well seal it off and let Jackknife lock it tight. I know the guys down on East Wing have already searched and sealed off about half of it. Pretty soon there won’t be any place left to hide. Okay, Cory, let’s get you down to—” He suddenly stiffened like a deer sniffing the wind. “Did you hear that?”

No one had, but the atmosphere tensed as they responded to the urgency in his voice.

“I could feel it,” he said, entering the control room. He switched the comm panel to the B channel. “Hey, who’s down around the launch bays? Somebody talk to me.”

A bewildered voice came back. “Ramon, we just heard a ship take off over here.”

“Yeah, I know. But there weren’t any ships docked outside, so explain it to me.”

The sound of shouting came across the intercom and then the first voice resumed. “They’re saying it’s the shuttle that took off. And it ain’t headed down to the surface, it’s headed out into space. I know it ain’t supposed to be able to do that, so don’t ask me how. It just did.”

“Hold tight,” Ramon said, “I’ll be right there.” He signed off and flew out the door to tell Cory.

 

Chapter 9

 

After informing Cory about the shuttle, Ramon sailed down the corridor toward the East Wing, leaving the others behind to help Cory along. Despite his large build, Ramon was surprisingly agile, and able to make use of the corridor’s numerous handholds like a gymnast, gaining additional speed as he passed each one. A well-practiced technique allowed him to swing around blind corners with little loss of momentum, provided he didn’t collide with anyone coming from the other direction.

Arriving outside the shuttle bay, he found a small knot of men in front of a locked door under flashing red lights. Two were fumbling with the locking mechanism while one peered through a small window into the bay and offered unsolicited commentary on every detail he could make out through the milky glass.

“Hey, it’s Ramon,” a dockman named Simms said as they all cleared away from the door. “We can’t get it open. It’s codelocked, I guess. This guy’s pretty sharp if he can figure out how to lock us out of our own system.”

“He can’t lock me out.” Ramon extracted a small tool from a pouch in his belt and pried open an access panel next to the door. He reached inside the cavity and pulled out a numeric keypad tethered on a thin, coiled cable. Simms moved in closer to watch and Ramon instinctively guarded his actions.

“Give me a break, Ramon. I’m just trying to see what you’re doing. If we’re still alive in an hour, you can change the stinking codes.”

“I wouldn’t trust you hoodlums with the code to the bathroom,” Ramon said in his usual, unruffled tone. “Go over there and help them open the door when I tell you.” He submitted the first code and they heard the outer bay doors slam shut and the bay begin to pressurize. The flashing red lights switched to a steady yellow and the pressure gauge on the wall began rising quickly.

“Hey, Ramon,” Simms said, “I thought you couldn’t fly the shuttle away from the asteroid.”

“You can’t.”

“Then how come this guy’s headed out into space with it?”

Ramon kept his eyes trained on the pressure gauge, which had risen to 20%. “I don’t know. It might as well be a ski lift between here and the surface. He’d have to defeat the autopilot.”

“Could you do it?”

“Yeah, sure, but that’s ‘cause I set up the system. If this guy could break the system in under an hour, then there’s nothing he can’t do.”

When the pressure reached 70%, Ramon said, “good enough” and entered the code to unlock the inner door. Half a dozen backs strained and soon the air began to howl as the seal on the door broke free. They swung the door wide open and a couple of men who lost their grip were swiftly sucked into the bay. Within half a minute, the gale had died down to a strong breeze.

Behind them, Cory rounded the corner unassisted, obviously marshaling his strength in front of the crew. The two men with him, Nijinsky and Schnell, followed closely, clearly keeping a sharp eye on him. The men around the door gaped at his condition and immediately looked to Ramon, whose admonitory face checked the questions Cory had no time to answer.

“What have you found out, Ramon?” Cory asked as he glided up to the bay door. A couple of men, worried that he couldn’t stop himself, lurched out and grasped him before he struck the door. They brought him to a stop and released him with a perfunctory air, as if they routinely did this for everyone.

Ramon gave a slight nod for their tact and turned to Cory. “We just now got the door open. We had to pressurize the bay ‘cause the outer doors were left wide open. Never seen that before—they’re supposed to shut automatically. Just like the shuttle’s supposed to only fly down to the surface.”

“So it’s true?”

“Yeah, they all say it took off into space, but we’ll have to check it out for ourselves just to make sure. Anything’s possible, but how this dude pulled it off—I couldn’t say.” Ramon and Cory followed the others who had already begun filing through the doorway.

“What the heck happened in here?” Ramon asked himself aloud. “Looks like everything’s gone. Where’s all the stuff that was in here?” He surveyed the contents of the bay—or what was left—as he approached its center.

Cory followed. “Looks like everything that wasn’t tied down is gone, Ramon. And most of what was. You don’t suppose…”

“What would he need with all that stuff?” Simms asked. “A few tools maybe, but not everything. Not everything in the whole bay. Shoot! How could he have fit it all inside the shuttle? It’s not that big.”

“That’s not what Cory’s getting at,” Ramon said. “He didn’t take it with him.”

“Then where is it?”

Ramon pointed to the outer bay doors. “Out there.”

Everyone within earshot turned to face the bay doors. Several approached them and peered out through the portholes.

“I think you’re right, Cory,” Ramon said. “He must have opened the doors while the bay was still pressurized.”

“Why would he do that?”

Ramon thought for a moment, not searching for an answer as much as thinking through what he already suspected. “I don’t know how he managed to shut off the automated system, but it’s possible he had to do everything by hand, including the launch. That’s a lot of details. He could have just forgot to depressurize.”

Cory nodded. “That’s a reasonable answer—a safe answer. Now let’s hear the theory I know you’re holding back on.”

Despite his best effort, Ramon couldn’t suppress a self-conscious grin. “Okay, he could have also done it on purpose.”

“Again I ask why.”

“There’s a lot of air pressure in the bay, compared to the vacuum outside. He could have used that to his advantage and got a good kick out of it by opening the doors quick and riding the current out.”

“Like a wine cork”

“Well, yeah, sort of. A cork’s got a seal around it, so it’s got all the pressure inside pushing on it. Once it’s gone, though, the air behind it is still moving fast enough to carry stuff with it. I’m not saying he did it for sure, but it’s possible. He could have got some extra speed and, if he timed the rotation right, headed out that door the same direction as the transport.”

Cory’s expression turned grave. “If he then burned all the fuel onboard, could he catch up with the transport?”

Ramon shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s impossible to tell. Nobody ever thought of anything like this when we were looking for escape plans. It depends on a dozen variables a grease monkey like me couldn’t understand. Maybe he could. Maybe he’d need ten times more thrust, or maybe half. I don’t have a clue.”

“Then tell me what we can do to stop him,” Cory said.

Ramon contemplated the problem briefly and then went to the shuttle control panel on the far end of the bay. Cory moved much more slowly and, after declining assistance from a couple of the men, eventually joined Ramon at the console.

“As far as I can tell, Cory, the system thinks the autopilot program is still active, so he must have done something to the shuttle—not the main system. That’s good. Means we still might have some control.”

“How much control?”

Ramon shrugged. “If we’re lucky, we maybe could lock the controls. If we’re really lucky, we might be able to give it a return to base command that’ll bring it back or at least change its heading. It all depends on how well he overrode the system. I figure our best shot is to try to reset the system and hope the autopilot kicks back in. If I remember right, it’ll be kind of obvious what’s happening, though, and he could block the command. If we try it when he’s looking at the panel, he’ll probably know what we’re doing.”

“Then we’ve got to make sure he’s not looking. We need to distract him. When we met before, he seemed to enjoy our little exchange. He might be in the mood to gloat right now. Can we hail the shuttle and give him the opportunity?”

Ramon nodded. “We can probably do better than that. The shuttle’s got a video link for monitoring passengers. We can probably open it right now, whether he likes it or not.”

“Good. I’m sure I can get his attention and keep it. I’m the last person he would expect to see alive right now. How long do I need to distract him?”

“I don’t know. Ten seconds, maybe. A few lights will flash and a system status message will show up on the panel. The camera and screen are mounted pretty high above the panel, just above the windshield, so he’s got to look up high to see you.”

“Okay, Ramon. Do you need any more time, or are you ready?”

“I’m ready. All I’ve got to do is push a button. Then it’ll work or it won’t. If it doesn’t work, then you’d better be a pretty good talker.”

Cory gave him a sober nod and positioned himself in front of the monitor, holding onto the back of a console seat for support. He took a deep breath, squared his sagging shoulders, and gave the signal.

The monitor turned solid white for an instant and then displayed a fisheye view of the shuttle compartment taken from a rear-facing camera. The warped ceiling was visible along the top edge of the screen, as were the walls on the left and right edges. The upper half of the screen showed six rows of empty seats, while the lower half showed the top of someone’s head overlooking the instrument panel. But his hair was black, not blond. Cory looked to Ramon in amazement. “That’s not him.”

Cory leaned in on the monitor and barked, “Identify yourself!”

The figure jumped and almost came out of his chair. A few seconds later, the startled face of Tyrell Richards looked up.

Cory stared incredulously and Ramon completely forgot about the reset button. Both Cory and Tyrell stared at his respective monitor for a short eternity before Cory finally spoke.

“Tyrell? Tyrell, what on earth are you doing on that shuttle?”

Tyrell caught his breath as his wide eyes steadily narrowed into angry resolve. In a mere three seconds, the transformation was complete and he shot back angrily.

“I’m saving my skin, that’s what I’m doing. Saving my own self ‘cause you all give up a long time ago. If you want to give up, that’s your own business, but nobody’s gonna give up for me. Nobody.”

“I don’t understand, Tyrell. This is a foolish move. You shouldn’t have done this on your own without telling anybody.”

“You saying I shoulda asked first? Just so you coulda said no? I been asking you for a week, Cory. Asking about this and asking about that. Coming up with plans that you never had time for ‘cause you was too busy talking to other people. No matter what I said, you had a reason why it wouldn’t work. It was no, no, no, like I was some kind of kid that didn’t know up from down.

“Well, I ain’t a dumb kid, Cory. I studied Ramon’s books about the shuttle for days. At first ‘cause I wanted to help, but I got sick and tired of coming to you big guys—you smart guys—and being told why none of my ideas was any good. You and Ramon and Norm and all those guys back on earth—y’all done give up on the rest of us here. But I wasn’t raised to give up. Never. So if you want to give up, that’s your business, but I had to do what I could to save myself.

Tyrell leaned back slightly and crossed his arms in a self-congratulatory display. “And I did it Cory. I did it. You didn’t want my ideas, so I used ‘em for myself. You didn’t need the shuttle no more, so I took it. I only used what you threw away and saved my own self. Maybe I’ll make it, maybe I won’t. But at least I ain’t sitting around with no chance. So I guess I ain’t so dumb after all, huh? Now who’s the dumb one? Me out here or you in there?”

Cory stared thoughtfully for a moment and then proceeded in an earnest tone. “No, Tyrell, you’re not dumb. You’ve never been dumb. I’ve always known you to be resourceful, and if I hadn’t had the weight of 80 lives on my shoulders as I faced a deadline—in the truest sense of the word—I think I would have done a better job of listening. With so much at stake and so little time, I had to make quick decisions and trust my instincts. There wasn’t time for much else.”

Cory motioned to Ramon that the plan to recapture the shuttle was no longer on. Then he took a quick look around him to confirm that the other men were out of earshot.

“Tyrell, what you do now is up to you. I release you from your responsibilities here. You’re right. You took what no one else wanted and found a way to carve your own path. Whether it will work or not, I can’t say, but I don’t fault you for trying. I respect your restless ingenuity. I couldn’t say this in front of everyone else, but you know that you and Ramon are different from the others. I’ve always treated you differently because I saw more in you. I worked you harder and gave you more responsibilities because I trusted you. I also confided in you two and looked on you like family. You, in particular, I thought of as a son. I thought you understood that, but maybe I didn’t make it as clear as I should have. I’ve always cared about you, Tyrell, and I hope you believe me when I say that I’ve never thought of you as dumb.”

As Cory spoke, Tyrell’s anger, which had a moment before crashed down like mighty breakers, gave way like a retreating tide. Weightless tears pooled up in his eyes in a way that is seldom seen in a space dock of working men.

“Cory, I’m sorry. Not for what I did, ‘cause I felt I had to, but for what I said. You’ve always been good to me. Real good. I know that. I said some things to Ramon before about you, but I didn’t mean it. I was just talking trash ‘cause I was mad. But I know you always looked out for me, always took care of me.

“I guess when all this came down, I freaked out. All I could think about was my mother. Well, that ain’t really true, ‘cause I was thinking about myself, too. All my ideas was probably too small to do you any good ‘cause I was thinking of how to save myself, and you were thinking about how to save all of us.”

He broke into heavy sobs. “I’m sorry Cory. Maybe I’m just like a rat jumping off a sinking ship, but it’s in my nature. I was raised to survive, not to be noble. Even with things the way they are, you and Ramon got this sense of duty to do what’s right. I hope you can catch that guy. I hope you can keep being what you’re s’posed to be, even until, until…”

Cory spared him from finishing the sentence. “The end comes for everyone, Tyrell. For some sooner and for some later. Don’t count us out just yet, though. We’ll hold onto hope until the last minute. But if death does come, it will find us to be the same men we have always been in life. As for you, you succeeded where everyone else failed to find a way. I wish you the best and hope that your gamble pays off.”

Cory and Tyrell talked several minutes more. At last Ramon joined in as they said their good-byes. He gave Tyrell a final vaya con Dios and closed the channel.

“Tell me,” Cory said, “does he have a chance?”

“Slim to none, Amigo. Slim to none.”

Across the bay, the men were silently gathered in front of the portholes. Ramon and Cory joined them, and one of the men turned to speak.

“That’s it,” he said in a hushed tone, pointing outside ominously. “They said once we could see it, there’d be about an hour left.”

Ramon and Cory gazed out though the portholes solemnly. Within the placid field of gray stars hung a hazy yellow blur announcing its unwelcome arrival.

 

Chapter 10

 

Most of the men were enraged to learn of Tyrell’s escape. Some called him a coward. Several claimed they had had the same idea but wouldn’t have left their crew mates behind. Others said he was a fool who would only outlive them by a matter of minutes at best. A few said nothing at all and their forlorn faces, turned toward empty space, spoke volumes.

Sensing more need than ever to keep the men focused, Cory attempted to close the chapter on this dead end and resume the search for Isaacson.

“I know it looks bad for us,” he said, “but Ops did say we had a one-in-five chance. When the comet gets a little closer, they can say with certainty whether it will hit. Let me tell you, any chance at all beats none. What we can’t afford is to lose the little chance we’ve got, so we have to make sure that our intruder doesn’t—”

Cory hesitated as a hazy memory surfaced. “A bomb… something about a bomb he had. Did he say he was going to set it, or that he already had? I can’t remember the words, just the proud look he had. Ramon, contact the transport.”

Ramon went back to the console as one of the dockmen stepped up to Cory. “Seems like a waste of time to me: setting a bomb to kill a bunch of dead men like us.”

“ We’re not dead yet,” Cory said. “If you think our chances are so bad, then reverse the odds. If I put ten years’ pay in a field full of landmines and you had only a one-in-five chance of being blown up, would you feel confident enough to risk it? All of the sudden, 20% becomes substantial, doesn’t it?

“Now let’s say there’s only half a chance Isaacson has a bomb on the station. That cuts our odds of surviving to only 10%. But since he’s smart and resourceful, I’d say it’s worse than that. And it could be the transport he’s after, not us. He obviously tried to stop the preacher before. It may be a vendetta of some sort. Some kind of prison politics we don’t understand.”

Ramon shouted back from across the room. “They don’t answer. Norm’s still got the radio off. I guess he’s still torqued.”

“I realize you’re all worried about yourselves,” Cory continued, “but you have to think about your buddies on that transport, too. Too much work has gone into saving them, to let this criminal have his way. And I’m sure that those of you who sent letters and mementos home on that transport want to see that they get there safely.

“It’s been a rough few weeks, and I’ve had to come down hard on a lot of you for bad attitudes and fighting, but you all surprised me today when we had to get the preacher on that transport. It was good to see you working together again. I’m going to appeal to the better angels of your nature and expect you to keep your heads on straight, work like a team instead of a mob, and find Isaacson while there’s still time. That’s the only way we can ensure the survival of those on the transport, and make sure we’ve got the best chance possible of being here tomorrow.”

A hush fell over the men as they considered what Cory had said. They searched each other’s faces, gauging what their collective response should be. After a few moments, there were shared nods of agreement and signs of renewed resolve. One of the more dominant crew members cleared his throat dramatically and prepared to speak for the group.

But before he could begin, he was interrupted by a booming voice on the shipwide intercom.

“Now hear this. Now hear this, you bunch of malnourished schoolgirls. This is Jackknife—er, uh—Captain Jack speaking. While all you girl scout rejects have been telling campfire stories, I’ve been on the job.

“I’ve got me a cornered rabbit down in Bay D, and he ain’t going nowhere before I get my hands on him. I guarantee you he ain’t goin’ nowhere ever again after I’m done with him. That’s a fact. If anybody’s interested in about ten minutes of entertainment, I recommend you get here in a hurry and get yourself a ringside seat. Come watch how your new Captain takes care of problems on this station.”

This announcement spurred an immediate exodus from the bay. Elbows and ribcages collided as more than a dozen men shoved their way through the doorway without so much as a glance back at Cory. Cory signaled Ramon to go with them until he could catch up.

 

Ramon arrived at Docking Bay D along with men from all over the station who had heard Jackknife’s announcement. A quick count would have indicated that the entire crew had assembled at that spot. Jackknife hovered in front of the bay door like an artist poised to lift the curtain off his exhibit.

“Now that I’ve got your attention, here’s the rules: I found him, so he’s mine. I’ve got a score to settle with this punk.” He fingered the purple bruise on his forehead and paused for dramatic effect. “Me and him got some payback to work out first. If there’s anything left when I’m done, you can have the scraps.”

Ramon muscled through the crowd and up to Jackknife. “We need to wait on Cory, Jackknife. He’s the one to call the shots here.”

“Cory’s half dead,” Jackknife said. “It ain’t his place no more. I’m the one who found him and chased him in there with no place to run.”

“And did you think about the access conduit that runs behind all the bays? How do you know he hasn’t already escaped?”

Jackknife flinched. “Where’s Lopez?” He spotted him near the back of the crowd. “Hey, Lopez. Get your tail in there and follow it into the bay while we go in.”

Lopez looked like a kicked puppy. “Jackknife, I don’t want to miss nothing. Make somebody else go so I can watch with everybody else.”

Exasperated, Jackknife roughly grabbed a shoulder at random. “Hey, you. You’re a real man, ain’t you? Get in there and trace it back into the bay, and don’t let anybody get past you.”

The man winced a little as Jackknife’s grip tightened. “Yeah, yeah sure. I’ll do it. I ain’t scared.” Jackknife released his hold and the man turned to leave, glaring at Lopez as he passed.

“Lopez,” Jackknife said, “you and me are gonna have a talk when I’m done here.” He turned to the door and seized the latch. “Enough wasting time!”

Ramon put a hand on his shoulder and instantly got an elbow in the face, followed by a roundhouse to the ribs. The blows sent him tumbling backwards into the group of men who quickly shoved him out of the way down the corridor.

Dazed and tumbling end over end, he tried to reach out for anything. Instead he collided with something that brought him to a full stop.

Cory grunted on impact and caught his breath. “Ramon,” he said, “are you okay?”

Ramon righted himself and rubbed his eyes, waiting for the vertigo to pass. “I’m cool, Cory. Jackknife caught me off guard, is all. Won’t happen again.”

Jackknife’s voice echoed from down the corridor as he shouted into the docking bay. “You were lucky last time, you sorry con, but there’s no way out, now!” A chorus of shouts from the crew followed.

“I want him caught as much as anybody,” Cory said to Ramon, “but if Jackknife puts him down, we’ll never find out from him what we need to know. We won’t be able to stop whatever it is he’s done.”

Ramon swung his jaw back and forth several times, making sure it was intact. “Then we’d better stop Jackknife.”

“Ramon, if any man on the station could, it would be you. But even on your best day, I’d only lay even odds. Neither one of us is in good enough shape at the moment.”

“Well, there’s no sense in sitting down here by ourselves. We’d better at least see what’s going on in there. And look for the right chance to stop it. Cory, you’d better hang way back, man. My grandma’s 80, and even she could take you out.”

Cory gave a reluctant nod. They began the trek down the corridor to the docking bay, the shouts of crewman growing ever louder as they approached. Each felt equally inclined to help the other and neither acknowledged his own struggle.

Ramon entered the bay first, brushing past two crewman who had been hovering just inside the doorway. They were too absorbed with the spectacle inside to care about Ramon and Cory.

The lights were low and the room was ringed with machinery and shipping containers strapped along the walls. Most of the crew hovered along the perimeter, leaving the middle of the bay open for the two men who faced off at about two meters. Ramon motioned that he would move in closer, so Cory stopped and turned his good ear forward to hear what was being said.

“I ain’t much for talking,” Jackknife was saying, “so let’s just get down to it. As far as I’m concerned, every con is a waste of skin, but what you did to me makes it personal. And I don’t appreciate you breathing up my air.”

Jackknife started to close in and Ramon shouted, “Jackknife, that’s enough! We’ve got him now, so back off until we can talk to him.”

“If he can still talk when I’m done with him, you can talk to him then,” Jackknife said.

“If it’s all the same to you,” Isaacson said, “I’d prefer talking now. Is that an option?”

“Yes,” said Ramon.

“No,” said Jackknife simultaneously.

“I’m warning you, Jackknife,” Ramon said as he approached. “Back off now.”

“And I’m warning you, Ramon, there’s a room full of guys waiting for a good fight. You try to break it up, and you’ll find yourself in the middle of them on your own. You knew how this would end when you and Cory organized the hunt. Don’t play innocent with me.”

A couple of men advanced on Ramon, so he stopped where he was and motioned behind his back for Cory to stay put. “Jackknife, listen. Of course I knew there’d be blood. I don’t care any more what you do, okay? Just not yet. We’ve got to get some information from him first. You think he came up here for no reason? He’s done something to the transport, and probably to the station, too. If you beat him senseless before we figure out what he did, he wins. Is that what you want?”

Jackknife hesitated, his eyes darting back and forth between Ramon and Isaacson.

“Just give me a few minutes with him, Jackknife. I’m just one man, and we both know I can’t stop all of you. But I’m asking you to use your head for once. Do you want to risk the lives of everyone on the transport and maybe blow whatever chance we’ve got ‘cause you couldn’t wait a few more minutes for your revenge?”

Jackknife clenched his fists and growled, “You got two minutes, Ramon. Make ‘em count.”

Ramon wasted no time in reaching Isaacson. “You’ve earned a reputation for being smart, man. I suggest you live up to it and tell us what we want to know. If you don’t, you see what’s waiting, and you know I can’t stop it.”

“I’ll talk,” he said. “I’ll tell you everything you want to know—what happened on the shuttle and why I’m here. But first you have to answer a question for me.”

“Are you loco, man? You ain’t in any position to ask questions.”

“I realize that,” he answered gravely. “But if you don’t answer my question, then I can’t answer yours.”

“One minute,” Jackknife tolled.

“Alright, alright,” Ramon said. “What’s so important?”

“I just need to know where the transport with the preacher is before I’ll talk.”

Ramon was stunned. “You mean that whatever plan you’ve got is so important that you’d rather face this mob than let it go?”

“I’m afraid so. Sorry to disappoint you.”

“I’ve heard enough,” Jackknife said. “Time’s up. He ain’t talking, so I’m busting him now.” The room erupted into shouts as two men pushed Ramon back and Jackknife advanced on Isaacson. The con maintained his position, extended his fists, and readied himself.

Jackknife lunged and flew toward Isaacson. Isaacson rammed both hands onto the outside of his elbow and redirected his energy. Jackknife sailed right and Isaacson sailed left.

The crowd howled and Jackknife extricated himself from a group of tethered containers, preparing for a second attempt. He moved within five meters, launched from a support rod, and struck Isaacson full force, knocking him backwards into a group of crates. He landed several punches before Isaacson twisted free and sprang toward the other side of the room.

“Hold still,” Jackknife said, “and it’ll be over quicker.”

Ramon tried to intervene, but couldn’t break through the ring of men. “It’s gonna be over for all of us if you don’t stop, Jackknife!” Cory started to move, but Ramon motioned not yet.

Isaacson tried to slip behind a row of containers, but two crewman cut him off, forcing him back into the open. Jackknife struck him once again and pinned him up against a flat surface, leveling several heavy blows to the head and chest before losing his grip. He drifted for several meters, caught hold of a container, and dove back into Isaacson.

Even in the dim lighting, the spray of red globules was evident as Isaacson smashed into the sharp corners of the crates behind him. The red cloud expanded and smeared every object it touched.

Ramon shoved against the two men in his way and was cut off by a third. “Jackknife,” Ramon shouted, “don’t be stupid! The rest of you, didn’t you hear a word Cory said back there? We’ve got to talk to this dude or we’re cutting our own throats. Simms, Nijinsky, Lopez! Somebody take a stand!”

Jackknife had Isaacson trapped inside a large, empty crate when Cory switched off the lights. A second later, a solitary safety light flashed on just over Jackknife, who reflexively looked up at it. A pair of feet shot out of the crate, struck him in the chest, and sent him tumbling across the room. He crashed into a group of containers and disappeared.

Ramon made a break from his overseers just as Cory switched the lights back on. He skirted around the edge of the room between two rows of containers. As he approached the spot where Jackknife landed, he saw Lopez scramble through the debris ahead of him.

A second later, Jackknife emerged through some tangled cargo netting. “Lopez,” he groaned, “don’t just stand there like an idiot, do something.”

He did. Lopez’s steel-toed boot struck Jackknife full in the teeth, and the heel returned to catch the back of his head. Lopez looked up at Ramon and then called out to the crew on the other side of the containers, “Uh, I think Jackknife got hurt. Lemme see.” Two more shots—one to the solar plexus and one to the stomach. He nodded in Ramon’s direction and clambered over the crates and back into the open. “Um, yeah, he hurt himself. He’s out cold. Must have hit his head on something.”

Ramon joined Lopez in the middle of the bay and seized Isaacson before anyone else had a chance to claim him.

“Have you had enough? You better talk to me and tell me what you did. You do that, and we’ll just lock you up. You don’t, and they’ll finish what Jackknife started.”

Isaacson strained to focus his eyes. “I… I…” He paused to catch his breath and then wiped the blood out of one eye with his sleeve. “I’ve got to…” he began, but doubled over as a sharp pain struck him.

Cory rushed into the middle of the room and raised his voice as best he could. “Okay, guys, you’ve had your fun, but the show’s over. Thanks to Jackknife, we almost lost our last chance to interrogate this man.”

Fluid in his lungs overcame him for a moment. He continued after several painful coughs. “If you care at all about the people on that transport—our partners and friends—then you’ll keep your hands off him. And maybe we can get some answers out of him. The time is short.”

He directed their attention out the large bay windows, through which they could see a frighteningly enlarged comet. It glowed menacingly in the black sky as it slowly closed in. Once again palpable fear arose in their midst. The crew hushed and backed away from Cory and Ramon. Cory told Ramon to proceed quickly.

Ramon helped Isaacson out of the crate and the man seemed to regain his bearings. “Don’t think I could take much more of that,” he whispered.

“Then you’d better cooperate.” Ramon eyed him sharply and held a firm grip on his arm.

“Once I know the transport…” he began.

“Look,” Ramon snapped, “there ain’t no point in this game anymore. The transport left hours ago. We’ve just been running those announcements to lure you down here.”

Isaacson grimaced. “It would have saved us both a lot of trouble, especially me, if you had told me that five minutes ago.”

“Five minutes ago you still might have been a threat. There’s no way you’re slipping out of here now.”

“True enough,” he agreed. “Then I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

Ramon leaned in closer, but suddenly sensed a growing commotion behind him.

He turned to find everyone staring at the immense figure of Biggs looming in the doorway. Lopez inched back and looked at Ramon with wide eyes. “Amigo, ¡es un mal hombre!”

The drunken miner effortlessly shoved two men out of the way as he advanced. “That’s him, ain’t it? That’s one of them no good trash types that jumped ol’ Zeke.” He shook an enormous fist at Isaacson. “Zeke mighta been just a mole to you, but he was the best friend I ever had, and you’re gonna pay for what you no good cons done.”

“Look out!” Ramon warned as he tried to shield Isaacson from the freight train headed their way, but it was already too late.

 

Chapter 11

 

Biggs crashed into them at full speed, knocking Ramon aside like a rag doll and propelling Isaacson into a cluster of tethered crates. His body disappeared amid an explosion of wooden slats and packing foam.

“How does it feel, now?” Biggs demanded. “Now that you ain’t got your buddies here to back you up? When you got a dozen other lowlifes with you, it’s easy to whip a man who’s wore out from a hard day’s work. Zeke never had a chance, and then you punks killed him for no reason. He never did nothing to you. You got the wrong man, and that’s the worst mistake of all.”

He pointed to a pair of men nearest Isaacson. “Set him up.”

They looked at each other with uncertainty and then glanced at the empty spot where Ramon had been a moment before. After a brief hesitation, they obediently pulled Isaacson from the wreckage and shoved him in Biggs’ direction. The rest of the crew looked on in uneasy silence.

Biggs grappled the collapsed prisoner and held him by the shoulders at arms’ length. “You cons always thought you was so smart. Too smart to get out and work hard like the rest of us. Too good to get your little hands dirty. You know what happens when hands that steal meet hands that work?”

Biggs joined his right palm with Isaacson’s left and interlocked their fingers. Isaacson struggled to say something—anything—but was barely able to breathe after having the wind knocked out of him.

Biggs looked him full in the face and slowly began to tighten his hand into a fist. The men encircling them began to squirm as Isaacson’s fingers spread and flexed backwards. Someone started to speak, but was checked by the cracking sound that followed.

Isaacson gasped in the most desperate way and was unable to say a word.

 

Ramon opened his eyes and waited for the objects in front of him to come gradually into focus. He heard the sound of a body smashing into a group of crates, followed by a command of, “set him up again.” Voices murmured uneasily and nearby boxes creaked as they were moved aside. Far beyond the commotion, Ramon thought he heard a familiar sound. He held his breath and listened intently, filtering out the noise around him. This time he distinctly heard the three tones of an incoming message from the comm panel across the room.

“Hey, wait!” he shouted, or rather attempted to shout, but nothing came out above a hoarse whisper. He tried several more times, searching for the voice that had failed him, and was finally able to make himself heard. “Hold up,” he rasped as he emerged from the wreckage and struggled toward the comm panel. “Somebody’s ringing through. Got to be the transport.”

Everyone turned to watch, including the men who had been digging through the crates for Isaacson. They slowly began falling in behind Ramon. This turn of events bewildered Biggs, who was left alone and forgotten in the back of the room.

“Hey, what’s going on?” asked the upstaged Biggs. “I ain’t done here yet. I’m still… uh, don’t you guys want to watch me… Where’s everybody going?”

“It’s the transport,” Lopez said, “the transport, Biggs. Come on, let’s see what’s up.”

“But I…”

“Later,” Lopez said.

Visibly deflated, Biggs cast a confused glance back toward the broken crates where Isaacson was buried, and then reluctantly joined the others.

Ramon exchanged a glance with Cory and answered the hail. The monitor flipped on, revealing the angry face of Norm Casper as he leaned into the camera.

“So you’ve done it to me again, you bunch of incompetent half-wits! I risk the lives of everyone on this ship waiting around for some eleventh hour passenger, tossing out every bit of good sense I’ve got, and for what? For what, I ask? So you can make a fool of yourselves and me and everyone involved in this whole rescue!”

“Norm,” Cory began.

“Don’t Norm me, you idiot. You and your little Sancho Panza sidekick there have really shot yourselves in the foot this time. You should be glad you’ll be dead by morning, or else you’d have a lot of explaining to do for this little fiasco.”

Seeing Cory begin to flare, Ramon edged in front of the monitor and attempted to diffuse the situation. In a composed tone he said, “Norm, if you plan to ream us, how about first telling us what you think we did?”

“Think? What I think you did?” He let out an unrestrained growl and reached up for the camera, roughly swiveling it around to reveal a man in the seat next to him.

Cory’s face immediately brightened and he leaned in closer to the screen. “Reverend, it’s good to see you conscious. I knew you’d pull through just fine. Maybe you can explain what Norm is so upset about.”

He responded with an uncomfortable tug at his clerical collar, and nervous eyes darting in Norm’s direction. “Mr.—Cory is it?—this wasn’t supposed to happen. Not like this.”

“Tell him,” came Norm’s voice from off-camera.

“I’m afraid we have a problem.”

Cory’s gaze intensified. “Don’t tell me we miscalculated. If there’s not enough fuel, don’t let Norm blame you for that, Reverend.”

“Tell him!” Norm ordered.

“No, there’s enough fuel. It was a different kind of miscalculation. Mr. Cory, my name is Anders Isaacson.”

Cory and Ramon froze in stunned silence.

“See, a riot broke out in the prison and when the cells were all opened, I tried to get the Reverend out of there in one piece. We both took a lot of abuse when they caught us in the shuttle bay, me especially. It was all I could do to get him in the shuttle and close the door behind us. And that’s the last thing I remember, until I woke up a few minutes ago on this transport.”

He received only blank stares, so he continued after an awkward pause.

“I untied myself and looked around, figuring he’d be here somewhere, but I couldn’t find him. When this man here saw me, he called me ‘Preacher’, and I didn’t know why. That’s when I realized I was wearing these clothes. I guess I got a pretty good idea what happened, but don’t ask me to explain why. All I can say is that I didn’t do it—never would have done it. So it must have been him.

“I figure if the Reverend’s not in here with us, he must be back there on the station with you. Maybe he could tell us what’s going on. He is there, right?”

The men in the bay looked at each other with searching expressions and then back at the heap of demolished crates behind them. Lopez turned to Cory. “You mean that ain’t…?”

“No.”

“So all this time…”

A sigh. “Apparently.”

“Then what about the bomb?”

“There’s no bomb. You and the others, go get the— ” He hesitated. “ Just go get him and bring him up here.” Cory started to look back at the monitor, but averted his eyes, unable to adjust to the new identity of the familiar face before him.

Several men started for the back of the room. Biggs, who had been detached from the group, looked up and shouted, “Yeah, set him up!”

Lopez glared at him with contempt. “It ain’t him, Biggs. You got the wrong guy.”

Biggs returned a puzzled look.

“It ain’t him, you big dope. You just knocked the teeth out of a preacher. You understand?”

He didn’t, but the force of Lopez’s tone was enough to check him while the men searched through the debris. They found him, dazed but conscious. They carefully pulled him out and into the open where Cory was waiting. Cory eyed him cautiously.

“It’s you,” the former Isaacson whispered. “I thought…”

“You thought I was dead.”

“I thought I had killed you. I’m glad I was wrong.”

“Are you? How can I believe you’re who he says you are after you nearly killed me and left me for dead?”

“I didn’t mean for that to happen. I couldn’t let you catch me—I couldn’t let anyone get to me until I knew that Isaacson was safely aboard the transport and on his way. If you discovered who I was, you would have pulled him off and put me on instead. That would have ruined the plan.”

“And just whose plan was that? Yours? I want to know what it’s all about before you expect me to believe that you’re really the preacher and that you did this willingly. For all I know, you’re both convicts and the real preacher is still down in the prison with a knife in his back.”

“Yes, a good point.

“As for the plan, and whose it was, I’ll return to that. But first, you need to know that I never intended to cause all this commotion. What I did was supposed to take place quietly. I found a secluded place and waited for the transport to leave. The announcements about a delay kept coming regularly and then two of your men stumbled across me. I fled rather than let them question me.

“A short time later you discovered me. Had you told me the transport had already left, I would have told you who I was. But I’m afraid you had a plan of your own that I knew nothing about. I had to stall you.

“There was fiery contempt in your eyes, Mr. Cory, perhaps even hatred. I saw that it was directed at a perceived evil, and I knew at once that you were a good man determined to right a wrong. Forgive me for indulging in a little parley, but I needed to kill some time as I determined my next move. I also must admit that I enjoyed seeing how you faced the enemy. It was inspiring.”

Cory’s anger wavered and he looked over to check Ramon’s reaction. Ramon gave him a nod that indicated he believed the man.

“But you told me you put a bomb on the transport.”

The preacher grinned as best he could with his lips as torn and swollen and they were. “No, you suggested it, actually. I just failed to deny it. In fact, I added a little water to the seed you planted because it did have a grain of truth in it. As I said before, it was a bomb, of a sort, that I put on that ship. Certainly cargo with explosive repercussions, as we have already learned.

“As for what happened next, I can only ask for your forgiveness. You lunged for the door and I had to act fast. I had noticed a locking mechanism on the control panel just before you arrived. In a panic, I engaged it, fled from the room, and traveled to this part of the station. I had no idea what I had done until nearly an hour later when I overheard two of your men talking on the intercom. I deeply regret endangering you.”

“That still doesn’t explain why some of my crewmen are missing.”

Ramon interrupted to point out that Tyrell had already been accounted for, and that left only one man missing. Cory asked the crew if anyone had learned anything of the other man’s disappearance, but none of them had.

“What’s this guy look like?” Biggs asked.

“Skinny white guy with red hair and glasses,” Ramon answered.

“That’s him,” Biggs said. “Snuck into my room while I was asleep and tried to swipe some of my bottles. He woke me up and then him and my fist had a discussion about why it ain’t a good idea to steal from somebody twice your size. He probably ain’t come to yet.”

Cory looked down at the man beside him. “Then it’s true? You really are the preacher who went down to the prison?”

“The very one.”

“And you switched clothes with a prisoner and put him on the transport in your place?”

“I did.”

“Why would you do it? If you felt you had to save somebody, why did it have to be a criminal? I’ve got lots of good men on this station. Why in God’s name did you have to trade places with a condemned man on death row?”

“I don’t know. I’m only following orders.”

“Orders from who? Who would trade the life of a good man for a villain?”

The preacher reached out a shaky hand and placed it on Cory’s arm. “The same one who sent a boy with a slingshot out to defeat a nine-foot giant. The one who told a prophet named Hosea to marry a prostitute, and chose apostles from tax collectors and coarse fishermen. The very same, Mr. Cory, and it’s not my place to ask why, but to obey.

“History is replete with what seemed at the time like bad decisions. Do you know your Bible, Mr. Cory? Young, innocent Joseph was betrayed by his brothers, and God allowed him to be sold into slavery for most of his life. I’m sure you would have disagreed with it. But it put him in the right place to eventually save his entire family from certain death. We never know what effect our actions will have a generation later.”

Cory had no reply. He simply sighed deeply and looked down at the battered hand staining his sleeve red. After a moment’s silence, a voice shot from across the room.

“Hey! Where did everybody go? Cory, did you find your preacher or not?”

“Ramon,” Cory said, “tell Norm we found him. Have him put his passenger back on camera. I suspect the Reverend here will want to talk to him face to face.”

 

Chapter 12

 

Cory tried to help the preacher over to the comm area across the room. Several of the men assisted him when they realized he lacked the strength to do it alone. When they reached the panel, the face of Isaacson on the monitor changed from sheepish to incredulous.

“Wha– what happened? Reverend, is that you?”

The reverend squinted at the monitor with his left eye since the right one was swollen nearly shut. He kept his broken hand tucked out of the way as he steadied himself with the other. “Yes, Anders, it’s me.”

“But what happened to you?”

“Oh, just a few bumps and bruises along the way. Nothing worth discussing, really.”

Isaacson examined him for a moment and then dropped his eyes. After a protracted silence, he restored his gaze. “Why?” he asked. “Why did you do it?”

“I know it’s hard for you to accept. It’s hard for me to explain. All I can tell you is that after you risked your life to get me into the shuttle, as you locked the door behind us and then collapsed, the Lord spoke to me. He told me that He was reserving the last seat on the transport for the one who could do the most good and change the greatest number of lives. I weighed the options and made the choice. Does that make sense?”

“No. No, it doesn’t.”

“Anders, if you hadn’t intervened, my life would have ended the moment that mob descended on me in the shuttle bay. They would have done to me what they did to the guard we found in the galley. But you acted swiftly and instinctively to save me.

“No one would question my actions if they had been made in a split second. After all, thousands of men throughout history have taken a bullet for a friend or jumped on top of a grenade to save nearby lives. These are instantaneous decisions and no one looks back to ask why they did it.”

“But how many people would take a bullet for a crook like me?”

“We’re all crooks, Anders. Aside from the occasional shining moment of virtue, human history is a dark monotony of self-interest. What sets a few of us apart is that we are acknowledged crooks determined to illuminate a path of hope.”

“Look,” said Isaacson, “I’m just a regular guy that’s never been to college or written books or talked to anybody about anything important. Why would you walk away from all the things you’ve done—all the things you still could do—and leave nobody but a guy like me in your place? I can’t do the things you’ve done. I can’t even talk with the kind of words you do.”

The reverend attempted a knowing smile, but it was lost in the contortions of his swollen face. “As I recall, that was Moses’ excuse when God needed a spokesman. As for not being a scholar, I suspect that’s an advantage rather than liability. Nearly two hundred years ago a man named Billy Sunday, a baseball player from New York, left the game and became a world-famous preacher. I think he put it better than any seminary graduate: ‘The Lord is not compelled to use theologians. He can take snakes, sticks or anything else, and use them for the advancement of His cause.’”

“A snake’s about right,” Isaacson said, and he paused for a long, thoughtful moment. “But maybe a snake that’s shed its skin. I’m not going to tell you I totally understand why you did what you did, or that I think it was a good choice. And if I had it in my power, I’d grab you and throw you on this transport in half a second. But I don’t. The one thing I know is that what you did was a one-way ticket. I can’t undo it, so I guess it’s up to me to make the most of my second chance. That is if they don’t send me back to Earth to be hanged there.”

“They won’t. The Golan station is a safe haven, and I doubt anyone there will be zealous about enforcing Earth laws. I passed through on my way out here and found them even more contemptuous of Earth protocol than the Martian colonies.”

Ramon moved forward and put a hand on the preacher’s shoulder. “Sorry to butt in, but it’s not a problem. The dude’s free and clear. Didn’t you hear? Earth pardoned all the cons today. See, as long as they’re prisoners, the government’s got to take care of them. That means they got to evacuate them. So instead they freed them all this morning. Legally, they’re free to go—if they got a ride out. Nobody figured it’d actually happen.”

The dockmen stared at Ramon.

“I guess I’m the only guy who reads the news around here.” He shrugged, nodded to the preacher, and resumed his place with the others.

“There you have it,” the preacher said. “You’re a free man. Free to do what you want to—choose your own destiny. Free to live your life for your own pleasures or for the benefit of others. It’s all up to you.”

Isaacson shook his head. “It’s already been decided. You know that. We talked about it last week when everyone was calling me a jailhouse convert. I guess that’s what I am, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t really changed. I lived a selfish life for 39 years and look where it got me. Now that I’m free from prison, I have no desire to return to that kind of life. That’s the real prison.

“I told you I’d made a real change and you challenged me to prove it. I said if I had the chance I would, but I’d never get the chance, so what’s the point. You said—wait a minute! Oh, man, now it makes sense. Now I see. What was that verse you read me?”

The preacher said nothing, but continued listening, so Isaacson persisted. “You know the one I mean. I know you do, because everything we talked about after that hinged on it. I know you can give it to me word for word.”

The preacher paused for a moment, wiped a spot of blood from the corner of his lip, and began to recite slowly. “Seldom would anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God shows his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

“That’s it, isn’t it?” Isaacson said. “It wasn’t enough to read the words in the book, you had to show me.”

“You told me you meant what you said. I knew you would expect me to mean what I said.”

“Okay, enough Sunday school,” Norm said as he shoved his way back into the camera. “You’re no saint for what you did, you’re a fool. Look out for Number One, that’s my motto and it’s served me well my whole life. And in the interest of looking out for Number One, I’m going to insist that this little conversation end so I can tranq John the Baptist here. He’s already breathed up enough oxygen to endanger the flight.”

“Anders,” the preacher said, “there’s your first convert. Teach him to get his eyes off himself and you’ll find that you can teach just about anybody.”

Norm gave him a disgusted harrumph and flipped a switch on the console defiantly. The screen went black.

 

Ramon had been closest to the comm panel when the message came in from the Golan station. It was brief. The chief astronomer reported that new calculations of the comet’s trajectory indicated a certain collision. Any hope for a near miss, he added somberly, was now out of the question. Their best data predicted an impact in 39 minutes. Adjusting for the twelve-minute transmission lag, that left a mere 27 minutes. If they desired a minister to speak to them, one was standing by.

“Twelve minutes for our reply,” Cory said, “and twelve more to hear back. No point, as far as I’m concerned. If we need a minister, we don’t have to look far.”

Ramon nodded and shut off the radio.

A few men drifted out of the room and down the corridor for the last time. Others remained near the windows, transfixed by the growing, glowing orb outside. The remainder formed a small group around Ramon, Cory, and the preacher. Apologies were made to Cory for foolish actions and he replied that life was quite clearly too short for holding grudges. Time remained only for reconciliations and farewells.

One of the men checked on Jackknife back in the scattered cargo and reported he would never regain consciousness. The crew universally discarded his memory, a relic of the past that had little importance against a future rushing to overtake them. Cory asked the preacher to say a few words and most of the men formed a loose-knit ring around him.

After retrieving the crucifix from his zippered pocket and reclipping it to his necklace, Ramon propped up one of the preacher’s shoulders while Nijinsky took the other. Ramon crossed himself, forehead to chest, left shoulder to right. Nijinsky did the same like a synchronized mirror image, right shoulder to left in the Russian Orthodox tradition.

After a brief but meaningful prayer, all eyes opened and glanced up at a clock that had no more time left to give. Within the group, two hands clasped in a familiar and unrelenting grip.

“You’ve always been a faithful friend, Ramon. What you did in the decompression bay today—you not only saved my life, but also restored my hope. I needed to see what just happened here.”

“Me too, amigo.”

Cory unsnapped the stripes from his lapel and pinned them on Ramon’s. “I’m forever in your debt for that.”

“Maybe for another minute. After that, I’d say we’re all even.”

The white blur in the sky grew ever larger as it approached the star before them, finally kissing its edge and disappearing into its bright mass. A moment later there was a blinding flash, followed shortly by a shockwave surpassing even the most drastic expectations.

 

Aboard the transport, Anders Isaacson strained uncomfortably against the straps that tethered him to the bare steel wall. His shoulder still stung from the needle Norm Casper had roughly jabbed into him. Already the drug was taking effect. The distinct sounds of navigation equipment in the cockpit were dissolving into an underwatery murmur. Soon he would sleep deeply, not to be awakened until they arrived safely at the Golan station several days later.

As consciousness began to slip, the details about all that had happened that day drifted into obscurity. Even the meaning of the bright flash he had seen some minutes before grew harder to recollect. Was it linked to the sensation of warmth in his chest and wetness on his cheek?

He could still see it clearly in his mind—a brilliant expansion of white fire in the night sky—but he no longer remembered what it all meant. In the deep recesses of his mind, something told him it was a gift. For what and from whom he couldn’t recall, but he knew it would once again be clear to him when he awoke. Then he would figure out how to share this gift with others.

His breathing slowed and soon his eyes grew heavy. Fighting to keep them open, he watched that area of open space left behind. He said a silent prayer in thanks for second chances.

His eyes finally closed, but not before they caught a glimpse of Tyrell’s shuttle tumbling past the transport, damaged but still intact.

 

  1. # #

 

 

If you enjoyed this story, please leave a review. Also look for the author’s upcoming novel “The Gates of Yoffa” wherever ebooks are found (Amazon, B&N, etc.)

 

The author may be reached here: [email protected]

http:/www.jbbarnes.com

39


Golgotha

Space is a harsh and unforgiving place. A solar catastrophe threatens to destroy the Golgotha asteroid, home to mining camps, a penal colony, and a small space station that orbits it. With just a few hours left, only some will escape aboard the last remaining transport. But who will live and who will die, and what is the true nature of sacrifice? A smart, suspenseful sci-fi novella.

  • ISBN: 9781370185467
  • Author: J. Brandon Barnes
  • Published: 2016-10-18 10:07:53
  • Words: 29636
Golgotha Golgotha