And Then There Were Two

· 55 min read

The cockpit’s chairs were designed to swivel, it permitted the two operators to get out of the chairs without taking up too much space. The chairs were also designed to recline slightly, it helped accommodate people of varying sizes, perfectly natural for a chair design. The chairs were not designed to constantly wiggle left and right allowing the occupant to scrape the tips of their horns along the wall of the cockpit. “If you don’t stop that I’m going to unbolt this console and beat you to death with it.” O’Malley, the pilot said, leaning forwards against his own chair’s restraints, one arm resting on the console, his other arm inside it, strapped into the controls. The mechanical arm outside the ship mimicking his movements as it clamped onto the asteroid and began to manoeuvre the ship into position. His companion, the ship’s geologist, Hank, stopped and sighed, “So, you’re an alien-“ “No, I’m not.” “Hypothetically, you’re an alien, and you’re given the option of going down to the planet of one of the species to study them, which one do you pick?” He levelled his eyes at Hank, “What are you talking about?” “It’s a hypothetical, who would you want to study, Plyghtians, Prae, Lanxians, Gheists or Damocleans?” He shook his head, “Nobody, I would choose to stay behind, not getting murdered is pretty high on my priority list regardless of whether I’m an alien or not.” “But if you had to, if your commander-“ he paused, “If commander Hank said to you, O’Malley, you have to go down to the surface of one of these species’ planets and observe them and report back, pick your preference.” O’Malley bit, “Well, commander, I’d prefer not to go to any of them.” “Well, too bad O’Malley, you’re going down to inspect the Plyghtians.” “First of all, sir, the Plyghtians don’t have a planet, and I’m not going to go observe the species that used explosives to break orbit.” “They didn’t use explosives-” “Liquid rocket fuel got them out of orbit and nuclear pulse propulsion was their method of choice for building up speed for travel. If you don’t believe me, go ask one of them.” “Fine, who would you prefer.” O’Malley sat back slightly and sighed, resigning himself to the fact Hank was not going to relent, “I dunno, us?” Hank snorted, “Right so you’re worried about the species that used, past tense, nukes, and instead you’re perfectly happy with the species that uses railguns and liquid fuel on the regular to get things into orbit.” “Technically they’re not railguns per se, they’re just huge linear motors.” Bill said from the doorway, yawning around the off-white teeth cleaning stick, he held the frame as he floated there, watching them with tired eyes. Hank turned in his seat, “How about you then, Bill, which species would you observe if you were an alien?” “How alien are we talking?” he mumbled, still chewing. Hank shrugged noncommittally, “I don’t know, alien enough?” “That gives no indication of how different they are, do they use fossil fuels, are they powered by magic pixie dust, do they understand why we eat food, do they go to the bathroom?” O’Malley murmured, turning in his seat as the ship came to rest and he removed his arm from the hole in the console. Hank frowned again, “As alien as you want.” Bill removed the stick, “The Prae then, they’re powered by magical pixie dust, and they’re fucking alien enough to us, if the hypothetical aliens understand how mad using explosives to get into orbit is, maybe they’re closer to us than they are to those metal bastards.” “Have you ever met a Prae?” O’Malley asked, rotating his seat further. Bill shook his head. “Pretty sure they’re nuclear powered, aren’t they?” Hank offered, “I’ve never seen one eat.” “That’s because they don’t.” O’Malley said, rubbing at his eyes, “Besides you’re running under the assumptions that because they don’t use the technology we do that they don’t understand it.” “What makes you the expert?” Bill asked, putting the stick back in his mouth. O’Malley shrugged, “I met one at university, he was nice enough, friend of mine-“ he paused, “An acquaintance I guess, really. She spoke to him quite a bit. I got curious one day and asked her, she said that they didn’t eat. I figure she had first-hand experience given how much time they spent together.” Bill shook his head, “Wonder why he was there.” “Who knows, does it matter?” Another shake of Bill’s head, “I guess not.” Hank sat up a little in his chair, “I’d probably study the Gheists.” Bill looked across at him, “Why?” “They don’t have eyes, they see in some weird infra-red sense-thing.” O’Malley raised an eyebrow, “Sense-thing?” “You studied biology Hank,” Bill pressed, “surely you can do better than that.” “Okay, you know how a digital sensor captures a grid of pixels and they’re basically an average of the light they’re exposed to, or something, I don’t know I’m no engineer.” He’d unconsciously made his fingers into a rectangle, “Well imagine that sensor stretched over their entire body, they sense in all directions constantly.” “How the hell does that work?” O’Malley muttered, looking down at his hand as though it had suddenly gained the power of sight. “Crazy complex brains, they just developed to handle that sort of input I guess. Like our brains did for stereoscopic vision.” Hank said, “We only did an introductory course on the other species’, mainly for emergency trauma prep.” “Why do you have emergency trauma training?” Bill asked, sliding the tooth stick, its pockmarked surface still glossy with saliva, into the plastic tube attached to the toiletries bag hooked to his belt. “That’s half the reason I’m here, that and monitoring the sample for biological contaminants, and life, but that’ll never happen.” He grinned and jammed his thumbs into his bare chest, “I’m the ship’s doctor.” O’Malley slumped in his seat, “Bill, if I get injured, do me a favour-“ “I’ll shoot you, but this agreement is a two-way street.” “Hey!” Hank said, sitting up straighter again, “I did pretty well in the trauma classes.” “Yeah, but you’re a goofball in everything else.” Bill said, floating over to the operator’s chairs, he caught himself on them, bringing himself to a stop. “I appreciate the fact that you used the last five minutes before you sack out to help me rip into him,” O’Malley said, holding up a hand. Bill gave him a lazy high-five, “Speaking of which, I should turn in.” “You should hang out with us more instead of brooding in your bunk on your off hours.” “I’m stuck up here with both of you two enough as it is.” Bill said, pushing himself back towards the door at the back of the cockpit, “If I was up here anymore I’d end up throwing myself out an airlock.” “That’s a bit extreme.” Hank called to the closing door. O’Malley looked him square in the eye and said in a flat voice, “Have you met yourself?”

The cockpit hummed in time with the miner’s whirring teeth hidden somewhere beneath them, the music playing did little to drown out the vibrations. It almost annoyed O’Malley that he’d bought such high-end headphones but had not bothered to buy the noise cancelling upgrade. He blamed himself, of course, he knew being a tightwad would come back to bite him. He pulled the headphones back to rest around his neck, the humming was louder without them but he could also hear the podcast playing. “-killed seventeen people across three different worlds before the authorities-“ the presenter was saying through the small, tinny speakers set into the console. “Another crime podcast?” he asked, looking across at Hank, “You realise those speakers are meant to be for comms, right?” “Right, because this is so much worse than having headphones on.” He said over the podcast, “Besides why does it matter, the computer will mute it if anything comes through. O’Malley said nothing, using the comms speakers was not really a problem, he was just sick of Hank’s morbid fascination with serial killers. Every day there was another grisly podcast to listen to. He was eagerly awaiting the day Hank had run through the podcast’s entire back catalogue. “So, what were you listening to anyway?” Hank asked, turning the volume down. “Music, have we got enough for your testing to start yet?” Hank glanced down at the hold monitor, his job was to run tests on the material being harvested, one test for every five percent of the hold volume that was filled, twenty tests in all. The measurement was hovering at four percent, and Hank knew O’Malley could read it from his side of the console, “Yeah, almost.” “Better go get ready to take a sample then, huh?” O’Malley offered, he always looked forward to the sample times, peace for an hour or more was always pleasant. Hank shrugged, “It’s not like it’s going anywhere.” “If you stop us getting back to the hauler on time again Bill is going to kill you.” Hank scowled, he remembered the last time that had happened, the foreman had deducted the delay from their holiday hours. Begrudgingly he slapped the harness release, “Fine, I’m going.” He muttered, propelling himself toward the door at the rear of the cockpit. O’Malley waited, drumming his fingers against the console. When Hank had disappeared through the cockpit’s rear door, he flicked off the comms speakers, killing the podcast and put his headphones back on before pulling one of the bolts out of the slide mechanism under the seat. It reclined to an almost horizontal position now. O’Malley sighed, and stared up at the ceiling as the music played. It was calming, even with the ship’s drone half drowning it out. The miner would keep churning its way through the asteroid for a while yet, an alarm would blare if it punched through the other side, or if something went wrong. Nothing ever went wrong though, especially not on these asteroids, they were all soft ore. He closed his eyes and grinned, imagining the chair’s designer scowling at him as he twirled the missing bolt between his fingers. He woke up later with a start, hurriedly sitting up and glancing around, nobody had spotted him, and if either of his crew mates had, they were not here now ragging on him about it. He wiggled the bolt back into place to hold the chair in sitting position and looked at the time on the console. His shift had ended half an hour ago. He Set the miner to halt and waited for the rumbling to settle back into the gentle vibration of the ship’s background systems. Then he popped open his harness, floated to the door and slid it open, floating back into the rear half of the ship. He glanced down the ladder to the lower deck, the lights were still on and he could hear a podcast playing, quieter now, obviously coming from Hank’s own personal player instead of the ship’s speakers. He sailed past the opening to the rear door into the berths, pulled it open and searched for the light switch. The darkness was replaced by a blinding light and he winced, waiting for his eyes to adjust. “You missed your shift start.” He called, floating up to the top bunk. The bundle under the elasticated blanket did not move. O’Malley suppressed the urge to punch his co-worker. Instead he reached over and shook the blanket covered lump that was his co-worker’s shoulder, he could only pretend to be asleep for so long. “Hey, rise and shine.” Bill’s head lolled to one side, not because he was unconscious, but because he was dead. Thick white foam was caked around his mouth, the bubbles still present. O’Malley stared, dazed for a few minutes before his mind caught up. Then he shoved himself away in surprise, thumping into the storage lockers behind him. “Shit!” he yelled, loud enough that he got a curious, ‘What?’ echoing up from the lower deck. He pushed himself from the room and with a shove on the roof shot down the ladder shaft into the lower deck where he bounced off the floor before grabbing the yellow handrail that ran around the room. “Hey, you-“ “Bill’s dead!” O’Malley said in a panic, eyes wide, “He’s-” Hank nodded, “Yep, sure, good one, pull old Hank’s leg, try and get him to freak out, I’ve been on this ship with you two long enough-“ “No, he’s dead!” O’Malley grabbed Hank’s shoulders and shook him. Hank was strapped into the lab table so all O’Malley managed to really do was shake himself. Hank shook his head and set something back into its elasticated pocket on the workbench before hitting the release button under the table. There was a click as the restraint released his waist and shoes and he too began floating. He pushed off, batting O’Malley’s hands away, “I’ll go have a look, you’ve lost your marbles.” O’Malley followed him up the ladder, using the bright yellow rungs to propel himself. At the top they moved into the berth and Hank hovered near the roof, looking quietly into the top bunk. “Oh, shit.” He breathed. “Do you know what it is?” “What do you mean?” “You did the medical trauma study crap, what happened?” Hank threw up his hands, “I don’t know, the trauma stuff was to do with broken bones and people getting crushed by machinery, I don’t know what this is!” O’Malley swore again, bumping into the cabin as he floated unrestrained, “Can you do something to find out what happened?” Hank twisted Bill’s head further, feeling at his neck. “You’re not going to get whatever he had are you?” O’Malley asked warily, finally catching himself on the door handle and holding his position as far from the corpse and the lab tech as possible. “I doubt it, unless I stick my fingers in my mouth, if it was something in the air we’d all have it by now, wouldn’t we?” “Your questions don’t exactly inspire confidence.” “Well I wasn’t planning on having to inspect a dead man who died of an unknown cause when I have no real training in toxicology or general practicing medicine. I’m a geologist who just happened to do a minor in biology and do a trauma class for work, for-“ he swore loudly. O’Malley was silent for a moment, chewing a knuckle nervously. “I- Alright, yes, sorry. It’s just a weird situation. Sorry.” Hank shook his head, “Yeah.” He let go of Bill’s head and pushed away from the bed, “I guess it is, we should call into the hauler, tell the foreman what’s happened.” Hank glanced back at the corpse, “See what they want us to do.” “What do we do with him?” O’Malley asked, gesturing to the body, it sounded like a weird question after he had asked it, even to him. Hank shrugged, “They’ll tell us I guess, maybe they’ll get us to put him in the hold.” “In the hold?” Hank nodded, “He’s not producing heat, if he’s down there he’ll freeze after a little bit, especially if we leave him in contact with some of the ore.” He shrugged, “Like I said, I don’t know, ask the foreman, I’m not paid enough to know what to do with a dead co-worker.” “Let’s go back to the cockpit then,” O’Malley gestured to the body, “This is weirding me out too much.” Hank nodded hurriedly and pushed himself towards the door to follow O’Malley.

The transport, a hulking ore-hauler, sat several thousand kilometres from them. Free of the asteroid belt, with one of its slab sides facing the sun, its solar array deployed to soak up as much energy as possible. The opposite side had a bay door open for the smaller mining ships to dock and unload. The Captain who commanded it also bore the title of foreman for the mining operation. It was she who, after the mining crew’s discussion with the transport’s communications officer, was roused from her sleep to speak with them. “Alright, run me through this again O’Malley-“ she said, voice tinny in the speakers. “Coffee, sir.” The comms officer said, voice quieter through the speakers, microphone picking her up from somewhere else in the foreman’s room. “Thanks Jude.” Came her response, O’Malley assumed she’d turned away from her microphone, but then she was back, “What exactly happened, I need details.” O’Malley took a slow breath, “Bill didn’t relieve me from my shift, Hank was down in the hold doing the sample tests, I went to check on Bill. I found him netted in, but he was dead, there was foam around his mouth.” “Foam?” “Yeah, white, looked like it had come out of his mouth.” O’Malley paused, “Maybe it was something he ate? Hank is down running through a sample of it now, he thought he might be able to give a rudimentary report on whatever it was.” On the other end of the comms the foreman sighed, “Yes, that’s a good idea. So, when did you find him?” “I don’t know, half an hour ago maybe, longer possibly?” There was a pause from the other end and the clicking of keys, “Didn’t your shift end over an hour ago? Why weren’t you checking on him earlier?” O’Malley was quiet, he did not want to go through the chewing out that she’d give him for being asleep at the helm, “I figured he might need it, thought I’d help a friend out.” There was another long pause, “There’s regs against that O’Malley, I expect you not to run around breaking them. You’re paid by the hour, why hell would you let him sleep through part of his shift anyway?” “It all comes out in the wash, I take a few hours here, he takes a few hours there, right? I mean, the regs can be bent a little here and there, we’re not machines, it was only half an hour or so, nothing crazy.” “There have been a dozen reports of pilots asleep at the controls, if you were being a good samaritan, fine, I’ll let it slide. But, if I find out both of my pilots were asleep at the same time, I’m going to have to start bashing heads.” “Yes boss.” O’Malley rubbed the bridge of his nose with forefinger and thumb, now all he had to do was make sure Hank didn’t suspect he’d been asleep or say something to inadvertently get him into hot water. “How far out are you two?” O’Malley checked the computer, the distance between themselves and the hauler was ticking down consistently now, the mining rig had reached cruising speed. It was too small for even the smallest traverse drive that would give them faster-than-light capability and the rigs had limits on the velocity they were permitted to travel at to save on energy. The result was that they took a long time to get anywhere. It was all a trade off between hold capacity, speed, fuel storage and cost, he had a sneaking suspicion that hold capacity and cost had won out during the design meeting. “About sixteen hours once we account for deceleration, unless you want to turn off the vel-lock.” There was a snort from the other end, “Nobody gets their vel-locks off after last-year’s incident.” O’Malley grinned in spite of himself, glad his boss never opted to use video comms. The incident she was referring to occurred when one of the other hauler’s had let their pilots go without the velocity locks, or vel-locks for short, and a pilot had burnt all his juice getting up to speed and saved none for stopping. His targeting had been a fraction off too, thankfully, so he glanced off the non-pressurized ore-hold on the underside of the transport ship and kept going. They’d found the craft several weeks later, after a long search. The pilot and both crewmen were frozen, as was the entire miner. They had probably survived for a few days, drifting at Mach five through the farther reaches of that system. But eventually the life support systems shut down, the food ran out. And no amount of huddling together for warmth could stop the heat slowly radiating out of the ship. Or the oxygen from running out. But neither horrible death, nor the possibility of lawsuit and dismissal had stopped others from trying to work around the vel-lock or from attempting to con their foremen into removing them. Everyone was a boy racer at heart, and everybody thought that sort of thing only happened to other people. “Alright, well, what would you like us to do with him?” “Your best bet is to put him in a pressure suit, leave the thermal controls off and put him into the airlock to the ore hold and do a controlled decompression of the chamber.” she paused, “It’ll take him a few hours to freeze, maybe a bit longer with the suit but it’ll get him on ice the fastest way you can and keep him from-“ she paused, looking for a tactful way to say it, “-degrading.” O’Malley had a sneaking suspicion what she had been going to say was ‘stinking up the place’, though he was not sure even if they left him there, he would be that far gone by the time they got to the hauler. Once they got him back to the hauler there was enough liquid nitrogen in the medical bay to put the whole crew on ice if you tried hard enough, so there was no worry about getting him back planet-side quickly. “Alright, I’ll get it done now.” “Take heart O’Malley, they’ll give you psych-leave for a week or two after this.” O’Malley smirked, “Cold comfort.” “Not as cold as Bill’s.” she muttered back, “I’ll get in contact if we need anything else, otherwise I’ll see you back at the ship.” “Roger.” The speakers went silent and he sat there for a moment, not relishing the undertaking he was about to embark on. Finally he unclipped the harness and pushed himself from the chair, floating over to the door. “Hank, I need your help for a minute, we’ve got to get Bill in a pressure suit.” A shadow floated over, preceding Hank at the ladder, his face appeared, confusion etched into its features, “A pressure suit, what the hell for?” “We’re putting him in the ore-hold airlock, going to decompress it, get him cooled down.” Hank pushed off from the floor and floated up to meet him, catching himself on the top rung of the ladder, “Seriously?” “Hey, it’s basically your suggestion just with an extra step or two.” “I wasn’t actually going to do it, I was joking.” “Yeah, well apparently people took your hilarious comedy routine to heart and here we are.” O’Malley said, floating into the berths and kicking himself towards the top bunk, there he caught himself and pointed at the lockers, “Grab a pressure suit.” Hank nodded and floated over, pulling one of the bright orange suits from the locker’s confines and opening it up. O’Malley undid the zipper and, careful to only grab their dead crewmate by the clothes, guided the corpse from the bunk and into the free space, nudging him towards the floor. They fought with the stiffening limbs, shoving them into the suit without grace, either in movement or words. “Fucking asshole, get in there.” O’Malley grunted, trying to bend the arm but also avoid touching the cooling body. After a string of expletives from the pair they had the orange suit around their crewmate. “Do you want to do the honours?” Hank asked, batting the floating helmet towards O’Malley. O’Malley caught it and shook his head, “No, but I will.” He said, easing the helmet of the corpse’s horns and clicking it home on the metal ring about his neck. There was a dull hum and click as it sealed itself. Hank twisted the suit’s arm to face him, “Pressure’s good, and-“ he tapped the screen, “thermal control is off.” “Good, let’s get him out of here.” O’Malley said, pushing the body so Bill wasn’t facing him. Getting the body down to the lab was easier than getting it into the suit. Once there, Hank worked the panel on the floor and the door set into it hinged open with a soft hiss as the slight imbalance in pressures equalized. The pushed him into the airlock, closed the hatch and O’Malley watched Hank evacuate the lock. That done they floated there quietly for a minute. O’Malley shook his head, “That has to be the weirdest thing I’ve ever done.” “You’re telling me.” Hank let out a low whistle, “I did not wake up this morning with anything even remotely like this in mind.” O’Malley was going to say that if Hank had it would have been concerning, but he bit his tongue. It had been a weird enough day without being needlessly pedantic, instead he opted for a simple, “Yeah.” Hank floated back over to the lab bench, “Well, at least we’ll have some results soon.” O’Malley nodded and kicked off up the ladder tube to the upper deck, “Let me know when they’re done, I’m going to go back up and watch the hauler get closer really slowly.” “Sounds fun.” Hank called, “Kind of glad I’m not a pilot. I’ll keep an ear out for knocking on the airlock door.” O’Malley paused at the top of the ladder, “Not funny.” He called down, before floating into the cockpit. There he shut the door, but instead of strapping himself back into his chair, he floated, facing it, thinking. What the hell had happened to Bill, they all ate the same food, all underwent the same pre-departure physical, something that severe would have come up then surely.

Sample F07593HSA - Test Report: Heavy Metals (Uranium-235): 0.0 Heavy Metals (Uranium - other isotopes): 0.0 Heavy Metals (Plutonium - all isotopes): 0.0 Precious Metals (Gold): 0.0 Precious Metals (Silver): 0.0 Precious Metals (Platinum): 0.0 Precious Metals (Copper): 0.0 Precious Metals (Other): 0.0 Standard Minerals (Iron): 0.00001 Standard Minerals (Zinc): 0.0 Standard Minerals (Tin): 0.0 Standard Minerals (Lead): 0.0 Standard Minerals (Bauxite): 0.0 Liquid Gas (Hydrogen): 0.0 Liquid Gas (Helium): 0.0 Liquid Gas (Nitrogen): 0.0 Liquid Gas (Oxygen): 0.0 Liquid Gas (Chlorine): 0.01 Water: 0.98

O’Malley had not really figured out what the report implied, he knew what it said, that was written in black and white. But what it meant for Bill’s death was another matter entirely. The sheet he held was the simpler of the two Hank had handed him, the other was covered in complicated graphs and a dense list of isotopes. The test had been designed for minerals so he’d expected a lot of metals to be listed. But it was all zeroes, except water, chlorine and iron. And he was not even sure how much of each was normal in saliva. Hank had gone back down, he had been a little squirrely when he had given O’Malley the tests, O’Malley had thought nothing of it at the time. But now, twenty minutes later, he was concerned. He floated over to the ladder and listened. There was clinking of glass on glass and the whirr of a machine. He was either still testing or covering for something. O’Malley floated down, but Hank was just floating towards the ceiling, reading. The whirring had continued, a centrifuge set into the table humming away, front light merrily blinking amber. When Hank caught sight of O’Malley he closed the book and tapped the ceiling with his palm, pushing himself towards the ground. “Hey, what’s up?” “You didn’t explain this.” O’Malley said, holding up the page, “What’s the deal?” Apprehension dawned on Hank’s face, “Oh, right, sorry.” He floated over and took a jab at the paper with his finger, “The in-depth report gives you a better idea of the quantity, but the sample was almost 1 percent chlorine, that test rounded it up.” “Chlorine, as in poisonous murder people chlorine?” “Yeah, there’s some to be expected since it’s used as an anti-bacterial and anti-microbial agent in water purification. But that’s a lot of it to be in someone’s mouth.” “You think it was something in the food?” Hank shook his head, “If it was and there was that much, we’d all be floating in that airlock.” He shook his head, “Well, floating around the respective cabins at any rate, seeing as how nobody would have been alive to notice that we weren’t alive and put us in pressure suits and drop us into an air-” “Yes, I get the picture.” O’Malley muttered, “So, where do you think it all came from?” Hank shrugged, “Your guess is as good as mine, he wasn’t into picker-uppers was he?” “Drugs?” O’Malley shrugged, “I don’t know, not that I’m aware of, but who knows?” Hank floated upside down, “We could always search his locker, just to make sure.” O’Malley kicked off towards the ladder, “We might as well, if it answers the question at least we’ll know the cause.” When Hank joined him at the berths O’Malley was staring down at the lock, “So, I guess you don’t have any idea as to his passcode?” Hank shook his head, “It’ll take us forever to guess the right one, could we break it open?” O’Malley shrugged, “We could try.” He paused, staring at the hinges, the lock was secure but the hinges were external, fabricated as part of the door, their barrel was exposed to the outside world, “Alternatively we could get a hammer and take the hinges apart.” Hank left to get the ship’s toolkit while O’Malley set to tidying up Bill’s other things that remained in his berth. A notepad with some rudimentary sketches of the asteroid belt, judging from the outline around the edges he’d done them from in the cockpit, probably on their way out from the hauler. They were not bad per-se, but they were not masterpieces either. The notepad had three markers, of varying thicknesses, tied to the spiral binding. Pencils were not permitted on the miners, or any ship without a gravity system. O’Malley flipped open to the drawings again and inspected them, the lines seemed deliberate and careful and the pens had no way to remove the marks they made. Maybe Bill was better than O’Malley had first given him credit for being. He flipped through the pages, the ore hauler completely covered two adjacent pages, Bill had even sketched in around the ring binding at the centre of the notepad. Another page had the foreman up, giving one of her usual lectures at the start of a trip, she looked livid in the picture, finger pointing into the crowd that O’Malley could imagine sitting before her in the meeting room on the hauler, her mouth was open mid sentence and Bill had spent time making sure the deep scar that ran down the left side of her torso, a relic of a long-ago mining incident, was clear in the picture. He flipped another page, still running backwards through the book. In the middle of the used pages he found a woman staring out at him, not the foreman, instead it was a woman wearing a pressure suit, he could see the ring of metal around her neck where the helmet would clamp on. There was a hand in the picture, reaching towards him, covered in black, grease, O’Malley assumed. The woman was laughing and had a thick smear of the same blackness across her cheek where she’d brushed something away. Down the bottom of the page, in neat handwriting (that O’Malley, having seen enough of Bill’s reports, knew was not Bill’s) in red ballpoint, were the words: Ash the Grease-monkey. “You find his porn stash?” Hank asked, floating into the room, the rubberized case of the toolkit gripped in his hand. O’Malley shook his head, “Nope, just Bill’s notepad.” He turned it around and gestured at the portrait, “Does she look familiar to you?” Hank took the magnetic end of the chain hooked to the tool case and slapped it onto the side of the locker before floating over for a better look. He frowned at the picture, “No, but I don’t spend much time with the mechanic crew, save the ones I’ve worked with. If she’s one of the mechanics she’ll be on the hauler though, unless that’s from a different job.” O’Malley flicked back through the pages, “They look like they’re chronological,” he gestured to two pages prior, “This is the fight that Hendricks and Allan got into.” Hank nodded, “It’s a stab in the dark but maybe she knows something about him, might have an idea if he’s allergic to anything, or was involved in drugs.” O’Malley nodded, “Alright, let’s crack open this locker and then I’ll call in, see if we can’t get Ash the grease-monkey on the line for five minutes.” They got the locker open faster than O’Malley had expected, once the door was free it hinged outward on the lock until it too freed itself. They unhooked the wires that ran from the electronic latch down to the power system in the base of the locker and slid it into Bill’s bed, zipping up the elastic sheet to hold it in place. Hank slid the hammer and screw drivers back into their elasticated places in the tool case and set it to one side, “So what’s in there?” “Clothes, underwear and bag of dirty laundry, you can sort through them if you want.” He said, passing the canvas sack over his shoulder. Hank batted it away with a look of disgust, “Nah, I’m good.” “Apart from that, there’s not a lot,” he drew out another notebook and flipped through its blank pages then returned it and opened a wooden case that had been magnetically stuck to the side of the locker. A collection of markers floated out to greet him. He scooped them from the air and shoved them back into the case, sliding it closed, “Empty notebook, more markers.” “Well he’s boring.” Hank muttered. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” “Well if I’d dropped dead and you’d broken open my locker you’d have at least found a bottle of distill, maybe two if it happened early enough in a trip.” O’Malley looked at him sideways, “You’re not supposed to have alcohol on board.” “They pay me to analyse rock for twelve hours a day and a pittance to cover being trapped here for the other twelve when I’m off duty, frankly they can stick their rules.” O’Malley just shook his head, “I guess I should go call in, see if the boss will get that mechanic and have a chat to her.”

Encrypted Message: M74 (068493) – PRYDWEN (015743) Decrypted using personnel key, message as follows: Subject: William Williamson Foreman/Captain, Recent events make this encrypted mail necessary; I’m aware of how this channel is meant to be used and you probably don’t expect to see messages on this very often, if ever. But needs must. Recently the report on William Williamson’s saliva was submitted, it should have been broadcast back to the ship by this point. If you look at it you will notice the presence of chlorine in a significant quantity for saliva, from that piece of evidence (supported by the in-depth analysis report also submitted) I must assume that Bill (William Williamson) was poisoned. After our report to you, when the sample had completed testing, we (myself and the remaining crewman on board) discussed the possibility of drug use and, I am sorry to report, I took part in breaking into the deceased’s locker. I understand that this was a gross invasion of privacy, but I was concerned that it might be a filtration issue, not poisoning and was hoping we would find something indicating it was poisoning of some description. Obviously, that is no longer the case, when we investigated the locker we found no evidence of narcotics. As neither of us has succumbed to the same fate as Bill at this point, I’m also running under the assumption that it is not a filtration issue. If the suggestion to break company property is raised again, I will inform you. I do, however, have a concern, which is the primary motivation for this message. Is it possible that my remaining crewmate is responsible for the poisoning, or do you believe I am being paranoid? Regards, 068493

Her voice had sounded almost as O’Malley had imagined from the picture, bright and cheerful, “Hey Captain, what’s up?” The miners all saw the foreman as a foreman, the mechanics, being on the one ship constantly, saw her as a captain. To everyone else, the distinction was odd, but to the workers on the hauler and the workers on the miners, the distinction was night and day. The mechanics saw the hauler as a ship, as did the rest of the crew aboard it, it was a permanent fixture in their lives and they were always maintaining it, it had a life all its own to them. The miners saw the ship as a floating home base, a glorified hotel, their own mining rigs were just tools that were rotated and interchanged between shifts, depending on which was put in for service or needed elsewhere, they did not get attached to the miners or the hauler, not in the same way. “Ashleigh, sorry to drag you all the way up here on short notice.” “That’s okay, Capt, we got problems?” her voice held a familiarity for the captain that O’Malley couldn’t place. There was a drawn out sigh from the other end, “Not us, no, please take a seat.” “One of the miners?” something scraped against the floor, a seat being taken. “To an extent, yes, we’re on the line with a member of the mining rig crew now. So, Ashleigh, how well did you know Bill Williamson?” O’Malley listened quietly for the response. “Technically he’s William Williamson.” Ashleigh said, “But he prefers Bill. I know him better than most.” She said, “Why?” “For the record, in what capacity did you know him, Ashleigh, I just want to make sure we’re on the same page.” The Captain’s voice was level and calm. “We are -uh- involved, but I-“ “I won’t ask you to tell us anymore, don’t worry, it’s bad enough we have to pry this much.” She took another slow breath, “Bill is no longer with us.” “What?” O’Malley winced, the disbelief in her voice was enough that he knew this was going to get very difficult very fast. “I need to ask you some questions about him Ashleigh, once I have your answers I’ll give you the rest of your shift off and you can go back to your quarters and be alone, okay?” There was a hesitation, the mechanic must have done something physical that O’Malley couldn’t see, “Or stay here and talk, whatever you need.” O’Malley raised an eyebrow in his lonely cockpit, the captain and the mechanic must be friends outside of work, he couldn’t imagine the fire-and-brimstone captain offering to console anyone. Ashleigh must have nodded because the next voice to speak was the captain’s again, “Did Bill ever tell you if he was allergic to anything? Avoided some foods, perhaps?” “No, I don’t think so.” O’Malley could hear the shake in her voice. You can do it Ash, this won’t take long. He thought, as though his inner monologue might somehow help her get through the questions. “Are you aware of any conditions he might have had that could cause him injury or distress, or that might have reacted badly with something?” “No, nothing.” “Did he take any medications?” “None that he told me about.” “Anything, uh, off the record, of course, anything illicit he liked to experiment with?” “No, why are you asking that?” “I’m just trying to establish if there would be anything that would cause his symptoms, there’s two others aboard the ship and I just have to make sure it’s not something airborne that might spread, either there, or when they dock back here with us.” “I-I don’t think so, I don’t-“ there was a shaky breath taken, “Nothing that I know of, no drugs, no meds, that’s why I liked him.” “Okay, it’s okay.” There was rustling from the other end of the line and a sob, “It’s okay dear.” “Mum, I-“ The line went dead and O’Malley leant back in his chair, “Shit.” He breathed, the familiarity between the two clunking into place. “Shit?” Hank called, floating up from down below and sticking his head through the door. “Ash is the foreman’s daughter.” He said, unclasping the harness and floating around to look at Hank, “Bill was getting with the foreman’s daughter.” “Oooh, I take it the mother just found out?” O’Malley shrugged, “I guess so, not sure.” “Being a fly on the wall for the conversation would be interesting.” “I don’t think so, not from the way it sounded. More like there’s going to be a lot of consoling going on instead, not sure either of them are really in the headspace for arguments or reprimand.” “Well I’m glad I didn’t have to be on the other end of the line to explain the situation.” O’Malley shook his head, “The foreman did most of the talking.” He shook his head, “Did you know Bill’s last name was Williamson?” “Bill, son of Will, eh?” “His first name was William.” Hank shook his head, wincing, “That’s just cruel, William, son of William. Or Will, son of Will.” “People do weird things, no worse than naming a kid Leaf or Bramble.” “Who the hell names their kid Bramble?” “Celebrities.” O’Malley murmured shrugging and turning back to the cockpit dashboard, twelve hours to go. O’Malley could feel his eyelids getting heavy already. Technically he was meant to stay awake all the time now, since he was the only one with pilot training. Not that it really mattered, the computer would handle getting them back to the ship, but the regs were specific. He had broken them once, he did not want to chance it a second time, the foreman would kill him.

Encrypted Message: PRYDWEN (015743) – M74 (068493) Decrypted using personnel key, message as follows: Subject: RE: William Williamson 068493, This proposition is troubling. Has there been any other evidence that the remaining crewman is responsible? If you have noticed odd behaviour, please inform me asap. No action should be taken, I will contact you if anything changes. Regards, 015743

Encrypted Message: M74 (068493) – PRYDWEN (015743) Decrypted using personnel key, message as follows: Subject: RE: William Williamson Foreman/Captain, As yet we have found no indications of drug use or drugs onboard (searching external to the locker). Additionally, since yourself and your daughter have reported no knowledge of any medical issues, present in the personnel database or slipped by the examining physicians, I feel my hypothesis that it was a poisoning might still be correct. Neither of us that remain have experienced anything out of the ordinary that would point to a filtration or airborne issue. At present we are tracking as per normal back to the ship, I haven’t noticed anything to indicate my fellow crewman was involved as of yet. But, if we are to assume that my crewmate is responsible, what action should I take regarding this? Regards, 068493

O’Malley was sitting in the cockpit, staring out the window, he wanted to be back at the hauler already, the whole situation had him in a constant state of unease. There was nothing that he could do about it, of course, but every minute staring out the cockpit window made him wonder about Bill’s death. He flicked through the notebook again, flipping past the sketched portrait of the laughing Ashleigh, instead looking at the scenes from the cockpit window, wondering if he could guess at which group of stars his deceased colleague been sketching, they were probably going the wrong way, looking at the wrong stars, but it kept him occupied. The door opened and Hank floated in, “Hey, how’s it looking?” O’Malley glanced at the dashboard screens, “Ten hours.” He said, monotonal, setting the journal down. The journal did not stay down, however, instead it started floating up, what little inertia it had making it drift towards the ceiling. “You mind if I grab that when you’re done?” O’Malley glanced at the notebook and shrugged, “Sure, go for it. So long as neither of us ruin it, it’s technically the next-of-kin’s now, I guess.” Hank nodded, collecting it, “Sure, just thought it might be interesting to flick through, nothing else to do on this hunk of junk at the moment.” O’Malley nodded, turning back to the cockpit window, “Right.” Hank took that as a cue to leave and floated back down the ladder to the lower deck leaving O’Malley staring out at the stars in silence.

Encrypted Message: PRYDWEN (015743) – M74 (068493) Decrypted using personnel key, message as follows: Subject: RE: William Williamson 068493, I will continue to investigate, in the meantime, I recommend checking in with the other crewman regularly. At this point I do not think you are in danger even if your hypothesis is correct. My theory is that they want to get out of this mess alive and without being suspected, it is likely that they will not take action against you unless provoked. Regards, 015743

Encrypted Message: M74 (068493) – PRYDWEN (015743) Decrypted using personnel key, message as follows: Subject: RE: William Williamson Foreman/Captain, Understood, they did take the deceased’s notebook for reading, it was largely sketches; the deceased was good at his hobby. I will do my best to avoid causing provocation, I will attempt to maintain distance for the remainder of our mutual confinement. With regular check-ups as you proposed. I feel I should make note, though you are aware of how operations on a miner typically run, that my remaining crewmate and the deceased were both separated from me for the majority of the time until the deceased was discovered. I’m not saying this is evidence, merely opportunity. I will await further instructions. Regards, 068493

O’Malley floated down the ladder tube, catching the lower rungs to stop himself, Hank was floating toward the ceiling again, the notepad was attached to the bench with a magnetic clamp, he was reading something else on a tablet now, the screen illuminating his face. “We’re about seven hours out.” “Mhmm.” Came the response from the ceiling. “Just thought you’d like to know.” Hank lowered the tablet, “Thanks. I’m bored out of my skull, I’m reading old reports to pass the time, you know less than half a percent of all asteroids we mine actually contain uranium.” O’Malley shrugged, “I did not, but I do now.” The thrumming of the ship’s engines filled the silence that emerged between them, Hank floating, O’Malley anchored to the ladder. Neither moved for a time. “Well, I’ll head back up.” “Yeah.” Hank said, pushing off the roof, “I might re-run my last sample test, just to be sure. It’ll keep me occupied for a little while.” “Sure.” O’Malley called, floating back up the ladder. In the upper deck he pushed himself into the cockpit and closed the door behind him as music started playing, Hank getting back to work O’Malley assumed. It was in the silence of the cockpit that he started thinking about it again. Why the hell was Bill dead? A few minutes passed before he pushed himself from his position, floating in the centre of the room, back to the door. He eased it open quietly, the benefit of zero gravity was near silent hinges, and pushed himself across the ladder shaft and into the berths. There he went to Bill’s still open locker and, under the cover of the music playing below, began going through his things again.

Encrypted Message: M74 (068493) – PRYDWEN (015743) Decrypted using personnel key, message as follows: Subject: RE: William Williamson Foreman/Captain, I’ve re-inspected the deceased’s locker, I wanted to make sure nothing was missed in our original sweep of it. I apologise for my involvement in the initial invasion of privacy, however since I have inspected it again, I must notify you that things have been moved. I believe that my crewmate has returned to it at some point, though I have not been able to ascertain if anything is missing. This will seem highly irregular but, is it possible that you might grant me the override code for the lockers, I fear that if something is hidden there it will be out an airlock before we return to the ship. Regards, 068493

Encrypted Message: PRYDWEN (015743) – M74 (068493) Decrypted using personnel key, message as follows: Subject: RE: William Williamson 068493, I can not give out those override codes, rest assured that we will thoroughly inspect the logs upon your return, if an airlock is opened, we’ll know about it before you’re finished docking. Until then, stay wary, we’ve taken everything you’ve said into consideration and I’ll keep you updated if we require anything further. Regards, 015743

06:00 The ETA for their return to the hauler glowed in the darkness, it had gotten to the point where the lights were starting to hurt O’Malley’s eyes, he just wanted a bit of sleep. The cockpit’s lights were on their minimum setting, but the lights of the console were still as bright as ever, boring into his retinas as he glared at them. Six more hours until he could sleep, assuming they let him sleep. There were even odds on him being allowed to sleep or getting dragged into a room for interrogation. The latter was what he was worried about, it looked bad from where he was sitting, and it all hinged on what the medics back on the hauler said. If the report was right and confirmed the poisoning it meant they were probably pointing the finger at one of them and O’Malley did not like the idea of prison. He had checked on Hank several times. The geologist was less worried, either that, or he was better at hiding it. O’Malley was still unsure which.

05:30 He blinked and rubbed his eyes, cursing himself, at least he had not been out for long. He unclasped the harness and floated out of the chair, stretching his chest out as he did, trying to get his back to click its usual way to relieve the tightness. Another flex and the soft clunk of bone slipping made itself known. He floated out of the cockpit and pulled himself down the ladder, he did it slowly this time, peeking out at the bottom to check what Hank was doing. His crewmate was floating near the ceiling, upside down as usual, but with his back to O’Malley. Instead of disturbing Hank, O’Malley retreated up the ladder and instead went into the berth. He punched in a drink request into the tiny automated dispenser at the rear of the berth and it whined and clunked for a minute before the door slid open to present him with a valve-sealed drinking mug. The straw on the top was designed to only let liquid out, the ‘cup’ would collapse as the contents were consumed, overall it was a relatively inoffensive way to serve beverages. The biggest problem O’Malley had with the whole ensemble was that the drink was always the ‘correct’ temperature, that was to say, warm but below the committee-designated ‘hot’ temperature. So it was never really satisfying, and the drink would cool too quickly. There was no such thing as ‘scalding hot’ to the dispensers. He sucked on the coffee for a moment, lamenting the inability for a regular cup of coffee to be served on the miners. He would have killed, metaphorically, he hastily added to his train of thought, lest somehow someone picked up on the notion, to have a nice strong brew of coffee in a mug. To be able to smell it as he drank would have been a pleasure. He held the coffee in his mouth and closed his eyes, trying to imagine himself in a café back home. Maybe that one on the corner of Second and Tiberius Avenue, the one with the cute waitress. He had been there a few times, he liked the building, it had a history and the coffee shop itself was all deep black bog wood and bright chrome. It felt classy but was not too expensive, especially given they had recently had to switch back from automated vending tables to actual waitstaff. Turns out automation only goes well for certain establishments, the fast food places had gotten away with it, nobody wanted to wait around for some fifteen-year-old to figure out where the burgers were hidden in the electronic menu. But in the sit-down cafés it had flopped spectacularly, it turned out customers wanted something different from that section of the hospitality industry. The waitress he fancied was quite a looker, though probably a few years his junior, not that he would complain. She had brassy skin and had bleached her hair to a bright blonde, though the hints of her natural auburn were showing at the roots when he had last seen her. She was O’Malley’s type alright. Something bumped into his head and he abandoned his daydream as his eyes snapped open. The lingering memory of the waitress wafting from his mind. Wow, light years away and I’m thinking about some stupid café, if I don’t get locked up, I’m going back there first thing. He thought, staring into the corner of the room he’d somehow floated into. He kicked off the wall and, cup in hand, made his way back to the ladder. “Hey Hank?” he called, floating down the tube. “Yo?” Hank replied, he was spinning in lazy circles towards the ladder, having obviously kicked off the wall at the far end of the room. O’Malley lifted the cup in his hand, “You want a coffee or something?” he asked, it was as good a cover to check-up on him as any.

01:00 He was back in the cockpit, he had taken up a staring competition with the display’s clock, but the clock was winning, the benefit of being an inanimate object, not a person. O’Malley blinked and sat back, was he going stir crazy. Or maybe he wasn’t. Does someone going mad know they’re going mad? He thought, rubbing at his dry eyes. They did not, he surmised, otherwise clinically insane people would get help sooner. Either they did not know or he was not giving pride enough credit for what it would make people endure. The luminescent time burning his eyes from the display did have some consolation, there definitely was not anything in the air killing them off. That in and of itself, however, had started to give weight to other things. Bill had either died of something he ate or drank, or he was indeed poisoned. The coffee machine could be written off as a suspect, or else he and Hank would both be dead, especially after their sixth coffee in as many hours. The sleeplessness was taking a toll on both of them. Hank had told O’Malley to throw himself out an airlock in less-than-pleasant terms three times at this point. O’Malley had found himself being just as short in return. The sooner they got off the mining rig the better. At least the third person, and regular sleep, had kept things civil. Hank had closed the ladder hatch after O’Malley had most recently left but the sound of music still drifted through it, the soft thump-thump of the bass obvious through the steel. Hank had it turned up loud, too loud for O’Malley to hear anything. He floated over to the cockpit door and through to the berths, Hank had not slipped up unnoticed, so he had the place to himself. He could sleep, just crawl under the elasticated blanket and take a nap for an hour, it would be so easy. But he had a different idea, a more pressing curiosity to satiate. A niggling fear in the back of his mind. Had Hank been involved with Bill’s untimely death, or was it just a coincidence? He looked at the pinpad on the front of the remaining two lockers. The tool case had been taken back down the ladder to the lab. Even with the tools he wouldn’t risk alerting Hank to the soon-to-be invasion of privacy. The lockers were cheap pin locks, four digits, numbers only, they had skimped on anything more sophisticated for the miners. Pilots and techs were warned against bringing anything particularly valuable with them anyway so good security was not top on their priorities. The lockers were just meant to be for clothing anyway, or possibly hidden bottles of distill if Hank were to be listened to. Ten thousand combinations, though technically 0000 was disabled as a combination, apparently everyone kept using the number and some enterprising thief had started hitting the miner’s lockers for loot when they came back in for refuelling. So 0000 was out, as was 0001, nobody was that stupid. In fact nearly everything within the first fifty combinations seemed implausible, going from 0001 to 0050 would not take long, easily less than a shift, and the lockers did not have any form of brute force cracking protection. They really were lowest-bidder built. O’Malley thought for a moment, what number made sense to start at? He punched in four ones, the red light stayed lit. Four twos, the same result. All of the four-number combinations left him locked out. That was ten less at least. Something simple to remember but not barred like 0001. He punched in one and triple zero. Red light. He tried 2000 through to 9000, same result. When was he born? O’Malley mulled over the question for a moment, but he did not know the answer. Age? Again, no idea. O’Malley was quickly realising he did not know Hank very well. His name, maybe the letters correspond? But the letters translated to 8, 1, 14, 11 coming straight from the 26-letter alphabet. He stared at the numbers for a moment, the pinpads green digits glowing angrily at him, beneath each digit was a set of letters that corresponded with them. And then he reached down and keyed in 5, 2, 6, 5. The light flashed green and the lock clicked open. O’Malley grinned, Thank you whoever invented alpha-numeric keypads. ‘Hank’ had worked, but the letters corresponded with the keypad’s letters, not the alphabet’s. He’d almost been too clever for his own good. He glanced over his shoulder, but the hatch for the ladder was still shut, he was safe, for the time being. He swung the door open hurriedly and stared at the messy contents inside. It was a disarray of crumpled clothes and, stuck to the wall with magnets, a bottle of black distill. On the shelf at the top, behind the little plastic door designed to hold the smaller items in place, was a journal. He unhooked the plastic door and caught the journal. He surveyed the locker as he opened the first page. It did not look like a serial killer’s locker, movies had trained him to believe murderers were neat and fastidious if they were the pre-planning type. Something floated out of the journal towards him. He caught the slip of paper, it was heavy cardstock with a glossy texture, the kind you got memorabilia printed on, or that you printed photos onto and gave to your annoying aunt who constantly badgered you for pictures. He smiled ruefully, Aunt Edna had never spoken to him again after he told her that he was not giving her anymore pictures. He turned the cardstock over and stared at the image. It was Hank, several years younger and a girl the same age, both were grinning for the photo, beaming at the camera. The young woman was pretty enough, her grin was all teeth and she had a chip out of her front left horn, it left the tip of it broken into a v-shape instead of ending in a point. It was distinctive, but other than that he had no idea who she was. Hank’s girlfriend? He mused, slipping the photo back into the journal and returning it. He closed the plastic door and watched it drift in the empty space, then he closed the locker, jumping as the hatch behind him squeaked, he pulled himself across to his locker and started keying in the code. He caught Hank’s form drifting up through the opening. “Hey, sorry about snapping at you before.” Hank said, floating over and clapping him on the shoulder. O’Malley felt suddenly guilty, glad that the weightlessness meant that even if he had not broken into the locker, the suction of the door on the air inside would have set everything in motion anyway, Hank would be none the wiser to O’Malley’s deed, “That’s alright.” O’Malley said, stuffing his things into his rucksack, pulling the string to secure the dirty clothes before closing his door. “Great minds, eh?” Hank asked, stuffing his own crumpled clothes into his bag. He unlatched the plastic door and collected the journal, dropping it and the booze on top before pulling the drawstring. He floated back a little, “We should have broken open that bottle I had, I was a bit preoccupied with other things, didn’t even think about it.” O’Malley nodded, though he had a sneaking suspicion Hank had really just not wanted to share it, “Well at least we won’t get chewed out for it.” “Yeah, that’s true.” O’Malley gestured towards the cockpit, “Shall we go check everything’s going smoothly?” “Be my guest.” Hank said, motioning with his hand.

There was ten minutes of deceleration that yanked them against the cockpit chair’s restraints. And then, the cockpit grew brighter, light streaming in from the guide lights on the side of the hauler as they made their final approach. They floated in through the hangar door, autopilot aligning them with a docking tube, a gentle nudge of thrust pushed them into a bay and the ship echoed with the thump of the magnetic ring engaging and pulling them into place. The light around the airlock set into the roof above them flashed into existence, a bright, burning red that warned against opening and the possibility of depressurization. There was a long, tense moment before it flashed green and they heard the far side door clunk open. “After you.” Hank said, gesturing up as he unclasped the harness. O’Malley did not need to be told twice, unclasping himself and shooting towards the escape from the tiny ship, bag in tow. He pressed the button and the door clunked open, swinging slowly down. The steady speed was designed not to injure in the event someone happened to be in the way. For O’Malley the slowness was infuriating. He ducked through it before it was fully open and pulled himself up the ladder. Hank followed him through, hit the button on the side of the tubular airlock and the door closed beneath them, trapping them. Another moment passed before the upper door opened and they could float through into the big cylindrical corridor that joined the central corridor that ran the length of the ship. The main corridor would take them to the head of the ship, the hammer as the engineers called it, the big swinging living space and its counterweight that served to provide the occupants with gravity. He’d been informed by a ship’s engineer in the past that it was also exceedingly good at destroying small pirate frigates, assuming you did not mind having no gravity for the rest of the trip. O’Malley was still wary of that story’s validity, though it was not entirely implausible. They did not make it to the main strut, however, instead the captain and a dozen others floated into the corridor spur, moving swiftly towards them. They all had guns, raised and pointed at the pair. They were not military issue guns, just pistols and the men and women wielding them were just normal crewmen, some engineers, others, mechanics, even one of the medical staff was there, though he had no gun. They surrounded the pair in short order “Hank! Thank god.” came a familiar voice, the voice of Ash the Greasemonkey, she sounded less bubbly and more subdued now. Her dark hair swarmed her face as she came to a stop beside her mother. He could make out the face from the drawing though, Bill had managed to capture most of the details, save for what had been hidden behind the hand in Bill’s drawing. The broken, v-shape tip of her horn. “Left.” The captain said sharply. “You son of a-“ O’Malley started, everything clicking into place as the butt of a gun crashed down into the back of his head, and as everything faded out. In the last moment of consciousness before the darkness claimed him, as he tumbled in place, fixating on Hank’s calm, smirking face O’Malley could only think: Dammit, Hank.