The message light on the control board of the Grayfox flashes red, indicating an alert, and Sam Walker rushes to see what it is for. The message’s origins were unknown but contained an ALERT message about five minutes before the ship shattered into countless pieces. He checked the radar and shuddered at seeing an object on the path toward the Grayfox.
He picked up the mic of the radio to send out an alert. “This is Sam Walker, pilot of the Grayfox. Is anyone out there?” He waited for a response but got none. Frantically, he shouted into the radio. “Grayfox here; I’m hauling cargo behind me to transport goods crucial to the people on Mars. I need a lifeboat now. Ship in peril.” Still nothing. He slammed the mic to the floor and noticed the monitor showing the countdown, starting at five minutes. The sound of the AI barked from the speakers of his ship, ordering him to suit up and prepare for ejection; regardless of what was headed for the Grayfox, whether a missile or asteroid, it would destroy the shuttle along with its transport without a doubt.
The spacesuit would provide, at most, a few hours of air, and if no transport ships came by, then he was a dead man. Since there were so many transport ships traveling along set paths in space, referred to as tracks by the UN, a chance encounter wasn’t unexpected. The timing, however, would be a crucial element to his survival.
He went to the air chamber and hit the switch. The egg-shaped Plexiglas, attached to the shuttle’s wall, slid open. He still had a few minutes; he would use them by God, and one last broadcast wouldn’t hurt.
He bolted back to the control board and grabbed the mic. “Grayfox to anyone, I’m in a hell of a bind here. I’ve got collision detection on my radar. Please, for the love of God, someone be here!” No response came. He dropped the mic again and then wiped the sweat from his forehead.
Using the steel side handles, he jumped up and into the suit.
Meanwhile, the voice of the AI started a countdown from one minute. Tears fell from his eyes. He thought of everyone he left behind, back on Terra, his eighty-year-old Mom and Dad living in the Daymont care center in East Michigan. Who’d take care of them now? His fiance, Katie, has curly dark hair, smooth olive skin, and beautiful eyes. Leaving them all behind was bad enough, but after all these years of worrying about these trips he took and finally having something like this happen, it would give them confirmation of their fears. A fact he wasn’t yet ready to face.
His transport load car, which the shuttle had been carrying, had to be unlatched before he did anything else. The spacesuit had an AI of its own, and he ordered it to detach the cargo at once.
Pushing the ejection button, he felt the helmet come down and seal shut. Oxygen began to flow into his lungs as he braced for the unknown. A cloud of steam then billowed from the floor vents as the door behind opened. Using the buttons on a virtual screen projected from his helmet, his suit accelerated him well above the Grayfox, and watched as the glow of orange illuminated for just a moment before fizzling out. Not a remnant remained of his ship. “What a damn shame,” he thought. A multi-million dollar headache for the Celestial Amos Corporation. It’s not like he’d have to worry about explaining to any of those bastards what happened. The North American UN and World Bank branch would either bail them out or they wouldn’t; it was as simple as that, and he had no reason to care.
Regarding his death, his signed waiver would absolve Celmos from any lawsuits or insurance payouts to his family. It was the downside of being a supply runner for them. It’s not like he qualified for better-paying work in Terra’s twenty-third-century economy.
Scanning the area of his suit’s computer for the transport cargo, he could not locate it.
Giving up on the cargo for now, he accelerated towards the next track, which was some distance away but manageable. He searched through the database of tracks Celmos had loaded into his suit’s computer, but when the nearest track appeared, its identity came up in large letters with the word “Encrypted.”
He stayed along a random track he came across and waited for nearly an hour and a half, but no ships came. Drifting in and out of consciousness, the AI of his space suit jolted him awake upon giving him a two-minute warning. The two minutes went by slowly, and the ten-second countdown began before search lights shined into his space helmet. Above him, an airlock opened, and he climbed up from a ladder that had dropped down. A familiar scene of steam billowing from the floor vents obstructed his spacesuit’s helmet right before he removed it. The suffocation had only started, but air flowed into his lungs, offering relief.
A figure appeared from the other side of the clear airlock, though the steam had obscured their features. After the haze settled, the door opened, and he was pulled out of the chamber. Then he was thrust against this giant ship’s hull as he winced in pain.
When his eyes opened again, an attractive, slim young woman with long dark hair wearing a shiny white, blue, and red Lycra uniform stood before him. He noticed the Hammer and Sickle emblem on her right breast, but by then, the laser pistol she had trained on him made him put his hands in the air. A security officer of this ship, he realized it made sense considering her athletic build. This ship must’ve belonged to the Russian Union.
She lowered the pistol and extended her hand. “I’m Tasso.
He accepted her handshake and said, “Sam Walker. I work for Celmos Corp.”
She left the chamber area and into the lobby of the ship. “Follow me.”
He followed her through the lobby and into a small room.
“Take a seat,” she said, gesturing to a small chair at a table.
She sat across from him. “I’m the captain of the Kikimora. We’re headed for the Russian colony on Mars. It’s in the Cydonia region. I need to know where your ship was headed and for what purpose.”
He slumped in his seat and folded his hands. “The Grayfox was headed for the NAU colony on Phobos. I had a shipment attached to the shuttle, but it went missing. That’s all there is to it.”
She slid a photo over to him. It was of a large hangar area with a sizeable cigar-shaped container with the Sigma logo that belonged to Celmos and the ID sticker that matched the Grayfox’s. “How and where did you find this?”
She leaned in closer to him. “We have a tracker that detects the materials for spaceships and shipment containers like you were carrying. Wouldn’t want these goods to go to waste.”
“Certainly not,” Sam said. “The goods were all produced by the Autofac back on Terra.
Tasso stood up. “That’s all; this is a formality we run through after picking anyone up. My assistant Ana has something for you to sign digitally; she’ll show you to your quarters.
The living quarters reminded him of the old East Michigan High cafeteria he’d attended as a teen back on Terra. Several silver lunch tables and rooms lined up along the walls were in the middle. A stairwell past the lunch area led to a second floor with more rooms.
He sat at one of the tables eating the breakfast they’d served, consisting of rubbery scrambled eggs, a cheese stick, an apple, and a stale slice of bread and water to drink. These quarters felt empty and lifeless until a tall, well-built man with olive skin and short black hair came out of the middle room.
The man got his breakfast from the cafe line and then sat across from him. He took a mouthful of eggs and then extended his hand. “I’m Curtis, class a sentry bot and official space pimp of Russia’s finest ladies wearing sexy spandex. What do they call you?”
Sam shook the man’s hand. “Sam Walker. Leader of, well, getting his space shuttle blown to shit and then miraculously rescued, I guess.”
Curtis chuckled. “Oh yeah. Your shuttle was hit, too?”
Sam nodded. “Strange shit. I got a message from God knows who, warning me just in time for me to escape.
Curtis looked at him with stunned, wide eyes. “Same thing here.” My shuttle transport is sitting in this ship’s hangar. Yours, I assume?”
Sam nodded once again.
“Haven’t either of you read Douglas Adams.” Sam’s attention was drawn to a middle-aged man who stood beside the table where he sat. He held a lit cigarette, had grayish-brown hair, and was about five feet tall. “A spaceship goes bad, and one is right there to rescue the protagonist.”
“And!” Curtis said irritably.
The man sat down beside them. “Think about it. You both get a message from a stranger, and your ship gets destroyed, but not until you escape with your cargo.”
Sam gave the man saucer eyes. “What are you getting at, dude?”
The man tapped on Sam’s temple. “Time to use that noggin of yours. Both of your shuttle’s cargo is in the Kikimora’s hangar. This Russian ship brought you onboard after you were warned of danger. These things don’t happen by accident.
Curtis looked Sam in the eyes. “They were following us both, and they’re the ones who destroyed our ships.”
“Bingo,” the man said.
Sam held his face in his hands momentarily, then removed them. “To steal our cargo.”
Curtis swallowed his next mouthful hard. “When you rule out every other possible explanation, this is the only one that makes sense.”
The man said nothing.
“Who might you be anyway,” Sam asked.
“What brings you here?” Curtis asked, “Same thing happened to you?”
The man shook his head and continued eating, not so much as laying an eye on Curtis or Sam. The two young men looked at each other and shook their heads in bewilderment.
“I’m just here on business for Celmos like you guys,” Elijah said after a few awkward minutes passed. “I’m in the same boat as you two.”
After lunch, Curtis and Same went to a recreation area where a few vintage arcade machines sat—games like Pong, Pacman, and Asteroids. Curtis went up to Pacman and pressed the start button.
Sam watched him play, deciding against playing the other games himself. “I hope we can see the rest of the ship soon.”
“We can’t.” Both men turned around to find that Elijah had entered the rec room. “Sorry to break it to you, but we’re all being held prisoners in here.”
Curtis got in the man’s face and shouted. “Hey, this is an AB conversation, so C your way out.”
Elijah appeared unaffected by Curtis’s aggression, standing in place and blinking gently. He walked away without saying a word and made himself at home with the Space Invaders arcade machine.
Curtis started towards the man, red-faced and hostile. Sam extended his arm to hold him back. “Chill, Curt. It’s fine.”
He stepped back and sighed. “Something about that man. He’s so, ugh, arrogant.” He paused. “A know-it-all all if you ask me.”
Sam rested against the Pacman machine. “Give him a chance.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“You’re just scared, Curtis. If they hand us over to the Russian authorities, we might never see our families again. Elijah’s reminder that we might not obtain that goal is a threat.”
Curtis returned to the game and started to play again. “I guess.”
The man turned, setting his hands inside his pockets. “They’ve confiscated our cargo. You’d better believe they’re keeping us prisoners on this ship. I imagine you both noticed Russia’s insignia on Tasso and her assistant Ana’s uniform.” Elijah paused for a moment and strolled over to the two men. Curtis looked perturbed but at least seemed fascinated by what the man had to say. “Now, I can’t prove my theory, so I’ll tell you later, but just know this. We’ll be grounded to our rooms tonight around nine p.m., and the doors will lock behind us.
The bed of Sam’s room wasn’t the most awful thing he had to sleep on, but certainly nothing to write home about. He took note of the missing items spaceship quarters typically had, like a shower, a complimentary toothbrush with toothpaste and soap, along with others like a TV and desk to work on a laptop or tablet.
Observing the area outside his room, he judged it as bare and sterile, not unlike his days in the NA Air Force, where he learned how to fly. It could be a military ship, he thought. Then again, it could be a prison pod, as Elijah suggested, but there was only one way to check.
He stood up and tried the door of his room. It wouldn’t budge. He felt his blood run cold. His claustrophobia hadn’t been an issue for many years, but his confinement had always been his own will. Now, he didn’t have control of it, making his stomach churn.
With shaky hands, he pressed the help intercom, which he assumed reached Ana or Tasso. He asked for an explanation of the locked doors, but no one answered. They’re all asleep, he realized as he took note of the time seen on the digital clock hanging on the wall.
Well, after midnight, he still felt restless. He laid back down, closed his eyes, and breathed deeply until sleep came.
An alarm over the intercom woke him up bright and early. Without hesitation, he joined his new friends at the lunch table for breakfast. The robot behind the cafeteria counter had served all three the same breakfast on a tray.
Bran Flakes wasn’t his favorite cereal, but this brand had an earthy taste. The apple had mildew and was brown in the middle. Of course, only water was available, as always. He greeted the two men and asked how their night was. Both had restless nights like his. Then, they ate in silence.
The first to say anything was Elijah. “Has it set in yet?”
Curtis gave him an annoyed look. “Has what set in?”
“We’ve been locked up as prisoners of the Russian Union,” Sam had finished for Elijah.
Elijah nodded. “Likely, they’ve already contacted the Russian authorities back home. Listen, I thought long and hard about our situation last night. It must be something inside our cargo that got us into trouble. Forget what I said about them stealing our cargo.”
Curtis gave him saucer eyes. “But all we have is food, water, and such, right? I mean, everything was inspected before we left.”
“Yeah, but we never get to see the cargo ourselves. What if someone within Celmos or the Martian Colony is smuggling substances? “ Elijah said.
“God, I hope not. Russia’s been ultra-strict with its drug policies. They’d give you ten years for just having a Hemp-Vape,” Sam said.
Elijah nodded again. “We have to find a way off this ship. They’ll throw the book at us if we’re caught selling or distributing illegal drugs.”
Curtis slammed his fist on the table.”Dammit, I’m outta here!”
“Go ahead,” Elijah said as he disappeared into the bathroom. “I’m sure each of our cargo units has been scanned with X-rays by now. Either way, we’ll devise a plan later when another ship is in range. They must have a scanner we can use.”
Sam moves towards Elijah’s ear. “They might have this place bugged. Let’s stop talking about this.”
Elijah nodded. “By the way,” Ana contacted me this morning when I got up. We’re all to meet her at the front door of this pod by zero eight hundred hours.”
Elijah stood up. “Time to put on our prison clothes.”
Sam followed him to the front door, which Ana stood behind. She pressed a button on a panel, and on their side, a small compartment opened with three outfits. “Here, all of you put these on—the clothes you have on need to be changed.
“I’ll bring Curtis his, Sam said. Then, the two of them took their uniforms and went to shower to change. The uniform was a dark blue t-shirt and sweatpants combo. “At least they smell fresh like daises,” Elijah said before chuckling.
“They must be fans of Downy, even in Russia,” Sam said. They both laughed. “Where’s Curtis?”
Elijah shrugged. “Can’t concern myself with whatever that prick is doing. I’ve got my ass to worry about, and so do you.”
“He should’ve been at the door with us to get his uniform, but I haven’t seen him since breakfast. He’s not in his cell nor the rec room.”
Elijah put his hand on Sam’s shoulder. “I’m saying let him take care of himself.” He paused and then continued to get dressed. “I think the guy hates having women in authority over him. Well, if you want my opinion.”
“Male pride,” Sam said. “Then again, it could be Russians he has something against.’
Elijah made a quizzical face. “They were the New Allies’ enemies during the last war. Them China and North Korea.”
“I get that, but why take it out on us?”
Elijah left and headed to his quarters but turned around. “Truthfully, I don’t trust the man. So watch what you say to him.”
Sam nodded. “He won’t put on this uniform, I can tell you that. Not sure about trusting him yet.
An announcement came over the loudspeaker, ordering the three of them to meet at the front door of the pod immediately.
This time, Tasso and Ana met them with laser pistols drawn. “Where’s Curtis?” Tasso asked.
“We have no idea,” Sam said.
“He disappeared after breakfast,” Elijah finished. “He seemed agitated about something. We’re not sure what.”
“Both of you get to your rooms for now.” The two men hustled to their rooms, and Sam heard his door latch lock behind him.
Both women entered the pod area with laser pistols readied, searching the room cautiously. When all hope of finding the man was lost, a utility closet door opened from the shadows of the north corner of the pod. Curtis ran at Tasso, who had her back turned to him. Sam tapped furiously on his cell door window, pointing to the half-crazed man. Tasso turned quickly, but it was too late. He’d already hit her, sending her to the floor. Ana was his next target. He ran at her without noticing the laser pistol in her left hand. She fired once at his chest. Curtis tried to keep going, mutiny determined but collapsed to the ground before he could reach her.
Tasso hurried back up, where she and Ana began stomping on the man’s head before grabbing him by the arm and hitting him in the face numerous times. Together, they dragged his beaten and stunned to his cell, his face well bruised and bloodied.
Tasso hit a button from her smartwatch to unlock Sam and Elijah’s doors. “We must hurry out of here,” she said.
“Follow us,” Ana said. The two men joined both women and left the pod together. They all bolted down in a half-lit corridor, eventually stopping inside a small space shuttle hangar.
Tasso led the two to a shuttle marked Lion’s Mane. “Get inside and strap yourselves in.”
“What about Curtis?” Sam asked. “He looked hurt back there. He needs medical attention.”
“Let him rot in that cell,” Elijah interjected.
Tasso strapped herself in. “Get in now, this is an emergency. A robot from our med-bay can help the bastard.”
“I only stunned him. It’s not like I had the heat up on this thing,” Ana said, pointing to her laser pistol.
Sam reluctantly joined the others inside the shuttle. Ana messed with some controls on a panel, and the engines behind them fired up. After a bit, they took off at an unimaginable Mach speed into the blackness of space.
Their destination appeared in less than ten minutes as the ship’s autopilot slowed to a crawl. A vast spaceship came into view through the right window of the Lion’s Mane. Sam guessed it to be the size of a small city. It had two archways with a bridge connected in the middle, and beneath them, its base was puck-shaped with an aperture in the middle. The Lion’s Mane drifted slowly to the center where gates opened, seemingly motion detected.
Tasso got on the radio to reach someone on this giant city station. “This is Tasso of the Kikimora; I’m on the Lion’s Mane shuttle. Can anyone onboard the Minerva respond?” No response. After a few more times, she gave up. Their ship was swallowed into the formed hole and landed inside an empty hangar.
The ship doors opened, and the two women got out of the ship first with their laser pistols readied. Sam and Elijah followed close by, Ana signaling the two men to stay close.