“All right, Jess. I’m heading there now.” With a flick, Umar closed the comm channel. Break time over. Swinging his feet out of the bunk, a swarm of sandwich crumbs cascaded off his chest and onto the bed. He really should start eating at the table again. At least his bad habit of wearing his boots to bed made sense. After working for In-A-Fix Assistance for the past six years he had learned that comms for help always happen about five minutes into a nap.
Leaving the crew quarters, Umar performed a quick a visual inspection on the three BARD drones nestled into the mid-ship docking ports. Charged and not leaking? Check and check. Skipping over the empty fourth port, he gave his favorite drone, Spear, a traditional pat for luck before heading up to the bridge.
Umar adjusted his settings as he sat down in the pilot seat, transitioning the power he had routed to the shields for nap-time back to the engines. With a growl, the thrusters came back online. He keyed the coordinates Jess had sent over into his navigation, swung the Vulcan’s nose around and initiated quantum to the nearside of Cano’s asteroid belt.
Under two minutes, Umar noted as the light smears from the quantum field streaked past. Not too shabby of a response time. While you could always count on life’s ill fortune sending clients your way, providing good service was how you could convert a random refuel run into a potential repeat customer. Especially out in Cano where traffic was a bit sparse.
The ship slowed out of QT and Umar adjusted his flight path towards the beacon’s origin on the rim of the belt. After a few moments of navigating through the field, he spotted the client’s Reliant clinging near the underside of one of the asteroids. He might have missed it completely if he hadn’t had the beacon frequency. Its signature was low enough that the small craft almost blended seamlessly into the surrounding radiation. Pilot must have shut down everything to conserve energy once they ran out of fuel.
Before opening comms, he followed protocol and did a full scan of the area. No point in flying to the rescue if you fly straight into a threat and wind up needing rescuing too. With his MFD giving the all clear, he hailed the client. “Hi, there. I’m Umar Deluca from In-A-Fix. You requested a refueling?”
“That’s me. Thanks for coming out,” responded the pilot, with a kind, weathered smile.
“Of course, that’s what we’re here for. Let me get into position, and then we can have you back flying in no time.”
As Umar rolled his ship above and behind the vessel, he could clearly see that the Reliant’s hull had been badly damaged. There were scorch marks all along the rear fuselage and multiple ballistic holes perforated the wing. Umar had a pretty good guess what caused the pilot to run out of fuel.
“Not sure if you know this but your port dorsal side is pretty banged up. If you want, I could patch you up while I’m out here. Wouldn’t take long and it’d be heck of a lot safer to fly.”
“Appreciate the offer, but creds are tight. Just the fuel for now.”
“Sure. No problem. Stand by and I’ll have the drone right over.”
Umar got out of the pilot seat and went to the control station at the rear of the bridge. He scrolled through his options — Spear for rearming, Shake for repairs, and Liam for refueling. Selecting Liam, he did one last check, and seeing all green, launched the fuel-laden drone. With practiced ease, he maneuvered Liam towards the other vessel’s fuel port.
“Transfer in progress,” Umar informed the pilot.
“Listen, I hate to ask this, but there is actually one more thing you could do for me,” said the pilot, looking bashful as he nervously rubbed the back of his head. “Any chance you have a drink or some water you could spare? Fuel wasn’t the only thing I forgot to stock up on and I’m starting to feel pretty dehydrated.”
Umar hesitated in answering. It wasn’t the sharing that was the issue, but the time. He had hoped to be able to pick up at least two more jobs today and he knew from experience how hard it could sometimes be getting a guest to leave your ship.
“Listen, if it’s a problem, I can just wait till I can fly myself to a station or something.”
Umar felt a twinge of guilt. What was he doing out here if he wasn’t going to help people? “It’s no problem,” Umar said with as much hospitality as he could muster. “If I’m filling up your ship, might as well top you off too. Swing on over and I’ll fix you up.”
Leaving Liam to do its thing, Umar remotely opened the Vulcan’s rear hatch and went to wait by the liftlock in the crew quarters. It wasn’t too long before he heard the pressure begin to cycle. He cracked the fridge, removed two fizzy water cans, and turned just as the atmosphere in the lift equalized.
Umar was a bit taken aback when the pilot bent slightly to avoid hitting his head as he stepped out. The man was very tall, and having a helmet on only made him more imposing. Suddenly, the crew quarters felt a lot more cramped.
“Hope you like etrog flavor,” said Umar, offering the can. “Otherwise I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with tap.”
The pilot didn’t take the drink. Didn’t even take off his helmet. “The rest of your crew still up in the cockpit?”
“No, it’s just me.” Umar regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth.
With a smooth motion, the pilot pulled out the pistol he had hidden in his EVA pack. “Sorry about this, but I need your ship.”
Umar’s wrists were aching from struggling against the tape that bound him to the control terminal chair. It was rated for sealing hulls so it wasn’t a huge surprise that he hadn’t been able to loosen it, but he had to try.
At the front of the bridge, the pilot was navigating the Vulcan out of the asteroid field. The control terminal flashed a warning that Liam was moving out of range.
“Come on,” implored Umar. “You could have at least let me get my drone.”
“Look, I’d prefer not to have to gag you,” said the pilot. “I know how uncomfortable it can be.”
“Screw you. Don’t pretend like you’re some decent guy just because you have manners. Not only did you steal my ship, but you pretended to be in trouble to do it. I tried to help you and this is how you thank me?”
The pilot didn’t say anything, just kept his attention on the nav map.
“You know, every time an asshole like you pulls a stunt like this it just makes it that much harder for real folks in trouble to get the help they need. Who’s gonna stop and lend a hand if there’s a more than decent chance they’re gonna get a bullet for their troubles? So yeah, double screw you.” Just like his struggles against the tape, Umar didn’t really expect his rant to help the situation, but it definitely made him feel better.
Surprisingly though, the pilot responded. “I’m not stealing your ship. As soon as I get where I’m going, you can have it back.”
“Oh, in that case, let’s crank some tunes and enjoy the ride,” said Umar with a sneer when a sudden thought occurred to him. “Wait. What the hell was wrong with your ship?”
“They knew my regtag.”
No response. Instead, the pilot finished plotting a course on the nav, and spooled the quantum drive. Colorful lights streaked past as the Vulcan surged forward. In the distance, Umar could see Pox, the last planet in the system, steadily growing larger. Umar had been hoping that they would head towards Carteyna where there would have been more of a chance of running into some authorities, but out here in the far reaches the chances of running into another ship were far slimmer.
“You know you could have just asked for a ride,” said Umar, breaking the temporary silence. “But that’s the problem with people like you, isn’t it? Just take what you want rather than earn it. You wanna know why I fly this rig? It’s so I can undo a little bit of the damage that people like you create. The universe is dark enough without us having to hurt each other.”
The quantum lights faded and the pilot pushed back his chair and stood. Walking past his captive, he headed down into the rear of the ship.
“Where you going?” asked Umar.
“To get the gag.”
Before Umar could respond, a shrill alarm sounded.
“What the hell is that?” the pilot demanded, leaping back up the stairs.
“ECN alert.” Umar looked down at the pop-up notification on his terminal. “Nearby ship sprung a core leak in their power plant. They’re not gonna have long.”
The pilot tapped the controls, silencing the notification. “Poor bastards. That’s a tough way to go.”
“We have to go help them.”
“I’m really starting to think you don’t understand this whole kidnapped thing.”
“If we don’t help them now, they’re going to die.”
“And that’s terrible, but it’s not my problem.”
“Of course it’s your damn problem. You heard the alert. Their power plant is overloading and if the radiation doesn’t fry them, the explosion will. You ignore it, you’re killing them. That simple.”
“And if there’s any security in the area and they show up to help, then I’m as good as dead too.”
“Do you know where we are? It’s a miracle we even heard the alert. We are it. We are their only hope in this universe. Don’t you get that?” Unbidden, tears welled up in Umar’s eyes. “Please.”
The pilot stared at his captive for a long moment.
“If you say one word about me, or try to signal them in any way, you’re going out the airlock. No second chances. Understood?”
Not daring to say anything and risk the pilot changing his mind, Umar quickly and emphatically nodded his agreement.
“Can’t believe I’m doing this.”
The pilot sat back down and adjusted the Vulcan’s course towards the beacon’s signal. As he spun the quantum drive back up, he shook his head in disbelief, “I mean, look how well stopping to help someone worked out for you.”