22. The lure.

“Hey, Zeet, I’m picking up some sort of distress signal.” Lazzaro’s voice broke Toes’ reverie and he turned from surveying the starry blackness outside and ground out the Jamaican Gold he’d been smoking in an ashtray, “It seems to originate somewhere around Mars, but I’m having trouble getting a more accurate fix on it than that.”
Captain Zachary “ZT” Toes sighed and punched the talk button on the comm panel, “Ok, Eric, I’m on my way up now.”

“Roger that, cap’n. Lazzaro out.”

Toes reluctantly kicked off his comfortable sandals and crammed his feet into the new boots he’d ordered during their brief stopover in Earth orbit. He had hoped they would have started wearing in by now, because they pinched like a bitch when he walked and he already had a blister coming on one heel. But Lazzaro had been hassling him for a while now, about his somewhat relaxed attitude to what constituted appropriate on-duty attire, so he was trying to make an effort before his First Officer suggested they went the whole hog and wore uniforms. 

Toes shuddered at the thought, left his cabin and hurried to the bridge, trying not to limp too obviously in front of any passing crew members on the way.

Lazzaro was consulting with Biff, the ship’s chief communications officer, when ZT walked onto the bridge; the pair of them were deep in conversation as Biff tried to explain something to Eric, but by the looks of it he wasn’t having too much success. 

“You say the signal is coming from a drifting ship,” Lazzaro was saying as Toes reached the comms station, “so how come it’s managing to stay hidden behind Phobos? They can’t be that badly damaged, not if they can keep manoeuvring the ship into the shadow of the moon.”

“Dunno, sir,” said a puzzled-looking Biff, “unless they’re on the surface, I suppose…” he scratched his head uncertainly and continued to keep watch on the comm panel

“So, what’s the story?” Toes asked.

“Hi ZT,” said Lazzaro, “it’s a bit of a strange one, at least I don’t understand it.” he shrugged and went on, “We picked up a single S.O.S. about an hour ago and kept scanning for repeat signals, but didn’t hear anything more. So I got Biff to do a narrow beam scan in the direction the first signal came from and suddenly, Bingo! We got a strong hit on a distress beacon or something.”

Toes glanced at the comm panel and frowned, “Hmmm, and you think it might be coming from the surface of the moon?” he looked at Biff, who made a non-committal expression to indicate he wasn’t sure one way or another, then studied the regular trace on the comm panel for a few more seconds.

“Ok, we’re going to have to investigate it, whatever it is.” Toes groaned inwardly, this was not going to be as relaxing a day as he’d hoped. “Mr Lazzaro, please instruct the helm to alter our heading and head for Mars orbit. Biff, you keep a close eye on that signal beacon, I’m still not convinced there isn’t something fishy going on here, so we’ll play it cautious and monitor the ship’s position as we approach.”

With that, Toes flopped into his command chair and with a relieved sigh, started to prise loose the strangulating footwear, before he heard a distinct clearing of the throat and looked up to see Lazzaro shaking his head with an amused expression. He hurrumphed and made an unflattering gesture at Eric, but nevertheless desisted from unshoing himself and began doing some analysis of the signal to take his mind off the discomfort.

*****

Carli, aka Intel Ops officer Zena Fisher, paced nervously round her small cabin, trying not to think about what was coming, a task at which she was failing completely.

She knew, deep down, that if she followed the plan the way it had been laid out for her when she signed up for this damn fool mission, then there was every chance that it’d all go as smoothly as Control seemed to think it would. But Agent Fisher couldn’t silence the niggling little voice in the back of her head, the one that told her she was going to regret deceiving the very people she would need to depend on the most, if it did all go horribly wrong; namely, Captain Zachary Toes and her erstwhile friend and (she winced) romantic entanglement, Eric Lazzaro.

It was imperative that Dreeb be stopped, before he could embark on the next, even more calamitous phase of his insane plan, that was obvious. But what she didn’t yet understand, was why he had ordered her to acquire Lazzaro’s security pass in the first place, because the plan, as Dreeb had explained it to her anyway, didn’t require any actual, physical interaction with the IGV Alice Marie at all. 

This inconsistency in Dreeb’s intentions troubled her more than anything else she knew (or didn’t know) about what was going to happen; not just because Dreeb was an unhinged maniac with about as much balance as a one-legged stilt walker with an inner ear infection, but because a plan as complicated and deranged as his must have been conceived a long time ago and was unlikely to have changed at the last moment.

Which meant there was something she wasn’t being told, and that thought made her very nervous indeed.

******

Dreeb had supervised the deployment of the distress pod himself, following the successful launch and subsequent crash-landing of the empty shuttle on the surface of Phobos; he couldn’t afford the risk of trusting this crucial part of his masterplan to the Numeric Goons, as he privately referred to them and besides, it wasn’t every day you got to send an old friend such an impressive gift. 

Dreeb smiled and closed his eyes, as he once again pictured the pod, modified to carry the immensely powerful plasma bomb, in addition to its specially targeted distress beacon, falling away from the ship’s cargo bay doors and dropping towards the moon’s surface, before booster rockets fired and it gained a low, stable orbit, where it would wait patiently until the time came to welcome the star of the show, First Officer Eric Lazzaro.

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21. Coming Home

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Tori couldn’t believe she was stranded AGAIN. It was like deja vu; for her and the rest of the Zapp family, it brought back the feelings of helplessness and isolation of their experiences in the escape pods. At least this time, they had the crew of the crippled ship, The Three Zees, to keep them company and they could all wait in the dim light together and hope for rescue. They were into their third day since the explosion now and talk amongst the crew about possible damage to the ship and of their hopes and dreams for the future had given way to more practical matters. Like how to stay warm and conserve their rapidly dwindling air supply, and what the probable chances of rescue actually were. After the early realization that three crew members had been outside the ship during the accident, there was no further discussion of them, but the thought was there in the back of everyone’s mind. Along with that spark of hope that SOMEBODY was coming to take them home


John Miles watched the IGV Alice Marie until the pink glow of its ion engines faded into the distance and turned back once more to the awe-inspiring view of the nearby star he had from the rear of the bridge on his giant salvage vessel. He took a moment to appreciate the sheer power and majesty of the swirls and eruptions on the boiling surface below, before a slight vibration beneath his feet nudged him back to reality. He felt a second faint shudder through the deck plates, as a freighter unloaded material and supplies destined for the Three Zees and he checked his nav/comm console and saw that the damaged ship should now be on the horizon. John released the tug drones; they headed for the target vessel and would gain control and return with it to the main salvage ship. He had no stores on board and very little space, but he had to get the rescued crew into some breathable air and he was conscious of the fact that this wasn’t just another job. He had salvaged many ships, but not those with surviving crew members, still on board and certainly not ones staffed by people he knew, so John was much relieved when the tug console started displaying active status.

John sighed with relief as he entered the coordinates of his location and commanded the tugs to come home. Within a hour The Three Zees was strapped into the carriage and the survivors were transferred to the now loaded freighter.

Tori was the first to hear a scraping on the Three Zees hull and she motioned for the others to be quiet a few seconds before a loud metallic CLANG alerted them to the arrival of the automated tugs. A weary cheer went up from the assembled passengers and crew, now that they knew they were finally going home.

11. In the beginning.

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Zachery hated flying, but he hated crashing more.
He was also tired of running.

This time his little band of fellow anarchists stole a plane but were hit multiple times by a machine gun as they took off. Alice Marie, his wife and their best pilot was hit. She died quickly, and the plane was his to control. It was dying too, spraying oil on the windshield and coughing fire.
Oh, and there was the small matter of them being wanted in 15 countries for a multitude of so-called “robin hood” crimes, and the bounty hunters were getting closer.
The engine coughed. And died.

“This is it, we’re going down. Hopefully we won’t break up…too bad.”
Zachery quickly assessed his landing options. The moon didn’t offer much light and, as luck would have it, he didn’t see a road or anything looking like a town. He banked right, aiming for a bluff and some trees that might hide the wreckage. At the last minute he pulled hard on the yoke hoping the tail would hit first. They hit hard and the plane skidded into a slight recess among the trees. Two people died, that’s three now. Everybody else knew they had to get away from the wreck site quickly, and before the sun came up.

They were having a major stroke of good luck. First, the bounty hunters lost the trail rather quickly once the plane took off. Then the plane fell off military RADAR. Finally they crashed in a area of deep wilderness and the wreckage was indeed undetectable from the air. Just a short distance from the crash they found a cave where they could wait out the day and rest a bit. Their biggest concern were the bounty hunters. The world was at war but it wasn’t organized, it was mostly civil wars, looting and the like. Many of the countries they were wanted in simply let the bounty hunters do the chasing.

Nightfall. Time to move on, find food and heat. Heat would be nice!
They had barely dragged themselves through the thick overgrowth a couple miles when they found themselves heading down into a missile base. It was an out of service intergalactic missle, the sort that was hijacked and used to disable a NASA IGV-class ship orbiting Earth. A lucky shot many said, but 300 folks died. It was also a death blow to a crumbling United States government.
So, here it was, inactive on an abandoned base. They cased the place for maybe 2 hours and saw no movement, nothing, not even a light in the gate house. So, with hunger clearly present they quickly stumbled down the ridge and past the fence. No minefields, and no active alarms. They found MREs in the mess hall and satisfied their hunger.

Then Zachery made an insane proposal.

“Guys,” Zachery started, “this is crazy. What are we gonna do, keep running? Hiding? We have a launch vehicle and we could get away from the bounty hunters.”

There was stunned silence.
His colleagues didn’t think much of Zachery’s latest scheme, but, well, he did have a point.

“We could remove the explosives from the nose. There are 3 fuel tanks and a smaller central tank containing oxygen. Abby, you know computers, you think we could we reprogram this thing to support life?”

She nodded, “sure, but…”

“Hell, we could die here , or in lanch, or survive in space. We ain’t doing any good now, too many bounty hunters! Zachery has a valid idea.”

With that, they all agreed. Abby, with a couple other team members, hacked into the missile systems, disarmed the explosives, and begin assembling equipment for a passenger space vehicle. Once disarmed the remaining team members removed the explosives. Which left a rather large cone-shaped vessel which they began to reinforce and insulate. Lines were added to the oxygen tank for life support. Launch seats and control equipment were added. In all, the conversion took a week and they blasted off with bounty hunters watching from the same ridge they were on just a week before.

The G-Forces of lift-off are really tough and two crew members were crushed like roadkill. Zachery and the survivors passed out, coming to in a weightless environment. With their luck holding they were less than a mile from the disabled IGV. Right on target. They managed to get into lifesuits and aboard the vessel. They got life support and the gravity gyro online within an hour. Comm was an easy fix and soon chatter from Earth echoed through on the ship intercom.

“Well, capt’, now what?” one of Zachery’s crew asked him.

Zachery keyed the mike, “This is Captain Zachery Toes, and I claim this IGV under intergalactic salvage laws. She is now the IGV Alice Marie. Captain Toes out.”

10. Independence is a loney place.

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Tori was getting adjusted to life aboard a starship. Her alarm would would wake her and and she’d have breakfast then it was classes. She also tutored some kids in math. She was looking forward to getting to Earth and seeing other survivors from her world, hopefully even reconnecting with her family. Sure, she socialized with the other survivors on the Alice Marie. In the afternoon she wandered the ship or went to her cabin and napped. She was independent and other than required classes she was left to her own devices. This was her typical daily routine. Her com buzzed.

“Yes?” Tori recognized the girl on the screen. From her Interrelationships and Social Skills Development class.

“Hi, I’m Cindi, we are in a class together, would you come play some games with us?”

Tori looked at the com, thought about the invite,

“Sure, I’ll be there.” She took a quick shower and put on some comfortable clothes.

For the next couple hours Tori played with dragons, unicorns, and fairies. Tori, for the very first time in her life, was just a little girl. Not a child prodigy. Not a survivor of a calamity that few had ever experienced. Just a 12yr old girl. She was so much happier than she’d even been since being rescued. Soon Cindi’s mom called her and her sisters home. Tori crashed, suddenly so much lonelier than she’d ever been. She left the VR Room and returned to her cabin. She got in bed, wrapped herself around a pillow. She missed her mom so much. Tori cried herself to sleep.

9. Hidden agendas.

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As the IGV Alice Marie blasted her way across the vast interstellar void toward Earth, Carli and Diaz continued to quietly discuss the hatch failure that had so nearly caused a fatal incident on the trip out to NASA 6.

“If that pin had sheared off whilst still in orbit, there’s no telling what kind of damage the ship could have incurred,” said Carli as she sipped a coffee in Diaz’s cabin, “we were lucky you discovered it when you did. If you’re right that it wasn’t an accident, then there’s every chance that whoever tampered with the hatch may have other plans to cripple the ship, or worse.”

Diaz considered this, grateful that her friend hadn’t rejected her suspicions out of hand and yet cautious of how to proceed, knowing that making unfounded accusations about sabotage could alienate her from the crew and very well result in her becoming the focus of suspicion herself.
“There isn’t anything I can put my finger on,” she said, “but I noticed there have been several times when hatch access panels have apparently malfunctioned in the last couple of weeks, mainly down in the cargo hold and vehicle transport bay. I’ve been asked more than once to check out “door open” alarms, only to find the hatches locked and nothing missing.”

“That does seem strange,” agreed Carli, “Toes maybe a bit more laid back than your average starship captain, but he takes safety and security pretty seriously, I doubt he would have skimped on something like hatch maintenance.”

“Do you think we should inform First Officer Lazzaro,” asked Diaz, “see if he thinks it’s worth taking to the captain?”

“Eric? Hmm, I’m sure he’d be interested to hear what we think,” said Carli thoughtfully, “but it might be an idea to do a little more digging first, just to make sure we aren’t mistaken. After all, we don’t want to cause a panic, especially while Captain Toes is trying to make the colony survivors feel comfortable on their trip back to Earth.”

Diaz relaxed a little, glad that she and Carli were in agreement, “Ok then, we’ll see if we can find any more evidence of tampering before we go public,” she raised her coffee cup in mock salute, “here’s hoping I’m just being paranoid.”

Whilst the two friends debated whether or not to confide in the ship’s senior officers, the subjects of their discussion were sitting in Toes’ cabin, enjoying (if you could call it that) a small jolt of one of ZT’s questionable homemade cocktails and having a discussion of their own, albeit a somewhat less serious one.

“So Eric,” said Toes, leaning back in his armchair and puffing Jamaican Gold smoke at the ceiling, “I take it you’re interested in getting to know the enigmatic Ms Carli a little better.” He grinned through the haze and raised a suggestive eyebrow in Eric’s direction.

“What gives you that idea?” asked Lazzaro, grimacing at the burning sensation produced by whatever Toes had made his latest batch of alcoholic drain cleaner from, “I’ve barely mentioned her since we left NASA 6.”

“Ahh, but I bumped into Matt Drake in med bay this morning and he tells me the two of you were thick as thieves when she came round after her spell in the clone tank,” he winked at Eric, “and she’s a good looking gal, I can’t say I blame you.”

Lazzaro winced. Only Toes would still use the term “gal” to refer to someone like Carli, who could probably kick his flabby ass up and down the ship if she wanted to, but he couldn’t deny his friend had a point; she was a difficult girl to get out of your head once she’d got in there.

Making a mental note to have words with Matthias the medical gossip-monger, he said, “She certainly is an interesting woman, I’ll give you that,” he pretended not to see Toes’ salacious smirk at this blatant understatement, “but we have nothing more than a professional relationship, I assure you.”

Captain “ZT” Toes could no longer contain himself and burst out laughing, “Ha! You really can be dumb sometimes, you know that Eric? Even I’ve seen the way she looks at you.”

Lazzaro opened his mouth to speak, then snapped it shut, scowled at Toes’ grinning face through the fog of smoke and stood up, “Anyway, I’ve got stuff I should be doing. It’s been…amusing,” he gave a wry smile, “I’ll catch you at the gripe ‘n’ groan in the morning Zeet, ‘night.”

“Yeah, I best get some shut-eye myself, I’ll see you tomorrow, you go and dream about your “professional relationship”, hahaha.”

Shaking his head and shooting Toes the evil eye, Lazzaro left the cabin and made his way back to his quarters.

Meanwhile, on the remote prison planet where he’d spent the last fifteen miserable, anger-fueled years of his life, Colan Dreeb finished assembling the components of the comm unit that were stashed in various hiding places around his sparsely-furnished cell and searched until he found the frequency he needed.
“This is Dreeb, are you reading me?”

He waited, listening to the faint hiss of background noise, the volume turned way down to avoid detection by the patrolling guards, then he heard a subtle change in the quality of the silence, followed by the familiar voice;

“Everything is going according to plan. The slight problem at NASA 6 has been rectified and I am confident the next phase of the plan will go smoothly. They have no idea what we intend to do, nor do they have any clue to my identity.”

Dreeb allowed himself a small chuckle of satisfaction, “Very good, keep me informed of any further developments. Dreeb out.”

8. Dreeb.

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Years ago, back when he was still working his first job as weapons officer on a planet security patrol ship, Lazzaro had got mixed up in a plan, hatched by some of the more unscrupulous, less career-focused members of the crew, to occasionally “redirect” items of ordnance from company stores to a privately owned cargo container, rented under a fake identity.

At a storage facility on a small moon (whose population was known for its liberal attitude and discretion in matters of client confidentiality) the crates of plasma charges, pulse rifles and hand blasters that mysteriously vanished from their employers’ extensive armoury were quietly delivered by unpiloted cargo drones and ferried to the container by automated loading trucks.
Then the company’s computerised records and ship’s manifest were carefully manipulated by a disgruntled data entry clerk called Gideon, whom the conspirators had recruited for just this purpose, ensuring that nobody was any the wiser.

Until the Dreeb incident.
That’s when it all started to unravel.

Colan Dreeb was one of the more unstable members of their little enterprise, an ex-mercenary who had joined the company after losing a leg on his final mission; a bitter and violent man with a short temper and a long memory who you really didn’t want to get on the wrong side of, not unless you enjoyed spending the rest of your life looking over your shoulder.

The paranoid Dreeb had got it into his head that the computer nerd was a security risk and wanted him out of the loop before he gave them away.
Not only that, but not being the most trusting of folks at the best of times, Dreeb had insisted that the cargo container was booby-trapped when they first began filling it with contraband, making doubly sure that nobody could make off with the gang’s haul of weapons.

Lazzaro and the others had cautioned against making any rash decisions, fearing that paying off their inside man would only open them up to blackmail and extortion if he objected to being cut out of his share of the deal.

But Colan Dreeb was not a man to be swayed by logical reasoning and he took it upon himself to plug the security leak once and for all.
Only a month before the container load of smuggled armaments was due to be delivered to one of the many privateers who dealt in “liberated” merchandise, he managed to persuade the unsuspecting office worker to meet him at the storage unit.
Dreeb used the excuse that the access code for the container wasn’t working, meaning that the drones couldn’t open it to make a delivery and he needed Gideon to come down to reset the password.
Too greedy to be suspicious of Dreeb’s motives, the man arrived at the unmanned facility, to be met by a scarred giant of a man with a false leg and a very real stolen pulse rifle.

When the terrified clerk realised he’d been duped, he tried to appeal to Colan’s better nature, offering to forfeit his share of the loot in exchange for his freedom.
Sadly for him, Colan Dreeb’s only nature was that of a cornered predator and his pleas fell on deaf ears.

Before the object of Dreeb’s irrational paranoia could protest any further, he was forced at gunpoint into the airtight container and locked in, Colan congratulating himself on his foolproof plan, thinking that when the clerk’s body was discovered it would seem like an freak accident.

Dreeb reset the plasma charge that secured the doors of the container and returned to the patrol ship, not mentioning anything about his murderous mission to the rest of the crew and assuming that they were now safe from discovery.

None of which would have caused a problem, (apart from Gideon, for whom it would soon prove to be a rather terminal one) but the designers of the cargo container had foreseen this particular scenario and fitted a failsafe, namely an internal keypad that meant anyone trapped inside could enter the password, allowing them to avoid a slow, suffocating death.
Of course Gideon wasn’t aware of the extra security feature Dreeb had installed. So, having eventually found the keypad in the darkness of his metal tomb and, waiting until he was sure his captor had departed, he punched in the code and opened the door to make good his escape.

It was only by chance that, at the time Lazzaro’s ship was on the opposite side of the planet that the moon orbited, otherwise they would have seen the resulting blast, which all but destroyed the storage facility, along with the unfortunate Gideon, the gang’s entire stash of illicit weapons and a sizeable chunk of the moon itself.

Never one for unnecessary modesty, Colan immediately took credit for the devastation, proudly informing his incredulous shipmates that he’d saved them from certain incarceration, or worse.

“You did what?“, Lazzaro remembered yelling at the impervious, glowering Dreeb, “You bloody fool, you’ve done it now, it’s not going to take them long to put two and two together and work out that sort of blast could only have come from restricted plasma charges.”

“But I…,” began Dreeb, his fists balled aggressively.

“No!” snapped Lazzaro, “No buts, no ifs, that’s it, it’s over. I’m out,” he stared at each of the nervously fidgeting crew members in turn, “at the end of this tour I’m finding alternative employment and I suggest you all do the same.”

And that had been the end of it.

At least until one of the others had got himself arrested for stabbing a pool shark during a fight in some spaceport bar a couple of months later. He’d done a deal with the local law enforcement; Dreeb’s description and likely hang-outs in exchange for a slap on the wrist and a hefty fine.

When the cops finally caught up with Dreeb, he didn’t go quietly, taking down three of them before succumbing to multiple stun grenades and an enthusiastic kicking from all the officers present at the arrest.
At his trial, Dreeb refused to answer any and all questions put to him and spoke only to declare his intention to hunt down and slaughter all the remaining conspirators, so convinced was he that they were collectively responsible for his capture.

The judge pointed out that he would have to put his plans for bloody revenge on the back burner for a while, then cheerfully sentenced him to fifty years hard labour.

Which was how, reflected Eric Lazzaro as he gazed out his cabin window at the dwindling dot of NASA 6, is how I ended up here on the Alice Marie.

There were certainly worse places to be, no question about that. All in all, Eric considered himself a very lucky man.

6. Leaving NASA 6

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Having regaled his two patiently listening crew members with heavily embellished tales of smuggling, high speed space chases and narrow escapes from intergalactic law enforcement (all of which were taken with a large but good natured pinch of salt by all concerned, storyteller and listeners alike) Toes left the bar and headed back to the ship, allowing Diaz and Carli to relax slightly and Diaz once again considered whether she should voice her misgivings to her new friend.

Carli had been telling her about the childhood she’d spent on her parents agri-barge, travelling the immense waterways of her homeworld, the ocean planet Chloros, supplying the far-flung islands with grain and vegetables from the central, terraformed mainland farming zone and Diaz impulsively decided that she could trust this enigmatic but friendly new colleague.

“Carli, why do you think that hatch failed?” she asked, unable to think of a way to introduce the subject casually, “Do you really think it was caused by corrosion?”

Instead of the snort of derision she was expecting, Diaz saw that Carli was carefully considering her question before replying; “I hadn’t thought about it to be honest, but I take it you have doubts about what caused it,” she studied Diaz, those mismatched eyes boring into her, “is there a reason that corrosion is unlikely then?”

“Well…”, Diaz paused, gauging her friend’s expression, “I don’t think the patterns on the broken pin reflect slow failure by deterioration, more like a sudden stress fracture. But it did show signs of extreme changes in temperature, as if it had been heated from a very low to incredibly high temperature in a very short space of time.”

“Hmm, like the pulse from a blaster, whilst the ship was orbiting in the freezing vacuum for instance?” Carli raised that quizzical eyebrow again, something Diaz was beginning to recognize as her trademark expression, “you know, just as an example, I’m not suggesting…”

The two women looked at each other in silence for a few seconds, then quickly finished their drinks and hurried back to the ship.

The call had gone out and his crew should all be checking in within a couple hours. They had be docked on NASA 6 for 3 days now, offloading methane and some crates and also reloading some supplies. Captain Toes walked down the central connecting hallway and onto the jetway headed for his ship. He had lists and inspections to sign off on, and the NASA 6 overseer needed a escort to the bridge . He also had to review his email for possible contracts; money was always the prime motivation for choosing his designation. Captain Toes stepped into his office and got a soda from the fridge and turned on computer and began checking his emails.

“Capt’ the pilot is awaiting an escort.” Well, damn, thought Toes, start one thing and something else comes up,

“On my way”, as always, they would be leaving a place without a designation set.

They dropped the pilot and blasted off without a hitch. Well, there was the Open Hatch alarm but it was cleared since it was in the ladder well, had been checked and was now secured.
Captain Toes reviewed his emails and decided they needed to head for an ice planet about 6 weeks travel away via hyperdrive. He instructed the olefins crew to prepare the catalyst for polypropylene development and set course for the ice planet. They were to meet a customer, who wanted 200,000 pounds of the polymer and was waiting there in orbit for the Alice Marie to join them.