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.

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.

20. The evil that men do.

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Dreeb watched the uneven, crater-strewn surface of Phobos roll slowly past the observation window of his cruiser and congratulated himself on how close he was to finally catching up with the man who, he was convinced, had robbed him of the last fifteen years of his life.

“Six,” he barked, “when will we be above the target crater?”

The mercenary who Dreeb had christened number six checked a readout on his console, “We should be within range of the drop zone in just under ten minutes, sir.”

Dreeb ignored the sarcasm in the man’s tone; he wasn’t paying his crew of disgraced soldiers and hardcases-for-hire for their manners, just their loyalty and silence. Besides, if the operation went according to plan, he wouldn’t need to pay them the balance of their fee.

“Have the device ready to deploy on the next pass.” said Dreeb, “I don’t want there to be any disturbances on the surface to make our heroic rescuers suspicious when they arrive. None that they aren’t supposed to see anyway.” He grinned at the thought, “You have the shuttle prepared?”

“It’s in the bay as you requested.”

“Good, tell whoever is operating the remote to keep the trajectory as steep as possible, it has to look like it was out of control when it crashed.”

“Don’t worry, he knows what he’s doing and I programmed the coordinates myself.” Six gave Dreeb a withering stare, “We have done this before, you know.”

Dreeb rounded on him, his eyes blazing with fury, “I couldn’t give a shit what penny-ante jobs you’ve been on before, this is my fucking operation and you will do as I say! Otherwise, you know where the airlock is and I’m sure your comrades would be only too glad to split your share of the proceeds.”

Six threw Dreeb a lazy salute, making no effort to hide his disdain for the raging psychopath, who looked as though, with any luck and a bit of extra encouragement, he might suffer a massive aneurysm and save them all a lot of trouble. “Aye aye Cap’n.” he said with a grin and with that, turned and strolled calmly back to his station.

Dreeb left the bridge, stomped his way down the corridor to the shuttle bay and slammed open the bulkhead door.
Another of his hired guns, this one called Three, was guarding the shuttle and narrowly avoided being crushed by the heavy hatch cover as it was flung open. He came to a vague approximation of attention and made an even less impressive attempt at saluting than his higher-numbered counterpart.

“What is it with you people,” said Dreeb, “didn’t any of you learn to show respect when an officer comes on deck?”

Three looked at him with a nervous grin, apparently waiting for a punchline, then, when no further entertainment was forthcoming, went back to picking his filthy nails with a bayonet.
Dreeb was tempted to just ram the insubordinate scumbag into a torpedo tube and watch him fly like a fat, greasy meteorite down to the surface of the tiny dead moon below, but he restrained himself and headed for the loading gantry.

Hanging from a small but powerful crane above the floor hatch, a cylindrical object was swinging gently, a small red light blinking rhythmically on its side beneath the word ARMED.
Dreeb caressed the black titanium casing and smiled.

“Oh, Eric, please come quickly, we’re in terrible trouble, hahaha haha haha hahaha…”

Three (whose real name was Travis, a veteran of countless brutal, bloody coups and blacker than black “wet” operations) heard the cracked, maniacal laughter from the far end of the shuttle bay and shuddered. He’d be bloody glad to get this job over and done with; no matter how much they were getting paid, it wasn’t enough to be trapped in the middle of fucking nowhere with this lunatic.

Checking that he was unobserved, the mercenary slipped through the door, closed it quietly behind him and went in search of a drink.

19. Save Thyself

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Pentaethymethalyne-metalliod, commonly called “liquid hell” because of it’s extremely hot and explosive reaction with oxygen, non-reactive with nearly all chemicals and compounds, the stuff hates oxygen. One single molecule of oxygen will spell disaster every time. Therefore, after a short life as a weapon of mass destruction Pentaethymethalyne-metalliod was banned from Earth. It was quickly accepted as a rocket fuel, but it took several deadly explosions to finally isolate it from oxygen. The only safe exposure was in the combustion chamber. Very little oxygen was needed which was ideal in deep space and speeds of near-hyper could be reached. Also special fuel tanks were created to direct any explosions away from the ship structure. Legal tanks had a “rip seam” and extra plating on the vessel-side of the tank. Luckily the The Three Zees had such tanks and only one blew up, leaving them with a engine and fuel.

There was a ruptured oxygen line spraying liquid into space. That, in itself, could cause problems but there was a fuel leak caused by a out-of-spec line which froze and burst. This set off alarms and the techs left the equipment room to don suits to go out and fix the leak. That saved their lives. The force of the explosion drove the tanks’ shock-absorbing struts through the hull and ripping the equipment room in half. The life support systems saved the ship from total loss of atmosphere by slamming bulkheads closed and isolating the suited techs. They quickly rednecked a connection to an air line but were helpless to help the crew.

Tori and Cindi were slammed hard into a wall, knocking Cindi out leaving Tori with a broken arm. The gravity gyro was destroyed as well as the primary power cell, so they were floating in almost absolute darkness. Life support equipment was straining due to a hull breach not contained by the bulkheads. As trained all crew members gathered at the med center for a head count and an assessment of injuries. Quickly, they realized they were short three techs and they all were injured to some degree. They put slap patches on the leak but the oxygen was depleted and they had to shut down the main system and don suits to attempt to get the engine started.

You can’t feel yourself tumbling without gravity, mused Tori as she fumbled with the stabilizer system in an attempt to stop the tumbling ship. After several attempts she managed to bring the ship to a stop. Zoey and Lori had experience with star maps and concluded they were maybe 10,000 nautical miles from the Alice Marie. They had no power and no way to get their engine online, but they weren’t moving. The three techs on the outside came to the same conclusion and were trying to swap the live harness with the operable engine’s harness. The task was nearly impossible since they were in shadow and had the wrong tool kit. Once this was accomplished they squeezed themselves against the ship and waited to see if those inside would get the ship moving. When the engine control panel lit up on the bridge everybody was surprised but relieved. Zoey started the ignition process and all crew members went to the med center since it had the only operable life support and gravity. Their ship was heavily damaged and a fuel system problem kept them at ¼ speed but the The Three Zees were headed back to its mothership.

18. Dangerous games.

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Now they were safely in Earth orbit, Carli knew she only had a few days to prepare, but since the success or failure of the operation depended largely on keeping Lazzaro off balance and distracted, she had to spend at least some time each day working on him.

Whether that meant finding an excuse to wander onto the bridge whilst Toes was doing his gripe ‘n’ groan session and stand in Eric’s line of sight until he noticed her, sitting at his table in the canteen when he was chatting to other crewmen and flashing him an occasional coy smile, or “accidentally” running into him in the corridor when he was taking his morning run, Carli made sure he saw just enough of her to make him uncomfortable, but not enough that he had a chance to talk to her about anything except official ship’s business.

She felt bad about it and she held onto that feeling; it somehow helped her justify her actions, making her conscious of how important her mission was and giving her an added incentive to complete it as soon as possible.

For his part, Lazzaro was totally confused by her attitude, he couldn’t for the life of him work out what he was supposed to do.
Did he brazen it out and hope it was all some kind of elaborate joke?
Should he call her bluff and hope she was just waiting for an opportunity to explain?
Or should he seek out Diaz, talk to her privately and take the chance that she wouldn’t go running straight back to her friend with news of his discomfort?

He quickly discounted all but the first option however, as he was still concerned that his memory of that night hadn’t returned and he didn’t want to risk the loss of his pass getting back to the captain.
So all he could do was concentrate on his duties as First Officer and pray that the situation resolved itself soon because, with the Three Zees in trouble, he was going to need to have his wits about him.

*****

Meanwhile, in the vast interplanetary void between Jupiter and Mars, Dreeb and his hired killers were on course for their pre-arranged rendezvous point. The cruiser had reached the potentially dangerous area of the asteroid belt, where careful programming of the nav-systems was essential if they wanted to maintain faster-than-light drive.
They were heading for Phobos, Mars’ largest satellite, the plan being to hold station on the “blind side” of the small moon, hiding in its shadow until it was time to intercept their target.

“Sir, there’s a burst transmission coming in now,” said one of the black-clad, masked mercenaries; Dreeb didn’t know his name and didn’t want to, (he had actually issued the crew with numbered badges when he retained their services, specifically to avoid personal interaction) “do you want to take it here on the bridge?”

“No,” Dreeb replied, “transfer it to the scrambler in comms,” he crossed to the door of the small secure room and swiped his pass across the sensor panel, “and don’t get any funny ideas, this message is for my eyes only.”

The crewman grunted and shrugged, then routed the message as he’d been told, signalling indifference to his boss’s secrecy. His expression, had anyone been able to see it, said he’d been hired to do a job without asking questions, and that was fine by him.

Dreeb closed the door and powered up the custom built comm panel, activating the encryption software by scanning the coded chip that was embedded beneath the skin of his wrist.
A stream of code scrolled past; the data from Lazzaro’s stolen security card, then the screen went blank and the lines of numbers were replaced by the spiky trace of an audio player.
He checked the time code and noted that, although the message been received just moments earlier, it had been recorded two days previously and only sent when the cruiser had come within range of the transmitter onboard the Alice Marie.

Dreeb played Carli’s report, a crooked grin twisting the scarred contours of his face as he listened, then he copied the security data to a flash drive he kept on a chain around his neck, deleted the original and the audio file and closed down the comm panel.
He left the small room and beckoned to the man who had reported the transmission.

“Six, I’m going to my cabin, you have the bridge.” The man gave a curt nod. “Unless there’s an emergency I don’t want to be disturbed until we’re on final approach to Phobos.”

*****

As Dreeb headed for a voyeuristic fix of death and disfigurement, courtesy of his subspace SnuffStream account, Carli was trying her hardest not to feel guilty about spending yet another mealtime torturing Eric.

She’d sat opposite him at lunch, shamelessly flirting with members of the engineering team, laughing loudly at their jokes and joining in when they mocked Lazzaro’s expression of disgust at some of the more tasteless stories.
In the end he’d got up and left the canteen, clearly disappointed at her behaviour, which suited Carli fine, despite the pangs of conscience, the less he wanted to do with her today, the happier she was.

After another ten minutes of banter with the engineers, Carli made her excuses and left, not rushing but with a nervous urgency that she fought to control.
She stopped to chat with Diaz, who was on her way for a workout in the gym and promised to join her there when she’d been back to her quarters to change, but when her friend was out of sight Carli doubled back and headed for the transport bay.

Finding the bay empty, as she assumed it would be at this time of day, she once again disabled the door access panel and retrieved the hidden transmitter from behind the hidden panel in her locker.
She checked the display and then, noting the symbol for a delivered burst message was showing, entered a code to activate the unit.
This time however, she had to spend valuable seconds fitting a new comm chip, one that would only transmit on a single, very specific frequency.

It seemed to take forever for the signal indicator to flicker on and she could feel the thumping of her heart against her ribcage by the time she heard the faint sound of a voice, repeating the same phrase over and over;
“Intel Ops waiting…Intel Ops waiting…Intel Ops waiting…”

She took a deep breath and spoke quietly and clearly, “Intel Ops, this is agent Fisher, codename: Carli…I say again, Intel Ops this is Carli, do you read me?”
She thought for a moment they weren’t going to reply, that they’d abandoned her, then;
“We hear you Carli, go ahead.”

That was it, no pleasantries, no “How’ya doing?” nothing, but it was enough to calm the pounding in her temples and she could detect only the faintest of tremors in her voice when she spoke.

“Message sent successfully. Repeat: Message sent and acknowledged. Predicting the hostile to be in position at Phobos ahead of schedule. Requesting confirmation of intercept team’s deployment.”

“Affirmative, a full team has been deployed and is currently en route to the coordinates you provided.”

“Understood,” Carli paused, unsure of how to phrase the next question, “um, when will it be necessary for me to inform captain Toes of my deception? I assume he will be made aware of the situation prior to the operation being executed and I doubt he’ll take kindly to being used like this.”

She had been expecting some discussion on the matter, so she was surprised at the abruptness of the reply.
“Negative. Repeat: Negative. Do NOT make the captain aware of any facet of the operation. This is strictly need to know. Control out.”

And that was it.
Zena Fisher, Intel Ops officer, codename: Carli, was on her own again.

14. Lost time.

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With only a few days left until the Alice Marie passed into the Sol system, any spare crew members were helping the escape pod survivors to prepare to transition from their lives in the deep space colonies to the higher gravitational environment of Earth.

Increasingly strenuous physical workouts were being scheduled for their daily sessions in the gym, their nutritional intakes were closely monitored, the final medical checks were being done and many of the colonists were taking advantage of the ship’s data store to get themselves better acquainted with Earth’s recent history and social customs.

Lazzaro had spent the last couple of days keeping busy with his regular duties, (not always easy without his security clearance) whilst simultaneously trying to stay out of Toes’ way and find time to track down his missing pass.

He had wracked his brain for a clue as to where he could have left it and retraced every route he had taken in the short space of time between when he had definitely last used it and the morning he’d awoken to find it missing, but he had now come to the conclusion that it was lost and he was going to have to come clean with the captain and take the chewing-out he knew would accompany the admission that he’d somehow mislaid it.

He was on his final search, once more walking the corridors leading from Toes’ cabin to his own before he accepted defeat, when he met Carli coming out of an elevator.

“Hello stranger,” she greeted him, with a mischievous smile, “have you been avoiding me? I thought after the other night you would have been a bit more sociable.”
She winked at him in a way that could only be described as a lascivious, stepped forward and, to Eric’s surprise, planted a kiss on his lips which lingered considerably longer than a friendly peck should have done.

“Um, wow, erm…” Lazzaro stammered, “haha, no. Avoiding you? No, I’ve just been busy, that’s all,” he paused, frowning, “What do you mean “after the other night” “, he asked, “what happened the other night?”

“Oh come now Eric, you hadn’t had that much of the captain’s grog,” she pushed him playfully in the chest and laughed at his bewildered expression, “and I would have liked to think I was a little more memorable than that, too.”

Lazzaro continued to stare stupidly at her and seemed at a loss for words, causing her smile to fade, replaced by a pout that, had he been paying more attention, would have warned him to tread carefully from this point on.

“Oh I’m sorry, were we supposed to meet up somewhere then..?”

“You’re kidding, right?”

Too late, Eric caught the hostile tone in her voice and smiled in a way he hoped would placate her suddenly black mood.

It didn’t work.

“You really don’t remember do you? Well that’s just charming,” Carli snapped at him, “it just goes to show, I’m just another casual conquest to you aren’t I?”

“But…” Lazzaro began.

“Well don’t bother trying to remember, it obviously isn’t that important to you.”

She started to walk away, then turned sharply and reached in her pocket, “Oh, and you might as well have this back.” She tossed something to him which he fumbled and dropped on the floor; His security pass!
“Although now I’m wondering why I didn’t just hand it in to the captain straight away.”
And with that she marched off, leaving Lazzaro standing helplessly in the corridor, looking from her retreating figure to his pass and back again and wondering what the hell was going on.

How had that situation deteriorated so quickly?
Eric didn’t understand what he’d done to upset Carli so completely, let alone how she’d managed to get hold of his pass, but it was clear that she was angry about something he had no memory of, which was what concerned him the most and he made his way back to his cabin with mixed feelings; relieved that the missing pass had been returned, but troubled that he had no way of telling how he’d lost it.

Carli maintained her angry stride down the corridor until she was sure she was out of Lazzaro’s sight, then ducked into the transport bay and quietly closed the door.
She went to a service locker and reached inside, felt for a catch that dropped the hidden rear panel and took out a small burst-com unit.
This compact communicator allowed the user to send long or complex streams of data in a single compressed pulse, transmitted on an undetectable sub-space frequency.

With the rest of the crew occupied with readying the colonists for their new lives on Earth it was unlikely that Carli would be disturbed, but she still took precautions. Taking a few tools from the locker, she quickly removed the cover of the door control panel and bypassed the access circuit, meaning it couldn’t be opened with a security pass from outside, although no malfunction would show up on the bridge.

Confident she was safe from immediate discovery, Carli powered up the burst-com and began to speak in a low, controlled voice, her eyes closed in concentration.

“Operational progress report with additional security data attached.
The target was successfully intercepted and…” she paused, a catch in her voice betraying some inner struggle, “..seduced, just over forty eight hours ago. The drug you provided seems to have had the desired effect and although the subject was fully cognizant and, um,” she cleared her throat, “physically capable, he now has no memory of the night in question. Nor does he appear to remember how he came to lose his clearance pass and the scanned data from that is also included in this transmission.”
She took a deep breath and continued.
“As long as he remains under the impression that he came to my cabin and left it there, there is no reason to believe I risk arousing suspicion. When the sedative element of the drug took effect, I left with the pass, copied the security data and slipped it under my bed, just in case I was required to “accidentally” find it later to prove he’d spent the night there. However, he appears to be convinced by the deception and I will now move on to the second phase of the operation.
We will be arriving in Earth orbit in four days, by which time I trust you will be fully prepared for the next stage to begin.”

Carli opened her eyes, frowned as if trying to recall a detail that had escaped her, shook her head then concluded, “I’ll wait to hear from you once you are in transit, I will check this link again in two days and expect you to be ready. Carli out.”

She carefully stowed the comm unit back in the service locker and re-enabled the door controls, slipping out into the corridor unnoticed and going in search of Diaz, who she was meeting for a late lunch. Carli had arranged it this morning, thinking that the more of her time she could publicly account for, from this point on, the safer she would be.

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.