Jerry Chapter 2
Jerry froze, space-gauntleted hand still on the hatch lever.
Debris, he thought. If the gravity is out, pieces of drifting debris could have impacted on the other side of the hatch, making it sound as though someone knocked.
The knocking came again, tap-tap-tap.
His next thought was, Survivors!
He worked the lever, unclamped the hatch, cranked the wheel, and swung the hatch open.
The figure floating just beyond the hatch wore an unfamiliar suit. It was black sleek, and as faceless as Jerry’s own. It might have been a stealth suit for special space ops, but the visor was entirely too reflective. The rest of it was black enough, though.
Beyond him, in a more-intact section of corridor, another figure stood, boots clinging to the floor. It was much smaller, possibly child-sized.
Jerry’s reflexive question was lost to the soundlessness of vacuum and a lack of suit-to-suit communications. Cursing, he pushed past the floating figure and floated completely over the smaller figure in the corridor. Once he cleared the obstacles, he flipped, locked boots to the floor, and hurried down the corridor. He couldn’t hear anything behind him, of course.
The journey to an emergency locker took six steps longer than forever, but the makeshift repairs on his helmet held. He flung open the locker, grabbed a fist-sized emergency oxygen cannister, and plugged it into the port on his helmet. It hissed briefly and the numbers on his heads-up display changed from deep orange to green.
Next, an emergency patch went over the makeshift repair. He held it in place for ten seconds, waiting for chemistry to do its thing. Once it set, there would be no more worries about a blowout from the debris-and-tape seal.
With the immediate dangers dealt with, only then did he set about switching his near-empty primary air with a full one.
Suit integrity? Check. Oxygen? Check. Now he could spare attention for other things.
He turned around and found both figures watching him. They were obviously talking to each other, but Jerry wasn’t on their channel. He pointed at the side of his helmet, then at a point where his mouth would be. The larger figure held up one hand, thumb and little finger extended, pressed to the side of his own helmet.
With the mutual desire to communicate made clear, the larger figure pointed farther down the corridor. The three clunked along the metal floor, passed through a pressure hatch, and sealed it.
The hiss of air into the compartment was the first external sound Jerry heard since leaving turret nineteen. The indicators on his helmet told him the external environment was within tolerances, so he unsealed the faceplate and swung it up. The other two removed their helmets entirely.
Instant appraisal? Father and daughter. Tall, skinny guy, dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin, clean-shaven, mildly annoyed about something. The girl, tall for her age, but with the features of a girl of… twelve? Same inky hair, same skin, copper-colored eyes.
“Who the hell are you?” Jerry asked. The girl looked at the man.
“Call me ‘Kent.’ This is Phoebe.” The girl made a little bob of a curtsey, holding her helmet in the crook of one arm.
“Pop? Can I go check out the bridge?”
“Go ahead,” he agreed. She skipped off down the corridor, putting her helmet on again as she danced past Jerry. “And mind your radiation monitor!”
Jerry turned halfway around to watch her go before turning back to Kent.
“That doesn’t answer my question,” he pointed out.
“You’re stressed. Can’t say I blame you. Come on. Let’s go down to the mess, sit down, and have a little talk.”
“I can’t. There’s something going on with my ship and I have to find—”
“Look,” Kent sighed. “The ship is in open space, easily a light-year from any star. Aside from the usual bits of interstellar junk, there’s nothing out here but us. We’re not crashing into a gas giant. Nobody’s shooting at us. Nobody’s going to find us. I’m going to the mess. You can do as you please.”
With that, Kent marched past Jerry, or tried to. Jerry grabbed him by the arm and, with effort, swung Kent around to face him. It was surprisingly difficult. Kent must have leg muscles like braided wire if his boot magnets were that strong.
“I don’t know who you think you are,” Jerry began, “but this is a military vessel and you’re not military personnel. I’m within my authority to arrest you for being here.”
“No doubt.” Kent shrugged off Jerry’s hand and continued down the corridor.
Jerry cursed under his breath and lumbered after him.
The mess was exactly that, in more ways than one. While the tables and trays came equipped with clips for free-fall use, most of the time the ship had artificial gravity. When the artificial gravity cut out, the trays wandered away. When the artificial gravity came back on, they fell to the deck.
Jerry was surprised when he stepped into the mess. The Birmingham was in better condition than he thought if there was power for things like the grav units.
Kent found himself a seat near the dispensers, made himself comfortable, and put his helmet on the table. He had the air of a man prepared to sit and wait. Cursing under his breath, Jerry moved to the same table and seated himself across from Kent.
“All right. We’re here. We’re sitting. Is this what you wanted?”
“It’s better than being grilled in a corridor.”
“Maybe. Who are you? What are you doing here? Why is there a kid on board a battleship?”
“That first one is going to take too long to answer. What I’m doing here is escorting the kid. Why she’s here is because we go on field trips for her education. A star-faring culture with space-warping drive systems is new to her. And my horse has always wanted to try traveling faster than light.”
Jerry blinked slowly for several seconds.
“I’m sure that makes perfect sense to you,” he replied, “but I’m a sergeant, not a psych officer.”
“Yeah, it sounds crazy. Last I checked, though, you were tumbling into a gas giant while enemy ships scooped up escape pods. Yes?”
“Now you’re one hell of a long way from where you were, not about to crash, and stand a good chance of survival.”
“And I presume you had something to do with it?”
“A bit,” Kent admitted.
“Great. Can you undo what ever you did do and get me back to where I was? If there are any escape pods left, I need to rescue them.”
“Hmm.” Kent drummed his fingers on the mess table and put his chin in his other hand. “It’s not impossible. I’m not sure this ship can carry out rescue operations, though.”
“The pods have drive systems. They can dock with the ship.”
“Maybe. It depends on how long it’s been.”
“The pods are good for a couple of months, easy.”
“I’ll see what I can do. In the meantime, why not head to the bridge? I’m sure Phoebe has a million questions.”
“Hang on. I’m not just going to give you the run of the ship. It may be damaged, even derelict, but it’s still a military vessel. It hasn’t been abandoned. I’m still on it! So it’s not salvage.”
“I understand your legal point, but there’s a big difference between a legal point and a practical reality. I’m going down to the engine room to see if I can speed up the repairs. I’ll also check on your escape pod idea. You do whatever you think best in the meanwhile.”
“No. You’re not going anywhere. You’re going to answer my questions.”
“Am I?” Kent asked, sounding vastly amused. “All right. Let’s see how that goes.”
“I want to know how you got aboard.”
Kent stood up and, humming something to himself, put on his helmet. Without a word, he walked out of the mess. Jerry, surprised, sprang to his feet and chased after him. He grabbed Kent by the shoulder.
“Now you just hold it right—”
Jerry woke up on his back, looking at the overhead. Everything hurt.
Kent’s face came into view, looking down.
Jerry’s reply was verbal, but not intelligible. It ended in “Ow.”
“I don’t appreciate being grabbed.”
“Go jump in a reactor.”
“I don’t think so.” Kent crouched next to Jerry and helped him roll over. Jerry slowly climbed to his feet. Everything worked, but a squeaking hinge works, too.
“Now, be reasonable,” Kent went on. “You’re the only guy on this ship, as far as I can tell. I’m willing to work with you on the whole rescue-the-escape-pods thing. I’m willing to work with you in general. Once we finish with our field trip and our FTL test runs, I’ll happily surrender the ship to you. Let me point out that this requires extensive repairs on the FTL drive, the reactors, and a variety of other systems, all of which we’ll do quickly and at no cost to you.
“Your other option is to be a dick. I’ll collect Phoebe and we’ll leave. You can live here on this drifting hulk until it runs out of food or power, whichever comes first. And I guarantee no earthling will find you for at least several thousand years. Comprende?”
“You mean,” Jerry began, and paused to stretch, back crackling. “You mean you have enough people to put the Birmingham back in commission?”
Kent smiled slightly, bit his lips, and winced.
“I feel confident we can have this ship ship-shape in less than a month. We can have it operational in a day or two.”
“How many people do you have aboard?”
“That’s another complicated answer you’re not going to accept.”
“Three, not counting a pair of quasi-sentient oddities.”
“You have an AI?”
“Not in the sense you mean it.”
“You know those are illegal.”
“Again, not in the sense you mean it.”
“What other sense is there?”
“Oh, for—Look, sergeant, quit evading the issue. I didn’t think anyone was still aboard, otherwise I wouldn’t have boarded. Since you are aboard, I’m going to do repairs on this ship unless you’re damned determined to stop me. You can either put your foot down and demand I stop, in which case I will abandon ship—and you. Or you can stay out of the way and let me work, in which case I’ll eventually leave and let you have your ship back. In the meantime, I don’t anticipate bothering anyone but you, apparently. What’s it to be?”
“Thank you so much for giving me a choice.”
“I’m a big fan of free will.”
“Just so you’re aware, unless there’s someone higher up the chain of command, this is my ship, and I am now the commander of this vessel.”
Kent looked startled, but smiled. He nodded.
“I understand, Captain. Be advised, however, that I am a civilian. I’ve boarded your ship without permission and fully intend to take it places for my own purposes—admittedly, I’ll be repairing it, but, from a legal standpoint, it’s an act of piracy.
“With this thought in mind, and since we’re in the messhall, can the space pirate get you a cup of Earl Grey, Captain? Or should I try to salvage you a sandwich?”
“I’m the skipper,” Jerry replied. “Officers become Captain. I’m just in charge.”
“Whatever you say, Skipper.”
Jerry glared at Kent for several seconds. His stomach told him the last mess call was quite a while ago.
“And yes,” Jerry added, “a sandwich would be a damn fine idea.”