Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. The one piercing the ears of the explorer crew was coming in loud and clear. A hand reached and yanked the broken tether of Sally King sending her speeding towards the four-man vessel sitting on the edge of the meteor belt. The sounds of her rapid breathing broken by the calm, static voice of Franklin Loy as he wrapped it around the face of the retrieval arm.
The arm's upper steel face closed over the cut end of the tether and began its task of pulling her towards the air-lock. Small debris sailed over his body, as he turned his attention back to the control panel he had up. The rocky material that had sliced the King's tether was raining in closer to the ship and Loy worked quickly to repair the jammed cylinder.
"Bump it, John."
The panel lights flickered red and green and the drum spit out chunks of rock. Loy pushed himself to the side of the open box to let them fly past him. He watched it closely for a moment and reached to open the inside panel to pull the cable and link it to the repaired winch.
"Go easy taking up the slack."
The cylinder turned slowly until it had rolled in 20 feet of titanium cable and the entire vessel suddenly moved from the tension pulling against it. Loy closed the hatch and sealed it. He unbuckled his tether and began scaling down the side of the 30-foot ship to the airlock. Sally watched him as he got to her and reached towards the arm holding her tether. Loy pulled her in close enough to wrap it around his glove four or five times before he cut it with the plasma torch - handing it to her to hold while he opened the outside hatch and slipped in- reeling her into in like a fish. When she cleared the threshold, he pushed it closed and hit the pressurization switch. The green light triggered the other door to open and another man appeared in the light.
Sally King sat down hard on the bench. Loy took off his helmet and suit in silence and gripped the handrail to heave himself into the doorway. He nodded his head back towards her at the man in his way.
"Might want to give her a hand and talk her down. I got lucky out there and she knows it."
Loy was up the stairs and back at his post in the chair watching as John Polk tried to reel in a rectangular object from the meteor field. Readings from the onboard sonar showed intelligent design and metallurgy was unknown, but didn't match the meteor field around it. Polk was 100-percent focused on retrieving it trying to adjust the ship's angle to the field to avoid debris collisions. Loy paid attention to the just-repaired winch to make sure the numbers didn't red line on the screen. The intercom came on as John lifted his eyes to look out the windshield.
"Brace, guys. Moving to the right and preparing to reverse."
Polk nosed the ship over and the forward thruster gently sighed pushing them back keeping tension steady on the object they'd ensnared. The rectangular object slipped from the meteors and he increased the velocity until the ship and its new cargo were clear completely.
"That was ticklish. I'm going to keep reeling her in slow. Bring the arm 90 degrees and prepare to dock this on the starboard bench."
"Lights, camera, up and bench is down. Waiting for orders to pull up clamps and cover."
The rectangular object was approximately 15 feet long and four feet wide. Polk brought her over smoothly and Loy blasted it with light to get a better look at it before bringing the arm 90 degrees starboard to pull it to the bench.
"I hate this part."
Polk chuckled at Loy's remark and both held their breath as it clicked against the ship.
"Seize and secure."
The sounds of new equipment coming online told Loy he'd got it correctly on the retrieval bench of the ship and secured the object before hitting the return to retract the ships arm back into its dock on the vessel.
"One day we're going to go get hold of something out here that's not going to let go. No energy readings from this thing at all. I pray it's not some ancient space-mine or booby-trap that's going to blow up half a sector and us along with it. I'm more of a voyeur explorer than a hands-on type. Might want to tell the Constance to get their detachable lab chamber launched."
"That box could hold the secret to the universe, Loy."
The sarcasm in his voice got a chuckle out of the tired face looking back at him. Loy rechecked his readings and outside video feeds before entering his security codes to lock the object down for flight.
"Nothing ever comes that easy out here. Let's head for the barn."
Polk nodded, punched in the heading, and turned the ship away from the meteor field. He keyed the Constance reporting the mission accomplished and ignited the burners on the vessel pushing the intercom.
"Good job, guys. Course set for the Constance. ETA is five hours and 20 minutes."
Polk and Loy walked from the bridge to the mini-sick bay where Nathan Ramos was performing a med check on Sally King. Loy's eyebrow went up when he saw the scene and Nathan glanced up at the two.
"Giving her some oxygen and trying to get the BP down. She had a dangerous gash on her suit and looked like particles from the meteor field. I put it in isolation for the Constance. I pulled the video feed of the incident and entered it in the report."
"Curious as to what they are. Takes a plasma torch to cut our tethers and that sliced it like it was nothing."
Loy walked by and patted her gently on the head as he did. She nodded at him appreciatively.
"Anything can happen in a second out there, Sally. You could be saving me next time."
Polk and Loy waited until they were out of ear shot of the two to discuss the incident.
"Could it have been avoided?"
"Don't see how, John. We were on the edge of the field and it was spitting debris everywhere while we're trying to reel in an artifact like a trout. Not the safest way to do it, but the only way we had. Given gravitational pull adjustments it was almost inevitable we were going to drag some pieces out with it. The only mistake, if there was one, was turning her back on it. You don't do that on anything in space."
Polk nodded and thought about what he said. Loy was an odd man, but one of the best when it came to reconnaissance and retrieval. A 40-something man in so-so shape with a quick mind and ability to make do with what's available. The latter trait was what bonded him and Polk as a team. He wasn't afraid to strap on a suit and get the job done. Polk was a hot shot pilot at the top of his class who was more than a little angered when the two were assigned to the explorer crafts believing they were giving him a partner ready to be put out to pasture, but they'd worked together for four years and still no sign of Loy slowing down. Fixing the explorer winch, watching for meteor strays, and saving Sally showed he still had the skills. His onboard med stats never wavered in all of it. Polk was in command, but Loy was his senior and he'd come to respect his wisdom and experience.
The hours slipped by slowly as the two rested. Polk glanced up to check readings and saw Loy's typing on Explorer I beneath the readouts.
"Whoa, whoa what are you doing?!"
Loy glanced over at him and finished what he was doing before answering.
"Pulling the ship out of rotation for maintenance. Engineers need to go over it from stem to stern. We were two days on the edge of that field retrieving whatever this is. A winch went down. They spin us around on another mission I want to make sure everything is repaired, replaced, and working properly. Who's the scientist assigned to this project?"
"She's in there getting oxygen right now. We'll need to dock with the lab unload her and the cargo."
"Sally is point on this?"
Polk nodded affirmatively and handed his tablet over with the mission briefing on it. He watched as Loy grimaced disapprovingly and handed it back.
"Damn risky sending the lead egg head on an EVA when she needed to be at the Constance prepping the lab."
"This 'egg head' needed to see the condition of the artifact in case it fell apart on retrieval," Sally said behind him. "An artifact of intelligent design floating in a meteor belt needed eyes on it so I can begin thinking what we'll need in the lab."
She drifted to the food cabinet and grabbed a water to join them at the table. Loy and John's eyes followed the lithe figure intently as she did - causing her to smile when she returned. Loy felt his face blush bring a laugh from Polk as he pushed off to the bridge to prepare for docking.
“Thank you for saving me.”
Loy shook his head and smiled.
“You’d done the same for me. Got any clues on this?”
“Not one. I saw the cursory examinations and reports. That’s why I needed to see it in its natural state. We….”
She was interrupted by the intercom telling everyone to get to post and prepare for docking with lab two. Loy joined Polk on the bridge and glanced at the readouts. Polk saw his expression and shrugged his shoulders.
“Jack must be on duty or knows something we don’t. An E-M field like that requires its own generator.”
Loy began unlocking the cargo as the ship docked below the detachable lab. The Constance was barely visible in the scope. The sounds of pressurizing and the sudden jolt told them they were docked and unloading began. Loy barely nudged the cargo with the retracting arm guiding it gently into position below the lab where the crew from Science One took possession securing it in the elevator bay and sealing it off.
Polk got the all clear that Sally was onboard and sealed the ship’s hatch disconnect and using the momentum of the pressure to push away before setting a course for the Constance. He lifted the nose as it approached the ship and the bay doors opened letting the Constance computer seize control. They glided it into the slot and watched the crewman’s direction. His hands came up palms out signaling to cut the engines.
Captain Jack Thompson greeted them on the deck.