No one can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. By ‘they,’ I refer to that pampered segment of humanity who keep their feet firmly rooted to the homeworlds. Earth, Mars, even Venus, it’s all the same once you go down the gravity well. Although strictly speaking, those planetborn humans would be correct. But out here in the dark, those of us in the clans know differently. We all have radios, and I have heard many screams across the cold vacuum of space. That’s where the money is made.
Out here on the rim, an honest man must toil to put food on his plate. Fortunately for us, we’re not honest men, but I like to think we’re at least good men. I say this truthfully, at least as truthfully as a dishonest man can. When the call came across the shortwave comms, I turned our ship immediately to intercept. It helped that the lass on the other end of the viewscreen was a beauty beyond measure. But I would have turned the ship for any lad or lass screaming into the black for help. Honestly, I would.
The woman wore the color of another clan, one that I didn’t recognize although that in and of itself wasn’t too strange. Out in this sector of the Kuiper Belt, we tended to intermingle, but her close-cropped haircut with the long, center mohawk was a favorite of the Moreno clan. Still, our ship was only a month out of Haumea and the Big Three of the clans kept a tight grip on traffic around the dwarf planet. The Moreno clan weren't generally active in this sector. Now if it was Makemake, that would be a different story. That pirate den attracted all kinds of less savory folks. We'd spent quite a bit of time in her warrens, and we always seemed to leave with our purses heavier and with a new scar.
According to the distress call, they’d put into orbit around a comet and their engine was knocked out. The Moreno crew had to be new to this area, anyone with half a brain and an ounce of experience knew you didn’t approach a comet in a rockhopper. All of the debris around the icy nucleus claimed nearly as many novice crews as the pirates from Makemake.
“Or they did get hit by pirates and this lass is luring me into their honey pot,” I thought to myself. Oh well, it couldn’t be helped at this point. Dishonest or not, I’d taken the call and there were the Codes to consider. Not many drinking halls in the Kuiper would let an oathbreaker sit at their bars, and I need ale like a fusion core needs hydrogen-3. Chivalry was the word of the day, and if I needed to play the knight in shining armor then I would do my duty…for the ever so smallest of fees.
I drew Betsy from her holster and checked her charge coils. Still full, no faulty cells. This was good. I ran my hand down the length of her long barrel and gave a ceremonial aim at the ceiling before holstering her. Being chivalrous didn’t mean being unprepared.
Our small crew of…gentlemen…made rendezvous with the comet an hour later. There were six of us on the skiff, all of the Halma clan and all heavily armed. Officially, we were licensed just like any other rockhopper in these parts, nothing more than a survey ship. Never mind that we only had two scout drones and a pair of drills by way of mining equipment. The guilds didn’t make too much fuss about issuing licenses, so long as you had the coin up front and didn’t cause them any problems. We kept to our promises with the guild. Our problem-causing was strictly limited to those unfortunate crews who strayed into Halma territory.
Mani launched the drones as we came within orbital range of the comet. I wasn’t about to take any chances that another ‘survey ship’ was lurking in the comet’s wake. There were enough blind spots already, no sense in not checking our corners before docking with the stricken vessel. The Moreno vessel sat at low anchor at what we would dub the ‘North Pole’ of the comet, ninety degrees up from the slowly forming tail. The debris cloud prevented us from getting a clear visual, but her transponder and the accompanying distress signal pulsed on a continuous loop.
With nothing sighted by our drones, I gave Mani the go ahead and the pilot dove into the maelstrom of the debris field. The only thing more exhilarating than navigating a debris field is a firefight on a crowded ship. My crew has plenty of experience with both. Our skiff bucked about as Mani evaded the largest rocks that could tear us apart with a glancing blow. At times, we would hear the pitter patter of ice crystals and dust on the hardened hull. Some ancestral memory within me always thought of rain when I heard that, although I would never mention such sentimental thoughts to my crew. I had a reputation to maintain after all.
After several minutes of turbulence, the skiff leveled out and our viewports opened back up to give us a true visual. The ice hauler, for that was clearly what she was now that we had a visual, rested in one of the empty pockets where the debris was limited to dust and small rocks, a peculiar quirk of the gravity in these comets. Jake, our gunner and the only other of my crew on the bridge, brought the chainguns and our twin rail cannons online. Even if this was a genuine distress call, it wouldn’t hurt to show some teeth.
The Moreno vessel was on emergency power, probably because of the giant tear on her starboard side that had vented that side of the ship into space.
“Bloody idiots,” Mani swore. “There are enough ice rocks in this sector to mine, why would they try for a damn comet?”
“Maybe they found an ore deposit?” Jake offered, never taking his eyes off his screen as he scanned the debris pocket for threats.
“This ball will be falling sunward before the Moreno could get a mining ship out here,” I replied. “Besides, Halma clan might have something to say about their operations if they tried a stunt like that.”
“And we still gonna be helping them, boss?” Jake asked as he continued scanning.
“My lad, my dear, dear boy,” I boomed, standing from my seat and walking to the gunnery station. I clapped him on the shoulders and continued, “When a fair maiden calls for aid, it is simply the noble thing to do to ride to her rescue.”
“Maiden he says,” Mani muttered under his breath.
“And not just that,” I continued, ignoring the pilot’s comment. “That ship there is out of commission and irretrievable, and therefore a derelict fit for salvage!”
“Maidens and money,” Jake replied. “The stuff of dreams, eh?”
I gave him a smile and a slap on the back, “That’s the spirit, lad. Mani! If Jake is satisfied that it's just the two of us out here, take us in. I’ll be down with the other fellas making sure this little operation is nice and neat.”
These two were tried and true void warriors. They had pulled our little skiff out of quite a few sticky situations over the years, against odds that had even my heathen self contemplating a prayer to the gods. They’d be staying here during the boarding action, can’t be risking men like that for some salvage. Besides, they were better with a control stick in their hands than a blaster. Not so with the rest of the crew.
Marti, Bruna, and Dabo milled about in the armory, already locked into their voidsuits with their helmets clipped to their waists. Marti, our demolitions expert, checked his bandoliers and detonators. More times than not on a breached ship, we would need to knock out a door or two to find the bounty. Bruna was the only woman on my crew, but I only made the mistake of calling her ‘lass’ once. The scar from that little misstep is one of my more intimidating, even if I must provide some embellishment on how I got it. Her blastrifle was strapped across her back and she flipped a pair of knives between her fingers. It never ceased to amaze me how dextrous she was, even in a voidsuit.
Somehow Dabo, the largest of the crew, was the least intimidating, at a glance anyways. His voidsuit was unadorned with just the slate gray plate showing along with the obligatory chest plate bearing his name. Unlike the rest of us who kept pride marks and trophies on our suits, Dabo didn’t like to brag about his victories. Whether it was out of humility or some cleverness to trick his enemies, I couldn’t say. But what I did know was that the kid was a master shot with the twin blasters at his waist. Then there was the short sword strapped to his thigh to consider.
They were a motley crew to look at, but they were mine, and we’d gotten each other out of more sticky situations than I could count.
By the time I had donned my voidsuit, Bruna was ready with the battle paint. The Halma tradition was to dip the right hand into the blood red paint when combat was at hand. Outsiders wondered if we killed our own before combat or performed some pagan sacrifice. No goats out here for that, but you always want to keep your enemies guessing.
The ritual complete, I donned my helmet and my crew followed suit. The lads were ready for a decent scrap. Part of me even hoped we'd find one.
“Approaching airlock,” Mani called over the ship comms. “Three, two…” the ship rocked as the two airlocks met. “Good seal. Clear for breach, Captain.”
“Don’t mind if I do, Laddie,” I replied as I drew Betsy from her holster and strode into the airlock.