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The Good Ship Harrier

POV: Gvoudzon and the aftermath of OSIRIS Base

"Are you sure you want to do this, Pepper?" the Captain said as he manhandled the helmet over Gvoudzon's snout and wrestled to engage the locking mechanism on the collar ring.

It took a moment for the Vargr navigator to reply because the suit's external speaker would not activate unless the helmet was locked on and the PLSS was engaged. Gvoudzon set the controls on his life support system as the Captain gave the helmet a sharp turn. There was an audible click as the helmet snapped in place, and a moment later, a sharp burst of static preceded the Vargr's reply.

"Look, sir." The navigator's voice came through electronically enhanced, and a bulky arm motioned to the two crewmen on the floor. Daeus was lying on the floor right behind the pilot's station--his head wrapped in bloody bandages--as Dr. Neimerani hunched over him with medical instruments, auto-injectors, gauze, and tape. "We've got our pilot down. The Dr. has his hands full with Daeus and the human administrator we picked up at the base. Frank is in the gun turret looking for asteroids since our sensors are down. Every other crewman is missing in action and probably dead."

The visor on the vargr's helmet went dark for a moment then brightened again as Gvoudzon set the control to automatic. Looking through the now clear dura-glass, his breath momentarily fogging a small circle in front of his snout, Gvoudzon finished with the suit check and paused to finish addressing Praygor. "That leaves just you and me. I don't know about you, but it is a good bet that the cold unit down in the hold is the cause of our sensor and communication black out. You're the ship's owner and Captain. I have chosen to serve you. And, you can fly this grouther if you need to. By process of elimination, I'm the one who has to go take care of this problem."

The Captain held Gvoudzon's look. It was clear that the vargr was right. Praygor shook his head. "Just take care down there, Pepper. I've lost enough crew members today."

Gvoudzon moved to the starboard floor hatch and cycled it open. He looked over at Too, who was already staring his way. The Dr. gave him a nod. "Be careful."

Daeus, at the doctor's knees, weakly raised his head. It looked like it took all of the pilot's energy to raise his hand a few centimeters, extend two fingers, and give Gvoudzon a that-goes-for-me-to wave.

The Captain was about to sit down at the computer station. "When you get down there, use your hard link to give me instructions over the ship's comm."

Gvoudzon gave the defacto bridge crew a human thumbs up. Then he stepped down a few rungs on the stainless ladder to where his waist disappeared from the other's view.

"Hey." It was the Captain again. Gvoudzon shifted his weight on the ladder to look over his shoulder at him. "I'll see you in a few minutes."

"Wag your tail on it." The vargr took a couple of more steps down the ladder to where his head was below the bridge deck. He cycled the hatch closed, then grabbed the outer edge of the ladder with his hands and thighs and slid the rest of the two meters down to the cargo deck.

With one last check of his vacc suit and equipment, he peered out the air lock view port into the cargo deck. He could see the rear of the ATV, the far wall of the hull, the port air lock, and the air/raft but nothing else--nothing out of the ordinary. It was all as quiet as it should be.

Gvoudzon touched the wall control to cycle the iris hatch open and stepped out onto the cargo deck. His suit respirator rang in his ears as he breathed the precious oxygen mix that it provided.

A turn to the right, because peripheral vision was for shit in the helmet, proved that the walkway between the ATV and the wall was empty. A scan to the left proved the same thing. The 4.5 ton cold berth cargo unit that held the androids was there just as he had seen it last. The doors to the cold units were still open, and the medical panels still read as if humans were still under in the berths. What was left of the android that Gvoudzon had pumped two full clips of ammo into lay in a milky pool of liquid at the edge of the unit. Damage from the bullets that had gone through the android dotted the area on the cold unit above the slumped android's head.

The vargr walked a diagonal line from the air lock to the center of the deck just aft of the ATV. He wanted to make sure that he had enough time to react in case there were any surprises.

Over at the cold berth unit, the opposite side was clear as well. All Gvoudzon could see were the open units and the pool of blood on the deck where the OSIRIS administrator had fallen and laid for 45 minutes.

Turning for a complete look, the navigator scanned the whole forward cargo bay, from the aft wall of the demountable L-Hyd tanks to the bow cargo doors, for trouble. The deck was definitely clear.

Walking over to the tangled heap of the fallen android, Gvoudzon almost slipped in the greasy, milky substance that pooled on the floor. As he bent down to activate the magnetic unit attached to his boots, he realized for the first time that he hadn't taken a weapon with him when he left the bridge. What had he been thinking? The fact that he had been a corsair for 20 years only made him kick himself harder. He was getting lax working with these humans.

The boots had several settings, but what he needed now was an anchor to the deck that would also allow him to walk. The mag grips came to life as the full bottom of the vargr's boots seemed to depress into the deck. Just about all of the thin layer of milky substance between his boots and the deck squished out around his feet. The magnetic units allowed for very little to come between them and whatever they were stuck too.

Even though liquid would be pressed out as the boots pulled themselves to the floor, all Gvoudzon had to do to walk, on this setting, was pull his legs. The processor in the grip would acknowledge the slight tug, and the mag unit would deactivate until again pressed to the floor as the operator stepped. There was a safety feature that interlocked the two boots so that neither were deactivated at the same time. This hindered movement but ensured that one foot was always fastened to the deck. Another safety feature ensured that the wearer would not be swept off his anchoring by a forceful blow. Explosive decompression could occur, but the sensors in the boot units would ignore the pull--keeping the operator secure in one place. Gvoudzon knew that this last feature was sometimes more dangerous than it was helpful. The vargr had seen beings have both their legs broken at the shins because of the ungiving magnetism.

Gvoudzon reached out with his gloved hand and shoved the android. The thing slid off the back of the cold berth unit it was leaning against to lay completely on the floor. It was definitely deactivated.

Studying the android for the first time close up, the navigator could see the damage he had caused to it. Gvoudzon had pumped half a clip into the android's head and the other half into its chest. When it went down, it was still moving, so the vargr had stood less than two meters away and pumped another full clip into the thing. That had finally stopped it.

There wasn't much left of the android to look at. Those were high explosive rounds that he had used. Now, it was a mess of milky liquid, shiny metal protrusions, and something that looked like a flesh covering.

Although he didn't know why, the Captain had told him to save the android. Maybe Praygor thought it would be useful later. Gripping the human form under the shoulders, Gvoudzon scooted backward toward the air lock he had entered from. A trail of sticky, milky liquid ran from the puddle all the way back to the air lock hatch, and to the vargr's surprise, acted like a lubricant--making it easier to drag the thing.

A few minutes later, back in the air lock, Gvoudzon caught his breath and touched the intership comm. A moment of static emitted from the suit's external speaker just before the vargr's words. "Captain, Gvoudzon here."

"Shit, Pepper," the Captain sounded concerned, "what the hell took you so long. I was getting ready to come down there after you."

"Sorry about that. This android was pretty heavy."

"Good, you got it." The Captain's voice replied. "What's next."

Gvoudzon touched the send button. "I'm going to hook up to the tethers from both umbilical assemblies in the port and starboard air locks. Then I'll plug in with the hard wire and give you instructions from there."

"Roger that. Anything else?"

"Negative." The navigator replied, "Gvoudzon out."

Two minutes later, Gvoudzon had the access to the umbilical tether open and the line fastened to his belt. The tether was designed to anchor individuals to the air lock when they were in space walk. There was no reason not to use them inside the ship as well. Gvoudzon had already forgotten his weapon, and although he hadn't needed it, it was a stupid mistake. He wasn't about to make another one.

Walking across the deck with the line attached, Gvoudzon made his way to the port air lock to repeat the line connection. A couple of minutes later, he was anchored to the deck by his magnetic boots and to opposites sides of the hull via the tether. He was ready to start the operation.

Back over at the hatch to the starboard air lock, Gvoudzon zipped open a pouch on his vacc suit and brought out a line of cable with plugs on both ends. One end of the cable plugged into the chest of the vacc suit--the other Gvoudzon attached to the inlet on the wall comm panel.

A loud static crack snapped over the receive speakers in the vargr's helmet as a channel was established to the bridge. "Bridge, can you read me?"

The Captain's voice boomed back through the speakers, "Loud and clear. You?"

Gvoudzon winced and adjusted the volume control. "Oh yea, its loud all right."

"I'm at the comp station with the deck controls in front of me awaiting your instructions."

The vargr tugged on each of his anchor lines and sensed his feet to make sure the boots were functioning properly. Satisfied, he hit the send control on his chest. "OK, decompress the forward cargo deck."

"Roger that, Pepper. Decompressing."

Vents in the ceiling of the cargo deck opened and sucked out all of the air. A few minutes later, Gvoudzon was standing in pure vacuum. The Captain's voice echoed that fact. "Decompression complete."

"Roger that here too, Captain." The vargr said. "Open starboard cargo hatch."

It was erie not hearing the hydraulics on the cargo door wine as Gvoudzon was used to. The large side door silently popped outward from the hull as the seal broke, then slid aft back toward the skimming intakes between the hull and the atmospheric wings. The cold reality of space revealed itself in the opening, and Gvoudzon could see asteroids tumble around in the distance.

"Hatch reads as fully open." The Captain said.

"Roger." Gvoudzon replied, "Discontinue gravity on the cargo deck."

A moment later, the navigator could feel the weight of the suit disappear. His boots kept him firmly in place, but the familiar free feeling of zero-G spread all over his body.

"Gravity reads as zer--"

"Roger that, Captain. On my mark, discontinue the gravitic clamps on the cargo unit. OK, mark." Then, as Gvoudzon watched, the cargo unit magically floated up a few centimeters. It reminded him of a magician's act he had once seen. "Cargo unit is in free fall. I am disconnecting the hard link and will be removing the cargo unit from the hold momentarily."

"Roger that, Pepper. Be careful."

With that, Gvoudzon jerked the comm cable from his suit but left the other end in the wall. The black cable floated in the zero-G like some strange, slender snake. He jerked his leg, took a step, and started his move to the weightless cargo unit. It was 4.5 tons in normal 1G gravity, but here, Gvoudzon could give it a push and send it reeling out into the void.

At the left side of the unit, behind the air lock next to the outer wall, the unit had wedged itself up against the hull. It was clear that Gvoudzon would have to push the other side out away from him then move back here to pull this end around and push the unit out long ways. The cargo hatch was too narrow for the unit to be pushed out at this angle.

Gvoudzon made his way to the other end of the cargo module. He placed his hands on the unit and gave it a push. The cargo unit took off. Gvoudzon had pushed it too hard, and an instant later it slammed into the L-Hyd tanks. There wasn't enough time to notice if the demountable tanks were punctured from the collision because Gvoudzon was too busy bracing himself for the impact as the cargo unit bounced back toward him.

The cargo unit hit him with considerable force, but the navigator managed to keep his knees from buckling and catch the unit. The magnetic boots were a great help. Winded, Gvoudzon thanked his luck that the unit was not able to pick up more velocity.

Peering around the now motionless unit, Gvoudzon could see that the L-Hyd tanks were not punctured, but there was some damage where the cargo module had crashed into the wall. The opposite side of the cargo unit had a little more damage from the collision.

That was a pretty big hit, and they might have felt it on the bridge. Gvoudzon decided that he had better reconnect to the hard link and report before he saw he Captain exiting from the air lock to check on him.

Moments and a few steps later, he was grabbing for the floating hard link cable to reconnect himself to the ship wide comm. He could see that the red receive light was on. Someone on the bridge was already trying to contact him.

Frank Fornne sat in his transpara-composite bubble that made up the ship's starboard side twin laser turret. His gunner's boots were locked into pedals that he used to control his facing and gun direction of the turret sphere. Pulling his right foot up would make the turret swing toward his head. Pressing down would make the turret move in the direction of his feet. It didn't matter if the direction of the gunner's head or feet were towards the bow, dorsal, ventral, aft, or any combination--the direction was, by design, from the gunner's perspective. This keeps it simple. A gunner doesn't have time to orient himself with respect to the ship during combat.

His left foot controls the side to side movement of the turret. Any direction he wants to face can be accomplished in an instant with slight positioning of the feet--rotating around the two axis. This had been one of the most difficult things he had to master when he was learning to become a turret gunner back in the Corps. Direction control with the feet made sense because it left a gunner's hands free to control the gun, but Frank still sometimes had trouble with orientation.

This was something that Sandy, his best friend, had always been good at. The Captain had ordered Frank up into the turret to visually scan for asteroids since the ship's sensors were being jammed. The Captain was right, of course, and the ship couldn't afford another crisis by being hit by an asteroid, especially with what crew remained after the fiasco on OSIRIS base, but Frank couldn't help but thinking about his friend.

Frank had known Sandy for a long time--more than 20 years, and they were more than friends. They were brothers. Now, just an hour and twenty five minutes after landing on the base, the Harrier was out here in the belt with a skeletal crew and a whole new set of problems. The base had gone up in a double fusion reactor core breach, and the ship had gotten out of range with just three minutes to spare. Frank's best friend, his brother, was one of the missing souls. It made the gunner's heart ache.

Frank had been listening in on the intership communication between Gvoudzon and the Captain. It helped keep his mind off his missing friend. When the vargr had ordered the starboard cargo hatch opened, Frank swiveled his turret to observe the opening. He wanted to keep an eye on things in case there was trouble. This gave him something more to do than just sit there, look at the asteroids, and think--think about Sandy.

A few minutes after Gvoudzon had made his last communication there was a slight vibration that Frank felt through the hull. Normally, Frank wouldn't have felt a vibration so slight, but the turret was centrally located between the Harrier's two decks. A big enough impact could travel up the hull and be felt by someone sitting in the turret.

Frank adjusted the turret to get at the best vantage point for the cargo hatch. He had turned the turret in that direction before, but he was also half way turned out to space. His job, after all, was to watch for close asteroids.

Just as Frank finished positioning the turret, a flash of flame momentarily jutted out through the opening from the cargo deck. The canopy immediately darkened from what was unquestionably an explosion. These new vibrations proved that. Frank blinked and saw debris go sailing out into space. The sensors for the gun had also been inoperative, but they suddenly sprang to life a millisecond after the explosion. The gunner's targeting unit read that the flame had reached 52.9 meters from the hull.

"Oh my God," were Franks first words. Then he activated his comm dot. "Fire in the hold. Fire in the hold. Man down. Repeat. Man down."

Captain Vaan Praygor was drumming his fingers on the console at the computer station. Gvoudzon sure was taking his time, but any minute now, the cargo unit that the androids came in would be floating out into space. They had all bet that their communication and sensor problem would be solved as soon as they had got rid of the cargo module. Gvoudzon had just communicated over his hard link that he was about to push the thing out of the hold. The Captain was anxious about it. He wanted the damn thing off his ship.

He stole a look over at the doctor and Daeus. As Gvoudzon had made his way down to the hold, Praygor had helped Too get the pilot to his acceleration couch. Then Praygor had transferred helm control to the nav station--just in case there was an emergency--and sat back down here at the computer station to await Gvoudzon's instructions.

The doctor was still working on Daeus' head wound, but the pilot looked as comfortable as was possible on the bridge. Too was working diligently on the 3rd officer and seemed not to notice the Captain's glance.

There was an almost imperceptible vibration that the Captain felt through the floor. It was a sharp jab--like someone had dropped something very heavy. If Praygor hadn't been sitting there waiting with his attention on nothing but thought, he wouldn't have noticed it.

Too was on his knees fishing for something in his med kit. He must have felt it too, with all of his legs in contact with the deck, because he looked up at Praygor with a questioning look on his face, "Did you feel that?"

Praygor didn't take the time to answer the doctor. His thumb was already turning white as he pressed the comm send button. "Gvoudzon, come in. Is every thing all right. Come in Gvoudzon. Pepper, respond."

There was no answer, and even though the panel read that the hard link was still disconnected, Praygor kept trying. There was movement behind him, and with a quick look, the Captain saw that the doctor was rapidly packing the contents of his medical kit. That told Praygor what Too thought about the vibration.

"Gvoudzon, come in. This is the Captain. Come in Gvoudzon."

There was still no answer. The clicks of latches behind him told the Captain that the doctor was ready for an emergency. Then all hell broke loose and shook the ship so that Praygor had to brace himself on the console. Too, behind the Captain on his knees, hadn't stood up yet but fell prone as the deck rattled. Daeus, in the pilot's couch was the first one to say anything. "Jesus, what was that? Did we hit an asteroid?"

Frank's voice burst over the comm. "Fire in the hold. Fire in the hold. Man down. Repeat. Man down."

The Captain switched the channel, "We're on it, Frank." Then he switched again, "Gvoudzon, what the hell was that? Pepper, respond. In God's name, what is going on down there?"

Too already had his medical kit and scanner on the deck next to the floor hatch. He checked the read out then looked at the Captain while simultaneously cycling the hatch open. "Reads as atmosphere safe in the lock. I'll jump down. You close the hatch, repressurize the hold, and turn the gravity back on."

"Yea, right," the Captain responded without taking his eyes off his panel, "and I guess I'll tell you if we have a hull breach as well."

Too jumped to the ladder, his hands bracing himself on the deck as he grabbed his med kit and scanner from where he had laid them. "That would be nice."

The Captain worked fast. Panels changed as fast as the console processor could build them. "Oh shit."

Too's head popped back up from the hatch. "What?"

"Oh, good." The Captain's expression changed to a more positive expression. "We've got a buckled bulk head on the port air lock, but I'm reading no hull breach." There was a quick finger movement. "You read that Frank. Is the hold door closed?"

Frank's voice boomed again over the loud speaker. "Roger. Visual confirm on the cargo hatch."

"Repressurize! Repressurize! Repressurize!" It was Too's last words as he cycled close the floor hatch. Half a minute later, Too's voice came from the comm in the air lock. "Damn. It looks like a battle took place in there. The bulkhead is blown to hell. I can see debris all over the place, but I'm reading a standard atmosphere and gravity."

"Roger, Too." The Captain responded. "I had already started repressurization and restored gravity before the outer hatch was closed. I'm reading A-OK in the hold as well."

"I'm going in." The light showing transmission from the air lock indicated that the comm unit was no longer in use. Another light came on, indicating that the air lock door was being cycled open.

A whisper broke from the Captain's lips, "Shit, be careful."

As Too stepped through the hatch, he had to kick debris away in order to place his foot. There were pieces of cargo module and machinery all over the bay. It looked as if the opposite bulkhead of the port air lock had taken the brunt of the explosion and crumpled it, but the ATV and, more importantly, the wall of the L-Hyd tanks seemed to have held. There was all manner of wreckage protruding from the seats of Too's air/raft. He spent a couple of hours a week maintaining the grav vehicle, and he could tell that he was going to have his hands full for a while with the upholstery.

There were droplets of blood immediately in front of the doctor which drew his attention to his right. There, in the space between the ATV and the wall, was the bloodied fabric of a vacc suited arm and two knees protruding straight up from the debris.

Too took three steps to reach the fallen vargr, knelt, and flung the pieces of debris off Gvoudzon's body. There was something sticky on a sheet of the cargo module's outer covering that the doctor had pulled off the vargr's chest. It was covered with bits of trash, and Too started to toss it away with the other debris when the doctor realized that it was connected to Gvoudzon's body. Too's mouth dropped open as he realized that he was holding his crewmate's intestine.

The vargr was in bad shape. The face plate on his helmet had burst, and Gvoudzon's face was a mass of blood, cut flesh, and glass. The rest of the suit seemed to have withstood the explosion and provided the navigator some protection except for the chest area. It was shredded like a popped balloon, and the doctor couldn't tell where vacc suit ended and internal organs began. Gvoudzon's knees bent straight up in the air even though the vargr was laying flat on his back--his feet were still being clamped firmly to the deck. The magnetic boots were still on.

In an instant, Too had his medical scanner out. It was a good thing that the piece of equipment could diagnose both human and vargr vital signs without readjustment because Too didn't have time to mess with it. Normally, the doctor would also search for a pulse the old fashioned way but there was no where to put his hand. The opening in the face plate of the helmet was too small, and the vargr had nothing else but internal organs exposed.

Too had to pull out a vibro-scalpel from his med kit and cut some of the vacc suit away in order to have an area to attach the scanner's contacts to Gvoudzon's body. The doctor noticed that one of the outer control units that should be on the outer chest portion of the vacc suit had been blown away, and Too guessed that it being ripped from the suit started the vacc suit tear that exposed the vargr's chest to the force of the explosion.

With a portion of the vacc suit cut away, exposing the vargr's shoulder right under the collar ring, Too used his first two fingers to press the contacts from the med scanner to Gvoudzon's skin. The indicator on the scanner turned green, and Too couldn't believe his eyes.

Two steps later, the doctor was on the wall comm which was amazingly still functioning. "Medical emergency in the hold. Get Frank to get the portable automed to the bridge. Pepper's still alive!"

Gvoudzon grabbed the hard link snaking its way out from the wall comm. The cargo unit was in front of him, floating awkwardly above the deck. It had started a slow drift toward the forward wall--probably due to the ship itself drifting. That was all the navigator saw before it exploded.

Being around the air lock corner from the module, he had some protection from the wall and the ATV. Nevertheless, the force of the explosion sent him to the ground like a 100 kilo doll that couldn't stand. His boots still magnetically attached to the deck, he bent at his knees and would have bounced back as his back hit the floor, but the force kept him pinned. He was lucky that he wasn't facing the other way because his legs would have been broken at the knee as he was slammed to the ground forcing his legs to bend in the opposite direction.

It seemed as if his chest and helmet face plate exploded simultaneously. Suddenly, he couldn't breath as all of the air was being pulled from his lungs. His eyes were being pulled from their sockets, and he just couldn't blink anymore with his left eye. It took him a moment to realize that his eye lid had been torn off. Glass cut part of his lip on the left side of his stubby snout, and two fleshy, whiskered halves floated out exposing his teeth.

With the initial instant of the explosion gone, Gvoudzon began to float back up in a vertical position because of the zero-G. He was like a balloon with his legs acting like the string--his magnetic boots faithfully keeping anchored to the deck. His legs felt as pliable as string too. He didn't have strength to pull his tongue back in--much less move a limb. It was a miracle, or a curse, depending on your point of view, that he was still conscious.

Gvoudzon decided that it was a curse, because he had seen what happens to a body when exposed to zero-G. Over 70% water, fleshy bodies like himself tended to turn to globs of jelly as their lungs and stomachs exploded from the zero pressure.

He saw something in his fuzzy vision, but it took every ounce of energy he had to focus and bring his mind to recognize what it was. Alive by definition only, his brain seized on the image, processed it, and told him what he was looking at. His own entrails were floating out in front of him.

This was it. This was the end. He was becoming one of those gelatinous blobs of flesh that he had seen before.

But he was still conscious. By all rights, he shouldn't be. Barely cognizant of his surroundings, maybe, but he was still breathing albeit not very well. Then he realized why.

Tiny miracles. That's what the universe was made up of--tiny miracles. His PLSS was still functioning and pumping the precious oxy-nitro mix into his helmet. The gas was just as fast escaping out the disintegrated face plate, but he was able to gasp little bits of life giving air. Still, this wasn't enough to keep him alive. There must be something else. He should be dead from the temperature or zero pressure alone.

He forced his mind to work. Debris was starting to fall. He felt the floor swing up at him as he realized that he was back on the deck. Items of trash were dropping on him. His last thought before he blacked out was that it was ironic that he would loose consciousness just as someone was reactivating the deck gravitic units and repressurizing the hold.

They were tiny miracles.

"How is he, doc?" Praygor stood at the entrance to main engineering. Too was just inside the access way, working on Gvoudzon in one of the large automeds. Sickbay was crowded with low berth units with barely enough room to pass, shoulder width, between the equipment and the bulkhead. When the Captain had refitted the Harrier, he had two 6 ton, Cr200,000 automed units installed. The only place to put them were here, in the front of engineering, in what little dead space there was aboard the ship.

Too took the time to look away from his patient, so the Captain knew immediately that Gvoudzon was going to be all right. "I've got him stabilized, but he's still going to need surgery. Besides the obvious damage to his chest and abdomen, he's missing an eye lid; he' got a two inch cut on his lip; his eyes have nearly been sucked out of their sockets; there's massive facial trauma due to the broken glass; part of his left ear is missing; There's over a hundred cuts, bruises, and breaks; he's bleeding out of every orifice on his body, and he's lost a lot of blood."

The Captain looked serious, "What's the good news?"

Too sighed and motioned towards Gvoudzon. "The good news is that his legs aren't broken from the magnetic boots, and even though his exposed organs look to be in bad shape, I think he'll be all right once I've had time with him in surgery."

Praygor noticed a swollen pink thing protruding from Gvoudzon's mouth. "What's the matter with his tongue?"

"That, like his eyes, was almost sucked out of his body as it was exposed to zero pressure. The hairless white skin you see around his face is where the cold burned his dermis and hair follicles, and the skin has died. These were just two of a hundred other things that are wrong with him, like internal bleeding and missing intestine, that I haven't got time to tell you about."

That was Praygor's clue to leave the doctor alone. "Well, I guess he won't be french kissing for a while, will he?"

Even with the seriousness of Gvoudzon's health, Too couldn't help but crack a smile. The Captain was purposefully relieving tension.

Too jabbed a scalpel Praygor's way, "I'm going to tell him you said that."

"Well, good," the Captain replied, "that's why I came down here--to make sure that he would be able to hear you later."

Too took in Praygor's concern, "I'll fix him."

"I know you will."

The miner used his miner's pike to blast open the surface of the asteroid. The blue arch from the tool flashed across the miner's helmet as it disintegrated a half meter hole at his feet. It was hard work. First you blew holes in the crust every meter or so, then you came back through with the with the sensor equipment to check for the particular ore for which you are prospecting.

There were probably more than a hundred thousand miners out in the Patinir belt like himself. There were probably half as many more in Pablo's Belt, the second asteroid belt farther outsystem. Stuck on a small, spinning rock that measured just 30 meters in diameter, all you had for piece of mind was a space suit, a miner's hut, a power generator, the tools they gave you, a few supplies, and a communicator. The supply shuttle would come check on you once a week to check your progress and make sure you were not dead.

But this miner felt that he was one of the lucky ones. He was contracted to one of the larger mining companies. That meant hazard pay, reliable shuttle schedules, and someone there to answer him if he was in trouble. He had tried going it on his own in the past, but that had nearly gotten him killed. In a modern day society, criminals liked the privacy they found out in the belt, and this miner liked the extra protection he got being connected with a large organization. The PB Mining Company didn't take kindly to having their miners robbed or killed.

The miner activated his pike and blew another hole in the ground. It was shit work, but the pay was good. There was also a lot of time to think. Usually he would let his mind wander from topic to topic, spending the 16 or 20 hours or so of his day blasting holes in the surface of his asteroid--but not today. Today, there was danger in the belt, and he kept his attention on the recent events and his mining.

Just under two hours ago, a Type R merchant vessel came speeding over his head. He could see the ship clearly, and from the blue ionization trail emitting from the ship's maneuver drive, she was running at full thrust. A moment later, there was an explosion from the direction the ship had just come from. He couldn't see exactly what had gone up, but the only big installation he knew of in that direction was the OSIRIS base. Of course, it could have been a ship that went up as well.

The miner had rushed back to his miner's hut, de-suited, and got on the communicator. All he received from his transmission was static. He realized that he was being jammed, and he started to get worried. He got suited up again, grabbed his weapon, and exited the hut to pick up visual scanning.

He climbed a hill like protrusion a short distance from the hut, got down on his belly, and sighted the merchant ship with his image converter binoculars. The ship had slowed to a complete stop and started a drift. No self respecting pilot would leave a ship in that condition, so the miner assumed that the people on the ship were hurt--most definitely the pilot.

The miner checked his suit comm. It was still jammed. A tug from behind him made notice that his umbilical, stretched back to the hut, was getting taut. He pulled out his piton gun and fired a spike into the rock. A snap disconnected the umbilical, and pulled a secondary tether from his pack to anchor himself to the stroid. As a belter, he had learned to always play it safe. Next, he went back to observing the vessel.

It was a long while before anything happened. The ship just floated there with what he guessed was about a 15 degree drift. All he could see of any interest was a man in the gun turret. Zooming in, the miner could see the man operating the turret in different directions. The gunner seemed to be practicing his foot controls.

The last thing the belter saw as the ship disappeared below his horizon, due to the rotation of the asteroid, was the starboard cargo hatch pop and begin its slow gate down the side of the ship. It would be exactly 12.4 minutes before the ship would be visible again. The miner knew this because he had counted it uncountable times as he walked across the stroid, blasting holes in its surface.

The 12 minutes seemed like forever. Communications were still down. The miner had nothing to do but wait. He watched the count down on the chrono he used for timing charges. At 11.8 minutes, he repositioned himself on his ridge. At 12.1 he raised the IC binoculars to his helmet. At 12.4, the ship came into view, and the miner gasped at what he saw.

There was debris floating away from the ship. The cargo hatch that he had seen opening was closed again, but there were black marks all around its edge. The miner hit a control to switch the IC mode and reexamine the black marks. His best guess was that they were scorch marks. The man in the turret looked worried.

As an afterthought, the belter tried his suit communicator again. To his surprise, this time it worked. His suit comm was short range, so he needed to get back to the hut and use the large unit. Inching down the ridge, he detached the tether and reconnected the umbilical. 14 minutes later, he was back in his hut in front of the comm contacting his company controller.

That was earlier. He had reported to his controller about the explosion he had witnessed and the ship. He was right about OSIRIS base, and was told about the emergency situation. There had been a message from an escape pod from the base reporting survivors. There was nothing he could do on his small asteroid so he went back to work. Now, he was back outside, resuited, continually blowing the holes in the asteroid's surface.

The ship was just over his left shoulder. There hadn't been any change in the condition that he had seen since he was back out from the hut. There was the usual blue flash, and he blew out another hole as some movement caught his eye. Turning his head, he took in the sight of the ship. Someone had disconnected the dorsal launch and was trying to turn the small ship in the direction of the asteroid. The belter could tell that whoever was piloting the small craft hadn't done so in a while, or maybe it was the same pilot who had sluggishly stopped the mother ship in her present position.

The pilot seemed to get the small ship under control and point it toward the miner's asteroid just as the craft disappeared past the horizon. The belter paused a moment and wondered if should take cover in case of danger. Given the report from his controller, he decided against it and went back to work. He was already behind schedule surveying this rock.

Three minutes later, the launch he had seen swung into view over his right shoulder. The pilot must have taken the long way around the stroid. Looking at the vessel, the miner guessed that the ship was at full thrust, and judging by the direction, it was headed back towards the general area of OSIRIS base. He raised his arm to wave at the ship and muttered to himself, "Good luck, you poor bastard."

The ship seemed to hear him and definitely saw his wave. It rocked from side to side in the age old maneuver recognized as an aerial salute. It wasn't long before the miner could no longer see the small vessel.

Just less than an hour later, the miner stopped his work again when he noticed the return of the small vessel. Attached to it, five times its size, was a spherical, multi-sided escape pod. Both of the ships disappeared back behind the miner. He guessed it would be 8 minutes before the rotation would take him around to observe the larger merchant vessel.

For two and a half days, the merchant vessel hung there, just four minutes flight time from the miner's asteroid. He was curious about what was going on aboard her, but he decided against contacting the ship until he had spoken, tight beam, with his controller. The company had responded that she was the merchant vessel March Harrier, and the scoop was that she had contacted the OSIRIS officials after rescuing some of the base personnel. The ship's pilot was injured during the escape from the base, and they were waiting until he was healed enough to guide the ship in to Joyston colony. It was a smart move, the miner thought, because navigating an asteroid field was not a job for the non-skilled.

The miner was on the wrong side of the asteroid when the Harrier fired its maneuver drive in the direction of the colony. He didn't catch a glimpse of the ship until is was far off in the distance. But, something on his side of the stroid caught his attention. There was a movement on one of the nearby asteroids. It was one of the bigger rocks--one that was on the miner's itinerary to survey later on in the year. A ship, about half the displacement tonnage of the Harrier, touched off the stroid's surface and hovered a moment before jutting off into a direction away from the Harrier.

The miner wondered what would keep a ship on silent running for two and a half days. It was probably trying to mask itself behind the asteroid, and whoever it was, it looked like they had been successful. The ship, the miner recognized, was a Type A2 far trader, and in minutes, it too was out of sight.

The miner wrestled a moment with himself about contacting the company or the Harrier, but he decided against it. There were people dead on OSIRIS base, and he didn't want to be added to the casualty list. It was doubtful that they picked up on his tight beam, but he didn't want to take the chance. If they knew he was here, for whatever reason, they had decided to let him live. If they didn't know he was here, he sure wasn't going to give them another chance to find out. His controller had said that OSIRIS had experienced a double fusion breach. Sometimes accidents happened, but it was very unlikely that two reactors would go up at the same time. Whatever the far trader was hiding, they had thought it important enough to wait, impatiently the miner would bet, for over two days in order to make an undiscovered getaway.

No, the miner thought, he was too smart to get in the middle of this.