Chapter 7: Cold Approach

 
 
 

Chapter 7: Cold Approach

 
 
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We always adapt. It’s one of the things that humans are best at. Take a look at where we started. Tropical climates. By the time we’d finished settling our little globe, we were living in every place possible. We’d settled the frozen tundra, lived on tiny islands surrounded by thousands of miles of water, and even learned to navigate the most unnatural of situations: dense city traffic.

The adaptations got bigger when we moved into space, but it was nothing we hadn’t done before.

Mars was the easiest, especially after its air pressure began to rise. It even had blue skies, if you were lucky. On Ceres and some of the moons we adapted to underground life, becoming colonies of busy little ants. And then of course there was life in orbit. Never leaving a man-made structure was one of the hardest adjustments, but when that’s what you have to do, you do it. Humans are resilient.

We also adapted to life with Moses, to easy technology and endless dreams. Sometimes it’s better when things are hard.

I’m not sure if we’ll adapt to life after Moses. Oh, I know we’ll live past my days. It will be decades or maybe even centuries before we know the answer to that question.

But it is the one question worth asking, the one that all mankind asks the coming night.

Will we adapt one last time or perish?

Soliyana Amanuel Andualem
Governor of Zerai Deres, Callisto
Died 49 AM

 
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Yvonne knew precisely when Abigail would emerge from her room. On days when she had no contracts or pressing duties aboard the Sparrow, she would sleep until her alarm went off at oh-nine-hundred ship time and open her door suited and ready for the day half an hour later.

When the door to her cabin opened at the predicted time, Abigail immediately marched toward the cockpit. Yvonne was waiting for her, blocking her path.

“You’re officially barred from the cockpit,” she said crossing her arms.

“Oh come on! We’re in the Saturn neighborhood, I want to see,” Abigail said.

Yvonne raised an eyebrow in amusement. “Of course you do, but you only get one first look.”

“Yes, so let me pass.”

“Matthew and I have something special in mind. Go eat your breakfast.”

Abigail crossed her arms. “You know I could physically move you out of the way.”

“You wouldn’t dare do anything of the sort.”

Abigail huffed and turned away, and Yvonne smiled to herself. The younger woman was an awful lot of bark and very little bite. She quickly entered the cockpit door and shut it behind her, locking it so that Abigail wouldn’t get any bright ideas.

“Did she complain much?” Matthew asked.

“As much as we expected.” She glanced out the window. “Wow. You went out of your way to give her a view. We’re well inside the orbit of any of the moons.”

“I only left the frameshift running for a few extra seconds. You don’t have to make it sound like I made some kind of expensive sacrifice. Besides, you can hardly see the rings from Titan. Don’t make it out that I’m some sort of saint. Saturn is… special, you know?”

“Of course it is. Doesn’t change the fact that you try to act like you don’t care, then go out of the way to make sure Abigail’s first view is memorable.”

“Eh, lay off,” Matthew grumbled as he stood. “You going to join us? I can prep you a suit too.”

“No thanks. I prefer to stay within the hull of the ship. You kids go have fun.”

Matthew stopped abruptly. “Should I be insulted?”

“I was joking about my age, not your failing youth,” she said, suppressing a smile.

“Right.”

He left the cockpit, and she took another look at Saturn before moving to the pilot’s seat and pulling up a monitor. On the long flight out to the Saturn Neighborhood, she’d been engrossed in even drier reading than Matthew’s library. The owner’s manual of the Ceres Spaceworks Model 42. It was three-thousand pages long, and given the poor maintenance condition the Sparrow was in, Yvonne doubted that Matthew had ever finished reading it. He’d gotten quite defensive when she’d pointed out that the filters on the primary fuel intakes should have been cleaned nearly fifteen hundred flight hours ago.

She’d have a chance to rectify that now that they’d arrived and the engines would have some downtime. Cooking may not have been an awful lot like practicing medicine, but taking care of a spaceship was a much closer analog. If you thought of the Sparrow as a patient, with interconnected systems, organs, and sustenance needs, it almost started to feel familiar. She flipped back through the manual.

Not that the Sparrow was much like the human body. Maybe it was better to imagine she was starting over learning how to take care of a new species. The best part would be that the patient couldn’t complain when you poked and prodded. The worst part was that if she messed up, they might all die. Unlikely, but possible.

She called up the chapter on intake filters and started reading it for the fourth time. Made no sense to rush into something until she knew it by heart.

She wondered how long it would take for Matthew to get her patient shot up.

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Matthew finished adjusting the helmet of his spacesuit, closing each of the four latches that formed the seal. He pushed a button on his wrist and felt the suit pressurize as he checked the readout to make sure he was keeping air. It had been a while since he had used these things and it never hurt to be careful.

“Alright, I’m ready. Let’s go.”

“About time,” Sharon said.

“Some of us don’t wear our suit at all hours of the day.” He glanced her way as she closed the faceplate on her exo-suit. “We’ll take the top hatch. Single file, though. We won’t both fit in its airlock.”

He led her down the back hall towards the thumper turret and took the ladder to the upper airlock. He went through the three hatches, one at a time, sealing each behind him. Before the final portal, he waited for the green light to indicate that the air had been pumped out. The artificial gravity ceased as he climbed into the vacuum of space. With a clomping noise that he heard conducting through his suit and bones, he engaged the magnets on his boots and stuck fast to the hull of the Sparrow.

It took Sharon another minute to work her way through the hatches behind him. At last, she crawled out onto the hull and turned around. The shock was evident in her body language, even with the bulky exosuit.

“Not bad, huh?”

She didn’t answer at once, which was fine by him. It was never a bad idea to just shut up and enjoy the view.

The sight of mighty Saturn and its majestic rings was unmatched by any other in the solar system. The second largest of the sun’s planets hung in the sky, huge, yellow, and impossibly luminous. Compared to the rocky planets and the chaotic striations of Jupiter’s storms, Saturn appeared much more regular, with only gentle color gradations. Its north pole faded towards complex blue and green shades, where a strange hexagonal storm system had intrigued scientists for centuries as it waxed and waned.

And then there were the rings themselves. To the eyes of man, there are few other places in nature where a natural system appears with such perfect regularity. Thousands of concentric rings of nearly pure water ice reflected the distant sunlight. The mesmerizing pattern of changing densities always made Matthew’s mind look for meaning and purpose within the variations. Such exact order seemed to defy the standard chaotic state of nature.

He had been deliberate in positioning the Sparrow. About thirty degrees above the equator gave the best view he could of the rings and pole.

Suddenly their comms crackled to life. “Sorry to interrupt, Matthew, but you’ve got a message from your broker,” Yvonne said.

“Okay, I’ll be right in. You listen to it yet?”

There was a brief pause before Yvonne answered, indignant. “Why would I listen to a message intended for you?”

“I… don’t know. I was just asking in case you wanted to summarize. I’m coming in.” He padded back over to the hatch and turned to take one last look at Saturn. Sharon was still standing quietly, taking in the magnificent view. He chuckled to himself, glad he’d taken the effort to make it a good one. “I’m heading in. Might want to follow in just a couple more minutes. We’re in one of Saturn’s radiation belts right here, and while the Sparrow’s environmental shields should be stopping most of it, I wouldn’t take too much of a chance being out here all that long.”

She nodded absently. “I’m fine. My suit will keep me safer than the Sparrow will.”

“Of course it will,” he said with a shrug as he climbed back down into the hatch.

By the time he’d returned through the airlock, stripped off the pressure suit, and made his way to the cockpit, Yvonne had only grown more annoyed.

“Honestly, Matthew, did you really think I was going to listen to a private message meant for you? I’m a little bit upset that you would think…”

He held up his hands in defense. “It’s fine. You can listen to messages from my broker all day long if you want. Actually…” He laughed at the thought. “Actually, you’re more than welcome to deal with him. He might like you more than he likes me. I tend to eventually run brokers off.”

“No thanks. I don’t want him turning me in. But it’s no wonder you have problems with them considering your exemplary people skills.”

Matthew decided to ignore the jab and punched up the message. Benny’s voice crackled through the air.

“I’m guessing you’ve made it to Saturn by now? I’ve sent the final job details along. It’s an unusual contract, so make sure you’ve read it carefully. I don’t want you screwing it up because you got a little gung-ho or trigger happy in the wrong place. I’ll be waiting on word and coordinating with the corp that hired you guys.”

“By the way. I’m still waiting for your apology. And a thank you. Turns out working with a crew isn’t so bad, is it? Neither is making money, which we’ll all do if you don’t mess this up. Finally, have Ms. Sharon talk to her broker. I’ve been getting threatening messages from her accusing me of poaching one of her freelancers. I set up the one job. Not my fault if Sharon wants to jump ship and join a crew. Have her sort that out for me, will you? That’s it then. I’ll contact you on the back side.”

There was a pop as the message ended. “Somehow I’m not surprised that Sharon’s broker is threatening Benny.”

Yvonne laughed. “Sounds a bit like our Abigail. I’ll mention that to her if you’d like me to.”

“Thanks.” Matthew was already scanning the contract briefing. It really was going to be a strange one.

The door behind them opened, and Sharon stepped in, her face beaming. “I appreciate the effort you to went to. Saturn was worth the wait.”

“Told you you’d love it,” Matthew said, not bothering to look up from his monitor. “You should listen to your elders.”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Right. You’re only a few years older than me, Cole.”

“Something like that,” Matthew muttered, his eyes still scanning the contract. “No sense hanging around here now that you’re back in.”

“Where are we off to? Where’s the job?” Sharon asked.

“Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.”

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The thick orange atmosphere of Titan made it a fitting offspring of its parent Saturn. But unlike the gas giant, Titan was one of the most Earth-like bodies in the solar system, though not in ways that lent itself to human habitation. Clouds, rain, wind, lakes, and oceans all featured heavily on the moon, though instead of water, these were composed mostly of methane and other organic molecules. With the help of cryovolcanoes adding volatiles like water and ammonia into the mix, Titan was a complex soup of chemistry, suitable for all kinds of industry.

Moses had set up dozens of orbital stations and refineries over Titan in the early days. With more hydrocarbons than had ever existed on Earth, the frozen moon was the best source of combustible fuels in the solar system. Liquid methane was brought up from the surface and processed at orbital facilities into more complex hydrocarbons that helped the wheels of industry and technology grind on.

Those wheels slowed with each passing decade. Just last year one of the refineries had ceased production, and the whole system noticed the price of fuel creep ever upward.

Abigail watched as Cole let the Sparrow drift lazily towards one of the still functioning refinery complexes. A sprawling series of interconnected stations and modules, the facility was enormous, stretched out over a couple dozen kilometers.

“Huygens Industrial Chem is the owner of that refinery and our employer,” Cole said gesturing towards the hive of activity. “It seems they have a fuel thief, and they’d like us to catch them.”

Abigail frowned. “What are we supposed to do? Patrol the halls looking for suspicious persons?”

“It’s better than that,” he said. “We get to sit outside and watch quietly for suspicious persons.”

“Oh boy. I can hardly wait,” Abigail said crossing her arms.

Cole took off his hat and scratched the back of his head. “Huygens has been noticing fuel disappearing from the storage tanks in this part of the refinery for some time, but they’ve yet to catch the perpetrators despite increasing their vigilance. At first, they thought an outside ship was siphoning fuel, but Huygens installed additional thermal imagers and found nothing. If anyone was burning engines, they’d have seen them.”

“So it’s an inside job,” Yvonne commented.

“That’s Huygen’s theory, that someone on the inside with access to security is messing with the systems. Their buddies show up, siphon the fuel, sell it on the black market, and split the proceeds with their mole.”

Abigail shook her head, thinking back to Arizona. “I hate when there’s a mole.”

“No disagreement there,” Cole said, “but I’m more likely to trust a desperate corporate exec seeing red ink than a government man any day of the week.”

“So this is a hush job too?” Abigail asked.

“Pretty much. We’ve got our instructions already and aren’t even supposed to check in. We get to cruise in real quiet and watch things.”

“And Huygens can’t do that themselves because whenever they do, no one shows and no fuel goes missing,” she said filling in a few of the missing blanks.

“Bingo,” Cole said.

“So it’s a stakeout.” Abigail uncrossed her arms. “How long are we supposed to sit and watch?”

Cole pulled up a monitor. “Before you curl up for a nap, it’s not as bad as you’re imagining. There’s a rather intricate pattern as to when the raids happen.” He pointed at a calendar.

Abigail leaned forward to look at it. Red highlighted days marked raids. An additional note detailed what time they had occurred. “If there’s a pattern, I sure don’t see it…”

“It’s there,” Yvonne said. Abigail and Cole both turned to look at her. Yvonne shrugged. “I can feel it, but would need some time to work it out. Don’t give me those looks. I like puzzles.”

Cole turned back to the monitor. “Well, you’re more than welcome to try and figure it out later, but thankfully Huygens already worked it out for us.” He hit a button and a bunch of future dates lit up in blue. “Here are the upcoming windows when the thieves may strike.”

“We’ve got a window in twelve hours,” Abigail said. “Nice. So how does this work?”

“You and I get to sit out in vacuum twiddling our thumbs,” Cole said. “Yvonne will be docked in the distance watching the Sparrow’s thermal scopes, in case someone is cheating the ones on the refinery. And if we see action we either try to apprehend peacefully or follow in the Sparrow.”

“I guess they don’t want a fight in their fuel depot.” Abigail chuckled.

“That’s not the kind of collateral damage we want to be involved with,” Yvonne said.

“Yeah, that would ruin everyone’s day,” Abigail agreed.

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Matthew gave another puff of steam from the nozzles of his thruster pack to spin around. He could barely make out the Sparrow where it was nestled in between modules of the refinery. Which was precisely the point. If a strange ship stuck out like a sore thumb, odds were their thieves wouldn’t make a move today.

“Hey, Sharon. How’s space treating you?”

“Oh, space is fine. It’s this thruster pack that’s giving me problems. It’s not exactly my size and I’m having some trouble with fine course adjustments.”

Matthew frowned and spun back around in space, trying to get a view of Sharon still drifting towards her destination. “I thought we got it taken care of.”

“So did I, but I don’t think it’s quite in line with my center of mass.”

“Sorry. You gonna make it?” There she was, over near the tanks she’d been assigned to watch. Unfortunately, she shone a bit in the lights of the refinery, even though it was local night. Shouldn’t be as noticeable when she wasn’t free floating.

“I’m fine, but it’s more tumbling than flying. Soon as I put boots to metal, I’ll be good.”

Yvonne’s voice cut in over the comms. “Maybe we can modify a pack to fit her exo-suit.”

“We may have to,” Matthew conceded. “If we don’t get a hit tonight and we have to wait till the next window we’ll have some time. You know, Sharon, I’m kind of surprised your suit isn’t already equipped for zero-gee maneuvering. I mean it’s vacuum proof. Seems like a few maneuvering jets would go along nicely.”

A clunking noise rang over the comm. “I’m at my destination atop fuel tank fourteen,” Sharon said. “Yeah that would be nice, but that’s not exactly what the suit was built for.”

“Oh? What was it built for?”

There was a moment of silence over the comms as Sharon probably realized she’d said more than she’d planned. She sighed. “Dammit, you almost got me, didn’t you?”

Matthew smirked, fully aware there was no one around to see it. He fired the steam jets again to slow his velocity and lightly landed on his own fuel tank. “I figured a little bit of disclosure would be good for you.”

Sharon grumbled something incoherent over the comm and sighed. “Look, maybe when you’re ready to tell us the whole gaucho story then I’ll think about it.”

“You already sussed out that I spent time on Europa.”

“That’s news to me,” Yvonne said, “But I guess that adds up. What was an Arizona boy like you doing on Europa long enough for you to pick up some of the local culture?”

Matthew checked his air readouts out of habit. “When did this become about me?”

“When both of you decided to play the mysterious stranger with a past.”

“I’m not down for this game,” Sharon’s voice crackled over the comm.

“I can agree to that,” Matthew said. He looked up around him. The massive fuel cylinders were arranged like an enormous horseshoe, nearly a kilometer across. When it was time to export the fuel to the other colonies, gargantuan tanker ships would pull up into the horseshoe and drain the storage tanks. He’d lost sight of Sharon when she had touched down. Good. If he couldn’t spot her knowing where to look, it was unlikely any thieves would see her either. “And now,” he said, setting up on edge where he could get a good view of the area, “we get to hurry up and wait.”

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Yvonne tapped her foot restlessly on the deck. Small talk had given way to boredom, and boredom was in danger of giving way to apathy. She pulled up the thieves’ time table. After about twenty minutes she laughed. “Got it.”

“What’s that?” Abigail asked.

“The pattern on which the thieves strike. So they only hit during the long Titan night. Then it’s only dates of the month which are prime numbers, or rather every fourth prime. And then the next month they work through the next set of primes that they missed. I’m still trying to figure out the hours they hit. It’s a more complicated pattern.”

Abigail groaned. “So the thieves are math-heads. Great.”

“I thought you were supposed to be watching the thermal scopes?” Matthew asked.

“I’m running the monitor in split-screen mode.”

There was a long awkward pause. “You can do that?”

“Yes. You’d know that if you read the manual.” Matthew didn’t answer and Yvonne smiled, knowing she’d scored a hit. She was tempted to pull the Sparrow’s manual back up, but that would absorb too much of her attention, and a stakeout where you weren’t watching was liable to go awry.

When the third hour passed with nothing happening, she nearly gave into temptation. Then she saw something out of the corner of her eye, something against the black starry backdrop of space. She looked back over at the thermal scopes. Nothing. She turned back to stare out the viewport into space. If she had seen something, and she wasn’t quite sure that she had, then where was it?

There. A single star winked out.

“Matthew, Abigail. I think something is out there.”

“Thermals?” he asked.

“Clean, but I just watched a star disappear. There. There’s another.”

“Where?” Abigail asked. “Where is it? What is it?”

“I don’t know, how am I supposed to describe where to look? Another star. It’s getting closer. Whatever it is, it’s running lights off.”

Matthew whistled. “Then we have our answer. They’re coming in cold. Probably just using steam thrusters, drifting patiently into our orbit. Most thermal scopes are set high to look for the main engines of ships. Adjust the sensitivity on ours. Let’s see if you can get eyes on them.”

“How do I do that?”

Matthew walked Yvonne through the process of changing the settings configuration. If she’d had more time to get through the manual she’d know how to do it herself. That would have to go to the top of her to do list. The monitor went dark for a minute as the scopes reset then popped back to life.

“I’ve got them. They’re… nearly three klicks out and drifting closer. If I had to guess they’re quite a bit bigger than the Sparrow.

“I’d hope so,” Abigail said. “If you’re stealing fuel, you’d want to bring a decent size tank. What’s the plan, Cole?”

The comm was silent for a minute. “Let’s watch for now. Let them get closer. They’ll have to pull up to one of the tanks to siphon the fuel. When they’re connected and immobile, they’ll be vulnerable, and we move in.”

“Well, you won’t have long to wait,” Yvonne said. “They’ll be here in about three minutes.” She looked out the front viewport again. “I can see their silhouette pretty easily against the stars now. They should be close enough to see by the refinery’s lights soon.”

“I’ve got them,” Abigail said. “I think they’re coming toward my arm of the horseshoe.”

Yvonne looked at the scope. “Confirmed. They’re moving towards Abigail. Matthew, don’t forget that if they flee you’ll need to be back on the Sparrow post haste. Don’t over commit.”

“What? You haven’t finished the manual yet? I figured you’d know better than I do at this point.”

His voice dripped with sarcasm and Yvonne could practically see the insufferable grin on his face. “Very funny, but since I have your permission, I’ll be ready to warm up the engines.”

“Over my dead body. Look alive. Here they come.”

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Abigail watched as the dark silhouette of the ship drifted into the horseshoe of storage cylinders. It was a cargo hauler, a skeleton with a cockpit and engines that you could load with whatever modules you wanted to haul whatever you needed. This particular ship had a single large tank module installed. Jet’s of steam fired in the silence of space, cold white against the black as the bandits slowed their drift.

Just how far had they come from at so low a speed? It couldn’t be far, perhaps no further than a few hundred kilometers. But his was a dense orbit with the massive Huygens refinery. Numerous other habitats floated within easy commuting range by orbital shuttles. Surely the ship had come from the immediate neighborhood.

Either that or they were really patient thieves.

The ship came to a stop. After a minute a figure could be seen crawling out of the ship, lugging a flexible pipeline to transfer fuel. The figure drifted over to the nearest cylinder and coupled it to the tank.

“Go,” Cole whispered in the comm. “I’ll take care of our friend in space and stop the transfer. You take the ship.”

She pushed off and gave a quick thrust from her pack. “Gonna give me the hard job? I see how it is.” She had a bit of a sideways drift to her course. She tried correcting with another puff of steam. Better but still not quite where she wanted to hit the other ship.

“I thought you might prefer to avoid a fight in zero-gee with a pack that’s causing you problems.”

Abigail bit her lip. “Point taken.” She made one last attempt to correct her trajectory. That was about as good as she could get it.

“How far out are you?” Cole asked. She could see him as he slowly descended on his target from a high angle. Hopefully, that would him keep out of sight until it was too late to do anything about.

“Twenty seconds? Maybe.”

“Good luck, you two,” Yvonne offered quietly.

Now that Abigail was closer she could see two more figures on the hull of the ship, near where the pipeline entered the hatch to the fuel module. Maybe she was further out than she thought. They seemed awfully small and far away.

Thirty seconds can seem like either a lifetime or a moment in a dangerous situation, and Abigail never really knew which extreme she was going to experience. Today it was the latter, and before she knew it, the ship was rushing up to meet her. The figures saw her and gestured wildly. Too late to worry about that. The odds of them discharging weaponry while pumping fuel was probably close to zero anyway. She rotated and landed with a reverberating thump felt through her suit and rounded on the two thieves.

They were small. She wasn’t imagining things. The two figures dove for the open hatch trying to pull it as far shut as they could. Luckily for Abigail, the pipeline connected to the refinery kept it from being closed. If they thought they could hold it against her by strength alone, they were going to be disappointed.

“Contact,” Matthew said, right before she heard an impact through the comm. He could take care of himself. She walked across the surface of the ship and reached down to pry open the partially closed hatch. It opened easily and she dove in.

The control room for the fuel module was dark. And empty.

That was weird. Where had they gone? There was only a single exit, a reinforced pressure door with a viewport. She ran to it and tried the controls. Locked. She smashed the controls with her fist. Sparks scattered and were immediately snuffed by the vacuum, but the door disappointingly remained shut. So much for that.

Abigail leaned toward the viewport. The two thieves were in the airlock. One was fiddling with the controls, the other was already taking off their helmet. It was a girl, with long blonde hair and delicate features.

She couldn’t have even been a teenager yet.

“Cole,” Abigail said, feeling a chill grip her heart, glad that she hadn’t been able to open the door and accidentally kill the girl. “I think we’ve got a problem.”

“Yeah, I think I know where you’re going. I’ve got my target in cuffs. He’s a just a kid. Looks pretty scared.”

“What? Talk to me. What’s going on?” Yvonne’s voice shouted over comm.

“Don’t know, but we’ve got a ship full of kids,” Abigail said, trying not to work out the implications. “They’ve locked me out of the… Hold on.” There was a series of clangs and mechanical groans. “Something’s happening.”

“They just detached the fuel module,” Yvonne said calmly. “They’re making a run for it.”

“And they forgot one of their own,” Cole said, the frustration thick in his voice. “I’m bringing him back to the Sparrow, but he’s going to slow me down.”

Abigail worked her way back to the hatch and climbed out. Sure enough, the fuel module had been dumped. The remaining ship was just a skeleton of its former self, steam thrusters already turning it around.

“Abigail, get out of there, you’re drifting,” Yvonne said quietly. Something about the serious tone unnerved Abigail. She turned around. The detachment process had pushed the fuel module away from the ship and put a slight spin to its momentum. It was now moving towards one of the refinery’s fuel tanks.

She grimaced and looked around her. The thieve’s ship was still less than a hundred meters away. She could reach it before it got too far away.

The bigger question was what happened when the fuel module hit one of the primary storage tanks? No doubt she was riding enough tonnage that something was going to get pierced. The contents weren’t actually likely to be explosive without an oxidizer, but depending on how much pressure they were under, this could still turn into a hazardous environment real quick. There was going to be a lot of shrapnel and frozen fuel. Matthew, his prisoner, Yvonne, and the Sparrow were all about to be in a lot of danger.

An idea worked its way into her head.

“Cole. Did you disconnect the pipeline from the refinery?”

“Yeah, it’s disconnected.”

“Thanks. I’ll take care of it.” She climbed back into the fuel module and hit the release on the pipeline’s feeder. That should allow her to pull out the entire length of the hose. Hopefully, it would be enough. When she reemerged from the hatch, the module had rotated away from the thieve’s ship and she had to turn to get her bearings. The departing ship was behind her now.

“Here goes nothing.”

She jumped, keeping the pipeline tucked under her arm and turned her thruster pack to full. The distance between her and the ship narrowed. It was a constant effort to readjust her course and keep pointed the right way.

A cold sweat broke out on her forehead. If she ran out of slack, she’d have to release the pipeline. Who knows what would happen to the others if that happened. She was just starting to like these people.

The gap between her and the ship had closed to less than ten meters. Five meters. One meter.

She planted her feet, letting the magnets engage. They weren’t going to be strong enough to hold for what she had in mind, so she found an outcropping of the hull she could get one hand around and clamped down, putting all her suit’s strength into the grip. With the other hand, she clamped down on the pipeline. Not a moment too soon. The pipeline had extended to its full length and went taut.

Abigail closed her eyes and gritted her teeth, hoping she hadn’t misjudged the structural strength of her suit. Thankfully the ship was accelerating very slowly. If they decided to make a real escape and fire up the main engines, her armored shell would be torn open like a tin can. Even so, the neural implant in her spine was giving her a lot of unpleasant sensations, telling her this wasn’t a good idea. Opening her eyes, she looked back at the fuel module, now several hundred meters behind her. She’d only need to hold on long enough to give it forward momentum away from the refinery.

If the thieves felt the extra weight, they might panic and burn the main engines. With one last look at the fuel module, she guessed that she had held on long enough and let go of the pipeline. It fell behind as the ship continued to pick up speed.

Abigail sighed and reset her feet on the hull of the ship.

“That was a neat trick,” Cole said. “You got a tracker you can turn on? Otherwise, we’re gonna lose you.”

“Oh, right.” She pulled up the controls at her wrist. “Okay, it’s on. Yvonne, you got that?”

“I’ve got you. Matthew, what could children possibly be doing stealing fuel?”

The comms were silent for several long heartbeats before Cole answered. “I don’t know. None of the possibilities are good.”

Abigail felt sick to her stomach and checked her power and air. She had hours and hours of time. Worst-case scenario, she let go and let the Sparrow come scoop her up. But the image of the blonde girl wouldn’t leave her mind. Something was very messed up.

Yvonne’s voice came over the comm again. “Be safe out there, Abigail. We’ll follow behind as soon as we can.”

“Maybe not quite that fast,” Cole said.

“Can I ask why not?” Abigail frowned at the retreating refinery. The ship was in a bigger hurry to get out than it was on the way in. They hadn’t let off the steam once. Clearly, the thieves were spooked.

“Why do you think? Cole asked quietly. “I’ve got a young man with me that’s going to answer a few questions.”

To Be Continued

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