The sky's colour darkened and stars began to appear. It faded to black with a wealth of stars like one can never see planetbound. The familiar sensation of weightlessness enveloped me. Nothing had attacked us. Nothing had shot us down. A com somewhere was still jabbering with what I presumed to be the Gaim language but it seemed unlikely that they would fire upon their own craft, if indeed their freighter had that capability. My thoughts, after a quick blessing, were to find the spacedock where I hoped my ship would be.
"Russell, how much longer until I can use the scanners and get something other than gibberish out of them?"
"Just a moment, I reckon this should pretty much do it..." his fingers tapped at the board near the blown out comm speaker. "OK".
The scanners flickered and changed to Earther. At least I could read that. I noticed that our orbit was too low and set up a short burn to boost us into a high orbit. I set up a search through the comm channels for the beacon that would guide me to Space Dock 3. May it please G'Quan that my ship would be unharmed. I located the dock and locked in our course. We were only minutes away from my ship.
Something surely had to go wrong. Something had to step in our way and disrupt my hopes. It had before, surely it would again.
Behind me, Nar'Bon called out that the Gaim were starting to get very, very upset. They wanted to know when they would get their ship back. We had already told them that they would get it back when we had docked. They must be stupid or something to not understand that. I told Nar'Bon to deal with it and our tame Gaim. He might be a little more diplomatic than I, especially when I was tempted to tell them that if they couldn't understand what they were told, they didn't deserve to have the shuttle at all.
The space dock came into view. Scanners showed a freighter matching the Na'Ka'Ri'Tal's description was docked in bay 4. I changed our course so that I could swing around and look upon my ship.
My heart was full as I looked upon my ship. The Na'Ka'Ri'Tal was whole. No damage to the engines, no carbon scoring of the fuselage. It looked in better shape than I had seen it in all the time I had owned it. My ship, if Ja'Hut didn't get to me or it. I blessed myself again and thanked G'Quan for this mercy.
Our flight path was not interrupted, although I could see a blip on the scanners that was pacing us. It appeared to be a shuttle. It was a little behind our position and had a registration indicating that it was one of the Gaim ships. I ignored it as it seemed to be keeping its distance. Something else, however, was niggling at me.
"Can someone go and get my pack? We'll be docking shortly and I want it," I called through the open cockpit door.
I heard mutterings and the Pak'ma'ra, by the sound of the grunting and huffing, pushed his way to the cargo bay door. There were more mutterings, growing steadily louder, and the Gaim jabbered and was suddenly thrust through the door into the cockpit, followed by the Pak'ma'ra and Nar'Bon.
"Is there a problem?"
The Pak'ma'ra mumbled like he always does when he thinks I am going to bite his head off and eat it for breakfast. He still hasn't learnt that Pak'ma'ra is not to my taste. "Ah, Captain, err, we, arr, forgot to tie the vehicle down. It is now, er, loose."
I should have though of that but I had other problems on my mind during our liftoff. The shifting of mass within the shuttle certainly explained some of the difficulties I had had - the strange thunks and bangs within the hull, the lurching of the shuttle.
"So you can't retrieve anything."
"Err, no. Not as such. There is quite a great deal of material in free fall, including the vehicle."
The Gaim turned to me. "There is damage to our shuttle? We will not be pleased if there is damage. You have damaged this ship?"
Why does everyone always blame me for things that go wrong? If there was any damage it had not been so great as to preclude spaceworthiness. The Pak'ma'ra tried to soothe the Gaim but I did not think that worthwhile. Still, we had to secure the cargo bay contents. I wanted my cereal if nothing else.
"If I do a small burn, rotating the shuttle like so," I plotted a course quickly, "Then that should bring everything to the nominal floor of the shuttle. You can tie or web everything down and then grab the bits we need. Brace yourselves."
The thrusters burned at my command and sent the shuttle into a gentle barrel roll. The Human's hair slowly dropped towards the floor. He and the others of my crew went behind, leaving the Gaim under my care.
My ship was in clear view, spiralling gently in the viewscreen and slowly growing larger. It looked clean and gleamed here and there as sunlight reflected off it. I alternated my time between staring at my ship and glaring at the Gaim. I don't know that it was intimidated by me - the masks that these specially bred humanoid Gaim wear do not reveal expression - but it made no false moves.
I felt rather than heard the groundvehicle come to rest on the floor of the bay. The crew would have to hurry - I did not want to overshoot the spacedock and have to come around for another pass. I had not seen any ships behaving suspiciously, so far, but I did not want to hang around the dock for very long.
I only had a minute or two left before I would have to abandon the burn and initiate docking manoeuvers when Nar'Bon came forward and said that they had webbed everything down and retrieved the important cargo. The Pak'ma'ra stuck his tentacles in and informed me that a box of my cereal had gotten free and had been crushed, leaving little sprinkles of cereal everywhere.
My fault - I should not have just shoved the box under the seat during our assault on the shuttle. How very annoying - I still had the mostly full, fresh box left, but a second box would have been better. I would wager good money, or preferably bad money, that I would have great difficulty getting this cereal elsewhere.
I adjusted our approach to match up with a docking arm and gently brought our hijacked shuttle to rest against a port on the arm adjacent to the one my ship was docked at. I had made what I thought a likely presumption - that the station was still pressurised. The base seemed intact and undamaged. I set the shuttle systems to standby and prepared to disembark, bringing the protesting Gaim with me.
The Pak'ma'ra was unpeeling a Gaim style vacsuit as I entered the airlock area. Gaims breathe a different atmosphere to many of the humanoid races, as the Pak'ma'ra had obviously just discovered from the look on his face. I checked the readouts. The atmosphere on the other side of the airlock was perfectly breathable and at approximately the right pressure. Excellent.
The Gaim requested that it stay on the shuttle and await its compatriots. No way. I heated one of my PPGs. "We would appreciate it if you accompanied us to my ship. Then you may return to this shuttle."
"You request this? I am your hostage. I must do as you make me do."
Subtlety was lost on the Gaim. Its translator obviously did not recognise the emphasis that I had placed on "appreciate". It had no choice in the matter. I had just been trying to be polite, in the interests of inter-species relations. Sure!
I palmed the lock open and shoved the Gaim through. It was coming with us whether it liked it or not.
I quickly pulled ahead of the others. It was a very welcome feeling to be back in zero-G and to not be strapped into some seat. It seemed so long since I had experienced such conditions. I pulled myself along rungs and occasionally pushed off the walls with my legs simply for the sheer pleasure. I wanted to get to my ship quickly. I wanted to see it.
I pulled myself through the main ring very quickly and reached the arm that my ship was docked on. I was hurrying, but not going that quickly that I could not stop suddenly when I saw what was around the corner.
Two bodies, not Markab, were floating in the corridor. In the brief glance I took before retreating behind the corner, I was fairly sure that they were dead. I pulled out a PPG and checked around the corner again. The bodies hadn't moved. They seemed to be Human.
The others caught up to me and I told them what I had seen. The Pak'ma'ra thought it might be a trap, that the beings had triggered some sort of booby trap. To check this possibility out, I took a can from my pack and gently lobbed it down the corridor.
The can spun and bounced off a body, then continued drifting down the tube. It passed the second body, bounced off a wall and continued to tumble away.
"Maybe it's set off by body heat," the Pak'ma'ra suggested.
"Maybe they shot each other or someone else shot them!," I retorted as I started hand over handing to the bodies.
The first one was Human, probably a scavenger. He looked filthy. His vacsuit was helmetless and a massive PPG wound had opened his chest. Blood had drifted from the wound and impacted the walls all around. It looked like the body was several days old.
The other body was also Human, and from the same freighter according to his vacsuit insignia. He also had been shot with a PPG, but somewhat further up the corridor as a blood trail spiralled for about 10 meters. If either had been armed, and their vacsuits sported holsters, then their PPGs had vanished.
They were of no consequence. After a brief examination, I continued towards my ship, although this time I encouraged Nar'Bon to stay with me. Behind, the Gaim protested that it be released.
Something clanged against the docking structure. It sounded like a ship was docking. A nearby monitor flashed and indicated something had changed. The Pak'ma'ra translated the information - it appeared that the Gaim shuttle had indeed docked.
I dismissed the Gaim - it was of no consequence now. Before it left, the Pak'ma'ra told it that there was an organised and militaristic group of beings on Markab. They had already shot down one freighter, and the Gaim might want to leave rather quickly.
My ship was in view from the ports in the docking arm. By the time the other Gaim caught up with us we would be safely inside.
I checked the tube connecting my ship to the docking arm. It appeared safe enough. I ran up it. Nothing happened. Nar'Bon sat watch at the end of the tube. The Pak'ma'ra and Russell followed me to the airlock. I punched in the access codes and the lock cycled open.
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