Space Noir: Chapter 3
There's something about being underway that makes me take more responsibility for my surroundings. I don't know, maybe it's the very real possibility you could die if something goes wrong. Not that there isn't just as real a chance to die on a station. In fact, you are probably more likely to die in a station from someone else making a mistake.

Regardless, I decided to straighten up a little. I put the dirty ship-suit in the “very dirty” pile. I made a fresh pot of coffee. I even pushed the recycle button on the waist bin. Then I rested.

There really wasn't much more to do for ship-board life in a single person craft. Dusti's systems handled most of the navigation and control. Sentient systems had really taken most of the skill out of being a spaceship captain. I was there to be responsible for lost or damaged goods in transit. Even in this day and technological level, there still needed to be somebody to blame.

We made good time getting through the belt. Dusti charted the fastest and safest route. I love looking at the asteroids as they pass, but not when Dusti is going for speed. He gets way too close for my comfort trying to get a gravity boost. There's just something about ten million kilograms of jagged space rock passing less than a meter from the hull at high speed that I find unsettling.

I kept myself busy by digging out my environmental suit and making sure it was space worthy. I found it in the bottom of a foot locker. It was wadded up underneath a pile of last years carnival candy and a cracked Vid-code visor. I don't know why I was keeping the visor. The new ones were fold-able and much more durable. I did eat some of the candy.

All the pieces of the environmental suit were still attached. That was a lucky stroke. If I didn't have them all I'd be stuck playing magnetic grapple shooter all day. There was no promise that what we were trying to grapple would even be magnetic. I should have checked that before we set out. Without the salvage, I would have to look for odd jobs and short hauls from Buzzard's Rest.

I felt the engines cut off before Dusti called me. “Dix, we have just cleared the final rock hazard. I was able to total up and extra two kilo klicks per second of gravitational boost. We should be within the safe limit of 10 kilometer in under and hour.”

“Good flying Dusti. Can you get a long range scan on the target?” I flopped the suit on the bed and sealed all it's ports. I disconnected the mask from an emergency air line that hung near the cabin door. The line hooked right into the suit supply system and the wrinkly mass of air tight cloth began to inflate. I set the supply valve for a hundred ten per cent pressure and headed for the command seat.

By the time I reach the consoles Dusti had finished his scan. “The distance is still to great to gather any useful information. I can't tell you much more than the initial Nav-Com warning. Mass, trajectory, velocity. Preliminary scans are indicating it is, or was, a man-able space craft.”

I pulled up the long range images on the displace screen and stretched them as far as I could. We were coming at it perpendicular to the system's sun and the lighting was bad. “Dusti, Can you scan for thermal traces? Does it have warm engines or spent gasses?”

“Those results were included in the previous scan. Either the hull is intact, or any breaches have had sufficient time to equalize in temperature. Judging by the time it took us to get here, and the time it takes Nav-Com to actually issue a hazard warning, I'd estimate the target has been drifting for at least four standard days.”

I stared at the blurry image for a few moments longer. “Plenty of time for a failed life support system to finish off even the hardiest Crunchie.”

“Unless it is manned by bioindeterminants.”

I shook my head. “Hacks, crew a sub-thermal space ship? Not likely. Even they need enough heat to keep what little is left of their human cells from freezing.” It wouldn't be the first time I saw cyborg with no human resemblance pilot a space craft, but it was very unlikely. I pushed the display away and stood up. “Bring us up to safe distance and call me if you notice anything unusual.”

As I crossed the three meters past the galley to the cabin Dusti's voice followed me along the overhead speakers. “But however will I find you if I need you in a hurry?”

The spacesuit looked like a human shaped pinata when I returned to the cabin. Most of the wrinkles had smoothed out. I pulled the neon carnival wrist band off of the left cuff. Without the restriction, it inflated just like the rest of the suit. The gauges all read steady. I should be safe to space walk if it became necessary.  

I would most likely wear the suit even it wasn't needed. Scratch that. I would definitely wear the suit. Anything that can cause a manned spaceship to go derelict was something you didn't want direct contact with. Chemical, biological, radioactive, or even aggressive. They were all things the suit could help protect you from.

I disconnected the air line without shutting the unit's inlet valve. The space suit hopped off the bed and fluttered around like a cyberdelic dance junkie. After it came to a rest in a wilting heap on the floor, I popped the latches and skinned off my ship-suit. I would have rather kept the ship-suit on, environmental suits can get a bit cold in full vacuum, but I couldn't fit both of them on at the same time. I had gotten the environmental suit at a discount and it was half a size too small for my recent weight gain. Luckily the seams were double reinforced and didn't chafe.

Donning a space suit by yourself takes considerably more effort than it should. By the time I was struggling to reach the back waist clamps Dusti called me back to the command displays. Shoving my ass against the cabin door jam I felt the clamps lock and considered my suit as safe as I could make it. My boots thumped as I stomped back past the galley.

Ten kilometers in space might as well be right on top of each other. Dusti had brought us to a safe position and matched our trajectory perfectly. The ship, yes it was definitely a ship, sat motionless off of our bow. The close up images that Dusti was able to take didn't show any obvious signs of damage. “Have you tried hailing them?”

“There has been no response on any of the open channels. I have sent a request for a direct com link, but have not yet received authentication.” Dusti began overlaying different scan images on the command display. Infrared, x-ray, chemical spectra-graph, all came back showing no signs of life or change.

“Flash your docking lights a few times.”

“Would you like me to use any specific pattern? Perhaps, dot dot dot dot, dot dot?”

“Really Dusti? That's the best you can come up with? Just flash them.”

“Disrobing now sir.” I could see the sides of the other craft flicker. For a moment I thought I saw a response, but it turned out to be luminescent safety paint. After a full two ticks Dusti called out, “No response obvious.”

“Obviously.” Banter with a sentient ship long enough and you run out of original things to say. “Ok, bring us in slowly and be ready to react if they respond.”

For the next ten ticks we sat in silence as the derelict slowly grew larger on the screens. Magnetic scans showed that we could grapple it. It was right on our limit to pull. If it had any reaction to our grip, we'd loose it in the fight. As we came up along behind it, we were able to see some identification numbers above its engines. “Signal Nav-Com and see if that ID turns up anything.”

Dusti held position a few meters aft of the ship. Nav-Com isn't fast to respond, so we got a good long look before we heard from them. An insurance listing and much clearer pictures started popping up on the screens. Dusti read them off faster than I could even try to. “It's a medium science vessel from the Cooley sector. Its registered to Sigler Science Pharmaceuticals. There is an existing claim of Lost-to-Space paid out on it already. Nav-Com reports we have authorization to salvage at your discretion.”

I slumped in my seat. “Oh great. The Cooley-Verse.”

“Sector, not Verse.”

“Don't correct me.” I grabbed my helmet and stood up from the command seat. “I'll get ready in the docking lock. See if you can mate with it.”

As I stepped into the airlock Dusti called out, “Oh baby!” There was a physical thump and the door light switched from red to amber.  I always have a slight panic attack when the airlock starts to cycle. In the back of my mind I'm thinking “Did I get all the seals locked down properly?” Even after a thousand times through an airlock there is still that fear. The light turned green and the display read “atmospheric pressure.” At least I wouldn't have to worry about my blood turning to foam if I had screwed up.

The outer hatched opened to a one meter tube that connected the two ships. Dusti cut the artificial gravity and I floated across. I gave the derelict's hatch three hard raps and waited. Dusti automatically closed the hatch behind me and I waited extra long just in case someone answered from the other side.

I opened a radio channel to Dusti. “Have you gotten any response from the boarding link?”

“There is some corruption in the data stream, but the ship has identified itself as Fancy.”

I knocked again just to be sure. “I thought is was a Pharmaceutical research vessel?”

“It apparently doesn't like that name and has chosen to call itself Fancy instead. Don't be so judgmental Dix.”

Sentient Systems and their quirks. “Well, see if Fancy will open the door before I have to break the boarding lock.”

There was another long moment of pause. I was getting impatient and was just about to reach for my pry-bar when the hatch clicked and began to open. A light flickered on inside Fancy's airlock. As I pulled myself in I asked, “What took so long?”

Dusti responded, “I forgot to say please.”

The hatch closed behind me with a thump. I had the sudden impression of those old time vids of the evil mansion door squeaking as it locked the victim inside. I hate horror vids. 

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