Kip loved waking up to the faint thrumming of the ship’s background systems running. To him, the droning and buzzing gave him a sense of consistency and normality in a crazy universe. When Kip stretched his arms and hopped out of bed, the cabin lights turned on, herald to his awakening. He splashed his face and dragged his fingers through his hair, briefly attempted to pat the wrinkles out of the clothes in which he had slept, and made his way into the ship’s main hallway. The relative quiet of the hall surprised Kip, but he nonetheless made his way to the galley to brew some coffee.
A half-empty pot sat on the counter, but Kip was disappointed to find it cold when he tested it against the back of his hand. “Kat, if you’re going to make some for the rest of us, you can at least leave it on the heater.” Kip dumped the pot into the sink and reached into a nearby bowl, fumbling for an orange. “Dammit, Gerald,” Kip fumed, remembering his stodgy engineer’s habit of taking a snack with him on every mission. “Wait… Gerald? Where are you, old man?” Looking back into the hallway, Kip began a search for his apparently missing crew. “Hope? Gerry?” Kip poked his head into the rec. room, then walked down the hall, knocking on the doors of his crew’s quarters. “Katerina?” he probed as he peered into her room, after finding the door unlocked.
Kat and her room shared one trait: both were Spartan. No decorations adorned the walls, only weapon racks and a corkboard target riddled with knives. No chairs, tables, or furniture, just a messy bed with a grey blanket and a pile of clothes on the floor. Tiptoeing into the room, Kip noticed a pistol case laying open on her bed. “Well, Kat’s out, that’s for sure. She never leaves her guns out.” After a moment of pondering, the pieces started falling into place in Kip’s mind. “Of course. The job!” Turning to leave, Kip brushed a box of grav rounds, sending them rolling and bouncing across the floor. One popped as the door slid shut behind Kip, but he ignored the small explosion and made for the airlock.
Silence hung in the air outside the ship, but Kip’s arrival broke the calm. Cupping his hands to his mouth, Kip called, “Guys, I’m awake! I told you to wake me up before you started!” Kip sauntered towards the space station blast door, and tugged the portal open. “Seriously… I hope at least you left some of the foraging for me; you know how I love finding new toys.” The station had obviously been abandoned for quite some time; though oxygen still flowed from the life support system, a stale, bitter air filled the empty halls. Dust had collected in some corners, across the floor tools and sundries lay scattered about.
Kip knew something wasn’t right when he saw a crack in the station’s window. Oxygen was slowly spraying out into space outside, but Kip was looking at the floor underneath, where a small knife was laying in the dust. He immediately reached for his pistol, but fumbled at his belt where his forgotten sidearm should be. Suddenly feeling much more naked, Kip instinctively scrambled to the wall, pressing his back against it as he surveyed the station. None of the doors were open, and he couldn’t make out any discernible footprint tracks down the halls. Not one to run to or from a fight, Kip decided to slink towards one of the peripheral doors and slowly open it.
As the portal slid open, Kip’s collar was seized by a reaching arm, and the door closed behind him as he was yanked into the dark room. “Don’t eat me! I’m tiny and stringy and I have friends that will kill you and I taste bad an-“ Kip’s pleas were halted by a firm, yet feminine hand covering his mouth. “It’s us, space-brains. And what the hell would EAT you out here?” Kip opened his eyes, and saw three familiar silhouettes in the shadows. “I don’t know… Gerry gets pretty hungry sometimes.” The largest shade stood upright and responded, “Can it, Kip. This ain’t the time for yer damn jokes. We ain’t the only folks here.”
“What do you mean?” Kip blurted as he got to his feet. “Raphe said-” “Oh, throw whatever Raphe says out the airlock, dumbass.” Kat’s shadow threw its arms up in protest. “I don’t know why the hell you trust that weasel. He’s a shifty, hairy cheat, and this ALWAYS happens whenever we deal with him!” Kip smiled in the darkness, responding coyly, “You told me you liked his hair…” Kip’s tease earned him Kat’s wrath; she pushed him back against the station wall with her forearm against his throat, and as his feet dangled below, she whispered to him in a menacing tone, “You know, Kip, maybe you should be worried about getting eaten.”
“Knock it OFF!” the last shadow warned, quietly but fervently. “I thought I saw something move out there.” Kat dropped Kip to the ground and peered through the darkness, following Hope’s pointing finger to the rustling in another hall of the station. “Three of them. Ex-4SEC, by the look of ‘em.” Kat ignored Kip’s groaning as he rubbed his bruised head. “See, that one’s still got his officer’s epaulettes on his suit.” Gerald scoffed. “Brass brat that ain’t let go o’ his rank.” Kat nodded, adding, “He’s got an L-E4 on his belt. That hand-cannon’s a sure sign of a Corp-Four officer.” Hope grimaced at Kat’s note. “Why do you know so much about military-grade weaponry? Does that scare any of the rest of you, even a little?” Gerald and Kip glanced at Kat, then each other, before quipping in unison, “Nope.” Kat grinned: a grin comprised of equal parts alluring vixen and lurid warrior. “Honey, that’s the main reason they love me.”
Kip stood again and brushed the dust off his pants. “Our delicate romance aside, that gun she noticed IS a big deal. A mag round from that would go right through the walls here.” His grim look towards Hope was diffused in the darkness. “That would be a bad thing,” he reassured her. “Gee, really, Kip?” she responded with a scowl. Gerald cracked his knuckles, the popping sounds rapidly echoing in the empty room. “Whaddya think? How’re we gonna take ‘em out before cap’n there gets a shot off?” Kip thought for a moment, playing out stunning displays of heroism and bravado in his mind, but in the end, he did what he always did in these situations: he assessed the situation.
First, he surveyed his crew. Hope’s eyes were wide and full of fear, shifting at every small motion. Not even looking at the other scavengers, Kat drew back the hammer of her pistol and released it with a loud clack. Gerald was ambulating around the room, scratching his stubbly, fat chin as he weighed his options. Kip was nervous, but knew that if things did go sour, he was ready for danger. He wished he hadn’t left the ship unattended, but he pushed the worry to the back of his mind, lest it escape and panic his crew. “We gotta get around ‘em.” Gerald muttered, earning a derisive retort from Kat. “And how do you plan to do that, run around the station outside?” Kip gave the off-handed remark more credence than it deserved. “That isn’t a bad idea, Kat. Did you guys bring your suits?” Gerald chuckled coarsely. “No need. We’re in the maintenance room.” He opened a storage container and pulled out a forest-green vacuum suit. “I’m sure we can find some that’d fit.”
Hope wasn’t convinced. “Even if walking around the entire self-contained facility to get some miniscule tactical advantage WASN’T a terrible idea, it would be a terrible idea. Have you considered the time that it would take to get around? And it is not that dark out, they will notice movement outside.” Kip caught her off guard by gently stroking her chin with his thumb and forefinger. “Oh, Hope. You know that getting people to pay attention to me is my specialty.” Blushing, she swatted his hand away and turned back to the window. “Leave this one to me, and get into those suits. I’ve got an idea.” Kip’s usual response garnered rolled eyes from Kat, a groan from Hope, and a chuckle from Gerald. With a quick glance, Kip skulked into the darkness and out another door, leaving the crew to change.
Kip approached another door to the main hall of the station, where the other group of looters was busy rifling through containers. He glanced back towards the dark room he had last seen his mates, but the room looked empty and dim. Kip ruffled his hair, slapped his face, and steeled himself for the impending adventure, then opened the door and fumbled in. Almost instantly, the looters hollered at him, standing up and drawing their weapons. “Don’t move!” the officer with the L-E4 commanded, leveling the large pistol against his forearm. Kip looked about frantically, crouched slightly, and tugged at his shirt. “Y-y-y… you’re… outs-s-siders?!” he stammered. The plunderers looked at each other quizzically, and whispered to each other. The captain looked back at his partners, trying to force their composure. “What are you doing here? This station has been reported abandoned for months.” Kip’s eyes bounced back and forth across the station, while his hands grasped his hair and tugged. “ABANDONED?! N-no… I’m still here… I’ve b-b-been here… All the time, the whole time, ALL the time!”
The captain’s brow furrowed as he tried to keep his own face straight. Seizing on the chaos, Kip let out a shriek, which echoed off the walls of the barren facility. One of the lesser looters panicked, and loosed a shot from his shaking pistol. Kip let out another frenzied scream, and began to frantically scurry around the room. The echo of the shot and the continued cries kept the gunmen confused and shouting, while the officer had lowered his sidearm and joined the shouting, trying to corral his hysterical companions. Out of the corner of his eye, Kip noticed, through a door behind the looters, Kat’s face grinning through helmet with the visor up. He gave her an indiscernible nod, watched her close her visor and raise her pistol to the window portal, then continued his portrayal of the insane survivor. He scrambled about the room, approaching the captain unaware, and grabbing onto his sleeve. The captain spun around, and a hint of fear flashed in his eyes as Kip began to tug and cry.
Nobody noticed the door opening, but Kat’s call of “Drop your weapons, dirtbags!” got everyone’s attention. The two lesser looters spun and stared, dropping their weapons without a second thought. The officer turned to see the new threat, and then turned back to Kip. Kip’s face was clear and stern. In his best cowboy voice, Kip quoted, “Reach for the sky…” The captain’s upper lip quivered in anger, but his common sense prevailed, and with a loud ca-THUD, his pistol dropped to the metal floor. Kat and Gerald approached, keeping pistols drawn on the looters as they gathered them together and collected their weapons. “No hard feelings, sir,” Kip teased as he fixed his hair, “but we were here first. I think… Well, what matters is, we have guns now and you don’t.” The mercenaries complained, and gave more than a few threats, but after being led to their ship and asked to leave very nicely, they complied, and Kip’s crew was left alone in the facility.
“Alright, boys, let’s see what’s worth anything in this dump.” Kat checked each new pistol for rounds and tested the sights on the L-E4, then spun it around her finger and stowed it inside her suit. Gerry had already linked the ship’s fuel line to the station’s, and was siphoning what was left into their own tank. Hope wandered about, looking busy while waiting for Kip to be alone, then approached him. “That was a pretty impressive stunt you pulled back there, captain.” Kip looked up from the information log he was reviewing, and met her smile with one of his own dopey smirk. “Oh, you liked it? I don’t like to toot my own horn, but I’m damn good at acting insane.” Hope rolled her eyes and walked past Kip, holding her hands behind her back. “No, captain. I mean, you took care of three armed men, one of which was ostensibly an experience battle commander and equipped with comparatively advanced weaponry, all without firing a shot and without injury to anyone involved, regardless which side.” Kip frowned. “Hey, there was totally a shot fired! That guy coulda hurt me!” Hope beamed at her captain. “Oh, how could I forget, you also put yourself in imminent danger, all for the purpose of peaceful conflict resolution!” “Peaceful resolution my foot! I would have been just as happy if all that was left of those jerks was big red stains on the floor!”
“Say what you will, captain. I’m still impressed.” Hope leaned towards Kip and gave him a tiny peck on the cheek. “Oh!” she said, looking over his shoulder, “Look, that’s a… a… hmm… oh! A rotary spanner! That’s what Gerry’s been looking for since we left Io!” Kip was left, confused and inadvertently dejected, as Hope bolted around him and opened the toolbox, pulling out the noted tool. “Remember?! Gerry lost… well… I lost Gerry’s new set of rotary spanners on Io when you picked me up! This set isn’t exactly new, but… oh, he’ll be so excited!” Kip rubbed the back of his head as he turned to watch Hope enthusiastically collect the spanners into the toolbox. “Ah, yeah… so very, very excited. Wooo!” As Hope bounded off with Gerald’s new tool set, Kip sighed and headed after her back to the ship. “Another job well done… though I will have to have a talk with Raphe when we get back to Ganymede…”