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The hardest part was over. Hope echoed the words silently to herself as she forced deep breaths, but her heart beat a frantic rhythm that would not be cowed. As a surgeon, she had trained to be calm, calculating, and controlled, but she now couldn’t stop watching her escape play over and over in her mind.

The Lineae Institute was known across the solar system for several reasons. It was undeniably the oldest of humanity’s forays into the Jovian system—and the first permanent human settlement outside of Earth’s orbit. A remnant of the now-defunct Europan Discovery Initiative, the Institute was established after a team of EDI scientists departed Earth to investigate the cracks in the icy moon of Jupiter. After relaying the successful penetration of Europa’s crust and establishment of a base of operations in the underlying ocean, the Earth didn’t hear from the team again for decades.

Through a strange twist of fate, Lineae was the only extra-terrestrial colony that was not financed and executed as a corporate venture. Only after the exodus from Earth did the Institute once again ‘open its doors’ to the outside world—though nobody would call the ‘doors’ of Europa ‘open’ by any means today. The scientists in the sub-surface aquatic stations have proven to be reclusive, isolationist, and incredibly miserly with the technology they offer to off-worlders. But yet every ten cycles, corporate liaisons from across the system—GLME, BioCal, Rec6, and even 4-SEC—meet at the solitary surface-based station on Europa to bid on the undeniably mind-blowing technological offerings the Lineae Institute has to offer.

Hope had planned her escape for several cycles, and called in every favor she had earned in order to be selected as part of the minuscule team of representatives that brought their developments to the surface for corporate representation. She had traded some of the most valuable resources from her personal medical library for the scant off-world currency to be found sub-surface—all of which she had spent to convince a corporate representative from BioCal to smuggle her to a medical research facility on Callisto. The few resources she had taken with her from the underwater facilities were dwindling; whether she didn’t bring enough to barter with corrupt guards or she was too naïve to haggle a fairer price for silence, she couldn’t say.

“Dr. Mikkelsen?”

Hope was caught off-guard by the record clerk’s query. “…y-yes, that’s me. I’m sorry, what was it?” The young man waved a handful of docucards and a full-size BioCal libropad towards Hope and gently lay them on the counter. He opened his mouth to explain them, but Hope inadvertently interrupted him as she identified the materials she had given her last cache of Lineae tech to purchase. “Oh, excellent. Excellent! Accreditation for Bio-Medical certification, CV of a BioCal medical researcher, and… Oh, you’ve outdone yourself! This is one of the older libropads of the First Planetary Bio-systems Alliance, isn’t it!?”

“That’s right. Careful with it! That’s Earth-tech there, and only well-connected docs still use those here on the Far Moon.”

“Lars, I can’t thank you enough!”

When Hope tried to reach around him for a hug, the clerk didn’t smile, but instead raised his hands and took a half-step backward. “Be cool. That tech you gave me is good shit, but you better keep a low profile. I’d be surprised if the Institute hasn’t already sent out folks to recover their assets, you know what I’m saying? You best know what you’re doing—or at least make yourself scarce.”

“I’m not completely helpless,” Hope quipped defensively. “…but thank you.”

“Yeah, alright.” Lars looked over Hope’s shoulder, watching a lift door open and several people enter the spaceport terminal. “Alright Dr. Mikkelsen. Departures are right that way.” He nodded towards the lift, and Hope surreptitiously turned to follow his gesture. “That said… I’d check the bar down the concourse a bit. Unless you’re still totin’ any Institute tech, you’re gonna have to find a cheap pilot.”

Hope couldn’t tell whether he was being helpful or dismissive, but she couldn’t afford to ask. He’d guessed correctly—she only had enough credits to her name to buy meal or two. She nodded to Lars, turned, and walked down the concourse. Before she could enter the bar, the portal opened and a young man staggered backwards.

“Drink’s ain’t free, Callahan. Pay up or I take your ship!”

Hope smiled and gestured to the irate restaurateur. “Actually, his drink is on me.”

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“This still doesn’t make any sense. So far, you two have taken turns politely informing me of new rules each ‘hand.'” Hope’s frustration with the unfamiliar game was made obvious by her loss of composure. Sarcasm, like beading droplets of water, clung to her words. “And by sheer coincidence I’ve managed to lose each one. The only reason I’m disinclined to believe you two aren’t conspiring against me is the lack of Kip’s petty giggling.”

Kip shifted his eyes from his hand to Hope, but only momentarily; his shoulders shrugged as he looked back at his cards. Katerina’s hand lay face-down on the table—alongside several pieces of the disassembled LE-4 pistol she was busy cleaning. Without turning her eyes from the barrel she was inspecting, she retorted, “Gerry told you the same rules he told us, honey.” Kat squinted down the barrel, then blew a puff of air through it. “Not our fault if you didn’t listen.”

“Fine. I’ll keep going.” As Hope pushed a scrap of paper toward the center of the table, Kip shook his head and dropped his cards. “It’s just you, ladies. I’m out.” Kat slid the barrel into its casing, set it propped up on the table, and lifted the corner of her bottom card. “Three Queens. Doctor?” Confident in her impending victory, Hope beamed as she placed her cards on the table and spun them to face her opponent. “Two Kings and two eights!”

Hope’s excitement didn’t elicit the reaction she was hoping for; Kip sucked his teeth while Kat closed her eyes and brought her hand to her brow. “Davai… Three of a kind beats two pairs, Hope.” Hope wasn’t having it. “No. Not again.” Kat took the notes from the table while Kip started collecting the cards to shuffle. “Listen, Doctor; wasn’t it you who wanted to play this ‘old Earth game’ to… what was it… ‘enjoy some Human culture for once?’” “Don’t start. I’m going to check with Gerald. He’s the only one here who played this game back on Earth, and the only one of you spacers I trust not to trick me.” Kip made a short show of pretending to be offended, but gave up as Hope walked out of the mess hall. “This doesn’t seem worth it, Kat. Y’all don’t even seem to be having fun, anyway.” “Fun? I’ll have fun over the next two weeks as Hope does my chores.”

Hope didn’t need to search the ship to find Gerald—she didn’t even check his quarters. Upon entering the engine room, she spied a toolbox on its side next to an open panel. She hardly had to peer into the crevice to see a worn-out shoe and oily pant leg.

“Gera–” she started, but the sound of a falling spanner and a shouted curse cut her off. “What?! Hope, is that you?” Hope winced as she watched the leg twist and contort. “Y-yes, sorry, you don’t need to come out… I, er, had a question about the Poker game you tau–” “You’ve got to be kidding me. Just stop playin’! We should’n’t’a even bought that deck on Phobos. Waste of credit! I said it then, I’ll say it now! Those twerps told you it di’n’t even have all 52 cards in it, right?”

Gerry’s whining continued, but Hope’s attention stalled as she lost herself in her memory. “Hold on… Phobos?” Something didn’t add up. “Gerry, we haven’t been to Phobos for… well, we haven’t been there while I’ve been on the ship.” A rumbling chuckle echoed out of the open panel. “Well how’d little Katya tell ya she got it? Did she amaze ya with tale ‘a her mountainous courage, pryin’ it outta some dead 4-SEC merc’s cold fingers?” Gerald snickered to himself, but didn’t hear anything in response. “Doc? Hope? Eh…” He didn’t waste time picking up his spanner and getting back to work.

The mess hall door slid up as Hope stormed in. “Phobos. You’ve all been to Phobos before!” Katerina let the hammer of the pistol slide forward and placed it on the table. Kip, surprised by the sudden return of the doctor, lost control of the cards while shuffling, sending them careening across the room. “You told me we couldn’t go to Phobos because of a bounty!” Kip pushed his fingers through his hair and loudly sighed. “Well, uh, yeah… since we picked you up…” Katerina smiled for the first time during their game. “Yeah, sweetie. Your bounty.”

(Co-written with Michael Weeks; a glimpse of Kip before we meet his ship and crew.)

Kip winced as the CP-250 Wrecking and Salvage ship slammed against an unseen object on the port side. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his shaking hand. The control panel of the tiny ship seemed altogether foreign to him as he glanced back and forth between its sensor screens and life support systems. He looked through the glass viewports behind him–hoping he wouldn’t catch a glimpse of the three pirate space-skimmers that had broadsided his ship with magnetic rounds minutes earlier. Hull integrity was dropping and it was only a matter of time before the tiny ship would begin to break apart if Kip didn’t start repairing it.

Kip’s eyes widened as he furiously jammed at the controls, sending the small ship into a steep vertical climb. A massive asteroid quickly absorbed his entire view field as if it was an infinite wall of rock, blocking out all view of the stars behind it. Kip swore as the engines roared into action, trying to keep the small ship from pounding into the stony barrier before it. As the ship angled upward, the view from Kip’s cockpit ports began to change from a cratered wall to the bright horizon. The forward momentum of the CP-250 was not easily redirected, though, and Kip soon realized his small ship was about to bounce off the massive asteroid instead of safely arching over the tall ridge just ahead.

Kip grabbed the safety harness attached to his chair and frantically strapped in. Navigational warnings began to shriek from the control panel as the altitude monitor dropped like an anvil.

Grinding. Crashing. For a time, burning. A blur of sensation slowly faded away, allowing Kip to recollect the shattered remains of his senses. When he could finally piece together the world around him, he realized that he needed to move, and fast. The viewport showed a backdrop of stars and darkness that Kip was all too familiar with; what it didn’t show was the half of Kip’s CP-250 that was splayed upon the asteroid like a dollop of jelly on toast.

Kip shook off the remaining dizziness and attempted to bring his systems back online. To his dismay, silence replaced the series of whistles, clicks and beeps that usually followed his interaction with the outdated ship. Groaning, he unfastened himself from the helm and made his way back into the CP-250’s main corridor, hoping to discover whatever was keeping the ship from operating correctly.

Kip quickly found that the problem was far greater than he first thought. Upon opening the bridge airlock door, a gasp of escaping air jetted past him, and for the brief instant before he shut the port again, he could see that instead of a hallway with multiple doors and system interfaces, his ship abruptly ended in a wall of asteroid. Almost instinctively, Kip grabbed the space-suit he had stowed behind the helm and adroitly slid into the protective skin. He’d been mocked before for keeping his bridge cluttered with what some called ‘junk’, but times like these reminded him why he ignored every jibe.

When his suit’s oxygen meter glowed a healthy green, Kip again opened the bridge airlock, swung through, and closed it again behind him. The ship seemed to have been split in two, leaving only a portion of the hallway between Kip and the asteroid surface. Kip’s quarters, the life support system, and cargo hold were simply no longer present. Kip decided to collect what he could from the remaining rooms and take a look outside.

Finding only an overused toolbox and a high-powered work lamp, Kip fastened them to his suit and opened a ventral airlock to hop outside. No hissing accompanied this door’s opening, as the air had already drained from the main portion of the ship. The asteroid was dimly lit by the sun’s reflection off the other asteroids in the field, but Kip still fired up the flood lamp and turned it onto the poor ship.

“Yuck. Nobody deserves this, even an ugly son-of-a-bitch like you.” The CP-250’s hull was bent and broken, and Kip was surprised that the bridge had remained as intact as it had. Turning the lamp about the asteroid, Kip saw the ship’s aft floating nearby in pieces–some strewn around the area and some being tossed about in the churning field of asteroids. Kip watched, disheartened, as what used to be his quarters collided with a hurtling rock, sending the crumpled piece of metal spinning and flinging his few belongings into space.

Knowing the ship was now beyond saving, Kip set to doing what he did best–scuttling. Over the next half-hour, he tore off the destroyed ship’s long-range antenna, found a pistol and solar blanket among the debris, and siphoned what oxygen he could from the ship’s supply into a (now) portable tank. Collecting his effects and his wits, Kip started hopping along the asteroid’s surface in an effort to reach someplace where he could set up the antenna as a distress beacon. He’d hardly made a dozen steps before the hum of a ship overhead reminded him what had sent his ship careening into the asteroid in the first place. The pirate vessel slowly hovered over Kip, and just as he turned off his lamp and dove for an outcropping to hide, the pirate craft lit a flood light and began to search for the scrambling captain.

“Damn.” Kip cowered below the outcropping, looking over his collected tools and materials. It wasn’t enough that the pirates had destroyed his ship, they were after his head too.  Kip paused for a moment in his own thoughts. Come to think of it, the pirates had only hit him once. It was the asteroid field and his own inability to navigate it successfully that had been the undoing of the tired CP-250, and not the pirates. He cursed louder as his pride evaporated along with his hope for escape.

The second and third pirate skimmers appeared now, releasing their own flood lights upon the barren asteroid surface. He could see the first skimmer opening up just beside his hiding spot as one of the pirates emerged on a small personal skiff. Kip reached for his pistol, checked its magnetic rounds and moved into a crouched position.  He knew that the skiff was his best chance for any kind of temporary escape; maybe he could use the element of surprise to catch them off-guard before their flood lights caught him hiding in the dust.

As the skiff drifted toward the wreckage, it dawned on Kip that the pirates might assume he was dead. Half of the poor, old wrecker was impacted on several other asteroids at the moment–who wouldn’t think that its captain was likewise strewn across the asteroid field? Kip carefully eyed the three skimmers and began to slink away from his protective outcropping, keeping as close to the ground as possible.

Kip crawled from rock to rock, checking behind him each time. Movement in such low gravity levels was hard enough, so keeping himself hidden among the shadows of the rotating asteroid felt next to impossible. He muttered under his breath every time he lost his grip and bounced around the dusty ground. Kip had managed to put about 50 meters of distance between him and the pirates when he noticed something glinting in the sunlight. Peering out from behind a large stone, he reached for his pistol. His hand came up empty.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” Roughly 20 meters behind him was his pistol, slowly spinning above the ground and reflecting the sun’s light like a beacon to anyone looking in its general direction. “Well this is just great.”

Kip watched as the small skiff cruised over to the hovering pistol to investigate. The pirate dismounted the skiff and floated to the ground, inspecting the deep grooves and tracks Kip’s bouncing body had created along the way. He signaled with his hand in the direction of the tracks, obviously communicating with someone piloting the larger skimmer. The engine of the angular outlaw ship murmured as the craft spun to face the direction of the pointing pirate.

Blinding flood lights illuminated Kip’s path across the dusty asteroid. Now completely unarmed, without a ship, running out of oxygen, and with pirates hot on his trail, he looked for any kind of answer or hiding place. He needed a miracle. Instead he saw the mouth of a large cavern; out of desperation or foolish hope, he made for the dark opening.

The flat sound of a magnetic round echoed in Kip’s ears as a shot glanced off the right side of his helmet. Kip soared into the darkness of the cavern as more rounds flew past his flailing body. As he descended, the dull, white nose of a large transport ship suddenly appeared out of the darkness. “Oh… no, NO!” Kip yelled a second before his body collided into the front of the hidden ship. Stunned, he rebounded off its hull like a rag doll. Almost instantly he found himself wrapped around the end of its starboard wing, grasping for anything that would keep him from sliding off into the blackness below.

“Don’t sneak up on me like that!” Kip blurted as he grabbed a handle near the ship’s dorsal hatch. After doing a quick scan of the ship, he couldn’t find any descriptive labels or identifying characteristics. “Hmm. Never seen your type before. Aren’t you going to introduce yourself?” Kip’s probing was cut short when a shot ricocheted against the ship’s hull. He tried to wrench open the hatch, but it wouldn’t budge. “Listen honey, we can get to know each other later–I need inside RIGHT NOW!”

As if in response, part of the ship suddenly swung around; a mobile weapon boom or sensor house rotated around the ship with surprising speed. Kip wasn’t the only one surprised by the sudden motion—one of the pirates, attempting to sneak up on his prey, was knocked clear by the swiveling boom. Had Kip looked up, he’d have seen the flailing outlaw floating out into the aether, writhing against inertia until pummeled by a micro-asteroid. Kip’s eyes were instead focused on the approaching boom, and as it swung over his hatch, he let go of the ship for a split-second. The boom stopped over the hatch, and Kip again grabbed hold of a handle as a hatch on the boom itself opened underneath him.

Wasting no time, Kip slung his body into the ship. He found himself sitting in a curved hallway, eerily lit by a strange, faintly-humming light. The hatch spun shut as Kip hopped to his feet, collecting his wits. “Huh.” Kip hid none of his confusion as he wandered the alien ship. “Alright, what are we gonna do about these damn pirates?” The sound of the boom swinging outside startled Kip momentarily, almost as much as the sound of steel plates withdrawing from the walls, revealing windows across the ship. Two pirate craft loomed outside the cave entrance, dodging asteroids and shining search lights onto the parked ship. “Yeah, those guys!” From the boom, a flood light blinked on and showered the pursuing craft in a fiercely bright light. As the pirate ships scurried from the blinding light, Kip chastised the ship, “I could already see them; we need to DO something about them! You know, swat them like the pesky flies they are!”

Kip was quite surprised by how the ship carried out his request. With a slight lurch, the ship lifted off and exited the cave, dashing directly toward the larger of the pirate ships. The smaller craft bolted to starboard, but the larger held its ground and loosed a few rounds. The shots went astray, and Kip’s ship cruised directly towards the attacker. Just before collision, the ship’s boom swiveled to the front, and with a powerful blast from its repulsor drive it sent the pirate craft drifting back into the path of an incoming asteroid. Kip sucked in his breath as he watched the pirate destroyed by the spinning rock. “Whoa whoa whoa! We don’t have to kill ‘em! Just…  just… let’s get out of here!”

The ship turned and thrusters roared. Kip hustled down the hallway, looking for the bridge. Beyond the many windows, asteroids flew by, but the ship deftly maneuvered around each one. Still hustling, Kip noticed that he’d done a full lap of the ship, and still hadn’t found the bridge. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the fleeing pirate regroup with his last comrade, as both ships started their pursuit. “OK, seriously, I need someplace to SIT!” In answer, a door hissed open down the hall. Kip dashed to the opening, but frowned when he found the only seat in the small room was a commode. “This… doesn’t help me. This is a TOILET!” Kip shouted, walking back into the hallway. The door closed behind him, and Kip looked back out into the field—just in time to see a missile from the pirate ships detonating against a nearby asteroid.

The ship rocked with the explosion, but continued its delicate dance between the tumultuous asteroids. “Listen—we have to do something, or those jerks are going to tear you apart. You have to have some kind of weapons system, or some more tricks up your sleeve,” Kip pined as he stared back at his pursuers. Another explosion shook the ship, sending Kip falling down the hallway. A door opened, and Kip fell straight through it, landing in what he found to be a very soft and comfortable bed. The bedroom had a great window, and as Kip looked up, the view into space shifted; the ship itself rotated, and Kip found himself looking astern at the following pirates.

A whistling sound came from many directions, and through Kip’s peripheral vision he noticed a series of tow cables shooting out from the ship. Pitons drove into surrounding asteroids, and as the ship continued forward, the now attached rocks flailed and jostled about as they dragged behind the ship. One of the pirates could not correct his trajectory to avoid the arcing stone, and his ship was caught in the nose, sending it tumbling forward into another asteroid. The remaining outlaw cleverly slowed, and picked up its chase beyond the range of the trailing rocks. After regaining a lock, it loosed a missile. Kip snickered lightly as his ship released the attached asteroids and retracted the tow cables, leaving a screen of rocks that promptly blocked and detonated the incoming torpedo. Blinded by the sudden explosion, the remaining pirate flew through the dust, smoke, and debris, emerging from the rubble with a hull dotted with pock-marks and scored with burns.

Kip rested his head against the pillow. “Whew. I’ve been in my share of dogfights, but never anything like THAT–especially from bed!” Reaching the edge of the asteroids, the ship entered open space, and began to close the steel window shutters along the bedroom wall. Kip caught one last glimpse of the hobbled pirate craft, which had by then exited the field behind them. As the windows closed, Kip’s conscience got the best of him.

“Nobody deserves to drift like that. Can we at least send him towards a station?” Kip felt the ship correct its course, making a slow and large loop before leveling out and sweeping by the incapacitated ship. Two of the tow cables again shot out, the pitons embedding into the pirate hull. The ship slowed momentarily, but soon had regained speed with the other craft in tow.

After the outlaw’s trajectory was fixed, the cables released, sending the hulk cruising through space toward a distant refueling outpost. “That should give that asshole some time to think about what he’s done,” Kip noted, closing his eyes. “Very nice work, um… ship. Is it OK if I call you Ship?” The only response Kip received was the dimming of his cabin’s lights. “Whatever. This whole ordeal tired me out. I’ll let you fly us back to Gerald’s. Co-ords are 151, -12, 64. Be a dear and wake me up once we land, alright?” Kip smiled as he drifted into slumber, while his new ship carried him home.

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…”

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