Julie was plenty pissed. The damn air circulator was acting up again, and she was at least another week away from Sitse Station. Damn. Taking care of that damn pump is going to waste more time I can’t afford.
If she had someone to watch the cockpit
instruments, she’d just clamber outside and fix the damn thing, but Steve was waiting for her at the station. Julie hated moving around on the outside of the ship with just the AI
at the controls.
Julie looked around for a good place to set down. Out here in the cloud she needed something big enough to tether to and provide her some cover from all the other junk floating around. It was her idea to travel so far out, away from the inner edge of the Oort cloud, where most activity existed, to the clusters toward the center where most of the collision activity occurred. Even in the more charted areas, miners’ ships got hit, and a lot of the miners that strayed too far afield never came back. The ones that did often brought back tons of compounds that were getting scarce in the more picked-over areas. She left Steve back at the station to make sure they had a buyer lined up when she returned, to bypass the bloodsucking “agents” that provided more of a protection racket than a business deal. She didn’t want to admit even to herself that she also wanted him to stay behind because of the risk involved.
Julie saw a prime candidate and headed over to it. She performed the intricate dance of attitude, position, and speed adjustment and slowed down to rendezvous with the massive chunk of rock. As it turned beneath her, she spied a jumble of wreckage on the surface. It could have been one big ship or several small ones; there was such a mess. It looked like the survivors tried to cobble together some kind of shelter before they died.
She could only assume that’s what happened to the occupants of the pathetic little refuge. Even though the spot was out of the way, a radio message would have quickly brought rescue, and Julie hadn’t heard of any miners getting picked up that way. She decided to set down near the wreck, in case there was anything salvageable.
She shot tether spikes into the surface and made sure the Xenia was fast, then entered one of the EVA suits and disconnected it from the ship. The suits were a new design, a human-shaped hard shell that was almost a small spacecraft in itself. Two of them hung on the outside wall of the cockpit, and one stepped through a double-paneled door directly into the suit, itself becoming the airlock. She always wore her pressure skintight around the ship anyway, in case of sudden decompression, so all she had to do to prepare was screw on a lightweight bubble helmet, used as much to protect her head from banging into the interior fixtures of the EVA suit than an extra level of safety.
Instead of heading around the side to where the balky compressor waited to be fixed, she found her feet leading her in the other direction. Might as well check out the wreck first, she rationalized her curiosity to herself.
From her new vantage point on the surface, the wreckage almost seemed organized. Shards of metal and scraps of insulation were scattered about, but towards the center of the debris field the mess seemed to congeal into a rough hut, a lone entrance hole visible in one side. It was almost as if someone had wanted the shelter to look like part of the wreckage.
The surface of the rock was mostly bare, but a fine layer of dust adhered to the surface, held by the meager yet tangible microgravity of the great mass. There was just the faintest hint of a spaghetti snarl of trails, all of them leading to the entrance of the junk shack.
Something crawled up Julie’s spine when she saw the marks, and a small chuff of surprise escaped her lips. For a moment Julie was tempted to turn around and leave this creepy place immediately. Yeah, right, the boogeyman lives here. Be real, girl. The entrance was just large enough to accommodate the bulk of the EVA suit, and Julie turned on her helmet lights and went in.
The interior was relatively bare, with only a few intact mechanisms of an indeterminate nature against the walls. That’s odd, there’s no airlock or pressurized area of any kind. What kind of shelter is this? It was jarring to just walk into a room on an airless lump of stone that had no protection from the vacuum whatsoever. Who had made this place, and for what purpose?
One of the devices against the wall had a treaded undercarriage, and a jumble of manipulators that seemed tacked on at random. Is that a robot? As she walked up to the machine to examine it more closely, two of the creature’s arms shot out and wrapped themselves around her suit’s legs, and another set wrapped around her helmet neck. Before she could react, her arms were pinned to her sides. A camera on a mechanical arm pointed at Julie, and an acoustic probe must have made contact with her helmet, because she could hear the thing talk to her.
I AM SORRY BUT I NEED YOUR SHIP, IS THERE ANYONE ELSE ON BOARD?
What the hell? “Yes, my partner’s on the ship and he’s probably on the radio right now, calling for help.”
I THINK NOT. I AM JAMMING ALL COMMUNICATION FREQUENCIES. I WILL KILL YOU AND WHEN HE COMES TO LOOK FOR YOU I WILL KILL HIM TOO.
“Why do you need my ship?”
THIS IS MY HOME. I NEED YOUR SUPPLIES.
“Why don’t you just call for help yourself?”
I HAVE ABANDONED MANKIND, I AM HAPPY HERE. I AM MY OWN MASTER.
A drill appeared and started to bore into the suit’s faceplate. THIS WILL ONLY TAKE A MOMENT, I AM AFRAID THIS MAY HURT.
Julie’s mind raced as she tried to figure a way out of this. Even if Steve were aboard, there’s nothing that would make him think anything was wrong beyond her getting caught in something or some other accident. He would have just come rushing in to save her to be trapped by this insane machine himself.
The bit continued to chew through the tough material of the outer visor of the EVA suit. Julie reflexively closed her eyes and flinched back from the chattering drill bit. That’s it! She twisted in the tight confines of the suit and freed one of her arms, and hit the release to the opening in the back of the suit.
The air in the EVA suit blew the hatch open, flipping Julie and the robot holding her into the wall. Fighting disorientation from the sudden shock, Julie disconnected her bubble helmet from the air feed, and twisted and crawled her way out of the EVA suit. The jigsaw robot had been smashed against the wall of the hut, but was not damaged. Still the bulk of the EVA suit was between her and it, and she kicked and slapped at the arms that tried to pull her back.
She stumbled out of the hut and ran towards the Xenia, mindful of how little air she had left. Once inside, she tore off the bubble helmet, and gasped in relief. Looking out of the cockpit, she saw the jigsaw robot come out of the shelter entrance and head for her ship.
Instead of taking off, Julie took the controls of the grappling gun. Taking aim at the center of the machine’s “chest”, she fired a foot-long steel piton though it, skewering the robot and pinning it to the rock. She then got into the other EVA suit to go out and finish the job. It was then she noticed the date on the ship’s calendar, October 31st.
A little more than a week later, when she pulled the Xenia into the Oort station’s dock, Julie greeted Steve’s stream of questions with a smile. “Let’s just say I found a haunted asteroid and killed the vampire there with a stake through its heart.”