Episode 56: Heavy’s day

Click to see catch-up summary

Heavy spends a day while waiting for Decker, Eliza, and Samantha.

“Aaaand… there!” Heavy grunted from inside his EV suit’s helmet. “Just a little push.”

The Nighthawk drifted back, clearing the threshold of the Matilda’s cargo bay. Heavy grinned at the majesty, raising a thumbs-up to the departing strike-team. “Nighthawk has cleared the doors and is away. Manu, ease us forward.”

Heavy gave Decker, Eliza, and Samantha one last lingering look before pressing the large, plastic orange button that closed the cargo bay doors. As much as he wanted to see them off, even he wasn’t sure what a jump wake would do with the doors left open.

“Nighthawk, we’re clear for you to proceed to jump coordinates. We’ll wait for you to vanish,” Manu’s voice said through the helmet’s speakers.

“Acknowledged, Matilda. Activating jump drives. We will see you all at the designated rendezvous,” Samantha returned.

“Counting on it,” Manu replied.

Heavy bounded back toward the airlock that led back into the Matilda, each step a slog as he lifted the magnetically active boots off the metal deck. The double-sealed door slowly slid aside in the silence of hard vacuum. Heavy stepped inside, waiting as the outer door closed behind him. The airlock equalized its pressure with the rest of the ship, and the safety light over the inner door went from red, to flashing orange, to… nothing.

Heavy raised a gloved hand over his head and tapped the indicator light. “Come on, ‘Tilda.”

The light remained dark. He flipped his hand to an open palm and gave the entire housing a firm rap. The light flickered, then came back a solid green. Heavy hummed; might need to take care of that.

The interior airlock door opened and Heavy stepped through, letting it close behind him and keep the Matilda’s air where it should be. He released the helmet clamp from around his neck, pulling the steelglass globe off his sweating head, then pressed the nearest intercom button.

“Manu, I’m back in pressurized compartment space. Re-engaging grav. Make sure you and Selli aren’t floating over something hard when it kicks in.”

Heavy grinned, giving his two crew mates a moment to settle in. An unfortunate instance where Decker had been napping without a retention strap during the artificial gravity generator’s recalibration had left him with a nasty bump on the head. Now, Heavy always let the crew know when things were about to go from feeling weightless to feeling, well, heavy.

Heavy had installed inline switches for operating the gravity controls away from the powerplant, something he had to do more often than he liked. With the switch’s satisfying clunk, the feeling of “down” returned. Heavy grunted and bent over to release the clamps around the EV suit’s rigid boots. He pulled each foot out, letting his toes feel the cold bite of the Matilda’s metal floors. He hurried his way back to the powerplant, taking the grated metal stairs three at a time. His regular boots could wait; first he had to make sure they got out of the Republic.

The blue glow from the engine core’s reactor welcomed him into the powerplant, its reassuring thrum reassuringly thrumming. Heavy hopped into the reinforced console seat, pulling a pair of flexible polymer straps up over his shoulders like a backpack. He jammed a finger against the intercom button.

“Manu, we’re all set. Jump drives are warm and ready.”

“Got it, Hev. I’m going to skip the countdown given we’re trespassing in Republic space,” Manu called back.

Heavy nodded, even though Manu couldn’t see him, and listened for any sounds that weren’t supposed to be sounding as the jump drives started their cycle. Ensuring that the Matilda made it out of Republic space and then back on-time to pick up the Nighthawk was the only thought on his mind. Decker, Eliza, and Samantha were somewhere far away and there was nothing he could do about it but stay busy and keep his mind occupied.

The wave of jump sickness smacked into Heavy’s iron constitution, bouncing harmlessly away. Working in such close proximity to the Matilda’s capable, but inefficient, jump drive had some benefits. It’d take more than a little inter-dimensional disturbance to rattle him. 

The powerplant console indicated the jump field was stable and they were free to move about the cabin. Heavy tossed off the seat straps and stood, wrestling his way out of the bulky EV suit, his baggy work clothes damp with sweat underneath. He grabbed his work boots from where he’d wedged them under the console and pulled them on, then pressed the intercom to the command bridge.

“Selli, readings all clear?”

“Affirmative. We are in a limbo of both space and time until rendezvous,” Sellivan’s voice called back.

“Okay folks, you’ve got half a day to rest until we drop and turn around, and another half a day after that. Use it wisely,” Manu said.

Heavy smirked, retrieving the toolbelt, vest, and harness from a closed storage crate next to the console. Decker, Eliza, and Samantha had suited-up for their mission, and now Heavy would gear-up for his.

“Uh, sure, Manu. You two take it easy. I’ve just got a few little things to do while we wait.”

Manu’s voice came back over the speakers beneath the sound of buckles, straps, and clips being fastened. “Just try to keep the noise levels down, okay, Hev? I’m looking to get a few hours of shut-eye.”

Heavy gave his wearable-workshop a glance of appreciation. They could rest if they wanted; it had been quite a week. But not Heavy. If Decker and Eliza were going to risk their necks helping out Samantha, then Heavy could do his part to make sure that when they came home—and they would come home—he’d made things on the Matilda just a little more welcoming.

Summoning his fiercest game-time expression, Heavy stomped into the corridor. He had one day to work, and Heavy’s day was just beginning.

First stop: Accommodations.

The Matilda had six cabins—each designed for one person to comfortably live in, or two people to not-so comfortably, not counting the captain’s cabin-turned-gym. The five regular crew each had their own space, with one to spare, which was now occupied by Samantha. 

She’d been in there among the piles of Decker’s old junk stacked nearly to the ceiling. Not only was it a hazard, it wasn’t very hospitable of them to have just stuffed Samantha in there. And, when the strike-team returned with two more people, either the captain’s gym might need to be reverted back to a proper cabin, if Decker refused, the lounge may need to have some temporary bunks added. Knowing the crew, offering to double-up and share a cabin was not going to happen.

Heavy stopped just outside Samantha’s door, hesitating a moment. She wasn’t technically a crew member; she was a passenger. And passengers had somewhat of a right to privacy. But, Heavy also knew she had almost nothing in the way of personal possessions, and after the incident with the medical halo, everyone had already been in there. Heavy sighed and let himself in.

Relocating all of Decker’s gathered junk to storage compartments outside the cargo bay took an hour. Heavy couldn’t go into the cargo bay without the EV suit, so for now, getting it out of the way was sufficient. Besides, storing the junk wasn’t the priority. Cleaning up the empty cabin was, especially after disabling and then reengaging the gravity generators. Most things remained where they were unless the Matilda was moving, but there was always some degree of disruption due to micro-inertia and ventilation drafts, especially when people didn’t secure their belongings as instructed. Shatter-proof kitchenware was put to the test, and more than a few game pieces had been lost into the environmental system’s air ducts.

Back in Samantha’s cabin, Heavy tidied up the bed and arranged her bag and the unfamiliar bolt rifle on the built-in desk. It was an improvement, even if all he’d done was give her an empty cabin to fill and decorate on her own. Presuming she stuck around, of course. As for her two friends, they might be sleeping in the crew lounge for the duration of their stay.

The second stop on Heavy’s task list was the environmental and hydronics compartment. If there were going to be more people aboard, they needed to be comfortable. He squeezed his way down the narrow access ladder, coming to a stop on the grated floor. Everything was damp and slick with condensation. 

Without proper humidity and vapor barriers between each cabin and the rest of the shared space, there were constant arguments about the Matilda’s climate. When Decker wanted his cabin warm, Sellivan wanted his cabin cool. When Manu wanted the humidity low so he didn’t feel “sticky”, Eliza wanted it high so that she didn’t feel “dried out.” At least one person was always unhappy. And the constant argument over what constituted a “hot” shower and a “scalding-hot” shower had never been resolved.

Making adjustments to the temperature and humidity for each cabin and all common areas and bridges took an hour, tracing the conduits and ducts that led into the ship above. Carbon-dioxide scrubbers needed to be cycled, hydrostatic fluids flushed, reverse-osmosis culinary water filters changed, and even a few of those missing game pieces were found wedged into air filter pleats after Heavy gave them a few vigorous smacks against the hull. For a spaceship, they sure managed to track in a lot of dirt from the various planets they set down on.

With a freshly maintained environmental system, next was the comfort adjustments. Until he could properly seal each cabin and add a more modern climate control system with individual comfort zones, one big compromise of ‘sort of cool, sort of dry’ was as close to pleasing—or displeasing—everyone as he could get. Luckily, the Matilda’s water reclaimers were still working at acceptable efficiency levels, and ever since he started running the culinary water through heating coils in the power plant, they might run out of alcohol in the galley, but at least they’d always have plenty of hot water.

That’s right; galley. Third stop. Heavy crawled his way up the ladder out of the environmental compartment when Manu strolled by, the lower half of Heavy’s body still sunken beneath the floor. Manu held a steaming mug of something in one hand while he glanced down at a datapad in the other.

“Hey Hev,” Manu said. He glanced down at the waist-high half of Heavy sticking out of the deck, a skeptical eyebrow raised. “Hot water okay? I was about to take the showers all to myself. Get a bit of a steam going.”

“Sure, sure. Everything’s looking fine. Just making some adjustments that have been on my mind. It’ll be plenty hot for you,” Heavy said with a nod.

Manu took a long, loud sip from his mug. “Don’t you be messing with my showers. You know I need that heat.”

Heavy wiggled his way up the rest of the ladder, sweat and condensation covering his face. “I’ve seen enough of the war you and Decker wage when it comes to water temperature to know that.” He looked down at Manu’s datapad. “Comic books?”

Manu shrugged. “Gotta pass the time somehow. Probably be taking a nap after my steam. Keep an eye on things,” he said, continuing toward the showers.

“Sure thing,” Heavy said through a chuckle, glad to be free to resume his chores. He checked his comm; he was behind schedule. With a spring in his step, he hustled his way to the galley.

An inventory of all remaining consumables took an hour, including Eliza’s carefully curated rack of spirits from around the sector. They’d restocked with recognizable foods on Mentaryd, and had enough of the brick-like rations everyone hated in storage to last the crew for months. But with two more people coming aboard, ensuring that everyone had something they liked might be difficult. Just because they were on the run from a violent Republic, fallen empire, and several angry Fringe corporations didn’t mean they couldn’t enjoy eating well.

Bringing up armfuls of food from the storage lockers near the cargo bay and organizing the galley took another hour. Everyone had their own food preferences and when a crew member’s favorite ran out, the complaining was endless. Almost as bad as the one time the water-heating system had malfunctioned, resulting in a full two-days of nothing but cold water and endless complaints from the crew.

Fourth on the list was cleanup. Heavy closed the galley cabinets and turned to the lounge. The crew was messy on a good day, but the recent events had turned their common space into some strange mix of lounge and war room. He picked up a charged bolt pistol which had become wedged in a couch cushion, chuckling with good-natured exasperation as he flicked it’s activation switch to the off position. He’d have to talk to Eliza about making sure all weapons were properly stored when not in use.

Tidying up and putting everything away—including the deactivated weaponry—consumed another hour, followed by another hour of actual cleaning. Sellivan had appeared and silently made his way to the bolted-down table in the corner, sipping a mug of extra hot water while browsing the 5E computer Samantha had given him. Heavy had told him there might be some noise; Sellivan had grunted and waved a hand, but otherwise ignored Heavy’s presence. 

A shortcoming of the Matilda’s utilitarian design was the lack of a central vacuum system. Sellivan had stayed seated at the dining table, his attention fixed on Samantha’s computer while Heavy had used the upright vacuum near him, around him, under him. Sellivan had not seemed to notice, so engrossed in whatever he was seeing. All the better; it was so hard to clean properly with everyone usually around.

Fifth on the list, after Manu had finished his steam, was the showers. This one was easy. The entire facility was metal and ceramic tile, with multiple floor-drains. Heavy had built a high-pressure sprayer that tapped right into the water system, premixing cleaning solutions into the spray. With the wand and hose, he gave everything a spray-down. The ceiling, the floors, the walls, the mirrors, the sinks; everything. Down the drain it went to be filtered, recycled, and turned back into pure water.

Sixth was a routine calibration of all thruster gimbals. That took an hour. Seventh, an hour changing the eighteen duct-return filters throughout the ship. Eighth, a quick tune-up of all sliding and hinge-based doors from bow to stern. Ninth, two hours testing the weapon systems and polarizer shields—as much as could be done in jumpspace. And the tenth and final task, making sure that all tables, chairs, couches, vidscreens, and consoles were set up exactly how everyone liked.

Heavy stood in the crew lounge, arms akimbo, surveying the output of his day. Things looked better than they had in a while. It would be a nice welcome. He smiled, even as he felt the return of his worries the non-stop tasks had held at bay.

It had to be a good homecoming, because where Decker, Eliza, and Samantha had taken off to, there was the chance that they might not be coming home at all.

Heavy collapsed down into Decker’s chair at the central command console. He’d stashed his tool belt, vest, and harness back in the powerplant, and was once again in the EV suit, helmet and magnet boots waiting for him at the airlock for their upcoming drop at the Nighthawk’s predetermined rendezvous point.

Manu looked over his shoulder from the pilot’s station. “Get any rest?”

Heavy shrugged. “Well, you know, maybe a wink or two. Mostly I did a few things. I wanted things to be in good working order for everyone’s return. Selli, learn anything from that computer?”

Sellivan’s eyes were fixed on the screen of the computer Samantha had donated to the ship. “The technological advancements the Imperium has kept classified are remarkable. Even if we adapt only some of their software into the Matilda’s existing systems, I predict noticeable improvements in telemetry calculations, jump field harmonization, long-range scanning as well as targeting, and even some limited transmission cloaking.” 

Manu hummed, raising an eyebrow to Sellivan. “Not a bad haul from the fallen empire. Any concerns with injecting Imperium code into our systems?”

“Not as such. Many of these utilities were designed to allow the user to infiltrate other systems while not being infiltrated themselves. Had we more advanced hardware, the Matilda would be quite the modern vessel in disguise.”

Heavy turned and narrowed his eyes at the 5E computer next to Sellivan’s station. “More advanced hardware, you say? What are we talking here?”

Sellivan grimaced and gestured at their general surroundings. “A complete new system backbone, to start; new relays; upgrade to all data transfer cabling from electronic to photonics; proper inertial dampeners connected to the gravity generators. And that’s just the basics. New hydronics, new filtration, new polarizers. And I am certain Eliza would appreciate offensive and defensive countermeasures manufactured within our lifetimes.”

Heavy envisioned each of Sellivan’s requests, building a growing list of salvage parts and costs in his mind.

Manu whistled; he must have been doing the same. “Selli, sounds like we’d be better off just finding a whole new ship. Maybe an XK class a few decades younger. It’s still the same basic configuration.”

Heavy raised a hand to Manu. “Whoa-there, buddy. No one is retiring the Matilda. I’ve seen no signs of buckling, warping, cracking, or any side-fumbling in any of the joists, transoms, and lateral torsion stringers. Bones are strong, and XK-class ships switched to only double flam pressed joints, not triple.” Heavy snorted with amused incredulity. “Be serious, Manu. However, if we were to come across any XK-class freighters, a lot of what Selli is talking about could be salvaged and retrofitted, and then refactored with the tech on that computer. A few weeks in a shipyard and a healthy investment of credits and we’d be quite formidable. Quite formidable, indeed.”

Manu smirked, glancing up at the metal bulkhead covered in a tangle of conduits, wires, and ducts. “How much of this ship has been replaced over the years?”

Heavy squinted an eye as he made some hasty estimates. “Well, when you bought her, she was missing, I’d say, about a fifth of her original hardware, mostly the stuff that’s easy to break and easy to fix and doesn’t hurt operation. After replacing that, oh, well… I’d figure we’ve added back another fifteen- or twenty-percent in new parts and upgrades. And after that, if you subtract the stuff that wore out, broke, or was damaged, then add back in the repairs and replacement, I’d reckon that…” Heavy opened his eye and nodded, gazing around the command bridge. “Yep. I’d reckon just about half of Matilda is not original.”

Manu feigned concern. “Just about half? What happens when it’s more than half? Still the same ship?”

Heavy smiled and shook his head in disappointment. “Oh, Manu. That’d be like saying Eliza’s cybernetics changed her into a different person.”

Manu guffawed. “They didn’t?”

Heavy waved away the comment. “Not the spirit of who she was. And it’s no different with the ship. What makes the Matilda ‘Matilda’ isn’t whatever serial number was stamped into her keel when she first left some shipyard sixty years ago. It’s the spirit. ‘Tilda has grown around us, and Manu, I think we’ve grown a little, too.” Heavy slapped his hand against the console, then pointed toward Sellivan. “Ain’t that right, Selli?”

Sellivan turned his head slightly, raising a skeptical eyebrow before turning right back with a slow, audible exhalation.

Heavy’s pointing hand shifted to a wave of dismissal. “Well, okay, I need to read the room. But trust me, if Decker were here, he’d agree with me. We could replace everything down to the last tritanium beam and she’d still be Matilda, because she’s our home. It’s the spirit, Manu. The spirit of…” Heavy took a deep, contemplative breath. “Persistence.”

Manu raised his hands in surrender. “I can’t argue with you on that one. She’s definitely persisted through whatever we’ve thrown at her.”

Heavy leaned back, placing his hands behind his head and taking the spring-loaded hinge of Decker’s chair to its limit. “You’ve been paying attention. I’m proud of you.”

Manu groaned and turned back to the pilot’s station. “Okay, I think we’ve been on break long enough. We’re ten minutes from the drop. Less philosophy, more doing what we’re supposed to.”

Heavy laughed and hoisted himself to his feet. “Nothing to worry about. We’re all set to receive the Nighthawk and welcome our heroes home.”

Heavy gave the command bridge one last nod of approval, then started his walk toward the powerplant, ducking into the corridor, and stomping his way down the grated metal stairs. 

The ship felt empty without Decker and Eliza aboard. Samantha too. No one had talked about it, but it felt like Samantha belonged there, that her presence revealed something they’d been missing. She’d brought with her a drive that Decker lacked, and hopefully when they returned—and they would return—Decker had tempered her a little as well. Something had brought them together. Necessity maybe. Fate. Destiny? A higher-power? Heavy wasn’t sure what he thought about Sellivan’s Creator, but he’d combed through enough zero-grav salvage yards to know that sometimes the part you needed to keep flying wasn’t the one you were looking for, but when you saw it, you realized you needed it.

Heavy stopped at the door to the engineering bay and sighed, feeling his jovial grin fade. He wasn’t lying to Manu—or anyone else—when he said there was nothing to worry about. It was that the statement was usually half-complete. Galavanting about the sector trying to carve out a life as a drifting mercenary crew, there was plenty to worry about, more than Heavy felt he could endure sometimes. But, it was part of his job to reassure everyone else while shouldering the concerns of keeping this ship—this crew—flying another day.

Setting his expression to one of game-time determination, Heavy stomped forward into the blue glow of the engine core, its reassuring thrum still thrumming reassuringly as he took his seat behind the main engineering console. He activated the intercom and leaned forward, pulling the flexible seat straps over his shoulders as he did.

“All set. As soon as we drop, I’ll be down in the bay bringing the Nighthawk home. Keep us in one place.”

“Got it, Hev. Dropping.”

Heavy nodded, letting his gaze sweep across the blue-lit mess of consoles, readout panels, conduit channels, and scattered cabling snaking across the deck, walls, and ceiling. It took a lot to keep the ol’ Matilda waltzing along, and the routine maintenance of her antiquated mechanics were only part of the job. The other part was maintaining the spirit. Without the spirit, it was just a cold metal husk drifting through the void of space.

But with the spirit? Well, with it the Matilda was their home.

Decker shrugged, shoulders pressed down by the Nighthawk’s seat harness as he finished recounting his story to the captivated Julian and Lee across from him.

“And then we set down on the rooftop of the Radiance, and you know the story from there,” he said, having taken them from Samantha’s original job offer up to the present.

Next to him was Eliza, and across from them both were Lee and Julian. The party at the Radiance had been cut short once the fight between the Republic and Dai’Reen was fully underway. The Nighthawk had slipped up through the defense grid and into orbit without further incident, and for the last six hours, the five of them had been in jumpspace, crammed together in the tiny Nighthawk cabin sharing their stories.

Lee raised his eyebrows, giving a nod to Julian. “After hearing what you’ve all been through, I think I had it the easiest just hanging out on the most advanced starship in the Imperium while the rest of you were busy being beaten, shot at, and electrocuted.”

“There have been ups and downs,” Decker muttered.

Eliza counted on her fingers. “Mostly downs.”

Next to Lee, Julian smiled at them kindly, giving a stray glance to the back of the operator’s seat where Samantha had spent the journey. Decker followed his glance. Samantha had claimed that reversing the direction of the seat to face them would make things too crowded. But Decker knew this extension of politeness was a cover that her half-dozen words in as many hours gave away. 

He knew Samantha had hoped to return from Kestris with two people, which she had. But, one was not who she expected. Whoever Clarke was to her, it seemed he was important. When, or if, she ever shared more about the relationship, Decker didn’t know. For now, he could simply let her have the time she needed.

Julian returned his gaze to Decker. “Given the circumstances, I commend you on your persistence. Being pulled into the center of this conspiracy without any warning or context is no small matter.” 

Decker exhaled. “Once things got started, it didn’t feel like we had much of a choice. Hopefully once we’re all back on the Matilda, we’ll have a chance to sort things out and make a deliberate, unrushed decision on what we’re doing next.”

Eliza groaned. “Ugh, Deck, come on. Don’t jinx us like that.”

Julian smiled softly while Lee chuckled and gave his seat-mate a friendly nudge of an elbow. They were an interesting duo. Julian felt like a nicer, younger Sellivan. He’d already made some suggestions during the jump as to how they could modify the Matilda’s systems with the stolen 5E tech. Both Heavy and Sellivan would be thrilled to have a third brainy-type aboard.

Their other evacuee, Lee, seemed friendly enough for a deep-cover spy who’d spent the last few years sneaking about the Imperium Navy. He and Decker had shared a few stories, though it became apparent that the experience of the Navy for a down-on-his-luck Fringe recruit and that of a highly trained, undercover government operative was less relatable than they’d presumed. Lee was a spy like Samantha. Like Renic. And on top of that, the sight of Lee’s sculpted physique had Decker silently vowing to spend more time in the captain’s gym than ever before.

All five of them crammed in the Nighthawk seemed to share an implicit awareness of topics they could use to kill the six-hour jump, and topics best left for a later time. Decker and Eliza were Fringe folk, and as much as Decker’s sibling-connection to Samantha had grown over the past week, she and the other two had been crucial tools in the Imperium’s dominance of the sector and constant threat to the people in the Fringe. Broaching that topic would require a little more diplomacy, preferably when Decker had a nether in his mouth.

From the front of the cabin, Samantha began tapping commands into the various glass-screened consoles around her. “We’re nearing drop time. Stealth capabilities will be engaged, and I’ve set an immediate new jump point in case we need to abort the rendezvous,” she said, her first complete sentence in hours.

Decker felt a giddy rush of anticipation at the prospect of seeing the Matilda again and being free from the cabin of the Nighthawk, which felt like it was shrinking by the moment.

“Dropping now,” Samantha said. With the same thump as when they’d dropped over Kestris, the Nighthawk was back in the sea of black and stars.

A brief tingle of nausea fluttered in Decker’s gut, quickly fading. “Telemetry?” he said.

All heads turned toward Samantha at the front of the crowded ship.

“We’re early. Nothing on scanners.”

Decker grunted. “Wait, we didn’t go wide, did we?”

He saw Samantha turn her head slightly. “I’m using the coordinates Sellivan provided. We’re exactly where we’re supposed to be.”

Decker frowned, craning his head to see out the tiny viewports. Across from him, Julian extended a hand. “If the Matilda’s systems are as you describe, the margin of error between the Nighthawk’s navigation computers and your ships may allow for some ‘wiggle room’, you might say.”

Decker sighed. “Wiggle room. Right.”

Decker shifted his position, as much as the cramped cabin would allow. His upper arm had been squeezed against Eliza’s, its hard polymer outer casing pressing into his muscles. She hadn’t seemed to mind, but across from them, Julian and Lee were piled nearly on top of each other. Neither had complained, though Lee was the one whose mass was spilling over into Julian’s space and not the other way around.

A series of beeps sounded from the cockpit. “A ship just dropped from jumpspace, right as specified.” Samantha reached up and tapped one of the control screens above her head. The field of stars out the viewport began to drift as the Nighthawk maneuvered around, the loneliest view in the sector becoming just a little less lonely. “Matilda straight head,” Samantha said, a glimmer of energy in her voice.

The four passengers all squeezed together to get a better view. Hanging freely in space was the hulking, battered-and-bruised ship that Decker called home, every mark of carbon scoring, mismatched hull plating, and pit from stray debris causing his smile to widen.

Lee squinted at the sight, then turned to Decker with a curious eyebrow raised. “That’s the Matilda? Is that an XJ-46?”

Decker met the question with a sidelong glance. “Forty-five, actually.”

Lee grinned. “Nothing wrong with that. Those ships are nearly indestructible, not to mention easy to maintain compared to newer stuff. The Navy was all touch-panels and holograms, impossible to work on if you weren’t a specialist. XJ like that could be blown half to pieces and whatever parts are left would still fly.”

A swell of pride filled Decker’s chest. His appraisal of this Lee fellow rose slightly. “I’ll let our engineer know. We call him Heavy. You’ll understand when you see him.”

Samantha turned and looked over her shoulder. She seemed to be appreciating the moment, even if slightly less than the rest of them. She reached up and turned on the cabin intercom.

“Matilda to Nighthawk, do you read us?” Manu’s voice asked over the speakers.

“Copy that, Manu. We’re back and ready to be pried out of this thing,” Decker said.

“Affirmative. Hev’s got your approach all planned, but he says it won’t be fast getting you inside the cargo bay and then out of the ship. We’ll help you get out once we’ve jumped away.”

Decker’s head fell. A burst of static sounded over the speakers and a new voice joined them. “Hey Samantha, it’s Heavy. I’ve got a new system figured out. Sellivan is sending you an approach vector now. We’re going to do this slow and easy. Just listen as I explain, and there will be nothing to worry about. You’ll be back in the lounge in no time.”

“Hey Hev, can you put a little more detail into how long you estimate ‘no time’ is? Twelve hours in this thing only broken up by a pitched gun-battle and orbital escape has left me a little… irritable,” Decker growled.

A moment of silence passed before Heavy’s voice came back. “Ah, ugh yeah, Deck. Nothing to worry about. I’ll have you back in pressurized space in about an hour. Maybe two.”

The airlock light above the interior door to the Matilda blinked from red to orange, flickering for a moment before turning green and signaling the end to Decker’s separation from his beloved ship. He’d need to ask Heavy to look into fixing the flickering airlock light.

Decker and the rest stepped into the corridor, each of them peeling off the pressure suits needed to cross the airless cargo bay as fast as the cramped space would allow. Manu had already been in the corridor waiting for them.

“Welcome back folks, happy to report that nothing of interest happened while you were gone,” Manu said, a wide smile on his face.

Decker balled-up his suit and tossed against the corridor wall. “We can’t say the same.” He gestured to Julian and Lee, still wriggling their ways out of their own bulky pressure suits. “This is Julian. This is Lee. We’ll talk more once we can all settle in.”

Manu nodded slowly. He flitted his eyes toward Samantha. “What about—,”

Decker shook his head to intervene, but Samantha raised a hand to field the question, sad smile on her face. “It’s okay. Clarke was unable to be exfiltrated. Lee is a 5E agent and a valuable asset. Like Decker said, let’s settle in first.”

 The airlock door behind them cycled again, the light above the door going from red to orange to green as Heavy made his way through. The interior door slid open, its entire space occluded by the big man’s massive orange EV suit. He ducked through, helmet visor foggy from condensation. Before attempting to remove it, Heavy turned and excitedly extended his hand in greeting, his words muffled by the helmet.

Eliza raised a cybernetic finger and tapped against the steelglass. “Hev. Helmet…”

Heavy’s shoulder’s bounced as he laughed. He raised his enormous gloved hands and unclamped the helmet’s neck coupler, lifting it up and over his sweat-soaked face. “Sorry about that. Nice to meet you all, I’m—”

“Raymond Evans,” Lee exclaimed, beaming with excitement. Decker’s face wrinkled in confusion. He looked to Heavy; the big man’s mouth had fallen open, expression frozen in anxious surprise. Lee’s expression melted to one of tacit confusion.

“You’re Raymond Evans. Right? I’ve seen you pull off a smashball helmet like that dozens of times on old game vids!” Lee said, an expectant look on his face as his gaze went from crew member to crew member. “You all knew that, right? Three-time Sector Smashball League player of the year. Two-time sector champion. I mean, it’s been ten years but… oh.”

A look of awkward dread came over Lee. Heavy’s mouth slowly closed. He shrugged, reluctant half-grin on his face. “It’s not something I really talk ‘bout anymore. I’m just Heavy now, ship’s engineer. That’s how I like it.”

Eliza smacked the back of her hand against Heavy’s arm, melodramatic cry on her lips. “Heavy, if that is your real name, how could you!?” she exclaimed before cackling and stalking off toward the crew lounge, cackling back over her shoulder.

Manu raised his hands, recusing himself from the conversation and following after her. Samantha followed, stopping to place a hand on Lee’s shoulder. “It’s good to get your first awkward crew interaction out of the way fast. It could have been much worse. Trust me on that,” she said, giving his shoulder a pat. Julian shrugged and fell in line behind her.

Lee looked to Decker; Decker shrugged back. “Hey, I ain’t been much of a sports fan. This is all you.”

Lee’s shoulders fell. “Hey, uh, Heavy, I’m sorry, I didn’t…” Lee started. Heavy clapped him on the arm, the impressively-built Lee looking small next to him.

“Eh. Don’t worry about it,” Heavy said, lopsided grin returning to his sweating face. “Maybe I can pull out an old vid or two. Something you haven’t seen. You play, I take it?”

Lee raised his head, exhaling deeply. “Here and there. Kept me sane when under assignment. Nothing like you did though.”

“Perfect. Let’s head up to the lounge,” Heavy said, giving Lee one more thunderous smack on the back that Decker felt up through his feet. With his hand pushing Lee forward up the stairs, Heavy looked back over his shoulder. “You coming up, Deck?”

“Yeah, one minute,” Decker said, relaxing-promise of his waiting nether cartridge calling to him. “Just need to grab something out of my cabin. Oh, and Hev?”

“Yeah Deck?” Heavy called back.

“Light above the airlock flickered. Think you could look at that?”

Heavy smiled, shrugging a single massive shoulder. “Sure. Nothing to worry about.”