If you don't mind cheesy fist fights I've got one at the end of this chapter. It is the first melee fighting scene in my hard sci-fi stories so I guess it is a bit of a breakthrough. The story is gonna kick into high gear in the next chapter (frankly I think I've wasted too much time on unnecessary build up).

Chapter 8

"It's GONE!" Cried Adrian Finch in astonishment as he and the Captain discovered, much to their chagrin, that the cargo-box had simply vanished. "Perhaps Max didn't park it properly and it floated from the current position...?"

"Not possible!" The Captain clenched his fists so tightly that his fingernails cut so deeply into his palms. "If the velocity mismatch were that significant we would've been able to see it moving a long time ago. That is no cargo, Adrian, the thing comes with its own propulsion unit! MY GOODNESS LOOK!"

Liu pointed at the view-port ominously as the orange cargo-box sped past the airlock doors before exploding furiously, showering the hull with a flurry of aluminum shrapnel. Both men shielded their faces with their hands instinctively as a particularly large chunk struck the view-port and bounced harmlessly off the reinforced eight-inch acrylic. Pale faced and covered in cold sweat, Finch let out something between a grunt and shriek before scrambling for cover within the safe confines of the spacesuit wardrobe.

"Are we still alive?" Whimpered the cowering navigator as Captain Liu struggled to regain composure.

"Either that or hell looks awfully similar to our ship." The Captain chuckled. "Either way I don't think it would hurt for us to alert the crew."

Warning lights, accompanied by the shrill, nerve wracking screech of the sirens, flashed angrily upon the utterance of the Captain's words.

"Well I guess they've got that taken care of," said Finch feebly, his hands pressed firmly against his ears. His hands pressed down even harder when a voice boomed from the intercom, audible even over the deafening sirens.

"Is everyone alright Captain!?" Inquired Damon Karr over the intercom, his voice calm and soothing despite its unbearable volume. "Our proximity detector picked up an explosion next to the cargo-bay door."

"Both Mr. Finch and I are unhurt, thank you for your concern". Replied the Captain before shooting Finch a dirty look. "However Mr. Finch seems to be emotionally scarred by the incident. I would recommend sending Dr. Shuey over for mental counseling..."

"I am perfectly fine, thank you very much," a red faced Adrian Finch attempted to evacuate from the wardrobe but caught his foot on a clothing rack as he made his exit.

"Glad that everyone is okay, Captain." Karr continued in a cool, collected manner. "Everyone else is safe as well. Max and I will check on shrapnel damage later. Since everyone has been alerted I am going to do this..."

The sirens, to the relief of everyone aboard, gave one last pathetic wail when Karr flipped the appropriate switch but the irksome flashing of the warning lights didn't cease until a few seconds later.

"...and now I can continue my report without having to rupture anyone's eardrums." The volume on the intercom tuned down to an appropriate level. "Another important update."

"Message from the Martians telling us exactly what the hell is going on?" asked Liu, sounding hopeful.

"Unfortunately that is the case but our revelation may be more important than that. The Martian vessel is still on course for interception and is only about 350 kilometers away, which is close enough for us to get some pretty nice pictures via the telescopic-imager. Remember how we thought it was strange that they refused to tell us the name of their ship?"

"Don't bait me, Damon, continue."

"Now we are able to make out the engine logo. MDS Bellona, Aldebaran Class transporter. The model was discontinued since the war, Captain. We also looked up the ship in question in our database..."

"Please go on."

"Missing in action since the Siege on Ganymede. We also ran a feature compare. It is the same ship as the one in the archive, Captain, down to the crater purportedly carved by gigawatt lasers during the final battle. What exactly is going on here?"

"I don't know," Captain Liu replied after a brief moment of silence. "But I intend to find out as soon as possible."

Despite the fact that the emergency alarm woke him up at the dead of "night", Sheng found it a welcoming break from the monotony of hospital life. He pleasantly recalled how Dr. Shuey, panicking as always during times of crisis, ordered the immediate evacuation of the hospital ward without the usual emphasis on his health condition. Although the walk lasted a mere five minutes Sheng thoroughly enjoyed his first exercise in days, flaunting his athleticism with leaps and hops while Shuey looked on in dismay. His only regret, besides the short duration of the walk, was the fact that they failed to even exit the centrifuge before Damon Karr announced that the ship was no longer in imminent danger. Prolonged exposure to pseudo-gravity will kill his space-legs, he figured, and he doubts whether he could competently perform once the Doctor announce him fit for duty.

"Remember to use the pads," Dr. Shuey's cheery voice interrupted Sheng's musing. "Sleep tight!"

Darkness returned to the medical bay when the brilliant white lights dimmed to an ambient magenta, providing enough illumination for the odd patient or nurse to traverse the corridors but concealing the hospital beds behind veils of purple shadows. Closing his eyes and sinking into the memory foam mattress sensuously, Sheng prepared to surrender to sleep when an impertinent sneer jerked him awake.

"Are you really going to sleep tight knowing that an explosive device coming from an Martian ship just detonated next to our ship one hour ago?"

"Oh no, of course not. I am going to stay up just in case my friendly neighbor tries to choke me with a handful of red dust." Grumbled Sheng before pulling the bed-sheet over his head. Zarathustra, however, remained unrelenting. Cackling maniacally, he reached under the bed-sheet and seized Sheng by the collar before brutally yanking him off the bed.

"This is no joke, Charles!" The raving Martian grabbed Sheng so tightly by the cuff that Sheng thought he might suffocate. "The so-called cargo box carrying the explosives is self-propelled, you dimwit. Do you still think that this is an accident?!"
"Let go," Gasping for air, Sheng pleaded as he attempted, in vain, to ease Zarathustra's vice-like grip. The Martian released him and apologized grudgingly, his voice clearly unsympathetic.

"Sorry for my methodology but I must get your attention somehow."

"And an attention getter it is," snorted Sheng while massaging his neck. "What better way to get someone's attention than crushing his bloody windpipes!"

"There is no time for banter, Charles Sheng. We must do something about..."

"And what makes you think that it is OUR responsibility? I am a repairman, for God's sake, and your Martian background will earn you a few eyebrows if you try to order the Captain around. What exactly do you think that we could accomplish here?"

"Did I ever claim that we need to save everyone aboard? No. A task that huge is the responsibility of the Captain. What I am proposing here is nothing more than saving our own 'rear ends', as your people put it, in case the Captain fails."

The heavy clacking of steel soles against the titanium floor, interspersed by raucous shouting and swearing, interrupted Sheng before he could make a proper retort.

"Probably just some kids getting drunk," said Zarathustra hopefully. The noise, however, grew louder and louder until it culminated in a series of ear wrenching thuds at the hospital door.


"So much for your drunken kids theory! Looks like we've got a lynch mob on our hands! Should we barricade the doors?"
Zarathustra shook his head warily and motioned towards the medical bay door. Raising his hand hesitantly and pressing it against the smart-screen to deactivate the lock, he tried to put on a grin before answering.

"Come in please."

One by one and with great deliberation the haggardly mob, followed by its leader, entered the medical bay. While a few men were armed with stun-prods the rest, much to Zarathustra's relief, only brandished steel rods and wrenches. The mob continued to grumble until the leader silenced them with an authoritative shush.

"The Captain wishes to see you, replicant." the leader's smug baritone revealed him to be no other than Carl Barge, the chief engineer. Several men chuckled vulgarly in consent before Barge silenced them once more. Zarathustra, however, remained unconcerned and strode forward to confront Barge, causing a few mobsters to recoil apprehensively.

"I can't say that this is unexpected," the mob remained wary despite Zarathustra's friendly demeanor. "Can you enlighten me on the purpose of this visit?"
"You can't be that dumb, can you?" Barge feigned exasperation. "The Captain, against better judgment, decided to rendezvous with a replicant ship and now they've repaid our kindness with improvised explosives. Your expertise in the area is needed."

"And if I refuse?"

Carl Barge whipped the collapsible stun-prod from his pocket and tuned up the voltage until electric discharges erupted from the tip of the prod, sizzling as they snaked through the air like miniature thunderbolts. He casually increased the beam length until strands of plasma danced mere inches from Zarathustra's face.

"It looks like I really don't have a choice here," said Zarathustra out of politeness rather than fear. "I'll go..."

"Like hell I'll let that happen!"

A fist connected so solidly with Barge's face that it caused his teeth to crack like cheap porcelain. Barge, despite the pain, quickly recovered and attempted to lash his attacker with the electric-prod. A follow up kick not only disarmed him but knocked the spinning prod into his chin, causing him to yelp pathetically as the plasma seared his face.

"First you try to set up the Reverend and now treating our guest like dirt you insolent pig," shouted Sheng as he raised a screaming Barge to eye level by the collars. Several mobsters tried to assist but backed off predictably when Zarathustra stepped forward to confront them.

"You think you can get away with this nonsense just before you are chief engineer?" Barge winced as Sheng tightened the grip about his neck. "Looks like we are wrong aren't we..."

"You are mad," Barge whimpered, blood seeping steadily from his engorged, quivering lips. Sheng simply responded by ramming him against a medicine cabinet.

"You bet I am! How would you like to work under a cheap, two-faced, intolerant bastard for a good two years of his life, huh?! Now get the hell out of here before I..."

"It is alright, Charles."

Paralysis seized Sheng's as Zarathustra gently tapped his funny bones from the behind, forcing Sheng to release Barge, who, limp in his beat up state, dropped like a sack of potatoes.

"If the Captain needs to see me it is best that I get there as soon as possible," the Martian continued. "If I could help the Captain prevent any upcoming calamity we may not have to resort to..."

"You can go as soon as I scrub this snot off the floor and out of the medical bay," said Sheng as he gave Barge a kick to the ribs, interrupting Zarathustra before he could reveal any details regarding his "plan". Barge rose to his feet slowly and limped towards the hospital doors, where he collapsed at the feet of his own mob. Two men propped him up hurriedly while the rest retreated hastily.

"Assaulting a superior, Sheng, you are DEAD!" Rambled Barge as he was dragged out the hospital door. "He haven't seen the last of me you sonofabitch..."

"I guess I can go now." said Zarathustra as quiet returned to the medical bay once more. Sheng, who was busy scrubbing blood from the floors, did not seem to have heard him.

"I can't say that I didn't appreciate you standing up for me like that," the Martian added while Sheng paused from his chores to retrieve a fresh sham-well.

"Keep in mind that I did that for Reverend," said Sheng as he resumed scrubbing. "Still can't understand why the Captain chose this intolerant buffoon as our Chief Engineer. Promise me that you stay clear of that man from now."

"I'll make sure of that." Zarathustra headed towards the door. Before he could exit, however, he heard one last incoherent mumble.

"Sure feels nice to choke the hell out of someone else for a change."