Chapter 4

The cockpit was silent. With the force of a donkey's kick, my heart reciprocated wildly, knocking my sternum. Completely stunned, I stared, horrified, into the bore of this unexpected death trap. I couldn't move. I couldn't breathe. Paralyzed and desperate for guidance, I stood fast, waiting for something else to happen. It was a strange and awkward feeling, standing there motionless wanting to take action but refusing to move. I felt an itch appear behind my ear. I wanted desperately to scratch it, but I couldn't.

I thought about gulping again. I thought about putting my hands up. I thought about backing away. I refused to move. Fear was suddenly becoming me. If I moved, would I die? What would happen to me now? To all of us? What I am sure was only a few seconds dragged on as if eternity had come.

I thought about the joy of the rush of our airlock takeoff. I thought about everyone back at IPS. No event like this had occurred before. I wondered what they would think. What would they say? What actions would they take from now on? Security patrols? Would they shut the whole organization down?

I thought about my mother.

She had called me and I didn't answer. I didn't respond. This could possibly be the last day of my life, my mother had made an effort to contact me, and I had ignored her. Guilt began to wash over me. I bit my lip to keep it from quivering as I held back tears. In lieu of fear, I now looked down the barrel of this weapon in shame.

"Go sit," my tall captor said, breaking the eerie silence while he used his gun to indicate my beloved bench. I don't know whether he knew that was my personal throne, or if he just happened to notice that it was a possible place for someone to park it. His hair was dark and slicked back. I got a mild sense of familiarity from his voice, and he spoke with a lisp.

Thankfully and obediently, I turned to walk away. Before my first step, he clenched the cloth of my shirt and yanked me back toward him. "That requires a response," he mandated, spitting into my face as his aggression and lisp couldn't contain his saliva.

I opened my mouth to respond, but dumbfounded and afraid, nothing came out. What was I supposed to say?

"Like yes, sir, or some shit," he snarled, pushing me away from him as he released my shirt. It may have been wise to be submissive at this point, but I remained silent again as I turned away. He may have had a gun in my face but he won't have my respect.

Kyle was directly in my path to the bench. I looked down at him as I forced myself to walk. I could see his chest rising up and down, his lungs filling up and deflating as he breathed. I wondered if there had been a struggle at first, if he had resisted. Maybe he'd been taken by surprise and never had a chance to react. I don't think he would've given in if he had the chance to fight.

I stepped over him, anger now filling the void in my spirit as the shame drifted off. Even though Kyle annoyed me on most occasions, he didn't deserve this. This wasn't fair.

I sat down on my bench and placed my hands on my knees. What the hell am I supposed to do now?

One of the other infiltrators began talking. "If you listen to us and obey my commands and orders, we won't harm you. But we are not your friends. We're not your buddies, we're not your pals." I felt dazed as he was speaking. This moment was so surreal. These are the things that people talk about happening, things that never actually happen. "You're going to take us to the Corange Establishment. When we get there, you will let us disembark quietly and go about our business. Any objections?"

No one made a sound. Honestly, who would object when you're being held hostage and your life is in danger? It's not like any objections we did have would be sincerely or genuinely considered.

"What happened to Kyle?" I asked demandingly. Oh no, what did I just say? A snot-nosed hostage demanding answers. Where did my confidence suddenly come from?

"Oh, is this Kyle?" Asked the same intruder, whom I was discovering was their leader, pointing his gun at Kyle while he remained unconscious on the deck. Why was I suddenly making bad choices? I didn't answer the rhetorical question. "He's fine," the leader said. "So unless you'd like to join him on the floor, I'd suggest you keep your mouth shut. I asked for objections, not stupid questions. But since you insist, I'll now take stupid questions at this time. Anyone?"

I felt like quite the idiot at this point. We were already in danger and here I was making a fool of myself, and making everything worse for the other members of the I-PLANT. The leader went around sarcastically to Jenson and Jarrod, individually asking them if they had any stupid questions and poking the nose of his gun into their ribs. They ignored his dehumanizing gestures and remained silent in their chairs, grasping their harnesses.

"How about you," He asked, squatting down and leaning over Kyle. "Any stupid questions? No? Okay, now that we have that out of the way," he stood back up, "let's continue to our destination in silence. If you have any questions, stupid or intelligent, present them to one of these fine gentlemen and they'll decide if you warrant an answer or not," he finished, indicating the other captors.

The next hour or so remained in a silence that transcended any actionable thoughts. We received no radio transmissions and passed by no other craft. The vastness of space absorbed our minds as we slowly approached the mysterious labyrinth of the Asteroid Belt.

They started small, the asteroids. Just dust and little pebbles that collided with our hauler. Exercising no prejudice, Jenson pushed us through the first layer, ignoring the small rocks the scratched the hull and making a run for the heftier pieces that could actually affect us. Even under the pressure of this unheralded hostage situation, he and Jarrod showed no deviation from their normal piloting habits.

With each layer of the belt, larger asteroids obstructed our path. They were mostly stationary with a few drifting about, but none so spontaneous that they couldn't be avoided. The hauler's auto piloting systems had the capability to detect and avoid any threatening satellite, so there really wasn't any need for Jenson and Jarrod to do anything. Perhaps they just needed a distraction from the sobering reality of our situation... Maybe drowning their minds in the practice of their trade took them to a place of normality where they weren't in fear for their lives.

In any case, their disciplined activity didn't help calm my nerves. On one hand, I was for once in my life actually hoping something would break that I could go fix and escape this nightmare. On the other hand, I wanted everything to function properly so this mess could be finished as fast as possible. If something broke that I couldn't fix, we may get stranded out here and just be helpless victims indefinitely.

I looked up from my downtrodden floor-borne gaze. There was no sense in choosing to be a victim. Certainly, I was a victim by raw definition. We all were. Perhaps even, in the grand scheme of things, these space-thugs were victims too. Maybe just led astray, maybe just misguided, maybe just let down. Abused, ridiculed, forgotten. But just like I have the choice to be a victim or not, they have the choice to be criminals or not.

I could see Jenson's reflection on the glass of the observation porthole–which is really just a giant front window, but the official nomenclature is observation porthole–as he took us through the extra-terrestrial crescendo. He looked serious. His face, from what I could see in the scanty image, was stern. His motions on the controls were aggressive but relaxed. His whole demeanor expressed confidence and competence.

His eyes seemed fixed on one point. Even though his hands were toggling and punching away, he never broke concentration. I stared at them intently. Not in a weird romantic way, but just out of fascination at his attitude. I felt undeserving to be at his side, what with my lackluster confidence and my stupid question that revealed Kyle's identity.

It only took me a few more seconds to realize that Jenson was staring directly into my eyes through the reflection. I questioned whether he could actually see me or if I was just losing my sanity in the unfolding chaos. I brought my index finger up to my forehead, pretending to scratch an itch while making it obvious to Jenson's reflection that I was questioning him.

Jenson gave a slow, downward nod of affirmation. He clearly wanted me to catch on to something. I had a feeling that he was about to switch from his pilot hat to a hero hat, and wanted me to join him; an activity in which I wanted no part, but I'm usually a sucker who succumbs to peer pressure. After vacillating whether or not to nod in agreement–questioning the condition of my heart and deciding rather quickly that I'd rather go out like a hero than be known as a sissy-boy to my peers–I imitated his head movement.

With the slightest flick of his wrist, Jenson shifted the direction of our hauler. It wasn't so subtle as to not be felt, but neither was it obvious enough to raise suspicion. I'm not sure if our captors even noticed, but if they did, they must have brushed it off as nothing more than a piloting error. This mistake of theirs would serve to work to our advantage.

We collided with an asteroid about half our size. The impact rocked us violently. I grasped the bars of my bench just in time as the hauler shook and rotated. Kyle's unconscious body rolled across the deck. My toolbag, which I never fastened shut, was lifted into the air, its contents erupting into a spray across the cockpit. The unsecured passengers, our dear guests, were likewise thrown from their positions. At least one of them took a wrench to the grape. The overhead lamps went out again, and an alarm began to sound. Blinking lights all over the control panel were our only source of illumination for now.

I really hoped Jenson had formulated a plan that extended beyond what he just did, and that he could communicate it well. But if my suspicions were correct, he and I and Jarrod would just be winging it from there.