Watching and Waiting


A science fiction story in Red Scythe by Gary Bloom

Characters: Tudor Lom, Hyde Fellows

Hyde Fellows and Tudor Lom sat quietly in the cockpit of their small shuttle. The systems were dialed down to their lowest possible power, rendering the pair nearly undetectable. It also meant that activity needed to be kept to a minimum, with the cooling and ventilation systems operating at such a decreased rate. Fortunately, Hardbarger had sent them out on a scouting job, not retrieval. As another drop of sweat rolled down Hyde's nose, he realized his minimalist interest in moving, and just how badly he wanted to go home, and shower.

"I can't believe they still haven't sent out a freighter," Tudor whispered. "The schedule these people keep is killing me. What's it been, five hours already?"

"Six hours, nine minutes," Fellows replied, "and I told you already, you don't have to whisper. We're in space, not under water, their sensors can't hear you."

"Yeah, yeah, old habits die hard."

Both men returned to silence. Tudor had spent a number of years working as a lab tech in Gnisia and Troy, ocean floor cities on Earth. Space was still a bit new to him, and while enough lessons about survival beneath the waves translated, some things still tripped him up from time to time. Had the man known as Hardbarger not approached him, Lom would still be living out his monotonous life beneath the seas. Those days, however, were a rollicking stark contrast to his current predicament. The man had signed up for the pirate life thinking of action and adventure, not sitting and watching. He sighed but kept quiet, not wanting to waste their current clean air.

Hyde Fellows glanced at the gauges, the red light making them a little tougher to read. As the minutes ticked by, so passed their clean, breathable air. Discomfort and heat was one thing, but Oxygen was the solitary necessity when parked on the side of a rock, floating in the vacuum of space. Hardbarger had sent out three crews, three times this week. The Red Scythe's leader was trying to establish a schedule for the delivery freighters leaving this much larger asteroid before them. Iron ore was slowly being extracted from the huge rock, and shipped off to Mars on a daily basis. It wasn't the ore that the pirates were after, however.

Every day, the undersized freighter was filled to capacity with iron ore. The ship was more of a space-worthy barge than one of the typical freighters traveling the more wide-open space lanes. Still, without fail, the slim ship navigated the asteroid belt daily and brought the ore down to Mars for processing. The group could easily attack the ship along the way, only two pilots and a spare hand ever riding along, selling the ore on the black market. Stolen ore was hard to unload more than once without calling attention to yourself. There in was the genius of Hardbarger's plan, and what currently provided The Red Scythe their largest cash flow.

On the return from Mars, every day, the freight was filled with equally necessary water and foodstuffs. Far more precious than even the iron, water fetched a high price and had no telltale signs like radioactive signatures or brand stamps found on the ore. In one case, in fact, Hyde was sent to sell stolen water back to this very same mining group. He stifled a chuckle at that thought. This was the third mining outfit that they had targeted to observe, and eventually, it would pay off. He and Lom had only witnessed the return of the freighter; this time they had to wait for the launch.

Had they gotten out into space soon enough, the team would have witnessed the return once again, and been done for the day. Another pair in the organization had decided on a practical joke, unfortunately. With their alarms shut off and clocks changed, both men overslept, and now sat hoping that the day's launch would be on time.

"Remind me to put glass in Perine's food the next time we're at dinner together," Tudor said, just barely above a whisper.

"Yeah," Hyde nodded, "I'll grind it for you."

Another twenty minutes passed, feeling to the two men as if it were hours. Finally wary of the percentages dropping any further, Fellows reached out to key the air filters back on. Just as he reached over to the dash, Lom's hand shot out and grabbed him with his left. Holding up one finger, he pointed out at the larger asteroid before them. A bright light knifed through the darkness and something moved off the rock. The ore barge was finally leaving. Hyde made a note of the time; it was within three minutes of the other recorded launches. Seemed like they would be in business soon.

The pair watched as the mining transport pulled farther away. When he felt comfortable that they were out of range now - water sensors still coloring his mindset - Tudor flipped on the air scrubbers himself. Relieved as the cooler air started to whisper into the cabin, Hyde set about prepping for the return home. He re-engaged the temperature control system, switched over to the normal lighting and began firing sequence on his engines. When all was in readiness, Fellows punched the button and their landing claws released the hold on the rock. Floating gently away on short bursts of air, he maneuvered the shuttle out, then set to navigating their way home. The duo had a positive report to deliver to the boss, and then a score to settle with a pair of jokers.