Cameron was flipping the last switch on the EVA systems check when Riley’s question fell on his ears and the perceived honesty and near ignorance of the tone made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. The quiet voice in the back of his mind began to whisper. He could never understand the voices words but after so many years grifting his way across the black he knew what the whispered nothings normally meant, something wasn’t quite shiny here. Her mannerisms though clumsy, shy, and reserved were almost too perfect and polished; the only way someone got like that was a lifetime of living it or a phenomenal gift for projecting it. Cameron had spent the better part of 20 years forging identities and lying his way across the verse and he had never seen a front this well accomplished, if indeed it was a front. He mentally placated the voice in his head, now was not the time to worry over such things. Everyone played their games, no one was on this boat for a pleasure cruise and for now the instinctual feeling was just that, a gut feeling not backed by a single ounce of blackmail-able proof, for now.
He spun around on the final footlocker and set his feet down on the metal deck with a small crash. Cameron’s right hand went to his ear and retrieved the hand rolled cigarette that was behind his ear, the delicate mix of fragrant spices, oils, tobaccos, and an oh so subtle hint of highly illicit red dust hash from Mars filling the air before he even lit it. The long and slender cigarette climbed up and down in-between his fingers, twirling along a ladder made by each one of his alternating knuckles until it finally rested between his index finger and thumb. His left hand reached into his back pocket for the Cyrillic engraved, silver cigarette case, which he popped open, six of the smoke sticks were left.
“Why don’t you try a hit Lyubof, you know before I teach you how to make them? No use in learning how to roll them unless you’re going to smoke them.”
He smiled and touched the cigarette in his right hand to a random point on the case and the tip of the tobacco lit within a matter of seconds, the soft beginnings of smoke drifted up like hazy skeletal fingers to the upper decks. Without taking a drag off the lit cigarette he flipped it end over end between middle and index finger and deposited it securely in Riley’s right hand between her index and middle finger, after which he removed one of the remaining six, lit it, returned the case to his pocket, and took a long thoughtful drag on the cigarette. As he drew the smoke into his mouth and lungs, letting the spices and oils tingle across the front of his lip and red dust hash swirl through his respiratory system he was reminded of the man that had taught him the recipe for these cigarettes.
“You are of the old world Cameron, no matter how far you drift through the black you can never escape that.” The Captain of the Avalon Crown, whose Russian accent was even thicker than Cameron’s, spoke from across the common room’s table as he tapped a cigarette wrapped in dark leaf tobacco on the table’s edge. Cameron looked up. Lifting his head caused it to throb like it was in a vice, his left eye was swollen shut, and his right was ringed in puffed purple flesh and dried blood. The line of his jaw was swollen and all of the skin of his face had that swollen yellowish bruised look of someone that had just lost a fight… because he had. Apparently the Captain and some of the deck hands had not taken too kindly to Cameron spacing Finn only a few hours ago. The physical beating had been rough, it had changed his plans some, but the real fight was only just beginning.
“If you mean I was born in that ebat piss-pot city called Vladivostok, then yes call me form the world of old Malason. Now are you going to be a little huiplet sooka and talk my ear off or is there some point to me being here?”
The string of curses in bastardized versions of English, Russian, and Chinese that flew from Captain Malason’s mouth brought a painful smile to Cameron’s tight face. Get angry Cameron thought it will only make this go better for me. The Captain cursed on, shouting how he should space Cameron so that he could be rid of the problem. On and on he went until finally he began to calm down after a few drags on that cigarette he held.
“Now that you have that off your chest here is the deal old Cap-E-tan.” Cameron lifted his head a little higher, forcing his shoulders back and painfully sitting up straight, plopping his heavy boots on the table and laying his cuffed hands in his lap. “This is how it’s going to go down, those twits that Finn spaced weren’t prospectors, they were top level United Planets researchers, and real big wigs. You should really know how easy it is to fake a ships network ID. A few keystrokes here, the right modulation program there and all of a sudden ship ID’s, and location coordinates are swapped on the universal database files. You were a bit sloppy on the background work during this run Malason.” Cameron shifted his feet on the table as the Captains eyes narrowed.
“See then a lowly salvager like me programs that lock popper Finn used to send out a timed pulse beacon as soon as he pops the lock, a pulse beacon to the nearest patrolling United Planets cruiser. Which if the hacked patrol logs I got are good… and lets both you and me hope they are… should be in route and about two days out.” The Captain’s eyes widened a bit and Cameron stalled his questions with an upraised wagging finger. “Funny how your guys were so quick to kick my ass that none noticed that the lock popper was left attached to that ship out there; should run for weeks off the emergency power that boat had left.”
“Now why, you are surely asking, would I do such a thing? Insurance and a higher cut my good man. See I figured you for the kind of guy that’s not likely to give a lowly salvager half the haul from this gig and well I am the kind of guy that wants half that haul. The way I see it the Jupiter III station is two days hard burn from here, if you start burning oh like… now, you might be able to stay ahead of the cruiser that will be picking up your trail in a couple of days.”
Malason’s jaw was held halfway open and a long column of cigarette ash flaked off his smoke. Cameron took silence for consent and pressed on.
“At this point I am sure you are thinking of spacing me this very second and not worrying about a thing but that is a stupendously bad idea. See I don’t like the idea of being fed to the black and my friend on the Jupiter III station is real itchy to turn in the entire ships log and data dump that I have hacked and sent off to her. Every little dirty deed you’ve done for the past six months, all on one neat file right outside the Planetary patrol station and if I don’t get there free and clear with my 50% cut in two days, that file gets turned in. Now get these cuffs off me, tell your deckhand dogs to heal, and teach me how to make those cigarettes.”
The memory was a sweet one. Sure if Malason had called his bluff the pulse beacon would lead to his capture too but then he still had his friend on the Jupiter III station with the data file when it came time to arrange plea bargains and deals. It had worked out well for Cameron; his acquired half of that haul was United Planets experimental weapons research. Something he quickly fenced to Mr. Bristow and his organization. Those were the days he thought as he dragged on the smoke again, flying by the seat of your pants and…
A vibration shook the ship before the sound of an explosion ripped through the halls and filled the salvage bay. Cameron nearly lost his balance and caught himself in a crouched position next to a stanchion. With one hand he lifted himself up with the other he smashed the ship intercom hoping it still worked.
“Is that snot nosed pilot p'yan v stel-ku or did we just hit something?”
Another crash shook the Void and the only thing keeping Cameron on his feet was his grip on the stanchion. He exhaled a deep cloud of smoke from the cigarette held between his teeth in a sigh of frustration and exasperation and went wide eyed as the smoke drifted parallel to his face instead of up, splitting in two directions, fore and aft, as if making a beeline for the bow and stern of the ship. Cameron knew at once what that meant, the ship was leaking atmosphere. He swung his body towards the rack of suits and foot lockers without hesitation, the muscles in his arms straining to keep him upright as the ship seemed to try and do the same.
“Riley, where are you? Get to a suit if you can we are losing air!” Klaxons started wailing and computerized warnings chimed out in time with his shouts. Cameron by this time had already stripped off all but his drawers and was three quarters of the way into the jumpsuit that went on under the EVA suit. Half a lifetime spent in space and a healthy dislike of the idea of being fed to the black had taught him to be quick in these matters.