Protocol had its place, and proper time. Now was that time. Gunnar allowed that he had been only just slightly remiss, occupied as he and Ali were, even after lift-off. It was time he presented himself to Leya's Captain. Past time, actually.
Gunnar found Leya's bridge where he remembered it: the shielded capsule of a room at the center of the ship. He ignored the pair of elites that flanked the open hatchway and, like awestruck children, eyeballed him. Outstretching his arm, so stopping Ali from striding directly inside, he announced himself, "Requesting permission to enter, Captain."
Her combat suit chest ribbing pressing against his arm, Ali muttered at his shoulder, "Haven't time for Please, Gunnar."
"Granted, Skjold. Helm, ease off." barked the old man, his bark vaguely familiar.
Leya's night ascension from Antarctica continued full around the bridge dome, like the whole of the sky lay just outside the reach of the hand. The viewer had always reminded Gunnar of sitting inside an eyeball. A slightly shuddering eyeball. And the actual shuddering only just perceptible under his feet. Those engines fighting Earth's hold, and rocketing the old mule into the black. And then, there, Luna began sliding in from the starboard, a glaring half-wheel of cheese.
A girl that might have been Ali's twin held the helm. Like the ancient astronauts, she looked almost comfortable to Gunnar, the girl in ship's blue tipped back, harnessed at shoulders and hips into the central chair: more a hardly padded and overly built alloy frame overly fixed to the slatted decking. Decking and frame unembellished, functional, and just close enough to pleasing to Gunnar's eye because he liked the silvery gleam of that alloy. That helmsgirl's feel for the ship, as they called it, and her brain and its neural implants, could conceivably fly them to the stars.
By helm's left, young as children, to Gunnar's sense, two more adepts reclined in their frames. Engineer. And ship's systems.
By helm's right, one frame stood empty, the harness hanging, the fixing buckle tinkling just perceptibly against a frame stanchion. The figure who should properly have lain in his station instead paced behind the other three, as if the old man had more places to be and more to see to. Amundsen, his name.
"Captain Amundsen. Gunnar Skjold. Ali Shansee. I commend your crew on smooth ascension —"
"We are busy, Skjold — Leya does not like cold starts."
"Leya can make orbit, Captain? — Break orbit? — Achieve trans-Luna? — Please, be frank."
Captain Amundsen hovered by helm's ear. "I see your lights all green, Helm. Hold her steady. Skjold, speaking frankly, Leya can take you past Pluto, if I say so. I won't have to say so, though, will I?"
"Not Pluto, Captain —"
"That is most good to know, Skjold. Most cold past Pluto —"
"But, two things, Captain. First: once trans-Luna, to roll Leya away from the sun. Put cargo Hold 8 on the dark side."
Captain Amundsen shot Gunnar a frown over his shoulder.
"You...operatives...that the word, Skjold, yes? See, I remember. And remember enough of thirty years now, so I can guess whatever you operatives put in 8 can only bring trouble, once more, to my Leya."
Only then Gunnar recognized in Captain Amundsen's lined face the blue fixing stare of a once young, once very useful ship's junior engineer.
"Captain Amundsen. Once Leya is trans-Luna, and she has rolled, you should then blow the cargo door on 8."
"And lose a perfectly good cargo door, Skjold? —"
"Imperative to drop 8 space-cold quick as you can order it, Captain."
"Then...whatever from Antarctica you put in 8...not only will be trouble for my Leya — also it is melting, yes? —"
Gunnar saw that useful junior engineer, there again, just behind Captain Amundsen's suspicious glower. And Gunnar knew he could be trusted, as before.
"Bio-hazard...is all you need to know...Captain."
Ali muttered, "More than he needs to know." Her warm breath grazed Gunnar's ear.
"Your Skjold's a man for tradition." said captain Amundsen, staring past, and his shining eyes evidently enjoying Ali's attributes, "The same as in the days of sailing ships, the Captain very nearly God. And God knows a thing or two, this captain can say."
The helm spoke, like a child dreaming, "Approaching trans-Luna, Captain."
Gunnar half-turned, but Ali already was sprinting away. She called him through the bud in his ear: "On it."
The crew Ali encountered stood aside as she flew the corridors, re-tracing the way, and at last parted the pair of elites that guarded Hold 8. Stationing herself at the window in the control booth, quite pleased with herself hardly puffing at all for all of that warming exercise, she regarded the objective below, apparently a netted ice block on its transport sled gleaming, and wetly, under the yellow buzzing hold lamps; and she listened through her link with Gunnar on the bridge.
"The years have been kind to your kind, Skjold."
"I do feel the years, Captain."
"Very good. Systems, cargo hold 8 lock-out initiate."
"Hold 8 lock-out initiate — Systems, Aye."
"ATTENTION. HOLD LOCK-OUT IN PROGRESS. EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY."
Beyond the glass, suddenly the hold lamps were flashing, and the hold evacuation alert blaring. Ali heard the servo whirring, locking the access door anyone might try from control booth down inside the cargo hold.
"Helm. Attitude. Roll eighty starboard."
"Roll eighty starboard — Helm, Aye. Helm answering through sixty...seventy...eighty, Captain."
"WARNING. LIFE SIGN DETECTION. HOLD LOCK-OUT IN PROGRESS..."
"Moment, Skjold. Systems...where?"
"...Life signs...Two, Captain."
"One?...or two?...Systems, where? — and run your checks —"
"Captain," said Gunnar, "your systems should be detecting Ali, in the booth. Also...an anomalous reading from the cargo below in Hold 8. I can only add that the anomalous reading should not be detectable, not much longer, now that your Leya's attitude adjustment has rolled Hold 8 away from the sun. Ali, you are standing by in the booth?"
"Where else, Gunnar?"
"My secondary is safe, observing from the booth, Captain. Please continue."
"...Thanks, Skjold. At my speed. Systems, check Hold 8 life sign detection."
"...One...human...control booth. Override hold fail-safe, Captain?"
"Override — Go. And purge atmosphere — Go, Systems."
"Systems, Aye...Hold 8 fail-safe...disabled. Hold 8 purging."
Ali flinched. 8's purging started only partly as she expected.
Air roared beyond the glass. Peering through, smirking, she saw this Captain Amundsen of Gunnar's had the extractor ports up, below, along the three walls. And the enormous outer door of the hold still there. By her shoulder, the access door down to the hold creaked, and creaked again, setting in its seals.
Over the link, she could just make out this Captain Amundsen sounding quite jolly with Gunnar: "So I keep my perfectly good cargo door, Skjold."
Leaning herself into the window bubble, Ali gasped. Saw below. The netted ice block. Moisture flashing to vapour.
Too late, she grasped the inevitable — that she of all operatives might have prevented.
"GUNNAR! — HALT PURGING! — WE'RE LOSING CONTAINMENT!"
Across the entire block, the deepening vacuum released eons of Earth's air dissolved and suspended in the ice. Already, the netting sagged about the crumbling, boiling mass. Essentially, Leya held a comet in her hold.
It seemed a very long time to Ali. However much, or little, of the hold air that remained stopped its roaring beyond the glass. Gunnar called. He might have been for some time.
"...Ali. Ali. Report the damage. Ali..."
Purging the atmosphere had frosted the floor, walls, and outer door of Hold 8 nearly to the ceiling, and the booth and its windows. Half the block from Antarctica had vaporized. The top of the dark geo-mass within lay exposed.
Ali took a single steadying breath. "The geo-mass is exposed, Gunnar. We must consider the hold contaminated. Prepare Farside. Robotics only."
She figured she should not hide from the fact of it. She should admit to Gunnar that she should have known. The admission heavy as a ball in her throat.
But Gunnar then stopped her thinking any more on that.
"Captain Amundsen. Please alter course."
"Dare I ask Why, along with the Where To, Skjold?"
"The...cargo is not in a state fit for handover."
"I got that. And you need my Leya. As before, yes?"
"I am gratified you know my mind. Yes, Captain. Please do not advise Farside of Leya's course change."
"The Where To, Skjold?"
"Perhaps the mining moons. Away from the sun, for a start. We...are being pursued. And, regrettably, by association, your Leya, and her fine crew, Captain. I offer my own apology."
"Yes, Skjold, as before. Go away. See to your cargo. Let me see to keeping my Leya away from your trouble."
It seemed the best option: flight deep into the cold of the outer system. And more off the map than the inner worlds might know: which certainly should confound their enemies, at least for a while. Perhaps even long enough, Ali considered, that she might remedy the mess below in Hold 8. And contain the God-seed, somehow.
"The girl. The suicide..."
"Marcella. Perhaps she can be of use, now that the geo-mass is exposed."
"It is her field of specialty, Gunnar."
"I'll fetch her, Ali."
The link remained. In her ear Gunnar's breathing steady, as an athlete's, as Ali could see him in her mind shouldering through the ship. He was Gunnar Skjold, after all. The legend.
Inexplicably, she shivered. The booth was shirt-sleeves warm. Her combat suit the best. Its cooling and heating the best. Wearing the pan-view helm, she might...exercise in the harshest environments. Still leaning herself inside the window bubble, for an odd instant the glass of the bubble caught Ali's attention. That shielded glass.
Silly, she chided herself.