Chapter 1: An honest job
“Tell me why I’m doing this again!” Even over the crackle of his suit headset, Jayne’s voice was full of loathing. He had just snapped his second drill bit, and not for the first time today, Wash was grateful to have half a kilometre of space between the pair of them. He bit back the first three replies that came to mind before flipping his comms switch. “Like I said, we have to drill in very precise locations. We put three bits in your pack, so you’re down to your last one. Just try and get it right, or we’re going to be in deep 擲骰子 very soon.”
Jayne discarded his broken drill bit, leaving the shards to float free above the surface he was tethered on and snapped the last bit into place, complaining all the while, “I gets why we’re drilling. What I’m not getting is why I’m the one drilling through the solid metal and everyone else is getting the easy job of ice and crumbly ol’ rocks.”
Wash gently laid is forehead against an empty part of his console and banged his head against it slowly as he spoke in the voice of a man who has repeated himself many times, “Jayne, you were the one who wanted, demanded even, the biggest, shiniest, most badass drill in the store. Now, the biggest, shiniest, most badass drill always gets assigned to the biggest, hardest, most pain-in-the-ass jobs – that’s just the way of it. Now quit whining and get going. Zoe and Mal are done and coming back aboard already.
Ignoring the mutters coming back on the line, Wash ran an eye over the new control console he had set up for this latest job. Each screen cycled to show each tow line and their anchors embedded in the largest and most dangerously sited piece of debris from the now infamous hyperbolic comet Premple-Schott/ 3P, which had scared the 熊貓尿 out of everyone in Heinlein system. It had grounded shipping all over the local planets for weeks before dumping half of its tail in the local gravity well and passing indifferently out into The Black. Jayne filled up one screen as he fought to keep his drill in place.
Wash climbed down into the cargo bay to meet Mal and Zoe as they cycled through the airlock and suffering under the ship’s gravity, struggling to drag their own oversized drills towards the racks the rental store had provided. Wash helped them unclip their helmets before updating them on the ship’s status.
Mal wearily ran a hand over his face “Y’know, that great lump’s eating into our profit with every one of those bits he breaks. I’m struggling to remember why we even took this job. It is simple they said. Over before you know it they said. Just tie a gorram rope to a dirty great hunk of rock and tow it away from the world they said! No one mentioned all the gorram metal did they? I didn’t think comets had metal in them?” He threw his hands in the air for a moment before setting back to the task of climbing out of his suit.
“Can’t rightly say Captain, but I seem to remember you saying not two days ago: ‘Zoe, a job’s a job. Serenity has got the thrust to shift any comet debris you care to name, and besides a legit job for Paquin’s council will help us get around Heinlein smoother, and if we don’t get paid soon someone is pushing this ship out of dock.’, but of course, Captain, I may have misheard you.” She threw a sarcastic smile at Mal before climbing out of her suit. “If Jayne’s going to be a while. We may as well get some tea.”
Wash left them to their tea in order to adjust Serenity’s position so she followed the lazy orbit of the asteroid around Paquin. He continued to monitor Jayne via his video feed and checked in on their comms suite. Just about everyone was still grounded until the meteorites finished falling, but much to Mal’s dismay, an Alliance Patrol Boat, the Mykonos, had been assigned to local space to deal with the aftermath of Premple-Schott. Currently the Coretex and all official feeds were full of Mykonos’s attempts to find a missing science ship. They had just put out a reward for anyone who found it. All the stranded ships on Paquin were fuelled and ready to earn some government money as soon as Serenity did the dirty work of hauling away the comet’s debris where it wouldn’t fall into the atmosphere and re-enact the demise of the dinosaurs on Earth That Was.
Jayne was just finishing hammering the last line in place when all of Serenity’s close range comms spiked with a complex burst of static for a brief moment. Wash frowned and ran a diagnostic that showed nothing was malfunctioning, he made a mental note to look at the wiring loom next time he had a free moment. Right now he had to perform another course adjustment to keep Serenity from crushing Jayne onto the rock face, despite how funny it would be from his perfect vantage point. Once the ship was steady once more, and Jayne had manoeuvred himself back aboard, Wash called everyone over the intercom.
“Well gang! All cables are in place, everyone is aboard! We are ready for stage two. Kaylee, goose the engine only after you feel us take in the cable slack. Everyone else, find something to hold on to. This may get bumpy.”
Mal and Zoe joined Wash in the cockpit and took the last two seats, buckling in as Wash adjusted his controls. With exquisite care he began to pull Serenity gently away from the asteroid until all ten of the cables were taut. A shudder ran up and down the ship and everyone was jolted sharply against their harnesses. Grimacing, Wash rubbed his sweaty palms on his vest before calling on Kaylee to coax more power out of the engine. He pulled slowly on the controls once more, teeth gritted. For a few long moments nothing seemed to happen at all. Nearly five minutes passed before the asteroid began to slow from its sluggish descent towards Paquin’s atmosphere. Mal leaned over the spare controls, flicking from one video feed to another, watching the cables for signs of stress.
“Steady Wash, we’ve got some vibration on cables 6 through 9 and 10 looks like its bending at the anchor. Slow her up some.”
“Easier said than done, Captain. We’ve got 600,000 tons of asteroid inertia hanging off our belly, if I slow up too fast that thing will come and head-butt us into the afterlife.”
“If you don’t do something, those gorram cables’ll shear. We’ll be catapulted into atmo backwards! Reduce thrust.”
“I’m doing it already! It has to be slow I tell you, or we’ll be doing a really great impression of jam on toast, where that rock is the toast.”
Zoe leant forward from the jump seat and gave Wash’s shoulder a brief squeeze. “Just keep shiny honey, just like we practiced, you can do this.”
Serenity was beset by continuous rippling vibrations as the ship strained against the tethers, slowing the asteroid down further until it was at the point of changing direction. Everyone in the cockpit had their eyes glued to the screens. Helplessly, with what felt like a dream-like slow motion, they saw lines 8 and 9- the ones embedded shallower than the rest on account of the particularly drill-unfriendly metal making up that region of the asteroid- come free of the asteroid, taking with it a giant, fracturing slab of the rock and ice of the surface. With an air of inevitability, the newly made space iceberg rebounded towards them. The splinter was bigger than a shuttle. It would punch right through the hull and out the other side as if it was nothing more than foil.
“AH! Ah... Okay! Okay. Errr, Inara, you’re up! Keep to the plan, smoothly does it. Approach from the coordinates I’m sending, and wait for my mark…Mark.”
“Right, Wash, Shuttle One coming forward… performing manoeuvres in three…two…one…”
Carefully the shuttle lined up with the drifting ice, coasting until it had the right angle before engaging engines and shooting away in a controlled arc. The shuttle’s wake hit the two loose cables and their tethered iceberg and knocked it sideways onto a ponderous trajectory that swung it into the remaining cables and clear of Serenity’s hull.
“Shiny! The shunt worked perfectly. You always were the best at flying that shuttle. Come on home.” Wash made sure to switch off the radio link before letting loose a heavy sigh of relief and turning to Mal with the grin of a man who is very happy to still be occupying three-dimensional space, “I’m glad we did a last practice of that, eh? Mal?”
Only Mal wasn’t looking at Wash, Inara’s shuttle, or even at the slowly tangling lines of cables 8 and 9 and their attendant icy satellite. He was staring intently at the sheared surface of the asteroid. Pointing on the screens to where the failed cables had broken free, he turned to Wash.
“What’s that look like to you?”
“Well Captain, if I didn’t know any better, and I knew that it wasn’t impossible…I’d say that I was looking at a hatch buried in that asteroid.”