With limited possibilities of verifying whether the distress signal was legit, Gromov undertook all counter-measures to stay on the safe side. With the help of Doll, he checked the offline database of registered spaceplanes.
The hexadecimal number FF54A123BB provided by K. Zhutra belonged to the private University of Enriched Mind; just the name itself put Gromov on the verge of vomiting.
The University of Enriched mind. Do they teach esoterics now?
"I have found no problem so far," he reported after examination of the visual footage from the wreckage. Without a doubt, there were signs of heavy damage in the motor section; the rocket nozzle and the rear of the vessel were blown away, indicating an explosion coming inside out.
"A miracle they've managed to survive," muttered Gromov. "This is the most suspicious part. If something exploded, how they kept the life-support system working? The backup battery would last for few days maximally."
"They were lucky we were nearby, sir."
"Sure, Uriah. In the vast empty Universe, they had few days to get rescued. And they have lucked out because some freight ship happened to fly by. What an amazing coincidence!"
Uriah did not give up.
"On the other hand, sir," he said. "We are not a scheduled flight, so they could not have expected us here."
"Good point. Still, I confirmed the transport with our customer. The communication might have been compromised. Or just someone at the customer's side tipped the pirates."
"Pirates!" Just the word excited Uriah immensely. "I am ready, sir, for anything."
From behind his back, Uriah picked up a plastic pipe with a knife attached to it.
"I made a spear, sir!"
Uriah probably expected the captain to laugh at him, but Gromov only inspected the handiwork, tested the joint, and gave the improvised weapon back to the hacker.
"Be sure to aim at soft body parts. I guess the knife will break apart the moment you hit a bone. And be extra careful around the eyes."
"Eyes, sir? Should I go for the eyes?"
"No. I meant mine and yours. We only have two of them, you know."
Then, Gromov focused on the extraction maneuver. With side nozzles in the manual regime, the freight ship began clumsily approach the damaged spacecraft.
Finally, the magnetic pads touched their counterparts, and the bridge had been established, creating a safe pressurized tunnel between two ships.
"Captain Gromov speaking. The air is being pumped inside. No leakage observed. The pressure is stable. Captain Zhutra, do you understand?"
From the communicator, the male voice asked: "Does it mean we can open the lid and go your direction?"
Working with civilians was troublesome. Compared to the SF personnel who had to undertake drills and emergency evacuations monthly, the ordinary folks who bought a spaceship had no idea what to do in life-threatening situations.
After the communication line had been established, Gromov realized he had to deal with two clueless people. The captain, who kept calling himself Professor Zhutra, tended to be overly talkative as if Gromov was his barbecue guest.
His Ph.D. student, Simone Yeuxbleu, seemed more reasonable, but Professor Zhutra insisted on talking with Gromov, even though Gromov hinted that he would prefer to speak with the woman. Explaining emergency procedures to that guy was a hassle.
Zhutra had a habit of doubting every Gromov's word while suggesting "optimal" ways of doing things.
Never having respect for academicians, especially not for those from private universities, Gromov ordered Zhutra to shut up and follow the instructions.
"Captain Gromov speaking. Do proceed as explained before."
The man on the other side of the line hesitated: "But, would not be better if we..."
"I SAID DO PROCEED!"
Gromov covered the microphone and continued through gritted teeth: "I'll kill him. I swear I'll kill him."
"I understand, Captain Gromov. We will proceed, then. Please relax and don't be so tense. Judging from your tone, you may appreciate an oriental massage that highly relieves mental stress. Unfortunately, Lia, my other student, had perished. Each time I felt that the tension accumulated way too much, I let her hands do the magic. We are both men with responsibility, so I can understand why you overreact a bit."
"I'll give you a massage," mumbled Gromov. He unmuted the microphone and said: "Captain Gromov speaking. The state of emergency! According to our sensors, there is a leakage in the tunnel. The oxygen level will become critical in ten minutes. I am starting the countdown. Nine minutes and fifty-nine seconds. Nine minutes and fifty-eight seconds..."
"What? What? A leakage? Captain Gromov, is it a problem?"
"Nine minutes and fifty seconds. Captain Gromov to Captain Zhutra. This is a problem, indeed. If you are unable to continue, let your student go first. There is no time to lose. We can't guarantee the safety of both of you if the extraction maneuver is delayed any further."
With no intention of leaving his spot to the lady, Professor Zhutra valiantly attacked the lid, no more hesitant, and crawled through the tiny passage.
Since the artificial gravity was turned off, Gromov, Uriah, and Doll were floating around the opening and waiting for the rescued passengers.
Finally, a man in his forties appeared, hurrying to get out of the open cover. He was an incredibly handsome fellow, blessed with dazzling black hair that formed small curls around his head.
With regular facial features, smooth, delicate brown skin, well-trimmed eyebrows, and a sporty body with broad shoulders and small buttocks, Professor Zhutra looked like a model from a fashion magazine.
Half-naked, he was wearing silk briefs with an enormous bulge in the front. The only thing that ruined the picture of perfect Adonis was his frantic movements and short, almost dwarfish figure.
As soon as he climbed out, he reached his hand with a bright smile, flashing unnatural white teeth.
"Captain Gromov? So glad to meet you finally."
"Do not touch my captain!"
With apparent dislike, Uriah pointed his improvised spear toward the approaching man. If not for Gromov, the hacker would score his first kill, for Professor Zhutra nearly git himself impaled.
"Keep it down," Gromov said in an unusually mild tone and almost reluctantly put Uriah's spear away. "And you, Captain Zhutra, follow the safety protocol. Swim back to the wall and hold the handle. We will leave pleasantries for later."
While the man was returning to the position, Gromov finished his countdown: "Minus one minute and fifty-nine seconds. Minus two minutes. Congratulations on losing the last member of your crew."
Shocked, Professor Zhutra looked at the safety lid, still opened to the tunnel. "Poor Simone. Is she dead? If I were faster, she could have survived. Shou-Should not we seal the entrance then?"
With amusement, Gromov observed how quickly the man was able to get over his grievance.
"Brilliant thinking. Few points for not being overly emphatic. But relax! I would never allow you to enter the tunnel if there were any signs of decompression."
"You were joking? But why? In such a situation!"
Gromov grinned. "Let's say I needed you a bit motivated. Your unharmed colleague is on the way now. Just a few seconds, and voila! Welcome aboard, Miss Yeuxbleu. Professor Zhutra missed you so mu-much."
The moment the woman had appeared in the chamber, Gromov stuttered. Uriah, floating beside him, almost dropped the weapon. Then, he whispered through the mouth corner.
"Do-do you see that, sir? She is in a bikini!"
"I-I can see that. I still have my eyes, Uriah!"
Taken aback, Gromov imitated Uriah's manner of sotto-voce speech, so they resembled two gangsters splitting the loot.
And the loot was bountiful. With only minuscule pieces of cloth over the private parts, the woman emerged like lightly censored Afrodite, hiding nothing from eager male sights.
Similar to Professor Zhutra, she was of smaller composture, about one meter sixty centimeters, but emanating fit vibes with round shoulders, hips, and ripped muscles on her belly.
Her breasts had a large oval base shape, not peaking much but still looking attractive, with tiny triangles of red bra covering erected nipples.
Disturbed, Gromov observed it with mixed feelings. Finally, he found the lost gift of speech and said: "What is it? Did you plan to play beach volleyball?"
Simone shrugged, "It was your request."
"No, it was not. I clearly remember my instructions. I asked you to be in your underwear, so I can see if you are not hiding weapons on your bodies. Any decent underwear would do the job. I didn't ask for a promenade in lingerie."
The rescued crew probably found Gromov's requirements preposterous from the start, so they could not understand why he was complaining now.
"Look, captain," Profesor Zhutra said. "From our talk, I understood you were afraid that we might be some space pirates. You did not specify what kind of underwear we should put on, so we use what we wear casually."
"Casually bite my ass," mumbled Gromov, who had never been a snappy dresser, and the only way how he distinguished between his underwear was by its color.
"Alright," he continued. "Since the rescue was successful, let's continue to another step. After the examination in the medical center, I will lock you up in your cabin and pick up your belongings as arranged before. Any questions?"
"Do you really have to lock us up? Aren't you going too far? Isn't our staying in underwear humiliating enough?"
Uriah, who cautiously watched Gromov's reddening face, knew that the latter was losing the patience.
"Be careful with my captain!" he blurted. "He is like a hungry hyena."
Gromov forcefully suppressed his growing irritation.
Hyena? From all animals, I can be compared to why Uriah had to choose a hyena? Why not a lion or bear or bull? Anything more majestic would do. But a hyena?
"Thank you, Uriah. I strongly recommend you spend more time with zoology books. As for you, Professor Zhutra - if you are not satisfied with our services, you may return to your ship and die in well-deserved dignity, donned in a tuxedo if you will."
"Please, Captain Gromov. Let's discuss rationally. Of course, we are grateful. But do not forget we are people with basic human rights. Aren't you afraid we will file a complaint after we come back? Think of the good name of the company you are working for."
"Are you threatening me?"
"Not at all. Just pointing out a few things you might have overlooked."
"Ah, thank you for your kind reminder, Professor Zhutra. Allow me to explain myself properly. First, we are not discussing. I am giving you orders. This is my unfortunate habit, obtained in repressed conditions of Space Forces. Second, if I wanted to humiliate you, I would give Uriah vaseline and let him check your private parts thoroughly. Third, since you insist on complaining, you can have all paper you need to file your complaints. Be warned, though. The company I work for doesn't give a damn about the human rights of cretins. Understood?"
"One more but, and you are off this ship!"
Zhutra did not look like stepping back, but his companion suddenly spoke up: "Cut the crap, Khamal. If Captain Gromov prefers to be safe than sorry, it's his business. What's the deal, anyway? Yesterday we thought we were done for; now we are here. Why should we argue with him?"
"Simone, this is one point of view on how to look at our situation. But if we yield to such an abuse of power, what is the next thing he will make us do? We have no idea for how long they are in the space. If we don't set firm boundaries naow, he may become bolder in the future. You are a beautiful woman, and he seems to be rather desperate. Haven't you noticed that the blond girl is an android sex doll? If he lowered himself to make love with an artificial woman, why should he restrain himself from raping you?"
Even though Zhutra was whispering, his agitated voice still reached Gromov and Uriah.
"Should I go for the vaseline, sir?" asked Uriah, offended on behalf of his captain. "I will introduce their sphincters to the Middle Ages."
Born in the Czech Republic, Pavel Morava is not a native English speaker. Having been twenty-two years old, he published his first book, which did not become an international bestseller. After a few other attempts, Pavel Morava abandoned the literary career for over twenty years, during which period he has been focusing on processing of plastics, programming, and raising of children.
Recently, with more time at his disposal, he returned to the forgotten ambition, fighting a futile battle with English language, procrastination, and the tendency to give up too early.
Being vivid reader of not Anglo-Saxon origin, Pavel Morava was fortunate enough to experience books from different countries, including Czech, Russian, Polish, Chinese, Swedish, Dutch, Japanese, French, German, and English. Such a vast literary variety heavily influenced his own work, which typically relies on an one-point-of-view narrative, consecutive storytelling, and elimination of unnecessary details.
Web novels and online publishing made him reevaluate his approach to style and building blocks of the text; the result should be, hopefully, lighter, shorter, and more intelligible for reading on electronic devices.