Homecoming - Day 8 & 9

I wrote a bit yesterday but it wasn't enough to post, so I've merged it with this into a slightly longer post for today.

Every instinct screamed at him to move slowly and carefully, to avoid making noise. He forced himself to ignore that instinct; there were few things life as an office researcher could teach about stealthy movement, but one of those few things is that people ignore the familiar and expected. Please, please assume I’m one of you, he thought to himself as he approached the cargo bay hatch. Or better still, don’t hear me at all. That’d work for me, too.

He had his hand on the hatch lever when he heard the sound of boots nearby; someone was coming. He panicked, jammed the lever down and bolted into the cargo bay, then silently cursed himself as the muffled sound of voices reached him.

He was frozen with indecision; if he ran for the hiding space, his supplies would be sure to make noise. On the other hand, noise was the least of his problems if they saw him because he was too slow.

Must move, now! he thought, and raced for the hidden compartment. He hurled himself inside and wrestled the door closed; it made far more sound than he had in his rush, but once it closed with a satisfying thump, he breathed a sigh of relief anyway.

He double-checked that the hatch was secure; it closed and locked fast, and was heavy enough that it wouldn’t sound any more hollow than any other bulkhead on board. He was just settling back to choose something to eat out of his supplies.

“Maybe they heard me, Aru; I’ll be shocked if they didn’t, but they’ll have a hell of a time finding me.”

“They will have help shortly. The larger ship is still on course.”

“Wonderful, thanks for that,” he sighed. He felt better in the hidden compartment, but couldn’t stay there for long. “Aru, what do we know about these guys so far?” He realized he currently knew very little. He didn’t even know their motives, he’d just instinctively, almost intuitively thought they were hostile.

“They’re being very methodical in their search of the ship,” the bot responded. “I’ve overheard several conversations concerning the location of several specific objects they’re seeking.”

That caught his attention; the researcher in him pounced on the obvious questions. “Specific objects? Why would they be searching this ship for them? What could they know about the ship? How could they have found out?”

A wash of new sound caught his attention; the boarders were in the cargo bay. “Why’d they wait so long to search the bay?” he whispered.

“Unknown. One of the intruders is of the opinion that the items they’re looking for are more likely to be found in personal quarters than in the cargo bay. Several of the others disagree, but went along with it.”

They were methodical in their search of the bay, as well. There was little Corwin could deduce from the sounds; the bulkhead hatch was too thick to hear any detail, but Aru fed him updates from the maintenance chassis parked outside. As the only visible piece of cargo on the ship, they were giving it a great deal of attention.

He ate his meal—some sort of dehydrated pasta dish, not dissimilar from the cafeteria foods he ate at work, he reflected—and thought about what Aru had told him, mostly to keep himself calm. If they were looking for something specific, they knew the ship and how to find it. That meant they knew it should have someone on board. They’d be watching for him.

Cold sweat ran down his back as he realized just how lucky he’d been with his gambit to reach the cargo bay.