Sergei woke to the smell of smoke. It took him a second to regain his bearings. The rattling he’d grown used to during the shuttle ride from Terra was conspicuously missing, and the air smelled like machine oil instead of ozone.
Slayton. Frost had taken orders to dock at Slayton Station and support the local boss in an upcoming turf war, or so Sergei had gathered. It seemed like a standard job. Frost’s strategic skill was well known, and his men were a crack team of hand-picked fighters.
Regardless, or maybe because of that reputation, the boss’ men had been less than welcoming, and the team had set up some temporary racks in a few abandoned machinery compartments. Frost didn’t want them fighting, and the best way to keep the peace was to keep some distance. Which made it that much more alarming when Sergei heard boot steps enter the compartment - four sets. They stopped beside his bed. He recognized the acrid smell of real tobacco burning in the air.
Four men and contraband cigarettes could only mean trouble. He listened intently, trying to tell if his teammate, Grigori, was awake. All he could hear was the sound of shuffling boots next to his bunk. He continued to feign sleep, trying to buy time to come up with a plan.
“Ready?” a voice asked. Sergei braced himself.
Pain seared across his skin as someone ground out a cigarette on his chest. He took a deep breath of air rancid with the smell of burnt flesh and tobacco, then opened one eye. “Can I help you?” he growled.
The man holding the cigarette looked almost Sergei’s age, with colorful tattoos climbing the sides of his neck. He hesitated at the nonchalant response, dropping the stub. The other three men surrounded Sergei’s rack, watching him through the braces.
This was going to be bad. Sergei could hold his own in a fight, but Grigori wasn’t here, and four to one was pushing it.
The man with the tattoos, who must have been the leader, barked “Hold him down,” and hefted a length of pipe.
Sergei drew his limbs in, but not fast enough. One of his hands and both feet were seized before he could react. The leader jabbed the pipe into stomach, winding him. A rush of adrenaline hit flooded his system, like a familiar high.
He made full use of the fear. With his free hand, he lunged and grabbed the man at the head of the bed by the neck. His grip tightened as the pipe crashed into his ribs. Crying out, he rammed the man’s head up against the bunk above him.
The man went limp, and he let go, curling himself up to protect his stomach. The third blow hit his forearms. The leader wound up again, and he threw a punch into the man’s groin.
The men holding his feet swore and came around the side of the bed to help. Sergei scrambled out of his rack and charged into the bigger of the two, slamming his hand into the man’s windpipe. The second man reached back and pulled out a second pipe and looked to the door.
He was trying to run. Sergei lunged for the pipe. He immediately saw stars as something connected with his face. Instinctively, he lashed out in the direction of the blow. It connected.
His vision cleared as the leader’s pipe connected with his ribs again. Snarling, he grabbed the leader’s wrist and twisted until he heard a snap. The pipe clattered to the ground, harmless. The leader sank to the ground, cradling his wrist. Sergei grabbed him by the hair and drove a punch into his face. He let go when he saw the man’s eyes were glassy.
Sergei picked up the pipe and charged out of his quarters after the man that had run. The man’s back was barely in sight at the end of the corridor, rounding a corner. He took off after his prey.
When a figure stepped out into his path, he wound up to strike with the pipe. The figure put its hands up. “Easy, Wolf, take it easy.”
He hesitated at the sound of his nickname. Through the pain, adrenaline, and rage, it took Sergei a second to recognize the man. “Alexei, step out of my way.”
“Absolutely not, unless this is your interpretation of what old Frost meant when he said to keep the peace.” Alexei looked up at the pipe, still ready to strike, and raised an eyebrow.
The fleeing thug rounded a corner past Alexei. There was no way Sergei would find him now. With a frustrated huff, he lowered the pipe. “Frost was wrong,” he said. “We shouldn’t have let our guard down. We should have stayed on the shuttle. Where is he?”
“It sounds like you should take that up with Frost,” Alexei said, his eyes narrowing. “I saw him speaking with the American before breakfast. What happened? Why are you bleeding?”
At least Frost was safe. Sergei scanned the hallway one more time for danger. He found none. Suddenly, his chest hurt, and he tasted blood. “Our local brothers introduced themselves. I took down three of them. You saved the fourth one.” His voice was dark.
Alexei stepped closer and took the pipe from him. “Are they still alive?”
Sergei shrugged, and immediately regretted it when his ribs complained.
Alexei cast a nervous look back towards the room, and said, “Come on, then. Let’s join the others.”