The view of the black would’ve been breathtaking if she weren’t slowly suffocating in a suit that was supposed to keep her alive. Even the heads-up display was reduced to a quarter-inch piece of Lexan. No alarms told her that she wasn’t getting oxygen. A severe chill pressed against her, leeching the warmth from her bones. She could feel the X-shaped bruise forming across her torso. Erika closed her eyes and willed the sea of glowing emeralds, rubies, and sapphires from her sight.
No engineer worth her training couldn’t feel a tether’s gentle tug against her EVA suit. But, Erika thought, I’m not on an EVA.
The tug was there nonetheless. The thin material of her launch suit wasn’t designed for extended forays into the black of space. She tried to cross her arms to warm her torso, but her arms splayed akimbo. She had gotten used to the soft roll of Egeria-13, and like it was a religious pilgrimage, she had always found a portal to watch Sol rise during each of the three times it happened every Earth day. She was used to the microgravity produced by the spud’s nineteen kilometers a second, and now that it was gone, she felt an impending dread in the pit of her stomach.
Her tether tugged at her again. The lurch pained her bruises, and her arms floated into her field of vision for a moment. Her eyes welled with tears. Her left glove appeared fine, but her right glove was missing, as was everything below her forearm. Erika sucked in a breath. Cold radiated up her right arm and settled in her elbow.
Another tug, and another brief moment of her limbs coming into view. Some metal, scorched, and black against the white of her suit reflected ambient light. Stress was evident from the bubbled edges of the metal. Even in that moment of visibility, she could see that her suit terminated at the metal, brown and black residue ran up her suit arm.
What the hell is that tug? she thought as her arms floated into view once again.
Her left glove twitched. No, she thought, not my glove, my fingers.
She clenched her fist, and her left hand slowly responded. She could feel the thin material of her launch gloves against her knuckles.
When the tug happened again, she tried to memorize what she saw of her left arm. The white material formed around her arm, and it appeared to be the proper color. She rotated her elbow and felt the material shift against her forearm and elbow. The tugs were happening at regular intervals, and she braced herself against the impending pain.
She may have wanted to brace herself, but shock defeated her plans as her vision filled with debris from the Kerwood. Beyond that, she caught a glimpse Egeria-13. To her, it looked like a gray, partially deflated soccer ball. They were moving away from the rock, but in what direction?
Dark shapes danced at the edges of her vision, and she was tugged back once again.
How long have I been out here? she wondered silently. The suit couldn’t hold much oxygen. The explosion couldn’t have been very long ago since she was still breathing. She tried to bring her right arm forward to check the display on her forearm cluster, but her right arm refused to obey her orders.
Damn that incessant tugging! she thought as more debris came into view. Is that my console? Her damage control panel floated by; it’s trajectory now different from hers. Her heart raced, her breath came faster. She commanded her tired left arm into service and reached for her chest. The slightest contact made her wince, but her gloved fingers found the gap between her suit and the safety straps. I’m still strapped in, she thought.
She was grateful that she followed Crazy Ade’s order and suited up. Something collided with the side of her seat and spun her into an odd rotation. Her center of gravity was somewhere between the tether and her helmet. She saw the black, then the Kerwood with Egeria-13 behind it, and finally a body. She thought she recognized the body as her partner in Damage Control. He must’ve been closer to the breach, she thought. Poor Christopher. The tug happened again, and her rotation reversed: Christopher, then the Kerwood and Egeria-13 and finally the black. She even got a glimpse at her tether. It was the wrong color and the wrong shape.
Panic washed over her like a wave. It wasn’t a tether. Her eyes focused on the stranded fiber optic cable that kept her from oblivion. The only bundle that big and that long was the 4MC or Damage Control Circuit. It ran the width of the Kerwood from Damage Control to Auxiliary Propulsion, right under the launch tunnel. It connected her terminal directly to the Chief Engineer’s console in Aux.
Another tug and rotation reversal brought the gaping hole that should’ve been the starboard aft launch thruster into view. A suited figure gripped the fiber optic cable with both hands and staggered back into the gaping maw of twisted and burnt metal and plastic.
Closer and closer she drifted toward the Kerwood. Each tug brought her closer to… To what? she thought. The Kerwood had apparently suffered a catastrophic explosion. Did it make any difference if she died in the black, or on board the Kerwood?
The suited figure appeared again and waved three of it arms. Wait, thought Erika, too many limbs.
The figure bent down at the waist and gripped the fiber optic cable. It neatly stacked the slack cable; it’s extra limbs floating freely. No, not limbs. Erika focused on the suited figure with each rotation. That person had tied another launch suit around their waist, the arms expertly wrapped and tied to stay out of the way. The legs floated freely, and the figure had to position them each time they did another lap with the fiber optic cable.
The slender figure reached for Erika’s damaged right arm and froze. Erika floundered with her left arm, and her fingers made brief contact with her rescuer. On her next rotation, the figure seized her left arm and drew her into an embrace, cognizant of the damage to her right arm. Their helmets touched, and Erika looked into the bloodshot eyes of her savior.
* * *
Days Until Home: UNKNOWN
Grip the cable with both hands.
Make sure the damn thing won’t catch on anything.
Walk the length of what’s left of the launch passageway.
Adelaide performed it as a checklist and as a mantra. She didn’t even know if the other engineer was alive. She suspected that the limp suited figure was either Erika or Jeremy. The fiber optic cable still attached to the broken console bracket told her that it was one of her shipmates from Damage Control. She hauled the fiber optic cable with purpose. She needed competent engineers to help fix whatever disaster had crippled the Kerwood, so she continued reeling in the suited figure still strapped into their launch station chair.
She often had to pause and adjust the spare launch suit arms wrapped around her waist. She had tied it so she could see the display on the left forearm. It was an ugly hack, but without an atmosphere, she was forced to operate on the fly as it were. The display in her helmet didn’t want to show the information from the co-opted suit, thus the need for the readout to be visible from her waist. That in itself was difficult – the bulky launch helmet forced her to stop and hold it steady so she could see it. She needed to have two hands on the helmet and one to hold up the display. A problem easily solved by even the newbiest of engineers: she wrapped the fiber optic cable around the free-floating arm. Another ugly hack, but with the situation as dire as it was, what else could she do?
She reached for the suited figure and froze when she saw a mangled display bracket embedded in the right forearm of the suited figure. It ran through the suit arm and out the other side. The hand was fused to the metal, bent at an unnatural angle.
One more rotation, she thought as she prepared to grab the figure’s other arm.
A quick look over her shoulder to see the length of fiber optic looped around a door standing defiantly against the destruction like a single tooth in a rotting mouth, and she lunged for the figure.
Her hands clamped on the arm, and she spun the figure into an embrace. Erika Ängström’s wide eyes stared back, then filled with tears. Damn that woman’s ugly when she’s blubbering, thought Adelaide.
Adelaide reached behind Erika and with a pair of copper shears sliced through one of the bolts that connected the launch chair to the straps. Trying the release latch was pointless. Even if it were operational, the cold of the dark would’ve rendered it inoperable. Erika sobbed and shook in her arms as she worked to cut through another bolt. The bracket embedded in Erika’s arm had likely kept the young engineer alive. It kept pressing against Adelaide’s leg as she worked. When all four bolts were severed, Adelaide stepped back into the Kerwood, and the chair tumbled away before the fiber optic cable arrested its escape.
Adelaide pressed their helmets together. “Erika!”
Erika’s face was a pinched, quivering wreck. Tears floated away on their own trajectories in Erika’s microgravity. They ricocheted off of each other and the inside of her helmet.
“Erika!” Adelaide yelled, “Get ahold of yourself!”
Adelaide wanted to smack the woman’s cheek, but the launch helmets made that impossible. Adelaide gritted her teeth and grabbed the thin oxygen scrubber tube just below Erika’s helmet and squeezed it closed. She was amazed the system still worked at all with the forearm cluster destroyed.
Erika stopped crying and lazily pushed her good hand against Adelaide’s arm trying to fix what she could only be subconsciously aware of with her HUD non-operational.
Erika stopped crying and looked into Adelaide’s eyes. Only a few inches were separating them, but it might as well have been across a chasm.
Adelaide’s eyes flickered to her left, and Erika nodded in reply. Adelaide released her sometimes lover and examined Erika’s right arm. The six-inch by ten-inch bracket had rounded corners, so there wasn’t a puncture risk, but it was unwieldy. Adelaide stared at the seal of melted fiber, metal, and flesh and whistled low.
She pressed their helmets together again. “We need an environment and some gravity to look at that arm.”
Adelaide sighed. “We need to find ChEng and get you a new forearm cluster. Tether?”
Erika winced and nodded.
Adelaide found a round binding latch and worked it around Erika’s bicep. It was designed to secure fitted pipes together with a layer of flexible sealant where excessive heat wouldn’t allow the standard epoxy to set. It would make a passable tourniquet if the need arose.
“Good thing you’re left-handed, huh?” Adelaide retorted when she finished with her makeshift tourniquet, and their helmets made contact again.
Erika rolled her eyes and asked, “What’re we gonna use for a tether?”
Adelaide grabbed a bundle of wires sticking out of a bent conduit, braced her feet against the sides of a rupture, and pulled with all her might. Five feet of wire came free, and Adelaide cut it away with her copper shears. While she had to work at the bolts that held Erika to her chair, the shears did a quick job of the bundle of wires.
“I hope that wasn’t important,” Erika said when their helmets were pressed together again.
Adelaide shrugged and tied one length around Erika. She struggled with her end of the bundle; Erika’s one working hand of little use.
A helmetless miner in a launch suit floated by and Adelaide reached out to stop it. She gripped the arm and squeezed the release mechanism of the forearm cluster. She pulled a flat screwdriver from the pocket she had placed the copper shears and worked the pair of wire connectors away from the suit. Clutching her prize, she let go of the miner.
Erika reached with her good hand to stop the miner from floating out the breach. Adelaide grabbed Erika’s forearm and pried it away from the corpse.
Erika’s helmet collided with Adelaide’s. “We can’t just leave him!” Erika declared.
Adelaide nodded, and reached for the miner’s pocket, tore open the Velcro flap, and retrieved the toolkit that each suit was supposed to have.
“Good thinking,” Adelaide said when she pressed their helmets together.
“That wasn’t what I meant,” Erika said through clenched teeth.
“Look, we’re likely dead already, but if by some miracle we can get this tub running again, we’ll need to dispose of the bodies anyway.”
“We’re fighting for our lives here. One and a half AU from Earth. Even if they knew we were in trouble, it’d still take them four weeks to get to us.”
Erika stared. “There could be unregistered ships here.”
Adelaide scoffed. “Anyone out here without conglomerate backing is probably not someone we want rescuing us.” She broke their connection and held the forearm cluster over Erika’s working arm. The right-handed display would be backward for Erika, but it was a small inconvenience to allow Erika to read her suit’s parameters. She twisted the wire connectors to make it work and was satisfied when she saw Erika’s eyes dart around the helmet visor as she read the output on her HUD.
They made eye contact once Erika had surveyed her readings. Erika nodded, and the duo floated into a dark Kerwood in search of Jeremy and maybe their salvation.
* * *
Days Until Home: UNKNOWN
Jeremy watched a steady feed across the display. Everything was red. Warnings, klaxons, they all blurred. Jeremy squeezed his eyes closed and tried to clear the moisture from his eyes. When his hand struck the smooth Lexan of his helmet, he scowled and reached for the collar latch. A hand grabbed his arm.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea, sir?”
Jeremy paused. “I think so…” he stared at the nameplate on the mining suit. “Siebert.” Siebert is a rotund man, thought Jeremy. If we survive the day, he’s gonna have to tone up.
Siebert removed his hand, and Jeremy slowly rotated his collar to release the seal between his helmet and his suit. He tasted the air and grimaced. Siebert tried to latch the collar, but Jeremy pushed his hands away. “It’s fine,” he declared, “I’m just not used to the taste of the air here.”
Siebert eyed the fiber optic cable snaking out of a removed panel in the wall, and the electrical wiring popping out of the seal in the hatch. “That’s safe?” he asked pointing to the electrical wires they ran over the trunk hatch and closed the door on it.
“Well,” Jeremy started, but decided that he should spare the nervous miner the particulars of atmospheric mechanics. “We’ll be fine.” Adelaide was uncanny when it came to engines. Erika was the best zero-G mechanic he had ever seen. But when it came to atmosphere, no one on the ship could match the keen mind of Jeremy Thompkin, the Chief Engineer of the Kerwood. Adelaide came close, but she just wasn’t as good as he was.
“What about the other hatches?” Siebert asked, and stared up the trunk at the regular indentations marking each of the Kerwood’s decks.
Jeremy tapped the panel lashed to handholds recessed into the bulkhead. Colored dots moved slowly about the ship schematic. “We’ll have about a three-minute warning before anyone gets to a hatch. The panels are locked down, only an engineer or the bridge crew would have the codes to override it. I trust my engineers.”
“What about those pricks in their blue suits?”
Jeremy shrugged. “We’ll have about three minutes warning.”
Siebert again looked up the escape trunk that ran the entire height of the ship.
“Siebert,” Jeremy said, “what’s your first name?”
Siebert kicked gently off the bulkhead and rotated his body, so he floated above the display. “Matt,” he replied.
“Well, Matt,” Jeremy responded, “what’s your specialty here on the Kerwood?”
“Disposal,” Matt said, pride squaring his shoulders.
“When I fell into your lap, you followed my orders, and we got to safety. A lot of the Kerwood’s crew didn’t make it.”
Siebert reached up and screwed his collar exposing himself to the atmosphere. Jeremy nodded and returned to the panel. He could only see location transponders out to about thirty-five meters. There were large portions of the ship he was blind to. Solid dots indicated a crewmember whose suits registered the occupants’ life signs; hollow dots revealed that most of the miners were dead. The problem was that without an atmosphere or gravity, those dots moved around the ship as well.
There were spaces on the Kerwood that still had an atmosphere, but unlike the escape hatch, not all of them had double door airlocks. The escape trunk did connect to passageways that led to the lower bridge, the main EXT engineering plant, one of the cargo bays, the galley, and several minor deck spaces. When the Kerwood was built, the escape trunk was integral to moving large machinery and components inside the ship once it had a skin. Most ships didn’t use it, but the Kerwood had been known to smuggle something in it once or twice. Adelaide insisted that it be maintained as part of the regular maintenance routine, and when the Kerwood sat on Egeria-13, Jeremy indulged her in her odd proclivities. Now, he was glad she was so insistent on keeping the trunk up to code.
A warning sounded from the speaker in Jeremy’s helmet. The seal was broken, and the hybrid suits collected oxygen from the environment to replenish the suit’s supply. Even with the suit sealed, the reverse osmosis filter would collect oxygen. He pressed a flashing icon on the panel hard enough to make it shift.
His eyes focused on the escape trunk on the scematic. “Seal your suit,” he declared and rotated his collar.
Siebert did the same.
Jeremy looked at the cluster on his forearm, then at the jury-rigged panel. “Below us.”
“Where most of the damage is?” Siebert asked.
Jeremy nodded and realized Siebert couldn’t see the action from his vantage. “I think so,” he vocalized.
Siebert grabbed a canvas bag that was tied to a handhold. He pulled out a long tube with a grip and trigger on one end and two large tanks opposite the stock. Gleaming copper pipes connected everything together. Siebert examined an analog gauge on the side near the trigger.
“What in Hades is that?” Jeremy asked.
Siebert looked up. “A chemical welder. It’s one of the few things that’ll work without an atmosphere. They’re used in zero-G hull maintenance.”
Jeremy scowled. “I know what they’re used for, I mean, why are you loading it?”
“Just in case.”
“Relax, Mister Siebert,” Jeremy replied; manipulating the touch screen, “We’re all on the same side here. Besides, I think we’ll be fine.” Jeremy sucked air in through his teeth. “I’ll be damned.”
Siebert readied his weapon. “What?”
Jeremy pointed to the screen. “Erika Ängström,” he whistled as he stared at the transponder information. “I thought she was ejected during the explosion.”
“She safe?” asked Siebert.
“I think our odds of survival just went up,” he declared. “She’s got another miner and someone from deck division with her.” He lunged for a handhold, sparing his right shoulder and made his way down to the bottom of the trunk to meet Erika and her party at the airlock.
Siebert followed, using his toes to maneuver from handhold to handhold, the chemical welder pointed toward the airlock.
A chirp emanated from his forearm cluster, and a warning displayed on his HUD. The airlock had been evacuated, sealed, and repressurized. Someone was trying to access the trunk hatch controls. He peered into the airlock through the Plexiglas window and his heart thundered in his chest.
The helmeted face looking back was not Erika Ängström.
* * *
Days Until Home: UNKNOWN
Adelaide saw the shock in Jeremy’s eyes. She grinned sheepishly and punched in the sixteen-character override code to open the hatch. It was a tight fit with the four of them in the narrow airlock designed for two. Plus, Erika had to hold her right arm over her head to keep from jostling it too much. Adelaide couldn’t believe that Erika was still with them, but her eyes had grown cold since she was reeled in from the dark. They all had an assortment of gear and supplies tied to their suits. A pile of tech, gear and supplies lay just outside of the inner door. There wasn’t enough room for them and the supplies.
They had found two more survivors: William “Telly” Tell Bianconi from Deck Division. He worked under Daisuke, the supply officer. Adelaide had always seen Telly in the galley. She didn’t know what his job was on the ship, only that he rarely left the galley or his quarters, or the passageways that connected the two. Telly clutched a container of something to his chest. He mentioned “essential supplies” when she inquired about it earlier.
The miner she knew was a friend of Jess’s. DeJoseph was his name, and he was like the quartermaster for the mining crew. He was definitely born on one of the lunar colonies. He stood over seven feet tall and had to slouch in the airlock. She knew that he often had to fight for his contract – being almost too tall to wear the mining gear. She could see the stress on the suit at the boots, waist and shoulders. Jess had told her that DeJoseph liked to collect depleted drill candles and that back on Luna, he had quite the collection spanning more than four decades of mining tech. He even had an elaborate safe installed into his apartment to store what he thought were the most valuable parts of his collection. When Adelaide heard about the prank on Old Vicky, she suspected that DeJoseph was involved in some way. Depleted candles were cataloged and stored for disposal back on Luna. Jessica, Jimmy, DeJoseph and that guy from operations were always pulling pranks. Pooh Bear was always complaining to Jeremy, and Jeremy always complained to Adelaide.
Jeremy placed his hand against the Plexiglas window. “I’m not sure how you pulled it off, but I’m glad you’re still with us.”
Adelaide nodded and replied, “I pulled a Crazy Ade.”
She grinned when she saw the recognition in Jeremy’s face. Before he could sputter a denial or an apology, the latch on the hatch clicked. Without gravity, and due to the close quarters, Adelaide knew she wouldn’t be able to open the hatch from the inside.
Jeremy spun in a lazy circle, and positioned his legs to the side of the hatch and pulled at a recessed handle. All the hatches and doors in the escape trunk could be removed. The process was time-consuming, and the only reasons to remove the hatches were to allow egress when the entire ship was without atmosphere. Like when it’s being built.
No one knew that Adelaide knew the precise methodology to remove the doors. Engines aren’t my only skills, she thought as she floated through the hatch. She had practiced on a mockup of the Kerwood that Sapphire had arranged for her. The Kerwood station had as many hidden and out-of-the-way spaces as the Kerwood mining ship. Probably, even more, she thought. Telly followed next, then Erika, cradling her ruined arm to her chest, and finally DeJoseph. Jeremy strained to close the bulky hatch and initiated the sequence to repressurize the airlock.
Adelaide checked the forearm cluster on the spare suit, allowed the bundle she carried to float away, and rotated her collar. She pulled off her helmet, produced a knife, and cut her suit away exposing her coveralls underneath. Everyone watched her with facination. She bounced off the trunk bulkhead, snatched the bundle, and struggled into a “new” suit. Flakes of something crusty floated away from her hair, and she used the slashed suit to clean the inside of her helmet.
“That’s a much faster way to get out of one of those suits,” Telly remarked, his helmet under one of his long arms, the fabric taut over the seal at his gloves.
The rest of the survivors each opened their collars so they could hear the conversation. Adelaide finished her wardrobe change by removing the forearm cluster from the spare suit and methodically attaching it to hers. She examined the suit for a moment and then tilted her head first to the left, then to the right. The pop that twice sounded out was satisfying. The overextension of the neck was not possible in the helmet, and after the hours it took to get her party to the trunk, it was long overdue.
She ignored the look in Jeremy’s eyes. She wasn’t going to answer the question, why isn’t your transponder working? She refused to draw attention to the copper mesh beneath her coveralls, and instead examined those in the trunk with her. The miner that had a welder trained on them finally lowered his guard and joined the motley crew at the bottom of the escape trunk.
“We need to find medical supplies and figure out what to do with Erika’s arm,” Adelaide announced.
Four pairs of eyes focused on Erika, and she held her right arm out. It was quite the scene, everyone floating against the sides of the hatch, trying to act like they weren’t all going to die.
“What about fixing the ship?”
Adelaide spun to face the miner with the welder. “Siebert, is it?” Siebert nodded, and Adelaide continued. “Erika is an engineer. We need engineers to fix this tub.” Her eyes narrowed. “If she dies, we have less of a chance to survive this.”
Siebert clutched the welder to his chest and nodded.
“Listen up, people,” she declared. “We all work for the ChEng here now.” She winked at Jeremy. “Deck Division, miners, engineers, bridge crew, all that us versus them shit doesn’t matter now. We’re all survivors. You need to stow that shit. I’m not gonna die in a fuckin’ tin can so some other conglomerate can come along and pick the flesh from our bones. I’ve spent too many years making this hunk of junk work for some asshats to steal it from me.” She met each pair of eyes of the other five souls in the trunk. “From us,” she concluded.
Everyone nodded, so she continued. “Let’s get this done.”
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Next: Chapter 10