After securing Femke to the bed in order to treat her wounds, Gauge had checked the only working computer panel in the room. He tried to see if there was any way to access the lower levels, where the miners and engineers had been strapped in for the trip.
The explosion had come from that area, and an itch in the back of his mind wanted him to believe that he, Winchester, Marisol, and Femke were the last survivors on the ship.
Winchester Hayes was concerned for his engineers, knowing that they were his only hope in getting his girl back on track. If the Kerwood was damaged beyond repair, the engineers could do what was needed to give them a chance to survive a wait for rescue. They could also get the atmosphere back online so that they could comfortably work on their current situation.
He hated being in the dark. They were floating blind. The black was poking holes in his girl. Starry fingers reaching in to suck the life from anyone that was vulnerable. He had gone from his standard sarcastic but cavalier attitude, to one of intense brooding. Gauge was beginning to wonder if he was truly okay and didn’t believe him when he asked and was given the standard, “I’m good … just thinking.”
They were both leaning against opposite walls of the medical bay and Winchester braced himself between the bed—that Femke was on—and the adjacent wall. Marisol Vega was still asleep, herself, and had not even so much as stirred since Gauge set her nose and she had passed out a few minutes after.
Winchester looked up at Gauge for the first time in an hour and the big man met his gaze with cold blue eyes, embedded inside a mask of stoic resolution.
“You know what one of my biggest fears is, Gauge?” Winchester asked.
“I don’t know, Cap,” Gauge replied. “Is it what we’re going through right now? All of our crew dead. The survivors a mystery to you. And, we here, stuck, helpless, and running out of options?”
“Not this, but something similar. Back on Earth we used to do a lot of hiking. Me and the family that is. Man, we use to travel to parks and just, you know, walk. Well at least the parks that still had trees. Like in Indiana, when we used to go to see my parents. Cole loved our hikes. He thought that trees were the most magical things in the world. But I imagine for a kid growing up in our world that makes sense. Can you imagine? Something as natural and part of the Earth like a tree, an alien thing to my human child? Seeing how he reacted to nature, it made me realize just how fucked up we are, you know?”
“What do you mean, Cap?”
“Pah, I’m rambling. Feels like I’m just wasting precious oxygen,” Winchester said under his breath.
“I wouldn’t worry about it, Captain. If there’s anything we’re set on, it’s oxygen. Now you were saying that the world is, erm, fucked. What’s the reasoning?”
“We were bad caretakers of our home, Gauge. All for what? Huh? To come up here to mine? My child thought that trees were magic, but his father taking people all over space, that was normal to him.”
Gauge was waiting for him to finish his story when he realized that he was finished speaking. He reflected on the captain’s words and chuckled internally at the prospect of him having a family. He found that he had a hard time picturing Winchester Hayes as a normal person. There was nothing normal about the man he called, captain, and as such, he couldn’t bring himself to sympathize over his son’s remarks.
Winchester said, “We’re unable to contact our people here because that blast knocked our EPS offline. Normally I would call down to engineering to check it out, but that option was taken away from me. We need to find a way to get it working ourselves.”
Gauge Schneider sat up and said, “I’ve been thinking about that for quite some time now, Cap, and I think that I have an idea. This is the only internal room with a double airlock and reinforced walls. It was built to protect the sick and injured no matter what happens to this ship, so as it stands we are safe. If the ship is not salvageable, this may be home for us until we get rescued.”
“That could be several weeks if we’re lucky. Several weeks with dead bodies everywhere, no rations, and an unstable ship. We don’t even know what set off that explosion. How do we know it’s over?”
“Are you proposing that we just give up?” Gauge asked.
“Of course not! But I know where you’re going with this and I won’t have you putting your life on the line when you may be the last one left with any kind of medical experience. I know this ship, and I have the access codes. So make yourself comfortable and hunker down. I’m going to see if I can find my engineers, and I will radio back through Femke’s comm.”
Gauge made to object but Winchester ignored him, pulling on his launch suit and sealing the helmet. He waited until the suit went through its process of powering on its computer and filling up with oxygen, then glanced over at Gauge to give him a thumbs up.
He looked at Femke, strapped in and unconscious with a grimace on her face, and he reached down to touch her hand. Even though the thick glove of the suit prevented him from feeling the warm, clammy, dampness of her skin, he imagined what it felt like and hoped that she would wake up soon.
Marisol was still asleep, and it struck him as odd, so he turned from the bed to once again regard Gauge Schneider and said, “Hey Gauge, whatever you do to pass the time, try not to fall asleep.”
He walked over to the panel and checked the gauges and saw that the atmosphere was in good shape. There were some poor readouts on the Kerwood’s Medical Support System (KMSS), but the computer was not telling him why. He assumed it was due to the electricity problem, or yet another result of the earlier explosion. Gauge had managed to pull one of the medical kits down to use it, but if Femke’s situation worsened, he would need to use the actual system.
The artificial gravity was in the green. Like the bridge, during long missions, it was a technology that relied on the room spinning against its exterior shell, to produce the centrifugal force needed to generate a form of gravity.
The technology was restricted to the two rooms due to the Kerwood’s architecture. Newer ships would stay rotating during flight—like a spiral corkscrew—but the Kerwood was an older model, built when the technology was new, so the only places deemed necessary to have gravity during flight was the bridge, and the medical bay.
If you looked at the diagnostic blueprint of the Kerwood, you would see that the bridge and the medical bay were really two spheres that spun rapidly during flight. Within each sphere was the hexagonal rooms that they occupied, and it could rotate in eight directions on all points. This was how the gravity could be pulled down instead of forcing them to “walk on the walls” like the first generation anti-gravity rooms, but this beautiful luxury was what also made the exit to the lower decks, complicated.
The bridge’s frame had become ruptured in the explosion, and they were lucky that the lower level had been opened prior to launch. With the lower level open, there was no spherical rotation, so it provided a direct access point to the medical bay. In space, there was no true up and down, so coming in from what would be deemed the “top” if the ship were parked on a planet or moon, meant that you would be coming in on the “side” of the medical bay. It would be spinning perpendicular to the bridge, so the gravity would take hold, and though disorienting, you would be forced to stand with the beds, and KMSS.
What Winchester hoped was that upon exiting this haven of medical wonders, is that he wouldn’t be stuck between airlocks trying to force open the other side. The door could be damaged, with something heavy lodged against the wheel, and he was already beginning to feel fatigued.
Those long days on Egeria-13 had weakened their immune system, and the ISS supplements had been cut from the manifest, due to the limited budget of the Kerwood. It was a bad idea and when he made it, he knew that it would somehow come back to get him. What was I thinking? he thought to himself. It was bad enough that the woman he loved was in bad shape, but now she had a weak immune system to defend her body.
Numerous miners were probably in sexual relationships, his valuable engineers, and Marisol, if the rumors were correct, was pretty busy herself. They would never have thought about the effects of this exposure on their normally resilient bodies. Many had probably gotten sick from bodily fluids, assuming that it would be the same as sleeping around on a space station. He on the other hand, was well aware, and he felt guilty for the oversight.
“Captain,” Gauge called, and he turned to face him after punching the area near the panel in frustration. “Captain, do you think that someone did this? The explosion. Do you think that a rival crew sabotaged the Kerwood so that they can get our assignment next time?”
Winchester was taken aback by Gauge’s conspiracy theory. Not because it was so far-fetched, but because it was unlike the disciplined, German giant to lower himself to such suppositions. But, they had been sitting in silence for over an hour, and if you give a man time with nothing but his thoughts, you would be quite surprised at the things that escape his mouth.
Sabotage was very likely, after all, he had some of the most meticulous people on that bridge running checks prior to launch. Jeremy Thompkin was a top notch engineer, and despite his personal feelings towards “Lady Marmalade”, he knew that she wouldn’t have greenlit a lift-off if even so much as a piece of lint was seen floating anywhere near their engine.
But what if there had been some sort of sabotage? A timed bomb, strapped to an area of the engine where it would have been invisible to the computers and to any human eyes that didn’t take the time to crawl up into the grid looking for anything out of the ordinary. No, he thought, we can’t start down this road. I’m mad enough as it is about this shit. I can’t allow myself to think that someone would be trying to kill me. No, not going to think like that.
“Mr. Schneider,” Winchester said in a way to remind Gauge that he was a professional. “Let us concentrate on repairs and survival without going down a road of accusations and what-ifs about the explosion. Sabotage or not, we are here now, stuck and hurting. We may be the ship’s only hope, and I owe it to all of you to get you home, even at the cost of my own life. I am your captain, and it was my duty to get us through the mission safely. I’ve failed at that, so I’m asking you to stow the conspiracy theories until we’re at a place of luxury where we can entertain those thoughts. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Captain Hayes, you are one hundred percent correct, sir. I’ll look to fixing what I can here,” Gauge said.
Winchester realized that he was lucky to have Gauge as his partner during this crisis. He had called the man a robot many times in the past, but a robot was reliable, never-changing, and void of emotion. Had it been Femke, he would have been stuck on getting the Kerwood back in “ship shape” with little concern for what was going on in the lower areas. Marisol Vega would have had him tearing down the door, Kerwood-be-damned, to see to the miners and their health.
He tried to imagine Angelo Lu or Booker, but both were a painful reminder that only an Earth day ago, they were all joking around and talking.
Lu was one of the only men that he could have truthfully given the label of friend, and Booker was who he planned to give the Kerwood to—after a lengthy and necessary discussion with Angelo first—whenever he retired. It hurt his heart to have lost so many talented people in the explosion, and this made it difficult for him to put one foot in front of the other, let alone launch a rescue operation.
“Give me two hours, Gauge, and if you don’t hear from me, pull up my vitals. If I’m still around but out of contact, consider that I’m either trapped somewhere or dead with my suit malfunctioning. At that point, the Kerwood is yours, and you must do whatever it takes to get you and these two women rescued. Wake Marisol when I leave so that she can help you with your repairs. If I don’t make it, Gauge, I want you to know that it was an honor to share my bridge with you. Reliable men are a rarity these days, and if I had a question about any area of this ship, it was never navigation.”
“Thank you, Captain. I have the deepest respect for you too. I believe that you will find our people, and we will find a way to fix this vessel and bring back our dead comrades to their families.”
Winchester cranked the wheel hard on the airlock and tugged it open. He glanced back once at Femke and paused as if he meant to say something, then stepped through and sealed the door behind him. The tight space lit up with lights when he locked the wheel in place, and he could hear the motors working to keep the medical bay’s gravity in place.
He pushed off from the door to float over to the blue wheel which would open the airlock to what should be the living area for the crew. He wiped the condensation from the panel near the wheel and touched the dark sensor below it. A display of numbers, made to look like buttons outlined in cobalt squares, appeared. He punched in the code to allow him entry, and the area around the wheel displayed a series of lights that rotated to show him which way to turn it.
Winchester grabbed the wheel and turned it, and was relieved to feel it move without any resistance beyond the ordinary. He opened it up and slid inside, pulling it shut so that the automatic lock would spin the wheel clockwise and reseal the airlock so that both rooms were protected.
The change in perspective was disorienting, as he found himself hanging in the near pitch-black room with one flickering light revealing the dead that hung in their chairs on one side of the room. It was a scene from a horror film and he was never a fan of those. He reached inside of his suit and produced a flashlight, which he shone along each wall to try to assess the situation intelligently.
Something had torn through the hull and the Kerwood reacted, extinguishing the oxygen from the room. But something else had managed to cook these people alive, and he wondered if it was the explosion, or something else.
Winchester Hayes considered himself to be a brave man, but there was something about being in this exposed room of corpses that gave him a sense of his own mortality that he disliked. He had to get past it and onto whatever other horrors the rooms would reveal, until he located the engineers who he hoped were still alive. His muscles were jelly and his head was swimming. The task of moving Femke and Booker into the medical bay had been one of mental and physical effort. And though he could not complain to Gauge, he himself could use some rest and a stiff drink or two.
The effort to stay positive, while keeping the past in the past was enough of a struggle, and now he was seeing the stunned and blank expressions of people behind their masks. People who he’d scoff at as he pushed past them to gain the bridge and his coffee. The same ones who would tell him, “good morning,” and he would blow them off as mere obstacles. Now he wished that he had gotten to know each and every one of them by their name. To feel something else other than dread at their lifeless faces, to feel more human, since knowing them would lead to remorse, unlike the disgust and disappointment that was in its place.
He got to the far door, after much effort of floating and climbing past the dead crewmen. When he gained the passageway beyond the room, he stopped to think about his engineers. Were there any other rooms that would be as secure as the med-bay that they would congregate in? He thought. There was the main EXT engineering plant, but wasn’t it there or somewhere near it where the explosion occurred? He moved along the passageway, trying to conjure up a mental blueprint of his ship. What he needed was something that ran the length of the Kerwood. A place where a person from these lower spaces would look for sanctuary.
“Hey Gauge, you there?” he spoke into his comm.
There was a long pause and then he heard the comm come on, followed by the sound of someone struggling with something. “Hello?” Winchester pressed, wondering what the source of the noise was.
“Sorry, Cap, I had to get to Femke’s helmet. Mine and Vega’s are in need of repairs so … erm, sorry, rambling. What do you need me to do, Cap?” he said, followed by what sounded like a deep and guttural sigh.
“Hey Gauge, can you go to the main panel in that room? See if you can pull up a status report on the Kerwood’s current state of—”
“Captain, the computers in the medical bay are only tapped into the equipment here. For that sort of information, I would need to go up to the bridge and use our equipment there.”
Winchester weighed his options for a minute and considered turning around and doing it himself. He truly didn’t want Gauge to put himself in danger, but he didn’t know how long it would take him to search for Jeremy and his engineers. He needed to know which areas could sustain life. The Kerwood had lost atmosphere in several rooms, and it would cut down his search if he knew which ones to avoid.
“Hate to have you do this, Gauge, but I need to know. If you could go back on the bridge and push the schematics to me that would save me several hours of searching for our people.”
“No problem, Captain, I’m heading there now. I will let you know when I am in front of the computer and in need of the codes to get you synched. You sound beat, is it that bad down there? I was beginning to wonder if I’d hear from you after all.”
Winchester glanced down at the corner of his helmet and saw that the time read an hour and a half past the time that he left Gauge. “Wow, didn’t know I was gone so long, and that was me making it through two rooms,” he said. “That’s why I need those schematics, big man. I appreciate the concern, but finding our people is more important than me being out of shape.”
Fifteen long minutes passed with dead air on the comm, and Winchester fought against his impeding thoughts of doom. He was about to ask for an update, when the screen on his helmet lit up, asking for his permission to allow a direct connection to the navigation computer. He quickly approved it, and was presented with a diagram which showed red, yellow, and green spaces inside of the Kerwood.
There were several places where the survivors could be, but only a few showed life signs unlike the dark areas that ran near the hull. Is this a glitch? He wondered as he scanned the numerous life signs. There were plenty of blips in an area that didn’t register on the schematic, but only one or two in the places that he assumed they would be.
Were they hanging on outside of the Kerwood? That wouldn’t make a lot of sense, would it? The explosion could have pushed some out, and they may be huddled together on the exterior but—ohhhh, Winchester stopped when he realized where they were. How in the hell did they know about the escape trunk? He hadn’t thought about that hidden area of the ship in years.
He saw where he was on the schematic, in a long passageway of red, and he saw that adjacent to it was one of the few access points leading to the trunk. He started towards the portal, knowing that it rested as a sealed hatch right next to the mess—
“Did you get the link, Captain?” Gauge asked through the comm, causing him to stop and refocus.
“Got it, and I’m tapped in, big man. I now know where I’m headed. Get back to the medical bay and I’ll update you in a few. Looks like there are a number of survivors, so I’m going to them to get a better idea of our situation.”
“That’s good news, Captain, but if you don’t mind, I am going to see if I can work on some things up here,” Gauge said.
“Of course. I appreciate it. Beats sitting in that room with the injured and the dead,” he said, not realizing that he had said out loud what he intended on thinking. Shit, he thought, that was not a cool thing to say. “Do what you can, Gauge … OH, and … thank you.” He signed off awkwardly and set a course towards the hatch that would give him entry to the trunk.
Winchester passed more bodies, some dislodged, others drifting within their launch chairs. Others, who had somehow managed to disobey the order to strap in, had become exposed when the Kerwood reacted to the explosion. “What a waste,” he whispered, as he pulled himself past them towards his destination. It was becoming harder not to be affected by the loss of life, but he was not going to let it get to him.
How did they gain access to the trunk? he wondered, his suspicions playing at him as he struggled to know. The engineers knew the ship, almost better than he did, so it would have been one of them to find a way past security. He was at the sealed hatch, and he felt around it, for the loose panel in the bulkhead that would give him access to its override.
His gloves found the groove, and he pulled at it violently. The plate came off and drifted away, revealing the familiar screen with the cobalt buttons waiting for his access code. Winchester punched in his code and the door unlocked, he entered and sealed it behind him, taking note of where he was. He had entered a tight space, where an old-fashioned twist-and-pull door barred his entrance to the secret storage space.
He pulled it open, and floated in to the shocked expression of several crewmen, engineers, and surprisingly, miners. After sealing this door, and removing his helmet, Winchester scanned each and every one of their faces. He had walked in on some sort of discussion, with Lady Marmalade holding court like a post-apocalyptic queen in a cheesy dystopian film. The look she gave him reminded him of Cole—his son, whenever he would walk in on him playing around with the model of the Kerwood. He would tell the boy that it wasn’t a toy, but no matter how hard he punished him, or where he hid it, the kid would find a way to get into his office to play “Starfighter” with his model.
Where Cole was cute in his mischief, Adelaide made his heart skip. The thought of sabotage crept back into his mind, especially considering where they were now. He wondered if these crewmen had been here, safely, when the explosion was busy killing everyone off. He saw that several of them were hurt, but she was unscathed, and as their eyes met his mind gave way to his suppressed emotions and the words were out before he could thing better of it.
“What the fuck have you all done to my ship?” he shouted, his face red, and his hands in fists, ready to fight.
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Next: Chapter 12