“What the fuck have you all done to my ship?”
“Skipper, it’s good to see that you’re still with us,” Jeremy responded as a silence fell on the rest of the survivors in the Kerwood’s escape trunk. Most of them looked as if they’d gotten caught trying to steal one more cookie from the cookie jar. Jeremy turned away from the fuming captain. Jessica and Old Vicky were tethered to the hatch bulkhead with Siebert clucking over them like a mother hen.
Adelaide frowned at a flashing indicator light on the jury-rigged panel. She pushed off the bulkhead, ignoring Captain Hayes in his silent raging impotence. “ChEng,” she called out, “come look at this.”
Jeremy floated to Adelaide as she worked the controls. It amazed him that she seemed to have more access to the system than she was supposed to. He decided that, in her own words, he should just “stow that shit.”
“Someone is popping hatches and moving atmosphere around this boat,” Adelaide commented.
“Look at the ship’s attitude,” Jeremy countered.
“Who the hell…”
“Report!” Captain Hayes barked next to the duo.
Adelaide rolled her eyes and looked to Jeremy.
“Well…” Jeremy began. “Miss Bähr will explain…”
“Someone is opening and closing outer hatches and allowing decompression to slow the ship’s roll.” Adelaide shook her head. “Each time the two remaining atmospheric thrusters are pointed at Egeria-13, they are firing.” She frowned. “Short bursts,” she closed her eyes and appeared to do some calculations in her head. “They’re pushing us into a trajectory back to Earth orbit, but…”
“But what?” inquired Jeremy.
“Well, the trajectory has us shooting well to the side of the Earth. We’ll miss it.”
Captain Hayes steel eyes didn’t betray what he was thinking. “Gauge,” he declared.
The two engineers stared at him.
“That’s why Gauge is my navigator, and you two are grease monkeys.”
Adelaide’s eyes narrowed, but she remained silent.
Captain Hayes brushed an invisible imperfection from the front of his suit. He narrowed his eyes and looked at the two senior engineers as if they were children answering classroom questions – cute, but utterly worthless. “Gauge is pointing us to where the Earth is going to be, not where it is right now.”
“What transit time is he figuring?” Adelaide asked.
“Let’s ask him,” Captain Hayes replied and returned his helmet to his head. “Gauge, you reading me?”
Adelaide smirked and crossed her arms with a smugness that Jeremy recognized from when she was training some new hotshot engineer. They were all thrust and no course correction, Jeremy thought. Adelaide was notorious for breaking their spirit before she molded them into what she thought an engineer should be. It was a constant complaint. The engineers that followed her example got new contracts. And the ones that didn’t? Well, they tried their luck with Matsue or Everest.
“Gauge?” Captain Hayes repeated.
“Captain,” Adelaide overemphasized the honorific to mean something along the lines of you donkey.
“Gau-” Captain Hayes fell silent.
Jeremy couldn’t hide his smile.
“Captain,” Adelaide repeated, “the bulkheads in this escape trunk are reinforced for direct exposure to space and solar radiation. They’re shielded to prevent EMI, and a varied spectrum of signals including…”
Captain Hayes frowned. “Communications,” he declared.
Adelaide turned to Jeremy. “That line you have wrecking the seal on that hatch, is it a K-114 line?”
Jeremy ignored the sudden attention Siebert gave him and floated between the jumpy miner and his MPA. “Yeah, why?”
Adelaide smiled again. The smile made Jeremy uncomfortable. It was as if she were evaluating his worth.
“We can piggyback COMS on the grounding wires to get it out of this space.”
Jeremy looked at the multi-wired, multi-colored cable. “Without disrupting the data?” he asked, “or grounding out?”
Adelaide nodded. “Sixteen through thirty-six are all ground. I can separate about four conductors and use that. EW only need one end disconnected to break the ground loop isolation. It’ll make the entire circuit act as an antenna.”
“Do it,” Jeremy and Captain Hayes ordered at the same time.
Adelaide pulled off her gloves and brandished the copper shears. She opened them to their widest bite and used the edge like a makeshift scalpel. She went to work separating several of the strands and everyone watched with fascination as she stripped, cut, and pinched the wires.
When she was done, she returned the copper shears to her pocket and grabbed Captain Hayes’ arm.
“What gives?” the captain sounded out.
Adel rolled her eyes. “You’re on a separate circuit to Gauge, right?”
Captain Hayes nodded.
“Then I have to patch your suit COMS into this.”
Captain Hayes looked from Adelaide to his Chief Engineer and back. He cradled his forearm cluster protectively.
Adelaide scoffed. “He doesn’t trust me,” she declared. She pushed off of his arm, and they floated apart.
Captain Hayes bounced lightly off of the bulkhead.
“If you didn’t trust me to do this,” Adelaide demanded, “why did I waste my time with the K-114? You could’ve just as easily gone out into the airlock to talk to Gauge.”
“Would you’ve let him back in?” William “Telly” Tell Bianconi retorted.
“Look!” Adelaide shouted, and all eyes turned to her. “We’re all stuck together. Together. It’s us versus the black. We’ve probably got like twenty people left out of the eighty we started with. We’ve got no idea if the EXT will work, and we’ve got maybe four or five weeks of food. And that assumes…”
“Two…” a small strained voice sounded out.
Everyone turned to Old Vicky. His swarthy hair was floating like Medusa coils from his head. His lids were heavy, but under his dark eyebrows, his eyes met each face looking back at him. He cleared his throat, reached for the bulkhead and spun himself to the same orientation as the rest of the people in the escape trunk.
He faced Captain Hayes. “You cut the return rations.” It wasn’t accusatory, just a statement of fact.
Captain Hayes wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“Captain?” Adelaide asked, her hands on her hips.
“Adel-” Jeremy started to say.
Captain Hayes waved his Chief Engineer off. “We discovered some sort of bacteria that had spoiled most of our return rations.” He looked toward Telly.
“It’s true,” Telly said. “We had to jettison six crates. We couldn’t risk it contaminating more of our return stock.”
Captain Hayes nodded. “We cut rations down to five-hundred calories. Almost all of our real-” he made air quotes with his gloved fingers “-food was lost except…”
“Except what?” Adelaide demanded.
“Well…” Captain Hayes mumbled.
Telly cleared his throat. “We were approached by another conglomerate.” He brought out the canvas bag he had protected since the disaster. “They wanted to do a test on potatoes and microgravity.”
No one interrupted him, so he continued: “These potatoes have been growing in a nutrient paste and without proper gravity.” He reached into the bag and pulled out a potato larger than a Terran football. “They’ve been tethered to the fore antenna cluster in a specially designed oxygen-rich container. This is uh…” He released the football-spud and reached into the bag. “This is the harvest.” He pulled out five like-sized potatoes and let them float. They lazily bounced off each other and floated around Telly.
“We’ve already been paid for the experiment,” Captain Hayes took over the narrative. “We didn’t have enough credits to procure proper candles for Egeria-13. The Matsue Conglomerate did the original Egeria-13 survey. The topography and core samples were uh, misrepresented on the report. They offered to provide the candles in exchange for the potato experiment. We picked up the contract based solely on the report, but before verifying the results with our own probe…” Captain Hayes voice trailed off, and he snapped a gloved finger. The resulting weak sound did nothing to exemplify his sudden insight.
“The probe,” Adelaide whispered.
Captain Hayes nodded. “The probe,” he confirmed.
Old Vicky floated closer. “What about it?”
Jeremy smiled. “As per SOP, we retrieved the probe before we landed on Egeria-13. It’s in a crate in the hold with our minerals.”
Adelaide took over. “The telemetry module is the same as the Kerwood.”
Captain Hayes attempted to pat the Kerwood. “This old gal still has some fight left in her.” He held his arm out to Adelaide, and she removed one of the wired connections that attached his cluster to his forearm.
“I need someone to sacrifice their forearm cluster,” she announced.
Everyone looked at each other and shifted uncomfortably.
“Oh for Christ’s sake!” Adelaide muttered and removed her own cluster. She pulled out her copper shears and cut the cluster in half. After she had pulled the unit apart, she unraveled the wires that seated the connectors to the unit. She only procured about six inches of each end and returned to her handiwork on the K-114 cable. She interweaved the new cable into the old and twisted exposed wires together.
“Okay, this might be intermittent, and you’ll need your collar locked so the COMS contacts in the helmet are overridden by the suit cluster.” She muscled him closer to the K-114 wire and plugged each end of the repurposed wire into both ends of the detached cluster.
Captain Hayes nodded, returned his helmet to his head, and rotated the collar. Jeremy could see his lips moving through the Lexan, but they heard only muffled noise in the trunk. Jeremy watched Captain Hayes’ sudden grin fall and his features pinch. Whatever he and Gauge were talking about, it didn’t make the captain happy.
The one thing that they did hear clearly was the captain’s expletive before he rotated his collar, breaking his contact to Gauge on the wrecked bridge.
Captain Hayes sighed. “Well, the good news is that the EXT is green across the board. Without kinetic assist, we’re twelve weeks from home.”
“And the bad?” Jeremy inquired.
Captain Hayes scoffed. “The EXT interface panel and support arm on the bridge are crushed.”
“Auxiliary is destroyed,” Adelaide announced. “So is Damage Control.”
“As is the launch hallway,” Jeremy said.
“It doesn’t really matter,” Adelaide said. “Even if we could fire off the EXT, it’s still four weeks to speed without chemical or kinetic assistance, four weeks of travel time, and four weeks of deceleration. We’ll starve before this tub is even up to speed.”
Captain Hayes appeared to blanch at Adelaide insulting the Kerwood.
Jeremy smiled on the inside. Adelaide had been with the Kerwood since she graduated from the conglomerate training academy. Not all of the Kerwood crew could make that claim. If a miner didn’t manage a subsequent contract due to one not being offered, or the Kerwood filled its billet, the miners would try one of the other conglomerates. They were always sniping each other’s miners. Old Vicky was the steal of a lifetime back in the day. These shifting loyalties made the regular crew suspicious of the miners, and the miners wary of anyone who continually got their contract renewed.
“All right,” Adelaide announced and clapped her hands. “ChEng, Captain, I want you to find that probe and pull the telemetry module. We have to hope that someone can hear our distress beacon before we starve to death. Vicky and Jimmy, you’re gonna clear the path from this trunk to medical. Dejoseph, I need you to coordinate this space with Gauge on the bridge. Bianconi…”
“Telly, please,” Telly interrupted.
“Telly, you and Erika get Jessica to the infirmary. Seibert you and I are going to see if we can get the EXT to light off.” She turned to Captain Hayes. “Are we even pointed in the right direction?”
Captain Hayes nodded. “Gauge says we’ll need to course correct manually, but we’re mostly pointed to where we need to be in twelve weeks.”
Jeremy interjected. “Even if we miss, there’ll be enough traffic around the Earth, someone will notice us. I just hope that they rescue a crew that’s still alive. It would suck to make it home just to be buried.” He sighed. “Maybe if we can get communication back up, the Kerwood Conglomerate can send someone to rescue us.”
Adelaide’s eyebrows lifted. “Will they?”
“Don’t believe what you hear on the net,” Captain Hayes replied. “This ship, the cargo in the hold and we people are commodities to them. Valuable commodities,” he emphasized. “Communication has to be the priority.”
Old Vicky snorted. “How long does it take for a message to get back to Earth?”
Adelaide ignored the old miner’s question. “Let’s check in every four hours for progress reports,” she ordered.
Everyone looked to Jeremy and the captain as the two most senior on the ship. Jeremy met Captain Hayes’ eyes, willing him to go with the flow for once.
“You heard the MPA,” Captain Hayes announced. “Let’s get to our jobs.”
* * *
Days Until Home: 85
Old Vicky and Jimmy donned electromagnets to their suit boots. Jimmy held up one of the contraptions and raised an inquisitive eyebrow, but Erika shook her head no.
“We could’ve had Siebert cut part of that bracket off of you,” Jimmy declared after he was attached to the deck. Large flat buttons connected to the magnetron were positioned at the toes and the heel. The forearm cluster could tell if someone was trying to step off because there would be more pressure on the toe sensor. It would shift the magnetic field, and turn it off until the heel sensor felt enough pressure. Then it would re-engage the magnetic field.
When they worked, they worked wonderfully. Newer models were sleeker, and there was an AI built into the magnetron that interfaced directly with the forearm cluster. You could actually run in them, Erika thought. The ones that the Kerwood had? Erika blew a raspberry. They did add three inches to your height, and for that, Erika was grateful. They were also garbage. The Kerwood only used them when they needed hull maintenance performed, and only if they were underway and under contract.
“That would’ve likely burned her arm and sent her into shock,” Telly replied. The derision was evident in his voice.
“Good call,” Jimmy quipped. “Then we would’ve had to carry her.” He turned to Erika and waggled his eyebrows.
She rolled her eyes, and Telly pulled on a tether that was looped through her eyelet and connected to Jessica’s. Erika could maintain her balance, and even assist the Telly by pushing off of various obstacles that Jimmy and Viktor had yet to clear. They could all talk to each other on one frequency, but didn’t have access to the special channel that the captain had set up with Gauge, so Gauge switched to the common channel.
“Some atmosphere would be nice,” Jimmy groused. “Working in these suits is hard work!”
“Please keep the chatter to a minimum,” Gauge’s voice sounded in Erika’s ear. “Are you checking for breaches?”
“Damn right we are,” replied Jimmy. “The more of this ship we can flood with that delicious, low-calorie, life-giving oxygen, the sooner we can get out of these pajamas.”
Erika giggle-snorted. “After today, I’ll carry an extra suit with me; just in case.” Whatever had affected her attitude the previous night had mostly faded, and she couldn’t imagine laughing again until she was back on Earth, but sometimes she just had to laugh. Otherwise, she would cry.
“I’ll happily give you my suit,” Jimmy retorted. “Let’s just find a room with some atmosphere, and we can strip down.”
Erika reached down with the arm still bifurcated by the bracket and pressed a rubberized button on her pilfered up-side-down cluster forcing the COMS to reboot and blast everyone within a ninety-foot radius with static.
“Ow!” Jimmy said when the COMS finished rebooting and reestablished the common channel. “A simple ‘no’ would’ve sufficed.”
“I had to make sure you were receiving me five by five.”
“Didn’t I say to cut the chatter?” Gauge complained.
“Relax,” Erika said. “Don’t muss your pretty blues by getting all butt-hurt.”
Before Gauge could reply, or Jimmy could laugh, Erika continued. “We’re at the infirmary airlock. How about you let us in so someone can fix my arm.” She paused and looked over her shoulder. “And Jessica.”
The outer door to the sphere that was the medical bay retracted into the bulkhead so Telly and his charges could step through.
* * *
Days Until Home: 85
Adelaide reached behind the access panel she had removed only moments before. The intricate pneumatics and computer components were too delicate to operate with the thick mining gloves on. Fortunately, the large gear that opened and closed the door to Main Engineering was easily accessible and manipulated. Or, more precisely, the aluminum rod that prevented the gear from turning was. She pulled the servo that controlled the gear away from its housing and maneuvered the arresting rod into the ‘release’ position.
She couldn’t hear the door clunk through her helmet, but she knew that that was the result. A gush of atmosphere forced its way out of the airlock, and the door opened a few inches.
“Will we lose the atmosphere that was in there?” Siebert asked over the common channel.
“Not really,” Adelaide replied. “We checked this passageway for breaches on our way here.” She pulled on the door with both hands, and one of her magnetrons decided to fail at that moment. She lost her leverage, but the door remained partway open. If she weren’t concerned about damaging her suit, she might’ve been able to squeeze through.
“Siebert,” she ordered, “get ready to pull on this door, I can’t get enough leverage with only one boot working.”
Siebert affirmed, and got into position. “Will this airlock still be functional with the mechanism disabled?”
“No. We’ll need to oxygenate the entire passageway.” Together they shoved the door into the surrounding bulkhead. “Since all the airlocks are self-contained, and make oxygen by electrolysis, all we need is electricity.” Adelaide motioned behind them where a ‘pile’ of mining suits floated. She and Siebert changed from launch suits to mining suits because they had a bigger battery. They lost the ability to use the hybrid oxygenator that the launch suits had but gained power, illumination, ruggedness, and the simple fact that if they were suddenly exposed to the black, they wouldn’t freeze to death.
Adelaide moved sluggishly in the suit that she was unaccustomed to. Siebert was like a duck in water. Although the phrase was odd to her, Adelaide knew that the lakes and ponds of Earth held the waterfowl so abundant, that feeding them scraps of bread was a favorite pastime of children. She had never seen a real duck before and obviously not one in water. Still, the expression was still used by many humans.
Shut up, brain, she thought and reached into the floating mass of suits. They retrieved them immediately after leaving the escape trunk. They had to return to a functioning airlock so she could work on the suits without her gloves. She had hoped that this airlock would work, but without power, it was just a big piece of plastic, carbon, and metal. They had returned to the trunk to do the job properly, DeJoseph watching her every move.
She pulled the suits into position and plugged a cable she jury-rigged into a contact inside the airlock. The mining suits had one more advantage that she didn’t clue in Siebert: They were resistant to explosions and flying shrapnel.
She figured that there was a one-in-five chance that when she made the connection, the entire panel would crap out and test out the ruggedness of the mining suit.
“Here we go,” she declared over the comm. She positioned the connector over the receptacle, closed her eyes, and made the connection.
* * *
Days Until Home: 85
“Crazy Ade is something else,” declared Captain Hayes.
Jeremy ignored his captain’s quip and tethered himself to a piece of shattered bulkhead. They had both changed into EVA suits before making their way slowly to the cargo bay. The main cargo hold was intact, but the passageways to get there were damaged in the thruster explosion. That was the only explanation of the damage they witnessed.
Is it irony that Damage Control is one of the spaces destroyed? Jeremy thought sardonically.
The Kerwood’s horizontal spine was shattered. The launch hallway, engineering spaces at both ends and the launch thrusters on that spine were all destroyed. The largest concentration of humans was in that launch hallway. Jeremy had seen loss of life in his career in the ADF. He had seen his share of mining accidents aboard the Kerwood, too, but the bodies in the twisted launch hallway took the cake as they say.
“Which one?” asked Captain Hayes.
“It’ll be in the same kind of container, but it’ll be isolated from the haul and the food since it was exposed to the black and solar radiation.” Jeremy surveyed the cargo bay. The bulkheads on one end were buckled and twisted, but as far as he could tell, the cargo hold would hold atmosphere. “Look for a box with red radiation decals.”
For the next few moments, there was shuffling in magnetic boots as the two men walked the long rows of cargo bolted to the deck and neighboring containers. The silence was occasionally interrupted by an expletive and the need to reposition the tether.
“Found it,” Captain Hayes called out. His voice sounded slightly tinny over the common band.
Bolted to the deck and covered with red netting, was the cargo container in question. Captain Hayes positioned the chemical welder he had appropriated from an unhappy Siebert and got to work on the bolts that held each corner together. Jeremy pointed a mining candle at a bolt opposite the captain and got to work.
The heat from the candle threw off sparks that died quickly in the oxygen-poor cargo hold. Jeremy was still glad he had a pair of mining gloves over his EVA suit.
It took several hours for the two men to free the probe from its container. The heat they both produced was intense, and they had to stop at regular intervals to rest and rehydrate. When the probe was finally freed, they floated in the bay examining the fruits of their labor.
“How do we cut out the module?” Captain Hayes asked.
“We can’t.” The candles or welder will destroy it. We need to dismantle this by hand.”
Jeremy patted a plastic case he had tethered to his suit. “All of it’s in here.” He pulled off his mining gloves and opened the case. “Shit!” he hissed.
“Jeremy?” Captain Hayes returned.
“The slagging nut driver is missing.”
“Do we need another?”
“Yeah, but I have no idea where to get one,” Jeremy replied. “I can still do it, it’ll just take longer.”
“Not too long, I hope. We have three weeks of rations and twelve weeks of travel time. Getting someone to assist us is the only way we survive this.”
“Relax, Skipper,” Jeremy replied, “We’re talking less than an hour.” The Chief Engineer of the Kerwood got to work on the probe casing with the ship’s captain staring over his shoulder.
* * *
Days Until Home: 85
Adelaide opened her eyes.
The makeshift connector had seated properly, but the airlock still wasn’t getting any power. She frowned and traced the wires into the mining suits.
“Adelaide?” Siebert asked.
“Something’s not right,” she replied.
“No shit,” Siebert retorted.
Adelaide stepped out of the airlock, careful to not disturb the suits lashed together.
“This should work,” she hissed. Her boot detached from the deck when her magnetron shorted out again. She drew in a breath to curse, but something in the ball of suits chimed, followed by a blinking light. She peered at the mass of tangled arms and legs, and then down at her free-floating foot. She pressed a button on her cluster, deactivating both her magnetrons. Another beep and another blinking light emanated out from the suits.
“Siebert,” she said, “turn off your boots.”
He looked at her, then at the suits, and reached for a button on his forearm cluster.
Adelaide could tell when Siebert turned off his magnetron. All the suits started beeping and flashing. A light in the airlock flickered on, and an indicator on her forearm cluster blinked. The airlock was producing oxygen. It was attempting to pressurize the airlock, but the missing hatch leaked atmosphere into the passageway. An alarm on the bulkhead of the airlock chimed – the airlock AI was concerned that the oxygen levels in the small space weren’t rising as they were supposed to. Adelaide scrutinized the readings on her cluster and glanced to the warning indicator on the airlock bulkhead.
“Uh oh,” Adelaide said.
“What?” Siebert replied.
“I think we’ve miscalculated.”
“We need to back away, and make sure the metal in your magnetron doesn’t touch the deck.”
Adelaide could see Siebert’s eyes grow wide in his suit, but he complied. They were almost to the door opposite the engineering gantry when a spark between one of the coupled suit electronics ignited the O2 the airlock AI was furiously pumping into the small space. The resulting explosion obliterated the airlock and threw Siebert and Adelaide against a door at the side of the bulwark.
* * *
Days Until Home: 85
Jeremy thought that they had made decent time. They were close enough to the bridge to hear communications from Gauge to the infirmary, and playful banter among the surviving crew.
Jeremy and Captain Hayes staggered in their magnetic boots as the Kerwood shuddered. “Slag it, Skipper, now what?” Jeremy muttered.
“Gauge?” Captain Hayes called out. “What was that?”
“Wait one, Captain,” Gauge replied. The chatter on the channel died with whatever had caused the Kerwood to buck.
Captain Hayes and Jeremy tightened their grip on the netting they had cut away from what was covering the cargo box containing the probe. Nestled in the center of the sag between them was the telemetry module. Jeremy was concerned; the probe had suffered several micrometeoroid impacts. The case was designed with this in mind, and it generated a magnetic wave in ‘front’ of the probe to scatter space dust. Anything larger than a few grains or rice would’ve destroyed the probe. He was relieved when he pulled the casing off and revealed the pristine electronics he had handled under more than one contract before.
It also didn’t feel right to him to leave the probe open to the atmosphere. It wasn’t that he was worried about the micro nuclear reactor that powered the probe, but what if something falls on the slagging thing? If there were a nuclear event, it was unlikely that the explosion would do more than damage the deck underneath it. That was why they stored it by itself – to mitigate potential damage. In the end, Captain Hayes overruled him in his desire to replace the probe casing. Captain Hayes seemed to have a single-minded focus on getting communications re-established. I just hope that devotion to the task doesn’t come back to haunt us, he thought.
“Captain,” Gauge replied a few moments later, “please switch to channel seven-blue.”
Captain Hayes allowed his end to float free as he manipulated his forearm cluster. He motioned for Jeremy to touch their helmets together.
“Go ahead, Gauge,” Captain Hayes responded after Jeremy had released his end of the netting, ambled the three feet to the captain and his helmet made contact.
“Sir, we had an explosion in the fore gantry to Main Engineering.”
“Adelaide,” Captain Hayes muttered.
“Captain?” Gauge replied.
“Never mind.” Captain Hayes sighed. “Ship integrity?”
“Can’t tell from here, but I pretty sure the explosion didn’t breach the hull.”
“Damn that woman,” Captain Hayes hissed. To Gauge, he replied, “We’re almost to you, and we’ve got the replacement telemetry module.”
Jeremy didn’t hear Gauge’s response – he had broken contact with the captain’s helmet and returned to his trudging position. After a moment, Captain Hayes grabbed his end of the netting, and they continued their journey toward the bridge.
* * *
Days Until Home: 85
We are so screwed, thought Adelaide.
She verified Siebert’s vitals on his forearm cluster, but the rotund miner was out cold. The plan had been to pump atmosphere into Main Engineering, and reestablish the link to the bridge. The delicate work needed to repair the link couldn’t be done with gloves on. She was confident that she could still oxygenate engineering, but now she’d need to do the same to the passageway on the other side of the airlock.
A piece of shrapnel was lodged in the door at the end of the passageway, and several of the doors along the passageway were also bent and warped. Various pieces of bulkhead and equipment were also piled at the breached door. Now she had to get atmosphere into all the newly opened spaces. It could still be done, but she suspected that that would take the better part of a day to enact the repairs, then four hours or more to reestablish the link – if the explosion hadn’t damaged anything else.
When she and Siebert collided, her forearm cluster must’ve hit something. They no longer had communication with Gauge or DeJoseph. The debris made egress through the hatch where Siebert lay off to the side inaccessible. If she hadn’t been able to wrestle the door to a storage closet open in time, they would’ve been between the shrapnel and the busted door. She only pulled Siebert back out into the main passageway. She was effectively trapped in engineering with no way to talk to anyone. With her transponder masked by the copper mesh she still wore, they wouldn’t know if she was alive or dead.
If she could possibly get atmosphere into one of those rooms or storage closets, she might be able to do the delicate work in the space, but the explosion had breached many of the doors. Plus, without independent atmosphere control, once she opened a door, that atmosphere was gone. She could try to get a few launch suits, their hybrid oxygenators might be able to pull enough O2 out of the ambient, but the explosion had burned most of it away. Besides, the suits were on the other side of the mass of metal, carbon, and melted plastic.
She floated toward the engineering space, opening operational doors along the way. The only way to get any sort of atmosphere in these spaces was to get it from somewhere else. In Main Engineering, the EXT panel had a piece of shrapnel embedded in it, but from what she could see, the EXT was fully operational. She entered her code into one of the panels, and then entered Jeremy’s code after it. The EXT started humming. It felt peaceful. Everyone told her that she imagined it, but she knew better. The twin Electrostatic Xenon Thrusters made her feel like she could accomplish anything. She looked down at the EXT panel.
ENGAGE? Blinked in large red letters.
“Slag it,” she muttered and pressed the blinking panel.
* * *
Days Until Home: 84
“That should do it,” Jeremy Thompkin declared. He leaned back from the auxiliary communications panel. Captain Hayes and Gauge Schneider peered at the panel. It was as dark and useless as the EXT control panel. The dark EXT panel filled the Chief Engineer of the Kerwood with dread. Getting the panel connected to Main Engineering was secondary only to establishing communications. He wished that Erika Ängström were on the bridge. She knew communication systems better than anyone else on the ship. But, she was still recovering in the infirmary. A full day had passed since Adelaide had partnered everyone up and sent everyone on his or her way.
Most of the teams adhered to the order of progress reports every four hours, but they hadn’t heard from Adelaide or Siebert in the better part of a day. Captain Hayes had sent a team to investigate, but whatever explosion occurred in or around Main Engineering had left the main access passageway destroyed. His MPA could probably find a way to and from the space via little-known access points, but since her transponder stopped functioning during the initial disaster that had crippled the Kerwood, her whereabouts were unknown.
Siebert, on the other hand, his whereabouts were known. He was just on the other side of a mangled access door. His vitals were okay, but the delta waves in his readout were disturbing. Jeremy didn’t quite follow, but Gauge and Telly assured him that the miner was all right. I sure hope so, he thought.
He sent Old Vicky and Jimmy with the chemical welder to where Siebert’s transponder kept feeding them a steady stream of his vitals. It had taken Gauge and Telly over four hours to remove Erika’s right hand and the broken bracket. She was chomping at the bit to lend a hand, and although she wasn’t in any significant danger, her single hand made her work difficult. Not that she cared, she was raring to go, but Gauge and Telly insisted she recover for the next twelve hours.
It was incredible to Jeremy that he shared the Kerwood with such a resilient and multi-talented crew. They had even made contact with a few other survivors in isolated parts of the ship. Their number had grown by only eight, but it was eight more souls that they were responsible for. There simply wasn’t the manpower to gather these eight other survivors into the fold. Determining the fate of Adelaide and Main Engineering would soon be their priority after that slagging panel decided to function.
“Huh,” muttered Gauge.
Captain Hayes turned to his navigator and raised his eyebrows. It was unbelievable to Jeremy the sudden warmth the captain had when talking to Gauge. The stoic captain even cracked a smile at something Gauge had said. Although Jeremy was part of the senior staff as the Chief Engineer, the captain still seemed guarded to him.
“What’ve you got, Mister Schneider?” Jeremy asked the navigator.
“I’ve been doing some math while you were installing that,” he began with a dismissive gesture toward the telemetry module. His voice trailed off after a few minutes, engrossed with something on his navigation panel.
“Gauge,” Captain Hayes said, “What’s got your shorts in a twist?”
“It’s not adding up,” he replied. “Something is augmenting our velocity.”
“Solar wind?” asked Captain Hayes.
“No,” Jeremy replied, “our mass is too great to be affected by solar wind, and besides, that would be pushing us away from the sun, not drawing us toward the Earth. We are still pointed to where we need to be, right?”
“Yeah,” Gauge responded. “It’s just that each time I run the scenario, the numbers diverge greater than they din on the last run. Whatever is affecting us, it’s exponential, not linear or constant.”
Before either man could inquire further, the dark communication panel lit up.
BOOTING… the panel declared in large red letters.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Jeremy shouted and pumped his fist into the air. The movement sent him spinning away from the panel, and he flailed his arms to arrest his trajectory. “Gravity would be nice,” he lamented.
“Not unless you’ve got a spare bridge sphere hidden in that tool bag of yours,” Gauge quipped.
Jeremy pushed off of a rail along the bridge and strapped himself into the communications station chair. The diagnostic cycle was almost complete. In just a few seconds, they would be able to ask for help.
“What was that?” Captain Hayes asked. Something sounded out from the overhead speakers, but only for a moment.
“Let me patch our receive array into the common channel,” Jeremy declared, and his fingers danced across the panel.
The panel fell dark again, but this time is was only a screensaver, a light border ran along the edge of the panel.
“There,” Jeremy declared.
“…victor three, niner, two delta, please…”
Jeremy held his hands o the sides of his helmet as if doing so would allow him to pierce the static on his suit radio.
“…calling the Kerwood, do you require assistance?”
The blast of static that sounded out from Jeremy’s helmet sounded dreadfully final.
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Next: Chapter 13