“A lot of COMs traffic now,” Jeremy said looking at a display. His eyes followed the bundle of cables that snaked around equipment and covered most of the deck. They were getting more and more communication from outside the ship as the Kerwood thundered toward Earth orbit. There was increasing concern that the Kerwood was still at maximum cruising speed. The decision was made a few days after the trial to burn hot and hard and request assistance once they reached the Earth.
That was the plan until our COMs array was struck by space junk, Jeremy thought bitterly. They were only a few days away, and their rescuers should’ve been days into preparation, but with no way to ask for help, humanity was left to watch the crippled silent ship head straight for them.
It didn’t help that the Matsue broadcast stories of mutiny, treachery, sabotage, piracy, and kidnapping. The Matsue captain and crew set the narrative and without Captain Hayes and the rest of the Kerwood crew to set the record straight, public opinion was solidly against them.
“It won’t help us, so we ignore it,” Adelaide declared from under a console.
She was trying to create a communications array by linking a series of forearm clusters together and trying to patch the signal through the telemetry array or some other such nonsense. Adelaide seemed to have one crazy plan after another. In the last two weeks, Captain Hayes was seen less and less. He appeared to throw himself into the work required, and it fell to Adelaide and Jeremy to get them home. Even with the trial uncovering the saboteurs, the captain seemed resigned to the fate that awaited him if they made it home. Each new problem with his ship led to him being more and more focused on their salvation. He and Femke holed up together. He became a living ghost wandering around the ship fixing this and that. He spoke to no one and had decreed that his portion of the dwindling foodstuffs be split among the rest of the crew. Femke, Marisol, and Gauge followed his lead and did the same. They were thinning now, and the captain was now a skeleton of a man. But then again, they all were. Jeremy ate his last piece of food the previous morning.
“Can you get this working?” Jeremy asked of his Main Propulsion Assistant.
“I’ll get it working, or die trying,” Adelaide’s voice sounded out from under the console.
“Not slagging funny, Bähr,” Jeremy retorted, the ire he felt evident in his voice.
“Look, ChEng,” Adelaide said with a heavy sigh, “you hovering and interrogating me won’t get this done any sooner.” She pushed her way out from under the console and locked her eyes on his. “In fact,” she continued, “It might even make me screw something up.”
Their eyes were locked for a moment. “I read you five by five,” Jeremy hissed.
Adelaide shrugged and scooted back under the console. Jeremy knew that he had been summarily dismissed. As he walked through the airlock to Main Engineering, he didn’t even have the energy to be offended by the behavior of his subordinate. He stumbled over a piece of equipment, made brief contact with the bulkhead, and staggered down the passageway. It could very well be the last opportunity he’ll ever have to see the engineering marvel that was the Kerwood.
* * *
Days Until Home: 5
“Go on, take it,” the heavily accented voice demanded. Old Vicky squeezed Erika’s hand around the protein bar fragment. The piece couldn’t have been more than an inch long and a quarter of that thick.
“Our supplies were evenly distributed among the crew,” Erika insisted. “I would never dream of taking someone else’s food. Especially now that I’m some sort of slagging tourist,” she snapped and slammed the meager sustenance down on the plastic table. She shifted uncomfortably in her metal chair. The padding had been stripped from all the chairs and affixed to the bulkheads in the cargo bay.
Adelaide’s plan to flood the cargo bay with water was well underway, and after all the cargo crates had been relocated along the bulkheads in the hallway, they started to make the cargo bay into a cocoon of padding and flex material.
Moving the mineral crates out of the cargo bay served a dual purpose: There were fewer things to cover with padding, and although the crates were supposed to be airtight and watertight, no one wanted to risk water mixing with the exotic ores. Gauge couldn’t tell them what that mixture might do to the water.
“No one blames you,” Old Vicky insisted.
“Blames me for what?” Erika shrieked. Even blind, she cold feel his eyes locked on hers. “For saving the crew when we escaped the Matsue?” She sighed, and lowered her voice. “We’d be better off on the Matsue.”
“That’s not what you were saying three weeks ago,” a surprisingly cheery voice declared.
Erika couldn’t keep the corners of her mouth from rising. “I wasn’t blind, useless, and puking every hour on the hour, Josh.”
DeJoseph squeezed her shoulder and leaned close to her ear. “You aren’t getting your fair share of the food with the radiation sickness making it impossible to keep food in your belly.”
A grunt from Old Vicky indicated that he agreed with DeJoseph’s sentiment.
“Besides,” the Baltic accent continued, “we all seek out your advice for our parts of Crazy Ade’s plan.”
Erika felt DeJoseph nod through his lingering contact on her shoulder. “I can’t see you nod, Josh.”
“Yeah, but you know that I did,” came his reply. He cleared his throat and continued, “The reason I came to find you, is that we’re worried about the panels in the cargo bay frying with all the water in there.”
“How high is the water now?” she asked as DeJoseph rested on a stripped chair next to her.
“Waist deep,” DeJoseph replied, the hiss of breath from across the table indicated Old Vicky’s displeasure with her. “In less than two hours it’ll be high enough to make contact with the electronics.”
“Can we melt plastic to make a sealant?” she asked.
“He’s not answering any of your questions until you’ve eaten,” Old Vicky declared.
Erika scowled. Or at least she tried to scowl. She had control over the part of her face that wasn’t burnt. The other was a mask of flesh that after she had harassed Gauge for an answer, he confided that by the time they got to Earth, and assuming they somehow survived, there was nothing that could be done for her. Even skin grafts and surgery was a craps shoot with the amount of radiation that had seeped into her bones.
“Eat the slagging protein bar, Erika,” DeJoseph insisted.
Erika felt around the table for the protein bar, her half scowl daring either of the men to help her in any way. Her fingers touched the smooth top of the bar, and she popped it into her mouth. After a moment of malevolent mastication, she swallowed the lumpy paste and pushed herself away from the table with her remaining hand. “Take me to the cargo bay,” she insisted and shook off DeJoseph’s hand at her elbow. She walked with confidence to the galley door and punched in her key code to allow egress. She “looked” over her shoulder and declared, “Well, Josh, you coming or what?”
* * *
Days Until Home: 4
“We are so slagging screwed,” Adelaide muttered under her breath.
Femke and Gauge looked up at Adelaide, who poured over an engineering console. Gauge sported a crooked grin, and replied, “Call no man happy until he is dead.”
“Herodotus,” declared Femke. She smiled and touched Gauge on the elbow. “It’s about time you learned your history.” She glanced at Adelaide. “Now that we don’t have much left…” she let her voice fade, the connotation left unspoken.
“We’re fine,” Adelaide retorted. She said it with her jaw clenched and eyes averted. She tried to keep her tone light, but her sharp, clipped tongue betrayed her. As with time immortal, those two words clearly meant something else entirely.
The brief utterance of those two simple words had doomed dialogue for untold generations. Had the two-word phrase ever been more than a lie? They obviously meant so much more and concealed a thousand unspoken truths. Adelaide knew that they were anything but fine.
Adelaide kept those truths to herself, and instead swiped diagonally across the face of her console. Her audience only briefly caught the score of red readings displayed before they followed the course of her finger. She sighed. “Who the slag’s Herodotus?” she asked.
“Dead Roman,” replied Gauge.
“Greek,” Femke corrected him.
“This dead Greek,” Adelaide forced a smile on her lips, “did he know anything about orbital mechanics?”
Femke shook her head in the declarative negative. “He’s considered by many to be the father of history.” Femke met Adelaide’s rolling eyes. “He attributed all action to two causes: the Divine, and Human agents of change.”
Adelaide scoffed. “Divine,” she spat. “I’d rather rely on good ol’ human exceptionalism.”
Gauge raised his eyebrows. Adelaide noticed a smudge of something making the peak of his eyebrow pointed. “What can this exceptional human help you with?” he queried with a cheeky smile.
Instead of returning Gauge’s smile, Adelaide frowned and swiped the screen in the opposite than she had before. As a sea of red figures scrolled from left to right and threatened to flood every spare patch of dry statistics. “It took too long to raise anyone on COMs. We’re too hot, and no one can arrest our velocity.” She pointed at one of the many red digits on the console. “We’re gonna hit the atmosphere and bounce off.” She crossed her arms in the finality of her declaration.
“What about your plan to orbit and burn off our speed?” Femke asked.
“The angles are all wrong,” Gauge said, examining the scrolling ocean of red.
Femke sucked in a breath. “Old Vicky was right…” She also peered at the figures on Adelaide’s jury-rigged console. “What about killing the starboard EXT when we hit atmo?”
Adelaide frowned. “We’d have to physically separate it from the hull. We can’t just turn one of them off, and if we were to blow it up, the guidance computer would sense the problem and shut down the port engine.”
Gauge leaned forward. “Can’t you, I dunno, rig something up?”
“This entire boat is FUBAR’d. We’ve been running on wishes and hopes for too long now, and with less than four days until Zulu, we’re screwed.”
“Can’t we steer away and come in at the correct angle?” Femke suggested.
“We’ll starve,” intoned Adelaide.
“Someone could rescue us,” Femke offered.
“Who?” Adelaide spat. “We’re mutineers, saboteurs, killers, and generally no good. Thanks to the Matsue, even the value of the cargo we carry can’t overcome all the negative public relations.” Adelaide sighed. “Nope, we’re on our own here.”
* * *
Days Until Home: 3
“We’ve got a problem.”
When do we not have a problem? groused Jeremy.
He opened his eyes to see the wide face of his Main Propulsion Assistant staring down at him. “How did you get into my quarters?” He pulled the thin sheet over his bare chest. In another day, it would be swept up with the last survey of the Kerwood to load the flooded cargo bay with anything to absorb their velocity.
Adelaide leaned back and crossed her arms. “Seriously, ChEng?”
Jeremy rolled his eyes. She was right; it was better not to ask. He no longer felt the conditioned shame of her seeing his partially naked body. It wasn’t with her specifically that he no longer cared; it was any of his brothers and sisters left aboard the Kerwood.
He sighed and threw off the sheet. “What’s the problem?”
“I’m not convinced that the hybrid oxygenators will pull enough oxygen out of the water to keep us alive in our suits.”
“Can’t you just rig something up?”
“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” Adelaide shrieked. Jeremy couldn’t remember a time when he’d ever seen Adelaide Bähr this flustered. “This isn’t some slagging sci-fi novel, ChEng!” She visibly calmed herself. “I’m not some plucky female protagonist that happens to have some gizmo or doodad that will fix our problems at precisely the right moment.” She narrowed her eyes and fixed her glare at Jeremy. “Reality isn’t so neat and tidy. It’s not as if I can just make the water in the cargo bay suddenly have more oxygen…” Her voice trailed off, and Jeremy could see the gears turning in her head.
“I take it we do have some doodad or gizmo?” Jeremy quipped.
Adelaide scowled. “Maybe. We have deuterium oxide-18 on board.”
Jeremy raised his eyebrows.
“We can make heavy-oxygen water. We have plenty of deuterium and oxalate mined from Egeria-13. Sodium, Calcium and Dimethyl.” She rubbed her eyes and looked up at the bulkhead. “I need to see the inventory of the minerals we collected on this contract.”
Jeremy started to nod, but Adelaide had already turned on her heel and headed for the door to his quarters. “Hey,” he shouted after her, feeling around on the deck for his shirt, “you need my codes to access that.”
Adelaide paused at the open door to his quarters. She turned and frowned at the befuddled Chief Engineer of the Kerwood.
“Never mind,” Jeremy declared.
Adelaide smiled. “Leave it to me,” she declared, and after her lips had quirked up at the corners, she added, “I’d tell you to relax and have some breakfast, but you know…” Adelaide shrugged, spun on her heel and marched out of Jeremy’s quarters.
The door slid closed, and Jeremy ignored the rumble in his belly. He knew in his heart of hearts that men grand and small had stood where he now did. They’d had their brush with the black-cloaked scythe-carrying skeleton, but Death was denied his prize again and again. Jeremy couldn’t decide if he was incredibly lucky, or incredibly unlucky. The crew of the Kerwood should’ve been dead time and time again during a regular contract, but this mission took the cake so to speak.
His stomach grumbled at the thought of cake. Jeremy wasn’t a cake guy. He loved pies and ice cream, but at this point, he’d happily scarf down dry cake with thin frosting. There was enough water on the Kerwood now that the cargo bay was completely flooded. The environmental systems tried to keep the excess water from the rest of the ship, but they continually had to go back to the cargo bay to fix this, or adjust that.
Then, Adelaide had a crazy idea. But when was one of her ideas not crazy?
He couldn’t believe that they kept trying their luck on crazy scheme after crazy scheme. But what else could they do? They would likely be killed at the last possible minute. They already passed their Rubicon. Even if they wanted to try something different, it was too late. This final approach would either be their salvation or damnation. The situation was so… So something that Jeremy couldn’t name. It was a cruel fate. It was stupid irony. That was the descriptor: stupid. Reality was incredibly stupid.
* * *
Days Until Home: 2
The spiral arm of the Milky Way cut diagonally across the open airlock. A brilliant myriad of glowing stars shone even through the displaced vision of a travelling ship. Small dots of pearl, sapphire, gold and ruby were set in a backdrop of multi-hued blacks and blues. They called it ‘the black,’ but space was anything but. Clouds of space dust and nebula gasses interspersed the jeweler’s delight, and a faint glow from the galaxy’s unseen core highlighted the finite demarcation from the airlock frame to the glorious scene. It was the canvas of an artist long forgotten and a painting so vast and overwhelming than anything a human had any right to witness.
Of course, Erika couldn’t see any of it. Her condition worsened each day since her mishap in the umbilicus, just as Gauge had predicted it would. Half of her face tingled and burned, the strip that separated her irradiated skin from her healthy skin itched something fierce. She thought for a brief moment of opening her collar and scratching it, but she knew that such relief would be fleeting. She yearned for the release of her pain. Even if Adelaide’s bizarre plan worked, she would never work in the black again. What good was a disfigured blind engineer with only one hand?
Erika took another step toward the open airlock. Proximity alerts popped up on her heads-up display. Not that she could see her HUD. She felt a soft vibration that to her engineer ears was the atmosphere on the other side of the airlock cycling. Alarms shrieked and in her mind’s eye she saw the flashing lights that told her that the airlock would be open exposing the corridor to the vacuum of space.
Erika reached for the handhold recessed into the airlock wall. Whoever was opening the airlock did their best to move atmosphere around, but knowing her crewmates, she figured she’d better be prepared.
Erika scowled when her missing hand tried to grasp the handhold. Ghostly fingers yearned to feel the fabric of her gloved hand wedged between the handle and it’s smooth concave shell. Erika sighed and turned around 180 degrees and gripped it with her good hand.
“I need your help in the launch hallway,” a familiar feminine voice declared over the COMs.
“I doubt it,” Erika retorted. “I doubt you need me for anything.”
“You know that’s not true,” Jessica replied. “We’d be dead already if not for you.”
“I think you’re confusing me with Crazy Ade.”
Erika felt hands on her shoulders. “I could never confuse you with Adelaide.” Jessica’s voice over the COMs was amplified and isolated, but Erika could tell that she had whispered the missive. “You’re the strongest woman I’ve ever known,” Jessica insisted. “We’ve both loved the same person for a long time. We’ve given her our hearts, and she’s oblivious to that fact.”
Erika tried to step back toward the open airlock, but Jessica’s firm grip on her shoulders prevented her egress.
“You’re the embodiment of love,” Jessica continued. “I admire how you’ve lived your life and come through it intact. It’s a miracle that any of us have survived this, but you’re the hero, an angel and a goddess. Those were just the first words I thought of to describe you as a person, Erika. And those words pale in comparison to the truth.”
“And that is?” Erika asked in a quiet voice.
“That the universe is a better place with you in it,” Jessica insisted. After a pause, presumably to stifle a sniffle, she continued. “I’m a better person for having known you.”
Erika took a step toward Jessica for an embrace, but their helmets cracked against each other ruining the moment. Erika reached for the panel embedded in the wall and started the cycle to close the outer airlock.
“Besides,” Jessica declared over the COMs with a touch of mischievousness in her voice, “No one else knows chemical reactions better than you, and we’ve got less than eighteen hours to save us all from a fiery death at the hands of our MPA.”
Erika nodded. “But those hands are so skilled…”
Jessica snorted over the COMs at Erika’s double entendre.
* * *
Days Until Home: 1
The survivors of the Kerwood floated in oxygen-heavy water in the cargo bay. Telly looked comical in his hybrid suit and wrapped in a knitted blanket. Everyone huddled in groups like they might’ve before Jimmy’s act of sabotage, but the groups weren’t divided cleanly along their jobs like they had in the past. Femke, Vega, Gauge and Captain Hayes stared at everybody. With everyone in matching featureless suits, it was hard to tell who was who, but if Adelaide had learned anything about her shipmates in the years on contract and the short time between Egeria-13 and the Earth, it was how to identify each person by body language.
DeJoseph and Siebert carried conical tubes with metal bits sticking out of one end. Each had it’s own supply of compressed gas to force the metal projectile out if the trigger was depressed. Jeremy had had to pry the chemical welder out of Siebert’s hands to modify them as makeshift harpoons. They weren’t dangerous to the Kerwood bulkheads, but they’d do a number on flesh and bone.
Adelaide didn’t think Jimmy would try anything. He floated in the cargo bay with the rest of them, a bundle of fiber optic lashed around his ankle and secured to a recessed handle in the deck. DeJoseph and Siebert’s helmets were always pointed at their saboteurs.
It came as a shock when it was revealed that Rebecca spent the last two and a half weeks confined to the forward airlock. Were it up to Adelaide, she’d have stuck them both in that airlock and let the Gs squash them against the bulkhead. Vega brought up the fact that the forward airlock likely wouldn’t survive reentry. Adelaide remembered the look on Marisol’s face when Adelaide shrugged off her concern.
Adelaide rewrote the app that allowed the two saboteurs to access the COMs. They could hear the common band, but their microphones were silent. Adelaide made it clear what would happen when she was binding Jimmy and Rebecca if either of them tried any nonsense. Forget dying slowly in space, their suits would be punctured, and they would drown in the watery lagoon that was now the Kerwood cargo bay.
A sudden chime over the COMs alerted them that there was a five-minute countdown until they made atmosphere on Earth. There was only a seven-minute window for her to bridge the optical cables she cradled in each of her gloved hands.
Once the connection was made, the thrusters installed by the Matsue would fire and just as they had when Jimmy sabotaged them when they were on Egeria-13, they would break the Kerwood’s spine. What was left of the launch hallway was a murky puddle of chemicals and minerals and who knew what else Jessica and Erika had come up with. Rotating the thrusters to vent their flame and gasses into the Kerwood was surprisingly easy. Finding the chemicals to fire them was something else entirely. When no one cared if anyone near the things died, figuring out how to blow them up was pretty easy.
Both thrusters would have to ignite simultaneously. The EXTs would continue to thrust, and the nose of the Kerwood would get caught in the Earth’s atmosphere. The atmosphere would tear the cargo bay, ancillary cargo passageway, and a few other spaces out of the Kerwood. No one knew what would happen to the aft part of the Kerwood. It was agreed that losing the forward third of the ship wouldn’t be enough damage to stop the infernal machine from thundering on until something affected its trajectory. Main Engineering would be obliterated, and without electricity, the EXTs would cease to function. If scavengers were to locate the hulk, they would have quite the prize: two fully operational and well cared for Electrostatic Xenon Thrusters.
Another chime of her cluster showed large red digits counting down to zero.
Adelaide pinched the ends of the cables together, and nothing happened.
* * *
Days Until Home: 0
“Report!” barked Captain Hayes.
Adelaide unhooked the cable and reconnected it again. Jeremy floated over to her as if he could somehow connect the two cables in a different manner.
“The remote isn’t working,” Adelaide declared over the COMs.
“No slag, Sherlock,” retorted Gauge.
“We need to manually trigger the explosives,” Adelaide declared.
Chatter echoed in everyone’s suits. Voices overlapped and it was a constant noise in her ears until she heard a scream.
“What are you doing, Winn?”
It was hard to discern which suited figure Femke’s voice was coming from, but it was not difficult to see Captain Hayes push open the stubborn airlock door and step through.
“I’ll set off the explosives,” he declared, his shoulders squared in stoic defiance.
“I’m coming with you,” Femke demanded.
“Don’t throw your life away on me,” Hayes replied and tried to shove the airlock hatch closed.
“Skipper,” Gauge said as he floated to the hatch, “you’ll need a second pair of hands to fire both thrusters at the same time.”
Adelaide couldn’t see the captain’s face, but she could hear the displeasure in his voice. “Fine,” he grumbled, “you can come with me.”
Gauge moved toward the still open hatch, and Femke reached out and squeezed the thin hose running from his hybrid oxygenator to his helmet. The exposed hose was only two or three inches long – just enough play to allow the helmet to move, but the disruption caused Gauge to panic and hyperventilate. Adelaide could see the alarms flare red on his forearm cluster as he flailed to remove Femke from his helmet.
Femke swam to the open hatch and Hayes tried to bar her entry. “Winn,” she whispered over the COMs, “we need to do this ASAP, or everyone here dies.”
The last Adelaide saw the couple they had embraced as Jeremy and Old Vicky forced the hatch closed.
They crew of the Kerwood each watched their clusters as red numerals counted up from zero.
Jeremy floated in front of Adelaide. “What if they didn’t-”
The entire cargo bay lurching fore and belowdecks interrupted him. Everyone felt the deceleration as the Kerwood clipped the atmosphere. They all ended up in a pile against the cargo bay ramp, except for Jimmy and Rebecca. They hung from their bindings, the G-forces wrecking havoc with everyone and everything in the cargo bay.
Adelaide wasn’t sure how long it would take to get through the atmosphere. It had only taken the Apollo capsule thirteen minutes to splash down, but the old delta wing space shuttles took a little over half an hour. Adelaide hoped for a long decent, and a splashdown in an ocean. Anything else meant that they were all dead.
The water and its contents tumbled end over end with crushing forces working against them all. The cargo ramp was hot enough to glow and boil the water they all floated in.
Deck plates and bulkheads buckled and water found any place it could to escape the main body. Adelaide could feel the enormous pressure on her chest. Drawing in breath was an epic chore. Exhaling was no problem: the pressure easily forced the air from her lungs. She raised her arm up to look at her forearm cluster.
They had been tumbling through Earth’s atmosphere for twenty-two minutes. She had no idea how close to a touchdown they were. All the telemetry she had feeding into her cluster was blank. They were blind as a bat and out of control.
The impact was devastating. Adelaide pondered the word for a brief moment. They continually used words like disaster and devastating, but there simply wasn’t a word to describe what she felt when the cargo bay of the Kerwood ceased its descent.
Her arm struck against someone’s helmet and fizzled out. The last number she remembered seeing was T+41:22. COMs were out, and bodies were madly flailing about trying to discern up from down. It wasn’t until she looked around and saw a pale light shining in from the cracked airlock. She kicked her legs off a body and swam toward the welcoming light.
The passageway beyond the airlock was gone. She saw bright blue sky beyond it. Adelaide tried to wedge her fingers into the seal, but she had no leverage. A dark mass blocked out the blue light, and a helmeted face peered into the transparent Lexan separating the Kerwood survivors from freedom. Adelaide felt bodies push against her from below.
The helmeted figure pushed something against the seal of the airlock. He placed a digital readout counting down from sixty. Adelaide realized what it was, and kicked against her shipmates to get away. One by one, her shipmates saw the time and swam away from the airlock.
She wanted to use another word to describe the explosion that littered the aft wall of the cargo bay with shards of bent metal and melted plastic, but she was speechless as another figure clad in a wetsuit rappelled into the gaping maw of what was left of the Kerwood, locked both his hands around her chest and zipped back up the line.
She watched in amazement as the helicopter that rescued her, and three of her shipmates maneuvered up with them all dangling from zip lines and another helicopter took its place.
The Kerwood fell away as the helicopter relocated them to the tarmac of a NAVY aircraft carrier. Her rescuer slapped a release lever, and they both collapsed to the deck. The man reached out and gripped the collar of her suit with both hands and rotated it.
Adelaide gasped her first breath of unrecycled air in months. Her savior looked into her eyes and said the words she longed to hear: “Welcome Home.”
Days Until Home Retrospective
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