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Days Until Home – Chapter 15

days-until-home-A

Days Until Home: 82

A klaxon sounded out, and the passageway lighting faded from brilliant to dark and back to brilliant in time with the klaxon’s wail. It had been less than twenty minutes since an explosion rumbled the Matsue’s deck plates, triggering the alarm. The crew of the Matsue wouldn’t stand for saboteurs aboard their ship any more than Erika or her surviving Kerwood shipmates would, and the Matsue crew was determined to stop the mutiny. Mutiny, Erika Ängström thought, as if they would call it anything else.

“Stop!” A Matsue crewman burst around the corner, leading with his tranquilizer gun. He dropped to one knee, his forearm resting on the other knee. He sighted the running form of Captain Winchester Hayes, of the crippled Kerwood. “Don’t make me shoot you, Captain Hayes!”

Erika stepped out of an alcove where she watched the scene unfold and thrust a syringe into the security man’s shoulder. The hiss was more felt than heard as the syringe discharged the sedative directly into the man’s skin. He had only a moment to look up at the new threat before he collapsed onto the deck.

Captain Hayes returned to the scene and eyed the pair of launch suits in a pile in the alcove that Erika had hidden. His eyes kept wandering to Erika’s missing hand on her right arm. The suit glove was required to maintain suit integrity, but her glove was limp and ineffectual.

“Stop staring,” Erika grumbled and flipped her launch helmet over her head with her good hand. She rotated the collar of her suit and helped Captain Hayes into his launch suit. “We’ve only got six or seven minutes, so get your slag together.”

Captain Hayes’s eyes were blank and uncomprehending. Erika reached up with her good hand and rotated the captain’s collar. “It’s a race against time,” Erika said over the private communication link that she and Captain Hayes had created. “We’ve got to be through the umbilicus by 17:30 Kerwood time.”

Captain Hayes gave her a thumbs up. He shifted to look at Erika’s flaccid glove. She rolled her eyes, pushed the captain away with her good hand, and jogged down the passageway. Captain Hayes fell into step beside her. When they arrived at the makeshift airlock that the Matsue was using to shift goods and matériel from the Kerwood to the Matsue, they stopped to see two suited figures guarding the temporary airlock. One was rotund, and the other was so tall he had to stoop in the Matsue passageway.

A pair of Matsue security personnel lay at their feet. A third figure knelt over the prostrate guards and was affixing oxygen-breathing apparatuses over their noses and mouths. The figure turned, and Erika heard her over the COMS, “Just in case this goes sideways.”

“Move it, Funky!” Captain Hayes ordered over the COMS.

Femke rose and placed her hands on her hips in defiance. She turned to respond to her captain, “Stealing the Kerwood is one thing, but if anyone dies, it’s all our asses.” Femke pulled the recessed handle in the hatch, swung it open, and stepped through.

“It’s our ship,” Captain Hayes grumbled. “We’re not stealing anything.”
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Days Until Home – Chapter 14

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Days Until Home: 83

“So let me ask you this. If the Matsue hadn’t shown up, what were you going to do to get the crew and cargo home?” the gruff voice said with a hint of frustration behind it.

Winchester Hayes sat at the desk with his arms in front of him, one on top of the other, and his head bent low over the intercom. His face was a mask of determination, and the upper arm blocked the view of his hand crushing a ball of paper. He was squeezing it so tightly that it was becoming painful, but it kept him from falling off the precipice and becoming something that he had sworn not to become.

He inhaled slowly and began his retort, “My chief engineer and his brilliant staff were on it. We weren’t down long enough to need rescuing and—”

“Do you hear yourself, Hayes? You lost more people on your watch than a wartime captain handling a destroyer. How do you think the Lu and Hawkins’ family feel about you not being ‘down long enough’? I think that they would be very annoyed to hear the man responsible for—”

“Hey, that’s enough. I may be contracted with you, but I am not your toady. If you don’t want to reconsider the green light on us being stripped and salvaged while we’re down on one knee, then, I am very disappointed. I have had a long, successful run with the Kerwood. Even you with your nasty opinion of me would have to admit that. We have been the ship that the superstars ask to be transferred to, because, we get things done. I removed every facet of a life to dedicate myself to this ship and your organization, and what do I get? A call for help answered by some spineless shit, who sits comfortably in an air conditioned building, telling me what the family of my friends would think about my refusal to take an ass—”

“That’s enough, Captain Hayes. I owe you an apology, and I just want to clarify that I am not in an air conditioned building. I am home with family. I took this call as a courtesy. Anyway, I fully understand your position, and it is a regrettable and unfortunate position that nobody could dream of being in. Not in their worst nightmare. But the Kerwood Corporation wants you home. The losses that we have suffered already are far greater than we can afford. You called because you’re a great man with tremendous pride, but the ship is crippled, Captain. Allow your rescuers to do their job and when you get back we can help you put the pieces together.”

Winchester adjusted his seat and began to rub his forehead with frustration. Bitter-sweet doesn’t quite describe it, he thought. We’re in a bigger ship that can get us back home, fast, but the reason we came out here will become null and void. I can’t have Booker and Lu’s lives become the result of a worthless mission. “Thanks for taking my call. Enjoy the rest of your day,” he said flatly and disconnected the communication.

He sat back and scanned the room. It was spacious, clean, and meant for important guests whenever the Matsue’s captain would have one along. When his eyes found the bed, he thought about Femke, and how waking up on the Kerwood had been the stuff of dreams on their trip. One minute happiness, the next, death and total anarchy. It was funny how life was so unstable, and no matter how many times it happened, he could never prepare himself enough for it.
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Days Until Home – Chapter 13

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 Days Until Home: 84

Viktor was moving down the hallway toward Siebert’s transponder signal, cringing with every magnetically-enhanced boot step that sent jolts of pain through the bundle of fabric and flesh fused together at his belly, when laughter drifted through his helmet.

Jimmy paused and turned around, giving Viktor a confused look. He heard the laughter too. “What the…”

“Attention all Kerwood crew,” came Captain Hayes’ voice, clearer but still twinged with levity. “I have an important announcement to make.”

“Then make it already,” Jimmy said on the private channel only Viktor could hear.

“We’ve established communication with the commercial mining vessel Matsue. They are plotting an intercept course to provide assistance. Folks, we’re being rescued.”

Hayes must have opened up the channel to everyone, because a scattering of cheers filled Viktor’s helmet, some weary, others halfhearted, all of them hopeful. Jimmy grinned like an idiot and pumped his fist in the vacuum.

“The Matsue,” Viktor breathed, staring off at a point past Jimmy’s shoulder. “That’s my old ship.”

“Who fricken cares what ship it is,” Jimmy said. “It’s a ship, and it’s rescue, and it’s safety. I thought I was gunna die out here, and no offense Vicky, but I was terrified your ugly face would be the last thing I saw.”

His laughter took the sting out of the words, and Viktor surprised himself by joining. For a long while they stood there and laughed, along with the remnants of the crew throughout the crippled Kerwood.

It took eight hours for the Matsue to reach them, hard-burning all the way on chemical rockets. Viktor imagined the chest-crushing g-forces the crew must be suffering just to reach them as quickly as possible. Viktor and Jimmy were able to cut open the mangled door and retrieve Siebert. The big miner appeared unconscious at first, but came to once they patched into his suit comms. He seemed to hear everything they said, and he nodded or shook his head to answer their questions, but he had a thousand-meter stare in his eye that Viktor recognized as shock. There was no sign of Adelaide, so they escorted Siebert back to relative safety before his brain could process everything that had happened.

They huddled in the med bay while waiting for the Matsue. The video screens that would normally show the view outside the ship were down, so they had to use their imagination, with occasional updates over the radio. The Matsue matched their relative velocity, then closed the distance until they were only a few meters apart. Though the engineers had done a pretty good job at negating the Kerwood’s spin by opening and closing airlocks, the ship still was unstable on one axis, so the Matsue used engineering arms to clamp onto the crippled vessel and then negate the spin with its own maneuverability jets.

An emergency airlock attached to the trunk entrance. It sounded like a dozen woodpeckers hammering the outside of the hull, creating the temporary seal. Viktor had the absurd image of old earth pirates on the open seas, throwing hooks onto a vessel before they boarded. He laughed, and when Jimmy asked what was so funny he only shook his head. Part of him knew he was so far beyond exhaustion that his brain was barely functioning. The larger part didn’t care.
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Days Until Home – Chapter 12

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Days Until Home: UNKNOWN

“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.”
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Days Until Home – Chapter 11

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Days Until Home: UNKNOWN

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?”
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Days Until Home – Chapter 10

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Days Until Home: UNKNOWN

Viktor drifted through his cube-shaped bubble of atmosphere a few millimeters per second. Such slight movement was practically still relative to the walls, but the airlock was small enough that within seconds he neared the ceiling. He reached up with his good hand and let his fingertips absorb the inertia. The result was that he began floating back the way he’d come, a fraction of a degree slower than before.

There was a comfort, there. Whatever disaster had befallen the Kerwood, the laws of physics still applied. A reminder that they were still in the world of the living.

He couldn’t muster the energy to do more than float back and forth. He couldn’t muster the energy to care. Once the adrenaline from the action had worn off extreme exhaustion had taken its place, like he’d worked a double shift in high-G with no calorie break. Simply floating there was a soft, calm luxury.

When Viktor was a child, his father had taken the family on a trip to the Caspian Sea. The people in the markets there were exotic compared to the stoic Russians: they called their wares in high-pitched, almost singsong voices, pointing out strangers and gesturing wildly to attract attention. One rotund man sold blown-glass ornaments, small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand, intricate and precisely crafted. Viktor had never seen glass with colors swirled inside, greens and reds mixing and dancing like water. He’d begged his father to buy him a glass figurine of a ballerina, leg extended and dress blown out in a swirl. Of course they could not afford it, and Viktor’s father had been angry at the request.

The man selling the ornaments had smiled sadly at Viktor. What he remembered most about the man was that he wore a white turban around his head, tightly wrapped like a cloth beehive.

The gauze wrapped around Jessica’s head wound reminded Viktor of the glass salesman. A big, swollen, turban.

Jessica occupied the wall opposite him, looking alarmingly like a dead body, though he knew she lived and could see her chest rise and fall. Despite what she said, the pain from her scalping had become too severe for her to suffer. Viktor shot her up with drugs from the medical bag before wrapping her head in gauze. They clipped Jessica’s tether hook onto the wall to keep her in place.

Viktor envied Jessica her unconsciousness. He wanted to curl up and sleep. Not in his Kerwood bunk, but in a real bed, with the warm lump of his wife an arm’s length away. A warning indicator on the wall next to Jessica changed from green to yellow with an emphatic blink. He knew he should be thinking about what to do, but he couldn’t bring himself to focus.

Jimmy smashed the comms button again and spoke louder, as if volume were the reason nobody was responding.

“Hey there boys and girls, it’s your friendly precious mineral extractor here. Still here. In the airlock. Waitin’ for death. We’ll be here for–oh, I don’t know. A few more hours, depending on how much O2 I consume speaking into this squawk-box.”
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Days Until Home – Chapter 09

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Days Until Home: UNKNOWN

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.
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