He breathed, and according to Cecilion Civil Code 19.73-RW, he was alive again. The chamber hissed open, and he floated out. A cold gleam stung his eyes like white hospital lights.
Rust speckled the surrounding pod. Knobs and gauges glowed on the command center, one flickering. The engines hummed and stars glimmered through a porthole in the sealed door.
He blinked, adjusting to the lights. His arms ached, and his tongue stuck to his mouth. Through his mind’s eye, a blurry crowd roared in ovation. Many smiled, some laughed, some stared like stone soldiers. He recognized only two, but they all knew his name and shouted it between cheers and hoorahs. Mason. Mason. Mason. He squeezed his eyes shut, fantastical colors flashing, but no memory after the crowd. No mission or objective or reason for the gathering.
Mason squinted in the white lights. Why was he there? A black uniform clung to him with openings only for his hands and head. The insignia of Cecilio was sealed over his heart; a silver C surrounding a crimson star. The emblem of the Federal System shimmered beside the C with four other stars, two red and two yellow.
Mason nodded. Another mission for Cecilio. But alone?
An egg-like chamber stood behind him, bolted to the deck; a black screen embedded in its open door. An identical chamber stood next to it, open as well, with its young passenger spinning and reaching in the weightlessness. An enemy? The kid wore the same black uniform, but with a Kisasi pistol fastened to his side. Cecilio’s insignia gleamed off the handle. A partner. Age twenty? Maybe twenty-one? Mason recognized his face, but the name—what was his name?
The kid’s dark gaze flashed. “What do you want?” he slurred.
Mason scanned the pod. No other chambers. Just him and the kid. “Mission.” His tongue ached forming the two syllables as he approached the porthole. Stars burned like muzzle flashes, and a great black sphere eclipsed thousands of them. Another ship—the objective. A ring revolved around its middle and twin engines burned blue. No other light shone from it. Mason turned back to the pod. White suits hung on the bulkhead, billowing like ghosts in the weightlessness. Two helmets shimmered above, strapped to the bulkhead.
“What’s going on?” his partner mumbled.
Mason’s tongue loosened. “We have a job.” He peered through the porthole as the pod approached a docking station on the black sphere, jolting and locking into place.
Mason floated to the command center and pressed his thumb against a scanner. Welcome Commander Wyatt, M. flashed across the screen and files blinked onto the display. He scrolled past Standard Procedures, Coordinates, and Emergency Protocols, stopping at Orders. He opened the file. Nothing. His eyes narrowed and after scrolling through more files, he returned to Orders again. Still nothing. Perhaps there was a mistake? He shut off the display, searching the console for the communication systems.
Nothing. He sighed and squeezed his eyes shut again. No recent memory.
The spacesuits—they would have short range comms.
He pushed toward the suits. The helmet’s visor mirrored his face, rough from decades of service and marred by a pale scar down the left side. His fingers rose to touch it but jerked away as his partner crashed into the ceiling.
“Careful,” Mason said. The kid frowned. Mason eyed the pistol and seized the white suit from the bulkhead. A zipper split the front and a small oxygen tank hung from the back. The fabric seemed to glow in the white light as he slipped his legs in, shrugging the rest on like a jacket. Gel insulation conformed to his body as he rolled his shoulders and zipped the front of the suit. It sealed like a cold embrace. A commlink settled in his ear as he secured the cap and helmet. He kept his eyes on the kid, snapping a tube from the oxygen tank to his helmet and pressing the call button on the side of his glove.
“This is Captain Wyatt…” his voice trailed off. Old habits. “Commander Wyatt to Cecilio. Call for instruction.” He twitched as static blared. No answer. He pressed the button again. “This is Commander Mason Wyatt to Cecilio Command Center. The pod has docked. Requesting further instruction.” The static droned and his finger drummed his leg. No orders—no contact. He ended the transmission.
“Where we at?” the kid peered through the porthole to the larger ship.
“Out of range,” Mason activated the black screen on his hibernation chamber. “Nine months…” His new longest trip. “Nine months away from Proxima B.”
Where else? “Nine months.”
The kid wrapped his arms around himself. “That’s a ways.”
“The question is where?” Mason brushed his hand along the bulkhead. Orange corrosion dusted his gray glove. “And why?”
“Ain’t it pretty obvious?” The kid’s eyes darted around the pod. “We’re uh…” he scratched his black curls, brow furrowing.
“You’ll clear up in a bit,” Mason pushed the remaining suit toward his partner.
The kid caught it. “Not soon enough.”
Mason opened a compartment below the empty suit hangers, and his neck stiffened. Two hollow slots for Kisasis. Cecilio’s insignia flashed on the grip of the kid’s gun as he fumbled with his suit. That made one. Where was the other? Mason narrowed his eyes and closed the compartment.
After three failed attempts, the kid stuffed himself into his suit and clamped the gun to his thigh. The helmet slipped from his fingers and Mason winced. It spun midair until his partner snatched it and locked it into place on the second try.
“Check?” Mason faced his partner.
The kid furrowed his brow.
“Check?” Mason said louder.
“What’re you talkin’ about?” the kid’s voice crackled in Mason’s commlink.
“Good enough,” Mason double checked his suit and triple checked his helmet. “You ready?”
The kid rubbed his elbows. “We’re in space, man. How ready are you expectin’?”
“Sir,” Mason corrected. “Are you ready?”
“Yeah, sure. Ready…sir.”
Mason monitored the kid and pressed the panel on the bulkhead. The door hissed aside, and they lurched on a wave of oxygen out of the pod and into the dark, airless ship. A green gauge flickered up on Mason’s visor. 7 hours of air. Should be enough.
Frosty bulkheads glimmered in the dim glow of their suits. Doors on either side guarded the other docking bays and pipes ran along the ceiling. “Have you ever been up here?” Mason asked.
The kid shrugged. “Not sure.”
“That’s the hibernation getting to you.” Mason grazed his hand across the bulkhead, slowing his flight to the end of the corridor.
“I remember a whole lot. Just nothin’ tellin’ me why I’m here. We could be headed to Earth for all I know.”
“Haven’t seen a ship from there in fifty years.”
“Who’d know with my muddled head?”
“It’ll wear off in…” Mason ran the numbers. “61 hours.”
“It is.” Mason glanced back to their pod, spilling light into the passage. It resembled the modules he’d studied in history. By some marvel, it still held together. But why would Cecilio use an antique before an Interceptor? And why no four-man team? Mason grimaced. 61 hours without answers—normally there’d be a debrief. Why not this time? He turned to the kid. “Name and rank?”
Mason brushed the bulkhead, activating a panel. “Rank?” He pressed the screen, and a door moved aside, allowing them to float into a dark chamber.
“Came in second,” Carter muttered, the door closing behind them.
“Second officer?” Mason lifted his eyes to a door in the ceiling. A panel gleamed beside it. The exit.
“Somethin’ like that.”
Mason extended his hand. Carter hesitated but shook.
“So I guess you came in first?”
“I did once.” Mason pushed toward the ceiling and pressed the panel. The room lurched up and their boots collided with the deck. After the initial burst, they floated again.
Carter swallowed and braced himself in a corner. “What’s this thing?”
Mason turned parallel to the exit in the ceiling and leveled his feet against the bulkhead. “It’s a gravity chamber. We’re matching the ship’s rotation.” He closed his eyes and sighed at Carter huddled in the corner across from the exit. “You may want to come down.”
The chamber accelerated. Centrifugal force glued Mason’s feet to the bulkhead as it became the deck, and Carter tumbled from his corner as it became the ceiling. Mason closed his eyes, grimacing.
“Down,” Carter grunted, rolling onto his back. “’Cause now there is a down.”
Mason nodded, exhaling a controlled breath as blood rushed to his feet. The artificial gravity grew stronger and his head grew light. The door they entered by lay to his right and the exit stood ahead.
Sweat beaded on Carter’s forehead as he gasped.
“Breathe slow,” Mason clasped his hands behind his back, “and hang tight. We’ll be here a while.”
“Right,” Carter closed his eyes and hours ticked by. Every ten minutes, Mason jumped and counted the time to reach the floor, falling slower than on Proxima B. Weaker gravity. Clasping his hands, he faced the exit, but his gaze drifted to Carter’s Kisasi and his fingers twitched to his side.
A green light flashed on the panel next to the exit and the door slid open. 4 hours and 52 minutes of air remained. Mason breathed softer.
“On your feet,” Mason said. The kid lay motionless. Mason tapped him with his boot. Was he sleeping? He knelt and jabbed him. “On your feet!”
Carter launched like a spring, gripping his gun. Mason held his glare. “Right.” Carter nodded, his breath heavy. “Still in space.” He nodded again, as if reassuring himself, and his hand slipped off the grip.
Mason straightened, his back tight from age and the new gravity. “Keep your eyes open and your breath soft. You’re wasting air.”
“’Course,” Carter’s legs wobbled. “Why we here anyway?”
So many questions. Mason marched out of the gravity chamber into another passageway. “It’ll come to me.”
“’Course it will.” Carter followed.
Mason opened his mouth to retort, but closed it again. It’d be a waste of air.
The passageway opened to a vast hall, rising in the distance like the inner rim of a wheel. Frosted windows rose on either side, casting a cool blue glow onto the grated deck. High above, the windows curved toward the hub of the wheel where an axle turned the ship like a centrifuge. Metal doors stood like sentries next to each window, numbers gleaming upon them. “2500,” Carter read as he passed. “2499…2498,” he glanced back at Mason. “What is this place?”
Yet another question. Mason approached the nearest door and melted ice off the panel with the palm of his glove. It glowed green; he pressed it, and the door scraped aside. Mason’s neck stiffened. Blue light shimmered from hibernation chambers. Thousands, rank upon rank, like soldiers in formation. “It’s a cargo ship.”