Mason shielded his eyes from blinding light and froze at the sight of his bare hand. No glove—no space suit. His head throbbed, and he closed his eyes. He still saw her—Laura.
He’d hit something—he’d lost oxygen. His gaze darted to a helmet on the deck. The space suits lay in crumpled heaps next to it, with a small bag of…was that jerky?
Mason pushed himself up onto his forearms, aching from hibernation and his tumble in the passageway. The black floor, like an obsidian mirror, reflected his face and pale scar. He grimaced and turned away. Computers on the command center displayed trajectories, charts, and air pressure gauges. Jumbled clusters of stars shimmered beyond the Navisphere, and a cloud hung in the distance.
“Man, if you died on me that soon,” Carter snickered, leaning against the window with Mason’s helmet and a tangle of tubes on his lap, “not sure what I’d do.”
Mason rose, his head spinning. He eased into the nearest chair, shivering at the icy leather. The captain’s chair stood empty. “Did you contact Cecilio?” His lungs burned from having the air sucked out of them.
Carter raised the helmet. “I’ve been workin’. Almost got her fixed up too.”
“I thought you said you weren’t an engineer?”
“I said I’m whatever I need.” He wrapped black tape around the tube.
“You still had time to make contact.” Mason rose, gripping the command center to keep steady, and stumbled toward the microphone stemming from the console.
“I figured out how to get the air turned on, dragged you back here, then got to work fixin’ your cap. Figured that was enough. I hope the captain won’t be missin’ his tape,” Carter chuckled, “or his jerky.”
The jerky next to the suits. The kid stole it? Not something he’d learn at the academy.
Mason dropped into the chair behind the microphone and tapped the console. The screen blinked to life and two call buttons gleamed beside the keypad: one blue—short range—and the other green. He pressed the green and leaned toward the microphone. “This is Commander Wyatt to Cecilio Command Center, requesting mission briefing.”
Static hummed from amplifiers around the bridge. Mason glanced left and right; the floor curved up with the bridge’s gravity wheel. He leaned forward, peering further up the arc. A corridor opened on the port side and a docking bay on the starboard. His head throbbed, and he leaned back, pressing the green button. “Commander Mason Wyatt requesting mission briefing.”
“Hold up, your name ain’t just Wyatt?” Carter snorted. “Okay then.”
“I answer to Wyatt.” Mason pressed his lips together, listening to the rumbling static and watching the bright screen. He could send a written message, but it’d take weeks for Cecilio to reply. The mission didn’t need to wait.
“Maybe she’s just old.” Carter wrapped more tape around the tube.
Mason shook his head. “Communication hasn’t changed much.”
“Well, maybe it takes a while.”
“It uses APC.”
Carter stared. Did he really not know? “Accelerated Photon Communication.” Mason said.
Carter continued staring.
Mason rubbed his eyes. “They designed it way back for interstellar communication. You’d think they’d bring you up to speed.”
Carter looked down at the helmet. “I ain’t a kid, you know.”
“I never said you were,” Mason replied.
“Didn’t have to,” he tossed the finished helmet next to the other. Mason winced as it clattered and rolled to a stop.
“Look, I just don’t understand…” the tube flashed in the bridge lights, black tape holding it together. The kid had fixed it. Mason tapped the console. “I don’t…” He sighed. “You know what, thanks. Thanks for watching my six.”
“Mmm, I can really hear it in your tone,” Carter scowled. “You seem to know how the ship works and I want to find out why I’m here. I can’t do that alone.”
“Why not—” Mason began, but a chipper voice cut through the static.
“Officer Murphy of Cecilio Command Center to HS10. Report.”
Mason’s eyes narrowed. She sounded more like a pharmacist reminding him of medication than a Cecilion Officer. He cleared his throat. “This is Commander Wyatt. My partner and I—”
“I know who you are, Commander. Are McCord and the others there?”
Others? McCord? Mason eyed Carter and leaned toward the microphone. “I requested a mission briefing.”
“Of course, Commander,” she said. “Waking up after prolonged hibernation can be taxing, but we have protocol.”
“There were no orders.” Mason said. “I searched, but—”
“Pardon me, Commander, could you repeat that?”
“The orders weren’t there.”
Silence. The static didn’t return, so the line remained open. A few clicks of a keypad and she spoke again. “I’m sorry, but our records say that the orders were sent in your pod. Are you sure there was nothing?”
Mason closed his eyes. “Yes, I’m sure.” He leaned on the console. “Look, Murphy. I know the protocol. I know where to look. The orders weren’t there. So, please refresh me or send me to someone who can.” Laura wouldn’t have wasted his time.
Carter edged away from the window, approaching the console with his heavy gait.
“I’m connecting you with the CO. Stand by.” The line went dead a moment. Static buzzed through the bridge and Mason leaned back.
“I don’t like it,” Carter muttered.
“We’ll have answers in a minute,” Mason replied, his lips tight and his chest heavy.
Carter snorted. “Answers? Orders maybe, but answers?” He scowled and returned to the window.
Mason drew in the cool air, soothing his lungs.
The static cut short after five minutes, a fresh voice sounding over the APC.
“Commander Wyatt.” A woman’s voice. He recognized it but couldn’t place the name.
“Yes.” Mason leaned toward the microphone. “Is this Murphy’s commanding officer?”
“This is the director.”
Mason furrowed his brow. The director of Cecilio Command Center. He cleared his throat. “The director?”
“I, um…I requested a mission briefing.”
“Of course,” she replied. “Are the others there? I would rather not repeat it. Again.”
“They’re not with you?” she asked.
“It’s just me and Carter.”
The director exhaled. “You all knew the risk when you launched. Two pods were sent.”
That explained not having a four-man team. “What happened?” Mason asked.
“They likely got caught in the Belt,” the director replied. “It keeps getting closer. The old instruments cannot always track it. We are here now, though. Is McCord there?”
Mason frowned at Carter. McCord? He waved the kid over. Carter declined. “I can hear from here,” he paused, then chuckled. “Hear from here.”
Mason turned back to the microphone. “We’re both here.”
“You and McCord are aboard the HS10. Your mission is to claim the contents of Cell 81 and return.”
“Why’s that?” Carter asked from the window.
Mason watched him for a moment, then leaned toward the microphone. “If I could ask what the objective is?”
“That is the objective. Cell 81.”
“She couldn’t have left a note? Left us somethin’? Maybe scratched it on the rust bucket she sent us in?” Carter snorted.
Mason covered the microphone, grimacing at his tone, then uncovered it to speak. “Director, there were no orders in our pod,” he said.
“They were left in the ship’s files.”
“They weren’t there.”
“We’re looking into it. Meanwhile, you have your mission.”
“Roger that,” Mason nodded. Static hummed before he turned off the APC, rose, and checked the ship’s atmosphere. Two hours to full pressure. They’d have to breathe hard.
Carter pushed away from the window. “So, we go down there and do the job?”
“That’s why we’re here,” Mason paused. “McCord.”
“It’s a family name. McCord. We don’t go tellin’ everybody. It ain’t how we do it.”
“Well, from now on, you tell me. We have a job and now we’re shorthanded.”
“Maybe you don’t need to know everything,” Carter shrugged. “Ever think of that?”
Mason’s face hardened. “No more secrets.”
“Fine.” Carter turned to the Navisphere. “Not that it’s a secret though, but I don’t think everybody down in Cecilio likes us bein’ up here.”
“Cecilio don’t make mistakes like this. If there weren’t orders in that pod, somebody stole them.”