422 Days before the HS10 Mission
“You and your team—”
“I don’t have a team.” Mason leaned back in the cold metal chair.
“You will for this mission.”
Mason studied the tablet showing the blueprints for the HS10. A basket of fruit rested in the middle of the table before him, filled with apples, oranges, and bananas. He turned to her. “Go on.”
“You will arrive after nine months of hibernation. I’m sure you’ve trained to function after such a trip?”
“I’ve never gone that long, but I’d be fine.”
“Your mission is to retrieve the contents of Cell 81—the Deogen System—and turn the ship around. A briefing will be left in your pod, as usual. The accompanying pod will also be provided with the same orders.”
“Turn it around?” He glanced up from the blueprints.
“Send it back to Earth.” She rose from her chair and straightened her uniform. “Am I understood?”
Mason examined the blueprints. “Why can’t we take an Interceptor?”
“Interceptors cannot dock on Haven Ships. You will be sent in escape pods recovered from the HS7.”
“Aren’t those a bit old?”
“They have been modified to take the trip and been equipped with hibernation chambers,” she paused, and her face softened. “You do this, and you will have your life back. Your rank, your ship. Perhaps even your crew.”
Mason twitched. “I don’t have a crew.”
“You could have one again.”
Mason’s lips tightened, and he studied the blueprints. “What about the cargo?”
“It’s better this way.”
He tapped the table and nodded. “When do I start?”
Day 1 on the HS10
Mason breathed. Thin air chilled his lungs. Red flashed; sirens blared. He pressed his hand against his throbbing head. Blood stained his fingers. He flung the crimson droplets and faced the white light of the Deogen System. Why did they need it? His memory drifted like smoke.
Carter gasped, clutching his shoulder. “What happened?” his eyes drooped.
“Aiais.” Mason flinched at the ringing of his own voice. “Analysis.”
“The hull has been breached, sir.”
“Man, you said it’d take a mountain!” Carter yelled.
Mason winced at his shout. “Then that’s what we hit.” He pushed out into the passageway. Red lights flashed as he scooped up the laser and found Carter spiraling, grasping his shoulder. “Come on.” Mason caught Carter by the boot and shoved him toward the lift. “Stay awake.”
“I ain’t got no reason to sleep.”
“We’re losing atmosphere. I wouldn’t blame you.” Mason shoved Carter inside the lift and pressed Bridge. Gravity returned. Carter slumped against the bulkhead, shivering. Cold closed in. “Hang tight,” Mason said between controlled breaths.
The lift opened, and Mason dragged Carter across the glossy floor. Bits of rock and ice battered the Navisphere. “Seal off all damaged sectors,” Mason ordered.
“Sector seals damaged. Atmosphere no longer contained.”
Mason leaned Carter against the command center. “Seal the bridge and focus all oxygen here.”
“Bridge sealed. Pressure stabilizing.”
Mason dropped into the chair, his breath billowing in the cold.
“How’d we get hit?” Carter pushed himself up.
“We…” Mason grimaced, trying to think. “We damaged the…Aiais, show damaged sectors.” The ship’s schematics flickered up on the Navisphere. Most of it shone blue. A sector on Deck 19 gleamed crimson—the navigation systems. Cargo Sector 17 flashed red as well, along with several docking bays. Files for individual units of cargo cluttered the display as chambers failed. Mason swiped them away. “Analysis.”
The display zoomed in on Sector 17. “Major hull damage. Hibernation chambers critical. Atmospheric seal no longer operational.”
At least they could seal off the bridge.
Aiais continued. “Oxygen being diverted to the bridge; automated navigation systems and beacon no longer operational.”
Beacon. Cecilio couldn’t track them anymore. Carter must have hit it when he damaged the navigation systems. “And the gravity?” Mason asked.
“Gravitational ring still in rotation.”
Mason nodded. “Thrusters?”
“Deceleration thrusters operational. On course to Proxima B.”
Still on course. That needed to change. He rose and slipped into his suit.
Carter frowned. “Where you goin’?”
“To finish the mission,” Mason said. “Come on.”
Carter rose, wincing as he released his shoulder. “Man, I don’t like it.” He shoved himself into his suit and winced as it sealed.
Mason scooped up both helmets, handing one to Carter.
“What about the cargo?” Carter secured his helmet.
Mason locked his on as well. “What about it?”
“Shouldn’t we go give it a check?”
Those weren’t the director’s orders, but the director didn’t consider hitting an asteroid, did she? “You’re probably right. Come on.”
They entered the lift, and the doors opened to the dark Chamber Hall. Seven hours of air showed on Mason’s visor with 0.1% oxygen outside. Blue windows stood in an unbroken line for two hundred yards. Beyond, red gleamed from Sector 17. “There.” Mason jogged toward the cracked scarlet window. The number flickered on the bulkhead and the warped door bespoke the vacuum of space wrenching it from its hinges. His hand hovered over the screen and he breathed a sigh. “Brace yourself.”
Mason pressed the panel; the door snapped against a surge of remaining air and he lurched forward, skidding toward the void. The icy deck scraped along his suit as he scrambled and braced against a hibernation chamber. His eyes darted to his visor. No cracks.
Carter tumbled past and shoved himself behind another chamber. “You could’ve said a bit more than ‘brace yourself’!”
“You’re not dead, are you?” Mason peered around the edge of the chamber. The deck panels twisted toward the breach. Beyond the shrapnel, emptiness. Severed tubes spilled liquid nitrogen into frozen spears, reaching into the abyss. Chambers bent and crumpled around the gash, flickering blue and red. Mason braced as the air raged past. 0.05…0.03…
Metal creaked at his back. He steadied himself. 0.02%…
The chamber snapped from the deck and Mason tumbled toward the fissure. He reached out, his gloves slipping and his heart pounding. No point panicking…no time to panic. His fingers locked around a loose nitrogen cable and he jerked to a stop. The remaining oxygen poured into space. 0.01…0%.
“You okay?” Carter’s voice sounded in his earpiece.
“Fine,” Mason grunted, pulling himself up the hose to a broken chamber. “We have to seal the breach.” He faced the fracture, drawing in a deep breath. Surrounding chambers flickered, and the icicles shimmered red, white, and blue in the changing light.
“The nitrogen,” Carter said.
“Use the nitrogen to make a cork. Freeze the hole over.”
Tubes supplied and circulated liquid nitrogen to the failing chambers. Broken hoses slithered toward the tear like snakes spilling ice into the void. The kid was right.
Mason snatched the nearest tube from a red gleaming chamber and turned to Carter. It wasn’t safe to cross the icy deck with the breach open. “Toss me the gun!”
Carter eyed the sidearm and shifted.
Mason held out his hand. “Come on.”
Carter drew and took aim. “I can take the shot from here.”
“Just toss it!”
Mason stared down the barrel trained on his head and held the nitrogen hose at arm’s length. The barrel lingered on him—what was the kid doing? It shifted to the tube. A silent flash stung Mason’s eyes and liquid nitrogen gushed toward the breach. He tossed the hose to the abyss as the liquid froze along the fringes of the gap. He held up another tube, and another, ducking out of Carter’s line of fire. Nitrogen cascaded toward the emptiness, freezing and plugging the hole.
Mason whirled to face Carter and flung the last tube aside. “I told you to toss me the gun.”
Carter stepped out from behind his chamber, grasping his shoulder. “It all turned out alright, didn’t it?”
“You could have missed.”
Mason opened his mouth to berate the kid, but his visor faded to a light green. They needed to finish the mission. The sooner the better. He marched for the exit. “Come on.”
Carter followed, but paused, staring at the dozens of red chambers. Some bent toward the breach; some stood, their wires snapped and reaching for the void. One overturned chamber with a cracked window flickered between red and blue.
Mason spun around. “We’re wasting time.”
The chamber gleamed red but flashed back to blue. “This one ain’t goin’ out.”
“It will. Don’t mess with it.”
“It’s a hibernation chamber, right?” Carter replied. “We slept in these things. The captain was in one too.”
“Then there might be somebody in here, right?”
“It’s just cargo. You’re wasting time.” Mason climbed over the twisted doorframe into the dark hall. “Cecilio’s counting on us.” He drew his fingers along the cracked scarlet window. They wouldn’t be able to turn the air back on outside the bridge until they could seal everything off; the door, the window, everything. The nitrogen wouldn’t last ten minutes in an atmosphere.
Mason peered back into the room. His partner still gaped like a child. “Carter, we have a job. Leave it.”
Carter knelt beside the cargo, brushing his hand over the flickering screen. He stared, then gave it a shove. It scratched silently across the deck in the airless ship.
“Don’t worry about the cargo!” Mason called, and Carter pushed it again. The kid just didn’t seem to get it.
Carter scraped the chamber closer to the door. Mason glanced upwards and jogged back to his partner. “We have a job.”
Carter pointed to the cracked screen. Mason made out two words: charge and June. The expiration date? He didn’t bother trying to read the rest of the flickering display.
“We can’t leave her here, man.” Carter shoved and winced, gripping his shoulder. He lifted his eyes to Mason. “I need your help.”
“This isn’t the mission,” Mason turned.
“Come on, man.”
“It’s not the mission.” Mason reached the door.
“I need your help.”
The kid’s eyes pleaded as he gripped his shoulder. Mason furrowed his brow—why did he care? Why couldn’t he just leave it?
Mason sighed and took hold of the chamber. “On three, okay? One, two, three—”
They heaved the chamber across the sector, leaving silver scratches on the white deck, and hoisted it into the dark passageway. The kid watched the chamber as though it were the mission. He’d snap out of it soon enough.
The cargo bounced along the grated floor of the Chamber Hall, the blue glow glinting off it. Mason held the lift open as Carter pushed it inside.
“We’ll lose gravity for ten seconds,” Mason said as the door closed. “Hold it steady.”
The lift ascended, and Carter kept the cargo from jostling. Mason kept the door open again as Carter hauled the chamber onto the bridge and it screeched across the deck.
“That’s far enough.” Mason’s back tingled from the shriek as he slipped his helmet off and eased into a chair.
Carter removed his helmet as well, placing it on the deck. He ran his hand along the chamber, drew his gun, and fired at the hinges. Mason cringed as the melted hinges dripped, marring the glassy floor.
Carter knelt and heaved the chamber open.
-- A Note from C. D. --
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