She couldn’t help but hear it. A chorus of overlapping voices she didn’t recognize. The terse orchestra of unknown instruments playing notes that did not exist. The bark of a hellhound banished to the darkness of humanity’s worst nightmare. It was like infinite simultaneous strikes of a hammer on a single anvil. Each strike was more thunderous than the last, compressed into a fraction of a second. The sound hit Adelaide’s chest and pushed her against her launch chair. The warm familiar embrace of her chair was something that her brain could actually comprehend. Vomit sprayed the inside of her launch helmet, tendrils formed mucousy bubbles as the lack of gravity pooled them into slimy globules of the breakfast she missed as she ran around the Kerwood just before launch from Egeria-13. She could only gape at the violence perpetrated on her, her shipmates, and the metal can she had called home for far too long.
Adelaide reached to her chest to feel the copper mesh beneath her coveralls. She knew, as she had known so many times leading up to launch that her pirate transponder was where it needed to be for her plans. They won’t be able to find me, her overtaxed brain decried. She tried to assess the situation, but her neurons fired faster than time could account for. Her heart paused, the cacophony of destruction lasted the finite gulf between beats. She reached to wipe the grotesquery from her vision, but her gloved hand struck the smooth Lexan dome of her borrowed launch helmet. She dared not act without thinking long and hard about what was happening. A wrong move so far from home would leave her floating in the black with only the rocks, and the smell of vomit as her companions until she became another statistic in the treatise of space travel.
This is going to be foul, she thought. She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, pushed her face against her visor, and slowly rotated her head back and forth. The topography of her eyes, cheeks, and nose, performed their job with diligence, collecting the spew from her only view of her new reality.
Foul does little to describe it, she thought as greenish bile oozed to the sides of her face as she continued to shake her head. She blinked the stinging stench from her eyes and as she focused through the Lexan, the first thing she saw was an ashen face introverted, tongue hanging out as an unsuited miner, still strapped to her launch chair floated by. The nametag on her dirty mining coveralls declared this unfortunate soul to be FREITAG. German for ‘free day,’ she thought. It amazed her that her addled brain would endow these useless tidbits upon her at such a time. A sudden shock ran up Adelaide’s spine as her eyes locked on a piece of shrapnel that protruded from Freitag’s chest, with a trail of crimson bubbles that floated away like a comet that just couldn’t be bothered to have a proper tail.
Adelaide couldn’t believe her ears. Silence. It could’ve been due to shock, but she was certain that missing was the telltale hiss of the suit’s oxygenator. Even without gravity, she knew her constant companion – a neighbor she trusted – the Kerwood’s thrusters were dead.
So much for the plans of mice and men, she thought as she continued to survey the destruction that a vengeful God had wrought. She looked around the passageway she had sat over in Auxiliary Propulsion only moments before, and she knew that they were now more than forty-one days until home. Who knew how long the potato-shaped gray features of Egeria-13 would be their only neighbor?
* * *
Days Until Home: 41
Time until Launch: 00:01:45
Jeremy’s Launch helmet rested on his lap, his elbow preventing it from tumbling to the deck. Even in the light gravity of Egeria-13, the fall from his lap to the deck grate could compromise the seal. Not that it mattered, he thought, the lift-off from this gray spud is so ordinary, so easy, that the suits weren’t really needed. His fingers danced over the touchscreen in front of him. Auxiliary thruster fuel levels, computer-assisted trajectory plans, EXT engine status, and various readings about the Kerwood were what he needed to know. What he wanted to know, was Were the Hades is Crazy Ade? His eyes shifted to her empty launch chair and matching disused instrumentation panel.
The 2MC chirped, and Jeremy typed in the sequence to inform the bridge that Auxiliary Propulsion was ‘GO’ for launch.
“One minute till lift-off, Kerwood,” the 1MC announced. Jeremy smiled at the sultry voice of Marisol Vega. There were rumors about her, but Jeremy was too old and tired to care about the whisperings of the youngsters on the boat.
Youngsters? he thought, shaking his head. When did I get so old? His eyes shifted again to his vacant MPA’s seat. Where is she? He drummed his fingers on his helmet. On a pebble like Egeria-13, many of his shipmates decided that suiting up was more trouble than it was worth. Not in Engineering, he thought, Standard Operating Procedure is the only way we keep this boat afloat. He swiped the instrumentation readout to the side of his panel, stabbed an icon, and the schematic of the Kerwood popped up. Color-coded dots congregated in designated launch spaces. His own dot pulsed with concentric circles in the Auxiliary Propulsion space over the port station-keeping array.
The safest place for the contract crew during launch was the launch passageway that ran from just behind Aux, nestled between the launch thrusters that were housed below station-keeping, to the Damage Control space. The suppression field and the bulk of the Kerwood’s superstructure were integrated into that passageway. When the EXT was active, and the chemical thrusters were not needed, the launch chairs folded into the bulkhead, and there was a direct path from Auxiliary Propulsion to the Damage Control spaces.
He glanced at the chronometer and tapped an icon on the Kerwood’s positioning schematic. Several pulsating dots were not fixed, and the one he cared about was moving toward Aux from an equipment trunk.
The door to Aux retracted into its bulkhead, and Adelaide rushed to her launch chair, strapped herself in, and looked at him. Her face was partially obscured by tinted Lexan, but her scowl was evident in the gap of her suit and her unsealed launch helmet. Jeremy noticed that her suit wasn’t the one she normally donned for lift-off.
“Get your helmet on, ChEng,” she demanded and rotated the collar sealing her suit and isolating herself from the Kerwood’s environment.
“Prepare for lift-off!” barked the captain over the 1MC.
Jeremy twisted his collar, and the bottom third of the instrument panel was obscured. The cheap things that they do here, he lamented.
“9… 8… 7,” Vega’s sweet voice intoned over the 1MC.
It was only for a fleeting moment, but the Chief Engineer of the Kerwood thought he saw two pulsating dots on the schematic that represented his Main Propulsion Assistant. The bridge crew called her Lady Marmalade, the engineers under her command called her Sir, he didn’t know what her various lovers called her, but he only knew her as Crazy Ade. Crazy enough to be in two places at once? He shook his head, and looked toward Adelaide.
He watched her ram the heel of her gloved hand into her touch panel, and it jerked up a few inches. She positioned her knee against the edge of the ‘unbreakable’ glass until they felt gravity fade away, and thrust push them into their seats.
The 26MC or Machine Control circuit came to life in their ears. Engineering stations all over the ship called out readings so they could make any necessary adjustments. These, like the launch suits, were mostly unneeded as the computer controlled all aspects of their ascent. They ignored the uncomfortable pressure against their bodies, and their fingers stabbed enlarged icons below readouts. Everything is going as planned, he thought as he watched the telemetry from Egeria-13 scroll across his screen.
A calamity arose from the 26MC. “… intermittent readings on …”
He rotated his shoulders to see Adelaide slam her fist against her panel.
“… redline on the …”
The deck below Adelaide’s station seemed to undulate, overlapping plates revealing metal that hadn’t been seen by the crew of the Kerwood since the superstructure was laid in orbit of Luna Station.
“… number four coupling … feed switched to …”
The deck buckled and Adelaide’s chair seemed to fall away from her panel. Her chair tumbled end over end into the gaping maw of twisted metal. She disappeared into the space below. Without regard for his own safety, he reached for his restraint release lever but didn’t see the overhead detach from the forward wall, and swing down and strike his shoulder and head knocking him unconscious.
“… emergency override of plant …”
Plants? he thought as the edges of his vision faded to black, Adelaide got me that fichus on Luna-Eight.
“… EXT idle … hull breach …”
His musings were cut short by the dark embrace of oblivion.
* * *
Days Until Home: 41
Time Until Launch: 00:06:17
“I love you.”
Adelaide froze for only a second before she smiled at Erika, and ran her fingers along the inside of her exposed thigh. Had she been thinking clearly, Erika would’ve noticed Adelaide’s hesitation. Erika squirmed at the touch on her thigh and felt a shudder race up her spine. Oh, yeah, she thought, allowing the sensation to overwhelm her. She knew that this was only a fling with Adelaide, but the woman made love with an intensity that betrayed the great sadness behind her eyes. When that energy was aimed at pleasing her, Erika reveled in it. When it was directed at someone Adelaide thought unworthy…
It’s best to not think about that, she thought as the shudder subsumed into a cold dread. Erika felt her heart drop when Erika rolled off the… What the hell is this, anyway? The stencil on the bulkhead clearly spelled out INSTRUMENTATION SPACE, and the crisscrossing grate tugged at her coveralls.
“Get into your launch pajamas,” Adelaide demanded. It was the bark of a superior officer. Gone was the tender tongue of the woman she wished she could stay with forever. Erika sighed, and lie motionless on the deck of the instrumentation space.
Adelaide stepped into a launch suit she grabbed from a locker embedded into the bulkhead and pulled it up to her shoulders. Erika just wanted to bask in the afterglow.
The 1MC chimed, and Captain Hayes’ voice sounded out. Kerwood, this is it, we’re about to shove off. I hope that you’re all strapped in, suited up and ready to go. We will begin the countdown sequence in just under five minutes now, and I would really like for us all to have a safe trip.
Erika watched Adelaide curiously touch her chest and look down at Erika. “Get your shit together, Ängström, we’re leaving this rock, and you need to be in your seat in Damage Control.”
Erika reached her hand out to Adelaide. “Adel,” she started.
“I’m serious, Erika. Suit. Damage Control. Chair.”
Erika rolled her eyes. “On Egeria-13? It’s not worth the effort.”
Adelaide leaned down and kissed Erika lightly on the lips. “That’s an order, Engineer.”
Erika giggled and tried to slap Adelaide’s ass, when she turned and quickly strode to the door. “I mean it,” Adelaide said as she looked inside her helmet. “Four minutes.”
The door closed and sealed with a barely discernable hiss. Erika stared at the space Adelaide was just in. She couldn’t quite place the new feeling that had come over her. Ever since she returned from her EVA, it was as if she hadn’t a care in the world. Well, she mused with a giggle, a care in Kerwood. It was as if the careful Erika was just below the surface, shouting for her to heed her words, and this new uncaring Erika had taken control. She sighed, shrugged her shoulders, and began the process of putting on her launch suit. A waste of my time, she thought as she pressed the seam together and waited for the seal. These belt contracts are always so uneventful.
* * *
Days Until Home: 41
Time Until Launch: 00:13:06
Come find me, you know I hate to wait.
Adelaide scowled as she read the message from Erika. She shoved her pirate comm device into the pocket of her overalls. Stupid twat, Adelaide thought. What the hades is with her lately? She reached for the instrumentation panel embedded in the bulkhead and swiped the readings to the side. She pulled off her work gloves and tapped a few icons too small to be adequately manipulated with the gloves on. Damn it, she cursed inwardly, I don’t have time for this!
She traced the path to the Instrumentation Space where Erika’s transponder glowed from the aft storage tank she was in on the Kerwood’s schematic and frowned at all the little dots scurrying about. They were merely an inconvenience, but still, each of those stupid little dots represented more time lost.
“Hey ChEng,” she said to Jeremy, “I gotta take care of something real quick. I’ll meet you in Aux before launch.”
He looked up from the deck where he had gathered up the tools used on the tank. He seemed startled as if he were lost in thought. “Anything I need to know about?”
“No,” she replied, “this one’s…” She cocked her head to the side. “… personal,” she finished.
“Make it quick. Skipper’d’ve left this spud yesterday by the way he grumbled and carried on during the morning staff meeting.”
“Glad I wasn’t there to violate his thinking spot.” Adelaide tapped her index finger on her temple three times and emphasized each one. “Think, think, think,” she declared with a crooked grin.
Jeremy made an obscene gesture with his still gloved hand and waved Adelaide away. Adelaide sighed, and stepped out into the passageway. She turned toward the galley, and at the next intersection, she collided with another body.
The miner staggered back and fell against his two companions. Slagging rats, she thought, barely containing her fury.
“Watch it Guy,” exclaimed one of the two bystanders that the miner… No, Adelaide thought, that’s Old Vicky, had fallen against.
“Pinche idiota,” the other miner that Victor stumbled into declared with a pathetic attempt at malice.
Malice, Adelaide thought, I could show these clowns what real malice is.
Old Vicky mumbled an apology and locked eyes with her. His eyes widened only for a moment before she regained her composure.
Adelaide smiled and spread her hands. “Sorry!” she said with exaggerated innocence. She layered on the saccharine and forced her smile wider. “Need to watch where I’m going.” She tilted her head and waved her hand down the passageway. “Too much to do, you know.”
She stepped around Viktor and sauntered down the passageway, her hips swayed with each step. She refused to look back. Doing so would be as if they were more than just obstacles in her way.
It didn’t take Adelaide too long to find the Instrumentation Space where Erika was waiting. Erika’s behavior has been erratic lately, she thought. She paused at the door and touched the copper mesh beneath her coveralls.
“Ten minutes to departure. No exceptions. Anyone who breaks a limb because they weren’t in their launch chairs will be required to reimburse the Kerwood for medical expenses.”
She frowned at Captain Hayes’ announcement. Instrumentation spaces have spare launch suits, she told herself as she punched in a code that only she and Erika knew, and stepped through the door.
* * *
Days Until Home: 41
Time Until Launch: 00:28:01
Jeremy cocked his head and listened to the announcement over the 1MC.
“Attention all crew. This is Captain Hayes. Departure time has been moved up. Anyone not in their launch chairs in twenty-eight minutes will find themselves bouncing around like a human pinball.”
“Pinball?” Jeremy scoffed. “I could strap myself to the outside of the hull for this launch and get some practice in on my ukulele.”
Adelaide’s face froze. “My dad had a ukulele,” she murmured.
Something rolled behind her eyes, but with as much time as they spent working together, Jeremy hadn’t been able to crack the emotional armor she always wore. He only knew that she had suffered a great tragedy when she was very young, but contract after contract, she never told him the story of her sordid past. Not that he really needed to know. As long as she did her job, she was okay in his book.
But, his mind interjected, what about the odd circumstances of her promotion?
He shook his head and returned his attention to the repair job they had completed on the aft xenon storage tank. He pulled off his work glove and ran his finger along the epoxy; its rough texture caught on his calloused digits. He reached for material to grind down the edge of the tank, and his head swam for a moment.
“Watch out, ChEng,” Adelaide said and grabbed his elbow. “We cranked the atmo and O2 levels up in here to keep from losing any more xenon.”
When Jeremy had regained his equilibrium, Adelaide released his elbow and asked, “Why’re we doing this repair anyway, ChEng?” She glanced to the epoxy. “We hardly need the two ranking engineers of the Kerwood to fix a little scratch on Ol’ Betsy here.” She rubbed her gloved hand on the cold metal of the storage tank. “Hell, ChEng, we almost never have to use this tank, the forward tank is good for what, seven AU?”
He smiled. “On paper, she’s good for seven point something, but I know that this tub can do ten if it’s planned correctly.”
“One way trip to Titan?”
Jeremy nodded. “Not sure what you’d do once you got there, but aye, it could be done.” He was unable to decipher the look on her face. If he had to classify it, it would be longing.
He pointed at the roll of copper mesh in the tool bag, and Adelaide retrieved it and handed it to him. “You didn’t answer my question, ChEng,” she declared as she relinquished the copper mesh.
Jeremy rubbed the copper against the epoxy, little chunks of silicate shaved off the patch job, and tumbled to the deck in the increased gravity of the space. He was silent as he smoothed it down, and even after he was satisfied the job was complete, he continued to stare silently at the aft storage tank.
“Jeremy?” Adel asked as she placed her hand on his shoulder.
Slag, she’s tall, he thought, and beautiful. He turned to his MPA. “I believe that we have a saboteur on board.”
“An engineer?” she asked, her fingers touching her lips. She scowled at the taste of her work gloves and clasped her hands behind her back.
“Not sure,” he declared. “It’s just… We’ve got a crack in a storage tank we never use, but service all the time. We’ve got some sort of kerfuffle about the food stores. I keep getting reports about ambient microwave emissions, but nothing on this tub should be putting out anything on that freq.” He sighed and stretched his back, his hands finding familiar pains along his spine. “I’m too old for this.”
Adelaide nodded. “Yeah for this,” she waved at the repair. You should be holed up in Main Engineering snoring and dreaming about whatever salty old codgers like you dream about.”
His first instinct was to make a quip about dreaming of young beautiful Main Propulsion Assistants, but, alas, such a notion was inappropriate. He was about to retort something, but a chirp from Adelaide’s pocket interrupted him.
“Excuse me, ChEng,” she said and stepped away from the awkward moment that only lived in his mind. He crouched to retrieve all the tools they had scattered around the space for the repair.
I need off this barge, he thought, so I don’t need to worry about saboteurs. Maybe I can convince Crazy Ade to find something else to do with her life.
* * *
Days Until Home: 42
Erika allowed the light gravity of Egeria-13 to allow her to float into the escape trunk. She swung the dorsal hatch closed and watched the panel next to it cycle from red to yellow and then to green. She tore away the flap that covered the diagnostic cluster on her left forearm. The mining suits were pretty rugged, and she preferred the mining gear when she was performing thruster maintenance. There was something about the thin insulated material of the standard EVA suit that she didn’t trust. So, the mining suit it was. She always increased the suit pressure, because they were notorious for having micro fractures in the Lexan helmets.
She was working the overnight shift when word came down that Captain Hayes wanted off of Egeria-13 as soon as possible. She giggled at the mental picture of Hayes as a tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff. Adelaide only brought up the similarity between Hayes and the childhood icon once, but it had stayed with her.
She verified atmosphere on her forearm cluster, and when the readings on her suit matched the panel inset to the hatch, she pressed a panel on the opposite bulkhead. The inner hatch started its sequence of moving atmosphere from one space to the other. The procedure seemed to take forever. She wanted to be rid of the stuffy suit, but her careful manner mandated that she have at least one space between her and the black before she relied on the Kerwood’s life support system.
Her careful and almost paranoid attention to detail had saved her more than once. She knew first hand that dangers lurked not only in the black but also behind steel and plastic. An icon flashed on her heads-up display. She frowned. Her O2 was dangerously low. I should have more than two hours of O2 left, she silently mused. She waved her forearm across the sensor on the other side of the inner door, and the information displayed on the small screen on her forearm was duplicated on the larger screen.
“Huh,” she mumbled.
“Say again, EVA-1, I didn’t catch that last transmission.”
“Wait one, Engineering,” she replied, “I’ve got some odd readings on my environmental.”
“Positioning shows you in gangway three inside the yellow zone. Confirm?”
“Negative, Engineering. I’m at inner door seventeen three four delta. Why does the positioning always turn to shit between the EXTs?”
“Gremlins,” the disembodied voice in her ear intoned.
Erika giggled at the bad joke.
Once the inner door had cycled through, and its indicator shone green, Erika screwed the collar of her EVA suit and released the helmet with an audible hiss.
She chuckled again at the joke she’d just heard. She walked down the passageway with her helmet under her left arm laughing at the offhand comment that just wouldn’t seem to die. She decided at that moment to go from the change room to the galley to blow her additional credits on rations from the Kerwood’s black market.
She chuckled again. A black market in the black of space. Her musing was even funnier than the line about the Gremlin. Who was it that said that? she pondered, a light feeling decreed that she could do anything. Well, anything but try to figure out who was monitoring her EVA. I can’t remember who was on duty in Engineering, she thought with a snort.
It just didn’t matter to new Erika. Old Erika was… Careful Erika. Boring Erika. The only other person on this carnival of souls that appreciated the old Erika was the Main Propulsion Assistant. Crazy Ade, she thought. Adelaide was as unpredictable and passionate as Erika was calm and careful. They seemed to compliment each other perfectly.
Erika stared at her suited forearm, trying to figure out how to see her chronometer. Her eyebrows furrowed, and she forced her right hand to peel back the flap. Once she finally deciphered the digital display, she thought, Adelaide is already on duty now. I’ll need to show her the new and improved Erika Ängström. What can two wild and crazy girls get into before this crate steps off this rock?
She smirked at her newfound mirth, and what she had in store for her impending liaison with Adelaide.
But first, time for a healthy breakfast!
She let loose a laugh so hard that her entire body shook. She had to stem the giggles long enough to perform the arduous process of removing her suit. And… She needed to report something to somebody, what was it she needed to check?
No matter, she thought, I’ll worry about it after I see Adelaide.
Erika walked toward the galley, her new swagger constantly causing her shoulder to bump into the bulkhead. Each impact elicited another giggle.
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Next: Chapter 06