in space one can truly be free
As Lillian shimmied into the suit, with Madeline’s help, she took a moment to think about what was before her. She was going to have to leave the relatively safe confines of the Borealis–safe at least while the shields weren’t disabled–to voyage out into the interstellar void. Outside of the ship, there was nothing. Not the sort of nothing that you could feel when you were in the middle of a deserted road deep into the night, but the crushing nothingness that the human mind isn’t really equipped to handle.
If things went well, they would walk along the outer hull of the ship, using the magnetic clamps in their boots to ensure that they wouldn’t float off into space. They would go over to the section of the ship that contained all of the living quarters and go in through the new opening torn by whatever had hit the ship. And they would find a way to rescue the crew members that were trapped there.
If everything went badly… better not to think about that.
Although they would have one advantage. A decision had been made–Although, come to think of it, who was making the decisions? No one had been able to reach the Commander since the collision. Odd…–to send out two of the shuttles. Jacobs had volunteered for one and Watkins, the silent lady with all the scars that had escorted them back during the first explosion, had the other. There wouldn’t be much they could do once Lillian and Quinn were back in the ship, but if anything went wrong before, it would be nice to have them.
Before she knew it, she was in her suit and the room was rapidly clearing. They were going to send them out directly through the shuttle bay doors and to do that they had to depressurize the room. No one in particularly wanted to be there when that happened. Only Jacobs and Watkins were with them, both in the shuttles, running through their preflight checklists. They’d be ready to go by the time they finished the depressurization.
She’d managed to sneak Eve’s shell into the suit with her and it was snuggled tightly in the small of her back. She still hadn’t said a word. It was midly uncomfortable, but she didn’t mind. Plus, she could use Eve’s help if she woke up from whatever she was doing.
All the while, Quinn hadn’t said a single word to her. It was strange, but she thought she could understand it–at least in part. She was feeling a whole intense mix, from nervousness to dread, and she was sure that he was feeling some of the same. No wonder he didn’t want to talk.
Once the room was clear and they were alone, he did turn to her. They looked at each other for a few moments, through the view plates on their masks. One look confirmed what Lillian had been thinking about him, even through the mask he looked a faint shade of green. Whatever he saw on Lillian’s face, he did grin ever so slightly. “Not exactly what I expected when I signed up for the Borealis.”
Lillian actually chuckled at that. “Too calm for you?”
“Something like that.” His voice faded and turned back towards the shuttle bay doors. There was a pair of indicators showing how much atmospheric pressure there still was in the room. It was dropping rapidly now.
Finally the fell to empty. They were alone. The air was gone. The doors were opening, out into space. First one shuttle flew out, carefully passing them by, then the other. Quinn–who Lillian thought was being uncharacteristically quiet–held out his arms in an ‘after you’ gesture and followed Lillian out into the cold blackness.
It really doesn’t look as bad from out here, she thought to herself. There was a gash torn along the top of the section, near to the storage section. If Lillian had been just a little quicker, she probably could have looked up and seen whatever had caused it pass overhead. Of course, if that had been the case, she wouldn’t have been around to make the comparison.
The gash was at least a meter wide, probably more at parts, and rough edges peeled away from it along the entire length. The way it cut across, at least two or three individual rooms might have been breached, along with the hallway. The main lighting wasn’t back on in the section directly under the gash, but there was emergency lighting. In Lillian’s view at least, this only made it worse. The red glow from the emergency lighting contrasted with the rough edges of the gash to make it look like a deep cut, freshly bleeding. The illusion was only enhanced by some sort of piping that had been carried along in the ceiling of the corridor, until being torn apart. Whatever had been in that pipe had flowed out along the outer hull of the ship, before freezing into a shiny, thin sheet. In gleamed in the borrowed red lighting.
In addition to the gash, there was some sign of the trouble in a line of floating debris trailing out from the ship. Since everything in the ship shared it’s velocity, merely being blown free wasn’t enough to stop it so that the ship would leave it behind. Rather, any of the fragments of metal that had been torn from the hull or anything that had been ejected along with the atmosphere in the corridor would be cruising along with the ship through space far faster than any pieces of debris had the right to be moving.
As she watched the debris, something caught her eyes. Twisting along in a slowly arcing trajectory was what looked suspiciously like… She gasped. One of the crew members.
“What? What is it?” The voice–Quinn’s voice–came over her comms. She’d forgotten that the comms built into the suits were set to automatically broadcast whenever they picked up a sound, rather than having to be keyed manually.
“I think it’s a body.”
“Where?” He was a few steps ahead of her, walking along the outer hull and turned back. She pointed out into space. It took him a few seconds, but she saw him nod when he found what she’d indicated. She heard a sigh of relief. “That’s just someone’s spare jumpsuit. You’ll be able to see it better when you get up here.”
Lillian sighed along with him. She was almost sure that they’d have to deal with at least a few bodies before the day was out, but not just yet.
When she reached the point where Quinn had been standing, she did look up again at the ‘body’ and saw that he was absolutely correct. It was nothing more than a jumpsuit, unfortunately puffed out when it left the ship. From the angle she’d been standing at, the head and feet would have been hidden. From here, they were obviously just not present.
The worst part took Lillian another few steps to notice. She’d been too busy looking at the gash and the debris spread on the outside of the ring to look on the inner track. This time, she didn’t even gasp.
A faint crackle and then Jacobs' voice came over the comms. She could see his shuttle flying about several tens of meters over her head. “Yeah, Lillian. What’s up?”
“Take a look right where that gash starts. Tell me what you see.”
“Um, it looked like whatever hit us tore a nice hole maybe a meter below the ceiling. Went upwards from there, the end of the gash is higher.”
“Sure. But look on the inner ring.”
He was quiet for a moment. “Nothing. How about you just tell me what I’m supposed to be seeing.”
“Well that’s the problem. Nothing is exactly what I’m seeing too. But that’s not what’s supposed to be there.”
She could almost hear the light bulb going off over Jacobs' head. Rather than respond to her, his next message was directed back to the crew still on the ship. “Um. Borealis. Could you guys do me a favor?”
She couldn’t definitely place the voice that responded. Possibly one of the communications officers? Not that it was terribly important. “Sure. What’s up?” I bet the Commander is probably furious at the unofficial tone that everyone seems to be taking, she thought to herself, Of course, that all depends on if he survived the collision. If not… Well, I guess his opinion doesn’t quiet carry as much weight then does it.
“Run a gate diagnostic.”
A slight pause. “Okay… What am I looking for?”
“I’m sure it’ll show right up.”
Another pause. Then from the ship, “Crap.”
“Yeah, that’s about what I thought.”
What Lillian had noticed was simple. Where the gash first started, there was a stretch of smooth hull on either side, with just the barest hint that something had been attached there previously. Just a hole, veering upwards.
What should have been there?
One of the eight gate generators spaced around the inner ring. Now there were seven.
And without all eight, they couldn’t open the gate.
Lillian could feel herself just staring at where the gate generator should have been, but she couldn’t help it. She was shocked. This wasn’t supposed to happen. There were shields to protect the ship from this sort of thing. Even if those shields were to fail, then there were tiny backup shields around each generator–barely bigger than the generators themselves. Of course with the emergency power rerouted…
Technically, they could open a gate with as few as four of the generators, but they would have to detached from the hull and moved along so that just the four of them were evenly spaced around the ring. There would be a pretty severe strain on them, but they could easily get half an hour to an hour out of them without too much risk. Unfortunately, the patterns would have to be recalculated based on the new alignment. Even with computer aide, that could take days of man power.
“Lillian!” Jacobs voice was sharp in her ears.
“What are you doing? You can worry about that later. Right now, you have a mission.”
She shook her head and looked ahead towards the damage. Quinn was almost there, although he’d turned back to look at her. Looking up, Jacobs' shuttle was flying a scant two or three meters above her head. Closer than he strictly should have been, but under the circumstances, she understood. She could see him through the front window. He looked concerned.
“Right. The mission.” She took a step towards the damage. Then another. As she walked, she carefully blocked thought of being stranded out of her mind. Stranded years from the nearest solid matter with only a few months of supplies at best. Stranded in the darkness of space. Stranded in the void. Another step. Another shake (she was starting to feel her ribs again, whatever they’d given her was wearing off more quickly than she’d hoped) to clear her mind. Another step.
A few steps more and she’d reached Quinn’s side on the lip of the damage. He was looking over the edge into one of the rooms. She wasn’t sure that she wasn’t to see what he was looking at, but she looked anyways and instantly regretted it. It was one of the oldest members of the crew–William Ratheborn. Always William; never Bill. He’d been a distinguished looking gentleman, probably in his late fifties with thick white hair and an impressive mustache that he always keep neatly trimmed. Now he’d never need to trim it again. Lillian felt the urge to throw up, but fought hard to suppress it. Being sick in a space suit was one of the worse things that you could do. She closed her eyes. Deep, even breaths. Count to ten. Calm.
She heard Quinn’s voice come over her comm. “Sorry about that. I guess I probably could have warned you.”
“’s alright,” she managed. Another deep breath.
“I’m guessing he won’t be the only one.”
She shook her head. From where he was standing, he probably couldn’t even see the gesture, but he seemed to understand from her silence. They stood there on the rim together for several minutes in silence. As they did, one of the two shuttles–Lillian wasn’t sure which–took position overhead and turned a powerful pair of spotlights, pointed directly down into the gash.
The lighting was markedly better. Now instead of looking like some wound in a might beast, it just looked like torn steel. From here, she could even see what had frozen to give an illusion of blood–just water. Water probably flowing to the bathrooms in those rooms right beneath her. But I guess William won’t be needing his shower any more, she thought before she could catch herself. Another deep breath. She took the opportunity to walk along the length of the gash down towards the corridor, rather than over the rooms.
Over head, the damage was a little narrower, but still wide enough that they should be able to fit in. The only problem would be the rough edges. They looked razor sharp. If any of them were to catch on her suit… Better just to not let that happen. She looked around, trying to find an area with as little damage as possible.
While she was looking, Jacobs' voice sounded again in her head. “Need a hand?”
She looked up and jerked away from the shuttle’s robotic arm, hovering only inches over her head. “Very funny.”
“I thought so.” Deftly, he maneuvered the shuttled closer to the gash and started bending back some of the more dangerous looking shards from a region large enough to fit a person. The shuttle’s hands weren’t the easy of instruments to use, but he managed well enough.
Lillian just stood and watched him work. Out of the corner of her eye, she also kept an eye on Quinn, who seemed to be staring down into the hole where Mr. Ratheborn once resided and thinking. About what, Lillian wasn’t sure she even wanted to know.
In less than five minutes, Jacobs had managed to clear out an area easily big enough to fit either Lillian or Quinn in their suits. “It’s all yours,” he called out cheerfully. “Good luck. We’ll keep an eye on you out here.” He backed the shuttle off to a safe distance.
Whatever Quinn had been thinking, he came over to join Lillian. Without a word, he made that same ‘after you’ gesture with his hands. “And they say chivalry is dead…” she muttered under her breath. Without giving him a chance to respond–if he would have, she didn’t know–Lillian lightly jumped down through the hole that Jacobs had made.
She landed lightly on the floor and felt the magnets in her boots clamping on to the metal in the surface. She took a few steps out of the way to give Quinn a place to land and began to look around.
It actually didn’t look that terribly much different than it had when she’d last been there–only a few hours ago now. The hallway was clear, at least as far as she could see, lit only by the occasional red glow of the emergency lighting. The same problems that had initially plagued the entire ship when the power first went out where just as prevalent here. The emergency lighting would be all they had and the gravity plating wasn’t functioning–although that was somewhat mitigated by the magnetic boots.
Quinn landed with a dull thump and looked around as well. “Nice. Mood lighting.”
She slugged him lightly on the shoulder.
There was a faint grin at that, barely there and then gone again as he continued. “So what is it we’re supposed to be doing here?”
The answer came from Jacobs over the comms. “We know there are survivors. The comms in that section don’t work, but we’ve been able to boost the receivers in neighboring two sections to pick up the slack.”
“But we can’t get them out without venting what little air they have left,” Lillian replied.
“Right. So see if you can find anything there that could help us get them out.”
“If we knew, then we wouldn’t have you looking, now would we?”
She scowled, but he did have a point. She turned to Quinn. “What do you think? Stay together or split up?”
“Stay together,” he replied without a moment’s hesitation. “I don’t know about you, but this place is creeping me the heck out.”
She nodded. “I know the feeling. Okay, how about we go all of the way down the end…” She pointed a few rooms down to where the blast door between the living quarters and the storage area stood shut–not too long ago she’d been on the other side of it. “Then we can work our way down the hall. Keep an eye out for anything that could help.”
Quinn didn’t respond immediately. He was staring up at the gash that ran across the ceiling. She put a gloved hand on his shoulder–although she wasn’t entirely sure that he’d even be able to feel it. After a moment, he replied. “Can we fix that?”
“Fix that?” She looked up as well. At first she couldn’t picture it. The damage deep, but even worse it was as wide as the hallway. There weren’t as many rough edges on the inside, but she could still see the ones on the outside in her mind’s eye.
“Sure. Why not?”
He looked over at her. “That’s your job.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know…”
“It would certainly save us some time. We wouldn’t have to get everyone out of their rooms individually if we can repressurize the entire hallway.”
“Whatever patch we put up would have to be strong enough to take the air pressure of an entire section.”
He nodded. “So we can do it?”
Rather than respond directly, she turned her attention to bounce the idea off of Jacobs. “Hey Jacobs. Are you hearing this?”
“Sure am. I already bounced it back to command. They’ve got pretty much everyone there bouncing ideas back and forth. Sounds like a nice lovely argument you touched off there, Quinn.”
“I do my best,” Quinn said. “So what do we in the mean time?”
“We take a look through the section,” Lillian replied. “At the very least, we could try to get the emergency power reconnected here as well.” She started walking as she talked.
Quinn stood a moment longer, than jogged the few steps he needed to close the distance. “That won’t cause any problems?”
“Everything seems pretty much in stasis right now. There’s nothing that returning power would do to that to screw everything up is there? Open doors for example?”
Lillian considered it, than shook her head. “Not a chance.” He raised his eyebrows. They’d reached the blast doors at the end of the hallway and turned back, carefully scanning for anything lying in the hallways that could be useful. Lillian doubted they’d find anything–anything useful was blown out into space with the sudden loss of pressure–but it was nice to dream. “When the emergency power didn’t kick in, the system took the last power that it had to seal those doors. They won’t unseal until whatever conditions locked them are reversed.”
“And those would be?”
“I’m guessing the loss of atmospheric pressure out in the hallway.”
“Ninety-five percent sure.”
“And the other five percent?”
She hesitated. “It could be the loss of power itself that triggered the doors to seal.”
“Then if power came back?”
“They might unseal. But in that case, the lack of atmosphere should put them right back into the sealed state.”
“Should. I don’t exactly know the security protocols that well.”
“Why don’t you ask that security guy you’ve been hanging out with. Adrian, I think his name was?”
Lillian stopped dead in her tracks. Quinn kept going for a few steps before realizing. “What? Was it something I said?”
“How much do you know about the Sympathizers?”
“Um… not much. Some sort of terrorist organization. Active while I was growing up. They never felt the need to do a single thing on Io, so I’ll admit I didn’t pay much attention. And then they went quiet a few years ago. Why?”
“They’re the ones that have causing all of our issues.”
He looked around at the emergency lighting and back down the hallway at the gash torn in the ceiling. Lillian could actually see it from where she was, but just barely. “Not just that. All those explosions?”
“At the card game?”
She blushed. Not exactly, she thought to herself, that might have been Madeline. Out loud: “There was the set before that. When they took out the power conduits that serve power to the gate.”
If he noticed her wording, he didn’t comment on it. “Right.” He nodded, but he looked a little lost. I guess there has been a disproportionately high number of accidents in the area. As she talked, Quinn was getting jumpier and jumpier looking. “This is all well and good, but what does it have to do with anything?”
“Because…” She lowered her voice to a hissing whisper. “Adrian’s a Sympathizer.”
His tone of surprise was perfect. “What?” It looked like he was about to fall over, but luckily with the gravity plating off, that was essentially impossible. With the lack of gravity one would just float wherever they were and the magnetic boots would keep one’s feet firmly attached to the ground.
By then, they’d arrived at the emergency power room for the section. It looked like any of the rooms that they’d been walking along–just like any of the other bunks. The only difference was a tiny letter M on the center of the door rather than a room number.
She gave the door a push and, to her surprise, it swung open almost at once. With the power out, she would have expected it to be locked. If that had been the case, the easiest option would likely have been to just cut through it. She shrugged. Worked out pretty well then.
A scene of pandemonium granted her when she walked through the door. Or at least partially through the door. There wasn’t enough floor space to stand without stepping on something. The normally neat row of computers and displays that normally sat peacefully along the wall now resembled electronic coleslaw.
She heard more than felt Quinn step up right beside her. Looking over, she didn’t see a smirk on his face (although she half expected one) but an honest look of concern. “Now what?”
“Well, we’re not going to take the time to worry about fixing that. I’m not even sure how we could. Best bet? Leave it for the time being. We’ll just have to figure out some way around the whole mess.
He stepped forward, picking through the rubble carefully. Some of the pieces had sharp edges. After a moment, he picked up something off the floor. It just looked like a burnt corner of one of the displays to Lillian, but he held it out to her like it was something more. There was a strange expression on his face that she couldn’t quite place.
“Um, what am I looking at?”
“Have you seen burn marks like that before?”
She looked more carefully. A flash of memory superimposed itself on her vision. They were the same sort of burns that they’d found after the first bombing. Plasma burns.
She looked up at him. “Have you?”
He paused for a second, the nodded. “Yes.”
She waited for him to go on, but he was silently. “Yes?”
“There was a terrorist attack. Back at the compound on Io. Two years ago. They never did figure out who did it, but they used weapons like this.” His eyes were glistening slightly.
“Why?” She stepped back at the roughness in his tone. “You didn’t attack us.” He was halfway between yelling and sobbing. “You weren’t the one who broke into our house. And you weren’t the one who shot my sister.”
With a plasma gun? she thought to herself. Wow. Not something that anyone wants to see.
He’d turned away so that she couldn’t see his face any more, but she’d already caught a glimpse of the raw emotion. She stepped up beside him and put her arms around him. She wasn’t sure if he actually could even feel the pressure through the suits, but she thought that he would at least know she was there.
After a moment, she half whispered to him. “That’s how I lost my mom.”
He turned back part of the way back to her. There were tears were drying on his cheeks, but he wasn’t crying any more. “Terrorists?”
“The Sympathizers. They blew up the reactor where she worked.”
He spun the rest of the way and put his arms around her as well, resting his helmet against hers. There they stood, sharing some manner of comfort amidst the dead and dying on a broken starship, close together yet unable to touch.
Lillian wasn’t sure how long they stood there, but it couldn’t have been that long. It felt like hours. Finally, Lillian pulled away. “Come on. We have work to do.” she said, gesturing to the door. With a final look back, both of them stepped back out into the hallway.
As they ghosted along the hallway, Lillian realized just how little noise they were making. Since there wasn’t any atmosphere left in this section, any sounds they heard had to be transmitted physically through the floor and then up their suits. But the floor had a rubbery coating on it to reduce the strain of walking on bare metal all day and that reduced the sound further. The only thing Lillian really could hear was her own breathing and the sound of Quinn’s over the comms. That, at least, was comforting.
But what was puzzling was the lack of any chatter from Jacobs or any of the people back in command. If they didn’t have anything to say, she could understand the silence, but she expected that they would at least have tried to communicate back with them. The more she thought about it, the more worried she became.
“Quinn, stop for a second.”
He slowed to a halt a few steps further down the hallway from her and turned to face her. “What?”
“Don’t you think it’s strange that we can’t hear anyone other than each other?”
He cocked his head to one side, listening. Not that it made any difference with the comms; if he had the same augs that Lillian did–and they were the most common design–the audio would be transmitted directly into the nerves between the ear and the brain. Old habits die hard.
“What if they’re just not saying anything?”
“I thought about that. But do you really thinks that’s likely? With all that’s been going on, you’d think they would want to keep tabs on us.”
“And I checked. We’re still automatically transmitting. They should be able to hear everything we say.”
He flushed slightly at this. “Everything?”
“But apparently they aren’t listening.”
“Should we head back?”
She considered. They had found the damage to the emergency power controls, but nothing else interesting. Nothing that would help them with the people trapped in their rooms. Although maybe there was some progress on Quinn’s idea of sealing the gash–even temporarily. “Probably should.”
As they neared the damaged section, Lillian thought she spied something down near the end–almost to the blast doors. At first, she thought it was another jumpsuit that just was messing with her head, so she didn’t point it out to Quinn. She would just let him see it for himself, then he wouldn’t be biased one way or another. Although there hadn’t been a jumpsuit there when they came in, had there?
As they drew closer and closer without Quinn saying a word either way, she finally caved in and asked. “Hey Quinn.”
“You see that darker area down at the end of the hallway?”
“Sure… Is that a…”
But he never got a chance to finish his sentence, because as he spoke, the jumpsuit suddenly swung into motion. Apparently, it wasn’t an empty jumpsuit after all, but rather a full suit just like the ones the two of them were wearing. The one’s they had were bulkier and had a shiny gleam to them, but this one was a dull black and had a smaller profile. Other than the helmet, it wouldn’t have stood out in day to day operations.
They were close enough now that Lillian could see through the other’s faceplate… “Adrian!” she called out.
As she did, he swung into motion, drawing what looked like some sort of toy gun from a simple loop on the side of his suit. A thin pair of wires ran from it to something else on his belt–a thick black cylinder.
Before she could so much as react, he had the gun drawn and had pulled the trigger. It most definitely wasn’t a toy. There was a glow at the end, then a glob of superheated plasma bolted towards her.
As it flew towards her, time seemed to slow to a crawl. If it had been a laser or just about any sort of traditional weapon, she would have been dead. But part of the allure of plasma weapons to some people was the fact that plasma moves slowly. Slow enough to dodge–if you were lucky.
She hadn’t had much luck today, but finally the tides seemed to be turned. She had plenty of time to see her life flashing before her eyes–or at least a highlights reel–but she didn’t. She clicked the trigger that would release the magnetic clamps in her boots, pushing off hard as she did so. She rocket towards the ceiling, the plasma passing between her feet as she did. As it passed she felt something akin to a static shock in both legs. But it missed.
Adrian looked furious and raised the plasma gun to take another shot. Lillian swung her head, but there was nowhere else to go. He sighted down the barrel, taking his time. This time he wouldn’t miss. He pulled the trigger.
He pull it again, still nothing. With a shake of his head, he looked down at the cylinder on his belt. Lillian could barely glimpse a light blinking on the top of it. She couldn’t tell if it was actually red or reflecting the glow of the emergency lighting, but either way she felt that it wasn’t good news for Adrian.
Still reeling from her luck–not once, but twice; the day was looking up–she didn’t react as he returned the gun to his belt and jumped up as she had. But he was standing directly beneath the gash in the ceiling and flew through without, passing within centimeters of the ragged edges. Then he was gone.
Lillian let out a sigh of relief. “Close one, eh Quinn?” No response. “Quinn?” She turned to look back at him and cried out.
He was standing there, rocked back at an awkward angle. His boots refused to let him fall. There was a black scar burnt into his side. Burnt right through the side of his suit, right down to the charred flesh.