FIX

Fix Cover3

 

FIX was written for NaNoWriMo 2015 and is my first novella. It explores the horror of tightening screws and crushing walls, of airless fear and unknown sounds, and the power of human tenacity in the face of terrifying odds. I wanted to capture the claustrophobia of Das Boot, the horror of Alien, and every crashing spaceship of my youth.

It is available as a free epub on the Kobo store, and below in its entirety. If you like what you read, there’s a PayPal donation button on this site’s front page. Any amount, large or small, keeps me writing.

Thank you, and enjoy.

 

FIX

By Simon Best

Edited by Steve Belt and Keith Loh

 

1

It’s the teeth that still kept him awake. Rows of teeth, gleaming, sharp and wanting. Filed down by bone and metal. It’s the teeth that flashed underneath his eyelids and in his periphery over and over. It’s the teeth that became cold sweat and shivers in daylight. It’s the teeth that became an aversion to food and touch and heat. The teeth, in endless rows, disappearing into the black horizon, forever.

– – –

Dave scratched his leg as the Phyliss angled in for the final docking sequence. He didn’t have to do much as this point; sub-atmospheric descent was just the last set of switches he’d begun pressing ten minutes ago. Directly above him in low orbit the TechCarrier 1-9 loitered, probably as bored as he was, eagerly waiting for the crew’s return so they could all get back to civilised space. Dave had been Chief Pilot of TC1-9 for three years and it was impossible to not anthropomorphize the ship at this point, even though her miles of grey corridors and three acres of interior space was functionally identical to every other TC in the fleet. You had to give your rides some personality when you spent so much time cooped up in their care. The SubAt descent vehicle in which he was currently yawning was also a kit ship, but Phyliss had been a girl he’d met on Exhilios a few years ago who had gone down really beautifully, and it always made him chuckle that he’d appropriated her memory for the name of this ship. Maybe it was good luck. Truth is, he’d always held a bit of a flame for Phyliss. Oh well, maybe one day he’d catch up with her again and let her meet her namesake.

Dave blinked and realised he was in comms range. The local weather was shitty, as to be expected. The first wave of TerraMorph pumps turned whatever atmospheric acid was floating around into the greyest, gloomiest drizzle for months before attempting to turn the sky a different colour. At least that allowed the ground crew to fold out the modular base, then they can eventually brighten things up a bit then the weather improves. For now, though, it was like a two-year pissy English afternoon. You couldn’t pay him enough to crew that. It was bad enough that he’d had to come out to the edge of developed space to fix up whatever had broken in the base, but at least the pay was good. Their collective cheque grew by 15% each time they took an extra jump from Earth, and five jumps out was the furthest he’d ever been.

The first couple of jumps had been a blast, though. First wasExhilios, in tight orbit around Jupiter, the red light beaming over the busiest jump base in the entire Terran network. Some had taken to vacationing there now, turning the station from purely practical recharge station to genuine holiday resort for the rich and famous. Dave and his crew of seven Techs had to spend a night there waiting for TC1-9’s jump drive to recharge, and he briefly considered grabbing one of the regular shuttles to Io’s beehive of entertainment centres (read: brothels), but in the end they’d all decided to hit the casino and see how the numbers favoured them. They didn’t, as it turned out, but it didn’t matter. Their paycheque from Hexos would more than make up for a few hundred lost dollars. Dave had promised himself he wouldn’t drink too much, but it was very hard to remember that when walking down the neon, glass-topped promenade surrounded by beautiful woman tempting you into bars, Jupiter’s red light washing away every sin before it happened. So it was a good thing modern ships practically flew themselves, as the next day’s jump was enveloped in the fog of whisky and old perfume. At least the rest of the crew didn’t look much better.

Their second stop, Atlas, was more restrained. Swinging round the tightly colonised planet of Rafia, it was no smaller than Exhilios, but favoured commerce over pure hedonism. Gone were the endless bars and clubs, replaced with marble-floored malls and massive branded stores. The ladies that roamed these clean halls were wrapped in furs and trophy bags, husbands tucked safely away in smoking wings. The shopping options stretched on for every mile, down every inch ofAltas that wasn’t reserved for jump-charging passing ships. Traffic here was constant; ships and containments jumping out of the solar system to satisfy colonists and consumers alike. It wasn’t much to Dave’s liking; he’d rather blow his dollars on cards and drink then something from Atlas’ overprices stores. Still, there were some nice quiet places and their recharge stop was a good opportunity to catch a movie and shake off the last remnants of the hangover.

Third was Giga, and it was here that Dave could really feel the influence of Earth proximity on the previous bases’ positions. It was strange; even though the jump (like every jump) was instantaneous, Dave could sense the new quiet as soon as they’d emerged into Yenys space. The colony on this planet was far younger, having only had breathable atmosphere for fifty years or so, and it was more functional than commercial. Giga was about half the size of the previous stations, with a larger space given to jump-charging, but this gave it a rather friendly atmosphere that reminded Dave of the time he’d spent in Texas. In his single night on Giga he wandered down the slightly grubby concourse and found a little stall where a lovely little wife sold pulled pork rolls straight out of the slow cooker while her husband filed up his beaker with home brew that smelled faintly of disinfectant. Prices for consumables increased significantly with every jump away from Earth, but goddamn that pork roll was worth it. After dinner, belly full and skin fuzzy under the moonshine, Dave sat in the viewing gallery and tried to find a star constellation he recognised. It was no good. This far out, visual familiarity disappeared. He wished he still had the sense of wonder that interstellar space travel used to give him as a child, but everything was just facts now. Wonder gets extinguished as scientific progress takes the effort out of everything.

The next morning TC1-9 jumped effortlessly to Harris station, notable for being the only jump centre that held orbit around a moon rather than a planet. In some ways this made the colonisation effort cheaper; however, Charis’s third moon was nothing but yellow dust and craters so it held zero interest for tourists. Charis itself was too hot for any building effort to take hold and it would take about twenty years of solid TerraMorph pumping to change that. In the mean time, Moon 3 would maintain the jump gate and prepare for the eventual citizen convoys. The influx of money would more than make up for this little hiccup. Charis and Harris were a bit of a joke in Terran travel sectors; the patron twins of boredom. There wasn’t much else to do than grab a pita bread filled with reconstituted meat and bunk down for the night. Luckily, the TC1-9 crew were always happy to lounge around with each other. Fe’eldie played guitar while Jackson poured some local, terrible wine, and the night fell into silence, then sleep.

Jump five, the last on their travel, took them to Reandre, floating high in the rings above Vehrion. This greyish, purple planet was the newest acquisition for Terran space and had only received its colony crew a few years ago. Reandre was brand new in comparison to the four other jumps, but this just made it feel like a hospital waiting room. Luckily, there was no need to wait as there was nowhere forward to jump to from this point; the only option was back toHarris from here. The subspace engines slowly pushed TC1-9 towards a low Vehrion orbit over the next fifteen hours, the crew alternating between pacing and resting as this was the longest they’d spent in TC’s tinny halls, then they loaded up Phyliss to drop through the bitter atmosphere to fix the tiny base below. Apparently, there was a lingering problem with the TerraMorph pumps and the ground crew couldn’t get them above 58% efficiency. If left unchecked, this could add years to the eventual atmosphere transformation, which was an eventuality that Haxon was not going to consider, hence their contract. Hopefully it was a simple case of filter lock, which could be reversed in just a few hours, then Dave could finally enjoy blowing his hard earned cash on beautiful Exhilios women once again.

Hubbarb walked up from the main hold and slid into the co-pilot’s chair, popping Dave’s fantasies back into reality.

“How does it look from up here?” he asked, peering through the rain and fog.

“Not much to tell that you can’t already see,” replied Dave. He liked Hubbarb; everyone did. That was one of his key skills. Captain Hubbarb could walk into a room of strangers and win them over in three minutes flat. It wasn’t just his luminescent smile that beamed out against his dark skin. He had an air of reliance, of authority, that was difficult to pin down.

It helped that Hubbarb had absorbed Dave’s love for Phyliss until it had become his own. They all had. They’d spent long enough together cooped up in her hold that she’s become cherished by all of them. The SubAt class was a workhorse and not the most attractive of ships – V-shaped cockpit leading to a rectangular hold flanked by two stubby wings, pushed along by twin thruster cones jutting from the rear – but, thanks to Dave’s attachment and numerous mechanical tweaks, Phyliss had gained a popularity and character that was irreplaceable. Hubbarb had put his job on the line once when Haxon had decided they would exchange the ship for a new class. He, with the Techs in tow, had marched right into Haxon control and refused. Dave loved that they felt as protective as he did.

Other Captains that Dave had flown with led through snappy commands, but Hubbarb didn’t need such cheap tricks. He had absolute control with minimum rank stripe-waving. And his crews, especially the current set nestled in the hold, worked their arses off for him. Not bad for a convicted thug. It was no secret; Hubbarb would be the first to joke about his mottled past once the whisky flowed. And his physicality, like a stack of bricks, further added to the mystique. But now, as Captain, he ruled with polite words and absolute will.

“OK Dave,” Hubbard said. “Give them a call. Let’s see what mood they’re in.”

Dave flicked open the comms channel.

“Vehrion Base One, Vehrion Base One, this is Haxon Tech Support crew TC1-9 slash SubAtmos 1a requesting dock access, over”.

Grey pissy rain and static. They hadn’t reported any comms malfunction in their initial damage report, but it was always possible. It wouldn’t matter; all Haxon ships had remote access to every docking bay on every base. The verbal request was just an old habitual formality that hadn’t died out yet.

“Vehrion Base One, Vehrion Base One, this is Haxon Tech Support crew TC1-9 SubAt 1a requesting dock access, please respond, over”.

Static. A glace at Hubbarb, who was frowning slightly. Then the static cut out.

“TC1-9 SubAt, we receive you. Welcome to Vehrion. Please proceed to bay 1 and dock at your own leisure.”

A male voice. Dave knew from the work order that Vehrion Base One had a ground crew of twenty-eight, but he hadn’t bothered to read the personnel log. He didn’t need to. He’s worked with enough early ground crew members to know that everything was easier if the whisky flowed. And who could blame them.

“Received, Vehrion base. En route to bay one now.”

“Alright then,” said Hubbarb, rising and slapping Dave on the shoulder, “Looks like we’re on. Take her in and I’ll get the rest of them ready”. With that, he disappeared into the hold and the dividing door hissed closed.

Dave flipped off Phyliss’ autopilot and took manual control for the final cruise into bay one. He didn’t need to; he’d be able to just sit back and let the computer do all the work, but he sometimes took the reins just to justify his title a little. More a way to keep himself entertained than anything else. The SubAt series of ships were really easy to fly, none of the quirkiness of earlier models, and he glided through the open doors before they slammed shut heavily behind him. The internal air steamed past the cabin window as he laidPhyliss down on the landing pad. There was a single man waiting to greet him outside.

 

2

He woke up drenched yet again. Sweat, sweat, piss and sweat. Hands now like blocks of ice.

– – –

“Morning squire, good of you to come.” The man in the docking bay was in a vest and baggy cargo pants, both mottled in thick dabs of sweat. Dave shook his hand and quickly took off his landing suit, his own sweat already pooling at the back of his neck.

“It’s like a fucking sauna in here, why have you got it so hot? I don’t remember seeing a heating systems fault in your report.” Frank was the first to clomp down the ramp, toolkit in hand, thick ginger beard not quite hiding his scowl. He wasn’t really one for pleasantries.

“Yeah, Haxon didn’t really care too much for our issues until the TerraMorphs started going tits up. It’s been like this for a while. We kind of got used to it. I’m Broit, first engineer. How are you guys doing?” He’d adjusted his vest to try and look more smart but it hadn’t worked.

Hubbarb and Dave followed Frank down.

“Yeah. Good. I’m Captain Jon Hubbarb, this is Chief Pilot Dave Godard, Techs Frank, Fe’eldie, Jackson, Lisa, and Sila.” Point, point and point. Nods and grunts all round, tools and cases being lowered down from Phyliss in quick succession. The team of Techs worked well together and were often efficient, but today there was a definite air that they wanted out of here as soon as possible. It was always a tiny bit weird to be so far from occupied space. Like being a kid lost in a supermarket.

Lisa walked to Broit, dark hair tied back away from her crimson red skin. She had the face of a PR manager and an easy way with words that she used to get things done quickly. “Well, let’s get your heating issue sorted before we all steam to death, then we can get going on fixing your TerraMorphs. Where would I find heating control?”

“Over here,” replied Broit, gesturing to a blast-glass-walled office at the back of the docking bay. “The main computer has direct links into all major systems. We’ve had a good look at it but can’t seem to iron out the creases”. He was taller than all of them by a good few inches, but had a submissive body language that made him seem somehow smaller. His dark hair was slicked back in the heat, beard glistening slightly under the strip lights.

“OK, let’s take a look. Might be a software issue.” Lisa slung her portable computer over her shoulder and walked to the office, not waiting for help or assistance. Fe’eldie followed, already running scans via her rectangular wrist screen. Broit scampered behind, thumbing through a fat keychain to find the right access card. Dave made his way back to Phyllis, past the growing piles of tools and parts, heading to his cockpit to run flight checks. He wanted her to be ready the moment the Hubbard gave the contract parameters the all-clear.

“We’ll head out to TM1 and run a diagnostic on site,” Hubbarb said into his comm collar, a direct in-ear link to all his Techs. “Give me a shout when you’ve corrected the temp problems and you can check my results from your end. Frank, with me.” Hubbarb moved with Frank towards the external airlock door, arms laden with two toolboxes each, breathing hoods hissing their seal closed over their pressurised red flight suits. In the command office, Lisa copied his request without pausing her typing. She and Fe’eldie could take any decrepit piece of hardware and make it sing, and they carried enough on-board software to wipe over any command line problems.

“Temp command seems good, initial diag runs clean” she muttered, no need for anyone but Fe’eldie to understand. Lisa was Jovian, born and raided on Europa’s well-established Tuatian colony, the largest city outside Earth by a long stretch. Most born Jovians had an accent that sounded to Earth ears as a little Croydon, a little Dutch, consonants clipping quickly under stretched vowels. Fe’eldie was from an old Irish Republic family, and when these two got going, it was like listening to a very pretty song, the two accents merging in a call-and-response harmony. “Found the Temp modulators, there’s three of them split across the outside venting ports. Sending commands to reboot…nothing. They’re set high and not responding to software commands. I’m getting full readings so the link is there.”

“Could be a bug? Wipe and reset?” Fe’eldie was stood behind Lisa, frowning over the results.

“Maybe. But a visual check might be quicker than a total reboot. And there’s no reason to think it might be software yet. They’re not far – uh… Sila, Jackson, visual check?

“Sure,” said Jackson. “Send the base plan to our screens”.

“Copy that,” replied Lisa, sending the two of them directions in just a few clicks. It would take longer to check the modulators one by one, but both Jackson and Sila were experienced Techs so having the both of them there would solve the problem quickly. “Hopefully they’ve all just locked up, maybe an electrical surge, but nothing that seems to have damaged the internal systems. Free them up and I’ll reboot them individually from here.”

“Copy. Got the locations. We’re on the move.” Jackson and Sila headed out past the closed interior cargo hold and into the base proper, door hissing behind them as they left.

“All three of them? Locking up at the same time?” Fe’eldie didn’t look up from her wristscreen diagnostic she was running, but didn’t need to.

“It’s possible,” Lisa replied, wiping dark strands of her sweat-wet hair tight back into her braid. The office was hotter than the loading bay, and was starting to get oppressive. Fe’eldie had already started to pull of the top layer of her flight suit, awkwardly pulling her wrist screen through the sleeve as it clicked and purred. Her blonde hair stuck to her forehead as she wriggled free. “Where are the rest of your crew, Broit? Are they available to confirm readings on the machines themselves?”

Broit wiped the back of his neck and made a face. “Unlikely, sorry. They’re all out on assignment. It’s my turn on dock watch today, otherwise I’d be out in the building gallery. We got to get this base up and running in three months for first load of colony dockers. I can call and see if you want, but you’d be better not bothering them right now.”

“It’s Fine,” said Lisa. “I’m sure Jackson and Sila will get them back online in no time.” Her face continued to study the lines of code rolling on the screen while Fe’eldie, forehead furrowed, still studied her wrist screen.

 

3

Spittle tastes like iron. Air burns and shreds.

– – –

“…and the worst part of it was, she hadn’t even kissed me goodbye at that point, let alone said sorry!”

Jackson and Sila giggled all the way down the connecting corridor system as he recounted his latest communiqué from his wife back on Earth. “I’m sure she’ll get over it!” he finished, massive hairy grin taking over his face, slapping Sila on her back. She loved listening to Jackson talking about his wife and family, even if she’d heard every story four or five times already.

He was from somewhere in the North American States but his accent sounded like something dragged out of Mississippi, and every stressed word carried a knowing glint in his eye. Jackson had a way of making even the most boring of space travels more relaxing and Sila loved working with him. It helped that he, like she, was a natural tech on an almost prodigious level. It led to some very enjoyable friendly competition as they’d try to outdo each other by breathing life into the most decayed, destroyed hardware they could find. Sila had grown up with her idiot of a father trying to steer her into law, when all she wanted to so was study SpaceTech at Anderson. It felt good that she could hold her own now with the best and take home more money than the courts could have ever given her.

“She’s going to leave you one day, you fraud” she frowned, jabbing him in his ribs. “Sarah’s got standards, after all”. Sila’s red hair flashed in time to her jibe. Jackson once saw someone piss her off and underestimate her effectiveness in a bar fight. They certainly wouldn’t do that again. He chuckled and checked the layout on his screen.

“First Temp module isn’t far, just follow this corridor round in an arc around the…”

Jackson stopped, eyes on the screen, Sila following suit a few steps later.

“What?”

“This door,” he said, pointing to the panel on his right, “is the rec room. If we cut through here and out the other side then we’ll miss out this entire stretch of corridor. Short cut?”

Sila smiled. “Short cut.”

As Haxon Techs they were automatically given access to any non-military structure without any further need for authorisation, but it was also a little more exciting to go exploring, maybe catch a few crew members unawares. Once, in a space station near Mars that was having some pretty severe condensation problems, Jackson and Sila rappelled right down through the middle of the station’s innards rather than take a transit shuttle all the way round. Any way to make their jobs a little more exciting – and quicker – was a bonus.

She flicked open the door panel, and frowned. It was locked from the outside with a makeshift panel keeping the door circuits artificially closed. Sila had seen this kind of thing in non-authorised stations, but never in a certified Haxon unit. Apart from being against regulations, it was also bloody unsafe. What would happen if there was an internal fire? She’d have to disable the lock and report it. Damn.

The circuit board didn’t offer up much resistance and the rec room strip light pinged into life as they walked in.

Hubbarb and Frank huffed in time as they finally trudged to TM1, streams of yellowish gas venting incessantly into the purple sky. It was not a good idea to get in its way, so they made sure they approached from downwind and kept a close eye on their oxygen levels. Frank had known a guy back on Earth who’d taken a lungful of the TerraMorph cocktail when his suit popped open; safe to say that he didn’t have to worry about any long-lasting damage.

Frank was a giant, lumbering European who’d spent time in jails and oil rigs alike, using Haxon as a way out of the painfully magnetic downward spiral. He was Viking through and through. No-one had ever seen the skin under his thick ginger beard, and it was likely no-one ever would. He and Hubbard had been together so long, first as Techs, then as Captain and crew, that their communication went beyond any official title. They had much in common, and were constantly throwing insults back and forth. There was never any disrespect, though; Frank may have openly refused the opportunity to proceed into captaincy, but he was one of the first to pounce on any stranger’s lack of respect for his friend and Captain. But when these two giant men were together, there weren’t many that showed disrespect anyway.

Frank was the first to TM1’s control panel, which he flipped open, deconstruction tools at the ready. He had a whole bag of wrenches, scalpels and circuit boards that he was confident would fit somewhere in there, but on opening the display panel, he just stopped and stared.

“What the fuck is this?”

Hubbard, crouched behind him with both arms in his own toolbag, looked up. “What is it? You haven’t fucked it already, have you?”

“The dock captain, Broit. What level did he say they were stuck at?”

Hubbard stood up straight. “58%. Why?”

Frank turned and pointed at the panel so Hubbarb could see. “The output panel is set to 58%. Look.” Hubbarb shifted forward and squinted through his hood. There, in front of him, was the TM1 dial, leveled precisely at 58%. He looked at Frank, turned back, then put his hand on the dial and eased it up to 100%. The TerraMorph whirred into its higher output without any sign of struggle, yellow gas plume doubling in consistency and veracity as it attacked Vehrion’s acid atmosphere with renewed vigor.

“There’s no way a bunch of ground crew wouldn’t know how to use a TM”, growled Frank. He had zero time for ignorants. Hubbard shared his professional perfectionism and grunted in agreement.

“How far is TM2?”

“Half a mile that way.” Frank pointed into the purple terrain. “Although I’m starting to think there’s no point checking it.”

Hubbarb huffed and stood silently under the howling machine for a moment before responding.

“Then what the fuck is this?”

L

NO LIFESIGNS PRESENT

Lisa took a breath and read the words again. An instant message had popped up on her screen, manually adjusted to be so tiny and unobtrusive that she almost had to squint to read it. She could hear Fe’eldie tapping on her wrist screen behind her, as she had been for the last ten minutes, and Broit was making a rustling sound at the back of the office like he was checking his pockets. She typed, trying to keep the same rhythm as before.

WHAT FE

Breathe.

IVE RUN TEN SCANS ON BASE NO LIFESIGNS APART FROM OUR TECHS

THERES NOONE HERE L WTF

HOW CAN THERE BE NOONE HERE 28 CREW REPORTED

I DON’T KNOW

RUN IT AGAIN

TEN TIMES NEGATIVE L

ALERT. THIS NOT RI

 

4

He had begun to itch. But however much he scratched, the itch remained. It felt deeper than his nails could reach.

– – –

Sila and Jackson had matching open mouths in the doorway of the rec room, where’d they’d stood silently for the best part of two minutes, just trying to comprehend what they could see. They’d been in hundreds of Haxon rec rooms in their professional careers, and the running joke was that, wherever you were, Haxon could make you feel right at home. Just like everything else, they were rolled out of a kit, usually sparkling white tiles, white chairs, long tables, and food preparation machines situated around the internal perimeter. They were always clean, almost to a fault. Maybe that was so that they could double as a medical room in an emergency. They certainly had that synthetic, antiseptic feel; automated cleaning robots scoured the surfaces every hour, keeping it shiny. Haxon had made many things routine; jump travel, space flight, surface cleaning. Something to impress everyone.

Here, though, was a different story. The wall tiles were streaked brown, fluid running in low dregs and clumps. Every single table was overturned and broken, many missing their central metal strut. There had been a fire in one corner, the charred floor black and smudged. The far door had been taken off its hinges and was hanging off the other side against a fallen shelf unit in the darkness. It was almost beyond comprehension that any Haxon base could be so reduced to this.

Jackson finally opened his comm channel.

“Lisa, please report. We’ve…got something here that…Lisa, please copy.” Static. “Lisa, Fe’eldie, this is Jackson, please copy.” He looked at Sila and was answered with nothing but further static. Seeing his look, she opened her screen and called up a systems check.

“All systems operational, including comms,” she muttered. “Wait. Docking bay 1 is open. The door in docking bay 1 is open. Oxygen levels fluctuating.”

Jackson frowned. “Why would the bay door be open? There’s no other ship permitted to arrive while we’re here.”

A beat.

“And it would only be open otherwise if a ship was leaving.”

Jackson and Sila looked at each other, then turned and sprinted back the way they’d come.

Jackson flat out sprinted as they got closer to the connecting door to Docking Bay 1. The angry whine of Phyliss’ engines was clear even through the thick metal. He slammed his hand into the access panel, only to be met with a lockout symbol. He hit it again, again, again, blunt beep responding to his panicked pressing each time.

“Jackson, move!” shouted Sila as she ran up behind him, already pulling a tool out of her bag. The Techs had a selection of items at their disposal when trying to solve a problem, and as a rule would always try a variety of non-destructive techniques so as to leave as little clean-up as possible. However, they also had a set of equipment that was to be used when it didn’t matter how much damage they caused: generator leaks, life systems failure, and so on.

This was one of those times.

Without breaking stride, Sila pulled up a single-spiked globe that had a veil of thin tentacles hanging off it, jabbing the hard point into the door’s control panel in a cloud of sparks. The thin strands immediately jumped into life and wriggled past the spike into the electrics, lines of light beating down their length as they took hold. On the globe itself, a small display screen blinked into life and Sila immediately started tapping commands into its interface. The strands settled into place and firmed up as she began circumventing the door lock in the most direct way possible.

What Sila saw as she tore open the internal door to the docking bay was almost too much to take in. Phyliss was in midair, landing gear still down but held up by the growing roar of her underside thrusters. Frank was standing with open arms in the external docking bay entrance, heavy doors inching closed behind him, wind howling through the closing gap. And Hubbarb was at the top of the crane scaffold above the SubAt, legs bent. Before she could even shout, he threw himself physically on top of Phyliss, landing hard but managing to hold on as he rolled.

Jackson, pushing past Sila, didn’t know what to comprehend first – the screaming Vehrion atmosphere being squeezed through the closing bay doors, or his giant friend riding Phyliss like a rodeo bull, or Dave kneeling underneath the rolling ship, head in hands, trying to get to his feet. He was about to shout something at Sila but there was no need; she’s had the same idea and was already running to the office door, globe in hand once again. The pitch of Phyliss’ engines raised once again, signifying an increase in power, preparing for a full thrust. Were they going to push through the shrinking bay door space? Jackson did not want to be here if that happened. He rushed under the ship, ignoring the growing heat directly above his head, eased up Dave up on his right shoulder and practically dragged him to the office door where Sila was hammering commands into the door console. Fe’eldie and Lisa lay on the floor inside. There was no sign of Broit.

Up on Phyliss, Hubbarb was scrambling towards the cockpit. There was an emergency escape hatch just behind the main console; if he could activate the release from outside, then he could drop right behind whoever was trying to steal the ship and give them a very bad day. He clutched onto panels and tubing as handholds, desperately trying to keep his balance as she listed impatiently from left to right. The vibration from the increased engine output was rattling up through his legs and he knew he didn’t have much time. He could see the hatch a few metres ahead of him, and flung himself for its handle just as the huge bay door stopped with a crunch, then began to open once more. Frank turned and hammered on the door panel, but with no response. Phyliss lined up for departure.

On her roof, Hubbard was slamming his wrench into the emergency hatch access handle. There was a three-step process to getting it open, but he didn’t have time for three steps. In his experience, the wrench that he always kept hanging off his Haxon regulation pants was a universal single-step solution. He prised off the control panel until the release handle was reachable then put all his weight behind it.

Sila had managed to open the office and they’d all piled inside, attempting to pick up the control console that Lisa had knocked onto the floor. Fe’eldie was back on her feet, frantically wiping her own blood off her wrist screen, hoping to try and access the door beforePhyliss could scrape out. A movement the other side of the glass caught her eye.

Frank was running across the bay floor with both hands behind him, arms bursting and bulging with effort, dragging a chain towardsPhyliss that stretched back to the loading crane from which Hubbarb had jumped. The noise from her engines was deafening now; the handbrake launch would be messy but extremely effective. Her upper hull was scraping against the side of the bay door as it continued to ease open, pairing thrusters roaring with the effort of pressing her forward. She was almost free. Shouting with the effort, Frank dragged the end loop of the chain and attached it to Phyliss’ right aft landing strut.

The bay door widened enough for the ship to squeeze out.

Hubbard popped open the hatch and fell in, head-first.

In the cockpit, Broit hit the thrusters to maximum and launched. Hubbard landed behind him just as the chain reached its full length.

Phyliss hadn’t picked up enough acceleration to snap the chain so instead pulled around in a wide arc which flipped her back into the docking bay, this time facing the wrong way. Broit, in his panic, pulled back in an attempt to reduce speed but this just angled the ship up into the roof of the bay where she collided hard and skidded along, the circular momentum and full firing thrusters causing her to whip round and round. The chain, still holding, had now wrapped itself around one of the main lateral thrusters and sheared it off clean, causing Phyliss to buck and rear into the side wall before catching again, mid-spin, but the chain had pulled over her nose and with a moan and creak of metal she flipped fully on her back, slamming hard into the bay floor before the main thrusters broke free of their casing and, from the blast-glass-fronted office, the Techs could only watch in horror as the fuel sprayed freely into the air before a rising spark ignited it back to the source and then, with a whomp that shook the ground and walls and pushed the air out of their lungs, there was only fire.

 

5

His fingernails had started to split. Underneath, the flesh was grey instead of pink. The fact that it didn’t hurt made him want to vomit.

– – –

Frank had once been in a car crash so severe that the chassis had spit in two right down the middle, yet he’d survived. For some reason, the passenger seat had popped out like a pip from a cherry in the impact and had skidded almost cartoon-like across the highway before coming to rest in a ditch. Everyone else in the car – his friends, all of them – had been flattened without exception. They’d had to have a joint burial, resting in death together in a mess of what they once were. He’d watched from the outside then, too; first on the side of the road, then in hospital, and finally at the funeral, with the same thought rattling around his head the whole time: how are they dead and I’m not. It never evolved into anything further, just stayed simple and blunt. How are they dead and I’m not.

And now, as he sat nursing a bruised head and burnt arm in the same corridor that he’d flung himself to escape the bucking Phyliss, where Sila and Jackson had exited hardly any time before, the same thought was weighing heavily again.

Once the thruster fire had flared, the docking bay countermeasures had kicked in quickly. Streams of water and foam had erupted from every conceivable angle, bay door closing once again to contain the blast, but even then the mangled corpse of Phyliss had burned for a further twenty minutes before finally hissing into death. All of the remaining Techs – Lisa, Fe’eldie, Jackson, Sila and Dave behind the thick sealed glass of the office, Frank off to the left in the access corridor – could only stand in silence as their beloved SubAt charred into lifelessness, a coffin for their friend and foes alike. There wasn’t any chance Hubbarb could have survived in there, that was obvious very early on, so there was no panicked rush for rescue. The flames sweeping from the inside of Phyliss were turning everything inside to ash, and all they could do was watch.

He hadn’t tried to stop Hubbarb as he’d leapt onto the ship. He was too busy revelling in pissing off whoever was trying to steal her. She was rolling slightly left and right and he knew from the roar that the engines were primed to burn fully once they could get clear. As soon as he heard the bay doors reverse and start to open again, he didn’t think about what he was doing, he just wanted to hold back the ship any way he could. The chain was the first thing he’d seen when desperately scanning the docking bay and, before he knew it, he was dragging it towards one of her landing struts. His plan was that the mutineers would soon realise that the ship was firmly tethered – docking cranes famous for their durability – and that they couldn’t accelerate without ripping off some vital part of the ship. Frank had visions of Phyliss skidding into the purple Vehrion dust just outside the bay doors with him climbing in and knocking out anyone he could see in a wild frenzy. He may have turned his back on his past but it was always there waiting for him, twitching under his knuckles.

But something happened and he didn’t get his revenge. Maybe it was Hubbarb dropping through the emergency hatch, distracting and panicking the pilot into initiating the full burn without checking the tether. Maybe they just didn’t realise what was happening until it was too late. As soon as Phyliss had started sweeping across the bay and scraping the roof, Frank’s dual instinctive reactions of realisation and horror pushed him into the corridor as Hubbarb swooped above him, doomed. He hadn’t made it down far when she ignited and a wall of smoke and flame followed him, enveloping his arm before hissing away in the foam pouring from above him.

He’d sat up against the internal door, soaked and in pain, weeping quietly as his friend burned.

Now the fire was finally out, he staggered back into the docking bay, his fellow Techs following suit from the office. Luckily the blast glass had done its job and they hadn’t been harmed, but Frank was shocked at how terrible they looked regardless. Jackson and Sila had bruised, bloody hands, Dave was nursing an egg-shaped lump on his balding head, Fe’eldie’s face and left arm were half covered in blood and Lisa had a black eye that had split her cheek underneath. As soon as she saw him, Sila reached into her bag, pulled out a dressing and wrapped it around his blackened arm. He winced, but now couldn’t take his eyes off the ship.

Phyliss lay on her back, landing struts pointing up to the roof, steam wafting from her hull. She’d changed colour, from orange and grey to charred black, which gave her the look of an animal that had been roasted for dinner. The chain still stretched up to the head of the loading crane, although it was now leaning heavily against the strain. Between the residual smoke and foam extinguishant there was no way to see inside the cockpit through the warped and shattered glass shield, and the loading ramp had stayed closed through the crash. The only other port was the emergency hatch that Hubbarb had opened which was now gushing grey watery foam onto the bay floor by their feet. There was no blood.

Frank was the first to move, slowing pacing round the entirety ofPhyliss’ scorched remains with the most furrowed of brows topping his smudged face. He came back round to the group then looked up at the crane and made a decision. “Let’s get her up.” His voice was a whisper, rough and breaking. No-one responded. He made his way over to the crane and climbed up the steps onto the control platform. Luckily, it was still at full power and hadn’t been damaged in the crash. Looking first at Phyliss’ position then up at the crane pylon, he eased a handle forward and the overhead strut extended to be fully over the ship. The attached chain crumpled a little as the slack was eased, Phyliss rolling slightly to the right in response. A second chain was then unfurled from the crane down towards the hull. As it reached the floor, Jackson went round the back and climbed up to clip it onto the other rear landing strut. The metal singed his hand as it touched, but he ignored it. Once he was done, he gestured to Frank, who eased the crane motor into life.

The noise that it initially produced made the Techs standing close take a few steps back, and it first seemed like the crane was not in any kind of useful shape after all. However, gently and slowly,Phyliss began to ease up into the space above them. The movement caused the foam and water inside to pour out of the hatch in a thick column, gradually seeping down the drainage vents dotted around the bay floor. Once she was halfway up to the roof, Frank slowly shortened the first chain so the ship hung sideways in midair, rolling gently as if caught in a slow-motion maneuver. He then eased her back down again, wing scraping into the floor as it slid on the wet ground, before turning the crane and allowing Phyliss’ own weight to guide her down onto her struts. She fell onto her legs with a crunch and then sat, motionless, dead. He lowered the crane slightly to release the tension in the chains then killed the crane’s motor before hobbling down from the command platform.

Fe’eldie once again wiped down her wrist screen and inputted some commands, already knowing that Phyliss wouldn’t respond. She was utterly dark inside, without a glimmer of the electric lightshow that usually filtered out through the cockpit window. Seeing this, Jackson walked round to her loading ramp with a wrench in his hand and jammed the edge in its frame. Sila also went, ready to give extra leverage, but it wasn’t needed; with the pneumatics burst, the ramp easily popped open and folded out onto the ground. Amongst the chucks of debris that flowed out with the foam was one, two, three charred bodies, outstretched, nothing but black bone and gristle left.

There was a moment’s silence as they all tried to ignore the smell.

The Techs moved as a group to the loading ramp door, now collapsed open, and peered inside. The majority of the water and foam had drained so they were able to better see the damage to the main chamber beyond. Nothing was as it should be. Lights were off, chairs had been melted to bare frames, storage boxes blackened and popped open in the heat. And everywhere, reaching and chocking each other were bodies. Maybe ten or twelve, it was hard to tell. A few strapped into flight seats, but most heaped on the ground. They looked like they’d been fighting to the death, arms wrapped around heads in a giant tangle of burnt flesh. It was an awful sight, and Jackson audibly had to choke back the vomit rising in his chest.

Fe’eldie was the first to slowly make her way up the ramp, wrist screen flashing its light forward, free hand clamped over her mouth in an inadequate attempt to block the stench. She stepped carefully over the remains on the floor, but the damage and darkness made it too difficult and she closed her eyes as bones crunched underfoot. Lisa was behind her on the ramp now, shining a torch into the gloom, too shocked to move any further into the hold. Fe reached the open doorway to the command console section which was nothing more than a computer-lined corridor that stretched up to a small stairway, cockpit visible at the top. A few more bodies were strapped into the console chairs. It looked as though they’d filled all the positions to enable flight. It looked as though they’d had a plan.

Up into the cockpit were two bodies in a lovers’ embrace. One strapped into the pilot chair, flesh fused to the crisped leather underneath, and the other with its arms wrapped around the pilot’s neck in a warm hug, both gazing out the shattered windshield. Fe looked at her dead friend’s head and back and legs and arms, the man she’d known and respected for so long gone forever.

“Come on, Fe.”

Jackson was behind her now, and he gently took her by the arm back out and into the light. Lisa and Dave were huddled together. Frank was sat once again. Sila, wiping her face clean, returned to the office and began putting the control computer back together on the desk.

“We need to see how bad she is.” Jackson spoke to silence. “Guys. We need to practically work out what state she’s in.”

“She’s fucked, Jackson,” gruffed Frank from his side. “Just look at her. Cracks everywhere, power core probably breached. She’s a shell. She’s fucked.”

There was a pause. Jackson exhaled long and deep.

“OK. How long would it take to get help here from outside?” said Jackson. He looked at Lisa, who wiped an eye on Dave’s flight suit before straightening up.

“Standard comms signal will take maybe two hours to reach Reandre, then it’ll have to go to Haxon control via jump comms, which will maybe take four days s, depending on who’s on Altas when the call gets in. If they don’t have a crew on standby, it’ll have to go viaExhilios, then maybe even to Earth, so maybe two more days after that.” She bit her lip. “Then they’ll have to make the jumps back to us with a rescue ship. Even if they left immediately, that’ll be another five days. I mean, if we get lucky, we might catch a passing ship on a different requisition, but it’s a long shot.”

Dave grunted. “Eleven days. Fuck. Eleven days.” He looked around at the docking bay, as if another answer would suddenly appear, but none did.

“Well, we don’t have another choice at the moment,” replied Lisa. “Let’s get the call out first then worry about our vacation spot.”

“Yeah, that makes sense.” Jackson looked over to Sila in the office. She had reflected light on her face from the now blinking monitor. “Sila, you got that working?”

“Of course,” she replied dourly in the ear comm.

“Get the comms back online first and send emergency code red in the direct channel. Leave the dialogue open for the response.”

“Copy that.” Sila typed, stopped, and frowned. “Ah, fuck. Comms is toast. No signal at all from the array. It’s like it’s not even there.”

Lisa walked over into the office. “Software issue? Any hardware disconnects?”

“I don’t think so,” replied Sila. “I ran a full diagnostic once I’d hooked it up and it came back clean. Here, take a look.” She shifted off the chair and Lisa took her seat, fingers already moving over the keyboard as she did so. Sila looked on as she ran three tests, with no luck.

Lisa angled her head into her voice comm. “Yeah, there’s no response from the array at all, not even a damage report. It could just be disconnected at source? I mean, whoever were trying to steal our ship could have planned to cover their tracks as much as possible?”

Back in the bay, Fe’eldie was scanning through the base’s blueprint on her wrist screen. “The comms array is at the south west corner of the complex, just under the dish.”

Sila walked back into the bay. “I’ll go and give you a visual on its status. Who knows, maybe I can just plug it back in.”

“I’ll come too,” mumbled Frank. His voice sounded like sandpaper. Everyone knew how close he was to Hubbarb, and no-one knew what to say.

They started moving off when Dave suddenly lifted his head. “I don’t get it,” he said, almost to himself. They all stopped, maybe having the same thought themselves. “Where the hell were they going? What the fuck is the problem here that they were trying to get away so quickly?” He paced towards Phyliss, his Phyliss, and rested his hand on her shattered hull. The Techs often joked that he loved her more than her human namesake, and that was painfully evident here. “Haxon has a procedure in place for contract cancellation. They’d never oppose it, not with the money they pay. Loads of guys would jump into their shoes. Leavers would pay costs, but they’d be gone in four weeks, max. I just don’t get what was worth risking everything to steal our ships.”

Jackson caught Sila’s eye through the glass and the image of the rec room flashed across his mind.

“Come with us,” he said.

 

6

Every day, he ran as far as he could. It wasn’t just to stay alert; his body seemed to be filled with kinetic energy that wouldn’t subside. And it stopped him wanting to smash everything around him.

– – –

“I’m pretty sure some of this is organic,” said Fe’eldie, finger running through the brown sludge that lined the food preparation surface in the rec room. “Maybe some of the food preppers malfunctioned? That would make me want to jump ship too.”

“They’d have backup. And we’d have been called to fix faulty food preps faster than the TMs.” Frank hadn’t come in the room yet, surveying the carnage from the hallway outside. He had a look on his face that reminded Dave of his own when he saw a dog get flattened by a reversing powercoil. Everything squashed until it was utterly unrecognisable.

The rest of them wandered in, as shocked at the room as they were disgusted by the dull squelch underfoot. It was utterly ruined, from top to bottom.

“What a fucking shitshow,” grumbled Jackson, prodding a chunk of meat on the floor with his foot. The smell had been filtered mostly by the base’s air recycling system but the underlying stink of rot was unmistakable. “We need to call this in, and quickly.” He thought for a second. “And we should probably do an inventory of the remaining food here. If this is the food preps going haywire, then we’ll have to start on their supplies before pickup.”

Sila looked up, and around, then at Lisa. “This room has monitors. The whole base has. How difficult would it be to find the feed?”

They all stopped and looked at the two woman. The conversation had suddenly moved into dangerous ground, and they all recognised the sea change. Haxon was a fair employer – certainly better than any of their huge TerraMorph rivals – but they followed the rules down to the last letter. Techs were not permitted into secure files, including those of their personnel, and even the suggestion of hacking into their complex layers of software systems could result in contract cancellation, without any hope of working again for any of the TM companies. Actually committing acts of intrusion into their systems would lead to judiciary confinement. None of them particularly wanted to go anywhere near that route, but it was starting to seem that the usual rules were off the table.

Lisa took a deep breath, realising that all eyes were on her, and came to the same conclusion. “I don’t know. They use pretty extensive firewalls, I know that much.” She looked at Fe’eldie. “I might need help.” Fe nodded.

“No-one’s going to pressure you to put your livelihood on the line, Lisa.” Jackson had his hand on her shoulder. She could feel him shivering a little. “Let’s check out the comms array first and take it from there. It might not even come to that.” She nodded, then turned and started walking back to the office.

Sila looked over at Frank. “Still coming with me?”

“Yeah,” he huffed. Once back into the hallway they turned right, walking deeper into the base towards the communications array.

“Hey,” whispered Jackson. “Stay in contact.”

“Copy that,” she said through the comms, and they disappeared through a hissing internal door.

Jackson turned to Fe’eldie. “Which direction is the emergency food storage?” He wasn’t too thrilled that they might have to survive on tinned meat – nothing ever more specific on the rations than ‘meat’ – but it sure beat starving to death. Fe checked her screen. “North-East of the docking bay, other side of the sleeping quarters.” She paused for a beat as something suddenly occurred to her. The blush left her cheeks. “How many bodies did you count in Phyliss, not counting Hubbarb?” It was the first time anyone had said his name out loud and it caught in her throat.

Jackson took a deep breath. He was glad that Frank had left. “Hard to tell. Three outside now, ten or eleven in the hold, two in control, one pilot. So, best guess? Maybe sixteen. Wait.” Their thoughts synchronised. “This base has – had – a crew of twenty-eight…where the hell are the others?”

Fe rubbed her head and winced a little. “I did a scan before the crash and couldn’t find any heat marks apart from ours. I was trying to tell Lisa when that motherfucker hit me. Prick.”

“Run the scan again,” said Jackson. His breath was sharp and tight in his chest. Dave stood wide-eyed behind them, shaking his head a little.

They waited in silence as Fe’eldie tapped her wrist screen and, when the results popped up, her face told them everything. “Just us. Lisa in the docking bay office, the three of us in here, Sila and Frank moving through Sector 4. That doesn’t make sense.”

Dave finally spoke up. “Well, there sure as hell weren’t twenty-eight of those cocksuckers in Phyliss. They’ve got to be somewhere.”

Taking one last look at the destroyed rec room, Jackson picked up his kit bag and made for the door. “Let’s get external comms on. Get the signal out first. There’s no way I’m spending any more time in here.” He left through the door and turned left back towards the office, and after a few seconds, Fe and Dave followed him out.

Sila and Frank walked in silence; she scanning the blueprints on her screen, he looking at the integrity of the base’s stretched corridors. As far as he could see, everything looked in good shape; there was no other signs of whatever had happened in the rec room. The initial wave of colony transports, of which this was the first on Vehrion, were amazing pieces of technology. On landing, the ground crew spent the first three months unfolding their massive ship, its innards becoming a permanent base from which the true colonisation could begin. It was this technique that had elevated Haxon above its rivals; instead of bringing base sections to new colonies in repeated trips, the massive ExoLander became the base, slowly transforming from one thing to another. After the process was completed the ship was permanently changed and irreversible, its form now hard bolted onto the new terrain. As new ExoLanders arrived over the following years, the bases would grow in jumps and starts before eventual tourism would trigger the influx of the real money.

The change was so dramatic that it was hard to believe that a fully laid base was ever a space vessel. Frank saw half of an emblem and wondered which part of the ship that had once been.

“Left here,” said Sila. “We’ll go past the inner air diffusers and the comms array should be just on the…” Frank saw her turn a corner and stop immediately. “Oh, fuck. What?” This day had had enough bullshit already and he really wasn’t in the mood for any more.

“We might have a problem,” she breathed. He took two paces around her then surveyed the sight; a long corridor, blackened with carbon stretching up from a heavy fire door at the end, COMM ARRAY sign on the wall blistered and crooked. Those doors were designed to slam down in the event of a catastrophic explosion or hull breach, securing the rest of the base quickly to minimise threats to the remaining crew. Sila walked to the door scanner but it was also blown, so she turned to her portable screen and accessed the fire door control remotely. This was within the responsibilities of the Techs, so she was able to bring up the door commands quickly.

Frank interrupted her tapping. “Wait a second,” he mumbled. “Hull could have popped. Or it could still be burning.”

“Maybe. But we have to know if the array is usable. Because if it’s not…” Sila didn’t need to finish her sentence. Frank nodded, and the two of them braced themselves as she overrode the fire door and activated its opening sequence. There was a sudden gush of air at their feet as soon as the seal was broken, but no flames, so Sila kept her finger close to the panel that would let her slam the door shut again and peered under as it raised. Half way up, the door jammed against something on the other side and refused to move any higher, but it didn’t need to; Sila and Frank could see well enough what remained of the comms array.

Crouched down, air sweeping past them into the chamber, they peered under the whirring door to see the central comms array lying on its side, single flaming hole punched into it like a gunshot wound. It had been compressed and squashed by the weight of the huge comms dish that had come crashing through the hull roof in the blast, and it was the side of this dish that now kept the door from opening. Everything was on fire, small flames growing in size with the influx of the base’s air.

Sila stood up and hit the door switch, and it slammed back down hard. Neither of them spoke until the reverberating bang has completely faded.

She spoke into her collar, looking at Frank. “Jackson, the comms array has been destroyed. Not an accident. Single explosion hole in the side of the main tower, maybe another in the roof, comms dish came down through hull. Total breach.” She took a breath. “This was deliberate. It was rigged, probably remotely. They didn’t want us getting out of here.”

“Copy that,” replied Jackson over the ear comm. “Make your way back to the docking bay. We all need to talk.” He sounded exhausted.

“Copy. On our way.” After one last look, the two of them turned and walked back silently side by side.

Jackson sat heavily down on the docking bay office chair that was still sticky with Fe’eldie’s blood. He didn’t care at this point. None of this made sense to him, and the moment he started to rationalise it, any conclusions he came to were too horrifying to even contemplate. He could see Phyliss standing on her struts in the bay, silent and cold, with Dave sitting on her roof studying a readout on his screen. He didn’t know why he was bothering. He was worried about Dave; he hadn’t just named Phyliss after a woman, he loved her like one. He’d flat out refused to have their SubAt replaced or refitted during their last maintenance dock, telling the Haxon rep they’d have to fire him first. Phyliss had easily passed the flight tests, so they’d let him keep his girl. They were good like that.

To Jackson’s right, Lisa was still hunched over the computer, fingers flying over the keyboard, picking and poking away at the deeply guarded files within. Fe was sat on the desk, feet up on the back of Lisa’s chair, using her wrist screen to help with the intrusion. Every now and then, the two would stop and have a hurried whispered confab, then they’d both return to their individual tasks. He was very glad they were here; although everyone on the Tech team could take on any role, they each had their specialist areas and he was very much a tool man. But, if anyone could break in and get the rec room video feed, it was them.

They’d all stripped off their red flight suits upon returning to the docking back, the high temperature now really starting to have an impact. Haxon didn’t require Techs to wear matching uniforms, but the team all wore the same grey vests and lighter grey combat pants anyway. Breaking out a fresh set of Haxon clothes from their seemingly endless supply was just so much easier than trying to clean and maintain their own clothes. Now, though the heat and the dust and the soot was starting to discolour them all. Jackson made a mental note to get the temp under control as soon as possible, or they’d all start dropping like flies.

His mind wandered back to Sila’s message about the shattered comms array. If the tower was blown and the dish down in amongst a major hull breach, then it was beyond all of them to patch that up. No comms dish meant no way to contact Haxon from the base; their interpersonnel collar comms system was fine for low-level scattered conversations, but it didn’t carry anywhere near enough power to get a message even up to their TC. Phyliss had had a mini array inside her that might have done the job, but that was long gone now.

It was the implications of its destruction that worried him more, though. The crew had obviously set up a trap for them and they’d given them exactly what they wanted, until they’d interfered with takeoff and brought Phyliss crashing down. If the crew had been successful, their plan was to leave the Techs here to suffer. They’d have known that blowing the comms array would nicely cover their escape and stop them from creating any trouble for them once they’d, assumingly, taken the orbiting TC far away. Leaving a Tech team here without any mean to leave or call for help is tantamount to a long, slow death sentence. What would make a group of colony workers decide to follow a path of such utter tragedy?

And, on that note, where were the others that hadn’t made it ontoPhyliss? Jackson had made Fe run the test twice more, each time checking her calibrations, starting to get paranoid that the rest of the ground crew would suddenly leap out at them, but other life signs were completely negative. The Techs’ heat signatures showed up clear as day on the scanner, even in the extreme heat. There was no-one else here. So, what, were they outside the base? How long could they have survived out there for? The docking bay seemed to have a full quota of pressure suits, but maybe it was worth checking to see if there were any missing from the rest of the base. Anyway, Fe had set up an alert in her wrist screen to activate if any new heat sources appeared, so if any of the remaining crew suddenly decided to make an appearance, they’d know about it quickly.

He leaned back and closed his eyes for a second, working out what to say when Sila and Frank got back to the hangar.

 

7

Howling is singing, really.

– – –

Frank had first heard the tapping as they’d turned the corner away from the fire door. It was rhythmical and constant, a metallic tink tink tink that was almost too quiet to hear. On their right was a closed access door to the air diffusion units, and beyond that was a workspace for carrying small repairs on tools and ground modules.Tink tink tink went the sound as they listened carefully though the door, breath held in an attempt to try and place a location on its source. Tink tink tink.

“What do you think that is,” Sila finally whispered. “Water leaking somewhere?”

“Water wouldn’t sound like that,” replied Frank under his breath. “That’s metal on metal. Too quiet to be a problem with the air diffusers.” He stopped for a second. “We should check it out.”

Sila nodded and thumbed the door panel, and it slid open with a slight hiss. The noise was actually slightly harder to hear now, the huge cylindrical air diffusers making a constant dull vibration that buried the tapping in the aural background, but it was still there right at the edges of their hearing. They moved into the diffusion chamber and fanned round the giant circular edges with ears focussed. The room was huge, with eight or nine of the air diffusers dotted like columns around its area. The noise they collectively made was actually quite calming, in a low Buddhist chant kind of way, and its low frequency meant that the tink tink tink could be followed through the din. Sila had gone right, tracing what she thought was the source of the noise towards a rear access hatch before losing its clarity. Frank’s path took him far left and back towards the workspace beyond, the suddenly loudening noise becoming clearer with every pace.

He exited the main chamber and the source of the noise was right there, next to the work table. A detox tank stood there open, front panel completely off and lodged on top. They were more like shower cubicles, really; a rectangular space that could steam off any toxins, inside and out, that an Exo engineer might bring in from outside. Some of them even got contaminated on purpose just to spend an hour with the warm chemical steam gently caressing the skin. This one, though, had had a shelf inserted in its far wall, and on it was a block, no bigger than a shoebox. Tink, tink, tink, endlessly calling from the motor on top of the box, a single metal pin being drawn back by a spring and shot into a hard plate before being slowly retracted again. Tink, tink, tink.

Frank tipped his head, trying to recognise the motor. From what he could see, it wasn’t standard issue tech but something put together from various small pieces. He took a few steps forward to get a better look. Tink, tink, tink. It looked as though the box held a battery, metallic motor parts reaching up though cuts in the lid. There was something else, though. Something oddly-shaped on the other side of the plate, small and chunky and not shining like the metal pieces under the workshop lights. It looks like a sausage end, but more swollen. Frank took a step inside.

He didn’t even feel the thin wire running low across the outside two walls. As soon as he snapped it, something thudded dully above him and the front panel suddenly slid down, slamming into position, sealing him in on all sides. Tink. Frank whirled round and instinctively slammed his bodyweight against the front door. Tink. He drew back his shoulder and hit it again with as much force behind it as he could, but the door held fast. Tink. Frank swung out his arm and hit the contraption, sending it to the floor in pieces. At that instant there was a second of air escaping before the detox jets kicked in, but instead of gentle steam, it was water. From everywhere – above, below, his sides, his face, gagging and blinding from all directions – water streamed into the sealed tank and was soon up to his ankles.

He reached for his collar comm button and tried to shout a message for help, but he didn’t even get two garbled words out before he realised that it had shorted in the spray, earpiece dead to even static. Panic rose like a cold fire in his belly, but he forced it back down. Get out. Get out. Get out. His mind raced. Find the weakest point.Bending his legs, he positioned himself with his back against the rear wall and legs pressed in front of him, water already lapping at his chest in this position, and pushed as hard as he could. The veins inflated in his face and he let out a roar of desperation, but the detox chamber seal held tight. No good.

Sila.

Back up straight now, he started thudding his clenched fists against the glass and shouting at the top of his voice. This was especially difficult as, wherever his turned, he seemed to have a water spray directly right into his face. It was hard enough to breathe, yet alone shout for help, but he tried anyway, coughing and chocking on the insistent spray. It was at this point that his brain registered a sensation that he’d been ignoring in his panic. The water was hot. Not just bath hot, but searing hot, splashing and steaming around his face as the level passed his waist. Once he made this connection it activated the pain that was already there, and the burning water almost made the cold panic take hold. But Frank wasn’t about to give up yet. Willing up every ounce of energy he had left, he started thrashing and punching, pushing and pulling, slamming into every angle, willing the detox chamber walls to succumb and burst. The reinforced glass walls, though, were built to withstand pressure from inside and out, and they barely made a move.

The water was high, now, burning his neck and tirelessly reaching for his open mouth. His arms were becoming increasingly heavy, being pulled down to rest in the gloom below. His skin was on fire. Legs began to buckle, easing his trouble, down, down.

A flash of red the other side of the glass, followed by the sharp thud of something metal hitting once, twice, over and over again.

Sila drew the crowbar back and quickly examined the glass. Not a scratch. This wasn’t working, and she could see Frank’s shadow slipping down into the water inside. She scrambled around in the workshop, looking desperately for a power tool or welding torch, but there was nothing useful to be seen anywhere. Running back to the detox tank, she could see the water inside lapping at the chamber’s roof, but something then caught her eye and in that instant she had a ridiculous, stupid idea. An idea so ridiculous that it actually made her smile, even with Frank’s hand desperately clawing inside at the glass corners.

Scooping up the crowbar again, she ran to the nearest air diffusion cylinder and prised open the access hatch. Usually this was a terrible thing to do so while it was running; inside was a whirring many-bladed rotor pushed around by jets of pressurised oxygen, moving round and through them before streaming off into the base’s internal aircon system. The design had claimed more than a few limbs in its evolution. Sila emptied her kit bag and started throwing everything in without a second thought – screwdrivers, wrenches, chain links, laser cutters – causing the diffuser to make a clattering, ever deepening groaning sound that vibrated its displeasure through the floor. At the bottom was a tub of cleaning alcohol. Yanking off her Haxon standard issue t-shirt, pulling it away from the drenched vest below, she quickly poured it most of the material and held it out like an offering. In her other hand was her lighter – her cigarette habit was proving harder to quit than anticipated – and she clicked it into life, flames jumping down the length of the material as she threw it into the diffuser fan.

Then she ran.

It ignited much faster than she’d anticipated, and she barely had enough time to get behind the protection of the nearest cylinder casing. With an angry phooom, all the air got sucked out of the room as the diffuser heaved into a deep, resonating explosion, and for a few seconds all Sila could hear was deafened silence in the darkness. Her hearing came back with the sprinklers, instantly jetting into action and quickly quenching the fire around her. She jumped to her feet and ran round her protecting diffuser, blinking through the falling water. The internal fan blades had shot out like swords and they seemed to be embedded everywhere, floor, walls and ceiling alike. The side of the cylinder with the access panel had erupted from within, punching a massive hole at its weakest point, but luckily the rest of the structure had withheld the blast. Directly opposite the hole, the detox chamber was now nowhere to be seen. Sila trudged into the workshop room, desperately looking for signs of her friend.

“Frank.” Nothing. “FRANK!” Nothing. “Can you hear me?”

“Uhhhh,” came a reply, buried under a sheet of metal that used to be a tool rack.

Sila dived over and pulled it up, and there was her friend, panting and stretched out on the ground, skin pink like a freshly-boiled lobster, but alive and breathing. His breaths were coming in yanked, deep gasps, his lungs finally filling with air once more. “What the fuck was that, Sila?” Frank’s voice crackled under the effort of his breathing.

“That was me saving your life,” she replied, not an ounce of smugness in her voice.

“No,” he replied, pulling himself slowly to his feet. “That was a trap.”

 

8

He’d punched the wall so hard that a bone was sticking out from a knuckle. He held it up to his face and regarded its shape, peaking like a mountain above his papery skin, not an ounce of blood to be seen.

– – –

They all sat in a circle in the loading bay, Phyliss behind them looking on impassively. Frank and Sila both had towels, wiping down the drenching they’d received twenty minutes earlier. Fe’eldie was splitting her attention between the gathered group and the information on her wrist screen, and Dave had a small electronic panel in his hand, a thin tool in his other hand pressing and poking in different areas. Lisa sat still with her arms crossed, head down, eyes not meeting Jackson’s as he spoke.

“So, this is what we know. One, the ground techs wanted to leave in a hurry and were prepared to become criminals for it to happen. They had a plan. The TM level was a distraction. Two, they rigged the comms array so we couldn’t call for help. They were ready for us to die so their escape couldn’t be interrupted. Three, as Frank’s just found out, they set up at least one trap designed to kill. There may be more.”

He stopped and cleared his throat, trying to get Hubbarb’s face out of his mind.

“We have to focus now and work out how we’re going to get though this. I think, once we get this fucking heat under control and find out what our food resources are, we have to concentrate on repairing and reactivating the comms array. Haxon won’t send a rescue ship for a couple of months past last contact, but if we can just get a message up to Reandre, or even our TC, they could pass it up the chain to get a quicker evac. Luckily, the base seems to still have pressure so…”

“The array is toast, Jackson,” snapped Frank. His skin was still bright pink and looked ridiculous against his ginger beard. The dressing on his arm had slipped off and the flesh on his arm now looked even redder. “We saw it. We could give it a shot but we’d need power lifters just to get the dish off. And it’s all exposed, the hull’s been torn open. There’s no way the seven of us could get that heap working again.”

There was silence in the hangar. Jackson finally leaned forward.

“We don’t have a choice, Frank.” His voice had an edge. “There’s no other way to get some help. And I don’t really want to sit here and slowly starve on emergency rations. Do you?”

Frank grunted, then huffed, but didn’t have any response. Fe’eldie tapped her wrist screen then held it up.

“The computer’s main bank was purged, but Lisa got into the personnel logs through an encrypted backup,” she said. “There’s nothing there that shines any light on why they’d mutiny. Twenty-eight ground techs, all experienced at setting up ExoLander bases. No previous history of mental issues or disciplinary actions.” She stopped for a second, and glanced at Lisa’s still-bowed head. “The base log, though…it’s been wiped clean. The entire record has been deleted without even trying to build a false log. Whatever happened here, they didn’t want anyone to know about it.”

“Fuck me,” muttered Dave. “That’s brilliant.”

“What about the video stream from the rec room?” asked Sila.

Fe’eldie opened her mouth, but there was silence. The words wouldn’t form.

“Fe,” said Sila, “The rec room video logs? Do you have them?”

“It’s wrapped up with the base log,” interrupted Lisa, head finally raised. Her eyes looked dry and tired. “Seems to have been wiped too.”

Jackson leaned back and rubbed his neck. “OK. First things first, we have to confirm our food stores and get this place turned down before we even think about repairing external comms. We already know that the computer terminal can’t adjust the temp modulators from here, but I’m willing to bet they can be reconnected at source. There’s two, and we’ll move in groups to get them checked. Lisa’ll be on the terminal in the office to make sure they light up again her side. I’ll take number one with Sila and Fe? OK. Frank and Dave can check number two.”

He leaned forward in his chair and made eye contact with all of them.

“Stay in contact. Don’t split up. We have no idea if there are any other traps, or what they might even look like, so just stay alert. Based on Frank’s experience, it might be connected to water inlets so watch for enclosed spaces. Any problem, alert the whole team and get your asses back here. Good?”

“What about Hubbarb?” Lisa’s voice was barely above a whisper, but was firm, almost angry. “We can’t just leave him in Phyliss with the rest of them. We should…bury him. Or something.” Her voice drifted off.

It was the first time since the crash that they’d stopped to think about their dead Captain, burnt alive as he tried to save their ship. The heat pressed down the air in their lungs and throats.

Jackson opened his mouth to reply but Frank held up his hand.

“Lisa. I’ll pull out Hubbarb as soon as we get back. We’ll give him a fitting send-off.” He looked around at everyone, then rested his gaze back on Lisa. “So if anyone’s got any whisky stashed, we’ll need it”. They shared the briefest of smiles, then the hangar once again fell into silence.

“OK,” breathed Jackson after a few seconds. “Let’s get started.”

After a beat of silence, the Techs slowly stood up and shuffled into the corridor.

Frank and Dave were the first to reach their assigned temperature modulator. Dave carried a blowtorch and Frank wielded the heaviest wrench he could find. They’d gone south of the docking bay and rec room, past a set of offices and washroom, to the storage area where it was located. A floor to ceiling bank of circuit boards and dials, it had an external extraction fan that funneled spent gases out into the atmosphere beyond. They didn’t take much time in resetting the absurdly high level, like the TerraMorph unit, the dial had been turned right up and connecting wires cut so it couldn’t be remotely changed. Both Techs had more than enough standard space parts in their kit bags to patch it up, eventually receiving confirmation from Lisa that she could control it again.

Jackson, Sila and Fe’eldie were passing the ruined rec room just as this message came though on their shared open comms stream. It was good to actually have some positive news. This time, though, they took the long way round; after what had happened with the trap, neither of them wanted to trudge through the carnage inside.

“How are you two holding up?” Jackson asked. “Did you get hurt in the blast?”

Sila made a noise in her mouth that conveyed her disgust at the whole situation. Jackson swore that her hair colour changed from day to day, mood to mood, sometimes mild coppery red, sometimes London pillarbox, fluctuating like a chameleon. Right now it was dark amber, slick with sweat and oil, grey clothes sodden just like the rest of them. “I’m OK,” she replied. “I don’t like how the dead people are still trying to kill us.”

“Yeah,” sighed Jackson in response. “I hear that. Fe?”

She’d been quiet since the meeting in the hangar, barely taking her eyes off her wrist screen.

“I’m fine,” she said, eyes glassy and shining under the strip lights. “Looking forward to going home.”

Jackson nodded and they walked the next section without talking. The temperature showed no sign of cooling.

“Lisa, can you turn it down yet?” he asked, now thoroughly sick of the river of sweat constantly running down the back of his neck.

“Negative,” she replied from the office. “The three temperature modules represent a connected system. I need them all back online before I can make any changes remotely.”

“OK,” replied Jackson, “We’re nearing number one. Stand by.”

“Copy,” replied Lisa, just as Jackson and Sila came face to face with the welded door. It was a standard corridor divider, not a blast door, so there wasn’t any reason to think that the section beyond may have lost pressure. However, this one did not swish open as all the others had; instead it had been firmly welded shut. Sila took a close look at the seal and ran her finger along its course, frowning as she went.

“It was done quickly,” she said, “And not with a standard welder. The beading’s too thick. Maybe a power sealer, something like that.”

Fe’eldie held up her wrist screen, scanning again.

“Nothing,” she muttered.

Jackson took a deep breath, then open his comms. “Lisa, please confirm that you have no way of resetting the temp without both modules online.” He sounded utterly exasperated.

There was a pause in the other end before Lisa respond. Jackson pictured her, sat in the office, frown rumpling the crimson skin that third-gen Jovians were starting to exhibit, hand forcing her black hair away from her eyes, wondering what the hell was coming.

Finally, she responded. “No, Jackson. Why?”

“We may have a problem,” he said, placing his palm on the door as if feeling for leverage. “We have an internal door welded shut here.”

Welded?” Lisa’s accent made the incredulity even clearer.

“Yeah. Any other route to our section?” He already knew the answer from his brief glimpse of Sila’s screen, but he never ruled out Lisa finding a way.

“Let me check,” came her reply. “No…no. You’re in a bottleneck. You could go round from the outside, but you’d still have to cut your way in, and it would be through the hull. Uh…Jackson? The emergency food storage is next to the temp modulator. It’s all over there.”

That was it, then. Jackson did not want to start cutting through space-resistant material today, but if this door stayed closed, they’d all eventually starve or boil. Sometimes there are choices, he thought to himself, and sometimes there is none.

“OK, thanks Lisa. Dave, Frank, you copy?”

“Yeah.” Dave sounded tired. “We’re both back at the hangar. What do you need?”

“I need you to grab a power cutter and head to my position,” said Jackson. “We’re going to need your help getting something open.”

“Copy that,” said Frank over the comms. “On our way.”

And with that, the three of them sat on the floor with theirs backs against the welded door, and waited.

 

9

Hungry.

– – –

The door slammed inward to the ground in a final shower of sparks, all the Techs apart from Lisa staring into the gloom inside. Sila held the power cutter in her arms with a light shield over her eyes, Frank and Dave almost tumbling in after using their bulk to force the metal open. She flicked off the blue cutting tip and, through the cut frame, the gloomy silence waited.

Fe’eldie opened her wrist screen and flicked on her high beam illuminating the darkness that stretched endlessly down the corridor within. Her heritage meant that, in daylight, her pale skin and blonde hair melted almost into the light itself. Here, though, she seemed to reflect the torchlight even further, blue eyes shining like a cat’s. She took a careful pace in – they’d all just had another lecture about traps from Jackson – and the others slowly followed behind her. Lisa had remained in the office as their eyes and ears, map laid large on her screen.

“Follow the corridor to the end and there’ll be two doors,” she guided. “You’ll want the one on the right.”

They turned and headed in as a group as the door hissed open. Luckily the power running to the doors was still connected, even though the lights were out.

The only noises were their steady footfalls and Lisa’s voice in their ears. “Hundred yards ahead of you there’s a storage chamber, looks like it could be for Exo parts. The temp modulator is at the back, on the left.”

As they entered the chamber, the torch light suddenly widened into the large space around them. Lisa had been right, it was a storage bay for base parts, each of them once belonging to the ExoLander that had brought the ground crew here in the first place. The amount and variation of the parts was almost overwhelming; every stretch and aisle of the shelved units had a myriad of labelled pieces, each waiting to be slotted together like a giant jigsaw. That a massive space-faring vessel could be safely deconstructed in such a way still impressed most Techs, even if its uses had now become so regular to be almost mundane.

They headed to where Lisa had directed, the light from Fe’s beam splitting and slicing between the stacked panels while they walked. A spraying sound now came into their collective hearing, the noise of gentle streaming water, and Frank tensed up automatically as his memory briefly took over his senses. He was not a man who was accustomed to feeling scared like this, and he immediately forced his way in front of Fe’eldie as if to show his inner demons who was really in control. Jackson and Sila joined him, tools raised in readiness, carefully watching the area in front of them for telltale trap triggers.

Rounding a large panel propped up on its side, their feet were met with a damp slapping sound, then they saw it by the light of Fe’s raised torch. Up against the wall, not so far away from the temp modulator, was another detox tank, but this one was closed and full of water. The makeshift pipes running into it, secured with silver tape, had sprung a leak; water trying to force its way into an enclosed unit that was already full. Steam rose from the spray that was gently washing the wall and floor.

Jackson put his arm on Frank as he stepped forward, but it didn’t make a difference. With the Techs looking on and Fe shining her wrist screen light directly at the tank, he walked straight up the glass and peered inside. The water spraying on the floor was clear, but inside the tank it was so cloudy that it completely blocked his view. Taking a deep breath, Frank took one more pace forward and pressed his face up against the glass. He could feel the heat of the water inside, causing his heart to jump in anxiety once again, but he didn’t move his head.

He stayed there and stared, but there was nothing to be seen except white, milky liquid.

Jackson walked over to the temp modulator and quickly reset it, trying to ignore the fact that all both units had been artificially raised high by the ground crew and then cut from central control.

“Lisa,” he said, looking at the rest of the Techs still staring into the detox tank. “I’ve reset the other temp modulator, what do you have your end?”

Lisa’s response came quickly. “I have it, there’re showing as reconnected, trying alteration now…that’s it! We’re on, we’re in. You should feel it kick in pretty quickly.”

They did, and it was glorious. From all around then, fresh cool air jetted in and blasted away the heat from their cheeks. After working so long in clenching humidity, it was a wonderful air bath that none of them wanted to move from. The reduction back to normal temperature was fast and the new air felt like ice on their skin, but no-one complained.

“All right Lisa!” laughed Fe’eldie, eyes closed as the cool air streamed over her face.

Suddenly they could all breathe again and the mood seemed to have also lifted quickly. Dave found the light power supply – they’d just been turned off, not damaged – and in an instant they could all see clearly, blinking around the storage chamber with new eyes. Everyone but Frank moved among the cataloged pieces slotted carefully into their storage racks; he stayed next to the detox tank, angling his head to try and see inside in the new light, but to no avail.

“I’ve never seen a partially disassembled ExoLander,” remarked Jackson. “There’s enough parts here to build a whole damn village.”

“I think that’s the point,” replied Dave. “Two whole damn villages. Wait! Lisa!”

On the comms, slightly panicked: “What? What?”

He had a massive grin on his face, like the kid who woke up to remembering it was Christmas. “You said the food stores are around here, didn’t you! Where are they?”

She paused for a moment before responding from the office. “On the far right of your current position is an exit door, take that and emergency food storage on the second door on your left. First is med.”

He rubbed his hand together in anticipation. “OK. Let’s see what delights we have to feed on!” Usual food ration tins were nothing to write home about, but in the last year Haxon had widened the variety a bit by offering approximations of things like roast beef and confit du canard. They weren’t great, but they certainly weren’t terrible either, and were actually a good match for a hungry belly.

“Sounds like a plan,” said Jackson. “But we’ll have to ration it out until we get a message to Reandre. Twenty-eight of them and seven…six of us, so we should be able to make it stretch for a while. But we all go together. Frank.”

No response.

“Frank.”

He finally took his eyes off the detox tank and turned to Jackson.

“We move together. Let’s go. Fe, we’ll need it all listed.”

“On it,” said Fe’eldie, hand already working her wrist screen.

The Techs followed Dave out of the chamber and into the corridor, resisting the urge to run ahead. Now that the temperature had been fixed, a few of them were starting to realise how hungry they were, and their proximity to the emergency food storage was a well-timed blessing. The rations were designed to be used in the event of the food prep units suffered a total failure. The vats of chemical sludge that slushed into the food preps was inedible in itself, but the machines were able to reconstitute it into a number of surprisingly tasty dishes. If you closed your eyes, the lamb chop and vegetables portion could be the real thing. The emergency food was much heavier as it was directly edible and sealed in vacuum tins, but it was a vital part of every single mission. The food prep machines in the rec room had been destroyed – possibly a result of their own malfunction – but, based on how long the ground crew had been here, there should have been a huge variety of food waiting for them in the storage room.

And that was what every one of the Techs was thinking until they stepped through the door.

It looked like the place had been attacked by knives. Long, jagged slices had been ripped into every can, every container, every sack where there might once have been food. Garbage was everywhere, the Techs clattering empty cans around their feet as they moved into the room, the look of sheer disbelief shared among them all. The storage room was huge but they couldn’t see the floor in any direction due to the amount of open, empty containers littered all around.

And the tins and bags hadn’t been opened carefully or with the appropriate tools. All of their edges were rough and jagged, as if desperately torn open in a frenzy. At the far end of the room were three interconnecting doors to further inside the base, and every one of them was broken open, door panels laying mute on the side.

They split along the rows of steel shelves, totally visible to each other due to their absolute lack of items. Dave picked up a tin and held it close, trying to ignore the stale smell coming from inside. He was going to throw it back, but some detail caught his eye and he held it even closer. His eyes widened.

“This tin,” he stammered, then stopped. “Bite marks. This tin was bitten open.”

The room suddenly got a little colder.

Jackson scanned the room one last time, then made a decision. “That’s it. Everyone. Back to the docking bay. Now.”

The sense of urgency in his voice immediately sparked the fears already building in the rest of the Techs. Dave ran clumsily for the door back to the storage hangar, only to be reminded by Jackson that they had to stay together. Frank, still saying nothing, helped Sila climb with her power cutter over the refuse and Fe’eldie swung her legs over a shelving unit, jumping down right in the doorway. Jackson stayed until they were all out, eyes fixed on the three broken doors at the end of the room as he battled to keep his breathing calm.

Finally, he paced back slowly, before easing out the door and jogging to catch up his friends.

They all moved quickly back to Docking Bay 1, lost in their own thoughts of what they’d just seen. Jackson looked into the office where Lisa sat with her face in her hands, watching them all through split fingers. On catching Jackson’s eye, she gestured quietly that he should come in.

Frank let out a long, loud breath and walked up Phyliss’s collapsed loading ramp into the dark inside. Understanding what was happening, the three watching Techs took a deep breath and followed him in.

Jackson eased into the office. “What? You OK?” He’d never seen a Jovian look so pale before.

Lisa stood up, and offered her seat. He sat, still looking at her for answers. There was a held silence as they looked at each other then checking the other Techs through the glass, she finally spoke.

“Fe and I found something on the logs. The ground crew had wiped them – text logs, audio, video, everything – but…” A pause as she took a breath. “But they didn’t know that everything was backed up on a secondary encrypted Haxon server. We broke in. Everything’s on there, but each file is also individually locked with a separate code key.”

She stopped, scanning his face. What she and Fe’eldie had done had crossed the line from intrusive to downright illegal, and had massive implications if anyone would find out.

Jackson took a breath. “So, you can unlock them.” It wasn’t a question. He’s worked with the two of them long enough to know better.

“I can unlock them,” Lisa murmured, eyes not leaving his. “They take time to unencrypt, so we searched for the rec room video feed first. Jackson, you need to see it.” She was not a woman who shocked easily, but right now she was shaking.

Jackson glanced out the office window to check the other were still inPhyliss. They were. He nodded, and she leant over to press play.

“This is from two weeks before we got here,” she whispered.

To begin with, it was innocent enough. The camera was in the corner above the rear rec room door, pointed down at a diagonal facing the corner of preparation tables and food machines. To the left of the frame was the door into the corridor, and the heads of two ground crew workers were visible at the bottom, eating their meals quietly.

Then the silence was pierced by a yell and something smashed out of frame. The two eaters moved their head simultaneously towards the rear of the room, eyes focussed below the camera. Suddenly, it was hard to tell how many people were in the rec room as a clutch of raised voices burst into a dense cacophony. The two men jumped up, tripping over their chairs, scrambling towards the door. There was screaming, shouting, someone calling orders over the top, but then a sound that cut through it all made Jackson jump.

A scraping, metallic howl tore through the screams, which in turn ascended into the unholiest of disharmonic scrapes. Off-screen there were more thuds, and violent vibrations, and things tore and fell and burst. The tiles above the food prep machines were sprayed with red, then brown, then bodies flung against them before being dragged backwards back out of frame. Finally the scraping sound overtook the screams. A blur of white tore into the closest food prep machine, then, just as the howl became unbearable, the feed fizzed into static.

Jackson found himself rigid in his chair, barely able to breathe, the noise grabbing something inside him.  Tears were silently rolling down Lisa’s purpling cheeks.

“That’s not the food preps malfunctioning,” said Lisa through her tears. “What the hell happened here?”

Jackson didn’t reply. He didn’t have to. Outside the glass, the Techs had dragged out all of the blackened, crisped bodies and piled them next to the exterior airlock, with one exception. Captain Hubbarb’s remains had been placed carefully in the middle of the bay floor and Frank was in the process of draping a single sheet that he’d pulled off a storage container over his friend’s body. The rest of the Techs were gathered round in a circle, eyes either down or staring straight forward.

“Has Fe seen this?”, asked Jackson, still looking through the window.

“No,” murmured Lisa through a broken whisper, “She helped me crack the encryption but the video feed didn’t unlock until you were in the cargo hold. Jackson, we have to tell them. We have to get out of here. Now.”

Jackson thought for a second, fighting to get his heartbeat back under control. His wife’s face popped into his head. He shook it and refocussed.

“No,” he replied. “Look at them. Not now.”

“Jackson,” snapped Lisa, her voice regaining its authority. “They should know what’s going on here.”

We don’t know what’s going on here,” replied Jackson. “You’re right. We have no food and have to leave. So we need everyone to think clearly. Hubbarb was always the one to keep us on track, but he’s gone now. We can’t risk them seeing this. Not yet.”

Lisa was quiet. Jackson stood up and held out his arm.

“Let’s get a plan together,” said Jackson in his low voice, “Then we can deal with this. Maybe one of the ground crew lost their mind. It’s rare, but it’s happened before. Keep chipping away at the logs and we’ll see what they turn up. Come on.”

She looked up and finally stood, linking her arm through his. They left the office together, walking over to join the rest of their friends gathered around Hubbarb. They stood in a silent circle around their Captain and friend.

After a few more still seconds, Jackson spoke up. “Anyone want to say anything?”

Everyone looked at Frank.

He shuffled uncomfortably, then cleared his throat. “Jon Hubbarb had done some terrible things in his life. He’d been a liar, and a cheat. And yet he showed me…us…what it means to turn it all around. He was living proof that, no matter what kind of fix you get yourself into, you always have the means to dig yourself right back out again. He was a great Captain. And a good friend. We’ll miss him.”

Nobody looked at Frank as he wiped an eye.

Jackson felt he should say something, but he was filled with a sudden heavy emptiness. Comms, food, their ship…all of their hope was being destroyed slowly, and whatever had happened in this base had turned the ground crew to mutiny and death. He could feel his shoulders sagging and the fat tears rolling down into his beard. The howls and screams from the video feed was still reverberating inside his head. He just wanted to sit down and give up. That’s it, he thought. That’s it. You won’t see them again. That’s it.

And then Lisa started singing. Quietly, and in her uniquely aerial accent, she sang a song that all of them knew; it was actually a drinking song that the engineers on Europa used to bellow out over jugs of Jovian-brewed beer before embarking on a long trip off base, but none of them had ever heard it sung with so much fragility. They all stood and listened as Lisa sang over the body of her fallen friend, the notes lifting up to fill the whole space:

Where is my home?

It’s in the stars.

Calling me gently

Into your arms.

Where is my love?

It’s up above

Calling me gently

Into your arms.

Oh let me see

By this red light

All your secrets

And hold me tight

Where is my home?

It’s in the stars

Oh call me gently

Into your arms

Oh let me see

Just by your grace

One last sunrise

On your face

Oh take me home,

It’s in the stars

Calling me gently

Into your arms

Where is my home?

It’s in the stars.

Oh, call me gently

Into your arms.

 

10

The heaving in his chest today sounded like a rattling toolbox, every forced lung movement another shake of the tin. His eyes were affected too, today; light and sound shaping things equally. It made him sick to his stomach.

– – –

Sila lowered the fire door again and they both removed their air masks. Jackson looked defeated.

“Told you,” she said. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”

The comms array was in even worse a state than he’d imagined, even after Frank’s continued insistence that it was beyond repair. Not only had the explosive charge torn open the inner workings of the tower, but the falling dish seemed to have sliced it neatly in two for a full half of its width. And then, just to add to the chaos, the hull had been sheared wide open and there was no barrier to keep out Vehrion’s acidic atmosphere. Even a full crew with pressure suits and heavy construction gear would take weeks clearing it out, let alone patching up whatever was left.

It was a lost cause, and he knew it.

What he didn’t want to say out loud, or even think about, was how fucked they now were. Getting a signal off this planet was the only thing that could expedite a recovery, but even then they’d have to closely ration the emergency food supplies just to make it through. Without the food, well, that was it. They’d starve before anyone even missed them. And even beyond that thought lingered something even more terrifying to contemplate; whatever had eaten the food had done so quickly and violently, like a razorwire storm ripping though the cans and containers. The noise on the video feed washed over him again.

“Jackson!” Sila was shouting directly at him impatiently.

“What?” he mumbled.

“I said, what now?” She waited for an answer, and Jackson felt the weight of assumed leadership leaning on him. It was the last thing he’d wanted. He had no answer for her, so he didn’t give one. He just shrugged, and walked with leaden feet back to the docking bay, Sila stomping behind in frustration.

The others were just finishing up using the washrooms in the sleeping quarters. It had been Fe’eldie’s idea to hunt down some clean Haxon clothes and shower off the day’s grime, maybe get a fresh perspective in the process. They’d found a stack of unopened clothes near the cleaning units and had showered in two groups, one getting clean while the other stood guard outside. Jackson and Sila had gone first so as to check on the comms situation while the others freshened up, and now they were all getting back to the docking bay together. Lisa used the control panel in the office to lock the closest working interior door behind them.

After they’d taken Hubbarb and the rest of the bodies outside, laying them quickly on the ground so as to not use up too much of their oxygen packs, Fe’eldie had run another base-wide life sign scan, but once again the Techs were the only ones who returned heat signatures. Everyone was getting paranoid that the missing members of the ground crew would suddenly burst in and kill everyone, but Fe’s repeated negative scan kept them calm for now. And if they had been hiding outside, and had somehow not suffocated by now, then they’d find the exterior doors impossible to enter through Lisa’s newly-engineered software locks.

The showers had helped a little, if only to remove the layers of sweat from earlier in the day, and the fresh Haxon grey fatigues had made this effect a little more pronounced. Inside, though, they all shared the same realisation: that the total lack of comms and the disappearance of the emergency rations meant a long, slow, but certain death.

Almost everyone was sat in the office with Lisa passing round an unlabeled bottle of something clear, and this was passed to Jackson and Sila as they joined them. They could guess what it was from the looks on their friends’ faces whenever they took a swig; it was strictly against rules to drink during a contract, but Jackson figured those rules didn’t apply any more. He took a long, deep drink and gasped as his throat briefly flared before the warmth seeped into his stomach and joints.

“Exhiliosian root wine,” he said, “I’d put money on it. Rough as hell.” He took another swig.

“Well, at least we can drink ourselves to death before we starve,” said Lisa, reaching out for the bottle.

“So,” huffed Jackson as he turned to Frank, “You were right. Comms is a bust”.

“Yeah. I know.” Frank took the bottle and downed another shot. Jackson felt his cheeks flush. He turned his gaze out of the window as Frank spoke again. “Any bright ideas?”

“Honestly?” replied Jackson, snatching back the bottle. “This stuff is about the best idea I’ve got right now.” Swig. Grimace. The warmth was stating to turn into sleep, creeping up his neck. A nagging feeling told him it wasn’t a good moment to be losing focus, but he reckoned he could drink that fucking feeling away pretty quickly.

Fe had flushed, pink spots blooming on her normally pale cheeks. “Any more bottles of this?”

“One more,” replied Frank.

“Huh,” she said. “I guess we’d better drink up before Dave gets here then.”

“Where is Dave?” asked Jackson, suddenly realising they weren’t all there.  A panic instinct surged up through the heat of the wine, tapping his heart into sudden action.

“Relax,” said Lisa, seeing his reaction. “He’s pissing around inPhyliss. Mourning her passing too.” She wasn’t totally joking.

Jackson glanced to his right and saw Dave through the shattered cockpit window, talking quickly to each other. He suddenly felt sorry for him. He felt sorry for all of them. They’d tried everything and come up blank, and now they were all sharing the steady plunge into alcohol that always waits for the desperate. Maybe they could finish the second bottle and just stroll out onto the Vehrion wastes; take charge of their own deaths and not let hunger or madness take them.

Now that was a plan. He turned back to the group, all of them deflated, took another swig, and tried to find the words. Just at that moment Dave slammed into the office glass with a wild look in his eyes, scaring all of them.

“You lot!” he yelled. “Stop drinking that shit and get your arses out here! Come on!” He had ribbons of wires hung over both hands, face filled with a wry smile. The rest of them usually took great pleasure at ripping into his strong British accent, but no-one felt like laughing.

They all piled out, slightly wobbly after the wine but energised by Dave’s insistence. He led them to Phyliss, then inside, up the ramp, through the hold and into the control corridor where they all squeezed in like sardines. He pushed to the front and leaned under the nav console, holding up two exposed wires. Between the wires was a small box with a single unlit lamp in its middle.

Dave then held up the two wire ends and caught their eyes.

“Watch this!”, he whispered, and touched the exposed wires on the silver sides of the box at the same time.

The light blinked on.

“HAHAHAHA!” he yelled. “What did I tell you! Look! Look!”

The rest of the Techs remained silent. Jackson eventually broke the deadlock.

“Look, Dave…what are we seeing here? Does Phyliss have some…residual battery power…or…?” He tried – and failed – to not sound unimpressed.

Battery power?”, frowned Dave, “Oh, no. She has no power at all.”

Frank was losing patience. “So what is this?”

Dave leaned in, the single lamp in the cabin lighting his shining smile from below.

“It’s Phyliss,” he whispered. “She’s alive.”

Sila’s heart skipped. “What are you testing, there? What does that light mean?”

Dave responded, beaming. “It means that her motherboard still carries a complete signal through her entire system. It means that, if you plugged it into another ship, she’d fly!”

“I’m not sure if you’ve noticed,” growled Lisa, “but we don’t haveanother ship.”

“We don’t need one!” he grinned. “Phyliss’ shell is broken but her structure’s still sound. We’re surrounded by a base full of parts. Let’s fix her up!”

The silence from everyone showed their surprise.

“Look,” Jackson said, “How the hell are we meant to refit a SubAt and ensure that it’s spaceworthy? It would take a team of Techs to do that in a fully equipped yard.”

“We are a team of Techs!”, replied Dave. “We work together. Take what we need from the base storage. We only need to get her up to the TC then we’re home free. We have a working crane here, a hangar to work in and the welding tools we need. We can do this! It can be done!”

“You’re a fucking lunatic, Dave,” growled Frank.

Jackson interrupted. “Maybe,” he said, now pushing the warmth of the wine away, “But at least it’s something. And even if we fuck it up and destroy ourselves in the process, we were all going to die here anyway.”

His bluntness sobered everyone up instantly. Not now, he reminded himself. Not yet. Lisa caught his gaze.

Jackson stood up and Dave instantly straightened. “Might as well go out trying to do something, rather than just get pissed.” He looked at Frank, then at Dave. “We’re going to need a list. All the things that are wrong, and all the things we need to fix them.”

He paused, but no-one offered any objection.

“Let’s give this a shot.”

 

11

The long days – or were they nights? – stretched out before him as he roamed the floors. Unfamiliar smells were everywhere, sometimes attracting him, sometimes driving him away in disgust. He wished he knew what he was looking for.

– – –

It was Frank that heard it first, gently echoing through the docking bay while they all slept. He’d been dreaming of falling, but horizontally, scraping the ground in the rush forward, but the noise dragged him out quickly.

Tink. Tink. Tink.

It had been Sila’s suggestion that they all should get some sleep before looking at Phyliss’ problems in any great detail. It was hard to tell day and night when on a different planet, so the Techs had to take responsibility for allocating a sleep period after fourteen hours of work. They hadn’t been here that long, but it felt it, and the idea of sleep was grabbed without any objection. Lisa rechecked the software locks on both the internal and external doors and they each found a quiet corner of the hangar.

Tink. Tink. Tink.

Frank felt like he’d been pulled up by the chest and woke to find himself already sitting up, heart pounding in his ears. It took a few seconds for him to remember where he was – docking bay, Phyliss, other Techs widely scattered around him deep in sleep – and it was then that the noise cut through his thoughts. Eyes wide as memory battered reality, he jumped up and twirled on the spot, trying to determine where the noise was coming from.

Tink.

He forced himself to breathe and lent back to open his chest. His surging adrenaline was causing his heart to drown out any other noise.

Tink. Tink tink.

It was coming from his right, towards the office. Without moving, he scanned his immediate vicinity to find the hardest, bluntest object that he could carry, but there was only a mop and bucket so he just went without. He looked for Fe’eldie and crept towards her, being careful to place his footfalls silently.

Tink tink. Tink tink.

He loomed over Fe and suddenly didn’t know how to wake her without giving her a heart attack. In the end he leaned close to her sleeping head and whispered.

“Fe…”

Before he knew it, he was on his back with her astride him, one arm across his neck, the other drawn back ready to strike. The look in her eyes changed just before she brought the fist down.

“What the holy fuck are you doing, Frank?” she growled. “I was about to fucking smash you.”

“Fe,” said Frank again, quietly. “Listen.”

She relaxed her hold on him and listened. There was nothing, and she opened her mouth to tell him so, until it rang out once again.

Tink tink tink tink tink.

“What the fuck is that?” she asked, wide-eyed, head turning towards the office.

“That’s the noise I heard coming from the detox tank that trapped me,” he whispered. “It’s exactly the same sound.”

She pushed him off and went straight to her wrist screen, flicking it on and thumbing a now-familiar sequence of commands. Seconds later, she raised her head.

“Still negative. Still just us.”

Tink.

Frank turned again and walked slowly to the office, Fe still standing on the spot where she had slept. He cocked his ears left and right, trying to pin the noise down.

Tink. Tink. Tink.

It was on his right, away from the office, into the internal corridor that still stood open after Sila’s earlier door removal procedure.

Tink.

Being in the corridor amplified the sound further and Frank knew then where it was coming from. Slowly, silently, he walked up to the next closed internal door that was still locked with Lisa’s software command.

He waited, then placed his ear right up against the cold metal of the door.

Tink.

From right next to his head.

The sound of Fe’s wrist screen was behind him now and he turned to see Jackson with her, scratching the sleep out of his eyes. She was holding her screen directly at the internal door, tapping another scan. She finished and looked at Jackson.

“There’s nothing there.”

They waited for five minutes in silence without hearing the noise again. Eventually, they all returned to the hangar to find all the Techs sat around waiting for them.

“What is it?” asked Sila.

“I don’t know,” replied Frank. “I heard something tapping.”

“Another trap?” Sila’s face had paled a little. Frank wasn’t the only one that had been haunted by the detox chamber.

“Not sure. Maybe.”

Jackson had walked straight to the piles of tools they’d stockpiled and pulled out the power cutter. Slinging the heavy battery pack on his back, he sprung open the two pincer-like charged ends and fired up the cutting tip that met between them. It flared yellow, then red, before finally settling into a solid blue jet.

“Lisa,” he called, striding back past the office towards the corridor, “Open it.”

She paused for a second, then ran to her console inside and started tapping on the keyboard without even sitting down. Frank and Dave looked at each other then both grabbed crowbars before running after Jackson. Sila followed suit with a metal bar that was laying on the floor near her and Fe’eldie hung back at the corridor entrance, hand on her screen.

By this point Jackson was inches away from the closed internal door, blue flame tearing in the air, with Frank and Dave flanking him, crowbars raised in readiness.

“Lisa?” he called. He was angry and impatient. It felt like all his building hopelessness and frustration finally had a target.

“Opening now,” she replied through the comms, and at that second the seal hissed and the door slid open.

There was nothing inside. The corridor that led further into the base remained as it had been earlier without any sign of interruption.

Dave swallowed. “Fe”, he called, “Scan please”. She was already half way through, drills now silent on the floor by her feet.

“Nothing. Just us.” Her answer surprised nobody at this point.

Jackson thought for a second, then took a tentative step past the open door. The cutter continued to whirr as he inched down, checking each side room along the way. The rec room was no different. He knocked off the power cutter’s flame and walked back along the corridor. The door slid closed behind him, dull beep sounding Lisa’s lock reactivation.

“Dave,” he said, although he was speaking to everyone now, “I need that list as quickly as you can give it to me.”

“Copy that,” he replied before running back to Phyliss in the docking bay. The rest of the Techs followed behind, returning their grabbed tools to the pile before making themselves available for the systems check.

Only Jackson stayed behind at the entrance to the corridor, realising Lisa was watching him through the window, knowing that they both had the metallic screeching sound from the rec room recording still scraping through their minds.

Dave ended up sending the rest of the Techs back into the office to relax for a while. They had the best of intensions but, with almost intimate knowledge of that ship, it was only slowing them down. His muscles complained as he lifted his arms up into the underside of the flight console, but he could ignore the ache. He was flat on his back, legs hanging over the edge of the flight deck steps, trying to get a read on the navigation control circuits. They weren’t integral, but they sure helped when it came to not flying into a mountain.

“Hey Dave,” he he mumbled to himself, “How do you feel about flying without Nav?”

He smiled under the console at how very ridiculous this was becoming.

The Nav controls didn’t respond to another check and he cursed under his breath. His father had taught him some decent swear words from a very early age, much to the chagrin of his mother. Dad’s attitude was similar to French people teaching their kids about drinking wine – if you start early enough, it doesn’t become anything special and you eventually engage with it with beautiful eloquence. He’d been a land Tech, disappearing for months on end before returning with bags of presents and more than a few inappropriate drinking songs, sweeping Dave up onto his shoulders and leaping around for hours on end. Even though his father had been away for most of each year, he didn’t feel that their relationship had suffered; in fact it was the opposite, the dual memories of his Tech Dad and teacher Mom framing a very happy childhood. They’d paid for his Tech education and he was constantly grateful.

“OK,” he huffed as the connection signal failed for a third time, giving the Nav panel the finger as he slid out. He decided that he’d just control the thrusters himself, if he could get them reconnected.

He flipped open the panels on the command console and heaved them out, snapping away the blackened connecting wires, plugging his reader into the untouched circuit board behind. It stayed blank.

Kneeling down in the hold, he opened one of the bottom access hatches to revealing a spiderweb of cables running into the rear left pairing thruster. In his mind, he’d worked out the bare minimum of requirements that it would take to get Phyliss back up to their orbiting TC, and having the ground maneuverability of the four mini thrusters was vital to them getting airborne.

He used the pliers in his right hand to strip way the broken feeder tubes before searching through the wall of replacement cables draped over his left arm, finding exactly what he needed after a few seconds. Laying the rest of the cables on the ground, he eased himself down, plugged one end into the board control and the other into the thruster.

He craned his head to look over his shoulder and saw a small green light from the reader in the control panel.

Dave smiled with satisfaction but soon shook his head a little; reinstating thruster control was one thing, getting each one linked up to a fuel source was quite another. Still, first things first.

He moved to the other thrusters and reattached the control cables, lighting up three green lights one by one on the control console reader. Three’s better than nothing, he reminded himself. At leastPhyliss had crashed upside down. Not much to smash on the roof.

Dave rubbed the back of his neck. Having three thrusters was a good result, but he ignored the urge to sit down. “Hull integrity,” he muttered to himself, before climbing through the upper hatch and onto the roof.

 

12

What was that? Over there. What was that?

– – –

An hour later, Dave walked together down Phyliss’ loading ramp and across the bay into the office, eyes red and shoulders hunched after checking every inch of their SubAt. Frank was snoring in a chair, feet outstretched, filling the small room with grunts. Lisa and Fe’eldie were both engrossed in the main computer terminal, still digging away at the files. Sila was curled up in a ball in a corner, breathing deep and rhythmical, and Jackson was sat on the far desk going through reams of print-outs.

Seeing Dave enter, Jackson shook Frank and called Sila’s name, Lisa and Fe’eldie turning their back on the computer for once to hear the report. There was a heavy moment of silence as the pilot stood in front of them, screens in hand.

“Well,” started Dave, the weariness stretching his voice low, “It ain’t pretty. But you knew that already.”

“Just tell us,” yawned Frank. “Are we done?”

“Well,” sighed Dave, “Phyliss is in a bad way, but you knew that already. But I have identified a list of possible fixes to make her fly again.”

“How bad?” asked Sila. “How bad is she?”

Dave paused, taking them all in. He held up his screen and took a breath.

“The motherboard’s still good, that’s the main thing. Three pairing thrusters are responding to commands and the main pneumatic tank didn’t burst.” He stopped, looking up to try and give them the sense of comfort, but it didn’t work.

“OK,” he sighed. “OK. Both main thrusters are offline, one is totally detached and I don’t think it’s saveable due to crash damage. The remaining one is still connected, so it might be. No Nav control, life support is there but at 10% functionality, both inner and outer hull seams have burst. Fuel belt’s gone and taken most of the fuel lines with it.

The mechanical back-up flight controls are responding, but they’re all metal and gears. Without Nav it’ll have to be all done by sight. AntiGrav is wrecked, but the inertia dampeners still have some charge which I think I can boost to cover the whole ship. For a while anyway.”

He stopped and scanned the rest of his report. No-one said anything.

“Yeah, and the cockpit glass is shattered, the left wing has a broken radial flap and there’s no response from docking control at all.” He stopped and slowly looked up, a little scared of what he’d see.

All eyes were on him. Frank raised one eyebrow. “Is that it?”

“Yeah,” replied Dave, “That’s it, I think.”

There was a further beat of silence before Lisa said what they were all thinking.

“Is any of that fixable, Dave? What are our chances, really?” She looked like she wanted to sleep.

Dave cleared his throat.

“Well…OK. OK. Here’s the sequence we’ll need to work through if we’ve got any chance of getting up to our TC. First we’ll need to lift her up using the remaining pairing thrusters so we can clear the external bay door. Like I said, docking presets are burnt out so it’ll have to be a manual burn and maneuver. Once we’re out, we’ll push the front thruster on full which will hopefully tip her nose up. At that point we’ll throw on at least one main thruster – which will just be enough to break Vehrion’s gravity – and burn up to the TC in orbit. Of course, we’ll have to make sure both the internal and external hull seals are fully patched and secure and that the inertia dampeners are working enough to stop us…imploding.”

He swallowed hard and didn’t catch anyone’s eye.

“Once we’re close, Phyliss’ motherboard has a transmitter that will hopefully trip the docking door and we’ll use the pairing thrusters to…gently… to gently touch down in our landing bay. The TC should reset the door and equalise the pressure once we’re inside.”

He stopped, and lowered his screen. He was met with a few pained beats of silence.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” said Frank, finally. “Take off, slip into orbit and land in our TC without Nav or full thrusters on a ship that may or may not fall apart in the process?”

Dave raised his head and looked him in the eye. “Yes,” he said.

“Well OK then!” laughed Frank, unable to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

“Do you have a better plan, Frank?” Sila’s voice was ice.

His laughter fell into a chuckle before disappearing altogether.

Jackson turned on his chair to face Dave. “What do you need to make this happen?”

Dave spoke up after a beat. “We’re in an ExoLander. This whole base is basically spare parts. We go into the base and see what they have, take what we need.”

Lisa glanced at Jackson. He stayed silent.

“ExoLanders are huge, heavy ships,” said Fe’eldie, “Won’t all their parts be too much for Phyliss?”

“The storage room we were in earlier has hundreds of panels, all different weights and thicknesses,” Dave replied. “The ExoLander has to build internal structures too, there must be some thinner pieces here that we could use. We’ve got a power cutter and welder in working order, along with a heavy-duty crane that we already know can take Phyliss’ weight. We must be able to fix her up to some degree.”

There was an edge of desperation in his voice that summed up the mood in the office perfectly: they were all going to die, right here, millions of miles from their loved ones, and this was their last hope. It didn’t need an agreement, or vote; at that instant, this was it – their one and only option to get out of the base and fly away home.

10

He bit off his finger and crunched the bone between chipped teeth. It tasted of dust and glass.

– – –

The whirr of the cargo trolley increased in volume as it got nearer the storage hold, finally trundling through the main door and hissing to a stop. It was a standard loader they’d found stored in the docking bay, nothing more than a rectangular metal box hovering on a strong electromagnetic field with a thick bar as a steering column along the back. Dave and Frank took their hand off the column and Jackson came round from the back, power cutter fizzing its point in front of him. Fe’eldie, coming up the rear, had just run another negative lifesign scan but was already in the process of running another. Wrapped around her, from right shoulder to left hip, was a leather strap holding the kind of small axe used to break open structures in the event of a fire; single-edged with a blunt top.

Dave walked ahead, holding up his screen and pointing off orders –two of these, five of those, yeah, that’ll do – with the rest of them stacking the panels as they went onto the loader. For a second it felt to Fe like they were students shopping together and she let herself smile at the sheer ridiculousness of it all.

The cargo trolley was already heaving when they got to the back of the storage hold, Dave making checks against their requisitions before they had to head back. There, standing passively and milky-white, was the filled detox tank still leaking gently onto the floor around them. It was an uncomfortable presence; not just for Frank now, who’d been in a similar trap’s clutches, but for all of them. It was the physical embodiment of the blunt nagging feeling that was growing in most of them – that something here was very, very wrong.

Jackson and Lisa believed this more than any of them.

In the panic of their first few hours here, none of them had allowed themselves to stop and think about the detox tank’s implications, but as time drew on, they were arriving at conclusions that were becoming hard to shake. They’d all assumed that the traps had been for them, some kind of sick legacy from a bunch of ground crew that wanted them to die horribly. But now, doubts were forming; what if they hadn’t been for them after all?

Frank left the trolley and walked over again to stare into the cloudy water, but there was still nothing to be seen. The heat, now the base’s temperature was back to cooler levels, was radiating off the glass in wafts of steam winding up to the chamber’s roof. Frank lowered his hand to the leaking puddle and drew it away quickly, fighting down a flashing memory that made his lungs squeeze.

“Why is it hot?” He said to himself, then in a slight moment of clarity he repeated it for the watching group. “Why is the water so hot?”

“They wanted to drown us?” replied Dave, not really believing his own answer.

“But why with hot water?” He was staring back into the detox chamber. “Look, the cabling runs back to the water supply and the hot intake’s been cut out. The cold’s still there. The trap that got me was the same. Searing hot. Any water would’ve been enough, and the cold supply usually has a faster stream. It doesn’t make sense.” Frank stopped, unsure of anything else to say.

“You mean like the base temperature?” murmured Fe’eldie. “The base was too hot too. We never worked out why they set it that way.”

“Maybe they were just cold,” mumbled Frank dourly.

“Maybe,” interrupted Jackson. Thick dark bags were forming under his eyes. “The sooner we get out of here, the better. Come on, let’s get this back to the hangar.”

He rotated the cargo trolley around it began its journey back the way they’d come, Frank and Dave once again taking the steering bar so he could walk in front, cutting blade fizzing through the air in readiness.

They got back to the docking bay without incident and breathed a collective sigh of relief as Lisa sealed the door behind them from the office. As they walked in, they were greeted by the sight of Phylisswinched high into the air, loading crane holding her steady with its two think linked chains. There was a shower of sparks falling from her roof onto the ground below from Sila’s power welder. Dave eased the heaving cargo trolley closer to the ship and turned back to the rest of them.

“We’ll stack this here,” he called over the noise, “Then go back and get the rest.”

“The rest?” Frank was ready to rest now.

Dave looked at him a little puzzled. “This is about half of the panels we need,” he said. “Before we get the fuel belt from engineering.”

Frank stood and stared for a second, slightly open-mouthed.

“Fuck me, Dave,” he growled. “Are you doing this on purpose?”

Dave turned and wiped his brow, eyes reduced to slits. “What?” He couldn’t keep the incredulity from his voice.

“Shut up and unload the panels, Frank,” shouted Sila from the top ofPhyliss, “I’m ready to weld them on.”

“Well maybe you could get down here and FUCKING HELP THEN SILA.” Frank threw the panel he was holding on the floor as his voice peaked.

“Frank, calm the fuck down,” snapped Jackson as he came round the trolley, “Let’s get this done. We need to patch up the ship as quickly as possible. Stop fucking around.”

Frank twisted round and took a step towards him. Their faces were close enough for Lisa to come out of the office towards them. Sila put down her welder and slid down the wing onto the ground.

“Guys.” Dave had one arm out stretched towards them. “Guys. Come on.”

Frank ignored him. “And who the fuck put you in charge, Jackson?” he spat. “In case you haven’t noticed, our Captain died trying to keep us alive. We have no Captain now. You don’t get to decide what’s best.” A jab in the chest. Jackson didn’t move. “And you don’t get to tell me what to fucking do. You understand me?”

Jackson’s jaw clenched. Suddenly Lisa was by their side.

“Frank, please,” she said urgently, “We have to fix the ship now.”

“I know that thanks Lisa, we’re out of food, I get it,” snapped Frank in response.

Lisa’s eyes widened. She couldn’t control the fear bursting into her voice. “No, Frank, no. You don’t understand. There’s…Frank, there’s…” Her voice broke away.

Sila came round to Lisa. “Lisa, what is it?” she asked quietly. “What’s wrong?”

Lisa looked up at Jackson, eyes streaming tears. “You have to tell them,” she whispered.

There was absolute silence in the docking bay for a beat, then Frank spoke up.

“Tell us what, Jackson?” His voice had the most threatening promise than any of them they’d ever heard.

“There was something on the video feed, wasn’t there?” said Fe’eldie, eyes wide.

Jackson finally stepped back, rubbing his temples. “We found the rec room video. Something killed the ground crew. Some of them, anyway. Made a scream, like a howl. Couldn’t exactly see what it was. It might have been one of them gone crazy. Attacked the ground crew then destroyed all the food.” He didn’t make eye contact with any of them.

“When did you find out about this?” Sila’s low accusation in her voice made him look up.

“Earlier. When you were getting out Hubbarb,” Jackson said quietly.

Dave shifted on his feet. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

Jackson couldn’t answer, though, on account of Frank’s fist sending him backwards, tumbling hard over a stack of storage crates.

He left an arc of blood from his nose that Frank proceeded to jump through as he aimed for Jackson’s chest. He hit the floor instead though, Jackson rolling to his side just in time before jumping up and raising his fists. He hit Frank hard in the ribs, causing him to yelp and swear before scrambling up to his feet again.

“STOP!” yelled Lisa desperately, knowing full well they wouldn’t.

Frank manage to duck round Jackson’s next swing and throw his thick arm around his neck, both of them falling to the ground and he squeezed the air out. Jackson’s eyes bulged as he jabbed his elbows back desperately into Frank’s stomach, but his strength was leaving him too quickly. The lights started dimming.

Then the world turned to white dust as Sila sprayed a fire extinguisher right in their faces.

They rolled apart, coughing desperately in an effort to clear their mouths. They then lay like two gasping fish on the docking bay floor with Sila stood over them. Jackson’s nose was a streaming red lump, and Frank had both hands clutched to one side, groaning,

“Have you two fucking idiots finished?” she snapped furiously, fire extinguisher swinging by her side, hair flaring on her shoulders.“Because we have a fucking job to do so I think we’d all appreciate it if you stopped comparing dick size and get fucking involved.”

Jackson staggered to his feet and sat heavily on the nearest cargo crate, wiping at his nose. Frank heaved himself to his feet and took two paces away towards Phyliss.

“I didn’t want you to see it,” said Jackson through the blood. “I didn’t want anyone to see it. You would have given up.”

“We’re grown-ups,” murmured Sila, “We could have taken it. You did.”

“Ha,” he replied dismissively. He wasn’t so sure.

“Whatever it was,” whispered Lisa, “It killed them all so quickly. And it screamed. It howled…” Her voice cracked and faded. Fe’eldie put her arm around her shoulders.

There was silence in the docking bay. Eight pairs of eyes all on the ground. It was Frank who finally broke it.

“This bullshit has gone on too long. Whatever you saw, I don’t need to see it to know that I want to get the fuck away from here as soon as possible.” His eyes met Jackson’s as he finished speaking.

After a beat, Jackson stood, pulled off a piece of ship from the cargo trolley, and placed it next to Phyliss. The others watched then, one by one, they did the same.

They laid them in order of size and thickness along the ground; it took almost an hour to categorize and place them where they were needed around the dangling ship. As they did this, Dave and Sila started cutting the pieces to the required size, some as long as their arms, some as small as a fist, before attaching them to Phyliss’ hull in further showers of sparks. It was a long, slow and hot few hours that stretched into the end of their day, but there was no mention of sleep this time.

Wiping the sweat from his brow, and not wanting to stop for fear of losing his momentum, Frank grabbed the empty cargo trolley the second the final piece had been removed. Seeing his move to go back, Dave grabbed his screen and jumped down, joining him on the steering column with Jackson following behind, power cutter once again slung on his back. Fe’eldie was on top on Phyliss holding a panel in place for Sila’s lit welder; she looked around for her axe but Jackson held up a hand that told her to stay.

 

13

The colours on the wall were moving now, swimming like melted pools of shade right in front of his eyes. Some of the colours burned.

– – –

Frank and Dave hadn’t waited, anxious to get the second set of panels from the storage hangar. Easing off the trolley brakes, they pushed hard and trotted down the corridors, scraping around the corners as they went. The door that had previously been welded shut was causing some problems as it still had a lip of cut metal that jutted out; on the first run, they’d had to gentle ease the trolley though, but this time it crashed into the rim and vibrated loudly, but continued on the other side. Going near the emergency food store wasn’t doing any of their appetites any favours. They’d now stopped joking about the rumbling noises coming from their empty bellies.

They finally shot into the storage room and Dave ran straight to the first aisle, reeling off the list of needed panels. There was nothing of their calm and careful movements this time, the three men pulling off what they needed and throwing it on the trolley with clattering urgency. Once again they worked their way down to the filled detox tank, and once again Frank’s neck went cold at being in its proximity. He hated that thing now. It stared. He’d like to take the power cutter off Jackson’s back and slice it into nothingness.

Eventually, the final panel thudded onto the trolley and Dave put his screen away, ignoring the screaming muscles in his shoulders as he gripped the steering column once more. They eased it into the hallway – no way could they run with it now, it was loaded up to the ceiling – and began the trek back to the loading bay.

Lisa’s voice crackled over their voice comms. “Jackson? You there?”

Jackson killed his cutter flame and pressed his comm. “Yeah, I’m here. You good?”

“Yeah, fine,” came her reply, “Fe’s taken a look at the base layout. Have you passed the rec room yet?”

“Not yet,” he replied, “Trolley’s being a little antsy. Just managed to squeeze it through the midpoint door.”

“OK good,” she said. “She’s located Engineering and its inventory is showing a charged power belt. It’s in the section on the other side of the rec room, can you grab it on your way back? She says you’ll be able to carry it.”

“OK,” he replied, “I’ve carried a power belt before. We’re getting close to the rec room so I’ll grab it.”

A few minutes later, the trolley hummed up to the rec room door and came to a steady stop as it hissed open. The destruction inside hadn’t changed but the smell was much worse, the rotten sludge now seeping along the walls and floor. Dave and Frank leant over the steering block while Jackson unbuckled the power cutter and laid it on the floor, each of them happy for the opportunity to rest their muscles for a second.

“The power belt is apparently in the engineering hold out the back,” he said, pointing out the far door to Jackson and Dave in the open doorway. “Dave, take the trolley back and get on with the repairs. You should be able to push it. I’ll dive in and grab the belt. Frank, just…keep an open eye on the corridors, OK? I’ll stay in your sight line as much as possible.”

Frank nodded and eased inside the rec room. Dave heaved his weight into the steering block of the trolley, slowly moving down the short distance back to the docking bay. Jackson started walking carefully between the upturned tables and chairs, trying not to step in the brown sludge but unable to completely escape it. He took another look at the food prep machines, at how they’re been totally broken open, their unprocessed chemical slime seeping onto the floor. His mind suddenly jumped to the video feed Lisa had unearthed, the deep metallic screech still ranging in his ears, and looked back at Frank for reassurance. He was stood like a guard, eyes wide and focussed forward on him and the room ahead.

The rec room wasn’t that big to begin with and the clutter just made it feel even more cramped. As he neared the rear entrance to the engineering storage area, Jackson had to climb sideways over a table just to get through the door. Just inside, a metal rack was lying diagonally across the doorway, causing him to go flat underneath before popping out the other side.

“You good, Jackson?” yelled Frank from the other room’s doorway.

“Yeah,” he replied, “I’m in.”

The light here was dimmer than in the main room but he still had good visibility. Across the room, on a workbench at the back, lay a power belt charging quietly. Its crystalline structure was light but offered immense energy storage so efficient that a small ship could travel for days with four or five of them. As it stood, one belt wouldn’t last much past a few trips into orbit, but they didn’t need it to.

He took a second to visually scan the room, not just for dangers, but for anything else that might be useful. On his left was a white plastic sack tucked next to a closed box. Maybe laundry. Next to it was another shelving unit, filled with pull-out transparent drawers of screw, bolts, and pins of various sizes. He made a mental note to tell Dave in case he needed any. The workbench in the middle of the room had a circular saw and drill mount and then to the right were two more closed storage boxes. It wasn’t worth prising them open; if Dave had found the power belt on the inventory, then he must know what else is in here and decided he didn’t need it.

The rank smell from the rec room seemed to condense in here and it was awful. Jackson didn’t really want to spend much more time looking around.

“I see the power belt,” he yelled. “Retrieving it now.”

He walked round the workbench to the charging power belt and unplugged it from the wall socket. It seemed in very good shape. They were so called because their internal structure held a constantly oscillating seam of charged carbon weave, but on the outside it was just a slightly large, cumbersome box. He picked it up and lodged it under one arm.

As he turned to leave, the first thing he saw was that the white laundry sack was pulsing. The world closed in around him as he watched, frozen, while it shook and shivered and grew. In the dull light he could see a ridge forming across the top, raised lumps pushing under the shining surface. They stretched and pulled and straightened and raised until he realised the bag was slowing stretching upwards.

He pushed feeling back into his legs. It was time to leave.

Resisting the urge to yell and scream and run, he carefully retraced his steps past the workbench, edging ever nearer to the collapsed shelving unit, the pulsing bag so close to the exit that he’d have to pass right by it. As he got closer, he could see that what he’d thought was plastic cloth was in fact something more rubbery and fluid, stretching and twisting as the ridges pulled the sack higher and higher. As he turned to the blockage in the doorway, he caught a glimpse of it not only folding upwards, but also outwards in thin lines.

Jackson tried to slip the power belt under the unit across the doorway but it was half an inch too big, neither object wanting to give in to his increasingly firm demands. He finally managed to jam it through and it skidded across the brown slime on the other side.

“OK, I see it,” yelled Frank.

“Frank!” whispered Jackson, trying to get under the shelving. No reply. A stretching sound behind him. He shouted this time. “Frank!”

“What? What?” Frank called from the door.

Jackson opened his mouth to respond but the words were pulled out of his mouth by a new noise. Behind him, starting softly but growing with each second, was a scraping sound. The kind of thing you’d hear if you dragged one sharp piece of metal against another.

His memory told him instantly where he’s heard that noise before. The noise that had been locked at the back of his mind ever since hearing it the first time.

From his flattened position on the floor, one arm already through the shelving unit’s slight opening, Jackson slowly eased his head to the right, now moving slowly not through stealth but fear.

There, directly behind him, ashen white and stretching almost to the roof of the room, it stood watching him, jaw unhinged and wide, screaming into his eyes.

He pushed with his legs and scrambled under the unit. Somehow, under the howl behind him, he found his voice.

“FRANK GET OUT GET OUT N”

And then it was behind him and it had him, partially lodged under the blockade, waxy hand stretched out from sinewy arm wrapped around his thigh, sharp ends pressing into his flesh. Jackson ignored the pain and twisted, momentarily pulling away from its grip, red now mixing with the sludge beneath him. There was a clatter as the howl behind him intensified and it pushed hard under the unit. Jackson tried to stand but his leg buckled and he slipped down into the sludge underfoot. The unit had collapsed completely but not before the thing behind him had got further through and it managed to grab Jacksons arm as he squirmed on the floor.

He looked up and could see Frank aghast, trying to fire up the power cutter but unable to tear his eyes away from what he was seeing. He had taken a few slippery steps into the room but Jackson twisted round his legs and, pushing as hard as hew could, kicked the power belt over towards Frank.

“Take it,” he shouted, although it sounded like a whisper now against the awful screaming. “Get out. Frank. Get”

At that moment, whatever was holding onto his arm twisted violently under the collapsed shelving unit and the crack of bone broke through the howl, but it didn’t even seem to notice. Its other hand was now clamped over the top of Jackson’s head and it writhed forward until it was on top of him. Then it stopped. Hands still holding the Tech on the floor, it heaved violently and its jaw opened even wider, the metal scream now quickly increasing in violence. Vibrating and piercing. Another heave, then another, white eyes buried in its gaunt head utterly focussed on Jackson’s beneath it, then from the depths of its throat came a deep gurgling and a river of brown sludge burst out of its mouth, all over his victim below. It poured and gushed.

Then came the frenzy.

Face first, it slammed down into Jackson’s skull with teeth bared, neck thrashing one way then another, brown and red exploding and merging in sprays on all sides. Its thin arms, pale fingers thrust deep into Jackson’s chest, were pushing and tearing with equal vigor. It gorged and thrust until there was only brown matter and bone beneath it.

It raised its head and looked at Frank.

He’d seen all this from his point near the door, unable to move through shock, feeling the reflex need to vomit but managing to fight it down. There was something in its eyes that brought him back to the moment, dragged awake from a nightmare. The power belt was a few paces in front of him, still sitting in the stink where Jackson had pushed. As he leapt forward and grabbed the box with his free arm, whatever had just slaughtered Jackson slid off and scrambled towards him, broken leg trailing, bulging eyes wide, spindly arms reaching.

Frank slipped and almost dropped both the cutter and power belt but managed to keep his balance and threw himself out of the door, slamming the door close button with his elbow as soon as he was back in the corridor.

“LISA,” Frank screamed into his comms, “Lock the rec room door!”

“Frank?” Lisa sounded confused.

“LOCK THE REC ROOM DOOR NOW” He yelled, breathless.

He heard frantic tapping on Lisa’s end before the door light blinked from green to red in front of them. Not one second later there was a rhythmical noise that came from the other side of the door.

Thudthudthud.

A moment later Lisa, Sila, Fe’eldie and Dave came running back to the rec room, all eyes full of panic, but it was too late.

Thud. Thud. Thud.

“What happened?”, gasped Lisa. “Where’s Jackson?”

Thud.

“Where is Jackson?” whispered Sila.

Silence from the door. Then.

Tink. Tink. Tink.

That was it. Frank looked at the sealed door, then threw down the power belt and grabbed the power cutter before sprinting back in the direction of the storage room. After exchanging panicked glances, the rest of the Techs chased after him. They followed him down the corridors as a group, squeezing through the cut open doorway until they found him disappearing into the panel storage room.

Frank hauled the power cutter past the remaining shelves, twin-pronged blade dragging on the floor behind him as he went. Most of units now stood empty after the two trolley trips and the noise echoed through the room. He made his way straight to the back, sweating and huffing with the exertion but not slowing for a second. When the rest of the Techs reached him the power cutter’s cell was already slung over his back and he held the lit blade over his head with both hands. There was a silent pause, before he brought it slamming down into the detox tank and pressed it hard into the glass with a screaming, grinding whine. First there was single spraying leak, then five, before the break spread through the tank’s outer structure and the glass burst outward in an explosion of milky water that gushed all over them.

As they turned back, blinking the stinging spray out of their eyes, they saw the body on the ground.

Whatever was on the floor looked like a person that had been starved and whitewashed, then stretched and shrivelled. It was lying face down, smooth waxy skin broken by prominent budges of joints and vertebrae. Its ribs jutted out violently from each side, almost popping through. The stink emanating from its corpse, rising with the steam from the searing water, would have been enough to make the Techs retch if they hadn’t been so frozen with shock.

There was a long pause as they just stared, standing around the fetid remains in a circle. Finally, Dave slowly pushed his booted foot forward, hooked it under the chest, and flipped it over onto its back. The sight of this monstrous form had been shocking in itself, but it suddenly seemed nothing compared to its face. The white skin was so gaunt that it had pulled back on the extremities, bulging the flushed black eyes and revealing teeth that had been chipped and sharpened into blades. The scalp was completely bald – true also of the rest of its naked body – but it was the jaw that made Dave cry out. It looked dislocated, the way a snake’s does before swallowing a rat, mouth wide open and gaping in a silent scream that was somehow deafening.

Frank handed the now silent power cutter to Dave and crouched down, brow furrowed, hand hovering over the body. Finally, he lowered his fingers onto the dead flesh below before pulling them away quickly.

“What?” asked Fe’eldie. “Hot?”

“No,” he responded. “Cold. Ice cold.”

“Even in that water?” Sila asked, incredulously. There was steam still rising from the ground.

“The water,” said Frank, slowly putting pieces of logic together in his mind to form one complete realisation. “The water. The temperature. The heat slows them down. They must need the cool to move.”

“Those fuckers,” growled Lisa, “They knew. They had the heat up to give them time to escape and they didn’t even warn us.”

Frank stood up. “Fe, run a scan.”

“Nothing shows up, I only ever get us,” she responded, unable to keep the frustration out of her voice.

“That’s because you’re searching for our heat,” he replied. “Change the parameters. If the scan is based on body temperature, lower the range that it picks up. It won’t be as clear but it might give us an idea if there are any more of these…things.”

Fe’eldie leant back against a shelving unit, eyes drifting as she lost herself in thought for a second before working out an approach and tapping it into her wrist screen. A few seconds passed as the scan washed over the entire base, delivering the results on her map.

Her eyes widened, and she opened her mouth to speak just as the thin, stretched white hand curved round the shelving unit and tore out her throat.

There was chaos. First, the metallic scream rang out in the storage room as it pounced round on top of Fe, brown bile pouring from its throat before they even hit the ground. In the echo of the room the howl was everywhere; it was impossible to tell if it came from one or one hundred of the things. Dave grabbed the person closest to him – Lisa –  and ran for the door into the corridor, the power cutter hanging off one shoulder. Frank and Sila both took a step towards Fe, hoping against hope that they could save her, but it was quickly evident that she was gone. Already it had her, smashing her body apart on the floor. There was movement behind another of the shelving units; a white streak shining in the low light. Dave sprinted past them out the door, and both Frank and Sila followed quickly behind.

In the corridor, they didn’t look back. The screaming stayed in the storage room at first, but as they leapt through the welded lip of the cut-open door the noise started to move down towards them. On they ran, lungs bursting and panic almost overcoming every muscle, past the sealed rec room – don’t think about Jackson, thought Sila, don’t think about Jackson – until the entrance to the docking bay was finally back in sight. At the rear of the group and without breaking stride, Frank scooped up the power belt still lying on the ground, ignoring its bulk trying to slow him down. The metal scrape was howling down the corridor now.

As they ran past the last working door and piled through the short corridor into the bay, Lisa broke free of Dave’s grip and ran straight around the office glass, through the door and up to her computer, frantically tapping on her keyboard through tear-streaked eyes. Dave had instantly spun to his right by the door frame and was holding his finger over the button to close the door, screaming at his colleagues to get inside. Sila was next, twirling as she entered to see Frank coming up behind her, and, at the other end of the same section of corridor, a twisting white tangle of three or four of them, jaws open and discordant howl penetrating her very skin. They were painfully stretched upwards in their chest which concaved their stomachs, moving fast as if trying to stand tall, each mouth touching their lower necks.

Frank barrelled through the door into Sila and they both tumbled painfully down the corridor and into the bay. Dave had already slammed his hand into the door console and it hissed closed, white faces screaming at his as he stared open-eyed through the sliding gap. He opened his mouth to scream the words LOCK IT but the console light had already changed, Lisa watching him through the side glass of the dock control office.

A deep sickening thudthudthud suddenly hit the door and it shook but held tight. The screaming permeated even the thick metal, causing Dave to pace backwards up the short corridor section back into the docking bay. The howling and grating went on for several minutes, all of them rooted to their spot in fear of what might come through. Lisa shook and cried in the office, the sound of her recent nightmares ringing around her in terrible reality.

After what seemed like forever, the screaming suddenly stopped and everything fell silent.

The silence, though, just gave in to the sobs. Each of them, bent over on the floor, crying for their lost friends and hopeless situation. And, amidst the ringing in her ears, all Lisa could see was her dear friend’s throat spurting across the room as white talons popped it open like a bubble.

They did nothing but mourn for twenty minutes, not moving, not caring if those things came through to finish them all. Wanting it, even. Once the crying had subsided, though, and they’d smeared their eyes clear, the same thought dawned on all of them at the same time: the base was lost, and they were sealed in the docking bay until they either escaped or starved.

Phyliss swung gently in front of them, the patchwork quilt of her outer hull gleaming in the strip lights.

Frank got himself to his feet, picked up the power box and shuffled over to Dave.

“Plug it in,” he said, not ordering, just too exhausted to say anything else. Dave reached up and took the box before carrying it up Phyliss’loading ramp into the inner hold.

Then Frank came and sat down next to Sila and they stayed still for a while, shoulder to shoulder. She had her face turned slightly away; he didn’t need to guess why.

 

14

Time was beginning to blur together. Day and night rendering into the same event. All was hunger, all was anger. He’s stopped looking in mirrors.

– – –

Inside Phyliss, the power box was plugged into an auxiliary status module, and the green ping that it gave out should have made Dave far happier than it did. He, like all of the Techs, wanted nothing more than to lay down and sleep. The SubAt was in far better shape than before, but the sheer extent of the repairs she required loomed before them, heavy and difficult. They’d washed out most of the fire damage but the wrecked consoles still lay lifeless on her metal floor, tables missing chairs and a faint smell of charring still floating through her air.

Dave tried keep convincing himself that they’d been lucky up to this point; a way to find some positive thought in amongst the carnage. He was not a religious man but having Phyliss’ motherboard still functional after all she’d been through was a small miracle that he was willing to attribute to whichever God lay claim. Once he’d replaced all her main wiring, he’d been able to cobble together enough synchronised systems to at least get her to space. The inertia dampeners were showing enough functionality to make sure they weren’t squashed to a pulp, but he couldn’t get life support to kick in, so they’d have to rely on the air and heat from their sealed flight suits. They weren’t designed to be used for space travel, but again, it didn’t matter just as long as they could last for the short vertical journey up to their TC.

The hulls would be more of a guessing job. The first set of panels that had been carted back from the storage room had cut nicely into their required sizes, and the second set should be able to cover what was left. Phyliss was going to be heavier than usual, without a doubt, but he’d managed to reconnect the one working thruster, and even on a single cone they should be able to ease her up into orbit. But he wouldn’t know if he’d missed anything until the pressures of space squashed them flat, so he’d just have to go with due diligence. And faith in his own repairs.

A long, tired breath poured out from Dave and he pushed away the flashes of Fe’s agonised face in order to consider his next move. The interior and exterior hulls would need to be finished, then the thruster fuel lines reconnected, before the power box was inserted as the final piece of the puzzle. A blow-out or short fuse at that point, and that would be it. They’d die here.

As they walked down the ramp they could see Frank and Sila pushing the cargo trolley back into place next to Phyliss, ready to lay out all the panels once more. Sila walked over to where the power cutter lay and heaved it onto her back. There was no point complaining any more; every muscle in each of the Techs’ bodies was fatigued to the point of collapse, but stopping now was out of the question. They’d all witnessed what lay in wait for them if they did.

They all got to work in silence. Dave went through the inventory on his screen as Sila cut the panels to shape before attaching them where they were needed. Lisa came out from the office – she looked like hell – and helped Frank pull out the panels one by one, each time referring to Dave’s layout plan before heaving them into place on the ground. This went on for over an hour, sparks showing as one by one the holes got patched firmly together. By the time they were finished and the final panel was in place, the Techs could barely stand from exhaustion.

The newly-reconstructed SubAt was now resting on her struts on the docking bay floor, loading crane chains finally released and winched high above her. It occurred to Dave that Phyliss now looked like the pictures of firefighters who’d had their skin burnt off and, months later, were facing rehab with a face made out of slices of the rest of their bodies. The SubAt class of ships had never been regarded as pretty, but now Phyliss looked plain ugly, like a crude vehicle carved in straight lines out of a chunk of metal. She also had developed a squint, her once wide windscreen replaced with a curved silver metallic sheet with a postbox of window glass embedded in the middle. The wings had fared better but stuck out like sore ears. They were functional, though, and Dave was still reasonably sure the thrusters could still lift her off the ground. Her main thrusters had been adapted from the bulkier ExoAt carrier series – again, a little modification that Dave had quietly arranged – so he knew that her remaining single cone could give her the push she needed, if it didn’t burn out in the process.

Positive thoughts, he reminded himself. Positive thoughts.

He knocked off his power welder for the last time and climbed the loading ramp into the hold, turning right to focus on the spaghetti of cabling that now led to the main junction box. Inside was the power belt, installed and ready for the main connectors to be inserted. Sensing this was an important moment, the rest of the Techs had climbed up after him and stood behind in silence. His hands shook a little as he lifted the input socket and plugged in the three main connectors, each one clicking home with a firm motion. He looked behind briefly, catching all eyes on his, then closed his own, and pulled up the junction switch.

It was instantaneous. Starting from the cockpit, a sea of lights blinked into life and washed over the consoles that had been reconnected, spreading light finally through the hold and all around them. Phylisswas alive. The new light shone in the wet eyes of all the Techs, swimming around them in all directions. An alarm was sounding, urgent and piercing, and Dave scrambled into the command console area to shut it down with a pair of pliers. Seconds later it cut out and the silence returned.

“I hear you, Phyliss,” they head Dave say. “I hear you. Good girl.”

“OK,” said Frank, rubbing his bruised hands together, “When do we fly?”

“Our one main thruster cone will need some time to charge its initial boost,” replied Dave, “And we’ll have to run some pre-flight checks, but…an hour? An hour should be fine.”

Frank sighed. That was an hour longer than he wanted to be here.

“You can use the time to suit up and check our air reserves,” offered Dave optimistically. “…We won’t have any in Phyliss, you see. But they should last.”

Should, thought Frank. Should.

“Right. The suits.” He trudged out past Sila back into the docking bay.

She walked up to Dave, now seated back in his flight chair, control sticks moving in his hands.

“Is this really going to work?” she asked quietly.

“Honestly?” He replied. “I honestly have no idea.”

Just under an hour later, all the Techs stood outside Phyliss’ loading ramp listening to Dave’s flight briefing. They’d all changed back into their pressurised flight suits, red and white against the greyscale of the SubAt’s hull, breathing hoods hanging off their unbuckled head coverings.

“You’ll feel a push down at first,” continued Dave. “That’s the pairing thrusters lifting us up into position. Once we’re outside, we’ll tip back and hit main thrust, at which time…you may experience some…discomfort.”

Discomfort?” asked Lisa.

He continued. “The inertia dampeners are working, but at a far less efficient level than we’re used to. It’ll do enough to keep you from getting pulverised by the pressure, but you’ll definitely feel the kick. Just imagine you’re back in an old time spacecraft.”

“Oh, fucking great,” muttered Frank. He remembered enough from history class to know that he didn’t want to experience that in a hurry.

Dave ignored him. “Once we break orbit and see our TC, it’s just a matter of slowing down our approach to drift into her docking bay and use what’s left of the pairing thrusters to slowly come to a halt inside. It will probably be a bit rough. Once the TC closes the bay doors and equalises the pressure – Phyliss’ locator chip is still good and that should trigger it – then we’ll be able to exit her and get the hell home.”

Most of them had abandoned the idea of seeing home again, and the new hope of actually getting out of the base seemed almost unreal. They had nothing left to give. But it didn’t matter now if the ship exploded the moment they fired her up. All their other options had disappeared.

Dave broke the silence. “So. Pre-flight checks have been completed and the light is green. Let’s take her up.”

Lisa ran back to the office while the other Techs loaded onto Phyliss– Dave in the cockpit, Frank and Sila in the command console. Opening her computer screen, she typed a single command and the massive bay door crunched into life at the far end of the hangar. She then sprinted back to the SubAt and up the loading ramp, strapping herself into a harness rigged up in the main hold, hearing the new pneumatics hiss as the ramp closed tight behind her. That hiss spread through the whole ship, sealing it from Vehrion’s acid atmosphere as it burst in through the opening bay doors. The howl of the wind shook Phyliss, causing them all to hold on just a little bit tighter.

“Firing pairing thrusters,” shouted Dave over the comms.

The growling wind then had another noise to content with; an ascending whirr followed by a push of fire and air and suddenlyPhyliss left the ground and floated slightly upwards, before gently coming back down to rest on her struts again.

Dave leant under the flight stick and adjusted a setting with a screwdriver. Suddenly Phyliss shot up almost to the ceiling, engines screaming at her new bulk.

“Woah, that’s enough, that’s enough,” yelled Dave to himself as he wrestled her back under control. She keeled left, then right, before settling into position. The bay doors were fully open now and he rotated her so her nose was pointing towards the purple terrain beyond. She was shaking hard now with the combination of the screaming thrusters and the harsh wind sweeping through the docking bay. Dave’s knuckles whitened inside his flight suit as he pushed her gently, gently forward.

Painfully slowly, she eased out of the docking bay door; first a nose, then a hull, followed by single thruster attached to her rear, until she was fully outside. No-one but Dave had any idea where they were, the only visible light coming through the tiny slit of glass in front of him. All they could do was cope with the sickening feeling of being thrown around and trust in their pilot’s instincts. Once she was clear, Dave pulled back the flight stick back until the front thruster pushedPhyliss’ nose up into the sky, where she held, suspended.

“OK. Going full thrust on the main thruster, here we go!” Dave screamed.

The power surged backwards into the thrust cone and it lit gold as it charged the blast that would send them skywards. Each of them listened for the wailing ignition and braced as well as they could for the sudden acceleration about to hit their tired frames.

But it didn’t come.

All they heard instead was a sickening thud, followed by Dave swearing over and over. Phyliss started to spin on her horizontal axis, slowly at first, then faster as the main thruster blew out sideways through its casing. Feeling the shift in movement, Dave tried to slam the thruster into silence but it didn’t respond. If anything, the spin only increased as it burnt though its fuel.

Phyliss’ nose spun past the open bay door and began another cycle while Dave pushed his entire body weight against the mechanical controls to try and counter the oscillation. She passed the open door again, and again, her erratic movement threatening to twist into the dust at any moment and drag them all with her. The panic was bubbling in Dave’s chest, the feeling of hopelessness gaining traction in his mind, but he’d been through enough scrapes to just about keep his head focussed. He saw the door pass in front of the window slit, and made a decision based on pure instinct. Resting his hands on the controls, he counted past the milliseconds before pushing forward hard, forcing the pairing thrusters to carry Phyliss through the door sideways.

The metal landing struts scraped along the floor as Dave killed the pairing thrusters and brought the SubAt crashing back down to the ground. He couldn’t see the main rear thruster from his position, nor did he have any sensors to tell him what was going on, but he could tell from the sound and movement that it had suffered a pretty substantial blowout. They were still slowly scraping in a circle when the docking bay’s heavy door slammed closed and the automatic foam spray kicked in for the second time since they’d arrived.

Another loud thud and their movement stopped. Then the sound of gushing water on the outside hull followed by an angry hissing sound told them all what they all feared the most. They were on fire.

In that brief half-second moment of realisation, they each saw a different flash of memory. Frank saw Hubbarb burning. Sila, the popping sound of roasting flesh. Lisa saw Fe’s face frozen in the instant she knew she was dead. Dave just saw red. Blood, fire, pain, love, everywhere. These flashes bloomed and dissipated, and then they knew they had to get out.

Dave unbuckled himself and ran past Frank, who by this time was desperately trying to free himself and Sila from their flight harnesses, and hammered open the rear loading ramp. It opened and controlled its descent this time, gently unfolding down to the ground, but the Techs didn’t wait for it to hit. Dave helped Lisa with her own harness then they all piled off, shielding their faces from the flaming thruster burning high up to the ceiling while the foam jets did their bet to douse it out.

All they could do was stand and get utterly drenched as the yellow flames pouring from the thruster gradually hissed first into smoke, then nothing. They didn’t move even when the automatic foam sprays had stopped blasting. Phyliss was still intact, wide scraping marks gouged into the floor beneath her, but it was clear to all of them that the main thruster hanging off her rear was irreparably damaged.

That was it, then. They were here.

They were dead.

 

15

Hopelessness doesn’t live in the mind it lives in the gut where it festers and grows like a a a bacterial plague and like a plague it can’t be stopped or talked to it’s just there and so are you forever and

– – –

Lisa sat in the office, alone. She didn’t know where the others were, but they weren’t here. Her flight suit was draped over another chair, still dripping the extinguishing fluid onto the floor. The chemical smell was becoming a little too much now, but she didn’t care.

In front of her on the desk was a blank piece of paper torn from the back of one of the docking procedure manuals. In her hand was a pen that she’d found at the bottom of the office desk’s drawers, covered in lint but still working. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d written anything by hand. Her fingers were so accustomed to typing now that this remembered motion felt alien. She wrote along the top of the paper, slowly and carefully.

Declaration from Lisa AshInggre, Haxon Tech No. 81E899G, on Vehrion Base 1. Fourth Phase 85/11. In the event of my death, deliver to J&P AshInggre, Exhilios Centre 4-Hope, 11/19 Lourni TT.

She stopped and looked at her handwriting for the first time in years. She didn’t know if the spidery dance of the lines was because of her lack of skill or due to the total exhaustion sweeping through her body. She took a breath, and continued.

Ma, Da, Uri

If you are reading this, then I’m sorry. I didn’t make it, and I don’t think any of us did. We walked into a trap here. They set us up, tried to steal our ships, but they messed up and they damaged her too bad for us. The ground crew were running from something that I’ve seen but I don’t even know what it is. Looks like a person but white and stretched and wrong. They want to kill us. We tried to escape but our ship is totally done. We tried everything. Honest.

What I want to tell you right now is that I’m happy that I got to be part of your lives and you got to be part of mine. I’ve been thinking of that day last Quarter when I surprised you at home after jump fix ended early. You were so happy. That’s my memory of you and what I’m holding on to now. Happy. I was happy too. So happy.

She stopped for a second and blinked away tears.

So I just wanted to say bye and that I love you all. I’ll be in the stars and you can see me whenever you want. Please don’t be too sad. Please be happy, then I’ll be happy too.

That was it. Too much.

I love you. L

She folded the paper three times and slid it under the keyboard before leaning back in the chair and letting the sobs take her.

“This is fucking bullshit,” whispered Sila, peeling off her sodden flightsuit at the back of the hangar. Next to the vacant holding pegs was a dirtied mirror, and she wiped a clean streak across it with her palm. She looked like shit. Her eyes, usually clear and blue, were dulled almost as grey as the skin they sat in. Her hair had come out of its ponytail and now hung around her shoulders. All the men she’d ever known had asked her if it was true what they said about redheads. She always told them with a scalding look that it was, not knowing what the fuck they were talking about. Idiots.

She was angry. Not just frustrated, but angry. She’d fought her way through SpaceTech working shitty jobs, one in the evenings and one at weekends, just to make her payments without a glimmer of support from any of her family. It wasn’t just that they had a problem with Techs – even though it was a well-respected job that offered true stability, something that couldn’t be said for most other engineering occupations – but more that they were just worthless pieces of shit. She’d been through the mill with them and wasn’t used to being in a corner without a means of fighting her way out.

And so this really pissed her off.

Part of her still felt responsible for Jackson, even though she was in a different part of the base when he got killed. She couldn’t shake the feeling that, if only she’d been there, she might have been able to so something to save him, although she knew deep down that she’d be dead too if she’d tried. After all, Frank had been right there; if someone so imposing as him couldn’t stop it, then no-one else would have stood a chance. And, anyway, she’s been metres away from Fe when she was attacked. Her being there didn’t make a damn ounce of difference.

The memory of Fe made her throat tighten. She’s once called Sila her sister while tipsy, red blotches blossoming on pale cheeks amid a whole night of laughing. Fe was feisty and so, so intelligent, with a heart full of love. What happened to her wasn’t fair, and wasn’t right.

Sila closed the door in her mind before the memory of Fe’s face turned her to sobs once more. There had been enough crying for one day.

She reached her hand up and rubbed the sore muscles at the back of her neck. She’d like nothing better than to tear the base door open and walk through, power cutting burning through flesh and bone until she too got smashed to pulp.

Sure beat hiding here and slowly starving to death.

Frank stood by the dripping main thruster perched on Phyllis’ back, arms crossed and brows furrowed. He stood there in his own silence, just watching the grey foam slowly congeal and drip from the thruster casing onto the ground. Inside the cone itself, it was a mess. The blades had burst sideways and torn a fist-sized hole in the shell, then shredded the rest of the internal structure as it had writhed and burned. It was lucky the fire hadn’t crept up the fuel line, as they’d all be dead now. Still, that was little compensation. Death was here for them, waiting; they’d just managed to get an extension.

There was no way they could fix it. Too much of the thruster’s base structure had been destroyed; it was junk now. Frank had performed miracle fixes in their time, once even dragging a T-Class cruiser up from an emergency ocean landing and restoring her to full operation within a week. Once the bodies had been removed and the salt water flushed, it had run as good as new.

But this was something else. In all the Techs’ other jobs they had limitless resources to tap into, a plethora of mechanisms and spare parts to refit anything that Haxon deemed worthy. Here, they’d used up everything they could find already and were still rooted firmly on the ground. Short of suddenly, magically finding another thruster – something they already knew wouldn’t happen thanks to a repeated base inventory check – there was no way to make Phyliss fly again, not to any kind of height anyway.

So, with nothing to say and nothing to do, he carried on just standing in silence by the thruster, the pool of water dripping off his flightsuit slowly getting bigger by his feet.

Dave was dreaming of Phyliss. Not Phyliss. His Phyliss. Back onExhilion, showering in water so hot it filled their bathroom with a blanket of steam. The sex they’d just had been short but amazing, clearing the bed of everything and making them glad the hotel had thick walls.

He wanted the feeling to last forever.

She was still under her jet of water with her back to him, water streaming down her honey hair over burnt caramel skin before disappearing into the haze of her ankles. The craze on Exhilios that Quarter had been for bioluminescent implant marks in concentric rings starting from the right shoulder blade and stretching across and down until the hollow at the base of the spine. In the low bathroom light her back trickled and shone, the soft green lights playing their own patterns as she slowly flexed under the heat.

There was never any doubt in Dave’s mind that he was in love, which unfortunately was a complicated position to be in.

After kissing her gently on the centrepoint of her shoulder, hand lightly tracing his favourite of the rings – the fifth – that started from the side of her right breast, down her back, then up to the nape of her neck, he climbed out of the shower and went to the bedroom to get dressed. He wasn’t in terrible shape and didn’t forget to tell himself that whenever he caught himself in the mirror. He’d been healthier, sure, and his hair was deciding to abandon his head with frightening ferocity, but he still looked OK. Anyway, he’d somehow attracted someone like Phyliss, and that was miracle enough in itself.

They’d met when he’d piloted her ship on a trade run to Io Base, working as a contractor between Haxon placements. Usually he just sat up front and left everything alone, happy for the peace and quiet, but Phyliss had wanted to join him on deck for the view and had stayed during the entire trip. What could have been three hours of painful small talk had quickly turned into one long, absorbing chat that made apparent their quick attraction. She was gorgeous, obviously, but there was something else there too; a kind of quick-witted blade that some might be scared of but he found utterly magnetic. Anyway, he as English; he could give back as much as he got.

After they’d returned to Exhilios, they’d booked the weekend in a mid-level hotel that overlooked the National Gardens, not that they looked out of the window much. There had been laugher, then sex, gentle and exploratory at first but soon leading to quickened embraces whenever their strength returned. And now, on the morning of the second day, he stood there with Jupiter’s red light beaming on his face and the love of his life wrapping her wet arms around him.

It was such a shame that she was married.

She’d told him when they’d awoken that morning, at least after the sleepy sex. He wasn’t really surprised, if he was being honest; this was all too perfect and something had to give here. Her marriage was a shambles, arranged two years ago by a councillor to a man who used all his attention up on his business. They were in the process of separation, just delayed by the signing of the papers that needed authorisation from both Exhilios and Earth Councils. And, to top it off, the husband had an afternoon dinner that she had to attend so he wouldn’t lose face. She didn’t hate him, and he’d asked nicely, apparently, so she had to go along. The dinner was on a Cruiser Barge that would start from Exhilios and slowly work its way back to Earth via coordinated jumps over the next few hours.

The day suddenly felt too short, their blissful time together finding its conclusion all too soon. There was no point arguing the toss; the universe had given them these hours, then made sure they had to be separated in the harshest way possible. She caught his eye and kissed him on the nose. He didn’t want her to kiss him ever again. He wasn’t sure that he could take it.

They parted on the hotel forecourt, he in his formal flight suit, her in a backless dinner dress that was sometimes black and sometimes blue, depending on which curve of her body was angled into the light. Her hair was tight around her head and her make-up made her eyes shine like stars.

“Goodbye, Dave. And thank you. For everything,” she whispered into his ear. There was a sadness in her voice, and he realised he wasn’t the only one who felt cheated for time.

He gently placed his hand on the small of her back and she breathed.

“Goodbye, Phyliss,” he said.

Her car was waiting, and he helped her in before it pulled off, her eyes the only thing visible through the tinted glass as it pulled away. He stood still for a second, then grabbed his bag and headed for the spaceport. Usually he would have caught a transport, but today he wanted to walk, and it wouldn’t take him ling. As the gas giant loomed overhead, he allowed himself to replay the last twenty-four hours in his head, trying to capture her look and feel and smell and voice in his memory before it faded forever. He knew, though, that his lasting picture of her would be in the shower that morning, green lights dancing through the steam, knowing at that point that he was in love with someone who was about to walk out of his life forever.

In the SpacePort, he headed into the main docking area and up to his SubAt. It was a newer model and in pretty good shape, but there were definitely a few tweaks that he wanted to make. His next Haxon contract didn’t start for another eleven hours, but he didn’t want to spend that time moping around Exhilios. He walked up the loading ramp, through the hold and the command console, up the stairs to the pilot’s chair, and sat down heavily. It was nice to be here without an aim, to feel the ship silent around him.

For the first time he felt anger boiling away inside him; not at Phyliss, but at the whole unfair mess of it all. He thought about going to Earth and finding her, springing forth with yells of forever love, but quickly put it out of his mind. There’s stupid, and there’s stupid, and there’s that. The acceptance that it was over didn’t help the anger abate though, and now it became mixed with something more immediate, like he wanted to jump up and fly anywhere. The urge to escape was almost overwhelming. He just wanted to fire up the engines, flip up the jump panel and enter some random coordinates before slamming his fist into the activator and going wherever the jump…wherever the jump…wherever the

He woke hard, hitting his head on a box as he sat up straight. His dream…what was that? It was fading already, the sudden pain on his head taking over as the main concern, but he ignored it. He had a nagging feeling. Something in his dream was important. He desperately dug into the memory of it even as it fell like sand between his fingertips. There was Phyliss. And the green lights. And saying goodbye. And the hurt, the anger, the things he’d dearly like to hide back down again and forget but with them went the dream so he held on tight, closing his eyes, trying to live them once again.

On the steps of the hotel, her whispering in his ear while he resisted the urge to scream out, the long walk to the SpacePort, sat in his ship, wondering why he can’t just jump somewhere…

His eyes flashed open. That was it.

He leapt to his feet and sent another box flying, contents scattering as he raced to the office and burst in. Part of him immediately regretted it as Lisa had obviously been crying but he’d have to worry about that anther time.

“Lisa,” he said, breathlessly, “Can you do me another inventory check?”

She looked shocked, and more than a little pissed off as she wiped her eyes, but then turned to her computer.

“We’ve already checked, remember?” she said sleepily. “There aren’t any other K-Class thrusters here. The ExoLander doesn’t use them.”

“I know, I know,” he replied. His eyes were frantically scanning the results as she pulled them up. Suddenly, he pointed and shouted.

“There! There! Can you send that to my screen?” he said.

“Sure. It’s done.” Lisa now looked puzzled more than anything else. “Dave, what’s going on?”

“A way out,” he murmured. “Lisa. A way out.”

 

16

Bite and wait. Bite and wait. Tink. Tink. Tink. Pain. Tink. Tink. Tink. Pain.

– – –

“You are fucking insane.” Sila didn’t hide her anger. Dave had gathered them outside Phyliss, but what he’d said was stupid on a whole new level. “How the hell would Phyliss hold together?”

“She’s got the shielding we need. Dave tried to sound convincing. “It’s just low-level radiation really…once you get past the initial shockwave.”

Silence.

“Look,” he continued, “It could work. As long as we attach it firmly to her rear hull, and coordinate the distance properly, there’s nothing to say that it wouldn’t work.”

Nothing to say?” Now Frank was getting angry. He was tired, he was hungry, and he wasn’t in the mood to listen to this shit. “Even if we could somehow locate one, and bring it here, without getting killed in the process, you want to attach a jump drive to a SubAt and set it off without Nav to tell it where to go?” The vein on his right temple was also showing his contempt.

Dave held up the screen, trying to keep his voice calm. “First off, there is a spare jump drive here. There’s three actually; the ExoLander’s drives are taken off during base construction but kept in storage in case they’re needed again. Also, they’re too complicated to break down into composite parts. Second, jump travel doesn’t work like thrusters, there’s no push and pull. There’s just a careful opening of a seam one end that reseals when the ship exits jump space. The only thing we’d have to ensure is that the shielding on Phylissprotects us from the jump trauma.”

“The only thing,” mumbled Frank. “The only thing.” There was silence for a few seconds before Dave continued.

“The shockwave from a non-stabilised jump would be massive. It would tear this bay, and most of the surrounding base, completely apart. But I think we’re past the point of caring about destruction to property.” Dave looked around, trying to meet all of their eyes. “We need direct line-of-sight. As long as we’re outside and pointed up before we engage the drive, then we should be able to initiate the jump.”

“And if we don’t?” asked Lisa. “What if our shielding doesn’t hold or the drive breaks out of position?”

Dave paused for a second before responding. “We all get thrown into jump space. The end.”

Sila was still unconvinced. She’d been working on building her pilot hours, often asking if she could take Phyliss into docking during quiet periods, and it made her more pessimistic about his whole idea. “C’mon, Dave. We’d need a jump station to handle the entry and exit vectors, never mind the fact that they absorb the fusion shockwaves. Without them we’d be jumping blind and could end up anywhere. I don’t want to be another Fusilier.”

The cruise ship Fusilier had made all the news a few years ago when she’d flown with a malfunctioning drive console. She’d jumped straight into the heart of Saturn. 4,823 hands, dragged in and vapourised in less than an instant.

“You can interrupt the jump sequence and inject specific coordinates,” Dave replied. “You don’t need a gate necessarily. We know exactly where our TC is; if we can initiate a tiny jump from here to her position, then we could use the pairing thrusters to maneuver us into her docking bay.”

“As long as we don’t misjudge the jump and go straight through her, or destroy her with the exit shockwave,” said Sila.

“Yeah”, said Dave. “The trick will be to get close enough to drift in, but far enough away that the shockwave doesn’t knock her off course.”

“And who exactly is going to work out these coordinates?” growled Frank.

There was a pause, then everyone looked at Lisa.

“Oh, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” she murmured. There was no contest, really; they all had to be proficient in a wide range of Tech skills in order to qualify and work, but their specialities became apparent after just a few placements. Lisa’s was numbers.

She gave a reluctant shrug and sighed hard. “OK. Get the drive, and I’ll work something out.”

“Exactly where is the jump drive?” asked Frank, shaking his head at the inevitability of what was coming.

Dave flipped his screen so they could all see the base layout. “South of our current position, close to the temperature modulator that you fixed earlier. There’s a small set of offices there, and behind them is the jump drive storage area. They have to be charged by regulation, so as long as nothing got to them, they should be ready to go.”

And there was the catch. “Is there any other way out of here?” asked Frank, already knowing the answer.

“No,” replied Dave. The docking area is a purposeful bottleneck in case there’s a fusion leak or similar disruption so the rest of the base can be closed off quickly.”

“External doors?” asked Sila, already eyeing up her flightsuit.

“Nowhere near, unfortunately,” said Dave, face lit by the screen under his face. “And anyway, you’d never get the drive back manually carrying it over the terrain. You need a cargo loader and a flat surface, and at least two people to lift it.”

“So our only hope is through that door,” mumbled Lisa.

They all stared in silence at the corridor for a second, trying to take in the enormity of the task, before Sila spoke up.

“We know they’re out there, waiting for us,” she said. The excitement of their attempted escape had smothered the reality of what was happening here, but now it washed over them. The fear and loss was almost too much for many of them to comprehend. No-one wanted to go anywhere near those things again.

“There must be a way round them,” thought Frank aloud, “Whatever they are.”

Lisa quietly walked back into the office then re-emerged quickly with a handful of printouts.

“I decrypted the rest of the base logs,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “I think you should hear what they say.”

And with that, they all sat down heavily on the ground and listened to her as she flicked through the transcripts.

/VEHRION BASE 1-1 LOG CODE 11/188

> ENTRY 43#9 > Vapour control reports external atmos rise of 0.28% in north section of tower. Authorised external repair.

> ENTRY 52#6 > Mild respiratory distress in Nichols. MedCare for two shifts. Inflammation of lung tissue. Meds listed in MedCare file.

> ENTRY 59#4 > Vapour control logs +4% across base. No sign of base breach. Investigating.

> ENTRY 66#1 > Nichols moved to hyperbaric chamber for gas flush. Two more with similar symptoms. MedCare files hold full details. Upload to Haxon.

> ENTRY 71#4 > Nichols physical distress. Cause unknown. Syptoms unfamiliar. MedCare investigating.

> ENTRY 71#4 > Vapour control reports +6%. Some reports of general respiratory distress. Base oxygen flush.

> ENTRY 74#1 > MedCare Philips attacked > Nichol > restrain

> ENTRY 79#8 > Philips dead > Nichols not in custody > Jones, Gibson, Kierley in MedCare with severe physical distress

> ENTRY 82#7 > Nichol, Jones somewhere in base, Finn, Iley, Davis deceased in rec room alert > base lock down

> ENTRY 88#2 > four or five in base chasing they are changed danger if you read this then leave

> ENTRY 88#9 > ru

> ENTRY 93#6 > lock down sectors 1-8

> ENTRY 101#5 > AUTO>Broit, D authorised Temp adjusted to +70

> ENTRY 101#6 > AUTO>Broit, D authorised TM reduction 58

ENTRY 101#7 > AUTO>Broit, D > delete log CONFIRM? Y

 

17

Can’t think but only can move smell eat where are you

– – –

Once Lisa had finished, she checked the last few pages then paid them in a pile by her feet. All the Techs had the same thousand-mile stare; images of the ground crew cowering in fear shooting around them.

“Those poor men,” Dave said to himself. “Those poor, poor men.”

“They tried to take Phyliss and left us here for dead,” replied Frank. “Fuck them.”

Sila reached out and put her hand on Lisa’s arm. She could feel her shivering. “Do you think the atmosphere leaking into the base caused this?”

“It’s possible,” said Lisa, her eyes not leaving the papers. “There’s certainly a correlation.”

“But we’re not affected?” asked Dave hesitantly. “Are we?”

“They were here a long time,” replied Lisa, “I think this took longer to affect them.”

Dave looked at the floor. “We need to get out of here,” he mumbled.

Frank rubbed his eyes. “We have to get that fucking jump drive, don’t we?” His voice was pure exasperation.

Sila picked up Lisa’s screen and pointed to the base’s layout. “What we need is a distraction. I could try and lure them into a side room annex…here, lock myself in with Lisa’s help. That might give Frank and Dave time get to the drive. And as long as I make enough noise, you might even get it back again.”

“And then what?” said Lisa quietly. “Even if you made it there alive, you’d be stuck. Unless we could somehow draw them back in here, maybe try and lock them in the office?”

Frank shook his head. “You’d die. We’d all die.” He thought for a second, a flicker of memory teasing his mind. “The trap that got me…the lure was a ticking sound. A metal peg hitting a small sheet over and over. It’s the similar sound it made on the other side of the door after Jackson…” He stopped for a second and drew a deep breath.

“Let’s assume the ground crew worked something out. The ticking sound those things make also attracts them. Maybe that’s how they locate each other. I don’t know.” He paused then reached out for Dave’s screen. “Look. What if I went out the docking bay airlock and walked round on the surface to the comms relay? We know it’s open to the elements. Lisa could open its blast door remotely and I could place our own ticking device there. We’ll give it a few moments then two of you can slip out here and make a run for the trolley. I can come back round and re-enter the bay from outside.”

“That could work,” said Sila, “Assuming you make the bait loud enough.”

“OK then,” replied Dave, shutting off his screen. “Let’s see what we’ve got here and make it loud.”

They spend the next twenty minutes cracking open every storage box in the docking bay and tipping the contents in the access area to the right of the main exterior bay door. All kinds of maintenance items tumbled into the pile, and it was hard for the Techs to not feel a little bit excited by having the same kind of build project that they all used to love at SpaceTech. Dave even joked that it was like an exam: You have a jumble of technological elements and have to make a self-powered device that emits a loud reoccurring metallic tap. You have one hour. Begin.

Soon, the piles of items started taking shape as they were split into their composite uses: cables, batteries, pins, screws, sheets, panels, bars, springs, and so on. As they used their combined training and began piecing elements together, soldering irons laying heated on the floor between, two competing devices came to the forefront and a soft rivalry emerged. Dave and Sila’s device was long and flat with two prongs on the end that beat together vigorously when he turned it on, so the noise it made wasn’t so much tink tink tink astapatapatapatapa which made the Techs fill the bay with echoing laughter. Frank had made something smaller, with a hooked spike sticking out the top that pointed down onto a sheet of metal attached to the casing. Once they’d manage to recompose themselves, he turned it on.

Tink, tink, tink. Loud and clear, resonating through a speaker tube sticking out of the box’s front. The sound instantly sent shivers down all their spines and stopped the remaining laughter flat, which is when they knew it was the one to use.

Lisa had spent this time huddled over the computer in the office, converting the machine into a makeshft jump synchroniser and programming the injected coordinates. Her letter had been moved to the empty desk; it was distracting her at a time where she really needed her focus. She’d also ripped out almost very piece of tech in the office, leaving just the emergency systems in place on a portable screen so she could control the doors later. The system she was putting together that would be transferred to Phyliss wasn’t pretty but, she hoped, would control the jump drive’s output long enough to get them into orbit. She opened up her calculator and stared at the beginning of a long stream of numbers, rechecking her coordinates for the tenth time.

Frank suited up in the docking bay. He’d changed breathing hoods to one that had the most air supply, but even that didn’t give him confidence. He had to save some for the trip up to the TC, if this ridiculous plan even worked at all. While Lisa had been checking her numbers, they’d agreed what their individual responsibilities would be. Once he’s placed the device in the South wing and given the all-clear, Lisa would lock the blast door to the comms array behind him and they’d wait ten minutes. Then Sila and Dave would open the door to the base and make the run to the location of the jump drive. Of course, if the device hadn’t worked, that would be the point where they all died horribly, but no-one mentioned that. Frank would stay in the comms room and make as much noise as possible before getting word that the drive was back in the docking bay. At which point, Lisa will lock down the doors and he’ll come back around to the bay airlock.

Easy.

That’s what he told himself as he stepped into the airlock, box under his arm, first door sliding home and the air hissing around him as it equalised. Moments later, the exterior door swung open and the purple earth of Vehrion invited him out. As per Haxon colonisation guidelines, the ground was rocky and the planet’s gravity was somewhere near Earth’s so he didn’t have too much trouble moving. There had been some investigation into building on low gravity locations, but it had just proven too problematic. What he always found strange, though, was the silence; it was like stepping into a pressurised container where the dull thud of your footfalls and the rhythm of your breathing were the only noises.

He turned to his left and started following the edge of the base around its perimeter. The ground was covered in rubble, some large, but most small enough to affect his balance as he moved across them. He had the tapper under his right arm and had the other hand leaning against the base’s hull for stability, and it was slow going. Above him the purple haze of Vehrion’s atmosphere yawned up into its night sky, dark but starless under the haze. The beauty of the space above him distracted him for a second and he went sprawling into the rocks, half expecting his suit to rupture and collapse, but it held fast.

Inside the docking bay, everyone was moving quickly to get Phylissready. Lisa had carried over the computer in three separate pieces and rigged them up in the command console, ready to carry instructions to the jump drive when it arrived. The computer parts had been shoved unceremoniously in the gaps where other, newer technology had once sat. The only spare switch she could find as a trigger for the jump command was an emergency alarm plunger, so it was screwed rather comically into the middle of the now defunct Nav desk like a stubby red mushroom. The keyboard dangled from its connecting cable. It didn’t matter, though, the coordinates – or what Lisa thoughtwere the best coordinates – were programmed in, and the only part that needed manual operation was the activation switch.

Dave and Sila were building a casing for the jump drive that jutted out of the loading ramp, meaning that the only entry and exit to the ship once the drive was installed would be through the emergency cockpit hatch. The heavy door between the command console and hold had been tightly sealed, and would have to form a shield against the elements by itself. Using the dimensions listed in the inventory, they’d been able to rig up a shielded port for the drive from the spare panels still littered across the docking bay floor. The hope was the fusion shielding would be strong enough to withstand the force of the jump. The whole thing was a Tech’s nightmare, but they didn’t care any more. It was a time for best guesses.

Once the ship had been fitted out and Dave had connected all the wiring, he and Sila got into position with the cargo loader in front of the internal door and waited for word from Frank. Sila had the heavy power cutter on her back, but she wouldn’t have traded it for anything at that point. Dave’s hands gripped the steering column tightly, ready to go.

Twenty minutes later of tracing the hull edges, Frank could finally see the ripped outer shell where the comms dish had once been. Close to his right was a TerraMorph, its tall cylindrical funnels still obliviously kicking out its chemical mixture into the atmosphere in gulps of yellow gas. Luckily, the wind was carrying it in the other direction; even with his flight suit on, he didn’t fancy getting in the way of that cocktail. As he got nearer to his destination, he was able to get a better view of the damage. It looked like it had been torn open outwards, shards of metal hull hanging off and littering the floor around him. He took extra care not to push against any of the shrapnel for fear of it puncturing his suit, and eventually he was able to squeeze through a low opening into the array room itself.

The tower lay across the gap between him and the door, occasionally raining sparks onto the ground. The dish had fallen away from the door and Frank was now a little worried about the its position, but even though it was almost upright, it had embedded itself into the top of the tower and was probably safe enough. He put his hands on the collapsed array and shook a little. Nothing. Taking a deep breath, he hauled himself up and over the tower with the tapper, and was quietly relieved when the whole place didn’t come crashing down on his head.

“Lisa, I’m by the array blast door,” he whispered into his comms. “The dish is no longer against it and it’s still down. Are you all ready to go?”

“We’re good,” came her crackled reply. “The door should ease up slowly; get down and have a good look around and tell me at the first hint of trouble so I can slam it down. Copy?”

“Copy that,” he said.

“Frank.”

“What?”

“No bullshit. No heroics. You see them, you get out of there and come back. Understand?”

He paused. “Copy that, boss.”

“OK,” she sighed, “Sending the signal to the door now. Stand by.”

He crouched down to get his head as low as he could, and then waited. Seconds passed, then a minute, and he was just about to call Lisa again when a metallic whine led to a hiss as the base’s pressurised air started flowing under the slowly opening door. It was noisy, especially after the silence of the surface. Frank had planned for this trip to be as quiet as possible and he suddenly realised that he needn’t have bothered.

Slowly the door eased up, but the influx of air made seeing under it trickier than expected. The internal lights were still on full, and his eyes that had got used to the dark were suddenly blinded. As they adjusted, he managed to correctly angle his breathing hood and finally got a good view of the corridor beyond.

It was empty.

He waited there, rising slowly with the door until it crunched into position at the top of the frame. His sudden exposure to the light without any protection made him feel overwhelmingly vulnerable, but he pushed the sensation out of his mind by imagining Lisa’s hand positioned over the emergency shut control.

“I got you, Frank,” came her voice, reading his mind. “Place the tapper and get out of there.”

“Copy that,” he whispered.

He pictured the base layout in his mind. Directly ahead of him, stretching far down the corridor, was the intersection that eventually led to the docking bay’s sealed internal door. To his left was an angled walkway deeper into the west wing, and this is where he now walked, step by careful step. The ticker in his hand was quiet for now, and he wanted it to get those things as far away from the docking bay as possible. He strained to listen through his breathing hood but everything was muffled, coupled with the steady hiss of his air intake. Instead, he focussed on his vision, sweeping his head left and right like a lighthouse, trying to scan every inch for signs of trouble.

He arrived at the next door and it automatically swished open, making him freeze on the spot as the room beyond came into view. Smeared across the white floor was a trail of brown sludge. His skin froze and the rhythm of the air intake steadily increased as he battled to keep his heart rate down.

This was far enough. Carefully, slowly, he crouched down and placed the ticker on the floor just inside the doorway. Its flat edges pushed up a slow wave of sludge as he slid it in. After another second of trying to listen above his pounding heart, he flicked on the device and sealed the switch.

Tink. Tink. Tink.

His blood ran cold as the sound penetrated his flight suit, and he crouched there motionless for longer than he wanted to before pushing away back down the corridor. He resisted the urge to run, trying to tell his body to stay calm even though the muscles were screaming out for action. He heard the door begin to close behind him, and he turned to make sure it did so.

One of them stood in the doorway, watching him from the other side. The door slid closed in front of its stretched face then stopped suddenly, thin white talons halting its action, causing it to slide open once again. Then the scream, the howl. Metal on metal.

Now it was time to run.

He whipped around and ignored the heavy feeling creeping up his legs, sprinting back towards the blast door.

“LISA,” he gasped, “GET…READY…TO…CLOSE THE DOOR”

“Ready,” she shouted. He could almost see her face.

He turned to his right as the corridor arced round towards the blast door. The screamed echoed all around him, and he thought he could hear a buzz of scratching behind him, but he wasn’t about to turn and check.

“NOW!” He twisted to his right and dived into the array room, scrambling over the collapsed tower before daring to look over his shoulder. The door was falling down, flooded by sweeping yellow lights and blasting him with a siren, but it wasn’t fast enough. There had been two of them behind him, really just inches away from his shoulder, and now they were scrambling under the closing door. One wasn’t going to be lucky; it barely had its arm under before the seal sliced it off clean. The other one, though, had been far enough ahead to clear the door and was now slicing at the downed array, trying to get traction.

Once again, the silence of the Vehrion surface engulfed him. Frank had tumbled hard onto the floor, and framed above him was an overwhelmingly long, open mouth, rows of sharpened teeth anxious to find a home. It was screaming and the vacuum didn’t matter; Frank could hear it. Could feel it. The Tech scrambled to his feet as it threw its body weight onto the tower, momentarily looking like a child learning how to climb. He didn’t let this though distract him, though, pushing frantically through the small gap in the outer hull back onto the surface of the planet.

He stumbled forward, caught out once again on the loose ground underfoot, but managed to keep his footing. The air intake was puffing with frightening intensity now trying to supply his increasing demand. He got twenty steps from the comms section, almost back to the TerraMorph, before he dared to stop and turn around, half expecting the thing to be directly in his face. However, it was further away than he had even hoped; the rocky ground underfoot was being a problem for it too. But it was still coming for him, and gaining; the drop in atmospheric pressure didn’t seem to be having any effect on it. Frank looked down and picked up a chunk of rock as a weapon, but it instantly felt like a terrible plan, and that’s when his gaze fell on the nearby TerraMorph.

He got to his feet and tried to control his breathing, but it was hard when, directly in front of him, the thing was pacing closer and closer, jaw open ready for him. Frank looked to his right and took five paces that way, TerraMorph gas pounding behind him at it belched into the sky. There were three main exit pipes, grouped together in a slight diagonal angle at head height, and it was with these that he tried to align himself. The thing got closer to him, reaching out for his body. Frank tried to stay clam and took one small step backwards, then another, closing the distance to the gas output pipes.

It was time to test the rigidity of is flightsuit. As the white body got closer, and with the gas pumping around him, he stepped back through the streaming yellow plume. For a second he couldn’t see anything, all was yellow, and he though for a second that his time had come. Then, with another measured step, he left the gas cloud and could see the thing close enough to almost touch. He inched back a little, resisting the urge to run but staying just out of touch as it stood directly in the pouring gas. When it emerged, its eyes had disappeared, weeping black holes in their place. But still it came; for it, there was only Frank. It was only when the bleached skin melted and flowed away, with bone chunks, down its ribbed chest that it paused, staggered, and fell at Frank’s feet. It twitched once, then lay still forever.

Frank took a deep breath in relief and realised that Lisa’s voice had been ringing out in his ear for the last minute.

“Lisa,” he interrupted, “I’m fine. One got out, but didn’t like the TerraMorph too much. The tapper’s on. Going to head back into the comms array and make some noise.”

“Ok, Frank,” replied Lisa, voice a little but croaky from shouting too much. “Just watch your air levels, alright? I’ll keep you posted.”

“Copy that,” he said as he got to his feet and climbed carefully back into the comms array.

 

18

Bile and blood. Meat and hunger. Glass in teeth. White and white and white and my mouth opens and I

– – –

“Open it.”

The cutting blade fizzed in Sila’s hand as she stood ready, a meter away from the internal door. Behind her, Dave braced himself against the empty cargo trolley, looking like an athlete about to sprint to the finish. It had been eight minutes since Frank had given the all-clear and Sila was anxious to get going. Lisa had had to put his comms on a separate channel as he was bashing the array’s metal blast door and singing some god-awful songs at the top of his lungs. They doubted whether it could even be heard through the pressurised flight hood, but knew that didn’t mater to Frank. He, like Sila, suddenly felt viciously rude towards those things, like it was time to offend them.

And she was ready to offend.

“Door opening now,” said Lisa. “Good luck.” She was locked in the office, not that would do much if they got into the docking bay. But still, it was something.

The light pinged from green to red, then the door slid open with a slight hiss. Sila relaxed her shoulders; the corridor was empty.

“Let’s move,” she said, “Quietly. We haven’t got much time.”

She jogged ahead, keeping her footfalls as light as possible, while Dave pushed the trolley along behind her. They turned corners with the cutting blade leading first held firmly in Sila’s tensed arms. To keep their bodies as flexible as possible they’d left their flight suits stowed in Phyliss’ cockpit, and to be running the halls just in their grey Haxon fatigues was both intimidating and liberating. It was getting to the point now where they all accepted death was coming for them, and there wasn’t too much point hiding in fear any more. They reached the rec room – still sealed, silent inside – and passed by quickly, turning left at the intersection that would take them south to the jump drive storage area.

They were still alone when they reached the darkened office rooms, blinking lights on the processor units flashing on them as they made their way through the cubicles inside.

The ticking was comfort for Frank now, along with the frantic scratching on the other side. What had once been enough to raise sweated prickles on his skin had transformed to a comforting, regular reminder that he’d managed to place the ticker without getting killed, and now those things were properly pissed. Even through the thick blast door and his breathing helmet, he could hear it working its magic in the room to the west, and the frenzied reaction outside. It made him want to sing even louder. In his hands was a thick piece of the array that had broken off that he was now using to loudly keep time on the blast door. He took a breath and sang his song of choice again, a rather leading chant that he’d learned from the loaders on Europa:

Innnnnnnnn my mistress’ garden

CLANK

Down by the sea

CLANK

She never knew him

CLANK

But she knew me

CLACK

I often visit

CLACK

And leave my mark

CLACK

In her rich garden

CLANK

Before it’s dark

CLANK

He chuckled at the old-fashioned ridiculousness of it all – him, stood there in a vacuum, goading whatever the rest of the ground crew had become – and took a breath for the next verse, but then stopped. He listened for a second, then flicked open his comms.

“Lisa,” he said slowly, “The ticker’s stopped. I can’t hear them.”

He banged heavily on the door three more times, then listened once again, but there was now only silence.

And with that, he dropped the shrapnel and quickly climbed out of the array room back onto the surface.

“Ticker’s down, Sila.” Even over the comms, Lisa’s voice sounded clearly strained. ‘What’s your status?”

“Loading now,” replied Sila. “Stand by.”

They’d arrived at the storage area where all three jump drives were located, each strapped to a charging gurney. They’d all instantly gone for the nearest one and had just finished unstrapping its restraints when Lisa’s call had come through. Most of the drive’s bulk was contained in a long rectangular casing, above which three cylinders ran along its length in a pyramid. It was awkward rather than heavy, and the two of them eventually managed to lift it enough to swing it over to the cargo trolley.

“Maybe we should take a few of them,” whispered Dave, “Just in case there’s a problem with this one? The trolley should be able to take the extra weight, but we’d have to lay them sideways back-to-back which would make the corridors harder to navigate.”

“We don’t have time,” repiled Sila. “You heard Lisa. Our diversion may have stopped working. We need to get back to the hangar, now.”

Without any disagreement, Dave gripped the trolley steering column and rotated it round so it faced the door that led back through the offices. Sila slung the power cutter on her back and once again fired up the blade tip. In the gloom of the office lighting, its blue light shone bright under her face. They were nearing the exit to the office rooms when Sila suddenly stopped rigid, the trolley pushing into the back of her legs. Without saying anything she cut off the blade and twirled around, running past the trolley back into the offices and pulling Dave with her.

She pulled him down into a crouch behind a low desk at the back.

“What is it?” whispered Dave.

“I saw a shadow moving up ahead,” replied Sila as loud as she’d dare.

“Where?” said Dave, peering through the edges of the desk dividers.

That instant, he got his answer. Through the door strode one of them, bulging eyes scanning the gloom. It walked to the cargo trolley that was almost blocking the door and stopped, slowly leaning over from the waist to examine the jump drive. It stood there for a few seconds then straightened again before resuming its slow scan of the office.

“What’s wrong,” said Lisa over their comms. “What’s happened?”

“It’s here,” breathed Dave. “It’s in here with us. Lisa. It’s in here.”

“Shh,” whispered Sila. “We have to get it away from the door.” It stood still, unmoved.

“Maybe we could rush it?” suggested Dave, not really convinced by his own idea.

“We’d be dead before we even landed a blow,” she replied. “And it would probably make enough noise to attract its friends.”

Even in the low light, Dave’s sweat was pouring down his head. His leg was twitching beneath him. He looked around to see what his options were and, in doing so, gently knocked against a rotating chair. It spun slowly and its armrest tapped into the desk cabinet behind.

The thing by the door jerked its head in their direction, and took a step down the walkway.

They had taken cover in one of the many honeycombed cubicles that sprouted off the walkway; luckily, theirs was at the back, nearest storage, and was a hub that lead to five desk areas that offered good hiding spaces from the main doorway. However, the thing was getting closer and blocked their only escape route. Their only options were to take it head-on, or wait. And die.

Sila brought the power cutter up to her chest and readied her hand on its power switch. She might not survive, she reasoned, but she might take a chunk of it with her. The thing’s head bobbed slightly as it moved down the walkway; very soon it would enter their cubicle section and they’d have to fight. Their thoughts turned to goodbyes, loved ones, mistakes; wishes for their final moments of life.

Sila suddenly had a burst of an idea. “Lisa,” she breathed over the comms. “Have you still got remote access to the doors here?”

“Yes.” Her voice was broken. She was about to listen to her friends die. “But not to lock, only open or close.  I couldn’t stretch the locking protocols for the whole base.”

“Open the rear office door that leads to storage. Open it now!” urged Sila, her panicked whispers starting to become louder than what was safe.

It got closer.

“Hang on,” said Lisa, and they could hear frantic tapping on her end.

In the walkway, it got to the last desk and loomed directly over their heads from the other side of the dividing wall. One more step and it would be able to turn into their cubicle.

With a dull hiss, the storage door slid open and they could see its head snap forward in its direction. For a second it just stood there, unmoving, a low screech growing in its throat. It knows, thought Sila.It knows. She grabbed the cutter more firmly and tensed her legs.

After seconds that felt stretched into hours, it paced forward – showing them its wizened, bleached body – before disappearing into the storage hold.

“Close it!” shouted Sila, jumping to her feet and reaching up for the door console. The thing inside twisted and saw her as the door slid home, mouth dropping open ready to scream, rows of sharpened teeth desperate for her flesh. Its rising call ended abruptly as the door closed, the storage rooms having thicker noise protection to account for the ambient charging noise. In just a few taps, Sila flicked some commands into the console and the light changed from green to red.

They both stood there for a few seconds, trying to listen above their pounding hearts for the sound of more of them, but there was only silence once again.

“OK,” said Sila, slapping Dave hard on the back. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

“Copy that,” said Dave. With his legs just about under his control, he ran up to his position on the steering column and gently pushed the cargo trolley back out into the corridor. Sila sparked up the power cutter and eased past him, every step getting them closer to the docking bay. Outside of the office, the corridor was quiet and empty, and it stayed that way until they got to the intersection that led back to the hangar.

It was then they heard the screams.

“Run!” shouted Sila, all pretence of stealth now abandoned. “Go!”

From deeper in the base, they heard them coming. It was déjà vu for all of them; sprinting down the corridor, trying to get back to the hangar, scared to death of what was chasing them. Except this time was different. The trolley was loaded with the bulky drive and wasn’t designed to go at anywhere near the speed they needed. Even with Dave pushing as hard as he could, they were falling behind. And the things behind them were catching fast, their desperate scrambling now echoing along with their metallic whines.

The fear in Sila that had rooted her to the spot when as she’d watched her friend get torn apart was different now; it was far closer to anger, a burning rage that she felt in her chest and her shoulders. It was at that second that she made a decision. As they got to the wider section of corridor than ran past the rec room, she flicked the power cutter’s blade on full while simultaneously sidestepping the trolley and twirling around as it flew by.

Immediately, she felt the impact. In her face, suddenly impaled on the burning blade, the deformed figure writhed and screamed as the cutter moved its way upwards, spraying brown sludge over the walls and ceiling. It’s black bulging eyes were just inches away from Sila’s – it had been seconds away from grabbing Dave – but she couldn’t see fear. Just anger, and pain, rolling together and burning it to its core. Its mouth split wide, deafening her with the howl that bellowed out past its bladed teeth, but Sila was done being scared. She eased her body slightly down, then, putting as much of her weight under the cutter that she could, she pushed it up hard. The muscles in her arms screamed as she lifted the thing off the floor, its head exploding in two clunks of brown-smeared white matter, sparks flying off its teeth.

She stood still for a second, cutter blade still wedged in one half of its skull, before she registered that two more of the things were coming up fast. The blade resisted as she tried to pull out the tip, so she tore off the heavy generator and threw it at the nearest one, causing it to stumble and fall. It thrashed and slipped on the floor made slimy by the body split open on the ground. She spun around and ran, suddenly made lighter, her footfalls tracing the corridor back to the docking bay until the internal door was in sight.

“Lisa!” she shouted, “Get ready to lock it!”

Dave had managed to get the cargo trolley back into the hangar and was now reaching out for her, screaming at her to hurry up. Even from distance, she could see from his body language that she wasn’t the only thing in that corridor. The screams were louder now. They made her want to stop, and lie down, and cry. She pushed the thought to the back of her mind and pushed every ounce of energy into her feet.

The door closed behind her immediately as she shot though, Dave grabbing her to slow her down as Lisa tapped it locked from the solitary screen left in the office. There were three or four dull thuds against the door, followed by mad scratching on every inch of its surface, before it fell silent.

Sila brought her arm up to wipe away the drenching sweat, except it wasn’t sweat. Brown sludge covered the top of her head and, as she looked down, she found she was caked in it. The odour was becoming increasingly pervasive, but she didn’t care. She looked like shit, but it was a trophy.

On the opposite side of the docking bay the airlock hissed open and Frank emerged, pulling off his breathing hood and rubbing the moisture off his skin. He walked over to them, taking in the sight, before stopping at Sila.

“You need a shower,” he said, and walked up to the jump drive, placing his hands on its casing. Sila let the smile spread over her face.

“Let’s get the drive installed into Phyliss,” said Dave, walking over to the crane and climbing up onto the control platform, “And now would be a good time to start praying.”

“Pretty sure that time was about eight hours ago,” mumbled Frank, grabbing the steering column and easing it around to face the SubAt. Sila joined him and added her weight. The trolley slid over to the empty bracket sticking out of Phyliss’ rear and came to a rest where Dave had positioned the chains. They attached the clips and gave the thumbs up to the crane platform, and the drive lifted up off the trolley.

Then they all froze as an unholy scream blasted through the internal door to the corridor. It was the usual metallic scraping sound, but now there was an additional element; anger, maybe. Or resentment. Or desperation. Whatever it was, it made their blood chill. The scream lasted a few seconds, then the bay slipped again into silence.

“OK,” Frank shouted to Dave, “Back a little, towards her landing ramp.”

The crane whirred into life, slowly edging the drive into the waiting frame. There was a collective sigh of relief as it slid home unopposed. Frank and Sila climbed up and unhooked the chains while Dave jumped down from the control platform and joined them at the rear of the SubAt.

“Right, we just need the power welder to secure it into place,” said Dave, climbing first up Phyliss’ left wing then onto her roof. Sila passed it up to him and was examining the edges of the drive when there was another scream from the door, but this time the lights around them flashed momentarily. They looked at each other, then at Lisa through the office window; her face was as puzzled as theirs. Without the computer in the control room she was blind to the base’s status, a feeling that was not comfortable or familiar to her. She looked down the corridor at the internal door and could see the lock light flickering like a candle.

“Hang on,” she said over the comms, “I just want to set the lock manually from inside. It’s not like we need to open that door again.”

“Copy that,” said Frank, who was now also on top of Phyliss, hanging over her rear edge to check where they’d need to weld. “You need some support?”

“No, I’m fine,” she replied, hands in her tool belt. “I’m going to carry out a level five lock procedure.”

Frank smiled. Levels one to four involved increasing levels of technology to solve an issue. Level five was a less official procedure, and involved using a screwdriver and brute force to permanently make something happen. The open joke was that there wasn’t much that couldn’t be fixed with a level five.

Lisa left the office and jogged down the short distance to the internal door, raising her screwdriver to prise open the door control panel. She’d just found the cables she needed to cut when another power fluctuation made the base flicker in and out of light, before settling back on. She looked up at the bulbs above her and watched them for five seconds, making sure the system stayed in place. When she looked down, the door light had changed to green.

Then the door slid open and it was there.

It howled through its gaping mouth and blasted her with noise as it stretched and loomed over her. She couldn’t move, couldn’t fight, couldn’t scream; it grew louder and taller and wider with every second.

“Lisa?” Over the comms, Sila’s panicked voice. “LISA?”

It snapped her back to reality and she stumbled back, falling hard but using the momentum to twirl around and run back into the docking bay, but she wasn’t fast enough. She was sprinting towards the SubAt when the first one snatched at her hair and pulled her back, slamming her into the ground, soon followed by two more. The sight of the three things bursting into the bay had caused Sila and Frank to scamper on top of Phyliss like hunters climbing a tree to avoid a bear, and now they were helpless to watch with Dave as the bleached, deformed bodies descended on Lisa. In the time it took the Techs to desperately look around for anything that could be used as a weapon – the power welder suddenly looking woefully inadequate – it was already too late.

The three things were fighting over Lisa as the Techs yelled helplessly, pulling her limbs in different directions as she cried out in a continuous low scream. The one holding her arm suddenly dropped her to the ground and slashed at another, rival screams becoming angrier, before the rivalry suddenly passed and they were on her again. They vomited in union, a flood of brown over her body, before they all started on her stomach, three faces slamming down and tearing out her flesh in rich red chunks. Her moans stopped as they severed her spinal column in two, their frenzied screams reaching a pitch utterly unbearable as the rest of her body slowly got turned into brittle mush.

There was nothing to be said, or done. The top of Phyliss’ hull was a good twelve feet off the ground, and while the three remaining Techs were safe at this vantage point, it gave them no pleasure. All it was now was a perfect place to watch their friend get torn to shreds on the docking bay floor beneath them.

 

19

Head higher now

Body colder now

Teeth wrapped around a metal plate and they push hard and crack

There’s more here I swear please let me bite

please let me bite

hard

– – –

Ten minutes later, without a word or movement between them, they watched as the things finally finished with Lisa and turned their attention to the ship. They stretched up to their highest point of posture and surrounded Phyliss, arms up and scratching away at her hull, but it was no use; in her patched state, she was impregnable. There were no footholds to grab, no exposed wiring to tear, and it drove them crazy. They circled around and around, growling in their throats, occasionally trying to lift themselves up onto one of the wings but failing each time. Occasionally one of them would let out a sharp, piercing scream, its harsh scrape echoing around their heads.

Frank picked up the power welder and turned to Dave.

“Dave”. No response. He was still staring at the brown stain where Lisa’s body had once laid.

“Dave!” Frank grabbed him by the collar and twirled him round, breaking his focus. Dave blinked.

“Hold my legs,” he growled, letting him go and quickly flicking on the power welder’s tip. It shone white gold against the grey hull. He walked to Phyliss’ rear and knelt down, beginning the welding seam along the top of the jump drive. The things below staggered round, positioning themselves under his head with jaws wide open and scream ascending. Sila peered over and was reminded of when baby birds call out for their mother’s sustenance. Except the pity was replaced with deep, physical hatred.

As she looked one in the eye, she focussed her thoughts outward.Hubbarb, she voiced in her mind.

Fe’eldie.

Jackson.

Lisa.

Each name brought a fresh wave of rage that swept from her shoulders down to her feet, but she didn’t let it control her. She held it tight, like a fireball in her chest, and used it to bring her heartrate down. Breathing deep, filling her lungs, in through the nose, out through the mouth. She forced herself to stare at this thing and not feel fear; to bury it deep until it shrivelled and died. Her white-knuckled fists unclenched.

“Put more of your weight on my legs, Dave,” came Frank’s voice from his position hanging off Phyliss’ rear end. He’d completed the welding seam on the top of the drive and was now working his way down the left hand side.

“How’s that?” asked Dave, face red from the exertion.

“OK, good,” replied Frank. He was a heavy man as it was, and the added weight of the power welder just made Dave’s job even harder. Frank fired up the welder again and tried to ignore the three open mouths below him, getting closer with every inch of seam he completed. They weren’t screaming this time, but a constant low growl rose up over the noise of the welder that would usually have unnerved him, but he was beyond that now. The lack of food and sleep had forced their bodies to run on pure adrenaline and it was this that now pushed him forward. He knew that if he stopped, he’d probably never start again.

He worked lower and lower until he reached the bottom of the jump drive, head resting inches away from their reaching hands. Luckily the drive was wide but relatively thin, and he was able to maneuver along its length without risk of being grabbed. Of course, much depended on Dave’s grip; he now had Frank by his calves, eyes closed and body straining to keep his exhausted muscles tense. Sila lay flat on her stomach, one arm reaching down holding onto Frank’s belt with as much strength as she could muster.

Her face was lodged downwards; one of the three split off and took two measured paces sideways until it was directly under her gaze. It had its head directly pointing up at hers; for the first time, she could see the smooth poreless skin pulled tight, like white rubber stretched over its hairless skull. The eyes had no visible centre, just flushed black voids. The jaw was nightmarishly long, somehow still joined to the rest of its skull, teeth broken and bunched into clusters of long, spiked tips. Beyond the teeth was like the eyes; dead, empty and black. From her raised position, its ribs jutted out of its emaciated chest and blocked the rest of its body, but she could visualise it well enough; whisper-thin legs, stretched and taut with sinew and bone. It reached up in a vain attempt to grab her head. White fingers, more like talons now, drummed impatiently on the metal hull beneath her.

Tink. Tink. Tink.

She tried to imagine the ground crew before. What had caused the first one to change; how they’d reacted as their bodies stretched and twisted into something horrific. When they’d started to die. Maybe it was something in the atmosphere, or the drinking water had been contaminated. It didn’t matter. There was only death here now, and for the first time she understood the price the fleeing crew were willing to pay.

“Lift me up a bit,” said Frank, his muffled voice snapping her out of her reverie. He’d finished the lower seam and was now working his way back up towards them, then the drive would be secure. Hopefully. Dave adjusted himself until Frank’s legs were bent underneath him and relished the opportunity to rest his arms.

Renewed screams rose up from below. Up to that point they had been still and silent, almost captivated by the prize so nearly within their grasp. Now, though, Frank’s head was slowly moving higher and this was sparking a new frenzy of crazed scratching and pacing around the ship, desperate for some kind of access to their fleshy bodies above. The metal screeching emitting from their throats was still enough to leave them cold. At this proximity, and with such condensed intensity, it shook their eardrums and rang through their skulls. Frank screamed at them to shut up; they didn’t listen.

Finally, the two ends of the seam met and Frank fell back ontoPhyliss’ roof, dropping the power welder next to him as he got his breath back. Dave gave him one enormous slap on his shoulder then dropped down into the ship to connect the jump drive to Lisa’s computer. Sila sat down crossed-legged and forced herself to look at the things below, pacing in wide circles, trying to get her. None of them had even mentioned Lisa once since she’d been taken. And that was probably for the best. There was little sense being distracted by outpourings of emotion now; they’d lost her, they’d lost the docking bay, and this was their last hurrah before meeting their end. And she refused to do it crying.

“Fuck this fucking fuck,” blasted Dave from the command console below. “Fuck.”

“Problem?” asked Sila, trying and failing to hide her exhaustion.

“Yes, there’s a fucking problem,” Dave sighed, “There’s a big fucking problem.”

Sila shared a look with Frank then dropped down into Phyliss.

Dave was staring at the jump drive connector. “It’s fucked. The whole thing is fucked.” He stopped and took a breath, trying to gather together the last strands of focus that he had left. “OK,” he continued, “The jump drive is responding to the command console, enough to receive Lisa’s coordinates anyway.” He swallowed hard as her name filled his chest. “But the power connector is missing. We need a standard length type four pin, that’s it. That’s it. A fucking standard four-pin. And we don’t have one. There’s probably fifty of them around the base, most modern machinery uses them.”

“Is there not one you can rip out from somewhere else?” asked Sila, scanning the ship around him.

“I replaced all the wiring in here, there’s nothing spare at all,” groaned Dave. He rubbed his aching head. “Stupid thing is, I’m pretty sure I saw a few when we were going through the cargo boxes to find parts for the tapper, but it would take time to go through it all again.”

Sila huffed. All those parts were still in piles next to the main hangar door. There was no way they could get there without getting shredded. Then she had a thought, stood, and looked up at the cockpit hatch.

Dave went on. “We both know we’re not getting past those things to get back into the base. We’re stuck here. I can move with the pairing thrusters, but that’s it.” He sat down on the floor, defeated, head in his hands. Sleep, sleep, beautiful sleep called his body. “We’re fucked, Sila. The drive won’t work.”

“The loading crane will have a four pin,” said Sila quietly.

Dave looked up at her. “They’d kill you before you got halfway to the control platform,” he said flatly.

“Maybe,” Sila responded. “Maybe”. And then she climbed out of the rooftop hatch. Dave stared at the spot where she vanished, then clambered up after her.

On Phyliss’ roof, Sila had thrown off her filthy shirt, vest underneath already greying, and was stretching out her legs.

“Don’t be stupid,” pleaded Dave, “You’ll never make it across.” He wasn’t sure he could watch another one of them die. The things below seemed to react to the tension in his voice, scampering more quickly now around the bay floor.

“What’s going on?” asked Frank.

“The jump drive won’t work without a four pin power connector,” said Sila, “And the crane has one. We need it.”

Frank looked over at the crane’s control platform, a good ten metres from their position perched on top of Phyliss. Even if she had a sprinting start she’d never be able to get across the distance and up onto the platform, let alone keep them off her once she was on there.

“You’ll die,” he said wearily. “They’ll kill you, Sila.”

“I’m not going down,” replied Sila, stretching her arms above his head, “I’m going up.” She pointed to the crane chains still dangling above the jump drive.

“Oh you’ve got to be shitting me,” said Dave quietly.

“Looks easy,” she said quietly. She wasn’t fooling anybody, but no-one had any alternatives to offer, so they just stayed quiet.

She walked over to the rear of Phyliss and reached up, placing both hands around the nearest chain to test its strength and nodding to herself as it held fast. Then, taking a deep breath, she squeezed her grip and lifted her body off the hull, but her hands slipped and she fell hard onto the top edge of the jump drive. Dave quickly grabbed her and held her fast until she got her footing again, standing up tall to face the chains once more.

“Are you really sure this is a good idea?” whispered Dave. Even the three things on the ground were now watching in silence, maybe filled with the anticipation of a falling body. Sila didn’t reply, instead wiping her hands hard on her vest before grabbing the chain for a second time.

Once again, she pulled himself up but this time she stayed there, wrapping her arms and legs around the chain for purchase as she slowly shimmied higher. The wide links ran all the way up the crane crossbar that was only two or three metres below the docking bay’s upper shell; it was a long climb up that kept them all breathless as they watched. Higher and higher she went, working her way up one arm length at a time, bracing herself each time she made any headway. Below her the three whitened bodies buzzed like flies, eagerly awaiting her eventual plummet into their waiting jaws.

She finally grappled himself onto the cross bar and slid along it, belly first. She was thankful that she hadn’t slipped on the chain, but now the steep drop made her stomach disappear and she forced herself to keep her eyes up. She was conscious of being followed; as she moved along the beam towards the crane’s main vertical strut, she could glimpse in her lower periphery three white shapes shuffling along directly underneath her. The cross bar was sufficiently wide to give her a slight sense of safety, at least after climbing up the chain, and that’s what she held in her mind as she reached the vertical strut.

She looked down to the control platform, itself three feet or so off the ground; a small metal square with a compact input desk sticking up on its near side. In their effort to always be beneath her, the three things had now surrounded the platform and had their arms raised over the safety barriers on each side. They couldn’t quite reach the control panel, though, much to Sila’s relief. Her plan had depended on it. She swung her legs over the side of the cross bar – being careful to take her weight in her arms – and found secure footing in the highest structural space in the honeycombed vertical column. To aid its flexibility, the structure of the strut had regular spaces between its thick support beams, and it was these that enabled Sila to safely clamber down towards the control desk.

As she descended, the growls began to grow in volume once again, the scraping screams forming in their throats as their prey got closer. Their hands were all up and scraping at the air, hoping their sheer force of will would somehow bring her to the ground. Sila caught their glare and slipped, her legs flailing for a second with her fingers holding her weight before she desperately found her footing again. She held himself there for a second, trying to ignore the frenzy growing down below, before starting to work her way down again.

Their smell wafted into her nose as she got a metre above the control desk, making her retch. She didn’t want to look at them; they were there, staring, close enough to get lost in their dead eyes or the chasm of their stretched throats. She pictured the desk beneath her, wracking her memory for the times she’d used that type of loading crane before; where the maintenance hatch was, where inside the cable would be. Wrapping her legs around the vertical strut as tightly as possible, she swiveled her body around sideways, but the desk stayed beyond her reach. Their faces were grouped around the raised desk, wanting arms scratching around its edges. She felt a sudden freezing chill as she caught their combined gaze on him, growling and clicking angrily.

“Sila,” shouted Frank from across the bay, “You good? Sila?”

She didn’t answer. Her arms were back around the column but had started feeling impossibly heavy and weak, as if the last hours were finally causing them to give out. The three monstrously contorted faces caught her gaze again, her neck and back suddenly freezing under their stare. Maybe sensing her fear, their jaws dropped in unison and their combined metallic scream rose up until it was deafening. The noise tore at her, her gritted teeth forcing her shredding resolve to hold fast.

Suddenly, the screaming stopped in an abrupt gulp as the lit power welder slammed into the one nearest Phyliss and seared a seam across its howling chest as it clattered to the ground.

“Haha!” shouted Frank, standing at the very front of the ship with his arms raised. “Take that, you fucking prick!”

The other two whipped around while the third writhed in a frenzy on the ground, and Sila snapped back to reality.

“Come on, Sila,” screamed Dave, “Grab it now!”

Seeing the temporary distraction below her, she took a quick breath and let go, both feet slamming down onto the control desk and legs bending into an instant crouch as she yanked open the maintenance hatch. A four pin power cable was exactly where she imagined it would be, right there in front of her. She wanted to kiss someone.

The two bleached bodies were down on the ground with the third – maybe helping, maybe not – but it was quickly recovering from its injury and pushing itself back up into a standing position. Pushing and snapping the other two away, it turned its head and stared directly at Sila. Its mouth stretched down at the sight of her at snatching height, and its howl deafened them once again.

Sila didn’t pause. She reached in and deftly plucked the power cable free on both ends, clamped it in her mouth, then put as much power in her still crouched legs and jumped up for the column.

Three pairs of sinewy hands slipped past her jumping ankles, talonous fingers brushing against her legs but not having the chance to take hold, vicious screaming rising in anger with her every move upwards. She felt newly energised and clambered up the pocked column like a girl climbing a tree and was soon slipping back along the cross bar to the cheers of her friends below. She could just about hear the Techs over the noise the three white things were making beneath her, clawing at the air in their desperation to make her fall. The one that had taken the brunt of the power welder seemed the most crazed, flailing and screaming wildly as brown sludge oozed from the wide arc across its chest.

Sila swung her legs down over the chain and slipped down quickly, arms bringing her to a halt just above Phyliss. She leaped down onto the hull and had to wait for her friends’ ecstatic embraces to end before being able to give the power cable to Dave.

“You needed this?” she said with a smile.

“You fucking legend!” shouted Dave, and disappeared down the cockpit hatch. Moments later, his excited head popped up.

“We are on, ladies and gentlemen,” he said with a grin, “The drive is hooked up and going through it pre-flight sequence. Time to get our flightsuits on and get the fuck out of here, if that’s alright.”

Sila and Frank exchanged excited looks then scrambled down the hatch one by one.

On the ground, the three bleached bodies scratched hands and teeth repeatedly against the ship, trying desperately to eat their way inside.

 

20

Eat

Eat

Eat

Eat

End

Pain

End

Eat

– – –

Dave was in the pilot’s chair, squinting through the thin windshield and mentally pulling up all of Phyliss’ recovered systems. He was surrounded by a sea of cables and electrical boxes, different pieces of tech hardwired together to hopefully give the ship what it needed to reach orbit. Sila and Frank were jammed together in the thin command console area; there wasn’t much for them to do but lodge themselves in as tightly as possible and be ready to hit the jump button when Dave gave the word. The whine of the pairing thrusters grew beneath them, sending vibrations through their bodies from feet to head. Their red flightsuits were topped with sealed breathing hoods, each of them trying to breathe slowly so as to preserve every precious scrap of oxygen that remained. That was easier said than done, though, when their last fleeing chance for escape was slowly forming around them. The jump drive hummed and shook from the other side of the sealed internal door; Frank echoed all their thoughts in a quiet prayer that the seams held.

“OK,” shouted Dave over the comms, struggling to be heard over the din. “Open the bay doors.”

Sila shot a worried look at Frank. He shrugged and looked back.

“Uh, Dave,” said Sila, “I don’t either of us knows how to do that.”

“What do you mean?” Dave snapped back. “Check the computer. The remote signal must be on there. There’s no way Lisa would have left it off!”

He was right, of course; Lisa had programmed a sequence of door release codes into the jump drive, but the lines of text on the monitor meant nothing to the two Techs staring at it now. SIla half-heartedly reached out to touch the dangling keyboard, but thought better of it.

“The computer’s running the jump drive,” she shouted to Dave, “We could ruin the whole thing if we mess with it now!”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” shouted Frank. He unbuckled himself, stood up and moved to the hatch. “Use the pairing thrusters to get me next to the manual release. It’s to the right of the bay door.” He remembered operating it earlier to stop the ground crew from leaving. It felt like a different universe now.

“Oh sure, yeah, no problem,” barked Dave sarcastically, “I’ll just reverse us over there straight away.”

“Can you do it or not?” shouted Frank.

Dave paused and looked at him, then shrugged.

“Good enough,” replied Frank, and popped open the emergency hatch.

As he climbed back up on top of Phyliss, he craned his neck over to see what the things were doing, but they weren’t immediately visible. It was only when he moved right to the edge and looked straight down that he could see them; they’d moved from attacking the hull to taking sideswipes at the bottom pairing thrusters, maybe attracted by their noise. Or maybe there was something of the ground crew left in them, and they had worked out what was about to happen. Frank didn’t want to wait around to see if he was right.

“Alright,” he shouted into his comms, “Let’s try it!” Then he crouched down and grabbed whatever handhold he could.

From far beneath him, under Phyliss’ reinforced hull, came a roar that built and grew until it almost shook him off his feet. They whined even higher and suddenly changed their noise to a ffffoom, and the ship gently eased up before bumping back down on her landing struts. The engines pulsed again, and once more she rose up to only thud down again. In between the jostles, Frank could see two of the white bodies dancing around in a frenzy, and he hoped that one of them had caught a face full of thruster.

Then the engines roared with a new ferocity and Phyliss jumped again, except this time she immediately tilted so hard to the right that Frank would have tumbled off if he hadn’t been so securely anchored. To say that the ship flew would be false; it was more of a controlled scrape with her thrusters firing at a diagonal, her landing struts carving deep trenches into the docking bay floor as she went. The three things scattered from the ship in panic as it moved away from them towards the door. Phyliss got closer and closer to the right side of the bay door then, at the last second, thudded back down flat and let the floor friction bring her to a stop, right wing denting into the bay door as it did so. The thrusters died down into their usual holding level.

“You still there?” shouted Dave.

“Yeah. Thanks for checking,” growled Frank, scanning over his shoulder for the door access panel. He found it quickly, about a metre away from the wing tip but slightly lower than he’d remembered. He checked his other side; the three were starting to make their way over to the ship. He didn’t waste time. Jumping up, he ran over to the end of the wing and slid down onto his chest, holding fast with one hand while reaching out for the switch with the other.

He couldn’t reach it, even with his muscles fully stretched and fingertips worming their way to the edge of the panel. He glanced up again; they were getting closer.

“Frank?” Sila’s voice rang through his comms.

“Working on it,” he huffed. He then had a change of plan and swivelled around so his legs dangled off the edge of the wing. He gripped hard and pushed his chest back until it was at the edge of the wing metal then stretched out his legs, trying to visualise the position of the panel and the release button inside. His legs swung and hit metal. He readjusted and tried again, but nothing. He altered his grip to give himself another few inches, trying to ignore the part of him that was screaming about the things closing in on the ground, and swung his legs one more time.

It was then that his hands slipped.

His body flipped backwards as he toppled off the wing, landing hard on his back next to the piles of junk they’d earlier pulled out of the storage boxes. Hearing the metallic scream suddenly grow told him everything he needed to know; the three were about to get their treat.

Well, fuck them, he thought, and jumped to his feet without even glancing their way. He reached up and slammed his palm into the emergency release button, then turned with a giant triumphant grin on his face. The three had fanned out around him, about three metres away on all sides. It reminded him suddenly of the zoo. He carefully looked up to his right and worked out which piece of Phyliss he’d grab when the ship scraped through the open door.

Except, he realised, the door behind him was silent. He was expecting the flashing yellow beacon and a siren warning of the emergency opening; instead, there was nothing. A quick glance over his shoulder confirmed what he’d feared; the doors were still totally shut.

“It didn’t work,” whispered Frank into his comms. “The door panel must be malfunctioning.” That was it then. Here he was, and there they were, staring and growling. And now he was going to die.

Inside Phyliss, there was panic. Dave and Sila desperately looked around for a weapon of some kind, but the SubAt had been stripped bare of all but the most basic of essential systems. There was nothing spare to use. Dave dove back into his chair and placed his hands on the flight stick, maybe with half a plan forming that he would sweepPhyliss round in a deep spin and hopefully snag a few of those fuckers along the way. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was all he had.

The door. So the manual release didn’t work, but he’d seen Lisa’s control screen in the office. It had big red virtual buttons for every door in the base overlaid onto a blueprint. He gripped the flight stick harder and began increasing the pairing thruster output, but then something caught his eye. The long, flat ticking box that he and Sila had made lay to his right on the floor, thrown there after being rejected in favour of Frank’s device, and left untouched since. He remembered the ridiculous sound it made – ticaticaticatica. He jumped up and grabbed it.

“Sila! Take her for a sec. Follow my lead.” He didn’t wait for the question forming in Sila’s mouth and climbed out of the cockpit hatch as quickly as he could. She watched him go then leapt into the pilot’s chair and strapped herself in.

From the top of Phyliss’ hull, he could see how close the things were to getting Frank. He was backed into a corner and they were closing in slowly, bodies standing tall and jaws dropping open in preparation for the kill. The scream was rising too, cutting through the steady hum of the thrusters’ fiery output.

Dave said something quietly to himself, then flicked on his ticker and held it above his head.

Their reaction was instantaneous. From below, each of their heads spun round to face Dave on the roof, eyes bulging with obsession.Ha, thought Dave. Take that, Frank. My ticker is motherfucking catnip. He waved it three times above his head in wide arcs while they turned their bodies, tracing its movement with their heads. After the third sweep, he put as much force into his arms as he could and threw it towards the crane. As the ticker flew through the air, Dave jumped to the front of the cockpit, caught Sila’s panicked eyes through the strip of windshield glass, and pointed towards the office. The ticker hit the ground hard and skidded next to the command platform, still clacking away. The three chased after it, entranced.

Then, shouting at Frank to get back into the ship, Dave leapt to the floor and started running.

He landed well and pounded towards the office without looking back. All was noise; the reverberation of the amplified ticker; the piecing metallic scream from the three; the roar of Phyliss’ thrusters as they burst into life. Dave focused on the office and the screen inside, trying to visualise the button he’d need to press. It sounded like Sila had picked up his signal as the SubAt was roaring towards him; hopefully Frank was already on board and the three would give him enough time to jump in once he’d opened the bay door.

Except Frank wasn’t on board, and Dave was wrong; he hadn’t seen three run towards the ticker, but two. The one with the welded scar across its chest had taken two paces before freezing still and turning slowly back to Frank, who remained cornered by the bay door while he watched Phyliss scrape over towards Dave, and the office.

Frank suddenly felt very exposed. The one with the scar stretched tall and growled at him, jaw opening wide until the growl turned into a scream, its arms tense and fists clenched. Its whole body was a spring, Frank could see that now; tensing fully before using its energy to tear its victim to tatters. As it stood over him, eyes bulging with undiluted rage, Frank looked to his left and saw a collection of metal bars neatly stacked with all the other junk they’d emptied out earlier.

Then, without thinking, one was in his hand, blurring across his vision in a hard arc before thudding violently into the thing’s chest as it pounced. There was a crack and a howl as it staggered sideways; the jutting ribs on that side had completely disappeared and it dripped brown sludge onto the floor from its drooling mouth.

Its howl cut through the ticker and had an even stronger reaction from the two by the crane. Their heads snapped up and saw the third doubled over, but then their gaze traced the path to the moving ship and, just beyond it, Dave running through the office door. With a renewed, angry scream, they went straight for him.

Dave slammed through the door and ran to the console, Sila visible through the window trying to wrangle Phyliss as close as possible but having trouble keeping her in one place. He couldn’t hear the ticker any more and he told himself it was because of the proximity of the SubAt’s engines outside; he didn’t want to think about the other possibility. The screen waited for him on the far desk, the lone piece of tech left in there. He’d been right; on the screen was a blue layout of the base with red panels for each door. Dave stabbed the docking bay section and it enlarged, presenting him the two door options. As soon as he pressed the bay door, it turned green and the yellow warning light blinked through the hangar. Dave breathed a sign of relief and turned to leave.

The first thing he saw was Phyliss, cockpit facing him directly, Sila silently screaming something at him through the window, even though his comms were completely silent. The second was the two of them, pressed up against the side office door on his right, using their teeth in a frenzied thrash to scrape their way through the glass. From his position, all he could see was bulging black eyes and endless rows of sharpened teeth leading to the black void of their throats, streaks of brown slime slipping down the outside of the glass as it slowly chipped away.

Behind the SubAt, at the other end of the hangar, the bay door was almost open and he could see the purple haze of Vehrion beyond. To his surprise, Dave could see Frank to its right, waving something above his head. Next to him was the third thing, straightening. The glass of the office door smashed and the metallic scream blasted into the office as the things started to push their heads through.

Dave looked at them, then at the door, then at Phyliss. His Phyliss. He caught Sila’s eye through the windshield, smiled, pointed, then gently tapped the bay door closed on the screen below him. Sila screamed something silently at him but he just waved, then used his hands to gesture towards the door once more.

Sila stared at him for a second, then spun Phyliss round to face the shrinking exit. With a blast of the thrusters, the SubAt shot forward leaving a trail of sparks behind her as she dragged her landing struts along.

Frank hit the one with the scar again, but it didn’t seem to notice this time. His weapon bounced off its back as it stood taller and taller, rage-filled eyes fixed on him as its jaw split wide. The bar was bent almost in two; Frank let it clatter to the ground and raised his fists. He wouldn’t win this fight but he was going to take of piece of it with him. As it tensed once again, the SubAt loomed from behind and skidded next to them, wing angled down towards the floor.

He didn’t wait for an invitation. He jumped onto the wing as it swept towards him, using whatever handholds he could find to desperately hold on and scramble up towards the cockpit hatch as the ship scraped through the closing hangar exit. The fierce Vehrion wind pounded him as Sila cleared the hangar and skidded along the rocky ground, thrusters roaring at the effort of moving the heavy ship. Frank clasped the hatch and popped it open, falling in headfirst before jumping up and sealing it closed.

“Where’s Dave?” yelled Frank desperately.

“He’s gone,” shouted Sila. “He stayed behind.”

In other circumstances, they would have stopped for a moment to absorb what had just happened, but at this point Frank could only say one thing.

“Can we jump?” he screamed over the roar.

“Wait, not yet,” she replied over her shoulder, “I’ve got to get her nose up for a clear line of sight.” She pushed every inch of power into Phyliss’ last remaining front thruster, trying to tilt her up to the sky towards their waiting TC. The roar of the thruster ripped through the ship, it struggling desperately to move the heavy ship in the right direction. Purple dust plumed around them, almost obscuring her tiny slit of windshield.

And it was then that the thing with the scar smashed its face teeth first into the windshield.

Both of the Techs cried out in shock, the image of its bleached skull slamming over and over into the small piece of glass almost too much for Sila to take. From the pilot’s chair she was only about a metre from its crazed mouth; she could see the tiny fractures forming in the middle of the panel as it bit and smashed, over and over. She wondered if it would squeeze right through or just reach through and tear out her throat, just like Fe’s.

Her friend’s face, anguished in death, caused her to close her eyes. A moment passed where there was only noise and overwhelming sadness. But it fuelled something deeper, and as she opened her eyes, she flicked a switch and Phyliss’ rear end thudded diagonally into the dirt.

“What the fuck are you doing?” yelled Frank, now strapped into the command console, but she didn’t answer. She didn’t need to. Suddenly Phyliss’ nose arced upwards until it was almost vertical, the purple of Vehrion’s terrain suddenly replaced by its hazy sky thanks to the rerouted power. The new angle, though, gave the thing on the hull increased thrust in its attack and, with a splitting scream, it smashed down into the glass one more time, causing snowflake fractures all along the small panel. Sila wasn’t sure if it would hold another hit. It reared up again, taller now, scarred chest gleaming in the starlight, and tensed its entire body.

“No, you don’t,” growled Sila, flicking power back full into the rear thrusters. For a second, the ship pushed up from the ground and, just as the nose began to fall, she turned over her shoulder.

“JUMP!”

The one with the scar brought its body down as Frank slammed his fist on the button.

Dave was sat in the office chair, watching the ship behind the closing bay door, the two white bodies still outside the office glass but seconds away from smashing it in. He saw Phyliss slam down and point up, and he smiled at Sila. Phyliss rose again, the last of the three things astride her cockpit like a statue, and he closed his eyes. Her thought of Phyliss, of the shower, of her glowing green circles, and tracing his favourite one across her back. He told her he loved her.

Then noise, and light. Then there was nothing.

 

21

The fusion shockwave from the jump sent a speeding bubble of energy in every direction. It atomised everything immediately around it; rock melted instantly into glass and the bay doors were almost closed but it folded them in like paper. The outside hull of the docking bay was shredded in long lines, giant strips of thick metal left pointing up to the stars. Inside the bay, everything had been pushed sideways and backwards. The loading crane was in ten pieces, the thick chains broken into individual links. The piles of tools and boxes that the Techs had unloaded were nowhere to be seen and now a thick covering of silver sand lay across all surfaces.

The metal floors and walls, or at least that which remained, had been scrubbed clean by the blast and now shone brightly in the Vehrion atmosphere. There was heat in the cold, steam turning to ice as the wind swept through the remains of the hangar.

At the back, near the office, the two remaining remnants of the ground crew had been almost totally vapourised; all that remained was a bleached disembodied arm half caught inside the door glass, blown sludge gently oozing from its stump. The thick blast glass from the main window had shattered inwards and large chunks were embedded in the walls behind the desk. Sparks gently rained from each light fitting, bouncing silently on the ground. Nothing moved, and the planet was still once more.

Far above, TechCarrier 1-9 slowly continued its push through its holding orbit. Considering it was just a workhorse used to transport Techs and their tools to any part of occupied space, it was actually a surprisingly elegant vessel. Wide and broad, its nose gently dipped down towards the fore viewing deck and its sides were dotted with two small wings. Just below these were the docking bays, room enough for five or six SubAts even thought it usually only carried one. Every inch inside was given over to the Techs and their needs; not just equipment, but recreation resources, food, clothing, medicine, entertainment, and so on. The Tech lifestyle could be long and lonely, but had become a sought-after positon.

Vehrion sat in a very attractive part of its system, it being one of four planets that swung around Sol27/A, its yellow host star. One of the four was a blue gas giant, twice the size of anything else in the system and it sat right at the rear like a guard. Its current position framed TC1-9 beautifully against the sun and cast a glow over Vehrion below.

This serenity, though, was instantly shattered as a jump seam split open far too close to the TechCarrier’s hull, the fusion shockwave causing it to automatically divert full power to its inertia thrusters just to stop the spin. The blast was so intense that its power flicked off for a few seconds, causing the emergency generators to quickly take over. It wasn’t in its usual holding pattern any more, so the ship’s autopilot clicked into emergency mode, held position, and signalled the Techs for support.

Which would have been fine if Phyliss still had any working communications equipment.

The SubAt burst out of the jump seam sideways. She looked like she’d been squeezed on all sides, every single one of her repaired panels dented and twisted but somehow holding. The jump engine was silently flaring, fire seeping out of its rear fins and disappearing into the void quickly. A single jet of steam shot out from underneath, slowing increasing the ship’s erratic frontward spin. There were no lights inside.

Sila opened her right eye, the left sealed shut by something. Her head felt wet inside her flight suit. Everything was silent around her, but her bleary eye caught the sweep of the planet through the fragmented windscreen glass trailing past her vision, slowly at first, then increasing in speed. She looked over her shoulder; Frank lay slumped in his chair. To her left, the computer sat lifeless, along with most of the other pieces of control board that were shoved in around her. She snapped to attention and shook her head to try and focus, but it just made it hurt even more. She wasn’t dead, meaning her breathing apparatus was still working and the ship seemed to have held against the trauma of the jump, but she now had the sensation of being squeezed very tight. The flightsuits were pressurised but had not been designed for space walks. They wouldn’t hold out much longer.

She faced forward again and tried to ignore everything but two points: the pairing thrusters, and the TC. Staring out the small slit of a window, something caught her eye amongst the fragmented glass. A single sharpened tooth, embedded in a deep cut which was now creeping longer in every direction. She had to find the TC’s position, now.

As if beckoned, it swung by her view from left to right. The TC was closer than she’d expected it to be, and the brief glimpse of its glowing side thrusters told her that it was trying to push back into a stable position after the fusion blast. Well, good work Lisa, she thought with a smile. Almost put us straight in her docking bay.

She grabbed the flight stick and eased it forward, but there was no response. Fighting off a sudden wave of panic, she manually shifted all of Phyliss’ remaining power to the paring thrusters. After a long pause, they spluttered into life, their vibrations shaking them all through the crumpled hull. Sila had no idea if all three were still working, but one definitely was, so that would have to be good enough. She could feel from the ship’s spin that gas was being vented off from somewhere – jump drive coolant, maybe? – so she’d have to fight against that first.

Pausing for a second to read the spin, the purple planet rushing by her once more, Sila eased on the thrusters against their motion. She had no readouts to tell her what she needed to know; instead she tried to relax and feel where the ship was moving. She sat very still, imagining the output from the thrusters fighting against the cycle, slowing the nose as it flipped over tail. The thrusters were roaring, shaking everything around her. She hoped there was enough ofPhyliss to withstand this kind of pressure. The planet flew by again, but its journey seemed less urgent now. The SubAt’s damaged inertia dampeners stopping them from being squashed but still let much of the movement sensation through. That was good, though; it gave Sila something to hang on to. Sensory feedback in the absence of technology.

The spin slowly came under her control, though the venting gas from below meant she constantly had to fight its insistence. If they lost power now, they’d curve back into space and be lost. The pressure on her skin was growing and it was getting harder to draw a breath; it didn’t matter if they still had oxygen in their tanks if they couldn’t physically breathe it in. When the planet passed by again, she angled the ship to the right and hoped her memory of where the TC sat wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t; as she turned, it came into view, a little further away this time, but now in a stable position and with Docking Bay 04 angled directly towards her nose.

She didn’t wait for another opportunity.

Sila eased off the thrusters as the gas rotated the SubAt slightly up from the back, so the top of her hull diagonally faced the TC, then she hit the paring thrusters on full. The whole ship roared and shook viciously as she pushed forwards in fits and starts, trying not to use the thrusters continuously but in short controlled blasts so as to preserve what little functionality there was left. All the while she had to tap at the front thruster to counter the rear spin, pushing Phylisshigher than she wanted. The drift was slow, though, and they were past the point of no return. They were going for the docking bay and there was no time left to change their mind. Ignoring her idea of fuel preservation, she slammed the thrusters on full as the TC’s docking bay grew larger in her window.

The gas jet spun the SubAt again and she pushed forward on the front thruster, but this time the angle grew too much. The TC’s side wing suddenly came into view and she realised that they were about to overshoot the docking bay. It was open and so close now; she could see through the open airlock doors the pristine landing platform inside, surrounded by banks of tools and glowing instruments. They were drifting up too fast. A wave of frustration flooded over her and she slammed her fist into the console. They were going to collide with the wing, and that would be the end of that; after all they’d been through, they were going to die just metres away from safety.

Taking her hands off the thrusters had caused the gas to spin the ship forward once more so that the docking bay and wing drifted out of view. Soon they’d be facing back towards the planet, then they’d impact with the wing and explode. It was a sobering, sickening thought, but was suddenly interrupted by another. Sila’s eyes opened wide, then she gripped the controls, and waited. For a few seconds, nothing but space filled her window. Then, as Vehrion’s purple atmosphere came into view, she threw the bottom thrusters on full. The feeling of being flattened suddenly grew to an almost unbearable level; the ship’s final systems were beginning to fail, threatening to take their bodies with them.

Phyliss, upside-down in relation to the TC, and moving backwards towards it, pushed down just as they hit the edge of the wing. With the increased force she scraped along, taking chunks of metal from the wing into her lower hull before the single remaining thruster managed to apply enough force to ease her off. From the cockpit, Sila could see the edge of the wing moving away in a shower of sparks, fire bursting through the interior of the SupAt as it tore along its underneath edge. As the thruster finally pushed the ship down, Sila pictured the lip of the landing bay getting closer and closer, and wondered if they’d have enough downward motion to make it.

The edge of the docking bay hit the landing struts hard, tearing them off and sending them flying back into space. The metal below the Tech’s feet tore open, revealing fire and light beyond, and ripping the single remaining pairing thruster from its enclosure. Phyliss shot into the artificial gravity of the docking bay, and took an upside-down slow rear dive onto the deck and diagonally impacted onto the landing pad. She slid roughly along in a wave of sparks and hit into a mobile heavy loader, bending it in two and embedding it into the metal wall behind. As the SubAt came to a rest, fire bellowed out from the jump drive into the hangar, causing the automatic extinguishant to pour down.

Sila couldn’t breathe or see. The impact had thrown her backwards, and now she lay still strapped into the pilot’s chair across Frank dangling upside-down in the command console. She came to and saw smoke and fire raging above her, before the foam sprayed down and flooded her vision. There wasn’t air, though; she was being flattened from every angle and bright lights prickled behind her eyes. She closed them.

Then the flames disappeared in a gush of foam and a sudden booming thud rang out as the heavy docking bay door slammed shut behind them, the first real sound she’d heard in a while. Suddenly, the pressure started easing off her limbs. Leaning up, she used the last of her strength and popped off her straps; she tumbled down by Frank’s arms, who was conscious now and trying desperately to release his own straps. She reached up and helped him out and to his feet, before they both climbed up through a hole torn out of Phyliss’s underside. The metal was slippy from the foam and, one by one, they slid down and crumpled in a heap onto the docking bay floor. The air was rushing in noisily; Frank didn’t wait for the all-clear, instead tearing off his breathing hood and gasping heavily in the clean air. Sila followed suit, the blueish tint to her skin slowly turning back to pink after her repeated, grateful breaths.

They stayed there for ten minutes, not speaking, just taking in everything; the air, the ship, the fact that they were somehow not dead. Once they’d adjusted, their thoughts drifted to that which they’d left behind. It was too much.

After a while, they sat up on the cold bay floor and took in the sight of their ship. Phyliss looked like a chunk of crushed metal, no more a SubAt than a steaming heap of junk. Each of the exterior panels had popped in some place, even though most of their welding seams had held fast. The jump drive dangled off the rear in two pieces, still gently smouldering in a pool of foam. She lay on her back with her lower half almost totally torn open, wires spilling out like guts from a slaughtered wasteland animal. Smoke wafted out from every part of her hull and disappeared quietly through the extraction vents above.

It was Frank that finally got to his feet. He had a swollen black eye, but looked relatively unscathed. Sila had a deep cut above her left eye and the blood had left a wide streak down to her neck, though the bleeding seemed to have stopped now. She staggered up and started walking slowly around Phyliss, speechless at the sheer incredulity of having survived the jump. Part of her felt like she’d cheated the others. Without their help, Phyliss would have never left the ground, but the two remaining Techs were the only ones that reaped the benefit. She said a quiet prayer – for Dave, Fe, Lisa, Hubbarb, Jackson; for education, for luck, for Phyliss – then turned her back on the downed ship.

Frank hobbled over to where she stood and put his arm around her.

“Good flying, chief,” he said.

“Thanks,” she replied.

They walked back into the safety of the TC arm-in-arm, both for physical and emotional support. Luckily, the TechCarrier was in the exactly same state as when they’ve left it, although there wasn’t much they could have done if it had been different. Both of them felt utterly ruined, the pure rush of adrenaline that had carried them through the past thirty hours now fading away to reveal the true extent of their hunger, pain and exhaustion.

Once in the med bay, each of them stood in the searing shower for as long as they could stand before putting on clean clothes and tending to their wounds. Eventually, when they were all clean and bandaged, Sila and Frank sat around a round table in the food hall and made up a feast using the reserve stock for the food processors, but even with the meat sizzling in front of them, they could only manage a few mouthfuls each.

In the end, they cleared it away and headed for the navigation platform. SIla looked over Frank’s shoulder as he set the coordinates for the return trip to Reandre, not really watching, but lost in their her thoughts of home. She then recorded a distress call and sent it via a jump report. Not that it made much difference now; they’d be back just after it would be received, but it was best to follow protocol.

Once they confirmed that autopilot was in control, they headed for their private quarters to finally sleep. Except, almost at the same time, they both decided to bunk in together in one of the larger communal rooms, locking the door and leaving a light on in the corner.

Then they pulled their blankets up tight, and waited for sleep to take them.

 

Epilogue

Dave woke suddenly, sweat stinging his eyes. Except that, when he wiped it away, the stinging remained.

He tried to move but the desk was pinning him down from above, and it felt like there was something else heavy on top of it. Finally, he managed to wriggle forward until he emerged from under the pile of metal, glass and wood, blinking into the purple light. He gasped in panic for a second then realised that his breath was burning, like inhaling pepper, but he hadn’t suffocated. He couldn’t remember if the report on Vehrion had mentioned that the atmosphere was partially breathable, or the pressure survivable. It wasn’t a comfortable sensation being exposed to this – every inch of his skin felt hot and compressed – but it clearly wasn’t about to outright kill him.

Maybe that would have been better, he thought.

The sudden image of the bleached things trying to bite their way through the office door made him jerk his face to the right, but they were now thankfully nowhere to be seen. There was just an arm left, lying slimy and disjointed in the corner.

He wondered absentmindedly if he could eat it.

Dave crawled out of the shattered main window and tumbled out onto the ground. His whole body hurt, like it had been in a crash. He couldn’t remember watching the SubAt jump but could see that it had happened; everything around him was in shreds. If Lisa had got her coordinates right, they might have even made it back to the TechCarrier. This made him crack a smile, but it was suddenly a strange sensation, so he stopped. There were no more of those things here to harm him now, he was pretty sure of that; maybe his friends had made it back and were already in the process of organising a rescue.

He tried to feel happy about the situation. His clothes were in tatters, random streaks of blood all over them. He decided to move into the base to change, and wait.

The corridor leading to the internal door had been split open like a banana peel and it made process slow and painful. The acidic air burnt down to the bottom of his chest, causing choking coughs to rise up through his throat. However, three doors in he found a closed section that hissed open as he approached, cold air venting through the opening as he went in. He wasn’t far from the personal quarters of the ground crew, and quickly found some clothes inside. However, as soon as he was stripped naked, a tiredness washed over him that was hard to ignore. There was a line of beds there, inviting him in, but he was suddenly reluctant to give in to their call. He had the gnawing feeling that, while he’d been unconscious, he’d been dreaming. Horrible dreams of being chased and eaten. Nightmares of claws, and bulging eyes, and teeth.

Rows, and rows, and rows, of teeth.

 

 

 

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