Monday, October 8, 2018

A Rude Awakening by Jim Bartlett

Major Henning and his spaceship crew have been woken from cryogenic sleep and find the ship may not be working well enough to get them home; by Jim Bartlett.

Henning reaches for his cup, only to pull back at the last moment, remembering it was just as empty as the last time he grabbed for it.

Get it together, Major.

He takes in a deep breath and lets his gaze wander down to the chronometer. At first, none of it makes sense, a little too much fog in his brain for the numbers to work.

Okay, 32 hours. He's been up 32 hours. Cut yourself some slack.

Shifting his focus back to the thick swath of asteroids that stretches across the frontal screen, he places his palm on the roller, and once again begins to wrestle with the retro control. It only takes a few moments for his frustrations to get the best of him, and he flings his arms upward, nearly striking the overhead panel. No matter how hard or which way he spins the damn thing, the ship seems to be drawn in their direction.

He leans back, taking in a deep, long breath. Relax. Relax.

Relax...

A beeping somewhere in the distance pulls him from a hard sleep. He springs up in his chair, rubbing his eyes, a feeling of panic surging through his body. The border on the monitor now flashes yellow, keeping beat with the annoying warning tone. He raises a fist and curses the screen with its damn asteroid blockade, then takes the fist to the roller, its uselessness like a hot poker in his side.

Despite his tirade, the yellow flash simply continues, and he huffs in frustration. He knows it's only a matter of time before the warning steps up to red.

A rustle from behind causes him to turn, catching Lieutenant Markos as she leans into the cockpit. Her hand rests on the empty co-pilot's chair, but her eyes are fixated on the craggy rocks parading across the screen.

"Doesn't sound as though things are going well. I'm surprised they can't hear you down in the galley." She smiles, but her eyes stay on the glass. "Do you suppose that's the Crimerean Belt?"

"Doesn't look like it, but maybe." Henning gives his shoulders a shrug. "Hopefully. Hell, I don't know. Since Cla/dine* went out it's really hard to say. We keep drifting, so, without some recognizable marker, I can only make wild guesses."

* Cybernetic Life-support Automation / Deep-space Integrated Navigational Engine

"How close are we?"

"We're close enough it triggered a warning, so maybe a couple hundred thousand clicks out, but the way these damn instruments are acting, I've no faith in any of it."

She shakes her head. He's not sure if it's in agreement, or she, like him, is just trying to stay awake.

"Why's it so dark in here?

"Something's up with the power. Half the lights won't come on and the others" - Henning points up at the overhead - "look like they're on their last leg."

Rubbing her eyes, the lieutenant fights off a yawn. "Will's still down in the processor room. He's pretty sure he's isolated the problem to a burnt circuit board. If that's the case, no tellin' how much data we've lost." She runs her long fingers, nails chewed to the quick, through her hair. "Do you think we'll be getting a vid-com from Flight Control?"

Henning glances down at the panel.

"Well, it's sixteen-hundred now... Cla/dine woke us up at what, oh-five-hundred yesterday?"

"Something like that."

"The emergency beacon goes out automatically, so if this really is the Crimerean Belt that'd make us about... let's see... maybe twelve years out? And, if that's the case, they wouldn't have received the signal until around seventeen or eighteen-hundred last cycle." With a sigh, he put his hands to his temples and rubs. "Can't be sure how long before they'd be able to get someone up to the comm center at that hour. Assuming they even did. But, if they did... let's say at around oh-eight-hundred... and then were able to put together a transmission, hell, that's only eight hours ago. If that's the case, we'll probably not hear anything until, and this is just a guess, somewhere around eighteen-hundred?"

"Well, that sucks, skipper. Right now, that sounds like forever."

Henning nods. "Just hope they got the diagnostic readout from the beacon."

Markos's face goes pale.

"And what happens if Will can't fix Cla/dine?"

"We sure as hell can't go back into the cryogenic suspension chambers. Cla/dine's breakdown is what kicked us out of bed in the first place."

"So, if we turn around, provided that's even possible, we're looking at twelve, maybe thirteen years back home?"

"Yup."

"Is there even enough food for that?"

Henning shifts his gaze toward the screen, giving the guidance roller a couple of quick spins. "I don't think this stupid ball's even doing any anything," he says. He then turns back to face her. "As for the twelve years... hell, even if there was any air to breathe, we'd have been eating each other long before then. This thing was set up with us sleeping both to and from, so there's only a couple years' worth of food, oxygen, and water."

Markos's head drops; her stare taking a hard landing on the floor. "Shit. We're screwed."



Leaving Markos at the helm, Major Henning moves down to the second pod and into the galley. Letting his "nutrient-enriched" meal box nuke, he fills his cup with warm brew, all the while feeling the burn of the crew's eyes following his every move. Holding up the pot, he turns toward the long dining table.

"Anyone need a refill?"

Though there are a couple of shakes of heads, the answers mostly come in the form of blank stares from bloodshot eyes. Setting the pot back in its heating unit, he grabs the box and his cup, finding a spot at the end of the table.

"Hasn't Will come up yet?" he asks.

"Nope. Still in the processor lair screwing around with that circuit board," says Reddick. She leans forward, elbows to the table. "Have you noticed how stale the air is in here?"

Henning, a mouth full of meal mush, nods. "Yeah, a little muggy, too."

"Any idea what happened?" asks Clemens, the team's MD.

"Let me get down some chow and I'll go talk with Will." Henning looks around the table. "In the meanwhile, I think I'm going to implement some sort of sleep schedule. We're all running on fumes here and we can't afford to be making mistakes. We'll rotate in on the bridge, just to be sure. I don't have any faith in the autopilot with Cla/dine down."

This seems to catch Fernandez's attention. "What do you have in mind?"

"I figure we'll do a three-three split. Three of us up, the other three catch some shut-eye. So we can all get caught up on our rest we'll do two hour shifts for the first full round. Then maybe extend it out to six."

"Sounds like a plan," says Clemens. "Who's first?"

The major scrapes the last of the pretend food from his plate and washes it down with the now semi-warm brew.

"Since Markos is already up front, she and I will take the first shift. And maybe Will, since he's digging into Cla/dine. Clemens, you, Reddick, and Fernandez can take the second shift. We'll come up to sleep bay and wrestle you out of bed when time's up."

"No arguments from me," says Reddick, already up and headed for the ladderway. "I'm a freakin' zombie."

Henning watches as the others follow, one by one disappearing up the portal. He stands, ready to head down to the processor pod, but catches Markos standing in the doorway from the bridge.

"We okay up front?"

Markos shakes her head. "I figured out it out. The retros plain aren't firing. That's why you weren't able to spin us away from the asteroids. Messed me up, so I ran a printout of the log. Skip, they're out of fuel. And, from what I can tell, they have been for quite some time."

"What the...? How can that be?"

"Not sure. Unless there's a leak or something in the fuel cylinder."

"We still yellow?"

"For now."

"Okay... one crisis at a time. I implemented a sleep schedule, and you, I, and Will are taking first shift active. Why don't you head back to the bridge, though I'm not sure there's anything you can actually do, and I'll head down and see how Will's coming along with Cla/dine."

Markos nods. "Aye, aye."



The comp room door thumps against something as Henning tries to open it, and in peeking around he sees Will's legs sticking out from one of the cabinets lining the processer's wall. From inside he hears a low rumble of cursing, followed by the clank of a tool hitting the metal floor.

"Those words ring familiar," he says.

Will slides out, his face red with frustration. "The stinkin' card was covered in corrosion. Didn't think I'd ever get the damn thing out of there."

The major slips into the room. "Huh? Corrosion? How can that be?"

Will sits up and spreads his arms. "Notice how warm and humid it is in here?"

"Now that you mention it..."

"Condensation. Filter's been out for who knows how long." He points to the register embedded into the ceiling. "I swapped it out, but it's taking its sweet time drying out the air. When I first came in here the temp was way over limits. Anyway, Cla/dine just started her reboot. We should be back up in a bit."

For a moment the major feels as though there is something more that needs to be said, but he can't seem to find the words, and instead turns and follows Will to the control console.

The hologram kicks in just as they arrive, the emitter shooting out a swirl of red pixels that slowly merge into the logon image. Will steps to the front of the panel, Henning to his side. The process drags a little longer than normal, but then again, maybe it's just the fatigue that yields them little patience. Finally, after what seems an eternity, Cla/dine speaks.

"Identify."

"Will Mosler."

"Scan, please."

Will leans in such that the optic sensor can scan his facial profile. After the flash, a probe touches the bare portion of his arm.

"Identified. Due to suspected irregularities, a supervisory login is required."

Henning steps closer. "Major Josh Henning."

"Scan, please."

Henning leans forward, repeating the same steps Will had undertaken just moments earlier. Cla/dine seems, as with the boot, to take longer than usual, leaving him to glance over at Will, who can do nothing more than shrug his shoulders.

"Identified," she finally says. "You have an urgent saved message from Command Control. Would you like me to play it?"

"Yes," says Will.

"The directive must come from Major Henning."

Will's brows furrow, but he steps back, gesturing at Henning.

"Okay," says the major. "Please play the message."

A slot opens on the console and a thin beam of light projects out to the middle of the room. The image, once formed, Henning recognizes as the Space Center's Director's office. A moment passes before the director steps into view, turning to face Will and Henning as though he was actually looking them in the eye.

"Hello good ship Cadenza. I'm afraid the news I offer is not good." He shakes his head and begins a slow pace.

"I'll cut right to the chase. The world is at war, my friends. And though the conflict is still in its infancy, mostly drones at this point, it has already been devastating. The death and destruction are beyond comprehension. What you return to will not be what you left."

He stops and lets his head drop, a long held breath escaping from his pursed lips. "As you know, when you set out on your mission, the world was already on the brink. We've spent so much of our time these last few years building walls of separation, all the while standing behind our pulpits. We directed our ire at those living on the other side, blaming them for all of our troubles. Any sense of civility, that is to say, what little we had left, was lost in the shadow of those walls. We've let our hate fester to the point it's grown like an out of control cancer. It's raced through our neighborhoods, countries, and finally our planet, sadly infecting even the most resistant amongst us. Our compassion has fallen victim to our anger."

The director stops again, this time looking to his side. He seems to be listening to someone just out of view, then raises a finger, whispering "Just a moment," before turning back to face Henning and Will. His face has hardened, but his lips tremble.

"I have to go now. They're calling on us... to move to the fallout shelters." For a moment he seems unable to speak, and he looks away, taking in a noisy breath. There's an uncomfortable silence, the director unable to face them as he gathers his composure. When he finally returns his gaze back to the recorder, Henning can see, in a rare show of emotion, tears trailing down the director's cheeks. With another long, labored breath, he begins to speak, but his words are choked.

"Before I go, there is one more thing I must tell you, and sadly, now that you've heard this, it probably won't come as much of a surprise. Your mission was a fraud. We lied to... no, I lied to you. Right to your face, Major Henning." He shakes his head. "A maintenance and resupply mission to our mining colony." He throws a dismissing hand. "A farce. Your ship is loaded with military munitions, my friends. Meant to supply our secondary forces hidden on a small moon circling a small planet in the outer ring of our galaxy. X-43, in case you care." Another deep breath. "But they found out. And someone hacked your guidance and programming. So even if you're getting this message you're so far off course I can't imagine where you might be. And who knows what they may have done to your systems. I do know that -"

An ear-ringing explosion within the image sends the director flying off the visual, a wave of smoke and fire taking his place. There's a moment of fuzzy static, and the hologram shuts down.

The major jumps forward, as if there is something he might do to help. "Director Michaels!" He turns back. "Is he dead?"

"End of transmission," Cla/dine says.

"Well, no shit, Cla/dine" says Will, clenching a fist. He looks to the major. "Another world war?"

Henning's head drops. "Damn. I guess all the little conflicts and spats weren't quite good enough, we needed some serious destruction. We wouldn't want all those rockets and drones just sitting around idle."

"Well, you can always stick 'um on our ship," says Will with a roll of his eyes. "We were duped. Carrying munitions?"

"Yup. And someone found out. And then changed our course. And then Cla/dine went south, so that may not even have taken effect. Leaving us who knows where."

"Yeah, but I'm more concerned about the other part."

Henning turns his gaze to Will. "Huh?"

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but after initial programming, I'm pretty sure you can only access the guidance system via direct interaction with Cla/dine." Will's eyes go wide. "Which means we have a traitor onboard."

"Shit. Hadn't thought of that. But who?"

Will starts to say something, but instead turns and moves back to the front of the control console. "Cla/dine, please list the last user requesting guidance access. After liftoff, that is."

"Major Henning."

"That would make sense. I made the final after launch check before settling in to the cyro-pod."

"Any others?" asks Will.

"Major Henning, again."

The major cocks his head, his gut in a bit of twist. "What? When was this access?"

"Zero nine forty-seven. Mission day four. Six thousand, seven hundred twenty-nine years ago.

"Wait... six THOUSAND years ago? Six thousand? No, wait..." Henning turns to Will. "That's impossible. I think we may need to run some diagnostics on Cla/dine. Sounds like her clock program is missing a byte. Or two."

"Could be. If that power card shorted out, there's likely other components that have been affected. Either by the heat and humidity or the voltage jumping all over the place."

"Well, damn. We may not be able to tell for sure who else logged in or when." Henning shakes his head and starts for the door. "Why don't you run those diags. I'm heading back to the bridge to see if I can figure out where we are now that Cla/dine is up. Then I need to start thinking about our unwelcome guest. Let me know the minute you find something"



"Looks like Will got Cla/dine going, eh?"

The major slides into the copilot chair and nods at Markos. "Yeah. Power board. Are we coming back up to speed here?"

"Mostly. Except the Nava-Chart. It's stuck in some sort of a loop like it's trying to figure out where we are. Keeps flipping through systems, but none seem to match."

Henning lets go a sigh. How well does he know Markos? Can he trust her?

Maybe some things are better left unsaid.

"Might just be a glitch. Cla/dine's having some issues with time, too, so Will's running some diags to see if there are anything else we need to have a look at."

Markos shifts in her chair such that she can face the major. "Okay, so what is it you're not telling me?

Henning heaves another sigh. "When Cla/dine came up she played a message we missed while in hibernation. Not that it's any real surprise, but the world is in a state of war. We lost connection when Control Command was hit. I think the director, and who knows who else, was killed in the attack."

"Well, that sucks. Why are we so filled with hate? My country is better than yours. My religion is the right one. My skin is the only pure one. Hey, we can make a little more money off your resources or labor or..." Markos lets her head fall back against the seat. "What the hell is the matter with us?"

"Wish I had the answer to that one." Henning pats her on the forearm. "With that good news, why don't you go grab us something to drink? I need to look through some records anyway, so I'll hang here."

Markos takes in a breath, then nods her head and slowly trudges out the door.

Henning waits an extra minute, then slips into the command seat. "Cla/dine."

"Yes, Major Henning."

"We have a breach of trust within the crew. I need to you to execute a security override order."

"Please re-identify."

The major leans in close to the console, allowing the scanner to frame his face. "Major Josh Henning."

"Serial code?"

"Zero, four, four, seven, niner, two."

"Identified. Command?"

"Delete all post launch logon records."

"There are two records. To reiterate, all records are to be deleted?"

"Yes."

"Records have been purged."



He stares at the screen, the asteroids now becoming noticeably larger. Their image has become real with the help of the light of a nearby star, so the sensor computer no longer has to provide the animated view. Like life they are both smooth and rough, with just enough of their rugged skin showing to see the shadows that hide secrets of a distant past.

He thinks of his family. Of war. Of how life should have been. Of what he has done...

A static click from the iComm jolts him from his thoughts, and he looks down to the comm screen.

Will.

"What's up? Any progress on figuring out Cla/dine's leaky clock?"

"Well, uh, let's just say I finished the diags, and ran some other tests. But I think you're gonna want to see this for yourself."

"Okay, let me get someone up to the bridge and I'll head down your way."

He clicks off and redirects to the galley. "Markos... I need you back up here."



As Henning steps into the open door he sees Will sitting in the corner, his gaze intent on the screen of his palm unit. Will shakes his head, then swipes and taps and curses at the screen before looking up to notice the major standing in the doorway.

"Sorry, Skip. This just doesn't make any sense. But it unfortunately seems to be reality. Not something we want to hear, but the facts none the less."

Henning moves a little closer. "Spit it out."

Will stands, waves an arm, then sits again. "The numbers back Cla/dine's assertion."

"Her assertion?"

"That we've been asleep for six thousand years."

"Whaaat?"

"That's why the retros are toast. Even the main boosters have less than two percent fuel left. The filters have all gone bad. Lights died. The list goes on and on."

Henning lets his shoulder slap to the wall. "How can that be?"

"Our traitor missed a command when he or she fooled around with the ship. I think the intent was to send us off course, but with the secure navigational change, written conformation is required. He or she simply fumble-fingered a number on the keys." Will runs an open hand down his face. "I don't even know where the hell we are. We're completely off the charts. We simply can't see this far out."

"So, even if we could 'turn around,' if that's even the right phrase, we're looking at a six thousand year trip home. Do you think Cla/dine would even know the right way to point us?"

"Maybe. But we'd have to reroute a dab of fuel to the retros. Right now, we've got no steering. And whatever direction we head, we could only use a short burn to send us off. We'd need to hold back a little fuel for slowdown and atmospheric reentry. Which means that we'll achieve quarter light-speed at best."

Henning straightens, some of his briefings kicking in. "Reentry. Braking. Landing. That's why Cla/dine held on to the two percent."

"You're right. Makes sense. But that also means that if we're going to reroute any of it, we'll need to do some override on her systems, or she won't let us have it."

The major shifts and sticks out a hand to brace himself against the wall again. "This is all nonsense talk, you know. We're going over these steps as if the end result is going to net us something resembling normal. We're six thousand years from our families. Friends. Home." His voice breaks a bit, but he continues on. "If that's not enough, the last message we received let us know that the world was at war. That hate had won. There might not even be a home to go back to, Will."

"Don't forget, there's a traitor on board."

"Does that even matter anymore? There are no sides any longer. That bickering happened six thousand years ago. Now, we're in this together, and the more heads we put to the problem, the better."

Will kicks the panel on the side of the console. "Easy for you to say, Skip. But remember, if that ass hadn't fooled with the trajectory, we'd be home with our families, whatever the situation with the conflict. If I find out who that S.O.B. is, I'll personally rip his guts out."

Henning opens his mouth to say something, but a wave of nausea steals his words, and he turns away. Will is right. He'd thought everyone had already settled into their cryo pod, after all it was the fourth day. So, he felt confident he'd be alone in the cockpit working with Cla/dine's navigation. But Clemens was still up. Of course he was. He's the ship's doc. He's responsible for making sure the life systems are in service when everyone goes under.

It seemed the right thing to do at the time. The dispute was minor then, nothing more than a squabble. How could his own country stockpile weapons? It seemed as though they actually wanted the conflict to explode into global war, rather than allow diplomacy to run its course.

The offer was easy to take. After all, in the end, not pushing war would be good for his family, right?

But then Clemens popped into the cockpit unexpectedly. It was innocent enough: Why wasn't the major in his pod yet? "Final check," he replied, his adrenaline off the charts. And then the rush to close the program, guessing at that last coordinate.

Couldn't have been more wrong.

And now here they are.

"Guess I'll call a meeting. This decision is something everyone needs to be in on." "And the traitor?"

"For now, let's keep that between you and me."



"What's this about, Skip?" Reddick yawns long and hard, exaggerating her stretch as she does so. "I thought we were all getting some sleep."

Henning looks around the dining table, most of the crew still finding their way back to the world of the living. "As you may have heard, after we left, the world erupted into war."

"Same shit, different day," says Clemens.

"Well, this one, from what we can tell, is pretty nasty. But that's not why I called you here. It seems that during our flight a problem developed with Cla/dine's navigation and timing."

Clemens straightens, his head taking a slight cock. "Problem?"

"The coordinates selected were off... literally off the charts, so rather than a two year hibernation, she's kept us in a six thousand year nap."

For a moment, the group do nothing more than exchange shocked looks amongst themselves, their mouths working the words, "Six thousand years."

"This is a joke, right?" Fernandez finally speaks up.

"'Fraid not. Neither Cla/dine nor we have the faintest idea of where we are."

"How could that even happen? I thought the course was locked in at launch?" Markos leans forward, her eyes wide and moist.

"It is. But -"

Will cuts him off. "There may have been some deliberate tampering."

"Tampering? What are you saying?" Clemens and Markos chime together, but they seem to speak for the group as a whole.

"We're still looking into it," answers Henning, a quick glare toward Will. "What's important for now is that we reach a consensus on our next course of action. Now that we know what happened with Cla/dine, we could, should we choose, turn the ship around, go back into the cryo-pods, and return home. There's a little more than two percent fuel left in the main thrusters, and some of that would have to be rerouted to the retros, some set aside for reentry, so the best we can hope for is building up to maybe a quarter or a third of our cruising speed."

"So, wait." Reddick stands, his gaze floating around the room, landing nowhere in particular. "What you're saying is that it took us six thousand something years to get here, and if we turn around it'll be three to four times that to get back?"

"Pretty much," Will answers. He lets his head drop, then, like Reddick, stands. "But, one more problem. Since the retros ran out of fuel thousands of years back, we've made no course corrections over that timeframe. Even Cla/dine has no idea where we are. So, to get back home, we'll need to figure out when and where the retros ran out of fuel and plot our course back to that point."

"Can you even do that... figure out when and where the retros failed?" Markos asks.

"'When' might not be too hard, it's the 'where' we'll struggle with."

Clemens joins the standing. He begins pacing in the small room, his glare at the major, his face red with agitation. "So, if we go home, it'll be something like 25,000 years after we left." His voice comes out as a near choke.

"Well, not quite. Time slows for us, so could be 30k back home. Or the other way around. Hell, I can't remember." Henning gives his shoulders a shrug and moves to the corner of the room. "Look, for now we don't have to make a quick decision on what we're going to do long term. But we do need to get some of that fuel rerouted to those retros. We're coming up on that asteroid belt pretty quick."



"It's no use," Henning says with a fling of his arms. "Cla/dine isn't going to let us transfer any of that last two percent. I've even tried my security override."

"We're gonna have to do it manually." Fernandez steps up closer to the monitor and touches the ship layout icon. When it pops up, he scrolls through the graphic until the main fuel pod displays, then does a second cutaway to the retro side tank.

Henning leans closer. "Interesting that the canister and the retros are all in the same pod as Cla/dine."

"It's set up as the last ditch escape pod. If you failed to make any of the others, that pod can detach and at least have some minor propulsion from the retros."

"So how do we get that fuel?" asks Will.

"We'll have to run a hose from the emergency pressure release off the main to the retro canister fill."

"That's some hose. Do we even have anything that long?" Markos does a count of the pods. "We have to get over three sections."

"Yeah, a little adapting here and there, but I think we have enough down in the mechanical room. Might have to 'borrow' a piece that we don't need to extend it a bit."

"So what do we need to do?" asks Henning.

"I'm gonna need a couple of volunteers. There's no weight once we're out the hatch, but that tube is going to have a mind of its own. And we'll need two of us at the main to get that panel and cap open, then stick in the hose. The other lucky volunteer can be at the retro side. That end has to be hooked up first. Once we connect, the fuel will start flowing on its own. Someone will have to stay here and monitor how much shoots out and tell us when to stop."

"I'll help." Henning raises his hand.

"I think you need to be here, Skip." Markos steps in front of the major. "You're the only one with security override. We don't want Cla/dine to get sassy. I'll go."

"And me," says Reddick.

"I can at least help you get the pipes. Probably take the bunch of us to drag them to the airlock." Clemens takes a deep breath and slowly raises a hand.

Fernandez gestures to the door. "Sounds good. Okay, let's go."

Henning watches them leave, then turns to the monitor to follow them as they head down to the mechanical pod.

"Guess we're not going to get anything on that login."

Will's voice startles Henning. "Huh?"

"I checked again after I ran the diags. All records were lost."



"Fernandez, I can't get this damn nozzle into the port."

The voice is Reddick's. Henning, his eyes glued to the monitor, watches through her head cam as she fights the hose's end trying to fit it into the filling port.

"Hang on, I'll come there and give you a hand."

The major switches over to Fernandez's cam, but it's fuzzy and the light off his helmet is dim. He notes Fernandez fumbling with his tether cord, the snap seeming to refuse to unhook.

He hits his mike. "I think we'd better pick up the pace, guys. Not to put any more pressure on, but we're in the outer fringe of that belt. I'm seeing swarms of smaller rocks just below us."

"Roger that, Skip. We're seeing 'um out here, too."

Fernandez points up and to his left. When Henning shifts to the camera pointing in that direction, the craggy side of an asteroid, about the size of one of the smaller pods, comes into view.

"Shit. That thing's wandering our way. Or we're coming toward it. Hell, I don't know. But if we don't get a move on, we're going to be kissing cousins soon."

By the time he shifts back, Fernandez is giving the tube a twist, Reddick floating just behind holding on to the giant snake.

"There! "She's locked in. I'm coming back, Markos."

Somewhere beneath him, a dull thud rattles the hull, and Henning's nerves. "Okay, things are getting serious, guys. We've bumped one of those smaller ones down below."

"Pop that cap, Markos. Then we'll both have to cram that end into the port and twist the lock it before the pressure release kicks in. Or we'll get flung to the nearest star."

Henning watches as Fernandez floats up aside Markos. With the cap opened - it needed a special tool - the two work together to jam the end of the hose into the opening. After a couple of tense moments, Fernandez raises a thumbs up.

At the same time, Will, his eyes on the auxiliary screen, also pops a thumbs up. "We're getting fuel in the retro canister. Two percent. Now three. Five. Eight. Fifteen. Twenty-five. Thirty. Fifty. Seventy. Eighty. Get ready to stop. NOW."

Fernandez and Markos, their hands already on the end of the hose, twist the closure valve then turn the nozzle. Next they brace their feet against the hull and, working together, give the hose a yank. But with their first pull, it explodes from the port, knocking Markos into a whirl toward the rear of the ship. Somehow Fernandez is able to cling to the hose as it shoots away from the ship, the remaining fuel within spraying out, sending him on a wild wiggly ride.

"Close the cap... close the cap," screams Fernandez into the comm.

Markos grabs on to her tether, then hand over hands herself back to the port where a stream of fuel gushes out from the opening. "Oh crap, oh crap. It's pushing the ship, Skip! What do I do?"

"Can you snap that cap back down?"

"Not with all that pressure," answers Will. "She needs to close that valve."

"I thought we did that. Let me see if I can get close enough to try again."

"Can I help?" asks Reddick.

"I dunno, but get your ass over here."

Fernandez, finally letting go of the errant tube, tugs his way along his tether arriving at the spray of fuel the same time as Reddick.

"Let me have a look," he says, reaching down to the valve. There are a couple of grunts before he motions Markos closer. "Damn thing's stuck. You still have that ratchet?"

"Right here."

Henning glances up at Will, whose eyes are wide, his mouth hanging open. "How we doing with our trajectory?"

"We're starting in a slow spin. They need to shut down that flow before we really get going."

"Maybe we should fire up the retros?"

"Hey, that might work. At least counteract the spin. Markos, how do we manually fire up a retro or two?"

"Just a minute... grrrr. Oh jeesh, this things freaking stuck. Get that extension off my pack so we can have some levera -"

An ear-splitting explosion thunders through the ship cutting off the transmission. The shock wave throws Henning from his chair and Will to the ceiling, as the ship goes into a roll. Initially it begins as a slow spin, but then turns into an end over end tumble. For the first gyration Henning bounces from wall to console to ceiling, but as they begin the next round, the artificial gravity quits, and he finds himself floating into a moving wall. Will seems shaken but finds a hold on the end of the console.

"Shit, shit, shit... we must have swung around and hit one of the asteroids. You okay?"

Henning nods, then gives himself a push across the room coming up to Will's side. "Fernandez? Reddick? Markos? Anyone hear me?"

The comm only responds with empty static.

"Clemens... you out down there?"

As he waits for a response, the lights in the cabin flicker, then dim. Will makes his way over to one of the windows, peering out as the pod continues to spin.

"It's bad, Major. The entire engine pod has busted loose, and the fuel and supply pods are dangling by pipes and connectors. I can't even see Fernandez or Reddick or Markos."

Henning pulls his way down to the second portal and pushes his face up to the glass. "Wait, I think I see two of them. Their tethers were ripped loose; they're just drifting away, Will. You think we can get to the airlock?"

"We can try for the secondary off the bridge. I don't think we can go downward at all. In fact, I think we'd better seal off that door."

"Good idea."

While Henning crawls upward to the forward hatch, Will works his way along the wall toward the rear. Henning watches as he slaps at the autoseal button.

"I'm getting a red."

"Use the manual wheel."

"Already spinning it."

A moment later, the lights still flickering, he joins Henning at the top hatch.

Henning puts his hand on Will's shoulder. "We work together, no taking chances or none of us get out of this alive, alright?"

"Let's do this..."

Henning turns and reaches for the crankwheel on the hatch, but the lights blink again and then another thunderous boom roars through the hull. The pod flips wildly, leaving Henning and Will to crash into the walls, bounce off the control panels, and slam into the floor.

Then, darkness.



"What happened?" Will's voice is a croak, and he tries to sit up from his makeshift bed, but Henning has strapped him in.

Henning moves closer, a cup in his hand. "Here, drink some of this."

Will does, but can only take a single sip before spitting back up the rest. He looks around, finally catching Henning's gaze. "What happened, Skip?"

"We caught another rock. She ripped loose the bridge and living pod, then put us in a crazy spin. You and I were knocked around pretty good."

"The others?"

Henning drops his head, then gives it a shake.

"Shit... shit... Markos, Reddick..." he turns his head, sucking in a deep breath.

"Maybe they caught onto one of the other pods. I just don't know. I was out for a couple of days. When I finally came around we were out of the asteroid belt, but no sign of them or the rest of the ship."

"A couple of days? How long have I been out?"

"Just over a week."

"What!" Once again he tries to rise, but the belts, and a stabbing pain in his shoulder drops him back again. "Ouch. What hurts? Why am I in these damn belts?"

"You tore open your shoulder. Had to patch you up a bit. And we lost our gravity, remember?" Henning pulls closer. "Let's get you out of those."

After he loosens the straps, he helps Will up, then rewraps one of the straps around his waist. "Don't want you floating off."

"What now, Major?"

"First, let's get some food in you." He reaches in the survival cupboard, pulling out a rations pack, and hands it to Will. "From some of the world's top chefs."

Will laughs. "Yeah, right."

"So, while you were sleeping on the job, I got a couple of the monitors and the tracking cameras working. We seem to be in a small system, but it wasn't until late, uh, I guess you would call it yesterday, I picked up a planet that registers with breathable air and water and even gravity."

"How far?" Will mumbles between bites.

"Maybe a week. Maybe less. We're going to have to fire the retros a couple of times to get pointed in the right direction, then hope there's enough fuel left to slow us down once we get there."

"A week."

"Yeah, and with that, we're going to have to go easy on the breathing and food. There was a tear and we lost a bit of our air. And, though this is an escape pod, it's not set up for long term use."

"Just what we need, one more challenge."



"Looks like the atmosphere is close to ours back home," says Will. "We're gonna have to angle her in. If we can."

"Retros three and four are still hit and miss, so let's see if we can roll her so they're not part of the equation."

"Good idea." Will worms his way to another panel. "Commencing pod roll in three, two, one..."

The planet, a giant blue orb, slides behind the window as the pod rotates slowly upward.

"There! There! Stop."

"Roll complete."

"Shit, I think the gravity extends out a little farther than I calculated. See if you can give us less angle, we're starting to lose altitude. I think we've already been grabbed."

But before Will can reply, a long groan cries from the hull just below, almost as if it is in pain. Then, with no warning, they begin to fall.

"RETROS, Will. RETROS. Slow us down... slow us..."

But Will is already unconscious from the G-force of their descent.



Henning awakens on his back, his arm pinned behind him, his leg entwined in a tangled mess of what used to be the console and maybe his chair. The air is smoky and thick, though a bright warm light filters through it from somewhere behind. It takes a bit of effort, but he's able to pull his leg free. Though when he sits up and brings his arm around, it feels as though someone is trying to yank it from its socket.

His pants are torn, a good-sized cut running down his leg. But it seems superficial and, taking a deep breath, he stands.

The light seeps in from a ragged crack in the pod's hull that extends most of the way up the rounded side. The inside of the ship is a twisted mess of metal and wires and pipes. He remembers fighting his way to the console and firing off the retros, but somewhere thereafter everything went black.

"Will," he calls out. But no response.

Using the outside light, he works his way toward the rip in the hull. With the dim of the inside of the pod, trying to look out is almost worthless, as the glare overwhelms. Just as he steps into the opening, he catches Will's legs sticking out from under the console. He can't help but be reminded of the last time he saw him that way, as he was working on Cla/dine.

He rushes over, at least he tries. After being weightless for all that time, movement is awkward, and it seems that the gravity here is stronger than back home. It takes some effort, but he is able to push the console aside. Will lies flat, a trickle of blood from his forehead, his arm, like Henning's had been, pinned behind his back.

But he's breathing.

Henning carefully lifts him, and finds his way out through the slit. A soft breeze blows, rustling through the leaves of the sparse plant life lining a slope just to his side. He muscles Will to a long flat rock and lays him down. Looking around, he can see they've crashed in wide canyon, random rocks and taller plants sprinkled here and there. The soil is gritty, giving a bit with each step. The wind is filled with unfamiliar fragrances, and though he's not a botanist, it's a fair guess that the plants provide the pleasant aroma.

He kneels next to Will, giving him a preliminary check, but a voice from behind causes him to jump. He spins around to see several aliens - well, now that he thinks about it, he's the alien, isn't he? - and freezes in place. They stand about the same height as him, have arms and legs and a head, but wear filtration masks and rounded helmets. The closest three point some sort of long weapon at him, its back braced against their shoulder. They continue with their shouts, and though their words have no meaning, the urgency they carry gives him enough of a clue to raise his arms.

"Ugh," he yells, a stab of pain from his wounded arm jolting down his side.

His cry causes the aliens to jump, and without warning two of them tackle Henning to the ground. A third sticks a needle in his leg, and within a moment the warm bright welcoming light fades to black.



The low grumbling growl of a motor awakens Henning from the depths of his darkness. He's strapped down in some sort of cot, the bumps and vibrations telling him he's in a vehicle and they are moving. Around him there is a dark material that forms the roof and sides, and seems to be soft as it flexes with the outside wind. There are three of the aliens in with him, dressed in a uniform and wearing the masks, and when he turns to the side he sees Will in an adjacent cot. A thick blanket covers him, over which a set of straps binds him to the cot. He has a wide bandage taped to his forehead, and a tube that runs from his arm to a small clear bottle hanging to the side.

The vehicle has an open back, and with a slight raise of his head, he's able to view the landscape that falls behind him. To either side, rolling hills reach up to touch an open sky that stretches as far as the eye can see. Tall plants made up of thin stalks which burst into a thicket of foliage at their top, line the hill on the left.

Another of their vehicles follows close behind, and he guesses them to be in some sort of convoy, and judging by the uniforms, a military one at that. He wonders: Is this how things are on this planet? If so, how ironic, or maybe more so, sad, that one can travel for six thousand years and not find anything different from that which you hoped to leave behind.

The vehicle slows, rounding a corner. Outside he catches a glimpse of a signpost, alien lettering marked to the front. Though he has no idea what it may say, he etches the image deep into his brain. Something about it rings important.

Welcome to Roswell

Elevation 3570

10 comments:

  1. well this is a hell of a roller coaster ride! it certainly brings to mind sci fi /space adventure films. the description of the crisis on board the space ship Cadenza is very well drawn. i had no idea where this was going, but it came to a truly excellent end. i won´t reveal what. hang on tight when reading!
    Nice one Jim
    Mike McC

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  2. Thanks ever so much, Mike! Appreciate the read and the great comments. Looking forward to your next story.
    Jim

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  3. So THAT’S the backstory! An excellent tale with action, suspense, mystery and very believable science. Extremely well done, Jim.

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  4. That's the story, and I'm sticking to it, Dave ;-) Thanks ever so much for the read and the kind words! Been a while since we've seen anything from you.
    Thanks again for taking a moment to comment.
    Jim

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  5. An intriguing story, coherent and challenging with wild trajectories. Well done,
    Ceinwen

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    1. Thanks for the read, Ceinwen! And great to "hear" from you. Your kind words are always appreciated.
      Thanks
      Jim

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  6. Fantastic ending. I might not have gotten it if Dave hadn't given me a clue. And it is great to hear from Ceinwen.

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  7. Thanks Edward! I'm glad Dave provided the needed clue ;-) to help you enjoy the story.
    Appreciate the read and especially the comments
    Jim

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  8. Great writing; what a scary scenario, particularly the ending! Plausible factual descriptions and adventurous story-line.
    Beryl

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    1. Thanks ever so much for the read and comments, Beryl! Hope all is well on your side of the world. Looking forward to the next chapter of our favorite sisters...

      Thanks again
      Jim

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