1 ~ The Explosion
had no time to grieve. His wife was blasted into fragments
like the rest of their tiny crew, so he wiped his face and
looked at the damage. He had to concentrate. The stars were
spinning, which meant the ship had lost its gyroscopes. That
indicated, along with the crew's quarters, they had likely
lost the engines. Turning wildly, he toggled switches and
checked equipment, and he could almost feel the electron pulses
stop at the severed wires. He imagined knots of tangled conduit
hanging into space, but that interfered with his ability to
get a good reading on how much of the ship remained.
had swept through the ship like a huge hand, and even as the
hull screeched open Mason had struck the emergency seal for
the bulkheads. That left Amy in the command module with him,
and the rest of the crew-if they were still alive-on the other
side of an insulated steel door. Next he checked on his daughter,
who was even more affected by the concussion wave that had
left blood trickling from his nose. She hung loosely in the
air as though her bones had been pulverized, since the centrifugal
gravity had disappeared with the explosion.
scarcely to breathe, and he pushed her gently to the bunk
Janice had insisted they keep near the main controls. Her
heartbeat was so faint he could feel nothing at her wrist
but her neck fluttered slightly when he pressed his fingers
on her artery. He tried franticly to remember the training
Janice had recommended and they all had completed, but his
mind was blank. Instead, he held his daughter's hand and watched
her face. Her eyelids flickered and her lips were warm when
he tried to feel whether she was breathing. He decided those
were signs of recovery.
confirmed-as much as his poor skills allowed-that his daughter
was alive and that none of her bones were broken, he left
her tethered to the bunk and turned his mind to the ship.
At first he thought they had caught the attention of an Extra
Solar Systems Inc. drone. The corp had the gall to claim all
of Alpha Centauri as their territory, and had publicly warned
other companies away. They referred to potential colonists
as opportunists, and promised a stern response to any interference.
Like the World Builder Corporation that they had left behind
in the Sol system, Extra Solar had been the first to develop
the technology that allowed intrepid explorers to follow them
to Centauri. That didn't mean Extra was happy with the company,
however. Many suspected that they played just as dirty as
World Builder, and were intent on claiming the entire Alpha
Centauri system for themselves. Although no one had confirmed
the rumour, some said they were destroying rival ships.
and his crew weren't trying to compete with Extra Solar for
resources. They merely wanted to start a colony, and they
had brought the latest in biological equipment in order to
make that happen. Janice had wheedled the ship they had christened
Scape from her father, and they had fled the biological and
intellectual decay of Earth to seek-perhaps foolishly-a more
hospitable ecosystem. Janice had been more committed to the
project than he, and Mason couldn't help but remember how
she had laughed off the chance of an accident.
had his third of the ship somewhat functional, the news was
grim. The Oxy and methane tanks were gone with the engines
they had driven, and he only had what food they kept in the
control room for emergencies. They were low on water, which
meant he would have to bleed some of the systems for residual
moisture, but their CO2 scrubber, which had been located amidships,
was gone. They had air for a week, and although it didn't
matter, they had water for a few days more. Beyond the upper
limit of their air supply, he didn't bother factoring their
food stores into his planning.
checked on Amy. Her cheeks were redder-although he didn't
know if that was a good sign-and she stirred slightly when
he took her wrist. Looking down at her, he knew what he had
to do. He hesitated, contemplating starting the procedure
while she was still unconscious. Putting off the decision,
he turned back to his equipment.
noticed the flicker on the screen that had been bothering
him for months. They were low on water and had only six days
until the air became noticeably foul and they felt the hydraulic
press of slow asphyxiation. He glanced at the bunk, then set
to work. He needed to recover as much of the ship as possible.
In the explosion each detached piece would have been given
a new trajectory, but he concentrated on those pieces which
were big enough to loom larger on the radar and close enough
that the gravity of his larger portion of the ship might draw
them in. If they hadn't been given too much of a shove
. . .
scan, Mason found drifting objects that were certainly bodies,
but he kept his eyes to his task. He also found a puzzling
anomaly. There was too much tonnage. The attacking ship must
have broken up too, and for a moment he stared hard at the
screen, as though he could see through its flicker of magnetic
particles to what the images meant. There had been no attack,
he finally realized. Instead they had collided with a ship,
or it with them, and it had suffered from the encounter as
well. Mason knew Extra Solar frequently used empty drones,
so he didn't worry about other possible survivors, but if
he could get to the remaining ship-he glanced at Amy again-and
enough of its equipment was still functional, he might have
Mason had met Janice he'd been a programmer in a robotics
plant, making, of all things, robots like the ones used in
the plant. Janice had made several jokes about it when they
were first going out, about how he lived in a recursive loop,
how he was part of a Von Neumann machine, and worse, about
how his programming architecture sucked and that's why they
needed him to keep tweaking the main controllers.
had taken her advice to heart, and left that job for one in
her father's company where he was soon writing command trees
for mining machines and installing modules for probes, much
like the one he suspected Extra Solar had abandoned just beyond
his main port. If what remained of his ship hadn't been too
badly damaged, then the barest inkling of a plan, his only
hope-he glanced at Amy-might have a slim chance of working.
set one of his logistics tools looking for a planet close
enough to serve his purposes, and then began to nudge the
altitude jets to push him closer to the debris field. He steadied
his spin with the jets, which calmed the oscillating cameras.
Although their view was still skewed, they showed that what
remained of his cargo hold was heavily damaged. It carried
a main engine but that had also suffered from the collision.
Only tatters hung from the drive chamber, which meant that
the ships must have somehow smashed into each other with their
drive quarters. Mason sat with his finger poised over the
jets. He needed their tiny reservoirs of fuel still, and didn't
want to waste them. They were typically fed by the main tanks,
and the small reserve tank had only been installed in obedience
of an outmoded safety protocol. For the first time, Mason
appreciated the over-engineering that had gone into his ship.
Someone sitting at a comfortable design table had decided
that a ship shorn of its main tanks might require maneuvering
capability, so with a stroke of their pen, they might be saving
Mason's, and more importantly, Amy's life. Likewise, the backup
airlock in the control room was never used but now would be
never realized how tense he was until a droplet of sweat pooled
on his forehead and then, when he impatiently dashed his hair
out of his face, it hung, a shivering globe, in the air before
him. He looked at Amy. She was still on the bunk, tethered
to it by a strap. His slow drift to the cargo hold would take
a few more minutes and he used the time to check on his daughter.
Her breathing was more regular, and he touched her face. She
was warm, although not feverish. He brushed the hair from
her forehead, wondering what he could tell her about her mother.
happened? I feel sick."
into something-" Mason began to explain, but Amy tipped her
head and gagged, so he placed a bag over her mouth before
the control room became an intolerable swill of globules of
been taught well, and she held the bag in place as she filled
it, and then waited with Mason for a minute to make sure it
was over. "Sorry," she said, when he removed and sealed it.
OK. You were hit by the concussion wave. One of the engines
must have exploded on the impact." Mason spoke over the alarms
and the absence of the seven other crewmembers.
Mum? Where is everyone?" Amy jerked, her eyes wild, and Mason
reached for her.
all that's left, honey. We lost the rest of the ship. The
only reason we're alive is that we were in here."
blank look was a reflection of his own inability to handle
the situation. They had lost everyone they knew in a freak
accident four and a half light years from Earth. "It's so
loud," Amy said, disentangling herself.
of the alarms are still on." Mason patted her on the arm as
reassuringly as he could, although he knew the worst news
was yet to come. He turned to shut down the proximity alarms
set off by the debris and the approaching pieces of the cargo
hold, and the beeping that indicated low fuel pressure and
other signals that informed of hull integrity. He kept his
back tensed against the question that would not be long in
as well as him, and if he admitted the truth, likely even
better, the stores on the ship and her capabilities, so before
long she would calculate that they only had a few days at
the most. Mason's stomach growled as he thought of starvation.
I won't wait that long, he grimaced to himself. He glanced
to where Amy was floating with her eyes closed. Besides,
you might need the biomass.