14 09 2009

The grim look on her husband’s face was enough to tell her that something was not right. They had split up when the entered the massive engine space and so she was not with him when he received the news.

He broke it to her quickly. “Manuel’s dead.”

Her heart felt like it stopped and then it fell into the well of her stomach like a stone. “What?” She could not believe the words coming from his mouth, but his eyes confirmed it as truth. “How did it happen? What about Brandon.”

“Brandon called it in, some kind of electrical discharge at one of the panels. We should be careful.” His words started to catch in his throat so he stopped talking. He had lost men in accidents before, space was a dangerous work place, but he had never lost one that was so close to him. Jason made the decision to be strong for his wife. He was the captain and needed to be strong for the rest of the crew as well.

Atlanta’s eyes blurred, swimming in sorrow. Manuel had been a good friend to both of them and she couldn’t believe he was gone just like that. She was listening to Jason explain the circumstances, but his body language said enough for her to understand. The petty bickering paled in importance to the life of their friend. Fear washed over her. The idea of mortal danger from the black hole had been so abstract at first; sure, she knew she should be afraid, but now the fear was corporeal. She could taste it.

She threw her arms around Jason and he squeezed her. He held her for a moment wondering what he needed to say, then realizing that holding her was enough. She released him. “Jason, we need to call back to the Delphinus and get a team over here to retrieve him.” She couldn’t bear to say his name, not if she wanted to keep her composure. She had to put the grief away into a compartment of her mind. They were on a dangerous errand and needed to be hard in order to accomplish their mission.

Jason keyed his comm-link. “Ryan, Jason here. We’ve had a casualty and need a couple men to retrieve a crew mate.” He waited for a second for a response, but none came. “Ryan, do you copy?” Still no response.

Atlanta’s eyebrows knit together in concern. Jason tried another channel. “No good, it’s like something is jamming the signal.” Suddenly the ship lurched beneath their feet. Atlanta and Jason looked at each other in silent agreement and hurried back toward the bridge.

As they entered the bridge, Atlanta saw what appeared to be two figures at the control panel. They were like an afterimage and in a split second they were gone again. She dismissed it as her imagination as Jason proclaimed the compartment empty. Jason slid in behind the computer as Manuel had done before and examined the interface. The layout was unfamiliar to him, but he managed to navigate to the thruster control. “Look at this.” The viewscreen lit up with an oblique view of the Delphinus behind the horizon of the Proteus. The thruster rockets on the Delphinus were glowing red.

“Why is she firing her thrusters? What is Ryan doing?” Atlanta said.

“That’s not quite what I wanted to show you. Here is the thruster readout for the Proteus.” Jason flipped the screen over to the readout. It showed the power output ramping up. “It seems the Proteus is trying to break away from our locking beam, Ryan is presumably trying to counteract with our own thrusters.”

“Can’t we turn it off?” Atlanta narrowed her eyes at the panel.

“It’s locked out. The ship is being controlled by somewhere else.”

“The frozen crew?” Atlanta guessed.

Jason’s hands moved over the controls again. “Everything is stable in the hibernation bay.”

Atlanta’s face drained of color and she grasped the back of Jason’s chair to ensure her balance. “Brandon,” she said.

“We just talked to him a minute ago, I’m sure he’s fine. He’s probably on his way here now.” Jason said.

“How long have you known him? Brandon, I mean.”

“You were there.” Jason turned to look up at Atlanta. “It was two years ago on Rigel 7, remember? He was at that scientific conference on pulsar dynamics.”

“No, I mean when did you meet him first?”

Jason looked puzzled. “That was the first time.”

“No,” she shook her head impatiently. “I was sure you two were like classmates or something back in the academy.”

Jason turned even more in his chair. “No, I’d never met him before that. What are you getting at, Atlanta?” She raised her eyebrows at him, unsure if the thought merited vocalization. “You don’t think . . . c’mon, Atlanta. Brandon has been a vital part of our crew . . . ” He pursed his lips and shook his head, searching his memory instead of finishing the thought.

“He has always given me the creeps. You know how people stare at you trying to look like they aren’t staring at you?” Atlanta said. Jason raised an eyebrow at her. “I’m serious. He is hiding something.” They stared at each other in silence a few seconds. “It was his idea to come over here . . . and . . . and to split up.” She gestured to him to emphasize the proof.

“Oh that proves it.” He said sarcastically. “You suppose he lured us on this ship in order to kill us off one by one? Oh and the black hole! That was his doing, too. What would he hope to accomplish with all of that?” Atlanta frowned at him. Jason sat in silence staring at a point on the distant wall. His countenance changed as he mulled it over. Finally he spoke again quietly, almost in a whisper. “How did you get the idea we were school chums?”

She straightened up, resting her right hand on her belly. Unconsciously she rubbed, as if the baby inside were a lamp that would unleash memory’s genie. “I don’t know. I suppose he told me.”

He closed his eyes and shook his head curtly. “No, I can’t buy it.”

“Come on, you jumped to that conclusion too before I said anything.”

Jason was about to rebut, when the ship lurched again. He spun around and let his fingers dance across the board. “Ryan’s got to realize that if he keeps matching her power for power, he’s going to rip us both apart. Besides, if we keep thrusting like this our orbit’s going to fail.”

Atlanta glanced up toward the door they had come in and met eyes with . . . the figure dissipated before she could register what it was she saw. A chill went down her spine. It was almost as if she saw herself, her doppelganger.

“Hello.” Jason’s voice snapped Atlanta out of it. “Looks like there is an embedded line of code here, a sub program for operating the thrusters. Could be some kind of defense mechanism built in by the builders.” He looked at her expectantly, hoping that they were both wrong about Brandon. “Let me see if I can isolate it and shut it off.” He tapped away with his rudimentary programming skills and finished with a flourish. They both looked up at the screen to see what if anything would happen. To their solace, the boosters stopped firing and the Delphinus followed suit after a brief shudder of the locking beam.

Atlanta leaned over and squeezed his shoulder with a huge smile of relief on her face. “You did it!”

Their respite was short-lived. The view of the Delphinus showed her revolving slowly about her z-axis. Her faced dropped into a look of disbelief. It was obvious what had happened. The locking beam had failed.






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