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June 26th, 2439 AD
The spacecraft orbited Resident Station 34––also known as Jewel of Ganymede, or just Jewel––at a distance of approximately three hundred meters. Hemispherical in shape, it had a diameter of 22 meters, excluding the magnesion repeller; its height, at the highest point, was 6.5 meters. The hull of the craft was comprised of ultrasteel plating, pseudochromed deep blue. The hull surface was very smooth, the only discontinuities being the airlock’s round hatch, the cylindrical magnesion repeller, and the tiny holes where the maneuvering jets dispelled their compressed oxygen to rotate the vehicle. Bright yellow alphanumeric characters stated the craft’s name and registration number––Pride of Clyde and PS–49–1388, respectively. There were also sensors placed all about the craft, but these were covered with a weaker variant of ultrasteel through which the sensors could scan easily.
Approaching the craft from Jewel were three spacesuited humans with oxygen–propelled jet–packs strapped to their backs. At the halfway point between the station and the spacecraft, they made small movements with their bodies to turn about to face Jewel. Through a series of short bursts from the jet–packs, the humans were able to slow down enough that they didn’t impale themselves upon the hard ultrasteel surface when they landed. They then removed small, circular handheld devices, called gecko hands, from their utility pouches and used them to climb across the hull to the airlock.
When they reached it, one of the suited figures––named Clyde––pressed his head against a particular portion of the hull, ordering the airlock door to open. The spot against which he pressed happened to be a pressure–triggered audio sensor; by touching his helmet to the spot, he turned the sensor on. The helmet’s contact with the device also created a sonic connection which enabled the audio sensor to hear what Clyde was saying. The connection was broken the moment Clyde pulled his helmet away from the sensor, but the ship’s internal computer had heard his command and instantly decompressed the airlock, matching its pressure to that of space. It then retracted the door into a small alcove in the ship’s hull.
Clyde and his two companions climbed into the airlock, and Clyde pressed his helmet against another audio sensor, ordering the airlock to close and pressurize. It took only four seconds for this to be accomplished. The three humans unclasped their helmets and let them drift beside their heads; there was no gravity, since Clyde’s ship was too small to contain an artificial–gravity generator.
Quite accidentally, they had arranged themselves so that they were floating as if around a triangle. To Clyde’s left was the beautiful Tamara White, with a naturally tanned skin tone, warm brown eyes, unusually tall body, and long jet–black hair that drifted in disarray as she gave her head a shake. Right of Clyde was Avery Hawkin, whose red hair, blue eyes, and lanky body gave him a“nerdy” appearance. Clyde himself had steel–gray eyes and short black hair.
The three fifteen–year olds did many things together and were supposed by others to be good friends. In truth, Avery and Clyde despised each other, but because each wanted the undisputed favor of the lovely Tamara, who refused to decide between the two of them, they masked this hatred well. The only reason Avery and Clyde were constantly together with Tamara was that neither wanted the other to persuade her to favor him.
“Hey, Clyde,” Avery said,“why don’t you use the radio link instead of the emergency procedures?” He was referring to the fact that a radio link with the ship was normally used to open the airlock, instead of the pressure–triggered audio sensor.
“Because the external communication link, including the external input, is malfunctioning and screwing up the internal comm. So I switched it off.”
Tamara gasped.“But that’s not safe, Clyde! We can’t contact or be contacted if our external comm’s off. That’s why it’s required to be on while in transit.”
“Well, we aren’t going to tell anyone that we switched it off, are we?” Clyde said to her.“But enough of that. Let’s get our maiden voyage underway.”
He vocally ordered the computer to open the inside airlock door––without using the pressure–triggered audio sensor, since the internal comm was functioning properly. After the computer made a“pleased to do so” statement in masculine voice, the door noiselessly slid back to reveal a spacious room with multiple gadgets affixed to the plastiphane–covered beige walls.
The room had a half–circle shape. To the left of the airlock were five vocally–activated doors––manually–opening doors being a nuisance in null–gravity–––that led to bed quarters and the two lifepod launch tubes. Opposite those doors, on the room’s flat wall, was a producer, a food/beverage maker. Located to the left of the producer were a waste incinerator and a holographic display panel. The area below the panel housed an entertainment system consisting of an HDC (Holographic Display Chip) player, an AOC (Audio–Only Chip) player, a Nikotel Holo–Pro game console, and the latest and greatest speaker system; these were attached to a large translucent cabinet containing 24–terabyte HDCs and 38–terabyte AOCs, secured to the wall and the floor. Just beyond the entertainment system, a door led to the engineering section of the craft.
“Welcome, my friends, to the Pride of Clyde!” Clyde exclaimed.“Let us proceed into the rec room.” Before they ventured in to explore the rec room, they stowed their spacesuits and jet–packs in the storage locker beside the airlock. All three wore nondescript gray temperature–suits, which were used to keep a body at optimal temperature.
Using his gecko hands, Avery climbed across the wall to the producer and verbally requested black coffee. From its expansive reservoir of atoms, the producer instantly began assembling the molecular structure for the specified beverage and the drink packet that would contain it. It took twenty seconds for the procedure to execute, after which a cheery beep emanated from the device, and the coffee appeared in the result tray. Avery took it and sipped, using the straw that had been created in the packet.
Clyde and Tamara went to the producer to request their own drinks. Tamara had apple–flavored carbonated water, and Clyde had orange juice.
The three teenagers pushed gently off the wall and drifted slowly across the rec room, temporarily occupied with their private thoughts. Clyde basked in self–admiration as he looked over the project that had taken him a year to build. Tamara glanced about in awe of the splendor of the ship, and Avery busily made mental comparisons of Clyde’s ship with his own vessel, the Flash of Light.
Clyde stuffed his emptied packet into a pouch on the utility belt he was wearing.“C’mon, let’s head up to the bridge and get underway.” He reached down to his belt for the gecko hands he thought he had put there; when he failed to find them, he remembered that he had left them on the wall by the producer. He was stranded in the middle of the rec room.
If he waited long enough, the direction of his drift would eventually bring him to the curved wall, where he could push off and retrieve his gecko hands. Clyde wasn’t patient enough to wait that long, so he called,“Hey, Tamara, could you get my gecko hands for me? I left them by the producer.”
Clyde gazed upon Tamara, floating at a distance from the holographic display and searching for her own pair of gecko hands. It soon became apparent that she was in a similar predicament. Her gecko hands floated in the middle of the room, just out of her reach.
“What’s the matter, guys?” Avery laughed.“Lost your gecko hands?” Clyde saw that Avery’s own gecko hands were strapped to his belt. Clyde didn’t feel like asking Avery for help; it would be humiliating. On the other hand, he didn’t want to wait out the time it would take for him to drift to the wall.
Before he could pick between the two evils, Tamara said,“Avery, would you mind getting our gecko hands for us?”
“Sure thing, Tamara.” Avery pressed the wall–attraction button on his right gecko hand, which immediately floated toward the nearest wall, pulling Avery along with it. Landing on the flat wall near the producer, Avery climbed over it, grabbed Clyde’s gecko hands, and flung them out to him. Clyde caught one of them but missed the other. Fortunately, the hand he caught happened to be the one with the wall–attraction button so that, after pushing off the nearest wall, he was able to retrieve the other one.
Avery, meanwhile, had attached his gecko hands to his belt. Pushing off the wall at such an angle that he was able to grab both Tamara and her gecko hands at the same time, he wrapped his arms around her tightly to keep his momentum from pushing them in opposite directions. It was also a convenient excuse just to hold her, since, in accordance with her non–favoritism policy, she showed no indications of romance toward either of the boys.
After they had stopped moving, Avery released Tamara and handed her gecko hands to her. They wall–attracted, landing near the waste incinerator. Disposing of their emptied drink packets, Avery and Tamara followed Clyde up to the bridge.
In the ceiling of the rec room was a small, circular opening leading to the bridge level; it was through this that Clyde, Avery, and Tamara climbed. The bridge was slightly smaller than the rec room, for though its floor covered the ceilings of both the engineering area and the rec room, the bridge was up higher on the hemisphere. The single continuous wall was entirely covered with flexible viewscreens currently displaying a panoramic view of space around the exterior of the Pride of Clyde. On the bottom of the viewscreens were on–screen buttons which, when pressed, caused the ship to do particular actions; these were rarely used, however, as it was much easier to just speak with the computer to get the same results. There were three pseudo–leather cushioned chairs close to the consoles, arranged triangularly around the opening in the floor.
Clyde beckoned to Tamara and Avery and had them strap themselves into the chairs. After doing so himself, he said,“Pride of Clyde, maneuver us into orbit two thousand kilometers from Io, at 20,000 km per hour.”
“Most certainly, master,” replied the deep bass of the Pride of Clyde’s synthesized voice, eliciting a tittering laugh from Tamara and a begrudging one from Avery.
The Pride began firing its maneuvering jets to rotate the craft in the direction of Io, at this point in time not far from Ganymede. After the ship was faced in the correct direction, the magnesion repeller, using magnetism to repel individual magnesion molecules for propulsion, accelerated it to 20,000 km in less than five seconds. This would have put an unendurable gravitational pressure on the craft’s occupants had it not been for the gravity dampers, or G–dampers, which lessened the pressure enough to allow the humans within to survive.
The Pride of Clyde entered Ioan orbit approximately two minutes after Clyde had ordered it to move. The three teenagers unstrapped themselves from their chairs, and Clyde ordered the viewscreens to display a visual of Io, Jupiter’s volcanic moon. It was beautiful to behold from above, with its magnificent bright red lava flows and constantly–erupting volcanoes spewing forth molten metal and volcanic rocks.
What happened next has been ascribed to the will of God, terrible fate, or unbelievable, incredulous chance: one of the volcanoes suddenly erupted with enough force that some molten metal and rocks managed to escape Io’s gravity well. Temperatures in space being much colder than on Io, the metal instantly cooled into shapeless clumps, and one of these clumps was now on an intercept course with the Pride of Clyde.
A proximity detector beeped, but Clyde wasn’t worried; the ship’s deflector shield would protect them from harm. Suddenly he realized that he hadn’t turned the deflector shield on, nor had he written a program that would automatically do this for him.
“Computer, engage de––” He didn’t get any further. At that moment, the metal clump, as if guided by some external force, impacted the magnesion repeller violently, embedding itself in the ultrasteel plating.
The kinetic force of the collision began a chain reaction, destabilizing the magnesion molecules and causing them to move as far away from each other as possible. Eventually, this would result in a lethal explosion.
The computer detected the chain reaction and announced,“Alert! Magnesionic destabilization detected. Estimated time until detonation: two minutes, twenty–five seconds. Please evacuate the vessel immediately.”
Clyde swore.“I don’t believe it! How’d this happen?”
“You weren’t careful,” Avery reproached him.“And thanks to your shutting off the external comm, we can’t call Jewel to notify them of our situation. Why don’t you learn to th––.”
“Oh, hush,” Tamara interjected.“Let’s just get off of here before we die.” With that, she climbed down into the rec room toward the two lifepod launch tubes. Avery and Clyde followed, with Clyde bemoaning the catastrophe until Avery told him to shut up.
“Two minutes until detonation,” the computer announced, just as Clyde ordered the hatch for the first lifepod to open. Tamara climbed in. Avery started to follow her, but Clyde grabbed him roughly and jerked him away from the hatch, sending him careening backwards.
“Hey!” Avery exclaimed, hurriedly pushing his wall–attraction button.“What’d you do that for?”
“I’m riding with Tamara, you fool!” Clyde retorted.“And there’s only room for two.”
Avery landed on the flat wall, glaring at Clyde.“What, after your little mishap you think you deserve to share a lifepod with her? Boy, are you hosed.”
“It’s my lifepod, I decide who rides where!”
“Galaxy! You are one stupid idiot if you think that! Did you drop your brain in the incinerator?”
“You’re the one who’s crazy, you Madison!” (The insult Madison was in reference to the last American president, the infamous Shawn Madison, who sold the entire country to China.)
“Um, guys,” Tamara said pleadingly,“would you please stop arguing and go?”
“Revised countdown,” the Pride of Clyde announced.“Estimated time until detonation: fifty–three seconds.”
“Face it, buddy; you aren’t going in there with her,” Clyde growled. Avery was about to come up with a repartee when they suddenly heard a loud clang. Turning toward Tamara’s lifepod, they saw that the black, electromagnetic acceleration doors were now closed. Tamara had launched.
“She’s gone!” Clyde exclaimed. He hadn’t thought she’d leave the ship without him.“Why’d she do that?”
“Because you couldn’t shut up,” retorted Avery.“Now get the other hatch open!”
But the abrupt departure of Tamara, coupled with the intense shock of losing his ship to a careless error, had pushed Clyde around the bend.“I’m gonna die!” he wailed hysterically.“I’m gonna die!”
Avery sighed in exasperation. He couldn’t open the hatch himself because it was only operable via the vocal command system, which hadn’t been programmed to authorize Avery’s voice. The only person who could open that door was Clyde, and he was going crazy.
“Clyde, get that hatch open now, or we’ll die!”
“What does it matter? We’re gonna die anyway!”
“There’s a second pod, Clyde! We aren’t dead yet, and we won’t be if you get that gabbled hatch open!”
“It doesn’t matter!” Clyde screamed.“She’s abandoned me! I’ve died already, and it’s useless to say otherwise, because it’s gabbled hatch wrong!”
“Would you think, for galaxy’s––”
“Estimated time until detonation: thirty seconds,” came the voice of the ship.
Avery groaned. He needed to find a way to get Clyde out of his hysteria before the magnesion detonated. Hastily considering multiple courses of action, he did the only thing he figured had a reasonable chance for success: he reached out and smacked Clyde in the face with his left palm. In the null–gravity, this action spun Avery into the wall, bruising his back and knuckles. The pain was worth it, however, as the hand slap knocked Clyde out of his panic and caused him to think coherently again.
“Pride of Clyde, open the hatch for Lifepod 2,” Clyde ordered. The hatch slid open and the two humans quickly scrambled in, while the computer announced that the detonation would occur in fifteen seconds.
The cylindrical interior of the lifepod was cramped, with barely enough room for the manually–operated control console and the two blue, padded chairs fastened in front of it. Clyde and Avery hastily strapped themselves into the seats, leaving their gecko handsstuck to the pod’s concave wall. After both boys were buckled up, Clyde slapped the large, red button that launched the pod; this method was used because lifepods did not contain a vocal command system.
Behind them, the lifepod hatch slid shut. A loud clang indicated that the acceleration doors had also closed. The clamps holding the pod in place were speedily retracted and the acceleration doors activated. Because the lifepod was made of ultrasteel, it was repelled into space at five thousand kilometers per hour, the pod’s G–damper preventing the extreme acceleration from squashing Clyde and Avery.
Four seconds passed, the boys waiting in tense anticipation. Then an announcement appeared on the computer screen, accompanied by a shrill chirp. Clyde looked at the notice and read:
“Alert! Magnesion explosion detected! Estimated time until impact––”
The shock wave hit the lifepod before Clyde could finish reading the statement. Even the G–damper could not prevent a sudden jolt as the pod was suddenly thrust forward, five times faster than its previous speed.
The tiny craft began to spin violently, nauseating the two boys. Clyde closed his eyes, which alleviated the dizziness somewhat. The shock wave quickly passed them by, leaving no significant damage to the lifepod.
Two alarms beeped simultaneously. Clyde opened his eyes to glance at the screen, and saw two notices announcing two fragments about to collide with the lifepod. Before he could brace himself for impact, the first of the inbound objects struck, abruptly changing the direction of the pod’s spin.
This sudden shift in rotation was too much for Clyde’s sense of balance to handle, and he emptied his stomach. In the null gravity, the vomit formed into a tan–brown globule, slightly larger than a baseball. The stench overwhelmed Clyde, causing him to throw up again. Avery was retching as well.
The other fragment slammed into the lifepod shortly thereafter. The impact considerably decreased the speed of the pod’s rotation, easing the discomfort of the boys.
Clyde was most ungrateful to Avery for saving his life.“Aw, look what you did,” he complained, delicately pushing a glob of vomit toward Avery.“You made her launch without me!”
“Look who’s talking,” retorted Avery, deflecting the putrid projectile.“If you hadn’t forgotten to activate the deflector shield, we wouldn’t even be in this disaster! And you brought us out here with no external comm, so we couldn’t even send an automated distress signal!”
“You agreed to come out here!”
“You know why I came!”
“You won’t get her this way, you asinine amoeba!”
“You’re a Madison!”
They stared at each other defiantly, ignoring the awful stench of the vomit. After a few seconds, the nasty comments each was preparing were put on hold by a beeping alarm.
Clyde looked at the pod’s computer screen and exclaimed,“Oh, galaxy, we’re escaping Jupiterian orbit! No one will ever find us!”
“Well, whose fault is that, Einstein?” Avery sneered.“Besides, the flare beacon will let other ships know where we are.”
“After the beating we took, I’d be surprised if the flare beacon still works!”
“Then run a diagnostic on it so we can see.”
Clyde grumbled a remark about Avery needing a diagnostic on his IQ and typed a command to the computer to check the status of the flare beacon, the automated radio ping used by a lifepod to transmit its location to rescuers.
The screen flashed with the announcement that the flare beacon was inoperative.
Clyde turned his head to look at Avery.“See? They aren’t going to find us.”
Avery wouldn’t even hint at feeling disappointment.“Well, then, we need to turn the pod around.”
Clyde keyed in the command to do that, but the maneuvering jets were also dead.
Avery’s face now showed a slight sign of worry.“Got any other ideas?”
“You’re the brainiac of this outfit. You figure it out.”
“Hold on a minute, Madison,” Avery growled.“It’s your neck in the noose, too. I can think of multiple ways of getting one person back to Jewel alive. . .”
“Then tell me those ideas and throw yourself out the hatch,” Clyde said snidely, trying hard to mask his fear with smart–aleck behavior.
“Jeez, why the galaxy does Tamara even like you,” Avery muttered. Right after he said this, the proximity detector beeped.
“What is it?” Clyde asked, suddenly beginning to hope.
“Probably just a part of your Pride,” Avery quipped.
Clyde ignored the rude remark and typed in a command to the computer to scan the incoming object. Unfortunately, the result confirmed what Avery had said: the object was only a crescent–shaped piece of debris.
“Gabble!” Clyde shouted, barely restraining himself from whacking the plastiphane keyboard. He wondered if he should just open the hatch and kill himself now, instead of waiting for the lack of air to do it later.
“Holy galaxy!” Avery shouted suddenly.
Startled, Clyde glared at Avery and snapped,“Can you be any louder?”
“That fragment has oxygen.”
Clyde didn’t see the significance of this fact.“So what? We’ve got plenty of oxygen for now.”
“But the fragment shouldn’t have it, unless. . .” Avery waited to see if Clyde could figure out what he was implying.
Clyde was in no mood for deducing anything.“Unless what?”
“. . .unless there’s an intact maneuvering jet on that fragment! If we could mount it on our pod, we could propel ourselves backward and give the rescue teams a better chance of finding us.”
Forgetting to be rude for a moment, Clyde exclaimed,“You’re right! Let’s suit up and go!”
“We have to hurry. We won’t have much time before the jet flies out of range.”
Underneath the computer screen was a compartment containing spacesuits and jet–packs. Clyde opened the compartment and flung its contents out carelessly. Precious time was subsequently lost in retrieving the parts from around the craft.
Before putting on his suit, Avery removed a sheathed vibration knife from a pouch attached to his temperature–suit and put it into the carrying pocket of his spacesuit’s utility belt. The knife was crafted of impervium, a synthetic metal stronger than a diamond and sharp enough to cut through ultrasteel. Because impervium was hard to shape, it was generally used only for small items such as the vibration knife.
“Wait a minute,” Clyde said as they climbed to the hatch, ready to depart.“How are we going to rehabilitate the atmosphere when we come back? The pod hasn’t got an airlock, and it’ll take the atmosphere generator a lot of time to rebuild the atmosphere to a point where we can breathe it again.”
“We’ll just use the LOX in our tanks,” replied Avery.“Let’s get this over with first.” He pressed the open hatch button, then held on tight to his gecko hands as the hatch opened and the lifepod’s atmosphere whooshed out, carrying with it the globs of vomit. After the pod had expelled all of its air, the duo fired up their jet–packs and made all haste for the fragment. There was no way to close the hatch from the outside, so they had to leave it open.
“Shoot!” Clyde exclaimed when they had traveled half the distance to the fragment.“I forgot to turn off the atmosphere generator.”
Avery groaned.“We better pick up the pace, then. We don’t want the air reserves to run out before we get back.”
It would have saved the two boys a considerable amount of time if they had first used the lifepod’s computer to calculate an optimal intercept course based on their velocity and that of the fragment. As it was, attempting to intercept the fragment guided by line–of–sight only, it took them twenty–seven minutes to make contact.
Holding a portable scanning device, AKA portascanner, Clyde quickly located the position of the maneuvering jet. After propelling over to the spot, he took an aerosol marker from his utility belt and used it to paint a red square on the plating around the jet. This was a critical measure: if Avery accidentally cut into the jet itself, the jet would not only decompress its oxygen, but it was likely in such a weakened state that it would explode, causing certain abandonment in space and possible loss of life.
Avery, who had followed him, attached a stiff stick–on tether to the ultrasteel plating to keep from pushing himself away from the fragment as he cut. Gecko hands would have been more efficient for this, but unfortunately both Avery and Clyde had left theirs inside the lifepod. Avery removed the vibration knife’s sheath from the utility belt pocket and held it firmly as he extracted the sharp tool. Returning the sheath to the belt, he activated the knife and stuck it into the ultrasteel to make his first cut.
It took him less then three minutes to slice away one side of the square. The entire procedure was completed in eleven minutes; it would have taken even less time if Clyde hadn’t pestered Avery with constant reminders to be careful.
Immediately after Avery finished, an unfortunate event occurred. As he was sheathing the vibration knife, it somehow slipped from his hand and floated toward his foot, point first. On pure reflex, Avery quickly slapped at the dangerous tool before it could penetrate his suit; however, it now flew point first toward the exposed maneuvering jet.
Avery attempted to grab the knife, but he wasn’t fast enough. Both boys watched in horror as the ultra–sharp knife penetrated the weakened jet, leaking precious LOX from the supply within. As if this wasn’t enough, the immense pressure expelling the compressed oxygen through the tiny hole was too much for the jet’s frame to handle, and the entire contraption exploded, blasting Avery and Clyde farther away from Jupiterian orbit.
Shards of metal impacted their suits but didn’t completely penetrate them. Unfortunately, Clyde’s jet–pack was not as resilient as his suit and it began leaking all over, spinning Clyde in a nauseating manner. He unstrapped the jet–pack from his back and shoved it away from him, leaving it to rocket away and blow itself out. The propulsion that had acted on him before that, however, was sufficient to move him closer to Avery’s flying form.
Angry with Avery for screwing up, Clyde yelled over the suit radio,“Now look what you did, you bigoted piece of––”
A sudden, sharp exclamation of pain cut his tirade short.
“What?” Clyde taunted.“Did that explosion bruise you real good?”
“Galaxy,” moaned Avery,“it hurts… it hurts like. . .” He groaned again, and Clyde looked at him. Embedded in the right arm of Avery’s suit was the vibration knife. As at that moment they were facing each other, Clyde peered through Avery’s faceplate and saw his face contorted in an expression of excruciating pain. Avery’s left hand was holding the knife to keep the pressure of the suit from pushing it out. The knife was the only thing preventing a quick termination of his life because it partially plugged up the leak in the suit. Even now, the air was slowly leaking out. Left alone long enough, the arm would burst, and Avery’s body would ultimately follow.
A tempting thought crossed Clyde’s mind: I could remove that knife. He would die quickly, and no one would ever know. Then there’d be no competition for Tamara’s love. He entertained the possibility for several moments, but he couldn’t bring himself to follow through. He hated Avery, yes, but murder in cold blood wasn’t right.
The clinching moment came when Avery spoke:“Clyde… I’m sorry. We’ll probably both die now, and it’s… it’s my fault. Can you… forgive me… for what I’ve done?”
Forgive his mortal nemesis? The very thought seemed preposterous to Clyde. How could he possibly forgive a person whom he completely despised? He wanted to tell Avery that he was completely out of his mind, but something stopped him.
They were both on the brink of death, perhaps taking their final breaths. It was pointless to continue their virulent rivalry. Clyde suddenly realized that he wanted to forgive Avery.
With that, Clyde replied,“Yeah. I forgive you.”
It was a strange feeling, to forgive a person he had hated for so long. The most surprising aspect of it was that it felt good. Clyde had no regrets at all.
He suddenly found himself adding,“And I’m sorry, too. If I’d have taken more time building the Pride of Clyde, we wouldn’t even be here. Can you forgive me?”
“I… I forgive you.” After a few moments, Avery added,“Funny, isn’t it––that… felt good.”
“I know. Maybe Chaplain Maskarov was right. In that sermon of his the other day.”
Avery chuckled, then groaned again as the knife resisted the motion of his arm muscles.“I… don’t know ’bout you, but… but I thought he was just… spewing religious dogma.”
“Same here. And if he was right about that, then maybe––” Clyde stopped suddenly. He had seen something in the distance about five hundred meters away, back where the maneuvering jet had blown up.
“What?” Avery asked.“Whatis it?”
“I think I saw a ship back where the fragment was before you––I mean, before it blew up. It spun out of my vision, though, so I’m not sure of it..”
“I should… be… able to see… in a minute.” Ten long seconds and five agonized grunts later, Avery had spun far enough to see the spot Clyde had indicated.
Avery suddenly exclaimed,“It is… a ship! A… personnel shuttle… from the… the looks of it.”
For the second time during the calamity, Clyde felt a sliver of hope pierce his soul.“Maybe they’ll spot us and get us out of this mess!”
“Not… likely,” Avery gritted the words, speech becoming increasingly harder as his life seeped from him.“Shuttles… don’t have good sensors. I… don’t think they’d… be able to identify… our location… this far away––Galaxy… it hurts!” He uttered another painful series of unintelligible syllables.
The sliver of hope quickly dissipated.“But isn’t there any way they could detect us? Any at all?”
“Yes…” Avery was silent for a moment.“If I short out… my power pack… they should… be able to… detect the explosion. When they investigate… they’ll find you.”
“But that’ll kill you.” Clyde, once open to the thought of murdering Avery, now shuddered in protest at what his companion was suggesting.
“I’m half dead anyway!” Avery’s sudden outburst startled Clyde and provoked another spasm of agony.“You can… still live,” he continued, in a more subdued voice.
But Clyde wasn’t having any of this.“No,” he replied firmly.“I will not let you kill yourself to save me. There must be some other way.”
“Wait…” Avery was facing him again, and Clyde stared intently at his companion’s pain–filled face.“The portascanner…”
Clyde caught on immediately.“If we blow it up, it’ll get their attention. But how would we do that?”
“The… knife. . .”
“No, that’ll just kill you.”
“If things… happen… fast enough… I… might… survive. Give it… to me.”
“Do it!” Avery’s voice was filled with desperation.
Clyde reluctantly reached out to turn on his jet–pack, in order to move closer to Avery. Then he remembered that he had thrown it away when the maneuvering jet exploded. He began to panic: if he was too slow, the shuttle’s limited sensors would be too far away to pick up the small electromagnetic disruption that the portascanner’s destruction would generate.
He felt in his belt for something to throw, and his gloved hand closed around the aerosol marker. Flinging it out behind him, he glided toward Avery. Clyde grabbed the other boy’s left arm when they intersected, and connected their suits together with a stick–on tether. Reaching across Avery’s body, he pulled out the vibration knife just as Avery let go of it. Activating it, Clyde stuck the knife in the portascanner’s power supply and flung the portascanner out toward black space. This served two purposes; it not only distanced the boys from the potentially harmful explosion, it also moved them closer to the personnel shuttle. Their bodies were turned such that they weren’t able to see the explosion (they didn’t hear it, of course, since they were in a vacuum).
Sure enough, the craft now moved in their direction, albeit at a slower pace than Clyde would have liked. Avery began groaning repeatedly, the sound hurting Clyde’s ears. Clyde ignored the noise, concerned only with trying to keep Avery alive. He put his right hand over the spurting wound to slow the leakage of air and blood. The arm was certainly lost; it was a question of whether Avery’s life would hold out until the rescue came.
Another voice suddenly spoke over the radio:“Identify yourselves, spacemen.”
It was the shuttle captain, calling them now that the shuttle was in range of the suit radios. They had been spotted.
Clyde sighed gratefully and replied,“Clyde Williams and Avery Hawkin, Blake. Avery is suffering decompression. Request immediate boarding.”
“Will do, Clyde,” replied Blake Saunst, the pilot of the personnel shuttle. The vessel––a pointed gray cylinder with two large magnesion–repeller nacelles jutting out on ultrasteel bars at right angles to each other––now approached their floating figures. Several seconds later, a man in a spacesuit, jet–pack strapped to his back, emerged from the airlock and moved in their direction. He tethered to Clyde, still connected to Avery, and pulled the two boys back to the airlock hatch.
The man introduced himself as Chad Hygert and asked them how they’d ended up like this. Clyde explained that their spaceship had detonated, heavily damaging their lifepod, and in their attempt to repair it, they were flung out into space.
Then they were in the airlock. As soon as it was fully compressed, Clyde removed his helmet. Chad took his gecko hands and climbed to the compartment where the medical emergency kit was kept. Retrieving it, Chad climbed back to Avery and put a tourniquet on what was left of his battered and bloody arm.
Avery’s face contorted into a grotesque expression of pain, and Clyde asked him if he was going to make it. When Avery didn’t respond, Clyde removed his helmet and repeated the question.
“Yeah, probably,” Avery replied.“But this arm certainly won’t.”
Clyde nodded respectfully. They didn’t need to say anything about their changed stance toward each other. The words they had uttered in the cold darkness of space were enough.
“Okay, let’s buckle up,” Blake said when Chad had finished binding up Avery’s arm. Clyde helped Avery get strapped into a seat before buckling up himself. When all were secured, Blake turned the shuttle toward Jewel and accelerated.
“Say,” Clyde asked Blake as they flew,“we had a companion who ejected before we did…”
“Tamara White?” Clyde nodded.“She’s been found. We picked up her flare beacon but a nearby constabulary vessel was already intercepting her, so we continued on. She’s probably back at Jewel by now.”
Clyde released the breath he had been holding. Tamara was safe.
Eight minutes later, the shuttle docked with Jewel and a medical team rushed aboard, strapped Avery to a stretcher, and carried him away to Medbay. Clyde left after the medical team departed, carefully lowering himself to the plastiphane–plated floor and climbing across it. Once he arrived in the station’s artificial gravity, he stood up.
It didn’t take him long to find Tamara, who was waiting just beyond the station docking hatch. He quickly stepped over to her, and she hugged him joyfully. Her lilac–scented perfume smelled quite nice.
“Oh, Clyde,” Tamara exclaimed,“I was so worried that you and Avery wouldn’t make it out.”
“Me, too. Speaking of which. . .”
Before he could ask the question that had been nagging at his mind, Tamara interrupted.“What happened to Avery, Clyde? The medical team wouldn’t explain, but his arm looked like a bloody mess.”
“He had a suit leak. I’m afraid the arm will have to be cut off.”
“Oh!” Tamara gasped.“Galaxy, that’s horrid!”
“Yeah.” There was an uncomfortable silence that lasted for several seconds; then,“Tamara, may I ask why you left us behind?”
“That’s simple enough. I could see that you two would keep on arguing unless something drastic occurred. The only thing I could think of was to go ahead and eject, hoping you guys would clear your heads long enough to save yourselves.”
“It certainly worked, and in more ways than––”
At that moment, Jewel’s PA system interrupted their conversation.
“Tamara White and Clyde Williams, please report to Medbay immediately. Repeat, Tamara White and. . .”
The rest of the announcement faded away as Clyde and Tamara took off at a dead run for the nearest Inter–Station–Transport Cab Bank, only one corridor away. They got into Cab 9, and after Clyde ordered it to Medbay, the small, cube–like vehicle began traveling along the rectangular“pathways” that crisscrossed the entire space station.
Forty–five seconds, seven decks, and twenty–five corridors later, they exited the IST Cab and stepped up to the dual slide–back doors which led to Medbay. These doors admitted the two teenagers, opening so quickly that it was nearly impossible to see that they had laterally moved at all.
The Medbay lobby was simply a room of gray plastiphane lit by paste–on light–emitting strips (or POLE strips), with twenty–five faux–leather waiting seats and a receptionist desk staffed at the moment by a short–haired redhead with warm, cheery eyes. Above the desk was a digital clock. Glancing at it, Clyde saw that it read 0532. They had only been gone for two and a half hours.
The receptionist looked at them and asked,“May I help you?”
“Ma’am,” Clyde answered,“we’re here to see Avery Hawkin.”
“Ah, that would make you Clyde Williams and Tamara White?” They nodded, and she said,“Main Corridor A, Sub–corridor Delta, Room 125.”
They each said“Thank you,” then proceeded to the described coordinates and were soon with Avery in his hospital room. The mangled mass that had been his arm was no longer present, replaced with an automata–arm, or A–arm, sheathed in ultraluminum and painted the color of flesh. The light color of the mechanism didn’t quite match Avery’s skin tone, so that it looked out–of–place with the rest of his body.
Avery waved his A–arm and managed to give them a ghastly grin; as he was still under anesthetic chemicals, he couldn’t feel his muscles move, so he had no idea just what his facial expression was.“Hi, guys,” he greeted them, his voice slightly slurred.
“How’d the surgery go?” Tamara asked.
“Rather quick,” he replied.“It took them only two minnas––I mean, two minutes––to get the suit off, completely sever the arm, and temporarily seal up the shoulder joint. After that, they took about two minutes to select the proper automata–arm, another two minutes to unseal the shoulder joint and attach the A–arm, and one last minute to run diagnostics to make sure the thing worked properly.” He raised the A–arm up and down a couple of times, then added,“As you can see, the medics did an excellent job. They told me to be careful with it, though; they don’t pay for the repaint job if I mess it up.”
All three of them laughed. It felt good to laugh, after all the close encounters with death they had gone through.
When they managed to quiet down, Tamara hugged Avery.
Avery was surprised. This was obviously a breach of her non–favoritism policy.“Why’d you do that?” he inquired.
“I hugged Clyde, so I had to do the same to you.”
Clyde smiled.“I don’t think our jealousy will be much of an issue anymore.”
Tamara was curious to know why, but seeing the look that Clyde and Avery exchanged, she decided not to inquire about it for the moment. Instead, she put an arm around each of them, and the three friends sat quietly, thankful to be alive.