A klaxon woke him.
The room was bright.
He sat upright, the chair’s coils slipping away.
Meriam was gone.
He kicked for the door. His flight went awry. They weren’t in zero-gee anymore.
The klaxon kept sounding.
He caught a loop and slipped up against the wall. It was a low thrust, perhaps five percent of a standard gee. Maneuvering thrusters.
Where was Meriam?
Hauling himself through the door, he saw crew rushing along the companionway. Some were wearing environment suits. One of them still in coveralls stopped nearby, yanking open a locker in the companionway wall and pulling out a deflated suit. She quickly started putting it on.
“What’s happened?” Larsen said.
“Out of Barris,” she said, looking at him. Her face was grim, eyes wide. She kept working to get the suit over her coveralls. “But I don’t ask, I just get suited and go where they tell me.”
“Thanks.” Larsen started forward, bouncing off his feet, grabbing at loops.
“Wait,” the crewwoman called after him. “You’ll need a suit.” She held out another one she’d taken from the locker.
“I’ve got to find my daughter,” he said. He kept moving forward. He should have set up a proper communications line between the four of them. At least Meriam’s sliver hadn’t activated. She was still alive and still balanced. He wished it had a homing beacon on it.
“Larsen.” Trasker was further down the companionway, waving at him. He had his legs in a suit, the torso, arms and helmet hanging free.
“What’s going on?” Larsen shouted.
“We’re on site,” Trasker called back. He was hanging from a loop, feet braced. Low acceleration was tricky, much harder than either zero-gee or full acceleration.
Larsen came up. “Have you seen Meriam?”
“Jamie’s with her.” Trasker pointed back. “In Jamie’s cabin.”
Larsen felt tension leach from him. He sighed. “How can we be on site already?” Then he looked at the time. He’d slept that long. Actually for-real slept. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept for more than a couple of hours at a time.
In a moment he was at the open door to Jamie’s cabin. They were both in environment suits.
The klaxon shut off.
The ship seemed quiet and for a second Larsen imagined he could hear birds and a waterfall. Just his brain fooling him with residual interpretations.
“What’s happening?” Jamie said.
“I’m about to find out. Meriam?” He pushed into the cabin and grabbed her shoulders.
“Fine,” she said. “I’m fine.”
Larsen shivered. That moment when he woke in the medical bay and she was gone had shaken him. But here she was. She was okay. “I’ve gotta go to work,” he said.
Meriam shrugged. Like it was nothing. Larsen looked at Jamie.
“I’ll stay with her,” Jamie said.
“Thanks.” Larsen flipped and pulled back out to the companionway. Trasker followed.
In moments they were on the bridge. Silk was strapped into the upright harness, exactly where he’d last seen her. The circle of Barris space navigators had reconfigured to a normal space flight deck, four of the seats and panels folded back into the walls, the remaining two side by side and facing forwards. The two pilots worked frantically on their panels.
“Situation?” Larsen said.
“See the ship?” Silk pointed out through the forward canopy.
Larsen saw it. A bright speck, probably sixty kilometers away.
“There’s a hole,” Silk said. “It’s nose down, relative to the ecliptic.” She tore off a corner of her own panel and passed it to Larsen, the corner quickly regrowing.
Larsen took the chunk and expanded it square. It was small, but it quickly reconfigured to the new size, hardening up and squaring off. The image flickered for a moment, the resolved to show the Emerald Sky on magnification.
Half was missing. The wheel facing the camera was revolving slowly, the spokes and rim disappearing as they moved around. “A rift to Barris space,” he muttered. He shifted the panel so Trasker could see.
“Exactly,” Silk said. “More unreasonable physics. And we’re caught in it. Trying right now to maneuver out of it”
“Maneuver?” Trasker said.
On the display Larsen saw a flicker, almost like lightning, reaching from the crippled liner. “The rift is spreading?”
“It lances out. We’re trying to avoid it.”
Larsen stretched the little panel bigger. It struggled to keep up, thinning as he got the size up. When it was as big a dinner tray, and thinner than paper, it flashed a complaining red at him. He stopped pulling and the image resolved again. Another flash of lightning.
“There,” Trasker said. “It’s along the same plane. Perpendicular to the ship.”
“Originating at the wheel,” Larsen said.
“What’s that?” Silk said.
“The breach is sourced at the wheel.”
“Definitely,” Trasker said. “We should get over there.”
Larsen looked over at Silk. Her face was grim. “I can’t risk my ship,” she said. “Even for the flight director’s daughter. I can’t go any closer.”
“From the stern,” Larsen said. “Those bolts are coming out perpendicular.”
“You know that?”
He’d seen two. He wondered what she’d seen. “That’s what I’m going with. Get us up above the plane, and bring us into the ship from-”
“Brace for real space acceleration,” Silk said into her mic. Larsen heard it echoing from behind and out the door over the ship’s Tannoy.
Trasker grabbed an overhead loop. Larsen did likewise.
“Okay boys,” Silk said to the pilots. “One gravity to start, then ease us up to two once everyone’s happy. Put us five hundred meters directly astern of the wreck.”
Immediately Larsen felt weight come back. His feet settled on the deck. It always seemed counter-intuitive, that a ship with a clear bow and stern would move up rather than forwards when it was in real space. The pilots’ seats tipped back so that they were looking directly through the overhead parts of the canopy.
“We’re moving away from those flashes,” one of the pilots said.
Larsen watched the view change, the Emerald Sky slowly moving down relative to him.
“If you’re going over there, you should get yourselves ready,” Silk said.
“Roger,” Larsen said with a nod to her. He walked back out into the companionway. It was odd moving in the ship now. The floor’s curve was out of place, designed for weightlessness, not for walking on. This ship spent very little time under acceleration, he thought.
“Two gravities in fifteen seconds,” Silk said over the Tannoy.
He’d forgotten about that. He started running, Trasker right behind him.
At Jamie’s cabin, he pulled himself through the door. They were both lying back on the beds, ready for the extra acceleration.
“You should find a seat,” Jamie said, looking over at him.
“Yup. You good, Meriam?”
“You’re bothering me now,” she said. “Asking so much and all.”
He couldn’t help smiling. “Gotcha.”
“Five seconds,” the Tannoy said.
“Gotta go,” Larsen said. He started running along the companionway again. Trasker hadn’t stopped and was far ahead.
The speakers crackled, then Silk said, “Gravity engage.”
It came with a kick. He felt it in his knees first. He grabbed a loop and steadied himself. Using a loop lower down on the companionway wall, he let himself slide down the wall. Trasker was still moving. Larsen didn’t know how he did it. Weighing three hundred pounds and still moving. Inexplicable.
Larsen sat on the floor, feeling the thrum of the engines through the steel. The ship was more capable than he’d first thought. This was why it needed serious fueling. Fast and deep through Barris and agile in real space. He wondered if they were going to one day figure out how to fold away the wheels and make something like this atmosphere capable.
“Coming about,” Silk said over the Tannoy. “Strap in.”
Halfway, Larsen thought. Turning the ship for deceleration. He had a moment of weightlessness, then felt the inertia of the spin trying to pull him towards the bow. He gripped the loop, but still drifted up off the floor, legs swinging around.
“Brace,” Silk said.
The weight came back. Two gravities of deceleration. He sat waiting for it to pass, wondering how Meriam was doing.
Larsen blinked and breathed. He had a job to do, and he had to trust that Meriam would be all right.
The deceleration eased and Larsen stood again.
“Positioning,” Silk called. “Prepare for uneven movement.”
Larsen started running along the companionway. It was back to a single gee now, but still easing off. In a moment he wouldn’t be able to run: his steps would just push him up off the floor.
By the time he reached the equipment bay entry doors he was back in zero gee. He pulled through the doors and looked for Trasker. He was hovering over one of the lie-flats, pulling himself into an EVA suit. A couple of the crew were working on prepping the tiny shuttle.
“Larsen? You there?” Silk called over the speakers.
By the door he saw a comms panel and he swung around to it. “Larsen.”
“We’re all in position. Holding about five hundred meters from the Emerald Sky.”
“Any signal? Any sign of life?”
“And those disturbances?”
“Out of the wake for the moment. But if-”
“Don’t put your ship in danger,” he said. “If you need to back off, then go.”
She didn’t respond for a moment, then said, “Roger that.”
Larsen looked back at Trasker. He helping the crew with the little shuttle. Clever machine, Larsen thought, small enough to slip through a standard hatch, but powerful enough to jet for hundreds of kilometers and keep a pilot on life support for days.
“We’re suiting up,” he said. “Keep us posted.”
Pushing off, Larsen headed for the other shuttle to get underway. It only took a couple of moments to get into the suit.
“We good to go?” Trasker said.
Larsen waited until the suit had sealed itself over his back and head, and the HUD readout showed him that the integrity was set. A row of green spots appeared on the soft helmet’s bug eye. “Yes,” he said. He moved to the other side of the first shuttle and they maneuvered it into the airlock. With the twist network so densely protecting the ship, the airlock had limited volume. If they’d come out in a freighter, they could have brought a forty-seat shuttle, fitted into a bay that the twist-network folded away from. But then a freighter would have taken two months to get out here.
With the two of them manhandling the shuttle, it only took a couple of minutes to get it into the lock. The inner door slid into place and the panel showed a good seal.
“Ready for this?” Larsen said.
Trasker shrugged. “As ever.”
Larsen punched the release and the outer door opened. Through the inner window he saw the shuttle ride away on the puff of air, then bounce a little as if it had landed on water as its retros fired to keep it close. “Let’s get the other one in.”
In a few minutes they had both shuttles hovering outside the ship and cycled through themselves. They got into the waiting machines and sealed in.
“Are we good to go?” Larsen said through the comms. The shuttle felt as though it was squeezed him like a coffin.
“You have a green,” Silk said.
Larsen took the throttle and stick and aimed the little shuttle for the stern of the Emerald Sky. From this angle the big ship was foreshortened, but still huge. It seemed to ripple at the edge where the wheel disappeared.
“Doesn’t look good, boss,” Trasker said.
The ship didn’t seem damaged in any other way, the stern was sleek and shiny, the viewports all in line and intact. Rows of other access locks and service points almost hidden by a clever design aesthetic. The huge Barris transit wheel – bigger than those on the Conte Rosso, but relatively dwarfed by the size of the Emerald Sky – was still moving slowly. Larsen didn’t know what to make of it. Supposedly you were either in Barris space or not; a binary system. There was no half in or half out as if you were standing waist-deep in the ocean. That’s what the liner looked like, with the wheel shimmering a little as it transitioned into nothing.
It only took a few minutes to get to the stern access docks on the Emerald Sky. Trasker lined up and fired out a mooring tether. The probe bit into the Emerald Sky‘s skin and bonded. Trasker popped his hatch and slipped out, pulling himself over on the tether. He got to the hatch and tapped the panel. “Okay,” he said, his voice a little tinny in Larsen’s ear-roll. “We’ve got atmosphere in there.”
“It will cycle?” Larsen fired off his own tether and opened the hatch. He saw Trasker’s shuttle give a little puff on its retros to steady itself at its end of the tether.
As Larsen approached, Trasker got the hatch open. It flipped aside, leaning back almost straight up. Trasker shone his flashlight inside. “Nothing.” He pulled inside and Larsen saw him checking the inside panel.
It was a standard airlock. Big enough for two people. If there were survivors inside they were going to have to bundle them up in survival bubbles and jimmy both doors open so they could send them all out into space without having to cycle through for everyone. Regulation procedure.
“We’ve got atmosphere inside,” Trasker said.
“Good.” Larsen used his personal jets to turn and face back. There were stars and for the first time he saw the planet. A gas giant. Blue, but striated with heavy red and orange bands. A narrow ring circled it, lit up and partly eclipsed from the sun. The Emerald Sky looked tiny in front of it.
Beyond there was another planet, another gas giant, but slightly smaller. Much redder than the first. And he realized it was bigger, not smaller, just much further away. The first planet was effectively a moon around the bigger one. A Neptune orbiting a Jupiter, almost a binary pair.
The planet looked fantastic. No wonder people paid to come out here.
No time for sightseeing.
He was within arm’s reach of his shuttle, and he grabbed one of its external rungs and pulled himself along to the external access locker where they’d stored all the emergency pods.
“Comms is active,” Trasker said.
“No one’s talking.”
Larsen pulled out the plastic canister filled with the pods, swung it around and headed for the open hatch, making a couple of minor corrections with his jets. It was a squeeze, but he got the canister and himself into the airlock with Trasker.
“Closing up,” Trasker said.
The outer door swung down. Larsen had a momentary glimpse of the planets, then was dropped into darkness.
Trasker turned his flashlight back on. Larsen felt the shift in the suit as atmosphere flooded the lock, then Trasker had the inner hatch open. He slipped through and Larsen turned, looking into a narrow arrival bay about six meters long.
He turned on his own flashlight. The walls were a pristine white with three stripes at what would be shoulder height in gravity. Orange, blue and orange. The line’s colors.
Larsen had hoped that there might be someone inside waiting.
There were loops and racks along the walls. Larsen kicked in and hooked the canister into one of the empty racks.
“Systematic search, then?” Trasker said.
“That’s right.” Larsen flipped along to the far door and peered through the viewslot. It was dark in the companionway beyond. “Any chance of getting some light?” The airlock doors had opened on command – they hadn’t had to manually wind them – so there had to be power somewhere in the ship.
Trasker came up beside him, holding an unrolled graphics panel. “Maybe. Not from here, though.” He pointed into the diagram of the ship on the panel. “If we can get down here to engineering, we might be able to do something.”
Larsen could see a pattern within their search to get them to engineering. “We can’t remote from somewhere? There must be some control room nearby.”
Trasker shrugged, an odd looking gesture in the EVA suit. “I guess.”
“Let’s start with a sweep down the companionway out here, then run back through some of the cabins and the common rooms.”
“Roger that.” Trasker tapped on the door controls and the door folded open.
Larsen shone his light down. It was eerie. A big ship like this, just empty and dark. He knew what was ahead, down that way. Some kind of breach through to Barris space.
“Larsen?” Silk said in his ear-roll. “Status?”
“We’re aboard. No sign of anyone. We’re just heading into the first section now. Problems your end?”
“Your daughter’s fine.”
“I’ll be sending six of my team over shortly to expand the search.”
“Roger that.” With only twelve crew, how could she possibly spare six?
Larsen and Trasker worked their way into the ship. Seventeen levels with over hundred meters still exposed in real space. Too much to search totally systematically, but they quickly found there was no one aboard. Cabin after cabin was empty. They kept working their way forwards.
They reached one of the big observation rooms. It was almost like a theatre, with dozens of recliners looking out into space through a huge transparent panel. The twist network would have to be folded out of the way, so the room could only be used in real space, Larsen realized, staring out at the planets. He thought he could see a moon hanging in front of the nearest giant. If he could afford something like this he would take it. Watching the planets was soothing.
“There’s no one here,” Trasker said.
They’d been searching for two hours. They were going to have to check right up to the forward parts of the ship somehow. “Let’s give it another hour.”
They worked their way on forward through the ship. They tried the comms system, tried paging through the Tannoy. They got the lights up and filled the ship with the gentle yellow liners favored. From a purser’s office they tried a diagnostic on the system, looking for medical alerts and room service calls. Trasker found the onboard camera system and worked through views on that, both through the public and the crew areas. Still no one. He ran the recordings, but they only showed the previous few hours. No one. The rest had locked itself away behind a password.
“Silk?” Larsen called. Three and a half hours out here and they’d still found nothing.
“Not looking good, is it?”
“No. We’re almost at the end of the visible section.”
Silk didn’t say anything for a moment. “You sure you want to go look at it? Seems that what you’re doing is dangerous enough.”
“Vital. Everyone’s probably across the other side of that.”
“Assuming they’re…” Silk trailed off.
“Yeah. You want to pull your crew out?”
“I’ll put it to them.”
Larsen and Trasker kept moving forwards. The companionway shifted up a bit and the rows of cabin doors came to an end. The mechanisms for rotating the wheels took up a lot of space. There was still room, though, for another of the big observation rooms, on the very top of the ship.
“Okay,” Silk said. “They’re coming back over. You two should come back soon, then we’ll figure out our next move.”
“We’ll get within visual of the damage, get some readings, then head back.”
Larsen could see it ahead in the corridor. He made sure that he had a good grip on the loops as he moved.
The tube seemed to end. It was like looking out of a pipe that drained into nothing. There was something in the space where the companionway ended. A kind of odd shimmer, a little like wrinkling plastic wrap, but without a surface he could see. Only the wrinkles were visible.
“I can get down close,” Trasker said. “Get some video and thermals.”
“In here,” Larsen said. He pulled back up the companionway and through the double doors into the upper observation lounge. This one was smaller than the first one, but a similar layout, with recliners and a wide window facing out at the planets. Looking back along the Emerald Sky‘s hull, he could see the Conte Rosso hanging nearby, with the small swarm of the search party jetting back.
The other way, towards the bow, the observation room was cut off by the wrinkles. The angle wasn’t quite as high as he’d hoped so he couldn’t see where the missing section of the ship ought to be. He could see how the wrinkles reached out a little beyond the edge of the window, pushing into space and wriggling.
The ship shuddered.
“Whoa!” Trasker said.
“What was that?” Silk said over the comms.
“Little movement,” Larsen said.
“Get back over here.”
“Got it. There’s still atmosphere in here right?” Larsen wondered what had caused the shake. Undoubtedly something to do with the wrinkles. They’d stayed in their suits throughout the search. Their cyclers would take air from the Emerald Sky so that they still had full bottles.
“Atmosphere, yes.” Trasker had put himself into one of the recliners and was using his panel to take video and thermal readings of the rift. He had something in his hand and he threw it forwards.
“Hey,” Larsen said.
“Just a clip. I wanted to see what happened.”
“Larsen!” Silk called. “We have a problem.”
The spinning clip hit the wrinkles and vanished.
“We need to get out?” Trasker said. He was already up and out of the chair, the panel rolling in his hand.
Larsen turned, looking back at the Conte Rosso. The jetting crew were still moving.
“Meriam?” he said.
“She’s gone through a lock.”
Larsen’s whole body clenched. Through a lock. His HUD flashed red that he was breathing too hard. He turned to Trasker. The man was wide-eyed, even through the helmet.
Larsen wanted to shout. Wanted to scream at someone.
If they’d stayed back at home this wouldn’t have happened. He would have been watching her. Right there in the next room. Her monitors would have been on, he would have been keyed in to her vitals every moment.
He should never have trusted Jamie.
How had Meriam gotten to a lock? How had she even opened it?
He remembered watching her as she’d come into the Conte Rosso, how at ease she was with zero-gee. A natural.
She’d seemed so calm on the ship. So at ease.
He’d let his guard down too easily. She’d talked to him and he’d relaxed too much.
It wasn’t like she’d suddenly become well.
Deceived. That’s what it was. She’d deceived him.
He wondered if it was intentional. Had she contrived to deceive him? Had the medications made her lucid enough to plan this? What better way to kill yourself than to leap from a spaceship’s lock? No one was getting revived from that.
Trasker’s hand on his shoulder. “Breathe easy,” he said.
“You there, Larsen?” Silk said.
“How did she-”
“She’s in her suit,” Trasker said.
“What? She went out the lock. How could-”
“Slow down, Derel,” Trasker said. “She was still in her suit.”
“Huh?” It was taking a moment to process that. She was still in her suit. That’s right, she’d been in the environment suit back on the Conte Rosso.
“Larsen?” Silk said. “You okay. I’ve got a medical ping on you here.”
A medical ping? She was pulling up their telemetry? Where was Meriam?
“Breathe easy,” Trasker said. “She’s okay. She’s drifting from the ship.”
“My team is following her,” Silk said.
Trasker pointed back towards the Conte Rosso. The swarm was slowing and turning. One of them was far ahead.
“She’s got a retro pack on?”
“Stole it from inventory,” Silk said.
Meriam was all right. She was extra-vehicular, but she was okay.
“What’s her telemetry?” he said. “She giving you medical pings too?”
“No. She’s all green.” Silk paused for a moment. “You’re almost back in green too. If you could get your heart rate down.”
“It’s never coming down again.”
But he did feel a level of relief. She wasn’t dead just yet.
Meriam’s tiny figure moved in front of the big blue giant. She was heading for the Emerald Sky.
Silk’s crew weren’t going to be able to catch her. They’d been heading into the ship. Before they could start after her they had to kill their own inertia. They were only just beginning to make headway. She had a two hundred meter lead on them.
“They won’t reach her, will they?” Larsen said.
“She’s on full jets,” Silk said.
Everyone’s jets were the same power. Unless Meriam cut her power, they were all accelerating at the same rate.
“I could move the ship,” Silk said.
Larsen did a quick calculation. The Conte Rosso could move fast, but Meriam would be at the Emerald Sky before they could even fire up.
“Won’t work,” Trasker said.
“We’ve got to go out and get her,” Larsen said.
They were nearly a hundred meters from the stern and their shuttles. No way to clamber back through the companionways and reach them before she got there. “Is she coming aboard?”
“You tell me,” Silk said.
“Is she on comms?” Larsen said. “Meriam? You there?”
“She’s heading for the wheel,” Trasker said.
“The wheel?” Larsen peered at his daughter. Just a speck. How could Trasker figure that?
“We should get out there.”
“How?” But he knew. There were service locks along the ship. They had to be close to one. Their suits didn’t have the full retro set up. The little maneuvering packs would give them some control, but they were really for simple stuff, like when you were out of reach of a tool in vacuum. Not for chasing down suicidal women.
“This way,” Trasker said. He pushed off the back of one of the recliners.
Larsen followed him out to the companionway and along. They came to a small service door. Trasker ripped it open. Inside there was a dogged hatchway. Trasker had that open quickly, revealing another two-person lock. They scrambled in.
Larsen was tempted to just blow the outer hatch. Faster than cycling. There was no one on the ship to protect now; who cared about atmosphere? The blast of evacuating air would probably send them tumbling for the planet, unable to steady themselves or return, with a momentum greater than their little packs could manage. Silk would have three people to rescue.
Trasker closed the inner door.
“Silk, where is she?”
“She’s gone by the stern. I don’t like her trajectory.”
“Cycling,” Trasker said.
Larsen felt the suit shift and thicken around him as the air bled back into the ship.
The outer hatch swung away and they were bathed in blue from the planet. Larsen swung himself around and onto the hull. He hooked his foot under a rung and scanned around for Meriam. He spotted her as Trasker came out and pointed. “There.”
She was heading for the wheel. About a hundred meters away. He could see the tell-tale sparky vapor from the retros. She was still accelerating.
Larsen huffed. He could leap and catch her, but if he screwed up he’d be drifting too. He needed a tether and a lasso.
“Meriam?” Trasker said. “If you’ve got your radio on, turn for us. We’re on the hull.” Trasker had his foot under a rung too, and had his arms up, waving at her.
Larsen started waving too.
Meriam turned. She was facing them. She waved back, the action shifting the rest of her body a little.
She’d cut off the rockets. She was still drifting towards the wheel. How had she gotten so familiar and at ease with this technology? Cadets trained for years with it.
“This way,” Larsen said. She was only about fifty meters away.
She kept drifting.
“Hey,” Larsen said.
Meriam gave a little burst on the rockets. She moved closer. Out of his reach.
Trasker’s trajectory was going to carry him past her. He worked his retros.
“Meriam,” Larsen said. “What are you doing?” He hoped Trasker could make it back.
She didn’t reply.
She must have heard him; she’d turned when Trasker spoke.
“Please,” he said. She was level with him now, getting close to the wheel.
Trasker had arrested his flight, but he wasn’t going to be able to catch up with her.
She turned again, facing the wheel. She would hit it in moments.
“It will be okay, Daddy.” Her voice sounded too thin and fragile.
Meriam gave another burst on the rockets.
He was only a couple of meters from her. The wheel was looming. He gave his retro pack a burst and almost caught her. She fired a tether. The reaction kicked her a little sideways. The spike jammed into the wheel. Larsen pushed his retro pack, reaching for her. The tether yanked her back, but he caught her ankle. They twisted around, almost spinning. Meriam was winding the tether in.
Larsen’s feet hit the wheel. He bounced, but then steadied. Meriam had the tether taut now. His retro pack fired on auto to keep him from spinning.
“We’re on the wheel, Daddy.”
What was with suddenly calling him ‘Daddy’? Had she regressed?
“We’ll be okay,” he said. Using the tension from the tether, he pulled her around so that she was facing him. Her face was tense, eyes wide. “We’ll be okay,” he said again. He kept staring at her face. So lost and confused. He could still see his little girl in there, under the teenage hardness. His little three-year-old Meriam begging him to swing her around again.
“I’m not trying to kill myself,” she said. “I think I’ve figured out what’s going on.”
Larsen kept his left foot on the wheel and kicked at the tether spike with his right foot.
“Larsen?” Silk said.
“Derel!” Trasker. “Get off the wheel. It’s moving into the drop off. The wrinkles.”
He kicked once more. “Meriam. Release the tether.” He kicked again, but the spike had buried itself much too deep into the wheel.
“Get off there,” Trasker yelled.
Larsen could see the twisting sparkles rising up at them.
“Larsen!” Silk again.
“It’s okay,” Meriam said. “You can let me go.”
“I can’t let you go.”
The wrinkles swallowed them.
Unsurvivable. The realms of physics it dealt with were orders of different strangeness indescribable to lay people. Barris herself still said that she didn’t really fathom it completely. But she’d figured out how to make it work.
Carnival wheels. On the sides of your craft, slowly spinning to move through the realm.
The twist network. A series of pipes through the outer skin of your craft. Inside the pipes: a half Barris-half real space medium. Barris couldn’t quite explain that either.
It was like, she’d said, trying to explain magnetism to a pigeon. The analogy failed, though, when someone suggested that pigeons probably exploited magnetism to be able to home, to know north from south, so they probably knew more about magnetism than anyone. “All right then,” Barris had said, “Trying to explain the twist network is like trying to explain manners to you.” She’d gotten a laugh.
This wasn’t Barris space.
Larsen had seen it through viewports and windows often enough to know what it looked like. He’d seen the depths of it on the way out here. Blue, with black fragments that sometimes seemed to flow and other times seemed to move randomly. The transitions were immediate. At first you were in the odd blueness of it, then the fragments began to appear. More of them if you travelled faster, though you didn’t necessarily appear to be moving.
This was something else.
White. Vaporous. Sparking light coming from nearby. Lightning, but not the crooked lines of electrical arcs. More like the sparks from a magnesium flare.
And, he was alive. And he was still holding Meriam.
“We transitioned,” he said to her.
She didn’t respond. She just kept staring at him. He glanced down and saw that they were still standing on the wheel. It looked different, the surface stippled and white.
“Meriam?” he said, looking up again. No radio. He pressed his helmet to hers. “Hear me?” he said.
Not real space, he thought. Not Barris space, but something else. Sound didn’t necessarily transfer well, even with helmets touching.
At least they were alive. If they were in Barris, they would probably have been ripped apart.
That explained the ship. Half-in and half-out of real space, but the other side of the wrinkles wasn’t Barris space. Another kind of sub space realm. Barris herself would love this.
“Okay,” he said, helmet pressed to hers. “We’ll figure this out.”
Still on the wheel. The bow of the ship was just over to the left, a little lost in the mist. The wheel was still moving.
He looked at the ship’s hull. It wasn’t mist, he knew, but real world analogies fitted best.
Were the passengers in there? Still alive?
He and Meriam had come through the wrinkle on the wheel. Perhaps the passengers had gone along the companionways and just ended up in this space.
A more normal space, he thought. Not impossible like Barris space, but more benign. It wasn’t, though, a portal to somewhere else in real space. The vapor and the sparks showed that. He looked again, wondering if the thickening cluster of sparks was some kind of storm.
“-we-g–an-d-th-i-ide?” Meriam said.
Larsen unrolled his panel. Its screen came to life. He used his finger to write on it. ‘GET INSIDE?” Huh, he thought, things still worked here. Well, he was breathing. He held the panel up for her to see.
Meriam read and nodded.
“MIGHT NEED JETS” he wrote and showed her. He couldn’t tell if his retros or her rocket pack would work here. They were going to have to jump right and hope that they could make little corrections as they went. He wiped the words off, then drew a diagram of two stick figures on the wheel, the bow of the ship, a circle for an airlock, then an arrow between the figures and the lock.
Meriam nodded when he showed her. Reaching up she wiped the panel and wrote “MiGHt KeeP tetHeR” then she wiped that and wrote “UNReeL”.
Larsen nodded. He wiped the panel and wrote “READY??”
Meriam just gave him a thumbs-up.
“I’LL COUNT” he wrote, and held up his glove with five fingers spread. Meriam nodded.
Larsen rolled up the panel and surveyed the ship. He could see the row of evenly spaced locks along the hull. The wheel was still moving, though it would take minutes to reach back to the wrinkle transition.
He assumed they could transition back. He couldn’t see wrinkles here, just more of the mist
Better to just go back, he thought. Ride the wheel. Get Meriam back on board the Conte Rosso and safe.
Then he looked at her. She’d known.
Pulling out the panel, he unrolled it and wrote, “HOW DID U KNOW???” and showed her.
She wiped it and wrote, “LetS GO!!”
So he wrote back, “???”
Meriam shook her head inside the helmet. “I ReAD OK” Wiped it. “TRUST”
Trust, he thought. She was going to have some explaining to do.
Unreeling the tether, they could make it to the ship. If they missed, they’d be able to get back onto the wheel. If they could get in then they could complete the mission. Find out if there were survivors. And then just walk out through a companionway. The risk of crossing through the wrinkle – that’s how he was thinking of it now – inside the ship was probably less than crossing it by staying on the wheel.
“OK” he wrote. He tucked the panel away, then held up his splayed fingers.
She stuck her thumb up at him. Larsen nodded and put his free arm around her waist. Putting her hand on his arm, she squeezed, reassuring him.
Strange, he thought, that she should be trying to reassure him.
Time to go.
His HUD flashed a red spot. Heart rate too high.
He tucked his thumb in. Four.
Looking away from Meriam, he sighted on the closest of the airlocks.
Little finger down. Three.
He was sweating, the suit working hard to keep him cool. He crouched. Ring finger in.
Ready to go, he didn’t look back at Meriam.
Middle finger. One.
She squeezed his arm again. Not to stop him. To reassure. Again.
Index finger down.
He knew right away that he was a little off target.
Would that make a difference?
He glanced back at Meriam. The tether was unreeling from the spool at her waist. She put her hand up, index finger and thumb making a circle, the other three fingers up. OK.
Focusing back on the hull, he could see that they were going to miss by several meters. He tabbed his retros. They fired a tiny burst. The course corrected a little. Whatever the physics here were, they weren’t that very different from real space. Different enough that radio didn’t operate, but electricity and chemical reactions did. He gave another burst on the retros. The little pack did well accounting for the different mass; it was designed to maneuver one person, not two.
As they drifted another sparkler launched out from the mist and struck the ship. Light flared. Colors. And the ship shook.
They were going the right direction, but moving a little fast. He didn’t want to bounce off and find they were flailing at the end of the tether. With Meriam in his grip, he couldn’t give a reverse thrust burst to slow them down. Reaching out he touched the tether to squeeze it and found Meriam’s hand already on it, gripping and braking them. Larsen smiled to himself. She was full of surprises.
The hull rushed up. With another burst on the retros, Larsen flipped them around. Meriam’s feet hit first. He tabbed the retros again to stop them bouncing, then hooked his foot under a rung.
Meriam unlatched the tether spool and it drifted off. Larsen had a moment’s panic, then realized what she’d done. The tether would have kept moving off with the wheel, then dragged her off the hull. She would have had to release it anyway to go inside.
She’d put her foot under a rung too. She was as secure as he was.
Quickly he bent to the hatch panel and punched in to get it to open. It took a moment, then the hatch jerked, slid aside a little and folded outwards.
There was light inside.
Guiding Meriam in, Larsen watched her, realizing that she was surprising him at every turn. If they made it back, he was still going to chew Silk out for letting her get away. It was no easy thing to get into a retro-rocket pack and cycle through a lock.
And Jamie. What had she been doing?
Meriam had a lot of questions to answer.
He got himself in next to her and closed the outer door. The lock cycled exactly as it should. His suit pressed back against his skin a little more as the air pressure came up. He wondered what they were going to find inside.
The inner door opened.
Light again. The ship was active.
“Let me go first,” he said, forgetting that the radio wasn’t working.
He went anyway, slipping into the antechamber. Identical to the main lock they’d first come through; white with the company colors on the walls. He moved on through the door into the companionway. Grabbing a loop, he let himself turn, getting himself oriented.
Again it was identical to the other side. A long empty companionway, lined with cabin doors.
No passengers. No crew.
Where had they gone?
Meriam came through after him. She grabbed a loop and swung around to face him. She motioned for the rolled panel. He passed it over.
“UnReaL SPaCe” she wrote.
“WHeRe IS eVRYONe??”
Right away he felt conflicted, realizing that he shouldn’t have brought her in here. It had taken more than three hours to work through the other side of the ship. It would take longer here. He just wanted to get Meriam back to the medical bay and safety. This was no place to stick around in, not with her. He didn’t know a thing about the physics here, about how the ship had gotten into this predicament. This was a thing for the scientists to come and look over. Maybe something Barris herself would want to see.
Wasn’t she an advocate for the idea of there being a vast variety of realms?
What if this was it in some quiet phase. What if those sparklers suddenly decided to lash out like some kind of brimstone, end of the world explosion? Even just a storm. What if there were things they didn’t even know that were happening right now. Radio didn’t work. What if the physics of the place was slowly stripping away all the neutrons from everything?
Larsen took the panel. “OUT” he wrote. Back up the companionway, through the wrinkle. Assuming that it was possible to transit back, that it wasn’t a one way deal.
Meriam shook her head and grabbed the panel. “RICHFIELDS DAUGHTER”.
Larsen stared. Now she was writing in capitals. He had, but she was doing this in a considered way. Richfield’s daughter, he thought.
They could just leave, he thought. Tell Richfield and everyone that they’d searched. He looked back along the corridor. The wrinkle wasn’t visible this way, but the transition was an obvious black ending. As if someone had inserted a wall and painted it a perfectly light absorbing black.
He looked back at Meriam. She stared at him, that three-year-old still there, but adult eyes watching intently.
Richfield might be a prick, but he didn’t deserve that. No one did.
Anyway, Larsen himself would always know that he could have done more. He nodded at Meriam, but then pointed at his wrist, and splayed his fingers at her three times. Fifteen minutes. She nodded back, turned and pulled herself quickly along the companionway as if she knew where she was going.
She did, he realized. He knew where he would go. Muster stations. Those had been the first places they’d tried on the other side.
How long had the passengers been over here? If they were in fact here. A couple of days. Would they still be at the muster stations?
At least it was a try. At least it wasn’t just some cursory glance along a corridor. And if they really could transit back through, then they would be able to send a team over. With Meriam safely back in the Conte Rosso. Though he was starting to wonder if his concern for her safety was really necessary. Did she really need protecting?
She was already far ahead of him. He must be relaxing a little if he was letting her almost out of his sight. Grabbing a loop he flung himself after her. She kept moving, checking occasional doors, then continuing.
Larsen caught up and grabbed her arm, giving her a questioning OK with his hand. She thumbs up-ed right back. He pointed and kept moving.
They kept checking doors and alcoves. Eleven minutes. Assuming that time moved at the same rate here as in real space. No sign of any one. Not in the cabins, not at the muster stations. They were only getting to a fraction of the liner, but at least it was something.
Larsen saw a sign pointing to the theatre.
Of course. The ship spent weeks in Barris space, with nothing to see outside. There had to be entertainment and activities for the trips there and back.
And there they were. Dozens of people.
Crowded in, hanging in space, looking gaunt and pale.
They weren’t in suits.
Larsen pulled his helmet up over his head. The air was tangy, and smelled of too many people in a confined space for too long.
“Hey,” he called.
No one moved. The sound hadn’t travelled.
Meriam grabbed the panel. “NoT RaDIO” she wrote. “HeaRING”
Larsen nodded. She’d sounded garbled to begin with. Something about the physics of sound? Or was it affecting their brains, or their bodies at least? He wondered how much else was being affected.
Perhaps it wasn’t actually their bodies, but just the way sound moved. It didn’t make sense. The air was breathable, and certainly still carried odor. A different physics didn’t have to make any sense, though.
They couldn’t talk to each other, he realized. They’d gathered here, just drawn together.
He was going to need to get all the survival bubbles over.
“WE NEED TO GET BACK” he wrote. He let her read it, then wiped the panel clean. “RETURN WITH HELP”
That storm could hit any moment.
Meriam took the panel. “LeT Me GeT THeM MOVING”
“COME WITH ME” he wrote back.
Some of the passengers had seen them and were moving across towards the door.
Larsen watched them coming. Another choice. He sighed. He was going to need a bonus on this one. “OK” he wrote. “GET THM MVING TO STERN”.
Larsen spun around, grabbed the doorway and sped for the companionway. He felt like he was betraying her. Leaving her alone. Again.
He smacked into the companionway wall. Catching a loop he flicked himself around and kicked off. He grabbed more loops as he moved. Increasing his velocity.
The ship shuddered as another sparkler stuck it. The light changed. A flash through the spectrum. Green, yellow, orange, red. The liner’s own lights flickered off, then back on again.
He was thirty meters from the transition. A black wall. As if the corridor just ended.
He didn’t even know if he could go through. Perhaps it was a wall. Perhaps the transition was just one way and once you were in you were stuck in for good. Was that why all the passengers were still on this side?
He could imagine it like that. Half of them in the stern, half of them forward. Someone stepping through the wrinkle to find a wife or husband, not able to come back. Then one after the other, gradually making their way through, unable to return.
Larsen braced for an impact. He touched the side, curling into a ball to spin around. He stretched out again, legs pointing at the black wall.
It rushed up at him.
It was an impact. Not solid, though. More like leaping into a vat of warm molasses. It slowed him, the surface glistening a little, bending down around him like a meniscus. His feet felt cold. For a moment he thought he was going to stick, that it had slowed him so much that he wouldn’t make it through. But the deceleration lessened and he kept moving. The sensations changed. It became as if he was being pulled through from the other side, a liquid drawing him down.
He remembered his helmet. He’d slipped it off to shout at the passengers. The black wall was past his waist.
Were his legs already in real space?
Quickly he slipped the helmet up over his head and felt it seal up around his hair. The bug eyes settled into place and his HUD came up. Suit integrity lost, no readings from the lower half.
The black wall reached his shoulders. He was accelerating again. Then it came up around his neck and his chin. His feet were still cold, but his torso felt warm. He flicked his eyes up as the meniscus folded around his cheeks. He saw Meriam leading some people out into the companionway.
He hoped this worked.
The wall enveloped him.
Sparkles. Not like the sparkling storm. A series of tiny glowing motes, drifting around him. It was all he could see. The HUD was gone. The bug eyes. He couldn’t even properly feel his body.
Dissociated. He smiled to himself. An out of body experience.
The sparkles spun in circles, sometimes clustering into rings and helixes. He saw one of the helixes partly compress and expand to make itself a spiral, and the spiral then formed something like a magnified snowflake.
He wasn’t watching with his retinas. He didn’t even feel like he was still attached to them.
That made him laugh. Detached retinas.
No, he was watching with his whole mind. Like one of those God image movies where they jabbed you with specific doses of hallucinogens and played multi-sensory recordings. But even then, you knew you still had a body.
Larsen had no sense of being corporeal.
He had died, he knew then. This was his ghost.
It was all right to die, he knew. It was okay to let go and watch these sparkles dance and make merry in this half world.
This was satisfying. He could stay here. Drifting down from the black wall.
The others could come too. It didn’t matter.
He could feel his feet again. Cold, then hot. And his legs. Cooling again.
He was still moving. He flexed his legs.
Then his waist, his torso, arms, shoulders. Head. He could see.
He was back in the companionway on the Emerald Sky. Moving, still drifting along.
His HUD came back up. All green.
“Larsen?” Silk said.
“We lost your telemetry.”
“Figures. And Meriam’s?” The ship shuddered around him.
“She’s still off our scope.”
“You came back?” Trasker. “Where are you? I don’t see you.”
“Back inside the Emerald Sky,” Larsen said. “We need to get these people off. Quickly.”
“You found them?” Silk said.
“Yeah. In the theatre in the bow section.” Larsen curled a little, grabbed for one of the loops, swung in, then propelled himself along the companionway. He had to get all the survival bubbles.
“Alive?” Trasker said. “They survived this? In Barris space?”
“Not Barris. Something else. Meet me at the shuttles. We need to get them off the ship.”
Larsen kicked again, keeping himself moving. The transition back to real space was different. Very different. The black wall took you to a very bizarre place. He wondered if it was possible to transit through without a suit or a survival bubble. You had to be moving fast. Would a tether work? Could the go through the corridor with the canister of bubbles on a tether, then pull them all back like a string of beads? “Captain Silk? We’re going to need your people back over here.”
“They’re standing by.”
“We have to move fast. The ship is in a storm over there.”
After a moment, Silk responded. “Storm? What is out there?”
For a second Larsen considered inviting her across. No. Plenty of time for that once everyone was evacuated. “Later,” he said. “I’ll explain later.” He was coming up on the stern at their point of entry. The inner hatch was shut. The canister of survival bubbles was where they’d left it. No sense in carting it through the ship, they’d assumed, when they were just bringing everyone out through the locks. It should have been obvious that they would need at least some of them at the wrinkles.
“I jetted. I’m at the shuttles.”
“Bring in the other canisters. We need to move them fast.”
Larsen grabbed the canister. He gave it some spin and shoved it off along the companionway. Following close he tapped and prodded it to keep its flight as true and fast as he could. In moments he was back at the wrinkle.
“Boss?” Trasker said. “I’m inside.”
“Good. Come straight on down and through to the wrinkle. Stay on this side, but shove the canister through.”
“You’re not going back through, are you?”
“Have to,” he said. He opened the small compartment on the canister’s side and pulled out its tether. He fixed the end to one of the loops in the wall, then unspooled the tether as far as it went.
He looked into the wrinkle again. Let’s hope this works the same way every time.
Then he was through. Almost instantaneous. There were people in the companionway, looking dazed and tired.
Grabbing a loop, Larsen stopped. He clipped the canister into some other loops on the wall. With a tug on the tether he was assured that the line still stretched through to real space. It left an indentation in the black wall.
Where was Meriam? He tried to see down through the crowd, but there were too many. She should be easy to spot; she was the only one in an environment suit.
He could see some of the people trying to talk to him, their mouths moving, but no sound coming at all. Opening the canister, he pulled out a package of ten survival bubble. He tore open the packaging and plugged the first bubble into the hosepipe from the canister. The pump filled the bubble’s outer shell. The bubble grew to a little over a meter in diameter. He unzipped the narrow entry, pulling it open, then looked around the milling group for someone less dazed. Someone who looked like they might be willing to go first.
The light changed and the ship shuddered again. The people looked scared. Reds and oranges and yellows flickered through the companionway.
Another shudder, this time even more violent. People bounced from the companionway walls. Larsen had to hold onto the canister. He could see people’s mouths open in screams. The lights flickered.
Reaching for a woman, Larsen took her hand. He drew her closer, pointed to the bubble, then tucked himself into a crouch to show her how to fit inside. She shook her head at him, terrified.
Taking out his rolled panel, he got it open and wrote “RESCUE” on the face.
She shook her head more.
Then someone else came forwards. Another woman, younger, tall with tattoos along her arm. She took his panel, wiped it and wrote “SAFE?”
She nodded at him, turned to the first woman with a questioning look. The first woman shook her head again.
While they silently argued, Larsen got out another bubble and began inflating it. This had to go smoothly, he thought. If those sparkles got worse people would start jamming the companionway up.
The second woman crawled her way into the inflated bubble. Larsen zipped and sealed it. The little recycler inside gave her about fifteen minutes breathing time.
He saw a crewman nearby. With a wave, Larsen signaled him over. “TRAINED?”
The crewman nodded.
Larsen got a third bubble, made sure the crewman was watching, and filled the bubble from the hosepipe.
The crewman nodded again.
The crewman took the hosepipe and another bubble.
Larsen grabbed the handle on the bubble with the woman and reached for the tether. He disconnected it from the canister and tied it off to the bubble’s handle.
Then the other end of the tether slipped out from the black wall.
It hadn’t stayed connected back to real space at all.
He could feel another shudder coming, sense that momentary change in light.
He wished he knew where Meriam was.
With a glance back at the people, the crewman filling a bubble, someone else trying to get into one of the inflated ones, Larsen pulled on a loop. Headfirst into the black wall with the bubble handle in his grasp.
Immediately he was among the glowing motes. Feeling dissociated again. Time seemed to have no meaning. Perhaps an hour had passed, perhaps a second. The motes danced for him, scattering through his brain, making lines and patterns. He saw a twisted double helix and wondered for a moment if there was some intelligence here; something trying to understand him.
Then he was out in the companionway again. Trasker was there. More of the crew were coming down the companionway.
“Larsen?” Trasker said. “Sheesh.”
Looking down, Larsen saw that he was still holding the woman in the bubble. His HUD showed there was still atmosphere and he swiped off his helmet.
“Okay?” he yelled at her.
She nodded. “Yes.” Her voice was muffled through the layers of inflated plastic. Her mouth was open as wide as her eyes.
“We’ll get you back to our ship,” he yelled. “Sorry, you’ve got to stay in there a little longer.”
To Trasker, he said, “We’ve got to set up a chain. Get them along the companionway and out across to the ship. Tether a bunch of bubbles together outside and take them across as a group.”
“Always the plan,” Trasker said.
The ship gave another shudder. Larsen felt acceleration this time and had to put a hand out to the wall.
“I’m guessing we don’t have long?” Trasker said.
“Hard to tell, but the ship’s getting battered over there.”
“Problem is that we need to bring them over individually. My tether didn’t hold.”
Trasker closed his eyes for a moment. “A hundred passengers, right?”
“One ten. Plus Meriam.”
“We take over two crew with us, position five along the companionway to guide the bubbles up, another three outside the-”
“You get that coordinated. I’m going back for the next passenger.”
Larsen turned to the woman again. “We’ll send you up to our ship.” He hooked his feet into loops on and braced himself. Moving the bubble, he lined up on the center of the companionway and pushed. The bubble drifted off like a child’s toy.
“You gonna do that with all of them?”
“Get the crew to chain them up with tethers. Groups of ten. We’ll blow the atmosphere and just keep moving them over to the ship.”
Larsen turned in the loops, sealed his helmet on and stepped back through the wrinkle.
The lights had gone out, but the sparkling greens and reds kept up a constant color-changing glow. People were fighting over the bubbles. The crewman was still trying to fill them from the canister’s pump. Some people were inside the bubbles, others were half in and fighting other people off. The woman he’d first asked was cringing against the wall. More people were crushing up from behind.
He wished he had a megaphone. And that it would work.
Larsen flicked off a loop. He grabbed one of the bubbles with someone crouched inside. Checking the seal was good, he shifted it back. Someone half into a bubble saw Larsen, recognized him, and quickly got inside. Larsen checked that seal, grabbed the handle and turned. At least he would get two of them out.
The crewman mouthed something at him. Larsen just nodded. Just as he got to the black wall, Trasker came through with another canister. Larsen ducked out of the way, pulling the bubbles with him. Trasker nodded, wide-eyed.
Then Larsen was back in the black world of sparkling motes. He felt calmer. He was sure that couldn’t be good, but his certainty felt distant and unimportant. The transition seemed to take longer this time, but then he was back out into real space.
There were crewmen there. He handed them the bubbles and gave instructions.
“Already on it sir,” one of them said.
Larsen returned through the wrinkle.
Darkness. Then light again. A red glow, shifting through purple and violet.
Trasker had more people in the bubbles. He was trying to manipulate it so that he was holding four – two in each hand – but it was taking up too much companionway space. Larsen slipped around under him and caught his eye. Trasker huffed. Larsen used his hands to indicate pushing and Trasker nodded back. Larsen kept moving and grabbed Trasker’s ankles, then shoved him through the black wall. It buckled, sucking the five of them through.
Larsen turned. The crewman was still filling bubbles, and more had joined him, helping and others had the hosepipe from Trasker’s canister and were filling bubbles from the. One of Silk’s crew came through the black wall with more bubbles.
People were still jostling further down the companionway. The ship shuddered again. He felt the air shift. The hull had breached somewhere. The air settled as the ship’s automatics sealed bulkheads. At least that was still working.
Strange, he thought, that the air shifted like that, but sound didn’t carry.
But people were panicking now.
He had to find Meriam.
The crew here could continue, even with the level of panic. They were trained for it. People closer were calmer. They were about to get into bubbles and get out. Further back fists were getting thrown.
Trasker appeared and gave Larsen a thumbs up. Another of Silk’s crew came through too.
Larsen grabbed his panel. “GETTING MERIAM”
Trasker nodded, then got to the task of shifting people into the bubbles.
Larsen pulled his way through the jostling crowd. They’d all come out her just to see the fabulous planets. They hadn’t expected to be caught up in something like this. He got his panel up and wrote “RESCUE UNDERWAY” and held it up in front of him as he moved along. He didn’t know if anyone found it reassuring. He wished he knew the right way to make them calm down.
A fight. Someone swung a fist at him. Larsen caught the man’s wrist and turned him. Locking the arm up the man’s back, Larsen grabbed his panel and held it right in front of the man’s face. It took a moment, but the man calmed a little, closed his eyes then looked again at Larsen. Releasing the pinned arm, Larsen wiped the panel and wrote, smaller “AS FAST AS WE CAN – PATIENCE” The man sighed and nodded. Larsen moved on. He kept the last message on the panel, showing people as he went.
Then they thinned out. He came to the back of the line, with just a few people waiting beyond the conflict and mayhem beyond. Their faces were calm. They were the ones who didn’t need his sign pleading for patience.
The ship shook and the light flared bright enough to flash blind his retinas. Blinking he continued. The afterimages began to fade.
The ship lights came back on.
Meriam was further along the corridor with another young woman.
How had they found each other? Larsen wondered, knowing immediately that it had to be Richfield’s daughter.
He pulled his way along to them. Meriam looked up and smiled. Larsen couldn’t help himself, he grabbed her and yanked her into a hug. She hugged back for a moment, then pushed him off and looked down at the other woman.
She would be about twenty-two, Larsen thought, dark haired, over-plucked eyebrows and a pouty mouth. Exactly the kind of brat Richfield would breed.
Larsen pulled Meriam’s hand.
Reaching down she took his panel. She wiped away the “PATIENCE” message and wrote. “OKaY??”
“Y” he wrote, then “LET’S GO!”
“We’LL WaIT” Looking at Richfield’s daughter, Meriam did something fluttery with her hands. The woman responded similarly.
Back on the panel, Meriam wrote “RaCHeL aND Me I CaN WaIT TO LaST”
He hadn’t even known her name.
Larsen took the panel and wrote “YOU SPEAK SIGN??”
Meriam shrugged as if it was nothing. How could he have missed that?
And Richfield’s daughter was deaf.
“OKAY” he wrote. Someone had to be last off, assuming the ship hung together long enough. It was terrifying, but if he hated Richfield for expediting the rescue of his own daughter, then he could hardly haul Meriam to the front of the line.
He was sweating. “GOTTA GO HELP” he wrote. He showed her then wiped it. “DON’T GO ANYWHERE”
Meriam nodded, then signed something at Rachel.
Larsen took a last look at them, then pulled himself back along the corridor. He changed the message back to “AS FAST AS WE CAN – PATIENCE”, showing people as he went.
By the time he’d squeezed back to the head of the line, he could see that they’d moved a significant number of the passengers through.
It was working.
The two crewmen were still diligently filling the bubbles, and passengers were getting inside the inflated ones, helping each other to get tucked in.
Trasker appeared. He spotted Larsen and flashed his spread palm five times, then once more with just two fingers up. Twenty-seven. A quarter of the complement.
Larsen wondered if it was fast enough. He checked the seals on four of the bubbles then got the handles together to move with them the way Trasker had. Trasker grinned and slipped around to give him a push.
As he passed through the black wall, Larsen realized that Trasker had just signed to him. It wasn’t a language, as such, but it was an easy communication they used. The information had been instantly conveyed.
The motes danced and played. He felt like he was in some ocean, filming plankton for a nature documentary.
On the other side more of Silk’s crew grabbed the bubbles. They had an efficiency to them that belied the situation. The first one passed the bubbles to the next, who was tying the handles into a long tether while another kept the chain moving slowly up. Peering further ahead, Larsen could see another chain of bubble nearly at the distant airlock.
“Under control?” he said.
A quiet little burst of static, then Silk said, “That you Larsen?”
“Yes. I found Richfield’s daughter.”
“Great. You need to move. The ship’s integrity is going. We’re getting stress twists here. What’s going on over at the bow?”
Larsen didn’t answer. He just stepped through the wrinkle.
They did move fast. Trasker and Silk’s crew took three or four bubbles through the black wall at a time. The light changed constantly, flashing through reds and greens.
Then they were down to just seven people, including the two crewmen filling the bubbles. Larsen could see the companionway deforming near the bow. He got the last of the passengers, except Meriam and Rachel, sealed in. Silk’s crewman took three passengers. Trasker finished off the last bubbles while the two liner crewmen got into theirs.
Then the companionway tore open. Air rushed out. Meriam and Rachel clung to side loops. The crewmen in the bubbles bounced away down the companionway. Trasker, in his EVA suit shot after them. One of the canisters broke away and flew down too.
Larsen swung to Meriam. “Get out,” he yelled. She wouldn’t hear him.
He wished he knew sign too.
There was still air, but he could see Rachel gasping. Holding a loop, he swung close to her.
Wrong daughter, his gut screamed at him. He had to trust Meriam would know what to do. She was in a suit.
Putting his arm around Rachel’s waist he pulled her into his chest. She grabbed around his neck and wrapped her legs around his hips. Letting go of her he took a breath. He stripped off his helmet.
Cold. Biting cold. And fading wind. The air pressure was heading for zero.
He put the helmet over her head. The soft inner sealed around her neck and she took a breath.
With her breathing from his supply, he reached up for the next loop and pulled them up. The wind had all but gone, but it was ungainly, hard to move forwards. He was feeling light-headed.
Then he felt Meriam’s hands on his shoulders, pulling him up too. He grabbed for the next loop, and then for another. Meriam kept pulling.
His eyes felt as if they were pulling themselves from their sockets. His head bumped into the other canister. Meriam pulled him out and around. He could feel Rachel shivering against him. He kicked off the canister.
The sparkle motes drifting again. He felt warm and cold. Rachel wasn’t against him. Meriam wasn’t pulling.
He wasn’t breathing.
The motes formed more double-helixes, twisting together, then unraveling to join with others. DNA replicating itself. They moved away, moved back. The divisions kept happening. Then they formed into snowflakes again, and multi-faceted diamonds, and jellyfish with cascading tentacles.
He was calm. At peace. He could stay here.
Was Meriam all right?
He was back in the companionway. No wind.
He kept his eyes shut. He only had a moment.
Someone grabbed him again. He got twisted around and he felt something pushing over his head.
One of the survival bubbles.
A rush of air.
Larsen breathed and opened his eyes. Meriam hanging there, holding onto the bubble’s handle. Right beside him, they’d stuffed Rachel into another bubble.
“Trasker?” he said.
No on responded. No radio in the bubble. Rachel, in the other bubble, was peeling his helmet off. The air line had been ripped off.
They’d made it through.
The crewman and Meriam hustled then, taking them out through one of the side locks.
It took more than fifteen minutes to get back to the Conte Rosso. His air was rancid and stale, the recycler completely used up.
As he had to sit and wait, he felt a thick lump in his throat. Trasker. Over and over again he saw that moment of his friend racing down the companionway after the two survival bubbles.
Looking back at the ship, he saw it give way along the seams, buckling and venting. It still hung, halfway in real space, halfway wherever. Trasker was over there somewhere.
At least Meriam was safe.
Then the Conte Rosso‘s airlock doors closed over him. Out of the bubble in the anteroom, amongst the milling and confused tourists still being organized, he grabbed Meriam into a hug again.
Jamie was standing nearby, her face stricken. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed.
“It’s all okay,” he mouthed back. It was, he realized. It was all okay.
“Dad,” Meriam said. “The captain wants you up on the bridge.”
Rachel drifted up from the bubble and signed something to Meriam, her hand tapping her chin. She signed back, then said, “She wants me to tell you thanks.”
“Yeah.” Larsen sighed. The air felt cool and light. “You apologize to Jamie. She was worried sick.”
Meriam grinned. “Oh she was worried sick.”
“You sneaked out, young lady.”
“Just as well, too.”
Larsen laughed a little. “Yeah, just as well.”
In the bridge, he found Silk in the harness, and two pilots in the real space configuration.
“Quite a thing,” Silk said. “I guess your daughter’s all right.”
“Better than all right,” he said. He was going to have to have a long talk with her, about sign, about space flight, about… about everything. How could it be that he didn’t know her at all when he’d spent so much time with her?
“I guess your focus has been on the wrong things,” Silk said, as if reading his thoughts.
“I guess it has.”
“We’ve seen Trasker,” Silk said, pointing through the bridge’s canopy.
Larsen looked and saw three bright specks.
“We’re heading over now.”
Trasker and the two bubbles were beyond the Emerald Sky. As if they’d traveled on and come out the other side of whatever it was.
“Alive?” he said. Already feeling better.
“Got his telemetry,” Silk said. “Yes, he’s alive.” She touched Larsen’s shoulder.
“Leave him to us,” she said. “You should go spend time with your daughter.”
Larsen nodded and pulled back out to the companionway. Silk was right. Who was this girl? Comfortable in spaceflight, able to sign. All this time that she’d been on suicide watch and she’d been hiding so much more. Whatever she was capable of, he didn’t think it was taking her own life. It was all okay.
Looking for part 1? Click here to read Part 1 of Sean Monaghan’s novella The Wreck of the Emerald Sky, available for free only on The Colored Lens.