Welcome aboard,” a smiling valet said as he took Henri’s ticket, examining it briefly. “You’re in stateroom nine, one deck below us, at the far end of the hall, on the left. The stairwell is right there.” He pointed down a hall to Henri’s left, where a door stood marked “Staterooms.” The hall continued on to a double door marked “Galley,” while to Henri’s right a lounge splayed out, a mélange of couches, love seats, comfy chairs, and small tables sprinkled about. To Henri it looked very big, at least for inside a space-going vessel. Set in the wall at the far end of the lounge was another door marked “Dining Room.”
Along the wall of the lounge to Henri’s right were sets of two plush chairs with a small table in between. Set into the wall as it curved gently inwards to meet the ceiling, viewing ports, one per table, currently presenting a view of the orbiting terminal but would, when the ship began the cruise, provide a view of space as they travelled on their week-long tour. Above the windows, in a golden colour Henri found a bit gaudy, was the word “Wilhelmina” in extravagant cursive.
Henri turned back to the valet, who was still smiling as he held Henri’s boarding pass out for him to take back.
The valet gave a nod as Henri took back the paper card and started walking, suitcase in hand, toward the stairwell he’d been directed.
The room on the other side of the pressure door had a circular stairwell going down and up, wrapped around a centre containing a cylinder, inside which an elevator waited, its door open.
Henri, despite his bulky suitcase, decided to forgo the elevator and instead made his way down the winding circle of stairs to the next level, which displayed “Staterooms: 1-10” on the door. Once through this second pressure door, Henri found himself in a single hallway lined with doors on both sides. At the end of this hallway, on the left, he found his room.
But now that he had found it, he had no idea how to unlock the door. He tried waving his paper boarding pass around—who used paper anyway—and even tried touching the card to the door handle, all to no avail.
“How the hell do I get in my room?” he asked himself.
“Welcome, Henri Sakai,” a voice said from just above the door, while the door swung open for him with a click.
Once he was inside, the door closed automatically.
“Please grasp the inner door handle,” that same voice continued, “for bio-metric key access.”
Henri did as instructed. After a moment the voice continued, “Bio-metric key generated. You may now use voice or touch access to enter your room.”
Henri shook his head and placed his suitcase on the bed in the bedroom to his right, then contemplated putting his clothes away. But when he looked around he could not see a dresser. The only other furniture besides the bed was a shelf jutting out from the wall on the other side of the headboard. Beyond the bedroom was an en suite bathroom—his personal bathroom, on a space ship!
“Um, excuse me,” he said.
“Yes, Mr. Sakai?” came the immediate response.
“Is there a dresser or somewhere to store my clothes?”
“Certainly, Mr. Sakai…”
“Of course, Henri. You may invoke clothing storage at any time by saying ‘dresser,’ or by touching anywhere along the forward wall of the bedroom.” And, to make clear which wall was forward, the surface of that wall became transparent momentarily, allowing him to see the floor to ceiling racks of shelves set behind it.
“Would you like me to open one of the compartments for you, Henri?”
“Uh, no, no thank-you.”
Instead of putting his clothes away, Henri instead left his still-packed suitcase on the bed and went into the washroom to wash his hands—marvelling again at the fact of his own personal bathroom, along with a tap with actual fresh water. Even though the artificial gravity was on, air was pulling from the drain, ensuring the water and soap would go down the drain even if the gravity was off.
After using the hand dryer to dry his hands, he made his way back down the hallway outside his room and up one deck to the lounge. He took the spiral staircase again, amazed how it simulated an ancient wrought-iron design, despite the fact it would likely survive the stress of far more gravities than actual iron could. Beneath all this comfort and opulence of the ship were technologies and alloys to guarantee the safety of its soft, fleshy passengers—nothing like the rickety, cold, even leaky passenger holds of taxis and transports most people were used to.
The lounge was now occupied by a dozen or so people. Many of them had opted to relax a bit before dropping off their luggage in their staterooms. Henri knew everyone there, at least to some degree, since they were this year’s graduate class from the university History department.
It was Lukas, his best friend and fellow History graduate.
“Hey, there you are. Missed you on the shuttle up.”
“My man-cha, they sent everyone a private shuttle. Spared no expense. Didn’t you get your notification?”
Henri sat down beside his friend, “I turned off my link last night.”
“I couldn’t bear little miss rich-a lot sending us messages about how awesome she is.”
“See, now, that’s just being silly. Winifred is really nice, if you’d take that chip off your shoulder and give her a chance.”
Henri rolled his eyes.
“Dude-cha! It’s her dad paying for all of this,” he swept his hand to indicate the opulent lounge and private cruise ship surrounding it. “The only reason we’re here is she insisted she take her graduation cruise with us rather than her stuck-up family and friends!”
“We have private bathrooms.”
Lukas leaned over, “Then I may get a chance to answer that perennial question.”
“If you diarrhea in space, can anyone smell the stream?”
Henri rolled his eyes again, while Lukas leaned back in the couch and laughed.
Just then a woman came on board and into the lounge. The people in the room all stood up and greeted her. All but Henri, who looked like a person trying very hard not to sneer. A crew member then shut and sealed the outer and inner airlock doors, and the bright lighting of the lounge softened to indicate the ship now operated on internal power. Their cruise had begun.
Winifred needed no introduction to her graduating class. Not only was her father hosting this cruise for all of them, her outgoing and friendly personality had made her the most popular graduate among them. Being drop-dead gorgeous, at a time where genetic modification ensured nearly everyone was physically attractive, also didn’t hurt her popularity. Although no one really believed her, Winifred insisted her family was from a long line of believers who eschewed genetic tampering, unless it was done to solve health issues.
They like me because I’m rich, Winifred thought to herself, as she greeted and thanked everyone in the lounge one by one. The truth was, until the rumour-mill got around to outing her and her powerful and wealthy family, her first few months of graduate work had been the best time of her life. Having people see her for who she was, for what she did and said, had been precious; she’d not been treated this way since as long as she could remember. It was like she’d been drowning her entire life, only to burst through the surface and fill her lungs with fresh air.
But now it was back to drowning. Winifred sighed inside, then spotted Henri looking at her from the couch, his face strained like he’d just bit a bitter bit of fruit. She worked her way through the others until she stood in front of him on the couch.
“I’m sorry,” he said, standing quickly and holding out his hand, “I didn’t see you there.”
“Are you making fun of me?” Winifred asked. She gave his hand a firm shake.
“Oh, no,” Henri said, “I was, I mean, you know, thinking.”
Winifred gave him an enigmatic smile Henri could not translate, used her other hand to hold his with both for a moment, then let go and walked away.
He hates me, Winifred stewed, but I’ve never done anything to deserve it.
It was true. Not only had Winifred not done anything to draw Henri’s ire, she’d hardly interacted with him outside of the lab for the two years of their graduate program. And none of that was her fault, either. Almost every time they’d decided to go out for coffee or dinner as a group, if she’d gone with them Henri would decline. If she had something else to take care of, or didn’t feel like going along, Henri would go off with them.
In her room, still pondering what she could have done to make someone dislike her so much, Winifred finished putting her clothes into storage and touched the panel to close it. She took her small bag of toiletries into the bathroom and left it on the massive simulated marble sink.
She paused and looked at her bathroom. Dad had insisted she take the master stateroom, which was ridiculous. It was almost as large as the lounge. The wall between the bedroom and living area could be retracted and the bed folded up into the wall. With these changes made she could fit every passenger on board, and a good number of the crew, for a wild dance party.
I should, she thought to herself. I should get everyone stupid drunk and help them trash the place!
Her classmates were in awe of her, or at least her family’s wealth: a multi-generational empire that had grown with space travel to become one of the few multi-system financial empires in existence.
And they had no idea just how rich her family was. Winifred frowned. Her father had not chartered the Wilhelmina for this graduation cruise, he had acquired the company to make its fleet of seven ships his private yachts, to use and intimidate the leaders of planets and other empires alike.
She’d never known a time when she could not simply point at something, practically anything, and it would become hers. Learning she could not own people, as a child, had been a novelty. And while she’d heard down the gossip river there were places where people could be acquired like diamonds or galactite, this was one of the few rules her father had refused to break for her.
She shuddered when she thought of the monster she’d almost become. For some reason she still did not understand, when she graduated from high school, ready to have her father purchase her a degree—and the university it came from, if necessary—in order to set out making their empire even bigger, she stopped abruptly in her life’s journey, sighed a most existential sigh, and took a good look around.
She did not like what she saw. Most of all she began to understand her family’s empire was not a solution, it was a problem. That desire she’d been taught, to grow the business, to consume and accumulate and grow, did not give her what she wanted. In fact, it only served as a poor substitute, a distraction from what people needed: love.
And no, not romantic love. Well, yes, but not only romantic love: the love of friends and family. Of community. This was what she did not have, could not have, because she could never trust those around her to be sincere. She could not know if they were only fair-weather friends, hanging around for whatever perks might come their way, seeking the crumbs dropped from the table of her plenty.
It was the same for romantic partners. How could you love someone you could never trust, to be intimate and vulnerable and emotionally naked with a person who might see you as a means to an end, but never the end itself?
She came back to herself still looking at her bathroom, with its three sinks, bidet, fancy zero-g toilet—and a massive toilet, at that—and a shower large enough for ten people.
She wrinkled her nose when she considered how others may have used this shower in the past, for a wild hot-water orgy. Winifred was no prude, but she preferred at least a passing introduction before she was smeared with someone’s bodily fluids.
“Have housekeeping do a thorough deep clean of my suite as soon as possible,” she said.
The AI in her stateroom acknowledge the order with a pleasant ding. The ship’s AI had been informed she did not like talking computers.
“You’re being a technophobe, Henri, AH is the future of historical research.”
Henri gave Soo-Ling his serious face. “I’m not arguing there’s no place for Artificial History in the discipline, I’m just not convinced it is advanced enough to be internally valid, let alone have external validity.”
“Troglodyte!” Soo-Ling teased.
“Dreamer!” Henri snapped.
“That two-dimensional matter they use to build AI is something else,” Winifred ventured, as she came up to Soo-Ling and Henri on a couch in the lounge. “They are using the stuff to enhance astrogation computers as well.”
“Isn’t it something!” Soo-Ling agreed. “I don’t know if there is anything it can’t enhance!”
Henri nodded with Soo-Ling. He did not acknowledge Winifred. You’re such an asshole, he thought to himself. Winifred did not seem bothered by his snub, but she did wander away to join a different conversation.
“Attention everyone, this is Captain Jorol. I want to welcome you aboard the pride of our fleet, the Cruise Liner, Wilhelmina. We just cleared Esteel’s outer marker buoys and are now free to astrogate. Our first jump will take us to the rogue planet Meitner’s Diamond, a planet detached from any solar system and covered completely in kilometres of frozen water. Diamond has an active internal geology on top of a molten core, which maintains a relatively warm ocean beneath the ice.
“So, sit back, relax, have a drink in the lounge or a snack in the dining room, and leave the driving to us.”
The denizens of the lounge cheered. Those with drinks lifting them in the air.
“Who’s going to join me at the crater’s edge?” Mariya shouted over the din.
“Me!” Winifred called out, raising her hand and waving.
Two threads of gossip spread through the lounge: would they really do it, and, would Winifred be allowed to do it?
A few others said they would go, too. Henri found, to his dismay, that he said he would go as well.
“Dude-cha!” Lukas said, as he walked over to Henri. “Seriously?”
Henri, now in it for a penny and the pound, plus his pride, confirmed with a nod.
“Not me, mon ami-cha. I’ll stick to the stuff that does not require a change of underwear.”
The jump to Meitner’s Diamond, named after the closest star to the rogue planet, looked to the passengers on the Wilhelmina as black as the blackest thing they could imagine. Even as the cruise ship flew at course and speed that kept the planet directly in front of them, the only reason they could tell something was there was due to the fact it hid the stars behind it.
What the hell-cha? “ Lukas complained. “That is about as far from looking like a diamond as possible.”
“Just wait,” Winifred told him. “Wait and see.”
Everyone turned to her for an explanation.
“I’ve been there before. I’m not going to ruin the surprise. You’ll see.”
Henri grimaced, despite himself. Of course she’s been here before. What don’t rich people do?
The crew were quick to outfit their passengers in the appropriate gear and lead them into the four lifeboats that doubled as shuttles. Three of these carried all but five passengers, dressed in environment suits that would protect them from the planet’s lack of atmosphere and extreme cold. The other five, reduced from an original seven when the reality of their choice began to gnaw on their nerves, were fitted into old combat armour.
The armoured suits had been retrofitted: all weapons and defensive systems removed, and a compensation system added to allow the armour to adjust to the user’s body shape and size.
Henri felt like a badass. The way the combat armour assisted his movement made him feel like the artificial gravity of the lifeboat had been turned off.
He tried not to marvel at his suit too much, but instead concentrate on learning how to operate the various systems he would need to move around on the surface. Meitner’s Diamond was a small planet, with roughly half the Earth-standard gravity they were used to. It rotated on its axis slowly, and vertically. It looked like a giant marble rolling its way through space. Other than these tidbits of knowledge, Henri knew almost nothing about this celestial body. He’d earlier declined to take the virtual tour. He’d just spent two years cramming his brain full of information, and wanted a break before trying to stuff in more.
The four lifeboats approached the planet side by side in the darkness, matching the planet’s rotation and gently touching down together. When one lifeboat confirmed a successful landing, the other three—containing the guests who had opted out of visiting the edge of the crater—lifted off and flew down into the yawning opening.
The small crew of the first lifeboat now ushered their armour-clad guests through the main hatch of the lifeboat and lined them up facing in the same direction.
“Now!” came through the speakers in their helmets, and each of them turned on their suit’s external lights. Henri thought reality was exploding. Although the combat armour allowed him to see in the planet’s total darkness by projecting the landscape in the suit’s HUD, using information gathered through 3D mapping, this was nothing compared to the effect of visible light on the surface. The Diamond moniker of the planet was not just well-earned, it was perfect. It seemed like they were standing on the largest diamond in the universe, its billions of facets reflecting back the light of their suits like a gem in a god’s crown.
“Isn’t it something?” a voice asked from his right.
Henri turned to see Winifred smiling at him.
“It might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Henri said, managing to pull his gaze away from the spectacle and look Winifred in the eyes. He felt nothing negative about her presence—the landscape had stripped him of such base emotions, at least for the time being. Then he saw, in her eyes, the billion glittering facets of the planet’s surface winking and dancing.
“Beautiful,” he repeated, his voice softer. Winifred’s smile slowly melted away as they gazed at each other. Henri’s eyes also glittered with sparkling lights, like a carbonated glass of ambrosia.
The staring contest was broken by an announcement from their tour guides to get on the sled for the trip to the crater’s edge. A small vehicle with skids at the front and a thick track in the rear was hitched up to a trailer that looked like a long, flat surface that simply slid over the ice. Everyone looked out from their helmets with uncertainty, but before the crew could explain, Winifred walked onto the sled, turned back to the others, and said. “Just step on and set your boots to one hundred percent magnetic. If you’re worried about falling over, set your suit to rigid.”
The rest murmured as they all did as she’d explained. Then, with two crew on the small machine and two more in environment suits attaching them selves to the sled, they were off.
The crater, known colloquially as the Valley of Doom, had no technical name. At some point in the distant past, a meteor or comet had crashed into the planet, blasting a massive hole in the surface ice six kilometres deep. Because of the lack of atmosphere and low gravity, most of the ejecta from the collision had been blown away into space. Still, it was possible to find bits of anomalous ice, most of it smoothed due to once being liquid, on every square meter of the planet.
At the bottom of the crater was a smooth, frozen lake. Ice vaporized by the collision had come back down into the crater as liquid water, forming a lake that quickly froze solid. This valley was the perfect place for tourists to examine the inner ocean, with less than a hundred meters between its surface and the liquid water beneath.
So scientists, and many tourists, would bore a hole down to the ocean, release a drone, and watch as the submersible made its way through the total blackness using sonar and infrared and hydrophone sensors. The drones would discover undersea volcanoes, or vast plains of underwater plants, and even animal-like inhabitants of the deep. There were no eyes in the perpetual blackness, at least none had been discovered, but even so, some creatures flashed incredible light shows with their skin or scales, or with muscles beneath a translucent cover, or even from their mouths as they swam, like living straws, through the dark.
The crater also provided one more source of amusement, for which it received its name, “doom”; it was possible, for those brave enough, to slide down one part of the crater on a toboggan. With no atmosphere, a smooth and solid ice service, and a very steep incline, tobogganers could reach speeds in the hundreds of kilometres per hour.
Several daredevils had died doing this stunt in environment suits, when they slipped off the safety of their snowboard and had their suits ripped open by the ice. Clever tourism companies had thought to acquire and repurpose retired combat armour to make the stunt safe for their clients. It also removed the need for anything to ride on down the slope, since the armoured suits were more than a match for mere ice friction at five hundred kph.
The five daredevils lined up at the edge of the crater, where a small ledge had been cut into the ice. A sign beside the ledge offered two pictures. On the left was a caricature of a person in combat armour sitting on the small ledge, their hands crossed over their chest, with a little green arrow pointing down the slope. The image on the right showed the same combat armour, this time lying down, its arms spread out and about to hurtle down the canyon wall head first. This picture included a red circle with a red line running through it.
“So, see the sign everyone? Sit on the ledge, cross your arms, and order your suit’s limbs to go rigid, then push off and enjoy the ride. Your suit will make sure you stay sitting upright. The crater wall makes a smooth transition to the valley floor. You’ll zip along for a few hundred meters until you run out of inertia, then you’ll be able to spy the lights of the other group, and you can join them to see the mystery of the oceans of Meitner’s Diamond!”
The five cheered, but for some the cheer was less than enthusiastic, because their suits allowed them to see down all six kilometres to the valley floor.
Even so, the first person in line sat on the ledge, crossed her arms, and, with a little encouragement, pushed off. The group watched her slide down, accelerating faster and faster, her speed provided to the others through communication from her suit. They could hear her shouting with excitement. The carnival ride lasted just over thirty seconds, ending with a blistering journey over the frozen lake.
Henri was next. He stood for a moment, scrutinizing the crater’s wall, then turned around to find Winifred behind him.
“I don’t think I can do it,” he said.
“Oh come on,” Winifred teased. “you’ll be fine.” She gave him a little push on his chest, which translated via her armour into a much bigger shove than she’d intended.
Henri tried to step back and absorb the push, but his foot caught on the lip of the platform. He pinwheeled his arms in an attempt to keep his balance, looking like what you might see should a recently-headless chicken happen to find itself wearing combat armour, but, ultimately, gravity was having none of it. With Henri’s lack of experience in combat suits—he could have simply ordered his suit to prevent him from falling—Henri toppled backward over the ledge and shot down the wall on his back, head first.
The ride was one for the record books. Not only was his suit’s channel open, providing everyone in the crater access to his screams of terror, but his fully-prone sliding method let him beat the current record-holder’s maximum speed of four hundred eighty-seven kilometres per hour, by almost two hundred. His flailing arms altered his path down the slope, firing him all the way across the lake and into a vertical face of the other side.
“Henri!” Lukas shouted, as he and the others currently on the lake ran over to him. Henri’s suit lights had disappeared on impact with the crater wall. Many assumed the worst.
“Henri, can you hear me?!”
“I.. yes, I hear you. I think I’m alright, but I can’t move and everything’s gone black.”
“Don’t worry, we’re almost there!”
Not long after Henri heard laughter. “What? What’s going on?”
“You’d have to see it to believe it, my dude-cha,” Lukas managed through the group’s, and his own, torrent of laughter.
Henri had impaled his suit up to his waist, leaving two armoured legs sticking out of the ice, flailing about. The crew used their tools to melt enough of the ice so they could drag Henri out of his icy tomb. Henri sat up when they did so.
“You were like a missile,” Lukas explained, helping Henri to his feet. “I’ve never seen something move so fast. A real rocket-man-cha! What happened?”
“Winifred. Winifred happened.”
Before Henri could continue, and continue did he intend, with every invective he had ever heard, and perhaps a few new ones forged in the furnace of his enraged imagination, a klaxon began to go off in everyone’s helmets.”
“That’s the battle alarm from the Wilhelmina,” one of the crew explained, his voice cracking with fear.
“Out here?” Another crew-member objected. “There’s nothing out here!”
“Attention! This is your captain. We have an emergency. All crew are to return with their guests immediately. Spare no time. Leave all equipment. This is your captain.”
As they returned to the Wilhelmina, everyone could see a much smaller craft station-keeping half a kilometre from theirs. It was too far away to see any details, but the smaller ship did appear fuzzy somehow, not as sharp as it should.
“That’s battle damage,” someone’s voice explained. “Microscopic bits of the ship blown off in battle. Gets pulled along in the jump. Makes for a fuzzy look.”
Winifred put her armoured hand on the stat-glass viewport. She wondered if she’d got herself into trouble even daddy couldn’t buy her way out of.
“The courier off our starboard beam is carrying a space inverter, a crucial component on its way to Meitner’s planet and colony NOR37. The courier was attacked on its way and barely managed to escape. It’s too badly damaged to continue to run, so under article seven of inter-system treaty, the Wilhelmina is being commandeered to fulfill its mission.
During this pause in the captain’s explanation, many voices rose up in protest.
“But this is a private yacht.”
“I’m not a soldier.”
“Do we even have weapons?”
“I understand your concerns. In fact, your safety is mine. But I am bound by the law. No one was expecting trouble this far in, but here we are.”
“We will be making all speed to Meitner’s the moment the courier is docked and the inverter is stowed. As a result, from this point forward all power will be reserved for the engines. You may stay in the lounge or in your staterooms, but other than combat lighting and life support, there will be no amenities offered on the Wilhelmina until we conclude our mission.” The captain stopped, looking like he expected privileged outrage. But these were History students, not aristocrats. They knew, probably better than anyone who had not seen battle, the danger humanity’s foe represented.
“Good speed, Captain,” someone said, and many more voices joined in, letting the captain know they understood what was at stake.
The mood turned darker onboard the Wilhelmina, but it also gained a sense of adventure. A class of History graduates, who planned to devote their lives to the study of human history, were now involved in making some. The excitement of this, coupled with the fear of being caught, made everyone forget they could not bathe, and had to eat emergency rations provided by the lifeboats.
The captain of the courier ship, the Night of the Rose, commanded a single-person private yacht that had herself been commandeered to deliver the space inverter because of the ship’s high maximum speed. The small yacht also presented a tiny space displacement, which would aid it getting through the dust and debris around Meitner’s star.
Winifred was hanging out in the lounge during the second day of their trip when one of the ship’s officers walked in.
“Good afternoon, everyone.” She said. “I’m Salarina, the Wilhelmina’s first officer. I’ve come to ask a favour.”
This got everyone’s attention. She continued.
“Running in combat mode is putting quite a strain on our crew. We are operating on half-sleep rations and we have a simple task to ask of two volunteers. It will include an EVA, so it would be best for volunteers to have some experience operating in zero-g, non-atmosphere environments.”
“What’s the task?” someone asked.
“I’m not at liberty to provide details. And I will ask any volunteers not to share what they do with anyone on board. But I can say,” here she brought up her hands, palms out, for emphasis, “that there is absolutely no danger involved, other than a spacewalk.”
So, do I have any volunteers?”
The lounge was silent for a moment, then Winifred raised her hand. “I’ll do it, I have extensive experience in zero-g.”
“Thank you.” She looked to the others, her eyebrows raised, but this appeared to be a little too much excitement for the rest of the patrons of the lounge.
“Okay, then,” Salarina noted, looking to her only volunteer. “Would you please meet me at the aft airlock on the engineering level in one hour? That’s one level beneath the crew quarters, which is beneath the lower staterooms.”
Winifred nodded. When the first officer had gone, the others gathered around her to chat and speculate on what this secret mission was about.
An hour later Winifred made her way to the aft airlock. A few minutes later the first officer showed up, looking worn and frazzled.
The two women nodded to each other, then turned toward the sound of a third person coming down the ladder into the anteroom.
“Who did you get to come with me?” asked Winifred, but before Salarina could answer, the person reached the bottom of the ladder and turned to face them.
“Oh, no!” Winifred said under her breath.
“You!” Henri said. He pointed at Winifred and spoke to the first officer. “She tried to kill me!”
“Come on! That was an accident-cha!”
“An accident? An accident!”
“Stop!” Salarina’s voice became less a cruise ship staff member addressing guests and more an officer dressing down the lesser-ranked. “I don’t have time for this shit!”
Henri and Winifred closed their mouths.
Salarina pressed a button and the inner airlock door made a click and a hiss. She pulled on its handle and the thick, round door opened on its hinges. Inside was an odd, squat, round device.
“This is the inverter. You two will take it outside the ship and stow it in one of the spaces behind an access panel on the ventral side of the ship.”
“Why?” Winifred and Henri said, almost in unison.
“That’s need to know.”
“I feel like I need to know,” Henri said.
Salarina sighed, looked to the side for a moment, then seemed to decide something.
“Our captain and the courier captain have a plan. If we get caught, the courier will detach and jump away. They’re hoping the engines and power lamps will disrupt any attempts to locate the inverter on the Wilhelmina and they will go after the courier, thinking that is where the inverter is. Hopefully this will give us enough time to jump to Meitner’s.
“Now, will you each get into one of those suits.” She pointed to a row of environment suits hanging along the wall opposite the ladder. “I’ll shut and seal the inner door and you will inform the bridge when you are leaving the ship.
“I assume you’re familiar with bleeding air out of an airlock and getting re-pressurizing when you get back in.” She looked to Winifred.
“Absolutely. I’ve done this many times.”
“Good, grab your suits and get in the airlock. I have to get back to my duties.”
Preparing for a spacewalk involved a lot of interaction, including checking the zippers and seals of the other’s suit were properly fitted and airtight. But even as they went through these checks, they gave each other the silent treatment as they worked their way into the suits. Eventually, they stepped inside the airlock and the first officer closed the door, then confirmed it was sealed. When they were ready, Winifred switched to an open channel and informed the bridge they were about to bleed out the air and exit the ship.
“Confirmed,” came the businesslike response in their helmets. “Make sure to use tethers so we don’t have to come out there and rescue you.”
“Understood,” Winifred agreed, then, despite herself, rolled her eyes for Henri to see.
Henri couldn’t help himself. He smirked at the joke.
Winifred switched their comms back to a closed circuit.
“About the crater,” she began, but Henri held up his hand and shook his head.
Winifred let out a sigh and turned to bleed the air out of the airlock. When the whooshing sound of air being sucked out of the room diminished to nothing, she pulled the lever on the outer airlock door and swung it outward. She pointed at the inverter, then at Henri, and made a grabbing motion with her hands.
Henri took her direction and seized the thing by a handhold at the top. Winifred then tapped some buttons on the arm pad of her suit’s left arm, and they both felt the artificial gravity in the airlock turn off. Winifred retrieved a safety tether from a compartment, attached it to a clip outside the airlock door, then clipped it on a loop on the back of Henri’s suit. She retrieved another tether and connected her suit to the same clip on the outer skin of the ship. Together they moved the inverter outside the airlock.
Their safety tethers proved not quite long enough to reach beneath the engines. When his pulled taught, Henri was so startled he let go of the inverter. Had Winifred not been there and kept it in her grip, that would have been the end of their mission.
Winifred, wearing an annoyed expression and making sure Henri saw it, pushed the inverter into his chest until be grasped it. She motioned for him to hold onto it, then gave an “understand?” expression. Henri nodded sheepishly.
Winifred took a short tether out of the thigh of her suit, attached it to the back of Henri’s suit, then to hers. She pressed some buttons on her suit’s wrist pad and began pulling on Henri’s tether. In a few minutes Henri saw the far end of it coming towards them. Winifred took the far end of Henri’s tether and attached it to her suit. Then she decoupled it from Henri’s suit, attached it to her tether, then decoupled hers.
Henri wasn’t really sure what Winifred was trying to accomplish until she was done. She had effectively doubled the length of their safety line without ever leaving them unattached from the ship. He watched as Winifred double-checked her work, feeling some begrudged admiration for his erstwhile nemesis.
With the length of their safety tether doubled, they were able to make their way beneath the starboard engine of the Wilhelmina. They found an access panel large enough to fit the device, and Winifred used the multi-tool inside the chest of her environment suit to remove the panel from the ship. She used a pincer clasp to keep the panel attached to her suit and not floating away into the void, then shined the lights of her helmet into the access area.
“A tight fit, but it should work.”
Henri did not reply; instead, he brought the inverter up so Winifred could grasp it and gently push it into the open space. Winifred then reattached the panel cover and turned to Henri.
“That’s it. Time to head back.”
Henri nodded. They began their way back towards the airlock.
Just then, Henri saw a strange flash in the distance. When the light receded, he could make out something was there because it was passing in front of the stars, making them wink in and out.
“Hey, what…” Henri was interrupted by a massive vibration coming through the hull of the Wilhelmina.
“They’re spooling up the engines,” Winifred shouted. “Try to hold on!”
Henri almost laughed out loud. Sure they could sit in comfort inside the ship as it accelerated and manoeuvred, but only because their inertia was compensated for by the artificial gravity. Even a mild acceleration by the ship would smash anything not screwed down against the nearest bulkhead. They would never be able to hold on outside the ship, nor would their safety lines be able to withstand such forces.
“Why are they using the engines?”
Winifred tried to switch to an external channel to tell the bridge the two of them were still outside the ship, but all she could hear in her helmet was a loud screeching noise.
“Someone is jamming communications!”
Henri looked back at the dark space he’d seen after the flash. It was now extending what looked like wings: iridescent gossamer structures undulating with all the colours of the visible spectrum, and perhaps beyond. They seemed to grow and grow, or were they getting closer?”
“What the hell is that?” He yelled, pointing past Winifred’s face plate at the bizarre sight.
Winifred turned to look, and as she did she saw two flashes of light from the centre of the spreading wings Henri was pointing at.
“Oh fuck,” Winifred yelled. “Those were missile launches! Let go of the ship!”
Henri was too shocked to struggle as Winifred tore his hand away from a metal rung, grabbed him in a bear hug, and used her legs to kick them away from the ship. Only milliseconds later, something made the Wilhelmina jump violently in place, twice. They could not see any impacts, but soon debris began to appear, flying away from the ship. Then they reached the extent of their safety tether and were snapped back towards the hull.
“Grab something!” Winifred shouted. She started typing on her wrist pad.
Henri saw the end of their tether, the one attached outside the airlock door, had been disconnected with the ship, but he had no time to contemplate what that meant. They were just about to impact the hull. Henri used all his focus and strength to get his fingers around a strut in the ship’s underside. He grabbed it with his other hand as Winifred flew into him. She did not grab at the ship, however. She had trusted Henri would catch hold and the short tether between them would keep her anchored to him as she worked frantically to pull in the safety tether and keep it bunched up in her arms.
Henri started to ask a question, but Winifred put her finger on her faceplate, over her lips, using her eyes to emphasize her urgency. Then she used Henri’s wrist pad to turn off his suit radio.
She pulled his helmet until their faceplates touched.
“Turn off all your suit’s power.”
Henri realized he could hear her voice, even without a radio. ”But I’ll suffocate, or freeze.”
“They didn’t destroy the Wilhelmina,” Winifred explained. “That’s because they plan to send a boarding party. They will detect our suits.”
Henri felt his stomach drop. His mouth went dry. He knew, like all of humanity knew, what would be coming. He turned off his suit’s power. It was such a dangerous command the wrist pad asked him to confirm this was what he wanted to do. He pressed “yes” to confirm, and all of the ambient sounds inside the suit wound down. The helmet lights went out. Even his wrist pad went dark. Then the last of the light around them disappeared as the lights of Winfred’s suit went dark.
Space was lit by stars. Yes, an infinity of them. But all those blazing furnaces were too far away to light anything local. Winifred could not see anything, not even Henri’s face when she once again brought their faceplates together.
“They will send a launch. We can’t move or turn the power on until they leave.”
“If they find us…”
“They won’t. The magnets in the engines will distort their sensors. That’s why the crew had us hide the inverter here.”
“They could take the ship apart.”
“Maybe, maybe not.”
“Then they’ll torture the crew until they learn about us.”
Winifred sighed. “You have a better plan? I’m ready to listen!”
Henri did not have a better plan. He just knew he didn’t want to be captured. He was realizing that dying was near the top of his don’t-bucket list, just beneath torture. At the same time, he couldn’t ignore immediate concerns either, how his extremities were getting cold at a frightening pace, and how the air he breathed seemed more stale by the minute.
By now those translucent, multi-coloured wings had reached out from the distance and seized hold of the ship. The engines of the Wilhelmina continued to spool up for a time after this, but then wound down again. Something then moved into one of the Wilhelmina’s external lights. It was about the size of a regular launch. Amidship was a human docking hatch, which did not match the rest of the hull. Clearly someone, or some thing, had attached this hatch to make this launch compatible with human ships.
Henri and Winifred both forgot to breathe as the launch paused about fifty meters from the hull of the Wilhelmina. Something dropped off of the bottom of the launch and manoeuvred its way toward the hull. It looked like a metal box made of scaffolding, but as it approached it began to unfold, becoming basically a humanoid shape. Two legs, two arms, and a series of lenses and sensing equipment where its head should be.
The thing’s motion took it out of their sight, but a moment later it reappeared, spinning wildly, debris all around it, its armoured torso red hot and punctured, its head of lenses mostly gone.
Winifred touched her faceplate to Henri’s.
“They’re putting up a fight. The crew must have an armoury.”
“But they can’t win. What do they think they’ll accomplish?”
Before Winifred could respond, they saw more flashes from the ship off in the distance. But just before they struck the Wilhelmina, the ship vibrated slightly. They looked at each other, clearly not knowing what this meant. Then Henri pointed to the side of the ship opposite the launch. Winifred turned to see the courier had detached itself from their ship and was moving away. In a few seconds it flashed away at C-plus.
Then more missiles hit the Wilhelmina. The ship shuddered and vibrated once again. Once more they hovered away from the hull.
The launch made all speed back to its ship. Then, a few moments later, it, too, flashed away.
Now the wings no longer held the Wilhelmina, the ship began to roll slowly on its axes.
“They’ve taken the bait and gone after the courier,” said Winifred, as she brought their faceplates together.
Henri was unable to answer. The cold had him shivering uncontrollably and their spin threatened to make him sick in his helmet.
“Turn your suit power back on and let’s get back into the ship.”
Henri prepared to do as instructed. Winifred gave the safety tethers she’d been holding a shove and they flew away from the ship, twisting and coiling and spreading out like something alive. The rotation of the ship quickly took them out of view.
Henri paused turning on his suit’s power when he saw their safety lines flying off into the dark. His hand gripping the hand-hold on the ventral surface of the Wilhelmina tightened instinctively. Without those tethers, one small slip and he could end up lost in the void, drifting forever into the dark.
He was still staring in horror when he heard his suit powering up. He looked away from the starlight and down at his wrist pad. Winifred had turned on his suit for him. His feet and hands began to ache as they started warming up. She motioned for his attention and pointed at her microphone. Henri reached down and turned on his radio.
“The tethers would be more trouble than they’re worth with the ship’s tumbling. We have to get back to the airlock, but slowly and methodically. You with me?”
Henri nodded. The hand connecting him to the ship was beginning to complain about keeping his mass rolling with the ship.
“I’ll go first. You follow and copy where I get purchase. We’re still tethered together, so remember with every motion to plan for me slipping. Have a good enough hold so you can bring me back. I’ll do the same.”
The trip back was rough. On the underside of the ship they were pulled, constantly threatened with flying off the hull. When they reached the dorsal side, now close to the airlock, the were pressed into the ship.
Then they reached the airlock, managed to open it manually—it did not appear to have power—closed and sealed themselves inside, and finally opened the inner airlock door.
In the airlock antechamber Henri went to remove his helmet.
Winifred stopped him. “We’re at zero pressure. At least some of the ship’s atmosphere has been vented into space.”
“What about all the people?”
“They managed to fight back, so they could be in suits, like us.”
“But there were more missiles.”
Okay. So we make our way to the bridge and see if anyone’s around.”
Henri nodded, then followed Winifred up the ladder and into the rest of the ship.
They moved through the crew service corridors because they offered the quickest route to the bridge. At one point a door label informed them it led to the lounge, and Henri paused.
“You don’t want to go in there. Not yet.”
Henri didn’t reply, just followed Winifred up the ladder. Their arms and legs were aching with the need to control for the roll of the ship. And as they approached the bridge, located near the bow, the centrifugal forces became stronger and stronger.
When they reached the bridge door they found it was sealed. Some sort of policy during emergencies apparently tried to keep the bridge secure. There did not appear to be any way to manually open the door.
Winifred banged her gloved fist on the door. Then she said, “how much life support do you have?”
Henri examined his wrist pad. His suit’s endurance had moved into yellow from its original green. He pressed the display and it presented a length of time.”
“Shit! I’m at forty-four. We need to resupply and get on the bridge.” She turned to leave. Henri grabbed her arm.
“Why don’t they let us in? They must be able to tell we’re human. If we weren’t we’d just tear that door off its hinges.”
Winifred did not reply, only looked back at him.
“And while I’m asking questions, where is everyone? We haven’t seen a single person. No crew, none of our friends, nobody!”
Once again, Winifred did not reply. Instead, she peeled Henri’s gloved fingers off her arm, then she turned and moved away, before finally pausing.
“We need to be smart and calm,” Winifred said, without turning around. “They’ll be back when they catch that courier and discover the inverter is not on board. We have to focus on what’s in front of us.”
Henri floated for a moment, watching Winifred make her way down the bridge access ladder. His mind felt stuck as Winifred’s words played back in his ears: They’ll be back.
Then he came to himself with a start, and hurried to follow.
Now she found herself with some tools in front of the sealed bridge airlock, looking for a seam she could pry open to get enough purchase to force the door, or, at least, expose the lock mechanism so she could cut it with a torch.
After they re-equipped their suits with extended packs, Winifred sent Henri to search the passenger living and recreation areas, while she tried to find a way onto the bridge.
When the door suddenly clicked and started to move inward, it felt like her heart had stopped. Her legs straightened in shock, sending her body flying away from the entrance and into the wall across.
They didn’t have to come back. They were still here!
But, rather than metal claws of death bursting through the door and tearing the life from her, Winifred watched, mouth hanging open, as Henri’s face appeared out from behind the door, still wrapped in his helmet.
They stared at each other for a few moments in silence as the ship slowly spun on its axes.
“How… I mean, where…”
“A huge piece of the lounge ceiling was blown off. I poked my head out and could see the bridge was blown open as well. So I made my way over, crawled in, and here we are. The bridge does seem to have power.”
Winifred overcame her shock enough to move over to the bridge entrance. There she looked intently at Henri. “You made a solo spacewalk with no safety tether?”
“I guess so,” Henri shrugged.
“Do you have any idea how foolish that was? How dangerous?”
“No, but I have a suspicion you’re going to tell me about it.”
“Ah!” Winifred burst out, raising both arms in the air. She pushed past Henri and onto the bridge.
Henri followed, unable to wipe a smug look from his face.
Winifred went to work immediately, moving methodically from bridge station to station, checking what did and did not still work. She used the ship’s manoeuvring system to stop their roll. The engines appeared to be functional, but the astrogation computers were destroyed. She looked up at the hole blasted in the bridge ceiling. The missile had found its mark, but had either been a dud, or set to a very low yield. The Wilhelmina was neither shielded nor hardened. A proper missile strike would have turned the bridge to molten slag.
Winifred found a tactical display that identified the order of the attack. Their ship had been hit in the crew and passenger areas first by low-yield missiles, probably meant to vent the ship’s atmosphere while keeping the superstructure mostly intact. Then electromagnetic clamps had grasped the cruise liner to make her engines useless. Only after someone put up a fight with the launch were two more missiles fired: one blasting open the lounge and the other the bridge. Decompression likely blew everyone on the bridge into space.
“Did you find anyone?”
“Only one,” Henri said, his voice quiet and sad. “I found Soo-Ling stuck in a collapsed part of the lounge. The atmosphere was gone and she didn’t have a suit on. I didn’t know what to do, so I left her there.” Henri’s voice started to crack.
Winifred turned from what she was doing and looked at Henri. There were tears in his eyes.
“We’ll have time for that later,” she said, turning back to the astrogation computer. “This system is fried. We have engines, but without astrogation we’re dead in space.”
“Can’t we just go anywhere? They know where we are!”
“If we set random coordinates and turn on the engines, we could end up flying through a star, or even farther away from any help.”
“Well, what about the life boats? They must have some kind of astrogation.”
“They don’t have C-plus drives, and they’re programmed to head towards the nearest space transit lane, or station, or planet, wherever there is the best hope of rescue.”
“Sounds good to me!”
“But what about the space inverter? NOR37 needs it to power their defences.”
“Well, when we’re rescued the military can take care of it.”
“That courier was commandeered for its speed. They must be expecting an attack on the colony. Without the inverter they’ll be destroyed.”
“What can we do about that now?”
Winifred did not answer. She had stopped moving and was staring through the hole that had been blasted into the bridge.
“Meet me in the lounge,” she said suddenly, before she rushing off.
Henri was waiting in the lounge for a good twenty minutes before he started to worry. Although Winifred had stopped the ships’ tumbling, the lounge was filled with items floating around. Once in a while something would drift out of the huge hole in the ceiling and disappear into the deep. A napkin. A glass. A bracelet.
Had Winifred taken a lifeboat and drifted away as well? He tried to reach her over his suit radio, but without the relay through the ship’s comm system, the range of their suits was severely limited. Especially through all the bulkheads and alloys in the interior of the ship.
Before paranoia became panic, Winifred came floating into the lounge with two huge cases.
“What’s all this?”
“This is how we’re going to get to NOR37. A telescope,” she smacked one of the containers, “and a spectroscope.” She smacked the other.
“A telescope?” Henri looked out the damaged ceiling at the wash of stars.
“Sure. The lifeboat contains charts of notable local stars, which we can use to pinpoint our position. Then we can determine navigation coordinates to reach a different position.”
“But you said the astrogation computer was destroyed.”
“It was, but we can input a heading and range directly into the engines. That’s what the astrogation computer does.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Before I decided I wanted a degree in the least useful field of knowledge, I took a minor in astronomy.”
Are you calling history useless?”
“Of course not.”
“But you said ‘least useful’!”
“I did. That does not mean ‘useless’.”
“But… never mind.”
“Cool-cha. Now help me set up the tripod over here.” She pointed to a place in the wall where the blast hole reached down from the ceiling. “That should give us the best field of view.”
Later on, they took a break in one of the lifeboats. All four craft were undamaged and offered atmosphere, food, water, and recycling of everything necessary to keep its occupants alive for as long as possible.
Henri had just used the mini shower to clean himself off—he couldn’t believe even the lifeboats on this cruise ship had showers—and was now drying himself off in the control room in the bow. He heard the airlock cycle and Winifred come into the boat.
“Yeah, up here.”
The door to the control room opened, and Winifred stuck her head in to see a naked Henri trying to cover himself with his towel while struggling with weightlessness.
“Oops, sorry.” Winifred’s head pulled back but the door didn’t close. “I’ve re-calibrated the telescope if you want to follow along again.”
“Sure. Just let me get dressed and put my suit on.”
“No hurry,” Winifred’s voice came through the opening, “I’m taking your lead and having a shower too.”
Henri waited for the door to close and seal, but it just sat there, half open.
Henri heard the shower running and grumbled under his breath. He floated over to the door and reached through the hatch to grab the handle. Winifred was standing outside the shower door looking his way. He’d assumed she was in the shower, not skulking outside it, so he didn’t bother with his towel when he went to shut the door. Winifred got the full monty, his privates floating and bouncing around in the lack of gravity.
Winifred cracked a toothy smile, then moved quickly into the shower, closing the door behind her.
They stood facing each other, on the wall of the lounge, their (not so great) magnetic boots making a poor simulacrum of gravity. Every muscle in Henri’s legs ached from the hours they’d spent at the equipment.”
Take a look,” said Winifred, moving back from the telescope.
Henri magnet-walked around the spectroscopy equipment attached to the telescope, pressed his helmet faceplate against the eyepiece, and brought his face inside his helmet as close to the telescope as possible. He saw a star.
“I see a star.”
“And what does the spectroscope point out?”
Henri looked at the readout. “Type O”
“Right. That’s the second one I’ve found.”
“Why is that important?”
Winifred moved closer. “Type O are uncommon in this area of space. If I find one more, we should be able to pinpoint our position using the lifeboat’s star charts.”
“And then a heading toward Meitner’s?”
Winifred found the third typo O star a few hours later. Henri had taken the time to search the rest of the ship, including all the crew areas. Other than the one body in the ruined part or the lounge, he could find no one. There were some doors that were stuck and he could not force, but none of them had any atmosphere behind them.
He did find more breaches of the hull of the Wilhelmina, two that caused decompression in the upper and lower passenger decks, one that ruptured the engineering deck. It seemed all the passengers had gathered in the lounge, only to be vented into space with the second missile attack. He assumed some of the crew must have left with the courier, to put up a fight if it was caught, while the rest were blown out into space when the bridge was hit.
Now he stood before Winifred, who was sporting her signature big smile.
“I have our position and a heading for NOR37.”
“That’s good. So, what do we do now?”
“We head to the bridge and plug these numbers directly into the engines.”
“What if your numbers are wrong, or the engines are damaged?” Henri asked, when they stood ready for Winifred to direct the engines to take them to the point she had inputted.
“Then it’s been good knowing you.”
Without another word, she touched the “commit” icon on the engine interface.
*featured image photo credit: DALL⋅E 2