Grabbing the pole of the bed halfway to falling out of it, Alex Stafford woke up ready to run. A knee hit the deck, then he had his balance and was pulling on a pair of pants even before the emergency alert started sounding its long-short-long signal of distress. His mind supplied the popular ditty to the signal as he slipped on his boots: Whaaat the fuuuck… whaaat the fuuuck? He was out the door with his shirt in his hands before the duty officer’s voice overrode the signal, “Commander Stafford to Ops.” They must have been hit hard up there; it had taken Alex at least eight seconds to dress.
He hit the intercom as he passed it, “On my way!”
A slight tilt told him the gravity was haywire, but not out completely, thank any god. Nausea added complications. Crew rushed past to stations, most half-dressed as he was. They liked to run an Earth-typical day/night rhythm on the station, with most of the crew working days and smaller swing and graveyard shifts working the other times. He glanced at a flashing monitor as he reached the gangway to Ops: 0200, flat in the middle of graveyard. What the fuck, indeed.
“This better be good,” he muttered as he slipped off the ladder into Ops. “Shut that up!” he ordered to the side as he bounded to the center station. The tactical officer gratefully flipped the switch to silence the alert. In the deafening quiet, Alex turned to his duty officer. “What’s up?”
She wasn’t happy–not looking up from her rapid perusal of the monitors, her jaw clenched so tight it hurt just to look at her. Any faint hope he had harbored that the alert was a glitch smashed around his ankles. They had a problem. Well, another problem.
“Collapse of the Blue Tubes, Decks 2 through 5.” She looked up then, her eyes dark and unreadable. “It’s spreading.”
His response was automatic. “Contain it.”
“We have.” The comment came from his right, and they both turned. Candy Sugar–yes, that was really her name and it was never wise to let on that you’d noticed anything strange about it–was just entering Ops from the gangway, her engineer’s jacket unzipped and her blonde hair loose around her shoulders. She joined them in one stride and pointed at the monitors. “We’ve cut off O2 at deck 8, which is the closest we could get. It will continue spreading to that point, but should stabilize.”
“Stabilize? That’ll kill it, Candy!” Alex resisted the urge to kick something. “You can’t just cut off the O2.” Any minute now, Doc Nantu would be on his case. Without the feed from the Blue Tubes, ‘ponics would shut down. Damn, they didn’t have many reserves left.
She sighed. “Had to be done, Alex. I know what it means. But it also means we’re not floating in a million pieces through the ether.”
Alex stared at her a moment, before turning toward his office. Just before he disappeared inside, he yelled back, “Call a meeting. I want to see all senior personnel in fifteen minutes.”
Alex stood at the far end of his office, staring out the port, a generous splash of the station’s Dry Rot filling a third of the mug in his hand. A gas giant took up the view, the atmosphere shifting dizzily from gray and green, to orange and yellow, then back again. Its normal puke-green appearance was responsible for its name of Bullfrog. Lightning flashed continuously over the planet, flashes that appeared tiny at the distance of a million kilometers, but were nightmare demons to the miners closer in.
But he wasn’t seeing the planet.
He stared out the port, and considered his space station, along with another swig of the drink. It wasn’t enough.
Station 2 was the oldest of DuraMines hydrogen processing plants, Station 1 having collapsed under its own rotten core fifteen years ago, committing suicide with a plunge into its planet. But that station had been abandoned years before the implosion. No one was killed.
That wouldn’t be the case with Station 2.
He turned, liquid sloshing onto his hand with the violence of his movement. Reaching his desk in one giant step, he yanked open the bottom drawer. His hand fumbled through the tangle of datasticks and cords, reaching toward the back of the drawer, underneath everything… he sighed when his fingers curled around it, and he deliberately kept his mind blank as he drew the vial into the light of his office. The crystals inside were miniscule, shimmering blue and silver. The shimmer drew him in, filling his vision with its beauty. Such a lovely dance. He took a breath, and imagined the taste of it in his throat, the familiar buzz filling his sinuses. As he let the breath out, he saw his trembling fingers popping the lid off and watched as his hands–entirely of their own volition–shook one tiny crystal from the vial. It rested on his palm, innocent, shimmering beauty. He swallowed it, closing his eyes as the shimmer seemed to vibrate his throat and fill his being. Slowly, his body relaxed. The crisis still existed, but he stood now one step beyond it, a distance where the crisis could not touch him.
He had just returned the vial to the drawer when his intercom chimed. He sat as he touched the switch.
Candy’s face glared up at him. “That’s it. Hydroponics is gone.” She blew a breath through pursed lips. “But we won’t blow up. Not today, anyway.”
He didn’t like the implication in her voice. “Tomorrow?”
She looked away, then sighed and turned back to him. “Tomorrow is in the hands of the gods, since DuraMines has not seen fit to send us any spare parts.”
He swallowed the hundred possible replies to this. “Meeting’s in three minutes. I’ll need you here, if things are stable down there.”
She nodded, her expression hard. “On my way.”
“Whatever mechanical problems you can’t seem to solve, Alex, we can’t live without food.” Dr. Ajellan Nantu had not even bothered to sit at the conference table in the small room off Alex’s office. He stood glowering, a small, dark man made taller courtesy of the turban he wore. “Without hydroponics, we’ll die.”
“Doc, sit down.” Alex gestured toward a chair, without meeting Nantu’s eyes. “For once, try to look at the big picture. We’ve got enough stores laid by to last us a few days, with rationing. That’s a few days we wouldn’t have if Candy had not contained the explosion.” He watched the wall behind Nantu, blinking slowly as his detached mind observed the others in the room. Candy sat across from him, zipping her jacket, her hair haphazardly pulled into a tail down her back, strands of dirty blond hair framing her face. Her skin was pink from exposure to radiation–Nantu would have to treat that soon. Lemi Johnson, head of Mining & Operations, slouched in a chair at the end of the table, chewing on his lower lip, but otherwise giving no hint to what he was thinking. Malcom Fischer, Alex’s deputy, sat at the other end, lost in his datapad, tapping furiously through screen after screen of cascading Problem Reports. Alex heard his teeth grinding.
Nantu threw himself into a chair, taking a breath to continue his diatribe, but Candy cut him off. “Can it, ‘Jell. I like to eat as much as the next guy, so stop thinking this is my attempt to make your life harder.” She ignored his glare, turning to Alex, who shifted his gaze from the wall to the datapad Candy held in her hand. He should derail the argument–Candy and Nantu infrequently slept together, and fought constantly. Alex often thought they’d fight less if they slept together more often, but Candy had simply snorted and walked away the one time he’d made the suggestion. His detached mind floated peacefully above the fray and he scratched his cheek thoughtfully.
“Tell us what we’ve got, Candy.”
She tossed the datapad on the table and folded her arms against her chest. “The Blue Tubes failed on Decks 2 through 5 and spread to Deck 8 before we contained it. You’ll note in my last four reports that I said this would happen, if those slag-infested worms that run this company didn’t authorize replacement parts. Those parts have been on the requisition request for eight friggin’ months. There’s only so much jury-rigging that can be done.” She fell silent, her lower lip in a pout, but at Alex’s raised brow, she sighed and continued. “We have two options. I can raid life support for the parts, putting us on reduced O2. I should point out the CO2 scrubbers are already overloaded and we have no replacements for them. We’ll have to clean them more frequently to make up for the increased CO2, but that will make them wear out faster. I estimate 6 days. Or I can raid Structural for the parts, which will screw up our orbit. We’ll start spiraling into Bullfrog within a week.”
“If we follow your first scenario, can we put all but a skeleton crew in stasis?” Malcolm asked. Candy and Nantu both responded with derisive laughs, then exchanged sheepish glances. Nantu gestured wearily for Candy to answer, but Malcolm interrupted. “Never mind, let me guess. The stasis chambers don’t work, either.”
Candy shrugged. “I cannibalized those a year ago.”
Alex held up a hand and they all turned to him. He gazed at them with affection, from his distant perch near the ceiling, as he issued orders. His voice was languid. “Lemi, call your people in, code Beta Emergency. Have them drop whatever material they’ve stowed, I’m commandeering your ships and we can’t take it with us. Nantu, Malcolm, start working on procedures for food and O2 rationing, effective immediately. Candy, get us onto reduced O2 by seventeen hundred, and work with Lemi’s people to prep the ships for evacuation. I want us out of here in three days.”
He sat calmly as their voices assaulted him, swearing, yelling. Lemi beat on the table, Malcolm waved his datapad over his head. Nantu rose to his feet and jabbed a finger toward Alex. Only Candy stayed out of it, by the simple method of leaving the room, already lost in calculations on her datapad.
It was Malcom whose plaintive question finally pierced Alex’s stupor. “Where are you going to move us to, Alex?”
They were all standing by this time, so Alex stood, too, nodding at Malcolm. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I’ll figure something out by the time Candy’s ready to go.”
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