Suffocation has to be the worst way to die. One can survive for weeks without food, days without water, hours without sleep, and decades without sex, but only two minutes without air. Precious oxygen is life itself, the act of breathing, a God-given pleasure, a mechanical wonder, our bodies’ systems working in concert to keep consciousness alive. Though if you’re forced into a place without it, so empty it has no true temperature, and yet so dark that even the stars cannot penetrate its veil, you’ve arrived in the place of short-lived nightmares with which I’ve become all too familiar. I’d welcome you out of courtesy, but you’d be the next to go.
I can’t carry that kind of guilt any longer.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s that the great expanse of space is unforgiving, impartial. It’s more treacherous than a stormy ocean, more unnatural than flying, and more dangerous than strapping your ass to a skimmer only to hurtle yourself four hundred kilometers an hour over a rocky Martian plain. It’s the single most inhospitable environment humanity has ever been so brazen as to invade, yet here we are sporting our smug grins. There’s plenty of ways for it to kill you. Radiation poisoning. Extremes of cold and heat. A lack of pressure that makes blood boil in moments. Isolation madness. And yes, of course, the weapons of The Axis, our rival faction. But if you reflect long enough you’ll realize one thing, suffocation is the worst. No matter how well-engineered your vehicle, a terrible death awaits only a few feet, a few seconds away. Every moment you persist in this formless hell, heart thundering like a drum in your brittle chest, life grants you another golden opportunity to spit in the glaring eye of the reaper.
While it’s bad enough watching anyone struggle to breathe—the shocked wide eyes, lips shading to blue, the agonizing process of hypoxia as oxygen escapes the blood through the skin—it’s even worse when it’s someone you know, someone you’ve served with, slipping between your fingers only to be swallowed up by the cold nothing. The scales will never again be balanced. Her life, their lives, all on my hands, invisible blood and empty families, my soul brought before the divine justice of existence and found wanting. There will be no resurrection in the Cold Well. I will not persist.
Alarms are flashing, screaming, but with no atmosphere to conduct their cries. A gaping hole is in the side of our ship, The Vindicator. I watch her float away. Her slack tether had not snapped, it wasn’t even clipped. She tumbles end over end. The mask of her soft suit is cracked, exploding, shards of glass glimmering in the light reflected off the red world. Her brain draws the many threads of fate together in one final thought. She struggles frantically against inevitability. It looks as if someone has wrapped their arm around her neck and is applying slow pressure in order to crush her windpipe. Her hands are grasping at her throat where silent screams are trapped. She’s kicking her legs like a drowning swimmer fallen in deep waters, attempting to push herself back to the shore. There’s nothing but a few atoms for her to push against. I hope not to carry this memory into old age.
“I’m sorry,” I say, my gloved hand reaching into vacuum, but the gulf is too great.
I tried. I promise. I really did. Is this what the past five months have come to? These final moments holding not only The Vindicator’s fate, but the fate of everyone else in my hands? If I had seen this outcome could I have changed a thing?
Her body goes limp. My heart stops. She’s quit fighting.
Not much longer and it’ll all be over.
Let’s get this regulation shit out of the way. My name’s David Goddard, master engineer of this leaking space can, The Vindicator, one of only two active warships in SOL. I was one of the lucky few, bold enough, brave enough, to see service in space. Back in the early 21st century, millions would have envied me for this position; the opportunity to spend months at a time traveling between Saturn and Mars, Ceres and the asteroid belt, conducting scientific and defense work for The Brethren faction. A few years earlier, I would have envied myself as well. The pay is good but the hours are lousy. Life has a funny way of putting things into perspective. You never quite know what you have until it’s gone. One brand of hard times can be missed when replaced by another. I didn’t have much choice.
Of all the things I missed from my birthplace in the Arsia Mons colony on Mars—comfort foods, the freedom to walk about, the occasional new person to interact with—there was one thought I subconsciously agonized over again and again. Despite our tiny Coke can smelling profusely of chlorine, bow to stern, cupola to nuclear storage, we had exactly zero swimming pools. Every turn I took, every module I crossed, if I closed my eyes hard enough, I swore I’d find one.
It was February 2nd, 2072. I sucked in a sharp breath and could taste chemicals in the back of my throat. Hot damn, my body was slick with sweat. My muscles were burning with effort.
The air scrubbers were back on, second cycle, sucking away all the loose, microscopic flecks of skin cast off by ordinary human molting. I wasn’t sure why, but I only noticed this chemical sting when I was jogging particularly hard during my strict PT regimen, taking full advantage of a pressurized cabin. Maybe it’s all the oxygen I guiltlessly hoovered up in order to keep my body pumping the way God intended, and some tiny particles being misinterpreted by my olfactory nerves. But being an engineer, I knew for a fact, that in the air scrubbers’ system, it used not one drop of chlorine. Yet that harsh odor, that bitter tang was plastered in every nook and cranny of my sinuses. It had to be a mental thing, and I welcomed it. It transported me to the great swimming pools of Arsia Mon’s middle levels, images of scantily clad colonists relaxing in warm waters under a pale sky.
Come to think of it, when was the last time I’d been submerged in water? It was back on Mars, certainly. That’s right. I’d been unconscious and nude—and in public. Not my proudest moment. The start of the end.
My boots pounded The Vindicator’s deck. Port hallway. Green markers. Heart rate 142. Target 150. Time to push harder. According to Doc, I got my best cardio at 155. It’s too bad I left my headphones on my bunk; a little Motley Crue or Alice Cooper might just have made up the difference.
It might be odd an Exo-Gen guy like me, those born or having lived mostly away from Earth their entire lives, would be into music a hundred years old; but I grew up on this shit. It’s all dad listened to, and all grandpa talked about. I even took a class in the ninth grade titled, “The Making of Classic Rock”, which was a hell of a lot more interesting than the other option, “Dub – Trap – and Moomba Vibes”. Riding the Crazy Train made me feel a little more at home.
Regrettably, however, for all my delusions, the Vindicator was my home, my protector, my prison. Dozens of ships traversed the solar system on a regular basis, conducting commerce and science, but this one was special. It was a robust but simple craft, a series of modules fashioned into a one hundred meter cylinder that rode upon the most advanced ion propulsion system in existence. Each of its fifteen meter modules were interchangeable, self-contained, devoted to tasks like power, crew quarters, bridge, and weapon’s control. We even had a small arboretum that bulged from our center of gravity. Near the forward end of the ship, a great wire ring encircled us. It was the most critical, yet fragile part of our craft, the nuclear battery ring that powered our rail guns. Aft the arboretum, jutting out from the power module, two origamic solar arrays spread out like wings to power our propulsion. Compared to our rival’s warship, the Razor, we were petite, their mass at least three times our own. But size didn’t matter in a fight like this. We could hit them with a super accelerated projectile just as easy as they could us. And let me tell you, fifty percent of the speed of light did tremendous kinetic damage with an eighteen kilogram ferro slug. Big or small, if one hit the wrong part of the ship you were finished.
“Sorry,” I said, hopping out of the way as César Enela, my engineering assistant, slid past at the 5-C hatch. Of all the space available in our nearly one hundred meter long Coke can, the designers hadn’t wasted an inch on hallways. Combined, our stark, ice grey passages were about as narrow as my pinky finger. So narrow, in fact, it made me sometimes feel like toothpaste being squeezed from an almost empty tube.
“Oh Dios mío,” César spluttered, searching me up and down with wide eyes. “Hijeuputa, how much weight you running, David? I mean, señor! Yeah... señor, sorry, no David, or em, Señor David.”
I raised a hand to dismiss his breach in protocol.
César was a good kid, about ten years my junior with a natural talent for engineering. His whip thin frame, large eyes, and mop of black brown curls only reinforced an overlying boyish demeanor, making him appear both innocent and naïve. But I knew the truth. The ladies had an eye for him like they might a close friend’s younger brother, and he took full advantage. He was dressed much like me, baggy white jumpsuit with red piping and red accents, black and white nametag over the left chest, Brethren insignia over the right. The jumpsuits were light and comfortable, made of a synthetic, breathable fabric that didn’t get dirty easy. On his collar he bore the rank of Private, Class 1.
I considered his question, glancing at the lead PT weights Velcroed onto my arms, legs and shoulders. “Hundred fifty pounds at 1G, I suppose. Half that here.”
“Nice goin’, señor. I’m only up to fifty, and man it’s rough, rougher than watching my sisters grow up to get the attention of those scummy dockers in Valles Rojo.”
“Don’t go soft on me, César. I need you at a hundred percent. Maybe even more.”
“I won’t, I swear.” He raised his hands. “I plan on adding twenty five more pounds tomorrow.”
“Very good. Now back to work. You’re on duty. Check the scrubbers first—they smell, unusually clean—then go to the solar array and look over the PV systems, and for God’s sake, fix that damn switch on the engine room check board. We can’t emergency burn without it working.”
“Aye aye, si, señor. By the way, you gonna watch Demonio Primario with us scrubs tonight? A new episode’s due off the Sol Net at seven. It’ll be a good one. Promise.”
“If I have the time. I’ve got a lot going on.”
“Mmhm. See you at seven, señor.” He bounded off to his work, humming to the choppy rhythms booming from his loose headphones. Bullshit music.
I returned my focus to the slightly bent hallway ahead. It was something you got used to, but only in the sense one got used to wearing glasses of the wrong prescription. My planet side instincts wanted everything to be straight lines and angles, but here it was all screwed up, like a drunken work of MC Escher.
Our ship was designed to compensate for micro gravity. In any given section you could have a conversation in which one person was on one side, the other person several feet opposite, yet the tops of your heads weren’t far apart, while at the same time, all feet were firmly placed on the floor. I think I remember a children’s story that came close to this sight, in which a collection of anthropomorphic woodland animals conducted a nonsensical tea party from the ceiling and walls instead of the floor. Up was a relative concept, here, up was inward, up was the core; the spine running down the center of our habitation cylinder.
155. “There we go,” I mumbled. “Keep it up, David. Keep it up, you can do it.”
Physical fitness was a vital part of living in low gravity. Even though my current post rotated at a decent clip, it only generated about half that of Earth normal. Still, it was higher than on the surface of any of Saturn’s moons. People who stayed too long in The Mirror City of Enceladus would lose considerable amounts of muscle density in spite of centrifuge PT every day. I wouldn’t let that happen to me here. It was easy to do when you’re restless.
Like I said, I’d grown up on Mars in Arsia Mons having arrived there at age five. All my life I wanted nothing more than to travel the deep reaches of space in search of adventure. But it’s cold, cramped, and lonely out here. I had had friends back on Mars, even quite a little flame for a while, though I’m pretty sure she was out of my league. There might have been other girls, sure, but I only thought of her, of all the trouble we used to get into and weasel out of. She’d been fun. When times were especially bleak, like they had been recently, thoughts of her were the only pristine memories I had on hand. Family was great and all, but they were like everyone else back home, dust-caked and made of mediocrity. They were complacent and mundane, living at the whims of Brethren rule, whereas she… She’d been passionate and full of life. A shot of adrenaline to jumpstart a dead heart.
“And I’d chickened out,” I hissed between breaths.
I passed Med 2, Crew 2, zipped through the arboretum and was hit by a wall of sweet aromas. I paused briefly and moved ahead to Weapons Storage and Control, then entered our overstuffed Cargo Bay. I turned, crossing the module laterally, down the only clear path between all the damn cargo, and pounded back up towards the front of the ship from the other side. I swear the halls were getting tighter every time I pushed through, crates and cylinders stacked to the core, having gotten together to spawn broods of inanimate cargo children.
As I blew past Crew 1, my quarters, I scowled. I’d forgotten those blasted headphones once again. But that’s ok, damn it, it was all a loop. I’d be back around in no time. That was a promise. Joy.
I ran twelve miles, five days a week, to keep up with PT, and at about three hundred eighty five feet per lap, well, that’s a lot of laps. One hundred sixty five to be exact. I could wear VR goggles like the rest of the crew, transporting me any place in the known universe while using a treadmill or elliptical to get it done, but even though my brain wouldn’t know the difference, my heart surely would. I was sick of artificial shit. I wanted ground and trees and dirt in quantity, the kind that stained your jeans and got stuck under your nails, not just a thin belt of leaves like what was clasped to the Vindicator’s belly.
Then there was the other issue. VR, direct brain impulse, or 10k curved displays, all gave me headaches. I tried getting over this once by taking a virtual holiday to Cancun, but ended up puking for a solid two hours just after I’d started. Got sick before I even had the chance to drink the virtual water and get virtual diarrhea. How’s that for fair?
“Twelve more months and I can go home,” I wheezed. “Focus on that.”
I was done with all of it. I’d served my time in the Brethren military. Two freakin’ years out here alone, and I was done. I mean, come on, open war between the Axis and us was over. Been over. Surely someone could take my place. I just hoped things back home had calmed down, hoped it was safe for me to return. What a mess.
I passed one of our three security officers standing guard by the bridge, his deep set eyes drilling into me. I nodded. From the look of his dour expression and crinkling of his forehead, he was having a damn fine day. His stun stick was held loose in his right hand. The tendons of his arm rippled. There must have just been a little trouble.
I reached Forward Observation, got a nice view out the cupola, and came back around. I sidled past a hand full of fresh faces shuffling into their new quarters, rotations no doubt, and wished once more that my time was up. Some lucky bastards had gotten to go home, like Henry Lane, despite the fact that he had nearly destroyed our crop of apples by bringing beetles on board in his footlocker.
When I looped back to the starboard hall, a clamor of voices echoed down the hall from the bridge. The hatches of the dim room were open. The glass windows in the hall unshaded, permitting anyone to look inside.
Against my better judgement I slowed to take a peek.
“Good work, Captain, another successful resupply mission,” our XO, Colonel Jarod Stone, said, his fists grasping one another at the small of his back. His intense gaze, however, was not focused on the Captain, but on the massive display before him showing a green wire model of our ship, its relative position in space, and “best guess” estimates of other craft, friend or foe, around the solar system. Stone was an average but well-built man, who wore his uniform clean and kept his brown hair high and tight, his face smooth as a baby’s bottom. Colors danced atop his stone carved features, making him appear vaguely nefarious in an over-dramatic, near theatrical sort of way in such lowlight.
“As always,” Captain William Mason Fryatt declared, his basso voice rattling in my chest. He was a large man of six foot five with shoulders so broad they forced him to turn sideways when stepping through hatches. Despite being forty or fifty pounds above ideal weight, he was dangerous like a bear and awe inspiring as a monolith. A crop of peppered scrub topped his thick crown and pronounced jawline, adding wisdom and quiet menace to his ebony character. His black and red lapel oblique coat was crisp, service marks neatly arranged, its single row of silver cross buttons polished beyond bright. He looked every bit the Brethren officer, and that scared the shit out of me. He was fair enough, yes, but as hard as poly alloy, and just as meteorite resistant.
He went on, “It would have taken two less hours if you’d followed my orders to the letter, Stone. Are the crew transfers complete? Or do I need to show you how to check on that?”
“Yes, sir. The docking craft is gone and we’re free.” XO gave a nod. “Three general maintenance members have been replaced. And yes, sadly, our talented weapons officer, Kenton, who destroyed three Axis vessels last year, is on his way back home. A well-deserved retirement, I’d say.”
“Captain,” the communications officer cut in, her sheepish tone carefully rehearsed, “I’m sorry to interrupt. Ten minutes for our orbit to be high enough to reach the extended sensor network.”
“Very good.” The Cap softly touched the platinum band around his left ring finger. His brows crinkled with unfamiliar worry.
I jogged in place from the hall, trying to look inconspicuous, just far enough behind the bulkhead as to hide myself from the view of security and the bridge. Engineers, masters or not, weren’t privy to these sorts of discussions; then again, they’d left the door wide open. Come on, they must not have wanted too much privacy.
I was curious.
“XO, did the new weapons officer arrive? I would very much like to...” the Captain’s words trailed off as an athletic girl, rather, a woman, stepped into the room from the port hallway, snapping him a crisp salute. She was wearing a starched black and red uniform, had raven hair twisted into a tight bun, and possessed the innate ability to make me reconsider any thought of ever leaving this ship.
“Reporting for duty, sir.” The room went silent but for the soft bleeps and sweeps of radar.
My feet twisted up and I nearly fell down, slamming shoulder first into the bulkhead. Everyone turned at the noise, but thankfully, I was hidden just out of sight. Captain Fryatt was a ball buster, and open door or not, I would get cited for this. Again. But how was it that when there are only twenty five people aboard this barreling space craft, they expected you not to be nosey? How’s that for fair? That was like asking spectators of a skimmer race not to gawk at wrecks. It was human nature to watch, mandatory in a primal way.
I peeked around the corner, sneaking a glance at the new arrival—and swallowed.
Captain Fryatt returned her salute. “Good to see you, Lieutenant. I trust your trip was satisfactory.”
“Um yes, sir, Russian contract freighters are always the most comfortable. If I never see another pierogi, I’ll be just fine.”
“Traveled coach, then?”
“I would have loved to have traveled coach, sir. I sent you a message two months ago. Why have I not received a reply?”
The Captain coughed into his fist, platinum wedding band gleaming in the light. “I ‘em, I’m a very busy man. We are the last remaining warship of the Brethren, the only thing that stands between our way of life and total annihilation at the hands of the Axis. I thought you would understand such a simple notion by now.”
“I do, far too well, sir.” The officer’s tense posture sagged, but only slightly. I’d seen that sag before, as well as the smothering fires behind those irises.
“Yes, introductions,” the Captain turned to face his bridge crew. “XO, this is weapons officer Liberty Fryatt.”
“A pleasure,” the XO said, extending his hand in greeting. “No doubt your special training will serve the Brethren well. Too bad it hasn’t done much for this ol’ codger. Can’t even hit the damn toilet seat.”
“XO,” the Captain growled. “By God I swear, you’re pushing it.”
I sagged against the wall and sighed like a lovesick schoolboy. Holy shit—it was Lib Fryatt. I hadn’t seen her since grade school. What were the chances of her being stationed here? She was the old flame, the only girl I’d ever made a strong connection with. Weapons might have been her chosen profession, but she was damn near as good at engineering as I was back then. Not to mention, she enjoyed all the classic literature of the 20th century. But to top it all off, she was overwhelmed with passion for Rock and Roll—ROCK AND ROLL—and not that glitchy slap beat planet trash that goes around the Sol Net these days. I swear to God, The Axis leaks that trash just to encourage mass suicide by our faction.
“Oh God,” I mumbled. I was such an idiot, such a Godforsaken shithole of an idiot. Liberty Fryatt. William Mason Fryatt. She’s the ball busting Captain’s daughter, not just another officer. No just someone I used to know. How did this transfer even get approved? How had I not put this together until today? I guess sometimes you can’t see the big red mountain ahead for all the cracked roadway below.
“Think you can behave yourself?” the Captain asked his daughter. “Serving on a warship can be a challenge, you know, having all that time on your hands in certain company.”
Lib’s, I mean, Liberty’s, lips tightened. “It won’t be a problem, sir. If you recall, I went to school in a similar setting, and in fact, did not end up pregnant by the end.” The Comm, Brandi Smith, choked and quickly hid her face, burying it in work.
I sidled up to the window and openly glared inside. There she was, Liberty, looking just as lovely as ever, smooth caramel skin, high, avian cheekbones, pouty lips, and fathomless, dark eyes. She was even more beautiful for having matured, nearly putting the image of my pristine memory to shame. She’d been given the best parts of her parents, a perfect blend of Africa and Colombia.
I felt for the rubber gasket around my right ring finger and wondered if she still liked to race skimmers.
The Captain nearly spoke, but swallowed his angry reply. He raised his finger like a stylus as he often did when giving orders, but let it fall when the ship’s alarms began to bellow. Bright lights, red like as a dwarf star, flashed throughout the cabin, arresting everyone’s attention and leaching to the surface an impending sense of dread always felt, yet swallowed down, when serving on a military vessel. It was that sound. The sound. The one you never wished to hear. The warning cries of nightmare banshees who watched with fascination as the reaper’s blade was firmly pressed against your throat.
“Cut that off!” the Captain shouted at the Comm. The alarms died. “Sitrep.”
The main display changed, showing a dotted line connecting Jupiter’s moon, Europa, to Mars. “We have contact with our sensor network,” the Comm reported. Her face might have been turned away, but I could hear her eyes growing wider with each word. “It’s The Axis. The Razor. She’s altered course and is headed straight for Mars. Long range sweeps detect dense mass and high levels of radiation aboard.”
“Nukes,” XO grumbled. “It has to be. Those bastards are going for our main colonies. I knew we shouldn’t have been this far out.”
Captain Fryatt tapped his lips, seeming not at all afraid, but rather hard and thoughtful. “Navigation, how long do we have?”
Rosaleigh Guerra, Navigation, tucked a strand of mocha hair behind her ear. She licked her lips and sighed. “With our current trajectory, let’s see, we have a window of ten minutes to begin acceleration from our current position at Enceladus to enter a transfer orbit and escape the Saturn system. If we miss this window we’ll have to wait another sixteen hours to try again when we come back around.”
“And where would that leave us?”
“Best guess, arriving at Mars in five months and twenty two days.” Navigation swallowed. “Two days after the Razor, sir.”
A silent word hung in the air for an interminable moment. Annihilation. This would herald the end of The Brethren’s Martian Colonies, and the deaths of a hundred thousand people.
“They’ll have the opportunity to drop their entire payload by then,” XO added. “Either way, looks like they’ve got a head start on us from the get go. They don’t have as far to travel due to planetary alignment.”
“Orders, Captain?” Navigation asked.
Liberty turned in my direction; we met eyes. Her posture didn’t fail for an instant, she was too disciplined for that now, but her lips did part in a tiny gasp. After a moment of reflection, she mouthed the word David.
Hot damn, she remembered me. She remembered me.
“Engineer!” the Captain shouted, slapping a tablet resting on a workstation to the floor. His eyes became lakes of fire with the promise of hellish condemnation. “What are you doing eavesdropping on tactical? Do I need to cite you again? XO, how many marks will that be?”
“Captain, orders?” the Comm persisted, sounding both nervous and annoyed. “I’m sorry, sir, we’re short on time.”
“What’s going on?” I asked, not thinking my clearest. I should have tucked tail and run, waiting on orders like the rest of the crew. “This is bad, isn’t it? I didn’t think they’d ever make another move. It’s too risky.”
The Captain ground his teeth, but thank God, XO addressed me first. “Stand at attention, enlisted. We’re going to battle, that’s all you need to know. Is that clear?” I froze. “I said—attention!”
I stiffened bolt upright, eyes darting between XO, Captain Fryatt, and Liberty. “Sir, yes, sir.”
“Nine minutes, Captain,” Navigation persisted.
“Master Engineer, David Goddard,” the Captain shouted. “You have nine glorious minutes to get our engines burning at full or I’ll have you placed in an EVA rig without any oxygen cartridges. Do you hear me? We have a war to finish. Emergency burn, maximum delta v. Get us the hell away from Enceladus.”
I saluted the Captain and bolted. Medical, The Arboretum, Crew 1 and 2, and Cargo Bay rushed past in a blur. Security, maintenance and off duty enlisted plastered themselves against the bulkhead to get out of the way. I ripped off the PT weights and tossed them to the floor, leaving a trail of lead pouches in my wake.
“César!” I shouted as I crossed the Power Core and leapt for the rotating ladder of Nuclear Weapons Storage. I slid into the hatch at its top, barreling through the air in a place where gravity vanished. “Prep the fuel. Emergency boost, liquid burn.”
“Liquid burn? What’s wrong, señor?” His face screwed up. “What’s happening? Oh man, I heard the alarm and knew, just knew.” His fingers raked over the exposed flesh of his right arm like nails on a chalkboard, leaving behind just as much white.
The intercom boomed as we floated to the aft of the ship, nuclear warheads surrounding us in a radioactive cocoon.
“Attention crew,” said the Captain’s voice. “We’ll be making an emergency burn to achieve sufficient delta v to break free of our orbit and leave Saturn. We have seven minutes to begin thrust in order to intercept the Razor, the Axis’s last remaining warship, before it reaches its target. It is their explicit intent to bombard the Martian colonies with nuclear weapons, eradicating what they see as a blight spreading throughout the system. If we fail in our mission and arrive late, if we’re destroyed en route, or if we fire last at close range, we will fail, and everyone you know and love, still living on Mars, will die, vaporized in an instant...”
“Pumps armed,” César said, slamming a control rod into place. “Liquid oxygen pressure good, liquid hydrogen pressure good. Igniter test?”
“No time,” I replied, flicking switches across the main control panels. “Damn it, did we check the thrust vector actuators?” I didn’t like being rushed like this. Mistakes happened when people were rushed.
“It’s not by chance that we titans face off for the lives of everyone, rather fate, serendipity. This is God’s moment to decide, once and for all, who the victor of this war shall be. Trial by combat. Duel of two champions. And it is my belief that the Brethren shall succeed! And when we do succeed, we shall ride on and they shall burn for their crimes…”
“Navigation,” I called into the mic. “Course set?”
“Course set, Goddard. Engines ready?”
“Almost, almost,” César replied, looking confused in the moment. The boy had spirit enough, but he was twitchy as hell and scatterbrained. “Shit, man.”
I finished my tasks and went to help him. “You’ve done this checklist a thousand times. What’s the hold up?”
“I know, I know, señor.” He fiddled with a broken switch. It was that damn switch I’d told his ass to fix starting a week ago. “It’s stuck. Damn it, the puta’s stuck. Pinche puta.”
“In less than four minutes we ride into battle, sending our enemies to hell! Crew, active stations, check all nuclear weapons, run test cycles on rail guns, secure equipment and personnel for hard burn…”
A pair of combo torches—capable of plasma cutting, arc welding, and soldering—were Velcroed to the wall beside César’s feet, one yellow-handled, one red. I snatched the one with the worn red grip and pushed him out of the way.
“No time,” I growled.
With a flash of blinding light the torch crackled to life. I sliced into the panel around the switch, leaving a jagged line where the old torch made contact, yanked the wires free and peeled back their insulation with my front teeth. I spat plastic tubing into the air and tied the ends together with thumb and forefinger, receiving a tiny jolt of electricity for my trouble.
Green lights appeared on the check board before us. Go time.
“Ready?” Navigation called back.
“Ready,” I shouted, palm over the emergency burn safety release. “César, strap in.”
“On my mark,” Navigation said. “Three, two…”
“We will show the Axis the resolve of the Brethren, offering them our final solution! Remember Ceres!”
“One! Mark! Mark! Burn! Burn!”
I pressed the big-red-button and the boosters roared, belching fire silently into the void and hurling us forward. Momentum threw me against the back wall.
Through a small display on my right I watched in silence as the familiar view fell gently away, our ship steadily careening off into the deep. The rings of Saturn, bisecting the horizon of its brightest moon, would eventually shrink to a pixel thin line and wink out.
I knew I’d miss this place on some level, but then again I was overjoyed to leave. Either we’d succeed in our mission and I could go home to Mars, or we’d fail and I’d never know it. At least on Mars when people treated you like scum you could run away and hide someplace secret, but locked in here, in this tube, this pressurized can floating through a sea of nothing, all you could do was run in circles. Run in fucking circles.