It had begun as a pleasure cruise, coasting out past Jupiter and Saturn for a loop around Neptune. The pristine colors of the rings, the raw, raging fury of the Great Red Spot. The travel brochure promised the vacation of dreams.
The dream had become a nightmare.
The impact had torn the ship in two. Emergency bulkheads had quarantined everyone in the compartments they were in. Emergency ration alcoves in every compartment opened, revealing emergency beacons and enough food for a little over a month.
Three weeks into that month the fires had started.
The forward hull of the pleasure ship looked peaceful enough, as long as you didn't look more than fifty meters from the nose. Beyond that the umbilical to the drive section had been severed by an impact, and the drive section, along with its massive propellant tanks and the plasma drive itself had all fallen into Neptune.
The information about the ship, as well as the manifest and passenger list, scrolled up the left side of the screen.
Mike Harris turned slightly in the steady half-G of acceleration-induced gravity and tapped his section leader on the shoulder. "208 souls aboard," he told her. "Wanna lay some money on survivors?"
Billie snorted and ran a hand through her cropped red hair. "Survivors? This far out?" She pointed to another screen, this one showing the relative position of the wreck in the solar system. "You've got to be kidding. We're three weeks out."
"So? I've seen the ration compartments on ships before. They're supposed to last six weeks."
Billie laid a hand on Mike's shoulder, fingering the patch sewn there. "Listen, Mike, I know this is your first rescue, and you want to get out there for real, but don't get your hopes up." Her hand dropped away as she turned away and her voice lowered. "Chances are, if we don't get here in a week, two tops, we're too late."
"Oh." Mike looked back up at the wreckage. It nearly filled the screen now, and the range counter clicked down to under a dozen kilometers. "We'll find out soon, I guess."
"This stuff isn't fit for rats," he'd declared, holding up a yellow can of emergency rations. The woman knew from experience that the yellow can was dried beans and rice. The red cans were the beef cans, while the green was some kind of vegetable paste.
The other six people in the compartment were on the verge of beating the old man when the steady beeping of the locator beacon stopped. The old man and his dentures were forgotten.
The beacon emitted a shrill beep then began beeping to a different cadence. "Now what?" the old man wanted to know. "Does that mean something important?"
The twenty-something blond man that had bragged of being the greatest software engineer of the decade leaned over and squinted at the tiny print on the yellow beacon, both in English and Japanese. "It doesn't say. All it says is 'made in China'."
The old man straightened to begin his daily tirade when smoke suddenly belched from the air duct. It had been their only source of air since the impact; always blowing gently down on whomever sat beneath it.
Now it belched puffs of nasty black smoke.
Several of the passengers started moaning and cursing. The woman just wrapped her arms around her midsection and shook her head, waiting for the old man's inevitable outburst.
He just looked dumbly at the duct for a moment, then sat straight down on the floor.
"Oh, damn," was all he had to say, and softly at that.
The airlock opened silently to reveal the startling emptiness of space. Mike gripped the handhold of the scooter a little tighter as it leapt out of the bay, carrying him and four others to the remnants of the Stardust.
The scooter was little more than a series of gas thrusters and a handhold framework. It carried a container filled with spare air bottle for the rescuer's suits, but little in the way of rescue equipment. Mike had once asked about that.
"Kid," he was told, "don't ask them kind of questions. This ain't a nice business you got yourself into."
Reaching a pressure-gauntlet-clad hand to his belt, Mike checked the charge on his cutting laser. A rescue tech's cutter was basically what was once called a laser rifle. Running off a backpack power cell, it cut through hardened steel and hull shielding like a hot knife through butter.
"Heads up," the scooter driver called. "Ten meters to contact." Mike could see the tiny puffs of gas as the scooter slowed.
Up close, this section of the Stardust looked fine, or as fine as any spacecraft could look. The dense outer hull was pitted with impact craters, some the size of Mike's hand. Small porthole's dotted the hull, and Mike tried in vain to catch a glimpse of anything within the compartments. Nothing, he thought. They were all dark.
"Okay, boys, let's get to it." Billie's voice crackled out of Mike's helmet speakers. She always called her section 'boys', even though two of the men were older than she was. "You know the drill. Slice 'n' dice, clear 'em out."
Mike paused to watch the other four members of his team go to work. Billie's pristine white rescue suit was the first to leave the scooter, the gas jets mounted on her back and shoulders dropping her right onto the hull. He could see her legs jolt as the magnetic soles kicked in. The dirty angel insignia of the Seventh Rescue Squad rode on her shoulder and chest.
This is nothing like the simulators, Mike thought. In the sims, it was fairly well lit and even though they were painted in a starfield, you could see the walls.
Here, on the brink, space went on forever.
Mike took a deep breath and leapt off the scooter, guiding his suit clumsily to the hull. He knew he had none of the grace of Billie and the others, but it was his first live rescue. He didn't have the years of experience.
Or the bitterness.
Mike refused to give in to the callousness that pervaded the rescue squad. The veterans spent their time gambling, drinking, or cursing, brazenly gloating about the number of bodies they had recovered. He was laughed at when he asked about survivors.
Frustrated, he'd looked it up in the archives. Seeing the cold numbers in black and white, Mike had been sorely tempted to give in to the bitterness. He'd looked that maw in the face and turned his back, determined to keep his faith.
Here, in the face of death by the shipload, that faith was all he had to hold on to.
"It mean's we're going to die," the old man persisted. "That's the signal from God. Get ready, you're coming to see me!"
"It's a rescue beacon!" The software man said. "I don't know what Chinese built it, but it had nothing to do with God!" He pointed a finger at the old man. "I'd put my money on rescue, old man."
Several of the cowering people looked up hopefully at the younger man's words. The smoke was making everybody cough, and you almost couldn't see the six meters to the opposite wall.
Ignoring the burning in her throat and eyes, the woman moved away from the bulkhead. "Just quiet down, you two." She swung her arms around to encompass the entire room. "What does it matter what it is?"
Both the old and the young opened their mouths to say something when a scream cut through the smoke. The youngest person there, a pregnant woman on her honeymoon, of all things, screamed again and floated away from the wall.
"I saw something," she cried, pointing out the porthole. "Something's moving out there."
"Get away from there," the old man called, pushing off and gliding to the porthole. "Let me see."
He anchored himself to the handhold above the porthole and stared out for a moment. "I don't see anything." His voice abruptly cut off, and the woman pulled up her legs to go look for herself. Something stopped her, though, before she could move. Everyone in the compartment stood rooted in place, waiting to see the phenomenon repeat itself.
They cheered as something moved past the porthole, blocking the meager starlight and making the light flash off of the old man's wire glasses.
A tiny red light glowed to life, and Mike cursed softly and replaced the sensor in its holster. No sound means no atmosphere, which means no survivors.
Backing slowly out of the hole he'd cut in the thick outer hull, Mike keyed the radio built into his helmet.
"Nothing here, Billie." He waited on the outer hull for orders. From the radio chatter he'd overheard, no one else had any luck, either.
None of them had sounded as dejected as Mike, though, either.
"Roger that, Mike. Got a new spot for you, just this side of the drive radiation shield." A glowing wireframe schematic appeared on the inside of his helmet. "Coordinates coming now." A blinking yellow question mark began flashing.
"On my way."
It was about 30 meters to the location specified, or roughly two decks 'lower' toward the now destroyed drive section. In space, a modicum of gravity was provided by the near constant acceleration from the plasma drive. It wasn't much, but it wasn't zero-G, either.
Halfway there Mike paused to glance into a porthole before continuing on. He saw only a smoky interior, so continued on.
It hit him about six steps later.
Smoke! If the compartment were open to space, then the smoke would have dissipated. Smoke meant atmosphere, and maybe survivors.
Scrambling back, he knelt and placed the sensor against the porthole, dialing up the volume to hear even the slightest noise.
The screech of a rescue beacon deafened him as the sensor relayed the noise. As he watched, a face pressed against the porthole, then stared at him in astonishment.
"Billie!" Mike screamed into the radio, "I've got people! Living people!" Mike smiled so large his cheeks hurt, and he felt tears break out of his eyes. "Survivors, Billie!"
Her voice came back cold and calm. "Easy, Michael." No one called him Michael, not even his mother. "Slow it down and tell me where you are." He heard her bark an order for quiet on the suddenly crowded channel. "Mark your position, Mike."
"Deck four, midrange!" Mike pulled a small canister from his belt and twisted the end. A small green flare shot out of the tube and drifted lazily away from the hull. "Flare away."
Looking back down, Mike could see at least two more people crowded around the porthole. He pulled his cutter out and shot a couple shots up and away, in case anybody missed the flare.
A victory whoop erupted on the radio and Mike looked up to see three space-suited shapes jetting toward him. He pushed his hand against the porthole and willed the people to wait.
"Just hold on," he said to himself. "We'll get you out of there."
Wisely, the software engineer didn't remind him of his earlier position. He was holding the beacon against the wall. "It's how they found us," he insisted. "They listened for this damn thing!"
The woman floated in the middle of the room, dealing with far too many emotions to allow any one of them to reveal itself.
"One more time," Billie said, "we're cutting the hole compartment out and taking it back." She pointed to the three scooters waiting a couple meters back. "Once we get it loose, they'll pull it and us back to the ship." She didn't ask if there were any questions. Everyone was too determined to mess up.
On Billie's cue all 15 rescuers fired their cutters, carefully slicing into the thick outer hull according to a delicate blue line projected onto the inside of their helmet faceplates. The fourth team had cut their way into a neighboring compartment and was busy sealing off the survivors from the rest of the hulk.
The glow from the cutter made Mike's normally white suit arms turn slightly pink, but he barely noticed as he concentrated on his cutting. To make a mistake now would be unforgivable.
He sweated inside his helmet and banished all thoughts from his head except one: cut straight. He didn't even want to contemplate what would happen if his cut was off.
Then the air had cut out, and all hell had broken loose.
The old man had flown into a rage, shouting so loudly and wildly that his dentures had come free and were floating around the compartment, bouncing off the wall. He had even broken his glasses for lack of anything else to throw down in disgust.
The software engineer had spent the last few minutes ignoring the old man, instead, trying to calm the frantic newlywed. She kept calling for her husband and beating on the duct.
The woman just waited, her emotions calming more from exhaustion than from control. She pulled a ration bar from the wall compartment and chewed on a piece of it, ignoring the chaos around her. She was too busy ignoring her situation as well as trying to figure out who in their right mind would name something 'strawberry beef.'
Suddenly the compartment lurched, and everyone was thrown against the back wall. The woman coughed in disgust as the old man's dentures smacked her on the cheek.
As abruptly as it came, the acceleration ceased and everyone floated away from the wall. Looking out of the porthole, she could see two thin cables connecting the compartment with two of the skeletal sleds. Tiny puffs of gas erupted as the scooters corrected their course, and the massive ship grew slowly larger as the air grew slowly staler.
The light on his gauge flashed green and Mike cracked the seal on his helmet. Letting the bulky headpiece float away, Mike sucked in a lungfull of the chilly air, thankful to be out of the sweaty suit helmet. He waddled over to the compartment to help.
The noise of two cutters erupted into the nearly silent bay, a low hum as they sucked power. The metal of the compartment cracked and spitted as it was sliced open. Two crowbars levered the heavy slab of metal to the floor as the cutter's stepped back.
Nasty, foul-smelling smoke poured into the bay as the compartment was opened. A frantic young pregnant woman was the first out, sailing four meters beyond the compartment before snagging one of the techs. Three more people poured out after her, gulping in air. One, an older man that looked to be lacking teeth, burned himself on the still-hot edges of the hole. He was taken cursing to the infirmary, along with the others.
Once they were gone, a silence pervaded the bay. Over a dozen veteran space rescue techs stood rooted in place, staring at the now empty compartment. Billie had collapsed and was crying, which didn't stop her from wearing the largest smile Mike had ever seen. Her smile infected the others in the bay, each one starting to smile.
"Yeah!" Mike's shout echoed through the bay, shocking the others and focusing all the attention on him. He just stood there, smiling, arms crossed as much as the bulky suit would allow.
One, then another and another echoed his shout, and then the entire bay erupted into backslapping and congratulatory hugs. Mike went over to stand next to Billie and offered her a hand up.
"Not bad for my first day, eh?" he asked as she climbed to her feet.
Billie stared at him for a moment, then nodded. "You did good today, Mike." She glanced back at the smoldering compartment. "Better than I could've hoped, in fact."
Mike watched as she wandered off to congratulate the others, then drifted over to stare out a viewport.
At the Academy, back on Mars, they told you a successful rescue would be one of the best feelings of your life. "Better even than sex," one instructor had remarked.
Looking over at the battered hulk of the Stardust, Mike tried to sort through the myriad of emotions playing through him. All he came up with, though, was a smile. He stood there smiling for a long time, hoping the feeling would never go away.
About the author, Jason Schmetzer:
Jason is finishing up a degree at Ball State University in Indiana and trying to survive it. He writes science fiction because he enjoys it, and because where else can one escape to during finals?