The cockpit of the shuttle is bathed in red light, and our panels are dim to reduce the damage the light may cause to our vision. “You got some of that coffee?” Deng asks me. I picked up a bucket before we left. We’re near weightless and our harnesses are the only thing keeping us in our seats. The coffee is in a thermos with a straw.
“Yeah, quite a bit left, want some?” I ask, unable to lie or else awkwardly drink my cup full of coffee while he stared at me with an envious brow. “We’re only a few clicks away now, see anything on the radar?”
Deng grabs my thermos of coffee and slurps a generous amount before answering. “Nothing. It might have been just a rock or something.”
“Pretty large rock to get nothing on visual. I mean, this close? If there had been anything at all, we would’ve seen it.”
“Yeah, well, drift a moment, then we’ll see.”
I cut the engines and we float in space. Jupiter’s cheek covers a portion of the right side of the cockpit window. We see Ganymede, but no other moons from our position. The planet is impossibly large. That always unsettles me, how it seems to loom over us like some giant devil. I’ve had dreams where I’m spinning, uncontrollably falling into its surface.
“A few minutes,” Deng says, sipping at my coffee. “Then we turn back and report we found nothing.”
I nod and try to forget about it and just think that soon I’ll be off shift and able to relax. I can leave, I guess, go off the station and make my way elsewhere, but where? Cryonox freaks me out, not the actual procedure, but just the idea that my body would be frozen for thousands of years, only to wake up and think that Earth is still dead, and Mars probably is too, and that we’re all that’s left of humanity.
An alarm sounds. Deng keys the radio and says, “What, what’s that? What’s going on?”
The tinny version of Beal’s voice says, “We’re hit! A meteoroid strike!”
“Lock the hold!”
“It went straight through the center of the station! We’re evacuating, but if it isn’t repaired soon, the whole place is fucked!”
“What about the other shuttle?”
I’ve already started the engines and set our course back home.
“It’s in service, god damnit!” Beal’s voice becomes shrieks. “Just get back here and do the fucking repairs, now!”
“Right,” Deng replies. He cuts the radio and drinks the rest of my coffee.
“I’m suited up,” I tell Beal. I’m standing in the airlock waiting for the word go.
“Go,” she says. “I’m tracking, there’s no other objects.”
“You missed that one,” I say. I don’t know why I’m challenging her, but I’m about to patch up the outside of the space station on thirty minutes of air, so fuck it.
“We were distracted with that ship you didn’t find. Now get out there and fix us up, before this place implodes. We’d all really appreciate it, Jack.”
“Let’s roll,” I say, and Deng hits the switch on the airlock’s outer door. I drift out and kick my jetpack up a notch. The station is shaped like a series of concentric circles that vary in size, with a thin needle poking through. The needle houses the nuclear core, which powers everything from life support to pron sims.
“I’m at the first hole,” I said, holding back a grin and thinking of dirty jokes. Spit rolls down my cheek as focus sharpens my mind. The sheet of metal is thick enough. Fit it over, gently now, not too rough, there we go. “Ha! First one!”
“Weld it tight,” Deng commands.
I’ll command him from now on, the creep, always stealing and taking from me. Then Beal might even respect me.
“We’re about hitting critical mass, here, jack,” Beal crackles over the radio.
I’m almost to the second one when a window cracks and the chain reaction that follows spreads through the station like a wildfire in high winds. It just straight collapses, and the nuclear core goes. I’m just able to get a few clicks out ahead of it, but now my fuel is gone. The shuttle is gone. Everyone is dead.
I’m almost to the second hole and I weld the sheet metal down in a matter of seconds. “Nice work!” Beal says. “I respect you now!”
No, she wouldn’t really say that.
I reach the exit wound of the station and place the sheet of scrap over the hole and weld it down as quickly as you can say my name.
“Nice work!” Deng says over the radio.
“We’re good,” Beal says, all calm, sighing into the microphone with the relief that can only be measured in life, or perhaps death. “Everything is stabilizing, nice work Jack.”
“Thanks,” I say and wonder what happened. The same thing, three times. Four times? How many times did I just live through, how many outcomes?
“So are we all set on the repair work inside, too?” I ask Beal.
“Just about,” she replied. ” I wouldn’t want any customers to meet us like this, though.”
“Are any on their way?”
“Just one.” She drags her cigarette and exhales a few rings of smoke. “While you too were out there, looking for our ghost, we picked up another signal from that same area as the first.”
“What?” I ask, sipping my coffee. “We couldn’t find a damn thing out there.”
“Maybe we weren’t looking in the right places. Or time.”
“This one was a recording,” Beal says shyly, as though almost afraid to share this information with me. “You know that shit you read?”
“Something along those lines. Listen.”
She touches her temple and the image of an old man’s face appears, somehow sharper and smarter than any I had ever seen. “Good job, my children. I see you have the ability to work as a team, a single unit. Does that mean you are ready to meet us, who left you so long ago on the planet that you have now destroyed? We shall see…”
(TO BE CONTINUED….What do you think should happen next? Let me know in the comments! Last time, only one person told me that they wanted something. That was for a meteoroid to strike the station. Well, that happened. What next? Come on, tell me…)