When the metal helmet of the OneMan suit closed over Seth’s head, his ears popped. Sweat soaked his armpits and trickled down his sides. He’d performed only a few space walks before, and they didn’t get easier. During the last one he’d almost killed himself.
“I’m not going to die,” Seth told himself for the twentieth time as he enabled the thrusters and checked his fuel and air levels. The flight prep took him twice as long as it should because he had to do everything with his clumsy left hand. His right hand was badly mangled; two of his fingers twisted into ugly, agonized knots. He turned up the oxygen in his breathing mixture to compensate for the awful pain.
“If that Neanderthal can do a space walk, I can do it,” he said through gritted teeth, eyeing the empty housings for two OneMen, which must have been taken by Jake Pauley and his horrible little wife. She had been the one to set off the explosions that destroyed the Empyrean, then she broke her husband out of the brig and they must have come straight here to escape the dying ship in OneMen. She’d shown no remorse for leaving Seth trapped in the brig to die. If not for Waverly, he would have.
And to thank her he’d sent her all alone to the New Horizon—a snap decision that he already doubted. What was the alternative? Bowing and scraping to the people who had killed his father and destroyed his home ship? With his bad temper he’d get himself thrown in the brig, and he was damned if he was going to spend another minute of his life trapped like a rat. If he made it to the New Horizon and found a place to hide, he might be able to help Waverly, and maybe even do something to get back at Anne Mather.
He engaged the thrusters on his suit and hovered over to the air lock. Once inside, he turned back for a last look at the Empyrean. The shuttle bay was cavernous, quiet, deserted. Already it felt like a ghost ship. How many had the Pauleys killed today?
“Not the little kids. They’re okay,” he told himself, shaking his head against panic as he pressed the button to seal the air lock for the last time. The outer air-lock doors yawned wide to reveal the infinity of the open sky—black nothing carpeted with stars that seemed to rush away from him in a dizzying expansion.
Seth eased the OneMan out of the air lock and engaged the thrusters. He had enough experience now that he knew what to expect and was able to slowly maneuver his craft up and over the hull. At first the skin of the Empyrean looked undisturbed, but up ahead he could see plumes of freezing gases escaping in a billowing stream. Toward the aft he saw a vast cloud of white gas trailing behind the ship to disappear in the dark, leaving thousands of miles of air and water vapor in a long line cutting through the nothingness. Beyond that lay the nebula they’d left behind months ago, pink and glowing, belching flashes of electrical charge at the fringes. Seth turned away from its menacing beauty.
The New Horizon rose over the wound in the Empyrean like a deformed moon. Pieces of debris came into relief against the gray hull. Jagged bits of metal, pieces of furniture, plant matter, even a tractor—all fell away behind the ship with awesome speed. He turned toward the prow of the Empyrean to get ahead of the debris and gunned his thrusters.
As he circled, he saw objects in the distance hovering over the Empyrean, strangely stationary. Seth used the telescope attachment in his helmet to get a better look: four New Horizon shuttles. The nearest shuttle’s cargo ramp was hanging open, and from inside came four OneMen, drifting out like fish.
They were sending in rescue teams, Seth supposed. Or maybe they were looking for something that they wanted from the Empyrean cargo hold. He turned off his outer lights to make himself invisible, then scrolled through his radio frequencies until he heard voices.
“God. The damage is…,” a man was saying. “Why would anyone do such a thing?”
An image of Jake Pauley’s demented face appeared in Seth’s mind—the weird smile, the heavy bones of his browridge, his grimy teeth.
“That’s what I’m saying. This is useless,” another man said. “I don’t know why she sent us out here.”
To pick over our bones, Seth thought. He was so angry that he wanted to ram them, sever their air hoses, knock them spinning into space.
“I think she’s losing her grip. Did you see the way Dr. Carver was looking at her during services?”
“This is an open channel, boys,” a male voice warned.
They were silent for a few moments.
“There are still a few missing kids,” said a woman. By her tone, Seth guessed she didn’t much like her companions. “I’m glad to help look for them.”
“In an explosion like that? It’s amazing all of them didn’t die,” said a third man.
“I guess we have to look for them,” said the first man, “if they’re just kids.”
“Noble of you,” the woman said, and the other men laughed.
Once they were out of view, Seth started toward the New Horizon again, this time less hurried. He had time. The ship wouldn’t leave behind its search teams, after all.
Seth kept his eyes on the hull of the Empyrean as he moved. As long as he was near the large ship he didn’t feel so exposed, but when the hull of the Empyrean rolled away and the starscape widened before him, he gasped.
“Did you hear that?” a woman said in his ear.
Stupid! He was so stupid! He’d forgotten to turn off his radio. He flipped the switch, just as someone else said, “Feedback from the other team.”
His heart galloped and he trembled in his suit. He couldn’t make a mistake like that, not ever again.
His problem was exhaustion. He’d just finished a grueling journey through the dying Empyrean carrying Waverly on his back. Aside from his mangled hand, his brain was still sore from oxygen deprivation, and his thoughts were fuzzy. He needed to concentrate.
He kicked the thrusters harder. The New Horizon was miles away; the sooner he closed the distance the better.
Seth ran over the mental picture of the Empyrean schematics he’d spent his boyhood studying. There were small air locks for maintenance all over the ship—one of them had killed his mother, along with Waverly’s father, in what had been called an accident. The New Horizon was practically a replica of Seth’s home ship, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find an air lock in a seldom-traveled area.
He decided to try the storage bays toward the lower levels. They were far from the habitation levels, so it was unlikely he’d be seen, but if he needed, there’d be plenty of places to hide.
Closing the distance between the two ships took almost an hour, even pushing his thrusters at maximum capacity. He heard only the hollow sound of his breath inside his helmet, and if he strained, he could hear the blood coursing through the veins in his ears. He entered a kind of trance, distant from the pain in his hand so that he could concentrate on keeping his course true.
When the air lock in the storage bay came into sight, an alarm light from the OneMan’s guidance system warned him that he was going too fast. He gunned the reverse thrusters to slow himself, grimacing against the unpleasant pressure of the inertial force. The metal hull reared up before him, and he hit hard.
Frantic, he shot out his magnetic arm to keep from bouncing away from the ship and clung to the controls, panting and shaking, waiting for his heart to stop racing. His entire body was trembling, though he felt paralyzed.
“Last space walk ever,” he promised himself.
He checked his air: only ten minutes left. He shouldn’t have turned up his oxygen after all. Another stupid mistake!
He looked around for surveillance cameras on the outside of the ship, for surely he was in view of at least one of them. He found one about thirty yards away, but it was turned slightly away from him. There was a chance that he’d been observed on his approach, so he should hurry.
Seth engaged the outer air-lock control and the door popped open. He guided his craft inside, and as soon as the air lock filled with air, took off his helmet. The inner door opened, and he drifted inside and set the OneMan down on the floor of the storage bay. He was surrounded by huge storage containers stacked to the ceiling—rows and rows of them, full of equipment and supplies for colonizing New Earth. The planned arrival on the planet was so many decades away, Seth doubted he’d live long enough to see it.
He’d released most of the clamps sealing the suit along his chest when he heard voices.
“Hey!” someone yelled. Four men ran toward him, carrying guns. They were about three hundred yards away, closing fast.
Seth pulled at the last remaining clamp on his suit and, ignoring the pain in his hand, catapulted himself out of the lower portion of the OneMan and started running.
He was winded almost immediately, but he wove between the room-size shipping containers, listening for footsteps and voices, which sounded close at first but soon faded away. Despite his physical exhaustion he had the advantage of youth and natural speed. Seth slipped through the door to the starboard outer stairwell and ran up several flights until he found the rain forest level. He dove into the velvety humid air. It was warm here, and it smelled beautiful. He sprinted down the path until he found a patch of large ferns growing under a teak tree and collapsed into them. He sprawled, listening, panting, wiping sweat from his brow with the back of his left hand. No one came. He was safe for now. But only for now.
Copyright © 2013 by Amy Kathleen Ryan