Verux Peace and Rehabilitation Tower, Earth, 2149
My head is throbbing again, a white-hot line of pain from the back of my skull down to the right side of my jaw, and a dead man is signaling me from across the common room. His hand waves frantically in a “come here” gesture, his eyes wild with panic.
Resolutely, I turn my gaze away from the hallucination and attempt to refocus my attention on the living visitors across the scarred and battered plastic table from me.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” My tongue feels thick, unwieldy. That’s the drugs. Both too many and not enough.
“I said, you lied to us.” Reed Darrow leans forward impatiently. An older, executive-type in a black suit and a vintage watch paces just behind him, supervising our conversation, with a thoughtful—and yet still disapproving—scowl.
“About what?” I’m confused. It’s not difficult to do these days, but with Reed, a junior investigator from Verux’s QA Department, I’m almost always clear. He’s been in here every few days since the Raleigh search and rescue team dropped me off into Verux’s care three weeks ago.
Max Donovan, my other visitor, clears his throat loudly. “Verux wants to help you. But we need you to help us help you.” He nods at me in encouragement, his familiar face wreathed in wrinkles I’m not yet used to. He was just an investigator for my employer the last time I saw him, but now he is apparently the head of the whole QA Department.
“I’ve told you everything I remember.” My skull fracture is, according to the Tower doctors, healed. And during the month-long return trip to Earth, the Raleigh’s MedBay staff tested me for every virus, bacteria, and parasite under this sun. Not to mention all the “exploratory” diagnostics and procedures over the last three weeks in the Tower. The results are always the same: the visions, pain, and memory loss are likely psychological, not physical in origin.
Reed ignores me. “You know, some people think you murdered your crew for a larger share of the find before taking that escape pod.”
I stiffen, hands clenching against the urge to hit him.
“Then you hitched a ride back here with the Raleigh team, gambling that we’d buy this whole amnesia and psychotic break story and you could hide in the Tower.” He waves his hand around, as though conjuring an image from thin air.
The Verux Peace and Rehabilitation Tower is a dumping ground for all the broken and damaged. Including me. Verux has more ships, more crews working in space than any other corporation. And sometimes docking clamps don’t disengage. Sometimes people can’t handle the isolation of years in space. Sometimes a coolant leak contaminates the oxygen, killing off brain cells before it can be corrected. Shit happens. Sometimes even to you. Sometimes even if you can’t remember it.
I swallow hard against my dry-as-dust throat. “My crew … they’re dead, but I didn’t kill them.”
“You sure you want to stick with that story?” Reed asks with a terse smile. He holds up a folded piece of paper—real paper, which means it came from the highest levels of Verux. “We’ve been monitoring K147,” he says.
Just the sector name makes me flinch. I lost everything there.
“So?” I ask.
“We’ve got movement, Claire,” Max says gently.
Not possible. My lips go numb, and a loud hum starts up in my ears. “The Aurora?” I whisper.
“Your ghost ship is on the move, Kovalik,” Reed injects with smug satisfaction.
Max leans forward in his chair to meet my eyes. “Maybe it’s time you tell us everything again. From the beginning.”
Sector K147, two months ago
I have a loose screw. Somewhere.
Amazing. We’ve been living on other planets and moons for a hundred years and visiting space for even longer than that, and still, a tiny piece of metal with misaligned grooves can fuck everything up.
“How’s it going out there, Kovalik?” Voller’s voice pierces the quiet of my helmet, drowning out the soft and soothing rush of oxygen. Somehow he’s louder out here than he is in person.
I ignore him.
“Kovalik,” he sings out my name. “Hellloooo?”
“It’s fine. Better if you’d shut up and let me concentrate.” I grab for the screwdriver dangling on a tool tether attached to my suit.
He sighs, the noise right on the edge of a petulant whine. “Lourdes says we’ve still got a wobble in the signal, TL. And we’re going to miss the rendezvous with the hauler if we don’t leave soon.” As if I’m unaware of those things as team lead. But then again, Voller excels at stating the obvious and being exceptionally annoying while doing so. After twenty-six months in close quarters, I’m ready to murder him for that as much as for the snoring that rumbles through the air vents into my quarters, keeping me awake. Unfortunately, he’s a good pilot.
I ignore him and focus on checking the beacon hardware, particularly where we’ve merged new with old. Software updates can be uploaded via signal from anywhere, but hardware? Hardware is hands-on. And even with years of practice and gloves designed for delicate work, it takes concentration. Snap off a piece or lose too many screws and it’s a whole operation to get replacements all the way out here at the edge of the solar system.
Not that there are any replacements, as this is the last beacon. Not just for this tour or this sector, but the last last. For us, anyway. The next time the commweb—a network of beacons throughout the solar system designed to boost ship and colony transmissions for virtually instantaneous communication—needs an upgrade, a Verux SmarTech machine will be at the controls.
The machine will probably lose fewer screws.
But no need for commweb maintenance teams means no need for commweb maintenance team leads. No need for me.
This is it. The last time I’ll be out here. Not just as TL, but forever. No more peace and quiet of the vast emptiness. No more endless field of tiny stars surrounding me. No more ship with bright lights to beckon me back from the dark.
I shove that thought down. Way down.
Maybe it’s the receiver. I slide my hand along the metal support structure, pulling myself along to the other side, trying to avoid getting tangled in the process. My tethers to the beacon and our ship, a commweb sniffer called the L1N4—LINA—keep me from floating away but they’re also a pain in the ass.
I tighten up every screw I can find, and eventually, my comm channel crackles. “You got it, TL,” Lourdes, my comms specialist, says. Her husky voice is softer in my ear. “Cycling up now. Come back in from the cold.”
The gentle tug on the red LINA tether tells me that someone is at the cable controls, ready to reel me in on my signal. Probably Kane, my mech and second-in-command. He doesn’t like other people touching the mechanics of LINA, even something as simple as a winch. Anything can break, he says. And repairs are limited out here.
Not that that matters now. I’m fairly sure LINA will be scrapped once we’re done anyway. She was already old when I inherited her with this sector assignment. Battered, scratched up, smelling of overheated metal, with shitty airlock seals that are pretty much a full-time job to keep hard-foam-repairing even with Verux swapping them out for equally shitty replacements every time we finish a job.
But LINA is home.
After unhooking the blue tether from the beacon structure, I reattach the far end to the designated loop on my suit. As I do, my gloved fingers brush over the carabiner that connects me to the red tether, to LINA and the future I no longer have.
My whole life I’ve wanted nothing more than to be out here. Away from everyone. That is the beauty of space. There’s nothing out here. Sure, stars, planets, and communication beacons, but no people.
And now … that’s all over.
For a moment, I consider it, my hand hovering over the latch. It would be so easy: flip the safety catch, unhook myself from the tether, and just … push off. Float away. Eventually, I’d have to decide between freezing to death or suffocating as my suit ran out of juice, but it would be my choice. My choice out here among the stars, the distant glimmering planets, and the absolute silence of space.
“Kovalik?” Kane asks. “Are you ready?”
No, I’m not. I’m not meant to be dirt-side. Not for long and certainly not forever. Without a ship, you’re trapped. Bad things happen when you can’t get away. Just the thought of being permanently gravity-bound and surrounded by so many people again makes my breath rush in and out faster.
Guess that means suffocation will probably end up being a problem first.
“Team Lead Kovalik, do you copy?” Kane repeats, his voice taking on urgency.
“Claire?” Lourdes breaks in.
“Come on, Kovalik.” Voller sounds irritated. “I have a redhead and a packet of Scotch waiting for me on the Ginsburg. Just because you can’t handle—”
“Shut up, Voller,” Kane says.
My fingers settle on the safety catch.
“Kovalik. Don’t move. I’m on my way,” he adds.
My vision blurs with tears, smearing the star field into a general haze. Of course Kane wouldn’t just let me go. He would make sure they retrieved me, like a rubber duck plucked out of bathwater. He’s good that way. Never mind that a duck, rubber or otherwise, has no place outside the water.
It would take him fifteen minutes to get suited up and through the airlock on a secondary tether, and in the meantime, per standard protocol, our ship’s log would be recording everything, transmitting back to Verux.
There might be one thing worse than never being up here again, and that would be being locked up in the Verux Peace and Rehabilitation Tower on Earth. In Florida. What’s left of it anyway. That’s where the company sends all their broken eggs. I’ve heard that once you’re in, you never leave, not even for a look up at the stars.
I take a deep breath and blink to clear my vision. “Negative,” I say, forcing my fingers away from my tether. “I copy. Five by five. Momentary … glitch.”
“Yeah, right,” Voller mutters.
I ignore him. “Ready when you are, Behrens.”
Kane retracts the tether, slowly pulling me to safety, even though it feels like the exact opposite.
* * *
“What was that about?” Kane asks, as soon as I’m out of the airlock and stripping out of my enviro suit. I hang it, along with my helmet, on the peg that’s marked with my name above it on a curling piece of magnetic tape. It’s hard not to view that bit of flawed tape—and everything else on board—with an overly sentimental fondness, simply because it’s about to be gone.
I avoid Kane’s gaze as I yank my jumpsuit back on over my T-shirt and compression shorts. Blue eyes that bright are rare these days, outside of old film, and it feels like Kane’s see right through me.
“Nothing.” I run my fingers through my hair, the sweat-dampened blond strands sticking to my forehead and hanging in my eyes. Now that I’m back inside, my momentary flight of suicidal fantasy seems foolish and pathetic. I could have put my entire crew in jeopardy by forcing them to attempt a rescue. We may not always get along, but keeping them safe is my job. A job that I wanted so badly I’d been contemplating offing myself at the loss of it.
My face hot, I push past Kane and stick my head over the railing for the ramp to the lower deck.
“Nysus,” I call.
“Nysus!” I shout.
A second later, he leans out of his favorite hidey-hole, the “server maintenance bay,” which is little more than a nook with a door, near the engine room. “What?” He blinks up at me, spiky black hair rumpled from his hands, gaze dreamy and impatient, still mostly focused on whatever he was doing before I called for him. Probably something on the Forum.
Copyright © 2022 by S. A. Barnes