“Attention all hands. Enemy ships sighted,” Holloway said over the intercom, “Return to your stations or stay in your quarters – keep all hallways and the central shaft clear for emergency personnel and repair robots.”
Dena Lee closed the wall panel and looked to the screen mounted on her wrist. Asar’s modified circuits were reading normally, but the firewalls and routines would need a proper test. There was no time for that. Dena backed away from the panel and looked over to Dr. Denise Reynolds.
“You heard the man. You need to be in Engineering,” Reynolds said, “Come back later.”
“I may not have to. I can run a hacking simulation from Engineering later – if the alarms go off here, you’ll know the new system is working.”
“Good work.” Reynolds nodded.
Aren then strode through the metal aisle in the center of the Medbay and opened the supply closet just ahead of the rows of beds. Inside were the emergency spacesuits, and Aren retrieved two suits and three helmets. The android tossed one helmet to Dena, who deftly caught it with both hands. She was already wearing a pressure-rated suit, and once she put on the helmet, her suit connected with it, forming an airtight seal around the base of her neck. While Dena checked the seal, Reynolds frowned at the two additional suits.
“Edman couldn’t go home?”
Before the android could answer, Colony Administrator Robert Edman walked through the sliding door on the other side of the room. He seemed stiff, but handled the walk easily enough.
“Aren just checked on me in the recovery area,” Edman explained, “She thought it best I stay here – I’m still under observation after the cancer treatment.”
“All other patients are on their way back to quarters,” Aren said, “Aaron is escorting them. Robert here is allowed to move around, but he’ll need a few more checks to ensure there’s no recurrence.”
Reynolds nodded solemnly. She guided Edman to an empty bed and began helping him with his suit before slipping into her own.
Dena looked back to the screen on her wrist, unable to resist examining the readouts. Even with an emergency at hand, pride compelled her to check on her handiwork.
“I hope we don’t need these,” Edman said just before snapping his helmet into place.
“Don’t worry,” Reynolds said. Her helmet was already in place, and her voice crackled through Dena’s suit radio, “It’s just a precau …”
A boom echoed through the bulkheads of the Medbay, the lights of the consoles around her shaking in Dena’s vision as she braced herself against the bulkhead and the nearest bed. A howl of rushing air followed, and suddenly the room was spinning. As she fell to the floor, she heard Reynolds and Edman cry out in shock.
Vertigo washed over her as the room spun. At the edge of her vision, she could just barely see Edman, crouching next to the prone doctor. Aren was moving to help her, somehow able to stand up under the spinning force. Must be her titanium skeleton, some calm corner of Dena’s mind said, Would be damn useful for us humans.
Dena looked to a green blinking light at the side of her wrist screen, indicating that the air recycler in her helmet was working. Thirty minutes of oxygen, she reminded herself.
Invisible weight crushed down on her as she crawled toward Edman and Reynolds, her chest barely able to force air into her lungs. Aren got to Edman first, and Dena let out a sigh as she caught a glimpse of the blinking green light on his wrist screen. She turned to look next to him, but Reynolds’s upper body was behind the bed next to Dena, hidden from view. God, please be all right.
In the corner of her vision, Dena saw Aren run to her. No, no, I’m fine. Keep checking the doctor!
Another boom, and the floor shook. Time slowed as a rectangular patch of blackness appeared and spread across the floor. Dena gasped as arms clutched her stomach, tearing her away from the blackness. In the split second as Aren pulled Dena back, the blackness spread across two beds, covered the aisle between them, and then covered two beds on the opposite side of the room. Aren held Dena in place, and Dena watched as Reynolds sprang up and snatched Edman from the edge of the darkness. The two pressed themselves to the floor on the side of the black swath opposite from Dena.
Then it disintegrated.
Wind slammed into Dena’s back as the black-coated floor and beds crumbled into ashen powder that instantly dispersed into open space. Aren held tight, her hands nearly crushing Dena’s waist as she maintained her footing. Across from them, Edman and Reynolds tumbled out into the newly opened void, any screams they let out lost in the roar of rushing air.
Dena fell to the floor, her head hanging out over the edge of the hole. Wind rushed past as Aren draped her android body over Reynolds’s back, using her weight to hold the chief engineer in place. They held fast against the wind and the sickening spin of the room around them.
Some alien attack breached the ship, just like the attack on Engineering, Dena thought. Air gushing out, pushing the ship in one direction – the whole ship is just twirling in place now.
With every rotation, the two floating bodies appeared for a fraction of a second, lined by pale red chemical lights built into their suits. The red grew fainter with each pass, until Edman and Reynolds disappeared entirely.
The roar of air subsided. The room slowed its spin, finally coming to a rest, but her head spun for several more heartbeats. The maneuvering thrusters must have finally kicked in, Dena thought. Thank God.
Aren slowly pulled away from Dena and helped her to her feet. Dena’s stomach lurched as she felt the familiar lightness of zero g. Some system in her suit reacted to the loss of gravity, and her boots held fast against the floor of Medbay. Aren looked Dena over from head to toe, her eyes flashing briefly green.
“No detectable injury.” She mouthed the words in the soundless void, while her voice broadcast through the suit’s radio.
Something then crawled in through the hole in the floor, clambering next to Aren on metal legs. It was a metal spider, standing at waist level to Aren. A repair robot, Dena realized. Around the edge of the hole, more repair robots swarmed in, clinging to the edges of the gap in the floor. Aren looked to the robots, and Dena guessed that the android and the robots were communicating silently. At her unspoken command, one of the spiders lifted off the floor, bright blue thrusters flaring as it flew out into the void. Aren watched it, her eyes tracking it long after it disappeared from Dena’s limited vision.
On impulse, Dena reached down to her boots, fingers searching for the buttons that would release her hold on the floor. Aren stopped her, gently clasping her wrist.
“Just wait,” she said, “The robot will find them.”
“I need to do something – I can get out there and help find them!”
Aren held fast to Dena’s arm as she leaned over the edge of the hole. The thrusters of a repair robot flared as it flew into the view framed by the gap. In its metal arms it held the red-lined bodies of Reynolds and Edman.
From the opposite side of the rectangular gap, the rounded tip of an enormous violet spaceship appeared. The ship was close – Dena figured it was less than a kilometer away.
Just as quickly as it appeared, the Alliance ship vanished in a flash of white. Seconds passed as Dena blinked away green spots. When she could see again, Aren was still grasping her arm tightly, the android’s mouth moving soundlessly. Dena watched the android’s lips. Electromagnetic interference, reboot in progress was Dena’s best guess at the soundless muttering. Around Dena, the repair robots sat still, lights on their black surfaces blinking as if they were awaiting new commands. Dena looked outside to see the red outlines of Reynolds and Edman’s suits, the pair held in the metal arms of a now dormant spider-like bot.
Without thinking, Dena pulled at Aren’s arm. The grip loosened easily, but Reynolds quickly discovered that the android’s feet were no longer holding her to the deck. Dena cursed as Aren’s arm slipped from her grasp, and the android’s body tumbled out into the void.
“I’ll come back for you,” Dena said, her words echoing weakly in her suit, “Humans first, sorry.”
She crouched low and clambered over the edge of the hole. She crawled out onto the white exterior of the Tereshkova, careful to make sure her magnetic boots held to the surface. Remembering the utility belt on her suit, she reached to her waist and found the compartment at the front of her belt. As she stood, she opened the compartment, her fingers quickly finding the magnetic anchor at the end of the tightly coiled nanofiber cable inside it. Should be long enough, she thought. Please be long enough.
She pushed at the compartment, and it slid easily around the belt and locked into place behind her back. Pulling out a length of cable, she tossed the flat end of the anchor at the surface of the ship under her. The electromagnet inside it activated, and the anchor held fast to the surface under her. She crouched low, looking up toward the floating bodies. Pushing hard with her legs, she jumped into the void.