No-one made a move. I was impressed that most passengers had their chins raised, patiently waiting for instructions from the captain, but for a few of the others I could tell panic was beginning to set in. The air temperature was already dropping. I got up and ran to the front and banged on the pilot’s door.
“Can you do ship repair?” asked Captain Lemmie.
“Maybe, but what about your First Mate? Or you?” I asked.
“I can’t. I need to reroute power while you’re out there,” — he dropped his voice to a whisper — “and I won’t put Adeline in that kind of situation again.”
The source of her missing arm and burn scar became clearer.
“I have EVA certification,” I said, leaving out that I’d never actually performed an EVA, much less accomplished work in one. FTL had us sit through a day of lectures and holovids about what to do if an EVA suit was required. Most of the other couriers played with their mobiGlas during that lecture.
I’d been enthralled by it, not because I actually thought I was ever get to use one. Rather the idea of swinging around on the outside of a speeding spacecraft sounded like being a kid on the galaxy’s best jungle gym.
Now that our lives depended on my successfully completing one, it didn’t sound so romantic. Mostly terrifying, in fact.
“See that locker behind the door?” he asked, giving me a moment to check.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Put on the suit. There’s a repair bag to clip on your belt in the bottom. Once you find the hull damage, you’ll use the zero-set epoxy to patch it, assuming the hole’s not too large,” he said, not sounding too confidant.
While he was talking, I was already opening the locker. It didn’t take me long to figure out the suit was built for a much larger person.
While I was putting on the EVA suit, the Captain told the other passengers to put on their warm clothing and pull out the oxygen canisters in the side panels and wait for his instruction on when to use them.
The first mate, Adeline, was moving up and down the aisle helping the passengers where she could. When I couldn’t get the bulky chest section around my head, I called for her to lend me a hand, and was too worried about the EVA to cringe at my poor choice of words.
Using her good arm, Adeline helped me get it over my head while I spread my arms out in a narrow V. As it slipped over my head, nudging my nose painfully, I realized the hard plastic midsection was going to make it hard to maneuver. Once I had my head through, I felt like a child sitting at the adult’s table during a family get-together.
With a concerned frown, Adeline asked me, “Are you going to be okay in that thing?”
“Do you have any straps? Tie-downs or anything I can use to take out the slack?” I asked.
Technically, exposed straps were a bad idea on an EVA, but I thought wearing the oversized suit without some modifi-cation was worse.
Adeline turned to the other passengers.
“Does anyone have any rope or straps?” she asked, hopefully.
A thin, but chubby-faced middle-aged gentleman snapped, “We wouldn’t have been hit if you hadn’t made us change routes.”
Adeline spoke on my behalf, “You knew the risks when you joined the Church. Traveling in space is never safe, no matter what the precautions. And she’s the only one that volunteered to go outside the ship and fix the leak.”
I cleared my throat. “Look, I hate to rush, but if I don’t get some straps and get out there to fix this ship, there’s a hundred percent chance we die.”
A younger woman dressed in stylish clothes yelled, “I’ve got something. Just a moment!”
She buried her head in her bag, then came running up with a handful of black straps and an awkward blush on her face.
“They’re, uhm . . .” she stuttered, visibly trying to find the right words.
It didn’t take long to figure out what purpose the straps were meant for, and I might have laughed except for the life-threatening circumstances.
“Perfect,” I finished for her, as I suppressed a grin and grabbed them.
We used the straps to tie down excess material, especially around the arms and the puffy midsection. Before they put the helmet on, I yelled to the captain.
“How much time?”
He paused and my stomach dropped a few feet.
“I’d hurry, please,” he said, keeping his voice as profession-al as he could muster.
Moving through the cabin in an oversized EVA suit was like trying to swim through molasses. Adeline helped me open the outer airlock. Once I was inside, I gave my suit one last check-over and connected my tether to the hook right inside the outer airlock.
Once the green light appeared on the door, I turned the handle clockwise and went out.
I’ve never been afraid of heights. When I was young and foolish, I’d once climbed up the side of an apartment building using the drainage pipes, so I could prank one of my mates by sneaking in his window and cutting the crotches out of all his underwear.
But swinging onto the hull of the Reclaimer, facing an infinite pit — however beautiful — made my arms retract like levers. I clung to the metal surface, my boots’ soft clanging against the hull only audible through the air of my suit, and tried to convince my body that sliding along the guide rail to the front of the ship was just like climbing those drainage rails.
After a few deep breaths, I managed to unsolder my hand from the rail and extend my arm. Even the act of reaching seemed like certain death, especially without the ship’s artificial gravity holding me down, but once I’d pulled myself along the rail a few times, the fear reduced to a modest nightmare level of fright.
“How’s it coming?” asked Captain Lemmie through the comm in my suit.
“Moving to the front of the ship,” I said in an unsteady voice.
“I’m not trying to hurry you along, but you’re going to return to asphyxiated Human popsicles if you don’t get that patched soon,” he said.
I’d been making little movements along the rail, the equivalent of a four-year-old edging around a pool during her first swim. After the captain spoke, I decided I needed to make huge leaps.
I yanked myself along the rail, using the lack of gravity and my momentum to sail along the curved hull. But I misjudged the amount of force and my fingertips grazed the cold metal as I skipped into space.
Thankfully, I was still connected to the rail through my tether, which snapped me back towards the ship. I hit hard, my face plate slamming against the metal hull in a resounding gong.
I managed to hook my shaking fingers around the rail. For the brief moment that I was flying away from the ship, I’d thought I was lost to space.
With my eyes squeezed shut, I said, “And that’s why we use the tether.”
“You okay, Sorri?” asked the captain.
“Almost there,” I said, not wanting to admit I’d nearly wet my suit with fright.
When my gaze fell upon the damage, my stomach dropped into my boots. A white mist, the atmosphere of the cabin, was jetting into the darkness through a head-sized hole in the hull. Only the inner walls had kept all the oxygen from venting into space within the first thirty seconds of rupture. Bits of insulation were breaking free at the point of escape. If whatever had hit the hull had impacted a little harder, destroying the material beneath the hull, we’d have been dead before I made it to the EVA. I said a small silent thank you to whoever had invented shields.
I pulled the spray applicator out of the carryall. There was no way it was going to fill the hole. I might as well be trying to spray paint a planet-killing asteroid with one can.
“Captain. The hole’s too big for me to fix,” I said.
His wheezing voice answered back. “You . . . have to figure it out.”
I stared at the can for a while. The volume of material just wasn’t large enough to plug the leak.
I stared out into the blackness of space. Behind us, the star at the center of the Davien system looked like a tiny burning ball. Past the front the ship, I caught reflections of the jump point structure in the distance. It twinkled as something passed through the aperture.
“Never stop thinking. Never stop thinking,” I repeated to myself.
I needed more material, but I didn’t have enough time to go back into the ship.
I unclipped the bag from my belt and shoved it into the hole. It didn’t want to stay in the wide, flat hole. Parts of it kept trying to float out. With my elbow keeping the bag in place, I popped the top off the can and shook it a few times to activate the epoxy. At this point, I had about a minute before the material hardened, so I pressed the nozzle and squeezed the goop onto the bag.
For a second, the goop didn’t come out and I thought I had a defective can, but then it oozed onto the tan bag material like clear snot. As fast as it came out, I let it flow on top of the bag. About halfway finished, I noticed the first sections of goop starting to harden into a whitish material that almost looked like ice.
I managed to cover the hole with the epoxy. With the remaining material, I checked for leaks by holding my helmet over the repair looking for misting on the glass. After filling a few minor pinholes, the can was empty.
“Hole’s fixed, Captain,” I said. “You can start pressurizing the cabin, though take it slow. I’m not sure how structurally strong this epoxy is.”
When no answer came, I felt a heavy sweat form on my brow. I gave it a few more seconds.
“Captain?” I asked.
Was I too late?
My whole world seemed to condense to a tiny point at the end of my nose, before I realized the comm link was off. I must have tripped it during the repair.
“Captain?” I asked again.
“Yes, I’m here, Sorri. Glad to hear you. I thought we’d lost you,” he said.
“I accidentally switched the comm off. The hole’s fixed, though I wouldn’t fully pressurize. I’m not sure how sound my repair is. I had to improvise. I’ll wait out here while you pump atmosphere back in to make sure it’s not going to pop loose,” I said.
After a few minutes of silently watching for any sign of deformation, the captain announced the cabin was back to minimum pressure and target oxygen levels. Taking my time, I made my way back to the airlock.
Before I went back in, I hung by one hand and stared at the great infinite beyond. Though I was still terrified that the void would somehow suck me away from the ship to drift forever alone, I simultaneously was so awestruck that it brought tears to my eyes.
I’d never really decided if I believed in a higher power or not, but looking at the vastness made me wonder if anything could conceivably create the universe. It seemed too grand, too infinite, for a single being to manufacture.
Somehow that made me feel better to think that the universe had always been here, rather than the arbitrary creation of a higher being who might change his or her mind based on a whim I couldn’t possibly understand. Then again, we’d gotten damn unlucky to be hit by a piece of debris out here in the middle of all this nothing.
I went back inside the ship through the airlock. The other passengers greeted me with exhausted applause, as if their relief was so deep they had little energy left to expend.
The other passengers touched me as I went up to the pilot’s cabin with the helmet under my arm. A few thanked me for the story. Only the Banu seemed unfazed by the experience.
“Everything still okay, Captain?” I asked.
“The good news is that we’re holding pressure. It looks like your repair worked,” he said.
“This is one of those good news, bad news things, right?” I asked.
“I’m afraid so. The bad news is I can’t risk moving again. So we’re stuck here until the rescue ships arrive,” he said.
“Crite!” I said.
“You’re not going to make your delivery?” he asked.
I blanched. “You knew I was a courier?”
He tilted his head. “Well, of course. I saw your profile and I saw the case you’re carrying.”
“And you just changed destinations for me?” I asked, perplexed.
“It’s not the destination, but the journey. And now we’ve all had an experience we might not have had otherwise,” he said with a wry smile. “That’s kinda the point.”
“Is there anything closer than the rescue vehicles? Someone that might take a passenger?” I asked.
“For our fearless repairwoman, I’ll make a scan,” he said, flipping a few knobs beneath a screen. After a moment, a little blip appeared on the screen. “Looks like there’s a Caterpillar headed towards the jump point. Let me check the records . . . ship name is Dodecahedron and it’s registered under the name . . . Senet Mehen? I don’t know. It doesn’t sound promising.”
“Could you hail it?” I asked.
Captain Lemmie typed a standard hailing message on his keyboard and sent it to Dodecahedron requesting communications. We stared at the display and each other for a minute. No response.
“The owner could be asleep and on autopilot,” said the Captain with a shrug.
“Try again, please,” I said.
We stared for a while longer.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his lips curling with disappointment.
“Dodecahedron. That’s a strange name. Try sending the message: ‘Greetings, Senet Mehen. Sorri Lyrax requests the pleasure of your communications to inquire about an audacious offer.’”
“That sounds like spam,” said the Captain.
“Well, sometimes spam works. Send it,” I said.
The Captain had an incredulous look as he typed in the message, shaking his head the whole time.
While we waited, he had a smirk on his lips as if he knew what was going to happen. To both our surprise, a message returned on the display.
[ Greetings, Sorri Lyrax, what offer awaits? ]
“It’s like you two are speaking a foreign language,” said the Captain. “What’s the reply?”
“A dodecahedron is a twenty-side die. It’s used for playing games. He must like games. Probably uses the downtime during space travel to play them. I would guess he has an extensive VR set, or custom Glas wall. Please respond: ‘Vita Perry stranded. Rescue ships approach, but Sorri Lyrax needs ride. Will pay,’” I said.
After the Captain typed it, we waited a while but got no response.
“Crite,” I said, pulling up my mobiGlas and searching it for gamer terms. I’d seen kids my age playing games with dice when I was growing up, but my father always had me working in the bar. Games are for infants, he would tell me in his gruff, I-am-all-wise voice if I inquired about visiting one of those shops.
“Try this: ‘Sorri Lyrax in dire need. Will you accept quest?’” I said.
The answer came back so fast I thought it was an error. He was going to let me ride with him for free. The blip started moving towards Vita Perry.
“I can’t believe that actually worked. You’re going to need to do another EVA to reach Dodecahedron,” he said. “Can’t risk anything else with the hull damaged. I’ll pick up a new suit when we get back to port, but you’re going to have to pay for the one you’ve got on since we’ll have no way to get it back.”
“I’ll do that right now,” I said, accessing my mobi while simultaneously trying not to scowl. “Thank you.”
He gave me a wink, the kind I would expect from a wizened old farmer leaning over the back of his tractor. “My pleasure.”
The rest of the passengers had overheard the exchange since we’d kept the cabin door open, so I was greeted with a mixture of appreciation and relief. I think some of them thought I was bad luck.
The Banu in the cream robes appeared asleep, which made the departure less awkward. I put the helmet back on, hooked the case to a strap, and moved to the airlock.
At first, I was worried Dodecahedron’s approach would create a dangerous impact, but the ship’s pilot did a deft maneuver, swinging the ship around and using thrusters to slow to a stop. I’d never seen a prettier parallel park in deep space.
The only problem was the gap between the two airlocks. I had about ten feet that I had to traverse untethered. I felt like I was standing over a bottomless crevasse. Eventually I talked my feet into pushing away. The flight between ships was brief, and I thudded against Dodecahedron before I took a second breath.
After passing through the airlock, I stepped inside the ship and thought I’d been teleported into an antique shop on Sol. I pulled my helmet off, inhaling the unfamiliar scents of old wood and rubbing oils.
I’d been completely wrong about Senet Mehen. He didn’t pass the time playing VR games or using a wall-sized Glas. He passed the time playing ancient games and puzzles so intricately designed they looked like artwork.
Hand-carved shelves were fashioned of wood as smooth as glass. Packed from floor to ceiling, the shelves contained what seemed like every possible game ever made that didn’t contain electronics. These weren’t mass manufactured games and puzzles, but made by craftsman who labored for love, some of whom were clearly not Human.
An octagonal table at the center of the main cabin displayed the pièce-de-résistance of the collection. I’d seen an old drawing on Castra II involving impossible staircases that seem to go nowhere and everywhere all at once. The wooden puzzle structure reminded me of that staircase painting, except that it’d been made three-dimensional. Dozens of interlocking pieces were strewn about the table.
The center section held the puzzle in progress, which appeared to be a half-formed tower. Even at a glance I could tell it was being assembled incorrectly.
“I sense your disappointment in my assembly of the puzzle. I’m afraid I share your assessment,” said a voice from the doorway. “The designer claimed the puzzle was of moderate difficulty, but I have been at it for half a year without progress.”
Senet Mehen was nothing like I expected. He was a thin, proper man in a vest and tweed jacket. His mustache and beard were kept neat. He could have been a professor of antiquities living in a musty University library, or a germaphobe who lived sequestered in an ancient Sol highrise.
“Uhm, hello. I’m Sorri,” I said, reflexively.
“Yes. We are already acquainted. The odd but slightly interesting message,” he said while steepling his fingers.”You enjoy games.”
“Sure. Yes. That’s what I enjoy,” I said.
“Which ones?” he asked.
I wrinkled my forehead. “Uh . . . I guess ones that involve maximizing deliveries for the shortest cost. I’m a courier. Vita Perry was stranded and I’m trying to get to Tyrol IV, by way of Kilian.”
“A courier?” he said, a twinge of disgust in his voice.
“This ship is a research vessel, a space-faring museum! I travel the galaxy in search of antique games made by all cultures. At my last visit, I acquired a Xi’an interrogation puzzle cube, a sublime piece of history. The Xi’an would place the box over their captives’ hands and if they could solve the series of levers and slides inside the box, it would free them. Otherwise, the captives would lose their hands. There’s still old blood on the blade inside.”
Senet Mehen’s enthusiasm for a twisted piece of war contraband gave me a sick feeling in my stomach.
“Well, I, uhm . . .”
The words trickled out of my mouth. It was a rare moment that I was at a loss for something to say.
Senet Mehen stiffened before he announced, “Since you have not been completely honest with me, nor do you share my values, I cannot abide by our agreement. I had plans on leaving you in the Kilian system as requested, but I do not have the patience for charity work, and plan to forge on to Stanton system where I seek to acquire a glasswork Matryoshka nesting puzzle. You may indulge your need for commerce at that station; until then, you can rest in this location, but keep your fingerprints from my valuables or I will jettison you from the airlock.”
My response was cut off when Senet Mehen returned through the cabin door, leaving me in the room stuffed with puzzles. I slumped against the leg of the table and let out a deep breath before I tried to put a fist into the wall.
Rule number five, never stop thinking. But what happens when you’re stuck with a puzzle-worshiping lunatic who won’t let you off his ship?
[ 54:11:20 ]
To be continued…