“Have you got it?”
“I think so.”
“You’ve got it or you haven’t.”
“This whole caper’d be easier if we just brought the damned thing into the cargo bay,” Wilson grumbled. He wrenched a length of silver wire out of the communication platform’s access cavity and slipped it into his satchel. The glass of his environmental helmet was fogging from exertion and, even though it was on the inside, he tried to wipe it away with the back of a gloved hand.
“Yeah,” Dutch agreed with a shrug hidden within the bulky space suit. “But then we’d risk frying our internal electronics from a sudden data burst.” Dutch peaked over the solar power array and watched Wilson for a moment before returning to harvest the gold plating around the electric conversion system. Behind him was his ship, The Trout, and behind that, nothing for millions of kilometers but the black void of space.
“I still think there’s got to be an easier way than this to get what we want,” Wilson said.
“I’m open to ideas,” Dutch said. “In the meantime, keep stripping the primary systems but leave the backups.”
“How do I know which is which?”
“How do… what?” Dutch prairie dogged back over the solar array to watch Wilson work. “We went over this.”
“Yeah well, it all looks different when I’m in front of it, Dutch,” Wilson said. “Wires are crisscrossing all over hell and back.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Dutch mumbled.
Stripping the precious metals from inside the relay platforms that dotted the routes between solar systems was a way of keeping a crew together when more legitimate work was slow. The Trout had been without a job for a few weeks and was in such a situation. He hated the low payoff for the high risk if caught. They had been placed by the United Nations on Earth to speed communications with the colonies and the UN tended to get ornery when they were tampered with. Ornery to the point of long prison terms.
“Dutch,” Shuhuang buzzed over the radio. “The signal’s dropping. I think we’re losing it.”
“Nice work, Wilson,” Dutch said. “You killed it.”
“You said to get the silver, I got the silver,” Wilson said. His helmet was completely fogged and he was left guessing at what he saw. “I don’t see what the big deal is. They’ll send out a team to repair it in a couple of weeks anyway.”
“I don’t understand it,” Dezi Rustichelli said. He scratched his head in confusion and gave the control console a swift kick in the hope that the abuse might convince it to spring back to life.
“What’s the problem,” asked Antonio Bagnoli, the ship’s nominal captain. He had been down in the cargo hold mediating a dispute between two families when the main power went out and only the small hiss of backup life support remained.
“I don’t know,” Dezi said. He scratched his head and kicked the console a second time. “Everything just died. All we have left is minimal life support and our emergency communications system.”
“All right,” Bagnoli said. “Well, you send out a request for help and I’ll talk to Dario in the engine room. Maybe it’s just a hiccup.”
“Okay,” Dezi said. He lowered himself back into the pilot’s chair and worked at calming himself. “Okay. Okay.”
Bagnoli took a deep breath and shook his head as he turned for the engine compartment, wondering whether anything was going to go right. He had almost a hundred people on board and, from the very beginning, the clandestine emigration from Earth had been fraught with problems. The inspectors at the embarkation port on Earth had to be paid more than expected to overlook the engine modifications needed to make the trip to the colonies. Dezi had failed his first two pilot license exams. And the original mechanic had been arrested for, of all things, urinating in public. Bagnoli had been forced to find a replacement for him just days before their launch. And, finally, the families on board wouldn’t stop arguing over who was or wasn’t eating more than their share of rations. Bagnoli already had a headache and he’d only been awake for two hours.
The chaotic scene in the engine room just made his head pound harder. The power plant had been torn to apart. Pieces were scattered around the room in seemingly random piles. Parts that had nothing to do with one another in the engine were lying together in little molehills of electronics. Dario, the mechanic, laid across the reaction chamber and beat on what was left of the engine’s interchange coupling with the head of a wrench. And the air stank with the rancid scent of burnt electronics in the hazy atmosphere.
“What the hell is going on here,” Bagnoli yelled over the racket.
Dario whipped his head around in surprise and found the skipper standing in the hatchway, glaring at the state of the compartment. “There’s an interrupt in the flow,” Dario said, holding up the wrench for the Bagnoli to see. “I’m trying to dislodge it.”
“Mary, Mother of God,” Bagnoli cried. “How the hell do you plan on putting everything back together?”
“There’s a system,” Dario said, grinning. “Don’t worry.”
“Skip,” Dezi said from behind. “We’ve got another problem.”
“Now what is it?”
“I’m not able to connect to a relay,” Dezi said. “We’re cut off.”
Bagnoli leaned against the bulkhead and banged his head against the steel in frustration. “I thought we were staying in range in case something like this happened.”
“We were,” Dezi said. “We are. I double-checked our position against the charts. There should be one out there. It’s just not accepting any connections if it is.”
“All right then,” Bagnoli said, looking to the mechanic. “How severe is our problem?”
“On what kind of scale,” Dario asked. “One to ten or what?”
“Whatever,” Bagnoli said. “You tell me the fucking scale and then tell me the severity.”
“Well,” said Dario, looking over his scattered piles of parts then at the clogged interchanger and back again. “From one to five, I’d say it’s a two and a half. Not a small amount of work but not exactly the end of the world.”
“Fine,” Bagnoli said. He squeezed the sides of his head with his palms like a vice. “How long?”
“Could take me a few hours,” Dario said, slamming his wrench back against the interchanger’s casing with a loud clang. “Could take me a few days. Depends on how tenacious this thing is.”
“Fine,” Bagnoli said. He never had a great feeling about the mechanic to begin with and the month and a half in space with him only amplified his original doubts. He pushed past the pilot to get out of the foul smelling compartment and return to the quarterdeck. “Dezi, come with me.”
“It’s been five days, Dario,” Bagnoli growled. “What the hell are you doing down there?”
“I’ve found a few new problems that may be causing our current situation,” Dario said. He shrugged and he wiped the grease from his hands with a blackened rag. He tossed the rag on the deck and reached for a glass of water waiting for him on the mess counter. “Maybe another half-day, day at the most.”
“I hope you’re enjoying that water because we’re almost out,” Bagnoli said. “With the power down, the water recyclers are offline as well.”
“Just one more day,” said Dario, a defensive whine in his voice.
“Yeah, well, that’s not our only problem,” Bagnoli said, glancing at the pilot.
“We’re running short on food,” said Dezi.
“How short,” Dario asked, a look of concern creeping across his face. “Are we out?”
“Not yet,” Bagnoli said. “But we had enough for about sixty days. Just enough to make it. We’re now five days short with two weeks of travel left to go.”
“Okay,” said Dario, nodding with the slow realization of new urgency. “I’ll see what I can do to get us moving as soon as possible. What about communications?”
Dezi took a sudden interest in his feet and sank into his chair at the mere mention of the troubles with the radio. He had done everything possible to hot wire the communications system with the limited power available to boost the signal. But there was only so much he could do. The ship just didn’t have the power to run the equipment required to do what they needed. That was why the relay stations existed in the first place, to retransmit signals over long distances. That was why ships traveled within range of them. For whatever reason though, the one nearest to them wasn’t responding.
“I don’t know,” Dezi said. “I can’t get anything.”
“Are you sure you’re doing it right,” Dario asked, a small catch in his voice indicating a hint of panic. “Do you even know what you’re doing?”
“Of course,” Dezi screamed in reply. “Do you? What the hell are you doing anyway? We wouldn’t even be here if you’d done your job right.”
Bagnoli leaned against the back of his chair and watched his two crewmen bicker until the honor of each other’s mother came into question and blows were imminent.
“All right, boys, all right,” he said, stepping between them. “We’re all doing what we can. The point is, if one of us doesn’t meet with some success we’re all in trouble.”
Dario and Dezi nodded, glaring at one another over the skipper.
“So while I try to keep everyone calm down below,” Bagnoli said. “What’re your plans?”
“I guess I’ll get back to repairing the power plant,” Dario mumbled, stretching his arms over his head.
“I’ll try to get some more distance on our signal,” added Dezi. “Just in case someone’s out there.”
“There we go,” the Captain said with a reassuring grin. “Nothing’s beyond the point of hope yet. Once we get to the colonies and start our new lives, we’ll all have a good laugh about this.”
The corridors inside the ship were dark, the emergency lights having long since consumed the juice in their batteries. The omnipresent hiss of the air recycling system was beginning to fade as it wound down for want of energy. Once it died, no fresh oxygen would be pumped into the livable space and everything would be dead. Dezi broke the growing silence as he stumbled up onto the bridge. He navigated the pitch black halls by memory but it wasn’t always perfect.
He fell into his seat and stared out the window at the twinkling stars dotting the void. The quarterdeck was the only place with any amount of light even though the illumination came from a billion years away. The gauges and indicators on his console had died weeks ago and, for all he knew, the communications relay could have been broadcasting like mad. Not that it would have helped. His radio, like every other system on board, had ceased operating. Dezi kicked the console out of habit and leaned back to watch the stars as the ship drifted dead somewhere between the colonial star cluster and Sol system.
The stench of urine and decay was strong even up in the bridge. Some of it he brought with him, his clothes and skin soaked with the brown water from the tanks he’d been forced to drink to stay alive. The decay was from all the death contained in the hold. Everyone who had pitched in to buy the ship and sneak illegally out to colonies for a better life had died either from starvation, from dehydration, from suicide, or by murder. Dezi understood those who went by their own hand. It meant they had been spared the worst of it. He just wasn’t strong enough to open his own wrist.
Killing others was easier.
It wasn’t Dario he murdered, much to his dismay. The idiot mechanic had managed to off himself, activating the plasma manifold whilst staring inside and melting away a good portion of his head. It appeared to be an accident and Dezi summoned little surprise. But, Dezi felt murdered by Dario’s own ineptitude and incompetence as his death meant there was no longer a chance of repairing the power plant.
No. It wasn’t Dario Dezi killed. Dezi’s victims were the surviving people in the cargo hold.
It surprised no one more than he how easy cannibalism had become as a choice after the food supply was exhausted. People had been dying for a few days already, the lack of clean water, starvation. It took a strong stomach to consume the dirty liquids in the brown water hold, but liquids were liquids when the body needed them. But some people didn’t see it the way he did and ended up as dinner for those who did.
Once the dead became the meal twice a day, Dezi found himself hoping for more to die so he wouldn’t starve himself. The trouble was family members refusing to share their deceased kin with others. So Dezi solved that too.
“You have got to be kidding,” Bagnoli said. Disgust dripped from his voice at Dezi’s idea. “That’s sick. You’re sick.”
“I don’t want to die, Antonio,” Dezi said, sneering. Death was looming for them all and Bagnoli just wasn’t seeing it. And if he couldn’t… well… “I’m willing to share with you. Everything. Water and food. We might be able to make it until help arrives.”
“Food? No,” Bagnoli said. “No. The abomination aboard this ship already is enough.”
“Oh, shut up,” Dezi snapped. “Everyone does what they have to.”
“No,” Bagnoli said. “It’s not worth it.”
Bagnoli shook his head, turning away from Dezi, and gazed down the dark, empty corridor outside the quarterdeck. He couldn’t see further than a few meters but it was better than continuing the abhorrent conversation.
Dezi reach behind the console, wrapping his fingers around a length of pipe salvaged from the wreck in the engine room. Moving with light footsteps, he hoped to take Bagnoli by surprise and put him down with a single blow to the back of the head. The man knew of his plan and had to be taken care of lest he inform the others.
Just as Dezi swung, Bagnoli turned, though not in time to block the pipe. It caught the him in the side of his head and he crumpled onto the cold metal deck. Dezi stepped over Bagnoli and watched as confusion and horror flashed in the man’s eyes. Raising the pipe over his head, he delivered a second then a third blow. By the fourth, blood seeped from the lethal dent in his skull, blackening in a thick puddle.
Bagnoli’s death saved the people camped out in the cargo hold for a week as Dezi consumed the corpse as an alternate means of sustenance. The families in the hold still drank the filthy water though. And the more they drank, the less Dezi would have for himself.
Killing sixty proved to be easier than the single murder of Bagnoli. Sealing off their compartment, he let a little space in. They expired in a few painful seconds, as the vacum sucked the air from their lungs and burst the capillaries under their skin and in their eyes. But the deep cold of space kept them fresh until he needed his next meal. And Dezi was left with the entire ship to himself.
Even he was impressed that the emergency life support systems had worked for as long as they did on the meager battery power. Nothing else had worked on the old ship like it should have but the life support performed well beyond any reasonable expectation. In the two weeks that he spent by himself aboard the derelict spacecraft, he never once felt alone until the omnipresent hiss finally ceased. With it gone, all he had were his thoughts to keep him company, an unwelcome thought in its self.
Dezi sat in his pilot’s chair and looked down at the slots in the deck from which fresh air should have flowed and sighed at the realization that his time that remained was measured in hours instead of days, weeks, or years. He leaned back in the chair and gazed out the window at stars too numerous to count. Dezi was not strong enough to kill himself but, in a little while, the ship would ensure that not even he escaped.