Across the universe, p.1
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       Across The Universe, p.1

           Jack Klein
 
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Across The Universe


  ACROSS THE UNIVERSE

  JACK KLEIN

  Published by Conundrum Publishing

  Copyright 2013 Jack Klein

  Cover Design: Johnny Dennis

  Part One: Adrift

  1

  A meteor stream ripped through the dark crystal void like a shotgun blast across an empty bar room. The result of some ancient stellar cataclysm it plunged on randomly seeking something to confront with its unstoppable angry chaos. Away in the distance a delicate pulse of life blinked in the cold desert wilderness, a tiny pinpoint of light alternating green and red like navigation lights on a drifting yacht, oblivious, unsuspecting of the impending threat. The jagged shower of rock and ice appeared to swerve and alter course as if magnetically drawn towards the pulse like a wolf sensing blood.

  The scanner was blank except for an urgent warning flashing alternately in five languages... "PALOMKA... KAPUTT... DEFECTO... DEFAUT... MALFUNCTION." The bridge was alive underfoot and before his eyes showers of fragmented granite swept by blasting the pitted and cracked windscreen until it was blind as a cataract. Never had the nightmare been more real, more relentlessly horrific. Steve knew the scenario by heart.

  It had been midnight BASE TIME on the last day of their second month out of Turangi. Steve had fallen asleep on watch and had been unaware that the ship's central computer system had malfunctioned and shut down the radar shield. The crippled early warning system had failed to advise the approach of a grade-nine meteor stream and redirect the ship out of its path. Had he been awake Steve could have overridden the ailing computer and avoided catastrophe. Everyone slept on the graveyard shift including the Captain, everyone except for Steve who had something to prove. At age forty this mission was a lifeline, a chance break out of a career rut and prove himself capable of sub-command. What had caused him to break with habit and neglect his responsibility this of all nights, he did not know. When the shower struck, the ship's commander, Captain George Thacker was sitting on the balsawood seat of Latrine/47-B. A piece of rock the size of a cricket ball pierced the ship's outer skin and exploded inside the hull causing a chain reactive detonation culminating in the flight deck toilet. Steve was awakened by the collision and the sound of the ship sealing off its wounded portals. His captain lay pinned under a collapsed bulkhead bleeding to death less than ten metres from where Steve had been dozing on the bridge but it would be nearly an hour before he was discovered.

  Now as the deck shuddered beneath his feet Steve wondered if time had somehow reversed and he was being offered a chance to rewrite the past twelve months, cancel his dereliction of duty, save his friend and get the mission back on track. Could he reach George in time to save his life? He sprang towards the exit hatch and was immediately dumped on the floor as a fresh wave of icy rock buffeted the ship. The deck beneath him flexed and groaned, the emergency lights flashed and dimmed and the air around him thickened and became instantly hotter until he could barely breath. He raised himself unsteadily on hands and knees and crawled through the hatch into the narrow passage beyond. He dragged himself to his feet outside a door marked 47-B and hurled his shoulder against it. It didn't move, must be jammed. Then he remembered and reached for the control switch on the doorjamb. The metal door hissed and slid open. "George!" The chamber was low and cramped, little bigger than a broom closet. From the light pulsing in the corridor he could see buckled walls and broken conduits gushing curtains of ragged wires from the ruptured ceiling.

  "George?" Steve stumbled forward, tripped on the step and fell sprawling on the debris-strewn floor where he remained tangled and immobile until the external turmoil at last subsided. There was no sign of George. Hope wilted. The tomb was empty.

  Steve struggled to his feet with a sinking heart. The metal toilet bowl was flattened like an ashtray, its twisted remains stained with dark dried blood. No matter how many times he re-ran the nightmare he would never get a second chance. His colleague of twenty years and friend since childhood was irrevocably gone.

  "Are we still afloat, Stephen?" The voice sounded distant, seeping through the hot heavy air like an unfortunate memory. His eyes drooped shut. He didn't need to turn to see the familiar shape silhouetted in the doorway.

  "Yeah I think so," he muttered awkwardly, blushing crimson in spite of his intention not to. She moved inside stopping close enough for Steve to smell her perfume, thick and cloying but curiously appealing. He turned and backed away but still he could not see her clearly. Her face remained an indistinct oval of darkness surrounded by a pulsing halo of wild red hair. Silver satin pyjamas clung to her body in damp, glowing folds. Steve felt an involuntary tremor shake his body. Even before she touched him a buzz of electricity crackled across the gap between them.

  "What did you say?" Celine the ship's doctor reached out and touched his arm. "Stephen, are you alright?"

  "I, think so." He stuttered, trying to clear his head, wanting to move away but unable because she was blocking his escape. "Yes, I think we're alright."

  "Good." Her warm earthy fragrance enveloped him and his head swam. He swallowed, had trouble breathing, blood surging in his ears. His legs trembled, the space was too small, he had to get out or faint but the only way out was to squeeze past Celine. His hands like lead rose slowly to grip her shoulder. He pushed more firmly than he meant to and she allowed herself to be pushed back a couple of steps before stopping with her arms around his waist for support.

  "Sorry," they both said at once.

  "Please, could you…" His words dried in his throat.

  "What?" She smiled and raised an eyebrow, her voice merging with the sound of her breathing echoing inside his head. Steve could think of nothing to say. She moved closer. "No more damage?"

  "Not, so far as I can tell."

  "Good."

  It was a situation Steve had been avoiding for months, alone with Celine, no way out. Another broken rule - intimate connection with crew during a mission - summary dismissal. It had happened a few months after take off and stopped just before the crash. Steve could think of no explanation for his behaviour other than moral weakness. Having realised it, it would not continue. It was against the rules now even more so that he was in command. But Celine would not accept his protests. It made no sense, she argued, particularly since he was commander now and could do whatever he wanted. They were two consenting adults who liked each other, and before too long they were most likely going to die so why not make the most of their remaining time together.

  "Where've you been hiding? Haven't seen you."

  "Hiding? Nowhere. Working." He made move to go but she still hadn't removed her arms. Salty perspiration stung his eyes. He felt dizzy.

  "Celine, I…" he began to speak but she stopped him with a finger on his lips.

  "Do you know what day it is?" she whispered.

  "Day? Saturday I think."

  "You don't remember?"

  "Remember?"

  "You've forgotten." She seemed wounded or was she just pretending? It was hard to tell with Celine. "How could you forget, Stephen?"

  "Forget?"

  "One year ago today. Our anniversary."

  "Oh, really?" He had lost track of time but not his memory. He was wondering if his misgivings were entirely related to standing orders and the burden of responsibility. As acting commander of the ship the fate of the human race hung limply in his hands. There was no doubt he was hobbled by guilt but was there something else? Was he actually afraid of Celine, afraid of what she might do to him? Was it fear of losing control?

  Deep inside the ship in Cool Store #33 on C Deck four shadowy figures wrapped in blankets sat around a small metal table. The clouds of fog gushing from their mouths congealed into fine snow,
sparkling as it settled through the dark air. In the centre of a cone of light from a cardboard coolie shade slung low over the table top lay a pile of greasy cash, covered like the card players in a fine shimmer of frost. In the dense gloom surrounding the card players tiny pinpoints of light winked red, blue and green from the recesses of a maze of tall glass-fronted metal cabinets stacked high to the ceiling, gleaming dully amidst towering pillars of ice metres thick. The whole impression was of a forgotten place overtaken by some ancient glacier, on the brink of final extinction.

  "See you, and raise you five," one of the players muttered gruffly through taught, frozen lips. He was a bulky man and spoke with a pronounced Irish accent from somewhere in the north. At first glance Liam might appear as a ruddy jovial man but that would be a false impression. Closer you would see dark oily hair protruding from under a buckled tractor cap shading cautious eyes and a baggy face flecked with veins. A gloved hand moved across his mouth to conceal a smirk as he slid a stack of pitted alloy coins towards the pile in the centre of the table. The thin twist of his lips betrayed cynicism and discontent. Liam was not yet fifty but looked older. Apart from the steam from their nostrils, nothing around the table moved.

  "If space is infinite," a bigger man seated opposite replied through deeply furrowed brows. "If the universe really does go on forever in some unknown way, where does that leave us?" The green light bouncing up off the table lent his broad face and flat nose an unfairly ghoulish appearance. "Are we in like the pit of the olive or is our world just one of the many tiny seeds of a tomato?”

  “How about the wart on an elephant's arse?" Liam was anxious to proceed. “Jesus Kurt, make your play.”

  "We assume time is linear." Kurt appeared not to notice. "But what if it is circular or even vertical like layers of cream and chocolate in a black forest cake?"

  "What's that make you then? The fuckin cherry?" A third man, broad and sallow with taut, lean features and a badly mended broken nose sat between them. François Ballance, grinned at Liam briefly but getting no reaction returned to staring blankly at his cards from under the peak of a padded military cap with ear flaps fastened at the neck.

  Kurt ignored him, continuing to stare into the misty distance as if gazing into a crystal ball. "Or a flea sucking blood from the belly of a dog in the back seat of a speeding car, unaware of the real world outside rushing past him?"

  “Jesus wept.” Liam’s voice rose to an irritable whine. “Just play your fuckin cards or fold!”

  "Why would it be any one of these options?" On the other side of Kurt sat a dark, diminutive man with fine features and astute eyes, an ageless face framed by the cowl of a grey woollen blanket. His voice was soft, a light, erudite Indian accent lending elegant authority to his words. "You suggest these choices because you are looking at minute detail rather than a larger picture."

  "Go on, mate," Kurt encouraged.

  "For Christ's sake piss or get off the pot!" Liam rose to his feet and stamped backwards from the table unable to contain his excitement at the whiff of easy money.

  Mohammed smiled, ignoring the Irishman's impatience. He'd seen this kind of behaviour many times before in numberless games on-shore and afloat. He recognised the desperate urgency that preceded rashness. His current aim was to dissuade the others and encourage Liam's loss in his direction.

  "What I want to know," Kurt continued. "Is this the end of the line finito, or we go again in some other form?”

  "This is it man, the big time." François muttered darkly. "So make the most of it."

  "Don't you ever get the feeling you were somewhere previous?” Kurt pondered. “That you'd maybe been, I don't know, recycled?"

  "Damn it man!” Liam re-seated himself, pounded the table. “Cough up or fold!"

  "So what were you before?" François grinned. "Let me guess, a fuckin' monkey?"

  "Maybe that's what infinity is, you know, constant recycling, round and round, except we don't remember."

  "Jesus wept!"

  Kurt nodded to himself. "Yeah." He counted out a pile of coin equal to Liam's and slid it into the pool.

  "I'll raise you another five." François carefully counted an even bigger pile. "Your turn Moe."

  Mohammed took his time, regarding his cards with calm detachment. "You are expecting significance from something you cannot imagine. You see only fragments of a dream."

  "How do you mean, mate?"

  "Have you considered it may be no mistake that our mission has failed?"

  "In what way?"

  "Our mission is attempting to alter the course of future history. We are tampering with an infinite time line. Maybe this cannot be done no matter how hard we try. Maybe we will always fail. Destiny cannot be broken." Mohammed turned casually to Liam. "I raise you twenty five." He began sliding coins towards the middle of the table. "And have a look," he added by way of a gentle prod.

  "Halleluiah!" Liam shouted. Without counting he slid a handful of currency towards the heap. “And again, ya little turd.”

  Then the cooler began to shake like the inside of a giant maraca. The piles of coin toppled and rolled, the folding card table collapsed sending cards and money crashing to the floor and players to their feet in search of something solid to cling to. Mohammed didn't move. He remained seated, cursing his misfortune. In his hand he held an ace high straight and this disturbance would doubtless cancel the round. Opposite him, François remained quite unmoved by the commotion. "Destiny," he said to himself, but nobody heard him.

  Whetu barely noticed the disturbance. He was elsewhere with his feet mired in the cloying bog of a dark primeval forest, a gleaming broadsword gripped in his hands, closing for the kill. Three hundred days of bitter toil were coming to conclusion. Finally his adversary was cornered with none of his vassals to support him. Humbled, the mighty Black Knight turned to face him. He bowed his head with savage dignity, laying down his sword and shield, kneeling passively at Whetu's feet. He removed his helmet and parted the hair from the nape of his neck. Whetu understood the gesture but he wasn't interested in decapitation. There was only one thing he wanted.

  "Where is she?" he asked. "Where is my prize?" The knight made no reply. Whetu raised his sword. "Tell me where she is or I'll." Or I'll what? The knight was already offering his neck for severance. What else could Whetu threaten? Damn! He felt cheated. His quest had begun in a simple search for the fabled Holy Grail. For months he had persevered through unspeakable hardship and then he had seen her, a vision of unspeakable beauty held captive in what appeared to be some kind of Moroccan harem boudoir. He had seen her just once and for only a fleeting moment but that split second vision remained etched on his brain. Since that time the Grail was forgotten. This must be Guinevere the legendary Queen of King Arthur held captive by the Black Knight. His quest to find and release her had become an obsession.

  "Where is Guinevere?" Whetu demanded. The Black Knight remained mute. He substituted queen, princess, maiden then girl with no success. Finally he tried woman but still the Black Knight made no response. Were these months of grim endeavour all for nought? If she wasn't the prize, then who was she? The Black Knight continued to grovel silently at his feet proffering his neck to the victor's blade. Whetu felt so angry and frustrated he nearly went through with it. His blade hovered over the man's steaming head but then a thought occurred to him and he withdrew. This was the expected wrong turning, the mistake he was supposed to make. Having come thus far, should he expect the journey to become harder requiring even greater dedication and self-control? There must be another way, a new path to follow if only he could find the portal.

  "Arise,” he commanded. “Go in peace." The Black Knight glared up at him in bewilderment.

  "You must slay me, knave or I will pursue you to the death."

  "I command you to remain here to guard my path. You will detain any who follow."

  "This is not my destiny."

  "You will do my bidding." Whe
tu touched the knight gently on the shoulder with his sword. "You will remain."

  As he turned to scan his surroundings he heard a sound he'd never heard before, at least not in this context. A bright blue light began to fill the clearing, rimming the tangled vines and sombre trees with an eerie glow that suggested something unearthly was about to occur.

  “Is this the Grail?” Whetu whispered breathlessly. The radiation increased to a blinding luminance and then from behind a bush something began to appear, floating in the air just above the level of the boiling bog. "This must be the next level. I knew it."

  It was small, no more than a metre in length and less than half that in circumference, a bright, revolving cylinder like a grail or chalice. As it came closer he could see that it was marked with regular lines around its entire shape. He could see through it and inside it as if he was looking at a cross-sectional grid plan of something that looked like a bottle or a bottle-shaped birdcage. It rotated and rolled, revealing layers of inner skins and levels like floors in a building or ship. Each intersection and compartment appeared to be tagged with alphabetic and numeric labels and notations in a script Whetu did not recognise. Or did he?

  "Holy shit, Beast? How did you get here?" Whetu dropped his sword and ripped his helmet off. The wilderness, the clearing, the bog evaporated.

  It took a moment for Whetu’s vision to clear, for the radio shack to reappear around him. During that time he thought he saw the scanner blink, go down and then come up again briefly, just long enough for him to catch a tantalising glimpse of the very thing he had been seeking every day for the past eleven months. Random fragments of images inside the VRT were not uncommon given its damaged condition but this was no mirage, no illusory product of his own wishful thinking. He knew he'd seen it, confirmation that the Beast was alive in some shape or form and now he had to find it.

  2

  Originally christened RUDOLPH NUREYEV, the Sino/Russian built Troika Series-V Trading Hulk had by the start of its failed mission seen more than fifty years service. In that time it had logged an average of two interplanetary voyages per annum, apart from a five-year stretch as an orbiting stationary pontoon supporting mineral exploration on Mars. Over the years the ship had been overhauled and refitted for a variety of tasks by a dozen different owners. Although the basic structure remained true to its manufactured origins the craft was now a vast puzzle of mismatched componentry from a hundred different corporations: Toyota, Matel, GM-Ford, MMC, Fisher/Paykel amongst others. Now the property of OCEANIA AERO-SPACE she had been refitted and renamed KOTUKU II, after the graceful White Heron of Aotearoa.

  In her day, KOTUKU had been the first of a new age of electro/magnetically powered interplanetary vessels to go into service. After initial rocket powered take-off her guidance was powered by planetary magnetism. Newton's Law of Gravity determines that all bodies will attract one another at rates according to their individual mass. By harnessing gravitational fields of celestial bodies the Troika V could plot a course from Earth to Neptune and beyond using the gravitational pull of selected planets along the way to draw her towards and then slingshot her onwards from one planet to another until her destination was reached. In this way she exploited conditions similar to those once used by sailing ships where ocean currents and trade winds were employed to move a vessel from point to point along well-worn routes around the globe. Take-off and landing although rocket powered were assisted by reversed polarity. The LADA BLESSING CORP was the first to develop the system for non-military use.

  The Series-V was also the first space vessel to successfully overcome the barrier of zero gravity in space. The V used an extrafugal method akin to the spin-drier principle in reverse. The system comprised three gigantic concentrically rotating tubes each spinning in opposing directions at different speeds, one inside another. The outer tube was the exterior fuselage of the ship and the inner tube was the cabin casing. Between these spun an intermediate tube. Thus the Troika-V generated its own gravity, spinning through space like a giant rotating wine bottle. Currently she was still spinning after a fashion but there was no purposeful forward motion. KOTUKU II was adrift.

  Funding, even for an essential operation like saving the planet from fiery doom was tight these days so the mission became a code-share enterprise with a dual purpose. It’s principle objective was a UN sponsored expedition to transport a demolitions team to a point in space north-west of Jupiter to intercept a lump of rock the size of an ocean liner that was on a (24 month) collision course with Planet Earth. Demolitions Officer Liam O’Reilly and his team were to be landed on the asteroid to place a series of low yield nuclear devices on its under side. The ship would then track the asteroid over a period of weeks, setting off a number of minor detonations to force a series of minute adjustments in the rock's trajectory, enough to steer it away from Earth. Popular belief maintains that the last Ice Age had been occasioned by a celestial collision around 40,000 BC. Fallout from the impact caused a dense dust cloud to rise far into Earth's upper atmosphere where it encircled the globe, comprehensively obliterating solar radiation. The land cooled rapidly like a snap-frozen pea. Polar icecaps spread consuming the great northern and southern continents in a grinding tide of ice. Slowly over the centuries the ash and dust pollution precipitated out of the atmosphere allowing the sun's warmth to once again return. Global climates recovered, the ice receded revealing a new, very different world. KOTUKU II's mission to avert similar global disaster and ensure that human civilisation sustained its current course had gone sadly awry. For twelve helpless months time had ticked by while the ship drifted deeper and deeper off the pages of known celestial cartography. As each day, each month merged with the next, the possibility of completing the mission became more hopelessly remote. By the time Turangi Base realised the import of their failure it would be too late to launch a new mission.

  Whetu, the ship’s Communications Officer seemed to be the only crew member still actively engaged in trying to get KOTUKU II functional again. Access to The Beast, aka the ship's brain, had been blocked from entry ever since the blunt force trauma of the crash had shut it down more than a year ago. In good working order the Beast gathered, combined and cross-referenced commands and communications both internal and external. It distributed electricity, water, processed waste, it was auto-pilot, navigator, engineer, quartermaster, sustainer. Even at its best it could be obtuse, intractable, stubborn. Over fifty years of service it had evolved haphazardly, according to it’s ever changing purpose, at the hands of a varied group of experts, some proficient, many inept. The service manual had long been superseded and no records had been kept of its often eccentric modifications. It was a maze of confusion, yet until a year ago Whetu had somehow managed to coax and cajole it to co-operate.

  But now The Beast’s eyes were blank. It refused to respond to intuitive and touch commands so Whetu had installed an antiquated keyboard. For the past twelve months he had spent nearly every waking hour pounding the battered keys trying every variation and combination he could manage searching for faults. He had retraced every known path, redrawing the blueprint as he proceeded. Originally he had been working under the direction of Julian the Ship’s Engineer but that had ended when Julian opened the wrong hatch into a depressurised sector that had been breached in the crash. He was sucked out into open space to drift helplessly away, still alive in his survival suit. Julian was unable to propel himself back to the ship and the crew were unable to retrieve him. After an initial period of panic the engineer became philosophical. He came to see the weightless void as a comforting place, like returning to the womb. And at times the views were spectacular. His monologues became obscure and poetic. Whetu had tracked his beacon and talked to him for a month before losing contact. Julian’s last words were from an old song Whetu could quite recognise.

  “Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes.” The words still echoed in Whetu’s head along with Julian’s tuneless drone. “They call me
on and across the universe.”

  Whetu had continued the search alone and then with the help of Kurt. He watched remotely on the VRT system while the Ship’s Carpenter scrambled through dark service ducts trying to find where the wiring might have been broken. By now he knew the inner workings of KOTUKU II better than anyone since the original designers. He had tested, patched and re-routed at least forty per cent of essential circuitry and yet still the Beast remained in coma. The inventory worked, the domestic power system functioned well enough to reprocess air and human waste most of the time and on-board gravity was operational again. But there was still no navigation and no engines, no means of extracting them from limbo.

  And then a random glimpse of life. The revolving cross-sectional wire frame bottle Whetu had seen floating in the wilderness was a visual representation of the system’s location source menu. This was the door he had been searching for. He had seen it and lost it. But that moment had given him hope. It meant the Beast was alive, missing but still there to be found. So long as what he’d seen was real. They had been warned about cabin fever by the Ship's Doctor, of seeing phantoms, things that weren't there. The mind could play tricks transforming hopes and dreams into illusions of reality.

  3

  "Damn, I was on a roll there." Back in the cool store the players were settling back down to cards again. Liam glowered at his spilled hand, now mixed with the kitty.

  "What were you holding?" Mohammed casually enquired.

  "Four of a kind, aces all of them," the Irishman swore with his hand on his heart. His eyes wide with innocence were directed upwards to where he assumed heaven might reside.

  "Every one of them?"

  "Every last one."

  “I was gonna fold,” Kurt admitted. François shrugged agreement.

  "Ah. But I thought there were only four aces in a pack," Mohammed dryly continued as he turned over his cards revealing an ace high straight. Kurt smiled, François looked sour and Liam looked away as Mohammed reached out and unchallenged drew the heap of coins towards him.

  The recent disturbance was quickly forgotten. Forty-five seconds of minor maelstrom in light of the past year barely caused a ripple on the placid pond of daily life. It was an almost daily occurrence, a welcome respite to the boredom of confinement in the foetid closeness of KOTUKU II. The vessel had been progressively over-heating since the crash and the air they now breathed had been recycled more than three hundred times. They would have taken on fresh reserves of oxygen and nitrogen months ago during a proposed stop-off on Mars to unload their code-share cargo had it not been for the crash. In an attempt to conserve oxygen use they had been made aware that if the situation continued without respite they would all suffocate within six months. But how do you ration breathing? In the Cooler the air still felt clean if only because it was too cold to taste dirty. For a while at least the card players could enjoy an illusion of normalcy. Poker sessions usually lasted about ninety minutes. Beyond that players suffered an increasing risk of hypothermia.

  “Shush.” François’ brow furrowed n an effort of concentration. “Do you hear that?”

  “Hear what?”

  "That hum." said François breaking the silence, wrinkling his pug nose.

  "Kurt's socks most likely," Liam offered in an attempt to divert attention from his attempted cheat. No-one laughed.

  "Audio hum," replied François. "Forty cycles about."

  Mohammed gathered the remaining cards and began to shuffle. "I don't hear any sound.”

  "It's not there now, but it was."

  Mohammed began to deal again. François rose to his feet pointing towards an avenue of glass fronted lockers.

  "There it goes again." They all looked, following his finger but there was no discernible change in sound over the gurgle and rasp of the struggling refrigeration. He sat down again but couldn't settle. There was definitely an alien sound in the room, there one moment and gone before he could source it. He hated mysteries and couldn't bear even the smallest detail out of place. He liked to think his obsession was a result of his training in Security, mind and body tuned to a sensitivity and sharpness beyond the average human civilian. Then it came to him.

  "Mariana," he quietly hissed and no-one bothered to contradict him. It was his standard answer to everything. Someone stole the salt - "Mariana." Power failure, broken sewage line - "Mariana. Bitch stole my knife.

  "I don't understand, Stephen. Why are you avoiding me?" Celine had Steve back to the bridge, which now seemed smaller than usual, claustrophobically cramped. She stood her arms open in invitation and also to block any move he might make to escape.

  "I'm sorry, Celine." He was struggling to maintain composure, trying hard to think of what to say. "Things have changed."

  "Changed, in what way?"

  "Well I, I now have a position to maintain. I'm the acting commander of this ship."

  "What are you commanding? This ship isn't going anywhere so why don't you just relax and make the most of what time you have left? We know it won’t be for long."

  "I have a mission to accomplish."

  Celine laughed, she couldn't help it. Steve took the opportunity to lurch past her. In his haste he inadvertently spun her round propelling her back into the doorway. She stumbled, tripped and sat down hard on the floor.

  “Christ, I’m sorry, I.” But Celine continued laughing, feet in the air, oblivious to any indignity. He reached to help her up but overbalanced when she grabbed him. She had him now, firmly in her arms on the floor.

  "I'm sorry,” he stuttered. “It's just too complicated. What I-I might want has got nothing to do with it. I-I've got the others to consider, not just you and me.”

  "What you might want? Is that an admission, Stephen? Do you want me?"

  "No, I mean hypothetically speaking. Emotional involvement between any members of this crew could place security of the ship and its mission in jeopardy."

  "Emotional involvement?" She held him tight against her. "Who said anything about emotional involvement? I'm talking about sex for god’s sake."

  "Try someone else, François, Whetu, Kurt, I don't care."

  "You don't care?"

  "No, not really."

  "If I took up with any one or even all of these men you just mentioned, you wouldn’t care?"

  "No." He struggled but she wouldn’t let go.

  "You included Kurt. Was that for any reason?"

  "Only that you might be better off with him than me that's all."

  Celine pushed him away. "It was a mistake, I admitted it. I was angry and I was wrong. You want me to apologise again?"

  "No. Please." Steve got to his feet.

  "I've been saying sorry for ten bloody months. How many times do I have to say it?"

  "You misunderstand me. All I'm saying is that someone like Kurt or Whetu or François or Mohammed for that matter, might be better for you than me. You said it yourself."

  She couldn't deny it. She had said it, and said it publically, rubbed his nose in derision in front of all the others in the worst possible way. Poor harmless Kurt hadn't realised he was just a pawn in another game. And all for nothing since Steve appeared not to notice. Her attempts to make him fume with jealousy and rush back to her had failed miserably. All she had managed was to make everybody uncomfortable and herself unhappy.

  "What we had was special, Steve,” Celine persisted, hating the pleading tone in her voice. “It was really good, admit it."

  "Celine, I can't afford to."

  "You're scared." A new note had crept into her voice. It sounded like reassurance. "But you don't need to be afraid," she reasoned, getting back to her feet and moving towards him. "How can I harm you, for heaven's sake?"

  "Thank you, Celine but I can't discuss this right now, really." Having said that, for some reason he still made no move to back away. “Thank you, but no!” There was something patronising in his tone and Celine didn't like it.


  "Gutless bastard," she hissed. "Am I not good enough, is that it? Not up to your fucking high standards?"

  "You know that's not the reason.” He was standing his ground. “Why won't you just accept what I say?"

  But Celine was feeling humiliated, disappointed that after all this time she still wanted him. She didn’t need this, grovelling to a dick like him. It was why she was in this situation in the first place, to escape a previous entanglement with yet another stupid confused man. But this was worse. She was locked up with this one, embarrassed, abandoned, and unable to get away. Why, when she was clearly an intelligent, rational adult, did she continue doing this to herself? She thought she knew the answer and hated herself for it.

  "Blow it out your arse, sub-commander." She would have slammed the door if she could but it was controlled by pneumatic rams and moved too slowly for dramatic effect. "Spineless, brainless, boneless, dickless!" She shouted as she disappeared through the companionway.

  Steve subsided into his seat, feeling guilty all over again. After the crash when George had died she had offered him comfort and he had accepted it without hesitation. Then suddenly without explanation he withdrew, retreated inside his cave, claiming some high moral responsibility. He had used and abandoned her and although at the time retreat seemed to make perfect sense, now he wondered.

  4

  François was eating in the canteen, a hamburger with something green in it that looked like salad. Couldn't be salad. The idea of anything fresh growing in this foul tank other than mould and contagion didn’t seem possible. But Moe was clever. God knows how he managed but he could make anything look and taste edible, sometimes a little spicy for François’ own taste but at least they were still alive. The burger couldn't be real beef but it tasted OK and the bread was hot and smelled of yeast. The little guy could cook, no doubt about it. He took his job seriously and François respected him for it. Not like the rest of the losers on board.

  As he chewed his food he kept his eyes on the table to protect his thoughts from any external intrusion. A couple of meatheads from B/Deck were quietly stacking tables and sweeping the floor over by the door but he had shut them out. They would be careful not to disturb him lest he emerge from his feeding trance and turn on them. The meatheads were all scared of him and with good cause. They knew he could do anything he wanted to them, no questions asked. As transported criminals meatheads were sub-social freight so death was always an option. Beside him on the table, never far from his grasp, his emblem of office the short barrelled Bennelli M4, old but effective.

  François had yearned for command from an early age. He had devoted his life to the pursuit of it and now finally his hard work had paid off. Until they reached the work camp on Mars he had sole custody of forty convicts on B/deck, known locally as meatheads. The road to command had been long and tortuous. It began at the age of thirteen when he joined the Boy Scouts. It was an unhappy episode for all concerned. The scouting movement failed to recognise his qualities and he never managed to appreciate the concepts of comradeship and team spirit. He fought with the other boys whom he believed to be soft and within a short time was expelled for assaulting a troop leader. He rebounded into an obscure paramilitary organisation associated with an ultra conservative political faction. He blossomed in the bosom of The Legion. He was taught military drill, boxing and use of firearms. He relished the arcane rites and harsh discipline but eventually became bored and unruly and was expelled for sedition. He took to street brawling and bar fighting which led him to a dojo run by a messianic ex-soldier. The Order of Black Nights was everything François had been looking for. His martial skills developed while through meditation he absorbed his mentor's wisdom. The aim of The Order was to establish an underground global militia whose purpose was to infiltrate established security services like a virus and covertly wait for the signal to take control. Along with forty other warriors from the dojo François took an oath in blood to go forward and recruit for the cause.

  By the time he shipped out on KOTUKU II François had patrolled trans-global banking, offshore drilling, interplanetary mining, sub-arctic bounty hunting and had been fired by them all. He had guarded sulphur compounds, religious luminaries, covert hostages and minor politicians. His employment invariably terminated on the same grounds. Ultimately his wards needed protection from him.

  "Mariana," he said to himself. "Mariana, Mariana, Mariana." It was like a mantra to keep him calm and on task. Mariana the unsolved riddle, the bane of his existence. Was she alive or was she dead? Apart from her François had the situation contained. The crew were no trouble, a bunch of pussies he had them all under control. The meatheads got restless from time to time but all he had to do was thrash a couple of them and the rest became docile as lambs. Sustained terror saved a lot of unnecessary work.

  Apart from Mariana, the bitch doctor was the only potential threat to his regime. She was causing tension between acting captain and crew. Six men and one woman confined in a tin can was a recipe for disorder. The meatheads seemed quite content to poke each other but apparently officers had standards. They couldn’t adapt to prison life. He could see they all wanted her and none was prepared to share. If shit happened he wouldn't be able to smack them round the way he could the meatheads. He'd have to think of something else.

  Meanwhile twelve months after her disappearance Mariana was still a problem, the only blank spot on the report sheet still to be filled. For the record he had to balance the books, pin her disappearance on someone other than himself. Whatever the others said about their situation François was certain they would survive to return to base. It was not his destiny to end like this, passively waiting for a slow death so the issue of Mariana had to be resolved.

  Her file didn't explain much. Mariana was twenty-four years old, one hundred and sixty centimetres tall, weight unknown, eyes blue, Italian/Australian, religion zero, rank psych/o/2. She had started off friendly enough, even to him but he'd seen through her straight away and had never trusted her. She was always asking questions and writing down what you said. She never talked to anyone except to observe them. She refused his warnings about the meatheads. Even the ugliest bitch in the world wouldn't last ten seconds in a room full of randy meatheads but no, she knew better. François had dragged her out of the shit four or five times and all she did was complain that he had ruined her experiment.

  "Get the filthy bastard off me!" Hardly fitting language for a student of human behaviour. François watched them struggling on the floor of the urinal and made no move. Three big sweating meatheads had most of Mariana's clothes off and she wasn't co-operating. Two of them took off but the other dumb bastard was so intent on having his way he didn't see François arrive.

  "Hold onto her will ya!" The meathead yelled, confused at the abrupt withdrawal of his two mates. "Give us a hand here will ya."

  "Get him off me!"

  "Ma'am?"

  "Fuck you, get him off me."

  François grinned at the memory. It was better than porn. In the end he had to do something because it was his job to protect crew, passengers and freight. Reluctantly he pole-axed the man on the back of the head with the butt of his riot gun. He blasted the others in the back as they ran away, rubber shot, painful but non-lethal. It was all they understood these people, pain and deprivation. But he refused to drag the big man off her. He stood watching while the little psych/o squirmed out from under the unconscious man, gathering her clothes, shaking like a frightened mouse. She wasn't his type, too small and full of shit. She did nothing for him at all and neither did the bitch doctor. They both talked too much. But meatheads weren't choosey.

  Mariana had looked him in the eye. "You enjoy watching?" she asked. There was no bitterness, no reproach. She seemed to really want to know what he was thinking, to analyse him like one of her cage rats.

  "Not particularly," he replied flatly. He restrained an urge to slap her. She had higher rank than him and assault wouldn't look good on
his report. "I need to evaluate a situation before I proceed. How was I to know the man's attentions were not reciprocated? Wouldn't want to spoil your experiment, ma'am."

  "You have trouble distinguishing between pain and pleasure?"

  "Often sounds the same, just a lot of screaming." That stopped the smart bitch, she didn't know what to say to that. All those books and she didn't know shit.

  Mariana nodded slowly. "You mean that? You really can't see a difference?" If she'd had her notebook she would have written it down. "Interesting."

  Patronising bitch. That was the last time he saw her. No-one even knew she was missing until a week after the crash. Someone must have snuffed her to keep her mouth shut. A couple of meatheads nervously admitted they'd seen her the morning after the crash but that was a week after the fact and under extreme duress. The trail was cold by then. Missing Presumed Dead was all he could report. But on a sealed ship stopping nowhere it wouldn’t be good enough. He'd managed to eliminate five out of the six remaining crew from his suspect list, leaving the Medical Officer. What had been the relationship between the only two women on board the ship? From memory it had been cool, possibly strained. He couldn’t remember. Even dead she was still causing him grief, both of them were.

  "Bitch stole my knife." That's what really got him. Stole a man's knife while he was helping her out. His favourite blade, a matte black double-edged Gerber Guardian boot dagger. He wanted it back.

  "Sir, come quick, there's trouble below." No-one on board called François sir except the meatheads. They were freight, convicts without status - thieves, murderers, paedophiles - all of them would have been in prison on terra firma if they hadn't volunteered for work in planetary mining camps. On the way to its rendezvous with Asteroid Millie 5-B the ship had been hired to deposit them on Mars.

  "What trouble?"

  "Bo sir," the informant whined obsequiously. "Fightin someone over Neil." He was a deceitful little snitch, a trustee allowed to work as a cleaner. He was panting and short of breath, keen to please.

  "Where?"

  "B/deck dunny, sir?"

  François took his time checking the Bennelli’s magazine. It carried ten loads. The first six were packed with hard rubber shot. The remaining four were OO buckshot to take their meaty heads off if the rubber didn't take the sting out of them.

  If life on board KOTUKU II was confined and uncomfortable, that went double for the cellblock on B/deck. The dungeon was packed to capacity, a cramped star-shaped hold of five blind alleys around a central elevator hub. Its original purpose was a security hold for mineral samples. Now forty male prisoners filled the space, sleeping in racks, three high. As soon as he broke the seal and entered François sensed a change in mood. Usually the crowd shrank back scattering like cockroaches as word of his approach rushed ahead. Today the mob was surly and unmanageable. He had to kick and club his way towards the urinal where the action was taking place. It took two shots into their backs to clear a path and even then with the muzzle of his gun sweeping their faces they withdrew only reluctantly. When François saw who Bo was fighting he understood the climate of anarchy.

  The ablution block was about five metres in length and narrow with a low ceiling. A row of toilet seats along one side faced a row of showerheads along the other. Facilities had been curtailed owing progressive dehydration of the ship since the crash. There were no showers, only one working toilet and just one greasy tap for all forty men to draw their water supply. Water and drugs were the currencies on B/deck and one man controlled both as his personal franchise doling them out drop-by-drop to whoever could pay. François tolerated this man and his henchman because they represented a system, a structure. He controlled them and they controlled the others. It was also a lucrative income stream. François supplied cheap synthetic opiates and Ratko and his mate sold them on for a cut. Even amidst the squalor of the dungeon Ratko, a slim manipulative con with an easy sleazy charm always managed clean clothes and a smooth well-groomed appearance. Today however, he was sweating and dirty, indistinguishable from his miserable adversary except by size. He was fighting with his henchman Beau, a man almost twice his size.

  The last of the onlookers retreated to reveal the two men locked together on the floor. Blood stained the metal tiles where Ratko pounded Beau's head against a metal toilet bowl. The other man held Ratko’s throat in a vicelike grip. Clearly neither was going to give up until the other was dead. Three paces into the room François fired a shot into their backs. As they scrambled bleeding to their feet he clipped Beau on the jaw with the butt of his riot gun and punched Ratko in the gut. As Ratko doubled over, gagging for breath, François finished him with a blow to the head.

  "Where's Neil?" The mob pressed against the end wall said nothing, just stared back at him with blank defiance. He needed to do something quick to get them under control. He pumped another shell into the chamber of his riot gun.

  "Here I am, sir." The voice came from behind him, thin and reedy. "Do you want me?"

  François turned and the crowd around the door melted back leaving Neil by himself, slouching against a grimy washbasin. He appeared to be about seventeen, pale and scruffy, clad only in stained pyjama pants. Across his arms and skinny chest a welter of livid scars told a tale of hideous abuse.

  "Over here!" the enraged s/o barked but the boy didn't move. The room became very quiet as everybody held their breath. François lunged, grabbing the boy by the hair. He wrenched his face close hissed into bulging eyes, a low mean whisper. "Why?"

  "Why what, sir?"

  "Why do you keep causing trouble?”

  "It's not me, sir." Neil shrugged. "I can't help it if they both want me."

  "Any more trouble out of you, whore and it's the last time. You hear me?"

  "How can?"

  "You hear me, pervert?"

  "Yes sir, thank you sir," replied the youth with a smirk.

  "There are things that even you would not enjoy, believe me." He lowered the shotgun and nestled the muzzle in the boy's groin.

  "Yes, sir." The kid’s eyes, wide with innocence. "I can imagine, sir."

  François pulled the trigger and blew the crotch out of the boy's pants. He went limp with shock.

  "Next time, sonny." François dropped him on the floor and walked away. He couldn't stand the rank stench of unwashed bodies a moment longer.

  5

  "It's baa-llack as the ins-siss-side of a ca-cow," Kurt stuttered, unable to control his tongue. "Can't siss-see a bill-loody thing." Whichever way he turned all he could see was a single needle point circle of brightness hanging in front of him like a tiny holographic mirage. The beam projecting from the lamp on his helmet touched such a small point it gave no impression of what surrounded him, whether the space was large or small, wide, long, empty or full. All he could feel was solid deck beneath his feet and the wall to the right of him. If he let go of the wall he would feel his balance falter.

  "Fiff-fetu, I think I'm in the siss-section above h-hold tit-tit-ten." Kurt didn't usually stutter. He was having trouble talking because whenever he spoke his voice came gushing straight back to him in an eerie choir of ghostly echoes buzzing in his ears and muddling his brain even when he whispered. His tongue became paralysed and he was unable to translate thoughts into words.

  He lifted a crumpled sheet paper into the beam of light and spoke again into the microphone on the side of his helmet. "Tr-tr-trouble is I kick-can't rir-read rirr-Russian."

  "Wait, let me confirm." Whetu's voice murmured softly in the headphones inside his helmet. His voice sounded close and reassuring as if he were right behind Kurt's shoulder, which in a sense he was. He was tracking Kurt from the radio shack plotting his progress on a floor plan of Level B of the ship and trying to re-patch the surveillance system manually.

  Kurt waited, feeling very alone and vulnerable, afraid to move in case he collided with something sharp and unseen. Thankfully it was cool. A soft, almost fresh breeze ble
w against his face and there was silence except for the hissing echo of his own breathing. Why did he let himself into these uncomfortable situations performing ridiculous tasks any normal person would refuse to do? Technically he couldn't refuse. As Ship's Carpenter in the absence of an engineer it was his job to fix anything that broke during the voyage. Claustrophobic panic welled up, fogging his brain. To break the rhythm and clear his head he began singing a ditty, a sailor's hornpipe.

  "There wa-was a young ma-man firr-rom bib-Bombay." As he sang he blocked his ears and found that the echo departed and his tongue moved freely again. "On a slow boat to China one day." Shuffling his feet in a kind of jig helped the distraction. "He was trapped at the tiller, by a sex starved gorilla.” He uncovered one ear and while the echo returned it wasn't so pronounced. “And China's a long, long way."

  He was interrupted by a strange metallic sound very close to him. He strained to hear and in the darkness above his head something whirred.

  Slowly he looked up, moving the beam from his helmet over the wall to the ceiling until it came to rest on what looked like a camera. The device whirred and turned towards him. A lens rotated, focussing, stopped and appeared to stare at him.

  "Fet, is that you?" There was no answer. But there was light. Overhead a row of fluorescent tubes flickered on revealing that he was standing in an area of metal square-section ducting little more than head high. Moments later another row of lights came on, then another and another illuminating a long tunnel, low and narrow, stretching away towards a distant bend.

  "I can see you," Whetu said.

  "How'd you do that?"

  "You are, according to my calculations precisely where you should be. Section DRM stroke forty-one above Hold Ten, I think."

  "Which way to the engine room?"

  "Aft. You should be looking at it."

  "Negative. Tunnel turns to starboard."

  The remote camera turned to follow his gaze. "Damn it you're right. You are now facing a deviation to starboard which is ninety degrees away from the engine room."

  "Shall I proceed?"

  "No. Change course into DRL/42."

  "How?"

  "There should be a hatch, can you see it?"

  "No."

  "Check your map. It should be marked as a junction."

  Kurt stared at the jumble of lines and obscure symbols on the crumpled sheet of paper. "Lada Blessing Corporation Troika Series Five - Level B." That was all he could read. Everything else was written in Cyrillic or Chinese characters. He stared at the mass of interlacing lines. "It'd be a lot easier if we could read Russian. We need von Wittering down here."

  "He claims he's forgotten."

  "Might save us valuable poker time if he remembered."

  "It's up to us mate, trial and error."

  Kurt didn't want to be late for the poker session but he couldn't disappoint Whetu either. Even though he felt their quest was futile he admired Whetu's persistence and hoped somehow that he was right. Otherwise he wouldn't have remained here day after day combing the bowels of the ship like a remote controlled bilge rat. The task seemed endless. The ventilation and service conduit system comprised over twelve hundred miles of interconnected ducting. The entire system had been sealed after the crash to minimise air leakage. They still had no accurate assessment of the extent of damage. The on-board gravity system had been their first priority, to restore living conditions to as near normal as possible. The next objective was the ship's immobilised electro/magnetic thrust units. What they would find when they reached the engine room was anybody's guess although Whetu assumed the ship's three thrust units would probably still be intact since as far as he could tell the blunt end of the ship had sustained little damage. The problem might only be a break in the control circuits between the flight deck and the engine room. If the fault could be located and repaired or bypassed they might become operational again. They knew that serious damage had been sustained amidships because the ship had lost atmosphere in that sector. But without the Beast to guide them they didn't know where the damage was. So they proceeded cautiously in the knowledge that unsealing the wrong portal might mean instant death for Kurt. They didn’t want another mishap like Julian.

  "No response from DRL/42," said Whetu. "I've either got a control problem or the circuit's broken."

  "Hang on, I can see something." Kurt's attention had been attracted by something small and white flapping in the gently moving air. It was obscured in shadow under a defunct fluorescent tube. He set off towards it but after a few steps he stopped. At his feet he could see footprints in a thick film of pale dust on the floor.

  “Check it out.”

  "Switching back to you. What are you showing me?"

  "Footprints."

  "Yours?"

  "Not mine." The footprints were considerably smaller than his own.

  "The section was sealed when you came in?"

  "Unbroken."

  "Maybe they're old?"

  "They look fresh enough." The footprints led him to the base of a metal ladder flush against the wall. It rose to a small trapdoor in the ceiling. Tied to the ladder halfway up was a small square of white cloth.

  "You see it?" asked Kurt.

  "I see it," replied Whetu. "What do you think?"

  "Beats me." Kurt pulled himself up the ladder to the trapdoor and pushed against it. It wouldn't move. "Locked." There was an aperture in the door large enough for a small square key. On the hatch were painted three neatly stencilled letters and two numbers.

  "DRL/42. How do I get in?"

  "Manual. Can't unlock it from here. Let's look at the map? See where it leads."

  Kurt checked at his watch. "Can we do this later? I'm running late, mate."

  "This is important."

  "I know that, but I’ve got a prior commitment. We can come back."

  "Sure, OK." There was a disappointed pause in Whetu's reply. "Can you find your way out or do you want me to talk you through?"

  "Just leave the lights on." Kurt turned back and began retracing his steps. Before he had taken three steps he stopped. "Fet, you see it?"

  "What?"

  "Right in front of me." Before when he'd been following his nose through darkness there was no way he could have seen it. But now with the lights on it was plain as day. Another piece of cloth wafted like a tiny beacon marking the junction of the tunnel where he had come in.

  "Fet where are you?"

  "Right here behind you." Whetu had taken Kurt out of visual circuit and was switching himself into VRT. Now that DRL sector was back on the electronic map he wanted to see if the system would allow access to VRT. If it did he wouldn't have to depend on Kurt's laborious foot search. If he could gain electronic access to the service labyrinth he could put himself there by remote VRT and proceed directly to the engine room. And then he was there, an electronic manifestation standing in the duct right behind Kurt. The VRT had brought him directly inside the master floor plan. He could see the duct, the junction, everything in 360 degrees of full colour sound and aroma.

  "Don't move." A shadow moved across the junction the carpenter was about to enter. It was moving slowly across the wall in front of them.

  "What?" Kurt felt a cold shiver run up his spine.

  "Stay still. There's something moving near you, near us." Whetu could hear Kurt's breathing, sense the fear in his body as he stood rigid in front of him.

  "Where?"

  "In front of you at the junction."

  "I can't see anything."

  "Shush!"

  The shape grew until it filled the space, a huge black shape on the wall, arms legs and the broad blade of a weapon.

  "Jesus."

  "What? Fet, what is it?"

  "Don't move."

  "Fuck this."

  "Lower your sword."

  "Haven't got a fuckin' sword."

  "Not you, him." Whetu moved past Kurt towards the towering
shape.

  "Who."

  "Shush for Christ's sake! Put down you sword, kneel, take off your helmet." The shape slowly moved in deference to the order. "What are you doing here?"

  "I am guarding thy path, sire." The Black Knight removed his helmet and bent his head in reverence. His voice was a deafening whisper. “Tis my sworn duty.”

  "Let this man pass. He is my friend."

  "Fet, what’s going on, who are you talking to?"

  "Tell you later. Now move, slowly along the right hand wall."

  "Why?"

  "Please, just do it!"

  As Kurt turned the corner out of sight Whetu stood before the kneeling knight in his chosen identity as Sir Lancelot du Lac. He laid a gentle hand on the knight’s shoulder. The leather armour felt dry and rough to his touch. "I might need some more help in a while."

  "Your wish is my command, sire."

  "How will I find you?"

  "Wherever you travel, my liege, I will attend."

  6

  "You look better today. Do you want another drink?" Mohammed was alone, bathing in the cool purple glow of an ultraviolet sun. He stood inside a circle of broad glass tubs all filled with stagnant green fluid, mucoid like phlegm. Out of these containers grew a rambling assortment of tired, lanky plant forms. Mohammed was tending his kitchen garden accompanied by gentle classical music of his homeland.

  When he wasn't cooking or playing poker he spent most of his time here coaxing life into his ailing vegetable plot. In a previous incarnation KOTUKU II had been equipped with acres of hydroponic gardens to provide fresh vegetables for a pioneer mining camp on Mars. Originally the system drew solar power for photosynthesis but since the ship had drifted beyond the influence of the sun what remained of the garden was now sustained by electric/UV.

  Mohammed had had many failures. Much of the garden had become poisoned or was slowly dying of exhaustion. He was running low on fresh seeds. Nonetheless he persisted because the garden was the crew's only source of fresh food and photosynthesis, although minimal was helping to slow the relentless depletion of their dwindling oxygen reserves. The surviving plant life was diligently cleansing the atmosphere of carbon dioxide, converting it into plant food and releasing fresh oxygen as a waste product. Mohammed took his vocation seriously - to keep the crew and cargo of KOTUKU II alive and as healthy as possible. All other food sources on board were either irradiated, dehydrated, deep frozen or heavily preserved and Mohammed had no confidence in their long term nutritive benefits. He was having reasonable success with mung beans. The trick was to how to hide them in his dishes since many of the crew refused to eat them.

  After Mariana's disappearance he had taken charge of her caged rats. They were easy to look after and generally well behaved. By expanding their living space and separating them into more commodious satellite colonies he had encouraged them to breed prolifically. The introduction of music, privacy and subdued lighting brought about a further upsurge in birth rate. The meat they produced was tender and quite tasty if adroitly seasoned and concealed within a variety of kheemas, koftas, and biryannis. His hamburgers, made once a week were a favourite with the crew. Only Kurt knew the origin of the meat but it didn't concern him since he was vegan.

  Mohammed had been a cook since he was boy, as had his father and grandfather before him. His family had all been at sea one way or another for as long as anyone could remember. Salt water ran in their veins but originally they had not been cooks. Mohammed's ancestors had at one time owned a fleet of graceful sailing ships. For centuries the wind driven dhow was the workhorse of Indian Ocean trade routes connecting the sub-continent with the ports of Arabia. But in the latter part of the Twentieth Century the trade changed. Piracy and economic conditions forced merchants into bigger, faster armoured vessels. The old mariners were left high and dry. A century passed, the world turned and with climate change it contracted. By the time Mohammed’s family had climbed onto the bridges of giant international container ships the bubble had burst. European civilisations declined, big ships fell idle and the old dhows of the Indian Ocean were enjoying a renaissance.

  Mohammed's grandfather was amongst the first to return to sail, not however as master of his own ship but as an old man to cook for the crew and keep the ship clean. Now the third consecutive Mohammed Saeed was continuing a new family tradition. Economic necessity had removed him from his beloved salt sea but Mohammed knew it would not be forever. By the time KOTUKU II returned to base he would have enough money saved to get himself and his brothers back on the ocean. Once again the Saeed would be masters of their own vessel. That was why Mohammed played poker. The game was a means to achieve his maritime ambition.

  He checked his watch, time to go. He had to bring von Wittering his evening meal before the game began so he put away his sprays and fertilisers, fork and pruning shears and removed the butcher's apron he wore to protect his kitchen whites while gardening. He donned his woolly hat and overcoat and went out locking the door behind him.

  The players were already assembled when Mohammed arrived in the cooler.

  "I pinch myself, I feel pain," Kurt was saying. "This must be proof I exist." The boys were waiting impatiently for him to finish dealing.

  "Deal the fuckin cards or you'll feel pain alright," François muttered under his breath. He was bored with the talk, same as it was every day.

  "Come on man, please." Liam was as always anxious to proceed.

  "Shush!" Suddenly François was on his feet holding up a hand for silence. "There it goes again, that same fuckin noise." Slowly he laid down his cards and turned towards the frozen gallery of lockers. They could hear it as well, a high-pitched hum, steady, no longer intermittent.

  François moved away from the table. He crossed the wide expanse of frozen floor to the banks of small freezers on the starboard wall. One-by-one the others followed. They waited, watching as he turned right then left, tracking the sound through the maze of glass walled avenues. The hum became louder, then it faded. He doubled back and finally stopped. The others gather round.

  François’ fingers brushed frost away to reveal a light flashing on the control panel. The ID tag identified Refrigeration Locker/29K. He tapped randomly at the gauges along the top edge of the locker. The alarm continued to sound, the light to flash. He peered closer, following his finger over the rows of meters.

  “Latent Heat Sensor, Magnetic Field Meter, Radio Activity,” he read aloud. “Electro-magnetic, Cardio Vascular.” All were reading zero. No movement except for one. “Psycho Magnetic, what the fuck’s that?” He tapped the glass on the PsM dial. A little light flicked off, the needle hit zero like all the others, and the sound ceased.

  "Must be a loose wire, intermittent failure." He hit the PsM metre again with his bare knuckles. The light flickered and stayed on. As the indicator slowly rose and stopped at 80%, the high pitched hum started again. After thirty seconds there was still no deviation in either the needle or the sound.

  "Must've been shaken on by that last shower," Kurt suggested. "Which means if it'd been working all along it would've sounded before." Under normal circumstances aberrations of energy levels in the storage facilities would have been flagged on the ship's unified computer directing someone to investigate the nominated chamber. The computer had failed and so until now had the alarm.

  François scraped the frost away from the nametag on the door.

  "Holy shit," he said. A hand printed card read - 29K - Captain B. Thacker. There were no other details. "It's the Captain's cooler?" His three companions faced him with blank stares. "Is this thing telling us there's something alive in the Captain's cooler?"

  7

  The radio shack was crammed almost to capacity when Steve burst in. The card players were gathered round Whetu who was inside the VRT helmet negotiating with the Beast for electronic access to the Cooler 29K.

  "What's going on?" Steve had just received word of the discovery. "Is this some kind of s
ick joke? Because it's in damn poor taste."

  "No joke sir," replied François, gravely. "We don't know how or why but there's a psycho-magnetic energy deviation in Cooler 29K. That’s where we put Captain Thacker, sir."

  "We all saw it sir," Kurt added. "Between seventy-five and eighty per cent."

  "Eighty per cent of what?"

  "PsM. Cephalic activity."

  "What are you talking about?"

  "Brain waves." Kurt chose his words carefully. "It looks like something is thinking inside the Captain's cooler."

  "Thinking, in George's cooler?" This was too much for Steve to take in. "How?"

  "We don't know sir."

  "Please fellas, I need some quiet." Since Whetu wasn't moving or talking they'd momentarily forgotten about him. "I'm trying to work here."

  "But is he, is he, can he be?" Steve pushed through to confront Whetu at his keyboard.

  "Quiet please!" Whetu snapped. "It's hard enough without you lot." Five people in the tiny room crowding round him all talking at once. It was too distracting.

  "We need to give Fet a fair go, sir." Kurt put an arm around Steve's shoulder and moved him away from the console. "We don't know what it is, if anything, at this stage."

  "I knew this would happen.” Steve beamed at the assembled crew. Tears filled his eyes. “I dreamed about it." Could the nightmare be over? Was he finally off the hook? "I dreamed George was alive."

  “Not possible sir.”

  “But it’s true!” Steve’s head spun. “You said it yourselves!” He began to gesture wildly. The crew retreated uneasily. "Oh thank God!"

  "Will you please shut up!" Whetu's frustration boiled over. "I can’t do anything with you lot shouting!”

  The VRT channel to the cooler was blocked. The circuit appeared to be wiped out. He couldn’t see anything and couldn’t hear with the racket around him. With everyone in the shack talking at once the partially recovered system didn't know who to relate to. And now that he had silence, his concentration was blown. He removed the helmet, tugged the electrodes from behind his ears and switched the system from VRT to SCANNER.

  "But?" Steve's face clouded as a new thought occurred. "How could he be alive? We all saw him. Celine said he was dead." He slumped into a seat. The silence was punctuated by the hollow click of Whetu's keyboard. “Could she have been wrong?”

  "Maybe I can get in through inventory," Whetu murmured vaguely to himself. "Try a personnel cross reference. Get in that way." He thrashed the keyboard for a moment then paused and waited. Somewhere in the shack a processor clicked, groaned and fell silent. The silence lengthened and just as Whetu was about to attack again the scanner in front of him lit up. 'Inventory Control: Oceania Aero-Space Vessel KOTUKU II.'

  "Bull’s-eye!" Whetu rose from his seat. He punched in - code-Thacker. Moments later the computer groaned again and reluctantly responded - Thacker, George - Rank: Commander - Current status: deceased - Residence: RL/29K. He switched to vocal command.

  "Go to vision - RL/29K." He slowly and clearly articulated. The screen faded to black and Whetu cursed. He was about to retreat to the keyboard when the screen began to lighten and slowly an image appeared, a blank white outline soft and shapeless. The shape remained colourless but gradually dim contours began to appear revealing a human form reclining on its back, arms resting by its sides like some ancient buried warrior petrified in stone.

  "George?" Steve stared at the screen as the image closed towards the face. "George is that you?"

  "We don't have any other corpses on ice," François said coldly.

  "It must be the Captain," replied Whetu. "We're inside his cooler."

  "If there was anything else in there with him, it would show up, right?" asked Kurt. "As another life form."

  "If there was something there we'd see it," nodded Whetu.

  "Unless it was small, very small." Kurt was enjoying the possibilities. "Or hiding inside him."

  "You mean like a parasite?" Liam joined in.

  "Yeah, a parasite."

  "Stop it!" Steve barked.

  "Or maybe incorporeal like some ice age curse waiting for the thaw." Kurt whispered.

  "Don’t think that would read."

  “Stop it!” Steve could take no more, listening to his friend and former colleague being discussed in such a cold blooded, ghoulish manner. His conscience surged with renewed guilt and self-recrimination, if only. "Could it be a miracle? Could he come back to life?"

  "Stranger things have happened at sea."

  Whetu screwed his eyes tight in thought. "Let me try an all categories search," he said at last. "Infrared, alpha, beta, et cetera, see what we get." He went to work sifting through the debris of The Beast's faltering brain. After several attempts he generated a table of numbers on the screen.

  "Can I talk to him?" Steve leaned close over Whetu’s shoulder.

  "Might be a little soon for that, sir." Kurt gripped his shoulder.

  "I don't know how accurate this is." Whetu raised his voice above the others. "But we've got an eighty per cent alpha wave response and zero in all other categories."

  "That's the same as the gauge on the cooler.”

  "George, George can you hear me?"

  "What are the possibilities?"

  "There can't be many. Inanimate life of some kind." Whetu seemed to be holding back. "Cerebral energy," he concluded cautiously. “Indications are that the Captain’s brain appears to be alive.”

  "George it's me, Steve." Tears of desperation streamed down Steve's face. “Can you hear me George?”

  The others stared at each other in stunned silence.

  They crossed the rutted, frost covered floor towards the Captain's tomb, warily as if at any moment the door might burst open and unleash some unspeakable horror. With the overhead lights on the cooler resembled the inside of a huge ill-kempt fish tank. Heavy fog hung in drifts glowing numbly in the dim dirty light emanating from the few lamps the slimy ice had failed to strangle. Since the crash the antiquated cooling system had stopped and restarted so many times the cool store was now almost entirely icebound.

  Steve appeared to have regained his composure. In resolute slow motion he led the way with the others fanned out in a heavily armed V-formation behind him - François, Kurt, Liam and Mohammed. Steam gushed from tense open mouths and their movements were deliberate and cautious. Steve brought them to a halt just short of their objective in order to reassess the situation before proceeding.

  "Whetu, do you read me?" Speaking into a headset clamped to his right ear his voice quavered like a broken oboe. "We are now approaching the Captain's locker. In a moment I will move forward to check the seal."

  "Sir," Liam interrupted. "If we are going to open the door I don't think it's appropriate for the acting commander of the ship to be put in a situation of mortal risk. Perhaps the security officer would be more suitable or the carpenter."

  "No!” Steve’s response was firm. “I have no right to order anyone else to risk their life." His voice shone with martyrdom. If anyone was going to be sacrificed it had to be him. He had earned the right. He moved forward to inspect the wire seal on the door. "Still intact," he said. "Does not appear to have been tampered with."

  "So what ever it is, it must have been in there all this time," ventured Kurt. "Maybe even before we put the Captain inside."

  "Must be bloody small," François was thinking. "And tough to survive the cold."

  Steve didn't want to talk about it anymore. He just wanted to open the door and see for himself. He broke the wire seal. His hand moved towards the control.

  "Sir." Liam looked increasingly concerned. "I wonder if we really should open that door at this time. This thing might be carnivorous. It might have been feeding on the Captain ever since we put him in there."

  "That'd be why we never saw it on Whetu's screen." Kurt was warming to the idea. "It could be living inside his body like a…"

 
"Shut up!" Steve yelled. "We don't know. We have to find out."

  "But as acting commander sir, you are too…” He couldn’t bring himself to say ‘valuable.’ “It's not appropriate for you to engage in such a potentially fatal task," Liam insisted.

  "So who is less valuable?" Mohammed spoke at last. "We all have our roles to play. None of us is without value."

  "What about Kurt?" Liam continued. As an afterthought he added. "He's biggest." The others said nothing but it was obvious that they all agreed.

  "Why not?" Kurt stepped forward. "We can do without a ship's carpenter at a pinch."

  François placed a firm hand on Steve's shoulder. "Let Kurt open the door," he said. "If he wants to."

  Reluctantly Steve stepped back. He accepted Kurt's weapon and joined the line of mismatched small arms aimed at the door of RL/29K. "Wait for the order to fire," he ordered. "We don't want to hit Kurt."

  “Thanks.” Kurt reached for the handle. The heavy metal door ground open with a mournful howl. Moments later a sluggish cascade of greasy fog began to ooze onto the floor. Kurt switched on the internal light and squatted down to peer inside.

  "Keep you face away man!" Steve yelled. He was too late. The carpenter's head had already disappeared inside the locker. It stayed there for at least ten seconds before he withdrew coughing and turned towards them. His face and hair were white with frost.

  "Can't see anything, except the Captain's feet."

  "Then it must be inside him," blurted Liam. "Close the bloody door, quick!"

  Kurt shrugged and looked at Steve.

  "Close the door." Steve said calmly, hardly breathing. "Now!"

  8

  A year of celibacy can be a powerful influence even on the most disinterested of men. Even though none of the boys particularly liked Celine they couldn’t help their eyes being drawn like magnets to a protrusion of red lace emerging from her jeans as she bent over Whetu, her arms resting languidly on his shoulders. Generally she scared them with her brusque manner and direct mode of speech. Celine did not pull her punches. Nonetheless they admired her physique and even François in his own warped way felt a pang of lust. As if feeling their eyes and reading their minds she glanced back over her shoulder and smiled enigmatically. All four of them turned abruptly away. Whetu continued at his keyboard oblivious to the pantomime behind him.

  On the scanner an electronic likeness of the Captain's body floated horizontally over a field of luminous blue squares. Whetu pushed the console joystick forward and the body slowly revolved three hundred and sixty degrees graphically displaying the fatal wounds on George Thacker's back. Celine lowered her chin to rest on the young electronics officer's shoulder and whispered something close into his ear. Involuntarily the boys squirmed.

  "You might have been wrong." Steve was pacing like an excited marionette, arms gesticulating eyes wide.

  "Wrong? In what way, sir?" Celine's tone was patronising as if addressing a child.

  "I mean if he was still alive when we put him in he might still be alive now."

  Celine snorted in reply. She reached around to scratch an itch in the small of her back. Steve didn't appear to notice but the others grew restless.

  "Kind of in suspended animation."

  "Scan him from the toes up."

  Whetu entered a new series of commands. The image repositioned at the Captain's feet and began to move slowly up over the top contours of his naked body, periodically enlarging areas when Celine asked.

  “Hmm, groceries intact.”

  “What?” Steve realised his mistake too late.

  “Didn’t realise he was so well hung,” Celine murmured. “OK moving on and pull out.”

  From high above the corpse looked like a flat grey landscape, an island in a dark sea.

  "Grey colour represents inert matter.” Whetu explained. “Energy should read as yellow, orange or red depending on type and intensity. But as you can see, there’s no sign…" As the Captain's head slid into view, words slowly dried in Whetu's mouth. “Hang on.” The image enlarged, filling the screen from chin to crown. The aberration was immediately apparent. In the centre of the Captain's dead grey forehead between his vacant eyes a pale yellow smudge glowed fluorescent beneath his skin.

  “What is that?” Celine whispered. Whetu zoomed the scanner close on the smudge and tuned resolution, contrast, colour hue and saturation for a sharper image. A series of symbols and numbers displayed on screen in plus and minus quantities as the yellow smudge intensified under the skin of the Captain's frozen forehead.

  "Alpha equals brainwaves." Celine was still thinking. "But if that's all there is? Strange."

  "What do you mean?" Steve could barely talk.

  "Two possibilities. Either some variety of life form with a densely concentrated cerebrum and very little mass is living in the Captain's head or…"

  "Or what?" Steve was becoming agitated.

  "Can you take me inside?"

  Slowly the image glided in between the Captain's eyes and continued through. Layers of skin folded back to reveal a cross-section of skull bone like a dense lace curtain. Whetu steered the scan through the formerly soft interior of the chilled head gliding over what appeared to be a mound of cumulus cloud. He pulled back on the joystick to reveal a wide view of George Thacker's brain. In an otherwise grey landscape of dead tissue the brain pulsed bright yellow, glowing like a neon sign.

  "No alien creature," said Celine with an air of disappointment. "Just the Captain’s brain."

  There was a stunned silence. Steve went first. "Alive?" he stuttered, echoing the thoughts of them all.

  "Could be," Celine replied casually.

  "You said he was dead." There was panic in Steve's voice. "You said you checked him before we put him on ice."

  "I checked his vital signs. There was no breathing, pulse or heartbeat. He bled out. He was dead. I didn't look inside his head, how could I?"

  "But if he's alive we must do something."

  "Like what, Steve?" Celine replied coolly. "His body's dead as a doornail. It cannot be revived."

  "But his brain is still alive, damn it!"

  "Maybe, but it has nowhere to live. Unless someone volunteers to lend him theirs." Her remark was facetious but in his desperation Steve misread her intent.

  "Is that possible? Can we do that?"

  "Please, Steve. It was a joke."

  "Can it be done?"

  Celine shook her head. "Theoretically I suppose. It's been done with lab animals apparently."

  "So it is possible?" Steve persisted.

  "Not here, under current conditions."

  "All you need is a donor, right?"

  Automatically all eyes turned to Kurt. The big man grinned and shuffled nervously. "No thanks," He edged backwards. "I'm happy with the brain I got."

  "What about me?" Steve asked. "He can have my body."

  9

  "Land ahoy!" Steve shouted over and again like a little boy with big news. He was unable to contain his excitement. "Land ahoy! Land ahoy!". Ahead through the pitted flight deck windscreen he could see something new in the eternal night sky, a group of three big bright lights, bigger and brighter than he'd seen all year. There was no-one to share his elation. He was alone on the flight deck. He grabbed a hand scanner and trained it on the distant cluster. Enlarged the planets all glowed slightly red although one was bigger and redder than the others. He could see the vague form of craters.

  “Red? Does that mean it’s coming towards us or is it the other way around? Is blue colour shift moving towards and red away? Doesn’t matter, we’re saved." Once again excitement bubbled over and he jumped up and punched the air. "Yes!"

  He needed someone to share the news so he set off running towards the only person he knew he could find.

  “Mars! We’ve found Mars,” he shouted bursting into von Wittering’s cabin. “We’re saved.”

  "Cheers." The old man raised his gl
ass. Whisky and ice crashed from side to side in the tumbler. Hugo Manfred von Wittering, their former Navigation Officer had been in his hammock nursing the same bottomless drink for the past twelve months.

  "Hugo there's land in site. It’s red, it has to be Mars."

  Von Wittering glared at him through moist red bloodhound eyes. His words emerged slow and slurred. "What d'you say boy, land?" he barked.

  "Yes land!" replied Steve. "Red planets ahead getting closer. Three of them, come and see."

  "Be buggered."

  "It's true. Come and see."

  The old man narrowed his eyes trying to determine what this news, if true, meant to him. "Would that be a good thing, d'you think?"

  Steve was shocked. "Good, got to be good."

  "Why good?" asked von Wittering.

  "Because, because help will be at hand. They’re expecting us on Mars. They can save us and we can go home."

  "Can’t be Mars, impossible."

  "Come and see," Steve pleaded.

  "No no, I know where we are," the old man grumbled and Steve waited. "We're lost." He hoisted his glass and proposed a silent splashing toast to nothing in particular and everything in general.

  “We should send a signal, an SOS."

  "How so? Smoke signals perhaps?" Von Wittering drained his glass. "Message in a bottle maybe?"

  "We've got to do something."

  "Nonsense." The old man turned away and closed his bloodshot eyes. "We should do nothing, lad. Now off you go and leave me alone." He sank into deep contemplation.

  Von Wittering felt bitter about his present situation, perhaps more than anyone else on board because this voyage was to have been his last. At the end of it he would have been debt free and in possession of enough funds to fulfil an ambition. He wanted his own place, a little bar with a snooker table in a private room for himself and friends, a modest place for a weary sailor to rest his bones. He knew where it should be and exactly how it would look but now he would never have it. Even if the ship stayed afloat long enough for them to be rescued he would probably be too old to make it home. The realisation that time had run out and left him stranded depressed him beyond consolation. He should have quit the service years ago and got a decent job, one that paid. But what difference would it have made? He'd wasted his money as well as his time, years of pouring good money after bad into women, booze and dodgy business schemes. Women in particular. He’d wasted too much time looking for the one to settle him down, provide a home base, a port to return to. Why had it taken so long to realise he might better off alone with maybe a dog or a parrot for company? But it wasn't their fault, the women, it was his, a self-inflicted wound. He'd been a damned fool chasing a myth, refusing to settle for less than perfect. He’d been running out of time without knowing it. He could see it now, a waste of a life and the only one he had.

  "What about your maps? Where are your charts?" Steve asked.

  "You still here? Go away."

  "Give me your charts and I'll see for myself."

  "Charts, are you mad?"

  "What do you mean?"

  "This isn't the twentieth century, lad. No-one uses charts any more. It's all in that dead piece of junk upstairs. Now bugger off or I'll take a swipe at you."

  Defeated, Steve backed away. The old man turned his mind back to the snooker table in the back room of a bar he'd never see.

  “Is it Mars? It has to be.”

  Whetu had a signal on his line-of-sight scanner but because KOTUKU's sat/nav was out of order he could not relate the tiny cluster of stars to any wider inter-planetary reference. The image was murky but Whetu managed to enhance the picture enough to discover that the three planets in the cluster were very different from one another in size and appearance. Of the three, the farthest appeared to be largest, a massive orb of flaming red ochre surrounded by a halo of shimmering blue haze. Nearer was a planet a tenth of its size, soft grey in colour and to its right hung the third of the group, a tiny pale blue marble compared to the grey planet's apple size.

  “Send out a signal, an SOS.” Steve was bouncing, excitement mounting.

  "So far we are detecting minimal gravitation," Whetu said at last. "Barely on the scale, which I suppose would be normal at this range. We must have been moving towards this closest one for weeks without realising."

  "How big is it? Is there any sign of life, mining camp, anything?”

  "At a guess I would say the nearest one, the grey planet might be about the size of Earth."

  "That’s good."

  "I'm guessing. Since we’re unable to judge distance at the moment and I can’t read chemical composition so at this stage atmospheric conditions are unknown. But judging by size, gravity would be roughly equivalent to Earth."

  "Meaning what?”

  "We may pass harmlessly by or there might be risk of collision."

  "Collision?"

  "Newton's law. All bodies attract one another. The larger the body, the greater pull. That’s a big land mass and we don't have any motive power to get away from it."

  "So it would be like crashing on Earth?"

  "Possibly." Whetu was making an effort to remain calm. He didn't want to prematurely excite the acting commander until he had good reason. It would be easier to assess the situation and prepare accordingly in an atmosphere of rationality.

  "So what are our chances, do you think?"

  "Hard to say, sir. It depends."

  "On what?" In spite of Whetu’s efforts, Steve’s mood had spun to high anxiety. As acting commander he was responsible for the lives of the crew and now it seemed he would be responsible for their deaths.

  "On a lot of things,” Whetu continued cautiously. “But principally on whether we can get the motors going."

  "Right. And how are we going with that?"

  "We’re making progress, sir."

  "How long do you think we've got?"

  "I'll know more in a few hours." By monitoring the growing size of the planets on the scanner he would be able to calculate a rough estimate of their speed towards them. "We should inform the crew, sir, without alarming them."

  "Not yet." Steve was grappling with how to tell the crew they were all going to die? He could feel the onset of panic paralysis. He wanted to crawl into his cave again but knew he shouldn't.

  "They would want to know, sir. And we could use some more help sorting out the engine problem.”

  "Let's wait until we have something specific to tell them." Steve was anxious to depart. He smiled thinly and turned on his heels. "Carry on," he said and was gone.

  "You'd think Fet could rig something, wouldn't you?" Kurt slowly dealt the cards. "So we could commune with the Captain. You know, read his brain waves and send ours back to him."

  "In your case there'd be nothing to send." Liam picked up his cards. “What’s this load of shit you’ve given me here?”

  "Poor bugger must be lonely in there. I wonder if he feels the cold?"

  "He could take command of the ship again," Mohammed suggested dryly. "He might know better how to handle our situation than Steve."

  "Doubt it." François scoffed. "I reckon the guy was overrated, personally."

  "Anyone would be better than Steve," Liam agreed. "Bloody clown."

  A roar of static followed by a vicious squeal of feedback echoed through the cold room. "Kurt, are you there?" Whetu's voice boomed like the word of God across an icy wasteland.

  "Yeah I'm here," Kurt shouted back even though he knew Whetu couldn't hear him.

  "Damn it." said Liam. "Now everyone'll know where we are. We’ll never keep them out."

  "If you can hear me could you come over to the shack. We've got a situation."

  10

  "You've got to promise not to repeat anything I tell you. Nothing, OK?"

  "I promise, sure, what?" Kurt was breathless from running all the way from C/deck to the radio shack.

  "The flow rate of th
e magnetic stream we've been drifting in for the past two months has increased," Whetu said. "I’ve done some calculations. There's a significant change in gravitation. We're definitely moving faster."

  "Really?" Kurt was clearly annoyed. "You dragged me out of a card game just to tell me that."

  "The reason is this planet." Whetu pointed at the scanner to the right of the carpenter's head. “A planet with a sun and it’s own moon.” The three orbs grey, blue and red were larger than previously but still too distant to reveal any detail. Whetu stabbed at the scanner with his finger.

  "I've been monitoring less than two hours and already they're bigger. We're in trouble Kurt. They're pulling us in."

  "Woah, wait a minute man. Is this for real? Not just one of your VRT games?

  "I'm afraid not. They are real."

  "Where'd they come from, they weren't there before?"

  "Steve spotted them this morning. You know what this means?"

  "Tell me anyway."

  "Initially I thought we might have weeks but now it looks like days, one at least maybe two."

  "Slowly Fet. What are you saying?"

  "If we don't get the engine running pretty soon we stand a good chance of crashing on that grey one." He enlarged to a single blurry image of the grey planet. "Or burning up in its atmosphere before we even hit the surface. I’ve looked into it. Even thirty to forty per cent retro-power might be enough to push us away from them if we don’t get too close. We have twenty-four, maybe forty-eight hours."

  Kurt slumped in a seat beside him. Whetu unfolded the familiar blueprints and slid a grimy sheet towards Kurt. He ran his finger along a series of interconnected red marker pen lines.

  "Twenty-four hours, you say? I don't think we're going to make it Fet. There's just too much ground to cover." Kurt looked away. He didn't want to think about it.

  "We've covered a good percentage of the service ducts. I reckon we must be getting close by now."

  "I don't know, mate. Twenty-four hours.”

  "In the light of developments it might be time to speed up rather than give up. Take a few short cuts, a few risks and maybe we’ll get lucky."

  Kurt didn't like the sound of that. "What kind of risks?"

  "If we got through to the engine room, even if the circuits are stuffed we might still be able to hot wire the engines back to the flight deck."

  "If they still work."

  "For Christ's sake do you want to live or die?" It was unusual for Whetu to raise his voice. "Why shouldn't the engines still work?" No answer from the carpenter. "We get the ship going and maybe Steve can get us out of here. Otherwise we burn up. End of story."

  "If we are counting on Steve to get us out of the shit, why bother?"

  "For Christ’s sake what else have you got to do apart from play cards?"

  Kurt shrugged. Whetu jabbed his finger at a junction on the blueprints. "This is where we got to before and there's the engine room." He indicated the area in between, a minor maze of interconnected lines. "We assume there's a breach somewhere in here but at the rate we're working it'll take a month to find it and work around it, right?"

  "Agreed."

  "So then." Whetu drew a convoluted zigzag line on the plans. "We take a shortcut, and maybe we'll get there in a day or two."

  "How do you know it's safe?"

  Whetu laughed bitterly. "Safe? Considering the shit we're in safe would appear to be an outmoded concept."

  Kurt nodded slowly. "Fair enough."

  "Besides, it's the shortest route."

  "Who else knows about this, Fet?"

  "Only Steve."

  "Many hands make light work. They should all be helping."

  "Can you imagine what might happen if we turned Steve and Liam and François loose in there. We'd never see them again. One person at a time is about all I can handle."

  "They've been on death row all year. They should be told if the date's been set."

  "That's up to Steve. When he sees fit."

  11

  Celine didn't look up from her notes. "One at a time," she said as the door opened. "And keep your hands on your head. If you’re looking to jump me, forget it." She indicated the stun gun lying on the desktop beside her. "I've shot uglier bastards than you just for thinking about it."

  It was her standard opening line to any prisoner who came into her consulting room. Nine times out of ten it was the only reason her patients came, in the vain hope of molesting her. Even though they knew she'd painfully incapacitated more than a dozen aspirants since the start of the voyage it never stopped them trying. At least they were consistent which was more than she could say for Steve.

  "Name?" she asked without looking up.

  "Surely you know my name by now, ma'am," a familiar voice replied. Celine looked up with a start. As always she found François' grin unsettling.

  "What do you want?" Automatically she reached for the stun gun. François smiled.

  "You should never keep a gun unless you intend to use it."

  "I do intend to use it."

  "That little popgun wouldn't stop me. You'd just make it worse for yourself."

  "What do you want?"

  François took his time. "A deal," he said slowly. "You help me, I help you."

  "Help me in what way?" Celine was genuinely puzzled. "What are you talking about?" A long pause before he continued.

  "I need some assistance with the boys down on B/deck. They don't mean any harm but they do get worked up from time to time, stir crazy."

  "Well, what would you expect, cooped up in a stinking dungeon?"

  "True. I'm glad we agree on that."

  "You don't appear to have had any trouble keeping them in line. You almost took Neil's balls off yesterday. Was that necessary?"

  "Yeah well I had to make an example. Something's bothering them. I don't know what it is but I do know it's going to be hard keeping control for much longer without bloodshed, which would mean a lot more work for you. I'd like to avoid that."

  "Thanks.”

  "The trouble is they don't have any outlet, any way to let off steam.”

  "What about the narcotics you feed them? Surely that helps."

  François glared at her, clearly taken aback. He chose to ignore the remark. "I think you can help me."

  "Oh?"

  "You know the one they call The Chief?"

  "Your dealer? Yes I know who you mean."

  "I have a deal with him to keep the peace. He does things for me in return for favours, you understand?"

  Celine said nothing.

  "As you can imagine, Ratko gets as randy as the rest of them and when he loses control I lose control. That's not a good situation."

  "That’s your problem.” Celine turned back to her notes. “And I don't have time to listen to you.” She stood and gathered the files on her desk. François stayed where he was.

  "You should hear me out. I'm sure we can work something out of mutual benefit."

  "I doubt it."

  "It's a good deal. All you have to do is entertain Ratko occasionally, keep him happy and I wipe your slate clean."

  "Slate? What slate? What on earth are you talking about?"

  "Just one guy a couple of times a week, at your mutual convenience. He keeps himself clean and I'm sure we could fiddle a little extra cash for your trouble from the entertainment fund or dope if that’s your pleasure."

  "Get out." Her hand reached for the gun but François' hand was faster.

  "The alternative is I take you into custody on suspicion of murder. I have the power to hold you as long as I want as a material witness for my investigation."

  "Steve wouldn't let you."

  "Steve has no jurisdiction to stop me. I can even arrest him if necessary."

  Celine stepped back, her hand reaching for the emergency alarm switch on the wall behind.

  "Don't bother. I'm the only one who's going to respond."
Silence. Neither one moved. "I really think you should think about it, ma'am. You're in a reasonable position at the moment. When you're in the slammer, not so good. I need your assistance and one way or another I'm going to have it."

  "Steve, I've come to apologise." Steve was already backing away so she stopped, raised her arms in a gesture of truce. "I'm sorry." He stopped but wouldn’t look at her. "And I need your help."

  "Help from me?"

  "Yes please." How could she tell him about François' monstrous proposal? He wouldn't believe her.

  "I was rude to you," she continued reasonably. "I said things I didn't mean. I wanted to hurt you and I was wrong."

  "I'm sorry I don't remember." His passive aggressive act was annoying. Apologising wasn’t easy. Already Celine could feel frustration but she needed to stay in control. Antagonism could be disastrous.

  "Listen to me Steve, please.” One more attempt to calmly explain. “The reason I said those things was because I care about you and I know you care about me and it just doesn't make sense to me that… I mean that here we are both of us trapped in this confined space together and…"

  He wasn’t making it easy for her, shuffling from one foot to the other, staring at the floor waiting for an opportunity to take off. Nonetheless she continued.

  "I'm not going to make a big deal about it but part of me just can't help asking why can't we find a way to patch up our differences and make the most of what we have to offer each other?"

  Steve still said nothing. He didn't even nod. From bitter experience he knew it was better not to react because whatever he said could get him into trouble no matter how well he chose his words. There was nothing he could say that Celine couldn't twist around until it ended up meaning the opposite. Disagreement was dangerous. When Celine became agitated she was impervious to reason.

  "Don't you see what I'm saying?" She began to gesture with her hands, large circles in the air. "Logically it makes no sense unless of course you find me unattractive."

  "No-no it's not that it's…" Damn, he was slipping into that trap again. He stopped but it was too late.

  Celine continued reasonably. "Well what is it? Because frankly it makes no sense to me. You tell me I'm attractive and yet you won't have anything to do with me. What does this mean?

  "I didn't say that?"

  "Didn’t say what?” Celine waited but Steve remained mute. “What? Fucking me was alright once but now it's not?"

  Why couldn't she hit on one of the others, why did it have to be him? Why was he the one she wanted.

  "What didn't you say, Steve, tell me?"

  "Any of it."

  "You didn't say any of it, or you did?"

  "None of it."

  Celine thought for a moment. It was always dangerous when she stopped to think. Anything might happen. “Are you pissed off with me because of George?”

  “No.”

  “Are you blaming me for his death?”

  “Of course not.”

  “Sounds like you are.”

  “I never said that.”

  “What then? I'm confused.”

  "It's not George's fault."

  "No of course not." She turned on him with flashing fury. "George Bloody Thacker, your mate all the way back to when, how far back do you go?"

  "Primary school, we were five years old." Steve knew straight away he shouldn't have said it. Something was coming, something bad.

  "Mates," she continued. "Childhood bloody sweethearts more like." She'd started moving, circling him. "Did you ever have a girlfriend, Steve?"

  "Of course I did, several girlfriends."

  "No I mean a real girlfriend, permanent."

  Steve though about it. No-one sprang instantly to mind and his delay seemed to prove the point Celine was determined to make.

  "You didn't did you? You never had a girlfriend because you had George, am I right?"

  "It wasn't like that at all."

  "So what was it like? Please explain?"

  "Well." He felt a flush of embarrassment light up his face. How could he explain that they just got on better than with other people? There was an instant bond. They'd both had girlfriends but not for long, it was true. Other relationships somehow just petered out.

  "Did you screw?" She had stopped moving. She was right behind him when she delivered the blow.

  "Who?"

  "You and Georgie-boy."

  "No!" He screamed and spinning round, without thinking he lashed out. Celine flew back sprawling on the floor.

  "We never did that!" He screamed again.

  "Seems like I touched a nerve.” There was no sense of triumph. This hadn’t gone where she’d wanted. She picked herself up and began to walk away. “See you Steve.”

  "Celine wait," he called after her quietly. "There's something I've got to tell you. I can't keep it from you any longer."

  She stopped and looked back at him, drained, ambivalent. "What do you have tell me Steve?"

  "There's a good chance we might die."

  "Oh yeah, since when?"

  "Whetu reckons we might only have a day or two."

  He pointed to the windscreen behind her. She turned and moved closer. The grey planet was quite large by now even to the naked eye.

  "He reckons we're going to crash.

  12

  Kurt bent close to the keypad and entered the code inscribed on the inside of his wrist. The hatch hissed popped and slid open. He poked his head, clad in a full-face breathing helmet through the doorway and looked around. Nothing but darkness. His fingers searched for the lighting control panel that should be inside the doorway. He found a column of switches, flipped them on one by one with no result until the last one. A buzzing sound echoed in the void, then feeble emergency lighting flickered on suffusing him in a dull red glow. A huge grin spread across his freckled face.

  “Woo-who!” he shouted.

  “What?” Whetu’s voice crackled in his earpiece.

  "I reckon we've gone and bloody done it mate! Clever bugger, we're there!"

  He was standing on the open grill floor of a metal balcony overlooking a sight baffling both in scale and complexity. Above and below, all around him lay a mesmerising tangle of interlocking conduits and cabling, interwoven with gantries, ladders and walkways on a dozen levels. It was vast, the biggest most confusing interior expanse he'd ever seen. It made him feel small, which was no mean feat considering his size. He moved forward and gripping the handrail of the balcony bent over to scan the jungle of dormant technology beneath.

  “Is it the engine room?”

  “I don’t know what else it could be. Can you see it?”

  “Slow down, mate. I can only see what you’re showing me. Pan across it, slowly.”

  Kurt moved his gaze across the vast expanse, relaying the image to Whetu in the radio shack from the camera on his helmet. In every direction there were banks of computer terminals, control modules, data screens, surveillance cameras and skeins of cable all crammed together in a riot of colour and texture. The only missing element was sound. The engine room should be throbbing with the hum of turbines. Instead it was the hushed eerie silence of a freshly unsealed tomb. The engine room had been silent since the night of the crash.

  “Yeah, looks like it.” Whetu was remaining calm, all business.

  "Bloody hell, mate it's huge.”

  "Somewhere in there there’ll be a switch that says ON. We should start there."

  "You're going to have to give me a hand, mate. I'm just a bloody wood butcher not an electrician."

  "Let me look at the handbook."

  "How's the air? Can I breath."

  "Should be fine."

  Kurt snapped open his helmet seal and turned off the oxygen supply. The air was fresher here than in the crew quarters, less lived in.

  “That could be it,” Whetu said in his earpiece. “Below you.”

  At floor level amongst a
forest of wire and pipe lay three long fat cigar shaped cylinders into which the mass of surrounding componentry appeared to be channelled.

  “Does that look like three electro-magnetic thrust units?”

  “Maybe.”

  "Take a look but don't touch anything until we’re sure what it is."

  Kurt slowly descended into the bowels of the engine room, the clang of his feet on the metal stairway echoing in the silence of the vast chamber.

  Inside the forest of tangled conduit became a maze. Everything looked the same, even the minute control stations spaced at regular intervals along the metal viaducts appeared be to exact replicas of each other. Kurt stopped to examine one of them in detail but none of the buttons and dials meant anything to him. The labels were all written in Russian.

  "Where are you now?"

  "Level Three second station I think it says."

  "As far as I can tell they all do pretty much the same thing. Wait a second."

  As Kurt waited he had the odd sensation of being observed although he wasn't sure from where. "Are you watching me Fet?"

  "No, why?"

  "Nothing, just wondered."

  He took a couple of quiet steps and looked up at where he'd felt the presence. There was nothing there, not even a surveillance camera but he remembered the strips of cloth he’d seen tied around the junction in the duct.

  "There should be a red switch, third down on the left panel. Try that."

  Kurt moved back towards the console and stopped. He thought he heard a scrape like the tail end of a footstep. He listened but heard nothing more. Could be just the dying echo of his own footsteps. He shuffled his feet to see if the sound could be reproduced. He stamped his feet and kicked the balustrade but it didn't sound the same.

  "No time for tap dancing mate," Whetu called. "Third switch down on the left, red one. Should reset the mains control circuit breaker."

  Kurt found the fat red switch and pushed it up. It clicked and sprang back to its original position. Then one by one the lights on the instrument panel came on and all the others right across the chamber lit up in sequence. Almost immediately he heard a low hum of micro machinery grinding into action. Kurt looked around. The change in the engine room was instantly apparent. The room was alive with tiny winking lights and minute audio signals. It was like Christmas.

  "Looking good!" Whetu shouted. "We could be getting there!"

  Kurt couldn't shake a feeling of discomfort. "Can I go now," he asked. "This place gives me the creeps."

  "On the right hand panel there should be three columns of gauges, right?"

  "Right."

  "Green switch at the top of column one, try it."

  Kurt pushed the switch. "Nothing happened."

  "Damn," grunted Whetu. "Try the switch on number two." Again there was no response and again a disappointed grunt from Whetu.

  "What exactly am I doing?" Asked Kurt, impatient. "What are these switches meant to do?"

  "Try the third."

  The third switch was labelled EMTU/3. Kurt pressed it and this time there was an immediate result. The entire column of instruments flickered and a low guttural roar vibrated under his feet.

  "Lot of noise, Fet."

  "Good, that's great!"

  “You sure?”

  He looked around and immediately wished he hadn't. He could have sworn he saw something move out of the corner of his eye. He looked back but it didn't show again.

  "Fet, this place is giving me the shits. Can I go now please?"

  "Fuck it Kurt, this is important!" Whetu had never sworn at him before. "For Christ's sake, for your own bloody sake bear with me will you!"

  "I'm sorry."

  Whetu resumed calm. "Try the sequence on the first two again please."

  Kurt went through the procedure but there was no joy.

  "Shit!"

  "What's up Fet?"

  "Good news and bad. One of our engines works."

  "And the bad?"

  "As we suspected, the control circuit is broken somewhere between the engine room and the bridge, god knows where."

  13

  "Fuckin’ meatheads are going mad." François seemed more edgy than usual. "Had to hose the bastards down. Something's got up them."

  "Where's Kurt?" Liam was anxious to start play.

  "I will deal a dummy hand.” Mohammed was handing out the cards. “He's sure to arrive presently."

  "The hell with him. He wants to come late, he can miss the first round." Mohammed ignored him. He finished shuffling and began to deal.

  "Sons of bitches are out of control. Gotta do something quick." François glanced at his companions. "Maybe lock Celine in there with them. That'd keep them quiet."

  Mohammed stopped dealing and with Liam he stared at François in blank amazement. The s/o shrugged and laughed. "Just kidding," he said but they knew he wasn't. "Wouldn't want to deprive you of your recreation."

  "Shut it!" barked Liam. An awkward silence hung in the chilly air as they stared at François. He shrugged and grinned back at them. Mohammed continued to distribute cards.

  On the other side of the room the airlock hissed and Kurt appeared in the red glow of the doorway. He waved cheerfully as he began towards them. He seemed excited.

  "Hey fellas, I've got news." He was interrupted by a hideous squeal of electronic feedback.

  "Hello-hello?" Steve's voice boomed out over the tannoy. "Can you hear me? Is this thing working?"

  Kurt started to speak again but was drowned out by Steve's deafening drone.

  "Right, now hear this, now hear this. Acting commander speaking with an important announcement." His voice faltered then continued. "After due deliberation and consultation with the Electro Officer I am obliged to inform you that we have made landfall."

  "What's he talking about?” Liam went first. “Landfall?"

  All eyes from the card table turned on Kurt. He nodded enthusiastically tried to speak but was interrupted yet again.

  "We have made contact with the outer atmosphere of an unknown planet." Steve's voice continued flatly. "Our estimated time of contact with its surface will be between three and six hours from now."

  "Contact?" Mohammed frowned at his hand, a tremor of apprehension in his normally unruffled demeanour.

  "Jesus," hissed Liam. "Bloody clown's tellin us we're going to die."

  François stood up and glared at Kurt. "Is that what you came to tell us?" His voice shook with emotion. Kurt blushed and began to stutter.

  "Well yes, but."

  "Fuck that!" François screamed. "No way, not here like this with you losers, fuck that!" Words streamed out of him in disjointed spasms. He pounded the table. Another howl from the tannoy echoed through the cooler and Steve continued.

  "The Medical Officer has agreed to administer medication for those who feel…" He broke off for a moment. "Maybe we should assemble in the canteen and yeah, say a prayer or something. I'm sorry."

  "Deal up," Liam muttered. "We should at least finish the game before we meet the banker." He was trying for stoic but it didn't come out that way. Kurt began to speak but this time François interrupted.

  "This is not the way I'm gonna go." His voice sounded falsely calm, a barely restrained scream. "Not in this shithole with you pricks. I got important things to do."

  "Fellas wait," said Kurt, gently trying to curb the s/o's rapidly developing panic. "Fet reckons we can still…"

  "Save it," François pointed a warning finger. "Don't include me with you shitheads. I was put here for a reason so don't." There was a tense silence as he glared at them his face a rictus of rage.

  "What are you trying to tell us Kurt?" Mohammed sounded calm and reasonable but it only set François off again.

  "I don't want your shitty wog philosophy. I was created for a higher purpose and the dink running this ship has finished me before my time. Not just gonna sit here and die playing poker with
you cunts."

  "You don't have much choice matey," Liam chuckled. "Unless you can think of something clever. But it would have to be exceptional, in the realm of quantum physics."

  There was a spontaneous eruption of mirth. Mohammed and Liam laid down their cards and rocked in their chairs, even Kurt who was still trying to explain. François naturally assumed they were laughing at him.

  "Fuck the lot of you!" François punched Kurt in the mouth and pushed the table on top of the others "Might be the end for you but not me!"

  Their laughter rose in hysterical chorus. If François had had his gun he would have shot them. He strode across the floor and went out through the red airlock. It was some time before the laughter subsided.

  "What I was trying to tell you." Finally Kurt was able to speak. "Is we’ve made it through to the engine room, me and Fet. We got one of the motors going. All we've got to do is find where the wire’s broken and patch it up to the flight deck."

  "Well what was Steve on about?" Liam asked.

  "He doesn't know about that yet."

  "So it's all hands to the pumps."

  “In a word.”

  Kurt was the first to reach the door and to realise what François had done to them. He had locked them inside the cool store. Abruptly their good humour subsided.

  14

  François glided through the empty network of corridors like a guided missile. He moved mechanically, his boots ringing on the metal floors, the relentless tattoo of a drum driving him to battle and his heart pounded with the surging chant of a thousand warriors calling him to slaughter. He would prepare himself and arm for conflict. If death was at hand he would die like a warrior. But before that he had a score to settle.

  His cabin was small and Spartan, a cell almost as tall as it was wide and long and fastidiously clean. There was no furniture or decoration, only a bunk bolted to a wall, a narrow closet and a chest of drawers. Elsewhere all the wall space was taken up with racks of weapons - grenade launchers, rifles, handguns and blades of many shapes and size. François' tiny cubicle was an armoury, a survivalist arsenal.

  He stripped off his clothes and threw them in a heap under the bunk. He stood and gazed at his naked self in a long mirror bolted to the closet door. He clasped his hands together, drew a deep breath and strained outwards. All over his torso powerful muscles surged and rippled and his veins inflated like garden hoses. Inside his head the brotherhood called him to arms.

  He ripped open the closet and took out two jerry cans of fresh water. He uncapped them and emptied their contents over his head and shoulders. Thoroughly soaked, he began to cleanse himself with a rough bristled brush. The blank, determined set of his face suggested the ritual had more to do with inner purification than external cleaning. As he scrubbed and sluiced he muttered a low, primal chant, repeating it over and over again. The brothers chanted along with him.

  "Kill the bastard, kill the bastard," they sang in gruff, hushed unison.

  When he was clean and dried he uncapped a can of paint. With two fingers he daubed a broad red circle on his chest and slashes on his arms forehead and cheeks. His mood had changed. He was calm now, emptied of his former fury.

  Whetu was in the canteen getting coffee when Steve made his announcement. He missed it because Mohammed had the tannoy turned off. He was on his way back to the radio shack to meet up with Kurt and the others when he saw the Security Officer rush by and turn a corner half a block away. They referred to the layout of KOTUKU II as blocks because the domestic/operational end of A/Deck was laid out in a grid like a small city. Whetu had been moving parallel with François one block west on E.42nd Street when he heard the noise and stopped to see what it was. The s/o flashed by, there one moment then gone. Whetu didn't have time to call out to him.

  Back in the shack he was surprised to find that Kurt hadn't returned with the others yet. With less than six hours to go they hadn't any time to lose. The odds were against them although depending on land mass gravity he believed a single engine might well be enough to save them if they could locate the breach in the control circuit. It would be like searching for a needle in a haystack but with three or four or even five people searching and the Beast back to at least half capacity the odds were even. But why was Kurt taking so long to round up the troops?

  "Kurt," he called on the intercom. "Kurt, can you hear me? Please respond." No answer. "We've got work to do. Time's running out." Still no response.

  He had come to rely on the VRT as an escape from the cramped stinking reality of the ship but now he was hoping it could assist in the search. As he plugged the electrodes behind his ears the shack melted into shadows. He felt his body relax and his mind expand as it tuned to the mesmerising pulse of the system then he was back in the service ducts. It was a moment or two before he became aware that something was amiss. Something small and red was flashing in front of him, a friendly fat little red star radiating tiny waves of light. Whichever way he turned it followed him like an irritating fly.

  "Alarmo?" Whetu asked himself. He was accustomed to self-conversing when alone. "Is that you Kurt? Let's see." He asked the Beast for a source but it didn't respond. Visual source location would have brought him into a three-dimensional model of the ship, a bottle shaped birdcage complete with internal grid references. It would have mapped the Troika V's various inner skins, organs, levels and compartments. The flashing red star would then have appeared in one of these sectors and he could have gone straight to the source. However, the function was currently out of reach.

  He wracked his brains for alternative routes. As always the path was either deleted or damaged. He'd re-programmed and re-routed so many circuits that he no longer knew where they all led. The alarm continued to wink at him. He closed his eyes and as the pulsing image blurred in his brain, evaporated and reformed as a single word clear as crystal - Inventory.

  "Inventory plus alarm," he whispered, and immediately his vision cleared. The little star gleamed like a bright new symbol of hope. Having already cracked the inventory to scan the Captain's corpse it might work again. He set to weaving his way back through the electronic alleys and byways until he was once again confronted by a familiar marker - Oceania Aerospace - Vessel KOTUKU II Inventory Control.

  "Alarm," he requested. Nothing happened. "Shit, think man, think!" He took a deep breath to calm down. "How can I make you two talk to each other? Why not ask Inventory to take you through the sectors where the circuit fault is most likely to be and ask Alarm to comment, like a circuit tester. If a red star flashes we could be in business." Why hadn't he thought of it before?

  Kurt heard every crackling word Whetu had spoken and wished he could have replied. He couldn't because the intercom control in the cooler was buried beneath a metre of ice and would have required a sledge hammer to operate, or telepathy.

  For the past twenty minutes Kurt and his companions had been over every inch of wall and floor in the cooler but there was no accessible exit other than the door François had locked. Even the fire axe hanging on the wall by the door, appeared like a warped mirage leering at them through a lens of ice. They were very cold by now and beginning to close down. François had fixed them good and proper.

  "Is it me or has it actually got colder in here?" Liam was shivering. He seemed worst off, closer to the edge of panic.

  Kurt had been pounding at the icebound alarm button with his fist but all he had managed to do was hurt his hand. When he gave up Mohammed resumed the attack with a chair, trying to chip a hole through the ice. He gave up when the chair broke having made no apparent impression. The little red star-shaped alarm button remained out of reach.

  "Maybe if we lit a fire the smoke alarm might go off," Kurt suggested hopefully. "Can you see any smoke alarms?"

  "Up there," Mohammed pointed at a huge mound of ice bulging from the ceiling high above their heads. Inside the ice a squat cylindrical grilled head like a shower nozzle was barely visible. "But I don't think
that would work."

  "How about the alarm on the Captain's cooler? We could set that off."

  Liam cut him off. "Computer's down. It only sounds in here."

  And so the discussion proceeded in ever diminishing and more desperate circles while the cold seeped relentlessly in through their coats and hats penetrating to their bones.

  "We must have hit a sore spot with François. What did we say to him?"

  "We laughed at him," said Mohammed. "His pride became bruised."

  "Hate to say this boys," Liam jogged on the spot and slapped his arms. "But if we don't get out of here pretty soon we're going to end up like the Captain."

  "I've got to say." Kurt sat himself down by the repositioned card table and stared at the floor. "This isn’t the way I wanted to go."

  "Me neither," said Liam. "I was hoping to pass on somewhere warm with a glass of strong drink in my hand."

  That was when the intercom crackled and Whetu's voice boomed through the misty cold. "Kurt, can you hear me?" They abandoned decorum and yelled back at the top of their croaky voices. But hope rapidly evaporated when Whetu continued oblivious to their cries. There was no way he could hear them.

  "Please respond. We've got work to do. Time's running out."

  "You're not kidding mate."

  The three helpless men stood in a ragged circle staring at the ceiling eyes closed. None of them noticed that beneath its murky window of ice the alarm button by the door had begun to silently flash. The tiny red star had been pulsing for some time in response to the vibration from Mohammed's apparently futile attack with the chair.

  Whetu was back inside the VRT contemplating a high view of a section of narrow ventilation ducting, with a junction at its far end.

  "Service duct DRM stroke 40," the Beast droned in its familiar dry tones.

  "Why have you brought me here?" It looked familiar although he couldn't quite place it. He consulted the ragged blueprints and located a marker pen line supposedly denoting one of Kurt's previous expeditions. He traced his finger along the line through a series of junctions but none them had the right numbers. His finger stopped, backed up and there it was - DRM/40. They had been here before.

  "Alarm," he whispered, and waited. Eventually after considerable delay he had his reply.

  "Systems Intact," he was informed.

  "So why did you bring me here?" he asked The Beast. "Is this a garden path or are we are getting warmer?" The Beast made no reply. The only way to find out was to investigate the cluster of units around DRM/40 and see what they held. If nothing, then move on.

  "Take me to DRM stroke 41," he requested and immediately he found himself in another section of almost identical duct, except this one curved to starboard at the far end. More familiar terrain.

  "Alarm?" he asked and this time after a short wait he received a very different response.

  "Systems Failure at port DRL stroke 42."

  "Port DRL stroke 42?" His fingertip found the map reference and a note in Kurt's handwriting - hanky.

  Unit DRL/42 appeared to be some sort of control room branching off DRM/41, the section of duct he was currently inside. He moved towards it and stopped at a metal ladder leading up to a small hatch just large enough for someone to pass through. The door on the hatch was closed. It was labelled in neatly stencilled letters - DRL/42. Tied to the top rung of the ladder a small white piece of cloth flapped gently in the breeze. It was starting to come back to him.

  "Take me inside DRL stroke 42." His environment immediately began to transform and then exploded in a burst of static.

  "Systems failure, access unavailable," said the Beast evenly.

  "Get me out!" He felt uncomfortable in the midst of the electronic storm.

  "Where do you want to go?"

  He ripped the electrodes off his head and grabbed the microphone on the console in front of him. "Kurt," he yelled. "Kurt, this is very important. I don't want to raise your hopes, but I really think I'm onto it. Where are you for Christ's sake speak to me? We're running out of time mate!"

  Still no reply came. He looked down at the map in his lap. His finger stopped on DRL/42. There was nothing else for it. In a drawer he found a fat bunch of thin brass keys shaped like blunt ended pencils scored with tiny longitudinal slots. He checked the sequence numbers on the tags and stuffed them in the breast pocket of his overall.

  "Lights," he said to himself. "I need lights."

  With one eye on the blueprint and the other on the keyboard Whetu lit a path through the maze of service ducts just as he had for Kurt. On the scanner section after section of identical ducting flickered into view as fluorescent overhead tubes rippled on. The screen cleared back to the inventory opening menu. In the top right hand corner the little red star was still flashing, a lonely unanswered beacon of distress. Whetu puzzled over it for a moment longer then he departed. He pulled open the door of the radio shack and with stepped out into the narrow corridor.

  There he halted because for the second time in less than an hour he heard that same noise, like a herd of stampeding buffalo coming towards him. A moment later François appeared painted red from head to toe, wearing only a pair of black shorts running towards him. The s/o seemed to fill all the available space top-to-bottom and sideways in the narrow corridor. To avoid collision Whetu stepped back into the shack in time for François to rumble by unimpeded. He had his riot gun in one hand and a grenade in the other.

  Whetu watched him disappear around a corner. Their eyes had met momentarily but François had made no sign of having seen him. Strange behaviour in crew members was not unusual. Everyone had been getting progressively odder all year. There wasn't time to think about it. Whetu turned south towards the blunt end of the ship.

  15

  After making the announcement from the flight deck Steve went back to his cabin to clean up. He put on fresh clothes and went to the canteen with a bible to wait for the others. Nobody came except for Celine. Whetu had already been and gone.

  "I cannot desert my post. I have a duty to perform."

  "Yes Steve, I agree. But under the circumstances I think you are entitled to some assistance. This way there will be less stress. You won't know what's happening to you."

  It was a tempting proposition, to be at peace and free of guilt in his final hours. There was nothing more he could do influence the inevitable outcome.

  "Do you think?" No matter what the rationale, desertion ran against the grain. "What else can I do, I suppose, except wait?"

  "Except wait," repeated Celine supportively. She laid a comforting hand on his arm. "It won't hurt. Just a little jab in the bum."

  He must have drifted off but now he was awake in an odd kind of way. Time must have elapsed but he had no recollection of how much, hours, minutes, seconds or what had happened in the interim. He moved his arm and it floated of its own accord and hung above him detached from his body. His head felt clear but quite separate from the rest of him. Normally this kind of independent behaviour within his torso would have caused concern but at the moment there seemed no reason to worry about anything. Except for the vague recollection of a voice somewhere calling him. He couldn't remember who or when or what it was saying.

  "Who was that?" He murmured drowsily. He was lying on his bunk. His shoes were missing and his trousers were gone. He could feel a warm draft of air blowing on his legs. The voice he'd heard was recent and he was concerned he might have missed something important.

  "Whetu," replied another voice nearby. "It was Whetu but he was calling for Kurt not you." This voice was soft and languid wafting over him like a warm blanket. "Relax-ree-laaaxxx, you've had a rough time but it's almost overrrr."

  "Whet-too. Where is he?" Steve tried to sit up but couldn't. His tongue felt woolly, hard to manipulate. "Is he, is he here?"

  "He's not here. It's just us."

  Who belonged to this voice? It sounded familiar but he couldn't quite place it. Slowly he turn
ed his head.

  "Oh yes!" His heart melted when he saw her. He rolled over in the bunk and stretched out his arms.

  "Don't move." Celine flew towards him, stopped him falling on the floor. "You'll be a bit unsteady for a while but that will pass. How do you feel?"

  "I love you," he whispered. His hands reached out to touch her and he felt a tingling sensation run through his body. His arms yearned to hold her.

  "What did you say?" Hadn't she heard him clearly?

  "I said that I love you."

  Celine drew back as if stung. Her brow wrinkled in a frown. She looked away embarrassed.

  "I'm sorry but it's true."

  "You'll feel disoriented for a while, but that will pass."

  "I mean it Celine, I really mean it."

  "Stop it Steve, stop it."

  "I was never able to say it before." All at once he was no longer tongue-tied. Words jumped effortlessly into his mouth. There was so much he wanted to say. "But now I can. I want to say it."

  "Why?"

  "Because it's better to just say what you think, to be honest." He seemed sincere. Celine was wary.

  "Really? Is that what you think?"

  "Please, try not to think about the past."

  "It's not that easy Steve, after what happened between us, after what you said."

  "I'm sorry Celine. I was wrong, I admit it."

  “It’s just the drugs talking, not you.”

  No-no.”

  Celine remained sceptical. She'd dealt with irrational men before as well as drunks and liars. But wasn't this what she'd wanted to hear from him all year? Still it was hard to trust him. Her pride had taken a beating.

  "And now you expect me to fall into your arms and pretend it never happened."

  "Yes. We have so little time."

  There was no denying that. They had an hour, two hours at the most left to live so even if he was lying she'd never live to find out.

  François strode onto the flight deck. He scanned the room searching for movement, body heat, the sound of breathing. His vision penetrated every dark corner and the hidden crevice. Lights winked and scanners glowed but he detected no sign of his quarry.

  "Where are you bastard!" he screamed in frustration. "Reveal yourself coward! I demand retribution!" The boom of his voice echoed and died. He stood very still, eyes tightly closed. His nose twitched. Slowly his eyes opened focussing on the scent he had picked up. "The woman," he hissed. "He's with the woman." He turned and jogged away.

  There was silence on the flight deck and for some time nothing moved. Then a tall very thin shadow detached itself and inched towards the door where François had departed. It was von Wittering the ancient navigator. His bloodless dinosaur physique must have been too insubstantial for François to detect.

  "I know how you feel friend," he murmured in a tone of deep melancholy. "I too have been caught short by this cruel turn of events. If you find him give him one from me." He turned from the receding thunder of François' footsteps and moved painfully towards the pilot’s seats.

  The windscreen was almost opaque with pits and scratches but still his sad old eyes could just make out the grey planet hanging in the sky ahead. It loomed so large it nearly filled the frame. Von Wittering closed his eyes. Tears began to seep. It was Easter by his reckoning and like every year it reminded him of a similar season long ago, an Easter spent ashore in Marseilles in the company of an opera singer. Her name was Beatrice and from the moment they met they'd never left each other's sight until seven days later when his ship had sailed. It had been the best time he'd ever known and the saddest. It had become the benchmark and sadly a pinnacle never to be revisited. Why had he sailed away when he'd found such perfection? Was it for fear that if he stayed their love might not endure? All these years later he still did not know the answer. Maybe he should have risked failure and stayed to find out.

  Easter. He always hoped for some kind of personal resurrection but the crash had finally put paid to that. Hope had slipped away. He would never know love again; he would never have his bar. With shaky hands he filled his glass with whisky and raised it in a toast to the grey mass ahead. "Round Five to you," he muttered bitterly and staggered away.

  Steve gazed in awe. Celine did the rest. She was astride him sweating and tearing at his clothes. His shirt ripped open, buttons flying. She gripped his shoulders and thrust her hips grinding into him. Her shirt burst open and slid off her shoulders. Steve stared in breathless amazement as she tossed her head back and let go a fierce primal moan.

  "Jesus," he gasped. This was better than he remembered, much more than he could ever have imagined.

  Celine’s breathing grew faster driven by her surging heartbeat. She stretched herself open prostrating herself along the length of his heaving body. She clasping his head in her hands and pressing her body against his, smothering him in her breasts. She was biting his shoulders, his neck, chin, ears and lips. The pain was exquisite. Suddenly she arched upright. Her mouth opened gagging and let forth a deafening howl. The grip on his shoulders was savage, nails tearing his flesh. Her voice rose in a soaring scream, head flung back as she squeezed him with all her strength.

  Steve was sweating too and grinning and laughing until he thought he would explode, melt and disintegrate. His breathing was ragged and his teeth clenched and he could no longer feel the bunk beneath him. He couldn't believe this was really him, that he was capable of reaching these dizzy bleeding heights.

  "Flying!" he yelled. "We're flying."

  "Yes my love, yes-yes-yes!" she screamed back. "Oh yes-yes-yes!" They locked together in thunderous simultaneous orgasm. All around them the air was rent with a tremendous pounding. They rolled off the bunk and hit the floor amidst a deafening explosion. The bottom of the cabin door evaporated in splinters showering them with dust and shredded wood.

  “Holy shit! That was amazing.”

  “Shush.” Celine sat up abruptly struggling to regain her breath. Steve's eyes popped open wondering why she'd stopped, wanting more. He grabbed at her buttocks but she wriggled free and slapped him.

  “What?”

  "Shhhhh!" She jammed her hand in his mouth, tense and listening. Steve was confused and disappointed. Then through a hole in the door came the sound of heavy feral breathing and the rustling of some wild foraging animal.

  "What?" Steve hissed, eyes wide. "What was that?"

  "Come out bastard!" François' voice was barely recognisable. “Face me like a man!” It sounded laboured and damaged like the squawk of a broken doll. The door rattled then it began to pound again, a dull hollow throbbing on the thick balsa wood door.

  "Shit." Celine hissed between clenched teeth. Then she screamed. "Fuck off, pervert!"

  "Is that Whetu? Let him in," muttered Steve through her fingers, recollecting earlier voices.

  "Go away!" bellowed Celine.

  As the dust began to settle François became visible through the haze, slumped in a heap against the wall opposite, his body blackened and bleeding. He was kicking the door with his bare foot. He groaned and tried to drag himself to his feet.

  Celine knew they had to move. "Quick!" She began gathering her clothes. "We’ve got to get out before he recovers."

  Steve was struggling to catch up with what had happened. Celine grabbed his hand, dragged him to his feet. She thrust his clothes at him, pulled open the remains of the door and pushed him out. He tripped over François' spread-eagled legs and pulled her down with him.

  16

  The door to DRL/42 was not hard to find. Whetu just followed his feet along the path he had lit from the radio shack. As he neared his objective he began to realise he was following something like a gingerbread trail. There were strips of cloth tied to pipes and ladders, left presumably by Kurt to facilitate the retracing of his steps. The trail ended at a ladder with DRL/42 stencilled on the wall beside. Whetu sorted through the keys he had brought and found one corresponding
to the numbers stencilled on the hatch. He climbed to the hatch and inserted the key in the lock. He felt the slots engage. A minute electric mechanism whirred inside the hatch and a tiny green light flickered above the lock. He cranked the handle. The door hissed open.

  From floor level the space appeared to be a sub-station of some kind although a bank of transformers blocked any view further inside. He could hear something that sounded like music and there were lights on which struck him as odd since he'd been unable to access this sector before leaving the shack. He dragged himself up through the tight hatchway. Below through the metal grille floor he could make out level upon level of galleries curving away beneath his feet. The outer wall was moving, rotating upwards where the view was a mirror image of below. He was inside the second skin of the gravitation cylinder.

  He consulted his tattered map. "So if I follow this along." Without looking up he began to move, feet following the progress of his finger along the surface of the blueprint. "I should eventually come to a port which opens directly into the external cavity. But I don’t want to do that because."

  He came to an abrupt halt, entangled in something damp and soft wrapped around his face. He backed away to discover a thin cord tied across the companionway. From it hung a line of recently laundered underwear flapping lazily in the breeze. Then the lights went out. Something hard came down with force on the back of his head rendering him unconscious.

  There had been no time to get dressed. They were running clutching their clothes with François staggering after them. Steve was still hampered by the sedative Celine had given him. He was moving slowly, concerned that François was injured. He was also leaving a trail of clothing in his wake.

  "Where are we going? I don't understand."

  "To find somewhere to hide. Keep going!"

  "But why?"

  "François wants to kill you."

  "Why?"

  "He didn't say." She stopped and clamped a hand over his mouth. "Listen." A noise like the rumble of hooves boomed towards them. She pushed Steve into the canteen and under a table.

  "Not a word or we're both dead," she hissed in his ear.

  "Let me talk to him, find out what the problem is."

  "Shush! He's coming."

  They peered out between legs of tables and chairs and saw the s/o plunge past the doorway. They waited listening as the sound receded.

  "We should go back the way we came." Celine began to pull on her clothes. Then she stopped. "Jesus, he's coming back." There it was again, the s/o returning at full speed. She barely had time to push Steve back under the table before François was there, motionless in the doorway. He swept his riot gun across the room, pointed like a retriever and waded towards them amidst a crashing bough wave of tables and chairs.

  "Christ, I never realised he was so huge." For a moment Celine was paralysed with awe. "Has he got bigger?"

  He was following his nose straight to where they were hiding. Celine pushed Steve in front of her guiding him on hands and knees under a row of tables across the next aisle. Ten metres and closing François changed course like a heat-seeking missile. There seemed to be no escape. Even Steve was beginning to realise.

  "What'll we do," he whispered, backing away. Seconds later they were against the wall.

  "When I say run, you run."

  "Where?"

  "Anywhere, just run." She turned back towards François who was now less than three metres away, gun in hand. He stopped. "Stand up like a man!" he screamed.

  "No, don't!" hissed Celine. "Stay down Steve. Steve?" Where the hell was he? She looked back at François and saw his head turn towards the end wall. He began to move again past her no more than a table width away. She stood up to see Steve scrambling to his feet four tables away clutching the last of his clothing to his exposed groin. François paused. He began swelling for the kill.

  Celine felt a surge of energy rise within her and the world began to move in slow motion. All she could hear was the rush of air through her windpipe and the pulse of blood in her ears. A chair rose weightlessly into her open palms. She turned towards François and swung it high above her head. As the Security Officer made his move towards Steve, Celine sprang forward and brought the chair down on him with all the force at her disposal. Her feet lifted clear off the ground as the metal wrapped around the big man's head and shoulders as if made of string. She felt nothing, no resistance, no impact but François’ legs folded and he sank like a stone. Celine kept moving. Steve was staring at her mesmerised. She opened her mouth and howled. "Run!" For once Steve did as he was told.

  When he awoke Whetu was on his back staring up at a festoon of shredded multi-strand cable. Wire was spewing from a wrecked electro junction sub-console. The first word to swim into his aching head was - eureka! He had found it at last the disconnect in The Beast’s brain, the communication gap between the bridge and the engine room, the source of everything that was wrong with ship. He tried but couldn't sit up. Something was restricting his arms and legs.

  "Hellooo. Anybody there?" His voice echoed back with a sharp metallic resonance. There was no reply. He craned forward to see what was pinning his limbs together and discovered he was firmly bound hand and foot and lashed to a section of floor grille.

  He returned his attention to the electro junction. The cable must have been deliberately cut since there was no obvious crash damage in the vicinity. And some of the torn wires appeared to have been re-patched.

  "Hellooo!" he called again and this time there were footsteps on the metal walkway. He looked back and found a pair of boots stopping behind his head. They were black webbing boots with red rubber soles, standard flight issue. His eyes moved slowly upwards, revealing a diminutive figure dressed in a loose fitting olive green overall. A baseball cap of the same colour clothed the head. He couldn’t see the face. It was wrapped in a red scarf and black rimmed shades obscured the eyes. His captor stared impassively down at him and said nothing.

  "Hi." Whetu smiled, believing it was the safest way to proceed. "My name's Whetu," he continued. "I'm the ship’s electro."

  "I know who you are." The voice was gruff, oddly low and gravelly. It sounded forced and impatient.

  "I don't recognise you."

  "What do you want?"

  "I'm looking for a break in the central control circuit. I think I just found it." He nodded at the chopped cable above him. "I just want to fix it so we can get the ship working again." His voice dried in his throat. His captor had moved, revealing a broad double-edged knife gripped in the right hand. Whetu had trouble getting his smile to work again and when he did it was more of a grimace.

  "I have no intention of harming you." His voice had become weak and jerky. "All I want to do is get the ship going before we sink."

  "Sink?" Scepticism replaced gruffness and several octaves higher a feminine voice emerged. "What are you talking about?"

  "A planet," Whetu added urgently. "We've entered a gravitational field. We're being drawn towards it and we'll crash unless."

  "Rubbish."

  "If we don't regain thrust within the next hour we're toast, burnt toast."

  “You're lying."

  "Why would I lie? Look outside, see for yourself." His captor remained suspicious. It was all taking too long.

  "Look." Once again he indicated the damaged electro junction. "That break has ruptured communications between the engine room and flight deck. If we fix it now the ship will run again. If we don't, we're all dead." He smiled with as much honesty he could muster. "For the sake of the ship,” he implored. “For the crew, for your own sake you really should untie me."

  "We're going to die anyway." The knife hung poised above his face, pointing at his eye.

  "Please untie me. I'm not going to hurt you. I came here to fix those cables. I didn't know you were here, I don't even know who you are. Honestly."

  She lunged with the knife. Whetu closed his eyes. He felt cold steel against hi
s throat. Then the cord loosened and fell away from his neck. He opened his eyes.

  "You try anything and you're dead," she grunted and slashed again. He felt the cords fall away from his arms and hands. He rubbed his chafed wrists. As he moved to get up he lurched towards her. She jumped back and the scarf fell away from her face revealing jet-black hair and dark flashing eyes. Her face was lean and almond shaped, with delicate rosebud lips. Whetu stared at her dumbstruck. His memory of a fleeting moment long ago had not done her justice.

  "Guinevere, Princess," he said finally. "I didn't recognise you with clothes on."

  Her foot lashed out and would have broken his jaw had his freed hands not been faster. He grabbed her ankle, she slipped, over-balanced and collapsed on top of him. The knife flashed past his cheek and clattered away out of harm's way. She lunged after it but he held her fast under a barrage of pummelling fists.

  "Stop, please stop and I'll let you go," he yelled above her curses. Eventually she stopped and true to his word he released her. She shrank back watching him warily from a safe distance.

  "I'm sorry," he began. "What I meant was I saw you once just for a moment in my VRT. I thought you were someone in the game I was playing. You looked as if you were dancing." He looked down at the floor shyly. "You might have had no clothes on but I only remember your face."

  Slowly he reached over, picked up the knife by its blade and held it out to her handle first, a gesture of truce. "Would you cut my feet loose please?" She watched him and the knife. "Please. We really don't have much time." She circled around to his feet reached down and sliced the remaining cord.

  "I recognise you now,” he said. "Mariana."

  She seemed defeated, resigned, disappointed.

  “We thought you were dead."

  "I should have killed you," is all she said.

  François' eyes winched open. He looked around but all he could see was a forest of anodised table and chair legs and the hard shiny floor his chin was resting on. Slowly he pressed himself up from the floor and staggered to his feet. His hand went to the back of his head and felt the wound furrowing his closely cropped head. He felt no pain however, and no recollection of how the wound had got there. All he knew was that he must get up and find the bastard who had cut him down in his prime and rendered him purposeless.

  He staggered into the corridor and paused, thinking which way to go. His nose twitched, picked up a familiar scent towards the north. It was the doctor. He knew her smell and she was with the bastard last time he saw him. François aimed his feet and thundered off towards the flight deck.

  Celine and Steve had gone to ground in a dry goods store two blocks east of the flight deck. They had piled crates of canned and dehydrated food and cartons of toilet paper against the door and burrowed back through to the wall. Six metres of groceries now stood between them and the door so Celine felt confident they were safe. Nonetheless she wilted at the sound of François' distant feet moving closer yet again.

  "Jesus," she sighed. "He's indestructible."

  Steve was asleep with his head in her lap. He grinned like a baby and chuckled. She shook him and he awoke beaming at her. Tears welled in his eyes.

  "What?" she asked, puzzled.

  "Thanks," he said. "You were terrific. You saved my life." He looked at her for a long time. "You're beautiful, do you know that?" He kissed her belly then put his arms around her and nestled his cheek against her breast. Celine managed a ragged sigh.

  "I've got to admit,” she whispered. “Your timing's impeccable."

  Outside in the corridor François thundered by, turned a corner and continued on. There was an ominous humming silence. Steve burrowed deeper. His tongue began to probe. Celine pushed him away and once again jammed her hand over his mouth. They didn't have long to wait for the inevitable confirmation. François was circling back.

  His footsteps returned slower this time but just as heavily. They came to a halt outside the door of the storeroom. There was silence for a moment then a sound like a dog sniffing for quarry. The door shuddered and bulged inwards. Their barrier began to tremble.

  "Do something Steve. It's your turn." Celine sighed wearily. Steve laughed. He knew she must be joking.

  “If you’re putting all your hope in our substitute captain I think you’re deluded.”

  "Well, we've got to try. It’s our only hope. We can't just sit around and wait for the end to come without trying." Whetu was working through the mass of mangled wires trying to discover some pattern to the chaos. Above the terminal a small video screen glowed with a rudimentary digital touch keypad.

  “I read his profile notes before we took off.

  “Did you read mine?”

  “I read everybody’s”

  “And?”

  “He’s an idiot basically. Moderate IQ crippled by insecurity. Unsuited to command. Wouldn’t have a job if wasn’t for his friendship with the real captain.”

  “But you still came?”

  “Cabin Fever, it was going to be my thesis. A study of the effects on a crew of two years in a tank. I didn’t know George was going to croak.” After months of isolation Mariana was enjoying live conversation. “Although he’s another one. Narcissist, control freak, borderline schizophrenic.” She seemed more relaxed now, less suspicious although no less cynical.

  “How about me? What’s my profile?”

  Mariana ignored his question. He saw her watching him.

  “What?”

  “The instinct for survival in the face of hopeless odds. Why do you bother?"

  "Can't think what else to do."

  "And that's a valid reason?"

  "Survival. It's a natural instinct isn't it?"

  “Irrational more like. So lets assume you do get the ship going again? What then?"

  "Then it's up to Steve. He's the one who knows how to fly it."

  Mariana laughed bitterly. "As I was saying, what's the point in going to all that trouble if in the end it comes down to Steve? Wouldn't it be more humane to just leave us to be cremated in ignorance?"

  He was having trouble with Mariana's eyes. They were dark, remarkably large and quite mesmeric. He couldn't believe he hadn't noticed her more during those first trouble free months of their voyage. The wires swam together in his blurry vision. They all looked the same.

  "I wish you hadn't done this," he said lightly. "There's less than a one in million chance I could get the right wires back together." The wire ends in his fingers fizzed and sparked when he touched them together. The monitor on the console had been repeating the same message with every connection he tried - INVALID PATH. CHOOSE OPTION.

  "I was desperate. I wanted to cover my tracks.”

  "We’d still never have found you." Whetu thought for a moment and smiled wistfully. "You would have remained the elusive princess."

  "Grow up." She smiled. His description of her mysterious manifestation during his pursuit of the Black Knight made her laugh. The obviously strong impression she'd made on him warmed her and nothing had warmed Mariana for a very long time. "You're obviously a hopeless romantic."

  “Is that in my profile?”

  “It is now.”

  Hopeless romantic - Whetu liked the title. The next pair of wires didn't spark. Instead a video image of the flight deck flickered on the monitor, then disappeared and changed to a view of the canteen. The picture continued cycling through a dozen other locations before it went out.

  "It'll take a year to match all these by trial and error." He peered closely at the two strands in his fingers squinting his eyes to focus. Mariana fumbled inside the neck of her overall and produced a Swiss Army knife on a string around her neck. She folded open a tiny magnifying glass and passed it to him.

  "Numbers." Now that he could see the wires in detail. "They're coded."

  "There is something seriously wrong with that man." Mariana's attention was on the video monitor. It showed a high view of a narrow pa
ssage in the north/east end of the ship. In the lower foreground François could be seen alternately kicking and head butting a door. His movements were regular and measured like a machine on a production line.

  "I suppose the threat of death affects us all differently."

  "This is classic." She peered closer for a better view of the s/o's behaviour. Whetu returned to his wires. He pared coatings off the matching ends and twitched them together. Mariana grabbed his shoulder.

  "Look at this?" The picture had changed again, this time to a wide view of the cool store. In the middle of its broad misty expanse three men jogged on the spot, slapping their sides. Their movements were extremely slow. Clouds of vapour issued from their mouths. In the top/left corner of the screen a fat little red star pulsed on and off – ALARMO.

  "So that's where they are."

  "What are they doing?"

  "I think they're stuck." Finally he knew the source of his guiding star.

  Whetu hit the control on the doorjamb. The heavy metal barrier hissed and scraped open. A great gush of brown fog poured out and flowed around him. As the cloud subsided he was able to see them. They stood very still like stone warriors in a circle, heads bowed eyes and mouths clamped shut. They were covered in a glistening layer of frost from head to toe.

  "Hey Kurt, Liam!" he called. "Let's go, we've got work to do! Mohammed?" None of them responded. "Kurt, are you all right mate?" Whetu moved inside and immediately felt the bite of extreme cold tearing at his eyes and mouth, threatening to instantly dry his moist parts into ice. He stepped back outside.

  "Hey guys, can you hear me?" The only answer was his own echo. There was no other way; he had to go back in. Squinting his eyes he covered his mouth with his sleeve and dived inside.

  "Kurt mate!" Whetu peered up at the big man's face. Nothing, not a muscle moved or a vein ticked, although he detected a faint trail of vapour trickling from the carpenter's nostrils. He pushed at Kurt's stomach and felt it give under the thick crusty coat. He slapped his frozen face and shook his shoulders. Eventually there was a reaction. The big man's eyes and mouth remained locked shut but he coughed and his legs performed a rough backwards stagger. Whetu pushed him in the chest and he staggered again, back another couple of steps. In this manner Whetu turned him and propelled him slowly backwards towards the open doorway.

  Once they'd made the corridor Whetu let him collapse to his knees. Covering his eyes and mouth Whetu set off again. By the time he returned dragging Liam, the stale heat of the corridor had begun its job. Kurt was shivering. His eyes were open, his coat discarded and he was rubbing life back into his numb limbs. His mouth was still incapable of coherent speech.

  "Never fought I dinjoy breavin diss shit again," he murmured through stiff lips. Then he scrambled to his feet and dived back into the cooler. Mohammed stood like a last remaining skittle in a bowling alley. Kurt plucked him off his feet and carried him rigid as a plank to the safety of the corridor. Whetu closed the door behind them shutting the cold inside. Kurt laid the inert cook on the floor and began to massage his hands and face. Liam lay on his back tentatively moving his legs and arms in the air like an overturned spider exercising warmth and feeling back into his deadened limbs. He struggled to his feet and stumbled to the temperature control panel beside the door.

  "Bastard turned the cold down to min," he croaked.

  "Who did?" asked Whetu.

  "Bloody François," he continued. "Bastard tried to kill us. He's flipped."

  "Shhhh, what was that?" said Whetu. They listened. "Feel it?"

  It was something new, a minute high frequency shudder singing through the ship. They stared at each other hopelessly.

  "Could be a density shift in the atmosphere, outside resistance. We're speeding up, hitting friction." Whetu was on the move. "Kurt, go back to the engine room and stand by to fire. You guys find Steve."

  Before anyone could do or say anything a distant scream pierced the sluggish air. It sounded like a woman's voice, could only be Celine.

  "François," said Whetu putting two-and-two together. The others needed no further encouragement.

  "Fucker!" Their faces set in a collective grimace of vengeance. They set off towards the scream, even Mohammed who could barely move hobbled after.

  The storeroom door had finally given up. François crashed through in an untidy heap under a mound of jumbled cartons. He didn't stop for long. He began ploughing through stacks of canned food on hands and knees closing for the kill. Blood streamed from his forehead and from the wound on the top of his head.

  "It's your turn Steve!" Celine screamed. "Do something!"

  Steve laughed. He rolled on the floor in helpless naked mirth and nothing she could do could stop him. Inevitably the wall of boxes in front of them collapsed revealing the Security Officer, sweating and bleeding. This was the last straw for Steve. His convulsions redoubled and he lay on his back gagging for breath, pointing at the blood stained s/o. He had lost control. He gasped, choked and in conclusion broke wind, the involuntary skunk defence.

  Celine recoiled in disgust. As the stench spread François instinctively covered his mouth and turned his face away. Celine wasted no time. She held her breath, seized cartons and hurled them at him in a continuous bulk storm driving him stumbling back towards the corridor. His feet caught on the doorsill, he overbalanced and sprawled back into the hall. One moment he was there lying on the floor, then he was gone swallowed in an angry swarm of frozen humanity. His former poker pals had arrived bent on revenge.

  Celine emptied a phial of sedative into François' buttock while his captors held him down. In the background Steve's sobbing laughter could still be heard, although by now diminished by fatigue.

  "What's botherin' himself?" asked Liam. Celine muttered vaguely about an accident. Their lack of clothing had been tactfully avoided by all concerned. Whetu looked worried.

  "We're going to need him to fly the ship"

  "Forget it," said Celine. "He's a mess." She withdrew the needle from François' backside. "Lock this prick in the brig before he comes round, in a straight jacket."

  They relaxed their hold cautiously. François was relaxed now, snoring deeply. Kurt and Liam took an arm each and dragged him away. Mohammed followed. When they were gone Whetu asked again.

  "What's wrong with Steve?"

  "I gave him a shot to calm him down, before." She looked away to hide her embarrassment. "He was over wrought and I thought it would help him under the circumstances."

  "OK.” Whetu was not one to point the finger but this was an emergency. "What ever it takes," he said. "Sort him out."

  "I'll try," replied Celine doubtfully.

  17

  Outside conditions had changed radically. For the first time in more than a year, KOTUKU II was experiencing the friction of atmosphere against her skin and her behaviour had altered accordingly. A thin, cold high altitude gale whistled around her bulbous contours. She began to pitch and yaw. Sections of fuselage, panels and heat shields damaged in the crash began to work loose and detach themselves. No longer drifting aimlessly she was now in the grip of something powerful, an unseen force dragging her relentlessly towards the great mass of the grey planet. The gigantic orb now seemed to surround her on all sides.

  The tiny blue moon had passed close by two hours before. There had been a slight deviation in KOTUKU's path but the little planet moved away too quickly to influence her passage. While for the time being they moved relentlessly closer to the grey planet there was a chance they might spin off the edge of its influence and be drawn on by the superior mass of the large blood red sun beyond. The potentials were bad and worse.

  Inside the ship morbid silence had departed. All around them the old ship creaked and groaned as if straining at the seams desperate to burst apart. Interior temperature was steadily rising imparting the already stagnant air with a putrescent reek of decay. Inboard gravitation had begun to intermittently malfunction. In respons
e to the presence of real gravity it was meeting resistance and slowing down making movement increasingly difficult. Meanwhile the crew continued with the tasks assigned them by Whetu who had become master of the moment. Without speaking they set about work with an air of expectation as if preparing for the last battle. No longer could it be denied, one way or another a finale of some sort was at hand.

  Kurt and Liam had dragged François down to B/deck and strapped him to a bunk in the brig. Celine gave him another dose to keep him relaxed until whatever was going to happen had happened. Then Kurt went aft to the engine room to fire up EMTU/3 and stand by for the big moment.

  Steve was asleep snoring loudly in his bunk when Celine found him. She gave him a heavy dose of intravenous vitamin/C laced with synthetic adrenalin and slapped him till he came round. She dragged him to the shower, doused him in cold water until he was blue then administered several cups of Mohammed's pungent black coffee. At last the sub-commander was becoming more sensible. Now when Celine poked him with a sharp object he displayed mild annoyance rather than an urge to giggle.

  Whetu meanwhile sat with the Beast in the radio shack directing operations. He simultaneously kept tabs on all of crew as well as monitoring the progress of their increasingly rapid tumbling descent. He would have liked to be under power by now but there was still work to be done before that was possible. Mariana declined any part in it. She was recording the event on video and making notes. She claimed the occasion was too important to go unrecorded.

  "Scanner five," she said. "Can we record all this?" The screen showed a wide shot of the front section of the dungeon on B/deck. The meatheads appeared to be trying to break out.

  "You want that?"

  "Of course." She turned away and made an entry in her notebook. "I want everything."

  The air in the dungeon was hot and almost impossible to breath. The fetor of forty unwashed panicking men in a confined space was overpowering. They were packed hard together against the main exit. Many near the front were already crushing in the press. Ratko and big Bo were right by the door. Bo was trying to get it open but his arm and foot movement was restricted by the crush. He had resorted to pounding the door with his head while Ratko watched wondering if there was another way.

  "Now hear this. Now hear this!" Whetu's voice boomed out over the uproar. "The ship is experiencing atmospheric turbulence. Please extinguish all cigarettes, fold down your landing seats and buckle in."

  The mob ceased its racket and stared at the tannoy speakers in disbelief. What could this mean? Whetu's recorded message was repeated at ten second intervals.

  "Atmospheric turbulence." Ratko was first to twig. "That means we're bloody landing," he shouted. All at once the scramble was in the opposite direction to get to the seats. While the others scattered in fright Ratko took his time. He could have any seat he wanted. But if it was true, if they were in fact landing some interesting possibilities came to mind. Foremost was the question of escape. The chances had to be better on solid ground than they had been here for the past year.

  Liam circled back to the trashed dry goods store en route for the flight deck. During their scuffle with François he'd noticed a shattered case of cognac, it's contents strewn on the floor. With the carton tucked under his arm he looked in on von Wittering to explain the situation. The old man was too drunk to understand so Liam topped up his glass and joined him in a toast to the future. The old fellow emptied his glass and passed out. Liam strapped him into his hammock and tethered it securely to the floor. There was no point in trying to move him. The hammock had become his island in the swamp, the only place he felt secure.

  Whetu didn't notice when Mariana quietly slipped away and disappeared back to her nest. Later he was disappointed she'd gone without saying goodbye. The others had been too preoccupied to take much interest in her reappearance.

  On the flight deck a credible simulation of normality had been reinstated. Shaved and showered and wearing a fresh overall Steve dropped into the left hand seat of the mighty Troika V. A glance at Celine in the seat beside him brought back a delicious flush of memory and he chortled to himself. She prodded him with a pencil and he regained composure. Then he set about checking the overhead banks of brightly glowing, recently rejuvenated instrument panels. Communications with his backup crew were terse and functional and Celine was struck by the change in him. Thrust into a position of critical responsibility in demanding circumstances, he was responding well.

  "All set Whetu!" he said into the microphone on his headset. "Deploy landing vanes, neutralise gravity and prepare for thrust."

  “Standing by,” came Whetu’s calm reply.

  Liam and Mohammed strapped themselves into the back row at the rear of the flight deck. Their function was now purely moral support. Unlike Mariana they didn't want to die alone. Liam ripped the foil off a bottle of cognac, poured a hefty nip into a small balloon and passed it to Mohammed. He filled his own glass and waved it in the general direction of the ship's cook.

  "Cheers," he said. "To the afterlife, whatever it is." His voice cracked with emotion. Mohammed nodded but didn’t reply at once.

  "To history." He smiled cryptically. "And its dominion over the future."

  The ship gave a shudder and all around them small objects began to rise and hang in the air. They felt weightlessness tug at their seat straps. Liam gulped down his cognac as it rose from the glass to meet him. Inboard gravitation had closed down. From here on drinking would have to be direct from the bottle.

  "Instruments estimate less than 15K altitude Whetu." Steve's voice was unruffled. "Request thrust immediately." He reached out and deftly pulled on a helmet. The vessel began shaking violently and Celine and the others had to cover their heads against the random shower of tiny domestic missiles circling the cabin like dog fighting aircraft.

  "Whetu, do you read me? Urgently request thrust!" Steve's voice remained calm but urgent. "If we don't have power very soon we'll tear apart."

  Whetu didn't hear Steve’s last request because he wasn't in the shack to take it. At that moment he was groping his way along the ceiling of a service duct near the engine room. Breathing was difficult because the atmosphere was thick with swirling debris, decades of dust and accumulated rubbish now aloft in the zero gravity. EMTU/3 could still not be fired remote from the flight deck. Kurt was supposed to be standing by in the engine room waiting for the order. But something had gone wrong. He was not responding to the call.

  The door handle was hot to touch and hard to move. Every joint and hinge on board was swelling tight in the heat and starting to jam. He gripped the metal ceiling ribs, swung his foot around and kicked at the handle. On the third attempt it groaned, squealed then the door swung slowly open. Whetu pulled himself through the hatch.

  "Kurt!" he yelled. The engine room was bigger than he'd imagined and he didn't know where to look amongst the forest of rustling wires and conduit. "Where are you?" His voice echoed round the vast chamber and back to him followed by another voice, thin and strangled.

  "Fet, I'm up here." Up, down, Whetu had no idea which was which until something caught his eye, movement high above his head. Even then it took a moment to realise it was Kurt. The ship’s carpenter was entangled high above in a mass of thrashing cables.

  "What are you doing?"

  "Wasn't tied in when the gravity shut down."

  "Hang on I'll try to get you down." Whetu made a move in his direction but Kurt waved his arms.

  "No-no, there's no time mate! Come up here you'll never get back down." He thrashed his arms around trying to point at something. "Second gantry control station right panel top switch. You do it!"

  It was like swimming through kelp in a boiling ocean but eventually Whetu made it to the gantry. He hauled himself down to the control panel and hanging upside down hit the top breaker switch. Immediately a column of lights above the switch blinked on and all around him a low whirring sound started up. He leaned towards
the microphone on the control panel and pushed the comms button at its base.

  "Steve," he yelled. "This is Whetu. I'm in the engine room. Stand by!"

  "Count me down!" Steve's voice had lost some of its calm.

  "System's turning. Here comes number two!" Whetu reached down above his head and hit the next switch. All through the ship lights dimmed to near extinction as the noise in the engine room wound up to a low whine. Whetu couldn't see the gauges with any clarity so he waited until the noise stabilised before he hit the next switch. "Three!" he yelled.

  Steve shouted something back but Whetu couldn't hear if it was stop or go. His ear was intent on the sound of the turning turbine. It was rising in pitch, gathered speed.

  "Four!" he screamed. One more switch to go. He dragged himself onto the gantry and wrapped his legs around a balustrade. The turbine reached a plateau, a deafening high-pitched scream of pain.

  "Hang on Kurt." He reached for the last switch. "Here comes five!" he yelled into the microphone and heard Steve shout something back. He hit the switch and hung on with all his strength. "Contact!"

  A tremendous vibration shook the room. It grew in frequency until everything began to sing like a tuning fork. Whetu tried to think of nothing other than hanging on with legs and arms. Cables whipped around him trying to knock him loose and the pressure threatened to pop his eardrums and rip the eyeballs from his head. The gantry he clung to flexed and throbbed until he thought it would buckle and crush him.

  He couldn’t see Kurt. There was nothing he could do to help him. There seemed no way Kurt, indestructible as he'd always been, could survive the thrashing jungle of high-tension cables. Whetu closed his mind to concentrate on holding on himself. His body felt numb and his brain yearned for silence. He struggled to hang onto consciousness because he knew if he fainted he would let go and that would be the end. Finally he didn't know when it had happened but all was quiet, still and dark.

  Whetu opened his eyes and looked around. The darkness lifted in stages as lights came back on all around the engine room. The instruments on the control panel extinguished and without thinking Whetu let go of his anchor. He hit the deck and lay there, heart pounding. Gradually his breathing subsided. Every muscle in his body burned with pain. Then he realised something was different. He lifted his arms and then his legs. He could feel a familiar invisible force weighing on his limbs. He scrambled to his feet and stood up without flying to the ceiling. Gravity, no doubt about it. Steve must have pulled them out of descent and restarted the inboard gravitation.

  From high above him somewhere near the roof came a burst of rustling.

  "Fet? Fet you still there?"

  "Yeah I'm down here."

  "Are you alive?"

  "Don't know, I think so. What about you?"

  "I don't know."

  The tannoy hissed and squealed and someone could be heard laughing hysterically. In the background there was shouting and cheering. Then out of chaos Steve’s voice shouted something. It was impossible to understand what he was saying.

  "Whetu hello, over," he said as the noise subsided. "Do you copy?"

  "Copy that."

  "Are you OK?"

  "As far as I can tell. What's happening?"

  "Not sure, can't see anything. But ah, I think we might have landed."

  Kurt's big voice boomed around huge chamber. "Wooo-hoooo!" he cried out with unrestrained delight.

  Whetu's heart sank in a kind of relief but he didn't join in the big man's glee. He was thinking about Mariana and if she had weathered the storm of touch down

 
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