Castle Roland

Trillion Dollar Family

by Rilbur

On Hold

Chapter 12

Posted: N/A

Jared woke up with a groan. While his nanites could control pain, their first priority was to repair actual damage, and unfortunately headaches didn't always mean 'damage' of the sort that could be repaired.

Despite the pounding in his head, as he came to he realized he was hot. Very hot. And cramped. The bunk area was small enough at the best of times, but was even worse if you were stupid enough to try and shove a second person into it. But from the feel of the warm, small body shoved up against him, someone had been stupid enough to try. And of all the people on board the ship, there was only one person small enough to manage it.

"Cody?" Jared asked, still unable to open his eyes. He just hurt too much to try.

"Dad!" the boy gasped out, "you're OK!"

"What happened?" Jared asked, risking cracking his eyes. His headache was diminishing rapidly, and while he wished he had more room to stretch, he was feeling halfway human again. His skin still hurt, feeling loose, almost as if it had been stretched, but most of the rest of the pain was gone.

"Daddy!" Cody sobbed, and Jared got to spend a few moments comforting his youngest son. As he did so, the back of his mind ran on autopilot, tracing everything he could find out about the situation.

They were in the lower rack, with the air barrier sealed, and the secondary blast door shut. That was bad; the secondary blast door only sealed under a limited set of circumstances, all of which were categorized as 'catastrophic'. Jared tried to remember what some of those circumstances were, but if he'd ever known more, he'd forgotten it. The complete lack of gravity wasn't much of a concern for Jared, but he hoped his elder son was handling it better than last time. Or at least remembered where to find the puke bags.

"Jared, are you alright?" a speaker cackled to life.

"Jared Warren, reporting in," Jared answered, managing to wriggle one hand past his son to reach the communications control panel. "My elder son may require medical attention, and is sealed in the top rack. I and my younger son are alright, sealed in the bottom."

"Understood- Did you say both you and your son are..." the voice trailed off. "Alright. Given the atmospheric breach in the middle rack, that makes sense."

"Atmospheric breach?" Jared asked, voice tight with the control he was exercising. "As if, oh, someone had bashed the air barrier out?"

"Judging from the camera feed from the inside of the middle rack, either the impact or the explosion knocked something through the barrier," the voice agreed.

"I don't think it was the explosion," Jared commented dryly as he he looked at his youngest son, remembering what he'd seen as he went under. He couldn't really be mad at Cody, though. "That said, we'll live. What happened?"

"We're working on that. Standby," the voice ordered him before the speaker fell silent.

"Standby the man says," Jared groused. "Dammit!" Worse yet the man had cut off before he could ask about Davey. Jared carefully refrained from punching anything in his frustration, but it was oh so tempting.

Then a new alarm starting ringing. "Warning! Radiation count in living quarters increasing! All S&R personnel check your rad badges regularly!"

OK, that was bad. And since it came through on the general circuit, Jared had no way to know if the radiation leak was anywhere near him. If he was lucky, his nanites could help repair the radiation damage. Of course, neither Cody nor Davey had the 'military' nanite suite, which meant they might be worse off than he was.

He really needed to spend some more time studying the technology the government put into him and his sons, he decided, as Cody finally cried himself to sleep.

A sudden ringing sound woke Jared up from his sleep. The air was a bit thicker, not quite to the point where it would be hard to breath, but close. Probably the result of having two people in a space designed for one.

The ship shook around him, but it didn't feel the same as it did earlier. Jared couldn't quite pinpoint the difference, other than the fact that the jostling was nowhere near as strong, but it wasn't quite-

Jostling. That was exactly the right word. As if they were being picked up and carried out.

Jared remembered their safety briefing again. The bed area was one, large, self-contained unit that connected to the ship's power, environmental, and data systems under normal operating systems, but was capable of independent operation at need. Such as in catastrophic disasters, when it might be necessary to cart the entire unit out of a section of the vessel that had been rendered uninhabitable.

Holy shit.

"Jared, can you respond?" a scratchy voice came out of the com panel. It was hard to hear, and Jared frowned as he manipulated the controls.

"Jared here, partial reception on your last message," he announced. "Can you read me?"

"Partial sign- grada- ted," the voice came back. "Plee- our fre- ation to- canoh-" the signal faded away, and Jared frowned. He couldn't quite see the panel clearly around his son's head, but it looked vaguely like...

Pressing the large, red 'emergency radio system' button on the touch panel he hoped for the best. The screen reconfigured, and Jared pressed the prominent 'transmit' button. "Jared here, please respond," he said as clearly as he could manage, then released the button.

"We're reading you loud and clear, over," the voice responded.

"Glad to hear it," Jared replied, pressing the transmit button again. "I fell asleep waiting for rescue, and it looks like your signal was so quiet it didn't wake me." He almost kicked himself, but settled for pressing transmit again and adding, "Over" when no one responded.

"You reconnected on backup radio protocols, rather than data transfer standards, so we have to switch off broadcast/receive roles," the reply came. "Please continue to use 'over' to indicate the end of transmissions. What is your status, over?"

"The air is a bit thick, and it's a bit warm in here," Jared replied. "Can you tell me anything about my elder son, over?"

"His data port wasn't damaged by the radiation bleed, and we are in full contact with him," the voice replied. "He was a bit concerned over your failure to reply, but given the damage to the middle section of the survival module, we assumed the problem lay in the connecting circuitry, not on your end. Over."

"What happened," Jared asked, shocked. "Over."

"We sustained relativistic impact with space debris," Captain Mathews broke into the conversation. "That was the initial shock you felt. The impact destabilized our remaining fusion reactor, and we weren't able to recover. It ejected automatically before we lost containment, but just barely. Another second or so, and we wouldn't be here."

"Shit," Jared swore under his breath. He wasn't that good with technology, but he couldn't avoid being familiar on a basic level with certain aspects of it. The ship had fission 'batteries' to provide long-term power requirements, but without the miniature sun they called a fusion reactor and hydrogen catcher fields to provide it with fuel...

"In case you are wondering, yes, that does mean our power situation is in the red. So is our food situation; our remaining reserves were irradiated by the blast, as was half the damned ship," Mathews said. "Quite frankly, I'm not sure when we'll be able to get you out of the survival module; all we're trying to do right now is move it to a slightly less exposed section of the ship and hook you back up to the remaining power and environmental feeds so you can keep breathing. Over."

"That doesn't sound good," Jared commented. "You can't get us out? Over."

"Half the ship is exposed to vacuum, and there are no, I say again, no spaces we can fit the survival module into and then air back up," the captain sighed. "We'll figure something out, but it will take us a while. There are a lot of people trapped in survival modules, with no way to get out, and getting the modules themselves to safer territory is taking priority. Once we're certain no one is going to die in the next day or two, then we'll work on longer-term issues like getting them out and fed. For now..." Mathews sighed. "For now, I suggest you go back to sleep."

"Aye aye," Jared whispered.

In the end, it took a day and a half to get them out. A very long, torturous day and a half. While the designers of the survival module had considered such necessities as air, water, and elimination, they hadn't imagined two people fitting into one bunk. The contortions necessary to get both Cody and Jared 'hooked up' to the plumbing were unpleasant. Having to share the plumbing facilities was, in its own way, worse. Not only did you have to put it in every time you needed to use it, it had just been used by someone else, and some part of Jared's mind wanted to scream at the very idea. Thank god the very effective lube was also a sanitary agent!

Jared was just thankful they'd managed to override the environmental controls of the unit to push extra air through the unit he and Cody were stuck in. The system might increase the oxygen output as needed to keep them alive, but it didn't want to 'waste' any air on just flushing the stench out. And with the two of them forced to sit right next to each other, the heat was terrible. Which produced sweat. Which produced a body odor that Davey, who turned out to be 'downstream' of the initial airflow, complained about. A lot. They reversed it pretty quickly, but he said that the smell had 'stained' his bed.

As bad as it was, Jared could believe that. Davey should just be glad he didn't catch the bad breath that started to build up. And that they got the airflow reversed before their feet started to stink. Though the acrid stench of what Davey's zero-G sickness had resulted in was pretty rank too; how he'd smelled them over it was beyond Jared, who bitterly regretted the sensory enhancements that his augmentation provided.

Worse yet, for Jared at any rate, was the bitching. No food. Limited water. No entertainment. Just stuck there. For a day and a half. With two little boys who had nothing to do but bitch about the conditions. And ask 'why'. And whine. And point out that twenty questions is a stupid game, and so was every other 'verbal' game he'd ever heard of. And ask when they are going to get us out of here.

When they finally managed to get him out, he blessed whoever came up with the technique they used to get him out. His sanity had been on the line. Just one... more... minute...

"I bet you're glad to get out of there," Mathews commented as Jared and his sons climbed out of the bastardized airlock.

"Oh, it wasn't too terrible," Jared said with a straight face. "You should try it sometime."

"I'm glad you're alright," Mathews nodded. "You can't shower, but we've got facilities set up that will let you do a quick wash."

"What about food?" Jared asked.

Mathews frowned. "Thankfully, only about half our stock was actually irradiated. We managed to get about a quarter if that out of the hold before the contamination spread."

"That leaves... not much," Jared said.

"We can keep ourselves fed for the next week or so without consuming contaminated food," Mathews shrugged. "After that, it's a question of how we want to die. Hunger, or radiation sickness."

"What else could go wrong," Jared moaned.

"Go wash up," Mathews ordered. "We'll talk after."

Jared didn't care for the technique required for zero gravity bathing, but there wasn't much he could do about it. After a day and a half inside that cramped space, the stench was worse than any dislike for rubbing a wet, inevitably cold, washcloth over his entire body. And it was cold. Even with hot water, the washcloth was ice cold by the time he got in on his body. The room was kept deliberately warm to compensate, and there was no logical reason for the cloth to feel so cold, but... He still hated it.

Placing the washcloth back in the wetting compartment, he ran another blast of hot water through it and wiped the last of the suds off himself. The one good thing about this approach to bathing was how easy it was to dry once you'd finished; a blast of hot, dry air just sucked the moisture away.

And best of all, he didn't stink anymore.

Stretching, Jared dressed quickly. His mouth was unpleasantly dry, reminding him that he'd forgotten the strong advice to hold his breath like the crewman who had introduced him to the zero-G bath had suggested.

"Hey Jared," Captain Mathews said as he entered the mess compartment. "Come and have a seat."

"Captain," Jared nodded.

Captain Mathews sighed. "The situation, as I believe I explained, is bad."

"A week's food, limited power, no propulsion -- which means no gravity! -- and a ship with more holes than swiss cheese," Jason agreed. "You said we had a week's worth of food, but something in your voice..." Jared didn't actually ask.

Mathews sighed. "The power situation is getting close to critical. Half our nuclear batteries are offline, and the remainder aren't putting out their full output. We had to hook up emergency power supplies to the ships power grid to keep us going. Thankfully, the cooling systems we use to keep from frying ourselves with our body heat actually output power; unfortunately, we're actually producing more heat than the single remaining cooling unit can extract."

Jared shook his head. It wasn't as bad as it could be, and he'd honestly expected even more bad news. "Bottom line?"

Mathews shrugged. "After everyone has had a chance to shower and reach a survival shelter, like the mess hall, I'm going to cut all energy use we can. The hotter it gets, the more the thermoelectric converter will produce, but I don't think that will be enough to balance against what we need to keep running. We have to keep environmental running, and that takes a lot of power, especially since the nuclear batteries are slowly winding down. It looks like they took some nasty damage, and are probably turning radioactive themselves. Thankfully, they are very heavily shielded, and probably won't leak into the rest of the ship. I've ordered their chambers sealed as a precaution, and most of them are exposed to space anyway."

"You're avoiding the question," Jared sighed. "Less than a week I take it?"

Mathews shrugged. "Engineering is tearing apart the three dysfunctional thermoelectric converters in the hope we can get a second one online. If they succeed, we'll probably survive about four days before the power grid collapses entirely, at which point the air will turn toxic. If they don't succeed in about another four hours, the heat will start to build up. Most of us will bake to death about eight hours from now."

Jared sighed. "I... I'd like to spend that time with my sons."

"Jared, the ship's doctor went over the data you provided us on your augmentation," Mathews said softly. "You and your sons have the ability to scrub CO2 from your systems, and your systems can survive four or five degrees higher a temperature than most human beings before total breakdown occurs."

"Meaning?" Jared asked, annoyed.

"If we get the heat scrubbers online, the rest of the crew will die, and stop producing CO2. You and your sons will be able to survive the toxic levels until the environmental systems can clean the atmosphere," Mathews said. "Not for long, without any knowledge of how to maintain ships systems, but for a while. You'll be the last survivors on a ghost ship, filled with dead. Not pleasant. And to extend that time, you'll have to... dispose of our bodies before they start to rot."

"Oh," Jared said, eyes going wide.

"Heat you aren't likely to survive, though," Mathews almost apologized. "You're nanites are good, but they can't keep enzymes from denaturing. They'll help keep your core temperature down by moving excess heat to your extremities, but that's of strictly limited utility in this kind of long-term exposure. In all likelihood, by the time our bodies stop producing heat, you'll have died as well. It will just take longer."

"What do you intend to do?" Jared asked.

Mathews looked down at the table -- if you could call it 'down' in zero gravity -- and sighed. "I can't do anything, Jared."

"What?" Jared asked, confused.

"We don't have a fusion reactor, all our missile magazines are gone, and the central computer is offline," Mathews said slowly. "I can't destroy the ship, or flood the air with poison, or any of the hundred other things I might do to reduce the pain. Even if I wanted to."

Jared closed his eyes. "It's going to be bad, isn't it?"

"Death always is," Mathews sighed. "With all the damage done to the ship, I can't even offer my crew a quick death."

Jared's eyes widened at the tired, bitter tone in his old friend's voice. Captains on board a ship do not talk like that, not even in private. In public...

"Kode," Jared said, voice low and urgent, "you need to pull yourself together."

"Don't worry, no one is going to overhear us," Mathews shook his head. "But yes, I am tired. I-" Mathews took a deep breath. "I need to talk to someone. In the end, duty isn't enough."

Jared glanced around the mess. They were 'sitting' at a table in a corner, as far away from any of the entrances as possible, giving a small degree of privacy. What he hadn't noticed was the way everyone else was giving them that privacy, staying as far away as they could.

The crew knew how desperate the situation was. And they knew how close the Captain was to breaking.

Oh. Crap.

Jared's mind flashed over all of that in an instant, and then ground to a halt.

The crew hadn't lost faith in their captain. It didn't make sense. It wasn't possible. But Jared could feel it in the glances thrown their way, the space they were being given. Despite all that had happened, they still trusted their captain.

Jared closed his eyes and he put together the second important component. "Who did you talk to about us?" he asked, tightly controlling the anger in his voice.

"What are you talking about?" Mathews asked, confused.

"You're crew knows about us, what we used to be," Jared hissed. "How did that happen?"

It wasn't so much that Jared objected to people knowing he preferred men. Yes, he wanted to be the one in control of that particular piece of information, and he most assuredly wanted to be the one to explain that to his kids himself, but that wasn't the problem.

The problem was that he hadn't made up his mind to resume his previous relationship with Mathews, and he was not prepared to be pushed in that direction by _any_one.

"They can't possibly-" Mathews' lips pursed as he glanced around the mess compartment. "Captains usually get a bit of space when they want it," he said after a moment, "but this is a bit much, isn't it."

"I was willing to consider picking our relationship back up," Jared told him, "but nobody-"

"Jared, calm down," Mathews told him. "No one is going to try and force you."

Jared worked his jaw for a moment. "Fine. God, not that it matters. Is it just me, or is it a bit warm in here?"

Mathews nodded. "The heat is starting to build up, I think. It's going to get hotter."

Jared sighed. "I'm going to go talk to-"

"General quarters! All hands to action stations! Set Condition Zulu throughout the ship! Captain, call the bridge!" the 1MC blared.

Mathews stared at the speaker for a long, angry moment. "What the hell?" he swore before pulling himself across the compartment to a com system. "Captain speaking. What the hell is going on?" he snarled. Jared couldn't hear the response.

"Say that again," Mathews repeated, face going blank. Apparently he didn't like the answer. "Are you certain- belay that, of course you're certain. It's just-"

He glanced over at Jared. "I'm coming to the bridge, I'll bring Warren with me." Mathews jerked his head in a 'follow me' motion before pulling himself out into the corridor. Jared followed, thankful for both the sheer number of hand holds planted up and down the corridors and his enhanced physiology. Even with his enhanced strength and speed he had trouble keeping up with Mathews, who was clearly highly experienced not simply in zero-G but in moving quickly while in zero-G. Worse yet, without all the extra hand holds placed everywhere Jared would have tumbled out of control, as his reaction speed just wasn't quite fast enough to always catch the hand-hold he'd aimed for.

"Can't you move faster than that?" Mathews growled when he reached the first blast door between them and the bridge.

"How the hell do you move this quick," Jared complained.

Mathews sighed. "OK, zero-G training for you and your sons, ASAP. Come on, put this on." Mathews opened a locker and threw a space suit at Jared.

"Stupid question-" Jared began to ask.

"The bridge isn't aired at the moment," Mathews cut Jared off. "Now, move!"

"Yes sir!" Jared responded reflexively to the voice of command. In the end, Mathews had to help him finish putting on the unfamiliar suit.

"Suit drills," Mathews snarled. "For you and your boys! What the hell was I thinking not doing that sooner!"

Jared's lips quirked towards a smile as he understood. It wasn't about his ability to maneuver in zero-G, or get a suit on. Something else was bothering the captain, and Jared, alas, was just catching the brunt of Mathews' frustration.

Having been an NCO for years, it was a situation he was far from unfamiliar with.

"Is something wrong, Captain?" he needled Mathews gently.

"You'll find out soon enough," Mathews growled. "Assuming you don't already know!"

"What does that mean?" Jared asked, slightly confused. Maybe this wasn't just an officer taking it out on those around him.

"The plumbing connects like this," Mathews took over the delicate task without asking first. He was halfway through the task when he froze.

"Most men would ask first," Jared commented wryly, prompting Mathews to finish the job.

"I'm in a hurry, and you weren't doing it right," he justified himself.

"And you never needed permission-" Jared began, but Mathew cut him off, briskly sealing the suit up.

"Alright, that's done," Mathew said. "Clear the hatches!" he called out. Jared glanced behind him at the yellow and red striped warning line.

"Clear," he commented wryly. Mathews nodded and touched a few controls on the control panel next to the blast door. A much lighter air-proof door slowly slid shut behind Jared.

"It'll take a minute to pump the air out in here before we can move into the next section," Mathews told Jared. "There's a vacuum on the other side of the blast door, and if I just opened it without pumping first..." Mathews didn't finish.

"That would be a very bad idea," Jared winced. Explosive decompression was bad. You didn't have to be a genius to know that in this day and era. "So, what is going on?"

Mathews sighed. "Hopefully the watch officer isn't hallucinating," he said cryptically. "Not that that seems likely."

"What the hell does that mean?" Jared asked as the blast door began to grind open. In the near vacuum produced by the air pumps, he couldn't actually hear the door, but he could feel the vibration through the soles of his suit's magnetic boots.

"Shit," Mathews swore when the door froze half-open. "Just what we don't need, another systems failure." Mathews started tapping on the control panel attached to the arm of his suit. "Bridge, I've got a blast door failure here. Do you read it?"

"Power failure, sir," came the response. "We'd reroute, but the EPS in that area is shot to hell already and automatics are completely non-responsive. It has to be done manually."

"Keep the engineers working on the thermoelectric converters, that's a higher priority," Mathews sighed in agreement. "You can't redirect power to the door, but can you completely cut power, so it won't slam shut on us?"

"One moment..." The door suddenly slammed shut, loudly enough that Jared heard it through his contact with the deck. "Shit. Remote systems read an emergency seal, can you confirm?"

"Any advice on bypass?" Mathews growled.

"You'll have to detour around it," the suggestion was hesitant. "But I'm not sure there are any routes that avoid exposure to the irradiated sections of the ship."

"In other words, the bridge is now completely isolated?" Mathews asked.

"Well, not quite," Jared could almost hear the shrug. "The air shafts aren't exactly a comfortable fit, but you could probably crawl through them. And their blast doors are completely functional."

"Last I checked, those blast doors aren't designed as airlocks," Mathews complained.

"I suggest you enter through 8-255-47-N," the bridge responded. "We can seal that room off from the rest of the environmental system and pump the air, then open up the blast door. Radiation is slightly above safe levels, but so long as you don't stick around they're well within tolerance."

"That compartment should be sealed," Mathews pointed out.

"Repair parties report the seal is partially failed, you can open the primary hatch and seal it behind you. If you want, you can do a visual inspection of the battery on your way through."

"I'd rather not," Mathews commented wryly. "But from what you said, I really need to be on the bridge."

"I'd say so sir. You want me to respond?"

"Wait for me," Mathews said. "I'm still not convinced you aren't hallucinating things."

"With all due respect sir, that's what everyone up here thought at first!"

"So, you going to clue me in on the secret?" Jared asked as Mathews led him off at a quick pace. This time Jared managed to keep up quite a bit better, thanks to the magnetic boots. He wasn't quite as quick as he could have been in regular gravity, but he managed quite decently.

"I wouldn't dream of ruining the surprise," Mathews commented. The compartment in question wasn't far off, and Jared frowned as he saw the large symbol painted on the door.

"This is your reactor room, isn't it?" Jared asked.

"It's one of the nuclear batteries which provide backup and station keeping power," Mathews corrected Jared. "Right at the moment, it's safe enough for a quick in and out. Keep an eye out for cracks in the armor, though, they're likely to be a lot hotter than the ambient rad level."

"Let me go first," Jared suggested. "My nanites aren't great with radiation, but they're better than you've got. If nothing else, my built in Geiger counter will tell me when it's time to run like hell."

"By all means, assuming you know where the hell the air access is," Mathews smiled.

"I'll be able to find it quickly enough," Jared shook his head. "It'll be a small, circular hatch in the wall, halfway up to the ceiling. Just like... that one there," Jared pointed.

"There's a lot of machinery in that room, do you really think-" Mathews began.

"Remember how quickly I spotted those snipers?" Jared cut him off. "Trust me, if I want to find it, I can. Quickly."

"Fine, hurry," Mathews sighed. "I'm not sure that it really matters, but we need to be on the bridge fast."

Jared spun the wheel on the door, breaking the seal, and stepped through. The suit cut off his peripheral vision, and worse yet the helmet didn't turn with his head, so he had to turn his entire torso to glance across the room. His augmentation span up quickly, rapidly displaying nonsense across his field of vision. The lines and measurements the danced along his view of the room were quickly overwritten by a red warning label as his built in Geiger counter started screaming that the background radiation level was not safe. A dosimeter started tracking his rad absorption, helpfully displaying both the 'natural' danger levels, and the levels that his nanites would theoretically allow him to survive.

He had a few minutes yet to go in the 'green' zone, but those could burn up fast if he didn't find the hatch.

Thankfully, while merely human senses would have been completely confused by the mess of mangled machinery filling the compartment, his augmentation was more than capable of sorting through it to find both the hatch.

Jared launched himself across the room, carefully avoiding the sharp edges and grabbing only the hand-holds spread across the room. The hatch didn't give very easily, but it gave. "Come on Kode!" Jared called out.

"I'm here," Mathews said, laughing. Jared looked around, not able to find him. "Look up," Mathews suggested. Jared felt his eyes cross as Mathews 'stood' on the ceiling. "Why are you upside down?" Mathews asked. Jared could just see the gleam in the man's eyes.

"Do we have time for silly games?" Jared commented idly.

"No, but I'm serious, why are you upside down?" Mathews asked. "It's considered polite to stay in normal orientation to the ship, at least around groundsiders."

Jared looked around. "I am upside down, aren't I?" he commented, before crawling through the hatch. At least that explained why the hatch had a ladder over it, or rather under. "Stupid question, but why doesn't this thing have a blast door?"

"Naval architects are misers," Mathews explained as he wriggled his way along the air shaft. "And at any rate, that room doesn't have blast doors, it has radiation barriers. And the hatch we just closed is a rad barrier. Similar barriers closed off over the air vents themselves, you'll notice."

"If naval architects are misers, how come this air shaft is big enough for us to travel through?" Jared complained. It wasn't exactly roomy, but you hardly needed an air shaft big enough to crawl through.

"Because the air shafts act as backup transit routes, for exactly this kind of situation," Mathews laughed. "Well, not exactly this kind, but you get the idea."

"How much further to the bridge?" Jared changed the subject.

"Just about there, thankfully," Mathews started banging on a hatch. "Shit, it's jammed."

"Let me," Jared shook his head. "I knew my augmentation would come in handy," he commented as he took firm grip on the latching bar. It didn't move. "Damnit," he swore, and repositioned himself for better leverage. Straining, he twisted as hard as he could. "It's stuck," he grunted, straining. Slowly, gradually, it began to shift. "Finally!" Jared swore. "What's that kissing sound?"

"Oh shit," Mathews swore. "Your suit! It's lost integrity!"

Jared looked at his hands and saw the tell-tale plumes of mist. "What the fuck?"

"You must have over-strained the seams, shit I should have thought of that," Mathews swore. "Kick the damned hatch in! Bridge, emergency! Stand clear of the airway hatch and have suit sealant standing by!"

"Aye aye sir!" Jared ignored the reply in favor of twisting around to plant his feet on the hatch. With a single convulsive heave he knocked the hatch open and threw himself through it. Assuming he could read the indicators correctly, his suit was at normal pressure but his air supply was dropping like a stone.

"Where's the leak?" someone asked, grabbing him by the shoulders. "Oh, damn," she turned his hands over and examined the gloves. "OK, just give me a minute..." Jared watched as the woman rooted around in a kit for a minute. She pulled out two short tubes and fitted them over Jared's hands. Holding the first one in place, she used what looked like duct-tape to attach it around his wrist. She quickly repeated the procedure on the other hand, then pulled out a large tube. Attaching an applicator with a long, narrow opening to it, she carefully squeezed out what looked like some kind of glue over the edges of the tape, further sealing the leak. Jared watched as the bags over his hands inflated, and then held steady. He couldn't use his hands, but he wasn't leaking anymore. "We'll need to get you into a survival slip ASAP, how is your air supply?"

Jared swallowed as he looked at the readings. "Most of the way gone. The suit says fifteen minutes."

"Alright. That's just an estimate, based off current usage, so sit down and try to remain calm. It'll make the air last longer," the woman suggested, taking him by his arm and guiding him to a chair. Strapping him in, she reminded him, "Stay still, stay calm, and don't talk. We'll get you some more air ASAP."

"Damnit, I didn't believe it," Mathews shook his head at a console. "Alright, put it up on the main screen, I want Jared to hear this."

"Hear what?" Jared asked.

"Nova Maria, this is the Enlightened Profit, please respond. Nova Maria, this is the Enlightened Profit, approaching from ahead of your vessel. We are here to make contact with Jared Warren and ascertain the condition of your ship, and provide humanitarian assistance if required. Nova Maria, please respond. This message will repeat in thirty seconds."

The voice was strange, oddly mechanical and completely out of time with the actual movement of the speaker's jaws. Of course, what was even stranger than the voice itself was the speaker. Purple skin, hair that looked more like a porcupine's quills covering most of its face, three eyes, and a mouth that worked sideways, with two jaws instead of just one. Where a human jaw dropped down and came up, this creature opened its mouth left to right, with each side moving to create the gap.

It wasn't human. It wasn't even related to anything that had ever walked on the Earth.

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