We hold hands, our palms sweat but we don't let go to wipe them off. Under my right hand is the switch. Once I close it, well...
It was supposed to be a simple rescue. Pull the freighter out of its decaying orbit around the small star, and boost it into open space. Repairs would wait until the freighter itself was safe.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
Vi says it’s probably Karma, and she could be right. At this point, it doesn’t matter as far as I can see.
The freighter’s captain, our old friend Jake Flynn, was quite relieved to see us, as it’s not a lot of fun spiraling into a star. He had one engine operating and its power was sufficient to keep it in place, but not for too much longer. Then we answered his distress call.
We managed to get our MagLines attached to the freighter’s hull with no problem. Flynn had her under steerage behind us and we were making way nicely. Should’ve been a snap from there on.
"Frank, we’re losing power in the starboard engine." Vi’s voice is calm, but there’s a hint of worry.
"Can you jack up the Port engine?"
"I tried that. She’s straining."
"Back her off a minute." I hit the Comm and call the freighter. "Flynn, this is the ‘Boone’."
"Go ahead, Boone."
"We’ve got a problem, here, Flynn; we’re losing our starboard engine. Do you have enough headway to pull free?"
There’s a whining groan coming from the hallway, aft of the cabin, that has my hair standing on end. I shouldn’t be able to hear a thing from back there.
"We can just make it. Go ahead and cut the lines, Frank. Thanks for the assist."
"You’re welcome, Jake. Good luck." I punch the control and the MagLines release from the freighter and snake back toward our hull. I watch the freighter surge past us and head away from the star’s gravity well. She should be safe now. It’s our own ship I’m not too certain about.
"Oh, crap." Vi’s face is shiny with sweat.
"What’s the problem?"
"We’re veering off course. Starboard engine is dead, Port engine is losing power, and something’s fouling the MagLines."
I check the tell-tales on her board. We are not a healthy ship right now.
"Jettison the MagLines."
She stabs at the controls.
Now I can feel chilly beads dripping down my own neck.
"Hang on, Vi," I tell her as I head out of the cabin, "I’ll do it manually."
I launch myself down the hallway, pulling at the grips along the way. Flying in zero-gee, you might say. The hall is long and it takes a minute or so to sail to the hatch that opens into the Gear Bay.
I tap the hatch control. Nothing. The hatch remains closed. I stab at it again, but the hatch doesn’t budge. I slide open the viewing-port cover and see the crystals growing on my side of the glass. My heart stops dead. Ice on the glass means the bay is open to space. Even this close to the star, the space in our shadow outside is very cold. Condensation means the bay is cold. It should be ship’s temp, just like the hallway.
I rub the frost away and peer through. Every loose piece of equipment is gone. The internal housing for the MagLines is gone, too, and with it a large section of the bay’s outer hull. We’re open to space. The opening of the bay hull, and release of air, has pushed us sideways. Crap.
I slide the cover shut and head back to the cabin.
Vi is doing what she can, but I can see our position relative to the sky changing. We’re heading, slow and steady, back toward the star.
I slide into my chair and hit the Comm. "Captain Flynn, this is the ‘Boone’."
"Go head, Frank."
"Jake, we’ve lost the starboard engine, the port engine is losing power, and we’ve got a hull breach on our starboard side. We’re announcing a ‘Mayday’."
"Relax, Jake. You can’t help us. Just make sure you let the Company know where we are."
I can feel Vi’s gaze on my neck. I turn my head and wink at her. Her face is pale, but she’s steady as a rock. Another reason I love her.
"How’s that gonna help, Frank?" Flynn’s voice carries his confusion. "You’ll be crisped long before they get anyone out here."
"We’re gonna go into Stasis. Dunno if that’ll work, but it’s our only chance."
"Where’d you come up with the scratch for that, Frank?"
"I’d tell you, Jake, but we ain’t got the time. Just let ‘em know, okay?"
"Wilco, Frank. Thanks again. And good luck."
"Thanks, Jake. ‘ Boone’ out."
I switch off the Comm, lean back, and rub my eyes. A shuddering sigh escapes me and I look over at Vi. She reaches out a hand and I take it. "Sorry, Babe," I tell her. "Guess the engine overhaul wasn’t up to specs. Last time we use Murchison, I can promise you that."
She smiles. "I’m gonna cut that bastard’s fingers off when I see him, Frank."
I chuckle, and squeeze her hand.
"I’ll hold him while you do."
"How long," she asks.
I shake my head. "We’ll orbit for a few hours, and then spiral in. Maybe eighteen hours, I guess."
Vi releases my hand and swats it. "Hell, I know that. I meant how long will the Stasis field hold?"
"I don’t know, Vi. It may fail when we hit the corona, or it might collapse when we get deeper in the star. I don’t know if it’s ever been tested inside a star. But it’s supposed to hold up."
"So we’ll test it, right?" She winks.
"That’s my girl!"
We pull the data logs, and set the ship on ‘auto’. Making our way down the hall, I’m struck again by how gorgeous Vi is. She’s in front of me and I watch her legs, her muscles long and trim. Her short hair stands like a brown halo. I feel a pang of love and desire, and a cold trough of despair. I’ve failed her. We’re both going to die when the ‘Boone’ falls into the star. I can’t imagine the Stasis chamber holding up under the intense pressure and heat. But we’ll never know it. Once inside the Stasis chamber, time will cease.
For some odd reason, my mind seems to focus on Vi’s body, and I want to make love to her right now. I shake my head. There isn’t time, for Pete’s sake. Pay attention, Frank! Can we survive this? We’ll be falling into a star. Heat, gravity of immense proportions, magnetic fields, who knows what else? Can the Company even help us once they get here?
The Company has some pretty cutting-edge ships in its fleet. They might even have one that can fly through a star. Who knows? If they do, and if the Stasis field holds once the ‘Boone’ disintegrates, and if ... well, that’s a lot of ifs. A Stasis field has an odd signature. It appears on sensors as a bit of absolute nothing. It would be easy to spot if a ship can actually get into the star. If the chamber exists once we get too close. It’s supposed to be able to survive this. That’s the theory, anyway.
We arrive at the Stasis chamber and open it. There are two reclining seats, thickly padded, with belts to hold the occupants. A monitor and simple controls allow the occupants to see what’s happening outside until the Stasis field is turned on. At that point, all time ceases to exist within the chamber. So, I’ll hold off until the last moment. We’ll watch it together, Vi and me. And then we’ll stop time.
I close and seal the chamber hatch. Vi floats around the tiny circular chamber as if window-shopping. She’s seen everything in here before. She’s the one who convinced me to spend money we didn’t have at the time on a safety device that few ships have. I watch her push down on the padding and stroke the surface. She turns her head and smiles at me. It’s a shaky smile, but she’s trying to be brave. Hell, so am I.
"We won’t know, will we?" She’s asking the obvious. She’s also asking me to tell her it’s going to be all right.
"Once the field is turned on, we won’t know anything, Sweetheart. Time simply stops. The moment lasts until the field dies or is turned off." I know my smile must look grim to her.
"And we can’t turn it off, can we Frank?"
"Nope. Because that next moment will never happen. I’ll hit the switch, time stops, and ..." I shrug, "there’s no next moment. Someone outside can shut the field off, but we’ll be trapped in that moment."
The ship shakes around us. We’ve been pulled into the star’s orbit. Time is now running down for the ‘Boone’. We both drift to the floor of the chamber as gravity rises. I check the sensors and watch the monitor.
Vi puts her arms around me from behind and rests her head on my shoulder. We watch the interior of the ‘Boone’ together on the small monitor. "No choice, huh?" she whispers in my ear.
"Nope." I straighten and turn, pulling her into my arms and holding tight. She’s been my life for 5 years. I breathe in the scent of her and it’s like the very first time. Somehow, she’s always been a wondrous new discovery for me. I stroke her hair and kiss her ear.
She stiffens slightly. "Look."
I turn my head. On the monitor, the starboard walls of the hall are glowing a light yellow. I’ve miscalculated. That tear in the hull has screwed up the orbit. We’re falling faster than I thought. Burning up.
I kiss Vi hard on the lips and push her toward her chair. I help her strap in, then climb into my own chair and strap in myself. I glance at the monitor. Parts of the wall are starting to run, melting in the intense solar heat. I switch the controls off and pull the Stasis control close. My right hand rests on it. The small, plasticene dome feels smooth and cool under my palm.
"I love you, Frank."
I turn my head and look into her eyes. "Always and forever, Vi."
She reaches her hand to me and I take it and squeeze. We smile. I can’t tell if there are tears in her eyes. There are tears in mine.
I push the switch ...
Jeff Keenan is known as benning around WVU and F2K. He has a single published novel - "Benning’s War" - and more drafts than you can shake a stick at. When he’s not writing, or working to pay bills, benning is renowned for his prowess as a hunter of Mastodon or Mammoth.
Located in Florida.