The air was cold, as it always was coming out of cryo-sleep.
The Tamberlane Supply star freighter EREBUS was commissioned to travel between the Milky Way’s inner spiral arms and kept the crew in cryo for most of its return journey.
Warrant Officer Sanders adjusted his stirring eyes to see the other pods had already been vacated and that the emergency lights were flickering. Only he and Executive Officer Kane were still waking while the Erebus’s navigator Lieutenant Billadeau stood by in a pressure suit.
A hologram of the ship’s AI, THELEMA, appeared. “Kane, Sanders. The captain ordered your awakening and requested your immediate attendance in the command module.”
As they shivered in the cool chamber, Billadeau produced a small hologram from her wrist communicator showing damaged components of the ship, “Mechanical damage to the engines and alternators produced a propulsion malfunction bringing us four months beyond intended arrival.”
Billadeau enlarged the hologram. Several energy lines appeared ruptured from a tear from claw marks all along the inner and outer walls.
“Vari. Likely jumped aboard from the Perseus ports,” Billadeau continued as a hologram of a large dark blue arthropod ravaged the outer hull with its two forelegs and scurried inside the vessel on its hind four.
“So when will we arrive home?” Sanders asked, rubbing his hand together, generating friction.
“Captain Canter will further explain the situation,” Billadeau remarked, then started down a corridor.
Sanders and Kane gave each other weary looks, then followed after.
Entering the command module, they noticed the captain, technician Farah, and Chief Engineer Stevenson wore pressure suits as well.
“The longer it stays on the EREBUS, the greater the danger it poses,” Stevenson said, nodding toward the hologram.
Captain Canter looked grave as he spoke, “Damage to the engine and alternator has rendered communication impossible, and life-support systems will need to be suspended throughout the EREBUS. We will divert all energy to the command module and the captain’s quarters. Door locks will help keep out the cold and vari but restrict access to the cryo chamber, engines, and even escape pods. Only residual temperatures will remain in the command module bringing the temperature down to just above two-hundred eight Kelvin.”
“We’ll freeze to death,” Kane complained.
“Pressure suits, with their isolated batteries and a small supply of adrenaline boost, should keep our body temperatures above freezing while worn in the command module. Captain’s quarters will still have the emergency ability to generate sufficient heat for rest if needed,” the Captain said.
“We can’t repair it?” Sanders asked.
“On recommendation from THELEMA, and captain’s orders, our energy-supported tools are suspended,” technician Farah explained as she dropped an ax on the table. Scratched and worn with recent wear and tear. “The outer layers of just one of the enclosures took nearly two hours to get into, and we still have another twelve more.”
“I’m going to be direct,” the captain said.“THELEMA has run over a thousand simulations. Our crew only survives eight. Seven only happen if we immediately divert course for the Eller sector.”
“Eller sector? You want us to stop between arms? Is anything even in operation?” Kane asked.
“There is not,” Captain Canter replied in a decisive tone. “Lieutenant, expending all remaining energy, how long until we reach the Opol mining station?”
“With no further damage, no more than two hours,” answered Billadeau.
“How do we know this mining station is even a viable option? Some stations haven’t been active for over a hundred years,” Kane questioned.
“This station has an active message relay system. Company logs indicate it was last serviced about eight months ago. We could prompt a rescue team within another six months.”
“THELEMA, how many simulated trips to the mining station failed?” Sanders asked.
“95.8%, one hundred and fourteen of the one hundred and twenty attempted simulations to the mining station ended with the death of the entire crew due to hypothermia or vari attack.”
The crew became quiet.
“The vari will come out looking for something warm to eat once the engines kick out, or it finds something easier to jab its mandibles into,” Stevenson added as he pressed commands locking all corridor doors. “These locked doors should help. We can deal with it once we dock at the mining station.”
“Did we receive any communication before we lost connection?” Farah asked.
“I would advise everyone to focus on their objectives,” Captain Canter said.
Farah ignored the captain and opened her wristcom to the messages THELEMA sent. The last one sent showed a video of her child, hardly breathing with tubes sticking out of her, desperately trying to say something but unable to speak. A note attached to the transmission noted her daughter’s condition as terminal, with a date from two months before.
Farah covered her mouth to silence her gasps as tears raced down her cheeks.
“Two months ago?” Farah finally squeaked out. “My child may have died two months ago, and I wasn’t woken up?”
“There is nothing you could’ve done,” Kane stated.
“Don’t you dare! This was supposed to be a six-month journey. I could’ve said goodbye. I should’ve been there to hold her so she wasn’t alone.”
“You’ve already said goodbye. You just didn’t realize it was the last one. Furthermore, this isn’t a choice that either you or I make alone. THELEMA has offered us two options: We continue on our trajectory in cryo and, for two months, take our chances with the vari, or we stop at the Opol mining station.”
The crew fell silent.
“Tamberlane Supply policy requires a majority vote. All those in favor of the Opol mining station in the Eller system?” The captain looked around as he raised his hand. Stevenson and Kane immediately raised their hands, as did Billadeau nervously. Sanders raised his reluctantly as well.
Farah’s face turned red in frustration and anger before she spoke with great restraint,
“When did THELEMA recognize the problem?”
“Just after we left port, but the severity did not require our attention until now,” the captain said.
“You told me that my diagnostics were wrong, that the EREBUS was fit to perform when we left the docks! We could’ve turned back for help months ago!” Farah’s voice began to rise.
“Had we stayed to administer your diagnostic suggestion, the EREBUS would not have been on pace to gain bonus payment, and now this vessel requires your vote to determine our best course of action within cost.”
“Within cost? I only came out here to pay for my child’s illness, who doesn’t have another six months! I was supposed to be back home now!”
“You are here because of debt, same as everyone else. We’ve all spent the same ten months aboard this ship when it should have only been six. While none of us are pleased about the timing, we all agreed to our contracts. So stop crying!”
“You did this to us. You killed us!” Farah screamed. Farah approached the captain as she continued to yell, throwing objects about the module. “You’ve killed us all for greed!”
Stevenson stepped in and held Farah’s arms back.
“Your daughter is already gone,” Stevenson exclaimed. “And if we don’t focus, we’ll be gone as well. Just don’t think about it. Move on.”
“We already knew about the condition of the ship?” Billadeau demanded from the captain.
“Repairs had been considered but ultimately denied by ownership. We may be able to complete repairs at the mining station,” Captain Canter insisted. “Now, Lieutenant Billadeau, if you please, redirect the EREBUS at full speed. Kane, divert all energy to essential components.”
Billadeau reluctantly nodded back and routed the EREBUS toward the Opol mining station.
Farah freed herself from Stevenson’s grip and raised her arms to show she wasn’t a threat.
“THELEMA, how many simulations have been successful with partial arrivals?” Farah implored.
“3.5%, five successful runs ended with at least one crew member dying,” THELEMA replied.
“So having you around doesn’t really increase the odds that we get back alive, does it, Captain?” Farah rushed over to the ax on the table, picked it up, and swung it, wedging it deep into the captain’s side, puncturing through his pressure suit.
The captain screamed in pain, and Stevenson and Kane tackled Farah to the ground, knocking off her helmet.
“Throw her in the brig!” Captain Canter cried out, commanding Stevenson and Kane to drag the screaming Farah out of the room. Sanders grabbed a med kit as Billadeau dislodged the ax and applied pressure on the captain, who was rapidly turning pale.
Once Stevenson and Kane returned, Kane adjusted the controls and diverted all energy to only the essential components.
“It’s already starting to get cold in here,” Kane remarked as he rubbed his hands together.
Feeling cold already, Sanders checked their vitals on his wristcom, reading: 97°.
“Billadeau,” the captain commanded between breaths. “Gather the remaining pressure suits.”
“What about Farah?” Billadeau asked, holding the frenzied technician’s helmet. “Without residual heat, she won’t last two hours.”
“Good,” Kane commented.
“No one knows the EREBUS as well as Farah. We may need her to keep the ship going,” Billadeau pleaded.
“She’s hysterical. I’ll manage alone,” Stevenson remarked.
“No, Billadeau’s right. Bring Farah her helmet. She’ll stand for trial once we return,” The captain sputtered.
After what felt like too long of an absence by Billadeau, Sanders went to inspect the brig. Now in his own pressure suit, he saw Billadeau standing by the brig’s control panel, speaking with Farah, “Farah? Are you okay? We need you to reach the mining station, and you hurt the captain. The EREBUS won’t make it to the mining station unless you help. I’ll let you out, but I need to know that you’ll help us.”
Farah just nodded.
Billadeau unlocked Farah from the cell. Sanders watched on with caution, still unsure of Farah’s mood.
Farah walked over to a control panel and began to input commands. A hologram of the last broadcast appeared. A small child not older than seven appeared with tubes in and out of her body, struggling to breathe. The holographic child showed nothing more than a tear-filled wave while Farah put on her pressure suit helmet.
As the video ended, Farah adjusted more controls on the panel, and doors throughout all the ship’s modules began to open. Farah asked, “THELEMA, what are the odds that only one crew member makes it to the mining station?”
“What are you doing, Farah?” Billadeau asked frantically.
“Before the end, each of you will know my cold, bitter grief,” Farah promised and ran down a dark corridor.
Sanders looked over the commands on the control panel and panicked. “She locked every module open but cryo and the escape pods. With all heating systems offline, our thermal pressure suits will be some of the warmest things on this ship for the vari to track us.”
Sanders and Billadeau returned to the command module, only to see Stevenson shaking his head over the captain’s cold corpse.
“Farah escaped and locked open all hatches!” Sanders exclaimed.
“You let her out?!” Kane shouted.
“She’s in pain,” Billadeau argued.
“This blood is on your hands, Billadeau!” Stevenson picked up the bloody ax. “When I come back, I’ll deal with you! Sanders, are you coming with me?”
“You can’t be serious?” Sanders remarked.
Stevenson rolled his eyes and headed down the hall in the dark chambers, ax in hand.
Kane slowly backed and ran out of the module toward the captain’s quarters. Sanders and Billadeau quickly followed, unsure of what the executive officer was doing. Kane ran inside the captain’s private chambers and immediately closed the entrance behind him. They peered into the window and pounded on it for Kane’s attention.
Kane spoke into his wristcom, “The vari can’t get in here, and I don’t trust either of you to not let that freak Farah in.”
Sanders looked at their vitals, now a bitter 89.6°, “At this rate, our pressure suits can’t withstand the dropping temperatures for long.”
Billadeau looked at her navigation tools. “We need to get to the escape pod! We can just about make it to the station from here. Kane! We need to get out of here. We can make it to the mining station with just the three of us.”
Kane paused a moment, then asked, “And leave Stevenson to Farah?”
After another pause, Kane tried to open the door, but to no avail. He started to bang and shove. An immediate expression of worry came over Kane’s face as frozen air started to opaque the window. Sanders checked Kane’s vitals, dropping fast to 82.4°.
Not a moment later, an image of engineer Stevenson was shown lifeless on the floor of a corridor, along with Farah’s voice over the intercom system, “You’re greedy, Kane. Just like the captain.”
“Billadeau, Sanders. Please,” Kane pleaded.
Sanders attempted to pull on the door and looked at Kane through the window. His face was icy blue with purple lips, and his eyes were puffy red, swollen, and almost completely covered in frost.
“She severed the heat. Kane has no pressure suit,” Billadeau observed. She looked at Sanders and shook her head in frantic desperation.
“Sorry, Kane. It’s no use,” is all Sanders could say. He motioned to Billadeau to follow him down the hall.
They could hear Kane scream a final cry down the hall, “Billadeau. Sanders. Please!”
Hypothermia set in, and Billadeau’s movements became sluggish from the cold. She leaned on Sanders as she hobbled down the last bits of the corridor. Turning a final corner, they stumbled upon the escape pod module, and Sanders rested Billadeau beside the closed door.
Sanders rubbed the sides of his pressure suit desperately to generate a small amount of warmth before manually working to override the entrance.
The sound of the vari grew in the hall, and Billadeau started to weep in her fatigued state and slumped over, “I can’t go on. Farah killed us all, and we deserve it. I deserve it. I freed the monster.”
“Hold on, Billadeau. We’re almost there!” Sanders checked their vitals, now a desperate 80.3°, and activated their adrenaline, jolting her awake.
Sanders activated the switch to open the module door, stepped in, and anxiously looked around, wondering if Farah had already found a way inside. Once he was sure she hadn’t made it in, Sanders turned back to grab Billadeau.
No sooner did he step back out the door that he saw the outline of the vari creep from the hall's darkness and into the dim walkway lights beside where Billadeau rested.
Sanders only had a moment to gasp before the hexapod monster dug its mandible into Billadeau’s leg and pulled her backward into the blackness. Her screams through the wristcom lingered even after Sanders could no longer see her silhouette.
He ran back into the escape pod module and shut the entrance behind him. Billadeau’s screams transformed into a coagulated gargle. Sanders couldn’t stand it any longer and shut off his communicator.
Sanders activated the system, diverting power to the escape pod.
A loud thud rang from the door. A glazed-over eye from the vari peered in the door window and filled Sanders with dread. A moment later, the creature’s face split from an ax driven through from the back.
Sanders knew that Farah was here, and he was out of time. The pod had all the energy it was going to get. He quickly dove into the pod and prepared it to jettison.
Before the escape pod back hatch completely closed, Sander’s last view was Farah with her bloody ax in one hand and a half-severed head of the vari in the other.
The pod launched, and Sanders lined up for the docking port.
The mining station was close.
He noticed just how little energy the craft had transferred. All heating elements stopped, and functioning lights ceased. The pod rode only on the momentum from launch to propel itself toward the derelict facility.
The windows began to frost over, and fatigue started to set in. Sanders glanced down at his wristcom to read his vitals were now a bitter 75.2°.
“What are the chances of an unassisted dock at the Opol mining station?”
“0.01%,” THELEMA managed to say before her power ended.
Sanders closed his eyes and accepted his fate as the EREBUS’s escape pod began to veer slightly to the left.