Wednesday, March 26, 2014

400 Years Between Stars

By Benjamin F. Jones
Futuristic/Sci-Fi, 414 pages
Cover art by Richard Stroud

Reaching the planet’s surface, Dyandra is horrified to discover that only half of the crew touched down. The rest are trapped in space by a mutiny. With inadequate provisions and separated from family and friends she must battle for survival in an environment she doesn’t understand.
Alexandra looked at the slack faces of her fellow crewmembers and wished she’d taken the sedative too. The deceleration couch gripped until it hurt. Her pill was stowed beneath her but she wasn’t going to get it—not this close to separation.
Her daughter was in another lander, one of sixteen. Alexandra tried to thread her. The network was busy. That had never happened—but then neither had landing. The ship was 400 years between stars; they had almost reached their goal: Tane.
She listened to the landing craft running through diagnostics.
The ship rattled with sounds she didn’t recognise.
A thread from the ship’s AI whipped her alert. She thumbed the valve to release the couch and staggered upright. The room was a network of struts, installed in the lead-up to landing. She hit her head and swore. The AI’s thread listed open hatches—several of them. How can that be? I was the last to leave the mothership. I sealed those hatches myself.
Her arm struck a bulkhead and she swore again.
Freya opened one eye and looked at her.
“What’s happening?” Her friend’s question was ill-formed and smothered with emotion. It connected directly to Alexandra’s mind but felt elusive as a breath.
“I’ve got to go,” Alexandra threaded back. Freya was barely conscious; her thoughts kept bursting through with links to older memories and snapshots of them together.
“I’m scared.”
“I’ll be back.” Alexandra pushed away Freya’s contact that wrapped through the network.
Alexandra broke the seal on her own craft and went out into the mothership’s central corridor superstructure which housed the ship’s drive and the AI, a long tube with hatches that lead to the landers. There were sixteen craft and they should all be readied for separation. Part of her hoped the open hatches were due to a sensor malfunction. Hatches don’t open themselves—every non-essential component had been cannibalised to repair life support functions and make repairs to the farm modules.
Alexandra threaded the countdown on the network. Twenty minutes to sort out the problem and get back to my craft.
It was not a sensor error—the hatches were open—now that she was in the mothership she could see them.
“What’s going…?”
She threaded the ship’s AI but it had disappeared from the network. Alexandra felt fear growing—her whole life she’d never known the AI to be unreachable. The machine was their lifeline, the controller of the mission. She tried her daughter…unavailable. Alexandra rested her hand on the bulkhead nearest to her and took a breath. In her forty-seven years of life, she had known nothing but routine maintenance and repairs.
She felt alone—uncomfortable without the AI. She threaded Freya but the contact was a mess of terror. Her friend would be no use until the launch window was a million miles behind them.
Looking up the central core of the ship, she could see several open hatches. The drive eased off. She fought back nausea but she’d experienced half-gee before, so it didn’t last long. The change in the drive’s tone brought it to her consciousness.
She moved towards the nearest open hatch. The reduced gravity made her climb rough and uneven. Arms flailing, she tried to reach out for a hold and her elbow smashed into the bulkhead. A superficial injury, but the pain added another layer to her lack of coordination. The metal edge of bulkhead had ripped through her coverall; her blood showed against the material—red on natural cotton.
She heard a shout from above her.
At last someone has come to help. Donna was hanging out into the central corridor, holding onto the safety rail with one arm. Her blonde hair was tied back, revealing a wide expanse of forehead.
“Help me with these hatches,” yelled Alexandra.
“Go back to your craft,” Donna called back.
Alexandra couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“We separate in minutes,” Alexandra said. “Get the farms closed up—we won’t survive without them.”
Donna laughed. The sound caught Alexandra by surprise. Has she gone mad?
“Alexandra, for the sake of everyone on board—go back to your lander—please.”
The tone made Alexandra falter. Panic had stopped her seeing Donna clearly. Donna’s face wasn’t smothered with fear, nor was it sedated; her face showed regret.
“We have fifteen minutes to do this or the whole mission is...” Alexandra pulled herself past Donna and started to wind closed the hatch to one of the farms. Seconds bunched up. Working in half-gee had the added disadvantage that she couldn’t brace against her weight. She cursed loudly each time the windlass completed a turn; her elbow hurt.
The latch on the farm unit’s airlock closed with a worn thunk. The status lights that showed the farm’s readiness for launch flicked from red to green. Alexandra didn’t have time for a smile as she moved to the next hatch. She was aware of Donna yelling from farther along the central corridor. What was wrong with her? Arms crying in agony, Alexandra turned the windlass on the second hatch. She was breathing hard. Her ears popped—she swallowed to clear the discomfort. The ship was making adjustments to pressures, readying for separation.
“Stop!” Donna yelled.
Alexandra put all her effort into closing another hatch. Her back ached. Her fingers were numb and she could feel nothing but adrenaline. She wasted a couple of seconds trying to thread the AI—nothing. She queried the network. The result filled her with hopelessness; this wasn’t a couple of hatches that had accidentally been left; this was planned. It was mutiny.

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