Chapter One

~ September 29th, 2256 ~

A montage of red and white splashes radiated from the overhead emergency light, slathering the room and dousing Jenetta Carver's sleeping form without effect. But when the alert-horn's undulating shrieks stabbed at her body and knifed their way to the marrow of her bones, consciousness reclaimed her sleep-anesthetized brain.

At once disoriented and frightened, she realized she was sitting upright in bed. Blinking eyes still thick with sleep, she swiped at each to clear away the vestiges of slumber. A final ripple of mind-numbing din shook the bedroom, then all was quiet— for a full two seconds. An emergency directive, delivered through her implanted cranial transducer, began to reverberate incessantly inside her head at twice-normal volume. At the same instant, the message started emanating from overhead speakers throughout the ship.

She whipped back the lightweight covers and flung herself from the bed, landing lightly on the balls of her feet— a fraction of a second before screaming loudly and crashing solidly to the carpeted deck, arms and legs akimbo like a child's hastily discarded doll.

"Ow, dammit," she muttered, the uncharacteristic oath escaping her lips as she kicked at the ankle-high service boots she had left lying in the middle of the floor; however, the emergency condition of the ship left little time for self-recrimination.

Kneeling on scraped knees, she struggled to pull her nightgown over her head, cursing both its tight embrace and herself for not wearing her usual pajamas this evening.

Once free of a garment that seemed to resist removal, she jumped up and snatched her trousers from the chair where she had left them. Flopping backwards onto her bed, she shoved both feet into the pants legs as she landed, then nimbly leapt back onto the floor. The newly commissioned Space Command officer didn't waste time trying to button her blouse or close her tunic; she simply yanked them on before jamming her feet into her soft, flat-soled boots and grabbing her most prized personal possession from her dresser. With the framed picture of her family tucked safely beneath her arm, she bolted for the door.

A dozen small housekeeping bots were cleaning walls and carpet in a bright corridor devoid of fellow crewmembers as Jenetta burst from her quarters. Except for the flashing emergency lights and horrific message of impending doom being broadcast by the computer throughout the ship, there seemed little amiss until she noticed the soft whooshing sounds generated by the rapid departure of activated escape pods.

"All hands, abandon ship," the computer announced casually in a simulated feminine voice. "This is not a drill. Containment failure is imminent. You have a safety margin of— 218 seconds. All hands abandon ship." Repeating endlessly, only the number of remaining seconds changed. The pleasing sound of the computer's audio interface normally had a calming effect, but the substance of the message belied the delivery. Echoing in Jenetta's CT, it greatly increased an already heightened state of agitation.

Any anticipation of swift departure Jenetta might have had was crushed when she discovered that both escape pods in the nearest tube were already gone. Like a hurdler in a track and field event, she flew over sixty-centimeter-tall housekeeping bots as she frantically raced through the deserted corridors of the quarters' deck, but her search yielded only empty tubes as the computer complacently droned on about the urgency of the situation.

Now fully awake, Jenetta suddenly realized everyone aboard ship, except the skeletal third-watch crew, had probably been snug in their beds at this hour but obviously hadn't squandered precious seconds changing out of nightclothes. The Engineering Section, five decks below, was home to the next largest concentration of escape pods. Breathless, and on the verge of calamitous panic, she jumped into a lift and barked a command that sent the car plummeting to that level.

Her heart seemed ready to burst from her chest when she finally spotted an available escape pod. Its wide-open hatch and inviting interior seemed to scream at her to hurry as the computer announced that only fourteen seconds remained. She hurled herself into the pod and smacked the flashing, over-sized launch button with the bottom of her fist. The action instantly sealed the pod and initiated the emergency launch sequence. G forces pushed her deep into the thick padding of the pod's nose cone. Jenetta fought to fill her lungs as compressed gas jets positioned in the tube walls blasted the diminutive transport out of the main ship.

The capsule's main rocket engine ignited as it cleared the ship and the pod furiously clawed its way through space, desperately seeking to distance itself from its former sanctuary. The noise and vibration from the chemical engine was unlike anything she had ever experienced. Close to blacking out, Jenetta counted off the final seconds in her head, all the time willing the tiny craft to move faster. Since her CT was still functional, she knew that she was too close, much too close.

"…Five, Four, Three…"

The countdown never reached 'Two.' As the Hokyuu's long and faithful service to the Galactic Alliance came to an unnervingly violent end, fragments from the ship swatted at the life pod and sent it careening along an erratic trajectory. Automatic gyros and attitude thrusters toiled to stabilize the craft as Jenetta remained helplessly flattened against the capsule's cushioned bulkhead. One of two small portholes flared briefly with a blinding light that brilliantly illuminated the padded compartment as combustible material in the ship ignited. But just as quickly, the porthole darkened again, the oxygen in the Hokyuu having been either burnt off or dispersed into the vacuum of space.

The pod's main rocket cut out after completing its programmed sixty-second burn. In the deafening silence that ensued, Jenetta was able to pull herself to a porthole, but an ebony curtain had once again descended over the area. She strained to spot signs of other survivors but, without benefit of a nearby sun, the vast blackness of space that enveloped the pod swallowed hope. The light from distant stars was occasionally broken as nearby objects passed between them and her pod, but she had no way of knowing if the dark, silent shapes were other pods or merely twisted chunks of broken ship radiating outward from the disaster site. Weak, emergency radio beacon signals provided the only testament that others had made it out alive, or at least that other pods had ejected from the ship.

Jenetta was still staring cheerlessly out the porthole when a realization struck her with the force of a micro-asteroid. Her retrorocket hadn't fired! Whirling, she clawed furiously at the thick padding that covered the rear bulkhead and the door to the pod's main compartment. A sensor switch in the doorjamb instantly relayed a signal to the onboard computer as the door opened. Over a sixty-second interval, all pod functions would initiate, including artificial gravity to a full g.

While still literally weightless, Jenetta pushed off from the bulkhead with a powerful thrust of her legs. Intending to reach the onboard computer console on the larboard sidewall, she almost overshot her target, but managed to get a hand on a grab bar and check her trajectory. As she steadied herself in front of the console, she manually entered the command to fire the retrorocket, but the telltale braking that would halt the progress of the life pod and keep it near the original disaster location until rescue ships arrived still didn't occur. The pod continued its pell-mell flight from the last reported position of the Hokyuu as artificial gravity slowly exerted its dominance over her and she became firmly rooted on the deck. Jenetta repeatedly sent the command to fire the retrorocket, only to be met with similar negative results after each attempt. She felt an icy hand reach out and clench her heart with a savage grip. "This is bad, Carver," she said ominously in the deathly silent cabin, "you've landed in it deep this time."

Equipped with a low-power communications system, the pod should have been able to contact other life pods from the Hokyuu. Following the explosion, Jenetta sat at the radio console for hours transmitting, "This is Ensign Carver of the GSC Hokyuu, calling anyone. Does anyone copy? Acknowledge please." Although all discernible evidence indicated that the transmitter was working, no one responded to her hails. She had even tried using her cranial transducer, a miniscule electronic component subcutaneously implanted against the exterior skull of every cadet upon entrance to the Academy. Vibrations from the vocal cords, reverberating in the cranium, are picked up by the transducer and piggybacked onto a carrier wave. The devices only function on Space Command vessels and bases properly equipped to provide the carrier, but Jenetta was desperate enough to try nearly anything. Unable to contact any of the other survivors, it appeared almost certain that her com system was malfunctioning. Since the emergency locator beacon was tied to the com system, she feared she might not be transmitting a signal.

The twenty-one-year-old Space Command ensign spent the remainder of her first day aboard the life pod pacing and fretting like a tiger in a cage as she concentrated on the main problem— the retrorocket malfunction. The soft soles of her boots made just a whisper of sound on the medium-blue carpet of the deck as she repeatedly traversed the pod's interior from end to end. The five-foot, four-inch blonde knew that if rescue ships didn't arrive post-haste, she'd be too far away for them to spot the movement of her tiny un-powered pod with their sensors. However, all of her intense concentration on the problem failed to produce the much-desired epiphany.

Having already expended its sixty seconds of fuel propelling the pod away from the ship, the main rocket couldn't be used to stop, or even slow, the pod's travel by flipping the craft and performing a quick burn. A skillful ship's engineer might know of a way to fire the malfunctioning retrorocket, but Jenetta, a young, brilliant astrophysicist, was out of her element. While all Academy cadets must complete rudimentary courses in spacecraft engineering, her limited knowledge of escape pod design and construction didn't permit her to identify what was preventing the rocket from firing, especially since the computer repeatedly verified transmission of the command to fire. The pod's onboard configuration manual showed the electronic connections to be part of a simple fiberoptic wiring harness. After testing the connections to the point where the wires passed through the hull of the pod, she was forced to assume that the problem was external to the craft. With no EVA suit available, there was nothing more she could do.

Admitting defeat with the retrorocket problem, she abandoned the effort and turned her attention to computing the pod's position and course. Four explosive bolts held a small, protective cover over an external sensor array. When she released the cover, Jenetta was able to begin computing position, course, and speed. After performing the necessary analysis and calculations, Jenetta sat back in her chair, stunned. The inadvertent boost received from the explosion of the ship had increased the pod's speed to over thirty-two kps, almost eight times the maximum speed that pods are expected to achieve during their short burst. Since departing Earth, the Hokyuu had been traveling for ninety-six days, so she knew they were still sixty-three days from their destination, a small SC base on Hyllfoll. Her computations told Jenetta that she'd be over a hundred seventy-five million kilometers from the disaster site when the rescue ship arrived, assuming that it came from the base. Even more depressing, the rescuers would have no way of knowing how many pods had successfully ejected before the explosion.

Not being a bridge officer, Jenetta had no idea how close they'd been to the nearest ship or even if an emergency message had been sent, although the Hokyuu's computer should have seen to that automatically once the 'Abandon Ship' order was issued. She only knew that she was now dangerously close to becoming just another miniscule piece of drifting flotsam in the great eternal eddies of space.

The emergency food rations she found in the pod would last Jenetta six months, but she might be able to stretch them to eight or nine. While most of the food was stowed in storage compartments beneath the deck, a lot had simply been stacked and packed in every available space in the passenger section. To open up the living area, Jenetta moved the rations packs during the first hours aboard. The nose cone made an excellent larder. The recycling of water and regeneration of air ensured a nearly inexhaustible supply of the two commodities. Although much too small to contain food synthesis hardware and supplies, each life pod did contain three stasis beds that provided a means to extend the survivable time in a life pod, or to double the pod's capacity for short-term use since stasis-bed occupants would consume none of the food supplies. Once cocooned inside the small, self-contained life support units, the bodily processes were slowed to near death, leaving the user in a coma-like sleep. The beds could theoretically sustain an occupant for years, but, because of the ever-present risk of equipment malfunctions, Jenetta viewed their use strictly as a last resort.

* * *

Designed to optimally accommodate no more than three crewmembers, Space Command life pods provide a spacious, although somewhat austere interior encompassing an area roughly six meters in length by three meters in width. Extensive use of polycarbonate mirrors create the impression of a much larger space, while cool, eye-pleasing colors, intended to calm disaster survivors during a time of extreme emotional distress, cover all non-mirrored interior walls and surfaces. A full-wall 3D SimWindow occupies one end of the pod, and pod denizens can select from dozens of different animated views. In tests, the designers found a scene from a tropical island paradise to be the most popular with pod occupants. Tall palm trees leaning drunkenly towards a vast ocean of deep aqua sway gently in the breeze against a medium-blue, almost cloudless sky. While sea birds glide overhead, uttering occasional plaintive cries, and small crabs scurry about silently near the waterline, white-capped rollers crash endlessly on a deserted, white-sand beach. The associated sound track reinforces the image as it plays through hidden speakers in the pod. Although not included in life pods, an optional scent generator can produce the salty smell of sea air.

The second most popular Simage proved to be a full day of images captured at the Northern Hemisphere Space Academy. Shot from a third-floor window in Driscoll Hall, just one of several cadet dormitories, the SimWindow looks out across the parade ground towards the academy chapel. Hundreds of grey-uniformed cadets are seen going about their daily business beneath a pale-blue sky filled with large, puffy clouds. The blue-green grass of the parade ground looks cool and peaceful against the stoic gray granite of the imposing edifice on Solemnity Hill. While the spire of the distant chapel stretches longingly towards the heavens, melodious strains of music from its renowned carillon waft across the campus. The jumbled voices of people engaged in idle conversation as they pass the dorm room's open door to the corridor are heard in the background.

* * *

After three long months of interminable waiting for rescue, Ensign Jenetta Carver was ready to climb the walls. She had managed to maintain her sanity this long by spending innumerable hours listening to the music selections available on the pod's computer as she partook of the bounty of reading material also contained in its memory. Owing to their acutely insipid nature, she'd only been able to suffer through the plethora of administrative and technical manuals once, but she'd read the few fictional novels several times.

Most of her time in isolation was occupied in studying the dozens of available military tomes. The three-volume masterpiece On War, by Karl von Clausewitz, the Prussian general and military theorist who proposed a doctrine of total war, and war as an extension of diplomacy, was definitely the most thought provoking, while the battle strategies of Sun-Tzu, the Chinese general, were the most enlightening. Numerous books written about historical battles, one of which covered major confrontations back as far as the First Punic War in 264 BC, had also been loaded into the computer. As a personal exercise, Jenetta modified a battle simulation program she found in the system so she could change certain strategic variables. She fought historic battles repeatedly, employing different troop strengths, reinforcements, weapons, supplies, terrain, and weather conditions to see how the outcome might have been affected. She was amazed by how many of history's most famous battles could so easily have gone the other way if the defeated commander had possessed marginally better intelligence information with regard to the enemy's position, strength, or movement, better communication with unit commanders, better timing, or, perhaps, just a little better luck. The most successful commanders, such as Sun-Tzu and Alexander the Great, had been those who came to rely on surprising the enemy by always doing the unexpected.

She also whiled away the hours by exercising to stay in shape, or by playing the only game contained on the personal log ring she always wore. Written by an unknown programmer, her game was one of several she had found in an ancient archive of Internet software programs while still in elementary school. Dating back to the days before Earth had made contact with any extraterrestrial species, it assumed all aliens to be vicious, voracious, blood-sucking, flesh-devouring monsters that must be destroyed on sight. Her advanced computer skills had enabled her to adapt it to modern computer systems and it gave her something to occupy her time whenever she became bored.

Jenetta had shared the game— which progressed through four levels of play for the skillful participant— with her computer geek friends at school, but few ever made it beyond level two. The hand-eye coordination required to repel the waves of alien fighter ships, missiles, mines, and torpedoes was extreme. As a result of uncounted hours spent playing the game, Jenetta's skill was unparalleled. Over the past several months she had launched the alien-attack action game whenever she felt a bout of depression coming on. Currently, she was turning to the game for comfort at least a dozen times each day.

* * *

Indisputably headstrong, Jenetta nevertheless knew that when all hope of rescue has evaporated, it made little sense to continue on as if expecting someone to arrive. Her intelligence had always prevented her from sinking into mires of self-delusion and that strength did not desert her now. At two hundred fifty-seven million kilometers from the Hokyuu's explosion, she was well outside the area that rescue ships would scour in their search for survivors. If they had picked up her emergency beacon signal, they would have already arrived. Since the craft wasn't under power, there was no energy signature to trigger a rescue ship's sensors. Well clear of the normal shipping lanes in this sector of space, it could conceivably be years before her pod crossed paths with a vessel. With near-term rescue unlikely in the extreme, Jenetta decided to use the only real option left open to her— stasis.

Having made the difficult decision to sleep away the rest of her journey— and her life if rescue never came— Jenetta prepared for a long hibernation. She had been recording a daily log message but, since they were just estimated position reports, they all sounded essentially the same. She knew this one would be very different as she sat down at the pod's console.

Jenetta stared dispassionately into the tiny lens of the camera. Her azure eyes were reminiscent of the deep blue, sometimes purplish colors of Earth's oceans. Sitting ramrod straight, she began her final report in a calm and professional voice.

"Computer, entry to official log of Ensign Jenetta Alicia Carver, GSC serial number 3974A32, Earth date January 1st, 2257. Begin recording. It's now been ninety-three days since the explosion of the Hokyuu. As this life pod has continued to move steadily away from the disaster location, it's become abundantly clear that Space Command rescue vessels are not going to find me. I've decided to use one of the onboard stasis chambers, so this will be my final log entry. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as a Space Command officer. Computer, end message."

Briefly touching the personal log ring that she always wore on the small finger of her left hand to the computer's interface spindle, she said, "Personal log entry. Space Command still hasn't found me; I don't expect that they're still looking. I'm on my own without benefit of spacecraft mobility or communications. The isolation is getting to me and I can't take being alone any longer. Rather than waiting until my sanity is gone, or the food supply exhausted, I'm going to take a chance on one of the stasis beds." Glancing pensively towards the chambers, she breathed deeply and released it before saying, almost as an aside, "I hope the bed performs up to specs." Returning her gaze to the camera lens, she continued, "The odds of being found while I'm still alive are probably about a million to one, so I've been thinking for days about what I'll say in a farewell message to my family. There's no easy way to say goodbye, so I'll just keep the message short and to the point. End of entry. Log message."

She deftly keyed in her password and touched the ring to the spindle again to record the entry, then tried to prepare herself for her next task of recording a personal vidMail message to her parents and siblings. A lump began to materialize in her throat as she looked at the framed picture she had been able to grab from her dresser before leaving the Hokyuu and she fought back the tears that strained to break free. Composing her attractive face, she did her best to look apathetic about the almost certain fate that confronted her. She hoped she could complete the message before her dam of pent-up emotions broke.

"Computer, personal message to Captain Quinton E. Carver, Galactic Space Command. Begin recording. Hi Dad. Hi Mom. Hi Billy, Richie, Andy and Jimmy, if you're there. If you're seeing this, then I didn't make it. It's New Year's Day, 2257. I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas. A problem with the escape pod retrorocket failed to keep me near the ship's explosion site, so rescue has become— improbable. I'm about to use one of the onboard stasis chambers because I don't know how long it will take Space Command to find me. I still have more than four months of emergency rations left, but it doesn't make sense to stay awake any longer, so I'll just sleep until found. I don't regret my decision to join Space Command and, while I'd hoped for a longer tenure, I'm proud to have served the Galactic Alliance. I want you to know how much I love all you guys, and I––" Jenetta had to pause for a second to swallow the lump in her throat. "––can't wait to be with you again, whether it's here, or— in heaven. Goodbye." She smiled sadly and kissed the forefinger and middle finger of her right hand, pressing them to the video lens before saying, "Computer, end message."

"Damn," she said with difficulty as she again tried to swallow the lump in her throat. With a trembling hand, she wiped at the tears that had begun to trickle down her face halfway through the message. "I didn't want them to see me cry." She sniffed to clear her sinuses and considered re-taping the message but realized she wouldn't be able to hold back the tears any better on subsequent recordings. In fact, it might be far worse now that she was caught up in the emotion of the moment. It's not easy to say farewell to the people you love.

After initiating the process to lower a stasis chamber from its storage position against the starboard wall, Jenetta removed her clothes and reduced the pod's gravity to one-tenth normal. While also reducing the drain on the pod's power cells, the greatly reduced gravity in the pod would place less stress on her body during stasis. As the bed locked down onto the deck, she wiggled into an elasticized, skintight stasis suit, taking extra care with the plumbing connections so they would perform properly during her sleep. When the fit was right, she raised the cover of the chamber and climbed into the coffin-like enclosure. After connecting the harness that would keep her sleeping form from shifting around inside the chamber should the gravity fail, she connected the suit's electronic sensors to the bed's monitors and its plumbing connections to the polyvinyl hoses that disappeared into the bed's base. With the hookups complete, she pressed the system button to test the plumbing seals. This was the part of the process she dreaded most and she winced as the suction pulled the suit ever tighter between her legs until the green light winked on, indicating the seal was complete. Her final preparation was to insert the mouthpiece and seal the large transparent facial mask to the hood of the stasis suit, then activate the respiration process.

The young GSC ensign sighed, took a sad look around, lay down with the framed picture of her family clutched tightly to her chest, and pressed the button that would close and seal the chamber's transparent cover before beginning the stasis process. An almost imperceptible hissing sound as the colorless gas filled the mask would be the last thing her mind recorded as she slipped into unconsciousness.

End of Chapter 1

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