A voice pierced the darkness. ‘What’s the last thing you remember happening on Cinder IV, Mr Trevarian?’
The sensation of lying motionless under a heavy, wet blanket was pleasant and strangely comforting – so comforting he couldn’t be bothered to open his eyes to find out who was speaking, but answered anyway.
Rain lanced down out of a rapidly blackening sky, punctuated with flashes of light. Aryx bounded down the ramp and out of the shuttle, his big arms carrying a bundle containing every possible tool he might need. He crossed the threshold, and water pouring down over the doorway triggered the wetsuit properties of his already tight military-issue vest, shrinking it further, and he immediately felt warmer despite the cold rain that plastered his hair to his scalp. The shuttle’s landing supports had sunk too far into the soft ground – there was no way he’d get under it to perform repairs in these conditions.
‘Computer, send the cargomech out!’ he said, and dropped the tools in a heap midway along the starboard side.
The ship’s TI complied, and seconds later the eight-foot tall, vaguely humanoid forklift trundled out of the ship, churning up the marshy, waterlogged soil in its tracks.
‘Lift it here!’ he shouted, pointing to the bottom of the hull. He almost couldn’t hear himself think over the din of the rain battering the ship. ‘High enough for me to crawl under.’
‘Acknowledged.’ The cargomech bent down and reached out with its two-pronged grippers. Hydraulics strained and mud flew through the air as it slowly forced itself between the ship and marsh. With a creak, the side of the shuttle lifted a metre from the ground. ‘Is this adequate clearance?’
‘Yes, hold it there.’
His wristcom chirped into life. ‘We’re on our way back with seven surviving colonists. The ITF have rigged the reactor to blow and we need to get off this rock ASAP! Our ETA is three minutes. What’s your status?’
‘Engines operational, I’ve repaired the navigational array, and I’m about to fix the atmospheric ballast seal. Two minutes, tops.’
‘Good work, marine. Alvarez out.’
There was no time to lose. He dropped to the floor and shuffled under the ship, dragging the bundle of tools through the muck after him. Within moments he’d located the ballast seal – a rubberised hoop surrounding a large panel – where a piece of shrapnel from one of the terrorist cell’s ground-to-air missiles was lodged in the rubber. He rolled onto his back and pulled out a pry-bar from the bundle of tools and wedged it in. With a few sharp tugs, the seal came away. He threw it aside, took the replacement from the tool bag along with a large spanner, and began removing the panel.
Thirty seconds later the panel dropped free. He quickly fitted the new seal around the edge of it and lifted it back into place. That was odd – it seemed a little closer than when he’d removed it. He began tightening the nuts that held it in place and hit himself on the chin with the end of the spanner. It definitely was closer. He looked at the ship’s support struts. They were a few inches deeper in the marsh than when he’d first crawled under; there wasn’t space to finish fitting the panel.
‘Computer, get the mech to raise the ship a few inches!’
The hull moved farther away and he resumed tightening the nuts.
He finished the last one as Alvarez’s voice came over the wristcom. ‘Trevarian, what’s your status?’
‘I’m just finishing up. We’re good to go.’
‘Our ETA is thirty seconds. Warm her up! Alvarez out.’
Great! Time to get out of this mud hole. He started collecting up the tools and a metallic squeal came from the direction of the cargomech; its arms were still slowly rising, and perilously close to slipping out from under the ship. ‘Computer— Jesus Christ, what are you doing?’
The mech’s speaker gave an unintelligible electronic crackle in response, yet it continued to move.
‘Oh hell!’ He abandoned the tools and started scrabbling backwards as fast as he could.
It wasn’t quick enough.
With a final, grating screech of metal on metal, the mech’s arms flicked upwards, releasing the burden of the shuttle. He was still partly under the ship when its bulk fell towards him.
Pain exploded from every nerve in his body. The last thing he remembered through the blinding agony was the shouts of the evac team arriving.
‘And that’s all I remember,’ he said.
‘It’s better than we’d hoped,’ the voice said. ‘We thought there would be severe brain damage after the coma. Can you open your eyes?’
As unwilling as he was, Aryx tried to shrug off the drug-induced leaden feeling and forced his eyes open. He blinked slowly and found himself in a sterile white hospital room with gleaming walls and a solitary window that exposed a patch of featureless powder-blue sky. A doctor sat next to him with an expression of analytical concern. Beside him stood Nick Alvarez, a bronze-skinned hulk of a man. With one muscular arm folded across his body, he rubbed his wire brush chinstrap with the other hand. Aryx could tell he was worried.
‘How do you feel?’ Alvarez asked.
‘Like I’ve been hit by a shuttle.’ Aryx laughed, and his ribs replied with a sharp stab. ‘What’s my prognosis?’
‘We managed to repair most of the damage and stem the internal bleeding with nanobots,’ the doctor said. ‘We put you in a coma while you healed as there were complications with infections in your wounds. The most severe damage was irreparable and we had to operate.’
‘Let me see.’
The doctor hesitated before pulling back the covers.
The world began to sway, and Aryx fought back a wave of nausea that threatened to overcome him. ‘What am I going to do? I won’t be able to work in the marines anymore!’
Alvarez shook his head. ‘They’ve given you an honourable discharge, and you’re gonna be awarded the Orion medal for valour. Your actions saved the team and surviving colonists.’
It was cold comfort. There was no way he could go back to the military, and he certainly couldn’t run his dad’s farm. ‘How am I going to live? I’ve got to work or I’ll go insane!’
‘One of the guys suggested a little day centre down the road where they put lipstick kisses on knickers.’ Alvarez laughed and held out an infoslate, close enough for Aryx to read. ‘Or, if you want to try something you’ll actually be good at, there’s this …’
Looking for a career in space? Exciting opportunities for engineers of all abilities await on Tenebrae station.