This short story was originally published on richardholliday.co.uk on February 25th 2013.
The Boreal Singularity
by Richard Holliday
The arrival of a purple mist across the black, star-studded emptiness of space prompted movement from the chair in the middle of the Boreal Singularity‘s bridge.
“Target nebula in range, Captain Noble,” a smartly dressed officer said, not looking up from his computer console as he watched the clouds form in unison on his digital display and through the window. “Tundreum deposits look extremely promising.”
“Thanks, science.” With a shuffle, the Captain stood up. “All stop,” she commanded, and the engines fell silent. “We’re here.”
The great cloudy, stodgy nebula waited for the Boreal Singularity‘s entry; it had prizes that the Singularity was eager to claim. Though the outer edges of the nebula were misty and translucent, it was in the thick, paste-like inner parts of the nebula that flowed like syrup suspended in space that nuggets of tundreum were to be found.
On the weather deck, the team down there was waiting, knowing what was to come. This was all standard procedure for them on a harvesting ship whose job was to stick robotic protuberances into nebulae just like this and wrench forth the valuable tundreum and refine it into sweet, pure fuel. This was the fifth nebula in as many weeks, and the trip was nearly over: this nebula and one more before the quota was met and the Boreal Singularity could make for home.
“You ready down there McCluskey?” a voice hollered down from the observance deck. It was that of Garen Taylor, the head of engineering aboard the Singularity, as he oversaw the harvesting team preparing to open the bow doors and send out the robotic ‘fingers’ that did the actual heavy lifting.
“Yeah,” Morgan McCluskey replied between grunts as he shifted heavy gear about the deck and into position. These were control plugs; attached to the robots that drove forward into the nebula on their own, and it was the leads coming off from the plugs that they communicated with the main ship through. The thick, shielded cables came up through the floor, and through hundreds of feet of conduit, met with the robots in their stables behind him. His voice crackled through his environmental suit. “Should be ready in about three minutes.”
Suited up and prepared, the three crewmen operated the mechanism that opened the great doors that formed the front of the harvester and let the emptiness of space seep right in, invading every cubic feet of internal space. Underneath the sealed gallery – lucky enough to maintain an atmosphere were the dark parking bays of the three great robotic machines that, once securely leashed down, would venture forth to tap the very heart of the tundreum asteroids buried somewhere in the mauve cloud.
“Good,” Taylor affirmed, and went over to the table behind him that was strewn with papers. A phone rang and he answered it. The conversation was brisk and over before Taylor could even hum in acknowledgement. He looked across to two other crewmen, awaiting orders.
“What’s the score, boss?” the taller, more slender one, Eiser, asked meekly.
“Navigation’s finished,” Taylor briefed, “so get yourselves suited up and on deck. They want extraction to begin in ten minutes. You too, Rayne.”
“Sure,” the other, stocky but evidently stronger crewmen shrugged. “We’ll get down there right away. Same as always…”
The edges of the mauve cloud the Boreal Singularity was parked near slithered and crept through the eternal vacuum of space and slowly penetrated the robot bay, through the opened doors and into the non-atmosphere of that deck, sealed from the rest of the ship.
“Ready Lorence?” McCluskey asked of his crewmate crouched about one of the robotic droids. The other man nodded. “Sure, Morgan. How about you, Keiran?” Rayne said back to the third man, Eiser. Each stood by the robotic stables, tending to one each. At the edge of the room were three switches that brought the artificial consciousnesses to life, and after checking the robots in their dark kennels, the three suited crewmen moved over to this panel.
“OK, activate drilling robots,” Taylor commanded from the gallery. McCluskey, Eiser and Rayne all depressed the buttons with their gloved hands and watched as one after the other, three orange robotic boxes the size of trucks trundled out and along the deck toward the open bow doors. The ends of the chains were hooked firmly onto the rear sides of the robotic excavators, and the other where the hooks met the deck at the other end.
Once at the very threshold where ship met space, each excavator was flung into the nebula by a powerful blast from small rocket motors buried in their undercarriage. As soon as the purple mass enveloped the excavators and the chains began to unravel, the front part of each robot unfolded into a spidery web of diamond-sharp spinning and rotating cutting blades designed solely to tear chunks from the tundreum asteroids and swallow them, storing them in the great metal stomach that the mouth was attached to for processing aboard the Boreal Singularity later.
Each excavator was totally automated, and when spaceborne, sought out the tundreum deposits from radar data fed to it from the main ‘mothership’ through the thick anchor cables leading out into space. This was the cable that would later pull them back into the ship for emptying once full. A typical tundreum asteroid was about as large as a dwelling, about fifty feet in diameter; most of that was igneous rock that used to be planets millions of years ago but there was enough of these shimmering ‘pellets’ in each nebula to warrant going to the effort of extraction.
Now that the excavators were working, McCluskey, Eiser and Rayne retreated from the weather deck back into the pressurised hull, in time regrouping with chief engineer Taylor in the overseeing room.
McCluskey was the last to enter the airlock. Just before the door closed, he noticed one of the service cables was vibrating, and jumped out to examine it. It had happened before, and it was a simple repair. “I’ll be back in just a moment.”
“Sure,” Rayne replied, not really paying much attention. McCluskey left the airlock floor ajar and positioned himself above the command matrix where the cable met the deck. The great plug was a little loose, but nothing a quick shove with a boot wouldn’t fix.
The cable intrigued McCluskey for a split second. Was it… moving? Before there was time to respond, the plug was flung from the receptacle and smacked McCluskey right in the helmeted face, smashing the glass visor and sending shards into his face. “Oh god!” he cried, in extreme shooting pain.
“The hell?!” Eiser called to nobody, suddenly hearing the noise and running out. Rayne followed; and they saw the plug scuttling about the deck and McCluskey clutching his head. Rayne took control. “Get him in the airlock, now, Eiser!”
Eiser did so, helping his friend back to the airlock. The pressure suit was compromised and it was important to get the injured crewman back to pressurised space quickly. Rayne deftly grabbed the errant plug and shoved it home with his boot. “Bastard thing.”
Falling into the airlock, the three gasped for air, and McCluskey was soon able to remove his shattered helmet. His face was red with splintered glass cutting into his cheeks and lacerating the intricate blood vessels there, but all he could do in the airlock was wait. The atmosphere slowly regenerated and finally McCluskey would be able to be patched up.
“Well done guys,” the older engineer said, before noticing that McCluskey was hurt. “What happened here?”
“Control plug got a bit frisky,” Rayne surmised. Taylor hummed. “Unfortunate.”
Stumbling, McCluskey found himself being fussed over by one of the medics, his girlfriend for many voyages, Flavia Torres. A small but intense-looking young lady, she soothed his battered face. It would be a nasty black eye indeed, but nothing a few salve pads and kisses wouldn’t fix. The embrace brought about a smile that cracked across McCluskey’s bruised face.
“Thanks,” he mouthed.
“Any time,” Torres giggled.
The three crewmen, even after McCluskey’s accident, were worn out. After a sweaty and hot couple of hours stuck in the suits preparing the robots for their excursions outside into the nether, the cool, processed air that flowed freely about the pressure deck was a welcome relief.
Footsteps came down the stairwell and the double door that led to the upper superstructure into the forward engineering area swept open and Captain Noble appeared, her hair waving in the unusual, breezy conditions of Engineering. “Just felt I should congratulate you on another successful extractor deployment.”
“Why thank you, Captain,” Taylor smiled, his sincerity questionable but impossible to nail down. “You say this after every deployment; you needn’t – this really is what we’re paid to do.”
The Captain rolled her eyes knowingly. “Yes, Mr. Taylor. But still, I’d not want to be down on that weather deck handling those couplings.” She looked over to the three panting young crewmen.
“It’s not done yet, Captain,” Eiser breathed, “we’ve gotta do it all again to get the processed stuff outta there.”
“Indeed,” the Captain acknowledged in a sterile voice, “but again. Not me that has to do it.”
The room hummed in assent and a quiet fell. The captain turned to leave through the way she’d come. “Dismissed, crewmen. Go take a break, you deserve it.”
Not needing any further encouragement, the Engineering detail went through the door to their mess room, and the Captain back up her stairwell to the bridge. She’d watch the clouds roll on past for a while; there was nothing now left to do but wait for the extractors to extract their pay-dirt.
Hours passed slowly and the crew of the Boreal Singularity had nothing to do but wait. The extractors were busying themselves in the dense nebula, guided only by the signals from the mothership’s sensor arrays. The navigation crew left the bridge to relax and bide their time in the recreation area while the engineers whiled away their boredom watching the engines idle over. As the tundreum nuggets nearest the edge of the nebula were exhausted, the Singularity began a controlled drift further into the pink, puffy cloud and was soon enveloped by it.
A sudden darkness cocooned the ship, and there was nothing but bleak artificial light inside the hull. There were no stars and no suns outside. The nebula had, in effect, taken the Boreal Singularity whole; while in reality, the inverse was true: the Singularity was pillaging the nebula’s very inner being of its treasures.
For a normal starship this would be an extremely unsettling experience. The intense claustrophobia, the seeming lack of an escape, not being able to see ten feet in front of the bows of the ship… however, the Singularity was designed for this very purpose and the crew used to it. On this expedition alone they’d dived into four great, pasty nebulae just like this one, and would do dozens more in the months to come.
The knocking, however, was something even Captain Noble, who had done this job for most of her professional life, was not accustomed to. The sound of great clots of celestial matter banging against the cold hull of the ship as if moved stealthily and silently though the nebula, rocking the hull from side to side in motions that were in equal parts gentle and unsettling.
Abruptly, with a crash, the Boreal Singularity lurched wildly to starboard, as metallic thuds resonated along the entire length of the hull. Captain Noble was flung to the ground in the recreation deck and found herself dazed and confused as she picked herself up and was harangued by a terrified crewmember.
“They need you on the bridge, Captain!” the terrified youngster warbled, “they need you!”
Shakily getting her footing, Noble tried to do what she could to placate the clearly-scared young man. She’d been through something like this before, but not for years; her mind was racing to recollect that event. However, she still needed to reassure her crewman. “I’ll go where I’m needed.”
The bridge was an absolute mess; the lights were flickering, mainly staying off but flickering still, as if trying to decide what state to be in. Outside the pink, puffy nebula was turning red, as if with rage at the Boreal Singularity‘s daring attempt to steal its bounty. Immediately the Science Officer ran over to the captain as she emerged through the doorway. “Polar strike, Captain. We’re hit hard.”
“Aye,” Captain Noble hummed. She remembered a Polar Strike from one of her first trips out excavating; where nuggets of tundreum ore out in space gravitated so close to each other that they froze together; tundreum having a self-cooling reaction in large, close quantities. Naturally, a tundreum harvester on the tail end of its mission would be teeming with ripe tundreum, and it was not uncommon for un-harvested nuggets to gravitate toward a harvester in the midst of a nebula.
Except there were supposed to be safeguards. The computer navigation was supposed to keep all this in mind as it navigated the ship with the excavators deployed, sniffing out the truffles from the forest floor that was the nebula. Another safeguard was that the tundreum distillate tanks that made up a great deal of the Boreal Singularity‘s hull were kept heated to negate the self-chilling effects. Noble knew this fact and straight away went to ask chief engineer Taylor one thing: “what the hell was going on in Engineering?”
The intercom system seemed sluggish; though a small part of Noble’s mind wondered if Taylor was just avoiding the call. Eventually he picked up, and sounded breathless. “Vent blockage. We’ve lost the distillate heating…”
“I know that,” Noble interrupted snippily. “Get it back online!”
“Not going to be possible, Capt…” Taylor started, but was cut off.
Noble wheezed with incredulity and desperation. “Are you serious? Seriously? Get those heaters back online before we’re blown to pieces!”
Tundreum was a strange substance indeed. It made an ideal fuel supply for long-range star travel but was extremely unpredictable and unstable in its unrefined or barely-refined form. Tundreum-rich nebulae never had long lives; once the tundreum nuggets had begun to coalesce, as was happening around the Boreal Singularity, there would be a critical mass that, when met, would set off an explosive chain reaction that flung the ore out into the galaxy. This event was known as an Excursion, and not something for a shop to be anywhere near. The resultant particles from this explosion would form the basis of a new tundreum nebula and the process would begin over.
Taylor ran back to his position in the overseeing room and his ashen face was registered by all the people there. McCluskey, Eiser and Rayne all looked seriously at their superior, all somewhat able to guess what was going to be said. Taylor could see that they knew. With a gulp, he began, “Distillate heating is down.”
“Yes,” was the dented response that Rayne, the engineer, gave back. “Solution?”
“Two-fold,” his superior ventured. “Try remote repair or space-walk out there and operate the manual override.”
“Former’d be preferable,” Rayne said, his mouth dry. Of course the remote restart was preferable – ‘manual override’ meant a dangerous spacewalk along the very outer surface of the hull and digging clumps of unstable tundreum ore from the vents that fed into the heating system.
“Good, thought you’d agree,” Taylor said somewhat more lightly. Turning to the other two crewmen, he ordered them to wait in the oversight room. “Eisner, McCluskey, suit up but wait here. If the automatic repair fails, you’ll have only a little time to effect a repair outside.”
“Alright,” they both mouthed, being extremely matter-of-fact in the face of this emergency. McCluskey turned to the two engineers as they made their way aft toward the engine compartment. “Good luck you guys.”
“Thanks,” Rayne said just as the door slid closed. Though the glass panel which muted him, he mouthed back, “you too.”
Taylor led the way for Rayne all the way back to Engineering through narrow, dark, wailing passageways that tunnelled through the great vats of distilled tundreum that were turning the Boreal Singularity into a death trap as they cooled. It was getting intensely cold back here, and the mercury was plummeting by the microsecond; and each microsecond that passed brought more tundreum to the outside, to which the careen toward oblivion in a fireball of stored and released energy would be soon to follow.
At the very rear of the harvester was a great fusion reactor that powered the entirety of the ship’s systems, from lighting to the engines and life support to the tundreum processors and associated, crucial tank heating systems. Palming through the control console like a madman, Taylor pored though logs as to why the heating had shut down. Appropriately, a cold sweat soon broke on his brow.
“What’d you see, sir?” Rayne asked timidly. Taylor pivoted slowly and ominously.
“There’s nothing we can do here. Whole reactor’s running on latent power while it effects an emergency shutdown…”
Rayne gasped, knowing from his training what this almost certainly meant. “… you mean to say the whole of the ventilation system is clogged with tundreum crystals?”
With a final punch on the console, a graphic showed in gruesome detail that the internal scanners confirmed that this was the case. The initial impact with the nugget against the hull had shattered it, and the gravity drive had sucked the fragments into the vents where they had duly frozen solid a seal that could not be broken by the automatic repair system. “Yes, Lorence. You’d better go get your suit on.”
With a gulp of knowing, Rayne agreed.
Walking back into the oversight room, the three crewmen were suited up in great silver spacesuits that did no favours for their figures. McCluskey was about to put his helmet on, and Torres, the medic, fussed over him. “You be careful out there.”
“Babe,” McCluskey laughed, “this is no problem.”
“Heh,” she laughed, hoping he was right. With a sneaky peck, McCluskey was ready to put his helmet on and seal his suit.
The only way out to the exterior of the hull was through the great bow doors and around the outside. This would entail a dangerous, nerve-wracking abseil along the side of the Singularity with only handheld stability magnets for support. It would be no mean feat, especially with three cosmonauts encumbered with heavy, bulky repair gear, but it was a task that couldn’t be put off. Loading their backs with the integrated harnesses that not only carried the equipment, drills, picks and lances but also oxygen tanks and life-sign monitors, the three crewmen prepared to go into the airlock, down onto the weather deck and begin their dangerous mission.
“Good luck guys, I’ll be watching you all the way,” Taylor reassured. A brief smile flickered across the faces of the three young men who were about to risk their lives to save the ship from certain doom. “Just… just do what you can. It’s all I ask.”
“Will do,” McCluskey replied crisply over the in-helmet microphone, static reverberating through the signal. He turned to Rayne and Eiser. “You guys ready?”
“Aye,” Eiser nodded. Rayne, making a few casual, pointless adjustments to his helmet with his distended, suited fingers also nodded assent.
“Well then,” McCluskey took a breath. “Here we go.”
Leading the way, the stocky crewman went into the elevator that led to the airlock. It rocked gently as, with thudding footsteps, his two comrades joined him and the door slid shut. Then the elevator descended the twenty or so feet to the weather deck; down the height of the excavator stables that the observance deck was built atop. Once there, the door that once led to the control centre now formed a seal with a great silvery chamber with no windows bar one on the door that greeted them, and beckoned them into its harsh, cramped interior. Even without a full spacesuit on, this space was uncomfortable and claustrophobic; now readied for a full spacewalk, this feeling was compounded.
Pounding. The pounding on the hull was growing louder and more frequent; loud enough even to penetrate with sobering clarity the airlock, the spacesuit… many, many layers of auditory insulation. The clock was ticking, both for the Boreal Singularity and the three in the airlock – a digital clock counted down the 200 seconds until pressure was equalised and they could open the far door without being blasted into space.
The clock finally hit three consecutive zeroes and the green light next to the door flooded the chamber. With a squeal of mechanisms, the latch released and the door opened to the weather deck: deserted bar for the three great chains that led into the mists outside, through the great open doors that the McCluskey, Eiser and Rayne walked with trepidation but purpose toward.
Solid deck soon gave way to nothingness under the heavy, booted feet of the three technicians, and the unearthly, alien sensation of floating in space took hold. To prevent being flung into space by any number of gravitational fields and magnetic repulsions from either the ship or the tundreum clouds outside. Within seconds of beginning the strange abseil toward the stern, the bow became invisible in a looming, full purple cloud that left McCluskey, Rayne and Eiser standing on a lonely island of metal ledge surrounded by pink lava.
“Watch your footing,” McCluskey warned his comrades; the crystallised tundreum that had started to form into a cocoon around the ship began to encroach onto the service passageway that was the only route to the reactor vents at the stern. It was slippery under boot; each crewman would have to be vigilant in using the magnetic grips in the palms of their hands to maintain balance. The boots, while magnetised, were too heavily insulated by the frosted tundreum to help gain any more grip, to the chagrin of the repair team.
“Will do,” Rayne breathed back. He and Eisner were concentrating on keeping a footing, hence the conversation was terse; at any rate, the thought of being blown up at any moment didn’t make a particularly sociable atmosphere.
Ten minutes passed. Outside, the knocking of chunks of tundreum on the hull were deafening and the reverberation could be felt in the very bones of the ship. Finally the team were on the curving, domed section of the hull that led toward the stern and the great engine outlets and their associated intakes and maintenance hatches. At this point, the access ledge turned into a ladder up the curved part of the hull. McCluskey went first as he was in front; the steps were coated with crystalline ore like a cake would be dripping with glutinous frosting. At first his boots squished into the semi-solid residue, but as they broke the top layer, the considerably more liquid and slippery substance underneath broke through and immediately froze. Not expecting this, McCluskey had to quickly grab one of the higher footholds to avoid falling off. His magnetised palms just about got purchase on the hull, preventing him tumbling into the cloud itself backwards.
“Careful!” Rayne panted, being directly behind McCluskey and able to push his body back toward the metal hull.
McCluskey cursed. “Bloody hull is like ice.”
“Yeah,” Eiser mouthed, looking about. The cloud seemed to be dispersing a bit, leaving a great patch of coated hull open for viewing. The grey hull was now covered by an intricate web of fluffy, pink fronds. From the ladder, the young crewman reached out to touch one of these fronts, expecting it to be mobile and soft. However, the clear, pink gel shattered into pieces at the slightest touch. “Oh.”
“Come on,” McCluskey reminded, “we’ve a job to do. Scraping that crap off the hull will come later.” His head turned back upwards and he kept climbing, followed by Rayne and Eiser.
Eiser was distracted by the hypnotic beauty of these almost organic forms as they took hold of the hull right in front of his very eyes, and missed the slippery surface of the ladder treat. With a deep breath, he fell backward and slid back down.
“Shoot!” Rayne exclaimed, and McCluskey turned. He saw Eiser slip, and his eyes rolled before his conscious thought leapt into full action, his subconscious mentally admonishing his friend for his stupidity, but his core cerebral impulses racing to save him from that same stupidity. Managing to hook his magnetic boot onto one of the rungs of the ladder, and with a shove from his gloved hands, used that inertia to lean back and grab the handle on the backside of Eiser’s suit. “Pull him back!” McCluskey roared. Rayne did so, having an advantageous position, and soon, exhausted and weary, the three of them clung onto the hull once more.
McCluskey faced upward, away from the group. He kept climbing, but his mouth opened on its own accord. He didn’t need to face Eiser; the radio microphones would be quite sufficient. “You’ve any idea how moronic that was, Keiran?”
Eiser didn’t answer. McCluskey wasn’t having that. “Answer me!”
After a few seconds, Eiser mouthed, “Yeah, I know, sorry Morgan.”
“Pay bloody attention to what you’re doing… you could’ve easily been killed!”
“Alright,” a clearly embarrassed and contrite Eiser whispered back. “Gee…”
Before McCluskey could continue the argument, his head peaked the bulge in the hull and the engines lay before him. A few more steps and his two comrades could see too. A huge mass of glowing grey and purple tundreum ore clotted like a great scab over the engines and making its way over the main hull – and over the tank vents on which the survival of the Singularity relied so much. “Remote team to observation deck, do you read?” he called into his microphone, directed toward Taylor inside. A crackle emitted from his helmet speakers before his superior answered. “Yeah, Morgan. What’s the deal?”
“Vapour outlets have frozen over.”
“What, completely?” Taylor asked, surprised. McCluskey confirmed, but Taylor was adamant. “Not possible.”
“Well blow me sideways,” McCluskey sighed. “There’s a whole nugget forming across the opening. We’re going to have to cut it away and hope that it drifts back into the cloud.”
“If it doesn’t…” Taylor mouthed ominously. The Captain was now next to him, intently listening to the communication. “Well, we all know what will happen.”
“Indeed,” McCluskey said shortly. “Team out.”
The radio went silent with another lively crackle of static interference. Captain Noble looked across to her chief engineer, but he predicted her question. “If not, we’ll hit critical mass.”
Her face knew what that meant. Big boom indeed.
On the hull, McCluskey had led the team to the blockage, and using laser picks that etched holes in the solidified ore with a thin beam of energy, scraped a few layers from the crust of solid, frozen tundreum that was blocking the outlet. The stuff was pretty well glued on, even beginning to fuse with the meta hull plating. Runny tundreum was seeping through the incisions the guys were making where the crust met the hull, indicating the fluid nature of the reaction taking place. Time was running out; if the tundreum fully fused with the hull, the seal would prove impossible to remove, and all would be lost. McCluskey realised that quickly, and the lance faltered a little in his shaking hands.
“Easy, Morgan,” Rayne said soothingly. “Just take it easy.”
McCluskey was getting frustrated. The laser just wasn’t getting anywhere. “Not got enough power here, Lorence. Hardly making a dent.” Indeed, the purple mass that had latched onto the hull in the worst possible place was stuck fast. “Hand me the plasma cutter.”
“You sure?” Eiser mouthed. McCluskey gave him a short glare. “Yes.”
Out of the equipment pack came a cylindrical tank that clamped magnetically to the side of the hull. From the top led a cable that was stiff and hard to manoeuvre, but attached to that was a trigger spray that McCluskey took in his hand. Rayne pressed a few buttons on the side of the cylinder and it vibrated. “Ready in five seconds, Morg.”
McCluskey counted down. Four… three… two… one… and squeezed the trigger, and braced for the recoil. A green jet of flame spurted from the tip of the gun handle, and McCluskey quickly took his free hand to a dial that reined in the flame from a great flare to a concentrated beam of superheated plasma, and directed it at the tundreum deposit. Where the hot plasma hit the gloopy mass of ore, sparks flew in all directions; lucky then that the glass of the visors each wore was polarised for this very occurrence. After a few seconds the sparkling activity ceased and McCluskey let go.
The blockage had been drastically reduced to a smouldering, gelatinous puddle. “Quick,” McCluskey called, getting to his feet and grabbing a hardened pick from the equipment bag. “Peel it off before it sets again!”
Following McCluskey’s lead, Rayne grabbed a pick and joined his friend in a frenzied attempt to use the sharp end to peel the deposit off the ship. It was going, cracks forming and splinters coming away and falling into space, dragged back into the cloud… and then Eiser slipped again in his haste to lend a hand.
“No, Keiran, no!” Rayne called, seeing his friend tumble again, land on his backside and slide toward them. A bump on the hull flung him until he was barrelling head-first for the vent and the weakened tundreum deposit, and directly into it…
With a crunch, the tundreum chunk sheared off as a hefty space helmet careened into it and exploded in a dusty plume of tundreum dust. More importantly it fizzled away into the enveloping, stormy nebula and the vents to which it once blocked were freed, and a forceful gust of exhaust blew the disintegrating blockage away from the ship.
Inside the oversight deck, the monitor suddenly glowed green. The ventilation system was back online. A massive surge of relief coursed through both chief engineer Taylor and Captain Noble’s very beings, and their raised backs relaxed in unison. “Well done team,” Taylor exhaled happily into the intercom. “Come back in. You’ve earned your stripes.”
However, there was little elation on the fantail. Eiser wasn’t moving after his fall. McCluskey knelt down and inspected his battered helmet, and heard the instruction over his radio. “Keiran’s not moving, though, chief.”
“Really?” Taylor hummed with intrigue. “What happened?”
McCluskey explained how his friend’s misstep had dislodged the tundreum vent blockage. However, a murmur from Eiser cut him short. “He’s coming round.”
“Good,” Taylor said, “get him back to the weather deck. We’ll be waiting.”
“I’ll try,” McCluskey barked, taking Eiser’s weight in his arms before slowly easing him down the curved part of the hull and back onto the thin ledge that led forward to safety. “Go on ahead, Rayne.”
Lorence Rayne protested. “Lemme help you with Keira…”
“I said go ahead!” McCluskey ordered shortly. Rayne knew he meant it. “I’ll be along with Keiran soon. Don’t worry.”
“Alright,” Rayne shrugged. “See you guys back inside.”
With a flourish of eyebrows, McCluskey signalled acknowledgement. He turned to his friend, who was still dazed and scared by his surroundings. “Don’t worry man, I’ll get you back inside. In the warm.”
Eiser could manage no intelligible words, but mumbled something. McCluskey smiled. Good enough.
Crashing of tundreum asteroids got louder and more violent. Even though the tank vents were clear and the refrigeration back online, it had an uphill struggle to dispel the heat that had built up and the coating of tundreum this had given the ship. The only course of action was to leave the tundreum nebula as quickly as possible, before the critical mass was reached and excursion occurred. It was no longer enough to simply stop the collection of tundreum, the build up outside was now running away and totally out of control.
“How much longer can we wait?” Captain Noble asked her engineer stonily. Rayne was back inside and resting from the expedition, but after ten minutes, McCluskey and an injured Eiser were still working their way down the hull. Everyone would be painfully aware that time was running out.
After a few moments thought, Taylor answered. “Five minutes. Any longer and we have to cut the cables.”
“I see. Hold out as long as is humanly possible,” the Captain shushed, and her eyes, as did everyone else’s, went to the gallery, waiting for two guys to appear in the doorway.
Outside conditions had worsened. The nebula was turning increasingly turbulent and wild, buffeting the ship. The sound of great chunks of rock infused with tundreum against the hull were great roars and booms as the side of the ship took a pounding. The vibrations coming from within the hull were probably more ominous; even with a functioning cooling system, the pooled mass of tundreum inside and outside was approaching the grave level.
McCluskey could see the warm glow of the bow doors beckoning, and his heart jumped a little. They’d be safe in less than a minute… just a few more steps along the treacherous ledge to go…
The Singularity shuddered violently, and McCluskey clamoured for grip, only just achieving it, but he felt a dragging from his feet. Down below, Eiser was using whatever faculties he was able to muster to hold onto his crewmate’s foot.
“Leave me, Morg…” Eiser mumbled, dribbling. “Save yourself. You’ve more to live for…”
“Bullcrap, Keiran!” McCluskey rejected passionately. “We’ll both get out of this…” He attempted to shimmy along with Eiser holding onto his feet. It was moderately successful, and soon the lip of the weather deck was teasing the pair with its proximity.
“Fifteen seconds…” Taylor hummed solemnly, hardly daring to breathe. The tension was immense; everyone on deck, Rayne, Taylor, Torres and Captain Noble herself silently urging McCluskey and Eiser to tumble in before the door had to be sealed.
“Come on, Morg,” Rayne urged quietly to himself. Suddenly a foot appeared on the ledge.
“There they are!” Taylor exclaimed hopefully, and one of the suited bodies – the identity of which was indiscernible as yet – flopped onto the deck. Taylor waited. “Where’s the other one?”
Outside, McCluskey was fiddling with his suit. Having mustered the strength to fling the injured body of Eiser into the ship, he’d found his leg trapped on loose metal rigging dislodged by a tundreum rock strike while he was busy on the fantail loosening the vent blockage. The effort of shoving his friend unceremoniously to safety had distracted him and let his foot get caught. With a wrench he freed it, grunting with frustration, and went to take the last step into the weather deck and a well-earned drink…
However it was an appointment he’d never make, as from the mists behind him, a lump of tundreum about as big as a bus swept past him, the pull of which cost McCluskey his balance, and he fell backwards. Flailing his arms, he brushed the metal hull and he thought he was saved, and he continued to fall. The momentum of a thousand tons of reactant ore was far too much for the magnetised hand grips to counteract, and with a wail, McCluskey drifted backward into space, and watched the bow door slam shut. He watched safety fade away with an abrupt clunk of great doors.
Running down into the gusty weather deck, Flavia Torres was crestfallen. Heartbroken. She watched as McCluskey, the bravest crewman she knew, out of all of them here on the Boreal Singularity, drifted into certain death, enveloped as the ship had been by the cloud.
Captain Noble ordered the Singularity make a hasty retreat, and with the newly-reactivated reactor, the engines dialled up, and the pink nebula was far astern. On the external cameras she watched, as did Torres, as the excursion took place, and tundreum was scattered for millions of miles in all directions, in invisibly-tiny clumps of molecules. Nothing was left of the nebula where so much hope and heartbreak had taken place.
But one thing gave her comfort. Morgan McCluskey had ascended mere mortality in his selfless acts, and was literally made of star-stuff now, and eternal.