Derelict


it


The spacecraft shuddered as the docking completed, the walls vibrating, groaning as the hull absorbed the impact. The hatch on the unknown vessel was the right size, but the curve of the walls made a softer joining impossible. Maybe if they'd had more than three days to prepare, Colonel Micah Johnston thought.

A hiss of pressurized air, and the light above the airlock flipped to green. The shaking of the hull dissipated, and the chamber fell silent, save for the fading echoes as they travelled down the hall. Johnston looked to his two crewmates, their faces stoic behind the bubbles of their masks, but he could feel their anxiety. The trembling in their bodies not just the aftershock of the hatch impact. He tapped the speaker on his suit.

"Stay sharp," he said, hearing his voice amplified in the mask. "Just because nothing's shown itself so far doesn't mean nobody's home. For all we know, they could be using different frequencies or methods of communication." They all gave a curt nod, and Johnston turned back to the airlock hatch. He spun the gear and opened it, the others following him inside. Once the last sealed the door behind them, Johnston gripped the wheel to the alien ship's hatch, hesitated, then gave it a spin.

It turned with some effort, grudgingly, then loosened the more it spun. With a loud clang, something behind the door slid open, and the hatch popped free with a puff of air. It's not that he could feel the breeze through his suit, or even hear it, really. But he could sense it. The slight pressure change, the opening to dark emptiness beyond. He shuddered, then pulled the door wide, the hinges groaning the whole way.

Inside was blackness, the green light casting dim shadows around a small chamber. The inner airlock. Johnston clicked on his headlamp and leaned inside. A spartan space, of course. Smooth metal walls, grating on the floor. Another hatch ten feet ahead. His team followed him in, closed the outer door, and followed the same procedure to open the inner hatch. This door gave no such protest, opening smoothly inward to a darkened hallway.

Red guide lights flickered and clicked on every few feet along the ceiling and floor as they entered. Motion sensors. Seems there's still some power on in this thing, Johnston thought. But seemingly no one onboard. Something felt off about that. Everything about this damned ship did. The bloody thing just magically appeared in orbit three days ago. No warning, no trajectory, no signs of life or communication from it. Just there one moment where nothing was before. Too far and too small to be seen by the naked eye, but every nation with satellites saw it, as did many astronomers both professional and amateur. By day two, telescope footage was plastered over the news. Every space agency was already formulating plans to board the ship. And to be the first ones to do so.

With little time to prepare, Johnston, who had twice been to the International Space Station and logged over five hundred days in space, was tapped to lead a small international crew to explore. ESA, NASA, and Roscosmos made up his team. JAXA, CNSA, and others refused cooperation, striking out on their own and drumming up further suspicion. And the Chinese would be here by tomorrow.

They were light on supplies. Get in, get what info you can, get out. Find out where it came from, who made it, and can we control it. Given the ship's dormant appearance, no energy signature, and no response to hails on any frequency, the going assumption was that it was abandoned, or at least all its occupants dead. The design was distinctively Earthen, so nobody seriously considered an alien encounter. Still, Johnston would have preferred to be armed, even if a gun in space was about the stupidest idea you could imagine.

As the hatch closed behind them, the little dim light above went from green to red. Something churned in Johnston's gut, and mixed with a flash of adrenaline. He grabbed the hatch wheel and strained. The others looked confused, then alarmed as the realization sank in. They rushed up to help, all three shoving against the closed hatch, to no avail. The ring handle would not budge, no millimeter of give to the door. They were trapped.

"Control, we've got a situation here." Johnston eased up and stared through the round little window in the hatch. The airlock lay beyond, its outer door closed. The shuttle still appeared attached to the hull, not that he had any reason to think otherwise. But their only way in was now blocked. "Control, do you copy?"

Silence on the comm. His voice grew in alarm. "Control, come in." Still nothing. He tapped his helmet over his earpiece, turning to the team. "Status check."

"I hear you, Colonel," Lieutenant Volstok said, straightening her body to attention.

"Copy," Sergeant Mayfield said. His eyes shifted, dark circles looking for something. He pointed at some exposed piping, one length dangling free. "You know, I'm sure Miss Brainiac here would figure it out, but I'm partial to good ole' elbow grease. Let me grab that piping and bash this door open. I don't take kind to losing my exit route."

Johnston sighed, his breath briefly fogging his helmet. Two minutes in. He knew the American by reputation, but even at that, this was one of his earlier requests for violence. He cursed NASA for sending muscle instead of another engineer. "Negative, Sergeant. You see that door? Magnetic locks. Titanium frame. Five inch thick window. You're not getting that thing open by force."

Mayfield's shoulders sagged just a touch, then he tapped the bulge of his chest pocket, a small square of white poking out the top. "Plastic fantastic says otherwise."

"You're more like to blast yourself into space than cleanly open that door and you know it." Johnston pointed down the tunnel. "There's emergency power on in this thing. That means there's a chance to get things up and running. Now let's move." He turned before he could see Mayfield's reaction, and entered the hallway. Ten paces and he came to a T-junction.

To the left was a short hallway that dead ended at a storage locker. A few dozen evac suits hung clipped to pegs, more floating in a loose ball against them. The mask of one had a jagged crack along its front, and Johnston lifted it to inspect. A small smear of red so dark it could be black coated the inside. He ran his gloved index finger across it, dried and flaking. "Blood." He turned to the others, holding up the mask. "And it sure looks like this thing was built by humans. Quite a few of them, too." Though it did seem odd to have so many suits in a space intended for only a few.

Mayfield snorted. "You didn't think little green men were crawling around here, did you?"

Johnston glared at the burly man. "You know any nation that has this kind of tech? Hell, even the private firms are all scrambling to get up here themselves and have a look."

Volstok tapped away at her tablet. "Air pressure's holding. Atmosphere's breathable. No toxins." She looked around the walls. "I'm guessing climate control's on the bridge. Temp is three degrees Celsius. Figure that means the heat hasn't been off for very long. Might be a bit cold, but it's breathable." She pressed the latch on her neck, and a puff of pressurized air separated the seal. She removed her mask, took a tentative breath, then nodded. Johnston and Mayfield followed, stripping their suits and laying them next to the heap of others, keeping their magnetic boots so they didn't float free.

Down the hall, the guide lights clicked on in sequence as they approached, their dim red light ominous in the dark, quiet space. Johnston's headlamp cast a narrow beam bobbing in front of them. He scanned the hallway, no exposed ductwork, no access panels, no distinguishing features at all. Except the black metal surface blocking the way ahead.

Volstok approached, running her hand over the shiny metal, feeling along the seams. "Blast doors." She looked back over her shoulder. "Whoever built this ship sure didn't want an incursion from the airlock." She met Johnston's eyes. "Visitors like us."

Before he could reply, the doors parted with a soft hiss, opening horizontally and disappearing into grooves set in the wall. Mayfield laughed. "Yeah, real tight security. Wasn't even locked."

As soon as the doors parted, Johnston pressed his back to the wall for cover, but there was none to be found, the doors opening flush. He ground his teeth. "The hell is wrong with you, Sergeant? We had no idea what was beyond these doors."

A shrug. "Don't see we had much choice, boss. Unless you changed your mind on the C4?" He hooked a thumb backward, then waved his other hand at the opening, an elevator of sorts. Maybe ten feet square, a lone red light in the corner, dimmer than even the hallway. "No way out but in."

Johnston leaned in through the doorframe, angling his head in a slow circle to inspect every corner. The walls were smooth and straight, solid panels without any breaks or decoration. No signs of damage or danger. Nothing but a small control panel with a single button. He leaned back out, giving a long glance back down the hallway they came from. There was no other path. The elevator had to be the lone access to the rest of the ship. A choke point. He didn't like that feeling.

With a nod, Johnston entered the elevator. Volstok and Mayfield followed. Johnston took a deep breath, the sound loud in the small space. He looked at the others. Tense curiosity painted Volstok's face. She was contemplative, cautious. Mayfield worked his jaw, agitated, scared, but also seeming to have a part of him that enjoyed this. Johnston pressed the button.

The red light dimmed, flickered, then restored. But nothing happened. The doors had sounded pneumatic when they opened. Mechanical, not needing power. But the elevator was a different story. He looked up, eyeing the square frame of an access panel in the ceiling.

"On it," Mayfield said, sliding a folding knife from his hip pocket. "Gimme an anchor." Johnston assumed a sturdy position as Mayfield turned off his boots and pushed off the floor. Johnston grabbed Mayfield's ankles and braced him, holding his body steady and providing leverage. A minute of prying at the seam and a pop freed the panel. It swung open on a hinge, and he held it in place to keep it from reclosing. Mayfield pushed open the lid above, revealing the service access to the elevator shaft.

He reached through, propping on his elbows, and climbed up. From below, Johnston and Volstok peered up into the darkness. The beam of Mayfield's headlamp swayed in the abyss. "There's a ladder for guidance. Bottom rung is loose, though, so be careful. I can see the door above, only another ten feet up. Easy peasy."

After a combination of floating and climbing, the trio reengaged their boots and slid open the door to the main level of the ship. More red guide lights, but it was enough to make out the key elements of the large space beyond. Johnston held up a hand to stay the others, listening as he looked around. Silence. Utter, unsettling silence. No footfalls, no loud breathing. No signs of life at all beyond.

The space itself was clearly the bridge. Stations for navigation, walls of LED screens, interfaces, and a large screen before a cluster of chairs that Johnston assumed would display the universe in front of them. Were there power to do so.

Volstok didn't wait, hurrying to a control panel and studying it. It was dormant, and no tapping at keys or switches changed that. Shining her light, she felt along the underside of the console, the stand it rested on. She popped the door, exposing circuits and wires and a mess of electronics that Johnston didn't bother to identify. Volstok studied them, chewing at the inside of her cheek as she thought. Then she slid her tablet back out of its case along with a few cables. "I think I can connect. See if I can access the controls and get the power going."

"What about the hatch?" Mayfield asked, getting up too close to her.

She nodded. "Yes, that too."

"That first," he replied.

"Good," Johnston cut in. "Let me know as soon as you have something. Sergeant, there are three other egresses from the bridge. That tunnel," he shone his light, "and those two doors. I got the left, you check out the right."

He didn't wait for an answer, or a protest, and headed for the door on the left. Unlike the blast door below, this one was more standard, and he cautiously turned the knob. The door opened inward, and he took a tenuous step.

Inside was a small kitchen. Shelving with cabinets latched shut. A small fridge, its door hung open but mercifully empty of any rotting food. Beside it sat a foot-wide space of countertop, complete with cutting board that floated in the air, latched to the counter by a thin chain. A table with four stools, all bolted down. He paced the room, his mag boots clunking and locking with every step. Running his fingers along a wooden cabinet door, he clicked open the latch and pulled it open. The shelf inside was empty save for a single gray box with the sole word 'crackers' in all lowercase. He withdrew it, saw it had been opened, but inside the packaging was crumbs and dust. Ancient remnants.

Footsteps approached. Johnston turned to see Sergeant Mayfield in the doorway. His face was pale, expression grim. "What is it?" he asked. Mayfield's lips started to move, then stopped. His tongue worked its way around his cheek, making it bulge from the inside. Then he took a deep breath, his head giving a little shake.

"There's something you need to see."

There was something unnerving about the tone of his voice that Johnston couldn't quite place, but it seized his attention well enough. He left the kitchen and followed Mayfield to the other room, a crew recreation space. A pair of reclining lounge chairs, two treadmills for exercise, resistance bands attached to the wall. A cot with straps to hold down a napper. But it wasn't the furnishing themselves that made Johnston stop in his tracks. Made the pit of his stomach threaten to lurch its contents. What froze his breath and blanked his mind were the occupants. Strapped into the cot, and crumpled beside it, oddly hovering over the floor by its boots were two bodies.

Sergeant Mayfield and Lieutenant Volstok.

###

"Somebody want to tell me what in the holy hell my dead body is doing in this goddamn spaceship?!" Mayfield shouted, breaking the minute of utter silence. Volstok had stepped in behind them and gasped, covering her mouth.

Johnston took tentative steps toward the bodies, kneeling to inspect them. It was uncanny. The faces identical. The same hair, same jaw line, same clothing. He wasn't sure how decomposition would work up here, exactly, but the bodies looked somewhat recent. Except for the wounds.

Volstok – or, this other Volstok's chest and abdomen were stained red, her shirt torn and exposing a ragged hole above her liver. From the degree of staining underneath, he knew there was a similar hole on the opposite side. Only now did he notice the little droplets of viscous red liquid floating through the air. Bubbles that would have drifted off the wound. He knew it was pointless, but he reached to touch her neck, feeling for a pulse. Nothing but cold, clammy skin.

The other Mayfield had fared even worse, it seemed. Dark matting of blood caked the side of his head, red and raw and swollen over a broken cheekbone. A second wound appeared the fatal blow, the hilt of a kitchen knife buried up under his jaw.

The living Mayfield touched his hand to his throat, felt along his head, searching for wounds. His eyes never left the body of his doppelganger. His breathing grew deep and rapid, picking up intensity. "What. The hell. Is going on in here?" He clutched at his hair and spun around. "That's me. That's… me." He kicked at one of the recliners, but it barely budged, securely fastened down.

"Easy Sergeant," Johnston urged.

Mayfield stepped in and clutched the colonel by the upper arms. "Tell me what this is!"

Johnston shook Mayfield's hands free, trying to steady the alarm in his voice. "You know as much as I do, Sergeant. As much as any of us do." It did little to calm Mayfield, who stormed out of the room.

Volstok was crouched over her double, caressing her cheek and studying the body with reverence. Her head shook side to side and she spoke, her eyes never leaving the body. "I don't understand. This... how is this possible? This is actually me. The face, the clothes. The tattoo on her hip. It's all the same." She now looked up to Johnston, her headlamp shining right in his face. "Tell me how this is."

He had nothing to add. "I don't know. But now I have another question that worries me just as much."

"Where are you?" she said.

He nodded. Two identical bodies. But three of them. "We need this ship up and running, Lieutenant. I want some diagnostics, crew logs, sensor data. I want to know what the hell happened here." He dared not dwell on what it meant that his double was not present. Would they find it elsewhere on the ship?

She chewed at the inside of her cheek and agreed, standing up and giving another look at her body double. Then left the room and went back to her tablet at the console. Johnston stood there another minute, trying to make sense of it. Of anything. Seeing the bodies of his two very much still alive crewmates was unnatural, unsettling, just plain un.

Out in the bridge, Mayfield was still stomping about, muttering to himself. Johnston tried his external comm again. "Control. Do. You. Read?" Nothing. Not even static. Dammit. He breathed deep, then went to the doorway. "Sergeant Mayfield, come help me."

Mayfield looked up, an abrupt halt to his pacing. Johnston beckoned him over, and he followed.

"We can't leave them like this. Help me secure the bodies. Cover them up. We can transport them home when we get out of here. Figure out where they came from then." Mayfield looked skeptical, but complied, searching cabinets and finding a stack of sheets in the one beside the cot. While kneeling, he pulled the knife out of this double's head and tossed it aside. Then he splayed out the sheet, its white color looking pink in the dim red lighting. Johnston caught the other end, and as they were laying it across the soiled sheet around other-Volstok, the lights came on.

"I'm in," the real Volstok called from the bridge. After the entirely of their venture lit primarily by their headlamps, the main lighting was blinding. Johnston squinted, shielding his eyes as they adjusted, then he and Mayfield headed for the bridge. The floor and walls seemed to vibrate with a low hum. Volstok was sitting on the floor beside the open column, her tablet connected to cables and wires within.

"I was able to tap into the circuitry and use the power from the tablet to activate the main menu. Seems limited access based on security, but I'll work on that. I'm turning on the climate control systems now so it won't be so damned cold in here." The main console's screen came to life, and Volstok disconnected her tablet, closed up the column, and tapped away at the screen.

"Can you get a comm channel open?" Johnston asked.

"You read my mind, sir." She tapped another few moments. "Negative. I'm locked out somehow."

Mayfield slammed his fist against the wall.

"I've got a schematic here," Volstok said, and the three gathered around the screen. "Ok, we're here," she pointed to the screen. "That hallway there leads into the belly of the ship. Looks like sleeping quarters, storage closets, life support systems. The main engine room is back down through this second elevator."

"What's that?" Johnston pointed to a medium sized room just down the hall.

"Medical, it's labeled." She turned. "A sick bay, I'd guess."

Dread and anxiety mixed in Johnston's gut. If his body wasn't here, it had to be in that sick bay. He didn't voice it, but he was sure the others thought the same. "There's likely better supplies to secure the dead in there. Good work, Lieutenant. See what you can do about unlocking that hatch."

"Yes sir."

"Sergeant, with me." The two men went back into the lounge room. After turning off the magnetic boots from Mayfield's double and unstrapping the other Volstok, their bodies floated weightless. Guiding them along, they each ushered one wrapped body through the bridge and down the hall to the medical room. The effect was surreal, like a zero g grim reaper. As he reached the room with the red caduceus logo, Johnston shifted his grip on Volstok's body and pushed open the door.

And froze.

"Good lord..." he whispered, unable to will his body to move. He tried to blink, told himself to look away, but he couldn't obey. He just stood there, dumbfounded.

"Colonel, you mind? It ain't right to have myself staring back at me like this. I'm going into that room." Mayfield nudged his senior officer aside and pushed the body to glide into the room. He followed after it before its contents registered. Then he, too, went still.

The room was thirty feet on each side, and indeed was a sick bay. An exam table, metal cabinets filled with medicines and first aid supplies. What looked like an x-ray machine. But Johnston and Mayfield saw none of that. All they could see was the bodies. Dozens of them. Some strapped down, others floating lifelessly. Still more stacked and tossed and jumbled in heaps of weightless limbs and torsos. And all of them more copies of Mayfield and Volstok. All with the same wounds.

Mayfield turned and ran, the clunking plod of his boots like thunder. He charged past Volstok, knocking her over, and headed for the elevator shaft. "I'm getting the hell out of here!"

"Sergeant!" Johnston shouted, but didn't move from his spot. So many bodies. What in the hell...

Volstok picked herself up and watched Mayfield climb down the shaft and towards the hallway leading to the outer hatch. He was still shouting, though his words were muffled. "Sir?" She walked with trepidation towards the colonel.

"Lieutenant, don't." But it was too late. She had seen the room's contents and gone white. Whatever level of strangeness seeing one dead version of yourself must have been, seeing fifty of them floating about had to be a whole other level. Johnston steeled himself, again not dwelling on the wonder of why his body was missing, and nudged the bodies into the ward and closed the door.

Volstok was backing up against the far hallway wall, shaking her head. "It, it can't be. I'm dreaming. This is a nightmare, that's all."

Johnston wanted for all the world to believe her. To have her wake up and end this for them all. But he knew that was a lie. "We'll figure this out. Somehow. But I can't do that without you, Lieutenant. Do you understand?" He turned to put his face right in front of hers. "You can do this. Tell me, were you able to get the hatch unlocked?"

She shook her head so strong and fast it was like she was freeing herself from a net. "No. The system knows I'm not properly logged in, so I'm locked out of any security protocols. No communication access, no overriding locking mechanisms. Probably the same reason the hatch locked in the first place." She hesitated. "I may be able to get the engine online, but it's a design I've never seen before. Like here." She crossed back to the console and tapped the screen. "Controls for a negative energy beam. I'm looking through the logs."

"Ok, keep going," Johnston said. Then the banging started. It reverberated through the walls of the ship, a thudding coming from below. Dammit, Mayfield. "Keep digging. I'll take care of him."

Johnston climbed down the elevator shaft and out into the hallway. Sergeant Mayfield was throwing himself at the hatch door. He'd donned the evacuation suit again, anticipating success. At his feet was the length of freed pipe from the exposed patch he seen earlier. The banging must have been him using that as a club. "Sergeant!" He kept throwing himself at the door. "Sergeant, stop that now!"

Mayfield turned, looked Johnston dead in the eye, and threw himself at the door once again. "I'm getting out of here, Colonel. Up to you if you're coming with me."

"Lieutenant Volstok is working on that. You'll get nowhere like that but hurt yourself."

Mayfield stopped. "You're right." Johnston's shoulders relaxed, but Mayfield began patting at his chest. In a grunt of frustration, he peeled out of his evac suit, helmet still on, and reached into the breast pocket of his vest. The plastic explosives.

Johnston cocked his head, approaching Mayfield with slow, measured steps. "Easy now Sergeant. We talked about this. All you'd be doing is blowing us both to hell."

Mayfield rapped his helmet, hanging loose over his head. "You saw that room. Those bodies. We're already in hell." Then he affixed the C4 to the hatch locking mechanism, inserted the blasting caps. From his other breast pocket, he withdrew the remote detonator. A maniacal smile crossed his face, frightening beneath the glass shield of the helmet. "Fire in the hole!"

Before Mayfield could press the trigger, Johnston dove and crashed into him, slamming into the side wall. The detonator tumbled free. "Are you out of your goddamned mind?"

"All part of the mission. You can't control this thing, I'm here to make sure nobody does. Don't mean I ain't getting home, though." Mayfield shoved him back, and the two tangled for a moment.

"I can't let you do this," Johnston said.

"Then try to stop me." Mayfield deactivated his boots, and shoved off the wall, ramming into Johnston's sternum, helmet first for maximum impact. He crashed up against the hatch wheel, then was thrown to the floor, Mayfield leaping atop him. Mayfield reached for the detonator just beyond Johnston's head. His weight on Earth would have pinned him tight, but in orbit Johnston was able to pivot and push free. But Mayfield reached again and grabbed the remote. Crouched two feet in front of the hatch, Johnston would be obliterated. Before he could think twice, he grabbed the pipe and swung, smashing it into Mayfield's helmet. The glass cracked, and a splash of blood spurted from within. Johnston grabbed the blasting caps free from the C4 and tucked them in his pocket. Then he pulled the plastic from the door just in case.

Mayfield staggered back, stunned. "You son of a bitch." He threw off his helmet, eyed the detonator floating above him. It was too high to reach, so he nudged his toe against the floor to push him upward. And then was thrown down and aside.

The detonator hit the floor, and Johnston wavered in his boots, sensing a powerful rumble rolling through the floor. He felt the unmistakable tug of gravity on his limbs, his gut. The feeling of weight disorienting. The ship was moving.

Mayfield, aloft when the thrust gravity kicked in, had slammed into the floor and against the wall. He looked dazed. But disarmed. Johnston let out a long breath, then heaved again and again. Goddammit. That was too close. He rubbed at his temples, powered off his own boots, then grabbed the loose detonator and headed back for the elevator.

One floor above, Volstok had been transfixed on something displayed on her screen. She was shaking her head. "I- I didn't mean to."

"Mean to what?" Johnston called as he approached from across the room.

"I was trying to decipher the engine schematics. The workings of it. What I found was unbelievable. I was trying to figure out more, and somehow I... I..."

"You turned it on," Johnston finished.

"That's not the big news. The engine," she said. "There's a record of a power surge that shut it down, must be why everything was offline when we arrived. But that's not the important thing. There's tons of sensor data. Mappings, prediction algorithms. It was finding and charting wormholes."

"Wormholes," Johnston repeated.

Volstok nodded. "Thousands of them, by the looks of it. Flitting in and out of existence, and subatomic in size when they do appear. But whoever built this ship, they figured out a way to find them." She shook her head, wincing at the motion. "Son of a bitch."

"What?"

"The negative energy beam. Goddamn." She blinked rapidly, thoughts racing behind her eyes. "Okay, so you manage to actually find a wormhole. So what? What good is it at that scale. You want to actually explore it, you gotta hit it with a powerful negative energy beam. Make that thing grow, stretch. Big enough to pass some kind of probe through. Hell, hit it with enough..."

Johnston went still. "Are we?"

She nodded. "Afraid so. I didn't mean to. There was a coolant leak in the engine room. Flammable. I opened the bay doors to vent it, then tried to bring the rest of system online. It must have activated the sensors. They'd have to be set to automatically trigger the negative energy beam. No way you could react manually in time. We're inside one now."

"Inside a wormhole?" He didn't understand.

"Seems that way. No other explanation. That's got to be how this ship just appeared above Earth to begin with."

"So where are we going?"

She shook her head. "You're only asking half the question. Where... and when?" The look on his face spoke for him. "A wormhole connects two distinct points in space-time. Space and time – you can't detangle those two things. Think of the movie version of time travel. You stay where you are but go back ten minutes. Problem is, Earth is moving. Space is expanding. Where you are now is nowhere near where you were ten minutes ago. You'd be stuck in empty space. You have to consider your positioning in both space and time. Question is, which end of the wormhole did we step through?" She tilted her head in the direction of the sick bay. "From the looks of that room, I'm pretty sure I can guess."

Johnston stood, taking that in. "Are you saying we're going to end up right back outside Earth three days ago, with our bodies on board? How many times has this happened already?" He slapped at his face as if to wake up from a bad dream.

Volstok laughed, then grimaced. "At least fifty, by the looks of that room."

"You did this." It was Mayfield by the elevator doors. How much of that he'd heard, Johnston didn't know. He held a hand up, stepping into the path of the oncoming Mayfield. Mayfield shoved him aside and got in Volstok's face.

"You did this. Now undo it."

"I can't," she said.

He grabbed her by the shirt. "You can. And you will. You get us out of this wormhole right now."

She looked away. "I don't know how. But it wouldn't really matter, anyway. That's... not the worst part."

Mayfield stared at her.

She continued, her face white. "Just before we started moving, the ship disengaged the docking clamps of the shuttle. We lost our ride home."

Mayfield roared and threw her across the bridge. She crashed into another console, this one a small screen held aloft by a long, thin frame. She tumbled through it, knocking the screen free and crumpling atop the frame. With a muted yelp and a sickening pop, droplets of blood floated across the room as the metal frame pole punctured its way through Volstok's abdomen. Her eyes bulged and a look of shock and terror blinked across her face before it contorted in agony.

Johnston charged at Mayfield, the two flying across the room as the force of impact sent them reeling. They crashed through into the lounge area, and found themselves floating again. The acceleration force had ceased, their speed leveling out.

Mayfield seized the opportunity to turn the tables and grabbed one of the resistance bands hanging from the wall. He wrapped it around Johnston's neck and twisted it tight as he reengaged his mag boots for leverage. Johnston gasped for air, flailing his arms behind him at Mayfield, who only twisted the band tighter. The man was strong, much stronger than Johnston.

He propped his feet against a stool and pushed with all his might, the world starting to dim at the edges of his vision. The pair slammed into the wall near the cot, but Mayfield did not let up. Johnston fumbled under the cot, catching a glimpse of what was left there earlier. Come on, come on. His vision darkened some more. He was going to pass out. Come on. His fingers scraped against it, making it spin. With his last moments of consciousness, Johnston grabbed the already bloody knife and thrust it up behind him, feeling the wet resistance as it pierced flesh.

The tension on the band released, and Johnston gulped air with everything he had. He peeled the band free, and doubled over, heaving and steadying himself as the world returned to him. Mayfield was gargling through the blood in his throat, choking on it. The knife was buried to the hilt. Realization struck Johnston at the same moment the last strength in Mayfield faded, and then the man's arms dropped from his neck, his head sagged, and he died.

Johnston staggered out into the bridge and found Volstok trying to crawl across the floor, an awkward movement in zero gravity. "Don't move. I got you." She shook her head, shuddering. The frame pole had slid back out of her, a bad sign. Johnston lifted her in his arms and carried her to the cot in the lounge. Mayfield's body dangled nearby. The surreal scene was not lost on either of them. "You're going to make it."

Volstok closed her eyes, then opened them, patting Johnston's arm. "No," she said. "I won't. Not this time. But you can change that."

Johnston's brow furrowed. "I don't understand." He tried to put pressure on her wound, but the blood still seeped out between his fingers.

"Fifty cycles, all the same ending. But something's different this time. You."

"Me?"

She nodded. "Think about it. All those bodies. All me and Mayfield. None of them are you. For whatever reason, in this timeline you came on this mission, not just the two of us. That means you can change the outcome."

He thought about it. The lack of his body among the dead. "But Mayfield died the same way."

"Maybe I'm pretty good with a knife," she said, guessing.

"But how do I stop it? Tell me the controls."

"No." She shook her head again, the motion making the pain worse. Her breathing was growing weaker, her chest rising less with each inhale. "I don't know how to control it. But maybe... maybe you can destroy it."

Johnston stood up. "How?"

Her eyes fell to the C4 in his pocket. "The engine room is down the second elevator." She broke into a sputtering coughing fit, shook at the pain, then steeled herself. Her voice was down to a whisper. "A well-placed charge could shut it down, stop the negative energy beam and collapse the wormhole. Stop us from ever appearing above Earth, from ever boarding this damned ship."

"If only," he mumbled.

She smiled. "Got a better idea?" He said nothing. She winced again and groaned, starting to shake. "Then go. Go now, sir." Her voice grew faint. He grabbed her hand, but felt it go slack. And then she was gone.

Johnston rose, swallowing a wave of adrenaline. He let go of Volstok's hand, rested it at her side, then strapped her to the cot to keep her body steady. He looked to Mayfield's body, still rooted to the floor by his mag boots, his body swaying in the zero gravity. Then he ran from the room.

Down the hall, into the elevator. It, too, had but a single button. The doors closed and he dropped, then opened on an enormous chamber. The noise was louder here, the thrumming of the air making his lungs rattle. There must be sound proofing in the walls. He looked around. Chairs and boxes were strewn about. A massive cylindrical cage was in the middle of the space, giant pistons firing as some dark half sphere spun around the contraption. Strips of vertical metal poles lined the cage, electricity rippling up it like he used to find in the van de Graff room at the science museum as a kid. Beyond was a thin strip of window, overlooking the blackness of space. Except right now it was a glimmering mix of blues and whites and silvers and the sparkle of the inside of the wormhole.

He didn't even pretend to understand how any of it worked, but if Volstok was right, this time they had a break. A wild card. Him. He couldn't have been on the previous iterations, right? His body would have been here with the others. Or he'd be alive and greeting them. This would work. It had to.

But what had she said? A well-placed charge. Hell, where was well-placed? He felt the block of C4 in his pocket. Only one shot at this. Screw it, he thought. As long as he kept this cursed ship from returning, it didn't matter what happened to him. He'd blow the whole damned thing to hell.

Not knowing how much time he had before the wormhole collapsed. Or ended. Or did whatever the hell wormholes do. He found what looked to be the most vulnerable part of the engine. Where gaps in the sphere let air into the firing chamber. He stuck the C4 against it and placed the blasting caps. Then he ducked behind a metal desk, closed his eyes, and pressed the detonator.

Johnston's world exploded. Brilliant white light blinded him, and he was thrown clear across the room. He heard metal buckling, saw equipment flying, and then with a thud to his head, everything went black.

###

Johnston awoke some time later, with no way of knowing how much time had passed. His head throbbed, making it hard to keep his eyes open. As his orientation returned, he found himself floating midway up the wall, his mag boots deactivated. He pushed free and tried to turn them back on, but nothing happened. The engine was silent. A good sign. But intact, a very strange sign. And how was he still alive?

He pulled and floated his way across the room, feeling the bars of the engine cage. Cold to the touch. His stomach growled. He was starving, and weak. And the dampness in his pants meant he'd wet himself. Maybe more than once. How long had he been out?

Working his way across the floor, he peered out the thin window strip. And all the blood drained from him face. Beyond the glass lay the most beautiful sight. His favorite thing to do in all his time on the ISS was to lie in the bottom window and stare at the Earth from above. Its blues and browns and greens and wisps of white clouds. So peaceful, so pure from up there. But that same view did not comfort him now.

He was back above Earth. Which could only mean...

The power surge. The one Volstok thought brought the ship back in time through the wormhole. The one he was supposed to prevent. He laughed at the irony. The engine was intact. The cage protected it. He hadn't stopped it. That blast had caused the damned power surge. But that meant...

Before he could race to the elevator, it happened. He now saw the clouds of coolant seeping out from the back of the engine, filling the room. And without even a shout, the vents behind him opened up and he was washed out to the vacuum of space along with the cloud of gas.

Through the window, in the engine room, sparks flew and rippled up the cage bars. The pistons shifted, then began their relentless firing as the sphere started to rotate. And just as the blackness of suffocation swallowed him up, he saw a figure beside him. Dozens of them. The fifty missing bodies of himself. All frozen and airless in the harshness of space.

And in his last moments, a bright beam shot out and a glowing blue and white and silver disc formed before the ship, and it disappeared inside.



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