‘Nina. Any news?’
‘Still searching Colonel. It’s only been two hours and we haven’t covered all the sectors yet. There’s a lot of space out there.’ Nina leaned closer to look into the monitor. ‘Give us time Alec. Right now everything I have available is out there looking. But with that satellite out of operation we’re left with a blind spot that can’t be scanned by sensors. If the module’s in that region it might be days before we find it.’
‘We don’t have days Nina. Modules only have life support for a maximum of 48 hours. We’re doing everything we can down here, but our scanners can only reach so far. If that Module comes back into Earth orbit, we’ll pick it up, but you’re in the best position to – . ‘
‘Colonel Freeman I know that. And to be honest, right now I need to be trying to work out any flightpath that the module might have taken. I need to calculate trajectories and I can’t do that with these constant interruptions. I’ll contact you as soon as we find anything.’
‘Sorry Nina, I’ll let you get on. Go and search. I’m flying out in the next window but you may have found them by then. And Nina,’ he paused, and stared at her.
Straker came round to the sensation of heat burning his face. He jerked away from the fire only to fall back against the seat frame. Memory returned with his awareness. Not heat. Cold. Sharp biting cold of metal. He had been slumped against the door, semi-conscious, his mind filled with confused images while he had been crouched there. Vague memories of that nightmare surfaced; his netbook with its keys transformed into hideous rows of sharp white teeth. He had flung it away in horror and it had scrabbled towards the unopened door. The teeth had devoured the door like some starving animal. Grunts and slobbering noises had filled the tiny compartment as the metal was crunched and chewed and spat out.
He managed a cynical laugh. Of course. He pushed away the thought of how much it would hurt and, gasping, forced himself to stand once more. His arm jolted and he bit back a cry. He reached the netbook and switched it on, then swung it at the tangle of wires. Power surged across the control panel and the circuits exploded. Fat sparks erupted into the small cabin and stung on his cheeks. He let the netbook fall and turned to force the door open. It slid across a couple of inches before it stopped but he got one hand into the space and jerked it back until he could squeeze through the gap.
There were no apparent signs of life in the cabin but it was hard to tell in the haze of fumes and burned circuits. As he stumbled into the small cabin, the dry air hit his lungs and he started to cough. He clung to the frame until the worst was over. Dimitri Leonov twisted round and lifted his head at the sound.
‘Commander.’ Dimitri’s face was as pale as Straker’s. Blood had trickled from a cut above one eyebrow. ‘When you didn’t answer I thought……’
‘You’ve cut your head.’ Straker said. He held onto the back of the seat with his good hand.
Leonov reached up to investigate the crusted blood. He frowned. ‘I hadn’t realised. It seems to have stopped.’
‘What happened here?’
Dimitri pushed himself upright. ‘There was an explosion.‘ The co-pilot waved his hand. Grant.
Straker dragged himself over to the other seat. There was little point in feeling for a pulse to check if Grant was still alive. The grey face and glazed stare were confirmation enough, but even so, Straker let his fingers rest on Owen’s neck. There was no thread of life, and the body was turning cold. The SHADO Commander shivered. Cold. It was going to get a lot colder in here. He wiped his hand against his trousers as if to remove any lingering taint of death. His arm hurt.
Dimitri gestured to the controls. ‘He was talking to Moonbase and then it looked to me as if he had some sort of convulsion. We veered off course and hit something. That’s all I remember, until I woke up. What do we do now Commander?’ He waited as if he hoped that the SHADO Commander could wave one hand and restore order to the chaos.
Straker could tell that it was hopeless without even moving from where he was leaning against the bulkhead. The ship was dying, its control screens blank, its slow gyrations tumbling it out of control in some unknown quadrant.
‘Do?’ He coughed. The view through the window was enough evidence. He could not find one stationary point on which to get his bearings. The CO2 scrubber was struggling to clear the residue of stale, smoke-filled air. He could not decide whether to hold his arm or wrap his free hand around his chest. He coughed again. A shallow cough this time. Not sensible with broken ribs, but it wasn’t going to matter in the end. He paused, trying to take deep breaths before he answered. There was only one thing he could do now and he did it. He lied. ‘First thing is to get Grant out of here. Then we can make a start.’ He started to move and a hand clasped his shoulder.
Straker stood back as Dimitri heaved the limp body of the pilot through the narrow doorway into the passenger compartment. With a sense of dread he saw that the swelling from the break had further distorted his arm and that his hand was numb and cold. He tried to move his fingers but he could not feel any sensation in them now. Not even a tingle. Dimitri came back and slid the door shut. His eyes met Straker’s.
‘Now what do you need me to do?’
Straker took a breath. ‘You’ll have to straighten my arm.’ He tried to move his fingers again. They were white.
‘You don’t – ’
‘Dimitri.’ Straker’s voice was quiet with desperation. ‘Look at it. You know what that means. I can’t do anything to help unless you do this for me.’ He sat in Dimitri’s seat, eased the swollen limb away from his body and laid it on the armrest. ‘You know what to do don’t you?’
Leonov busied himself gathering the things he was going to need while Straker talked about what they should attempt to do afterwards. Afterwards. He kept his voice composed as if he was going to have an inconvenient splinter removed instead of bones twisted and re-arranged. Dimitri laid out the plastic backing from the pilot’s manual and strips of material torn from his undershirt then stood there, hesitant.
‘Do it. Before…’ Straker leaned back, closed his eyes, and gripped the other armrest until he thought his fingers would leave their imprint on the metal frame. He held his breath. He could feel the sleeve of his roll neck sweater being cut away, of the sensation of cool air on feverishly swollen skin, of the seat restraint being fastened to hold him in place.
There was a pause, as if Dimitri was wondering whether to continue. Straker opened his eyes and regretted it. The sight of the distorted ruin of his arm, hot and purple and misshapen with the bloodless hand at the end was enough to make him flinch but Dimitri took his hand in his own, sliding his fingers up until they were grasping the dulled wrist in a firm grip. Then, with his other hand tight on Straker’s elbow, he pulled the limb and twisted it. One swift decisive movement. No warning. No time to prepare. No chance for any reaction other than to scream as the bones grated. Straker flung his head against the headrest and arched his back. Only the harness prevented him from falling.
‘I’ve not finished. Hold on.’ Dimitri’s voice came from far away. The hands were tight on his wrist and elbow again. He tried to stop him, tried to pull his arm away but the pain flared brighter. Excruciating pain. A world of pain. Filling him and burning him, drenching him in terror, stopping his breath in a throat raw from that last scream. He could do nothing but let oblivion ease the agony.
Sweat-soaked and gasping he was barely conscious of his arm being encased in the crude splint. There was one hazy flash of memory; of Leonov’s voice soft in his ear reassuring him that it was all over. And it was. His fingers began to tingle as blood returned to his hand, he could see the dead-white fingers begin to change colour, could see the joints respond to his command to move. He slumped back in the seat and let himself recover. He was frozen. Shaken to his core by the feel and sound of bones being wrenched into alignment. He shivered, not just from the pain.
‘Ed?’ Dimitri’s voice roused him. It was getting colder in the cabin and Straker could see the slender Russian starting to shake as well.
He summoned up the courage to touch his fingers, not hard, but enough to feel the return of normality in the digits. ‘I’m okay.’ His voice grated like broken bones. He leaned back as dizziness made him sway.
Dimitri held out a strip of cloth. ‘Here. Lift your arm.’ He folded a makeshift sling and wrapped the splinted arm against Straker’s chest. ‘How does it feel?’ He sat in the pilot’s seat, his face lined with concern.
‘Sore.’ Straker managed a smile. ‘Give me a few minutes,’ he said and closed his eyes. He heard Dimitri moving round the small cabin, felt a brush against his shoulder, the sound of the CO2 scrubber rattling in its death throes and he knew that he should be doing something. Anything that might give them a chance of rescue. But he could not bring himself to move from the seat. He shivered again, his teeth almost chattering.
Fingers touched his face. ‘There should be a medical kit in the aft cabin. Hang on. I’ll see if there’s something there.’
Dimitri put both hands flat on the door and forced it sideways. Icy air swirled into the cabin and he gave an anxious look back at Straker hunched deeper in the seat, head drooping. His breathe froze in the sub-zero temperature as he edged down the narrow aisle to where the Medical Kit was stored. The Commander did not move when he came back in and Dimitri hurried back into the cabin to pick up Straker’s discarded jacket and then force the door closed. He rubbed his hands to try to restore some warmth. Straker looked even colder if that was possible.
Dimitri opened the kit. ‘One dose of Demerol. Fifty milligrams. That’s all there is. It will help.’ He pushed back Straker’s sleeve. ‘Should take effect in a few minutes. I’m going to try to get the radio working. Lean forward.’
Straker obeyed in silence, aware of a jacket around his shoulders and a gradual increase in warmth.
‘You should feel easier soon.’
Straker hunched back down in the seat and shivered. ‘I hope so.’
‘Give yourself time. It’s not as if we have anything else to do right now, do we?’
Straker gave Dimitri a lop-sided grin and relaxed a little as the Russian slipped
headphones on and started work. Minutes passed and the pain in his arm loosened its grip a little and his mind become more alert even though the drug dulled the edges of his reflexes. ‘Anything?’
Leonov shook his head ‘Nothing so far. How are you feeling?’
‘Better.’ Straker stared at the swirling stars. ‘We need to get the ship stabilised.’ He shivered again and pulled the jacket closer with his free hand. ‘If the micro-jets work I might be able to stop us tumbling.’
‘And then?’ Dimitri turned dials with delicate care, listening for any response.
‘Let’s see if I can do it first.’ Straker straightened his fingers. They were still cold and he tucked his good hand under his armpit in an attempt to bring some warmth and feeling to the fingers. This was going to need a deft touch. ‘You’d better strap up. I have no idea what will happen when I try this.’ He took a breath, forcing it deep into his lungs despite the discomfort. He gripped the control and nodded at Leonov. One tiny twitch of his thumb on the button, so quick that the resulting burst from a single jet was over in a microsecond. Straker sighed and leaned back.
‘I didn’t feel anything. Did it work?’
‘Yes.’ Straker flexed his fingers again. ‘Now I just have to see if I can do it.’
There was the temptation to work quickly, to hold that single thruster open for longer, or even bring more of them into operation. But despite the increasing cold that warned him that time was getting scarce, he refused to hurry. One rash move could ruin everything and so he tracked the stars as they spun around and with feather-light touches flared that solitary little flame. He knew the effect it would have. Each tiny burst would slow the momentum, just an inch at a time, but those inches would stabilise it enough so that they might have a chance.
The stars slowed their spinning. Not quickly; Straker was too concerned that he might over-compensate, but over the following two hours Dimitri could see the change in the swirling spiral of pinprick lights. He had long since abandoned the radio and had occupied himself with trying to get the air purifier to cease its rattle and actually do its work, but as with the radio, the damage was too severe. He resorted to a muttered Russian curse and a swift thump, but that made no difference. He sat in silence as Straker worked. There was nothing he could do to help.
Straker ignored him. His eyes followed the stars as they spiralled and his thumb flickered over the control. Those fleeting bursts of power persuaded the craft to obey him and grudgingly she yielded to the single micro-jet that brought her back under his command. He let go of the control and sighed. ‘There. We’re as stable as I can get her. God knows where we are in relation to Earth or the Moon though.’ He tucked his hand under his armpit and grimaced. ‘Damn. I hadn’t realised it was so cold.’
‘Life support appears to be on minimal. The reactor has shut down and power supplies are down to under seven hours. The oxygen might last a little longer.’ Dimitri scowled with annoyance. ‘I can’t get the recycling unit to work.’
‘I tried all frequencies, even the unused ones; nothing but static.’
Straker waved a hand at the blackness of space on the other side of the window. ‘Somewhere out there Moonbase are searching for us. There has to be a problem with the main satellite system or they would have found us by now. The trouble is that we are probably way off the ecliptic plane by now as well as being too small to be picked up by the other tracking stations. Too small and moving too slowly.’ He peered through the flight deck canopy in a fruitless attempt to catch a glimpse of Earth or the Moon or even Sol. He sat down again and rubbed his face with a weary hand. ‘Nothing. And if the reactor is off, then the main thrusters will be as well. We can’t move far on micro-jets, even if the fuel supply lasts.’
‘It’s hopeless then?’ Dimitri frowned as if he refused to acknowledge the concept.
‘No. There are still things we can try.’ Straker said. ‘This bloody hurts. And it feels like it’s freezing in here.’
Dimitri huffed into the air and stared at the ice crystals. ‘Yes, just about. Is there anything we can do about it?’
‘No. The heaters use too much power. They would drain life support.’ He leaned back and stared at the low ceiling, shivering. ‘We’re going to have to suit up. It’s the only way to keep warm.’ He eased himself out of the seat and gestured at the door. ‘After you, Colonel.’