Countdown
by Trey McElveen and Sam Simpson

1997


I hated my job. Really, really hated it. Ever since I had helped Dr. Stein, Fox, and Jeff crack down on Dr. Chandra twenty years ago, the US Government had their eye on me, and their wallet. They paid for my college at St. James, my graduate school, and my training into the elite Department Null. All because I could blink in be in Paris, or Moscow. Hell, even the moon if I had a pressure suit on.

Which I did.

"Damn, can this thing get any heavier?" I said, slipping my wings into the designed flaps for flighted astronauts. My tail feathers were carried in another, lower flap just above the buttocks. I hoisted the life support onto my back and grunted. The thing must have weighed at least 70 pounds.

"I don't know, Trey," Sam Simpson said as he slipped into his suit and sealed it up. "I'm just glad at this point I don't have a small mass limit on my teleportation." Sam was a high-degree tiger morph, well over seven feet in height, and a good friend from back before the Change. He was a down-on-his-luck computer programmer before the Change, and after he began developing his Power, he made some money off it by running a delivery-for-hire business, in which I was a partner for a while during college. We had made a pretty penny by delivering small items in the blink of an eye, and pretty soon we were handling everything from diamond rings to steel pipe.

Things really started to get interesting when a client hired us to move a truck that had turned over into a ditch. This wasn't your ordinary Ford S-10, this was an industrial dump truck, one of the models where the fuel cells alone weighed up to 100 pounds.

My Power has a mass limit, usually around 200 kilograms, and this thing far succeeded it. But Sam merely ambled up to the vehicle, touched it, and whisked it away 30 feet, back onto the highway. Through a few more experiments, Sam found out that he could teleport way over the amount of mass in that truck before straining himself and his Power. I once saw him teleport a fully loaded semi, and that was the only time I saw him tired after a teleport. And, unlike many teleporters, he could use his Power in norm, too.

Fox Cutter, agent and recruiter for Dept. Null, heard of Sam through me, and soon the Government was paying for his Null Training, as I called it.

"There's a lack of teleporters in Department Null," Fox told me once. I didn't question it, seeing that it was one of the rarest Powers, right up there with Polymorph.

Soon after Null had their way with Sam, NASA hired him to teleport bulkheads and repair equipment into space for the new moon base that was being erected near Lovell's Apollo 13 moon landing site in 1974. That earned him quite a living for a while, and he still picked up a few dollars doing errands like that for NASA.

But all that was in the past, and right now our orders from Null HQ were given to us. And I couldn't help but feel a little strange. This was something that hadn't tried, but had wanted to for quite some time. I mulled over the particulars in my head as I latched on my helmet:

Five years ago, an experimental manned spacecraft, appropriately named "Enterprise-F", was launched from Cape Canaveral. On the outside, it looked just like the next generation shuttle: sleek, more stout, aerodynamic, with the solid fuel boosters and liquid tank, and even the ceramic hull. This was just to get it into space. When in space, the "special" part of the mission was to test the anti-matter propulsion system built into the heart of the shuttle. The crew was to engage the engines a safe distance from Earth, travel a straight course for five minutes, come about, and journey back to Earth, all except for the turn being at top speed.

But, for reasons still unexplained, the warp core (for lack of a better term) did not operate. Even though it did not go critical or breach, it didn't work either. What it did accomplish was the utter disabling of the navigational and thruster systems, leaving the crew stranded. The surviving (one was reported missing, presumed dead) were evacuated in a following mission, but the shuttle was left adrift in orbit around the planet. A cover-up the likes of which weren't seen since the Plague was headed by NASA, and salvage attempt after salvage attempt was quickly averted into another satellite repair mission.

But Dept. Null had their own ideas. The technology developed in the shuttle could prove to be invaluable for defense reasons. Which is why Sam (Agent Mtanga) and I (Agent Tamarik) were going up there: to figure out what happened five years ago, and to try to bring the systems back online for true salvage operation.

Simple enough.

Sam locked down his helmet and grinned slyly, making sure his radio comlink worked, "It'll be nice to get back to the old bird. Been a while since I got to toy with her system." Sam wrote most of the programming routines for the navigation and logical systems on the Enterprise-F, and was the only one that could get the system back online, if at all. I was along for the ride, actually, but I did have one reason for coming. I was Plan B: if all else fails, breach the core, and get out.

Other companies and countries were thought to have sent expeditions up to the shuttle, investigating rumors of some type weapon or international security hazard. Department Null took these actions as reason to speed up the salvage process, and so Sam and I were encouraged to get up there ASAP and do our job. And if our job couldn't be accomplished, then make sure no one else could get the ship.

Our finalized orders had come in only hours ago. Mtanga looked over the programming structure to the ship, while I studied the actual core diagrams themselves. The reserves of matter and anti-matter were kept in vertical pyramids in the engine room, coming within 5 meters of one another at their tips. There, the matter and anti-matter mixed within a magnetically shielded vacuum between the peaks, the energy created diverted to all parts of the ship, powering life support, propulsion, and the ship's computer. If the need arose, I would place a small crack in the containment cylinder via disintergration, then teleport out. However, the entire hull of the shuttle had been Nullified before launch by the most powerful Nullifier known. It rendered the ship impervious to Powers for about six or seven years. Everything, except the core had that Power present on it, making teleportation directly into the ship impossible. The engineers of the shuttle felt that the Nullify Power might have some kind of adverse effect on the matter/anti-matter reaction in the core, and so left it untouched. They had no proof of this, but they thought it to be better safe than sorry.

After our preparations, we donned our gear and primed ourselves. Radio communications were made possible by a small headset we wore, so that even outside our suits, we could maintain audio contact. Sam strapped a small laptop to his suit before heading out. He was bringing it along in case he needed to crack a few access codes and reprogram the system to bring Navigation back up.

I glanced at a picture of our entry point: the bridgeside airlock. I recorded every nuance I could in my mind, checked the current coordinates, and then concentrated on being there as hard as I could. The prep room faded into a bright, bluish hue, the lockers and briefing materials melting into the light. There was a wooosh sound, and I felt a leeching sensation from inside my body let me know that I was straining to take the pressure suit and environmental pack with me. I surmised during my transport that I had about 150 Kg of equipment on me, and that was pushing it. I gazed over to the only thing that wasn't fading into the light, and that was Sam. He was teleporting with me, concentrating on his destination just as hard as I was. His muzzle twitched in thought as he started to blur into the blue, and I realized that I was travelling faster than he. One of the things about teleportaion is that some travel faster than others. I've been clocked just under Warp 1, or the speed of light. My fastest time was at .998c, while Sam has been tagged at .90c, tops. Even though, to the outside world, the difference in imperceptible, to teleporters the evidence is prominent. In another few moments, Sam completely disappeared into the glow.

When the light began to dissipate, the vacuum of space enveloped me like an ebony blanket. I saw the airlock hatch, and the rest of the shuttle dissolve into existence right in front of me. A small warning light in my helmet told me of the lack of atmosphere, and the suit instantly pressurized itself.

The suits were specialized for working in space and in less-than-Earth pressured environments. Sensors on the outside of the suit detected the atmosphere around it and pressurized and depressurized accordingly. This was a far cry from the old suits that explorers wore, which were bulky and rigid, and always needed the pressure. Not that the ones we wore were comfortable. Even now, they didn't accomodate wings, or tails as they should, but they were better than the alternative.

I outstretched my gloved fingers and took hold of the door's handle as soon as my transport was complete, and soon Sam's paw joined me. I felt like I was in free-fall, and my innards threatened to empty themselves into my helmet. I reeled a bit, tired from the transport and ill.

A hiss of static warned me of an upcoming radio transmission, and Mtanga said, "You okay, Tam?"

I groaned out, "Just fine... Nice to know I can do this..."

Mtanga replied, "Yeah. I didn't think that you could make it to space. I wonder how far you can actually go?"

"We'll save that for another time," I said, the strength returning to me as I began to pry open the hatch. Sam helped, and soon we had the door open, the environment making us expend a good deal of energy to get into the shuttle. The door now open, Sam scrunched all seven feet of himself into the tiny airlock, and I squeezed in after him, pulling the hatch to as I found room. I heard the hiss of air as the room repressurized, and the atmosphere warning in my helmet disappeared, taking the suit's pressurization with it.

"Looks like we can do without the suits from here on," I said. My wings were beginning to ache from not having enough room. "Stupid thing's ruffling my feathers."

"Let's get to the bridge, first. Then we can get out of these things. Besides it's irritating my fur." Mtanga quickly opened a second door and floated through into a small corridor, turning left and heading up it towards the command area. His huge frame barely fit into the tunnel, and I could hear him grunt to pull himself along. As soon as my way was clear, I followed.

The bridge of the shuttle was cramped to say the least. Sam took up nearly the entire space of the control area, and I was left little more than a view out of a window. Fortunately for me, the view was stunning. The earth hung like a blue and white marble against the void of the Universe. I could see cloud patterns swirling in the atmosphere, the ethereal blue glow as the Sun's light glanced off the planet. We were coming over China, and from my vantage point, I had an astounding view of the Great Wall. For a moment, I was glad that I was compacted into such a small space.

"We made it, man!" Sam shouted over our comlink, "Now, lets get to work"

"Good idea," I replied, sharing not quite as much enthusiasm as he, but still elated. The number one thing on my mind was getting out of here. Being on this ghost ship just set my feathers on end, and not having been here ten seconds, I was already getting strange feelings, like that we weren't alone on the ship. To save some space I moved into the corridor and took off my suit, breathing in the air as I wearily stretched my wings and smoothed out my feathers. There was a trace of some stench, like something was dead on board.

I called Sam over the comlink after I had taken the suit off, "You smell that?"

He took off his helmet and sniffed, his feline nose wrinkling instantly, "Yeah. A lot. What is that?"

"Haven't a clue. We'll check it out after we're finished."

Sam shifted himself over to the Navigation controls after taking off the rest of his suit and handing it to me to store, sans laptop. He looked at the messages that he devised on the display. "Man... It's like looking into the past. I haven't seen these errors since testing of the old girl." He called the Enterprise-F "Old Girl", for sentimental attachment. He started reading all the messages as they were displayed, and as he saw more and more of them, his eyes grew wide.

"Hey, look at this, Trey."

I did. He pointed to the screen, which read in succession: "Conduit A - B uncoupled. Warp jump disabled. Minor damage to propulsion. Navigation offline." Then it repeated.

I nodded, understanding. I wasn't completely ignorant of the ship's workings, I had studied with Sam as he designed the system the Enterprise-F used. The only way any of the couplings could be rendered "uncoupled" was by a command that only two people on the original mission knew: the Flight Director, and Navigation Officer.

"Someone disabled the conduit before testing the engines. I wrote a module that would diffuse some critical systems of propulsion and take navigation offline until the clearance code was entered." Sam explained.

"Why would you do that?" I said, a bit befuddled. This was over my head.

"To prevent a breach if someone did try to jump to warp," He sighed, suddenly displeased, "Unfortunately, I didn't write a backdoor into this module for security reasons, so I'll need the code to recouple the conduit."

"Damn, search me," I said, shrugging my wings.

He sighed, his muzzle turning down in a frown, "This isn't going to be easy." He brought out the small computer and began to interface it into the navigational system, "I'm going to try to crack the code with the algorithm on here. NASA was very restrictive about who saw what the code was. In fact, they didn't even let me put in that line of coding in the programs."

I huffed, shaking my head, "All or nothing with them, I suppose."

Sam shrugged, "I suppose." He finished setting up the IR stream and typed in his login and pass. His suit had small pockets at the fingertips for claws, and when he unsheathed his, they fit perfectly into the slots. He used his claws for better accuracy in typing.

After a couple of commands, something surprised him, "What in the...?"

I craned my neck around to see, "What? What is it?" I looked upon the screen and saw another prompt, this one asking for the "Bypassword".

Sam shook his head, "I wish I knew." He typed in his password again. It returned a warning: "Incorrect pass."

"No way," Sam whispered. He tried again, this time, one of his backdoors.

It read: "Incorrect pass."

Sam started to look worried, "Trey, something's not right here."

I was shaking. The feeling of some other presence, alive or dead, on the ship was overwhelming. "You're telling me?"

Sam tried once more.

Sirens flared, and the red alert was sounded. Red lights rang up everywhere, and Sam leapt away from the control panel, startled. I looked around, swearing that someone had been right behind me, the noise sending my nerves over the edge.

I looked at the screen, and gaped.

It read, under yet another prompt for the 'Bypassword': "Twenty minutes until core breach."

"Oh... shit." I mouthed silently.

Needless to say, we had stumbled upon something that both Sam and I had not expected. The tiger's jaw went agape at the message displayed on the screen, but quickly sealed itself as logic prevailed somewhat.

"Ok," Sam said calmly, the waver in his voice betraying himself just the same, "There's no reason to panic. Twenty minutes gives us just enough time to get the suits on and get out of here."

I nodded, knowing that nothing, but nothing in a Department Null mission was that easy. After working with them for as long as I had, doing things that Null went to great lengths to keep the general public out of the know, I instinctively knew that something was terribly, terribly wrong, other than the fact that this ship was about to be in trillions of pieces in less than...

"Eighteen minutes until core breach." the screen flashed.

I sprung into action immediately, tearing the suits out from the compartment I had stored them in. They were made with an extremely durable material, and although something like a bullet or arrow would pierce them, my talons didn't pose much of a problem. I tossed the suit and helmet up the shaft to the command module, where Sam instantly reached out and grabbed them both. I took mine and headed for the airlock, a creeping suspicion taking the better of me at last.

The airlock ceiling sported a rotation siren light, and so it was immersed in a fountain of spinning red light. The motion of the light nearly drove my eyesight crazy as my raptor instincts caught it every time it zoomed in front of me and forced my eyes to follow. Still I could plainly see the handle to the airlock in front of me, and without another thought, I gripped it and tugged.

It didn't budge.

Again, and I was met with the same results. "Fuuuuuck." I said, drawn out to make the point to myself. I yelled up to Sam, certain he would hear, "We're locked in!"

"What?!?" came the reply, the volume nearly shattering my ears. I had forgotten the comlink that I still wore.

"The airlock is just that! Locked! That damn security system of yours locked us in here!"

Sam poked his head through the tunnel and into the airlock. His suit was already three-fourths of the way on, "That's not my system! The airlocks, especially that one were designed to be manually opened if need be! They should be unlocked, I wrote that code myself!"

I gave three futile tugs, each one more exaggerated than the last to prove my point, "Well, they're sure as hell not unlocked now!" I turned from Sam and concentrated my gaze on the airlock hatch, trying to will my Power on it.

Sam saw what I was planning, "Trey, it's Nullified. You can't blow it."

"Shut up! It could have weakened over the years!" I said in a tone that echoed through the shuttle, even over the sirens. I felt the slight tingle and light green glow from my talon that had appeared over the years while I enhanced my Power. I stared down the handle on the hatch, commanding it to disperse.

Nothing happened.

I turned to the door itself, screaming at it mentally, battering it, watching it dissolve in my mind's eye, but it was in vain. Whoever put the Nullify on this shuttle was good. Damn good.

"Damn him," I heard myself say. I turned around to Mtanga, who was floating in midair, his eyes fixed on the door, partially suited tail lashing in thought behind him.

"And what if it had opened, Tam? We'd both be sucked into space and probably depressurized." Sam pointed out.

And right then the circumstance hit me like a punch in the beak. I could die. Right now. I had always seemed to have a handle on things, no matter what the adversity. I had lived through the Change, and many hadn't. I had lived through a mission to India to stop a mad scientist when I wasn't even out of high school. I had survived Null Training, in which many had died before. I was prepared for anything.

And yet Death just gave me one rude awakening.

We sat there for what seemed like eternity, staring at the door, and the lone monitor in the airlock as it ticked down with such blinding speed that only the dead have privilege to.

Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I thought that as soon as the explosion hit, the hull would break and spew Sam and I into space, and we could teleport home. But I also knew that the concussion from the blast would most likely rip our heads from our shoulders as well. The thought of beheading as the effect of a matter/anti-matter reaction quickly quelled any other blindly hopeful thoughts.

"Seventeen minutes."

As I floated there, staring at the monitor's cruel countdown, I couldn't even begin to imagine what was going through Sam's mind. He had nearly built this thing from the ground up, interlaced every crucial piece of hardware into his ingenious programming, stayed up days at a time making sure that the system could handle any possible situation that might happen to crop up. And yet, here he was, just over sixteen minutes until his own demise at the virtual hands of the machine he helped build.

"Sixteen minutes."

I tried the handle again, and then realized that my hand had never left it. The whole situation seemed numbing, like some sort of fantasy gone horribly wrong. This shouldn't have happened, period. Security measure upon security measure upon security measure had been snapped like a bunch of twigs, leaving us with the scraps. There was no way that the system could have been hacked.

"Was there?" I found myself asking aloud, breaking the monotonous drone of the sirens wailing.

Sam seemed to stir, as if from a dream, "Was there what?"

"Was there any way the system could have been hacked and changed."

Sam shrugged, "Any system can be hacked. This one was just a million to one chance."

"Fifteen minutes."

It was just then, right as the timer ticked over to fifteen, that the ventilation system kicked in on the shuttle. Again, just like before, I smelt some stench, something foul coming through the air shafts and into the airlock.

Apparently Sam smelt it too, seeing his nose bunch up in an obvious gesture of displeasure. "What is that?" he said.

I didn't know, and so I immediately began searching for some answer. I thought back to our briefing, and remembered my puzzlement as we learned that during the evacuation of the "Enterprise-F", one crew member could not be located, no matter how extensive the search. Funds and patience were running low, and so NASA did the unthinkable with one of their own astronauts.

They left him.

But, even though as much moral and social flack that NASA took for that, it was a part of basic training in being an astronaut. One of the rules were: "If you had no way of getting back to the shuttle from space, no matter how tethered to the ship you were, it was the crew's duty to cut you loose." It was a fact, and still is. And since the elasticity of the clause is subject to NASA's discretion, they applied it to the "Enterprise" case as well.

But apparently, the missing crew member was missing on his own accord, I thought to myself. He must have hidden where no one could find him, not even the sensors or Empath sweep. He must have had some protection against that Power. And he had stayed on the ship after the crews had left, and almost certainly had edited the programming on the shuttle.

But how? And why?

I decided that the time for questions wasn't now, but after we had gotten off this ship. "Listen, Sam. I'm all for sitting here like wounded prey, waiting for the end, but if it's all right with you, I'd like to find a way off this tin can."

Sam smiled, zipping up the last of his suit, "Now that's the Tam I know. I'll see if I can't hack my way back into the system. You go check out that smell. I'd like to think it's some supplies gone bad, but I doubt it."

I nodded and waited as Sam slid out of the airlock and back towards the command module. I floated up and to the right, towards the crew quarters and the cargo bay, not paying my suit another thought. I entered the enlarged room that housed the crew during a mission, not much taller than the circuit tube that led to the quarters, but certainly wider.

Sam's voiced echoed through the speaker on my ear, "Tam? I've tried every backdoor I know into the system. They're all locked out. I'm trying to crack the passcode with the laptop now, but it's slow going. Looks like everything from the airlocks to the cargo bay doors are sealed tighter than drums."

I fumbled about in the beds that hung from the walls, looking for anything that might clue us in on what happened, "I'm searching the quarters back here. Nothing out of the ordinary." I finished with the chief medic's sleeping bag, and moved over to the flight director's. There was nothing there either, and I was getting a little discouraged when two other crew member's bag revealed nothing, as well. I could hear muffled noises from Mtanga's labor over the comlink, and something flashed into my head.

"Tanga?" I said through the radio. "How much time we got left? I haven't got a monitor back here."

"Hmm? Sorry, I was kinda busy here. Haven't ch.." His voice cut off as I knew he was looking at the monitor now, "Man... less than twelve minutes."

My heart leapt into my throat, and I started searching with a new fervor. Meanwhile, I kept conversation with Sam, "You remember the crew member that was left behind, Sam?"

"Yeah, sure. It was David Masters, the.... the Navigation Officer."

Ding. "Who? The Nav officer?"

"Yeah. He had a funeral and everything. During the search on the shuttle, they found remnants of his flight clothes torn on a hatch that had blown mysteriously in the engine section. He was thought to have been drawn out into space, but some evidence ruled against that. The investigation said that he had escaped before then and hid out somewhere on board, for reasons unknown. Declared him missing or dead, and left without him."

Things were beginning to fall into place, and not a moment too soon. "Eleven minutes, Tam. This is getting us nowhere."

I noted that as I switched my attention to the Navigator's bag. I searched it, and found nothing in the bag. In the compartments that surrounded the sleeping area, where personal items of the astronauts were kept, but that turned up negative as well. In frustration, I punched at the sack, striking the metal wall that it hung against. I almost leapt in surprise as something other than metal struck my hand back. It sounded like a paper envelope crumpling.

Apparently, Sam heard it too, "What was that?"

I was already detaching the bag from the wall, revealing a small bag taped to the back of the sleeping bag. I tore it off, accidentally ripping it open. It freed a small slip of paper, slightly damaged from my punch. I grabbed it out of the air and read it aloud, "Supply room."

"What?" Sam asked, "What about it?"

"Time, Sam."

"Ten-twenty. What are you talking about?"

"We've got a clue. You keep working on the password, I'm going to follow this up." I didn't even hear Sam's reply as I headed farther down the access tube towards the cargo bay and the supply room. It was a little tighter than the last tunnel, and I snagged my wings painfully once or twice, taking more time to reach the supply room than I hoped.

At the end of the tunnel was the hatch into the cargo bay, to which the supply room was adjacent. The small offshoot room was one of two places that you could control the cargo bay doors in the new model shuttle, the other being from the command module. The supply room had a small window in the door and looking out the cargo bay, and it was where small foodstuffs and tools were kept for the crew.

As I wrenched my wing free from another wire, I approached the door to the room slowly, not knowing what to expect. After triggering some hidden protective device that started the self-destructive sequence and locked all the escape pathways, I was unsure of anything on this crazy shuttle.

Nothing, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when I peered into the supply room through the door.

"Sam," I said in a half-whisper. "I found David Majors."

"What?" Sam said over the radio, the sounds of spacesuit attempting to move in a restricted area accompanying his voice.

"I found Majors. He's doesn't look too good, either. And I'm willing to bet he's the source for our smell."

Floating limply in the supply room was the bloated, decomposing, and very much dead fox morph, David Majors.

"Time, Sam." I said, not tearing my gaze from the window.

"Nine-thirty."

One thing came into my head at that moment. "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it as in heaven..."

"I never spotted you as the religious type, Trey," Sam said over the intercom, his voice echoing down the tunnel as he approached.

"I'm not, my wife is, though," I replied, not believing what my eyes were seeing, "Seems like the proper time for, it."

"Ever the defeatist, Tam," Sam said with a sigh. He appeared in the smaller tunnel, and even though it seemed way too large for his bulk, he managed to squeeze down it and cram himself next to me in the small crawlspace. He had to stay horizontal, however, since his seven foot height made it impossible for him to gather himself up in the access tube, and the added mass of the pressure suit didn't help, either. I moved aside as much as possible, banging my wing on a air vent, and allowed him to look into supply room.

Sam's eyes went wide, and the sight got the better of his Baptist upbringing, "Holy God."

"You realize that we're going to die, now."

Sam cast me a look of disgust, "Don't even say that."

I rolled my eyes and sighed, a talon pointing at the window, "Oh, come on. Look at that! Look at it! That's the only guy that knows how to get off this stupid shuttle! And he's dead! Two to one says that he sabotaged the shuttle's mission, hacked into system and locked out everything, and then hid away during the evacuation attempt!" I was becoming more and more irritated at the fact that my life was ticking away, and panic started to sweep in.

Sam was measurably calmer, "But why, Tam? That seems suicidal, almost. What was his motive? Why did Majors do it?"

I screeched in anger, "I don't give a damn why he did it! The fact of the matter is that the only one that can get us off this ship is dead, and that makes us dead, too!"

Sam gripped me by the shoulders, "Trey, I'm not dead yet, and you aren't either. We've got about eight minutes to find out what the hell happened and get off this ship. Now, if you want to sit in the airlock and sulk, that's fine by me. But I'm going back, grabbing my helmet, and going in there to see if I can find anything."

I couldn't argue. Things didn't go as planned, and they rarely ever did. But nothing had come close to this. It was like sitting in a submarine, pitching on the edge of the Mariana Trench, and I'm the only one on the ship. And suddenly it lurches, and I can feel it fall forward, down, down into the deep. The hull creaks with the pressure, the electrical systems fail. Propulsion is offline. Nothing but the sound of metal wrenching in the distance, and the random rivet giving and exploding inward. One last soul-rending scream of twisting steel, and the ship implodes.

Except here, I know just when I'm going to die. And that makes it all the worse.

Sam pushed himself back up the access tube and retrieved his helmet. He put it on and came back, the addition to the suit making it even more difficult to maneuver in the tight passage. He reached the supply room, and with out me even asking, he said, "Seven-thirty. Get up to the command area. I'll keep in contact."

I nodded, letting him take control. Neither of us had taken a command position on this mission, but I was in no mood to make decisions, and Sam understood. I moved aside and he took the door handle in his paw, and hesitated for a moment.

"You'd better hold your breath for a while." I nodded, knowing what he meant and took in a lungful, then nodded. He pulled open the door and slid in as fast as he could, then closed it when he was inside. Still holding what little air I had, I struggled up the tube, to the crew quarters. I was just about out of air when I entered them, and with a heaving gasp I let go and breathed anew.

Big, big mistake, even if it was unavoidable. The small time that the door to the supply room was open allowed more than enough air out to foul up the entire crew compartment. The stench was incredible, like something unearthly. I tried to rationalize that after five years, most anything dead would smell like that. Majors' own bacteria must have eaten him from the inside, and the thought of something like that sent me over the edge. I fumbled about for a few seconds, sticking my head into one of the nearby sleeping sacks and retched. I zipped it up before it could float out and reeled a moment.

There was a hiss of static in my ear, "At least you could have taken your headset off, Trey."

Luckily, none of the vomit had gotten onto the microphone, and I said, "Sorry. Be glad you've got that helmet on."

"I am. Majors here ruptured as soon as I started searching his person. Time?"

"Hold on." I reached out for the primary tube and pulled myself in, heading to the command module. On the way, I glanced into the airlock and read the clock on the monitor, still ticking down the seconds.

"Six-twenty. Hurry it up, Sam." I knew the chances of him finding anything, anything at all were beyond remote. Then again, finding Majors was beyond remote as well, as was tripping some kind of alarm system that was programmed into the system after launch. I was almost expectant of anything.

I reached up into the command module, taking care to avoid smashing my wings. The shuttle was not built for flighted avians. I took a place at the navigation controls and sighed. "Six minutes. Tanga, anything look promising?"

"Nada. Looked all over the place. I found the cause of death, though. Seems he took the standard cyanide pill they give to all the astronauts since Apollo."

"What? Why'd he do that?" I asked, getting more anxious as the timer ran on. The longer I stared at the monitor, the faster the numbers went by. Tick. Tick. TickTick. TickTickTick. Five minutes.

Suddenly, the shuttle disappeared, and it was replaced with a small, rural chapel. The altar was in front of me, and there before it stood Janice, my wife of ten years. She was dressed in her wedding gown, the veil covering her face, her jet black fur contrasting wildly with the pure white of her gown. I was there, next to her, my wings folded over my chest, hiding the tuxedo I was wearing. The pastor looked between the two of us, giving us both the vows at the same time, like we had planned, but I could not hear him. I saw by beak and her muzzle mouth the words "I do." in synch. I was frozen, transfixed, watching this memory play out from my mind, like a recording. I wanted to take her paw, tell her I was never going to see her again, say goodbye for Christ's sake.

"You may kiss the bride," the pastor said. And I did.

The chapel was bathed in a blinding light, and the pews and people and parson faded into oblivion. The controls of the shuttle reappeared in front of me, and I could barely make out a voice screaming in my ear.

"Trey! You hear me?? I've got it! Time, man! Time!!! Are you there!?!"

I shook myself out of my stupor, just now realizing that my life was beginning to flash before my eyes. I took control of myself and said back, "What? What?? Got what?" I only glanced at the clock.

It read one minute and thirty seconds. I only stared at it. I felt helpless, like there was nothing I could do. Sam was doing all the work and I was in the command module, the heart of the ship, no knowing what to do, where to go, or just what in the hell went wrong.

"The password! Put this into the laptop: Q-Z-M-P-T-G-B and an asterisk! Got that?" Sam replied.

"One-twenty-five, Sam." I said, my talons typing at the keyboard.

"Oh, man! I'll meet you up there!" I could hear the shuffle of Sam's pressure suit as he exited the supply room and headed up the secondary tube.

I finished inputting the code and sent it to the system. The laptop flashed anew and I was let into the system. The command line was totally foreign to me, and I tried entering a few basic commands in an attempt to stop the countdown. The sirens and alarms in the shuttle, however did not comply. I felt a sinking feeling, even moreso than when we had first tripped the alarm. "Nothing happened, Sam!"

His head popped up into the command module and I floated the laptop down to him. He took it and one look at the monitor brought a smile to his face. "Hey there, Old Girl."

I screamed at him in fear, "One minute, Sam! Dispense with the pleasantries and stop this thing!"

He nodded assent and started typing. "Ok, I see what he did. Abort code one-two-four-bravo-charlie-niner."

There was a pause. The red sirens kept flashing. The clock kept ticking. "Forty-seconds!" I said aloud.

"What the...?" Sam said. Then finally he roared, "Son of a bitch! He typed furiously on the keyboard, only to be met with another tiger-like snarl, "Damn Majors!"

"Thirty-seconds!" I shouted, my wings starting to flutter nervously in the cramped space. "Can't you stop this thing?"

Sam shouted, defeated, "No! I'm locked out of that, too! Majors changed all the access codes!"

My mind raced. In twenty-five seconds, I would be reduced to particles too numerous to count, as would my partner and this shuttle. Ironic, I thought, that I would be killed just like my Disintegration Power.

Then something clicked in my head, "Sam, unlock the hatches!"

He didn't question. There wasn't any time. He typed in the command and started somewhat when it seemed to actually work. "Done."

I shoved him down the access tube towards the airlock, "Go, man! Go!" He understood immediately and dove down for the airlock. As I entered the tube, I paused to check the time. It read twenty seconds. I fled into the tube as soon as there was room, and halfway down the tunnel, I felt my wing wrench against something hanging out from one of the storage compartments, sending a shock of pain through me.

It was my pressure suit. It hadn't even occurred to me to put it on. Perhaps, somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought that if I was going to spend the last ten minutes of my life in a crowded space shuttle, I wasn't going to make myself even more uncomfortable by putting on that suit. Besides, there was no time left.

I freed myself and pulled along into the airlock. The monitor had us down to ten seconds, and I reached out and grabbed an emergency latch, designed to open the door no matter what the pressure was inside. It could only be used if the hatch was unlocked, however. It was do or die time, now.

Sam's eyes went wide when he saw what I was doing and shouted, "Tam! Your suit!"

"No time!" I shouted back and threw the latch.

Three.

The door swung open, and the roar of the air being sucked out into the vacuum of space filled the small airlock. Sam hung onto a handle welded into the paneling for a moment. I did the same. His gaze turned to me in astonishment, "Trey! The suit! You can't--!"

"Go, dammit!"

Two.

Sam let go, and was drawn violently into space, spinning end over end, out, away from the doomed craft. I watched him fall for what seemed like an eternity, and then his suit was bathed in a blue glow, and was gone.

One.

I threw myself at the door, and exited the shuttle much faster than I had expected. The shock of the cold hit me instantly, and I could almost feel the fluids in my eyes freeze. My ears felt like they were going to explode from the lack of pressure. I spun around, trying to keep my balance in the frictionless vacuum, and brought the shuttle into my view.

It looked incredible from the outside, in its designed environment. It seemed right, in place, a majestic eagle against the star-spotted backdrop of deep space. As I floated away, the fatal discomforts of depressurization creeping over me, I looked away, towards the earth, remembering how beautiful it looked from inside the shuttle, and noticing how that did not do the view justice. Like a blue and white marble, it was called, and the planet looked just like that. It teemed with life, amongst that, billions of people with lives of their own, and I, miles above, were watching them, even though they would never know. I was treated with a view that none had the fortune, or misfortune, or experiencing. I, truly, was seeing the world.

The most frightening thing I remember about deep space wasn't the cold, or the lack of pressure, but the total, absolute silence. I had to have been screaming, but I couldn't hear it. The smothering sound of silence was stifling, to say the least.

Instinctively, I spread my wings, knowing I was in free-fall. I was soaring higher than anyone had before, flying where no man had gone before. The feeling of freedom was incredible. I could see everything from up here, the rivers crisscrossing the landscape, mountains building from thousands of years, and the progress of humanity itself.

I tried to draw a breath, but couldn't.

Zero.

Nor did I hear the blast from behind me. My vision was blinded by a white light so pure I thought God himself had appeared. Out of reflex, I teleported, not knowing where, only knowing why. I could almost feel the shockwave ripple through me as I slipped into lightspeed, but soon it left me, my reaction being everso faster than the deadly explosion. Then again, I expected it.

I came out of the teleport right where I wanted to be, the rendezvous point. The trees around us shielded us from sight, where our appearance wouldn't be seen or questioned. Sam was gazing up at the sky, now brighter than ten summer days. I collapsed, fatigued beyond belief, but still managing to catch myself before I hit the ground.

The tiger morph, half out of his suit came running, "Trey! Are you all right?"

I nodded, weakly standing to my feet, the blood in my ears and eyes still racing. I had frostbite everywhere, I knew. "Yeah. I'm fine." It was an optimistic statement, obviously.

Mtanga sighed, "You sure?"

I had answered that before, so I moved on, "Where did you get the code?"

Sam pulled out a small slip of paper that looked much like a receipt and waved it in the air. I could smell the same foul scent on it that was in the shuttle. "Majors had planned to sell the shuttle to someone. The paper doesn't say who. Too bad."

I raised a feathered brow in interest, "He got stood up?"

Sam nodded, "Seems that way. I imagine most of the supplies were gone in a year, maybe less. Majors took a big gamble."

"And lost." I added. Sam nodded.

"He had the access code into the system written on the back. It was only a hunch at the time, but time wasn't something we had the luxury of. I still wonder how he got into the system in the first place." He muzzle took a more worried look now, "Are you okay? I mean not in the physical sense. I tried to raise you for the longest time after I had the code, but you didn't answer."

I didn't reply right away. Instead, I sifted through my emotions, trying to find exactly what I felt then. Despair, sadness, hopelessness. After a long, long pause, I spoke. "No. Not really." It was simple, yes. But general.

"Ever think of quitting?" Sam said seriously.

"All the time."

"Then why don't you?"

"Because the pension plan sucks," I said jokingly, the fact that I was now safe and sound sinking in. Sam gave a slight chuckle. I gazed up at the explosion, the reaction igniting the sky so bright that one had to squint to look at it. Pieces of debris from the shuttle burned in the atmosphere, creating a mini meteor shower. The lighted pieces danced through the sky, mixing with the stars themselves.

"Besides," I said, still looking up, "If I quit, I wouldn't be able to see the world, and still be sane."

Mtanga took my arm, the blue glow of his teleport sweeping over the both of us, "Come on. Let's get you to a hospital."

I made no attempt to resist. I was battered, bruised, bleeding, and probably poisoned with radiation. Still, I kept running the sights that I had seen over in my head, and the feeling I felt was nothing short of euphoria.



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