Chimera's Breath: Chapter 2

It was unfortunate about Commander Trace and the others, of course. But he was satisfied that there was nothing he could have done to save them. Professor Edgar Schiffer wiped the sweat from his brow and un-strapped himself from his harness webbing. With a thinning crop of black hair, turning silvery around the ears, Schiffer’s looks did not reveal his true age. A wrinkle-free face and lean, athletic form also helped to that effect, in a stage of life where most of his peers were settling down into early retirement and complaining about aching joints. But Schiffer had never been one to conform to stereotypes. Most of his colleagues found him arrogant and blunt, and his unorthodox methods of research had often landed him in trouble. But these were small prices to pay for his success.

He would not grieve for Trace; he had openly admitted his dislike for the man. But he was not glad the Commander was dead. He would make sure Trace and the others received a proper burial ceremony when the RIFT rescue team came to pick him up. But first he had a mission to complete. He glanced around the interior of the mining control module. It housed a variety of tools for the location and extraction of metal deposits, the two-man MOLE (Mobile Ore Locator/Extractor) which resembled a small tank, and a basic laboratory with geology and biology supplies. The structure was intended to operate alongside the other mining container, which housed sleeping quarters and a month’s worth of survival gear. But he would have to do without. He still had a few days worth of supplies. That would be enough for him to survive until the RIFT vessel located and retrieved him.

The landing had been a little rough, but that was to be expected. Schiffer’s piloting skills were somewhat lacking. Nonetheless he had managed to guide the module down a narrow crevasse in Chimera’s surface and land intact, directly above the vein of ore. It had been, by anybody’s yardstick, a remarkable effort on his part. He could already imagine the newscasts: ‘RIFT scientist triumphs in the face of great adversity.’ Then he remembered, with a scowl, that it was a covert operation. The public would most likely never hear about his endeavour. It would however put him in the running for a promotion, a bigger lab and a hefty research grant. Schiffer smiled. He was getting ahead of himself. His first task was to locate a sufficiently dense section of the ore belt so he could begin drilling. He moved over to a bank of glowing monitors and started punching in commands.

The image flickered for a few seconds, and then stabilized to show a bird’s eye view of the area in a ten kilometer radius around the container. The computer identified all the different types of minerals and depicted them in different colours. Schiffer selected a small portion of the screen and got the computer to magnify it. The container showed up as a rough green box in the center of the picture. All around it, the ice walls were a deep blue. A bright red splotch running diagonally across the screen showed the metal deposit. He quickly selected a particularly bright red area and stored the exact coordinates of its location in the terminal’s memory. Now he had to prep the tank-like MOLE vehicle and transfer the coordinates to its onboard navigation system, and then he could begin the preparations for drilling. Schiffer smiled again. It was time to get this mission underway.

He awoke to a painfully bright light stabbing at his eyes, and muffled voices all around him. He squinted through the thin beam of light and saw a ring of shadowy figures encircling him.
“He’s coming around,” one of them said in a hushed voice.
Commander Trace tried to sit up, but sank back to the floor as a stabbing pain shot through the back of his neck. “Am I dead?” he coughed. “Guess I can’t be in hell…. I just came from there.”
“Don’t try to move.” This voice was soft and distinctly feminine. “How do you feel?”
Trace grunted as another lance of pain struck his side. “Wonderful. Will I ever….play golf again?”
“You hate golf, sir.” Lieutenant Vlasich leaned down out of the shadows and offered a nervous smile.
“Oh yeah. I do.” Trace’s head hit the deck once again, and the murky scene evaporated.

“So Doctor, as far as the crew goes, what sort of shape are we in?” Lieutenant-Commander Westmede stood with his hands splayed across a steel bench, with the harsh spot-lights of the infirmary beating down on him. The LC was a picture of confidence and experience, with a wiry tuft of silver hair and a square jaw.
Doctor Jessica Treylan picked up her scrawled notes and frowned. “One fatality: Elizabeth Banks. Two serious injuries: Lieutenant Greene, suffering from a heavy concussion, and Commander Trace, minor lacerations to the back and neck, hairline fractures in one rib, and also a mild concussion. Two minor injuries: Corporal Langmire and Lieutenant Gable, both suffering from slight lacerations and bruising. And unaccounted for: one Professor Schiffer.” Treylan watched the LC pace around the room as she spoke. “I think we can count ourselves very lucky to be alive,” she added.

Westmede didn’t believe in luck, only cause and effect. It was how you dealt with the consequences that mattered. “Is he conscious?” Westmede motioned to the unmoving figure of Commander Trace, who was stretched out on a bunk.
“Not at the moment.” Treylan said. “He’s been drifting in and out of consciousness for the last hour.” She read the look in Westmede’s eyes. “In any case, he won’t be fit for any command duties for at least two days.”
Westmede nodded. “What about Greene?” Greene was the only qualified pilot left in the crew.
“She hasn’t woken up yet. Her signs are stable. But again, she won’t be fit for any duties for quite some time.”
Treylan was thirty-four years old, with shoulder length dark hair. She was a head shorter than Westmede. Her faint Scottish accent was soothing on the ears.
Westmede turned to leave the room. “Keep me posted, Doctor,” he barked over his shoulder.

The science deck had indeed turned out to be the safest place onboard the Van Frost. It was completely intact and still had full power, which was vital because they needed to run the medical equipment there. Aside from the infirmary, this deck housed a variety of geology and biology labs. It was also the deck housing the twin extendable gantry ways which connected to the mining containers on either side, which explained why Professor Schiffer had been able to make such a hasty getaway. Westmede reached the narrow stairwell and made his way down to the deck below. The personnel deck held the mess hall, kitchens and crew quarters. It had taken some minor battering during the attack and the crash, and had lost main power. The dull blue glow of emergency lighting filled the hallway. Again he descended the staircase.

“Hmmm. Looks pretty bad to me.” Brian Vlasich was saying. He wiped a greasy hand on his work coveralls and shook his head. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to fix it. May just be too far gone.”
“Don’t give me that.” Maurice Gable was starting to get annoyed with the man. “We need to get those communication systems operational.”
Either Vlasich didn’t pick up on the tone in Gable’s voice, or he didn’t care. “Well sure. I mean, I can always try.”
“Do that.” Westmede said as he descended onto the maintenance deck. This deck had no ambient lighting, but was illuminated by the soft mingling glow cast out by rows of maintenance terminals. The space was filled with humming machinery and cryogenic cooling pipes. “We need to get as many systems up and running as possible.”
The two men looked up at his arrival.
Westmede turned to Gable. “What’s our current status?”
“Well Vlasich and I,” he said, pausing to throw an angry look in Vlasich’s direction, “have been able to get all the vital systems up again. Life support, main power and internal motor functions are all operational. Now we’re just workin’ on the little luxuries.” Gable grinned with obvious pride. A silver tooth glinted in the half-light.
“What about the reactor?” Westmede queried. “Do we have a leak?”
At the Van Frost’s heart was a nuclear fusion reactor, encased within a giant metal cocoon and surrounded by a spider web of coolant hosing. The structure took up almost half the floor space in the center of the deck, a huge black column rising from floor to ceiling. If the lead shielding had cracked at all in the crash, deadly radiation might pour out and infect the crew.
“No leaks,” Vlasich answered, expressionless. He waved the LC over to a grimy plastic view port in the column’s side. From there they could see the reactor itself, illuminated by an eerie blue glow. It consisted of a jumble of thick vertical pipes connected to a ring of big grilled turbines in the floor. The heavy blades were currently still and silent. “Although,” Vlasich continued, “There was some damage to the core assembly. Several of the control rods were shattered, and we don’t have the necessary equipment to repair them. We’re running fine on the backup generator now, but we won’t be able to power up the reactor until we fix or replace those rods.”
That was a problem. The reactor was needed to power the ship’s main engines, and without them they couldn’t generate enough thrust to reach escape velocity.
“Very well,” Westmede said, rubbing his chin contemplatively. “We’ve got power. That’s the main thing. Have you got the sensor array working yet? I want to get a look at where the hell we are.”
“Yes sir,” Vlasich answered. “The array’s working, just not all that well at the moment. It may cut in and out a bit. If you like, I’ll see if I can tweak it some more.”
“No need,” Westmede replied. “Keep working on the long range comms, they’re more important. I’ll make use of whatever sensor functionality I can get.”
A high-pitched cheep came from one of the consoles. Breaker’s voice filtered in. “Lieutenant Commander?”
“Yes Lieutenant, what is it?”
“Sir, I’m up in the Battle-lab. There’s something you might want to take a look at.”

David Hanley and his computer terminal were the focus of all attention in the Battle-lab. The Van Frost’s security detachment, consisting of Corporals Sarah Langmire, Mark Austin and Stephen Landell, competed for space around the workstation. The circular Battle-lab was the largest room on the upper deck, and also the only one which hadn’t taken major structural damage. The rows of computer monitors had remained intact, and the only signs of chaos were a few fallen roof panels, exposed cables and dents in the metal walls.
Westmede marched into the room, hands clasped behind his broad back. “Don’t keep me in suspense Lieutenant.”
The Corporals moved off to either side to allow him to see. “Alright. What am I looking at?” The picture on the monitor was in black and white. The image was heavily blurred, and not in particularly high resolution. All Westmede could see was a black and grey smudge.
“This is a shot one of the external cameras picked up several minutes ago.” Breaker said, totally in his element. “The cameras are normally fed through to monitors on the bridge. But I re-wired them to the Battle-lab so I could monitor them from here.” He smiled at Sarah Langmire, the youngest of the three corporals. She grinned back. “I just thought it’d be useful to keep an eye on our surroundings, in case…”
Westmede’s look told him to get to the point.
“All right, well this is just one still frame from the recording. I’ll play back the whole thing.” With a click of a button the image swirled in rewind. A slider below the image told them which frame the recording was up to. It reached the left end of the scale, and Breaker hit another button. The image snapped into high resolution and came to life. Westmede could make out a small section of the Van Frost’s hull in the lower-right corner of the picture. The rest of the frame was filled with what appeared to be the interior of a giant subterranean ice cavern. Frozen stalactites stabbed down from the roof, and light glittered on the slick walls. There was no movement in the picture. Then a few fist-sized chunks of ice dropped down in front of the camera, and bounced off the ship’s hull. “Is this what you wanted to show me?” Westmede asked.
Breaker shook his head and motioned for him to wait.
Westmede leaned back and sighed as the recording continued. After several seconds longer the slider reached the middle of its journey. “This is all very entertaining, but I fail to see how-” he stopped.
Something appeared in the left side of the frame, a black smudge or shadow. It was too far away for the camera to pick it up properly, but it looked to be a vague human outline. It was moving slowly and deliberately across the frame. It moved past a peculiar corkscrew-shaped ice formation and continued to the right. A chill streaked up Westmede’s spine. There was something about the way it moved that was disconcerting…
The shape continued to move slowly and methodically. It was moments away from disappearing from the screen. Then it stopped. A second later it moved again, and vanished from sight. The image was still again. The slider reached the end of its range, and halted. “Rewind it back,” Westmede said abruptly. Breaker complied, and dragged the slider back a few frames.
“Stop. Play it from there.”
He did so. On the screen, the black shape shuffled to the edge of the frame again. Stopped. “Pause it there.” Westmede ordered. The frame froze. The Lieutenant-Commander leaned in close to the monitor, until his nose was almost touching the screen. He thought he could make out something there, but… “Can you enhance this any more?”
Breaker shifted his weight in his chair. “Sure. But I’ll have to do it on my terminal downstairs. These machines weren’t designed to process this kind of data.”
“Do it.” He turned to leave the Battle-lab. Breaker rose from his chair, and the three Corporals mobilized and prepared to make themselves useful. Everybody started for the door.
Commander Trace walked in nursing an injured arm. Everybody stopped and stared at each other. Trace caught the sidelong glances, and instantly suspected something was up.
“What’s going on?” he said.

Chimera's Breath: Chapter 2

AndrewJP

Burnie, Australia

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A post-apocalyptic horror/adventure tale

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