The Star Mechanics
Blaring alarms woke Quinn from a sound slumber. She jolted upright, banged her head on the unoccupied bunk above her—her roommate had quit a dozen rotations ago, just before Quinn's arrival, and had been taken back to the surface by one of the launches—and rolled out of bed. She hit the floor hard, bit her tongue, and reached under her bed, groping about for her coveralls. She finally came up with them, and her oil-stained shirt, and pulled the garments on over her underclothes. In the process, she stumbled against the pipe which heated the room, burning her upper arm. She let out a hiss of pain, but she couldn't stop; instead, she shoved her feet into boots, not bothering to tie them, and grabbed her bandana, shoving her short brown locks up underneath it even as she scurried from her room.
The entire ship was filled with a pulsing light—that wasn't good. No doubt it was the cause of the alarm.
We shouldn't be this close.
She ran past the row of windows on her floor of the vessel, looking out as she sprinted onward. The images blurred together. Far away, she could see the teal-colored spark of light which was Earth, but it was nearly swamped by the pulses of white-hot light.
"Quinn!" A hand grabbed her arm and pulled her to a stop. She whimpered; Max had grabbed her right on the burn. He didn't notice. "Goggles," he said, shoving a pair of dark glasses at her. She tugged them on, pulling the nearly-black lenses over her eyes. They dimmed the smarting light to a bearable level.
"Thanks Max," she panted, and ran on.
"And tie your boots before you trip and kill yourself!" the quartermaster yelled after her. She waved over her shoulder, but didn't stop. She would be needed on the deck.
"Quinn, where are you? Get yourself up here!"
"On my way!" She grabbed the first rung of the ladder and scurried up it, through the hatch and onto the deck of the ship. It was a massive construction of wood and metal, bathed in the light of hundreds of Atlantian crystals. They kept the air breathable, the gravity in check. If those crystals failed, they all died. Instantly.
"Come on, people!"
"Here!" She skidded across the deck, tugging her gloves from a pocket and yanking them onto her fingers.
The deck supervisor, a middle-aged man by the name of Edward, glared at her. "Where's the rest of your gear?" he demanded.
Quinn winced. The leather jacket and neck collar were still in her quarters. "I, ah…"
"The suits are going to be damn uncomfortable without your jacket and collar, but we don't have time for you to go get them. Suit up." He waved a hand to where the golden-colored suits hung in a row on the deck. Others, men and women alike, were already scrambling into some, pulling the suits up around them, fastening on tool belts, and locking on the glass helmets. They unraveled yard after yard of shimmering umbilical cord, the cord which would keep them connected to the ship, and life.
"What's up?" Quinn asked as she yanked her own suit off the rack and began scrambling into it. She kicked off her boots—there were others that went on over the suit—and pulled the material up around her waist.
"Can't you see?" asked Danton from beside her. He was her age, in his mid-twenties, but he had been spaceborne far longer than she had been. "The star's going out."
Quinn glared. "I can see that. Do we have a cause yet, is what I meant."
"Not yet," said Miranda from her other side. "We can't see anything through this light. We're going to have to go right in."
Quinn swallowed and nodded, hauling the suit up around her shoulders. The thing weighed a ton; the outside, designed to reflect heat, wouldn't actually do anything against the fury of a star; that was done by inside of the suits and umbilical cords. They had been treated with a special Atlantian crystal mix. "Are we going to make it?"
"We have to. We've got too many dark spots already."
As much as she hated the idea of actually stepping into a star, Quinn knew Miranda was right. Though she'd been gone from Earth for six months—most of which had been spent traveling to the ship—she still remembered the voids between the stars, ever-growing as the stars slowly flickered and then went out.
Many times she'd sat on the roof of her family's country house, staring up at the sky and wondering if she could ever touch a star. She'd loved them for as long as she could remember, but it wasn't until three years ago that her dreams of actually touching one became a possibility. Someone had decided to take on the task of traveling to the stars to fix them, and after some disasters—she would never forget watching the shooting golden star of a destroyed ship plummeting back to Earth—they had gotten it right. The first crews had been dispatched, and then the Star Mechanics had begun looking for volunteers.
Quinn hadn't been sure she would be accepted when she traveled from Atlanta, Georgia to London, England in order to apply for the job. She was a girl, after all, and girls weren't usually seen as fit for mechanical work. It wasn't proper. But it seemed that, because she was American, the impropriety could be overlooked. It also helped that her father had taught her how to work on engines from a young age. She didn't have any brothers, so her father had turned to her instead.
So she'd gone through the training, learned how to work on the inside of a star. It had been a whirlwind course, half of it conducted aboard the small vessel which had taken she and the other trainees from Earth to the starship Aeon. Working on a star was nothing like working on an engine, from what she had seen, but she had managed.
Now, however, she was about to go on her first starwalk, and there was nothing she dreaded more. She'd thought she would be excited. Now, however, with her suit on, her helmet in her hands, looking over the side of the ship toward the pulsing mass of the star, she felt sick to her stomach.
"Make sure your tools are in place." Danton reached over and tugged at Quinn's tool belt, making sure the tools were properly secured by the crystal fasteners.
"This stuff weighs a ton," Quinn grumbled, rolling her shoulders as Danton removed his hands from her waist. "Couldn't they make it any lighter?"
"Not if you don't want to fry. Do you want to fry?"
"No." She sighed, lifted her helmet, and pulled it down over her head. "Fasten me?" Her breath fogged the slightly iridescent glass, but the fog faded away almost instantly. Good; she couldn't afford to be blind in the center of a star.
Danton grabbed her helmet and twisted it, locking it into place so the precious air delivered by the umbilical cord wouldn't escape. "Now me," he said, sliding his own helmet on. Quinn carefully raised her hands and laid her gloved palms on the helmet, twisting it slowly until she heard and felt the helmet lock. She turned to help Miranda as well, but the other woman had already enlisted the help of Catherine, the third and final woman on the ship who worked in the starwalking department. There were a few more, but they all worked in the galley.
"Are you ready?" Danton asked. His voice was accompanied by the appearance of his image, projected by a small crystal in Quinn's helmet.
She swallowed and looked over the rail at the star. "No," she said back.
"Good." He clapped her on the back. "People who think they're ready usually make mistakes. If you're anxious, you won't."
"What about you? Are you ready?"
He raised an eyebrow. "Please. Is anyone ever ready to walk into the heart of a star?"
Edward stalked over to the crew of ten starwalkers, surveying each of them. "I want another check on everyone's equipment, by someone other than your original partner," he said. As the group shuffled about and began checking each other once again, he continued, "Remember, you have ten minutes exactly to get in, get it done, and get out. The suits will only hold up for about fifteen, and we need that extra five as a safety buffer. Do you all understand what you're supposed to do?"
There was a chorus of affirmative replies. Edward nodded. "Good." He pressed a button, and the ship's rail sank into the deck with a hiss of escaping steam. Before the group, there was nothing but the pale shimmer of the Atlantian crystal shield, and empty space.
"Quinn, you're with me," Danton said. He held out his hand; Quinn took it. Until they reached the center of the star, they would remain in contact, and would continue that contact when they left. No one was going to get left behind. Together, they stepped into space.
They didn't have to walk to get into the star; its gravity pulled them in almost instantly. In fact, the true fight would be to get out when they were done. As soon as they were in the fiery depths, Quinn felt the sweat bead on her face, the heat sink through the layers of her suit. She pulled her hand from Danton's and they both reached for their tool belts.
The tools weren't typical Earth tools; they yet again utilized Atlantian crystal technology, designed especially for dealing with stars. They brought the cool of the ocean to the equation, rendering the star more controllable as the starwalkers worked to make its many layers of fire and plasma work to their benefit.
Within two minutes, Quinn was gasping for breath. Her hands remained steady, but she could feel the star pressing in around her. It was going to crush her, kill her.
"Breathe steady," Danton said from beside her. He finished stabilizing the spot he was working on and reached over, putting his hand over hers and steadying her. "You're not going to suffocate, you're not going to be crushed. Just breathe steady. We're halfway done."
She gulped, nodded, and gave him a slight push to get back to work. They and the other four teams worked steadily, repairing what damage they could see. Quinn finished fixing the final spot in front of her, and held out her hand to Danton. He finished his own, and slid the crystal torch back into his tool belt before grabbing her hand. Step by step, they began to fight the gravity to get themselves out of the star. It was only possible because the umbilical cords, stretching between the suits and the ship, helped to mitigate gravity in that area; by staying close to the cords, they could creep out of the star and back to safety.
Just as Quinn thought she could see the dark void of space in front of her, she felt Danton's hand tighten on her own. "Quinn."
"What?" She couldn't see what the problem was on the display; she slowly maneuvered her body so she faced Danton, floating in the outer layer of the sun.
That tone of voice could only be bad. She looked down the shimmering length of umbilical cord—and saw a spot that shimmered less than the rest. The Atlantian crystal coating was flaking off, disappearing into the sun.
"Come on." She pulled him, though it didn't do much in empty space. "We have to get you back to the ship."
They moved as fast as they could, but there was little they could do. There was no gravity, nothing to resist them and nothing to propel them. The ship was still a hundred yards away, the sun was licking at their backs. Danton's cord wouldn't last much longer.
"This shouldn't be happening. We're within the time limit!"
"It must have scraped something on the ship when we came out," Danton said through gritted teeth. "Just move, all right, Quinn?"
He was beside her. She reached out, brushed her fingers against the glass of his helmet. "I'm scared," she whispered. She wouldn't have said it if anyone else could hear, but the helmets were set so only partners could hear unless otherwise specified by the speaker.
"So am I."
They hurried, but Quinn could feel the rising despair in her stomach. They couldn't go fast enough. They wouldn't make it. "Danton—" Even she could hear the panic in her voice.
And his hand slipped from hers.
She turned, panicked, but he was already being pulled backward, out of her reach. Without staying close to the group and the field the cords generated, he was being sucked back into the star. "Danton!"
There was a wave of static—something that shouldn't have happened with crystal communication. "Just go, Quinn!"
There were hands on her, pulling her backward toward the ship. "Quinn, leave him!" Miranda shouted over the crystal. "He knows what he's doing!"
"But we said—no one gets left behind, Miranda, we said—"
"Quinn." It was Danton again, and there was nothing but dead calm in his voice. "Go."
She wouldn't. She wouldn't leave him. They weren't in love, they weren't even really friends, but he was her partner, her teammate, and no one got left behind. She struggled in the bulky suit, trying to wrench free of the rest of the group without tearing her own cord.
Miranda's hands slipped from her. She lurched forward, just as over the crystal she heard the sound of tearing fabric.
She knew the fury of a star; she had been inside one moments before. But this star had been relatively stable after all the work they had done. Now, Danton had just introduced an element for which they hadn't accounted: air.
Danton was immediately limned in light. There was a terrible screaming, and when Danton was gone, Quinn suddenly realized the noise was carrying on, and not all of it was from him—some of it was from her.
Miranda's hands were on her again, pulling her backward to the ship. There was a flare coming; they could all see it in the way the surface of the star bubbled. "Quinn, stop fighting, we need to go!"
There were more hands, all of them on her, pulling her, and she couldn't fight anymore. She went limp in their hold, allowed them to pull her back onto the ship. As soon as she was through that barrier, tumbling to the deck, she heard the thrum of engines, and knew they were already plowing away from the star, as fast as humanly possible.
There were hands on her helmet, a man's hands. For a moment, she was sure it was Danton. She had imagined the entire thing. He was fine. Of course he was fine; he was more experienced than her. If anyone was going to mess up, it would be her, because she didn't know what she was doing.
And then the glass bowl was removed, and she saw it wasn't Danton at all, but Edward, staring down into her face. "Quinn," he said. "Quinn, are you all right?"
She was hardly all right. She was shaking all over, her breath coming in little gasps, and as her vision blurred she realized she was crying, as well. All those times she had sat on Earth and stared up at the sky, wanting to touch a star, to be part of that radiance—she had never thought it would come to this. She had never thought that something so beautiful could hold such destructive power, had never thought she would see it destroy someone she had known. Even when that ship had fallen back to Earth, it hadn't been like this. It hadn't been personal.
She licked her lips and raised a still-gloved hand, dragging it across her face to wipe away the tears. "Get me out of this damn suit," she choked out. Edward and Miranda helped her up, stripped her of the suit until it was lying in a puddle at her feet, and she was left standing in her own clothes. Her shoulders and neck were chafed from the rough interior without the protection of her jacket or collar, but she hardly felt the pain. She drew another breath and looked back at Edward. "I think," she said, "that I want to go home."
She'd been aboard the Aeon less than two weeks when she departed on a shuttle for Earth. She was another six months in transit. When she finally walked down the ramp from the ship to the dock, she felt strangely heavy. Weighed down. It wasn't shock—that had worn off during the trip. It was plain old gravity. Though gravity existed on the Aeon, it wasn't as strong on Earth. Now, she felt strange, an alien on her own planet.
It wasn't just the gravity. It was the fact that she had seen—had walked—the inside of a star, that she had traveled out into the universe at speeds no one could imagine, to the point that even light couldn't keep up with her. And these people, the people who surrounded her on the street…none of them would ever known that glory, or that peril. They would never see a comrade be incinerated in an instant.
"I want you to realize what you're doing," said Edward beside her. He had come along, for a short leave with his family, he said. She thought it was to make sure she didn't do anything rash, like throw herself into a star. "If you leave the program, you can't come back."
"I know," Quinn said quietly. She tilted her head back, looked up at the sky. It was daylight now, all stars but the sun invisible behind the blue of the atmosphere. "It's like a star, right? Once a star falls, it can never again be part of the sky. It burns so very brightly for that single instant that it burns itself out, but no one will ever forget the way it shone." She sighed. "I didn't burn quite bright enough. If I did, maybe Danton would still be alive."
"It's not your fault."
"Don't say that. No matter won't you say, I won't believe you. It was my fault. There should have been something I could do. If I had just paid closer attention—" She broke off, fell into silence.
After he was sure she wasn't going to speak again, he asked, "Are you sure?"
She nodded. "It's beautiful out there, but it's terrible, too," she said. "And…I just don't think it's worth the risk."
"And that," Edward murmured, "is where we will have to agree to disagree."
"You think it's worth someone dying so that a little light can stay in the sky?"
Edward sighed. "I'll tell you what I think is worth it," he said. "I think Danton letting himself go is worth it, so that you can return here and tell all these people what you saw. That you saw him die to protect one little light in the sky."
"And why is that worth it?"
"Because," he said, "maybe then they'll actually look up."