As the lights aboard the Maddy Quintana flickered out, Commander Tilden Walker tried to calculate the remaining oxygen. He'd already had to abandon the cockpit; there wasn't enough power to keep it running anymore. The crew's engineer had shut down everything that wasn't absolutely essential to operations, and the battered tin-can of a space shuttle was becoming colder by the hour.
The gravity unit hadn't been turned off. It had simply cut out the moment that they emerged from their Cardsen jump into deep space. He held onto a steel pipe with one gloved hand, anchoring himself to a wall of the engine room, no longer certain of which was way down. The insulation in his gloves kept him from feeling the chilled metal, but he knew that it must have been freezing to the touch. "How are we doing, Henderson?"
"I need a wrench," the engineer said, without looking up from the drive in front of him. It floated a few inches over his head. He'd bound his feet to a cross beam with a length of electrical tape to stay anchored to what the commander took to be the ceiling.
Tilden reached out with his free hand and plucked the wrench from the air. He pivoted around the bar to pass it to Henderson, who took it without looking up.
Not far from him, Regina McKnight and Lynn Connors were tampering with the lightwave radio and the radar unit, trying to get out a signal. Fuzzy static poured out of the radio, filling the control room with steady white noise. "The research base is supposed to be here," Connors muttered. "It's like something is eating our radar signal. How..."
But she knew. All of them knew. Not a week ago, Tilden had been a training instructor at the Eamonshire Space Exploration Center. Connors had been a radar expert on ground control heading up a vain attempt to track an enemy's deep-space research base that had vanished without a trace years ago, and Maddy Quintana had been a supply ship with a salvage title. Then, inexplicably, a garbled signal came through. In a haze of flurry and motion, over the course of two bleary days, he had become the commander of a suicide mission.
Conner's words were perfectly apt. The signal was being eaten, just as the signal from the base had been. Just as the light and heat of their ship would be. He had jumped the ship into a dark corner of the universe where everything around them was being devoured.
In spite of the insulation in his space suit, he felt a chill. He felt eyes on his back. "Keep trying," he told her.
McKnight pounded on the radar. "We intend to," she said as she drifted back from the impact. She caught herself on a deadened climate-control system, all of its LEDs and readout meters gone dark. "I swear, commander, we're going to kick this thing where it hurts. We're going to get word to the base—dammit, we're going to get word to His Majesty Ronan Mercer himself, and we're going to get out of here." Roughly, she pushed off and glided back to the radio.
The lights in the engine room flickered. The main ones had already gone out, and they were down to emergency lights that cut everything with deep shadows and gave the room a yellowish cast. Tilden's breath hitched. If they lost power completely, there was no way to get a warning back to ground control. There was no way to escape the ship. A few feet away, Henderson let go of the wrench.
"This is the best I can do," the engineer said. "I've rigged up the Cardsen drive to jump us home."
"Will it work?"
"It could spit us into the ocean. It could land us in the upper atmosphere. It could jump you into a brick wall. I can promise that it's going to get us off this ship. But that's all."
McKnight shoved off the radio. "That's a risk I'm willing to take," she said as she shot towards Henderson. He stuck out his hand and caught her. She tumbled to a stop with a swinging, ethereal grace.
Without a word, he handed her a pair of wires. She took hold. She hung in the air as if she was suspended in amber. Her eyes caught Tilden's, and she gave him a sharp, reckless grin in spite of herself. "When I get back, I'll tell Greg he can kiss your ass."
He forced a smile. "When you get back, tell Greg I'm coming with the dozen fucking roses he made me promise him. And tell him when we're all heroes and he prints this in Mercy Times he'd better not use that picture of me from the Frish clock festival."
Somehow, she laughed. Then, all at once, she blinked out of existence. A dim, empty space remained, printed with a grey after image until that, too, faded. Henderson flicked a few switches, resetting the machine. As he did, Tilden motioned to Connors. She nodded and pushed herself into a gentle drift away from the blank screen of the radar. In the yellow light, her face was drawn and fear was etched into every shadow of her face. She caught Henderson's hand with a stiff arm.
He gave her the wires. The Cardsen drive hummed softly, building on the white noise of the radio static as it reset itself. In the moment before Henderson activated it, sending her off, she glanced over her shoulder.
She felt it too; that she was being watched. That she wasn't alone in the cold, dark space of the engine room.
The surge of power that it took to send her through brought down the emergency lights. For a long moment, Tilden and Henderson were alone, adrift, with nothing but a sea of radio static and a lurking presence that was bleeding their ship of power. He'd heard scientists call it Cavendish's Demon and writers call it a particular dimensional hollowness. Poets called it a cold-front, politicians called it baseless speculation, and the parents of small children called it nothing at all, nothing to worry about. In the last words that Dana Lundin had reported from the research base, she'd called it the Esh. It was where something had been, and wasn't anymore.
The lights returned, lower than they'd been before. They didn't so much illuminate the engine room as show Tilden where the shadows fell.
Henderson held out the wires to him.
"It's one switch to trigger the jump?"
"This one," Henderson said, motioning to the jerry-rigged control on the drive. He watched Tilden, waiting for him to take the wires.
"When you get back, tell them I'm right behind you," the commander said.
Beneath the white noise, a readout meter pinged. It sounded small and far away.
Still secured to the cross-beam, Henderson took hold of the wires. Tilden took a deep breath and leaned down towards the drive. He had just enough reach to flick the switch.
Henderson vanished a moment before the lights went out. Once again, the engine room plunged into darkness. Tilden tightened his grip on the metal pipe, a chill beginning to seep in through his padded gloves. He waited for the lights to return.
The static from the radio died.