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An excerpt from

Ten Little Astronauts

Damon L.Wakes

Eleven

Even before the alarm began to sound, Blore knew in his gut that something was wrong. It was only when he pushed open the hatch of the suspension tank, and a few drops of thick cryonic fluid drifted out into the pitch-black hallway, that he realised what it was: there was no gravity. That was why his stomach churned. The world, the tiny pool of light spilling from his tank, seemed to swirl.

“Owen, lights.”

The computer gave no response.

“Owen, turn on the lights.”

Nothing.

“Owen...” But there was something else now, beyond the cold tank and the dark hallway. Something that no crewman wanted to encounter anywhere, let alone ten trillion kilometres beyond Earth orbit.

It was the smell of burning plastic.

Blore hauled himself out of the tank and clawed for the rack of emergency supplies. Even the smallest fire could render the air unbreathable very quickly. Finally managing to find a torch, he tore it from its bracket and pumped the dynamo. A feeble light flickered into life.

Without gravity, every direction was down. Away from the wall of suspension tanks and handrails, the darkness of the hallway yawned like an endless chasm. Gradually the smell of scorched plastic grew stronger. The end of the passage loomed in the torchlight, and Blore pulled himself hand over hand towards the steel door of Computing Hub Five. He heaved it open, and the torch picked out a blizzard of extinguisher foam. Someone else was already here. Sweeping the torch across the room, he spotted a figure in the far corner, clutching an extinguisher, but the man hung motionless in the air. A ball of blood was forming on his back, held by surface tension to the axe planted between his ribs.

“In the event of an emergency, the ship defrosts ten crewmembers.”

Blore wheeled round to see a black-haired man, and a small group behind him, clinging to the handrails at the doorway to the next cryonic bay.

“With you and your friend over there,” the man continued, gesturing to the corpse, “I make that eleven.”

Ten

A large man in a blue security jumpsuit shifted his position, feet braced against a wall rail, ready to leap. He had the sort of face—unusually flat, and not entirely symmetrical—that suggested he had at some point broken his nose. He had the sort of knuckles that suggested he might also have broken someone else’s.

Blore remained perfectly still. “I’m an engineer,” he explained, as calmly as he could. “My biometrics are on file, and I intend to cooperate fully.”

“You can start by passing over that torch.” The security officer stretched out a massive hand. “Slowly.”

Blore let go of the torch and shoved it gently towards him. The off-centre weight of the battery and dynamo caused it to spin as it drifted, the beam sweeping through the mist of blood and foam that filled the room.

The security officer snatched it from the air. Blore suddenly found the light focused on him, dazzling him. Disoriented, he gripped the doorframe with both hands.

“If it was him,” the first man spoke again, “he did a remarkably neat job.”

Blore looked at his jumpsuit, and to his horror realised it was spattered with blood. But then, so was everyone else’s.

The security officer snapped the plastic body of the torch forwards, converting it into a rudimentary lantern. “This way.” He gestured to the corridor. “Best close off this room.”

Following the spots in his vision, Blore pulled himself along the wall of the room and into the corridor, following the others. He slid the door shut before joining the group clinging to the handrails running along either side of the corridor. It was all quite amicable, if a little tense. Blore didn’t recognise any of them. There were four thousand people frozen on board the Owen: he knew maybe forty.

The security officer held the lantern out in the middle of the corridor, then slowly drew his hand away, leaving it suspended in midair. The group watched him, waiting. Whether by agreement or his own natural authority, he commanded their respect.

“Alright.” The flat-nosed officer let out a long breath. “My name is Lawrence Wargrave: at present the only security officer available to respond to this crime. As I see it, there are two possibilities here. Either we have a stowaway, or the ship defrosted an extra person. It seems to me that the simplest way of identifying anyone who isn’t supposed to be here would be to identify everyone who is. I want to know everybody’s name, position, and anything that could help confirm that information.”

“Fine.” The response was immediate. “I’ll start.”

Blore looked at the man who had spoken. Where others clung fearfully to the handrail, his fingers were barely closed around it: the stars were home to him.

The man stared back around the group. “My name is Edward Armstrong. I’m one of the engineers assigned to central networking. I can’t tell you anything to back that up but I can tell you this: if we don’t get the mainframe back online then the stowaway will be the least of our problems.”

Wargrave pointed at the next person along. “Now you.”

“I’m not finished.” Armstrong grabbed hold of a rail on the ceiling and pulled himself into the centre of the group. “I don’t give a damn who you are or what you do. I can get the computer running again, but to do that I’ve got to go outside the ship. The mainframe runs hot: it’s in the central fuselage, separated from the cryonic bays by a quarter-kilometre crawl through open space. Naturally I’ll need a little help from in here.”

Armstrong looked about the group. There was a nod from a grey-haired man near Blore, but no response from anybody else.

“We can’t afford to be hasty here.” Wargrave shook his head. “If we take the time to get all the facts, there’s a chance we can resolve this here and now.”

“If I can get to the mainframe, there’ll be nothing to resolve. We can just check the ship’s records and be done with it. Who’s with me?”

A thin, angular woman and a pale looking man moved forward to join him. Blore considered it as well: restarting the mainframe would likely involve little more than resetting a few breakers. But what if Armstrong demanded assistance? What if Blore himself was asked to clamber out into the blank expanse of space?

Sensing Blore’s indecision, Armstrong addressed him. “What about you?”

Blore hesitated. “We don’t know how long it’ll take to get the computer running, or how long this bay will remain habitable: the neighbouring bays are still at maybe six Kelvin, and they’re leaching heat from ours. Somebody needs to start the backup generators and get life support online.”

“Navigation, too,” a short woman nearby broke in. “We were due to accelerate constantly for the first half of the journey, then decelerate for the rest of it. If we drift past the halfway point while the computer’s down—or if we’re past it already—we could overshoot our destination. If that happens, there’s no way back.”

A loud creak echoed through the ship, the hull shifting and contracting as the air inside cooled. Blore was suddenly very conscious of the yawning void just beyond those walls.