08/12/214 (Adjusted Calendar)
You're not supposed to dream in frozen suspension. Certainly not a dream of a small child with your ship's engineer's eyes. The image flickered for an instant behind Mana's closed eyelids as the transparent cover of her tank spat open, simultaneously draining the freezing suspension fluid into a reservoir underneath her, the whirr of the pump motors more felt than heard through her fluid-filled ears. For the moment, there was nothing else but cold.
Shivering violently, just beyond the edge of her control, she pulled her knees up and forced herself weakly into a sitting position. Freezing fluids ran along her dark ponytail and down her bare back, setting off another wave of shivers as she coughed and spat more of the damn stuff out of her mouth. It took her almost a full minute to get a single word out.
No response. No sounds of movement from the tank next to hers.
Carefully blinking her eyes clear, Mana looked over to the cylindrical tank - the twin of hers - to her right. It was still sealed; its timer, which was independent of the ship's chronometers in case of a failure, clearly wasn't synchronised exactly to hers. Lucky, she thought. It wasn't desirable to wake alone in case of problems, but her tank had apparently gone through the cycle successfully and she would be in a position to help Quinn when he was woken. She felt grateful as well that he wouldn't get another look at her before she was dressed.
She hauled herself out of the tank, summoning all her strength to lift her leg over and lower herself to the floor. The lower than standard gravity would probably save her from a fracture if she slipped, but she breathed easier when she got both feet on the ground. She grabbed a silvery padded robe from a nearby hanger and pulled it around her. Immediately, the inside lining began heating up to a preset temperature. It felt wonderful.
Mana lowered herself onto the chair that obligingly slid from the wall behind her and looked at the floor for a few minutes, concentrating on getting warm as the lights slowly began to come on, alerted by her movements. It was when her shivering stopped and she was beginning to feel her toes again that she spotted the lid on Quinn's tank. It was sitting closed, but the seals were still open.
She raised her head. "Quinn?"
Rising more quickly than was advisable against the fading dizziness, Mana looked into the tank. It was empty.
She looked round, first left, then right. She was alone in the main cabin. No sounds of movement from anywhere else. The lights in the corridor beyond were off so nothing was moving there. This wasn’t right.
The main screens on the console had already glowed back to life and it was with a feeling of her stomach being jettisoned that Mana looked over and saw the "Message Waiting" indicator flashing on one of them.
Mana made five unsteady steps to the screen and sat down. She took a breath and tapped the "Play" indicator. There was a blank pause and then an image of Quinn seated in his customary console chair. Mana glanced briefly to her right where it sat empty.
"Morning, Manny," Quinn's image said. "Hope you slept well. Sorry I wasn't here when you woke up, but I suppose you'd probably have been expecting that."
Mana attempted a "huh" but only coughed up a little residual fluid from her lungs.
"One of the good things about being the engineer is that you can always lie about how bad things are to give yourself more time to fix them, like you didn't know. I just did the opposite of that to you, I'm afraid, Manny. The damage to the generator was just a bit worse than I told you. I know you hate it when I'm too technical, you being a mere co-pilot and all, but instead of having just enough power to get us both to Terraquintus and run the ramscoop at optimal, we just had too little to keep both tanks running. One of us had to go and one of us had to... well, had to go.
"You should be approaching orbiting distance in a few hours or at most a few days by now. There shouldn't be anything you need me for. Just park Penny and get yourself to the surface. I'd recommend capsule two when you abandon ship from the look of the wear on one but it's up to you obviously - so make sure you take two. Hopefully nothing's impacted us too badly in the flight."
He paused, unusual for Quinn in full flow, and glanced over in the direction of the tank where Mana must have been lying while he made his recording.
"Our cargo seems to have settled down for the moment," he continued. "The only readout I've picked up in the last hour says it's created waypoint number five. Damned if I know what that means but maybe you'll find out. Hope you find Terraquintus okay, darling. I'm taking the skiff and heading for Cinque Port. It should just be in range from here and I don't fancy heading back for Pentad Reach with the radiation this high and the Drifts around."
He paused again before continuing: "That's about it, Manny. Just the parting of the ways now, though for you I'm long gone. Look after yourself, darling... I love you. Always did."
The screen went briefly blank before the image was replaced by the default set of readings. Mana sat still for a time, head down, wishing she could just go blank too.
18/12/214 (Adjusted Calendar)
"How are you feeling this morning?" asked May, settling herself into the chair opposite.
"All right," Mana replied. "Got the headache again but not as bad."
"Did they give you anything for it?"
"Yes. It's fine now. You said you'd try and find out Penny's status for me?"
May nodded. "That I did. I spoke to someone from the Fleet and he tells me it's still in a stable orbit. Months before any corrections need to be made. Looks like you did better than you thought."
"Interesting name for a ship. I don't think I've come across the name Penelope Weaving before. Is she someone well known where you're from?"
"She's well known in physics circles I was told by my engineer. There's a plaque on the ship with her bio. She had some radical theories on causality, apparently."
"Causality? What's that? Physics isn't my field."
May smiled and picked up her notes. Mana glanced towards the windows which looked out over a collection of unevenly spaced rounded pinkish buildings on the western edge of Anansi City. Pink was apparently the colour of the local concrete. It made an oddly satisfying complement to the rusty desert stretching out to the red mountains rising above a line of heat haze on the horizon, stark and jagged against Terraquintus' dark blue nitrogen-rich sky. She had no idea how far away they were. Mana had stood on five different planets in her life now; she had never got used to how the apparent distance of the horizon on the other four differed from her birth world.
Gravity was different here too; Mana was walking with an unaccustomed spring in her step which contrasted sharply with her general mood. Breathing was harder, though, with the lower oxygen level. As with every other planet she had visited Mana was still amazed how the natives always seemed to adapt to the differences.
May, her counsellor, sitting in the chair opposite, was the most immediate example. She was tall and slim like most of the Terraquintans Mana had seen: the product of a few generations of a low-weight environment - Mana found herself much shorter than the average seemed to be here. Her blonde hair was tied tightly back in keeping with the long tight grey skirt, jacket and blouse she was wearing today. For her part Mana was sitting uneasily in a concrete-pink dress enthusiastically presented to her by a young female hospital orderly when she had been finally allowed out of bed. Mana had not worn a dress for more years than she liked to think. The orderly had looked genuinely surprised when Mana had asked about the possibility of being supplied with a pair of trousers: the Terraquintans appeared to maintain civilian dress conventions that distinctly separated male and female in a way that Mana found archaic, but she supposed that was up to them. The future belonged - in large part, anyway - to the Terraquintans, it seemed.
Like a couple of Mana's hospital doctors, May wore glasses which appeared not to have proper lenses, just plain clear ones which Mana surmised was some sort of fashion thing – or maybe they housed a recording device. They had met a few times before in the hospital where she had been treated. Mana had been heavily drugged with something she had never heard of and had found herself talking a lot, almost rambling. She wondered what May had made of her then: mad spacewoman probably. If so, she might be right.
"I've become a lot more in demand over the last couple of days," May said, looking up again.
Mana wasn't quite sure how to respond. May seemed to be the type to throw in non-sequiturs to get her patients talking.
"Lucky you?" she settled on with an involuntary grin at May's telic expression.
"It's thanks to you, though. I've had both the main news distributors wanting comments from me and a number of professional colleagues I haven't seen for ages contacting me. All because I'm one of the first ones to speak to our new arrival from the heavens."
"You don't get many visitors here, do you?"
"No, it's been almost fifty-five years since we had visitors from another world."
"That's one of the benefits of being so remote."
"Well almost everyone else has been having some real trouble with visitors in the last thirty years or so. Well, thirty-four years now maybe."
"You're talking about the Drifts?"
"Tell me a bit more about them," May said. "Before what you could tell us - about the fighting - we basically only knew that they existed."
"Oh, they exist. They declared war on us when they attacked the colonies on Epsilon Beacon and wiped them out."
"What happened? Some kind of dispute? You're going to have to explain from the beginning, I'm afraid. We don't even have a proper idea of what a Drift looks like here."
Mana paused, thinking how to begin explaining so basic and practically fundamental a fact of her existence.
"I've only ever seen a dead one," she said. "They're about two metres tall, something close to an octopus with an exoskeleton - you know what an octopus is?"
"I've seen pictures."
"Well something close to that but no real eyes or face as we'd understand it, just a set of raised areas around the skull region they use to smell and hear. They might use a kind of echo location as well with high pitched sound, something beyond human hearing, you know? Apparently they can give off some kind of sensation of fear and unease when you get near them and that might be the side effect.
"They attacked Epsilon Beacon without warning after trading with them very occasionally for decades. There's a kind of language that the Epsilonians developed to communicate by analogue radio signals and by arm gestures but apparently the Drifts simply stopped responding one time when they arrived with a fleet and opened fire. Since then we've been at war."
"Your whole life then?"
"Almost. I was an infant when Epsilon Beacon happened."
"And you don't know what sparked it?"
"Not for sure. No one does. There are theories the Drifts didn't appreciate how many humans there were at first. They might have thought we were pretty much confined to Epsilon Beacon and not spread out further. They may see us as a threat and just attacked us as a kind of pre-emptive strike. The Beacon only had a few tens of thousands of colonists and it had been their policy not to pass on any firm information about the location of any other colonies, just in case."
"Good policy it seems."
"Yes. If you're worrying now you can probably rest easier. It's very unlikely they know about Terraquintus. That's why I'm here, really."
"But you mentioned other colonies have been destroyed?"
"Yes. They found Phi Rampart where there were several million people living. It seems it was after they found it that they destroyed Epsilon Beacon before moving back to attack Phi Rampart in force.
"The Ramparters had some warning it was coming when a couple of ships made it to them from the Beacon but they almost went under in the first attack. The human race hadn't fought a proper battle in space before. They had to improvise warships and weapons and basically use anything they could. Fighting went on for two years before the Drifts finally took the planet and moved on."
"And Earth is gone now too?"
"I don't know. The last I heard there'd been no communication for years. Same with Mars. They're too remote from the other colonies to hear from much anyway."
"Okay," said May after a pause. "You'll need to give a fuller account to the government people who want to talk to you later. Right now you and I just need to talk."
"About you. Your state of mind."
"Psychological debriefing, you mean?"
"Not a term I'm familiar with. The powers that be just want to be sure you're mentally fit before they let you back up to your ship. They need to know you’re in the right shape to help the recovery crew up there."
"Seems reasonable. They'll be keen to examine the payload. I suppose they want me along because I know the ship."
"That's my impression."
"Okay," said Mana after a pause. "Where do we start?"
"How about the last battle you were in? Pentad Reach." May looked at the pad clipped to the arm of her chair. "Your ship was a kind of heavy weapons carrier?"
"Yes. Penny's a Starfish class transporter. We were carrying a gauss cannon designed to cripple enemy warships. The Drifts had found Pentad Reach and finally attacked with a massive armada, the biggest anyone had seen. We were hit early on and the captain and one of the gunners were killed. That left me, Quinn the engineer and Fyfe the other gunner to make a run for it. Our weapon was gone and we had damage to one engine so we couldn't really do much more there to help."
"You headed away from the planet?"
"Yes. We weren't able to get much sense from Command but they were ordering a retreat so I decided we needed to get some distance between us and the battle. There's a really big gas giant with a few dozen moons in Pentad Reach's system. I thought we could find somewhere to hide there and carry out what repairs we could."
"And then you encountered the other ship?"
"Tell me about that."
19/09/209 (Adjusted Calendar)
"Under one hundred and fifty thousand kilometres now," said Fyfe.
Fyfe tapped at his screen and a blurry image of a metallic object, dark grey against the empty space behind it appeared on Mana's screen.
"Is that the best magnification you can get?"
Mana studied the outline for a moment. It was a rough cone shape with what might have been engines fixed around the circumference of the base. Way too small for an interstellar craft.
"Doesn't look familiar. You seen anything like that before? A section of something else? A weapon that could have been jettisoned?"
Fyfe shook his head. "No. Nothing I recognise."
Quinn appeared in the main cabin through the hatch leading to the engine section. He looked tired round the eyes but otherwise unaffected by recent events. Mana suspected he was taking his de facto (and surprisingly annoying) role as crew clown as a need to be upbeat for the sake of his surviving comrades. Mana mildly resented that she appreciated his efforts.
"Recognise what?" Quinn asked.
"Fyfe's got us an image of the transmission source," Mana said. "Get over here and see if you recognise it."
Quinn squatted down, his hand on the back of Mana's chair slightly too close for comfort.
"No," he said after a moment. "Don't even think it's a section of any ship I've seen."
"And we're still getting the transmissions?" Mana asked.
"On the hour," replied Fyfe. "Last one twelve minutes ago."
"And it's definitely a distress call?" said Quinn.
"Looks like it. We're getting more interference now with the sunspot activity increasing but the pattern looks like one."
"Sunspots increasing? When did that happen?" asked Quinn.
"Fifteen hours ago. While you were asleep" said Mana. "Sorry, I should have informed you before you went back down to the engines."
Mentally Mana was kicking herself. She should have informed Quinn in case any of the engine instrumentation or shielding was likely to be affected. He took advantage to get in a quick dig.
"It's okay, Manny. You have other things on your mind."
Don't call me that, she thought. With an effort she ignored the comment and changed the subject.
"Do we have a new engine status update yet?"
"Auxiliary is fine but I don't think we'll need it. One is okay and I've replaced the damper on Two. We should be able to get it close to optimal with a long acceleration."
"Good work. Thanks."
"No excuse not to investigate that call, then," said Quinn.
Trust Quinn to voice the exact the thought that had been bothering Mana.
"That's got to be the next decision. We're still getting no reply?"
"Nothing," said Fyfe.
"Okay," said Mana. "Either no one is left to respond or they are unable to respond. We'll have to assume there may still be someone to assist. How fast can we get there?"
"About twenty-seven hours," said Quinn
"Okay. We can get there. Now, should we go - this isn't a distress call that's officially recognised."
"That's not a reason to leave some poor soul out there," said Quinn. "It could be someone from one of the remote colonies. Almost certainly is, looking at that ship. They might not even know about the war -"
"Agreed," said Mana, cutting him off. "But I need to consider the safety of this ship first. The sunspots increasing has basically cut off any communication with the fleet, even if there is anyone left to give us orders. It's lucky we picked up the transmission as it is. We have to consider any and all possible dangers. If a Drift vessel shows up to answer the transmission we'll have to make a run for it with virtually no weapons and engines we may not be able to rely on if we push them too much."
"This could even be the Drifts," said Fyfe.
"A trap?" said Quinn. "I've never heard of that before."
"No," said Mana. "I've been checking the records and I can't find any case of the Drifts trying anything like this but there's always a first time. We've never seen an armada anything like the size of this one before either."
"They'd be more likely to use a recognised code if it was a trap," said Fyfe. "They could get one from one of our ships they've recovered."
"Agreed," said Quinn.
"And actually use one of our ships they'd captured or built a replica of so we'd be less suspicious," added Mana. "But we can't really know how they'd think. They're aliens."
"Same thinking works both ways," said Quinn. "They don't really know our psychology. Sure this is kind of a mystery the way a ship we recognise wouldn't be, but they wouldn't necessarily know that means we felt the need to investigate it more. And, anyway, we could be overanalysing all this - maybe it is just a new type of ship we don't recognise. New types have appeared out of the blue from colonies before."
Mana paused. Quinn was right, as was Fyfe. But neither of them was in command. They had the right to endanger themselves but she was the one who would be giving the order.
"All right," she said. "We investigate."
18/12/214 (Adjusted Calendar)
"Did you know them all well?" asked May. "Your crew?"
"I barely knew Fyfe or Jaz, the other gunner at all, they were new to the Penny. Gun crews work together but they switch them between ships depending on what weapon they need a ship to carry."
"What about your captain?"
"I'd been on the Penny with Captain Gold for two years, the same as Quinn. I'd served with Quinn on a ship previously, the Erich Maria Remarque."
"How well did you know him? Better than the others?"
"Yes. A bit too well for me."
"We slept together once. Not one of my better decisions."
"No. There was a lot of alcohol involved. I wouldn't have done it if I’d been thinking straight. You shouldn't sleep with someone you serve with. It confuses things."
"And you like things simple?" May asked.
"Just not overly complicated. I made sure I didn't do it again."
"You dream about him, though. Not about any of the others?"
Mana paused for a moment. "Fair point," she said quietly.
20/09/209 (Adjusted Calendar)
The ship looked bigger than Mana had visualised it from the readings available. The configuration was one she had never seen before; a dark grey conical body with what she took to be one visible engine attached to the round base end. If she hadn't known better she would have guessed it was designed for aesthetics as much as functionality. The hull was punctured with jagged edged holes of varying sizes: it looked like the results of a Drift fragmentation mine. The overall effect was of a pointed metal wizard's hat which had seen better days though Mana found herself questioning whether the name of the vessel, displayed in light grey lettering on the hull, was influencing her thoughts: Merlin's Wake. She was too tired for all this.
A thick silvery line now linked the two ships (the harpoon expertly launched and secured by Fyfe on the first attempt) which were now less than two hundred metres apart. Mana would have liked to be in a little closer but there was no telling the full damage or dangers of the other ship. Where there was one mine there were likely to be others and since she did not know how far the Merlin's Wake had drifted since sustaining its damage Mana would rather be well away from this part of space. She had already had to compromise between keeping their distance and getting in close enough to fire a line across and let Fyfe go across in a suit, taking another safety line across with him.
Nineteen minutes ago he had entered through one of the larger breaches in the hull. There had been nothing from him since: the ship seemed to be generating communications interference, maybe from some system that was still operating aboard.
"Any sign of him?" asked Quinn through the intercom. He was stationed at the Penny's main airlock, checking the line.
"Not yet. We'll give him a few minutes more. How does it look from your viewpoint?"
"Don't see any activity. Engines and retros don't seem to be firing. Looks like it's just drifting. Still doesn't look like anything I've ever seen."
"Nor me. What do you make of that structure mounted on the base of the bottom rim?"
"Don't recognise it, either. Could be a mine or satellite for deployment. There's at least two other empty housings on the rim I can see."
Mana had been hoping Quinn wouldn't use the term "mine" but it had been her first thought as well. What was this thing - some kind of scout or minesweeper? It had to be new. Something secret?
"Do you want me to get suited up in case I need to go across?" Quinn interrupted her train of thought.
"No. I should be next over. You need to keep the ship functioning."
"And you're the pilot," Quinn suddenly broke off: "There he is!"
"I see him."
The suited figure of Fyfe appeared in the hull breach, half hidden in the pitch black shadow of the ship's interior. He waved across to them and Mana suddenly heard his broken voice through the radio interference.
"... Found someone... Need them across now..."
As she watched, Fyfe emerged from the shadow, pulling another suited figure behind him, floating weightless.
"You see that?" said Quinn.
"Is the second line secure?"
"Okay then." Mana made the decision. "Bring them both on board."
18/12/214 (Adjusted Calendar)
"So you found someone?" said May.
"We did. Classic successful EVA rescue and recovery procedure. Trust me, that's rare."
"I'll believe it. Who did you rescue?"
"He was called Falcon, he was the captain of the Merlin's Wake, or so he claimed. There had been five in his crew but they had attracted a Drift mine and the blast had killed the other four and left him badly injured. We didn't have facilities let alone the expertise to save him."
"So he died?"
"Yes. About five hours after we brought him onboard."
"How do you feel about that?"
"We're at war," Mana said, repeating a phrase she had heard variations of throughout almost her entire life. "These things happen."
"Was he able to say much before he died?"
"Yes," said Mana. "We pumped him full of painkillers and he was able to talk to us. Actually he was desperate to talk to us."
"His ship's payload. They had been carrying five devices he said would provide us with some protection against the Drifts."
"Some kind of weapon?"
"Kind of. More like a camouflage device, something that would stop the Drifts detecting any more human colonies."
"That's a bit technical. But he said they had started off with five of them and were delivering them to colonies the Drifts hadn't found yet. They had just arrived at Pentad Reach and deployed the fourth one when the Drift armada attacked."
"He was too late then."
"He didn't seem to think so. He said we had inflicted serious damage on their fleet with a counter-attack and it would take them decades to fully recover. Obviously he was a lot better informed than we were. We'd lost contact with our command days before. . Falcon also said he had information about the Drifts. He said they were dying – as a race, I mean. There was some kind of disease spreading among them, slowly killing them and making them infertile. He said that might be why they were fighting – some kind of mass insanity they had. It all sounded a bit incredible, to be honest.”
"You didn't believe him, then?"
"Not at first."
"Later," Mana continued, "when we took a second look at his ship we found some devices we didn't recognise. Obviously some kind of new technologies - Quinn was almost totally lost with them and he was a damn good engineer. Wherever Falcon came from – and he didn’t say which colony – he had better technology than us so maybe he had better enemy intelligence as well."
"What kind of devices were they? Our Fleet will be pretty keen to know."
"They will. The main thing was the remaining camouflage device - the thing on the hull. But there was a kind of new navigation system on board as well."
"Did you get a chance to examine them?"
"Better than that, we brought them on board. They're still up there with the Penny in orbit right now."
"So why did you bring them aboard?"
"Falcon was very insistent, not that there was anything he could do to make us agree to it. But I decided if there was any chance of using them against the Drifts it was our duty to return them to the fleet
"The navigation system's pretty small so we were able to float it into the hold's airlock and stow it there. The camouflage device was bigger, though, carried attached to the hull of the Merlin's Wake."
"So how did you get it on board?"
"The Penny's a transporter, remember? We jettisoned the disabled cannon - it was just dead weight anyway - and secured the camouflage device to the housing. It was while that was being finished that we lost Fyfe."
"Something happened on the Merlin's Wake. Without warning it just exploded and sent a few tonnes of wreckage in our direction. Luckily the main thrust of the blast was away from us else it would have ripped Penny apart. We took plenty damage anyway, though.”
"Fyfe was outside at the time. We saw him hit by a piece of wreckage and sent flying. If the impact didn't kill him the damage to his suit would have pretty soon anyway. There was no way we could have attempted a rescue."
"And that left just the two of you," said May.
"Yes . Well, three for a little while until Falcon died. And catastrophic damage to the main engines and the generators. We were pretty screwed."
"So then what?"
25/09/209 (Adjusted Calendar)
"He's gone," said Quinn, covering Falcon's face.
Mana nodded. "I'm surprised he lasted as long as he did."
"So what now?"
"Well, we've got limited options. I think Pentad Reach is too risky and the last order we had was to retreat."
"Always carry out the last order?"
"Always. So we've got two options. We deploy the ramscoops and head for Cinque Port or we abandon the Penny altogether and take the skiff to Cinque Port. Either way we're in for a period in suspension."
"What do you want to go for?"
"I want to get the salvage back to the Fleet to at least try and save something from this mess so I'd prefer to use the ramscoops. Are they in a good enough condition?"
"There's no serious damage to them, we should be fine that way. The generators are a different matter, though. They've taken a serious hit but I think I can fix them to run to produce the minimum we need for long enough."
"Long enough for Cinque Port?"
"Yes. Or even Terraquintus."
Stress and grief fought with exasperation and annoyance and Mana had to gather herself to keep calm.
"Quinn... You are not taking the ramblings of a dying man seriously?"
"Granted he was dying, but I'd dispute that he was rambling. Everything he said made sense - on its own terms, I mean."
"If your terms happen to be born out of insanity. Quinn - he said he was from the future, dammit!" Mana stopped suddenly, realising she had been raising her voice on the last few words.
Quinn paused, letting her settle. "I know it sounds insane," he continued softly. "But half of what we do is insane. Travelling in space is insane."
"Maybe you're insane."
"Maybe - and that might explain a lot in my life. But you're a pilot, I don't need to tell you about time distortion linked to the speed we travel at. I left for one trip once the day after my niece was born. When I came back eleven months later she was five years old."
"That's all relativity effects. You're talking about travelling backwards in time, not just it passing more slowly for us. And you can't do that. And if we can't accept that part of his story then the rest of it doesn't stack up."
"Look, in a universe where aliens are trying to annihilate the human race for reasons that only the aliens can really understand, why is time travel so difficult an idea for you to at least consider?"
"Because it's ridiculous."
"No. Because it's new to us. Look, there are sections of those devices back there that I have no idea what they are or what they do. But some of the parts I do understand work so elegantly they must have been designed by some genius. Or someone with years more research and development than we have."
"Someone from the future, you mean?"
"Now you're getting it."
"Yes. I'm getting it."
"Yes. You are insane."
18/12/214 (Adjusted Calendar)
"So you decided to head here rather than Cinque Port?" May continued.
"Yes. As I've told your people already, we felt if this place hadn't been found by the Drifts yet and Falcon's camouflage device actually worked then this was the best place to deploy it. We still had the ramscoop as a last resort so we used it."
"I'm not too familiar with ramscoops. That's a way of powering a kind of last-ditch auxiliary engine, yes?"
"Kind of. Space isn't as empty as most people think. There's plenty of hydrogen and other gases around that you can use as fuel but it's spread really, ridiculously thinly. A ramscoop device generates a huge magnetic field to direct it towards the ship where it can be used to power an engine. You can kind of power yourself as you go."
"And you used that to get here?"
"Yes, there was damage of course, but Quinn is - he was - a great engineer in his own way. He got it working. He just didn't tell me he wouldn't be going with me."
"You miss him. Don't you?"
"Let's just say," Mana said after a pause, "that maybe sometimes you don't realise quite what you've got while you have it."
21/12/214 (Adjusted Calendar)
"You okay about heading in first?" asked Commander Halpern through the suit's comlink. "One of us could go ahead and you can follow right after."
"I'm fine," Mana replied. "There shouldn't be any hazards but I know Penny."
"As you want. This is your territory."
It was great to be back in space, even if it she had only spent a few days on the ground. And it was great to see the Penny again, even as battered as she was, growing to meet them as they had ridden up to meet her in orbit on board one of Terraquintus’ somewhat basic launch vehicles.
May had passed her fit to fly after the last session. They had spent the end of it talking about how she felt about Quinn. That she had probably loved him - okay she did love him, or had loved him - even if she hadn't admitted it to herself. There had been a lot of talk. There had been a couple of tears shed. And she did feel better. Even if she was still having the dreams about the little girl with his eyes.
Halpern touched the control to open the hatch. The iris sections slid back to reveal the narrow umbilical corridor spanning the several metres of space to the Penny's corresponding hatch.
"Here I go," said Mana, kicking off and floating through the opening. "Give me a few minutes once I get the other side open."
The launcher's hatch closed behind her: a safety precaution until the state of the Penny was confirmed. Mana glided along it, using the handles set into the walls and stopped at the far hatch. Grabbing the main handle, she released it and it swung open for her.
"Am inside," she said, stepping through. "Wait for my signal to follow."
Okay, she thought, just need a few minutes to get to the hold.
The lights were off and now the Penny wasn't spinning everything was weightless in the orbital freefall, but Mana knew every centimetre of her ship. It took her three minutes by her helmet's lamps to get to the hold and Falcon's second device.
It was a large, cylindrical device with a concave section big enough for someone to stand in. Blinking at her from the curved wall of that section were a number of screens and control panels. Mana guided herself to it, took a moment to check she had what she thought was the right one and tapped in a command.
For a second, nothing happened and then the entire structure of the Penelope Weaving was shaken violently as - on the outside of the ship - Falcon's camouflage device separated from its housing and began floating free.
"Mana!" Halpern was shouting. "What's happened?"
"Has the device separated from the hull?" she replied calmly.
There was a pause. "Yes. Was that you?"
"Why? What are you doing?
"Saving your skin, Commander. Good luck to you all for the future."
Outside, the device began firing a series of retro rockets, orientating itself towards Terraquintus' sun. Its main engine fired gently, moving it away from the Penny before engaging fully and accelerating away, towards the far-off star.
"What are you doing?" Halpern was practically screaming at her now. "We're coming across. I order you to meet us at the hatch!"
Mana switched him off and turned her attention to another panel. Waypoint Five Quinn had said...
03/01/215 (Adjusted Calendar)
May's note-taker was playing up again. Almost all devices were playing up since the sunstorms had started. There was an urgent programme in place to add shielding to the affected equipment, starting with the most vital which did not, it seemed, include hers.
She sat, gathering her thoughts as the device reset itself. It struck her that it was this patient's actions that might well be delaying her own notes being closed off. There was no direct evidence that it was the device launched from the Penelope Weaving that had caused the sudden radical increase in solar activity several days later but, given what Mana had stated about the camouflage device, May was inclined to believe it.
There had been an inquiry of course - still ongoing - but there was nothing from May's session recordings to indicate anything to predict Mana's actions when she had been returned to the Penelope Weaving. May was quietly confident that there would not be any serious repercussions for herself.
What was occupying the authorities' attention more was how Mana could have completely vanished from the ship after launching the device. When Commander Halpern and his crewman had managed to get aboard they had found an empty vessel and a dead device, shut down and completely unresponsive. The report was likely to conclude that Mana had somehow managed to exit the vessel in a successful attempt to commit suicide. How she had achieved this as no hatches appeared to have been opened was still unclear and would likely remain so.
Whatever had happened to her, May found herself hoping that Mana - the first soldier she had treated in her career - was somewhere where she could finally find herself some peace.
26/09/209 (Adjusted Calendar)
"I love you. Always did," Quinn finished and ended the message.
"Love you too," said Mana from the doorway. “Just not since always.”
"What the - " Quinn spun round. "How did you get out of your tank?"
"I didn't. Not yet." Mana nodded towards the tank where she was still frozen peacefully.
Quinn was uncharacteristically silent for a moment. She saw that he was trembling visibly.
"So..." he said at last.
"Waypoint five," Mana said. "It took me right back to the hold. All the way from Terraquintus. You were right, it's not so insane really."
"No? There's two of you... You're here twice."
Mana nodded. "Yes. Double trouble for you. I've been in two places for a while now. I think I will be for a few years yet."
"Did the other device work?"
"I hope so. I launched it like Falcon outlined but I suppose we'll never really know."
"So now what?"
"Well, you and I get into the skiff and head for Cinque Port. I'm sure we'll make it now. The other me goes to Terraquintus as planned."
"Then what? For us, I mean."
"Second chances, Quinn." Mana reached out and took his hand. "Just this once."