Millwood’s plane hung motionless in space. In his chest, his heart thumped out a rapid dance beat. Military training kicked in and he forced himself to calm.
“I’m going to try to radio for help.”
He activated his long-range communicator and tried to hail the Endeavour. All he got was static. He checked his instruments and quickly saw why.
“There is a lot of interference here in the asteroid belt. It’s probably something in the rocks. There is a lot of background radiation.”
“I can’t get through either Badger.”
“I’m going to need you to go for help Hornet.”
“Sir, shouldn’t you follow at your best possible speed? You won’t get far, but it will be something.”
“No, if I stay here I’ll be easier to locate, and I should try to conserve oxygen.”
“Are your tanks hit?”
Millwood checked his instruments. “One of them was hit, which means I’m down to half my supply.” That explained the flames that McDermott had seen. He checked the indicator to ensure that he was in oxygen-conservation mode. In this mode, his suit would only provide a flow of oxygen when it detected him inhaling. “I’m going to cool my cabin to help with air preservation. I’d rather the doctors treat me for hypothermia than hypoxia when I get rescued.”
“I’ll bring help as fast as I can CAG.”
“I know you will. Now go.”
Millwood watched as the engine on McDermott’s plane erupted to life and the craft shot off out of sight. He closed his eyes and tried to relax his body. He hated doing nothing.
* * *
Captain Bell found Commander Lin hard at work on the bridge of the Endeavour. Although currently in command, she was sitting at her operations console. Bell looked over her shoulder to see what she was working on.
“Anything interesting in the communication logs Commander?”
“Quite a lot Captain. Earth continued to send us updates as we travelled. They knew we wouldn’t be able to read them until we awoke at the end of our journey but it fills in a bit of history for us.”
“So what happened?”
“A year and a half after we left, a second ARK ship was launched. It was called the ESS Hope. Evidently astronomers located another habitable world and sent it there to double our chance of survival as a species.”
“It makes sense. Multiple baskets for our eggs.”
“Oh, just an old western expression Commander.”
“Right. Well six months after that, a private ship was launched. It was to follow our path and join us here on Xinju after our colony was established.”
“I half expected that. Given that we arrived centuries late, they should have beat us here. Have we found any evidence that they arrived?”
“You’d best talk to Doctor Banks about that Sir.”
“What else is noteworthy?”
“Scientists on Earth continued to research any technology that they thought could help humanity. They made no progress in solving the environmental problems back home, but they did find faster and more efficient ways to travel through hyperspace. They sent us a lot of specifications.”
Bell looked intently at the schematics and equations that scrolled along the screen. “I assume you’ve forwarded this information to Engineering.”
“Absolutely Captain. They say that using this data we may be able to construct a ship that could travel inter-stellar distances without the need for cryonic suspension.”
“That would be revolutionary.”
“Certainly not our highest priority at present but yes, it would be. Unfortunately, shortly after that, there were no further transmissions from Earth. It all just went dead.”
“What was the date of the final transmission?”
“24th of April 2183.”
“That was shortly before we were scheduled to arrive here. Did the message indicate what was happening?”
“No, it was purely routine. There was no warning that it would be the last transmission.”
“Earth should have had over twenty years left at that point. I wonder what happened.”
“We may never know Captain, but it would be safe to assume that the planet is lifeless today.”
Bell had to stifle back the rising emotion within him. They had all known that this was going to happen, but hearing it said like that brought the reality home to him. Earth was gone.”
“Thankyou Commander. You are doing excellent work. I’m sorry you’ve had to step up in Commander Murphy’s absence but I have complete confidence in you.”
“I appreciate that Sir.”
* * *
Colonel Millwood knew that he should be staying calm and quiet to make his air last as long as possible, but he couldn’t shake one thought from his mind – how had this happened? Millwood had been a pilot for fifteen years. He was very good at what he did. There was just no way that a stray asteroid could sneak up on him without being noticed. Even if that were not so, proximity alerts should have warned him before impact. Despite all of this, his plane had been hit. It didn’t make sense.
Millwood brought up the HUD and began to scan through sensor data. He went back to the moment of impact. He could see where the asteroid had impacted the hull causing significant damage. If somebody had wanted to deliberately disable his plane they couldn’t have had a better aim. He then scrolled back through time to see where the asteroid had come from. As he went back through the log, the asteroid vanished. Again, this was impossible. If these readings were correct then the rock that hit him had appeared out of nowhere.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Millwood complained, then immediately regretted speaking. There was nobody around to hear him and talking would only waste air.
Millwood tracked the direction that the asteroid should have approached from. He then turned his plane around to face that vector. He could see nothing but a small group of rocks. He started a detailed scan. Perhaps sensors would reveal something.
The scan took about a minute. After it was finished the Colonel surveyed the results. There was a minute but detectable energy fluctuation which occurred every twenty seconds or so. Its location could conceivably have been the source of the asteroid.
Suddenly there was a noticeable spike in radiation from the exact location. Millwood yanked the stick and pulled his plane into a roll. Just as he did, sensors picked up another asteroid appear out of nowhere. Thanks to his evasive action, the rock sailed harmlessly past.
As the plane came out of the roll, Millwood lined up with his invisible enemy and fired off a small rocket. The missile sailed rapidly into empty space and then impacted something. There was a brilliant explosion. For a fraction of a second, Millwood thought he saw a large object. It might have been a satellite or some kind of probe. Before he could identify it, the object had been blown to a thousand pieces.
Millwood scanned the debris and noted with fascination and a little alarm, that whatever had attacked him, had been constructed from the same mineral that he’d mined in this belt. How had the Captain known to look for it?