CHAPTER I - Infinity


Serena stared into Bartok’s eyes. ‘I love you,’ she mouthed silently. ‘I love you too,’ he replied. She couldn’t tell if he’d spoken aloud or simply mouthed the words, Mamboja had disabled their intercoms.

The waiting was agony, but she still didn’t want it to end, especially as she didn’t know how long it would be before she saw him again. It could be many decades, a century even. She sighed. As painful as it was not being able to touch, or talk to, each other, at least, for the moment, she could still look at him. She was going to miss him so much when they were parted.

She glanced over Bartok’s shoulder at the infinity of empty vacuum that surrounded them. Their destination was still more than seven years away, Earth trillions of kilometres behind; even Conquest Four was over a thousand metres away now. Looking back at Bartok, she tried to muster a smile. He smiled back and, for a moment, she could imagine herself in his arms, making love in his cabin on the ship.

Her thoughts were shattered as her in-suit safety system spoke, “Oxygen level critical; five minutes remaining.” So, it was her, she was the one who would asphyxiate in the emptiness of space. One of Mamboja’s cruellest twists had been to tell them, as they were standing in the airlock, that one of them would have enough oxygen to last until the ship picked them up, while the other’s air supply would run out long before. Then he’d ordered Helga to push them out into space. No propulsion system, no auto-return, he’d disabled that too, as well as their suits’ internal monitors. For the past thirty minutes they’d been drifting helplessly, waiting to see which of them was going to die.

Although she was terrified of what was about to happen, she was relieved she wouldn’t have to watch Bartok die. It would probably have driven her insane. She wouldn’t have wanted to live without him anyway; she didn’t think she could take any more loss. But the search for the ‘sky stone’ was more important than her suffering. If she’d been the one to survive, she would have had to endure her grief and carry on. Now she could only hope Bartok would continue the search in her stead, but did he really understand the full significance of the sky stone; and why it must never fall into Mamboja’s hands?

She wished she’d told Bartok the truth about Mamboja, and about them, when she’d had the chance. She’d left a message for him on her suit’s recorder twenty minutes ago, but she didn’t know if he’d ever get it. She’d watched him recording a message in his suit too. She ached to hear his voice again, but now she never would. Not in this life, anyway.

She tried to keep the fear from showing on her face as she mouthed, ‘It’s me; I’ve got five minutes.’ She held up her hand and spread out her fingers as she spoke. The movement pulled on the tether linking their suits and Bartok drifted a little closer. He nodded and reached for the cuff that fastened his glove to the rest of his suit. He began unscrewing it.

“What are you doing?” she screamed in her suit. She grabbed his hand and tried to stop him. He gently pushed her away and shook his head then he mouthed something at her. She couldn’t tell what he was saying, but she knew what he was trying to do.

“Please, no,” she shouted, forgetting all her training, forgetting he couldn’t hear her. She tried to grab his hand again, but again he gently pushed her away. “Please don’t, my love, please save yourself,” she begged; “you need to live.”

“Oxygen level critical; four minutes remaining,” her suit system said.

Bartok glanced at the distant ship and pointed his arm in the opposite direction. Staring deep into her eyes he mouthed, ‘I love you, Serena.’ Then he pulled off his glove.

The oxygen jetted out of his suit, through his sleeve, propelling them towards Conquest Four. They accelerated rapidly and the ship grew steadily larger until it filled their view. They were approaching fast, too fast. Serena glanced at Bartok’s exposed hand. It had turned blue. It was frozen solid. By contrast, his face was red; he was struggling for air now. He moved his arm, trying to point it at the ship, hoping to slow them down, but instead he put them into a spin. They kept hurtling towards the ship’s hull.

Serena grabbed Bartok’s arm and kept it pointed at the ship as they span. They began to slow down, but they were still rushing too fast towards the steel wall. “Oxygen level critical; three minutes remaining,” her suit said. They couldn’t slow down enough to attach safely, so Serena moved Bartok’s arm to take them in at more of an angle. They hit the ship and bounced off, careering away along the side of the hull. She tried to grab one of the exterior hand rails but they were moving too fast. She pointed Bartok’s arm ahead of them and they started to slow. She grabbed at the rail again and this time she managed to hold on, although it almost wrenched her arm out of its socket.

“Oxygen level extremely critical; two minutes remaining,” her system said, as she hung on to the side of the ship. Bartok’s body had gone limp, and she couldn’t see inside his helmet. She hoped desperately there was still time to get him to safety. She started to pull them along the hull, looking for an airlock. She spotted one about a hundred metres away. “Ninety seconds,” her suit said. It was going to be close.

Pulling Bartok’s inert body behind her, Serena dragged them forwards but their progress was painfully slow. She reached a small ridge in the hull just as her system warned, “Danger, one minute of oxygen remaining.”

No point playing it safe, she thought. She put her feet against the ridge and pushed down hard, launching herself forwards, taking Bartok with her. She flew across the surface of the hull. As she approached the airlock’s outer hatch, she grabbed for the handrail. She missed, and flew past the hatch, heading on towards the infinity of emptiness beyond. She grabbed at the rail again. This time she got it.

“Thirty seconds,” the suit said. Serena pulled them back towards the airlock. “Twenty seconds.” She opened the flap in the hull and reached for the manual override lever. “Fifteen” She pulled the lever, but it wouldn’t budge. She braced her feet against the hull and pulled again. This time it moved and the red warning lights around the hatch began to flash. Slowly, too slowly, the door began to open. “Ten,” her suit warned.

The door was half open; she hauled herself inside, pulling Bartok in behind her. She slammed her hand into the ‘close outer hatch’ button, but it kept opening. The system wasn’t designed to allow the hatch to close again before it finished opening. “Five”

She turned Bartok around, spinning him easily in the weightless environment, trying to get a look inside his helmet.

“Danger, oxygen supply exhausted,” the suit sounded her death sentence. She tried to suck in air, but there wasn’t any. The airlock’s outer hatch began to close, painfully slowly. She tried to push it, but it made no difference. Finally, it locked in place. Gasping for air, she hammered on the ‘O2’ button with her fist and the ship’s systems began to pump oxygen into the airlock. She started to feel dizzy; she was close to passing out. She reached up and grabbed her helmet, trying to twist it free and pull it off, so she could suck in the sweet, life-saving air filling the space around her. But her strength was fading, she was losing consciousness, everything was turning grey.

Bartok spun around to face her. His dead, blue face, frozen in his final moments, was the last thing she saw.