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Chapter 5

The shuttle hanger was alive with activity when Seymour finally walked in. Personnel worked quickly to load crates of explosives into the rear of the runabout Guadalupe while engineers finished modifications to her systems. He smiled a little, feeling a sense of pride in the occasion. He was finally being allowed to lead a mission, on his own. He had picked his team - taking advice from his fellow senior staff officers - and come up with the plan that would save the world.

Well...a world.

Already, Savannah Tompson - his engineer - was busy conducting pre-flight checks with the pilot, a bald Deltan man named Thoobor. Keith Rehrer and Terry Mosz, two demolition experts, oversaw the loading of the explosives.

The final three members of his crew were huddled together, double checking their own equipment and chatting while the rest of the equipment was loaded. Seymour grinned as he approached them. "Ladies; Tim. Good to see you."

Timothy Hausrath straightened a little, the young specialist visibly swelling with pride on his first away mission. He was a geologist, picked to make sure Seymour and his crew didn't drill or plant the bombs anywhere that was too hazardous. "Thank you, Lieutenant Sonia."

"Excited much, Timmy?" Alyssa Acuff crossed her arms with a small giggle. Seymour had picked the tactical officer to be his weapons officer on the runabout, partially because Wirstowx insisted she was a competent tactical officer, partially because she was easy on the eyes in her dark red uniform. Seymour blinked a few times to break his gaze, turning quickly to the final member of his team.

Justine bit her lip nervously, tugging on the strap to her medkit that ran across her chest. "Seymour."

Seymour nodded. "Justine. Thank you."

The petite doctor stepped forward, grabbing his arm and pulling him along while she talked in hushed tones. "What am I doing here, Seymour?"

"We're going to be making multiple spacewalks, Justine." Seymour stopped walking, tugging his uniform to straighten it out. "I need a medical officer to make sure my team is good to go, and in case anything goes wrong."

Justine shook her head, her newly dyed hair - bright blue, similar to Jessica's in color - flowing gently behind her. "But why did you pick me?"

"Honestly? S'Tel recommended you."

Justine looked surprised for a moment, before leaning in again. "That's it? S'Tel recommended me?"

Seymour nodded. "I promise, if I was just picking randomly, I would have asked her to come. You're not here because of...you know." Although, he had to admit, she was still extremely attractive to him, even knowing that she was romantically involved with the commander. "We have a job to do. If it'll be a problem for you..."

Justine shook her head again, quicker this time. "No, no problem." She smiled. "I just...wanted to make sure. Thank you."

Seymour nodded. "Get on board. I want to leave as soon as we're ready, Doc."

===


"What's the status of the away team, M'Ral?" Jessica turned her chair to face the Caitian officer.

"Final preparations are underway, ma'am."

Jessica continued turning to face Nizeri in the back of the bridge. "How is the rock looking?"

Nizeri frowned. "I'm getting a lot of strange readings, Commander." She shook her head. "Regolith mostly, but there's a lot of interference. I can't make much out of it; if I had to guess, maybe magnesite. If we could get a little closer, I might have a better answer for you."

Jessica turned her chair to face forward again. "Wirstowx, see if you can't bring us in closer. At the very least, it'll be less distance the runabout has to go to their landing site."

Wirstowx nodded, and the image of the comet on the screen grew larger.

The ship shuddered. Jessica looked around in alarm, as did a few of the other officers at their posts. "What was that?"

"Ejecta; we're entering the tail of the comet," Nizeri replied. "Might get a little bumpy here, Wirst."

"Understood."

"Guadalupe is reporting ready for launch." M'Ral input commands to his console before turning towards Jessica. "Requesting permission to disembark."

Jessica nodded. "Make it happen."

M'Ral tapped his station again. "Guadalupe, you are cleared for launch, I repeat, you are cleared for launch. Safe journey."

"Acknowledged, Rafale, Guadalupe is away." The viewscreen changed, showing the large shuttle slip out of the hanger bay and turn, heading towards her target. "Estimate twenty minutes to landing site. We'll check in once there. Guadalupe out."

"M'Ral, monitor their flight path and make sure they touch down safely. Obruz, you..."

The ship jolted violently, sending most of the crew scrambling to steady themselves. Jessica frowned. "Wirst, I think we can back out of the tail now."

Wirstowx was working desperately at the helm, his breath becoming increasingly excited. "Standby..."

The ship shook again, and the alert lights immediately lit yellow around the bridge. Jessica looked around, feeling her heartbeat increase in panic. "What's going on?"

Nizeri called from her station at the rear of the bridge as the lights flickered around them. "I just picked up a massive gravity spike from the comet! We need to back off now!"

"Wirst, get us out of here, full impulse!"

The helmsman practically slammed his hands down on the console before him, struggling to give the ship commands fast enough to compensate for the gravity and the debris from the comet. Lights blinked off for a few seconds longer, and Jessica could hear systems around the bridge power down.

M'Ral cried in surprise, "Power drain! Massive power drain now! Whatever is under the ice is having an adverse effect on our power grid!"

"Full reverse!"

The ship rocked and bucked as lights flashed erratically. Jessica felt the inertial dampers cut out in time for Rafale to lose control; the ship suddenly nosed down and back up, launching most of the crew from their seats.

Wirstowx grunted, straining to keep the ship from tumbling end over end in the wake of the comet. The bridge shuddered, lights flickering rapidly as power fluctuated throughout the Rafale.

M'Ral hissed and growled from his station. "Power is fluctuating too rapidly! Engineering, I need help up here, Commander!"

"Do what you can; I'll compensate down here Fuzzball!" was Elaina's shouted response over the comm speakers. Despite the gravity of the situation Jessica giggled a little as she held onto her chair. The last thing she wanted to do was become reacquainted with the helm station as she had prior to Vega.

There was a final shudder and buck of the ship, bringing Obruz down to his knees from where he stood behind Jessica. His chin connected with the back of the captain's chair with a sickening thwock, and he collapsed completely as the ship steadied out. Jessica turned to look back at him; he lay face down on the ground, not moving.

Jessica stood, shakily, tapping her commbadge. "Medics to the bridge," she ordered, bending down to check on Obruz. Satisfied that her first officer was still alive, she looked around the rest of the small, dark bridge. "Report!"

Nizeri coughed from her station, pulling herself to her feet. "We're caught in the tail of the comet," she replied, shaking the dizziness from her head. She scowled at her flickering console. "Sensors are still having trouble narrowing down the makeup of the rock under the ice, but the gravimetric field is hundreds of times more powerful than we first believed."

Jessica frowned, standing up to get a better view of Wirstowx. "Wirst?"

The massive alien barely turned his head to call over his shoulder. "I am maintaining a safe distance from the comet itself; however, at this rate of burn, we will have exhausted our chemical thrusters in approximately thirty minutes." He quickly moved his arm, his hands planted firmly on the controls to keep the ship from buffeting again. "I suggest another method of keeping our distance."

"Engineering is working on getting the impulse thrusters fired up again," M'Ral reported, his ears twitching anxiously. "Even if the Commander has to 'make the Chief walk out and scrape off the snow.'" He shrugged.

"What about the Guadalupe?"

Nizeri scanned the comet quickly. "They're near the comet; interference is making it hard to get a positive hit on them, but they're still there." She shook her head in disbelief. "It looks like Sonia's keeping to the plan."

I hope JD's alright, Jessica thought, slowly sinking back into her chair as a nurse exited the turbolift and moved to take over caring for Obruz.

"Commander." M'Ral brought Jessica out of her thoughts. "Seurer just reported in again..."

Jessica waited a moment for the young Caitian to continue before finally pressing him. "And?"

He shook his head, growling softly. "Main power is being drained, siphoned off. She thinks it's something in the asteroid doing it."

"How much time?"

M'Ral shook his head. "An hour, maybe two."

"How long will secondary systems last?"

M'Ral winced. "That's the other part of her report." He growled, "Whatever is draining main power is also depleting our backups and the battery backups. We're going to be without power in three hours time."

All activity on the bridge came to a halt as everyone turned from where they were - save for Wirstowx - to stare incredulously at the Operations officer. Nizeri stammered a little from her position. "L-life support?"

"We're going to run out of breathable air in five hours - assuming we don't freeze to death first," M'Ral finished grimly, his ears lying back flat on his head.

Jessica shook her head. "Tell Elaina to keep working on a solution. Wirstowx, keep us steady for now, switch out before you get too tired. Nizeri," she turned to her science officer. "I want a detailed analysis of that rock, now that we've been up close and personal with it. I want to know everything about it and how to get away from its damn gravity field."

===


"Dammit."

Seymour wiped his eyes, wishing he could rub the exhaustion from them. "They got too damn close." He smacked the control panel in front of him, causing Thoobor to look over in surprise.

Timothy sighed from his station in the back. "Gravitational pull of the comet is much stronger than we anticipated. The damn rocks buried in it are going to wreak havoc on their systems."

"How so?" asked Alyssa from the tactical console.

"Massive power drain," Tompson replied, picking up for the geologist. "Systems are going to fail all over the ship, and at an alarming rate." She frowned. "They're going to be completely without power in a matter of hours. Life support will fail not long after that."

Justine whimpered, covering her mouth and looking away. Seymour frowned; it hadn't been a secret that she and St. Peter were together. For a moment, Trinity's small, naked frame entered his mind, and his frown deepened; she was in danger, too.

"We need to finish the mission," Seymour declared, looking down at the image on the console in front of him. It was a rear-view shot of the Rafale, and he watched as she struggled to stay on course behind the comet, trying desperately to pull away from the ball of ice and rock.

"Agreed," Mosz called from the doorway to the crew cabin. "The sooner we blow this rock, the sooner the ship and that planet are safe." He rubbed his hands together eagerly. "I'm ready for a space walk."

Justine turned and pushed past him into the crew cabin. As the door closed, Seymour could just hear the beginnings of her fearful sobs.

===


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