CHAPTER ONE - M:FAC/1
As Jace walked down the corridor of M:FAC/1, the overhead lighting flickered eerily. This part of the ship had always been a little creepy being so far away from the housing and the cafeteria and the recreational chambers - which were all decorated to feel like the inside of an actual home instead of a cold and steel vessel. But somehow, the wavering lights made it feel even more desolate, more lonely.
And if there was anything Jace hated more than being alone - he couldn’t think of it.
Two more blocks, he thought to himself, his footsteps quickening. He stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets and cursed the cold. Why did they have to build such a gigantic ship?
Of course, he knew the answer. They had to make the upper level this big, because the lower level, where the engine, fuel and control rooms were located, was two miles long by necessity. Anything smaller wouldn’t have the resources to make it where they were headed.
Still, a little paint or some music would have been nice along this stoic, metal hallway.
Jace passed a couple rooms used for storage and paused when the whoosh of the air-circulation system quieted for a moment. He couldn’t remember it ever doing that before. He couldn’t even remember hearing it before. It was one of those sounds, a constant static in the background like the buzz of the refrigerator - barely noticeable until it faltered.
Twenty seconds and one unintentionally-held breath later and the system regained full performance. Jace let the air escape his lungs, relieved. Most failures allowed for problem-solving and recalibration. But not the AIR-VAC. Without it, they would have mere hours to fix the problem before… death.
After jogging the last stretch, Jace found himself at the end of the hall and the final doorway, an arching entrance into the ship’s library where books were stacked so far up the walls that a ladder was needed to reach the higher shelves. Jace always felt so small in this room - both physically and mentally - like a single, newborn star in the center of an ageless galaxy. Just as he’d suspected, Dreary was taking up one of the leather sofas. She was under a fluffy blanket and three different books.
“Hey,” he called to let her know someone had entered the room. He didn’t want to startle her. She looked pretty enthralled by what she was reading. “What’s up?”
“Nothing much,” she answered dreamily, turning a page.
Jace fell into the sofa across from her and threw one booted foot onto the coffee table. “Did you notice the pause in the AIR-VAC?”
“What?” She finally looked up at him.
“The AIR-VAC kind of... stopped for a minute. You didn’t hear it?”
She shook her head. Her eyes widened. “No, I didn’t even notice. Is that normal?”
Jace shrugged his wide shoulders. This new, muscular physique was still a little uncomfortable. In less than a year, he’d gone from a scrawny seventeen-year-old to what he was now - six feet tall and outgrowing every piece of clothing he had. Even the cargo pants he’d chosen were a good two inches too short. It was time to visit M:FAC/2, the ship where the stores were located.
“Maybe they were working on it,” Dreary suggested. “Fixing something, or making it more efficient...”
“For the first time in five years?” Jace asked. Because that was how long they’d been on board M:FAC/1.
“Well, maybe five years is around the time they need to start doing maintenance.”
Jace gave a thoughtful nod. “Except, they’re supposed to announce any kind of maintenance that might cause a disruption.”
Dreary looked puzzled. “Do you think something is wrong?”
Jace considered his answer. If he told her what he really thought, that being out in space was a precarious position and anything going wrong could be a threat to their lives, it would freak her out. Dreary was a serious person, a deep thinker and easily worried. He didn’t want to be the cause of her distress. So, he smiled and gave her his best don’t worry about it expression. “You’re probably right. It was just maintenance.”
Nodding, Dreary went back to what looked like an encyclopedia.
“Whatcha reading?” he asked.
He rolled his eyes, since that was basically all she ever read. “I knew that.”
Dreary chuckled. “This one’s about these two bank robbers in the late 1930’s - Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Have you heard of them?”
“Bonnie and Clyde?” Jace asked, though he was distracted by the way Dreary’s eyes lit up whenever she was sharing her latest discovery. “All I know is what you just told me - they robbed banks.”
“And small stores, I guess. It’s kind of sad... They died really young,” she intimated as though she’d known and loved them before they’d passed away. Dreary had a habit of getting pretty attached to the people she read about. Once, she spent an entire month mourning the world’s loss of Robin Hood - even after finding out he was likely a fictional character.
Jace gave her a look, not quite sure how she could sympathize with thieves. “Well, they were criminals. And they got caught.”
Shrugging, Dreary turned another page. “They needed the money to live.”
“Most people get jobs.”
“Whatever,” she sighed, clearly exasperated. “Their story is romantic. You wouldn’t understand.”
Jace smiled at that. As silly as Dreary could be, it was still endearing. And he did love how her perspective usually countered his own, even if she was often playing Devil’s Advocate just to get under his skin.
At nearly seventeen, with unrealistically large hazel eyes, freckles, and long brown hair, Dreary was Jace’s favorite person. She was also his best friend. They boarded the ship five years ago as strangers and became inseparable within a week. Back then, it was movies by night and cops-and-robbers by day. It was starting to make sense that Dreary had always wanted to be the robber...
“See, it says here Clyde actually cut off two of his own toes when he was in prison, and he walked with a limp for the rest of his life.”
Jace scowled, not understanding her point.
Dreary watched him patiently before finally adding, “And she loved him anyway. Don’t you get it?”
No, he thought, nodding very slowly. “Yes. Absolutely.”
Satisfied, she closed the book and set it to the side. “I’m hungry.”
The lights flickered and died.
Jace heard Dreary say, “Okay, that’s not normal.”
He pulled his foot off the table and scooted toward the front of the sofa, preparing for whatever was coming next. Would there be some kind of explosion? Jace knew from his engineering classes that some of the systems were connected to battery backup power. Including the Air-Vac. But without electricity to recharge those batteries, how long would the Air-Vac be operational?
In the darkness, his senses became hyper-alert. He could feel the blood pulsing through his body. He could hear Dreary get to standing and move around the table toward him. He could even smell the perfume she always wore, musky strawberries and vanilla, soft and warm and familiar.
Jace felt Dreary reach for him. Both her hands felt down his arm, from his shoulder to his elbow where she clung. “We should go back to the Den. If all the lights are off, everyone will meet up there.”
“Good plan,” he agreed as he took her hand and headed in the direction of the doorway.
It took longer than expected to reach the Den. They had to feel their way down the hallway, one block at a time, using his cell phone to light the way. Most of the ship’s lighting was controlled by motion sensors. But even as they walked along, no lights blinked to life. The problem was clearly affecting the entire ship.
“Oh, great,” Jace muttered at one point, letting go of Dreary’s hand and swiping at the web he’d walked through. It was stuck to his face and shoulders, both annoying and creepy. And hard to remove without light.
“Are you okay?” Dreary asked.
“Spider web,” Jace answered.
Both of them were whispering, even though it wasn’t necessary. Something about the darkness was making their regular voices seem very loud.
“It’s not real,” she told him with a chuckle.
“I know, but it feels real,” he answered, irritated at finding even more web in his hair. Dreary’s father, Charlie, had felt the need to decorate the entire ship for Halloween. He was even planning for the little kids to go Trick-or-Treating, dressing up and knocking on doors for candy. Which would be a special occasion for them. They had plenty of candy in storage, but it was supposed to last for hundreds of years.
Dreary grabbed his arm and urged him forward. “Don’t be a baby.”
Who knows how much longer they walked. Time didn’t seem to exist in the blackness - where sight was irrelevant and they had to concentrate on using their other, less-prominent senses. Just as they rounded the corner to the Den, a loud whirring announced the return of the power. All the lights blinked back into existence.
Jace gave Dreary’s hand a final squeeze and let go as they entered the Den to a group of worried faces. Pretty much everyone living on the ship was in this one room.
“Charlie, what’s going on?” he asked Dreary’s father who was sitting on a sofa, two frightened young boys in his lap.
The man’s eyes were grim, but his words were optimistic. “Oh, probably just a little glitch. Nothing to worry about.” He patted the twins on the back and told them to go play in the Recreation Room for awhile.
They obeyed, and Charlie rose to his feet.
“We weren’t notified of any maintenance today, were we?” Jim was asking.
“Not that I know of,” Charlie responded, scratching his head. Though his blonde hair was starting to thin and would probably look better if he kept it short, he always left it three inches long and disheveled - just the way his wife would have liked it, if she were here.
“Someone needs to go to General Rhodes’s office and find out what’s happening,” Jim told the group.
Marcia, his wife, nodded in confirmation. It was probably the first time Jace had ever seen her agree with her husband. Usually, she was shouting at him in Spanish. Then whenever someone asked if everything was alright, she would smile sweetly and tell them it couldn’t be better. (Esta Bien, Esta muy bien!) According to recent rumors, the major source of her animosity was not being able to get pregnant. Which was sad, but still.
“I’ll go down there with Jace,” Charlie told the group. “Dreary, you stay here and help Roslava with the little ones.”
Dreary frowned at being told to stay behind. But she nodded, nonetheless, and went to entertain Nikita and Yrel who were playing with their dolls in the corner.
Jace followed Charlie out of the Den, glad to have him alone so he could get some actual answers. “Seriously,” he began as soon as they were out of earshot. “The lights were flickering earlier, then the AIR-VAC went down, then a total power outage? What could be going wrong? The ship is only five years old.”
Charlie shook his head and quickened his pace as soon as they rounded the corner and entered the main hallway. “I’m not sure. It could be any number of things.”
Jace thought about the mechanics of their ship - where everything was connected to something else. The AIR-VAC relied on power, the Heating Coils depended on power AND the Transfer Station, the Anti-Gravity Chamber needed the electromagnetic system. He wasn’t an expert, but he knew enough to realize it was a domino effect. When one thing failed, it ultimately pushed the adjacent system into disarray.
He quickened his pace to keep up with Charlie. “So, if the power goes out again, how long will the Air-Vac work before the battery backup fails?”
Charlie gave Jace a worried glance. “You mean, how long will we have air?”
Jace shrugged. It was a legitimate concern.
“Maybe a week, maybe longer,” Charlie responded. “It’s a pretty big ship.”
“Still,” Jace worried. “That’s not a very long time.”
“No, it’s not.”
After a few moments of quiet, Charlie sighed. “Air isn’t even my main concern.”
Jace scowled. Air seemed pretty important to him. “It’s not?”
Charlie was running his hand through his hair. “Nope.”
Finally, Charlie looked at him with a grim expression. “Electricity is what keeps the ship warm.”
Jace thought about that. “So, if the power goes out again…”
“And stays out…” Charlie added.
“We’ll freeze to death,” Jace realized.
Dismal, Charlie took a deep breath and let it out. “In less than a day.”
Suddenly, things seemed much more grim.
At the opposite end of the ship from the Library, the hallway opened up into a large space that branched into three separate directions. The left would lead to General Rhodes’s living quarters, the right to a storage chamber, and the middle to the Hull and the General’s office.
Charlie paused at the center hallway. “This isn’t good.”
“Why?” Jace asked, glancing around for whatever was giving Charlie a bad feeling. “It seems normal.”
Scratching his head again, Charlie took a step, saying, “If everything was alright, Rhodes would’ve let us know not to worry. Unless he’s sleeping, which would be strange at six o’clock at night. If he’s still in his office, that means it’s too serious for him to leave.”
Either way, not great news.
At the General’s office, Charlie knocked politely and waited. On a face more used to smiling, his furrowed brow looked out of place.
Jace watched him decide what to do next when the General didn’t answer the door. There wasn’t even any sounds coming from inside the hull.
Charlie rapped a second time and called for Rhodes. Then pressed his ear against the steel and listened. It was a handle-less door, and only the four generals of the Fleet were given access. Neither the chip in Charlie’s wrist nor the one in Jace’s would allow them entrance. “Doesn’t sound like he’s in there. Let’s check his Chamber.”
The two found their way to Rhodes’s main living quarters.
Charlie pounded on the door this time, no messing around. And still, no answer. “What the crickets?”
Jace’s eyebrows went up. He’d heard this particular expletive before, and although it wasn’t especially high on the roster of ‘bad’ words, Charlie usually reserved it for the worst of moments.
“Sorry, son,” Charlie grumbled. “But where could he have gone?”
“Try texting him,” Jace suggested, pulling his own cell phone from his pocket. Everyone on the Fleet had one for communication purposes. Of course, they could be unreliable if you were trying to contact someone on another ship - in which case, texts were hit or miss and emails could take hours. But considering the size of M:FAC/1, it was nice to not have to hike a mile every time you wanted to talk to someone.
Charlie slapped his forehead and gave Jace an impish grin as he found his phone. “Of course. He could be anywhere on the ship. Maybe he’s downstairs.”
They waited patiently for a response - but Charlie’s texts went unread, and his calls went unanswered. When he finally gave up, he sighed.
“What now?” Jace asked.
“Right now, we don’t worry,” Charlie answered, stuffing his cell into his back pocket. “And we don’t give anyone else reason to worry, either.”
“What does that mean?” Jace asked, following Dreary’s father back toward the Den.
“It means,” Charlie warned, “we don’t tell them we couldn’t find Rhodes, okay?”
“You mean, we lie.”
“Yes,” he confirmed in a regretful tone. “We lie.”