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“We’re 25 metres from the surface,” Werner said as he strapped into his chair to keep from floating away from the controls.
The rookie pilot wiped copious amounts of sweat from his brow. The beads of perspiration floated away from his head and through the air. They’d soon be everywhere, like old-fashioned mines at sea, lurking in the shadows ready to attach themselves to anyone. Lucas shuddered at the thought.
Returning his focus to the task at hand, he activated the intercom. “Okay Ash, you can start cutting out the cube.”
The bridge lights flickered as the powerful laser engaged. Lucas glanced over at the screen which showed a clone of the targeting computer’s display to monitor Ash’s progress.
“Tell her not to damage it!” Paxton’s skin shone paler than usual. Her knuckles were white where she gripped the forward console.
He gave the scientist a quick glance. “She knows,” he said, before he returned his attention to the display showing the view outside.
A thick beam of white light penetrated into the rock just to the side of the cube. Over the next fifteen minutes, Ash cut away rock from four sides of the artifact—the back she couldn’t reach.
“Hey boss,’’ she said over the intercom. “The asteroid cut like butter, I wasn’t expecting it to be so soft.” Even over their static-laced intercom, Ash sounded intrigued.
Paxton pushed Lucas aside to use the intercom. “The asteroid is irrelevant.” Her cheeks went scarlet as she spoke. “We care about the cube. You didn’t damage it, did you?”
Lucas let himself drift away from the console for a moment. A bad feeling about their mission lurked in his gut—but he couldn’t articulate the problem. When he brushed up against the wall of the bridge, he pushed himself back where he’d come from, hooking his toes into position.
“Nope, not even a nick.” Ash’s voice crackled over the intercom. “If the asteroid is this soft, it should be no problem to pull the cube off the rock. Lucas, are we ready to deploy the grappler?”
“Hey, Werner, you ready?” Lucas asked, and the pilot gave a thumbs up. “Go ahead, Ash.”
“Grappler away,” she replied a few moments later. From the bowels of the ship, the appropriate mechanical sounds echoed.
“Oh...” Paxton’s voice dropped off as she studied a close-up view of the cube. “There are patterns on the surface.”
Lucas glanced over at her screen. Delicate scrolls extended across the reflective surface, worthy of a medieval manuscript. The patterns pulled his gaze and for a moment he wanted to reach out and touch the screen. He shook his head and looked away.
“We can study it once it’s on board.” The mesmerizing designs could be examined later. Right now he needed to get the artifact on board and get well away from the asteroid before Earth Defence incinerated it. “Ash, are we getting close?”
“7 metres away. 6… 5…”
Thunk! The ship shuddered, and through the windows the asteroid’s surface loomed closer. They were losing altitude.
“Ash, what was that?”
Paxton looked his way with wide eyes. “What’s going on?”
“Hey boss, we’re slowly being pulled in,” Werner said through gritted teeth. “I’m fighting it, but unless I flare the engines...” His words trailed off.
Lucas glanced at the surface, then at the two people on the bridge. Ash hadn’t replied.
“I’m going aft to see what’s going on.” Lucas launched himself through the hatch. He propelled himself through the common area and into the cargo space beyond.
With one foot wedged under a rail to brace herself, Ash raised a sledgehammer up over her head. As Lucas entered, she slammed it down on the apparatus in front of her. The hammer head bounced back, and she struggled to keep her grip on it.
“What the hell!”
“Something is holding the grappler against the surface.” She brought the sledgehammer down a second time—the lack of gravity rendered her blows ineffective. “I tried to release the jaws, but they wouldn’t disengage.”
“What do you mean?” Lucas looked out the window. Outside, the three jaws of the grappler were in perfect position around the cube—they should have a solid grip on the artifact.
“We’re attached to the asteroid.” She fully articulated each word before taking another swing with the sledgehammer.
“Surely a hammer isn’t the answer.”
“I don’t have a better idea.” She slammed the sledge into the equipment a third time. “No bloody artifact is worth my boy losing his mom.”
Lucas rubbed his chin and stared at the row of sky blue space suits lined up like soldiers beside the airlock. “I’ll cut the cable.”
“We’ve got five hours until the Combined Nations activates their defences and pulverize this asteroid.” Ash returned the hammer to its cradle and pushed off from the wall.
“I know.” Over the intercom to the bridge, Lucas said, “I want the two of you to put on your space suits.” If things took a sour turn, he wanted Paxton and Werner ready.
Without waiting for direction, Ash began putting on her suit. Even without gravity, she moved efficiently. In a single move, she shrugged the thick, insulated fabric over her shoulders. With one boot looped into a strap, she pulled close the zipper running from her waist to neck.
“I’m coming with you.”
Lucas nodded and drifted over to the other suit. He fumbled with its bulk until he slipped his feet inside the correct place. With an awkward shimmy, he donned his suit.
“We cut the line and get back in our ship,” he said as he grabbed a helmet.
“Paxton’s gonna be pissed.” Ash strapped an enormous set of bolt cutters beside her laser cutter on her utility belt.
“She can take lots of nice pictures of her alien artifact before it gets pulverized.” Lucas pushed off, aiming for the airlock.
“It looked like a big mineral to me. Why would aliens send us a cube?” She frowned at the entrance hatch. “Speak of the devil.”
Lucas turned as Paxton floated through the entrance hatch. The tightness in her jaw offset her rosy cheeks and wide eyes.
“What are you doing?” Accusation laced Paxton’s tone.
“We’re cutting ourselves loose,” he said, returning his attention to his suit. He didn’t have time to argue with her.
“Failure isn’t an option! We have to bring the cube back.” Paxton glared at him.
“Ash is right, it’s just an oversized crystal. Odd, yes, but no doubt natural.”
The ship lurched again.
“We’re being pulled in faster now,” Werner said over the intercom. “Whatever you’re going to do, do it now!”
“Let’s go.” Lucas nodded to Ash. “Get a suit on,” he said to Paxton as he and Ash pushed past on the way to the airlock.
“This is a career-limiting move,” she shouted as the airlock door closed.
Lucas knew she was right, but he didn’t care.