By Stirling Edgewood
Bear the Ember, Chapter 11: Motive Powder
As he drifted up from a dreamless slumber, he became gradually aware. The soft sheets were drifts of gentle snow piled against his limbs. The bleak, pulsating pain in his arm was a distracting and unwelcome disturbance. Yet, the yielding, reassuring heat of her body was a refuge from the sharp chill that encroached on his exhausted bliss. He drifted aimlessly along the undulating river of semi-consciousness. He hugged her warm frame tighter, warding off the cold that poked and prodded every part of him that was not in pleasant contact with her reassuring skin. His eyes fluttered open for a moment, then closed in a placating stupor. But the cold was pestering him.
It clawed ominously at his somnolence. The cold, like an awkward, unwelcome guest, nagging and irritating, would not let him rest. He stretched his shattered limb, bare and exposed, out from the protecting blankets. It was cold. Too cold. A cold that could only mean the icy fingers of the void were gripping and penetrating into the ship.
He sprang from the bed.
“My princess!” He whispered, barely able to restrain a terrified shout.
“Rest no more! Our peril is most grave!”
Her eyelids popped open, revealing her beautiful, shining eyes.
“What is it my love?” she asked, puzzled. “What alarms you so?”
“It is cold!” He said uregently.
“And so it is,” she replied mildly. For a moment, she peered at him contentedly through the fog of waxing consciousness. Then her face was suddenly seized with an expression of terror.
“Cold?” She gasped. “Cold! It cannot be!”
“Yet it is,” he confessed. “We have slept overmuch, and our dereliction has left us in peril. The bright flames of our engines no longer pierce the void, no longer impel us to our destiny, no longer shield us from the terrible grasp of frigid crystallization. Come. We must make haste to discover what mischief has befallen us.”
She bolted out from under the enveloping blankets, grabbed a robe, and hastily put it on. He glanced at the floor, seeing only shreds of his garb. He grabbed a blanket, wrapped it around himself, and darted out of the sleeping cabinet. In the navigation section, he paused to collect his thoughts. As she tried to rush past him toward the propulsion section, he put out an arm, restraining her. It was his injured arm, and he winced in pain.
“Stay here,” he pleaded. “Discover our current course and trajectory. I will investigate the workings of our vessel. May Providence grant me the strength to remedy any malfunction.”
“May Providence grant us the strength to bear the ember to its destination,” she added with worry and fear, as she moved to the telescope to get a bearing.
He bolted into the corridor leading to propulsion. Bursting through the door, the quiet, dark, chilled room confronted him ominously. He paused, and mentally rehearsed the engine restart procedures he had memorized from the tome. He opened a cabinet, and pulled out a long, metal bar that was bent in two places. Sliding it into a slot in the fuel grinding machine, he began cranking it with his remaining hand. It was slow and laborious work, but the exercise warmed him considerably. When the fuel hopper was full, his muscles were aching and the blanket wet with sweat, so he threw it off. As he turned to push the powder to the fuel feeder, she came through the door, with a look of despair on her face.
He sighed, and turned to her. “With no engines, it seems we must power our vessel with the labor of our own limbs. I wonder if it might not have been better to swim to our new home. Your countenance belies a most unwholesome missive. But come, give my soul joy. Every shipwreck hides a chest of gold. Relay first what good word you have.” He turned and pushed the hopper to the fuel feeder while he waited for her response.
She seemed confused by his request for a moment, then thought, and offered up, “Our velocity has increased somewhat. It seems our latest maneuvers have given us new impetus.”
He had finished dumping hopper into the fuel feeder, and turned to her. “And now, tell of our misfortune.” Without waiting for her answer, he shambled back to the grinder, shoving the fuel hopper ahead of him, and began wearily cranking out more powder.
“We have traversed many miles from our intended path,” she relayed dejectedly. “I have been unable to place the stream of resupply using the radar. However, I have charted a first course that gives the greatest chance of finding it.”
“Have we sufficient fuel aboard to reach this location?” He asked.
“Yes,” she replied hesitantly, “but it will be a near-run thing. If fortune is not with us, and we cannot recover the track, we will be without fuel, adrift.”
“A grim and thankless fate that,” he replied. “Have we another stratagem?”
She stood for a moment, pondering. “Another option presents itself,” she began. “With an alteration of our direction to intersect the destination, we could return to hibernation. With no further fuel, continued acceleration would be impossible. Our arrival would be many years beyond our expectation. But, fortune granting, we shall arrive. Yet our fuel would be sorely lacking, preventing us from diminishing our velocity to achieve orbit. This would necessitate abandoning the main bulk of the vessel, and relying on the remaining fuel to decelerate only the smaller landing craft, with a much reduced horde of supplies to start our new life.”
“I like it not,” he said, frowning. “Our faithful steed already is old and soft in its joints. Our stores are lacking for even one of us to remain awake for as much as a fraction of the journey. We will have no one to effect repairs and keep us alive until we reach the destination. It seems we are trapped between a blade and a precipice. In any event, we must reignite the engines. We shall ponder anew once that chore is completed.”
They fell into silence as he continued cranking the grinder.
“Is there no other path?” she pleaded. A thoughtful look crossed his face as he churned. Suddenly, he stopped.
“You uncovered a thought?” She asked hopefully.
“Alas, no,” he replied with some anger and disgust. He tugged forcefully at the bar, but it did not budge.
“It appears the grinding mechanism is recalcitrant.” He mumbled.
“The fates curse us with infinite woes,” she replied. “Still, we might aright it.”
She grabbed a trowel and stood upon a box, digging into the dank powder in the grinder. Her head lowered into the grinder. Her arm thrust repeatedly into it, punctuated by an angry whisper of dust with each stab. After a few thrusts, she redoubled her efforts, lowering her shoulders and chest into it for additional leverage. The trowel rang as it struck the metal of the grinder’s blades. Then she paused, and emerged, with something in her palm.
“This is likely your culprit,” she explained. “I have found a stowaway.” In her hand, was a tiny, pale blue stone.
“Pause but a moment,” he begged. “I feel as if I have seen this stone before.”
“Ach!” he exclaimed. “This stone is uncannily familiar. I must consider it.” He took the stone into his hand, peering at it intensely.
He stopped in puzzled contemplation. Then announced, “Yes…yes we have one other path.”
She was startled, her expression pleading and hopeful.
“Yes,” he began, squeezing the stone tightly. “The tome tells of critical junctures. In extremis, we might put down on a nearby solid body. But only in supreme extremis.”
“What could you mean?” she wondered.
“Blast the codicil…” he barked, “I cannot name its number. Yet still it has been inscribed. If the mission is imperiled beyond our capacity to proceed, we may, as serendipity affords, seek out a nearby solid celestial body. And, assessing its hospitability, affect needed repairs. Indeed, if suitable, we may remain to homestead as our final destination.”
“But..” she faltered. “This remedy is wholly uncommon, and would provide a wholly uncommon end!”
“Nevertheless,” he continued. “What solid bodies lie within our grasp?”
She paused in thought. “The nearby binary encompasses some small, rocky planets. But they lie cloaked in only the thinnest of gas. The resources there seem likely to be entirely unsuitable to furthering our task.”
“Bah!” he exclaimed. “It is for naught then. Merely a phantasm of my overwrought intellect.” He handed the stone back to her. “I shall grind out a further hopper of fuel, we shall reignite the engines, and we may consider further whether to impale ourselves or cast ourselves over the edge.”
He reapplied himself to the iron bar, which moved once again with his effort, and the motive powder slowly accumulated in the hopper.
“But stay!” she unexpectedly called out. “We traverse not extraordinarly distant from another system!”
“The yellowish star, some four light years distant?” he asked, puzzled.
“Just so,” she responded. “Are there not some orbiting bodies circumnavigating that system?”
“You have it aright,” he confirmed. “Yet I have not considered them in full, and fail to possess an estimation of their worthiness to serve as a refuge from our current predicament.”
He ceased grinding while he wracked his memory for the specifics of the system.
“Certainly we anticipated sojourning near this particular celestial conglomeration,” he mused pensively. “I recollect that it contains some gaseous bodies in long orbit, plus small, rocky bodies closer to the gravitational center.”
“Would any of the rocky bodies afford us a temporary harbor?” she asked. “Mayhap,” he proffered. “Let us complete the re-ignition of our engines. Our telescope will be unable to pick out any orbital mases in the bright blaze of the stat, but perhaps a search of our library will reveal further distinctions concerning that system anon.”