The apparent acceleration had become almost negligible and she was nowhere near the midpoint of the ship's boom. Her space suit, as advanced as the Pendorians could make it, was still too hot, too itchy, too sweaty, and too confined. The legs of the suit weighted her down without being useful, adding an uneven distribution of weight that made her feel ungainly and put extra strain on her arms. Eva was used to confinement but her wheelchair was never quite like this. The rescue suit felt completely unlike her powered armor. It was designed for emergency use only.
She pulled herself hand-over-hand through the boom access-way until she found the locker Captain Aaris had indicated. The door was closed. "Dammit, if I had legs-- if I had help-- this would be easier." But she had neither. She and Rath had been the only two people in the core of the ship when the power had gone out. Everyone else had been in the carousel. Rath had stayed behind in the engineering room to scrounge more oxygen.
She touched her helmet against the door. With a spanner, she struck the door twice, listening carefully. She had to make sure there was nobody on the other side as her next step was to open it to vacuum. Satisfied, she braced herself with one handhold and shoved the spanner up against the emergency control and pushed. It didn't budge. "Dammit, move!" she groaned, and the bolt twisted just a little. She pushed hard, refusing to forgive for a microsecond Aaris's point that she was strong enough to do this job without help.
Finally, the door slipped open enough that the outgassing began. She felt it more than heard it, braced herself against the wall, and waited. Something moved at the fringe of her suit's headlights. She screamed before she realized that they were just papers fluttering out into the vacuum, their motion lacking the damping effect of atmosphere. The activity in the hall died down, the energy of decompression converted, Eva knew, into heat and mechanical stress. Just like the inside of her spacesuit.
She finished opening the door enough for her to slip in. This was part of Aaris' logic. Even with her extra muscle, Eva was a tiny woman. She could fit into places almost no one else could go. And with all of the maintenance robots down between the carousel and the reactor, there was only one way to repair the communications and power cabling: a person had to do it. Eva was closest. The ship was tumbling about an axis close to the crew compartment, but there would be no appreciable acceleration in the boom. She was the crewmember with the most zero-g experience.
The storage room was a wreck. A clipboard clung magnetically to the wall, but the pen and papers had come loose. Those that hadn't flown out with decompression were scattered. Several of the lockers had been thrown open. "Stanislauv?"
"I am here, Eva." The AI's voice sounded so small and far away through only the emergency transmitters. She knew he was as frightened in his own way as she.
"There's junk everywhere. What does the cable look like?"
"You will need two. The first will be covered in a bright red sheath, and will have a label that reads 'Power Bus Type 6'. The other has a dull yellow sheath and will be labeled 'Data Cable Type 5.'
It took time. The pool of light created by her suit's headlamps was very small close up and she had to examine every cable by hand. Eva found the yellow one first. It was long and light, just barely a cord. The other, however, worried her. "Stan, this cable is heavy."
"And there is no gravity," Stanislauv said. "Just accelerate it slowly."
"Easy for you to say," she grumbled. The AI didn't respond. "Where do I plug these in?"
"You will have to go back the way you came. Up along the boom, just before it opens up onto the equipment bay where you left Rath, you will find maintenance hatch E-17. Through there you'll find the power connector."
Eva found one end of the cable and hauled on it. She clipped it to the waist of her suit. "I don't like this."
"I don't either," Stanislauv said.
"Thanks," she replied. Hand over hand, she pulled herself back up the wide, white corridor. This part of the ship had been built for zero-g. Warning signs were evenly spaced along its length. She counted them. When she passed the sixth, she knew she had reached the end. She looked around, and found the hatch. She repeated her performance with the spanner, found the connector. Pulling the heavy power cable up through the hallway had been difficult enough but the connection involved a lever that nearly snapped her finger off.
As she made her way back down to the storage cabinets she thought of the conversation she had had once with Rath. About how being in love meant thinking about the future, one in which accidents could tear apart what love had put together, and how afraid he was that that might happen to the two of them. Eva hadn't been afraid then. She wasn't afraid now. She was determined. There was no other way out of this nightmare than to just do what had to be done. To step up and take responsibility.
The data cable was where she had left it. "This one?"
"You can hand to Rath. I can guide him while you start heading down the boom. It's a long way to the reactor." She carried the cable as a bundle up to the equipment room. Rath waited there, his massive suit hovering. "Eva!" he shouted as she came into the room.
"I'm okay, Rath."
"I keep asking Stanislauv. He won't let me talk to you."
"He's right. I'd just be distracted. Everything's okay. He said to give this to you."
Rath nodded, looking at the end of the data cable. "Promise me you'll be careful, Eva. I love you too much."
"I love you too," she said. And she did. That had been her biggest surprise many months ago, that she had allowed herself to fall in love at all, and with this great, somewhat neurotic furball. He was oddly inept and cutely competent in his own, geeky way, which was completely opposed by his fearsome body and his big, nasty, sharp teeth. She loved those teeth. She touched the side of his helmet with her gloved hand and wished he could come with her. He was comfortable in zero-G now, comfortable with her. But he wasn't an adventurer. His specialty was people. He would only get in the way.
"Stan, how should I do this?"
"You'll have to carry both cables down the boom. That's almost two kilometers, Eva. The ship is tumbling so there will probably be some weight at the far end. The power cable needs to go first. We can wait on the data cable. The reactor has excellent autonomic draw systems. I have no reason to believe it was damaged from here so I don't need the data cable hooked up immediately."
Eva nodded. "Power cable first," she agreed as she reached the storage room. She found the other end of the cable. "Will it spool safely from the locker?"
"It should," Stanislauv said. "But I recommend Rath go to the locker room to wait for you after he refreshes your oxygen. He can untangle it if need be."
Rath looked at Eva, then nodded. "I'll go with you."
"Then let's do this."
Rath swapped out the oxygen scrubbers on Eva's suit, and Eva did the same for him. Then, hand over hand, they pulled themselves up against the low acceleration caused by the ship's tumbling. After three hundred meters they found the locker, and Eva had to leave Rath, taking the other end of the power cable with her. She could only look at him through their helmet. She ached to touch him. "Okay. I'll see you in a few hours."
Rath nodded. "I'll be waiting."
Eva dragged herself along the boom. At some point she realized that she felt as if she were standing on her head, and reversed herself so that now she was descending down into the reactor room. She could once in a while wedge one stump of her thigh into the rungs of the handholds, now become a ladder, and rest. "This is getting harder, Stan," she breathed. "Stan?" No response.
She knew what she was looking for. She had seen one in Maintenance Hatch E-17. She could find the other one at the reactor. She looked 'up', into the comforting lower acceleration toward the head of the ship, back toward the thick, heavy cylinder that had been her home for the months they had been travelling between Terra and Europa. Back toward Rath. Was she out of range of Stanislauv's transmitters?
She saw a strange glow beneath her and she wondered what it could be. She descended the ladder and reached it. "Oh, my God." Something had torn a hole through the ship. It had cut clean through nearly a third of the boom, leaving a huge gaping tear, tangles of metal and plastic, ceramic and materials known only to the Pendorians dangling in from one angle and out from another. It had gone right through without stopping, and in the process it had shorn through triply-redundant power and data buses.
Eva turned off her headlamps and stared out into space. One of those tiny dots might even have been Earth, she thought. On one of those tiny dots everyone she knew who was not on board, her grandparents, her friends, her classmates, her exercise group, everyone, lived and waited. By now they had to know that something had happened. The constant data feeds between the Earth and the Lantalca Elvie had ceased.
The damage had also ripped through the handholds. Carefully, she reached out and pushed herself across the hole no more than four meters across. For a brief moment, she flashed on the idea that wind tearing past the hole would pull her out like some bad airplane disaster film, but there was no atmosphere. For a brief moment, she was a comet flying free through space. She fell, more quickly than she had anticipated, and when she was past the hole she scrabbled for the handhold, swearing as she grabbed it. "I must be in a tenth of a G, at least."
She looked up. She had passed the hole and was now looking down. She was only going to get heavier. She took a sip from the straw her suit offered, then kept going.
She reached a bulkhead. It was closed, and a sign on it read in English, Russian, and Quen, "Engineering Room. Authorized Personnel Only."
"I had better be authorized." She rested against the bulkhead, knowing that it wasn't going to be any easier from here. The ship had probably not been designed with this kind of crisis in mind. She was sure the Pendorians would fix that on the next iteration of their interplanetary explorer vessels.
The control panel informed her that there was atmosphere on the other side, and she ran it through the sequence ordering it to be pumped clear. The computer, a very simple thing now that it had been cut off from its soul, from Stanislauv himself, dutifully complied. She waited. She seemed to be doing that a lot.
The door opened and Eva looked down into a narrow maintenance room. She would have to fall into it, a distance of three meters, in something that felt like one-fifth gravity but could well have been twice that amount. There was no helping it. She took a deep breath, knowing it wouldn't help with anything but swearing, and fell, the red cable trailing behind her.
It hurt. A lot. She swore. Eventually, she rolled over. She hated rolling. The low acceleration helped, but only a little. She looked left and right. There were more handholds here. She found herself casting about with the headlamps. The room was little more than an equipment chamber just like the one where she had left Rath. She started a systematic scan of the room and found a maintenance panel, twin to the one she had left behind. She knew enough Quen to read 'Auxiliary Power.'
She scooted over to it on her hands. The panel opened up and she peered into it. "Oh," she said. She understood now why Stanislauv and Aaris had chosen her. It was a passageway for maintenance robots, and it descended down about four more meters. There were grips on the sides of the walls that were not meant for human hands. She could barely fit through the hatchway, and with the thick red cable snaking out above her, she lowered herself down into the darkness. She reached the bottom, and a second hatch lay open. She squeezed through it, pushing herself down. The sensation of gravity had increased significantly and she didn't know how much further she had to go, but she was becoming tired. "Stan?" she said again.
No answer. It was all so simple, though: this hallway, that cable, somewhere down there was the socket, the answer, the end of this mission. If she did that, she saved everybody. If she didn't, she didn't. It was all a matter of crawling now, her handicap now her advantage in this tight space. She pulled, one hand over the other. The slick cable seemed to follow her, and as she hauled herself, the headlamps playing over surfaces with no labels, no meaning to anyone except the robots that came here, her gloved hand pressed on a raised bump that seemed familiar. She looked down and saw a cover plate just like the one at the other end of the boom. Where she had plugged in the power supply.
"Gotcha," she said. She pulled down with one arm, hauling the cable over her shoulder and finding the end still attached to her belt. She opened the clip and found the end of the cable. It looked like it would fit this socket. She hoped this was the socket they meant. She plugged it in.
Nothing happened. She let herself go slack, disappointed, then cast her glance up the narrow passageway, wondering if there was someplace else to go, somewhere else she had to take the cable to plug it in.
She was about to unplug the unit when the ship lurched suddenly, pulled about on some strange axis. Acceleration pulled her down the passageway until the cable, still wrapped around her left arm, became taught and yanked. Eva gasped hard with pain. She was hanging by her arm, and it felt like might be broken. The pain was greatest in her shoulder, it felt as if someone had hit her with an axe, it was so much to bear that she bore it only by screaming. "Not my arm," she gibbered. "God, no, I need my arms. I need them!" She flailed for the cable, but it was no good. She couldn't free herself and even if she did, it was a five meter drop. She would probably splatter herself all over the back wall of the power center. It was far less than a whole gravity, but five meters was a long way to fall. She whimpered, hanging there. Then the cable shuddered, and she slipped from its entangled embrace. Screaming anew, she fell and struck the end of the passage.
The light in her eyes hurt, but less so than the pain in her left arm. She gasped, her eyes thrown open, grabbing for her left arm with her right before the pain of moving even a little bit stopped her. "My... I'm alive."
"Barely," said a voice she recognized. Doctor Odelina. The one with the tentacles.
"It'll be okay. You'll have to be careful with it. You've had a shoulder dislocation. The ligaments that retain the humerus to the scapula have been torn. I've given you some injections so they'll heal, but it'll never be quite the same."
"I won't be able to lift... so much anymore, will I?"
"You will, but you might be likely to dislocate your shoulder again in the future. There was also a slight fracture of the scapula, but that's nothing. You're to keep the arm isolated and unmoving for three weeks to begin with and I'm afraid that the brace is going to be uncomfortable. We have a sheathing cast that will hold your forearm rotated away from your body. Can you wiggle your fingers?"
Eva tried, and found that she could. She now understood what the doctor meant by an uncomfortable brace. "Ow."
"Yes. It will lessen over time. The ligaments will heal better with the arm kept in this position, and will properly seal the ball joint against the scapula."
Odelina smiled. "Survived."
"Well, it is our heroine. How are you feeling, Eva?"
She turned her head and smiled. Aaris and Rath came in, the skunk-shaped captain looking small next to her sheepish but so lovable boyfriend. "Doctor Odelina says I'll be okay."
"Good," the Captain said. "Rath was quite insane with worry over you."
Rath nodded and touched her cheek. "You saved us all. I'm sorry you had to go."
She leaned into his hand. "Rath, don't be sorry. Don't ever be sorry for doing what has to be done. Even if that means letting me go and do something necessary." She kissed his hand. She loved the feel of his fur. "I'm glad you're okay. What happened?"
Captain Aaris said, "When the power came back, one of the carousel magnets had not switched into safety mode correctly. It tried to restart the carousel. It was a small jerk but through the moment arm of the boom, it translated to a powerful wave. I'm sorry, Eva. We did not mean for you to be hurt."
"Anyone... else hurt?"
Aaris said, "Compared to you, there are only minor injuries. The ship, however, is sufficiently damaged that we will be doing no more course corrections and only very gentle deceleration. A rescue vessel is being sent out to facilitate repair. You will not be going to Europa." Eva nodded, but she could not keep the disappointment off her face. "You are already a hero, Eva, and the first woman to walk, or perhaps roll, onto the Martian surface. Don't be too anxious to gain too many accolades, or one may someday truly kill you."
Eva could feel it deep in her bones, the ache, the wish. She knew that many early astronauts had been in their late 30s and early 40s when they had gone into space, and she didn't want to give up on the dream of being a discoverer yet. She had been to Pendor, and now she had accompanied the first Pendorian mission to Europa. The Pendorians had optimized their translight insertions for Terra, and Terra was where all missions to the rest of the Sol system started. Interplanetary missions sometimes took longer than interstellar ones. She would have to wait for another opportunity, and she did not want to wait.
Rath said, "I don't think you could stop her."
"No, probably not." Aaris looked down at her along his short, sloped muzzle. "Eva, some advice to the short-lived: have the one adventure that doesn't require a space suit before you have the ones that do."
She glanced up at Rath. "I thought I had."
"No," Aaris said. "Not entirely. I will leave you two."
Eva watched him go. "What did he mean by that?"
"I think he means that we should have a family," Rath said. "I don't know how that would work. You can't legally live on Pendor, and I don't know that I could live on Earth. And what would we do in fifty years, when..."
"When it's time for me to walk the Hall," Eva finished. She knew what he was thinking: that when she did that, the result would be someone incomprehensible, someone unlike this Eva. The curls would be gone, and she would have legs. What would she be then? "Rath," she said. "Take me home."
Odelina walked Eva through the procedure for taking care of her arm. The wrap they had made to immobilize it was "smart" enough to handle most of the details should she need to take it off for some reason, but there should be no need. It was self-cleaning and probably fine for the skin. The only problem was that it was strapped to waist, meaning that she couldn't sit down in her wheelchair. "You'll be confined to the zero-g portion of the ship until it comes off, then," Odelina said. "Or Rath will have to carry you to your meals."
Eva growled at the thought, then sighed. Rath did as well. "I'm willing to carry you," he said. "I know you don't like it."
"Fine," Eva growled finally. "Fine, fine, fine." She was not fine with it, but it was the best she could think of at the moment. She held up her arms, and Rath bent and picked her up. She giggled.
"What is it?" Rath asked.
"There's an old joke that goes, 'Want to lose ten pounds of ugly fat? Cut off your head!' I guess that goes for the other end, too, huh?"
Rath shook his head. "You still make jokes about it."
"Yup," Eva said. "Because the alternative to laughing is crying. And I don't want to cry around you, ever."
Rath nodded. He helped her into a dress that covered her, although it bulged uncomfortably around her immobilized arm, and then carried her out. He walked up the hallway. "Hey, this isn't the way to carousel elevator."
"You haven't had anything to eat since yesterday. Aren't you hungry?"
She paused for a moment. Her stomach rumbled. "I guess I am, then," she said. He nodded and carried her to the ship's general mess.
When the door opened, Eva was greeted with a wave of noise, a roar, a shout, a cheer. She turned her head, stunned, and saw the entire crew had assembled. "Hip hip hooray!" someone shouted, and she laughed. Pavel walked up and placed a hand on her shoulder even as Rath put her down into an armless chair so her left arm could dangle below her seat.
She shifted uncomfortably, balancing herself with her right arm. Living without her wheelchair was going to be harder than she'd thought. "What is this?"
"You think you can save ship and not get party?" Pavel said.
"I was just..."
"Risking life and limb. Again. And you only have two left to risk, Eva, and almost lose one."
Eva laughed and looked up. "We're glad you're alive," Brione said, coming up and joining her.
She nodded, and tears began streaming down her cheeks. "Dammit, you're making me emotional. I'm not supposed to be emotional."
"Then Rath has been good influence, da," Pavel said again. Eva laughed, even as she tried to control the tears of joy, and let them all come around to touch her and thank her. The entire crew, all four hundred. They gave her rare alcohols, and steak and mashed potatoes (both yeast synthetics but she didn't care), and cake and ice cream, and toasted to her heroism again.
And when it was over, Rath again picked her up and carried her back to the elevator, which ascended out of the carousel and dropped, delicately, into the receiver in the zero-g core of the ship. He floated out, confident now in zero gravity. Eva admired his talent even as she felt saddened by it. They had been lovers for almost five years now and yet they almost never actually slept together, for she had become truly a creature of space and he was still a predator of the land. She had trouble sleeping with the gravity present, and he had trouble sleeping without it. "I'll be glad when you people figure out how to mass-produce that artificial gravity effect you discovered," she muttered.
"Shh," he said. "You're tired."
"No," she said. "I'm drunk. That's different." In the lack of gravity, she had only one free arm, and it was still enough for her to maneuver. She had only one problem: she kept forgetting that her left shoulder was not capable of taking impact. "Ouch," she said. "Shit."
Rath took her by her dress and pulled it over her head. "You haven't changed," he said. "In five years, you're still stubborn, determined, and humble all at the same time. The one thing you refuse to be is a wimp."
"I hate being a wimp. I wasn't going to give up, not if I had to pull myself along that damn cable with my teeth. In no atmosphere." She kept her room nude-comfortable warm and she liked it that way. "Rath, am I just too stupid to know when I've had enough?"
"Everyone is," Rath said. "I think." He grinned.
She pulled herself to him, and they met, face to face. "I have only one hand now," she said. "I can only hold on to you. I can't caress your face. I want to touch you, Rath." His hands wrapped around her waist. Her smile dazzled him even as her hand touched his cheek, his ears, his muzzle. She wrapped her hands in the long fur of his chestruff and pulled the two of them together and then she kissed him.
His mouth, his big furry cheeks and his equally big, wet tongue soft against her mouth. Teeth clicked gently and she felt their sweet brute sharpness against her lips, and she moaned. "Want you, Rath."
"But you just..."
"Just nearly died. Prove to me that I'm not dead, Rath. Bring me to life." She kissed him again, thrilled at the massive power in his body that he hardly ever used and, she believed, could never use to harm. Rath was a nice guy born into the body of a predator, and she loved both sides of him more than she could ever put into words. She wanted to show him with her body. But she had no strength left and no leverage. With both arms, she could have shown him. But with one strapped down she felt helpless.
Rath, to her relief, recognized her helplessness and her frustration. His big hands cupped her bottom, which he had long admitted he loved for its "geometry," a term which always made her giggle, and then clamped gently about those strong buttocks, holding her in place while his head made its slow, familiar travel down the front of her body. His muzzle caressed her skin, his cool nose and warm tongue creating small diffraction patterns of pleasure where they touched down. "Everything will be all right," he said, his voice a feline purr, a masculine sound, a comfort to her, and then his mouth was between her thighs and she opened to him, blossomed to his caresses.
Her one free hand rested between his ears. "I love your fur," she whispered. "So soft, so... yes, Rath..." His tongue found her clitoris. She said, "It's so weird, nothing to hold on to, no bed underneath. Feels so good. Wha?" Rath put his hand on her side and slowly pushed her sideways. She flailed, laughing, as she realized what he was doing. They had tried this before. "Oh, Rath, it won't be the same without gravity."
"I don't care," he said, and immediately transported her to places of rapture by covering her sweet, gold-furred mound with his massive, sharp-toothed muzzle.
"You make me so wet," she moaned, and then with her one free hand around his back nuzzled his fur. They were so out of scale with each other she had no chance of reaching his cock, but she didn't care. She would get it later. She had surprised herself just how happy she was giving him head. His expertise at licking her was no less enthusiastic. He was completely unafraid of her. He had been, once, when they were starting out, afraid that he would crush her or break her. But Eva was made out of the same stuff he was, solid bone and even more solid muscle, and together they complimented each other's desires as well as each other's respect.
Eva held on as Rath's tongue worked its magic upon her, never once forgetting to hold on to him, to nuzzle his belly as far as she could reach, to love him and moan. "Oh, God, Rath... yes... yes!" She moaned loudly as she came. The tremble rippled through her, her whole body bright with pleasure. She felt his tongue dutifully slurping up the last bits of her wetness. She knew she got very wet compared to other women, at least if the descriptions Brione and Jady had given her were to be taken as truth. She giggled. "Loose fluids in zero g is a bad idea, huh?"
Rath didn't answer her. "Whup!" She laughed again as Rath turned her over, and she looked into his eyes.
"I love you," he said softly. He pushed off his own modesty clothes, clothing he wore less for her and more for his own comfort with the other Terrans. His cock sprang up and slapped against his belly, the furred sheath fully retracted. Eva knew damn well that on actual Terran felines the sheath did no such thing and she had to admire the engineering that made his penis work so well. He said, "White and gold. If we ever have a ceremony, we should use those colors." He pushed her down slowly onto his cock.
She parted her thighs, grateful that she had enough muscle left attached to what remained of her femurs to move them independently, opening herself to his cock. If it was not particularly big for her it was big enough. He slipped into her well-slicked opening with the ease of familiarity, and both of them sighed with ecstatic joy at their reunion. "This is what I live for, Rath," she whispered, looking up at him. "I live for you."
"And much more, I hope."
"Yes, but it wouldn't be so sweet or wonderful without you." His cock made its way deeper into her. They met at the base, and she gripped him. "I don't know if we can set up a rhythm here."
"I do it every day I'm without you," Rath said. "With my hand."
"It'll take two to move me the way you move your hand," she sighed. "I just want to feel you for a moment." She squirmed as much as she dared. They had drifted close to a wall, and Rath took the moment to push them away from it just gently. He had become as skilled at zero-g maneuvering as she. It had been a necessity of their being lovers. Even if he rarely slept in her room he visited often enough. That was why he had been here when the ship had been struck.
But it was not enough just to feel his cock. She needed to be ravished. That wasn't going to happen here. "Rath," she said softly. "Fuck me."
To his credit, Rath's strong arms around her waist set a rhythm that, while it wasn't as powerful as he could manage at his most uninhibited, it was enough for her. He glided in and out of her wetness, and she held onto him and loved him for who and what he was, wise and naive, massively powerful and committed to peace, gentle and strong, and his cock was deep inside her, touching places no other man had ever touched and, if she was lucky, none ever would, giving Rath every inch of what remained of her body, what she had to give, and she came around his thrusting cock, came hard and long and gasping, his name on her lips even as Rath followed her with his own ecstatic consummation.
They held one another and floated in the deep, dark quiet of her room. "I love you," she said, wiping a tear on his fur. "I'm sorry if I frightened you."
"You did what you had to do," he said quietly. "And you came back in one piece. If you do that for the rest of your life, it will be enough for me."
"I'll try," she said.