By the time she knew what she was looking at, it had almost slipped away from her. A glimmer of black on black, too small even to reflect a sensor ping. A needle in a haystack five thousand kilometres square. A lost cause. So he had told her. Her hands trembled as she pinched the sensor display on the console in front of her, blowing up the grid reference. The display leaped in on the cluster of debris, a dull dirty white against the muted glow of the blue gas giant filling half the screen. Something that may once have been a table blew past the image, passing within metres of the ship. She heard him groan at the controls. But when it passed, that glitter again. She realised she had been holding her breath and let it out in a shout.
“There!” Her fingers fluttered on the display, drawing a circle around the object and swiping it to the pilot’s console. “See it?”
“I don’t see shit, hon,” Marcus sighed automatically over his shoulder. “Just like I haven’t seen shit for the last three days. Like I haven’t seen shit since you-“ he paused and sucked in his breath as his eyes caught up with his mouth. “Woah.”
“Woah.” She whispered, staring at the black cube, probably no larger than two by three centimetres, flickering the distant sun’s light in the shattered heart of the research station.
She didn’t notice Marcus getting up from the pilot’s station on her left until she felt his hand on her shoulder, large and warm. She pressed her head against it unconsciously.
“You found it.” He said. He smelt of dried sweat and garlic mushrooms. The last of their palatable ration packs. She wished she hadn’t let him finish it off. The hit of dopamine made her stomach growl along with her mind.
“I recall a bet, mister.” Rebecca smiled up at her husband.
Marcus’s dark face furrowed under his tight curls. “Oh yeah? See me when we get home. I’ve got interest for you.” He tried to leer, but she could tell by the tightness in his jaw and around his eyes that his when was really an if. And she could hardly blame him.
She patted his hand as he turned for his station. “This is huge, babe.”
“So huge it’s got a fucking quarantine five systems wide in every direction.” He grumbled. “You ever stop to think about why?”
It was an old argument, and he didn’t expect an answer. All he wanted was for her to consider the words. But they’d committed now. He would see it through with her. For better or worse. She twisted the ring on her finger as Marcus nudged the ship further into the wreckage.
The little ship groaned and creaked as Marcus directed it, graceful as a dancer in the heart of the void. It was little more than a passenger shuttle, shaped roughly like a pill, with a ceiling too low for the gravity she’d grown up in. As expensive as her finances could stretch to. Marcus had put the engine together himself, for a fraction of the cost. It was ungainly and sat on the rear of the craft like a brick on a football. But ugly as it was, it had enough juice to run the Naval blockade, and enough manoeuvrability to dance around the bulk of the destroyers that could only win in a marathon over a sprint. Even then, Marcus had had to incinerate a torpedo with the drive plume, screaming to his God the whole time.
“I haven’t seen any Navy boys since we got here.” He must have read her mind, as he spun the shuttle to face the blue radiance of the gas giant, wrapped in a belt of rings. “That’s weird.” He continued when she said nothing.
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Rebecca was staring at the rear of the shuttle and the short airlock that separated them from vacuum by a few inches of worn steel. From her destiny.
“Your life’s motto. Not mine.” Marcus sighed and brought the ship to a standstill.
Rebecca tapped her thigh and engaged the magnets in her boots as the ship’s gravity faded with the thrust. She pulled a dirty grey helmet from an overhead locker as her husband appeared again at her shoulder. He was already suited.
“What if you don’t like what you find?” His voice was tinny in her helmet, but she could hear every emotion in it. The mission had fought against his every instinct. He was only here for one reason, and she was no longer ashamed to be it.
“Then you can say I told you so.” She squeezed her glove against his. “So keep your hopes up.”
Marcus snorted but remained silent as they stepped together into the airlock. Their eyes met through the misty glass as they attached the tethers to each other, patted down the loose seams and checked each other’s seals. He was scared. Which was healthy. Normal, even. Here in the ruins of a dead station half the Jovian fleet guarded from whole systems away, like a dog loyal to an abusive master. He was right. She hadn’t stopped to think about why. Because she hadn’t wanted to.
She smiled at him through the suit, that smelled of boiled cabbage and creaked alarmingly as she walked. They pressed their faceplates together and mouthed three words that had been lipread for generations. Then the outer door hissed open and they swam out into the endless sea.
They weren’t outside for long. Marcus had lined the shuttle up as near as he could to the object, but the little black cube was still in the shadow of a large glass and ceramic section of hull plating, painted white metal scorched black. It might once have been a viewing gallery. Rebecca shivered in her cushioned suit as it passed overhead, easing forward with jerks of the suit’s thrusters. How many people had sat on the deck, sipping cocktails and looking over the blue expanse of the planet crudely named Gamma Clarke-6, after the red giant star of the system that at this distance was simply a bright glimmer past the asteroid belt? Maybe watching a holo-film together, furtive hands under blankets to ward off the loneliness. Faces flash-frozen as the station was torn apart. Had they known? Had there been a warning? It was like wading through a lake of spirits denied their justice. She was glad that sound didn’t carry in vacuum.