Chapter 4

Someone was shouting inside my helmet, insistent, refusing to go away no matter how I tried to ignore him.

"Just shut the damn hatch! The hatch, G-3! Now!"

I needed him to go away, to leave me in peace. Fumbling with the hatch control, I hit the button which would close the doors, repressurise the hold and shut my tormentor up. Then I simply tucked my head to my knees and stopped thinking.

Unsympathetic hands forced me to my feet and ripped the pressure mask off. "G-3, snap out of it. We need you on the comm. We have to warn Control."

I opened my eyes in horror. "They're gone? To Earth?"

Jason still might have been talking about the weather. "They're smears on the Martian landscape. But there could be more. Some sort of escape pod went off, way too fast for us, right before they hit. Whoever these bastards are, they know about us now. They know our language and where we're from. They took Mars base out, twenty-six people, like they were swatting a fly." Finally his voice cracked. "And we have to tell Control about Don."

I couldn't do it. All composure lost in my own awful guilt at not realising just what it was Don was nervous about, I told Control the bare facts in one long rush before I broke down completely. Control kept coming back asking for confirmation, and I couldn't find the coordination to transmit coherently at all. Eighteen months of training might as well have never happened. Eventually Jason reached across me and snapped the transmitter switch to off.

"We'll tell them on normal radio. We're only five minutes from jump."

Tony wasn't saying anything at all, but I could see him glancing repeatedly at the empty chair to his right. None of us could find words - for now, a huge part of us was missing, torn away. We were broken, only the procedures and protocols we'd rehearsed so many times keeping us going.

We approached the jump back with a strange sense of calm. No enemy ship. Just another jump, like the one a more innocent team had made a few hours ago. This time it felt almost commonplace. Sure, it was going to be horrible, we'd cope, and then we'd be nearly home.

"Two minutes to jump-coordinates."

Jason was impassive as he called up the requisite data on his screen. He didn't even bother asking either of us to check it. We weren't skilled enough to be useful.

He set up calmly enough, called "Ready" and then…nothing. The jump-engine didn't so much as cycle. I opened my eyes again to see him sitting, his hand frozen over the controls. On his face, an expression of horrified shock.

"No matter, man," Tony said easily. "I'll bring her round, we'll do it again."

Jason didn't appear to have even heard him. "G-3, take the co-pilot's seat. You're making the jump."

"What - Jason, what's wrong?"

"That was an order, G-3!"

I glanced at his face. Near unrecognisable, it was white, furious and desperate. This wasn't a logical decision, made no sense at all - but what was I to do? Relieve him of duty? I couldn't get us home from here without a set of jump-solutions from him. My only option was to do as I was being ordered, regardless of whether my commander was rational at the moment.

I sat down in Don's chair and stared at the screen in pure fear. Yes, I was a jump-pilot. A bad one. I could get us home from here, but it wouldn't be pleasant for any of us. I'd practised faithfully, but in the knowledge that no amount of work would increase my talent beyond minimal. I'd certainly never expected to be doing this for real.

All too soon we were coming round, heading back for the same point. Jason had instructed Tony to hit identical coordinates the second time around in a tone which invited no discussion. Tony was right on the money, but if Jason had thought this would give me an easy ride he was wrong - the preliminary solution he was giving me looked nothing like his setup from the aborted run. I was effectively starting from scratch.

Jason's final corrections came up on my screen, and I steadied myself. This was it. The lines were converging on the screen and I could see exactly what I needed to do. Focus everything to a single point, and engage the drive.

At that point, I'd have given anything to pull off a perfect jump to get us home. Tony was clearly exhausted, I was wretchedly miserable and Jason was unrecognisable as our confident commander. We badly needed this awful day to be over. It wasn't. My best efforts produced six minutes of crimson hell in jump-space which left both me and Tony unconscious in our seats.

Jason didn't even comment, just waited for us to sit up before calling for us to sound off prior to our silent transit back to the start of our descent. I'd far rather he'd yelled at me. Anything other than the frozen statue staring at the screen. I heard the radio a couple of times - Control would have our telemetry now, they knew we were in local space. The first time, that stranger's voice said, "Stay where you are, G-3," as I made to return to my own seat and answer it. He clicked the mike. "We'll report when we land. G-1 out." The second time, he reached out and turned the receiver off without even acknowledging it.

I braved his glare and went back to my seat before we started our descent from orbit. We needed radio contact to dock, if only to get the sea doors opened for us. I hoped I could get though that much without breaking down again. As long as I didn't look at the empty chair, I thought I could stay in control of myself.

The necessary exchanges with Control were terse and completely formal, for which I was profoundly grateful. Tony docked us expertly, immaculately. The doors closed, the water drained, and the engine note cycled down to nothing. All vibration stopped. It could have been the end of any training flight.

As we completed shutting down the systems, Jason suddenly got to his feet and walked forward to rest with one hand on the back of the co-pilot's chair. I'd seen him there so many times, leaning over his second-in-command, discussing anything and everything. Totally at ease, he and Don two halves of a well-oiled leadership machine, bouncing ideas off one another, refining them, coming up with a better solution than either would have done alone. For a moment I thought he would break down completely, but then the shoulders straightened and the bracelet came up. The voice remained icily calm. This was no longer the Jason I knew.

"Chief? G-2 is dead." He lowered the bracelet without waiting for a response, and we followed him out to debriefing.