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By´╝ÜJennifer Foehner Wells

The capsule vibrated violently. Jane glanced at Bergen for reassurance. His hand hovered at the clip that would free him from his harness and he grinned wolfishly through his ragged, blond beard. He was the closest she could come to calling a friend on this journey—and that label seemed a bit of a stretch.

The crew thrummed with the tension of tightly controlled excitement. It was a far healthier kind of tension than what had often prevailed over the last ten months. There’d been many a heated argument over issues as immaterial as who was eating disproportionately more of the chocolate before it all suddenly disappeared.

Bergen’s voice barked in Jane’s ear, startling her from her distracted thoughts, his sharp features contorting, “Walsh! You’re coming in too fast—lay off the thrust a little. We’re gonna bounce off it and break wide open!”

Compton, the oldest, most experienced member of the crew, said softly, “Relax, Berg.” Compton’s voice sounded fairly convincing, but there was a tension there, too, that spoke volumes to Jane’s finely-honed senses. He wanted Bergen to be quiet, but he also wanted Walsh to slow down, she felt sure.

“Shut up, Bergen,” Walsh muttered. “I’ve done this thousands of times. I could do it in my sleep.”

“Let’s stay focused,” Ajaya Varma, the flight surgeon, admonished softly, from above.

Bergen slammed his chest into his straps. “Yeah, in simulations, you nut job! What if they got it wrong? Slow the fuck down, already! We didn’t come all this way to die on the approach!”

He looked a bit crazed. They all did. They all smelled terrible too. Microgravity did something to both olfaction and body odor that wasn’t pleasant. She’d ceased to notice it long ago except when she got too close to one of them. She put a lot of effort into avoiding that, though it was difficult.

It was bad enough they had to put water to their lips knowing that by now the lion’s share of it was recycled urine. There wasn’t enough water to do more than sponge bathe and even that was sparing by necessity. The men could shave their beards, and their scalps, if they chose, with a built-in vacuum-assisted electric shaver, but they’d given up the pretense of civilized grooming months ago. They didn’t look like they belonged in this 21st century, modern ship on its maiden voyage. They looked like some kind of Neanderthal thugs who’d hijacked it.

Jane licked dry lips and darted a glance at Bergen. “Dr. Bergen, we don’t actually have any technology that can tell us how many are aboard that vessel, do we?”

He drug his eyes from the controls he monitored to send her a pitying, disdainful glance. “No, Doc. This isn’t the Starship Enterprise. We don’t have a life-signs detector.”

She nodded, annoyed that she’d actually put a voice to the question, but maybe it’d distracted him from Walsh for the moment. “Right. That’s what I thought.”

He huffed, muttered to himself, and sent her some kind of brief, mournful look. That might have been an apology. Or further scorn. She couldn’t tell and was too preoccupied to pay it much mind.

The capsule lurched. There was a metallic grating sound from the outer hull. Was the capsule supposed to make those sounds?

“Goddamn it, Walsh, try a little fucking finesse,” Bergen grumbled under his breath.

They were jostled again. Walsh announced the docking procedure was underway. There was a coarse, clicking sound and then a couple of loud metallic thuds. Those sounds repeated themselves.

Bergen was nodding, features tense.

The clicking sounded again, and again, followed by a duller, more hollow thud. The ship moved slightly, boosters firing in second-long increments, accompanied by a scraping, warping-metal sound that had Bergen scowling. There was more clicking and another dull thud.

Walsh let out a string of florid curses. Bergen unlatched himself and pushed off toward the level above. He’d led the docking design committee, knew the system better than anyone on board.

Things apparently weren’t lining up as they should. Jane gathered that one of the four docking clamps was skewed and wouldn’t fully latch.

Bergen exclaimed, “Three of four is enough! The system was designed with redundancy in mind.”

Walsh continued to sputter angrily. Jane was sure that Walsh knew Bergen was right. This conversation wasn’t about docking the ship safely. It was about the opportunity to twist the knife, to highlight the failure in the design.

Bergen turned away, rolling his eyes and remarking, “I don’t know what else to tell you. It’s simple geometry. Three points of contact is enough to maintain a seal. Test it. This is far from the worst-case scenario. It’s time to board the damn thing.”