by Jeanne Frost, Contributing Writer
Jacks expertly steered the ship through the red murky passageway, trying not to think of the importance of this mission. He chose it, of course. How could he not? The survival of the entire universe as he knew it depended on this trip's success. Rake knew it too. That's why he voiced no objections when Jacks volunteered.
It wasn't the perfect scenario, but Jacks was the most qualified man for the job, despite his emotional attachments. In fact he was the top choice for any of these missions. Still, his spotter, Jesse, would be hard pressed to keep him focused this time. It was going to be a long one.
Jacks loved his job. He was an unsung hero at best. Not a household name in any sense of the word. He was certainly celebrated and respected among his colleagues. In the outside world, this job wasn't much for celebrity status. That was OK with Jacks. He wasn't exactly a people person. He was quite content with being the man behind the scenes who made a difference.
Jesse, on the other hand, made up for Jacks in that department big time. The girl loved the spotlight. She was made for it. So, while Jacks handled the grim details of the job, Jesse handled the PR. Jacks was the captain without a shadow of a doubt. But Jesse? She was the shining star that guaranteed the funding for these missions.
They didn't just work well together, they looked the part too. Jacks was the epitome of tall, dark and handsome. Jesse, his blonde bombshell counterpart was a head turner and then some. They weren't a couple. They were simply an unstoppable crew. Brains, beauty and skill all rolled up in a neat little package of “Get this done right and get it done now.”
Which is exactly what they needed to do today. Get it done. Get out. Get back to normal. Or at least get back to something that resembled life as it once was.
“Dammit Jesse, already?”
Jacks light-footed it to the center platform for the spin. It was a great invention, the rotatory. It enabled those on board to remain stable while the ship spun, churning the paddles just enough to break up smaller invaders into tiny harmless bits. It was literally a lifesaver. Before that, well, you don't want to know what happened to some of the past crew members. Centrifugal force was nothing to be played with. Jacks rode it out with the best of them, back in the beginning. He was grateful he'd never have to do it again.
Large crews simply weren't needed now. All crews consisted of two members. After all, the mortality rate didn't necessitate back up any more. It was a charmed life in comparison to the early days of exploration.
Before the manned ships, they used remotes for these missions. Of course, they didn't call them missions then, since sending a crew in was not a possibility.
With the advent of the converter, as everyone called it, all that changed. They could, as the saying goes, “boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before.” It was an epic invention. Jacks was in on some of the very first trials. He never talked about it much. Mistakes were made. Friends were lost. Bugs were ironed out at their expense. In the end though, many more lives were saved than lost.
As for Jesse, she came on board just after the rotatory came into play. Lucky girl.
“Substantial invader, dead ahead!”
“Stop the rotatory now!”
Hitting a monster invader while rotating was a death sentence for all. The force would send them careening into the wall, causing irreparable damage. The ship would be compromised. The mission would be a bust. The ship's inhabitants, in this case, Jacks and Jesse, would be written off as dead. Recovery was not an option.
They had scuba gear, of course. It was standard equipment. Still, having it available was more of a politically correct gesture than a safety measure. They were on their own if they had to use it. Completely on their own.
These larger invaders required a different method of removal. Basically, they were popped like balloons using the ship's forward projectile, a pointed blade that could mince a man to shreds if he got in it's path. Luckily, that's one type of casualty that these missions had never seen. That's because, barring emergency, the crew stayed aboard the ship, safely supported by filtered oxygen at all times.
Now that the rotatory was switched off, Jacks maneuvered the ship toward the invader. It was a big one, alright. Jacks sighed. He had no idea the problem was this extensive. To encounter one of these early in the mission.... And those small ones too.... Likely there were bigger masses down the line.
“OK, steady, steady....now!”
Jacks punched the control at just the right moment, guided by Jesse's sense of timing and eye for detail. The girl was amazing. Seconds later, there was one less invader to worry about.
“One bogey down, Rake, one monster down.”
“Roger that, Jacks. Roger that.”
Funny how the lingo hadn't changed right along with the technology.
Jacks wiped a bead away that was threatening his vision. At least it wasn't a tear. He couldn't afford tears right now. Too much was at stake. More than even he cared to gamble on. Jacks loved taking chances. Thrill followed by triumph was the adrenaline combination that kept him going. But Jacks was determined to make this a no thrills, all triumph mission. People were counting on him. People he loved. Letting them down was not an option.
While they hovered over the remains of the giant mass, letting the paddles break it up into harmless bits, Jacks and Jesse took a breather. Watching them share a sandwich from the cooler, you might mistake this for an ordinary day.
Even afterwards, when they encountered and struck down 5 or 6 more comparably large masses, there was an air of routine about the place. High above in the control room, eager eyes became detached. This team was so good at what they did, monitoring them was barely necessary.
Then, they turned the final corner.
The walls were covered with small bogeys. Popping them was a delicate process to say the least. One wrong jab could perforate the wall, effectively and tragically ending the entire mission. To make matters worse, the rotatory had to be on the whole time. Jacks had to run the controls remotely from the platform. And there was more.
The walls had to be scraped this run. There was no getting around it. Leaving them like they were would provide a sort of breeding ground for more monstrous bogeys. So, they scraped and popped and scraped and popped some more. It was grueling work that required their utmost level of concentration. Jacks had just cleared the final patch when Jesse's voice came through.
Slowly, he came out of a focused fog to see the massive bogey heading straight for the ship. It must have been hiding in the corridor. He had seen this happen once before. It was urgent that he act now. Yet, there he stood, stuck in slow motion, watching his life flash before him. It was over. There was no time to do anything. No time to switch off the rotatory. No time to dodge the collision. In his emotional state, his mind gloomily predicted the outcome in advance. All was lost.
It was Jesse that saved them.
“Jacks, we can do this. Cutting engines now. Grab the controls. And one, two, punch it!”
Jacks blindly complied just in time to see the biggest bogey in history splatter all around the ship. Jesse switched the rotatory back on and broke it up in no time.
Soon they were dancing about, celebrating madly. They were at the end of the route. Mission accomplished. It was over. And then, it wasn't.
The oxygen needle was dropping. The filter had been clogged by the splattering bogey.
“It's a fruitless endeavor. You've said it yourself, many times, Jesse.”
“We have a chance. You like taking chances, remember? Well, this is a chance we have to take. We literally have no choice. The ship is out of oxygen. We're out of time. It's suit up or die, Jacks. This girl wants to live! If you won't do it for yourself, do it for your Dad. He's counting on you!”
That did it.
“We're suiting up, Rake!”
There was a concerned gasp before a more hopeful tone took over.
“See you on the flip side.”
He really was a corn ball.
Suits on, the pair ejected themselves from the ship. They had to turn it manually and go back the way they came. They would use the hand-holds and become human propellers. Leaving the vessel in the tunnel would be a fatal mistake. Fatal was not the word Jacks wanted used to describe this mission.
Once they got around the corner, Jacks and Jesse spied the exit. It was a murky view, but it was there, alright. They headed straight for it, taking it slow, so as not to collide with the fragile wall. They had just enough air to make it.
Then, Jesse's breather tube sprung a leak. The intake of fluid would have killed her instantly. Luckily, Jacks spotted the bubble forming. He covered the hole quite effectively with his hand. Unfortunately, that left him with only one hand to both hold onto and steer the ship. Not good. They would have to pick up speed, regardless of the risk.
The pair paddled furiously and silently toward their goal. Speaking meant using oxygen they couldn't spare. They both knew their chances of reaching it without damaging the wall were slim. No one had ever survived a mission after exiting a ship before. Theirs was a procedure that had worked before in theory only. So, never.
Jesse's eyes suddenly glazed over. They had missed another hidden bogey. At least it was a small one. Jacks signaled for Jesse to hold onto the ship with her left hand only. He placed her right hand gently over the hole.
Jacks turned to face the bogey on his own. Once again, there was a procedure. It had simply never been tested in the field. Attached to the suits was a tool designed to break up bogeys in this situation. Jacks switched it on, swam to meet the stray bogey and got down to business. It was over and done with more quickly than expected.
He swam back to the ship, thanking the unknown inventor of the portable bogey shredder or whatever they called it. At this point, names were the least of his worries. He had to close the gap between himself and the ship. Jesse was tiring.
He latched on and covered the leak just in time. She was having trouble holding on. He clipped her to the ship's tow line and paddled like hell for the exit.
They made it with only seconds to spare. Seconds that Jacks could hear ticking in his head. Now, he grabbed Jesse. They slid down the exit ramp, behind the ship, pulling off their spent oxygen masks as they went. Liquid splattered all over the glass surface they landed on. Blue gloved hands lifted them into the converter.
They awoke slightly dazed, to find themselves returned to their normal size. It may have been routine, but shrinking down to microscopic size for an assignment was always risky. Several crew members had been lost in the rejuvenation stage.
“Where is he?”
“I'll take you to him, Jacks. He's fine, by the way. He made it through with flying colors, thanks to you.”
“I'm afraid all the thanks goes to my partner this time. She saved my butt in there.”
“Hey, you saved mine too, mister. Give yourself some credit.”
Together, they walked into the recovery room where Jacks' world, in the form of his understandably grateful Dad and very teary eyed Mom awaited.