The plan wouldn't work, Redge knew it. Even as his hands rattled over the atmospheric controls of the main cargo bay, the bitter futility of the venture burned in the front of his mind. After cannibalising what circuitry he could from the various diagnostic and inventory consoles, he had improvised a shunt in the life support system to restore a positive pressure environment to the cargo bay. Breathing would still be impossible, but it would restore limited gravity and enable him to venture outside, like holding his breath under water.
Blinking, he rubbed his eyes with one hand, his head pounding from breathing in the ever-thinning air. If his calculations were correct, he had little over twenty minutes of breathable air left in the chamber. If he could reach the blast doors he stood a chance, albeit a slim one, of opening them and escaping out into the rest of the ship. At least he'd had the chance, before the poisonous atmosphere of Alsace IV had saturated the ship. Even if he could get out of the door, into the corridor, back into the main ship, he would still be as good as dead.
Pausing for a moment, he let his eyes turn toward the ceiling. Two-hundred and seventy four missions across the entirety of Colonial Space had led him here, to die in some God-forsaken corner of the galaxy on board a floating, derelict graveyard. His mind twisted and turned through the events leading up to his current situation. Could they have done anything more? Redge doubted it, and try as he might he could find no-one to blame. Hanging his head resignedly, he kicked the console hard, sending a bolt of pain shooting up his right leg.
"What am I doing?" he murmured through gritted teeth, returning to his work. On the other side of the office's glass window the blue-black gases had begun to fill the main bay, seeping through the various life support vents in the cavernous space. Outside the brightly shimmering force field the gas currents swirled and eddied like a mysterious ethereal ocean.
A spark from the equipment caused Redge to jerk away sharply, shaking his right hand under the small electric shock. Doing his best to keep his breathing level, he shook his head and leaned heavily on the console in question, letting his gaze wander out into the sinister beauty of the planet's atmosphere. His eyebrows furrowed in surprise at what he saw.
Blinking furiously, he rubbed his eyes with both hands and looked again. Through the swirling, crackling gases he could just make out a bulky, box-like shape, growing larger every second as it approached the Gehanon. He stood up straight, his arms hanging limply at his sides as he stared at the outline. An impossible realisation struck him when the flamboyantly colourful exterior of an all-too-familiar machine came ploughing through the clouds. Barely a hundred yards away, the engineering tugboat Lunchbox floated like a massive metal buoy.
"Jonas, you maniac," he whispered.
Gripping the main helm controls of the ship, Jonas took a deep breath as he closed in on his target. Moving at a crawl, the bulk of the Lunchbox pushed aside the toxic fog of Alsace IV, creeping closer and closer to the barely visible blue of the factory ship's bay shielding. A worrying creak from above made him look up, sweat beading on his cheeks and forehead.
"C'mon baby," he murmured. "Hold together." He reached out and dialled down the engine power even more, watching the proximity gauge out of the corner of his eye every step of the way. The cargo bay itself could fit the small ship's entire mass with ease, but the aperture of the bay shield was only just big enough; he would be passing so close to the other ship's wall it would be possible to reach out and touch it. Threading a needle would be child's play in comparison.
Clenching his jaw tight like a vice, he corrected his course heading by a fraction of a degree, checking over every dial repeatedly on his approach. The long years of piloting experience flooded through his veins as he pushed the thoughts of his stranded crewmates out of his mind. Concentrating on the task at hand, he swallowed hard, edging closer to the vast black mass of the Gehanon.
The shape of the factory ship loomed out of the mist, the shimmering wall of the bay shielding crackling brightly against the gas. Jonas checked the proximity gauge again, and a reading of twenty yards flashed up on the dial. Grasping the helm controls firmly, he took a deep breath and started the final approach.
With its engines glowing softly, the tugboat finally reached the bay shield, its prow sliding through the blue barrier. Jonas checked and rechecked every reading as the Lunchbox moved further and further inside, the clearance on each side little more than two feet. On the base of the cargo bay the three large drills were crushed by the heavy steel nose of the vessel. The most difficult part of the entry, however, was still to come.
He turned the main helm control fractionally to the right, altering the heading as far as he dared to fit the Lunchbox into the cargo bay. With nearly two-thirds of the ship's length inside, Jonas winced at the sound of a sudden, unhealthy scraping. The tugboat shuddered down its length as its port side brushed against the frame of the bay's entrance. He gritted his teeth and held his breath. At last the Lunchbox slid inside, clearing the bay entrance and mercifully ending the scraping sounds. As soon as the ship was fully inside, Jonas engaged the anti-gravity thrusters on its underside.
Exhaling a long, slow breath, he slumped back into the pilot's seat, staring out of the bridge window. Tendrils of the blue-black mist swirled outside the hull, seeping from the vents on the roof. Sitting level with the bridge, he could see the cargo bay office, its squat shape supported on a latticework of gantries. Squinting around the twisting whisps of smog, he could just make out a shape inside the room. Scrambling out of the pilot's chair he darted over to the sensor console and flicked a toggle. The reading was vague at best.
The monitor flickered disconcertingly and he narrowed his eyes, moving closer. Altering the machine's settings, he narrowed the field to scan only the cargo bay, almost tripling its intensity. Eventually, through the bursts of static and interference, he just made out the small flashing blip of a life sign.
"Guys, anybody reading me?" he said, tapping his com. Only a heavy burst of static greeted him. Bounding back past the helm station, he moved right up to the bridge window, cupping his hands around his eyes and looking out. To his surprise he saw the shape in the window waving frantically. Cocking his head to one side, Jonas frowned, trying to recognise the person in the cabin. His eyes narrowed as he scrutinized the stocky figure. Stepping back to the main pilot console he turned on the tugboat's outer lights, directing the forward beams to shine on the cargo bay cabin.
A short, barking laugh escaped Jonas's lips when he finally recognised Redge's burly form. Breathing a sigh of relief he waved both arms over his head with a grin, simply staring at his shipmate. They stayed that way for a moment, until Redge made a choking motion around his own neck with both hands. Jonas understood instantly let out a curse of frustration.
"Damn it," he snarled, both fists clenching instinctively at his sides. His mind raced as he tried to think of a way to reach his trapped companion. However, Redge made the decision for him. The other man extended one hand, pointing straight at the Lunchbox and making a frantic turning gesture. Then he placed his hands together and made a movement that resembled someone attempting a shadow-puppet crocodile. After he repeated the process three times, Jonas blinked in realisation. Darting briefly away from the window, he checked the atmospheric readings of the cargo bay.
"Yas! Redge, you crazy bastard, looks like you're getting out of this." Jumping into the pilot's station, he took a breath before grasping the helm controls and launching the tugboat into a ponderous one-hundred-and-eighty degree spin. Keeping his eyes on the proximity gauge he kept the ship turning at a slow, steady speed, its anti-gravity thrusters prohibiting any sudden manoeuvres. Eventually the Lunchbox had rotated, its rear now facing the cargo office.
"Now…for the difficult bit." Firing the manoeuvring thrusters on the starboard side of the ship, Jonas sent it into a slight lateral motion for exactly four seconds. He cut the thrusters again, locking the ship into place. Calculations of time, force and distance swam in his mind as he prepared for the next motion. He engaged the thrusters on the nose of the tugboat, propelling it backwards with all the speed and grace of a gigantic metal slug. Just before its stern plating touched the wall of the bay he cut the thrust, stopping the ship above the gantry walkway leading out of the office. Checking that the positioning was correct, Jonas took in a final breath, crossed his fingers and released the rear boarding ramp of the Lunchbox.
Watching from the window of the cargo office, it was all Redge could do to stop himself dancing for joy at the sight of the slab-like boarding ramp of the tugboat descend, steam hissing from its hydraulics. A few seconds later it touched down gently against the gantry rail, open and inviting. He pressed the door release button, ginning inanely.
Frowning he pressed the button again, but the door failed to open. His grin vanished in an instant and he grabbed his head in both hands. Apparently his improvised shunt had used circuits crucial to the door's operation. Glancing left and right, he tried to think. He needed to find the cannibalised door circuitry and wire it back into place. But did he have the time?
A sudden sense of feral rage sparked in the back of his mind. Not now. He wasn't going to die now, not when rescue lay barely twenty yards away. Fuck the circuits, he thought, let's go the old fashioned way. Grabbing the heavy metal chair from behind the office desk, he hoisted it above his head with a roar of exertion, his head pounding agonizingly at the sudden motion. Lunging forward, he smashed the bulk of the chair against the glass of the cabin.
A crunching sound filled the chamber as the blow drove a long crack into the window pane. Swinging the chair again, Redge delivered another thunderous strike. Another crack appeared, along with several tributary breaks as the glass began to give way. A third blow from the chair finally shattered the stubborn pane, sending twinkling shards exploding outwards into the bay. Dropping the chair, Redge sucked in a last wheezing breath and clambered up into the new aperture.
Jumping onto the walkway, his knees buckled beneath him and he crashed into the floor. Scrambling with his last reserves of energy, he pulled himself upright again and stumbled his way around the bulk of the cabin, his eyes locked on the entry ramp of the Lunchbox.
With his vision swimming, he hauled himself onto the corrugated metal surface, sprawled flat on his front. Crawling forward, he pulled his legs clear of the ramp's edge and the hissing of hydraulics sounded dimly in his ears. The ramp rose again with painful slowness, till it finally closed again with a dull boom. Redge let his head loll backwards against the metal as the atmosphere of the boarding area returned, and smiled. He'd made it.