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A short story by

Micky Neilson

More time passed. Isaac received a few more updates, frantic and desperate, but the situation wasn't improving on their end. The last transmission was cut off in the middle of a shouting match.

Isaac concentrated on his breathing. Slow and steady. He glanced at the chrono.

00:23:56

No time to waste. Isaac needed to free his right hand. He unlocked the grenade launcher and auto-loader assembly, removed them, stashed them beside his leg, then punched the FAFNR's ignition button. The engines kicked on.

"I'm movin' to manual."

After a moment, Sammy's voice came on, sounding tired, shaky. "Well, uh, well, if you get off course we have no way of knowing and-"

"No choice."

Isaac ran through the brief tutorial he had been given. The controls of the FAFNR were not overly complex, but he still had to recall some information from Sammy-who had rattled off instructions so fast, it had made Isaac's head spin-before the lasers could be reactivated and the accelerator could be engaged.

He completed the necessary actions, and the FAFNR crawled forward steadily.

The tricky part would be holding his bearing. The spike treads that provided the forward acceleration could desync, operating out of unison and altering his trajectory. Normally the computer would correct for this, but with backup systems off-line...

Isaac focused on the positive. He would make it out of this. His eyes flicked to the chrono every few seconds until he willed himself to stop looking at it.

Seconds ticked by. Moments came and went and were lost forever. Sammy had opted to fill the silence by talking about life back home, about his six kids.

Tell 'em I love 'em....

Isaac looked at the chrono.

00:12:13

Had it really been that long? He should have punched through already. Something was wrong. The treads must have desynced. How far off was he?

Sammy apparently had the same thought. "You shoulda been there by now. We're fekked. We are seriously fekked...."

Isaac kept his voice even. "Just take it nice and easy. This ain't over yet."

Time's passage seemed to quicken. Dread turned into fear; fear threatened to explode into full-on panic.

Hold on.

00:08:04

Please... please...

There was a lurch, then a hiss followed by a WHOOSHING sound as the FAFNR finally broke through.

"I'm here!" Isaac reported. He heard cheers on the other end of the line. Isaac cut off the lasers and practically ripped his way out of the rig. He was ready to go... but he was already faced with a dilemma.

Which way?

"Head to your right," Sammy advised. "You'll see refuge holes off to the side of the passage every so often.... He mighta hid the charges in there... but my guess is he'd stash 'em in one o' the rooms... places where the minerals have been cleaned out."

Isaac raced as fast as his boots' micro-gravity accelerators would allow, telling himself he could still pull through this....

00:07:49

Darkness receded before his suit's lamps as he plunged ahead, stopping briefly at each hollow he came to and shining light inside.

Time continued to slip away.

At last Isaac reached the "rooms." There were several open spaces on his left side. He glimpsed each one briefly, only vaguely aware that he was approaching the end of the passage.

He resisted the urge to look at the chrono.

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