The inner airlock hissed as it sealed shut. She felt sick and scared and alone. She wanted to go back – back within the walls of the Pyramine where it was safe, back to her big brother waiting on the other side of the airlock. “Fyreflies never strike the same place twice,” he had told her before she had stepped into the chamber, “so once you reach the breach, you’ll be safe.” How she wished he was with her now. Why hadn’t they sent him to make the repairs? She was just a kid, a schoolgirl, why were they sending her out into the mist?
Astra wanted to cry, to go back inside into the arms of her big brother. She could override the airlock, she knew: she could hack into the system easily enough and reverse the exit protocol, forget the consequences – anything was better than going out there. Instead, she checked her ventilation mask once more, merely touching it with her hand: the bionic engineer’s glove fused into her nervous system analysed the equipment, sending signals to the chip in her skull and the mainframe in her helmet. All systems operational, she and her helmet-computer thought simultaneously.
The outer airlock disengaged and pink mist filled the chamber. She could feel it settling on her skinsuit, tiny particles of electric light, and a surge of power ran through her as she adjusted to the atmosphere. Visibility was low. Even with her intraocular lenses she could barely see a few metres in front of her, except for the far-off, faint glow of the Fyreflies. The pink mist had been disturbed at the opening of the chamber, but now it began to settle and became still in the air; tiny particles of electric light.
She stepped slowly out of the chamber, the fog seemed to throb around her, contracting and expanding. She turned to the face the looming wall of the Pyramine. Sixty-seven-point-seven metres up was where the bloated Fyrefly had struck; the entire twenty-second floor infirmary was compromised.
Astra leapt nimbly onto the sloped wall of the Pyramine, instinctively activating and deactivating the magnets in her boots and gloves as she scuttled up the steep structure towards the breach. The higher she climbed the more exposed she felt. Her back was to the Fyreflies – distant when she began her ascent but how close were they now? She fought the urge to look over her shoulder and continued to climb.
At sixty-seven-point-seven metres the Fyrefly had struck. It had hit the weak point in the shield-field right above the projector, torn through the access hatch and down the vent, destroying or disabling the field-projector itself. The surface around the breach was blackened and burnt. Crawling into the vent, Astra understood why they had sent her, an untested child, out into the mist when so many older, more experienced engineers were available: no other engineer could fit through the breach. The vent had collapsed and contorted into a tight tunnel bristling with sharp, twisted metal. Even with her tiny frame, she struggled to make her way through, taking great care not to snag her skinsuit as one tear would mean death.
When she reached the field-projector, she assessed the damage: the field-projector and plasma-packs had been damaged beyond repair, but the connector seemed unharmed – a brush of her fingertips across the connector told her it was operational. It seemed the Fyrefly had caused more damage to the vent than the projector systems. Astra set to work.
Any education she was lacking was accessible via her mainframe, and her bionic engineer’s gloves were the only tools she needed. A little work was required on the connector but nothing major. She replaced the field-projector and the plasma-packs and then bent and fused the jagged pieces of metal within the vent as a temporary precaution until the access hatch could be replaced. Another engineer could fix the hatch – there was no way she could scale the Pyramines with a thick slab of metal on her back.
Out of the vent, she paused on the blackened metal around the breach, her boots and gloves stuck fast to the Pyramine walls. The fear was now fading from her and she stared at the outer-world in awe. The lights of a second Pyramine were vaguely visible in the distance and she thought she could make out a ship floating, descending to the Pyramine’s base. The pink mist was thinner up here; Astra looked up wondering if she could perhaps see this ‘sky’ she’d heard so much about.
There, high above her, a bright white star, suspended in the air.
A New Cairo trader had told her once that ‘Astra’ meant ‘star’ in some ancient, dead language (before a Peacekeeper commanded her to buy something or move on). She had only seen images and videos of stars and galaxies, seen them in the mind’s eye of her mainframe – she never imagined that she would ever truly see one for herself.
But there it was, a star – her star, she decided. Bright white above her, glowing. Growing.
Growing? That’s strange, she thought, while her mainframe searched through all the data it had on stars. As it grew bigger, she realised it wasn’t a star. Out in the mist that ball of light could only be a Fyrefly.
“Fyreflies never strike the same place twice,” her brother had told her. Astra remembered his advice and remained where she was. She stayed dead still, watching as the ball of light sped down towards her. Her body wanted to run – every muscle twitched, begging, pleading her to move. Her lenses identified the threat, her mainframe frantically analysed the situation and, in a fraction of a second, came to the same conclusion as her body – move or die.
What if her brother was wrong? What the fog did he know of Fyreflies? It was almost upon her now; her mind, body and mainframe all screamed at her to “Move!”
She leapt out from the Pyramine seconds before the Fyrefly impacted with the shield-field. A soundless explosion filled the world with light and energy, sending a shockwave through the air, catching Astra mid-jump. The force knocked the breath from her lungs and sent her spinning, falling, screaming. The flash had blinded her and she groped in the darkness with boot and glove for the surface of the Pyramine. Her fingers connected with something, latching on fast. Her tumbling body flung round to slam her right side into the sloped surface. Pain as she’d never felt before exploded in her hip; her arm was jerked from its socket. She let out a childish whimper.
The glove disconnected as Astra’s consciousness slipped away and she dropped down to land hard on the pink sand.
In a few moments the airlock opened and her brother came running out, scooping her up in his arms and carrying her back to the chamber. She was alive but unconscious and seriously injured. And, to her brother’s horror, her skinsuit was ripped to shreds, her ventilation mask cracked open. Astra inhaled the deadly pink mist in pained and broken breaths.