Burning Bridges - Prologue

Ross 154 Research Outpost
22 September 2142

Kalis Hansen Vilneaux drew in a breath of cold, thin air, and realized she was still alive.

She tried to open her eyes, but they were stuck shut. She tried to swallow, but she didn't have enough saliva for it. The taste of vomit hung in her mouth and mixed with the coppery odor of blood to assault her nostrils. She could move her arms, but they were reluctant, and they hurt. She tried her legs next: they wouldn't move, and they didn't hurt. She hoped they were only pinned -- she didn't want to think of the alternative.

She and her husband, John, had been eating an expensive sushi dinner. She had made a breakthrough in her nanobiology research, and he had just secured a budget to make a documentary on the Altered's exodus from Luna back in the 2120s. They had reason to celebrate, at least until the alarm klaxons started blaring. The outpost's location was supposed to be a secret — one asteroid among tens of thousands in a field orbiting an ordinary M-class star — but somehow the Birds had found it.

"John?" Kalis' voice croaked, and her vocal cords felt raw. Had she been screaming?

Then she remembered.

She and John had run for shelter. The Birds had begun hammering the outpost -- first its defenses, which offered little resistance, then the base itself. The asteroid offered little protection, and an attack knocked both of them off their feet. John regained his footing more quickly, turned around as if to help Kalis back to her feet —

— and disappeared in a flash of blue-white flame so bright it blinded Kalis for several seconds. When she at last blinked it off, she looked around, frantically, hoping that the burst of plasma from the ruptured conduit had somehow not disintegrated her husband in a thousandth of a second.

She remembered, and she began screaming again, as loud as she had screamed when the outpost's walls and the asteroid had collapsed around her.


23 September 2142

Kalis woke up, inhaled. She was tired, cold; couldn't feel her arms or legs anymore. Probably didn't have much oxygen left, either. At least she could open her eyes now, even if there was nothing to see.

In her oxygen-deprived state, she had dreamt that someone was on the other side of the rubble, moving it, looking for her. Ridiculous. Terran Navy patrols only came through the system once a week, which meant the next ship was at least two days out. She was going to die, buried in the rubble of an asteroid 10 light-years from Earth, in a system that didn't have anything more than a catalog number. And she was okay with that.

I'll be with you soon, John, she thought. 

A chunk of iron came loose somewhere to her right and ambled away in the asteroid's low gravity. A few seconds later, another rock joined it. She heard a soft hiss as her oxygen-starved air escaped through the shifted rubble.

A flashlight dazzled her, and a man spoke. "There, I've found the lifesign! One person, female. Heartbeat is weak but steady. Quick, let's get these rocks off her and get her in the capsule before she runs out of air."

The figure leaned in over her, but she couldn't make out his features through the mask of his environmental suit. "Lieutenant Alex Mackenzie, ma'am," he said. "You're going to be okay."

No! Leave me here! Just let me die! she thought. She wanted to scream, or say something, but her vocal cords balked. She wanted to struggle, but her arms and legs refused to cooperate. All she could do was watch as a pair of suited hands pulled her into an enclosure, which sealed with a snap at her feet, and as warmth returned to her face and chest.

25 September 2142

Kalis opened her eyes, only to clench them shut again as fluorescent light flooded her pupils.

"Mrs. Vilneaux?" It was the same male voice she'd heard before, in the outpost. "Kalis?"

"Yes," she said. Her throat didn't hurt anymore, and she could feel her arms and legs again. The surface beneath her felt cool, soft, but firm. The room smelled clean, clinical.

She opened her eyes again, squinting at the light above her. "We're in a hospital? How long was I unconscious?"

"Close. We're in the sickbay on the TNS Galahad," the man — Alex — said. "And you've been out a couple of days. How do you feel?"

Kalis tried to sit up. Her back and shoulders protested at being asked to move but obeyed. "Better than I have a right to," she said, making eye contact. "How bad was I?"

She watched the man's hazel eyes as he struggled with what to tell her. After a moment, he said, "Pretty bad. The doctors spent six hours putting you back together. You had frostbite in your hands and feet, a hairline fracture in your left thigh, and a hemorrhaged spleen. We think the outpost's gravity went out just as the passage you were in collapsed, or it probably would have killed you. As it is, you almost bled out."

Kalis' gaze fell to the mattress. "I should have bled out," she said. "Should have died inside that rock with my husband."

Alex stood silently, looking for words. "I'm so sorry," he said. "Tell me about him?"

"He was on that asteroid because of me," Kalis said.

"Honey, I'm home!" Kalis exclaimed with a broad grin as she entered their two-bedroom quarters. They had turned one of the bedrooms into a study, with a desk for each of them and a few vintage hardcover books lining a shelf on the far wall. Kalis saw the light in that room flicker as John stood up and walked into the living room. She met him at the doorway, gave him a quick kiss, and plopped into her office chair.

"How was your day, love?" she asked.

"Really good," John said. "I got a vid-mail from Mr. Ellison at Paramount. He told me that Exodus to Europa is in post-production and should be in theaters by Thanksgiving. They think it's going to be a huge hit, especially among the Altered audiences, and he asked me if I wanted to write a sequel."

"A sequel? Aren't they getting a little ahead of themselves?" Kalis asked, her happy mood coming across in her voice just as much as her smile.

John shrugged. "Maybe, but who am I to argue? I just have to think about what I would write. But I'm thinking: there's hardly anyone who knows about the Altererd's departure from Europa. No one knows where they went or really even why they left. One day they were there, the next day the whole colony goes quiet — and by the time anyone gets to the colony, it's disappeared like it was never even carved out of the ice. It's a modern-day Roanoke."

"Sounds like material for a good mystery holodrama," Kalis said.

"Maybe, but I'd rather find out what really happened," John said. "The studio is going to have to wait for that, though. I'd need to head back to Sol. It'll take months digging through libraries and trying to track down people who might have known what the Altered were planning before they left."

"Do you want me to try and get an Earthside assignment?" Kalis asked. "Or I could take some leave time, and we could travel back for a few weeks on the next Terran Navy ship out?"

John shook his head. "Your work's important," he said. "And if the studio's willing to give me the money, then they can give me the time, too. I'll need time for the Freedom of Information Act requests anyway, so a few more months here isn't going to kill me."

"He's dead because of me."