Author : Julian Miles, Staff Writer

Crystallized atmosphere streams in slow motion from shattered windows and blown-out doors. It catches the light and paints rainbow banners against the starry night beyond the curved expanses of cracked supraglass. This was Balyen Station, first of the freespace habitats, home to a million souls.

A frozen pigeon spirals by, beak wide open, eyes reduced to pits of ruin. It conjures images in my mind that make me dry heave into my helmet.

Zeiral whispers over my commlink: “Is it as bad as I think?”

“Probably worse. Haven’t had the guts to go see.”

“Enough circumstantial proof about?”

“There are birds and pets.”

“Oh, no.”

“I saw a goldfish. In a globe of ice, bowl shattered. This went bad unbelievably fast. The crash freeze happened first, which caused the environments to crack. It also rendered the seals on their emergency facilities useless.”

I hear Zeiral updating the other groups, her voice tremulous: “The disaster written off as a ‘negligible chance’ has happened.”

She’s pre-empting the conclusion of the inquiry-to-come but is right.

Eternal dark can ruin a mind and lack of atmosphere will kill a body. But, to let people live in space for any span of time, the leeching cold has to be defeated. Open-form habitats like Balyen have huge temperature inverter rigs, parasitically utilising the cold to massively enhance their heating ability.

There is a minuscule chance that a micro-meteor, if it impacts at a precise angle and speed, could cause sufficient specific damage that it would force the surviving inverters into cascade failure. If that does happen, there is a fraction of a single percent chance the failure will manifest as a catastrophic cryonic event. Too bad Murphy’s Law wasn’t factored into the risk assessment.

“Are we invoking rescue or recovery?”

Zeiral’s query breaks my distraction.

“Give me a few minutes.”

Her reply is lost as I crest a rise and realise this used to be a park. Right in front of me, two bodies lie in a contorted embrace. They’re both in T-shirts and shorts. Barefoot. A picnic blanket is spread under them, the unopened hamper to one side.

Her arm is raised, probably a result of muscle-freezing spasms. A beautiful red rose rests in the loose grasp of a pale hand. The petals are edged in black, topped with white crystals highlighting the outline of each.

It’s like she’s offering it to me. I fix my gaze on the rose as tears start to float in front of my face. I’m not going to look into her possibly ruptured eyes: I daren’t – I’d never leave Earth again. Let the determination be made by something immune to contemplating the horror of whether she froze to death or was rendered immobile and then decompressed.

My last hope dies. Balyen Station: icy grave for a million people.

I sob out orders as I retreat: “Activate automated recovery and forensic procedures, Zeiral. Nobody else gets to carry this nightmare as a memory.”