Pilot Tan entered the course corrections as he moved through the mists, grateful that the Soul Survivor’s alterations to The Signal no longer made it toxic for any computer hooked up to sensors. The Cypulchral Cloud was now no more dangerous than your standard nebula, and at only the size of a large planet it was easier to navigate. He wondered if, at some point, the planet might normalize in both its consistency and orbit enough to become an outlying gas giant of sorts, but that level of science was outside his general expertise.
An alarm sounded, suggesting that someone was trying to board the ship from one of the airlocks, using an entrance code. This confused him, but suggested good news; he wanted to help The Soul Survivor, of course, but it seemed strange that the Survivor’s plans would require marooning everyone at the remains of the space station. Perhaps some of them had made it back after all. He input commands that would allow the boarders access, after the airlock had time to cycle.
Minutes later, he heard the sound of the airlock door preparing to open. He double checked that he was in a safe patch of the cloud, and walked back to see who was entering. The airlock door spun open, and he smiled at the sight of Captain Ortega, carrying his helmet in one hand and holding up an Astroguard pistol with the other.
“Captain!” shouted Tan. “I mean… Ortega! Andrew? Can I call you Andrew? What’s… with the gun?”
Captain Ortega quickly holstered his pistol.
“Sorry. Wasn’t sure if I’d be welcomed when I got here.”
“Why wouldn’t you be?”
“Long story,” he said. “Didn’t think I was gonna make it here in time.”
“Yeah, shame about that,” said Tan. “But the Soul Survivor’s got his plans.”
“I’m sure,” said Ortega. “What’re you working on now?”
“Just piloting out of here.”
“Can I see?”
Tan turned around to walk to the bridge, but stopped short when Ortega slammed the space helmet over his head. Moments later, there was a bright flash of light.
Captain Ortega sat in the tiny galley of Captain Calen’s scuttler. Flight suits were bulky and generally didn’t allow room for personal effects in their limited storage capacity, but Ortega had found ways to smuggle a few things over the years. One of the oddest was the box of cereal and flash-frosted milk he kept along with a shallow bowl and spoon.
With Calen back in command and the Soul Survivor’s body locked in a crate and Pilot Tan secured in the medical bay whether he wanted to be there or not, Ortega felt like he had the first moments of genuine relaxation since before he’d started climbing the volcanic fortress that Doctor Rogers had hidden away on Morcala days earlier. He took a few deep breaths and started eating the cereal.
“You’ve smuggled in your own meals?” asked Ensign Trell, entering and walking to the tanks where chilled water was kept. “I wouldn’t have thought a seasoned soldier like you would risk the extra weight.”
“The flight suit carries the weight, not me,” said Ortega. “Besides, I take out a set of rations to make it fit. The two cereal boxes and milk are small enough to weigh less.”
“I never did like milk on cereal,” said Trell, filling a glass.
“I eat it dry if I have to,” said Ortega. “I always liked this cereal a kid. Deliciously puffed wheat and rice, the only cereal shot with a ray gun.”
“Are you quoting something?”
“One of the commercials. I was thinking about it after getting back to the ship, and got really nostalgic after everything calmed down. Not sure why. How’s the captain?”
“Better now that she’s back in command,” said Trell. “She’s approved your suggestion to go back to Tan’s ship and investigate the phoenix circuitry. And since it looks like The Signal isn’t a danger anymore, we may see if we can pick up anything on its sensors from the Dyson fleet that we couldn’t pick up on our own, just in case there’s some high end encryption that would allow their transmissions to go undetected. In half an hour we should be about ready to start a more thorough search if you can tear yourself away from your cereal.”
“Absolutely,” said Ortega. “It’ll interrupt the day of classic adventure programs that I’d been planning on, but I can get ready. Where should I throw this?”
He held up the box of puffed wheat and rice, and Trell raised an eyebrow at the outdated appearance of a man in a stylized Astroguard uniform who seemed to be giving a thumbs up to anyone who looked at the box.
“The Astroguard has its own cereal?”
“No, that’s Captain Mayday,” said Ortega. “I watched it every day when I was a kid. There was always some new interstellar danger or space pirate or unexplored planet for him to triumph against. The cereal was one of the show’s primary sponsors. He’s the reason I joined the Astroguard.”
Trell nodded and tapped a slot on the wall that opened, revealing a standard waste receptacle.
“It’s nice to see that at least some propaganda works,” she said, returning her glass and walking out of the galley.
“It wasn’t propaganda,” said Ortega, throwing away the box and following after. “It was actually critical of the Astroguard in a lot of ways.”
The smiling face of Captain Mayday continued to smile as the two vacated the room, as sure as an inanimate object can be that it had once again helped out a cadet in need.