CHAPTER 44

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Phoenix shifted his gaze from the black prosthetic hand to Nova in the copilot seat. He couldn't help but go back and forth between the two. He had evaded an enemy aircraft going Mach 3, buzzing low over the Sea of Cortez while his wingman, none other than Nova Kailani, blew the bogie out of the sky. When he was a teenager growing up in Billings, Montana, he'd lasted eight seconds on a bull named Tank. But he couldn't fathom how Nova was alive and breathing right in front of him. The new arm mesmerized him too. He flexed the rubberized fingers, stared at her out of the corner of his eye and bit his bottom lip. He must be going crazy. With only a thought, the prosthetic hand balled into a fist. The electrical components must have been bio wired into his nervous system. But he could wrap his mind around the new technology, no matter how advanced. His dead fiancée being...well, alive was a different story.

"Is it really you," he said. The words fell from his mouth like he was listening to someone else speak. He wondered if she was a cyborg, a humanoid, or something from the Next Gen Corporation? She couldn't be real. Phoenix reached across the console and grazed her cheek with his fingertips.

Nova leaned away. "Woe, woe, Space Cowboy. What's with the touchy-feely? I don't even know who you are?"

Same spunky Nova he'd always known. "It's me, Phoenix."

"Glad you know your name, but I've never met you before."

Her words stung deep, a physical ache in his stomach. "I'm your fiancé."

Nova's expression hardened, but it didn't reach her eyes. Could Phoenix's sincerity have her in doubt? Maybe she was weighing what he'd said. Had he swayed her at all, or stirred any memory of their love? He studied her for a second, looking for signs of hope. He wanted to hold her like he had in the past, but he might lose his other arm if he came on too strong.

"You don't remember anything," Phoenix stated plainly. He searched her eyes for a long moment and came away with the answer he feared the most. There was no doubt. He wagged his head. She had no clue who he was. She didn't know him from the first man on Mars.

Sarah waved her hand between them. "Hello, I don't think you two understand the urgency of our situation." She pointed a finger at the port side window. "We're in position to dock this ship, and if you two don't get with it, we'll go smash into the side of the space station."

Phoenix glared at Sarah, wishing he had a comeback that fit the moment. But he came up empty.

"Dock. The. Ship. Please."

Phoenix looked through the port window and the weirdest thing happened. He had never piloted a spaceship, but the knowledge of how to do so spilled into his mind as if he'd done it all his life. He envisioned a flight simulator, saw himself positioning the craft, docking with the station.

Phoenix gripped both joy sticks. The one on the left controlled the pitch and roll, and the one on the right, forward and reverse. The gap closed.

Nova monitored a screen in front of her, showing a camera view from the airlock hatch located midway on top of the ship. "Roll to thirty degrees. Easy. Easy, I said." She snapped the last word at Phoenix.

"I'm doing the best I can." He snarled and then craned his head to get Sarah's attention, but quickly returned his focus to his own maneuver screen in front of him. "How is it, we know how to fly this ship? I mean, I get it, we're pilots, but this isn't a F-49 Comet."

"The Comet was the first jet capable of earth orbit," Sarah replied. "So it's not like you've never flown in the vacuum of space. Didn't you do a complete orbit as a pilot?"

"Once. Before the Border War with Mexico," Phoenix said, and then turned to Nova. "Reduce topside thrusters to twenty percent."

While watching the display, Nova pulled back on a t-handle in the console between them. "Dialed back on thrusters. Ten feet till we kiss."

Phoenix swiveled his head, zoned in on Nova, in particular her lips, rather nice full lips.

"Focus, Cowboy."

"You used to call me Cowboy."

"I call any hot shot with one thing on his mind, a cowboy. Three feet till we...till we dock." She smirked at Phoenix. "Killing thrusters. You would've given the order if your head wasn't in the clouds of Jupiter." She returned her attention to the monitor.

The station's air lock drew near, an amber warning light blinking in the round passageway. Suddenly, an alarm blared through the ship's speakers, on and off, like Phoenix's clock on his nightstand onboard the U.S.S. Fortitude, but much louder. The alarm beeped in time with the flashing X on the space station.

The bulkheads jolted throughout the spacecraft, jarring them in their seats.

"Docked," Nova said.

Phoenix nodded, his gaze drawn beyond the forward port glass, over the top of the station.

Everything was relative in space. Technically, there was no up or down, left or right. But Jupiter's gargantuan size provided an unsettling frame of reference. The space station reminded Phoenix of two skyscrapers bent and curved, and connected together to form a round wheel. Dwarfed by the red spot, the structure didn't spin as he suspected it should while orbiting the planet.

Brown, beige, and cottony cloud bands filled the entire forward window, casting the bridge in the awe inspiring glow.

Sarah slapped her hand on the airlock release button on the ceiling of the hull. A sharp hiss followed as the pressure and oxygen levels equalized inside the antechamber leading into the station. "Let's get everyone suited up. It's only operating on auxiliary power. That means it's pretty much dead in there, and we have to bring it back to life."

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