CHAPTER 65

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Phoenix's prosthetic operated like a real hand, but it felt odd to use. Somehow, just the thought of drawing his fingers into his palm sent an order from his brain and the hand responded by balling into a fist. But with no sense of touch he felt clumsy and awkward, like he was grasping for something with a tool, not a living part of his body.

Phoenix unbuckled his seatbelt with his left hand, the real one, the one not bitten off by a great white. After the attack, the shark spit his arm out like it didn't taste good. Like she'd thought—yes it was a female—Oh, that doesn't taste like a seal. Yuck. Of course, then it came for Nova and she eventually died for the first time.

"Do we have to go out there?" Ariel said, her eyes wide and round. "I didn't sign up for this."

"Seems like I remember someone saying we should listen to what the redhead had to say."

"That didn't mean I agreed to interplanetary travel. If you remember, we were gassed. They kidnapped us and brought us to a frozen planet in deep space. That's just...wrong."

Phoenix couldn't help but offer a half smirk, looking at her with an arched brow. "Technically, this is a moon, but I get your point."

He slid out of his seat, twisting sideways, extending his prosthetic arm, placing it on the nearest bulkhead of the escape pod. He felt nothing when his fingers touched the wall. He might as well have been bracing himself with a broom handle or a wrench. He'd have to get used to that.

Ariel removed her seatbelt and climbed out of her chair, using the other bulkhead for support.

"Something's a little strange here," she said.

"Like what?"

"Well, suddenly, I know how to use a thermal suit. I know everything about how it works and I've never used one before."

"Like the fact it's powered by a safe fusion core three inches in diameter." Phoenix froze. "Wait. How did I know that?"

Ariel stared at the suit that was hanging in a clear polycarbonate case. "Maybe it's some kind of pre-hibernation training that's slowly coming back to us?"

"Yea...maybe?" Phoenix moved toward the case and opened the door. As his prosthetic reached for the suit, he released a controlled breath through his nose. "There's a lot of things that don't add up. Like how I can remember that my fiancée is dead. Died a second time right in front of me, but I can't remember much else."

"It could be because it was a traumatic experience. Your brain tried to suppress it but it couldn't. The other stuff is more easily effected by hibernation, so we can't recall it right away. But it's gradually coming back to us when we need it. Sounds like a reasonable hypothesis to me."

"Agreed. I had to watch her die twice."

"No." Ariel put her hand on his good arm. "The first time, you came in after she died. I'm the one who called her death, and I was just as surprised as you to see her alive when we arrived at the space station."

"Maybe it never was her on Arcturus? Maybe she was a clone or something? One of those humanoid cyborgs created by the Next Gen Corporation? She didn't know me. How could she not know who I am?"

"But she bled when that Sergov thing attacked her. No, she was real. It was her." Ariel paused looking at the clear case with her thermal suit inside it like she was gazing at something that only her mind could see. "It could've been the hibernation sickness. It didn't effect us the first go around, but it got her. Real good. Who knows? It hit us hard this time."

"Doesn't matter now. She's dead and gone. Time to move on."

Ariel removed her suit from the case, eased the top over her head. Her hands poked through the sleeves and appeared at the ends. She stepped into the lower part of the suit and pulled the pants up to her waist, locked it into the bottom of the top section, and then stared at Phoenix with a blank look on her face. The garment was not baggy or bulking like a spacesuit but tight fitting around her slender figure.

"What?" Ariel said with a slight smile.

Phoenix swallowed a gulp of jittery air and glanced away. "Oh nothing. Just wondering how you got so lucky."

"What do you mean?"

"Your suit fits perfectly. I mean, you know what I mean."

"Yeah, I think I do."

Phoenix slipped into his thermal suit and noticed why Ariel's had clung so tightly. The garment was made of a flexible material that stretched and then contracted to his body. One size fits all. Once they were in their boots, gloves, and helmets, he pressed a touchscreen on his left wrist. The digital readout came to life.

"Well, what do you know," he said to himself inside his helmet. "I'm an expert at operating this suit."

He enabled the comm system on the wrist display and said, "You hear me?"

"Like you're in here with me."

Phoenix sighed, Now that's a thought. Immediately, he felt guilty for letting his mind go there, like ogling over another woman at his fiancée's funeral. But in Nova's case, she'd never had a proper burial.

On a control panel on the wall, Phoenix deactivated the hatch seal and placed his hand on the door handle. He studied the screen on his wrist. Thermal capabilities were functioning at optimal levels.

"You ready for this?" he said.

Ariel gave him an okay hand signal. "No, but we can't stay here forever."

Phoenix opened the door, felt a light wave of air pressure flood the inner compartment. He watched as the humidity in the pod crystallized into what looked like tiny snowflakes on the walls, chairs, and the controls, even the front viewport. The ice cracked and splintered as the moisture flashed froze, frosting over the interior in a hard glaze.

In the reflection of Ariel's face shield, his eyes grew large in wonder.

He started to rub his eyes to make sure everything he was seeing was real, but he forgot about the helmet on his head. He performed a quick safety check on his thermal suit. There didn't seem to be any tears or pin holes. If there were, he would have been in trouble the moment he opened the hatch. Probably should have thought about that first.

"Time to be the second man to set foot on Titan," Phoenix said. "Assuming the habitat was a non-crewed mission. And if I beat Callisto and that other guy to the punch."

With a shuttering breath to steady his nerves, he leapt for the bank of the methane sea, hoping he could clear the orange liquid and land on solid ground.

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