Only the thick, taught material of the tool belt stopped Xander being blasted out into space with the rest of the atmosphere. His legs were yanked up into the air till he hung upside down over the panel, still clutching both the handrail and the lever tightly. In front of him the gaseous black creature was ripped from the floor of the chamber and sucked out of one of the emergency exhausts. With his eyes screwed tightly shut, however, Xander simply hoped and prayed that he could get the timing right. After counting a full five seconds in his head he rammed the lever back into place, closing the vents. The sucking air vanished, leaving him to fall abruptly back down. He slammed hard into the console and tumbled halfway to the floor, suspended by the tool belt.
Desperately he tried to draw in enough breath from the thin air around him to fill his lungs again. Wheezing and gagging, he unbuckled the belt from the handrail before stumbling weakly towards the blast door. His head swam from lack of oxygen, a throbbing pain pulsing repeatedly behind his eyes like a red hot iron. Reaching the gigantic blast door he pressed his face into the tiny gap and breathed. Despite being thinner itself, the air in the outside passage allowed him to take in enough oxygen to stave off the pounding headache.
Xander stayed with his face pressed against the gap for a moment, breathing gratefully in and out as the passage gradually re-pressurised. Eventually he turned away, placing his back against the bulkhead and sliding down into a sitting position. He winced at the pain in his joints, the nitrogen bubbles making their presence known. Closing his eyes he let his head loll backwards, resting against the plating. The crackling of the com channel, however, interrupted his brief moment of calm. His eyes snapped open and he opened the channel.
"Xander, where the hell are you?! Damn it, come in!"
Despite himself, Xander allowed a fleeting smile to cross his features. "I'm okay, Redge. I'm in the furnace chambers."
"What are you doing there?" the other man exclaimed. "Isla and I are stuck in this…well it looks like some kind of lab room. Why'd you fuse the door shut?"
"So that thing wouldn't get you two. We were never going to outrun it." Xander closed his eyes again, rubbing his temples with both hands. "Sorry, Redge, I had to gamble."
"Did it follow you?"
"Indeed it did."
"Well where is it now?"
"Orbit, with any luck," he sighed.
"Wha…how'd you manage that?"
"You know these big furnace arrangements have emergency venting systems right?"
"Yeah, standard design specs. Too much heat, vent the air, no fire."
"Well, that's what I did. Blasted the damned thing into space." Opening his eyes, Xander craned his neck to look at the tiny gap in the blast doors. "Although, it does seem like I've got myself stuck in here."
"Well that's grand. Now what the hell do we do?"
"For God's sake, Redge," Xander growled, his head clearing with each passing second. "Use a bit of initiative. You've still got your gear. Cut the door open if you want to get out."
"Err…guys?" Jonas cut in abruptly. Xander blinked in surprise.
"Jonas, yeah I read you?"
"You don't want to be running around in the corridors right now."
"What? Why not?"
"The bodies are on the move," the pilot declared grimly.
"Well how many of them?"
"All of them, Cap. We're in some real pretty shit now."
"Two thousand?" Redge groaned incredulously.
"You heard me."
Xander banged his head lightly against the blast door in frustration. Either the thing had found a way back inside, or the bodies didn't need it to function. Whatever the case, he had hoped disposing of the creature would put an end to the nightmarish venture the crew had stumbled into. So much for wishful thinking.
Grinding his teeth together, he glanced back up at the crack in the door. Sure, he was stuck, but if the cloud had made it back onto the ship then it would be coming straight back, and there was nothing to stop it.
"Jonas, how long till the navy gets here?"
"Still talking four hours, Xander. We're on our own."
"Yeah, tell me about it." Xander heaved himself upright with a groan of exertion, sucking in another lungful of the thickening air. His eyes widened suddenly. "Oh Christ! Cassie, where are you?" He waited, pressing his forehead against the metal of the blast door. "Cassie, c'mon girl talk to me!"
"X-Xander," the young engineer whispered over the com.
"Shhh! Please, I'm stuck in one of the store rooms for the galley. There's about a hundred of those freaky zombie's outside the door!" Xander clamped a hand over his mouth for a moment before mouthing an obscenity. He lowered his voice.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah…for now, I-I…I don't know what to do!"
"Cass, stay with me now!" Xander hissed. "They haven't seen you yet, have they?"
"Then stay down, stay hidden, stay quiet. You can wait them out, Cass."
"But then what do we do?"
"I'll worry about that, you just stay alive." With a curse of frustration Xander moved away from the over to the control panel he had shorted out only minutes before. Examining the circuits he smacked a fist against the side of the panel angrily. Shot to shit! A feeling of anger and frustration welled up inside him at the prospect. He'd already lost one crewman to this accursed ship. He was not going to lose another. He looked around the room, searching for some way to open the massive safety doors. One object caught his eye.
At the far end of the room, nestled inconspicuously in the corner beneath one of the gantries, he spotted a metal cylinder, just over a metre tall and a foot across. Cocking his head to one side, he narrowed his eyes. Could this be some good luck at last?
He jogged across the cavernous space of the engine chamber with a plan beginning to formulate in his agile mind. Reaching the cylinder he grabbed the circular handle at its apex and tilted it towards him. Looking down into its interior, Xander cursed again. It was empty.
Pushing the useless hulk savagely to one side, he let it smash against the deck plating while he resumed his search. There had to be more of them kept in the engine bay, for the sake of common sense if nothing else. Think man, think! They wouldn't be kept out in the open, no…they'd be stored away in a cold-unit. Shaking his head at his own stupidity, Xander started looking for a door. It didn't take too long before he found one, almost concealed by the main console of the engines, its control panel flashing a pale blue. A smile crept across his face.
Darting over to the door he pressed the release button of the panel. The thick metal construction retracted with a creak of protest, revealing a small room illuminated in an eerie blue glow. A room packed with cylinders of engine coolant.
Xander gasped at the veritable wall of cold that slammed into him when the door opened, his muscles tensing reflexively. He took in several deep breaths before stepping forward into the frigid storage chamber. Reaching out one hand tentatively, he touched the circular handle of the closest container, but recoiled immediately with a hiss of pain. Glancing down, he saw his fingertip had been burned red-raw by the frozen canisters.
"Brilliant," he muttered. Gritting his teeth he removed his jacket and wrapped it around his hands. The com channel began crackling again but he ignored it, reaching forward and grasping the closest coolant canister as tightly as he could. Even through the jacket he could feel the cold of the metal casing. With a growl of exertion he began to drag the canister out of the room and across the engine chamber, its base screeching worryingly against the deck plating as he moved.
Staggering under the weight of the cylinder, Xander moved as fast as he could across the chamber, the sinews of his arms standing out under the strain. Eventually he hauled the coolant over to the massive blast doors of the engine room and stood it upright against the small gap. With a sigh of relief he released his grip on the handle, stepping away, dropping his jacket and cupping his hands around his mouth, blowing warmth into them. After a moment he tapped his earpiece.
"Xander, its Cassie," the girl said quietly.
"Cass, you okay?"
"Yeah... yeah I'm okay, Xander. Those things just wandered off. I'm still in the storage room though, they may still be around."
"Good call, Cass," he answered, letting out a long breath. "Sit tight. What number was the room you're in."
"I'm going to get out of the engine room, get Redge and Isla, then we're coming to get you. And then we're getting off this dead hulk. Sound good?"
"Sounds great, just hurry."
"Will do, Cass. Xander out."