• • • — — — • • •
Charlie suits up. He pulls on a pressure weave body suit, including the gloves and booties. On top of that, he buckles on the graphene body armor vest, and screws a pressure collar into the neck socket on the pressure weave, and activates it. On top of all this, he pulls on a suit, white gloves, a high collar, and a hat. He checks in the mirror. He looks vaguely bloated, but otherwise normal.
Charlie walks to the bookshelf, and opens the book. He pulls the contents out, and hefts them in his hand. He tucks them into a pocket, and s
He sits down, feeling the pressure weave ride uncomfortably up in the seat. the stuff is very hot. It doesn't breathe at all (obviously). He fans his face, and turns down the temperature in his cabin, feeling cold air begin to hum in through the vents. He has the fabricator make a temperature lock for his wrist. There's a buzz at the door, and Charlie hesitates. Pennycut's been treating him with fairly blatantly murderous intent since he blew her off. Plus, there's the question of Cross. Charlie set a finger on his side arm, and stands to the side of the door when he opens it.
"Christ, Frost. This room is like a tomb. You always keep it this cold?"
"Uh, no, not usually. How did you get up here, Hyde?"
"Adams gave me crew clearance, in case there's an emergency."
"Right. Of course. Want to come in?"
"No thanks, actually. I actually came to get you because you weren't answering when pinged."
"I was asleep."
"That's what I thought. What did you need me for?"
"There's a problem in the engine room."
Charlie feels panic rising in his throat, and is starting for the door when Hyde grabs him by the shoulder.
"Relax. The engine is fine. One of the engineers got jolted by the ship's main, and he seems to be having some trouble. Adams is in a meeting with one of the passengers. Blanchet, I think. He told me to get you."
Charlie returns to the assembler, pulls out the temperature cuff, and pulls it on. It clamps onto his wrist over the pressure sleeve but under his jacket. He hits the button, and it begins to feel slightly cool. Hyde stares at the pressure sleeve, then scans Charlie from head to toe.
"Frost, what the hell are you wearing?"
"Better safe than sorry."
"It's today, isn't it?"
Charlie considers his response, and then nods, sighing.
"Thought so. Look, Frost - Charlie - if we get nuked, I can personally guarantee you that nothing you wear will make the slightest bit of difference."
"It makes me feel better. Besides, I'm worried about one of the crew trying to kill me when we try tell them they have to go into cryo."
Hyde considers this.
"That sounds like a reasonable concern. Some of the passengers don't cope with disappointment well."
Hyde stares at Charlie.
"Tell me you confiscated their weapons."
Charlie looks bleak.
"Adams didn't confiscate anything. Keep in mind that we left from a crappy colonial station. Not having a firearm on you is suicide."
Hyde groans, and runs his fingers through his hair.
"Great. Well, come on, let's grab you some breakfast and get down there."
Charlie orders a smoothie on his way through the security locks, and picks it up from the table near the door. It's slightly gritty, but it is cold. The wrist lock is getting colder the longer he's out of the room, but his layers of clothing are still oppressively hot. He downs the smoothie in a gulp, dumps the cup in a recycler, and gets into the elevator with Hyde, which he takes up into the belly of the ship.
When they get down to the bottom, Charlie finds one of the engineers, Luke Poe, sitting on the table. The others are surrounding him. Poe has what appears to be an electrical burn down his neck, and is looking around calmly. A thick cable leads out of the side of his head to a small slate on the table. Churchill is fiddling with the controls. Another engineer that Charlie doesn't recognize is sitting in a chair beside the table, wrapped in a blanket, looking ill.
Charlie walks up. He's never said two words to Poe before. He speaks carefully.
"Hi, Poe. How are you?"
Poe looks up and smiles.
"Hello, sir. Well, I'm alright, I guess. They tell me I had some kind of accident. I guess-"
He stops talking. His eyes become slightly glazed, and his breathing gets very shallow and even. He stares through Charlie's head at some point out at infinity. Charlie blinks.
Poe opens his mouth. In an oddly flat voice entirely not his own, without swallowing, he says,
"The drive could not be accessed at this time, and a runtime crash has resulted. Attempting reboot."
Poe closes his eyes, and his facial muscles slump. Then he's back.
"Poe? Are you alright?"
Poe smiles at him.
"Hi, sir. I'm alright. They tell me I had some kind of accident-"
"-Alright, that's enough, turn him off."
Churchill looks irritated. Someone taps an interface tile over the slate, and Poe's eyes close, and his body goes limp. One of the engineers catches him and lowers his head gingerly onto the table. After a few seconds, he begins to softly snore.
Churchill glances up at Charlie, and back down at the interface he's manipulating.
"He's been like that since the accident. He reboots every couple of minutes. Either his rig or his chip is damaged."
Charlie suddenly notices Churchill's prosthetic hand. It looks human enough, but it's concealed under a white glove that extends up to the elbow. Churchill catches his glance.
"Good as new, sir. Took a little getting used to, but it does fine."
"Glad to hear it. Can you fix Il Poe?"
Churchill looks uneasy.
"Well, that's the trouble, sir. Poe's the one with the expertise in this area. He's really the only one qualified. We've been trying to pull data from his chip to build a module based on him. Om Hyde has provided us with some architecture to work with, but it's been ported so many times that it's a complete mess."
Charlie frowns. This could be a problem, they'll need to the engineering team soon either way. The man in the chair shudders and throws up into a bucket. Droplets of vomit bounce abnormally high in the low gravity, escaping the bucket and splattering on the floor. Charlie frowns, distracted.
"What's wrong with him?"
Churchill looks faintly embarassed.
"Il Atwood is testing the prototype module. I think we've got the seizures under control, but there's some kind of driver conflict that's causing his autonomic nervous system to shut down."
"And I've got a miserable headache," grunts Atwood, and throws up again. Charlie winces, and kicks a spatter of bile off his boot.
"Right. Well, there isn't time for this. If it's not his chip, we can fabricate a new body, right?"
Churchill says, carefully,
"Of course, but there isn't really any good way for us to test his chip. We'd have to fabricate up his body, and there seems to be some urgency, what with the situation with Ilium. We're doing the best we can, sir."
Charlie looks at Hyde, who raises an eyebrow.
"You have something else in mind, Frost?"
"If we had a volunteer, we could swap chips, and test to see if the chip malfunctioned in the new body."
Churchill's face gets serious.
"Are you asking for volunteers to be mind raped, sir?"
Charlie meets his gaze. In even tones, he says
"Mind rape is involuntary, Chief Engineer Churchill. If there are no volunteers, I'll do it myself."
Charlie turns to the gathered engineers, who are watching the proceedings with some interest.
Atwood raises his hand.
"Do I get to uninstall this module?"
"Then I volunteer."
"Great. Atwood, drop the module. Someone get me a medical kit, we're going to need to pull some chips. Churchill, do you need to establish a hardline with Atwood?"
Churchill shakes his head.
"No, he's conscious, he can install remote interface software. I'll arrange it, sir."
"Please do - Thank you."
Charlie accepts the medical kit, and pulls out a scalpel. He bends over Poe.
"He's unconscious, right?"
"I've disabled most cortical networking. He'll be out until he reboots."
Charlie nods, and finds the right spot on Poe's head. He opens a painting app in his interface and draws four lines around where the chip should be, behind his left ear. Then he pulls on a pair of sterile rubber gloves, opens a disinfectant packet, swabs the skin, and makes three steady incisions with a scalpel.
Charlie peels back the square of skin, revealing bloody skull and plastic. It's harder than it looks, but he learned to do it some time ago; doctors are hard to come by elsewhere. He wipes the blood away as best he can with another wipe. He then finds the catch, and compresses it with a fingernail. There's a click, and the chip slides out a centimeter. Charlie gently removes it, and hands it to Churchill.
They turn to Atwood. Churchill nods to him.
"I'm going to hit this button, and you're going to blink, and it's going to be a few hours from now. You'll have no sensation of the passage of time. During the interval, Il Poe will have control of your body. I will supervise him as best I can, but can make no guarantees. Do you understand and agree to this?"
Atwood nods, then suddenly shudders.
"I just felt my sweat glands switch back on. Come on, do it."
Churchill hits a button on the slate interface. Atwood slumps quietly in his chair, eyes closed, breathing softly. Charlie shakes him gently, but gets no response. Trying to work as efficiently as possible, he makes the incisions, and pulls his chip. He passes it to Churchill, who hands him Poe's chip in return. Churchull then turns, opens a drawer in the table, and locks Atwood's chip inside it.
Charlie, gently, pushes Poe's chip inside Atwood's skull. There's a click, and it's in. He pulls a length of tape from the bag, and tapes the skin back into place. He turns to Churchill.
"Reboot him, please, Il Churchill."
Churchill thumbs something, and taps something else. Atwood opens his eyes, looking confused. He extends one hand experimentally and stares at it critically. He lowers it to the chair, and coughs experimentally. Then, he begins to scream. Two engineers forcibly restrain him from bolting out of his chair.
After about fifteen seconds of uninterrupted screaming, Churchill turns to Charlie. Speaking over the noise, he says,
"I'm going to adjust flow patterns in his hindbrain to calm him down. Any objections, sir?"
"None, please hurry."
He pulls up a heat map of brain activity and double taps three rear brain regions. The others fade out. A menu comes up, and a list of behavior profiles come up. He selects one labelled 'Calm sample 27, clipping toenails.' It runs. A number of previously red parts of the brain turn a serene blue. The screaming abruptly stops.
Atwood is still panting, but he's no longer fighting the engineers who are restraining him, and he seems to be rapidly calming down. Charlie bends over him.
"What's your name?"
Atwood stares at him in confusion.
"Sir! I'm Poe, sir."
He pauses for a second.
"Whose body is this, sir?"
"What happened to m- oh."
He's caught a glimpse of his former body, lying motionless on the table. He looks up at Charlie in confusion.
"Am I dead, sir?"
"No, Il Poe, but you are glitching. You had an accident. You've been experiencing crashes every few minutes for the last few hours. If you don't crash in the next two minutes or so, it's a problem with your rig, not the chip."
"Interesting. Well, since I don't recall any of this, it's clearly the rig's that's damaged."
"Chip damage wouldn't stop it from logging new memories. At least, not without causing a lot more problems. The rig's damaged. What kind of accident?"
"Electrocution. What's the last thing you remember?"
"I was cleaning contact heads on one of the magnetic arrays on the left side of the ship. I reached for pair of pliers, and then..."
He shrugs, and then rubs his head.
"Are you alright, Il At- Poe?"
"Fine. It's just hard to think. I think I can feel Atwood's echo. I keep thinking thoughts that aren't mine. It's like running a really aggressive module. This brain's still trying to be Atwood. I'm fighting it down, but it requires a lot of concentration to remain focused on who I am."
He coughs, and massages his temples.
"You don't have to think about it most of time."
"Right, well, we'll try to hurry. You haven't crashed yet, so the chip's probably fine."
"I guess you can't make me a new body?"
Charlie shook his head.
"Not enough time. You're really the only one qualified to fix your rig. Any thoughts?"
"Does Atwood mind if I use his interface? I have a remote access app running on my rig, so I can run diagnostics from here."
"Uh, no, just stay out of his personal files, please. Why do you have a remote access app?"
Atwood stares at him levelly.
"For exactly this sort of situation," he replies.
He thumbs some interface icon. After a moment, he says,
"Okay, I've logged into my remote server. I've got complete access to my consensus space from here. It's a bit laggy, but perfectly useable. Looks like it's working, at least. Let me run a system diagnostic and see what comes up."
He gestures away.
"Right, okay, so everything checks out, but... okay, here we go, this is wrong, and so it this. The secondary memory cache and... what is this? 'r-slash-phchost'? Oh, right, it's a power management unit. That's not working either. Let me cycle some test noise through the drive, and see... One minute. Okay, yeah, it's corrupting the hell out of the data. Chip's sensors are probably dumping all the data when it trips the noise filters. Hence, the amnesia. That would - okay, wait. Yeah. Okay. It'd try to hard flush the drive, which'd pull more from the power unit, which looks like it's damaged. So, the extra load could probably cause that to surge, and from there, the processors on that side crash, and reboot the whole system."
Charlie blinks, then shakes his head, as though trying to clear it out.
"Can you fix it?"
Poe shakes Atwood's head.
"Not a software problem. I'd need to physically go in and replace the parts."
"Okay, can do you do that?"
Poe stares at him.
"You want me to perform brain surgery on myself?"
"Well, it's either that, or we put you in a box until the Ilium situation is resolved. Can you do it?"
Poe considers it.
"I think so. The components all have surface access, and there's a sealant layer. I shouldn't have to actually compromise the cerebral fluid, so brain infection isn't a concern."
"Good. Do you need anything not in this kit?"
"Mmm. Philips screwdriver, needle nosed pliers, a magnet for the screws, a soldering iron. In fact, someone get me my toolbox. Oh, and replacement parts, please. Cam, go get me a rig from the fabricator and dial up a new one for the next person. We can recycle the leftover parts when we're done."
Cam nods, and heads along the ship towards the lower deck elevator. Poe stands up slowly and a little unsteadily. Hyde watches with some concern.
"Are you alright?"
"Yes. Fine. Atwood's a little shorter than I'm used to."
With careful steps, he makes his way to the table, and opens the medical kit. He finds a bottle of fluid, which he pours on the side of the skull, avoiding the eyes. It sizzles audibly, and burns the hair off, leaving the skin looking slightly scalded. He wipes the fluid off, takes a pen out of his pocket, and begins to make careful markings on the outside of his own skull. He picks up a scalpel, hesitates, and then buries it into the scalp. He's obviously not very good at it, and there's blood everywhere. When he pulls up a piece of scalp, shreds of tissue are still stuck to the skull. Charlie winces. Hyde steps up.
"How about I deal with the tissue?"
Poe nods. Hyde works with the efficiency of someone cleaning a fish, and within a moment, the indicated skin is cleanly detached, folded back, and pinned. Poe, looking uneasy, wipes the blood off the bare skull, plastic, and metal. Poe gestures for his tool kit, avoiding looking at his own face. Someone sets the tool kit at his side. He undoes the latch and plunges his hands into it without looking, and mashes his hand into a shelf. He winces. Hyde raises an eyebrow.
"Fingers are longer than I remember."
He reaches gingerly into the kit like someone reaching into a hole which may or may not contain a snapping turtle and retrieves a few tools, which he lays out on the table. Cam returns with the rig, which he sets on the table beside Poe, who ignores him. Then he gets to work. He's slightly awkward with the tools, which seem small in his hands. However, he works very efficiently, unscrewing plates and removing components, and untangling nests of wires from the head. He's a two centimeters in now, and he's hit the second brain lining, a layer of flexible plastic separating the external components from the cerebro-spinal fluid. After a while, he pulls out the two components. They aren't visibly damaged, but one of the wires coming off the power supplies is charred.
He begins to remove components from the other rig, and works fast,
Poe seems immersed in his own world, removing and replacing and cutting and unscrewing and soldering. Then,
"It's done, I think. Let me just pack all the pieces back in, and then we can glue all the skin back down."
Hyde nods. Poe repacks all the components into his own skull and puts in the plate screws. Hyde picks up the medical kit, and glues the skin back down. It's not pretty, there are a mass of red lines up the side of the head, but it keeps everything together.
Hyde inepects his work, and pries his thumb and forefinger apart, which he had inadvertantly glued together.
"Ready to test it out?"
Poe nods nervously.
Churchill looks at him kindly.
"You may want to sit down."
Poe looks surprised, and the nods hurriedly.
He stalks unsteadily back to his chair, like he's walking on stilts. He settles into the chair, and gives Churchill the thumbs up gesture. Churchill taps something, and he slumps, unconscious. Charlie gingerly peels back the skin and pulls his chip. Churchill unlocks the drawer, and they make the switch. They wake up Poe first.
He blinks awakes when Churchill taps the icon. He winces.
"Did it work? Quick, ask me something."
"What's the square root of two hundred and fifty six?"
"Uh, two to the eighth, two to the fourth is... sixteen?"
Charlie stares; he's just about figured out that it has to be higher than ten at this point.
"Alright, Poe, that one was easy. What's your middle name?"
The engineers trade glances. Poe looks defensive.
"Look, it's not my fault. My parents were expecting a girl. Natural birth, god knows why."
Churchill suppresses a smile, and continues.
"Name and age of the crown prince?"
"Left or right handed?"
"Trick question, I've got a module that makes me ambidextrous. Natively right handed, though."
Churchill nods, satisfied.
"Well, you haven't crashed yet, and your memory seems to be logging correctly. I think you're okay. Anything to report?"
"Well, my head feels like someone hacked it open with a knife, but aside from that..."
"Cam, get him one of the channel blockers from the kit."
Cam rifles through the kit, and hands a pill in a foil packet, which Poe dry-swallows.
"Careful with that, Poe, that's strong stuff. You could get set on fire, and you wouldn't notice until you smelled the burning."
"Alright, go take a nap, you're past your shift. I'm going to wake up Atwood."
Atwood's chip is inserted. Churchill reboots him. He opens his eyes and slowly sits up in his chair. He groans softly and rubs his fingers.
" What the hell happened to my hand?"
• • • — — — • • •
Charlie is on his way to lunch when he gets a message from Adams. The icon appears in front of him. He taps it, and a message window appears, asking him to come to the conference room. He regretfully passes the dining room, and heads through the security locks to the conference room.
Blanchet is standing outside. She blocks him before he can go inside. She says, in a lowered voice,
"Bell is inside. Adams told me to tell you this: no passengers are missing. We don't know who it is in the engine. Whoever they were, they weren't on the passenger manifest."
Charlie opens his mouth to reply, then Blanchet puts on a blank face, and throws the door open. Mind reeling, Charlie follows.
Adams and Bell are sitting at the table. Blanchet avoids his gaze as she takes her seat, Bell gives a small smile, and Adams simply nods. Charlie sits down and take off his hat, setting it beside him.
The door slides open behind him. Charlie cranes his neck to look. Hyde walks in and sits down next to Charlie.
"Sorry I'm late. Charlotte has some kind of stomach bug."
He nods at Charlie. Charlie returns the nod, straight-faced, on automatic. His cortex has still not quite caught up with events. He glances at Adams. Adams smiles.
"Given Hyde's considerable military experience, I thought it wise to bring him in and brief him. We'll need him if things get hairy."
Charlie nods. Adams continues,
"Now, the plan right now is to brief him and get him up to speed, then start getting the passengers into hard decel for the approach. The cover is that we'll be pulling too many gravities for normal acceleration. When they're frozen, we'll switch the caskets colder for long-term storage."
Charlie wants to ask about the corpse in the engine, but can't, not until Bell leaves, so he keeps his peace. Bell stands up, and touches something on the wall. She turns to Hyde.
"The situation on Ilium is... not good. We don't know what it is, but more than half the planet is simply... gone."
Hyde sits back in his chair.
"Elaborate. Please. What do you mean, gone."
"Gone. Vanished. There is a hole equal to half the volume of the planet."
"That isn't possible. If the mass was genuinely gone, the orbit would have changed. We'd have changed course, and I know we haven't."
"Exactly. The mass is still there, at the center. Just, smaller."
"Let me see."
She calls up the model of the planet, which appears in the middle of the table. There is a visible sphere at the center, now. It's jet black, and an infra-red overlay shows it to be impossibly hot. Charlie frowns. Ilium doesn't have an active core. The hole is huge, now. The planet looks as though it's been bisected, and half of it squashed down into a tiny, red-hot ball of modelling clay. It's spreading, too.
Hyde's face has become a hard, white mask. His lips are a fine, dark hatchet mark against the bottom of his face. His eyes bore into the model. He turns to them.
"You stupid bastards."
Hyde turns to look at them. He looks on the verge of tears. His voice is bitter.
"If you'd just - If you stupid fucks had just asked one, just thought to ask. Why didn't you ask?"
He turns on them, shouting.
"Why didn't you ask?"
Adams recovers first.
"Om Hyde, control yourself."
Hyde is out of his chair and pacing.
"I'm two thousand years old. I was there at the start, and it didn't occur to you to ask?"
Hyde stops suddenly, and makes a visible effort at collecting himself. Bell suddenly becomes distracted by her interface.
"It's a swarm. Like the one that ate Earth. The swarm has found us. Found Ilium, and we're headed right for it. Captain, you need to turn the ship around. There might still be time-"
Adams doesn't look at her.
"Not now, Bell."
Bell hesitates, and then presses on.
"I just picked up a radio signal, sir. From Ilium."
Dead silence falls in the conference room.
Bell swallows, going pale.
"It says it wants to talk to you, sir."
Apologies for the slow progress lately. Enjoy.