CHAPTER SEVENThe Problem
Charlie stops to get some breakfast before meeting Hyde. He's mildly hungover, and makes a note to avoid Hyde's liquor. Then he laughs, and erases the note. Not bloody likely. He sits down and flicks absently through the assembler menus.
Fried eggs? No, the shipboard assemblers make them gritty. Toast? Mmm. It does a decent slice with jam. The boiled eggs aren't bad either, even if they are made with a polymer base. He orders two boiled eggs and slice of toast with raspberry jam, which the assembler begins grinding away on.
Charlie glances around the room. It's mostly empty. A redheaded woman from the party is sitting near the wall with a veil on, staring at stack of coffee cups and looking very hungover. Charlie suppresses a chuckle. The gook wine definitely went over well. A stockbroker nearer to the door is furiously pecking away at an invisible interface, looking panicked.
Charlie remembers that he forgot to order coffee, and updates it. The ETA jumps back seventy seconds. He sighs, and rubs his head. Maybe water would be a better idea. He stares idly at the stars wheeling past across the ceiling. It's a great way to roof a dining hall - the majesty of the heavens, laid out before his eyes. He's already bored with it.
Charlie finds himself wondering, without any good reason in particular, how old the others are. He's never given the matter much thought. Even in love, he's slept with women a hundred years older and younger than he was at the time. It doesn't make as much difference as one might think. Now, though, he finds himself wondering. Bell? He'd guess a century or two. Though, if she is Cross, she'd be a lot older than that. Adams is old, at least five hundred. Blanchet could be anything, though they don't usually hire the young into her profession. Hyde is... Charlie stops. He's always considered himself to be good at reading people, but all he gets off of Hyde in that respect is the sense that he's as old as time, and weary as Atlas.
The assembler dings. Charlie opens the lid, and pulls out the tray. He takes a bite of toast, and winces. It's soggy. The eggs are mushy - the proteins didn't bond. He tries the coffee, which is cold. He makes a face, and considers moving to another table. No time, now. As he forces down the food, he sends a message to the engineering team.
"Food assembler on table seven has a broken microwave element. Please fix at earliest convenience. -Frost"
After a few minutes, a message returns.
"Frost: Noted, will fix. Things very FUBAR down here. Broken pipe on the heavy element scrubber, trying to avoid criticality excursion. May be some time. -Churchill"
Charlie blinks. The heavy element scrubber is broken? Charlie's grasp of exactly what thermonuclear witchcraft goes on in the reactor pit of a starship is fairly weak. He does, however, know what a criticality excurision is, and wants no part in it. He'll have to check in after the business with Hyde, to make sure they're not all going to die. He forwards the messages to the Captain, just in case.
Just as he's about to stand up to go and meet Hyde, his TP materializes in the chair across from him. He stares into Jeeves' blank black eyes, and raises his eyebrows.
"You asked me to remind you to get a haircut."
Charlie rubs his forehead.
"Right. Push reminder back a day, some things have come up."
Jeeves nods, and vanishes.
Charlie sits back slowly, brushes the hair away from his ears ineffectually, and dumps the remains of the cold, sodden food into the bin. He's not precisely full, but he won't starve in the immediate future. He walks to the elevator, and takes it up into the belly of the ship. At the engineering deck, he steps off. It looks like both shifts are on duty, and though nobody is actually running around and shouting, the atmosphere is very tense and several of them look at though they'd like to be.
Still, these men are professionals, and they just light another cigarette and keep talking in low voices, prodding at menus, and vanishing into the recesses of the machine. Charlie sees at least one of them wearing a pressure suit. He looks for Churchill, but doesn't see him. After a nervous glance at the ceiling, Charlie ducks into the small service elevator and takes it up a few levels to one of the store rooms.
Charlie steps inside, and finds the room crammed with components. He glances up across the room at Hyde, who's sitting on a stack of gray plates.
"Il Bell's been busy."
"I'll say. We'd got enough stuff here to blow up a small island nation."
Charlie blinks at him.
"Never mind, before your time. Come on, let's hash out a plan of attack."
Charlie walks over to stand beside him.
"Now, my nuclear physics is a little rusty, but I think the idea is to rig those firing caps over there around one of the plutonium spheres over there, and compress it, at which point it goes critical and compresses the tank of deuterium to it's fusion temperature, at which point everything goes boom. Sound about right?"
Charlie shrugs, and laughs.
"Sounds like you're much better prepared than I am."
Hyde shake his head.
"I've done this before. I wish I knew what we were fighting. If they're packing a lot of nanostuff, we'll want to mix the bombs dirty. Put out lots of neutrons to cook their equipment. Less yield, though. Any idea what we're up against?"
Hyde glances at Charlie, who meets his gaze, and shakes his head.
"Honestly, Om Hyde, I have no idea at all. If I had any more information than you do, I'd tell you."
"Clean it is. When in doubt, go for maximum explosive potential."
He hands Charlie a handheld plasma cutter.
"Incidentally, we might want to hurry a bit. The plutonium's in a lead box, but it's not very thick."
Charlie swallow, and takes the cutter.
"Right. You mentioned a nuclear physics module?"
Hyde snaps his fingers.
"Thank you for reminding me. Here."
He taps something on his interface, and the file offer appears in Charlie's interface. Charlie accepts it, and lets the file transfer.
"Just so you know, this is a very old module. It's known to be a little intense."
"I've networked them, so the modules should work together to allow maximum economy of effort. Ready?"
"Right. Load it up."
Charlie taps the module. A second later, it hits his brain like a golf club. His vision goes black for a second, and his thought activity becomes totally incoherent. He stabilizes a minute later, lying on the floor. He manages to open one eye, and sees Hyde on his hands and knees on the floor. Charlie grunts.
"I'm tasting yellow."
"So am I, Charlie. It'll pass in a moment."
The room starts to spin. Charlie shuts his eye and clings to the floor. After a minute, it does finally start to get better. He pushes himself into a sitting position, and opens his eyes. Hyde is already standing up. Charlie realizes that his normal interface has been forced out of the way by the module, and the icons are flitting nervously around the periphery of his vision.
He glances at the plasma cutter. Suddenly, he feels something stir in his head. It's a feeling of recognition. The heft of the cutter, the way it works - it's the feeling that he's used it a thousand times before. It's the feeling that he knows exactly what it'll cut and what it won't. Except that it isn't his feeling. It's someone else, interrupting his inner monologue, talking over him, recalling a thousand uses of the tool that never happened. It gets louder as he stares, totally wiping out his conscious thought. Charlie drops the cutter and gulps, loudly. Careful not to focus his eyes on anything, Charlie drags himself to his feet, swaying like a drunk.
"Hyde. What the hell is this thing?"
Hyde leans against the wall, and wipes sweat off his face.
"It's a module. I told you it was an old one. It just printed a lot of new architecture directly into your gray matter. There may be some disorientation."
Charlie is his by a wave of dizziness, and sits down again. When he's more or less recovered, he asks,
"Just how old is this thing?"
"Two thousand years, give or take a century?"
Charlie starts to laugh, and then realizes that Hyde isn't joking.
"Where did you get it, a museum? How is it even compatible?"
"I had it ported every time rig standards changed. As for where I got it, I bought it for sixty euros from an engineer in Wales."
Charlie stares at him.
"You mean Earth."
Hyde exhales slowly, and then nods.
Charlie rubs his eyes, trying to process this.
Hyde looks embarrassed.
"Why don't we just get started?"
"Has the module stabilized?"
"What do you mean, stabilized? I don't even know what this thing is. This isn't a normal module. Is there... a person in here?"
Hyde smiles a little.
"Part of one. We've lost the tech to do it, now. Modern modules are just knowledge. This one has a bit of life to it. A bit of extra tissue got mapped along with the useful stuff. It's incredibly useful."
"I'll take your word for it."
Charlie is already developing a throbbing headache. The voice in his head seems to have settled down somewhat. In the dark, quiet space behind his eyes, it asks a simple question.
What do you want to do?
Charlie whispers the answer out loud.
"Build me a bomb."
And, suddenly, he can see it. The whole room comes alive with familiarity, with knowledge rushing to the forefront of his head with mental tones and phrasings which are not his own. In his mind's eye, Charlie can see how the whole bomb will fit together. He can picture the whole machine, down to the smallest switches and rivets. He almost smiles, but then doesn't. Charlie picks up his plasma cutter and gets to work.
· · · — — — · · ·
An hour later, the two men collapse against one of the bombs, sweating. The room is surprisingly hot. They have two bombs mostly finished. One of them just needs the plutonium, and the other doesn't need much more. The last one is still mostly just a pile of components, but Charlie knows every step to make it work.
"How many shuttles do we have?"
"I recommend that we use two for mass transit with Ilium, and dedicate one to be a bomb dropper. How much fuel?"
"Nuclear. They can go for weeks."
"Good. We'll need a team of two to operate it."
"I'll take volunteers from the crew when the time comes."
They sit there for a while longer, and then Charlie says,
"You were on Earth during the Exodus, weren't you? You're one of the original five thousand."
A slow, slight nod. Charlie exhales slowly, and then laughs.
"First class, corpsicle or deadhead?"
"Deadhead, actually. I hear the food in first class was terrible."
"Actually, I was an early chip adopter- got the most horrible headaches. I guess it paid off in the end."
Charlie shakes his head, and runs his hands through his hair.
"I'm sorry, I'm just trying to wrap my head around this. You're two thousand years old? I can't even imagine that."
"It's not as long as it sounds; A thousand years of that was spent deadheading. Keep breathing, and this'll happen to you eventually."
"What was it like, back on Earth?"
Hyde sits back to think. He's quiet for a long time. Charlie's about to apologize for asking, but then Hyde replies.
"I remember the skies. We had such beautiful skies, back then. And such cities. Nine billion human souls. We had oceans, too. Water from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye can see."
He looks terribly sad all of sudden, and continues.
"It was a terrible thing, when your own world becomes something you can't understand. I almost stayed, you know. I could have turtled up, waited it out; but the swarms had just taken North America, and I was afraid. I was afraid, and I took a ride on the first Ark that would take me."
Charlie raises an eyebrow.
"There were more arks?"
"Lots. Hundreds. Thousands, maybe. This 'last hope for humanity' business is a fairly recent political invention. Don't know what happened to the others, but I bet some of them made it."
Charlie shakes his head.
"So you just picked one at random?"
"I had been raised well. Old money. I could afford the ticket price, and I passed the cultural exam. The European Heritage Ark was pooling resources with one of the Vietnamese groups. We were going to cooperate when we got here."
"I guess you know how well that turned out."
He seems to focus, suddenly, and glances at Charlie.
"Come on, let's finish these bombs. And - Charlie?"
Charlie looks up.
"Don't make too much of this. Being old doesn't make you wise. God knows I wish it did. It just makes you old."
He looks a Charlie for a long moment, and then returns to work. Charlie looks after him. As old as time and as weary Atlas.
They labor for a long while. As Charlie's wiring the last bomb while Hyde sets a detonator, he glances up.
"You see the mess in the engine room?"
Hyde nods and solders a lead onto an explosive pin.
"I'm trying not to think about it. If the ship explodes, it explodes. Not much we can do about it. Best to keep working."
"No, the heavy matter scrubber's broken. I don't think it'd explode."
"Well, if it were to dump, you'd just get a big neutron pulse, which'd give everyone on board radiation poisoning, but we could all just resurrect afterwards. Might damage the ship's nano-stuff, though."
There's a brief pause, and then both of their eyes involuntarily swivel towards the crate of plutonium. As Charlie watches, he feels some very disturbing, very panicked knowledge welling up in his head.
"What do you say we put the plutonium in a shielded room until we need it?"
"I was just thinking the same thing. The resurrection bay is lead-lined right?"
"Yeah. Let's hurry."
Charlie picks up one of the cases, which is shockingly heavy. He drags it to the elevator, and Hyde follows along behind with the other. Inside the elevator, Charlie watches an engineer hustle past with a toolkit, dragging a hot box that's steaming considerably. Charlie winces. That's really not good. He hopes he didn't just get cancer.
The service elevator arrives at the right deck, and the two deposit their cases on the floor, in the corner away from the caskets. Charlie pulls the heavy door closed behind them and seals it.
"That ought to be pretty safe, right?"
"Sure. That's what, two feet of lead in the walls? Even if things get bad, they should be safe in here."
They get back into the elevator.
"So, we need to move the bombs into the shuttle, without the rest of the crew seeing them, right?"
Scratching his head, Charlie stares at the elevator floor. He hasn't considered this.
"Will they know what they are? I mean, they're pretty makeshift, as these things go."
Hyde considers this point.
"They're engineers, they might work it out. They've already got to be suspicious about the missing fuel. How far do you trust the rest of the crew, Frost? Adams doesn't seem very confident in them."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, he evidently hasn't told any of them except for you and Bell that we may be going to war. That doesn't betray a lot of confidence in them."
"Hmmm. Well, he's sustained some brain damage recently. His personality might not be what it once was."
"I heard about that. Too bad, I've heard he was a good captain before. Fought in the revolution."
Charlie feels oddly defensive.
"He's not a bad Captain. He just-"
"-Doesn't trust his crew."
Charlie starts to reply, and then falls silent. The elevator arrives at the engineering deck. Hyde steps out.
"We can get some mylar. I say we wrap them up, stick them on a cart, and hope nobody asks. They're busy anyway."
"I'll go get the cart. You stay here and double check everything."
Charlie unlocks the cargo bay door and steps out into the hall. He finds his headache worsening by the minute. He can't wait to have a good meal again, it's been, what, a thousand years? Charlie freezes. That definitely wasn't him. He feels more information bubbling to the surface, about the radioactive index of the walls, the ratio of carbon-14 inside his own tissue. This is like having an unusually helpful form of paranoid schizophrenia. After a moment's consideration, he decides that there's too much soul in this module for his comfort.
What the hell. They're done. He finds the module and disables it. A second later, his interface goes black, and a single line of text appears floating in front of him:
A wave of dizziness hits him. He grabs the wall for support. For a terrifying few seconds, he can't remember who or where he is. Then something clicks mentally, and he's back. He wipes his eyes and pushes himself upright.
Charlie walks down the hall a little ways and goes into the store room with a large industrial fabricator. He shuts it and dials up a cart. It begins to hum, and the smell of hot metal and ozone fills the room. After a minute, it pops open, and Charlie pulls the cart out, fabricator wax still evaporating off the surface. He fabricates a blanket as well, piles it onto the cart, and pushes the whole mess back towards the cargo bay on unsteady legs. He's starting to remember, in considerable detail, why he normally doesn't use modules, nevermind whatever ungodly old witchcraft Hyde is carrying.
He gets back to the bay and opens it. Hyde is sitting on a box of components.
"The bombs check out. I think these should work."
"You turn off your module?"
"Disorienting, isn't it? There's a reason the modern ones don't print onto brain matter anymore. Still, it is effective."
"And it'll likely give you brain damage if you use it too much. Come on, let's get these down to the shuttle bay."
With some care, they load the bombs onto the card, throw the tarp over them, and tape down the edges with duct tape. The entire assembly now being reduced to an unrecognizable mass under the tarp, they open the door and push it down the floor. Another engineer rushes past them, carrying an armful of pipes and looking, frankly, terrified.
They move to the elevator. Charlie watches the engineers brooding over some invisible interface as the doors close. He punches the elevator all the way up past the crew deck to the shuttle bay on the outer hull, which takes some time. Once there, he pushes the cart through the door.
The shuttle bay is a wide room with three shuttles on it. The shuttles are essentially long ceramic boxes, about the proportion of a domino, with a few concessions made to aerodynamics towards the front end and three large engines at the back. The shuttles have no ferrous components, to avoid being torn apart by inertial buffers. Charlie frowns and stops working. Crap.
"This isn't going to work."
"The bombs are full of metal. If we're using Ilium's inertial buffer, anything made out of magnetic metal is going to get totally destroyed when we go through the buffer."
Hyde pauses, rubbing his chin.
"We can still get down to the planet, right? We can use the other two shuttles just fine?"
"Okay, so why do we have to stop the other shuttle?"
"Why can't we just push the shuttle into a relativistic orbit over the planet, and just drop the bombs from orbit?"
"They'll be moving at a sizable fraction of light speed by the time they-"
"So? Ilium has no atmosphere, so friction isn't an issue. So long as we set the thing off right before it actually hits the planet, the extra speed will just give it a bit of extra kick."
"Can it go off that fast?"
"Want to load up the module and find out."
"Thanks, no. It's in the milisecond range, I think."
"Okay, so we can look up the exact figure and do the math to find a sufficiently distant orbit for it to work. Or we could have Om Bell do it."
"Mmm. Right. Let's do that one. I'll send her a message when we're done here."
"Good, then it's settled. Help me move this strap into place."
When the last strap is in place, they throw the blanket over it, and Charlie hard-locks the shuttle at maximum authority. Only he or Captain Adams can unlock it. He opens the notifications application, and leaves a public notice window floating next to it, on which he writes:
"Shuttle engine failure. Shuttle interior unsafe, possibly radioactive. Do not attempt to enter without proper authorization."
There, that ought to keep them out. Nobody wants the cost of another body added to their ticket price. Charlie dashes off a quick message to Bell, explaining the situation and asking her to figure out a workable orbit to launch from. He then realizes that he'll have to double-check her math to make sure she's not trying to kill them, and rubs his head. This is such a mess. He nods at Hyde.
"Shall we see if they need any help on engineering?"
Hyde gives him a curious glance, and then shrugs.
"Sure, why not? I'm not sure what we can do, but who knows?"
Charlie smiles a little.
"There are ways we could help?"
"Oh? Like what, for example?"
"Maybe they need somebody to plug a pressure leak with their arse."
Hyde begins to chuckle. It's a low, rich, dark note, like fine liquor being poured into a wooden barrel. After a second, Charlie begins to laugh as well. It builds slowly, and they're howling and clutching the walls by the time the elevator reaches the ground floor. Finally, Charlie starts to recover. He's almost got it under control by the time the elevator doors open. Then he makes eye contact with Hyde. They come off the elevator on the engineering deck howling and drawing odd stares. It's not even all that funny, but it's good to laugh about something- anything.
Charlie catches a glimpse of John Churchill. He and two of his men are gathered around the main table. Charlie quietly makes the engineering interfaces visible to his rig. A syncing icon appears in front of his face, turns over, and suddenly everything becomes visible. Charlie can suddenly see that the whole room is a mess. Windows, graphs, and interfaces are scattered everywhere, plastered onto every available surface and orbiting every man there like a garbage dump sucked into a holographic tornado. An area has been cleared around the table, and then men there are examining a single three dimensional model of the engine with few panes orbiting it.
Charlie takes a moment to compose himself, and Hyde puts on a straight, military face. He walks up to Churchill, who glances up politely, but expectantly.
"Do you have time for a status report, Il Churchill?"
Churchill glances down at the model contemplatively for a moment, and then back up.
"Yes, I think so, sir. Nothing I can do just now. Now, I'm not sure how well certified you are with this kind of equipment, sir-."
"Well, the short version is that we're essentially using superconductors to contain deuterium in a magnetic trap, and we're using plutonium fission to start a self-perpetuating chain reaction, with the output feeding back into the trap. Now, the trouble is that the fusion cycle is very hot, and refuses quite a bit of the helium output, which produces heavy elements. Due to the intense heat and pressure inside the engine, those elements will eventually accumulate and go critical."
Charlie can feel his eyes gazing over. Hyde's expression is unreadable as ever. Churchill notices and stops.
"The fusion cycle makes iron. The iron gets too hot and fuses, which produces a hell of a lot of neutrons and irradiates everything and everyone on board."
"Oh. Right. Please continue."
"So, the scrubber is a magnetic trap that filters heavy matter like iron out of the engine. The matter used to periodically replace the reflector and radiation shielding, as the fusion ablates the coating."
"Okay. So what's gone wrong?"
"Well, somehow, a huge amount of heavy matter got into the engine cycle, and the scrubber was unable to cope. It became jammed, and a pipe ruptured. Several deep engine compartments have been depressurized and flooded with plasma all morning.
"Don't worry, it's all structural diamond. The trouble is that the scrubber is a complete mess, and we've had to take it offline, which means that iron has been building up in the fusion cycle for a while. We've cooled the engine down as much as we can, but we really need to fix the scrubber, or else we'll have to kill the engine to avoid a major problem. Restarting it presents certain risks."
Hyde rubs his chin.
"By 'restarting the engine,' you mean setting off a neutron bomb inside the ship."
"The ship's been designed with that possibility in mind, but, yes, it is unsafe. The device would be less than one kiloton, and it would be detonated in the reaction chamber. However, the risks of a containment failure are non-negligible. I'd prefer not to, if I can avoid it."
Charlie looks worried.
"How long have we got?"
"About four hours, all told. I've got two of my boys in there in mylar hotsuits, trying to fix the pipe so we can start a maintenance cycle on the scrubber. They can only work for so long before they overheat, though. It's very, very hot in there. We've been sending them in with buckets of liquid nitrogen to cool off, but it's not helping. Really, it's just a matter of whether we fix it before we run out of time."
"I think I might know somebody who can help."
· · · — — — · · ·
Charlie looks at Captain Adams. They're sitting in his cabin. Adams is still in his bathrobe, and he looks tired. He was likely up late doing - well, something Captain-like, certainly.
"There's a way to fix this, but we've got to hurry. I believe Blanchet briefed you on her nanotech artillery?"
"Om Blanchet informed me that she had brought fifty kilograms of smartclay in a briefcase."
"There's been a problem in the engine room, and I think a golem or a smartclay suited human might be able to do what might not ordinarily be possible. The whole deck is flooded with plasma, but I think Blanchet might be able to help. I wanted to get your go-ahead before I tried it."
"Hmm. What's our alternative?"
"Well, we hope that they can fix it in time. If not, we shut down the engine and restart it later, which presents some pretty substantial risks, even if it works."
Adams purses his lips.
"Okay, do it. Get Blanchet to sign off, and get the golem in there."
Charlie salutes, and hurries to Blanchet's cabin. He tries not to give the impression of urgency, and project an attitude of serene efficiency. No sense in panicking anyone just yet.
Pennycut stops him in the hall a few rooms up from Blanchet.
"Excuse me, XO Frost. I still have not recieved the body of my-"
Charlie brushes past her, not slowing down.
"I'm sorry, Om Pennycut, there's a pressing matter that demands my attention. I'll get back to you."
He catches a glimpse of her shocked, angry expression before he turns the corner, turns the corner again, and reaches Blanchet's cabin. He flips up the interface, and rings the bell.
No response. Charlie rings again. Nothing. Charlie opens the intercom.
"Blanchet. Open the door, this is XO Frost, there's an urgent matter that we need your hep with."
"Blanchet? I'm coming in."
Charlie hard-overrides the door, and immediately steps aside in case it's rigged with a grenade. There's no thump and he doesn't lose any limbs, so he decides it's safe. Watching for any teltale trip wires, he steps into the cabin. It's small and it's entirely dark except for the dim emergency lighting around the edge of the floor.
Charlie shuts the door behind him and instantly regrets it as the darkness becomes complete. It's very dark and very creepy in there. Charlie reaches for the flashlight clipped to his belt. As he does so, he feels the air move in the dark beside him. He whips out the flashlight and points it.
In the harsh circle of light on the wall, Charlie can see the structure of the wall melting. The texture of the wood paneling and fake wallpaper is running out, reforming itself into a shape emerging from the wall. An arm is reaching out towards him.
Charlie fumbles at his interface, managing to activate the lights. Across the room, the arms is joined by a head and a torso as Jack crawls his way out of the wall. He's between Charlie and the door. Charlie's about to make a run for the bathroom, but Jack's already on him, moving impossibly fast, like a video played in fast-forward, knocking the flashlight out of Charlie's hand.
Jack grabs him around the throat and pins him to the wall. Charlie can feel his ribcage flexing as the Jack implacably increments the pressure. He fumbles for his sidearm. He doesn't expect the gun to do much good, but he isn't going down without the attempt.
The bathroom door opens over Jack's shoulder.
"Drop him, Jack."
There's a brief pause, and the golem releases Charlie, who sinks down the wall to the floor. Jack takes two steps back. His shape is rough and inhuman, and his coloring and texture is still that of the wallpaper.
The golem turns a bright, fire-engine red, and collapses into a glossy sphere, which turns black. He rolls back into the corner, waiting.
Blanchet steps out of the door as Charlie picks himself up off the floor. She's out of uniform, and she looks bad. She's not wearing a wig or makeup, and she's very pale, her limbs shaky. Charlie rubs his chest, which is going to be a mess of bruises, and recognizes the sick, sweet smell of vomit.
She sits down on the bed. Her voice is hoarse.
"I apologize, Om Frost. I neglected to instruct Jack not to kill crew. What can I do for you?"
She must be pretty sick, she hardly even sounds hostile.
"There's been some damage to the engine. I think 'Jack' can help us. Are fit for duty?"
Blanchet laughs, and rubs her face.
"I'm... unwell, Charlie. I'll be fine in a few hours, when the medication kicks in, but for now I really can't help you."
"If there's a congenital defect with your body, I can have you resur-"
She coughs, and looks him in the eye.
"This body represents three million Euros worth of military hardware. A new one from the fabricator isn't going to cut it. A permanent defect that can be managed through medication isn't a defect in the eyes of the Crown."
"Take Jack. You have people better qualified to operate him than me. I'll be there for the debriefing."
She glances at Jack.
"MNC-Type 114, Designate 'Jack'."
The ball flashes red in response.
"I am handing over tier-2 control of your systems to Om Frost over here. Fullfill any task that he requires, but do not release any confidential information or allow him access to your system files. In four hours, delete his user account and undo any firmware changes made. Return here. Confirm."
The ball flashes red.
Blanchet nods at Charlie.
"If you damage him, I will not hesitate to bill you."
Charlie gives her a cold stare, which she matches flatly. Then, he turns back to Jack, syncing his interface. A tile appears floating in front of him. He taps it, and Jack erupts with interfaces. Charlie decides to stick with voice commands for now.
"Show human forms."
The interface changes, and a series of miniature people appear floating in mid air over the sphere. As he browses, Charlie notes that both he and most of the crew and passengers are in the index. Charlie selects the generic crewman, and taps it.
The sphere turns bright glossy red, and mushrooms upwards, taking on human form. In a few seconds, the crewman is standing in front of Charlie, staring straight ahead with dead eyes.
"Follow me, stay close behind, don't make eye contact."
Charlie walks to the elevator, the golem behind him, and takes it up into the engine room. He walks up to Churchill and Hyde, who are staring at the engine diagram. Hyde glances up as Charlie enters the room.
"Frost, did you come up with something?"
"Maybe. How go repairs?"
Churchill starts to respond when two men in mylar suits tumble out of the elevator. One of them stumbles towards them, stripping mylar gear off of his body. The outer layer of Mylar is molten, and sizzles when it hits the ground. His face is read and slick with sweat. His hair is actually steaming.
"We've got the casing off, but the magnetic rings are completely cooked. It's getting hotter in there, John. We almost didn't make it out this time. The liquid n was gone inside ten seconds. This isn't working, and we're running out of hot suits."
Charlie steps forward. Jack moves to remain behind him.
"I might be able to help."
Churchill gives him an irritable look.
"I don't think so, sir - and who the hell is this?"
"Meet 'Jack'. Jack, please create two industrial heat suits capable of surviving... how hot is it in there?"
"About a thousand degrees Kelvin," supplies Hyde.
"...Fifteen hundred degrees Kelvin."
There's a brief pause, and then Jack splits in half, both halves sliding sideways on one foot until they're about an inch apart. The line down the middle of his face and body is smooth, shiny red. Churchill's jaw drops about a centimeter.
The two halves turn red and expand, unfolding into a complex mechanical exoskeleton, collapsed at their feet. Charlie steps into one. As his feet slide into the boots, the plates begin to fold themselves onto his body, locking into place. Charlie feels a little shudder as they clamp onto him. Hyde gives him a confused look.
"What are you doing?"
"It's smart clay, it'll be able to-"
"No, I have that part. I meant, why are you suiting up?"
"Two man teams is standard procedure. Besides, the smart clay is under my command. If it's necessary to do so, I can have it produce more implements."
"I see. Fair enough."
Charlie sighs, shakily.
"I was kind of hoping you'd talk me out of it. It's a thousand damn degrees in there."
"I'm sorry, Frost; you're right."
Charlie turns around.
"Churchill? Which of your men is going with me?"
Churchill contemplates the other suit, collapsed in a block on the ground.
"My men are tired. I'm perfectly well qualified to do the job, and I'm the freshest. You're sure this hardware is safe?"
"Absolutely," lies Charlie.
Churchill steps into the suit, which begins to assemble itself around his body. He glances around.
"Jones, Cam, we're going to need a mobile backup unit, and two syringes of SOC, as quickly as humanly possible. Oh, and a cannister of liquid nitrogen."
The two scurry off, returning a minute later with the equipment. One of them straps the backup rig onto Charlie's head. Charlie gathers his thoughts. There's a click, a sharp pain, and a buzz as the device reads off a copy of his chip off to the Burgundy's backup server. Charlie catches himself marveling at the ease and lack of care with which the procedure is done. On New Damascus, the same procedure would cost ten thousand Euros, plus a monthly maintenance fee. He's spent too much time away from civilization. He tries to rub his forehead, but stops himself before he crushes his head with the gauntlet. Charlie gingerly lowers his arm.
Charlie turns to Jones as Cam puts the backup rig onto Churchill. Jones produces a syringe full of milky white fluid.
"This is a syringe full of SOC, which is a synthetic oxygen carrier several thousand-"
"I know what SOC is. How long is this dose rated for?"
"Of course, sir. This is rated for eight hours in anoxic conditions."
"Fine. Better than carrying around compressed oxygen in there."
Charlie taps an interface button, and the armor retreats up his arm. Jones swabs the area with a clear antiseptic gel. The skin feels cold, then numb. The needles goes in. Charlie feels slightly dizzy.
"There may be some mild auto-immune reactions to the compound. Expect some flu-like symptoms for the duration."
Charlie rubs his arm and shakes his head, trying to clear it.
Jones delivers the same injection to Churchill. Cam hands Charlie a metal cannister.
"This is a dewar of liquid nitrogen. If either of you catches fire and needs to cool off, the other should pour a little over him. Otherwise, pour this over the magnets when they're in, to get them down to room temperature."
Charlie takes it. Wait a moment - they locked the nitrogen locker...
Casually, he says,
"Where did you get this dewar?"
"We keep a few down here in case of emergencies. We've used most of them today."
Charlie nods. Wonderful. He decides to focus on the matter at hand. Speaking clearly, he says,
"Jack, seal both suits, switch on active cooling, flush the internal atmospheres with pure nitrogen, and activate the suit radios."
The suit seals completely around him, and there's a hiss and a click. Charlie takes a few experimental breaths of pure nitrogen. Hmm. He's not unconscious yet, so the injection seems to be working. He turns to Churchill; he's still standing, so it probably worked for him, too. Churchill picks up a box of parts.
"Can you hear me?"
The suit radio crackles, and a voice replies in his ear.
"Yes, sir. You ready to go?"
"Sure. Which way to hell?"
Churchill points. Charlie follows him. The suits are surprisingly lightweight. They get to the elevator into the deep engine. He waves to Hyde, who salutes. Charlie has some difficulty with the interface to raise the elevator, and eventually Jones has to do it for him. The elevator, which is an open platform, trundles up into the engine. It finally arrives at a long airlock. Charlie steps inside. The door closes behind him.
Charlie stares forward at the door at the opposite end of the airlock. He fancies he can see faint curls of steam rising off of it.
"Get ready," says Churchill.
The door slides open, and Hell explodes into the little hallway.
It's not what Charlie imagined. It's a lot worse, actually. Everything is on fire- the walls, the ceiling, the air, him. The air is so bright that the suit's filters can't go dark fast enough to compensate, and the whole world looks low-contrast and washed out. Even through the suit, he immediately starts to feel hot.
Charlie squints into the glare, holding his hand up in front of his face. Fire is crawling up his arm and waves of flame - plasma, he supposes, since there's nothing to burn in a vacuum - are blowing off the walls, buffeting him around. Only the suit clinging to the ground prevents him from being knocked off his feet by the initial burst.
Charlie's disoriented, scared, and getting hotter. He's about to try to retreat back into the elevator, but he sees a dark shape fighting farther ahead into the inferno. It's Churchill, moving towards the end of the room. Charlie swears under his breath and goes after him.
He hears a tinny voice in his ear. Churchill sounds vaguely amused.
"There's no call for that kind of language, sir."
Each step is hard, even with the mechanical assist, and he's right on the edge of being thrown off balance at all times. He can't see much. Charlie stumbles, and almost goes down. As he recaptures his balance, he catches a clear glimpse of the dewar in his arms. It's sweating. Little drops of molten aluminum are running down the sides and dripping off onto his gauntlets and onto the floor. Charlie walks faster, his own breathing echoing inside his helmet.
It seems like he's been going for a long time, without being able to see much of anything except for flames, and the odd glimpse of the dark shape of Churchill in front of him. Finally, they reach the opposite wall. Charlie can't see a thing. He can't even imagine what this must've been like in Mylar hot suits.
"Jack, this a mess. What can you give us on other spectra? Microwave, maybe?"
There's a pause, and the monitor on the inside of his helmet goes black. Charlie waits for a long few seconds, feeling oddly scared. He's very, very far from being comfortable with inhabiting the interior of something that so recently tried to murder him.
The monitor comes back on. This time, though it's still mostly fire, there's an overlay of he room, rendered in start, high-contrast black and white.
Churchill looks at the pipe. Charlie can see now that five pipes run along the wall, terminating in some kind of cylindrical assembly. One of the pipes is open. A piece of diamond shielding with a hole in it is lying abandoned on the ground. Half-melted magnetic rings are being buffeted around the floor. One of them bounces off Charlie's leg with a hollow metal sound. The damaged pipe is venting superheated gas like a blowtorch.
Churchill calmly pulls the ring of magnets out of its sheath. He points.
"There's a valve down that way. If you turn it, it'll stop the flow of gas."
"-I'm not done. After about thirty seconds, if you don't turn it back on, the buildup of pressure will blow out the magnets in the elbow joint on the aft side. This'll flood the engineering deck with plasma and kill everyone down there."
"Yes, Il Churchill?"
"My wrench seems to have melted. Can you make me another?"
Charlie looks at the wrench, which is, indeed, melting, sending liquid steel pouring onto the ground.
"Jack, extrude two kilos of excess material into a Simmons adjustible-head wrench."
He gets a wave of intense heat at a blob appears at the end of his arm. It stretches outwards, and turns into a wrench, which clatters to the floor. Churchill picks it up. Charlie suddenly feels very slightly less protected against the inferno outside the suit.
"Thanks. Right. So, the plan is as follows. You're going to flip the valve. I'm going to push this into place, and tighten the bolts at both ends, then pour liquid nitrogen over the top. This is all going to happen in under twenty seconds seconds. Then, you are going to open the valve, at which point the plasma will be contained and we can put the casing back on."
"You might want to unlock the lid of the dewar now, in that case."
Churchill reaches down, picks up the wrench and unscrews the lid, leaving it in place. Gas instantly begins to hiss out of the end. Charlie doesn't like the sweating aluminum. If it explodes, they're screwed. He walks over to the valve, and puts one gauntlet onto it.
"Whatever you do, I want you to count to twenty, and then open that valve, no matter what. We can try again with more parts. Replacing everyone on the engine deck will be considerably more expensive."
Charlie turns the valve. The plasma in the room suddenly flashes away, leaving them standing in vacuum. Churchill springs to work, pushing the magnetic ring into place, and tightening the bolts. Thirteen seconds. He shakes it to make sure it's in, and gives it another jerk with the wrench. Ten seconds. Churchill picks up the dewar, and pulls the lid off.
The liquid nitrogen starts to flash boil out the end, a column of gas blasting out into the vacuum. Charlie gestures frantically. Six seconds. Churchill empties the dewar over the magnets. The vapor obscures absolutely everything visible, leaving just the microwave.
Churchill is scrabbling at the control button on the magnetic cylinder. The switches are tiny, on the opposite side of the rings. He's not making it. Four seconds.
"Goddamnit it. Open the glove."
The end of his glove opens, and Churchill sticks his bare hand into the vacuum.. He flips three switches and pushes the button. Zero seconds.
"Move your hand!"
Too late. Charlie pushes the valve back. He has to. There's a brilliant flash of light. When Charlie looks again, there's a column of phosphorescent plasma rocketing down the pipe, contained by the magnetic rings. Charlie starts to relax. He hears a very tight, very calm voice in his ear.
"Put the new casing on. It screws into place. Please hurry."
Charlie glances at Churchill, who was knocked back by the fire. The end of his right arm terminates in an open gauntlet, and a charred stump, which he's cradling. He slumps backwards against the wall. Charlie can hear him breathing in his ear. Trying not to think about it, he says,
"Jack, please provide emergency medical assistance to Churchill as best you can."
The end of the gauntlet turns red and clamps down onto Churchill's stump, prompting a soft moan from him. It stays red, a bright churning mass at the end of his arm. Charlie picks up the piece of casing and places it over the empty second of pipe, slotting it into place. He screws two bolts into place. The gas is clearing, and Charlie can see that the heat has boiled away the reinforced titanium that previously coated every surface. There's nothing left but clear structural diamond. Everywhere he looks, he can see deep into the bowels of the ship.
Then, he realizes that the flames aren't completely out. The walls are still burning. They're made out of diamond, and they're burning.
Charlie shakes himself, puts the last bolt in, and helps Churchill to his feet. They limp to the airlock Inside, Charlie thumps the button. The door seals behind them, and opens onto the elevator with a rush of air. They climb onto the elevator, Churchill sagging against him, and Charlie says,
"Remove gauntlets and helmet."
The gloves and the helmet come off. Charlie punches the button to send him down to Engineering. The armor is radiating heat.
As the elevator descends onto engineering, Charlie starts shouting.
"Someone run a cleaning cycle on the scrubber. Jones! Get me a medical kit. Churchill is hurt."
"Did you get it- oh god, what happened?"
"He took his glove off, stupid bastard- Jones! Move!"
Charlie and Hyde helps Churchill onto the table. Jones vanishes. Charlie strips his armor off and fumbles with his interface. Hyde taps something on his interface.
"Dr. Washington, please report to Engineering as soon as possible, there's been an accident and your assistance is required."
Charlie nods at Hyde, then looks to one of the others, Reynolds, he believes.
"Meet him at the elevator and get him through the security."
Reynolds nods and jogs to the elevator. Jones returns with a medical kit. Charlie talks to the suit.
"Jack, please get off Il Churchill."
There's a brief pause, and then the armor liquidates and flows off the man. Churchill looks dazed The end of his arm, though much of the charred tissue has been removed by the suit, is still swollen, and covered with red blisters. The skin is sloughing off, and it's bleeding more than a burn wound should.
"Il Churchill, can you hear me?"
"Yes... yes, I'm still here."
"More or less."
He looks very pale. Charlie rifles through the bag, finds a syringe full of morphine and a packet of antiseptic swabs. He unbuttons Churchill's tweed jacket, and pulls it off him, leaving him in shirtsleeves and suspenders. One of them is charred at one end, and he grabs it and pulls it apart, tearing it up past the elbow. He swabs Churchill's bicep, finds the vein, and gives him the shot. Churchill slumps back against the table. Hyde loosens the man's tie from around his neck, and picks up a round metal chamber housing to elevate his feet.
"Mylar blanket, now."
One of the engineers hurries off, and returns with a silver blanket, which Charlie folds over Churchill. He looks very pale. Blood is pooling on the table next to the arm and dripping onto the floor. Charlie can't figure out why the wound wasn't cauterized. Not enough oxygen, maybe.
He finds some elastic tape, and binds the wound as well as he can to slow down the rate of bleed. The elevator arrives across the room. Maurice Washington steps out, still pulling his black jacket over his shoulders, his hair uneven, his attitude all business.
"Maurice. Can you help?"
Maurice steps in to examine Churchill, and his sheer force of presence causes the others, including Charlie, to take a step back.
"Churchill? Om Churchill? Can you hear me?"
No response. Churchill is out. Maurice removes a pair of rubber gloves from his pocket and begins to pull them on.
"Right. Incinerated hand. Anything else I should know?"
"He's on an SOC, and Charlie just gave him a shot of morphine."
"Good. Well, let's see what we've got."
Maurice goes through his pockets and comes up empty.
"Anyone have diagnostic goggles?"
Charlie turns to Jack.
"Any model, just hurry."
"I need a name."
"Fine. A Sierra 34 will do."
"Thanks. Jack, make me a pair of Sierra 34 diagnostic goggles."
The black sphere behind Charlie extrudes a red ball. The ball rolls across the floor, up the table leg, and onto the surface. Once there, it contorts itself into the shape of a pair of goggles, and takes on the appropriate coloration and detail. Maurice raises an eyebrow but strap them on. He examines the limb curiously.
"Well, this is less than great. Looks like we've got minimal cauterization, high heat diffusion through the limb. Lots of dead tissue. How the hell did this - you know what? Never mind. We'll get to that later. Right now, this limb is dead to about here."
Maurice puts his finger on a place on the arm, just below the elbow. Charlie can see the puffy, lobster red spreading from the stump up the limb already.
"If left by itself, this tissue will start to rot fairly quickly and he'll be septic within a few hours. So, we have the question of how to proceed. We can either save the body and replace the lost limb with a prosthesis, or ditch the body, pull the chip, and resurrect from scratch. We need to decide soon, and you're the presiding commanding officer. It's your call, XO Frost."
Charlie rubs his eyes. He never wanted this. He isn't even supposed to be here. Finally, Hyde asks, gently,
"Save the body. He's the senior engineer, we might need him soon. He can resurrect later if he needs to."
"Understood. Hyde, get me a bone saw and a rubber amputation cup. There's clotting powder in this kit, right?"
Charlie shrugs helplessly. Maurice sighs and rifles through it until he finds a tube of powder.
"Okay. Now, Frost, look through the kit until you find a bottle of antiseptic and some tubing. Also, if there happens to be a metal pin in there about a quarter inch around and four inches long, give it here."
Hyde hurries away while Charlie starts to search. Charlie finds the bottle and the tubing quickly enough, but it takes a while to locate the pin. When he does, it turns out that one end is thick, with three smaller pins attached via jointed legs, and the whole lower end is coated in plastic. The thin end terminates into a sharp point.
Hyde returns with a diamond-toothed saw. Charlie doesn't ask from where. Maurice douses the saw and the limb with brown, foul-smelling antiseptic, pulls a small marker out of his pocket, and makes a line around the limb just below the elbow. He ties the tubing around the upper arm, causing the flow of blood to slow to a trickle.
Immediately, he sets to work with the saw. He moves with quick, neat strokes through the meat. In under a minute, he's through the limb. He sprinkles clotting powder from the tube onto the stump, stopping the flow of blood entirely. He then washes the remaining powder off with more antiseptic. Examining the stump now, he probes the wound with his fingers until he finds the severed end of the bone. He picks up the metal pin, and twists a little nut near the wide end, which cranks the three pins farther and farther apart. Then, he pushes them into the wound around the bone, and twists in the opposite direction until the three pins have a firm grasp on the bone.
Charlie blinks, confused - then, he realizes that the pin in a base platform for a prosthesis later. Maurice squeezes lime-green gel onto the wound, sculpting it around the base of the pin into a smooth mound. He picks up a rubber cup, douses it with antiseptic, and holds it up to the pin, which is sharp at the far end. The end pierces the middle of the cup, and Maurice slides it down the shaft onto the mound of gel, squashing it. Then he picks up a roll of bandages and binds the edges of the rubber dome against the skin of the arm.
"Right. There we go, one clean amputation, prosthetic mount and cleanup. Didn't even have to put him under. How much morphine did you give the poor bastard anyway?"
Charlie shrugs helplessly.
"No wonder. Well, he'll wake up soon, in any case. If he has any more problems, call me. Frost, I'll waive the cost of the surgery if you'll explain to me how this happened. I bet it's a hell of a story."
Maurice bows and vanishes into the elevator. The others watch him go, in a state akin to shock. Charlie makes a visible to attempt to compose himself.
Hyde exhales slowly.
"What the hell happened up there?"
"We were running out of time. He took his glove off to turn on the magnetic rings."
"Did it work?"
"I dunno. Hey, Jones, how's the cleaning cycle on the scrubber going?"
"We've got ninety five percent of the foreign matter out. It's within tolerance now, and the scrubber is back online. We're ramping the engine back up now."
"So we're okay?"
"We're okay. The engine will be back up to normal functioning shortly. The decks are going to need major repairs. Right now we're just trying to reintroduce an atmosphere to cool them down. It's non-critical, though."
Charlie rubs his nose.
"Look, Jones, I was just recently strolling around an inferno so hot it was igniting diamond. I'm reasonably sure that that's not normal. Do you have any idea what the hell happened to cause all this?"
Jones looks blank.
"Honestly, sir, I have no idea. My best guess is that, somehow, a large quantity of foreign matter was incorrectly disposed of into one of the engine feeds. They're not very well secured, it's not impossible for someone to dispose of illicit materials this way. The foreign matter gummed up the scrubber. A few hours later, everything goes straight to hell. I'm having Robertson do an analysis of the matter, see if we can figure out what it was."
"Thank you, please give me your report as soon as possible."
On the table behind Charlie, Churchill stirs. Charlie turns around. Churchill sits up slowly, supported by Hyde.
"Ho, Churchill. How're you feeling?"
Churchill rubs his head with his good hand, looks at Charlie, looks down at the steel needle extending from his stump, and looks back up at Charlie. A dry smile appears on his face.
· · · — — — · · ·
Charlie sits down in his chair, feeling woozy. Blanchet is sitting across from him, and Bell and Adams are sitting towards the display wall. Blanchet looks slightly pale, but is otherwise back to normal.
Adams rubs his head.
"Alright, let's just take it from the top, there's a lot to cover. Il Frost, the bombs are made?"
"Yes, sir. No plutonium, but they're otherwise complete. I sealed them in the third shuttle for safekeeping. Hyde suggested we detonate them from a relativistic orbit. I asked Bell to run the numbers."
He gestures to Bell, who looks startled, fumbles for a moment, and then finds her work.
"I've found an orbit that I think we can maintain with a reasonable level of energy input that'll allow us to detonate the bomb before they reach the surface, without getting too crispy in the process. The bad news is that we'll be moving very, very fast, and aiming will be tricky. In any case, I've loaded a copy of my work onto the ship's mainframe, and onto the shuttle's hard drive."
Adams glances at Charlie, who surreptitiously makes a note to double-check Bell's numbers, just to be sure. Charlie sniffles and massages his arms, which ache. Adams raises an eyebrow.
"You're shivering, Il Frost. Are you alright?"
"Fine, sir. Side effect of the SOC we were using, there's a mild auto-immune response. It'll clear my system in a few hours."
"Good. We're under a lot of pressure, here, and I need everyone at their best."
He nods to Bell.
"Il Bell, could you please briefly run us through what's changed with the planet's status?"
"Sure. Well, we're quite a bit closer. I give us three or four days, depending on engine function, before we hit Ilium orbit. We need to start figuring out what we're going to do when we get there. I'd like to reiterate Hyde's recommendation that we freeze all non-essential personnel and operate from the engineering decks as we enter the system."
Adams considers this.
"I'll take it under consideration and give my verdict in a day or two."
"Understood, sir. Now, given that we have more data , I've been putting together some higher resolution images to work with, and trying to extrapolate surface data. Here's what I've got."
She thumbs something in her interface, and a model appears floating in the middle of the table. It's Ilium, in considerably more detail. The additional detail does nothing to diminish it's rotten appearance - if anything...
"-Bigger. Yes. Nearly twice as large, now, and growing. Whatever this is, it's fast. Now, the good news is that we're starting to pick up some radio from it, coming from an unaffected spot on the planet, which I've pinned down. It's very faint - totally unintelligible, but we know somebody is left alive. Also, we've got radio pulses consistent with detonation of sub-kiloton neutron bombs on the surface. A lot of them. Someone is alive, and they're fighting back."
Charlie finds himself grinning. In the face of all this weirdness, even nuclear warfare is a comforting familiarity. He makes a conscious effort to stop.
Bell exhales slowly, and her jaw gets stiff. Charlie rubs his head. This is going to be bad.
"There is some bad news."
Blanchet raises an eyebrow.
"Wait, that wasn't bad news?"
Bell gives her a look, and continues.
"You remember Ilium's moon, Cassandra?"
They nod - then, Charlie suddenly asks, with a sinking feeling,
"What do you mean, 'remember'?"
Bell looks shaky.
"I can't find it."
Adams gives her a blank stare.
"You can't find the moon?"
"It was there yesterday. Now it's not."
"Did you check the video logs?"
"Yes. Whatever happened to it, it happened on the far side of the planet. It went around, and it didn't come back. It's like a damn magic trick, sir."
There's a moment of silence. Blanchet looks stony-faced, whether with fear or anger is anyone's guess. Charlie exhales slowly.
"The moon is gone."
"Yes. It's gone. Now, I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm pretty much stumped. I really have no ideas as to what's going on on Ilium, but whatever it is it's scaring the hell out of me."
There's a pause. Charlie's been turning over an idea in his head.
"What about a black hole?"
Blanchet gives him an odd look.
"There are no known black holes for a light millennium in any direction."
"What about a wandering one?"
The others stare at him for three long, uncomfortable seconds. Charlie feels his face getting red.
"It could happen. Besides, unless any of you have a better idea, I'd say that I'm prepared to accept a black hole as a reasonable explanation."
"So what about the moon? It's not like it'd jump out and eat the moon and fall back in."
"Binary pair of black holes. One of them hit the planet, the other wandered into an orbit that eventually consumed the moon."
Charlie's getting into this now. He's talking with his hands, really sold on the idea.
"There'd be an accretion belt from the moon's mass. Besides, a black hole that big would've changed the orbits, which hasn't happened."
Charlie feels his torso deflate slightly.
Bell looks sympathetic.
"It was a good idea."
Adams surveys the table.
"If you're quite through with the ungrounded speculation, there are a few more points to consider here. Il Bell, is their inertial buffer still intact?"
"As far as I can tell, yes. For now."
"Thank you. Please ping them every hour, on the hour. Let me know if we get any response at all. I'd prefer not to spend any more time here than we have to. Anything further, Il Bell?"
Bell shakes her head.
"Very well, then, on to the main point: Frost, what in the hell happened in the engine room today?"
Charlie composes himself.
"There was an accident. Some foreign matter was dumped into the engine cycle, the heavy element scrubber failed, and there was a containment failure on one of the inter-engine decks. I used Blanchet's smart clay stockpile as an aid, and Churchill and I intervened and were able to solve the problem. There is some permanent damage that will need additional material to repair, but the ship is essentially functioning. Also, Churchill lost his hand in the line of duty. He acted bravely, and saved a number of lives by doing so."
The Captain bows his head.
"How is Churchill?"
"He was fine, last I left him. Upbeat. He's being fitted with a prosthesis now, I believe."
"Glad to hear it. Tough old boy, I'll give him that. Now, any idea how the foreign matter got into the engine cycle?"
Charlie shrugs, and keeps a carefully straight face.
"The matter is under analysis."
"I see. Well, then, please report back to me when you have more information. Anyone else have anything to report?
Bell hurries off. Charlie intentionally dawdles, pretending to poke absently at his interface As soon as the door shuts behind her, Charlie says,
"Sorry, wanted to wait for her to leave. The engineers already completed their analysis of the foreign matter."
Charlie pulls up the list, takes a deep breath, and recites:
"The foreign matter is as follows: fifty two kilograms of oxygen, fifteen kilograms of carbon, two and a half kilograms of nitrogen, one kilogram of calcium-"
"-oh God," says Blanchet.
Charlie nods grimly. Adams looks curiously at her.
"Am I missing something?
Blanchet sighs, and runs her fingers through her close brown hair.
"It's another body."
"Somebody dumped a body into one of the engine feeds. Or, at least, an assortment of matter in the same proportion as an eighty kilogram adult human body."
Adams looks grim.
Blanchet nods slowly.
"Probably. The odds of having two crazed killers on board are exceedingly low."
She pauses, and casts a cold glance in the direction of the wall.
"Om Pennycut aside, naturally."
Adams gives her a sharp look, but doesn't comment. He sighs, and stands up.
"Well, if this is a corpse, it does raise an obvious question."
He survey's the table, scratches his head, and looks them in the eye.
LAST INDEX NEXT
Good lord these things are getting long. Apologies for this taking a while, it wound up being 10,000 words instead of 5000. Having each chapter correspond to one day is proving to be problematic as the days get more interesting. I may have to come up with a different organizational schema.
But, hey! You'll be happy to know that Spaceballs was correct in at least one regard: Even in the future nothing works.
Til next time,