CHAPTER SIXThe Hole
Charlie squints at the tiny image on the wall in the conference room.
"Can't you make it any bigger?"
Bell gives him an irritated look. She's been decidedly cold towards him since the kiss in the gym. He's tempted to reprimand her, but mildly terrified that she'll kill him if he crosses her.
"We're a passenger ship, not a telescope. We're lucky to be getting this."
"Well, can't you enhance it or something?"
"And trust the image afterwards? No. This is what we've got to work with."
Charlie squints at the tiny planet.
"It's too dark."
"That I can fix. Sort of."
She adjusts something. The image suddenly brightens. There are some artifacts, but a least he can at least see something.
Charlie squints at the image, then stretches it bigger. It gets blurrier, but he can now make out a dark blotch on the side of the planet.
"What is that?"
Captain Adams sits at the back of the room, tapping a pencil on the desk, and Charlie briefly finds himself thinking that it looks bad to have such bad blood with an officer under his command. Then he shakes himself. He's thinking like a shipmate, now? He's got to get out of here.
The Captain contemplates the blurry, artifact-ridden image on the monitor.
"Any hope off getting a point cloud out of that? Are we close enough to get a binocular depth analysis?"
"No. We're still three light hours out. It's spinning. I could try to do pixel matching and do a spherical depth projection from that, but it would still be pretty rough.'
"Give it a try. We need more than this."
"With respect, sir, this is all we have. Anything I give you will just be another way of interpreting the data already here. I'm not a magician, sir."
"I understand that. Please try anyway."
"Aye, sir. Thankfully, it's a fairly common problem, so there are already programs to do this. They're meant to work with bigger images, but I'll give it a try."
Charlie watches as she opens a program on the wall, and begins to flip through menus. She runs it. A warning comes up about image resolution, which she closes. Within a few seconds, a sphere, partially textured with images of Ilium appears. She runs the program, and the surface of the sphere begins to deform. For the first few seconds , the deformations are mostly random variations. Then, suddenly, part of the planet just vanishes.
They stare. The dark spot on the planet has dissapeared into a mess of jagged polygons flicking in and out. Charlie squints.
"Il Bell? What does this mean?"
Any antagonism forgotten, she spins the globe in front of her, her hands and eyes flickering back and forth between the program settings, the error log, and the sphere.
"Looks like... yes. The pixel tracking is breaking down here. They're moving too much. The inclines are too extreme, and it can't figure out which pixel has moved where. Right now, it's assuming default values for 'lost' pixels, which is why it's all bumpy when they're low. Let me adjust it so that it samples the surrounding values for the lost pixels.
She brings up a floating keyboard, and changes a setting, entirely focused, dead to the world. After a few seconds, she re-runs the program.
The sphere appears. There are no jagged polygons, now. A good fifth of the planet's surface is just gone, sunk hundred of miles in. It's black because it's gone.
Charlie stares at the mesh. It's blurry and crude and blocky, but the shape is unmistakable.
"It looks... rotten."
Bell shakes her head.
"I'm sorry, this can't be right. There must be an error in the process somewhere."
Charlie shakes his head.
"We didn't do anything to it. I mean, nothing that could introduce errors on this scale. Not errors this consistent. I think we have to accept the serious possibility that this is real."
Now Blanchet is shaking her head. She looks angry.
'This can't be real. I've seen a whole world bombed into radioactive cinders. I've seen asteroids get planet crackers dropped on them. I don't know of anything that could do this."
Bell looks at her curiously.
"I thought you were a Madam from the colonies?"
Captain Adams intercedes smoothly.
"I think we have larger concerns at the moment than Om Blanchet's identity. Il Bell, any further radio transmissions from the planet?"
She suddenly looks troubled.
Charlie feels a little chill meander down his spine. Bell continues, quietly.
"Nothing. Nothing at all."
"I see. Il Bell, do you agree with Il Frost's analysis of the point cloud extrapolation?"
"I suppose so. I mean, I don't know what could cause these sorts of errors..."
Blanchet interrupts her flatly.
Charlie looks at her, feeling his cheeks flush.
"When the impossible is eliminated-"
"No. This is impossible."
Charlie rubs his face. Adams peers at her.
"No. I'm not being irrational. I've seen every weapon under the suns, and a few that don't officially exist, and there isn't anything that can rot a planet like that. The system's broken. I don't care how unlikely it is, it's the only possibility. I won't run around in circles chasing system ghosts just because your sysadmin is -"
She stops suddenly. Bell looks at her with eyes as cold as moonlit night on an airless world.
"-is what, Madam Blanchet? What precisely are you implying? Because I'm not the one who's living here under an assumed name. Do you think I'm stupid?"
Blanchet matches her, glare for glare. She turns to the Captain.
"Get her out of here before I shoot her and settle this thing."
Bell's hand moves to her sidearm. Her voice rises in anger.
"I'd like to see you-"
"Il Bell! Leave us."
She glances at the Captain, and then back to Blanchet. There's a long silence, and then, without taking her eyes of Blanchet,
She gets up, and leaves. Charlie watches her go. The second the door closes, both Charlie and Adams round on Blanchet. The Captain's eyes are blazing.
"What the hell was that, Blanchet?"
"It's obvious. I don't know why I didn't see it before. Listen, who on board this ship has ops privliges for the entire communication array?"
Adams doesn't lessen the anger in the his voice, but he does reply. Charlie suddenly tunes them out, and begins to stare at the monitor.
"Myself, XO Frost, and... Bell."
"And who picked up the initial distress call? Who found Ilium on the telescopes? Who brought up this light show for us?"
"Bell. Yes, yes, I understand. You think she's faking it?"
"What's more likely? That a quarter of a planet just went missing, or that the body-hopping psychopath wearing a techie brain and body is making up scary pictures to distract us?"
"The video was so corrupted that it could've been anything. Cross has all kinds of tools here. Even a layman with a helpful echo could mix up something plausible looking in a few hours. Captain, I think we're chasing ghosts."
"She's never believed the images we've been getting-'
"-but we have. It doesn't matter what he pretends to believe, so long as we buy it."
Adams shakes his head.
"I need a pipe. Even if you're right, we need Ilium's gravity well to turn around. In a few days, we'll be able to get a clearer picture-"
"-through the systems that Cross has had days to corrupt. I think our instruments can very easily lie to us. Captain, I suggest we wait until we're close enough to actually look out a window. Otherwise, I don't think we can trust anything from here on out."
"Why would Cross want to divert us?"
Blanchet looks grim.
"I haven't gotten that far yet. Maybe he plans to hijack the ship and duplicate himself. Maybe he just wants to go to Ilium. Whatever it is, I'm sure it's not good for us."
Captain Adams turns to Charlie, who is still staring absently at the wall.
"XO Frost. Thoughts?"
Charlie glances up at them.
"She kissed me."
There's a brief silence. Then,
"Il Gwen Bell. She kissed me. Yesterday. During our sparring session."
"Why didn't you tell me this sooner?"
"I was going to wait until I had a useful analysis. I don't think I'm going to have one."
Blanchet looks at him curiously.
"Wouldn't have thought you'd be the type to fraternize. I suppose it's better than geno-"
"I apologize. I must remind you that this is Cross we're dealing with. He's a infinitely capable, manipulative, and above all motivated monster. He'll do anything to sew confusion among the ranks of his enemies; a group that includes, unfortunately, us. If he's willing to go to all this trouble to drag us off on a multi-million mile goose chase, a kiss wouldn't be a tremendous leap-"
Charlie is already shaking his head.
"It didn't feel like that. It felt real, and she seemed really embarrassed afterwards."
Captain Adams has been thinking about this, and glances at them.
"It's important to be careful when dealing with Cross. He's an expert at exploiting gut feeling and intuition to his advantage. He can craft emotions and personalities so complex that you feel like a monster for not believing him."
Blanchet nods politely, and continues.
"Besides, his chip was partially corrupted. This is a mutant strain of Cross. Homosexuality isn't unheard of in cases of chip damage. Maybe he likes you."
Adams shakes his head.
"Il Frost, please go calm Bell down and make sure she doesn't try to gas us all. Blanchet, please control yourself next time you have a brainwave. We'll keep watching the images, just in case. Dismissed."
Charlie begins to walk towards the door. Behind him, Blanchet keeps talking in a casual tone of voice.
"Of course, there is another possibility. Frost?"
"You wouldn't happen to remember what the code phrase we discussed yesterday was, would you?"
Charlie doesn't turn around.
Her voice is cold and utterly unapologetic.
"Go to hell."
Charlie leaves. After briefly consulting with the security software suite, he heads down to the Helm.
· · · — — — · · ·
Bell is sitting in the helm. Charlie throws himself through the void on his knees, grabbing the handhold and pulling him upright beside her. She's pecking at some invisible interface with tight, sharp motions. He catches a glimpse of her face in the dim, reflected light. She looks absolutely livid. He speaks quietly.
"Blanchet was way out of line."
"Damn right. I'm going to kill her. Who the hell does she think she is?"
Charlie exhales slowly.
"Gwen, she's a royal knight. She's a police officer."
Bell suddenly stops moving. He can see the shape of her head in the dark, and she's staring at the wall in front of them. Her hands are frozen in mid-air.
"We were asked not to tell anyone, but there is is. She's suspicious of everyone. She hates you, and she hates me. The only one she respects is Adams, and that's because he was a soldier, once."
Bell laughs bitterly.
"Well, she thinks I'm incompetent or worse. Why does she hate you?"
Charlie sits there in silence for a long minute. Bell seems about to say something else, when he finally speaks.
"I've done some very bad things, Gwen."
"I thought you might have. Do you know what you did?
"No, but she does."
"She hates you a lot. Maybe I should be afraid."
"Maybe. I would be."
"So what do we do about her?"
"I don't think we do anything. We may need her, if this thing on Ilium turns out the way it might. We don't have weapons, but we have a lot of old soldiers. Hyde will fight for his niece, and Adams fought in the first Imperial war. If it comes down to it, Blanchet and her suitcase full of smartclay isn't the worst thing to have on our side."
Bell laughs bitterly.
"Old soldiers. Funny, that. If you live long enough, everyone turns into an old soldier."
"This is going to be bad, what's happened to Ilium. A fifth of the planet is just gone. I can't even begin to imagine what could do that. It looked rotten."
"Yeah. Yeah, it did."
They sit there side by side in the dark, staring at the wall. Bell probably has some interface spread out, but he can't see it. Charlie fights over an internal contention, and then realizes that it doesn't matter. Cross or not, he needs to be on good terms with Bell. Charlie speaks, quietly.
"I'm sorry about yesterday."
She looks down.
"Yeah, me too."
"Alright. Alright, yes, this is stupid. If we're going into a war zone, this is stupid. Friends?"
She salutes. Charlie salutes back. He pushes off the chair, rebounds off the wall with his knees, and sails backwards. His hand drifts to his sidearm. He could end this all, right now- the whole problem just a mess of brains on the walls.
There are a million problems with the idea. Cross could very easily have rigged a dead man's switch that would dump the engine core and destroy the ship if he dies. If he misses, Cross or not, Bell will probably try to kill him, and she might well succeed. If he just wounds her, there are both problems. Hell, his bullet could ricochet and kill him without any intervention from her.
But, he'd know.
Charlie takes his hand away, and turns around to hold off the temptation. He nearly clocks his head on the entrance to the shaft. The faint force of acceleration drags him towards a wall. He ducks into the elevator, flips himself onto the floor and spends most of the ride repeatedly bashing his head against the wall.
He manages to get his hair out of his face and collect himself before the doors open. As he leaves, an alert appears in the air beside him. He taps it absentmindedly. It opens into a window, and Adams squints out at him. Charlie realizes that he's probably looking out of the security camera. He turns towards it and salutes. Adams salutes back.
"You pacify Bell?"
"Yes, sir. It's taken care of."
"I'm sorry about that, Frost. Blanchet is clearly unstable. I'll speak with her."
"Thank you sir.'
"Doctor Maurice Washington is having a party in his cabin in four hours. I'd like you to attend."
"A field medic is always useful. Besides, I'm not completely sold on Bell being Cross. The kiss doesn't make any sense. I'd like you to look for other candidates. And try to find out what's going on with Evans. Hyde has been pestering me. He said she has wounds on his arms."
"Wounds? Have you checked the security feeds to see who she's been spending time with?"
"She has a dozen visitors in her quarters, often alone. It could be anyone. As for what goes on inside, well, the cameras don't go that far."
"I see. I'll try to find out what I can."
"Thank you, XO Frost."
Adams salutes. Charlie returns the gesture. The window vanishes, and Charlie sets a four-hour timer.
Charlie briefly runs considers what to do for the intervening time. He decides to have lunch, and go for another round in the gym - without Bell, this time. The exercise is good for him. Besides, he evidently has thin heart walls. If they're going to fail, he wants it to be now, when he still has allies to resurrect him.
Turning a corner into the dining hall, he stop and looks up at the sky, searching for Ilium. He can't find it, of course, but he can see Regulus, though - a big, bright star in the sky, growing imperceptably nearer. He scans the dining room, and sees Hyde sitting with someone he doesn't recognize.
Ah well, better than eating alone. He walks over to the table, and bows. Hyde gives a shallow bow from his seat, and nods at the other man.
"XO Frost, this is Om Robert Stephenson. Robert, XO Charles Frost."
He smiles at Charlie.
"Bob, please. What'll you have, XO Frost?"
Charlie smiles back, and sits down.
"Call me Charlie. How about a turkey sandwich on rye with mustard, and a nice cold beer?"
"Coming right up."
He thumbs the controller, and after a few seconds the assembler begins to hum. Hyde nods at Bob.
"Robert here was just explaining to me that he nukes moons for a living."
"It's a bit more complicated than that. I'm in homesteading. You ever seen a floater?"
"Can't say I'm familiar with the term."
"They're big, long moons that aren't round. They call them floaters because - well. Anyway, they're big, and they're porous and fragile, and essentially pretty useless, even if they've got water. So, what I do it take the things, nuke it into a molten sludge, then mold it into a ball with high explosives. It vaporizes all the water out, and forms it into a nice hard ball. The water condenses on the surface as clean snow. All you have to do is lay some some infrastructure, and you've got a homestead capable of supporting forty, fifty thousand people."
Charlie leans in.
"I hadn't heard of that. "
"It's fairly new. Last five years or so. I've been out on the other side of the Gap, setting up a dozen homesteads around Calvaire."
"That's Pennycut's world."
"Yes, sir, it is. They've been having a bit of a population crunch out there for a while. Master Pennycut asked me to come down and help them out."
Charlie peers at him. The assembler dings, and Bob passes him the plate.
"How was the hospitality?'
"Fine. I wasn't expecting much, but they surprised me. Big suite when I wasn't up there personally, waited on hand and foot twenty four hours a day by Pennycut's girls. Real food. Not a thing to complain about. Fine hosts."
Hyde nods. Charlie gets a brief, unsettling mental image of a girl with two missing fingers. Very clean cuts. He shakes it off, and takes a bite of his sandwich, which is gritty and tastes of plastic. He takes a drink of the beer, which is similar.
"Must've been a shock to wind up here with Madam Pennycut after that."
"A little, but there aren't many ships making trips across the Gap these days. Was bound to happen."
Charlie takes a bite of his sandwich, inspects Bob out of the corner of his eyes, and asks,
"Any idea why she's traveling?"
"Something about a family emergency."
Hyde shakes his head, and wipes his mouth.
"Five years. How many of these have you done?"
"A dozen? I did two for Los Dei, a half a dozen for the reconstruction effort on Padaa-"
Hyde's face freezes. Bob rambles on, oblivious.
"-Hell, I did three in the New Kingdom, too. Eight million human souls, we're running out of room. Homesteading is the way of the future."
Hyde's face has returned to some semblance of normality. He's even nodding politely, but his eyes are a little glazed. Charlie glances at him.
He blinks, and glances at Charlie.
"Oh, she's playing a game in my quarters. I'll check in on her in an hour or two."
Bob wipes his mouth, and suddenly blinks. He focuses on some invisible object in the foreground. His fingers swipes at it. He spends a moment listening to something that Charlie can't hear, and then says,
"Okay. Okay, honey. Calm down. I'll be right there."
He taps something in the air, looks back on them, and stands up. He bows.
"Sorry, Charlie, Hyde, the wife needs me. Pleasure to meet you both."
He hurries out of the dining room. Hyde stares off into space. Charlie glances back at Hyde.
"Are you alright, Om Hyde?"
He glances up, looking a little surprised.
"Fine. How's the sandwich?"
"Can't complain. It might get worse if I open my mouth."
"It does a particularly poor job with the turkey. Here, you want something decent to wash it down with?"
Charlie raises an eyebrow. Hyde prods the assembler into producing two shot glasses, then reaches into his vest pocket, and removes a small metal hip flask. He fills both glasses with a clear fluid, and pushes one to Charie. Charlie takes a tentative sip. He breaks into a wide smile.
"Gin? Real gin?"
"You didn't expect me to drink synthetic whisky for six months, did you? I've been rationing the real thing out for the whole trip."
"Thank you for sharing, in that case."
Hyde salutes back, and Charlie downs the rest of his in one swallow.
"Ahh. Big improvement."
Hyde suddenly nods at him.
"Before I forget, Adams asked me to update you on our defensive position."
Charlie glances around. Nobody's sitting within earshot. He turns back to Hyde.
"Well, Om Bell provided me with her initial assessment, and it's fairly bleak. She's mostly right, by the way, but there are a few steps we can take to improve our position at least a little."
He takes a breath, and then continues.
"Now, while it's true that we have no guns or armor to speak up, we have some options. For starters, I'd suggest freezing all passengers and non-essential personnel and moving them into the cryo bay when we get close. We can depressurize the outer decks, and use them as shielding. Operate from the engineering decks."
"The passengers won't like that."
"This is war. Who cares?"
"I like the way you think."
"In any case, if we need weaponry, we have some options. This ship is using a ninth generation orion drive, which means we're burning what, liquid deuterium, tritium gas, and plutonium starters?"
"I believe so. Reinforced lead reflectors."
"Right. Before they switched to beryllium. Well, with a few fabricated components, what you've got right there is the recipe for a hydrogen bomb. Say, thirty percent of the fuel for three bombs in the fifty kiloton range. We won't get great yield with homemade bombs, but it'll be better than nothing."
Charlie considers this.
"It would slow us down on the return journey."
"Yes. Well, actually, if it comes to war, we're going to want to burn as much fuel as possible to escape, especially considering we need to break orbit as well. What it'll actually do is make it impossible for us to stop."
"So, what, we fly right past the New Kingdom?"
"Yes. We'd need to broadcast an SOS as we passed and hope someone came and rescued us. It's bad, but it's better than flying in unarmed. I'd suggest we build the bombs before we get there, and, if it turns out we don't need them, take them apart and put the fuel back."
"It's still not good is it?"
Hyde rubs his arm contemplatively.
"You're flying a civilian ship into a probable war zone. It's not ever going to be good, but it could be a lot worse."
"It could be worse. I'll drink to that."
Hyde pours them two more shots, and they down them. Hyde closes the flask and puts it back in his lapel.
"Really ought to save the rest. It might be a long time until we're rescued. How long do you think our food and air can hold out?"
"It's rated for three years, and we've only been out for six months... but it's an old system. Who knows?"
Hyde nods and glances at the air vents. Charlie glances at his clock. If he's going to go to the gymnasium, he'd best hurry. He glances at Hyde suddenly. What the hell.
"Were you aware that we have a gym?"
· · · — — — · · ·
Hyde examines the room.
"Fantastic. You say Adams had this put in?"
"Left in. It used to be a freight elevator; evidently, the Burgundy is a very old ship."
Hyde walks over to the podium.
"Let's start in normal gravity and work from there, eh?"
Charlie nods. Hyde taps the interface, and it begins to grind downwards, the gravity building. He inspects the equipment basket, and begins to lift items out onto the mat. Out come the staffs, a box of weights and weight vests, boxing gloves, several types of rope, and some assorted exercise blocks and balls.
Hyde picks one of the staffs, spreads his stance, and holds it like a swordfighter. Charlie groans, and shakes his head.
"Not you too. Il Bell already beat me senseless with those things. Tell me you're not good with them."
Hyde spins the staff around, swinging at imaginary foes with a great deal of force and precision. He doesn't answer for a long time, and when he does, it's oddly quiet.
"On Padaa, most of the officers on the other side were renegade Wandering City nobility. They were all trained with swords, and they were very, very good. Padaa is -was- mostly indoors. Lots of tight corridors, lots of thin walls connected to vacuum. No maneuverability, barely functioning life support by the time we got there. Couldn't even shoot your gun half the time without venting all the air. You got very good with swords, very fast, or you died."
Charlie looks at him for a while.
"You any good?"
Charlie unbuttons his sleeve, and rolls it up, revealing long purple bruises down his forearms. He smiles.
Hyde raises an eyebrow.
"Om Bell plays hard. Something more going on between you two?"
Charlie shakes his head. He considers what to tell Hyde about Bell. He really deserves to know, but it's Adams' call.
"No. There might have been, but it didn't work out that way."
Hyde inspects the bruises.
"Woudn't be so sure of that, if I were you."
Charlie shrugs off his jacket, and sets it aside. He stands there in shirtsleeves, and watches Hyde do the same. Charlie picks up a hundred kilogram weight vest, and pulls it over his shoulders, He staggers under the weight. Hyde laughs, and pulls on one of his own. He stands comfortably under the weight, rocking backwards and forwards on the balls of his heels.
"Low gravity has spoiled you, Om Frost."
Charlie straps himself into the vest. He grunts under the weight, but bears it. He picks up the other staff.
"Let's see if I've gotten any better since yesterday..."
They begin to circle each other. Hyde spins the stick casually, and then strikes with absolutely no warning. The end of the stave connects with Charlie's head, hard, and the world dissolves. Charlie floats through a haze of pain and sparkling lights, and is distantly aware of his body hitting the floor like a sack of rocks. After a few seconds, he finds that he can see again. Hyde is perched over him.
"Are you alright?"
"Remind me. Not. To attempt bravado. In your presence. It's hazardous to my health."
Hyde bows his head.
"I'm sorry, that was inexcusable."
"It's fine, Om Hyde. I challenged you. Getting trounced was the logical conclusion to that chain of events. "
Charlie sits up slowly, rubbing the side of his head. The rubber stopped it from breaking the skin, but there's already an egg, and it stings like a bitch.
"Besides, I don't think I'll even notice one more bruise after Il Bell's workover."
He gets unsteadily to his feet. Hyde helps him up, smiles, and says,
"All the same, what do you say we put the staffs aside for now?"
Hyde gathers up the rope, grabs a handhold on the wall, without much effort, and begins to climb.
"You may want to remove your weight vest, Om Hyde. If you slip, the fall is faster than you'd might expect."
Hyde glances down at him, and lifts himself onto another rung. With a wry tone in his voice, he says.
"In the event that I slip, I shall endeavor not to land on you."
He makes the rest of the climb with surprising ease, and sets off across the ceiling. Charlie starts to get out from underneath the old soldier, and then feels silly. Hyde attaches the rope to the ceiling, and lets it spin away beneath him. He descends it, passes a loose rope to Charlie, and nods at the wall.
For the next hour, Charlie and Hyde work like dogs. Charlie rapidly finds Hyde to be in much better shape than he is. He does, however, have the advantage of youth. His body is in its twenties or thirties (he can't recall exactly), while Hyde is at least forty five or fifty. By the end of the session, both men are at the point of physical exhaustion, and Charlie can't help but notice that they never did leave the maximum gravity.
"God damn, Hyde. If you keep this up, they're going to have to pry me off the floor with a spatula."
Hyde collapses next to him, sweat pouring down his face. He wipes the sweat out of his graying hair with both hands and sniffs.
"Just because you have resurrection privileges is no reason not to take care of your body. You never know which one is going to be your last. Better to keep it in good health."
Charlie nods. He grabs the clock glyph and stares at it.
"If I'm going to make it to the party, I ought to leave. Are you going?"
"I'll likely make an appearance. I need to check on Charlotte, first, make sure she's alright."
"Of course. I'll see you there. I'll take care of the equipment."
Hyde bows and leaves. Charlie slips off his weight vest, puts the equipment back in the basket, and pulls his jacket back on. He walks back to his cabin.
· · · — — — · · ·
In his room, Charlie climbs into the shower and tries to approach some semblance of cleanliness. He then takes a comb to his hair, which he notices has begun to grow too long around the ears.
The TP drifts into visibility beside him. Charlie doesn't look at it, trying to get a cow-lick to stay down.
"Remind me to have my hair cut."
"Certainly, sir. When would you like me to remind you?"
"At the first opportunity after ten tomorrow."
"As you wish. That's all?"
Jeeves vanishes. Charlie finishes his his hair, then finds a suitable military dress uniform in the ship's catalog and has it fabricated. He begins pulling clothes on, taking special care with the hat. He's just finished dressing when the alert goes off to remind him to leave.
Charlie wipes his face one last time, collects his sidearm, tucks it into a discreet shoulder holster (just in case), and leaves. He goes through the security airlocks on the passenger deck and exits onto the passenger deck. It's a matter of a few minute's work to find the doctor's suite. The halls are oddly empty.
He arrives at the doctor's room a moment later. The door is already open. It's a fairly large suite inside. Two rooms, and a third connected by an open emergency door. He must've gotten permission from the Captain, and whoever lives in the next room. Two tables have been raised, seating maybe twenty people, a dozen at one, and seven at the other, including, at the moment, the doctor. Several bottles of wine are being passed around. The doctor sits at the head of the closest table, telling some story. Listening intently are the Atwoods, Evans, two men he doesn't recognize, and... Blanchet. He walks over and smiles at the doctor. He's seen the man around, but hasn't been introduced.
The doctor is wearing a thin, dark-bearded body with a sharp jaw and black eyes. Charlie gets the distinct impression that he's not a fool. He politely waits for Washington to wind down the story, and then bows by way of introduction.
"Doctor Maurice Washington, at your service."
"Dr. Washington, it's a pleasure to meet you. I'm XO Charles Frost. Thank you for inviting me."
"Of course, please call me Maurice. It's a much better name than Washington. Anyway, it's a gross oversight on my part not to have made your acquaintance at an earlier date. Pull up a chair, Om Frost."
Charlie pulls one up, carefully removes his hat before hanging it on the back of his chair, and sits down. He nods to others at the table. The Atwoods regard him with barely-disguised terror. The two new men smile pleasantly. Blanchet gives him a cold glare for a moment, before returning to a sunny demeanor. Evans just looks blank. Charlie resists the urge to give an exasperated sigh.
Washington observes all this calmly over the course of a second or two, and then picks up the conversation without skipping a beat.
"Om Frost, these are friends of mine, William Williams, and Weston Pound."
Charlie nods politely.
"A pleasure to meet you both."
"We've been on vacation in Los Dei for the last year and a half, and now we're returning to the New Kingdom."
"Have a good time?"
Maurice cocks his head at him in unnerving way. There's something distinctly predatory about the man. After a moment's analysis:
"Yes, I suppose we did. It wasn't exactly what we'd had planned, though."
William Williams laughs.
"We were nearly killed, Maurice!"
"Well, yes, there is that."
Evans eyes widen in shock. Charlie surreptitiously glances at her to look for injuries, but she's wearing a long-sleeved dress that doesn't reveal much. She does, however, seem to be having a hard time holding her cup. It keeps slipping out of her glove.
"Oh my goodness! What happened?"
"It's not as bad as it sounds. It was about two days after we got there, and we were still shaking off the cryo effects-"
"-never again," mutters Weston Pound.
"Never again," amends Maurice, "We were on the train to the old capital, and it was stopped in the tracks. As it turns out, some of the local dissidents had rigged the track with nitroglycerin explosives. Don't need an oxidizer, you understand, so they work in a vacuum. They were threatening to blast the train."
Weston Pound, a surly gentleman wearing a heavyset body, glances at Washington, and interjects,
"They jacked the pressure door open. Some fellow with power armor and a shotgun came down the train with a bag, demanding bonds, and valuables."
Maurice jerks his head at Pound.
"Pound here decided that they weren't going to blow up the train with their man on board, so he yelled to the train driver to floor it."
Pound looks grumpy.
"I still say that probably would have worked. We outnumbered them considerably. By the time they managed to stop the train, we'd be able to rush the man on board and throw him off. So I gave it a try."
"Oh come now-"
"-No, no, I assure you, it's quite true. Stupid, but true."
Maurice takes a sip of wine.
Charlie leans in, interested now.
"Well, as it turns out, they weren't complete fools. They'd put another man on board with a machine gun pointed at the driver's head, out of our line of sight. The driver didn't move, and the one with the shotgun dragged all three of us out into the aisle with a gun to our heads. Everyone was screaming and some elderly gentleman in the eighth row had a heart attack."
Evans has turned very pale.
"My goodness. How did you survive?"
Maurice laughs, and continues.
"Well, very fortunately for us, at about that time, one of the ones outside dropped a nitroglycerin bomb. Blew most of them quite to bits. We're just damn lucky it didn't set off the bombs by the tracks. The ones in the car ran out to help their fellows outside. The driver drove right on out. I'm not sure what happened to the rest of them. I'm told a few of them got away."
Evans stares wide-eyed.
"We're you scared?"
Maurice gives her an odd look, as though wondering if she's mocking him. He must have concluded that she was simply totally guileless, because he replies pleasantly enough.
"My dear girl, I was so scared I shit myself-"
He stops to allow the roar of laughter to die down, and continues, looking wounded.
"No, I mean it, I did. I have the stained underwear to prove it, too. I mean, I had a backup back in the port city, but the body doesn't care much for the affairs of the brain, does it? The body wants to live- and so did all the memories I'd accumulated since the backup."
He takes a swallow of wine.
"So I shit myself. I still thank god for that blessed butterfingers soldier."
Charlie stares at him, looking troubled. He didn't get much news on New Damascus, but this is bad.
"I had no idea Los Dei was so unstable."
"I'm told it's normally nowhere near that bad. We just happened to have the bad luck to arrive during a riot. There had been some kind of gook uprising, and I guess all the political troublemakers had taken it as an alarm bell to air their grievances - aggressively. There must've been thirty different parties pursuing pursuing thirty five agendas, and most of them were packing rifles and Moltov coctails. It took weeks to calm down."
William Williams shakes his head.
"What a vacation. We spent the first month hiding in a hotel room with pistols pointed at the doors and windows."
Weston Pound chuckles, a deep belly laugh.
"You were the one who said you wanted excitement, Billy boy."
Williams shakes his head.
"I meant I wanted to cut loose and spend a few months chasing girls around old cities. Being held up at shotgun and nearly killed was not precisely what I had in mind."
"Well, you met a girl in the end, didn't you?"
"Yes, but a near death experience rather takes the edge off one's thirst for adventure," he says, taking a bite of his steak, "besides; she had a mustache."
Another wave of laughter, which Maurice waves down, speaking soothingly,
"It was a resurrection casket error. She had it corrected."
"Yes, a week before we left."
"I thought she was a very nice girl."
"Doubtless, but the fact of the mustache remains."
"In fairness, it was a very nice mustache - but I think we had best change the subject, I think we're scaring our young friend here."
Maurice smiles at Evans, who has turned quite pink. Charlie laughs.
"Sounds like you gentlemen were not lacking for adventures abroad."
Maurice shakes his head.
"No, I would definitely not list that as one of our problems at the moment."
Pound shakes his head meaningfully.
"Quite the opposite, with this detour. I think adventure is stalking us with some determination. When I get back to the New Kingdom, I am going to go home and not leave until I am very old and fat."
Williams grins at him.
"Not much longer, then, at the rate you're going."
Pound draws himself up.
"Hardly my fault. Los Dei cuisine is very rich."
Williams nods sympathetically.
"Well, the dessert cart is, anyway."
Pound starts to reply, but is interrupted by the arrival of Hyde. Maurice stands up.
"Colonel Hyde! What a pleasant surprise. I haven't seen you in... lord, fifty years. Sit down, drink."
Hyde smiles, and pulls up another chair next to Blanchet. He pours himself a glass of wine, and drinks. He raises his eyebrows appreciatively.
"Burgundy. This is real, Maurice?"
Maurice shakes his head.
"Sadly, no. I brought my own synthesizer from the colony. It's a gook invention. It's not the real thing, but it does a fairly convincing job, don't you think?"
Hyde takes another slower, much more contemplative sip.
"Mmm. Yes. Definitely missing something. Good, though- damn good. I'm impressed, Maurice; you've come up in the world."
Maurice gives him a glance that's friendly, but has a bit of a warning in it. Hyde seems to take the point, and takes another drink in lieu of continuing. Maurice briefly introduces him to his comrades, and is about to begin another story when he dragged away, almost bodily, by two friends of his to tell the mustache story at the other table.
He apologizes over his shoulder as he is propelled across the room. After a few minutes, his friends politely excuse themselves, and go to rescue him. Now it's just Charlie, Hyde, Blanchet, and Evans. Blanchet has been oddly quiet. Now she speaks up.
"Om Hyde. You and Dr. Washington know one another?"
"Live long enough, and you know everyone. Maurice and I served together before Padaa. He was the unit's medic. He resigned before things fell apart there. Good job, too- if he hadn't, they'd have court martialed him."
Evans looks shocked.
"My god, why?"
"Well, he was rude, borderline mutinous, and had a bad habit of using green recruits as test subjects for experimental bioweapons without telling them about it. For a while there, it wasn't uncommon to have two or three of the poor bastards drop dead during morning formation. They were mad as hell when we resurrected them, too."
"Why didn't they can him sooner?"
"Well, they needed his results. He knew when to skip town, though. He was given the option to retire early about two weeks before his final report was due, and he got out while the going was good. Military life never suited Maurice. I'm told he has a successful practice in the New Kingdom, now. I guess he was the smart one after all."
Blanchet inspects him critically, and then stands up.
"Well, I think I'm going to excuse myself and see what Pennycut and her friends are up to," she says, nodding to the other table, "first, though, XO Frost, could you answer a few questions about this detour, in private? I have some personal concerns about timing."
Charlie smiles and nods.
"Of course. Excuse me, Om Hyde, Om Evans."
Charlie stands up, and follows Blanchet a little way away from the table. She smiles pleasantly, and, in a friendly voice, says quietly,
"You fucking traitor."
Charlie stares at her. He forces a smile, and, in an equally light and jovial voice, he says,
"What are you talking about?"
"You talked to Blanchet in the Helm."
He glares at her through his smile.
"On the Captain's orders."
Her smile tightens a notch.
"Bullshit. I've seen the way you look at her. I heard the recordings, too. You told her I was police, you fuck. If you're feeding her information..."
Charlie laughs, and pats her on the back. With his face turns away from the others, he shoots her a sharp look in the eye. He keeps his voice pleasant, and his rhythm out of sequence with his words.
"You think she didn't know? She's not stupid. I don't think she's Bell, and we need her to trust us either way. A little truth goes a long way."
"Oh sure, of course you think she's not Hyde. Who else could it possibly be?"
Charlie turns, and smiles wider.
"I don't know. How do you feel about Maurice?"
"Maurice? Maurice is odd, but he's not a killer."
"Are you sure?"
She pauses for a long moment, then finally admits,
"It thought so. Look, Blanchet - you don't have to like me, but don't accuse me of treason without a damn good reason. Now go play dolls with Pennycut and her friends, and leave me alone."
He ends the sentence with a chuckle, pats her on the back again reassuringly, and says, loudly enough for the others to hear,
"I hope that works out for you. I'll try to get in and out as fast as I can."
She smiles pleasantly.
"Thank you, XO Frost."
He reaches up to tip his hat, and remembers that he's left it at the table.
"Of course, any time."
He returns, and finds Hyde and Evans having a casual conversation. Evans looks upset. She glances at Charlie, and then excuses herself and hurries away. Charlie sits down. Hyde takes a drink and stares off at the wall.
"You get anything out of her?"
"No. I think she's scared of me. I'm sorry to keep bothering you with this, Frost. There are larger concerns at hand. Its just - she's a good girl; not terribly bright, but a good girl, and she doesn't deserve what's happening to her."
Charlie nods sympathetically.
"I say we build the bombs tomorrow."
Hyde raises an eyebrow.
"We only have a few more days. Do you know how to build them?"
"No, but I have a nuclear engineering module in my rig that I can run."
"Alright, give me a copy as well. We'll do it in the aft storage locker, so that we don't scare anyone. Nobody needs to know about this, agreed? Panic on a starship can get ugly."
"Agreed. Look, we're going to need high explosives to get the plutonium pellets critical. What've we got?"
"I'm not exactly sure, I'll ask Bell. I think the emergency pins in the airlocks have C4 plugs. We could cannibalize them for parts."
As Charlie's talking, he flips open an IM box puts a keyboard pane against the table, and sends a list of required parts to Bell, and instructions on where to take them. He closes the box before she can respond, and returns his attention to Hyde, who's staring into his drink.
"How was Charlotte?"
Hyde takes another drink.
"Lonely. She misses her friends and she misses her parents."
Charlie's quiet for a moment.
"I never asked why she was travelling with you."
Hyde looks down at the table.
"No, you didn't."
"Are they dead?"
"Not exactly, no."
Hyde exhales slowly.
"New Damascus is way behind the curve."
Hyde takes a big drink.
"They're dirt poor out there. Backups are expensive, and my brother always forgot about that sort of thing. He'd been out of work for a while, and he hadn't been able to afford a visit to the clinic for decades. I offered to pay, but he always turned me down."
Charlie feels the color drain out of his face.
"Yeah. There was an accident. The oxygen mix in their house was too rich and someone lit a candle. Charlotte lived, my brother and his wife didn't. They woke them, up, of course, and they were fine. Except, they didn't remember that they had a daughter. Didn't even remember wanting one. They didn't know her name, didn't recognize her, didn't know anything about her. My brother used the insurance to call me and ask me to come help, so here I am."
Charlie stares down at the table.
"She seems to have taken to you."
"I was always her favorite uncle. Her godfather, in fact, but I'm not her dad."
"That's got to be traumatic for her. I'm amazed she's holding up as well as she is."
"She's strong. She gets it from our mother, I think. She'll be fine, I think, eventually."
He stands up slowly.
"That's enough wine, I think. I told her I'd read her a bed time story. I'll see you in the storage locker tomorrow at 1350. Goodnight, Om Frost."
"Goodnight, Om Hyde."
Hyde bows, and leaves. After a minute, Charlie stands up, says goodnight to Maurice, and leaves. He stops in a bathroom along the way, sidestepping a deceleration couch to get there. As he unzips his fly and settles into the vacuum cup, he hears a sound. It's an odd, wet, rhythmic noise, like water splashing steadily out of a cup some distance off.
He finishes his business, closes up his pants, and walks to the end of the row of stalls. He gets to the last one. There's a light on inside that he can see through the translucent door. The sound's coming from here. It sounds like someone crying. He raps on the door.
"Hello? Are you alright in there?"
There's a brief silence, and then a woman's voice. It's Evans.
"I'm alright. Please leave."
Charlie pauses, then sighs. Damn Hyde. He'd rather be asleep right now.
"I'm coming in, Rachel. Make yourself decent."
He waves his hand over the door interface, and hits the emergency overide tile. It flashes for confirmation, and he taps it again. There's a click, and the door opens. He swings it open. Evans is sitting on the floor. She's taken off her dress is sitting there in a slip with a box full of first aid equipment. Her white gloves are missing, and her hand looks bad, like it's been crushed. She has a deep wound on her arm, which she's in the process of wrapping with bandages. There are deep purple finger-marks on her upper arms. She's been crying, and her makeup is running.
Charlie kneels down.
"Are you alright?"
She doesn't answer. Charlie sighs, and says,
"You want some help?"
She pauses for a long moment, and then nods.
"Good, because it looks like that cut is getting infected."
He reaches over, and takes the bandage off it. It's not very deep, but it looks like it bled a lot. It's at least a few days old. He rinses it with alcohol, which she doesn't even flinch at. She must be on some pretty strong painkillers. Her could probably shoot her in the leg and she wouldn't feel it.
Charlie finds a packet of oral antibiotics, and passes it to her.
"Follow the directions on the packet. We don't want you going septic. Let me see the hand."
He examines it.
"Your ring finger is broken."
Charlie looks through for a splint, and finds a reactive plastic bandage instead. He blinks at her.
"This isn't the standard medical kit. Where did you get it?"
She doesn't answer. Charlie sighs, and opens the packet. It's a thick, sticky, purple strip of stretchy cloth a few inches square filled with an unidentifiable, tacky substance. A small stick is attached to it. Charlie straightens the broken finger.
"Flex it. Easy, not so much. Okay, now straighten it."
She does so. Charlie pulls a disposable scalpel from the pack, cuts a small strip out of the bandage, and wraps it around the broken part of the digit - tightly, but not tightly enough to cut off blood flow. Then he touches it to the end of the stick, which crackles with electrical sparks. When he returns his hand to the bandage, it's hard and dry. He pulls out a tube of medical glue, and paints the remaining small cuts shut.
She turns towards him, and he packs the cut with an antiseptic cream. Then he removes a spool of elastic sutures, which is a clear, floss-thin thread covered in a sticky glue. He runs it down the length of the cut, not touching the thread, making a zig-zag pattern across the wound. When he gets to the end, he shuts the spool's canister, cutting the thread. As he watches, the thread begins to shrink, with surprising force, dragging the skin shut. Blood and white cream bubbles up between the string. He wipes it clean with a sanitary wipe, and lays more glue across the top, which hardens into rubbery coating.
She sits up, pulls her glove back on, and begins to pull her dress on. Charlie watches her.
"Why don't you tell me what happened, Rachel?"
She looks up at him, and forces a smile. Her voice goes happy and dead - manners training kicking in, probably. She sounds like a Turing persona.
"Nothing happened. I'm fine. Thank you for your help, Om Frost. Goodnight."
She quickly fixes her makeup in the mirror, buttons the last button on her dress, and leaves, hurriedly. Charlie dawdles in the restroom for a minute or two, in case someone is standing in the hall and gets the wrong idea. It's a wasted effort, there's nobody outside. The ship lights have dimmed for the night, and Charlie can feel sleep weighing him down as he goes. Each footfall echoes in the dim, and the rhythm takes him out of himself. He almost feels like he's floating by the time he gets through the security locks to his room.
Charlie waves the door open, and goes inside. He lies down on the bed, still fully clothed, and goes to sleep. His last conscious thought before he drifts off is that he's forgotten his hat again.
· · · — — — · · ·
Charlie wakes up, feeling surprisingly good. He slept like a babe last night, without the effects of the medication, which he forgot to take. He rolls out of bed, checks the time, and marches off to breakfast.
Time to make some nukes.
LAST INDEX NEXT
Sorry for this taking so long, this week's chapter got completely out of hand. I found some fun characters to play with, and wound up making each section thrice as long as it'd been written for.
I've trimmed it down, but it's still 9000 words (the average is about 4000). Still, it's a solid chapter and I hope you enjoy it, assuming you don't keel over from thirst or exhaustion before finishing it.
Also, look, a shiny new illustration!
Until next week,