Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Twenty-Three



           She is late.  Whether or not she can be reasonably blamed for this is an issue open for discussion, but the fact remains: Lorena Mizrahi is late and hating herself for it.  This section of Mars Dock is new enough to accommodate recent trends; studies make a convincing case that mental health and general welfare were linked to structures of scale, just the opposite of the dingy honeycombed warrens in which most non-Terran humans spend their lives.  Lorena steps from her train car into artificial daylight, crosses the platform under a blue haze of melded holograms that formed a passable sky, waits impatiently at a street crossing while passenger vehicles hum by.  Stretching as high into the fake sky as it could without hitting the Dock’s ceiling, the Federal Building is an enormous iron grey obstruction she does her best to ignore.

            She walks at a brisk pace down the boulevard, dodging uniformed Federal workers on their way to lunch and gaggles of loafing teenagers, gazes sullenly downcast at their handys.  Shouldn’t school be in session? she wonders.  It seems like kids are never in school.  She’d spent what felt like her whole goddamned childhood in the classroom, especially since it never snowed hard enough for days off.  She shouldn’t have cursed like that.  But neither should she have been fifteen minutes late and going on twenty.  Shit happens, always it seems, and after a while it doesn’t even matter why.  Today she won’t make excuses.  Worse, she knows Annika wouldn’t even ask.  She’ll be angry but she won’t say a word.  Not worth it; beating a dead horse.  She’d given up on that, as one day she would give up on the thing altogether.

            Shit happens.

            The restaurant is called “Pisc,’ a slightly upscale place serving a professional crowd and something of a Johnny-come-lately to the years-old aquaculture craze.  Lorena pushes her way through the oaken front door, so heavy it seems to work at excluding her.  “I’m meeting someone,” she tells the host just opening his mouth, hoping it’s true, that she won’t have to go back and ask for a table.  But no, there’s Annika, across the room at the bar, her platinum bob a beacon Lorena can’t miss.  She crosses the dining area tastefully decorated with blue and stormy grey with hints of green, takes the stool next to Annika and beams her a forced smile.

            “I’ll be grabbing five of those later,” she says with a nod at the blonde woman’s amber drink in its squat glass.  Adjacent waits a small plate piled with fresh greens, slivered almonds and tender sanguine lumps of meat from the real live belly of a real live tuna.

            “You should order if you’re going to eat.  Don’t want to rush through it,” Annika replies, the only reference she’ll make to the time.  She takes up a fork, spears a bit of toro, chews and noiselessly swallows.

            Lorena gestures at the bartender.  “Excuse me; can I get a menu?” he doesn’t reply, just gives the tiniest move of his head and stalks sullenly off to accommodate her.  It’s a slow day and Feds tip awfully.

            “I’m feeling great,” she tells Annika unprompted.  “Slept through the night and everything.”

            “That’s good.  Confidence is good.”

            “A few spots I feel like I might have reviewed again, but I should be fine.  I feel like everyone always thinks that, right?”

            “Maybe,” Annika sips her drink.  “Talk about crisis if you can.  They love hearing about crisis.  Crises.”

            “I’ve got some stuff.”

            “Not personal statement stuff.  Real situations and how you handled them.”

            “I get it.  We had some real patients in my internships.”

            “What’s your best pitch?  Twenty seconds, right now, nice and concise.”

            Lorena takes an instant to compose herself, straighten her spine as she’d been coached.  “On an internship rotation in my third year of school—“

            “Too much context.  It’ll take you five seconds just to start the story.  Jump in later.”

            “On an overnight shift we’re understaffed and get a double code; two crashes at once.”

            “I like that better.”

            “I’m already working a patient upstairs who we’re weaning off a tube.  Five minutes off, five on.  I rush downstairs for the codes and find myself as the secondary for number two.  It’s a full-on P.E., but three minutes in my watch goes off and I’ve got to tell the primary—“

            “What’s a P.E.?”

            Lorena stops short.  “Pulmonary embolism.  It’s a major artery blockage, usually ‘cause of a clot.”

            “They won’t know that.  Just say it’s a heart attack.”

            “Myocardial infarction.  And a P.E. isn’t in the heart.  Usually cuts off the lungs.”

            Annika groans, takes a slug from her drink and picks up her fork to prod aggressively at her salad greens.  Lorena doesn’t try to continue her pitch and Annika doesn’t ask her to.  The bartender returns with a menu; Lorena orders a French dip sandwich and he leaves once again.

Annika is puzzled.  “Really?  It’s a seafood place.”

“It’s on the menu, it’ll be out quick and I haven’t had roast beef in forever.”

“You know that’s cultured beef.”

“Your fish is farmed.”

“Totally different.  And besides, you’re going to make a mess.”

“The Anjou comes on the side.”

“It’s au jus,” the blonde woman corrects, “and I’m just thinking about your uniform.  That thing’s gonna drip.”

“I’ll be careful.  Anyway, if the medical stuff is going to bore them—“

“You won’t really bore them, it just trips up your self-presentation.  There’s a very specific image you want to project.  They want to see you can handle yourself, keep cool and make the hard choices when things are at their worst.  Push the right emotional buttons and the panel will eat it up.  They’ll throw a C.O. post at you.  Don’t, and it’s a harder climb.  Have any good athletic stories?  They eat that up.”

“I ran track in school,” Lorena offers, but Annika crinkles her nose.

“Not a team sport.  Were you the Captain or anything?”

“Treasurer my freshman year.  It was kind of a bitch job.”

“Yeah, skip that.”

“Well, what else do I have?”

“You know what?” Annika shrugs and shovels leaves to her mouth, limp and glistening with sweet vinegar.  She waits to continue until she’s finished chewing: “just go with the med stuff.  Double down on those terms.  Use a bunch and don’t explain them.”

Lorena laughs.  “We used to call that ‘pulling rank.’  Go into a room and pin someone’s ears back with jargon ‘til they’re confused and practically begging to agree with you.”

“Great!  Go in there and pull rank on the Admiralty panel,” Annika grins along and Lorena is struck as though with a backhanded slap by how gorgeous she is.

“Hey, thanks for this,” she says abruptly.

“For what?”

“For the advice, for taking me out to lunch.  For caring enough to help when nobody else would’ve.  I know you had to shift your schedule around to make it happen.  I’d probably be losing my shit right now if I had to eat alone.”

“Oh.  Yeah, well, I like you,” she says, pale cheeks showing a blush, compensating for the tenderness with a look that tries to ask what of it?

“I like you too.  I just hope things work out.”

“With the interview?”

“With everything.”

*          *          *          

            The emergency hatch was so small, Karl Genz had to hand his sensor case over before attempting to squeeze through.  Lorena went last, had an easier time with her smaller frame, and entered the pod to find an open interior space, the walls loaded with gear, still more equipment on the floor scattered about by the vacating atmosphere.  In the center waited a large circular hatch atop which Maxi Leaf crouched.

            “It’s pressurized on the other side,” she was saying.  “So we’ll blow out that atmo too, working section by section to keep fires from spreading.”

            “Twenty-six minutes since detonation,” said a heavily accented monotone Lorena took to be Quang’s.  “Anyone with access to a pressure suit will be using it already.”

            “How many won’t have suits?” Lorena asked, joining them in the floor’s center.

            The short man shrugged in his mustard suit.  “There is a suit for each man.”  No way to know, of course, how many had been wearing their suits at the moment of the blast.  Surely some had been cut off from their gear by barriers of fire or hard vacuum.

            Quang, more familiar with the excavation systems than they, convinced the computer to evacuate the atmosphere from the first section.  Anyone who made it that far would have been in the pods already, so they figured to be safe.  After a long minute the pod’s bottom hatch opened to a puff of ice and vapor.  Inside yawned a short, wide passageway bored through the wreck’s hull and into a tube of plastic sheeting installed by the miners.  They filed down, four of them, leaving behind only Baradei as a surface contact.

            The dig’s first section was that simple transit tube, accordioned thirty meters down a deep hole cut into the missile cruiser’s flesh, ending in a glowing veil of permeable static energy.  A second screen waited behind, the two of them forming a crude “field lock” to hold in atmosphere.  Quang switched them off, as there was no longer any air to preserve.

Past the field lock the tube opened up to alien corridors: broad and tall enough to accommodate elephants on parade, more ornately decorated by far than their human counterparts.  Tiny ceramic tiles whose deep-sea color space had perfectly preserved were arranged in expansive snowflake designs whose endless fractal detail made Lorena dizzy when she stared too long.  The place felt like a cathedral long since converted into a museum.  She admired the brutal efficiency with which the scav diggers worked, tunneling rather than navigating the enormous craft’s interior.  They came to the end of the dig’s first section, demarcated by a standard what appeared to be a lift shaft.  Breaking into its side, they’d strung fierce white lights two hundred meters down to the floor where two laser-cut tunnels branched in different directions.

            “Do you have a plan going into these things?” Lorena asked nobody in particular.

            “Only vaguely from what I could tell,” Maxi volunteered.  “Start with a basic idea of where the magazines might be, figure out a good ingress point and improvise from there.”

            Quang spoke up.  “Acoustic sounders.  Make the map as you go, cut to open spaces.”

            “It’s a little like mining,” said Karl Genz.  “But without the threat of structural collapse.”

            “Yeah, they’re really playing it safe out here,” Vivek chirped in the Gryphon helmets where the scavs couldn’t hear.  His voice, blasted by the Corps clipper’s powerful transmitters through the swirling radiation, instantly soothed Lorena’s jangling nerves; it served to remind her that Konoko’s waited just a proverbial stone’s throw away.  Help was nearby.  She had the situation firmly under control, so long as those fires didn’t touch off anything else.  The sooner they could vent the oxygen from this wreck, the better.

            At the silo’s floor, Quang took them down the right fork.  “Magazine C,” he said by way of explanation.  The corridors down here were smaller, though still they seemed grand and sad.  They hurried along the strung-up white guide lights, passing holes casually bulled through the bulkheads to expose other compartments.  Through one of them Lorena spotted a bulky figure slumped against a wall—far too large for a human, half-hidden in shadows, utterly still.  Something called her to take a closer look, but she couldn’t spare the time.  From the hallway’s distant end came the flickering light of flame.

            Another field lock stood at the mouth of a doorway—one of the few times the diggers had elected not to make their own doors.  Smoke brushed up on the static and found itself repulsed in a glowing curtain.  They pushed through the lock one at a time, ensuring both fields were never simultaneously breached.  In a controlled shipboard environment, oxygen content could be dropped low enough to quench flame and remain, at least for a short while, breathable.  That wasn’t an option here; the same element powering the inferno had to sustain the survivors.

            “ANYONE?” Maxi shrieked through her external speakers once she stood in atmosphere.  “IS ANYONE HERE?”

            “You got anything?” Lorena asked Karl.

            “No,” he said checking his hand scanner.  “Too much heat, too much radiation.  We’ll hear them first, or see them with our own eyes before the scanner does.”

            It was a large, wide-open space with pleasantly curved walls reaching up to a high vaulted ceiling.  Heaps of tools and gear and storage bins and bulky digging engines dotted the floor.  Tents and sleeping bags had been clustered in one corner around space heaters but the camp was presently empty.  Floodlights mounted to the walls were dark; the only light came from their suits and the raging inferno by the far wall.

            “Generators burning,” Quang declared.  That would explain the darkened lamps; the field locks were likely powered by their own backups, pressure seals being much more valuable than lights.  They made their way across the cluttered floor, calling out for survivors and hearing no replies.

            “Holy shit,” Lorena declared when they reached the back.  Stacked before them, just fifty feet from the burning generators, were racks of missiles—long and slender like fifteen-foot needles, four wheeled trucks holding four warheads each.

            “I don’t know if those are live,” Maxi said quickly.  “Quang?”

            He made a noncommittal burbling noise.  “We have to move them now,” Lorena said to Maxi, wide-eyed and pale-faced though the other woman couldn’t see.

            “There’s a loader over there,” Maxi pointed.

            “No time.  We’ll use the Gryphons, they’re better than anything you’ve got down here.”

            “Okay,” Maxi agreed, though it killed her to do so.  If we could afford your fancy shit, we wouldn’t be here in the first place.  “Do you need both?  I’d like to send Quang ahead with your Tech.  Can’t waste any time.”  She waited for Lorena’s reaction, hoping to get under her skin.

            “We can vent the atmosphere from this section once we reach the end,” Karl volunteered.

            Lorena didn’t appreciate Karl’s intervention but didn’t want to argue.  Time certainly was precious.  “Fine.  Go with him, Karl.”  She didn’t trust what the big lug would say around Maxi anyway.  This Quang fellow seemed harmless enough.  It dawned on her that her counterpart would likely say the same about Karl.

            The racks on which the missiles rested projected a weak magnetic field to keep them from floating away.  Lorena bent, gripped its edges and with her enhanced strength she pushed the first rack into motion.  She threw her back into it but couldn’t tell how much it mattered, how much of the power was hers instead of the servos’.  The rack’s static friction resisted at first but quickly yielded, accelerating across the floor with a loud grinding noise.  After about fifteen meters she let up, turning over her right shoulder to see Maxi Leaf pushing a rack of her own at nearly the same rate.  Hers made no noise, gliding as it did a few inches above the ground.

            “Found the mag release!” she announced cheerily.  “Help me slow it down?”

            Lorena was a step slow, lurching into awkward action and reaching out to grab the rack.  She pulled, feeling its mass try to pull her off her feet.  Maxi nimbly crouched to slap the magnet control; in a moment the thing thunked back down to the deck.

            “You should’ve let me do it.  We really don’t need any jostling.”

            “Worked out, didn’t it?  Let’s get moving.”

Lorena took a moment to admire the plumes of smoking rising to the ceiling, spreading across it in a miasma of foul black chemicals.  “Karl,” she called into the local radio channel, “where are you?”

“We can see the field lock now,” he replied through sputtering static.

“Any survivors?”

“We have seen none, Doctor.”

“Okay.  Blow the atmo when you can and don’t wait up for us.  Let’s get this fire out.”

The two women moved from the storage room down the hallway as it turned in a curious and ponderous S-shape.  An electronic scream of warning echoed down from in front of them, emitted by the field generators as Quang pulled the proverbial plug.  Air began to rush past them from behind—a strong gale that barely swayed Lorena in her Gryphon but sent the smaller Maxi stumbling in her lighter suit.  She stopped momentarily to huddle against the wall, reducing her profile until at least the pressure approached vacuum.  “No need to point it out.  I’m small.  I’m a tiny woman.”

“I wouldn’t say anything.  It’s only this heavy suit keeping me upright.”

“You’ve got an ass, at least.”

“’My kingdom for an ass?’” Lorena grinned.

“I don’t get it.”

“It’s from an old book; some people read it in school.  Just a joke.”

“Wasn’t much in the way of school in the freight trade.  Dad put me on programs, but what kid’s going to stick to that if nobody makes her?”

“Makes sense.  Sounds like you’ve come a long way.”

“Does it really?” Maxi snorted.  “You’ve got some low fuckin’ standards.”

“There aren’t many women in your position.  Or anywhere near it, from what I’ve heard of private spacing.”

“I suppose.  It’s not a happy puffy protected cloud like Federal service.  Be honest: you didn’t work a day on a starship before you hit the command track.  I heard the big geek call you ‘Doctor.”

“They’ve got their own standards and they picked me,” Lorena bristled.  “Maybe one day they’ll come to their senses and ask you to run the Corps.”

“I hope they do.  My first day I’d board the whole place up, to spare everyone the shame of being a pack of bleeding-heart kids playing grown-up.  The Navy gets shit done, at least.”

Lorena snapped.  “I’ll have you know we’re diverting from a Contact mission to save your sorry ass!  This is exactly why scavving is illegal: people like you fuck up without someone to hold your hand.”  Having said this, she cringed immediately.  The Contact line was stupid.  Losing her head was stupid.  She, Lorena Mizrahi, was an awfully stupid woman.

Maxi would have snapped back—with something witty, though she wasn’t sure what that might’ve been—if the Contact line hadn’t also shut her up.  This was an unexpected turn, but like any lone light in a vast darkness it brought more questions than answers.  The two women were content to march on in stony silence, passing the dead field lock, crossing under a hole bored through the hull thousands of years before to let the stars stare down at them.

“Captain,” Quang pronounced it kiptin.  “Section Three is depressurized.  The field locks are active but it’s just vacuum behind them.”

This was both good and bad news: good because there wouldn’t be fire, bad because anyone with access to a pressure suit probably wouldn’t still be down here.  Maxi keyed her radio: “Acknowledged.  We’ll try to catch up.”

The two women took a faster pace, doglegging through portals the diggers had carved in the bulkheads.  They came to a lower level where the spaces were smaller, the halls narrower and now decorated only by piping and conduits.  It was as though this section were made for different creatures entirely than those above.  Another cut passage was screened off by the active field lock Quang had mentioned.  As they crossed it—in tandem, having no pressure to protect—the shared radio channel hissed to life.

It hung quiet a long moment before Karl spoke.  “We have casualties.”

Oh, no, Lorena thought.  A part of her had known the odds involved, but a larger part had chosen to hope.  Oh, no.  “How many?”

“Two here.  Mister Quang is searching the compartment for more.”

“Did they have suits?” Maxi interjected.

“No.”  It was all he needed to say.  Space offered the human form many ways to die.  Vented decompression was about the worst.  Vessels ruptured, lungs filled with blood as pressure gradually dropped to zero.  Maxi would rather get blown from an airlock to hard vacuum—explosive decompression, at least, flash-boiled your brain in its dura like an egg.

Lorena wanted to offer her condolences but knew better.  Maxi focused on the decking under her boots.  It waited there at a fixed distance, at the ends of her legs, just like the nearest wall stood at arm’s length.  Everything was very still.  But in her head there was only the sound of roaring water, of a raging river, and the floors and the walls seemed to stand at a terrible distance like a sunset horizon, like dreams never to come.

*          *          *          

            When they caught up to Karl he was still standing over the bodies—huddled together in an alcove as shelter against that terrible wind, having bought themselves seconds that counted for nothing.  Maxi studiously avoided looking; Lorena took a glance to confirm as a Doctor ought that they were truly dead.  Their cheeks were pink, the edema frozen in their skin.

            “Mister Quang has gone ahead,” Karl told them.

            “Should’ve gone with him.  Dangerous to be alone,” Maxi scolded.

            “I…yes, Captain Leaf.  I felt…” he trailed off.

            “What, Karl?” Lorena asked, gentle where her counterpart had been harsh.

            “It seemed as though I should stay here.  With them.  Until you arrived,” he finished the halting statement.

            Professionalism and practicality kept Lorena from hugging him.  “We can’t help them, Karl,” she said, stepping past the bodies with a hand on his shoulder to turn him away from the sight.  “There was nothing we could’ve done.”

            Kiptin!” Quang’s voice rang in their radios from somewhere deeper in the dig.  “Life signs!”

            “Where?” Maxi demanded.  “We’re at the bodies you found.”

            “Down the hall some hundred meters and take the right fork!”

            “See, Karl,” Lorena gave a slap on his back, spurring her servo-strengthened legs into an embarrassingly clunky run.  These people we can help!”

NEXT WEEK, IN PART TWENTY-FOUR: DIGGING THROUGH THE WRECKED WRECKAGE, OUR HEROES PLAY A BRUTAL GAME OF NUMBERS - TIME, OXYGEN, PRESSURE, THE DEAD AND THOSE WHO STILL MAY LIVE.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Twenty-Two

Credit: Senthrax


            Examining the present era’s news reports, one would smile to see the most sustained peacetime period in human history.  The Terran Federal Government and its much-distended apparatus maintained a standard of firm but fair justice across some six thousand registered human settlements.  Setting aside deployments for localized civil unrest or piracy, the awesome might of its proud Navy had never been tested.  There had been no wars, could be no wars—against whom might war conceivably be declared?  Certainly not the diplomatically docile Ouro.  So the Navy presided unchallenged over this glorious Pax Terra.  But at this point the inquiring mind will wonder: if humanity enjoys unbroken peace and yet a bustling illicit trade in scavenged weapons persists, surely a contradiction emerges?  On whom and for what purpose are these dangerous tools employed?

            The hint lies buried in the prior paragraph: the modifier registered preceding human settlements.  Space is an awfully big place and anywhere that stayed off a major corporate shipping manifest for a few years tended to vanish from the charts faster than Maxi Leaf’s adolescent idols.  Colonies came and went, were founded and abandoned—tracking the specifics of every human gathering across the galaxy became impossible.  More than a few of the people living in these places were content to stay “lost,” particularly given their non-existent tax burdens.  Anyone desirous of the state’s protection moved elsewhere; those who remained governed themselves in a manner redolent of early city-states.  Criminal organizations flourished alongside private militias.  Personal weaponry was never too difficult to acquire—even in the Core it was only difficult to conceal from ubiquitous yet unobtrusive sniffer drones—but conflicts tended to escalate in the deep Periphery, swiftly running up against the Navy’s universal moratorium on ship-to-ship hardware.  Hence the perpetually bustling market for weapons stolen from warehouses or scavenged from distant wrecks.

            They couldn’t match up to Federal guns for reliability, ease of operation or firepower, but neither did they need to when Navy Command kept its vast but limited resources devoted to more visible problems.  Entire fleets—picket runners and clippers and even crude pocket carriers—were built, launched and destroyed in humanity’s dim hinterlands leaving no accounts but those the ragged survivors told the mill’s fresh grist.  Plasma casters rigged from industrial equipment traded fire with antimatter torpedoes older than Australopithicus.  Warheads and ballistics were most prized, energy weapons demanding dangerously high workloads from scrap-built reactors.  And once it was all over, once those nameless craft lay scattered and shattered in graveyards of their own, the victors carefully picked through what weapons remained.  Lucre, territory and drug-smuggling empires changed hands in the aftermath, and nothing was ever written.

            Traces of these wars could be seen if one knew where to look, which bank statements to peruse as money flowed to and from the undocumented reaches.  They described racks of missiles adorned in languages extinct and inscrutable, packaged as grain until such time as they were loaded into privateer freighters.  At that point they simply disappeared, exchanged at an unnamed port of call for vastly more dollars than any rational person would pay for grain.  Hundreds of people handled them over the long journeys, some more aware than others of what transpired under their noses.  They knew, those wise and unhappy few, that these transactions were bookended at start and at finish by dead men.

*          *          *          

            Karl Genz struck the wall, bounced off.  He was fairly certain he yelled at the surge of pain in his shoulder, the shock of impact, the clang of his scanner case against the bulkhead.  He did not let it go and pulled it tight to his chest, as he seemed to still be falling.  This suspicion was confirmed as his back thumped firmly into hard metal.  He bounced off that too, much softer than the first knock, and floated slowly up as though in water with a slight drifting rotation.  He could barely see for the blue-white halogen lamp glaring in his face.  Karl realized this was the ceiling and turned his head to look ten feet up at the floor.

            The klaxon still sounded alongside a high-frequency ping he surmised was the grav-fail warning.  He struggled to orient himself, to get his legs pointed down at the ceiling before he drifted away from the walls entirely and found himself marooned in the air.  Feet found the decking; Karl aimed himself towards a supply closet and pushed himself gently off towards the floor.  Keeping the scanner case close to his chest to minimize its effect on his inertia, he rotated again in mid-air and coasted to the door frame.  He pulled at the latch, felt it give, swung the door open and looked inside.  Bulky cases of metal and plastic had been mag-clamped to their shelves, in a rare display of tidy scav shipkeeping.  The corridor was empty but for his hand scanner turning circles, drifting along the corner where the bulkhead met the ceiling.  Retrieving it would be tricky under the circumstances, and those same circumstances also placed the little object low on his priority list.  He wondered where Beatrice had gone but the notion faded very quickly from his mind.

            Holding onto the frame with one hand, Karl pulled out his handy and tried to raise his C.O.  She answered in seconds and he heard the klaxon and grav-fail warnings from her end, albeit with a perceptible delay.  People were shouting, which distracted him almost immediately.  The first voice he heard was Vivek’s—he’d been patched into the ongoing feed.

            “We’ve got distance now, but you’re still listing.”

            “They’re only now getting thrusters back,” Lorena called back.  Karl heard Captain Leaf’s soprano piercing through from Lorena’s handy: Fuck the gyro!  Get on the drive right now before we crater!

            “Genz,” Lorena shouted to make herself heard, “report!”

            “Unhurt, Doctor.  But confused.”

            A wave of static deluged their conversation, causing Karl to cringe and pull the handy away from his ear.  “I am sorry, Doctor,” he said loudly with his best enunciation.  “I did not hear that.”

            “Can you hear me now?” her voice came through clearly.

            “Yes.”

            “Crazy EMs kicking around,” Vivek said.  “Whatever they blew up had some seriously exotic payload.”

            Karl surmised from that statement what had happened, more or less.  “Doctor, I can examine the discharge but will need shipboard sensors to do it.  What would you like me to do?”

            She waited a long moment before responding: “Stay where you are until they get the gravity back.  Blast knocked their gyro sideways, but I think they can get it—hold on.  Karl, make sure you’re holding on to something.”

            As if on cue, Maxi Leaf’s voice tinkled out over Toussaint’s tinny-sounding intercom.  “All hands, we’ve obviously had a major fuckup.  Grav’s out, but first order’s stabilizing this beast.  Thrusters coming in ten seconds.  Brace yourselves.”

            Having no clue which way he might be cast, Karl scooted to the base of the door frame.  Handy clipped to his lapel, he set his scanner case on the deck though it very slowly rose back off.  His long limbs occupied valuable space, settling into stable positions so he could move with any surge.  “No damage to speak of,” Zach Obo said from his jacket breast, finally joining the conversation.  “Just whatever fell in the jolt.  EM shielding’s done fine on our end.”

            “Good,” Lorena managed before Toussaint lurched to once side.  It felt to Karl like being in a ground vehicle hanging tortuous series of turns at higher speed than was wise.  The scanner case accelerated smoothly away to bang between the closet’s walls.  Karl grunted when its hard corner banged him, managing to sneak in above his hip for a perfect kidney shot.

            In time the forces straining his arms subsided; the case ground out the last of its momentum and he reached out to reclaim it.  He swiftly snapped open its latches, verifying nothing was obviously broken, turning each component where fine black tethers held them in their foam recesses.  He closed it again.  “They’ll start on the gravity now,” Lorena relayed from the operations center.

            Karl sighed; he did not want to wait.  With his Gryphon suit or even just its magnetic boots, he could easily get down the corridor and to the drive systems.  As things stood, he faced a trial.  Centuries past, starship interiors had been replete with handgrips for easily zero-G transit.  This was no longer the case, but Karl decided he could trust himself.  It almost seemed a fun challenge.  Gravity might come on at any moment, but he assumed Captain Leaf would announce that event as she had Toussaint’s thruster burn.  Looping the scanner case’s strap awkwardly over both shoulders to keep it tight to his body mass, Karl lowered his belly to the deck.  A soft push from his legs put him in motion.  He skimmed along the deck, sailing diagonally across the corridor to catch himself and launch again.  Tacking back and forth successfully gave him confidence and so he took an angle directly for the corridor’s end—the door he’d approached with Beatrice, its red siren-light still rolling on.

            But he’d made a mistake.  His angle took him on a slow downward path right into the deck and so he put out his hands, stopped the fall and corrected his course toward the door.  That action, triggering a corresponding and equal reaction, imparted upward momentum back toward the ceiling.  In moments he’d drift off the deck completely and so Karl scrabbled at the cold metal, cursing his trimmed fingernails though in truth there was nothing to grab.  His efforts only made things worse, pushed himself further and faster until he found himself cruising slowly down the hall, suspended helpless in mid-air.

            “Attention all hands,” Maxi’s voice came through the intercom, “restarting gravity gyro now.  Full grav in five.”

            Karl gulped with panic, started a frantic frog-kick swimming motion, futilely stirring the air and doing nearly nothing to combat his slow rise.  He tried to decide how best to fall.  But then the deck rushed at him with awful suddenness and he put out his hands and took the fall on palms and knees.  The case slammed into his back, driving out his wind and propelling the rest of him to the deck just two meters short of the big yellow door.  He decided to lay there a minute.  Perhaps by then things would hurt less.

            “Great stuff!” Maxi called.  “Record time, boys.”

*          *          *          

            She withdrew her finger from the button, cutting off the intercom microphone.  The moment her mind flipped from the past task—restoring her ship’s fundamental systems—to the present, a feeling like a heavy stone lodged in her stomach.  Toussaint was admirably intact, but what of the dig site below and the men working therein?  The prior blast had been much smaller.  No way they’d gotten away from this one unbloodied.

            She looked between her monitors’ blank snowy faces, every on-site camera was either fried or jammed by radiation.  She silently prayed they’d show something different, turned options over in her head.

            “We’ve got to help your people,” she heard Lorena Mizrahi’s voice over her shoulder.  The fuck do you care, she wanted to scream.  As if she didn’t know her own business.

            She opened a link to the bridge on one screen.  Taran el-Assan looked rattled, his impeccable coif disturbed in a way that turned him from rake to sweetly vulnerable boy.  “How many pressure suits we got left onboard,” she asked, “excluding mine?”  Her sixteenth-birthday present still fit.

            “Give me a minute,” his hands flew over a console, eyes scanning the screen.  “Nine.”

            “How many passed checks?”  A really good X.O. would have given her this second number along with the first.

            “Uh…” she saw him grimace, knew it was bad.  “Two.”

            “Well, shit.”

            “Yeah.”

            “All right.  Get the shuttle prepped.  I’ll give you the rest on the ‘com.”  Leaving the link open, she hit the intercom mic again.  “Mister Quang and Mister Baradei, to the shuttle.  Quang and Baradei, to the shuttle in pressure suits.  We’re going to check on our people.  All other personnel, the dig has apparently suffered an accident.  There is no significant damage to the ship.  Mister el-Assan will have command in my absence.”

            Lorena watched all this intently.  Once Maxi killed the mic, she spoke up.  “Let us help.  Our Gryphons are perfect for cutting and heavy lifting.”

            Maxi had known this was coming, hated the other woman for offering aid but knew to refuse would be the height of stupidity.  “Shuttle’s big enough to take our three people and your two galumphing suits.”

            “Okay.  I’ll have Konoko moved to close position.  We’ll move wounded to our Med Bay.  If that’s all right…” she trailed off, lowering her head a smidge.

            “Fine,” Maxi said tightly.

            “Mohinder,” Lorena said to her handy, “this just became a real honest-to-God rescue op.  Karl and I will shuttle down to assist.  I want Konoko in position to receive any casualties.”

            “Done, ma’am.”  Vivek might have belly-ached about using Corps enforcement powers, but on matters of aid and rescue the Charter was emphatically clear.

            “What’s the wreck look like?” she continued.  “Our sensors are totally out over here.”

            “She’s still there, most of her.  Moving backwards from the explosion, but not as fast as you’d expect.  Score one for shaped warheads.  I can give you the vislight feed.”

            “We’ll see it ourselves soon enough.  Genz, are you there?”

            “Yes, Doctor.”

            “Done with your scan?” she asked innocently, keenly aware of Maxi’s eyes on her.

            “Jawohl.”

            “Good.  We’re getting our suits back on; meet me by the airlock.”

            “I heard.  Am already on my way.”

*          *          *          

            They tromped from the airlock to a freight elevator, rode it down to Deck B (there were only two) and followed el-Assan’s lead to the shuttle bay tucked like a benign cyst in Toussaint’s belly.  Dirty though less cluttered than the rest of the ship, it was dominated by a boxy craft the size of a small passenger bus.  BNG-07 Light Freight Transports, affectionately dubbed “Bingos” by generations of spacers, remained some of the galaxy’s most common commercial craft.  Though they appeared in countless configurations, this particular model featured two wide rectangular viewports like spectacles on its nose and a trio of gently rounded fins for atmospheric flight.  Two blocky carbon-fuel thrusters protruded from its tail in an endearing mirror of the viewports.  Each side of the fuselage was equipped with a large sliding door, one of which stood open dwarfing the diminutive form of Maxi Leaf.  She wore a garishly purple pressure suit of a make Lorena didn’t recognize, her helmet dangling from a hand.  As a professional courtesy, Konoko’s C.O. restrained comment.

            “We’re ready to lift,” Maxi declared.  el-Assan stood back while the two Corps officers clambered aboard.  A short man in an ugly mustard-colored suit sat anonymously behind his helmet and reflective black faceplate.  Lorena assumed this was Quang, since Maxi had named another pilot for the shuttle.  That pilot, Baradei, sat in one of two high-backed seats at the shuttle’s controls.  He wore a white suit with a bulbous helmet and unattractively oversized visor and had the patiently bored bearing of an old hand.  Lorena felt a little better about the situation.

            “Get those externals back up,” Maxi told her second-in-command.  He nodded and did his best to look resolute.

“Be safe out there,” he blurted suddenly.

“Keep everything warm for me,” she replied with a wink and a half-grin.  What was that about? Lorena wondered.  Maxi hit the door switch and after a momentary warning tone it began to grind shut of its own accord.  Taran el-Assan vanished behind the metal bulwark with its peeling blue-grey paint, to briefly re-appear in the viewports jogging out of the shuttle bay.  Maxi felt pressure once the shuttle was sealed, opened her mouth and popped her ears.  She snapped on her helmet, applied its seals and strapped herself into the front seat beside her pilot.

“Skids up,” Baradei said from the front seat, and the floor dropped out from beneath them.  She felt the odd jolt of Toussaint’s artificial gravity transitioning to weightlessness and the inertia of hard acceleration.

“Burn it hard,” she told her pilot.  “We’ve wasted enough time already.  Fuel’s topped up, right?”

“Yeah.”

The Baraheni Graveyard’s seemingly endless expanse swirled before her eyes and gradually slowed until they reached the right heading.  “Jesus,” she breathed, taking in the sight.

Even at this distance, the wrecked missile cruiser swallowed most of their view.  Perhaps a quarter of it was gone—just gone, a giant hole blown from its fore to its midsection.  Mercifully little debris, most of it vaporized in the first instant.  The portion where their pods had docked wasn’t visible from this angle, since the craft had acquired a new rotation.

Lorena had unstrapped herself and now used her magnetic boots to approach from behind.  “Oh, wow,” she said.  She felt she should say a prayer but didn’t.  They took a wide loop around the broken cruiser, revolving her perspective to see ragged holes still glowing and half-molten with heat that couldn’t convect away in vacuum.  The shuttle’s small nose thrusters roared to decelerate them as Baradei brought them in for the final approach.

They saw the fires first, visible in the ventricles of that blasted hole, still burning deep in the hull where the diggers had pumped oxygen for easier working conditions.  To say it had not worked as planned would be an understatement.  The pods appeared over the cruiser’s horizon, heads crowning to their full round shapes, lending hope until they crested the last ridge of superstructure and saw the full picture.

Two pods were simply gone along with their anchor spots on the hull—vaporized.  The shredded remnants of a third were recognizable in a distended cloud of debris.  Only five remained, which in that moment seemed very lucky.  Maxi Leaf scanned EM bands for a trace of her men but got only static’s impudent squeal.  Tightbeam signals from the pods would have worked, but the blast had knocked both they and Toussaint out of position.  Any or all of the diggers could be dead and she had no way to know.  She wanted to scream, to put her servo-augmented fist through the shuttle’s comm. board, but she kept that rage bottled up behind her opaque faceplate.  I will NOT, she told herself, lose it in front of this stuck-up bitch.

Baradei brought the Bingo shuttle in as close to the pods as he dared, allowing its feeble onboard computer to draw them down the last few meters.  The clank of mag clamps sounded below their feet.  “Flushing atmo,” Maxi declared as rattling fans sucked the pressure in the shuttle to zero.

“First we’ll try the comm. consoles on the pods’ side hatches,” she continued as everyone unstrapped themselves and readied their gear.  “I’m sure we have people in those; they’ll tell us what’s what.”

“With respect,” Lorena said over their shared channel, “Genz and I can get working right away, if you point us to the dig site.”

“And get lost?” Maxi snapped.  “It’s a maze in there and you don’t have a map.”

“Well why don’t you give me one?” Lorena retorted.  “I’m a Federal agent at a crime scene.  At your crime scene.”

Maxi smirked behind her faceplate, tried to make it show in her voice.  “I could give you one, but it does you no good if you don’t know where the crews were working or where they’ve moved since the accident.  You don’t even know how many people you’re looking for,” she scoffed.  “We get that information from the pods.  Please, Doctor, leave the planning to me.”

Lorena wanted to throw tomes of the Federal penal code at her but reined it in.  We don’t have time, she told herself, and I’m in control here.

The scav captain led them to the nearest pod, planted like a parasite in the cruiser’s flank.  Lorena noted the hairline fracture rippling out from the docking site; the wreck’s hull seemed to be made from ceramic cruelly crushed like china.  A side hatch labeled with the number 8 was highlighted in orange paint and Maxi ran her hands around its edges until she found the right panel, into which she hooked her purple gloves for a strong tug.  Beneath lay a generic console interface: a hardy mechanical keyboard and a screen that lit at her first touch on keys oversized for thick pressure-suited fingers.  If you got into one pod’s computer you were in them all, so she quickly typed in an all-hands message: ANYONE?

“They’ve got to be watching comms,” she explained over tightbeam channel shared between suits.

“Captain Leaf!” a voice suddenly emerged from a bolus of static.  “We’re alive!”

“Your radio’s working?” she asked back.

“Chained batteries to boost the signal!” the man shouted to make himself heard over the EM disturbance.

“How many do you have in there?” Maxi didn’t mean batteries.

“Four in Digger Three, three in Digger Six.”

That left eleven unaccounted for.  “We’ve got rescue gear.  Where are the rest?”

“What we called C Magazine.  Some gotta be dead.  They tried to hustle moving one of the big—“

“Not the time, Digger.  Is Chief Wacken there?” the dig manager would be a big help.

“We don’t know where he is.”

“Shit.  What’s the quickest way down?”

“Uhh…there’s an open ingress on the outer hull, near Digger Three.  Three hundred fifty meters from you.”

That seemed a long way around.  “Can we get in through the pods?” Lorena asked.  “Blow the E-hatch on an empty one?”

Maxi didn’t want to do that.  Firstly it was Lorena’s idea, and secondly it’d make retrieving that pod a tremendous pain in the ass.  Still, under the circumstances, who gave a flying fuck about one pod?  About the investors’ margins?  As things stood, she’d be lucky to ever get another C.O. gig.  You could ask those types to take a flyer on a little tin-voiced woman with a pristine record; one smudge was all the excuse they needed to pick someone else.  Space held more hungry spacers than hydrogen atoms.  “That’d save us some time,” she conceded at last, entering a seldom-used command into the pod’s console.  “Everyone stand clear.”

With a flash that swiftly polarized her faceplate and not a whisper of sound, explosive bolts around the hatch’s rim blew themselves to bits.  The hatch itself leapt naked and disembodied from its frame, propelled by atmosphere that froze as it escaped, and rushed as a drop of water to join the ocean of debris all around them.

NEXT TUESDAY: BATTLING BOTH TICKING TIME AND FLICKERING FLAMES, OUR HEROES MAKE THEIR WAY TO THE HEART OF THE INFERNO IN SEARCH OF SURVIVORS. "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!