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!

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