Mauldin J Fitzpatrick. Final Solution читать онлайн

A- A A+ Белый фон Книжный фон Черный фон

На главную » Mauldin J Fitzpatrick » Final Solution.





Читать онлайн Final Solution. Mauldin J Fitzpatrick.



 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

Acknowledgements:

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

Much thanks to my friends and family who have supported me as I’ve tackled new worlds, and to those who have critiqued my work, listened to me prattle on about esoteric topics, and slogged through my early drafts. Thanks to my wife for not murdering me when asking her to read something I just finished and was very excited about. A great debt of gratitude goes to Julie Hutchings who has edited many of my works and given me a fresh perspective on writing from the human angle. And of course, thanks to my parents for believing in me even when I didn’t. You’ve all stuck with me through my manic highs and lows and made a better person for it. I cannot thank you enough.

[0]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

2072

----------------------------------------------

Suffocation has to be the worst way to die. One can survive for weeks without food, days without water, hours without sleep, and decades without sex, but only two minutes without air. Precious oxygen is life itself, the act of breathing, a God-given pleasure, a mechanical wonder, our bodies’ systems working in concert to keep consciousness alive. Though if you’re forced into a place without it, so empty it has no true temperature, and yet so dark that even the stars cannot penetrate its veil, you’ve arrived in the place of short-lived nightmares with which I’ve become all too familiar. I’d welcome you out of courtesy, but you’d be the next to go.

I can’t carry that kind of guilt any longer.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s that the great expanse of space is unforgiving, impartial. It’s more treacherous than a stormy ocean, more unnatural than flying, and more dangerous than strapping your ass to a skimmer only to hurtle yourself four hundred kilometers an hour over a rocky Martian plain. It’s the single most inhospitable environment humanity has ever been so brazen as to invade, yet here we are sporting our smug grins. There’s plenty of ways for it to kill you. Radiation poisoning. Extremes of cold and heat. A lack of pressure that makes blood boil in moments. Isolation madness. And yes, of course, the weapons of The Axis, our rival faction. But if you reflect long enough you’ll realize one thing, suffocation is the worst. No matter how well-engineered your vehicle, a terrible death awaits only a few feet, a few seconds away. Every moment you persist in this formless hell, heart thundering like a drum in your brittle chest, life grants you another golden opportunity to spit in the glaring eye of the reaper.

While it’s bad enough watching anyone struggle to breathe—the shocked wide eyes, lips shading to blue, the agonizing process of hypoxia as oxygen escapes the blood through the skin—it’s even worse when it’s someone you know, someone you’ve served with, slipping between your fingers only to be swallowed up by the cold nothing. The scales will never again be balanced. Her life, their lives, all on my hands, invisible blood and empty families, my soul brought before the divine justice of existence and found wanting. There will be no resurrection in the Cold Well. I will not persist.

Alarms are flashing, screaming, but with no atmosphere to conduct their cries. A gaping hole is in the side of our ship, The Vindicator . I watch her  float away. Her slack tether had not snapped, it wasn’t even clipped. She tumbles end over end. The mask of her soft suit is cracked, exploding, shards of glass glimmering in the light reflected off the red world. Her brain draws the many threads of fate together in one final thought. She struggles frantically against inevitability. It looks as if someone has wrapped their arm around her neck and is applying slow pressure in order to crush her windpipe. Her hands are grasping at her throat where silent screams are trapped. She’s kicking her legs like a drowning swimmer fallen in deep waters, attempting to push herself back to the shore. There’s nothing but a few atoms for her to push against. I hope not to carry this memory into old age.

“I’m sorry,” I say, my gloved hand reaching into vacuum, but the gulf is too great.

I tried. I promise. I really did. Is this what the past five months have come to? These final moments holding not only The Vindicator’s  fate, but the fate of everyone else in my hands? If I had seen this outcome could I have changed a thing?

Her body goes limp. My heart stops. She’s quit fighting.

Not much longer and it’ll all be over.

[1]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

February 2072

----------------------------------------------

Let’s get this regulation shit out of the way. My name’s David Goddard, master engineer of this leaking space can, The Vindicator,  one of only two active warships in SOL. I was one of the lucky few, bold enough, brave enough, to see service in space. Back in the early 21st century, millions would have envied me for this position; the opportunity to spend months at a time traveling between Saturn and Mars, Ceres and the asteroid belt, conducting scientific and defense work for The Brethren faction. A few years earlier, I would have envied myself as well. The pay is good but the hours are lousy. Life has a funny way of putting things into perspective. You never quite know what you have until it’s gone. One brand of hard times can be missed when replaced by another. I didn’t have much choice.

Of all the things I missed from my birthplace in the Arsia Mons colony on Mars—comfort foods, the freedom to walk about, the occasional new person to interact with—there was one thought I subconsciously agonized over again and again. Despite our tiny Coke can smelling profusely of chlorine, bow to stern, cupola to nuclear storage, we had exactly zero swimming pools. Every turn I took, every module I crossed, if I closed my eyes hard enough, I swore I’d find one.

It was February 2nd, 2072. I sucked in a sharp breath and could taste chemicals in the back of my throat. Hot damn, my body was slick with sweat. My muscles were burning with effort.

The air scrubbers were back on, second cycle, sucking away all the loose, microscopic flecks of skin cast off by ordinary human molting. I wasn’t sure why, but I only noticed this chemical sting when I was jogging particularly hard during my strict PT regimen, taking full advantage of a pressurized cabin. Maybe it’s all the oxygen I guiltlessly hoovered up in order to keep my body pumping the way God intended, and some tiny particles being misinterpreted by my olfactory nerves. But being an engineer, I knew for a fact, that in the air scrubbers’ system, it used not one drop of chlorine. Yet that harsh odor, that bitter tang was plastered in every nook and cranny of my sinuses. It had to be a mental thing, and I welcomed it. It transported me to the great swimming pools of Arsia Mon’s middle levels, images of scantily clad colonists relaxing in warm waters under a pale sky.

Come to think of it, when was the last time I’d been submerged in water? It was back on Mars, certainly. That’s right. I’d been unconscious and nude—and in public. Not my proudest moment. The start of the end.

My boots pounded The Vindicator’s  deck. Port hallway. Green markers. Heart rate 142. Target 150. Time to push harder. According to Doc, I got my best cardio at 155. It’s too bad I left my headphones on my bunk; a little Motley Crue or Alice Cooper might just have made up the difference.

It might be odd an Exo-Gen guy like me, those born or having lived mostly away from Earth their entire lives, would be into music a hundred years old; but I grew up on this shit. It’s all dad listened to, and all grandpa talked about. I even took a class in the ninth grade titled, “The Making of Classic Rock”, which was a hell of a lot more interesting than the other option, “Dub – Trap – and Moomba Vibes”. Riding the Crazy Train made me feel a little more at home.

Regrettably, however, for all my delusions, the Vindicator  was my home, my protector, my prison. Dozens of ships traversed the solar system on a regular basis, conducting commerce and science, but this one was special. It was a robust but simple craft, a series of modules fashioned into a one hundred meter cylinder that rode upon the most advanced ion propulsion system in existence. Each of its fifteen meter modules were interchangeable, self-contained, devoted to tasks like power, crew quarters, bridge, and weapon’s control. We even had a small arboretum that bulged from our center of gravity. Near the forward end of the ship, a great wire ring encircled us. It was the most critical, yet fragile part of our craft, the nuclear battery ring that powered our rail guns. Aft the arboretum, jutting out from the power module, two origamic solar arrays spread out like wings to power our propulsion. Compared to our rival’s warship, the Razor , we were petite, their mass at least three times our own. But size didn’t matter in a fight like this. We could hit them with a super accelerated projectile just as easy as they could us. And let me tell you, fifty percent of the speed of light did tremendous kinetic damage with an eighteen kilogram ferro slug. Big or small, if one hit the wrong part of the ship you were finished.

“Sorry,” I said, hopping out of the way as César Enela, my engineering assistant, slid past at the 5-C hatch. Of all the space available in our nearly one hundred meter long Coke can, the designers hadn’t wasted an inch on hallways. Combined, our stark, ice grey passages were about as narrow as my pinky finger. So narrow, in fact, it made me sometimes feel like toothpaste being squeezed from an almost empty tube.

“Oh Dios mío ,” César spluttered, searching me up and down with wide eyes. “Hijeuputa , how much weight you running, David? I mean, señor! Yeah… señor, sorry, no David, or em, Señor David.”

I raised a hand to dismiss his breach in protocol.

César was a good kid, about ten years my junior with a natural talent for engineering. His whip thin frame, large eyes, and mop of black brown curls only reinforced an overlying boyish demeanor, making him appear both innocent and naïve. But I knew the truth. The ladies had an eye for him like they might a close friend’s younger brother, and he took full advantage. He was dressed much like me, baggy white jumpsuit with red piping and red accents, black and white nametag over the left chest, Brethren insignia over the right. The jumpsuits were light and comfortable, made of a synthetic, breathable fabric that didn’t get dirty easy. On his collar he bore the rank of Private, Class 1.

I considered his question, glancing at the lead PT weights Velcroed onto my arms, legs and shoulders. “Hundred fifty pounds at 1G, I suppose. Half that here.”

“Nice goin’, señor. I’m only up to fifty, and man it’s rough, rougher than watching my sisters grow up to get the attention of those scummy dockers in Valles Rojo.”

“Don’t go soft on me, César. I need you at a hundred percent. Maybe even more.”

“I won’t, I swear.” He raised his hands. “I plan on adding twenty five more pounds tomorrow.”

“Very good. Now back to work. You’re on duty. Check the scrubbers first—they smell, unusually clean—then go to the solar array and look over the PV systems, and for God’s sake, fix that damn switch on the engine room check board. We can’t emergency burn without it working.”

“Aye aye, si, señor. By the way, you gonna watch Demonio Primario  with us scrubs tonight? A new episode’s due off the Sol Net at seven. It’ll be a good one. Promise.”

“If I have the time. I’ve got a lot going on.”

“Mmhm. See you at seven, señor.” He bounded off to his work, humming to the choppy rhythms booming from his loose headphones. Bullshit music.

I returned my focus to the slightly bent hallway ahead. It was something you got used to, but only in the sense one got used to wearing glasses of the wrong prescription. My planet side instincts wanted everything to be straight lines and angles, but here it was all screwed up, like a drunken work of MC Escher.

Our ship was designed to compensate for micro gravity. In any given section you could have a conversation in which one person was on one side, the other person several feet opposite, yet the tops of your heads weren’t far apart, while at the same time, all feet were firmly placed on the floor. I think I remember a children’s story that came close to this sight, in which a collection of anthropomorphic woodland animals conducted a nonsensical tea party from the ceiling and walls instead of the floor. Up was a relative concept, here, up was inward, up was the core; the spine running down the center of our habitation cylinder.

155. “There we go,” I mumbled. “Keep it up, David. Keep it up, you can do it.”

Physical fitness was a vital part of living in low gravity. Even though my current post rotated at a decent clip, it only generated about half that of Earth normal. Still, it was higher than on the surface of any of Saturn’s moons. People who stayed too long in The Mirror City of Enceladus would lose considerable amounts of muscle density in spite of centrifuge PT every day. I wouldn’t let that happen to me here. It was easy to do when you’re restless.

Like I said, I’d grown up on Mars in Arsia Mons having arrived there at age five. All my life I wanted nothing more than to travel the deep reaches of space in search of adventure. But it’s cold, cramped, and lonely out here. I had had friends back on Mars, even quite a little flame for a while, though I’m pretty sure she was out of my league. There might have been other girls, sure, but I only thought of her, of all the trouble we used to get into and weasel out of. She’d been fun. When times were especially bleak, like they had been recently, thoughts of her were the only pristine memories I had on hand. Family was great and all, but they were like everyone else back home, dust-caked and made of mediocrity. They were complacent and mundane, living at the whims of Brethren rule, whereas she… She’d been passionate and full of life. A shot of adrenaline to jumpstart a dead heart.

“And I’d chickened out,” I hissed between breaths.

I passed Med 2, Crew 2, zipped through the arboretum and was hit by a wall of sweet aromas. I paused briefly and moved ahead to Weapons Storage and Control, then entered our overstuffed Cargo Bay. I turned, crossing the module laterally, down the only clear path between all the damn cargo, and pounded back up towards the front of the ship from the other side. I swear the halls were getting tighter every time I pushed through, crates and cylinders stacked to the core, having gotten together to spawn broods of inanimate cargo children.

As I blew past Crew 1, my quarters, I scowled. I’d forgotten those blasted headphones once again. But that’s ok, damn it, it was all a loop. I’d be back around in no time. That was a promise. Joy.

I ran twelve miles, five days a week, to keep up with PT, and at about three hundred eighty five feet per lap, well, that’s a lot of laps. One hundred sixty five to be exact. I could wear VR goggles like the rest of the crew, transporting me any place in the known universe while using a treadmill or elliptical to get it done, but even though my brain wouldn’t know the difference, my heart surely would. I was sick of artificial shit. I wanted ground and trees and dirt in quantity, the kind that stained your jeans and got stuck under your nails, not just a thin belt of leaves like what was clasped to the Vindicator’s  belly.

Then there was the other issue. VR, direct brain impulse, or 10k curved displays, all gave me headaches. I tried getting over this once by taking a virtual holiday to Cancun, but ended up puking for a solid two hours just after I’d started. Got sick before I even had the chance to drink the virtual water and get virtual diarrhea. How’s that for fair?

“Twelve more months and I can go home,” I wheezed. “Focus on that.”

I was done with all of it. I’d served my time in the Brethren military. Two freakin’ years out here alone, and I was done. I mean, come on, open war between the Axis and us was over. Been over. Surely someone could take my place. I just hoped things back home had calmed down, hoped it was safe for me to return. What a mess.

I passed one of our three security officers standing guard by the bridge, his deep set eyes drilling into me. I nodded. From the look of his dour expression and crinkling of his forehead, he was having a damn fine day. His stun stick was held loose in his right hand. The tendons of his arm rippled. There must have just been a little trouble.

I reached Forward Observation, got a nice view out the cupola, and came back around. I sidled past a hand full of fresh faces shuffling into their new quarters, rotations no doubt, and wished once more that my time was up. Some lucky bastards had gotten to go home, like Henry Lane, despite the fact that he had nearly destroyed our crop of apples by bringing beetles on board in his footlocker.

When I looped back to the starboard hall, a clamor of voices echoed down the hall from the bridge. The hatches of the dim room were open. The glass windows in the hall unshaded, permitting anyone to look inside.

Against my better judgement I slowed to take a peek.

“Good work, Captain, another successful resupply mission,” our XO, Colonel Jarod Stone, said, his fists grasping one another at the small of his back. His intense gaze, however, was not focused on the Captain, but on the massive display before him showing a green wire model of our ship, its relative position in space, and “best guess” estimates of other craft, friend or foe, around the solar system. Stone was an average but well-built man, who wore his uniform clean and kept his brown hair high and tight, his face smooth as a baby’s bottom. Colors danced atop his stone carved features, making him appear vaguely nefarious in an over-dramatic, near theatrical sort of way in such lowlight.

“As always,” Captain William Mason Fryatt declared, his basso voice rattling in my chest. He was a large man of six foot five with shoulders so broad they forced him to turn sideways when stepping through hatches. Despite being forty or fifty pounds above ideal weight, he was dangerous like a bear and awe inspiring as a monolith. A crop of peppered scrub topped his thick crown and pronounced jawline, adding wisdom and quiet menace to his ebony character. His black and red lapel oblique coat was crisp, service marks neatly arranged, its single row of silver cross buttons polished beyond bright. He looked every bit the Brethren officer, and that scared the shit out of me. He was fair enough, yes, but as hard as poly alloy, and just as meteorite resistant.

He went on, “It would have taken two less hours if you’d followed my orders to the letter, Stone. Are the crew transfers complete? Or do I need to show you how to check on that?”

“Yes, sir. The docking craft is gone and we’re free.” XO gave a nod. “Three general maintenance members have been replaced. And yes, sadly, our talented weapons officer, Kenton, who destroyed three Axis vessels last year, is on his way back home. A well-deserved retirement, I’d say.”

“Captain,” the communications officer cut in, her sheepish tone carefully rehearsed, “I’m sorry to interrupt. Ten minutes for our orbit to be high enough to reach the extended sensor network.”

“Very good.” The Cap softly touched the platinum band around his left ring finger. His brows crinkled with unfamiliar worry.

I jogged in place from the hall, trying to look inconspicuous, just far enough behind the bulkhead as to hide myself from the view of security and the bridge. Engineers, masters or not, weren’t privy to these sorts of discussions; then again, they’d left the door wide open. Come on, they must not have wanted too much privacy.

I was curious.

“XO, did the new weapons officer arrive? I would very much like to…” the Captain’s words trailed off as an athletic girl, rather, a woman, stepped into the room from the port hallway, snapping him a crisp salute. She was wearing a starched black and red uniform, had raven hair twisted into a tight bun, and possessed the innate ability to make me reconsider any thought of ever leaving this ship.

“Reporting for duty, sir.” The room went silent but for the soft bleeps and sweeps of radar.

My feet twisted up and I nearly fell down, slamming shoulder first into the bulkhead. Everyone turned at the noise, but thankfully, I was hidden just out of sight. Captain Fryatt was a ball buster, and open door or not, I would get cited for this. Again. But how was it that when there are only twenty five people aboard this barreling space craft, they expected you not to be nosey? How’s that for fair? That was like asking spectators of a skimmer race not to gawk at wrecks. It was human nature to watch, mandatory in a primal way.

I peeked around the corner, sneaking a glance at the new arrival—and swallowed.

Captain Fryatt returned her salute. “Good to see you, Lieutenant. I trust your trip was satisfactory.”

“Um yes, sir, Russian contract freighters are always the most comfortable. If I never see another pierogi, I’ll be just fine.”

“Traveled coach, then?”

“I would have loved to have traveled coach, sir. I sent you a message two months ago. Why have I not received a reply?”

The Captain coughed into his fist, platinum wedding band gleaming in the light. “I ’em, I’m a very busy man. We are the last remaining warship of the Brethren, the only thing that stands between our way of life and total annihilation at the hands of the Axis. I thought you would understand such a simple notion by now.”

“I do, far too well, sir.” The officer’s tense posture sagged, but only slightly. I’d seen that sag before, as well as the smothering fires behind those irises.

“Yes, introductions,” the Captain turned to face his bridge crew. “XO, this is weapons officer Liberty Fryatt.”

“A pleasure,” the XO said, extending his hand in greeting. “No doubt your special training will serve the Brethren well. Too bad it hasn’t done much for this ol’ codger. Can’t even hit the damn toilet seat.”

“XO,” the Captain growled. “By God I swear, you’re pushing it.”

I sagged against the wall and sighed like a lovesick schoolboy. Holy shit—it was Lib Fryatt. I hadn’t seen her since grade school. What were the chances of her being stationed here? She was the old flame, the only girl I’d ever made a strong connection with. Weapons might have been her chosen profession, but she was damn near as good at engineering as I was back then. Not to mention, she enjoyed all the classic literature of the 20th century. But to top it all off, she was overwhelmed with passion for Rock and Roll—ROCK AND ROLL—and not that glitchy slap beat planet trash that goes around the Sol Net these days. I swear to God, The Axis leaks that trash just to encourage mass suicide by our faction.

“Oh God,” I mumbled. I was such an idiot, such a Godforsaken shithole of an idiot. Liberty Fryatt. William Mason Fryatt. She’s the ball busting Captain’s daughter, not just another officer. No just someone I used to know. How did this transfer even get approved? How had I not put this together until today? I guess sometimes you can’t see the big red mountain ahead for all the cracked roadway below.

“Think you can behave yourself?” the Captain asked his daughter. “Serving on a warship can be a challenge, you know, having all that time on your hands in certain company.”

Lib’s, I mean, Liberty’s, lips tightened. “It won’t be a problem, sir. If you recall, I went to school in a similar setting, and in fact, did not end up pregnant by the end.” The Comm, Brandi Smith, choked and quickly hid her face, burying it in work.

I sidled up to the window and openly glared inside. There she was, Liberty, looking just as lovely as ever, smooth caramel skin, high, avian cheekbones, pouty lips, and fathomless, dark eyes. She was even more beautiful for having matured, nearly putting the image of my pristine memory to shame. She’d been given the best parts of her parents, a perfect blend of Africa and Colombia.

I felt for the rubber gasket around my right ring finger and wondered if she still liked to race skimmers.

The Captain nearly spoke, but swallowed his angry reply. He raised his finger like a stylus as he often did when giving orders, but let it fall when the ship’s alarms began to bellow. Bright lights, red like as a dwarf star, flashed throughout the cabin, arresting everyone’s attention and leaching to the surface an impending sense of dread always felt, yet swallowed down, when serving on a military vessel. It was that sound. The sound. The one you never wished to hear. The warning cries of nightmare banshees who watched with fascination as the reaper’s blade was firmly pressed against your throat.

Red alert.

“Cut that off!” the Captain shouted at the Comm. The alarms died. “Sitrep.”

The main display changed, showing a dotted line connecting Jupiter’s moon, Europa, to Mars. “We have contact with our sensor network,” the Comm reported. Her face might have been turned away, but I could hear her eyes growing wider with each word. “It’s The Axis. The Razor . She’s altered course and is headed straight for Mars. Long range sweeps detect dense mass and high levels of radiation aboard.”

“Nukes,” XO grumbled. “It has to be. Those bastards are going for our main colonies. I knew we shouldn’t have been this far out.”

Captain Fryatt tapped his lips, seeming not at all afraid, but rather hard and thoughtful. “Navigation, how long do we have?”

Rosaleigh Guerra, Navigation, tucked a strand of mocha hair behind her ear. She licked her lips and sighed. “With our current trajectory, let’s see, we have a window of ten minutes to begin acceleration from our current position at Enceladus to enter a transfer orbit and escape the Saturn system. If we miss this window we’ll have to wait another sixteen hours to try again when we come back  around.”

“And where would that leave us?”

“Best guess, arriving at Mars in five months and twenty two days.” Navigation swallowed. “Two days after the Razor , sir.”

A silent word hung in the air for an interminable moment. Annihilation. This would herald the end of The Brethren’s Martian Colonies, and the deaths of a hundred thousand people.

“They’ll have the opportunity to drop their entire payload by then,” XO added. “Either way, looks like they’ve got a head start on us from the get go. They don’t have as far to travel due to planetary alignment.”

“Orders, Captain?” Navigation asked.

Liberty turned in my direction; we met eyes. Her posture didn’t fail for an instant, she was too disciplined for that now, but her lips did part in a tiny gasp. After a moment of reflection, she mouthed the word David.

Hot damn, she remembered me. She remembered me.

“Engineer!” the Captain shouted, slapping a tablet resting on a workstation to the floor. His eyes became lakes of fire with the promise of hellish condemnation. “What are you doing eavesdropping on tactical? Do I need to cite you again? XO, how many marks will that be?”

“Captain, orders?” the Comm persisted, sounding both nervous and annoyed. “I’m sorry, sir, we’re short on time.”

“What’s going on?” I asked, not thinking my clearest. I should have tucked tail and run, waiting on orders like the rest of the crew. “This is bad, isn’t it? I didn’t think they’d ever make another move. It’s too risky.”

The Captain ground his teeth, but thank God, XO addressed me first. “Stand at attention, enlisted. We’re going to battle, that’s all you need to know. Is that clear?” I froze. “I said—attention!”

I stiffened bolt upright, eyes darting between XO, Captain Fryatt, and Liberty. “Sir, yes, sir.”

“Nine minutes, Captain,” Navigation persisted.

“Master Engineer, David Goddard,” the Captain shouted. “You have nine glorious minutes to get our engines burning at full or I’ll have you placed in an EVA rig without any oxygen cartridges. Do you hear me? We have a war to finish. Emergency burn, maximum delta v. Get us the hell away from Enceladus.”

убрать рекламу


p>

I saluted the Captain and bolted. Medical, The Arboretum, Crew 1 and 2, and Cargo Bay rushed past in a blur. Security, maintenance and off duty enlisted plastered themselves against the bulkhead to get out of the way. I ripped off the PT weights and tossed them to the floor, leaving a trail of lead pouches in my wake.

“César!” I shouted as I crossed the Power Core and leapt for the rotating ladder of Nuclear Weapons Storage. I slid into the hatch at its top, barreling through the air in a place where gravity vanished. “Prep the fuel. Emergency boost, liquid burn.”

“Liquid burn? What’s wrong, señor?” His face screwed up. “What’s happening? Oh man, I heard the alarm and knew, just knew.” His fingers raked over the exposed flesh of his right arm like nails on a chalkboard, leaving behind just as much white.

“Engines! Now!”

The intercom boomed as we floated to the aft of the ship, nuclear warheads surrounding us in a radioactive cocoon.

Attention crew ,” said the Captain’s voice. “We’ll be making an emergency burn to achieve sufficient delta v to break free of our orbit and leave Saturn. We have seven minutes to begin thrust in order to intercept the Razor, the Axis’s last remaining warship, before it reaches its target. It is their explicit intent to bombard the Martian colonies with nuclear weapons, eradicating what they see as a blight spreading throughout the system. If we fail in our mission and arrive late, if we’re destroyed en route, or if we fire last at close range, we will fail, and everyone you know and love, still living on Mars, will die, vaporized in an instant…”  

“Pumps armed,” César said, slamming a control rod into place. “Liquid oxygen pressure good, liquid hydrogen pressure good. Igniter test?”

“No time,” I replied, flicking switches across the main control panels. “Damn it, did we check the thrust vector actuators?” I didn’t like being rushed like this. Mistakes happened when people were rushed.

“It’s not by chance that we titans face off for the lives of everyone, rather fate, serendipity. This is God’s moment to decide, once and for all, who the victor of this war shall be. Trial by combat. Duel of two champions. And it is my belief that the Brethren shall succeed! And when we do succeed, we shall ride on and they shall burn for their crimes…” 

“Navigation,” I called into the mic. “Course set?”

“Course set, Goddard. Engines ready?”

“Almost, almost,” César replied, looking confused in the moment. The boy had spirit enough, but he was twitchy as hell and scatterbrained. “Shit, man.”

I finished my tasks and went to help him. “You’ve done this checklist a thousand times. What’s the hold up?”

“I know, I know, señor.” He fiddled with a broken switch. It was that damn switch I’d told his ass to fix starting a week ago. “It’s stuck. Damn it, the puta’s stuck. Pinche puta .”

“In less than four minutes we ride into battle, sending our enemies to hell! Crew, active stations, check all nuclear weapons, run test cycles on rail guns, secure equipment and personnel for hard burn…” 

A pair of combo torches—capable of plasma cutting, arc welding, and soldering—were Velcroed to the wall beside César’s feet, one yellow-handled, one red. I snatched the one with the worn red grip and pushed him out of the way.

“No time,” I growled.

With a flash of blinding light the torch crackled to life. I sliced into the panel around the switch, leaving a jagged line where the old torch made contact, yanked the wires free and peeled back their insulation with my front teeth. I spat plastic tubing into the air and tied the ends together with thumb and forefinger, receiving a tiny jolt of electricity for my trouble.

Green lights appeared on the check board before us. Go time.

“Ready?”  Navigation called back.

“Ready,” I shouted, palm over the emergency burn safety release. “César, strap in.”

“On my mark,”  Navigation said. “Three, two…” 

“We will show the Axis the resolve of the Brethren, offering them our final solution! Remember Ceres!” 

“One! Mark! Mark! Burn! Burn!”

I pressed the big-red-button and the boosters roared, belching fire silently into the void and hurling us forward. Momentum threw me against the back wall.

Through a small display on my right I watched in silence as the familiar view fell gently away, our ship steadily careening off into the deep. The rings of Saturn, bisecting the horizon of its brightest moon, would eventually shrink to a pixel thin line and wink out.

I knew I’d miss this place on some level, but then again I was overjoyed to leave. Either we’d succeed in our mission and I could go home to Mars, or we’d fail and I’d never know it. At least on Mars when people treated you like scum you could run away and hide someplace secret, but locked in here, in this tube, this pressurized can floating through a sea of nothing, all you could do was run in circles. Run in fucking circles.

[2]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

ETA TO INTERCEPT

(AXIS VESSEL – “RAZOR”):

5 MONTHS, 18 DAYS

----------------------------------------------

The emergency burn two days earlier had lasted nearly an hour. After cutting the boosters off, we began to ramp up speed with our ion thrusters, leaving the Saturn system turning orbits like a corkscrew. It would have been great if we could’ve accelerated the entire trip on liquid fuel alone, but the Vindicator  only carried enough juice to burn for a total of six hours. With the next gas station being over a hundred million miles away, well, that made fuel more precious than gold.

Now that action was over for the moment, it was time to get to work. This, is what I was paid for.

I spent countless hours inspecting every inch of our primary conveyance, sixteen Third Generation Hi-Pep ion thrusters, ensuring their unflappable service was at damn near one hundred percent efficiency. We didn’t need any xenon leaks or inefficiently utilized reaction mass, busted grids or faulty electron guns. These sixteen babies strapped to our ass had to get us past Mars and to our target before the Razor  could scorch our home. They would burn twenty-four hours a day, weeks on end, accelerating us constantly by tiny, tiny increments. At full acceleration they would add only about three one hundredths of a meter per second, but that added up. We were a snowball tumbling downhill being pushed by a gentle breeze. Our trajectory was correct, though as I poured over the numbers and conferred with Rosaleigh, the time-table was too tight.

We weren’t accelerating fast enough. If we had to make too many course corrections for defensive maneuvers we’d fail. This was a big problem.

I sat in my quarters and flipped through my tablet, trying to focus my mind on numbers and not the new crew additions. I sipped on what passed for coffee, only raising my head when someone passed through the module. A few waves, the occasional nod. If I was back in training on Mars, I’d have been sipping gin at the pub down the corridor while calculating engine outputs on the back of packing paper. There was not a drink to be had here.

No matter how many times I ran the numbers, no matter how many cups of coffee I downed, the answer was the same. Not enough kilowatts to achieve proper acceleration.

The Vindicator  had many advantages and disadvantages in design. The most notable disadvantage, was that the further it traveled from the sun, the less effective it became. We were still near Saturn, and Saturn was a long way from the sun. Levels of light here were less than one percent of what Earth receives. This is a big challenge on a solar powered vehicle. Ninety nine percent of our power was collected by the origamic solar arrays, or to be technical, the MBTC PVAs (Multi-band tandem cell photovoltaic arrays), that spread out from the aft end of our craft. They were a collection of honeycomb cells laid out much like an RGB pixel matrix, each cell capable of capturing different wave lengths of light. Unlike the cheap photovoltaics used on the surface of Mars or back on Earth, which made use of around fifty percent of available sunlight, these could turn ninety percent of what reached them into usable energy.

The Razor , on the other hand, did not have this issue. The Axis’s aerospace engineers and rocket scientist had decided on using an on demand source of power and propulsion, which attributes to their ship’s greater mass. Equipped with a VASSIMR engine powered by nuclear fission and cooled by a molten sodium heatsink, the could travel in the dark with ease. It was a much more costly and volatile means of getting around, but distance from the sun did not diminish it’s vigor.

The Brethren scientist, however, were no idiots. We had a way around our handicap, a means of remote power generation. Currently, a good portion of our kilowatts were being supplied via nuclear reactors in orbit around Saturn, transmitted to us through the void to our array by a dense stream of photons. It was a huge boon in our dark position, but calculation after calculation showed it was not enough. We would need to requisition “use time” from civilian Photon Focusers located in the asteroid belt closer to the sun. It might cost us millions of credits to do this, but Military matters took precedence.

I factored the power deficiency, made a note of what we needed, and went to check the propulsion system. After I was satisfied we were at ninety-eight percent efficiency or higher, I left César to keep watch. I knew we could set alarms to trigger our wrist watches or belt tablets in case of trouble, but it just wasn’t the same. It felt right to have a person watching over it, not just another smart machine. That, and César felt important doing it. That twitchy little kid needed something to make him feel that way. I got the feeling he’d never felt that way before, either by circumstance or family; he’d never been allowed.

Despite all the frenzied action during and after the hard burn—the Captain’s zealous war speech over the intercom and subsequent angry discussions all over the ship—the Vindicator  was mostly quiet. Security was unusually absent. The doors to the bridge were closed and locked, but the windows weren’t dimmed. Liberty was in there most of the time talking to XO or Navigation. Not a peep from anyone.

The ship’s doctor ordered that all those not up to date on PT had best get on it or be cited. I, for once, was about the only crewmember in good enough shape not to be scolded. Hell, I even saw Captain Fryatt, as a result, sweating his ass off a half hour a day in Forward Observation. The Doc must have really lit a fire under our collective asses to get the Cap up there so often. The Cap might have been a hard ass in attitude, but that certainly didn’t translate to his physical assets, unlike his daughter’s.

With the ship’s affairs in order there was nothing else to do but think. Think of home, think of the war, think of mistakes, and of course, think of Liberty.

While out on runs I often saw her exhausted, leaving the bridge and heading back to her quarters. I tried to catch up with her and talk, but enlisted weren’t allowed in the officers’ crew quarters, and she was fast.

“Got business in there? Work orders to finish?” Lank Hair, our one-time British islander in security, asked if I ever slowed by her section. “If not, you best get movin’ along. Officers need their space to work. They don’t need rabble buzzin’ about looking for honey to put in their tea.”

“Just passing through,” I replied, but he wasn’t satisfied. He had a reputation on the Vindicator . He was the only man I’d ever known to cock block out of interest for the greater good and not his own need to dip his wick.

I briskly moved on, hoping not to see him in the opposite hallway standing outside the same section, but there he’d be. I guess everyone needed a hobby. His just happened to be in line with the Neo-Puritan church of Mars.

I was forced to watch, trying my best to act as if I wasn’t, while Liberty stepped over the threshold of Officer 1 and locked the hatch behind her again and again. It was a nauseating sight, and after a few days’ reflection it made me as restless as César. I needed something to do. I needed to get my mind off of this.

But for as much as she kept her eyes averted, I knew she’d seen me every time. She’d always been good at looking without looking, sneaking a glance when others were right there. Maybe she’d missed her calling. She would have been a great spy.

[3]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

----------------------------------------------

Without the benefit of being in orbit around Saturn’s moon, the cupola at Forward Observation had become as dull to look from as watching paint dry. Cruising above Enceladus we could marvel at Saturn’s rings each time we came around, watching as the colors flickered faintly with distant sunlight, shards of ice glinting like microscopic gems caught in a uniform wash. This view lacked for nothing great to behold. The vapor jet expelled near Enceladus’s southern pole, close to our research station in Mirror City, was the direct cause of Saturn’s famed E Ring. Every thirty three hours, this geologically active moon made a full rotation. In that time I could see Titan, Ganymede, Mimas, Dione and Tethys, as well as a dozen more, in all their splendor with the naked eye.

When we’d first arrived I’d been sitting here, declaring it the most beautiful sight I’d ever seen, and for the first six months I woke each morning thankful to have had that chance again.

Time passed. Novelty wore off. Reality set in. Things became cramped and smelly. PT shifted into a more serious part of my routine.

Nevertheless, as things go, the ringed planet and I formed an uneasy relationship. It watched over me as I watched over it. It supplied the backdrop to my adventure, something familiar for me to mentally anchor to. Out of respect, I yielded to its might. It was the sort of piece that fit well with my childhood dream puzzle, and for that it was worth it. But now, all I had was a deepening expanse of black behind a sheet of reinforced glass. I missed Saturn, but longed for Mars.

Space travel was nothing like the movies, stars zooming past at incredible speeds in some artistic representation of high velocity, hurtling us towards a predefined target only known by instrument. It was more like drifting in a frozen pool with white specks of searing ice, but no water, impossible to even determine movement without the use of sensitive machines.

I sat in the curved window of the cupola with my legs stretched out, back leaned against the bulkhead, right palm against the glass. I drew my hand back and placed it on my cheek. It was warm. To my left our forward end was abuzz with activity. Crewmembers were either exercising or sitting about talking. A short, dark looking man and young woman I didn’t yet know, transfers, were working their way around the room replacing filters for the air scrubbers. This was usually César’s job. The man of their pair used a freakishly long pinky nail to rip open the plastic wrap around the filters. Rosaleigh, Navigation, was getting off an exercise bike and toweling her face and chest dry while arguing with Dour Face, who leaned over the bike’s handlebars, flirting. Everyone was going on with their business, paying their Master Engineer no mind.

The gasket on my right ring finger spun round and round, infinite in its position. Wrapped in that single band of thermoplastic rubber were both warm and icy memories, equally opposed in their emotional weights. But there was no sense dwelling on either; I was getting too old for that shit. I focused on something more concrete, placing all my anger on the why of being here, not the how. I could only ever come up with two reasons, and both weren’t all that great.

Reason one: I was tired of struggling.

Not only did this position pay well enough, but when I was done with this tour I’d see a decent bonus. For all the talk the Brethren gave of fixing the Martian economy, nothing really seemed to change. The Axis had come into power and ruined our trade deals, then bombed several key installations and stirred a political shit pot back on Earth. If not for that we’d be much better off, hell, I’d be better off. No war. No terror. I’d be back on Mars making twice as much as I was now, and ten times as much as back then. Apparently, the Axis didn’t like our way of life. We were a virus of religious fanatics. They were the cure.

Then there’s reason two: Which is…

It doesn’t matter. I don’t think I’ll ever get away from that no matter where I go. The scales will never be made even.

I wanted to slap the side of my head and punch the glass. I’d told myself I wouldn’t go there anymore. It was best to forget my shitty past and move on. Mistakes made. Lessons learned.

“Hey, David!” a nasally voice called to me. I foolishly turned around and my solace was shattering like a wrecked windshield. Before I could think to say, ‘Leave me to my thoughts, asshole,’ Harold Devins, our horticulturalist, was already sitting beside me. He was far too close for comfort and was patting me on the leg. “I thought we were getting to go home? You’re on my rotation, right? Six months till it’s done?”

I raked my tongue around the inside of my mouth, brushing the backs of teeth and sliding it over my pallet. I forced a brittle smile out of courtesy. “In a way I guess we are. Going home that is. One way ticket.”

“True, true. Know how long it’s been since I’ve seen my wife?” His expression became vaguely lascivious, caterpillar eyebrows tilting in to telegraph his implication.

Probably about as long as it’d been since I’d known dignity, I thought.

“No, I don’t. No idea. No damn clue.”

“Four years and nothing but Sol Net contact.” He started picking at a hardened, thumb size scab atop his right arm. “If I get home and it turns out that she’s run off with some Russian freighter captain or hotshot skimmer driver, I wouldn’t be shocked. Can’t really blame her if she has, me being gone and all, though I’d still want to kick his ass for safe measure. Damn, it blows, because we even had this huge fight before I left over something really stupid. I think I was mad at her for not doing dishes or picking up laundry. Something petty. But in retrospect, why should I have cared, right? I mean, it’s not like I’d have to even look at it.” He gave me a playful shove but could tell it’d fallen short when I glared back. “Anyways. You miss anyone? I mean, if we’re successful in this mission, you’ll get to see ’em. Am I right?”

I shrugged, turning my eyes back to the window, stars spinning lazily as the habitat rotated. “My family, dad, mom, and a sister I’ve not talked to in a while. It’ll be nice to see them, that’s for sure.”

“No love life? No special lady?”

“You’ve been around me long enough to know the answer to that.”

“Maybe so, far as here, but sometimes us guys keep a lady in the pocket, just waiting for the right time to see it through. I still got a special little hidden contact folder in my tablet, if you catch my drift.”

“My pockets are empty right now.”

“Too bad. Too bad. Seen a few new lovely faces around the ship. Too bad they’re off limits.”

“Because you’re married?” I glowered at him, recalling a rumor that the Comm and he had had a fling for an instant. I’d never believed it. He just didn’t seem to be the Comm’s type.

“Because it’s a bad idea, man.” It was his turn to shrug. “You’re aware of that, right?”

“Painfully aware.” I closed a fist, the gasket tightening around my right ring finger.

“Hey, it’s okay, we’re not the only ones having to suffer out here. The XO, he’s got a wife he hasn’t seen in almost two years, not to mention, a couple kids under the age of ten he loves to hell and back. Christina and Sam? I think that’s right. Then there’s that security officer you call Higgins, been married twenty five years and hasn’t seen her in five. Crazy shit, huh? He’s got two kids, both now graduated and out on their own, and I ain’t even got one. I think the oldest is like a physicist, working on the mass driver project, that thing to send cargo back to Earth without ships. That’ll put some folks out of work, but maybe innovation is good. Then there’s some who just can’t hang in, or family just can’t keep up. I think Graham’s divorced because of this life; Briggs is in his thirties and never married before coming here, poor bastards. I know it’s not all about the pussy, but damn, sometimes you just get sick for it, am I right? Need a place to test your power cord, right, right?” He grinned.

“Yes, you’re right!” I hissed, and my voice grew louder, drawing the attention of others. “It sucks. It’s sucks hard. That’s why I’ve been alone. That’s why I’m still alone. This place thrives on bastards with no solid roots and pasts that they’d rather run from. Shit can’t reach you out here.”

“Geez,” Devins said, raising his hands in supplication. A cross dangled from a silver bracelet on his right wrist, tapping his inner arm. “Not tryin’ to get you all hot, man. My bad. It’s just I thought you might want some cheerin’ up, ya know? Some conversation. Like Kerrigan, now that guy—”

“Do you ever shut up?” I interrupted. “All you ever do is ramble. Did you think for one second that maybe, just maybe, I wanted to be alone with my thoughts, not have them editorialized line by line by some greasy kid of an ASI family?”

Devins averted his eyes and began rubbing his hands together. “Oh. I guess I just thought, I don’t know, maybe both of us had had enough time alone.”

I got up and squeezed past him, putting my back to the cupola. “I don’t think I’ve had enough time alone. I’m never alone in here.”

As I walked away he asked a question, making me pause for an instant. “So, what are you, David? A man with no solid roots? Or some guy tryin’ to run from his past?”

But I didn’t stop to answer, I merely hung my head and went back to my quarters. I needed three things right now: a drink, a smoke and some time to myself. But I knew I would get none of these, just a plate of slop in overly cramped quarters with four other people that slept within slapping distance.

As I passed Officer 2, I noticed the hatch had been left open. Inside, a wrapped Hershey’s bar was laying unattended on a table, suggesting rather loudly that I whisk it away. It might not be alcohol or nicotine, but it was sugar. Almost as good.

I stuck my head inside and found no one. Before I knew it my right foot was traveling over the hatch’s threshold and half my body was invading forbidden territory. It was time to do this or flee, no messing around.

The chocolate bar was inches from my right hand, almost within reach. I could taste the sugary sweet milk chocolate, feel it melting over my tongue to ooze across every God-given flavor center. It would be mine, hot damn, it would be mine.

A voice came from out in the hall. My breath caught. I reversed my automated actions and glanced behind me. Lank Hair was facing the other way, harassing yet another person just as stupid as I. Swallowing my heart, I walked the rest of the way to Crew 1, thankful I hadn’t gotten caught red head, yet pissed I’d come away empty handed. Chicken shit.

“What were you thinking?” I mumbled. “Am I going to have to tie a band around your wrist and slap it every time you’re stupid?” My face was hot with anger and shame. I just couldn’t help myself. It was only a candy bar.

César was laid up on his bunk watching TV, stomach down, legs in the air kicking like a damned schoolgirl. When I saw what he was watching, I rubbed my temples and groaned. As always, César had deflated my heightened emotions like a balloon. He was a powerfully disarming individual even when he wasn’t trying.

“Holy shit, Enela,” I growled, “are you watching Days of our Lives ?”

He grinned up at me, flashing a spread of pearly white teeth.

“How the hell is that even still on the air?” I tried to remember when I’d first seen it in the archives. It predated most of my favorite music and movies, and even at that time, it had more episodes than any other TV show ever made. “It has to be like, a hundred years old by now.”

“Hundred and ten, actually.” César pressed pause, freezing the image on an older Latina woman in far too fancy clothes and too much makeup. She was a caricature of an image of beauty, not its realization. That’s soaps for ya. “I hear the original writers are still alive, and that they’ve had some sort of experimental life extension process involving stem cells and Martian bacteria. We might get another fifteen or twenty seasons out of ’em before they go to the Cold Well.”

I plopped down on my bunk and tried to get comfortable.  “That’s a load of shit and you know it.”

“Maybe? Maybe not.”

“You’re weird for watching it.” I sighed. “They don’t broadcast in 3D?”

“Nope,” he said as if I should have known that fun Days  fact. “They keep it old school, lends to the artistic medium. Just because we have digital screens doesn’t mean paint and canvas aren’t cool. Feel me?”

“I do, but, I mean, come on… Days of our Lives ?”

“Cyborg Stephano will rule all, my friend. He’s married to a Lunar princess now.”

I covered my face with a pillow. “This has to be your mother’s doing, sangre loco .”

“Loco for sure, but Papi and my big sister are at fault.” He paused. “You alright, señor?”

“I’m fine,” I groaned, starting to feel bad for getting mad at Devins. Just my luck he’d never speak to me again. Another bridge expertly burned. I was good at that.

“So, I’ve been thinking about home a lot lately.”

I set the pillow aside and sat back up. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, since we’ll be back there and all.”

“Let’s hope.”

“Nah, we will, si Dios quiere . But here’s a random question; do kids stand out by the main roads and beg for saccharin tablets in Arsia Mons?”

“Sometimes.” I felt my eyebrows crowd in on my nose. The thought of fake sugar made me pissed once more that I’d chickened out in the great Hershey’s heist of 2072. “What’s the deal with that?”

César chuckled. “In Valles Rojo, the older kids stole our sugar rations or whatever bits of candy that came our way. Us little kids, and I was one of them, just wanted to be cool, I guess. The older kids got to suck on candy all day with crossed arms propped against the railing watching people stroll by, like it was the best day ever and they owned the place. So we sucked on saccharin tablets and did the same.”

I shuddered at the thought. “That’s nasty. I mean, I use ’em in my coffee, but still… There’s coffee to cut the taste. By themselves? No thanks.”

“At least they’re sweet. And hey, when you really wanted to be a jerk, you could always swap them for salt tabs.” His passive, persistent grin widened to an epic scale. “They’re the same size, same color!”

“That’s demented, César.”

He let out the fakest evil laugh I’d ever heard. “I know! My brother used to do it to me all the time.”

“You got him back, right?” I reached under my bunk and produced a bottle of water.

“That lazy little shit? Hell yeah. Even though he knew there couldn’t be any danger, I’d come up behind him when passing airlocks, pushing the test cycle button when he wasn’t looking. The door would hiss, an alarm would chirp, and he would have to sprint home to change his pants.”

Water shot out of my mouth and into my hands. The bottle tumbled to the floor and spilled. “You’re awful,” I wheezed, patting my palms dry and leaving a wet smear down the front of my jumpsuit.

“Don’t mess with the bull,” he said, two fingers poking up from the top of his head.

[4]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

ETA: 5 Months, 13 Days

----------------------------------------------

The farther we drifted from the Enceladus colony, falling out of visual range of Saturn, the more nervous I became. We hadn’t lost any extra room to move about or found ourselves any further from rescue than before, but we were now en route, our trajectory fixed. The Vindicator  was committed. It made the hull of the ship feel thinner, the weight of vacuum mentally oppressive as the mass of a mountain. I had no interest in seeing my lungs first pass through my sphincter before my brain went dark. Best not to think about it.

We weren’t close enough to the


убрать рекламу


Razor  yet to worry about coming under rail gun fire, which had an effective range of millions of miles. The Captain informed us early that morning that the sun’s gravity-well should protect us from danger for a while, two months perhaps. I should have felt relieved that we were safe, but when I checked the water filters in the arboretum, I found that four were broken, beyond economical repair. They weren’t used up or clogged, but crumbled and eroded, almost melted. I’d never seen them break down like this before. A stone came to rest in my stomach.

I tried not to fret. It wasn’t the end of the world. I recorded the damage in our breakdown book and took replacements from storage. The log showed ninety-eight backups on board. They fit into place without much issue and nothing seemed disturbed, the ship’s homeostasis having remained within acceptable levels. Our big ass Coke can was A-OK for now; the void having yet to punch a hole in our side and smoke us like a pinch of dank bud.

“I could use a smoke,” I mumbled, but smoking of any kind, even vaping, was prohibited in all oxygen rich space cans. Go figure. The brass’s engineers didn’t like their warships turning its passengers into charcoal briquettes. Yet, they let us have plasma torches.

Go figure. I’m not sure that made any sense.

I checked off the work order displayed on my tablet and crawled out from behind drooping branches. It was a jungle in here, the perfect habitat for a stalking wild cat.

“What are you doing here?” a female voice growled from a cluster of rustling leaves.

I scrambled to stand back up but fell on my backside, startled at the new arrival, a root digging into my right pocket. On second thought, maybe there were cats in here. “Lib? Is that you?”

“Don’t call me that,” she said, stepping into view. “The name’s Liberty, Master Engineer. But you will address me as Lieutenant Fryatt. Understood?” Her voice was forged poly alloy, light and hard, just like dear old dad.

A grin took hold of my face. “Really? So strict nowadays. You used to love it when I called—”

“Master Engineer,” she raised an outstretched finger just inches from my nose, “address me as Lieutenant Fryatt.”

“Uh, em, yes, sir. Yes, Lieutenant Fryatt.”

“Better. Now I’ll ask you again, enlisted,” her tone softened, “What are you doing here?”

“In the arboretum, ma’am?”

“Don’t be coy, David.”

At the mention of my first name, not just my title, I felt warm. Oh, shit.

“I’ve been stationed on the Vindicator  for almost two years, with six months left before being permitted to go home and hang up my tools. The real question is, what are you  doing here? I thought you’d decided against military service, and, hello, why didn’t you tell me your father was a captain? I never put the names together until the other day.”

“You would be fool enough not to figure that out on your own.” She chewed on her words for a moment and sat down cross legged, making me feel a little less foolish. “I haven’t seen you in six years. Father took this post eight years back, and after mother died in 2070, I had to get away. Mars just didn’t feel the same. Didn’t matter how nice the Arsia Estates were, they were too empty for me to be alone.”

“Arsia Estates?” I asked, puzzled. I thought Lib was from the bottom levels, like me. “But—”

She sighed, her slack expression reflecting my thoughts. She had guilt over her privilege. Odd. “In a closed colony it’s not a good policy to broadcast you’re from the nicest place in town. Father wanted me to be safe, so he let on in public we were from the middle levels. Guess I found more that interested me down below than up top.” She chuckled and shook her head. “Damn, those were the days.”

The mood between us shifted into something comfortable and familiar. It felt safe to be nostalgic. “They were, weren’t they? Remember back when we used to race skimmers?” I fingered the black rubber gasket on my right ring finger. “Remember this old thing?”

A hearty laugh bubbled out of Lib, making her disciplined veneer turn to dust. She looked somehow younger, her eyes sparkling like stars. The tiny, red, heart-shaped birthmark on the right side of her neck appeared with a sudden rush of blood filling her cheeks. I realized then that was her tell-tale. The birthmark.

“You would keep that,” she said, leaning forward, her face just a couple feet from mine. She rolled her eyes and chuckled. “You were the sentimental type, after all.”

“A flaw to be sure.” I couldn’t stop spinning the gasket around. “Still race skimmers?”

She shrugged. “It’s hard to do way out here, but yeah, I did a couple times before leaving Mars. I can’t believe you wrecked Harrison’s at the foot of the mountains. You almost killed the two of us that day; I mean hell, my environmental suit’s visor even had spider cracks. Clear aluminum, cracked.”

“Yeah, I guess it was a bad idea to steal the very skimmer my boss was fixing for a client right out of his garage when it had a bad actuator. Should have made a better choice.”

“Wasn’t much left of it when you were done. Did you get arrested?”

“Almost.” I gave a nervous chuckle. “But it was fun, right?”

“So fun. God, it was so fun. Were you drunk at the time?”

“Maybe a little buzzed.”

She laughed again, this time having to hold her convulsing stomach. “I sure as hell know I was. That gin Mr. Kensle made, you know, from down below, was strong enough to clean fuel intakes on boosters.” Her laughing subsided as she wiped the joyous moisture from her face.

Those were the best days of my life. Young and carefree, my family strong and healthy, nothing but hopes and dreams laid out before me in an endless parade of delusions. I could have done anything I wanted.

Foolish bravery seeped into my spine. “Why didn’t it work out for us?” I ventured. “I mean, we were close, we had so much fun and loved so many of the same things. Remember the band Europe we used to crank up while racing? Alice Cooper? Poison? You grew up on that shit too. Lex’s rock class was a blast. Hot damn, we nearly got kicked out every day for being too loud.”

She let out a long breath and tugged the cuffs of her uniform. “Look, David, you’re great and all, but, well—you haven’t been afforded the same opportunities as I have.”

My mouth went dry. I had a feeling this was coming. Even though she’d always acted like someone from my neck of the red world, she’d always had an air of class which couldn’t be covered up no matter how much dirt she was caked in.

“Ha. You mean money.” I closed my eyes and swallowed my anger. Just because I was born with less didn’t make me worth less. “But what does money matter out here? I hardly had enough credits to get a few beers back on Mars, but here I keep this ship alive. They say money is power, but look, the guy with no money sure has a lot of power. If I don’t do my job, we die. Pop the top on this can, lungs go out the ass. It’s over.”

One of the hatches leading into the arboretum opened with a clang of metal on metal. The heavy boot steps that followed had to be Dour Face, Security #3.

“I gotta go, Master Engineer.” She stood up and looked over her shoulder, pressing her uniform flat with her palms. Her expression hardened. “You best get back to work, or I’ll have to tell the Captain you’re slacking off with idle chit chat. I hear you’ve got quite the record on citations right now. We can’t have one of our most valuable men thrown in the brig. What would happen to our little Coke can?”

I nodded, feeling a trifle sick. “Yes, Lieutenant Fryatt.”

As she left I stared at the silly rubber gasket wrapped around my finger. I wondered if she still had hers. They’d been our gifts to one another after wrecking Mr. Harrison’s skimmer, part of a pneumatic pump system found in the dirt. They were about all that was left of the damn thing, well, except the door handle.

“No way she kept it,” I mumbled, and went back to replacing filters. “And it’s damn foolish for me to think otherwise. That girl’s too good for you, David, get used to it. You’re shit and you’ll always be shit.”

I wallowed in my state for a while, dwelling on many regrets, and not all in the love department. There are moments in life, crossroads where one choice can change everything. I could think of two such instances, and in both moments I’d made the wrong decision. I told myself I’d done what had to be done at the time. I knew Dad would agree, but that brought no solace. I deserved nothing good for my choices.

Back in Crew 1, César was kicked back on his bunk watching videos from off the Sol Net on his tablet. A pretty girl of teenage years with his likeness was smiling wide on screen.

Gracias a dios, hermano . We got your credits. Father has an appointment with a specialist next week. They think it might be an autoimmune disorder. His spirits are high, but he’s just weak, no way he can work. Quiet, Linda!” A girl screamed off camera, and César’s sister vanished for an instant. “You left me alone with this little cucaracha. Tiny pain in my ass, she is. Got me a shadow twenty-four seven. Should have never shown her that stupid Mickey Mouse show; she’s been yellin’ Toodles all day.” Both his sisters laughed boisterously, and so did he.

Being in the service was all that kept his sisters and their invalid father fed. The Brethren said that they took care of their people, but at slave level wages and one hundred percent inflation, it was damn near impossible to survive in the Martian colonies without criminal actions of one kind or another. César was Martian born, but his family had been part of the Colombian lottery for new settlers in the 2040s. They’d been promised a better life than their crime-ridden country, freedom from narcos, and had had one for a while. Then, the political scene shifted and once again they were part of the destitute. As soon as César was old enough, he joined up so that his sisters wouldn’t need to follow a path like he had. He wanted them to have real lives, not get used up and hung out to dry by bored rich folk from up in the Estates.

Sometimes I wondered if the government was just trying to cull the herd, having moved too many of us from Earth too quickly. Or if, as they’d often told us, the war really had tanked the economy. I wasn’t sure what to believe. Trust was a luxury I couldn’t afford, and the balance on my account was overdrawn.

[5]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

ETA: 5 Months, 2 Days

----------------------------------------------

I knocked on the open hatch to the bridge. Sixteen days had passed, not bad for internal bureaucracy. My request for extra power had finally been heard, and for once, I was called forth to discuss it in person. What a dangerous idea.

“Goddard, come in,” XO said from his place in the Captain’s chair, a cushy armed affair with a hidden five-point harness and two cup holders. I stepped inside the room and gave a salute. He returned the formality rather hurriedly. “I received your request over the requisition of Photon Focusers in the belt.”

“Very good, sir. The word?”

“Currently, our network consists of only ten operational focusers. One took meteorite damage a month back and two others went offline for unknown reasons. It’ll be a year before we can fix them. The time on the remaining ten has already been purchased over the next six months by a Russian company, Bear Logistics. I wish we had dedicated focusers for military ops, but they’re too expensive not to lease them out when not in use. Just another way for our faction to bring home the bacon.”

I nodded. The solar system was becoming a pretty busy place if ten photon focusers were booked for the next six months. “They must be trying to get their cargo back to Earth faster than usual. Aren’t those are usually reserved for colonist ships?”

“Indeed they are. Bear is getting a big bonus this year for their haste, which is why you submitted this request to begin with, yes? You’re afraid at sixty percent power output we’re cutting a bit too close for our potential acceleration.”

“Yes, sir. We need more power. Our current output is sitting around five hundred kilowatts. I’d like to see more like six-fifty or seven hundred. That’ll give us another forty percent thrust to work with if need be. I’m afraid if we have to make excessive course corrections under fire we’ll arrive too late.”

XO sucked on his teeth and peered off to the side. “The Captain and I have had long discussions over this and agree. How many Focusers will be required to beam the necessary sunlight to our arrays and be at full capacity?”

“Like I said in my request, this far out, three. At one or two AU it’s not a big deal.”

“That will take some doing,” he flipped through his tablet and frowned, “but so long as the ships who’ve purchased that time aren’t decelerating, I don’t see any major issue. We’ll buy them out and redirect their streams to the Vindicator .”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Anything else, Goddard?”

I glanced around the room, looking for Liberty. She wasn’t present. “No, sir.”

He waved a hand at the hatch. “Dismissed.”

As I left the bridge, Smith took hold of my sleeve, whispering, “Don’t screw this up, Goddard.”

“Didn’t plan on it,” I said, jerking my arm free.

Two years I’d been on this ship and hadn’t let anyone down when it came to serious matters. I got tired of this air of officers, thinking that because they’d grown up privileged it made them better than me. That their shit didn’t stink. That was what this was about; not my incompetence, but their insecurity. They didn’t like the idea that some dusty bottom dweller held their fate in his hands.

I went back to my quarters and made lunch, heating up two trays of food, then took a seat. I poured a couple glasses of water while waiting on my assistant. On cue, he came scurrying through the door looking extra jumpy.

“Hey, eh, señor David,” César said, scratching his dry arms with long fingernails.

I poked at the usual pile of steaming slop and frowned. I bet the Comm would be having steak tonight. “You alright, César?”

His eyes darted around the room, fixing for little more than an instant on anything in particular. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine, I think… I don’t know.”

“Sit down.” I slid him his tray of food. “Eat up. You’re all skin and bones, son.”

“Good idea. Good idea.” He tore into his tray, shoveling mounds into his gullet of an artificially flavored mush infused with protein and carbs called AFiN (Adaptive Freeze-dried Nutritional Base) aka “Slop”. The stuff wasn’t terrible, and truthfully, it wasn’t all we ate, even if it felt that way most days. It had the consistency of mashed potatoes, but when dispensing, it could be flavored with a wide array of thirty six options. Today, I’d picked Italian. Spaghetti Autentico , slop al dente.

I leaned back in the chair and crossed my arms. “You’re from the lowest levels on Mars, right? Valles Rojo, where the Colombian Initiative settled.”

César nodded. “Si, señor. Valles Rojo.”

“Tough down there?”

“You could say that.” He swallowed another bite, fork hand shaking in his hand. “Mama, Dios bendiga , had a serious problem with crystal after she lost her admin job. You know how it is, señor, you plug into VR and smoke a little rail, and things get real easy for a while. You can forget your whole family’s crammed under a generator with nothing but red dirt to sleep on, no food but the minimum colony rations the Brethren doles out for God’s divine favor. Hell, even those bits got traded off more often than not. Then a good portion didn’t even make it to us because of the Gatos. Freakin’ thugs. It was too bad we couldn’t eat spent power cells. We were drowning in those. But hey, made tinkering with electronics easy enough. Lot’s to break down there.”

I leaned forward on my elbows. “Life’s hard at the bottom.”

He twitched and nodded. “You develop certain habits down there, you know? Just to get by. Thing is, I’ve been thinking, we’re a live target for the enemy. Day or night cycle, the Razor  could snuff us out of existence without hardly a warning. I could even be on the shitter, señor, pinchin’ a loaf and blam, dead. Do not pass go. No hot dog dance for you, esse .”

“Nothing to worry about yet.” I grinned. “How long you been clean, César?”

“Clean? What? Me?” He peered over his shoulder and back. “I, eh, never done nothing. I eh…”

“I won’t tell anyone, least of all the Captain. Just tell me.”

César rubbed his shoulder and pushed his tray aside. He let out a long breath. “Fine. Since about two weeks after I got on board. Six months, four days, five hours. Fentanyl. I’ve wanted to be clean for years, even went to medhab a couple times, but it’s hard to detox when you got all that shit rollin’ around in your head. I still remember those men screaming as mother… well… aye yai, she had to get her fix too. I can’t blame her for that. But damn, man, this ship’s as squeaky clean as a microprocessor factory. Don’t you ever think about it? Not the drugs, but… I mean, we could be dead any day now. Just dead, finito , end of line, screen goes black. Makes you wanna take a little break from reality sometimes.”

My heart went out to him. He was afraid; most of us were. César wasn’t the first guy I’d seen get itchy under pressure, especially in the deep. And what do any of us do when we get scared? We revert to our childhood coping mechanisms. César’s weren’t the best, sure, but certainly weren’t the worst. At least he wasn’t a violent bully.

I’d had my own run-ins with controlled substances, but for the most part, their need in our society’s underworld had diminished greatly over the past sixty years. Marijuana had been fully legalized forty years ago, MDMA ten years later (for therapeutic use mostly), psilocybin mushrooms could be easily purchased at most markets grown local from prints, and even cocaine had been allowed in carefully measured doses as part of stim packs; though none of these things were permitted on a warship, not even alcohol. We lived in a damn dry county.

But crystal methamphetamine had remained outside the realm of safe and legal along with heroin, krocodil, spice, and prescription pain pills without scripts. You wouldn’t get thrown in jail for possessing any of these things, we were past that as a culture, but if you tried to sell them, so help you God, you were screwed. In the colonies we didn’t have huge prisons, since legal procedures were pretty thorough, but humane treatment of the incarcerated had been left back on Earth. No one aspired to live their life in prison, since it often lasted only about a year. It was a hard motivator, and so most violence happened out of sight. Any offense large enough to get you landed behind bars was almost always a death sentence.

“César,” I said, hardening my voice. “I need you at a hundred percent. Got that?”

“I am, señor David, don’t worry.”

“Look, ramp up your PT and go see Doc. It’ll help. Be honest with him, you have nothing to fear. He’s probably got something that won’t mess you up but’ll curb that phantom jonesing. That’s an order.”

César nodded, fingers scratching the back of his neck. “Si, señor.”

“Very good.”

There was a pause as he looked up towards the Maintenance Core, our ceiling, a look of consternation taking hold of his face. He was focused on something, the wheels nervously spinning inside his vibrating brain. His lips began to move, sticking together as he mouthed rhythmic words.

“Why that song?” he murmured, becoming distant. “You never…”

“You ok?”

“Hmm? What? I’m fine. I’m fine. Just thought I heard someone singing.” He pulled the tray close again and started eating, this time more voracious. “Yeah, so, can I ask you a question?” He swallowed and wiped the food from his mouth. “Que pena.  It may be personal.”

I narrowed my eyes. Something about his tone made me uneasy. I wasn’t going to like what he was asking.

“Depends on what it is.” I found my heart thundering against my ribcage.

Another bite of spaghetti flavored mush went into his gullet. “Why do we do this? I mean, the war. I know they say it’s because the Axis bombed Ceres and those two mines on Mars, but I don’t know, that just feels like caca. Like the Oil Wars. But I mean, seriously, what started this for real?”

“Oh.” I paused, considering what to say. “That’s a damn good question.”

A boot heel clapped against the floor behind me. “And one I bet not even you, smart as you are, have got the answer for.” My gaze swung around to see Liberty towering over me. She could certainly lay on the intimidation, and if I was being completely honest, I’d have to admit I liked it.

César set down his fork. “I hear it’s because of alien artifacts, Lieutenant.”

Liberty didn’t twitch, didn’t budge, and for some reason I felt smug in the moment. I leaned back in my chair, its front legs coming off the ground, and smiled up at her. “I hear it’s because some stupid people with weapons got the wrong idea when investing their hard earned time into lies. That sort of thing can really ruin folks.”

My assistant’s eyebrows furrowed.

“And you’d be wrong,” Liberty said, ignoring César. “Didn’t they teach you in school it’s best to get all your facts together before coming to a conclusion? No one should fire their weapons until they know who the enemy is.”

My leaning chair wobbled. I adjusted the balance, doing my best to keep up this smug demeanor. I didn’t get to do it often. César’s eyes darted between us. “Oh, they did,” I said, “and that’s why I sought the horse’s mouth for this bit. I can’t help if the supposed truth was also a lie. Do I look like a polygraph?”

“Poly moron, maybe,” Liberty shot back. “You ever consider that sometimes people lie to protect themselves? That maybe the truth is a dark place they have a difficult time facing?”

“I’m confused,” César mumbled. “Who lied? What are we even talking about?”

“Ever consider that some people don’t like games,” I told her. “And that if we were all just a little more honest with each other we might have peace and harmony all over the solar system?”

Liberty’s face tightened. The ship screamed. Alarms wailed throughout the cabin in an ululating cry. Red lights flashed. The chair tumbled back onto the floor, my balance overshot. The back of my head cracked against the deck, dazing me for an instant. César helped me to my feet. It was too bad my pride had melted itself to the floor.

“Señor? You okay?”

“I’m fine,” I said, standing tall, but my heart had leapt up into my throat. I glared at Liberty, her lovely features illuminated by the red glow of alarms. She was a warrior ready for battle.

The intercom shouted, “Lieutenant Fryatt, to the bridge. General quarters. Everyone to their stations.” 

She took off and I followed after.

“You can’t come inside,” she shouted back at me. “You’re not allowed.”

“I can stand in the hall and watch.”

“How’s that any different, hard head? They don’t want you knowing what’s going on.”

“But don’t I have the right?”

She stormed back and shoved something hard and cold into my palm. “Now go. Off to your station, Master Engineer.” And she was gone.

I opened my fingers to find a silver ear piece. I went back for César and put it in my ear. “We got work to do.”

“Si, señor,” César said, picking up his tool belt, red handled combo torch and all.

“Can you hear me?”  Liberty’s voice was in my ear.

“I can,” I mumbled, trying not to let César catch me talking.

“Don’t talk. Just listen.” 

“Okay.”

“I said, don’t talk!” 

“I won’t, I swear.”

“You’re such an idiot.”  

The Captain’s voice found its way into a mélange speakers from Navigation, to Communications, to XO. Through the low fidelity earpiece it was a challenge to pick them out individually.

The alarms in the ship ceased, and my ears ached for its absence. The red lights continued to flash.

“Range?” 

“Sixteen million kilometers.” 

“Time?” 

“Three minutes.” 

“How have they fired their rail already?” 

“Creative use of gravity?” 

“Will it hit us?”  

“Sixty-eight percent hit probability.”  

“Course correction. Five degrees positive Z.” 

“Burn?” 

“Do you think we need to?” 

“No. Save it for later.” 

Liberty’s voice came in clear, “Do we return fire?” 

“We haven’t done the calculations, besides, our sensor data is old. We’ll have a better shot in a few days.” 

“We have a full complement of ammo, yes?” 

“Yes. Let’s wait till we get… there. Can you make a shot from there?” 

“Yes, sir,”  Liberty replied, “but we’ll only get more accurate the closer we come to the  Razor. They have to be running a tight trajectory, just like us.” 

“Orders?” César asked as we floated in the engine room. The Vindicator  made its course correction and he floated gently to the wall. He scratched his arm so hard I thought the flesh might peel off. I put a hand on his shoulder and patted it.

“Calm down. It’s okay, son.”

“Hey! Are you talking to someone?” He leaned to the side to get a better look at my ear.

I put a finger to my lips. “Shh.”

“Here it comes,”  a voice said, and I tensed. “Five… four… three… two… ” I closed my eyes, images flashing on the back of my lids like an ancient film reel. I could see the Vindicator  below me, grainy and in black and white. A tiny, tiny projectile pierced the front of the ship, venting the crew into space with a white flash as the pressurized gasses dissipated. “One.” 

The red lights went green and I took a breath. My heart would be a long time in slowing back to normal. I needed a drink, pronto.

“Are we okay, sir?” César asked, looking around the room. “Is that it? We’re still alive.” He grinned. “We’re still alive! You breathin’?”

“We’re okay for now,” I whispered. “But hang on, parce . It’s only going to get worse. That right there was a warning shot.”

[6]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

ETA: 4 Months, 17 Days

----------------------------------------------

The first time we fired back at the enemy I shit myself, literally.

I’d just come off duty and gone back to my quarters, eaten a healthy plate of slop and laid down for a minute. The Thai peanut flavor I’d chosen for dinner hadn’t settled well on my stomach, and so I got up sprinting for the bathroom, tablet and headphones in hand. The Scorpions, Rock you like a Hurricane , blasted in my ears as I browsed the most recent data packet off the Sol Net. In the middle of reading an article on South American politics and the changing face of Chile, my tablet froze, a red warning box informing me all data was being backed up to chemical storage. I should have known what that meant immediately, but at the time I had too much of an upset stomach for rational thought.

A fizzling sensation rippled through the Vindicator , sending a shiver of electric-ice jolting down my spine. The lights in the stall winked out, the air shut off and my headphones died, shocking my senses with a sickening silence. I was disoriented in the black, and so I threw my hands out to be sure I was still in the bathroom stall, and not just dead. Distant screams came through the bulkhead. I scrambled around, bumping knees, elbows and head as I cleaned myself up and tumbled out of the stall. The air was already turning cold, thin. We were dying.

Feeling your way through the dark is hard enough on flat ground, but the ship was curved, and so I fell on my hands and knees several times, tripping over invisible steps, fixed storage crates or chairs. I decided to crawl instead of stand. Less bruises that way.

We had about an hour of air before we suffocated, ten minutes of heat before we began to freeze, and less than forty-five seconds before I freaked the hell out. But I was in charge. I could do this. I just needed to locate César. We could fix this.

A loud click echoed throughout the cabin as power whirred back to life. I glanced at the open bathroom stall and saw the tablet laying on its side, rebooting. My headphones resurrected to life, shouting at me like a madman, “Here I am…” 

“Shit,” I spat, yanking them out and throwing them to the floor.

A hand reached down to help me up. “Master Engineer, you okay?” My eyes went wide.

Dour Face was lordi


убрать рекламу


ng over me with a hungry expression. “I’m fine,” I replied, getting to my feet without help.

“You best be careful stumbling around in the dark. Especially under a yellow alert. Didn’t see the lights, hotshot?”

I dusted off my uniform, even though there was no dust to be found. “It seems that the designers didn’t think to put alert lights in the bathroom. Didn’t know it was happening until it was over.”

“Ahh, I see.” He scowled and left the room, rolling his eyes and twirling his stun stick like a constable on his beat. “Stick with the safe bets, not the long odds. Better luck next time.” He tapped the hatch with the end of his stick, metal ringing, while whistling the melody to You Are My Sunshine  as he crossed the threshold.

I thought back through what had just happened, running fingers through my hair. What the hell was that about?

“César,” I called into my watch, wrist facing up. “Everything alright?” I glanced towards the hall, hoping Dour Face was gone.

“Si, señor. Just a power trip. Nothing unusual, right? The manual said it was normal. I checked before I gave the bridge the okay.”  

“It is normal. The rail gun’s magnetic field can trip the power.” I just wished someone had told me first. “Did it make you feel sick when it went off? Some people have a biological reaction. Your first, yeah?”

“Si, it did, I’m cleaning up what’s left of my lunch right now. Didn’t think you’d appreciate breakfast being all over the floor.” 

My nose screwed up at the vicarious sensation his tone communicated. “I wouldn’t.”

This was one department where I was lucky, and hot damn, was I lucky.

The only ship to ship weapon the Vindicator  possessed was a rail gun, and despite only being able to fire one at a time, we were armed with two. One was mounted on top of the ship, relatively speaking, while the other was underneath; however, both were attached to a rotating band which could counteract the habitat’s gravitational spin. Imagine a Coke can with a ring around its middle that spins to the left while the can spins to the right. On opposite ends of the ring our guns are mounted, which in a relative sense remains fixed while being used. They focused on one point in space as to take aim and fire, then lock in place when they’re done to spin along with the rest of the hab.

After setting sites, the rail guns then hurl an eighteen-kilogram projectile through the vacuum of space at a velocity of eighty thousand five hundred kilometers per second by creating a series of opposing magnetic fields down the length of an extendable armature. They’re pretty impressive, actually. Cheap ammo and deadly kinetic energy. The only trouble was that they required vast amounts of electricity. The ninety-eight nanosecond firing cycle consumed nearly as much power as a large nuclear plant each time we pulled the trigger, not something the photovoltaics could handle. And so, the good boys back on Earth, with their high science and newly discovered isotope, Degrassium , had created for this purpose what they called a “Two Stage Nuclear Battery”—of which we now had ninety-nine remaining.

Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do ya?

The term battery , however, was loosely used in this context. They were rather a collection of portable, radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG), much like the ones used in early deep space probes—but with one exception. These had state of the art graphene super capacitors capable of trapping vast amounts of electrical energy over time without melting from heat exchange. When we used a battery  to fire our rail guns, we merely allowed a capacitor to blow out, releasing its energy in a controlled manner down the length of the weapon’s rails. It was a dangerous procedure, and thus the batteries were stored along a 120’ halo connected to the hab by two slender trusses.

Aside from this danger, it had an unfortunate design issue that was inescapable. Every time you fired the rail guns it created a massive electromagnetic field along the weapon’s arm. With each shot you run a small risk that the magnetic field would fry every system on board, erasing the central computer core entirely. To protect from this crippling fate, all data was backed up to chemical hard drives before firing. If the ship’s breaker did indeed flip, we’d just turned it back on. But as I said before, I was lucky. Unlike some crewmembers who got violently sick from these EMFs, like César, they didn’t bother me. Though I do have to say, being plunged into darkness during a BM certainly did.

I checked the earpiece Liberty gifted me in hope of a report. Nothing. Not even static. Ever since the first attack she’d left it off. I guess that’s how people gave you the cold shoulder in the 21st century, by amputating your digital connections.

Liberty had become as slippery as an eel. A couple of weeks had passed since the first attack, and I’d not seen her even once. Not the back of her head out in the hallway, not the arm of her uniform’s jacket passing onto the bridge, not even her glowing face through the windows. That place was closed off entirely. I’d gone a little overboard with my PT as a result of searching for her. I was up to eighteen miles a day versus twelve with two hundred lbs. of extra weight. It didn’t make me any bigger of a guy, just leaned up the little muscle I had.

No matter how many times I lapped the bridge, there was a nagging sensation that didn’t go away. Someone I wanted to see was inside the velvet rope of an exclusive club, dancing, throwing back drinks and chatting it up with fashionable people, while I was on the outside looking in along with the rabble. Dramatic description, perhaps, but I didn’t care.

I strolled back to the Power Core and found César chatting with a pair of new faces. They were making light of the fact all three had gotten sick during their first firing solution. This would be some serious scuttlebutt over the next couple weeks.

César was bent over, laughing hard, and for once, his smile wasn’t brittle. The company of his new friends was doing him well.

From the look of the pair, their matter-of-fact speech and casual postures, I guessed that they were from Valles Rojo just like him, even though it was clear neither were Latino.

“Ever look at this ship from the outside?” a husky man with dark hair asked. “So simply built.”

“For real,” César said, “who designed this ship, esse? It’s like a lightsaber and a sex toy got together to have a baby.”

The girl on their left shook her head. “Hooray, we’re riding a phallic fencer, an interplanetary prick.”

They quieted at my arrival and lowered their heads. I guess they didn’t think I could handle a few off color jokes.

“At ease, at ease,” I said, waving a hand.

“Just cleaning up the mess, señor,” César announced, stuffing a handful of messy wipes into a garbage sack. “Have you met Maintenance Privates Jane Griffin, and Robert Kelly?”

I shook my head and extended a hand. “Might be a small ship, but I’ve not had the pleasure.” My hand was taken up by a cute, pale skinned girl with a pinched, foxlike face covered in freckles. Her hair was blonde, pixie cut, and she had green eyes, a strange combination to be sure, but one that complimented her perky attitude and gamine features well.

“Master Engineer Goddard, I’ve heard great things about you,” she said, her fingers snaking around my hand in a casual caress. The bones of my fingers ached for an instant as she squeezed. “Heard something about you being a skimmer racer back on the flats. You were quite the driver.”

“Don’t believe all the hype. Lies.” I fought a smile.

She chuckled and raised her shoulders, but when I tried to pull my hand away there was hesitation. Her eyes locked with mine, and I felt a shock of excitement. This girl wasn’t cold like Liberty had become; she was young and vivacious, yet naive and gullible. The gasket memento on my right ring finger felt strangely uncomfortable beneath her grip. I gave a slight jerk to free myself. My palm ached.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, pushing a few loose strands of hair behind her right ear. “I get nervous sometimes meeting new people. I get stuck a little, like, I don’t know what to do next.”

“It’s alright.”

“Sooo, um, yeah,” César cut in, his boyish jaw hard set with stewing fury. He gestured his head to the side. “And this is Private Kelly.”

I extended my hand once more, but this time received a natural handshake. Private Kelly was a short, thick man, with ropey muscles and copious amounts of wily black hair covering his head, arms, and face. He seemed friendly yet cautious. The pinky nail of his right ring finger was long, making me uneasy as it grazed the side of my palm like a dagger.

“Good to meet you, sir,” he said, and let go. From his jumpsuit pocket he immediately removed an old, portrait style tablet, booting it up.

“Wow. You have one of those busted old things?” César asked. “The I9s have got like, big ass shitty batteries, man. Those lithium ions, they blow up over nothing.”

“Hasn’t happened yet,” Kelly snickered.

“Yet,” Griffin put in. “And I haven’t gotten germ-tube flu either. Doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”

“I’ll leave you guys to your work,” I put in, suddenly feeling a little old. “As you were.”

“Sir.” They nodded.

I walked away and could sense Griffin’s attention on my progress. It was nice to be seen  again, really seen. It’d been a long time since I’d felt I even existed. But yet, even after just a few steps, all I could think of was Liberty. I knew she was an officer, and this put her off limits from the get go, but I mean… damn. Why did there have to be such an easy opportunity given to me? Jane Griffin was enlisted, just like me, and though discouraged to get entangled, if something did happen there would be no official reprimand.

We could easily…

No, César liked her, I could tell from the get go. I wouldn’t be that guy, swooping down on a socially weaker male to steal his chance at companionship. After all, it wasn’t smart to cock block your assistant, or your friend.

“What the hell is wrong with me,” I mumbled, and began to pound back up the hallway. I went to my quarters and put on the weights. I strapped two hundred twenty-five pounds to my back and arms. I was going to run and run until I didn’t feel that profound emptiness any longer. I wanted not to be alone. I wanted to be normal again. I wanted to feel the warm embrace of another human who needed me as much as I needed them, not the cold desert of an endless, apathetic black. I wanted something real.

Liberty was far too good for me. All the good ones were always too good for me. But I couldn’t blame her. It had to be part of the double X Chromosome that females were attracted to strong and powerful providers, maternal instinct ensure their offspring would be cared for. But I’d never been that guy, the kind of asshole it took to end up on top; and with the way rules were laid out by society, I probably never would.

The lights of the ship flashed yellow, signaling the crew another firing solution was eminent. A rail gun was powering up.

“César?” I called into my watch, pausing to take deep breaths. I’d made six laps already and not even realized it. My arms are shiny with sweat.

“Señor ?”

“You got this yellow alert? Or do you need help?”

Si, señor . I got it. I’ll see you on duty in three hours.”

My watch alarm went off. Two of the ion thrusters were below ninety percent efficiency. I’d needed to check on them as soon as I was done. A change in acceleration, even that small, could be bad news.

“Affirmative,” I told César, and put back on my headphones, cranking up my 20th Century Rock and Roll  playlist until my ears bled.

When this mission was over I was done for good, Liberty or not. Maybe I’d have enough dough to sit back and guzzle Mr. Kensel’s gin all day and night, watching the sun rise and fall over the red planet till I pickled myself like dad. Maybe I’d get a couple skimmers of my own, tune ’em up real nice and race professionally. The circuit was small as it was, but paid well, and the women, forget about it, they were practically given out at races like popcorn. It’s just too bad they’re gold digging witches.

Wait, that’s not fair. I’m just… damn. What is wrong with me?  What the fuck is wrong with me?

[7]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

ETA: 4 Months, 10 days

----------------------------------------------

We were attacked in short intervals for a solid week. It seemed that every five or six hours alerts went off in waves, but surely, it couldn’t have been quite that often. The enemy would have run empty far too fast. The generally accepted tactic in this manner of combat was to save forty percent of your weapon’s payload for a close range engagement. At this rate, and at a distance of over eight AU, they’d be out in days. There was no way of telling how many bullets were in their gun. It was certainly possible for them to have an absurd amount of ammo, however, unlikely. The Razor  was bristling with radioactive energy, clear as day, but all signs pointed to bombs, not batteries. Just like us.

Despite missing every single time they fired, the psychological effects these attacks had on the crew were profound. All of us were edgy as it was, prompting us to shout at one another from time to time for no particular reason. When the alarms went off, the crew sprang to action, attending to their automatic tasks without question, only to collapse soon after. Some were tougher than others, like Devins, internalizing their fears to temper them into steel, but a few, César included, Doc had to put on anxiety meds to cope. This was normal for an operation, and wouldn’t get any better till the job was done. Hell, maybe not even then. PTSD was a serious concern, costing the lives of many Brethren who survived battle, only to convince them years later that eating lead for dinner was a good idea.

I knew we had to protect ourselves or be killed, but there was a part of me that couldn’t shake the idea that man wasn’t meant to kill one another. Whatever universal rules God had set forth at the dawn of time were a series of checks and balances. The more blood on your hands, the heavier your side of the scale. For this reason, ancient man made sacrifices, taking lambs to slaughter on an altar before God, hoping an act of transferred violence would suffice in appeasing his rage over our indiscretions. But that never made sense to me. We were the perpetrators, we were the sinners, we were the weights that pressed down the scales. How could an innocent lamb pay a blood price for these mistakes? I knew I wasn’t the best person, hadn’t been since I was a naïve little kid. No sacrifice could ever change that. Death would be a waste, a sin into itself.

But there was one thing that just might work. I could make a positive difference in a single life. Maybe then, I could right the scales. Maybe then I would be worth something to someone, not just a poor engineer, son of a drunk, who’d made a string of stupid mistakes.

It’s too bad that none of us will know the truth until the end. Until our time has come and the scales have been balanced, the weight of our soul lifted by God and placed into the Cold Well. I hoped my acts of goodwill prove greater than all the bad. We are man and woman, made of water and soul, and to water we will return, life and essence for our future children that they may be born of our physical purgatory. And by their birth, we will be set free, our souls to roam the cosmos in search of glory and peace.

I bowed beside my bunk and prayed for the first time in a long time. “Dear God, may my body turn to water and return life to mankind. May my soul have forgiveness and be led into your embrace. If I die before tomorrow, may others be a holy portamento, an offering of humble light leading to you.” I made the sign of the cross over my chest and stood, kissing my hand and touching it to my forehead.

I went on with my day in fear of blinking. Each time they flickered shut I saw red lights. All I could hear in my imagination were alarms. Alarms. Alarms. The attacks wouldn’t cease. Tension had transmuted itself into stones within my back and shoulders. I asked Doc for a muscle relaxer but he declined, suggesting I take the afternoon inside a VR simulation. He recommended the beaches of Southern California, Laguna specifically. His nurse argued for the Gulf of Mexico. The sands were whiter. But I did neither; just the thought made me sick to my stomach.

That evening, César found me in forward observation gazing out the cupola. Demonio Primario  had just bumped down off the Sol Net, and oddly enough, the enemy strikes had ceased. Strange as this was, I wasn’t surprised that the Axis crewmen might be fans of the show as well. Everyone loved it. It was a solar system wide event. I relaxed a little at the idea, letting the knots loosen.

“You alright, señor?” César asked. “Come watch the show with us? We’re about to get started. Devins has produce for snacks.”

I stared through the window for another moment and then nodded. “Sure. Why not? I’ll come watch.” I rolled my shoulders and got up.

César reached in his pocket and removed a pill, swallowing it without the least bit of water. I wanted to gag. “Before you worry, it’s prescribed. These are really helping. They’re not as fun as Xanax, I mean, shit, but they help mellow me out. I’ve been having wicked nightmares.”

“Glad they’re working. Told you Doc had something good.”

“You think these attacks are ever going to stop?”

I shrugged. “When we’re all dead and our bodies are scattered through space. Sure.”

“Way to make me feel safe, señor.”

Ten of us squeezed into Crew 1. There was hardly enough space for the couple of chairs they’d pulled in out of the Cargo Bay. Most of us just sat on bunks or on the floor. As promised, the table in the middle of the room had a bowl of fresh produce. This was a rarity, a treat, something we were only given once every few months to break up the monotony of our slop. And so we ate gladly, laughed and set a relaxing mood. There was no danger in here. In this moment, we were safe, brought together by a need to connect under the flag of fiction.

Griffin shot into the room and snatched a green bell pepper from the top of the produce pile. “Oh, man, I could fuck a bell pepper.” Everyone spun to glare at her. “What?” She stared back and took a seat on one of the bunks, her teeth crunching into the vegetable. César found a place beside her, and she scooted away, giving him enough space to fit.

When Kelly arrived a couple of minutes later he took a seat on the other side of Griffin. He glanced at the bowl of produce, carrots, bell peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers, and shook his head. César raised an eyebrow at him. Kelly was just a little too close to Griffin for his comfort.

“Anyone got ranch dip?” Devins asked, glancing at me for an instant. Someone threw a carrot at his face. “Hey, hey!” Another carrot slapped him, and then another. “Assholes. All of you. I just wanted some ranch dip. It never hurts to ask, am I right?”

“Yes, you’re right, Harold,” Jack Lake, his assistant, said. “Now hush, it’s about to start.”

“So,” Devins recovered the carrots and shook one in the air, “did someone mention violating a bell pepper?” We zipped our mouths’ closed and didn’t say a word. Griffin shrunk down in her seat.

“Are we gonna watch the show?” Jack grumbled. “Or just fondle each other?”

César took up his tablet and pointed to the display hanging on the wall. “Keep your suit on, Jack.”

A couple of the enlisted crewmembers slipped on VR goggles to watch the show in 3D. Most of us opted not to, especially me. We wanted to be able to talk with one another during breaks, making this a social affair and not just a binge watching session with warm bodies.

“What are you plebs up to?” Comm asked, sticking her curly head into the room from out in the hall and looking as if she’d just woken up. She raised a cucumber, dipped it in a tiny box filled with white sauce, and took a bite. A blob of dressing covered her lip ring, and so she awkwardly worked her tongue to lick it clean.

The show began, a massive score of electro-orchestral music building along with the opening credits.

“Shh!” César said in reflex, raising a finger to her. “I mean, shh, señorita. Sorry, ma’am.”

Comm rolled her eyes and reached in her pocket, tossing a pile of sauce boxes on the table before sauntering off down the hall.

“Bitch brought us ranch dressing,” Devins mumbled, and took one for himself. The rest of them quickly vanished.

One of the scrubs stretched out on the floor lifted her visor to glower at him. “If you didn’t call her a bitch behind her back, maybe she’d do it more often. You have a great way of making relations between us and officers tense. Good work, loud mouth.”

“But if I’m talking behind her back, how does she even know?” He bit into one of the tossed carrots and gave a cheshire grin.

“That’s not the point.” She slid back on her visor.

As we watched the show, César fought to steer all conversation towards Griffin. He chatted incessantly with her during breaks, despite the fact that she seemed distant to his intentions.

“You see that guy?” he said, leaning closer. “Met him at an event in Arsia Mons, like two years ago. The show hadn’t really hit its stride yet, but he was cool. Shorter than he looks on screen.”

“Oh, yeah? Wow,” she replied, sounding about as interested as a preteen studying the history of philately.

César caught me watching and his eyes turned dark. “Yeah, and that episode where Enrique killed the demon with his teeth,” he went on, speaking at, not to, Griffin, “it was actually raw chicken he was biting.”

“That’s disgusting.”

“Maybe, but it looked so convincing. What other shows are you into right now?”

She shrugged. “Oh you know. The usual stuff.”

“You, eh, like Days ?”

She furrowed her brows and frowned at him.

Days of …” he struggled to find a cover-up word. “Err, Summers Past? ”

The poor guy was losing ground, or maybe she just wanted to watch the show. Griffin turned away and Kelly smiled as they exchanged a little small talk. Griffin put her hand on Kelly’s arm and he leaned in, whispering something in his ear. César didn’t like that at all.

I fixed my attention on the screen, ignoring the power struggle that unfolded beside me. The mist rose and the demons arrived just after dark. Our heroes fought back with magically warded weapons while fleeing to their protected homes. The evil creatures from the core of the earth pounded against the defenses fruitlessly. At the cries of a young child, Enrique, the muscular lead, ran from the safety of his house and into mortal danger, dashing several demons in his wake.

“Hey, David,” César whispered in my ear, ripping me away from the show. My body shivered. I hated interruptions when I was in so deep.

“What? What is it?”

César tipped his head at Kelly, who was now tapping that long pinky nail against the surface of his tablet. “What’s up with that ugly thing? I’ve seen people down in Digton who favor it. But, it’s kind of gross.”

“Drugs?” I mused, keeping my voice low. “Handy scoop to snort a bump or dig out a line?”

“I don’t think so. He doesn’t seem the drugs type. Some people say it’s sexual. He could be a pervert.”

I shuttered at the thought. “If that’s sexual, I don’t want to know how. There’s enough nasty shit on the Sol Net already. Tell me, how did monster and tentacle sex ever become a thing?”

“Right? Nasty shit. Maybe I’m weird, but I’m sort of vanilla  when it comes to those things.” He made a fist and shook it once.

“I don’t wanna know.” I raised my hands. “Don’t wanna know.”

“Come on, man. You know you like to drink the white wine.”

“Shut up, César, and watch the show. That’s an order.”

He shot me a crooked grin and did just that. Griffin peered at me over his shoulder, a soft smile lighting up her youthful face. She tucked a short lock of blonde behind her ear and tilted her head, then went back to watching the show, appearing vaguely abashed. Something long forgotten stirred beneath my belt.


--//--

A couple days later as I passed the arboretum, the ship turned yellow and the power flickered off. It remained off for longer than usual, César working furiously, I’m sure, but not quick enough for comfort.

I held tight to a support rib, keeping some sense of orientation, breathing slowly, in and out. My mild panic attacks during firing solutions were getting worse. When I’d first joined up we were going after the Claymore , the Axis’s second largest ship at the time. I’d had stronger nerves. After the Axis had taken control of Ceres Station 2, and nuked the place when they wouldn’t surrender, we relentlessly hunted the Claymore  around Sol’s asteroid belt. They were clever in their tactics, hiding among the asteroids for cover, but after six months we located them and put an end to it. A railgun slug right down the length of their ship. Captain Fryatt had us drifting from point to point, running low power levels and trailing junk along with us. Too bad those tactics didn’t work out here. Both us and our target, the Razor , were out in the open with nothing more than an occasional five millimeter speck of dust to hide behind. Not much for cover.

Destroying the Claymore  was a great victory for both me and the Brethren, one that brought about a strange level of excitement and relief, that was, until I started thinking too hard. Someone aboard our ship had mentioned having sympathies for the enemy, and they’d been taken away for these opinions and put in prison. The damage the crewman’s words had inflicted, however, was already done, its syllables settling into me like a virus.

Fifty people had served on that ship.

Fifty lives had been ended.

Fifty families had been destroyed.

Fifty futures were no more.

I knew I wasn’t directly responsible for making that happen, only for the part of getting us there on time. So did that make my scale heavier? Or leave it unchanged? I didn’t pull the trigger or make that order. I just lit the fire in the engine.

The Vindicator  shuttered for an instant, a loud click echoing throughout the ship. A few muffled voices penetrated the dark. Devins shouted God’s name in vain, and Jack silenced him out of fear.

“Goddard?” A voice just ahead of me, but invisible. It was familiar and warm and choked with tears.

“Griffin? Is that you?”

A set of unseen arms wrapped around my shoulders, drawing me into a crushing embrace. She put her head against my chest and trembled. I didn’t know what to do but hug her back. I wasn’t good at things like this and I didn’t want to send the wrong message. She might be impressionable. And I was weak.

Soon as the lights came back on I tried to peel myself away, but she wouldn’t let go. I held my arms out and tried to step back, glancing up and down the hall.

“I’m so scared,” she mumbled.

“We all are,” I said, looking back towards the bridge. Liberty was in the hall glaring at us, Griffin’s arms still wrapped around me. It was the first time I’d laid eyes on her in quite a while. Before I could push Griffin away, Liberty turned and stormed off.

So be it.


--//--

The following morning Griffin appeared in the power core brandishing a hot cup of coffee. It had my name on it, literally, red marks in a bubbly hand script down the side.

She extended the cup. “Kelly said you’d be working on recalibrating the photon focusers. Thought you could use a boost. I know it has to be a pain.”

I considered not taking the cup, but had slept like shit the night before; a couple of vixens having traipsed through my dreams with demons at their back needing rescue.

I took the coffee and grinned. “Thanks for saving me the trip. I was about to go get some.” I took a sip. “Just how I like it.”

César entered the core and scowled at me.

“César,” I said with a touch too much glee. I waved him over to the controls. “Make sure the stream alignment is on point for our trajectory. We need to account for acceleration as well. I think we’re losing about fifteen millimeters a day PV coverage from focuser number two. That’s a lot of lost energy.”

He rolled his eyes and stormed over to the controls, hitting keys as hard as he could. Griffin covered her mouth and chuckled.

“Alright, well, I guess I better get back to work,” she said, a chipper note to her voice. “Kelly and I have to clean out the waste recycler. And you know, it’s a shitty job, but someone has to do it!”

I shook my head. “Don’t let crap like that get to you. It stinks when you have to deal with other people’s shit.”

“Good thing we don’t


убрать рекламу


have a hill for it to roll down.” She shot me with a finger pistol and shook her head.

César banged the console twice.

“I just wish…” She slipped her hands into the upper pockets of her jumpsuit.

“Wish what?”

“Well, these tools of mine don’t really do their job.” She lifted her belt and let go. “Several of the sizes aren’t right, especially for waste recycling, and then I broke my torque driver a couple days ago. All I did was turn it like you’re supposed to, and that’s what it’s designed to do! Apply torque at a predetermined setting.”

I glanced at her tool belt, her hips, her legs. Inspected the way her jumpsuit rested on her body and how her grin made her face bright. I shook my head. “Look here, I’m the Master Engineer. Let’s go get you some real tools. Those are Helox Brand you’ve got, and they’re junk. César, I’ll be right back. Come on, Griffin.” His scowl was so hard it could have cut glass. I ignored him as Griffin skipped after me like a kid on Christmas Day.

It was clear César thought I was trying to encourage her, which I wasn’t. Maybe I’d made a few jokes about the time she walked down the hall holding a fork in the air for no particular reason. Maybe I’d found an extra set of tools in storage and given them to her as a gift. Maybe I’d smiled a little too big when she appeared, and laughed a little too hard at her awkward jokes. But I was not, repeat not, interested. I was just friendly, you know, that’s all. But like most boys, César didn’t seem to know the difference.

It was hard being friendly, but I sure as hell couldn’t muster being a jerk. I might not be the best person, but I certainly wasn’t a jerk.

[8]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

ETA: 4 Months, 6 days

----------------------------------------------

I was dead asleep when my leg vibrated. The crew quarters were dim and silent but for a few snoring lumps. For the past few days, after what was being called “The Endless Assault”, not much had happened around the ship. Still, that lack of action hadn’t taken me off high alert, or removed the constant sense of dread in the pit of my stomach.

I popped up and looked around the room. César was fast asleep on the bunk next to me. Several crewmembers, still on duty when I’d laid down, were now snoozing, Griffin and Kelly among them. The Captain must have given everyone a little break. We needed that from time to time. In truth, all that was necessary to defend our ship at such a range was for the XO to be on deck with our navigator. The rest of the Vindicator  could sleep if need be, and so they were, blissfully deep and unware.

I reached into my pocket and removed Liberty’s vibrating earpiece. I slipped it on and whispered, “Hello?”

“David?”  Her voice was thin with a faint, dampened echo. She was in a bathroom stall. “You there?” 

“I am. What do you want?” The words came out with an edge I hadn’t intended.

“Don’t sound so excited. What crawled up your ass?” 

I sighed. “Look, I was asleep. I’ve been having bad dreams.”

“You too? Mine are horrible. Endless nightmares of alarms.” 

“Well, dreams are dreams. At least they won’t kill—”

She cut me off. “Meet me somewhere. Please.” 

“What? You serious?”

“When am I not serious? Meet me, David.”  She sounded desperate and vulnerable, but still, I was kind of pissed. She’d not been so warm lately, and now that she needed comfort who did she call? Number two.

I knew whatever I said next would determine how things went with us from now on. Then again, it could also determine where I slept, and not in a good way. Meeting with her was dangerous. If we were caught fraternizing, the Captain would put me in the brig for sure, while she would get a tiny slap on the wrist, if that.

Sweat poured from my clasped palms like soaker hoses. I needed César to check the environmental controls. Something had to be broken. It was way too hot in here.

“Where?” I asked, being bold in spite of the marks against my record. To hell with it. Live for today, right? Tomorrow’s just false promises and fleeting hopes of resurrection.

“The arboretum. No one should be coming through for a while. Father told everyone to take the night off. He’s even taken a rest too. Only one security is on duty, and last time I checked, he was groggy.” 

“Alright, see you in a minute.”

“Be quiet. Use the port hallway.” 

“I will.”

“You better. I know you’re terrible at sneaking around.”  

I slipped from under the sheets and reached for the drawer beneath my bunk. I used an extra set of pillows to form a series of lumps that might be mistaken for me in the dark, and then slipped on my shoes. At the sound of soft footfalls, a couple of crewmembers stirred, but only to readjust on their tiny bunks. No one opened their eyes. I held my breath the entire way, but upon reaching the exit, took a satisfactory inhalation. The hatch on the port side was already open. There was nothing to fumble with and make unwanted noise.

I tiptoed down the hall, keeping alert for any movement, hoping security was still lurking where Liberty had said. All I could hear was the drone of life support circulating and cleaning our air. I opened the hatch and stepped into the arboretum, moisture caressing my face. This part of the ship, far more than the rest, had to be kept closed at all times, its humidity remaining at specific levels so our plants could thrive and keep us alive.

It was warm inside like a greenhouse, forcing me to unzip my jumpsuit and tie the arms around my waist, leaving only a white t-shirt to cover my chest. As I pressed onward, thick leaves encompassed the trail leading into a small open area, where of all things, we had a trickling fountain at the center of an eight-foot green. The grass of our tiny plot was thick, and on occasion when no one was looking, I’d sunk my toes into its cool blades, transporting me back to the splendor of Arsia Mons’s agridomes.

“David,” a voice whispered from a darkened copse choked with drooping branches. “Over here.”

I pushed aside the leaves and found a hidden clearing just large enough for two. A single shaft of light shot through the topmost branches, lending a faint, reflective glow. Liberty was kicked back on the open dirt and mulch, legs outstretched, leaning against the trunk of a thick tree. She wasn’t wearing her uniform, but rather, a jumpsuit much like mine. The top half of her was unzipped and tied off at the middle, revealing a dark, bare stomach and stark white sports bra. A silver chain hung around her neck with something at its end, but was tucked away between her breasts. I sat down in front of her, wanting to smile at the treasures before me, but afraid if I did they might just vanish.

“How did I not know this was here?” I asked, detracting from the unspoken subject at hand, her bare—though not overtly sexual—midriff. A bead of sweat rolled down her neck and funneled between her breasts. I watched it vanished beneath her shirt and swallowed.

“Because I made it recently,” she replied, smirking. “I transplanted the brush just a little farther out so I could make a tiny get away. Everyone needs a hiding place, somewhere no one can find other than those they want to.”

I allowed myself to be swept away by the acute bliss of the moment. The smell of healthy, green plants and dirt, of Liberty’s clean body and the must of fertilizer. It was almost enough to convince me I was no longer in space hurdling at ever-increasing, breakneck speeds through a perilous vacuum to my potential death, but in a deep forest with a beautiful girl, hiding from her heavy-handed, overprotective father, hoping to steal a kiss before he had me put to the headman’s block.

I had no idea where this was going.

“I can’t remember the last time I had privacy without VR goggles or a stall door,” I said.

“That’s what you get for living on a warship.” She rolled her eyes. “Could have stayed back on Mars.”

“Wish someone had told me that sooner.”

“Hah. By the way, thanks for coming, David.”

I waved a hand. “Wouldn’t miss it for all the chits in the system, Lib.”

“Stop it. Don’t call me that.”

“Fine, fine, fine. What can I call you?”

“I already told you. Lieutenant Fryatt.”

“Alright then, Lieutenant Fryatt , where have you been?”

She raised a lazy shoulder. “Let’s not talk about that.”

“Why not? Hmm?”

“Because I don’t want to, okay? Respect my wishes.”

“Come on, seriously? What did I do? I just don’t get it. I mean, I know it’s different here, but I was trying to reconnect with an old friend…”

She raised a finger to her lips. “Shh.”

“Okay. Then what? What do we talk about?”

“Whatever you want.” Her heavy eyes squinted as she patted my leg with her palm. Her skin was glistening with sweat. There were so many things I’d love to talk about, but anything to do with how she’d acted recently was clearly off limits. I was getting mixed signals, big time. What was her game? I had to push that all aside and try and find something neutral we could discuss.

“How much danger have we been in?” I asked.

Her eyebrows raised as she produced a bottle of water, looking almost disappointed while she took a sip. “Well, most shots come our way at about thirty percent hit probability, but by the time we do our course correction it falls to about five or six percent, sometimes less. Nothing to lose sleep over, I guess. But the alarms, those damn alarms. Next time I hear a bloody klaxon I might just punch my interface in half.”

“I know the feeling.” I chuckled mirthlessly and heard that very sound screaming from my imagination. I shivered. “Still, even at five percent they might can hit us. I mean, hot damn, do the math. One in twenty.”

“They will hit us,” she whispered, “eventually, or we’ll hit them. It’s a numbers game. War has always been this way. Shoot them before they shoot you, stop the enemy before they make it up the hill, build walls and stand behind them, wishing all the while they’ll just get bored and leave you alone. God, it’s bullshit.”

“I suppose.” I picked at the dirt with a lazy finger and made a tiny furrow. This dirt was a long way from home, just like me.

Liberty took another drink of water, staring off into space. She sighed. “But you know what the worst part is? One of those unexpected bits no one tells you?”

My excavating finger froze. “What’s that?”

“If you run into a burning building or face down a maniac with a gun, or hell, punch a guy in a bar for that matter, your adrenaline kicks in and carries you through the fight. You feel like a superhero, physically and emotionally, like you’re made of titanium alloy and wind. In those short moments, you can do anything. When my blood runs hot, it feels as if I can reach out and pluck the enemy’s projectiles from space with a set of chopsticks and eat them for dinner. But in here, in this bucket?”

“Coke can,” I said, raising a finger. “It’s a Coke can.”

“Alright, whatever.” She grinned but seemed uncertain. “Here in this, Coke can, all you get is dread, and dread doesn’t see you through. It consumes you like a cancer, eats you up from the inside out, and there’s no cure for it. None. You just wither away in not knowing what tomorrow will bring. That’s the part they don’t tell you when signing up for the Brethren military, and thinking about it makes me sick. Look at me, I’ve not even been here all that long and I’m already fed up.”

Truer words had never been said. All of us were losing our edge. Before we knew it, César would be trying to hug me in the dark for comfort, or worse, freebasing bathroom cleaner. Maybe Griffin and he should be stationed together for firing solutions.

Liberty reached into one of her leg pockets and removed a silver tube, then proceeded to put it to her lips, depress a button on its side, and breathe in. A moment later a cloud of white vapor trailed out of her nostrils.

“Holy f-ing shit! How did you get a vape pen on board?” I raised my hands. “And whoa, why isn’t it setting off the moisture alarms?”

She took another hit and shrugged. “Don’t have a clue on the alarms, it’s pretty moist in here as it is, but you forget who I am. I’m Captain Fryatt’s daughter. They didn’t check me for contraband when I came on board, and those Russians were all about this stuff.”

The scent of her vapor dispersed, reaching for my nose. “Blueberry,” I said hungrily, long-sleeping memories rising to the surface. Saturday mornings. Mom baking muffins. Two bites, a sip of cold milk. My sister laughing. Dad chasing us around, threatening to tickle us. A red world. Peace.

“Always,” Liberty tipped her head.

“Can I?”

“Sure, but be careful, it doubles as a ten-thousand-volt stun stick. Don’t flip open the safety.” She tapped the side.

“No way.”

“Way.”

She handed me the tube with a wide, knowing smile. I took a hit. It had been so long since I’d had nicotine. It was almost as good as sex. Actually, I think both things had occurred on the same day, and they were not part of this calendar year. But there was a hint of something else in the finish that wasn’t blueberry. It was earthy and bright with a whisper of damp sweetness. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it

“Whoa, whoa,” she said. “Slow down, Kemosabe, that shit’s strong. Not like I can drop by a drug store and get more if you vape it all up.”

I handed it back, a gentle buzz already filtering down from my head and into my limbs. The aftertaste told me all I needed to know. “It’s a blend, isn’t it? Got a little Earth side green in there, huh?”

“Like I said, Russians. Hash oil.” She grinned and put the tube away, then crossed her legs and moved closer, resting a hand on my knee. “I ever tell you about the caves?”

I shook my head and felt the space around me work to catch up. The concentration of THC in the oil swapped places with the anandamide neurotransmitters in my head, attaching itself to cannabinoid receptors, stimulating the pleasure centers and releasing a flood of dopamine, washing away all anxiety. This was fun.

“Well, when I was young, before we met and long before the war, father used to take me out in a skimmer to what he called the Crystal Caves.”

“Fancy name,” I interjected, raising my hand to get a better look at it. Had I always had those lines on the back of it? Hot damn, they were deep. Like valleys in my skin. I could almost imagine myself shooting through them on  the silver wings of a shuttle, twisting and banking, zipping mere feet from the rock walls and certain death.

Focus, man.

“I liked it,” she admitted, and cocked her head in an abashed fashion. “But things were better back then, different. Father was the head foreman of a high carbon mining team, the kind that was banned back on Earth for its emissions. Perfect for terraforming. His men were like family, just as much as mom and I, and so he cared for them as best he could. On his off days, and when mom needed a break from his constant prattling about gemstones and mineral veins and new drills they were bringing into service, we would spend the day together. He took me out to the mines and showed me off to his boys and cadre of Ginas. So many times that his work family even gave me a nickname, Rudolph. Somehow I was always ended up getting red dirt on my nose.”

“Can I call you that instead of Lib?” I raised an eyebrow and felt my legs begin to melt into the floor. I hoped I wouldn’t ooze my way through the hull and suffocate. That was a terrifying thought.

Calm down. Everything’s okay. Calm down. My face was numb.

I watched her downturned expression as she considered what I’d asked, her lips pushed out in a pouty gesture. God, she was so beautiful it made my chest ache.

“Rudolph? No, you can’t,” she said with a matching glare that brooked no discussion.

“Fine, fine, but Rudolph was Santa’s savior that foggy Christmas Eve. We can overlook the fact that he was a he  and you’re not. Or wait, did you look boyish back then? Did your parents give you one of those bowl cuts that were so hip for a while? Made everyone look like a damn friar from the Middle Ages, and sure, they got lots of game. Right…”

She sighed and shook her head. “Shut up, jackass.” Then nudged me with the toe of her boot. “I’m telling a story. Geez.”

I was compelled to press even harder, but at the heart of it I’m a gentleman and obliged her request, zipping my lips shut.

Why weren’t we sitting on the grass? It would feel better than this. Oh, yeah, hiding.

I rubbed my forehead. Stay focused.

“But I loved the Crystal Caves the most.” Her voice took on a distant tone, singing of glorious days past, never to be revisited. “We would pack a picnic, tuna fish sandwiches, a few cans of Coke, even a bag or two of crisps. The caves were about fifty miles out, so in the time it took our skimmer to get there, the crisps had been eaten. Without fail, father would steal my last bite and laugh about it, before producing a fresh bag.

“Down in the caves there was a strange, pocket atmosphere his crew had discovered while scouting for drilling sites that we could take off our helmets in. The sparse flora of Mars and some microbiotic creatures made breathable levels of oxygen and nitrogen as a result of their symbiosis. We’d play board games like Palzor or Hexon, or read books. Ender’s Game  and The Princess Bride  were two of my favorites.  We’d chase each other through the tunnels in matches of hide and seek, and talk about school and friends. He’d always warn me about boys.” Her eyes began to turn glassy. “Only after one thing.”

“What happened?” I asked, softening my expression. I reached out and put a hand on top of hers. She gripped back.

“I turned thirteen and the world went to hell. The Axis bombed my father’s mine and everyone died. He grew very cold, very quick, and got actively involved in politics. Before I knew it, he was trying to cram religion so far down my throat it made me shit blood. So, I rebelled, I pushed back. He had always given me the freedom to choose when I was younger, but he changed, saying now that our beliefs were what truly unified us. That if I didn’t follow the same neo-puritan shit those assholes he was mixed up with did, it would divide our colonies. I kept away from that as much as I could, venturing deeper and deeper into Arsia Mons, and that’s about the time I met you.”

It was hard to suppress a laugh. “So I was the bad influence, huh?”

“Maybe, but look who supplied the green.” She leaned back and sighed, pulling my hand along with hers as she did. Before I knew it my head was in her lap and I was lying on my back. “I wish it could be those days again, but father is a different man now. He’ll never be that man again. Maybe if I took him back to the caves he’d remember what it was like…” She paused to chew that over.

“I like that thought,” I said, nodding.

A storm rolled over the vastness of her tumultuous mind and was driven out to sea. She had had enough. “Damn, I’m hungry.”

I grinned up at her. “Hah. Me too. Got any crisps?” Despite the happy chemicals, I could see in her eyes a sadness she fought to hide. I guess I’d been lucky after all. My parents had loved the hell out of me and been warm hearted, though I wouldn’t have called them good parents. I hoped they were okay, Dad at least.

“So, what about you, David? What do you want? What do you think about?”

“What do I want? No one ever asks me that anymore.”

She ran a hand through my hair, sending a jolt of excitement all over. “I just did.”

I knew I needed to be careful and hold back. Part of me wanted to pounce her, and I didn’t think she’d resist. She was vulnerable, but that would vanish as soon as we were back on duty, and I didn’t know if I could handle that later rejection. She was an officer, and not just that, but more than just another woman. I had to be honest with her, yet not say too much, not be too direct. I had to do something I wasn’t good at, at all—be subtle.

I stretched out my stiff arms and it felt wonderful, like all the muscles laid against her weighed next to nothing. I was a balloon filled with helium drifting on the currents of a peaceful breeze.

“What do I want? I just want to go home,” I said, looking into her starry eyes looming over me. “I want to find a nice spot facing Arsia Mons from the observatory with the perfect companion. I want to watch the sun set again and again, until my body gets too frail to carry me to my favorite spot, a place where the glow is just right. And even when that day comes, I hope I’ll have someone younger, someone stronger, maybe even someone like us, to help me and my companion get there once more.” I paused to let the idea settle on her, then added, “And well, maybe sip a little gin while I’m at it.”

Liberty lowered her face, barely suppressing a smile by chewing on her bottom lip. “Sunset… But when you do get old, you might want to skip the gin. Not the best drink for dusty engineers.”

“You’re right, might be for the best,” I wheezed. “Maybe I’ll just have a Coke instead.”

“Okay, so as much as you talk about Coke, have you ever even had one?”

I shook my head. “No. I haven’t. Just seen ’em in every old film, not to mention the general store on Level Five for more credits than I could ever round up at once.”

“We’ll have to change that.” She began massaging my temples, sending warm shivers through my neck and upper back. Heaven. “so, what got you working on ion thrusters? I mean, I know they run the world but those little bitches are slow. I thought you liked the big boom boom, like that Nasa SLS engine you were fixing. Remember that thing?”

“The RS-25? Liquid-cryo fuel. Up to half a million pounds of thrust. A specific impulse of 450 seconds. Oh, I remember it. After you vanished, almost got it fixed too. Dad and I worked on it for another year. Got it in operating order but had no tanks. No fuel.”

“Were you planning to build a rocket and leave Mars? You’ll need more than just one booster to do that, scrap monkey. That engine was a museum piece. You’d be better off with a cluster of Raptors.”

“No, I wasn’t building a rocket—or—maybe? It was just for fun. We used whatever we could scavenge, but it wasn’t enough in the end.”

“And now you maintain ion thrusters?” She leaned her head back and looked at the ceiling. “They’re like a Martian summer breeze.”

“Hey!” I piped up, defending our ship’s main propulsion. “It’s not about the big boom boom, a massive chemical reaction hurling us where you want to go in a flash. This isn’t project Orion.” I reached back and locked my arms around her middle, my head still on her lap. “It’s about taking your time, going one step faster and faster, not being in a rush, but knowing your destination clearly. Even with all the advancements in nuclear thermal propulsion, you think our KS-55s burning five liters of Type-H per minute can hold a candle to the speed and efficiency I can get out of our third gen ion thrusters? Sure, the KS-55s have more punch, but they don’t last long. Fuel is heavy. With my third gens at a specific impulse of twenty times the KS-55s, I can go for dozens of weeks without stopping. Ever consider how fast one hundred fifty kilometers a second is? If you can imagine that, you’ll be in the ballpark. We’d need a city block of fuel to reach that speed with liquid thrust alone.”

She smiled, cradling my head in her hands. “You can go for weeks, huh? But what if I like things fast and rough? Remember, turtle, I blow two hundred megawatts of power every few days by pushing a tiny little button fixed between my pressed uniformed legs. Bah boom!”

I felt warm all over, but it wasn’t the green. This cause was far, far better. She leaned down and pressed her lips against mine, kissing me upside down. It was moist and delicious, her tongue tasting of blueberries and fucking sunshine. I kissed her deeper, breathing it all in, sampling her sweet scent. So many years I’d wanted this, and she’d vanished. So many times I’d thought about the night we wrecked and had almost shared a moment like this. The result was far better than I could have ever imagined. It was divine.

How was I so lucky to be here with her right now? How, tell me? How?

Did I deserve this gift?

After a couple of minutes our lips regretfully disengaged.

“I love it when you talk tech to me,” she whispered, catching her breath.

All I could do was grin like an idiot.

But before I could do something smart, like kiss her again, a serious question came to mind. Such a stupid time for this, but I had to know. “You know why we’re at war, don’t you? The real reason, not just what they tell us.”

She nodded.

“Will you tell me? Because things just don’t add up. They say the Axis are hard socialist, and that they want us to be as well. They say they want to take from us our freedom of religion and speech and the right to work. Take from us our right to vote. They say they are Godless autocrats who seek to revive communist ideals by beating us into submission. Please, tell me the truth.”

She considered this for a moment and shook her head. “Maybe someday. Look, I gotta go.” She got up and dusted off her clothes. Our wonderful moment, a tiny bubble floating in a sea of darkness and doubt, was unraveling. “If father catches you with me, you’re done.”

“I know.”

She acted as if she were about to bolt, then stopped. “That’s why I’ve been staying away. I don’t want to make things more complicated for us. It’s hard enough serving with dear old dad, but us, that’s some legitimate Shakespearian nonsense. You don’t want him to go to war against you. We need you to survive.”

I hung my head between my legs. “I know, it’s just—”

“David?”

“Yeah?”

“Why didn’t you meet me?” Her question came at me out of nowhere, a glittering knife with a razor’s edge poised over my chest.

“What?” I raised my head and cocked it to the side, heart aching.

“After we trashed the skimmer I waited for you just like we’d planned.” Her left eye twitched as she took a deep breath. “But you never came. Why is that?”

I averted my gaze and focused on the dirt, counting rocks till I could draw the will to respond. Too bad emotional territory wasn’t her thing. It must have been hard for her to even as much as she had.

She moved on. “By the way, David, all that PT you’ve been doing… keep it up. You look really, really good.” And she slipped off through the leaves, leaving behind one dumbstruck idiot who couldn’t utter the answer to a simple question. An answer she deserved.

I waited for a moment, recollecting my balance. The green’s effect was still heavy in my system.

Had she just complimented my body? I spun the gasket on my finger and grinned, then stumbled back to my quarters, not nearly as careful this time. As I rounded the turn into the port hatch of Crew 1, I found Griffin staring at me from down the hall, mouth agape.

Had Liberty just passed her? Had she put it all together? I knew my expression of pure rapture had to be a glaring clue. Who the hell looked like that in this madhouse? Most of us who started acting too happy ended up in a sleeveless jacket and a dark room for a few days.

I waved a hand, acting casual, and went back to my bunk. Here’s to hoping Griffin isn’t the unrequited jealous type.

[9]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

ETA: 4 months, 5 days

----------------------------------------------

I awoke the following morning with both my biggest smile and worst hunger pains on record, piled a tray of slop and poured a cup of what passed for coffee on a Brethren warship. It was black and hot, and it had caffeine, but I doubt it came from the Earth’s equator like coffee should. César gave me a strange look as I ate fitfully, but before he could inquire as to my cheerful disposition, I sent him off on tasks, informing him I’d be there in a minute. He took up his tool belt with a little more force than was required, red handled combo torch and all, and stomped out of the empty crew quarters. I rolled my eyes after he was gone. He was stewing, that much was clear. But over what?

That aside, the biggest question on my mind was, where do I go from here?

Obviously, Liberty and I couldn’t be open about this, I mean, hell, we’d almost gotten caught despite the fact that most of the ship was asleep. But I couldn’t think to stay away from her, not for a second. Dreaming of her smiling face and moist lips summoned all kinds of effervescent emotions. I imagined us doing the sorts of things normal couples might; shopping in the Arsia markets, taking a trip to Earth, Australia, or hitting the dunes at high speed in a brand new skimmer. Libe


убрать рекламу


rty and I would kill at racing. We could do doubles. Who needed for women to be given out like popcorn when I had her? If I really did have her.

My grin slipped.

I was so caught up my thoughts I hadn’t noticed the new arrival. Dour Face was taking the seat across from me, setting his stun stick on the table with a click. “Good morning, Master Engineer. Sleep well?”

A bite of slop froze on its way to my former grin. “Good morning, officer.”

He made a showy yawn and went on, “Same old slop gets tiresome, doesn’t it?”

“Um, sometimes, but it’s better than being hungry.”

He shrugged. “Makes you miss those days planet side, canned beans, fresh greens. Huh? We had steak and potatoes last night. Too bad it was all frozen. Been in cold storage for near on two years.” He tapped his fingers against the table in a rhythm. “Don’t you miss the bigger meat rations? Beef tips? Pork chops? Fatback?”

“Who wouldn’t?”

He glanced over his shoulder, turned back and leaned in. “So I hear the Lieutenant and you were in grade school together.”

“Fryatt?” I swallowed.

“Yes, Fryatt? What other hot trick of a Lieutenant do we have on board?”

My face was getting hot. I took a drink of water, first pushing aside the coffee. “Yeah, we were.”

“So, you eh, you know her pretty well?”

“Back then I did,” I admitted, “but not so much now.” Not an entire lie. Images of her face flashed in my mind as an anger flared in my chest. “You know, just haven’t been in touch for a long time. People grow apart as they grow up. Happens every day.”

“I see. Well, damn, she’s got a nice ass on her, doesn’t she? I’ve had better, you know, I like ’em all tiny like a doll, pale skin and not so dark, but beggars can’t be choosers. Hmm?” He pointed to my pile of slop with his stick.

“I… I’ve been too busy to take notice. I’m sure she’s just fine.” It was hard to keep my hands from shaking. They wanted nothing more than to burst free and clean this guy’s injectors.

“I find that hard to believe.” He barked a contemptuous laugh. “Ha. Even if you’re just enlisted, you still got those urges, we all do. Might wanna find a good place to vent them.”

“Um. I’ll be fine.”

“Hey now, hotshot,” he said in singsong, as if a random thought had just occurred to him. “She likes to ‘talk tech’, doesn’t she? I’m a bit of a tech head myself. What do you think we should talk about? Is she into chemical computing? Multilateral net sharing?”

I felt my angry stomach sink into dread. Liberty nor I, had used that term aboard this ship except for last night. Sure, Liberty had said it often enough back when we were younger, but not here. “I, um, don’t really know, I haven’t had the chance to talk to her.” I rubbed at the gasket on my ring finger, pressing so hard it made the digit pulse along with my heartbeat.

“Oh, is that so?” Dour Face looked surprised, his broad nose flaring out. “Well, it’s for the best. Enlisted and officers aren’t supposed to mix anyways. We’re like oil and water, right? Or, maybe, feces and food? One little drop and it ruins the whole damn thing. Best to keep the trash separate. We’d hate to fail inspection.”

My face grew hot so fast I nearly flung myself across the table and started beating him within an inch of his life, a stampede of wild emotions overtaking my common sense. He tapped the stun stick with a finger and I arrested myself. He would drop me in an instant, then toss me in the brig for attacking an officer. I wasn’t willing to risk that, not yet. César wasn’t ready to take my place.

“I do what the rules require,” I said, and swallowed another bite. Stone faced.

“Do you… really?”

“Yes, sir , I do.”

“Best keep it that way.” He stood and recovered his stick. “You have a good day now. Be careful, it can be dangerous this far out. You never know who might try to hurt you.”

It seemed that I had miscalculated this man, taking Dour Face for just an ill-tempered ass, but now I could see that he was much more than that. He was calculating and dangerous. I needed to watch my back.

Nevertheless, I was a foolish idiot and wanted to see Liberty again. I needed to warn her about him.

I tried the earpiece, but hers was off.

New plan. Get into Officer 1.

I ran a quick diagnostic of life support, checking Forward Observation and working my way aft, looking for a reason to enter that section. When this didn’t produce the results I was after, I did it again. No result. I asked myself, does it really matter if I have a legitimate excuse or not? Will anyone know but me? Will they go through my work orders and question them? Probably not.

I took a pair of air filters from storage and entered my override code for Officer 1, Liberty’s quarters. She wasn’t in there, but I knew she’d be soon. It was nearly time for her to finish PT.

I fumbled with the filters and took my time, using a few pointless testing devices—a laser temperature reader, gas detector, air flow meter and barometer—on every intake, keeping crouched and out of sight. A couple of officers passed through without even a glance. This might just work. I’d become a master at faking work, an ability worth better than half an engineer’s job.

The hatch whooshed open to admit Liberty, making my heart skip a beat. I nearly stood but found she wasn’t alone, our Navigator, Rosaleigh Head, was on her heels. I kept my eyes fixed on the bogus task.

“My dogs are barking,” Liberty groaned, plopping down on her bed and rubbing her feet.

Rosaleigh let out a rich laugh and tossed back some water. “Way to pull out an ancient figure of speech. You sound like my auntie.”

“Well, I mean, they hurt so bad it requires a bit of antiquity. Only half a G in this place and exercise still blows. Damn my flat feet.”

“Better than growing soft and withering away.”

Liberty glanced in my direction, but I was able to slide behind a bunk and lay low, only showing her my back. “I suppose. But a nice, tall glass of gin, my feet propped up on the couch—now that’s luxury.”

“When the job’s done.”

“The job will never be done.” I could almost hear Liberty’s eyes rolling.

I fiddled with the tools and kept listening, checking the temperature of the intake’s surfaces again and again. 70 degrees. 71 degrees. 70 degrees.

“Ain’t that the truth?” The back of Rosaleigh’s head crashed on her pillows and she stared up at the ceiling. “This is my fifth tour. Keep trying to leave but there’s no one to replace me. That’s what you get for being damn good at your job—a prison sentence.”

“Maybe you should start underachieving. Could be an advantage.”

“I doubt your father would let that fly in any case. I know my step wouldn’t, and we’re not outside com range. He made me take piano as a teen just so I’d be a better rounded adult.”

“Oh yeah? Do you play well?”

“Like a demon,” Rosaleigh growled, “and I hated every second of it.”

I was frozen in place where I crouched, head cocked, listening. Then there was a shift in the air. A shadow over my shoulder. I pivoted.

“Goddard? What in blazes are you doin’ in ’ere?” Lank Hair. Fuck. Liberty and Rosaleigh shifted their attention.

“Just, umm, fixing some filters, sir.”

Lank Hair stared at me for a moment, came to a conclusion, and removed his stun stick. “I be knowin’ when that’s the case. Come on, ya didn’t put in a work order.”

“I’m almost finished. Look, I—”

“Bollocks! Up with ya. You know the rules, clear as day.”

“Just a moment, sir.” I pointed to the air intake, looking for any manner of distraction. “I’ll be done and get gone.”

“That’s it! I’m gonna cite you for this one.”

“What the hell? For doing my job? This is bull.”

“You ain’ doin’ yer job. You just be in here gawkin’ at the lady folk, havin’ a mental toss with the birds.” He removed a small tablet from his belt and made a mark. “Now, on with ya before I hand you a second for my trouble.”

I picked up my tools and stalked out.

“Don’t let me see you back in ’ere again without an order!”

“I got your order right here,” I mumbled as I grabbed a handful of my jumpsuit’s crotch.

It was too bad he couldn’t see the gesture.


--//--

ETA: 4 months, 4 days

A searing wave of anger swept me through the day, foaming and roiling into a furious surf that crested and crashed upon my raw heart, leaving only dread as it receded with the tidal shift of time.

A red alert went off. I checked my earpiece. No signal.

Danger passed and I started to unclench my teeth, though not before punching a support rib and drawing blood.

My joints throbbed along with the rest of the structure of the ship.

There was nothing to be done for it. Any of it. I had found myself in a precarious situation, a meteor tumbling into the Sun, captured by its pull, powerless to stop. The best I could hope was to slip into low orbit, become a satellite of crumbling matter ablated by flare after flare from the star’s searing corona. Romance is gravity. This time it would be my end. No escaping the inevitable.

César and I were suspended within the Maintenance Core, a tunnel that lead from Nuclear Storage in aft to the forward end. From here we had access to a plethora of critical umbilicals, life support, high voltage distribution, computer core routing and direct lines to chemical data storage. Being that we were at the center of the ship’s axis, there was little spin gravity to be had. The Vindicator  rotated around us in a slow, silent waltz, and as she accelerated, she forced us to drift gently to the relative base of her hundred meter spine. Without focusing on the walls it was hard to stay oriented. The aft end of the ship felt as if it were a long way down.

César used a small attachment on his red handled combo torch to reconnect a series of semi-conductors that were part of our lighting control, knees fastened to the wall by strips of Velcro. After a power trip two days earlier, they’d needed replacing. The torch did its job, though sloppily, every cut jagged and uneven. The master computer could’ve handled this function without an independent control, but since hacking was possible via the Sol Net or telemetry feed, we kept our critical systems segregated. Information, propulsion, weapons, navigation, lighting, and life support, all had their own networks. They could theoretically be linked together by cable if the need arose, but never were. It was far too dangerous a prospect. Besides, those cables were hard to clip and unclip without a screwdriver or long fingernails, an engineering flaw to be sure. It was best to keep the independent controls up and running as they were designed.

I noticed that one of the old style power connections to my right, a NEMA 5-15, had been doodled on. Someone had drawn around the plate in black, making it look as if the top plug, a man, was drilling the bottom plug, a woman, doggy style, both their mouths wide with shock. I cocked an eyebrow and shook my head, then flexed my aching fingers.

“When are you going to fix your torch?” I asked César, kicking a support beam to arrest my fall and curling into a ball suspended at the center of the tunnel. “I know you’re using the solder for now, but it’s a bad nozzle on that plasma cutter. All you have to do is go print a new one, let the input melt it down and make another piece. It’s bent, I’m telling you.”

He cut off the torch and glared back at me. “Uh huh. I see. Bent,” his response was clipped.

“You okay?”

“Am I okay? Am I okay? Unbelievable.”

My lips compressed into a two dimensional line. “Is there something you need to say, Private?”

“As a matter of fact, señor, there is. What do you think you’re doing? I see it written all over your face.” Insubordination filled his words and poisoned the air between us.

I uncoiled and my back went stiff. “I’m sorry?” I let out of cough. “What was that?”

He threw up his hands and fumed. “Don’t play dumb. With Jane! Come on! What are you doing?”

I rubbed my face and chuckled. “What are you talking about?”

The unlit torch shook at me like a weapon. “I know you like her. I see how you flirt with her. She’s my girl, alright? We started going serious a few days ago. I don’t want to have to hurt you. So back off, please. Make it easy for me to be good.”

“Back off, please…?” I let the question hang. My watch bleeped and buzzed but I ignored it. There was a more pressing matter.

“Back off, please, señor.” His eyes turned dark, a look I’d never seen in him before. This was the look of someone who knifed a stranger in a bar fight, not a good friend. “I’ve seen how you guys act around each other! I know the things you want to do to her! It’s so plain, so obvious. And it’s bullshit. I will fight for her if I have to. We can go right here, right now, in zero-g where no one will see us. Winner takes all? What do you say, tough guy? Like two cholo s down in the Valles.”

“César, look,” I raised my hands as if he were pointing a gun at me, “Griffin’s a beautiful girl. I wish you the best, but she’s not who I’m after. I’m serious when I say this. Dead serious.”

He blinked. “Que ? You serious?”

“What did I just say? Do you know me to be a liar?”

“No. Never. But if not her, then who?”

I lowered my voice and whispered, “Liberty Fryatt.”

César’s eyes widened. “Señor, if I might be so bold as to say, you are the dumbest NCO I’ve ever met. Not to mention the regs, but that’s the Captain’s freakin’ daughter.”

“Oh, and I agree, but there it is. I’ve known her for a long time and some flames never die. She’s the one that got away. How do you live with that? This is a second chance, so long as I’m smart.”

A moment passed in silence as César finished his work, jagged lines and all. The job was serviceable. It was merely my OCD wanting him to fix the blasted combo torch and make the lines neat. At least his soldering was done well.

César’s head snapped around and he put his ear to the bulkhead, nose scrunching up. He slid to a new spot, pausing, then farther aft. “You hear that?” He strained his senses, eyes narrow as slits.

“Hear what?”

He shook his head. “Like, someone’s singing? They’re in the wall.”

I listened hard as I could, but heard nothing. “All I hear are circulation fans. Sometimes Devins sings in the shower, but he’d be two sections up.”

“Weird, I’d swear I heard Vallenato. And I like him and all, kinda, but Devins couldn’t sing Vallenato if a gun were pressed to his head.” César began scratching his arm furiously, then grinned at his finished work. “I’m sorry, señor, for the way I acted.”

“Don’t be. We all have impulses. So, you and Jane?” I crossed my arms and rubbed my chin, the ship’s momentum just enough to push me into the wall with one shoulder.

 “Yeah,” he said, coloring the least little bit. “Kissed her for the first time last week.”

“And I’m guessing from that shit eating grin it went well.”

“Always does,” he agreed. “But it’s hard to find privacy on this, what did you call it?”

“Coke can.”

“That’s right. What the hell is a Coke can anyways? And for that matter, what’s a Coke?” He began scratching his arm harder. It was getting red, as was a spot on the side of his neck. A second later he threw his hands down, forcing himself to stop. “Is it like Monarch Soda?”

“Don’t worry about it. Let’s finish up and get back down.”

“Roger that, I’ve got a rendezvous with Janie in a couple hours anyways. I’d like to get a shower if we’re done early.”

I nodded and we pushed off towards the nearest exit. My hands paused on the ladder rungs as my watch buzzed again. It was a message.

“You okay?” César asked.

“Might wanna delay that date for a little while,” I hissed. “That was the Captain. He wants to see me right now.”


--//--

As I crossed the bridge I did my best not to make eye contact with Liberty. My palms were sweaty and slick, my leg twitchy. I knew looking at her would only make it worse. XO led me to an open door on the opposite side of the room, the bridge silent but for the soft chatter of Navigation and the Comm. I caught  Liberty’s panicked look from the corner of my eye. XO knocked on the door and we waited.

“Did you catch the latest episode of Demonio Primario ?” Smith asked Liberty, excitement filling her husky voice. “Got bumped down from the Sol Net just in time. Thank God. Bunch of us met up and watched it over dinner last night, even had a few scrubs in there too.” She chewed for a moment at her bottom lip where a silver ring shot through it. It wasn’t her only piercing. Her ears were like chain armor, a half dozen silver ringlets and plugs starting at the lobe and working their way up. They weren’t regulation, but Captain Fryatt was selective in what statutes he followed, and to this he was oblivious.

Liberty turned her face in my direction, but before making eye contact, returned her attention to the workstation. “I’m sorry, Brandi. What did you say?”

Demonio . It was a good one. Jake got caught out at night heading to his sister’s place and almost got killed, a talon right through the Adam’s apple, but found he could sing to make the demons flee. That’s a new one. I thought only wards or salt lines did the trick.”

“Oh, yeah. I saw that this morning over lunch. I like Kevin Lawson, he’s a good actor. Goes well with Kate Franco. Nice pair.”

“Agreed. But like always, it got a little too sappy near the end for my taste. I prefer it when the show’s a little more gritty. Ya know? Not everything has to be all pretty. Except for when it comes to Staci Lennox. That girl is gorgeous, and so damn tough.”

“Rubbish. The whole program,” Lank Hair said from his place lurking in the corner, an empty crystal glass dangling from his fingers. He glared at me for a moment then turned to Liberty. “I prefer fiction that’s a bit more realistic. A good mystery. A chase.”

“You would,” Smith retorted. “You have zero imagination. Did your parents give you a Bible instead of a coloring book?”

“Think that if you will, but not everything has to be demons and magic. Reality is much more frightening than fantasy.”

The hatch before me swooshed open, forcing a swallow.

“Come in,” our Captain, William Mason Fryatt said, inviting me into his private quarters. It felt like a trap. His back was turned to me from a writing desk in the corner. He was dressed down, not in uniform, wearing grey sweats and a worn graphic tee with the Captain America shield upon it. I entered the room and took a silent gasp, hatch closing behind me, the bridge’s noise cut off. We were alone.

I’d dreamt of places like this before, but this was luxury. Unlike the rest of the ship, where there was hardly space to breathe, he had almost half a section just to himself, thirty-three by twenty-nine. The room was filled with prints of famous paintings from old Earth, most of which were colorful and abstract. I recognized one, Starry Night  by Vincent van Gogh, fixed above the Captain’s silk draped, queen size bed. On the table beside it a crystal decanter of dark liquor sat, tempting my palate with the mere thought of its intoxicating essence. It wasn’t gin, but that was fine. And if that wasn’t all, beside this flagrant display of wealth and power were six cans of Coca-Cola. It was no myth that the rich drank whiskey and Coke. It had to be better than Monarch and bourbon.

In the corner of the room set an old easy chair, not something you’d normally see on a space craft. The floor was covered by a bearskin rug. Trophies of all sorts were displayed in a glass shadowbox down the left side of the room, some had tiny brass skimmers on top, others ancient rifle designs, and the remainder, athletic men or women with their hands thrust skyward in triumph. All had the number 1 accompanied by the name of either William Mason Fryatt, or Liberty Rae Fryatt, engraved on the base. The Captain’s love for his daughter—or at least her accomplishments—went deep, that was for sure. Her trophies alone took up over half the shadow box.

“Have a seat,” he said, and turned around, motioning to the chair beside his desk. In the low light he looked exhausted, furious eyes sunken with charcoal rings around them. “Would you like a drink?” He started pouring two crystal glasses. This suddenly felt like the awkward, you and my daughter conversation. If it was, I was screwed. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.

“No, thank you, sir.”

“Take the drink, Goddard.”

I raised a hand in protest. “With respect, sir, I have duties to attend after our meeting.”

“Take the Goddamned drink!” The trembling glass in the Captain’s hand nearly dumped its precious cargo, four delicious fingers of aged whiskey.

“On second thought, I believe I will.” I took the drink.

“There we go. We’re having a good time.” He tossed back his glass, drinking half of its contents in one swallow before setting it on his desk.

I took a sip and clutched my own like a lifeline. It was good whiskey, real good  whiskey, the kind people got knifed and thrown out the airlocks for in the lower levels.

“Do you know why I called you in here?” His question came out in a growl, releasing a hidden maelstrom of insects into my stomach.

“No, sir.”

His eyes drilled into me. “It seems we have a little situation, something only three people know at this time, and I’d like to keep it that way. This is the sort of thing that if word got out, it could be bad for all those involved. Might even be deadly, if you catch my drift. It puts me in one hell of a bind.” His platinum wedding band tinked against the glass twice.

I took another shaky sip and swallowed. My last drink. Firing squad to the Cargo Bay.

“Do you have a guess as to what it is I’m hinting at, Master Engineer?”

“No, sir, I don’t.”

The Captain emptied his glass and massaged his face. He looked so tired. I could almost smell the inside of the brig from here. It was a closet, like the trays at the morgue they put bodies into. They’d lock me up, and if we survived, I’d go straight to prison on Mars. A year later, I’d be dead from malnourishment, excessive labor, or a bacterial infection. There had to be a way out of this. Could I apologize for what I’d done? Would he accept it? It was clear he wanted to keep this whole thing under wraps. Locking me up without a cause might just make things worse. Questions would be raised. I mean, shit, César alone would hound him to death for the truth.

“David,” the Captain said, his words brittle. “We have a spy on board.”

My clutched hands fell open, crystal glass tumbling to the rug. “Oh, God, I’m sorry, Captain.”

He waved a hand and picked up the unbroken glass. “It’s fake bear skin anyways, it’s all fake. Think that’s silk on the bed?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but did you say…”

“Yes, I did, and don’t repeat it. Just in case we’ve been bugged.”

I can’t say I was relieved in knowing this talk was not because of Liberty, given that the alternative could kill us. “How did you find out?”

“Transmissions have been leaving the ship, beaming ahead of us, not behind. I don’t know how, but someone placed a virus in our computer system that, upon power restart, transmits our exact location. The Axis has a sensor network, just like us, but this helps them be more accurate when they fire. I believe we’ve taken care of it for now, but the Razor  could still get in a few good licks.”

“But wouldn’t the, um… person… be helping to sign their own death sentence?”

The Captain nodded and refilled my glass. “Which is why we have cause to be concerned. If they’re willing to do that, then they might just sabotage the ship and finish us swiftly.”

This time I tossed the drink back in one gulp, no sipping. With whiskey that fine it was nearly a sin. “What can I do, sir?” My throat caught fire only an instant before my veins.

“That’s the spirit.” The Captain smiled, but it didn’t touch his eyes. “Goddard, you’re a bit wild, a bit overly curious at times, but you’re a good man. Most of all, you’re a man I know I can trust. Very few people on this ship have been close to my family, and I am now aware Liberty and you were friends back in Arsia Mons. Platonic friends .” He put great emphasis on the last words. “You have access to this ship in ways others don’t, and for good reason. There are some subtle changes I’d like to make in order to protect us, and I know you’re the man for the job.”

“I am?”

“Without a doubt,” he stated, staring at the trophies up on the wall. For an instant I caught a glimpse of his greatest strength, the one aspect of his personality that no matter how hard he could be it meant something real. The ability to inspire. When he was on your side, he had a way of making you feel empowered. I could help him, I really could. We would find this spy and take them out. Maybe after it was done, he wouldn’t be so bothered if his daughter just happened to take a shine to this new hero.

“Sir, what do you need me to do?”

[10]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

ETA: 4 Months, 3 Days

----------------------------------------------

Although there might not be many, there is one, rarely considered advantage to the matter of security in an interplanetary conflict circa the late 21st Century. Distance has ever been a great defense in war, but in our case, there were few options for traversing it. Not like you could hike around the back way and sneak into enemy territory, making a few strategic stops here and there, at this lump of rock or that. Commercial traffic between the inner worlds was reserved for the lucky and the rich, therefore, the potential to slip through bureaucratic holes in a massive screening queue wasn’t an option. Few flights traveled between Earth and the Brethren colonies, and those were predominately freighters, loading and unloading their cargo at orbital platforms or space elevators. A grand total of zero ships made direct contact with the Axis.

We did well to keep out of their way in all matters, even civilian. For these logistical reasons, stowaways, spies, and even saboteurs had fallen out of vogue. It could take years to get a human asset into position. Too long to be effective in any measurable sort of way.

Nevertheless, ships from Earth sometimes ferried newcomers out to the colonies who might’ve originated someplace nefarious, and theoretically, those could find their way onto a warship with the right set of forged documents. And then the real threat, the Sol Net, where even though you might not could physically travel someplace restricted, you could have indirect contact with agents of the Axis who might convince you to change allegiance remotely. Either way, old timey human intelligence wasn’t all that popular anymore. And unless secrets far above my clearance had been kept well-hidden from view, this had been the case for well over two decades.

That was what made this whole thing peculiar. A spy. Here. But how?

The Captain’s job was my golden ticket to a better life. I was going to find that damned spy, or rather, the target, and bring them to account for their crimes. My time was now.

Central storage was a challenge to reach without César catching me. He was always at my heels, a puppy wanting to be seen doing a good job, and though I couldn’t believe he was our target, he had loose lips and a loud mouth. If he caught even a whiff before this was resolved, the whole ship would know in a matter of days, if not before.

I glanced over my shoulder, clicked open a small locker flush against the wall, and removed a compliment of fifteen half-inch grey-white cubes. I stuffed them into a jumpsuit pocket and closed the door, heading off to the first leg of my shift as if everything were normal. That was the key, right? Act casual, just another day in the soda can of death.

“Goddard,” Devins said, nodding as we passed one another in the hall.

“Good day.”

I sucked in a breath and hurried on. We were on better terms that we had been, but things were still awkward since the blowout.

It seemed that the ion thrusters had been acting up. Not enough to cause serious alarm, or to slow our acceleration—since we were only pushing them at eighty percent—but enough to make me wary. I was starting to believe there was a serious leak, and with this new information about the target, wondered if the person in question had done some careful sabotage. A leak here, an improperly charged cathode there. All normal. We were bombarded with a variety of cosmic particles day and night that could cause damage. Who would notice a little premature breakdown?

I removed one of the tiny cubes from a jumpsuit pocket, peeling the plastic strip off its back, and stuck it to the wall facing engine maintenance.

I flipped over my wrist and called into my watch, “César.”

My chipper assistant returned the page, choking on his words, “Hey, I… Call back. Señor. Alto! Alto!” His voice choked. “Señor. Is nothing.”

убрать рекламу


p>

I rolled my eyes. “Stop playing footsie and get to the engine room. We have a leak to fix.”

“But I’m not, señor, I…” An excited, female voice bled in through the watch’s microphone. “I’m—on my way!”

Okay. So maybe I shouldn’t have been all that worried the pup would be underfoot. He had more than enough to keep him distracted for the time being—ten feet of legs, a set of rosebud lips, two bright eyes and a spitfire attitude. He was wrapped all the way around her little finger.

We fixed the leak without incident, bringing the thrusters back up to full in less than an hour. It was a failed seal, no big deal, a replacement piece and a few corrections to the software algorithm. Issue resolved. I informed Navigation of the shift in power and the proper course corrections were made. No lost time to be had.

As we made for the forward end of the ship in search of grub, a task well done behind us, I lagged back, letting César go first. Every few feet I placed another of the cubes on the wall, facing it down the hall, color blending perfectly into the ship’s pale bulkhead. I prayed no one noticed them.

“Señor, what flavor you feelin’?” César asked, standing beside the microwave, ready to heat up our slop. “Indian? Yellow curry? Maybe chicken fried rice? Ooo, you know what would be real good? Some très leches. Pero , no good por cena . Que pena. ”

“None of the above.” I waved a hand and kicked back in my chair. “Let’s keep it simple. Comfort food. Double bacon cheeseburger?”

“Comfort for you maybe.”

“Objections?

“Not at all, that’s good too. But, señor, can we bow our heads in prayer first? Time to give thanks.”

I might not have been the most religious person aboard, but I was certainly more so than Liberty. I obliged César’s prayer request each time, putting a piece of my heart into it. I genuinely hoped God, or someone, was watching out for us.

Inevitably, I would reflect on the war while he whispered what was in his heart, our eyes closed, room silent. For as many times as I considered it, I could never figure out who was in the right. It’s not as if the Brethren had clean hands. We’d killed our fair share of Jovians, men, women, and children. Done terrible things in the name of the cause. What made our actions any more justified than theirs? A flag? A symbol? An idea? Seems a weak defense to hang your soul upon at judgment day.

My heart rate continued to rise as I worked through the ship, cautiously meeting eyes with all those I passed. I began to suspect that everyone was the target, even the Nurse, Doc, Griffin, that newcomer Kelly, Ernest in maintenance, and of course, Dour Face. Then there’s Lank Hair, security #2, and Higgins, who looked very much like the sidekick from Magnum P.I. , security #1. I didn’t think XO, Navigation, or the Comm would be our threat, but that was just a hunch. Devins or his assistant? Doubtful. And the Captain? Why would he say anything if he was the culprit?

Each odd glance, each hushed whisper, I felt certain whoever it was had noticed my change in attitude and was already altering their plans. They’d likely seen me with the Captain yesterday, though he’d summoned me by text. Maybe they’d spotted one of the cubes. This stress was silently producing an acute paranoia compounded by my current difficulty in finding good sleep amidst the attacks. The target was everywhere, ready and willing to introduce us to hard vacuum.

The supply of cubes vanished faster than I’d thought. Before I knew it, I was putting the last one into place at Forward Observation. I scurried back to the crew quarters, faking an upset stomach to flee César, and made for one of the bathroom stalls. I closed the door, knees coming to rest against it. With a flick of a finger my tablet lit up, allowing me to key the unique ID number binding the cubes together over our internal LIFI network. They whispered to life, rewarding me fifteen, 4k digital video feeds. I routed these back through the ship’s secondary information network, applying transport layer encryption to ensure only the computer in the Captain’s quarters with the proper security token could read it.

GOOD WORK. My watch read a few moments later. STAND BY FOR FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS. I let out a breath and almost laughed.

I felt like an honest to God spy, a James Bond or Ethan Hunt, working deep undercover to save the world from terrorist agents. Too bad I didn’t have the ass kicking skills to go along with it. From now on, the Captain and I could keep watch on the ship’s critical systems even more so than normal. This operation had effectively doubled our camera coverage, though I had been careful to leave blind spots for my own needs. The arboretum had no cameras, and it needed no cameras.


--//--

César sounded as if he was going to pass out, the recycled air not quite getting in him fast enough. He halted in his stride, one hand on the bulkhead, the other over his chest, eye squeezed shut, searching for inner strength. I gave him a couple of moments to collect himself, repeatedly bouncing on the balls of my feet to keep up my heart rate.

He swallowed, raised a weak hand and waved me on. “Okay. Vámonos .”

The ice-grey halls of our ship rushed past in an unsteady blur. I was pushing him hard, trying to take his physical training to the next level. He’d added several more weights, and that was good, but faster times and increased endurance was still a challenge. The kid was nine years my junior, so by default he should be better at running laps, but that wasn’t the case. All my hard work had turned me into a lean marathon machine. I had to slow myself considerably just so he could keep up, not to mention, I had on twice as many weights.

Score ten points for the almost thirty club.

“Señor, you’re going to kill me,” he hissed. We pounded over the gangway of the arboretum, Devins and Jack whooping from below. “Why can’t I just use VR goggles and work the elliptical?”

“Because it’s lazy,” I said, slowing the pace just a little. “You’ll be fine, I promise.” Intervals worked best anyway. Go hard for five or ten minutes, then take a few moments’ rest without stopping. Keep up your heart rate, strengthen it, then do better next time. “Just keep moving. Just keep moving.”

“Wait, isn’t that from that old movie? Like, the one about a fish?”

I shrugged and caught a glimpse of one of the hidden cameras. I’d used our laps to ensure they were still in place. None had moved as much as an inch, so presumably, they hadn’t been discovered. This was good news.

My watch buzzed with a message. Captain: AS THE OPPORTUNITY ARISES, ASK EVERYONE WHY THEY SERVE THE BRETHREN.

It was a benign question that could go a long way in directing us towards the target. Then again, it could blow our cover easy. I would have to tread lightly. César would be the simplest to ask. Might as well start there.

“Damn, why do you run so much?” César wheezed through gritted teeth. The weights were pulling his arms lower and lower, his right foot now scuffing the floor every fifth step.

“To get my mind off things,” I replied. “To try and not focus on the fact that I’m trapped in a tiny, tiny tube with nowhere to go, and will be for quite a while longer. It’s maddening, some days, being trapped in here with nothing but empty around us. Makes me want to bang my head against the bulkhead.”

“Why not just use VR and take a break? It helps me out a lot. Like last night, I went home to pilfer around the Black Docks, and then last week, I spent most of my off evenings on a boat in the Caribbean. Ever seen water so blue?”

“I wish I could, man, but I can’t do it.”

“Why’s that?”

“Makes me puke every time I try.”

“Oh, well that would be a good reason not to. About all that makes me puke is gin. It’s like mint flavored rubbing alcohol.”

I scowled and licked my lips, reminding myself he was all Latino. He wouldn’t understand.

We made another full lap in silence, the boys cheering us on, or rather César. No one cheered for little old me. I was the infinite runner they despised for his dedication, while they fell into the fitness paradox. People always wanted to be in shape, but rarely had the motivation to see it done, and so they projected their self-hate over those extra fat rolls or chubby thighs on others. Where they had it wrong in my case was that I didn’t do it for any physical health reasons. A flat stomach and toned legs were incidental to keeping my mind intact.

As we entered the Cargo Bay I slowed. We needed to steer the conversation back to the Captain’s inquiry. Good or bad, I had to do what needed doing. “Talk to your family lately?”

“No.” His arms fell to his sides and he began to walk. “XO’s shut off all outbound communications except to command on Mars.”

“Really?”

“Si, but I hear it’s common.”

“It is,” I agreed. “Still, it’s rough. It was hard my first year out when they banned the com. My Dad, even though he’s unreliable, was like a lifeline to me. I wonder how long it will stay in place this time?”

“I tried to ask, but I’m not directly allowed. My electronic inquiry hasn’t been answered. If you speak to him sometime soon, can you… You know.”

“I’ll be happy to ask.” I brought us to a halt and waved at a set of cargo crates. César took a seat. “They’re your whole reason for being here, aren’t they? Your dad and sisters?”

César leaned forward on his knees and grinned. “I’m here to protect them from harm, least of all the Axis.” And there it was, a simple answer from a loyal big brother and son. His work kept them out of trouble by giving them no reason to be in it. No reason to insinuate themselves into criminal acts.

“I know just what you mean.” I clapped him on the shoulder. “What about your older brother? Can’t he help out?”

César growled at the idea. “Olvídate del, es una fracasado. ”

“Come again?”

“Forget it.” He shook his head and peered down at his boots. “He’s worthless. I swear, if he could sell me out to the Axis for a stack of credits, I bet he’d do it with hardly a thought. And not out of spite or hate or anything like that, but just because he’s lazy. You ever hear of a lazy Latino?”

I wiped the sweat from my forehead with a small towel. “People up in the Estates would like to say that you’re all lazy.”

“Ay yai yai. Bunch of code pushers think they’re better because they don’t sweat.”

My watch buzzed again. I flipped my wrist over.

“What is it, señor?”

“Speaking of XO. He wants to talk.”

César’s foot began to tap the floor. “Will you?”

I raised a hand and nodded. “If I can get a word in edgewise. Why don’t you clean up and meet me back here in an hour?”

“Can do. Gracias, señor. You have no idea.”

“No, I do.” I waved a hand over my right shoulder as I made off for the bridge. “De nada, amigo. That’s what friends are for.”

I tossed my sweaty towel into the laundry of Crew 1, then used a wet cloth to scrub my face clean, combed my hair back and sprayed on some deodorant. I sniffed my jumpsuit and decided the fabric breathed well enough not to stink too bad. It wasn’t proper to show up on the bridge looking like a wreck, even just off PT, but there wasn’t time for much more prep.

I knocked on the bridge’s locked hatch and waited to be admitted.

“Just a minute, Goddard,” XO said as the hatch opened wide. I took up a silent place standing at attention beside the wall.

Liberty was at her station. She turned her head slightly and glanced over at me, a tiny curl twisting the corner of her lips. The Captain sat in his chair, busily scrolling through his tablet looking at streams of data. Worry lines creased the center of his forehead.

XO asked the Comm, “What’s the last sensor report showing?”

“Can’t tell much, sir,” Smith replied, her tongue ring clicking against her teeth repeatedly. “The Razor ’s reactor is still at full, but I could have sworn we hit them. Not hard, just a graze, but it was a hit. Maybe we’ve damaged their life support. Vented some air.”

“We’ll take what we can. Fryatt, how’s the counter attack shaping up?”

Liberty pressed several buttons on her interface and pursed her lips. “The computer’s still working out the trajectory for our next firing solution. We had a good one lined up earlier today, but they did a course correction and shot that solution to hell. I’ll need fresher data from the network to be sure it’s correct. I think if we aim two tenths of a degree ahead of where it shows this time, we might just catch them off guard. It’ll bring the shot down at a steep angle, and depending on how their radar interprets the data, it might be too late to make a change.”

XO nodded. “Worth a shot, and we have a few to spare based on the firing tables. Let me know as soon as the sensor uplink makes it through the system.”

“Yes, sir,” Liberty responded, and proceeded to play like she was working, but I knew fake work when I saw it. Open a window, click a box, check something irrelevant, swap back, repeat.

“Goddard,” XO spun around, “good work on the power situation. We’ve had no issues keeping ahead of schedule with the thrust leeway. It’s given Navigation room to breathe.”

The Captain paused his finger over the tablet. He was listening to us without looking.

“Sure make’s my life easier,” Rosaleigh Head put in, and Smith shook her head. “What? If we can decelerate faster on the back end we can wind up higher on the front. Slow down is the real issue. You know this, Brandi. I mean, Smith.” Her face snapped back to her screen.

I gave the XO a salute. “Just doing my job, sir.”

He returned the gesture. “And a good job that is, which is why I’m turning over our new crewmembers, Griffin and Kelly, to your direct command. I wanted to get them broken in first, but now that some time has passed, you’re more than ready.”

More responsibility? Was this a lateral promotion? Doubtful. Maybe Cap wanted them closer since I was charged with looking for the spy? Or was I being groomed for greatness, so that when the time came, I wouldn’t be able to get out of serving another tour? Either way, there was no turning this down. It was an order not a request.

“Thank you, sir. I won’t let you down.” It didn’t really matter the reason; there was no way out of it.

Cap peered over at me through his bushy eyebrows. “No, you won’t.”  I felt a cold chill go down my spine. “Just stay out of trouble, and we’ll be handy dandy.” In the dimness of the room it was hard to see his eyes, nevertheless I had a feeling they were narrowed to a threat.

“Is that all, sir?” I asked, wanting to get off the bridge as fast as I could.

XO shrugged and plopped down at his station. “Kelly should be in the Cargo Bay about now, getting together supplies to refill the food dispensers. Go give him a hand and see it done. Officer 2 is nearly empty. Be sure to fill the snack trap while you’re at it.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, turning to leave, then paused. “Sir. One question, unrelated.”

“Hmm?” XO kept his eyes fixed on his interface.

“Enela would like to send a message to his family, checking up, that’s all. Is that something we can do for him?”

“I can’t break the ban for everyone who wants to phone home. Not even for myself.” I couldn’t be for sure, but I thought I heard his voice quaver at the end.

The Captain cleared his throat. “Is he clean, Goddard?”

I nodded, catching his meaning, and hoping no one else had. I was positive Enela wasn’t the target. He was clean.

“Stone, let’s make an exception. But, Goddard, be sure to tell Enela it will be a long time before he gets to speak with them again. Don’t let word of this get around. Understood?”

I straightened my back and saluted the Captain. “Understood. Thank you, sir. I am sure he appreciates it.”

The Captain lazily returned the salute and dismissed me from the bridge.

I now had two additional crewmembers at my disposal, an army of three to keep our Coke can drifting ahead and alive. This was a good place to be, a place that was right where I was at. Too bad it didn’t come with an increase in pay. Master Engineer C2, now that would be a bump in rank, and a twenty percent jump in pay. Here’s hoping for better instead of focusing on the bad. Maybe if Liberty stuck around, I would too. I grinned at that.

“Damn it. Fuck,” I heard echoing down the hall from in the Cargo Bay. Crashing noises followed. I entered the section to find Kelly bent over a black plastic crate, trying his best to unclip its sides without getting any cooperation. As he pulled harder, a portrait style tablet fell from his pocket onto the floor, cracking the corner of the screen despite an external case.

I bent over and picked it up, handing the cracked tablet back to him. “Tough break on the screen. We don’t have replacements. Sorry. I’m shocked you have one so old which still works. Now, if it was a 675, we could swap the broken screen without any issue. I’ve got spares to burn.”

Kelly snatched it from my hand and slid it in his pocket protectively. “I’m sorry. I mean, thanks, sir. I just… Never mind.”

“No problem. Having trouble?”

He pulled harder on the clips, nearly snapping his long pinky nail, and the crate still wouldn’t open. “A little.”

“Have you turned off the pressure locks?” I asked, sounding just a little smug. So sue me, I liked being the smart one at times.

Kelly spun around and glared at me, then proceeded to bang his forehead gently against the crate. “So, stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

“Hey, hey, don’t hurt the goods.” I reached down and pressed the button on the side of the box. A small hiss came out the top. “They have to keep these vacuum sealed and locked, otherwise, our dinner will taste even worse than it already does.”

He shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. “Shit.”

“Got something on your mind, Kelly? You look a bit wound up.”

“No, sir. I’m fine, just fucking fine!”

“Alright then.” But I wouldn’t let this lie. I was his superior now, and I had to be on the lookout for any crew changes. This was as good a place as any to continue the questions.

He began to unpack the box, taking several handled sacks of snow-like powder from it. More fuel for the food dispensing hoppers. I glanced at several nearby crates, wondering what the newer boxes with the keypad locks had in them. Private food stashes? Liquor? Medicine? Maybe vintage porn? All the good stuff.

Kelly let out a long sigh. “Sir, do you ever feel isolated? Like you’re all alone out here and no one gives a damn?”

I piped up. “More than I’d like to admit.” I began rubbing the gasket on my right ring finger. “I notice you haven’t been spending much time with the rest of the crew. Not making any friends yet?”

“I thought this was a warship, sir.” His expression hardened, but in a forced manner. He began scratching his forehead with his extra-long nail, making me cringe. “Why would I need to make friends?”

“We all need friends, even in war. Especially in war.” I crouched down to rest on my knees. “But, if you’re like me, making friends comes hard.”

“Yeah, I’m like you,” he chuckled. “So far, eh, there’s Griffin I can talk to, we shipped in on the same transport, and, well, Enela’s alright, I guess.”

“Alright? Enela gets along with just about anyone.”

“Maybe,” Kelly said, scratching the nape of his neck. “I just think we have different goals.”

“Different goals? What do you mean?”

“I, well—I don’t know… I mean, when it comes to… Never mind, forget it. Just forget I said anything.”

But I knew what he meant. Griffin. Pretty, pretty Griffin. There had been a behind the scenes competition between César and him. No shock there.

I needed to change the topic, and this was as good a time as any to get the most serious question out of the way. I just had to be careful not to reveal anything crucial.

Kelly glared at me, his hands close to making fists. He rolled his shoulders and began sucking in air.

“Why’d you join up?” I ventured. “If you don’t mind me asking.”

He melted onto the floor and stared off at nothing, back resting against a black cargo crate. “I lost family in the conflict at Ceres. 2059.”

“Ahh, I see. Remember Ceres. ” I put a fist in the air out of respect. Kelly didn’t seem amused. “A lot of people lost families that day, but even more so, we lost our sense of security. I don’t remember being scared of anything till that happened. We were safe on Mars, no one would ever attack us. What were they like?”

“My family?” He cocked his head, confused.

“Yeah, man. Your family.”

He squeezed his eyes shut and spoke, “I had a mom and two brothers. Mom was in her fifties, liked to sew and make things almost to the point of being addicted. Our home was a wreck with needles and threads and hot glue and fabric. Lovely junk everywhere.”

“Real creative, huh?”

“An artist of her day, that’s for sure.” He opened his eyes. “Liked anything dark and mysterious she could make or be part of. She was pretty too, and fun, and kind to anyone she met. Give you the shirt right off her back, only asking for enough in return to keep her decent.”

“You’re lucky to have had her.”

He smiled. “I am. And she’s not gone, just in here.” He thumped his chest with a fist. “My brothers, though, that’s another story. Me and my oldest, Trey, we never got along. He was a warmonger before there was ever even a war. He loved to pick fights and get in trouble; maybe that’s because dad was ex-military and died in the Oil Wars when we were both young.”

“Wow, Earth born military legacy. Don’t hear that much anymore.”

“No, you don’t.” He sighed. “I hate to say it, but I’m glad he’s dead, Trey, not Dad. He was crazy and would have hurt someone one day. I was always afraid he’d hurt mom. Enough of that asshole.”

“What about your other brother?”

“Now Greg and I were tight.” This thought conjured a grin. “He taught me everything I know about computers, and was damn good at it. If he hadn’t been killed in the attack, he would have written the next big Sage based OS, I guarantee it. We used to make games all the time, trying to one up each other without using any complex graphics engines. Most of the games were crap, but they were creative. He made one that was a six dimension puzzle game where sounds and light had to be mixed with speed and shape in certain patterns. It was hard as hell.”

“Sounds like fun. Wish I could do that, but I’m shit with code.”

“It was fun,” he beamed. “It was a lot of fun. You have any siblings, sir?” His back had become straighter.

My nose scrunched up. “One sister, and we don’t see eye to eye.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“Me too, Kelly. It’s a can of worms I don’t like to open, and neither does she. Our blood relationship is tenuous, to say the least.”

“Time heals all wounds, as long as people still breathe.”

I shook my head. “Not this one.”

“You know,” he started, passion growing in his voice, “if not for the Pan-X Trade Agreement , the Ceres incident would never have happened. Starving people get desperate and afraid, then mix that up with religious fanaticism, and it’s a recipe for bad things.”

“The what?” I asked, feeling confused for being a generally well-informed person. What was the Pan-X Trade deal? And religious fanatics, on Ceres? Where? The Axis wasn’t religious at all.

“Umm, the Brethren used our agreement, I mean, a new agreement with China to cut off supplies to the Axis and redirect goods. It made trading too expensive for the outer colonists, and they got hungry.”

“I’ve never heard of it.” I tried thinking harder. Maybe it had been called something else. “I thought Russia was our major trade, not China.”

Kelly’s eyes darted around the room as if he was embarrassed. “Oh, sorry, sir. Maybe I’m not remembering something right. Rumors get around, ya know? That must be what I’m on. I hate when I buy into some rumor, taking it for truth. Like reposting something on the Sol Net you didn’t fact check first. Makes you look like a first rate idiot.”

I nodded, knowing just how he felt. “Rumors soar with wings and fusion engines. I swear sometimes they travel even faster than light.”

The far hatch opened, admitting César and Griffin into the Cargo Bay. Kelly rubbed his face and got up, removing as many bags from the crate as he could manage. I think he was trying to show off.

“Can I get some help, guys?” he eventually asked.

I whispered in his ear, “Don’t be scared to make friends. We’re all just as frightened. Being at war brings up complicated feelings. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who the bad guys really are. Sometimes the bad guy is yourself. We just have to protect each other and stick together. That goes not just for combat, but everyday life. We’re all alone, but that doesn’t mean we have to feel alone. We can be alone together, know what I mean?”

“Thank you, sir.” He cracked a brittle grin. “That helps more than you know.” He then strained to lift nearly a hundred lbs. of freeze-dried food. He was far stronger than he looked.

I turned around and raised my voice. “By the way, from here on out, all three of you are mine. XO passed me the leash.”

César looked puzzled. “So, señor, are you calling us dogs? Cause if you are, I can bark pretty loud.”

“And I bite pretty hard,” Griffin added, while chewing at the air.

Kelly rolled his eyes at me and I shrugged. I had a good feeling he was clean, but his words had raised a few questions. What was the Pan-X deal? Something about that tingled a part of my memory. I needed to know more.

[Log]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

----------------------------------------------

Text LOG #3 with Captain (Goddard’s watch).


11:00

Goddard: Griffin and Enela are on duty, checking PV alignment and fuel pumps - Dour Face standing watch beside bridge.

Captain: Dour Face?

Goddard: Sorry, sir. Autocorrected. Brixton standing guard. Graham off duty. Devins is trimming tomato plants in the arboretum and talking to Jacks about boxing. Lacey is pouring water from the recycler on a small row of potato plants and humming to herself. No crew near critical systems. Kelly is playing around on his personal tablet from the cupola. Rosaleigh is in forward observation exercising furiously.

Captain: Don’t I know it.

Goddard: I’m sorry, sir?

Captain: Nothing. Press Smith with the question.

Goddard: You sure? I’m pretty sure Navigation’s clean.

Captain: Yes. Do it.


11:25

Goddard: Sir, she told me to get the fuck out of Officer 2. Pardon my language.

Captain: Very good. Have you talked to Liberty?

Goddard: Why would I, sir?

Captain: No reason to. No reason at all.


16:15

Goddard: Doc just got done checking Lacey’s ankle she twisted after watering the potatoes. The nurse stayed fixed on her tablet the whole time, didn’t look like she was much help to him.

Captain: I’ll note that in my report.

Goddard: We have a blur of movement in the port hallway. Standby.

Captain: Who is it? What’s wrong?

Goddard: It’s Enela. He’s getting fast, sir.


21:00

Goddard: Crew is down for the night other than a few insomniacs.

Captain: Who’s awake?

Goddard: Devins is up. He’s trying to open locked boxes in the cargo bay. Do you need me to take action?

Captain: No. Anyone else?

Goddard: Kelly’s sitting on the gangway of the arboretum. His face is in his hands and he’s shaking. I think he might be crying.

Captain: Good. Very good.

[11]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

ETA: 4 months, 2 days

----------------------------------------------

I couldn’t get my mind off the Pan-X Trade Agreement . What was it? And how had it brought about the war? Kelly may have backed off when I suggested it was just a rumor, but he’d seemed convinced in the moment, as if he’d heard this information all his life. There had to be some truth, at least from one group’s perspective. What made no sense to me was how China was involved. Much of our trade with Earth involved Bear Logistics, a Russian firm the Brethren had long-term contracts with. But China and Russia weren’t exactly friends, let alone trade partners. After the turmoil with the North Korean nuclear program in 2020, a deep rift had been left in Chinese-Russian relations.  So what was the connection? How did all this fit together? And how did it involve the war?

After my shift was over I laid back on my bunk, scrolling through the historical databases on board. I first tried searching for “Pan-X” outright and got no results. I tried “Trade Alliance” and “Agreement” netting about the same as far as recent history. Zilch. I didn’t think


убрать рекламу


1994’s NAFTA mattered all that much in this context. This was a little strange to me, not finding results, but then again, it was widely known that the Brethren censored the information networks. I wasn’t sure if what I was looking for was even available.

Well, here goes nothing. General history. The best I’d hope to get were the high points.

2015: Space X, a company run by CEO Elon Musk, successfully tests their Falcon 9 rocket for reusable applications. The sub-orbital stage of a Falcon 9 rocket returns to a landing pad under its own power. This brings humanity one step closer to making space travel economical, saving nearly $50 million per launch.

2016: Massive shifts occur in American politics, due to far left and moderate Millennial voters, fueling “Income equity” and “Exo-colonization” movements. The American people was done with establishment politics.

2018: ConStruct, an automated construction research company, releases their innovative 3D printing and drone assembly construction processes. Simple, eco-friendly structures are able to be made on sight with low costs and almost no human requirements. This paves the way for automated construction on Mars in advance of settlers.

2026: Mars Exploration begins in earnest, first by a NASA/ESA cooperation, only to be soon followed by Space X and many other aerospace startups.

2028: Under the cooperation of an international alliance known as OrbitLift, Elon Musk spearheads implemented technologies developed by Space X and open corporate partnerships to begin construction of Earth’s first space elevator; a 36,000 kilometer long tether attached to a counter weight in geostationary orbit around Earth. This, more than any advancement in the space age, brings humanity closer to interplanetary travel and trade on a sustainable scale.

2030: Mars’s first small settlement is formed near the Scapareli crash site, a collection of fifty adventurous humans and countless robots under the direction and funding of NASA. Due to budgetary issues relating to an energy crisis in America, soon after setting foot on the red planet, private companies take charge of its economical burdens and NASA bows out.

2035: Earth’s space elevator is completed, making space travel far more economical. Transportation of goods from ground into space costs next to nothing, reducing cost from nearly $5,000 per pound, to less than $50.

2040: An international carbon reduction agreement is reached within the world’s superpowers, including China and India, effectively ending all coal burning, oil consumption, and strip mining worldwide in lieu of renewable resources. This staves off the advancement of climate change, and protects all human interest. A worldwide push is made to condense major cities rather than pave over wilderness during expansion. Construction soon begins on some of the world’s first “Mega Cities”, intended to help preserve Earth’s lush green forests by condensing populated areas.

2048: After raising untold amounts of capital, a forward thinking corporation formed by many of Elon Musk’s ex-Space X executives see the potential in high-carbon strip mining on other worlds, and rebrands itself as “The Brethren”. After having a lottery in several countries including Colombia, Mexico, Georgia and The United States, adventurous settlers are chosen for their skills and sent to make a better life on Mars. Thus the great migration begins, and every year settlers come to Mars to form what is now Arsia Mons, Valles Rojo, and Digton, the primary Martian settlements.

2053: The “Oil Wars” are fought back on Earth, adding to international strains connecting the Middle East and the rest of the world. After the Oil Wars conclude, two years later, the last hangers-on to traditional means of fossil fuel production are forced to cease, as other countries no longer have a great need for oil, other than in the manufacturing of plastics. This causes a new wave of instability in the region, now that these countries are no longer oil rich. Many seek to leave the region for better opportunities and safer borders.

2055: Seeing the vast potential for profit in regards to off-world mining, the Axis opens shop and colonizes Europa, as well as several other Jovian moons. At the onset of their inception, they steer clear of the Brethren politically and economically, but the reality of Earth based supply chains and cumbersome space travel soon sets in. Trade tensions begin to rise between the Axis and the Brethren, as the Axis’s production severely cuts into the Brethren’s profits.

2059: Ceres is destroyed, a blatant attack by the Axis to disrupt the Brethren’s supply lines. War is declared between the factions.

2060: The Brethren government reorganizes itself as the Martian economy tanks. Colonist rations are cut thin, unemployment is high, pay is decreased, inflation sores. Many who are out of work are set to constructing the Brethren’s deterrent fleet of advanced warships, intended only for use in mutually assured destruction against the Jupiter based (Jovian) faction, the Axis.

All this was tired, boring news. And so, I began to editorialize what I read next, filling in the details to make things a little more interesting.

2061: I met Liberty and lost my mind.

2066: Liberty stops talking to me because I’m an idiot. And I lost my mind.

2070: I join the military to run from my problems, because I lost my mind.

2072: I die in a nuclear space can by way of explosive decompression at the hands of the Razor , and can no longer lose my mind. Why, you ask? It should be obvious. I’m dead.

2073: My ghost travels back in time to tell my younger self I never had a mind to begin with.

All facts are false.


I put down the tablet and sighed. I’d found nothing on the Pan-X  deal. The only thing that came close was trade tensions over supply chains, but everyone knew about those days. Could they have been exaggerated? Possible. I wanted to believe it wasn’t information censorship, just couldn’t. The Brethren controlled the narrative, and so they could rewrite history as they saw fit. Best keep that dangerous idea to myself.

I got up from my bunk and took the tablet with me into the bathroom, but before I could finish the job, a klaxon sounded. Red lights, added shortly after the previous bathroom incident, flooded the stall.

I burst back into Crew 1, frantic the alarms had something to do with myself or the target, and found no one there to greet me. Liberty’s earpiece vibrated and so I put it on, praying to God it was her on the other side.

“David?”  she said, her voice muffled.

“I hear you.”

“We’re under attack, and it’s a tight one. Eighty-five percent hit probability.” 

I swallowed and kept listening. There was nothing I could do to stop this.

I overheard the bridge chatter.

“Halt rotation on the solar array. Emergency burn, five second burst, negative fifteen degrees Y.” 

“Mark.” 

“Mark.” 

Even though I knew it was impossible, I swear I felt the ship listing off to the right. Maybe it was just the sharp click of our PVAs locking into place while my imagination supplied the rest.

“Time?” 

“Fifty-six seconds.” 

“Projection?” 

“Seventy-five percent.” 

“Give me five degrees Z.” 

“Sir, that’ll put us outside our trajectory. We’ll be off course.” 

“What do you think being dead will do?” 

“Understood. Yes, Captain.” 

“That’s it. Fifteen percent. Fourteen percent. Thank G… Wait… the projectile’s split.” 

“What?”  The Captain’s shocked tone was a glacier cracking at the heart of winter. “Split? What do you mean split?” 

“I’m tracking sixty targets.” 

“Sixty!”  XO shouted.

“Go go go! Maximum thrust, get us out of the way.” 

“Contact in fifteen seconds…” 

“Ninety-nine percent probability, sir.” 

“Get us out!”  

“Ten seconds. Ninety percent.” 

“Harder! Damn it. Harder!”   

“Five Seconds. Eighty-nine percent.” 

This was it. They’d managed to somehow shotgun blast us from across the solar system, leaving no vector for us to escape.

César came rushing into the room and locked eyes with me, his hand clutching Jane’s. I don’t know how they knew, but it was clear they sensed this attack was different from the rest. I wished I was on the bridge with Liberty, but there was no time left.

“Two seconds. Eighty-five percent.” 

“It’s too much.” 

“One.”  

A fresh set of alarms, unlike the rest, howled throughout the ship. These were the whooping cries and monotone voice of imminent danger that could not be ignored.

ATTENTION CREW: HULL BREACH FORWARD AND AFT.

I froze in the moment, awaiting my insides to be turned backwards and flee out my ass. I heard a deafening hiss from out in the hall before the emergency hatches began to snap shut. César stepped into the crew quarters with Jane and looked at his watch, the section’s hatch shutting an instant later. Jane was terrified, whereas César… he appeared, almost a little groggy.

“David!”  my earpiece screamed. “Are you there?” 

It took me an instant to realize that even though the ship was losing pressure, we were still alive. The leak must have been at least two sections away. There might be a chance to save us.

“I am,” I replied, dry eyes trailing down to my watch.

“We’ve been hit.” 

“No shit!”

“David! The ship’s been punctured in two locations. If you hurry…”  Her words trailed off and were replaced by the Captain’s. I took out the earpiece and shoved it in my pocket. No distractions.

She was right, my watch’s readout showed a puncture halfway to the bridge on the port side, and another, ten feet ahead of Nuclear Storage. It also showed extensive damage to the solar array, but that was not immediate. We needed pressure more than power. We had batteries for that.

“We gotta beat it, César.”

“Si,” he snapped to attention. “Where to?”

I raised a finger and pointed. “You, Jane, fix the aft leak. I’ll get the one close to the bridge. Be careful.”

César nodded and took off, his tools at the ready. Before leaving the section he took a patch kit from a box on the wall beside the hatch. He used his code and overrode the safety seal and the two of them vanished into the hall. I took up my tools and did the same, but when I tried to leave the room through the opposite hatch an error message prevented me.

DECOMPRESSION TOO GREAT. CANNOT OVERRIDE.

“Shit!” I pounded the controls with my fists. That left only one option.

I hustled to the center of the room and called for the Maintenance Core’s ladder, squeezing into the spine of the ship where our spin gravity ceased. I hurled myself at the forward end like a missile. Arms at my side, legs back, the Vindicator  rotated around me like a drunken beast stumbling in the dark. I ripped a breathing mask from off the wall and fixed it over my face, not slowing for an instant in my ballistic approach. The alarms droned on, but I could hardly hear them for all the blood pounding in my ears like an ensemble of demonic drummers.

My watch vibrated and chirped, informing me I was above the leak. I took a patch kit from the wall, the floor, whatever the hell you wanted to call it, and lowered the ladder. The hatch yawned open, allowing a gentle tug of leaking pressure to pull me down. On either side a pair of safety hatches snapped shut like guillotines, sealing the tunnel and preventing any further loss of cabin pressure. There was no retreating now. I would either fix this leak or suffocate.

What an incentive.

“Come on, David, you can do this.” My hands were trembling. I’d been through the exercise dozens of times, but this shit was real life.

My heels struck the floor. I drew in a deep breath from the mask. I was in Officer 1, Liberty’s quarters, and the air was getting thin. The hatch leading into the hall was broken, unable to close, air ripping through a hand size slit like a hungry dust storm. I clipped the safety line of my tool belt to the core’s ladder, using it to steady my approach. A flat black object with a flash of silver flew towards me, leaving a gash down my right cheek at the edge of the mask. I reeled back out of reflex, frantically searching for any further danger. It was just an old style clipboard that now flapped over the steadily growing breach. The shallow cut was warm. I fought the urge to touch it.

The roaring, icy leak edged closer.

I held the patch kit in front of me, safety line clicking by tiny intervals as I approached with baby steps. Sweat poured off my face and was dried in an instant. My rapid breathing accelerated to the edge of hyperventilation. I hit the button on the side of the patch kit, and a sheet of poly alloy fell from it, the vacuum of space covetous as it grasped the metal patch with unseen arms in a violent embrace. It shot through the air and slammed on top of the breach, knocking the cheap clipboard aside and snapping it into pieces. Air hissed from around the vibrating patch. I used the yellow handled torch clipped to my belt and welded it in place with a neat line, then punched the kit’s nozzle into the patch’s center, pulled the trigger on its bottom, and released a cloud of rapidly expanding metallic foam.

The whistling of precious, precious air ceased, allowing decompression wails to recede from my aching senses as I sent them back into their slumber.

I checked my watch to ensure that the seal was complete. Thank God it was. I’d been lucky, just like when we wrecked Harrison’s skimmer. I was always lucky.

“César?” I growled at my right wrist, finding it hard to breathe.

“All good, señor.” 

“Good. Let’s see if—”

Power flickered and the ship became dim. The emergency batteries cut on.

“Master Engineer,”  the intercom sounded. “To the bridge, immediately.”  

It was go time.

I stood up and stumbled, hand trailing down the bulkhead. My vision swam. Pressure built behind my eyes.

I blinked.

The intercom screamed once more, its words washing over me but having no meaning. I put a free hand to my forehead, tingling fingers massaging in a fruitless hope to clear my muddled state.

Why was I in this room? What was I doing?

That’s right, I was going to the bridge, but…

Why the bridge? What the hell was on the bridge?

My legs were wobbly, like I’d just run fifty miles at full tilt, reducing them to nothing more than loose bands of meat stretched over bleached sticks. My shoulders and joints followed suit with their locomotive kindred, but instead of merely being sore, it was as if they’d been stuffed with something hard.

God, my head was thick. Why, oh why, had I crawled into a bottle of gin? Was it so bad on Mars I needed that much at once? Dreams were made here. Made real. We had but to reach out and claim the system for all mankind, this red rock as our foothold.

The white room, with its beds and lockers and scattered debris, twisted sideways. The floor drew close, fast, and was unkind, punching me in the face with a metallic right hook. Pain shot through my eye socket and jaw, turning my vision white. I tried to protest the floor’s actions, but couldn’t find the strength. When I attempted to get back up, my arms didn’t respond.

And why not? Where was I? Hadn’t I just been by the pool? I smell chlorine, lots of chlorine. Maybe that cute girl is taking a dip. God, I hope she is. She’s different. Not just beautiful, but…

A loudspeaker shouted and I swore it was for me. But why me? All I do is work on skimmers for old Harrison. I don’t do government jobs. I guess they’re just after dad. We do have the same name, after all. And lately, he’s been doing a bunch of strange side work for off-worlders. He even fixed a service lander for this, what did he call ’em? Jovian? Axis? He figured helping someone in need might be a good thing. No reason to always sow evil, he said. Do unto others and all that.

Wait, the floors of Level 6-B aren’t this clean. Where’s the red dirt and dust?

The pain. God…

My nerves and muscles howled, but their chorus was silent.

“Señor David!” an earnest looking kid took hold of my shoulders. “You okay?” He looked surprised to find me in the Estates. Why wouldn’t I be here? I was rich. Made a fat nut off a gold deposit I found in the Helo Mines. This kid was concerned, but didn’t seem nervous, just sleepy, his eyelids heavy. He seemed decent enough. Who was he? I should know him. Is he the amphetamine addict I met in tunnel C last week?

“I knew, just knew, damn it, señor. Come on. Say something, man!”

I swore I responded, that was the polite thing to do, but I heard nothing come off my lips.

I was fine, man, just fine. Why worry? I guess I’d just gotten a little tired and opted for a nap. This place was cleaner than… Cleaner than what? Where’s my torch? The one with the red, no, the yellow handle. Yes, yellow handle.

“Get him to medical,” a man with a snoz like a thick carrot and ears of cauliflower growled. They lifted me up to face the ceiling. “The cut looks shallow, but the air’s the real issue. Nurse, prep.” This guy was more focused than the kid, and before I knew it, doors were flashing past me on either side. I was on a ship. Had cauliflower ears put me on a ship? Why would I be on a ship? Are we headed back to Earth? Am I visiting the Axis like dad talked of doing?

“Are we alive?” I asked, suddenly able to put some of the facts back together. I had all the pieces but none of them made a damn bit of sense, like a jigsaw novel written in Chinese.

“For now,” a third man said over Cauliflower’s shoulder, his voice deep, resonant, and commanding. “Good work, Goddard.”

It was the Captain’s voice. The Vindicator . Decompression.

Shit.

“Get him into the chamber,” Cauliflower ordered. “Put him in the one beside Kelly.”

They slid me into a silver tube with a tiny glass window, gave me a white sheet and a thick pillow, and closed off the end. Air hissed and pain ripped through my body. My shoulders, more than anything, felt as if they’d been stuffed with microscopic cotton balls encrusted in razor blades. At any moment I knew blood would squeeze out of them like a kitchen sponge.

The hissing went on for several seconds, maybe minutes, and I felt my eyes growing heavy, too heavy to remain open. I let them fall shut, pulling the blanket around me like a toddler in need of simple comfort. Darkness, not just a lack of light, but an emptiness as complete as the void, crept in from all sides. My breathing became shallow.

“Is he going to make it?” a distant voice queried, a whale beneath the ocean. “If someone doesn’t fix them, we’re finished.”

And like an incandescent light wired to a faulty switch—my thoughts fizzled once and winked out.

[12]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

ETA: 4 months, 1 day

----------------------------------------------

“He’s coming around.”

My eyes creaked open. I’d found myself in a dim, comfortable place, but what little light reached me still felt like needles boring into my corneas. I squinted and shuttered. Everything hurt, like I’d been run over by a freight mule. My muscles were inflamed and tight, every breath a rasping challenge. I clutched the blanket pooled at my feet and sat upright, wrapping it around my shoulders for emotional support.

“What happened?” I asked, peering through a tiny glass window. I could see warning posters on the opposite wall, colorful characters warning crew to always know where the nearest emergency breathing mask was located. I could see clear cabinets filled with things like alcohol wipes, cotton balls, burn cream, false skin, and drugs. Med 1, a bad place to wake up.

Doc came into view a second later, scratching thoughtfully at his jet black beard. “How are you feeling?” A cut ran down his right ear, dried blood sticking to the bottom of its lumpy, cauliflower shape. A series of mottled bruises took up residence nearby.

“Like shit, Doc. What happened?” My arms stretched out, but didn’t go far. I was trapped in a small, silver tube, breathing one hundred percent pure oxygen. My jumpsuit was still on, and Liberty’s ear piece was in my pocket.

“A few questions first.” Doc called for the nurse and produced a flashlight. “Follow the light for me. That’s it. There we go.” He flashed it across my vision several times, each pass making me want to puke. “Pupil response normal, no excess dilation. Your skin tone is returning to its regular pink tinted chalk. How about that, you’re not a Popsicle anymore.” He activated the recorder clipped to his shirt and blurted a string of medical terms I couldn’t follow. It was as if he were possessed by demons and was channeling their thoughts. “Do you feel dizzy? Any numbness? How many fingers am I holding up? Hmm. Can’t have you standing to test balance in a monoplace chamber. We’ll do that later. Nurse, get me his vitals.”

I thumped the glass with an irritable finger. “Doc, what happened?” I couldn’t recall much. I’d repaired the leak and so had César. That part was good. We were still alive. That was even better. But what had hit us? Sixty projectiles? Hell no. There was no way. The Axis couldn’t fire that many at once. No way. Besides, we’d be dead if they had.

The nurse handed a tablet to Doc. He slipped it into a slot on the outside of the chamber, conjuring a hiss of air. A second later the tablet appeared inside the tube with me.

“Take it.” Doc turned to face his nurse. “Let’s go with Treatment Table Six and see if the symptoms lessen.”

“Yes, Doctor.” She nodded and disappeared from view.

I fixed my eyes on the tablet’s screen, stomach twisting in knots that weren’t the result of my symptoms. An EVA rig, a suit designed for extra vehicular activities, was outside the ship scaling the supports of a solar panel. Down the right side of the display were readings—heart rate, O2 sat, blood pressure and EEG, as well as a few stats I wasn’t familiar with. At the very bottom was a name. Engineering Assistant, Private César Enela.

“What’s he doing out there? I didn’t order such a dangerous repair.”

Doc shook his head. “Cap ordered it. You’ve been out for six hours, son, and we were losing power fast. Still are, in fact. We had to get our repairs underway immediately, and you’ve got another day or so cooking in there before feeling up to it. But he seems capable enough. Didn’t take all that much to sell the Cap on it. Kid’s got spirit.”

I nodded and gripped the tablet tighter. “He does. It’s just dangerous, very dangerous.” I watched his vitals for a minute, finding it strange he was so calm, considering the circumstance. César hated confined spaces. During every EVA simulation he’d been hella nervous as a result. But now he was calm as a cucumber. It was odd.

“You always track us like this?” Doc nodded in reply. “Can I talk to him from here?”

“Hold the button on the left.”

I did, opening a conference channel between César and the bridge. “César, you there?”

“David! So good to hear your voice, señor. Glad you’re okay.”  He waved back at the ship, flashing a massively oversized white hand.

“How’s it looking?”

“Damaged, but she’ll live. The PVAs may take a couple days to fix, and we’re drifting off course till then. Can’t correct our trajectory till we fix the power. No power power, no thrusty thrust.”  

This was true, of course, the ion engines required a vast supply of energy to maintain thrust, but he didn’t have to go outside in order to fix them. The panels were retractable. “Give me a rundown. What’s the issue?”

“Actuators are jammed. Something screwed up the lateral motor where the panels fold in. Every time I try and retract it, it just tears them worse.”  

With thumb and forefinger I pinch zoomed on the damage. “I see. So you had to go and do it in person. Look out for that titanium rib on the right, it’s swinging around.”

“I see it.”  He lowered his head. “Almost done, sir. Five more minutes at most.”  He lifted a pneumatic clamp and sheared a twisted section of metal in half. The length of poly alloy set free began to float off. César took hold and tossed it in a collection net. He began to hum. “Anyone hear that song bleeding in over the com? I know it. Is someone singing back on the ship?” 

I let go of the broadcast button and asked Doc, “What hit us?”

He shrugged. “Lieutenant Fryatt believes the enemy’s projectile collided with something en route causing it to splinter. There’s minor damage all over the ship.”

“And so afterwards, I just passed out? What’s wrong with me?”

“Goddard, you have severe DCS—decompression sickness, the bends, air embolisms, all that fluff. Something must have broken your mask during the ship’s decompression, and when the air in the cabin started getting thin and you didn’t exhale along with it… well, I’m sure you know the rest.”

My usually steaming blood turned to ice. I’d come a hair’s breadth from flipping inside out, blood boiling, eyes freezing in their sockets. If I’d stayed another couple minutes in that place it would have been the end of David Goddard, idiot engineer. I felt for the comfort of my gasket ring. I’d survived that wreck too, and the surface of Mars wasn’t much safer than deep space. Someone had to be looking out for me, that’s for sure. I just wasn’t sure who.

The tablet began to speak, a woman’s voice. “Enela, long range radar detects a heavy concentration of micro meteorites in our path. I estimate less than five minutes before we reach them.” 

I pounded the window of the hyperbaric chamber. “Let me out. We need to get César back inside.” A rush of heat washed up over my spine and into my forehead. My right leg began to shake. Get me out of here. Get me out of here. The hyperbaric chamber began contracting, its edges drawing into the middle, squashing me like a spider on paper. I needed to get out.

Doc shook his head, and I wanted to knock it right off his shoulders. “Goddard, you have two hours left of treatment. Can’t do it. Besides, how you gonna get there in time? You can’t help him.” His calm only fanned the embers of my anger. Maybe he  was the target and this was his plan. Incapacitate the Master Engineer and put his assistant in a position where he was likely to screw up and get killed.

“César!” I called into the tablet. “You have to get back inside, right now. That’s an order.”

“I can’t,”  he replied, voice edgy. “Almost done here. We need the power up or we won’t get back on course. We have to make it past Mars on schedule or all is lost. The Axis will not get the chance to kill our friends. Let’s see, what tool do I need now? Ohhh, Toodles.” 

“Look, you can come back inside, and you will come back inside. We can make up the thrust deficiency another way. Comm, how dense is the field?”

“Can’t tell,”  she responded. “Too much interference.”  

“Damn it!” I shouted, only to be heard in medical. Across the room a face appeared in the other monoplace chamber. It was Kelly from Valles Rojo. Where had he been during our decompression to be gifted this sickness along with me?

There had to be something I could do. Had to. Our ship was designed to take these sorts of poundings while drifting through the void, micro meteors and the like, but César’s EVA rig was not. One hit and he was lost, set adrift in a place between life and where we believed we all go—into the waiting room, purgatory, the cold well. One hit—and César was dead. But that’s not all. Something wasn’t right. César was too focused, too relaxed. It just wasn’t like him. He was a frog leg on a hot skillet, a flea with the promise of blood. His personality was jumpy and jittery, though right now he was calm. Too calm. Unless…

“César, are you okay?” I asked, forcing a duplicitous subtext into every syllable that I hoped no one else could read.

The tone hit him like a slap, making him hesitate for a moment. “I’m fine, señor. No problems.” 

“Don’t play dumb. You know what I mean.”

He hesitated again, but went back to work.

“Get back inside, now,” I growled. “Retract your safety line.” There was no way he could finish in time.

“Listen to him, son,”  the Captain cut in. “We’ll make do. We have other power.”  

For an instant it appeared as if César was going to drop his tools and reel himself in, but he didn’t. He went back to his task, furiously moving as if by working harder he could beat the clock.

“It’s like we talked a


убрать рекламу


bout, David. We all pick up certain habits.”  He sniffed and shook his head, making the suit waggle. Moments dragged into minutes, each heartbeat an exploding supernova millions of light years away. One more bolt secured. One more piece of twisted poly alloy removed. “Sometimes you just gotta take a break, you know? Sand that edge off. I’m fine. I’m fine. I’ve almost… That’s it… If you’ve got ears, say cheers! I’ve got it!” 

I sucked in a breath and looked at the clock. Three minutes had passed. Hot damn, that kid was fire. I never could’ve finished that fast.

César began to sing, “Hot dog, hot dog…” 

The solar panels folded up like an oriental dancer’s fans, closing and drawing back towards the ship. César let go and pushed off, drifting to get out of the way. Cheers of congratulations went out over the conference channel. A grin split my face.

Our joy was cut short.

An object whizzed past César’s left leg, grazing the edge of his suit and tearing a rent that spewed gas.

“César!” I shouted, my fists pounding against the tube’s glass.

A second, smaller video feed appeared on the left side of the tablet, showing the inside of his mask and panicked face. “Señor David?”  he asked, eyebrows turned down in confusion. “Why is it so cold? I can’t control my direction. I’m… I’m spinning.”  

The safety line whipped as it reeled in. His path crossed with a cluster of zipping micro meteorites, and one by one they went through him like armor piercing slugs. Air hissed from the many openings. The line nearly snapped in half. He twisted, jets of gas buffeting the rig to and fro, until tension triumphed. César’s body was drawn up against the hull and pulled inside, limp and lifeless. His vitals flat lined.

I pounded against the glass again and again with balled fists, a hollow, deafening reply echoing back. “César! No! Damn it! No! Let me out! Let me the fuck out!” The medical staff vanished, rushing off to the Cargo Bay. I’d been careless when I went to fix the leak. I’d allowed my mask to get damaged. It should have been me out there, not him. The kid deserved more than this, more than being snuffed out like a spent cigarette beneath a dust caked heel. He deserved to live a long life, to go home with his lady and start a family, to exist in bliss without madness and uncertainty.

We all deserved that.

“He didn’t deserve this,” I growled.

“No, he didn’t,” Kelly hissed from the other hyperbaric chamber, his voice muffled by glass. He twisted his expression and pressed his face up against the window, drilling into me with fierce brown eyes like twin augers.

“What do you mean?”

“Sir, did you notice something off with César?” His long fingernail tapped against the glass. “I’ve never seen him so easy going. Just crawling into the air returns made him sweat like a pusher on trial.”

“What are you saying, private? Are you saying he was high?”

Kelly nodded. “I am.”

My blood began to boil. I already had my suspicions, and Enela had not denied it. “Who got him the junk? You know, don’t you?”

He nodded again.

“Who? Kelly. Tell me. Who!”

He let out a long sigh as if uttering the words pained him physically. “I think it was Jane Griffin.”

It was probably for the best that I was stuck inside a tube for the next few hours. If I’d been free, I might just have taken half the ship apart with my bare hands. That conniving little bitch. That was why César had taken up with her so easily. She was his hook up, his juice man, his dealer.

“How do I know you’re not lying?” I asked, trying to stay objective before my emotions became unbridled anger. I had no proof but his word, and he, for all I knew, could actually be the target.

“When you get out of here, go look under his bunk.” Kelly laid down, disappearing from view. “Get some rest, sir.”

But I was too angry to lay down. The next few hours were going to be hell.

Refusing to let the fires in me die, I seethed.


--//--

As soon as Doc set me free, after a few basic cognitive and balance tests, I went pounding off down the hall, straight for César’s bunk. I dug under his mattress and found a tiny bag of pills. Drawn on the outside of the clear plastic bag was a red heart beside the name, Janie, in bubbly female script. These were not his anxiety meds, those were green with a one on the side. If I were guessing, I’d say these were OxyContin or Vicodin. Where the hell did she get them?

I’d known girls like Griffin back on Mars. They were manipulative wenches from the lower levels that worked as candy stripers for the big dealers, using their feminine wiles to push product and get the boys hooked. Next thing you knew, they’d flip ’cause they were just as bad off as you were. Then you’d be left with a broken heart, no credits, boots or pants, running down the main drag of town naked from the waist up chasing after them—a dozen six headed elephants at their heels. She’d just been in it for the fix.

I punched the edge of his bunk so hard it should’ve hurt, but my rage suppressed those nerve endings into a numb existence. I knew I needed to calm down but couldn’t. I stuffed the pills in my pocket and stormed off to the cargo bay. That was where she’d be right now, laying out solar panels and scanning them for repair.

“Where are you going?” Liberty asked, having appeared in the hall just behind me. She’d seen me like this before after a bar fight in Arsia Mons two weeks before the skimmer wreck.

“None of your business, ma’am.”

She raised a hand. “The hell it isn’t!”

Security #2, Lank Hair, spotted me and took off, stun stick at the ready. I hurried my pace.

Jane was working alongside two other crewmembers in the cargo bay. They were studiously using handheld scanners to model the damaged bits of solar panel, feeding that data back into the PVA printer and making exact replacements that matched the original down to the nanoscopic scale. The damage was extensive, but luckily, since we were so far off course the enemy would have a hard time finding our heading for a while. We were cloaked in the darkness of incomplete sensor information. No firing solutions, little danger of attack.

I went straight for her. “Griffin!”

Her bloodshot eyes snapped to attention, handheld scanner trembling in her fingers. “What? What is it, sir?” She sniffled and wiped off her nose.

The other crewmembers halted their work to exchange shocked expressions.

“You’re a candy striper. You’re the one that fed him.”

“I what?”

I produced the baggie with a flourish, shaking it in the air. “Gave him the goods, put the pills in his hand, sprinkled the dust on his damn toast! You know exactly what the fuck I’m talking about! You gave him the drugs.”

Her eyes went wide, fresh menace shading the edge of her black streaked face. “I knew something was off.” Her hands drew up over her mouth and shook. “Why didn’t I see it? Why didn’t I bring it up? I know all the signs, I mean, we’ve all been there. Oh, God. Oh, God.”

“Quit the shit ass act!” I hurled the baggie at her face. It bounced off her nose and came to rest on the broken panels.

“Master Engineer, David Goddard!” Liberty shouted in a voice very much like her father’s. My hear skipped a beat. “Back off, now!”

I flung an open hand back as if to say, as nicely as fucking possible, that Liberty should shut the hell up. “Why, Griffin? Why? You knew it was a problem of his. If you really cared you would have protected him, not enabled him.”

Jane’s expression went from sullen to hard in an instant. “You think? Oh… How dare you tell me how I feel?” Her hands balled into fists. She stalked around the panels and took several calculated steps forward, closing the distance between us. “How dare you!” She was now only a stride away, so close I could feel the heat of her voice roasting my cheeks like sunlight.

She had to be the target. Clever, clever, clever.

“It all makes sense,” I said through gritted teeth. “You wanted him to fuck up. You wanted him to die.”

Her right shoulder twitched as if drawing back a fist, and out of reflex, my right palm shot forward, catching her square in the chest. She went sprawling back onto the floor, screeching in shock. A panicked gasp rippled through the room.

Less than a breath later I was on the floor, nose to metal. Lank Hair and Liberty had me by the arms, a knee was in my back. They rolled me over to reveal Dour Face leering down at me with Higgins at his side. Everyone had joined the party.

“Let me go!” I growled, struggling to get free. “That bitch did it.”

“That’s it, Goddard,” Dour Face said. “Hitting a fellow crewmember, especially one weaker than you… It’s a right time for a few quality weeks in the brig.”

“Fuck you. I didn’t mean to hit her. I thought she was going to hit me.”

“Then let her next time,” he whispered in my ear as he hauled me to my feet.

Jane was balled up where she fell, crying in the arms of a fellow crewmember. I hadn’t noticed certain glaring details until now. I was too angry to see what was obvious. Her hair was greasy. Dark eyeshadow clung to her face like black, melting wax. Her chapped lips were bright from being chewed on, a small line of dried blood running over the edge onto her chin. Her uniform was stained down the front, rumpled and ripped. Either she was the most convincing liar I’d ever seen, or I was the biggest damned idiot God had ever been foolish enough to give breath.

“Come on, Goddard,” Lank Hair said. “To the brig.”

“David…” Liberty hissed, that word carrying a crushing weight of disappointment. No one noticed her informality.

Dour Face’s watch crackled. “Take him to his quarters.”  

“Captain?”

“I said, take him to his quarters. Let him sleep it off. It’s been a hard day for all of us. Is Griffin okay? Is she hurt?” 

“Yes, sir. Looks like he, well, he just pushed her down. Might have a sore bum is all.”

“Get some sleep, Goddard. Don’t let me catch you doing this again.”  

The blood rushed back into my arms as their death grip eased. I sagged and nearly fell over. I nodded at his watch as if the Captain could see me. One of the cubes was well within view.

“He won’t do this again,” Dour Face said, eyes narrowing to razors. “We’ll be sure he won’t.”

“Liberty,”  the Captain said. “To the bridge. Being they don’t know where we are, I want to attempt a firing solution.” 

“On my way,” she replied and turned to leave, peering at me over her shoulder with those glassy eyes once more.

I retired to Crew 1 and collapsed face first on my bunk. Every time I was just about unconscious, something trivial would wake me. A disturbing mental image. The thought of César’s empty bed. A random noise. My fucking bladder. It’d been almost an hour when the alarms went off and woke me fully. The ship turned yellow, then red, then yellow, our weapons powering up. I knew we were in good hands. Griffin and Kelly could handle the reset if it came to that, but it was impossible to sleep through. What was the damn point? Might as well wait till it’s over, exhausted or not.

“Firing,”  XO’s voice boomed over the intercom.

The ship’s power fizzled for a moment, looking as if it might remain on, then the lights winked out, plunging us into darkness. Despite being nestled under the sheets of my bunk I felt as if I was falling. Darkness in space made orienting impossible as sight did most of your sensory correction in low gravity. I was compelled to sit up and feel it out, keeping track of the world before it made me sick.

I tossed my legs over the side of the bunk, phantom vertigo dissolving any tangible sense of direction. My toes probed the darkness in search of the floor, but found nothing.

Pain, sudden and hot, flashed through my skull, radiating in mammoth waves as I was flung back and pitched face first on the floor. I reached for anything to haul myself back up. Before I could manage a handhold—a shelf, a drawer, anything—I was hammered in the back of the head. My forehead cracked the corner of the bunk, splitting the skin wide open. I lashed out blindly, questing for purchase, and caught the middle of someone’s uniform, the fabric balling up in my fist. I drew them close and punched as hard as I could, over and over and over, fist landing in what I hoped was their gut.

My attacker grunted, pulled me up and kneed me in the stomach. Breath hissed out like a cycling airlock. I fell back but somehow recovered my footing. There was no way to know where he or she was, no way to know how big they were, or if they’d brought something more dangerous than a pair of fists.

My heart thundered as I caught a metallic whiff of blood, reminding me of the hours following Harrison’s skimmer crash. I’d paid dearly for that incident, just like this. A revenge beating.

I sucked in a breath and kicked blindly into the inky black, rewarded with the crunch of something firm and meaty. It was my only victory. My attacker rushed forward and hit me in the face with something metal, maybe a dinner tray. I tumbled back onto the floor, my weight and the momentum of a crushing blow focusing to a single point on my shoulder.

In spite of the desperate torrent of adrenaline coursing freely through every inch of me, I wanted to howl in agony and frustration. It’s impossible to fight an enemy you can’t even see.

The ship began to whine and whinny, growling and burping and whirring as the systems rebooted, coming back to life. Two swift kicks cracked me in the ribs, forcing a spray of blood between my lips.

“That’ll teach you to mess around,” the attacker whispered, their voice electronically distorted. Footsteps receded off down the hall, vanishing before the lights had returned.

Blood was splattered across the base of the bunks and down my chest. My nose spewed red like a decorative fountain in a macabre garden. I crawled into the hallway and peered both ways to catch a glimpse of my assailant, swearing I saw the blurry image of Dour Face through the haze.

Wishful thinking.

Liberty rounded the corner a moment later and gasped. She rushed over to help me stand. “Your earpiece turned on. I heard the whole thing. David, who did this? Who?”

I asked myself the same question, and every part of my body throbbed in concert, playing for me the terrible, wordless symphony that follows a brutal ass beating.

“I don’t know,” I managed. “I don’t know.”

[Log]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

----------------------------------------------

Text LOG #45 with Captain (Goddard’s watch).


09:00

Goddard: I wish the Doc had something stronger for me. Can you help, sir?

Captain: Get over it, pussy. What’s our status?

Goddard: The target, or the ship?

Captain: You know what I mean.

Goddard: The target has to be involved. Enela is dead.

Captain: The target does not control meteorites.

Goddard: But the drugs, sir.

Captain: Enela was smart. He could have stolen them. Enough talk of that. The target was not involved.

Goddard: How do you know?

Captain: Who is the captain of this ship?

Goddard: Yes, sir.

Captain: Now, report.

[13]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

ETA: 3 months, 28 days

----------------------------------------------

The Captain assured me a thorough investigation was underway. In the meantime, he recommended that I take things easy, getting as much R&R as possible between critical duties to let myself heal. But the truth was, there wasn’t much to investigate, and my injuries, those hurt no matter what I was doing.

The ship’s power reset meant no cameras were in operation, and I’d done no more than caught a handful of the attacker’s jumpsuit, heard their synthesized voice. Not much evidence to go on, just supposition. I knew what the Captain was thinking. I was thinking the same thing. The target had done this, not some pissed off crewmember. I’d been caught meddling and paid at a convenient time.

Then again… Could it be as simple as revenge? Had someone merely taken issue to the way I’d treated Griffin? A little extreme, don’t you think? All I did was push her down. Though, a taste of vigilante justice was not outside the realm of possible.

Whenever I came across Dour Face I felt sick. There was no way a proper investigation could be conducted when the prime suspect, in my opinion, was part of those investigating. That left me on my own. The only person I could trust was Liberty, but she couldn’t be told of our threat, not yet, and I hated that. Thankfully, she’d forgiven me my outburst in the cargo bay. Those were extreme circumstances and Griffin wasn’t hurt—well, not physically. My only other friend aboard this dented space can had been killed before my eyes, and I hadn’t taken it well. But if Griffin hadn’t given César the junk, then who had? I’d bet a hundred credits it was that same asshole who tenderized my face, revenge or not, spy or not. Either way, I needed to apologize to her.

It took nearly a week before my body stopped aching. I had two blue-black eyes, a forehead split wide open and stitched back together with clear thread, a right hand whose fingers hardly moved due to how hard I’d punched, lingering concussion symptoms, and a stuffy nose. Funny thing was, it wasn’t the worst off I’d ever been. It had been far worse when Harrison’s “good friends” had come for a visit.

My right hand trembled at the thought, teeth gnawed at my lips.

No, it’s best to forget. Ignore the scales, good or evil. Don’t look at them.

Gossip around the ship was rampant. Whenever the scrubs gathered to watch the latest Demonio Primario  they’d disperse if I ever even thought of appearing. I’d fixed the ship and saved their lives, but they were afraid of me, afraid I’d fly off the handle again. They were rightfully oblivious to the hidden threat on board, but seemed to believe that after going off the deep end someone had indeed taken revenge and kicked my ever loving ass. They wanted no part of that. All I heard in passing as I moved about were harsh whispers and wards against the Malocchio. I became progressively isolated, tumbling deeper and deeper into the wells of paranoia. It was only a matter of time before the attacker would come to finish the job. The target had me just where they wanted me; afraid, alone, and confused. That asshole was going to kill me if I didn’t find out who they were, and quickly.

I made way towards Med 1, hoping to pop by and get a few pills to ease the pain, but as I passed the arboretum a hand shot out and took hold of my right arm. I twisted my body and nearly laid its owner flat.

“Hey, hey!” Devins said, tipping his head back and not letting go of my arm. My bicep flexed against the strain of his grip, every fibrous cord  vibrating.

“What do you want?” I tried again to pull away, my feet shouting for me to run, but he had me. I didn’t like being touched, let alone man handled. I didn’t like being this close to anyone. I could smell the dried onions on his breath, see exhaustion in his bloodshot eyes.

“Nothing, just trying to make sure you’re safe.” His fingers tightened as he leaned in, further invading my personal space to peer over my shoulder and see if anyone else was around. “Just been worried about you, that’s all. Ever since the Griffin thing, ya know? And now? Damn man, your face looks like hamburger meat. Goddard, this is bad.”

I twisted my shoulders and jerked hard. This time he let go.

“I’m fine.” I took two steps back, putting a modicum of distance between us. “Don’t worry about me, I can take care of myself.”

“I can see that.” He almost laughed, but decided to scratch the back of his neck instead. “You be careful, friend. I don’t want you getting hurt again. Whoever it was, I hope they got it out of their system. Remember what happened to Lenny back in training? He got hazed real bad. Am I right?”

“This wasn’t a hazing,” I growled. “Whoever came after me was pissed.”

Devins’s face went dark, his pupils contracting into pinpricks. “No. No, it wasn’t. I’ll see you later, man.” He left me alone and vanished among the trees.

I kept to my original task, now not just hurting but shaking. Doc gave me a handful of NSAID pain relivers. Child’s play. I still felt like shit. Maybe what I really needed was what César had had. Or, perhaps maybe just another Goddamned drink.

I made the sign of a cross over my heart and asked for forgiveness. It’s not safe to even think profanity like that. I might die on this journey, but I didn’t want to burn for all eternity just for speaking blasphemy.

After leaving Med 1 the earpiece tucked in my jumpsuit’s front pocket vibrated. I ducked behind a bulkhead and put it on. A wary crewmember strolled past my hiding spot, then abruptly spun on their heels and fled double time as soon as they spotted me.

“Hello?” I whispered and peered around the corner looking for eavesdroppers.

“David,”  Liberty said. “How are you holding up?” 

“Tired. Sore. Afraid for my life. The usual shit.”

“Sucks. Figure anything out?” 

“Not really. But do you have to guess my first thought?”

“Ol’ Bushel britches?” 

I rolled my eyes. Was that an ancient Disney movie reference? The sheriff from Robin Hood?  Boy, had she paid attention in our classic film class. “Dour Face.”

“Ahh, that’s right. Need a break?” 

“I’d love one. What do you have in mind? It’s too early to go sneaking off, and I doubt we’ll have another everyone sleeps at once night  after what happened to me. Cap isn’t foolish.”

“Agreed. We can’t be caught together. Here, walk through the next section and pass by me. Then, go out into the hall, go to the following section, and cross over again, like a square wave on an oscilloscope.” 

“Umm, why?”

“You’ll see.”  A familiar mischief clung to her words. “You will see, good sir.”  

I did as she asked and entered Crew 1. She met me in the center of the section, a hidden smile brightly shining in her eyes, slid something in my pocket and kept moving. I reached for it, not slowing for an instant, and put it to my lips. I pressed the button on the side and took a drag. It was more of that bomb, blueberry goodness she’d previously shared.

It took me a second to fully register just what she was doing going in and out of sections, but it was brilliant. Leave it to her to be brilliant. I entered the following section and slid past her, this time trying to mask my smile. I placed the tube in her side pocket. We did it again.

This went on for a while, crossing one another’s path before going back into the hall. As a result, no one saw us together for more than an instant, however, the two of us got the chance to look upon each other in a silent joke. Each time I saw her face it was all the more joyous, and not the result of natural green goodness. In fact, either this was the weakest hash oil I’d ever smoked, or it was just tobacco—and that’s fine by me.

We used to do things like this all the time back on Mars. Games, games, games. Sneaking around the market and hiding in clothes racks, see who could scream the word penis outside Brethren chapel the loudest without getting caught, spray temporary color down the backs of the Estate jerks’ coiffures who came to throw around their influence. The fun never ended when we were together. It was always a new adventure.

I passed her one last time in the cargo bay, sliding the atomizer tube back into her pocket while accidentally brushing her backside. I twisted my lips as if to apologize and she barked with mock contempt, swaying her hips the tiniest bit as she went back down the hall. I collapsed on a crate of food stuff and rested for a minute, limp. For the first time in a while my bruises didn’t hurt.

“O seven hundred. Channel five forty,”  she said into the earpiece.

I piped up. “Won’t we get caught? Security, hell, even XO peruses the information network.”

“Don’t worry about that. I’ll take care of it.” 

“Alright, Lib, see you then.”

“David,”  she growled. “Again with that nickname. Cut the shit.” 

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.”

With the solar panels repaired and put back in place we made adjustments to get on course. It took two days longer than expected, but oddly, the Captain wasn’t worried. Not that he needed to be. Nav turned the ship at an oblique angle to our trajectory, and fired the ion thrusters at full with an additional thirty-minute burn from the emergency boosters. With a little coordination from the sequestered photon focusers and our Saturn based reactor beam, we were able to push the engines past design specifications.

Within a few hours we were tracking our new trajectory, patiently awaiting updated info from our sensor network to confirm our path as well as our enemy’s. This detour had only cost a few minutes when it was all said and done, though, a lot of precious fuel had been expended in the process. That was the physical cost aside from César’s life.

We were fast approaching the midpoint of our journey where the ship would turn around, pointing our main thrust ahead of us for the final approach a couple months from now. When traveling at speeds upwards of one hundred sixty kilometers per second, it takes a painfully long time to slow. If we failed to complete this maneuver we’d go hurtling past Mars to end up God knows where, maybe even as far as Jupiter. We could skim right past the red world and head for the enemy colonies on Europa. That sure would make things easy. Bomb the enemy and get it over with. Too bad it would cost the lives of everyone at home to see such a simple end to our conflict.

I floated around the engine room, watching the lights and panels flicker with a constant torrent of information. All I could do was think of César. His red handled combo torch was safely secured against the wall where he’d last left it. A tiny satchel of tools he’d brought from home were strapped beside it. Curiosity overcame my sense of privacy, and I glanced inside.

As expected, there were a set of aluminum spanners, multi headed screwdrivers, a tensiometer, collapsible torque wrench, and the like. The one exception was a collection of notes tucked into the interior pocket. I pulled one out to take a look. It was a white piece of lined paper folded in quarters; on the outside, a heart was penned in red beside the name Janie. I inspected it for a while and frowned. It wasn’t the same handwriting from the pill baggie. This was somehow bubblier, more feminine, lines thinner and tapering off at the ends. I returned the note to its place inside the bag with reverence, a memorial to César. I was going to catch whatever bastard had done this.

After recovering his corpse, Doc had done a full tox screen. César was positive for opiates, though what variety I didn’t know. The investigation was closed, deemed a regrettable accident the result of drug abuse. The Captain said a few choice words before the crew pertaining to César’s eternal soul and place among the cold wells of Mars, and his body was put into storage. Despite the fact that we believed our souls remained tethered to the body until it was made part of the whole, I knew it was just another empty vessel, a husk.

César’s soul was long gone.

“Into the cold well,” I mumbled to myself as the bag was zipped shut.

My watch went off: THE TARGET IS CLOSE. KEEP AN EYE OUT. ASK QUESTIONS DURING THE SHOW.

The Captain’s messages had become progressively vague, almost cryptic.

Another night of gripping TV rolled around and everyone gathered up. I bugged Kelly with even vaguer questions than I was given, to which he looked confused. Talked to Henry and Devins from agriculture and got nowhere. Rosaleigh was there too, busily chatting it up with the Smith, occasionally resting her hand on Smith’s leg. When Lank Hair passed through the section about mid-way through Demonio Primerio , Rosaleigh Head and Smith became startled, moving immediately to fresh seating arrangements across the room from one another. Curious.

After the show was over, Dour Face found Rosaleigh out in the hall, harassing her over something I could not hear. She laughed at him, not with him, and he got mad, real mad. He put a hand on her arm trying to calm her, but she slapped it away. I thought for a second I might need to butt in and say something, but he threw his hands up and stormed off, smelling of wounded pride. Rosaleigh rolled her eyes at me and vanished inside her quarters.

My shift ended and I snuck back to my digs. Several crewmembers were sound asleep and the lig


убрать рекламу


hts were already low. Perfect.

I took a drink of water, slipped on some VR goggles and laid back in my bunk, sheets piled on top of me in a mountain of linens.

While inside the simulation, I would be vulnerable. I prayed that no one would murder me as I closed my eyes. César wasn’t here to watch my back.

Random colors flickered past my vision for an instant, resolving into a series of green shapes. I was now inside the virtual interface of our information network, a series of screens with nothing but hierarchical icons and text. Using direct brain impulse, instead of fingers, I keyed up the channel Liberty had given me. A password dialog appeared. Was there a new security protocol? Or was this…

“Another one of Lib’s games,” I mumbled, the sub-vocalization not leaving my consciousness. “Hmm. What could it be? What could it be?”

I began to try various passwords, hoping there was no lockout on attempts. “Lib ? Nope, not that. Shocker. Too short anyways. Umm, Crystal Caves ? Nope. Skimmer ? Skimm—eh—er crash ? Damn, I could have sworn that was the one. Jangle jangle wigwam ? Ehh. That girl from math class maybe? Kelly Fry Sack Attack ? Marlo Barlo ? Wait.”

This wasn’t working. I needed to change my approach.

“Let’s try some late 20th Century pop culture. If she was paying attention in film class, then I know she was listening during our music discussions. Rock—you—like—a hurricane ? Nope. We’re halfway there ? Okay, maybe try it without the apostrophe. Damn, should have known that was crap. Movies then. 42 ? Life, the universe . No… Klaatu —this is bullshit! What the hell was she on about? I swear, that girl can never keep things simple. Can’t just invite a guy over to hang out with you, gotta run him through a bunch of games and call him—”

I cut myself off as a thought bobbed on the surface of my liquefied grey matter. There it was. I keyed a five-letter word into the dialog and was rewarded with sweet victory. The channel unlocked, transporting me into a white room where Liberty sat waiting, legs crossed in a leather arm chair, looking both smug and prim, fingers steepled before her nose. It was her best skill, appearing tough but coldly confident—composed like an evil genius. I half expected her to state in a voice much like her father’s, “This is the construct”, while extending an arm in invitation.

“Ah ha!” She fumbled with her knees while trying to smooth out her virtual clothes, a distressed green t-shirt and pair of fitted jeans strategically ripped down the front. “I see you figured it out.”

I scowled at her. “The password? Mmhm. Come on, Davie ? Seriously? You made the password Davie? You know damn well I hate that nickname. Makes me sound like a girl.”

“Well you know what?” She raised a finger and pointed at me. “I hate Lib, so take that, butt face.”

“Butt face?” I crossed my arms. “Whoa. What are we, teenagers again?”

She buried her face in the side of the chair, but I could see her suppressed chuckles by the jerking of her shoulders. “Feels like it sometimes.”

I used a simple thought to summon a chair I once saw in a magazine. It was made of bright green microfiber, not stiff brown leather like hers. I collapsed into it, feeling every thread as if it were real. I would have to get me one of these when we made it back home, or something equally as comfy.

“So, if we’re teenagers again, then your memory has us getting shot at all the time? I don’t ever recall that.”

“It was every other Tuesday.”

“Uhuh. And were we crammed in tubes, forced to suck on recycled air?”

“I believe that was Saturdays.”

“Well, then were we constantly under threat of decompression and a quick, painful death?”

“Every second of every day. And don’t forget dust storms.”

I rubbed my chin and peered at the endless white washed vista filling every nanometer of false reality around us. “Well then, maybe it is about the same. I certainly get in trouble near as much as when we were teenagers, however, there’s less drinking now. Far less.”

She rolled her eyes. “Man, don’t I know it. Sucks to be in a dry county without a ride.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

“Want some more interesting surroundings than this white washed decor?”

I tipped my head back over the arm of the chair, blood rushing into my forehead. “What did you have in mind?”

“Presto changeo!” She clapped twice, hurling us into a rolling meadow of brilliant wildflowers nestled beside a blue lake at the foot of mammoth snowcapped mountains. I sucked in a breath and tumbled out of the chair, cool grass cushioning my fall.

“You okay?” she asked, half laughing.

My forehead tingled. The sky above reached out for ages, clear as azure crystal and sobering in its awesome scale. After being in such a confined space for so long, the expanse was dizzying. “Hey, where are we? I know Earth, but—”

“Some place in the Swiss Alps, like a scene from that movie, what was it called? The Sound of Music?  Bunch of whitewashed Eastern European nonsense. Glad it’s not like that out here.” She shivered as if a swift breeze had given her a chill. “Hot damn, it feels nice to change the world—using your words.”

“Hot damn indeed. But, by the way, you’re thinking of Austria. The Sound of Music  took place in Austria. Maybe you didn’t pay as much attention in class as I thought.”

“Whatever.” She shook her head.

“You know, I have to say,” I raised a finger, “Mars is beautiful and all, breathtaking even, but this, I mean… Why aren’t we back in the cradle with the rest of mankind? We’re hurtling towards a near dead, red rock in a silver bullet. Terraforming is a long way off, a hundred years at least if they can solve the dynamo issue, and this place, well, it looks far more agreeable.”

She came over, extending a hand to help me on my feet. When I was standing once again she didn’t let go. “We spent our time looking up and out, dreaming of what infinity holds, but once we found ourselves there, among the stars, so many of us looked wistfully back, wishing to set our feet upon a tiny globe of blue and green suspended among the oceans of black. ” Her fingers tightened around mine.

“That was beautiful.”

She smiled. “Look, Mars is our home, it always will be. Let’s go to Elysium Planitia, wouldn’t that be more fitting?”

“No, that’s okay. Let’s stay here. I like it. Besides, it’s nice to get a respite from red dirt and dust. And you know what else? These things, these VR simulations, they usually make me nauseous. I think I’m alright for once. I’m not sure why, but let’s not rock the boat.”

“Suit yourself.” She let go of my hand and sighed, turning to face the distant silver spires of a mega city shooting out of untouched mountains. That was where Mars’s exports went, and for what purpose; to build bigger, better cities without destroying the natural resources of Earth in the process. They could go on like this for a while yet, but one day they would have to stop. The foreign mass of extra-planetary materials would slow the rotation of Earth and change too much.

I felt empty with the absence of her hand, and so I filled the void with words. “How are we not being watched? Cap can find us, right? All he has to do is check and see where the crew are logged in.”

“But lo!” Liberty wagged a finger an inch from my nose. “Griffin showed me a way to fool the system into thinking we’re inside separate simulations. Something about running two instances while projecting one of us, you in this case, into the other, keeps the system from seeing them linked. She’s about the smartest person I’ve ever met when it comes to programing in Sage computer language. All I can do is fumble around in the dark.”

My mouth fell open. “Hot damn, that’s smart. I’ve never done well with Sage. I can read a little of it, but not write much. You start getting into code compilers for chemical computing assembly language and it’s like…” I ran an open palm over my head.

“Riiggghht,” Liberty drew out the word five times its normal length. “You definitely know more than me, well, about that at least. Too bad not much else. So thick headed.”

“Is that so?” I bowed up my chest. “Well, lookie here, milk dud, I’ll lay some knowledge on you for real!”

She took off down the hill, heels kicking up grass. “Whatever, Davie, I’m soooo scared. But you have to catch me first!”

I shot off after her, field flowing beneath my feet. Just as I was about to close the gap, she shoved me back onto the ground and took off double time.

She was faster than she looked. Before my butt had hardly hit the turf I was after her. “You know what? All I do is run in my free time. I’m fast as lightening, Liberty!”

“You know what else? This shit isn’t real!” She threw up her hands, dashing for a cluster of evergreen trees.

“Crap,” I growled, and ordered my legs to pump faster. She was right. What did my physical body matter in this virtual space?

As my heart rate increased, my stomach began to swirl. I forced down the sensation and pushed ahead. Liberty might have been faster per step, but she lacked my crazy long stride. I flew forward, quick as a bird, and caught her around the middle.

“Gotcha, rabbit!” I said, goosing her in the side.

“David! Damn you!” She was laughing so hard she snorted. “That’s not fair, ganging up on someone smaller than you.”

“Smaller? Are you kidding me? Your personality more than makes up for the difference in size.”

The two of us tangled and fell over, rolling down the hill end over end. If I could have stopped laughing for an instant it might have hurt when I hit the ground. As it was, I didn’t hardly feel a thing. The hill became steeper as it went, spurring us on all the more.

“Shit! David!” Liberty yelled, sounding panicked.

“We… are…” I shouted in reply, the words only audible when facing the sky, “almost… at… the… bottom.”

The ground leveled off beside the lake. We skidded to a halt in the grass. Liberty came to rest beside me, lying flat on her back, panting as if she’d run a marathon. Sprigs of green grass were sticking out of her hair at a variety of angles like confetti.

“Holy shit,” she hissed.

“Holy shit is right.” I could only smile. “Hot damn, that was fun!” I rolled over and met her eyes, crawling across the grass to take her face gently in my palms. Caught in a pregnant, uncertain moment, she paused and calculated her next move.

She leaned in and our lips met, forming a soft, wonderful kiss. Our tongues exchanged affections as our bodies gravitated closer, putting us into a press of tangled limbs. Liberty found her way on top of me, sweet lips trailing down my neck and upper chest. She began unzipping my jumpsuit and lowered her hands, but I stopped her, drawing her chin back up. I looked into her eyes and felt so very small, my soul crushed by a beautiful, crystalline moment.

A war took place in her expression, those massive, dark eyes morphing between modes of soft kindness, hard steel, and terrified uncertainty. I leaned in for a kiss, hoping to wash away her fears, but she scooted back on her hands and put a tiny distance between us that was as wide as the sea.

“You asked me once why we fought the Axis,” she said, averting her eyes.

I shook my head in confusion. I wanted to keep up the momentum, but knew this was important. I needed the truth from her as much as she needed to give it. It was a crushing weight of knowledge resting upon her heart. I would just have to hope she wouldn’t now act as if nothing had happened. Wild emotions I thought I’d left far behind filled my mind and body, scaring the hell out of me. What if she turned away from me again? What would I do?

“I did ask,” I conceded.

“Then I’d like to tell you a story.” She waved an arm across the sky in a wide arc. “A story of ten children.”

A series of birds chirped in the distance. A bug crawled up my leg. I flicked it off out of reflex. This was all so surreal, so convincing. I raised an eyebrow. “A true story?”

“In its way.” She tightly closed her eyes and began to speak, using that far off voice again. “There once were ten wondrous children with one hundred golden coins. These ten children are the world, and their hundred coins all the money in it. There is one who is the Sovereign, two who are Contented, five who are Bottoms, and three who are Gazers. They live in one place together, but despite their freedoms, are kept separate by barriers they cannot see or touch.

“The Sovereign is the richest, and wishes to remain that way. He is a natural leader, a child who, in his private world, can get things done because he was born of privilege and will always be of privilege. He holds all the power on the playground as he believes he deserves, and thinks of generations down the line, ensuring his grandchildren’s grandchildren will have what he has, secure and unmoving. He holds most of the coins that the children use in trade for sweets and bread and juice, eighty of one hundred.

“Then there are the two Contented. They get on well enough, but are not so far removed they’re blind to their lessers’ struggles. They want to do what is right, if given the chance, they truly do, but won’t risk much. They hold ten coins altogether, five a piece, and wish very much for it to stay that way.

“Five of the children, the Bottoms, are hungry and so they take what scraps they can. They’re sent to complete the errands of their betters, to do the tasks those refuse in exchange for biscuits and saccharine tablets while others consume steak and Coca-Cola. They believe that this is their lot in life. That they will never rise above. When need be, they steal and cheat out of reflex and survival. They do not think of tomorrow like the Sovereign and Contenteds, sometimes not even to the end of the day. Their betters fault them for not managing their vast wealth properly. They hold three coins between them, not even one to each, yet are held in contempt for their abject poverty.

“Then there are the three Gazers. They have been told since birth they would do great things, be great things, but are just on the edge of making it happen. As their opportunities expand, the Sovereign arrives and demands more. Whenever they gain an inch, life takes three quarters. They see the Bottoms, and wish to help, but can’t. They resent the Contenteds for being comfortable, and despise the Sovereign, for he holds all the power and none of the compassion. And so they too struggle, but against themselves. They fight and backbite, all for an uneven split of seven coins.”

Liberty scooted up beside me, putting her head on my shoulder while resting her hands on bent knees. I leaned close and remained silent, feeling her body rise and fall as she breathed.

“Then one day, one strange day, as the Gazers could no longer bear the Sovereign, the Contenteds have a change of heart. They see the world around them shifting and decide to work together, to amass the power of the Bottoms and topple the Sovereign. They take what the Sovereign has stolen through corporate exploitation veiled as employment. All the wealth is evenly distributed, and everyone is richer, even the Contenteds. Science and art and culture flourish without common struggles to hold them back. Every one of the children are given what they need to survive and thrive. The Contenteds are put in charge as stewards, not Kings. The children reach for the sky as one, united in their cause to claim the void as their own.

“They spread their wings and fly, set free from the monotony of basic survival. They reach for the rocks floating in the sky. The red rock. The ringed rock. The calico rock. They begin to build and grow at exponential speed, machines they’ve crafted paving the way through automation. And then, amidst their utopia of freedom and fulfillment, one of the Contenteds sees new opportunity. He becomes more ambitious than the rest, putting all of his riches into goods.

“It takes some time, but the Contented positions himself to seize power. He uses his newfound exports as leverage against those on the big blue globe, the cradle of all children. He cuts corners and changes rules, rallying those tired of living the same as everyone else to his cause. He says a man, not a child, should earn what he wishes, have what he wishes if he’s willing to work for it. Not be held back, wasting hard work so that others who’ve contributed less can thrive all the same. But before the former, now fractured, Bottoms or Gazers or toppled Sovereign can catch up and plead their case, the Contented takes control and becomes fatter, richer than anyone ever before. Trouble is, in the void there’s nowhere to go, no choice to escape his power. They are trapped beneath his will.

“His greed multiplies and before the Contented knows it, he’s at war against the other children. He calls himself a man. Once again they’re fighting over the same coins, though now there are two hundred instead of one hundred. The original Bottoms and Gazers might now be twice as rich, but have less than a fraction of the Contented, the new Sovereign.”

She turned to face me, expectant.

“What do you think was better?” I asked, not sure what to take of the lengthy parable. No one had ever told me the truth, plain or otherwise, but part of me always knew what was taught in school had been a lie. Even Enela had known something wasn’t right, and he was among the Bottoms. “Is it better when we’re economic equals, and hard work means nothing? Or, when opportunist can exploit? Stealing from those who know no better and cannot fight for themselves? Was pure socialism our fall, or some form of capitalism?”

Liberty laughed. “If it were only that simple. Our fall was brought about by men of greedy ambitions who had no one’s interests at heart but their own. We have always been afraid to say this aloud and be alienated from our declared parties, but both our systems are flawed. Where there’s life, there will always be those grabbing for power. All these systems do is change the ways in which they’re forced to do so. Is this child an economic autocrat fat on slavery? Or Big Brother guiding our actions to his benefit? Both want the same in the end, an unfair portion of power that will only hold us back. All the money, all the votes, all the property, all the access, all the choices. Because in the end, wealth is about choice, and the men with power hold every fucking one.”

“Well,” I asked, taking her hand, “if you could change the world, what would you do different?”

Her lips curled up at the ends as she gripped my fingers tightly. “I don’t know if I can change the  world; I’m just one person. But I can change my  world.”

She drew me in and kissed me on the lips. My stomach flipped end over end with equal portions of excitement and nausea. Damn, I couldn’t do this inside a simulation; it just didn’t jive with my central nervous system. I ignored the discomfort and focused on the pleasure as long as I could. I knew where this was headed and was overjoyed, but was positive it wouldn’t end well. It would be an awkward disaster. Coitus interruptus by stomachus ejectus.

She pulled back and frowned. “You okay?”

“Damn simulation. How’s this for fair? I don’t get sick from the EMFs when we fire rail guns, but I start getting excited inside this place and it makes me squeamish.”

“Excited, hmm? Nice excuse, Davie. It’s alright if you’re not interested. That’s why you want to get back to Mars, isn’t it? You’ve got another pretty bird to listen to?”

“Not interested?” I spluttered. “No, no, no. This is no excuse, Lib. I’d just rather we be in person. It feels right for us to be in person. Skin to skin. This place we’re in, it—it just isn’t real.”

“I feel the same.” She put her arms around me and squeezed. It sure felt real.

“Damn the rules. It’s bullshit. Why can’t things just be easy?”

“Like they were when we were teenagers?”

“Yeah, when we didn’t have to worry about ranks and class and people killing us. You know, all this adult, ‘grown up’ bullshit. Back then we could be ourselves as much as we wanted to. We could be this!” I mimicked her earlier arm wave.

“That’s what the world is missing.” She kissed me again and it was wonderful. “The freedom to be who we are.”

“Without all the hang-ups and hoops and red tape.”

She laid a palm on my right cheek and raked her fingers through my hair. “Then it’s settled. Let’s do what we can to survive and leave it all behind.”

“You sure?”

“I am.”

I tipped my head. “Alright. Let’s do it.”

It was a wonderful dream, a fantastical fantasy, with a splendid third act and many guest appearances, but it would never come to pass. Our destiny was already written, and we could feel it in our bones.

This mission would be our undoing.

[Log]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

----------------------------------------------

Text LOG #67 with Captain (Goddard’s watch).


03:00

Captain: Goddard?


03:01

Captain: Goddard? Where are you?


03:03

Captain: Damn it, Goddard. Where the hell are you!


03:05

Captain: Goddard, you better pick up now. You hear me?

Goddard: I was sleeping, sir. It’s 3 in the morning. What’s the matter?

Captain: No crewmembers are awake but for Graham and Stone and me. Yet VR simulations are currently running on the information network.

Goddard: Is that so?

Captain: Some place in the Swiss Alps. Two simulations are fixed on a place near Zurich. For some reason I can’t tell who started them even though I’m the super admin.

Goddard: What are you saying?

Captain: The target is working with someone. They’ve got to be. They’re using this method to communicate.

Goddard: I wouldn’t worry about it, sir. Seems a sloppy way to make contact?

Captain: Why’s that, Goddard? Terrorists in the Oil Wars used an MMORPG internet game to communicate tactical information through whispers.

Goddard: No reason, I guess. Just a feeling. It’s probably a glitch. I can have Griffin look at it.

Captain: I’m not sure if I trust your feeling.

Goddard: Sir?

Captain: Nothing. Proceed with caution.

[14]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

ETA: 3 months, 27 days

----------------------------------------------

I tried to be sensible all things considered, I really did, but sensible feelings were hard to come by. Impulse was taking control of my actions and its power was absolute. It made not dwelling on the pain easier. Maybe I couldn’t run from my mistakes forever, but I could shelter in her affections for a time.

I know my father would have understood. He’d always told me to follow my heart and damn the rest.

The day after Liberty and I had shared the simulation we tried meeting in person. After a couple close calls between the Captain and Navigation, we broke it off, deciding it was best not to happen.

Nevertheless, we talked constantly over our private signal, dropping flirtatious promises wherever possible. My body practically buzzed with the prospects our future held. This wasn’t an if  anymore, it was a when . When would all these sardines just go to sleep, one happy, slumbering school? All we needed were a few minutes alone to release the tension. And to be honest, I was getting tired of being reminded of this during staff meetings when my jumpsuit went tight.

“Father’s been focusing on his tablet a lot lately,”  Liberty said as I strolled towards the aft of the ship, passing Lank Hair and Higgins, and trying not to meet their eyes. I was getting tired of the ill gaze Lank Hair had been giving me. It was as if he was saying, you killed César. But I knew it wasn’t true. Right?

“Is that so?” I swallowed. “What’s he doing?” Hopefully not watching my every move. If he watched too closely, Liberty and I were caught for sure. She didn’t know that, of course. I wondered if I should tell her now.

“Can’t tell, he keeps the screen hidden from view. I think he’s talking to someone. Maybe someone at command?” 

My watch vibrated, a message appearing on the face: SECURE NUCLEAR STOREAGE AND LOOK FOR ANY TAMPERING. CHECK RAD LEVELS.

I rolled my eyes. That was part of my weekly routine. I was off to do it anyways. No ill signs had appeared as of yet. I was starting to wonder if all this worry was over nothing. I’d found no real signs of tampering. No evidence of anything seriously damaging, just regular wear and tear. With every day that passed, I was starting to believe less and less that the target had beaten me within an inch of my life. It was probably just some hopped up idiot playing knight in shining armor. Could have even been Devins, that asshole. I watched my back just in case.

“He’s doing it again,”  she said. “Right now.” 

“Where are you?”

“The bridge’s conference room. I’m waiting on Rosaleigh to get back so we can finish our game of gin.” 

“Gin rummy? Too bad.” I leaned against the bulkhead of the power core, trailing a finger over fresh graffiti. Two stick figures were facing one another, pistols drawn, their lines in black marker. “Seriously, you’re playing gin? Hot damn, isn’t that an old person game?” I turned to the right and saw the drawing’s companion. Who’d done this? It was almost exactly the same as the first, but in this frame the cartoon man on the right’s head was exploding, while as the man on the left was leaning to the side attempting to dodge the bullet heading straight for him.

“Perhaps, but there’s been no action lately. Nothing else to do. Though, Davie, I’ve been trying to find some of my own. Heh. Either we’re still hidden or the Axis just gave up.” 

I chuckled. “Maybe we scared ’em off. I wouldn’t be shocked if they could smell our nervous sweat from here. It has to stink to high heaven.”

“Whatever. Think you’ll be able to sneak off to my forest base later? There’s a stretch of soft dirt I wouldn’t mind being laid out on.”  Her voice purred at the end. She sure got off on being bad.

“I’ve got the right tools for the job,” I assured her. “And a bit of practice beside.”

“Practice? Wait, hang on. How much practice we talking about?”  

I twisted to face the port hallway. Griffin was plodding towards me. This was as good a time to flee an uncomfortable question as any. “I gotta go, Lib. I’ll contact you later.”

“Right. Right. Bye, Davie.” 

“Bye.”

“You rang, sir?” Griffin asked, attempting her best to stand at attention without actually saluting. Her hands remained clasped behind her stiff back, a smoldering anger clinging to her expression. I didn’t really care. Protocol seemed unnecessary at this point. Not like I had a hungry ego that required it, unlike our Captain.

“I did.” I pointed over my shoulder, finger trembling like a spider’s web in the breeze. “I need help going through nuclear storage, looking for micro shielding holes and checking guidance computers.”

She sighed and slowly raised her eyes. “All fifty warheads? Sounds like busy work to me. Does the computer not monitor these on its own?”

“It’s sixty warheads, not fifty, and yes, it does. Is there a problem? Do you have somewhere better to be? Would you rather the Captain drop you off at the next convenience store so you can hitch a ride?” My face started to get hot.

“No, it’s fine.” She climbed the eight-foot ladder into storage, tools tapping hollowly against the rungs. Her motions were as limp as a deflated balloon, the weight of César’s death still heavy in her every action. I couldn’t blame her; she had grown very close to him in a short period of time. I desperately needed to apologize for my actions, but every time I tried, the words were unconjurable. It was hard to apologize after being beaten up in retaliation. If César hadn’t died, none of this would have ever happened.

Griffin stuck her head through the hatch. “Actually, it’s not fine.”

“What was that?” My eyes fixed on hers.

“I said, it’s not fine. Why don’t you just do it by yourself?”

My hands tightened into fists and my head felt swimmy. “This is your fucking job. You will do as I order you.” My back broke out in a sweat, the power core feeling unusually warm.

“He did everything you ordered him to and look where he ended up?” Her voice became a snarl. “You know why he was out there? It was because of you. Because he wanted to impress you, show you he could do it on his own. And what happened to him? He died trying to impress you!”

“So you’re saying this is my fault?” I shook my head and grinned sardonically. “Because he was a good crewmember? Because he was will


убрать рекламу


ing to put himself at risk for all of us? Listen up, buttercup, I would have gladly put myself in his place. If I could go back, even now, I would.”

“Then why didn’t you? Huh? Why?”

“Why?” I sucked in a full breath. “What the hell are you talking about? I was locked in that damned hyperbaric chamber. How could I have done shit to help? I ordered César to come back inside but he wouldn’t listen. Not to a single word. That hard headed little shit wouldn’t listen!” Pressure built behind my eyes.

She licked her lips. “Little shit? I see what you think of him now, just another worthless Colombian you can throw out as fodder. You’re just like the rest of those Arsia assholes.”

“You back off, Griffin. You have no idea what you’re talking about, and I don’t want to do or say anything I’ll regret later.”

She wiped her face with the back of her hand and vanished inside the hatch.

“Fuck,” I growled. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” I’ll apologize only when she does.

My forehead thudded against the bulkhead, air wheezing in and out of my lungs. God, why the hell was this room so damn hot and cramped. It was making me dizzy.

I reached for the first rung and paused, a soft, precarious whisper vibrating my eardrums. Everything I did here reminded me of him, even her. He was like the little brother I never had. He’d had his shortcomings, but his heart had been set to a better moral compass than anyone on the ship—especially mine. I had hoped I could save him from himself, but I’d failed. Griffin had failed. We’d all failed. The compressed madness of this place had crushed his heart and driven him to his end.

I looked back at the empty controls of the PV array, and imagined him dancing like an idiot, humming the tune to some shit ass music he snatched off the Sol Net. Then, he’d tell me all about it, explaining how complextro and glitch fab really were different, but instead of finishing he’d get off track and tell an inappropriate joke.

“Don’t tell my sister I ever told that joke. She’ll bring Mámá back from the dead and kill me.”

A shiver ran down my spine, forcing me to swallow. I heard the voice again. I let go of the ladder and slowly turned. I checked the port hallway, searching for its source, then the starboard side. No one was nearby. I removed the forgotten earpiece and stowed it in my pocket. Was a similar signal bleeding in on its private channel? Is that what I’d heard?

“David?” the voice queried, merely a whisper on the edge of my perception. I walked from one end of the section to the other, peering around transformers and AC inverters, controls for the PV arrays, breaker panels and bundles of high voltage conduits. All was quiet but for the vibrating hum of off-phase wires as they conducted electrical currents about the ship.

“Sir? You coming?” Griffin asked, head poked through the hatch above me. Her brows were still furrowed but she didn’t seem quite as angry.

I licked my dry lips and peered down the hall one last time. I swore it was narrower. “Yeah, I’m coming,” I responded with an edge.

I wasn’t looking forward to being in a confined space with someone who hated my guts. Though nuclear storage was no less spacious than the maintenance core, at least in the core I knew open rooms were just outside its relatively thin walls. Storage was a different story. In there one is cocooned by a radioactive apocalypse in wait. Each one of these fusion warheads had the Axis’s name on it, and it was only a matter of time or opportunity before they would see their suicide mission fulfilled. It was easily my least favorite place. It reminded, all too well, of the crushing moral weight of genocide I might be paid to deliver. If thousands were to die at the Brethren’s hands, I would be as complicit as the Captain, just like I was with the Claymore .

God, let that day never come.

Halfway up the ladder the ship went red as a klaxon sounded. Griffin and I met eyes. With each ululating cry of the alarms, Griffin’s grew. I wanted to reach for the earpiece out of reflex, but held back the urge. I couldn’t let anyone know I’d been talking to Liberty. Nevertheless, I needed to know something of our status.

“I’ll be right back. Stay here.”

I took off for the bridge, though not at a dead run as I would have liked. That would draw too much attention. The hallway appeared to bend the farther I went. The earpiece vibrated in my pocket over and over, but I couldn’t put it on, not here. Dour Face was watching my every move, then there was Lank Hair talking to Doc and Higgins a little farther down. I slipped inside Crew 2 and tried again, but as soon as my fingers wrapped around it, Kelly appeared, a startled look on his face. The earpiece remained where it was. He ran a hand through his hair and gave me an uneasy smile. The old style tablet in his right hand flashed a torrent of numeric values. He removed a small flash drive shoved in its base and stowed it in a jumpsuit pocket.

The alarms screamed on, swelling louder with each wail. I swallowed my heart and felt unsteady. The bunks in our quarters were sliding closer together, leaving only enough space for a set of legs to pass between.

“They finally found us,” Kelly wheezed. “God help us.” I sidled back into the hall without a response.

Two more steps and the nurse was staring at me, an uncapped hypodermic needle in her right hand. I edged back into Crew 2, shut the hatch and dashed for the opposite hall. The air was thin. The hatches were small like port holes not doors.

Griffin hadn’t followed my instructions and was coming up behind me, deepening my concerns of having no real authority on this ship. The red lights filled our slender hallway with the many shades of war, flashing to an eye searing brightness before receding and bursting again in waves. The Reaper was near, the scales shifting. Something wasn’t right.

“David? What are you doing? Damn it! What are you doing?” I spun to see Griffin staring at me from two feet away.

“What do you mean?” I demanded, my voice harsh like a steel file drug over raw flesh. “What am I doing? Huh? What am I doing? My damned job, that’s what!”

She flinched at every word, hands raised to protect her face. “I—I—didn’t say anything, sir. I’ve been silent.”

I took a step back and went cold. It hadn’t been her voice. Not at all.

“Why would you? It’s like Harrison’s boy all over again.” The voice. But from where? My head was killing me.

I started searching the hall, running up and down its length inspecting the bulkhead beside and beneath me, sticking my head in sections to see surprised crewmembers gaping back. It wasn’t Kelly. It wasn’t Doc. It wasn’t the nurse or Lank Hair or Dour Face or Higgins. I knew the voice. I knew it well. But where the hell was he? How the hell had he gotten on board the Vindicator ? He’d wanted to take me away once, but not on this ship. I’d left him alone. Alone. Was he dead? Had he come to haunt me?

“Sir?” Griffin asked, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Are you alright? What’s wrong? Is the ship okay?”

I shrugged her off and squeezed between the monoplace hyperbaric chambers of Med 1, lowering the maintenance core’s ladder to take a look inside the spine. As I climbed the rungs I felt the earpiece vibrate more intensely against my chest. The spine of our ship was bathed in red like bone marrow, but was empty. No one was hiding in here but ghosts. There was another doodle in black marker, this one of a cross aloft a hillside, drawn beside the hatch on one of the water recyclers.

I descended the ladder and the alarms shut off. My heart was exploding in my chest, every sore muscle drumming an uncomfortable tattoo.

“Are you alright, Master Engineer?” the Nurse asked, needle still in hand. She raised it ever so slightly and clear fluid shot out the end.

I backed into the hall, hands up, nodding absently. “I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”

But it wasn’t. I had to get the fuck out of there.

Once free I bolted down the narrow passage, seeking salvation in the arboretum, pushing aside anyone who got in my way. The walls were too close, and growing closer by the second. They were now only as wide as my shoulders and tapering down to a point. I was choking on the miasma of musty sweat and tangy bodily odors that filled the passage like a nerve gas. There was no escaping it. I was trapped in here, forced to run in circles on a hellish exercise wheel with no end.

I would never again see an expanse of sky, never again breathe sweet freedom or have a moment to myself, even in my own head. I was a prisoner, a convict, locked up with two pleading dead men, their fingers raised in constant accusation for my crimes. My soul was no longer mine, but had been left adrift in the void with no chance of rescue. I was forever lost to hope. Damned beyond salvation.

My chest pocket vibrated ever harder, as if Liberty could sense my growing urgency. I burst into the arboretum and fled for the hidden spot among the trees. I threw myself on the ground, pounding my forehead on the dirt. My body convulsed. My lips trembled. I put an ear to the ground and let it all go, cool soil turning damp. Images of César flashed in my mind. I couldn’t save him. I had needed to save a life for the one I’d taken, but I couldn’t save his. I would never set things right.

My fingers closed into tight fists, muscles aching under the strain. Blood oozed between knuckles and the dark crannies beside joints, staining my jumpsuit with great blots of crimson.

“Son, keep telling yourself you did what you had to,” the voice said, but I didn’t look up. “You know you wanted to see that asshole die for what he did. You enjoyed it. And when you did it, you knew it might kill him. No one can survive that, but you did it anyways, that’s right, you did it. Come on, David, you’re not afraid of a little blood. It doesn’t make you an evil person, you did what you had to in order to survive. We all did. We all do.”

“Shut up!” I shouted. “Shut the fuck up!” The soil was dark and sticky, dim light shimmering across its wet surface. “I never wanted to, he forced me. He forced me!” I slammed my fists against the puddle of blackened blood again and again and again, praying it would vanish.

“He forced you,” the voice agreed.

Something warm folded around me. I scrambled back out of reflex, slapping at the air with eyes squeezed shut. I was so bad off that invisible things were touching me. I dared for an instant to let my glassy vision return and saw a concerned Liberty through the murk. She threw her arms around me, drawing me in.

“I killed him,” I whispered, pleading for forgiveness. “I didn’t mean to.”

“No you didn’t. César made his own choices.”

The gasket on my right ring finger suddenly felt heavy as a neutron star. “No, I killed him, Harrison’s thug.”

Liberty’s soothing hands paused. “What, David? What are you talking about?”

Words I never dared speak outside of family spewed out of me, the emergency pressure valve of my psyche having reached its critical limit. “They beat me half to death after I crashed the skimmer and left me naked in the streets. That’s why we never met up the week after. But it wasn’t the end of it, they would find me once every few days and take my rations, boots, anything they could to make me suffer. This burn on my chest was from where they put out their cigars while pouring liquor down my throat.” I paused, fingers rubbing across a divot in my right thigh. “Once, they held me down and cut a lump from my thigh with a filet knife, only to box it up and mail it back to me on a bed of flowers. I was terrified, but then one day, coming back from helping dad repair a PV array I—on the path home I ran into Harrison’s lead thug, Brice.

“We were outside the city wearing environmental suits in a bad dust storm. Brice threatened me, threatened me and mom and dad if I didn’t do what he asked. And I was tired of it. I couldn’t take any more abuse. I was being tortured for a mistake I made by living life to the fullest. But I knew in my bones he was never going to stop. Brice would never let up, unless I replaced that damned skimmer or died trying. Shit, maybe not even then. He was a sadistic son of a bitch.

“I swung my toolbox as hard as I could, cracking him in the visor. He rolled off the cliff beside us, hitting a sharp rock face first twenty feet down. I didn’t try to help as he flailed about, didn’t try to save him as he reached for my aid. I just ran, ran as fast as I could until I wasn’t afraid anymore. Trouble was, he followed me all the way. In here.” I tapped my right temple.

“Then, César came along and I thought maybe, just maybe I could save him from himself. Teach him skills and a better way to live. Maybe I could tip the scales, make things even again.” I glanced down at my hands and found them clean. The blood hadn’t been real. I was losing my shit double fast.

Liberty squeezed me so hard I almost couldn’t breathe, but said nothing. It was more than enough. The way she cradled my head and kissed it said she understood everything. Still, I felt a need for forgiveness beyond hers. Could my hands ever really be clean? What if we used this ship to destroy entire colonies as the Axis intended to do? How could that ever be set right? How could mutually assured destruction be the only answer to our problem? An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. There has to be a better solution.

Red lights bathed the gently swaying leaves and palm branches that encircled us. The alarms roared again, dull as they passed through the flora’s dense organic mass.

“Shit,” Liberty spat, and took off, leaving me alone. “Sorry, David.”

“Go. Do what you have to.” I fought to stand upright, my hands and knees shaking as if afflicted by crashing blood sugar. I had to remind myself to keep it together. Keep it together. This too shall pass.

“She can’t save you,” the voice told me. “You know it’s true, son. You know it’s true. She’s only human. God will decide.”

I wiped my eyes clean, stumbling out through the fog of our red alert in search of Griffin. She was sitting in the hall beside Officer 1, clasping her knees and rocking gently. Strands of her blonde pixie hair were swept to the side, revealing blotchy pink and white skin.

“Come on,” I said, hardly audible over the howls of alarms. “We have work to do.” I couldn’t let a thing like a panic attack stop me, mine or hers.

She glared up at me, shocked. “During an alert? I don’t know, Goddard, I can’t do this. I can’t do this anymore. It’s too much. I just want to go home. I should have never signed up.”

“Alert? What alert?” I looked up and down the hall with arms wide, hands outstretched. “It’s just bright red lights and loud noises. We have work to do.” I told her this for as much my benefit as hers. I wasn’t the only one who wanted to go home, and we were well on our way. “Cap’ll want to fire back immediately.” I extended a hand and she firmly took hold, rising to her feet.

The alarms ceased and Griffin gasped. “How do you know?” I could see the fear of another alert looming just behind her. She was composed at present, but brittle as chalk.

I raised a finger and pointed to the wall. It immediately shifted from white to yellow as if on cue, following my careful mental instructions.

“Firing solution eminent,”  the intercom blared. “Crew, standby.” 

“We’ll be firing more than once,” I sighed. “This might be a long day.” My right hand was still trembling, the gasket ring a blur of motion. I stuffed it in my pocket and made a ball of the jumpsuit’s fabric. A warm breath touched the back of my neck. I pivoted my head to see. Nothing. It was nothing.

We walked past Med 1 where Harold Devins and Jack Lake, his second, were tying up in the hall. Griffin and I eased around their fist fight, narrowly escaping an errant punch or three. Harold’s head was thrown against the bulkhead with a bang, but it only made him madder. He threw himself at Lake with a flurry of fists, one landing in the shoulder, another in the breast. Griffin drew up her arms in defense.

Doc shot out the Med 1 hatch screaming, “That’s enough! No fighting on board.”

Lake decided to shift his attention and took a swing at Doc. Doc dipped out of the way and raised his hands like a boxer. He blocked the punch and countered with a solid right hook. It caught Lake square on the jaw, sending him stumbling back into the bulkhead, grasping for purchase. He slid onto the floor in a daze, then coughed blood into his hand. His teeth must have clamped down when Doc’s knuckles landed. Devins edged away, his anger having evaporated, revealing nothing more than desperate fear and shame.

Dour Face approached from the other side, stun stick in hand sweeping side to side. “Don’t make me use it, hot heads. I’m citing both of you for this infraction. Good work, Doc.”

He nodded and popped his knuckles. “Two time Arsia heavyweight Champ. Undefeated.”

Dour Face grinned. “No shit.” And he swung his stun stick, catching Lake, who was attempting to stand and fight, on the arm.

Griffin was fixed on the spectacle. “I’ve never. It’s just. What’s wrong with everyone?”

“Eyes ahead,” I whispered, and picked up the pace. “Their job, our job.”

“Right.” She followed reluctantly.

We entered weapons storage and control and went straight to work. This was the single most cramped section of the ship, and that was saying a lot. It took a host of equipment to fire our two hundred megawatt rail gun, and what little space we did have, was home to two closet size cells we used as our brig.

“Bridge, you there?” I muttered into my wrist.

“Copy, Goddard,”  XO replied.

“Standby for firing clearance.”

“Standing by.” 

“Griffin, checklist.”

She nodded and went to a brightly lit control panel. “Engaging counter rotation, locking armature. Releasing fire control to the bridge.” A loud click echoed throughout the section as a series of motors engaged, vibrations felt throughout the ship’s structure.

I inspected the status display of our two-stage nuclear batteries. They glowed from their positions in the halo surrounding our Coke can’s chest. Most of the icons were solid, their green lines reaching to the top. The ones already spent were displayed in red. I checked for any abnormalities, batteries that showed low wattage or improper amperage. This had to be done each and every time to ensure a damaged capacitor wouldn’t reduce us to dust when we fired.

We were a go.

“Directing battery’s power into the main rail conduit,” I said, choosing the next one in line. “Redirected. Running polarity test.”

Griffin called back, “Rail one, negative. Rail two, positive. Test cycle complete. Good to go.”

“Bridge, you’re safe to begin firing sequence.”

“Copy, Goddard. Lieutenant Fryatt, load projectile onto magnetic field.”  

Griffin leaned her forehead against the bulkhead, worry growing in her expression. “César and I did this so many times.” She paused, uneasy chuckles escaping her chest. “He said it made him feel like a mad scientist. Something about this stuffy section transported him into a fantasy of Nikola Tesla’s lab. I told him I sure hoped it wasn’t like that place. We’d have electricity arcing dangerously all around the room. He’d laugh at me. I’d laugh at him. He’d make some off color comment about how I’d looked good exercising, or how he wanted to plug his RJ-90 cable in my female slot. Told me it had better bandwidth than the other cables  aboard. What an idiot.”

She sighed. “We even had costumes picked out for the Valles Rojo Summer Festival…” Her face fell to her feet.

Liberty’s voice boomed over the intercom. “Final proximity sweep clear. Firing in five, four, three…”  The section began to crackle as the battery’s energy was released in an intense burst. The lights of the ship dimmed for an instant, then went back to full.

“No outage,” Griffin said in surprise.

“No outage.”

The yellow lights turned off and came back on.

“Goddard,”  my watch crackled. “Standby for repeat fire.” 

“Affirmative.”

Griffin slumped onto the floor, head in her hands. “He was a genuine guy.”

I put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “He was.” The moment to apologize had come. “Jane.”

“Yes, sir?”

“I—”

My damned watch screamed, “Goddard, we have a firing solution.”  

I let out an exasperated breath, threw a few switches and glanced over the battery display. “All set, sir,” I reported back a bit more tersely than I had intended.

The rails powered up and fired, plunging us into darkness. The whines of generators and cooling fans spun down, making our military-grade sensory deprivation experience complete. Outage.

A gentle whisper came from the dark. I shook my head and focused on the task at hand.

“David?” Griffin asked, sounding a bit queasy.

“Come on. Let’s get power back up and running.”

I was holding my breath.

As my eyes adjusted to the dark, a soft glow emanated from the hallway. The power core, just on the other side of the cargo bay, was painted with phosphorescent green lines. We headed for the dim light like moths, careful as we stumbled through the hushed twilight. I could just make out the rumors of cargo crates and gas canisters walling our path.

“One of us should have been in there waiting,” I said, chiding myself. Halfway through the cargo bay a crate fell over with a bang, sending me out of my skin.

“You okay?”

“I’m fine. Just stupid, so stupid.” It was nothing, right? But the voice in my head said something different. We were being followed. The target had a weapon. We would have to fight.

We entered the power core and flipped our systems back on one at a time, utilizing mechanical breakers unaffected by EMFs. The ship rebooted and came back to life, airflow and light and white noise returning in a gentle whoosh of pleasing, sensory awareness. There was no spy behind us. Just paranoia. We were safe for now.

Griffin sighed, then wiped the front of her jumpsuit with open palms, clearing it of chunky puke.

“You alright?” I asked.

She nodded and produced a moistened towelette to clean up the rest.

My watch vibrated. IT’S HAPPENING AGAIN. OUR TELEMETRY DATA IS BEING BROADCAST UPON STARTUP. URGENT. TAKE CARE OF IT NOW.

I checked the communications log and two questions came to mind.

One: How had the Captain known this was happening?

And two: Why was there no record of the event?

A minute later the ship again flashed red, alarms blaring.

I dug into my pocket and removed Liberty’s earpiece. “Hit probability?”

She whispered back, “Sixty percent.” 

“Keep me posted.”

Our luck was running thin.

Griffin and I returned to weapons control, preparing for the ship to fire again. The red alert ended, only to be taken up seconds later.

“Eighty percent,”  Liberty reported. “Forty. Thirty…” 

Chance was getting higher on the onset. Sixty, then eighty. How were they calculating our location? Was it just dumb luck? Or were we indeed broadcasting important navigational data?

I checked the communications log again. No sign of forward transmission. They had to be craftily using old data. Any information beamed ahead would take nearly an hour to reach the Razor  and be made use of.

I pointed. “Griffin, Power Core.” She rushed off, hand raised to her mouth. I hated it for her.

The red alert ended, our threat narrowly evaded. A bead of sweat stung at my right eye. Yellow lights came on.

“Firing,” X O called over the intercom.

The weapon’s room fizzled and the power went out. There was a ten percent chance of this happening, statistically, yet it had happened twice in a row. Griffin was fast with restoring power.

My watch vibrated again: ANOTHER SIGNAL. THE COMPUTER CORE. CHECK THE COMPUTER CORE. NOW!

I furiously searched the communications log once again and found nothing. How was the Captain catching this anomaly and I couldn’t? Was he pre-cognitive? Unlikely.

I returned to the power core, cursing. Why hadn’t they put these two sections together?

An idea struck me. “Griffin, you know Sage language pretty well, right?”

Poor kid was wiping her mouth off with a fresh towelette. “Not as well as Kelly, but sure, I’ve done my fair share of coding in Sage.”

“Tell me, is it possible that when the ship’s data is being transferred onto a disc image and backed up to chemical storage, that a slightly different copy can be sent back when it returns? Can the image be tampered with somehow?”

“I don’t understand what you’re asking.”

I tried again to formulate my idea, talking it out with my hands as if that would help. “Can instructions be kept on the chemical hard drives so that when the ship resets, lines of code will be executed and immediately deleted, along with the cache, so no one would know that they ever existed?”

Her brows crinkled. “I suppose. But why? It would be really hard to do, being that those drives are basically fixed in read only. Let’s see, maybe you could add something into the chemical drive’s BIOS. Make it part of the self-check system. It runs a whole series of commands on startup to ensure, say, life support isn’t killing us, habitat keeps rotating, communications are calibrated, telemetry is linking up and we’re booting properly. Basic settings.”

“That’s it.” I grabbed her by the shoulders and grinned. “That’s it! The BIOS. If anyone comes looking for me make something up. There’s something important I have to do.” I lowered the maintenance core’s ladder and began climbing. The spine of the ship flashed red, alarms echoing. Between the ocular flares I swore I saw something blurry and white move about fifty feet ahead. I narrowed my eyes to check again. The way was clear.

“Sir, where are you going?”

“Don’t tell anyone.”

“I can’t do this alone!”

“Yes, you can.”

“But…”

“Look, Griffin, I’m sorry. I should have apologized sooner, but I’m sorry. I was way out of line with César.”

She squeezed her eyes shut. “No, you weren’t. It all makes sense in a way. It’s okay. I’m sorry too.”

“Do you know who retaliated against me?”

Her lips compressed into a line as she thought about it. “I, well, this isn’t really a good time. I don’t want to implicate anyone, because I’m not totally sure. I have a guess, but I’m scared to say.”

That would just have to wait for later. “Look, you can do this on your own, I have faith in you. César is watching over us.”

“Okay.” She wrapped her arms around her belly and nodded. “Go. Do what you have to do.”

“Don’t tell anyone, but I have to do something to save the ship.” I entered the maintenance core and closed the hatch.

I might not have been able to save César, but I could damn well save the rest of us. The target might’ve been one step ahead, but I was closing in fast. My blood began to pulse with the promise of revenge. It felt good, like a filthy, bathtub brew made of drain cleaner and hate I knew better than to inject.

“You’re mine, you little bastard, all mine.”

[15]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

----------------------------------------------

Like a bullet roaring down the barrel of a rifle, I shot myself through the maintenance core while unexpectedly plunged into darkness. Three for three. Something wasn’t right. In my mind’s eye I could see Griffin running in the dark between sections, desperate to restore power while forcing away her acute nausea. From the sour smell in the air I realized some of her puke had found its way onto my jumpsuit.

Robbed of all sight, the top of my head cracked against the bulkhead. I crumpled into a ball of weightless meat and waited, caroming off the rotating walls heading God knows where. It was all I could do. I had a rare moment to think, and added an additional inquiry to the list of things I needed to check once inside the computer’s core.

Power came back on, lights flickering like an ill toddler waking up from a hard nap. I’d drifted quite a ways in the wrong direction, ending up nearly two sections down. I took hold of a handle and threw myself in the opposite direction.

Moments later I floated up beside a series of black and grey boxes studded with clear tubing and colored bulbs—chemical storage. To prevent total data loss during power overloads the result of firing our rail guns, these boxes were where everything was backed up until restart. EMFs weren’t kind to old style magnetic, or even solid state storage systems, but chemical hard disks, while expensive and limited in lifespan, were wholly unaffected by the intense electromagnetic fields produced when firing our weapons.

My watch vibrated. REPORT? IT HAPPENED AGAIN. The Captain’s tone was undeniable.

I wasn’t sure if it was the situation or just me, but his patience had run out.

I inspected the side of the box and found a length of RJ-90 run to one of the bridge’s secondary repor


убрать рекламу


t stations. That answered one question. The Captain was watching a live feed on every startup, probably from his personal terminal, though, he could only guess at what he saw displayed, being that the feed would show thousands of lines of code per second.

I unclipped my tablet and connected it to chemical storage. I started reviewing the code line by line, not the big data blocks the Sol Net sent over, but merely startup and registry. I could read Sage language, but wasn’t proficient enough to write new code, only halfway edit what was already made. Everything was clear so far. I checked the BIOS as Griffin had suggested, the basic input output system used to direct our main computer during startup. It didn’t take long to locate what I was looking for; too bad it wasn’t in Sage. This was an assembly code, bane of all programmers, professional or not. I would have only been guessing if any of this had posed a danger, but our target was so damn stupid he’d led me right to it.

Whoever had coded this must not have expected anyone to find it, and had left commenting tags to the right of several lines, similar to remarks, rem:, as they were called in Sage. These were commonly used by programmers as not to lose track of what a specific function in a highly advanced system was intended to do. Not smart for keeping things hidden. I found several tags ‘;start false com check’ and ‘;add to disk image’ and ‘;xmit location’. I removed the code, first copying a set to my tablet’s note pad for safe keeping. I found myself hoping I could even trust these comments. Were they a trap? Would removing these bits do something terrible, like shut down life support and suffocate us?

Like a surgeon performing a lobotomy after only reading the wiki article, I carefully highlighted everything from start to ‘;end false com check’ and hit delete. I hoped that was enough. Any lingering, incomplete lines could interfere with normal ship operations, revealing what I’d done before being ready to make my final move. I inspected what was copied to the note pad several times, trying to take a guess as to who might have written this. The style, far as I could tell, was direct, to the point, and efficient.

I messaged our impatient Captain, noticing that another doodle was on the box made in black marker. THREAT REMOVED, I said, and received no reply. I ran a finger over the drawing, cocking my head to the side. It was the face of a bearded old man, a single tear falling from his right eye with its edges morphing into a knife.

XO cut in over the intercom, “Good work, crew. We will not be firing again for some time. Please standby. Take a few moments to collect yourselves.”  

A calm of a sort washed over the ship. It was over for now, but not for me.

I made for the closest hatch and climbed down. A few crewmembers meandered past, slapping me on the back in congratulations for keeping power up and the guns firing. We were still alive, that was something. Griffin was waiting for me, a giddy smile plastered on her face.

“You were right,” she said, looking tough in spite, and possibly because, of the filth spattered down her white jumpsuit.

I patted her on the shoulder and made for Crew 1. I needed time to collect my thoughts, maybe even a nap. My eyes were dry and scratchy. Hot damn, I was exhausted, and could use a stiff drink.

The hallway was busy, crew heading everywhere at once. I made a mental note of each one of their expressions, searching for guilt among the pack. Dour Face and Lank Hair were carrying a man to the brig. Doc took someone’s vitals in the hall. Navigation sauntered past, tossing peanuts down her throat while sipping on a red liquid.

As I crossed the arboretum a scream came from the back of the ship. I whirled around, but it was nothing. Kelly was congratulating Griffin for her stellar work in an almost too friendly manner. A worry rolled around in the back of my head. I was missing something. Something very important. It was just on the tip of my—

Next thing I knew I was slammed against the wall, shoulders throbbing from impact. The air whooshed out of me and my hands trembled as I struggled to suck in breath. My lower flight suit brushed against a set of perfectly pressed black uniform pants, and the region grew interestingly tight. I drew a desperate wheeze and allowed my body to do what it did best.

Liberty forced her lips against mine, hard but sweet, tongue desperately seeking conference in a sloppy, hot mess. I worried for an instant we might get caught, but when I twitched to flee, trying to slide away and regroup, Liberty only pressed the offensive. She was far stronger than I had guessed. Her hips ground into me. Every nerve crackled like lightning, spidering from my arms, through my heart, and down beneath my boxers. After a moment of heavy breathing, a bit of shoving and near painful hair pulling, she disengaged, licking her lips while staring at me like a hungry animal.

She ran fingers through my hair, humming the melody to Love in an Elevator,  by Aerosmith.

I croaked, “But what if—”

“Shut up, Davie,” she growled, and took me by the hand.

I wasn’t so much led into the arboretum as forced, routed down a single path without escape. I can’t say I didn’t like being pushed around a little, but I knew there were cameras nearby, though at the time couldn’t recall just where I’d placed them. If the Captain found out…

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said, and threw me down on my ass in our secret hiding place. “But I want you and I’m gonna have you. You hear me, David? I’m gonna have you.”

I nodded, both excited and slightly terrified.

She ripped my jumpsuit in half, zipper shooting off into the trees, then peeled the clothes from her sweaty skin. She was glistening with the tension of our attack, eyes wide, brain running high on adrenaline. I stopped trying to be in control and let her take over. The heart shaped birthmark on the right of her neck blazed bright red. Only a few nuisances of clothing were in the way. She freed what she was after and a devious grin found its way onto my face.

Her open palms pressed down on my chest, pinning me to the dirt as she positioned her firm legs across my lap, her uniform jacket still on, its tail brushing against my thighs as she ground her hips into me. Time passed in a colorful blur of emotion, a sexual kaleidoscope of pleasure, rage, connection, empathy, fury, pain, and finally, precious peace—elation and release.

Liberty screamed so loud the whole ship must have heard.

She collapsed onto my chest and sighed.

I folded my arms around her, drawing damp, soft flesh against me. Something cool and wet dripped onto my chest. Liberty was trembling. I drew her ever closer, squeezing hard as I could, running fingers slowly through her hair and savoring her musty aroma like an expensive perfume.

A whisper rustled in the leaves. “She can’t save you.”

I glared back at the voice, invisible as it was. This was our moment, our crossroads. What I’d learned in life by now is that it’s not always what you do that you regret, it’s what you don’t.

I was done with regrets.

[16]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

ETA: 3 months, 10 days

----------------------------------------------

Three days later everyone gathered in the hall beside the bridge. The crew stood shoulder to shoulder, the stench of nervous sweat and rising paranoia as thick as conductive gel. No one but Officers were permitted to stand inside, which left the rest of us on the outs, hatches closed in our faces, left with bated silence.

Kelly let out a dry cough and a couple crewmembers gave him space. Griffin glanced at me for an instant and turned away. Doc sidled through the crowd and came up beside me. His elbow dug into my ribs. With everyone jammed so close together, I had to be careful. There might be witnesses here, but then again, it might be hard to identify the culprit if I got shanked in a press of bodies. Shit, as hard as Doc’s elbow jabbed into my side it might as well have been a knife.

I leaned against the bulkhead to find a modicum of personal space, furtively sliding the earpiece on. I could see Liberty through the glass from where I was standing, but couldn’t hear her. This moment wasn’t hers. She was just as much a spectator as the rest of us.

Rosaleigh Head, Navigation, looked nervous, her twitching fingers poised over the controls. The Captain was standing directly over her shoulder watching every move. XO’s pensive gaze was fixed on the main display, an image of our ship and inertial trajectory.

“Time?”  XO’s voice over the earpiece.

“One minute,”  replied the Comm.

Rosaleigh glanced at Liberty, seeking support. Liberty gave a slight nod in reply. I could almost hear the encouraging thought. You can do this. You’ve done this a thousand times. It’s simple.  

Time had come to turn the ship, to begin deceleration for the second half of our journey. Might seem a little strange if you weren’t familiar with the process, but this was just as important to our journey as reaching the apex of our velocity. If we didn’t slow, we’d never stop. If we never stopped, we died.

Dour Face squeezed up beside me, pushing Doc ahead. He crossed his arms. “I don’t know why everyone thinks this is such a big deal. We’re just turning around. How about you, hot shot? Why do you think it’s such a spectacle, eh?”

I shrugged. “Tradition? Superstition? Like giving away a penny for a pocket knife, or throwing salt over your shoulder. We do it ’cause we do it. There’s never any real sense to it.”

“Maybe so.” He removed a small black marker from his pocket and began doodling on the wall. I frowned. It was too early to tell what he would make of it. “Grams did always said her prayers about now. The back hill slide. Should we start?”

My eyebrows crinkled. “Why not? But how about silently.”

He nodded and kept drawing. What started as a circle soon had symbols forming around the outside, working their way in. Part of the Brethren’s insignia began to appear in the seemingly random strokes of his marker, the center rotating around an inverse line. He studiously kept it up, details clean. I squinted my eyes and trailed it’s path. The pen’s thickness was the same as on the other drawings, as was its style.

“Steady, Navigation,”  the Captain said over the earpiece, drawing me back to the spectacle.

Rosaleigh swallowed and began her countdown from thirty. “Three… Two… One… Mark.”  She pressed a couple keys and jets of air hissed from the exterior hull. We watched the main display as our ship slowly rotated, fifteen degrees, twenty degrees, forty five degrees.

Dour Face grunted and stowed his pen. He was dispassionate at the result.

I looked at the image. It was the Brethren’s insignia, though an earlier inception from decades ago, set upon an inverse axis with open palms clasping it in an almost loving embrace. It was two ideas put together by force, yet with a sense of freedom represented at its center. But what was it really? A delusional machination of Dour Face’s subconscious, or a symbol of our hardline enemy, those evil, socialist bastards orbiting Jupiter?

“Hard time the other day,” Dour Face said, leering. He rubbed his deep set eyes and sighed. “So much happened, so many close calls. Could have crammed a hunk of coal up my ass and had an engagement ring after it was done. We’re all getting a little restless and folks have been poking around where they shouldn’t, engaging in questionable activities without regard for military standards.” Several crewmembers pushed against him, but his fixed attention didn’t waver.

Lank Hair snuck up on the other side, making the press of bodies and radiating heat even worse. “Got a few might end up in the brig rather permanently before this is over. Best to get off it and stay in line, proper like, no tampering with the mood of our bonnie ’ol conveyance.”

I swallowed and reached for my tool belt out of reflex. Both of my arms were pinned against my body as the press changed form and drew closer. I was bound in place like a mummy wrapped in limbs.

Lank Hair smiled, cold as ice. “A bit of action went down by the arboretum, lots of bitin’, screamin’, fluids endin’ up all over the place. Might say those involved went a bit feral, been trapped in a cage too long to keep track of what’s expected. I think they might need some tea and a plate of biscuits, a dash of VR to get away for a while. Instead, they opted for something, eh, a little less traditional, or perhaps more so in fact. Something not exactly in the family. Something God would not approve of. Understand?”

The crush of crew squeezed tighter and tighter.

“Hey! Give me some space, alright?” a woman shouted.

“If you weren’t so damn fat I wouldn’t need the space!”

“At least I eat normal food. Your sweat smells like a rotting onion!”

“Still smells better than those ape ropes you got hanging from your jumpsuit. It’s the 2070’s, not the 1960’s, you damn hippy. Shave your fucking pits, woman.”

Kelly spoke up, “Calm down, people, calm down. It’s just a little snug up here, that’s all.”

“We’re all feeling trapped,” Dour Face said, pushing against the crowd. “No sense in squeezing us up more.”

Lank Hair leaned into me, his breath hot on my left ear. “You wouldn’t happen to know what happened in the arboretum, would you?”

“I don’t think I get you’re meaning,” I replied, finding it harder to breathe, my heart having swelled so large it reduced my lungs to pancakes. Had there been another fist fight? Or had he witnessed Lib and I during our sexual escapades.

“Sure you do,” Dour Face groaned. “You know all about everything, Goddard. You’ve been everywhere in this ship, know everyone. You got the inside track, it would seem.”

“I keep to myself,” I said, slowly backing off through the press. “Excuse me, Doc. Kelly. Sorry, sir. I need some air.”

A voice came over my earpiece. “Turn complete. Good work, Navigation.”  I bolted for the back of the ship where things might be less cramped. I needed to get some air, recycled or not.

As I neared the Cargo Bay events began to thread together in my mind, dots connecting to form lines pointing in one direction. Every single time I’d found damage, or something changed in the ship, I’d discovered a mindless doodle left behind. Not to mention, the drawing on César’s drug baggie looked very much like the artist’s handwriting. My suspicions had been right all along. I knew I never liked him, there was a reason, and I knew he wasn’t alone. But how do I take this to the Captain? Was there enough evidence to say anything? I couldn’t very well take them down by myself. They had stun sticks. I had tools.

My watch vibrated. It was an engine room alarm. Something was terribly wrong. I took off at a dead run, not a person in my way. Every soul was still up front watching our mid-journey pass.

The intercom boomed with the Captain’s voice in prayer: “Oh God, Lord of all the universe, bless us as we make good your righteous wrath and strike down thy enemy. Forgive us our sins as we have made mistakes against you…” 


As I shot through nuclear storage and into the engine room, I began to feel strange, light headed and disconnected. It wasn’t altogether displeasing, but it wasn’t right.

“What the hell?” I said, my voice several keys lower than it should have been. I snatched a breathing mask from off the wall and fixed it over my face. The problem was clear, but the source wasn’t. We had a Xenon fuel leak, and it was a big one. I removed Liberty’s earpiece and stuffed it in my sock.

The area around engine control was pressurized like the rest of the ship, but the air mix was mostly inert, with little or no oxygen to encourage fire. Air flowed into me from a properly fixed breathing mask as I ventured inside the space, noting first that César’s tools were missing from their usual hook on the wall. I thought nothing of it. Griffin must have taken them as a memento.

Nine hundred slender black canisters of Xenon gas filled the tight space between hulls. I frantically searched over and around, squeezing between copper pipes and plastic tubing like an interplanetary spelunker. I took out my gas meter, using it to find the source of the leak by concentration. After a couple moments the perpetrator was clear.

Seven tanks of Xenon gas were leaking. Their pipes, leading out to the engines where they’d be converted into a stream of ions, had been cut. I began shutting the tanks off one by one, then pressed a button, activating the emergency fans to clear the section of abnormal gases. Xenon wasn’t deadly, but it was sometimes used as a general anesthetic like nitrous during medical procedures. I didn’t need the crew passing out for surgery.

I inspected the damage, getting as close as I could before scanning it with my watch. The pipes had been cut roughly by a plasma torch. One whose tip was in desperate need of repair.

I rushed back into the engine room, checking to see which engines still operated. The damage had caused five of the sixteen to go offline. At this rate I wasn’t confident we could slow down in time to engage the enemy in orbit around Mars, even with the extra power output from the Photon Focusers. Without strong enough brakes, we’d go hurtling past the red planet God knows where. I had to get these fixed immediately, or we could fail. But there was something more pressing. Who’d done this? Somehow it didn’t seem to be Dour Face’s style.

Before I could call the bridge and inform the Captain, Lank Hair floated toward me, his hair standing on end like a madman, stun stick in hand. “Don’t twitch a muscle, Goddard.”

I’d been wrong in my original assumptions. It hadn’t been Dour Face at all. “It was you,” I growled, looking for something to use as a weapon. I raised my yellow handled plasma torch, flipped it on with a flash of blinding light, and held it out before me. “Don’t come any closer or I’ll melt your fucking face off.”

Dour Face came up behind Lank Hair with Higgins in tow. “Goddard, don’t make this harder than it has to be. We don’t want to hurt you.”

I blinked. Wait, what? My intensity faltered. “I have to protect the crew!” I shouted, face going red. “We have to make it to Mars on time!” Which one of them had done this? Whoever it had been convinced the rest I was the enemy.

“And now we won’t because of you,” Dour Face responded, the muscles in his arm going tight, fingers clasping his stun stick with violent intent. “Navigation ran the numbers. Without all sixteen engines, we’re out of the race.”

“Why did you do it, Goddard?” Higgins asked, eyebrows crinkling. “Why? You were always such a patriot.”

“Excuse me?” I said, looking at them each individually, torch trembling in my hands. There was no way out of this. I was backed into the engine room and they were covering the only exit. Besides, where would I run if I did escape? In circles? “What did I do? It was you, all of you! Don’t try and turn this around on me.”

“We don’t have time for this shit,” Lank Hair said, and threw back his arm. He hurled the stun stick directly at me. I tried to dip out of the way, but it didn’t have far to go. The tip hit me in the chest.

Ten thousand volts shot through my nervous system. I wanted to scream at the pain, but all I managed to do was gurgle. The torch in my hand fell away, powering down automatically.

“There we go,” Dour Face said, and they took me by the arms, cuffing me. “Off to the brig.”

They unceremoniously tossed my limp body into one of the cells. “Mind the gap,” Lank Hair said, slamming the bars shut. He then bent over and inspected my tools, mainly the torch. He clicked his tongue. “The culprit’s right here. He used this torch to sever the lines. I hope we can recover.”

Dour Face frowned as he left with the rest. He seemed somehow disappointed. None of it made any sense. Nothing made any sense. What the hell was going on?

“Shit,” I spat. “They think I did it. They think I sabotaged the ship. Just because I was in the engine room with a tool that could have done this didn’t mean I was responsible. Why would I? The target set this up. It was him.” I thought this over for several minutes, trying to choose my next move. I wasn’t giving up, not yet. I had to save everyone.

I reached into my sock and fished out the earpiece. I wasn’t sure why I’d put it in that damp place, but I was glad I had. “Lib, you there?”

It took several moments for her to reply. “Now is not a good time, David. I can’t fraternize with enlisted, let alone spies.” 

“Spies?” I blinked. “No. It’s me. You know me. It’s Davie, that dusty kid from Arsia Mons, and I’m in trouble. Really bad trouble. I need your help.”

“I can’t, David. Damn it, I can’t.” 

A wave of cold terror crashed over me. “Please, Liberty.” This wasn’t going how I’d expected. I was being hung out to dry.

“David, they’re saying you put cameras all over the ship to keep track of us.” 

“I did, but it was—”

She cut me off, her voice taking on an edge. “And that you hacked in our main computer, leaving Griffin alone during a firing solution. You put all of us at risk doing that! Not to mention, you were planning to upload a virus. They found it on your tablet.” 

“Upload a virus? No. I had to hack in so I could—”

“And that you tried to frame her for giving César the drugs, but it was you all along. Your prints are on the case in Med 1.” 

“I would never do that. I was trying to—”

“And that you sabotaged the engines! You wanted to give the enemy a better chance to attack our home? There are children on Mars!” 

“That isn’t me, damn it! Let me get a word in!” My throat went hoarse. I lowered my voice, “Liberty, I’m not the guy. There’s a spy on board, that’s true, but it’s not me.”

She was quiet for a moment. “You know what else? Father told me about your dad. He had contact with the enemy. He told me that the two of you were going to escape and live among the Axis.” 

My stomach filled with an oily dread. “You know she’s right,” the whisper in the dark told me. “I tried to help you out. Tried to keep you safe.”

“That was him, not me,” I said, doing my best to govern my tone. “Dad made his own choices. He thought by escaping Brethren territory I could flee Brice’s torment. But after Brice was dead, he gave up the notion. Please believe me. He wasn’t a traitor, just a scared parent. You have no idea what it’s like on the bottom. You have no idea what it’s like to deal with people like Brice when the authorities won’t step in.”

“How can I believe you, David? You lied to me. If there really was another spy on board, you know you could have trusted me. We could have looked together.” 

“But your father told me not to say a thing. I had to keep my mouth shut, or end up in here. Lot of good that did.”

“He said you would tell me that, and that it would be a lie. I’m done, David. Father might have been hard on me, but he’s never lied, never withheld the truth. Goodbye.” 

“Liberty!” I shouted till my voice went hoarse. “Liberty, please, wait.” But the channel was dead.

I removed the earpiece and tossed it on the floor. Liberty had turned her back on me, so what was I to do? There was no one left to help me. I kicked the bars of the cell while shaking them with my hands. They didn’t budge. I began to slide the gasket from my ring finger to throw it away. Who needed to remember that fateful day? It had brought me nothing but trouble.

Heavy footsteps pounded up the hall. I stood up, leaving the gasket in place, craning to see who was approaching. I slid my foot around the earpiece, sweeping it beneath the tiny bench I had for a bed.

“Leave us,” the Captain said, waving off security. He entered the section and sealed us in alone. I could fix this, he just had to listen.

“Captain, please! Let me out,” I said. “I didn’t do anything. You know it’s true. You chose me to find the target. And I’m close, damn close. I think I know who it is, or could be, and he’s part of your security staff.”

“So,” the Captain paced, eyes fixed on nothing but a thought. The fists clasped behind his back tightened, his arms going rigid. “Then you didn’t defile my daughter? Didn’t place your manhood inside of her to feed your devious pleasures?”

I swallowed. Oh shit, had he watched the act? A disturbing thought. This man, this father, might just kill me and call it an accident. Then again, bad as it was for him, did it matter right now?

“I’ve been watching you for months,” he said, eyes drilling into me. “I hoped you would just back off. I’ve made attempts to dissuade her without being specific, but it seems she was persistent. Girl always has been. You entered my daughter and made filthy her temple. I’ll be lucky to have anyone take her as a wife now. Try and deny it, Goddard! Give me the pleasure of bearing proof.”

My attention trailed onto the floor. “I can’t and I won’t. I’ve loved your daughter ever since we were kids back on Mars. Look, I know you’re angry at me for crossing the line, and I can understand, but you can’t let us perish for that. You know I’m not the target. Let me out so we can fix this together. So we can tell Liberty and the rest of the crew it wasn’t me. We have to catch him. We have to catch the one at fault.”

The Captain grinned, looking both smug and superior, just like his daughter but three times her size. “So naive. Can’t you see? I’ve always known you weren’t the target.”

Worms worked their way into my stomach, churning the oil into a frothy black cream of filth. “What? I don’t understand.”

The Captain laughed so hard it made his belly shake like Jell-O. “There never was a target, Goddard. Are you so blasted foolish? I merely needed someone to carry the blame.”

My hands began trembling. “There is a spy! I know there is! The tracking code I found, I have a copy on my tablet. I’ll show you! Let me get it.”

“You mean the code you were about to install? The code you were installing when Griffin was alone, that would let our enemy know our location more specifically and increase their hit probability?”

I barred my teeth and growled, nose touching the bars, arms stretched out towards him. “You bastard!”

He took a step back. “Perhaps, but I’ve killed two birds with one stone.”

“What about the Axis? What about the engines? Without me you can’t slow us fast enough to engage the enemy. No one can fix those engines but me. The Razor  will reduce Arsia Mons and Valles Rojo to dust! Who are you? Who are you if you don’t save them? You’re the traitor, Captain! Those are our people!”

He shook his head gently, a man in total control of every aspect of life. “Far from it, Goddard. I am a patriot to the bone. And you, the real traitor, the devious spy, are a dead man.” Captain Fryatt turned and left me in the cramped cell, shutting off the lights as he went. “Good night, Goddard, sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

[17]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

ETA: 3 months, 8 days

----------------------------------------------

The Captain knew about Dad. He must have finally gotten caught. And the sentence for treason? Ten years in prison. Dad had never been physically fit, never taken good care of himself. He’d smoked three packs a day for thirty years, drank till his liver was pickled and spiced, eaten whatever the hell processed junk he could get his hands on, and never exercised. In prison, all he’d have to live on was four ounces of dried beans a day and one gallon of water. He’d even have to cook his own beans with that. Resources were stretched as thin as paper on the Martian prison front.

He wouldn’t last long.

One guard per two hundred inmates. That was the ratio. But there wasn’t much they needed to do. All they did was deliver their measly meals and listen to complaints. The cells were designed to be inescapable and the prisoners were never let out. It was little more than a high tech dungeon whose keys had been thrown down a black hole. Nevertheless, after two days in the Vindicator’s  brig, I was starting to feel a bit of envy.

Not one bean, not one plate of slop had found its way to my nearly vertical cell. I was thankful for a water fountain and toilet, at least I wouldn’t die of thirst. But the hunger was maddening, that dull, stabbing pain in the side of my stomach. I wasn’t sure how long it had been since my last meal. One day? Two days? A week? They’d left this section on perpetual midday cycle with no change in visible light, and so, time had become irrelevant. How long would it be till they fed me, if at all? I screamed


убрать рекламу


sometimes, hoping to get someone’s attention, but the section was sealed off. No one could hear me. I was forgotten, a lowly, traitorous spy left to wither under artificial light.

My fingernails had been chewed down to the quick. For as much as they shook, I was shocked I’d even caught hold of them. I closed my eyes and tried not to focus on the prison bars encasing me. I needed to get out. I tried to sleep, but it was impossible curled up like a dog on sheets that smelled of someone else’s sweat. Man wasn’t meant to be in a three by three box.

Boy, had I fucked up. I just couldn’t let curiosity lie.

The hatch opened and I slowly rose, swallowing as Dour Face entered the room. I was so weak I thought he might be a hallucination, then I saw he had a tool belt clutched in his hands, fingers wrapped around its band like a wet towel being wrung out. I had a sudden vision, him striking me against the back with it, trying to get information out of me and keep up the ruse. Was he the target? No. But someone had to be. I didn’t care what Cap said, the spy was real. I saw the code.

“Is this yours, Goddard?”

I shook my head as little as I could, holding on to my anger tighter than my fear. I growled, “No. It’s not fucking mine. That’s César’s, but last I saw it had turned up missing.”

Dour Face considered this for a moment. He shook his head and took a seat on one of the power breakers, his body deflating. “Damn nasty work that’s been done to the ship. How we gonna fix it now?”

“I can fix it,” I said. “But why would you want me to?” He looked up at me, his brows twisted and confused. “Just bring me back when I’m done. I promise I won’t hurt anyone.”

Dour Face set down the tool belt, looking as if he was chewing on something sour. “Hurt anyone? Were you ever planning to, hot shot?”

“What? No. The hell kind of question is that?”

“Forgive me. I need to unlock your cell.” He reached out and opened the door, using his thumb print as a key. “Here, take an energy bar. You haven’t eaten for a couple days. I promise it was that limey bastard’s order, not mine. Glad to have him out of the way.”

I snatched the bar from his fingers and sidled out of the cell warily, eyes flicking over to César’s tool belt. Freedom, sweet freedom. “What’s going on? You’re letting me out? Why?”

Liberty was looming in the doorway, eyes focused on a twisting boot tip, arms crossed beneath her breasts. “We are,” she sighed, “because now we’re sure you didn’t do it.”

Fury washed over me in a wave of heat so intense I swore I smelt my hair smoking. I tore a chunk out of the energy bar and swallowed it without chewing. “No shit I didn’t do it. I told you that myself, Liberty. Why didn’t you believe me? I’ve never lied to you.”

“Evidence, David,” she growled, “and there was a lot. Look, I’m sorry for not trusting you, but there’s one person who did. Jane Griffin. She deserves your thanks. She inspected the damaged to the engines, and after seeing how the cuts were made, sent us in search of César’s tools.”

“The broken red handled torch,” I hissed, sliding onto the floor. I finished off the bar and tossed away the wrapper. This was too much. I needed a stiff drink.

“That’s right. She told us you ordered César to fix it but he never did. We searched the ship high and low, and eventually, found it in Officer 2 beneath Graham’s bunk.”

Graham. Lank Hair. That little bastard. It was him.

I massaged my forehead and squeezed my eyes shut, tasting a hint of blood as molars ground the inside of my mouth to pulp. “But why did he do it? He’s a spy, isn’t he?”

“That’s where things get complicated.” She reached out a hand, helping me to stand. Her manner was less confident than last I saw, uniform coat unbuttoned to reveal a dangling necklace with a small charm tucked beneath her under shirt. “We need to get to the bridge. There’s been a change of guard.”

As we left the section two crewmembers, Kelly one of them, drug Lank Hair into the brig.

“When Command hears of this!” Lank Hair shouted, angry spit dribbling down his chin in a sheen of foamy white.

“Yeah, yeah. Mind the gap,” Dour Face said in passing. “I hate that asshole. Cock blockin’ son of a bitch. I’m surprised he didn’t send my right hand to the brig just to separate us.”

“Cock blocking?” Liberty asked. “What the hell are you going on about? Look, the reason Rosaleigh didn’t want to sleep with you is because she likes women, or are you that freaking dense?”

“Are you serious? I just thought…”

“Men can be so single minded.”

“And women can jump to conclusions,” I added, still feeling wounded. I limped between them, putting a hand on the wall to steady myself from time to time. I needed a real meal, not just compressed protein.

“Is everyone okay?” I asked.

Liberty shrugged. “I sure hope so.”

I felt for the rubber gasket on my right ring finger and took a shuttering breath. This felt like a crossroad.

When we entered the bridge everyone was staring. Everyone except the Captain.

“Comm, any response?” Liberty asked.

“No, ma’am. Not yet.”

She nodded, and then invited me to have a seat. XO Stone came over and extended a hand.

“We plan on making things right, Goddard,” he said as I shook it.

I pivoted around to see William Mason Fryatt sitting in the corner. His wrists were cuffed to the arms of his chair. He was wearing only his uniform pants and a plain white t-shirt. No rank of any kind was displayed.

Despite having a promise of murder in his eyes he remained quiet, seething in his anger. My feelings over this turn of events remained unsettled as silt in a churning stream. He may have been cuffed, but he scared the shit out of me nonetheless. Just like day one.

I turned my attention to the main display, taking in the bridge crew. Rosaleigh raised her eyebrows as Dour Face whispered in her ear. She chuckled and patted him on the back. He smiled, for the first time ever, and took a seat beside her.

“Liberty,” I said. “Can you tell me what’s going on?”

She nodded, taking me by the hand and leading me into the privacy of the Captain’s quarters. After closing the door she began to rummage through the bedside table, overlooking the decanter of liquor loitering atop. “Want something to drink?”

“You’re dodging,” I said. “Give it to me straight. What’s going on?”

She produced two reddish silver cans of Coca-cola, handing me one while keeping the other for herself. She plopped down on the queen size bed and patted the spot beside her.

“He lied to me,” she began. “He lied to all of us; I just don’t know how deep it goes.” I kept my mouth shut and took a seat, clutching the cool can of obscenely expensive soda between my palms. “I knew dad would resist you being part of my life. I knew it, but I kept it up. And why? Because there’s something different about you. David, I love you, and he couldn’t allow that. Father had big plans for me, they just didn’t include a dusty person like you. Maybe he wants me to marry a governor, or a rich CEO. I don’t know, but right now I’m so furious I can’t even speak with him.”

I sighed and thought my chest might just collapse. A few days ago I would have thrown my arms around her at this offhand declaration of feelings, but there were more important matters to deal with. Besides which, I was still pissed.

“But why put this ship and the citizens of Mars at risk by taking me out of the picture?” I asked. “That seems a bit excessive. Foolish, actually. And your father is hardly foolish.”

“You should have seen him when we caught Graham and that little shit spilled the beans. Graham said it had nothing to do with our sexual proclivities, but only keeping us safe. He said that a relationship like ours was toxic to the environment of this vessel. It was Graham’s idea to send you after a phantom target just to keep you busy, and Father agreed. They wanted you in a position so that if we got too close, they could pin this on you. Soon as we found out we started to dig deeper. Kelly helped us uncover some video. We now have Father on tape talking to Graham about all of it. Father clammed up immediately and hasn’t said a word since.”

I rolled the can of Coke around in my fingers, first laying it on its side, feeling the bends of cold aluminum, imagining for a moment it had solar panels, ion engines, and rain guns. I pulled back the tab with a hiss, carbonated bubbles popping up through the hole and tickle the base of my nose. It smelled sweet. “Was that all?”

Liberty nodded. “Yeah. That’s all.”

“It can’t be.” I took a sip, allowing the sugary, fizzy drink to wash over my palate. I swallowed and held up the can incredulously. “Hot damn, tastes just like Monarch Cola. Even has that bite.”

She popped hers open and slurped a little off the top. “What did you think it would taste like? They make this crap for hundredths on the credit. It’s sugar, flavor, and sodium bi-carb. What did you think it had in it? Gold dust?”

“Yet they sell it for fifty credits a pop. Those bastards.”

“That’s capitalism for ya.”

“That’s rich assholes,” I amended, raising a finger.

She shrugged. “A product is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. Never forget.”

“Alright,” I said, taking another sip and setting down the can. “But after locking me up your father said me he’d taken out two birds with one stone. If taking me out of commission was one, what was the other?”

“He must have been talking out his ass. He tends to do that sometimes.”

“Normally I’d agree, but I don’t think so. He was earnest in his meaning.”

Liberty’s watch spoke. “Their response is coming in.”  

She lifted her wrist. “We’ll be right there.”

“Whose response?”

The Razor’s .”

I shook my head at the notion, then proceeded to the bedside table, taking a drink from our former Captain’s decanter of whiskey before washing it down with Coca-Cola. Hot damn, it was fine, like liquid sex and lottery winnings.

“Feel better?” she asked from the doorway, her lips forming a sly grin.

“I’ll be back for the rest. You can damn well bet on it.”

She took hold of my right hand and rubbed it gently before placing it flat over her heart, my palm curving around her breast. “May not be gin, but would you like some company later to help polish that off?”

This was her way of apologizing, and would have to be enough. Actions were more powerful than words, and she was all action. “I’d like that.” I took her hands and kissed the tops of them, putting my forehead against hers and taking a deep breath. “Come on, let’s see what the Axis has to say. Perhaps God has softened their hearts to see reason.”

I took a seat at the edge of the room as far away from William Fryatt as possible. Dour Face sat between us, keeping his stun stick close at hand, a hard eye fixed on our prisoner. I couldn’t shake the idea that the other shoe was about to drop. There might not have been a spy aboard, and Fryatt’s intent might have been to throw me in the brig for intermingling fluids with his daughter, but there was more to this. My incarceration felt—too convenient.

“Here it is,” the Comm told Liberty. “What the? But this doesn’t make any sense.”

“Let me see that.” Liberty sidled up beside her, confusion growing as she scanned the message. She read it aloud, “Vindicator, we did not attack first. Your ship was headed for Europa, and therefore, we set to intercept you near Mars. We clearly understand your intention to turn our colonies to slag. We have detected radioactive materials on board your vessel far in excess of nuclear batteries alone. You are carrying fusion bombs. Therefore, there is no resolution that can be met but for your ship’s destruction. ”

The former Captain twisted in his cuffs.

“Wait. They were responding to our move? Not us responding to theirs? Father? Explain.” Liberty turned, a worried slant in her expression. She was putting pieces together not at my disposal. I had a feeling I knew the direction this was going. “Did you provoke them? Tell me, father. Did you?” The heart shaped birthmark on her neck flashed red as it filled with hot blood.

William Fryatt averted his increasingly sunken eyes, finding his bindings were far more interesting than addressing his daughter’s question. XO cleared his throat and looked angry, but kept his cool, waiting on Liberty to lead the interrogation.

Smith elbowed me in the ribs and handed over a tablet displaying sensor data from our last scan of the Axis’s ship, the Razor .

I swallowed at what I saw. “Is this accurate?”

“It is,” she replied, fingers rubbing the piercings of her right ear.

“You provoked them, didn’t you?” Liberty’s hands came up to cover her mouth. “You told them we were going to attack. Tell me it’s not true. Damn it, tell me!”

William Fryatt straightened his back and raised his chin in defiance. “A father must do what he can to protect his daughter.”

The room became a vacuum as absolute as the void. Even our computers took a brief respite, their constant white noise retreating from the gravity of the moment.

“How does this protect me?” Her open hands became fists. “Putting me trapped inside a can to be shot at day and night? You could have left me on Mars, and I would have been just as safe, if not safer. I had a personal security detail. Not even gangs like the Gatos would have messed with me.”

“But the Axis would have attacked us eventually. Our probes detected thousands of centrifuges enriching radioactive materials for battle. They were building bombs by the freighter load, and weren’t sending them back to Earth. That left only one purpose.”

“Are you so sure?” I cut in with a voice like a razor, slicing his intentions in two. I raised the tablet and pointed at the screen. “Our most recent sensor data shows little radioactive material on board the Razor  compared to the start of our mission. If they were carrying bombs, they’d still have high readings. But they’ve been firing often, haven’t they? More than what we would have expected. And each time they fire…”

“They have less radioactive materials,” Liberty finished, giving me an appraising look.

“There’s more to the message coming in,” Comm reported. “You will not win a face to face conflict. Our vessel is a gunship, not a bomber like yours. We have confirmed this information to be valid, and we shall see you in hell. ”

The Axis never had any intention of bombing Mars, even if they had the means. Only in protecting themselves from the likes of us. We were the villains of this narrative and never knew it. The Captain had orchestrated this to see an end. He had been the one to set events in motion.

“You did this,” Liberty said, her nose an inch away from her father’s. “Why? Why! Were you aware they had no bombs? No weapons of mass destruction?”

“No!” he shouted, spit dribbling over his lips like an animal. “I wasn’t aware, and after what happened on Ceres, I wasn’t taking chances. As soon as you were safely aboard, a message was dispatched that we were coming for them. I took hold of a small window of opportunity where the planets were aligned just right, and forced us down a path leading straight at their home with Mars in its center. I had no intentions of slowing as we approached our home, but to try and take those bastards out before they hit orbit. But if they had had bombs or no bombs, it wouldn’t have changed a thing. All important personnel were moved into secret bunkers on the southern pole weeks ago. Let the Axis drop their payload and turn Arsia Mons to dust, we’ll finish off their only true foothold and return as heroes of the Brethren, soldiers of a righteous war. This system would then have been ours! Ours! And you, you would be safe. Safe from war and moral depravity. I might not could have saved your mother, but I thought I could save you.”

She slapped him across the face with an open palm. “Never speak of mother. She was a peacemaker, not some militaristic warmongering political puppet.” Liberty’s voice became deadly quiet. “It was about the future earnings, wasn’t it? You would let our people die for nothing, but for us to become murderers and corporate puppets. Let our children perish for dollars, only to put the bomb to theirs and eliminate the competition outright. There’s good reason the Axis hates us, and this is it. We push ourselves into places they’ve rightfully taken as their own, impose our moral and religious doctrine on the edge of a knife, forcing them into trade deals with Earth bound countries who wish to see us all suffer for their own profits.”

“Traitorous words,” William Fryatt growled, “from a traitorous daughter. But that’s a father’s love for you. Even if you’re not worth saving I still wished to try. I would burn the red world to see it done, even now.”

Liberty’s chin shook. “In the Crystal Caves you taught me that all life was precious, even those we don’t agree with.” She freed a necklace from beneath her shirt. My eyes went wide. She fingered the rubber gasket dangling from its chain. “What happened to that man?”

“He was a young, foolish boy. And that was why the world murdered him.”

She made a fist around the gasket charm, waving her free hand at Dour Face. “Take him away.”

William Fryatt didn’t struggle, he went willingly, resigned to his fate with silent stoicism.

After he was out of sight XO turned and saluted Liberty. “Orders, sir.”

“Orders?” She spun around and removed the necklace. “I’m not the Captain.”

“Under Section A-115 of the Brethren military code, the XO has the right to appoint the most fitting candidate as Captain until an official tribunal has convened.”

“But you’re the more experienced officer.”

“Good or bad, I would rather see a Fryatt at the head of this ship than myself.”

She nodded and unclipped the end of the necklace, removing a gasket and sliding it on her finger. A lump hung in my throat. She’d kept it after all.

“Fine, fine,” she said. “I haven’t come this far to die. If they’re hell bent on killing us, then we will have to fight back; there’s no choice. But that doesn’t mean we destroy Europa if we succeed. David, take Griffin and fix the engines. We have a target to reach.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, getting up from my chair to give her a crisp salute.

“As for the rest of you, we have a close engagement to plan. I have a few ideas.”

[18]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

----------------------------------------------

It turned out Lank Hair was a better saboteur than I’d first expected. Not only had he cut the pipes which fed our ion engines’ electron guns with xenon gas, but he’d damaged several power relays connecting those tanks as well as four others to the navigation computer. His work was carefully hidden. He’d even tricked the sensors into thinking they were still operating. The little schemer had known what he was about, that was for sure.

“Thanks again,” I told Griffin as we worked, our bodies floating in the cramped space between the engine room and non-reactive fuel storage. “If not for you. I mean…”

She threw her arms around me and squeezed. I thought for a second my eyes might pop out of their sockets. “You would have done the same for any of us.” Her strictly platonic embrace went on and on—and on. She finally let go and shrugged it off. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be.” I chuckled. “You’ve made me remember what it’s like to have a sister. You’re just like her in a lot of ways.”

She considered this for a moment, a single finger to her lips. When we’d first met she’d had a crush on me, clear as day, and so this comparison had to be a little strange. She nodded. “Never had a brother before.”

“First time for everything.”

“Here, let me hold that for you.” She slipped on her safety goggles and held up a fresh length of pipe. “Go for it.”

I began to work the piece into place, careful not to let the beads of liquid weld take flight in mirco-gravity and burn us. I wrapped the outside seam with a patch for safe measure.

“There we are.” I ripped off my safety goggles and tested the work with a push. “What do you say we ramp these thrusters up to full?”

In the engine room we did a final system’s check before hitting go. The thrusters came back to life, hurling ions out the back of our ship in a pale, blue stream. I’ve never sighed so hard in my life.

“Thank God,” I hissed, afraid the words might just undo our work. “Now that that’s over, we won’t go careening past Mars like a lost bullet. Fryatt might seem to think we’re aimed at Europa, but I’m not so sure his calculations are right.”

“We’ve got a chance to make this work,” Griffin replied. “I have a good feeling.”

I couldn’t help but consider our chances in close combat. My smile faded. We’d been damn lucky nothing had hit us but a fractured shot. That was likely to change when the gulf between our ships shrunk.

“Goddard, Griffin, to the bridge,”  my watch called out. It was Liberty.

Griffin put the tips of her shoes to the wall and pushed off, turning a flip as she headed for the exit. “Best not keep them waiting. You comin’, fart face?”

“Taking a liking to this whole sister idea, ey?”

She smiled and stuck out her tongue.

“Question.”

“Yeah?” She paused.

“Was Lank Hair, I mean,” I shook my head, “was Graham who you thought had beaten me up?”

She peered off to the side, attention focused idly in the middle distance. “Yes,” was what she said, but I wasn’t convinced.

“Good enough for me.”

The ship was relatively quiet as we made for the forward end, narrow halls empty of crew. We passed through weapons storage and control, trying not to pay the former captain or Lank Hair any attention. They were each in their own tiny cells, furtively watching us as we passed. William Fryatt was reading an old copy of War and Peace , ironically enough, while Graham stared at a section of the wall, peeling off the paint. Griffin held her breath till we were safely back in the hall on the other side.

“Awkward,” she mumbled in singsong. What an understatement.

Just like the mid-journey turn, all crewmembers were gathered outside the bridge. However, this time, the doors were open. Liberty wanted everyone to hear what she had to say.

I sidled through the crowd, making a path for us, and found a place standing beside Dour Face just inside the bridge.

Griffin took a seat against the wall. “Anyone seen Kelly?”

“I haven’t,” Smith replied. “How about you, Rosaleigh?” Her name might as well have been pronounced sweetie by the inviting tone of her words.

“I saw him a few minutes ago. He wanted to check and see if Graham had done any damage in the maintenance core. I told him it was a waste of time given what the captain had said, but he persisted. So I let him in with my code.”

I leaned in to Dour Face’s ear and whispered, “Speaking of being in the core, I found your little doodles all over the ship.”

“I guess you would have had to by now.” He produced the black marker and held it up with reverence. “What good times we’ve had. Too bad I think she’s almost dry.”

“So, you just like vandalizing the ship?”

He shook his head and coughed. “No, I… Damn it, I draw when I get nervous or really stressed out. It helps me decompress, always has, like art therapy. In grade school my desk looked like an ancient Sumerian tablet for all the writing it had on it.”

“That’s nothing to be ashamed of. I go running.”

“Running would be the better option, but I hate that shit. You’re the only person in this cramped joint who actually seems to like it, other than Jack.”

“I wouldn’t go that far. It’s just better than sitting still.”

He put the pen away and crossed his arms, scanning the room to see if he thought anyone was close enough to hear. “You know, when you gotta be a tough guy all your life because you’re big and imposing, dealing with feelings by drawing pictures sounds pretty damn weak. So, I guess by putting those lines in places I’m not supposed to be makes things a bit edgier, a little more macho, right? Makes me feel…”

“Like a rebellious badass?”

Dour Face frogged me in the shoulder and chuckled. “Exactly.” It was hardly a tap, and so I fought not to rub away the pain, but it wasn’t mean to be cruel.

“I don’t think you have anything to prove.”

Full disclosure, my shoulder throbbed with every heartbeat.

“We always have something to prove, hot shot. That never ends. And by the way, I heard your little nickname for me.”

“Oh?”

“Let’s say you call me Brix from now on.”

“Alright, but that’s not your name.”

“No it’s not, but it’s what people I like call me.”

“Alright then, Brix.”

“That, and,” his features turned dark and he cracked his fingers, “if I hear you called me Dour Face one more time, I might just have to use your face to make my next picture. Understand, Davie?”

I swallowed. “We’re on the same page, friend.”

Liberty raised a hand to get everyone’s attention. “Hello, crew. Thank you for gathering. Goddard, are we back on track?”

“We are, captain.”

“Very well, master engineer.” She turned to face the audience, her back to the main display, hands clutched together in front. “With the help of our talented XO, I have devised a plan which will give us the best chance of success. We are, as we speak, making navigational corrections to put Mars in our path until we reach orbit. This will cut off the Razor’s  chance to eliminate us en route. It will also give us a period of time, about two months, to rest and recuperate. All restrictions will be lifted on communications to loved ones back on Mars. Say whatever you must, spend whatever time you can with them by proxy. I wish to see you home so you can be with your families in person, but can make no promises.

“This mission, as any combat detail, is a risky one. We have about a fifty fifty chance of success. What I can say, however, is that it has been a pleasure to serve with each of you. When I came aboard this ship I was looking for something, something I thought I’d lost. I have found it in all of you. The Axis might be our enemy for today, but who knows what tomorrow will bring? My father’s desire to end the lives of those living on Europa are not mine, and I will not see them through. XO stands with me. We must find a diplomatic solution in the near future, or our species will be blind, reaching into the dark and finding nothing but more emptiness. This is humanity’s finest hour. The one where we decide, where we say, no more. If we can destroy the Razor  and survive, we can broker a peace. They will be in a position more apt to accept diplomacy with no standing military. But before that lofty future can be realized we must survive. Live your life. You have two months assured. See us to our final showdown breathing.”

The majority of the crew began to cheer, waving fists in the air and slapping bulkheads. Kelly loomed at one of the doorways, a mixed expression on his face. Griffin waved him over, smiling, and gave him a massive bear hug. He looked just as uneasy as I’d been. I gave him a wink.

“Finish your shifts,” Liberty said, the room going silent. “Then return to your quarters for a surprise. Dismissed.”

Everyone dispersed, idly chatting with one another as they left, leaving only the bridge crew and myself behind. Liberty whispered something in XO’s ear and he snapped to attention and saluted. She immediately came to me, back straight in her role as Captain. She was wearing a new coat with a new set of rank on her chest and shoulders. She was beautiful, like cold steel sharpened to a razor’s edge placed in the hands of a master.

“Goddard,” she said.

“Captain.”

“There are a few matters I’d like to speak of in private.”

Rosaleigh Head cleared her throat and nudged Smith with her foot. Smith raised an eyebrow while tonguing the edge of her lip ring, suppressing a chuckle.

“Of course.” I sidestepped and swept a hand through the air. “Lead the way, ma’am.”

Liberty took us to her new quarters. She closed the hatch and leaned against it, hands behind her back. She plodded across the room, taking a whole five steps to reach the other side. There was so much space in here it was almost nauseating.

I waited for her, standing at attention. “Quite the upgrade, ma’am.”

“Isn’t it?” She ran her fingers over the desk and military ornamentation, the small, wall mounted bookshelf with one book missing, and the shadow box filled with trophies. Her open palm froze in front of a silver trophy, a skimmer mounted on top, the number one engraved on its base. She let her hand fall, coming to rest at her side. “Mmm. No matter. Drink?”

“I’d love one.”

“Then you’re in luck.” She leaned over without bending her knees, her pressed uniform pants taking on the wondrous curve of her backside as she reached under the bed. After giving me the chance to visually map her shape and commit them to memory once more, she produce two square bottom bottles of honey b


убрать рекламу


rown liquid and set them on the table beside me. “At ease, Davie.”

Might not have been gin, but that’s okay.

I chuckled and put my ass on the edge of the bed. “But what about the rules? No alcohol on board? Hot damn, I knew he had some stashed away, but this much?”

“There’s a hell of a lot more where this came from.” She fell back on the bed beside me, arms outstretched, body sinking into memory foam. “Ahhh, that’s lovely. Found crates in the Cargo Bay locked up with Father’s code. They were full of all kinds of great things.”

I took up one of the bottles and flipped it over. “Jack Daniels Single Barrel Select. This isn’t Martian whiskey, it’s from Tennessee.”

“And it’s old, real old. The note said these were made in the 60s.”

I twisted the cork free and sniffed, the aroma sizzling and yet tickling my olfactory senses with a creamy hint of caramel intermarried with vanilla. “Feels wrong not to drink it out of a glass.” But the cups were just too far away, ten feet away on the other side of a desk.

“Everything is wrong nowadays.”

“Ain’t that the truth?” I tossed the bottle back and took a small sip, then a swallow. “Ahh yeah, that’s the stuff.”

Liberty sat up and began unbuttoning her coat. “We’ve got some time to burn. Have all you like. Shit, get a hangover if you want.”

And so I did, taking another deep swallow. I slid back on the bed till my spine rested against the headboard, heels not touching the end, and watched as she shrugged out of her coat down to a sports bra. As each arm slid free I could see more of her, and not just in the physical sense. That coat was like body armor. It was a symbol of strength and domination, of forced control and security. She wore it to protect herself from the words and thoughts of others, even her own. Surrounded by threads spun of rank and achievement the result of cold discipline, she was near invincible to all emotional harm, yet also impervious to joy. But here with me, alone, she was making herself vulnerable to pain, vulnerable to yet another man who could let her down. Then again, I guess the stakes weren’t too high. Chances were we’d be dead in a couple months and none of it would matter anyways. Might as well get what joy you can while you’re still breathing.

She tossed the coat onto a chair and took a drag off her vape pen. A cloud of smoke oozed from her wolfish grin. “Don’t get too excited, Davie . It’s just nicotine.”

“That’s alright, Lib , I’ve had enough smelly socks for a while.”

She puffed again and passed me the tube, then uncorked her bottle of Jack and took a long swallow. “Not bad.”

“So,” I said through a pillar of smoke, “what’s the crew’s big surprise?” I held the tube in front of me, rubbing the built in stunner’s safety switch with my thumb.

“Found all kinds of junk food like chips and Hershey’s bars and frozen steaks alongside the whiskey. Father was holding back, make no doubt.”

“Why? Wouldn’t it have been good for morale to up our rations of luxury items?”

“Maybe. I’d like to think he was holding out just in case the mission ran longer than we expected. Somehow, though, I know that’s not the truth. It’s like he just wanted to create dissention in the ranks. He never held back in giving us officers what we wanted, besides alcohol. When’s the last time you ate chocolate?”

I handed the tube back to her, proceeding to drum my lips with fingers. “Two? Three years?”

Liberty scooted up beside me and laid her head on my shoulder. “Exactly.”

I put an arm around her and drew her in, propping my metaphorically splayed heart on top of hers. If she was willing to take a risk, so would I. I couldn’t say no to her. “So, what you gonna do with him?”

“Father?” She sniffed. “He committed treason.”

“And we committed mutiny.”

“Not true. He was proven to be at fault before we moved against him.”

“You think the Brethren leadership will see it that way? This is something President Atmore will oversee personally. If we do somehow survive this, there’s a damn good chance we’ll all go down.”

“Which is why I don’t plan on turning over control after it’s over.”

“Excuse me?” I peered incredulously down at her.

She slid to the center of the bed and crossed her legs. “Atmore was part of Father’s plan, and so was the rest of our leadership. If we want to end this for good, they have to listen to us, not the other way around.”

“How do you intend on doing that?”

“Holding them hostage. We’re well supplied with weapons. All we have to do is survive the attack, and we can hold our government to an account.”

“On a bluff? I know you won’t bomb them. This is madness.”

“The best kind, and they don’t know that. Look at what Father was willing to do. Don’t you see, David, we have a chance to change things. No more slaving away for a mindless corporation who’s made itself into a sovereign state. Our families took a chance in coming out here, they had kids and raised them hoping for a better life. That better life only came for a few, but for the rest, like you, they were put out here and forgotten. If the lowest is healthy and happy, the highest will thrive as well. We stand together, or we die together, just like on this ship. There is no other option.

“Look, I might have grown up in the lap of luxury, but certain, terrible things have always stuck with me. I wasn’t completely blind like the Sovereign from my parable. I’ve seen suffering and sadness. I’ve seen unwashed, sick children in the middle levels fighting over protein cakes while on my way back to the Estates to eat roasted duck shipped in from Southeast Asia. I’ve taken antibiotics while others were thrown in the crematorium for simple infections. I even went one year not wearing the same outfit a single day in a row, whereas your father has had the same jumpsuit since when he first set foot there. What about César’s family? You think that’s fair? One out of five girls from Valles Rojo become prostitutes. I tried to influence Father to help, even Mother, but they would say merely that we earned our life and they hadn’t. But how did we earn it? Did you really earn the jackpot if you bet on a winning skimmer? Or is it just luck? Is that all success ever is, being lucky enough to be born into a situation that benefits you? I can’t turn a blind eye.”

I sipped on the bottle for a moment, thinking it over. “Your dad worked hard, right? He was a high-carbon mining foremen before the military. That’s a big job.”

“Not hard enough to earn a thousand times what your father did working for the state maintaining PV arrays and generators all day. How many hours a week did your father slave away?”

“I’m not really sure, eighty? Pretty normal for us low folk. Then again, we made work time into play time sometimes. Hell, if work was slow he’d turn in his time and just find a hole to drink in. Not a bar, a literal hole. You can run a tube inside your environmental suit and fill it full of liquor, then go sit on a hillside and watch the day pass from outside. It’s not too bad, kind of fun actually. Especially when you have some killer tunes.”

Liberty’s eyebrows furrowed. “You know how much my father worked? Really worked? Not just, I’m playing like I’m working by being at the office all day?”

I shook my head.

“Maybe forty hours, if that. And we took vacations, too. Sometimes weeks at a go. See what I mean? Things need to change. What incentive does anyone have to make the colonies a better place if working harder earns them nothing? There are plans to use our high-carbon mines to terraform Mars and make us an atmosphere, but why make that dream a reality if it’s just the same old shit?”

“Are you saying you want to redistribute the wealth again? I mean, there sure are lazy folks who’d love to see that happen. Just like those who aspire to be on disability. I swear they hurt themselves on purpose. Actually, I did know a guy who put his hand in an aluminum press for that very reason.”

“Redistribute? No, not exactly.” She reached up and untied her hair, letting the bun disintegrate into a twisted, beautiful mess of raven strands. “But it’s time to share things. Why not profit share? So that if the colonies do well, we all do well. And if everyone is doing well, I bet you a million credits people will stop being pissed off at an enemy I’m beginning to believe was invented by our government just to unify us against someone other than them. There is more than enough space for two independent factions in the market. We have billions of customers back on Earth.”

I drew up my knees and peered over them. “The Axis is a fake?”

“No, they’re real, but the fact that we need to hate them doesn’t have to be.”

“You don’t think they attacked first, at Ceres. You think we started this war?”

“Just a hunch. Maybe a misunderstanding.”

“Well, I think you might be right.” I took hold of her hands. “Things need to change. Just know I’m with you all the way. Let’s make a better future, whatever it takes.”

“Thanks, David.” She leaned in and took my face in her hands, kissing me on the lips. “I—David. I just, I’ve always.”

“I know.”

She held up her right hand and removed the black gasket, placing it on her left ring finger instead. Her eyes widened as the silent question hung between us, words she desperately wished to say but couldn’t. I gently pushed her back onto the bed, taking her hands and holding them above her head, our attention never wavering. We kissed like two hungry souls hell bent on devouring one another, our spectral teeth removing great chunks to be swallowed, metabolizing all our experiences into an unbreakable energy. We could never again be separated, never be sifted into separate entities or be seen as two elements apart from their compound. We were one symbiotic organism, mutated and reconfigured for a higher purpose.

We would change the world.

[19]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

ETA: 2 months, 1 day

----------------------------------------------

It felt kind of good to be stumbling around the ship without a care, not having to worry who saw what or if I was acting a fool. It was like being a kid again, like I’d never signed up for the military in the first place. I knew it was an illusion, this break, but I was holding on to it for all it was worth. It was my illusion, no one else’s. Mine.

Two months remained before we reached our target, and like the rest of the crew, I took full advantage. For a solid week I ate steak, hot, juicy steak, and drank, drank till my stomach lining began to erode. I knew God was against us living in excess, but I had a lot of making up to do. Years of it, in fact. I figured it was fine. Besides, me and the big guy had been talking about it every day. Being drunk had helped strengthen my relationship with God. Seriously.

Liberty had been generous with the crew, opening up the stores for whatever they wished, though she still held back some luxuries. If we survived this ordeal we’d need supplies to siege our government, and there was no telling how long that would take. A week? A month? A couple of years? We had the fuel and air to last, but we might not have enough to eat if we gorged ourselves.

On duty, I stumbled to the aft of the ship, trying my best to hide the bulge of glass in my jumpsuit. Griffin caught me halfway to the back, blocking my path with an arm.

“Give it over,” she said, motioning with an open palm.

“Give what over?” I put a hand against the bulkhead and grinned.

She growled, “David.” And her eyes turned fiery.

“What did you call me?”

“Uhh. Sir, please give it over.”

I fished the bottle from my jumpsuit pocket and gave it up. “Fine, fine. Now you’re playing the role of big sister? Damn, did that change fast.”

“You look terrible,” she said, half grinning. “Would you like some coffee, sir?”

“I suppose.” I put a palm to my head and groaned. There it was, the headache moving in. That was why I’d kept drinking. “Ahh, shit.”

She slipped the nearly empty bottle in her pocket. “I’ll ask Doc for a couple tabs of acetaminophen.”

“Something stronger, please. Otherwise, you might as well mix my coffee with baby formula.”

Griffin eyed me and shook her head. “The things I have to put up with.” She walked off down the hall. “I think I see now why they don’t let us have alcohol on board.”

“Hey! Just because I have poor impulse control doesn’t mean…” I let my words trail off. I had no idea where I was going with that.

I made for the Power Core and found a seat at the control panel. Kelly was already there, checking the Photon Focusers’ alignment.

“What’s up, Kelly?” I asked, leaning back in my chair, hands behind my head. It was still weird not to see César in his place. I wasn’t sure if that would ever change.

Kelly said nothing for a moment, holding on to a silent, pensive look. He tapped the same button on his panel three times, even though the triggered option had already appeared on his screen. The freakishly long nail of his pinky finger trailed the edge of the keys.

“You alright?” I asked.

He stopped and turned his chair to face me. “Is it true?”

“Is what true?”

“The man in the cell, our former Captain, was he really going to kill everyone on Europa? And at the risk of his own people?” Kelly’s words were as heavy as lead.

I took a long breath. “Sure looks like it. And, he would have killed my family too. But what do I care? What did they ever do for me?”

“Sir?”

“Nothing. You were saying.”

“Well, how can someone do something so terrible? Does he have no conscience?”

“I don’t know.” My head was too thick for such a heavy discussion. “But I think the war changed him. Has it changed you since your family died?”

“It has, but not like that… I only want to protect life now. I don’t want to take it. I never do. Never have. It’s too easy to destroy. So hard to create.”

“Then we have that in common. I wish the Razor  would respond and we could work this out with words. Words are a lot less messy.”

“Yes they are.” His eyes fell onto the floor for a moment. “But is Liberty not her father’s daughter? Will we not be sent to do the same? We have a payload powerful enough to kill every one of the Axis.”

“But we won’t.” My head throbbed. Where the hell was Griffin with that blasted coffee? If she was gonna take away my liquor, might as well give me something good in its place.

“How can you be so sure, sir? There’s hate in her heart.”

“Trust me, I know. Though she doesn’t bear that sort of ill will, even if there is some hate. We all have a little.” Like I hated this fucking headache. And even though I’d created it all on my own, I wanted to project it on anyone other than me.

Kelly nodded, but didn’t seem convinced. “I hope you’re right. I don’t think my conscience could carry such a weight. How can things ever be set right if so many bodies are added to the count? Does death pay for death?”

I shook my head and felt sick. His words had punched me right in the gut. I was starting to hope I was free from my debts. “The scales can never be set right. We just have to learn to deal with the outcome.”

He wrung his hands and sighed.

“Take some rest, Kelly, we have time before dealing with this. Have a few drinks, maybe find a pretty face for some much needed company.”

Kelly’s eyebrows crinkled.

I raised my open palms. “I’m just sayin’. If it helps get you through the day I hear Lacey, one of Harold’s girls, isn’t currently occupied.”

Griffin entered our section with a piping hot cup of coffee and a handful of pills. My angel.

“Are you trying to pimp us out, sir?” Kelly asked, and gave Griffin a wary look.

She handed me the goods and held back her chuckles. “I always come in on the best parts. What were you talking about?”

“Nothing,” I said, turning to face the controls, coffee to my lips. “Not a damn thing.”


--//--

“Goddard,” XO said as I entered the conference room, harsh light forming deep shadows across his face. He was sitting at a small, black table with six chairs. The surface was spattered with papers. Advanced planning was going about old school.

“Sir.”

“Have a seat.” Liberty extended a hand at the chair beside her. “Are we on track?”

“Looks like it.” I eased into the high backed chair, amazed at how comfortable it was. “Weapons have had another full system’s check. Life support systems are within operational limits, no issues with water reclamation or the oxygen generator. The plants are doing their job’s keeping up with Co2 consumption. Ion thrusters, liquid boosters and navigational controls are nominal. We’re good.”

“Glad to hear. XO?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He placed his hands on the table and clasped them together, forming a triangle with his bent arms. “Goddard, Captain Fryatt has informed me of her plans in detail for once we get back home. I understand you’ve been read in.”

“Which plans,” I asked, playing the least bit dumb. I knew we’d kicked William out of the Captain’s chair, but wasn’t sure how far Liberty had brought in our XO.

“Our plans to retake the government,” Liberty supplied.

“Oh.”

“Oh is right,” XO mused. “I have had to do some serious thinking. Where I do believe that the former Captain was wrong for hanging us out to dry—and he will pay for his traitorous crimes—I’m not sure we have the authority to reform the government, even if I agree it’s necessary. What the common Martian must endure under our current Brethren rule is immoral. I’ve been a piece of the problem and carry part of that weight as a result.”

“We don’t have the authority?” Liberty snapped, tapping her pen absently against the table like a drum stick. “Oh, we have it alright, thirty times over.”

And there it was. It always came back to the nukes.

XO’s mouth went tight. “In military might, there is no doubt. They are powerless to stop us, but the question is, would we make good on our bluff? Is our threat enough? Do you have the political resolve to undo your father’s work? You wish to hold the government hostage, sure, but would you go as far as to bomb them if they do not meet your demands? How do you show them you’re serious without turning into your father? That bastard would have let countless people die. He would have let my family die, murdering them by proxy just to bump our stock prices up a few points.” The shadows of the room gathering around his eyes along with his anger.

Stock prices? I thought, my teeth gently grinding against one another.

Liberty considered this for a minute, tossing down the pen, her eyes narrowing. She leaned forward on her elbows, breasts resting atop the table. “We know where the hidden city is, the one only important personnel are being kept. If those same people would be willing to let the rest of Mars burn for their survival, knowing what father did, then threatening the populous wouldn’t be useful in any event. I have their exact coordinates, so if they don’t take us serious enough, we can drop a smaller bomb just outside the zone, scaring them enough to co-operate. I can tell you now, they don’t have a spine of steel like you, XO.”

“That’s risky.” He began to flip through a tablet, light reflecting back onto his face. “There’s the radioactive fallout, and a small chance we could kill those traveling between the hidden city and Arsia Mons. I’m not sure what sort of damage it will do. The computer models are only so accurate.”

“We’ll warn them ahead of time, but not too far ahead, and there will be nothing they can do to stop us.”

XO pinched the bridge of his nose. “Have you decided on a political platform? Sure, wanting to see change is one thing, but you must have a solid plan. We can’t just walk in and demand that the wealthy give everyone a hand out.”

“Sure we can.”

“No.” He shook his head. “We can’t. You’re going to need to think about that. The only thing we can do is control the flow of money into their accounts. Taxes and fees. Have you considered setting up a profit sharing fund for the colonies? These families did take a substantial risk moving away from Earth, and we could give back to them in this way. That would equal out some of the income gap without causing too much political wake.”

“I have thought of that.” Liberty tapped her lips with a finger. “But we will need something more drastic than that method alone. We need a revolution.”

“Listen, ma’am, you can take peoples’ money and property with your weapons, but you can’t change their minds. Remember that. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do this, but making more enemies won’t do you any good.”

Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of Kelly loitering in the hall—or was it eavesdropping? A man after my own curious heart.

Liberty went on, “If it comes down to it, I’ll bomb the city and see their bunkers turned to dust.” She struck the table with her fists. “We have to see an end to this war and poverty, once and for all. And this will be the end. No more deaths. No more suffering.”

Kelly’s face blanched at her words. I nodded at him and he scurried off up the hall, looking shaky.

“Who’s that?” XO asked, leaning to look out. “Knew we should have shut the damn hatch.” It was a rebuke intended for himself.

“Kelly,” I replied. “He’s not been doing so well lately. I think he misses his family, lost them on Ceres those years back. You know how it is, certain events can bring it all back. Things are coming to a head.”

XO raised a fist. “Remember Ceres.”

Liberty and I returned the gesture. “Remember Ceres.”

The three of us stood, our meeting silently adjourned.

Liberty palmed her coat flat and pulled on the hem. “Are you with me?” She glared at XO. “Because if you’re not I can replace you. I’d rather not have to do that.”

He let out a sigh that betrayed more emotion than I’d ever seen in him. “Yes, ma’am. I’m with you. But if this little game threatens my wife and daughter, so help me—”

“Understood, Stone.”

XO left the room, leaving Liberty and I alone. I hadn’t said anything during the meeting, but something XO brought up had gotten me thinking again.

“You alright, Davie?” Liberty asked, snapping me from my reverie.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” But the thought he’d summoned wouldn’t go away. I had to get to the bottom of this.


--//--

Liberty and I spent the day in bed. It was nice no longer having to hide how we felt. This made some of the crew uneasy, an enlisted engineer and the Captain hooking up being a scandal and all, but as Liberty and I had decided awhile back, fuck ’em. Life was too short to worry about what others were thinking all of the time. We were far past the point of reprimands, so why the hell not?

As Liberty slept soundly, her naked body curled up beneath the sheets, I got up and searched for William Fryatt’s personal tablet. There was one question I needed the answer to. After a minute I found what I was looking for, resting inside the drawer of his massive four foot long desk. I took it with me back to the bed and eased up against Liberty’s warm, sleeping body. She was like a stone pulled fresh from the hearth.

I took a deep breath and unlocked the tablet with the sinking suspicion I wouldn’t be disappointed at the results.

Search: Pan-X Trade Agreement .

I’d been right, the information network was being censored. In less than a heartbeat, the full details of the Trade Agreement pulled up, and I wasn’t liking what I saw. It involved three players: China, Ceres and the Axis.

When the Axis had gone into business in 2055, they’d made an agreement with China to supply them with all the consumable materials required to keep Europa’s base running until it was self-sufficient. As the Axis began to turn out record profits, mostly in rare materials and advanced electronics research, word got around and China began to ask for higher prices on their goods. The Axis complied for a time, but it soon became a major burden as these trade prices weren’t set in stone.

In 2057, The Pan-X Trade Agreement, brought before China by the Axis’s high council, was meant to rectify this issue by granting the Chinese government a portion of the Axis’s profits in exchange for the necessary goods, thus increasing long-term incentives over short-term gain. Upon hearing of this, the Brethren moved into action, and with some creative, legal leg work, found a way for them to circumvent the deal after it had already been signed. As the Axis scrambled to form a new agreement, the Brethren swept in and offered a larger share of their profits to secure a twenty year deal with China, under the provision that all shipments were sent via Russian freighters owned by Bear Logistics. At the time China was in a bind, being that consumer driven luxury goods and novelties were down worldwide, and so they took the best deal they could out of economic survival.

The result: The Axis’s supply lines thinned, being the only goods they could purchase were at astronomical prices. The Jovian people began to starve, realizing the gravity of their situation being a sovereign corporation several hundred million miles away from Earth. Out there, you were alone in the truest sense. And without support, you were dead.

In 2058, three years later, as a last ditch effort to secure a new supply chain, the Axis made a deal with corrupt officials at Ceres station. By circumventing the Brethren government, they could secure their goods at a discount and keep Europa alive, while still being gouged. However, during their second visit to the asteroid belt, a bomb was set off, destroying both Ceres station and the Axis vessel. No one knew for sure who set the explosive.

2059, war was declared on both sides.

I set the tablet down and rubbed my eyes. Liberty stirred but didn’t wake, a sleepy moan escaping her. I ran a hand across her arm and down her warm back, tickling her skin. Her shoulders rolled and she edged closer.

“Shit,” I mumbled. “We pushed them to it.”

Even still, there was nothing I could do now. Just because we’d created the situation that had started the war, events were already set in motion and long past the window of apology. Our politicians had done this to us, knowing just what they were doing. God help us, we had to fight through this to reach the other side. There was no other option.

“David? What are you doing?” Liberty asked groggily. “Lay back down.”

I followed her instructions while wondering how much she knew. How much her father had told her. But I guess It didn’t matter. I’d keep it to myself.

[20]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

ETA: 1 hour till line of sight to “The Razor”

----------------------------------------------

“You ready, Lib?” I asked as she fastened her uniformed coat, one silver crossed button at a time. She wasn’t delaying, but also, wasn’t hurried. She was deep in thought, running the plan over and over in her mind, seeking to annihilate any errors she may have missed. That was her new role as Captain, to consider all possibility for something to go wrong and lead us through, but at this point, she’d done everything she could. Meetings with her, XO and I had lasted for days. All the bases had been covered.

She’d made sure all systems were running at full—weapons, power, life support, communications, optical and spectral scopes, targeting programs and sensor network feeds, emergency propulsion and pitch control—all meeting and exceeding factory specifications. She’d gone through drills in the event of explosive decompression, redistributed non-combat crew into safety zones and planned rescue response routes. This tiny space can was organized better than ever, ready for any number of possible events short of total destruction.

If a section was pierced, and that was likely, we would seal it off and transfer any crewmembers to the nearest safe zone. Doc and a few others would be on standby, ready to get anyone in need to the ship’s protected bunker in Med 1. It would offer limited protection for the injured, being in the near center of the ship, and have all the equipment necessary to treat them. Brix and Higgins were to patrol the ship, looking for any physical security issues or mental breakdowns, even though it seemed a bit pointless. The only enemy now, the Razor , was quickly whipping its way around the dayside of Mars from low orbit to bring its weapons to bear. No more time to plan. It was time for action. Time to leave our fate to God.

“I’m ready.” She tugged the bottom hem of her coat, making certain her shoulders were comfortably seated in their sleeves. She faced herself in the mirror and checked her hair once more—for the third time. Despite her bun being perfectly wound, her uniform neat and crisp, and a light dusting of makeup around the eyes, the


убрать рекламу


room—smelling of fresh sweat and latex—nearly soiled her supreme air of command. She replaced the juice cartridge of her vape pen and took a drag, blowing vapor at her reflection with a cold, tight grin. She put on her game face. By day’s end some of us would be destined for the cold well.

The final leg of our journey had passed in a blur. Everyone who had someone made use of their dwindling time among the living. XO had been in near constant contact with his wife and kids on Mars, Higgins had made nice with his daughters, Harold had asked his spouse for forgiveness over indiscretions while in the Mirror City, and Rosaleigh Head and Smith, free of Graham, had made their relationship public. There were many stories to tell, but they were all the same at the core.

Stage one, confessing what wrongs had been done.

Stage two, lengthy discussions and heightened emotional states.

Stage three, resignation over our dire situation and eventual forgiveness.

Stage four, reconciliation through the reminiscence of good times.

The only crewmember that didn’t seem content was Kelly. He was increasingly ornery over the smallest things. Kelly had had family, but they were gone, burned up in the attack on Ceres which started this whole mess. He was increasingly adamant about getting vengeance for their deaths, though feared the cost.

Liberty turned around and let out a sigh. “How about you? Are you ready, Davie?”

I kissed her on the lips before pressing my forehead against hers. “We do this together. Live or die.”

“Live or die,” she agreed, patting the nametag on my left chest. She then took my hands and squeezed them tight. “Smoke?”

I nodded and took the vape pen from her open palm. “Thanks.”

“I talked to father this morning.”

“What did he say?”

Her eyes trailed over the many trophies her father meticulously curated and placed within shadow boxes. “Nothing at all.”

“Was it enough?”

She remained silent and turned to leave, as if ignoring the question. But then she paused, right hand inches from the hatch’s control panel. “You know, we could always just leave. There’s a pair of short range lifeboats aboard. All we’d have to do is sneak off to the cargo bay. Mars is only a few hundred miles below, and I have contacts who could pick us up in skimmers. They could take us somewhere safe no one would find us.”

“You’d never be able to live with yourself. You’d never be able to set the scales right.”

She closed her eyes and a sullen sigh of resignation crawled out of her. “You’re right. I just—I was thinking of that sunset you spoke of. I was thinking of having a few more years with someone special before the end. I want to be your companion, sitting on the hillside beneath the mountains as a sea of black turns blue, then white, dust storms dancing in the sun’s distant shafts of life-giving luminescence. I want to feel your warmth as the red planet changes, as we make it breathable for all mankind. I want others to see it.”

“This isn’t the end.”

“Not the end.” She took a deep breath from in front of the hatch and depressed the button. “Here we go.”

We stepped through the portal, shifting from informal to formal like a switch, duty radiating from us both like a yellow giant star. I would have liked nothing more than to have run away with her, but I couldn’t. These people had suffered with us, died with us. We had to see it through to the end. Love or not, selfish or not, we couldn’t keep from doing what was right. And what was right for now, was to win the battle and change the world. A small task, sure, but we rested upon the fulcrum of change.

We entered the bridge as one, welcomed by the sound of hurried chatter and bleeping sensors. XO waved a hand and pointed at the main display. I stood at attention at the side of the room, lips sealed and waiting for orders.

The main display showed two predominant images. One, our virtual location with glorious Mars beneath, radioactive scans and spectral analysis beamed to us direct from our network of sensor satellites showing us the Razor’s  status. The second, a live video feed from detachable drones flying aloft our ship and pointing down. We were on the night side of Mars, traveling along the equator with the planet’s rotation. The Razor  was orbiting towards us from the dayside, approaching us from behind. From the drone’s view, the Vindicator , a white series of cans stuck together with circular solar wings, could be seen zooming just above the ultra-thin atmosphere of Mars, red and orange mountains among the vast windswept plains flowing beneath her like a river. I could just make out the thread of the space elevator at Arsia Mons a few thousand miles ahead, leading down onto the dark surface where it met with the bright dotted lights of home.

“Sitrep?” Liberty asked, sounding very much like her father in tone.

“Fifty-five minutes till we’re in line of sight,” XO replied. “We have twenty-five functioning two-stage batteries, all set for the fight, not that we’ll get the chance to fire that many at close range. Auxiliary power is sufficient to see us through the battle if solar is rendered inoperable. Soft suits are being distributed right now in case of decompression.” He pointed to a security display, showing both Griffin and Kelly passing out soft suits to every crewmember on board. “Your father and Graham have been locked up in Crew 2 as requested. That’ll give Griffin, Kelly and Goddard free movement during the fight. Don’t need opposing ideals coming out during battle. Graham’s got a mouth on him.”

Liberty nodded. “Excellent.”

“We’re about to bring weapons up and run a test.”

“Goddard,” Captain Liberty Fryatt, not Lib, turned to address me. “See that test through.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” I tipped my head, saluted, and was off. I was starting to get used to this, Liberty being Captain and all. I liked it—a lot.

I puffed on the vape pen as I made for the back of the ship, blowing smoke into my path. It helped to calm my nerves, giving me something to focus on other than my fears. Several simple things happened in slow motion. I saw a small group huddled together in Crew 1, their heads bowed in prayer. Doc patted me on the back and gave me a thumbs up. Devins wished me good luck. Higgins gave a salute and smiled.

“Give ’em hell, Goddard,” Brix said, sliding on his soft suit.

“Only because you said so,” I told him.

“Damn right.”

“Sir! Get your suit yet?” Griffin asked as I entered weapons storage and control, my station for the remainder of our engagement.

“Yeah, thanks. It’s over there by the wall.”

“Time to get suited up?”

“Not yet, we have plenty of time before we’ll need them. The cabin will remain pressurized. Where’s Kelly?”

She hopped up on a metallic box and shrugged. “Passing out a couple more suits and he’ll be done. Five minutes, no more.”

“You seem a little chipper, all things considered.”

“Maybe.” She cocked her head to the side and winked. “But like you said once before, it’s just another alarm.”

I narrowed my eyes at her but said nothing. She was being brave and I didn’t want to take that away. “By the numbers, Griffin.” To business.

“Yes, sir.”

I held up my watch, wrist in. “Bridge, you there?” The screen before me displayed the same information as the bridge’s, only that mine had a third status window. Inside the frame it showed the icons of all twenty-five nuclear batteries full with green light. They were ready to go.

“Copy, Goddard,”  XO called back.

“Standby for firing test.”

Griffin hopped down and began working, fingers skittering across the keys of the controls like a pianist. “Engaging counter rotation. Locking armature. Releasing fire control to the bridge.” She pressed the release button and frowned. “Releasing fire control to the bridge.” Nothing happened. She pressed the button again and again, harder each time. Her face screwed up and turned white. “Releasing… Goddard? Sir?”

I hit the button, having the same result, and felt sick. No response. Not even an error message. Not even the satisfying click of a tactile button.

“Something wrong?”  XO buzzed from my watch. “Kelly, just put the suits over there…” 

“Not sure, sir.” I fought it best I could, but my wrist was trembling. “It’s not letting us release the firing control.”

“Can we control weapons from there?” 

I flipped a couple switches, trying to reroute manual control to the weapon’s room. We’d done this during training exercises, but never combat. No luck there either. I couldn’t even get to a command prompt from our interface. Nothing would work. It was as if the system was locked up, a kernel failure or stop error, not just a lock out.

“Shit,” I mumbled.

Griffin scrubbed her lips with finger tips. “What’s wrong? Bad hard disk? Ram sticks go out? A full diagnostics will take hours. Too long.”

“We need to get into the core right now. I hate it, but we’re gonna have to do a hard reset. That’s all I can think to do. Maybe one of the drivers has gotten corrupted, maybe an old firmware copy loaded during a power cycle. I have no idea, and we don’t have the time to fuck around with it.”

She raked a hand through her hair, random, sweaty strands sticking up on end. “Alright, but I might have a way around it. I’ve got some backups on my tablet.”

“XO,” I spoke into my wrist. “We’re going to have to do a hard reset on the weapons. Despite yesterday’s clear test, they’re not working. As it stands right now we can’t fire a thing.”

“Copy that. Work fast. We have forty minutes till show time. I don’t wanna show up on stage just to get shot in the face.”  

A number appeared on my watch, counting down the minutes.

I took a pull off the vape and climbed into the spine of the ship. All systems had tested fine yesterday, so why go out now? Nearly ten years this ship had been in the void, traveling from world to world with hardly an issue but for regular maintenance. Now the computer was on the fritz? The weapons were out? Most modern, solid state systems could last for decades without issue. Something wasn’t right. This was far too convenient.

We entered the spine of the ship and the pull of gravity vanished.

“Here.” Griffin floated ahead to the weapon’s computer, a grey box with a bank of open ports on its side. “Let me jack in. I think I can reinstall the weapon’s drivers manually.” She unclipped her tablet and plugged direct, not wasting time with pairing or short range wireless beam dropping. Eighty gigabit wired feeds were far more reliable anyways. “Wait, what’s this?” She pointed at the far side of the computer’s box.

A length of optical cable was running away from the box, back towards the aft of the ship, carefully hidden between the various multicolor pipes. I followed its trail, floating from one section to the next.

I shouted back at Griffin, “Oh, shit.”

She spun around and let go of her tablet. It floated into the wall, tethered by its cable. “What? What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Someone’s linked the systems. It’s jacked into the information network and secondary chemical storage.”

“Oh, shit.” She began to work frantically, taking the tablet back into her hands. She flipped through various screens, browsing for the files she needed while also speaking verbal commands.

With hackers having access to computers capable of more processing power than fifty of our ships combined, brute force attacks via the Sol Net were a real threat. It was for this reason we kept our systems both physically and virtually separate. Only in extreme emergencies, when more than three fourths of our crew were dead or incapacitated, were we even allowed to interconnect these systems, and only then by cable. Someone had done this and tried to hide the evidence. There was a good chance that this had been done weeks ago, but was so carefully hidden we’d missed it in our final safety sweep the day before. Whoever had done this, had to have been the one to plant the code I’d found in the chemical storage bios. The target was real. Really real. It wasn’t the former captain.

“Who could have done this?” she asked, then began banging her tablet against the box. “Work, damn it. Work!”

“No time to figure that out. What do we do to fix it? You’re the computer expert.”

“I… I’m not sure. Let’s see, first, let’s disconnect the linking cables so no further changes can be made.”

“Good idea.” I reached around the information network’s box, trying to free the cable. RJ-90 was a particular challenge to unclip without a screwdriver, which for some reason I didn’t have. Come to think of it, many of my tools were missing. The cable’s release clip was a narrow slit in which leverage needed to be applied upon a razor’s edge to free them of their ports. Female maintenance members often found this kind of work easier than males due to their fashionably longer fingernails. Their nails gave them all the leverage they needed without having to carry extra tools on them.

“Fuck!” Griffin shouted, punching the bulkhead beside the weapon’s box. “I can’t get this cable out, my nails are too damn short.”

And as the words came out of her, the two of us stared at one another, eyes wide with a sickening realization.

“Liberty?” I called into my wrist, trying to sound calm. I put my feet against the bulkhead and yanked the cable with all my might. Screw trying to unclip these cables, I’d rip the bitches in half if need be. The cable’s male ends snapped, severing the connection and sending tiny pieces of plastic scattering in the air.

“Captain Fryatt?” I called again, heart rate increasing. I fumbled in my pockets, rushing back to Griffin, looking for the earpiece Liberty had given me those many months back. As I slipped it on I heard tense voices.

“Don’t move,”  a raspy male said, “and I won’t burn her alive. Plasma torches get real hot, sir.” 

“Kelly, it doesn’t have to be like this,”  XO bled in.

“The hell it doesn’t! I was sent here on a mission, and if you people hadn’t been so damn… I mean… Why are you making me do this? I have to do this, you understand, right? I can’t let you succeed. William Fryatt was going to kill us all.” 

And there it was. Kelly, it had always been Kelly. Not even the great William Fryatt had known. He’d been too focused on his daughter getting laid to even notice. There was a spy, a saboteur of the Axis on board, but for whatever reason he’d hesitated and not killed us outright. Was it because of guilt? A crumbling resolve? Or maybe he’d had a crush on a smart, sporty tomboy of a girl? It didn’t matter now. We had to fix this problem. I had to save Liberty.

“It’s Kelly,” I told Griffin. “He’s on the bridge. He has Liberty hostage with a plasma torch.”

“That bastard,” she growled at her tablet. “I should have known. I’ve spent more time with him than anyone on this ship. Damn it, I should have known, long ass fingernail.”

“Can you fix it?” I tried to keep a grip on my calm, but it was greasy and slick like pig fat. “’Cause next thing we have to rescue them.”

She went through her tablet again, reviewing the data she’d hastily collected. “Yes, I can fix this, but we’ll have to reset this box and it won’t let me do it through the system. Every time I try and run the command, forcing it to power cycle, it clears away my text.”

I removed the vape pen from my pocket, took a drag and said, “Will a power surge do it? I know it’s got built in breakers, but I don’t wanna cook it.”

“Yeah, but it’ll have to be a lot of juice.”

“Ten thousand volts too much?”

“No. Maybe? No. Yeah. That’s—”

“Perfect.” I flipped the safety switch on the side of the vape pen and jabbed its end against the box, depressing the button. A sizzling arc of blue light came out its end. The lights on the side of the weapon’s box went off, then returned a moment later. The computer had begun its normal restart, a soft whirr of fans spinning up in confirmation.

“That should do it,” Griffin gaped. “I need me one of those.”

“We’ll get you one when we’re back home.”

My watch buzzed. Thirty minutes remained.

As the system booted up she worked furiously, reinstalling a series of older, more reliable weapons drivers. “Can you stun him with that thing?”

“Not before he cooks our new Captain. Besides, I think it’s busted.” I inspected the tube’s blackened end while running simulations in my head. I got the feeling Kelly didn’t want to kill anyone directly, or he already would have. He would let the Razor  do his dirty work. There would be no way to tackle him without risking her. We had no guns on board, and if I threw something I’d be just as likely to hit her as him. There had to be another way, had to.

Griffin’s expression pinched. “What do we do?” She disconnected the uplink cable and clipped the tablet to her leg. “Alright, we can release control to the bridge, but not operate remote.”

“So we have to take the bridge back. No option.”

“But how?”

“We have to incapacitate him. Maybe we could…” A thought surfaced in the murky depths of my mind. What would Liberty and I do? What have we done before? “Does Kelly still carry that old tablet?”

“The one with that crappy processor and lithium ion battery? Yeah. I can’t even believe they let him bring it aboard.”

“Where does he carry it most of the time?”

“In the pocket on the left chest of his jumpsuit. Why?”

“I have an idea.” I threw myself down the zero-g tunnel to Crew 1. “Brix,” I called into my watch. “Situation?”

“I’m a little busy.” 

“Are you outside the bridge?”

“Yes.” 

“Is there anything you can do to help?”

“No. I can’t get in. Kelly’s locked the room. He’d been planning this all along.” 

“I know. Hold tight till we can move. I think I can free the Captain.”

“Don’t be stupid, Goddard. What are you going to do?” 

“When am I ever stupid?”

“I’m not going to answer that.” 

“Standby to help if you can.”

Crew 1 was empty, everyone in their safe place or at duty stations. Most of the ship might not have even been aware we were on the edge of a knife with a hostage situation on the Bridge. I found my spare tool belt under the bunk and went to the food dispensing station, tearing away dry hoppers of AFiN slop to get at the heart of the machine. Flakes of white, like freeze dried snow, scattered on the floor.

“What are you doing, sir?”

“Saving our asses.” With the flat end of a screwdriver, I ripped off the back of our microwave and began to disassemble it. Numbers were rushing through my head, trying to work out the glaring issues with my hair brained scheme. I knew it could work, but it had to be quick and this usually wasn’t. I had to run the magnetron beyond its highest settings. “What do I need? Four thousand? No, five thousand watts? Best be safe.”

My watch buzzed. Twenty minutes remained till the Razor  could hit us.

The earpiece cut in again. Liberty’s voice. “Kelly, we can work this out. Trust me. I know you want to. I’m sorry you hate us, and I can see how, but we can find a middle ground. There is a diplomatic solution no matter how dire this situation.” 

“Hate? I don’t hate you! Fryatt, you’ve been kind to me. But… I have to do this, don’t you see? I’m sorry, so sorry. I can’t let you kill everyone on Europa. I just can’t.” 

“We won’t, I promise. This ends today.” 

“You’re right, Fryatt, it does. It has to. No more risking. No more risking.” 

Liberty kept him busy by talking.

After a couple minutes the microwave was broken down into three parts. “Pass me a spare length of pipe and a three inch, metal insulator sleeve.”

“From where?”

“In that closet on the left.”

My watch buzzed. Fifteen minutes left. Mars’s horizon was the only thing keeping us safe from the Razor . We had to take back the bridge now or we’d be defenseless.

Griffin handed me a length of half inch pipe five feet long. I bound the magnetron—the cylindrical piece of a microwave that emits charged particles to heat food—to the end of the stick with a length of adhesive tape. I then bound its wiring onto the pole, running it back to where the power supply and original housing were located. I thought of looking for an extension cord to supply the power needed, but instead opted for a spare set of combo torch batteries. We had to be mobile, but all we needed was one shot. Those batteries would supply more than the required wattage. The resulting jury-rigged weapon was like a spear wrapped in cables, a loose box on its back end with a copper can on the tip bent to a funnel with a two-inch hole.

“This is gonna be messy,” I said, motioning towards the ceiling with the microwave spear. “Grab the box, I can’t carry it all. We’ll take the spine.” Griffin picked up the back end, helping me get it into the maintenance core.

As we floated towards the bridge’s access hatch, the earpiece hissed and whined. “Why…? I just don’t… Why…? They told me not to get too close. They told me and I didn’t listen. I’m contaminated now. Tainted. Unclean. I can never be part of the collective again. Ascension is beyond me.”  

I whispered into the earpiece, hoping Liberty could hear. “Get ready to jump out of the way.”

There was no response.

Griffin keyed into the floating display of the microwave: POWER SETTING-MAX. TIME 1 SECOND. “Tell me when,” she said, finger hovering over start.

I made a mental calculation, taking a guess at where Kelly might be standing, hoping that the archaic tablet was still in his pocket. If he hadn’t locked out other systems in the ship, I might just have been able to access a security camera. I rotated around, putting my belly to the relative floor and extended the microwave spear before me. He should be in front of me. I threw my chin out in Griffin’s direction, and in response she kicked in the emergency release button on the wall beside her.

The hatch flew open, giving me a clear view of Kelly standing beside Liberty’s chair. The nozzle of the plasma torch lay against her neck just below her birthmark. His trigger finger twitched as his already large eyes widened. He took a step back.

“Liberty!” I shouted, hoping Kelly would be slow to respond. “Get back!” I shoved the microwave spear through the opening, brandishing the copper magnetron and aiming it at his left chest. “Start!”

The microwave beeped once as Griffin hit the button. The fans inside the housing, turntable motors and power supply surged with overcharge, flooding the magnetron with more energy than it was designed to channel. The wires beneath my clutched fingers went hot. A stream of invisible, charged particles shot out the end of the insulation sleeve, penetrating Kelly’s jumpsuit to bombard the tablet. As heat rapidly built within the tablet’s lithium ion battery, it expanded, making it grow fat and hot, melting its casing and bulging beneath his clothes. Kelly began to scream, first in shock, then pain, his synthetic jumpsuit melting onto his chest like molten wax.

He stumbled back, letting the torch fall crashing from his limp hands onto the metal floor. I kept the spear aimed in place, not wavering for an instant, watching as his soft eyes glazed over. He fell against a computer console, scrambling to find purchase, diodes and screens and switches turning brighter and brighter as microwaves powered them unto death.

I held the beam in place. Five more seconds to end this. Don’t go soft.

The tablet’s battery flashed and exploded, sending a puff of smoke from out of his chest and into the cabin. The organic electrolytes in the battery ignited, burning Kelly’s skin to a cinder, melting his clothing like plastic. Liberty shielded herself out of reflex, raising her right arm up to her face, but it wasn’t enough. She was within arm’s reach. Superheated bits of metal, plastic and acidic chemicals sprayed across her right cheek and down her neck, settling into her flesh. Liberty screamed in agony.

The microwave’s timer dinged and I let go of the pole, jumping through the open hatch to land flat footed on the bridge. XO rushed over to Kelly, putting out the fire by suffocating it with his uniform’s coat. Kelly didn’t twitch. Liberty slumped back in her chair, lips quivering, breathing shallow.

“Oh, my God. Liberty.”

She reached out and snatched my hand. “It’s okay—David. I’m alive.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“I know.”

“Let’s get Doc.” I waved a hand to call for help.

“No time, we only have ten minutes. Everyone needs to get on their soft suits.”

“I’ll call him anyways. A lot of good you’ll be in a fight hurting like this.” I caressed the skin around her face, careful to avoid the serious burns. Below her dark flesh the skin was already turning pink and ashy, her birthmark having vanished among the various second degree heat and chemical burns. I pressed the medical emergency button on my watch and waited, holding her hand.

“Is he?” Griffin asked the XO.

He nodded gravely. “Looks like Kelly’s skin was cooked away and his heart exploded. He’s dead. Damn it.” The doors finally opened. “Hey, Brix, come get this asshole’s corpse off our bridge.”

Brix shouldered in and dead lifted Kelly’s corpse, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth.

Rosaleigh spun around in her chair. “Ma’am. They’re about to come around. The Razor  will be free in two minutes.”

“Copy that.” Liberty stood in front of her chair, holding my arm to steady herself. “Everyone suit up. We might have had a spy on board, but we stick to the plan. Soft suits and magnet boots. Let’s end this.”

[21]

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги

----------------------------------------------

Mutually assured destruction was a phrase often thrown about in our line of work. Our weapons were so powerful that there were no known materials to protect us from them. Impact, anywhere on the ship, would expose us to the unforgiving void, ushering us forth onto death with all due haste. Despite all our high technology, our engagement had been reduced to a pair of 17th century dandies facing one another broadside with single shot pistols. To win the fight, we merely need shoot the enemy before they shot us. Ships did not pound away at one another for hours, taking dastardly maneuvers or pulling last second cheap tricks. Aim and reflex would win the day, along with a healthy measure of luck and God’s favor. Trial by combat. A duel to the death.

Doc arrived with the Nurse. He put a strip of false skin across Liberty’s fresh burns and gave her an injection to numb the pain. He’d suggested morphine, but she needed her head clear and opted for a local anesthetic instead. From the look of her expression it didn’t appear to be helping.

Smith bristled at me. “Nice job, Goddard. You took out half my controls with that damned contraption. How the hell am I gonna be the Comm now?”

“But I’m still alive,” Liberty said, coming to my defense. “Microwave gun?”

“Microwave gun,” I agreed while cutting Smith a scowl.

“Great for pranks,” the words groaned out of Liberty. “But let’s keep it off the bridge next time.”

After Doc finished she began sliding on her soft suit, one leg at a time along with everyone else. This was my cue to leave.

“David,” Liberty said, a longing in her eyes.

“I know.” I kissed her on the left side of her face, careful not to touch her burns.

The timer on my watch hit zero and a roaring klaxon sounded. The Vindicator  flashed red. The fight had begun.

Rosaleigh began her reports, “Range, one point one million kilometers. They’re on our visual scopes. Hell yeah, looks like they’ve taken quite a pounding. Two solid boosters, non-functional. Their secondary reactor is disabled. Auxiliary solar array is ripped up like tissue paper. I can see some damage to their nuclear battery ring as well, but it’s minor.”

Liberty slipped on her fishbowl helmet. “Excellent. Goddard, weapons.” I nodded and ran off as fast as I could.

“General quarters,”  XO called over the intercom. “Suit up and report to your stations. Enemy fire will commence momentarily.”  

As soon as I’d returned to weapons control I threw on my soft suit. It was heavy, but not anything like a full EVA rig. It was a few sizes larger than a jumpsuit, similarly colored with stiff, grey fabric trimmed in red. Oxygen canisters lined the back of its belt, as did a small power unit that supplied heating, cooling, and gas exchange. I wiggled my fingers into the gloves, stepped side to side, and was relieved that the joints felt loose. It was like wearing an oversized set of coveralls with a weighted belt. I took a deep breath and put on my helmet, fully aware of the tightening space I was being pressed into.

Rosaleigh, Smith, and Liberty’s voices chattered in my helmet as communication was streamed around the


убрать рекламу


ship. I took a step in the suit and felt sluggish, but knew that when we got hit, and it would happen, I’d rather not try and breathe vacuum.

The bridge: “They’re powering up.”  

“Griffin, power core.” I waved a hand at her, the first two fingers extended.

“On my way.”

“Incoming fire from the Razor.” 

Liberty: “Rotate the ship, keep us facing towards them, like we’re backing off. Face on, they’ll have less surface area to hit.” 

Rosaleigh: “Already adjusting our pitch, ma’am.” 

The Razor  fired but I could see nothing, hear nothing but my own heavy breaths inside the helmet. The suit smelled of chlorine just like the air scrubbers, almost too clean for comfort.

There was no big buildup, no watching a red dot as it zipped across a view screen. There was nothing at all. The room flashed red, and the sound of our alarms faded into the background, muffled by the tempered glass of my helmet.

“The Razor’s shot missed.” 

“Excellent. Goddard?” 

“Loading projectile. Rails powering up. Griffin?”

“All set, sir. Ready for power reset. Captain?” 

“Ready to fire. Taking aim.” 

The ship hissed and fizzled. For a moment I thought I felt my fingers tingle as the massive EMF washed over us. Griffin gagged over the com channel. Five seconds passed.

“Direct hit on the Razor. Took a chunk right out of their propulsion section.” 

Liberty: “Get ready to fire again.” 

I made the necessary actions. Batteries checked. Loaded into place. Wait. Fire. Repeat.

“We missed by five degrees, they pushed her out of the way. Incoming.” 

The shot whizzed past our ship without making contact. Another lucky moment.

“Goddard? Ready?”   

“Ready, Captain.”

“Firing.” 

The Vindicator  groaned and went black. A reset. It was up to Griffin to restore power. I impatiently waited on her, counting off the agonizing seconds.

One. Darkness. My father was in prison. He had to be freed when we got back.

Two. Deep breaths. Liberty wanted to change the world. She was the one for the job.

Three. Panic rising in my chest. Ignore it. We had to commit treason in order to do what was right. To hold our government hostage for a better future.

Four. Rapid heartbeat. Shaking right hand. I just want to see the system at peace, happiness. I want to see the dreams of our red world return to us, to grow, to terraform.

Five. A sense of being trapped. Force it away. All I wanted was to be with her, alive, watching the sun set.

Six. The lights came back on. The helmet’s com channel came back up.

“Incoming!”  Rosaleigh shouted into my ear.

Liberty: “Evasive maneuvers. Flash navigational burn, positive y, any value!” 

There was no time for me to contemplate what a projectile traveling 220,000 km/s could do when hitting us broadside. I felt the pressure in the cabin shift, turned to see the hatches in weapons control slam shut. I checked a status display and saw that the shot had taken us right through the Power Core.

“Griffin, report,” I growled. No response. I overrode the hatch controls and worked my way through the cargo bay. The ship had readjusted pressure, removed and stored all air it could save. I was now in vacuum, our ship blown off course the result of rapid decompression.

I sucked in a breath and prayed.

Half of the power core’s wall was missing, nothing but twisted bars and bits of poly alloy collected around a gaping maw. I approached the opening, seeing the river of a red world rushing beneath us. Griffin was out there, falling slowly towards the planet below. She was shaking, hands scrabbling at her cracked helmet. I reached out for her but she was too far away, traveling several meters per second opposite the ship. It was the most helpless I’d ever felt. All I could do was watch her die, watch her suffocate in the void, another death to weigh down the scales. I searched for anything that could help. It would take too long to get an EVA rig out to her, and Liberty needed me here.

“Griffin,” I hissed into the com channel.

David ,” she whispered, a frantic twist to her voice. “I gotta get out of this. I don’t wanna go this way. I don’t wanna die like César. ”

“I don’t want you to either.”

Suddenly, I was flung away from the opening, a solid object crashing into my shoulder. I tried to recover but flew into a breaker box, its edge catching me in the ribs. I glared back at the opening and saw someone with broad shoulders leaping from the ship into open space. Steadily, the newcomer’s suit floated towards Griffin, arms out wide. As soon as they’d closed the distance, they clamped down, embracing Griffin in a crushing bear hug.

“Pull us in, hot shot,”  Brix said over the com channel. “She won’t last long. Her suit’s leaking like hell.” 

“Brix! Hot damn!”

I looked down and saw a tether clipped to the floor. I drew them back in. Despite being in microgravity, the rotation of the ship made their bodies’ mass feel greater than normal. I strained as I might drawing a stone from a lake. Momentum soon took hold and the task became easier.

“Thanks,”  Brix said as he set foot back inside the ship. “I’ll take her to Med 1.” 

“Griffin? You alright?” I asked, putting a palm against her cracked, fishbowl helmet.

She raised her right hand and held up a weak thumb. Not today. Hot damn, not today.

“Captain,” I said, taking a visual inspection of the power core. “It’s just me now. Griffin got spaced, but Brix brought her back in. She’s not in good shape.”

“Shit,”  Liberty spat. “Get back into—” 

Rosaleigh: “Another shot, incoming.” 

The shot took us across the top of the ship in relation to Mars, ripping off a rail gun and sending its wreckage spinning into one of the PV arrays. My watch’s alarms screamed like mad, informing me that critical systems were either damaged or offline. We had main power, but that wouldn’t last.

As soon as I was back at the controls I switched to our secondary railgun. Our only weapon. I loaded another battery, checked the rest of them and gave the okay. Just before I said, ready, music began to bleed in over the com channel. “Rock You Like a Hurricane” by the Scorpions. I gave a grim smile.

“Here I am, you sons of bitches,”  Liberty growled.

I watched the display, our ship flashing with focused energy as the projectile was hurled from our railgun. A moment later, a flash of white gas, and a glittering line of metallic dust shot out the ass end of the Razor’s  image. The projectile had gone through the front and out the back. We’d pierced their can right through the pull tab.

“Direct hit!”  Rosaleigh shouted over the com, heavy metal guitars and crewmembers cheering us on.

“Take that you assholes.” I shook a gloved fist above my head.

The Razor  began to free fall into a hard spin, its fat, backend spiraling quicker with each rotation. I could see their railguns flashing white and black in the display. Tiny jets of air attempted to slow their spin. The lights aboard the Vindicator  dimmed to brown.

“Oh, shit, don’t do this to me now.” Power was failing, lights flickering. Our backup batteries were terminally leaking fluids. “No, no, no, no!” I hurried to the power core and inspected the damage closely.

“Goddard, sitrep,”  Liberty said.

“It’s going down, damn it. The power. All of it. There isn’t anything I can do in the time we have. We’ve lost half our photovoltaics. The backups have been gutted. And…” The display showed a positive power line running into our secondary rail gun at zero voltage. It had been severed.

Can we fire?”  Liberty asked, lowering the music’s volume to a soft hum. “Can we?” 

I frantically searched for an answer. There had to be a way. I glanced at the storage cabinet beside the breakers, back to the hole in the side of the Vindicator  Griffin had been sucked out, and then over to the power distribution box on the wall. I turned to face the hole in our ship.

“Maybe. I have an idea.”

“David, I know that tone of yours. This is going to be stupid.” 

“It is stupid, but it’ll work. I think.”

I slung open the storage cabinet’s door and reached inside, producing a braid of heavy gauge insulated graphene cable one thousand feet long. It was flexible and thin, but even in low-g it was heavy, making it a challenge to  keep balance. Thank God I was in shape. I wasn’t sure if the cable would carry enough current, but it was all I could think to do. Without both the positive and negative end of the circuit on the secondary rail we had no hope of firing back at the enemy. Other power concerns were almost inconsequential in light of this. I was sure I could fix the original line, as well as main power, but we had no time for that. We had to fire at the enemy while they were limping. It was our only hope. We had to put this rabid dog down before it snapped and chewed our other leg off.

I fastened the end of the graphene cable to an open connection in the power distribution box, uncoiling half a dozen feet while edging closer to the gaping maw at my back like I was rappelling. I had to guess at what length I’d need. Over my shoulder Mars swung past every few seconds, the hab of the Vindicator  spinning round and round. I took in a breath and focused. If I failed, we’d be dead. If I succeeded, we might still be dead. But I wasn’t giving up. I’d ride this bitch to the ground if I had to, throwing rocks at the enemy all the way.

“Here we go.” I disengaged the magnetic boots and hurled myself back through the hole. The ship continued to spin downward from my perspective as I rose. The edge of the breech slammed against my length of tightening cable and tossed me forward. I held firm to the cable as the ship spun and drew me in like the line of a winch. My fingers slipped for an instant and I gasped, but I clamped down with all my might and renewed my hold. Once I was close enough to the hull I reengaged the boots and clumsily found magnetic purchase aloft the ship’s exterior. I was safely outside, feet planted on a rotating can of death.

I held my sigh of relief.

“Still alive,” I called into the com.

“Be careful,”  Liberty croaked.

As the hab continued to rotate I began to feel sick. Mars appeared just over my head, sliding down before my eyes and vanishing beneath my feet every few seconds. I squinted and focused on my target, the massive Nuclear Battery Ring ahead, trying not to think of the disorienting view repeatedly swinging past. I felt tiny as I trudged forward like a fly through honey. The ship seemed massive standing on the outside.

“The Razor, they’re turning around,”  Rosaleigh reported, voice resonating in my helmet.

I risked a glance over my shoulder to confirm. A glint of light heralded the position of the Razor .

“Go, David, go,” I told myself, moving as quickly as the magnetic boots would allow. It wasn’t fast enough. It was a bad idea to do an EVA on a rotating hab in a soft suit without personal propulsion. Our false gravity worked against me, attempting to hurl me off the hull into space. My brains threatened to go flat against the top of my skull. I clung to the extending cable. Its connection inside the power core was all that could save me if my magnetic boots decided to give out.

Liberty: “David? Do we have power yet?” 

“Working on it. Almost there.” I reached the trussed latticework of poly steel connecting the battery ring to the ship. I tied the coiled cable in a loose knot at the bottom, allowing me to control direction as it unspooled. I disengaged the boots. The rotation of the hab hurled me outward, up and towards my goal. I let the graphene cable slide through my gloves as I ascended. My hands became warm as my heart stuck in my throat.

Reaching the top I kicked open an access panel and shoved the cable’s end into an open, positively charged high voltage connection that was part of the ring’s power control center. After it was securely twisted in place, I let go and drew myself up, hand over hand back towards the ship along the trussing. I no longer had the safety of the cable to cling to, only my own handholds. The flexible, unfurling line of the cable whipped in the open space over my shoulder.

Climbing back to the ship was harder than I’d ever considered. Gravity worked against me full tilt. I strained and pulled, muscles screaming, knowing that if I let go I’d be in for a slow death. One hand over the next.

Ten feet to go.

“Come on, David. Come the fuck on, you stupid asshole.”

Five feet.

Two feet.

I reached the bottom and spun around, putting my boots flush against the hull. They clicked into place and allowed me to hiss a sigh of relief.

Rosaleigh: “They’re firing back.” 

I winced at the report. It wasn’t as if I’d be any safer inside the ship with a projectile ripping through us at half the speed of light, but it was a natural reflex to get down.

The Razor’s  projectile skimmed laterally across the ship and opened us up like a split can of tuna. Showers of metal flew past towards the aft end. The red world loomed beneath, then above, our home so close, yet so far away. An alarm beeped in my helmet. Air was jetting out from my hand.

Beneath the shadow of the battery ring I rushed for the arboretum’s emergency airlock, dodging the glittering debris of our ship. I punched in my code and threw myself inside. From the cramped space I unclipped my tablet and made a few remote commands, rerouting the positive power flow to the cable’s port. Green lights appeared.

“Captain, we’ve got power,” I said while patching the hole in my glove with a strip of bonding tape.

“David,”  Liberty hissed through my watch, having taken herself off the main channel. “We only get one more shot at this.”  

“I know,” I said, steeling myself for what was to come. “I—I just want to say…”

“Me too, David. Me too.” 

I returned to weapons storage and control, following the usual routine. “Loading weapon. Powering up rails. Aim well, Liberty.”

“I’ll see you at sunset,”  she said, her voice ponderous.

“See you at sunset.”

Rosaleigh: “Ma’am, the Razor, she’s firing again.” 

I knew it would come to this. It always came to this. An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.

I closed my eyes and Liberty shouted, her battle cry so fierce it made my eardrums bleed.

“Fire!” 

About the author:

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги


A native to the Magic City, J. Fitzpatrick Mauldin has always lived with one foot in a world of steel and concrete, another in that of imagination and futurism. He is the product of a micro-biologist father and engineer grandfather, both obsessed with history, who have always challenged him to think harder. J. Fitzpatrick Mauldin has lived many lives from electronic music producer and DJ during the early 2000s to an entrepreneur in promotional products, and is now an administrator for one of the world’s largest real estate brands. He is married to a book addicted wife and has a mad genius daughter, the latter of which might one-day rule the world. Aside from the madness of the day to day, he dreams of returning to his second home in the Pacific Northwest, where he can continue to write his own brand of sci-fi and fantasy which teeters upon the edge of hard science and speculation.

To read other stories by J. Fitzpatrick Mauldin, visit: www.jfitzpatrickmauldin.com

Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jfmauldin

And on Facebook: www.facebook.com/jfmauld

Copyright

 Сделать закладку на этом месте книги


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Copyright 2018, Cosmic Entanglement Media

www.JFitzpatrickmauldin.com

Second Edition


убрать рекламу








На главную » Mauldin J Fitzpatrick » Final Solution.