Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Over 18


The crashed Alcubierre probe was littered over an area the size of a small town. 
It had hit the top of a mountain peak at a tremendous speed, smashing the rocky outcrop into dust, taking the front section of the long probe with it. However, the impact forced the remainder of the probe up into the air, checking its rapid descent. It smashed back down onto the other side of the mountain, cutting a deep gash into the ground as it scraped its way down the slope, kicking up dust and debris as it went. 
Towards the bottom of the mountain, it his another outcrop of rock, sending the probe again arcing up. This time it fell on its side, and started to role. Crashing down the rest of the mountain side, bouncing, the probe disintegrated. As the ground flattened what was left of the probe slowed further. The force of momentum continued its journey for another click or two on the now flat ground, but the probe gradually came to a halt.  
The probe swore. 
"That you Lloyd?" Chen was upside down, the section of hardened foam he had been encased in had snapped from the rest and been thrown through the fractured wall of the data node room and into the workings of the probe on the other side. He still couldn't see anything other than the smear of the foam packed over his visor, but he could wiggle the fingers on his right hand. That was doubly good news as first it meant that he still actually had fingers to wiggle, but also if they were outside of the foam then he could hopefully start to work his way out. He wiggled them some more, except this time he could move part of his hand as well. Progress. The wiggling continued. 
"I'm blind dude. SHIT. I think my eyes fell out. FUCK."
"You think maybe that you're still inside the foam Lloyd?"
"Ah, you might have a point there"
If Chen had been able to shake his head in exasperation at Lloyd, he would have. He'd have the settle for shaking his hand instead, which was now fully outside of the foam. Then another thought struck him. 
"Kel, you ok boy?" 
"Lloyd, can you hear Kel? I wonder if my link with him went down" 
"I'm only hearing you dude. KEL?" 
"Can you run any scans for him?" asked Chen after a few seconds. His arm was almost completely free now, and he was able pull off bigger and bigger chunks off the foam embrace. 
"Not really. I can get his location, he's still next to me, but I don't have his vitals. Let me see if I can get anything else"
Chen next pulled the foam away from his visor. Initially the sensation of being upside down made him struggle to get a frame of reference. He could just about make out the main chunk of foam back in the node room which to him looked like it was stuck to the ceiling. Vision was further restricted by ice being blown in through a large jagged hole ripped in the side of the probe. Winter on Europa, a lovely time of the, well always. 
With an arm free and vision returned, it only took Chen a few more minutes to escape from the foam. He left his legs till last then held onto a dangling wire while he kicked free in order to avoid dropping down on his head. Picking his way through the wreckage, he made back into the remainder of the node room.
"Any luck with Kel?" he asked the lump of foam where he thought Lloyd was.
"No, you're right next to him now though. Start digging"
Chen complied, ripping and tearing at the foam by his feet. First he found a boot, then gradually worked his way up the leg. Then the leg kicked him right in the nuts. 
"AGHH! Fuck, aghh" Chen hopped away, bent double.
"What is it dude? You find Kel? He hurt?" Lloyd broadcast, sounding alarmed. 
"No..." Chen coughed, probably would have spat if he wasn't still in his vac-suit "...I think he might be ok"
Chen worked on freeing the rest of Kel, careful to keep out of striking range of any flailing limbs. He soon got up to Kel's head, freeing the foam more cautiously here. Behind the face plate of the helmet Kel was shouting, but silently given that his communication system seemed to have been damaged in the crash. All Chen could see were his lips wordlessly moving. Chen made hand gestures to the effect that he couldn't hear, which Kel seemed to understand and started to calm down. Although Chen was still winded, he could sympathise with Kel's panic; trapped in the dark of the foam, not knowing if you were the only one alive on some alien moon. Not a nice way to go as what remained of your air slowly ebbed away. 
With Kel freed, and left to collect himself sat amongst the wreckage, Chen moved over to where Lloyd was trapped, explaining what had happened to Kel while he worked. 
"The relay on his suit probably got knocked loose. These things are pretty shoddily constructed" Lloyd surmised. 
"You think you can repair it?" 
"Probably. Or just get the daft wazzock to reset his internal comms, they should be working. He probably just forgot in the panic. Knew he should have taken one of my special pills"
Via a slightly complicated game of space charades, Lloyd and Chen managed to communicate to Kel to reset his iris and communications augments. When Kel eventually got the gist of what they were attempting to get him to do, his first words over the re-established link were a little sheepish sounding. 
"Er, thanks guys"
"That's cool, dude" Lloyd answered for he and Chen. 
"So, well, we're alive then?" Kel attempted to change the subject away from his technical ineptitude. 
"For now" Chen said dourly "How much o2 you guys running with?"
"About three hours" replied Lloyd.
"Er, shit, less than two and a half" said Kel. His frantic shouting and panicked hyperventilating would have used up a considerable amount. 
"Rescue is on its way though isn't it? I mean what's the point in you having a pirate ship if it can't come and save our sorry arses?" Lloyd had moved to peer out of the hole in the side of the room, blizzard like conditions sweeping across the moon surface whipping up icy snow and dust. 
"Yeah, I've been trying to get through"
"Trying as in not working?" Kel asked.
"Think my suit relay is down, can you take a look Lloyd" Chen turned his back to Lloyd so present the small suit computer on the nape of the neck to the system analyst. While iris to iris communication was fine for close quarters, for long range communication it needed a relay to boost signal strength. 
"Sure thing dude" Lloyd moved up behind Chen to start tinkering. After a couple of minutes, he tight-beamed a message onto Chen's display
It's all working fine. Mine is too. Just no-one is answering. The two of them shared a worried glance
"Everything ok guys?" Kel sensed something wasn't quite right.
"Yes, fine. Just a slight technical issue" Chen brushed him off, not wanted to sow alarm.
"We got time to have a look round then? I never been on another planet before" Kel looked hopeful.
"It’s a moon, not a planet, but sure. Just keep your suit transponder on and keep the probe in sight" Chen instructed.
"No worries" Kel started to clamber over the wreckage close to the hole, before tentatively stepping through the gap and onto the moon surface. 
"So any ideas what's happening back on the loop?" Chen asked after Kel had gone, restricting the communication to Lloyd alone.
"Was thinking that it's maybe to do with the problems we were having before"
"Problem with the AI you said at the time" 
"Uh-huh" Lloyd sat down on an upturned storage container "Can't think what else it might be"
"Odd coincidence that it happened not long after the probe got here" Chen had started to pace, although the confines of the room and the wreckage that littered it restricted his movement somewhat. 
"I've been tryin' to find another way to get a message back up to them" Lloyd had rested his head on his hands.
"Any luck?"
"Well I'm fairly sure whoever next orders some toast from the culinary drone is going to wonder why it's got SOS burned into it."
"Nice" Chen was impressed with the invention, but maybe not quite the execution.
"Still, even without coms, your guys will come looking for us, won't they?" 
"Nita will be on it" Chen answered simply, not wanting to look too deeply into why they'd seen nothing of his crewmates back on the ship so far. It wasn't as if they would take much searching for what with the destroyed mountain and gouged line in the surface pointing the way. Not to mention the heat and radiation signatures the cooling probe would still be giving off. Maybe the blizzard was interfering, but that was unlikely - he knew how good the kit was on his ship. Accurate and detailed scanning software were something he'd invested in heavily for their day to day work. 
"Then we just sit tight?" 
"Might be an idea to have a bit of a look round. See what supplies we can salvage" 


Kel came back to discover Chen and Kel routing through the wreckage in the vicinity of the node room. Seeing them searching made him instinctively reach for the case he'd put the leaf sample in. It had survived the crash landing, it was his
"Er, what you guys looking for? And any news on the rescue?" he asked.
"No news yet, so we're checking for supplies" Chen answered from back behind the wall the foam he was encased in had ended up. Kel relaxed a little, they weren't searching for his leaf. 
"Can I help?"
"More the merrier, dude" Lloyd answered. 
Within half an hour they'd scraped together some heat canisters and some oxygenated plastic. Such supplies were required to keep the samples the probe’s drones had taken alive for the journey back, Chen explained. He was working on a solution to use the plastic as a feed source for a make shift oxygen tank. It would come in handy if they were here longer than their suit supplies would last. While technically feasible, Chen didn't go on to explain that it would only extend their stay by a few more hours. The probe never intended to bring back large samples. Despite Lloyd's theory of an alien monster kept in hibernation somewhere else on the ship. 
In fact, if Chen was honest with himself, the work to create some extra oxygen was helping to keep him distracted. Unpleasant thoughts of what might be happening on the loop, in his ship, or to Nita would emerge from time to time, but concentrating on the selection of wreckage and trying to do something with it helped a little. 
Lloyd was adopting a similar approach of distraction, attempting to communicate somehow with the loop. He knew the loop AI like the back of his hand, at least he thought he did. He'd "refined" large parts of it so that a blind eye would be turned to some of his more dubious schemes. Could he now somehow use those refinements to re-establish a line of communication? 
Meanwhile, Kel was somewhat oblivious to the seriousness of the situation. He knew all was not right with Chen and Lloyd - even with the vac-suits disguising their body language and augments allowing them to make some communications without him knowing, Kel was enough of a people person to pick up the cues.
He would probably have quizzed them more to reveal what was really going on, but the wonder of Europa had distracted him. The blizzard had died down and so by climbing up on top of the probe (telling Chen that he was searching for more supplies) he was able to see for a few clicks about. Out of all of Jupiter's moons, Europa was probably the least remarkable in terms of geological features. It was relatively flat, all be it criss-crossed by various fissures caused by ancient shifts in the subsurface seas.  However, it was a subtly beauty enough to transfix Kel, another world for the wannabe galactic explorer. 
After almost an hour of gazing about in wonderment, Kel dropped back down inside the wreck of the probe. Chen and Lloyd were still deep in their respective tasks, Chen cutting small slithers of the oxygenated plastic and then heating them in a small metal container. Lloyd, meanwhile, was conducting his silent symphony; hands dancing, fingers fluttering as he manipulated the displays in his iris augments. 
"Any luck?" Kel asked them both.
"N'ah man. Everything seems to be offline now. I can't even order toast any more" Lloyd kicked a fragment of hull in frustration, the piece of carbonite bouncing into the next section of the probe with a metallic clang. It was unusual to see Lloyd physically angry. Kel guessed it was the stress combined with some kind of come down from whatever he'd taken prior to pulling on his vac-suit. 
A short silence descended, until Chen spoke. 
"We'll soon be able to hook up our vac-suits for an o2 refresh" the former scientist announced in an overly cheery voice that only served to make Kel worry a bit more. Chen was never cheery. 
"Then what?" Lloyd asked huffily.
"Then we wait. Conserve a bit of o2, give the guys up there" Chen point skywards "a bit longer to sort everything out and come get us"
"If they come" Lloyd's mood was darkening. 
A longer silence fell on them this time. Each lost in their own thoughts.
Until Milton broke the silence. 
"Well how you'll doing down there?" the ugly ship hand beamed to them, his smug face appearing in the corner of their communication augments. 
"Milton?!" said Chen, shocked "Where are you? Is the ship on its way?"
"Yeah, about that. Thing is gents, it ain't gonna happen"
"What are you talking about Milton?" Chen had stood up, Lloyd and Kel shared an uncertain glance. "I haven't got time for your dicking around. Get the ship down here. Now"
"Mmmm-hmmm. Don't really think you're best placed to be chucking orders around, are you?" Milton smirked.
"The fuck are you talking about?" Chen demanded "Where's Nita? Put her on"
"Would you just quit it with the orders" the smirk remained "You're always 'do this' 'do that', never give a man a time to think" the smirk turned into a smile. "Whereas I like to run a more democratic ship"
"Put. Nita. On"
"And running a democratic ship" Milton ignored Chen "I put our next destination up for a vote. Should we risk life and limb to go rescue our valiant former captain? Or maybe we show a little ambition and strike out on our own. You want to know how the voting went?" eyes brows raised in mock question, while the smile remained. 
"I'm getting tired of your bullshit Milton" Chen seethed.
"It was two to one in favour of ditching this shit-hole on Europa and heading further afield." Milton was vague as to whether 'shit-hole' referred to the loop or Chen, but either way it didn't look good. "Problem was, though" he continued "that in a democratic system, the losers always seem to moan. Calling me a monster. Refusing to hand over the bio-link. Attempting to hit me even" in the video feed he shook his head "So disappointing"
Chen had his fists clenched hard, but remained silent. Instead Milton continued.
"Lucky thing is" he said, drawing out the words "that it turns out my good friend Tenyon is most inventive when it comes to encouraging the minority to co-operate. All for the good of the group, you understand?" 
A chill ran through Kel, so much so that he double checked his suit diagnostics. All clear. The growing sense of dread was manifest wholly within his mind. 
"What did. You do. To Nita?" Chen could hardly bring himself to ask.
"Nita is certainly showed remarkable, how would you put it, fortitude" the smile slowly turned into a sneer "It took four fingers and a foot. Now Tenyon is not as adept with the plasma torch as myself, so unfortunately those sacrifices made by Nita were somewhat messy"
"You fuck. You sick fuck"
"Please be careful with the name calling. You might hurt my feelings. And then I might not tell you Nita's last words"
"I'll find you. Know that"
"YOU COULDN'T FIND YOUR HEAD GIVEN HOW FAR ITS STUCK UP YOUR ARSE" yelled Milton, cool suddenly dropped. He ran a hand over his face in the video feed. "You don't get to call the shots any more. No pussy-ass small timer transporter intercepts. No 15-fucking-percent for the fucking losers on the loop. I'm hitting the big time. I'll e-cast a copy of my book to your frozen fucking corpse" the image of Milton blinked off suddenly. 
In its place the flashing pulse indicating a message. 
"Er, you guys get a message too?" asked Lloyd meekly after half a minute of grim silence.
"Uh-huh. I'm thinking maybe we shouldn't open it" replied Lloyd.
"Oh shit" Chen sobbed, dropping to the floor, head in hands. His shoulders shuddered with each new sob, the sound echoing around Kel's helmet. 
Kel swallowed. Selected play. 
At first it took him a little while to work out what he was looking at. It looked like some kind of small room with a pile of rags in the middle. 
Then the rags moved. 
Nita's face was bloody and swollen, a cut ran down one side of her face so deep Kel thought he could see the cheek bone. She knew where the camera was, looked directly at it, then started to crawl towards it. The crawl was slow as she pulled herself across the floor with what remained of her hands. One foot found some purchase to aid the movement, but the stump at the end of her other leg was lifelessly dragged behind. A thick smear of blood was left in the wake of her laborious journey across the room.
She briefly disappeared from sight as she got below the field of view of the camera, then one bloody hand emerged followed by the other, those fingers that remained gripping an indentation in the wall, as she pulled herself up. Blood oozed from the stumps of the fingers that had been removed. Slowly her head came in front of the camera. 
"Ch...Chen" swollen lips made her voice sound slurred "I'm Pl...please I t...tried. But it h..h..hurt so much". She looked down, collected herself, took a breath. "M...Milton talks about the sh...ship yards. He has intrusion programme. I'm sorry" she sniffed, but it wasn't enough to stop a thin trail of blood dripping down onto her chin. "Chen. I think I you. Wish I'd said b...b...before. Stupid. Sorry" a hint of a smile emerged. Another deep breath, a cough. 
"N...not" her voice got quieter as she said this. Kel frowned, it was like someone was turning the volume down, but all his audio settings were ok. He couldn't hear Nita at all now, no coughing, no more words, although her mouth was moving. She looked like she was gulping for air. Some dim corner of Kel's mind recalled a science lesson at school. Sound doesn't travel in a vacuum. Then Kel worked out what room she was in.

The airlock.

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