Friday, 4 November 2016

Day Four


Nick was conscious for all of it.
He'd hit the brace button almost before the Captain had finished saying it the first time, the tear-away panel already on the floor beside his launch chair. This was not how things were supposed to have gone down, but the moment the gravity had turned off, he'd had a feeling things were going awry. When the radiation alarms had sounded, he decided he'd been fucked.
Even strapped down, padded with pneumatics and wrapped tight in the brace mesh, the first impact had been horrific. Nick had been sure it was the end right there and then. Then, miraculously, the gravpads had whined back into life. Even with the 3G leeway to smooth things out, the next impact rattled his bones and made his head feel as if his brain was slamming into his skull. It seemed to go on forever - jarring hits punctuated by terrifying pauses where he knew another impact was coming. Then the skin of the ship was screaming as it dragged along the ground and Nick was sure it would never end. This was his life now - being trapped in the dark with the roaring, metal shrieks of the ship he'd helped to kill.
It did stop, eventually. What replaced it was a silence broken only by the ticking sound of something, somewhere cooling down. He could smell the acrid smoke of electrical burning and suddenly gripped with the image of being burned alive in his cocoon, Nick struggled under the brace webbing, trying to find the release ripcord.
By the time he found it and the webbing fell away, Nick could hear moaning from some of the other passengers. Small systems lights blinked away in mute distress somewhere in the darkness of the lounge. He groped at his straps, hitting the release button and tried to get out of his slowly deflating chair, feeling like a fat turtle that had been put on its back.
"Oh go-od," someone on his left.
Nick flailed and flopped out of his chair. His legs wobbled and he had to clutch the chair to stay on his feet. He hurt all over, but the headache seemed to be the worst of it. Once he was steady, pocket-hunted for his datapad, muttering, "Be okay, be okay, don't be broken."
There was another guttural moan, interrupted by a shriek and the sound of moving material as another batch of webbing was released.
Nick's pad was unbroken. He unlocked it and opened the EyeSpy settings, turning it on and feeling the reassuring grip of the EyeSpy jitter-dampeners on his eyeballs. He flicked on night-vision and suddenly he could see again - albeit in greyscale.
He panned the lounge, seeing most of the occupied chairs still covered in webbing. Some of the webbing was bulging with faint movement. There was a short woman on his left getting out of her chair with no more grace than he had managed. She had one hand wrapped around her middle protectively, her hair coming out of a ponytail and falling over her face in sweaty strings.
Three unwebbed chairs had people in them. Two were either dead or unconscious. One was gasping air in uneven hauls and staring ahead bug-eyed. On the far side of the lounge, three people were tangled together in a heap of unlikely angles. He turned back to film the woman on his left who was bent over and dry-retching.
He sympathised - he felt a little like puking himself. Like all his bones were fractured glass and his insides had been liquefied. He was filming, though and filming always put him at one removed, from the situation and from himself.
The woman stopped gagging and croaked out, "Controller, lights."
Nothing happened and she tried again, "Controller - lights. Controller, respond," she looked up and around at what to her would be almost total darkness, "Well, fuck."
She turned and Nick saw the ID stitched to her overalls; Andrea Ursler 4LMG. She looked young so Nick took a chance on the term of address and said, "Miss Ursler, that em on your ID, are you a doctor?"
She jerked around, groaning and massaging her midriff again, "What? Yes. Well... sort of. Not really. Who are you?"
"Name's Nick - journalist. I have an EyeSpy with nightvision so I can see a bit. There are people hurt, do you have a medical bag or anything? What do you mean 'not really?'"
"Ugh. There's a bag strapped to my launch chair, but -" she hit the chair next to her with a fist, "This isn't mine, it was just the closest when the gravity went out. Don't run that EyeSpy too long, you'll wreck your eyes."
"Right," Nick started looking around for the bag, moving gingerly as his own innards complained, "And 'not really?"
"Ah, well - I'm only Green."
"And so?"
"And so I'm still a student. I'm going to intern with Doctor Kacza on the platform."
"Not today, you're not."
Two or three more brace meshes zipped away and there were more sounds of movement and distress. Nick tried to speed up his search and tottering around another launch chair he saw one with a bag strapped to it emblazoned with both the 4L logo and a caduceus, because like most companies, 4L thought it 'looked better' than a Rod of Asclepius. Nick had always thought the medical penchant for using ancient religious symbols was weird, no matter which one they used. Why didn't they have a string of DNA on their bags, or something?
"You see it, Nick?"
"Yeah, yeah," he shook himself out of his chain of irrelevancies and crouched to unstrap the back, adding his own groans to the growing chorus around him.
There was more light now, people getting up and using their datapad screens to illuminate the surroundings. A couple of people were crying, but most of them were keeping their distress muted. After a wrestle with the strapping, Nick got the bag free and grunting and huffing, brought it over to Andrea, who was looking at the ruins of her own datapad - an A4 medical model - that had snapped in half.
Nick dropped the bag at her feet and said, "There's some people tangled up at the end. I think they might be dead, but you should check."
Her mouth twisted unhappily, her eyes huge in the gloom. She looked like a kid. Hell, she probably still was a kid and Nick felt like a very old and ugly bastard as he asked, "Are you the only medic on this ship?"
She swallowed, nodded and said, "The only one in this lounge anyway. Show me where they are. Can I use your pad for light?"
            Nick took her upper arm and started guiding her towards the bodies heaped together. He had no intention of giving up his pad to be used as a torch, so he nudged one of those who already were lighting up the area with their pad as they passed, "Hey, give her some of that light, she's a doctor."
"Medical student! I'm just a medical student."
He transferred her to the care of the man with the light source and stepped away, not wanting to be involved. As the number of pads being lit up increased he turned off the nightvision and filmed for a few minutes, trying to immerse himself in the work. Trying not to think.
He watched people feeling themselves over, working out how hurt they were and how bad the situation was. Radiation was checked - high, but not 'holy shit' for now, it seemed. Andrea moved from person to person, staying with some longer than others and she still looked like some frightened kid being made to play doctor at gunpoint. The people in the heap were all dead. One of the people in the un-webbed chairs was dead too. Broken neck. The other two unwebbed passengers had broken limbs and possible internal injuries.
You did this.
No. No he fucking hadn't. Jackson had told him that the shuttle was going to make an unscheduled landing - a landing - and be unable to take off again for a couple of days so that they'd be forced to explore for supplies and he could film what they found. This was not his fault. All he'd done was plant a signal booster. A signal booster. It was supposed to be a landing.
He checked his pad, hoping in vain that Jackson, or some other arsehole had got in touch with an explanation, or reassurance for a rescue - but there was nothing to see. All feeds were down. He'd never been anywhere where all feeds were down before.
There was a light beeping noise, a hydraulic hum and the door to the lounge ground open, one door squealing metal on metal as it opened.
Captain Sumner stepped into the lounge, industrial torch in one hand, a large bag in the other. She was wearing a pressure suit, with the helmet hooked to her belt, air-lines dangling.
Captain Sumner shone the torch across the lounge, her expression not showing any sign of distress, or dismay as she saw what Nick had been seeing. She dropped the bag near the door, "Medic, I've brought what first aid supplies we have. Also some water, more torches and some spare oxygen canisters for the emergency masks, just in case. My pilot's broken his arm - when you have time, go up to the cockpit and see to him."
Andrea looked up from her latest patient like a bunny in headlights, "Yes, Captain."
Sumner glanced towards the tangled heap of dead people, "How bad is it?"
Andrea sniffed wetly, her voice a wobbly contrast to the Captain's iron-steady tone, "Uhm. Four dead. Three... no, four broken arms. A broken leg. Possible internal injuries on a couple of people... it's hard for me to tell. Everyone's got headaches. My pad got broken..." this last said almost in a whisper.
Captain Sumner's torch dipped slightly to the ID patch on Andrea's chest. Sumner crossed over to her, bending to speak face to face quietly, putting one hand on the girl's shoulder as she did so.
It was a great shot and Nick sidled slowly around in an attempt to see Sumner's lips so that the software could subtitle what she might be saying. The Captain was annoyingly brief and all he caught on the subtitle layer was 'simulation' - then Sumner stood straight and snapped her fingers, holding out a hand, "Someone give me their pad for the medic to use."
There was a pause and Sumner near-shouted, "Now!"
Several people twitched and brought their pads back into plain view. The man who had been holding the light for Andrea handed his over, saying, "All the feeds are down anyway."
Sumner took the pad without a thank you and got out her own, touching the pads together and thumbing a keypad. Then she passed the man's pad to Andrea and said, "The red icon is an emergency radio frequency. Use it to contact me if you really need to. The green icon is for the internal doors. You may need to manually pump the hydraulics, do you know how to do that?"
Andrea looked blank, but the man who'd given up his pad said, "I do."
Sumner considered him and his ID, "Then you're her assistant for the duration of this emergency, Mister Pemberton."
The redhead executive that had been haranguing the Captain just before the gravpads went out, stepped up and asked, "Are you going to tell us what's going on now?"
"I'll tell you what I know," said Sumner, "But it will have to be brief, I still have two passengers and one crew member unaccounted for."
"Are we in immediate danger?"
"No. We still have hull integrity and we were able to restore basic functions, such as gravpads, shielding, air scrubbing."
"When will the rescue ships get here?"
Sumner's jaw tensed a little, "Unknown."
The executive asked with more annoyance, "How did this happen?"
"Everything points to sabotage," said Sumner, "Before we lost contact, our technician seemed sure someone had tampered with the controller."
"I should be interested if you have any idea why someone would sabotage my ship, because it's a mystery to me."
Eleanor shook her head, frowning, "Why would I know?"
Captain Sumner shrugged, "Once damage has been assessed, I should like the assistance of 4L staff to perform any repairs possible in our present situation - are you prepared to authorise the work, Executive Courtenay?"
Executive Courtenay folded her arms and scowled, "Of course I am. It's the only way I'll find out for sure what's going on, it seems."
Sumner turned her attention to Nick, "You. Come with me."
Nick tried stop the instant rush of guilt from showing on his face, "Me?"
Sumner didn't bother clarifying, just staked back through the doorway, pausing to stare expectantly at him at the threshold.
Nick exhaled and thumbed off the EyeSpy before pocketing his pad. He didn't want whatever she was going to say on digital record.

He followed her down a dark corridor, nothing but Sumner's torch to light the way. The pace was uncomfortably brisk, but Nick did not complain. He was too busy trying to gauge how suspicious she was and what he ought to say. She'd found him in the cargo bay before launch, after all. The signal booster would still be there, if the impact hadn't knocked it loose.
He chewed his lower lip. He could say he was looking for signs of sabotage - that he'd had a tip off. It's not like this was his fault - he'd been misled. He was as much a victim as anyone here.
As they neared what Nick thought was the rear of the ship, Captain Sumner paused, turning to stare at him.
Nick was breathing a little heavy from the pace she'd set and he frowned at her, knowing he was all red-faced and sweaty - seeing that she was not, "What?"
"Mister Mitcham, if you know anything about what has happened to this ship and assist me in rectifying the situation, I may be moved to speak well of you when the rescue vessels arrive."
She took half a step closer, looking down at him - which made Nick realise she had at least an inch and a half on him. She said, "If I later discover you had a part in this and you did not assist me... I. Will. End. You."
Nick kept his frown, long unimpressed by empty threats. If he confessed to anything related to corporate sabotage on this scale - not that this was his fault - he'd be lucky not to end up in a batch of controllers himself no matter what a shuttle captain had to say on the matter.
He said, "I had nothing to do with this and if you threaten me again, I will report it."
They glared at each other for what seemed like forever. Then, snorting, Sumner turned on her heel and resumed her stalk through the corridors.
Nick exhaled. After a moment he followed again.
She led him to what he assumed was the control room. There was a dustlock to go through, although it wasn't working beyond whining open in a lacklustre fashion and puffing a miniscule breath of air at them. On the other side, they both hesitated. Nick paused because he saw blood - a lot of it. It was spread in great smears and splodges on the floor, two walls and the ceiling.
He followed Sumner around a large, formerly white console that had smoking input panels and smelled like burning bacon. The ship's technician was in a heap on the floor behind it, half her head crushed in and both legs bending in unnatural directions.
Nick's foot hit something and he looked down to see the line for a cutter. He followed the line around and found the cutting torch still burning, uselessly cutting a trench in the floor panels. He turned it off, keeping his distance from the captain, who was crouched down beside the technician, feeling for a pulse. He didn't think she was going to find one.
As a distraction, he started searching the room, seeing a panel in the central console that had been three quarter's cut around - one corner bent outwards where the tech had clearly tried to pull it open despite the cut not being finished. The burnt bacon smell was stronger and when Nick used his pad to shine some light inside the hole, all he could see was crisped wafers and delivery lines. At first he thought the cutter must have burnt them, but with a little more attention, he noticed the worst of the damage was too far from the cut line for that. It had burned for other reasons.
He found nothing else that seemed interesting and he went back to the body cautiously. Sumner was still crouched beside it, but now she was looking at something on the tech's pad - the screen was cracked, but still illuminated.
After a few minutes, Sumner stuffed the cracked pad into an inside pocket in her pressure suit and she said quietly, "I owe you an apology, Mister Mitcham."
Nick raised an eyebrow, "Oh?"
She pressed her lips together, looking at the body, rather than him, "It seems my technician took payment in return for giving the controller some new protocols. She left a confession on her pad. She didn't expect it to crash the ship, or kill her controller - but she took the credits and slotted a foreign wafer pack anyway."
Nick felt a heady - if dirty - rush of relief. Here was someone far more responsible than he was - and she'd had the decency to take the fall before she died. Out of gratitude, he said, "I think she tried to fix it. She was trying to cut the panel open right to the end - the cutter was still on."
Captain Sumner stood up, her face like stone, "My ship is disabled and at least four of my passengers are dead. She's lucky the crash killed her."
Sumner walked past him, heading back to the dustlock, "I need to find my last two passengers."
Nick looked at her back, then to the body, then back to Sumner again. He was off the hook, it seemed, but he still didn't think it was safe to try and retrieve the signal booster just yet. Instead, he thumbed his pad and turned the EyeSpy back on, feeling his headache roar into fresh life as it tensed muscles. He hurried after Sumner so he could capture either the rescue, or the discovery of the two missing passengers. He could get better shots of the control room when they got the lights back on.

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