Friday, 11 November 2016

Day Eleven


Captain Sumner watched Trane working on the controller robot, keeping herself several feet from Trane, Courtenay and Ward, who gathered around it. She was still wearing the jury rigged suit, because she'd strapped on her sidearm before putting it on and didn't want the others to see it, unless it became necessary to use it.
Trane had cut free the rest of the vinyl and was pulling out port protectors, laying them neatly to one side in such order that they could be replaced in the same ports they'd come out of. He was humming and looked as happy as Sumner had ever seen a technician.
Fully exposed, the crouched robot looked pristine and Sumner wondered if it had ever been activated at all. Maybe it was just housing for wafer packs and none had ever been inserted? Despite how useful a functioning controller would be in their current predicament, she found herself hoping it was just an empty shell. Controllers could be dangerous when they malfunctioned - but at least in static housing they couldn't run you down and throttle you.
She glanced to one side, looking at Nick Mitcham, who was also keeping his distance. It was hard to know for sure, but from how little and how smoothly his eyes moved, she suspected he was running his EyeSpy, capturing the moment for whatever grubby little newsfeed he could sell it to. Ordinarily, Sumner was not very sympathetic towards corporations, but in this instance, she was rooting for 4L to confiscate his recordings.
Trane jacked his datapad into one of the ports on the thing's head and crouched down in front of it, head bent over his screen. She saw Mitcham stepping in, trying to get a shot of the readout. Sumner knew from past experience that there would be nothing of use for Mitcham there - Technicians wore contacts to decrypt controller output and they were the only ones experiencing time fast enough to be able to read it as it blitzed up the screen anyway. Still - the fact that there was output meant that this was not an empty shell.
She expected things to take a while, but almost instantly, Trane and the robot stood up in synch. A number of coloured lights flashed in what was almost certainly a test pattern underneath the robot's faceplate. From somewhere near its head, the thing played a series of chimes, then rattled its way through a raft of phonetic sounds. The pitch and timbre of the voice was soft and only slightly on the male side of androgynous.
Now that the thing was standing, the 4Life logo on its left breast was visible and instead of a standard ID, it had 4LANCE stencilled underneath it.
Mitcham said, "Four Lance... what are the odds that's some stupid corporate acronym? Four Life something, something, controller something, I bet."
Courtenay glared at him, but everyone else ignored him in favour of watching Trane and the robot. Trane pulled his jack out and pushed the reel in on his datapad, stepping back to watch the robot himself.
Trane said, "Give it some room to test its mobility."
They all stepped away, including Sumner, who was already feet further off. She tucked a hand into her suit and reached down to release the restraining strap on her sidearm. She kept her other hand near the main abdomen seal.
The robot went through a short series of moves, many of which would have been impossible for a human to perform. Spinning its hands on its wrists, it's head doing a 360 and some kind of balance test that was so abrupt, Sumner almost drew her weapon on it. After that, it returned to a straight stand, the lights under the faceplate resolving to a gentle green glow.
Trane asked a question that he almost certainly knew the answer to already, "Controller, what is your common designation and how may we address you?"
The thing said, "Four Life Ambulatory Neural Controller Experiment twenty six. I may be addressed as that, or 'controller', 'Four Lance', 'Twenty Six' or 'Lance'."
"Told you," Nick smugged.
Trane said, "Explain in brief your primary purpose."
The thing said, "I am an experimental controller. My purpose is to demonstrate the advantages and viability of ambulatory neural controllers. I am compelled to inform you that I have three external emergency shut-downs," it used one hand to point out three yellow and black chevronned tear-aways on its torso, the back of its head and the small of its back, "I may also be shut down wirelessly with the use of a tone sequence, which is: A flat minor, F sharp and D minor. May I suggest you prepare that tone sequence in a shortcut upon your datapads for easy access."
Trane held up his datapad and thumbed a button. His pad played the tone sequence and the lights on the robot's faceplate faded out.
Trane said to Courtenay, "I think it's safe enough to use. Its basic observations are green across the board, the only thing wrong with it is that it's a little low on glucose and oil after being in storage so long."
Courtenay asked, "What about its Heppa?"
"Not introduced yet - it's an experiment, they didn't need it to run that fast."
Sumner asked, "Would it be fast enough to trim an engine? Theoretically."
Trane nodded, "Sure, you're ships a tiddler. No offence, but this thing is wafer-stacked for bigger jobs than shuttles."
"How many donors?" asked Courtenay.
Trane's enthusiasm damped a little, "Well, only six. Which isn't ideal."
Sumner frowned, "What does that mean?"
Courtenay sighed, "It means the organic matter used to make the wafers came from six individuals. Most controllers - even small stack unit ones - have a minimum of ten donors as a safety standard."
"Well..." Courtenay looked uncomfortable, "Because of things like the Vera Lynn."
Sumner frowned at her.
There was a lengthy silence, during which time they all looked at the controller, gleaming and silent and unlit.
Eventually, Courtenay said, "Restart it. Let's ask it about this facility and take it from there."

To general disappointment, the controller knew absolutely nothing about the facility. It had been made, run through basic tests and diagnostics and then mothballed shortly after the Vera Lynn disaster - which none of them believed was a co-incidence. Even more disappointing, it couldn't get past the security blanket any more than they could.
Sumner turned to Mitcham, "You said you've broken through security blankets before. What do you need to try?"
Mitcham licked his teeth, "Well, there's usually something, somewhere designed to get through it legitimately. I was surprised there wasn't a comm station in the suit lobby. I hate to say it, but I think we're going to have to risk going down that comms corridor."
Courtenay said, "We have no idea what the warning meant. It might be like going into a hot zone without radiation shielding."
Ward said, "So send the robot. Trane, you can set up a digital feed so we can see what it sees, can't you?"
"It doesn't see the way we see," said Trane, "You wouldn't understand the output. Even I'd only get parts of it, you'd need a Violet Tech to match that data speed."
Mitcham shrugged, "So lets strap a datapad to its forehead and link to that instead."
Ward laughed, "You think like an engineer, Nick."
Courtenay nodded, "Do it. Whose pad is the most expendable?"
Everyone looked at Mitcham and Sumner had to fight to keep a smirk off her face.
Mitcham sighed, "Well fuck."
A half hour later they were back in the hub, watching the controller - looking significantly less pristine with a datapad duct-taped to its head - walk down the Black marked corridor labelled COMMS.
They gathered around Courtenay's pad, watching the digital from the datapad. Sumner noted that they had instinctively gathered as far from the Black trimmed corridors as they could get and she wondered if that meant anything.
On the small screen, they watched the controller open the door, go through the dustlock and emerge on the other side into a pie-wedge room that looked a lot like the one they had just vacated. The only real difference was what was on the shelves.
Before the controller could get far into the room, Trane spoke into his own datapad, "Lance, walk half as quickly and pan side to side so that the pad's field of vision catches everything on those shelves."
'Confirmed, Technician Trane.’
"Any adverse conditions?"
'Not that I am equipped to detect.'
The thing slowed down and panned. At first it was just closed cold cases with unhelpful labels, like 'Vauxhall seven' and 'Jane DeWitt'. Then they saw stacks of what Sumner thought might be an antique phone - or a very early datapad. One the other side as the view panned around, what was unmistakably a public terminal, its wiring sprayed out uselessly from the back.
"I wasn't expecting 'comms' to be so literal and yet so useless," said Mitcham.
Sumner grunted in agreement.
The shelves further on made less sense. There were several vinyl wrapped skeletons - looking unpleasantly real with their brown-stained grain. A number of cups, or vases with designs on them. A board covered in letters and numbers. A snarl of bare wiring, twisted into a rough man-shape.
"What the fuck is this?" asked Mitcham.
Courtenay said, "I told you they were a bit of a joke... I wonder who approved the storage costs of all this?"
Sumner said, "Tell it to speed up and find a working comm unit if it can, Trane."
Trane looked to Courtenay, who nodded.
The digital was harder to follow after that, though they all kept peering at it anyway. They saw the controller trotting past more shelving, hearing only the sound of its rubber-gripped feet on the silksteel. They were so clumped together around it, that when the lights went out, Sumner felt every twitch and jerk from the rest of them.
"Shit! Someone jump up and down," said Ward.
Someone did, but the lights stayed off.
Trane said, "The feed's dead too."
Sumner unhooked her torch from her belt, turning it on. It should have made her feel better, but it didn't. It was a good torch, but it still didn't seem bright enough as she instinctively shone it towards the comms corridor. The light barely reached the dustlock door.
Courtenay said, "Get that feed restored, Trane."
"I'm trying."
More torches came on and that was a little better. Ward set hers down pointing at the wall behind them so it bounced back and made a little puddle of light for them all.
Trane tried to get the feed back for almost twenty minutes before Sumner cursed and popped open the seal on her suit's abdomen - simultaneously unhooking the restraining strap from her sidearm.
"I'm going in. I could do with someone to watch my back."
Courtenay shook her head, "No you're not. We don't know what's going on."
Sumner drew her sidearm, "I'm armed - I have the correct permits and license. We might not know what's going on, but we know what will happen if we don't find some solutions to our predicament."
They all looked at the gun and it's red trim when she turned it on. The suddenly distrustful way they looked at it and her justified her concealing it up to now.
Mitcham asked, "Are you a cop, or something?"
"No," said Sumner, "I'm a shuttle captain. Very well - I'll go alone. Trane, do you want to set up another feed to my pad?"
"I'll try," said Trane, "Yeah, there we go. Hook it to your suit outwards, high as you can."
While Sumner hooked her pad to the chest of her suit, Mitcham said, "I'll go with you."
Sumner raised an eyebrow.
He shrugged, "I'm a curious fellow, remember? Besides, you've got a gun. If the boogyman tries to get us, you can blow it away. You're packing fat tens, I hope? I don't feel like sucking vacuum."
Sumner nodded, "They're hull-safe," she looked at Courtenay, "You know I'm right. We're out of options."
Courtenay inhaled sharply through her nose, then said, "Alright - but if you don't come back, no one else is going in there, do you understand?"
"I understand."
Mitcham mumbled something to himself and then started sealing his suit ready to put his helmet back on. It wasn't a bad idea and Sumner did the same. Then, she hooked her torch back onto her belt with the beam fixed ahead, turned on the torch on her gunsights and started down the corridor. She wasn't sure if Mitcham really would follow her, but after a slight hesitation, his heavy step joined hers. She still didn't trust him, but she was confident that she could beat his fat arse in a fight and she was willing to take a chance with him just to have another set of eyes on the perimeter.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Day Seven to Ten


They were almost completely without natural light now as the Darkside lived up to its name, entering its long two weeks of night. The journey from the Qentiga to the facility took nearly four hours, although by the time they reached it, even the newbies were managing a respectable pace.
Personally, Nick couldn't decide if he was glad for the sedate journey or not. He was still sore as hell and didn't feel up to much, but spending this long in an unrated suit made him nervous. He kept the suit heater as low as he could bear, fearing a suit fire from the improvised wiring. He kept imagining he smelled burnt electrics. Despite keeping the heater low enough to make his fingers numb, he was still sweating.
Even up close, the facility blended in with the moonscape so well that the only thing that made it stand out was its low convex shape. It looked like a reverse crater. It was a singularly uninteresting structure - just plate after plate of unmarked moon-grey silksteel under their torchlight. Nick thought this was odd, since most companies slathered their colours and logos over their equipment with pathological fervour. What was it the Courtenay woman had called it? Brand identity. Yeah. No brand identity out here. Nick began to wish he'd turned his EyeSpy on before they'd set out, even if it would wreck his eyeballs.
A minute later, Captain Sumner's voice cut through the quiet snow of the short wave radio frequency their suits were tuned to, "Any idea what this place is for, Miz Courtenay?"
"No. Well - Darkside is mostly R&D - but I don't know if this is a lab or a water tank. I'm sorry."
"Let's hope it's the former," said Sumner, leading them around its circumference in the slow, skipping 'walk' the gravity imposed.
They found a doorway a third of the way around the facility. This too bore no logo or even any indication of what type of door it was. Executive Courtenay came forward to jack her suit into the door's control and a small console unfolded from the panel a moment later. The rest of them gathered around her in a semi-circle.
After a few minutes of watching Courtenay fiddle with the door console, Nick asked, "Are you getting anywhere with that?"
"Shut up, Mitcham," said Sumner.
Nick looked at her, but couldn't see her expression through her faceplate in the dark, "You forgot the 'mister' that time, Sumner."
She turned slightly towards him, but said nothing. Nick had time to reflect that even through a faceplate, she was pretty good at stare-downs. Then a light started flashing orange on the panel and the door opened upon an airlock.
They trooped inside, turning off torches as the airlock lights flickered on. Captain Sumner checked that they were all in, then started the cycle. While the pressure readout counted upwards, a message scrolled across screens upon each wall of the lock.
Maintain suit integrity - decontamination ahead. Do not open suit seals - decontamination ahead.
Nick pulled his hand away from a seal, where he had been primed to open his suit enough to get at his datapad and turn his EyeSpy on. They'd try to wipe his footage when they got back to Earth, of course, but he was a professional - he had ways of hiding copies. He glanced around and saw Sumner staring at him again - her frown visible under the lock lights this time. He gave her a smile. He hoped he could manage to stay at the rear on the way back so that he could ditch the signal booster he'd retrieved from the cargo bay while helping to relocate the bodies.
When the pressure equalised, the inner door opened. Animated markers on the walls pointed them onwards while the decontamination warning kept scrolling above them. At first Nick thought they were being ushered into a dustlock, but it was much more than that. After the air blast to vacuum away dust, they were jet-hosed with a pale blue liquid, bathed in UV light and then blow-dried by the air nozzles again with something smoky.
Engineer Ward bent to peer at one of the side panels, "What are they decontaminating us from?"
Nick said, "Maybe they think we rolled in tardigrades before we set out?"
Trane said, "There's nothing we could have brought in on the suits. It might be decontamination for when we leave."
Sumner grunted, then shook her head, "If that were true, there wouldn't be a decontamination warning on the outside airlock. We should stay suited until we find out more about this place."
Nick frowned, watching as the smoke jetting at them stopped, then was sucked away in a high-pitched blast of white noise as the jets reversed flow. A few moments later, the light above the far door went green and the door opened.
They stepped through cautiously, Sumner in the lead, lowering her torch as more facility lights clanked on, revealing a very grey looking suiting lobby. There wasn't a hint of a logo and even the red, white and black of 4L livery remained conspicuously absent and Nick's sense that he was on the edge of a really huge story only increased.
A canned-sounding voice announced: Welcome to warehouse nine. To proceed further, proper authorisation is required. If you do not have proper authorisation, please return to the platform executive who issued your work order and report priority S-O-R. Repeat: priority S-O-R. Thank you.
Executive Courtenay stepped forward, switching her comms to external and speaking to the ceiling, for want of any obvious source, "Controller, this is Courtenay, Eleanor: Four L-E-R. Define 'proper authorisation'."
There was silence and after a moment, Courtenay said, "Controller, respond!"
Still nothing.
Trane walked to the far door and felt the wall near it with one gloved hand, "Controller, please run Tan diagnostic one and output to the nearest display."
When nothing showed up, Courtenay said, "Perhaps there isn't a display in this room."
"There is," said Ward, "There's smartsheeting above both doors and a thinner strip most of the way around."
Sumner started opening suit lockers. She wasn't doing so violently, but Nick thought she was irritated anyway - the yanks just a little to abrupt. Mind you, he couldn't pinpoint a moment when she hadn't seemed irritated - moody cow. Most of the lockers were empty - room for incoming suits, made sense - a couple had suits in them, though.
Nick pointed to the plain suits hanging from their hooks, "A couple of staff must be here, anyway."
"No," said Sumner, "These are spares in case someone comes in with a damaged suit."
"Well, we can get out of these un-rated deathtraps, then."
She shook her head, "As I said, we should maintain suit integrity until we know what we're dealing with."
Nick tugged on one of his seals, his suit giving a little gasp as it opened, "Sorry, I'm not going to risk another four hours with improvised heating if I don't have to."
Sumner studied him coolly as he opened another seal and unlocked the helmet. She said, "Then you can be the guinea pig, Mitcham. If you start acting strangely, or drop dead, we'll know for sure. Disobey another order and I might just leave you here anyway."
"Orders? I'm not one of your crew, Captain."
"In an emergency, I am the ranking officer and I will command."
Courtenay cleared her throat, "Actually, that only holds true aboard your ship, Captain Sumner. In Four-L facilities, I have authority. I'm perfectly willing to work with you, but this bickering is counterproductive."
Sumner scowled, then nodded sharply, "Very well. Until we return to Qentiga."
Nick smirked, but only for a moment as Courtenay said, "Nick Mitcham, next time you do the opposite of what has been suggested without consulting anyone, we shall return you to the airlock until we're ready to leave."
Courtenay didn't bother waiting for his response, turning instead to Trane, who had popped open a control panel by the far door and was examining it closely.
Courtenay asked, "Well, Trane? Why isn't it responding?"
Trane looked around, "It's not a controller. It's a computer. I haven't seen anything like this for a long time. No wetware, ma'am. I can get some output on my pad, but it's nothing I can work with."
Ward went over to look at Trane's pad, "I might be able to do something... not sure what though."
Courtenay joined them and got her pad out of the heated pouch on her thigh - the luxuries of a properly rated suit. She pulled out the jack and plugged it in to the panel, muttering, "Exec. Red should be enough to get us in, surely?"
The door didn't open. The recorded voice was prompted to repeat its earlier message though.
Sumner asked, "Do you know what 'priority S-O-R means?"
While they were all distracted, Nick reached inside his suit for his own datapad, pulling it out enough to see the screen so he could activate his EyeSpy and start recording.
Courtenay said, "It's... well, it's referring to Special Ops. They're a branch of the constabulary - sort of. However, the only constabulary presence on Luna are on the platforms and there certainly aren't any special operations facilities here."
Sumner said, "This facility begs to differ, it seems. What do they do that is 'special'? Are they a commando type division?"
Courtenay snorted, "Hardly. To be honest, I've always thought they were sort of a joke. None of them are above Red classification, not one. Their remit is annoyingly vague, I think only the top executive tier really knows what they get up to."
With a noticeable thinning of patience, Sumner asked, "Vague or not, what is their remit?"
"To protect against and engage with threats to the citizenry and the company that fall outside the reach of the regular constabulary."
Nick frowned. 'Vague' was an understatement.
Sumner said, "So, foreign affairs? Either way, it seems we need their authority to get in, unless either of you two can work a way around it?"
Ward and Trane exchanged a glance. Ward said, "Maybe. We might be able to use Executive Courtney's classification..."
Trane supplied, "We can pull the Red from hers and try to find the one missing component. So long as it doesn't have a list of all Red Spec. Ops, it might work. If it were a controller, I think it would notice and shut us down, but a computer - it don't know any better than pass or fail."
"We'll have to make sure it doesn't count the fails or it will lock us out," said Wade, poking at the control panel.
Trane leaned in, absent-mindedly taking Courtenay's pad out of her hand and murmuring, "You deal with the counter, I'll sort out a routine it can understand for the battering ram."
"Failing that, we could just try to force the door lock."
"I bet it's got a lockfuse against that sort of thing."
Courtenay sighed, stepping back from the console, "Just do what you can."

By the time the door opened, they'd all been forced to open their suits - simply not enough canned air to stay inside them and still make the trip back to the Qentiga, even with the emergency spare canisters in the lockers.
Nick was sitting with his back to the wall, sipping some flat and unpleasantly warm water from his new suit's supply. He'd long since turned the EyeSpy off again and he was coping with the crushing boredom as best he could. Sumner had spent most of the time pacing back and forth - which was annoying. Courtenay was sitting down now too, her fingers twitching now and then as if itching for her pad.
They were alerted to a change of circumstance when the canned voice announced: Welcome, Special Operations. Please ensure maximum wards are applied if you cross Black threshholds. Thank you.
Courtenay stood up, her fists clenching and cried out to the ceiling, "What does that even mean?"
"Take it easy," said Sumner, "Just let's keep our eyes peeled for black indicators on corridors and doorways - until we find out what it means, we might just be able to stay this side of them."
Nick got up, grunting. The gravpads in the facility were woefully functional and the extended sit on a hard floor hadn't done his aches any favours. He began to miss the lighter Nick that had skipped his way across the surface. He turned the EyeSpy on again, wincing a little this time as it grabbed his eye muscles in its restrictive grip. If there was another locked door past this one, he wasn't going to bother turning it back on until he saw a tap-dancing unicorn.
Beyond the suiting lobby was the sort of dull, utilitarian corridor Nick associated with hospitals and prisons. It was a long one with no obvious markings - black or otherwise. Just bright rectangles of light on the ceiling and pale grey everywhere else.
They trooped along it, none of them talking now. Nick didn't like the way their boots clunked on the flooring. The way every sound reverberated. The place felt both empty and haunted simultaneously and as much as he chided himself for being stupid, he couldn't shake a growing case of the whim-whams as the suiting lobby got further and further away behind them - shrouded in blackness now as lights went out behind them.
Ward's torch got unhooked from her belt, likely not secured properly to begin with, and when it hit the floor, Courtenay and Nick startled badly. Even Trane and Sumner twitched.
"Sorry," said Ward, picking it up and attaching it more firmly.
"Take it easy," said Sumner again, quietly, as if they were in a library.
They could see the end now and the closer they got, the more obvious it became that it was a hub in the centre of the dome. More corridors spoked out of it, all of them considerably shorter than the one they'd just walked down.
There was some colour, at last. Some of the corridors marked with green trim around the entryway. Some with red. Two with black. Above the black corridors were the words 'RED SPEC. OP. ONLY.' One had the additional label, 'COMMS.', but the other had no extra information.
They looked around at the markings and labels and Courtenay said, "As tempting as 'comms' is, given our situation, I'm open to alternatives before we break any more company guidelines."
Nick snorted. Guidelines, indeed.
Trane said, "The one marked 'controllers' is red. If I could talk to a controller, we might find out everything we need to know - although it will probably need to be started up first."
Nick asked, "Why would it be shut down?"
"Oh, they get a bit funny if you leave them on and alone too long. They need regular adjustments and input - think of them like goldfish. Only ones you can freeze and thaw out when you're around to feed them and change the water."
"Some goldfish."
Trane smiled, but it was an odd-looking thing. Technicians were weird. Just the one-eye-at-a-time blinking thing always made Nick thing of lizards and that smile was just wrong, like Trane had forgotten how long to twitch the muscles for people on regular time.
Sumner nodded, "Makes sense. A facility controller might be able to enlighten us as to the danger of the black corridors. It may even be able to signal a platform for us."
Nick said, "It says 'controllers' - plural. Why would they have more than one?"
Courtenay gestured to the corridor, "There's only one way to find out. Let's take a look."
At the end of this shorter corridor was a doorway that proved not to be locked - another dustlock, which made them all seal their suits and put their helmets back on for the duration. This one actually was just a dustlock though and they were soon through it, free to take off their helmets and turn off the air supply again.
This space was more like what Nick thought of when it came to warehouses. Rows of industrial shelves packed into the pie-wedge shaped space, right up to the curved dome above them. Some of the shelving was empty, some had heavy cases stacked into them, or irregular shapes wrapped in thick vinyl shrouds.
Feeling less spooked for the mundane surroundings, Nick moved further away from the others than he had since they'd left the suit lobby and he noticed with amusement that everyone else was doing the same.
"Holy shit!" Ward cried.
They all turned Ward's way and she grinned, embarrassed, "Sorry - just, look." she pointed at one of the bulky cold-cases on a shelf.
It was labelled 'Vera Lynn' which prompted Nick to echo Ward's sentiment. The Vera Lynn had been a very public 4L disaster a few years back. A rogue controller had caused four figure deaths on board a flagship high orbital cruiser - a public relations disaster as well as a literal one that had resulted in a re-branding of the whole company.
Trane was reaching for the case controls when Courtenay barked, "Don't touch that!"
She was pale and her nostrils were flaring, "We're all going to end up in full assess, you realise? Let's not make it worse than it already is. Just find this facility's controller."
Nick wasn't sure what full asses was, but he was going to guess some sort of company punishment. A nasty one, if the way Courtenay looked was anything to go by.
Sumner said, "Spread out and look for a controller station. Don't touch anything," she looked at Nick when she said that.
Nick wasn't insulted. She was right to be suspicious, he was going to touch the hell out of anything he could get away with if it looked interesting enough. He tried to saunter out of her glaring range, but wasn't surprised when she opted to keep an eye on him.
Jackson had said that there was a story on the Moon fit to rival the Eden massacre. Nick believed it was somewhere in the warehouse. They'd crashed almost on top of it - relatively speaking - and whatever objections Nick had to being almost killed by what was supposed to be a landing, he just couldn't ignore a story that potentially large. The deaths. The guilt. He might as well come away with something to show for it, or it was all meaningless.
As far as Nick could tell, everything on the shelves was some sort of controller - although a lot of it seemed to be historical models. The Vera Lynn cold-case probably contained whatever was left of the controller that had wrought that dark deed. He would have liked to get a shot of that, but instead had to content himself with a loving slow pan over it's exterior. In his head he was already making up taglines for it - Mass Murderer Kept On Ice In Secret Facility. Crazy Controller's Plastisteel Prison. Cruiser Nightmare Never Ends For Dreaming Death Dealer... well, he'd work on that one.
"Executive Courtenay!"
Nick and Sumner turned to Trane's call, which did not sound alarmed. They headed that way and met up with Ward on the way, who said she'd found nothing but inert controller components and parts.
Executive Courtenay was already with Trane and the two of them were contemplating what Nick at first through to be a body - then he realised it was just a manikin and as he got closer still, he began to realise it was neither of those things.
Crouched on a lower shelf, its vinyl wrapping puddled around it, was what looked suspiciously like a robot. It was shaped like a man, but the arms and legs were too thin to be anything other than artificial. Its head was roughly human-shaped, but it had no features - just a faceplate like on their helmets. There were jack ports in several places on its head and arms. Nick couldn't see as much of the legs, since the arms were wrapped around them, metal fingers gripping metal and rubber jointed elbows in a space-saving, but unpleasantly human crouched pose. It was shiny with white, red and black livery and it bore the companies old logo - 4Life - which made it at least three and half years old.
Courtenay was just staring at it with something like distaste, so Nick asked, "What is it, Trane? A robot, right?"
Trane ran a finger almost lovingly over the thing's head, tapping one of the jack ports there, "This is a controller port. I think it's a controller. One that can walk around - Captain Sumner, we could walk it back to the ship, you need a controller to trim your engines."
Sumner looked almost as perturbed as Courtenay, "My engines are nearly out of fuel and not operating at sufficient capacity to get us out of the Moon's gravity."
Trane shrugged, as if this were mere quibbling, "Either way, it might be able to tell us about this place. It might be able to contact the nearest platform."
There was silence for a while, then Trane said, "It's that or the 'comms' corridor without knowing what that wards warning was all about. Right?"
Courtenay made a noise of disgust, then said, "Fine. See if you can start it."

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Day Five and Six


Captain Sumner woke from a short and unsatisfying sleep in her quarters and fumbled for the datapad bleeping away at her. She clawed it into range and squinted at it. It was a text message from one of the 4L engineers, telling her more bad news. For a moment, she lay on her back and contemplated throwing the pad across the room. That self-indulgence weighed up, then dismissed, she got up and stumbled into the bathroom to piss.
Her eyes were more yellowed than bloodshot now, which was something - everyone had burst vessels in their eyes during the crash and had spent the last couple of days wandering around looking like monsters from a cheap horror digital. She still couldn't breathe without her ribs screaming at her, though. The straps from the co-pilots chair had left her black with bruises from her shoulders to her thighs.
She opened the medicine cabinet and remembered for the second day in a row that she'd given the medic all the painkillers. She slammed the cabinet shut and leaned against the sink.
Anyway, it was time to give everyone the news.

Most of the Qentiga was under emergency lighting, making for gloomy travel through its innards. They kept the launch lounge brightly lit and it was where everyone congregated. It was the largest area on the ship - save the cargo deck, which they'd de-pressurised after putting the bodies of the dead in there, tied down with netting in one corner. Both of the other executives were dead - thrown to death by the impact. If she'd taken the drunk back a pressure chair... but she hadn't. Sumner had contemplated jettisoning Casey's body, not liking the idea of the traitor technician lying next to people she'd been responsible for killing, but Dawud had talked her out of it. He insisted the dead did not mind and she needed Dawud to stay focused, so she acquiesced. Besides, jettison would have been a waste of air.
When she entered the lounge, everyone was already there, waiting and quiet. She'd put her pressure suit and her officer's face back on and she moved to the front of the lounge to address them. Expectant gazes all fixed upon her.
Clasping her hands behind her back, Sumner said, "I know most of you are waiting upon news of the rescue ships. I regret to inform you that I do not believe a rescue is coming."
She left a pause for anger and denials, but no one said anything - not even the one remaining executive. She took a deep breath, "We appear to have crashed under a communications security blanket. Our transponder has burned out, despite being isolated from the controller. We do not yet know how that happened, or when it occurred, since the controller cannot be relied upon to have reported accurate data at any stage during our flight. Furthermore, shortly before launch, our pilot received a course change authorised by L.T.C. Given the extent of the sabotage, which certainly required more than one person to achieve, it seems probable that the authorisation was counterfeit."
A few people looked suspiciously towards Dawud, who was sitting hunched forward in a launch chair, cradling his broken arm in its very makeshift splint and sling.
Captain Sumner continued, "As far as we can ascertain, no-one but the saboteurs know where we are. We have no means of communicating outside the security blanket. Our engines are severely damaged, we are low on fuel, the controller is destroyed and we are not equipped with supplies for more than a short flight. Even with recycling and severe rationing, we cannot sustain ourselves for as long as a month. We cannot just wait to be found."
One of the heavy machine operators asked with a peculiar flatness of tone, "Are you telling us we're going to die here?"
"No. We're under the security blanket - that means we can still transmit and receive across the terrain," she pointed to the 'senior' engineer, only Cyan class, but due a promotion in Sumner's opinion, "Mrs. Ward and her assistant have worked wonders with our LADAR. We've picked up a facility just under two miles away at thirty degrees west of north. This ship has five pressure suits - only three of which are rated for outside work. Two have been jury rigged with extra heating and Fomeseal - they should serve, if they're used with care. I intend to lead a team to the facility and see if we can find a way to punch through the security blanket to contact L.T.C."
Fresh life rippled through the onlookers and there were a chorus of volunteers and questions. Sumner waited until they had most of it out of their systems before she raised a hand for quiet, "I will lead. I need an engineer and a technician, if Mrs. Ward and Mister Trane will oblige?"
Both Ward and Trane gave their assent.
Sumner said, "That only leaves the two jury rigged suits, which I will only risk upon people who have suit certifications of five or above."
Raised hands dropped. Most of the staff being transferred were low classification. There was something of a collective sigh of disappointment. One hand was still raised, however.
"I think I can still just about squeeze myself into a suit, if it's sized for a man," said Nick, "I'm rated seven - had to do a whole three month course on FastNews's ticket for a story they ended up shelving."
Captain Sumner gave him a long, hard look, "And what assistance will you bring to the expedition, Mister Mitcham?"
He rolled a shrug, "Communications. I've covered stories in places without feeds more than once, some of which had some very tricky state or corporate security blankets. I know how to make my voice heard, Captain. It's kept me alive more than once."
Sumner wanted to say no - but she realised that this was a purely emotional response. She didn't like the man. This wasn't the time to let personality clashes made decisions and after weighing up how she felt, versus what evidence she had, she decided he was as trustworthy - or untrustworthy - as everyone else on this ship. Given what Casey had done, she couldn't be sure of anyone. Not even Dawud.
"Very well, Mister Mitcham, if your rating checks out, you may join us. You are aware of the dangers of using a jury rigged suit."
It was not a question and Nick merely nodded.
Sumner said, "While I am out of the ship, pilot Dawud El Amin will be your point of contact for all matters concerning the ship and will have final say on what work is approved upon Qentiga. Executive Courtenay will of course remain in charge of all non-Qentiga matters for four el staff."
Executive Courtenay stood up, "I need to go with you."
Sumner raised an eyebrow and watched Courtenay rubbing her hands together. A curiously fraught gesture that Sumner did not care for.
Courtenay said, "You might need my classification to get you into the facility. There is something else I need to discuss with you, Captain. Privately."
Sumner nodded, "Very well, we will discuss it. Ward and Trane, if you go to the airlock you will find the pressure suits you will be using in the lockers. Please observe the safety checklists on the locker doors. Dawud, confirm that Mister Mitcham's qualifications are sufficient."
"Yes, Captain."
While Ward and Trane made their way out, Nick got up and moved over to Dawud's chair, offering up his datapad. Captain Sumner gestured for Executive Courtenay to follow her. When people tried to stop Sumner to ask her questions she just shook her head and pointed towards Dawud. She might not be sure of anyone after Casey, but the rest of them didn't need to know that and she hoped that any remaining saboteurs aboard Qentiga had just as much interest in staying alive as she did.

They went to Courtenay's executive suite and as soon as the door was closed behind them, Sumner asked, "What's the problem, Miz Courtenay?"
Courtenay exhaled, going to her locker and getting out a bottle of wine. She shook the bottle, remarking, "Thank god for plastisteel - would you like some?"
"No - and if you expect to get into a suit and go to the facility, you'll put that right back where you found it."
Courtenay shrugged, putting the bottle back in the locker.
"You're not rated at all for pressure suits, are you?"
Shaking her head, Courtenay brought a secure-looking metal case out of the locker and said, "How much do you know about Heppa, Captain?"
"Hnh. It's four el's investment protection for its staff and it carries benefits tailored to the specialisations of the staff - that's about all I know."
"Investment protection, yes."
Courtenay used her thumbscan to unlock the metal case. Inside, nestled in tight foam cubbies, was a selection of small red capsules. Two of the foam holes were empty. She held this out for Sumner to see.
"I have twelve days supply left. Twenty four if I use half rations, but that would be very uncomfortable - I would not be able to function well. Once I run out, I will go into withdrawal. The more investment that has been put into an employee's training, the more unbreakable the bond between them and their corporation - it's saved us hundreds of thousands in potential lost assets over the years. Probably millions, actually."
Sumner folded her arms, leaning against a wall, "Spell it out for me. How does this affect our situation?"
Courtenay ran a finger over the ruby vials in loving caress, "Once an employee accepts promotion to Blue classification, or above, severe withdrawal can become life threatening. Not all of them will be carrying a two week supply - this was supposed to be a five hour flight."
"So you're telling me I might lose more of my remaining passengers and the rest are going to turn into squirrelly junkies gagging for their fix in the next few days?"
Courtenay frowned, snapping her Heppa case closed, "This isn't a joke."
"I'm not remotely amused," Captain Sumner pushed herself away from the wall, ignoring the bolts of pain this drew from her ribs, "Can the medic do anything?"
Courtenay put the Heppa case back in the locker, slotting it into a mesh pocket, "She's only Green, she'll be alright once the worst of it is passed, but she's not cleared for cessation management, let alone full withdrawal."
Sumner paced the width of the suite, "Will there be Heppa in the facility?"
"I don't know. If it's unstaffed, maybe not ... either way you do need my clearance to get through security and I think we both agree that the faster we can procure a rescue, the better."
"What's your suit rating?"
Courtenay spread her hands.
Sumner exhaled, "You'll have to use my suit - I'll use the other jury-rigged one," she put words into action straight away, unhooking her helmet from her belt and breaking the seals on her suit, telling Courtenay, "Get that skirt and those ridiculous shoes off, you can wear the rest of your clothes under it. Hurry up."
After a moment's hesitation, Executive Courtenay twitched into action, hooking a finger behind her heel to pop off her power shoes.

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.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Day Two and Three


Shuttle Qentiga was never going to win any beauty competitions. With the exception of some luxury fittings for the executive suits, she was a ruthlessly practical beast and with all the animated advertising slathered on her thick hide, she most closely resembled a skip dipped in glitter.
Captain Sumner suffered the looks of incredulous disdain on the faces of first time passengers with stoic indifference. If they were boarding, she already had their credits. Today, she'd seen aboard sixteen 4L platform staff - always prompt boarders, they didn't want to be fined by their company. The three 4L executives had boarded rather later, one of them already drunk. Now she was just waiting for the last one, a late addition to the passenger list.
Sumner had heard of Nicholas Mitcham and had even seen a few of his reports on the contract infractions war. She hadn't liked him then, she didn't expect to like him now and she checked the time on her datapad, fully expecting him to be the one that cost everyone the delayed departure fee.
As it turned out, he made it to the shuttle twenty minutes before departure. She didn't recognise him, at first. The lithe reporter in combat fatigues who had graced the newsfeeds more than a decade ago, had been replaced by a fat, middle-aged man in baggy comfort-wear. He rolled out of the auto-cart that had brought him and his luggage out to the launch pad and shouldered his bag with a grunt, casting his gaze over the ship and smirking in a way that did not improve Sumner's opinion of him.
He made his way up the boarding ramp and presented his datapad, "Captain Sumner? I'm Nick Mitcham - journalist. Four El commissioned me to shoot some footage of the approach to Luna Seventeen for a promo. You were told, I hope?"
Sumner scanned his pad with her own, checking the handshake for his pass and that the credits had been transferred before she said, "At one o-clock this morning, yes. As I told Executive Clark, you may not shoot your footage from the cockpit - we can, however, provide you a good view from your suite which is on the approach side."
He smiled, canting his head to one side slightly, "I'm sure that will be fine."
She passed his pad back and gestured to the doorway, "Follow the gold line for the executive suits, you're in number three. I suggest you stow your bag and take your seat in the lounge without delay, we launch in ..." she checked her pad, "Approximately seventeen minutes, forty seconds. There is a significant penalty fee for launch delay and the chartering companies are in the habit of charging the individuals responsible."
"Well then, can't have that. I'll just splash some water on my face and be along to the lounge directly."
He gave her another smile that was trying too hard to be charming and Sumner stared him down until it faltered off his face and he got moving. Once he was inside, she sent the ramp on its way back to the terminal, went in and sealed the airlock, check-listing the indicators on her pad before stalking her way up to the cockpit.

The cockpit was a three-seater. Room for a pilot, co pilot and flight engineer. Qentiga only needed a pilot to fly, but Sumner had chosen this model purely for the extra room it afforded for monitoring feeds.
She dropped into the co-pilot's seat and asked the pilot, "Dawud, how are we looking?"
Dawud was concentrating on his comms screen, punching buttons, "We've had a course change, Captain. Came in a couple of minutes ago - authorisation checks out. They want us to go Darkside and come in from the east."
"I thought Darkside was off limits to franchise traffic?"
"They've given us a tunnel through it - something to do with a radiation flare in the main shipping lanes."
Sumner frowned, "I wish LTC would find a system that works and stick with it. Who's paying for the extra fuel?"
Dawud glanced over and flashed a grin, "Good thing you're sitting down already - the company's paying for it. They've given us a ticket we can redeem at the platform, they'll refuel us there."
"There's our luck for the day," Sumner reached up and hit the intercom, switching to the control room digifeed, "Casey, how's the controller?"
There was a moment of silence, then Casey came into view, her hair in the sort of disarray that suggested she'd been crawling around in the maintenance ducts, "Controller's green across the board. Gave it extra glucose on feed line A. Worked that micro delay right out."
"Launch in approximately thirteen minutes, can you get up here and help Dawud with the pre-flight?"
"Yes, Captain."
Sumner closed the feed and started flicking through the other channels, seeing that at least four of her passengers were still faffing about in their quarters instead of taking seats in the launch lounge. She sighed and got out of her seat, "Every damn time."
With the controller playing automated get-in-your-launch-seat messages with increasing frequency, Captain Sumner chased down the strays and herded them into the launch lounge, not at all surprised to find that the journalist was poking around in cargo, claiming to be 'looking for the bar'. He was probably looking for an angle - the freelancers always were - and she wondered if it would be possible to 'lose' him at the platform before the return run. That would almost be worth the penalty.
After making sure they were all secured and with less than a minute to spare, she made it back to the cockpit to strap herself in. Casey was already in the bucket seat behind Dawud. She was bent over the controller output screen with that peculiar intensity common to 4L technicians, who took a drug that speeded up their perception of time, leaving them living in a world where everyone and everything around them moved in slow motion. 4L techs blinked one eye at a time so that they could see the controller output on their screens without missing a nanosecond, which was important, because despite Dawud's skill as a pilot, it was the controller that trimmed the engines, managed the grav pads and both monitored and operated life support and radiation levels.
"Status?" asked Sumner.
"All green," said Casey.
Flicking switches over his head, Dawud said, "All is well. Permission to launch, Captain?"
With one last look at her own screens to make sure everyone was still strapped down, Sumner said, "Permission granted."
Dawud dialled the comm and flicked the switch, "E-T-C, this is A-R-K Qentiga. Confirm clearance for departure on six, nine, eighty to Luna Darkside fifteen, seven, eight."
Confirmed A-R-K Qentiga, you are cleared to proceed. You have a lane to eighteen thousand metres at six, nine, eighty - hold there for further clearance from L-T-C, confirm."
"Confirmed, control, clear to eighteen thousand metres at six, nine, eighty and hold."
Safe flight, Qentiga. E-T-C out.
As Dawud set things into motion, the dispassionate and androgynous 'voice' of the controller echoed through the shuttle.
Final launch warning. Please ensure you are in your pressure chairs and secured. Launch in ten... nine... eight..."
Sumner wiggled her shoulders more securely into the back of her chair and watched the digifeeds showing the launch lounge, where her passengers were strapped down. Their expressions ranged from the lady who had fallen asleep, to the white-knuckled terror of the drunk exec, who had been warned to launch with his head turned to the side in case he vomited and choked to death. The journalist looked nervous too, but was much better at keeping it in check. Sumner was faintly surprised - she expected a man like that to have almost as many launches under his belt as she did.
...two... one. Launch.
There was a subtle vertigo from the gravpads ramping up in an attempt to compensate for the launch. The acceleration quickly overwhelming gravpad capabilities. Pressure chair pneumatics hissed and gasped. A couple of the passengers could be heard wailing over the feed as the pressure mounted, crushing them into their chairs until they looked like stick men in marshmallows. As Qentiga reached her speed, the pressure eased off more gradually than it had been applied until the gravpads were in control again, rubber-banding them back to 1G.
Sumner was happy to see that the drunk exec had managed not to vomit all over her launch lounge and she unbuckled her straps to see to the more tiresome business of making sure the execs were kept happy for the duration of the flight.
"Casey, when we reach LTC space, tell the controller to blank the viewports. That reporter doesn't have clearance to film anything but the flight approach to Lunar Seventeen and he's probably fitted with an EyeSpy."
"Yes, Captain."
"Honestly, I'm surprised they didn't stipulate that when they changed the route - I suppose we'll just be going over rock and covered facilities?"
Dawud shrugged.
Casey said, "I'll let you know if the controller sees anything interesting."

There were complaints about the blanked viewports - from the executives of course - but not from the journalist, which was more of a surprise. Aside from that, the flight out of Earth's atmosphere was uneventful and Captain Sumner went through her routines of safety checks and passenger management almost on automatics. She had found that passengers, far from being wild cards in the shuttle business, were very predictable once you got to learn their ways. They fell into categories and she'd developed techniques for dealing with each type.
She'd expected to have to keep herding the journalist away from areas of the shuttle off-limits to passengers, but after his initial wander he stayed in his launch seat, unstrapped, but otherwise unmoving, all of his attention on his datapad. Sumner even went so far as to ask Casey if he was transmitting or receiving anything on the pad using the 4LBk encryption, but Casey told her all he seemed to be doing was compulsively checking his mail and occasionally checking the 4L news feeds - all on standard encryption.
She was interrupted from her suspicious scrutiny of the journalist by one of the execs - not the drunk, who had retreated to his suit, but a woman in a sharp suit with artfully cascading red hair, which had come through the launch almost untouched.
"Excuse me, Captain? I'm Eleanor Courtenay, Four el ee ar - I have some questions about this ship."
Sumner lifted her chin, "Ma'am?"
"I couldn't help but notice that all the ground staff referred to your ship as Ark Qentiga, instead of Four El Qentiga. Why is that?"
Sumner internally sighed, sensing more than a whiff of corporate outrage brewing, "The ship's full name is A-R-K Four El Qentiga, but all traffic control care about are the ship's manufacturing origins. A-R-K is the traffic designation for Aratek ships."
The exec stiffened almost imperceptibly, "But the controller is Four El. The controller talks to traffic control, yes?"
"Yes, ma'am, but the controller transmits Aratek engine codes to traffic and our silhouette is Aratek. Also, most of our traffic control communications are confirmed by an Aratek pilot."
"But you're flying Four El personnel to Four El facilities!"
"We are fully licensed to serve with and for a number of corporations and Four El Engineering is our biggest customer - however, none of that helps traffic control recognise our ship, which is of Aratek make."
Grasping the sheer lack of importance of 4L components to traffic control seemed to be beyond the woman. Captain Sumner resigned herself to paraphrasing exactly the same information until the exec grew annoyed enough to threaten to report the 'incident', which would provide the opportunity to distract her with contact information and complaint forms, all of which could be explained at a later date to hopefully more sensible people.
Eleanor wagged a finger, "I think the chief executive of resource management would be very interested to hear about the sidelining of our brand identity. In fact -"
The gravpads above and below them made a slightly distressed whining noise and then Sumner, Eleanor and everyone else in the room started to hover off the floor as the gravity cut out.
Captain Sumner grabbed hold of the nearest launch chair and then took hold of Eleanor's sleeve to stop her from drifting further. She raised her voice, "Everyone return to your launch chairs - make small and careful movements. If you need assistance I will help, if you are patient. Do not try to 'fly' around the room, the gravity could come back on at any moment."
Several of the platform staff aborted their grinning attempts to head ceiling-ward with some panicky arm-flailing in the direction of the nearest solid object. One of them was already too far up and was swearing up a storm.
"Well honestly," said Eleanor in tones of high disgust, "I can see I'll have more than one thing to report."
Sumner steered Eleanor's hand to the launch chair she was holding onto and said, "Yes, Ma'am. Please, strap yourself in."
"You advertise with 'when you can't afford mistakes', don't you? I wonder what the regulator's would make of that piece of misinformation?"
"Strap yourself in, Ma'am."
When she was sure the exec was going to do as she was asked, Sumner pointed at the idiot flailing about on the ceiling and said, "Stay still! I'll come up and get you."
While she was kicking off gently to glide to the idiot, Sumner pinched the comm. button on her collar and cut off the alarm bleeping away in her earpiece, "Dawud, report."
"It's the controller. It's shut down half of its systems, shall I switch to manual life support?"
Sumner reached the ceiling and with her free hand grabbed the belt of the floating staffer and used one boot against the ceiling to carefully alter their trajectory to the lounge floor, "Yes, do that and confirm when it's green. Casey, report."
Casey came over the comm, sounding uncharacteristically excited, "Controller's not talking, Captain. Trying to ascertain why."
"Get a move on. I want a shipwide sixty second warning before the grav pads come back on, make sure I get it."
"I'll try."
Sumner frowned, letting go of the comm button, but keeping the channel open. She focused her attention on making sure the rest of the staff were down and buckling in now she'd brought the flier back to a chair. She wanted to say a good deal more in stronger language, but she didn't want her passengers to hear it. Besides, she still had two stray executives to secure and she only knew for sure where one of them was.
Before she was all the way out of the lounge another alarm sounded - this one over the shipwide speakers. It was the radiation alarm and she heard some of the staff groaning. Most of them were very familiar with radiation alarms and what they meant.
Sumner called back into the lounge, "Stay secured!"
Eleanor shouted, "What's going on, Captain?"
"We have a malfunction - as soon as I have more details they will be announced over the comms. Until then, all passengers must remain secured for their own safety."
"You know more than you're telling us! I demand-"
Sumner cut her off by closing the lounge door. She ripped off the tear-away panel by the door and punched in the lockdown code, sealing the lounge to anyone who didn't have a crew identifier on their datapad. Before she was done, the radiation alarm stopped.
She pinched the comm. again and said, "Dawud - make reassuring noises to the passengers if you get a chance."
She checked her pad, trying to get access to the monitors so she could verify the two missing execs were in their respective suits, but the controller managed the ship's intrafeed and she couldn't get into anything.
Over the shipwide speakers, Dawud said, "Ladies and gentleman, this is your pilot speaking. We have switched to manual radiation management for the time being and expect the grav pads to be restored shortly. In the meantime, please remain secured and await further instructions."

Dawud's message played on repeat in five-minute intervals. Captain Sumner found the drunk executive floating around in his bathroom, covered in sick. She gave him a towel to wipe the worst off and carefully manoeuvred the weeping man to the suit's bed and tucked him in tight, telling him not to get up until the all clear.
The other exec - a small and weasel-like fellow who looked as if he overdid his own corporate drug usage - wasn't in his quarters.
Sumner got back on the comm. "Casey, report. Also, if either of you know where Excutive Mateu is, let me know immediately."
There was no immediate answer of any kind and Sumner was about to ask for Casey again, when Casey came on the feed, "Captain... the controller's ignoring every soft command sent to it. I tried to get into the controller housing to hard command and it won't even open the panel, I'm going to have to cut my way in."
Sumner frowned, "What are you telling me, Casey? Has it gone rogue?"
"I don't think so - it's never shown any signs of instability and the way it's acting now... I think it's just running a new set of protocols," a faint static breeze clouded the feed, only audible when Casey stopped talking. The static was radiation, meaning Dawud wasn't keeping the shielding to the standard it ought to be at.
After a pause, Casey said, "Captain, I think we've been sabotaged."
Sumner paused in her slow progress down a corridor, pulling herself along by any handhold she could get and fighting the urge to increase her momentum. Who the hell would sabotage a shuttle on what was, basically, a very small crew run? They weren't even hauling cargo. Personal vendetta? She didn't think she had any rivals who rated her highly enough to perform this level of crime.
She shook her head and re-focused on the task at hand. Didn't matter why right now. All that mattered was how and what systems.
An answer of sorts to the second question came over the comms a moment later as Dawud said, "I've lost control of the engines and we're being steered down to the Darkside a lot faster than I'd like, I need some help up here."
Sumner said, "I've lost Executive Mateu, he's probably not secured."
"Captain, you're going to lose more than one if we touch down at this velocity."
"Right," Sumner changed direction, speeding up despite the risk if the gravpads came back on without warning, "Casey, you get into that controller and cut its link to the ship. I don't care how you do it."
"Yes, Captain. I... yes."
Sumner made it to the cockpit in less than seven minutes, hauling along almost recklessly and pulling more than one muscle yanking herself from one trajectory to another. Once she was there, she heard the radiation alarm again - evidently just cut off from the shipwide broadcast. There were all manner of other alarms going off too and the panels were festive with flashing lights. Dawud's hands were flying over his console as he fought for control.
Getting into the co-pilot's seat and strapping in, Sumner raised her voice to be heard over the wooping and buzzing alarms, "Dawud? What do you need?"
            He didn't look away from his task, his voice only slightly tighter than usual, "If you can keep trying to power down the engines, I'll see if there's a way I can use the test routines to re-align them. Until Casey gets that thing out of my systems, our best option is to try to redirect into space."
Even as she started to do as he had asked, Sumner said, "I don't much like the idea of spinning out - we're tight on fuel thanks to that route change."
"We'll catch some more rads and we'd have to sit out there for a few days before we can be tugged in, but it beats hitting solid ground."
"What are LTC saying?"
Dawud did snatch a glance her way then, the depth of his concern clear in his eyes, even if his tone was still only a notch up from professional boredom, "Nothing. We're deaf and dumb outside this ship. I can't even tell if the transponder's replying to them anymore."
Sabotage. There was no doubt in Captain Sumner's mind on that matter now. While she battled with the engine shut-offs - about as effective as hitting them with a pillow, presently - she opened comms to the controller room on the main panel.
"Casey, any news?"
"If I find out who did this to my controller, I'll kill them!"
Unlike Dawud, Casey's voice was high-emotion. She almost sounded hysterical. Sumner said, "Keep it together, Casey - report."
After a short patch of nothing more than the fuzz and static of radiation, Casey said, "It's dying. We're losing it."
"I didn't ask you to save it, just get it out of my ship's systems."
"If it dies, the ship's dead anyway, it's blown and fused so much..."
"Casey! If we can't stop the engines, we're going to crash. Better to drift in than power in. Get it done."
The pause was longer this time, the static broken only by Casey's laboured breathing and what sounded suspiciously like a sob before Casey said, "Yes, Captain."
The feed cut off - killed at Casey's end.
Another alarm started up, this one a recorded woman's voice that stated with firm, repetitive urgency, Pull up - terrain. Pull up - terrain. Pull up - terrain.
Sumner looked out cockpit window, seeing a lot of dark grey - twilight on the Darkside, a mess of jagged-edged craters and some low domes that barely stood out amongst the surface. It was all going past very fast. She realised her innards weren't floating anymore. Not 1G, not the gravpads - but the Moon's gravity taking hold.
Dawud was still flicking switches at a furious pace and he said, "Don't worry, Captain. Casey will get it offline any second," he paused mid-switch and then added, "Inshallah."
And with that expression of doubt, Sumner knew that Dawud believed they were going to crash.
She believed it too and she switched comms back to shipwide, shouting over the alarms, "Brace for impact! Brace! Brace! Bra-"

The Qentiga clipped the edge of a crater and tumbled. The engines were still running and for a moment it spluttered upward again in a twisting rotation, like a Catherine wheel torn free of its pin. Then the engines finally cut out and the Moon's embrace brought it back down. The Qentiga landed aft-first, tumbled again two or three times kicking off the surface, then bellied down and gouged a rut into the surface for more than three miles before it slowed and fetched up on its side on the slope of another crater. Dust and smoke enshrouded it and the twilight grew imperceptibly darker.