Inez Stanton was on the john when the siren started going off. She slapped the comms panel next to her and a cheerful voice rang out, “Saluti, comandante.” Great, something fucked up the language control.
“What’s happening?” she said, a little startled at the loudness of her own voice. How long since she had spoken out loud?
“Мы пострадали от мусора.” It took a few seconds for Inez to remember her Russian. Debris. Shit.
“Where were we hit?”
“Rahtikotelossa.” Was that, fuck, Finnish? Still, given that the ship wasn’t actually destroyed, it was probably the cargo hold.
Inez finished cleaning up and pulled up her jumpsuit. She grabbed the fire extinguisher from the dull metallic corridor wall and approached the door to the hold.
“I hate to ask this, gods know how you’ll respond. Is there air pressure in the cargo hold?”
“Les barrières tiennent.”
Right. So, she could breathe. She grabbed a respirator anyway and opened the inner door and peered through the outer door’s porthole. Immediately, she could see there was no upper bulkhead over about a third of the hold, furthest from her. It looked like it must have been a glancing blow more than anything, though, because none of the cargo was even disturbed.
“How long will the barriers hold?”
“Tilu dinten, di speed urang ayeuna.”
That was no help. She closed the door to the cargo hold and put the respirator and fire extinguisher back. She crossed the hundred feet to the cab and opened the door there.
“Thank you, whoever there is to thank,” she whispered, seeing that her panels were still in English. So, just a bit over three days, as long as nothing else had gotten jarred loose with the hit. She pulled up the star maps to see if there was anywhere to go that was less than three days away. Fang’s Waystation was going to be the closest, about two and a half days away. It would be tight, but she’d make it if nothing else went wrong.
“Why did you think that?” she whispered at herself.
She set a new course for the waystation, and killed the siren. It was giving her a headache.
She marched back out through the storage room to the closet that held a lot of the most important parts of the ship. These included the air recycler, the power cells that controlled everything but the drive core, and the ship’s computer. The computer was literally the smallest part of what was in the closet.
Inez pulled out the data core of the computer and turned it over in her hands. It was a small crystal cube with a hole on one side. No obvious physical damage (though she was by no means an expert). She grabbed a test lead from next to the computer and plugged it in. The core lit up and she could see the test sequence running properly. She plugged it back into the main computer, and, after a few minutes, it began the slow blink that showed it was ready.
“What’s your status?” she asked the computer.
“Working at 89% of nominal.”
It was kind of amazing that rebooting was all that it took. She wiped her brow. She was sweating, despite the temperature in the rig being a constant 20 degrees. “Good. Can you monitor our progress to the waystation?”
Fuck. She stowed the core back into the computer case and closed the closet door. Hard.
Inez had been driving this rig for about seven years now. It wasn’t fancy, and it sure as hell wasn’t paid off yet, but it was as much of a home as she’d had in her life, the longest she’d slept in one bed since she was a child.
It was an older model ship, older than she was, and it was held together in parts with alutape and prayer. The dancing figure of Saint Camilia on the main console was hiding a bullet hole. Both the bullet hole and Camilia, patron saint of smugglers, pre-dated her ownership of the rig. Inez just needed a way to get away.
She turned off the music she was listening to. There was a hum in the ship that seemed just a bit louder than normal, but she really didn’t know if it was actually louder, or if she was just paranoid. Not that it couldn’t be both. It could always be both.
Getting the hell away from people was the whole reason she started as a cargoist. It was quiet work where she didn’t need to interact with anyone much unless she wanted to. She didn’t really like people, to be honest. There were some deep-seated trust issues where that was concerned, and she wasn’t shy about warning anyone who showed any interest in her about it.
Out here, there was just the ever-expanding future and the ever-expanding universe. Inez was comforted by the fact that the universe would go out with a quiet sigh rather than the explosive end that she had wished for when she was younger.
Inez’s upbringing was probably common under the Free Earth. She preferred not to think about when she was younger, or about what happened to her mother. She was just under thirty standard revs old, more than old enough to be angry at herself for ruminating. She had lots of time to think between destinations, and she spent as much time as she could not thinking.
With a few taps on the console she started a full ship-wide diagnostic, hoping for confirmation whether or not the ship was actually louder, and reading over her messages. A half dozen new directives from the Company, a mail forwarded to her from a third cousin she’d never met about some politics thing that she didn’t know about (and that sounded just a bit like bullshit), compulsory Free Earth propaganda, nothing that captured her interest.
She thought that Free Earth might get a report back that she didn’t spend the requisite amount of time looking at their latest. Then again, with her systems scrambled, who knew?
Inez closed her mail and pulled up a book. It was an old trashy book about a future that was now a few centuries in the past. She’d read it a few dozen times, the first time when Sara had snuck it to her from the library. Poor Sara. Reading was one of the ways she kept her brain quiet. No, nothing truly kept her brain quiet, but sometimes she could drown it out.
Books, music, vids (but never the news), anything that could stop her brain from wandering into those dark places. She even used some language immersion cubes that she’d found when she first went through the old smuggling nooks.
It was going to be a while before the full diagnostic report came in, so she made herself comfortable and held the book up to her face.
The board pinged a few minutes later, and Inez nearly dropped the book pad.
“What is it?”
“Tha luchd-dìon a ’putadh barrachd sprùilleach gu aon taobh.”
Oh, for fucks’. She’d forgotten about the translator. She pulled up the message on the console. More debris, and according to the limited scans that the rig could do, they seemed to be from the same ship as the debris that hit the cargo hold.
She brought the ship to a stop, more or less (things in space were never really stopped), and felt the lurch as the inertial suppression systems compensated for dropping out of faster than light speed. She put the ship’s diagnostic to full processing, figuring it better to get it sooner rather than later. This posture would hopefully keep the ship from being hit too hard by anything out there.
This was, well, she figured it couldn’t be good. At the very least, a ship headed the way she was going had a catastrophic failure worse than what she was dealing with. Did it mean something? She had a healthy distrust of coincidence, but given space, that ship could have been destroyed centuries ago.
Still, it needed a look, and that was not something that the ship’s scanners could do. She’d have to get the high-powered scanner that Annie had given her so long ago (okay, forgotten when she stormed out) and actually go out there. Poor Annie.
The exosuit locker was in the storage room. It was a large unit, and at some point she must have unplugged it, so that was going to take some time.
Light was going to be an issue. Her suit’s lamps would be a little help, but she was really going to need the rig’s docking lights if she was going to see anything. The rig had slots for sixteen salvage drones, but the one that had actually come with the rig when she bought it had nearly exploded the first time she powered it up. She hadn’t been eager to replace them, and generally hadn’t thought about them at all, but now, their high-powered lights and sensors would really come in handy.
Five hours to full charge. That was not going to work. Not at all. She was reading over the specs on the side of the locker. Full charge would give her sixteen hours in deep space with protection from radiation, heat, cold, vacuum, and space weevils. (There was a full pictogram panel about pushing space bugs away from you.) She figured that she wouldn’t need more than two hours to get some good scans of the debris as long as she was within about a click of it.
The rig’s scanners had found a concentrated section of debris, a large piece gravitationally pulling on the smaller pieces, if she had to guess. They were now hovering about 500 meters from the outer edge of that grouping, and she had turned up the debris deflectors on the rig so they wouldn’t be destroyed by a rivet.
An hour and a half to wait for the suit to power up to where she’d need it. That was a lot of time to be waiting. She pulled up a music file and set an alert for 90 minutes.
89 minutes later, music was blasting throughout the rig, and Inez was bouncing around the way she’d seen teenagers doing in clubs in entertainment clips. She didn’t have the glow paint or the intoxicants, and she had clothes on, but since no one was watching (maybe the Company, but fuck them), she did not care even a little bit.
The music stopped without even a fade out, and she was about six inches above the deck mid jump. She landed a little harder than she intended. Right. Time to do this thing.
Inez stood at the airlock. She felt like she needed to take a deep breath before venturing out, and reminded herself that she wasn’t going underwater. This was far worse.
She liked working in space just fine, as long as there were nice, redundant bulkheads between her and the vacuum. The suit was only a couple of millimeters of fabric between her and burning, freezing, frying, imploding, exploding, and everything else that might happen this far between systems.
The air cycled out of the compartment, and the door opened. She stepped off the artificial gravity and felt its pull disappear. Her stomach lurched in a way that made her glad it was empty.
She focused on her hands. One held the booster control, and the other held the sensor. Both were feeding information into her helmet’s display, but for the moment she was trying to ignore that.
She pulsed the booster and felt the gentle push from the points at her shoulders and hips. She turned back to look at the rig. The front section was basically a giant box. This was the detachable cargo hold. There was a faint blue glow across part of it, which is where the air shields were holding the vacuum at bay. The cargo section was Company property, and they were usually traded out at the endpoints. It made more sense in terms of efficiency to trade out cargo sections and head right back out. Usually, after recharging the batteries and a nice dinner, but not always.
The damage to the cargo hold didn’t look any worse than she had expected. She piloted around to the other side of the vessel, where her part of the rig was, and with the sensor, she could tell that there were a few hairline cracks that would need to be addressed when she got to the waystation, but nothing that couldn’t wait until then.
She looked up to where the main cluster of the other ship’s wreckage was. The lights from the rig were highlighting some of the shinier pieces, and Inez nudged the booster forward.
When she was first out running cargo for the Company, she’d been in a rented rig that was rapidly running out of usability. A previously jury-rigged repair (from long before she’d been driving it) had come loose, so, being enterprising, Inez had put on the exosuit, grabbed a roll of alutape and jumped out of the airlock.
Immediately, she was frozen in place. The blackness of space wasn’t what she had anticipated. It had weight. It was a three-dimensional presence, not an absence. It was trying to reach into her suit and strangle her. Space was malevolent and wanted her dead. No, worse. Space was entirely indifferent to her existence. To space, she was no different from the specks of dust flying with unchecked momentum around her.
She’d only been out in an exosuit a few more times, but that had been enough for her to develop a survival mechanism. Focus on the target. Do not lose sight of where you’re going. Always make sure your rig would tell you how to get back to it. Most of all, though, make sure you stayed on target.
It took about ten minutes (according to the in-helmet clock) to get to a large piece of the debris. It was about half as tall as she was and was definitely an outer bulkhead. It had part of a number sequence that looked like a ship’s registry. She had the scanner take it down. If nothing else, someone might want to know where their ship (and probably crew) died.
She avoided the jagged edges of it. Even though her suit was supposed to be able to withstand slashing and stabbing, it wasn’t something she wanted to test out. There was a much larger piece about 200 meters up (there is no up in space, she chided herself, and then chided herself again for caring about that shit). She steered herself towards it, hoping for something that would tell her about the ship.
She got to the large chunk of metal, which looked twisted all out of shape. Her scan, though, said it was actually the right shape, an outer section of a large faster than light ship. This was from the propulsion system. The spherical singularity chamber was nowhere to be seen. It had probably jettisoned and sped away from the ship in order to keep from getting caught in the rest of the destruction. The drive cores could be extremely dangerous in the right situation.
She pulled in closer and saw that there was a deck and a half, and about 50 meters of corridor connected to the piece. There were also a half dozen bodies floating right along with it. Scan confirmed that they had died during the explosive decompression and likely hadn’t even felt it.
She scanned the interior bulkhead, which was painted gray and had more numbers on it, but no other identification. This could have been just about any large cruiser. Even on a pleasure ship, the engineering section would be plain like this. Engineers never got to enjoy the pleasures of a pleasure ship anyway. They were an odd bunch (they had gained the nickname “bug eaters”), so they probably didn’t have any interest in it.
She piloted around the end of the debris, and was now able to see the outside. This was no pleasure ship. The drab olive of the paint job (of course it was painted) would have given it away on its own, but the insignia, the logo, for fuck’s sake, drove it home.
The logo was a planet with familiar continents, with a tree growing out the top and roots out the bottom, surrounded in block letters with “FREE EARTH”. This was a Free Earth heavy cruiser, possibly even a dreadnought. This was a military ship, and based on the data she was getting from the scanner, all hands were lost. And recently, too. This wreckage was at most a month or two old. There were still enough air molecules (oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, water) caught in the weak gravitation of the debris to confirm that.
That logo. The more she looked at it, the more she felt like she was going to faint in the suit. Those fuckers. They couldn’t just let her be, they had to--
No, she stopped herself. No, they didn’t crash their ship to set up a trap for her. They were bastards and clever, but even they wouldn’t be able to arrange something like that. Also, that many dead crewmembers to somehow fuck with her, well, no, that didn’t seem likely.
Also, other than her (acknowledged) self-aggrandizement, it was more likely that Free Earth generally didn’t have any idea that she existed. Live with yourself too long, you get an out-sized view of your own importance.
She set the scanner to look for the emergency beacon. It might have logs or something that could help. She really wanted to avoid meeting the indifferent omnipresence of space personally, the way these poor bastards did.
Half an hour later, beacon in tow, Inez was at the airlock. She had been out of sight range of the ship, but the lights and her suit helped her make her way back. It was really easy to get out of sight range. Disturbingly easy.
She shook that creeping feeling off, and closed the airlock doors behind her. Some fancier ships used permeable forcefields instead of airlocks, but present situation aside, she didn’t really trust them to work. She’d seen them fail, and not just in low-budget vids. No, she was very glad that her rig had the old fashioned (practically prehistoric) physical airlock.
Once the doors sealed and the air started hissing in, the gravity kicked on. She landed in a crouch, but the beacon landed with a bone-shaking thud. Right, it was a piece of equipment about a half-ton in weight. She was glad she’d put it next to her and not above her.
The inner door creaked open and Inez was already halfway out of her exosuit. She stuffed it back into the cabinet and connected the power cell before going to her bunk and grabbing a new jumpsuit. Bathing was probably a waste of power, but she could at least have clean clothes.
She went to the cab and resumed the trip to the waystation. In all, she’d been stopped about three hours. She probably couldn’t afford a lot more stops like that.
Using Annie’s scanner, she made several passes to assess the damage. It looked like the data core was intact, amazingly, but the event that took out the ship seemed to have shorn off the power supply.
Inez carefully extracted the data core, a crystal cube about five centimeters across, from the shell of the beacon. She didn’t want to power the beacon directly, not yet anyway. She figured she’d probably power it up and push it out the airlock at some point, let the Free Earth reclaim its property. But she wanted to get as much as she could from it first. Also, be as far away from it as possible.
The data core was overkill. A core that size could hold zettabytes of data. It would have been wiped with every return to port and ships like this were never away from port for more than a year. Assuming that the things the Admiral had said around her were accurate. Fucking--well, he’d gotten his.
She found the I/O port on the cube and inserted the external storage lead into it. The cube lit up as the lasers shot through it. It started reading the data, but almost immediately walls shot up around it. This had some pretty heavy encryption that she knew her computer, in its current state, would never be able to decode. Even if it were working, it would probably take longer than her remaining lifetime.
This was one mystery that she was not likely to solve any time soon.
Inez had stowed the core in the vacuum locker under the restroom floor and made her way back to the cab. The damage report had to be done by now. There were only so many things to look at on this rig.
She was correct that the report was completed. She scanned over the sections. Drive core operating at 85%, that was about normal. Power reserves draining due to the barrier keeping air in the cargo hold. Looked like there was still enough to make it to the waystation. Air reserves--no, that couldn’t be right.
No, it was right. When the cargo hold’s upper bulkhead got ripped off, all of that air would have been sucked out into the vacuum. The air reserves would have been fairly well depleted by refilling that space.
Fuck, she thought. According to the report, she was already out of breathable air.