Authors: Charles Barouch
Tags: #Science Fiction Adventure
"Conflate? Is that a glitch? In any case, where are you going with this?"
"Conflate is a word. You can look it up later, after we fix the power problem," Audra said. "There's hardware that limits the amount of power a device – the computer, the coffee pot, any device – can draw. If you drain power from the engines, you can't draw enough, I agree. But, if you draw from an individual device, the power controls will stop that device from being able to draw more. So, the computer is vulnerable. Besides, it makes more sense to assume that they know how to draw power than to assume they know how to disable select systems on our computer."
"I agree that if they had such selective control, they could have just killed the atmospherics and let us choke to death," Tiago admitted. "I still don't like the theory. But, let's pretend I accept it. What's your point?"
"If they are drawing power from the device, there's very few places they could put the leech. We find it. We remove it. We win," Audra said.
Tiago shrugged. "It's worth a try."
He took a quick look at the battle. Nellie and Neville seemed to be winning. If he left the life support bay, he wouldn't be able to keep re-balancing the fight. With a shrug, he used the local to open the doors. Audra headed toward the lift and Tiago followed after. If she was wrong, and in his heart he was sure she was, this was folly. The kind that could get them killed.
Chapter Eleven: Collapse
Captain's Log: Ship Date 621 continued
Computer generated slug: Systems compromised...
Most places the command crew needed to go on a daily basis were lined up so as to be easily accessed from the primary lift tube. The ship's computer -- or at least the primary hardware -- was not near that tube line. Unless a part failed, there was no reason for anyone to ever visit the core, and plenty of reasons, some paranoid, some not, to make it inconvenient to get there. Even with a hardware failure, the maker unit and the messenger bots collectively made most repairs hands-free. Thinking about that made Tiago realize why the maker unit had some independent intelligence. It would need it if the ship's computer was the thing which needed fixing.
"Local. Open lift doors. Local. Lift to ship's core."
To access the rest of the ship, the lift was designed to move horizontally as well as vertically. Tiago found the sideways motion unsettling, which told him the inertial dampers on the lift were no longer working perfectly. He wobbled a little as they stepped out. Audra – who was built with a gyroscope instead of a middle ear – suffered no ill effects. That bothered him for some reason.
It was a bare room, twenty feet wide and over three hundred feet long. The walls went up thirty feet or so. It was otherwise empty. If it were not for what lay behind the walls, it would be unimpressive. They began pushing at sections of wall, popping off the ground level panels. Without schematics, it could have been a long process, but careful thought narrowed the possible places to search to a reasonable handful. Power, most likely, would run from a conduit under the floor, over the ceiling, or along the back of one of the walls. As a result, they could ignore most of the panels on the walls.
The had perhaps a dozen floor level panels open when Audra spotted a power feed. Despite how lucky that seemed, they both knew that a system this critical would have multiple feeds to protect it from having a single point of failure. Since this might be the one that was sabotaged, they stopped popping panels long enough to check it.
"Local. Power reading on this cable?"
"Cable reads at 0%," chirped the local.
"This is a back up power cable. No luck," Tiago said.
"That's okay, tell the local to shunt primary to this cable. If I'm right about the leech, that will fix everything," Audra said.
"Local. Make this power cable primary. Local. Set all other power cables to standby."
"Test it," Audra said.
"Interrogative. What is your status?"
Nothing. Audra looked shocked. Tiago wanted to look smug, but he looked worried instead. Being here meant they weren't in control of the fight in the maker unit bay. If that fight had been won, by either side, it was only a matter of time before Audra and he were rounded up. He needed to be wrong.
"What if the leech isn't on the power cable, but on the core itself?" Audra asked with less confidence.
"Local. Run a power diagnostic on the core."
"There will be a delay," the local chirped.
They stood in the uncomfortable silence and thought their private thoughts. Audra was going through her logic, looking for a flaw. Tiago wasn't dwelling on the recent past. He was trying to plan his next move.
"Diagnostic complete. Power is working within standard tolerances," chirped the local.
"Damn. Okay… Local. Tell the core to lock out all the locals unless carried by verified crew. Local. Tell core to transfer bridge to Survey Shuttle One. Local. Open lift doors." Tiago said.
This time Tiago led and Audra followed. They traveled to cargo bay one. Tiago paused by Repair Shuttle Three.
"Local. Lock this shuttle. Local. Open the lift doors."
Tiago ordered the lift to take them to the survey bay. He walked over to Survey Shuttle One. It was a luxury ship compared to the repair shuttle. Audra settled into the co-pilot's chair as Tiago took the pilot's seat.
"Local. Off. SS1. Make airlock... Belay that. Which airlock is that? I know that Cargo Bay One has airlock one…" Tiago began.
"SS1. Access ship's computer. Interrogative. Which airlock is closest to Survey Shuttle One?" Audra said.
"Airlock seventeen," responded the ship's computer.
"You made me crew. I have voice command authority. Whatever was done to the ship's voice command wasn't done to this shuttle," Audra said. "Ready to go?"
"You mean we could have just gone into any shuttle and done this? Why didn't we?"
"Didn't think of it," Audra said.
"Interrogative. Prepare airlock seventeen for SS1. SS1. Plot a course to the dome on the nearest moon. SS1. Take us to the dome."
The shuttle lifted a few feet off the deck, using magnetic repulsion, and glided to the airlock. Once it was outside of the
, the shuttle pointed its nose down toward the moon and let the weak gravity pull it toward its destination. Braking jets kicked in as the surface loomed in the forward display, and the shuttle gracefully touched down.
"No vacuum suits," Audra pointed out.
"No custom-fit suits. Survey shuttles should have suits in the locker. SS1. What's the count of vacuum suits in our sizes."
"No suits in storage," said the shuttle.
"I can fix this. Interrogative. Launch RS3 on remote pilot. Land it in the flattest spot within one klick of our position. SS1. When RS3 lands, send a messenger bot to meet it. Audra, we'll have suits soon enough."
Audra trained Tiago on the basic safety issues involved with trusting your life to a vacuum suit. It was easier than he'd feared, but still theoretical. Without a suit available, he couldn't try anything she described. By the time the lesson was over, RS3 had landed.
The messenger bot on SS1 was stored in the rear cargo hold. It was able to slip out of the ship without affecting the internal air supply. RS3 didn't have a separate cargo hold, so Tiago had to vent the atmosphere in order to open that shuttle.
"SS1. Link to Interrogative. Interrogative. Link to RS3. RS3. Open the doors. Interrogative. Link to Maker. Maker. Link to Brainless Maker. Brainless Maker. Build two vacuum suits, model fourteen, to my size specifications. SS1. Seal the cargo bay to separate it from the cabin. SS1. Open access to cargo bay. SS1. Link to MB1. MB1. Go to RS3, collect two vacuum suits. MB1. Return with the suits."
Talking this way was very like programming on the fly. As the messenger bot returned, Tiago resumed his chain of commands.
"SS1. Close the cargo bay access doors. SS1. Open cargo bay interior doors."
Tiago grabbed a suit and passed it to Audra. They were close enough in build that either one could use either suit. Once they were dressed, they entered the cargo bay, sealed the cabin – to preserve the atmosphere – and stepped down onto the surface. For the first time in his life, Tiago stepped off a ship onto a world other than the Earth.
It was a let down. The surface was dusty, gray, and poorly lit. He was very aware of the risk of puncturing his suit. Ahead was an unknown but hostile group called the Masterless. He had always pictured touching down on a planet very like the one spinning below this moon. He had images of smiling people who were eager to trade technology, goods, and stories. This was like being promised seats at a sporting event only to find out they were in the parking lot, not by the field.
If Audra had an opinion about the moon, she kept it to herself. Tiago realized he was lagging behind. It took an act of will to stop himself from running to catch up. Vacuum suits are fragile things.
"I see something which might be an entrance," Audra said over the communications system.
The dome was less than fifty feet away. Tiago couldn't see anything special where Audra was pointing. To him, it was simply more dome, just like the bit of dome on either side of it. Once they were ten feet away, though, he could see a seam in the material. If that was a door, these Masterless might be much shorter than he expected. The horizontal part of the seam didn't even come up to his waist.
"We'll have to crawl," Audra said. "Be careful of the suit. The feet and hands are much better protected than the knees and elbows."
In his head, Tiago was busy redesigning the suit. He knew some fabrication techniques which might make it more robust next time. Part of him wanted to use this excuse to go back to the shuttles and use the brainless maker. He knew that fear of a suit tear was something of an excuse, a way of avoiding the real, somewhat less rational, reasons he wanted to return. Tiago Salazar was many things, but he wasn't a natural born explorer.
He knew why the suits weren't better designed, of course. It came down to two simple issues. The first was that the government cut corners. The second reason was that the people who designed the suits knew they'd never be
ones using them. Standing here, in this suit, was quite the design motivation for Tiago.
"I don't see an obvious way to open it," Audra said.
"Pretend I'm blind. Describe it to me."
"I don't understand," Audra said, shrugging. "The dome is roughly 80 meters tall. It is essentially a half circle, making the circumference…"
"No. Not the whole dome. Just the area we think is a door. Indulge me."
"The seam marks off a square. Not a true square because of the curve. The base, where the dome is embedded in the surface, is of the same material. I would have expected some sort of reinforced lip."
"What if you were correct about the lip?"
"I'm not. There isn't one," Audra said.
"But if you
correct and you couldn't see one?"
She considered a moment. "Then this isn't the bottom. Either the surface dust has built up over the lip, or the dome has settled down over time. The door is bigger than we thought."
thought," Tiago lied.
"We have to go back and get digging equipment," Audra said. "There might be an obvious control just below the current surface."
They went back to the shuttles. Tiago was secretly relieved. He needed to get this resolved and resume control of the ship. If possible, he'd like to get on a better footing with the Masterless. He was curious. There was so much he wanted to learn from first contact. He wasn't, he thought, grasping at a faint hope there might be a way to end this peacefully; every fiber of his being was sure that there was such a way. His only doubt was over his ability to find it.
SS1 had other basic survey equipment, despite having no vacuum suits. Tiago left Audra to collect it while he considered making two new suits. By the time she was ready, he had abandoned his idea. The thought of an untested design scared him too much. Messing with the sim protocols had let the Masterless get a foothold. With that example in front of him, he wasn't ready to trust his life to another hack at this point.
They returned to the dome with MB1 in tow. The messenger bot wouldn't be a useful digger, but it could fetch equipment and push away the dusty soil as they dug it up. The process of clearing that one section of the dome took over an hour. The dust was easy to move, but it tended to fill back in as they worked. Tiago sent MB1 to fetch a small supply of fresh water from SS1's reserves. He used it to clump up some of the dust, forming a retaining wall to keep the rest back. If he didn't have a massive ship above and a fertile planet below, it would have been a dangerously extravagant gesture.
"I see the lip pretty clearly now. Oh, wait, I'm blind. You tell me about the lip."
"It worked last time," Audra said. "The seamed area ends at the lip. The lip itself is unbroken. It has a dull brass-like color. I have no idea what material it is made from. The – metal? – isn't just a solid lip. It has studs, like rivets, every tenth of a meter or so. They aren't perfectly even in their distribution. I'm sure they aren't rivets. That wouldn't be a smart design for something air tight."