A Walk in the Dark
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Nathan Reynald peered out the gigantic view port at the west side. The screens were up, because the sun would be coming around soon, and far below he could see the ice ball that his great-grandkids would call home. He then glared back up at the side of the station he could see; the gigantic solar array had stopped, even as it should be slowly rotating to catch the setting sun. "This is crazy," he muttered to himself. "This is absolutely crazy. I can't believe this. Everything in my life has gone to shit since that damn accident."
As he spoke, a small woman crossed from the doorway of the large view chamber – the only open, isolated space in the entire place – and stopped next to him. "Calm down," Ishiyama replied, smiling that cunning little smile that she always had ready. "Listen, Reynald, it's simple. You're the only one left on the station that knows how to fix that secondary solar array. And it's going to be at least two months until the corporation can get someone else out here."
"Ask the Cat or someone," he replied. "You know how fond I am of walking out there." He pushed the sleeves of his long, uncomfortable artificial fiber shirt. He certainly didn't want to be back in an obnoxious work jumpsuit anytime soon. Jumpsuit or monkey suit, it didn't suit him. "I only get dragged on there when Caminero makes me, and then I stay by the airlock."
"Then why are you here?" she snapped back at him. "I mean, you're listed as a certified technician for a reason. You have all the training you need – hell, I've heard you've done plenty of this stuff."
"I don't do outside repairs!" he replied, glaring at her. "I don't do any damn outside repairs. I just fix airlocks."
"Look, you want me to explain the whole thing to you? Fine, come back at eight hundred standard and I’ll explain the whole thing," she replied, turning away from him and starting to cross the room.
He followed her. "Why don't you tell me now?" and he grabbed her shoulder. "Look, Ishiyama, I know you want to convince me to do this – but why? We'll have the backups for at least two months, if not six. Plenty of time for the corporation to get someone out here."
"Because we don't have the backup!"
He blinked. "Wha- what?"
She shook her head. "I could explain this tomorrow. We won't die by tomorrow. Next week, maybe. I said, we don't have the backup. I mean that doofus Caminero took parts out of it when he went planet side last time. When the spares broke today, we found out he'd taken the backup off-line."
"Why in God's name would he do an idiotic thing like that?" Reynald replied. "That doesn't make an ounce of sense. I mean, it's a breach of every rule in the damn book! Hell, there's a reason we have two solar arrays and a backup battery!"
"Don't yell at me!" Ishiyama shook her head again. "I don't know," she shook her head. "Elavin just told me, so don't ask me. Ask him. Or the Cat. They know the rest of the story."
Reynald sighed, his neck drooping. For a brief instant, he had a pleasant view down Ishiyama’s blouse until she, exasperated, walked off.
"Ask the Cat," he muttered to himself. "Certainly better than asking Elavin." He walked down the cramped hallway, peering at doors. Reynald noticed clearly the computer warning to conserve power. He wondered how many people were listening to it, or if they were just going to go ahead and cook every dish they could manage out of synthetic greenhouse tofu tonight? God, what he wouldn't do for a real steak, especially when it might be the end of his life.
"I can't go out there," he muttered to himself. He stopped in front of a door labeled, "Daniels, Evan", and hesitated. He looked at the door button, then just knocked. No reply. He knocked again.
A speaker sounded. "Someone getting old-fashioned on me? Who is it?"
"It's me – Technician Nate Reynald, sir," Reynald spoke towards the door. He knew that the speaker was actually two inches lower than his head, so he looked down a bit as he spoke.
"Just a second," the voice, a clear young man's voice, replied. Reynald waited patiently.
The door opened. Standing in the doorway was the Cat, as Daniels was affectionately called. He was a Splice – a gene splice of his parents’ genetic code and a few other things, primarily a cat, hence the nickname. Reynald always assumed that it had been a black cat, because Cat had thick, fur like black hair and weird blue eyes. The ears were slightly pointed, covered with black fuzzy fur. His face was mostly human, but slight whiskers poked out from his cheeks, which were higher than any Asian ever known. The eyes were larger and rounder than usual, and he had what in the olden days had been called a "hair lip", a split lip that revealed unusually sharp teeth. His voice, fortunately, had not been modified, but he did have an acute sense of smell. Reynald remembered that because of one of Cat's comments to avoid women with strong perfumes – three days after Reynald’s last date, and after he'd taken a shower.
Reynald remembered Cat mentioning that his parents had goofed up a bit on their choices, because he'd had to have eye surgery very young, or he would have gone blind. Splices were rarely allowed into colonies unless the genetic mix was a proven success; too many had gone a little over the deep end or had other physiological problems, and had to be returned to Earth, to the Old World, for years of therapy to make them normal again. Cat was an unusual case; cat splices were well proven, although male cat splices were rare, interestingly enough. They were known for good instincts, cunning, and particular agility. Although Cat was administration, he often ran errands for maintenance, getting into crawl spaces that most would think impossible for a six foot tall man.
"Reynald. Hi. Katsuko told me to expect you," he replied. Cat got away with calling Ishiyama by her personal name because they'd dated, although Reynald had heard the dating had been nothing short of an utter failure. But they remained civil towards each other. Cat quietly and casually popped his left arm backwards and popped it back. "Come on in."
"Yeah, thanks," Reynald said, shivering slightly. He wished that Cat wasn't so damn disconcerting, or he would've gotten along with the man. He wasn't a Pure Humanist idiot or anything, although he would've never done what Cat's parents had to one of his own kids – if he'd had any. He walked into the tiny "apartment" – what most of the crew called a "standard cubby-hole" or a "standard shit hole", depending on your point of view.
Cat shrugged. "I guess you need to hear the whole story." The door closed as Reynald stepped in. "Elavin isn't in the talking mood anyway, since he's... pissed." Cat gestured to the bed table in the cubbyhole, currently a table with some food on it.
There were only two rooms in each cubbyhole: a public room and a bathroom. The public room had bed tables in them; slide outs that alternated between being a bunk and your kitchen table. The bathroom was just a tiny room with a toilet (the sink was in the public room) and the shower was actually the whole room. Showers were allotted by family, and each time you used it, your counter went up. If you used more than your allotment (which you could, but the counter turned red), then the number of showers you get the next month was deducted. As a construction worker and technician, Reynald was lucky enough to have seven shower allotments a month for himself. The most were allotted to sewage and greenhouse workers, the least to administration, like Cat, who was the command coordinator for planet side projects. Likewise, water in general was allotted. Reynald noted to himself that Cat used very little of his water allotment. But, then again, everyone joked how he lived up to his splice and his name, by hating showers anyway.
Cat pulled out another fold-up chair and shook it. It popped into place and he sat it on one side of the table. He sat down in the other. Cat didn't have a tail, although last year a bunch of maintenance jokers had pinned a fake giant black fur tail on his door with a sign, "Lost this?"
Reynald sat down. "Please explain to me why the hell the backup batteries went planet side," he said succinctly.
Cat shrugged and offered a tomato to him. "Eat. I’ll talk. You're interrupting my breakfast anyway."
Reynald glared and took the proffered tomato. "Talk."
"Where should I begin?" Cat reached up and scratched behind one of his fuzzy ears.
"How'd planet side get our backup?"
"That's easy," Cat shrugged. "Caminero took it down there."
"On whose orders?"
"Not mine," Cat replied, again shrugging. "I'm still trying to work it out. From what I read of his notes, he though the heating problem down there could be fixed by a bunch of parts out of the backup systems up here, but he wasn't sure what, so he took most of it."
Reynald nodded. "And then the dropper crashed."
"Exactly," Cat nodded in sync with him. "The ship crashed. Fortunately, near the base, and fortunately, everyone survived –"
"But, unfortunately, that idiot Caminero is in a coma and hasn't responded to therapy yet," Reynald shook his head. "What do the docs think?"
"He's lucky to have survived," Cat sighed. "He's a maverick, and – as you succinctly put it, an idiot. In any case, we don't have backups. We have the primary array, which as you know, isn't functioning very well. We think it will fail in a week."
"Six days," Reynald replied. "It'll probably last six days. I looked at the schematics after Elavin passed the world down the chain about Caminero. What about planet side?"
"Caminero didn't fix the heating system, so people can't really stay down there either. It's not like we could move the whole colony down there anyway. Even with the miracle that it's breatheable, it's not very breatheable at neg twenty Centigrade, you think?"
"Yeah, I think," Reynald shook his head. "Were they able to recover much from the crash?"
"Some, but much of it had to be left in favor of the people. I'm planning on sending a crew down tomorrow for the rest. It's possible that the backup's parts are all there and fine – everything that's been found so far has been fine, thanks to the fact that they crashed into a mother of a soft snowdrift. It's possible that you'll be able to wire up the backup and be fine. But that'll take not only refilling the tanks on the other dropper, it'll take repowering the cells on the ship –"
"And power we don't have much of," Reynald cut him off. "Thanks. I know you're technically my superior, and everything, but thanks for telling me upfront."
Cat shrugged. "Wish you guys would trust me more. I know there's some Pure Humanists down in maintenance, and I know that's why they hate asking me for help sometimes, but –"
"But we all do what we can," Reynald replied. "And besides, you didn't choose your genetics – your parents did. I ain’t holding it against you." He took a bite out of the tomato.
"Thanks," Cat shrugged. "I wish a lot of times that they'd spliced my sister instead of me, and she did too. Male cat splices aren't popular for a reason," and he narrowed his eyes irritably, looking very much the feline. He popped his arm out and reached backwards to a shelf behind the table. "At least it's good for something. I mean, if my parents had known I’d been administration instead of maintenance, they could have given me neural booster treatments as a kid. And that would've been cheaper too."
Reynald swallowed the bite of tomato and took another. He swallowed, and asked, "What's your sister do?"
Cat grinned an almost inhuman grin. "Technical design for corporate headquarters on Mars. She has to climb through junk all the time."
Reynald shook his head. "You gotta be kidding me. I guess they picked the wrong kid. Where do I start, then?"
Cat pulled a bag of flash stored food off of the shelf; it was the kind that had been flash frozen and sealed in a pouch, so as not to heat up unless thrown into a furnace. He tossed the bag to Reynald.
"With this, for one," Cat grinned. "I read your records, Nate."
"Sis did owe me a favor, so I asked about your Mars file. I'm sorry about the accident. That's a bag with a sirloin steak. It's mine for a rainy or sunny day, but I figure, if you save our lives, then you owe it to me and yourself to have that."
"You read my file," Reynald looked at the package. "I can't believe you read my file."
"Look, Nate," Cat put his hand on the technician's shoulder. "I don't give a shit what some lawyer said. That wasn't your fault, and I sure can understand why you wouldn't want to go outside. I'm amazed you put up with the corporation after that kind of run around. I'm not going to recommend a lineman for you, if you want. You can go on your own. Elavin wouldn't like it, but I can talk him into it."
"No," Reynald explained, putting the package down on the table and looking up at Cat. "I’d be better off having one – normally. Normally."
Reynald pulled the second layer of the vacc suit up over his jumpsuit. He hated the jumpsuit. He promised himself to blow his budget and buy a cotton shirt next next month, if he survived this.
Ishiyama kept reading the computer screen to him as he dressed. "Primary array requires parts not kept on station. Well, that's that. Secondary array failure resulting from failure of shielding on the monitoring system near the third solar cell bank."
"Well," he said slowly. He noticed his hand shook, but he kept reminding himself how good that steak had tasted, grilled to a nice medium. He owed it to Caminero, the idiot, to give him enough time to wake up. It's not like he really had a choice – they would probably die in a week if he didn't do the repairs, although it was possible that Cat would have the parts back up here today and the backup online by tonight. Possible.
In any case, the backups probably only had a few months left on them. Caminero might not be awake then, and then Reynald would have to face a corporate sent emergency technician, who might be far less gentle and more demanding than anyone here was. Plus, they might take one look at his record and ship him to some other, "less demanding" station, with a demotion – or even the loss of a job. Bumming around on Mars or another hub didn't appeal to him.
Besides, this was the first colony world to ever be found with a breathable atmosphere – no machinery, no planting, no nothing. There was already a barely intact ecosystem, and the estimates were that they could use just a bit of work to speed this place out of its ice age -- in less than a hundred years. Nothing short of a miracle here.
"This’s my last chance," he muttered. "Not just mine, but everybody's."
"What?" Ishiyama asked him.
"Hey, babe," he suddenly grinned. "If I succeed, will you let me take you on a date?"
"Date? What, the local tofu bar? I thought you were sick of tofu?" She peered at him. "And have you been listening to what I've been telling you?" She scowled.
"Not really," he shrugged. "And tofu is wonderful if you're there."
"You really mean it, don't you?"
"Yeah," he looked gloomy. "I guess you really aren't interested, are you?" Reynald finally decided that he'd been right in the first place; she didn't like him, she still liked the Cat.
She smirked at him and replied. "Hell, Nate, I’d begin to wonder if you'd forgotten I was female. Sure."
His eyes widened.
She went on. "And, yeah, Cat told me you're divorced. It's no big deal. If a girl can't sweat one bad event in a marriage, hon, she shouldn’t’ve been married," she smirked. "I don't think she deserved you."
"Has everyone been reading my life story???" Reynald glared at her.
"Nope, just my good friend Evan."
He shook his head. "Remind me to ask him for another steak."
Ishiyama blinked for a second, and said, "I've downloaded the information into the suit computer and readied the linkup. You sure you want me to come with you?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm sure," he replied. "Just – just stay back. Don't be right next to me, stay back a ways."
She nodded, watched him. Reynald walked over and punched the inner door button, then stared as the inner airlock door opened. She stood up, finished punching in the commands to download the rest of the information into the suits, and then walked over to the airlock.
"You going to be okay?"
"Yeah," he said. "I can't believe I've been talked into this. Did Cat tell you the whole story?"
"No," she replied. "He didn't. He thought you should tell me, if you wanted to."
"Does he know I –"
"Does he know you like me?" she cut him off. "Yeah, I think he knew it before we did. He's dating a girl down in maintenance, you know? Her dad's a Purist, coming to visit her next month. So we gotta fix this thing so we can see what happens, okay?"
"I didn't hear he was dating anyone." He stepped into the airlock; she followed.
"He's kept it quiet for her sake."
"Oh," Reynald stared at the outer suit. "Oh well. Turn off the system, okay?"
She reached up and punched a large button the wall. The inner door closed behind them closed. The airlock alarm turned on, and they floated a bit. He pulled his suit out of the holder – unused for the entire time he'd been there – and crawled into it at an angle. Ishiyama reached forward, neatly plucked the suit from the rack, and crawled into it while slowly rotating upside down.
"You're going to make yourself sick that way," he told her as he locked himself into his suit and picked up the helmet.
"I'm fine, I don't get sick even on drops," she replied.
"So I hear, but still."
"I gotcha, boss Technician First Class," she grumbled. "You still sure you want me to go with you?"
"Yeah, I'm sure." He pushed himself off the wall and made sure his feet were pointed down and close to the floor as he pushed the arm button that turned on the magnetic boots. He clanked to the ground loudly. He pulled one of the short lines off the wall, then picked up the toolbox he'd packed last night. "Ready?"
She rotated herself to feet-to-floor and turned on her boots. She about flew down to the floor and giggled a bit. "Yeah, I am." Even in the bulky suit, she was tiny.
"Keep him talking, Ishiyama," Elavin said quietly. An older man, originally born in the Old World city of Tel Aviv, now commander of one of the most important scientific stations around, he sat in front of a console at the center of the s station. He stared at the screen as the outer door of Maintenance Airlock Four opened and the two technicians stepped out. He had Command communications tuned to her suit alone.
Cat peered over his boss's shoulder. "Just keep him talking, Ishiyama. Don't bother replying to me. I don't want to make him nervous by making him realize he's been watched by his boss." Elavin shut off the outgoing communication and looked at his planet side coordinator.
"Commander Daniels. I'm glad you brought the situation to light with me, too. I'm also glad you didn't tell Technician Reynald the entire situation."
Cat stood at attention. "Thank you, sir."
"At ease, at ease. I'm not military anymore, Daniels, although I was honored to work with your uncle."
"Thank you, sir."
"Sit down, sit down." Elavin gestured to one of the other command chairs. "I know you're not ordinarily up here. So, how did you find out about Technician Reynald."
"My sister, actually, is working on Mars. She met Reynald about four years back, while she was still in school. She was three years behind him. He had graduated in record time from the Technical Academy on Mars. Class of ’74. He was only seventeen."
Cat shrugged. "He was a perfect student, brilliant technician, could have gone into experimental work instead. He was pressured by his family to go into work that was guaranteed a high pay: technician on a hub station."
"The Mars Primary," Elavin glanced at the screen. The two figured were quietly walking up the metal work paths, up the side of the station. The screen was fairly dark, only illuminated with the outside lights turned on, because the work had to be done while they were away from the sun.
Sound came out of the communications console. It was Ishiyama’s voice, "Well, maverick, what kind of ice cream do you like?"
"Yes. He was assigned to work with one of the older technicians, a man on the verge of retirement. Like most technicians on the hubs, he started a lineman. He just kept track of the line and passed equipment up, along with the minor repairs. He had been there a while, was bored – I was told he had managed to optimize a great deal of equipment while he was there."
Reynald’s voice came over the speaker, "Vanilla with fudge."
"Wasn't there a problem with Caminero over that?"
"Unfortunately, yes. Reynald had optimized our backup here with some special order parts from Alpha Hub Station. It was those parts that Caminero thought would fix the planet side heating, evidently. But he didn't ask what exactly had been done, or how, and just took the entire unit instead of asking Reynald what he'd done."
Elavin nodded. "I suspect, from what you've said, it's because Caminero felt he was being outdone by Reynald."
"I suspect so, and so did Ishiyama – which is how I discovered part of the problem. But the fact that Reynald was hired on here with a contingency to avoid outside work gave Caminero an edge; he did outside work in a rather cavalier fashion --"
Suddenly, from the communications console, Reynald’s voice came loudly, "Ishiyama, look at that." The two administrators turned and looked at the screen.
"Ishiyama, look at that," he said. "Look at this wiring. It looks like it's been butchered. I mean, we're lucky it's still even here." Reynald stared uneasily towards planet side. He thought, Thank God it's dark. I don't want to be able to see the planet.
"How the hell did it get left like that?" she replied. She was about thirty feet behind him – he could tell, because the readout on his arm computer read the line at 10.4 meters.
"I'm not sure," he replied. "Could've been debris scraped this computer bay hard, but that's not likely. But the shielding’s definitely missing here, as well as up higher where the computer read." He knelt down. "Keep a hold on me," he said nervously. Then he whispered, "Be a better lineman than me."
"What?" She watched him as he knelt by a panel, shining his helmet light down at it.
"Nothing," he replied, then took a deep breath and said, "We're lucky. This array should've been gone more than a month ago, but the wiring was just covered by the torn-up panel, just barely shielded from the power of the local star. "If this panel had been at a different angle, there'd be nothing left of this now. He sat the tool kit down, and turned on the magnetic lock. Then he switched on the electromagnetic shielding, so when he opened the box, the computer equipment inside wouldn't be fried. Although most of the stuff in there was fiber optic, there were a few things, mainly silicon components that could be baked by the magnets around. The walkway he stood on was magnetic metal, but much of the station was covered with non-magnetic alloys and the like, so he could only stand and work here. To go out onto the array itself, he'd have to have a line tethered tight. As he thought of that, he took his short line and attached it to a post nearby, just in case.
"So those circuits monitor the array?"
"Yes," he replied. "These monitor and help direct power flow." As he talked, he pulled out some cabling and laser cable cutters. He was careful to keep the cutters away from his suit; although they were set to a frequency that shouldn't be able to cut the reflective suit, it was still possible for something to go wrong. He was surprised at his calmness, and realized that as long as he kept his mind on the job, he was fine. "This is going to take me a bit. If you want to work your way up and get to the other relay panel, I’ll be there in a few minutes."
"I should stay behind you."
"Yeah, good point," he sighed. He felt sorry for her standing out there, bored. But then he realized she probably had a lot on her mind anyway. He just hoped she didn't forget about him and –
"Ishiyama?" he said, nervously. "Katsuko?"
"Don't take your eyes off me," he said.
"I won't." He could almost feel her smile as she said that.
"So when he was looking away, supposedly a meteorite came along and hit his technician. And he failed to notice?" Elavin looked confused. "Sounds a bit... stretching it."
"There's debris all the time, as we all notice. And the deflection laser batteries are much better now than they were ten years ago. We've made some major advancements along those lines. A meteorite the size they're describing, unless a station had almost no power whatsoever, wouldn't make it close enough to hit now. Even if it did come near, the odds of it hitting a person are low – it's just more probable that it would bounce off something, or leave a dent to repair, than vaporize a person."
"You sound less like a coordinator and more like a technician – which is exactly why you were assigned planet side." The commander nodded. "But Mars Primary has the best technology available," Elavin said. "You sound like you suspect something."
"I suspect they were blaming a young lineman for something that little could have been done about," Cat shrugged. "It would look bad if the new – and they were quite new then – the new deflection lasers didn't work well. And Mars Primary had just gotten the latest. I think Reynald’s career was sacked in favor of corporate politics. And he was young enough and confused enough that he couldn't fight it."
"And yet he got a job here," the commander pointed out.
"Yes. I think that someone higher up realized that if they simply threw him out the door, he was smart enough to eventually go after them for it. I think Reynald doesn't have the energy for such a fight – he just wants to be able to do his job and be left alone. He had gotten married too young, as well – at nineteen, just after he'd started working at Mars Primary – and he divorced right after the civil trial ended."
"Is he in debt, then?" Elavin looked back at the screen. Reynald was still kneeling in the same spot along the walkway.
"For the civil trial? That's my point – no, he isn't. Both trials failed to convict him, although he was famous in the news for about three years afterwards. The only ones who remember now are technicians, like Caminero, but he wouldn't go outside anyway."
"How is Caminero?"
"Bad," Cat sighed. "His wife is with him constantly, and the neural therapy shows a little promise, but it's likely at this rate that he may never gain back high brain functions. He may be a vegetable forever."
"And your team recovered little from the rescue?"
"Yes. After those surface scans, I've determined that most of the equipment has been buried, as another snowstorm hit the area hard. It warmed up this week. A balmy one degree Centigrade – impressive, eh? Unfortunately, it was perfect for a hard snowstorm."
"It's not worth what power we've got left, which is remarkably little. As you requested, Raja made an announcement today that, due to work, the power would have to be at minimal in all sectors. If these repairs don't work, what's your suggestion?"
"If these repairs don't work," Elavin said calmly, "We'll have to see if we can freeze anyone with what little equipment we've got, and pray to God that someone can save us."
"Ishiyama, pull the line," Reynald said.
"Yessir," she replied. She tugged on the line. He stayed put.
"Good, everything's good. Walkway's clear the rest of the way up. This wiring is patched as best as it can be without me getting more equipment from – inside – yeah –" He swallowed hard. "I've got the panel rigged up well, it should be shielded fine now. Okay, I'm standing up."
He stood up slowly, making sure he felt balanced. It had been too long without gravity for him, and even the weak rotation induced gravity of the station would have been welcomed. Like everyone on the station, they had the advantage of going planet side on rotations – when the heating was working, that is – that allowed them 4/5th Old World gravity. It meant that even living here, he had a good chance of going to see the Old World some time.
"I’d like to see Earth, sometime," he said quietly. He didn't dare look at the planet. "Time? I – what time is it?"
"Great, we've got time enough. That didn't take as long as I thought it did," he said shakily. "Keep a hold on me. I'm going up."
"I will be." Reynald started the long walk up – nearly four hundred meters – to the monitoring system near the third solar cell bank. "Just, at least, keep about ten meters behind me, okay? I’ll have to take a break on the way up – and, geez, I wished they'd designed airlocks closer to this thing."
"I wish they had, too," Cat said.
Elavin turned around and pushed a button on the communication panel. "Verez," he said calmly.
"Yes, sir?" a voice spoke up on the speaker.
"What's the status listed for the secondary now?"
"It's reading that there's still a damaged system near the top, sir. But we're getting clearer readings on the first third or so, now. It'll probably take Reynald or Courant to tweak this, sir – and Courant’s off shift right now – but it looks like the misreadings were causing a heavy power leak. We haven't been getting the right amount of power out of this array for a long time, sir."
"Thank you, Verez." He pushed a button, and looked back at Cat. "Damn it, how did we get such an incompetent?"
"Sir," Cat replied. "It's simply the way with things. Caminero, I don't believe, is a complete idiot, or he wouldn't have gotten his degree and certification. I do believe, however, that he was overtaxed and irritated with his job. I didn't like having him do planet side as well." The Splice quietly swallowed. He was taking a risk pointing out his commander's errors.
"Yes, I know, I know, and that one, Daniels, is my fault. I was uneasy about assigning Ishiyama to you, for your personal reasons. I’ll take responsibility. Remind me tonight to write a letter. If we don't survive this mess, at least people will know why."
Reynald slowly walked up towards the main array computer. "Up" was relative; he viewed it as such because currently the planet was below him. With the slow rotation of the station, however, in an hour he'd be going down. He hoped that by then he'd be going "up" again – heading back.
"God, I hope this doesn't take long."
But his hopes sank as he got closer. He could see where something had apparently smashed into the side of the station. It was only about twenty meters from the secondary array's extended solar cells. Part of the array and the solar cells were on the outer walls of the station proper, but here they extended out into space on curves of special alloys that were designed for heat conduction. It was just ahead of him; the "walls" of the station seemed to fly outwards and form into the array. Only the walkway remained on the actual walls of the station, making a path between the two main curved panels. About forty meters behind him, Ishiyama was slowly walking. He could tell she was getting tired; she spent less time planet side (mainly on orders) than he had. He'd gone down extra times mainly to pick up stuff for Caminero – stuff he'd left by accident. Then Reynald would have to arrange a ship and take that nauseating roller coaster down. It really did annoy him, but he did enjoy authentic gravity, even if weak by Old World standards.
He stomped forward, then felt his right leg cramp up. He was getting tired of lifting the heavy magnets over and over. He knelt down for a second and sat down his toolbox.
"You okay?" Ishiyama’s voice came, panting. Under other circumstances, he would have been very happy to hear her panting.
"Fine, just my right leg's sore." Reynald looked up at the arrays. The only lights were the emergency lights, which lit the walkway, and his own helmet light. He had a wrist light, but he only used that for the close-up work. It could blind him if he moved wrong. He looked up at the arrays, which were pitch black, and realized he hadn't seen anything so beautiful in a long time.
He stood up, and began walking again, actually enjoying what he was doing. Reynald wondered why he'd been so afraid for so long – he no longer cared what the lawyer said, that he was a reckless kid. His mother had been right (his wife and then his father had disagreed) – accidents happen, and the hope is that they don't.
He felt a tug on the line.
"Hey, cowboy, wait up, I'm pooped."
"Sure," he smiled.
"You sound like you're feeling better, Reynald."
"I am," and he turned back to look at her. "I am. I mean, an accident happened, all that time ago – and it's not my fault. I've been putting my life on hold for years, and now I'm being forced to go on. And it's a good thing."
"Well, I think that's great," she panted. "But let's not wax philosophical – let's save that for the date, okay? I'm thinking let's get this done now."
"Yeah," he grinned. "Let's."
He kept walking. "Ishiyama, take a break for a second. Something hit the array up here."
"What? What could've hit it?"
He swallowed. He suddenly remembered what it had been like to see a person explode into a million tiny particles and the line floating in the air, attached to nothing.
"Oh shit," he muttered. He popped open the toolboxes, put his hand inside and grabbed a bit of old wire. He checked it to see if it was anything he needed, and was glad to see that he'd left some junk in the case. He threw it out over the array.
"What is it, Reynald."
"The damn deflection lasers have failed. God damn it. We're sitting ducks out here. This planet has a lot of debris."
"Calm down, Reynald," she said quietly. "We're small – just keep moving, nothing is likely to hit us."
"I hope not, damn it," he muttered. He slammed the tool box shut and picked it up, causing his arm to fly off with the velocity of picking it up – fortunately, he kept put by his boots. He began walking up the array, keeping a sharp pace. "I can't believe this. There's that little power? We've got to get this thing up, quick."
"Well," Ishiyama panted. She heard, briefly, the commander's voice, and nodded. "Well, it's possible part of it's out because they have to keep it from shooting us, you know."
"It'd work with anyone else, Katsuko, but not me," he replied, as he stomped up the repair walkway. "The computers operating those lasers are fine tuned to not shoot humanoid shapes of particular densities – like, say, us in our suits. They're out, and out good. I didn't think about it because they won't shoot us."
"That never even occurred to me," Verez replied to Elavin’s query. "I didn't think of checking the lasers. Caminero always checked ‘em. He checked ‘em – the log says here, last month. They were fine."
Elavin glanced at Cat. "Thank you, Technician," and he shut off the connection. "Well, Daniels?"
"I don't know. I think the only one conscious who might have a guess why that happened would be Reynald, sir."
"Damn it," Elavin replied. "He's right, this world has a lot of debris. I don't like people being out there like sitting ducks."
"Well, sir," Cat replied, "Look at it this way: if they don't manage repairs, we're sitting ducks."
"Look at this," Reynald punched in a command on his computer. A visual appeared on Ishiyama’s helmet HUD. "It's a mess."
"What hit it?" she stared at the image: a mass of torn up paneling and optical cables. "And do you think you can fix it?"
"I think so," he said. "The shielding took the brunt of the damage well. I think I can patch it up. After all, the cells and the shielding are designed to be able to take damage, just in case the deflection lasers fail."
"Okay," she tapped her boot.
"I may need you to go back and get some shielding, but if I can get this thing up, it should be okay – the lasers will come back online pretty quickly, unless this meteorite hit that took."
"You sure it was a rock?"
"A rock with a lot of metal content," he scanned the area, showing her from his point of view, bits of glittery rock. "Looks like gold!" he laughed for a second, the paused, "Probably pyrite. I’ll get to work." He felt exposed, between the two arrays, and imagined a target painted on his head for an instant.
"I feel kind of exposed out here, myself," Ishiyama admitted. "At least you've got the two arrays to shield you. I'm still ten meters back from ‘em."
"Shorter distance to run to the airlock," he joked. He knelt down, locked the magnets down on the end of the walkway, opened his toolbox, and started rummaging. He unbolted a few panels, removed them, and then just pulled a few more away to reveal more wiring. "What a mess. Well, the secondary array's backups are pretty much gone – but the main system is here. That must be why we weren't getting worse warnings. Well, give me a while. I've got a mess to clean up."
"I've found something odd, sir," Verez’s voice came out of the speaker.
"Yes, what is it?" Elavin asked.
"It's a report, unfinished, by Caminero, sir," Verez replied. "It's from the day of the drop accident."
"What does it say?"
"Well, sir, as I said, it's incomplete, but it says here he was having a problem with the deflection lasers."
"Yes, sir, it's just a note saying that he was having problems with the lasers, that it must be a power problem. Then it's not finished."
"That doesn't make any sense," Cat said. "Why would he not finish the log? Was it right before the accident?"
Verez replied, hearing Cat's voice, "Yes, sir, it was right before. He had to leave right after that."
"Thank you, Verez." He turned off the channel. "Why didn't he tell anyone else, then?"
"He assumed he would be back in two or three hours," Cat replied. "The planet side repairs weren't major. But he should have finished the log."
"Something seems wrong here," Elavin replied. "But I suspect that if Caminero wakes up, we'll have a lot of questions to ask him."
"Got it?" Ishiyama wouldn't admit it to him, but she was really tired, and getting really nervous about being out there.
"Yeah," Reynald replied. "Yeah, I think I do. We're really damn lucky. The primary computer wasn't hit hard – I could patch it up with the spare boards in my box, and reroute the opcables. I ran them around under some good paneling here. I'm going to try it now. The secondary systems are shot, though. It's ironic how badly our backups suck around here."
"That's because Caminero was always using them for spare parts and then ordering stuff, right?"
"Yeah, just don't tell the commander that; he'll get shot as soon as he comes out of that coma if admin. finds out. He was lazy assed about ordering parts. Plus, then they'd complain about expenses. Couldn't blame him... sometimes." Reynald picked a panel out of a bundle – he'd been holding them in place with some magnetic wire. "This one is in pretty good shape, so I’ll use it to cover up the main computer. We'll have to tote a few back to get reworked, and then put them back up here, but once the power's on, we'll have no problem. Of course, the secondary comp's still shot, but it'll need new panels too."
"Toss a few panels to me when you get a chance," she replied.
"Okay, no problem. I’ll bundle some up here with the rest of my wire." He grabbed a few panels, pleased for once to have no gravity. They would be almost literally lead weights when they got inside, but for now he could easily bundle a few together with some spare line and cable and toss them to her. He made up the bundle, then sat it down, making sure the magnetic wiring stuck. He reached down and plugged in his arm computer to the array's relay.
"Okay, check in and see if they can read this – then I’ll patch the last cables in."
"Ishiyama to Techie HQ," she said jokingly. "Verez, you there? I'm right next to the array – so you might have a hard time hearing me."
"Yeah," a voice came through, badly. "Step back a few paces."
She moved back a few meters. "Ishiyama to Verez, better?"
"Yes, I can read you now."
"Mister Genius here wants to know if you can read the Secondary Array's power more clearly now."
"Not well. Is he using his arm?"
"Yeah," she replied. "Should I tell him to wire it directly?"
"Tell him to go ahead, since I can barely pick him up either."
"Okay, go ahead and direct wire it, Reynald, they can't pick it up," she told him. "And give me training on a lot of this stuff, okay? I’d be neat to work planet side, but I’d like to feel more competent on this stuff first. I'm software, not hardware."
"Gotcha," he replied. He sat down and began putting in some more wiring.
"It's clear now," Verez came over her speaker again. "Yeah, and it's a mess. Well, we'll have power coming in, in the morning – in the meantime, the stored power in the array's coming down. What a mess! Everything's coming back online."
"It was storing a lot and not releasing it," Ishiyama said. "It's programmed to keep some of it in the batteries up here overnight, to release slowly and keep a steady power flow."
"Yeah, it's programmed to," Reynald said. "But not when half the computer is fried. Let's get. I want out of here."
"But it's okay, now, the lasers are coming on line," she grinned. "Toss me those panels, would you?"
"Sure, just a second," he picked up a panel and put it over the computer, bolting it down. "This should do it. A few more titanium bolts... and voile! We have protected computer. Hopefully shit like this won't happen again." He looked up over the array. "And you know what, Ishiyama?"
He flipped himself over and sat next to his toolbox. "I think this is the best thing I've ever done," he said calmly.
A voice came over his speaker, crackly. "It is indeed, Technician. We thank you very much."
"Ishiyama, was that Elavin’s voice...?"
"Yeah, hero, let's get out of here," she grinned. "Gimme those panels."
He closed the toolbox and flipped himself to his feet, using the line. He felt a vibration and realized he would have made a large CLUNK if he'd been in atmosphere, as his boots hit the walkway again. He quickly scooped up the bundle, eager to get out of there, and got ready to send it down the line to her, when he saw something odd, familiar out of the corner of his eye --
And then he realized --
He flung the bundle away from him, even with the line attached, praying it was enough – the bundle incinerated, destroying the line connecting them, but not destroying him.
"Oh my God," she whispered shakily.
"What the hell was that?" suddenly came over both their speakers.
"An error in the program," Reynald said shakily. "God's sake – I know -- let's go. I'm sending down my secondary line. Slowly."
"So what was that?" demanded Elavin. Reynald and Ishiyama stood before him, in just their jumpsuits, coated in sweat.
"Sir?" Reynald replied.
"Answer my question!"
"I'm not sure, sir," Reynald shook his head. "Do you have any tofu?"
"What?" Elavin bellowed.
Reynald quivered, but after his brush with death, he didn't care. "Tofu, sir," he said. "I’d like to try an experiment."
"Give him a chance," Cat replied. "I think I understand."
"I – I don't believe that the death of Technician Commander Wallace was an accident, sirs," Reynald said slowly to the assembled administrators. Elavin eyed him uneasily, and he swallowed. "I wished Caminero could be here, but as far as I know, he's a vegetable.
"Um, ladies and gentlemen, as you can see out this window, is the Secondary Array. Power is back online, and we should receive parts for the Primary Array in approximately five weeks."
"Cut to the chase, Technician," Elavin growled.
"As you can also see, there is a suited individual out there. This is not a person. There is no one in that suit, although it's active. Technician Third Class Ishiyama and I have rigged a demonstration for you today. The suit actually has a minor work robot in it, reprogrammed by Technician Ishiyama, and then stuffed with tofu to roughly give weight and mass of a human. We'd like a more accurate test, but this is the best we can rig on short notice.
"Go ahead, Katsu – Ishiyama," he said quietly. She typed a command in the computer terminal. The robotic suit began walking down the path.
"As you know, all stations are outfitted with deflection lasers. Although called ‘deflection’, their entire job is to incinerate anything incoming that could do damage to the station. It saves on the wear and tear of the outside walls, saving us a fortune in replacing panels, when we can simply set up lasers that take solar power to destroy our problems. They began being introduced about fifteen years ago, and they've been very successful in cutting down repairs. I didn't think much of them until the repairs of a three days ago.
"But three days ago I was given an answer we desperately need. Ten years ago, I was stationed at Mars Primary. As you all have heard by now, there was an accident at the time, an accident that I was blamed for by the public, but acquitted by the juries. I can now explain that accident. The hole in the situation, the information that is not included in most of the files, that you do not know about, that nearly got me convicted of manslaughter, was that there was no discernible meteorite or any other debris registered nearby myself and Technician Commander Wallace at the time of the accident, although at the exact time of the accident, the computer did register one."
Glances were made around the room.
"This has haunted me for years, although it was generally not released by the corporation to avoid discrediting me. I think I now know why. The near fatal accident involving myself and Technician Ishiyama has shown me the reason.
"Okay, Ishiyama," he smiled at her. "As you can see, the robot roughly mimics the density and movements of a human being. It is programmed to walk near the array, and pick up some objects intentionally left out there. In this case, it's a bundle of shielding panels, as in the other day – as in ten years ago."
The robot walked across the magnetic walkway, towards the array. It then stopped in front of a bundle of panels, tied with magnetic wire, and quickly scooped it up. It then stood up.
And was incinerated.
Mutterings went through the crowd.
"That was the deflection lasers firing – I – I don't know much about some of this, but --"
Ishiyama turned from the computer and looked at the crowd. "It was an error in programming the computer for the deflection lasers. As you all know well, we do not use AI computers for most station functions, as they are too unpredictable. So the computer that runs the lasers is its own unit, utterly dedicated, and almost cut off from the rest of the system. It's only monitored by maintenance, and it's supposed to run on its own, regardless, as a special survival defense system.
"It's supposed to register a mass like a human as a non threat, as it's based off of a military program. At first, I thought that might be the problem. It's not; it turns out there's a split second error on the targeting system – if it sees a mass very suddenly change, as someone does when they're quickly scooping up a bundle of metal plates, it recognizes a meteorite of some size, and incinerates it."
"Then why doesn't an accident like this happen more often?" Elavin asked, his eyebrows raised. "Shouldn't we be hearing about technicians being incinerated all the time? And why wasn't Reynald killed, then?"
"I can answer those," Reynald replied, raising his hand like a student in school. "Firstly, we're specifically taught to lift and move slowly when you're in space – no gravity, right? If you move slowly, it's not going to be set off. And few people go throwing things around like that casually. Even on a line, it takes time – and takes time to realize that if something's attached to a line, attached to a person who's magnetically attached to a station, it's not going anywhere. The line may go out a bit, but nothing bad. It's a good thing the line has give, or I wouldn't be here."
"Did you throw something to Wallace?"
"No," Reynald shook his head. "No, sir. He was throwing something to me – he had picked up scrap off the ground and was throwing it down the line to me – just as I had to Ishiyama. We were lucky we weren't killed. The lasers were slow to respond because the power had just come on – we checked the logs, and it was within that second – I actually saw the laser turret come out of its port, out of the corner of my eye. Wallace, with the power fully active, wouldn’t’ve had a chance to see that, sir.
"I also think, sir, that Technician Commander Caminero shut off the lasers. He may have done this intentionally, seeing a power problem and suspicious of the damage up there. I think the lasers here were messed up because of another problem, which Technician Ishiyama found when we were trying to figure out what had happened to us." He looked at her.
She nodded, her short hair bobbing. Last night, on their date, Reynald had managed to talk her into growing her hair long, finally. He smiled as he thought about it.
"It's like this," she said. "We found some power flow errors when we were checking everything on the array and the lasers, and we think the lasers were getting too much power – yeah, I know this is a doozy. Anyway, I believe Caminero shut off the lasers because he needed time to fix the array and the power flow."
Elavin nodded. "Well, I’ll be pleased to see your full report – and report it to corporate headquarters. Thank you. You may have just saved a lot of technicians’ lives."
Reynald stood at the view port window, waiting for the sun to rise. For a change, he had comfortable dress: pants, nice tennis shoes, and a real cotton shirt. The screens made the room rather dark now, but he didn't care. He didn't need to read the words on the piece of paper he was holding – he had already read them a dozen times, but he still stared at the paper. He didn't notice the door of the view chamber open.
"What is it?" a familiar voice asked, hair falling on his shoulder.
"Oh, Katsuko!" he looked up, startled. Her hair was now to her shoulders, and really looked nice. He sighed deeply. "It's a piece of paper."
"I know that, and that's really –" She reached over and touched the piece of paper, then grabbed a corner and rubbed it between her fingertips. "That's a really nice piece of paper, what in the heck did you get that for?" She blinked in surprise. Most things came electronically; it was a rare treat to get paper, yeah, but... especially such fine quality paper....
"It's an offer from corporate headquarters to go back to working on Mars – in the experimental technology division," he sighed and smiled.
She felt like her heart had skipped the stomach and gone straight to her foot. "Are – are you going to take it?" she asked slowly, a little sad. "Are you leaving?"
"You'd be here, wouldn't you?"
"Yeah," she sat across from him at his table bed. "Yeah, I'm not going anywhere, although the promotion and raise was nice."
"Mine too," he replied. "But you know what, Katsuko?" He smiled slowly.
"Now that Caminero is awake, and wanting to go anywhere else, I think I’ll petition to get the Technician Commander here. I think this letter will help that, too."
Her smile turned into a sunbeam and she leapt into his arms. She cheerfully wrapped her arms around his waist and squeezed. "Great! -- But I guess I’ll have to go to working planet side, hmm?"
"Maybe," he smiled back. "And just when I thought my life was going to hell."
"I'm glad you changed that," she replied, and tweaked his nose.