Derel Larsen sat bolt upright in the bed as his ear-roll chimed. He was halfway to Meriam’s room before he realized that the chime wasn’t her security alert. It was just a phone call.
“Larsen,” he said, thumbing the connect. He kept going towards Meriam’s door.
“Larsen?” a voice said. One of the controllers at flight. Jamie, Larsen thought. Nice woman, even if she did have to confirm his name right after he’d said it.
“Medical leave is over, sport,” Jamie said.
Larsen pushed Meriam’s door open. She was asleep on the bed, white sheets pushed back down around her feet in the humidity. The painted readout on the armature above her head was all blue. She was sleeping normally. He went in and pulled the sheets up over her, staring at her face for a moment. So sweet and angelic. How had five years turned this bubbly academic elementary school achiever into a semi-suicidal wreck?
“Larsen? You still there?”
He stared for a moment longer, then went back out to the hallway.
“I’m here,” he said. “I was just checking on Meriam. Didn’t want to wake her.”
“Sure, yeah. Anyway, I’m sorry to tell you that the flight director has cancelled your medical leave. You’re to report to the pads at China Lake first thing.”
“You call me in the middle of the night to-”
“It’s seven am,” Jamie said. “Normal alert time.”
“Seven.” Larsen thumbed up a wall display. 7.03am, July 20th. His sleep was so messed up these days. He headed for the kitchen
“Sorry, sir, but Director Richfield says that you’ve been gone long enough and this is a priority run.”
Larsen was quiet for a moment. “Jamie?”
“Sir? Please. He said they’ll send a car for you if they have to. Then he said that they would make all the arrangements for your daughter while you’re off-planet.”
He could feel his anger rising. Technically they could call him back, anytime they liked. But Richfield had promised him as long as he needed.
At the bottom of the stairs, Larsen turned and went and tabbed open the kitchen door. As he came in the lights flared on and the morning panels slipped up into the ceiling. The coffee cylinder started brewing.
“You still there?” Jamie said. “If you hang up on me, they’ll send a car.”
Larsen thumbed for toast and cereal. Cancelled the cereal and thumbed yoghurt. Protein bacillus crazy-making tasty keep you alert yoghurt. He missed the old days when he could run on just coffee without some medical spiker at the base running his blood and censuring his diet.
“Sheesh,” Jamie said. “I can hear you doing your breakfast stuff. No wonder Richfield said he wouldn’t call you. How naive am I to be the one on the end of one of your silent tantrums?”
Silent tantrums? That sounded like one of Richfield’s terms. He’d probably said that to poor Jamie when he gave her the work chit. “It’s not a tantrum,” Larsen said. “I’m just processing the details.”
“What’s to process? Get to base or get court-martialed. A medical team will be-”
“My daughter tried to kill herself again two days ago.”
Jamie didn’t say anything. The coffee cylinder flashed a bead of blue at him and filled the cup. This was Centauri Coffee. Off-world. And it still amazed him that here was coffee from light-years away. It was within his lifetime that it had changed. The kids today just accepted that their produce came from anywhere, but when he was a boy all these new worlds were the frontier of discovery. Columbus sailing for the West Indies. The domestication that had happened in thirty-odd years astonished him. It was becoming hard to find anything except fresh vegetables that was made right here on Earth.
He could hear Jamie’s breathing in the ear-roll, and the background noises of the staging office. He took a sip from the coffee. It was still odd. Not like Kenyan or Costa Rican had been. If he wasn’t on medical leave, that’s what he’d be buying, despite the price. The salary limitations, without all the active service benefits, were tight.
“You have any children, Jamie?” he said.
Her breathing changed for a moment. Almost a gasp, then she said. “Please report for duty immediately. A medical team has been assigned to your needs.”
“Put me through to Richfield.”
“Director Richfield is unavailable.”
“Nonsense. How old are your kids?”
Jamie was silent, then in almost a whisper said, “Three and eight.”
“Nice ages,” he said. “The eight-year-old help out a bit?”
“Definitely. She’s kept me sane with a toddler. I…” she sighed. “I… I’m to direct you to report for duty. If I have to ask again, then I have been instructed to cut the connection and send the car for you.”
Now Larsen sighed. The yoghurt arrived, with a straw and he sucked on it. “Definitely can’t put me through to Richfield?”
“All right. Let me talk to Simon.”
“Simon? You mean Simon Trasker? In the stockade?”
“He’s in the stockade again?” So much for that idea.
“Three nights. He decked a major at a bar in town. He’s on release at midday.”
Midday. Five hours off. “What time is the drop?”
“You don’t even want to know what the mission is?”
“You can upload that to me on the way over. I need to think about timing. What time is the drop? What time is liftoff? What time is the medical team coming?”
“Moment,” Jamie said, then, barely missing a beat, she said, “Three this afternoon, one pm and one pm.”
“I need medical here before I leave the house.”
“Can’t. Tied up with a brushfire.”
He knew that would be the way. If he was in a shuttle lifting off at 1pm, then he had to be on site long before the medics arrived. Technically it probably made sense to the system, but Meriam would be alone for several hours if he was going to make all those times. You didn’t do suicide watch with shift-change gaps. Not that he would trust the medical staff anyway, good as they were. Not when he’d found her in the bath less than forty-eight hours ago striking at her forearms with needles. “I’m bringing her with me.”
“Acknowledge,” she said. “Clarify.”
“I’m not leaving her alone.”
“Your daughter?” Jamie was silent for a moment. “Your daughter is eighteen, sir. There’s no precedent.”
“Have a medical room available. Have those staff who were coming out on standby.”
“I’ll pass your message on.”
Larsen didn’t think it would make any difference, but at least he would be able to take her onto the facility. “Why do they need me?”
Again Jamie hesitated. “Barris test.”
Larsen was flabbergasted. “A routine test.”
“Not routine. The Conte Rosso.”
“She’s ready for flight.” Larsen had been on her twice. A slim Barris ship with a drive and wheel configuration that let her dive deep into Barris space. She could transit between stars in hours rather than days.
“She’s been assigned to a distant rescue mission. Seven hundred and fifty light years.”
“Uh-huh.” The farthest he’d ever been was a little over a hundred. That had been a trip of two months, right around the time Meriam’s mother had taken her own life.
“Distant retrieval ship got into trouble.”
Jamie sighed. “You’ll be fully briefed en route.”
He’d heard talk about it before he’d taken the leave, but didn’t imagine it would happen. At least not in his lifetime.
“Seriously,” he said. “A vessel with a crew. Seven hundred light years away. Via real space.”
Whenever Jamie paused it seemed as if she was considering how much disciplinary action she was going to face from telling him too much. “Yes.”
They’d sent a crewed vessel out to retrieve fragments from a star system. The basis of transit through Barris space. It should be all automated. Hyperfast robots in real space sprinting for the stars, grabbing local material, then returning through Barris space. Once the material was retrieved, it could be slotted into the Barris drive and allow crewed vessels to reach the location in Barris space.
Concepts outside physics, but he knew that it was supposed to be automated.
“What’s gone wrong?” No sense in arguing the common sense of it. “How many of them?”
“Sixteen,” Jamie didn’t hesitate this time. “A sub-Barris experiment. Trialing navigation.”
“So far out? Why me?” He knew why. He’d been working on the drives beforehand, had taken some of the sub-Barris robots out for launch. If they’d arrived it would take decades for their narrowbeam signals to return at light speed in normal space.
“Flight Director Richfield says you’re the only one qualified.”
With the ear-roll still in place, Larsen went back upstairs. He stood a Meriam’s door for a moment, watching her sleep. Serene, untroubled.
He went to his bedroom and threw on his light space prep gear.
“Still there, Larsen?”
“The experiments were failing. Most of the robots disintegrated. We found their debris in Barris space.”
“Some of them made it.”
“You know all this?”
“I’ve got your full brief on my deck here. Reams of data on you.”
“Great,” he said closing up the case. “So you know why I can’t come.”
“Car’s on its way.”
“I’m going in mine.” He went to Meriam’s room to wake her.
Larsen watched Meriam fiddle with a pen while he drove into the Redding transit station. She had woken without a word, then thrown some clothes and medications into her shoulder bag when he explained that he was taking her with him. She hadn’t said a word the whole time. He wondered if this kind of medicated passivity was better than the tension of her moods and self-destructiveness. In some ways it was almost as if she was already dead.
They stopped him at the gates. Ted Griffen on duty.
“Derel,” Griffen said. “Haven’t seen you for a while.” He peered through the car window, looking at Meriam. “This your daughter?”
“Meriam,” Larsen said.
She looked up momentarily, then focused back on the pen.
Griffen scratched his ear. “Clearance?”
Larsen shook his head. “They cancelled my leave. I can’t leave her at home.”
Griffen nodded. “Not supposed to let unauthorized personnel into the facility.”
Larsen thumped the dash with his fist. “It should have been run through. I’m going home”
Griffen glanced back at the main building. The big APL letters and logo on the front still lit up. On his lapel his comms mic pinged. He thumbed it, then nodded at something only he heard through his ear-roll. “Guess they want you out there.” He waved at the barrier arm and it began to rise. “I heard that there were sixty people in a liner somewhere. Sightseeing trip gone wrong. Half the ship still in Barris space. Need their number one fix it man.”
Larsen frowned at him. Griffen’s lapel pinged again.
“Sightseeing?” Larsen said.
Griffen listened to his ear for a moment more. Then looked down, face blank. “Please proceed directly through to the field. There’s a transport there to take you to China Lake.”
“A sightseeing trip?”
Griffen just pointed to the flightline roadway. Behind them another car horn sounded. In his rearview mirror, Larsen saw a big Ram.
“Let me talk to-”
“Sir,” Griffen said, all pretense of friendliness gone. “You are to proceed to the field.”
The horn blared again.
Griffen stared at him.
Larsen glanced at Meriam, then pushed the stick ahead. The car eased forwards and he glowered as they headed for the landing field. Meriam continued fiddling with the pen.
When the heavy Sikorsky put down at China Lake twenty minutes later, Larsen was fuming to the point that his skin felt hot. He’d tried repeatedly to get through to the control center. With a temporary thinscreen he saw the connection get made, then get cut again. They didn’t want to talk to him.
If it weren’t for the medical, he would just resign his commission and go private. Meriam cost a bundle, and he was still dealing with the fallout from Sandie’s death; her birth family were tying his assets up in lawsuits from here to Centauri. As if it was his fault.
The moment that was behind him, he was flipping Richfield and the rest of them the bird and walking out.
The ship taxied in towards the hangars, turning, then braking, the rotors slipping into the stubby wings. The pilot looked back over her shoulder and gave Larsen a grinning thumbs up, her face still obscured by the peaked hat and mirrored Aviator glasses.
Larsen tried to smile, but didn’t have it in him.
The door gave a quiet pop, then hissed open, lowering out and reconfiguring to become a stairway. Larsen stood and slung his bag over his shoulder. “We’re here,” he said to Meriam.
She glanced up, but didn’t reply. She was reading something on a sheet. It looked like a textbook. As she read, she kept fiddling with the pen. Her thumb was blistered from rubbing it.
Larsen looked out the door into the clear southern California air. “Hey,” he said to the pilot. “You got a Band-Aid there?”
“Someone bleeding?” Glancing back again, she stopped her post-flight checks for a moment then reached down beside her seat and lifted a rectangular canister. She popped the lid, then passed two thin strips back into the cabin.
Larsen took them. “Thanks.”
“Nothing of it. Your ride is here.” The pilot returned the canister to its stowage and continued with the checks.
Larsen looked out the open door. An old GMC six-wheeler mini-truck with a full-length cabin and blackened windows was parked just beyond the Sikorsky’s wing. He turned to Meriam and took her hand, tugging gently. She came up with him, eyes briefly meeting his then flicking away.
He guided her down the steps and out to the tarmac. The rear door on the truck popped open a little, but no one stepped out. As he walked over, Larsen surveyed the field. There were some vintage jets parked near one of the hangars nearby, painted the gaudy pinks and crimsons of the warbird clubs. Further away, out in the grassy strips, a tall low earth orbit transfer vehicle stood pointy and ready to lift off. He wondered if it was his.
He opened the truck’s door and blinked into the darkened interior. Someone was sitting inside. He squinted as he peered, his eyes still used to the full sunlight, not able to make out who it was.
“Get in.” A woman’s voice. “Quickly.”
“Jamie?” he said. He stepped inside. The cabin was three seats facing another three, like a wild west wagon. Larsen sat with his back facing the driver’s seat and Meriam followed like an obedient dog. At least when she was even he didn’t have to worry about her racing off.
“Yes,” Jamie said. “Sounded like you needed some help.”
Meriam pulled the door shut behind her. The engine revved and the vehicle lurched ahead.
“Help?” he said.
“Outside official channels,” another voice said. The driver. Trasker?
“Simon?” Larsen said.
“She busted me out.” Trasker gave a little laugh.
Larsen’s eyes were getting accustomed to the dark. Jamie had had her hair done since he’d last seen her, it hung dark and thick, straight down to her shoulders. “You busted him out?”
Jamie sighed. It seemed to be what she did, almost like a nervous tick or a person who used ‘like’ in every sentence. “Apparently just a little error in the paperwork had him released earlier. Once that is rectified, he will have to return to serve out his remaining four hours.” She paused. “I didn’t bust anyone out of anywhere.”
“I’m sure. I guess that’s why you weren’t taking my calls.”
“I still have a thousand questions.” Larsen looked over his shoulder and over the truck’s hood. The windshield glass was almost transparent from inside. They were drawing closer to the pencil-shaped vehicle out on the grass. “That my lift?”
“Jaylee thirteen,” Trasker said. “Quick little shuttle. Have us in orbit in fifteen. We’ll be into Barris within a half hour.”
“We?” Larsen said
“Only way I could figure it,” Jamie said. “I tried to route up some medical documents to get your daughter into care for the duration of your mission, but it wouldn’t happen. You must have p… excuse me, annoyed some folks at some point.”
“Not so much. Thanks for trying, though, I guess.”
Jamie shrugged. She smiled a little. “So I figured I could do it personally.”
Larsen squinted at her. “I thought that’s what Trasker was coming for. He’s medically trained.”
“Huh!” Jamie said. “So am I. You never thought to ask me.”
“Here we are,” Trasker said as the truck slowed.
Larsen peered around again. The Jaylee was about eighty meters high, with an anti-grav slingshot lower stage taking up half that height, then a standard flare chemical rocket to take her the last forty miles into orbit. He looked back at Jamie. “Thanks. I appreciate this.”
“See you when I’m back.”
Jamie stared at him. The truck came to a stop and Trasker opened the driver’s door. Larsen reached for the cabin door, keeping his eyes on Jamie. He pushed the door open and adjusted his bag.
“There’s something else, isn’t there?” he said.
Jamie nodded. “I couldn’t get a venue here. Nothing with security or medical intervention. Nothing that wouldn’t start metaphorical alarm bells ringing.”
“What does that mean?”
“If I commandeered a room then there would be too much paperwork.” Jamie pulled on a slim backpack and got out of the truck.
Larsen shook his head. “Please tell me that you’re just taking her to your place.” He closed his eyes, willing Jamie to climb into the front seat, dreading that she wasn’t.
“We’re coming too,” she said. “The Conte Rosso has a full med-suite.”
Larsen still had his eyes shut. This was becoming unbearable. “You want me to take my daughter into space?” He realized he was whispering. “My daughter is ill. She’s ill and you want me to put her into this machine, then take her with me into Barris space.” He opened his eyes and looked back in at Meriam. She was still fooling with the pen. He’d forgotten to put the Band-Aids on her thumb.
“We need to get aboard,” Trasker said.
“It’s not what I want,” Jamie said. “I’m just trying to help out here. Quite possibly I’ll get reprimanded for this, though my paperwork trail should show that it was all signed-off and legitimate.”
“Paperwork trail!” Larsen had gone from a whisper to a shout. “If you can do that, why can’t you just make a paperwork trail and get her supervised right here? Why is that?”
Jamie laughed, then put her hand up to suppress it. “You don’t get how the bureaucracy here works, sorry Derel. If something makes an ounce of sense it’s seriously got to move up the chain. If it’s simply ridiculous, then I just create a series of forms to make it true.”
Larsen sighed. This was the organization to which he’d basically signed up with for life. It was easier to get out of the military.
“The count is active,” Trasker said. “The ship lifts in five. We ought to get ourselves aboard.”
Larsen looked over at the gleaming cylinder. If he didn’t go he was going to lose all his benefits. Then what would happen to Meriam? He was already exhausted from the weeks of monitoring her. Until a long-term solution was found then he was bound to her.
Looking back down, he saw that she was already getting out of the truck on her own. The pen was gone and she was holding her abused thumb out towards him.
He took the adhesive bandages from the pocket where he’d stuffed them and peeled the wrapping off. He put her hand into his left palm and stuck the bandage on, wrapping it around and over a broken blister. “All better,” he said.
Meriam nodded at him. She stared, a little glassy-eyed, and he could imagine her inside thinking something like ‘I’m not three, Dad.”
“Sorry,” he said, and she nodded again, her mouth possibly even curving up minutely.
“Two hundred and sixty seconds,” Trasker said.
Larsen looked back at Jamie. “It’s not a deep research vessel, is it? The guard at Redding told me. This all stinks like the business end of an ocean trawler.” He was still holding Meriam’s hand. She felt a little cold. He wondered if her blood pressure was off.
“Liner,” Jamie said. “A hundred passengers and crew. In bad shape.”
Larsen’s heart sank. “You couldn’t tell me on the phone?”
Jamie shook her head. “The Emerald Sky.”
Trasker grabbed Larsen’s arm. “Four minutes. Let’s at least get onto the elevator and we can discuss this on the way up to the capsule.”
Larsen let himself be led. “You had to give me a fabrication when you called me up? And, by the way, I was sleeping. You know how precious a little sleep is these days?”
“You knew everything I did at the time.”
Larsen kept a hold of Meriam’s hand and she followed along. In that moment, he knew he was going, and that he was going to take her with him.
A liner. Some idiot captain trying to show off how close he or she could take the ship in towards a set of gas giant rings or some anomalous asteroid volcano out at Procyon, then nosing into a piece of rubble and screwing up the Barris systems and relaying to the closest local that they were in trouble.
“It was on the news already,” Trasker said. “Saw it on the stockade feeds.”
“You,” Jamie said, “are not helping.”
They stepped onto the ship’s elevator.
“You don’t watch the news?” Trasker said to Larsen. The elevator plate detected them and swung up an octopus arm with the controls. Other tentacles spun out and formed a safety rail.
“I. Was. Sleeping. Why am I even here? They would cancel my leave for a liner?”
“Going up.” Trasker thumbed the control and they began ascending.
Meriam clutched Larsen’s hand. “It’s okay, sweets,” he said. “Perfectly safe.” If anything went wrong, the tentacles would grab them and lower them to the ground.
“Flight Director Richfield has family on board the Emerald Sky. His daughter.”
Larsen’s voice caught. He was going to cuss. He was going to scream. Nothing came out. He was going to tear pieces from Richfield’s cold dead corpse and feed them to sharks in Humboldt Bay.
It felt like one of the paradoxes that the computer killers used to create those prevention of activity attacks through the networks. Richfield had canceled medical leave to have his daughter rescued. But the medical leave was to keep someone else’s daughter alive. Larsen’s head spun a little.
The elevator slowed.
A little dizzy, Larsen realized they’d suddenly reached the capsule. He stared at Trasker. Simon’s face was passive, relaxed. Larsen felt as taut as a hammock band. He could almost see Trasker about to make a stupid elevator joke – “fifth floor, whitewear, software and ladies underwear” or something like that – and if he did Larsen would just strangle him.
Richfield’s daughter over his own.
The elevator stopped.
Called up for a liner accident. Anyone could handle that.
“If…” Larsen stammered. Where was his voice? He was getting afterimages in his peripheral vision, his rage was so strong.
Trasker pulled open the capsule’s door and he crouched, stepping through. He reached back for Meriam and she took his hand, letting him steady her as she went in.
Larsen kept a hold of her hand and bent, following after.
The cabin was conical, three meters in diameter and two meters high in the center. Six cushion couches took up all the space around the base, and consoles folded out above each of them.
“We’ve got two minutes, forty,” Trasker said. He slipped by them and reached out to pull the hatch closed. Larsen heard the biomechanical sounds of the elevator folding up and slipping back down into the upper stage.
Meriam let go of Larsen’s hand, went to one of the couches and strapped in as if she’d done it dozen’s of times.
“How could you not know?” Larsen said to Jamie as he sat next to Meriam.
“They led me astray,” she said. “As far as my deck and feeds were telling me, the problem was with a deep retrieval vessel. It wasn’t until I was trying to get around the medical system that I figured it out. By then you were almost on the ground here.”
“Deep retrieval is nonsense,” Larsen said. He knew he should have smelt rattiness from it the moment she’d told him. Crewed vessels seven hundred light years out.
“They’re researching it,” Trasker said as he sat and strapped himself in. “Another few years maybe.”
Right then Larsen hated his cheerfulness. A man who got drunk as soon as he came off-ship, and started punching officers and civilians and military without discretion. And he was trying to tell Larsen about Barris research? A stupefying as anything else today.
“Thirty seconds,” Trasker said.
“You know?” Larsen said. “I ought to just wipe your grin right off your stupid kisser.”
Meriam put her hand on his arm.
Jamie looked stunned. “I thought you wanted him along.”
Trasker nodded, grim faced. Not agreeing with Jamie, Larsen realized, but agreeing with him. Agreeing that he was an idiot.
Larsen sighed. “If… if it wasn’t that you’re so good in tight spots.”
“Unflappable,” Trasker said. “Ten seconds.”
Larsen almost laughed then. He needed someone unflappable right now. Even if the man did have stupid blowouts, Trasker was still focused and on-task in any duty assignment.
But that wasn’t why Larsen had asked for him. He’d just wanted Trasker to supervise Meriam on the ground, not come along for the ride. No one would get that straight. Out of the stockade to babysitting, but Trasker would have been focused. Larsen felt like he was climbing a greasy slope, trying to find purchase, but losing his grip with every move.
Richfield. That was who he had to direct his rage at.
“Three seconds,” Trasker said.
Putting his hand on Meriam’s on his arm, Larsen said, “Okay?”
She nodded at him, a hint of a smile. “Sure, Dad.”
Larsen stared at her. She’d spoken. Spoken to him.
The capsule clunked. The anti-grav slingshot releasing.
They were pressed back into their seats. The capsule shuddered as they accelerated. The slingshot would toss them high into the atmosphere where the rockets would take over. Anti-grav, funnily enough, only worked at the bottom of a gravity well. Larsen stared at Meriam, knowing that he really should just be keeping his head back and his neck straight. Who’d have thought?
Meriam flicked her eyes at him, then back up, then back over at him again. Larsen looked away. His neck thanked him.
“Acceleration will get worse in a couple of minutes,” he said.
“Sure Dad. I’ve seen movies. Plus, if you would have ever shut up about it when I was a kid.”
Whole real sentences. He wished they were on the ground so he could hug her.
“Separation coming up,” Trasker said.
Larsen sat back. He didn’t want to do anything to spoil the moment. In a few minutes he would be on the Barris ship, then heading out to the Emerald Sky‘s wreck. It seemed distant, almost irrelevant.
There was a pop, then they all drifted forward into their straps. The capsule was quiet for a moment, just the background hum of the air circulation. The candle lit.
Crushed back into his seat, Larsen thought it felt like three and a half, maybe four gees. Everyday tourist stuff, but still, he was worried about Meriam. There never had been time to take her up on a flight, and she’d never especially shown any inclination to go. He’d probably put her off by never shutting up about it. And now here she was.
The noisy burn kept them pressed down for a few minutes, then lessened. They rode on at one gee for a while, then the main engine popped and the cabin fell quiet again.
“Coming up on Conte Rosso,” Trasker said.
Larsen glanced at Meriam, then swung his console out and pulled up the external feed to see what kind of shape their ride was in. It took a moment to find the video. He almost gasped.
The Conte Rosso was a flattened vessel, almost the shape of a cake of soap, with two huge stationary wheels on either side. The wheels’ diameters were almost the same as the length of the ship. He tabbed the display, trying to locate a scale; against the black background of space it was impossible to tell if she was tiny or huge. With the Barris transit wheels so relatively big, she had to be tiny. Little bigger than their to-orbit capsule. But Jamie had said there was a full medical system on board.
The scale came up, a shifting row of numbers along a parallel stack of lines. The console narrowed in on the ship, outlined it and gave him a range and size. Three kilometers away, three hundred and fifty meters long.
The wheels were huge. He’d never seen a vessel with wheels bigger than a hundred meters. Even the big long-haul freighters ones. Of course it had a medical system on board. It could have a whole hospital.
“What’s the crew complement here?”
Trasker padded his console. “Twelve.”
Twelve. What was happening in the rest of the space she filled? “Experimental, right?” Why hadn’t he heard of it? He glanced at Meriam. She was back to reading the sheet and fooling with the pen, rubbing the tip against the bandage.
“She’s done a few runs,” Jamie said. “Apparently she’s the fastest thing out here.”
Larsen looked again at the image on the feed. There was a tiny tender drifting nearby, and a bulbous tanker about a kilometer off, with long taut hoses stretching across the distance to the Barris ship. Fueling? he thought.
“Fast?” Trasker said.
Larsen watched as they drew up on the ship’s dock. It was always fascinating, no matter how many times he came up here. He would never understand the people who just read a magazine while ships went through the complexities of docking, their retros firing and the satisfying clunk as they mated. He glanced at Meriam and saw that she’d switched her sheet to the same video feed.
Larsen peered and pinched to zoom, but couldn’t make out the docking turret. Strange, they seemed to be coming in from the stern.
He zoomed out again and saw the hoses release, suddenly forming up into a set of stationary waves right back to the tanker. The tender flitted away.
Then doors opened on the Conte Rosso‘s stern. There was a bay inside. Easily big enough for the capsule. What an extravagant waste of resources, he thought as the capsule nosed inside on automatic. A self-sealing bay that would get flooded with oxygen, just to save a little bit of docking. The capsule would have to dock somehow anyway, to stop from rattling around in the space. He imagined more octopus cables flicking out from the interior, clutching them into place.
The capsule stopped with a screech. Cables, he thought, with a little slippage.
“What now?” he said. He saw that Meriam had released the pen and was watching it float, spinning slowly, right in front of her eyes. She’d never been in zero-gee before.
“Now,” Jamie said. “We meet the captain, get a briefing and head out to the mission location.”
Rescuing Richfield’s daughter.
There was a clank from the hatchway and the hatch fell open. A face in a light breathing mask looked in. A hand reached up and pulled the mask down, revealing a chiseled, long-nosed woman’s face. “Captain Silk,” she said. She was perhaps fifty, still in good shape from a couple of rejuvenations, her skin with the tell-tale mottling of a long-term spacefarer. “Who’s Larsen?”
Trasker had released his straps and spun around in the room. Jamie, likewise had unstrapped, but was much less certain in weightlessness.
“Me,” Larsen said. “I’m Larsen.” He popped his straps off and twisted around so that he was ‘standing’ facing her. From this angle her nose didn’t seem so long.
“So you’re the expert? Let’s get you briefed.”
“First, we get my daughter to your medical bay.”
“Something like that.”
Meriam popped her straps and flipped around with as much fluidity as Trasker. With a little push, she headed for the hatch. Silk ducked out of the way.
“That her?” Silk said.
Larsen nodded, following his daughter out.
“Doesn’t seem hurt.”
“Looks are deceiving.” He came out into the tiny hangar bay. There was about a foot’s gap between the capsule’s hull and the bay’s wall. It was designed for capsules of this size and layout, though could probably handle a few variations. Relative to the size of the ship, it would take much air volume to fill the bay when a vessel was inside.
Larsen twisted around the captain. He saw Meriam’s legs disappearing through the hatchway that led from the bay into the ship proper. A technician had to pull out of her way. “Hey,” he called after Meriam. “Wait up.”
“She’ll find her way,” Silk called after him. “It’s a big ship, but hard to get lost on.”
“It not getting lost that I’m worried about.” He grabbed a loop bolted to the side of the bay and pulled, sending himself quickly after Meriam.
He found her just inside the hatchway, staring at a layout diagram. The Conte Rosso. Evacuation lines and emergency stations. The ship had four levels of occupied decks, through the center, the middle two longer by half than the top and bottom levels. He knew that there would be twist network of tubes spaghetti-ing around the rest of the volume; the half-Barris half-real space conduits that protected the inner parts of the ship from the odd physics of pure Barris. At the very bow, the thin flange of the bridge rose up like a spike.
“Intrigued?” Larsen said.
Meriam looked at him. She held up the pen, let it go and tapped the tip. The pen began a slow end-over-end rotation, barely moving away from its axis. It spun in space like a gentle propeller. She’d touched it so delicately that he thought it would keep spinning almost in place until friction with the air slowed it to a stop. Most people would have sent it careering across the corridor, then struggled to keep track of it as it bounced around off walls.
“You’re a natural in zero-gee,” he said.
Meriam just nodded.
Silk, Trasker and Jamie came through to the corridor each with a slightly different orientation. It always took Larsen a few minutes to shift from his natural inner ear way of thinking, his brain still looking for an up and a down.
“Medical?” Silk said. “Jamie told me about the situation.”
Jamie paled. “It’s… that is… I…”
Larsen nodded. “That’s fine.”
“I’m sorry.” Jamie stared at Meriam. “I didn’t mean…”
“That’s fine,” Meriam said. She reached out and took the pen from the air. “I’m on suicide watch. Seriously. That’s all it is.”
Meriam smiled at Jamie. “I’m not going to kill myself just because some people know about it. It’s only some chemical imbalance. I don’t know when I’m heading down, even though when I do I spiral pretty quickly.” She shrugged. “If we could get the meds right it might be a little better.”
Jamie continued to stare, a little more slack-jawed.
“I’ll have Ryan guide her down,” Silk said, waving someone over. The technician Larsen had seen reappeared, almost as if he’d been in camouflage while they’d talked.
“I’m going with her,” Larsen said. “I don’t want to hold this up, I know we need to get into Barris space, but I’d just as soon stay with her until I’m happy she’s safe.”
“I’ll stay with her,” Jamie said, and put her hand up to her mouth. “I mean-” she lowered her fingers a little “-if that’s all right.”
“That was the plan, I guess,” Larsen said. “Let’s hustle.” He looked at Ryan. The man grabbed a loop and pulled himself up over them and into a companionway.
“We’re already underway,” Silk said.
Larsen let go of the loop he’d grabbed to follow after Ryan. “Underway?” Why would a vessel designed for Barris space be underway. Where did they have to go?
“As soon as the bay doors closed.” Silk smiled as if at some private joke.
Larsen nodded, hardly believing it. “Underway in real space? Not Barris space.” It took time to wind up the wheels, to get the crystals aligned and run through the checks. Crew had to be ready for the transition.
“We’re in Barris space.” Silk’s grin widened. “Impressive, no? We’re loaded with new tech here. Very fast wind-up, almost immediate drop into Barris space, smooth transition, deep travel.”
Larsen nodded. “Deep travel I’d heard of.” He wondered why he didn’t know about the extent of the vessel’s capabilities. He’d thought he’d been keeping up with developments. “Transit times?”
“Centauri in six hours.”
“Hours!” That wasn’t possible. Barris space still took navigating.
Silk almost laughed. “We’ll be at the site of the wreck in under a day.”
“Sixteen light years?”
“More like twenty.”
“You’ve done this before? Those kinds of distances in that kind of time?”
“Excuse me,” Jamie said, pointing along the companionway. “Aren’t you supposed to be watching her? Isn’t that why we’re all here?”
Larsen looked and saw Meriam following Ryan along the companionway. How had he let himself get distracted like that? “I’ll let you fill me in soon,” he said, grabbing a loop and launching himself along the companionway.
Later, after he’d inspected the medical room and satisfied himself that it was prepped and comfy, and accepted Meriam’s thumbs-up, he made his way back through the ship to find the briefing room. Inside, Trasker, Silk and a technician he hadn’t yet met were harnessed in around a graphics deck. Larsen slipped himself into a free harness. It was almost like standing around a tall table in normal gravity, everyone oriented the same.
“Happy?” Silk said.
“As I can be. Jamie’s with her. What are we looking at?” He could already tell. The deck showed a diagram of a ship. Clearly the Emerald Sky. At its center of mass the Barris transit wheels seemed small, though the whole ship was probably only twice the length of Conte Rosso. The entire bow, from the wheels forward, was colored red, the rest, green. “Casualties?” he said.
“We don’t know,” the technician said.
“Andrew Martenson,” Silk said, “this is Derel Larsen.”
Martenson nodded. “It’s in a kind of rift, caught between real space and Barris space.”
“You know there are survivors, though? In the stern?”
“Nothing,” Silk said. “We’ve got a standard Barris relay comms signal from the ship. Telemetry only. That’s at least ten hours old. It broke a little over a day ago. Nothing since”
Larsen nodded. A real space distress call would take two decades to reach Earth, but a military grade Barris relay emergency signal would come through in hours, depending on distance. Even though communications relays were faster than transit, it still took a lot of power to juice signals in Barris space, and a whole lot to get them through in hours. It would have been a coded telemetry blip, narrowcast to receivers at the edge of the solar system. “You’ve mated that data with local information on the liner?”
“Six years old,” Martenson said. “Built at Eridani, carries a hundred passengers at a time. Does tours to local stars, two week transit, three weeks on site in real space at the three gas giants, with time down on some breathable atmosphere moons with endemic flora, then two weeks back. Expensive trips.”
“On their way back or just arriving when the problem happened?”
“Returning, according to the company’s log.”
“Red is in Barris space?”
“Where is Richfield’s daughter’s cabin?”
Larsen told them. “I was brought up here on a ruse, almost. I would have ‘two and two’ed if I’d known it was a liner. Had to be someone’s relative on board. Someone with clout.”
Martenson whipped through menus on the graphics deck. After a moment, a tiny section highlighted. One of the cabins. In the section stuck in Barris space.
Larsen ran his tongue across his teeth. “Everyone would be in their cabins for the transit?”
“Yes,” Silk said.
He nodded, and sighed. “And how is it possible for a ship to stuck half in and half out of Barris space? The realms don’t have any physical connection. We have to lie to the universe to be able to put a ship in there in the first place, right?” The wheels rode in Barris space, the twist network was a confused half-real, half-Barris absorbing complex that allowed the internal parts of a ship to be effectively in real space.
“We thought you could tell us,” Silk said.
Larsen looked around the briefing room. “In this marvel and wonder of a ship,” he said, “A ship that is going to carry me faster and deeper through Barris space than I’ve ever gone. You think that I know more about Barris space than you?” He looked between Silk and Martenson. They looked at each other.
“Lost me,” Martenson said.
“What he means,” Trasker said, “is that it seems like you have got a pretty good handle on Barris space yourselves, given the advanced nature of your vessel. What use are a couple of old codgers like us? No offence.”
“None taken,” Larsen said. He was thirty-seven. Young, still, but in terms of the speed of technological developments he felt like a dinosaur. Raising Meriam since he was a teen had both aged him and kept him young.
“We just drive it,” Martenson said.
“He’s right,” Silk said. “Even if we do understand how it works, really we just take it out. We were told you were the expert on situations.”
“I just drive too,” Larsen said. “Why didn’t you get the boffins who designed this ship?”
Martenson laughed. “They’re boffins. We needed practical. That is, your practical experience.”
“They’re talking about the Norsk,” Trasker said.
“That was years ago. How old were we?”
Trasker shrugged. “Eight, nine. Certainly before high school.”
Martenson’s eyes went wide. Trasker laughed. “Relax, kiddo. It was a while back, but not before you were born.”
The Norsk had come out of Barris space between stars. A colony ship, isolated fifteen light years from Earth, on its way to Den-Magen. Its signal had been picked up two years after, on one of the Den-Magen plantations. The Norsk had signaled back to Earth through the Barris relays, asking for rescue.
It was effectively unreachable. Barris space allowed direct navigation between stars, but not to the voids between. Theoretically there was no way to pop out between stars, just as theoretically there was no way the Emerald Sky should be half-in and half-out of Barris space.
“We’ve done plenty of other stuff,” Larsen said. “Regular freight runs.”
“We don’t try to trade on rescuing a few colonists.”
They’d rigged a Barris ship to freeze its wheels at the approximate point they guessed the drifting colonial ship was. Their calculations had been pretty good. They’d come out less than a million miles from the ship. Close enough to talk to them by radio and jury-rig something to put them back into Barris space.
“We did to pretty well,” Larsen said. “But this is entirely different.”
“That’s why we’re standing around this table, trying to find solutions to this problem. We have some ideas, we’re hoping that you can shoot them down and then give us the obvious answer.”
Larsen laughed. He liked Silk. She was professional, skilled, but also a little self-deprecating. She reminded him a little of Meriam’s mother. “What have you got so far?”
“Drop out of Barris. Put the wheels on minimum and drop back,” Martenson said. “See if we can dock and get them out.”
“Won’t work,” Trasker said. “You’re thinking in terms of real space. Nothing touches anything in Barris. You’d have to be tuned to about a trillion decimal places to be even able to see them. Anything else and they’d be totally invisible. Then, even if you could see them, and approach, the whole docking business wouldn’t work. The twist network separation keeps real space in existence inside. You can’t just dock and slip through the airlock. Just doesn’t work like that.”
Martenson frowned. “But we can see out. Through the windows.”
“They’re paying you to be an idiot?”
Larsen put his hand on Trasker’s arm. “What Simon means is that the windows are integrated into the network. The locks aren’t. The whole docking system is too complex.
Martenson kept frowning. “Then dock in real space and walk through the ship into the main areas.”
Larsen pinched Trasker’s arm to stop him saying anything. Trasker glared.
“Don’t know if that will work,” Larsen said. “This caught-up business is something we don’t know abou-”
Silk’s alert diode chimed. She tapped it, then blinked, activating a retina display. She sighed. “We’ll have to adjourn,” she said. “You need to see your daughter in medical.”
Larsen was out of the harness like water out of a pipe. He burst into the companionway, grabbed a loop and flipped back. Kicking off, he sent himself gliding along the companionway’s axis. With a couple of taps and kicks, he kept himself moving. He was outside the medical bay in less than a minute.
The door swept open, letting him in. “Where is she?” he said to the duty officer.
“Derel?” Jamie called before the man had a chance to answer.
Larsen turned and pushed himself across. The room was antiseptic white, and smelled of ammonia. Meriam was lying on a bed, tendrils of soft restraining coils keeping her in place. Larsen caught the edge of the bed. “What happened?” he asked Jamie as he came by her. He pulled himself around to look at Jamie’s face. There was blood on the sheet. Jamie’s eyes were open and she stared straight up at the ceiling.
A serious-face technician flipped and moved away from Meriam, didn’t say anything to Larsen.
“Cut herself on the seat,” Jamie said. “I know I’m supposed to be watching her. I was, but it happened fast.”
Larsen nodded. “It does happen fast.”
Meriam looked over at him. “It was an accident, Dad. Not intentional.”
“Really?” As if there was any part of a bed in a ship’s medical bay that it was possible to accidently cut yourself on. “Let’s see the arm.”
She slipped it out from the sheet, the coils shimmering and adjusting to let her move without drifting up from the foam.
The cut was at her wrist. Covered now with a layer of healing spray.
“If I was going to go that way, I’d do it in a bath,” she said. She said it so matter-of-factly it made him shiver.
“On the bed?” he said.
“Here,” Jamie said. She’d come around beside him and she pointed down at one of the plastic rivet fasteners that held the foam squab onto the plastic base board. The fastener was loose, sticking out. It had blood on it.
“You said the seat?” Larsen said.
“The thing reconfigured itself,” Meriam said. “I was just sitting down to read while everyone watched me and I cut myself. Accident. Then, next thing everyone is rushing around, paging you and patching me up and the seat grabs me and stretches out.”
Larsen looked around. “‘Everyone’ being Jamie and the technician?”
“But you’re okay?” he said.
Larsen smiled. He was going to chew Silk out about the state of her ship. If a simple thing like a bed-seat was falling apart, what was the condition of her navigation systems?
“I’m so sorry,” Jamie said.
“Not your fault.” Larsen hovered by the bed.
Meriam had slipped her arm back into the covers. “Aren’t you supposed to be at some briefing?”
Larsen nodded. He looked at Jamie. “You okay?”
“Yes, I suppose.”
He bent and kissed Meriam on the forehead. “Take care, honey,” he said, then pushed off from the bed. The sooner they got this done, the better. He could get home and rethink the next thing.
Back outside the briefing room door, Larsen considered not even going in. He could just wait it out in medical, let them come and find him if they wanted to keep running over ridiculous ideas.
The fact was they didn’t know what to do and they wouldn’t until they were on site. They could speculate all they liked, but he couldn’t think of anything that set a precedent for the situation. At least with the Norsk it had all been in real space. This rift in space business was all new.
He pushed the door open and found the room empty. Swinging in, he looked at the graphics deck. It was blank.
They’d given up, he figured. Back out in the companionway, he made his way forward to the bridge. On the way he passed a couple of technicians. The ship seemed oddly under populated. Twelve crew. Extraordinary.
The bridge was small. Smaller than he’d expected; about the size of his living room back home. But there were six technicians at navigation consoles, arranged in a circle, heads together so some seem almost upside-down. They were all facing the forward windows. There was no attempt here to create any sense of up and down. The technicians were flicking their hands at panels as they directed the ship.
He’d never seen more than two navigators driving a ship before. Looking more closely he saw that they were creating redundant paths through Barris space, each making minor corrections to the route.
“How is she?” someone said.
Larsen looked around. Silk, standing in a harness, the same orientation as him, in a recess at the back of the room. Trasker was hovering nearby.
“Okay. Did we give up on figuring out how to get them off the ship?”
“Ideas were getting messy,” Trasker said. “Figure that it’s better to just work with what we’ve got on site.”
“That’s where I was heading too. Six navigators?” he said to Silk. As he spoke, he knew why. Deep and fast travel in Barris space would require more concentration. Looking beyond the circle of navigators he could see the density of Barris space outside the windows.
The blue-black swirled around them, with heavy pieces of dimensional debris, thicker than he’d ever seen. Most of the pieces were moving with them, but some, as he’d seen before, were moving at random and unpredictable trajectories. They never touched and for the most part treated ships as if they were just another part of the space, but you didn’t want to hit one. In the early days of Barris space, ships had been lost.
“Sixteen hours until we’re on site,” Silk said. “It’s kind of dull up here, you guys might want to play some pool or something.”
“Can we see your emergency equipment?” Larsen said. “I think we should do an inventory to know what we’ve got.”
“Pretty comprehensive,” Silk said. “Lower deck, you can’t miss it.”
Larsen looked at Trasker, who was already pulling himself back to the entry door.
The bay was enormous, occupying almost half of the lower deck. There were two flat-lying shuttles, EVA suits and coils of tether roping, pallets and sleds, personal maneuvering packs and canisters of emergency food. Inflatable balls to zip someone into and haul them through vacuum. Larsen liked those: much more efficient than trying to get someone into a suit.
“This is pretty good,” Trasker said. “Think any of it’s going to be any use in this situation.”
Larsen shook his head. “Nothing is going to be much use at all, I mean. We’ll be able to get people off from the real space end sure, but nothing we can do for the rest.” He moved along a row of lockers, checking the contents. Food supplies. Medical supplies. Electronics.
“You really think that it’s stuck?” Trasker said.
“Not really, no. More like it’s been snapped in half and the film bulkheads have sealed the ship’s open corridors.”
“That’s what I was figuring.” Trasker had the access panels open on one of the shuttles and had begun loading in some canisters filled with the inflatable rescue balls and tethers.
“But if it’s not that, then we have to be prepared, have to think laterally.”
“Easier to think in here than in their claustrophobic little briefing room with Mr. Theoretical.”
It took Larsen a moment, but then he realized that Trasker meant Martenson. “He’s doing his best.”
“I know, young and inexperienced. But did you see the way he looked at us? As if we were the product of another age. Like we were cavemen coming to beat down the castle gates.”
“That makes not an ounce of sense to me.”
“You should have heard some of his ideas after you left, speaking of lack of sense. Tether the ships together, then have us transit to Barris space and back. Or just use this ship as a tug to pull the Emerald Sky out of Barris space, like it was a tractor pulling a stump.”
“That’s an analogy I get, farm boy.”
“Hey. The Dakotas are a great place to grow up.”
They laughed. An old joke between them. They kept the banter up as they continued to load and prep the equipment. Larsen felt better. It was good having Trasker around; the man always calmed him. A good foil.
“Well,” Trasker said after an hour. “We’ll just be unpacking and repacking if we carry on here.”
Larsen nodded. They had both shuttles loaded with enough equipment to rescue half of the passengers over if need be. And enough other equipment ready to deal with other contingencies. Fire suppression, first aid, a sidearm.
They still hadn’t figured out what to do about the half of the ship stuck in Barris space.
“I’m going to find a cabin and grab some shut-eye,” Trasker said. He kicked off and headed up into the vessel.
Larsen followed, checking the time. According to Silk’s timeline they still had fourteen hours before they arrived on site. Enough time to sleep. Even though he felt as though he’d only just gotten up. It was barely lunchtime back home.
He stopped at medical, watching Trasker continue gliding along the companionway towards the cabins they’d been assigned. The medical bay was darkened to a twilight glow. Larsen stopped at the door a moment to let his eyes adjust.
“Hey,” Jamie called over. “She’s doing fine.”
Larsen pulled himself across. Jamie was sitting – as much as one sat in zero gravity – holding a reading sheet. She rolled the sheet as he approached and stuffed it into a pocket.
Larsen looked at Meriam. “Sleeping?”
“I guess so.”
“She’s been no trouble?”
“Nothing. We talked a bit. Politics, economy, the state of higher education. About families.”
Larsen nodded. “Hardest thing in the world.”
“You’re right there.”
“Why don’t you take a break?” he said. “Grab a bite to eat, find that cabin and get some shut eye.”
“I’m okay here.” She looked at the time. “Bit early to be going back to bed.”
“It’s a long while until we’re on site, and I’ve got nothing to do until then. I’ll stay with her.”
Jamie nodded. Almost in a whisper, she said, “Why is she in medical? Couldn’t she just be in a cabin too?”
Larsen gave her a grim smile. “Sure. Just that if something happened, all the resuscitation equipment is right here. That proximity might make all the difference.”
“She doesn’t seem in danger… I mean, not that I didn’t take the job seriously.”
“Just that…” Jamie trailed off.
“Her mood changes very quickly. She’s on an upswing at the moment.” More up than he’d seen her in months. Perhaps the trip was enlivening her. He wished he’d thought of that before. She seemed to have a natural affinity for space.
“I figured. Otherwise why have a twenty-four-seven?”
“Yep. You should eat and rest. Once we get on site it’s going to busy and I won’t be popping in to check on her like this.”
Jamie nodded. “Understood.” A little unsure, she pushed off for the door, catching one of the loops beside it and steadying herself. “You just come get me if you need anything.”
“Will do.” Larsen waved and Jamie turned and slipped out the door.
Pulling himself to the chair, he watched Meriam for a long moment. She did seem so relaxed and at peace. He knew she didn’t sleep well usually, so it was nice – calming, even – to see her so serene.
He checked that her monitor sliver was active and keyed in to his ear-roll. All green. Grabbing the chair, he sat back in it, letting the light coils hold him in place.
At least, even if there was nothing they could do, he would get to keep his medical benefits. He had a lot in place and ought to be able to stay home with her for another few months.
The chair hugged him a little tighter and he felt massage bulbs thrumming through the foam, easing his muscles. He hadn’t realized that he’d become so tense.
With the massage, and watching Meriam asleep and beautiful, he felt more at ease than he had for a long time. Just a little niggle that it took being manipulated by Richfield, and coming to such a dangerous situation to make him relax. Paradoxes. He closed his eyes, stretching out.
Looking for part 2? Click here to read Part 2 of Sean Monaghan’s novella The Wreck of the Emerald Sky, available for free only on The Colored Lens.