Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Chapter 1, Part 2: In-processing

Matt swept down the access tube from the shuttle to the station concourse. He used light tugs on the railing to propel himself along without going too fast, duffel bag trailing along behind him.

Once through the tube he swung out into artificial gravity. Long experience enabled him to make the transition from zero-g to one-g while carrying the duffel bag. He quickly moved out of the queue to avoid being kicked by some inexperienced dirthog.

He saw higher-ranking officers powering up their luggage with contra-grav and mentally snorted to himself. As if I'd spend my hard-earned cash on such gadgets, he thought to himself. Must be nice to have the salary for it.

There was a crash behind him and he looked back to see a young one-striper shakily rise to his feet after missing the grab bar and landing flat on his back. Seeing he was all right, Matt decided not to take notice as an officer and made for the in-processing counter.

He surrendered his data wallet holding the chip with his orders. Looking it over, the clerk hesitated. "I'm afraid we don't have anything available for base housing," he said.

Matt shrugged. "A dorm room is just fine," he replied. "As long as it has a bed and a desk, I'm OK."

The clerk brightened and he pattered away at his keyboard. "Here we go. Just vacated yesterday. We're cleaning it right now."

Matt knocked on door standing ajar and poked his head in. A portly Yokhav ran a vacuum cleaner over the carpet. "Hello?" Matt announced himself. "Sho-faa."

The Yokhav looked up and shut off his vacuum cleaner. "Ah! Sho-faa, honored sir! Welcome to Bistro Station." He racked the cleaner on his cart. "All done and ready for you."

"Kay-ehla," Matt thanked him. Matt set his duffel on the neatly down-turned bed and unzipped the bag. "Name's Lieutenant Channing." He held out his hand.

The Yokhav seemed surprised at Matt's easy manner with him. He shook the proffered hand. "Best to call me 'Fred'," he replied. "Most Terrans can't handle so many consonants."

Matt smiled. "How's the beer here?"

"Ohhh," the Yokhav mournfully shook his head. "Downbelow you should not go."

"Hmm?" Matt looked up from his duffel in surprise. "What, bad? I can handle myself."

"No, no, I meant the beer they have is camel-piss."

Matt laughed out loud. He wondered where the Yokhav had gotten the term. Must have been some army types. Somehow the Yokhav people always reminded Matt of Porthos from The Three Musketeers, boisterous and full of life.

"But!" the Yokhav continued, "you're in luck. The Officer's Club actually pulls a good draft. They get a fresh shipment every Wednesday."

The Yokhav saluted Matt gracefully. "Sadly, I must go. If you wish you can contract with us for regular cleaning service." He indicated the end table by the bed. "Our rate card is there and has our com-code."

"Now that," Matt said warmly, "is something I'll definitely look into."

Once the housekeeper was gone Matt unpacked his duffel. First off, the holocube of his neice went on the desk. Next he hauled out his netbook and keyed it on. He set it to scan for the public channels while he unpacked his uniform and other military gear needed to present a proper appearance.

He wasn't due to report in until the next day. I need something to do tonight, he thought, or I'll start brooding again. He was not one to avoid his feelings, but even after a restful leave-en-route he still keep flashing back to a small foot dangling in the vacuum...

He jerked himself up short and hung up his dress uniform in the closet. He decided he'd best find a laundromat and run his dress blouse through the dryer to get the wrinkles out.

The netbook chimed, then woofed like a large dog. Matt looked over at the terminal. Mail? He put his favorite flight gloves in a dresser drawer and crossed over to the netbook. Who was mailing him? He really didn't have a lot of friends.

Matt sighed and shook his head when he saw the e-mail addy. Sam. These e-mails must have been held up in some distribution queue until Matt could log in to a network. He covered his face with his hands for a moment, then dropped them, took a deep breath and released it.

He paused with his hand over the keyboard. Should he delete them or not? He wasn't sure reading them would do much good—surely they were outdated trivia by now.

He slowly drew his hand away. Somehow, he just couldn't do it yet. But he couldn't read them yet, either. His frown cleared as he had an idea.

With a few taps of the keypad he downloaded the emails and then archived them. Someday soon, he reflected, he would be ready to read them—and then decide.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Chapter 1, Part 1: Preventing Chocolate Smears

Mari Saunders tried very hard to hold onto her temper. The new crew chief assigned to her was just so casual about everything. Personnel assured her he knew his job and was consistently rated one of the best. But singing while working? He had to be violating a reg somewhere....

"Allll my exes live in Texas..."

Mari winced again. "If you happen to find the key you're supposed to be singing in, do pick it up, will you?"

But her crew-chief just gave a fat chuckle and kept right on caterwauling. His voice echoed in the immense hanger and other work crews looked up—probably in annoyance, Mari thought. Then Matt paused in his "singing" to look more closely through the access plate. "All right, ma'm, transponder installed. Could you check it, please?"

The diagnostic scan took only seconds, including a positive response from Cen-Com. "It's good, Marty."

"Thank you, ma'm." He positioned the cover plate and secured the quick fasteners with an air tool. Cha-kat. Cha-kat. Cha-kat. Cha-kut. He frowned and used the butt-end of a screwdriver to tap on the fasteners, listening to the sound.

"What's the matter?" Mari asked, intrigued in spite of her irritation.

"Ohhh, one of them didn't sound right goin' in," he replied. "But they sound like they're secure now."

Despite herself Mari was pleased at his caution. Once out of the carrier there was no service station to pull into if something came loose.

But her irritation peaked when Marty settled back into the cranny near her left ventral area and unwrapped a candy bar. One of her smaller servo-arms came up and plucked the candy bar from him while her amplified voice boomed out, "Marty! I told you, no eating."

Marty made a swipe at the servo arm but it moved further away. "Aw, c'mon, lieutenant! It's just an energy bar."

Mari snorted. "And I'm going into battle with chocolate smears on my hull? I have my pride, you know."

Marty tried not to laugh, but couldn't help it. His attempts were strangled whoops. Mari found herself giggling a little. "Oh, all right," she temporized. "Get on deck and I'll give it back to you."

Marty was still chortling when he reached the bottom of the scaffold ladder. "Here—catch!" she told him and the servo arm tossed the candy bar down to him.

Marty neatly snagged it out of midair and bit into it with a satisfying crunch. He surveyed the mecha while chewing. "Hmph," he grunted. "They did good work on you. Can't see any sign of battle damage."

Something in her silence made him look at her sharply. "Am I running my mouth off, ma'm?" His tone was soft, considerate.

Mari shook herself. "No, sergeant, you're not. But it still catches me unawares, so to speak."

Marty nodded. "Have you been counseled about it?"

"As much as I cost?" Her laugh was brittle. "Of course they've put me through counseling."

Marty looked up at her again, his face dark. "I'm thinking of your value as a human being."

"Yes, Marty," she answered quietly. "I've been helped by many people. And I'm ... adapting to it. Coping with it."

Marty nodded. Then he hauled out his phone and flipped it open. "All right," he said with satisfaction. "Now that we've got you cleaned up and ready to go, I want a picture." He backed up to get all of the mecha into the scene.

"Marty!" Her tone was outraged. "You know personal pics are against regs."

"Aw, screw that, ma'm" he rejoined. The camera in his phone made clicking sounds like an old-fashioned shutter. "That's only for cockpit interiors and close-ups of mecha systems and you know it."

Mari fumed in silence while her crewchief snapped away. "There!" he said. "Should make some good wallpapers."

Mari couldn't help it. Servos suddenly whined as she rose up from her crouch. Overhead lights and surrounding work lights gleamed on her painted armor. The huge Tactical Combat System curvetted into a pose like a cheap pin-up, one leg bent, a hip module thrust out and her rear heavy arm curled up behind her head. "You mean like this?"

Nearby maintenance crews whooped and applauded. Marty's eyes bugged out and he almost dropped his phone.


It hurt to open his eyes. He muttered and tried to paw at his stinging eyes, but his gloves scrubbed at his helmet visor.

Gloves ... helmet ... visor.... He was in his battle-suit. He must be in his Droidship—

Matt Channing forced his eyelids open and blinked them clear. Stars burned outside the viewports. He knew their positions: Delcro Sector. The instrument panel was in front of him but skewed at an odd angle. By reflex he cross-checked his instruments. Nav down. Com up. Power A down, Power B down, Back-up Power at 60 percent—what the hell is going on?

The cockpit wasn't skewed, he discovered; he was. He was floating within his shock harness and the whole cabin was oriented to the right and down.

No gravity... They were drifting. Must have been a hell of a fight—Sam!

Sam should have said something by now. Almost in a panic, Matt keyed the com and spoke: "Sam?"

No answer. "Sam? Sam ol' buddy, come on."

Matt winced as the ear buds crackled. "Skinny Minute, this is Bravo Flight; come in. Skinny Minute, do you copy?"

Matt cleared his throat and flipped over to Tac channel. "Yeah, Bravo, this is Skinny Minute. We're dead in the water, I think my Brain is hurt and I don't know about me yet."

"Skinny Minute we are in-bound 83 and up from where you are. ETA is 20 minutes."

"Copy Bravo Flight." Matt began pushing in circuit breakers. Some popped back out, but others stayed in, including some maintenance cameras. Muttering curses, Matt hunted for and found the circuit breakers he wanted. When he pushed them back in a screen lit up beside him. "That's better."

Matt grunted when he reached out for the joystick control; it hurt to move. "Come on, Sam..." he muttered. The camera slewed around, showing hull damage. Matt stopped swearing; it was bad hull damage, right in the middle.

"Aw, no..." he groaned. He switched cameras and brought this one to bear. It had a better angle and Matt could see...

Right into the hull chassis, through shredded and blasted plating and hull trusses. Right into the reinforced housing for Sam's shell. A shell cracked open by a direct hit. Skinny Minute's armor had absorbed most of the impact from the energy weapon, but enough bled through to shatter Sam's housing. A portion had fallen away and a small leg and foot dangled in the vacuum.

Matt had to look away. The leg and foot were like sticks, really. So small and frail.... Matt's eyes burned anew, this time with unshed tears. He was supposed to protect his partner. He was supposed to....

Time was no mercy. The minutes were hours. Matt answered the radio hails with mostly one-word responses. He just drifted. The stars were bright. With the enviro systems out, the cabin grew cold. The chill seeped into his battle-suit. Matt never felt so alone in his life.