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.