A Short Story in The Fundamentals Universe
The female voice announced through ship-wide speakers and personal receivers. The volume of the announcement cut through equipment noise and ear protection like a woman’s scream, but the voice was calm and certain. The piercing-calm intonations made Robert Lanigan jump, but he didn’t move, he didn’t have the time for this nonsense.
As the Santa Maria’s Cost Engineer for the Economic Comptroller his responsibility was to tag and track every component in the Santa Maria’s blockchain. Evacuation meant damage, if he didn’t complete this accounting, then this equipment would be non-existent. Comptroller Central did not accept non-existence or unaccounted value.
Every centimeter of this spaceship was logged into the largest blockchain in human history. The Santa Maria’s twenty-six years of service, (or eighty-four, depending on how you accounted for the space station orbital platform version of her existence) ensured that she was well documented. This new equipment—loaded for the First Expedition Crossing—contributed to her value. Comp Cent required an accounting.
As evacuations go, he was in an enviable place; tagging components in a Sled. Sled was a simple name for a simple structure; a ladder frame dock for up to three Space and Multiple Atmosphere Crafts with independent habitation and propulsion modules in case of an emergency. He had finished with the attached SMACS and propulsion module when the evacuation protocol sounded.
“Shit! Lanigan, are you seeing this? We should go?” Tran’s voice over his helmet’s speakers. They were both wearing the new composite-metal-foam atmosphere suits developed for the FEC.
“We are almost finished, Tran. Once I get the scanner set, it will account for this habitation module in twenty seconds. If this evac damages equipment before we account for it, Comp Cent will have our heads.”
Comptroller Central had insisted he needed extra hands for the FEC mission and sent Kristin Tran as his new apprentice. She was more distraction than help. He smiled and winked at her through the helmet’s visor but couldn’t tell if she noticed. Atmosphere suits muted facial expressions and body language.
“Bobby, we don’t have time, turn on your visor,” Tran said. She used his first name.
Their agreement was professional speech at work. Analytical to a fault, they decided the military, last-name, formality would cool their attraction while on-duty. It hadn’t helped. These tight-fitting atmosphere suits hugged Tran’s petite form, accentuating the deep curve of her lower back and hips. She pulled at him like gravity. Physical attraction was one problem, their need to banter every detail of a sentence was another. Keeping it military, allowed them to accomplish tasks that could have diverged into an encyclopedic investigation of every detail of every task they started. Tran’s use of Bobby indicated something big had happened. Again.
Three and one-half hours ago, an unknow ship ripped itself out of the forward most cargo container, then vanished just as fast, leaving a trail of glowing blue gas in its wake. Automated damage reports reduced the Santa Maria’s value a second after the unknown ship vanished. An alarm in Lanigan’s comptroller kit notified him of the incident, the location, and the suspected loss in value before the reverberations of ripped steal and composites stopped shaking the old spaceship.
Their comptroller kits ordered them to inspect the damage and confirm the losses before starting work in the Sled. Already in atmosphere suits, they had exited this cargo hold directly to space to view the spaceship.
A hole the size of a city block would have destroyed a smaller vessel, but not the Santa Maria. The Santa Maria’s size was her strength. From the outside, she looked like two rectangles joined at one edge to form a reclined L. The executive tower rectangle—at the stern of the ship—was for habitation and propulsion. The barge section—the long arm of the L— was for habitation support and cargo. From where Lanigan and Tran hung on carbon fiber tethers the executive tower was a wash of light, two kilometers behind them, in front of them was what remained of the bow of the cargo section.
“Shit! Look at that,” Tran had said as they got eyes on the hole in the Santa Maria’s side. Shit was the one wear swear word Tran allowed herself. “Are we OK? Can she survive a breach like that?”
“Ship’s fine.” Lanigan said, confident of the Santa Maria’s redundancy and repair drones. “Question is what caused it? Replay video from drones monitoring the forward cargo section. Copy to Tran’s visor,” he said.
A virtual screen flashed against the glass of his visor, video of the incident that damaged the Santa Maria overlaid the ship in front of them.
“Shit,” they said together. A flash of light blew the large cargo hold door away from the ship. It spun like paper in a gale. Then something black filled the vacant doorway and buckled the surrounding walls. The replay didn’t have sound, but Lanigan imagined the scream of metal, rivets popping, and composite structures ripping as a blended-wing craft tore through the hull. Once through breach, the black-as-night spaceship turned toward the stern of the Santa Maria and vanished in a pulse of acceleration that would have reduced a human being to jelly.
“What was that?” Tran said.
“I don’t …”
“It looked like a SMAC, but bigger, and inverted. Do we have SMAC’s that big?”
The ship did remind him of a SMAC, the Space and Multiple Atmosphere Craft they were journaling into the Santa Maria’s blockchain, except her wings folded forward rather than back, giving her the appearance of a predatory bird.
“No, not accounted for,” Lanigan whispered, he ran his work log, making sure that he hadn’t missed something. “No. Nothing like that,” he said with a little more confidence. If he was supposed to account for that ship Comp Cent had not ordered it, logged it, or mentioned it in passing.
“What now?” Tran asked.
“We do our jobs,” he nodded in the direction of the breach, “No break this morning.”
“Should we tell someone, inform the captain?”
“They know. Drones are already collecting debris. The tower is doing their job, now we do ours.”
Tran fired jets on her suit, started for the breach. “Race you,” she said.
The damaged section accounted for billions of value markers, putting them two hours behind schedule. While the total loss was less than a tenth of the Santa Maria’s total, the number staggered Lanigan.
“Glad I am not paying for that,” he said to Tran as they re-entered the cargo bay with the un-journaled Sled. “Even Captain Smart’s career can’t survive a loss like that.”
“I concur,” Tran said. She opened the airlock on a SMAC attached to the Sled. “Shall we return to our regularly assigned duties?”
“After you,” he motioned to the open airlock for Tran to go ahead of him. She wiggled her ass like a bunny as she vanished through the lock. Lanigan coughed away his passion and followed her.
Schedule and growing passion urged them through their accounting of the SMACs. After positioning the kits, they extended the scanning rods and punched in their passcodes. The comptroller kit scanned new the equipment quicker than it accounted for losses. Tran ran her fingers along the shaft of the scanning rod extending from her kit.
“You’re killing me,” Lanigan said.
“Your suit’s heath monitor implies the need for robust physical activity,” she teased back.
When the kit’s chimed a completion, Lanigan checked his Comp Cent monitor for their production rate. Comp Cent calculated the production rate for every Explorer Corporation employee. His score was nearing zero. A zero-production rate meant termination, or reassignment. Now, another emergency, another delay that the performance calculation ignored. He tapped his helmet to activate a virtual screen. He coughed from catching a swallow in the wrong pipe.
“Lanigan, you OK?”
“Yea. Swallowed wrong. What the hell is that?” He said, trying to cover his mouth. His fist bounced off the atmosphere suit’s protective visor instead.
A fire consumed the ship. Fire in space behaved differently depending on gravity, atmosphere, and fuel. It never behaved like fire on Earth. The fire that burned the Santa Maria looked like fire on Earth. It billowed black and white smoke that stretched up, or at least away, from the ship. Tongues of orange and black flame whipped around as if caught in a strong wind, but when they stretched away from the ship they didn’t extinguish from lack of atmosphere, they bent in, clawed downward like hands to grab the Santa Maria’s hull. It looked as though the fire was eating the Santa Maria like a snake swallowing a kill.
“Shit,” she really liked that word. “No time, Lanigan. We have got to get out of here.”
“Twenty seconds,” he said. “Twenty seconds is all the scanner needs to finish this room.” The scanner looked for the low-frequency emission tags of the room’s components, it could account for every computer, every chip, every wire, everything in the room in under a minute, they had time to avoid Comp Cent’s wrath at an unfinished accounting and a zero performance rating.
He opened his kit, extended the sensing rod then keyed his passcode. His atmosphere suit’s fat fingers bumbled the code. The module flashed a warning across the virtual screen of the Santa Maria’s inferno. Behind the warning, a long finger of fire wrapped on itself in the black of space, then pierced the hull of the ship. An evac pod shot past the tongue of flame. Whoever was in that pod had missed death by a fraction of a second.
The Sled shook. Lanigan wiped his hand in the air to push the virtual screen coming from his helmet to one side; it auto enlarged against the wall.
Lanigan took a deep breath. Shit had gone from annoying to appropiate. His heart beat against the shell of his atmosphere suit. He took a breath and punched his passcode again.
“Got it in two,” he said.
“Bobby, we have to leave!” Tran’s voice broke with the plea.
She might have been crying, he couldn’t tell through the visors. She had pulled up a second virtual screen with a view of the Sled they occupied. The forward hull of the Sled’s cargo container glowed orange. They had to escape, but the scanner chimed and a white light at the top of the scanning rod indicated a scan in progress. Moving the kit would cancel the scan and they would have to start again.
“Come on twenty seconds is all we need,” he said through gritted teeth. He had to be confident, for Tran.
On the virtual screen, the wall of the cargo container blew inward. Composites bounced off the Sled’s superstructure then whirled like firecrackers around the enclosed space.
“Now,” Tran screamed. She was out the door, leaving him behind. He tried to ignore the virtual screens, focus on the scanner’s progress light, but watching his death approach fascinated him.
The fire that ripped open the cargo container’s wall didn’t explode into the room. It paused, as if it were taking a breath, then tongues of flame reached around the edges of the breach. They looked like arms of an octopus, exploring a new space. One long arm of flame licked along the wall with the cargo container’s evac pods. They exploded like ripe fruit.
“Kris, head for a SMAC,” he yelled, “The evac pods are gone.”
“Got it,” she panted at him. “No pods. A SMAC is better.”
The scanners white progress light blinked.
“Scan complete,” a female voice chimed.
He slapped the scanning rod into the kit, slammed the case shut, made a motion that put the virtual screens in front of him, then pushed off for the Sled’s exit. As his momentum carried him through the habitation pod, the screens shrank to stamp sized views on either side of his vision.
Tran waited inside the airlock of a SMAC. She stretched a hand to grab his. He reached forward, their fingertips touched. A ball of flame fell—yes, he saw that right—fell through a zero gravity, atmosphere free, chamber to land on the SMAC above them. The front of the ship exploded. Glass and steel clanged against the Sled’s hull.
“Shit!” Kris Tran vanished into a wall of flame.
“Kris!” Nothing could save her. A metal shield covered the airlock, lights turned orange, then red. “Acceleration warning,” a calm voice said over the module’s speakers. He grabbed a hand rail as explosive bolts fired, but the module was already moving, so he anchored his boots against one handrail, stretched his free hand out for another. The module rocketed away from the Sled through a pale-yellow cloud. He felt crucified against the wall, acceleration holding him there like glue.
A minute later he was floating free in zero-gravity. His muscles hurt from tensing them against G-Lock, but he was alive. Kris was gone, dead because he insisted on finishing the job. Out of habit he checked Comp Cent’s production monitor; zero.
His body shook as if he were freezing. Sweat ran down his face. Maybe Kris escaped. The module shot through the flames unharmed. She used her suit’s jets to escape. She was a master in an atmosphere suit. She had to be alive.
He pushed off the metal plate covering the airlock for the module’s windows. The module rocked on its axis like a boat in a storm, but the Santa Maria held level in the window of the module.
The module’s ejection sequence had worked perfectly. He was clear of the doomed ship. Ejection pods dotted the space around him; each one blinking emergency beacons. Engine plumes created faint trails from the stern of the ship. Shuttles and SMACS carrying crew and passengers to safety.
The habitation modules bouncing made it difficult to trace his trajectory away from the destruction, but it didn’t matter. The cargo containers at the bow of the ship were gone, a third of the cargo section has vanished in flame. If something didn’t change soon, the Santa Maria would be nothing but a cloud of gas before the jets of his escape had cooled.
“Kris. I am …” He couldn’t finish. Snot and spit showered the inside of his visor. Careless, he ripped the helmet off and with a deep breath of the module’s fresh air he howled.
“Accountants don’t cry, that’s what clients are for.” Kris had said that when she reported to him a month ago. Explorer Corporation reassigned her from a lucrative position in Bengaluru.
“Your going to cry when you see your salary,” he said.
“I couldn’t be happier,” she said, tossing her long black hair over one shoulder. “I registered for a position on the Santa Maria when I was in high school.”
“So now I have an idiom working with me,” he said.
“Better an idiom than an idiot,” she laughed; white teeth and rose lips, light reflecting off the black of her thick hair. “Besides, accounts don’t cry, that’s what clients are for.”
That moment smote him, took his heart, his loins, and his breath away. They spent that afternoon and evening using as many idioms as possible to explain her duties as a Cost Engineer aboard humanity’s largest spaceship.
Comp Cent was meticulous at tracking your production, so she would have to keep her ducks in a row. As the only Cost Engineers on a ship this size they did not have time to cry in beer or over spilt milk; you had to be ready to nip something in the bud before it grew out of hand.
When Comp Cent asked something out of the ordinary, the expectation was to shut your face, get up to speed in a moment’s notice, and remember that you were just another cog in the wheel.
They were so engaged in their conversations that the need to urinate, created ants in their pants, a condition that somehow became playing hard to get, to making alternative sleeping arrangements, to falling in love.
His scream exhausted, his throat sore, and his voice hoarse, Lanigan studied what remained of the Santa Maria. The barge section was a ball of boiling flame. The executive tower was gone. If the fire had consumed it, he couldn’t tell.
“What’s done is done.”
The module rocked as if it were on choppy water.
“One of the jets isn’t firing right,” He said to no one. “Give me an exterior view.”
Nothing happened. He pressed his face against the module’s window, trying to look along the edge of the structure. He couldn’t see much. Something bright caught his eye to his left, then vanished. The module rocked up, then down, and he saw the bright flash again.
“Yea, that jet is bad.”
He touched a black panel that formed a shelf under the window. A virtual screen with the words Command Station appeared in front of the window, a keyboard and a set of controls lit up the dark panel.
He typed, exterior view of module, at the prompt.
Five seconds later the module’s inspection drone hovered over the structure. A second virtual screen streamed the drone’s view.
The structure had six hydrazine jets, three along each edge of what was now the rear of a cubed spaceship. Five of the jets fired normally, expelling a steady blue stream that gently pushed the module away from the Santa Maria. The sixth, the top jet on the left edge, glowed orange for a few seconds, then blue. A yellow wisp of flame darted in then out of the propulsion stream, causing the difference in color.
Shut down propulsion, he typed at the command station prompt.
The jets stopped, the module steadied, but the yellow wisp remained, dancing, shaking itself as if it were confused. Then it settled on the hull, bouncing gently as if blown by air.
Lanigan bumped his head against the ceiling. What was he looking at?
As crew on the Santa Maria he had seen amazing things. He had watched a dust storm consume the whole of Mars while the Santa Maria sat in orbit. He had dipped through the rings of Saturn in a pleasure craft meant for the purpose, and he was one of the two-hundred to see Neptune and Pluto in person. This wisp of flame was new.
A screech from the module’s speakers rattled his eardrums.
“Volume down,” he yelled over it.
Set volume to one, he typed at the command station.
The screech became a scratch.
Diagnose speaker malfunction. The command took audio off line while it ran, the noise stopped, then the feed from the inspection drone dropped out; the virtual screen shrank to a dot of light that vanished like a black hole. A ping echoed from the inspection drone landing on the hull. The lights went out.
“Command Station,” a female said. “Voice control is now active.”
“Hey,” Lanigan said. “Two for one.”
“Call Santa Maria operations.”
“Operations is unavailable,” an alarmingly quick response. Lanigan was familiar enough with the systems to know that meant the executive tower was either out of range or destroyed. He terminated the virtual screens for another look out the module’s small window.
Nothing remained of the Santa Maria but a glowing ball of expanding gas. Around the edges of the nebula yellow flames danced themselves to death. Balls of fire spun together, then apart like a couple engaged in a tango. With each joining the flames became smaller, less avid in their approach of another. Then, with the suddenness of a light switching off, all the flames vanished, leaving a starfield smudged by the fading gas.
He felt alone, and cold. He had to know if the executive tower survived. Communications between his habitation module-cum-escape pod might be limited, but the link between the Santa Maria and Comp Central was as good as hard-wired.
He slid a palm over the edge of his comptroller kit case to identify himself. A facial scan confirmed his identity, then the black cover slid away revealing the kit’s control panel. He didn’t need the scanning rod, so he removed it to ease access to the kit’s small keyboard. He typed, Status. All Santa Maria systems.
A hundred-and-eighty-degree virtual screen enveloped him. He preferred this configuration over several smaller ones. Gauges and bar charts filled the screen. The Santa Maria as only a Cost Engineer could appreciate her.
He scanned the dark or zeroed gauges first. The Sleds meant for the First Expedition Crossing were dark, destroyed. The emergency habitations stored at the fore and midway point of the barge section were also dark. Cargo and habitation support were orange with alerts seeking confirmation. He confirmed them destroyed, and they went dark as well.
“On the brighter side,” the subsystems that kept the Santa Maria and her crew alive were at one-hundred percent of their allocated capacity. Habitation, propulsion, guest accommodations were all green. The executive tower’s systems were communicating with Comp Cent, she was still in one piece. Lanigan was not alone, all he had to do was wait for rescue.
“I am OK.” A staccato across the habitation module’s speakers. The statement repeated in the adjoining san and galley.
“What was that?” The same voice repeated in a round reverbing between the habitation’s rooms.
“Reply. I don’t know. Who is this?” Lanigan said to the air.
“Communication channel unavailable,” the computer’s female voice said.
He should be able to reply. Absent the executive tower and the Santa Maria’s primary systems, the escape pods, habitation modules, shuttles, and SMACS in the area should create a distributed network.
“Bobby is that you?”
“Kris! You’re alive. I knew it. With these new suits, CMF and all. When the module went through the flames untouched, I hoped. …”
“Kris Tran is offline,” the cold voice stopped him.
“No. That’s not possible. She just spoke to me.”
He floated through the big virtual screen for the Command Center keyboard.
Communication Status, he typed.
“Communication array in distributed mode,” came the calm response.
“Perfect.” He tapped the Com’s button on the control panel. A directory appeared in a new window. He scrolled to Tran’s name. Punched it. “Kris, it’s Bobby.”
“Kris Tran is offline,” the voice chilled him.
“Not possible, she just spoke to me,” he could hardly speak over the tightness in his chest.
The soft rumble of the module’s jets broke his chill. The module turned, rotating on its axis like a top.
“Stop,” Lanigan said.
The jets fired. The module’s spin pulled him against the wall.
“Stop acceleration,” he said.
The low hum of hydrazine jets answered. He pushed the Command Station screen aside. Tapped the console, to summon a navigation screen. The screen reported the entire navigation system was offline.
He activated it. A white grid filled the screen. A yellow triangle represented his ship, spinning, but according to the status below the grid, the jets were cold.
He tapped them on, felt a shudder through the module’s frame as the jets fired. The module stopped spinning putting it on a trajectory toward the fading nebula of the Santa Maria’s destruction. A long scream pierced his ears.
He tapped the jets off. Silence.
The module vibrated with a bass note. An explosion, the shock wave came from beneath him.
“Fuel expended,” the computer reported.
Lanigan laughed. A chuckle from the tightness in his chest. “Fixed it.”
A scream like a tea kettle boiling over filled the module.
“Breach. Breach.” the computer announced. “Atmosphere suits required.”
The loud ringing of air escaping through a small hole hallowed out, became a resonate note. The breach was growing.
“Smoke. Now.” Lanigan yelled. He pulled on the helmet from his atmosphere suit. It pressurized. Recognizing its only occupant as suited, the computer stopped its warning.
Smoke streamed from emitters in the corners of the habitation module. The streams didn’t have a chance to settle, they raced toward the back, toward the covered airlock, then vanished behind the airlock’s new cover.
Thump, like a trunk closing, the hum of air stopped, and smoke settled like fog.
“Breach sealed,” the computer announced.
The metal plate covering the airlock blasted off, straight at Lanigan. He covered his face with his arms. The plate bounced off his left arm and up into the glass window where it stuck like a thrown knife. Foam filled the cracks in the window before air could escape.
A yellow flame, the size of his hand, hovered in the new opening. It bounced, as if to a beat, then with a motion that looked like water in a turned bottle advanced toward Lanigan.
“Shit,” he said. “What the hell are you?”
The hand of flame rolled and danced its way toward him, moving through the gravity free environment without pushing off a solid surface for momentum. It stopped in front of his visor. Three dark circles formed in the fireball, a grizzly face in the flame.
“Bobby,” the staccato voice over the speakers.
Lanigan fired his suit jets to put distance between him and the ball of flame. He hit a wall, bounced down to land on his feet against a sleeping cot.
“I am OK,” the voice echoed around the module’s speakers, moving from one section to the next like a ghost. “Bobby?”
He wiggled the fingers of one hand in front of his face. The ball-face flattened, four fingers of flame sprouted from the plane of fire and danced.
He reached toward the flame. The flame coalesced—a teardrop of fire hanging in the air—then shook in warning. When his gloved hand was close enough to feel the flame’s heat, the flame darted up, out of reach.
“I won’t hurt you,” he said. “I want to know how hot you are. You destroyed our ship.”
“No!” The scream was loud enough to rattle the speakers. “The shells hurt us, hurt you.”
The flame became orange, then struck the wall, where it flattened, spread itself out like a film and turned black.
Lanigan grabbed a hand rail, expecting the wall to explode and decompression to expel him from the ship. Nothing happened. He held his breath. Everything that fire touched exploded, grew into an inferno of more fire, but nothing happened.
Lanigan waited for his death, holding the handrail as if it could save him. A long minute passed, then the flame regrouped itself and danced in the air as if nothing was wrong.
The module shuddered with contact of another ship. Someone was docking with the module. Rescue. He ignored his new flame friend to activate airlock controls. He watched the statuses expectantly. The outer door opened, the outer door closed, then the inner opened.
“Mr. Lanigan, I presume.” Allister Monk stood in the airlocks frame.
“Mr. Monk. Thank you. I was worried you had left us behind.”
“I assure you Mr. Lanigan that is not the case. Once the executive tower evacuation was complete, the Captain accelerated her away from the barge section with enough force to render the bridge crew unconscious. She is safe and returning to collect us. Are you OK?”
“Good news,” Lanigan said with some relief. “No. I am OK …”
“From the looks of this module, you are lucky to be alive,” Alister pointed to the metal plate in the window. “Was that an emergency patch job?”
“No, that flame thing caused that,” Lanigan motioned to where the dancing flame had been a second ago.
“Flame thing?” Allister said.
Lanigan considered his next words. He decided to forget the last thirty minutes.
“Nothing,” he waved a hand in front of his face. “I will collect my kit, and you can get me out of here before anything else goes wrong.”
“Very good, Mr. Lanigan.” Allister Monk returned to the airlock.
Bobby Lanigan crawled back to his kit. The virtual screens were off, so he closed it without looking inside. As he approached the airlock, he scanned the habitation module for the wisp of flame.
“We will salvage the module,” he said to Allister as he entered the airlock.
“No,” Allister said. “This mission is a total loss I am afraid. You will have some work to do, accounting for it.”
“I expect I will.”
The airlock cycled for the attached SMAC which collected twenty refugees from various escape pod and habitation chambers before the executive tower returned to claim them.
Inside Bobby Lanigan’s Comptroller Kit, a yellow flame danced.