CREVjack

(first published in Difficult Second Album: more stories of Xenobiology, Space Elevators, and Bats Out Of Hell, Peggy Bright Books 2014)

***

“Suit’s overheating.” Lex’s voice, low, laboured, rattling in her earpiece.

Probably not so much the suit, love, Teresa Maria commented to herself, as she shepherded them through the unfamiliar, false-coloured nightscape revealed by their helmets. Boots crunched, step after step, along the tacky edge of the newly-gouged trench: a dirty-ice surface, like much of Titan’s terrain hereabouts, but at least the freshly-scraped ice made for reasonably sure footing, and for steady, stealthy progress towards their goal.

It made sense, though, that the problems would start with Lex. Of the four, Lex was the most sedentary, the least fit, least able to shrug off the fact that Dayani’s improvised nightsuits more than doubled their mass. A little more time training in an X-suit, you wouldn’t be sweating as much now. “Take a shot. And, hon, cut the chatter.” But it had been difficult for Teresa Maria, when Dayani and the kid had first brought the idea to her, to see how she could be involved, and not include Lex. The impulse had been, all through the past year, to include him in everything she did. And she did, very much, enjoy his company, his companionship: he was easy to be around, attentive, kind-hearted. She’d often told him he brought out the best in her.

Yet for present purposes, Lex’s presence could well turn into liability. If they hadn’t needed his flyer …

“But if the comms are secure—” Cory cut in on Teresa Maria’s reverie. His voice was higher-pitched than Lex’s, more reedy.

Cory’s problem, she predicted, would not be fatigue: it would be nervousness. Well, she doubted that any of them were immune to that at the moment. And you should know not to trust the comms, kid. “Still no sense risking it. Halt.”

How much further, to the warm thing?

Teresa Maria needed to take a shot herself. She paused, turned, and lifted her right arm. It took a split second for the grainy imagery, playing on the screen of her nightsuit’s visor, to catch up with the change in her motion: a disorienting distraction. She was acutely conscious of the sound of her breathing, her heartbeat, the rustle of the suit’s not-especially-supple layers, all of it loud and confining in her ears. Frequency-multiplied in her helmet’s heads-up display, the trench’s scraped-ice floor glowed a pale and sickly orange where it was warmest, fading elsewhere to dull crimson, then ruddy brown; the rest of the vista, the low hills on the eastern horizon and the more pronounced peaks to the south, were visible only in ghostly silhouette against the yet colder sky. The suits of her three companions were mere silhouettes also, only discernible as ill-defined intrusions on the skyline: bulked-up, balloonish caricatures of the human form. One hundred and eighty-seven below, and we don’t show against the terrain. Not even the visors. Dayani’s done well with the suits.

Teresa Maria aimed—as best she could—back down the trench, well away from the uncertain shapes of the other three. She felt the servos whine in her sleeve, nudging her arm to alignment with an arbitrarily-chosen point just below the horizon. Target acquired, her visor advised. She screwed her eyes shut and gave her sleeve’s laser the command for the cooling shot.

“Were we expecting company?” Dayani asked.

Teresa Maria blinked her eyes open and glanced around, her arm and side still stinging with the sudden cold, then noticed that Dayani was watching the sky. She looked up. It took a couple of seconds before she saw it. Shit. Atop everything else, her promise to her long-dead younger sister rammed home, hard. “We’ve still got time,” she said to the others, though she feared they didn’t. “Move it.”

Things had been good, in Ponnamperuna. They were no longer good.

The elevator, though not yet an actuality, had changed the world’s financial topography. Ponnamperuna had been well-situated on the northwestern skirts of Xanadu, a convenient home for the brineminers, the muckminers and the carbon-foundry workers, the designers, technicians, culturefarmers and cryonists whose products had found ready export to the bustling arcologies of Kuiper, some three thousand klicks to the southwest, or southeast to the aerospace factories and launch facilities of Woltjer. Ponnamperuna made sense, on a world where produce was hurled above the thick atmosphere by means of railgun-boosted chemical rocketry; but that world was fading, as the promise of the elevator brightened like an incandescent thread. In the tomorrow of the elevator, Sagan would hold sway, and all of the heavy industries were already rushing to relocate, seeking prime position close to the skyward column. Around Ponnamperuna, there were few left but the culturefarmers, and who—other than a small number of stubborn designers, some artisan types, and the settlement’s residual elderly—would the culturefarmers feed? Prices were kept fixed, even while incomes were in freefall. It was a scenario playing out all over Titan’s far side, but from what Teresa Maria had heard, Ponnamperuna had it worse than most.

It looked set to get worse yet, too. Teresa Maria and her friends had stuck it out too long in Ponnamperuna. Waiting for a regional resurgence that, it was now evident, was never going to occur; they had left it too late to be able to afford relocation.

If they wanted luck, they’d need to make it for themselves.

She had doubted the kid’s self-vaunted ability to pull off the flightsystems hack, but that wasn’t the problem. Cory had coaxed the bird down, sweet as could be.

She’d had concerns, too, about being able to spot the CREV within the kilometres-broad expanse of the improvised drop zone; but that wasn’t the problem, either. The Cargo Re-Entry Vehicle had gouged a long, straight furrow across the crud-caked, wind-sculpted ice, the scar still warm in infra-red. The CREV’s landing skids hadn’t deployed, of course—there were limits to Cory’s wizardry—but Teresa Maria thought it unlikely that the husk of the vehicle had been damaged beyond repair. And its contents should be impervious, or close enough.

No, the problem—and she didn’t yet know how much of a problem it might be, because a lot depended on whether it was legit, or otherwise—was the dirigible. Stealthed, it still had enough of an IR signature for rangefinding. It was still about five klicks away from the CREV, heading unmistakeably towards it, and moving faster than she’d first thought.

We should have had more time to plan, to rehearse, she told herself, crimping the nightsuit’s water nipple between her teeth, sucking in a shot’s worth of blood-warm water, and swallowing. But the schedule was what the schedule was. It was now, or not at all.

She scaled a small hump—something in the trench’s substratum which had refused, a half hour ago, to yield to the CREV’s careening bulk—and was rewarded with a glimpse of their prize. Not just the glow of it, but the actual straight-sided block of it embedded in a mucky-ice drift of its own making, not two hundred metres ahead of them now. Still several minutes’ walk, in their cumbersome suits.

So close. But they’d left their camo-tarped flyer almost two klicks behind them, so as not to show up on any milsat monitoring of the impact site, while they’d waited for CREVfall. And with the blimp closing …

Lex’s voice cut into her thoughts. “Treem, this looks like more than we’d bargained for. Shouldn’t we abort?” he asked.

And give up our best shot at bankrolling the shift to Sagan? Lex, we need this, you and I. But she knew full well he had a point. And it was natural that the others would be looking to her for guidance here. She was the one with security exp, marksmanship credentials, and the ruthlessness to act when action was crucial; they were just workers: miners, technicians. Out of chances, taking a desperate risk.

She was damned if she’d just let the dirigible’s occupants scare them off the prize: their prize, Cory’s, Lex’s, Dayani’s. Hers. But there was obviously a place for prudence too, and a need to protect those who were relying on her. And to honour her promise to Ramona. “We split up,” she said, and paused to take a sip. “Dayani, you’re with me. Lex, you and Cory head back to the flyer. If you can get it to the CREV before that blimp reaches it, fine. But no heroics otherwise—stay safe, stay hidden, wait it out.”

“But you’ll be—” said Lex.

“We’ve got the suits,” Teresa Maria replied, reining in her crowd-control voice with some difficulty. “We’ll be fine. The blimp’s after the CREV, not us. Probably don’t even know we’re here, and I aim to keep it that way.”

“Why Dayani?” Cory asked, an accent of resentment in his tone. “You’ll still need to crack the CREV’s casing, you’ll need me for that.”

What I need, kid, is to keep you out of harm’s way. But, of course, to admit that would be an invitation to open rebelliousness. “We’ve got your codes already. And Dayani knows the suits,” she said. “If it comes to a firefight—”

“Firefight?” Lex asked. “You say ‘stay safe’, and now you’re talking firefight?”

“I’m still saying stay safe, hon. I’m just thinking if push comes to shove—but we don’t have time to waste. You guys need to get back, or this won’t fly.” Please, love, don’t fight me on this. I don’t want to lose either of you. And, frankly, I don’t need the distraction. “No heroics, remember? Let the suits do what they’re best at. Day, you up for this?”

“Point me at them,” Dayani replied, her voice a little too enthusiastic for Teresa Maria’s comfort.

***

The nightsuits, Dayani’s handiwork, were a bit of a kludge. All up, they were heavier and far bulkier than a standard T-suit. But whereas a T-suit would leak sufficient warmth to glow like a ghost in infra-red—worst was the visor—the makeshift nightsuits, overengineered with internal refrigeration, did not. It wasn’t mil quality, but it wasn’t far off, either. In the darkness of a farside Titan night, Teresa Maria was as good as invisible.

She was heating up again, an inevitable result of the heat pumps’ shepherding of body warmth away from the suit’s outer surface. Another millisecond pulse from the cooling UV-A laser would relieve the discomfort, would give her sweat glands respite, but she deferred. Her unease at the approaching dirigible, less than two klicks now, persuaded her to hold fire, for the moment.

Were they mil, or pol, or pharmhands up there? The law, in one form or another, would perhaps not be so bad—it’d be difficult to make off with any of the CREV’s valuable cargo of asteroidal ore, but she and Dayani should be able to beat a tactical retreat, if all else failed. They’d lose the opportunity for profit, but they’d live. But if it was pharmhands …

“You got it yet?” she asked Dayani, the other crouching like a swollen caricature in front of the CREV’s containment release panel.

“Give me another two,” Dayani said. “The gloves aren’t so brilliant for this.”

“Day, I don’t think we have another two. Blimp’s closing.”

But it wasn’t dropping towards a landing, which puzzled her … until she noticed three smaller objects, dark, hard-edged, falling from the craft’s gondola.

They’re rappelling, she realised.

And the dirigible was still too far back from the CREV for a troop-drop to make sense. Unless, of course, they had detected the flyer’s concealing night-tarp …

As if on cue, an IR-bright searchlight on the gondola’s underside—a heat lamp, designed to shine up objects in its path—bloomed into harsh existence, highlighting the rappellers’ descent.

Teresa Maria, watching from the helplessness of distance, felt the anguish solidify within her. Please, she entreated. No heroics.

“Got it,” said Dayani, the tone of accomplishment evident as she lifted the panel aside. “You gonna help me load the pallet?”

“Day,” replied Teresa Maria, keeping her eyes on the approaching heat lamp, “we need to go.”

“One minute,” insisted Dayani, starting to lean into the CREV’s interior as the area around her brightened gradually. “Then I’ll be right wi—”

There was a jolt, and a low-pitched thud that was loud even through Teresa Maria’s suit’s insulation. Then something solid struck her suit sleeve, and she jerked away even before she realised it was part of Dayani.

***

Heart pounding, skin burning, brow crawling with sweat, she risked another glimpse over the bank of rock-hard ice. Clear.

At least the terrain didn’t present too many difficulties. Cory had brought the CREV down in a region almost free of ice-boulders and other rubble, though there was a fair smattering of low, wind-sculpted hillocks ranging in height from three to ten metres. Teresa Maria was glad of the hillocks, of the opportunity to stay concealed. If we’d chosen a flatter landing site for the CREV, I’d be dead now.

She’d put fifty metres or so between herself and the CREV; between herself and the four additional intruders who had been the dirigible’s second wave of rappellers. There was no chance now of salvaging anything from the craft. Her focus had to be on getting back to the flyer, and hoping Lex and Cory had not met the fate which had befallen Dayani. At least it was quick.

Problem was, those fifty metres were in exactly the wrong direction. She could cut across the still-cooling trench, risking detection as a dark, cold silhouette against the warmer terrain. Otherwise, she’d need to make a wide berth around the CREV, and the plundering pharmhands, at the trench’s terminus.

Quickest is best, Teresa Maria told herself, her cheeks and chest aflame. With luck, their attention will be elsewhere.

But they’d never believe Dayani had been out here alone. They’d be looking for her; and, while the suit was IR-stealthed, it wasn’t exactly camo’d: it would still show in visible. Nor could she be sure that it would withstand the heating effect of the blimp’s searchlight beam, holding station above the CREV. She needed to stay well out of that beam.

Four against one. Plus however many there are still on the blimp—call it another half-dozen, maybe—plus the three back towards the flyer. And they’re armed with explosive projectiles … while what do I have?

Body heat.

Concentration was already difficult, her head throbbing with suit-induced fever. She’d need to take a shot, very soon, else the suit would just keep pushing her heat back towards her, to the point of heat-stroke. But the cooling laser’s pulse, or more properly its bright afterglow, might as well advertise her presence in neon light. Even if she aimed it at the ground, there’d still be reflections.

The technology that was keeping her concealed, by hoarding her heat, was going to kill her; unless she did something about it.

May as well make it count. She dialled the pulse energy to maximum, crimped the pulse duration down to as few picoseconds as the suit’s controls would allow, and took careful aim at the dirigible’s searchlight. Target acquired. Closed her eyes tight, on the HUD’s half-second warning.

The adapted mining laser in her sleeve did its thing.

The laser’s UV-A pulse, in the high-terawatt range, was itself perfectly invisible. But there was still a flash, even through closed lids: a flightpath aurora, carving a brief beam between laser and target. Then the chill, as the laser’s discharge took its thermal toll on her arm. She opened her eyes. There was a satisfying burst of light from the gondola’s underside, and then the landscape darkened substantially. She’d overloaded their lamp. After a few more seconds, her arm stung with cold so severe she worried, for a moment, that she would pass out …

… but at least, she thought while she strove to pump some warmth back into her arm, the searchlight’s failure would give the pharmhands something else to think about.

Heat and chill at war within her body, she risked the ungainly lope across the trench, openly panting in fear, waiting every second for the life-ending thud of an explosive projectile into her suit.

***

She’d made good time. But she didn’t dare hope yet. There was still a klick or so to go, and her luck couldn’t hold indefinitely.

It didn’t. Topping the ridge, once again hot from her exertions, she saw the figure—T-suit, gun, not one of us—an instant before it apparently ‘saw’ her, a vague silhouette against the sky. She dropped and rolled instinctively, sought as quickly as possible to get to low ground, away from the traitorous sky. She scrabbled five or six metres away from the spot, before a belated concern at the noise of her movement, and the questionable abrasion-resistance of Dayani’s makeshift engineering, pulled her up to a panicked, heart-thumping halt. Still prone, she lifted her gaze from the tholin-crusted ice beneath her. The T-suited figure, some thirty metres distant, glowed blue and green in her visor’s false-colour display. It was still staring back and aiming in the general direction of where she’d been; not where she was now. Thank fuck they’re using thermal vision, she thought. If they were using visible-range, I’d be screwed.

There was a bloom of light, somewhere just over the horizon. In the direction of the flyer.

Ramona will never forgive me, if …

But her sister was dead, had been for almost a decade. As dead, now, as Dayani, though there’d been nothing quick about the cancer’s assault on Ramona’s defences …

There’s been enough death today. Though even as she told herself this, she knew it wasn’t true. Where there was a gun, there would be death.

Was she hot enough yet?

Only one way to find out. She lifted her arm, sighted towards the T-suit’s visor.

Blink. Flash. Chill.

Through tears of pain, she watched as the nameless pharmhand flailed—blinded, probably burned, faceplate neatly pierced—and crumpled, knees bending, arms still thrashing as it twisted and pitched backwards toward the ground.

***

She felt sickened, physically nauseated as well as disgusted with herself. There’d been enough of his face left to indicate that the kid in the T-suit had probably not even been Cory’s age.

But at least now she had a gun.

What was it they called it? ‘Packing heat’?

Running, panting, all thought of stealth now past, she tried to put the pharmhand’s face out of her mind. Frequency-multiplied imagery bounced confusingly on the visor’s viewscreen, out of synch with the now of the terrain. Lactic acid stung in her shins and thighs.

She strained to get more speed out of the sluggardly nightsuit, aware that any stumble, even in Titan’s one-sixth-g and with all the suit’s high-tech padding, would likely be fatal. She was well aware, too, of the target she must present, plainly cameo’d against the night sky, if another pharmhand happened to peer over the ridge ahead, or around that knoll. But she’d been spooked by that nimbus of light she’d glimpsed a few minutes earlier. She had to get to the flyer, to check whether Cory and Lex were in danger.

Topping the ridge, she took in several things quickly. Eighty metres away, the flyer’s skeletal frame was exposed, its night-tarp strewn on the ground beside it. A T-suited figure lay motionless near the flyer; a nightsuited shape, stealth mode apparently failed, sat slumped against the flyer’s left rear skid. And a fight was in progress, as the remaining pharmhand grappled with a nearly-invisible opponent. Cory. Her blood raced, her duty burned, and almost without thinking she raised the gun, aimed, and fired at the pharmhand.

The gun didn’t co-operate.

Neither, a few moments later, did the laser in her suit’s sleeve.

Are you fucking kidding me? she thought, dropping the gun and starting to run—impeded, as always, by the suit—towards the melee. But she had only covered half the distance when the T-suiter pushed the other face-forward to the ground, planted a boot on his back, and bent down to activate the emergency-release clasp on the nightsuit’s air supply. Teresa Maria, still closing, watched in horror as the pharmhand held aloft the precious module, ripping its connection hose off, while Cory squirmed on the ground.

Peripheral vision wasn’t brilliant in a T-suit. The suit’s occupant noticed Teresa Maria’s approach far too late, started to turn.

Momentum carried Teresa Maria into the T-suit, hard. Her right arm, raised as if to shield her chest, slammed across the pharmhand’s visor as they connected. The visor shattered, the T-suited woman fell back, her face a barely-glimpsed mask of instant terror. Teresa Maria dodged the unseeing, desperate grasp of gloved hands, steadied her balance, then turned to pick up the ruined oxygen-supply module.

Useless. She threw it aside.

At her feet, Cory still twitched.

Visual, she whispered to her suit. Stealth off. Lights. Her headlamps activated. The world suddenly drained of false colour.

Cory’s movements on the ground filled her with dread. She turned away, the breath loud in her ears, sharp in her throat.

The spasming pharmhand’s T-suit was a Hainan model, off-the-shelf; but the nightsuits were kludged, their fittings non-standard. The Hainan’s tanks wouldn’t fit. Her nephew would die.

Bile soured her mouth. She felt weak, dizzy. But there was no opportunity to pause. She fumbled, futilely, feverstruck, around the sides, lower back, and shoulders of her own suit, finding nothing useful to grip onto. No time. No time!

Heart hammering, adrenaline clamouring do something, anything, she raced to the flyer, to where Lex lay supported by the skid’s strut. She’d thought him dead, too. But though there was a nasty breach visible below the suit’s left knee, he stirred as she approached. The suit’s auto-tourniquet function must have done its job, for once. Her breath caught, and tears pricked at the corners of her eyes. Damn.

My love. Oh, my love.

She was riven. She wanted so badly to pull Lex to his feet, to lose herself in those arms again, to feel that so-right embrace. But she couldn’t do that. No time.

“Treem,” he croaked, his voice thick. Barely lucid. (And her choice was made.) “Am I glad to see—”

Don’t be, she thought, pulling him roughly off the strut because there was no time for anything more gentle. She twisted him over, reached for the emergency release, wished more than anything—almost anything—that it didn’t have to end this way. But she’d promised.

And Cory was kin.

“Sorry, love,” she explained, sidestepping Lex’s confused, urgent scrabbling as she lifted his air supply module free. “Someone needs your air.”

(END)




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