Alyssa snapped back to reality for the umpteenth time that morning. The Sunbottle’s readouts flashed and changed, their constant flux even more meaningless to her than normal. A constant whirlwind of emotions kept her from focusing on what was technically her job. Doug, Alessandro and the rest of the Watch Room staff had been tiptoeing around her for the past two hours. It should have annoyed her. But the energy for annoyance and anger had left her.
She probably shouldn’t have spent so much of it on Fyodorovich the Spacer but her ability to make clearheaded decisions on how to use her mind and efforts had left the dome when Naomi did the day before. She’d tried to remember what Naomi had told her about the day her older brother had passed into Silence. But in the face of her own grief all other memories had faded into the background. Victor’s time was coming in less than a cent. She didn’t know how she was going to handle that.
“Um…” Alyssa glanced over at Doug, the tall, lanky man standing respectfully, an uncertain expression on his face. “I’m sorry to bother you, Elder. I know this has been a rough time for you.”
“Spit it out, Doug. I’m not in the mood to have someone talk at me rather than too me.”
“Sure thing, Alyssa. I’ve been looking at the numbers on those conduit failures.” He handed her a tablet with a very dense set of data on it. “Now the Sunbottle was here before Bottletown was founded and we don’t have numbers from that time period. But if we start with the Founding and work our way to the present there’s–“
“Okay, wait.” She passed the tablet back. “That’s way too dense for me to try and parse today. How important is all that to the point you want to make?”
“Ultimately, not very,” he said, swiping to the end of the report. “Just me proving my work, in case it was important to you. I can give you the short version if you want.”
May the oyarsa give her the strength… “Please.”
“I think we need to do a complete shutdown, replace all the conduits and the injectors, and do a Page 73 restart of the entire Sunbottle.” He handed her the tablet back with the appropriate page pulled up. Not that he needed to. “There’s a good chance the conduits keep failing because they’re leaking at the 135-140 junctions and if that continues the Sunbottle’s wings might fail entirely. Then we’re all dead.”
Alyssa frowned. Doug’s modeling was good – maybe even brilliant. The junctions in question were quite old, probably original, and by his best guess they were long overdue for a catastrophic failure. But for whatever reason that string of junctions was tied to every injector in the system. They couldn’t close those junctures with the Bottle running. Which was bad. Because…
“Doug, I can’t turn the entire Sunbottle off. Not even for half a day. The reboot process is nearly a week and we’ll have too many vital systems shut down in that time. Not to mention, ‘The Sunbottle is your first and only defense against the Silent Planet’ is the first rule of the Sunbottle.”
“We can build enough batteries and stockpile enough energy to run Bottletown in four days. And as for Thulcandra…” Doug gestured upwards. “There’s already a spaceship in geosynchronous orbit overhead. I think if the Sunbottle really had some function to keep us safe from Thulcandran invaders we’d have seen in by now.”
That’s right, Doug was a skeptic. He didn’t put a lot of faith in a lot of the warnings and methods the Founders had left behind in Ransom’s notes. He was a decent board operator and probably had some kind of innate knack for the machinery that was so strong it tended to override most of his other characteristics, at least in her mind. They didn’t socialize much outside of work. “Show me those junctions, then. Let’s see how bad a shape they’re really in.”
“Based on a work of fiction?” Craig cleared every last irrelevant report off his holo screen and full sized Ensign Veers’s face.
“That’s correct, sir.” Veers shrunk back down to half the screen, the cover of a book appearing over his head. “Specifically Out of the Silent Planet by one C.S. Lewis, a fiction author of the early to mid twentieth century.”
“Never heard of him,” Craig said, moving Veers to one side and opening up the author’s biography from the ship’s archives. “On the prolific side, it seems.”
“And he wrote both fiction and nonfiction. His ‘space trilogy’ is among his more obscure works, so we’re not sure how it wound up fulfilling this role. But all the language fits. Hnau, eldil, Oyarsa and other terms we’ve recorded down there are all used by Lewis. And, of course, there’s the references to Earth under siege by supernatural entities and a Dr. Ransom, who’s the protagonist.” Two more book covers joined the first in the space over Veers’s head. “A quick AI analysis of the whole trilogy suggests that no elements of the following two books are incorporated into the Malacandran world view, so they probably just had the one copy of the first book Commander Fyodorovich discovered to work with.”
“Their entire society is based on a work of fiction,” Craig muttered, looking through the plot summary their AIs had put together. “No wonder it’s so odd.”
The book covers vanished and Veers grew to fill the gap. “Sir, with all due respect, when I was in the Academy I had to take four semesters of classes on the philosophy and morality of a TV show runner who lived and died in the exact same century.”
Craig paused, midsentence, and turned his full attention to Veers. “Ensign, how would you like a promotion to assistant head of Martian Operations?”
“Sounds like an awfully harsh punishment for a simple observation, sir.”
“Too bad,” Craig said, going back to his reading. “The more that happens down there the more I feel like Mars could justify its own entire two hundred man department on permanent assignment planetside.”
“Don’t let Volk know you want to keep him on one planet, sir.” Veers shrugged when Craig gave him a questioning look. “He’d hate to be stuck in atmosphere that long.”
“Noted, Ensign. What does our resident Mars expert think of this?”
“Ah.” Veers coughed into his hand. Looked away for a moment, as if checking something. Double checked. “Miss Vance was not available to consult with. It seems she left the base camp in Old Borealis sometime shortly after arriving and no one has seen her since. Commander Fyodorovich has assigned most of the ground team search duties and they’re trying to locate her now.”
“Just. Wonderful. Thank you, Ensign. Please inform me as soon as they find anything.”
Craig shook his head and pulled up the text of Out of the Silent Planet. He might as well learn something while he was waiting.
No one had used most of the buildings in Borealis in over a century. Finding one that had been opened recently was easy. Theoretically. In practice there were over a thousand abandoned buildings in Borealis Colony and even just checking the dirt caked in the corners of the door frames on that many buildings, some with as many as six entrances, was going to take time. But Volk wasn’t willing to waste a whole lot of it. He needed to find Aubrey if he didn’t want to be remembered as the man who lost the first Earthling anyone had seen in centuries.
So he’d ignored standard safety procedures and sent his team out alone rather than in pairs. But even covering ground twice as fast as normal they hadn’t found anything in almost an hour of looking. Volk was about to write off the eastern side of the colony when he spotted what he was looking for. The dirt in the bottom corner of a doorframe had crumbled and wasn’t visible in the street. It had fallen inside the doorframe. He keyed his comm. “This is Fyodorovich. Mark this position. I have signs of entrance at this building.”
“Understood.” Long sounded relieved. “Proceeding to your location.”
“Likewise.” Langly just sounded annoyed.
“Do you want us to rendezvous with you or return to base camp?” Shen asked.
“You can all head to basecamp,” Volk said. “We’re heading that way anyway.”
“See you there, sir.” The channel went quiet.
Volk spent a second figuring out the door controls then let himself in.
Old Borealis, as they’d taken to calling the part of the colony not used by Malacandrans, hadn’t been used in at least a century. An inch or more of dust covered everything in all the buildings he’d been in and this one was no exception. This was the only one he’d found with footprints in the dust. They made finding Aubrey sitting at the table in the back of the house simple enough. They didn’t explain why she was just sitting in a chair on one side of a simple, rectangular table and staring down the length at a chair at the other end.
It was eerie. Plates and cups were set out on the table as if someone was about to walk out with a main course for dinner. Silverware sat in odd positions on the table as if dropped in a hurry. A few of the cups had rings around their insides. For a moment Volk wondered if Aubrey had set it all out herself but then he noticed a lighter colored streak on the plate in front of her. She’s brushed dust off of it at some point. It was the only plate like that on the table. She couldn’t have gotten all that out without wiping off a lot more dust than just that.
“Miss Vance? Are you alright?”
The silence stretched just long enough for him to worry. Then, “What would you think if this was the last thing you saw?”
He gingerly stepped over to where she sat. Nothing out of the ordinary that he could see, besides the passive Earth woman staring at nothing. “I don’t know. Is it going to be the last thing I see?”
“I hope not.”
There were ghosts in those three words. Volk had no idea what led him to that conclusion but almost as soon as the idea occurred to him he found it impossible to think anything else. “Seriously, Miss Vance. Do you need help?”
“No.” She shuddered from foot to head and back again. “I don’t think coming to see this was a good idea. But… I think I had to. I knew someone who used to live here.”
She nodded. “In this building.”
And suddenly she was on her feet, rubbing her hands like she was by a campfire in the dead of winter. “I thought I owed her this. Maybe it was just arrogance.”
“I see… Well, we’ve found a few things we’d like your opinion on. We can do it at base camp, though.”
“Great. Let’s do that.” Aubrey spun on her heel and walked out.
Volk watched her go then looked back at the table again. A family had been eating dinner here, back when Earth came for Borealis. They’d just fallen over, unconscious, thanks to their medical systems turned bioweapons. For just a moment he had a horrifying vision of watching his entire family pass out for no reason in the middle of dinner. Then he shivered and followed Aubrey out of the room.
“…and Junction 109 is the worst of the bunch. Microfractures all over the inner part of the seals.” Doug held up a hand scanner and pointed the readout in Alyssa’s general direction. “This and 107 are the two that really worry me.”
Alyssa sighed. Doug was right, replacing the junctions really did seem like the only viable option at the moment. “Okay, Doug. This is… a mess. And I know why you want to do all this. But I can’t just wave my hands and say it’s okay to shut down the Sunbottle. Much less requisition all the batteries it’ll take to run us while it’s off. All I can promise is I’ll put it in front of the Elders tomorrow.”
Doug grimaced. “I’d like to be doing this already. But yeah, if that’s the soonest you can bring it up we’ll have to go with that.”
“Don’t worry, Doug. You made a good catch. I think we still have more than enough time to come up with a fix for this, no matter what the Elders ultimately decided to do.” She reached up and rapped the junction box with her knuckles. “After all, the Sunbottle’s been her for over two and a half centuries. It’s not about to come apart on us now.”
That was when the junction box blew up.