Volk did not expect to walk straight in to Bottletown given the poor showing he’d made on his last visit. He really didn’t expect to do it with the ludicrous entourage he’d picked up on the way. Of the people who started out back at the Borealis basecamp only Long had remained behind to facilitate communications with the ship – a job that boiled down to making sure the comm relay didn’t short out. Everyone else grabbed such equipment as was relevant to their jobs and followed behind Pak as the excitable kid dragged the lot of them back to see whatever emergency had him so worked up. Captain Gyle understood that this was a chance to repair some of the ill will that they’d apparently built up with the Malacandrans and had settled in on the bridge to armchair quarterback the situation.
Which was great if you weren’t the head of Martian Operations. If you were, you had to listen to said quarterbacking for the whole run across Borealis, too out of breath to say anything back. “And try to figure out what they were expecting when Ransom came back,” Gyle was saying. “There’s nothing in either of the sequels that suggest Ransom ever expected to return to Mars.”
“Don’t think… they know… about sequels,” Volk huffed, marveling at how fast Pak was going. He said his primary job involved sitting in a tower, at a console. When had he had time to develop the legs of an Olympic sprinter?
“That may be the first thing we bring in to further negotiations,” Gyle mused. “New revelations may soften them up some. The last book apparently establishes Earth as a viable planet again.”
“I’m not sure upsetting their worldview that way is a good choice right now.” Dulan’s voice was distant, suggesting she was away from her pickup. “There’s a good chance they’re not running off the published text anyways.”
“What?” Volk huffed.
“That’s true,” Gyle said. “There’s nothing I’ve read in Lewis’ novel that suggests ritual suicide, for example. The early Malancadrans may have reworked the novel to reinforce some of their more unpleasant practices to help justify them to future generations.”
That made a certain degree of sense but before Volk could ask any of the dozens of questions that sprang to mind he had to skid to a stop or run over Pak.
“What?” Volk asked again.
“This is the Glass Box,” Pak replied, sounding just a touch winded. “Come on.”
It turned out the Glass Box was a hospital.
Or more probably, an old first aid station. Really just a reception room, four beds and two of the titular Glass Boxes, containers the size of a coffin that currently contained one person each. In spite of the burns on much of their bodies, Volk guessed they were more comfortable than anyone else in the building, there were already at least a dozen people in there when he arrived with his group and from the sounds of shuffling and grunting everyone who had followed along was packing in behind him after he entered. “All right… Pak. Tell me… what happened.”
“What is he doing here?” Nobari’s voice came from behind one of the Glass Boxes. A moment later he stood up from behind it, irate. “Pak, who’s idea was this?”
“Mine,” he said. “They have a space ship, Eldest. Maybe they know more about how the Glass Box works, too. When I heard about the accident I went to get them.”
Volk refrained from comment until he managed to swim through the crowd and get up to the boxes himself. What he saw wasn’t encouraging.
One of the boxes contained a lanky kid he’d never seen before, somewhere between fourteen and twenty based on his height. The burns on his head, chest and arms kept Volk from guessing anything else about him, even his hair color. The other box contained Alyssa Pracht. Her burns were less severe and took up less real estate. Both were floating in some kind of highly viscus liquid reminiscent of a nanofacturing pool, both boxes had some kind of readouts at the end closest to the door.
Volk was no doctor but the readouts were simple enough. The boy’s were all in the red, showing no blood pressure, no heartbeat, no brain activity. Volk revised his estimate of their relative comfort levels. Alyssa was still alive but the signs were trending downward. If he was reading them right.
Volk rested his fingertips nervously on the readout panel. “Can anyone tell me what this setup is supposed to do?”
“The Glass Box is a medical device designed for repairing large scale topographical injuries.” Nobari said it with the singsong of someone reciting specifications learned by rote from a manual.
“How does it work?”
“It uses the same principles as the nanolathes and nanovats.”
Volk turned to look over the crowd. Saw the person he wanted in the back. “Miss Vance? We need your expertise.”
“Traffic control, Commander,” she said as she worked through the crowd. “I worked with AIs in traffic control, I’m not an expert on any of this.”
“But you know something about medical nanotech, which is more than the rest of us can say.” He looked back at the Glass Box. “So what can we do here?”
“Okay. Let’s see.” She rested her hands on the box. “Every traffic center has a few mobile, emergency nanotanks. Probably related to this system somehow. Our internal medical nanotech has limits based on our metabolism and available calories, dunking someone with large scale external injuries in something like this gets around those problems. But it’s the internal systems that deal with hemorrhaging and organ injuries from crashes. A mix of internal and external systems is considered best for dealing with significant injuries, which is what we have here.”
“What do you mean internal?” Nobari demanded.
Aubrey glanced up from the box, fingers drumming on it absently. “Do you have any kind of medical procedure done at the end of puberty?”
“What is puberty?”
“Never mind.” The cultural and social mess that was puberty was something Volk didn’t want to bother explaining. “She wants to know if you have some kind of medical operation everyone gets between 44 and 55 cents.”
“No.” Nobari shrugged. “But I was a healthy one. Someone might have.”
“There’s no reason not to give the tech to everyone,” Aubrey muttered. “Although plenty of reason not to keep using it after seeing everyone you knew with it go into Shutdown.”
“You think they stopped using it after Earth wiped out Borealis?” Volk asked.
“Wouldn’t you?” She countered. “I’m thinking of having mine removed, if that’s feasible. In the meantime, the only viable method of helping her I can think of is to pump her full of the stuff.”
“Great.” Volk clapped his hands in an ancient gesture to show willing. “Let’s see the manual on this thing, Eldest. I know you have them.”
That got him a peculiar look but Nobari just pulled a heavy plastic book from a slot in the Box’s primary support. “Here it is. But I’m afraid this is one of our more incomplete manuals. Several pages are missing in it.”
“In every copy?”
Nobari’s full attention ratcheted around to give Volk his full scrutiny. “How do you know how many copies we have?”
“I… don’t.” Which was true. And he wasn’t going to admit to seeing another one in the Eldest’s offices earlier.
“Well, the answer is yes, in all the copies we have certain pages are missing. There’s no mention of internal versus external treatment in any of the remaining pages.” Nobari set the book down on top of the box suddenly. “Although now that I think of it…”
When the silence got long Volk prompted him. “Think of what?”
But the eldest had just gone to the controls and started going through them with shocking speed. “There is a control screen we don’t know the full function of. Here.”
Volk peeked over one of Nobari’s shoulders, Aubrey the other. They saw a long list of options that could be toggled between two or more options. All of the options were abbreviated and he didn’t have the first clue what any of them did. Nobari pointed to one line where the toggles were labeled “E” and “I” saying, “We don’t know what any of these options do but we’ve been taught in no uncertain terms to make sure this is always set to the ‘E’ option.”
Aubrey tugged at the cuffs of her shirt absently as she studied the screen for a moment. “Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not sure that’s worth taking a risk on. What if It’s not?”
But Alyssa’s vitals had already dropped in the few moments they’d been talking. Volk sighed. “Then she’s probably going to die anyways.”
And he planted a finger on the touchpad and slid it until the E flipped to I. The glass box began humming softly. And Volk was suddenly aware that he was sweating profusely in his uniform and the air in the room was incredibly close. He turned around and started waving his hands at the crowd. “Okay, everybody, time to get back to work. To many people staring at you can ruin your recovery. I’m sure you’ll get to talk to Alyssa once she’s well again…”
The world came back slowly. Masamune Nobari was the first thing to come into focus – hardly what she’d call a great start – then Victor came along second. Alyssa let her husband put a hand under her back and lift her to a sitting position. Memories filtered back slowly at first, then all at once. “Where’s Doug?”
Nobari looked resigned. “There will be time for-“
“He didn’t make it, did he?” Alyssa slumped against Victor’s chest, profound disappointment settling over her in a shroud. It wasn’t the same as watching Naomi walk out of the dome the day before. She didn’t know Doug that well and hadn’t liked him any better than her other coworkers. But he had been a good man, so far as she knew, and knowing she wouldn’t see him again left her feeling off balance.
“Douglas Presser has passed into Silence,” Victor said. “But you’re still with us for now. Can you get up?”
She looked around, realized she was sitting in the middle of an empty Glass Box dressed in only minimal clothing, and felt the red start creeping over her body. “If I can’t I need you to move me. I’m not sitting here like this for another minute.”
A moment’s fumbling got Alyssa’s feet off the table and onto the floor then Vincent rocked her forward into a standing position and, still leaning on him, she turned towards the door. Much to her surprise she found it blocked by the short, dark haired, freakishly intense woman that had followed Volk around for the past several days. Alyssa racked her mind for a name but couldn’t come up with one. She didn’t think she’d ever heard it. “Sorry to interrupt,” she said, not looking sorry at all, “but Commander Fyodorovich would like a word with you.”
“He can wait,” Vincent replied with uncharacteristic heat.
In response the woman just hefted the helmet under her arm and pushed something inside. There must have been an external microphone somewhere as Volk’s voice came out of it. “Miss Pracht, I’d like a moment of your time.”
Alyssa groaned. “If this is about what happened at the Sunbottle–“
“Your reactor is failing.” Volk’s words hung in the air for just a moment. “In fact, I’d guess your emergency treatment today was the result of some aspect of the progressive system failure currently working its way through your reactor’s injector supply systems right now. If–“
“Listen,” Victor snapped, “my wife is our foremost expert on–“
Victor stopped short as she tightened her grip on his arm. “You’re correct, Commander.”
There was a moment of silence from the helmet, long enough Alyssa saw the woman carrying it give it a questioning glance. “Miss Pracht, for better or for worse you’ve had certain expectations of the people outside your dome for your entire life. You’ve expected them to come and change your world however they liked. It was just a question of when and whether they would be good people or bad people. For our part, we’ve had certain rules about how we treat other groups of people that tell us taking over and changing the rules in that way is, in and of itself, an evil thing to do. I’m not going to argue the merits of those positions. Instead, I’d like to offer you – and, if he’s there, the Eldest – a compromise.”
Alyssa and Nobari exchanged a glance. After a moment’s hesitation, Nobari answered. “Go ahead, Commander Fyodorovich.”
“If your people have a solution to this problem we will offer our technical expertise, available materials and fabrication capacity to assist in implementing it. If not, we have a solution of our own to propose.”
Nobari asked her the question with one raised eyebrow. She answered for the room to hear. “We had a solution, but the man who put it together died before he could fully explain it. I’m sure he had files somewhere we could use to piece it together but… the problem has also progressed much farther than we thought it had.”
It only took a second for Nobari to reach a decision after that. “In which case, we’d be happy to hear your proposal, Commander.”
“Then please meet me at basecamp at your earliest convenience. SFC Shen will show you how to get here.”
The helmet clicked and went quiet. Alyssa sighed and looked up at her husband. “I hope you brought me a change of work clothes.”
Volk signed off the comms and sighed, looking up at the ceiling and wondering how he got roped into all this.
“I’m surprised you got the Captain to sign off on this.” He practically jumped out of his skin and looked over at the doorway. Thacker was standing there, her AI in one hand and recording. “Nice work, by the way.”
He shook his head and laughed. “Thanks, I think. Didn’t realize I had an audience.”
“Being invisible is how a reporter does their best work. So.” She gave him a winning smile. “How did you convince the Captain to go along with this little plan of yours?”
Volk shrugged and reached for the comms again. “Let’s find out, shall we?”