Author: Punctuator PM
The Outside of Your Skin Trilogy: Part Three. How the "Pod" people got to be the "Pod" people. Rated for cussing, gore, and half-baked psychedelia. Grab your shades, kids. It's time to SPLIT....Rated: Fiction T - English - Sci-Fi/Suspense - Chapters: 2 - Words: 7,562 - Reviews: 5 - Favs: 8 - Follows: 1 - Published: 05-10-08 - Status: Complete - id: 4247324
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
She lay for a long moment with Pinbacker, more dead than stunned.
Then she got up.
For a time she'd thought they might be able to pilot the Icarus from the pod. Now that possibility was gone. She pulled her bloody self upright at the ruined control panel, saw nothing in the engine displays. All the monitors— not just the one Pinbacker had punched through— were black. She said: "Icarus, compute time to engine failure."
Please clarify, Whitby.
She was shaking so hard she could barely stand. Play stupid, would you, you worthless bitch. "Icarus, when will the engines explode?"
If temperature increase remains steady, ship's main engines will explode in eighteen minutes, twenty-six seconds.
His concession to the homicidal presence onboard: he was facing the hatch as he worked. Capa was kneeling on the catwalk in the geometric darkness of the bomb housing, feeding new numbers to his field unit, patched, as it was, into the computer systems aboard the pod, when Whitby's voice spoke from his comm link:
She never called him that except to put him in his place age-wise: her way of making him a sort of baby brother, he thought, of patronizing him. But her voice now sounded odd— tired or afraid—
Can you be ready to go in fourteen minutes?
She didn't want explanations. He could hear that. He thought of the lines of code he'd just entered, that quickly, to reschedule the deployment of the payload. He thought for the barest of seconds of telling her "No." Then he re-registered the tone of her voice— she'd not be asking if it weren't absolutely, coldly, desperately essential— and he said: "Yes, I can."
Do it, then. Whitby out—
The channel went dead. He'd learned to tell. He said: "Icarus?"
Nothing. He didn't bother calling for Whitby or the others. He started the lap timer on his watch— t minus fourteen minutes— and went back to work.
He hadn't heard the scream.
Whitby had. Right before the comms cut out, right after the ship's primary lighting flickered, flared, and died. Before the emergency lighting could kick in, she was out of the engine room and making her way forward.
In the long months they'd been aboard the Icarus II, even before she'd begun to re-read her literature files, even before she'd tired of her vid library and workouts, she'd taught herself to walk the Icarus blind. She'd measured and memorized all the ship's distances in carefully counted paces: the skill of a wreck diver, who must know every twisting exit in the zero visibility of silty water. As a result, she could find her way to or from any point onboard in pitch blackness.
So now, as minute fourteen eroded to minute thirteen, in complete darkness, she was heading for Comms or the mainframe room, toward the origin of the first scream and the screams and shouts now following. She was moving quickly and calmly, blackness being the same the solar system over. She might have been in cold deep water back home.
And, moving, she no longer had to think of the horror lying on the engine room floor. A new horror lay ahead.
Roughly two minutes earlier, Mace had looked through the reinforced glass into the aquarium of coolant housing the ship's mainframes and thought— later it would seem stupid— Which is why you never slap a band-aid on the computer.
He and Trey had just finished loading their last tankful of oxygen to the systems that would supply the pod's recyclers; Mace had just pulled himself from the hatch accessing the trans-bulkhead interface between the Icarus and the pod. Trey offered him a hand up, and he took it gratefully, breathless in the increasingly airless air. They'd exit via the mainframe room, it being nearer to the flight deck than Comms, which they'd traversed bringing the air from the ship's forward areas to the pod interface; Trey went first, and as he passed the coolant tank, nearly two meters tall as it was, he'd bumped up against something—
"What's this?" He stopped; Mace stopped, too. In that second, as they both saw in the dim light of the mainframe room the wires strung like a web in the air before them, Mace heard a splash from the coolant tank.
He looked, his eyes following too the path of the wires; he saw where they ran— to a gray plastic box roughly one foot square, open at its top at the edge of the coolant tank and now tipped, at the wires' tug, on its side; he saw, sinking into the clear blue of the coolant, maybe a dozen thick squares of Handipatch.
"Shit," he breathed.
Why you never slap a band-aid on the computer.
Or, perhaps less cryptically, what came of having too many unassociated contractors providing parts and systems for your multi-billion-dollar spaceship. Obviously, the 5M Corporation had never intended for Handipatch to be anything other than a highly useful and effective quick-fix, just as Macrosoft Universal had formulated Supercool to keep the ship's computer systems insulated and functioning at peak efficiency.
Together, Handipatch and Supercool made a bomb. As simple as that. The catalyst in the 'patch acted as an accelerant in the liquid; the liquid superheated in seconds; the mixture exploded. Mace had seen vids of the process in experiments matching maybe an inch of 'patch with a cup of 'cool. Experiments requiring the use of robot arms and heavy cladding. A potential disaster easy enough to avoid, nonetheless: you simply never put Handipatch anywhere near Supercool. And, to remind yourself, you kept in your head a joking mantra: Why you never slap a band-aid on the computer.
"Move—!" he shouted. He shoved Trey toward the hatchway leading out. Already the coolant was bubbling— it was as though it were catching fire, and Mace could hear that fire hissing, drawing air to itself— and going from ice-blue to a boiling red—
— and Trey, twisting his head to look at the tank, spun into the web of wires, stumbled sideways, and got caught—
— as the tank shattered.
Mace had grabbed him even as Trey stumbled; he dove for the exit with Trey's left wrist gripped hard in his hand; and as he and Trey cleared the hatch just ahead of a hurricane of glass and lava-like liquid and sharp chunks of mainframe, the fire shutter shot across the hatch frame, the bloody thing cued to any sudden changes in temperature around the mainframe and moving almost as fast as thought, and trapped Trey's right arm just below the shoulder.
Inside the mainframe room, flaming coolant splattered Trey's trapped arm. His shirt ignited, and Trey screamed.
Whitby was there thirty seconds later; seconds after that she had the pry bar from the emergency cabinet off Comms, and she was bracing Trey away from the hatch as best as she was able, while Trey shouted in agony and panic inches from her face and Mace wedged the bar between the fire shutter and the hatch frame and pushed and the three of them stood in a blistering haze of heat. The shutter surrendered maybe two inches of space, and Whitby pulled Trey free. Mace dropped the bar; the shutter snapped shut. Whitby had Trey on the deck, beating the flames off his arm and shoulder; Mace pulled off his shirt and dropped to his knees and wrapped the shirt around Trey's arm and held on while Trey flailed and howled and the flames snuffed out.
The emergency lighting had come on. Mace hadn't even noticed. He knelt by Trey, now shuddering and hitching and whimpering in pain on the deck, his right arm and shoulder smoking and horrifically charred, and glanced across at Whitby: "Let's get him to—"
She was covered in blood.
"We have roughly eleven minutes to get clear," Whitby said. "The engines are going to explode."
Mace didn't bother asking how she knew this. He and she had dragged Trey to the pod, and now they were trying to get a shot of painkiller into him while horrible thoughts flashed through Mace's mind: She's covered in blood. She was alone with Corazon and the engines and the mainframe and now—
Just fucking ask.
He jabbed the autoshot against Trey's left forearm, and while Trey's thrashing became weaker and slower he looked Whitby in the eye. "Did you sabotage the mission?"
"Fuck, Mace— Christ. Jesus Christ, no." She stared at him, stricken. She started to shake: he saw it move from her sternum out. She looked away, her eyes filling with tears—
He reached for her. She avoided his hand, straightening herself away from him and Trey. She scowled and pulled her right palm savagely across her bloody cheek and said: "I'll fetch Robert. You mind Trey and yourself. Pod's leaving in nine minutes."
A concession, a diver's skills or no: before she left the pod, she took a flashlight from the equipment box near what would be their outer hatch. She looked forward, out toward Comms, through blackness, flickering blue emergency lighting, flashes of fire, and brown acrid smoke, and thought she might as well be on a wreck in hell with her air too far gone. She said nothing else to Mace, no take care or see you soon, no stupid declaration. She just started out, toward the far end of the ship, toward the launch platform, the bomb, and Capa.
Capa had continued to prep for deployment of the payload. He'd continued, calmly. He'd thought without his mind at all straying from its equations, code, and numbers that his body must be adjusting to the thinner air. It was becoming easier to breathe. He felt his fingers move on the keyboard of the mobile unit while he watched the display, felt his mind transmitting data to those fingers effortlessly, felt calm. As though he were watching himself work. Beyond the hatch of the bomb housing, the main lighting aboard the Icarus flickered and died. He hardly noticed: he had his own lamp beside him on the catwalk, and, really, light was unnecessary at this point anyway. His brain and hands knew the launch procedure; they didn't need to see.
He felt calm. He felt— began to feel—
Again, behind him, the main lighting aboard the Icarus flickered and died. He noticed it more this time, a product of repetition: he looked toward the hatch, and he felt—
— as though he were watching himself work. He focused on the hatch. His head was full of data, and his fingers moved on the keyboard of the mobile unit. He began to feel—
— not an increase in gravity, not exactly. More as if—
— he set coordinates—
— he were falling into himself. He saw— and he felt his eyes widen in a skull— widen in his skull—
— the sequence begin. Stars rained from above him, and—
— he was inside the bomb housing, this much closer to the sun. He looked ahead, down the catwalk, and he saw—
— himself, setting coordinates, as he himself—
— felt himself falling into himself as he entered the final coordinates as he started the countdown as he saw the numbers on the display running down x minutes to ignition and deployment x minutes to detonation as he—
— saw, no widening of eyes but in wonder, stars high above, one and two and three of them, slowly raining from the distant dark ceiling as he—
— watched himself watching himself stand and turn—
— turn to the hatch back to the Icarus, but it had to be all of him or none, and one of him thought—
— stay. As he saw himself as he'd been twenty minutes ago or fifteen or ten, coming through the hatch, coming closer, as he saw himself setting up the mobile unit, saw himself setting—
— coordinates in a raining of stars. Whitby came through the hatch, the passage behind her dark, one of her only, and her shirt and arms and face were red with—
— "Robert, are we good to go?" she asked, and he asked her in return: "Can't you see it?"—
— the stars in a downpour now, and it was so beautiful he couldn't breathe for the beauty of it—
— only he wasn't the one she was asking. She asked him as the stars begin to rain down in ones and twos and threes: "Robert, are we good to go?"— and he could—
— smell the blood on her as he saw himself those feet away—
— in a downpour of stars, smiling—
— and he said to the woman in blood—
— she had him by the arm, her grip hard enough to hurt him—
— to anchor him, this one him—
— who said, "Yes," and came away with her as she pulled him hard down the catwalk, through the hatch—
— this much closer to the sun. She didn't go back for the others— it was as though she didn't see them— him— and the last thing he saw behind himself, this one self, through the gangway separating the bomb housing from the ship, before the hatch closed and sealed and the red-covered woman dragged him into a panting desperate run, was—
— Robert Capa, standing in a downpour of stars.
Mace met them in the final meters, as Whitby and Capa emerged from the darkness and smoke. While the temperature in the pod was stable, implying that the flight deck had been successfully sealed unto itself, the passage to Comms was starting to heat up; likely the fire from the mainframe had managed to move inside the ship's bulkheads. An understatement, certainly: they had to leave.
He ran out into the corridor and caught Capa's free arm while Whitby dragged Capa by the other. At a glance, Capa was unhurt, but he seemed blank-eyed and stunned.
"What happened to him?" Mace asked.
"I don't know," Whitby panted hoarsely. "Countdown's running. Close the hatch." She released Capa, who slumped to the deck when Mace released him, too, and stumbled for the pilot's seat as Mace hauled at the heavy emergency door that would now be their outer airlock hatch; he had it halfway closed when he heard something—
— a hiss or a whisper, something like a woman's voice— he'd been short of oxygen and overloaded on adrenaline for far too long— something like his name:
He leaned out through the gap remaining before the hatch swung shut, and he saw a figure standing in the smoke and shadow outside Comms.
"Corrie—?" he said.
And the hiss became a crackling that was no longer anything like his name, and an electrical panel near the left side of his head burst from the bulkhead with a roaring bark and a flash of flame as bright as molten steel, as bright as Searle's sun filtered through the window in the observation lounge—
— only four-percent intensity, and the retinas smolder—
— and Mace's head and shirtless shoulders were right in the path of this bright new fire. He grabbed at his searing face, shouting and then screaming.
Whitby was up, horrified, from the controls. Mace, stumbling backward, fell into her; she shoved him aside, pulled the outer hatch closed. Flames pinched off like cut tentacles and turned to tendrils of smoke in the pod's air.
"Mace—" She reached for him; he was flailing; he knocked her hands away. His face was transformed. Gore and blisters, his hair smoldering, his eyebrows gone—
"Mace—!" Whitby shouted.
He froze. He stood for a moment, shaking as though with sobs. Then he slumped back against the bulkhead. "I can't see," he said, thickly.
She tried not to look at his glazed eyes, his burned lids. "Sit down. We need to go."
Four minutes later, they were at a distance the designers of the Icarus II would have designated "safe." They weren't. Whitby heard the heat whispering and hissing between the multiple layers of the pod's form-tight bulkhead shields— "micro-heat-sink redundant" or some other brand of bullshit they were, experimental tech too risky and too expensive for the ship as a whole but in the eyes of the lifepod's designers perfectly suited to a life-or-death field test of sheer desperation— and she fought the urge to scream or vomit. Trey was groaning from his haze of meds. Mace was sitting against the bulkhead near the inner hatch, crying harshly.
Capa was silent. He was breathing slowly, lying where he'd fallen, and his eyes were open.
Maybe six minutes after that, two things happened, the first overshadowed— or overshone— by the second:
Whitby had underestimated the time remaining to them aboard ship: only now did the Icarus II self-destruct when her primary engines exploded.
And fresh clean light washed from the screen showing the view of the sun. Whitby looked at it, then looked away. They'd succeeded. Or Capa had. Whitby only felt numb. She checked their flight trajectory and went to help Mace.
She brought a medical kit and knelt beside him. Mace was sitting against the bulkhead, his legs straight out, shaking. His unseeing eyes were dull and unfocused; his face was a horror.
"Mace, can you hear me?"
"I'm going to fix you up, okay?"
"Okay." The word slurred; he was halfway to shock. "Did it work?"
"That's good." He smiled, shuddered as the exposed nerves in his face pulled tight. "Cass—"
Cassidy. The mission's pilot before Whitby replaced her. Thoughtful, competent, loyal, sweet Cassidy, who'd chosen to stay on the dying Earth for reasons that Whitby would sooner die to keep concealed rather than see those reasons hurt Mace now. She tapped the air from an autoshot of painkiller. "She's not here, Mace."
He flinched as the needle broke his skin, likely more from the coolness of the metal than from the tiny point of pain. As she began, gently, to tend to his face, as his breathing slowed and grew heavy from the meds, he asked: "Who are you?"
She hesitated. Maybe part of her had died on the Icarus. Maybe she was ashamed of her survival, new and painful and raw as it was.
"I'm the pilot," she said.