A Racetrack Chronicles one-shot
Simon J. Dodd
Aquaria had forever been an afterthought. It was the marginal colony: The smallest, the coldest, the most remote, the most tenuous case for habitation, and so the very last planet colonized. It had been almost entirely featureless until, twelve centuries after the exodus from Kobol, a spasm of volcanism had thrust two peaks above the waterline near the equator, producing a small, crescent-shaped landmass between them. Aquarion nationalists had seized the opportunity, renaming Helios Delta IV "Aquaria" and the landmass "Kyros" after the ancient capital of Aquarius.
But the air was thin, there were no seasons to speak of, and even the warmest of its sixteen-hour days would count as a chilly autumn on Caprica—and a once-in-a-decade winter on Picon. Practicality, then, had outweighed nationalism for most ethnic Aquarions; the vast majority chose to remain in the diaspora on other colonies rather than become, in the modern sense, Aquarians. Nevertheless, for centuries thereafter, a population of a few million would live a hard life, telling themselves that it was the price of their prized independence.
"Independence" was perhaps a misnomer; the colony was entirely dependent on trade with its neighbors. But a stable equilibrium had developed. Aquaria readily hosted carbon-intensive industries for Canceran corporations on outlying atolls, and it had valuable mineral and fishing exports that paid for a steady stream of imported food from Aerilon. To the surprise of many, it had won acceptance as an equal colony when unification came during the war, not least because voters belonging to the Aquarion diaspora retained an ancestral loyalty to a planet on which they would never wish to set foot.
Yet it remained an asterisk. That had made it an afterthought for the Cylons, too. Only two baseships had been tasked to bomb it and then join the effort of mopping up any Colonial units in Helios Delta. No centurions were tasked; why bother? A frigid island not much larger than the Caprica City metro area that no one had any intention of occupying? If anyone survived the bombing, they could not long survive the harsh climate without heat, power, and commercial intercourse with the other colonies.
But Cylon surveillance had goofed. Had they paid closer attention, the planners would have realized that in the last decade before the Fall, technological advances had opened the floor of the relatively shallow seas around Kyros to first exploration and then exploitation. Precious minerals, gasses, and gems long ago depleted above the shoreline had driven a boom that had reversed Aquaria's "brain drain" for the first time in centuries. The population had risen incrementally, year-on-year, since the first platforms went online in 1,991 A.E., and as zero-hour approached, there were thousands of people in seabed extraction and research facilities that spiderwebbed out from Kyros' shores.
Gene yawned and stumbled into Platform Two's Operations Command Center. He was early; it was barely seven, and the shift changeover wasn't until 0800. "What's new, Castillo?" He headed for the coffeepot.
"Well, Skipper, the last hour, I have no idea. I can't raise the shore at all."
"Huh." He poured a cup, gulped down a mouthful, and flinched; it was stale, and he set to work making a fresh pot.
"No telephone," Castillo said; "no connectivity on the mesh, the wireless floats aren't pickin' up nothin'. I even put up the snorkel, and the big antenna didn't hear anything either. We should be able to get TV from Heim on that thing! It's like the world vanished."
"Some kinda tech fault?" Gene added a little salt to the basket—old habits—and pressed brew.
"In all four systems? I doubt it, but PLATOPS are checking it out. And we can talk to other local platforms, just not the shore."
"Okay. Wait up." Gene picked up the phone and called the next-nearest platform; its duty-officer answered after a few rings. "Yeah, this is Gene Stafford on Plat Two. Listen, we've got a complete blackout to the shore, are you seeing the same thing? Uh huh. Right. Okay, look, do me a favor: Send an e-mail to all the Plat Chiefs and let's set up a conference-call at 0810. Thanks." He turned back to Castillo and swallowed the last of the coffee in his mug; stale or not, it was still caffeine. "Anything on the boards from the company the last few days?"
"Not a thing."
"Huh. Alright. I guess you'd better get a skiff prepped for launch. We should suspend MINOPS, too. Just in case." He considered sounding General Quarters; glancing at the clock, he thought better of it.
He walked to the back of the OCC and ran a finger over a shelf of binders. There was a contingency-plan for a shore blackout; undersea mining was barely less dangerous than spaceflight, so there was a contingency-plan for almost anything imaginable. He hadn't read that binder since embarking. Well, he'd skimmed it. Well, he'd opened it and glanced through the table of contents. Now he blew dust off of it and flipped to the appropriate page; step one, secure the platform from operations, step two, attempt to establish comms with nearby platforms. Well, I did that backwards but it's done. Step three...
His fiefdom comprised two mining modules, a gas-extraction module, and a crew of a hundred and change organized in two shifts. Before this, he had served a couple of enlistments in the Colonial Fleet, then a decade in the merchant marine. This was better. He had enjoyed that life, but the two-year voyages through the deep-black between the Cyrannus system's pairs that it entailed were incompatible with family life, and he had wanted children. So, staring down the barrel of forty, he had signed up with the company five years ago, reasoning that it wouldn't be so different. It wasn't. It was no less cozy (confined, depending on your point of view), and paid about the same, but the six-months-on six-months-off schedule allowed for some kind of life outside of work; he could go home to Canceron, and had been able to start a family.
The work wasn't bad, either. The platforms were melting-pots, but, naturally, there were plenty of native Aquarians around, and Gene had found them to be ideal people to have your back in a dangerous line of work: Practical, unpretentious, plain-spoken, and familial. Good team-workers. His team had had a good run of it this time out—they were in month four, and operations had been smooth and routine. They were a hundred miles offshore; he did a quick mental calculation and decided that he could have the skiff out to Fulda, the nearest port, and a report called back in before the conference-call so long as it left the dock by seven thirty. That was do-able—just about.
The coffee-pot was making noises like it was nearly done, so he poured a fresh mug and, sipping on it, walked to the dorm module. He tapped on one of the doors; after a moment, it slid open.
"Hey, Steve. What, were ya sleeping or something?"
"Fer frak's sake;" he rubbed his face. "I'm not on duty for forty minutes. What's up?"
"Eh. Prob'ly nothin', but we've lost comms, so, ah, I need you to make a run out to shore. Just stick your nose in the air, see if something's going on." He offered a sorry-not-sorry grin. "Go get some fresh-air."
"Yeah. Frak, sure, okay, Geno," he muttered. "Give me five minutes to dress."
"Make it two. I'll have it cleared and ready to leave by the time you get down there. I've got a conference-call with the other platform chiefs at 0810; we're the closest to shore, and most of them probably won't do anything until the shift-change anyway. Lazy bastards. I'd like to have something to tell 'em."
"Fine, fine." Steve motioned quickly with his hand; "here, hand it over."
Gene shrugged and relinquished the mug; Steve gulped down the coffee and handed it back empty.
"Two minutes and you're heading for the dock, right?"
"Yeah." Steve retreated to his cabin. He had been sleeping in a thermal layer, so he pulled on an intermediate- and an outer-layer and trotted toward the dock. Castillo was finishing prep on the skiff, and within a few minutes Steve had boarded, flooded the dock, and was on his way.
He climbed quickly to the surface where the skiff could build up some speed; he yawned, and lit a cigarette. The autopilot could handle this part. He ferreted around in the skiff's galleyette, finding a protein-bar and a self-heating pouch of coffee. "Breakfast of champions," he muttered, popping the caplet in the coffee pouch that would heat it. He opened the aft hatch and stepped into cold but mercifully-fresh dawn air. He had done more than his fair share of shore-runs. Unlike his Canceran boss, Steve was Aquarian, and he lacked Gene's long career on ships to draw on; four months sitting at the bottom of the sea breathing recycled air left him more than keen to breathe fresh air, and Gene routinely took advantage of that desire to induce voluntary duty. He sniffled, and wondered if he was coming down with something. That was the curse of recycled air; one idiot embarked with a cold and it would do a victory-lap around the entire crew.
The wireless remained disconcertingly-quiet as the tops of the volcanoes that bookended Kyros hove across the horizon, first Selene to the east, then the stubbier, extinct Endymion a minute later. He finished the coffee—strong stuff, he thought; between Gene's potent brew and the pouch, he was getting a caffeine-headache—and lit another cigarette. The sun was well over the horizon, now, and Selene cast an odd shadow through wispy clouds that seemed somehow dark and wrong. Steve frowned and headed back into the cabin to prepare for docking. The headache was getting worse, and, irritated, he wondered if the med kit had an alprazaline or two.
He saw it from several minutes out, the cigarette dropping from his mouth. Fulda was a shattered husk; at least one major fire was burning. Further inland, smoke, ash, and snow whipped in the air, and there were what looked like the last remnants of at least three mushroom-clouds in the distance.
"Zeus almighty!" He grabbed the wireless mic; "Platform Two ops, this is skiff 3468; pleione, Gene, are you there?"
"Steve, it's Castillo. He's on a conference-call; what's the word?"
"Pull him off the call; this he's got to hear!"
"Pull him off the godsdamned call, Riley! Right now!"
"Okay, wait one."
Steve grabbed a rad-counter and flipped it on; the bottom fell out of his stomach.
Gene had been right; most of the Platform Chiefs had not learned of the blackout until they went on-duty at 0800. The situation was the same across-the-board: Local comms, nothing to the shore. He was irritated that Steve hadn't reported back before the conference-call, and was all the more so when Castillo had him walk away from it. Listening to Steve, though, he paled, and after asking a few questions, walked back to his desk, slumping into his chair. He had never spoken to a dead man before. He pulled a spray-bottle from his drawer and absent-mindedly misted the potted-plants on his desk, his brain fumbling for something familiar and routine.
The day-shift OCC staff and some of the day-shift mining crew were milling around. They looked rattled; that Castillo—usually first out of the door—was still on-duty; that mining operations were suspended; that the skipper had an emergency-procedures binder open on his desk; the comms blackout and then the anxious call from Steve… These were ominous portents. Gene ran a hand over his mouth, trying to decide on sequencing. He wanted to brief his crew, but his counterparts on the other platforms were still on the conference-call, and the contingency-plan insisted that he brief them "expediently." Not that it really mattered now.
Reluctantly, he raised his voice, making sure that everyone in the OCC would hear him. "Castillo. Sound General Quarters; then I want everyone assembled in the mess at 0845. Everyone else, give us the room." He tried to keep his face neutral as worried faces filed out, grabbing a piece of paper and doing some rough sums based on Steve's report and formulae half-remembered from training a half-lifetime ago.
He picked up the telephone again and weighed it in his hands for a few moments before putting it to his ear. "I'm sorry to interrupt." He cut through the various voices on the conference-call. "The launch I sent to the shore just called in. Fulda's blown to hell and the rad count's through the roof." He paused. Rip off the bandage. "We've been nuked."
There was dead silence for several moments.
"An accident?" someone asked.
"Not if there's radiation," someone else said. "There's no nuclear on the surface."
"So we're just jumping straight to the conclusion it's an attack then? That's—clio, that's a bit of a jump!"
"It's the only logical conclusion," Gene said. "But I don't like where that logic goes."
"I'm not following you, Geno."
"If it's an attack, I think we gotta assume it's the Cylons, and if they're bombing Aquaria… If they're bombing Fulda, for gods' sakes, that's gotta mean they're bombing everywhere. Otherwise why even waste the ammunition?"
"That is an unhappy thought."
"Yeah," Gene said. He was certain that the binder had no contingency-plan for that. "I think we're—let's work this two ways. First question is, assume help's coming; how long can we hold out? Second question, assume help isn't coming; what do we do?"
There was another very long pause. Eventually someone offered twelve months as a guess for the outside limit of food supplies; that seemed wildly-optimistic and based on no data in particular, but no one was offering any other number. There was another lengthy pause.
Gene sighed; he had seniority. It was probably up to him to take the lead. "Alright, here's how I see it. We're safe where we are. For right now, whatever way this went down, we better lay low for a while; with the rad-count, we'll have to for at least two days or we're risking fatal exposure just approaching the shore. If help's coming, it knows where to find us. If it isn't, if this was the Cylons—or anything else, for that matter—the last thing we need do is tell 'em we're here, so's they can come back and finish the job. So the smart play is, we sit tight. Starting in a few days we'll send some small recon teams ashore at night, see if there's anything to be salvaged."
"Guys, this is Ford on Platform 014." Another voice. "I'm sorry, but shouldn't we be looking for survivors on shore?"
"If we're very lucky, we'll find some supplies. If we're extremely lucky, we'll find some transports that can fly and get us offworld. But survivors? Forget it."
"Come on, Geno, you can't possibly know that! We have a duty to help!"
"Listen, I handled nucular munitions in the Fleet. I trained on this stuff; it'll barely be below fatal exposure in thirty hours. Believe me, no one survived. Look, I know it sounds cold, but the math's the math. And our first responsibility's to the people down here. People we know survived," Gene said—and that was that.
"Ehm, Gene"—a Virgan-accented voice. "A moment ago you said… Alright, so the plan is that we lay low now, and later we send surveillance to the shore—"
"Under cover of night," someone added.
"—yes, yes; and if we're lucky, we find ships that can get our people offworld. I mean, I'm assuming we've waited a month or two and it does turn out to be the, ehm, the worst-case-scenario. Where do we even go?"
"Well," Gene said, hesitantly, "I don't really know. But here's the bottom-line: Three, six, twelve months from now, whenever our supplies run out, we're gonna need food. And we can't grow it on Aquaria. Certainly not in the kind of quantities we'll need, if at all; there's no way. It's hard to plan when we don't know what we're gonna find, but my first thought is, we try to limp to Aerilon. This time of year, it's the closest planet. Maybe it takes a few trips, but if we can get our people there, and if we get lucky, maybe we can—"
"You can't be serious! Even if the Cylons aren't still lurking around, what makes you think that it hasn't been nuked too?"
"It probably has. But it's at least imaginable that there's habitable, cultivable land somewhere there. It's hope, and maybe it buys us time. I mean, look, d'you got a better idea? We've gotta thread the needle here: We have to stay here for now, we can't stay here long-term. I mean, pleione, I don't have a plan here, Roger, I'm improvisin', the same as the rest of you. This is the best option I think we've got. I don't know if we can get through this, but we gotta try. So we're gonna have to play this by ear, one day at a time."
"Gene, it's Mary on 115. What the frak do we tell our people?"
He swallowed and thought about Steve. It was the question that Gene Stafford had been trying to avoid thinking about for twenty minutes. "I wish I knew." He paused. "What do you wanna say?"
A hundred miles away, Steve set the autopilot to return to the platform and sent the skiff on its way. He settled into a seat on the waterfront and swallowed a bottle of pills raided from a ruined pharmacy, washed down with a bottle of obscenely-expensive ambrosia raided from the off-license next door. It was a gorgeous morning, looking out to sea. He took a picture in his mind, leant back, and closed his eyes. The headache faded slowly.