Bzzt. Bzzt. Bzzt. It happens often enough I should be better at it or at least have better stories: I'm fast asleep and the phone starts buzzing. To add to the fun, I'd fallen asleep with a book on my face (here's to paperbacks!). I fumbled it away and groped for the phone with my eyes still shut. It could be a wrong number, you know.
It was, but not in the way I was hoping. I reached out, whacked the big PHONE switch - I've had to replace the thing twice in the last year - and mumbled, "Whoizzit?"
The voice that replied wasn't especially familiar but the words woke me the rest of the way like a cup of coffee in the face: "Miz --ah-- 'Feynman'?"
Crap. Crap crap crap. Busted. "Wrong number!" I reached for the switch.
"Don't hang up! You are in great danger! We all are."
"Call Security. 999 from any phone or terminal."
"There is no time!" She was sounding more and more panicked but c'mon, could this be more cliché?
Name, name, what was her name? Oh, yeah, "Irene, knock it off. I've seen enough cop and spy movies. Call Security! I'm gonna."
"Oh, no, you mustn't." Despite the crisp accent that sounds irked to most non-Edgers, she was nearly wailing. "What'll they do to poor Vill? Please, please, you must help."
Mike's right and so's the Chief: this is not my job. On the other hand, whose is it? Wake me from a sound sleep, I'm still a tech, so I started to find out. "Try to calm down and tell me what's happened, first."
"He's gone! I went to see him and his door was open and he wasn't there and I found a note."
This is getting tiresome. "Calm! Down! Irene," she hadn't objected to using her first name time, "Irene, I sure can't help if I don't know what's going on. You're on a ship. Where's he gonna go? It's a very big ship but it's not that big and I have reason to know your pal is locked out of most of it." Or so I hoped. It's what T told me and Sheriff Mike had confirmed.
"That's what his note said -- he's in a lot of trouble, he's being watched and he doesn't see any way out."
Swell. He'd struck me as more of a survivor type than that but you never know. I reluctantly agreed to meet her, throwing on clothes and shoving a brush through my hair while we spoke. I thought about dropping an e-mail to Mike, thought about what he'd have to say and changed my mind. Compromised with a short note to T's non-work addy: Exciting developments in our mystery? What've you guys done to Villy now? Mama Irene is all weepy! Update when I find out, c ya, R She's the worst correspondent I know but that should result in a call as soon as she saw it. I grabbed my phone from the charger and charged out the hatch.
Three hours later, I woke up, flat on my back and even more slowly than usual. Once I'd gathered enough wit to grasp the situation, I reflected that I'd thought I was more of a survivor type, too. I was stuffed into an ill-adjusted skinsuit -- mine, at least -- and any thought that kept me from thinking about horking in my helmet was worth following. My mouth was dry and the canteen was empty. The last thing I remembered was accepting a cup of tea from worried, flustered Irene and then a long nightmare of walking and walking down unfamiliar corridors. It is amazing just how abruptly you can finish waking up when it dawns on you that something has gone terribly wrong.
"Don't fall back asleep on me again, dear." The words and tone of voice were sweet enough but somehow it made me shudder. Irene's voice, just as you would expect, "I'm starting to wonder about you! We've talked and talked for the last twenty minutes but you don't seem to really be quite all there."
Ye cats, I was doing that? Shades of my teen years. I pried a sticky eye open to be rewarded by scintillating darkness rimmed with scary red and yellow lights, otherwise relieved by a few far-off ill-lit shapes. "I'm up," I croaked before considering how much better off I might be to keep silent. I tried to stand and flopped back down, weak and awkward; the coveralls worn to keep from tearing the tight MCP suit (and to provide a place for pockets, not to mention the overwhelming immodesty of a skin-tight mechanical counterpressure suit) were open almost to my waist, pulled down to free the sleeves which -- I twisted to look but couldn't quite see -- were probably what was knotted around my gauntleted wrists. It felt like the whole thing was made fast to something behind me by a short lanyard. I had thought I was ready for a bad outcome but this was way over the top. Looking around as much as I could, there was no question I was on the hull; the light and shadow had that razor-edged look you get in vacuum and my MP suit had the easier feel they get in zero pressure. There was no sign of Frothup's star and down was well underfoot. I retched again and suppressed worse. It appeared I might have misapprehended the situation. Also, I had a pounding headache.
"Are we awake now?" Same sweet, concerned and overbearing Irene. Oh, yeah. "Not feeling well? You know, I think something very bad might have happened to the glockey little widget that removes the CO2 from your air supply." She had to be behind me; I tried rolling to one side but couldn't turn far enough. "Ah-ah! You'll use up your air all the faster!"
Great. Suit training was a long time ago and oxygen consumption is wildly variable. Lose the rebreather with a full tank and you've got, um, at normal exertion an hour not counting safety factor.. If you're not in any way excited or stressed; if you are working hard of frightened, you can burn through an hour's air in fifteen minutes. Add in the reserve-you-are-never-to-plan-on and you can double those numbers, though it'll be pretty thin before it is gone. Nothing like the right kind of fear to induce clarity: other than drills, I'm in a pressure suit three times a year on a bad year, a few hours at a stretch. In a suit with a working rebreather, you've got air enough for a full watch, so I'm never even close to the limit.
There's a PANIC button on all pressure suits, center of your chest, with an anti-oops guard you can reach under or break with a bit more than ordinary force. I tried to bring my knees up to trip it, couldn't quite bend far enough (try it yourself!), and was rewarded with a painful yank on my wrists. Not to mention a chiding admonition, "Lie still! That won't do you any good."
I did as I was told, thinking hard. Why won't it do me any good? The suit's data transponder comes on automatically any time external pressure drops below half an atmosphere (a little higher than Denver, not sea level), lighting up a tally at the EVA monitors in the Control Room and E&PP's console room, streaming physio data and life support status to displays in both locations and into storage. The PANIC alarm uses both the data transponder and an independent UHF system borrowed from aviation. It’s got to work, no matter what
Unless it's deliberately been disabled. "Life support status" includes insignificant trivia like status of the rebreather: before the airlock had finished cycling, my suit should have started screaming to places where it would be noticed. Those hazy red and yellow lights I mentioned earlier are the status displays, HUDed onto the helmet at the edges of your vision and they ought to be mostly dim green and blue. Irene either gimmicked my suit or didn't intend me to last long enough for it to make any difference. Either way, it had to mean she was more than plain crazy.
While I mused, she fumed. "I don't know what you're doing in the middle of this — just some greasy tech. Do you know what George did before this syndrome ruined our lives? He was an engineer, you'd call it industrial automation or some dreary name. He designed the robotic systems at the richest metals-and-materials plant anywhere; we were on the station advisory boardl. I had just been inducted into the FSC council. We were respected. He makes one FTL trip to some filthy ball of mud and everything falls apart!”
For once, I kept my big mouth shut.
“I gave up my career! I gave up everything when he fell sick, I got him the very best healers, the latest medicine and for what? So my brother could be some kind of mystic? And then, then on that miserable place, that dirty, dirty ‘Lyndon,’ our factotum got so sick, they saddled us with that sneaking “Villy” and after all that, after all that, I find out he’s smuggling dead Nazis back to Earth and worse yet, the Federation is colluding to smuggle the ashes of our own Founders there! Back to the mud!” She broke off abruptly. “You were supposed to arrest him for murder, you know.”
For all my glib jokes about it bein’ a long walk home, for all the times I have been in bad situations a long way from help, not until now had I really been convinced of my own mortality.
[TO BE CONTINUED]