Thursday, 3 November 2016

Day Two and Three


Shuttle Qentiga was never going to win any beauty competitions. With the exception of some luxury fittings for the executive suits, she was a ruthlessly practical beast and with all the animated advertising slathered on her thick hide, she most closely resembled a skip dipped in glitter.
Captain Sumner suffered the looks of incredulous disdain on the faces of first time passengers with stoic indifference. If they were boarding, she already had their credits. Today, she'd seen aboard sixteen 4L platform staff - always prompt boarders, they didn't want to be fined by their company. The three 4L executives had boarded rather later, one of them already drunk. Now she was just waiting for the last one, a late addition to the passenger list.
Sumner had heard of Nicholas Mitcham and had even seen a few of his reports on the contract infractions war. She hadn't liked him then, she didn't expect to like him now and she checked the time on her datapad, fully expecting him to be the one that cost everyone the delayed departure fee.
As it turned out, he made it to the shuttle twenty minutes before departure. She didn't recognise him, at first. The lithe reporter in combat fatigues who had graced the newsfeeds more than a decade ago, had been replaced by a fat, middle-aged man in baggy comfort-wear. He rolled out of the auto-cart that had brought him and his luggage out to the launch pad and shouldered his bag with a grunt, casting his gaze over the ship and smirking in a way that did not improve Sumner's opinion of him.
He made his way up the boarding ramp and presented his datapad, "Captain Sumner? I'm Nick Mitcham - journalist. Four El commissioned me to shoot some footage of the approach to Luna Seventeen for a promo. You were told, I hope?"
Sumner scanned his pad with her own, checking the handshake for his pass and that the credits had been transferred before she said, "At one o-clock this morning, yes. As I told Executive Clark, you may not shoot your footage from the cockpit - we can, however, provide you a good view from your suite which is on the approach side."
He smiled, canting his head to one side slightly, "I'm sure that will be fine."
She passed his pad back and gestured to the doorway, "Follow the gold line for the executive suits, you're in number three. I suggest you stow your bag and take your seat in the lounge without delay, we launch in ..." she checked her pad, "Approximately seventeen minutes, forty seconds. There is a significant penalty fee for launch delay and the chartering companies are in the habit of charging the individuals responsible."
"Well then, can't have that. I'll just splash some water on my face and be along to the lounge directly."
He gave her another smile that was trying too hard to be charming and Sumner stared him down until it faltered off his face and he got moving. Once he was inside, she sent the ramp on its way back to the terminal, went in and sealed the airlock, check-listing the indicators on her pad before stalking her way up to the cockpit.

The cockpit was a three-seater. Room for a pilot, co pilot and flight engineer. Qentiga only needed a pilot to fly, but Sumner had chosen this model purely for the extra room it afforded for monitoring feeds.
She dropped into the co-pilot's seat and asked the pilot, "Dawud, how are we looking?"
Dawud was concentrating on his comms screen, punching buttons, "We've had a course change, Captain. Came in a couple of minutes ago - authorisation checks out. They want us to go Darkside and come in from the east."
"I thought Darkside was off limits to franchise traffic?"
"They've given us a tunnel through it - something to do with a radiation flare in the main shipping lanes."
Sumner frowned, "I wish LTC would find a system that works and stick with it. Who's paying for the extra fuel?"
Dawud glanced over and flashed a grin, "Good thing you're sitting down already - the company's paying for it. They've given us a ticket we can redeem at the platform, they'll refuel us there."
"There's our luck for the day," Sumner reached up and hit the intercom, switching to the control room digifeed, "Casey, how's the controller?"
There was a moment of silence, then Casey came into view, her hair in the sort of disarray that suggested she'd been crawling around in the maintenance ducts, "Controller's green across the board. Gave it extra glucose on feed line A. Worked that micro delay right out."
"Launch in approximately thirteen minutes, can you get up here and help Dawud with the pre-flight?"
"Yes, Captain."
Sumner closed the feed and started flicking through the other channels, seeing that at least four of her passengers were still faffing about in their quarters instead of taking seats in the launch lounge. She sighed and got out of her seat, "Every damn time."
With the controller playing automated get-in-your-launch-seat messages with increasing frequency, Captain Sumner chased down the strays and herded them into the launch lounge, not at all surprised to find that the journalist was poking around in cargo, claiming to be 'looking for the bar'. He was probably looking for an angle - the freelancers always were - and she wondered if it would be possible to 'lose' him at the platform before the return run. That would almost be worth the penalty.
After making sure they were all secured and with less than a minute to spare, she made it back to the cockpit to strap herself in. Casey was already in the bucket seat behind Dawud. She was bent over the controller output screen with that peculiar intensity common to 4L technicians, who took a drug that speeded up their perception of time, leaving them living in a world where everyone and everything around them moved in slow motion. 4L techs blinked one eye at a time so that they could see the controller output on their screens without missing a nanosecond, which was important, because despite Dawud's skill as a pilot, it was the controller that trimmed the engines, managed the grav pads and both monitored and operated life support and radiation levels.
"Status?" asked Sumner.
"All green," said Casey.
Flicking switches over his head, Dawud said, "All is well. Permission to launch, Captain?"
With one last look at her own screens to make sure everyone was still strapped down, Sumner said, "Permission granted."
Dawud dialled the comm and flicked the switch, "E-T-C, this is A-R-K Qentiga. Confirm clearance for departure on six, nine, eighty to Luna Darkside fifteen, seven, eight."
Confirmed A-R-K Qentiga, you are cleared to proceed. You have a lane to eighteen thousand metres at six, nine, eighty - hold there for further clearance from L-T-C, confirm."
"Confirmed, control, clear to eighteen thousand metres at six, nine, eighty and hold."
Safe flight, Qentiga. E-T-C out.
As Dawud set things into motion, the dispassionate and androgynous 'voice' of the controller echoed through the shuttle.
Final launch warning. Please ensure you are in your pressure chairs and secured. Launch in ten... nine... eight..."
Sumner wiggled her shoulders more securely into the back of her chair and watched the digifeeds showing the launch lounge, where her passengers were strapped down. Their expressions ranged from the lady who had fallen asleep, to the white-knuckled terror of the drunk exec, who had been warned to launch with his head turned to the side in case he vomited and choked to death. The journalist looked nervous too, but was much better at keeping it in check. Sumner was faintly surprised - she expected a man like that to have almost as many launches under his belt as she did.
...two... one. Launch.
There was a subtle vertigo from the gravpads ramping up in an attempt to compensate for the launch. The acceleration quickly overwhelming gravpad capabilities. Pressure chair pneumatics hissed and gasped. A couple of the passengers could be heard wailing over the feed as the pressure mounted, crushing them into their chairs until they looked like stick men in marshmallows. As Qentiga reached her speed, the pressure eased off more gradually than it had been applied until the gravpads were in control again, rubber-banding them back to 1G.
Sumner was happy to see that the drunk exec had managed not to vomit all over her launch lounge and she unbuckled her straps to see to the more tiresome business of making sure the execs were kept happy for the duration of the flight.
"Casey, when we reach LTC space, tell the controller to blank the viewports. That reporter doesn't have clearance to film anything but the flight approach to Lunar Seventeen and he's probably fitted with an EyeSpy."
"Yes, Captain."
"Honestly, I'm surprised they didn't stipulate that when they changed the route - I suppose we'll just be going over rock and covered facilities?"
Dawud shrugged.
Casey said, "I'll let you know if the controller sees anything interesting."

There were complaints about the blanked viewports - from the executives of course - but not from the journalist, which was more of a surprise. Aside from that, the flight out of Earth's atmosphere was uneventful and Captain Sumner went through her routines of safety checks and passenger management almost on automatics. She had found that passengers, far from being wild cards in the shuttle business, were very predictable once you got to learn their ways. They fell into categories and she'd developed techniques for dealing with each type.
She'd expected to have to keep herding the journalist away from areas of the shuttle off-limits to passengers, but after his initial wander he stayed in his launch seat, unstrapped, but otherwise unmoving, all of his attention on his datapad. Sumner even went so far as to ask Casey if he was transmitting or receiving anything on the pad using the 4LBk encryption, but Casey told her all he seemed to be doing was compulsively checking his mail and occasionally checking the 4L news feeds - all on standard encryption.
She was interrupted from her suspicious scrutiny of the journalist by one of the execs - not the drunk, who had retreated to his suit, but a woman in a sharp suit with artfully cascading red hair, which had come through the launch almost untouched.
"Excuse me, Captain? I'm Eleanor Courtenay, Four el ee ar - I have some questions about this ship."
Sumner lifted her chin, "Ma'am?"
"I couldn't help but notice that all the ground staff referred to your ship as Ark Qentiga, instead of Four El Qentiga. Why is that?"
Sumner internally sighed, sensing more than a whiff of corporate outrage brewing, "The ship's full name is A-R-K Four El Qentiga, but all traffic control care about are the ship's manufacturing origins. A-R-K is the traffic designation for Aratek ships."
The exec stiffened almost imperceptibly, "But the controller is Four El. The controller talks to traffic control, yes?"
"Yes, ma'am, but the controller transmits Aratek engine codes to traffic and our silhouette is Aratek. Also, most of our traffic control communications are confirmed by an Aratek pilot."
"But you're flying Four El personnel to Four El facilities!"
"We are fully licensed to serve with and for a number of corporations and Four El Engineering is our biggest customer - however, none of that helps traffic control recognise our ship, which is of Aratek make."
Grasping the sheer lack of importance of 4L components to traffic control seemed to be beyond the woman. Captain Sumner resigned herself to paraphrasing exactly the same information until the exec grew annoyed enough to threaten to report the 'incident', which would provide the opportunity to distract her with contact information and complaint forms, all of which could be explained at a later date to hopefully more sensible people.
Eleanor wagged a finger, "I think the chief executive of resource management would be very interested to hear about the sidelining of our brand identity. In fact -"
The gravpads above and below them made a slightly distressed whining noise and then Sumner, Eleanor and everyone else in the room started to hover off the floor as the gravity cut out.
Captain Sumner grabbed hold of the nearest launch chair and then took hold of Eleanor's sleeve to stop her from drifting further. She raised her voice, "Everyone return to your launch chairs - make small and careful movements. If you need assistance I will help, if you are patient. Do not try to 'fly' around the room, the gravity could come back on at any moment."
Several of the platform staff aborted their grinning attempts to head ceiling-ward with some panicky arm-flailing in the direction of the nearest solid object. One of them was already too far up and was swearing up a storm.
"Well honestly," said Eleanor in tones of high disgust, "I can see I'll have more than one thing to report."
Sumner steered Eleanor's hand to the launch chair she was holding onto and said, "Yes, Ma'am. Please, strap yourself in."
"You advertise with 'when you can't afford mistakes', don't you? I wonder what the regulator's would make of that piece of misinformation?"
"Strap yourself in, Ma'am."
When she was sure the exec was going to do as she was asked, Sumner pointed at the idiot flailing about on the ceiling and said, "Stay still! I'll come up and get you."
While she was kicking off gently to glide to the idiot, Sumner pinched the comm. button on her collar and cut off the alarm bleeping away in her earpiece, "Dawud, report."
"It's the controller. It's shut down half of its systems, shall I switch to manual life support?"
Sumner reached the ceiling and with her free hand grabbed the belt of the floating staffer and used one boot against the ceiling to carefully alter their trajectory to the lounge floor, "Yes, do that and confirm when it's green. Casey, report."
Casey came over the comm, sounding uncharacteristically excited, "Controller's not talking, Captain. Trying to ascertain why."
"Get a move on. I want a shipwide sixty second warning before the grav pads come back on, make sure I get it."
"I'll try."
Sumner frowned, letting go of the comm button, but keeping the channel open. She focused her attention on making sure the rest of the staff were down and buckling in now she'd brought the flier back to a chair. She wanted to say a good deal more in stronger language, but she didn't want her passengers to hear it. Besides, she still had two stray executives to secure and she only knew for sure where one of them was.
Before she was all the way out of the lounge another alarm sounded - this one over the shipwide speakers. It was the radiation alarm and she heard some of the staff groaning. Most of them were very familiar with radiation alarms and what they meant.
Sumner called back into the lounge, "Stay secured!"
Eleanor shouted, "What's going on, Captain?"
"We have a malfunction - as soon as I have more details they will be announced over the comms. Until then, all passengers must remain secured for their own safety."
"You know more than you're telling us! I demand-"
Sumner cut her off by closing the lounge door. She ripped off the tear-away panel by the door and punched in the lockdown code, sealing the lounge to anyone who didn't have a crew identifier on their datapad. Before she was done, the radiation alarm stopped.
She pinched the comm. again and said, "Dawud - make reassuring noises to the passengers if you get a chance."
She checked her pad, trying to get access to the monitors so she could verify the two missing execs were in their respective suits, but the controller managed the ship's intrafeed and she couldn't get into anything.
Over the shipwide speakers, Dawud said, "Ladies and gentleman, this is your pilot speaking. We have switched to manual radiation management for the time being and expect the grav pads to be restored shortly. In the meantime, please remain secured and await further instructions."

Dawud's message played on repeat in five-minute intervals. Captain Sumner found the drunk executive floating around in his bathroom, covered in sick. She gave him a towel to wipe the worst off and carefully manoeuvred the weeping man to the suit's bed and tucked him in tight, telling him not to get up until the all clear.
The other exec - a small and weasel-like fellow who looked as if he overdid his own corporate drug usage - wasn't in his quarters.
Sumner got back on the comm. "Casey, report. Also, if either of you know where Excutive Mateu is, let me know immediately."
There was no immediate answer of any kind and Sumner was about to ask for Casey again, when Casey came on the feed, "Captain... the controller's ignoring every soft command sent to it. I tried to get into the controller housing to hard command and it won't even open the panel, I'm going to have to cut my way in."
Sumner frowned, "What are you telling me, Casey? Has it gone rogue?"
"I don't think so - it's never shown any signs of instability and the way it's acting now... I think it's just running a new set of protocols," a faint static breeze clouded the feed, only audible when Casey stopped talking. The static was radiation, meaning Dawud wasn't keeping the shielding to the standard it ought to be at.
After a pause, Casey said, "Captain, I think we've been sabotaged."
Sumner paused in her slow progress down a corridor, pulling herself along by any handhold she could get and fighting the urge to increase her momentum. Who the hell would sabotage a shuttle on what was, basically, a very small crew run? They weren't even hauling cargo. Personal vendetta? She didn't think she had any rivals who rated her highly enough to perform this level of crime.
She shook her head and re-focused on the task at hand. Didn't matter why right now. All that mattered was how and what systems.
An answer of sorts to the second question came over the comms a moment later as Dawud said, "I've lost control of the engines and we're being steered down to the Darkside a lot faster than I'd like, I need some help up here."
Sumner said, "I've lost Executive Mateu, he's probably not secured."
"Captain, you're going to lose more than one if we touch down at this velocity."
"Right," Sumner changed direction, speeding up despite the risk if the gravpads came back on without warning, "Casey, you get into that controller and cut its link to the ship. I don't care how you do it."
"Yes, Captain. I... yes."
Sumner made it to the cockpit in less than seven minutes, hauling along almost recklessly and pulling more than one muscle yanking herself from one trajectory to another. Once she was there, she heard the radiation alarm again - evidently just cut off from the shipwide broadcast. There were all manner of other alarms going off too and the panels were festive with flashing lights. Dawud's hands were flying over his console as he fought for control.
Getting into the co-pilot's seat and strapping in, Sumner raised her voice to be heard over the wooping and buzzing alarms, "Dawud? What do you need?"
            He didn't look away from his task, his voice only slightly tighter than usual, "If you can keep trying to power down the engines, I'll see if there's a way I can use the test routines to re-align them. Until Casey gets that thing out of my systems, our best option is to try to redirect into space."
Even as she started to do as he had asked, Sumner said, "I don't much like the idea of spinning out - we're tight on fuel thanks to that route change."
"We'll catch some more rads and we'd have to sit out there for a few days before we can be tugged in, but it beats hitting solid ground."
"What are LTC saying?"
Dawud did snatch a glance her way then, the depth of his concern clear in his eyes, even if his tone was still only a notch up from professional boredom, "Nothing. We're deaf and dumb outside this ship. I can't even tell if the transponder's replying to them anymore."
Sabotage. There was no doubt in Captain Sumner's mind on that matter now. While she battled with the engine shut-offs - about as effective as hitting them with a pillow, presently - she opened comms to the controller room on the main panel.
"Casey, any news?"
"If I find out who did this to my controller, I'll kill them!"
Unlike Dawud, Casey's voice was high-emotion. She almost sounded hysterical. Sumner said, "Keep it together, Casey - report."
After a short patch of nothing more than the fuzz and static of radiation, Casey said, "It's dying. We're losing it."
"I didn't ask you to save it, just get it out of my ship's systems."
"If it dies, the ship's dead anyway, it's blown and fused so much..."
"Casey! If we can't stop the engines, we're going to crash. Better to drift in than power in. Get it done."
The pause was longer this time, the static broken only by Casey's laboured breathing and what sounded suspiciously like a sob before Casey said, "Yes, Captain."
The feed cut off - killed at Casey's end.
Another alarm started up, this one a recorded woman's voice that stated with firm, repetitive urgency, Pull up - terrain. Pull up - terrain. Pull up - terrain.
Sumner looked out cockpit window, seeing a lot of dark grey - twilight on the Darkside, a mess of jagged-edged craters and some low domes that barely stood out amongst the surface. It was all going past very fast. She realised her innards weren't floating anymore. Not 1G, not the gravpads - but the Moon's gravity taking hold.
Dawud was still flicking switches at a furious pace and he said, "Don't worry, Captain. Casey will get it offline any second," he paused mid-switch and then added, "Inshallah."
And with that expression of doubt, Sumner knew that Dawud believed they were going to crash.
She believed it too and she switched comms back to shipwide, shouting over the alarms, "Brace for impact! Brace! Brace! Bra-"

The Qentiga clipped the edge of a crater and tumbled. The engines were still running and for a moment it spluttered upward again in a twisting rotation, like a Catherine wheel torn free of its pin. Then the engines finally cut out and the Moon's embrace brought it back down. The Qentiga landed aft-first, tumbled again two or three times kicking off the surface, then bellied down and gouged a rut into the surface for more than three miles before it slowed and fetched up on its side on the slope of another crater. Dust and smoke enshrouded it and the twilight grew imperceptibly darker.

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