The four of us milled about the bridge for nearly an hour, trying to piece together some sort of clue as to the fate of the crew. No matter how thoroughly we searched, however, we could find no physical evidence of their whereabouts.
So it was with frustration and resignation that we finally turned to the consoles.
There were not many still operational. Most had been upended and crushed by various factors. But there were still a handful wired into the network, and the computers in the adjoining rooms had fared slightly better in the attack. So we were able to access records for most of the core systems.
“T’Vosh,” said Cap, once Gator had glanced over and assessed each of the operational consoles. “You and I should look over the commander’s records. Perhaps we can find something noteworthy in there. Gator can handle the ship-wide assessment.”
The Farseer didn’t dispute the captain’s suggestion, and so the two of them retreated to one of the corner offices.
Meanwhile, Gator stood in the midst of several consoles that he and I had wrestled out of the operations pit and onto one of the upper decks. We had arranged them in a circle like some stone monument from a prehistoric civilization. Now, Gator had extended data cords from his suit and plugged himself directly into each of the nine active consoles. Lights on his suit flickered on and off, winking as they indicated the flow of streams upon streams of data between him and the ship’s network.
It wasn’t enough to control the ship. Gator had explained that to me some time ago. But it was an efficient way to secure an overview, and he could manage some baseline operational commands using this method of integration.
It did burn him out quickly, though. That much had been apparent when he tried to help Guhle during the ion storm.
After several minutes, during which I sat on the edge of the platform and listened to the silence behind the whirring and beeping of Gator’s interface, Gator turned to me and spoke.
“Guhle and Em need assistance down in the engine room,” he said, sounding somehow more mechanical than usual. “I need you to get down there and help them recalibrate the network systems. Guhle will help you,” he added as I opened my mouth to protest that I didn’t know how to do any of that stuff. “They will also need assistance in transporting the newly acquired gear back to our vessel. Stop by the ship and pick up a cargo loader.”
I hoisted myself back up onto my feet, securing the magboots as I did so, and made my way back to the lift shaft. On my way, I noticed Cap and T’Vosh huddled over something in one of the corner rooms, but I figured it wasn’t my concern and continued my trek toward the shaft.
Once I had gotten the loader from the ship, I commed Gator for directions to the engine. He projected a three-dimensional map of the battlecruiser, complete with damage, onto my suit’s visor. I didn’t know he could do that. Suddenly, I felt a brief twinge of increased fear of Gator as I got a Big Brother vibe from him. But I shook that off and proceeded toward the engine room.
The engine was actually on the other side of the ship. I had to cross through a demolished corridor, completely open to the void, tenuously connecting one half of the rotten ship to the other.
That was a harrowing experience. Even with the magboots. Precariously putting one foot in front of the other, clutching the handle of the cargo loader as though that would somehow keep me anchored down to the ship’s deck. I crept along inch by inch, not daring to look out and away from the corridor in front of me except once. When I did, I saw the twinkling of a million stars and the swirling brightness of a hundred nebulae staring back at me through the gaping hole where battlecruiser had once been before.
The experience was…mesmerizing. I felt my eyes cross and my stomach lurch as I tried to fathom the depths of the universe. I could feel the distance pulling to me. The infinite darkness and unfathomable light. Like standing on a catwalk above a perilous drop into oblivion. Grasping the railing tight beneath your hands as you wrestle with your own impulse to launch yourself over the edge. To feel the wind rushing past and the your stomach in free-fall.
Except, my stomach already felt like it was in free-fall. And it wasn’t fun. It was nauseating. That’s what ultimately pulled me back. And from that point on, I didn’t dare look out into the starscape.
When I reached the engine room, I had to look around for several minutes before I could find Em and Guhle. I couldn’t even hear them at first, even though they were bickering like madmen when I did find them. The low whirring of our own engines, that I had grown so accustomed to, was here a roaring like the sea crashing against a cliffside.
Granted, I suppose I wasn’t looking for them very fervently. There were no doubts about my reluctance to be reunited with my crewmates. Especially now. While I could have fooled myself into believing that perhaps we were reconciled in some professional capacity during this expedition, actually coming face to face with any of them I knew would shatter that little delusion. And that was not an experience I was looking forward to.
So by the time I found them, their impatience was such that there was little ceremony to our meeting.
“About time,” said Guhle, when Em had nodded over his head to indicate my arrival. “Come on, hatchling. Gator’s already riding my ass about this network.”
It was a good thing we had internal comm units, because there was no way I would otherwise have heard Guhle in that engine room, even if there had been air.
Air. That suddenly reminded me. Why was I able to hear the engines roaring?
I posed this question to Guhle.
“Limited atmospheric pressure,” he said distractedly. “Apparently some kind of emergency system. You may have noticed the working airlocks on your way over?”
“Those sealed shut when the pressure blew outside, I’d reckon. Hard to say for sure, though. In any case, it means we have to put up with this beast’s grumbling.”
We turned several corners around mammoth engine turbines, each easily the size of Bessie’s whole engineering bay, to say nothing of her individual engines. Finally, Guhle stopped in front of a computer terminal.
“Here we go,” he said, keying up the commands to synchronize with Gator. “Be glad we don’t have full pressure,” he said while he waited for the system to reboot. “Things’d be a hell of a lot louder, and they aren’t even running at full power, either.”
My mouth gaped as I tried to imagine the deafening volume that would have filled this chamber when the ship was intact. I counted myself lucky, as Guhle had suggested.
“What can I do?” I said at last, growing uncomfortable with the silence that had fallen between us.
“Well, we need to troubleshoot this terminal so we can give Gator full engine status. There’s apparently some sort of trouble with the connection, but I can’t figure it out on my own. I need to have eyes both here and along the network’s routing path. That’s where you come in.”
“Okay,” I said doubtfully. I only half-understood what Guhle was talking about. And at any rate, his warming professionalism was beginning to unnerve me. What happened to the bitterness and the cold hatred? Had I been forgiven? Or was Guhle merely ignoring our personal differences to get the job done?
“Alright,” said Guhle, bending over the terminal. “Looks like we’re up. Have you got your signal receivers boosted? Things can get a little weird in here. I want to make sure you can hear me.”
I checked my comm readouts. Everything checked out, as far as I could tell. I nodded to show Guhle that I was ready.
“Okay, great. Now follow that cord there until you find something funny. There should be a cut or a terminal or something between here and the bridge.”
“I’m supposed to follow this thing all the way from here to the bridge?” I said, already on my way to wherever I was supposed to go.
“Not if we can get it working before you get there,” said Guhle. “Just keep going and tell me what you see.”
“Alright,” I said, now crouching down so I could follow it with my fingers as well as my eyes. “It’s out of the engine room now. Passed through an overhead vent. I’m on the other side and it looks like it’s heading for a security checkpoint.”
“There should be a console in there. Maybe even a routing station. That’s a hive for problems. Check it out.”
I nodded, then realized that he couldn’t see me anymore, so I confirmed with my voice.
Inside the security station, the place was a mess. Weapons lockers hung open, or else off their hinges. All the combat gear was gone. Still no bodies, but definite signs of habitation. Paper forms, data readouts, and half-eaten meals sat scattered around the desks and tables inside.
In a small partition off to the right, a lone guardsman could sit and scan incoming engineers, approving or barring the access to the engine room. I decided to start my inspection there, as it seemed likely to me that the engine room data cords would connect to the engine room check-in station.
Guhle disagreed with me.
“It would make some manner of logical sense,” he said over the comm when I shared my reasoning with him. “But I’ll bet the engineers complicated it. More likely, the security check-in is on a satellite router. Feel free to check, though. No harm in it.”
I booted up the computer and followed Guhle’s instructions for tracking a data signal. He sent a ping through the router and asked if I could see it come up on my monitor.
I could not.
“Like I said, satellite router. But it’s still a good place to start. Follow it’s network trail and you should be able to find the local hub. I’ll bet my network cord feeds into there.”
I did as instructed, physically following the cable from the monitor to its source, and then from there to the hub. One of the computers in the security station’s main room served as the routing hub for the entire area. At least, according to Guhle.
“Alright, let’s get it fired up, and tell me what you see.”
I waited. The device was taking longer than expected to come to life.
“Uh, Guhle,” I said. “I think we’ve got a problem.”
“Knew it,” he muttered. “Alright, give me a sec.”
I waited. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Was Guhle going to come here and take a look at it? No. He said he needed to keep his eyes on the terminal in the engine room. Would he contact Gator, and the two of them would figure out a workaround before instructing me on what to do? That was possible. Though it sounded a bit complicated and difficult. Why not just make me a part of the discussion so I could feed them real-time information?
Guhle’s voice crackled over the comm, interrupting my musings. “Hatchling, I’m sending Em up.”
I froze. Em? What was she going to do? Wasn’t she a mechanic? Did she have any technical experience with network technology or computers? More importantly, what were we going to say to each other?
I suddenly realized that I had no idea what side of the issue Em came down on. Maybe she was on my side, but that seemed like a hopelessly optimistic notion. More likely, she hated my guts. I know I would if I were Em. She would see this whole mess as my fault. And when someone as sweet and friendly as Em decided you were bad news, you never got a second chance. That was it. You blew it. You were a bastard, a scoundrel, a demon, and a generally not-nice person forever after that. No questions asked.
Em arrived. I could tell she was already in a foul mood, so I decided not to make it worse and kept my presence as unobtrusive as physically possible. I didn’t speak. I simply stepped out of the way and into a nearby corner.
“I don’t know why Guhle even sent me,” she complained loudly. I couldn’t tell if this was on a direct channel or a general one. “I’m not a computer technician. A mechanic. These things aren’t a part of my job. I do engine work. It’s in the name. Engineer.”
As she spoke, she crouched down beside the console and quickly dislodged the panel to reveal the wiring underneath.
“Hand me that thingy there, would you?” she said, waving me toward her tool belt with her hand while she poked her nose around inside the wiring.
I stepped gingerly forward, and then hesitated above her tool belt, not touching anything. “Which, uh…thingy?” I said.
“The soldering iron,” she said. “And the wire cutters.”
I grabbed the appropriate tools — I had learned how to recognize the tools on Em’s belt during one of the earlier months aboard Bessie, when I had been sent down to assist her with some routine maintenance in the engine room — and handed them to her.
“Simple power short,” she said. “Just gotta uncross these guys…and then hook ‘em up to those guys over there…and then…let’s try that.”
As she extricated herself from the tangle of wires, the screen above the console flickered on and started displaying the reboot command sequence.
“There,” she said. “Don’t know why Guhle even sent me. Just a simple electrical problem. Any half-wit could’ve done it.”
But I could tell she was proud of her work.
“Thanks for the help,” she said, grabbing her tool belt from off of the ground and fastening it back onto her suit.
Guhle’s voice crackled over the comm. “Em, stay there for a sec. I may need you to monitor the power output while I test the network signal.”
“In other words,” she said. “You want me to standby in case anything goes wrong.”
“Pretty much,” said Guhle. “Hatchling, are you on the console?”
“Not yet,” I said, stepping forward and keying in the basic system commands that brought up the network monitoring screen. “Alright. Go.”
Sure enough, the signal came through. I told Guhle, and he growled his appreciation.
“Alright, now that we’ve gotten that silliness out of the way, maybe Gator will lay off my back long enough to let me and Em do our job. Em? Go ahead and get back here. You too, hatchling, now that I think about it. You need to hoist this stuff back to the ship.”
With that, Guhle cut the feed and apparently turned back to whatever he was doing.
Em and I shuffled along — you never really walk with magboots; it’s more of a gradual shifting of weight — as we made our way back toward the engine room.
Neither of us spoke, and when the silence became too much for me to really put up with, I finally asked her. “Em, do you hate me?”
The question surprised her. “Hate you? What for?”
I have to admit, I found myself at a loss for words. What for? Well, for everything, right? I didn’t know what to say. Eventually, however, I found my voice.
“Well…Mearr, for starters.”
Em barked a laugh. “Mearr? That stuck-up, fickle bitch?”
“Oh,” she said. “Sorry. That was…impolite. And unkind.”
We walked in silence for a few moments more.
“It’s not that I don’t like Mearr,” she said at last. “Or respect her. It’s just…well, she’s a great pilot and occasionally a good friend. But she isn’t consistent enough for my tastes. I put up with her, the way we all put up with each other. But that doesn’t mean I like the way she flits from friend to friend amongst the crew. Or the way she rides Bessie into the ground on a regular basis.”
Those last words came ground out between her teeth, as though the strain Mearr put on the ship was more physically painful to Em than anything else that the pilot did.
“So…what about me?” I said at last.
“You? You’re alright. But a bit weird sometimes. I think it’s stupid what Mearr did to you, and it sure made it hard on the rest of us while you were recovering. But then, when you got out, you just kinda disappeared. I tried to come see you, but you were never around. I just figured you wanted to be alone.”
“I guess I did,” I said after a while. “But it’s still nice to know that, well, you don’t hate me.”
Em snorted. “I don’t think it’s possible for anyone on the ship to truly hate anyone else. We live too close to each other for that to be practical. But what do I know?”
I prayed that she was right, even while judging her naiveté.