"Off the Grid" - 5/21/08



I wrote "Off the Grid" a little over three years ago, in response to some online quiz I've since forgotten the name of which offered prize money for the best short stories to be set on a near-future moon. The stories had to use real lunar science, and involve mankind somehow living and supporting itself on our celestial neighbor.

As usual in those days, my story ended up being far longer at 6,700 words than the limits set by the quiz requirements--5,000. Still, it was a bit shorter than most stories I'd written up to that point, and I had some fun writing it. Ultimately, however, I found the voice to be too awkward at times, and the plot dragged out for a little too long. I tried editing it down somewhat, but the end result was just a travesty. I had no idea what I was doing!

So instead I restored it back to its former glory and sent it out to a few magazines and hoped one of them would bite. None ever did. Which is too bad, because I do still harbor some tenderness for this tale.

Anyway, I'm including it here so that you can see what failure reads like and weep for me.

Or maybe I just don't want the story I worked so hard on to disappear into the forgotten realms of my reject drawer, crowded as it may already be with manuscripts past.

Yeah, that's it.

In any case, if you read this and want to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on this original announcement link and scrolling to the bottom.

Thanks for stopping by.

--David Batista
August 15, 2011 (happy Independence Day, India!)
====================================================





“Off the Grid”





By the time the beat-up municipal bug crested the hill, my bones were in throbbing agony. With a heavy sigh I chanced a final glimpse at the metropolis spread out behind us before nosing the old caterpillar down the canyon slope. I watched silently as New Brisbane’s darkened dome sank beneath the lip of Plato crater. Disappearing from view forever, I thought.

My hands gripped the wheel tightly against the cold irrationality of fear. I was now committed to this insane plan.

As we descended to the valley on the other side of the ridge, I forced my eyes ahead to keep the cat’s rubber tires from sliding across the loose lunar soil. Contrary to its designers’ boasts of off-road dependability, the buggy’s electric engine struggled to balance the complex counterweights that kept us from bouncing down the hill like an overeager child at a moonie fair. Unlike its nimble Terran namesake, this caterpillar handled more like a pregnant elephant on skates over the rugged highland terrae we now traversed. My bones suffered a new agony: sharp, jostling, biting pain!

Again I anchored my hands to the steering column, breathing slowly through my suit’s air filter and trying hard not to think about the danger I was surely getting myself into. The mysterious woman seated catty-corner from me did not seem to notice my unease. She didn’t say much, in fact, this hightown memsahib claiming to be a lowly Municipal Enforcement patrolman. I watched her through the heads-up display mirror as she stared out the window, worry lines creasing her brow. If I were to believe her story—and it was an outlandish one, to be sure—the fate of the moon now rested in our hands.

Or her hands, considering she was the one pointing the gun.

As the cat rattled like some wayward derelict toward the smooth valley floor of Mare Frigoris below, I repeated to myself the one pertinent question that had been on my mind ever since we left the city behind:

Why, by Vishnu’s great chakra, did I ever open that gate?



#



I was repairing a busted magnetic coil on the northeast corridor outside city limits when Terra’s Hope cultists took out the power grid. New Brisbane’s half-sunken dome veritably groaned as the enclosed conurbation chugged to a standstill within. Behind the reinforced clearsteel, lights flickered white along the tallest prefab structures, then yellow, before sputtering out completely like so many candles in the wind. Without much preamble, I’d suddenly found myself cut off from the life stream of the second largest city on Luna. It was a fine sour pickle, as my papa-ji used to say.

Frantic broadcasts raced over the wide-band almost immediately, until that eventually went dead as well. What I gathered before the silence struck, however, had been quite grim. The extremists had seized control of the city and several nearby cantons almost without resistance. The Westridge reactor had been knocked offline, and repeated calls south to Saganville near the equator were being met with standbys. The officious-sounding voice over the band had informed all New Brisbane citizens to stay calm and remain indoors, order was to be restored shortly. Meanwhile, those stranded out on the surface like yours truly were urged to find the nearest J-walk and wait for further instructions.

I had no intention of heeding the announcer’s advice, of course. I’d seen enough conflict Earthside to trust my chances of being rescued in the middle of a national crisis. If I didn’t asphyxiate within my own tracto suit, I would freeze to death first. The suits were rated to withstand constant exposure on the surface for up to seventy-two hours, but like everything else on Luna it was a guarantee best left academic. So I packed up my tools and hopped into the caterpillar, using the maglev commuter track as a guide back to the nearest access gate.

As a ‘cane, my work omniband gave me license to bypass security daemons and override the cycle controls. Naturally with the power grid offline, such privilege amounted to only so much vacuumed air. I slammed my fists into the hard surface of the gate door over and over until my hands went numb. Still nothing. Which meant I had to do it the “ol’ Kolkata way” and cheat my way in.

The battered fuel cell I fished out of my tool-hook still had a little juice left in it according to the input node on my ‘band. Just enough to power the standby airlock release. It only took me ten minutes to splice open a relay connector and rig the cell to spark a feedback loop.

I pushed down hard on the handle to the reward of a satisfying hiss and the lock release cycled open. How I would manage to negotiate the inner lock remained to be seen, but for now I counted my progress a small victory.

Already I was thinking about my third story flat and the warm bed waiting for me. If I could just make my way back home I planned to lay low until this latest Terra’s Hope nonsense boiled over and sanity was restored this little corner of the moon.

As plans went it was a simple one, as I was a simple old man. I cared little for the misguided zealotry of a bunch of luddite madmen wishing to halt mankind’s push to the stars. If the moon was a harsh mistress, like that Terran writer once wrote, then I was surely its indifferent adulterer.

With my mind on such matters, I was completely unprepared for the striking young redhead who bustled through the gate pointing the business end of something threatening at my faceplate.

“Please don’t tell me you’re with Terra’s Hope,” was what I blurted through my mike, already cursing my luck.

The woman seemed taken aback by my response, but her mouth formed a humorless line behind her faceplate as she flashed an obsidian badge at me.

“M-E-P!” she bellowed, scanning the tag on my suit. “Step aside—Mr. Prasad. Official business.”

“Of course, memsahib. Whatever you say.” I knew it was best to just do as this young woman wanted, especially with that weapon of hers pointed one-fisted at me. I had seen many guns in my time, but I’d never seen a weapon of this particular caliber before. And while my curiosity was certainly piqued, I presently had no desire to satisfy the itch and ask questions.

So I stepped aside as best one could in a tracto suit. The officer did not move.

“Miss?”

Her eyes widened slightly, as if remembering I was there. I had an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.

“You’re a ‘cane, Mr. Prasad? Is this correct?”

I guessed she had been running my name through some database. Then I remembered: the terminals were offline.

“Your tool-hook,” she indicated with a nod, reading my surprise.

“Yes, officer. I’m a Class-A mechcane, local twenty-one. If you’d like to see my credentials—”

“Never mind that. Are you familiar with antiquated interfaces?”

“Antiquated?”

“Last century binary protocols. Are you fluent?”

“If by fluent you mean possessing more than a tech school degree in basic systems engineering . . . then yes, I am competent.”

It was the second of my cosmic blunders that morning, the first being my decision to roll out of bed.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be my last.



#



The basaltic plain of Mare Frigoris was a welcomed contrast to the rough hills of Montes Alpes we left behind us. I slowed the caterpillar to a crawl before easing up on the throttle completely. The woman gestured angrily with her gun.

“Why are we stopping? Do you think I won’t use this?”

“In fact I’m sure you won’t, memsahib. A concussive blast in here would vac us both.”

“This is a taser, Mr. Prasad, not a projectile weapon. Do you know the difference?”

“Sure,” I replied. “I remember them. Once in West Bengal when I was a child, the Governor tried to install them as the local constabulary’s official sidearm. Might have worked had he not been gunned down by separatists the following week. Shortly after that . . . well, we Bengalis had more serious issues to contend with.”

The officer nodded. “The Unification Wars. You fought?”

“You ask as if there was a choice. I was young, low caste, and full of anger. What do you think, miss?”

“Fine, whatever,” she waved the taser at me once more. “Just don’t test my patience. This won’t kill you, but it’ll cause a lot of pain. I don’t think you want to find out how much.”

“Sure don’t, cho chweet. But you’re misunderstanding. I’d gladly take a jolt to the ribcage rather than drive another kilometer before understanding what I’m getting myself into here. I didn’t reach such a ripe old age by following others blindly.”

The woman nodded again. “Fair enough. But I told you back at the dome, I require your help in—”

“Oh yes, ‘in matters of great lunar security.’ Yes, yes, you said that before. But how exactly do you expect me to help? You said this involved the terrorist attacks this morning? If that’s so, then why are we heading north when New Brisbane is in the opposite direction?”

The officer took a moment to reply, chewing her lower lip thoughtfully. Through her faceplate I could see she was younger than my initial estimate—no older than twenty-four, perhaps. Curled red tresses framed an oval-shaped, olive complexion, and her liquid green eyes were wide and far-spaced. Not bad looking, I had to admit. Especially for a cop.

Yet there was a curious hardness to the set of her brow and the gauntness of her cheeks, belying a deeper fortitude than I expected. I certainly didn’t doubt that she was capable of doing anything she set her mind to, including dumping an old goat like me on the side of the road if I didn’t wise up.

Something to keep in mind.

“I guess it wouldn’t change anything to let you in, now that you’re committed,” she said at last. “You’re to transport me to Timaeus crater. I need to contact the Unity before the cultists can execute their final plan.”

“The Unity? What does that have to do with anything down here?” Orbiting above the lunar equator at Langrangian point L1, Unity was the North American and European Space Agency’s latest pipe dream: a fission-powered ship transporting the first human expedition to Mars. Only the space elevator and specially authorized shuttle buoys could get near the bird.

“It’s a prime target,” the officer replied. “It represents all that Terra’s Hope stands against. Technology, financial largess, human vanity. The manifest destiny of the Federated Nations’ charter, all flash-wrapped in a shiny, pretty duralloy package. A perfect focal point for all the rage and inequity building up behind these people. That’s what this is all about, Mr. Prasad.”

“I’m not sure I follow,” I said. “I mean, I understand the why behind their actions, sure, but how are they planning to do all this? The Unity is parked some sixty thousand odd kilometers above the surface. Terra’s Hope is simply not coordinated enough to pull off such a stunt.”

She looked me straight in the eyes, and suddenly I saw a lot more of that strength I’d glimpsed earlier. “You don’t really know anything, do you? As of this moment a small force of saboteurs are approaching Unity hidden inside Helium-3 storage containers. They’re entrenched deep, exposing themselves to harmful contamination in the process to reach the ship’s holds.”

“The containers? But how? Cameras monitor every inch of the pull-lines up and down that elevator. Only cargo spiders get by. Unless . . .”

The officer nodded grimly. “They get in at the surface, before the containers even go up.”

“But that’s insanity! It takes the spiders two days to spin a decent-sized cargo up those ropes. Too long for a human body to withstand close proximity to modified He3 rods, let alone the vacuum of space.”

“Not too long. Just barely within the body’s limit of endurance, actually. Especially if the bodies in question are dedicated fanatics, appropriately suited, and who have been planning this operation for years. Don’t underestimate them, Mr. Prasad. We did, and look at New Brisbane now.”

I considered the truth of her words. “Point taken, Miss . . .?”

The woman smiled slightly. “Lt. Victoria Landry,” she said, her grin widening. It took me a second to realize that she was not smiling, but baring her teeth. “Now you know the seriousness of the situation. And if you don’t get this vehicle moving, Mr. Prasad, I will use this weapon and make you wish you never woke up this morning.”

“Too late for that,” I muttered, but turned the gears and got us rolling again. “And please, call me Ranjit. No one else does.”

“Okay, Ranjit. Are you satisfied?”

“Oh no, my dear lady. Far from satisfied. I still don’t understand why we’re heading north. The space elevator’s back the other way, and the old outpost at Timaeus crater has been abandoned for over a century. I doubt you’ll find anything still operational up there.”

“Nothing except an old communications antenna. This is the moon, Mr. Prasad. Nothing ever truly deteriorates here.”

“My joints beg to differ with you on that point,” I countered, “but I guess I see now why you need me along. With normal means of communication shut down, the terrorists won’t see this coming. If that derelict comm. antenna can be salvaged, we might be able to send an old-fashioned radio broadcast to the Feds stationed aboard Unity.”

I whistled.

“It might take a while, but a radio signal’s a damn sight faster than those cargo spiders. Pretty ingenious, now that I think of it.”

Through the mirror I saw Landry shrug. “All in a day’s work. With the rest of the MEP trapped back at the city, I’m all that’s left to stop the fanatics. Well, and you of course.”

I tried not to feel too warm and fuzzy inside.

“Why can’t these cultists just mind their business and worry about more important things?”

“For these people, Ranjit, their beliefs are all that’s important.”

“’These people’? What does that mean?”

“The downtrodden, the destitute—the poor, Mr. Prasad! They’ve watched for decades as the privileged few of lunar society rise higher and higher while the workers and laborers toil on the farms and in the anorthite mines. After a while you start to want a change. Don’t you?”

I grunted. “Don’t talk to me about change, Ms. Landry. I emigrated to the moon because I bought into the ‘Big Idea.’ Was going to make myself a rich man. And look at me now.”

“So you see, then.”

“No, I don’t see anything! What stake do you have in any of this?”

She raised an eyebrow.

“You can’t fool me, Ms. Landry. I hear the hightown accent, as much as you may try to hide it. You speak of the ‘privileged few’—but you’re one of them, aren’t you? How convenient it must be to commiserate the poor from high atop your gilded tower.”

“That’s not . . . that isn’t what I was trying to . . .” she stammered, then slammed her fist down hard on the dash. “Dammit, old man, I don’t have to explain myself to you!”

Keeping my eyes on the featureless grey landscape ahead, it was my turn to arch an eyebrow at the outburst.

“I rejected hightown a long time ago,” she continued. “I understand what it’s like to live low side, to see my friends downtrodden by high market prices and conglomerate trade agreements that marginalize the less fortunate. I know what it’s like to survive.”

“Survive?” I couldn’t help but laugh. “Slumming it down in lowtown is not survival, memsahib. It’s just plain living. The worst street in New Brisbane is like a palatial garden compared to the squalor my ancestors were forced to live in. That’s oppression at its finest, Ms. Landry. To be ground down by centuries of caste division and idealist dogma. When fat bureaucrats gorge themselves each night while children die by the hundreds on empty stomachs. That’s true survival right there. Not this. Compared to that, we’re all just a bunch of spoiled infants up here.”

For a while the lieutenant said nothing. I could see she was taken aback by my rant, and secretly I was ashamed. I was too old for such rhetoric!

“You keep using that word,” she said at last. “What does it mean?”

It wasn’t what I was expecting to hear, and I glanced over quickly in her direction.

“Word, memsahib?”

“Yes—that one!” she hissed accusingly. “What is that?”

“I don’t think it means what you think it means,” I joked.

“Try me, sir.”

I chuckled, unable to help myself. “Relax, lieutenant. It merely means ‘miss’ in my native tongue. It’s a polite honorific for a young lady where I’m from, okay?”

Landry seemed genuinely surprised by my explanation. “Oh,” she said softly into her helm mike. “I didn’t know. Thanks, I guess?”

I offered no immediate rejoinder to that, and we spent some time in complete silence before she continued.

“I won’t argue with what you’ve said,” she replied. “You’re right. I don’t know what it was like for you growing up on Earth. I’m just saying that I can see the motivation behind organizations like Terra’s Hope, if not agree with their methods. It still doesn’t change the fact that we have to stop those maniacs from—why are you slowing down?”

The lieutenant’s features twisted as she swiveled around to see what I was seeing.

“I think our clandestine voyage has gained some unwanted attention, memsahib.”

Up ahead, spread unevenly along the raised shore of the mare, lay half a dozen satvees. Their static shields were powered down, but the stubbed noses of the drill cannons blinked warning lights of red and orange atop each vehicle. Waiting.

Yet another fine pickle.

“How did they . . .?” Landry’s hands grabbed hold of the dashboard magnifier and zoomed the cab’s HUD on the blockade. I saw several figures gathered around the armored assaults. One of them had his faceplate cleared and stared at us as if aware he was being watched.

“Ortiz!” the lieutenant hissed.

I brought the caterpillar to a complete stop. “You know him?”

“Yeah,” Landry muttered, “he’s one of the extremist’s ring leaders. And also my boss.” She leveled the taser straight at my chest. “Speed up. We can break through them.”

I didn’t have time to digest the flash bomb she dropped in my lap. Not with Satvees sitting a cannon’s punch away. Without arguing I throttled the engine and pressed forward, but I wasn’t about to throw myself into a suicide run. I spun the wheel hand over hand and started picking up speed eastward.

Landry cursed. “Turn this tub around, ‘cane! I’m warning you.”

“Sorry, cho chweet,” I smiled sweetly. “There’s been a change in plans.”



#



We fled northeast at alternating speeds of breakneck and brain-hemorrhaging, using the relatively smooth surface of the mare to pick up velocity. It wasn’t enough. Eventually the lava plain gave way to more highlands, and the uneven terrae began taking its toll on the cat’s suspension. The vehicle was only ever intended for light patrol around the perimeter of Plato crater, well within city limits. It wouldn’t be long before the satvees’ greater weight and superior traction gained the advantage over us.

I hoped we’d make it to the farm before then.

“Now would be a good time to fill me in here,” Landry said testily. “What do you think you’re doing? Timaeus is the other way!”

“I have a better question: why did you call this Ortiz gunda your boss?”

Landry glowered, but eventually realized I wasn’t being cute anymore. She sucked air in through her teeth, the sound coming in small and tinny out of my helmet’s speakers.

“He’s my cover’s boss,” she admitted. “I’ve been embedded with the New Brisbane cell for the past six months. Or at least I was until this morning when my identity was blown.”

That got a slow whistle out of me. “Ah, I see. I was wondering how an MEP officer knew so much about Terra’s Hope. Usually that’s the Fed’s purview.”

Through the HUD’s mirror she gave me a funny look, head cocked to one side.

“Yeah, well, sometimes us city grunts have to earn our municipal pay.”

I shrugged. “If you say so, Vicky. Can I call you Vicky?”

“You can tell me where the hell we’re going. I don’t recall there being a shorter way north to the old communications outpost besides, you know, actually driving north.”

“Oh, I’m not taking us to Timaeus crater. Like I said, there’s been an alteration to this plan of yours. I know a place that may have what you’re looking for. An ancient habitat commune out by Archytas, not too far from here.”

“Why didn’t you mention this before?”

Because I didn’t entirely believe your story, I almost said. But at that moment the ground in front of the caterpillar erupted in a geyser of grey regolith and shrapnel, eliciting a shrill bark of surprise from the lieutenant and a string of gutter curses from myself. I wrestled to bring the wheel under control, but our pursuers were not giving up yet.

The cannons. I’d forgotten to factor in the damn cannons!

A virtual cacophony of destruction rained down on all sides of us, causing the cat to lurch and buckle like a drunken stevedore attempting a null-grab. Suddenly I felt the ground give way under the front wheels and realized too late that we were airborne. The valley came up fast, and at the wrong angle, resulting in a muffled crunch that sent me flying into the dashboard. Luckily my harness kicked in at just the right moment, proving for once that not all municipal property bluffed its way through inspection.

Landry wasn’t so fortunate. Although her harness had deployed, thanks to the odd angle of her seat, the jolt had wedged her helmet firm into the curve of the forward HUD. Her body hung slack in the seat’s webbing, the low gravity making her legs float upward like sausage-shaped orange balloons. I pulled her by the ankles down to the ceiling of the cabin, which had now become the floor.

“Landry, are you okay?”

No response.

Suddenly her body twisted in my grip as her arms waved urgently. I turned her around, then cursed.

Landry’s eyes stared at me, panic-stricken. Her mouth worked to form words I could not hear. Across her faceplate, barely ten centimeters long but growing larger, a white scar zigzagged from top to bottom. I couldn’t hear the hiss of air escaping, but knew she only had seconds before her helmet imploded.

I fumbled for my tool-hook, fishing wildly through the pouch until I found the small vial of vacuum bonding and applied it across the damaged faceplate. The whitish sealant blotted out most of Landry’s sight, but I doubted she would complain. It wasn’t a permanent fix, but it would do for the moment. In the meantime, we had more urgent matters on our hands. The cannon blasts had ceased, but I was under no illusion that the satvees had given up their pursuit.

I reached for the door controls and, saying a silent prayer to those ancient Hindi gods of my papa-ji, began the manual lock release sequence to exit the vehicle.



#



The caterpillar was a wreck beyond saving.

By one of those insane cases of good luck—or maybe the gods were deigning to help out a rotten old badmash like me after all—we had landed in a depression not far from a familiar ridge. As I led a stumbling Landry up with one hand, I almost cried out with joy when I saw the rounded ceramic-and-glass domes of the farm spread out below the lip of the crater.

Earth hung huge and low in the sky as we shuffled down the remaining slope, a swollen blue-white parent watching silently over its precocious children. We hopped and bopped our way across the corrugated selenography, stumbling over each other’s boots as we closed the distance to the nearest of the structures.

We called it a farm in my day, but in fact the settlement was an enclosed, self-sustaining laboratory nestled snugly against the inner southern wall of Archytas crater. Baked regolith-ceramic walls and reinforced clearsteel provided against solar radiation, as well as insulation to ward off the frosty chill of a typical lunar fortnight. Several large mirrors spaced thirty meters apart lined the crater rim in a semicircle around the farm, reflecting sunlight inward to special electrolytic fuel cell converters which provided power to the site.

The habitat structures were arranged in a neat hexagonal layout; six specialized and sealed cylinders linked by a series of interconnecting tubeways to a central operations hub. Each dome provided the basics for extended stay and experimentation at the farm: life support, geoponics, fishery, labs, waste management, living quarters. And, of course, operations control, where I hoped to salvage the comm. equipment.

The site had long ago been abandoned to time and the superior efficiency of lava tube construction that followed decades later. It had become old back when I was young, developed during the early half of the twenty-first century when mankind rushed to prospect its celestial neighbor for developmental rights. The farm had been an experiment in long-term survival in those days, built by robots controlled via telepresence from Earth, and later settled by the best and bravest minds from the home planet.

By the time I arrived on Luna, it had been reduced considerably to a bucolic barracks and training facility for the city works’ employees of both New Brisbane and nearby Armstrong. Here we learned such useful survival skills as might be needed out in the wilds of the lunar surface. Which was just the official spin for what amounted to a bunch of men and women getting pissed-faced and stoned under the biodome.

Like most old things on the moon, the site eventually closed due to budgetary lapses and mismanagement. It had enjoyed a brief resurgence of public interest in recent years, playing host to half a dozen graduate retreats from local universities, before finally shutting down for good two years ago.

We arrived silently at the west entrance to the oblong geoponics bay. The edifice’s tall windowed frames projected ghostly shadows across the illuminated portion of the crater’s upper wall. Landry turned in my direction and, even with her helm mike busted, I could almost hear the inquiring tone of her voice.

“Don’t worry,” I reassured her, hoping her earpiece was still intact at least. “I know this place well. Just don’t let go of my hand, okay?”

Landry’s helmet dipped in affirmation.

We entered the structure via a simple airlock which cycled open at my touch, proving that the fuel cells were still operational even after all this time. Mirror light filtered down through the glass enclosure at rounded angles as we bobbed our way forward, lending an eerie diplopia to the two-acre long expanse of tilled imported soil. Several large and ancient plowing machines, twice the height of a man, squatted close to the entrance, their dusty metal blades still sharp and deadly after so many decades. I chuckled at the memory of practicing elaborate mock-drills among those machines with the other members of my cadre, none of us sober.

“This way,” I said aloud, leading us deeper into the facility in search of the nearest connecting tubeway.



#



To my relief, the algae tanks housed on the second level of the operations control hub were still churning along even after two years of inattention. Which, upon reflection, shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Unless human hands intervened, the facility was designed to function autonomously for as long as the sealed walls and tubes remained intact. The presence of abundant oxygen as reported by my tracto’s visor display was a stroke of fortune, albeit one that came with a particular caveat.

A flashing red square in the upper left quadrant of my plate’s HUD warned against unusually high levels of airborne particulates. I was advised to breathe at my own risk.

After relaying the information to Landry, she merely shrugged and pointed to the rebreather tank strapped to her back, indicating a cut-off supply valve.

“I hope you know what you’re doing, Vicky,” I warned, grunting with effort as I helped her unsnap her neck seals and remove the damaged helmet. Once clear, Landry blinked several times. She held up a hand as she took slow, tentative breaths.

“Phew!” she exclaimed at last. “It was getting tough to breathe in there, to say the least. Just . . . give me a moment.”

I waited as she bent over at the waist and began taking deeper, measured breaths.

“God, it smells like old feet in here!”

“I’m still wearing my boots,” I said, “so don’t look at me.”

Landry stood up. “Har-har, funny man. I just hope we don’t have to leave this dome anytime soon.”

“If the air ducts are not obstructed, life-support should be at minimal levels throughout the facility. The algae is an efficient oxygen-producer if kept healthy. The last folks to rent this space out must have left in a hurry, believing they were coming back. Good news for you, although I’d hate to think what you’re breathing in along with that air.”

Landry waved her hand dismissively. “Whatever it is beats asphyxiating. This is some place, Ranjit. Very retrograde. How did you know about it?”

“What can I say, I’m a retro kind of guy. It seems to be operational, if a bit worse for wear. I think you’re safe without your helm.”

“I think the fact I haven’t dropped dead yet is proof enough of that,” she said, then studied the room around us. “Is this it?”

“Yeah, this is ops. The comm. counter should be somewhere in the back.”

The rectangular room was a shrouded mess of hanging vines, ceiling mold, and a dripping, yellow slime that glistened on the walls under my helm lights. Several overgrown potted plants hung from hooks and sat atop improvised shelving in the corners. A few storage bags made from durable vectran were draped over the central consoles, half stuffed with various odds and ends left behind by the previous occupants. I found the artificial lighting controls and rotated the center nub with my thumb. Soft light emerged from recessed ceiling depressions, filling the room with an almost cheery glow.

“What are you doing?” Landry hissed. “Turn those off! Ortiz and his men will see.”

“Relax, Vick. When they find the cat’s wreckage and follow our footprints, they’ll know we’re here sure enough. We just have to do what we came here to do before then. Speaking of which—” I turned the corner of a jutting cartography station and slapped my hand on the counter. “Here we are!”

Landry came around and glanced dubiously at the desk, which consisted of nothing more than a dusty sleeve-board, S-mike, and the ubiquitous omniband key reader. A pair of mesh speakers sat flush within the upright comm. console itself, completing the decidedly dated setup.

“This is it?”

I laughed. “Well, yes. If I remember correctly, the last time this station received requisitions was in 2110, the year NAESA celebrated it’s seventy-fifth anniversary.”

“Weren’t you in diapers then?”

“Real funny,” I said, crouching on one knee before the desk. The offended joint cracked a loud reprimand by way of response. “Primary school, actually,” I shot back, wincing.

I withdrew the omniband link from around my wrist and inserted the end into the station’s reader, mentally crossing my fingers. A readout screen synched across my faceplate visor, displaying the hated green standby blank.

Abruptly the display ran through a cascade sweep, swiftly spooling through its boot-up protocols and establishing a network connection with the lab’s mainframe. A warning screen flashed red, demanding input.

“What’s wrong?” Landry asked, searching my faceplate as if trying to discern a readable pattern through all the flashing colors she could see.

“It’s asking for a password, of all things.”

“Well, don’t you know it?”

“Actually, no. I’ve never used this board before, only knew of its existence. Hand me my tool-hook, will you?”

As she fumbled with the bag on my hip, I extended two more links from the omniband and opened a separate window onto my visor.

“Here you go,” Landry said, handing me the pouch. I quickly rooted through it’s contents until I found what I was looking for.

“What is that?”

“A screwdriver. It’s an old tool—and don’t even think about making that next joke.”

“Never crossed my mind,” Landry said, but I caught the ghost of a smile.

I turned to the console and used the flat edge of the screwdriver to lever open the cover plate, exposing the key reader’s secondary interface. Into this I slid the extra pair of omniband links and voiced commands for an override program I’d written many years ago back on Earth; an old trojan now obsolete by modern security measures.

“Um, Ranjit?” Landry intoned with some urgency. “I think you better hurry it up, whatever you’re doing.”

There, I was in!

“What’s wrong?”

“You know that little problem I was telling you about with my boss? Well, looks like he’s here to discuss it in person.”

“Oh, great. Can’t you stall him?”

“With what?” Landry countered, “my bare hands and a winning smile?”

I ignored her and quickly bypassed the flurry of menu screens which popped up on the visor, choosing a simplified map overview command. I selected the third entry down, which elicited a message proclaiming:

BROADCAST ON ALL FREQUENCIES


The comm. speakers crackled with static around us as a tiny whine filled the room like a siren from a bygone age. I stood back and gestured at the console. “There you go, Vick. We have an open channel.”

“Is the antenna working?”

I shrugged. “Only one way to find out.”

At that moment a muffled bang rattled the foundations, sending plant matter and detritus of more dubious origin raining down from the level above. An angrier blast followed close behind the first.

Again with those damned cannons! I wished too late now that I had heeded the lieutenant and kept the blasted lights off.

Landry pushed past me and grabbed the S-mike attached to the counter.

“Attention Unity: this is Special Agent Victoria Landry of the Federated Nations Liaison’s Office on Lunar Affairs.”

“Special agent?” I blurted aloud, but Landry ignored me.

“Please be advised of unknown number of hostiles currently en route to your location. I repeat: hostiles are using Saganville elevator to hijack and possibly destroy your vessel. Please engage appropriate countermeasures immediately!”

She paused and glanced back at me, her face grim with resolve.

“Victoria . . .” I began, but the dome came crashing down around us.




#



By the time they let me see her, news of the thwarted terrorist attempt had spread throughout New Brisbane. I wish I could say we’d become minor celebrities overnight, the toast of the town and darling guests of the talkie circuit. But of course the Feds came in and swept everything under the carpet of secrecy, thus relegating our act of bravery and patriotism to the forgotten annals of FN lore.

The details of the Unity’s near brush with infamy were left purposefully vague in the news briefs, and the name of the Fed agent responsible for stopping the crime withheld for her safety and the well-being of her family. Perhaps future agents would study the minutiae of our brief little adventure at the academy, discussing the merit of reviewing all options during a crisis, even the lowest tech ones. And, of course, to never, ever, underestimate your enemy’s firepower.

Well, perhaps not.

All I got for my trouble was a two-week paid leave of absence from work, and the promise that the Liaison’s Office would smooth things over for me regarding the municipality’s destroyed cat.

I suppose I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome considering, and should have gone on with my life. But I pulled some strings with my FN debriefers and managed to get clearance to see Landry at the hightown VA facility the day after my release.

“Looking good, lieutenant,” I said upon entering her private room that evening. “Or should I say ‘special agent Landry’ instead?”

From her bed, she smiled weakly. “Oh lay off it. What do you want me to do, apologize for doing my job?” But there was a satisfied gleam in her eyes. I chose to take it as a sign that she was glad to see me.

“Never mind all that,” I said, suddenly feeling awkward for being there. “I just came to check up on you . . . to make sure you were breathing okay.”

She motioned for me to take a seat, but I waved the offer away. I hadn’t planned on staying long.

“Well, Ranjit, you sure took your time coming to see me. But I’m glad you did. I wanted to thank you for, you know, what you did. It’s because of you I’m breathing at all.”

I found a persistent itch to scratch on the nape of my neck.

“Well, it helps that I was trying to save my own hide. You, I just happened to scoop up along the way. Seeing as how you were blocking my path to the nearest exit tube and all.”

“And deeper into the facility where the air was thickest and the cannon blasts could not reach. That was quick thinking for an old moonie.”

I laughed at that. “You weren’t so bad yourself, for a triple-dealing agent. Let’s see: Terra’s Hope, MEP, the Fed? Is there a clandestine organization you don’t belong to, Ms. Landry? How can I even be sure that’s your real name?”

“Yeah, it is,” she said, somberly. “Look, Ranjit, I do want to apologize. It was my job to infiltrate . . .”

I held up my hand to stall her. “Really, Vick, there’s no need to explain. Not to me. I’m too old to pretend I don’t know how things work up here. You did what you had to do, and saved a lot of lives by doing it. You’re the real hero here, not me.”

Landry shifted herself higher on the bed, wincing in the process. “Well I certainly don’t feel like a hero. I have to crap in a bucket, and the food here tastes like it came from the same end. To be honest, I was hoping you came to rescue me.”

“Sorry to disappoint, but this is no tv soapie, memsahib. I don’t rescue fair maidens in distress.”

I was trying to be funny, but Landry frowned. “I see. Look Ranjit, I just wanted you to know that I meant what I said back there.”

Now it was my turn to frown. “Pardon?”

“About wanting to do something that matters with my life, rather than just sitting back and enjoying the privileges of a birthright I never asked for.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” I replied, completely honest for once.

“The MEP thing was a cover, yes. But I really do live in lowtown. I was just thinking. I mean, they’re discharging me tomorrow evening at six . . . unless you’d rather not, of course.”

It took a moment for the rusty cogs of my brain to start churning.

“Are you saying you want to hang out sometime, agent Landry? Go for drinks, catch a null-cricket match, perhaps?”

In the low light of the hospital room it was hard to discern, but I think she actually blushed. “Well, now that you put it like that . . .”

“I’ll have you know I only drink with my friends, memsahib.”

“Oh,” she replied, visibly dejected. “I understand.”

I turned for the door, getting as far as the hallway beyond before putting the finishing touch on my act. In my best soapie imitation, I turned slowly around and winked.

“Hey Vick, pick you up at six-fifteen?” I asked with a smirk.

But I was too slow to dodge the pillow launched with expert precision at my head.



THE END

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