Something buzzed close enough to my head that I could feel the vibrations in my ear. It clicked off, mercifully, and I lay there enjoying the quiet until it buzzed again and I woke up enough to punch the acknowledgment stud.
I knuckled my eye and squinted at the callscreen. It was Lieutenant Campos. "Yeah." I coughed, and cleared my throat. "I mean, yes ma'am?"
"I need you on the bridge." Was she angry? It was hard to tell on such a small screen.
"Yes, ma'am. Be there shortly."
The screen shut off and I levered myself out of bed, my nerves already starting to thrum. There were plenty of reasons that I could come up with that Campos would need to interrupt my sleep cycle, and very few of them were good. By the time I'd jammed myself into an off-duty jumper, run my fingers through my hair and unwrapped a protien bar, I was good and anxious. Chewing as I walked, I left the room and headed down to the bridge.
Spin-down was fast, but I managed to bite my cheek when the pod opened. Groaning, I floated down the central corridor of U.E. Maintenance Boat B32-989 - more affectionately known as Charlie Horse to her crew.
Don't ask about the name. I don't know. Charlie's been in service for thirteen years, and I'd only been assigned to her for the last ten months. Someone had painted a horse's head down at the other end of the ship, near the engineering bay, but I don't know which came first, the name or the painting.
Lieutenant Campos was on duty, strapped into the pilot's chair close to the transparent canopy twelve feet above. The other stations were empty. Between the stars above and the hum and blink of the instruments in front of her, I was always surprised that Campos didn't fall asleep when she had bridge duty.
"You called?" I asked, stifling the urge to yawn.
"We've got more work."
"What?" I kicked off the floor and stopped myself against the canopy. "We were supposed to dry dock before I woke up."
Campos shook her head. "Not anymore. I got off the comm with the Colonel's office about half an hour ago. They've made a last-minute change in our schedule, a satellite repair." She swiveled her monitor so I could see the paperwork. It was out of our way by a good two hours at standard thrust. It was a communications satellite with 'minor structural damage'. Didn't sound all that urgent.
"And they decided to tell us directly instead of giving it to Flight Control?"
"It's Merrick throwing his weight around," she said with a shrug. "Or it isn't. Doesn't really matter. They dotted all the i's and crossed the t's."
"Woulda been nice if they'd given us a little bit more warning," I growled, but it had no feeling behind it. If it really was just extra work, then I'd gotten myself riled up for nothing.
"First Priority jobs are like that." She glanced back to the monitor. It was almost a flinch. "We'll be there inside of fifty minutes. It's not a lot of time, but I wanted you and Zane to get as much shut-eye as you could before you go outside. Prep everyone."
"Everyone?" I asked, surprised. Standard EVA only crewed two, with one back on the bridge to make sure things don't go too badly.
"Everyone," she repeated, gesturing back at the screen. "Orders."
"Orders. Aye, Lieutenant," I said.
"One more thing." Her voice was normal, her face had gone unreadable. "You have family on Teres, don't you?"
I shook my head. "No. My dad's stationed at Windrell. Why?"
"I just got word that Teres' system gate has gone silent. Probably a hardware problem, but no one seems to really know what's going on. The newsnets are getting a little crazy on speculation."
"Cervantes," I said. "She's got a sister there."
Campos nodded, solemn. "I'll let her know. Let's get this thing done so we can get back to Capricorn Orbital."
"Aye, ma'am." I saluted as best I could. Grabbing a handhold, I rotated myself toward the door and kicked off.
* * *
Transitioning to rotational gravity felt like it took forever, and by the time I made it to crew's quarters I was moving at a brisk pace. I palmed the buzzer on Cervantes' and then Carmichel's quarters practically at a run, pausing only briefly to tell them to get themselves down to EVA prep before moving on. I didn't feel so bad bothering them - it was the middle of their on-call cycle - but Zane was as fast asleep as I'd been twenty minutes ago. He was going to be a problem.
But when I buzzed Zane's door, his voice came over the intercom immediately. "Come in."
The door opened to reveal him sitting crosslegged on his bed with a tablet in one hand, and a mass of wires spilling out of the underside where he'd removed the back panel. Another tablet perched on his knee, in a similar condition. He squinted at the table's screen, blinking. Whatever he was looking at had him so interested that he seemed to have forgotten to put on pants - but not, thankfully, his boxers.
I slapped the control panel, and the door closed behind me. "What is that?"
Zane looked up from the first tablet for only a half second, his face scrunching in annoyance. "I'm busy."
I looked around. The rest of the room was as disheveled as Zane's bed. Discarded clothes were strewn everywhere, and there was an odor coming from the kitchen. In the back, a thick yellow cable ran out of a fresh hole in the ceiling, across the floor, and disappeared into the back end of the second tablet. "Why is there an AV/D cable coming out of the ceiling?"
"I'm working on something."
I swallowed my response. If Zane was working on something, it was worth paying attention if only to have some sort of plausible deniability. This was sometimes necessary because Petty Communications Officer Zane Gillis was a number of things: my friend, a genius with interplanetary comm systems - and most importantly - paranoid at the cellular level. The stuff he worked on in his spare time had earned him more than one visit from Fleet Intelligence.
"I'd love to hear about it," I said, "but we need to get moving. They added another maint stop."
"I didn't offer to tell you about it." Zane's fingers stopped moving across the tablet's screen a second later, when he realized what I'd said. "Really. Another one?"
"Yes," I said. I looked at him for a second, wondering if I should tell him what Campos told me about Teres, and then decided against it. Zane didn't have any family out there, and the need to get down to the prep bay was starting to gnaw at my stomach. "Cervantes and Carmichel are already heading down to prep. We need to go."
Nodding, he left the tablets on his bed and disappeared into the private area in the back of the room.
"A little last minute, don't you think? Any reason the next ship out couldn't handle it?"
"I don't know," I said, crossing my arms. "It was a special order from Colonel Merrick's office.
His tone was disapproving, but the sheer predictability of it made it hard not to smile. Zane had been suspicious of Merrick since he'd been assigned to Capricorn, claiming the good Colonel was involved with some unsavory black-ops projects. "Blacker than black," Zane had told me a few months after we met. "Extensive data mining on all major gateway communication lines, deep genetic and cybernetic enhancement programs, illegal AI experimentation. Assassination. That kind of stuff." Ever since then, he'd never missed an opportunity to point out that Colonel Merrick was a dirty dealer. Dangling that in front of Zane would get him moving a bit faster.
Slowly, my gaze traveled from the electrical engineering nightmare on his bedspread, up the AV/D cable to the hole in the ceiling. Shavings hung from the hole like metal streamers. "Did you get any sleep at all? This data skylight of yours is new."
"Sure," he said as he pulled the curtain back. He was wearing a fresh utility jumper, but his hair was a mess and his cheeks were a little pale. "An hour or two. I'll be fine."
"Alright. Let's get moving."
* * *
Carmichel and Cervantes were already in the prep bay, arguing.
"I wouldn't worry about it." Carmichel was talking loud enough to hear in the hallway. "The newsnets aren't reporting anything else. If something did-"
"Nice of you to join us, Siddiqui," Cervantes said as Zane and I walked through the door. "I thought I was going to have to listen to this idiot go on for the entire EVA."
Carmichel glared at her, and turned to us, his hands full of suit. "Have you seen the newsnets?"
"The elltee told me." I looked over at Cervantes. "He's right, I wouldn't worry about it."
She rolled her eyes and turned back to the diagnostics panel.
Zane and I crossed to our stations, and Carmichel leaned over to me. "Everything coming out of the system just stopped. The networks are going crazy over it, and no one in Colonial Administration's saying anything."
"It's nothing, then." I pulled a tablet out of my nook and started checking the repair schedule. "They'd have said if it wasn't."
"They'd have said if it was," Carmichel insisted. "Liz thinks they've been attacked."
Cervantes slammed her hand against the control panel with enough force to make everyone in the room jump. The display flickered under her hand. "I don't think anything, Paul. Not about Teres, not about anything else you've said for the last twenty minutes. Just stop. Talking."
Carmichel's face went red, but he had the good sense to keep his mouth shut.
"Checklists, everyone. They're right in front of you. Pay attention to them," I said. Cervantes was already in her own world, and Carmichel scooped up his suit and retired to the back of the bay to sulk.
"It's like herding cats," I said loud enough for Zane to hear me, but he didn't say anything. We finished the checklist in silence.
* * *
I was the last one into the spin-down tube. Sitting there in the dark with my helmet wedged between the cushions, it was hard not to panic a little bit. I touched a nub on the control stalk, and my suit's ghostly HUD projected against the inside of the helmet. It wasn't much, but I could see bits and pieces of the pod around me. That was enough.
The transition isn't hard to notice. Your arms and legs start to wander, like they've grown restless because you've been sitting so still. You even float a little bit inside the suit, which is a bit weird until you get used to it. Then a light goes green (if you're unlucky, you'll have been looking directly at it), and the pod opens into the hangar bay.
The light went green (I knew better, and was looking at the bottom of my helmet). The pod opened, light spilled in, and I exited.
They were waiting for me, arranged in a semi-circle in the middle of the bay. I throttled my suit up a touch, and coasted until I was within range. Everyone's body language was still tense, but at least we couldn't really see each other's expressions anymore. "Lieutenant Campos, this is Siddiqui. We are go for hangar evac."
"Opening hangar doors." The lights in the hangar went out, and suddenly the lights on our suits were the only thing in the universe. Three faces floated there in the black, and none of them were looking at me. They were all looking for the doors.
At first you can't tell when the hangar doors have opened. There is a decompression, but you can't hear it inside your suit. The AI stages it so you can't really feel it, either. A few vibrations might make it through, but usually it's just five minutes of staring into the darkness until, suddenly, you can see stars. It's beautiful, but cold in a way that's hard to describe.
We floated there in the dark, and the stars came out below us.
"Link to me for nav data," I said, and almost immediately their info started coming up on my HUD. Once I was sure I had everyone, I throttled up slowly and flew us out through the doors.
Capricorn was there, floating below us, as big as it was last time we went outside, and just as pretty. There were over three million people living and working on Capricorn and in the space around it, but from up here you could never tell. Going outside feels like you're walking on the underside of the void. I've done it a million times, but those first moments always give me the shivers.
"Target acquired," Zane said, and I saw that he was right. My HUD brightened as he fed me the satellite's location.
"Right where it's supposed to be," I said, then checked our proximity and throttled up. We were there in thirty seconds. I put us in a gentle spiral that ended at the satellite's comm array, and released flight controls back to my team. "Alright, get your tasklists done efficiently and report in when you're ready."
The damage was easy to see, even from a dozen feet away: something had struck the satellite's center mass and done some damage to one of the communications antennae. But that was only the part that we could see. Zane floated out of my peripheral vision and landed on the satellite proper. In a few seconds, he had a hatch open and was hooking up with the satellite's onboard AI.
"Okay," he said a few minutes later, "okay. It missed the teleportation coil. We need to replace the B-position antenna, and recalibrate the array."
"That's it?" I asked.
"That's..." Zane's voice trailed off as he started poking around again. "Huh. Yeah. That's it."
"Whyfor," Carmichel wanted to know, "do they need a B-pos antenna way out here?"
I frowned inside my helmet. The B-position was the long-range encrypted antenna. They had been originally intended for extreme long range communication, as a fall-back if something went terribly wrong with the system gate�s communications systems. Emergency situations only, and they always pointed back to the next system closer to Earth. Capricorn's gate was in great shape. Everyone on the planet and the orbital station would have to get on the line back to Earth simultaneously to even come close to straining the gate's abilities. Carmichel was right: this orbit was a really awkward for that kind of transmission. What bothered me more, though, was why they were so interested in making sure this was fixed right now.
Then I remembered Teres. I was close enough to Carmichel to see his expression: something is wrong here.
"Doesn't matter," I said, and made myself focus at the task at hand. "The faster we get this thing fixed, the faster we can get home. Let's get to it."
The repair didn't take very long. I radioed Campos and requested the parts we needed, and she maneuvered them into position using the Charlie Horse's manipulator while Carmichel, Cervantes, and I removed the old antenna and prepared it for recycling. Zane was doing software recalibrations in about the most difficult way possible, zipping back and forth along the satellite's hull like there was a reward for the most laps. He kept pace with us, though, and I was too busy getting the replacement antenna in place to yell at him for it. Forty-five minutes after we arrived, I closed the last maintenance hatch.
"Time to go," Carmichel said, relief thick in his voice. The silence pouring out of Cervantes� channel was deafening.
The trip out had been awkward and quiet. I had expected that. Carmichel and Cervantes were always fighting about something or other. There was a new fragility in this quiet, and I couldn�t bring myself to do anything except throttle up an extra fifteen percent wish we�d never gotten this work order in the first place.
* * *
No one said anything as we stripped out of the suits, cleaned, and repacked them. Cervantes disappeared as soon as she finished. Carmichel watched her go.
"I was only trying to help." He looked at us as if we'd understand.
"She's got a sister on Teres," I said. "Everyone deals differently."
Carmichel frowned at the floor for several seconds, then nodded and left.
"See you later, Zane," I said. "I'm gonna get some sleep."
"I, uh." He reached out to keep me from leaving, but didn't actually touch me. I stopped. His voice was soft. "I've got something to show you. My project. C'mon."
I followed, despite my better judgment. Zane didn't say a word until his door slid shut behind us.
"Something's going on," he said, practically jumping onto his bunk and yanking his project back into his lap. "Whatever happened on Teres isn't just a communications malfunction."
An icy chill touched my spine. "You saw where the satellite was pointed."
"They're trying to listen in." A sick and cold knot was beginning to form in my stomach.
"They are," Zane said, working his fingers across the surface of the tablet. "But not on Teres."
"Somethings not quite right," Zane said. He reached into the wires, disconnected a few, and connected them directly into the back of the other tablet. "I've been thinking about it for a while."
"You had heard," I said. "I wondered."
"They have procedures for this," Zane said. He reached into the wires, disconnected a few, and connected them directly to the back of his tablet. "Procedures in place, communication lines ready to go. They've been ready for this kind of thing since the end of the Martian revolution. Why aren't they following them?"
"They're surprised?" I suggested weakly.
"Maybe. It'd have to be really big for that to happen."
"What are you talking about?" The sick feeling wasn't going away.
Zane cocked his head. "I didn't figure it out until I was on the satellite, checking its alignment. If it was just a communications outage, they'd be plastering it all over the newsnets. 'Oh hey guys, we lost all communication with one of our colonies, no big.' If it was an attack, then they'd have another speech planned. They'd be doing something. Instead, they're paralyzed. This was something catastrophic."
"Something catastrophic." The hair on my arms prickled as I repeated it.
Zane nodded, and held up his tablet. "I might be wrong. It could be nothing. But I want to know."
I blinked. "Wait, what?" I turned to the yellow cable hanging from a hand-drilled hole in the ceiling, and remembered Zane's frantic movement on the satellite. "You put a listening device on a Navy comm network."
"I... I did something like that, yeah." Zane moved the project to his desk. "Gimme your tablet. I need more processing power."
"You can't have it." I said. I realized I was standing, but didn't remember doing it. "This is going to get you in deep, Zane. Me too, if I'm not unbelievably cooperative. Fleet Intelligence isn't going to drop by to slap you on the wrist for this. You're breaking military encryption."
He turned and glared at me. "Whatever's happened to Teres is done, finished. And they expect what happened there to happen elsewhere. They're looking where they think it's going to happen again.."
"What are you talking about? What do you think happened?"
"I don't know," Zane said, and his voice was full of dread. "But that satellite we worked on isn't pointed at Remnant, or Teres, or even Earth. It's pointing at Windrell."
I stared at Zane. His face was flush, and there was sweat starting to bead along his forehead. My mouth had gone dry. Without a word, I walked around the corner to my quarters and returned with my tablet in my hand.
Summary: This release contains numerous performance improvements, especially for rendering and multiplayer, as well as numerous bug fixes.
This release fixes one critical bug and one minor bug.