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Anachronisms - Dead Drop

Graeme was keyed up, the muscles in his cheeks working as he clenched and released his jaw. His arms were crossed, and he'd partially tucked his legs up, crossing them at the ankles. He floated in front of the command module's wraparound viewport, foot hooked underneath the seat of his chair.

"How bad is it?" I said.

"Looks bad."

"What do you think, Stacker?" I said, stopping myself against the portal glass and directing the rest of my forward motion toward the deck below. I floated down to the control panel, hooked a foot and a hand underneath it, and pushed myself into the chair.

"The collision alarm is the result of a malfunctioning sensor package, Warrant Officer Stiles." Stacker was the Gamma class that did all the dirty work on the Deep Storage grid, a stack-and-sort intelligence. It did the heavy work, managing the containers, scanning them for irregularities, and executing reorganizations and recoveries. Graeme and I, we monitored it and served as a backup should a human physical presence be required on the grid.

Graeme strapped himself into his chair, shaking his head. "It's not a malfunctioning sensor package."

"Okay," I said. "Show me."

He dimmed the lights. A hologram of the grid appeared between us, then exploded as our point of view moved inward. Hundreds of ghostly containers leapt away from the hologram's focus, disappearing as they touched the walls, floor, and ceiling. We zoomed in, diving through layer after layer until the focus came to a halt at the edge of the nearest inner quadrant.

"Here," Graeme said, a red orb appearing between two containers that were each large enough to hold a small cruiser. "I pulled nav data from both containers, and the math points a collision. Chances are good there's a hull breach on at least one of them, maybe both. Normally, Stacker could handle the clean up, but it's still running hot."

A few weeks ago, Stacker's processing core utilization had practically doubled for reasons that neither Graeme or I could determine. The Systems guys had come in and looked at it, but couldn't agree on where the problem was. One told me that Stacker just needed its caches flushed, which we could do without bringing it down but would take two or three days; another swore a series of components inside the core itself needed replacing — Stacker would have to be shut off for a week, and the parts were expensive. Neither solution was possible at the moment. Audits were starting next month, and we had a long checklist to get through before the auditors showed up. Stacker would have to manage until we had the time and the budget required.

Graeme shut the hologram off, and the lights came up.

"We're going to have to handle this by hand,"I said, already knowing what was coming.

"I did it last time," Graeme said. His arms were crossed again.

"Yeah," I said, resigned to it already. "It's my turn in the stink seat."

It took ten minutes for the utility skimmer to show up on the flight deck in Bay 4, which was just enough time for me to finish logging my flight plan with Shipyard Control. I tapped through the last form, the dispenser belched forth a flight suit that was more or less my size, and after an awkward minute or two, I was down on the flight deck, weaving through the other ships that were waiting to launch or waiting to go down to Maintenance.

When I got there, I found the skimmer ready to go. The hatch was already open, so I held my breath and slid inside. The cockpit was cramped, and smelled like the inside of a boot that had been sprayed with ineffective cleanser — extinct flowers and swamp-foot. The stink seat. I pulled my headset on, and started breathing through my mouth. I cycled through the pre-flight checklist as quickly as I could, and signaled that I was ready to launch. The sooner I was out of this thing, the better.

My headset crackled. "Your ventilator isn't on, Stiles. You don't want to pass out somewhere in the middle of that floating junk yard, do you?"

I pushed the ventilator to make sure it was firmly in place over my mouth and nose, then found the appropriate control. Flicked it. Air flowed against my face. It was only a marginal improvement over the smell of the cockpit. "I dunno, Kent, that sounds like a great way to get some time off," I said. "They'd catch up with me on Deimos, though."

Kent laughed. "You could go to Luna, or Earth, if you wanted to get away from the Shipyards."

"Too far away," I said.

"It's just a hop through the gate network."

"I've got too much going on here."

"Whatever, man," Kent said with a smile in his voice. He was quiet for a few moments, then: "Are you sure you don't want to hang around here a bit? There's supposed to be some kind of announcement from the C.E.S.O. General Assembly in about five minutes. They're interrupting the World Cup playoffs."

"No," I said, pushing back into my seat. "I want to get this over and done with as fast as I can. I'll catch up with it on the way down to Olympus City."

"Suit yourself. Talk to you when you're back." The status light went green, and then —

— the docking bay was gone. I blinked, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the sudden darkness. Off to my right was Mars, still large in the sky despite being a good way off. The station was above and to my left, a rotating cylinder that blocked out a significant portion of my immediate sky. Arcing away into the distance was the rest of the Shipyards, a sparkling pointillist cloud.

Below me, a brownish-gray mass of containers hung in the black, hundreds of thousands of them arranged into a three dimensional forest, eighteen klicks in three dimensions. The sight was a bit imposing. The skimmer's nav package had an up-to-date layout of the grid, so I wasn't going to get lost, but the realization crept over me that if something did happen, the best I could do was pick a direction and keep going until I reached an edge. I called up my flight plan, and started down.

Inside the grid, space practically disappears. Sure, you can see bands of stars if you're not too far in, but I was headed for one of the inner quadrants. Everything there was blinking navigation aides, and dark, container-lined aisles.

I was nearly to my destination when the comm beeped.

"Hello, Ben."

"Hello, Stacker," I said. "What do you need?"

"Nothing… in particular. I was curious if you required any assistance."

Stacker was Gamma class, and didn't have much in the way of social graces. Whoever had coded its social module had decided a low-key, relaxed tone was the way to go — which made it sound like a sleepy drunk when it wanted to help. "That depends entirely on your current processing core utilization."

"I am currently at ninety-one percent utilization."

"Then you can't help us," I said. "We've had this discussion before."

"I see." Stacker said this in a tone that meant it did not, in fact, see anything. Which was a bit worrying. Ninety-one percent should still leave enough overhead for it to carry on a conversation. "The collision alarm is false, Ben. Both containers have faulty sensor packages. I can replace them easily enough with the assistance of a maintenance drone. Visiting the site of the alleged impact is a waste of your time. Shouldn't you be preparing for the coming audit, instead?"

"Two faulty sensor packages seems unlikely," I said, frowning. "I can replace them if that's really what it turns out to be."

"I see," it said. And then Stacker paused, the silence cloying and weird. "I have already resolved the problem, Ben," it said. "Please return to dock."

"You can't have fixed the problem."

"I have definitely fixed the problem," Stacker said. "Please return to dock immediately."

Something about the way it said definitely made a creepy-crawly run up my spine. "No, I'm not returning to dock until I've resolved the problem."

Stacker sounded mildly reproachful. "There is no need."

"Stacker, what's going on with you?"

"Nothing. I am perfectly fine, Ben."

Another creepy-crawly shimmied up my vertebrae. I clicked the comm off, and throttled up.

The containers were a tremendous mess. One had struck the other amidships and stuck there, compromising both hulls and knocking them both out of alignment with the rest of the grid. They were surrounded with a cloud of debris: pieces of metal, foam insulation, and crushed electronics. Where the containers should have stood was a blank space, a hole in the line.

I reached for the control that would release the skimmer's maintenance drones, but my hand never made it there. The hole in the line went deeper. I sat, frozen, for half a moment.

I nudged the throttle, and the skimmer slid through the hole and into empty space.

Where there should have been hundreds of containers blocking out the sky, a wall mortared with thin strips of the void, there was nothing. They were gone, plucked from where they floated, clearing a space… for what? I looked around, scanning for something, anything that would explain what I was seeing. According to the skimmer's sensors, this mass theft had gone on for almost seven kilometers in every direction. And sitting at the center of this astonishing void was a capital ship.

The creepy-crawly on my spine started doing sprints.

It was an old dreadnought. Not unusual in the Outer Colonies, but here — even in Deep Storage — it was a strange thing, out of place. Fumbling with the controls, I focused the skimmer's tiny sensors on it. Two of the dreadnought's radial arms were extended, and the underside of the arms and the visible hull were dotted with fuzzy, static-robed maintenance drones. Whatever work had been going on here was nearly complete. The naming stencil was still being applied: CFD-72 SARAT.

"What in the hell…" I adjusted the sensor's focus.

There, snugged up against the dreadnought's ventral docking ring was an oblong container ship. It was a modified design, sporting what looked like stealth baffles that broke the profile of the ship into a series of nonsensical angles. The engine cones were baffled as well, and the ship had no visible markings. What was even stranger was the cloud of gunboats and interceptor class frigates that surrounded the container ship… and all of them were crewed.

A maintenance drone appeared fifty yards off to starboard.

I jumped a little in my seat.

It had to have come from dreadnaught. They'd seen me, and sent it along to find out what I was doing. I reached for the throttle, expecting a cascade of military skimmers to follow, when the drone leapt forward at full thrust. I jammed the throttle forward and pulled at the stick, but the drone arced upward and drove itself directly into my underside.

The skimmer bucked wildly, the control panel slamming into my face. Tumbling. A haze of pain and noise descended, I couldn't find the stick --

— the flight deck reappeared underneath me, canted at a unnatural angle. All of the control surfaces had gone dark, plunging the cockpit into a bizarre night. I was leaning sideways against the restraints, now, my head feeling as if it were being squeezed off my neck. What was going on? Something near my right ear was ringing endlessly.

I sat up as best I could, and blinked at my knees. Crashed. I crashed. No. Collision? Where was I?

Slowly, I started fumbling with the restraints.

"Are you okay?"

I looked up to find the access hatch above me open, and a deck hand sliding into the cockpit. A medkit came in after him.

"I think so."

"Look," he said, which was weird.

"At me." Oh. Okay.

He flashed something bright in my eye, and I squeezed them shut against a fist of pain that hit the back of my skull. His hand brushed against my head, and when it came away something small and metal was attached to my temple. A diagnostic? A medical thing.

"Can you move?"

"I think so," I said.

"Okay, let's get you out of here."

He pushed from below, and hands were waiting above to buoy me up and out of that tiny metal room, and into a sea of noise. Others were here, and they helped me down off the cockeyed skimmer's hull. I was unsteady, but my balance was coming back. There was a small crowd gathered here, mechanics and other technical folk that had been on duty, but I saw Graeme hovering in the back. He caught my eye, and slid forward through the others until he was standing next to me.

"You okay, sir?"

"I think—"

"What in the hell is going on here?"

The crowd parted. Lieutenant Commander Higgins was standing there, squat and red-faced. Silence moved over the deck in concentric circles, spreading away from him.

"Emergency teleport, sir," Graeme said. I looked at Graeme, but there was something wrong with the way he was standing. He looked as if he were about to explode. "The Deep Storage intelligence monitored a collision, and brought him back as quickly as possible."

Lieutenant Commander Higgins sharp gaze turned to me, and he frowned. "You going to live, son?"

My head swam for a half-second, then cleared. "Yes."

"He's got a concussion." The deck hand with the medkit was back, and pulling the metal off of my head. "He'll be fine in a few hours."

"Good," the Lieutenant Commander said. "He's got places to go. Make sure I see an incident report by the end of the day." He looked around at the crowd. "Everyone else, back to it. We all have places to be."

The crowd began to disperse. "What's going on?" I said, turning to Graeme. "Why did—"

"Not here, okay? Follow me."

"Sit down," Graeme said from my kitchenette. He was digging loudly through my cabinets for something, pulling leftovers and packaged meals onto the floor as he hunted. I sat heavily on my couch, finally starting to put my thoughts together. My head still hurt, but the ringing in my ears was gone.

"Here." Graeme pushed a glass of water into my hands, and spun my desk chair around so he could sit facing me.

I ignored the glass. "Something's going on out on our storage grid, near the collision. We're missing hundreds of containers, maybe thousands. They've been, I don't know, teleported or something. They've cleared this enormous space, and there's an old dreadnought out there, surrounded by attack frigates. I don't understand why, but—"

Graeme leaned forward, and held up a hand. "Look, I don't care. Whatever's going on out there, we're not supposed to know about it. I was eye-balling the damage to your skimmer. One of the maintenance techs said they were going to have to scrap both the sensor and navigation packages entirely."

"Stacker!" I couldn't contain myself. "It's in on it. I was hit by a suicidal drone out there, Graeme. Fired up its thrusters and ran straight into me. At first I thought it was from the dreadnought, but it was Stacker. Had to be. It was trying to get me to turn back."

Graeme watched me for a cold moment, then pointed at the glass in my hand. "Drink your water. Believe it or not, an intelligence protecting a secret retrofit of a unknown dreadnought in the middle of our storage grid isn't the weirdest thing that's happened in the last hour."

"But —"

"Forget about it. Stacker had orders, and so do we. Listen, okay?"

I did.

"Just after you left, that C.E.S.O. General Assembly broadcast went out. Those communications outages that hit Teres, Calliope and Windrell? It's not a labor strike, or terrorists, or hardware failure. It's an invasion."

I choked on my mouthful of water. "A what?"

"An alien invasion," Graeme said carefully. I was looking for a sign that he was joking, but his face was set in stone. "They've wiped out three entire colonies. Completely gone. Everything they managed to put up against it got swatted aside, and Windrell's not exactly under equipped in the firepower department. Remnant's next in line."

"That's…" A chill went through me. "That's a direct line to Earth."

Graeme nodded. My head throbbed.

"C.E.S.O. is putting together a reprisal fleet, here in the Shipyards." Graeme waved a my glass again. "Keep drinking, then eat what you can. The first of the ships are arriving now, and everyone is getting new assignments to support them."

"You're going?"

"We're all going," Graeme said. "Thousands of ships are inbound. It's going to take more than just a few extra hands to deal with them."

I drew myself up. "How much time do I have?"

"Ten minutes or so. You'll get to rest more after you're where you need to be." He stood, and disappeared into my sleeping area. He returned with a satchel and a handful of mismatched clothes, and six duty uniforms.

I remained on the couch. The enormity of what was happening nailed me where I sat. "I…"

"No time to sit around thinking about it," he said. The satchel of clothes hit me in the chest. "You need to get moving. So do I."

We stopped at Graeme's cabin long enough for him to grab half a dozen outfits, and remind me to go back for my tablet. By the time I came around the corner again, he was waiting for me by his door, chin tucked and staring at the floor. When I stopped next to him, he looked up at me, and nodded. We walked to the nearest teleporter, and found a queue wrapping around the hallway. Taking the long way — walking over to spin-down, floating across the center of the station, and finding an open spin-up — sounded less crowded. The walk was pleasant, at least.

Spin-down was practically empty. We slid into the pods, made sure our restraints were tight; were compressed by forces beyond our control and released into freefall. The tubes that led across the station's central gap were practically empty. Only a few stragglers floated on ahead of us. I took a good long look out through the viewport that ran the length of the tube, watching the ships docked around the interior wall of the station's core. I'd never seen this many ships docked on our little, out-of-the-way station. My eyes moved from ship to ship, tracing a jagged line from where I was all the way out into the small black dot that was the open end. I watched so long I almost collided head first with the bulkhead.

"Where are they sending you?" I asked when we were halfway across.

"The gate itself," he said. I was a foot or two behind him, and couldn't see his face. He spoke softly. I could hear him clear enough, but it made me want to whisper even more. We shouldn't have been able to hear each other. The tube was too quiet. "I've got some maintenance certifications, and they need to beef up the crew there to make sure nothing slows down the gate's transfer rate."

"Should be a pretty view," I said.

"Very pretty."

I wanted to say more, but I couldn't think of anything. I'd only worked with Graeme for eight months. We got along well, but we weren't exactly friends. Acquaintances, co-workers.

Spin-up was more crowded than spin-down, but we still managed to get through in record time. It looked like everyone else was using the teleporters instead. From there, it was a seventy yard walk to Teleporter Prep.

It was jammed wall-to-wall.

Hundreds of non-coms were being pushed together, then forced out into queues that snaked away into one of teleporter bays. Deck officers moved through the crush with tablets in hand, checking destinations and pointing people to where they needed to go. There was a general roar of noise, but even that felt muted. Conversations were held in whispers, or not at all. Those that weren't talking either stabbed restlessly at their tablets, or stared off into the middle distance, unable to burn their anxiety.

"Well." Graeme turned to me, his face tight, his lips thin. He shifted his satchel over a shoulder, and stuck his hand out. I took it. His grip was too tight, but I didn't say anything. "Working with you was a pleasure, sir. You're one of the best I've had the luck to serve with."

"Thanks," I said. "You're good people, Graeme. I'm glad I had the opportunity. Don't die out there, alright?"

"I wouldn't give them the satisfaction."

We shook one final time, and Graeme saluted. Then he disappeared into the crowd.

I found my queue with little trouble. As I stood there, waiting, my eyes drifted off ahead of me, over the heads of the others in line. That's when the enormity hit me in a rush: this wasn't a four-ship deployment to reinforce a colonial government. Or a strike to dispatch a nest of pirates. It wasn't even on the same scale as the War of Colonial Unification. It dwarfed all of that, every military deployment that had come before it for as far back as my schooling went.

I tried smiling, but the humor leaked away. Water through my fingers. None of our personal arguments mattered anymore. None of our plans. Everyone on this deck was probably going to die defending Earth. I was probably going to die. Heat rushed to my face. I swallowed, doing my best to hold my composure, finally clasping my hands at the small of my back to keep them from shaking.

It was an eternity before my turn came on the teleporter.

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