This short story won 1st prize on TheNextBigWriter → Locked Door Contest
The ephemeris data seemed healthy enough. The storm, on the other hand, ripping across space from the comet’s horizon, appeared hazardous. Transiting through the comet’s coma the shuttle vibrated slightly. Carl Reagle knew the outgassing from the bright side lacked enough violence to cause any serious problems. The comet had just emerged from out of the frost line, so the sun’s rays were not harsh enough to feed a fully-fledged tail.
“Manual control in thirty seconds,” said the Ixion’s chief navigator, Jasmine Lambright.
“Standing by,” said Reagle. “I have the ice hangar in sight.”
“Be cautious of the rebound, Commander. The landing pads are inactive. Go in too hard and you’ll bounce off all the way to Jupiter.”
Reagle looked at his screen. “I’m easing in at 2.7 kays an hour. I have manual control.”
“We’ve had two months of dead radio. Get confirmation on conditions down there and get the hell back here.” There was a hint of urgency in the Gi Corp hireling’s voice. Reagle intended to do just that, having spent the entire trip from Ceres in an anxious state. These kinds of jobs tended to rob him of sleep, especially when clients like Gi Corp gave him little information to go by.
He looked out into the black sky, hoping to get a glimpse of the spacecraft. He saw nothing. The Ixion orbited opposite his position, beyond the jagged horizon.
The shuttle made contact with one of the three landing pads. Ice gravel and black sand scattered as the module bounced several times before sliding to rest a full three minutes later. With the locking mechanism on the landing pad inactive, the shuttle ended up precariously near the edge. Thirty meters away the cave entrance to the ice hanger cut a deep scar into the sloping surface. Lights illuminated the interior in stark juxtaposition to the frozen night of space.
Reagle suited up and exited the shuttle, hitting the slippery frost-covered gangway awkwardly, the warmth of his life-suit sizzling frost-covered gangway. He hopped onto the gravel which crumbled like charcoal, his boots sinking knee-deep into the surface. He continued hopping, a painstaking task, to the entrance employing, small, soft pushes with his toes, calibrated by the pressure suit. Use too much force and in no time you end up orbiting the comet. Closer in, a series of blue-sticks provided him with a secure handrail, assisting him all the way inside the vast cavern. Mechanical monsters lay dormant in the artificial 4000 kelvin light.
Excavators. Drillers. Nukepumpers.
Along the left side wall, a tall cylinder towered above him labelled with the red and white nuclear symbol. “Power generators appear active. No sign of damage inside the hangar.” Reagle wiped frost from the yellow-painted alloy of a mechanoid. “No sign of any activity, either.”
He headed for the airlock, a platform-sized elevator situated towards the rear of the cavity. Below, safely embedded deep within the comet, Lapith/2183 G7, the living and command quarters waited, like an ancient tomb.
But the air-lock control refused to comply. The lights were alive, but the ice-encrusted buttons cracked when pressed, doing nothing to activate the elevator.
“Air-lock inoperable,” he said.
“Try hooking into the EAI,” said Lambright.
“Ixion, I’m patching into the local interface.” Reagle uncovered the JX408 portal and plugged his optical line into it. “Should synchronize any second now.”
He waited, studying the hangar around him, auditing the slumbering industrial space machines.
“Ixion, what’s the EAI’s name?”
The clarity and closeness of Chief Navigator Lambright’s voice soothed his nerves. “The environment control entity is called Hesper Copy Seven Seven Zero. It’s a clone of the master entity at the Gi Corp HQ.”
Reagle gave it a go. “Hesper Copy Seven Seven Zero. Do you copy? Does anyone copy? Hello, somebody.”
“Let me try the maintenance portal.”
Reagle felt cold. He knew his life-suit was good for another ten hours, but the inactivity, plus the frozen stillness around him, sent chills along his skin.
“I’ve got a response.” Her voice sounded excited.
“Is it from any of the crew?” His voice matched her excitement.
“No. Hesper responded.”
“Ask it what happened here. Where is everybody?”
“It… doesn’t know. It’s telling me that all systems are normal. It’s asking me if something’s wrong. It doesn’t know.”
“Tell it to open the airlock.”
“It’s asking for authority. I’m punching in the codes as we speak.”
Reagle looked up at the electronic eyes planted everywhere. “Can’t it see me standing here?”
The platform shook and started to descend.
“It says it lost its audio-visual and sensor-array functionality. Speaking of which, we will lose contact once the airlock closes. I suggest you find…”
The massive doors grumbled shut above him. The pressurization process began sending steam at him like a hurricane. Icicles of carbon dioxide and methane boiled and evaporated instantly. Reagle took advantage of the manual override to access hatchways. He kept the life-suit on as a precaution as he entered the staging hall. He noted nothing out of place. The storage compartments were neat and tidy. The low-grav training quarters were lit up but empty. He made a mental note to check the equipment in there, though his first priority was to re-establish contact with the Ixion.
The command centre.
Designed to withstand anything, the central nexus of the outpost would be the most likely place to seek refuge in case of a disaster. Reagle made his way there, hopping and bouncing off the walls. He knew where to go; these Gi Corp rigs were all based on the same template.
He found the hatch sealed, yet its port window remained transparent. He peered inside only to find the unmistakable red liquid splattered over the white interior walls and trim. He expected something like this to some degree but felt totally unprepared for the grisliness he faced. Blood and tissue. Warped, flattened bodies. Crushed bone. Mostly stuck to the walls. Pieces of human flesh littered the control panels.
Reagle fought hard not to go inside, but his range of choice was limited. He needed to access the communication network. When he opened the door, the air disturbance sent a quiver among the shredded pieces of flesh and ruined uniforms. He stepped inside and thought about dimming the bright lights. He located the comms and punched in the channel code. “Carl Reagle to Ixion. Do you copy, over?”
“We copy, commander. Any luck with the crew?”
Reagle struggled to find the words. “Negative. Situation is not good. There’s been some kind of… accident.”
Radio silence followed. No one wanted this type of outcome. They expected it, but optimism felt like the right attitude to have. “I repeat. The situation is not good at all. We have multiple fatalities. Cause unknown as far as I can tell.”
“How many? There were six crewmembers on the manifest.”
Reagle looked at the mangled mess. He knew he had to be clinical about it. He counted the separate bloodied masses, trying to distinguish the different uniforms. He saw body parts; fingers, ears, shredded skin, but he chose to sort out scalps instead, differentiating between hair types.
Between the uniforms and scalps, he counted half a dozen individuals. “I have six.”
“That’s all of them.” Reagle counted again to be sure. “Are we certain this is how many got on this rig?”
“When the mission launched, six human beings entered the Lapith 7 outpost. We’ve sent no other manned missions to this comet ever since. This outpost would have been constructed by robotry before the crew got there. When this 80-kilometre-wide comet began its propulsion sequence, the chances that another third party interfered with the mission are as remote as the space this chunk of ice is hurtling through.”
“That’s all I needed to know.” The implication, that this had been a tragic accident, weighed heavily on his mind. With not much time to establish the cause, he needed to move fast.
“Telemetry update has just come in,” announced Lambright. “Looks like Lapith 2183 G7 is off-course. Instead of hitting Venus orbit, this ice mountain’s going to end up closer to Earth’s backyard. Our options have narrowed down.”
Reagle paused to let this sink in. “Just come in, my ass. You knew about this before you enlisted my help.”
“We didn’t enlist your help, Commander Reagle, we bought your service from the Ceres Port Authority.”
“You also knew I would not be leaving here without an answer to what happened. Gi Corp launches ten of these monsters every year. The terraformation business is in full swing. We can’t have accidents like this without knowing the cause.”
He received no response.
He said, “I have eight hours of life support at least. You have months to sort out this trajectory.”
“What part of this don’t you understand? This is a 20,000-ton meteor aimed at Earth. In a month this thing will be close enough to heat up. The coma storm will make this cube a difficult, unstable intercept. We are here, we are doing this now.”
“What? Correcting trajectory?”
He knew what she meant. He suddenly had little time. Destroying this comet would require him to mobilize and activate all the nukepumps. “Have you uploaded the data syncrode from this place?”
“I’m looking at it now. All audio-visual content went blank at the time of radio silence. You want me to go through ten months of recorded media.”
“No.” Reagle avoided looking at the bloody entrails and focussed. “Can we track oxygen levels?”
“There was a sharp load drop off at the time of radio silence.”
“Within the space of an hour, 30%, then to 100%.
Reagle considered the ramifications. “That means all of Lapith’s crew exited the compound. How long?”
“No atmos activity till your arrival.”
“The incident must have happened someplace outside. How the hell did they end up in here?” He tried to rub his forehead but the helmet prevented him. “When did the EAI lose visual input?”
“According to the logs, two hours before the first event. Server went into fail-safe mode.”
“Did somebody do this?”
“The logs indicate an abrupt shutdown. Without accessing the server, we can’t know for sure.”
Reagle looked at the terminal. The server ran all the domestic sensory inputs for the crew and Hesper. “I’ve gotta talk to this AI.” Using his Sideral tool he opened the panel. He un-patched the mini-power core, force-booting the terminal and waited for the sequence to commence.
– corrupted xentro.sys file –
“Jeezes, this piece of shit won’t boot up.” He wanted to talk to this machine brain. Reagle found a comm-portal and began typing awkwardly with fat-gloved fingers.
>Hesper. Why did you not activate the emergency beacon at the first sign of trouble?
>There is no emergency.
>Have you not noticed climate parameters indicated that you have had no inhabitants for two months?
>Climate systems are normal.
>Are you not responsible for the well-being of the habitat?
>Then why are the crew splattered on the wall in here?
Reagle waited the epic seconds for an answer.
>There is a slight increase in humidity, 3 per cent above normal. Sanitary system is normal. Thermal system is normal.
>You haven’t noticed anything out of order.
>No. There is nothing out of order.
Reagle wondered how Hesper would react if it could see the carnage. He spoke out loud, “Hey, Lambright. Any clue as to when this comet’s trajectory got altered?”
“Hey, Lambright. Any chance this EAI could have gone bomb20 on us and did something fucked up?”
“Can it hear you?”
“AV server is dead. This thing can’t see or hear anything.”
“Answer to your question is, no. Environmental AI’s are physically disconnected from the navSystems, heavy mechanoids, and this comlink, even if they were somehow connected, the languages are incompatible. Hesper uses a vastly different programming language than automatons do. Even if it learned the language, there is no interface to bridge them together and allow it to accomplish something like this. The course correction was man-made. A nukepump rig would have to be manoeuvred into position and ignited. As for the deaths, I have no theories. How did they die?”
“Terribly. They were crushed, almost shredded.”
A thought entered Reagle’s mind. How long before flesh decomposes? He resisted the thought but he needed to know. He unsealed his helmet and removed it, expecting that horrid stench. Instead, it smelt like a slaughterhouse. “These bodies are fresh. This happened recently. I’m checking out the rest of the outpost.”
He left the death behind and headed to the rec room. There he found nothing out of order.
They left in a hurry, he thought. Yet everything here is clean, tidy — lived in, yet not messy.
He looked up at the ceiling at a robotic arm tucked away in rest mode.
Every living module had one built in. Each was controlled by Hesper. Reagle noted to investigate these robots, but he postulated that if clues existed they will more likely be located somewhere outside. He returned to the airlock and headed back outside. “Lambright, are you still with me? You haven’t left me here?”
“No, I haven’t abandoned you yet. I’m tempted.”
“What is on the manifest in regard to heavy equipment?”
“Two rocket dozers, a digger/cutter, one borer, a Snake-class platform drill, four nukepumps and a buggy.”
Reagle accounted for all except… he was missing a pump and the buggy. “There are only three pumps here. Nukepumps are used to propel this chunk of ice, right? One of them must have been deployed.”
“Or what? Can you spot it from where you are?”
“We are lookin’.”
Reagle hopped across the hangar toward the entrance. Outside, darkness reigned. He surveyed the landing pads, relieved to see his shuttle still there. Not being secured to anything, he was paranoid it would float away into space.
He looked out into the void, his eyes adjusting to the dim light. The gray ice dust and charcoal slush covered a broken, rocky surface. The landscape glowed under the twilight. A series of blue-stick markers lit up a trail heading down a steep depression. The uneven, bending horizon unnerved him. He spotted no tracks leading away from the hangar. Another mystery he could do without.
“Who’s a mining expert?”
“What do you need?”
“I got no tracks. If a pump’s been deployed surely there’d be tracks.”
“Not if it kicked up a snowstorm when it ignited.”
Makes sense, he thought. “I’m heading out there.”
“We haven’t spotted anything yet.”
“I’m following these markers.”
“We see those. They lead to nowhere.”
“I’m running out of time.”
“You are. We need to deploy the other pumps.”
He knew what this involved. The nukepumps were going to be used to drive the comet into meltdown. “Not before I find out what happened here.” Reagle launched down the depression, skipping over cracks and fissures. Each step took a minute. He would lose his balance on occasion but the blue markers were linked via cable, allowing him to hold on to something as he made tiny hops down, or what felt like ‘up’ the slope. Remembering his comet-skipping training, one mistake and he’d be flying off into deep space. Indoors, one could bounce off the ceiling; out in the open….
He kept thinking about the conundrum he faced.
Was it an accident?
Was it far more sinister? A deliberate act? Not knowing compounded his hyperarousal, as the thought of losing his footing frightened the hell out of him. He floated across a sublime yet jagged landscape, the blue glow of the markers enhancing the experience.
An act of nature? No force could do that to human beings. Not without disintegrating this tiny planetoid. What monstrous entity lurked out here in the cold shadows? Fear and paranoia plagued his thoughts. Without answers anything was possible. Reagle ascended a ridge made of a pitted and brittle compound. He spotted the sun in the black sky above. Just a bright star, even at half a billion kilometres away he felt its power radiating through the shielded faceplate.
The comet’s horizon glowed, illuminating the ground before him. He crossed a dune and marvelled at the ripples in the black sand caused by minute winds. For this small solar system body, which spent a few billion years out beyond the frost line, untouched by the sun, this type of erosion was a new phenomenon.
Beyond the dune, the flat terrain appeared scarred and blackened.
A burnt-out crater.
Even in the monochrome landscape, the spot seemed unnatural compared to the rest of the terrain. A rigging arm, embedded deep into the dark cold rock, stood at a slant. A broken, twisted shaft of metal. He spotted other rigging arms, the type deployed to stabilize the nukepump, located around the rim of the crater. But he saw no pump.
In its centre, Reagle noticed a pit, burnt deep into the ground. That is what pumps do, he reminded himself. They plunge a superheated fusion rod into the ice, the ice melts violently and the ejection of mass basically turns the comet into a rocket. It can change the comet’s velocity, its trajectory, turning it into a gargantuan spacecraft. It took ten years of gravity-assisted manipulation to get these Jupiter-family comets to speeds and trajectories that would ‘safely’ send them to Venusian space. Once there they were broken up and scuttled into Venus’s thick atmosphere.
The terraformation of Venus; a monumental project for space corporations; but considered a controversial issue by most Earth-bounders for the obvious risks involved. And here Reagle was, gawping into the abyss, the catalyst of a titanic disaster. His instinct was to look up. The nukepump, whatever happened to it, would have been blasted into space.
“The pump’s gone.” Reagle turned back. “Ixion, stand by with the pump deployment procedure.” Remembering his training, he paced himself back to the ice hangar, not wanting to join the pump in space.
“Standing by, Carl.” Again, he was relieved to hear Lambright’s voice, more so than ever. He looked up into the Milky Way and spotted the red star moving across it. The Ixion, orbiting the comet once every two days, disappeared behind a ridge, reappearing again by the time Reagle was in sight of the hangar.
He watched it pass through the Jovian System. “We have a deceased crew of six inside the command module, each crushed beyond recognition. We have an EAI that hasn’t seen or heard anything, or is too stupid to notice other sensory data. We have a missing propulsion nukepump, most likely destroyed. What else?”
“We have a copy of the control hub database. Somewhere in the operational data is the information you need. Now deploy those pumps and get the fuck off that block of ice .” Her voice sounded desperate. Reagle could not fathom why.
She had time.
As he climbed up the slope, the red star glowed rapidly brighter in the sky. The Ixion suddenly exploded into hundreds of little stars.
Carl Reagle’s heart sank.
He did the rough calculations. The nukepump, or heavy fragments from its disintegration, could still be orbiting the comet.
“Ixion, come in.”
The enormity of his situation spurred him on.
How did they not… It dawned on him. She knew about the danger. They probably located the orbiting junk but decided not to tell him.
Who knew what else she withheld from him?
He resolved not to think about it, nor mourn his colleagues. Marooned as he was, millions of kilometres from anywhere and travelling at fifty kilometres a second, his mission now focused on averting a disaster.
When he returned to the hangar, he felt alone. To ease his apprehension, he headed out to the shuttle and secured it to the mooring clasp. He easily lifted the normally half-tonne vehicle into position. A needless action but it made him slightly less paranoid.
Back at the hangar, the airlock frustrated him. Without some kind of keypad interface or audio capability, he had no way of getting Hesper to let him re-enter the facility. Containing his panic, he resorted to scavenging. First, he hit the nukepumps hoping to find any useable life support material. He entered the cockpit of the nearest pump and activated its airlock. As the cabin pressurized and the lights went from amber to white, he observed it right away. Food wrappers, clothing, and sanitation packs were strewn everywhere.
Hope and dread seized his throat.
They lived out here in a harsh, airless environment the whole time.
For two months.
Reagle could not begin to fathom what kind of ordeal these Lapith 7 crew had endured. For the first time, he felt their presence.
He booted up the pump’s systems and checked the logs.
Reagle found confirmation that the pumps were deployed at the time of radio silence. He looked at the tags. The command script was labelled ‘trajectory rectification’.
They were trying to correct the comet’s trajectory, he thought. He looked at the activity spreads. Each task had been completed. Reagle attempted to piece together what went down. The crew was acting on some information that prompted them to instigate an emergency course correction, yet the outcome turned out to be a negative result. Had they been given the wrong information, he wondered. That data would be still in the NavSytem, inside the habitat.
I need to get in somehow, he told himself, pounding his brain for ideas.
Reagle felt something under his boot. He looked down at his feet and noticed several cylindrical objects rolling around. He also found a pack of blue-sticks wedged under his seat. Their use seemed obvious enough, but the cylinders…?
Upon closer inspection, he figured out what they were. Quite heavy considering the low gravity, these were battery packs. The label read, Lasedrill. He knew right away what the crew was up to. Anyone familiar with the Rig’s engineering and stranded outside would come up with the same game plan. Most mining habitats orbit around the host asteroid, but during planetoid displacement operations the habitat is generally embedded inside the celestial body, inside ice caves, strategically carved into vertical inclines located on the dark side of a comet. In Lapith projects, the habitat modules are buried under the ice in a donut shape linked together, and joined to a central axle, the airlock lift, by radial tubes. They do this to protect the habitat and equipment from the comet’s volatile environment. These modules all have maintenance hatches, accessible manually from outside.
Reagle ventured back out again, wasting no time. He knew what the crew was up to. All he had to do was find evidence of excavation works. A hexagonal container caught his attention so Reagle crossed the hangar with one long leap. He opened and entered to find it well-lit and stocked up with everything a space miner could ever need or want. Tools, and perishables, are all neatly stacked in storage rails inside the hex.
Blue-sticks were scattered everywhere.
What is it with these markers?
He did not spend too much time thinking about it; instead, he explored the rest of the hangar, searching out feasible spots where the crew could have begun digging and melting their way down to the hatch doors.
He climbed aboard the Snake-class platform and entered the control deck. To his subdued delight, he found an operator controller pack. He pressurized the deck and hastily checked the logs. All instructions since the launch date were instigated by the mechanoid’s autopilot, but the last string of text was entered manually via the unit’s human operator.
– [go to waypoint 6] [trav:net 42|93*]
Forty-two metres? Reagle wondered why such a short distance. He looked toward the back of the control deck, at an open manhole that accessed the maintenance shaft. Without hesitation he dove for the opening, squeezing himself through, feet first. Barely spacious enough to crawl, Reagle managed to slide to the end of the tube, finding an open circular chamber. A sealed hatchway ruled the deck. A lasedrill, cartridges and two life-suit helmets littered the floor.
Reagle opened the hatch door.
A makeshift berthing adapter hissing out atmosphere more or less sealed the access between the Platform’s underbelly and the icy tunnel below. It looked a tight fit, so Reagle unplugged and took off his helmet, hoping the connector would not explode.
Reagle entered the tunnel, leaving the slumbering Platform behind. He looked down at the darkness and did calculations on how much leg power he needed to absorb the fall.
Just do it, he scolded himself and let go.
Reagle dropped, picking up speed. The air froze his lungs while noxious carbon monoxide and ammonia left an unmistakable stench. He anticipated the extreme cold but hoped the pressurized air sustained by the Platform above would be balanced enough to keep conditions safe. Too warm and the frozen gasses would overwhelm and poison the breathable air.
He continued descending, using his arms to scrape against the frosty wall, successfully slowing his flight until he began crawling down — or level, it was hard to tell. When he hit the bottom, blue light greeted him. The tunnel, large enough to crouch in, stretched out into the darkness, horizontally. The ground, covered in ankle-deep icy slush felt different under his boot.
He pressed ahead, paying more and more attention to the ground surface. When he came across an outcrop he put his hand to it. Not ice-rock aggregate but solid rock. Even the surface underneath his feet felt rough and serrated. Reagle lit the wall with his Sideral tool. The white beam of light revealed an aggregation of more reddish rock than water ice.
A rocky nucleus.
“We were wrong about everything,” he said out loud. “This thing is a goddamn centaur.”
Centaur, his mind echoed the word. It began to make sense. A cross between asteroids and comets, these SSSB’s were heavier in mass. The Lapith’s crew were using the wrong trajectory calculations.
The nukepump ran out of frozen ice and blew up, he concluded, but the answers uncovered more questions.
Reagle continued along the rock shaft, it’s surface brittle and crumbling in places. His heart pumped hard, missing a beat each time he slipped on sludge.
Why would Gi Corp go to the expense to send a centaur to Venus? His mind raced with questions, of grand conspiracies, of sickening allegations. And if Venus wasn’t the intended destination, why the hell would they threaten Earthsiders?
The corpora-politics of it all did not make sense.
He slid into a wider space, a cave, lit indigo by a circle of blue-sticks pegged around a massive hatch. A low, heavy hum greeted his ears, its bass frequency working its way into the centre of his brain.
Reagle did not dither. He looked inside. A colossal black ball moved gradually, purposely around a mirror-finished, ribbed spherical interior. Opposite, another hatch, closed but operable judging by the green-lit touch button at its centre.
A magnetic control movement gyroscope, Reagle kicked himself for not factoring in this device. This was how the crew decided to get back inside. But the triumph subsided when he spotted dark, wet-looking patches on the interior surface. In the blue ambience, he could not make out the colour, but he knew what it was. The smear and splatter patterns were unmistakable.
Suddenly the ball increased its velocity, spinning in a wild, powerful orbit around the sphere. Reagle felt the intensity. He swore he could feel the small planetoid underneath his feet shift a little.
Then the gyroscope settled back to normal speed.
“There’s my murder weapon,” said Reagle. As he stood there, dumbfounded, the ball spun again, resettled, and then spun again, at seemingly random intervals.
He knew what to do, but the courage to implement his new plan seeped away as fast as heat escaped from his body. Reagle turned to head back into the tunnel. He would go back up to the platform, find some kind of material, return to the gyroscope and toss it inside. The sensors should trigger an alarm and the system should shut down to allow the envirobots to clean out the debris.
That’s how the remains of the crew ended up back at the command module.
But why dump the bodies in the command module and not the trash bay? Reagle could not say, nor offer an explanation. That mystery would have to wait. His main priority was making contact with the Gi Corp base on Deimos; warn them as best he could.
Reagle stopped dead in his tracks.
There was no way to get back up to the platform. He did not even bother checking. Reagle knew the tunnel was too small for him to climb back up, even with low gravity taken into account. Resolved not to succumb to fear, he trekked back to the gyroscope.
The only choice left for him was to make a dive for the hatch door.
When he stood at the entry the rumbling vibrated his chest. He hoped the green light indicated that the opposite hatch was unlocked. He prayed that Hesper was innocent, just a blind, deaf, mute, clueless of the situation at hand. He gambled that the NavSystem was sending out random commands to the gyroscope, that it was not pre-programmed for something far more sinister.
Reagle glared at the dark monstrous ball and hoped and prayed one more time.