Den Whitton - 2002
"It sounds awful," said Brentford with a scowl.
"No! No!" exclaimed Peib. "It's only two months, and living on an iceberg will be fun."
"It'll be cold and boring," grumbled the engineer. "And it's not like they really need the water-"
"They do, actually," interrupted Mitch, without looking up from the data pad in his hand. "The city has three months of fresh water left. This 'berg will give them another six months. They should have the desalination plant running by then." He pushed the pad into a slot beside a screen, and a map appeared showing the two northern continents joined by a curved dotted line. "Yes it'll be boring, but it's not like we were doing anything anyway. Now we'll get paid to be bored."
"What do we know about these people?" asked Brentford.
"They pay well."
"And they honour their contractual obligations," added Peib.
The three travellers were standing in the cargo hold of the shuttle waiting for the boarding ramp to lower. They watched the safety rail lift into place and felt the deck vibrate as the seal locks released.
"But what about the people?" asked Brentford again. "Effie?"
"Reports say they are timid and afraid of meeting aliens," said Effie's disembodied voice. "All discussions have been done over voice-only channels. We are the first to meet one face-to-face. Ambassador Som-Kh is waiting at the base of the ramp." As she finished talking, the ramp began to lower. Daylight and smells streamed in through the widening gap between the safety rail.
The trio walked down the ramp as it descended and waited on the end platform, staring.
Brentford's fur stood out on end. "That's the ambassador?" he whispered.
The creature stood nearly three metres tall, bipedal but with a thick tail that almost acted as a third leg. The arms were long and ended in bony, five-fingered hands. Shaggy, khaki-coloured hair covered the creature from head to tail. The head was unlike anything the three travellers had ever seen. It consisted of a huge mouth full of pointed teeth, and had half a dozen eyes on flexible stalks protruding through the thick hair. The eyes were bunched together and watched the three aliens walk down the gangway.
The ramp bumped to a stop and the strangers stared at each other in silence. After a moment the creature drew a deep breath and roared, sending a gust of spice-scented breath over the travellers. They winced but did not move.
"Smells like vindaloo" muttered Peib.
The ambassador fell silent abruptly and the eyes arranged themselves evenly across the top of the head. "I'm so sorry!" she said, covering her mouth with both hands. "I-I didn't mean to! It's just that you- you're all so ugly!" Peib smirked but Brentford's mouth fell open.
"You're not really an ambassador, are you," said Mitch as he gently pushed Brentford's mouth shut. "So how did you get this job? You're the least afraid? Or you lost a game of chance? Or you're the only one who is fluent in Standard?"
Som-Kh wrung her hands while her eyes waved on their stalks. "Both," she whispered.
"I think it's funny," said Peib suddenly. "Don't worry about it. Let's get your supplies on board then we can go."
The week passed without incident. Brentford, Som-Kh and the service bots erected a shed and installed the massive motors that would propel the iceberg, while Mitch and Peib prepared to cut them free from the shelf.
"And there's the last one," said Peib as he shut down the drill. Steam from the hole swirled around him and settled on his fur, adding to the thick layer of ice already there.
Mitch primed the charge and lowered it down the hole. "That's it, then!" he said. "We can be off in thirty seconds if Bren's got the control system going again."
Their comms earpieces hissed as they opened. "Of course I got it going again!" said Brentford. "I'm waiting for you!"
"Start the pumps," said Mitch. As they moved away from the drilled holes he pulled a small remote from a pocket. As they reached the shelter of the pump shed and he pressed the detonator. A wall of ice and steam rose instantly on three sides five hundred metres away, followed a second later by the sharp reports of the detonations.
The pair walked back to the last hole as the air cleared and the rolling sound of thunder echoed from distant ice ridges. The hole had tripled in size and a large crack now ran across their path. The ice groaned.
"I count three hundred thermal detonations," said Effie.
"That's all of them," said Mitch.
"So where are the pumps?" asked Peib.
"Stand-by," said Brentford. After a moment he said "Stand-by."
"Standing by," said Mitch.
"All right, here we go," said Brentford eventually. "Okay. Bugger, stand-by. ACK! PUT IT OUT! PUT IT-" The comms went dead.
Peib shaded his eyes and gazed at the shuttle. "I think I see smoke."
"Is everything all right, Brentford?" ask Mitch.
A moment of silence passed before their comms hissed to life. "Fine! Everything's fine! There's nothing wrong. We're just having trouble synchronising the secondary field back-up with the motors you took from Peib's bike."
Mitch slipped over as he started to run. Peib's arm flashed out and grasped a handful of Mitch's coat and lifted him in the air.
"My bike?" asked Peib quietly.
"It's the tertiary system!" said Mitch desperately. "They won't even be used until the second back-up goes down!"
"You touched my bike."
"Yes. NO! Not physically! I used the service bots. And Effie supervised!"
The pipes around them roared as tons of seawater moved through them at high velocity, making further discussion impossible. The water slammed into the ice-flow and blasted up from the crack in a huge fountain. Peib let Mitch fall to the ground and tilted his head back to watch the icy rainfall on him. Mitch ran to safety.
Ten minutes later the iceberg had cleared the ice shelf and entered the open sea. They were under way.
The blizzards abated and the sun came out. The day warmed enough for a game of outdoor chess. Mitch sat in the sun wearing only a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, while Peib built a seat from loose snow. Som-Kh stood sketching at her easel not far away.
"You'll get polaroids if you keep sitting on the ice," said Mitch as he moved the queen. Peib stopped him.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you."
"You're not me," said Mitch, and slid the queen diagonally across the chessboard.
"The queen is in danger," sang Peib softly.
"Crap," said Mitch as he placed the queen firmly on the board. "Check-mate!"
Peib lifted a big handful on snow and slammed it down on top of the queen. Mitch fell backwards off the chair in surprise and blinked up at his friend as a rain of chess pieces fell around him.
"You silly bugger!" he shouted. He heard Som-Kh laugh and glanced over to where the ambassador stood, packing up her art supplies.
"You wouldn't listen," said Peib.
"At least you didn't break any pieces this time."
Peib frowned. "I've never broken any pieces!" Mitch said nothing but held up a steel bolt with the word WHITE BISHOP engraved across the head. "Ah, yes," muttered Peib. "But that was an accident. The Oxy cylinder from the engine room fell on it."
"I remember," said Mitch as he stood and brushed the snow from his pants. "I also remember we were in the galley when it happened. I won then," he added, "And I won now."
"You did not!"
"Shh!" Mitch nodded at the shuttle. "Bren's coming."
Peib turned and watched the engineer waddle down the ramp. It was obvious he wore two coats, and Peib guessed from the way Brentford was holding his arms as he carried a backpack that there was a third coat in there, or a thick shirt at the very least.
He reached the bottom of the ramp and looked at the others staring at him. "What?"
"Nothing!" they chorused.
Brentford looked at the scattered game. "Have you been fighting again?" he asked with a frown. "You have! You're still having that stupid did/didn't argument!"
"No!" said Mitch.
"Well, a different one, actually" added Peib.
Brentford waved a hand dismissively. "Is anyone else hot?" he asked suddenly.
"You're wearing too many coats," said Mitch. Brentford began shedding coats. As the last coat came off there was a fall of black hairs onto the snow. "No wonder you're hot. You're moulting!" Mitch pinched some fur from the engineer's left arm. It came out easily.
"Hey! Stop-" Brentford's eyes grew wide as he stared at the circle of white fur left behind. He dropped the backpack and poked at the circle of soft, thick hairs. Peib tugged out some more fur, leaving another white spot, and then Som-Kh left a matching white circle on his other arm. Brentford slapped at their hands. "STOP THAT!" he shouted.
"You're only getting your winter coat," said Som-Kh.
"I don't HAVE a winter coat," exclaimed Brentford.
"All right then," sighed Mitch, "You just have a very thick, white layer of under-fur."
Peib picked up the backpack and examined the contents. "What's this?"
"It's something for Effie," replied Brentford, absently scratching his arm and exposing more white fur. "Effie? Can we see you for a moment?" The air behind him shimmered for an instant then Effie was standing there. He took the pack from Peib and reached into a side pocket. "Effie's problem here is that her hologram is restricted to the area of the ship emitters," he explained. "I used some of CD's 'droid spares and built a portable unit." He turned and handed the pack to Effie. "Here, put this on."
Effie took the pack and strapped it in place. She stepped from the bottom of the ramp onto the snow and stooped and picked up a handful. "What is the unit's range?" she asked as she walked behind the loading ramp.
"Technically, where ever there is a datasphere," said Brentford. "The pack has a twenty four hour power source with a one hour recharge cycle."
Som-Kh stepped back as the hologram came closer then reached out and touched an arm. "How is it you feel like a real person? I mean- uh- You feel real."
"What you feel is a field generated by the holographic unit," said Mitch. "It's a development of the shield technology used to protect the ship."
Som-Kh touched Effie on the stomach then snatched her hand back. "Sorry. I'm not used to dealing with an alien non-biological- um- entity."
Peib laughed suddenly. "I couldn't stop doing that when I first joined the crew."
"I had to ask him to stop poking me," explained Effie. "Number five pump is showing signs of cavitation," she said suddenly.
"Right!" exclaimed Mitch. "Everyone back to work."
"I'll see to the pump," said Peib.
Effie stepped from under the shuttle and examined her hands. "I think I can come with you."
Mitch watched the pair go. "Yes. Brilliant! Well done, Bren." He turned and saw Brentford scratching his back. "You should grab Peib's coarse brush and get all your old fur out. But do it down here."
Brentford frowned at him. "Why?"
"Because, if you shed in the shuttle YOU will be cleaning it up."
Som-Kh stood alone at the bottom of the ramp, shaking her head. The aliens were very strange people.
The transparent globe floated before Effie.
"We are about here, over the continental shelf," said Mitch, indicating a point near the northern continent. "One day out. Can you zoom in closer?" The scale changed until they could see an elongated white square on the blue water. A long aqua plume extended behind. "Our actual direction of travel is about ninety degrees from where we're pointing," he explained as he indicated directions on the map.
"When were these taken?" asked Som-Kh.
"They're real time," said Peib.
"Yeah! Show us, Effie."
The scale changed again. Som-Kh leaned forward as more detail started appearing. She could make out the shuttle, then one pylon with four figures standing in the sun. Beside her, Peib looked up and waved. On the map one of the tiny figures looked at them and waved. "That's amazing resolution, well above anything we have." Some of her eyes looked straight up at the sky. She waved and watched as the largest of the tiny figures waved. "Can we purchase this system from you?"
"Yeah, sure!" said Mitch.
"No," said Effie. "The law says we cannot until you have almost developed a similar system."
"We do have image satellites," said Som-Kh.
"I know," said Effie. "They have been following our progress, and two have been observing our ship."
"Have they?" muttered Mitch. "Can you patch into their systems?"
"Of course!" A moment later the image before Effie changed to show a silver spike floating in a black sky. "There were three 'droids but one came too close and the impact shields damaged it."
"Is that your ship?" asked Som-Kh. "I can't tell how long it is. There's no scale."
"Two hundred metres," said Mitch, "But most of that is engine room. It's the smallest ship with hyperdrive."
The image vanished. "The sea floor is rising," said Effie. "I predict we will hit it in one minute."
"Oh well," sighed Peib. "There's not much we can do about it. How bad will it be?'
"I calculate a fifteen degree list to the left for two minutes or until the lowest keel breaks off."
"We'd better warn Bren," said Mitch. "Where is he?"
Peib blinked. "I don't know."
"He said he was going to work on the shuttle's tail plane," said Som-Kh.
"Twenty seconds to impact," said Effie.
"Get him on the comms," ordered Mitch. "Warn him!"
"He is not wearing-"
Mitch swore loudly and sprinted for the rear of the shuttle with Peib close behind, calling Brentford loudly.
The iceberg shuddered and lurched, and began to tilt slowly. A shout of surprise came from above, followed immediately by the sounds of tools falling onto the wing. They dodged the brief rain of metal objects falling over the edge of the wing and skidded to a halt under the rear of the shuttle. Looking up, they could see Brentford had pressed himself against the tilted upright of the tail plane, his eyes shut tight. Effie and Som-Kh joined them a moment later.
"Hold on!" called Peib.
"Oh! Great! Yeah, thanks for the TIP!" shouted Brentford. "How long will this last?"
"A couple of minutes," said Mitch. He squinted as he examined his friend, finding it hard to look at the white fur against the white metal of the shuttle. "Where's your safety harness?"
"In the locker."
"You bloody idiot!" said Mitch. "It won't do you any good in there. Don't move!" He turned to Effie. "Can you find the harness?"
"Yes," said Effie.
A long, drawn out groan filled the air and the ground shuddered beneath their feet. They looked down at the ice.
"What the hell is that?" demanded Peib.
"The keel is disintegrating," said Effie.
A deep boom filled the air and the iceberg slowly rolled back to the right until it tilted the other way, then it rolled back. From above they heard a cry and the thump of a heavy body hitting the wing. Brentford was no longer hanging onto the tail plane and he did not answer their calls. They stared in silence for a moment.
Mitch closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Right," he breathed. "Peib and Som-Kh, get the stretcher and medkit to the engine room upper air lock." He turned to Effie as the other two sprinted for the ramp. "What is your maximum lifting weight?"
"Two hundred and fifty kilos."
"Good," he said as he grabbed a strap on the backpack. "Get me up there now."
They rose vertically to the top of the wing. Mitch felt his stomach jump when he saw the little twisted body lying on the wing. "No no no no NO!" he yelled as he scrambled across the rocking surface to kneel beside the still body. "Bren? Bren!" Brentford's ears flicked. Mitch reached out to feel for a pulse but he hesitated.
"Don't touch him," said Effie.
"I know," muttered Mitch. "Can you examine him?"
"The backpack has a minor med unit, but I can't do a detailed examination until I see him in the medical bay." Mitch leaned back to let Effie run the scan. "He has concussion, the left femur is broken, two ribs are fractured and the spine has dislocated between 14 and 15."
Mitch stared at her for a moment. "S-spine?" he stuttered eventually. "How bad is it?"
"It is a substantial dislocation. I expect major nerve damage."
At that moment Brentford groaned and stirred. His eyes opened. "'Fell," he mumbled.
"We know," said Mitch. "How do your legs and tail feel?"
"Tingles," sighed Brentford, then he went limp.
"He's unconscious again," said Effie.
The hatch opened and Peib scrambled onto the wing. He turned to take the stretcher as it was passed through, then carried it over. "Is he bad?" he asked as he opened the aluminium frame.
"Yes," said Mitch. He took thin plastic strips from Peib and began sliding them under Brentford. "His back's broken. We need a major medical unit."
"Som-Kh is contacting her people now," said Peib as he slipped the frame through loops on the plastic strips. "Maybe they will-"
"They have refused to accept him," said Effie. "I monitored the transmission. The nearest hospital of any sort is forty eight hours away."
"It'll take us 2 days to disconnect the shuttle from all this junk," muttered Mitch.
"I could wire up plasma charges in a day," said Peib. "We'd be free in a few minutes."
"Do it," said Mitch as he finished sliding the strips under Brentford. "We'll be at the rendezvous tomorrow. Blow the charges when we reach there and they can sort out the 'berg." They assembled the stretcher around the motionless body of their friend. "Where is the nearest hospital?" he asked suddenly.
"Homeworld," said Effie.
"I don't know that one."
"It's the new official name for Polomar mark 2."
Mitch and Peib began tying Brentford into the stretcher. "How far to the next hospital?" asked Mitch.
"Seven days," said Effie. "Homeworld is only two days."
Peib looked up for a moment before returning to strapping Brentford into the stretcher. "Remmy's people don't have a neurosurgeon. The best they could do is realign the bone."
"If nerves are damaged they'd implant a neural junction amplifier," said Mitch.
Peib froze for a moment. "No implants," he hissed. "I wouldn't wish that on anyone."
"They have the facilities," said Effie.
"They don't have the skill."
Mitch and Peib paused to look up at the hologram, then they looked at each other. "All right," said Mitch eventually. "I don't doubt you could do it. CD can help with the projection."
"The question is, will he," muttered Peib. "You know how he is about public exposure."
"He will provide another projection point and look after our safety," said Effie. "He is already using Max-U to secure the datasphere around the planet against hunter-killers."
"Good," said Mitch as the pair lifted their stricken friend and walked along the gently rocking wing to the hatch.
To be continued.