I hoped Lindsi would be okay back there. I hadn’t expected us to be able to get this far up the spire at all. A few more floors and we might even get to Reactor Control itself! All I had to do, I thought as I hurried along the ring corridor, was find, if not a way up, at least somewhere we might be able to get some information on the power systems. I flinched the first couple of times I saw someone else, but, of course, they completely ignored me. After that I just ran, dodging around anyone I met, sticking my head through one door or another. They were pretty widely spaced, which made sense: most of them seemed to open into workshop areas or warehouses.
One warehouse looked completely empty, only the low-power lighting on, which was a good sign. I stepped in and looked around for any kind of foreman’s office, some kind of management room, but I was still up in the top half of the room and there only seemed to be walkways up here. Racks and shelves of stuff filled the space below, and I decided I’d be better off still going. I probably didn’t have that long before I needed to get back to Lindsi.
A bit further around the ring corridor, the doors started being closer together. That was a good sign! I slowed down to a fast walk, reading the signs on them. One was faulty, and had a flexi taped over it bearing the words “Inventory Office”. I guessed that was probably where someone kept track of all the stuff in the various warehouses. Even if they still trusted the Ship to do that, it was always better to have a human overseeing it. That wasn’t really what I was after, though. I needed something broader, maybe the workforce admin, or even at a push shipping requests — something that dealt with why things happened here.
I was just about to look through a door when suddenly, the world went black. Black is the wrong word, really: it makes it sound like I could see the blackness, like there was a wall, or maybe I was somewhere dark. I couldn’t. I couldn’t see or feel anything. It didn’t feel nearly as weird as it should have, though: it was just kind of like when you’ve been sitting thinking long enough that you stop noticing where you are. I probably should have panicked, but instead I was still just being surprised when I heard a voice.
A window of opportunity has opened. The suit rating is correct.
Like before, I felt it run through me like a power surge. It was the Ship!
What? What do you mean? I asked. I was pretty sure I did, anyway. I couldn’t feel or hear it, but somehow it felt like my words were going somewhere. Even so, the Ship didn’t answer me, not really.
Be ready, it told me, and just like that, I was gone. Or maybe I came back — back to myself, and back to the Ship.
I blinked into existence just behind Lindsi. She still seemed to be talking to the shift supervisor, or at least, I assumed it was the same guy. She had her left arm out and what looked like a diagnostic cable clipped to it. That would’ve made sense if she was still just wearing a regular biosuit, but knowing it was fused to her made it feel kind of weird to look at, like she had a needle in her arm.
“…must be a false reading,” he was saying. “Your biosuit wasn’t specced to this level of protection. Who even needs Rad Ten?”
The suit rating is correct, I whispered to myself, repeating what the Ship had said. Was that what it had meant? I kind of forgot that only one of the two people here could hear me. Lindsi must have looked surprised, and I saw her head twitch like she wanted to turn and look my way.
“It’s not the only anomaly,” he continued dismissing her reaction. “I wouldn’t normally say this, but you were right not to come back in. You’re suspended until this is cleared up to the satisfaction of Medical, and Suit Tech for that matter. If you bring-”
At that point, he was cut off by a siren, and the Ship’s voice cutting through it, measured yet urgent.
“Radiation leak. Shielding plate RS-134 integrity critical. Personnel suited below Rad Seven to evacuate immediately. Radiation leak. Shielding plate RS-134…”
The shift supervisor swore as, down below, the purposeful activity turned into an organised swarm, boiling towards the lower floor exits. Quite how organised worried me: how often did something like this happen? Maybe they just had a lot of training drills. He tugged the back half of a helmet up and over his head from his biosuit’s neck, and took a faceplate from his belt, securing it on. Now that really worried me. Everyone at least ought to know hazard procedures, but who carries a rad-rated faceplate around all the time? He turned to the rail and stared down, voice angry and afraid as he talked to himself.
“Nobody’s taken any shielding up for a month! Where are Quelnin and Rickert? They both have Rad Six!”
“Sir!” Lindsi interrupted him. “Sir, I’ll take the plate up!” The Ship was still repeating itself in the background, but her voice cut through it clearly. “Either my suit rating is true and I’ll be fine, or it’s false and you lose nothing because I can’t work anyway!” He looked at her dubiously and she went on. “I’ll take the risk, but we’ve got to stop it now! I was rated Five before this anyway. Please?”
“Personnel suited below Rad Seven to evacuate immediately,” the Ship added helpfully, or at least, those were the words that fell into the silence. The supervisor gritted his teeth.
“Fine, then, Davisson. The hazard pay’s all yours and so is the risk. Grab the plating and use the interior lifts to get it up to the reactor; I’ll clear your auth temporarily. Go!”
Lindsi nodded and ran, and I chased after her as the supervisor turned and ran the other way. The warehouse floor was already almost entirely empty of people, deserted and eerie. She glanced back over her shoulder once, looking at me and the empty space behind. This close, I could see her eyes were wide.
“I hope you’re right about my suit!” she said to me between breaths, and I could hear it in her voice, too. Nobody wants to run into a radiation leak, even in a rated suit it’s not the best idea.
The Ship told me ‘the suit rating is correct’, right before it brought me back here.
“It brought you back?” She came to some stairs, leapt the last eight or so in one jump and hit the ground running. I had the feeling my jump was probably a lot less graceful, but I sailed through the air keeping up with her anyway.
Yeah, it — everything went black, and it was talking to me. It said something about a window of opportunity!
Lindsi was heading for the back right corner, compared to where we’d come in. She knew where she was going, and I just followed her. We ran into an area that seemed full of stacks of hull plating in slightly different sizes and curvatures, and she stopped at a terminal. I looked over her shoulder: she was searching for the right piece in the inventory catalogue. It displayed a part and shelf number that she muttered to herself a couple of times before dashing on, grabbing a flatbed trolley that whirred in protest as she dragged it after her.
Two shelves further down and around a corner, we finally found what we were looking for: a stack of slightly curved, stepped plating. I could see how it would fit together in overlapping sets, so that everywhere was covered by two thicknesses of plate. Lindsi reached up and dragged the top one off the stack: it dropped alarmingly as she got more of it off, but she didn’t drop it. Considering how thick it was, I wondered how strong she was.
“Shouldn’t have tried to do this on my own,” she muttered, dumping the end onto the trolley with a muted clang. It bobbed slightly as the suspension adjusted itself, then more as Lindsi rotated the full plate around and let it down. It was a bit bigger than she was tall, and other than the curvature, pretty much square, sticking out over the sides of the trolley. She quickly went back to the steering bar and pressed the activation switch, but nothing happened.
“Motor’s bust,” Lindsi said succinctly, and hurried on still dragging it behind her, the protesting whirr growing stronger with a new note of complaint. I wanted to help, but by this point I knew I’d just go right through it, and I didn’t even try. The lift wasn’t far away, its big double doors easily high and wide enough to get the plate inside even in the most awkward orientation possible. Lindsi stopped the trolley just outside it, and hurried to a cupboard at the side, inputting her authorisation code and swinging it open to reveal a rack of biosuit faceplates, sorted by size. She snatched one up and reached behind herself to the back of her neck for a biosuit hood she didn’t have, feeling for it and finding nothing. That frightened her. It frightened me, too. I trusted the Ship if it said her suit rating was correct, but without a faceplate?
“I don’t have a helmet, do I,” she said, voice forcedly calm as she turned away and bent down slightly to show me the seamless blue skin at the back of her neck where her suit simply merged with the rest of her. I shook my head, slowly.
There’s nothing, no.
She turned back to face me, looking almost helpless. “Then what — what now? What are we going to do?” The Ship’s voice was still making its emergency announcement, pressing on us with the urgency of the situation. “We can’t just go back!”
The Ship wouldn’t do this if there wasn’t some way to do it safely! I… I know it wouldn’t! I was insisting for my sake as well as hers. The Ship wouldn’t lie to put Lindsi in danger… would it? I wasn’t sure it was even programmed to be able to lie. But I was dead, and it had had me take her to the Medical Bay where all of this had begun, and — I suddenly wasn’t sure what I could trust any more.
In desperation, Lindsi pressed the faceplate against her own face. It didn’t seem to stick, but it did flash red, a little line of text appearing across it, backwards from my point of view. I squinted at it, having to pay attention to every word.
Error. Full protection suite already enabled. Faceplate rating lower than present rating.
As she lifted it away from her face, looking at it, I saw what looked like roughened areas at the edges of her face, where it had rested. Even before I could say anything, they seemed to simply smooth themselves back into her normal smooth deep blue. I was going to mention it anyway, but she got there first.
“Like I’m already protected. You don’t think…?” She trailed off for a moment. “What if all my skin acts as a biosuit now?”
I think I saw contacts for a second, after you took the faceplate off. Something, anyway. I don’t know… it might.
The Ship repeated its announcement again.
“I hope so, anyway,” Lindsi said, and swallowed. “Because there’s nothing else for it. We’ve got to go on.”
The Fused by V. L. Bending is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.