This is the first time that I’ve not written one of Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenges since January (with the exception of the times when I’ve been working at summer camp without internet, but even then I think I got lucky and he didn’t post a challenge). I feel weird, honestly. I had ideas for this week’s challenge, but I’ve been so busy for the past few days…
Instead, I offer you the newly edited version of Barium Deep. It hasn’t been deeply revised, and there are more changes to come, but I think I’ve managed to improve the piece’s clarity and presentation. Let me know if you like it!
“I’m sorry Barium, but your session is not yet finished for the cycle.” The teach-soft’s voice is muted in my earbud. Its heavily-braked AI is incredibly stubborn, but at least it’s learned that I’m not the same kid its original copy had been teaching before Mom pirated it. Unfortunately, it still thinks that I need to pay attention to its lessons while I’m overseeing the drive AI. Someone has to keep an eye on it while it performs positional maneuvers for Mom and Dad’s salvage op, and Cesi definitely isn’t old enough to do it. Salvage operations are tricky business. Zero-g or free fall conditions, vacuum, wildly variable radiation environments, they all add up really fast. It’s too easy to make a little mistake and have that be your last.
“Teach, I’m a little busy right now.” I’m strapped into the cockpit’s netting, my eyes flitting back and forth over my glasses’ readouts for the maneuvering thrusters. They’re all still running properly. They’ve burned about a quarter of their fuel so far, which is a little more than usual for this early in the process. It’s weird: I’ve done this seven times before, eighty-seven if you count sims, and never had this problem. I thought I’d simmed all the problems I could run into. I tap my projected display to see whether there’s a backup in the fabricator’s feedstock. We have a theoretically unlimited supply of fuel for our thrusters, since we only need reaction mass. But if we use up the fuel our fabricator makes faster than the fab can replenish it…
A yellow light starts blinking, Dad’s suit status light. I flick through the display projected by my glasses and bring up a bigger diagnostic.
“Dad?” I’m keeping my voice level, just like they’ve taught me. Thank goodness Cesi is busy with Teach in her compartment right now. I can hear her plunking away on her synthesizer. “Dad, this is Barry, you’ve got what looks like an early structural failure in the right forearm of your suit.”
“I see it, Barry. I’m using a temporary seal.” Dad’s response is calm and comforting. He and Mom have been doing this for a long time. It’s how they met. But they’ve always made sure that I understand: there is no room for a mistake when you’re running an op. If something goes wrong, you fix it right away, and maybe you abort then and there. You don’t stick around to find out how bad a mistake you made.
“Barium, your continued educational development is being adversely affected by your failure to complete your lessons.” The AI’s voice is soft, and it almost sounds hurt.
Oh my God, Teach is terrible sometimes. “Teach, I need you to stop interrupting me while I’m working.”
“But Barium, you—”
“Not right now, Teach! I am currently,” my eyes race over the displays, “practicing my spatial reasoning skills while developing, uh, practical applications of calculus.” I stare at the fuel display again, trying to make sense of the variable burn rate. The numbers don’t add up the way I want them too. I can feel my heart thumping. At this rate…
“Mom, this is Barry, come in please.” My fingers drum on my chest while I wait to hear back from her. Every second counts. What if we run out of maneuvering fuel while they’re still out there?
“Barry, go ahead for Mom.”
“Mom, you’ve got three-four minutes left of maneuvering, just over half an hour, and you took one-five getting in without a load. I think you’ve hit the time limit.” I sit, staring at the displays while my heart pumps madly. Mom and Dad are good at this. They wouldn’t make a mistake now, right? I can see the suits’ mic-use lights blinking. Mom and Dad must be talking to each other out there. I wish I could help them somehow, but staying here is the only way to contribute. What is taking them so long?
I switch half my display over to an exterior visual; we’ve matched rotation with the largest piece of debris here, burning and redirecting some of the smaller ones with point-lasers, but there’s still a mess between us and the hulk Mom and Dad are in right now. If Dad hadn’t rebuilt the shielding on the little tug, there’d be no way for them to get back and forth safely. If they don’t return soon, there’ll be nowhere for them to come back to. We’d be floating off station.
“Barium,” Teach starts up again in my ear, sounding hesitant. I flinch. “Perhaps you could tell me what you’ve found in your practical calculus applications? I could check your work.”
“Not right now!” I shout, watching those communications lights flicker. My earbud crackles softly for a moment, then “Barry, Barry, Barry, this is your Mom, come in please.” Oh no, have they been trying to hail me this entire time?
“Mom, this is Barry, go ahead.” I wish I could chew my nails. Instead, my fingers are poised over the controls while adrenaline floods my veins. Will I need to bring us into the debris field to recover Mom and Dad?
“Barry, we’re bringing the tug out now. We need you to rotate the hull to leave the bay facing us. The tug doesn’t have enough power to maneuver our load well once we get it moving.”
I desperately want to ask what they’ve found that would be so massive our tug couldn’t handle it, but all I say is, “Roger, shifting hull now. Estimate that will deplete maneuvering fuel to—” I glance at my display, guessing wildly, “—two-zero minutes.”
“Two-zero minutes, acknowledged. Tug is on the way.” And I can see it, creeping out of the hulk. It always seems so slow, but they’re actually moving phenomenally quickly. If we run into anything that isn’t part of the debris field we matched frames with…
I sweat as they inch across the space between us. I directed our drive AI to realign, and it’s doing a fine job so far, even if we are bleeding fuel far too quickly.
Mom and Dad are only two minutes out when my comms crackle to life again. There’s four minutes of thruster fuel left. We’re cutting things close. I absentmindedly acknowledge the transmission, then flinch in surprise.
“Attention unidentified salvaging vessel, repeat, attention unidentified salvaging vessel, this is the warship Saturn’s Rage, and you are performing illegal salvage operations in Rhean-claimed salvage space. Cease and desist immediately, or be prepared to suffer the consequences.”
I don’t have any idea of what to say. Mom and Dad have trained me for a lot of things, but talking to hostile warships isn’t one of them.
I hail Mom on our tight beam, and listen in horror to the patchy static. The debris field is obstructing our communication lasers. I have to come up with something quick.
“Saturn’s Rage, this is…” I stare blankly, my eyes glazed over in thought. Why not use my real name? No one believes that it’s real, and I don’t think I’m in any database the Rheans should have access to. “Barium Deep.” My parents are the worst, but at least now I can wing it, “Of the Deep Clan. How do you read?” I have to play for time. I watch the bulk of the tug returning to our ship. One minute and thirty seconds now, maybe.
There’s a moment of silence. “‘Bury’em Deep’? What kind of name is that?” Hah. At least I’ve confused someone on their bridge. Not a very professional warship if they break comms discipline like that. “Bury’em, we read you five by five. Now, cease and desist your illegal salvage operations immediately.”
I’ve just had a great idea, and I’m trying not to chuckle. “Uh, Saturn’s Rage, negative on that last.” I swallow my laugh and try out the lie. “We were conducting a Search and Rescue operation on a SAR beacon. Our away team is just returning now.” I finally let myself laugh, feeling the nervous tension in my belly relax, and for a moment I don’t notice the fuel gauge reading empty for our aft starboard thruster. They’re all set up in rings of six around the hull, more than the norm because we do lots of close maneuvering work, but I can already see the ship’s alignment starting to twist out of frame with the tug. Fifty seconds to contact. I’m not laughing anymore. My hands twitch desperately through the displays, trying to reroute fuel to the empty tank. What the hell is going wrong there? Is that where all the fuel has been going? I have the horrible feeling that we’ve sprung a leak there.
“Barry, Barry, Barry?” My Dad’s voice is coming through, but he sounds distinctly worried. I don’t think I’ve heard him sound that worried since he accidentally opened a warhead storage locker when I was five.
“Go ahead Dad.”
Then, as my Dad starts talking, Saturn’s Rage comes on again.
“Bury’em, our scans show no sign of SAR beacons anywhere in the vicinity. Be advised, we take lying about Search and Rescue very seriously out here.”
“You’re, uh, you’re starting to shift. Please correct to match us Barry.”
I’m fighting with the dropping fuel supplies, shunting even more to the aft starboard thruster. There’s less than a minute of fuel left. At thirty seconds to contact the fuel display finally reads something again. I start the burn immediately. If we are leaking, I can’t afford to do things in short measured bursts. The fuel won’t stay there long enough for me to use it. Twenty seconds to contact, forty seconds of fuel. No pressure. I hear the warning whoop of the target-lock alarm. Saturn’s Rage is pinging us with their targeting lasers.
“Sorry Saturn’s Rage, I’m having difficulty with fuel for my maneuvering thrusters. The SAR beacon we investigated appears to have been a false alarm but we had to check.” I pray that that will keep them from doing anything more serious. Ten seconds to contact, fifteen seconds of fuel remaining. I’m cutting this close. Too close, I realize as I do the math. I order a last burn on the bad thruster, then set all the others to course correct until they’re dry. I halt the fuel shunting I’d set up and cross my fingers.
“Wait five minutes Teach.” Ugh, AIs.
The hull reverberates as the tug makes contact, and there’s a long squeal of metal on metal. Oh god, I hope that’s inside the bay. Venting alarms begin to sound as I start shutting the bay doors. I double-check all the airlocks around it.
“Barry, we are in the bay, doors are clear.” My Mom’s voice rings through my ears. “And we are going to have some words with you about your thruster usage, young man.”
“Sure Mom,” I sing-song my reply, “right after this very nice Rhean warship has some words with me about our,” I lay the hint on thick, “fruitless investigation of a Search and Rescue beacon.”
Right on cue, Saturn’s Rage drops in again. “Bury’em, please stand by to receive a boarding party. We’re sending over a medical team to make sure that no one over there needs assistance.”
A medical team? Seriously? That’s the shabbiest lie I’ve heard in a while, and I tell some pretty bad ones. Of course we won’t need assistance. We’ll be dead.
“Thank you Saturn’s Rage, but that won’t be necessary. We’ve pulled the beacon and deactivated it, and all our crew are now back on board. We’re ready to depart.” As I finish the last, my parents burst onto the bridge, staring at the displays and linking their glasses to them. They strap into their netting and start talking each other through warming up the ship.
“Uh, Dad,” Dad runs most of the engineering, “I think we have a leak in the aft starboard thruster fuel tank.”
He grunts unhappily.
“Barry,” Mom takes the helm from me, “keep talking to that warship while we get ready to book it.”
“Sure thing Mom.” I roll my eyes. Obviously I’ll keep talking to them. Too many people have Mom’s voice-print, and besides, I’ve already developed a rapport with them. Kind of. “They wanted to send over a boarding crew, but I said no.” I point at the warning lights, “And they’ve been targeting us for a while.”
Dad starts muttering to himself.
“Well then,” says Mom, “into the debris field we go.”