Aphelion Issue 222, Volume 21
October 2017
 
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The Blind Collaborators

by Lee Alon, Nathan J Kailhofer, Iain Muir,
TaoPhoenix, and Gareth D Jones


By eight o’clock in the morning, only two hours in to the shift, Algie found himself alone in the Technical Maintenance Control Centre.  It was a very rare occurrence, possibly even unique in Algie’s experience.  Usually only half his twelve-man team were out on maintenance jobs, the rest would be running maintenance checks and diagnostics from the consoles here at the centre. 

 

Today though, the orbital habitat Astropolis was having a bad day.  On a space station this size, there were always maintenance issues, especially on the day shift when endless inhabitants would send in maintenance reqs for creaking doors and faulty view screens.  Things were more serious today; there were elevator malfunctions, air supply failures and power interruptions to go with the routine issues that kept them busy from day to day.  On top of all that there had been a collision of a small craft in one of the docking stations that had caused structural damage to a whole section.  Even the tech mechs were out in force carrying out the limited routine tasks they had been programmed for.   

 

Eyes aching from staring at on-screen reports for too long, Algie took a slow walk round the control room and flexed his shoulders, trying to decide which of the several petty tasks could be put off the longest.  The problem was, the people who put in the requests via the Service Desk never thought their problem was petty.  Annoyingly, they were often right.  With the endless sections that had been added on to the station over its two century lifetime, a small problem in one section could easily became much worse if not addressed quickly, especially for those adjuncts on the outer edge of the station whose systems were not insulated by surrounding modules.  He returned to the work assignment screen and scratched his head thoughtfully.  Another three reqs had arrived on the page just during his brief break and now sat at the head of the queue waiting for assignment. 

 

Algie sighed and returned his full concentration to keeping Astropolis in one piece.

 

# # #

 

Armin's iron grip held Mary's vest as she dangled from the mass of pipes below the primary heat exchanger for the Old Centre. She hung there in her yellow maintenance coverall, ten meters up in the air, and thought about how much she hated Thursday mornings and tour groups.

 

"I'm gonna miss my show again! Bobbi Munson, Deep Space Explorer. Best damn synaptic broadcast on the net!"

 

Her storage cube was nearly full, so it wouldn't have the space to store the full sensory experience. She'd have to watch it like it was TV, instead of experiencing everything Bobbi did, and that hunky Fleet Captain Daniel Rock was maybe going to pop the question this episode. She wondered if Mike, her co-worker, could record it for her.

 

No, she thought, he'd just make fun of me for watching a soap.

 

Below her, she watched a couple walk though the grey junction, arm in arm. She sighed. Somehow her mousy brown hair and green eyes didn't combine into a face that all the men wanted to kiss. Her job kept her small frame fit enough, but she feared the smell from the maintenance ducts wasn't helping her efforts any.

 

Armin, what she named her artificial limb, transferred some vibrations from the pipes down its double-jointed titanium frame and into its flat, square end that hooked through the mesh of her metal vest. It was attached to the middle of her back, but with a single thought from her, its thousands of tiny hooks would detach and move to a different part of the vest. Her own arms worked fine, but she knew there were times in her job when you just needed an extra hand.

 

"Hang on, Armin," she told it, "they're launching!"

 

The huge Alferi cruise liner blasted away like it always did, which meant way too close to the station. Astropolis had too much mass to be pushed aside easily, but since the purple banking ward had relocated to the other side of the station, that left only the orange sewer and oxygen reclamation ward to try to take the force from the exhaust. The Old Centre absorbed the worst of the flex every time, rupturing orange-tagged waste pipes left and right.

 

A pipe burst a meter to her left and the metal arm swung her wearily to the side. Her feet and human arms grabbed, holding her in place upside-down while Armin flipped its elbow around her side and slowly flopped its flat end against her chest. Once there, its hooks gripped her jacket vest. The arm snapped up and locked a steely grip on a pipe.

 

Armin seemed sluggish to her. When she was done, she'd have to see about a tune up.

 

Her arms and legs let go, and she pulled a long pipe wrench from a pocket on her pants leg. Using every ounce of strength, she isolated the shutoff and stopped the jet. Immediately, the flow switched to a new pipe, which burst just as quickly.

 

"It's going to be a long morning, Armin."

 

 

# # #

 

Bill's shovel was clean.

 

Surrounded by happy, giggling people who made food all day long, filling the air with tantalizing aromas, he was starving. He would have killed for a pile of jaga with cheese and sauerkraut on top.

 

Bill was an exterminator, like every third person in the Green Ward.

 

"You, with the clean blade," Cravitz said. "Number 347, in Ricardo's Bistro. Walt isn't cutting it. As Health Inspector, I can force his contract open. Ricardo's is a nice place to sell to. Upscale food."

 

Bill eyed him. "And what would I have to do to get it?"

 

"Marry my sister, of course."  Cravitz burst out laughing. "Oh, c'mon. It's a joke. Smile already."

 

Bill was surly. "What do I have to do?"

 

"Smile, like I said." Cravitz grinned. "Everybody in jaga smiles. If anybody sees you smacking the little green blighters with your angry scowl instead of a happy smile, they'd start thinking. Thinking about whether or not it's humane, or whether or not the stuff we scrape off the walls should be turned into food.  You'd make problems for us all.  Jaga and a Smile'  has been the motto of the restaurants here for twenty years, and it works. People expect it."

 

Bill crossed his arms in front of him. "That's stupid, and I'm not doin' it."

 

"Fine," Cravitz said with a smile. "Then you're not doing it."

 

# # #

 

Verdun was indeed a terrible battle, all those hundreds of years ago, Zalmana nodded as the information, complete with rather horrific actual footage, danced in her mind.

 

The story of that battle, the one that generations later still remembered as so despicable, comforted her.

 

She wasn't the only one to experience war, many more of her species had to endure the same fate, and if they could do it, so could she.

 

There were no two ways about it.

 

The comforting notion was just about to take better hold, perhaps even pushing away the previously indomitable fear, when the recounting of Verdun went blank and the usual view of her room returned.

 

There was an acrid smell of cordite in Zalmana's sensory center, lingering from the presentation, but it too was soon replaced with the flat, nearly absent scent pervading the entire station.

 

It was eleven in the morning, and she knew exactly what had happened.

 

"Blinging feed's down again, those mother-leavers", she said to the wall, which hummed with a thin holoposter advertising the Heechee Cafe on Level 24.

 

Zalmana glanced at her chrono-implant, the one she made sure they put between her thumb and index finger, since it was the location most humans looked down on.

 

"Those naturals have the time everywhere except where it made sense."

 

It was eleven and a minute, and she looked at the poster again. It fizzled and cackled and made her think of what Resistance weapons must sound like.

 

"No projectiles, only energy", she recalled her trainer say back on base.

 

Wanting to avoid the fear again, and frustrated that the server still didn't come back after more than a minute of silence, she decided to leave her room and check out the Heechee for some extra-thick Europeano with maybe a burger on the side.

 

That should do the trick.

 

She grabbed her wallet and keys, stopping to think that the fear she was feeling as a warrant officer surely must be nothing compared to what she would experience as a Walking Proud lunging at scores of natural horders on the battlefields among the stars.

 

But the Walking Proud didn't feel anything and she was a human working with the Planned Government. This never won Zalmana any credits with people on the station which, although this sector had scant sympathy for the Resistance, was predominantly human and apolitical at that.

 

Yet she couldn't just sit at the Heechee by herself for more than twenty minutes without going cerebral, so she also picked up a hardcopy novel-conducting litero-tube, the one about her favorite century, and opened the door.

 

# # #

 

Only to bump right into the technicians that had showed up to work the re-router outside.

 

"Can you units ever get this blinging connection right? I was in the middle of something and it will most likely now also give me a headache later on!"

 

The sector shuddered briefly.

 

"What was that?", she asked.

 

"Station management decided to withhold services from this sector", answered the tech machine. "Those were the air boosters shutting down. You residents will now have roughly three days to evacuate."

 

"What, that's entirely logical! Where's the compassion?"

 

"Those who can't evacuate will be accommodated in Astropolis Core."

 

"Yes, the most logical place of them all! Do they have blinging furniture now at least? I just recall bare walls from when I arrived."

 

The tech machine looked at her with blank arrays. It didn't care for Zalmana at all.

 

"Have a pleasant interval and do not try to reconnect to the server, the provision has been terminated until your sector starts paying again", it said and went down the hall with its identical companion.

 

Zalmana found the entire episode curious. How can a complete sector on Astropolis just stop paying their bills?

 

# # #

 

Luckily, it only took two hours to finish work on the heat exchanger, so Mary stopped at the arm shop. They were out of her cerebral link chip, but let her have the next model up at the same price, and threw in a brand new beta software patch for her trouble. They said it would be twice as responsive. All Mary knew was that she'd have to work double shifts all week just to afford it.

 

She stopped for a protein smoothie from the vending booth down the hall and bumped into Mike, who sat down across from her. The knees of his oversized frame almost lifted the table off the deck.

 

His yellow coveralls were splattered with grease that ran all the way to his neck. Above that a crooked, yet genuine, smile hung below blue eyes and a thick shock of blond hair.

 

"Hey, Mary, what's shaking?"

 

"Most of the pipes in the Old Centre," she said. "One of these days it won't be CO2, and I'm not cleaning up that mess."

 

"I hear ya."

 

Just then she spied a dreamy Corps lieutenant walking down the hall toward them, and she leaned her head on her hand and watched him walk. It surprised her when she figured out it was Armin holding her head up and not her own hand.

 

I guess they were right, she thought to herself. Armin is a lot more responsive.

 

She sat up and watched the chiselled jaw and broad shoulders of the military man approaching them. She sighed. "I wish a guy like that would talk to me."

 

Mike looked at her strangely.

 

Unbelievably, the man stopped in front of her. "Do I know you?"

 

Mary mumbled something unintelligible, and smiled nervously.

 

The lieutenant regarded her like there was something truly wrong with her, and then he looked offended. He turned on his heel and stomped away.

 

"What was his problem?" Mary asked.

 

Mike looked bewildered. "Your extra arm waved at that guy until he came over, then flipped him the bird when he looked at you like that."

 

She looked at Armin, which gave an apologetic gesture. "I just got an upgrade today. I didn't know it could do that."

 

Mike chuckled. "Don't worry about it. That guy was no Fleet Captain Dan Rock anyway."

 

"Do you watch that show?"

 

"Sure," he said. "I plug into the Dan synapse every week. Didn't see it this morning, but I think he was going to ask Bobbi to marry him."

 

She grinned at him.

 

# # #

 

His groaning stomach reminded Algie that it was approaching noon.  With nobody but him in the control room all morning there had been no opportunity to wander off and have a snack.  The dregs of a cup of coffee sat on his desk, but food was definitely now on the agenda.  Unfortunately all of his technicians were still spread out over the station, up to half a kilometre away, and all were still busy.  Each time one of them finished a job there was already another waiting for them.

 

As if there weren’t enough malfunctions to deal with, the central integration processor, the computer that tied all of the various and mismatched technologies of the habitat together, was now giving him communications errors.  A few had already blinked up on the console display and he had managed to clear them, but now they were interspersed with other rarely seen messages such as buffer limit warnings and data capture losses.  It was obviously having a hard time keeping up with all the data it was capturing from numerous sub-systems and translating into a common format for the maintenance centre.  Algie began sifting through the error logs, acknowledging and resetting all the alarms he could find to free up some processing space.  His jaw was beginning to ache from gritting his teeth in exasperation.  You really needed more than one person to man the control room.

 

After a few moments work another alarm flashed up on the screen, and this one even bleeped to herald its arrival. 

 

Section 16 systems isolation_

 

Section 16 had already experienced several communications failures, and now the integrator seemed to have given up and assumed the module had been isolated.  Now there was no way to tell what the original maintenance problem had been.  Algie shook his head slowly, then whisked his chair along the desk to the master plot display.  Section 16 was on the outer edge of the station, but the plot just showed a blank space where it should be.  The computer now seemed to think it didn’t exist.  He moved back along to the work assignment screen to check who was nearby, then opened the comm and sent a technician to investigate.

 

# # #

 

Dr. Cornelius Grump, Professor of Obscure Literature, wandered around his humble domain feeling depressed. His sections of Station AstroPolis were paid for his lifetime (for small values of lifetime) by the combined grants from the adjunct colleges he had taught at over the years. Freed from the worst economic scrabblings, he could devote his time to his studies and instructive engagements. (Thus, he was depressed, for reasons described below, and not panicking over rent.)

 

His section had a few clever Tech gadgets, but his living standard was behind most of the other inhabitants who had gleaming new quarters paid either through their rapacious development of asteroids, Bio/Nano discoveries, or murky connections with Corporations. The Professor's grants provided the space, and a low grade meal ticket usable at some of the station restaurants, but large parts of the rest were designated for Research Only, to comply with various tax exemption codes. Cornelius' few non-professional luxuries (DuraChrome robots, AquaSmart appliances, and the like) had been acquired by shrewd trading on the LitBoards with other collectors.

 

He was depressed, because he was at one of those late-middle ages in life, just old enough to feel put in place by the younger generations, not yet feeble enough to ditch it all and drink Gentian Root Tea in the common area. (Why drink that variety of tea? His research on the early days of Soda Wars had earned him a lifetime beverage supply (for large values of lifetime) from the Monarch Company which had somehow escaped economic obliteration.)

 

Still, he contributed many factoids to the LitBoards.  The fees received were enough to handle the Small Necessities, and Cornelius was humble enough to live within his means. The good news was, his love for his vocation sustained him. The only thing he hated was counting down the minutes until the inbound cargo freighters arrived.

 

Cornelius collected books - REAL ones. Some of them were personal copies printed from his private OnDemand Binder-Printer, but that required a text to actually have been scanned. Recall, he was Professor of Obscure Literature. This usually meant no one had bothered to scan texts they had never heard of. (The clairvoyant mediums were too busy hustling tourists.) And so it came to pass that the Professor traded favors, and sneaked a few volumes on board every shipment. The transport officials wedged them between other, more official imports, and deducted what few fees they couldn't hide from the Professor's winnings in the weekly Spaceport Bet.

 

Finally the inbound merchant vessel had arrived. Doc Grumpy (As he was known to his students) left his room unlocked, trusting in the natural burglar resistant properties of the towering piles of tomes. (Woe to the drunk freeloader who collided with the Pronunciation Guide to Ancient Egypt falling from its place on at the top of seven years worth of Egyptian Millennium magazine.) He ambled his way towards the central area of the station. Tucked under one arm was one of the cheap reproducible copies of Isis Unveiled, volume 2., packaged in a destruction resistant LoTanium metal travel case.  The Professor was eager to compare the NewYork-1888 text with what had been advertised as an unauthorized recompilation by a student from an Alpha Centauri university. It had been stashed on the newly arriving import ship, behind the flight attendant's personal liquor supply. (Who would miss another bottle of cheap Chinese wine on the weight logs?) Upon arriving at the cargo bay, he was met by Andahar Chemise-Rouge, the Assistant Chief of Security.

 

"Doc, there's been a problem. We'll get you your document later. But maybe your unique brand of insight could shed light on our situation."

 

"Really, Andy!? In my old age I like to humor myself that I was lucky to hear about a copy of Dune backported to Sanskrit, but then I make my living finding such things. What can you tell me so far?"

 

"That's part of it. We're not exactly sure what the problem is. There's been a series of odd events, all suddenly occurring far too often. By themselves you could write off two or three of them to the fickle will of the universe. But not all of them."

 

"Events? What sort of events?"

 

"They seemed harmless at first. But the 'effect' - we're calling it that around the Security Office - seems to be growing in strength."

 

"What happened?"

 

"About four hours ago an unknown craft applied for docking permissions, and was granted. The pilot then crashed into the station, completely trashing three parking slots worth of docking equipment."

 

"Saints Undead! Was anyone hurt?"

 

"Uh... that's the beginning of the problem. We don't know."

 

"What does that mean?"

 

Andahar fidgeted and wiped some unruly blond hair out of his eyes. "It was a single passenger ship. Captain Granger applied for permission to dock, and was granted clearance. After the botched landing, we helped the passenger inside. Finishing a brief stay at the medical areas, Rutger Clendenning Jr. announced he was feeling fine."

 

" 'RC', the singer? ", asked the Professor.

 

"Yes. He is currently giving a concert in Lounge 4."

 

"I thought RC was attending a convention over at Sigma Irridium Four?"

 

"I wouldn't have known that, but I doubt that lead will really solve our problem. Did you miss the bigger problem here?"

 

Cornelius ground his teeth sideways in thought. "So did this Captain fellow remotely conduct clearance on behalf of his client?"

 

Andahar nodded grimly. "You're a smart guy, Doc. No such luck. We had a nice, boring Video feed of Captain Granger asking for access to dock his One Person craft. When the doors opened, galactic entertainer R. C. Junior stepped out."

 

"How is that possible?!", asked the Professor.

 

"We don't know. Since I caught up with you by accident, I thought you might have an idea where to begin. This whole situation is so ... creepy. And since then, the events kept rolling in."

 

"How so?"

 

The Security Chief looked unhappy, as if he had seen a ghost. "I wish I were a comedian. Some of this stuff would make great material. For effect, I'll deliver it deadpan. Mrs. Wu paid her rent this morning, wearing her famous turquoise sweater."

 

"And?"

 

Andahar mimicked the comedian sharing a secret with his audience. In a strangled voice cast away from the professor, he intoned, "Wait for it."

 

The professor was immensely well read, but it sometimes took him several moments to drag up some facts into complete awareness. Right on cue, fifteen seconds later, he added: "Wait a minute. Mrs. Wu? Samantha Wu is off station, and I didn't think she owed any fees during her hiatus."

 

Mercilessly, wanting someone to endure a little of what he had been through for the past four hours, Andahar plunged on, "And Samantha is only engaged, not married ... Mrs Wu. "

 

"I am sure you are tired, Chief. It took me a minute to place the reference. Dear Wu Li passed away last year. Please do not insult her memory."

 

The blond chief grinned viciously. "Her memory is better than yours, Professor. She knows who she is far better than you do, and she has paid her rent on time. Yours is late."

 

"Uh... Yes. Well. I'll pay that next week. But since you are clearly enjoying this, how do you have a rent check from a dead former tenant?"

 

"She is down in the lounge listening to R.C. See where this is going? The tenant who died last year is down in our lounge buying Saki with money that shouldn't exist listening to a singer who couldn't have been on the ship that was crashed by the pilot who cannot be found. There's some minor stuff, but those are the doozies so far."

 

"I can see how that kind of mess could be very upsetting."

 

"Spare me, Doc. But R.C. is relaxing to listen to. And Mrs. Wu has offered to pay for the station repairs, 'because she is so pleased we scheduled a visit by her favourite singer just for her.' "

 

"Hmm. Maybe you are right, Andy. Something I read once does vaguely fit this situation, but it's eluding me. Shall we go resume this discussion down in the lounge? I'd like some Saki myself. It goes well with Moxie."

 

"You're incorrigible, Prof. G. By the way, some of the doors have jammed from electrical overload during the crash. Take one of these leverage bars in case you get stuck."

 

Thoughtfully, Dr. Cornelius Grump looked sideways at the security chief as they headed to the lounge, tapping the metal bar he had been handed on the floor in a parody of an old man with a cane. "Did that One-Man ship have an Adams Drive by chance?"

 

"A what?"

 

"Sorry. What's the full name? 'Heisenberg Uncertainty Compression-Accelerator Drive' I think it was?"

 

"Uh... I think so. Why? And what is an Adams Drive?"

 

"A minor earth writer named Douglas Adams wrote what at the time was meant as a set of humor-fiction novels. In them, he described something called an "Infinite Improbability Drive", which gets its power from the 'sheer impossibility of your turning into the Linux Penguin mascot' or something. It was the purest of jokes at the time. But later, when the HUCA Drive appeared, the Engineering boards heard how it manipulated micro-events.  There was some speculation about what would happen if such a drive's effect were somehow magnified by a factor of 1000. Dead tenants listening to singers who aren't here is the type of thing they used to joke about."

 

Andahar shrugged as they tramped through the corridor in the center of the station. "Beats me. I just work here."

 

# # #

 

The garlic smell in Ricardo's was extra strong, and the jaga there were sold with Italian variations.  Bill’s stomach growled at every diner in the place. 

 

A friendly-looking fellow stood at 347 in a work coverall, calmly bashing away at the top third of his section of wall with the flat of his shovel. The shovel was jagged at the end of the blade, and the handle had been taped together at least a dozen times. The top third of the wall was thick with jaga, the middle with green & brown splotches, and the bottom third was rough metal, scraped almost clean. The center of the wall was a quarter meter of shiny, clean metal.

 

The man smiled as Bill approached. "Why so glum, chum?"

 

"You Walt?"

 

Walt nodded, swinging away at the marble-sized balls.

 

Bill didn't believe in mincing words. "Inspector Cravitz told me you couldn't cut it anymore, and that I should take away your business."

 

"Did he now?" Walt chuckled. "I'm not so easy to get rid of.  Besides, I married his sister. "

 

"That ain't right," Bill said. "I learned better when I was a kid, dirtside. So, maybe you'd like a subcontractor instead."

 

Walt gave Bill a once over. "What are your terms?"

 

"Right now, I'd work for food, and not smilin'."

 

"You gotta smile." Walt paused. "What did you do on Earth?"

 

"Our family ran a hot dog cart in Central Park, and we had it down. Mama cooked up buns, Gramps got the dogs, and Pops worked the cart. Me, I kept it fixed and helped in the kitchen. It was gonna be my job to push the cart, but Pops was clipped by this rich drunk. The guy's lawyers got him off, and we had nothin'-not even the cart. So, I got a job in a metal fabricatin' shop. I 'm good at it, too. I can make anything. That's what brought me to Astropolis - a shop at the other end. But I got tired of that, so I thought I'd try this."

 

The grin on Walt's face was wide. "You've got to be born to do this. There's an art to it."

 

"Whaddya mean?"  Bill sighed.

 

"Gimmie a scrape over there, in that darker brown patch. Show me what you got."

 

Walt shook his head at Bill's work. "That's no good. You've got to get all the way down to the metal. Twist the blade to get through the layers. They're tougher than they look. Try giving those greenies a slap over there."

 

Bill swung, sending green splatters across the wall.

 

"No! That's terrible form." Walt scrubbed off the stainless steel in the center. "You have to break them without spraying all over. If you knock it onto somebody else's wall, then they get to scrape your jaga. And never, never put any into the center square."

 

Bill sputtered. "Why not?"

 

Walt looked at him with patience. "Tellurium-the stuff that makes this place smell like garlic. When this Ward was added, stainless steel was all the rage. People wanted it everywhere, and volume made it cheap. The contractor who sold the steel mixed too much tellurium in, and jaga loved it. They moved in and turned this place into the restaurant district. Keep the center clean to keep the smell strong and Jaga go crazy making spores, to reproduce on the smash. Everybody knows that."

 

Bill shook his head. "If it's that simple, then why doesn't somebody start this up somewhere else?"

 

"You'd need the metal and jaga, which aren't easy to get, because the restaurants own them, not us. We contract to exterminate and sell the scrape back. Closed system."

 

Walt patted Bill's shoulder. "Sorry, Kid. You just don't have what it takes. Keep the stuff on your blade. That's fair scrape. It'll feed you for a couple days… maybe."

 

Bill looked over the smash on the back of the shovel. Gingerly, he stuck a finger in a thick clump of green near the handle and tasted it.

 

The sour look on his face made Walt laugh hard. "Damn, Kid. It's got to age! Do yourself a big favor when you get to the quarantine check, just sell your shovel with the scrape and go back to that metal shop."

 

# # #

 

"How can an entire sector on Astropolis just stop paying their bills?" Zalmana asked the person across from her.

 

"We are the main contributors to the tax base here, and we don't pay them anymore because they have decided to accept a Resistance consignment starting next month."

 

The person across from Zalmana was a random individual she met going into the Heechee. He was wearing a black suit and full-cover mask to conceal his face, if he had one.  She knew he was a Planned Government assessor and therefore definitely not human.  However, assessors were always built to fit in with the majority of the population in the system they worked at, and so this one looked like a bipedal hominid.

 

But it didn't matter, since the conversation took on a most engaging turn while Zalmana insisted on chatting up this character, who she considered a colleague of sorts.

 

The assessor knew a lot about Terran history and seemed to be highly instructed in her favorite century.  He also offered to pay for her drink and burger, which was even carboner than just talk.  She therefore ordered Dark Ireland ales like there was no tomorrow, and munched on the huge burger they served her.

 

The assessor had a Europeano.

 

The lights in the Heechee came on and off several times while she was becoming increasingly dented, but even so, it occurred to her there was something amiss with the juice.

 

"Are they cutting the energy too?", queried Zalmana.

 

"Yes, they will give us three days, just like the air. The other tenants here are all individuals or corporates, so they will do as we say. And we are not paying. But shouldn't you worry more about your journey to the front?"

 

"Thanks for reminding me."

 

"It's my duty to be compassionate to fellow Planned Government associates, even if they are so very local as yourself. What is it that you're reading, Miss?"

 

"A litero-tube about my favorite century. Say, what do you know about the Battle of Verdun?"

 

And as the world spun reassuringly around her due to the high-content ales, Zalmana noticed Anika, Undisputed Queen of Level 24 and her ex, leaving the cafe.

 

It was 11:48.

 

"Hey!", she shouted after Anika, handing the litero-tube to the assessor. It made a loud popping sound and she snatched it back quickly.

 

"Oops, sorry, forgot you're electrified."

 

He smiled back.

 

She ran into the main traverseway outside and followed the very attractive Anika to the Core. It was still boring there but she just wanted to talk to Anika and see what the bling was up.

 

They veered onto a quiet passage when Zalmana made her move.

 

"Anika, you carbonated prefab, it's me!"

 

The other woman turned to look before disappearing round the next corner.

 

# # #

 

“The section’s isolated.”  Carla reported over the comm.

 

“You’ll probably need to reboot the interface.”  Algie advised.  “It should be in the first maintenance compartment along the main corridor.”

 

“I don’t mean just the systems are isolated,” the technician replied, “the whole section is isolated.  The decompression doors have come down across the corridor.  I can’t get in there.”  There was a pause while Algie absorbed this news, then Carla continued: “There are people both side of the door.  They’re not very happy.”

 

I bet they’re not.  Algie thought.  As long as they knew it was just a glitch, he could cope with unhappiness.  It was if people started thinking there really was a decompression problem that panic could easily set in and things would quickly get out of hand.  The horrible memory of the section 62 incident of twelve years earlier sprang readily to mind.  It had been a busy trading day in what was known as the Merchant’s Module when a faulty pressure sensor had caused an erroneous depressurisation alarm.  The doors had slid down and sealed the section off, trapping hundreds of people inside.  It took the maintenance crews three hours to trace the fault and get the doors unsealed, and during those three hours blind panic had reigned.  Fourteen people were crushed to death, and another three died from injuries sustained during fighting.  Dozens more were injured.  Almost every shop was looted and the damage to the infrastructure was so severe that the section had to be closed down for weeks while repairs were effected. 

 

Algie still vividly remembered the chaotic mess that he had been sent to clean up and repair; and the bloodstains that he had tried desperately to avoid as he worked.  He did not want his team to go through the same thing again.

 

“Stand by, Carla.”  He said eventually.  “I’ll get someone there to help you.”

 

He called the Service Desk and asked them to send someone from security just in case the crowd got fractious, then turned to his work assignment screen.  The next nearest technician was in section 11, known colloquially as the Green Ward.  He put a call through.  There was no reply.  He glanced at the master plot.  The Green Ward had apparently vanished too.  If it had also been physically isolated then things were not looking good.

 

Several more error messages flashed up on the integrator console.  Algie cursed silently and put a call through to Station Management.  He didn’t like to get them involved in maintenance issues, but things could quit easily start getting out of hand.

 

# # #

 

Megan woke floating in mid-air, a blanket draped across her.  This was becoming an annoyingly regular occurrence.  She cursed the station’s grav generators as she blearily looked around for something to grab onto.  It might be possible to swim in zero g, but leverage is a wonderful thing.  Eventually she resorted to balling the blanket up and throwing it at the further bulkhead, relying on good old Isaac’s laws to push her towards the nearer one.  The absence of the blanket highlighted the fact that she was naked.  This would not normally have been a problem, but as she slowly surfaced towards full consciousness she was becoming uncomfortably aware of two things:

 

1)     these were not her quarters

2)     her clothes were nowhere in sight.

 

Her left hand latched onto a handhold on the cabin wall, and she rubbed her forehead with her right as she attempted to recall where she had been last night and how she came to be here, wherever here was.  Any clues as to the whereabouts of her garments and whether or not she was going to have to mumble apologies to someone whose name she couldn’t quite recall would be useful also, she thought.  OK, she had started out to have a few drinks after shift with the boys from the Deep Space Astronomy lab.  Say what you liked about those geeks, they could most assuredly consume ethanol in heroic quantities.  She had run into Jean-Marc and Luc in the Hubble’s Arms, and they had gone onto dine at the Admiral Heinlein, before going to dance at Asimov’s near the Hub.  After that, things were a bit of a blur…

 

The gravity came on without warning, and her backside came into contact with cold metal with a resounding thump. Megan cursed loudly in Greek, then switched to Afrikaans because it was so much more satisfying.  A peal of laughter brought her attention to the hatch.  Jean Marc managed to lounge in the doorway in a nonchalant manner, despite the fact that he, too, must have been in zero g only seconds before.  Megan decided that she hated him, from his curly dark hair to the blue eyes currently flashing with mirth to the eminently kissable lips, to his cute backside, she hated him.  The only person whom she hated more, she decided, was Luc, for the capital crime of being Jean-Marc’s boyfriend.

 

“Good morning, sleepyhead,” said Jean Marc.  “Feeling a little sorry for ourselves are we?”

 

Megan’s reply was in dockhand Russian, and explained Jean-Marc’s ancestry, his personal habits, and his likelihood of ever being granted a license to procreate.  He laughed again, and waved the cloth bundle in his hands.

 

“Tut, tut!” he said, “such language!  Keep that up, and I’ll let you make your way back to your quarters without the benefit of these!  What would the comms staff think if their Chief were seen parading nekkid around the corridors, hmm?”

 

Megan pulled herself to her feet and grabbed the clothes from Jean-Marc’s hands.  It was the uniform she’d had on yesterday, freshly laundered by the look of it.  She started stepping into her decidedly non-regulation underwear, and fixed Jean-Marc with a glare.

 

“How did I get here?” she asked, her green eyes spitting laser bolts at him, “And why was I not wearing any clothes?”

 

Jean-Marc spread his hands defensively.  “Sweetie,” he said, “when you threw up all over yourself at Clarke’s just because the grav went out, Luc and I could hardly let you wander the station on your own.  And your tunic was a bit…” his lips wrinkled with distaste “… ripe.  We brought you here and Luc ran you through the shower while I sent your clothes out for cleaning.  We were perfect gentlemen, I swear!”  He grinned “Although it was interesting you find out you were a genuine redhead, after all.  You cost me fifty credits there.” He raised an eyebrow archly.

 

Megan finished sealing the front of her tunic and swung a not-too-serious roundhouse at him.  He swayed out of the way easily.  He pointed to the hatch in the far bulkhead.  “The ‘fresher’s through there if you want a comb and mirror,” he said.

 

“Thanks,” said Megan, and ducked through into the cramped facility.  She’d known the boys lived in one of the older sections of the station, but the fittings were positively primitive! Almost twenty-second century!  She ran a comb through her hair and stared into the mirror: hair in a utilitarian bob cut, check, eyes not too badly bloodshot, no sign of the wrinkles she’d been sure would sprout momentarily.  You could almost believe she was still twenty-nine, not… her mind shied away from the number.  Feeling almost human, she went back out, to find Jean-Mark hadn’t moved from the doorway.

 

“What time is it?” she asked, looking around for a chrono.

 

“About a quarter to twelve,” he grinned, waiting for the expected explosion.

 

“What?” Megan yelled.  “You let me sleep how long?  I have to be on duty in fifteen minutes!”

 

She dashed for the door and barrelled past Jean-Marc, who ducked out of the way like a toreador, waving an imaginary cloak as she passed.  She skidded to a halt, turned, and kissed him on the cheek.

 

“Thank you,” she said.  “And thank Luc for me, as well,” she called over her shoulder as she dashed through the cramped living area to the main hatch of the boys’ quarters and let herself out.

 

Megan looked right and left as she emerged from the hatch, both to see who might see her coming out and to try and orient herself.  The nearest cross-corridor markings told her she was in Delta section, about 500m rimward of the operations centre and, of course, about as far away around the circumference of the station from her duty station in communications as she could be and not meet herself coming back the other way.  There was nothing for it: she was going to have to cut through the old station and out the other side, and hope no-one from station command was running late to catch her.  Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly through pursed lips, Megan started toward the Hub.

 

# # #

 

The Training Center called Gyron never sleeps. The agents merely trade duty activations.

 

The Training Center concept was jointly created by several governments in loose collaboration to produce elite agents with extremely unusual skills. Conventional agents have their place: take semi-ordinary men and women and teach them the skill set of the day. If acting training is included, they can serve well under cover, or simply blend into populations to elude capture. However, the very normality that enables such blending places raw caps on the theoretical abilities in certain departments. By trading subtlety for efficiency, the governments experimented with creating whole new classes of agents.

 

The straw-man qualms of armchair moralists were squashed by broadcasting the plight of the desperately poor nations. A glittering display of stunning amounts of money turned up the volume on the message. "So much for natural rule here. Look at the faces of the citizens. Do ANY of them look happy to you?"  Several of the weakest governments folded their land and populace to the arms of certain corporations. Following principles honed by a century of modern business theory, these corporations set out to prove their point by creating a life of value for *each and every citizen*. Once the conceptual precedent was set, it was open season on creative Potential Development.

 

Gyron was simply another such Training Center. This time, the theme was to build Strength. Supported by recreational citizens pursuing their own agendas, the Training Program here set out to build the strongest men alive guided by at least modest intelligence. The infants entered the world normally enough. Through age five they had to deal with the typical problems of childhood - gaining the barest command of their personal functions. Despite certain extreme theories, these years simply cannot be rushed. Basic genetic selection was exercised at this point: there was no real point to wasting the expensive facilities on the weakest half of the children. These youngsters were simply traded to the other Training Centers. For similar reasons, exceptionally intelligent youths were traded as well, so they could spend more time exercising their mind.

 

The next five years comprised a period of general exercise spread over a wide variety of activities, buttressed by a new conceptual program.  All aggressive instincts were rooted out, and philosophies of honorable personal conduct were stressed heavily.  Upon graduating from the childhood facility, they entered Gyron proper. This was set on a segment of Station Astropolis which used rotational forces to simulate increased gravity. Terra may only sport a 1.0 G-force naturally, but Gryon maintained an artificial 1.6 G-force. (Special experiments went higher, but pure biological failure began increasing after that point.) The young trainees matriculated through the gradient sections at a G-force rate of their age divided by 10. Building on their general exercise programs from before, they now learned intuitive biology and physics concepts. The important point was that every activity they had known skewed when the G-forces began increasing.

 

At the most basic level, raw physical exhaustion always occurred surprisingly early. If a trainee "used to run a kilometer last year", they would discover they were wiped out after less than half that distance. Precision sports involving balls proved enormously disorienting, because the basic techniques had to be recalibrated every year. The field strength levelled off at 1.6 Gravities at the conclusion of the 16th year. The remaining four years allowed time to consolidate skills in two common gravities: Gyron 1.6 and Terran 1.0.

 

Also starting the seventeenth year, formal weight training began. Since professional employment is far more utilitarian than mere sports, muscle enhancing diets were a key part of the regimen. Top level research had reduced the sloppiest detrimental effects, and as a whole, there seemed little reason to be concerned. Throughout the program, the worst misfits were discharged, and "time, chance, and circumstance" always produced accidents. However, the program reliably turned out about fifteen agents per twenty five accepted children who made it to Gyron.

 

"Gyros", as they were called, were capable of Next-Generation feats of strength and endurance. Some of the former trainees who had to leave in their last couple of years developed entertainment circuits of the carnival side-show variety. Others developed brand new sports completely unavailable to Terran mortals. It is one such sport which occurred throughout the corridors of Station Astropolis one Thursday Morning. Of course, it was against official regulations, but the station staff was ferociously overworked, so as long as no one got badly hurt, they had better things to do than enforce petty regulations.

 

Antaeus was one of the late discharges from the Gyron program. During an official exercise, he had slipped and fell from some five meters in the air. The famous Gyron gravity proved harsher on mistakes as well, and he had broken his left arm. His personal conduct was otherwise perfect, and he earned an Honorable Medical discharge from the official program, along with a pension to suport him until he could discover some other use for his talents. (Now several years later, his arm had healed, but once broken, it was too vulnerable for official assignments.)

 

Antaeus was a quiet, thoughtful man. He was understandably upset to see a life's vision dissipate before his mind's eye, and his first year as a civilian was fairly turbulent. However, a chance visit to some theatrical productions had alerted him to the soothing powers of mythology. The ancient Greeks had refined the art of dealing with unprocessable events by couching them in archetypical stories. Of course the literal details were not "true". What mattered was the conceptual framework and what it meant in the grander schema of life.

 

He discovered the story of the Strong Man Returned to Earth. (Officially, becoming discharged from Gyron Training meant your legal citizenship was transferred to an Earth city of your choice.) Although technically on a space station, he felt the loss of his former destiny. But as a Strong Man on Earth, he was nearly invincible. His verbal language skills had always been solid, so now he settled down to studying the art of writing at one of the many Station remote-branches of Terran universities.

 

In the off hours between his studies, Antaeus formed a golf club on the station. After being reprimanded when his excessive physique caused the puny Terran ball to shatter station windows, he altered the sport to suit his fellow Gyros. Tyre-Golf was born.

 

Antaeus had discovered that the tyre off the cargo transport rolled beautifully down the halls of the station. If placed correctly, it bounced its way around the 45-degree angles in some of the older corridors, and continued rolling on its merry way. Property damage and living casualties were astonishingly small, so the sport earned the Official Ignore status among administrators. Plus, it proved hysterically funny to see a random tyre gleefully rolling past you when least expected. The sports eco-system that soon developed around it also had its uses.

 

And so, on a non-descript Thursday at noon, Antaeus was playing a round of Tyre-Golf in the semi-deserted older central corridors of the station.

 

# # #

 

The rest of the morning couldn't pass quickly enough for Mary, and when the noon gong sounded, she was already heading towards the long junction that led to the green Jaga ward. She beamed with happiness. When Mike met her for lunch, it was going to be her first date in almost a year.

 

Armin seemed pretty pleased about it too. It gave every person they passed a thumbs-up.

 

# # #

 

As the noon gong echoed through the dull, gray halls of the Old Centre, Bill knew the sticky, living ball of snot hidden from the quarantine check under his tongue was going to be his ticket to a better life--running the only self-sustaining, stainless steel jaga-dog cart on the whole station.

 

It was enough to make him grin like a maniac.

 

# # #

 

Things really were getting out of hand.  Almost quicker than he could acknowledge them a series of error messages and alerts filled up his console screen, until there was a whole page of communications errors and isolation notices.  On the master plot section after section of the station vanished as its systems were cut off and the integrator lost contact with them.  As the last of the alarms bleeped it was joined by the tolling of the noon gong.

 

Algie sat frozen for a moment, unable to decide where to start.  His hand shifted to the communicator and back several times as he tried to decide who to contact.  By the time he had formulated a coherent thought and opened a channel, there was nobody to communicate with.  The entire communications net had gone down.

 

Now there would definitely be trouble.  The combination of restricted movement around the station and no communications would soon have people worrying.  With all of his technicians stranded all over the station there was nobody else to work on the problem.

 

The integrator console gave a double beep.

 

Critical error_

 

The screen went dark.

 

The habits of a computer-dependent administrator momentarily froze Algie in panic, before the practical engineer within took over.

 

Reboot the computer.  He thought.  It might even reset all the other errors.  He stood resolutely.  If I bring each section back on line individually, it won’t overload the system.  He strode to the back of the room and the reinforced hatch that led through to the mainframe unit.  Yes that will do it.  He pressed the door release.

 

Nothing happened.  The red light did not turn to green.  The hatch was locked down.

 

There was a tapping from behind him.  Algie could see a figure peering through the entrance from the corridor.  Hopefully one of the techs had made it back. 

 

He rushed over and pulled back the manual catch.  It grated harshly after ages without use.  Must lubricate that.  Algie thought absently as he slid the door open.  Outside though, was not one of his techs, but five people wearing facial expressions ranging from worry to irritation.  A sixth man, standing slightly behind the rest wore stained overalls and a dreamy smile on his face; it was a bit of a lop-sided smile, as though he were sucking a toffee.

 

An attractive, if stern-looking, woman dressed all in black pushed forward and flashed a government ID at him, revealing her name to be Zalmana.  She put it away too quickly for him to catch her second name.

 

“I need these doors open.”  She said, gesturing down the hall at the decompression doors that had sealed their section of corridor at either end.  “I have important business to attend to.”

 

“As do I.”  Added a middle aged man of scholarly demeanour.  “And I’m a personal friend of the assistant security chief.  In fact I was with him a few moments ago until he was called away to some kind of incident.”

 

“And I’ve lost my tyre.”  Said a third man, rather cryptically Algie thought, as the man was carrying a golf club.

 

“I’m dealing with it as quickly as I can.”  Algie said, and turned to do just that.  The group moved to follow him into the control centre.  “You’ll have to stay outside.”  He said.  “This is a restricted area.”

 

As it happened there was not much he could do against the inertia of the group, especially with the door only working manually.  As they spread out into the room he realised that the group included a figure he recognised, wearing the same forest-green uniform as himself.  In her case the colour perfectly complemented her lustrous auburn hair, cut in a cute bob.  The new comms chief; he struggled to remember her name. 

 

“Megan?”  He ventured at last.  Her smile confirmed he had it right.  “The comm net seems to have gone down.”  Her smile vanished.  “Do you want to use one of my consoles and take a look?”

 

“Thanks.”  She said.  “Doesn’t look like I’m going to make it to the comms centre.”  She strode over to the indicated console and settled onto the chair.  The others started talking and complaining, questioning and fretting.

 

Algie decided he had better things to do with his time than argue and instead headed back across to the mainframe room, calling out a warning not to touch anything over his shoulder.  He attempted to open the door to the mainframe several more times in the vain hope that it was just a temporary glitch, while his visitors ranged themselves in a rough semi-circle behind him.

 

“What is the problem?”  Zalmana asked.  Algie was not sure exactly what job she did for the government, but thought it best to be obliging.

 

“The mainframe integrator has shut down.”  He explained briskly as he lowered himself to the floor to look at the maintenance access panel.  “I need to reboot it, but the room is sealed.”  The panel was secured with four bolts and held firmly in place as he gave it an experimental tug.  “I’ll have to override the lock in this panel.”  He tried turning the bolts with his fingers, but they were securely fastened.

 

“Don’t you have any tools?”  Someone asked helpfully, a young woman in yellow mechanic’s overalls.  Algie merely grunted.  The mechanical and technical departments treated each other with a certain amount of professional disdain, both equally convinced that it was their department that kept Astropolis running while the other loafed around doing nothing.  All the technicians in Algie’s team had their personal toolkits, but you weren’t supposed to need tools to work in the control centre.

 

“No.”  He replied after another moment’s struggling with the panel.

 

“Will this be of use?” 

 

Algie looked round to see a large crowbar being proffered.

 

“Thanks…”  He said in surprise.

 

“Professor Grump.”  The man informed him.  “I was informed that several doors were jammed and was quite looking forward to utilising this device at some point.”

 

“Thanks, Professor.”  Algie said, and quickly put the tool to good use.  The panel gave four satisfying snaps as the bolts tore loose.  It  fell to the floor with a rattle and Algie pushed it to one side, turning his attention to the circuit boards and conduits within the hatch. 

 

“Is this important?”  Zalmana’s voice interrupted his concentration.  Algie glanced around in irritation, and his eyes fixed on Zalmana’s foot that was pointing at the panel.  On the back of the panel, now visible, was a paragraph of text and above it two yellow warning triangles, one containing an exclamation mark and one with an electric spark.  Algie was a competent electrician, and confident he knew what he was doing, but electricity was not to be fooled with and any warning notices were usually important.  He pulled the panel back towards him and turned it round.  He couldn’t read it.  It wasn’t even an alphabet he could attempt to pronounce.  He rested his jaw on one hand and stared at it thoughtfully.  It might not be important, but then again it could be vital.  He was conscious that thinking was using up valuable time.

 

“I can’t read it.”  He said, to Zalmana’s foot.

 

“What do you mean, you can’t read it?”  Zalmana demanded.  She was obviously used to getting answers, whatever her job was.  The question attracted Megan’s attention, who stepped over from her console.

 

“It’s Russian.”  She announced.

 

“Can you read it?”  Algie craned his neck up hopefully.  She stooped down and picked it up.  She muttered under her breath in Russian for a moment then looked up and switched to English.

 

“It says this panel should only be worked on by a qualified electrician and all applicable electrical safety procedures should be followed.”

 

Algie felt himself breath a sigh of relief.  It was nothing he didn’t know after all.  Without being sure though, he could have agonised for ages about whether to proceed.

 

“Right.”  He said.  “I’ll get on with it.”  He turned his attention back to the innards of the panel and began tracing the circuits.  It was fairly straight forward to create a diversion and isolation, then just a bypass was needed.

 

“Anyone got any electrical cable?”  He asked without hope.  Everyone looked at him blankly.  “I need to create a bypass.”  Everyone still looked blank.

 

“Does it have to be cable?”  The Professor asked.

 

“Anything conductive, I guess.”  Algie said.  “About ten centimetres is all I need.”  Everyone still looked blank.  Then Zalmana fished inside her pocket and pulled out a thin black rod, roughly the right length.

 

“How about this?”  She asked, handing him the litero-tube.  He held it up in front of the circuit board.

 

“Looks about perfect.”  He said.  He offered it up to the two connectors.  Yes, it would definitely fit.  There was no way to connect it though, it would just fall off.  “I need something to attach it with.  Electrical tape, anyone?”  You could never tell.  Everyone began checking their pockets under his gaze.  “Glue?  Sticky tape?  Gum?” 

 

Nobody had anything sticky.  It looked like his luck was out. 

 

“I believe this gentleman is chewing gum.”  Professor Grump indicated the smiling man in the overalls.  His smile froze and he shook his head slowly.

 

“It ain’t gum.”  He said, obviously talking around something in his mouth.

 

“You patently are chewing gum.”  Zalmana said in a very official sounding voice.  “And it’s needed to carry out this repair.  You must hand it over at once.”  She held out her hand, thought better of it and gestured at Algie instead.  The name ‘Bill’ embroidered on the man’s overalls was barely visible through a green smear wiped across his chest.

 

“Look, Bill,”  Algie said in his most reasonable voice, “I’ll buy you some more gum.  I really need to get this computer rebooted.”

 

“It ain’t gum.”  Bill repeated, looking around now with an expression of mild panic.  “It’s, it’s medical.  I need it or I’ll,”  he backed up a step, “or I’ll die.”  He finished.

 

“I’ll get you straight to the infirmary for more.”  Algie assured him.  “But if I can’t get the system rebooted the whole station will close down.  We could be looking at hundreds of deaths.”

 

“Hand it over now.  Zalmana commanded.

 

Slowly, tortuously, Bill took out a lump of green gum from his mouth, and with a look of mortification handed it over to Algie.  By the look on his face he could just as well have been tearing out his own heart.

 

“Thanks.”  Said Algie, taking the squishy lump and pulling it in two.  He turned back to the panel, stuck a lump of gum to each end of the conductive tube and pressed it into place within the circuitry.  With the flip of a jumper the power was diverted from the electromagnetic locks.  There was a click and Algie looked up at the door control panel to see the LED change from red to green.

 

“It worked.”  He said, standing up to murmurs of approval from the onlookers.  A faint smell of burned garlic wafted up from the access panel.  Bill had completely lost his smile and now looked as miserable as anyone Algie had ever seen.

 

The door didn’t open.

 

A chorus of whys assailed him from behind.

 

“I’ve disabled the lock,”  He explained, “but the opening mechanism isn’t activated.”

 

“Can you override it?”  Zalmana asked.

 

“Possibly, but I won’t be able to keep the lock bypass in place.”  He thought for a moment.  “I may not need to though.”  He eyed the hand grip situated centrally at the base of the door.  “It should pull open.”  He stooped down and grasped the handle in both hands, straining to lift the door.  It barely budged.  “It’s too heavy.”  Even if he could lift it off the ground, he would never be able to slide it up into the ceiling and hold it there.  He stood wearily and leaned against the frame.  The handle, and the doorway itself, was too narrow to allow more than one person to grasp it.  The six other people present couldn’t get close enough to be of any help.

 

“This is my kind of job.”  Said the man with the golf club, moving forward to the door.  He didn’t look especially strong, but Algie was never going to manage it himself so he stepped back to make room.  The man handed over his club ceremoniously.

 

“Antaeus, at your service.”  He gave a small smile and a slight bow, then flexed his arms and wiped his hands on his thighs.  In one swift move he then stooped, grasped the handle and heaved.  Slowly the door slid up into the ceiling, until the man was standing upright holding the door at waist height. 

 

Quickly Algie handed the golf club on to Zalmana, who took it with disdain, and dropped to all fours to crawl under the door. 

 

“There’s something on the handle.”  Antaeus said suddenly.  “It’s slipping!”

 

The gum!  Algie thought, throwing himself forward on to the floor desperately as the handle slipped from Antaeus’ grasp.  Algie cringed in anticipation of the crushing weight landing on his legs. 

 

It didn’t happen.  He pulled his legs through and rolled to the side, then turned to see what had happened.  Somebody had caught the door with their hand, propped on their elbow against the ground.  Why their arm wasn’t snapped in a dozen places Algie didn’t know.  Then he realised the arm wasn’t actually attached to anyone.  A yellow suited figure lay on the floor the other side of the door and grinned at him.

 

“I don’t take my tools to lunch,” she said, “but I never go anywhere without my arm.”

 

Mechanics and their fancy prosthetics!  Algie thought disdainfully while smiling gratefully.  He stood up slowly and rather shakily and stepped over to the control panel for the mainframe integrator.

 

After the trouble he’d had actually getting to the computer, the job of resetting it was fairly straight forward.  He rebooted the whole unit, cancelled and reset the data links and then began reconnecting to each subsystem one at a time.  Usually they could all be brought on line quite rapidly, but Algie allowed a few seconds for each connection to complete and stabilise before moving on to the next.

 

A constant stream of queries came under the door as he worked and he ignored them efficiently.  In only a few moments the integrator was back up to speed and all connections had been resumed.  He dropped back to the floor and rolled under the door.

 

“Is it done?”  Zalmana asked.

 

“I think so.”  Algie said, brushing everyone aside as he strode over to the master control console.  There he acknowledged and reset all of the numerous alarms that had been logged.  He was relieved to see all critical alarms disappear from the screen.  Over on the master plot display the isolated sections of Astropolis blinked back into existence.  A few seconds later the comm system burst to life.

 

“It’s de-isolated!”  Carla’s excited voice.  Algie could barely make out all of the other messages flooding in from his team of techs, among messages from Station Control, the Service Desk and the babbling from the crowd behind him. 

 

After a moment he turned to look at the mismatched group.

 

“We’ve done it.”  He said.  “Thank you all for your help.”  The relief in his voice was palpable.  “I couldn’t have done it without you…”  He paused, stunned at the realisation, “without all of you.”  He stopped and thought through what had happened.  Without the professor’s crowbar, Zalmana’s litero tube and Bill’s gum he couldn’t have unlocked the door.  If Megan hadn’t translated the Russian notice he could have wasted lots more time, and without Antaeous and, he glanced over at the mechanic.  Mary, her badge read.  Without Antaeous and Mary he couldn’t have accessed the integrator.

 

“Well.”  He said at last into the silence as everyone else came to the same conclusions.  “What are the chances of that?”

 

Professor Grump smiled.

 

“Infinitely improbable.”  He said.

 

 

 

The End

 


© 2007 Lee Alon, Nathan J Kailhofer, Iain Muir, TaoPhoenix, and Gareth D Jones

Gareth is a science fiction writer from England, with stories published both on line and in print and translated into Hebrew, Greek and Spanish. He also writes reviews of UK SF magazines and drinks lots of tea. You can keep an eye on what he's up to a http://garethdjones.blogspot.com/.

The Blind Collaborators were given minimal guidelines. Each was given one item or attribute and instructions that their character should arrive in the centre of Astropolis at noon. None of them had any idea what the purpose of the story was.

Keep an eye on the forum for announcements regarding a new collaboration that is currently being planned. Anyone is welcome to join in.

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