== 2064: Lai Docks and Air Traffic Control, Aristillus, Lunar Nearside
Albert Lai reached for his second cup of tea. Gamma had woken him in the middle of the night to tell him that there was in incoming ship and that he needed to have crash teams and ambulances ready at Lai Docks and Air Traffic Control. Strictly speaking, he didn’t need to be here, but General Dewitt had said he could go as long as he took an armed escort. Albert scowled briefly at the memory. The man’s needless addition of the phrase “low value target” could have been more tactful.
He took a sip. His first phone call from Gamma. That, at least, would be something to brag about with the Group. How many people did Gamma ever talk to? Five? Ten, maybe?
He put the mug down on the desk and looked out through the window, down into the dock. The huge rolling overhead doors were open, showing the blackness of space above. Below cradles 3 and 4 were both empty.
Gamma’s voice had surprised him. He’d expected – he didn’t quite know – something more artificial. Something more robot-like. The reality, though, was less high-tech than it was amusingly middle-American. He’d heard others say that Gamma’s voice was cool and emotionless, but now that he’d heard it himself he didn’t agree. No, the coolness and lack of drama just seemed like reasonable behavior. The thing that struck him as worthy of note was how precise the diction was – and how the sentences were all unambiguous and clear. Albert approved…but the dark thought did cross his mind for a moment that the consistency and clarity were the same attributes one would use when talking to a farm animal. He wondered, not for the first time, if the American BuSuR might not have been right to shut down the Gamma project.
He put the thought aside and looked at the navigation screen again. Nothing yet. Down below in the hangar a foam truck pulled into position next to the four ambulances from First Medical and four more from Chinese Benevolence Hospital. He raised the mug and –
A beep. Incoming ship. Albert put his tea down and looked at the screen. Where he normally saw rectangles for cargo ships, or a circle for the Grace Under Pressure atmosphere tanker was a question mark. Albert leaned forward and queried the meta-data. His eyebrows drew together. When Gamma said he needed crash teams for an incoming ship, he’d expected the Deladrier. But that ship should be blaring transponder codes through all its antennae. Which would mean a triangle on the board. But he was staring at a question mark. What did it mean?
He sat back, his tea forgotten. He’d know soon enough.
Three minutes Albert watched the Deladrier descended through the huge overhead bay doors. On top of the dark black hull was something else – some other piece of machinery. He looked over at Doug Test at the control board. Doug caught his eye and shrugged in answer. Albert turned back to the window and watch the paired machines slowly land.
The overhead doors slowly began closing.
* * *
Bill Lindon wore a full spacesuit in keeping with corporate safety regs, but he kept the faceplate up. That was allowed. He also had his gloves off, which wasn’t allowed, but if he was going to be rendering first aid, he’d be damned if he was going to do it with gloves on.
The Deladrier’s ramp descended, then the outer airlock door opened. A moment later he the smell hit him and gagged. He flipped the faceplate down and toggled a quick purge of the air. Jesus, he wanted to throw up. What the hell had happened in there? It smelled like a shit-storm in there. A literal storm, knocking over portapotties. No, worse than that – it smelled like someone took the mess from that, poured it all into a small RV, then left the thing to stew in Mississippi summer heat for a few days.
The suit purge was working – the smell was fading. Bill snapped his gloves on. The first freed prisoners were walking down the ramp, carrying a third man between them. Behind them more people were spilling out. A dozen. Two dozen. More. Jesus – how many people were in there? Paramedics starting to help the people towards the ambulances and Bill threw open the doors of his vehicle, then turned back to the ship.
It was a weird bird. The ship itself was strange enough – small, armored, with heavy shock absorbers – but bolted to the top of it was some other machine of an entirely different design. The upper device was a tangle of struts had the flat gray appearance of sintered aluminum wrapped around spherical tanks. He’d gotten his Shipwork endorsement on his Johnson Clinic EMT rating last month, and he knew that all propellant and air tanks should be color coded, but these weren’t. Weirder yet was the bank of micro flywheel batteries. They were for the AG drive certainly – but these were strange. Bigger than usual, no fragment containment shielding … and no dust shielding at all. He shook his head. That might work out in space, but expose it to anything other than filtered air, and they’d degrade in short order. Who the hell would use custom designed flywheel batteries when the regular ones –
“Bill, we’ve got two FIRTS and a bleeder loaded; let’s go.”
“Right, sorry.” Bill tore his gaze from the ship and climbed into the back.”