19 October 2012

"I'll Fly Away"

By Curtis C. Chen

Traveling inside the beetle wasn't as bad as Kari had feared it might be. Her helmet's video display and stereophones helped distract her from the fact that she was sealed inside the abdomen of a giant alien insect, and her drysuit insulated her from the bodily fluids circulating around her. After finding some music with a beat that matched the creature's pulse, Kari could almost pretend she was on the sleeper ship again, dozing in a liquid gel and not quite dreaming.

When Kari had asked her mother why the colony wanted to send a seventeen-year-old girl to a mining outpost, Ada had replied, "I can't tell you that."

"Let me guess," Kari had said, "you can't tell me because I'm too young to have proper clearance."

"No," Ada had said. "They won't tell me because I don't have clearance. But this comes directly from the Prime Minister."

So Kari had packed up her laptop and been very proud of herself for not freaking out as the techs put her inside the body of a live animal. None of the colony's available materials could withstand more than a few seconds of exposure to the planet's corrosive atmosphere without disintegrating. For now, the beetles were the only way to move people between habitats.

Her beetle lurched, and Kari paused her music and heard muffled voices. Then there was a long, loud hissing noise—an airlock purge cycle. After that, more voices, some tapping, and finally the abdomen opened and Kari fell onto the floor of a decontamination chamber.

The techs hosed off and removed her travel gear, then one of them led her to the mining operations control room. A stocky bald man greeted Kari and introduced himself as Foreman Welzer.

"They tell you what's going on here?" Welzer asked.

"No," Kari said. "Just that Prime Minister Kalmun wanted me specifically."

"Synthetic diamond," Welzer said. "You wrote up a new manufacturing procedure for your lab. We haven't been able to get it working here. We'd like you to take a look."

Kari frowned. "I documented a mass-production program. How much diamond do you need for hydro-location?"

"Water-finding was last week." Welzer tapped some keys, and a three-dimensional radar image appeared above his console. "Now we're a rescue operation."

Kari didn't understand all the labels, but she recognized one of the shapes. "Is that—" she started to ask. "That's impossible."

"Not impossible," Welzer said. "Just very bad luck."

"That's a jumpship!"

"Yep." Welzer pointed at the back of the spacecraft. "Engine section materialized inside solid rock, two hundred meters below us. We've got intermittent radio contact; eighty-nine crew are still alive, with maybe two days of oxygen left. We're drilling as fast as we can, but our equipment was never designed for this."

Kari's mouth felt dry. "So eighty-nine people are going to die in two days if I can't help you make more drill bits."

Welzer smiled. "Your mom said you were a quick study."

"My mother exaggerates." Kari hefted her backpack. "Where's your printer?"


Image: Beetleface by Rob and Stephanie Levy, December, 2008