The Inner Crab

The Calm Before

"They're coming."

Someone was knocking on the door. The woman in Matt Kinsey's dream gave him a last, pleading look, and vanished. He fumbled for the dimmer switch on the lamp in his tiny office, muttering to himself about the respecting of peoples' privacy and blinking when the light came up to full intensity.

"What is it?" he said to the door, a bit louder than necessary. The door opened and a head poked in.

"Sorry to disturb you, sir, but Mr. Aloya's wife's water broke and he had to leave, and he sent me to come get you to fill in for him." The head belonged to William Kilen, a new technician on the night shift. He was a nervous kid, Kinsey thought. Eager to please, but a little spastic.

"Fine, fine. I'll be there in a minute."

William left, and Kinsey stood up. He tried to smooth his shirt and hair a bit so he wouldn't look like he'd just been asleep in his chair, but without much success. He took a drink from the glass of lukewarm water on his desk, and walked out the door and down the hall to the control room.

"Status," he said as he entered the control room, to no one in particular.

"We're still waiting for the signal response, sir," said William. "It should take another ten minutes to reach the probe, and fifteen for the confirmation back."

It was a slow night in the control room. No shuttle flights, no lunar construction activity to monitor, just a routine probe tracking job. As if we need to know anything more about Pluto, thought Kinsey. He leaned back in his chair, rested his head against the wall and closed his eyes, trying to ignore the persistent drone of the two dozen computer tracking terminals in the room.

Slowly, gently, the drone quieted to a hum and Kinsey was surrounded by growing wheat, waist high and golden. The woman next to him watched the plain sadly, searching, turning. Kinsey studied her face, thought about her eyes, remembered the taste of her lips. She continued to turn until suddenly she became aware of him. Her eyes and her smile were needles of joy in his heart. She began to move her lips slowly, her voice too low for him to hear. "What?" The word fell from his mouth like a brick, and she moved closer. "We've received a signal back from the probe, sir," said the woman, her eyes locked on his. "There appears to be a malfunction."

"Rachel?" he said, as the drone of the two dozen computers disintegrated the wheat, the sky, the earth, and the woman. "Um, no, sir, my name's William," said the technician standing over him. "Sorry to disturb you, sir, but the probe appears to be having some sort of a problem. We haven't quite figured it out yet. We thought you should take a look at the readout."

Kinsey's chair leg landed on his foot, and he screamed under his breath. William had scuttled over to one of the terminals, and was waiting for Kinsey to come see whatever it was that was so bloody important. Kinsey shuffled over, trying not to limp, and looked at the display. The video signal from the probe was up. It was black.

"Why aren't we getting any video?" he asked. "The first thing the probe should do when it enters orbit is start sending out a video signal."

"I know, sir, and we sent the begin-broadcast signal twice. I think the shutter doors on the port side may be jammed," said William.

"So why aren't we getting a mechanical-failure message? What makes you so sure that's the problem?" snapped Kinsey. William's face went red, and Kinsey felt a smidge of regret for his harshness. "Maybe the mechanical-failure sensors are malfunctioning too," he said, closer to civil this time. "Are there any backup sensors on this bucket?" He turned and looked over William's shoulder at Graeme Wycott, William's supervisor.

"I think the sensors are working okay, Matt," said Graeme. "We're reading a malfunction in starboard turning jet three, and a micrometeor impact on one of the solar collector panels. That might be the problem – it's not getting enough juice to send a clear visual signal." Graeme sat down at William's terminal and began typing at the keyboard. "I'm going to see if I can divert some power from the maneuvering thrusters to the camera. Now that it's in a stable orbit, it should be okay with a bit less power there...and a bit...more...here." He hit the final key loudly, leaned back, and smiled. "It'll take a few minutes for it to get the signal and process the changes, so in the meantime – join me for a smoke?" Graeme raised his eyebrows at Kinsey, and he knew it wasn't really a question.

Outside, the wind was blowing from the west and smelled like asphalt and rain. The weather service had issued a warning that afternoon on a heavy thunderstorm, and it looked like the storm was about to oblige them. The dark was dented only slightly by a panel of floodlights on a distant gantry. Graeme finally succeeded in getting two cigarettes lit, and handed one to Kinsey. "So what's eating you, Matt? Rachel again?"

Kinsey winced. "What makes you say that?" he grumbled.

Graeme took a deep drag from his cigarette and looked out into the dark. "What was it this time?"

"I was just with her in my grandfather's south wheat field. She talked to me, but I couldn't hear her. Then William woke me up. And earlier, in my office...she said 'They're coming.' William woke me up right then, too."

"So that's why I nearly had to send him to the infirmary just now to have his face sewn back on – he woke you up in the middle of a visitation, and you took it out on him. Think you can forgive the poor lad?"

Kinsey could hear Graeme’s smile more than see it, in the gloom, but it was a gentle balm. "I know. It wasn't his fault. I just get rattled when I see her like that, that's all."

"So it's been a year and a half since the accident at the Io base, and you still haven’t given her the kindness of a decent burial in your head. What's more, now she's coming to you in your dreams and trying to tell you something. Maybe it's time you switched to decaf."

Kinsey smiled. "Yeah, I know. I'm a sick bastard with a thing for pain. I never used to believe in that holistic crap, and I don't know why I should now. But it's so vivid, it's like she's standing in my head, and...." He shrugged and put the cigarette to his lips.

"And you want her there," Graeme finished for him. "Why not? Unexplainable accident at a notably dull outpost, no bodies found, and you never got closure. You want her to be alive, and that's perfectly normal. But she wouldn't be at all happy with you if she saw you torturing yourself like this. Would she?"

"No."

There was a loud crackle, and for an instant the night was gone. Thunder rolled across the launching tarmac, and Kinsey felt rain on his face. Graeme ground his cigarette butt under his heel and started toward the door. "Well, now that that's settled, let's see if we solved the probe's little problem, shall we?"

In the control room, William was talking animatedly with two of the other night technicians. They swarmed over Graeme immediately, all talking at once. "Slow down, lads," said Graeme calmly. "Simon, what seems to be the matter?"

William and the other technician turned to look at Simon. "Well, Mr. Wycott, your fix to the probe worked, and we started to get a video signal, but it only lasted for about five seconds before...." Simon trailed off, his hands twitching in front of him.

"Before what, Simon?" asked Graeme. "Did we get a capture on the signal?"

"Yes, sir. The lab's making prints right now – but something happened to the probe, and it's not transmitting any more."

"So I'll divert a trifle more power. The damage to the solar collector must've been a bit worse than I thought." Graeme sat down at a console and began typing, then stopped. "What's happened to the probe's diagnostic readout?" he asked.

"That's just it, sir," said William. "The probe isn't sending any signal at all, not even the low- level system-status signal or the locator beacon or anything. We saw this big flash, and then all the readouts went to zero."

Graeme looked up at Kinsey. "Well, acting shift chief, what do you want to do about it?"

Kinsey closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Let's wait and see what's on the prints. Call the lab and tell them to step on it."

At that moment, Hal Quinsler walked in. "'Step on it'? What am I, your own personal Photo Quik? Here are your glossies, sir. Your wallet-size won't be ready until Monday." He grinned and tossed a large envelope onto the desk in front of Graeme.

"What's on them?" asked Kinsey.

"Dunno," said Hal. "I didn't look at 'em, just grabbed the stack hot off the finisher and came here."

Graeme spread the photos out on the desk like a deck of cards and gave a low whistle.

"Looks like we caught the moment, all right," he said, pointing to the top photo. It was nearly all white, with some rough black around the edges – a frozen flash in space. He began to thumb through the other photos, working his way backward in time. His finger traced the telemetric printout at the bottom of each photo, looking for clues the other sensors might have given about what was in the pictures.

"Bloody hell," said Graeme. His finger rested on the third photo in the stack, the last clear moment the probe had seen before it stopped transmitting. The edge of Pluto filled the left third of the photo, and the right side was filled with...Kinsey leaned closer. Shapes. Small shapes, medium shapes, a few large shapes. They were silver against the black, angular and menacing, like metallic teeth.

"Bloody hell is right," said Kinsey. "They're coming."

Site Contents © 2004 Robert M. Rowan

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