Another Saturday, another chapter.
The main corridor was deserted.
That was odd. Jo checked her wrist chronometer. 1100. It was far too early for traffic to have died down this much. Where was everyone?
A chill ran down her spine as she looked left and right down the passageway. It was wide, wider than any corridor on Pericles. But then, the station handled a much larger volume of personnel and cargo than a starliner could ever dream of. The ring they had docked in was large enough that the corridor’s curvature was hard to see unless you focused more than a few meters away; then, the slow upslope in each direction became obvious. Past a few hundred meters in either direction, the floor met the ceiling, apparently, the portions of the ring beyond hidden from view by its curvature. It was often disconcerting to the planetbound who were used to the ground, or the sea, curving downward in the distance, but to Jo it was natural as the stars in the night sky, even as far removed from it as she had been these last two years.
The corridor was illuminated at intervals by recessed lights in the ceiling and by lit signs labeling the passageways that crossed every few tens of meters. Artwork from the various regions of Earth and of the other colonized worlds hung at regular intervals, and potted plants as well as the occasional sitting area gave the place a warmer feel than the uninitiated might expect from a space station. But, just as people had long ago learned that it paid dividends to design starliner living quarters as comfortably and naturally as possible to increase morale and productivity, the same held true for stationary bases. People simply responded positively to beauty, to natural things. And so they were included.
Jo preferred to focus on the fact that it made life aboard more peaceful than on the practical reasons for doing it.
Not that it mattered at this moment. The fact remained that the corridor should have been bustling with activity, or at least have some people scurrying to and fro.
“This is bad,” Grant said, echoing Jo’s thoughts. “They must have locked down this section when we docked.”
That little chill in Jo’s spine became a icy shard of fear. “What do we do?”
Grant exchanged a look with his brother, who shrugged. Grant grunted and returned the shrug, then looked back at Jo with serious eyes. “We go on. Be ready; this could get ugly fast.”
With that, he stepped fully out into the corridor and turned right, moving at a brisk jog toward the lift, which should lie two hundred meters ahead on the left. Thomas remained still for a moment, then gestured for Jo and Malcolm to get moving; he would bring up the rear.
Jo swallowed and drove the loader out into the corridor, following Grant’s lead. Malcolm hurried to follow, walking briskly to keep up.
At each crossing passageway, Jo expected troops to jump out and ambush them. But that never happened. She continued along in her loader, driving at a pace that just matched Grant’s jog, and within moments they reached the lift leading to the station’s central hub.
It took a few moments for the lift to arrive in response to their call, giving Thomas plenty of time to catch up. He looked tense, no less so than his brother. Neither of them looked tense enough, though, to match the anxiety coursing through Jo’s veins.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “If they’ve locked the section down, why aren’t they coming to get us? Why is the lift working?”
Grant shook his head; he had no answer to give. Even Malcolm looked perplexed.
“Nothing for it but to keep going,” Thomas offered.
That was the problem, though. The lift was the only way to get to the central hub. Oh sure, there were emergency access tubes, but they were merely ladderwells, and the hub lay a few kilometers above them. It would be a difficult climb for an unencumbered person, even though the g’s would gradually reduce as they neared the hub and the centripetal acceleration from the ring’s motion faded. But they were far from unencumbered; it would be next to impossible to haul the incubator up a ladder. Maybe if its floating units, or whatever the researchers had decided to call the devices within it that had allowed the aliens to just push it through the air while it levitated off the deck, were still functioning. But with those units removed…
That left just the lift. More and more, the lift began to feel more like an invitation to arrest, or execution, than a passage to the station’s hub.
The lift doors opened; Jo expected to be looking down the barrel of a plasma rifle or a slugthrower. Instead there was only the empty rectangular chamber of the lift itself. She exchanged glances with the men, then drove the loader into the lift. Again unto the breech, and all that. The men followed, and the doors slid shut behind them.
A moment later, they sped upward toward the station’s hub.
* * * * *
The feeling of gradually reducing g’s was always disconcerting. This was one aspect of space travel where the planetbound faired the same as starfarers. No matter how long most people spent in space, whether in zero-g or simulated, they never developed a way to adjust to gravitational differences on the fly, without at least a few moments of disorientation. Try though she might, school her mind though she had, Jo had always been one of those “most people”. She found herself swallowing to put down a growing queasiness as she felt herself grow lighter and lighter; it felt like her breakfast was going to come up along with the rest of her.
She had never actually gotten space-sick, though she knew a fair number of colleagues who had. But it sometimes took a large effort of will not to. It did not help that she was already on-edge, nerves frayed. For a moment the general nervousness she had been feeling erupted into terror – not of being caught or killed but of humiliation. If she lost it here, she would never live it down. Oh, Malcolm would never mention it. And Thomas, at least, looked more than a bit queasy himself so he would understand. But Jo was not sure she would ever be able to look at herself in the mirror again without flinching.
But it was going to happen anyway. She was going to sick-up.
And then she left her seat as the lift came to an abrupt, screeching halt that almost lifted the loader from the deck, it was so abrupt.
Jo landed awkwardly, but not as hard as she would have thought because of the low g’s; she estimated without realizing she was doing it that she was at about one-half her normal weight. All the same, the unexpected stop threw her for a loop, and for a few seconds all she could do was look around in confusion, her nausea forgotten.
“Fuck!” Thomas summed the situation up nicely.
* * * * *
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