© 2015 - 2019 J.A. George. Don't steal my stuff. 

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Escape Velocity

It was hard not to picture the hangar quaking as Morris' meaty frame tromped across the cavernous space. Room-shakers or not, his clunky old engineer boots made enough racket to set Elena's janky G2 implants to trembling. The boots fit him, she supposed, considering he was a clunky old engineer.

The real problem was the noise she didn't hear: the whine of the hydraulic lift assistant. Pushing off the ship's frame, Elena slid out from under the Leviathan and pulled herself up to her feet. Morris was three quarters of the way to her and, sure enough, empty-handed. Leaning back against the ship's chassis, she folded her arms across her chest, making no effort to mask her annoyance.

"I'll never figure out how you do it, Layna," he called out. "Drowning in overalls, hair in knots, face covered in grease, and still the prettiest thing I ever laid eyes on." His voice rebounded off the metal walls, filling the room's void.

"And I'll never figure out how you do it, Morr-Morr," Elena replied. "Walking into my hangar empty-handed and expecting to bullshit your way out of the hole you're in."

Morris shrugged his shoulders and grinned, wide enough that his eyes vanished behind bulbous cheeks. "Indulge me. I haven't got that many years remaining, and flattering a young beauty - not bullshitting her - is one of the few pleasures I have left."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm not all that young anymore. So tell me the story I actually want to hear. Where's my package? Where are the booster rings?"

His voice was softer when he replied. "The storm's got a wider swath than we expected. All the way from here to Port Agora, in fact. Everything's grounded. No deliveries getting out until God only knows when."

Elena exhaled sharply through her nose and turned to face the outside world. Beyond the corona of light emanating from the fixture mounted above the window, everything faded to an indistinct nothing. "I told him to place the goddamn order four days ago, Morris."

"Cut him some slack. He's a k-"

She snapped back to face Morris. "Don't you dare give him an out because he's young. I was chief mechanic for the Canis Major expedition by the time I was his age. Hell, you had what - 17? - patents by then. 'Young' does not mean 'incompetent'." She closed her eyes to compose herself. Icy bullets pinged off the metal roof a hundred feet above her head. "We aren't hitting escape velocity without those rings. So what are we supposed to do? Wait out mating season and hope the inos don't sniff in our direction?"

The wind roared outside, and beat on the hangar's walls. They didn't budge, but the lights flickered.

Morris glanced out the window over Elena's shoulder and plucked at his beard. "Not by the hairs on my chinny-chin-chin." He chuckled at his own joke in a phlegmy baritone, then turned back to Elena. "Mating season is a month away. You should be worrying about this storm. A million ways it could spell the end of us, from hypothermia to starvation. Imagine how long we'll be stuck here if the communications array goes down and we can't finish the genetics data upload."

"Fair point. Remind me why we're two weeks behind on that project?"

"Elena..."

"Exactly. It's one more thing we wouldn't have to worry about if we weren't still wiping your trainee's backside. Speak of the deadbeat." Elena pointed over Morris' shoulder to the deadbeat, who was strolling into the hangar, floppy midnight-black hair bouncing with each step. "Lost, Vinnie?" Elena continued. "There's actual work being done in here."

"My name is Vincent. Fine by me if you want to start trading nicknames though. I've got some great ones in mind for you." He offered a grin that was innocent-by-way-of-exaggeration.

"I was supposed to be home with my kids two weeks ago. You're the reason I'm not. So be very careful with the next words out of your mouth."

He eyed her, sizing her up to determine whether or not she was serious. He rightly decided she was and kept his mouth shut. All the same, he saved face by dismissing her with a wave of his hand and turned to Morris. "The relay for sector two's generator went down." A holographic schematic of the complex sprang from his wrist. Its light cast a pall over his face as if he were decomposing before her. "Wanted to divert power from this sector to the living quarters - with your permission - until we can get it fixed."

"Good idea," Morris replied, glancing pointedly at Elena. "But you need Elena's permission too. Mechanical is her domain."

Elena swallowed her frustration. Picking a fight wouldn't accomplish anything, and the living quarters needed the power more. Especially since she didn't have a delivery to install. Logic and the greater good not withstanding, it pained her to respond, "It's fine. Give me ten minutes to close up and grab my gear."

Vincent chose the smarter path and simply nodded before heading back toward the exit. Morris praised her with a wink as he said, "Proud of you, kiddo," then followed his protégé.

Elena waited until she was sure Morris was gone before heading to the lockers. She didn't want him to know what she was planning, lest he try to stop her or, worse, help. Slowing her down was the best of the possible outcomes if he tagged along. Given his age and general health, it was also one of the least likely.

She could imagine Morris insisting that Vincent accompany her instead. Life without parole was the best of the possible outcomes in that scenario.

Alone, the trip would be short. One of two things had happened: either the directional receiver on the generator's power relay had iced over and wasn't receiving the satellite signal any longer or the weight of the ice had caused it to fall out of alignment. In either case, melting the ice wouldn't take more than a few minutes. She'd be in a blisteringly hot shower within the hour.

Even encapsulated in a thermsuit, stepping out into the night air was like jumping into a cryo bath; her scars tightened, puckered skin knitting itself even more closely together as if bunching up for warmth. The implants followed suit, their temperature dropping to match the outside air and freezing her from inside out. 

Less than a mile, she reminded herself, and started forward, lugging an awkward pack of gear on her back. Everyone else had taken shelter from the storm, leaving her alone with the skittering of hail, the thud of falling boulders and the crunch of ice as it splintered under her weight.

By the time she'd traveled a hundred yards, the power had been rerouted, extinguishing the lights in her vicinity. The thermsuit's night vision capabilities allowed her to take in the details of the compound as it spread out around her in silence. It taunted her as she slogged through, landmarks reminding her of the multitude of failures associated with each: the apartment complex she'd lived in when she first arrived, back when Eric and the kids were still here; the bench they'd found her on after the mauling; the hospital room where the implants had been installed.

She'd spent nearly a quarter of her life here. But had so little to show for it.

Near the back entrance to the compound, she reached the relay and proved her suspicions correct: the directional receiver was coated in a thin layer of ice. The thermsuit's localized heating apparatus made short work of the glaze. On to step two. The relay was completely exposed; without the temporary shelter she'd brought, she'd be out here again in no time.

Outside the compound walls, tree branches creaked, bending and breaking as if something were moving through them, its bulk murdering the foliage. A pair of the compound's Sentinel auto-turrets stood silently atop the gate; without power, they were impotent. Night vision didn't reveal any lurking predators; it must have been the weight of the accumulating ice.

Her muscles trembled as she worked, cold penetrating the suit and seeping into her skin, while her implants whirred, protesting the arctic conditions. No amount of stretching or flexing could work out the kinks or thaw her joints. Push through, Del Rio, she thought.

Behind her, a falling tree branch collided with the gate. Then another.

No. There was a rhythm to the collisions.

Something was pounding on it. A fist.

Then a woman's scream: "Let me in! Open the damn gate!"

It was Emma Lutkin. Her clothing was torn. Her skin was torn. Her fist was bloody. Her eyes faced the darkness.

Elena turned night vision off and sprinted to the gate's access controls. "I'm here, Emma."

Emma snapped her head around. Dirt covered her skin and matted her hair, with flecks of drying blood coloring the areas the mud missed. Hypothermia had already marked her as its own, painting her lips and fingers corpse blue. "H-hurry! Hurr-ry," she panted through chattering teeth.

Elena tugged on the gate. It barely budged. An inch, then another. "What happened?"

Emma faced the darkness again. "Att-tacked by inos. H-hurry!"

Elena activated her night vision. She stared into the black. 

A hundred predators stared back.