The Ship of the Unforgotten - Chapter 13

Camp NaNoWriMo

If the biomes were meant to represent the outdoors in as beautiful a way as was possible aboard ship, then the central core was a study in contrast. While it wasn’t exactly ugly, it was definitely oriented toward the functional.

There was no artificial gravity in the core. The tram continued to work by virtue of having the tracks sunken into the “walls” and gripping the frames of the tram cars above and behind the wheels with magnets just enough to keep the cars and passengers (who were advised to hold on) from floating off into the interior.

The inner space was a wide open tube, and actually was pretty usable as a recreation area. As long as one was careful to avoid colliding with passing trams or other passengers and crew, flying in zero-g was—or would have been, rather—encouraged as a recreational activity. View ports to either side of the tram provided views “down” onto the biomes far below them. From the tracks and looking up, they could see the biome on the opposite side of the ship, a sight both comforting and somewhat disconcerting. It would look almost like they were orbiting a world if it weren’t for the features being a bit too close and distinct.

The tunnel they’d taken had come up the biome’s side nearest the bridge; the main computer lab was closer to the engines, at the other end of the ship. The trams were considerably faster than walking or running, but it would still take them a good hour to cross to the other side.

“Make sure you hang on,” Cobb said to them all, “or at least make sure that if you go flying off, you’ll reach a bulkhead instead of goin’ parallel to the tracks. It’s a long way across and nobody’s set up the catcher lines!”

Catcher lines were a safety feature, rubbery elastic cables that were supposed to be strung within the core so that anybody who lost their direction—which happened often, even to experienced spacers—could catch themselves instead of drifting for hours. Of course on a fully populated ship someone was likely to notice them and catch them, but under the circumstances, they didn’t have that assurance.

Everyone kept a firm grip on the car frames after that. They passed the time filling pvt. Pixton in on what they’d seen and learned so far. She was astonished at the huge amount of overgrowth in the rain forest biome. “That sounds wonderful! I could use a few hours at the beach,” she said wistfully. “Maybe a few days …”

“We don’t have time to laze around like civvies,” Cobb growled from the last car. Dann, startled, looked back at him. They were only halfway to the far end, and he looked impatient.

“I didn’t mean—” Pixton started.

“It’s okay, pvt. Pixton,” Rose said. The two were seated together in the middle car. “We know what you meant. It’s fine, and once we’re sure everything’s working the way it should, there are very good reasons for you to spend time recuperating after being frozen for 500 years.” She said the last with a pointed look at Cobb.

“Cobb is really starting to piss me off,” Jackson said in a low voice pitched just for Dann, and maybe for Rose’s android hearing. “If he doesn’t lay off soon …”

“Maybe he needs a way to let off steam,” Dann replied, just as low-voiced.

“He’d better find one before one finds him.”

The Price of Demand (Reintegration Edit 18)

“You men, stop ‘im!” Waldon bellowed, charging after him. Altman forced himself into as quick a run as he could manage, and was quite surprised when he managed a brisk jog that only made him a little nauseous.

“Kaylene, your staff—” The words were barely out of his mouth when Kaylene, supporting him in the jog, gripped the staff.

“We’ll stop ‘im, catch us up when you can. An’ try not to make yerself sick, runnin’ too hard!” And with that she was off.

With grim determination Altman pressed on; thankfully he didn’t have far to go. After a minute of dizzying exertion he came upon the struggling man. Waldon and one of his men had the suspect pinned to the ground, Kaylene’s staff held down across his shoulders, keeping him from moving. He smiled grimly and caught his breath. “We’ve got you! What are you playing at, causing all these accidents?”

The man struggled and thrashed. He couldn’t move; he was a rather slight man in comparison to the other workers. “What? I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Kaylene growled, “You’re a filthy, red-handed liar!”

“That’s ridi—”

“You’ve got the evidence all over you,” Altman cut in. “I spread red iron oxide over all the roofs and high places in this town; there’s nowhere else you’d have gotten covered in it.”

He stopped struggling and turned his face to the side out of the dirt. “Look, I swear I didn’ come here jus’ to cause trouble, I was put up to it! E’s the one you want.” There was a wheedling note of desperation in his voice.

Altman frowned. “And who is ‘he?’”

The man gave one final effort to push up against the staff pinning him down and gave up. “’E’s some Mitchell bloke back in ‘ol Holdswaine, a high-up rich type with plenty ‘o influence. ‘Ad his thugs visit me after I ‘ad some … troubles … payin’ a debt. Them’s the ones set me up with this job an gave me the … er … extra instructions.”

Altman felt a sour feeling in the pit of his stomach at Mitchell’s name, and he was sure it had nothing to do with the blow to his head. With the reputation of the town ruined, Mitchell would have no problem denying them the manpower to build. The workers themselves might demand that they not be sent to help. That would make Mitchell’s Conclave friends very happy. “That’s a tough position you found yourself in,” he said finally.

The man was shrewd enough to sense the change in Altman’s attitude towards him. “You’re tellin’ me! I carried th’ bruises for days after that, an’ I didn’t even give ‘em any trouble. Them’s bad sorts.”

“What’s your name, fellow?”

“Moyle, sir. Ewen Moyle.” His voice was calmer, but he definitely sounded nervous.

“Did you leave family behind in Holdswaine, Ewen Moyle? Friends?”

“Nah, just me mates at the waterin’ ‘ole, but thems that ain’t ‘ere won’t care. Uh … what’re you plannin’ on doin with me?”

Kaylene took the staff back, passing it to Altman, who leaned on it gratefully. She eyed Moyle, a considering look in her eyes. “They’ll kill ‘im, or make ‘im wish they had if we send ‘im back.”

“It’d be no better’n a death sentence,” Waldon agreed. It wasn’t clear to Altman whether Waldon thought this was a good thing or bad. He and the other workman dragged Moyle to his feet none too gently.

“You can’t send me back there! It’s like she said, I’m as good as dead if I show my face in Holdswaine!” He looked on the verge of trying to fight free again.

“No, you can’t go back to Holdswaine.” Altman paused in thought a moment. “But we can’t keep you here, either. Mitchell has too much influence over the union men. You haven’t exactly won yourself any friends here, either.”

“One o’ the northern cities?” Kaylene asked.

“The bigger the better, I think. Big enough to have its own unions, where Mitchell has no power.”

“You’ll let me go? Oh thank you sir! I won’t forget this, see if I don’t!”

“Yes … But this isn’t a free pass, Moyle. Before we escort you out, I’d be appreciative of anything you can tell me about Mitchell or his union work gangs. If he’s sent you to cause problems, he can and will send more, and I think you can help us be ready for it.”

They retreated back to the house for a long talk while Waldon spread the word about the source of the ‘bad luck.’ The story spread like wildfire; it wasn’t long before a sense of relief replaced the growing dread around the work sites.

The Price of Demand (Reintegration Edit 17)

The smart thing would have been to approach him calmly, but Altman’s head was throbbing something fierce. Before he realized what he was doing, he found himself shouting to the man. “Stop!”

The man whipped around, and seeing the group headed his way and the dark looks of their faces, immediately bolted. The men around him looked on in confusion, but seeing Waldon present, decided they were best off getting back to work until told otherwise.

Kaylene bellowed in a strident tone, “Get ‘im!” This had no effect at all on the men working around them, but Waldon took off after the man. By the time he added his own shouts to the commotion, the fleeing man was almost clear of the rest of the workers.

The Price of Demand (Reintegration Edit 15)

The morning was young enough for a touch of night’s chill to remain in the air as Altman, leaning on Kaylene’s arm, stepped out the gate in front of the house. “Good mornin’ Mrs. Dolet. I—by my—what’d you do to yer head, Altman!”

Altman grimaced and swayed a little on his feet. Kaylene caught his arm up more securely to steady him. “Good mornin’ Mr. Sias. My husband was feeling entirely too clever today and got himself hurt.”

Altman cleared his throat. “As though it were my own fault. I was today’s victim, Waldon. Luckily the injury’s not bad. Quickly … have you seen anyone on your crews this morning with reddish stains on hands, legs, clothing … anything? Red-brown, like rust.”

Waldon stared at the pair incredulously. “Um, Mrs. Dolet, are y’sure yer husband’s okay?”

“’E won’t be if he isn’t careful. If the culprit doesn’t get him, I may kill ‘im myself for not listenin’ to sound medical advice when ‘e’s given it. But for now we really must know, have you seen someone covered in rust?”

“Aye, I’ll take yer word for it, Mrs. Dolet. Can’t say’s I have, not today. This’d be what y’needed all that powdered iron for, then?”

Altman forced himself not to nod in affirmation. “It does; all of the ‘accidents’ have involved heavy objects falling from high places. I spent time dusting the roofs of those few buildings that have them with rust, and a good number of accessible, lower tree branches too.”

Waldon nodded slowly. “An’ then ‘oped whoever’s behind it didn’t wouldn’ ‘ave the time or inclination to wash up after.”

“A risk I had to take, and so the rush.”

The Price of Demand (Reintegration Edit 14)

He took his leave and, dust in hand, retired home to await the cover of night.

<>

Altman picked his way carefully through the darkness back to his home. He had to navigate by the light of the sliver of the moon and the stars; he’d supped and slept a while upon returning home, then rose during the small hours to set about the business of marking the high places of the new village.

His inability to see clearly forced him to move very slowly, picking his way through roughed-in roads and around worksites to the gates and front walk of the house.

The sounds of the night played tricks on his imagination. A sharp *CRACK* was definitely not his imagination though; he looked about, seeing nothing, then jerked his head up just in time to see a silhouette against the night sky above him in the branches of the tree in the front yard. Its hands were upraised, something held within. The hands and the object came down and then—

<>

Exploding pain. He felt like his head was on fire, or melting, or both at once. For an indeterminate length of time, that was all he was aware of. Gradually a sound entered his awareness. After another while, it began to sound like a voice.

“… his head. He’ll be fine now, though it was a nasty hit and he’ll be feelin’ it for some weeks I ‘magine.”

Some innate sense of self-preservation told him that now wasn’t the time to open his eyes, but he managed to speak, haltingly. “How … how long?”

“You’ve been out fer four hours.” The voice belonged to … Medic Cranford, he thought. That sounded right “That was a nasty crack on the head. Found you myself, lyin’ sprawled out on the steps right by the door, bleedin’ something fierce an’ a big stone fallen right from the roof beside you. Turns out the cut was worse than it looked, lucky fer you. Yer head ain’t broke, but you’ll be feelin’ like it is for a while.”

The Price of Demand (Reintegration Edit 13)

Waldon wiped his hands on his trousers and shook his head, eyeing the small pouches of red dust. “You gonna tell me what this’s all about, or do I gotta sit ‘n wonder?”

Altman looked around; the other workmen weren’t far, but were out of hearing range. “All of the ‘accidents’ so far have been types that are simple to arrange; things or people falling off of roofs or high places. I’m going to scatter this dust over all the roofs in town—thankfully we don’t have many yet. Tomorrow, if anyone else has been climbing around, they should stand out if we catch them quickly.”