The lift tube felt like a chimney to Ruku Mat, opressively tight in her vacuum suit and a blistering eighty degrees. By comparison, the Command Deck was a relatively cool sixty-five. In order to comply with Aru Vakh’s orders to fuel and prep the Patrol Cutter’s Launch, Ruku still had to start in the Computer Room.
The lift tube opened just off the hatch to the Navigation Bridge. There were two gastights and a security lock between Ruku and the Bridge, but with the code five-one-five access, it was simply a matter of pushing buttons and opening hatches.
Like the rest of the Cutte’s interior, the Navigation Bridge was green and dark in the way only spacecraft can get. The panoramic viewports that wrapped around the front of the compartment were tightly shuttered with rad-armor and the various monitors and stations were dark. The only light was from the wan glow of tritium bulbs scattered around in strategic places. Wherever that dim light shown, Ruku could see bodies.
“They’re here, they’re dead. Very dead - oh, so very dead…”
“Deep breaths, Ruku,” Canto Kura, the crew’s medic, commanded in his smooth voice. “Your blood pressure will thank you. Can you take a radiation reading, please?”
Ruku attempted the prescribed deep breaths, with limited success. She took a paper swab from her utility pouch and and wiped it on one of the consoles, carefully ignoring the corpse on station. The rad counter, like all the tell-tale dials on her spacesuit, was mounted on the front of her chest. She used the mirror on the inside of her left arm to read the dials. For a moment, Ruku began to panic as none of the dials made sense.
Ruku tried to calm herself. Finally, she remembered that everything was backward - reversed in the mirror’s image.
“Uh... reading the gauge .... 0.46 Gray - DPM of 98.”
“That's on the border-line. I want you two out of there soonest.”
“ Roger that. I’m trying to get to the Computer Room now. Could have problems - everything is offline.”
“Ruku, Ipa.” The Engineer came back on the comm. “The electronics were problably wiped by an EM pulse. See if you can find the back-up master tapes.”
“Uh, roger…” Guided only by the pale cone coming from her head-lamp, She used the passkey on the locked hatch to the Computer Room.
Unlike a Merchant like Gentleman Scoundrel, the military-grade computers on the patrol craft were state-of-the-art. Instead of racks and racks of magnetic tape, there was two columns of stacked and networked servers, and a single shelf of slim, square plastic folders. There were two stations in the compartment, and unfortunately for Ruku Mat, both were occupied.
“I’m… not sure I can do this,”
“Sure you can,” Kura’s smooth voice was back in her ear. “They can’t hurt you, Ruku. I know this is unpleasant, but you can do it.”
“I - I can’t get to the consoles.”
“Then you’ll have to move the bodies.”
“Oh, oh no… no way -”
“Ruku! Ruku listen to me.” Hearing Canto Kura’s voice helped a little. It was at that moment her only anchor. “You can do this. Concentrate on your gloves. The feel of the inside of your gloves on your hands. The pain in your fingernails - they’re starting to hurt, aren’t they?”
“Ye - yeah…” Ruku’s fingers did indeed hurt. The metal thimbles on the tips of the spacesuit’s gloves were notorious for buising fingers and peeling nails. Ruku focused her fingertips as she reached for the first body. The pain in her fingers intenseified as she grippd the first body by its coverall. The tiny woman used the mass of her suit to leverage the body out of it’s chair.
“Try to stay calm, Ruku.”
“I am trying!” She took a moment to practice deep breaths again. “Look, just - just keep talking to me, okay?”
“Of course. Did you know that I’m a concert tenor?”
“Wait - what? Really?”
“No, actually. I can’t sing a note. Well, I can but I’ve been ordered by Dioces High Command never to do so except in the face of hostile invasion.”
In spite of her rising panic, Ruku tittered a short laugh. “That bad, huh?”
“Well, I don’t think so, but I was outvoted. Like with the onion pie. I made that once for a date - in retrospect, not the wisest of actions…”
Ruku continued to listen as Canto recounted the details of the ill-fated dinner. She focused on the sound of his voice, the rich tone that certainly couldn’t belong to a bad singer, and looked forward to the puns and punchlines Canto peppered his story with. By the time he was serving dessert to his foul-breathed date, Ruku had moved the bodies into the Bridge and shut the hatch behind her.
“Remind me not to ask you to cater my wedding.” Ruku was even able to quip.
“I will. Are you alright now, Ruku?”
“Thank you. I need Ipa, please.”
“Right here, Ruku.” The Engineer’s voice replaced Canto’s. “See if you can find the master tapes.”
Ruku took one of the plastic folders out of its slot and opened it carefully. She had been expecting a thin spool of tape, but what she found confounded her. It was a flat, plastic disk, with a gooved surface that refracted the light from her head lamps into a rainbow spray of color.
Ruku described what she had found. “I have no idea what this is…”
Ipa’s answered back, “I don’t either. Kura? You served with the Janoi, what the Hell is all this?”
Canto answered. “It’s a laser-disc. That kind of tech is right on the edge of what you can move through a Janus. I’m surprised their computer’s that advanced. Is the back-up computer marked?”
“How could you fit a backup computer in here? It not that big a room…”
“If they’re using laser-discs, the computers are small enough to fit a backup in there. Try above the monitors.”
Ruku searched, thick fingered, for the impossibly small computer Canto assumed was in the compartment. The componants of the Cutter’s data system were mostly unfamiliar to her. She didn’t see a printer, the monitors were couriously flat, and there didn’t seem to be nearly enough hardware to run a decent sized lifeboat, much less a two kiloton-plus military starship.
“There!” Canto startled Ruku. “The flat box with the long, shallow lid on the front? Open that.”
The box was only a couple of centimeters deep - far too small to hold a computer. It’s corners were covered in rubberized shock-proofing and when Ruku picked the unlikely box up it was surprizingly heavy. Even more unlikely was what she found when she opened the front lid. The lid swung down on hinges to reveal a keyboard on the inside, the exposed interior of the box had a small screen and a pair of thin slits mounted within.
“Slide the disc into the top slot.”
“This is a computer? Just this?” Despite Ruku’s disbelief, she did what she was told. To her surprize, the screen glowed blue and a series of white characters began to scroll.
“If you type in the five-one-five code, you should be able to access the system.”
Ruku entered the passkey and brought up the main menu. The small terminal could only perform a few functions, but Ruku was amazed enough that this briefcase was a computer at all. She managed to find the commands to fuel the Launch with a little trouble, and then readied the sequence for scraming the NegMat reservoir.
“Okay, I think that’s got it. Sagkal, are you in position? We need to scram both containment vessels together.”
“Uh, Canto? I’m not getting Sagkal. Can you raise him?”
“I can’t.” The smooth voice was now edged with intensity. “His temperature is reading dangerously high. I don’t think he’s even made to Engineering.”
Ruku swore to herself. She had been so focused on he own fear, had taken up so much of Canto’s attention with her panic, that Sagkal had run into trouble without anyone knowing. Without the help of the Sloak, Ruku couldn’t jettison the NegMat. None of the others would be able to tolerate the heat in the Cutter better than Sagkal did, and even if they could, by the time they went through pre-breathing and suited up, time would have run out.Ruku was out of options. The Cutter was doomed.