Gentle Reminders Serialisation Chapter 21
Legacy Universe: Gentle Reminders (Book One in The Rosewell Sequence)
Gentle Reminders is being serialised right here on SFBook with a new chapter published each week.
Previously in Gentle Reminders:
With the pressures of life aboard a stranded ship finally getting the better of him, Maur has expressed his love to Kerra. Her reaction has put the two of them at odds but the Jump Cannon still needs to escape the planet.
You can visit the Legacy Universe website for more information.
It took another week for the crew to complete repairs on the ship. They were undeniably insufficient for ongoing operations, and a hefty bill would need to be funded once they reached Earth. Nonetheless, they had made Annie functional again, although with reduced ability across her basic thrusters, engines and near-quantum systems. They would not be travelling at full speed at any point on the treacherous journey ahead. Engine cores had needed to be shuffled around, and this was the unavoidable consequence.
Once the navigation systems were working, a plot to Earth was set out. It would take just over a week to get there in even optimum circumstances, but on this journey that figure had the potential to double.
Nobody could be quite sure at what capacity Annie would operate, but every member of her crew hoped for the trip to be as expeditious as possible. Only a few were fully aware of the danger that was likely in pursuit of them. At any speed, the Free Man Nation would be upon them, and the unfortunate number aware of this fact could only pray that they might reach Earth first.
Charles had noticed a change in Maur’s attitude over this period, rumours of a fight with Kerra reaching his ears. He did not like listening to such talk, figuring people’s affairs to be their own, but this matter was particularly sensitive to him. As an immediate affect, Maur had lost the killer instinct that was making his training so productive. Slipping back into old habits, he had even failed a run at one of the intermediate tests that was intended to act as a warm up for a long afternoon session. There was no time for this, as Maur was infrequently permitted to leave the maintenance bay and his important work within it. Now, as repairs drew to a close, Charles had the opportunity to question the situation.
He met Maur just outside the maintenance bay, wiping the sweat from his brow with a look of defeat upon his face. Charles himself was somewhat uncomfortably warm, having just returned from a perimeter check outside of the ship. The planet’s huge star, nicknamed by the crew as Googol Gertha for her size, had baked him in his casual clothing. He might have been better served by wearing armour, and taking advantage of the cooling technology within it, but had the thought that fresh air on his skin might calm the welling pool of angst inside him. It had not, unfortunately, and instead left him still with the angst and a mild case of heat-stroke. Dr. Beat had not yet treated it, and so its consequences would soon be felt by Maur.
"You are ready to train?" Charles asked, running his hand across his head to wipe away the perspiration.
"Charles... I’ve just got off the clock," Maur said, lolling his head to the side in submission. "Give me a minute, yeah?"
The words should not have annoyed Charles as much as they did. He knew that, but the knowledge was being suppressed by a strong desire to punch this insolent handyman’s face. It was only after a sharp intake of breath that he managed to turn an impending physical bashing to a verbal one.
"You ask me to give you a minute," he said, raising his hand as if speaking to the public, "when you take almost every single one I have with this ridiculous quest? No, I will not give you one. I have none to give!"
"Charles, dude, just calm the fuck down..."
"I will not calm down! You requested this, you asked me to push you! Don’t throw it in my face."
Maur was tired of his friends shouting at him. Kerra hadn’t spoke to him since the argument, and he hadn’t faced the kitchens either. This had left Thom with the unfortunate role of middle-man, well aware that his part of the ship had acted as a jumping point for the battle between two people that everybody already suspected were lovers. Refusing to take sides, he instead resolved to ignore the whole affair. He did not fancy going back to having just the one assistant, and really had no strong opinion on the matter other than that Kerra and Maur should hurry up and settle things. He could have them both back in the kitchen at the same time that way.
Unaware of this, but knowing of his growing unpopularity within the few members of Beta Crew, Maur had taken either to spending his time alone or with Yazram. The seetan hadn’t suffered a single personality change since passing out on the command deck floor, which left enough time for the hero of the hour to integrate completely with the rest of Annie’s community. Maur had learned a lot about his past, or at least the conglomerate history of the two men as Yazram’s mind saw it, but still hadn’t sourced the root of the seetan’s problems. Regardless, he had been good company, and refrained from judgement. None was put on him in return. It felt like Charles was offering the polar opposite.
"Charles, stop being an ass," Maur said, closing his eyes just enough to give off an air of condescension. "There’s no time for training, we’ll be attempting lift off within the next two hours. Champion asked me to tell you to take the other knuckle heads and reclaim the perimeter defences. He wants you to leave anything that isn’t essential, reduce the weight for ascent."
These words did little to calm Charles, instead they made him feel stupid. Maur had taken the road of the bigger man, leaving him looking foolish and rewarded with proxy orders given by the very subject of his anger. Champion hadn't planned it, that was obvious, but he had still given Maur the upper hand.
"Fine. I accept this. I will see you again shortly, no doubt."
Maur watched as he wandered off, his mind heavy with frustration at the damage being wrought on the relationship he valued most. He would have to make a conscious effort to repair it all, especially now that he had played his part in returning function to Annie and would have the time to do so. Projecting rough times ahead for himself, he knew that he could ill afford not to have a formidable set of teammates on his side.
It didn’t take long for Charles to round up some assistance and pull in the defences. Gazing around at the planet that he had been forced to call home, he noticed how different he felt around all of these giant objects. He was used to the world not fitting him properly, and while everything here was too big, it was a nice change from having to squeeze himself in. There was very little else to like about the place though, and as he dragged the last pair of weighty turrets up the ship’s ramp, he paused to look back onto the inhospitable planet and wish good riddance.
Maur had moved to the starboard engine rooms and was assisting with the final checks before launch. While everything certainly seemed fine from a technical standpoint, the atmospheric conditions were less than great. Scans pointed towards heavy turbulence brought on by the planet's weather patterns. The Jump Cannon crew felt little impact below the cloud cover, safe under the shadow they had lived below or all this time. He was confident that Annie could suffer through the rough treatment, but that did not make the prospect of being buffeted any more appealing. Everybody would have to be on guard, as even the smallest of issues would be greatly magnified once they left the relative safety of the planet’s atmosphere.
While Kerra helped Thom tie-down the kitchen, happily debating the best planet for barbecue, in good spirits thanks to the imminent departure, it was within the Captain’s quarters that the most fractious conversations were taking place. Champion and Marc 14 sat with Yazram in the living area; each man was becoming more animated by the minute.
"You’ve had the cabin next to Maur for weeks," Champion said, "and you can’t work out what information the Nation want from him? Nothing?"
"He has thought about it," Yazram replied, resting back on the sofa, "along with a myriad of trivialities, but he himself is unable to provide an answer to the question they ask."
"Why? They seem to pretty certain Yazram, you think they’ve got the wrong human?" Marc 14 suggested.
"No," Yazram said. "I believe that Maur simply doesn’t know where to locate the information in his own mind. I am a capable telepath, I can even implant the suggestion that he give me the answer, but if he doesn’t know what it is then that helps us not."
"How can you be sure it is him then? I wouldn’t spend presumed years looking for somebody who was unable to give me an answer," Champion said, chucking himself back into the chair irritably.
"There is something about Maur..." Yazram said.
“Hurry up Yazram,” 14 exclaimed.
"There is something about Maur, that makes him special, I was about to say." Yazram shot 14 a deathly look. "While he sleeps, when I have hours to feel his mind, it starts to feel extraordinary. I am not capable of discerning more than this, but I have never felt anything similar. While my abilities have typically been used for profit, I have invaded enough minds to notice something so out of the ordinary. That being said, I have never met a man so meditative as Langthorn. His mind has blocked me from gaining any information."
The three men sat quietly for a moment, each planning ahead in a different manner. It was Champion who was least occupied with Maur’s potential.
"Be that as it may, I am only interested in making sure that these Nation scumbags don’t hunt us like rats. We need to know where Maur is supposed to lead them before they do," said Champion.
"Drastic action is necessary then?" asked Marc 14.
"Absolutely. We can’t allow Maur’s presence to put the rest of the crew in danger and our prisoner has served his purpose. We’ll finish things up once we’re in orbit, I’ll inform Charles of the next steps," Champion replied.
It took the next half hour for the ship to become entirely ready for launch. Only the man responsible for the repairs on the gravitational systems saw it necessary to strap himself into one of the rarely used jump seats, but every maintenance and engineering staff member had their own concerns about the impending journey. So much had been cobbled together, so much had simply been passed as acceptable rather than optimum.
Even at this late stage, the couplings to one of the fuel cores were being mended. During a pre-flight test they had ruptured, and the very last quantities of sealant were being used to patch them up.
Natalie Corse, the engineer responsible for the last minute repair, had planned to slowly apply the sealant during their ascent, knowing that the link was always going to be a botch job. There was no other option than for it to hold. While others milled around her, Natalie simply sat and stared at her work, repeating hopes over and again in her head.
Champion and the other conspirators moved up from his quarters and took places on the command deck. He was nervous, but couldn’t stop thinking about the Free Man Nation. He detested the fact that such a nefarious force could lie in plain sight. They made him think of Josia 24. It made him think of the last time that his ship was nearly destroyed. He hoped that this flight would not be the final blow.
"Everybody in place?" he asked rhetorically. "Begin the launch procedure. Engine, systems, keep manual control on thrusters until we’re in orbit and break away from the ground steady. We need to try walking before we run. Prepare yourself people, this is going to be rocky."
With those words the thrusters began to fire, controlled from the command deck rather than the engine room now that repairs had been completed; the primary engines would still have to be engaged from the back of the ship. Sputtering more than was normal, they were failing to give even the most feeble sensation of lift. Champion rolled his fingers together, rubbing the tips against each other as the worried feeling fell into his stomach. With the perimeter defences down, the huge creatures that had fed them for the last weeks began to screech and organise an attack. Every crew member could hear their cries as the thrusters engines misfired and jolted; a tinny noise against Annie’s hull.
The men and women of the command deck looked to the skies, willing Annie upward. The navigation officer tasked with seeing her into the sky was sweating, large drops of perspiration falling from his brow onto his beige tee shirt. In a brash move, he boosted the power well past where Champion had commanded. His fear of the beasts that had almost eaten Charles alive dictated the disobedience.
It worked. With a sickening lurch Annie freed herself of the few vines that had taken a grip below her hull. She jumped into the sky, thrusters still sputtering somewhat. The engines had been turned up so high as to cause her to continue to ascend well above hovering height. Bits of rubble broke free from the vine plateau used as a landing area by default.
The sheer force of the energy from the thrusters systems causing the surrounding ancient rock to crumble.
"I hope you don’t live to regret that," said Champion to the crewman, "as we will need those systems for landing as well. Engine room crew, engage primary engines and move to the pre-set trajectory. Be on alert, expect something to go wrong."
Maur and the others in the starboard engine room fired up their engine set, and the port team quickly did the same. They ticked over for a couple of seconds, Annie’s systems syncing them together and ensuring that their pushing power remained equal. Max Timuran was in charge once again, Maur relieved of any significant responsibility, unlike his temporary puran colleagues – who had integrated so well throughout this event - who gave assistance as he began to slowly push the primary engines into action. Annie moved forward, their speed rapidly increasing as they cut through the sky and towards the cloud cover. Within no more than a dozen seconds, they broke through the thick white blanket and up into the top tier of the planet’s ecosystem. It was there that things started to go wrong.
Natalie Corse was still at her station, still staring at the weak couplings. She was a small girl, part of the crew for no more than a year, having joined it straight out of education. Rich brunette hair framed a petite face and ran down across a similarly slight figure. Her features were simple, but always exuded a certain innocence and warmth. Natalie had always dreamt of visiting far flung worlds. Being part of the Jump Cannon crew had given her this.
Her eyes intently focused on the coupling, she had forgotten how alone she was. With the crew spread so thin, she was by herself monitoring the engines on the port side. In hindsight she should have been more attentive of the other equipment held within the bowels of the ship. While calm began to settle across her, the couplings holding true even as Max pushed the power upwards in order to break away from the gravitational pull of the planet, she began to believe that everything was going to be alright.
It might still be, but not for her. A regulatory valve for the coolant system ruptured with little warning, a small metallic component bursting free under the pressure. It had been another rush job, a part borrowed from another less essential system. It ripped through the hot air around Natalie and made contact with her skull. There seemed to be no more resistance offered by human flesh and bone than what the air had offered. It zipped through her brain before leaving a tiny exit wound.
Natalie’s body remained rigid for a moment, the other vital organs in her body trying to make sense of what had just happened. As they gave in she began to spasm, her mind panicking and sending her fresh corpse on a collision course with the heavy grated ground. She shuddered for a few more seconds before halting. Her final thought was a happy one, and it replayed as the last flickers of life left her; the couplings were holding.
The problem was reported immediately to the command deck and engine rooms. Panels flashed red as the coolant system lost control and began to flood the fuel cores with freezing blasts. As vital as it was to keep them from overheating frozen cores would be just as useless as burnt out ones. With only Natalie’s warm corpse present at their side, ice began to spread over their glowing blue exteriors.
"This is the Captain speaking," came Champion’s voice over the audio channel. "We have a serious issue with the coolant system! Our cores are freezing, we’re going to drop out of the sky if something isn’t done immediately. I need this fixed now!"
A cacophony of response returned to the command deck in an instant. There was nothing that anybody could do, the single problem causing a ricochet across the ship and forcing any technically minded crew member to go into overdrive at his or her station. Nobody was free that could make the repair themselves.
"Hey! Hey! Everybody shut up!" Maur shouted, bringing a silence over the babbling channel while still desperately adjusting settings to ensure the continued progress of Annie. "Kerra, Kerra are you there?"
She hesitated in responding, gripping onto a kitchen surface to cope with the violent shaking of the ship. There was fear in her heart, but most of it was not caused by this constant turbulence, but instead by the thought of having to talk to Maur again. Kerra reasoned that there must be some good reason for breaking the silence between them, and so swallowed the glut of angst in her throat.
"Yes. I’m here," she replied, much to the surprise of Thom, who stood a few feet away from her.
"Good. I can walk you through the repair, it’s fairly straightforward but you need to trust me," Maur said, still hastily working away at his station on the other side of the ship. "Can you do that? Can you trust me Kerra?"
"I," she paused, "just tell me what to do and I’ll do it."
"Fine, you need to get to the port fuel cores now. You know where they are?"
"Yes, down the stairs in the engine room, the very bottom of the ship."
"Good, go!" Maur shouted.
Kerra took off in a sprint, diving out of the kitchen and dining area and to the back of the Jump Cannon as fast as her feet could carry her.
A cylinder of fire retardant had broken free of its clasps on the wall and rolled in front of her. Adjusting for the roll of the ship she leapt over it confidently, feet sliding on her landing and carrying her into the engine room.
The people inside looked at her briefly, with expressions of panic and dependency. They had all heard the conversation between her and Maur, they all knew how fractious their relationship now was, and they all willed her to see past that and get the job done. Otherwise, they might all die on this planet.
"Kerra, you need to get this right," Champion broadcast as she took the steps two at a time. "We can’t afford to abort the launch, I don’t think we’d make it back in one piece. Get this right, please."
The sight of Natalie crumpled on the floor stopped Kerra in her tracks. Blood had seeped out of the wound and was dripping down the criss-cross grating of the floor. The gentle drop-drop sound wasn’t audible over the noise of the furious engines, but Kerra was sure she could hear it anyway. She had known Natalie, she had tried to make her feel welcome when she joined the crew, trying to encourage the quiet youngster to come out of her shell.
"Kerra, can you see anything lying around? The systems are saying something came free from one of the valves," Maur asked.
Kerra scanned the floor and found the guilty part settled next to the fuel core left inactive after the sabotage. It was covered in thick blood, with fragments of bone and flesh stuck in the mire. She moved to it, eschewing any squeamish desire to leave the gore alone, and ran it up her trouser leg to wipe away some of the evidence. No matter if it had taken a life, the Jump Cannon needed this part to preserve all the others inside her.
"I’ve got it, at least I think so," Kerra said, talking to the sky and awaiting the next instruction. "It’s just a chunk of metal with a hinge, it can’t be more than a couple of centimetres long."
"Good, it’s used to stem the flow of coolant," Maur replied, slowing in his own work to start the walk through. "I don’t think it’s meant for the valves down there, it should be much bigger. On the wall behind the fuel cores you’ll see a set of pipes. One of them will be pissing coolant out everywhere."
"Yeah, you’re right, there’s a pretty steady flow. It’s mostly going into the system but some of it is becoming airborne."
"Kerra, you can’t get too much of that shit on you, frostbite doesn’t even cover it. Keep out of its way and hit the big red button above the leak. That component fits the hole. You need to get it back in there."
Kerra pushed her back against the right hand wall, and began to slide along it toward the pipe. Luminous blue spurts of liquid flew past her face as she got closer and closer. The engines were turning white, this fluid well on its way to freezing them to a halt. She was almost there when the first drops made contact with her skin. The cold burn caused her to scream, but still she pushed on.
"Come on Kerra, you can do it," Maur re-assured over the audio channel.
She slumped her back against the operational pipes and darted a hand out over the emergency stop/start. The last drops of coolant before the halt pattered out onto her hand and damaged her nerve-endings, there was no sensation in her fingers.
"Just slot it in and pull the clamps down Kerra, and we’re done."
Kerra complied, flipping her body in front of the opening with a fear that more of the freezing fluid might still burst out. It didn’t, but it took the last ounces of energy within her numb limbs to slide the component into the hole and clamp it down. The last clasp wouldn’t hold and she had to shove it repeatedly before the reassuring click was heard. She banged her hand back against the stop/start.
"Done, I’m done," she gasped. The engines whirred angrily as the regulatory system became fully functional again and they began to receive the right amount of coolant. Frozen parts cracked through the icy coverings that they had been unable to warm through before.
"Well done," said the Captain. "Things look steady. We’re pushing through the upper atmosphere, we’ll be in orbit within the next few minutes."
Maur relaxed as the engines levelled out and Annie stopped panicking. His heart was pounding against his chest as he looked for approval from Max to leave the engine room. With a nod he began his own sprint over to Kerra’s side.
* * * * *
Celebrate the sky, for it holds your dreams,
Await the day, when it might split at the seams.
* * * * *
Come back next week for Chapter Twenty Two of Gentle Reminders (Book One in The Rosewell Sequence)