Note: This week’s episode is a BIT longer than usual — I couldn’t find a good place to slice it in half for ease of reading. Next week’s a bit shorter, though, so it’ll balance out 🙂 -Kate
I wanted to go back to the bookshop first thing the next morning, but Ford was all up and at ‘em as soon as the lights came on in the jungle, assigning tasks and making plans to build structures we can live in.
Which is weird, because we’re in a structure—the jungle notwithstanding—and I haven’t seen any rain yet. I guess it does give us something to do, though.
“I hope you’re not planning to cut down any of those trees to build your little huts,” I told him. He’d made himself comfortable, plopped right down on a log—the placement of it seemed intentional, not like an actual fallen tree but like a park bench made to look like one—where he could see everyone and wave his hands around to tell them what to do. Which I somehow restrained myself from pointing out.
Despite the bot attack, and the excitement of the bookshop discovery, I’d slept better than any night since we’d arrived here. As it turns out, a good night’s sleep is excellent medicine. Makes even Ford seem… handle-able.
Ford was munching on a slice of neon yellow fruit—I don’t know how he figured it’s safe to eat, but he didn’t keel over so I guess he figured it right—and he looked at me suspiciously as I took a seat next to him on his bench. Like he expected my friendliness to be a bait-and-switch kind of deal.
“They’re hauling in some of the scrap metal we passed in that little market area,” he said. “No need to harm our oxygen supply.”
“I hope you’re sending people out in pairs, at least.”
He took a prim bite of his fruit, though that didn’t stop juice from dribbling down his chin. “I doubt it’s necessary, but yes.”
He’d listened very prettily to our story last night, about the bot swam and all, but I could tell he thought David and I’d had some kind of joint hallucination. He’d seen all the stairs and doors popping up and down in this place with his own eyes, not to mention the freaking jungle, but somehow the idea of a malicious bot swarm was just too much for him.
Maybe he just didn’t want to cause a panic. Honestly, though, I find it difficult to give him that much credit. Even after a good night’s sleep.
Dr. Sandy—I don’t know their last name, so they’re Dr. Sandy in my head—joined us from somewhere down between the trees. The jungle area’s filled with meandering paths. It’d probably be more accurate to call it a bio dome or a park sector, or something like that. But it still feels jungly, with that heady air and all the spiraling greenery.
“I’m glad you’re both here,” Sandy said, a sentiment that kind of surprised me because Ford and I were always at each other’s throats.
Sandy’s the kind of person who demands attention without shouting. Reminds me of the best kind of teacher in that way, the kind who’d speak softly so you’ve got to shut up and lean forward to hear what they’re saying. The kind of person it’d make you sick to disappoint, you know? Sandy’s not all that tall, but they feel taller when they approach you. Like they expect to be heard. They’ve got short brown hair and a sprinkle of freckles across their tanned cheeks, though we’ve been out of the sun for a good couple of weeks.
“How’s Bertram?” I asked.
Sandy pressed their lips together, grim. “On Mandel, I’d have no trouble treating him. A couple of weeks, and he’d be good as new. Here…” They looked toward the ceiling, as if choosing their words carefully. When they spoke again, it was even softer than before. “Unless we find better medical equipment, he’s going to die. And soon.”
Ford frowned, as if he couldn’t quite believe it. Even though he’d been there when Bertram fell. He’d been surprised as any of us that the poor kid had even survived. “How long does he have?”
Sandy gives their head a small shake. “I hesitate to put a number on it. A day. Maybe two. Even if we get access to better equipment, it could be too late.”
I brushed my palms on my pants and got to my feet. “I’m on it, doctor,” I said. “A station like this ought to have something we can use.”
Adventure after adventure. I know.
Today’s team consisted of Mila, who’s got the know-how to identify any medical equipment we might find; Cane, who was acting like he didn’t want to let any of us idiots out of his sight for too long, lest we fall into more trouble and require rescuing; and David, who… Actually, I’m not sure why David decided to join us. He just appeared with our group, bag packed, smile activated. More of the adventuring type than he seems, I guess.
This time, Ford stayed behind.
I hadn’t quite had the time to sort through all of David’s revelations from yesterday, or rethink my perspective on him. I’d been assuming he was this dedicated musician, someone who’d saved his guitar out of love for the craft. Instead, he’d saved it out of love for his brother. He can’t even play the thing.
Cheerful as he is, it turns out he’s got worries just like the rest of us. Go figure.
He fell in to walk beside me as we took a path out of the jungle we hadn’t tried before, Cane activating the bridge like it was no big deal.
“Can I be honest about something?” I asked him, keeping my voice low.
“When are you not?”
I wanted to laugh, but I couldn’t. Not quite. “Even if there is advanced medical equipment on this station, I don’t see how we’re going to find it in time. This place is too big and jumbled.”
Maybe I just wasn’t seeing the internal layout in my head. I usually have a good mind for spatial mapping, but something about this station… It just wasn’t quite adding up in my mind.
David was quiet for a moment. “Have you noticed,” he said, “that you seem to have an affinity for this station?”
This time I did laugh, though it came out sounding bitter. “If by affinity you mean falling through floors and almost dying, then sure.”
“The station showed you the security key to avoid that, immediately,” he pointed out. “You just didn’t know what it was. You also opened the door to the bookshop. And the bots… they went after you.”
“That what those scratches on your face tell you?”
He shook his head. “They only came after me when I attacked them. They were focused on you.”
Maybe I was being thickheaded, but I couldn’t quite understand what he was trying to tell me. “So I have an affinity for the station, but it’s also trying to attack me.”
“That’s assuming the bots are part of the station.”
He’d spent some time thinking about all this, that much was clear. “You don’t think they are?”
He rubbed his fingers over his jaw. “I think they wanted out of that bookshop. Someone locked them in there, or the station did.”
The station did. As if the station is sentient. I shook my head, not wanting to sound dismissive like Ford. “Well, it does seem to have a mind of its own.”
We’d been following Cane and Mila along a typical narrow corridor, and it opened up suddenly, cutting off our conversation. Suddenly, but not surprisingly; the bridge we’d taken out of the jungle was directly opposite the camp-side corridor, with the market sector somewhere off to our right.
So many my internal mapping was working a little bit. My brain was starting to divide the station into quarters. Better than nothing.
Anyway, the corridor opened up into a wide area, kind of like our original camp. Dirt-smudged glass doors streaked led out to landing bays like the one we’d entered with our transport. Here, though, big poster-sized screens were plastered along the walls at intervals.
Cane pointed to a bank of large screens that were suspended from the ceiling in the middle of the space. “Timetables, I assume.”
I wouldn’t have made the connection, but yeah. That was how it looked.
“This is a port,” Mila said. “We must’ve landed at the service entrance.”
At first glance, that seemed like a reasonable assumption. This lobby had a line of broken-down vending machines—a couple of them even held shriveled packages of something you couldn’t pay me to touch—and uncomfortable looking bucket seats arranged along the perimeter of the room.
David had found his way to the only freestanding screen in the area, a large, vertical rectangle in the center of the space. It was propped on a sturdy iron stand, and I had to guess it was for ticketing or more schedules. Something like that.
He tapped the screen with his knuckle. Nothing happened.
And yet David didn’t step away. Instead, he turned to me. “Kay,” he said, “why don’t you try?”
“It’s dead,” I said.
David tilted his head, looking thoughtful. “Why would it be? The life support on this station works. It’s got consistent gravity. Why would whatever powers this screen be dead when those things work?”
“They might’ve shut power to nonessential utilities,” Mila said. Thank goodness for engineers. Though my brain couldn’t stop chewing over the obvious question: who are ‘they’?
“Maybe,” David said. But he was still looking at me, like what’s the harm in trying?
I hesitated, hoping Cane would lodge an objection, but he didn’t.
When I thought about it, Cane seemed to have more of an affinity for the station than I did. He didn’t offer to touch the screen, though, so I walked over to David, gave him my best wry smile, and smacked the screen with the back of my hand.
And stars help me if it didn’t flicker, blue lights chasing each other across the screen. Like they were powering up.
“I’ll be damned,” Cane said. “She does have an affinity for the station.”
“Says the man who makes bridges and stairs appear out of walls,” I muttered. But if I’m being honest, I was too intrigued to argue. Though I did wish people would stop using the word ‘affinity.’
The screen flickered again, then settled into an image of the station. A map.
I’d been vaguely aware that we’d been exploring one plane of the station, one level, where there had to be several stacked on top of each other—if not dozens. The map had them numbered along the right-hand side, alongside a thumbnail of a cross-section.
I couldn’t read any names, though. Like the spines on the newer books in the shop, the language was one I didn’t recognize.
“It’s a directory,” Mila said. She’d come to stand over my shoulder, and she leaned over, though I noticed she was careful not to touch the screen. What did she think, that anyone else’s skin would flip it off again?
David probably just hadn’t touched the right spot, and I had. Total coincidence.
“Here.” Mila extended a finger to point out a plus-sign symbol among all the gibberish. “Medical?”
Maybe. It was an ancient symbol, one we used in the Alliance. One the Hub used, too. Given the strangeness of the languages here, though, it might just as well have meant the gift shop.
Only… only there was an icon on the map that looked very much like a gift, with a bow tied on top and everything. And given our relative position to it on the map, I was pretty sure that one matched the location of the market sector.
It was almost as if whoever had made this directory expecting people to come to it from different backgrounds. Different languages.
“Down two floors,” Cane said, his voice rough. “Stairs?”
Easy enough to find the stairs, with access to a directory. Easy enough to follow them down a white-walled hallway and straight through a pair of double doors that opened without requiring us to pick up a mystery key or short-circuit a door—and into a gleaming medical facility.
Gleaming. Nothing on this station is gleaming, nothing we’d seen up until this point, but this facility was. Each examination table—I’m going to make a few assumptions about what’s what in there—came with a towering screen locked to the headboard, and a full bank of controls along the side of the bed. For running scans, I think. Detailed ones.
Mila took half a step forward to run a fingertip along the closest table. “This stuff looks really advanced.”
I agreed. If Dr. Sandy were with us, they’d already be beelining for a nearby cabinet, ready to inventory the whole place.
Hope isn’t my default mindset, Colonel, as you probably know by now. But I couldn’t help the electric zing that went through my gut at the sight of those machines.
I didn’t want Bertram to die. I didn’t want any of us to die. Even without knowing a single thing about the equipment in here, this room was as close of a guarantee as anyone can promise in this life.
I opened my mouth to say as much, Colonel. And that was when the bots attacked.