David L. Burkhead
CHAPTER THREE (Part one)
"Glad to see you, Petya," McIntire said. He tapped Charles Redbear, his other assistant, on the shoulder. Charles looked up from his terminal.
Charles stood almost as large as McIntire, a little slimmer but the same height. Charles wore his black hair in a single braid that hung down his back to his waist. Charles had claimed to be Cheyenne when he'd come to work for McIntire and probably was. McIntire felt certain that Charles had watched too many old westerns and made a game out of making people think he'd walked out of one. Today's effort included a beaded deerskin jacket to match the moccasins he wore every day.
"Welcome back," Charles said. After a nod and a smile, he turned his attention back to the screen in front of him.
"I am glad you could make it," McIntire said to Petya. "Normal work's come to a halt since the war's stopped shipping, including material from Lunaville."
Petya looked puzzled. "Then pochemu, why...?"
"We're working on that magnetic focuser I told you about." McIntire had read an article that described a technique for focussing magnetic fields to higher intensities than had ever been achieved before. "I've been translating the magazine article describing it into design specifications and Charles has been doing a program design for a simulation. We need the third corner of the team to do the coding." His gesture took in the remaining chair and terminal. "You ready to get back to work or are you going to loaf some more?"
With a slight nod, Petya took his place.
Several hours later they had a preliminary simulation set up, designed to examine the fields themselves rather than the device used to produce them.
"Okay," McIntire said. "Let's let it run for a while and see what happens."
As he typed the final key, the screen blanked, to be filled an instant later with a screen saver that marked the terminal as functional, but busy with an assigned task.
"How long to finish?" Petya asked.
"Charles?" McIntire turned to face him.
"Depends," Charles said. "Two--four hours."
McIntire nodded. "Break time." He rubbed at sore muscles in his neck. "I'm getting too old for this."
Petya looked at him with a serious expression. "Perhaps you should consider retiring?"
"Not a chance," McIntire said. "Shall we go down to the gym? I bet I can still get two falls out of three." Considering the difference in their sizes, that seemed a safe bet.
"Not possible." Petya rolled his eyes. "I might damage priceless antique."
It took McIntire only a moment to realize that the "priceless antique" was McIntire himself. He laughed.
Charles looked disgusted at the two of them. "Lunch." He left the office.
Petya nodded. "I think Charles has right idea. Lunch?"
For answer, McIntire waved an "after you" gesture at the door. As Petya left, McIntire paused and watched after him. He understood why Petya had won the competition for this particular co-op program. That Petya managed to keep a sense of humor with everything going on spoke well of the young man.
#"Oxygen production's up three point eight percent," Angel told Mason.
"Get behind the men," Mason said. "Let's see if we can't make that an even five percent." He rubbed at his temples. He had waked with a tremendous headache that morning, which Tylenol® did little to cure.
The door to the processing facility slid open ahead of them. Mason led the way through. A rolling cloud of noise burst out over them, causing his already aching head to throb.
Angel said something that Mason did not hear over the roar of the machinery.
He gritted his teeth and raised his voice. "What?"
"I said," Angel, too, raised his voice, "why this sudden drive for production?"
"Keep people busy," Mason said. "Idle hands and minds worry."
"But is it necessary?" Angel asked. "Maybe a healthy degree of worry is a good idea."
"Dammit, Brian, must you keep questioning every decision I make? When I want your opinion, I'll ask for it."
Angel's mouth hung open for a moment before he replied, "Yes, sir."
"Now," Mason said, "what's that problem we're having?"
"Helium coolant levels are dropping. Obviously, there's a leak somewhere in the system but we haven't been able to find it."
Mason nodded. Lunaville's primary power storage system, the superconducting magnetic loop, relied on liquid helium to function. Without constant cooling it would soon stop superconducting and the stored energy would be converted into heat, enough heat to transform the loop into a molten, glowing puddle.
"Just how bad is it?" Mason asked.
"I'll let Mr. Ramsey tell you about it." Angel nodded at the man who stood watch at the panel they were approaching. Mason recognized the device as the primary cryostat system, which they used to condense liquid helium from its gaseous form.
"Doug," Mason greeted the man.
"Mr. Mason," Ramsey held out his hand. Mason took it.
"Brian's told me we're losing helium. Just how bad is it?"
"We're losing about ten liters a day," Ramsey said. "I've checked the tanks myself and they confirm the loss."
"Ten liters?" Mason shook his head. They had reserve storage of over 2500 liters. "That doesn't sound too bad. Our reserve will last until we can get a resupply."
"Maybe," Ramsey said. "If everything goes according to plan. But if that war lasts just a little too long we'll only have power during the daytime. And even then it will be drastically reduced. Too much of our power generation and distribution system uses superconductors."
As Ramsey spoke, Mason fought to keep rein on his temper. When he replied, he managed to keep his voice even. "None of that need worry us," he said. "The war will be over in six months."
Ramsey seemed about to say something but a sharp shake of the head from Angel silenced him.
Mason spared a glare for Angel before turning and stalking away.
Angel caught up with him in the corridor. "You know...."
"Are you trying to undercut my authority, Major?"
Angel looked puzzled, then said, "No, sir. I was just...."
"Good," Mason said. "See that you don't."
"Sir," Angel said. "Perhaps it would be a good idea to put some men on the helium problem."
"Oh?" Although they were the same height, Mason gave the impression of staring down at Angel.
Angel nodded. "It would keep them busy and working on a solvable problem which would be good for morale."
Mason stared at Angel for a moment. Then he nodded. "See to it."
"Yes, sir," Angel said and walked off.
On his return to his cabin, Mason slammed a fist into the wall. His hands shook as he strove to regain control of his emotions. After several minutes the shaking settled to a mild tremble.
"I've got to get a grip," he said to himself.
Snapping at Angel without cause. Growling at everyone else. Mason realized that he had to regain control of his temper. He held command and he could not let the others see any flaw. Even a short war would have Lunaville's personnel on edge and he had to set an example. And if the war lasted longer.... He thrust that thought to one side.
Mason stared into the mirror atop his small dresser for a long time, schooling his features into a look of calmness that he did not feel.
He opened the room's small cupboard. Perhaps a drink would settle him down.
#Schneider's shoulders ached from hunching over his room's computer workstation. Whenever the words on the screen blurred together, he paused for a quick rub at his eyes and continued.
Reports passed over the computer screen, reports of supplies, equipment, and personnel. Schneider's commands copied excerpts of each report into his personal file. Slowly, he built a picture of O'Neill's status.
"What do you think you're doing?"
Schneider jumped at the sound of Marie's voice; he had not heard the door open.
"Marie," he said, looking up, "this work has got to be done."
"Of course it does," Marie said, "and there are plenty of people doing it." She sighed. "All of them are more familiar with the system here, with the information in the system, and with the results they're likely to get. You're just duplicating their work and not doing as good a job of it."
After a moment, Schneider nodded and shut off the computer. "You're right. I was just going crazy with nothing to do."
"Gods, how do you think I feel?" Marie circled the table to reach Schneider's side. She pulled him from the chair, over to the couch, and down beside her. "It seems that all I am here is another mouth using up food stores and contributing nothing in return."
Schneider said nothing, he just put an arm across Marie's shoulders, as much reassured as reassuring with the contact. "Don’t ever think you’re not important. Without you, I think I’d dry up and blow away."
Marie leaned her head against his shoulder. "Clown."
Sitting on the couch with Marie sufficed to drive the tension out of Schneider’s shoulders and back.
"When I talked to him yesterday," Schneider said at last, "John told me he worried about his wife. I gave him a line about how Lincoln would see that she's taken care of."
Without looking down, he felt her nod against his shoulder. "You worried about the kids too?" Marie asked.
Schneider sighed. "Yes. I don't know what's happening. We've tried to call Mauna Loa, but so far they haven't answered. From what we can see there doesn't seem to be anything going on in Hawaii, nothing disastrous at least. I don't know why Lincoln's not answering and that scares me--right down to the bone."
"Maybe there's just a communications blackout."
"Maybe," Schneider said. "And maybe some terrorist bomb has leveled the port. Our security's good but not invincible."
"We'd have heard about that, surely."
"How?" Schneider said. "Nobody's talking to us. Nobody at all. The trouble is, I don't know, and even if I did I couldn't do anything about it. I don't like that."
Marie pushed herself upright. "So you drive yourself into doing things you can. Even things that others can do better and faster."
Schneider nodded. "That's about it, I guess. Just a driven nut case."
A smile flickered across Marie's face. "Then that makes two of you."
The smile returned. "That son of yours is down, unasked for and unwanted, doing an inventory of stores. He's counting every box, every tin, and every packet of supplies. Some of the clerks wanted to eject him but Julia vetoed that; I think she understands the Schneider genes."
Schneider managed a laugh. "And you? What have you been doing?"
"I may be an accountant but I'm handy with a computer," she said. "I volunteered to do data entry but there's no demand." She shrugged.
"So have you found anything to do?"
"You won’t like it."
Marie sighed. "The primary filters for the water recycling system need periodic cleaning. Normally they just expose them to vacuum which dries out the crud which can then be cracked off and sucked away. Now, however, we can’t afford to waste the water that way. That means they have to be scrubbed by hand."
"’Primary filters’?" Schneider’s eyes snapped wide. "Marie, that’s the sewage system!"
Marie shrugged. "It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it."
Schneider sat silent, too stunned to answer then, a moment later, he burst out laughing.