A/N: Hi everyone, I realise this is a bit longer than usual, so if you'd like me to cut it into sections I can try. The issue is that the natural split is into 800ish and 1300ish, which is a bit lop-sided.
The drill site wasn’t far off something Margo imagined could have been found on Earth. She knew the humans regularly bored down into the Earth’s crust, searching for the fuel that preserved their lives. Well, operations had been scaled back in recent years, she supposed. The impossibility of cobbling together enough fuel for an entire ‘Space Team’ had kickstarted a rather more earnest search for renewable energy than had been taking place up to that point.
Margo had had a lot of time to read about Earth’s history while floating along through space.
What the Aeralins were searching for, Dreko had explained, was a substance called Nokyemin. Nokyemin was apparently a dull grey powder that, when mixed properly, could support structures hundreds of times its own mass. Well, that explained the astronomically high ceilings of the palace, Margo figured. Without Nokyemin, they’d be unable to support such imposing buildings without quadrupling – or worse – their expense.
“Dr. Whipple?” The young attendant’s voice came from the doorway of the ward.
Margo shook her head and blinked rapidly a couple of times. It didn’t matter why the drill was here, she told herself. It was – and there had been an accident, with casualties. She looked over to the doorway.
Aliner was about fifteen Human-Years old and her confidence around this tense, serious industrial site was rarely high.
“It’s Dr. Hugel’s wife, Doctor,” she said, her voice high but steady enough. “He’s asked if you’ll come see her again.”
Margo rolled her eyes. “How did you manage to end up with a hypochondriac for a chief doctor?”
Aliner’s eyebrows shot up, then she drew them tightly back down and cleared her throat.
“He said to say it was urgent,” Aliner said.
Margo sighed and nodded. “Of course, yes. Tell him I’ll be there as soon as I’ve checked on Jenopti’s ribs.”
Aliner nodded and hurried off down the corridor as fast as she dared with the shadow of gravity surges looming over her. Margo thought it was at the very least odd that there hadn’t been a single surge since they got here. They’d been lured into traps in the past … They’d always got out of them, of course. But they hadn’t been fun experiences. She would send a message to McCaw or Dart later, remind them to keep on guard around the Archess. She, however, had work to do.
The ward was much like the one on board the ship. The only difference – other than the ceilings – was that where the wall’s ceramic tiles faded away, underneath you could see that the walls were made of stone. Still, the Aeralins, as Dreko had explained was how the planet’s dominant species referred to themselves, had managed to keep the temperature comfortably warm without being stuffy. Margo was impressed.
“How’re the ribs, Jeno?” Margo asked as she approached his bed.
He tried to shrug then winced.
“Not great.” He sighed.
Jeno had been near to but not quite underneath the main collapse of the cave-in. A lump of stone had bounced out of the carnage and glanced his ribs. More importantly, however, his proximity meant that he’d watched it all happen, watched the stone and beams crash down on the heads of his friends. Well, it had happened in front of him. How much he’d been able to process properly in the short time before he passed out was another matter altogether. Margo had noticed him twitching in his sleep a couple of times and was more worried about what was going through his mind than what he was doing to his stitches.
“I’m just glad we haven’t had any gravity surges since you lot got here,” he said. Once side of his mouth tugged upwards as he spoke. “It’s bloody embarrassing.”
Margo snorted. “Sure, and you’d also have re-cracked your ribs as you smashed into the ceiling. That would have been embarrassing … It is dangerous though, right? I mean, that’s what caused the cave-in?”
“Almost certainly,” Jeno agreed. “And apparently we have you to thank for their halt.”
Margo spluttered and stared at him. Then she took a deep breath and her brow sunk into an even deeper frown. “What are you on about, Jeno?”
Jeno grinned. “My cousin, Reka, she works in the palace. She says your captain’s been ranting about some space-bumblebee trying to keep him alive so he can get revenge or something.”
Margo hung her head and sighed. “Great, just great.”
Jeno seemed fine, and rather sleepy, for the moment, so Margo figured it was time to go see Mrs. Hugel. She glanced around the patients as she left and everyone seemed fine, or at least stable. With a deep breath, she set off down the corridor to Dr. Hugel’s private suite, where his wife, Elia, was being treated.
“It was right there, just in front of me.” Elia Hugel started to reach her hand out but then shook her head out and dropped it back to her side. She shuddered and continued, “I’ve never seen something so dull but … sparkly … at the same time. Look, I’ve been working on this site for the past nine years. I know what Nokyemin looks like and that was not it. But it somehow … was. I’m sorry, Dr. Whipple, but I don’t know how to describe this.”
“No, no, that’s fine,” Margo said. Her eyes were wide and she was staring at a random point in space about a foot above Elia. “I’m glad you’ve remembered anything with all the dust in your lungs.”
‘Hypochondriac’ may have been a stretch for a description of Dr. Hugel. It was obvious that he knew Elia was in serious danger, and she was, but Margo had just checked on her ten minutes ago. She’d been recovering surprisingly well, having indeed had a vast quantity of dust in her lungs only a couple of days ago. The medical tech around here was incredible, Margo thought, she’d have to have some sort of survey of the equipment before they got back on board.
But far more importantly, she’d just had an idea. A really obvious idea that would have occurred to her hours ago if she hadn’t been distracted by fears of traps or Chip’s crazy ideas, but an idea nonetheless.
“How deep were you drilling?” Margo asked, “I don’t need an exact number, but was it deeper than usual?”
“Yes, quite a lot deeper than usual,” said Elia, “Well, ‘usual’ is becoming a lot deeper all the time anyway, but only recen- Oh. Oh. Oh, God. Oh, holy hell.”
Margo’s eyes narrowed. “What? What, Elia? What are you thinking?”
Elia smiled probably the weakest smile Margo had seen all week, and she’d been treating Visely the snake for most of it.
“Probably much the same thing as you,” Elia said, “That drilling deeper was a seriously bad idea.”
Dr. Hugel, who had listened to this conversation with a gaping mouth, asked, “What do you mean, love?”
“I … I don’t know exactly.” Elia’s eyes roamed about the room as if she was literally searching for an answer. “I’d have to know if the surges are still happening in places where the drilling is continuing but … it’s not ridiculous is it? That drilling too deep could have thrown something out of wack?”
Then an even more horrifying realisation occurred to Margo. “Oh God, I have to convince Chip this has nothing to do with Lezeki before he does something stupid.”
Margo thundered down the corridor, past the ward – hoping that the patients wouldn’t be too worried by her obvious panic – and all the way to the stairwell at the end. Thankfully the door was push to open so she sprang up and shouldered her way through it, then sprang up the stairs three at a time. Three floors up, she screeched to a stop and raised herself up to grab the door handle, threw it open, then dropped back to all fours and kept running.
“Drek!” she shouted, “Dreko! Where are you?”
Assuming he was in the communications room, this seemed the most efficient way to find a way to get through to Chip. A moment later, his lanky black hair popped out of a doorway and his eyebrows shot up into it.
“I’m in Comms!” he called. He was near the end of the corridor, but Margo was almost on him already. He jerked back into the room as she let her jaw hang open to pant.
“I need … to talk … to Chip.” Her legs were shaking as she entered the room and all the attendants at the stations around the room were staring at her. She dragged in a deep breath. “Open a video link with him!”
“Right away, Doctor!” An Aeralin directly across the room from her nodded and started tapping at a keyboard.
Margo didn’t bother to look around and just sprinted the last few feet to where the Aeralin who’d spoken was opening a channel with the palace.
“What’s the matter, Dr. Whipple?” Dreko said from somewhere behind her.
“I don’t know exactly – well, I know what the matter is but I don’t know to what extent it’s actually a matter.” She shook her head. “Oh, it doesn’t matter. I just need to talk to Chip before he does something stupid.”
“Your captain, Doctor?” The Comms Aeralin had raised her eyebrows and stopped typing.
“Yes, my captain,” Margo said, glaring at the keyboard until the Aeralin started typing again. “He’s … going through some stuff.”
“Just do what she says, Pira,” Dreko said, moving up to stand next to Margo.
“Done,” Pira said, stabbing a final key.
Pira glanced up at the screen above them, where an image of a dark room with lots of blinking lights was rapidly coming into focus.
“What is this?” Margo asked.
“It’s the palace basement,” Pira explained, “More specifically, the defence fleet control room. This is the place that controls what scout ships go where.”
Margo gulped. “That cannot be good.”
“What do you think he’s going to do?” Dreko asked.
“I – I don’t know,” Margo said, “Turn it up!”
Pira grabbed the dial and twisted it round and round, until Margo heard a familiar voice dishing out orders. Oh, the days when that was the most comforting sound in the galaxy.
“He’s out here somewhere, this we know,” Chip was saying. He was a little fuzzy on the screen, but Margo could make out his grey-clad form striding around the room. “But we have limited resources and we need to –”
“Chip!” Margo screamed.
Chip sprang into the air and clutched at his head.
“What in God’s name was that?” he yelled, staring at the Aeralin who was manning the phone.
“Dr. Whipple, sir,” the Aeralin replied, “She’s coming from the drill site comms room. On the screen, there, look.”
Chip’s eyes met Margo’s over the webcam and he was frowning.
“Mute the screen,” said Chip. “I need to concentrate.”
Margo felt like a stone had just been thrown at her chest, like she was discovering how Jenopti felt when the walls of the mine came crumbling down around him. But there was a red cross over a speaker symbol in the top-right corner of the screen, and there was nothing she could do about it.
Margo sighed and turned round to face Aliner, who was once again standing in a doorway behind her.
“What’s the matter, Aliner?” She wished her voice wasn’t quite so impatient – that wasn’t going to improve the girl’s confidence, but this was not a good time.
“Dr. Hugel sent me,” she said, panting slightly. “A report came through from the Kil-Sec drill site – it’s about a hundred and fifty miles away. The surging is continuing in all the sites over there, as is the drilling. Except for one. There was a problem with the drill – just a normal overheating malfunction – that meant drilling had to stop at the Retan site. The surging has stopped in the couple of miles round there too. It’s the drill, Doctor.”
“Oh God,” Margo said, “Chip!”
Her eyes were fixed on the fuzzy little version of him on the screen above, but she could see him clear as day. She’d seen him every day for the past three years, since this had all begun. She had spoken to him, advised him. Most days of her life she would have called him one of her best friends. He was her best friend, no matter what was—
What the hell was that? There was something moving in the shadows beside him, coming towards him round the side of a console. She screamed his name again, to warn him, to just please get through to him.
But he couldn’t hear her. Worse, he wasn’t listening.