From the Hands of Hostile Gods – Ch. 1

The fine red sand of Archae Stoddard sparkled in the setting of the crimson sun, Brahma Nova. As the ground temperatures cooled, the storms rolled in like a smothering purple curtain. Tumbling supercells thundered high in the stratosphere dropping rope tornadoes from their bruised and swollen underbellies. The swirling vortices slashed up and down the visible horizon, pulverizing rock and shifting dunes, rewriting the face of the planet’s monochromatic topography, inscribing geographic glyphs read only by satellites and gods.

It was winter; there were storms. No one bothered to notice the expected things. The incidental meteorological status panels on the wall of the observation deck were all green, five by five, and the assortment of technicians and engineers responsible for such things pretended to ignore them. Outside, the wind rose in a tormented shriek, gnawing at the sharp corners of the pressurized Quonset storage sheds, daring to be ignored as well. And it was. Nothing but wind, an incidental byproduct of the real work.

Behind the round portholes of triple sealed plastisheen and half-meter thick military grade radiation shielding, the men who made the storms sat around a portable card table beneath a swaying naked bulb and dealt the deck of Tarot cards around. The bulb swayed not because of shoddy maintenance, atmospheric seepage or blown seals, but because Sievers, tall and blond with his wide smile and milk-fat cheeks, had knocked it with his head on his way to the toilet. No one had bothered to stop it.

It was a peculiar game these men played, the five of them scrummed around a decrepit relic of backyard barbecues and screened porch afternoon teas. It was not poker, not since the last of the legitimate Bicycle cards had been worn to illegibility by countless strokings and dealings and sweaty-palmed handling. Now their money stayed in their pockets, or rather, in their automated deposit accounts back home, each man’s bits and bytes and proper digits sitting idle, except for the once a month addition and subtraction of paycheck and mortgage. For more than one of those men, those digits had grown quite large over the years.

There might have been no cards at all if not for convenient timing. If Icky Freeden hadn’t suffered the misfortune of a faulty valve on his last full tank of breathable air. He’d choked like a fish for a full ten minutes beyond the reach of help. The crew on the worksite had been low enough themselves that they couldn’t spare a piggy back. Those watching from the command deck by live feed hadn’t been able to reach him in time with a spare. That had been a critical instance of poor mission planning, the type of incident that could get a military man in charge of logistics busted out of his sergeant’s stripes.

Except it was Icky’s gig. Icky would have been the equivalent of that sergeant if this was a military operation. Which it wasn’t. Instead he had merely been on the duty roster as the lead technical engineer for the lambda phase on 21 October. He had pulled his turn, more or less fairly just like everyone else, and no one was surprised when his own inattention to the necessary details struck him down. Who alone of the external teams, after all, didn’t think to do regular and steady maintenance on his environmental suit? Who among them, it was asked, didn’t have the foresight to expect any number of catastrophic eventualities and supplement his environmental suit with at least one emergency bulb in his kit–enough goddamned air to make it back to the mobile transport unit?

Icky, of course, and it was Icky who had paid for it, and in some ways all the better for the rest of them. They didn’t have to worry about pulling double duties, covering their own logistical nightmares while repairing the holes in Icky’s mission plan in their spare time.

But not just better for that reason. There were the cards, too. The glossy, oversized deck of Tarot cards he’d shuffled at night before sliding off to sleep, playing his stubby reddish fingers over the green and yellow Celtic knot patternings. Dealing them flat in the old gypsy lay, circle cross in the middle, four sisters down the right side. This means this, and that means that, and don’t touch my goddamned deck or you’ll cloud the energy. You’ll skew my reading. Fthwap! Fthwap! Fthwap! Laying out his fortune again and again, never less than half a dozen times before bed.

Lots of beautiful women in his future, Icky would tell them. Blondes and brunettes, and once even a pair of redheaded twins–at the same time, he crowed. One to suck me and one to fuck me. Maybe even sisters.

The cards hadn’t said anything about his critical mission failure, though they all knew that a Death card rattled around in that and any Tarot deck. If he’d gotten it, he wouldn’t have told them anyway.

Once Icky was dead, his brain starved and vitals certifiably flatlined, his stiffening corpse shunted off to the equipment shed with the broken augers and sand torn filters, they’d forgotten about the cards. Totally disremembered them for nearly a month, limping along with the last wrecked deck of diamonds, hearts and black, black spades until everyone knew when Jervis had the queen of hearts, and not just because his eyes lit up like rock candy, but because of the fold in the lower left corner. The three of clubs was little more than a blank plastic chit from overuse, but it could be recognized from the distinctive water ring where Ilam had set his drink down on it and forgotten until it was too late to salvage the face. They’d played with it anyway, pretending not to see when someone else had it.

Then, inevitably, the arguments had come and one raucous brouhaha with actual fisticuffs and a broken mirror from where Sievers had pitched the small but wiry Tappen over the makeshift bar, feet in the air, arms flailing and smack into the wall. Tappen had been cheating, no one denied it, blocking Sievers run at a legitimate royal flush, a once in a lifetime hand for as bad a player as Sievers, by keeping his eyes on the folded-skirt queen and the matching jack with the bite mark on it.

There’d been no cards after work for a pair of grumpy weeks following. Tappen wouldn’t have been able to play with his busted hand anyway. But cards were out, that much was obvious. You couldn’t help but cheat. It was like playing the game with the cards face out.

Then the year-freighter had shot them an arrival message, and while they cleaned out the storage lockers and pantries, packaged their trash and clothing grubby beyond washing for the re-set, re-stock and eval, someone had remembered Icky. Ostensibly, recalled him in order to get his shrunken monkey’s carcass out of the equipment shed and on its way to the proper ceremonial internment, but when they remembered Icky at all, they remembered the fthwap of oversized cards.

Sure, the freighter might have a deck or two to spare or loan or outright steal, but the freighter was two weeks out, easy. And two more weeks of the same numbing storm watching and decade old ether porn would have sent more than one of them climbing the walls. Climbing the goddamned walls and likely as not stringing more than one noose from the ceiling fixtures. There was nothing else to do.

Without regret, they lifted the cards from the bedside table where Icky had left them that last night or last morning before his death. There was more than a little pleasure in the first snap and shuffle of the Tarot, though it took even Sievers’s monstrous hands a time or two to get used to them. Over and over, separate and integrate. A mad, pauseless slap of laminated paper. No one did a bridge because they all knew that bent the cards.

A fresh brace of cards did not supply an immediate end to the difficulties. Foremost was the issue of which cards to keep and which to lose. Icky’s Tarot deck was seventy-eight cards. That was twenty six too many. The logical solution would have been to toss the whole of the major arcana. Fool to Universe to Fool, that was twenty two, no matter how you counted–a good start. Not to mention, the little paper foldout booklet Icky kept in the box beside the cards themselves had flat out said that the modern deck of playing cards had its origin in the structure of the Tarot’s minor arcana. It did not seem to brook much argument.

Except, as Jervis quickly established, it was the major arcana which had most of the pictures of naked women on them. Blondes, brunettes, and even they noted, all and individually with some satisfaction, a pair of redheaded twins.

It didn’t take much discussion to reach a consensus. The bastard King of Spades, King of Clubs, King of Fucking Bicycle and his whole court be damned. It was time for a new game.

Ritter designed it. Ritter with his plastisheen-thick glasses and his newborn’s baldness, when any self-respecting man his age would have paid for optical implants and microsurgical hair pods. Ritter the Chief Theoretical Xenohydrologist, who spent a full evening culling the digital library for Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot, stumbling by serendipitous cross-referencing into Regardie’s Middle Pillar, Fortune and Crowley and a whole host of luminary occultists both profound and obscure. Ritter who spent better than forty-eight straight hours jacked up on artificial stim and coffee and the peculiar non-flammable cigarettes they all despised but treasured more than food and drink and nights of lost partnered sex all put together, until he had a model of the rules and a computerized simulation of fourteen hundred years of constant hand by hand play just to prove his logic. A game, in other words. He designed a game for all seventy-eight cards of the Tarot.

And the tech and engineering corpsmen who played cards, formerly poker, took to it with their quick and nimble and logical minds with an ease that illuminated both Ritter’s cunning and their own supple, feverish desperation for entertainment.

With a nod to both their mythic, forgotten forbearers and the present progenitor, they called the game Yetzirah.

Creation.

#

Markus Brett stood at the window as the cards played themselves out in the background, watching the weaving cyclones and listening to the chilly tink of sand pitched against the outside of the station. He was not a particularly large man, but tall, firm and relatively young for the post of Station Commander. His coloring was dark, his hair black but already touched with gray. When he peered out the window into the darkling, bruised evening, the backlit reflection of him was opaque, featureless.

Brett didn’t come up here often, raising himself out of the lower admin and lab levels, unless it was to direct a sensitive phase protocol which he felt required his personal attention. He could just as well monitor the status of the topside panels from deeper in the Hole, sitting at his own workstation, or even resting in his bunk for that matter. He could program private alarms to squawk him awake if any of the panels registered anything other than five by five, green across. All of these idiot measures were in place, but he still found the opportunity once or twice a week, relative station time, to trudge up the ladders, peer out the windows, view the storms from behind a comfortable layer of plastisheen, just as he would have at home. There was no sandy ocean view from this window, of course, and the thunderheads brought crashes and groans and splatters of lightning, but not yet any rain. None of those things were like home. But that feeling, warm and sneaky and toe-curling, that sense of safety here in the golden lights of the house, with a mug of coffee in his hand and a mind free of worry despite the howl of the wind–that was familiar. It was a form of remembering that went beyond memory. There was something savage and delightful in it, the quasi-mystical reaction of a jut-jawed brute watching the weather rage from the shelter of a dry cave. A satisfaction that was universal.

It was a long way home from here.

Behind him, Ritter crowed a sound of almost pre-pubescent triumph. Sievers cursed and snatched up the cards with a bear-hug sweep of his arms. Brett sipped his coffee.

“You want us to deal you a hand, Chili?” Ritter called.

He turned toward them, Ritter, Ilam, Sievers and Jervis, then shook his head.

“I’m on the round.”

Chili. He hated that name, but couldn’t blame them for it, even if it was a tired old joke, one he’d heard since primary school. The soft drink ditty that made it famous. . .Drink Markus Chili’s carbo fun, any day you’re in the sun! Try Chili’s candy soda treat, that pop gun fizz is oh, so neat! Horrid stuff, really. Not just the stupendously tooth-ache annoying ad, but the soda itself. It had been gone from the market in less than a year, but as such things do, the commercial had become a sort of icon, some thirties cultural touchstone which wouldn’t go away.

“One hand,” Jervis said, smiling, already catching up the next deal. “We are in serious need of a change of fortune. Ritter is devouring us.”

“What happened to Tappen? Isn’t he your usual fifth?”

Ritter cracked his knuckles. “Tappen is on Medical.”

Brett stopped. “I think I’d heard that. How’s he doing?”

“Doc Liston thinks it might be spinal meningitis,” Sievers said. “Could get pretty serious.”

Christ, that was all they needed. An outbreak of meningitis. Brett asked, “Is it viral or bacterial? Do you know?”

The four men shrugged, already turning their eyes and their focus to the cards dealt them.

“You sure you don’t want to play?” Ilam peered unhappily at his hand. “We can’t do any worse.”

“I’ve got a mission eval ether conference in fifteen minutes. Sorry, gentlemen.”

Ilam frowned at his cards, chewed the inside of lip. “Rather be wicked than rested, eh?”

The others laughed, and Brett moved away from the window. “If it makes you feel better, you can deal me a dead man’s hand, and I’ll take my losses in good humor. Hell, deal me in for the rest of the night. Someone ought to be enjoying my life.”

He squeezed past the edge of the table, then turned to his left down the brief hall to the pressure lock. Stooping, he turned the latch on the door, lifted the hatch and set his foot on the top rung of the ladder.

“Seal this port,” he said to no one in particular, and predictably, no one answered him.

#

Brett spoke his voice id command into the portable comm unit and received his confirmation without any of the usual hassles. He found only a dead audio line on the other end. He leaned back in his chair, rubbing at his aching shoulders. The monitor on his desk displayed the rotating Earth Forces Terraform Command insignia, indicating a closed satellite link. The other mission stations were late arriving, or perhaps he was early. Brett looked dubiously at his watch, once synchronized by intermittent radio signal to the atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado. Why couldn’t they manage something like that here?

Because we’ve got enough to keep us busy, that’s why.

They were creating a completely habitable planet, all but ex nihilo, at least in an atmospheric sense. Trivialities like universal mean times and accurate clocks and reliable timetables could frankly wait for the rush of commuters, homesteaders and interplanetary multi-corporations. For Christ’s sake, they were still trying to decide if they were going to settle on the terran definition of day which they currently used as relative station time or opt for Archae Stoddard’s twenty one and a quarter hour cycle. No one seemed to realize that if the decision wasn’t made by them, it was going to be made for them by the politicians.

The question of time was not what he or any of the eleven other station commanders would have considered mission critical. The engineers would occasionally disagree, Ritter most certainly, but Brett wasn’t a sci-tech. He didn’t, in fact, give a rat about sci-techs or their concerns as long as they got the work done, kept the satellites humming and the impregnated greenhouse gases churning.

The door buzzed, and Brett straightened in his chair. He glanced at the monitor, but no one had showed any interest in picking up the open line yet.

“Open,” he said, and it did.

With a hand on the latch, Djen peeked around the edge of the door as though afraid to find him occupied in something less than tasteful. Djen Riley filled the role of Command Logistics Coordinator. In meaner times, she might have been called his administrative assistant. As he valued his life, Brett never used that term anywhere in her vicinity. She was also an extremely capable and properly degreed Biology Second.

He offered her a smile of greeting and waved her inside. He noticed she had cut her hair again. Djen chose, though there were no regulations to specify such a thing, to wear her golden-red hair in the short-cropped fashion of the station’s men. Brett didn’t know if it was a testosterone thing with her, and hadn’t bothered to ask. Probably never would, though he certainly would have been tempted in another setting, another time and place where things weren’t so complicated.

“I have the latest batch of progress reports,” she said, returning his smile. “I thought you might need them for your briefing.”

“If it comes up. Have you read them?”

“I scanned them as they printed out. They say the same things they’ve said for the last six weeks. I can instruct Cassandra to mail the digest version to your cycle log if you don’t want the long form.”

“Don’t do that.” God knew, as probably did Cassandra, that he already had six months worth of digest version reports unopened and unread in his inbox. He waved a vague hand at the piles of paperwork detritus strewn about his office. “File them on the chair, the one by the lamp. Close to the top.”

Djen glanced that way, then pulled her lower lip up between her teeth. “I think that pile lost its battle with the planet’s gravitational pull sometime last week. You want me to start a new one?”

He held out his hand. “Give them to me.” But as she extended the reports toward him, he shook her off. “Nevermind. Stay here in case I need you to supply details. It most likely won’t matter.”

He shoved another tottering stack of unbound paper off the chair in the corner behind his desk. The pages fanned out around his feet, spilling in a rough semicircle that ended against his ankle like a wave of spent dominoes.

“Have a seat there.”

He meant to say more, to soften the statement so it didn’t sound so much like a command, but his speakers emitted a sharp, ear-jangling hiss and the EFTC logo blinked away, replaced by a dull gray screen. Brett stabbed at the volume control, sucking air between his teeth.

“Malibu Station here. Brett, is that you on the line?”

“Persian Site Comm, affirmative. Greetings from the golden beaches, Jack. Where is everybody?”

Jack Overton, mission commander of the duty station almost a thousand kilometers east of Brett’s position, laughed at him. It translated as a strange, static and gurgling roar.

“I just got a beam from Com–Site. . .Persia Command? Are you–” Spitfire static and hollow reverberations chewed Overton’s message into incoherence. Brett leaned toward the speakers. He smacked one side of the clunky metallic box. It didn’t seem to help, so he toggled the transmit switch.

“I’m here, Malibu. Your clarity is terrible, though. Please say again.”

The static pop and hiss increased perceptibly, like a rogue breaker dashing itself against the rocks. The ether hummed with a blister of barely audible curses, then cleared again.

“Is that better?” Overton said. “I wrapped my box in fresh aluminum foil.”

“You’re still fuzzing at the edges.”

“Sorry. We’ve got a big electrical storm over us. Look, I’ve received a digital beam from Mission Comm HQ. They’re calling off the briefing for tonight, probably for the rest of the week, in fact. The atmosphere is too buggy for a good signal. Stoker expects to have the rest of you guys rigged out with the digital receptor arrays by the next freighter pass, but it’s old fashioned wave radio until then.”

Brett frowned. Malibu was the only station in unit-to-unit range. “Are you getting any video signal?”

“No. That should be fixed with the upgrade. Which reminds me, the Telsat system is going to be down for a few days while the high altitude probes install the rest of the beam devices. Don’t expect to get a lot of data in or out of your array. Audio is going to be hit and miss, and video is a total no-go, at least until the storms clear or the digital system is in place.”

“Shit.”

“Shit, nothing, Chili. I don’t know about you, but Malibu is planning to take irresponsible advantage of our present situation. We’re going to be shitloose, fancy free and incommunicado until nineteen hundred hours relative time Tuesday. Recommend you and yours do the same. We’ve earned a little time off. So don’t try to call, because daddy won’t be picking up the phone.”

“But I can reach you on the emergency system.”

There was a chuckle, quiet and pleasantly evil. “I’m sorry, Persia Site, I’m having trouble understanding you. I believe I’m losing your signal.”

“Jack!”

More laughter, and the signal did actually begin to lose its focus again. “Emergencies only, Chili. Swear on it.”

“Emergencies only.”

“Malibu Station out.”

“Take it easy, Jack.” Brett said. He thumbed the comm set off, and rolled his eyes around at Djen. “What a stunning asshole. Though a complete system holiday doesn’t sound like a totally irredeemable notion.”

“It doesn’t sound like a winning one, either.”

“We could use a break around here.”

She frowned. “You haven’t read the progress reports for the last month, Markus. We’re falling behind our target percentages. Not just us, mind you, the entire project.”

“What are they going to do? Fire us? Send us home? That’d be a real shame, now wouldn’t it.” But he met her gaze and quirked the corners of his mouth up in a grin that meant surrender. “Fine. I’ll keep the lash at their backsides, but we’re not going to make much progress if Malibu goes off line. Their production gap in the gas cover is going to suck all our work right out into space, and you know it.”

“But at least it won’t be our production gap that gets blamed.” She winked at him. Careful of her feet, she stood and dropped the sheaf of daily reports on the corner of his desk. “We’ll review tomorrow’s duty roster later, if that’s acceptable to you.”

“Much later.”

“Twenty one hundred hours. I’ll meet you in the arboretum, yes?”

Brett waved her out the door.

#

She met him with coffee on the sixth sublevel arboretum, an expansive open dome which occupied all but a handful of the floor’s volume. Whole packets of lush grasses, wrist-width saplings and flower bushes lined the borders of rubber pallet walkways which wound sometimes functionally, sometimes aesthetically throughout the gardens. Lavender hydroponic lighting systems suspended at regular intervals from the interior of the pressurized plastisheen dome tinged the leaves black on the trees, sketched even the most wan of blossoms in technicolor.

It wasn’t Earth, it wasn’t even remotely like a real garden, but it grew, and it radiated odors other than hot electrodes, mechanical oil and body sweat. If he kept his eyes carefully averted, Brett could pretend he didn’t see the steel ligaments of the level’s support beams arching over and above the glass ceiling. He could avoid noticing the faint greenish blats of light suspended along the dome’s curving walls mirroring the booths along the perimeter where the biotechs monitored the growth cycles, the ambient air, the photosynthetic reactions which heavily subsidized the station’s closed biospheric systems. He could pretend, in other words, that he wasn’t loose inside a vapid and nightmarish fraud.

They strolled together into the center of the garden and took their seats on the rough hewn wooden bench set in the spiderweb confluence of the paths. There was a peach tree here, just off to the left, that when the circulator fans chunked to a stop would spread its fine, southern fragrance all around them. Sometimes, he could almost taste their sweetness on the ends of his lips. Taste it and think of ice cream and mint julep tea and the city of Savannah, where he had never lived, but from which had come a pretty southern belle who was soft and pink and round-eyed innocent, and when he was nineteen had sneaked him into her bed, beneath her frill and lace comforter on a cool October evening.

Brett sipped at his coffee. It was hot, and he almost managed to avoid burning his tongue. Djen had changed from her red station suit and into a casual pair of running shorts and a short sleeved cotton shirt. He noticed that she hadn’t worn her shoes, and the sight of her small brown toes tensing and relaxing against the rubber matting gave him a sudden surge of pleasure.

He said, “We’ll need to adjust engines Two and Four to produce a twenty two percent higher mixture of nitrogen starting tomorrow. The numbers on those two units are pathetic. I want Nathan and Stivetts working on that project, and I want it done by noon at the very latest.”

“You read your report,” she said, teasing him.

“The nitrogen conversion seems to be the most critical issue there, though I’m worried about the ammonia experiment we’ve unleashed with the northern sector machines. Somebody did explain to me that the environment around that cluster would be toxic, right?”

Djen tossed her head back and laughed. “The whole atmosphere is toxic, Markus. And no, they didn’t explain it to you, they just told you to do it.”

“And why did they do that?”

“Because the ammonia compound is a much more aggressive greenhouse mechanism than the standard chloroflourocarbons we used on Mars in the early fifties. The rate of CFC degradation from ultraviolet contamination bordered on counterproductivity. The engines struggled to maintain even a base level atmospheric stasis because Archae Stoddard doesn’t have the gravity well of a Mars for proper containment. Now that we’ve got the pressure up to 600 millibars, that’s not so much of an issue, but we’re still thickening toward ten-thirteen. And to do that, we need more raw gaseous material. To do that we need heat, preferably good old fashioned solar energy, which will melt those damned polar caps, releasing their CO2 deposits. But to do that, we need to maintain current atmospheric density with a greenhouse gas that doesn’t evaporate when a UV ray slaps at it.

“Until we can get a consistent and coherent ozone layer manufactured, ammonia lasts longer, it works harder and the molecular restructuring isn’t nearly as complex as some of the other gases. Not to mention, when we finally approach the bacterial insertion goal, you’ll be sure to notice that most of the anaerobic microorganisms we’ve brought with us will not only easily, but happily metabolize old NH3, in the process producing more heat, which leads to all the things mentioned above, and might–just might, mind you–give me a chance to experience Archae Stoddard in just a bathing suit and a rebreather sometime before I die.”

“But when it finally starts precipitating, we’re going to have nothing but acid rain,” he protested. “Polluting the new biosphere prior to even initiating the anaerobics seems like an even worse counterproductivity.”

“Only if we saturate, and we’re not even close to that level.” Djen winked at him. “I’ll give you extra points today for at least making the effort to do your reading.”

Brett shrugged, then smiled. “All right. Hey, I read the reports, nobody says I have to understand them.”

“As long as one of us does.”

“Which is why you’re the sci-tech and I’m the admin guy, and consequently why I trust you to tell me what else needs to be done tomorrow.”

Djen reached toward the small of her back and produced a small paper notebook from her waistband.

“How did you ever manage to land such a soft job? You have the attention span of a doorknob.”

“You’d be surprised what doors a master’s degree in systems technology administration and the blind willingness to sign a ten year contract will open for you.”

She rifled through the first few pages of her notebook, then stopped. “Engine Three is running hot. It’s not a job for one of the techies, but whoever has maintenance duty should take a look at the lubrication levels first, then run a diagnostic on the belts and bearings.”

“The programming?”

“Latent production checks out. This strikes me primarily as an exhaust issue. It’s an O3device, and the plumes are reading about eighty meters lower than this time last year. That’s still within acceptable parameters, but since we know it’s too warm now, I wouldn’t want to hold off on it until something breaks.”

“So the programming is good?” That was a positive, at least.

“Which brings me to number Nine.”

“Would that be Engine, Engine Number Nine?”

Djen blinked at him, uncomprehending.

“It was a song,” he said.

“Oh, about Sperling Engines?”

“Locomotive engines. Nevermind. What’s wrong with Nine?”

“Nine has encountered a logic error in about half its population. The nanomechs have reverted to last week’s production schedule. Last week they were an O2 unit. This week they’re supposed to be –oh,” She tossed past another two or three pages. “Yes. This week they’re four hours nitrogen and nitrogen related compounds, then a whole complex series of xenons, argons and various and sundries in alternating microbatches. The production sequence is extremely complicated and the program timing delicate and precise.”

“Which explains the system failure.”

She rolled her eyes at him. “Which explains its importance, Markus. This is a stabilizing batch of ingredients. A chemical knot for all that oxygen and ammonia.”

“So put Jaekel and Rand on it first thing in the morning.”

“They tackled the coding this afternoon, but they’ve decided it isn’t a remote fix. The little bastards are refusing to obey the indirect codes and reverting to the last saved programming. We’re going to have to send out an external team.”

Brett scratched his chin. This wasn’t going to make him popular. “You’ve seen the weather outside, I assume.”

“It’s within safety guidelines,” she said, but her eyes were dark, thoughtful.

“What are the forecasts for tomorrow?”

“Low pressure system moving in. Lots of wind, but the atmosphere should attain some increasing stability toward evening. Not as many tornadoes.”

He grunted. “It only takes one, though God knows the boys back home like them.”

Blender of the Gods, he’d heard them called in some near-forgotten and inane teleconference. What would Wagner have called that? Osterdammerung?GotterAmanarung? Whatever. The argument at that time had been that dynamic atmospheric systems churned the gasses produced by the Sperling engines, and that was considered good by people who knew about such things.

“Who’s on deck?”

Djen blanched at the questions, her mouth curling down. “Me. I’ll have to assemble a team.”

“What about redistributing the work load for the time being?”

“Do you mean mine or the Engine’s, Commander?” She lifted an eyebrow. “I would hate to think that you would suggest something both neanderthal and gender stereotyped about the level of risk this job entails.”

Brett rubbed his forehead so it wouldn’t be obvious that he was looking away. “Of course I meant the machine. Though I’ll mention in my defense that the preservation of the health and fitness of the entire station staff–regardless of gender–is one of my published mission imperatives. Number three on the list, if I remember correctly.”

His attempt at humor didn’t seem to placate her. “With production already so far behind, it’s going to hurt just taking the Engine off line for the repairs. If we wait out the storms, we could lose it for days.”

“All right. Let it run, then. Half of it is working, and half runs are better than none at all.”

But she wasn’t going to have it. She wasn’t going to let him have it. He should have kept his mouth shut. “We don’t currently possess the luxury of determining our own production schedule. We need these stabilizing agents, Markus. The project needs them. Every day we wait, slow down, botch our performance levels–those are all days that get tacked onto the end of the contract. We’re signed through ecopoiesis if it takes ten years or fifty. I don’t know about you, buddy, but I want to get home to all my money and a nice, hard and nubile young man before I’m too old to enjoy either of them.”

Brett sighed. She was right, of course she was right. This shouldn’t even be up for discussion. But he had caught himself tasting peaches for just a moment. Peaches and mint and sweet, Georgia girls. Nostalgia could do that, make a man forget where he was and what was expected of him.

“I don’t like it,” he said finally.

“You don’t have to,” she said. “You just have to sign the duty roster before you go to bed.”

The meeting must have ended on that note, because she bounced to her feet and walked away, leaving Brett alone with the moist, rotten aroma of plants and the hum of the growing lamps.

#

He sat in the arboretum until it was time for bed, drinking coffee and listening to the silence. Before going to his room, he stopped in at his office to sign the duty roster.

The mail icon was flashing on his monitor.

Chili, it’s you and Ritter with two hands to play. You should get up here. Sievers.

For a moment, the message rattled like a marble inside his brain, unmoored and unconnected. Then he remembered.

“What the hell,” Brett said, and headed for the game.

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