Sorry for the lateness on this. Been having computer issues.
Dr. Nadeshiko Kodesh was not having a good morning. "Three people," she muttered into her coffee. "Three more dead, doctor. So much for talent."
She drained the cup, staring blankly at the wall of her small, bare quarters. She had an apartment in the city, paid for by the Bethel Fund, but she hadn't slept there in a week. Hadn't left the camp in six days. With Berrol sick, she had no choice; it was just her and Dr. Viri caring for nearly three hundred refugees.
Most of the refugees were sick most of the time. The doctors took great pains to isolate themselves from infection, but with hundreds of people crammed together, most of them with damaged immune systems, there was simply no way to be completely safe. In her two years here, even Nadeshiko had been too sick to work twice. Hardly a month went by that Viri or Berrol didn't miss a day or two, and Berrol had now been throwing up virtually everything for six days. They had him in a hospital in the city now. Apparently, the city hospitals did have beds they weren't using, as long as you weren't from Midbar.
Nadeshiko slammed her cup down. Her eyes hurt, and frustrated, angry tears threatened to fall. Instinctively, she switched off her tear ducts until the feeling passed. She couldn't really blame the city. They could easily have filled every hospital bed with refugees, at the cost of leaving nothing for their own citizens; they chose, instead, to admit all the refugees under the age of twenty, and supplied food to the remainder. It was more than a lot of other places did.
No, she had only herself to blame for losing three more patients. Death had beaten her again. Next time, she'd fight harder.
Time to work. Closing her eyes, she concentrated, dissolving the fatigue toxins in her system, slowing the absorption rate of the caffeine and enhancing its effects, so that one cup of coffee would keep her up for several hours without making her hyper. The slight shaking in her hands subsided as she forced her biochemistry to accede to her will.
Feeling fully refreshed, albeit frustrated and a little slow, she stepped out into the bright desert sun and got to work.
Seth made the last finishing touches to his ad and sat back. "What do you think?" he asked.
"It's fine," said Izzy. "Just like the last three versions."
"I want it to be better than fine! I've got a good feeling about this find. Somebody out there's going to pay through the nose for this thing." Seth looked down at his ad.
"Salvage for sale," it read. "Sealed, armored container recovered from wreck of tramp freighter Ahura off Bethel. 1.4 tonnes, 18m x 8m x 2m. No identifying markings, content listing, or danger warnings. Sold as is, unopened. C25,000 OBO."
His asking price was five times the worth of the container empty. Unfortunately, not even he and Izzy together had been able to crack its lock codes, and its armor was too heavy to be pierced by anything less than the Isolde's bow cannon, which ran too much risk of damaging the contents. All they knew about its contents was that they weighed about half a tonne, based on their best estimate of the weight of the container, so Seth pretty much had to guess how much they'd have to be worth to warrant that level of protection.
"Okay," he said finally. "As soon as we land, get us some time on the spaceport's EPR and upload that to, uh," he ticked off markets on his fingers, "let's say the local market, Ur, the Federation, and Artaxerxes. Oh, and Scientia and the Church, of course."
"Gotcha, boss," said Izzy. Something about the way she said it made Seth feel she wanted to say more. "You ever think about how great it must have been in the old days, boss? Back when you could just upload this sort of thing to the UMN when you felt like it, with color and video, and talk to buyers in realtime?"
"Yes, in the wonderful golden age of our wise and benevolent ancestors," Seth answered sarcastically. "I don't know where you pick up these things. You know I don't believe in that stuff."
"You're a salvager, boss. You of all people know how much technology we lost in the Dark Ages. You really think we've gotten it all back?"
"I think legend has exaggerated what the ancients could do. If there really had once been a giant super-fast network spanning the whole cluster, don't you think Scientia would be at least working on recreating it now? Next you're going to tell me you believe there really was a Saoshi who magically visited a thousand planets a hundred and fifty years before IS Gates."
"Ah, boss, you don't have to make fun of me." There was a clear pout in Izzy's voice. "Anyway, we've got clearance to land. We hit atmosphere in five minutes."
"Gotcha," said Seth. "Let the guys know. I'll meet them at the bridge."
"Well, hell," said Wally. "Now what do we do?"
"First priority is to get out of here," said Sardula. "Judging by those cages, there's at least four more Divs in the building, and more to the point there'll be soldiers coming to pacify them as soon as they're confident everyone in the building is dead. After that, we watch their communications and try to figure out if the Original is still here, or if they've moved it offplanet."
"How exactly do you plan on getting out?" asked Wally.
Sardula pointed to the far end of the room, where an open shaft led up. "That must be how they got the objective out without anyone noticing; it's probably for bringing equipment and personnel in and out of the lab without having to pass through lower-security areas. The other end is no doubt concealed somewhere in the hills behind the facility."
"Sure," said Wally, "and it's probably covered by a squad of AMWS and a couple of missile batteries, too. They obviously aren't kidding around about securing the Original."
"At least one squad," Sardula agreed.
"So, what, you want to just crawl up the shaft and ask them politely to let us go through?"
"As much fun as that might be, I have a better plan." Sardula looked up the shaft. "Yes, the other end must be about six hundred meters south-by-southwest of the facility."
"That's really great to know," said Wally. "I don't suppose you've been transmitting all this to a small army of friends who are now going to fight their way down the shaft and pick us up, have you?"
"Not exactly," Sardula answered. For the first time, she gave a small, secretive smile. If Wally hadn't just seen her go toe-to-toe with two Divs and win, he'd have said it made her look pixie-ish. "Ah, it should just about be here."
"What?" asked Wally. "I don't see anything."
"Exactly," said Sardula, as a small black AMWS materialized at the bottom of the shaft, hovering in near-total silence.
"Oh, wow," said Wally. "Is that a Fuyutsuki & Ogilvy Stealth AMWS? I've heard of them, but this has a different profile. Is it a new model? I thought F&O cancelled the ZX series!"
"As far as anyone else is concerned, they did." The cockpit opened, and Sardula climbed nimbly up into the pilot's chair. "Coming?"
"Right, right!" said Wally, scrambling up into the copilot's seat, underneath the pilot's and slightly farther forward. The cockpit closed around them, and Wally felt the brief, quivering disorientation of an artificial gravity system kicking in. Then they were off, rocketing up the shaft at dizzying speed.
"Wait!" shouted Wally. "Shouldn't you turn the stealth back on? We'll be seen!"
"That's the plan," replied Sardula. "Hang on!"
Wally craned his neck, trying to look up the shaft to see what guards were waiting for them. As a result, he didn't notice something small and red and shining drop from the AMWS. Then the first missiles came spiraling down the shaft, and he couldn't bear to look any longer.
"So, how long are we stopping, Captain?" asked Vix. She shaded her eyes as she studied the town on the other side of the spaceport. She had to admit, from here it looked pretty -- long, low buildings of white stone, mostly, their domes shining in the desert sun.
"Couple of days at least," Seth answered. He'd discarded his jacket, and looked even younger than he was in his red t-shirt and black jeans. "Gotta give buyers time to notice us. I want our next stop to be delivering that box to its owner."
"Ahh," sighed Wehj, stretching as he stepped out onto the ramp. "Feel that sunlight!"
"All right," said Seth, "I'm going to make our delivery. You two try not to get into too much trouble, all right? I'm not covering bail this time, Vix."
"Hey, that guy had it coming! Just out of the blue, stops me on the street and starts yelling about something, tells me there's gonna be a reckoning? He's lucky I just decked 'im!"
"He was a street preacher!" Wehj protested.
"Whatever," said Vix. "I'm going to go find out what the locals drink. You coming?"
"Yeah, okay," said Wehj. "But you're paying for your own drinks this time!"
Seth shook his head as the two walked off across the landing pad, actually nothing more than a ring of lights on a flat stretch of packed-down red sand. "Any luck finding us a hopper, Izzy?" he asked.
"Sorry, boss," she answered through his earpiece. "Looks like it's going to have to be a truck. Hoppers are pricy around here."
"Ah, hell, I hate riding things with wheels. How expensive are we talking?"
"You want to eat this week?"
"Ow." Seth grimaced. "Fine, make it a truck. Where do I pick it up?"
Seth accepted the directions from Izzy, then went to get the truck, a battered old thing that didn't even have autopilot. "At least it's not internal combustion," he muttered to himself as he drove it back to the Isolde. "I guess I should be grateful for that."
Fifteen minutes later, he was bouncing and jolting his way across a badly-maintained desert road, practically crawling at 175 kph. The climate control was broken and the windows didn't open, so he was pouring sweat, envying the medicines in their nice, heavy refrigeration units, and hating the universe. "Next time, I'm sending Vix." A particularly skull-rattling bump spawned a stream of curses, giving Seth time to reconsider. "No, she'd murder me when she got back. I'll send Wehj."
A distance marker shot past. Forty kilometers still to go. "I hate planets," said Seth. "I don't know why anybody stays on them."