a Central Corps short
This scene takes place a few weeks before the opening of BREACH OF CONTAINMENT.
The wind tore at Elena’s hair, lashing her face with rain and sea spray. Three hundred meters above the ocean’s roiling surface: still too high. She might survive the drop, but she would go too deep, and the stormy waters could too easily disorient her. Worse, she might hit the lifeboat itself, and upend the seven people clinging to each other in a craft made for four. Despite hating the water Elena was a decent enough swimmer, but she was not confident of her ability to fish seven frightened refugees out of a freezing, poisoned ocean.
“Lower, Arin!” she commed.
His voice in her ear was barely audible above the noise of the wind and the surf. ”Elena, we’ve got waves coming in! I can’t—”
“Fuck ‘can’t’!” Damn. Waves coming in might take the shuttle down, and then she’d be fishing Arin out of the water as well, never mind Budapest’s second-largest cargo transport. ”Fifty meters,” she compromised. She would make it work.
She heard Arin curse in a language she didn’t know, and felt herself drop abruptly before the cable she was attached to snapped taut again. She blinked into the rain; she was closer, the clump of sodden sailors staring up at her through the storm. She couldn’t read their expressions. It was possible they thought she was out of her mind.
She released the cable and dove.
Her hoodless environmental suit warmed automatically when she hit the water, but the cold on her face and scalp was stinging and numbing all at once. She pivoted and surfaced as quickly as she could, and immediately a wave washed over her head and into her mouth. She choked and spat, gasping for air; she couldn’t risk incapacitation in this climate. Shoving her blue-streaked dark hair out of her eyes she spun around, searching for the lifeboat; it was not until a wave lifted her that she spotted it, ten meters away, tossing and pitching in the chaos. The occupants were wrapped around each other, their faces turned inward against the driving rain. They were not looking for her at all, and she wondered if they had lost hope already.
Fighting the currents, she kicked toward them, the cable containing the safety netting still secured to her waist. Easy enough, in concept: get the netting underneath them, expand it, lock the cable, and Arin would be able to lift the boat high enough to carry them into the landing bay on Budapest, waiting for them in the upper atmosphere. A three-minute operation at the worst.
Another wave crashed over her head, and she found herself underwater again. Taking advantage of the relative calm, she pushed toward the shadow of the lifeboat, and when she surfaced again she was close enough to grab the side. Immediately she felt hands on her arm, desperate clawing; she was not sure if they were trying to pull her in, or just trying to keep her close.
“Listen!” She did her best to meet every set of eyes, but rain made their faces indistinct. “Once the netting is around you, just hang on. We’ve got a rescue ship five hundred meters up.”
“What about the others?”
Elena looked up at the woman who’d spoken: dark, anxious eyes, a deep frown that aged her. Terror, and she was still asking about the others.
“We’re getting out everyone we find,” she shouted back, trying to sound confident. “You’ll see them on the transport.”
“What about you?”
Bless you, dear, Elena thought, but could you shut up so we can do this? “I’ll come after. Just keep your hands inside and hold on!”
Using her free hand, Elena pulled the cable out of the water to check the readings. The visuals, so clear in the artificial light of the shuttle, were nearly impossible to make out down here. She swiped at the readings half-heartedly, then commed back to Arin. “What have you got on the cable?”
“You’re reading green,” he told her. “Lanie—waves, remember? Step on it.”
Bossy kid, she thought, and grinned. “Just wait for the thing to catch, okay? I’m going in.”
She maneuvered the cable until her hand closed over the trigger, then let go of the raft. With a single deep breath, she ducked under the water.
She kicked against the current, the meager light from her suit doing more to illuminate the sediment in the water than give her any kind of visibility. After a moment she shut off the light and looked up, keeping her eyes on the lifeboat’s faint silhouette. Even under the surface, the water was too turbulent for her to properly feel the planet’s gravity. It was, she thought briefly, the antithesis of her zero-grav training, but the solution was the same: rely on your eyes, not kinesthetics. She aimed for the dim light on the other side of the shadow, and swam as hard as she could.
She surfaced and hauled the cable up, hitting the trigger to unfurl the net under the boat. With one quick twist her end of the cable became rigid, and she fired it up to attach itself to the segment dropping down from the shuttle. She saw an orange flash as it was locking, and then it went green.
“Go!” she commed to Arin, but he was already lifting. As the boat came free of the viscous water, she swam underneath, snaking one arm through the netting. She felt her own bulk weigh her down as she was lifted out of the water with them.
As they swung in the air on their way back to the freighter, Elena’s suit shorted out completely. Intended only for lightweight atmospheric use, it had not been designed for submersion; even its meager water resistance was an afterthought. Immediately the soaked fabric began to freeze, and she curled her legs toward her body for warmth. Her face was completely numb now, and she was feeling the wind seep into her bones. Dammit, they hadn’t had the right equipment for this rescue. She would have to have a word with Bear about being better prepared.
By the time they reached Budapest, she couldn’t feel her arms anymore. Arin flew them into the massive main cargo bay, and she looked down: Naina was there, waving up at her, gesturing for her to drop. Elena was briefly puzzled—Naina was their accountant; what was she doing wandering through the cargo bay during a rescue mission?—but she realized, given the volume of refugees, they would need everyone helping out. This wasn’t a starship, where they’d have a full staff prepared for this kind of thing. Budapest was a short-range freighter; she didn’t even have an infirmary.
She nodded to Nai, waited a moment until Arin got her closer to the deck, and then let go.
Her frozen arms did not cooperate. She got hung up in the netting for several seconds, and by the time she shook her limbs loose, she was past the drop point. She tried to land on her feet and roll, but she hit squarely on her right hip, and through her numbness the sharp pain woke her up. She rolled up onto her knees, clenching her teeth, waiting for the circulation to come back into her arms. After all this, she couldn’t become one more thing for the crew to worry about.
The sensation of pins and needles in her legs eased, and she climbed to her feet, putting careful weight on her right leg. She took a hesitant step, and decided the hip was no worse than bruised. She would worry about it tomorrow, when the airlift was done and they had offloaded the refugees to one of the Corps starships heading their way.
She crossed the bay floor toward Arin, who had climbed out of the cargo shuttle and was helping the refugees out of their lifeboat. They were all a combination of shaky and crying, and Chiedza and Yuri, temporary medics, wrapped them in blankets and spirited them away. Elena waited until they were out of sight and walked up to Arin. When he saw her, his face opened into a grin.
“That,” he said to her, “was amazing.”
She laughed. “That was a nice bit of flying you did.”
“It was easy,” he said. “Like you said, it was just a little storm.”
Before she could answer him, her comm chimed: Bear. She felt a twist of apprehension; surely the freighter’s captain was too busy to talk to her right now, unless something had happened. “Sir?” she said as she connected.
“I need to see you in my office, Shaw.”
“I—of course, sir.” She had to ask. “Is there something wrong?”
“Hell, yes, there’s something wrong,” he snapped. “Get your ass down here right now, or I will drop you back in that soup and leave without you.”
Arin was watching her, looking anxious. For his benefit, she shrugged and rolled her eyes, and he relaxed. “On my way, sir,” she said, and disconnected. “He’s going to yell at me for not linking the cable when I dropped,” she told him. And then, hesitantly, she reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “That was good work today, Arin. You saved their lives.” And she left him looking proud of himself, and vaguely embarrassed.
“What in the hell did you think you were doing?”
Elena stood at attention across from Bear’s desk, staring straight ahead, mind working furiously. He was angry, and she still wasn’t sure why.
“Sir,” she began, “it was an ordinary airlift. We—”
“Ordinary my ass!” He came around his desk. Bear lived up to his epithet, a tall, broad man of more than sixty, everything about him twice as large as it was on everyone else. She had met him when she was fifteen, introduced by her uncle Mike, who occasionally did shipping runs with Bear. The freighter captain had treated her like a professional, like an adult, and she had been swoonily infatuated with him for months. He had never intimidated her, despite his size; but she was remembering that disappointing him was a deeply unpleasant experience.
“We are not on airlift here, Shaw,” he snapped in her face. “We are on assist. Do you know what that means?”
Wait—was he saying she had done too much? “Sir, was I supposed to let them drown?”
Astonishment took over his expression for a moment before he fell back to anger. “There was a rescue ship not three minutes behind you!”
“There were incoming waves, sir, and we—”
“Those waves were five minutes out.”
“How was I supposed to know that, sir?”
“You—“ He was briefly speechless. “If you had commed with the raft’s location instead of diving into the fucking ocean I would have told you! Those people were stable, Shaw, and you had no business risking our shuttle—not to mention Arin’s life, for fuck’s sake—because you can’t get past the need to be a goddamned hero!”
That was unfair. “Arin was never at risk. He’s a hell of a pilot, sir, and if you—“
“I know exactly what kind of a pilot that boy is! And can you stow the fucking ‘sir’? This is not the fucking Corps, Shaw, which you are constantly forgetting!”
She fell silent, and met his eyes. Bear’s eyes, heavy-lidded and shrewd, rarely expressed much deep emotion; but she thought she could see worry there as well. And maybe, she had to admit, some frustration that he wasn’t getting his point across.
“Lanie,” he said, more quietly, “Arin is nineteen years old. He idolizes you. He would follow you straight to hell if you asked him.”
“He’s an adult,” she insisted, “and he knows what he’s doing. He held that bird steady out there, Bear, even with the weather. He—“
“Do not tell me he knows what he’s doing,” he said, and his voice had gone low and icy. “He’s not a trained soldier, Elena, no matter how many laps you have him do around the storage bay. He’ll blindly do anything you want him to. Worse, he’ll do anything he thinks you want him to, and if you are not more careful with your choices, you’re going to drag him into something he can’t handle.”
“I would never do that.” But she was beginning to see what he was saying.
“Maybe not. But what happens on the next assist, when you’re stuck in the engine room keeping my drive from spinning up in the fucking atmosphere, and he decides to snag a shuttle without asking and go save some people, just like last time? I mean, hell, what does it take? Just a net cable and a little swim. You have any sense of how easily you could have drowned down there?”
“I didn’t drown.”
Bear closed his eyes. “Lanie, I’m going to be blunt with you. You need to stop this. I know where you came from. And I have a sense, I think, of how hard it is for you to be here. But it’s not just you. You are part of a team, and they do not have your training, and they do not have your background. If you can’t care about yourself, please, I am begging you, care about them.”
“I’d never hurt them,” she told him. “I promise you, Bear.”
“I know you wouldn’t, honey. I’d kind of like it if you didn’t hurt yourself, either, okay?”
Suddenly unable to speak, she nodded.
His eyes searched hers for a moment, and then he stepped back, looking resigned. “Get back to your quarters and get some rest,” he told her. “I’m gonna need you fresh tomorrow when we start out for Yakutsk. Get Chiedza to give you something for that hip, too. It may feel okay now, but it’ll smart like hell in the morning.”