Ha! One more post! I'd forgotten to do my usual snippet in all this Pixel-Stained Confusion!
When we last left Joe Buckley, God had done a John Henry on him...
Blackness slowly lightened to dim gray shot through with red pain. For a few moments he didn’t even attempt to open his eyes, didn’t even know who it was that would be doing the opening.
Joe. I’m Joe Buckley.
Joe tried to take a breath, felt knives in his chest and barely restrained a cough. The air was heavy, and cold. He tried to open his eyes, but they wouldn’t open at first. Working his face, squinting and frowning and moving all the muscles, he felt something rough and sticky slowly giving. Finally, reluctantly, the eyelids came open, first the left and then the right.
Stars. Stars and dark roughness. Another squint, and he realized the roughness was rock. A lot of rock. What the hell happened? He could remember working on the power line for their lab, that was it. Then boom, nothing.
There were actual scratches across his visor, now that his vision was clearing. Something had hit him hard. Not that his body wasn’t already informing him of that. He managed to move enough to get the self-diagnostics running. The suit was a mess, low on power, low on air, and some systems just plain not running. He wasn’t in great shape either. Broken ribs, possible minor internal injuries, concussion…
The comm unit was still active, at least partly. The antenna had been torn away. Where the hell am I? "Hello? Anyone there?"
Something suddenly moved in the circle of sky above him, a huge boxy shape of girders, cubes, and angles blazing with sunlight on one side, gliding with slow majesty across and, it seemed, downward. That was ridiculous, though. Nobel would have no business down that low, not even on a search-and-rescue for him. He closed his eyes, shaking his head to clear it even though that hurt. When he peeked again, there was no sign of the ship. No one answered his call. He tried to get the suit to boost the power and tried again.
"Hello, anyone there, this is …" He almost coughed again. "Joe. Joe Buckley."
Faint but sharp in his ears was the abrupt reply. "Joe? Joe! Thank God!"
"Dunno about thanking him, I think he did this to me."
"Bloke’s right, act of God and all that." Bruce sounded distracted, though happy. "Glad to hear your voice, mate. Getting on a little eleventh-hour for you, if you know what I mean."
"What happened, anyway?"
"One hell of a lot," Maddie answered, unable to quite keep a teary-sounding edge from her voice. "For you, what happened was that a meteor smashed the reactor control area and blew you … somewhere. We think we know the general location now, thanks to Jackie. Can you tell us anything to help narrow it down? Where are you?"
"Meteor? Now I’m getting hit by meteors? What, crashing in spaceships isn’t good enough? Jesus!" Another breath did cause coughing, which definitely wasn’t good. Once he could finally breathe again, he answered the question. "I’m in a hole. Pretty deep, I’m down at least fifty meters, I’d guess."
"That’d explain the diminished signal. And I’ll bet there are side passages giving us multipath." That was A.J.’s voice.
"Still, now we know to look only in holes. Can you see the sky from where you are?"
"Yeah, I’m lying on my back looking just about straight up. Can’t figure the constellations, though." He hesitated. "Um, the air’s getting awfully thick."
There was silence for a moment. "How much air do you have left, Joe?"
"The recycler was kinda damaged, according to the readouts. I guess I have ten, twelve minutes before the stuff gets really unbreathable." When there was no response, he sighed. "Guess you don’t have that good an idea where I am, huh?"
"No," Madeline said quietly. "No, Joe, I’m afraid we don’t. But we might get lucky."
"I’ll be prayin’," Bruce’s voice said, seriously. "But I’ll have to cut off, gents, because this last part is going to be very, very tricky."
"We understand, Bruce," A.J. said flatly.
Joe bit his lip. Ten minutes, and— "Wait a minute. Last part of what?"
"Of landing Nobel," Madeline answered. "We can’t get the reactor back online right away and we need power very soon."
"Maddie, look, I saw Nobel pass right over me. About … call it three to five seconds before you answered me."
"Bruce! Jackie! Did you hear that?"
"I’m on it," Jackie said. "Hold on… Got it! Depending on exact angles and times, that gives us… this area."
"I see it." A.J.’s voice was energetic once more. "Concentrating all Locusts in the vicinity. Ignore any radio outside of that area. Maddie?"
"Combining with the maps… there. It’s one of those three."
The faceplate was slightly fogged now, and the air was sharp. He had to fight to prevent himself from gasping. Talking wouldn’t be a good idea.
"Joe, hold on. We’re…"
The radio went dead at that moment, and all that remained was the very dim lighting of the controls inside the helmet and the stars, smearing into a mist of fog. And the pain, and breathing thickness… and despite all efforts, the world going even darker…
He was falling into pain, redness, cold, more pain… sharper pain, as though he was struck, but his chest still ached. But the ache was fading, fading like everything… almost gone, into warmer gray nothing…
Suddenly light blazed through closed eyelids and there was a hissing sound… Pain screamed back into existence with consciousness, but he forced his eyes open, looking through a clearing faceplate into the airlock of Feynman and the tear-streaked face of the most beautiful woman in the Solar System. "Joe?" she said, voice almost breaking.
He managed a grin. "Hey, it’s like I always say. Seeing you is like a breath of fresh air."
Richard Fitzgerald entered Hohenheim's office. "You sent for me, Gener—"
With barely a shift of expression, Hohenheim grabbed Fitzgerald and slammed him against the wall, forcing a grunt of surprised pain from the Irish mercenary. "You complete fool. Do you realize what you have just done?"
Fitzgerald was too startled to reply immediately. He had not expected this violent a reaction, at least not once the operation was over. The general's vehemence had caught him unawares. So did his strength. Hohenheim was tall and broad, but much of that could have been the uniform. Richard realized now that he’d misgauged the man.
His immediate impulse was to disengage and counterattack, but that would be very foolish. Careful, Richard old boy. Just the overenthusiastic employee. "General, please, calm down. We're getting underway now and they haven't accused us of anything we didn't expect. It's all working out, so what's to be so angry about?"
The general slowly let him down, his fury seeming to ebb away a bit. "They have accused us of nothing yet, Mr. Fitzgerald. But you could have easily committed murder. Are you so callous and reckless you don’t understand that? Furthermore, if they realize—"
"If they suspected us they'd have said something right away, sir. Fathom isn't the sort to hold back. I tell you, the only chance they had to realize what was really happening was when it happened, unless someone spills the beans to them about our other capabilities, and that's not possible. Even Modofori wasn't in on that little part of the operation."
"He can cast suspicion on you, can he not?"
Fitzgerald shrugged. "I suppose he could try to say I sent them to do it, but he hasn't got a shred of evidence, and the others got slightly different conversations. They'll never match up. Oh, Fathom knows I sent them, and I think she's probably already guessed why. But with Nobel stuck on Ceres they've got no chance of stopping us—and there's nothing in the system to catch us once we have a day or so running time, am I right?"
"True enough." The general turned away. "Mr. Fitzgerald..."
"I thought I made it clear that I did not want them attacked. I consider this to have been an attack, however one may be able to argue otherwise. You did not—quite—disobey my direct orders, in letter, but in spirit I feel you have. In the future, I want you to understand that I will not look kindly on that kind of latitude. I will expect you to obey both the letter and the spirit of my orders, or I will have you relieved of duty, arrested, and sent back to Earth." Hohenheim's deep voice was as hard as iron. "And had Mr. Buckley died, Mr. Fitzgerald, I would have stopped this vessel, turned you over to them, and testified against you, no matter what that might have done to my career. Do I make myself clear, Mr. Fitzgerald?"
"Crystal clear, sir."
Richard paused once he had gotten some distance from the general's office. The back of his head throbbed where it had hit the wall. He’d also underestimated the general’s ethical hang-ups, he now realized. That could be a problem, in the future.
But there wasn't much point worrying about that now. Unless another emergency came along, there wouldn't be any reason to get into a pissing match with the general. Now, if all went as planned, it was going to be a matter of long routine and long-distance travel. Without Fathom or the others to bother them, he wouldn't need to worry.
Even the Captain doesn't seem to appreciate the breadth of Our Hero's talents or his devotion to the mission.