This is the sixth installment of my SOS story. Unless you've read the previous parts, I suggest you start at part 1.
While Val organizes a rescue operation from aboard the Tin Locust, Sam has returned inside the wreck of the Scintillating to help Flora — with mixed results so far.
I ran back into the airlock and pulled the manual lever on the corridor-facing door — now it went smoothly, that jerk — to keep the door open. Then I punched the emergency vent mushroom button. I had just enough time to jump back into the room, grab Flora, and hold on to the closest handrail I could find before the cyclone came down on us.
I clung on as we got tossed around for about twenty seconds and then the inside door closed to cut the air loss. As the room pressure rose back to normal, I ran to check the gauge on the door. Zero atmo on the other side. Door control flashing red. The airlock was closed for good, that is, until someone on the outside turned the pressure back on for the whole exterior hallway.
And that wasn’t going to happen any time soon as there was no one on the other side — in fact, there probably wasn’t any other side any more. Chances were our friendly Proteus was very happy with dropping the whole exterior simulation in order to save on its precious computing power.
I sent a prayer to all the gods that I knew — probably about time, all things considered — and turned to check on Flora.
It had worked! She wasn’t bleeding anymore!
Val had said something about the shock that had caused the bleeding, but since it was the damn door that had caused the shock, I’d figured that by sealing it shut for good, I’d remove the conflict. No more conflict, no more trauma, no more hemorrhage…
Okay, I’d basically hoped it would work because we were in a simulation, and Proteus would not distinguish different sorts of causes and effects. Guess there are some advantages to being digital — even if I didn’t want to remain in this state for longer than necessary.
Flora's eyes opened.
How do you go about smiling, again? Right.
“Hey Flora. It’s Sam. Remember me?”
“Yes… How come you're here?”
“Didn’t I say I’d find you eventually?”
“What happened? I think I got hit by something…”
“Yeah, well, this f...lying comp—control, airlock control, wasn’t responding so I had to force my way in and I didn’t know you were right behind the door, so… Well, I hope you don’t mind a little company because I did damage the control, and I think you and I are going to be stuck in here for some time.”
Some time during which I would have to hold my tongue with both hands to make sure I didn’t let on our actual situation. We were both digital projections of our minds. Flora had to remain ignorant for a while. I had to remain aware for the both of us.
All I was hoping for, now, was that in some of the virtual rations Proteus had conjured up for us, I’d find some aspirin.
And that it would have any sort of effect on my growing headache.
“Right. Mind if I use your coms console to call my shipmate?”
“This is Valerie, acting pilot of the Tin Locust, hailing the wreck of the Scintillating, over.”
“This is Samuel Foster, acting commander of the wreck of the Scintillating. How’s it flying, Val? I don’t like it much that I’m leaving you alone at the helm.”
“Somebody needs to go get help. Plus, despite the damage, at least on the Scintillating you’ve got access to better supplies than you'd have on the Locust. How’s Flora?”
“I guess ‘terrific’ would be a bit of a stretch, but she’s alright. She’s got a bump, but that’s all.”
“Glad to hear it. I’m going to cut communications now. Stay safe. Over and out.”
I felt horribly uneasy. It was one of the weirdest feelings I’d ever had. Like all I’d hear for the rest of my life would be my own voice spouting nonsense I’d never even actually said.
It took me a moment to realize Val was speaking to me.
“I’m sorry, Val, I was zoning out. Say that again?”
“I was just saying everything seems okay now. The Scintillating's safe on its new orbit, and your copy is now fully integrated into Flora’s environment. From her perspective, you’re in the same room she's in.”
I mulled over that thought as I was attempting to dislodge an identification tag from an angular statue that had once been one of the Scintillating’s engineers — you can’t have an FTL engine blow up in your face without getting a few scars.
“I still can’t believe that’s actually me in there. I mean, I’m here, in the engine room, and there’s no one here with me. Can’t wrap my head around it.”
“If it's any solace, that Sam doesn’t enjoy it any more than you do. He knows he’s a digital projection, and he knows his objective is to make sure another digital projection doesn’t lose her mind.”
“Well I sure hope he doesn’t go nuts himself, seeing as we’re supposed to reintegrate our minds after all this, like you said. I wouldn’t want to merge back a looney.”
Under my fingers, I felt something crack. “All right, here comes the ID tag. Log it? Lescryn, mechanic, second-class. Crystallization. That’s the last one.”
“Copy that, Sam. On your way back, unhook the fuel ducts, we’re at full charge for electrical and propulsion. And if you can, bring back some rations. We can stock up another dozen or so. Then we'll cast off right after the periastron.”
I returned exhausted. I’d spent over fifteen hours cataloguing two hundred and seventeen bodies, and that didn't include those still floating about around the Scintillating.
The first thing I saw in the empty cabin inside the Locust was the dashboard, and on its screen, Val’s face. I stowed my pressurized suit in heavy silence. Val had nothing to say; I had a lot, but no idea where to even begin.
“So, er, Val…”
“I wanted to… I just want to say I’m sorry. I think I said some hurtful stuff.”
“I won’t tell you I’ve let it go : I can’t forget anything. Let’s just say it’s behind us.”
I climbed back into the pilot’s chair.
“Um, Val, tell me...”
“If you can put a mind inside a computer…”
“A Shabasch computer.”
“Right, a Shabasch computer, and if you can also take that mind out to put it in a body… Could that be done for you?”
“And, I mean, have you ever thought about it?”
Val looked at me a long time, half-serious, half-smiling.
“I sometimes do. We’re starting the run-up for the hypervelocity jump in one minute. You'd better buckle in, unless you intend to end up spread over the cabin walls.”