March 1, 2023
The airlock seal thudded home barely a meter above Amelie’s head. The echo shot pain through her ears. She cradled her aching temples in gloved hands and scrunched up her face, free at last from Tech Sergeant Pravin’s sharply observant glare. She had barely made it into formation before the third watch bell had sounded—she had looked like death warmed over in the brief glimpse that was all she’d dared to take of her face before sprinting out of the section dormitory to Auxiliary Engineering. She wouldn’t have been surprised if Pravin had made a note of it before he handed out the watch assignments.
And then probably changed hers, mid-stream—where is the worst place I can put a specialist with a terminal hangover? Amelie imagined his evil grin—that won’t endanger the ship no matter how messed up she is on watch. That thought was less palatable; Amelie was aware that showing up on duty in a less-than-stellar physical and mental state was not the way to leave the best of impressions on her superiors.
And it wasn’t true anyway—she absolutely could endanger the ship from here. The Auxiliary Engineering maintenance tube ran along the ship’s belly, all the way from stem to stern, giving it not just virtual but also direct physical access to all critical ship’s systems. Other than the Main Engineering bay itself, Amelie couldn’t think of any place where someone could potentially do more damage to the ship. Though that damage would have to be intentional; mere incompetence could be foiled easily enough by the maintenance tube’s own fail-safes. But—message received, Amelie thought dismally. Though she supposed she deserved it, especially right before inversion point…
Two years aboard as the ship sailed blindly through irrational space, the mathematical fantasy that allowed ships to sidestep the relentless weight of light years separating Earth’s solar system from all the colonies, some so distant Amelie had never even seen their stars from her own night sky.
Never so much as a toe off the ship…
She could handle it—all her psych evaluations said so. Command would never risk one of their unimaginably expensive interstellar ships in the hands of someone with tendencies that might trigger some deadly chain of events in the lightless, soundless depths of irrational space. She could handle it. She could.
But the captain’s address over ship’s comm the night before told them that they’d nearly reached inversion point. And that was when Amelie had started downing not just that week’s, but next week’s alcohol rations too, mindlessly, one after the other. For all she knew, she’d drunk all next month’s to boot, and who knew what else—she certainly couldn’t remember…
And now here she was, Amelie’s wristcom beeped irritably at her. She’d stood on the tube ladder motionless for far too long, a good ten minutes at least. Doing absolutely nothing of any worth to anyone—making an even worse fool of herself than she had at the start of watch, if that were possible. She started to shake her head to clear her thoughts, then regretted it when it detonated a chain reaction of throbbing through her aching skull. She kept her head still with an effort, acknowledged the wristcom alert, and called up her task list. It shimmered to life above her wristcom, shining emerald lines in the gloom of the maintenance tube, reflecting off the curved gray walls.
Amelie gave up scrolling through the task list at Item 43: Ensure all tube cabling apertures are free of dust and debris. Clearly this was a list that was never meant to be completed, only to keep the assigned specialist busy right up until the end of watch. She double-checked her safety harness, sturdy black webbing secured tightly around her middle and under her rear, its integrated hook and tether built into the airlock just overhead, then sighed and called up Item 1: Check all status alerts from Auxiliary Maintenance Tube Stations Alpha through November. Station Alpha’s screen was barely a meter from her face, and peering down into the darkness below her boots, she could just make out the shelf projecting from the tube’s side that was, more than likely, Station Bravo, and then another below that. She heaved a sigh and tapped Station Alpha’s screen; it flared to life, wrenching a pained squint out of her, and informed her that All Alpha maintenance interlocks are in Status: Ready or Status: Inactive. Proceed?
The maintenance tube’s diameter was broader than her outstretched arms on both sides by a good two meters, and the noise of the ship wasn’t much more than a subliminal hum behind its thick walls. Only the faint glow of the station screens, and the occasional running light of some piece of equipment she didn’t yet know the meaning of, broke the tube’s soothing darkness. The air, whispering past her face under the pressure of the ship’s ventilation system, smelled cool and dry with a hint of machine oil, soothing in its familiarity. By the time she reached Station November, the throbbing in her temples had receded to a barely perceptible ache.
Station November’s screen blared violent red just under her outstretched fingers; Amelie recoiled, choking off a shriek, and her boot slipped off the rung below her and kicked the wall beside it, knocking her completely off the ladder. She flailed madly—at nothing, there was nothing to grab onto!—she spun out from the wall, her safety harness tether snapping taut, then slammed back into the tube wall beside the ladder hard enough to knock the breath out of her lungs. She scrabbled for the ladder’s sides, found them and clutched them with her gloved hands, heaving for air. Black spots danced in front of her eyes.
Sound erupted from Station November’s crimson screen; Amelie forced her shocked brain to listen. “—EMERGENCY, all hands, ALL SHIP EMERGENCY! ALL—”
And then it stopped. The crimson screen dissolved back into the soft gray glow of its standby mode; the last echoes of the roaring machine-voice of the ship’s central computer faded into the humming, hissing silence of the tube itself. Amelie gaped at the screen, still shaking from the adrenaline. Her hands, sodden with sweat inside their gloves, clutched the ladder’s sides. For one crazy second she wondered if she had hallucinated the whole thing.
A flicker of movement caught her eye. Her wristcom was blinking up at her—just the standard message light, a small yellow glint—she pried her hand off the ladder and tapped the screen against her chin. MESSAGE, read the small display. NO HOLO AVAILABLE. Which was odd—“Er,” said Amelie, then swallowed hard against her dry throat. “Hello?”
“Who is this?” The voice snapping out from the wristcom’s tiny speaker was sharp and unfamiliar. “Who is this, you’d better answer!”
Amelie obediently opened her mouth, then shut it tight as a trap. And maybe she was being stupid, but regs were regs, and they’d been hammered into her head over and over—“The seething seas ceaseth,” she whispered instead, hoarsely.
“What—” The voice cut off, mid-word; Amelie’s stomach twisted into miserable knots.
But then a new voice spoke. “And the seething sea sufficeth us.” This voice was older, masculine—vaguely familiar; she thought she ought to know it…
“Acknowledged,” Amelie whispered. Please tell me this is a security drill, and I just passed it.
“Well done… specialist,” said the almost familiar voice, after a brief hesitation. “Is this a specialist?”
“Yes,” said Amelie faintly. “Specialist E-2 Amelie Larue. Auxiliary Engineering section, third watch.”
“Where are you, Larue?”
“In the Auxiliary Engineering maintenance tube.”
“What?” That was the edged feminine voice from before. “What’s she doing in there? We ran a full inspection less than three weeks ago, it’s not due for another check til—”
“That really doesn’t matter now, Johanssen,” cut in the man’s voice, the voice Amelie was now sure she ought to know—certainly she knew the name he’d dropped. Though Lieutenant Commander Johanssen, Chief Engineer, had never deigned to personally address anyone in Auxiliary Engineering’s third watch section before now—“Larue, I need you to stay calm, because we’ve got a problem,” and finally the lagging synapses in her brain closed and of course she knew that voice.
“Yes, sir,” Amelie got out. “Captain Herne, sir. What problem, sir?”
“You’re probably not aware of this, but besides the usual passenger complement, we agreed to take on a special set of passengers—political prisoners and their families, very high-ranking political prisoners. There wasn’t universal agreement about that disposition, and it’s safe to say they certainly didn’t agree with it—” It was so strange, to hear that voice that delivered the shipwide announcements with such cool equanimity, sound so sardonic, so human now. “—They had no interest in leaving Earth’s solar system. And now they’ve sabotaged the ship.”
“But,” broke in Amelie, forgetting all her military courtesy, “how… what…”
“Oh, they had to have had help doing it, from both outside and inside the ship. If any of us survive this mess, the investigation will be ugly.” He exhaled, loudly enough that the wristcom speaker picked it up. “But what they clearly didn’t have was a full picture of shipboard life. They didn’t know, for example, that the captain’s and chief engineer’s quarters are on a different ventilation system than the rest of the ship—and so are the ship’s maintenance tubes. Right now, the only people still conscious aboard ship besides those prisoners are me, Lieutenant Commander Johanssen—and you. They did manage to lock out all cabin accesses to the rest of the physical ship and the electronic systems, but weren’t able to do the same to the personal communications network—which they likely thought didn’t matter, as unconscious people can’t use wristcoms—but that means we have you, Larue. In the auxiliary maintenance tube. With direct access to all of Auxiliary Engineering’s stations.”
Amelie eyed Station November’s screen, then gave it a tentative tap with one gloved finger. The cool pearlescence of its standby mode didn’t so much as flicker in response. She craned her neck back, peering back up the tube, and realized for the first time that all the running lights peppering the tube walls, those cheerful yellow sparkles, had gone out. It was far darker in the tube now; Amelie hadn’t appreciated before how much illumination those running lights had given. “All the screens seem to be shut down in here too, sir—”
Johanssen’s voice broke in, over the captain’s: “We can get around that. I can walk you through that. Sir, what about—wait, we’ll be right back, Larue.” Both voices cut off, leaving Amelie alone in the blackness of the maintenance tube.
The deep humming of the ship that had so soothed her before had died down to a nearly imperceptible whisper. Amelie could hear herself breathing, and the faint beat of her own pulse in her ears. She pressed one gloved palm flat against the curving tube wall beside Station November—it was solid, unmoving, real. But…
She had never heard of an interstellar ship being sabotaged—orbital stations, shuttles, and of course planet-based transport, yes; it didn’t happen every day but it did happen—because nobody was stupid enough to sabotage an interstellar ship while in irrational space. Where would you go, if you screwed the ship up beyond repair? Interstellar ships had lifeboats, sure—but the chances of anyone actually being able to find and retrieve one in deep space, especially if the mothership was destroyed, were infinitesimal. Sabotage—the word kept bouncing off in the inside of her skull, the syllables tangling together into nonsense and unreality. Sabotage…
After what seemed subjectively like eternity but was probably only five minutes, Amelie’s wristcom blinked yellow once more. “Larue,” said Johanssen, tone now brisk and businesslike, “I want you to reach under the nearest station screen and feel for a physical latch—there should be one on the bottom left.” Amelie groped around beneath the screen, then realized she’d never be able to feel anything through her glove. She stripped it off and stuffed it into her harness belt, then slid her bare fingers along the screen’s smooth, icy base.
“Found it, ma’am—I think.” With a sharp click, the screen swung out wide, nearly clipping Amelie in the jaw. “Yeah—yes, ma’am, I’ve got it open.”
“There should be a set of wires in the topmost bracket behind the screen. Find the blue one, pull it out and plug it into your wristcom’s download port.”
Blue was a little hard to determine with nothing but her wristcom’s faint backlighting to guide her, but Amelie didn’t waste the Chief Engineer’s time telling her so—only one of the wires had the right end to fit into her wristcom port anyway, and if that wasn’t the right one, they were out of luck. She plugged it in, then squeaked in surprise when Station November’s screen, now angled away from her, suddenly lit in a cascade of red and yellow bars. “Ma’am! The—”
“That’s right.” Johanssen’s satisfaction was evident. “Okay—now, I’ll guide you through the menus.”
The screens weren’t ones Amelie had ever seen before—root directory accesses, Johanssen called them—but as Amelie waded through them, she began to understand how they worked. Unlike the standard maintenance menus, they didn’t assume that the operator was as dumb as a rock. Anyone navigating these menus had to know the ship’s terminology, and Amelie was glad she hadn’t skipped out on the required reading for her Auxiliary Engineering interstellar rating. Johanssen seemed very interested in the ship’s environmental systems…
“Larue.” The captain broke back in. The trace of humor that had softened his voice before was gone. “The saboteurs have done a job on the atmospheric controls. They’ve managed to lock them down under an Admiralty eyes-only cipher. The bad gas mix they used on the rest of the crew and passengers and the good mix they’re enjoying in the brig—and Johanssen and I are enjoying in our cabins, and you in the auxiliary tube—are inalterable. Which means that even though we can probably get through our personal cabin controls to get our own doors to open, we’d never be able to get to the emergency suit lockers outside our cabins and into the suits before we passed out.”
Amelie stared at Station November’s screen, now showing a schematic of the brig. She’d only ever seen the brig once, on her initial onboarding tour, but—“Did they lock access to their doors?” Amelie heard herself ask aloud, abruptly.
“Of course not,” said Johanssen’s voice, sharper than irritation alone could have made it. “As a matter of fact, the first thing they did, according to the log, was unlock it—they probably took care of the brig watch personally,” said Johanssen with a faint choking sound of rage.
“So why can’t we just vent their atmosphere? All the physical controls—the door locks, the airlock—” Because she had remembered that the brig had its own airlock, for isolated prisoner transfer, the brig commander had told them on their tour. “The rapid decompression will knock them all out—"
“What good would that do us? And airlocks don’t work like that, specialist. You ought to know that by now,” Johanssen snapped.
“But I’m looking at the brig maintenance screen right now, ma’am—there’s an override procedure here for venting the entire brig, for decontamination.”
A pause. Then, “She’s right, she’s right, and once the ship realizes part of itself has depressurized, it’ll repressurize the whole rest of the ship with the standard mix!” Johanssen broke off. “But that protocol doesn’t override the physical access settings on the doors, and the decontamination procedure doesn’t allow a reset without the captain’s personal authorization. We won’t be able to re-air the brig until you can physically get to it, captain.”
Another silence. Then, “We have to do it,” said the captain. “You know what their choice of sabotage now means, right before inversion point. Someone’s on their way out here to pick them up. And the best way they can hope to get away with this is to destroy the ship utterly after they disembark—they can claim the ship was lost in irrational space. That does happen…”
“Their families are in the brig with them,” said Johanssen, sounding like an entirely different woman from the one that had been barking orders at Amelie just a few minutes before.
“Yes,” said the captain. “I know.”
Their families are in there with them.
Their families—Amelie thought of her own mouth opening, speaking, and wished somebody had stapled it shut the day she’d been born. Johanssen had taken her own bad idea, the babbling of an idiot, a hungover idiot, and turned it into a good idea—a good idea that was suddenly going to be the trigger of any number of actual deaths, dead people—children? Were there children in there? Babies?
“Larue.” It was the captain again. Amelie jerked upright; her safety harness creaked in protest at the sudden movement. “How old are you?”
“Twenty. Sir,” she whispered.
Silence, then, “We’ll do this together. This is by my order, Larue. My responsibility, not yours. On my mark. At my command.” Amelie stared at Station November’s root directory display, at the small orange rectangle marked Brig Decontamination Protocol: WARNING: THIS ACTION CANNOT BE COUNTERMANDED.
Their families are in there with them.
We have to do it.
They’ll destroy the ship utterly after they disembark.
Amelie pressed the rectangle with her bare fingertip. The orange pulsed once, then darkened; the WARNING message dissolved, then new letters appeared: DECONTAMINATION IN PROGRESS.
The captain spoke again, but Amelie wasn’t listening—oh, she would listen, soon enough; it was her duty. I, Amelie Larue, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will obey the orders of the officers appointed over me—was she choking to death, all of a sudden? That would be fitting—no, she was crying; she rubbed her ungloved hand viciously hard against her cheeks, smearing the hot wetness into her skin. Are they dead yet? How long does it take to die, from decompression? She couldn’t remember.
The Captain was speaking. Amelie dragged her wrist up to her ear. “—basic monitoring on Johanssen’s wristcom, the atmospheric composition outside the cabins is starting to stabilize in normal range. Don’t try to leave the maintenance tube til we send someone to get you—Larue? Are you listening to me?”
“Yes, sir,” Amelie said dully. “I’m listening.” She realized she was gripping her safety harness tightly enough to hurt with her bare hand—gripping the latch release; she looked down, at the endless darkness beneath her booted feet. The auxiliary maintenance tube ran the entire length of the ship. Her fingers twitched on the latch release, then stilled. That wouldn’t bring back those families. And she probably didn’t deserve such an easy out.
“—a hero, Specialist Larue. You—”
Amelie shut off her wristcom, fixed her tear-blinded eyes on the now-unseeable airlock entrance far above, and began the long, slow climb back up to the top.
Lisa Short is a Texas-born, Kansas-bred writer of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. She has an honorable discharge from the United States Army, a degree in chemical engineering, and twenty years’ experience as a professional engineer. Lisa currently lives in Maryland with her husband, youngest child, father-in-law, and cats. She is a member of SFWA, HWA, and Codex.
“Inversion Point” is original to Bullet Points.