The Flip of a Coin
Chapter Three: The Lack of a Doorbell
Commander David Dalrymple was a married man. The long-postponed wedding had finally been pulled off without a hitch. The vows had been said, the cake had been cut, the toasts had been made, and the union had been consummated thanks to Tagata’s resourceful nature and a few loyal bridesmaids who had prepared excuses as to why the bride and groom were missing from their own reception.
“Did you feel that?” Tagata asked, unwinding her legs from his hips and looking around the room.
“Did I…” Dave was exhausted. All he wanted was to take a little nap, or at least close his eyes for a while. He’d been fine during the reception, but several times during the ceremony he’d been sure the ring they were in had lost spin.
He felt it again. Instinctively he spread his feet wider, bent his knees, and placed one hand on the wall. The other arm he kept securely around Tagata, who was perched on the vanity in the room where she’d dressed for the wedding.
“You should go,” she said, patting his chest then pushing him away. “That wasn’t just the ring losing spin, that was the station.”
“They moved the whole station?” Dave said, looking around for his kilt then realizing he was still wearing it. His underwear, however, was missing in action.
Commando it is, he thought as he fumbled with his shirt buttons. I’ll just have to be careful when I go through the microgravity corridors.
He looked around for Wilson, who was usually close at hand, then realized that Tagata’s mother had suggested he leave the drone elsewhere during the wedding. Wilson had a reputation as a tripping hazard, as well as an unfortunate habit of bursting into spontaneous song at inopportune moments.
Dave kissed his wife and dashed out the door, calculating in his mind the most efficient way of getting to the command module. His link was silent, but that was probably because he was supposed to be off duty for the next ten days, honeymooning at one of the smaller casinos in the station. He patted his shirt pocket, where he’d kept the link during the wedding. “Frack!” he muttered under his breath. His link was silent because it wasn’t there.
There were no more shifts, nor was there any general announcement of concern or alarm. That was good. Hopefully it was just some space debris that tracking hadn’t identified until it was too late.
When he reached the support complex that led to the command module, he realized his shirt was buttoned lopsided. He was still fixing it when he reached the bridge.
“What the hell is going on?” he demanded as the doors swooped open.
“Ensign Watts,” the Captain spoke curtly. She wasn’t supposed to be there. Lieutenant Ning Yuanhui was scheduled to have the bridge, his first time in that position, while the senior officers were attending the wedding. Of course, with an unscheduled station shift, the Captain would immediately go to the bridge. “Brief the first officer on the situation then get him off my bridge. He’s off duty for the next ten days.”
Dave took a deep breath, ready to protest. Hal needed him and she knew it.
“A small craft approached the station, failing all attempts at communication,” the ensign explained. “It accelerated, and Lieutenant Yuanhui gave the order to nudge it with a bludger, but it was insufficient to change the craft’s trajectory.”
The ensign started to say something about destroying the craft, but the Captain was saying something about a secondary explosion.
“Secondary explosion?” Dave asked, turning away from the ensign and joining the Captain on the command dais, stepping over Wilson in the process.
“You need to be briefed, Commander,” Hal said, wasting no more than a brief glance at him.
Dave would not be dismissed so easily. “Are there any injuries?”
“Commander!” Hal barked. “Your presence here is not required. If you insist on being informed, then Ensign Watts will answer all your questions.”
Dave swallowed hard. She was right. Not only was the Captain herself present, but several other senior officers had left the reception to make themselves available on the bridge. Unlike him, they weren’t interrupting. They were simply standing by, either talking quietly with the junior officers on the bridge, or studying readouts at one of the stations.
Lieutenant Ning Yuanhui hovered nearby. Dave had always thought highly of him, though that opinion was changing.
Dave fumed at himself for losing his link. He should have been able to be filled in on the situation while he was in transit from Ringworld to Command.
Wilson let out an excited screech and started to bounce. Dave put a foot on him and the droid calmed down.
Dave listened to the information being relayed to the Captain about a secondary explosion, and he still didn’t know what the first explosion was or why they’d moved the station.
“Does tracking show any other unidentified craft?” Dave asked, adding his voice to the din.
“There are three anomalies within the framework of the station,” replied Lieutenant Sariputta at communications. “However they all fall well within parameters of equipment or personnel who may have been dislodged when the station shifted.”
The shout was loud enough to silence all the competing voices on the bridge. Dave turned to see Ning, standing in the sunken observation cove. Outside, a red space suit, presumably with a person inside, impacted the transparent dome then slid diagonally down as it reconciled its own momentum with that of the rotating command module.
“Ning! Get out!” the Captain shouted as the emergency bunker slammed shut, sealing the Lieutenant inside the cove.
Dave braced himself for an explosion as the Captain called for security to the bridge and for a patrol to intervene from outside. Almost immediately the main screen was lit with a view, presumably from a patrol, of the sculpture garden outside the observation dome. At first the view rotated, as the module was rotating but patrol was not, then the computer compensated and the view stabilized to maintain a conventional up and down.
The red suit was stumbling, trying to stand. Although the sculpture garden was designed to be symbolic and decorative, it was possible for a human, with proper equipment, to stand out there. Dave had done it himself more than once.
They could see the lieutenant inside the cove. His voice came over the com. “I’m all right. I don’t… I don’t think it intends harm.” They watched as the red suit stood up, putting its helmet against the window.
“Captain, there are two escape pods accessible from the bay,” Dave said. “Ning needs to get into one before whoever that is does whatever it is they intend to do.”
“A suicide bomber?” Hal asked. “Like from the twenty-first century? Do people still do that?” The red suit knocked three times, then flat-palmed the glass slowly three times, then knocked three times again. “It’s more likely they were working outside the station and were harmed or damaged when the station shifted.”
“It’s… I think it needs help!” Ning said, standing and putting his hands against the window, matching the outsider’s hands. Then he pointed off to the left, where there was an airlock with emergency suits.
One of the smaller screens showed the patrol ship. Dave counted the drones floating in formation around it. They had possibilities. They could knock the guy off into nothingness, or stun him with a rather painful electric charge.
“In a red suit?” Dave asked. “Station workers wear white and orange. Where are they from? Why did they target the command module?”
“I don’t know,” The Captain answered with infuriating calm. “But we’re going to find out.”
The red suit walked carefully with the stilted pace of someone using magnetic boots to maintain a connection to the hull. In a minute, they were at the airlock.
Dave bit his lip. Frustration built inside him. He hated not knowing. True, the most logical explanation was that the red suit had been working outside the station when it shifted, and was dislodged. However, the odds of it ending up exactly on the observation window of the command module were next to nothing. He could be a saboteur, or pulling a stunt for some political motive, or just some yahoo who wanted attention.
“Maybe she’s selling Girl Scout cookies?” Lieutenant Sariputta suggested as the red suit knocked on the outer airlock door, then turned left and right, as if confused. They shrugged.
“Don’t we have a doorbell out there?” the Captain asked, a tiny smile on her face.
“It’s being installed Thursday,” her yeoman answered.
“Well, let’s bring them into the airlock and find out what they want,” the Captain said. “But if they don’t have any Thin Mints, I might reconsider my hospitality.”
Dave swallowed back his protest. The airlock was heavily shielded and could withstand a small explosion. The red suit wasn’t carrying anything other than the minimal maneuvering pack on its back, although that was plenty big enough to conceal an explosive device. It was most likely either a prank or someone in genuine distress. Still…
The red suit clasped its hands together, as if in supplication, then put its hands to its throat, as if choking or running out of air.
“Security is standing by in the airlock,” reported one of the officers. Dave didn’t recognize him, which was unusual. He knew all the bridge crew, as well as the pool of officers in training to be on the bridge.
“Let them in,” Captain Kitewhetu ordered.
Dave followed the Captain out the main doors and down the hall to the small control room next to the airlock. At least she wasn’t trying to shoo him away anymore. The red-suited visitor was on his knees in the airlock, surrounded by suited security with weapons drawn. The gauges read that they had two minutes to wait until the airlock completed its cycle.
The visitor fell forward, barely catching themselves as they crumpled into the fetal position. One of the security team dropped to his knees, grabbing an air hose from the wall. He poked at the red suit, then looked up. “I can’t find a way to connect it. It’s not standard.”
The Captain put her fingertips on the window. It was the only indication she gave of any emotion. “Is there enough air in the chamber to keep them from suffocating?”
“Weighing the risks that they passed out from carbon dioxide poisoning versus what will happen if we pop his suit before the cycle is over?” said the med tech waiting with them. “It will be much easier to treat the former. We need to wait.”
Dave held his breath for the last minute. When the lights turned green, the med tech stepped toward the inner door, but the Captain held up her hand. “Let security crack them open,” she said. “Then you can go in.”
The security officer rolled the red visitor onto their back and fumbled with the suit. “Nothing is standard on this,” he said as he finally cracked it open and pulled the helmet off.
It was a man. Caucasian, with dark hair and beard. His face was angular and his skin white, as if deficient in vitamin D. Too many station residents neglected that aspect of their health. Dave stood next to the Captain, ready to knock her to the ground if it looked like there was any threat.
Security placed an oxygen mask over the man’s face and his eyes fluttered open.
“Are you injured?” the Captain asked.
The man looked up at the security detail surrounding him. With the exception of the one supporting the oxygen, all of them had weapons pointed at him. “I come in peace,” he said. The accent was strange. Dave couldn’t place it. “I…I am unwinded, but not injured.”
“Who are you?” the Captain asked.
“Shenta,” the man replied.
“Santa?” Yeoman Abels asked.
The man rolled his eyes. “Shen-tah,” he said. “Shentah Sho.”
“Where did you come from?” the Captain asked. “Were you working outside when the station shifted?”
“I come from Istanzia,” he said.
The man took a few deep breaths from the oxygen mask, then looked around until he saw the Captain in the window between the airlock and the control room.