"Why can't we target Luna as a destination?"
Jack sucked morosely on the last of a chicken leg held in one hand as he drew and redrew meaningless squiggles on his pad with the other.
From the love seat, Davitch and Govinda shared puzzled looks.
Govinda shook her head. "It's been off limits for 50 years, that's why. Kill programs built into all the Luna satellites would fry us whether we tried transmat or physical approach."
"Wait, wait, wait," Jack said. "I spent a little quality time with your security people and one of them told us we were going to the Lunar colony -- " He sagged, rubbed the back of his neck. " No, don't tell me. I don't even want to know..."
Govinda looked at him oddly again. "Hello? The Towboud plagues? The war refugee ships? Oh, come on, don't be daft...they packed the refugees into Luna when they turned up, and left them there with a ship full of meds, then reprogrammed the satellites to keep any live traffic from getting out or in. Don't know if anyone's left. Probably all liquified now. It was a Quad A level plague, half-life stuff. No way I'd go down there, even if we could neutralize the satellites.
"They moved the prison to Deimos, but since that's a moon, they just kept the name," Davitch added. "Oh, and it goes without saying, the Towboud system's off limits."
"Nice disaster management," Jack said, leaning back against the sofa, "Triage is a bitch around here, obviously. Alright. Scratch Luna. But you're telling me you can't message out of the solar system?"
He was sprawled in exactly the same spot the Doctor had chosen when they'd first begged him to come into the livingroom, Lynda noted as she set the tea tray down among the other serving bowls.
"It's not that we can't," Davitch said, finishing his own chicken and turning to the pasta. "We just don't know what state that part of the grid is in, or how to get it up and running. Iris is going to have to tell us."
"Yeah. It's not a question of knowing how to contact Glasgow or Ellayex - that's easy," Govinda said.
"In-system, everything's easy," Davitch agreed. "But Sol-Out grid mechanics just aren't my field. Can you hand me the chutney?"
"Here." Jack handed the bowl to him. "You put that on spaghetti?"
"Yes, thanks," Davitch said. "It's a guilty pleasure...anyhow, the station's hooked into general Sol comm grids, at least normally. Anywhere from Gran Canaria to Mars Volta or Triton, even the Beltway communes, at least after the revolt was put down."
"I remember that!" Lynda said, delighted at finding something to say. "Mum and I watched all that on Outerbelt News for a week when I was 10; she was helping me with my school social entertainment project, and I wanted to do it on the communes," Lynda said, reaching in past Davitch to grab her plate, but avoiding Jack. "Failed the assignment, though. The docent told me it was rubbish...said I didn't have any grasp of demographics."
Jack looked at her wordlessly. She subsided and concentrated on her food.
"Oh, this is good," Govinda said, plucking a strand of chutneyed pasta from Davitch's plate.
"You know, this is the first time I've ever eaten in one of the studios," Davitch said. "Don't know why I didn't think about, you know, contestants cooking and eating."
"It was one of the nice things. They gave us anything we wanted in the kitchen," Lynda said. "Here, let me do that."
She poured Govinda's tea, and handed it to her. "The fridge was completely packed at first, because there were so many of us. 'Course it thinned out pretty quickly," she added softly.
Despite her best intentions, she couldn't keep from shrugging, and smiling up at the other three with the hopeful grimace she'd always hated. "Crosbie made the chutney," she said, remembering against her will. "She was wizard in the kitchen," she said, feeling the prickle of imminent tears. "Best of all of us."
(I'm sorry, Crosbie had said, as if she had to apologize to Lynda and Strood for having lost. As if everyone didn't know the remaining two weren't sick and giddy with relief that it was her, that they weren't walking out into that hateful white corridor, that they weren't dizzy with shame for being so glad, as if they didn't know they'd go into their rooms after the kill, and Strood would sob himself to sleep as he always did, that she'd throw up everything she and Crosbie had cooked that night, and keep on dry-heaving, even knowing that the cameras were greedily recording every second.)
"Look," Govinda said as she took the cup, "we've only got a few more minutes. Meg's team has probably moved everyone through the cafeteria and finished patching people up. We've got to go back there with something. Can we focus? Where's Iris?"
"In the head," Jack said. "Lynda, go get her."
"Yes." He didn't look at her, just kept stabbing at his write-rewrite pad with the stylus.
She backed out of the living room, while her obedience curdled into humiliation.
She'd put her foot in it with the Doctor's friend.
He'd smoothed the chagrin off his face after she'd talked about the colonies, but under cover of the audience's tentative applause he'd grabbed her arm and whispered, "What are you thinking? How the hell can we get out there when we can't even get out of orbit?"
She'd stared at him, startled, but he'd already turned away from her to address the crowd again.
"We're going to take a little break, folks, but for a good reason. You hungry?"
He had been rewarded with more applause, enthusiastic this time. "Meg MacNeill is going to get all of you down to the staff cafeteria for a little something. Don't worry, it's safe, no atmosphere vents there. Hold on and she'll be with you in a moment. Fuel up, try to relax, even though I know it's impossible, and let's reconvene here in - " he'd checked his watch - " two hours."
He had jumped off the dais, and the three of them had trailed him through the crowd as he collected the female Ops staffer and walked with her to the conference room, crooking his finger back at them above his head.
"Why'd you say that?" Govinda had asked.
"It was the only logical thing to say," she'd responded helplessly.
"Right," the other woman said. And she'd sighed.
Jack had ducked into the conference room to alert Meg about her new duty, then signaled the rest of them to the lift.
"We need privacy," he'd said, once the door had slid shut.
They'd looked at each other, and Lynda had finally ventured, "We could go back to our apartment. The Big Brother studio where I was, I mean. We have food there."
"Fine," Jack had said, sparing her only a terse nod before turning his smile on again, in the newcomer's direction. "Davitch, Govinda, this is Iris Anders. Ms Anders - do you mind if I call you Iris?"
"Oh. No," the woman had said, with a flatness that argued otherwise; apparently Jack's charm wasn't foolproof.
Iris Anders was older than any of them, perhaps 55, showing the results of a sedentary life spent in front of a computer terminal. Her greying hair was pulled back into an untidy bun, and the nervous habit she had, of picking at the hem of her salmon-colored sweater, made Lynda want to capture her hands and hold them still.
"Well, Iris, fill us in on what you do, and what you know."
"I...I'm in Sitem," she said. Seeing Jack's raised eyebrow, she'd added, "Sorry. SITM - Station Information Tech Maintenance. We handle programming code and mech upkeep for all the station communications grids."
"Bingo!" Jack had crowed. "You're just who we were looking for! I could kiss you!"
"Please don't," Anders had said.
"So what can you tell us? About getting word to the colonies?" Davitch had leapt into the slightly awkward silence.
She hadn't answered before the lift doors opened.
"This way. I hope we can get in," Lynda had said, as cheerfully as she could.
"Be nice." Jack's tone was chilly.
"No, well, I'm sure we can. The Doctor - he seemed to think the doors wouldn't lock again, after he wasn't, uhm, killed. He was free to go."
Jack's flinch and almost simultaneous bark of unhappy laughter had been unsettling.
Lynda had been glad her hunch about the door was right, but walking back into the garish apartment had made her stomach lurch. She'd wondered with a brief irritation why the human gut was so vulnerable to unhappiness, then headed to the kitchen to scare up some kind of meal. Everyone else had ensconced themselves in the livingroom.
Forty minutes later, the spaghetti and fried chicken she'd rescued from the back of the fridge were almost history. Davitch and Govinda seemed to relax, sitting next to each other on the sofa. Govinda put her head on Davitch's shoulder after taking one last bite, and his face almost shone with happiness. But Jack's face was still a storm cloud as Lynda hurried down the short hall.
I won't worry about that, she thought, slipping back into what her mother had always called 'Lynda's chirpy mode.' We have to focus on other things, and that's good, that's fine. She resolved, again, to make herself useful. Jack would have to thaw, wouldn't he?
"Yes. I'll be out momentarily."
"Fine. They...we need you out in the livingroom.?"
The bathroom door opened and Lynda found herself face to face with Anders. She stepped back involuntarily, stiffening at the indefinable opacity of the older woman's eyes. They were a cloudy green, with something swimming in them that brought Lynda?s hands up to her chest in an instinctive protective gesture.
"Did I surprise you?"
"A little," Lynda recovered, for some reason not wanting Anders to know how unnerved she was. "Lost in thought, I suppose."
"There's a lot to think about," the other said. "Not very pleasant things."
Lynda's automatic surge of sympathy trumped her momentary unease. "Oh, I know. I've been spending a lot of time not thinking about things. But right now we can concentrate on solving problems, and if we think about solving problems, the...the other things can wait. Not that we don't have a big job ahead of us, but my mum always said you can get just about anything done if you break every big job down into little jobs."
"Wish we had more like your mum here," Govinda said, raising her head a little guiltily from Davitch's shoulder as she heard them come into the room. "I've got to tell you, I'm scared shitless thinking about what we've got to do."
"Communication's the key, I suppose," Davitch said, rearranging himself on the sofa. "And that's what Iris can help with." He patted the sofa cushion as an invitation to the older woman.
She sat down and looked about very carefully, before saying, "Unfortunately, I can't. I can't help you contact the colonies, I mean." She said nothing more.
Lynda risked a look at Jack, then checked Davitch and Govinda. They looked shocked.
"Explain, please." Jack was polite, but determined.
"The station grid has neither direct beam capabilities out-system, nor is it integrated into the Sol-Out grid. It's connected to Earth's regular grid, which then normally routes it to a Sol-Out node. But we are cut off from Earth now, obviously," Anders said. "Even if we weren't, Sol-Out has been down for the last three weeks."
Davitch looked like he'd been hit with a hammer.
"Down?" Jack's focus was knife-edged.
"I don't actually know much about the problem," Anders said, folding her hands carefully together on her lap. "Just what I read in the morning bulletins."
"Hold it right there," Govinda held a hand up before looking narrowly at the Ops staffer. "First off, every grid has back-up systems. I'm not surprised that everything conked out in this case, but cobbling something together from what's undamaged...hell, even I can help with that."
She ticked another finger. "Second, we should still be able to hook back into Sol-Out, since it isn't noded just on Earth. There's an automated node on Luna.
"Third, station management would have been in full panic mode if Sol-Out went down for that long. We would have known - we get a million complaints when the flares interrupt broadcasts, for heaven sakes! There wasn't word one, not in Scheduling."
Govinda glared, daring Anders to gainsay her.
The SITM woman just shrugged. "As I've said, I don't know what the original Sol-Out problem was, or is. I don't know why there weren't any complaints, because we didn't deal with that sort of thing. And I can't say why Scheduling never saw fit to tell you people. But it's true."
"No matter," Jack said, looking increasingly beleaguered. "We'll cross the Sol-Out bridge when we come to it. First things first. Govinda's right; we salvage what we can from the main and backup regular comm grids, get it online. Next," he said, turning to the petite programmer, "Are we reasonably sure the Luna node's operating? Even after 50 years of quarantine?"
"Should be. They're designed to last centuries; most of the basic maintenance could be done at a remove."
Davitch nodded. "Right...we get our grid up, rig a patch into Luna Sol-Out and send the message that way."
"You can't. Even if you get the regular grid up, even if you figure a patch to beam it to Luna node, Sol-Out is still down," Anders said again. "And I assure you, I'd need a full team to do anything you've suggested. And you've only got me, I'm afraid. No, Game Station has been effectively isolated."
Lynda knew satisfaction when she heard it, although Anders' affectless delivery didn't wobble for a second.
"You can't do anything?" Jack was controlling his spiraling anger only with difficulty.
"You mean to tell me this entire operation - beaming hundreds of hours of programming across hundreds of light years to the far flung human family and its relatives for fun and profit - isn't even properly integrated into the system designed to send it?"
"That is correct."
"You had, for lack of a better analogy, a tin can and a piece of string, tied to a bigger can and longer string? Which broke?"
"The analogy is weak, but yes," Anders replied. Her eyes weren't cloudy now; they glittered.
"That's swell. That is truly wonderful." Jack threw a very well-gnawed chicken bone at his plate. He missed, and it rolled off the table.
"Here, let me get that," Lynda started to lean forward from her perch on the side of the sofa.
She reared back, out of the way of his rage. "Sorry."
"Steady on, Jack," Davitch protested mildly. "She was only trying to help."
"I don't need any help with a goddamned chicken bone! I need a little help figuring out why, in the 2002nd century CE, the so-called Fourth Great and Goddamned Bountiful Human Empire has a communications set-up suited to the goddamned 19th century! One thousand, nine hundred and eighty-three goddamned centuries! Mother of God!"
They all stared at him as he bolted to his feet and stalked into the kitchen. Anders tilted her head as she watched the others, who looked at each other, then to the kitchen.
"Mr. Harkness, you would do well to remember that this world has fallen and risen so many times that any semblance of linear history is a fraud," Iris Anders said calmly. She had stopped picking at her sweater. Now she rose from her chair and moved toward the door.
"This world borrows from its past failures again and again," she went on, her earlier reticence evaporated, her expression cold and assured. "How many Englands reborn how many times? How many Namibian Metropolitans? How many Asian Complexes? How many oceans dried, ploughed under and refilled with new salt water? How many continents pushed back into old profiles? Nothing new. You find this technology because Earth found it, each time humans reinvented themselves, every single useless time.
"I'm afraid I can't help you."
She walked out and the door clicked shut.
The ensuing quiet made it impossible for Lynda to ignore the station thrum she'd grown to hate. She suddenly longed for the bone-rattling music that had once made Big Brother life that much more unbearable.
No one said anything for a long minute.
"Christ on a crutch." Govinda finally breathed, looking at the ceiling.
"This doesn't make any sense," Davitch said. He blinked very rapidly, as if he were trying to process too many programs at once.
"Guys, I'm sorry."
Jack walked back into the livingroom. He looked old, his pale skin grey. He scrubbed at his face with both hands and Lynda saw that his nails were bitten to the quick. Was that new? She put her hand out and, after a second, he took it. His grip was desperate.
Davitch stood up and started clearing the table. "Captain -"
"I'm no captain," Jack said quietly. "I'm useless."
"Captain," Davitch repeated, very deliberately. "The useless one just walked out."
(Your project was absolutely fine, darling, her mother had said. The docent is a fool. She had felt so loved as her mother lit a cigarette and dismissed the class report with one flick of her well-manicured hand. No one understands history anymore. You are the best student I've ever seen. I can educate you myself if it comes to that. Her father had said nothing, just rolled his eyes, but she wanted to believe her mother.)
"We can do this. I'm a tyro, I know," Davitch said. "But I'm not stupid. I have no idea why she strung us that line of...well, it's absolute rubbish, if you ask me. No idea in the world. But I know there's a way to make our grids do what we need them to do."
"Damned straight," Govinda said. She got up and started helping Davitch clear up. "We don't need her. She was a miserable prat, and a Facilitator to boot." She didn't sound as sure of herself as Davitch did, but she wasn't going to give any ground, either. "Here, Harkness, you want to make yourself useful? Take these out to the sink."
"Facili-wha?" He grabbed at the dishes. "What did you call her?"
"You really must live under a rock or something," Govinda said, following him out, and filling the sink. "Don't know why, but I hate leaving dirty dishes around."
"Consider me ignorant," Jack said. "Facilitator?"
"Typical religious rot. Facilitators are Believers of some sort. Been around for ages, but they don't tend to mix. Make a big deal of talking about humanity's failings, need to change, isolation and penance and blah-blah-blah, but they make a lot of money for themselves by selling information programming. There were a lot in SITM; not surpising, I suppose, all that precious information."
Lynda couldn't help her shriek; she blurted it out as the other woman's comment hit her hard enough to strike a spark.
"The hell?" Jack almost dropped the plates he was ferrying kitchenward.
"We've got archives! You talk about information, well, where's the best information? Archives! I'll bet we could find lots of station information in one of them. I'll bet there's something we could use!"
Govinda's answering smile was beautiful, Davitch's almost beatific.
"Holy - "
Jack whooped, tossed the dishes at the sink, and pumped a fist in the air. Lynda put her hands to her mouth in delight.
"Sweetheart, I am such a schmuck. Such a schmuck!" he said to her. "Forgive me?"
His quick hug was an anodyne for everything, at least for awhile. Jack, ever generous with affection, bestowed two more to each of his other companions.
One Captain, three captain's men, back in business.
"Would Archive Six be the best place to start? We have to head back up to the control room anyway," he said.
"Don't see why not," Govinda said, walking to the couch to retrieve her own write-rewrite pad. "And we'd best get up there now. We've got just under an hour before -"
" - before the dog and pony show begins again," Jack finished.
"Excuse me?" Govinda grinned. "You used that before...what does it mean?"
"A little phrase I picked up in my travels. A vacation in Tijuana, actually."
Her look was measuring. "Captain, when we have a minute, I'd like to hear about your travels."
Jack's eyes shuttered, but he still smiled. "Minutes? In short supply, I'm afraid. Let's get going."
It was a relief to leave the apartment. They walked along the corridor toward the main lobby, Jack a pace in front.
Lynda smelled it first.
"Is something burning?"
As she looked around to see if she could spot the source, the beam flashed past her face. The world turned sharp, and clear, and red, as if she saw it through a ruby.
"Wha - ?"
The hiss of burning wall.
The hot plastic stink.
The wail of a surprised security alarm.
Jack whirled, knocked Davitch to the ground, reached back and grabbed Govinda without looking, shoving her behind and under him as he hit the floor.
Lynda was still marveling at the incarnadine beauty of the first beam when the second hit her, burning through her right cheek.
She watched the wall slide and bubble as the pain stopped her lungs. Ruby turned garnet, paled to topaz, flashed white.
The clatter of something dropped, footsteps receding somewhere unseen.
White light melted into darkness.
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