90_Minutes_to_Live (2 page)

Not till we had the forty-fours up and running did we work out that men were running towards danger, instead of away from it. Ducking through the doors with the idea they could seal up the hole and save the ship, be a hero. Jamming shoulders into hatchways to hold them open so one more man could come through. You never heard a story where that kind of courage
didn’t
end badly mangled.

All the newer ships came with snap doors. Loaded them with pressurized pistons that slammed the buggers shut in a couple of milliseconds. Slice right through you if you were unlucky enough to step through the door at just the wrong instant.

But it worked. Fatalities dropped ten percent and all of us stepped a little quicker through our hatchways. Fleet hop, they call it.

But
I
d
o
n

t
weigh Smitty down with all that. He’ll see enough messes in his day without hearing all mine.

“You ever run that thing?” I ask.

“Just the once,” he grins.

“Then by all means.” I hold out the lock of hair for him. He takes it gravely from me, drops it in a slot and covers it with a cap.

He lifts Taylor by the shoulders and drags him around until his head slides neatly into a cavity in the cabinet, chattering to me while he works.

“Cap’n says not to worry if you feel a shudder or two—there’s a thruster misfiring, so we’ve got a little spin she’s going to dampen out. Hope you don’t mind if we drift a bit.”

I shrug. I tore into Jaz more than once over the last week to keep the slop out of her search pattern but
n
o
w
w
e

v
e
tracked down the
Hannah Lee
, I don’t have any reason to be precise. At least the thruster would give Jaz something to think about, instead of buzzing us every two minutes.

“Ready?” Smitty asks.

I nod; he hits the button.

Taylor’s eyes fly open. Hi
s
j
a
w
snaps, tongue lolling.

“Jesus God Almighty-” I can’t help myself. The dead man twitches all over, lightly, rippling under his skin.

“Oh, sorry, sir,” says Smitty, “Don’t mind the jitters. It’s just calibrating.”

“What the-?”

“All the nerves fire off,

says Smitty, “Maps the pathways through the extremities, the gut. Lots of nerves in the gut.”

No shit. I can feel all of mine.

The twitching stops.

“Here we go!” says Smitty, and the screen lights up. There’s Taylor’s face, in full 3D.

I still hate the guy.

“Boy, am I glad to see you!” he says, “I thought I was
done
.”

“It’s all right now,” I say. It’s dangerous, letting a simulation—a resurrection—dwell on his own well-being. Once he realizes he’s dead, it’s anybody’s guess what he’ll do. There’s no way accurately to simulate that kind of event, so it throws off all the parameters and the program can’t handle it. The personality crumples and you get no information at all.

“Where’s Linda?” he asks.

I can see Smitty shoot me a look but I keep cool. I’ve handled interviews before. Worse ones even.

“She’s safe,” I lie. “We’ll take care of her.” I’ve got to change the subject. Get him to focus. Move back in his memory so he can run up on death from the front end, instead of working backwards.

“Was that a Betty I saw down in the ballroom?” Resurrections go best if you can give them something specific to latch onto. A nice, tactile memory that lights up a couple parts of the brain the forty-four can locate and use as a baseline. Objects. Places. People. Sex.

He grins. “Hell yeah! Can you believe it? Museum-quality. Totally intact.” his face changes. “But it’s mine, you hear? We found it.”

“Not here for the salvage,” I reassure him. A Betty like that’s worth a good ten, eleven figures. Only natural he’d be wary. Especially a guy like Taylor.

“Where’d you find her?”

“Pretty much right here,” he says. “We sort of stumbled on her—a distress call, real weak. Matched speeds and brought her on board. Slid her
i
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t
h
e
b
a
l
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r
o
o
m

t
h
a
t
w
a
s Linda’s idea. Is she ok?”

“She’s safe,” I nod. “What’d you do after you brought her in? Open her up?”

“Damned skippy,” he says, “You think I’m going to haul her home with a couple of forty-year-old corpses still inside?”

Forty years. Has it been so long?

“Besides,” says Taylor, “I’m as agnostic as the next guy but a man deserves a funeral.”

I respect that. Grudgingly but there it is. It’s more than I would’ve expected from a guy like Taylor. I guess I should do the same for him.

“Poor guys must have been freeze-dried,” I say. Better than the alternative. Bacteria takes a while to get at you in zero-G but when they do, it’s a mess. Taylor shakes his head—the simulated one.

“That was the weirdest thing. We cracked her open and she had full pressure—you could hear the hiss and smell the dust when we opened her up—but there wasn’t anyone inside. I’ve never seen anything like it. Three-quarter fuel, slag topped off, Hopper full of BB’s, safety stil
l
on; but
nob
o
d
y
ho
m
e
.
L
i
n
d
a
f
i
g
u
r
e
d
i
t
m
u
s
t’v
e
b
e
e
n
blasted straight out of a hangar, in a blowout or something.”

That doesn’t sit right with me. A Betty at three-quarter fuel? Unlikely. On deck, she’s full, empty or latched onto a pump. And slag? For nanobots? Betties didn’t have bots.
W
e
r
e
n

t
e
v
e
n
s
t
a
n
d
a
r
d
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e
till the end of the war and by then we’d given up on Betties.

“Hang on,” I say, “You had pressure on the Betty? Air inside?”

“Sure,” says Taylor, “She out-gassed when we cracked her open.”

“Fuck.” I swore. I left him there. Left Smitty. Started running. “Smitty go back to the ship,” I shout over my shoulder. I hit the intercom. “Fire her up, Jaz, We gotta clear out.” Nothing. “Jaz, you hear me?” Never mind. Smitty will tell her. Me, I’m bolting for the ballroom, my head ringing with a stupid story I heard in a bar a while back. A story about a set of goddamned Betties.

We stopped building them near the end of the war, it’s true, cause too many men inside never came back out. But it didn’t mean
o
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r
b
o
y
s
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c
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p
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f
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h
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we already had.

I take the ballroom stairs three at a time, swing around the Betty to her handholds.

Our weapons crews stocked empty Bettys with all kind of surprises. Sent them out, dead in the water after a battle, usually one we were losing, cause that’s pretty much all we did for the first three-quarters of the war. Set them up to trigger after we all left, maybe when the enemy comes along lo
o
k
i
n
g
t
o
s
a
l
v
a
g
e
and BOOM, there’s a nuke or a neutron or grav-warp or some such.

Here are the handholds, giant staples up her spine. Three, four, and circle left for the gunner’s hatch.

But the one story that gave all of us at the bar the willies, was the swarm. A nano-weapon that ate ships alive. Load up a Betty with a slag tank and a swarm of bots that are swapped from repair to consume. Pressurize the cockpit, so when their techs come along to take a look at her guts—puff! A little breath of air carries a microscopic army out and spews them all over your deck, or your hull or wherever you are. You don’t see a thing. Don’t even notice. But silently, methodically, they start chewing through your ship’s systems one by one until
nothing
is left.

Comms go down, so you can’t cry out. Alarm systems go offline, so you neve
r
k
n
o
w
i
t

s
c
o
m
i
n
g
.
So your own bots never even activate. Power shuts off, so you can’t fight back. Thrust and grav so you can’t maneuver. Life support at the very last.

You can’t shoot ‘em and you can’t stop ‘em. Your only hope—so they said at the bar—was to boa
r
d
t
h
e
Betty and find the control box, shut the swarm down from its command center.

I come through the hatch and see it. A flat black thing no bigger than a toaster, six green lights and bolted to the floor where the pilot ought to stand. No buttons, no switches and no inputs I can see.

God damn, God damn!

My hand flies to my belt but I don’t carry a sidearm anymore. But here, yes, above the door, the pry-bar, standard issue as an engineer’s concession the machine woul
d
p
r
o
b
a
b
l
y
b
e
b
u
s
t
e
d
all to hell, before we landed it and wanted to get out.

Thank God.

I plunge the pry-bar down between my feet—no room in here for a decent swing at the thing. One-two. Three-four. I-have. To-kill. This-God. Damn-box.

I stop, sweating, breathing hard. Bits of electronics lie scattered around the tiny cabin. The six little lights are dark.

I sigh and lean back against the fuel column, tipping my helmet back into the familiar cr
a
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,
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ed to be. Coming away alive and kicking.

“Like old times, hey Randy?” I say to no one in particular. Randy hated it when I did that. When we’d pulled out of a battle that was mostly over and I’d lean back, relax my intensity while he drove us home.

“God damn it, Pepper,” he used to say, “Fat lady ain’t singing till we hit the deck!”

And I’d close my eyes and just float off, while Randy juked us back to the carrier. Drove him nuts.

I can’t help but look over at the mirror—the only sightline between gunner and pilot, just a small thing, size of a credit card.

Eyes stare back at me. I freeze. My breath catches in my throat and my mind reels off in six directions.

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