The Mid-Month Novel Excerpt: Diving Into the Wreck
Once per month, I’ll post an excerpt from a published novel of mine and hope that you’ll be intrigued enough to find the rest of the book. I decided to start with Diving into the Wreck because the next book set in that universe, City of Ruins, will be out in May. This will give you time to read Diving before City comes out. You can find ordering information from a variety of sources at the end of the excerpt. Or follow this link now.
Here’s the back cover information:
Boss loves to dive historical ships, derelict spacecraft found adrift in the blackness between the stars. Sometimes she salvages for money, but mostly she’s an active historian. She wants to know about the past–to experience it firsthand. Once she’s dived the ship, she’ll either leave it for others to find or file a claim so that she can bring tourists to dive it as well. It’s a good life for a tough loner, with more interest in artifacts than people.
Then one day, Boss finds the claim of a lifetime: an enormous spacecraft, incredibly old, and apparently Earth-made. It’s impossible for something so old, built in the days before Faster Than Light travel, to have journeyed this far from Earth. It shouldn’t be here. Itcan’t be here. And yet, it is. Boss’s curiosity is up, and she’s determined to investigate. She hires a group of divers to explore the wreck with her, the best team she can assemble. But some secrets are best kept hidden, and the past won t give up its treasures without exacting a price in blood.
What Boss finds could rewrite history, cost lives, and start an intergalactic war.
Diving into the Wreck
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Copyright © 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Published by Pyr
I tell people I sleep alone because I prefer to be alone. I do prefer to be alone. I like my own company. But the reason I sleep alone is that I dream.
Or, more accurately, I nightmare.
I thrash and moan and frighten anyone within hearing distance. The cabins on my ship, Nobody’s Business, have soundproof walls, as does my berth on Longbow Station. I put my bed in the center room of my apartment on Hector Prime, and hope no one can hear me through the floor.
So far no one has. Or, at least, no one has tried to come to my rescue.
Even though I was rescued before.
For almost forty years, I have had the dream every night—unless I’m traveling in the Business or in my single ship. Movement—movement through space—somehow negates the dream.
Or maybe it echoes the rescue.
For the dream is based on fact. The nightmare actually happened.
My mother and I suited up and walked, hand in hand, into a room on an abandoned space station. Mother wanted to explore, and I didn’t want her to go alone. I was maybe four, maybe five. I don’t remember exactly, and no one has ever talked of it.
What I do remember is a jumble—colored lights, beautiful voices singing in six-part harmony. Mother’s face turned upward toward the lights.
“Beautiful,” she said, her voice blending into the chorus. “Oh, so beautiful.”
And then she left me and floated toward that light.
I called for her, but she never came back. I huddled on the floor of that room, surrounded by light and voices, and wrapped my space-suited arms around my space-suited knees, waiting.
I didn’t scream then, and I don’t scream now. I never scream. But I gasp myself awake as the oxygen in my suit fails. My visor cracks, and even though I am four, maybe five, I know I am going to die.
Obviously, I didn’t die. My father found me and brought me back to our ship. But he never did find my mother.
And he never spoke of her again.
Diving into the Wreck
I hurtle through the darkness of space, snug and secure in my single ship. I’ve just come back from a salvage operation run by a friend, a salvage operation that held no real interest for me except as a way to pick up some extra cash.
That, and my friend promised me I could have the tourist dive site if the wreck was one I could use. By use, we meant that I could bring inexperienced divers to the wreck, and give them the pretend adventure their money has paid for. Since this wreck is suited for tourist dives, I’m planning to file a post-salvage claim when I get back to Hector Prime.
My single ship is small, little more than a cockpit (which fits only one) with a bedroom/galley behind. I never sleep on the single ship. It has automatic controls, but I shut them off as I travel.
If I can’t take the ship from a port to a station or a station to a hub in thirty hours (which is the longest I can go safely without sleep), then I travel in my full-sized ship, Nobody’s Business.
But the salvage is an easy week from Hector Prime and there are a lot of space stations along the way, so I take the single ship. It’s inconspicuous, and I like that—not just as a woman alone in the vastness of space, but also as a wreck diver.
Too often, the Business has attracted thieves and claim jumpers, people who would just as soon kill you as give up the ship you’ve discovered.
No one has ever followed my single ship. To my knowledge, no one has ever tried.
On the way back, in the only stretch of space that made me nervous as I planned the trip, my sensors blip.
Most pilots ignore a blip like that. Most ships’ automatic circuits actually filter such blips out. That’s why I fly the single ship manually.
Because small sensor blips mean that a faint energy signature is somewhere nearby—although “nearby” is relative in space—and faint energy signatures often point to abandoned and distressed ships.
I specialize in abandoned ships. I dive them, sometimes for salvage, sometimes for curiosity, sometimes to locate a good tourist wreck.
The work pays well enough that I can indulge my true love—diving ancient wrecks for the history value. I collect ship types the way some people collect glassware. I want to be able to say I dove a previously undiscovered Generation C-Class or an abandoned first-issue space yacht or a commandeered merchant ship from the Colonnade Wars.
After I dive the ships and map them, I often turn them over to museums or historical societies. Sometimes I leave them in place for tourist dives, and sometimes I don’t report them at all, leaving them in their floating grave for some other enterprising diver to discover.
I’ve explored more than a thousand ships, and still a blip on my sensors sends my heart pounding.
As quick as I can, I drop out of faster-than-light. Then I press the screen in front of me, replaying the readout to make sure I haven’t misread the blip.
I haven’t. It existed for only a fraction of a second, but it existed.
I memorize the coordinates—which are a long way from me now—and I work my way back.
It takes two jumps and a half day of searching before I find the blip again and match its speed and direction.
I’m already fifteen hours alone in the single ship. I should find a place to get a meal and a good night’s sleep, but I’m too far from anything. An energy signature this far out belongs to a ship that’s lost.
My stomach clenches. I never know what I’m going to encounter when I find a lost ship.
Five separate times, I’ve found ships in distress. One still had its beacon going decades after everyone on board had died. Two other ships had dying crew members on board crew members I was too late to save.
I had to help the last two ships jury-rig some kind of fail-safe, and then leave, promising that I would send help—which I always did. Leaving is the hardest part. The people on board, no matter how professional they are, have panicked. They’re near the end, and they always believe that a single pilot will never send anyone back for them.
They’re convinced I’ll never tell anyone about them when they hear that I’m a professional wreck diver. They think I’m going to wait until they die so I can come back and loot the ship.
I’m sure some of my colleagues might do that, but I never would. I do business as ethically as a wreck diver can. I file the proper documentation (after I’ve dived, however), and I try to keep my group dives injury free. Every wreck diver has lost a team member at one point or another, and I’m no exception, but as dive companies go, mine is pretty accident free.
I pride myself on that, just like I pride myself on helping people who need it.
But I don’t like helping. It’s fraught with emotion of all kinds, and I do my best to stay out of emotional situations. I’m as pure a loner as someone can be. Space suits me. I can go weeks without speaking to anyone, and I don’t miss the company.
So going from my single ship to a situation potentially filled with needy, dying people always makes me nervous.
I ease the single ship forward quietly, lights and communications array off. Once I happened upon a group of marauders who used a distress signal to lure in unsuspecting do-gooders. I managed to get away before they could harm me, but I’ve heard of several other pilots who’ve suffered the loss of their ships and worse.
I’m being as cautious as I can.
My sensors are on full, but I’m not recording with them. Instead, I’m using a link I’ve built into the single ship that attaches to a small computer I wear on my wrist.
The additional link was simple enough to build: single ships are designed to monitor the pilot’s eyes, heart rate, and respiration rate. Should my heart slow, my breathing even, or my eyes close for longer than a minute, the automatic controls take over the entire ship. Unconsciousness isn’t as much of a danger as it would be if the ship were completely manual, but consciousness isn’t a danger either. No one can monitor my movements simply by tapping the ship’s computer.
The additional link that I’ve set up only feeds information in one direction—into my personal computer. The coordinates of the blip, the readings I’ve taken as I’ve approached, everything about the blip itself are stored on my system, not the single ship’s.
All someone probing my ship from a distance will learn is that I’ve come to an unusual region of space for a reason they can’t entirely determine.
But I know. The faint energy signature has led me to a black lump against the blackness of space.
A ship, just like I’d hoped and feared.
My breath catches. I scan for distress signals, for signs of life. But my sensors tell me that the ship has no environment and no active power systems. The energy signature I’ve found remains weak—one final system that refuses to turn off or, perhaps, a sort of stardrive that I don’t entirely recognize. One that’s built on some form of energy with a half-life that’ll give off readings for generations.
The wreck is huge—five times the size of the Business—and it has a configuration I don’t recognize. My single ship’s computer hypothesizes that the ship is Old Earth make, at least five thousand years old, but I ignore that hypothesis since it has to be wrong.
Ships that old could never have made it this far from Earth, not in five thousand years. Maybe not even in ten.
This ship is something else, something my not-so-sophisticated single ship computer system doesn’t recognize. The system doesn’t guess per se—computers still lack the ability to do that—but it sends me information with confidence, picking the closest ship from the array it has in its database.
What I can tell for certain is this: The wreck has been alone and abandoned for a long time. The giant hull is pitted and space-scored, with some kind of corrosion on the outside.
As I circle the thing, moving slowly and keeping my distance, I notice some holes as well, where debris has hit the hull over time.
The holes mean there are no working shields, and no way for someone to still be alive on that thing. I suspect, with something as old as this ship appears to be, that scavengers have already looted its interior.
The ship is derelict, abandoned and worthless.
To everyone but me.
I leave the ship as I’ve found it, drifting. I make no mention of it in the mandatory reports that I have to send to the next space base. I tell no one what I’ve seen.
I just make note, and I keep my own computer files on my personal system. I never let that system out of my sight.
It takes me three full travel days (with stops along the way) to get to Hector Prime. I keep an apartment there, although I don’t call that home.
Home, to me, is Nobody’s Business, which I have modified for my every need. But I keep two “real” residences—the apartment on Hector Prime and a berth at Longbow Station.
The berth at Longbow gives me privileges at the station. The apartment on Hector Prime allows me to store my stuff somewhere relatively safe.
I like Hector Prime. It’s at the very edge of the Enterran Empire, so far away from the Empire’s center that the government actually seems lax here. I’m not antigovernment; I just don’t think about it much. Because if I do, I worry.
The Empire started the Colonnade Wars all those years ago. It wanted more territory, and it succeeded in getting that territory. If things had gone differently, Hector Prime would have been part of what the Empire calls Rebel Space. The rest of us call it the Nine Planets Alliance, and we travel back and forth between the Alliance and the Empire.
Technically, the Empire holds my citizenship, but in reality, the Alliance touches my heart. That’s probably because the Alliance doesn’t want my heart—and the Empire does.
Or maybe I just like misfits, since I consider myself one.
Still, my official address is on Hector Prime. I keep an apartment in one of the more expensive sections of the city. I like the area’s security—the way it’ll notify the Business if someone is breaking into apartments in the area, not to mention if someone were to break into mine.
Most of my possessions, while valuable, mean little to me. But the computer system that I store there is almost as valuable as the one I have hardwired into my quarters on the Business. On my apartment system, I keep coded records, logs, and other information.
I doubt anyone can break the codes, but I want to be informed if someone tries.
For buried within all that information—a lot of flotsam and jetsam of galaxy history, favorite reading materials, downloaded holoplays, and fake genealogy charts for the family I’ve long ago abandoned—are the locations of my favorite wrecks. Not the ones the tourists dive, but the ones that hold a special place in my heart.
The ones filled with history. The ones that matter more to me than anything.
I don’t record the new ship’s presence in any of those logs. I won’t record it until after I’ve dived it. But I do make a hand-scrawled note and paste it to my kitchen wall. All the note has are numbers: the date I discovered the wreck followed by the identification number of my single ship intermingled with the wreck’s coordinates. The code is simple, and a determined someone could break it, I suppose, but no one has yet.
And it’s a nice security feature in case someone steals my systems—all of them.
Right now, I don’t care about much of the information on them.
All I care about is the new wreck.
My apartment is almost as spare as the single ship. I have a kitchen, a bedroom, and a living room. I sleep in the living room, and use the bedroom as a workspace. It’s littered with computer parts old and new. It would take a burglar a while to figure out which system is the current one.
Sometimes I change from a modern machine to an old one. Sometimes I add components that don’t really fit just to throw people off.
While I have been robbed on the Business—by a former colleague, no less—I haven’t been robbed in the apartment.
But a diver can’t be too careful.
It’s a competitive business, and what a diver has, besides her diving skills, are the locations of her favorite and upcoming wrecks. No matter how much money a diver has, no matter how much loot she finds, she learns that those things don’t matter.
All that matters are the wrecks.
I switch the systems around again before I begin research on the new wreck. First I download the ship’s shape, and the specs I could gather by flying around it.
Then I let the database work, seeing if my extensive collection of historical ships has any record of something of this shape.
I’m loath to work on the public networks. Sometimes an inquiry is enough to notify a claim jumper. I prefer to use the databases I’ve developed.
Even using mine, it takes a full day of nonstop work before it locates a match.
The system shows me the match holographically, creating models of the ship I saw and the ship in the database. The holographic ships cover the carpeted floor. I can walk around them. I can put one image on top of the other. I can enlarge or reduce them.
I do all of these things. My computer believes these ships are the same, and my eyes tell me that they are as well.
But I don’t like what I’m seeing.
Because that means my single ship computer was right: this wreck is five thousand years old.
Worse, it’s Earthmade.
And even worse than that, it’s a Dignity Vessel.
Dignity Vessels, while legendary, have never traveled more than fifty light-years from Earth.
Dignity Vessels weren’t designed to travel huge distances, at least by current standards, and they weren’t manufactured outside of Earth’s solar system. Even drifting at the speed it’s currently moving, it couldn’t have arrived at its present location in five thousand years, or even fifty thousand.
Yet it’s there.
Drifting. Filled with mystery.
Filled with time.
Waiting for someone like me to figure it out.
I need a team. I can’t dive a ship the size of a Dignity Vessel alone even if I want to. First of all, it won’t be safe. Second, I would spend the rest of my life mapping the damn thing. And third, no one would believe me if I decide that my information is right.
I take the Business to Longbow Station. Longbow sits at the very edges of Empire Space. When the Colonnade Wars began, Longbow belonged to the group the Empire now calls the rebels. Some maps place Longbow in the Nine Planets Alliance; others place it in the Enterran Empire.
Both the Empire and the Alliance long ago learned to leave Longbow alone. Longbow is such an important trading hub that both sides decided it was better—and safer—to let the station be just a little bit lawless, and to govern itself, than it was to attempt to take over the place.
As a result, a lot of people with iffy allegiances live on Longbow. You quickly learn that it’s better not to ask people’s politics or their past history.
Longbow started as a docking berth five hundred years ago. You can still see the original station, tucked inside one of the modular units that was new a hundred years before.
Over time, Longbow became a major hub. Instead of replacing sections, the owners simply built onto the existing parts. So the station looks like a child’s toy, held together by spit and static. Depending on how you approach it, you can’t even see where the ships dock.
The station looks like a creature with a thousand tentacles and no center core.
But there is a center core. It’s buried underneath all the rebuilding. Very few people make it to that core. Only longtime spacers even know where the core is, which is fortunate, since the old spacers’ bar on Longbow doesn’t let tourists and first-timers through the door.
The old spacers’ bar is the only bar on Longbow that doesn’t have a name. No name, no advertising across the door or the back wall, no cute little logos on the magnetized drinking cups. The door is recessed into a grungy wall that looks like it’s temporary due to construction.
To get in, you need one of two special chips. The first is handheld—given by the station’s manager after careful consideration. The second is built into your ID. You get that one only if you’re a legitimate spacer, operating or working for a business that requires a pilot’s license.
I have had the second chip since I was eighteen years old.
And I know that the people I will find in that bar will be as experienced as I am. As experienced, as space-worn, and as skeptical.
They’ll also be on break or looking for work.
In essence, any divers I see inside will be exactly what I need.
In the end, I settle on five divers.
The least experienced are a father-and-son team, Jypé and Junior. I tourist-dived with them a few times, years ago, when they were starting to get their space legs. I’m the one who encouraged them to go beyond the safe dives and move to wreck diving, salvage, and historical diving.
They both have natural diving talent, an ability to float through zero-g even though both are land-born. They understand history and they love new places, new things.
They’re also one of the best teams I’ve ever worked with. They move in synch, think in synch, and work in synch. They even look alike. Junior is a younger version of Jypé, same black hair, dark skin, and strong bone structure—stronger than that of most divers. The fact that they’re land-born shows in their build. But their background doesn’t harm their diving.
Besides, they have the money to pursue this new career. Jypé made a fortune in some land-based business and now invests it in preserving historical wrecks—wrecks he’s helped discover.
I trust Jypé’s knowledge of historical ships almost as much as I trust my own.
Deep down, I was hoping I’d find Jypé and Junior when I came to Longbow. The fact that I have makes me feel like this mission is destined.
The next two people I hire are also a longtime team. I first met Squishy and Turtle when I started wreck diving, decades ago.
Squishy and Turtle have been a couple as long as I’ve known them. They’re both thin, active women who can run their own team if they have to. Squishy’s a bit secretive—she doesn’t like to talk about her past—and Turtle respects that. But every dive we’ve gone on together has been successful. They have a level of expertise that no other divers I know have achieved.
Turtle has an uncanny sense of corners and danger spots. She’s also a good pilot. She’s saved my life more than once.
And somewhere along the way, Squishy learned field medicine. I discovered long ago that it’s best to have a medic on each mission.
It’s even better to have a medic who dives.
It takes me nearly a week to find the last member of the team. Many of the more established divers say no to me when I refuse to tell them what kind of ship we’re diving.
All I will tell anyone is that we have a mystery vessel, one that will tax their knowledge, their beliefs, and their wreck-recovery skills.
I don’t want anyone who goes to the coordinates to know we have a Dignity Vessel before we arrive. I don’t want to prejudice them, don’t want to force them along one line of thinking.
I also don’t want to be wrong.
Besides, while I’m hunting for the last member of the team, I don’t want to tip my hand. If we do have a Dignity Vessel, it’ll be worth a fortune in curiosity value alone. The wrong word to the wrong person and my little discovery will disappear as if it hasn’t existed at all.
But a lot of divers won’t go into a wreck blind. They believe it’s better to know what they’re facing, even if they later discover that they’re wrong about the type of ship.
Because of that, a lot of experienced divers turn me down.
That’s how I end up with Karl.
Even though I’ve known him for more than ten years, we’ve rarely worked together. He has always intimidated me. He’s big for a diver, blond, muscular and very pale. Yet he is one of the best divers in the sector. He has incredible rankings from almost every certifying body that exists. He’s gone on more dives than I have, and has dived more kinds of ships than I ever will.
But he is also cautious, and caution isn’t always compatible with historical wreck diving. Some of his dive partners have made fun of the redundant equipment he carries, and the large knife he sticks into his belt.
I think the knife is dangerous—he could poke a hole in his environmental suit—but I also know I can’t convince him to give the knife up. It’s saved his life more than once—the last time when he was solo diving a wreck he discovered and got ambushed by three claim jumpers.
He killed them, finished the dive, and then reported his actions. I was on Longbow when he went up on charges and ably defended himself with holocordings, audio, and not a little bit of personal outrage.
Karl is the only member of the team who worries me. If I can’t keep him under control, he might take over the dive.
And there’s nothing I hate more than losing control of a mission.
Except losing a member of my team.
We approach the wreck in stealth mode: lights and communications array off, sensors on alert for any other working ship in the vicinity. I’m the only one in the cockpit of the Nobody’s Business. I’m the only one with the exact coordinates.
The rest of the team sits in the lounge, their gear in cargo. I personally searched each one of them before sticking them to their chairs. No one, but no one, knows where the wreck is except me. That was our agreement.
They hold to it or else.
We’re six days from Longbow Station, but it took us ten to get here. Misdirection again, although I’d only planned on two days working my way through an asteroid belt around Beta Six. I ended up taking three, trying to get rid of a bottom-feeder that tracked us, hoping to learn where we’re diving.
Hoping for loot.
After I’m sure I have lost every chance of being tracked, I let the Business slide into a position far enough from the wreck that we’re out of normal scanner range. We can’t eyeball the wreck either. We match the wreck’s speed, but do little else.
I use this precaution on all of my valuable wreck dives. If my ship’s energy signals are caught on someone else’s scans, they won’t pick up the faint energy signal of the wreck. I have a half dozen cover stories ready, depending on who might spot us. I’ll tell them lies about why we’re in this area of space. I’ll tell them anything I can to get rid of them.
But most of all, I hope no one will stumble upon us while we dive the wreck.
Taking this precaution means we need transport to and from the wreck. That’s the only drawback of this kind of secrecy.
First mission out, I’m ferry captain—a role I hate, but one I have to play. We’re using the skip instead of the Business. The skip is designed for short trips. It has a main room that melds into the pilot’s area, a cargo bay, a galley kitchen, and a bathroom. It also has two escape pods in case something goes wrong. The pods only fit one person each—a design flaw, since the skip itself holds four.
The skip is also designed to travel anonymously. I had the name and logo removed right after I bought it. Not even the pods have any identifying features. I don’t want to be easily identified, particularly when I’m diving an unknown wreck.
On this trip, there’s only three of us—me, Turtle, and Karl. Usually we team-dive wrecks, but this deep and this early, I need two different kinds of players. Turtle can dive anything, and Karl can kill anything. I can fly anything.
The process we’re about to embark on gets its name from the dangers: in olden days, wreck diving was called space diving to differentiate it from the planet-side practice of diving into the oceans.
We don’t face water here—we don’t have its weight or its unusual properties, particularly at huge depths. We have other elements to concern us: no gravity, no oxygen, extreme cold.
My biggest problem is that I’m land-born, something I don’t confess to often. I spent the last forty years of my life trying to forget that my feet were once stuck to a planet’s surface by real gravity. I even came to prolonged zero-g late: fifteen years old, already landlocked. My first instructors told me I’d never unlearn the thinking real atmosphere ingrains into the body.
They were mostly right; land pollutes me, takes out an edge that the space-raised come to naturally. I have to consciously choose to go into the deep and dark; the space-raised glide in like it’s mother’s milk. But if I compare myself to the landlocked, I’m a spacer of the first order, someone who understands vacuum like most understand air.
But because I’m the least able diver on the skip, I’ll stay on board, even though I’m the one who discovered the Dignity Vessel. I trust Karl and Turtle; besides, they’ll record everything they see.
It will almost be as if I’ve dived with them.
I fly the skip with the portals unshielded. It looks like we’re inside a piece of black glass moving through open space. Turtle paces most of the way, walking back to front to back again, peering through the portals, hoping to be the first to see the wreck.
She’s even thinner than she was when I first met her decades ago. Her bones look fragile enough to snap. Her skin is rough from the chemicals some suits are contaminated with and from weird exposures from bad dives. Her fingers are long, birdlike.
She no longer looks like the woman we nicknamed Turtle. Then her head had been the smallest thing about her. When she put on an environmental suit, it seemed like she put on a protective shell.
In those days, I was convinced she could slide her helmeted head inside her suit and pretend to be a rock, just like a real turtle.
Now her head seems large against her skeletal frame. Middle age has not treated her well, although she is as strong and healthy as ever.
Karl monitors the instruments as if he’s flying the skip instead of me. If I hadn’t worked with him before, I’d be freaked. I’m not; I know he’s watching for unusuals, whatever comes our way.
Karl is the opposite of Turtle. He looks as sturdy as she seems fragile. He has a broad open face and close-cut blond hair.
Everything about him seems efficient and strong, as powerful as that knife he carries everywhere he goes.
The wreck looms ahead of us—a megaship, from the days when size equaled power. Still, it seems small in the vastness, barely a blip on the front of my sensors.
Turtle bounces past. She’s fighting the grav that I left on for me—that landlocked thing again—and she’s so nervous, someone who doesn’t know her would think she’s on something.
“What the hell is it?” she asks. “Old Empire?”
“Older.” Karl is bent at the waist, looking courtly as he studies the instruments. He prefers readouts to eyeballing things; he trusts equipment more than he trusts himself.
“There can’t be anything older out here,” Turtle says.
“’Can’t’ is relative,” Karl says.
I let them tough it out. I’m not telling them what I know. The skip slows, and shuts down. I’m easing in, leaving no trail.
“It’s gonna take more than six of us to dive that puppy,” Turtle says. “Either that, or we’ll spend the rest of our lives here.”
“As old as that thing is,” Karl says, “it’s probably been plundered and replundered.”
“We’re not here for the loot.” I speak softly, reminding them it’s a historical mission. Karl turns his angular face toward me. In the dim light of the instrument panel, his gray eyes look silver. “You know what this is?”
I don’t answer. I’m not going to lie about something as important as this, so I can’t make a denial. But I’m not going to confirm either. Confirming will only lead to more questions, which is something I don’t want just yet. I need them to make their own minds up about this find.
“Huge, old.” Turtle shakes her head. “Dangerous. You know what’s inside?”
“Nothing, for all I know.”
“Didn’t check it out first?”
Some dive team leaders head into a wreck the moment they find one. Anyone working salvage knows it’s not worth your time to come back to a place that’s been plundered before.
“No.” I pick a spot not far from the main doors and set the skip to hold position with the monster wreck. With no trail, I hoped no one was gonna notice the tiny energy emanation the skip gives off.
“Too dangerous?” Turtle asks. “That why you didn’t go in?”
“I have no idea if it’s dangerous.” I’m referring to the skip, not diving alone.
Diving alone is always dangerous.
“There’s a reason you brought us here.” She sounds annoyed. “You gonna share it?”
I shake my head. “Not yet. I just want to see what you find.”
She glares, but the look has no teeth. She knows my methods and even approves of them sometimes. And she should know that I’m not good enough to dive alone.
She peels off her clothes—no modesty in this woman—and slides on her suit. The suit adheres to her like it’s a part of her. She wraps five extra breathers around her hips—just-in-case emergency stuff, barely enough to get her out if her suit’s internal oxygen system fails. Her suit is minimal—it has no backup for environmental protection. If her primary and secondary units fail, she’s a little block of ice in a matter of seconds.
She likes the risk; Karl doesn’t. His suit is bulkier, not as form-fitting, but it has external environmental backups. He has had environmental failures and has barely survived them. I’ve heard that lecture half a dozen times. So has Turtle, even though she always ignores it.
He doesn’t go naked under the suit either, leaving some clothes in case he has to peel quickly. Different divers, different situations. He only carries two extra breathers, both so small that they fit on his hips without expanding his width. He uses the extra loops for weapons, mostly lasers, although he’s got that knife stashed somewhere in all that preparedness.
They don’t put on the headpieces until I give them the plan. One hour only: twenty minutes to get in, twenty minutes to explore, twenty minutes to return. Work the buddy system. We just want an idea of what’s in there.
One hour gives them enough time on their breathers for some margin of error. One hour also prevents them from getting too involved in the dive and forgetting the time.
They have to stay on schedule.
They get the drill. They’ve done it before, with me anyway. I have no idea how other team leaders run their ships. I have strict rules about everything, and expect my teams to follow.
Headpieces on—Turtle’s is as thin as her face, tight enough to make her look like some kind of cybernetic human. Karl goes for the full protection—seven layers, each with a different function; double night vision, extra cameras on all sides; computerized monitors layered throughout the external cover. He gives me the handheld, which records everything he sees. It’s not as good as the camera eye view they’ll bring back, but at least it’ll let me know my team is still alive.
Not that I can do anything if they’re in trouble. My job is to stay in the skip. Theirs is to come back to it in one piece.
They move through the airlock—Turtle bouncing around like she always does, Karl moving with caution—and then wait the required two minutes. The suits adjust, then Turtle presses the hatch, and Karl sends the lead to the other ship.
We don’t tether exactly, but we run a line from one point of entry to the other. It’s cautionary. A lot of divers get wreck blindness—hit the wrong button, expose themselves to too much light, look directly into a laser, or the suit malfunctions in ways I don’t even want to discuss—and they need the tactical hold to get back to safety.
I don’t deal with wreck blindness either, but Squishy does. She knows eyes, and can replace a lens in less than fifteen minutes. She’s saved more than one of my crew in the intervening years. And after overseeing the first repair—the one in which she got her nickname—I don’t watch.
Turtle heads out first, followed by Karl. They look vulnerable out there, small shapes against the blackness. They follow the guideline, one hand resting lightly on it as they propel themselves toward the wreck.
This is the easy part: should they let go or miss by a few meters, they use tiny air chips in the hands and feet of their suits to push them in the right direction. The suits have even more chips than that. Should the diver get too far away from the wreck, they can use little propellants installed throughout their suits.
I haven’t lost a diver going or coming from a wreck.
It’s inside that matters.
My hands are slick with sweat. I nearly drop the handheld. It’s not providing much at the moment—just the echo of Karl’s breathing, punctuated by an occasional “fuck” as he bumps something or moves slightly off-line.
I don’t look at the images he’s sending back either. I know what they are—the gloved hand on the lead, the vastness beyond, the bits of the wreck in the distance.
Instead, I walk back to the cockpit, sink into my chair, and turn all monitors on full. I have cameras on both of them and readouts running on another monitor watching their heart and breathing patterns. I plug the handheld into one small screen, but don’t watch it until Karl approaches the wreck.
The main door is scored and dented. Actual rivets still remain on one side. I haven’t worked a ship old enough for rivets; I’ve only seen them in museums and histories. I stare at the bad image Karl’s sending back, entranced. How have those tiny metal pieces remained after centuries? For the first time, I wish I’m out there myself. I want to run the thin edge of my glove against the metal surface.
Karl does just that, but he doesn’t seem interested in the rivets. His fingers search for a door release, something that will open the thing easily.
After centuries, I doubt there is any easy here. Finally, Turtle pings him.
“Got something over here,” she says.
She’s on the far side of the wreck from me, working a section I hadn’t examined that closely. Karl keeps his hands on the wreck itself, sidewalking toward her.
My breath catches. This is the part I hate: the beginning of the actual dive, the place where the trouble starts.
Most wrecks are filled with space, inside and out, but a few still maintain their original environments, and then it gets really dicey—extreme heat or a gaseous atmosphere that interacts badly with the suits.
Sometimes the hazards are even simpler: a jagged metal edge that punctures even the strongest suits; a tiny corridor that seems big enough until it narrows, trapping the diver inside.
Every wreck has its surprises, and surprise is the thing that leads to the most damage—a diver shoving backward to avoid a floating object, a diver slamming his head into a wall that jars the suit’s delicate internal mechanisms, and a host of other problems, all of them documented by survivors and none of them the same.
The handheld shows a rip in the exterior of the wreck, not like any other caused by debris. Turtle puts a fisted hand in the center, then activates her knuckle lights. From my vantage, the hole looks large enough for two humans to go through side by side.
“Send a probe before you even think of going in there,” I say into her headset.
“Think it’s deep enough?” Turtle asks, her voice tinny as it comes through the speakers.
“Let’s try the door first,” Karl says. “I don’t want surprises if we can at all avoid them.”
Good man. His small form appears like a spider attached to the ship’s side. He returns to the exit hatch, still scanning it.
I look at the timer, running at the bottom of my main screen.
Not a lot of time to get in.
I know Karl’s headpiece has a digital readout at the base. He’s conscious of the time, too, and is as cautious about that as he is about following procedure.
Turtle scuttles across the ship’s side to reach him, slips a hand under a metal awning, and grunts.
“How come I didn’t see that?” Karl asks.
“Looking in the wrong place,” she says. “This is real old. I’ll wager the metal’s so brittle we could punch through the thing ourselves.”
“We’re not here to destroy it.” There’s disapproval in Karl’s voice.
19:01. I’ll come on the line and demand they return if they go much over twenty minutes.
Turtle grabs something that I can’t see, braces her feet on the side of the ship, and tugs. I wince. If she loses her grip, she propels, spinning, far and fast into space.
“Crap,” she says. “Stuck.”
“I could’ve told you that. These things are designed to remain closed.”
“We have to go in the hole.”
“Not without a probe,” Karl says.
“We’re running out of time.”
They are out of time.
I’m about to come on and remind them when Karl says, “We have a choice. We either try to blast this door open or we probe that hole.”
Turtle doesn’t answer him. She tugs. Her frame looks small on my main screen, all bunched up as she uses her muscles to pry open something that may have been closed for centuries.
On the handheld screen, enlarged versions of her hands disappear under that awning, but the exquisite detail of her suit shows the ripple of her flesh as she struggles.
“Let go, Turtle,” Karl says.
“I don’t want to damage it,” Turtle says. “God knows what’s just inside there.”
She does. The hands reappear, one still braced on the ship’s side.
“We’re probing,” he says. “Then we’re leaving.”
“Who put you in charge?” she grumbles, but she follows him to that hidden side of the ship. I see only their limbs as they move along the exterior—the human limbs against the pits and the dents and the small holes punched by space debris. Shards of protruding metal near rounded gashes beside pristine swatches that still shine in the thin light from Turtle’s headgear.
I want to be with them, clinging to the wreck, looking at each mark, trying to figure out when it came, how it happened, what it means.
But all I can do is watch.
The probe makes it through sixteen meters of stuff before it doesn’t move any farther. Karl tries to tug it out, but the probe is stuck, just like my team would’ve been if they’d gone in without it.
They return, forty-two minutes into the mission, feeling defeated.
I’m elated. They’ve gotten farther than I ever expected.
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