Vesta-Ceres: Chapter 4

December 12, 2010

Below is Chapter 4 of Vesta-Ceres.  If you’d like to read the novel from the beginning, please visit my Vesta-Ceres page.

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BY THE TIME Mark brushed the yellowish liquid onto his pants, it had dried into a thin crust.  Flakes ground off of his glove, shooting out like fireworks into the vacant atmosphere.  He drew his Taser and slid to the corridor wall.  Following the droplets, he cursed the moon’s gravity.  Quick steps would bounce him away from the surface.  Tracking the liquid would be a Parkour training exercise.  He adjusted his pace to make as little vertical movement as possible.

Mark clicked the headset button on the forearm of his spacesuit.  It wouldn’t be a special forces unit, but he needed some kind of backup.  “Central Security, this is Mark Liú.”

“Go ahead Liú.”  The supervisor responded, without improving his pronunciation.  “What did you find out about the camera?”

“I think the camera is the least of our worries.”

“Where are you?  Why is your Taser out?”

“Weren’t you watching my camera?”

“I was attending to another issue.”  The security manager took a bite out of his donut.

“You should look at what I saw out there.”

“Why?  Is there a problem?  Why are you leaving the area?”

Mark had made his way into the warehouse, turning left to follow the trail around the perimeter of the service level.  He panned his headlamp through the empty space.  The conveyor to his right marked the central axis of the building.

“You need to look a the footage, sir.”

“Look, Liú, you’re not following procedures—”

“Sir, if you’ll look a the footage, I think you’ll agree there’s not a procedure for what’s out there.”

Security for Artemis Plaza di Luna was not a job Mark would have chosen for himself.  Despondent after GISA rejected him, he resigned from the Navy.  His CO did not accept the resignation, but instead suggested Mark take a leave of absence.  The Lieutenant Commander called in a favor with one of the big-wigs at Artemis.  “Go do something low-stress for a while.  Sort things out for yourself.  Take it easy.  Enjoy the resort.”

I haven’t been this relaxed since hostage rescue training, Mark thought.  He quickly inspected his glove again. I wonder if this goop dissolves spacesuits.

At the corner of the warehouse, the droplets turned right and continued.  Twenty meters away, the trail moved out from the wall—to one of the service ladders.  A yellow-green puddle was drying out and cracking at the base.  Liú looked up the ladder at grating platforms above.  He didn’t see anyone climbing it.  A dried blotch was streaked on the right side of a rung.  More dots on the concrete floor angled back toward the wall, although they could have fallen through the grating.

Mark followed his first instinct, holstered his Taser and started climbing.  He faced the far wall where the control office was located.  His feet only lightly touched the rungs; he climbed easily using his hands and arms.  Above the operation level grating, the conveyor sat far to his side.

The stains continued up the ladder rungs.  Mark heard his heart racing.  He breathed more deeply to slow it.  On his right—through the ladder cage—the warehouse shelving formed an undulating plane to infinity.  On his left, above the operation level, the ladder connected to grating platforms at intervals up the side of the building.

Liú, what the hell is that thing?!” stung Mark’s ears.

He missed a rung and fell into the ladder, hitting his visor.  Mark caught himself and rebalanced.

That is what I was talking about, sir.  I’m following a trail of droplets that lead away from it.  Have you checked the other warehouse cameras recently?”

“You’re following something that spilled out of it?  You need to have your head examined.”

Likewise, Mark thought.

“Why did you stop to take a nap before you got to the connector?  Do you have narcolepsy?”


“Narcolepsy.  You fall asleep a lot.  I’ve seen your office footage, I think you might have it.”

“Sir, I think that’s beside the point right now.”

“Why were you dawdling?  Were you waiting for whoever planted that thing outside to get out of the way?”

Whoever planted that thing? Mark had restrained his opinions about his superior up to now.  But his respect for the chain of command had reached its limit.  He punched the button to shut off the headset.  I hate this job anyway.

Mark climbed further.  He wasn’t ready to give up the hunt, with or without backup.  He wanted to resolve this security breach for himself—for honor, if not for duty.

It would all be logically explained, he was sure.  Some kind of experimental ship from the Armstrong University test labs.  A guidance computer glitch.  A scared kid-rocket-scientist with antifreeze dripping off his right glove.

More splotches on the ladder.  Mark was a small halo of light in an expansive sea of darkness.  His headlamp showed only the ladder rungs, the bottom of the grating above, and the shelves nearby with large plastic crates.  In the weak gravity, he could mistake the grating levels for walls and the shelves for obstacles on a floor.

Sunlight flashed in from Liú’s ten o’clock view, casting sharp trapezoids and stark shadows across the shelves and crates one aisle away from him.  He was disoriented for a moment, but then recognized the opening.  Utility access doors opened off of the service platforms to the outside for portable lifts to deliver maintenance supplies and tools.  The door was in a small alcove of the building and faced the same direction as Mark did on the ladder.  The sunlight flooding the next aisle cast him into deep shadow.  He had just passed the second level; the open door was on the third.

Mark switched off his headlamp and stopped.  He breathed heavily through his nose.  He could feel the gritty textured paint of the ladder through his gloves.  He shifted his head to stop his eyes from focusing on the grating and instead to look at the light beyond.  A form was in front of the door.  Through the grating and structure, Mark could not see what it was.  He knew there was an emergency help button at the door.  He had noted them at the access levels during his initial tour.  The intruder wasn’t interested in the button.

A large object jumped up at Liú to his right—one of the warehouse robots.  Mark clenched his jaw and tightened his grasp on the ladder.  The robot’s LEDs lit up the red reflective patches on his gray suit from outside the ladder cage.

Go away! He thought, glaring at the robot, his joints stiffened from the tension of surprise.  The LEDs blinked; as if astonished to see someone up in the stacks.  The machine went about its business and loaded a plastic crate onto its forklift arms.  At length, it was finished and glided silently away.

The form moved in the sunlight; the door closed.  The warehouse plunged into darkness again, deeper now without the headlamp.  Mark waited.  He instinctively opened his mouth to breathe more quietly, though his sound could travel nowhere.  His hot breath bounced off the visor back into his face.  He lifted his right hand to find the next rung.

A heavy clunk reverberated through the ladder.  Liú froze.

Another pulse rang.



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