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Vesta-Ceres: Chapter 5

December 17, 2010

Below is Chapter 5 of Vesta-Ceres.  If you’d like to read the novel from the beginning, please visit my Vesta-Ceres page.

VESTA-CERES – CHAPTER 5

MARK COULDN’T tell if it was climbing up or down.  He unsnapped the Taser again, ready to jump onto the second level grating.

Several more pulses rang through the ladder.  Then nothing.

Mark secured the Taser and moved up into the darkness, shaking the tension from his clenched left hand. Only the vaguest outlines were becoming visible again from the far away lighting over the conveyor.  He carefully searched for each rung of the ladder.

The service door on the fourth level flung open.  Daggers of light cut through the warehouse.  The form was in front of the door again.  Then it moved out of the light from the door, away from the ladder.

Mark continued up.  When his head passed the fourth floor grating, he moved cautiously, scrutinizing his field of view.  He scanned for any movement.  The opening was no more than two meters from him, its light shining almost directly opposite of Mark into the alcove and falling into the abyss of the warehouse.  The door felt much further away.

He stepped onto the platform, drawing his Taser.  The grating had a rubbery give under his uniform boots.  The top of all the grating in the warehouse had been dipped in a thick coating to prevent snags—for both the containers and the humans.  The platform continued straight in front of him into pitch blackness, all the way along the warehouse wall.  Mark spotted a rag on the platform, conspicuous in the middle of the sunlight.  He checked to his right and behind himself.  No movement—but he was wary.  He turned back toward the rag.

Mark felt a tremendous shove from behind, hands—or feet?—that covered large parts of his back.  He fell, turning to his side to see what was behind.  Confusing shapes tumbled in the shadows.  He bounced into the sunlight from the open doorway and was blinded.

Mark aimed his Taser in the direction of the attack and fired.  Nothing.  He rolled quickly onto his feet.  He flicked his wrist to check the uniform’s keypad—no lights. His spacesuit wasn’t  depressurizing.

He flipped on his headlamp.  Scanning the area, there was no one on the grating platform with him.  He bounced back over to the ladder and grabbed hold.  It was vibrating again.  He looked down.  Nothing moved below him.  He looked up.  The vibration stopped and he saw nothing.

Mark considered the shadows he saw as he fell.  He thought he had seen wings—long, black, insect-like.  He shook his head.

Great.  An unidentified winged object.  That’ll go over well.

One thing was certain, whoever just attacked him was not looking for his help.

The intruder had climbed further up in the building.  There wasn’t any way out up there.  If Mark secured the access door down on the service level, the only place the intruder could exit was the way he came in, through the connector tunnel.  All the other exits were guarded airlocks—the man-doors required a security badge and scanners would disable the conveyor airlocks if anything living were detected.

Liú holstered the Taser and exhaled heavily as he swung himself onto the ladder.  He only needed to call for backup.  Central Security might think he was crazy, but they’d eventually catch the intruder and Mark would be vindicated.

Maybe even rewarded?  I doubt it.

More light flashed from another access door.  Mark focused on the new opening—the sixth level.  Whatever was up there might start back down the ladder toward him.  He felt adrenaline flowing again.

Something flashed in his peripheral vision.  A shadow at the fourth level access door he had left open.

Was that?  Did it?

Mark put both hands on the side rail of the ladder and threw himself toward the alcove.  Grabbing the inside flange of the I-beam at the corner, he swung into the doorway before his feet touched the ground.  He shoved his head outside.

Squinting into the blinding light,  Liú could barely make out a four-limbed shape bouncing onto the lunar surface far below and leaping to double-back around the corner of the building.

Mark didn’t know if the fall could kill him.  The only math he knew was that if he didn’t jump, the bad guy might get away.

He stepped back and lunged out the doorway into space.

Mark had time to be afraid—but he wasn’t.  He aimed his feet downward, bent his knees, relaxed his body—a reflex long-since drilled into him.  He even had a moment to review the shape he just saw bounding away.  No wings.

Would you use wings with no atmosphere?

The ground interrupted his musings.  He bounced in lunar dust at an earth-like fall velocity.  Both feet landed together; he fell forward and rolled.

Pushing himself up again, the ashen moon-dust showered off of his suit.  He took leaping strides in the direction of the intruder.  Running on the moon caused a weightless feeling in the bowels, leading to a natural giddiness—Mark suppressed it as best he could.

This is work, Mark, not fun.  Well—maybe a little of both.

The intruder had turned toward the emergency water silos.  Mark followed the crater-like tracks in the dust.  He didn’t have time to examine their triangular shape—he was fast approaching a platform at his eye-level.  The tracks discontinued below the platform.  He made a short hop to get both feet underneath himself, then leapt for the top of the platform railing.  Grabbing it on either side like a baseball bat, he kicked his legs over the rail and pushed off explosively with his upper body.

Mark hoped to keep his momentum.  He overdid it.  In the light gravity, he flew toward one of the tanks.  He turned his back to it and felt the solid mass slam through his suit.  His body ricocheted toward the next tank a meter away.  Mark bent his arms and pushed off the silo.  He landed and rolled in a heap.

Definitely not fun.

Mark staggered onto his feet.  He was under an awning that covered the service side of the tanks.  He looked down the platform and the row of silos in front of him.  There were only a half-dozen.  They were part of an emergency network of back-up water tanks.  The 38 megaliter primary tanks were underneath the main structure.  Artemis had multiple layers of backups for critical systems.

The awning overhead connected to the next building to Mark’s right.  Between the platform and the building was a shaded maintenance bay on the lunar surface.  Two parked work vehicles faced the open end of the bay.  They were ten-wheeled mobile repair trailers that carried spare parts and tools.  One of the trucks jostled—someone was in it.

Gotcha.

Mark stepped off the platform at a ladder and floated down to the surface.  He approached the truck.  The rear hatch was in the right corner.  A small airlock maintained pressure in the truck.  Mark drew his Taser again.  He saw his headlamp reflecting on the truck body and switched it off.  The door stood ajar; he eased it open.  The airlock was about the size of a shower.  The second door—also open—lead to the truck’s central aisleway.  The truck wasn’t pressurized.

Mark climbed in.

The dark, empty corridor stretched five meters to the cabin.  Light from the front windows glinted off of the drawers and large plastic bins in orderly grids along both walls.    The driver’s cockpit was too bright to see at first.

Liú moved smoothly down the aisle with the Taser in both hands, aimed at the ground.  His eyes adjusted to the changing light and focused on the dashboard.  A strange arm moved over the controls.

Mottled shades of gray covered the forearm.  Mark recognized the wing-like shape he had seen earlier.  It wasn’t a wing at all.  It looked like a shield along the outside half of the forearm.  Hinged near the wrist, it pulsed away from the arm, like it was fanning air.  The appendage cast an angled shadow over the forearm, which undulated with the tendons at work under the thick-looking skin.

Mark counted fingers on its hand as they moved across the dashboard.  Seven? They were a darker grey on top, lighter on the bottom.  Two of them appeared to be operating in a thumb-like, opposable position.  The next three were long by human standards.  The last two were half the size.  Some of the dried yellow-green liquid flaked off the hand onto the dashboard.  Mark stopped walking; he felt his heart pounding against his left arm.

It’s not wearing a spacesuit.  There is no air in this cabin, Mark thought. This is definitely not some human in a costume.

He reconsidered his situation.  Can I communicate with this thing?  I’m not animal control.

Get out of here, cover the door and call Central.  He—it—might start the truck.  Can it drive?  Who cares?  Get out of here.

Standing halfway down the aisle, he took a step to move backwards.  He noticed the hand and arm in the cockpit were no longer moving.  The forearm appendage wasn’t pulsing.

Mark tightened his lips and forced a breath out of his nostrils.

It can’t hear me.

He glanced over the cockpit area.  At the top of the windshield glass, he spotted a mirror.  In the reflection, the sun highlighted the shape of a black eyeball—like an otherworldly squid.  It was staring straight at him.


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