Chapter Ten

Deep in the hubward-most layer of Macao, in the station’s machine rooms, a frenzy of activity was taking place. The deep, shuddering crashes and bangs that came through the bulkhead from the refinery next door only served to increase the tension inside.

Sudowski’s team, everyone who could possibly be pulled from another job, were all in attendance. Some of them were wiring diagnostic terminals and datasheets into the main console of the air scrubbers. The unit that housed the scrubbers was a dense tangle of wires, pipework and humming electrical components. It stretched fully from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. Cooling ducts and armoured cables stitched the whole assembly into a sort of technological cat’s cradle, taking away heat, bringing in coolant, shuttling data back and forth. A deep, bassy hum emanated from the machinery and the smell of frazzled ozone mingled sickeningly with synthetic oil and overcooked plastic. Unusually for a room on this floor, there was a single window in one wall, but it showed only the dark, convex hub of Macao itself.

Sudowski was talking to Alphe, who was holding a datasheet in one hand. They were discretely separated from the core of the activity, conversing in hushed voices. It was usually fairly dark in the room, but the team had flooded the space with harsh, blueish LED strings to compensate. Sudowski was squinting and shielding his eyes as he talked with Alphe, as if his head was hurting. He looked tired and somewhat slow.

Technicians were swapping data, taking readouts, rushing to get further equipment. Occasionally, one of them shot Sudowski and Alphe a suspicious glance. There was a definite atmosphere of worry, barely held in check. The nitro-jacketed circuit board was impaled with temperature probes, blindingly illuminated, its protective casing flayed away, and it was this around which most of the attention was focused.

This was the scene that Halman arrived to, and what he saw immediately confirmed his fears. So the chip was finally burning out. He felt a lump rise in his throat. It had been some time since Macao had faced an equipment failure this serious. Where in hell was his shuttle?

Sudowski spotted him and dashed over, tripping on a bunch of loose cables that snaked from the cabinet and away into an open floor hatch. He recovered, a little shakily, but dropped the datasheet he had been holding. A technician dashed past, almost stepping on it.

Halman stooped to retrieve the small, translucent device and offered it back to Sudowski, who took it with a slightly wan expression and pocketed it.

‘What’s going on, Nik?’

‘I wish the damn intercom worked,’ said Sudowski by way of answer. ‘I’ve been trying to get you for half an hour.’

‘Well you have me now.’ Halman bent to look into the smaller man’s face, his rugged features arranged into a picture of concern. ‘No offence, but you look like death, Nik.’

‘Er, yeah, thanks,’ muttered Sudowski, wilting. He looked to Halman as if he was wincing from the light — certainly his eyes were half shut. ‘I think I’m coming down with a bug. Typical, really, at a time when I need my shit firmly together.’

‘Take a moment, Nik, it’s okay.’

‘As you see, this is the death-knell for the FS-AS1.’

‘The control chip?’

‘Sorry, yeah.’ One of Sudowski’s hands, as if of its own volition, began to rub his forehead, pinching and kneading the skin there. ‘Any news from the shuttle?’

Halman led Sudowski by the elbow to a quieter corner of the room. Alphe, he noticed, watched them anxiously for a moment before continuing with his work. A small tuft of Alphe’s dark hair was sticking up at an untidy angle, greased into place with machine oil.

When he was sure that nobody was actively eavesdropping, Halman continued. ‘No, I’m afraid not. Why it has yet to arrive is anybody’s guess, but if it isn’t today or tomorrow then we can assume something has gone wrong.’

‘Right, then I need the go-ahead to try the cannibal part I’ve found. If you enjoy breathing air, that is.’

Halman’s broad, slightly ugly face broke into a transforming grin. ‘Bloody hell, Nik, why didn’t you say so? I didn’t know you’d found a part! What are you waiting for? Do it!’ But when Sudowski didn’t return his grin, Halman’s face gradually fell again, his exultant expression crumbling away like an unstable cliff. ‘What?’ he asked suspiciously.

‘The closest match I can find for the FS-AS1 is a critical part of the communications array: the processor from a board whose purpose is to translate tracking data for the laser relay satellites and adjust the lensing of our lasers.’ Halman’s face took on a distant look as he considered the implications of this. Sudowski left him to it for a moment.

‘How critical?’ Halman asked at last.

Sudowski looked around clandestinely, and leant in closer to Halman so that he could speak in a stage whisper. ‘It’s a critical component,’ he repeated. ‘With the communications array working, we could scatter laser messages into space and hope to hit the shuttle, maybe find out if something has gone wrong with it. But without the comms. . . well. . .’

‘Shit. . .’ whispered Halman. His mind began to churn, incapacitating him. He stood that way, with his mouth slightly open, for some time before recovering. ‘No wonder you don’t feel so good,’ he said at last.

‘Do I do it? Because my team are waiting for the word.’

‘How long will the air stay breathable without it?’

‘Usually, we’d have a few days leeway. But we’ve been running the scrubbers at minimum power for days now to reduce data-flow through the chip.’

‘How long?’

‘Well, if the shuttle arrives tomorrow. . .’ Sudowski shook his head. Halman saw that his lower lip was a little raw, as if he had been biting on it. ‘Not long enough, I’m afraid. It could take us all day to patch in the replacement chip, maybe longer. We’re on the fine line between just in time and just too late right now. We can’t rush the job, because if somebody fries the chip accidentally then you can kiss Macao Station goodbye. When that shuttle finally gets here it could well find a tin can full of corpses.’

Halman exhaled heavily. He felt as if he had been gut-punched. ‘And if one of your guys frazzles the chip from the array, then we have no air and no communications, is that right?’

Sudowski nodded seriously. ‘Right,’ he said.

Halman had to clench his teeth to avoid a loud and obscene exclamation that could only serve to increase panic and distress amongst the scurrying techs. He breathed deeply for a moment, then finally said, ‘Let me send a last message to Way Station One, explaining what we’ve had to do. Hopefully the parts for the scrubbers and the comms are already en-route. But if not, I’ll ask them to flag the next shuttle down and load them. But with the extra acceleration time, the next shuttle will be delayed by almost a year if they have to do that. It isn’t much help, if that’s the case. But I’ll send the message.’

Sudowski was silent for a few seconds. His fingers massaged the flesh between his eyes. Halman could see the scars beneath Nik’s hair, standing out purple against his pale skin. ‘Do you think the way station might send a special transport just for the bits we need?’ Nik asked in a doubtful voice. ‘Like right away? I mean, if the part for the comm, or — even worse — the part for the scrubbers isn’t already en route for some reason?’

‘I don’t know,’ admitted Halman. ‘Remember last time we asked for a special transport? They told me we’d have to pay for it ourselves. But then, this time it’s really fucking urgent. They might. . . I don’t know. . .’ He trailed off. It seemed unlikely that the company would commit to such extra expense, even if lives were at stake. Perhaps this additional cost would be the final push they needed to just write the station off altogether. He felt a cold sweat on his brow. Could some company desk-jockey light years away really concede to kill him with the push of a pen? He’d worked for Farsight all his adult life, even fought for them. Could he really be of that little worth? He hoped he’d never have to find out for certain. He could pay for the shuttle, if he had to — and he would, if he had to. But the expense would virtually eradicate his savings, accrued over his years of service on Macao. My retirement fund, he remembered bitterly, aware that he was still, as always, getting older every minute.

‘Okay,’ Nik said softly, looking up into the Halman’s face. ‘I’ll have a team head up with you, then as soon as the message is sent they can begin removing the chip.’ He turned to go, but then stopped and looked back over his shoulder. ‘Good luck,’ he added.

‘Yeah,’ Halman said. ‘And you.’