The Vordel 61 was one of six cities still standing, though its existence was considered precarious at best.
We went to check the seismic interrupters. They needed to be calibrated once a week or else; all 78 of them around our city.
Brenda Delace was the team leader; Jenny, Mike and I were the slave labor. Not really but after you do a few dozen it begins to feel like it. "How much longer until they return?" Mike asked.
"Last word I heard was eight months, and that is the earliest we can hope for," Brenda said into the throat mike.
"Can we last that long?" he asked.
"Get back with me in seven months and twenty-nine days and I'll try to answer that."
"I know, dumb question, still," he said.
Jenny, our equipment mechanic and all around maintenance troubleshooter switched off with Mike on pulling the little utility cart as Brenda continued her spiel, we'd all heard it before but walking the rim was boring, tedious, and dangerous so talk lightened the load. I hauled the food and camp supplies cart harnessed to me.
"Mike, honest, you and Lyle are the two strongest and most dedicated mules we got. Day after day, week in and week out you two work your asses off trying to help save us but as I told you a million times, we are playing a losing game. We just hope we have time and luck. Look at the rift! Eighteen feet in a day. If we get to many more days like this, or worse then you know your answer as well as I do."
One foot in front of the other, plop, plop, plop. I wished we could have used a service truck but the last three crews that tried them had all fallen in the rift when the vibrations they set off caused more fractures. Vordel 61 was only two miles away now. Many parts of the city had started to fall, the great sky bridges were falling apart and we all knew any impact with the fragile crust could finish the job and cause the rift to open wide and say 'howdy you six million wonderful morsels of flesh and bone, welcome to hell!'
Mike and I were the last two left of our original freighter crew of nineteen. We'd landed on Vordel for what we thought was to be a routine drop-off of supplies, refuel, and reload freight bound for Galleria spaceport. When we touched down our ship and six crewmembers died. A small rift opened as we settled and thirteen of us managed to scramble off as it closed again, crushing our ship and mates, all but a bit of the nose. We instantly found out why we were not able to contact their port authority. It was not the dreaded Holcomb P communications failure again. That is a key piece of our equipment that seemed to be broken more than fixed. Well, more correctly, was a key piece. We had already landed on four of six planets without comm and no one thought much about it. If we'd only known.
Vordal was a highly touted science application and research planet. It is where all the anyone who is anyone, or wishes to be someone comes to study, get their degrees and move out into the galaxy to receive some of the highest paid 'starter' salaries there are. A college planet where a semester of courses cost as much as mules like me made in a lifetime. The crème de la crème of the sciences taught, lectured, and experimented here and for only the smartest of students. As often as not those selected to study here won contests and were sponsored by rich corporations or national governments.
Jenny asked Brenda, "They having any luck on the containment fields? Been stuck doing the cal's so long I haven't bothered to check."
"If they had we'd not all be praying the fleet gets here in time to save our asses now would we?"
By the fleet she meant the rescue fleet of over six thousand ships from as far as earth and as close as Beta 7. The largest rescue armada ever believed to be assembled, which I found was a terrible idea. The ground of the planet was becoming more and more brittle every day. How would they land? The vibrations would shatter the ground anywhere they tried to set down, but like Mike, I never said anything. We were simply mules, beasts of burden, barely smart enough to even be seen in the same room with the brains like Brenda and Jenny. Oh, we weren't that dumb but almost all of these people looked down at us as a sub-class of creature called normal humans. I had to laugh; at least we didn't destroy our planet screwing with the molecular energy bonds that held matter together. I figure we sub-class are to SMART for that.
We came to the next sonic neutralizer and started setting up the equipment. They were tall spindly spire-like things that stuck up forty feet or so. The top was, but the bottom was down a drilled hole, sometimes way down. Brenda opened the panels for access to the high frequency converters as Jenny did the same for the low band, or Infrasound, which is sound that is lower in frequency than 20 Hz. As was explained to us non-elite, the theory was that if they set these up and coordinated their efforts they could neutralize the vibrations of the planet and counter the sonic and subsonic vibrations that was fracturing the planets mantle with overlapping damping fields. At least long enough to get the people evacuated. In theory it should have worked but after two years of data collecting and fine tuning it was found it just slowed the process, not stopped it. The huge rifts were growing, sometimes inches, sometimes feet but not the miles they had at the start.
"Mike? Settings for B17?" Brenda asked.
Mike looked on his chart and read off the numbers for A to D and Brenda set them then read them back. "Correct," Mike said.
"Mine?" Jenny asked.
He again read off E to H and they verified the settings. "Only a 0.3 drift. One has to be out of whack someplace," Brenda said. Then to Jenny, "On in three. One, two, three!" They both threw the switches and you felt rather than heard the vibrations coming off the neutralizer. We had it buttoned up and were heading for B18. I was towing my cart, Mike took over the one Jenny had been pulling. It was why we were called mules. Mile after mile, day in day out we pulled the carts, set the tents and the camps, recorded the data, did all the menial tasks. Funny, we actually volunteered for the shit too.
About two months after we lost our ship and any hope of leaving, there went out a call for teams. One of the brains that had caused the destruction of this planet had come up with an idea to maybe stabilize it long enough for evacuations to take place. Of course that was the Neutralizers, at that time there were 19 large cities and an unknown, to me anyway, quantity of small ones, and research sites. The overall science of the Neutralizers was thought to be sound and all the brains went to work building, modifying, and hoping to save some of the cities.
We spacers all volunteered of course. A few hundred more mules were acquired from the more menial sciences like hydroponics and genetic manipulation research into farm products like grains and animals. We were given crash courses on deploying and servicing the Neutralizers and associated equipment.
We came to find out all the big wigs that had actually caused the disaster had packed up and left in their private little spaceships, not even a by your leave or good luck suckers. Poof, gone.
Six cities were targeted to try to save and all the rest of the planet packed into them. I was told around six to eight million souls in each. They had been designed to accommodate two to three mil.
The teams finally set ring after ring of Neutralizers around the cities, this was long before the rifts actually appeared as little more than cracks. The huge service trucks dropped the equipment off at each site and we teams set them up, drilled the shafts and sunk the emitters. Each shaft was a different depth, depending on the ground they found. The solider the bedrock the better it was for the neturilizer to send its damping waves.
I was assigned to Vordel 61 along with the rest of our crew. We lost the Swed and Jacobs one day when a rift opened under the truck they and their team were sleeping in.
A week later Frank, and John died when they drove their truck off a chasm that was estimated at over a mile deep.
Through attrition Mike and I were the last of our original crew still alive. A few more trucks were lost and we were down to little pull carts and hoofing it. I think it was because of Brenda refusing to use trucks after the first went while others who were less energetic tried to keep using them and died. She actually had been training in the area of science that caused the catastrophe. She said we'd rather hump by hand and take five or even six days to complete the circuit than spend two and wind up dead. She was right of course, now all the teams were on foot, or so I heard.
Mike and I met Brenda and Jenny at a bar we hung out in. Well, it was called a bar. A college planet had college bars. All the latest rages in drinks and drugs, all legal, no questions asked. If you could afford to be on Vordel they felt they could afford to assume you to be a responsible adult. The planet made it clear there were no refunds for those who fried their brains or died of OD's. We'd already volunteered for the teams and listed the bar as our point of contact. Along with the Swed and Jacob we went there every night to drink away our lousy luck.
A girl named Fran had asked me and the Swed to join her team. He accepted, I declined, she had bought some drugs when she entered, I didn't mind too much but drugs messed with your mind and I didn't want to work for anyone that I couldn't trust to be 'right' in a pinch, a hangover hurt but didn't wipe out your common sense.
A few nights later Jacob was gone and two nights after that I saw Brenda come in. She ordered milk, I kid you not. Jenny was with her, she went for a Vodka and tonic. After a few minutes they approached and Brenda asked Mike, "You and he looking to become mules?"
Mike nodded. "Lyle here is the boss though. He outranks me by two grades."
She looked my way. Her blue eyes sparkling in the dim lights of the bar. Light brown hair, mid twenties, well stacked. A good looker. Jenny was younger by four or five, dirty blond, green eyes, little shorter but also a pretty girl. She stood there looking me over than asked me to stand. I did and she felt my arms. "Well, your not muscle bound but not flabby either. You and he want to join my team? I was assigned yesterday. Got four days until we roll. Names Brenda Delace, Senior fellow, working on my masters in Planetological geothermal physics…well, I was. This is Jenny, she actually came with me from our home planet called Ripkin. She is…was, studying Mechanical engineering and application of geothermal collection systems."
"I don't know, why us?" I asked.
"I know you're spacers so you're not the little worms we deal with here. We need guts and brawn. We have wells to drill, Neutralizers to anchor, and systems to run and coordinate. Our team has thirty-six of them assigned. Calos Rim spokes A and B…You dance?" she asked.
"You married or attached?" I asked.
"No, not even a steady. The workload here is…err was horrendous. When a planet government sends you here you can bet they want every Shekel's worth." I think a Shekel was around ten earth dollars.
"Well, the other team leader that asked us to join promised us all the booze and drugs we could use and 20 Shekels a day each. I turned her down. What is your offer?"
"Really? How stupid can you get! The last thing you want is some nut high on drugs handling delicate equipment!" She stopped dancing and looked me in the eyes.
"Not to worry," I told her. "I don't touch drugs, unless I'm sick. Mike either. It was why we didn't go; though a couple of our crew did." We started dancing again.
"Look, Lyle. I won't lie. The Shekels are no problem. You know that. The problem is the danger of dying. If this doesn't work we could all die."
"But if it doesn't work the whole planet does anyway, correct?" I asked her.
"Well, maybe, unless we can get more evacuated."
"Your offer?" I asked again.
"25 Shekels a day, booze during down time only. Um, if we seem compatible one night of fun per roundtrip?"
"Fun? As in sex?"
"If compatible, or maybe just some dancing. As nature calls it," she said.
"The other girl and Mike?"
"Same deal," she said. "We're not exactly prudes you know."
"I'll go. Up to Mike what he wants. If I'll probably die anyway I want to get a little fun time." She stopped again, for a few seconds, and then started again.
"If compatible, if not we dissolve the team after the first trip?" she asked.
"Then I am yours to command."
Mike accepted Jenny's similar offer.
That was eleven months ago. We were quite compatible.
Plop, plop, plop, on and on we walked. Soon I could see B18 and it sucked. Brenda saw it about the same time. "Damn," she said.
B18 now sat about twenty feet from the edge of the rim. The last trip it had been twice that. "Shit," Jenny said. "We can't get a truck out here to drill a new hole so we can't move it."
"Lyle, set up the scope and check A17 and 18 please?" Brenda asked.
I found the box and set up the spotter scope on its tripod. A little adjusting and I saw across the rift, now close to a half mile wide. I zoomed and searched. "A18 missing. A17 looks about twenty to twenty-five from the edge too."
"Shit, okay. Not much we can do about it now. We'll crunch the numbers for the next trip later. Let's see the readings on this one." She popped open the top panels and Jenny did the bottom. Mike was rummaging the clipboard for the readings.
"A to D?" Brenda asked and Mike read them off.
"E to H" Jenny asked and Mike sang out the numbers.
"Damn, way off," Jenny said.
"So was mine," Brenda said as the ground suddenly shook, knocking us off our feet. I immediately grabbed the cart to stop it from rolling away as Jenny grabbed her computer adapter. Soon the shake was over and things settled down. Mike said, "Just lost two feet from the rim."
"Well, pack it in and let's head back. We'll hit Alpha in four days," Brenda said. We needed to walk all the way back to 61, spend two days there and restock, get new data settings and then move to the other side of the rift and do it all again.
Once at the end of the line we went into fast walk mode. We could cover about 16 miles a day and it was 30 to the city. That night Brenda and I spent a little sack time trying to forget the coming destruction. As I lay there I asked once more why they hadn't thought of the consequence of what they were doing, knowing full well the possibilities."
"They thought it was a simple process, like fracking was used for collecting gas, molecular debonding could be used for energy collection. Hit a few billion Covalent Bonds and collect the energy released. It worked great in all the lab tests."
Covalent Bond?" I asked.
"Sorry. When a sharing of valence electrons happens between atoms, a covalent bond is formed. A polar covalent bond is formed when two atoms do not share the valence electrons equally. When you bust them up large amounts of energy are released. Problem is when they started the reaction they found they couldn't stop it. Not like they did in the labs. If it was nuclear you'd call it a runaway reaction. Luck has it that it spreads slowly but it spreads. The Neutralizers just slow it. Seems nothing can stop it. Slowly the planets mantle is falling apart. Rock-layer by rock-layer."
"Brenda, seriously, when we landed, even before it was this bad our ships vibrations caused the ground to crack. How will the ships evacuate us if they don't dare land? It's been bugging me."
"I asked the same thing. Only answer is the skybridges. Gonna be tricky but we can do it. Problem isn't that, problem is all two-thousand ships will only hold eight million, and that is stuffing them in. We have an estimated 37 Million still here and there is no way they will have another two years to get back here for more."
The next day we returned to the city, filed our reports and got drunk, even teetotaler Brenda. Brenda and I went to her apartment only to find it had been rifled. Everything was either destroyed or stolen. Mine was still intact so we stayed there.
Next day, in spite of, or maybe because of the pain of the hangover, I had thoughts running around. Thoughts of a spacer who was use to being shot at by Federation ships or having gun battles with the occasional pirates. Wondering how, or knowing how The Federation always seemed to be able to tell what we were doing. The Coalition of Planets had been fighting for control from the Federation for a few hundred years now, neither side winning. When Brenda was awake and in torment too I had to ask.
"Brenda, the last night on the B line you said it always worked fine in the labs. How did they turn it off or stop it?"
"What? Oh, the decoupling? They shut the bombardment power off. Why?"
"Look, before you go off about scientists would never this or that again, hear me out." We'd argued once or twice about how they, the cream of the scientific elite held the moral high ground over mere humans.
"What?" she asked.
"Where is the power from? What is sustaining it?"
"They said they went to deep with it. It somehow set up a chain reaction with the molten core which has huge amounts of free electrons running around. Why?" By this time she was sipping coffee and downing some aspirin.
"Doesn't make sense to me. You used the analogy of a nuclear reaction run wild. Fine, problem is it accelerates, faster and faster until it does a total meltdown."
"Our Neutralizers are helping stop that," she said.
"Are they really Brenda? What a few hundred, all placed around six cities on one continent are controlling a reaction going on over an entire planet? That doesn't seem logical to me. Also, you said all the people that actually developed this system and tested it have mysteriously run off leaving us holding the bag?" I asked and I saw her face get red as what I was implying dawned on her.
"NO! Professor Clemson and Doctor Mallard would never, no, not possible. Besides, why would they?"
"Control, money, power; who knows? I see the Coalition as having had one major think tank in its battle with the Federation, Vordel. I see the huge setback we already have, but what if it was all intentional? What if it was all designed to slowly destroy this planet and make it look like some miscalculated accident. How far would it set us back? Would it not stop us from looking into this as either a power source or a weapon?"
"Well, yeah, but what you suggest. We'd know, we'd see the records of the source," she said.
I had to laugh, though it hurt, so simple, so devious. "Would it? As you explained it to me what would do this is little bigger than a couple of our Neutralizers. Guess what happens when you have a few hundred Neutralizers blasting waves into bedrock."
"It would mask the source. No Lyle, if any of this were true they'd have already thought of it. Somebody would have."
"Who Brenda? You're about as close to the top in this field left on the planet, who would? Me? An untrained spacer? I see it clear as day, but all the people that actually should know are gone."
"Damn it Lyle, damn it and you too. Let me think." She brought up her tablet computer and started crunching numbers. Cussing or yelling at herself as I fed her coffee.
Late that night she sat back and stared at the blank wall in front of her for long moments. "Why didn't we see it? The math was there. Your right in that it would have accelerated and the entire planet would have ceased to exist long ago."
"Did the Neutralizers come about before or after they left?"
"Before, they said the Professor himself came up with the idea and I see now, it was to mask the source. The source has been slowly getting stronger, some preplanned program stepping it all up in stages, so simple, so deadly. I need to make some calls, and fast," she said.
"No, please don't," I told her.
"What? Why? We need to find the source or sources and shut them all down. People are dying every day because of this crap."
"Because this isn't some small plot hatched by a few fanatics is why. This has been in the works for years, maybe decades. They will have spy's running around. If it looks like we are onto the plan I bet they turn up the juice and the planet goes boom in a day or two. Their plan is to make it look like it is an uncontrollable area of science that we need to not tread upon, or else. I suspect the Federation is deep into this and will use this as some weapon against our other planets."
"But how, what can we do?"
"I'm no expert on anything but when we were fighting the Federation's Marque pirates we deployed sonabouys in space around our planet and any asteroids with critical assets. Some idea they got from the ancient Navy. It sent out low frequency wave signals and recorded the out and backs, like radar, but not as noticeable. The pattern was simple and the charts showed the cancellations from each buoys waves hitting the others. Any ship or missile coming in forced a return and they became seen."
"Your point on this?" she asked.
"If you plot ALL the neutralizers patterns, actions, and reactions, you'll find 'extras' in there, those will be the source of the problem. Look, I've seen you and Jenny design things to try and stabilize the frequency drifts and pass them up the chain only to have them implemented later. You need to design something that requires a shutdown for installation and while shut down it records and transmits all the received data from the other sites to a central point for analysis."
While we serviced the remaining Alpha side Neutralizers Brenda cooked up an adapter that needed implementation ASAP on all of them and we started collecting and processing the new data. In less than two months after the last were installed we isolated six areas on the planet that seemed to be putting out harmful bombardment waves. Waves I was assured by Brenda clearly were causing the slow erosion of the mantel of the planet. Problem was how to effectively shut them all down at the same time, find the spy or spies left behind, and find out how to insure justice is served against those that hatched this plot to begin with.
The only people we could really trust would be the teams of the six cities spread around the planet to increase the chance of some surviving; those of us who were risking their lives every day. A spy wouldn't be out risking their life; they would be monitoring and adjusting the ones doing the damage, to insure the destruction at the rate they planed, regardless of the efforts of the rest of us. I talked to Jenny and Mike and Brenda. If I was right we'd become targets and did we want to? The answer was hell yes, people were dying, and millions would.
Brenda quietly spread the word among the teams at Vordel 61, she sent runners to the other cities. We could save what was left of the planet, she had a plan. No, not open for discussion because it was believed we were being sabotaged. As suspected nothing came of it, the saboteurs had no one inside the teams.
Brenda contacted team leaders at all the cities and formed plans. We had two from each team acquire two man skimmers. These were powered by small cold fusion reactors that ran ducted fans to rubber skirts for lift and, in theory, could run pretty much forever. They had been developed only for use on the skybridges. Problem was crossing a crack over six feet wide would not end well. We managed to get one per team. During the next tuning cycle each four man team would peel off two members with the skimmer and hit one of the six sites, kill or capture anyone there and destroy the equipment. Problem was we didn't dare use voice com until we hit the sites. Still, four teams per city meant eight people could hit each of the six sites. Brenda and I were going for ours while Mike and Jenny played the maintenance game.
The day of reckoning came as we started the Alpha cycle again. When we cleared the city we acquired our skimmer and we bid Jenny and Mike goodbye. Calculating the longest travel time for any team at four days for the Vordel 23 people, we shot south along the rim of the rift until the city was out of sight. We then went west, carefully picking our way over open, cracked, and hot desert. By the end of the first day we covered half the distance to the suspect site. Along the way we met with James and Julia, they were from the team working our western side of Vordel 61. If all went well, we'd eventually meet up with the other two teams at the rally point, three miles from the target.
Brenda was driving, picking across small cracks and crevices when a small one, about two foot wide suddenly collapsed into one about ten feet wide. We slammed into the far wall and flipped and rolled. At least we lived and didn't fall into the deep chasm, but we were now on foot and Brenda hurt an arm pretty badly, not broke, but banged up to the point of being useless for a day or two.
Since we had been in front, the other team avoided the hole. We sent them on, we'd walk the rest of the way, still had time to make it, only about six miles to go, we'd see them there. As fate usually does, we never saw either of them again. I'm sure the earth simply swallowed them. We arrived at the meeting point to find one team had made it besides us. I set a light camp, just bedrolls. We still had almost a full day to wait.
We slept well that night and early the next day a third team showed, also on foot. "Damn ground just opened and swallowed the skimmer, we were just able to bail before it fell down the hole," the man named Bill said.
"Three miles to go, let's try to get there," Brenda said.
The site was a large concrete building with a small spaceship setting on a pad alongside it. It had been camouflaged to look like a grain silo, we found what it was when we tried to enter it. The site was one of the grain genetic engineering facilities. "Looks like it wasn't just the Geothermal people involved." I said.
Armed with our rifles we entered the building and found two young guys there. They seemed genuinely afraid after I shot one in both legs as he tried to run.
I won't go into the details of making them talk as the methods are probably against all the laws of humanity, but they sung loud and clear. They were all part of the Nex ut Coalition, or Death to the Coalition group; hardcore Federation reactionaries. They didn't know it all, but they were told it was over forty years in the planning.
As the time came we shut it down and hoped other teams had the same luck. "Make the call." I told her.
We called a general alert and notified the powers that be what was happening. Five sites went down but the sixth didn't. It wasn't strong enough to tear the planet by itself and was eventually destroyed. We flew back to Vordel 61 in a very small and tightly packed spaceship and gingerly landed on a skyway.
I won't say I remember all the partying we did, because I don't. The Coalition forces took over the investigation and running down the parties involved. As soon as word got out though, most of them simply vanished. Those that could, beat feet to a Federation outpost I'm sure. Vordel was abandoned; the mantle was just too unstable. Maybe we'd go back in a million years.
Mike, being younger, simply went back to spacing and we never heard from him again. Jenny still was attached at the hip to Brenda and was an assistant of hers.
Me? I married Brenda and we went back to her planet, Ripkin. She was now a famous Professor at a major college. Life is good. I work as the college gardener, still a mule who is hauling shit around all day.