THE WHITE RIDE
Previously: Holmesworld Bound
Themesong: The Mighty Quinn by Manfred Mann
The speakers of Zane’s ship “The Jade Lotus” blared with the sounds of the Earth-That-Was tune about a powerful Eskimo, pumped at maximum volume through the cargo bay… and still it did nothing to drown out the howl of the blizzard just outside.
I signed “why are we trying to kill our ear drums with this noise.” to which Zane sang “Come on without, Come on Within, you ain’t see nothing like the mighty oooof-” he grinned at me and turned the music down as AJ battled the tempest. This job had been two months in the planning and turned almost entirely on AJ’s ability to hold the Lotus still long enough to provide wind cover for our team outside. Zane and I were inside, carefully guiding the operation and ready, once the pylons were sunk into the pack ice beneath us, to trigger the winches and laser cutters. Of course, that’s when the biggest gust yet picked up a chunk of ice the size of something once known as a Buick and smashed it into the hull… the Lotus jerked and I fell, gasping, into the white void, the gale snatching at my limbs and tossing me like a ragdoll… but maybe I should go back to the beginning.
Two Months Earlier
“I swear. I seen the thing with my own eyes!”
“Yeah, right Weiss. If what you’re saying about this base is true, how is it that you got out before they managed to move it off planet?”
“It was embedded in the rockface still when I had my accident… that’s what caused the accident, I tell yah. I hit it with my jack and the whole thing just fell apart like every nut and bolt was cracked in half instantly. Twernt natural it were.”
“And then, the Alliance just sent you off knowing what you know?”
“No. No. See, I was hurt bad… the jack blade shot backward like it were one of them cat-snakes what’d bitten into an livewire… cept of course, it was made of solid metal and hit me in the chest… and went clean through. Shoulda killed me… Alliance medboy couldn’t figure out why as I was still livin and all… so, since the shipment were goin’ out in a couplea days, they stuck me on to get some scans and sciency stuff. Landtrain runs from Kodiak alla way to Whiteout… pole to pole or near nuff, ain’t no one who ain’t a mucky mucky in the liance got clue one exactly where Kodiak is, ceptin somewhere under the packice and down deep enough to make yer ears pop on the trip back up.”
I grunted, nodding. “So why aren’t you in an Alliance hospital being pocked and prodded, Weiss?”
“See, that’s the thing. Durring the trip, I… got this… I dunno… feeling, a second sense if you reckon, that I wasn’t safe stickin round. So I convinced, as it were, the doc that I needed to stretch my legs a bit. I could walk even with the hole… just hard to catch my breath’n all… and he, seein’ as how I was all injured and stuff, let me do so without a guard…. Cause, you know, where was I gonna go on a Landtrain in the middle of no-where inna blizzard, see?” I nodded again, pushing the plate of greasy fries towards the moron with the information I needed and tried to be patient. “Then I jimmied open one of the outer doors and hid myself nearby when they came to look. Thought I’d gotten myself kilt… but I ain’t that stupid. Momma di’nt raise no idjit. Once the train pulled into Whiteout, I snuck off and stowed away aboard the first ship I could find… and that’s how I met yer man here.” He crooked a thumb at Zane who growled menacingly.
“He means that the crew of the ship he stowed away were less than pleased after catching him sneaking off their ship at Calico and chased him right into our midst, forcing us to defend ourselves.”
“Aye, and right preciative I am, Capin.”
I rolled my eyes. “And you’ve been Zane’s guest for almost 6 weeks now.”
“But you didn’t mention this object until today because…?”
“Oh. Well, I did, kinda… that’s why Zane… the Capin… why he let me stay… cause I said as I had some information as might be worth it to someone as collected information… I jus din’t specificy zactly what kind of information… and now you’s as being here and you’s payin’ enough for me to vanish-”
“If the information pans out and your details match… you’ll get your money.”
“Money’s nice… but you could be plannin on dumpin’ me in the black, or turnin’ me over to the Liance for t’bounty.”
“Do you know who you’re dealing with, Weiss?”
“Yer Senet. The Gamesmaster. Things don’t happen without your say so.”
“And do I have a reputation for screwing people who help me, Weiss?” I put bite into his name and he flinched.
“Didn’t mean noffin, Mistress.”
“Good. Now walk me through this again, from the beginning. Slowly. Leave nothing out.”
Weiss was a miner, a rockhound, and had been hired by the Alliance to work in their not particularly secret mining city of Kodiak. The reason Kodiak wasn’t secret was it didn’t need to be. The entire town was located under the polar ice cap on Denali, the moon of the planet Glacier, and served essentially one purpose. Kodiak was a mine, as one might imagine, one that pulled ytterbium and iridium out of a deep impact site a few million years old. Both were vital to the Alliance’s weapons developement and production system, and Kodiak was the largest source for both in the Verse.
Unfortunately for the Alliance, Kodiak, and all of Denali really, were terrible places to try and extract anything. All the settlements on Denali were either in the mountains, whose high crags minimized the impact of the hurricane-like blizzards that routinely scoured the surface, or under massive ice domes. The sole exception to this was Whiteout. The site of the only spaceport on the planet, Whiteout was located at the southern pole, half-way round the world from Kodiak, and built atop a high plateau that kept it mostly free of the near endless storm cycle. Whiteout had a functional magnetic field and was, by all accounts, a nice enough place, frequented by ice-miners, winter sports enthusiasts, and crazy people… I mean mountaineers looking for challenges. Denali itself was tilted over on its side with regards to Glacier, the northern pole, the one Kodiak was under, pointed right at the parent planet and tidally locked there, the gravity of the primary pulling the ice mountains at the pole higher and higher with each passing year… and of course, where there’s a mountain, there’s a madman willing to risk his or her life to climb it.
What this all meant is that, in order for the Alliance to get its precious metals off planet, they had to truck stuff all the way down to the south pole… across mountains, shifting ice packs, and snow drifts deep enough to drop a battlecruiser… point first. And since the metals were precious, they had to be protected every step of the way… which meant that there were a dozen potential routes, each of them classified, and no one knew which the base commander would use.
The mine’s output was impressive, but the weather and hardship involved meant that the base only sent out a load once every 180 days, transported in a landtrain, a massive hovering battlewagon hauling 7 equally massive cargo cars and a trio of passenger cars / cabooses… each outfitted with defensive weaponry sufficient to hold off a regiment of Browncoats. And the whole thing could cover 240 kilometers in an hour.
The base at the Whiteout end was a heavily armed military camp. Taking the prize, which was, apparently, at least three times the size of a human being, would not be as easy as driving a truck in and sneaking it out. It would be under heavy guard until it was extracted and sent off to who knows where. If I wanted it, I’d have to take it off the train.
Which is where planning came in. Each of the routes was maintained by a different engineering group, to limit the number of people who knew about them. Each of those engineering groups had had to be subverted, either through blackmail, the pleasures of the flesh, the debts of gambling, or just getting one of our creepifying government assassins near enough. After that it was a matter of damaging in apparently natural ways, 7 of them so badly that they couldn’t be used. This was a statistical outlier, but apparently each route, all of which wound through protected canyons, sub-ice tunnels, and mountain passes, had approximately a 40% chance of being unusable during any given season. And even if the commander got suspicious, he would have essentially no choice but to send the transport anyway, since its return trip would bring supplies badly needed for the 80,000 miners and support crew and families in Kodiak.
A moonquake wiped out three of them, avalanches another two, and a sudden liquefaction event took out the sixth. The seventh had been sabotaged from within by its own engineer who owed some very bad people a very large amount of money and was willing to do pretty much anything to square his account, including committing suicide in order to leave his family the business debt free. It was a menchey kind of thing to do, even if he was otherwise a scumbag. That left five routes, three of them clustered relatively closely together, the other two roughly 1/3rd of the way around the moon from each other and the triplet. They were all chosen for specific reasons and each of them had a structural weakness that could be exploited… which brings us back to the moment and explains what we were doing hovering over a patch of ice in the middle of a blizzard. We were exploiting a weakness.
The weakness in question in all cases, was a place where an ice tunnel and a mountain tunnel linked up. Each of those locations had a Prager and Lang field stabilizer, which minimized vibrations in the rock to keep the ice around the tunnel merger from liquefying from the vibrations caused by the passage of the Landtrain. It wasn’t a huge problem, as under normal usage there would only be a small amount of slippage with each usage… but over time it could lead to a catastrophic failure, and the nature of the beast was that such a failure would happen just as the train was coming through the rock tunnel, far too fast to stop as the ice tunnel shattered like glass and rained a few megatons of glacier and meltwater down on the speeding conveyance.
Now, we had no intention of making the failure that bad… we wanted to disable the Landtrain… not bury it or destroy it. And so we were retuning each of the field stabilizers… but that meant cutting through the roughly 12 to 16 meters of ice covering the damned things, hoisting the massive blocks of ice up, getting into the gap and changing the settings… then slotting the ice back in place as smooth as can be. In theory. It had gone swimmingly the first three times, but they were in relatively shielded locations. The fourth was both exposed and, most annoying, the blizzardcaine we were certain would swing south had swung north and hit us halfway through the process… which is why I was now falling out of a cargo bay.
Zane grabbed my arm, his free hand grabbing at the hanging cable. The jerk of contact wasn’t too bad, but the downward force of the fall transferred into sideways motion, and I swung, facefirst, into the edge of the hatch. Dazed, I clung to Zane’s arm as we slid, helplessly, down the anchor cable, slowed only by the burn of Zane’s glove-covered grip. We hit hard, inches from where Kagetane was manning the laser cutter under Francy’s sensor guidance.
“Hey boss, nice of you to drop in.” he said with a snarky chuckle. I could only groan. Thankfully, I was wearing all the padding in the known universe, since it was approximately all the degrees below freezing out there, but my goggles were cracked and my nose felt decidedly bruised, as did my ass and ego. Zane’s hand had to be hurting as well, and his ankle had definitely snapped in the landing. And to make matters worse, AJ’s voice announced “Got a high altitude sensor boat just cresting the horizon.”
“Shiiit… time to get clear?”
“Hard to say… looks like it’s doing a slow sweep. Maybe… 30 minutes to be on the safe side, though I’d prefer 20.”
I rolled my head to look at Francy. “Can we get the field tuned and set in time?” She shook her head “No chance. We’re having too much trouble getting through the ice here. It’ll take at least 20 just to finish the cut and get the block up.” Shit. The retuning took 15 minutes. Damn it… “Give me the cutter.” I snarled.
“You’re not going to be able to do it faster, boss.” Kagetane said, but he handed it over as directed.
“Not going to. Francy… where’s the front of the stabilizer. The control panel. I need an exact line.” She studied her scan for 20 seconds, then painted a hologram on the ice. “Right, stand back.” I cranked the cutter to max burn and opened the aperture to the one meter mark. Then I fired it, holding the thing steady as a huge gout of steam blasted upward. “Francy!” I yelled “Give me a depth reading… keep’m coming!”
It took 7 minutes and the cutter was going to need a new … everything… but we had a hole. It was full of steam and the bottom of the shaft would be claustrophobic and full of water and subtle it wasn’t, but there was a hole. “Kagetane. Get this and Zane up to the ship. Francy… I hate doing this. Get down there and get that thing tuned. We lift in 16.”
Give the girl credit. She didn’t even hesitate. There was a better than even chance I’d just sent her to her death, but she, better than most, understood that, and understood the price of failure. If we got the Banker back, we would be free of this place. If we didn’t, we’d all die here, one way or another. We already knew that those who died here didn’t respawn, something we’d learned when Ahab had been senselessly killed in a terror bombing in Baxter. CP guaranteed items likewise weren’t proof against the ravages of time or senseless violence.
I checked my chrono. “AJ, time to intercept?”
“Not good. It’s moving faster. We’ve got to get gone in the next 10 or we’ve got to shut down at wait to it to pass…” he didn’t say, but I understood, that doing so would be almost certain doom. Shutting down meant killing all power, and in this temperature, that meant the hull would freeze over and the engine lock solid in the time it took the probe to pass. We had to outrun it but stay within the storm.
“Francy? How’s it going?”
“Go. Leave me here. Finish the mission and get everyone out.”
“Not leaving you kiddo.”
“You have to. My legs are already frozen in place. I’m not getting out of this hole.”
Shit. I hadn’t expected the ice to set that fast… she could be lying. But there was no way to prove it. She had the damned scanner. “Francy… you.”
“I’ll see you all once you get clear. No hard feelings. It’s cold logic… “ I cursed again, then did what I had to do. I couldn’t go into the hole… I wouldn’t even fit, and if I was lost, we all were. “I love you kiddo.” I said, holding my voice steady, then grabbed the lat anchor cable and pulled it hard, twice. The wench wound me up into the waiting ship. “AJ… floor it.”
Later, when he asked where Francy was, when I answered him… that was the closest my little AJ ever came to lashing out at me. I couldn’t blame him. I pulled him close and held him close as he wept his heart out. I added another pair of marks against Mensarius to my mental tally, one for Francy’s sacrifice and another for AJ’s pain.
And thanks to all that, we no longer had the time, crew, or focus needed to handle the fifth and most challenging of the field stabilizers… which meant I was faced with a dilemma. Either I had to accept that there was a 20% chance of failure of our mission and Francy’s sacrifice being rendered meaningless… or do the unthinkable and rig the tunnel to completely collapse. That had a 20% chance of potentially causing the deaths of thousands… and ran the risk of completely burying the train. The risk wasn’t worth it and I could not live with causing such needless suffering. The chance had to be taken.
The gods of random chance were, it seems, with me… or simply acknowledged the bravery of a young woman named Francine, for, right on schedule, the Landtrain came thundering down that very tunnel and, as planned, the packed ice and snow gave way as the vibrations ripped the lattice apart and, with a tortured scream the tunnel roof let go, dumping enough snow and ice to stop the train cold. The sound of the massive cars smashing into each other, their armored and reinforced hulls scraping against each other was ear splitting even from our reinforced bunker a kilometer distant. We set out at once, dressed in dark arctic camo, Zane with the bum-leg bringing up the loader, and each of us armed with stun weaponry.
The crew of the train were just coming out to see what had happened and most of them looked pretty banged up, but we were dozens of meters underground (underice really) and they weren’t expecting an ambush. Most of them went down without ever realizing the threat, and those who didn’t went down before being able to spot us.
We moved like ghosts through the train’s passages, lobbing sleep gas grenades and fusing doors shut, then brought up the loader and with no small amount of effort got the three meter tall gently glowing alabaster statue off the train. I glanced at the face of the icon and shuddered. It looked like John Cleese playing the Virgin Mary. Someone had a sick sense of humor.
We were just leaving the train when a familiar face popped up… right behind a fist aimed at my head. “I thought I smelled a whore.” snarled Dobson, the Fed who’d nearly killed Kaylee way back in the first “episode”, and who I’d spared once upon a time, for reasons I couldn’t quite remember now.
“Never,” I grunted as I dropped, not from the blow but seemingly so, and thrust out with a snap kick from ground level aimed right at his knee. It cracked alarming and he began to fall “Say.” my second kick drove him back into the cargo hold and I rolled forward to grab him into a suplex “Whore.” I drove him into the ceiling head first “As an insult.” I grimaced… he wasn’t dead… but I couldn’t let him live to explain who’d pulled the heist. I chuckled, then waved Kagetane over. “Pull as many crates of iridium as we can load, then make it look like Dobby here was the inside man and got greedy. You’ve got… 15 minutes.” Kagetane grinned. It would take him ten.
A day later and many light minutes distant from Denali, we raised a toast to friends absent and damnation to the enemy. We all knew who that was.
Next: Wintertide on Summerfair