Extract / Preview: The Ark by Patrick S Tomlinson

NOTE: Where normally we bring you an extract from the beginning of the book, we’ve been given an exclusive excerpt of Patrick S Tomlinson’s THE ARK jumping straight into the action at Chapter 7!

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CB - AR - Nov - The Ark CHAPTER SEVEN
The starboard manipulator arm disintegrated into a violent swarm of tiny projectiles pinging off the acrylic sphere like a shotgun blast, leaving a dozen chips in the glass and sending the pod spinning out of control.
“Mayday!”Benson shouted into the com as the Ark tumbled into and out of his view. “Mayday! I’m hit!”
Only years spinning around in the Zero ring kept him from blacking out or throwing up. Warning lights blinked angrily all around him, while an alarm screamed throughout the tiny cabin loud enough to ring in his ears until his visor snapped shut, silencing them.
“Mayday, does anyone copy?” Bursts of static filled his ears. “Mayday. I’m calling from inside the EVA pod.”

*
Agonizing seconds ticked by while Benson waited for a response. The pod’s gyrations continued unabated. The com was his only hope, he was way outside of the range of his plant’s wireless connection.

Memories of his rookie season came flooding back unexpectedly, when he’d first been strapped into the “Gyrotron.” Ostensibly, it was a training tool meant to acclimatize rookies to the disorientation of microgravity. In practice, it was a way to knock cocky newbies down a peg by making them puke in front of their teammates. He’d been put in it four times his first season before the lesson finally sank in.

An eternity later, a message finally came through, albeit in text form projected on the inside of the canopy glass.

–This is Command. Your main coms appear to be out. Connection limited to emergency backup. What is your status?–

Benson touched an icon to switch his transmissions to voice-to-text. “I’ve been hit by a meteor. Starboard arm is gone. Hangar’s control has been lost and I’m spinning like a piñata. I need local control restored. Send.”

Vertigo set in. No matter how much training or experience, no one could fend it off forever in such a chaotic spin.

–Hangar reports it cannot restore control. There’s a manual override in the cabin.–

“What does it look like? Send.”

–It is a small amber light that started blinking after the connection was cut.–

“They’re ALL fucking blinking! Send!”He immediately regretted shouting as bile rose in his throat.

–Standby…–

“Really, an ellipsis?”Benson laughed at the punctuation if only to keep his growing panic at bay for a few seconds longer.

–Amber light. Control panel by your right shoulder.–

He craned his head around inside the helmet and spotted the light. With the gyrations throwing off his aim, it took three tries, but Benson finally landed a thumb on it. Half of the blinking lights switched off immediately, while a new holographic HUD and systems interface overlaid themselves on the inside of the cracked canopy glass. The twin joysticks built into his chair’s armrests also seemed to stiffen.

“Got it. Send.”

–Your joysticks are feedback sensitive. Push in the direction of the most resistance to slow the spin.–

Benson wiggled the sticks around until he found where they seemed to be pushing back the hardest, then cranked down on them as hard as he could. The pod groaned and shook as the thrusters fired at full strength. A cloud of gas shot out in every direction, enveloping the pod like a ninja’s smoke bomb and completely obscuring any outside point of reference Benson had. He had to fall back on the artificial horizon on the HUD.

Gradually, glacially, the pod’s chaotic spin slowed, but the attitude and angle kept drifting. Benson had to make constant adjustments to the joysticks to keep up. A new warning flashed crimson across the HUD: THRUSTER PROPELLANT 30%.

He was burning though propellant too fast. Unless he stopped soon, he wouldn’t have enough left to turn around and return to the Ark. He’d just have to tap into the emergency reserve. There was always an emergency reserve. Right?

By the time Benson brought the pod to heel, scarcely ten percent of the propellant remained. The cloud of spent gas dissipated as quickly as it had formed, leaving him alone with the galaxy once more. He caught a glimpse of the Ark’s aft plate off to port. For quite a long time, he just sat soaked through with cold sweat, breathing heavily, and waiting for the fluid in his inner ears to stop spinning.

Still disoriented, Benson went to wipe the sweat of his face, but his hand bounced off glass. It was a moment before the enormity of the crisis sunk in. If his helmet had sealed, that meant…

He looked up at the array of tiny pockmarks in the glass dome. One of them was significantly bigger than the others. Big enough to go straight through the acrylic. The puncture was deceptively small, no more than a half centimeter across. It was enough. The cabin was entirely out of air. The vac-suit had saved his life, after all.

–Detective Benson. What is your status?–

He couldn’t help but chuckle. “I’m swell. How about you? Send.”

–Have you regained control of the pod?–

“Yes. But the cabin’s been punctured. There’s no more internal air, and I’m down to ten percent propellant. Figure I have about half an hour to wrap this up. Send.”

–Recovery is aborted. Return to the portside hangar immediately.–

Oh, like hell it is, Benson thought. “Didn’t copy that last. You’re breaking up. Send.”

He cut the connection before Command had a chance to respond and turned his attention back to the space outside his little bubble. If the ass end of the Ark was to port, then the body would be to starboard, provided it hadn’t been hit by debris from the pod and knocked clear.

With one eye glued on the propellant status, Benson goosed the pod around ninety degrees to try to spot the body again. He didn’t have the benefit of the radar telemetry from the Ark, and half of the pod’s floodlights had been lost with the starboard manipulator arm.

With his blood still drenched with adrenaline and another panic attack threatening to grab hold of him, Benson stopped everything long enough to bring his breathing back under control. He’d already gone through the propellant too quickly, no sense burning up the oxygen just as recklessly. The short break took the edge off his nerves and gave his sense of balance time to center itself as well.

After some trial and error with the control interface, Benson figured out which toggle controlled the remaining spotlight, and even managed to synch it up to track his eye movements. He slowly, deliberately scanned the field in a grid pattern. His excitement rose when the beam returned a bright reflection, but a closer look revealed it was the remains of the severed manipulator arm.

Benson spared a thought for the meteor that had come so close to killing him. How big had it been? At their relative velocities, it could have been as small as an eyelash. E=MC2 was a harsh mistress. But really, it had been a fluke. What were the odds he’d run afoul of another one?

Growing by the second, said the analytical part of his brain uninterested in bullshitting itself. Thankfully, a familiar ink blot floated into his peripheral vision. A small ranging laser built into the spotlight module put the body at just over a hundred meters away.

Benson knew enough about microgravity maneuvering to know that for every percent of propellant he used up getting to the body, he’d need to use three more to slow back down, turn around, speed back up, and then slow back down again once he reached the Ark, and he would need something left in the tank for last minute maneuvering to the nearest lock.

So, from a fuel standpoint, slower was better. But from a not-suffocating-to-death and not-getting-exploded-by-space-dust perspective, speed was king. Catch-22.

Benson decided it would be best to burn the thrusters down a point-and-a-half to reach the body, but no more. The pod swayed gently as the thrust built up. By the time he cut the throttle, he was only doing three meters per second relative to the Ark. The trip was the longest thirty-seven seconds of his life. Benson was careful to angle the pod ever so slightly away from the body before hitting the thrusters to avoid pushing it further away.

The body slowly span in space, rigid as a statue. The moment came that Benson finally had to look into the face of the victim. Despite being desiccated and discolored, it obviously matched Edmond Laraby’s pictures, twisted into a frozen, primal scream. His bulging eyes had pushed themselves out from behind their lids.

Benson did his best to avoid the corpse’s gaze and keyed up the manipulator arm controls, but that led to yet another warning, this time about a loss of hydraulic pressure. Debris must have punctured the line. He’d have one grab, maybe two, before the system ran dry.

“Does anything on this boat not have a hole in it?”Benson shouted to the heavens. He wondered, not for the first time, which of the pantheon of deities mankind still worshiped that he had upset.

Fortunately, the pod’s controls had proven to be surprisingly intuitive. The arm was no different. Benson found a brief tutorial on how to use it inside the command interface. Once activated, the arm simply mimicked the operator’s own arm movement. He reached out for the late Mr Laraby’s ankle. A cone of finely atomized hydraulic fluid shot out the side of the arm. In his haste to grab Laraby before the fluid all bled out, Benson misjudged the distance and hit the body in the calf, sending it tumbling away and out of reach.

Benson swallowed a curse and nudged the pod forward just enough to close the gap once more, but burned up another few tenths of a percent of the remaining propellant to do so. Benson reached out again, more gingerly this time, trying to match his movements to the body’s rotation. The last of the fluid squirted out into the vacuum like a new constellation.

With a last frantic grasp, Benson reached out and snagged himself an ankle. Fortunately, the claw was run off electric actuators instead of hydraulic pressure, so he didn’t have to worry about Laraby’s remains drifting off again. As soon as Benson had the body secured, he spun the pod back around to face the Ark, then burned for home, using as much of the remaining propellant as he dared. It earned him a meager two meters per second relative speed. Considering he was over three kilometers out, it was going to be a long trip back, maybe too long.

With the imminent threat of oxygen starvation chewing at his nerves, Benson passed the time going over the body in great detail, trying to reconstruct the last few terrible minutes of Laraby’s life. The man was underdressed for a spacewalk, in the same scrubs Benson had seen the other environmental techs wear. No pressure suit, no helmet, missing a shoe. He had probably dressed for work the same way every day for months.

The exposed skin on his face and hands was too discolored to get any sense of bruising or signs of a struggle. Hopefully, an autopsy would be able to tell vacuum damage from other injuries, if any. The trouble was, with almost everyone dying of old age, the two doctors who served double duty as coroners had about as much experience examining potential murder victims as Benson himself did.

The other option, of course, was Laraby had simply decided to go for a swim without his trunks for his own reasons. Suicides were not unheard of, but still rare for several reasons. First, the most effective methods, guns and drugs, were nonexistent in the case of the former, and tightly controlled in the case of the latter. Coupled with the fact the seed population for the Ark had been screened for psychological disorders just as thoroughly as they had been for disease and genetic defects meant their great-great-great grandchildren were still largely free of depression and anxiety, at least as chronic conditions.

So what would convince a young man, respected for the work he was doing, and living in an enviable home, to off himself in just about the most violent and terrifying way possible? A few people over the years had taken a long step off the top of one of the residential towers, but to Benson’s recollection, no one had ever voluntarily blown themselves out of an airlock.

As a method of suicide, it didn’t make much sense. As a way to get rid of an inconvenient body, on the other hand, it was very convenient indeed. A decomposing body would be very difficult to hide anywhere onboard. The smell alone would be nearly impossible to contain. And the best way to get rid of a body, through the recycling process, would leave genetic material all over the place even after it had been dissolved, and that was assuming you could convince the reclamation techs to process a body “off the books”in the first place.

Benson thought back to Laraby’s absolutely sterile house. If his instinct was right and it had been scrubbed intentionally, then the hypothetical killer wasn’t one to take those kinds of chances. Shoving someone out of an airlock left no body behind to confirm a murder had even taken place.

But that scenario had problems of its own. First, locks were all under camera observation. Second, and more perplexing at the moment, was why Laraby’s body was still here at all. As massive as the Ark was, its native gravity field was still extremely weak compared to Earth normal. Someone standing on the surface of the hull could achieve escape velocity with an overly-enthusiastic hop. Somebody who went to all this trouble surely would have known that and given Laraby’s body a healthy enough shove to ensure he floated clear. So why hadn’t they?

And how did the Monet fit into all of this, and what about the extremely convenient plant system glitch that had let Laraby’s disappearing act go unnoticed for hours? Discovering the body hadn’t really done anything but confirm what Benson had already known in the back of his mind. Instead of answering the hows and whys, Laraby’s body only opened up more vexing questions.

None of which would be answered if Benson didn’t bring his attention back to the sixteen kilometer ship growing in the canopy at an unsettling rate.

He glanced down at range and speed indicators. The pod’s speed had grown from two meters per second, to nearly five. He hadn’t hit the thrusters again, yet even as he watched the number trickled up. He was falling towards the Ark. Weak or not, its gravity was pulling him in.

“Stupid!”Benson actually hit himself on the side of the helmet. The low oxygen was affecting his brain. He hadn’t factored in the extra speed now piling on from the Ark’s gravity. Did he have enough propellant left to avoid a collision? How much more punishment could the pod take? The next few minutes were about to get very interesting.

He reopened the link back to Command. “This is Benson. I’ve completed recovery operations, but I’m low on O2, almost out of propellant and am in danger of crashing into the Ark. Please advise. Send.”

The response came quickly. –Ah, detective, we’re glad to see your communication system has miraculously healed itself.–

“Hilarious, Feng. I’m in a bit of a jam out here. Send.”

The Ark swelled beyond his field of vision, yet still it grew. Benson and the pod were being pulled ever so gently towards its center of mass, which happened to be the giant habitat modules spinning at hundreds of kilometers per hour. They were the absolute last place he wanted to crash into, except maybe the nuclear bomb vaults back in engineering.

Stars traced little paths through his field of vision. Benson grew dizzy and gulped for air.

“This is serious! Send!”

–Hangar informs us that there’s a small emergency reserve of propellant aboard, but you shouldn’t be so low in the first place. One or more propellant tanks must have been punctured in the accident. Without telemetry from the pod, we can’t know if the reserve is still intact.–

Benson’s stomach dropped to his feet, which was a curious sensation in microgravity. It came down to a roll of the dice. He goosed the joystick to angle the pod back towards the area of the hangars and away from the habitats, then began terminal maneuvers with the dwindling hope that the label wouldn’t prove prescient.

The pod passed back inside the protective umbrella of the Ark’s forward shield. At the very least, he had survived the shooting gallery, not that the realization gave him much comfort as the engineering section loomed. His speed had grown to seven and a half meters per second. The distance dropped to one hundred meters.

“Showtime.”

He opened the taps on the thrusters. Harsh deceleration threw him forward into the harness and squeezed his chest. Already struggling for breath, Benson shook his heavy head and clung to consciousness. The propellant gauge counted down alarmingly fast as many dozens of cubic meters of gas escaped into the void between stars. In a handful of seconds, it reached zero. Benson’s heart froze in his chest just as solidly as the corpse outside.

The thrusters continued to fire as the display turned red and the digits went into the negatives, eating up the emergency reserve. The pod’s speed fell back below four meters per second, then below three as the distance continued to drop away. His vision shrank at the edges, as though he was looking into a tunnel.

Then, with forty meters left, the thrusters ran dry.

“Thrusters are spent. Impact with the hull in, uh, some seconds. If you could have someone come and get me that would be great. Send.”

The hull was only meters away, but his sight was too cloudy to make out any detail. Then the tunnel closed in around him. As Benson plunged into blackness, the last thing he saw was the canopy silently shatter against the hull.

 

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From Angry Robot – About the author: 

Patrick S. Tomlinson is the son of an ex-hippie psychologist and an ex-cowboy electrician. He lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with a menagerie of houseplants in varying levels of health, a Ford Mustang, and a Triumph motorcycle bought specifically to embarrass and infuriate Harley riders.

When not writing sci-fi and fantasy novels and short stories, Patrick is busy developing his other passion for performing stand-up comedy.

You can find Patrick online at his website: www.patrickstomlinson.com, on Twitter @stealthygeek and on Facebook.

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You can read more on THE ARK on our Jul-Dec 15 Angry Robot Books page or our November New Book Recommends.

And there’s more extracts from our pick of titles – you can see in order of most recent in our EXTRACTS ARTICLES CATEGORY,  and below in order that we put them out!

 

DAVE VS THE MONSTERS: EMERGENCE – John Birmingham
SKY PIRATES – Liesel Schwarz
BLOOD RED CITY – Justin Richards
RADIANT STATE – Peter Higgins
THE SUMMONER – Taran Matharu
MARKED – Sue Tingey
BETE – Adam Roberts
FOUL TIDES TURNING – Stephen Hunt
STEEPLE – John Wallace
CRASHING HEAVEN – Al Robertson
BENEATH LONDON – James Blaylock
OUR LADY OF THE STREETS – Tom Pollock
CAUSAL ANGEL – Hannu Rajaniemi
YOUR SERVANTS AND YOUR PEOPLE – David Towsey
THE SEVENTH MISS HADFIELD – Anna Caltabiano
DETECTIVE STRONGOAK AND THE CASE OF THE DEAD ELF – Terry Newman
THE RELIC GUILD – Edward Cox
FOXGLOVE SUMMER – Ben Aaronovitch
THE MOON AND THE SUN – Vonda McIntyre
PATH OF GODS – Snorri Kristjansson
TIME SALVAGER – Wesley Chu
REGENERATION – Stephanie Saulter
THE SUPERNATURAL ENHANCEMENTS – Edgar Cantero
THE RETURN OF THE DISCONTINUED MAN – Mark Hodder
THE MARTIAN – Andy Weir
KOKO THE MIGHTY – Kieran Shea
THE UNNOTICEABLES – Robert Brockway
IF/THEN – Matthew de Abaitua
THE SAND MEN – Christopher Fowler
THE DRAGON ENGINE – Andy Remic
YOUR RESTING PLACE – David Towsey
THE NIGHT CLOCK – Paul Meloy
MYTHMAKER – Marianne de Pierres
THE RETURN OF THE ARINN – Frank P Ryan
WAY DOWN DARK – J P Smythe
LIMIT – Frank Schatzing
DREAMLAND – Robert L Anderson
THE ARK – Patrick S Tomlinson