This week the Kestrel arrives at Pallas to assist at the mine rescue and Captain Darrow talks to the base administrator Wil Jones. Get comfy, it’s a long one! To read from the beginning, go here. I picture Andrew Chambers as actor Chris Pine.
Intruders chapter 4 scenes 1 & 2
Since Chambers had his own duties to take care of, Tabitha didn’t see him until they met at the airlock after landing at Pallas. They were in the rear of the assembled crew.
Pulling the lip she’d been worrying from between her teeth, she looked up at Chambers beside her.
‘The Captain said I could help,’ she whispered, 'but I, er, I’m not sure how useful I can be.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Chambers said quietly, offering a reassuring smile, ‘just stay alert and do as you’re told.’
‘I’m glad we don’t have to wear suits.’
‘As long as the dome is intact, they can control the atmosphere and gravity inside. You’ll be fine.’
‘This is my first alien soil, you know.’
‘You mean you’ve never left Alpha?’
‘Don’t forget that Alphans don’t want anything to do with the rest of the galaxy. I’ve been trying all my life to get away from there.’
‘Now here you are - and here we go!’
The outer airlock doors opened and Chambers gently nudged her forward.
Her first sight of "alien soil" was a bit disappointing. Inside the dome the ground was rock, dry and dusty, and they were surrounded by low block buildings. The lighting obscured the sky, so there wasn’t much to see, really. They could be in an industrial complex anywhere. Even back on Alpha, Tabitha thought. She couldn’t entirely contain her disappointment, but she managed to internalise it.
The crew were met by an older man, grey haired and slim, but his musculature proved he was still fit. Recognising Darrow’s yellow armband, he shook his hand.
‘Wil Jones, Base Administrator. Excuse the dirt, Captain, we all muck in here. I’m glad the message got through.’
‘I’m Captain Darrow. This is my MO, Dr Robinson, and my Engineer, Commander Blackwell. If you direct them, they can help your doctor and engineer. This is my First Officer, Commander Holland and most of our crew. We’ve brought digging and lifting equipment. If you brief Commander Holland, they are at your disposal. Then I’d like to meet with you and get an overview of the situation.’
Jones introduced the younger man with him.
‘This is shift leader Gareth Davies,’ Jones told Holland, ‘He’ll take you to the mine and brief you.’
‘Do you have a scanner that detects life-signs?’ Davies asked. ‘Huw and John are missing, and we don’t know if they’re under the cave-in or beyond it.’
Holland indicated Ryan’s backpack. ‘In here,’ he said.
* * *
Davies led everyone away and Jones gave directions to Robinson and Blackwell before inviting Darrow into his office.
Jones’ office was utilitarian, but Darrow noticed the personal touches - a family photograph, a trophy, a child’s drawing. Jones moved a pad off a chair and they sat down. Everything was covered in a fine layer of rock dust.
‘There was an explosion on Level Three,’ Jones began, ‘which caused a cave-in, bringing down Level Two above. The explosion also damaged the communications array and cracked the pit dome. We had to repair the crack before anything else, so the mine rescue has barely started. The men on Level Two sustained minor injuries, but Elwyn on Level Three was badly hurt. Luckily he was this side of the cave-in, so we managed to get him out quite quickly. John and Huw are missing. We don’t know if they’re under the rubble or beyond it. Our scanners are set to detect the quartz voids, not life-signs.’
‘We have a scanner that will do that. I’m sure Commander Holland is seeing to it already. Any idea what caused the explosion?’ Darrow asked, watching for Jones’ reaction.
‘Not so far, we’ve been concentrating on the results, not the cause. Razor quartz grows into a void, you know, and sometimes when we break through there’s a pocket of gas. The gas can be highly volatile, but the men carry meters and dispersal equipment. We’ll need to check the meters once we get them out.’
‘Let’s hope we find them safe. What’s the progress on the rescue?
Jones sighed. ‘Slow so far. We all had to wear suits in case the dome went, and there’s not much room in the shaft.’
‘Hopefully progress will be swift now we’re here to help.’ Darrow paused. ‘Chert asked me to look into the possibility of sabotage.’
Jones swore. ‘It’s because of the missing quartz, isn’t it? I told the men if we were honest, it would prove our innocence. The company has made me a liar!’ Jones’ Welsh accent got stronger.
Darrow watched him closely. 'Look, they sent me your reports, but why don’t you tell me in your own words?’ He leaned back and put his foot across his knee.
Jones took a deep breath.
‘Sean Parry, the Stock Controller, came to see me and said the tally was out. I thought he meant there had been a miscount or an inventory error. But a whole container of the stuff had gone. That’s impossible. A cubic metre of razor quartz weighs over two and a half tonnes at 1G. The stores is in the pit dome, but even at one quarter G it's quite a weight, and awkward. How do you move that much quartz without being seen? And where would you put it? We can easily see ships approaching, and there hadn't been a single one. We hushed it up, but most of the men found out. Less than a month after, it happened again. I had to question the men, do some sort of investigation. There was a riot. You must understand, Captain, we only get a basic wage, a pittance. We earn our money on the bonuses for the tonnage mined. We’re a close-knit community - have to be, stuck out here. I’ve sacked people just for not fitting in. No one would do that to the others. If we can’t rely on each other, the whole operation falls apart.’
Jones stood up and paced while he continued the story.
‘Everyone denied all knowledge, of course. We searched the base for any trace of quartz outside the stores and the pit. There was none. We even searched the old opencast workings. Nothing. The men wanted me to keep quiet, but the carrier is due soon, and what if we can’t replace the quartz in time? No, I insisted the only way to show we had nothing to do with it, was to report it. We wouldn’t report ourselves for theft, now would we?’
‘There was a third incident,’ Darrow prompted.
‘Ah yes, now that was different. Sean decided to set a guard on the stores. The men took turns, and one night the guard heard a sound and saw the stores door seemed to be opening by itself. He shone a light, and whatever it was, vanished.’
‘“Whatever it was”?’
‘He said he saw a figure, like an angel.’ Jones waved his hands in exasperation. ‘But there’s no sign of it on the video records. Probably sleeping at his post and he dreamed it.’
‘You’ve got video records? Wasn’t it dark?’
‘It’s never completely dark here, we keep a low level of lighting even on the off-shift for the benefit of those who have to be about. We only work two shifts here, there’s not enough men for three, and not enough accommodation for more men.’
Darrow leaned back in his chair. ‘Sit down, Mr Jones, I want to tell you something.’
Jones raised an eyebrow and sat down. Darrow leaned forward and dropped his voice.
‘I need your word you will keep confidential what I’m about to tell you.
‘Your incidents appear to fit into a pattern I’ve discovered.’ He raised a hand. ‘Nothing’s proven yet, but my investigation here may give us something. There have been raw materials disappearing all over the galaxy with no evidence of what happened. So, while my crew helps with the rescue, I’m going to look into this missing quartz and see what I can find.’
Jones considered for a moment, then gave a curt nod and got to his feet.
‘It’s time I checked on progress.’
‘I’ll come with you.’
[Next week: Chambers and Ryan on Level Two in the mine]
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