"Somebody get us the hell out of…"
This is the last transmission received from Caitlin Palamara's audit team. What could never happen is now a terrifying fact. The five-person crew of the ISEA audit ship jack-a-dandy has vanished during a routine skip from sector ship Graywand to the planet Sierra.
Palamara and the others find themselves stranded on a hostile, undeveloped planet that bears no resemblance at all to Sierra. They've lost communication with Graywand, and their drive system is dead. Just when it seems that things can't get worse, John Wheeler, who feels a connection with a mysterious alien presence, wanders off and stumbles upon the sprawling ruins of an ancient city. The others have no choice but to go after him.
The place is more than a little spooky. But there's no real danger, right? The city is long dead, abandoned eons ago. Right?
For Caitlin Palamara's small audit team, it's the end of their comfortable routine, and the beginning of the interstellar nightmare that becomes known in ISEA archives as The Tartarus Incident.
William Greenleaf was born in Illinois, spent most of his life in Southern Arizona, and now resides in the beautiful high desert near Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds a business degree from Arizona State University and worked as a corporate strategic and financial planner before changing careers in 1988 to become a professional writer.
Greenleaf’s previously published novels are Timejumper, The Tartarus Incident, The Pandora Stone, Starjacked, and Clarion. A common theme in his novels is the resilience of the human spirit and the ability of ordinary people, when threatened by extraordinary circumstances, to reach into themselves for the resources necessary to survive. This theme is explored further in his latest novel Bloodright.
When he isn’t writing, Greenleaf enjoys exploring the back roads of New Mexico with his wife (and childhood sweetheart) Martha, learning as much as he can about the fascinating blend of cultures in this land of enchantment, and pursuing his quest for the perfect margarita.
"I’ve had occasion to work with bureaucrats in the past, so it was easy for me to relate to Lars (the dispatcher) and his frustration. I’ve also felt like I was all alone in a new world a few times, so I was rooting for the crew in the pod. Mr. Greenleaf does a very nice job of drawing you into the story and making you care about his characters. His imaginary world seems realistic and dangerous. I’m going to look for more by this author. Why don’t you taste this story and see if it pleases you, too?"
Buy The Tartarus Incident from Mundania Press, LLC.
“Hey, Gordie. We got a problem.”
Gordie Turner was halfway through the narrow passageway that separated Graywand’s service bays from the third-level receiving dock when Josk Cooper’s words stopped him. He turned and saw Cooper limping toward him, waving a yellow sheet of paper in one grimy hand.
“Rehfield’s pod,” Cooper puffed as he reached Gordie and thrust the repair order toward him. “Looks like a blown circuit in the drive control system.”
Gordie’s eyes flicked briefly to the repair order, but he made no move to take it. “Too bad, Coop. I got a hot date tonight. Find someone else.”
“Too bad for you, kid.” Cooper was chief engineer in Graywand’s small-vessel repair shop. He was as scrawny as a bird’s claw, with a built-in stoop and a pocked face stretched tight over a grinning skull. He spoke with a nasal twang that set Gordie’s teeth on edge. “Rehfield’s making a skip tomorrow. Wants his machine fixed now.” Cooper made an elaborate show of looking around at the empty service bays. “Looks like you’re the only one left, kid. Bad luck. A bit late getting away, eh?”
“C’mon, Coop.” Gordie had worked late because Cooper had asked him to finish a stator-motor rebuild that evening. He had not done so by choice—a fact Cooper knew as well as he. “Give Rehfield a pod from the pool.”
Cooper shook his head, chuckling at some inner amusement. “Tried to, but he wouldn’t have it. Said he don’t trust the pool pods. Old Rehfield, he’s a real individual.” The chuckle turned into a choking cough that wracked his skeletal frame and produced a large glob of greenish phlegm which he deposited noisily on the graymetal deck beside Gordie’s foot. He cleared his throat, hawked up another glob, and placed it neatly beside the first.
“I worked last night, Coop—”
“Life’s a real bitch sometimes,” Cooper admitted without much sympathy. He reached across and stuffed the repair order into the breast pocket of Gordie’s coveralls. “Get to it, kid. Oughtn’t take more’n an hour.”
“I don’t have an hour,” Gordie pleaded, but Cooper had already turned to shuffle toward the service elevator that would take him to the living quarters several levels above.
Gordie made a sound that was not exactly a word. He yanked the repair order from his pocket—tearing it nearly in two but caring not the least—and cursed as he struggled with Rehfield’s nearly illegible scrawl. Rehfield had gotten an amber warning signal during his last skip—failure in the spud’s tertiary connectors, if Rehfield could be trusted to read the signals correctly. Which was doubtful, Gordie told himself bitterly. Rehfield was in the Audit Agency, and how much could an accountant know about operating a pod? It was impossible to say what he might find in the circuitry. Maybe a short in the wiring harness or maybe a blown drive engine. You could never tell about those worn-out old pods they gave the Audit Agency.
“Who is she?”
Gordie’s head jerked up. Cooper had stopped halfway across the garage. His face was split by a leering grin that added to its already cadaverous look. “Your date, kid. Who is she?”
“Forget it, Coop.”
“C’mon, kid. You can tell me.”
Gordie glared across at Cooper, teeth clenched. Then his shoulders slumped in resignation. “Camilla di Pierro.”
Cooper’s eyebrows lifted. “Camilla. Oh, you poor, poor boy.” He jabbed a bony finger at Gordie. “Hurry it up, boy. Maybe she’ll keep it warm for you.” He pursed his lips and made exaggerated kissing sounds. Then, cackling lewdly, he shuffled away toward the elevator.
What a jerk, thought Gordie.
Graywand’s small-vessel repair shop was a vast open cavern occupying three levels of the ship’s stern. Two hundred service bays, each with its own supply of diagnostic and repair tools, were arranged in tidy rows, separated by wide aisles. A central parts store and tool crib supported all three levels. It was not a cheerful place: graymetal walls with bare seams, stark overhead lighting, odors of dirt and lubricant. It was a place of functional efficiency, a place where men and machines came together intimately to sort out their mutual problems.
The dirty-gray sameness of the shop carried over to the vehicles that were serviced there. Except for minor design variations, each pod was much like the other: a graymetal box three meters by four squatting on four stabilizer pads, a single gullwing door, and an efficient design of rounded corners and smooth surfaces. And all the character of a turnip.
Rehfield, in an effort to make his pod different from the others, had proclaimed it the jack-a-dandy in bright orange letters splashed across its stubby nose. Gordie found it after a long search—Why can’t these idiots take a minute to jot down the service bay numbers on the repair orders?—far back against the outer wall of the second level. He was nervous and jittery—thinking of Camilla, conscious of time ticking away—by the time he’d unbolted the pod’s control chair, moved it out of the way, and squirmed into the workspace under the console to begin removing the lower panel.
The control circuits for every electrical system in the pod originated in the control pad, then led down into the inner workings of the console where they were organized into functioning units and distributed to the various components. Since jack-a-dandy was an old pod, built when actual wiring harnesses were used in backup systems, Gordie decided that the most likely place for circuit failure was in the harness just inside the console’s lowest panel, where sharp metal edges sometimes cut through the fiber insulation.
He was beginning to feel better as the first of the retaining bolts came away in his hand. He knew his way around the innards of these old pods; with luck he would be able to locate the fault and get it fixed in time to meet Camilla for a drink in the Cornucopia and a romp in his little cubby on the eighth level. Maybe a late dinner afterward, then another romp. His blood ran a few degrees warmer; his fingers worked more quickly at the bolts. Ah, Camilla...
The panel dropped away. Gordie looked up into the console and felt his mouth dry up and his luck run out. The shiver of lustful anticipation turned into a shudder of revulsion. The wiring circuits inside the console were a mess. Cables that should have been neatly banded by control function hung instead in hopeless tangles. An obscene, greenish-white crust of corrosion covered every exposed connection. The metal sides of the compartment were covered with what looked to be a combination of scaly rust and green slime.
Gordie groaned. He’d seen similar conditions in other pods which, like jack-a-dandy, had been made before the designers realized that prudence required placement of the water tank somewhere other than adjacent to the console, where dampness could react with the sensitive control system components. But he had never seen it this bad. Sometime in the past, the tank had leaked through to the compartment. Someone had gone in and fixed it—someone who had sealed the tank but had not taken the time to repair the damage it had left. So Gordie Turner, who always drew the short straw, who wouldn’t even be here but for the simple fact that he was the last one getting out of the shop, born-loser Gordie Turner was going to have to dig into that mess and find the single connection, out of dozens, that had given up the struggle against corrosion.
His despair deepened as he realized that an even more dreadful problem lurked there in the console. The wiring harnesses were a shambles, one massive circuit failure waiting to happen, waiting for Gordie Turner to stick his big fingers in and upset the delicate balance that separated the entire system from breakdown. It would all have to be ripped out and replaced. Every circuit, every wire, every connector. Three hours work, minimum.
Camilla di Pierro would definitely not keep it warm for him. All because of Rehfield and his unreasonable insistence that his precious jack-a-dandy be repaired tonight. There was no reason, Gordie fumed, why Rehfield couldn’t take a pod from the common pool. No reason at all. He would certainly draw one in better condition than this old junker.
Gordie licked his lips, wondering if it were true that, once stood up, Camilla never offered another chance. He lay on his back for a long time, looking up at the tangle of wiring, thinking of Camilla and Rehfield, his mood wavering between bitterness and hopelessness—and somewhere in the back of his restless mind an idea began to form.
A way out.
As service techs went, Gordie Turner was a cut above the average. He liked working with machines; he believed in Josk Cooper’s oft-spoken adage that if you were going to do a job, do it right. But Gordie was also a full-blooded male, stationed on Graywand where the male population outnumbered the female by three to one. Which was why he was considering how he might take a shortcut in the repair of Rehfield’s pod.
He worked through it slowly in his mind, feeling it out. The spud—a term commonly used for the k-stream commutator, shortened to k-tator and finally to spud—was the heart of the drive system, the fist-sized gadget behind the console that translated power from the drive engines into passage through the Kohlmann stream. In older pods like jack-a-dandy, built before the more sophisticated drive system was developed with its elaborate failsafe, the circuits connecting the spud to the drive engines were the single source of the rare but occasional drive system malfunction during breakout. By their nature, the drive engines were not subject to catastrophic failure. They either worked properly or they didn’t work at all. The spud was similarly foolproof. As long as gravitational laws remained fixed, so did the k-stream functions of the spud and drive engines. But the connecting circuitry was subject to failure, and the best way to avoid drive system problems was to provide multiple options in that weak link. Triple back-ups were therefore installed in the circuitry of all pods. The primary circuit was a standard printed board, but secondary and tertiary circuits were hard-wired for maximum resistance to shock or electrical surge.
The amber light on jack-a-dandy’s console warned that the tertiary circuit had failed. Gordie Turner didn’t see that as anything to get too worked up about. It did mean that if primary and secondary circuits also failed, the spud’s connection with the drive engines would be lost, and if that happened during breakout, the results could be disastrous—jack-a-dandy and its crew would most likely be spewed out along the k-stream with a combined density of something like one atom per hundred million kilometers. But Gordie had never heard of even a primary circuit failing during breakout. The odds against primary and secondary circuits failing simultaneously were—well, Gordie decided that the odds were too small even to consider.
Gordie wriggled out of the space under the console, popped the crick out of his back, and found jack-a-dandy’s duty book in its niche beside the control pad. Rehfield was due for a two-week audit on a planet—Gordie could not pronounce a name that had r-b-d-t as its first four letters—in the Malachi Sector. After that the pod was scheduled for a routine service check.
Gordie licked his lips, thinking again of Camilla. A man couldn’t pass up a chance with Camilla. He just couldn’t. He snapped the duty book shut, returned it to its compartment, and got to work.
He went first to the stores area on the second level and withdrew a length of 7-x cable. Then he selected a few simple hand tools, returned to the pod, and squirmed into the cramped workspace under the console. It took only a few minutes to attach the cable to the base of the console, feed it down through the lower compartment, and attach the other end to the metal contact on the spud’s housing. He replaced the panel, crossed his fingers, and gave power to the console.
The warning light above the control pad remained dark. He licked his lips again. Nobody will ever know, he told himself. Not even Josk Cooper.
Despite the nag of conscience, Gordie felt clever. He had accomplished his simple miracle by fooling the pod’s brain into thinking the backup system was whole again. It wasn’t, of course; the 7-x cable did not make the necessary connection between the spud and the drive engines, but instead merely linked the spud to the control pad. Not a valid connection by any means, not enough to make the circuit functional. But enough to quench the amber light, enough to get Gordie Turner out of the repair shop in time to meet Camilla.
He put his tools away and washed up quickly, thinking through the rest of his plan. He had it all worked out. When jack-a-dandy came in for its regular service, he would sneak in after hours and fix up the circuit the right way. In fact, he decided expansively as he scrubbed at the dirt under his fingernails, he would replace the gummed-up mess under the console with all new circuits. Rehfield would never have another problem with the old junkbucket.
He tossed the shop towel into the disposal bin and hurried toward the elevator without giving jack-a-dandy another glance.
As events transpired, Gordie would have fared better in the shop with jack-a-dandy that evening. His date with Camilla was a disaster. Her magnificent body was more than offset by a giggly personality and a way of saying “Oh, you!” that wore Gordie’s nerves to a frazzle. She drank too much of the Cornucopia’s icy white wine, fell asleep five minutes after Gordie steered her into his eighth-level cubbyhole, and was messily sick the next morning.
Gordie’s other plans were also doomed by circumstance.
When Rehfield’s pod came in for its service check two weeks later, Gordie was stranded on a hellhole planet in the Brissom Range, making an emergency repair on a rangefinder pak in a Field Recon pod. The mechanic who performed the work on jack-a-dandy ran the standard stress tests without detecting Gordie’s cable, and although formal procedure called for visual inspection of the control system circuitry during routine service checks, the procedure was rarely followed and the mechanic skipped it without even giving it a thought. Gordie made a mental note to watch for jack-a-dandy’s next scheduled service, but time and events intervened and he forgot.
Rehfield was eventually transferred to another sector of Omega, and Caitlin Palamara, also with the Audit Agency, inherited jack-a-dandy. Shortly thereafter, Gordie was transferred to Quinquilla, and a year later joined a private mining firm and left to find his fortune in an unexplored region of Omega.
Three years later, Vito Cracchiolo found Gordie’s 7-x cable under unfortunate circumstances, and the event that became known as the Tartarus incident was written into Omega history.