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I held up my standard black suit. ‘You wear these on the dig site, and they’ll keep you alive in most situations. Your first problem is getting one on. It’s not easy. Military standard is to be able to suit up inside two minutes in case of a dome breach. If any of you can get a suit on in less than five minutes then you can feel pleased with yourself.’
I was proud of the fact I could put on an impact suit in Military standard time. The history club had a competition once and spent an entire day practising. Only three of us broke the two minute barrier.
‘I recommend wearing a skintight underneath your impact suit. If you haven’t got one yet then go for a swimming costume, leotard, or some thick, sensible and close-fitting underwear.’
Lolia interrupted me. ‘I never bother with underwear.’
I smiled at her. ‘If you prefer being in severe pain then that’s your choice. Impact suit material can pinch delicate body areas when it activates, so you want some protection.’
I switched my attention back to the class in general. ‘Remember when putting on an impact suit that you do everything slowly and smoothly. No sudden jerks, or you activate the material and it goes solid, exactly the way it’s designed to do. It protects you from falling rocks, being stabbed, or bitten. Predators will break their teeth on it.
‘There are a lot of controls here on the left arm,’ I pointed them out. ‘I suggest you don’t touch them. You may feel too hot or too cold to start with, but wait a few minutes for your suit to adjust to outside temperatures. If you can’t make it to the bathroom then your suit will handle it, but try not to test that. The suit can cope, but it’s not good for your underwear.’
The class laughed.
‘One control you do touch is the one that sets your identification. You can’t see faces through an impact suit, they’re designed to let you see out, but people looking in can only see an unidentifiable blur. So we know who you are, set it to your name like this.’
I set my suit so the front and back had my name in large glowing letters. ‘Don’t mess around using rude words or other peoples’ names. It’s not original and it’s not funny. In an emergency, not knowing who is where can mean someone dies. You’ll also need to know about the communication controls, but I expect Lecturer Playdon will take us through how he wants us to use those.’
I started stripping off my clothes and Lolmack whistled. He looked unimpressed when my skintight appeared. ‘You could wear something a lot sexier than that.’
‘If the audience was better, then I might,’ I said. ‘This is a skintight, specially made to wear under an impact suit. As you can see, it’s similar to a swimming costume, but rather tougher material. They’re wonderful things. Take them in the shower with you after you get out of your impact suit, and they’ll wash, dry as fast as you during the hot air cycle, and be ready to wear again. You can get them in several different styles and colours, but I’d recommend the standard male or female style in black.’
I looked at Dalmora who was sitting in the front row. ‘Shoulder length hair can just be tucked back into your hood, but very long hair is best in a single plait down your back.’
My eyes drifted from her hair to the ornate gold creation that she wore around her neck. ‘Your necklace is very lovely.’
Dalmora glanced down at it. ‘It’s been in my family for over five hundred years. One of my ancestors brought it to Alpha sector with her when she left Jaipur during Exodus century. By tradition it’s handed down to the eldest daughter on her eighteenth birthday.’
I’d assumed the necklace was a reproduction made from manufactured gold, but Dalmora Rostha was wearing a genuine historic artefact around her Alphan neck. Typical. Oh well, I’d feel rather petty if I left it to Playdon to warn her about the risks of jewellery. Three years ago, I’d been nardle enough to forget to take off a ring before putting on my impact suit, and lost my left little finger when the suit triggered. I’d had the finger regrown in hospital of course, but the thought of wearing a ring had given me a creepy feeling ever since.
‘It can be hazardous to wear jewellery under an impact suit,’ I said. ‘If the suit material triggers then it can force the metal to cut into you. Talk to Lecturer Playdon if this is an issue. Now, watch closely as I put my suit on. You always start with the feet.’
I demonstrated how to roll the suit gently and smoothly up your legs, and then arms. Pulling up the hood and sealing the front was the easy bit. Just for fun, I checked my time for putting on the suit. One minute, fifty-five seconds! I noticed Playdon giving me another of his odd looks.
‘One last thing,’ I said. ‘When you seal the front of your suit, it runs an automatic self test sequence. If an alarm goes off, then your suit is faulty. Let Lecturer Playdon know, don’t just put it back in the store room.’
Playdon stood up. ‘Thank you, Jarra. Now everyone, I’ll issue you suits from the store room, and you can start practicing suiting up ready for our first trip outside.’
Lolia raised a hand. ‘I’ll need you to give me some advice on my underwear.’ She gazed suggestively at Lecturer Playdon.
‘I’m sure you can manage by yourself,’ he said.
‘I’m entitled to proper teaching, aren’t I?’ she said, reproachfully.
‘I can give you a hand picking something suitable if you like,’ I offered.
‘Perhaps Jarra could help me out with my underwear too,’ said Lolmack.
Lecturer Playdon and I exchanged glances, and changed at least temporarily from adversaries to allies. ‘Jarra will advise Lolia,’ said Playdon, ‘and I’ll help you, Lolmack.’
Lolia sighed. ‘You people are no fun.’
It wasn’t just Lolia and Lolmack who needed advice. Just about everyone did. Deciding what to wear under the impact suit was easy; actually putting it on was quite another matter. It’s hard to stretch a suit over your skin without the material locking up, so I could hardly blame this bunch of exos for needing some help. Playdon and I ended up doing patrols along the corridors, and responding to cries for help from rooms.
Helping novices with an impact suit is always a strange mix of frustration and comedy. If you don’t get the bottom half of an impact suit on properly, then it’s impossible to get it over your shoulders. I did my best not to laugh, but sometimes the look of despair on their faces when they realized they had to take it off and start all over again …
‘But I’m so close,’ said Fian, looking at me with a tragic expression. ‘It’s taken me twenty minutes to get this far. If I could just get my left arm in …’
‘It’s the only way,’ I said, trying desperately not to giggle.
‘I’ll never manage this …’ He sighed and started peeling the suit off again.
‘After a few times, you’ll get the hang of it.’ I realized I was enjoying the view of a semi-clad Arrack San Domex lookalike rather too much, and headed off to respond to a scream from Dalmora.
It took a mere two hours to wedge everyone into a suit. Even then, Lolia seemed to have a slight limp. Maybe she hadn’t stretched the suit over her legs properly, or maybe she’d managed to lock the suit material and pinch somewhere painful. I thought it was better not to ask.
‘Everyone finally ready?’ Playdon’s voice had the faint echo that you always get when you hear someone through the suit communication unit as well as in real life. ‘I’m talking to you on the team circuit. Answer when I call your name.’
He took us through the roll call slowly. ‘Good, everyone has their comms working on the team circuit. Always remember the importance of talking on the right channel when you’re in an impact suit. If you’re just talking to someone standing next to you, don’t use the comms at all. If you want your whole team to hear, talk on the team circuit. If you want to talk privately to me, there’s a private circuit that links you to your team leader. If it’s appropriate for every team on New York Main Dig Site to hear you, talk on the broadcast channel. Talking on the wrong channel can obviously be extremely embarrassing. If you’re asking a girl standing next to you for a date, then you don’t want hundreds of people on dozens of teams to hear it.’
There was an outbreak of nervous giggles.
‘For now, use the team circuit if you’re in trouble or out of ear shot, and don’t play around with the other channels or you’ll annoy all the other dig teams in the area. We move outside now.’
I was deeply thankful when we finally lined up and opened the dome door. This lot were worse than any history club group I’d been with. In fairness, they were all totally new to this, while our history club trips always included far more experienced people than novices, but it was still driving me crazy.
The door opened and we saw a grim world waiting for us. It was winter in New York. There were a scattering of trees on the hillside ahead of us, but they were barren of leaves, and the branches were each carefully etched with a layer of ice. I gazed at the winter landscape thoughtfully. I’d only been here in summer and this looked much more intimidating. The cold hit me as I followed Playdon out of the dome and my impact suit felt like ice on my skin. The next two minutes were going to be painful as my suit adjusted itself.
There were squeals of protest from the others as they followed us. ‘I’m freezing! How do we turn up the warmth on these suits?’ asked Krath.
‘I strongly suggest you don’t,’ Playdon said, but a few of them tinkered with the temperature controls anyway.
Two minutes later, everyone who had listened to him was nice and comfortable. The ones who had messed with their controls were screaming they were too hot and turning the temperature down. Two minutes after that, they were freezing. I made a mental note of the idiots in the group. The Betans were on the list of course.
The Deltan boy, Fian, who I had rated as at least semi-intelligent, was sticking close to me. With faces entirely invisible through suits, it was hard to be sure, but my impression was that he was watching me and copying my every move. I felt this proved he was intelligent. At least I knew what I was doing just a little bit better than the ones who were currently screaming about being cooked alive for the second time.
Eventually, we had the temperatures sorted out, and Playdon called us all to gather round him. ‘We’re just going to head up to the top of the hill and get a view of the dig site. Everyone stay together and be careful. If you manage to get yourself lost, ask for help on the team circuit and stay where you are until we find you. Whatever happens, don’t take off your impact suit. Bears should be hibernating, but the wolf packs will be hungry this time of year.’
‘What’s a wolf?’ asked Lolia.
‘Wild ancestors of dogs,’ said Playdon. ‘They hunt in packs. The moose and deer herds shelter in the ruins in winter and the wolf packs follow them. I’ve got a gun, but I’d rather not have to use it. They tend to attack lone targets. If we all stick together, they probably won’t bother us.’
‘Are they dangerous?’ asked a female voice.
I checked the glowing suit name, and saw it was the girl called Amalie from Epsilon sector. If they all wore glowing name labels when they weren’t in suits, I’d find it a lot easier to work out who they all were. Playdon seemed to have us all tagged correctly, while Miss Personality from Alpha had names and life histories down pat, but the rest of us were struggling.
‘Without a suit, they would tear you into pieces and eat you,’ said Playdon. ‘In an impact suit, I doubt they could do you a lot of harm, but you probably wouldn’t enjoy them trying. Let’s get moving.’
We headed up the slope ahead of us at a very slow walk. I paused to wait for the rest of them to catch up. A suit labelled ‘Fian’ came up to me.
‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘but how do you move that fast? My suit keeps jerking me to a stop.’
I noticed he’d been bright enough to set his comms to the right channel while he asked the question, so it wasn’t transmitted for the whole class to hear. I checked that I had mine set properly as well before I replied.
‘The trick is moving as smoothly as possible,’ I explained. ‘Sudden movements can trigger the impact suit material and it locks up.’
‘Do we have to wear these clumsy things?’ moaned Lolia loudly from the back of the group.
‘Maybe we should let her take it off. The wolves could use a good meal …’ I muttered to myself.
Fian overheard me and laughed.
Playdon obviously enjoyed the dramatic, because he gathered us up into a group again just before we reached the top of the hill, so everyone got to see New York at once. I’d seen it before, but never in winter. In summer, it’s a vast black expanse as far as the eye can see, with the odd patches of green trying to make an impression on the mess. At this time of year, the white of frost and a dusting of powdery snow added an extra bleakness to the mounds of rubble and the blackened skeletal remains of skyscrapers still soaring up into the sky.
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