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Earth Girl

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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Everyone looked round at the ruins. We were passing blackened sections of walls, some only head height, others still many storeys high. Broken remnants of floors jutted out. Huge blocks of concrete lay around, as if some giant child had tossed aside his toy building blocks in a tantrum. One huge girder, orange with the rust of the ages, leant against a blackened wall.

‘We’re stopping here.’ Playdon spoke over the team circuit as we reached a flatter area. ‘Park the sleds this side of the clearway in case other teams need to drive by.’

I looked round at our work site. The team that had worked it before us had obviously taken down any dangerous buildings. Shame. Blowing up walls was fun. I thought I could guess where they’d found the stasis box. There was a nice cleared area with a central depression, just the way a good tag leader would have dug out a box.

‘Now,’ said Playdon, ‘on a dig team, there are five roles. The team leader is in overall charge, and that’s obviously me. The others are tag leader, tag support, sensor, and lift. Tag leader is the dangerous job, because they’re the only person who enters the excavation area. They direct operations on the ground, decide how to clear the rubble, tag rocks, and guide the people working the lifting gear.’

I knew all about tag leaders, because I’ve always been a tag leader for my school history club. Well, not back when I was 11, because my history teacher flatly refused to have an 11-year-old tag leading, and put me on the heavy lifting gear. That was better than nothing of course, but I still hated having to wait around for a couple of years for the job I really wanted. It was so frustrating watching other people tag leading, and having to follow their instructions even when they were wrong. Still, I got to be tag leader when I was 13, and I’ve done it ever since.

I was determined to be tag leader now as well. I’d worked hard for years to learn the right skills. Even if I was an ape girl, I was a great tag leader, and if I could just get the chance then Playdon would see that. I was worried whether I’d ever get that chance though. A grim truth had occurred to me. He’d shut me out of driving the sleds by not picking me, and he could shut me out of tag leading just as easily. He could even make me sit on a transport sled and watch the others on this and every other trip on to the site. What would I do then? I’d go crazy having to sit and watch day after day.

I couldn’t scream abuse at the norms and walk out. The point was to do that when I’d proved I was as good as them. Doing it then would be a success. Doing it now … Well, it would be admitting I’d failed.

‘Next, we have tag support.’ Playdon continued. ‘The tag leader is working in dangerous conditions, so tag support’s job is to keep them safe. Your impact suits have a tag point at the back. Draw a line between your shoulder blades, and dead centre is the tag point. Tag support have a lift beam locked on the tag point of the tag leader’s impact suit. We often call it the lifeline; a term dating back far into pre-history. If the tag leader is going to be hit by a rock, fall into an underground hole, or be eaten by a bear, then tag support uses their lift beam and pulls the tag leader to safety, and sometimes they have to react very fast.’

If I did get my chance at tag leading then I felt that tag support was going to be a problem. When you’re tag leading, you want to have confidence in the person on your lifeline, so you can relax and concentrate on your job. I was on my own here with a bunch of exos, and I didn’t fancy trusting an exo with my life. I didn’t have much choice though. It was that or stand around watching someone else tag lead, and I hate watching.

‘You would normally only have one tag leader in an area,’ said Playdon, ‘since two tag leaders working at cross purposes could be very dangerous. That means one tag support as well. We usually have one person on the sensors, scanning the site for hazards, and hopefully for interesting things like stasis boxes. If they spot anything nasty happening, they hit the alarm and tag support pull out the tag leader fast.’

‘Finally we have one or more people manning the heavy lift sleds, using beams to move the tagged rubble. Most of our equipment is Military issue, but the heavy lift sleds are standard construction site ones. Today we’ll have two people using heavy lift gear. Any questions?’ Playdon asked.

‘Erm,’ said the hesitant voice of one of the Gamman boys. ‘I don’t understand … I was on a dig on Asgard and … It was rather different. We used sensors, teaspoons, and little brushes.’

I was pretty anxious at this point, but I still couldn’t help giggling.

‘Well,’ said Playdon, ‘that was a little different. Where you have a very rare and precious site, and plenty of time, you work that way. Earth is different. It has more ruined cities than you could possibly believe. We’d make no impression on New York working with teaspoons and we have limited people and time. Just look at it!’

I didn’t need to look at it. I was still giggling at the idea of excavating New York with teaspoons.

‘If seven maids with seven mops swept it for half a year, do you suppose, the Walrus said, that they could get it clear?’ It was Dalmora’s voice, and I didn’t know why she was talking about walruses.

I was startled when Lolia responded. ‘I doubt it, said the Carpenter, and shed a bitter tear.’

‘I’m sorry?’ asked Playdon.

‘It’s an ancient poem,’ said Dalmora.

‘Lewis Carroll,’ said Lolia. ‘He’s amaz. I specialized in art of language at school.’

‘I see.’ Playdon sounded no wiser than I was. ‘Well, we have no time for teaspoons. Even searching this one city is a colossal task, and we have thousands. Time is running out for buried items, even the stasis boxes have limited power, so we get what we can, as fast as we can, before it’s too late.’

‘So, let’s get searching,’ said Playdon, briskly. ‘Five of you will be doing things, while the rest sit on the transport sleds and watch carefully. Who fancies the dangerous job of tag leader?’

This was it. I had my hand up instantly, and looked round fast for the competition. There wasn’t any. No one else had their hands up at all, so Playdon could hardly ignore me, could he? If he did, then the writing was on the wall. The ape girl would never be given a chance, whatever happened, and I might as well pack my bags and leave.

‘All right.’ Playdon didn’t seem thrilled. ‘Jarra will be tag leader.’

Hoo eee! I was tag leader!

Playdon got a tag gun and hover belt out of an equipment box, and handed them to me. ‘This is a tag gun, Jarra. It burns an electronic tag into the rocks. Try to choose the …’

‘I’m familiar with it, sir,’ I said. I snapped on the hover belt, checked the settings on the tag gun, and fixed it on the belt.

‘Remember the hover belt keeps you a fixed distance above the ground, but when the ground shifts …’

‘I know, sir,’ I said

‘You’ll need to head over to the tag support sled and wait for your tag support to …’

‘Lock my tag point. Yes, sir.’ I activated my hover belt and zoomed eagerly over to the tag support sled.

One of the fringe benefits of being tag leader is you get a hover belt, and don’t have to mess around walking on the clearway. When they made the clearways, they crushed the rubble, but it didn’t end up anything like the perfect fused surface you walk around on in settlements. It’s hard work to walk on.

After I whooshed off, Playdon gave a heavy sigh, and then carried on talking on the team circuit. ‘Do any of you have experience working heavy lifting gear?’

The selection process dragged on, while I waited impatiently to actually do something. I was going crazy listening to the endless chatting. I’d been working New York Fringe when I was 11. I’d waited seven long years to get my chance to work New York Main. Now I was here at last, and I was having to stand around listening to Dalmora explain that she’d used a lot of vid equipment, Fian talk about helping setting up equipment at a solar observatory, and Krath drivel on about lifting containers of garbage.

I felt like shouting aloud to them: Listen you dim norms, we’re standing in a dig site, how about we stop talking and dig? I didn’t though. I desperately wanted to keep the tag leader spot, and I had to behave myself and look good. I knew how this worked. This was my try out. If I messed up, Playdon would swap me for someone else. If I did well, then I’d be a permanent tag leader.

Normally I would have felt confident. I had plenty of experience. The others had none. I was bound to look impressive, but I was still a bag of nerves because of the ape issue. Would Playdon give me a fair chance at this? He’d been challenging me on my Military knowledge ever since I arrived, trying to make a fool of me in front of the class, but we’d been temporary allies when we were training the others on impact suits. Surely, that would count in my favour.

I had something else on my side as well. Playdon might not like apes, but he’d have to be a total fool if he swapped a good tag leader for a bad one. This was only a Foundation class, not a research team, but it was still important to find as many stasis boxes as possible. Each box had a chance of containing vital lost knowledge or artefacts. Any useful discovery helped humanity, but also earned a bounty payment in credits. My school history club had been limited to working Fringe dig sites, but still managed to pay most of its operating costs with the occasional bounty payments. University Asgard courses must have to think about finances as well.

Playdon finally decided to have Amalie and Krath on the lifting gear, a Gamman boy called Joth on my lifeline, and have Dalmora assist him on sensors. Playdon had to cover sensors himself as well as team lead, because learning to read sensors takes a long time.

When he had everyone in the right sleds, Playdon spent another century explaining all the controls to people. Next we set up the sensor net, which also took ages because Playdon demonstrated how to set up the sensor spikes, and placed all four of them himself. All the time, I waited tensely to get on with proving myself.

At long last, Joth locked his lifeline beam on to the tag point on the back of my suit. Whenever a beam locks on to my back, I get a funny feeling between my shoulder blades, like an itch that needs scratching. If I trust my tag support, then it goes away fast. With a novice exo on my lifeline, the itch wasn’t going away at all, it was actually getting worse. I’d been waiting a long time to be tag leader on New York Main, I was going to do this, but I was going to have to do it carefully. My itch was telling me that I couldn’t depend on my tag support.

I activated my hover belt and swooped across to the sensor sled to take a look at what we had. Playdon was already looking at the sensor displays and explaining them to Dalmora, so I went to stand next to them. First, I glanced at each of the six peripheral displays which signalled major hazards. Fire, electrical, chemical, water, radiation and magnetic. The last two are highly unlikely to record anything, but you have to pay attention fast if they detect anything because impact suits won’t help you against that stuff.

All of the hazard displays were clear. In the centre, the main display was weaving complex patterns. I could see the blob that might be a stasis box. The emphasis is on the ‘might be’ in that sentence. Stasis boxes are designed to preserve their contents for as long as possible while using the minimum power. That means there are no giveaway power signatures for sensors to pick up. It’s not so much a case of looking at sensors and seeing where a stasis box is, as a case of seeing all the places where one can’t possibly be.

‘It looks like it’s fairly deep,’ I said.

‘What is?’ asked Playdon.

I pointed to the blob. ‘The stasis box. If it is a stasis box.’

‘You’ve experience with sensors?’ asked Playdon.

Oh no, I thought. I didn’t want the sensor sled job. ‘Not really, sir. I just like a quick look to get an idea of the site before tag leading.’

I looked across at the stack of rubble that must be over the possible stasis box. The barely visible remains of a wall ran along at one side. It would probably have some very solid concrete foundations, so it would be tough to shift. Best not even to attempt to move it, because I could use those foundations to my advantage. Normally, you have to clear a wide area and work down layer by layer to keep the rubble nice and stable. In this case, I could save myself some work by only clearing up to the wall and trusting its foundations to stay stable and prevent any cave-in on that side.

There was a nice group of rocks that would be good practice for my novice lift controllers. I activated my hover belt again and swooped across to start work.

‘The working team will be speaking on team circuit,’ said Playdon. ‘The rest of you should keep that set to listen only so you don’t distract them with idle chatter. Jarra, you’d better start with …’

I tagged the first rock. If you want to get technical, they mostly aren’t rocks, but big chunks of concrete, concraz, or whatever. Frankly, I don’t really care. They’re big heavy lumps of debris that need shifting, and I call them rocks. My main concern is picking a nice solid place to tag them, since sometimes they can break into pieces when the lift beam picks them up. You look a pretty stupid tag leader if the lift beam breaks off a pebble and the main rock just sits there, but after a while you get a feel for the sweet spots to tag.

‘Yes, that group,’ said Playdon. ‘You obviously know what you’re doing.’

I tagged the next three rocks, and moved well back in the opposite direction to the wall. As I did so, something jerked at my back. I paused. ‘Joth, you don’t need to engage the lifeline beam unless I’m in trouble. I need to be free to move.’

‘Sorry,’ said Joth.

I backed to what should be a safe distance even with the most incompetent novices on the lifting gear.

‘I need the lifts to move the rocks directly away from me,’ I said. ‘In the direction that I’m facing now, beyond the wall, you can see a nice flat area with a hollow in the middle. That’s probably where they found the stasis box. No one will want to dig there again, so that’s a nice place to put our rubble.’

‘Jarra’s tagged the first four rocks for you,’ said Playdon. ‘Amalie, lock your beam on the first and shift it. Once it’s moving, then Krath take the next one. Keep alternating.’

They moved the rocks. Very, very slowly, but they moved them. My back was still itching hard.

The hum on my suit communications changed note. Playdon was talking on my private circuit. ‘I see you’ve done this before, Jarra.’

‘Yes, sir,’ I replied on the private circuit.
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