Fiction – “Crawl” by Kel Bachus

“Scrap it,” hollered Hayden, piercing loud over the com in our ears. “Scrap the fucker! We’re done here—”

Then there was the unmistakable howling roar of hard flash, the sound thousands of degrees of fire makes as it slams through a small space and nothing but staticky silence after that.

B team stood there in their big yellow suits looking at me. All casual, like it was neither up nor down what I said next.


“Wait,” I told them. “Just wait.”

My other reclaim crew, five men and CJ were down there in the duct, around the bend and behind a handful of fire stops. They were down there where it was six hundred degrees Celsius, which is about the point that high quality Pioneerex carbon steel starts to melt. Everything gives over, gives in to the fire, even the duct itself.

Was none too cool where we were, either.

“Can’t see shit, Chief,” Peg said. She had the thermal scanner screen on her knees, and gloved and sooty fingers worked the keyshield, leaving smudges. That scanner worked just great when everything was cool and sweet and under, say, three hundred. But when it went to hell and got dangerous and hot and nasty, all those colored patches that used to be things and gear and hose and people merged into one indistinct, useless red blur.

There we all were, in the tangling skein of ducts that snaked and curled around the half-rock, half-constructed asteroid. Hunkered down in metal pipe that fed air or heat or cool or gas or whatever else have you to the structure it surrounded, crazy reclaim crew eking out what pay we could putting out duct fires and salvaging what we could in there. Bounty, if you could get something good, but the truth of it was there was hardly ever much for all that risk and trouble.

Somewhere inside Parco, close enough we could make them out if we pointed the scanner right, shoppers were buying real wood furniture and giving their kids rides on the Hoppit. In fact, if you could go right through the slick curve of the duct we were standing in and then the wall beyond, you’d arrive inside the immense retail complex itself. And right there, beyond the duct wall and a meter or so of rock and plaster and wiring and cheerful lit-up enviro-panels, you’d find yourself at a stand where you could get an iced fruit cooler. Lemon, with glittery flakes that made your tongue sparkle and tasted like cherry, or cola, or something like that.

Iced lemon cooler sounded fine, right about now.

“We’re up to one twenty five in here,” Barton said. I wanted to like Barton. He worked as a live voice psychic and sex talker, you know, when he wasn’t on reclaim. He had a sweet, low voice, and perfect skin. He knew all about Parco pigs, but the fact was we all figured he’d bail out the first chance he got, didn’t matter who he left behind.

“We know it’s hot, rookie.”

Sammins. Smooth. I’d been trying to get her in the sack with me for months, but I’m an old lady pushing forty, scarred and burned to hell and despite all the playing around and flirting, I wasn’t too sure what she was after in bed.

Barton put an unthinking glove to his mask to wipe at sweat that was almost a half inch of heat shield away. The gear was crap. Six seasons old, and half the coils in the suits dry of coolant. A Flomex 1000 suit was supposed to be rated to a thousand degrees, but that’s before you take it out of the plastic case and start spilling oil and coffee on it. We’ve been burned through in less than five hundred. Then again, they’ve held strong through more.

“What about the pig?” I asked.

Barton gave me that rookie look. That ‘you’re more worried about a big chunk of machinery than your goddamn crew’ look.

“Zip,” said Peg. She shook her head from where she sat on her Scooby, using off spectrum bounce on the thermal scanner to try to tune it in. “Not a flicker. I think it’s done for.”

“Fucking son of a motherfucking BITCH!” yelled Nuni, and turning, hit the inside of the duct hard enough that it reverberated, and I could feel it ring the steel under my boots. Nuni Afavari was in debt. Bad debt. We hadn’t had a ringup in weeks, much less a bona fide stuck pig. If we’d gotten this one out, mostly undamaged, the bounty would have put us all at ease for a good while. Nuni could pay off some of his credit. For a while we thought he had a gambling habit. The truth was that he spent it all on his girl. Pricey piece of ass, Sammins said, and I had to agree, but I’d seen her in the very tender flesh, and when it came right down to it couldn’t blame him.

“Still might be viable.” That was Colm’s voice in our ears, and though through the com it sounded like he was standing here in the duct section with the five of us, he and Madeiros were back outside the duct hatch in the rig. Suppression scuttle stuck fast to the duct, mixing chemicals and pumping our air, supplying foam through our hose.

“You only get that lucky once in your life,” I told him. We mostly found PK800s in these Parco A pipes. Dumb pigs, there mostly to push obstacles and trash, and if we were lucky send up a distress before they lit up in a duct fire and burned to writeoff. Pigs they used in some of the other quadrants, J series, could analyze air samples, make duct repairs, all but fix you breakfast. High quality devices, worth money to the companies, and with bounties to match if you could reclaim them.

Some time back, Colm had been on a crawl out of a total melt, PK800 in tow, and found a fritzing J-7 idling at a firestop. Only Colm and his mate made it out, and between the PK8 and the J-7, they were set for enough time that Colm got married, got kids, got kicked out and passed some time rockside before he ran out of cash.

Colm and me, we’d been in and out a few times. I wasn’t much for men, but he had brains and a sweet kind of touch, and after forty, fifty months on reclaim you take what you can get.

There was a thump, then, and the duct vibrated. We all looked over at Nuni, but he gave us that ‘I didn’t hit nothing that time’ look.

“Breach,” guessed Sammins, just before Peg squinted at the scanner and nodded.

“Warming towards us. Looks like they’re on crawl.”

If you’ve been on reclaim a while, and you’re standing on B team, you know the feel of a crawl coming towards you. It’s the heat, and how it jumps up each time a crew breaches a fire stop and crawls, low and quick as they can, with the fire coming after them to the next fire stop along. Eventually the heat’s coming off the stop in front of you, the one with the locks, and you wait until you hear them bang three times. You wait, because all that oxygen rich air they’re pumping in from the rigs will blow the pipe and you and A and B crews all to flaming cinder if you jump the gun and open up before they seal the last locks up behind them.

Three for locks sealed, two for not clear.

I heard they got a law passed, a few years ago, which says every duct has to have a set of locks every fifty meters.

I can tell you right now I’ve crawled a couple dozen fifty meter sections with my ass melting off behind me, before finding a lock to pass through.

“Someone counting?” Madeiros’ voice. He was a big, strange guy. Traveler, and they have their odd ways, but he was rock steady in the rig and had fire sense like a veteran for his handful of years on the job. Just had his fits about rotating bunks or trading suits with the girls, things like that, was all.

“Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen,” said Peg in answer to him, and then lapsed into silence again, watching the useless scanner screen.

There came another thump, around about fifty, fifty-two. The heat in our section notched up again, and I settled to crouch on my boot heels, looked over at Sammins, who was already hunkered down on her scooby, shaking her head.

Takes about fifty five, sixty seconds to crawl a fifty meter duct section between fire stops. Takes about a minute and a half to crawl that same distance with a pig in tow.

“Sonia’s boy wants one of those Blastem rockets,” Nuni said. He was slid down, leaned up against the duct wall, at least until it heated faster than his suit could cool him.

“The Blastem rockets they recalled because they kept blowing kids’ bits and pieces off?” Sammins looked over; I could see her angled features even through the glare off her face shield. She’d kept her long black hair, and it coiled sweaty and tangled when she suited down in the rig, lay wet on her neck and drove me damn near to distraction.

“You can still get them on the black market.” He nodded. “Set a fellow back about six fifty, seven hundred.” Nuni was Maori, claimed himself to be a pureblood. Sure had the ink for it, green and intricate all over his skin. Here and there, he had traces of the accent.

“You could get him a ticket for his own shuttle flight for that,” said Colm from the rig.

Then silence. Too much silence.

Then, almost apologetic, “a hundred,” said Peg.

We all looked at the closed lock hatch except Sammins, who was hunched over her own thick-gloved hands almost like she was praying, except I was sure she wasn’t.

There’s two kinds of crews. One kind is about the money. One kind is about getting out altogether untorched and calling it a good day if you get back to the post to watch the comedy hour and fret over who cleans up dinner.

We were all of us alive and broke, but for the odd fluke of luck like Colm and that J-7.

“Two—” started Barton, and then shut up of his own accord.

I could hear Madeiros cutting back the air the rig was pumping into the duct, felt my suit leak ice cold O2 across my cheek, compensating. Retrieval or bailout. It had been almost two minutes, and there’d been no breach: I was down to the choice. Risk this crew when the other was likely already gone. Risk this crew, on the chance that the other crew might still be alive in there. My choice to make, mine alone.

No one looked my way.

What you don’t think about are the details about them. You don’t think about CJ’s round, lined face and how she works that mess of blond hair locked into neat cornrows with busy, nervous fingers. You don’t think about Cutter’s stories from the years he worked metro firefighting, or that wicked smoke cough of his, or how Hayden snores. You don’t think about the picture of his twins that Palfey keeps in his locker, even though it was years ago that he stood by the mother, up until they got taken away.

You don’t think about those things right then, or you shouldn’t.

And you answer faster than you want to, every time.

“Break it open.”

Now Sammins looked at me. I couldn’t see through the shield if her expression was a frown or a smile.

Nuni went for the lock hatch, rolling to his feet and shouldering his scooby up as he went, but staying low. It was well over two hundred now, more near the top. I frogwalked my way over to Peg, helped her shut down the scanner rig and shrug her own tank on.

Sammins went for the line, called for slack from the rig and got it, opened the bale enough to send a fine spray of type 2 foam to cool the hatch before we got on it with tools or hands. Just enough pressure and a tight mist way down, to keep our cool layer where it was, and the warm air above us, not to make it shift and cook us all as it upset the other way around.

“Grid’s telling us fire at three stops back, just before the bend. It’s about five up top, four down under. Cherry in there,” Colm said.

I could tell Barton was going to say something about flash range and didn’t, just got to backing Sammins on the line and kept his pretty mouth closed.

“They’ve shut down the quadrant. No plans for move up.” Madeiros’ voice reported the indistinct murmur of Central to us, clear.

“We got two teams and it’s all we need,” I said.

A nod Nuni’s way, enough to get him moving on the hatch. A longtail spanner cracked the heat-sealed latch wheel, that and the sheer force of Nuni’s massive and tattooed shoulders and arms under all that gear.

He stepped back for Sammins, who cooled the air as it rolled out towards us, smoke and flame free but hotter than hell.

“Fuck!” hollered Barton, who’d forgotten and started to straighten up, then as the wave of air hot enough to light anything it came to washed over us, threw himself back down.

I could swear Sammins was chuckling. She hauled Barton in by the line, half on his face behind her. The rest of us followed, low and quick as we could, given line, duct curve, heat, our own feet in the way and limited space, not to mention the fuckload of debris and garbage everywhere. The lights from our suits bounced on the walls around us, showing nothing but duct wall, crap the vents sucked through the ducts and the wavering dust from the foam.

“Only had to open one stop,” I said for Colm and Madeiros’ benefit. “The duct’s clear down to the next lock.”

Which meant no crew there, either.

It was quiet, then, all of us saving our breath for the effort as we crawled down along the duct.

Til we came to the next stop, and Sammins stopped and banged the tip of the nozzle on it: one, two three. Silence, and when Nuni went to wrench the latch wheel, even he and then he and Sammins together couldn’t bust it open.

I said: “Blow it, Peg.”

She crawled over and past us and under Nuni and Sammins to get to the hatch, and set a blowpak charge quick and efficient. Then we all hauled line and asses back down the duct again, because they say in the manuals “the Blowpak is a single use detonation device carefully designed and measured to only impel a firestop away from side on which the charge is set,” which is a load of complete horseshit and any reclaimer knows it.

We watched the digital countdown on the charge box; I had to squint to read the numbers. Next to me, Barton was using up all his air in anxious, ragged breaths.

The readout was at six when the sound came. Or really even less of a sound than a slight vibration we felt under our feet. One, two. One, two. One, two.

I’ve never seen anyone move as fast as Peg did then. Not even my last steady girlfriend, on her way out my door.

I might have put out a hand to stop her, but Sammins stopped me first.

And that’s how she saved them, or how they saved them, Peg and Sammins both.

One, the charge box read. Peg slid slowly down to sit, glove still wrapped around the box and finger still on the dummy button where’d she’d slammed it to keep the detonator striking, just in the fucking nick of time.

“They’re in the next section,” I remembered to say out loud, to let Colm and Madi know. “We just got the hold-no-clear.”

“How’s your tanks?” Colm could make his voice sound like it didn’t matter, which I appreciated.

“Low. Maybe ten minutes.” Less for Barton, and even less for Peg now, I was pretty sure.

“Wicked thirsty,” Peg grumbled, pulling her hand back down where it was cooler.

We sat in silence for a few moments. Then Sammins took the spanner from Nuni and hit the floor, three sets of three.

A moment’s silence, then the reply came. One, two. One, two.

“Still not clear,” I said.

I thought, then. I took up a few more moments of the little time we had, and thought about the crew in here and the crew in there, or what was left of them. I thought about Colm and Madi, and Madi’s family at home waiting for him. I thought about how I’d been doing fire and reclaim longer than I ever intended to. Longer than I wanted. How it paid for shit and I was tired of breathing smoke and chemicals and crawling my old, creaky ass through tight spaces waiting to get cooked or blasted to hell. Then I made my decision and did what I had to do.

“Unstick her,” I said.

We don’t much follow company protocols. Technically it’s a chain of command, and I’m captain of the crew. But no one calls me ma’am and I give a lot of room for opinion and complaint. Especially to Nuni, who’s got to have a say-so or explode, now and then.

Colm, Colm does what he’s told. But I heard him hesitate, right there.

“Seal our line and drop it. Uncouple the rig and bring her down here,” I told him. “Couple on the duct ahead of us and see if you can get talking to them. Find out what’s going on in there if you can. We’ll cut through the duct, and we’ll walk over.”

Barton hollered, then. I couldn’t say I blamed him: Colm and the rest of them probably wanted to, too. “You’re crazy! The rig’s our only way out of here and there’s no way it can take the heat that close, and we need the fucking line or we can’t put the fucking fire out. And—and I’m not walking over, we don’t have time for that kind of a—”

The rest was cut off as Sammins shoved him hard against the duct wall. “Every time you open your mouth you waste oxygen, rook. Even when you’re not on tank air.”

I could hear Colm relaying our plans to Central, who fortunately didn’t much care what the hell we did once the pigs were all written off.

“Walk or stay here,” I told Barton.

Then Nuni and I got to cutting through the steel of the duct ceiling above.

“We’re right over you and passing,” Colm said. “We secured the hose at the duct; you should probably hang onto that when you cut through.”

“Got you,” I said, and looked around to make sure the crew had heard. But everyone was already moving for the line, running a rescue rope around it and taking hold.

It was a hell of a suck, too, when the torch seared through the last of the already heat-stressed duct wall. Maybe more than I’d bargained for, to tell the truth. The heat rushing out into the cold and much thinner air beyond us took Nuni and I both flying out with the big chunk of steel, and I saw the tangling ducts and spires of Parco twist and spin and turn. I reached, half wild, half instinct, and I felt him wrap my arm with his, which was a good thing because he had the tool, and of the two of us only I had a grab on the line. Less of a grip between us, and he’d have taken the long float home.

I was cursing a blue streak, but we got wrapped better around the hose, even with our suits starting to puff up, designed for fire and crawl, but not three quarters of our regular atmosphere.

“Nobody poke nobody,” Nuni said, barely sounding the stress or strain while the hose snaked around and we hauled ourselves down along it, “or we’re gonna be flyin’ around and around like a loose balloon.”

It took a while to get ourselves and the trailing hose oriented, but eventually I reached out with a leg and felt the magnet thunk of my boot to steel. A just-in-case, that magnetized sole, that came in handy once and a while. I carefully got untangled from the hose line and got myself onto the outside of the duct, wavered and was sure I’d drift, but the magnets held and I stood there, still. Next I hauled Nuni in by the arm and the line both and he came to crouch beside me, breathing hard.

Around us was the black sky of night, flooded with stars and the milky wash of the Wing Nebula spread out like a fine net beyond. Parco jutted into it all in hard gray and black towers, studded with lights and all threaded round with the lattice of ducts and pipes that made it run. A few hundred meters below was the asteroid rock Parco was built on, cold and unforgiving.

Sammins was already getting Peg and Barton out, each with a glove on rope or around the line until they got their feet alongside me.

“There’s the rig,” Sammins said. We looked as the suppression scuttle came down and around from behind us, ugly snot-yellow where it wasn’t covered in scorch, and so old it was practically vintage. Colm brought it in nice and easy to the duct section in front of us, though the duct was throwing off heat like a furnace, and the rig bucked and jumped.

“Walk,” I said, though we all wanted to stand and watch it, watch the way Colm brought the rig seal to seal, nosed up against a coupling ring on the side of the duct like it was nothing at all.

But I had less than seven minutes in my tanks, and that was barely any time. Barely any time considering I had no idea how things were going to go.

“Damn,” said Colm mildly, as the first stage warning alarms on the rig went off, loud and clear enough for all us to hear them through the com. “Pretty hot.”

I looked down the duct: the fire was right there. Beyond the rig, just behind the locks, heat shuddered and wavered. Hot enough that I was pretty sure the bend I was seeing wasn’t a trick of those waving lines, but the pipe wall itself, starting to melt and buckle. Expanding, ballooning out.

We’re going to die, I though to myself. It didn’t trouble me much: I’d thought that and been wrong a number of times before.

“Just see if you can talk to them,” I said. “Nuni, get that torch fired up.”

Now even Sammins swung round in surprise. “We have to cut in anyway,” I said. “We can’t just walk onto the rig.”

You could umbilical to the rig in an emergency, but they knew I was right. The only way to get on the scuttle was through the hatch, which had to be coupled up to form an airlock unless you were home at the post and docked.

Nuni had got the torch going, and a moment later, we heard Madi’s voice shouting in the background. He had a big boom of a voice, and I realized I’d never heard it loud like that before.

“They lost com in the blast. Hayden’s down,” Colm relayed, “but still alive. They got a pig in there and it’s blocking the way to the next stop. Can’t get through.”

“Ask if we can cut a meter ahead of the coupling.”

After a moment: “Go.”

There’s some hard and fast rules on reclaim that are universal from company to company: no rigs near the fire. Report lost pigs. Don’t ever compromise the pipe wall.

“Hold on,” Nuni hollered, a moment before the torch cut through. The cut section blasted out like a hot piece of shrapnel and the force of the heat and garbage flying behind were almost enough to throw us off the pipe altogether. But we held on, and they must have held on tight inside because no reclaimers came out with all the junk.

Barton’s tank alarm went off, almost in tandem with the rig’s noisy progression to its own second stage heat alarm. “Shut that thing off,” Colm said, and a moment later the rig was silent.

“Fuck,” said Barton, quiet, and I could hear it then, that for the first time he wasn’t just complaining, he was scared.

“I’ve got five minutes left and then reserve,” Sammins said as we pushed our way down into the duct. “If you run out we’ll buddy up; now keep your mind on the job.”

He was quiet after that.

“We cook anybody?” I asked Colm. It had to have been over a thousand degrees in there, and while the cut in the pipe mostly caused it to ventilate straight up, you never really knew how that much heat was going to move, in and around folks.

“They’re good,” Colm said, and had to stop as third stage alarm on the rig started up, wailing. Madi cut it off, and he continued “but the rig lock to the duct’s starting to melt.”

I squeezed my suit-fat self in after Sammins, into the close space of the duct and face to face with A crew. CJ and Palfey, Cutter all crammed in there, with Hayden under the armpits, ready to drag. I got grins and waves like we’d joined them at the local, not like they’d almost just died a couple of times over and then been saved. Saved, at least, until the pipe caught fire behind them or the locks burned through.

Then I realized they were gesturing, and I could hear them shouting from behind the face shields but couldn’t make out what, and then I heard Peg swear and Sammins said “turn around, turn around, turn around.”

And still half-crouched, I turned around to come face to face with the sweetest thing I ever saw.

“Oh, sweet mother of Jesus,” said Nuni.

“J8,” Barton said, just as I was looking for the model number. Apart from pictures, I’d never seen one before. Pretty and shiny new, it was all slick chrome with three clever utility arms, and a band of ultra sensitive roller balls to propel it around and through the ducts. Spinning, twisting, cleaning, sensing, repairing, making reports. Smarter than some reclaim crew.

Except now it was blocking the way through to a pile of boxes that had been too heavy to blast out with the garbage. Blocking the garbage, and the stop behind that.

And I was down to three minutes of air.

“HAZARD,” bleated the J8, making anxious U-shaped laps of the duct, back and forth. “HAZARD, HAZARD.”

Palfey came up and pressed his faceplate against mine so I could hear him shouting. “We’re all on reserve,” he hollered. “And that thing’s on override: there’s no way to shut it down.”

“What I want to know is what’s behind it,” Sammins said.

Nuni snorted. “With our luck it’s flammable.”

“Checking to see,” said Colm from above.

“If we clear the area and it can’t do anything else it might go into sleep mode,” said Barton. His voice sounded steadier than it had the whole time we’d been in pipe. “I don’t know how long that takes. But there’s a chance that we could drag it out once it’s powered down.”

“Stupid fucking pig,” said Nuni with feeling. We all stared at it for precious moments, Palfey’s helmet rolled sideways to look at the thing, but still against mine.

“Clear the pipe,” I said, and waved my arm at the rest who couldn’t hear me. “Clear it. Everyone, go.”

Over the radio I heard the rig get to stage four. “Annie,” said Colm, and he didn’t ever, not ever call me by my first name, “Annie, I got a scan on those boxes. We’re about to lose the locks, the rig’s starting to misfire and that’s explosives in there.”

It happened like this. You got on scene and the problem looked like one thing. Something simple, and very often it was. But every once and a while the problem was hidden, and surfaced later, and the whole situation would go straight to hell if you couldn’t get a handle on it.

Crazy. Crazy to say it, but same time I swear it’s the truth. You’re sure you’re about to sign it all out. And swear it’s when it stops being bad, and starts being fun.

“Explosives?” Barton said, “why the hell are there explosives in the garbage from a goddamn shopping mall?” Then he stopped. Behind him the others were already hoisting up into the coupling ring, the slow one at a time progress of each of them through the claustrophobic airlock and into the rig beyond. He looked at me and looked at the pig. He looked at his tank readout. I realized he was thinking he might stay.

“Go on,” I told him, “don’t get cocky. You already did your good job.” He looked relieved, and up he went. But he was the last to go.

Sammins stayed back with me, and showed me she still had six minutes total of air with reserve. Enough for me to run out and buddy up, if the J8 went to sleep in two or so minutes. Maybe it was enough, I wasn’t sure.

I gave her a leg-up to the hole in the pipe, and she hauled herself out and reached down. It took a moment to squeeze me back up through, and I thought I heard a hiss as something on my suit popped and tore.

It was hot on the pipe. Even with the thin air and cold atmosphere cooling it, the top of the metal was too warm to stand for long.

And we had no way of knowing what the J8 was doing: if we looked in and it was still shutting down, we risked waking it up again.

We stood. Watched the minutes tick by and used up air.

Sammins switched to just her and me talking, com on com. “So what would you do, if you weren’t on reclaim?”

It was a question you never asked, because if we had a choice not a one of us would be here. But I thought of the J8 below us, thought of the explosives and quirked a smile. Dared to tell her right there and then, sitting on a powder keg and both of us about to sign out.

“Truth? Every day I fucking hate it. Hate it all, think I’ll leave it. But I’d wind up doing it all over again. Something like the same. I mean, some kind of fire and craziness and danger. Only better gear. And better pay,” I said.

She nodded, after some time. “Yeah, me too.”

We waited there with the paint starting to blister off the rig, endangering everyone long past what was right. Stood there quiet and calm, and feeling the heat notch up even on the outside where we were standing now. Sammins nudged me, pointed. It was collapsing towards us, thick steel just widening and stretching and growing. Expanding and growing out towards us, while we stood there. Stood and our boots started to melt and we shifted foot to foot, and we stood some more, all just waiting for that J8 to shut down.

My reserve alarm blared. I had thirty seconds of air. Sammins reached back and handed me her bypass, and I screwed it into my line.

Then her reserve alarm went a short while later. We had maybe two minutes. Less, with what was sure to be hard work. No choice but to go, now.

I dropped first down the hole. Quiet, like the J8 was some sleeping baby and we were its tiptoeing mamas. Sammins came right behind me, landing so light on her feet because she was nimble, and the gravity forgiving besides.

The pipe was too hot to touch, to even get near to, and my boots stuck, I could feel it in hard, thick and hot press through my suit even though it was all still venting through the hole. I chanced a glance at the locks; the pipe rippled and angled out, and I swore I could see the glow of the fire coming through around the edges of the lock.

The other way, back up the pipe, the J8 was still and quiet, all but a couple of lights on its round body shut out. We crept up, and I caught one of its elegant long claws and clipped it to my utility cable.

Then we moved it slow and careful, towards the hatchway the rig was still somehow locked to, with me pulling and Sammins pushing from behind. Hoping that between the movement and how close we were getting to being fried, it wouldn’t wake up.
The locks behind us succumbed to fire, sending it all roaring down the pipe towards us, hot and white, just as we were pushing and shoving and wrestling the J8 up into the airlock to the rig, which was almost too small to take it. Struggling and with Sammins’ alarm blaring our thirty seconds of air and Colm hollering at me on the com to leave it and bail.

Sammins gave me a shove into the tiny space of the lock, though I’d intended for her to go first: I squeezed in next to the J8, crushed so I couldn’t breathe anyway.

Me first, then the J8, then in she came after me; seemed to me we had ourselves some fucked up priorities right there.

The airlock swung shut.

Madi opened from the other side just as I was getting to unconscious, and pulled me and the J8 and Sammins out and into the cool, sweet air of the rig itself.

Colm was already uncoupling.

And damned if it wasn’t first Barton to have his hands on me, dragging off my mask and making sure I got a lungful. “Good?”

I looked at him, twisted to look over at Sammins, who gave me a cheerful thumbs-up. Her suit helmet was melted half to fuck down her head like someone smeared a wet dirty yellow paint finger, but that pretty skin was fine.

“Good,” I told him, scratchy voice and all.

Now I looked at the goddamned pig. It was back up, awake and clucking and chuckling busily away at a self diagnostic, telling Colm all about how it got seven hundred and eighty-two degrees past factory recommended heat resistance temperature.

“I’ll be damned,” I said. “I’ll be damned.”

And despite the rig still going on alarm every five minutes for being burnt and rattled and parts needing replacing, we circled back and hunted the slowly descending pieces of the explosion’s debris. Looking for anything of that garbage that was whole.

Finally we found what we were looking for; a blackened and battered crate, part of that explosive pile of garbage that had nearly got us all killed. It was caught on a Y section of the ducts, stuck there where they intersected, much further down than we’d been.

When we got back to the post we gave the one unexploded box of Blastems to Nuni, though it was probably worth almost as much as the J8 in the end.

Two days later, I dressed up sharp and I did something I’d never done, for whatever reason. I took Peg, and I took Sammins, a little surprised that she agreed to come along.

We went to Parco, the three of us.

We walked in clean and paid the entry and almost looked like we belonged there. Had a good look around the shops, which even with the J8 bounty we could never really afford.

Then we sat and lounged around drinking lemon coolers.

We sat around and not a one of us said a thing at all about how it takes a thing like almost being blown to kingdom come to make a body truly appreciate her job.

My cooler had fizzy grape flakes. It was as good as I’d thought it would be, and made me go all purple around the lips and tongue.


About the Author

Kel Bachus‘ fiction includes “Miss Parker Down the Bung” and “Echo, Sonar” in Strange Horizons, and short erotic fiction in Best S/M Erotica 2 and Best Women’s Erotica 2002, as well as other magazines and anthologies. They are a game designer and lives in Maryland with their wife and two kids, and plays far too much ice hockey.

“Crawl” was inspired by the “pigs” of Monterey Bay Aquarium

Kel can be reached at

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