Severance (Novel Excerpt)
by Chris Bucholz
Chapter 1: A Distinct Odor
Laura Stein rolled onto her side, taking care to not crush the bag of urine strapped to her thigh. Through the vanes of the air damper, she could see the upper side of a suspended ceiling facing her. An art studio lay underneath that, assuming the occupancy database was accurate, which it occasionally was. She waited a few seconds, listening for any sign that art was currently happening, and after hearing nothing, pried open one of the damper vanes, creating a gap wide enough to drop through. Feet first, she passed through the damper and set herself down on the suspended ceiling, confident the frame would support her weight. She repositioned the damper vane in place, then rolled to her side and opened a tile in the ceiling, peering into the space below. Empty.
She lowered herself out of the ceiling and dropped to the floor. Standing on a chair, she repositioned the tile above her, then made her way to the closet at the back of the studio. From the webbing strapped around her waist, she withdrew a tool to remove an embedded floor panel, exposing a dark cavity. She descended feet first into the hole, again mindful of the flexible package of urine, then awkwardly positioned herself face up and dragged the access panel into place above her. In darkness again, she tapped a luminescent patch on her shoulder, shedding a dim light in front of her. Rolling over onto her stomach, she began dragging her way down the crawlspace, scraping her hands, chin, and every other part of her body as she went.
Designed for maintenance robots, utility crawlspaces could theoretically accommodate human-sized travelers — the theory essentially being: "but they really have to want to be there." The number of scrapes, abrasions and calluses on Stein's hands and knees attested to the number of times she'd really wanted to be in such places. Typically for work-related reasons, but she wasn't working tonight. Stein was one of the enviable few Argosians whose profession — ship's maintenance — overlapped significantly with her hobby — light burglary.Reaching a junction, she checked the identification tag on the wall. L3-UC-3401. The odds of her being in the wrong place were slim, but the next section would be a dead end, and she didn't want to back in and out of any more side passages than she had to. She patted the satchel of urine strapped to her hip for the tenth time since entering the crawlspace, reassured that it was still dry to the touch.
She shimmied a few meters down the side passage, counting the number of panel seams above her as she went. When she reached the sixth seam, she stopped. Reaching behind her, she fished a cutter from her tool webbing, then began to roll over. She stopped abruptly, perilously close to wetting herself, shivered, then rolled over the other way, maneuvering her body until she was lying on her back. Exhaling, she tapped the terminal on her other hip and spoke softly, "How we doing?"
"Still clear," Bruce replied. "I told you, this guy's definitely befouling someone's party right now. Take as long as you want."
"Well, just keep watching. I've got a shy bladder," Stein whispered.
"Just relax and it will come. Imagine you're in a really crowded room and everyone's watching — that's what I do when I need to go."
"Or maybe imagine my mom. That sometimes works for me too."
She grinned and adjusted the controls of the cutter. "Okay, here we go," she whispered. Positioning the tool, she drilled a tiny hole in the panel above her. Applying light pressure to the cutter, she listened to the torch as it cut through the sandwiched materials into the room above. A change in pitch announced the end of the cut, at which point she turned off the tool and tucked it back in her webbing. Her hand returned with a micro-lube gun. Positioning it in the hole she'd just made, she began threading the sturdy tube up until she was confident it had breached the threshold of the floor above. Pausing, she rolled her shoulders, releasing the tension that had crept into her neck. After a deep breath, she reached down to her right hip and delicately detached the sack of urine from the webbing. Carefully, she twisted off the cap of the sack and slid the lube gun's feed tube into it. She exhaled. Slowly, she depressed the trigger of the lube gun.
The contents of the satchel traveled up the tube at high velocity, ejecting over a small patch of floor in the room above. The donor of the urine was not Stein herself, but a gentleman by the name of Gerald Lehman, a Marker. Lehman had not known he was donating the urine at the time, and indeed would have been impressively paranoid if he had. A small device attached to the trap underneath his toilet had been collecting his urine for days, a trap implanted during a similar subterranean raid a week earlier. But however upset Mr. Lehman might be after discovering the theft of his urine, it would pale beside how he'd feel if he knew its ultimate destination: the living room of Sebastian Krol, leader of the Markers, and his nominal boss.
Throughout the course of human history, peeing on your boss's living room floor has always been regarded as a pretty bad move, but in an organization like the Markers, it was particularly ill-advised. The Markers were a club/society/street-gang — one of many on the Argos — that distinguished themselves from their peers by pissing on things and off people. Markers, when queried about this behavior, would usually expound on the importance of keeping in tune with humanity's ancient mammalian roots, or recite a prepared speech about the tyranny of indoor plumbing. Everyone else, when queried about this behavior, would suggest that they just liked being dicks. Markers were a particular annoyance for those whose work involved crawling around in poorly drained and ventilated areas, people such as Laura Stein and Bruce Redenbach.
Stein and Bruce's scheme involved placing an ambitious junior's Mark within the leader's home, which they hoped would incite an internecine conflict within the Marker organization and possibly some mild bloodshed. "And if it does lead to some murders," Bruce had noted, "then so be it. Horrible smelling murders that security doesn't try very hard to solve."
The satchel empty, Stein withdrew the tube and stowed everything in her webbing. As gracefully as possible, she scuttled her way back down the corridor. "All done," she whispered.
"Bet that feels better," Bruce said. "Coast is still clear. Do you smell? I bet you smell."
Stein ignored him, concentrating on her awkward backpedaling retreat. Five minutes later she was back in the closet, sealing the access panel shut. Standing, she peeled off her coveralls covered in the dirt and grime of the crawlspace, and stuffed them into an expandable bag she extracted from her webbing. Now somewhat presentable looking, she exited the closet back into the art studio. Her hand fluttered to the terminal to call Bruce and check if it was safe to leave by the front door, before she stopped.
A strange buzzing noise was emanating from somewhere, and she turned, looking for the source. A half-dozen canvases lay in a stack by a set of shelves. Beside them, a pair of easels toiled, holding up a wall. The shelves themselves contained art supplies, a selection of horrible clay pots, and a thin layer of dust. She frowned. She wasn't surprised to find the studio abandoned — there were a lot of similarly disused rooms scattered across the ship. But she hadn't thought this was one of them. When they were planning out her route for the evening's excursion, the occupancy database — admittedly not always reliable — said this room was still in use, owned by an M. Melson.
The strange noise was still there, growing louder. Out of a sense of professional curiosity she continued searching the room, thinking it might be a short circuit arcing behind a wall panel. She stooped to peer behind a bookshelf in the corner, nudging it slightly.
Bright blue light obliterated everything. She jumped back, falling on her ass, scrambling backwards like a crab, one hand clamped over her eyes. A piercing noise filled the air around her. Stein opened her eyes a fraction. The blue light was still there, still blinding. Blinking, she could see the negative afterimage, a bright slash of orange imprinted on her retinas. Strange black images danced in her vision. Keeping her eyes shut, she clamped her hands over them, squeezing. The images floating on the bright sea of orange coalesced into distinct shapes. They almost looked like letters.