Part 2

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The lieutenant's waiting on me to do something, so I motion her behind the yellow line. No matter how many times I go through the motions, there's always sweat on my forehead when I place my chit into the slot and start counting. My mentor always told me if I get to five and there's no green light, it's time to run.

At three the hatch pops and lets out a blast of cloying, stinky air. I'm basically immune to the sweetly sick smell of decomposition and sewage, but by the way the Lieutenant starts dry heaving it's got to be pretty bad. More concerning is the moisture: unbound water isn't good in a sealed environment. There's a distortion field twisting the light as it passes through the opening, so all I can see is a smear of colors all blended together. I'm about to say thank you when my guide throws up.

"Right." I touch the ring around my neck, feel my helmet unfold and wrap itself around my head. Nothing in the air's registering as toxic, but I'm not taking any chances. I climb over the lip, hear the hatch swing shut and lock me in. I'm concentrating on my breathing because the distortion field doesn't just bend light, it also disrupts my optic and aural nerves.

The signals they're sending are trippy in the worst way.

A software sentinel dictates a vague warning about death and dismemberment. It's all standard stuff – basically reminding me of several hundred cardinal rules. When the field lifts, my nerves stop misfiring and I can see what I'm dealing with.

It's bad.

Every surface is sweating, from the guide rails to the light panels to the grill on the floor. I can hear the pitter-patter of heavy droplets falling, together with the telltale pings and pangs of thermal expansion. Steam rises off hot pipes, saturating the air.

"What's your status?" The question rings inside my skull. The lieutenant's recovered pretty quickly, although there's still sickness in her voice. I think I hear her spit.

"That stench was a containment problem. Leakage." That would explain the rashes and fouled water. I'm probably looking at compromised microbial cultures if not worse. Short version - waste recycling is shut down.

At least my sensors aren't detecting explosive levels of methane.

She clears her throat. "Can you fix it?"

"Suppose we'll see." At the end of the corridor is a ramp, and what's waiting at the bottom isn't the kind of sludge any sane human being would want to wade into. It's a vile mixture of feces, urine, waste water and mulched food – anything dumped down a drain is in there. It's only ankle deep, and my boots are waterproof and thick. I slosh my way into a circular room with bad lighting and long shadows. I can see artificial veins running along the walls and ceiling, writhing against their brackets. The source of the leak's a raised platform in the center of the floor. The sealing membrane covering it has been shredded. Gas bubbles up through the holes, spraying little flecks of gunk whenever they burst.

"That's not good."

"What's not good?" I think it's strange that people want to know, considering they've been oblivious to the danger all along.

"I found your problem." That membrane's part of the recycling tank: keeps its contents where they're supposed to be while allowing technicians like me to gauge flora health, overall pressure, transfer rates and so forth. Right now the ship's got ulcers and I can't even tell her that.

More the point, this whole mess just doesn't fly. Flexion's got fairly robust diagnostics, self flushing and automatic repairs, so frankly I'm surprised to see anything this bad. A problem for later - what I need to do now is quantify the damage, stabilize the system and start rebuilding.

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