Johnson looked up in surprise as O'Hara entered the Admin Center and collapsed into a chair, his p-suit joints hissing as they took on the new configuration. "Coffee," the engineer croaked, like a man crawling out of the Sahara after a week without water. He banged his fist on the table. "Somebody bring me a bloody coffee, will you?"
Larette, sitting at her big desk on the other side of the compartment, turned to regard O'Hara with interest. The former surfboard champ had the kind of sculpted body and permanent suntan that most women drooled over. Larette appeared to be no exception, though Johnson noticed she made no attempt to satisfy O'Hara's demands.
Johnson went to the machine just to shut O'Hara up. He pressed the button and waited while the unit went through its usual spluttering and wheezing routine. As Chief Maintenance Tech it was Johnson's responsibility to overhaul the damned thing, but he had a dozen other systems to take care of, important systems like Life Support. Which, in an Offworld Scientific Research Station with a population of over fifty people and animals, took priority. He banged the side of the machine and muttered obscenities under his breath until the hatch finally slid open to reveal the steaming cup.
O'Hara snatched it out of his hand and gulped the contentsthen screwed up his face. "Bloody hell, what is this stuff? I asked for coffee, not battery acid."
Johnson shrugged. "I usually ignore the toxic warning lights. To what do we owe the pleasure of your company?" What he really wanted to ask was, "Couldn't you take your perfect profile somewhere else?"
"I just lost a construction drone. Thought I better report it."
"That's not an easy thing to do," Larette said. She got up and joined them at the table. Johnson nodded toward the coffee machine, offering her a cup, but she shook her head, no thanks. She knew better.
"I was out working on the new dome," O'Hara said. "Everything's running to schedule, should you wonder. By this time next week we'll have full integrity."
Johnson was glad to hear it. Another team of scientists would soon be arriving on Alphacent, along with their families. The Research Station was about to turn into a minor colony. He couldn't help but take pride in the fact he'd contributed toward this evolution.
O'Hara paused, staring into his empty cup, his lips set in a tight line. Johnson glanced at Larette, who said, "Hey, wake up. The drone, remember?"
"It was a Type Three," O'Hara said. "You know, the ones with the A-G packs. Sixteen of them were working with me on the new dome." He ran his tongue around the inside of his lips, maybe wondering whether the coffee had dissolved his tooth enamel. Then he added, "Fifteen, now."
Larette said, "Did it malfunction and wander off, or what?"
Johnson shook his head. "They can't do that. They're slaved to the Station A.I. It keeps track of them at all times."
She pondered that for a moment. "Then what happened?"
O'Hara didn't answer. Johnson got the impression he was replaying events over in his head, trying to figure it out for himself. Just when Larette looked as if she was about to scream, O'Hara spoke again. "I think there's something out there."
[End of Excerpt]