Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chapter 17

Her dreams had been strange: she'd found herself soaring over the plains of Mars, not in a ship, but just flying. As she reached Valles Marineris, she had felt that something was terribly wrong, but couldn't find the source of her terror. At the midpoint of the canyon, she heard an explosion, and looked behind to see that her body was in flames and spewing black smoke. When she had screamed, the scene changed to a star field, with a burning ship blotting out half of the sky. The flaming pieces of the ship fell through the blackness to the planet's surface, screaming in a high speeds to explode as they impacted. She had reached out, trying to catch the pieces of the ship, but they fell through her fingers and escaped. She struggled to reach further, but there was nothing to brace herself against in the emptiness of space, and more fireballs rained down on the planet. Finally, everything faded to a smoky blackness.

She awoke with difficulty the next morning, struggling towards consciousness with effort. For a few minutes, she let herself relax into the hammock, enjoying its warmth and security. “Maybe I could just lie here for a day,” she muttered, eyes still closed, “and everyone else could cover for me, and I could just sleep...and then my ship could blow up and take us all with it because I wasn't on guard.”

With a sigh, Jass opened her eyes and worked her way out of the hammock. “I swear, if I ever catch the person setting those bombs, it's going to be a quick trip through the airlock. No-one should be denied a good night's sleep because they're too worried about blowing up in the middle of the night.” She shook her head to clear it.

The med lab was empty when she arrived, but instead of strapping herself into the treadmill as usual, she pulled herself over to a resistance machine. The machine was little more than a metal frame with heavy springs. It was similar to the weight machines used in gyms, but instead of weights, relied on springs to provide the resistance that would keep the spacers' muscles toned and active. She pulled the machine's straps tight around her body, made sure her feet were secure in the braces, and began to work the arms of the machine, pulling them in toward each other in front of her, and releasing them at a measured pace. After ten minutes, she could feel the muscles in her shoulders begin to burn, but pushed herself on for another five minutes. She let the arms of the machine come to rest and rubbed her shoulders. “Out of practice, Jass. Gotta get back in shape.” She made sure to use all the parts of the machine in turn, working out as many muscle groups as she could. When her entire body ached, she loosened the straps that held her in and let herself float up and out of the seat.

After a quick shower, she pulled her hair back into her usual braid and made her way up the corridor. As she came into view of the crew quarters, she saw Merriam bracing himself outside the door of Martina's quarters; the two were talking in intense whispers and he was gripping her wrist. Jass couldn't hear what they were saying, and as soon as they saw her, both fell silent.

Merriam, what are you doing?” Jass grabbed a handhold on the wall and pulled herself to a stop. Merriam let go of Martina's wrist, and turned around.

I needed to ask her some questions about some measurements she took for me earlier today. It's quicker to talk than to send messages back and forth. What, now I have to ask permission to talk to my fellow crew members? That seems like a rather draconian policy.”

Jass ignored his barb, and turned to Martina. The younger woman had pulled her arm down by her side and was trying to massage her wrist without attracting notice. “Was he bothering you? You don't have to put up with anything just because you're doing a few jobs for him.”

Martian opened her mouth to speak, then changed her mind and shook her head. “No, he wasn't bothering me. Just checking some readings.” She smiled and tried to give a convincing laugh. “My handwriting's so bad even I can't read it half the time.”

Jass wanted to order Merriam to stay away from her anyway, but without proof she could be setting herself up for a lawsuit for creating a hostile workplace. The situation was bad enough with the damage small shipping companies were suffering, she didn't want to give any potential client any additional reasons for picking another company to ship their cargo.

Ok, just...remember to treat others with respect, ok? I know things can get pretty casual out here, and the close quarters don't help, but it's important to treat each other professionally.”

Merriam gave her an odd look, but nodded. “Naturally, captain. Martina, I think we've got the issues ironed out, so just remember to write more clearly next time so we don't have to have another interpretation session, ok?” He kicked off from the wall and moved quickly down the corridor towards the science lab.

Jass turned back to talk to Martina, but she had retreated inside her quarters and closed the door.

The incident stuck in Jass' mind as she read the morning reports at her console an hour later. She was more sure than ever that Merriam and Martina were sleeping together, and nothing about the relationship looked healthy. But if Martina insisted that everything was fine, she had no business poking her nose in.

Jass sighed, and put the issue out of mind. The latest news from Mars and Earth had been loaded onto her console, but nothing caught her attention. She heard a sound behind her, and turned around to see Kristin entering the cabin.

I think we've entered the most dangerous part of the trip,” Jass commented, “the part where we get bored.”

Kristin laughed and made her way up to the captain's console. Her hair floated out in a short halo around her head; Jass always thought that zero g made her friend look like a retro-glam rock star.

That's the nature of the business,” Kristin commented. “We have a full library, you know. You could pull up just about any book you wanted on your computer.”

I can't seem to sit still long enough to read. I always feel like there's something more productive I'm meant to be doing.”

Cleaning the ship?”

From what dust? The air filters catch most of it, and anything that did make it through got picked up on an earlier sweep.”

Kristin floated in front of the window, looking out. “It's too late, then. You're doomed to death by boredom. I'll make sure the memorial service is appropriately sappy. I might even sing 'O Danny Boy.'”

Jass grimaced. “You're given me back my will to live. There's got to be a way to get through the day that isn't going to make me crazy at the end of it.”

Take up painting.”

You're not helping.”

Ok, then, want to help an old friend try to figure out how she should solve a problem when she gets home?”

I'm afraid even to ask.”

Believe it or not, I'm serious this time,” Kristin said, turning away from the window. Something in the tone of her voice made Jass look up from the console.

What kind of problem is it?”

Kristin ran a hand through her short brown hair, making it stand on end even more than it did before. “it's going to be a long story.”

I've got nothing but time.” Jass closed the reports and turned her full attention to her friend.

I've been thinking a lot about the time I spent in Bradbury Dome right after school. You telling me the story about you and Vijay got me to thinking and remembering a lot of stuff I'd forgotten. Tried to forget, anyway. And then you seemed so hurt when you realized that Aaron hadn't told you about the problems he'd had since school, whatever those are. I don't really have anyone else to talk this over with.”

She pulled herself over to her own console and strapped herself in tightly so that she wouldn't move around the cabin.

We kinda fell out of contact for those months. We were both so busy, there wasn't time for much more than the occasional email and message. I was enjoying my freedom from school, and you were working so many hours in the hangar, and then you were gone for those months on your first run...” She stopped and gave a short laugh. “I'm sorry, i'm babbling. I haven't told anyone this whole story before, so I'm having trouble finding the right words. When I first arrived in Bradbury Dome, it was so big and new, it's a whole different world than Spirit City. I was a little overwhelmed. One of the guys from my office offered to help show me around. He didn't work in my department, he was in advertising or sales or something like that. Which should have been a warning, come to think of it.”

Jass began to get an idea of what Kristin's story might be, and wasn't sure she wanted to hear it. But her friend needed to speak, and she held her fear in.

We went out a couple of nights a week, always to a new place. Sometimes it was a new Indian place, once it was Noveau Martian. We went to movies, plays, art openings, everything he could think of. I felt so uncultured and unprepared for life in a city like that. I was so grateful to have someone who knew how to find his way around. After a month or so, we started dating. It wasn't too serious at first, but it got heavier all the time. About four months into my time there, I was spending every evening either out on the town with him or eating dinner at his apartment. I didn't go anywhere without him, because he knew all the best places to go, the most fun things to do...why would I want to spend time with anyone else?”

She paused, and swallowed hard. “Geez, I don't normally get emotional, but this is harder than I thought.” She took a deep breath, and said with some effort, “Five months into the relationship, my birth control failed and I found out I was pregnant.”

Jass tried not to respond, but her face must have revealed her surprise. Kristin noticed, and a corner of her mouth turned up. “See, I thought you probably didn't know about that. I'm not exactly the mothering type, you know. And I hated the thought of having a kid, but...I don't know, I just couldn't go through with an abortion. I didn't know any women in the city who might have gone with me, and I hadn't told Drew yet. By the time I did tell him, I'd already decided to have the baby. I told him that I had some news for him, and he invited me over to his place for dinner instead of going out. The dinner was lovely; he'd learned to make some dishes that he learned from a chef in town and had just about perfected the roasted chicken over penne with marsala sauce. I kept holding off on telling him the news, but after dinner, he insisted that I spill the beans.”

She shifted in her seat, trying to find a more comfortable positions for the straps that held her in her seat.

So we settled onto the couch, and I explained that I was going to have a baby. I told him that I planned to give it up for adoption, but that I wanted him to know about it so that we could find a good pair of adoptive parents together.”

Let me guess,” Jass said as her friend fell silent again, “he wasn't overly thrilled.”

You could put it that way. He ranted for a few minutes about how I could dare to let this happen, then told me he'd give me money to go to the clinic and have an abortion. I'd already made up my mind, and refused; even if I had wanted the abortion, I wouldn't have wanted to do it under those terms. I told him so. Two minutes later, I was standing by myself in the middle of the street, listening to the door lock behind me.” She held up a hand to forestall Jass' outburst. “No, don't say it. It was terrible, but I don't want to dwell on it too much. Actually, it was probably for the best: I hadn't seen that side of Andrew before, and I could have been much more enmeshed in the relationship than I was. The break was quick, and I never saw him again.”

Did...?” Jass started to ask a question, then stopped.

Yes, I had the baby. I hated every minute of the nine months before she was born. I'd always heard about how wonderful pregnancy was, but it wasn't. It was like I could feel her sucking the life out of me.”

Wasn't there anyone you could call for help?”

Who? My mother and I haven't spoken in years, my sister immigrated to Earth, and I hadn't made any friends of my own in Bradbury Dome. There were a few women I worked with, but...” She shrugged. “Workplace friendships. You know.”

You could have called me! I would have flown over in a heartbeat, they have plenty of jobs in Bradbury Dome...”

You were enjoying your first real spacer job and getting ready for your first deep space run. Even if I had called, you wouldn't have been able to come, not without damaging your own career.”

Jass unbuckled her straps and made her way over to her friend. “So you were alone when you had the baby?”

Kristin nodded. “It was pretty quick. I went in to the hospital when labor started, had the baby, and she was given to the adoptive parents right away. I never even held her. She'd be ten next summer. I don't even know if she knows she's adopted. I've never written a letter, or tried to get in touch. She deserves to be as secure in her home as she can, and her mother and father love her very much. When I saw their faces light up as they took her in their arms, I knew that I'd made the right choice. But sometimes...sometimes I'd like to do more for her. Make sure she can go to whatever school she wants, make whatever kind of life she wants. Her parents are good people, but they didn't have much more money than I did. I brought her into the world, the least I can do is make sure she has a good start in it.”

The two women sat in silence for a long time, looking across the empty cabin and out through the window. The room was quiet, though the usual beeps and alerts echoed through from time to time, and Jass thought she could feel the ventilation system thrumming in the walls.

So what I want to know is,” Kristin said, breaking the silence, “do I try to contact her parents now after all these years? Ask them what I can do? Or do I just go the way I've gone for the last decade, leaving her alone?”

Jass let go of the edge of the console and let herself float free again. “Hell, Kristin, I don't know. If even you aren't sure, I haven't got a clue. My one real relationship went up in flames, this is out of my scope.”

it's ok,” kristin said, loosening the straps that held her into her seat. “I think I just needed to talk it out a little. It feels good not to have to hide that whole story anymore. Not that I'll go spreading it all over Mars, you know,” she added. Her familiar smile was back and she stretched into the middle of the cabin. “Sometimes keeping things to yourself makes the decision seems harder than it is. I think I made the right choice. And it's my watch now, so you should go find something else to do. This friend is all out of problems that need solving.”

Jass laughed and turned to leave the room. As she closed the door behind her, she saw Kristin move toward the window, and wondered how much time her friend had spent alone over the years.

Chapter 16

I was a little sad to miss the city,” Kristin said, fitting a pouch of food to the hot water nozzle and filling it. “But from your stories, I think maybe I'm glad I didn't go. Doesn't sound like my kind of place.”

I don't think it's really trying to lure in spacers,” Aaron commented. “I mean, they'll let us in and happily take our money. But we're not the main audience. I think they're looking for rich folks who want a little novelty without any real hardship or change in their normal routine.”

I think I'll try to avoid taking shipments from there in the future,” Jass said, before draining a juice pouch. “The difficulty of approach, combined with the gravity...I'm not sure it's worth the price. If I do run future routes through here, I'm not leaving the ship. Ever.”

Well, we've got a good long space between here and Vesta. Even with the shortest route I could plan, it's about ten weeks.” Aaron tucked an empty pouch into a waste compartment. “Lots of clear space between us and there, so you have plenty of time to get sick of zero g again.”

You have to admit, it is a little frustrating trying to learn how to walk all over again every few weeks,” Kristin pointed out. “Much simpler just to go between Mars normal and zero g.”

Much simpler,” Jass agreed, “but that involves only ever going from Mars to the black and back again. There are new colonies cropping up all the time, new places to go and see. And they're not all crazy. Cybele was fun. And Vesta was great the last time I was there. It's got that crazy asteroid gravity and the city is unlike anywhere else I've ever been.”

I heard that they're trying to get a colony to Europa in the next decade,” said Denjiro, soaring into the room. “It'll be a research thing at first, naturally; most colonies have started that way. But they'll need to bring people in to start making it self-sufficient.”

Self-sufficient?” Jass laughed. “On that block of ice? There's not even any dirt there! Just kilometers and kilometers of ice, with an ocean underneath.”

Well, I wasn't asked to be on the planning committee, I don't know how they're going to do it.” Denjiro rummaged through a drawer until he found a food pouch to his liking. “I just heard they're planning it. Hey, Jass, isn't it your shift up in the main cabin?”

Jass checked the time. “Damn, it is. I'll see ya'll around.” She deposited her food pouch in the waste container and pulled herself through the doorway. The corridor was empty, and she made her way up to the cabin. When she arrived, Kara was unbuckling the belt that held her in her seat. “Oh good, you're here. I'm starving!”

A couple of the others are in the galley,” Jass said, checking her console for any messages of important. “Looked like they were going to be there for a while, if you want to go catch up with them.”

Sounds good to me.” The slender woman was gone in a moment, and Jass settled in to read the latest set of reports from Mars and Earth that had been uploaded into the system. While messages of importance and major news items were beamed their way daily, they had to wait until docking at a station or colony to get the full news briefing. Unrest on the Luna colony, Jass saw, no surprise there. A strike in the spaceworkers union on Earth. Also typical. A smaller story caught her eye, and she pulled up the full item. The story started with more accounts of sabotage, but continued with the account of a saboteur who had been brought back unharmed. Upon questioning before his trial, he had claimed that Federated Shipping had sent an agent to recruit him, using the threat of blackmail and a bribe of substantial proportions. He had no proof to back up his story, but the story had been enough to start an initial probe into Federated Shipping. The news item ended with a quote from the accused company: “We are as shocked by these accusations as everyone else, and we extend our sympathies to all of the companies who have lost ships and personnel in this time of crisis. We hope that those responsible are brought to justice swiftly.”

Jass hid the news story again, and relaxed in her seat. What if Federated Shipping was telling the truth, and they weren't behind the wave of damages? Who else could it be? She hesitated a moment, then checked her own personal messages. There was nothing urgent, just the usual messages from home. She paged through a few messages from her mother; it was nothing out of the ordinary, just wishes for her safety interspersed with news of her sisters and their children. Jass was grateful that her mother had seldom bothered her about getting married or having children. She'd been disappointed when the relationship with Vijay crumbled, but had staunchly defended her daughter's right to live single against other family members who had not been so kind. Jass pulled up a new screen and composed a brief message to her mother, updating her on the state of the ship and asking her to greet the rest of the family. She stored the message in the queue that would be sent in the next batch, and turned away from the screen.

With one quick motion, she unbuckled herself from the seat and stretched into the air. She glanced around the cabin to insure that no-one else was watching, then made her way to the door and closed it. She pulled herself back to her console and turned on the speakers. In another moment, music filled the cabin. It was a simple melody, sad and sweet, and she felt it in her bones. She floated to the front window and hovered there, face close to the cold glass, looking out into the stars.

It's hard to pick out constellations here, she thought, scanning the star field. The stars were so bright and numerous when they didn't have to fight their way through a planet's reflected light and atmosphere. She found a cluster of stars that she thought might be the Pleiades, but couldn't be sure. Her computer could have identified a score of constellations in an instant, but it wasn't the same as picking them out with her own eyes.

The music echoed in the cabin, and Jass found herself wishing to be back on Mars instead of heading for another asteroid colony. She wanted to see the butterscotch sky again, with the sun moving overhead like a polished coin. “Must be a pretty crappy spacer if I'm this homesick for life planetside,” she said to her reflection in the window.

I don't know about that.”

Jass turned around with such force that she had to put a hand against the wall to keep from bouncing off it. Dani had entered the room so quietly that she hadn't heard her come in. The programmer closed the door behind her. “Sorry, but it's my shift in a few minutes, so I thought I'd go ahead and come in.” She floated to her usual spot near the ceiling of the room and pulled out her computer. “And I meant what I said. I don't know that missing Mars makes you a bad spacer. Everybody misses stuff. We can't have everything we want all at once, so we take what we can get at the moment and miss the rest.”

Jass shrugged and took a final glance out of the window before returning to her seat. “Maybe. But it seems like I just don't know what I want. When I'm at home, I want to be out here, and when I'm out here all I can think about is getting back to Mars.”

It's part of being human,” Dani insisted, not looking up from her computer. “It's part of that not-so-fun side, along with things like self-doubt and regrets. Everyone has them, no one wants them.”

Don't get me started on regrets, I've had enough of those this week.” Jass looked at her console and began organizing the watch schedule for the next week.

The treadmill bounced under Jass' feet as she ran, and she wondered for a moment if she should check the supports. Shipboard treadmills tended to undergo a lot of wear and tear on deep space voyages, and it wasn't unusual for one to lose an important screw or come loose from its anchors. No spacer wanted to the one strapped into the machine when that happened. Jass made a mental note to check the machine when she was done and pushed forward.

The ship was three days out from Gaspra, and no further signs of sabotage had been found. At least, not yet. Jass was frustrated that she had not been able to narrow down the list of possible culprits, but it was impossible. Until the first bomb was found, she would have trusted this crew with her life. Now when she actually had to trust them with her own life and the lives of the entire crew, she found that she couldn't.

She pushed the thought aside and concentrated on running. The physical effort of running required focus and helped her collect her thoughts. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Just the basics, just the elements of moving forward. Left. Right. Left.

When her legs began to burn with the exertion, she finally slowed to a walk then brought the machine to a halt. Grabbing a towel, she wiped her face and neck down. The world seemed simpler than it had earlier; there was nothing more to be done than to keep her crew alive and get them all home safe. That was it. She didn't know how she'd do it, but the actual task was very simple.

After a shower, she headed up to the galley for a quick meal. Jass wasn't sure what she would do after that; the schedules had been made and sent to the crew, all messages and reports had been read, and the preparations for docking with Vesta wouldn't need to be started for weeks.

In a way, the sailors of centuries ago had had things simpler, Jass mused as she ate a meal bar. On board a sailing ship, the vessel itself required constant upkeep, so there was always something to do. The Curious Machine needed maintenance, too, but most of it was done in dock, and very little by the crew itself. It had been created to carry a crew safely for months through the harshest environment in the galaxy with few or no repairs. The cargo needed to be checked at certain intervals and there was always the science payload to worry about, but after a certain point, everything had been done and she was left with a daily life aboard the ship. There were no restaurants, stores, or new friends to break up the routines.

Jass pulled out her computer and began to look through the ship's library of films. Most of them held little interest for her; filmmaking on Earth consisted mostly of continuations of story franchises created decades ago, documentaries on subjects she had no interest in, and comedies that failed to elicit a single laugh. Most ships had access to the same films, since the film companies had sold them at a very low rate, hoping to recoup the money in bulk sales when they convinced investors that the movie package would be an essential on every deep space ship. Jass exited the library, and pulled up a directory from another part of the computer. She had uploaded another film library, one she had paid for with her own money. It wasn't strictly legal to upload her own film library into the ship's system, but every captain she knew did the same thing, and no-one ever questioned it.

She scanned the collection. Film-making on Mars was still in its childhood; for years, the colonists had relied on Earth to continue creating the culture that they consumed. But over the years, as the quality of the culture produced continued to fall, many Mars citizens had begun to clamor for entertainment made on their own homeworld.

Forty years ago, a film student named Milo Sorenson had sold most of his belongings aside from his film equipment, and made a movie that was later hailed as the beginning of the Marswave movement. Until that time, movies were rarely created for the Mars audience, since the vast majority of moviegoers lived within Earth orbit. Mars colonists were often depicted as backwater ruffians, comedic sidekicks, or crazed villains proclaiming the bankruptcy of Earth culture.

Milo Sorenson's films had been different. Eschewing traditional cost-cutting studio filming with computer-added effects, he filmed in the open expanses of Mars, setting his actors against sweeping backdrops of red dusted rocks, kilometers of canyon, and the looming shape of Olympus Mons. The characters, derided as “boring” by Earth-based critics, were the sort of people familiar to every Mars dweller: fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, students, shop owners, cooks, the sort of people that one could find anywhere. One critic reviewed an early Sorenson film by stating, “Without the travel-brochure landscapes, one wouldn't even know the story took place on another planet.”

Sorenson's first films had been low-budget affairs, made with donations from his local fans and whatever the previous film's ticket sales had brought in. But soon Sorenson's films had many fans in his hometown, Opportunity Dome, and word began to spread. Bootlegged copies of the movies were uploaded to the planet-wide network, and the files began to migrate through the Earth networks. Aficionados of independent film-making began to declare themselves fans of Sorenson's work. As sales of his films began to bring in more money, Sorenson had invested in better equipment but still refused to use any sort of computer-generated effects, though he never said a word against any film-maker who did use them. “If you're looking at Mars through a computer,” he had once said, “you're not seeing my Mars anymore.” Other young film-makers began to make their own movies inspired by his work, and the Marswave film movement had been born.

Twenty-two years into his film-making career, Sorenson had unexpectedly found himself to be the height of fashion among Earth moviegoers and critics. Marswave films garnered sweeps of the highest awards at film festivals, and each new Sorenson film was greeted with wide acclamation.

At one film premier, a representative of an Earth-based film company ambushed Sorenson on the red carpet as he was giving an interview to a smiling reporter. The man explained that his company would like to hire Sorenson to direct a series of movies for them, and offered him an astronomical sum. When asked what the series would be about, the man replied that the studio wanted Sorenson to direct remakes of some of their most popular titles, but set the movies on Mars instead of Earth. Sorenson had emphatically refused the offer, and had retreated swiftly. For eight years, no one in the public heard anything of Sorenson; no new movies were announced, no interviews given, and no public appearances.

Then, with no warning, announcements for a new Sorenson film began to appear. It was billed as the final word in the Marswave movement, the culmination of Sorenson's career, and a film that would change the world of movies forever. Audiences poured into theaters on two worlds to see the film on opening night. No-one was sure what to expect, but everyone had a guess: they were all wrong.

The film, titled “Exodus,” followed the travels of a single man across the face of Mars. There was no dialogue, and very little music. Most of the sound came from Mars itself: the faint whisper of dust blown by the wind, the crumbling of gully edges into valleys, and the sound of the actor's boots scraping across the planet.

After the movie ended, over three hours later, Sorenseon appeared on screen and thanked those who had supported his work over the years, and announced his retirement. The audience was shocked, and many wrote to him to beg him to return to film-making, but he was adamant.

Jass had loved his movies ever since she was a girl, and Exodus was her favorite. She often played it when she was at home, letting the sounds of Mars fill her apartment.

She pulled up the film on her computer, instructing the screen in the main cabin to prepare the file for viewing. A second message invited the rest of the crew to join her in watching the movie.

By the time she reached the main cabin, Denjiro and Kara were already there, along with Martina, who had been on watch. As the film began, Dani, Aaron, and Kristin slipped into the room. Jass looked around the room as it was flooded with the ochre light of home, and felt the homesickness began to seep away.

I don't think I'd ever seen that one all the way through,” Denjiro commented after the movie was over. “I saw parts of it in college, but never sat and just watched it.”

If it's not an inappropriate question,” Kristin asked, “do you consider Mars or Earth your home? It seems like people who don't grow up on Mars have a hard time thinking of it as home.”

It's a great question. I'm still trying to answer that for myself. There are a lot of things about Mars I don't think I'll ever get used to. Living in a dome, for instance, or not having oceans. I miss the oceans. But on the other hand, Mars is a great place to be. The gravity doesn't take that long to get used to, and the landscapes are amazing. There's something about seeing the way the land lies with no plants to hide its shape...It's very compelling.”

Those are reasons, not answers,” said Jass. “Finding a home isn't about weighing pros and cons. It's something else, a moment when you look at where you are and realize that you belong there.”

Denjiro shrugged, and stretched his legs. “In that case, I don't know. I haven't felt that yet. Maybe I'm still looking for home.”

Aren't we all,” commented Kara with a wry smile.

Not all of us,” Kristin said. “I knew Spirit City was my home ever since I was a kid. I've worked all of the world, but nothing's quite like being there.”

What's so special about Spirit City?” Martina asked, frowning. “It's just a town. Bradbury Dome's a lot bigger.”

Bigger doesn't mean better in every case, but that wasn't what I meant. Spirit City is just where I always belonged, where it was ok for me to be me.” Kristin talked while scanning her console for messages. “I worked in Bradbury for a while, and it was a great town, but it was never home. I always felt out of place. It was good to come home when that job was done.”

But you probably spend more time in space than you do in town,” Martina protested, “or at least, as much time. I just don't see how it can really be your home.”

It's not an easy thing to explain if you haven't experienced it,” Jass said. “But that doesn't mean it isn't true.”

I think you don't always have a choice about where 'home' is,” Dani added. Jass was surprised, since the programmer rarely talking in larger groups of people. “Have you ever read any of the stories of the first colonists on Mars? Several of them talk about how they always felt like Mars was their home, even before they arrived on the planet. That was before there was anywhere on Mars that they could live, much less stores and movie theaters and things like that. I mean, Clara Morgan's first words to the colonists when they stepped onto the surface were 'Welcome home.'”

It's weird to think about that,” Denjiro said. “It makes me wonder how many people living on Earth felt like Mars was home and never got a chance to go, just because they were born too early.”

Maybe there are people on Mars right now who feel like Europa is home,” laughed Kristin. “And in a few hundred years, there will be people on that ball of ice having this exact same conversation and being glad they were born at the right time.”

Just the thought of being near that ball of ice makes me feel cold,” Jass said. She checked the time. “I think I'm going to catch up on replying to some of my messages.” She made her way over to her console and pulled up her messages.

The group slowly dispersed until only Dani, Aaron, and Jass remained in the main cabin. Dani had reclaimed her place floating near the ceiling of the cabin, and Aaron was strapped into his seat, going over a set of routes.

I think you all missed something when you were talking about 'home' a few minutes ago,” he said, looking up as she turned around.

Oh really? Please enlighten me, then.”

No-one mentioned people. Sometimes home is other people. Think about when you were a kid; when you'd go running home after school or something, or after sleeping over at a friend's house. Or if your family moved when you were young—you might miss the house you used to live in for a while, but eventually the new one becomes home, because the people you love live there.”

Jass thought for a few moments. “I can see that. I'm not sure it holds true for everyone, though. I love my family, but home isn't with them anymore.”

Not everyone is you, Jass. Most people have someone who is home for them. Or they're searching for someone to be their home.”

Do you have someone like that?”

That is a highly personal question, and I am going to exercise my right not to answer it, if you don't mind.”

Jass shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

Friday, November 11, 2011

Chapter 15

The following week was uneventful. No more devices were found, and the crew worked to get ready for the upcoming docking with Gaspra Station. Jass ordered the crew to spend at least a half hour every day on the treadmill to simulate the gravity on the station. The cargo was readied for off-loading and Merriam and Martina worked hard to make sure that all of the experiments that were due to be handed over to the lab aboard the station were finished on time.

Three days out from the station, Kara, Aaron, and Jass began to plan their route into the dock. The number of small platforms, containers, and other items surrounding the station made it difficult to approach. Kara downloaded the latest map and orbit information from the station and Aaron planned an approach that would use the smallest amount of fuel they could without being reckless.

I hate orbital stations,” Jass said, head pounding as she looked over the possible routes for the third time in the last half-hour. “They're ugly little tin cans on a gravity leash to whatever lump of rock they happen to be near.”

Spoken like a true spacer,” Aaron quipped, checking the orbit of a small science platform that could require an additional engine burn to dodge. “But I'm inclined to agree. All the problems of a ship with none of the benefits.”

Accessibility of rescue crews might be a benefit,” Kara said.

For a Mars or Earth orbit station, sure. But not when you're orbiting an asteroid, it isn't. You couldn't pay me enough to live in that place.” The others agreed with Jass, and finished their work. “Aaron, can you work with Dani to make sure that this gets programmed into the engines by tomorrow?”

Sure. And relax; this may be a little tricky, but we know how to do it, and the folks in control at the station can walk us through it.”

Jass stretched, cracking her knuckles. “I know, I know. We'll be fine. I'll just be glad when we're done here and we can head for Vesta. Andronivi's an interesting place, and even with our delays, we'll be spending at least three days there. I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to it.”

He pretended to be shocked. “What? You, the daring spacer who prefer zero gravity to any other living condition, itching to set your boots on the ground? Will wonders never cease?”

Not the gravity, idiot. The city. Vesta's big enough to support real architecture, and buildings constructed in that kind of light gravity look totally different. You know, when people first started coming to Mars in larger numbers, there was a big push to create a real authentic Martian architecture. The old Earth rules didn't apply anymore. Towers could be taller than on Earth without being wider. The same thing happened when the asteroids began to be colonized. You still have to account for the effects of mass, should something happen, but the weight bearing requirements are much less. I can't wait to see what they've added in the last five years.”

He nodded. “that'll be something to see, at any rate.”

You've stuck pretty close to Mars, haven't you? Is this your first time through the full Belt?”

Yeah. I've worked some runs to and from asteroids that happened to be orbiting closer to Mars at the time, but those were strictly there-and-back-again runs, no lateral movement through the Belt. Things just never really worked out to go further until now.”

No wonder you were so eager to sign on.”

Aaron laughed and began to move toward the exit to the corridor. “Yeah, well, that's part of it at any rate. The paycheck was another major motivation.”

Jass frowned. “I thought you were making pretty good money at Red Planet Shipping. Did something happen?”

No, not really. Just had some medical bills to work through, some family issues. Stuff like that. Funny how it's those little mundane things that make it so easy to keep your head out of the stars.” He disappeared into the corridor.

That's...not good,” Jass muttered as she watched him go.

What's not good?” asked Kristin, pulling herself into the room. “I just ran into Aaron, he said you've got the route for the approach to Gaspra all set up.”

Yeah, we do,” Jass replied, making her way back to her seat. “But we were talking, and I found out that one of the reasons he took this job is because he needs to pay off some medical bills, and a single deep-space mission pays more than any of his single destination runs. I didn't know he had been sick. He mentioned family issues, too.”

Maybe someone in his family was sick. He's originally from Mars, right? So I'd guess he still has family in the area.”

I...I don't even know. Isn't that weird? I talk to him every week back home, but somehow it just never came up and I never thought to ask. There was always something else to talk about.” She settled back into her seat and buckled herself in before turning to the console.

I wouldn't worry too much,” Kristin said, checking her own console. “It's how workplace friendships tend to go. You talk about easy things: common interests, music, movies, the new restaurants you want to try, but nothing personal. When I was working in Bradbury Dome, I worked with a guy who seemed like the nicest, most normal guy on the planet. He was quiet and kept to himself for the most part, but we got to be friends, and I discovered he had this crazy sense of humor. One day he just didn't show up to work. We figured he'd called in sick or something. Two days later, someone called an office meeting and told us that he'd committed suicide. Turned out he had a lot of unpaid bills and two kids from a failed marriage that he wasn't allowed to see more than once a year. He didn't leave a note or anything, so we never even knew what really drove him to it.”

A knot had formed in the pit of Jass' stomach. “That's horrible!”

That's how it goes, though. Jobs are mostly conducted in public places with a decent turnover rate. You don't want to bare your soul to someone who may be moving to Phobos in a year. And you really don't want to say anything overly personal in a place where you don't have as much control over who hears it.”

It didn't use to be this way,” Jass protested. “It wasn't like this in college!”

Of course not, college is different. But think about it, haven't you been the same way? I had to ask you what happened with Vijay, and that was years ago. Why didn't you tell me the story before?”

It never came up...oh hell.”

See what I mean? Friendships change, Jass, and that's ok. It happens. Once you're aware of it, you can choose which ones to take to a more personal level. It takes a while to figure it out, and sometimes you want someone to be a personal friend when they only want to be a work friend...well, you'll see. It's not as bad as it sounds, really.”

I hope you're right, because it sounds terrible. But I guess I've already been doing that, just didn't know it.” Jass looked out at the stars. “I wish that every course in life was as easy to figure out as a shipping route.”

Kristin laughed as she turned away from her console. “Don't we all...”

For a day before the approach to Gaspra, the crew went into an altered schedule which allowed them time to get rested and ready to go. On the morning of the approach, they were all buckled into their harnesses, waiting for orders.

We're going to be coming up on Gaspra Station today,” Jass stated. “The approach is tricky. The station is a major hub for science and research, and they have a lot of platforms, containers for experiments, and others things orbiting the station. It can feel a little like navigating a mine field. Mr. Dewitt has plotted us a course that will carry us as close to the station as we can get before we have to start firing the thrusters and navigating manually, but we'll also be firing the retrorockets to slow us down in order to miss several pieces of equipment. So for that reason, I need everyone strapped into their harnesses at all times until we are docked and I give the command. Secondly, Gaspra Station does have spin-induced gravity, so be prepared to feel some weight after docking. It's less than Earth grav, but slightly more than Mars. We're only going to be docked with the station for a few hours, so we won't have to deal with it long. We should be docked for about five hours, so if you are not helping with the off-loading or checking new shipments in, you're free to go and check out the station. Be back on the ship an hour before launch, or you may find yourself assigned to cleaning the galley for the rest of the trip. Got it?”

The others laughed and agreed. Gaspra could now be seen as a bright disc in the front windows, and at the right moments, the distant sun glinted off the station, revealing its location. A few platforms orbited this far away, but they were slow-moving and easy to plan a route through. Jass gave the order to fasten the launch harnesses.

It took some getting used to, Jass mused, to see something out the front windows that actually changed its appearance as they traveled toward it. It gave a sense of motion to a journey that often seemed to float through an abyss forever.

When the asteroid was beginning to turn into a crescent and the station was visible to the naked eye as a bright dot, Aaron called out, “Switching to thrusters in one minute.” Jass stretched her fingers, placing her hands on the controls.

Thirty seconds...twenty-five...twenty...fifteen...reverting to thrusters in to thrusters now.”

A faint sound tremored through the ship, felt more in the vibrations than with the ears. Jass pushed the controls forward, guiding her ship through the complex halo of orbiting items.

I've got contact with Gaspra Control,” Kara called out. “They're linking us into their traffic control so we can see incoming objects.”

Acknowledged.” Jass scanned the instruments in front of her, but saw nothing close enough to give them trouble. “Everything's in the clear so far.”

The ship moved forward slowly, taking no chances. Occasionally an orbital platform would pass between the ship and the station, but never close enough for concern. Gaspra loomed closer, taking on a more elongated shape. The station moved behind the asteroid as they approached, and soon the rocky surface filled the windows of the ship.

The asteroid looked like an oval of clay that had been stepped on; half of the rocky body was wider and flatter than the other, and it tumbled end over end as they flew over its surface in pursuit of the station.

As the ship crossed the horizon of the asteroid, the station came back into sight. Now Jass could see the extent of the floating colony. It was a little world of metal, all spikes and panels. It bristled with antennae, sending out signals to the rest of the solar system. Since the asteroid blocked the signals so often, the station had three relays in farther orbit, so it was never out of communication, no matter what position it was in.

Captain, Gaspra Station control is calling, shall I put them on speaker?” Kara asked.

Please do.”

Hello Curious Machine, this is Gaspra Control. We're here to guide you through final approach.”

Reading you loud and clear, Control. Let me tell you, we're ready to unload this stuff, it's been an interesting trip so far.” Jass smiled as she eased off the thrusters.

That's what we'd heard, Curious Machine. We'll try to make this as smooth and simple as possible. You're doing great. In about two minutes, you'll hit the inner ring of satellites, the ones that orbit the station closely. They move pretty fast, but we're going to give you a heading that should get you coming in at a different angle.”

A beep alerted her to the new information on her console, and she guided the ship into the new course. The station seemed to grow larger by the moment. The asteroid had made it seem small and delicate, but as the ship flew closer, it was clear that it was a city in space, almost as large as Spirit City itself. Light beamed out of windows on the dark side of the station, looking like a cluster of fireflies in the night. Docking stations jutted from every level of the station, and ships were coming and going in a swarm.

Just ahead of them, a docking station began to flash with blue light, and Jass corrected her course until the ship was on top of the light. The last few meters, it felt as if the ship were standing still, but finally they heard the familiar sound of a soft-dock. A clear tube slid out from the metal arm of the station and covered the airlock.

We have you, Curious Machine. And welcome to Gaspra Station.”

Jass left go of the controls and realized that her hands ached from gripping them so hard. She shook them to encourage the bloodflow to return. “We're here. You can release the harnesses any time. Kristin, Denjiro, please meet with the docking station crew to arrange for the transfer of the cargo. Take anyone you need to help you. Merriam, you're in charge of making sure the science payload is taken care of. Everyone else, you can stay here or go out into the station. The time is oh-ten-hundred-sixteen. Our departure time is fifteen-hundred-thirty sharp. If you're not back on board and in your harness by fourteen-hundred-thirty, it's galley duty.”

Jass stood up, and felt the deck of her ship underfoot. She felt heavy, and wished Gaspra didn't cater so much to customers from gravity-heavy Earth.

Dani headed back to her quarters, citing a desire for five extra hours of sleep, while Kara started a system check on her communications equipment. Martina clumped down the corridor and left the ship without speaking to anyone.

Jass stood at the airlock until the crew was accounted for. Aaron was waiting on the dock. “I don't know about you but I'm dying to see this place. The gravity's going to take some getting used to. I feel like I'm carrying about twenty extra pounds.”

That's probably about right. I feel like I'm moving in a wind storm, except there's no wind. Or dust. It's weird.” She looked down the hall. It was made of some metal alloy, and looked bland and featureless, save for the occasional instrument panel set into the wall. “I wasn't really planning on it, but I think I want to see what Gaspra Station has to offer.”

I was just thinking the same thing. Might as well check it out together, huh? Safety in numbers and all that.”

They walked down the hall toward the station, steps clanging heavily on the metal floor. When they arrived at the airlock at the end of the hall, an attendant opened the sealed door and waved them through. “Crew of the Curious Machine? Good. Here are your guest IDs, they'll get you through all the doors you have access to. If you go to one of the banking stations, you can link it up with your personal accounts from your banks on Mars so you can buy anything you need. Welcome to Gaspra.” With a perfunctory smile, he closed the door behind them.

Jass looked out at the open area they now stood in. A map on the wall nearby indicated that this was an outer ring of the station, and the main city thoroughfare was past the next set of doors. The anteroom circled the station, going off into the distance before and behind them, slanting upward slightly as it receded. Jass got a dizzying sense of just how big the station was.

This room feels a little weird, let's keep on moving,” Aaron said, heading for the doors on the far wall. Jass agreed.

The doors unlocked when they swiped their guest cards, and the friends slipped inside the room.

Jass' jaw dropped when she saw the city. The interior of the station was one large room, set with massive rings around the circumference, covered with shops and restaurants. At the center of the half-mile-wide room was a set of clear tubes, and she could see little compartments moving back and forth inside. Of course, she realized, those are shuttles to move people between the rings. They were located toward the center of the station where the spin-induced gravity wasn't in effect. She could see that a several tunnels lead from each ring to the shuttles; each probably was equipped with handholds and other aids to help residents as the gravity changed as they moved toward the center of the station.

I think I can say with some certainty that I have never been anywhere quite like this,” commented Aaron, looking left through the rings of the station. “Where's the light coming from? This can't be sunlight.”

It looks like some of those are windows, but I think the ones providing all the light are actually artificial. I can't imagine the cost of keeping this place running. I know they have some solar collectors on the asteroid that send power, but this is crazy.”

Well, let's not look too much like tourists and stand here gaping; we can get a better taste of the whole city if we keep moving.” Aaron began walking down the street that was on their level of the station.

Once they got away from the doors, it was rarer to catch a wide view of the city, and Jass almost forgot that she was in an enclosed space. The only constant reminder was the view straight left or right, into the concentric layers of the city. In a few minutes, Jass had spotted a banking station, and they each put a small amount of money onto their ID cards.

As they walked, Jass discovered one of the reasons the city felt so full and well-lighted. Many of the wall panels were mirrors, creating an illusion of more stores and people, and bouncing the light around. As they walked, they caught the glances of several people, but it seemed to be common for spacers fresh off their ships to stop and wander around. Jass caught a glimpse of what she thought were other crews in the distance.

I'm going to take this opportunity to eat something that doesn't come from a squeeze tube,” Aaron said, veering over to a food stand that stood between two larger shops. “I don't care if it makes me sick later, it'll be worth it.” He ordered and swiped his card. In a few minutes, he returned, carrying a warm bun filled with steaming meat. He shoved one end of it into his mouth and chewed loudly. “Yep, definitely needed that. That's good stuff.” He swallowed with some difficulty and coughed.

If you choke and die here,” Jass said, looking for a food shop that appealed to her, “I am not letting your ghost on board my ship. You'll be stuck here, haunting gravity-addicted tourists.”

Aaron made a face. “That's all the Hell I think I could face. Very well, captain, I shall try to eat like a civilized person.”

Jass spotted a small bistro advertising fresh fruit, and paid for a crisp pear. The two walked down the street, pointing out shops of interest and trying not to trip over their newly-heavy feet. Jass could feel herself tiring under the unaccustomed weight of her own body.

They came to a section where the floor was a large pane of one-way glass. From it, they could look through the outer ring of the station to the outside. Looking out over the night side of the station, Jass paused; it was a strange sight. The window looked out over the tangle of docking stations, with a view of the asteroid in the distance. The pocked surface seemed to be dusted with thick grey powder, the edges of the craters sharp and distinct in the light.

It almost feels like you're walking on the surface,” Jass mused, stepping onto the meter-thick pane.

I think I'd almost rather be there than here,” Aaron said, keeping his eyes on the surrounding city. “It's at least natural. The rest of this place isn't.”

I know what you mean. It's like it's constructed specifically to make you forget you're in space. Look, most of the people are avoiding these windows. I bet you could live here for years without noticing very much that was different about being planetside.”

Jass turned and began to walk back the way they had come; in a moment, Aaron had caught up and kept pace. “Once you said that, I felt my stomach start to turn. I think I need to see some good clear space again.”

Let's just focus on getting back to the ship before my sandwich makes its way back up, ok?”

The walk back to the ship was quicker, since neither had any further interest in seeing what might be available in the shops or booths. Jass was curious if the residential rings were any better, but knew that her card wouldn't grant access to that part of the station.

Aaron entered the ship ahead of her, and went to see if Kristin and Denjiro needed help with the cargo. Jass made her way back up the corridor to the main cabin. It sounded strange to hear her footsteps echoing in the room. The cabin felt like it was sleeping; the seat belts lay still in the seats and unsecured items stayed where they had been put. She felt her braid lying heavy on her back. She checked the time: two hours til launch. It couldn't come soon enough.

One by one, the crew returned to the cabin. Denjiro slipped into his seat, followed in short order by Martina. Jass glanced at them. “Cutting it a little close?”

Denjiro grinned. “One minute to spare, by my watch!”

Ok everyone, settle in. Get your harnesses ready to go, but you don't have to secure them yet. Ms. Marshall, how does our cargo stand?”

All items for Gaspra Station have been off-loaded, and all cargo for pickup has been accounted for and secured.”

Excellent. Mr. Stone, how is the science payload?”

All items accounted for. Twenty-three items unloaded on Gaspra, and eighteen brought on board. All have been properly scanned and secured. We're good to go.”

Jass nodded. “Acknowledged.” Silence fell as the crew worked at their consoles, checking the systems before departure. Finally, a voice came over the speakers.

Curious Machine, we have you on record as being on time for your scheduled departure. Are you ready?”

Jass responded, “Ready and waiting, Gaspra Control. I think these spacers are ready to feel zero g again.”

copy that, Curious Machine. Retracting docking tube now.” The voice fell silent, and Jass watched the clear tube retract from the airlock. “Retract complete, undocking now.” A clunking sound, followed by a slight jolt, alerted the crew to the undock. “Curious Machine, you are undocked and go for departure. Safe travels and please visit us again soon.”

Sure, when hell freezes over,” Jass muttered under her breath, then called out, “Copy that, Gaspra Control. Thanks for the hospitality. Curious Machine out.” She switched off the speaker and took the controls.

Fasten your harnesses, everyone. Here we go.” When all the harnesses were secured, Jass began to guide the ship out of the dock. In a few minutes, they were clear of the dock and Jass swung the nose of the ship toward the open star field ahead.

Mr. DeWitt, is the approved route programmed?”

That it is, awaiting your approval, captain.”

Jass glanced at the route on her screen to make sure nothing had changed since she'd seen it last. “Route approved, Mr. DeWitt. Send it to the engines.”

Gladly.” He punched the button that sent the data to the engines. “Main rocket burn in ten engine burn now.”

Jass felt the kick of the rocket engines as they ignited and sent the ship blasting away from the station. After a few minutes, Aaron checked his screen. “Main engine cut-off in ten seconds, switching to ion engines. Cut-off in five...Main engines cut-off, ion drive switched on.”

Jass felt the familiar sensation of falling forward into her harness. “Do we have any more main engine burns to brace for, Mr. DeWitt.”

He shook his head. “No, our departure time was calculated to send us off in our new direction with as few changes as possible. We're on ions from here until we get ready to dock with Vesta.”

Fantastic. You are all now free to release your harnesses.” Jass was the first to slip out of the restraints. She felt like leaping from the seat, reveling in being free from gravity again, but decided to set a more decorous example. She pushed off from the floor with the toe of her boot and hovered above the console for a moment before moving toward the window. The unchanging field of stars greeted her, and she held back a sigh of relief.

Chapter 14

The crew of the Curious Machine was gathered in the main cabin. It had been rare, since leaving Mars orbit, for all to be present except during landings and launches, when engine burns made it safer to be buckled into a seat.

Jass floated at the front of the room, foot hooked under the front of her console to keep her from drifting. She swallowed hard; this would be one of the most difficult talks she would have to have. She took a deep breath, and began.

First of all, I would like to apologize to you all. You have been a wonderful crew, and I have, in part, returned your trust with suspicion. While a captain has the privilege of withholding some information as may be fit, that doesn't mean it is the best course of action. There are many things I should have told you during our run so far, and I did not do so. I hope you will forgive me for this lack of trust.”

She looked at the group. Merriam seemed bored, Martina cautious; Dani and Kara were listening intently, and Kristin gave her a smile of encouragement. Denjiro, for the moment, had lost his cheerful demeanor and looked concerned, and Aaron was unreadable, looking at the floor.

Secondly, I have some bad news. Since we left Mars, two explosive devices have been found aboard this ship.” A shout of surprise erupted from the crew, but Jass waved her arms until there was silence again. “One was a simple explosive, wired to blow most of the cargo bay out into the black. This was defused and the explosive sent through the airlock. The second device contained a small amount of explosives, but more importantly, it also contained a device capable of generating an electromagnetic pulse that would have disabled this ship. Again, the explosives were put through the lock, and the other pieces dismantled. Certain measures have been put in place to help monitor the ship, but I cannot reveal those at this time, for obvious reasons.

At the time, I thought it best not to mention these incidents. I didn't want to panic anyone, or contribute to the fear that we've all been subject to upon hearing about sabotage aboard other ships. As you know, this is what caused the damage to the Pequod. I had hoped to draw the saboteur out, but I was also afraid. I was afraid of what might happen to the ship, to my crew, to the way of life that we know and love. When the world is changing around you, it can be scary, and sometimes you cling to whatever you can in the hopes of finding solid ground.”

She continued, face and hands becoming animated. “But we're spacers. We're not about finding solid ground. We knew what we were signing on for when we took this job. We're the crazy ones who enjoy floating in mid-air for weeks on end. We are the heirs of the old sailing ship crews. They didn't worry about putting down roots or worry so much about what might be in the depths of the ocean that they never left sight of land. They set out on the ocean for weeks, or months, sometimes not even knowing what might be out there, or where. They were the finest explorers that have ever given shape to the curious nature of humanity. It's time to become part of that tradition again. So no more fear, no more letting caution trump considered risk.”

She turned on the screen at the front of the room. “Here is what I know so far. We're in this together now.” She pointed to a spreadsheet on the screen. “Over the last six months, fourteen ships have experienced damage that was directly related to sabotage by a member of the crew. The rumor is that Federated is tired of losing profits to the smaller companies, and have begun luring crew members into their employ by use of bribes or blackmail. Again, this is rumor, and Federated has not yet been charged with any wrongdoing, nor have any of the cases of sabotage been linked.”

The screen changed, and Captain Morris' face appeared as part of a news report. “When I asked Captain Morris why only eleven crew members joined us, instead of the twelve that the Pequod started out with, he hinted that he had spaced the individual thought to be responsible for the damage rather than use precious oxygen or food supplies to keep him alive for a trial. This information leaked to the authorities back on Mars, and he will be taken in for questioning when he and his crew arrive back on the planet. Since it cannot be proved that the death of the saboteur wasn't an accident, it is unlikely he will serve any jail time. This will set a precedent that may make future saboteurs more desperate as they carry out their assigned missions. It's one thing to have a saboteur on board, and another thing entirely to have a suicide bomber.”

The screen went dark again, and Jass finished, “Now you know what I know. I can't—and won't—speculate about who our bomber may be. I don't know who it is, and even if I did, I wouldn't reveal it here.” Her voice went cold. “And to the person responsible for bringing explosives aboard my ship, with intent to harm us or inhibit our run, I have only one thing to say. I will find you, I will stop you, and you have come on board the wrong ship. Thank you for your attention, you may return to your work or other projects now.”

There was a stunned silence in the room as Jass buckled herself into her seat and began to work at her console. She could hear whispered conversations around her, but refused to look up until a question was addressed directly to her.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Merriam and Martina leave the cabin, followed by Denjiro. Kristin swept by her console long enough to whisper, “Atta girl,” before heading back to the cargo bay. Dani took her spot near the ceiling again, though she seemed troubled. As the crew dispersed, Aaron drifted closer to Jass' desk.

That was interesting.” Jass glanced up at Aaron, noting that his familiar smirk had returned.

That's an interesting choice of words,” she replied, going back to the reports she had missed during her illness. “Do you have anything more specific to say?”

He raised his hands in defense. “Don't read me wrong, I think that was exactly what we needed. Something to clear the air. But while you were talking, I was watching the others.”


Merriam, Denjiro, and Dani didn't seem at all surprised by the news of a saboteur on board. I found that a little suspicious.”

She sighed, and leaned back in the chair. “Are you telling me that you suspect three of the crew? I can vouch for two of them: you didn't think those two explosives were disarmed without help, did you? Besides, I didn't give that whole speech to start a witch hunt. I don't want you trying to snoop out the saboteur, other than just keeping your eyes and ears open for anything unusual. We're going to go about our business as usual; this person isn't going to set us against each other. I need to know that you're with me on that.”

After a moment, Aaron nodded. “Yeah, I am. But I still think you should keep an eye on Merriam. He's never meshed with the rest of the crew, and thinks he's better than the rest of us. Besides, he'd have the knowledge of how to set up those devices.”

They weren't complicated devices, Aaron. With a few minutes' instruction, I could have installed them, too. It's not a matter of education or intelligence. Please stop speculating, it isn't going to help anything at this point.”

And if turns out that Merriam is the saboteur after all?”

Then I will buy you a whole case of pocky as an apology. And that is not an invitation to start planting evidence.”

Curses, my evil plan has been foiled again!” Aaron smiled, and Jass realized that she hadn't seen him smile in weeks. “Have it your way, Captain. I'll be here to gloat when I'm proved right.” He sailed out of the main cabin, waving to Kara at the communications desk as he did so.

Jass began reading over the reports she had missed while sick, and tried to shut out the nagging suspicion that Aaron had just tried to deflect attention from his own actions.

We're seventeen days out from Gaspra Station, captain,” said Aaron, sending his daily report to the captain's console. “We'll need to start locking in the last portions of our route soon so that Dani can get the engines programmed for their burns.”

Understood. I'll take a look at the routes today and let you know once they're approved.” Jass sat in front of her console, paging through the latest set of reports from the other crew members. She was finally caught up after her illness. The meeting of a week before had dispelled the majority of the tension among the crew. The acknowledgement of a definite threat had galvanized them.

Captain, just something you may want to be aware of,” Kara said. “We just got the latest data from Mars, and there are personal message for some of the crew. There's one for you, too, and I wanted to make sure you knew it was there.”

Thanks, Kara, I appreciate that.” Jass hesitated for a moment, then pulled up her personal messages file. There were many unread messages there, mostly quick notes from friends and family letting her know that they were thinking of her and wondering if the ship was safe. The most recent message was from her first college roommate. Jass and Megan had shared a room at Mars University for two years, and though their lives had taken very different paths, the two had remained in touch. Jass plugged in a set of wireless headphones and played the message.

Megan appeared on screen, brushing her flyaway brown hair away from her face. She smiled, and said, “Hey Jass. Just sending you a quick message to see how you're doing. The news here is pretty full of reports of damage on small ships, so there are quite a few people here who are worried about you. I know you can take care of yourself, so that's enough about that.” She paused, then leaned forward toward the screen. “Listen, I don't think anyone's told you yet, but...Vijay got married last weekend. The girl seems nice, her name is Jessica. It was a really pretty wedding. I just figured you'd want to know about it. Have a safe trip; let's get together for lunch when you get back, ok?” She waved, then the screen went dark.

Jass sat in silence, trying to discover how she felt about the news. She jumped when Kristin tapped her on the shoulder. “I didn't hear you come up!”

Yeah, headphones have a funny way of doing that.”

Oh...right.” Jass pulled the headphones off.

Not that I'm snooping into your messages, but I thought I saw a video from Megan just now. How's she doing these days?”

Good, I think. You know how it is with these videos, there's never enough time to really say much. She said Vijay got married last weekend.”

Kristin let out a low whistle. “Damn, I didn't even know he was seeing anyone. I guess I'm more out of touch with the old circle than I thought. I was working in Bradbury Dome that month that everything fell apart; I don't think I ever got the full story.”

I suppose it's a pretty typical story. We had differences from the beginning that we thought we could work around. We gradually figured out that we couldn't work around them. So we split up.”

That may be the typical story, but that doesn't mean it was quite that simple. Spill.”

Jass leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms. “Don't you have an actual job to do?”

Sure, but everything's done right now. Nothing particular to do until a few days out from Gaspra Station when I'll need to get a few things prepped for off-loading. If you, as the captain, order me to leave you alone, then fine. But as your oldest friend on this ship, I am exercising my prerogative to be nosy.”

With a sigh, Jass unbuckled the belt that held her to the seat and let herself float free. “You remember how we met during sophomore year? He was the best-looking guy in my Introduction to Orbital Mechanics class. He wasn't the best student, and neither was I, so we both joined up with a study group. Over the course of the semester, the group went their separate ways, but we kept studying together. Just before I went home for Christmas, we realized that we'd fallen for each other. Typical college romance, I suppose. But we kept dating all the way through school. I started pursuing my dream of being a spacer, and he began taking more classes in orbital station dynamics or something. I don't remember. It wasn't anything I was particularly interested in; you know me, always drawn out into deep space.”

Kristin laughed. “I do remember that being a frequent subject of discussion, yet.”

At the beginning of senior year, things started to fall apart a little bit. Vijay was interning with a company in Spirit City, learning about how they ran their orbital station, all that kind of stuff. He'd go up to the station on weekends, so we hardly saw each other that semester. I was getting frustrated with school, and beginning to think about leaving. He wanted to finish school and get a job with a low Mars orbit station, and assumed I wanted the same thing. I had no intentions of giving up space, and figured we'd just have one of those relationships where you depend more on quality of time together rather than quantity.”

Do those ever actually work?”

Jass shrugged. “I don't know. You always hear about people trying it, but I don't know that I've seen it work for long very often. Anyway, we started talking about the future; we wanted to stay together, but he took a job with the company he'd been interning with, something about the shuttle they used to get back and forth to their station. He tried to get me a job there as a pilot. I was furious; I didn't want to spend my life going on a four-hundred kilometer round trip a couple of times a week. It would feel like being on a leash. He was upset that I was so angry, since he'd seen this as a way for us to both do something we wanted and stay together. He never understood that it wasn't about flying a ship, for me, it was about...about this.” she waved a hand at the star field in the front window. “It's about being out here, away from everything, without all the securities that we use to forget about the size of the universe we inhabit. Out here, it's hard to forget that we are tiny little specks occupying a couple of small planets that go round an unremarkable star. Out here, you don't just know that from a book, you see it with your own eyes.” She shook her head. “Vijay never understood that. He loved living planetside. He even talked about immigrating to Earth if we saved up enough money.”

But you guys were still dating when we dropped out of school. I took the job over in Bradbury Dome two weeks after we dropped out, and you didn't break up for, what, another two months?” Kristin commented.

Something like that. He was mad when I told him I was dropping out of school. He didn't understand why I'd throw away a good GPA for something that I couldn't even define at the time, especially after I'd turned down the pilot's job. I think he thought that since I'd wrecked my school record, I'd have trouble finding work. We could marry and settle down, and eventually I'd be happy living a 'normal' life. Of course, I just went to the hangar and got a job there. They always need grunts to work on the ships, and from there, getting to know some of the captains and getting odd jobs aboard the ships was a cinch. About six weeks after I dropped out, I took that job aboard the Paracelsus for their run to Luna and back. I went home to tell Vijay, and everything just blew up.”


It wasn't his fault. I hadn't told him that I was looking for off-world jobs, so it came as a surprise. In the end, it was just the natural result of years of miscommunication and each of us hiding our interests to try to please the other. It was bound to happen eventually, and I'm glad it did before we got married. As it was, it was a pretty clean break-up; we hadn't even moved in together yet.”

The two women looked out the front window in silence for a while. Finally, Kristin spoke. “And now he's married. How does it feel?”

Actually, I don't really feel anything, which was a big shock. I guess I'm glad he found someone else. He's a great guy. I hope they're happy. I'm glad it's not me. I don't know, how am I supposed to feel?”

However you want to, I guess.”

Jass pushed herself to the window and looked out at the stars. “A lot of people at home blame me for the breakup, you know. My mom kept trying to get us back together. It was hard to explain that I really did prefer being out here with no-one waiting at home than to be stuck on a surface-to-station route with a lover waiting at home at the end of the day.” She turned around to face her friend. “Does that make me weird?”

You're a grown woman, captain of your own ship, and in charge of your own life. It's fine. Ask yourself, is this where you wanted to be? Are you someone that sixteen-year-old you would have wanted to be?”

A slow smile spread across Jass' face. “You know, I think I am.”


Jass glanced up. Dani was holding one hand to her nose, and rubbing her shoulder with the other.

What happened?”

The programmer sniffed. “I think I might have a cold. I keep sneezing. This time I didn't have anything to grab onto and bumped my shoulder. Ow.”

Well, don't spread your germs around. We have some masks in med lab, go get one. It'll keep you from bouncing around, too.”

Dani left the cabin, and Jass went back to her reports. Ten days until they were due to dock at Gaspra
Station. She'd been there once a few years ago, shortly after the station had been put into orbit, but it had been expanded since then. It was rapidly becoming a hub for deep space experiments of all kinds. The station itself had spin-induced gravity, but hundreds of smaller platforms and containers floated free outside the station, creating a space for microgravity experiments. Navigating through the field of platforms and containers could be tricky for an inexperienced crew.

Jass realized that she hadn't stopped by the science lab in a few weeks; normally she stopped by every few days, to check for herself that everything was in place and running properly. She didn't think that Merriam would have rigged the lab to blow, even if he did turn out to be the saboteur, since he spent most of his time inside, except when he left to sleep or keep his watch duty. But it wouldn't do to let any area of the ship go uninspected.

She waited until Denjiro and Kara arrived to relieve her of the main cabin watch, then headed down the corridor to the lab.

The laboratory was in a small out-of-the-way room that had originally been designed as extra cargo space and retrofitted as it became more profitable for small ships to carry scientific payloads. With the racks that held the experiment containers and the equipment, there was just enough room for two people to work if they didn't mind being close. There were no windows, and the ventilation left something to be desired. It was Jass' least favorite room aboard her ship.

She grabbed the handle of the door and knocked. “Merriam? It's Jass.”

She heard an indistinct muttering, then “Come in.” Turning the handle, she made her way around the door. Merriam stood in the middle of the room, his shoes hooked into a set of straps on the floor. From there he could reach every piece of equipment and most of the experiment racks.

Where's Martina? Isn't she scheduled to be helping you today?”

Yeah, but she hasn't been sleeping well, so I told her to go take a nap. I can't use an assistant who's falling asleep on her feet and there's nothing very involved on today's schedule anyway.” He stared at the container he was holding and recorded something on his computer.

Is that the payload from Dandelion Corp? What kind of experiments are they running?” She recognized the logo stamped on the container; a stylized dandelion puff with spaceships flying off instead of seeds.

To be honest, I'm not really sure. It's one of the ones where I have instructions on what to do with the thing, but no information about what they're looking for. It's supposed to keep the scientist from skewing the results, but honestly, it usually just means that if something goes wrong, I have no way of knowing it. But it's their money, so they can set it up however they want.” Another box, another record entered.

I'll leave you to it, then. I'm just going to take a look around, if you don't mind.” She edged her way around him, wishing that the room was just a few centimeters bigger.

Looking for bombs?” he asked, trying to keep his tone light.

Something like that. Just making sure that no one place goes too long without inspection. After all, if something goes off in here, you'll lose all of your experiments.” Jass ran her hands under every shelf she could reach, but nothing seemed out of place.

I wouldn't be too worried about this room,” he commented, picking up another container. “It's too far from the hull to create an effective breach, and none of the ship's controls are centered here. If something went wrong, we'd just seal the door and go on pretty much as before. We'd lose the science payload, but that would be more a problem for me than for anyone else.”

Jass nodded, but didn't reply. She knew that her search had been less than thorough, but it made her feel better anyway. “You're probably right. Thanks for letting me put my mind at ease.”