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.
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.”