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 ten...nine...eight...seven...six...five...four...three...reverting 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.
“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 seconds...nine...eight...seven...six...five...four...three...main 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.