Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Here endeth the public posting

The next chapter will reveal the identity of the bomber. What, you thought I was actually going to put that part online?? :)

Here's the deal: I'm not posting any further chapters. HOWEVER. I will put up a post when I've got a finished readable draft (hopefully just a few weeks away) and I will be happy to send it to anyone of my loyal readers on this blog (all four of you!)

I promise I won't make you wait for the published book to come out!

Chapter 25

The first week of the return trip to Mars went by more quickly than Jass had expected. There was enough to do to prepare the ship and its cargo that she was able to keep herself busy. No new bombs were found, and she sometimes let herself believe that the danger might be past. But in the quiet moments, she knew that she couldn't afford to let her guard down.

What's the official count today, Aaron?” Jass asked as she pulled herself into the control room.

Official count? If we adhere to our current trajectory, we will arrive at Mars in twenty days, five hours, and forty-two minutes. Approximately.” Aaron's voice was cheerful, but guarded. Jass had tried to talk to him again about the necessity to keep information about the bombings limited, but he had refused to talk about it.

Jass glanced at her console again, knowing that nothing needed her attention. This was the hardest part, she mused, being finished with the main run and just waiting until you got close enough to home to start worrying about gravity and the landing. Many of the crew spent hours in their quarters, reading or watching movies, but she felt confined in her small room. The view was better from the control room, even if it was the same starfield they'd been looking at for days. By edging up close to one of the windows and peering out at an angle, she'd been able to spot Mars.

She paged through the reports from the run. Each report had been filed on time, and a copy sent to the investors' office on Mars when the signal was strong enough to ensure a clear transmission. Everything was in order; she'd decided not to mention the bombs that had been found and defused in time, but there was no hiding the last attack. With a hole in the wall of the ship, she'd felt obligated to include the incident.

An unread message was waiting on her console, the blinking icon drawing her eye to it. She didn't click it. She had seen the message yesterday, and still hadn't decided what to do about it. It would be about the bomb, obviously. But nothing could be done other than what she was already doing: posting a watch at all hours, watching for suspicious activity, and making time for Mars as quickly as possible.

But this wasn't something that could be ignored. Jass sighed and opened the message.

Re: Report from Curious Machine, Log # 56892

Ms. Sharma;

It is with great concern that we received your last report. Incidences of sabotage aboard small ships have been on the rise, but we were assured that your crew had been thoroughly screened and trained. This report is very troubling. Please note that your cargo will be inspected upon arrival in Spirit City dock; any expenses incurred from damage to paid cargo will be deducted your final payment.

Kirk Wayland, for the Nesmith Investment Group”

Miserable bastards,” Jass growled under her breath.

What is it?” Aaron asked distractedly.

Jass sighed and closed the message. “The investors. They're threatening to cut our final payment if there's any damage to the cargo when we get back. I mean, that's understandable, but to blame me because I couldn't forsee a saboteur on my crew? Isn't that kind the point of sabotage: that you don't know who's responsible?”

They're going to cut the payment? By how much?”

She shrugged. “They didn't say. I'm guessing it would depend on what they found, if anything. I know, it sucks, but we still have the percentage that they paid at the beginning.”

Aaron was agitated. “I can't afford to lose any of that last payment, Jass. If I don't get the full amount, they can't afford...I won't be able to make the budget I planned on.”

Money's going to be tight for everyone. Just means I'll have to find another cargo run sooner than I planned.” Jass made a mental note to check for upcoming payloads in need of a ship as soon as she returned to Mars.

No, it's not like that. It's...” His voice trailed off as he hung in the air in front of the window. “I needed that money.”

Jass looked up at him, trying to quash the spark of suspicion that sprang up. “I thought you were pretty well settled. Did something come up?”

He didn't respond for a long moment. Then he pulled himself back to his console and buckled himself into his chair. Turning to look at Jass over his shoulder, he struggled to control his voice. “What I am about to say does not leave this room. I don't care if you think I'm the bomber right now, but I need that money. I don't think anyone on the crew knows, but I have a girlfriend back home, and we need the money to get married and for, well, for other things.”

Why are you keeping that a secret?” Jass asked. “That seems like something to celebrate! Even if this trip doesn't give you the money to get married, you can sign on for the next trip and make it up there.”

He shook his head. “I don't have the time. She doesn't have the time. This was our last hope.” He cleared his throat and looked up. “She was one of the researchers on board the Peregrine.”

Jass sucked in a breath. The Peregrine was the most famous space disaster until the recent spate of bombings. Parked in high-Mars orbit, the ship was conducting a standard set of microgravity experiments. It was a routine mission, until a part that had not been properly inspected failed. Seven researchers working in the lab had been pulled out into the vacuum without suits. Three of them had grabbed onto protruding tubes and metal from the ship for a few seconds, until a quick rescue effort had pulled them back inside and temporarily sealed the breach, but four had been lost.

She was one of the three?” Jass asked.

Aaron nodded. “She had the most exposure of all of them. At first, the doctors thought she was doing well, at least as well as could be expected. But over time, her condition deteriorated. There's an experimental procedure that could help her, maybe even let her be strong enough to walk again, but her family doesn't have any money for it. I was going to pay for it with the money from this run. If they cut that payment...if they cut it, I can't afford the treatment, and she will die within a few months.”

Jass was silent. How could she not have known about this? Aaron had been a friend for years. But she'd been so busy the last two years, choosing a crew, buying a ship, arranging for the first run. And if he'd kept the relationship quiet, perhaps there was no way she could have known. She felt sick.

Aaron, I'm so sorry. I had no idea.”

She's a very private person. We both kept the relationship pretty quiet; she didn't want attention as the 'tragic victim of an accident, fighting for love.' You know how the news sites are with stories like that. She was glad when the publicity from the accident faded.” He forced a smile. “Want to see a picture?”

Of course.”

Jass unbuckled herself from her console and hovered over his. He pulled up a photograph, taken several years before. “Here's her profile picture from the Peregrine's records. She likes this one a lot.” The image on his screen was of a young woman, smiling confidently for the camera. She looked twenty-five, perhaps twenty-seven, and ready to take over the world.

She's beautiful, Aaron.”

She'd kill me for showing you this one, but I actually prefer it.” With a blink, the screen changed. The woman in the bed was a far cry from the confident girl on board the research ship. She lay in a hospital room, clear tubes in her nose and arms, propped against a bank of pillows. Her hair lay on the pillow, framing a face that had grown thin. But Jass could see why Aaron preferred this picture; the girl's smile, confident in the first image, was radiant. Strength beyond pain shone through her face, and she was beautiful.

Jass nodded wordlessly, and Aaron touched the screen for a moment before closing the image.

What's her name?”


That's lovely.”

Silence fell in the control room, and Jass busied herself at console, despite having no pressing business. She tried to ignore the realization that Aaron's desperate need of money made him the perfect target for someone looking to recruit a mole.

During the second week of the voyage home, Jass got out her camera again. Mars had just come into view in the window of the control room, and she tracked its slow passage across the starfield. With the engines off, since there was no need of acceleration, she could take long exposure shots without worrying about vibrations distorting the image.

All the cargo was secure, Kristin had assured her, and Merriam had double-checked the science payload and confirmed that everything was ready for re-entry. The crew had settled into a pattern of restlessness, reading books or playing games to pass the hours. Jass spent at least three hours each day on the treadmill. Her reason, when asked, was to make sure that her muscles were ready for the upcoming exertion of returning to gravity, but when she was honest with herself, it was as much to feel the illusion of weight on her feet as anything else. The hours alone were another benefit; it was hard to talk to people or wonder about their loyalty when her feet were pounding along the treadmill's belt.

The ship was silent most of the time, except for the usual sounds of the electronics and ventilation system. It feels like everyone is holding their breath, thought Jass one night as she moved through the main corridor to her quarters. As she turned the corner, she was surprised to see Martina waiting by her door.

Hey, Martina, what's up? Aren't you due for watch in a little while?”

The girl nodded, looking upset. “Yes, but I needed to talk to you for a minute. Can I come in?”

Jass paused. She didn't usually let anyone into her quarters; the room was cramped to begin with, and she preferred to keep conversations with crew in less personal spaces. But Martina was on the edge of tears, so she quickly opened the door and ushered the girl inside.

What's the matter?”

Martina opened her clenched fist; the bird charm rested in her palm. “I know you meant well, but I can't accept this. I'm not ready, it wouldn't be right.”

Jass restrained herself from reaching out to snatch up her beloved charm. “It was a gift, Martina. You've done well on this trip. It's yours.”

The young woman choked back a sob, and Jass gingerly put an arm around her shoulders. “Hey, it's ok. What's wrong? Is it something about Merriam?”

Martina shook her head, then nodded, then sobbed again. The tears welled up in her eyes, droplets breaking off as she shook her head again.

Oh, honey, don't cry. You need to calm down; whatever it is, we can take care of it.” Jass grabbed a towel from her locker and dabbed Martina's eyes. “Take it from someone who's cried in zero g more times than you can count: when the tears can't fall, it just makes you feel worse. Here, just hold this against your eyes til it stops. Take a deep breath...there you go. Another one. Good. Ok, much better. Now, can you tell me what's going on?”

Taking a shuddering breath, Martina shook her head again. Jass squeezed her shoulder. “It's ok. My guess is, it's about Merriam. Yes, I knew what was going on between you, but you're both adults so I couldn't do much about it. I told him he should break things off, because it's really not professional, not to mention highly inappropriate with someone of your age. He may be a good scientist, which is why he's on the crew, but he's not a good man. You only have to be around him a little longer. Just two more weeks, and we're back on Mars where you can take whatever classes you want, whatever jobs you want, and never have to see him again.”

He won't sign off on my forms,” Martina whispered, hugging her knees.

Forms?” Jass asked, confused.

For my internship. So I can get credit. If I don't get credit, that's nine months, gone, not counting the training hours. If those forms aren't approved, then I won't get the grants I need to finish school...” Her voice broke and she hiccuped.

It's going to be ok,” Jass insisted, handing Martina the cloth to blot her tears again. “I'll talk to Merriam. You've done a good job as far as I can tell, and you've learned a lot about extended zero g travel, so that should be enough.”

When the young woman left, Jass latched her door and let out a long breath. Was I ever that dramatic, she wondered. “Wish that grades were the biggest thing I had to worry about.” She made a mental note to talk to Merriam about Martina's internship forms soon.

Friday, April 6, 2012

To my readers (all 4 of you!): A change

I did something today that I'd been thinking of doing for a while: changed my main character's name. Jassmyn Stewart is now Jassmyn Sharma. There's a reason for this.

I originally gave my heroine a European surname because the Mars of my invented future is the ultimate “melting pot.” People from all over Earth move there to get a new start; these people meet, fall in love, have kids, and hey presto, surnames are no longer the indicator of ethnicity that they once were.

But I began to realize that, short of explicitly describing my heroine's appearance in terms of ethnicity, it would be very hard for a reader to remember that she is of Indian origin.

What finally prompted me to make the change to a more typical Indian surname was the uproar over the casting in “The Hunger Games.” Some fans were outraged that Rue had been “changed” to be black. The funny thing? She's described in the book as having satiny brown skin and dark eyes. Suzanne Collins made the choice, correctly I think, to not specifically state the ethnicity of her characters, but to make it obvious from the descriptions. The problem, of course, is that readers don't always catch what is obvious to the author.

Jassmyn is a strong woman of Indian origin who lives on Mars. Hopefully the name change makes this clear.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Chapter 24

Her alarm beeped. Jass opened her eyes in the darkness. “Too early,” she muttered, turning the alarm off. “Last leg of the trip. Just gotta survive this one.” She unbuckled the straps that held her into the sleeping hammock and pulled herself free. She climbed into her jumpsuit, and zipped it up; it felt like putting on armor before a battle.

The station was busy when she entered the main corridor. It took her longer than she expected to reach the dock where the Curious Machine waited. When she arrived, Kristin and Aaron were already on board making their checks and reports. Jass made her way to the control room and began the long process of checks that preceded every launch.

One by one, the rest of the crew arrived. No-one spoke much beyond was what needed to prepare for the journey back to Mars. The speaker crackled to life: “Curious Machine, this is Ceres Station. The dockmaster is ready to inspect the ship for departure.”

Copy that, Ceres. On my way.” Jass grabbed a small bag from her console and headed for the door.


Chris was waiting on the deck, computer in hand. “Good morning! Ready to head home?”

Oh, you have no idea,” Jass replied. “Here, I found a few spare parts that we don't need. They're mostly broken, but maybe you can do something with them.” She handed over the bag.

Thanks! You never know what can come in handy.” The dockmaster secured the bag to his belt. “I just need to have you accompany me to inspect the exterior of your ship, then you're cleared to launch. Shouldn't take more than a few minutes.”

As they circled the ship, Chris lowered his voice. “I had my crew look for any signs of tampering on the hull of your ship. We're not authorized to conduct searches on board, so there's not much we're likely to find, but I thought you should know. There was another case of sabotage reported last night. A ship leaving Mars had a hole blown in its hull. They lost two crew members to the vacuum before they got it locked down.”

Jass felt her stomach drop. “Did they catch the saboteur?”

He shook his head. “No, and they don't know if the bomber is still on board or was one of the ones who got spaced. Several shipping companies are calling for an investigation of Federated Shipping, but without any proof of who's paying for this...” He shrugged. “None of the methods used to damage the ships are the same, so legally there's no evidence that it's anything other than a coincidence that so many ships are taking damage at once.”

Jass swore. “I keep trying to tell myself that we're going to get home without an attack, but to tell you the truth, we've already thwarted several attempts and I still haven't found out who's behind it.”

Well, we didn't find any evidence of tampering on the hull, so you don't have to worry about that. It's not much, but it's better than nothing.”

They arrived back at the open airlock, and Chris handed his computer to Jass. “Just sign there that you've approved of the inspection, and that should be it.” Jass signed her name in a rush and handed the device back.

Send us a quick note when you get home to let us know you're alright, ok?” Chris said, tucking the computer under his arm. “Karen and I will worry if we don't hear from you.”

Jass smiled. “Sure thing. And thanks again, for everything.” She pulled herself back into the ship.

In an hour, the crew was strapped into their seats in the control room, waiting for the all-clear for takeoff.

I bet the station was pretty quiet last night,” said Denjiro, breaking the tense silence. “Jass, you and Kristin should have come down to Ceres with us, it was fascinating!”

To you,” said Merriam. “It looked like every other mining colony I've seen. Dingy, cold, and boring. When I think of the space that could be devoted to actual research--”

Oh, for crying out loud,” Denjiro said. “There's plenty of research going on, but you just don't happen to like any of it. Think of all the engineering knowledge gained just from building that elevator alone!”

Alright, both of you, enough. Give it a rest,” Jass interrupted. “Kara, what did you think of Ceres?”

The communications specialist looked up from her console. “I liked it, I suppose. I don't think I'd want to live there. I like living in a place where I can walk on my own two feet and see some landscape outside. Ceres Colony is mostly metal and plastic. But for a one year shift, it would be fine.”

I bet you just read your reports and went to sleep, right?” Aaron said, looking over his shoulder at Jass. “Not much to do on the docking station.”

Kristin hid a smile, but didn't look up from her console.

Something like that,” Jass replied. The speaker hissed to life, and she sat up in her chair. “Here we go, guys. Look sharp.”

Curious Machine, this is Ceres Station. You have been cleared for your departure on schedule. Magnetic locks are released, and you are free to go.”

Acknowledged, Ceres. We are ready and waiting. Starting main engines.” She flipped a switch and heard the rumble of the engines shudder through the ship. “Thrusters on.” The thrusters whispered to life, lifting the ship from the deck where it had been anchored by the magnetic locks and moving it slowly to the entrance of the docking tube.

You have manual control, Mr. DeWitt. Take us home.”

Roger that, Captain.” Aaron moved the ship forward steadily. When the ship had cleared the docking tube and gained a safe distance from the station, the engines roared, pushing the ship out into empty space. Silence fell over the control room.

Jass felt the familiar jolt forward into her harness as the rockets cut out and the ion engines took over. “Alright, folks, that was the last launch of this trip. You can float free until we start getting close to home. Four weeks to go, let's make them good ones. You'll find new checklists uploaded to your computers. We need to get the ship ready for full gravity again. That means making sure that everything is not only strapped down, but strapped down in the right direction. I'll be making inspections the week before landing, so have everything ready by then. If you finish your own work before then, help Kristin secure the cargo bay. She can direct you, so don't worry about not knowing where everything goes.” She paused. “I don't want us to get cocky, but this has been a successful run. We've handled every obstacle and still managed to come in on time. When we're a little closer to home, I have something to help us celebrate.”

Dear God, please tell me it's booze,” Merriam said, unbuckling his harness. “I've needed a drink for weeks.”

Chocolate,” guessed Dani without looking up from her computer screen.

You'll find out soon enough,” Jass said. “Let's focus on getting closer to home first.” She made her way out into the corridor. Her fingers twitched and she felt a sudden impulse to run.

It took Jass a while to figure out why she was so restless. It wasn't the danger of sabotage, she decided, nor was it anxiousness to be home. It was gravity. She was ready to put her feet on a solid surface again without feeling like she was falling. The craving for weight felt like an itch beneath her skin. She had to laugh at the absurdity: she'd felt the same thing in the days before launch, except it had been a desire for zero-g. “I'm doomed to always be running off somewhere,” she said to herself. “Good thing I like it that way.”

She looked down the corridor. It was going to be a long month.

So what are you looking forward to most about being home?” Jass asked, looking around the galley. Kristin was floating near the wall, reading something on her computer. Martina was leaning over the hot water spigot, filling a drink pouch, while Aaron and Kara batted a paper ball back and forth over the table.

Easy,” Kara said, swatting the paper towards Aaron's face. “Not being cold anymore. I don't care how high the heaters are in here, it always feels cold.”

Trees,” Kristin said, not looking up. “None of the colonies have the ecosphere to grow trees. First thing when we get back, I'm off to the park to hug a damn tree.”

Aaron tapped the ball back across the table to Kara, and moved toward the door. “Space to myself, more than anything. Being able to go for a walk at night without anyone else around.”

Jass watched him go, and wondered if there was anything she could do to restore the trust that had been lost between the two old friends. Not until I find whoever is doing this to us, she thought.

What about you, Martina?” Kristin asked, looking up from her computer. “You've been awfully quiet lately; what are you looking forward to the most when you get back?”

The young woman kept her silence as she squeezed her drink pouch to make sure that the contents combined properly. As she popped open the cap on the straw, she shrugged. “I don't know. I've got to make sure I've got all the classes I signed up for. Check my financial aid. And Merriam still needs to sign off on my reports so I get credit for the internship.”

“Oh, that's right,” Kara commented, grabbing the paper ball that spun lazily in the air and stuffing it into a trash compartment. “I forgot you were a student. Well, student or not, I think you can call yourself a spacer now. You've earned it.”

I agree!” Jass said. “In fact, I think this calls for a celebration. An excellent job done on a first mission!”

Martina looked like she'd been spaced without a suit, Jass thought, amused, as the young woman's eyes opened wide. “I'll spread the word to the crew. Party here at eighteen-hundred hours tonight.” Kara and Kristin cheered; Martina flushed bright red.

Kristin, we still have some of the first-rate meals in the cargo hold, right? Good. Let's use those for the party. I'll take care of the rest of it.” Jass pushed off from the floor and soared through the doorway, catching herself before she hit the wall of the corridor. She made her way to the control room, where Denjiro and Dani were keeping their scheduled watch. Denjiro looked up as she entered.

Hey Jass.”

Hey Den. How's the watch going?”

He shrugged. “Not much to see. Everything's pretty normal. We're making good time, and should be home right on schedule. Maybe even little early, if we want to keep firing the ions.”

No, let's stick to the plan and cut them off when we reach speed. Save on fuel. You never know when you're going to need it. Listen, I had a great idea a few minutes ago.”

She quickly explained about the party. He nodded. “Sounds cool. And she's held up pretty good, for a first-timer on such a long trip. What can I help with?”


He stared at her for a moment. “You have got to be kidding me.”

Nope. Kristin, Dani, and I suck at decorating, and I need Kara free to keep up with the communications console. The engines are doing great, and you're going to be off watch in a few minutes away. Besides, I've seen your apartment. You could put that thing in a fashion magazine.”

Denjiro groaned. “Fine. I'll see what I can rig up. What time?”

Back in her quarters, Jass looked around at the scant belongings that she had brought. There was really no reason to bring objects of sentimental value, but she didn't know any spacers who didn't have at least a few on every trip. She opened the locker that held her belongings in place. It was mostly full of clothes and necessary items, but there were a few exceptions. She searched through her trinkets and good-luck charms for something that might make an appropriate gift. Suddenly, it came to her.

Jass touched the chain around her neck; it held an ID tag, required for all space crews in case of accident or injury. Jingling quietly against the tag was a small iron bird. As her fingers brushed it, she thought back to the first moment she'd seen it. The captain on the first ship she'd worked on, a junk collector in high Mars orbit, had given it to her a few days before the end of her time onboard. “This little bird's been flying a long time. They tell me it's made from a meteoric metal, so it's used to traveling through space. Keep her flying.”

She traced the shape of the bird's wing with a finger. It had been with her for almost ten years, and she couldn't imagine not feeling its familiar weight around her neck on Mars. But it was time for the bird to fly on. She sighed, and unhooked the chain, slipping the charm into her palm.

When Jass returned to the galley that evening, she had to laugh. Denjiro had taken his task seriously, and the room was festooned with streamers. Upon closer inspection, the streamers proved to be strips of packing material, twisted and tied down carefully so as not to drift into the air vents. Other materials of various colors had been cut into small pieces and stuck into paper mosaics that were hung on the walls. Denjiro was floating near the ceiling, attaching the last mosaic with a strip of tape. When he saw Jass, he pushed off from the wall and approached her. “How's it look?”

Den, this is amazing. I knew you could do it.” She touched the arc of a streamer, watching as the motion rippled through the thin paper.

If you tell anyone outside this ship about this, I'm never signing on with you again.” He grinned.

Oh come on, you'll be so much more marketable with extra skills on your resume. I mean, 'engineer' is one thing, but 'zero-g decorator'? They'll be knocking your door down once we get back.”

Kristin and Aaron arrived at the same time, with boxes in tow. “Hey Jass, I got the food,” Krisin said, opening a box. “It's nothing like home-cooked, but it's better than what we've been eating. Here, this one is turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy. We've got a few of those, and there's some that are roast beef. One or two with tofu and veggies. Just pop in the hot water, wait two minutes, and they're good to go.”

You know, while I'm amazed that we can fly through space, build colonies on asteroids, and live on planets with almost no atmosphere, I think it's food tech that boggles me the most.” Jass turned over a meal packet. “I mean, this might as well be magic to me. Put in water, and pow! It's a meal!”

Now if they could just make it taste like real food, we'll have a really progressive civilization,” Kristin said.

Martina coasted into the room, followed closely by Merriam; a few minutes later, Dani and Kara arrived.

Jass pounded her fist on the wall to get the attention of the chattering crew. Once all eyes were focused on her, she cleared her throat. “Alright, as you all know, this is Martina Olsson's first long-term deep space voyage. She's managed it admirably, and such an achievement needs to be celebrated. Everyone grab a meal, and let's have a toast.” She reached into the box of meals and pulled out a packet that was heavier than the meal pouches she was used to. A glance at the label told her that she had selected “Rst TURK/Ptoes/Grvy.” She held the packet high. “A toast to Martina! May all your ships come in on time, under budget, and in one piece!”

The rest of the crew laughed and raised their own meals, joining in the toast. Jass laughed along, then held up her hand for quiet. “One more thing! I believe this momentous occasion needs to be marked with a memento.” She reached into her pocket and drew out the iron bird. “Here, give me your ID chain for a minute,” she whispered to Martina. In a moment, the charm was on the chain, and Jass fastened it around Martina's neck again.

This little bird's been flying a long time. They tell me it's made from a meteoric metal, so it's used to traveling through space. Keep her flying.” Jass touched the bird one last time, then pulled her hand back. There was silence in the room for a heartbeat, then Denjiro cheered and began clapping. Soon, the room was in an uproar as the the crew congratulated Martina on how well she'd handled the trip, and trying to make their way to the hot water spout to rehydrate their meals.

When the meals were heated and ready to eat, the chatter in the room died down. Jass wanted to slow down and enjoy the moment, but her mind kept churning. One of these people tried to blow up the ship, she thought; no longer hungry, she closed her meal pouch and put it in the small refrigerator. As the others continued the celebration, she slipped out and made her way to the control room.

The room was quiet, but never silent; Jass was met with an assortment of familiar hums, beeps, and other noises that she had come to know as well as her own heartbeat. She glanced at her console to see if there were any items that demanded her immediate attention. Finding none, she moved toward the front of the room and floated before the window. Mars had not yet come into view in the starfield, but she knew what it must look like: a bright red dot, moving steadily forward in its orbit until it was close enough to draw her ship into its orbit. She closed her eyes and tried to picture the red disc of her home. There was Valles Marineris, a wide crimson gash across the face of the planet. And the Tharsis Bulge, with Olympus Mons thrusting up through the thin atmosphere to brush again the darkness of space. The polar ice caps would be shining like ceramic, gleaming in the sun. Looking closer, the transparent globes of Spirit City and Bradbury Dome would come into view, fragile bubbles on the surface of a harsh world. And inside, ordinary life: trees, schools, children playing, adults working. Home.

Jass exhaled slowly, savoring the mental image. She didn't hear Dani approach until she spoke.

Hey, Jass.

The captain turned around and gave a small wave to the programmer. “Sorry, you scared me. Tired of the party already?”

Dani nodded, bending over her console to read the screen. “Too many people. Too noisy. Glad you did it, though. I think Martina needed it.”

I hope she enjoyed it. It's a big milestone, after all. I remember being her age, and on my first extended run. It was terrifying, but I felt so much accomplishment when I made it to the end. As soon as my shuttle hit atmosphere on my way back, I knew that I'd do anything to get back up there again."

It was the quiet for me.”

Jass moved away from the window. “The quiet?”

Dani nodded. She pushed off from the floor and somersaulted until she was hovering near the ceiling of the room, legs crossed. She kept her eyes on her computer as she spoke. “Once you get all the people out of the room, space is the quietest place there is. I love it. As long as I get my job done, no one minds if I just sit here in the silence. It's nice.”

Jass opened her mouth to respond, but thought about what Dani had said, and kept her silence. For a moment, the quiet descended on the control room again, broken only by the soft beeps of the consoles. But soon Jass heard the sound of conversation moving up the corridor. Dani sighed, and buried herself deeper in concentration.

When she strapped herself into her sleeping hammock, Jass tried to close her eyes and drift off into sleep. She could feel the exhaustion deep in her muscles, but her body refused to sleep. Her fingers drifted to the chain around her neck, clutching at the ID tag. She missed the familiar shape of the metal bird.

Stop being silly,” she whispered. “It was just a bit of metal. Go to sleep.”

But it was another hour before she took her own advice.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chapter 23

A clanging knock at the door startled Jass; she'd begun to drift off to sleep while reading the reports. She checked the time: ten minutes before she was due at the dockmaster's for dinner. She unbuckled herself and quickly tied her shoes. “Coming!” she shouted at the door.

When she drifted into the hallway, Kristin was waiting. “What took you so long? Usually you're ready to go before I am.”

Sorry, dozed off. I know the ship reports are important, but damn they're boring.”

Kristin laughed, and the two navigated their way through the station. When the ship had docked, maps of the station and the surface colony had been uploaded to their computers, but Jass still wasn't oriented to the station. It took the full ten minutes to find the right quarters.

Jass knocked at the door, the sound ringing through the corridor. After a moment, the door was opened by a short woman with a friendly expression. “You must be the visitors? Great, come on in, dinner's almost ready.”

The quarters were small for a family of three, Jass thought as she floated through the doorway, but there was a definite sense of homeiness. The space was neat, but not spartan. Several framed photographs of stars and galaxies hung on the walls, and Jass suspected that the photographer was one of the family members. A net in the corner held back an assortment of toys, many of them puzzles and simple machines. Space had even been set aside for a small bookshelf, the volumes secured by thin elastic bands stretched across the front of the shelf. Jass and Kristin followed the woman into the tiny kitchen area.

Most kitchen spaces on stations were like the galley on the Curious Machine: small, consisting mostly of drawers and cabinets, with a spout for the hot water needed to reconstitute food and a small oven for heating prepackaged meals. This kitchen had those as well, but several cabinets had been ripped out to make space for other machines and gadgets. One recess sported a sun lamp shining down yellow light onto a tiny hydroponic herb garden.

I'm Karen, by the way.” The friendly woman smiled as she extended her hand.

This place is incredible,” Jass commented, shaking her hand. “I don't think I've seen anything like it away from a planet.”

Karen nodded and turned her attention to one of the unfamiliar machines in the kitchen. “Thank you! It's our own design, for the most part. We're only here for one year out of three; the other dockmasters on rotation don't bring their families, and they prefer other quarters, so we got permission to make some changes here for our own shifts.” She tapped a button on the machine. “Pardon me for being a bit rushed, I'm just about done here.”

Ben appeared in the doorway of the kitchen. “Mom! Dad says he's going to be home in five minutes!”

Alright, Ben, thank you. Did you wash your hands for dinner?”

He nodded.

Good. Can you set the table for me?”

Jass was startled, and Kristin asked, “A table? How did you get that to work here?”

Ben pulled on what appeared to be a smooth section of wall; it folded down into a metal surface at waist-height. Karen held up a dish and pointed to a dark spot on the bottom. “We added magnetic strips to the dishes. It holds them down. We rigged the cabinet doors to serve double-duty, too.” She gestured at Ben, who pulled down a cabinet door: on the inside of the door, Jass saw a few nylon straps, and finally understood.

So you just strap yourself in there, and sit around a real table?” She laughed. “That is completely brilliant. I love it.”

Karen beamed. “We thought it was important to eat proper meals, not just gulp down some prepacked stuff while floating around. It helps keep us grounded, no pun intended.”

In a few minutes, the small kitchen had been transformed from a room of cabinets and machines to a cozy alcove. Steaming dishes of cubed meat in a rich sauce and mashed potatoes were placed at each seat, along with a capped glass of water. Karen surveyed the table and nodded. “I think we're ready to eat as soon as Chris gets here.”

As if in response, the door opened, and the dockmaster pulled himself into the room. “Sorry I'm a little late, something came up at the last minute.”

Ben shouted in delight and launched himself toward his father; the two tumbled for a moment in an exuberant hug.

No rough-housing with guests, there's not enough room,” Karen called. “Come to the table and eat before everything gets cold. Or warm, in the case of the water.”

Ah, thermal equilibrium, it ruins all our fun,” Chris commented as they made their way to the table.

Jass examined the plate in front of her. “Ok, you have to tell me how you do this. I didn't know you could do any real cooking in microgravity. Doesn't it clog the filters, or put too much water vapor in the air?”

Karen shook her head. “Actually, no. I've been studying cooking techniques in various gravities and atmospheres for years, even before I left college on Earth. I mostly use sous-vide. Chris figured out how to attach a water pump and storage system to an existing machine. No water is ever open to the air: I put the food in one of the bags, seal it, toss it in the machine and latch it. Then the hot water is pumped in and the food cooks. When it's done, I just pump the water back into the storage tank for reuse.”

Kristin took a bite of meat, and closed her eyes. “This is amazing. I haven't had anything this good since we left Mars. Not even in Andronivi.”

Most commercial kitchens on the colonies can't afford the time and expense to sous-vide to order. It's a long process. But since I can plan my own menus in advance, it works pretty well here. I'm trying to get the word out about it, get more families trying to cook their own food no matter where they are, but it's hard to get started. Still, I think people are looking for ways to feel at home no matter where they are. Good food is an important part of that.”

Jass almost cried at the first bite of the slow-cooked beef. The rich sauce held the cubes of meat to the plate, and the creamy mashed potatoes stuck of their own accord. The beef was hot and tender, each bite melting in her mouth. She could taste the herbs and spices that had been added to the potatoes, and was hit by a sudden homesickness for Mars. Maybe I should start my own garden when I get home, she thought, washing the food down with a draught of water.

The meal was soon finished, but everyone was reluctant to leave the comfort of the table. Finally, Ben began nodding off. Karen unbuckled herself and carefully pulled him out of his seat. “I think it's bedtime. It's been an exciting day.”

As they left, Jass found herself wondering what it would be like to live like this. They spent so much time and energy on things that could done much more conveniently, she mused. Maybe the cost of convenience was higher than she'd thought. They seemed intent on more than survival. They were living.

Jass extricated herself from the table, with a glance at Kristin. “We should probably be going, too. I need to wake up in time to inspect the ship tomorrow.”

Chris nodded, and the three made their way back into the open room near the door. “Thanks for coming. It's nice to have visitors.”

No, thank you,” Kristin replied. Jass noticed that she looked drained, but happier than she'd been in months. “This has been amazing.”

Karen returned as the women opened the door to the main corridor of the station. “I'm so glad you had a good time! Feel free to stop by again if we're on rotation the next time you're here.”

We will,” Jass said. “I may get in touch soon about some of your cooking ideas, I'd like to try some of those myself back home.”

As Kristin and Jass made their way back to their quarters, they were silent. Jass felt she'd caught of glimpse of something she'd missed, but couldn't quite put her finger on what it was.

Friday, March 30, 2012

A word on words

Hopefully it's become clear that I am picking my verbs very carefully for this novel. There are essentially three different gravitational conditions that my crew moves in: Mars gravity, asteroid gravity, and zero gravity (microgravity).

I want to be careful with my words because I want my readers to really have a sense of what extended space travel might feel like. My inspirations in this regard are Dune, and the videogame Portal.

When I read Dune (which is pretty often, since it's one of my favorites), I have to have a big glass of water on hand. Herbert makes me feel the water in my body, and persuades me to imagine what it would be like to have almost none. Some of the most moving scenes in the book help accomplish this. First, the scene where Stillgar the Fremen leader meets with Duke Leo Atreides. After talking of alliance, Stillgar spits on the Duke's table. It's a tense moment: surely this is a great insult! But Duncan Idaho quickly explains that it is, in fact, a great honor. Stillgar has given the gift of his body's water: the liquid in that sputum will not be reclaimed, and is gone forever. Later in the book, after Paul Atreides has killed Jamis, he cries at the young man's funeral. "He gives water to the dead," the Fremen whisper; an almost unconscionable waste, and a great gift. Herbert doesn't use scientific description to make the reader feel the lack of water on Arrakis, but instead uses human emotion.

One of the common tag lines associated with the game Portal is "Now you're thinking with portals!" It's funny, but it actually turns out to be accurate. At some point in the game, most players will begin to think three-dimensionally, moving their character in ways that would have been almost impossible to conceive of at earlier stages in the game. If the player is really immersed in the game, it may take a moment to remember that she cannot, in fact, port across their house to grab a soda from the fridge. (Here's a funny, but not terribly exaggerated, example: http://www.cracked.com/blog/when-video-games-get-stuck-in-your-head/)

That's what I want to accomplish with Beltrunners. I want my reader to be surprised when they stop reading for a minute and stand up, and their feet actually hit the floor. I want her to think, "If I pushed off the couch at the right angle, I bet I could float all the way through that door without stopping."

I'm trying to achieve this effect by selecting my verbs very carefully: in zero-g environments, I don't use words that assume gravity: step, sit, walk, set, lay/lie, etc. In low-g environments, I can use those words, but the effects must be different. In normal-g (for my characters, this is Mars gravity, which is about 2/3 Earth gravity), no zero-g words can be used: words like float, glide, push off, etc. (Incidentally, if you spot an word that's out of place in the novel, please let me know.)

People know intellectually what zero gravity looks like: we've seen videos from space, not to mention Apollo 13. But most people don't think about what it would feel like to live there for days on end. They don't understand on a visceral level how everything about your motion would have to adapt. That's what I'm hoping to do: make the ordinary reader feel like they've spent 9 months traveling through the Asteroid Belt with the crew of the Curious Machine.

I hope this works. The readers will be the ultimate judges.

Chapter 22

The crew was gathered in the control room. Some floated freely, but most had strapped themselves into their seats. Jass floated over her console, foot hooked into the straps on her launch harness to keep herself from drifting. She looked over her crew, and wondered again which one had taken money to put them all in danger. She didn't want to believe it of any of them, but there could be no doubt. She pressed her lips into a firm line.

By now, you've heard of the incident earlier today. A bomb was found on the wall near the science lab. Fortunately, Denjiro was able to defuse most of the explosive before it detonated. What could have crippled the ship and killed at least one crew member did no more than dent the wall.” She paused for a moment to let the news sink in. She'd hoped to get a telltale response from the saboteur, but each member of the crew reacted as she had expected. Denjiro looked solemn, Aaron grimaced, Dani and Kara looked worried, Merriam fumed, and Martina just looked tired. Kristin sat calmly, watching the others.

Jass continued. “I don't know who's responsible for this. Whoever it is has tried this at least three times before.” She heard a gasp from one of the crew, but ignored it. “They have tried, and they have failed. Each time, the bombs have been found before real damage could be done, because I have one of the sharpest crews in the solar system. We keep our eyes open, we communicate, we don't panic, and most importantly, we do not give in to fear."

She raised her voice as she spoke, filling the cabin with the sound. “We are not afraid! We all knew the dangers of this job when we signed on, and we aren't going to back down just because someone wants to try to bring empty space into our ship! We take care of the problem, we do our jobs, and then we go home. That's what we do, and that's what we're going to do now. Whatever comes our way, whether it's danger from some money-grubbing mercenary or an uncharted asteroid, we handle it the way we handle everything else. We're two weeks out from Ceres, and from there it's four weeks back to Mars. I know that in that time, this ship will run smoothly. We will complete this run on time and return home with all hands on deck. If I hear so much as a whisper of despair or see a hint of slacking off, you'll be put off ship at the nearest rock. Now, let's do this. Back to your stations!”

The crew dispersed to their assigned tasks. Kara and Dani still looked concerned, but less afraid than before. Kristin smiled to herself as she left the control room and headed for the cargo bay. When the control room was empty except for himself and Jass, Aaron unbuckled his harness and pushed off toward the window at the front of the room.

Quite a speech. Where'd that come from?”

Jass shrugged. “It needed to be said. I've had enough of moping from everyone here, especially myself.”

Aaron drifted in silence for a while, staring out into the starfield ahead. “So do you really not know who's doing it?”

Not a clue. Well, that's not entirely true. I know one person who's off the hook, but apart from that, nope.”

Going to tell me who that is?”

Jass groaned inwardly. “I can't. I don't want the real saboteur trying to throw suspicion on others. I need to be the only one who knows the whole story.”

What the hell, Jass?” Aaron slammed his hand against a wall, bracing himself for the rebound. “You've known me for years, you know I'd never do this! Why can't you trust me? I could help you keep an eye on things. You can't stop this on your own.” He ran his hands through his hair, spreading it into a brown halo. “At least tell me what I can do to make you trust me in this.”

Jass shrugged. “Be in my sight the next time a bomb goes off.”

The watch rosters blurred in front of her eyes, and Jass turned off the screen. The last two weeks had been some of the most difficult of the entire trip. Round-the-clock watches had taken their toll, and the crew wasn't as rested as she preferred. Still, she mused, morale was as high as could reasonably be expected, and no new explosives had been found.

I still think we should search everyone's quarters,” she heard Aaron mumble.

No. I told you, there's no good way to do it. For one thing, the saboteur could have hidden their supplies anywhere on board. For another, what order do we search in? Someone's bound to claim that they're being targeted. And it's still an invasion of privacy. I'm not going to authorize an exercise in futility that will just have us all at each other's throats.” Jass rubbed her eyes and opened the daily logs. “We've got to focus, we're due to dock with Ceres Station tomorrow.”

I haven't ever been to Ceres,” Aaron responded, poring over his navigation console. “I haven't even heard much about the colony there. Standard mining colony?”

Jass nodded. “More or less. The town's a lot less urban than Andronivi, from what I understand, but they're about the same size. Gravity should feel about the same. We only have one night in dock there, though. Then it's the last launch and we're homeward bound.” She unbuckled her harness and stretched, popping her back and shoulders. “Can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to that.”

No kidding. I think I'd kill to sleep in a bed that I can actually lie down on again. And eat food that was actually grown somewhere and doesn't come from a tube or tray.”

And real showers.”

The navigator groaned. “Hell, yes. Showers. With water and soap. The sooner the better.”

In your case, I completely agree: it can't come soon enough.” Jass grinned at the look on Aaron's face, and left the control room.

Most of the crew was in the galley, finishing their breakfast. Jass waved as she pulled herself down the corridor to the room with the treadmill. As she strapped herself into the machine, she noticed that callouses had formed on her shoulders where the straps for the treadmill had rubbed. A quick glance confirmed that the harness from her seat in the control room had also left their marks. She sighed.

Discovering your battle scars?” Jass turned around to see Kristin in the doorway.

Something like that. It took me a good month to get rid of the callouses from the last trip, and that was only eight weeks. This is going to take forever.” She secured the last strap and began to jog, feet held on the treadmill belt by the force of the straps pressing down on her shoulders. “Find anything on your rounds today?”

Kristin shook her head. She stepped into a set of footholds on the floor and picked up a set of weights. “Nothing out of the ordinary. I still think our bomber is lying low until we leave Ceres. Whoever it is knows that we're on alert right now.”

Damn it. I was afraid of that. Well, we're on scheduling for docking tomorrow. Ceres security can watch the ship for a night and give us all a break. Then it's another four weeks of this. Maybe we can make it home without anything else happening.”

Maybe.” Kristin stopped working the weights for a minute. “Aaron's really upset, you know. I don't think he's really processed how this situation is forcing your hand. He just thinks you don't trust him.”

Jass stepped onto the bars that ran parallel to the treadmill belt for a moment and caught her breath before responding. “I've explained the situation. I'm tired of him acting hurt about it. I'm doing what I have to. The more he protests, the more I'm worried he's got something to hide.”

We all have things to hide. Do you really think it's him?”

The captain stepped back onto the treadmill and resumed her run. “Not really. But I wish he'd trust me. It's ironic, really; he demands that I trust him in a situation where I really can, but he won't trust me even though he's really got no other choice.”

The two women exercised in silence for a few minutes. Finally, Jass hit the kill switch for the treadmill and slipped out of the straps that held her in place. Drifting to the far side of the small room, she picked up a clean towel and wiped her face and neck. “Ugh, that's just not satisfying any more. What I wouldn't give for a flat stretch of ground, the edge of Spirit Dome in the distance, and nothing but red dust beyond that, as far as the eye can see.”

Four more weeks.” Kristin secured the weights in their place on the wall and stepped out of the footholds.

Four weeks. Let's hope we all make it that long.”

With a weariness that seemed to have settled into her bones, Jass buckled herself into her harness. “Last landing before home, guys. Let's make it picture-perfect, ok?”

Ceres City is on the speaker, captain,” called out Kara from her console at the back of the room. “We're clear for the scheduled landing.”

Thanks, Kara.” Jass flipped a switch on her console. “Ceres City control, this is the Curious Machine, do you read us?”

Loud and clear, Curious Machine,” a voice responded, echoing off the walls of the control room. “You are cleared for your scheduled landing at the coordinates that have been sent to your communications officer.”

Acknowledged.” Jass turned to Kara. “You've sent those to Aaron's computer, right?”

Kara nodded, and Jass spoke again. “We are ready for landing, Ceres City control. We will sing out if anything goes wrong.”

Copy that. Welcome to Ceres City.”

Jass switched off the speaker, and turned her attention to the view out the front window. What had been an undifferentiated starfield only a few days before was now dominated by the glowing body of the asteroid. She could clearly see the features of the rock, and the brightly lit shaft of the space elevator that would be their docking station.

Ready for manual control of steering, Aaron?” Jass glanced over at her navigator.

Ready and waiting. Let's get our bird onto that leash.” He flexed his fingers and spread his hands across the console. “Assuming manual control.”

The ship turned slightly in its course, nosing toward the metallic sphere that circled the planetoid at the end of the elevator shaft.

Why does Ceres have an elevator?” Dani asked, craning her neck to get a better view of the structure. “I would think the gravity well wouldn't be strong enough to make it very practical.”

It's not practical,” Kristin said. “I think it was a government thing. Building an elevator here would provide jobs, or research opportunities, or something. It was a big deal at the time, but I don't remember the whole story now.”

What it is, is a pain in the neck to dock with. And it's even harder when you're distracted by the incessant chatter of people behind you.” Aaron made adjustments to the course, and glanced over his shoulder. “I really need to concentrate, ok guys?”

The control room fell silent as the silver line of the elevator widened in the window. The sphere at the end of the shaft began to bristle with docks and walkways. As they approached, Aaron slowed the ship down to a crawl; Jass could feel the faint vibration of the retro thrusters firing.

The shaft of the elevator now filled most of the window; Jass saw people walking through corridors. There were even a few spacesuited figures working on gantries on the exterior of the elevator. The ship inched forward into a metal tube, the walls of the dock cutting off her view. As the docking mechanism clanked into place, a voice came over the speakers. “Curious Machine, you are docked successfully with Ceres City port. Please meet your guide at the door. Thank you, and welcome.”

Let's go.” Jass unbuckled her harness and moved down the corridor to the airlock. As the crew filed out, they found themselves in a cold metal tube. At the end where the ship had entered, a clear shield covered the entrance, with the black of space visible beyond it. Jass looked around until she found the door that led to the interior of the dock.

Before she could open it, she heard the familiar hiss of airtight seals releasing, and the door retracted into the ceiling. On the other side stood a man in a dark blue jumpsuit, slightly cinched at the waist, turned up at the ankles. He glanced over the crew, then smiled. “Glad you made it safely. You're right on time.”

Jass extended a hand. “Jassmyn Stewart, captain of the Curious Machine.”

Chris Radcliff, dockmaster of Ceres Colony.” He shook her hand, then took out a flat screen from under his arm. “If you can just confirm that you landed here at the time and date listed, that'll get the formalities out of the way. Excellent. Now, you're only scheduled to be docked for one night, and my crew'll take care of the fuel you've requested, so you don't have to worry about that. We've got a few rooms here for one-night stays, but there'll be more room down on the asteroid itself; you're all free to stay where you want.”

He paused and looked at the group expectantly. “I think I'll stay here,” Jass said. “I like to be close to my ship when possible.”

I get that,” the dockmaster responded. “Anyone else staying here, or are you headed down to the surface?”

Kristin raised her hand, and Chris made a note on his computer. “Everyone else going to the surface then? Ok, great. You've been checked in, so just go down that hallway. You'll find the signs for the elevator, and one of the guys there will help you from there. Your ship is due to depart at oh-ten-hundred-twenty-three.”

Be here by oh-eight-thirty,” Jass said to the crew. “I want us to have time to run all of our checks without feeling rushed.” They left, Denjiro chattering away about his excitement at seeing the elevator up close.

Chris turned his attention back to Jass and Kristin. “Ok, now that they're taken care of, I can show you to your accommodations here.” He gestured toward the corridor behind him.

How many people usually stay here without going down to the surface?” Jass asked as they made their way down the hall using well-worn handholds placed along the wall.

Well, not too surprisingly, most of the ship captains. We've generally got seven or eight vessels in the dock, and we can house up to twenty-five guests. There's a constant crew of thirty on rotating shifts, so most of them prefer to bunk up here during their shifts. A handful of us live here full-time.” He grinned. “Like me.” He grabbed a handhold and pulled himself to a stop. “Hey, I don't suppose you have any scrap metal on your ship that you need to unload?”

The question caught Jass off guard. “What? Why?”

He laughed. “Sorry, that probably sounded strange. I like to collect junk metal; you never know when something's going to come in handy, especially here. I'd rather be able to retool an old part than wait weeks for a replacement to come in. Besides, I like to tinker.”

Kristin raised an eyebrow.

Chris shook his head. “It's easier if I show you.” He pulled his computer out and quickly tapped a command into it. A few minutes later, a strange machine entered the corridor. Jass couldn't help laughing at its odd appearance.

The machine was a small metal box with several propeller-like arms extending from it. It paddled through the air, assisted by occasional bursts of compressed air to navigate. Jass had never seen anything like it.

It's...it's swimming! Swimming through the air!” She watched it move from floor to ceiling, scanning the walls of the corridor.

Something like that,” Chris said, crooked grin bigger than ever. “It's got a camera built in, and some software that helps it spot weakness in the walls, possible leaks, things like that. Mostly I just made it to see if I could, but it needed a job.”

Kristin watched the machine with undisguised delight. “Is it autonomous?”

Mostly. I usually run it twice a week, and just let it go where it determines it needs to investigate. But I can command it from my computer, and if it finds anything of interest, it alerts me right away.” He glanced down the hall. “You know, if you want to go to your quarters and set your stuff down, I can show you more.”

It took Jass and Kristin less than ten minutes to find their rooms, stow their overnight bags, and meet back in the main corridor. Chris was waiting, floating in lazy somersaults while absorbed in something on his computer screen. As Jass and Kristin approached, he glanced up and tucked the computer under his arm. “All good? Great! This way!”

The three moved quickly down the hallway, pulling themselves along hand over hand to make better time. Chris led the way through the side corridors and passageways until Jass lost what little sense of direction she had in the unfamiliar place. Finally, they drifted to a stop in front of a door with an aging sign reading “Dockmaster” on it.

Chris tapped a code into a keypad to unlock the door. “Not the fanciest office space on the station, but it had the most room.”

The door opened and Jass got a glimpse of a poorly lit cluttered space; before she could enter, a small form launched itself through the doorway.


A small blond boy with oversized glasses wrapped his arms around Chris, who laughed and spun him in a quick circle. “Hey, kiddo, what're you doing here? Weren't you supposed to be at home with mom, doing your school work?”

She had to take the elevator to go pick up the groceries, so she told me to stay here til you got back.” The boy noticed Jass and Kristin for the first time and fell silent, ducking back into the doorway.

Chris beckoned him forward. “Ben, this is Jassmyn Stewart, captain of the Curious Machine, and her crewmate, Kristin Marshall. They wanted to see some of our robots, ok?”

The boy nodded and smiled shyly. “Show them the train!”

As they entered the small room, Jass looked around. The space was full of odd bits of metal, lengths of wire, circuit boards, and other signs of the dockmaster's hobby. Papers stuffed into a notebook that floated at the end of a short strap showed plans for propulsion systems and scribbled notes in a handwriting that she couldn't read.

So where's this train?” Kristin asked.

Ben looked at the far wall. “There!” He pointed to a strange device that looked nothing like any picture of a train that Jass had ever seen.

Show them how it works, Ben,” Chris prompted.

The boy whistled, and the train began to move. It was a series of mesh-covered boxes, linked together into a rough line. Instead of running on tracks, it moved along two loops of thin metal that adhered to the wall in front and peeled away as the vehicle moved on.

Magnetic tracks?” Jass asked as the odd machine slowed to a halt in front of Ben, who watched in delight.

Yeah, basically. The attraction doesn't have to be very strong, I just wanted to make sure it wouldn't launch itself off the wall and go flying across the room. The toughest parts were when it was speeding up or slowing down; the inertia kept pulling the tracks off the wall, so I wrote in an automatic command that makes it change speed slowly enough to keep that from happening.” He unlatched one of the mesh coverings and pulled out a handful of small tools. “Like most of my bots, it started out as an experiment, but it turns out to be a decent way to store some of my tools.”

He gestured around the cramped space. “So, this is the office. Affectionately dubbed the 'robot factory' by a few of my crew. Sorry for the mess, but not too many people really come here, apart from my crew and my family.”

Jass turned in a slow circle, taking the room in. “This is incredible. How do you find time for this?”

Honestly, Ceres isn't much of a destination, not like Andronivi. We get our supply ships, and the export ships, but not much else. The real action here is down on the surface. I wanted to do something productive with my time, and these weird pieces of scrap kept turning up, so I started trying to find a use for them. After a while, word spread, and now most of the workers here save parts and scraps for me.”

Do many of the crew have family here?” Kristin asked, looking up from helping Ben re-connect one of the train cars. “This doesn't really seem like a kid-friendly place.”

Chris shook his head. “Most don't bother. We're only stationed here for a year before we have to go somewhere else to prevent muscular atrophy. Most families just stay home and wait. But there was enough space here, and we felt it was important to stay together. Besides, this is a great place for Ben; he loves taking things apart; where better to do that than here?”

You're not worried about long-term effects from zero-g living at such a young age?” Jass had a sudden image of a two-meter-tall eight year old.

There are some gravity simulations here and on the surface. He spends a lot of time there, and gets a lot of exercise here. His doctor said it'd be fine, as long as it wasn't for more than a year.”

Jass watched as Chris reached over to help his son make an adjustment to the train-bot, adult fingers guiding the efforts of the child's hands. This is the future, she thought. His grandparents would have lived on a planetary surface, his own parents lived months at a stretch in a man-made sphere tethered to an asteroid: where would this child make his mark? Building machines on a distant moon? Surveying Kuiper Belt objects for future mining sites? Part of a crew harvesting ice from comets? Jass felt a brief moment of envy: as big as her world was, his would be bigger.

She didn't realize Kristin had moved beside her until she spoke. “I wish I had this.” Jass jumped at the sound.

Sorry, I didn't see you there. I was...thinking.”

Kristin nodded. “Me too. I wish I'd had this with my daughter. Had the chance to play with her. Teach her things. I hope her parents did. I hope they told her that she can do what she wants, be what she wants.”

Jass reached out and put an arm around her friend's shoulders. “You gave her the best life you could.”

Kristin nodded. “I know. I just would've liked...this.”

Chris straightened up, the train-bot reconnected properly. Jass didn't know if he'd heard the quiet conversation, but she hoped not. “Your quarters come with some ready-to-eat meals, but to be honest, they're not very good. Why don't you come have dinner with my family tonight? We don't get guests very often. Well, never, really.”

Jass glanced at Kristin, who nodded. “Sure, that sounds a lot better than a packaged meal. What time?”

Once she was alone in her room, Jass exhaled and felt her shoulders relax. She checked the time. 3 hours until she was expected for dinner. Not really enough time to take a nap, she thought. Stripping down to the tank and shorts she always wore underneath, she stretched, turning in a slow arc until she hung upside down. She began moving, twisting into her familiar yoga routine. It's been too long, she thought; I should be doing this every day. She felt her muscles relaxing, loosening, stretching. The movements were painful at first, but the pain lessened with every moment. When she finally stopped moving, her limbs moved with ease for the first time in weeks.

After a quick shower, Jass changed into clean clothes. Just one more month until I can take a real shower, she thought, brushing her hair as it billowed around her head. Real water. Real soap. One more month. Quickly pulling the mass of hair into a shining black braid, Jass checked her appearance in a small mirror that had been fastened to the bathroom wall like an afterthought. Not too bad, she decided. Perfectly acceptable for someone who's been in the black for eight months.

She grabbed her computer and strapped herself into the sleeping hammock to go over the latest set of ship reports before dinner.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Chapter 21

Jass strapped herself into the captain's seat with a sigh of relief. The time on Vesta had been a welcome relief, but she was ready to be back in the black. The microgravity of the asteroid was wearing, and she looked forward to feeling zero G again.

The rest of the crew was strapped into their own seats for launch, and were occupied making their own preflight checks. Jass pulled up the reports from Merriam; the scientist hadn't spent time with any of the rest of the group on Vesta, and she was uncomfortable with any crew member who kept themselves so isolated. All of the reports seemed normal, but she didn't feel reassured. It would have to wait; there were more urgent matters at hand.

Launch is on schedule for oh-nine-hundred-hours,” she called out, “Seven minutes to go, people. Let's make this picture-perfect, alright?”

A murmur of assent ran through the control room. “Andronivi control reports go for launch,” Kara relayed, intent on the screen in front of her. She tapped the command that put the control tower's audio on the speakers in the ship.

Curious Machine, this is Andronivi control. You are go for launch at oh-nine-hundred hours, and we appreciate your stay. Come back and see us soon.”

Andronivi, this is Curious Machine. We appreciate the hospitality. We confirm go for launch.”

The minutes passed quickly as the final system checks were completed. The countdown ticked down until less than a minute remained.

Forty-seven seconds to launch,” Jass called, keeping an eye on the clock. “All systems are go for launch.”

Copy that, Curious Machine,” replied the voice through the speakers. “Your vector is cleared of traffic and you are clear for launch. Safe flying.”

Understood, Andronivi. Thirty-four seconds to launch.” She flipped the switch that cut off the power from the dock; the Curious Machine was now on internal power.

Ten seconds to launch. Nine, eight, seven, six, main engine start!” Jass felt the familiar rumble as her ship's rockets came to life. “Four, three, two, one, rockets engaged.”

It didn't take much thrust to lift the Curious Machine from the surface of the asteroid, and the rocket thrust soon lifted the ship from the rough surface of the planetoid. Once they were sufficiently clear of the city dome, the rockets roared to full power; with a burst of energy, the ship leapt forward into the starfield.

The thrusters cut out and the ion engines took over; Jass sighed with relief at the familiar sensation of falling forward into her harness. Getting back into zero G from the limited gravity of Vesta felt like being able to scratch an itch. “Alright, you can let yourselves out of the harnesses now. Back to the daily grind.”

And about time!” Aaron exclaimed, pushing off his console and stretching widely. “Ugh, it's gotta be either Mars grav or nothing for me, that was ridiculous.”

It was fun for a while,” said Kara with a smile. “Did you try swimming?”

Jass let the chatter of the crew fade into the background. The slight weight of gravity was gone, but another weight had settled onto her shoulders. It was a two-week trip down the Belt to Ceres. The saboteur wouldn't have had a chance to set any new explosives while the ship was docked, but how long could that peace last?

This is one thing I didn't miss,” Denjiro commented as Jass entered the galley, unhooking a drink pouch from the water spout. He squeezed a little into his mouth and made a face. “Gravity or no gravity, nothing beats real food.” He quickly drank the rest of the mix and stuck the pouch in the trash drawer.

I don't think I could ever get used to Vesta gravity,” Kristin said, heating her own meal. “I felt like I was on the verge of falling the whole time I was there.”

Now you know how I felt on Mars when I first got there,” Denjiro said, grinning. “Freshman year would have gone much more smoothly if I hadn't been adjusting to the gravity the whole time.”

Yeah, whatever,” Aaron replied. “Didn't you get insanely high grades every year of school?”

It's so weird to think about,” Martina said. “I can't imagine going to live anywhere with a different gravity. Just getting used to the zero G on board the ship was hard enough.” Jass noticed that there were dark circles under her eyes, and made a mental note to have Kristin give her some vitamin supplements.

Kara shrugged. “It's not that hard, really. Your body just adjusts after a while.”

That it does,” Denjiro said, pushing off the floor. He propelled himself to the door and called behind him, “Someone call me when it's time for dinner, I've got a project I need to finish.”

Aaron checked his watch and groaned. “And I'm behind on getting started with some calculations. Crap. See you at dinner.” He tumbled through the doorway and headed up to the control room. Martina and Kara both excused themselves and left the galley. Jass watched them go. Martina had been happy and excited when the trip started, but over the past months, she had become withdrawn and quiet. She cursed herself for not seeing the relationship between Martina and Merriam earlier in the trip. Maybe if she'd intervened sooner... She shook her head. Regrets were pointless now. Interfering earlier than she had wouldn't have done any good, only given the affair the tang of forbidden fruit. Sometimes your heart has to be broken to learn a lesson, Jass thought. Martina would recover once she was away from Merriam.

A few minutes later, a muffled thump sounded from the corridor. “What was that?” Kristin asked, heading for the doorway. “I'll check it out,” Jass replied, moving as quickly as she could. “Go get the med supplies ready, just in case.” As Jass pulled herself through the doorway to investigate the noise, she heard the ship's alarms begin to blare. The corridor was hazy with a thin cloud of smoke, and she swallowed down a rising sense of panic as she made her way back to the science lab. Denjiro clutched one of the handholds in the corridor beside the lab, face half-hidden by an oxygen mask pulled from an emergency compartment. Merriam stood in the doorway of the lab, yelling, but Jass couldn't make out the words. There was a blackened hole in the wall near the door of the lab.

What happened?” Jass shouted to make herself heard above the ship's alarms. “Is it contained?”

Denjiro nodded, punching buttons on the panel in the emergency compartment. “You'll have to shut off the alarms, I don't have the authority. I've got the air scrubbers working to clear the air here. It'll affect our oxygen supplies a bit, but not enough to matter.”

Get this lunatic away from my lab!” Merriam shouted as Jass keyed in the command to silence the ship's alarms. “He just tried to blow me up!”

Den?” The captain looked at the engineer, who was still entering commands into the computer. Finally, he turned to face her, and pulled the mask down.

Yes, there were explosives here, but I didn't set them. I found them. Whoever set them didn't even try to hide them well. There was a small chunk of plastic explosive stuck to the wall, but a set of wires led into this compartment.” He gestured to the nearby emergency compartment. “This was inside.” He held out a lump of plastic explosive the size of a brick. “I didn't know when it was set to blow, so I tried to take it out myself. I took the big chunk out of the compartment first, since it would do more damage. I got that out, but as I turned away to put it on the other side of the corridor, the little one blew.”

And you didn't think to call for help before trying to take this thing apart?”

Denjiro shook his head. “If the bomber left that out in the open, there was no way this had been set to give more than a few minutes, just enough time for the bomber to plausibly be elsewhere when it blew. It had to be done quickly.”

Alright, I'll look into it further. You were here when it blew, any injuries?” Jass scanned Denjiro's face, but couldn't see any damage beyond a few scratches and bruises.

Some burns to my back, I think, and some bruising where I hit the wall, but nothing serious. Since the explosion wasn't contained, there was no shrapnel to speak of.”

Go to Kristin, have her check you out with the first aid kit. Let me know if there are any injuries that need further attention. Damage to the ship?”

Denjiro smiled. “None, except for this hole. If that whole charge had gone off, the entire lab could've been damaged, and anyone inside. But as it is, it's just the hole in the wall, and a little smoke in the air.”

You're smiling after a bomb went off?!” Merriam shouted, pulling himself through the door of the lab and into the hallway. “Are you a psychopath? You set the damn thing! You just tried to kill me!”

Jass braced her feet against the far corridor wall and shoved Merriam back into the lab. “There's no proof that Den set the bomb. It could have been almost anyone. I can vouch for Kristin, she was in the galley with me. But I didn't see you, Denjiro, Kara, Aaron, Martina, or Dani for at least ten minutes: more than enough time to plant that and get away.”

How do I know you didn't plant it yourself? You've hated me from the beginning, you'd love a chance to sabotage me!” Merriam's face was flushed with rage.

A chill ran down Jass' arm. Keeping her voice steady, she met Merriam's gaze without flinching. “If you have even a doubt about my integrity as captain of this ship, you are more than welcome to disembark at the next stop and wait for another ship.”

For a moment, no-one moved. Merriam glanced back into his lab and muttered, “No, I was just...it was the adrenaline. I didn't mean it.”

That's what I thought,” Jass said, holding her anger back. “You should see Kristin, too, she can give you something to help you relax.” Like a blow to the back of the head, she thought.

I'm fine. I need to do an inventory and make sure that nothing in the lab was broken. Not all of the experiments were secured, since we're in deep space right now.” He ducked back into the lab and out of sight. Jass turned back to Denjiro.

I meant what I said. Go find Kristin, she's got the med supplies prepped. I want to make sure you check out before I clear you for duty again.” Denjiro nodded and pulled himself down the hallway. Jass reached out and touched the dented edges of the blast hole. The metal was blown inwards and scorched from the blast. She thought again of the crater on Vesta that held the remains of a ship and crew. “This can't go on,” she whispered.

Jassmyn entered the med room as Denjiro was leaving, holding a gauze patch to his face. Kristin was packing away supplies she'd prepped. “Hey, Kristin. Is Den going to be alright?”

Kristin nodded, closing and latching the cabinet. “Yeah, he's just got some minor cuts and bruises. There's a bit of a burn on his back, but it's only first-degree, so I patched it up. He'll need to get checked out at Ceres, just to be on the safe side, but there's nothing I'm really concerned about.”

Jass nodded, lost in thought.

Hey.” Kristin put a hand on her friend's shoulder. “This wasn't your fault. Whoever is doing this got past all the security screenings and the psych tests. They're supposed to catch the crazies, not you. You've gotten us this far, and you'll get us home safe. We're nearly there.”

You mix all the vitamins and supplements that we take, right?” Jass' question caught Kristin off guard, but she nodded. “Yeah, we store them in powder form, and I put them in capsules, depending on what each person needs.”

Do you have any sedatives?”

The question hung in the air. Jass thought about playing it off as a joke, but let it stand. Kristin looked at her for a moment. “I do, but I don't like to use it. It takes the edge off everything, but it makes your perception less sharp and slows you down. I can add a little to your dinner supplements, if it'll help you sleep, but I wouldn't recommend anything more frequent than that.”

Jass shook her head. “No, not for me.” She rubbed her hands over her face, and hesitated. “I want to know if you can add sedatives to everyone's supplements. Maybe it'll be enough to slow our bomber down until we can make it port.”

You're stressed out, Jass; you're not thinking clearly. You need everyone running at their top ability, not drugged and sluggish.” She opened a small cabinet and pulled out a handful of small bottles. “Let me give you one dose of sedative so you can sleep tonight. You'll be yourself after a good night's sleep, and you'll think more clearly.” Kristin packed a small amount of powder into a capsule and handed it to Jass. “Just take it right before you strap yourself in at night. It should be just enough to put you under for eight hours, without giving you a hangover the next morning.”

Jass stared at the capsule. It was so tempting. Every nerve in her body was jangled, and she could feel the pain from the tensed muscles in her back. But she shook her head and handed the capsule back. “No, you're right. We can't afford for anyone of us to be off our game. Especially me. I've got to stay alert, and this isn't the answer.”

Kristin nodded, and put the capsule and bottles back in the cabinet, locking it securely.

Oh, I did want to ask you about something else. Martina's not looking so well; can you increase her vitamins? Maybe some more vitamin C?” Jass kept her voice steady, but all she wanted to do was strap herself into her bed and sleep until the world looked sane again.

Kristin smiled. “I was thinking the same thing earlier. She's been declining for the last month. I'll start her on a new regimen at dinner tonight.”

Jass made her way back to her cabin slowly, pulling herself through the corridor with effort. As she locked the door behind her, she felt a flood of emotion. She was grateful that there was no gravity here, because her legs wouldn't have held her up any longer. She let herself float in the middle of the room, trying to sort through the events of the day.

The initial feelings of panic and anger had faded as the adrenaline worked its way out of her system. Now there was only a strange mixture of dread, despair, and relief. There was no way she could discover the identity of the saboteur in time. She couldn't stop every attempt. Eventually, the day would come. She'd feel the ship shake as a breach erupted in the hull, and the cold of space leaked in to freeze them all. There was no escaping it. It was inevitable. She couldn't be blamed for having a saboteur on board. She'd done all she could...

Her eyes snapped open and she uncurled from the fetal position she'd assumed. “No,” she said, though there was no-one present to hear it. “Not on my ship.” Screw all that, she thought. No-one blows up my ship and gets away with it.

She stripped her jumpsuit off and climbed into her shower. In minutes, she'd scrubbed herself clean with the cleansing powder, and pulled her back into a fresh braid. She stepped into a new jumpsuit and zipped it up.

As she stepped out of the shower, she could see the light of the distant sun shining through the small window on her right. The light carried no warmth, but she smiled as it struck her face. “It's a new day on this ship,” she said, and launched herself towards the door.