Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Chapter 19

Chapter Nineteen

Captain,” Kara said, “I've received a message from Vesta. They say they're ready to log our entry routes whenever we are.”

Jass nodded. “I'll let Aaron know. Getting into the Andronivi colony isn't too difficult, not compared to a place like Gaspra. It should be a pretty simple approach. When are we set to connect with their traffic control?”

Two days from now. It'll give us twenty-four hours of contact before we actually need to make our approach.”

Good, we're running on schedule then. We should have a day or two to relax there. By the time we leave here, we should be back on our original schedule for reaching Ceres. Not too bad, considering the initial delay.” Jass pulled up the most recent routes that Aaron had worked out; it was always tricky to balance economical use of the engines with approach to any gravitational body, but he had a knack for it. The proposed route looked good, and she made a mental note to approve it later.

She looked out of the front window. Vesta hung as a bright spot in the sky, as unmoving as the stars behind it. She'd been able to get a few good pictures of the cratered surface with her camera, but good photography would become more difficult at they moved toward the asteroid.

The next few days were filled with the usual pre-docking responsibilities; checking cargo and science payloads, planning the route for docking, and communicating with the traffic control officer in the Andronivi colony. The weeks in deep space between dockings had left the crew refreshed and well-rested, but anxious to connect with others and leave the ship for a few hours.

When the time for docking neared, everyone was strapped into their harnesses in the main cabin. Vesta loomed large in the front window; the south pole crater gave the whole body a squashed look. As the ship slowed to enter the dwarf planet's orbit, a set of ridges appeared on the far horizon.

We have you on our screens, Curious Machine,” announced a disembodied voice from the speaker system. “You should be close enough to see us now.”

Copy that, Andronivi Control,” Jass replied. “I can see the walls of the Snowman Craters now. We're heading around for our final burn, and we'll see you on the next orbit.”

She turned to the navigator. “How's our speed?”

Well within nominal range. We should burn off most of our speed on this last orbit, and dock in about forty minutes.”

As the asteroid rolled beneath them, Jass watched the Snowman Craters come into view. The string of craters stretched across the northern hemisphere of the planetoid. Two large craters formed the base of the formation, topped by a smaller crater. She'd seen pictures of snowmen on Earth, but didn't see the resemblance.

In the center crater, Jass could see the light of the sun glinting off strange metal spires and a clear dome. The ship moved too quickly to get a detailed view, but she heard the gasps of several crew members who had never seen the city before. The main dome covered a city that looked too tall and narrow to be real, like a fairy castle in a children’s book illustration. The dome nestled in the midst of metal outbuildings that served as hangars and cargo depots. In a few moments, it had disappeared from their field of view, and the ship soared over the night side of the asteroid.

I'd seen pictures of Andronivi,” said Kristin after a brief silence, “but nothing really conveys it. That was amazing!”

Wait till we get closer,” Jass said with a smile.

The dark asteroid rolled away under them as they lost altitude, until it began to look as if the belly of the ship would scrape over the top of the next big crater. The sky brightened beyond the arc of the asteroid's horizon, and the sun reappeared in a blaze of light.

Light side,” Aaron commented, checking the readings on his screen. “Not long now. About ten minutes until we get the city on visuals again.”

Kara pointed to the window. “Look at those grooves! It looks a little like Phobos.”

The scarred surface of the asteroid was covered with a fine dust that gathered in the basins of the craters. After a few minutes, the sunlit exterior walls of the Snowman Craters appeared over the horizon for the second time, and the ship began slowing to make its landing.

Andronivi Control, this is the Curious Machine, making our final approach. Are we cleared for landing?”

Curious Machine, this is Control. You are clear, I repeat, clear for landing. We'll have our welcome party there when you arrive.”

Thanks, Control, we'll be looking for them.”

The ship edged over the rim of the central crater and dropped into the basin. The city lay ahead, looking fragile in the light. The towers of the central city were half a kilometer tall, though no wider than a typical skyscraper on Mars.

Jass concentrated on bringing the ship in for a safe landing. The traffic control officer director her to one of the landing pads close to the dome. She brought the ship in close and fired the thrusters for a for seconds. Landing on Vesta was tricky; blast too hard or too long with the thrusters, and she'd start regaining altitude and have to come around for another attempt. She was determined not to waste that much fuel.

The ship moved forward and downward more and more slowly. The thrusters fired only occasionally, making small adjustments to the ship's course and velocity. When the Curious Machine had almost ceased her forward movement and hung only a few meters off the pad, Jass turned off the thrusters. The ship settled onto the surface of the planetoid with a strange slowness. When she felt the thump that told her that the ship was finally resting on the surface, Jass hailed the traffic control.

Control, this is the Curious Machine. We'd like you to get a visual on us and confirm a solid landing.”

Copy that, Curious Machine. We do have you on the ground, and we're bring out the concourse right now. Hang tight a few minutes, and we'll have you off that ship. Welcome to Vesta.”

Jass turned off the speaker. “Alright, you can release your harnesses now. We're here.” She released her own harness and grabbed the back of her chair as she got her feet under her. Walking on Vesta required some skill; it was more like a combination of long-distance jumping and flying. Each step propelled her upwards for about a meter and it took several seconds to fall back to the ground for the next step. A glance around the cabin confirmed that the others were having a similar difficulty.

I wish we had some of those magnetic boots from Cybele right about now,” Merriam grumbled. “This is like moving underwater.”

You won't want magboots here,” Jass said. “The Andronivi colony is set up to make use of the low gravity rather than work around it. Magboots would slow you down.”

The crew made their way down the main corridor to the airlock. By the time they arrived, the concourse from Andronivi had been connected, and it was a simple thing to open the airlock and make their way into the flexible tunnel. As Jass stepped into the concourse, a thin young man stepped forward.

Welcome to Andronivi Colony. Follow me, we'll get inside the buildings. It's easier to talk there.” He turned and walked back toward the colony, the crew of the Curious Machine following. Once they were inside the nearest outbuilding, he closed the door to the concourse and sealed it. “There we go. I always feel better once I'm out of that tunnel. I know it's completely safe, but you never know when something might go wrong.” He reached out to shake the hands of the crew members nearest to him. “I'm Ianto Greene. I work with traffic control and shipping. I'll be your contact while you're here in the colony. I figure you're ready to rest up a bit after that trip. I'll show you to your rooms.”

After making their way through the building, the group found themselves in the main dome. Everywhere Jass looked, she saw clear tubes running from one end of the colony to another. Each tube connected with dozens of others, branching off in all directions. People floated inside the tubes, moving almost as if they were swimming. Ianto led the group to a large round door in one wall of the building. “We're going to take the tubes to your quarters. They're the fastest way to move in the colony.”

He opened the door, and climbed inside a vertical tube. Jass leaned in and saw that the walls of the tube were covered in padded handgrips. Ianto made his way upward by leaping off the floor, grabbing a handgrip, and pulling himself upward hand over hand. She felt a breeze against her face, and realized that the floor of the tube was a grating through which a constant gust of air moved upward.

Come on,” called Ianto, still moving up, “it's not as hard as it looks. Just climb, you don't need to exert much effort.”

Jass climbed into the tube and jumped for the first set of handholds. It wasn't very hard to build upward momentum, and before long, she was moving upward more quickly than she would have fallen if she had let go of the handholds. She looked behind her for a moment to see that the rest of the crew was following, some faster than others.

Ianto took the first horizontal tube that connected with the vertical tube; when Jass made her way into the space, she understood why the travelers she'd seen had looked like they were swimming. It was a simple matter to fall into a rhythm moving this way: right hand, left hand, lightly kick with a foot to keep from touching the floor of the tube, right hand, left hand, kick. It had looked like it would take a lot of effort, but she discovered that it took very little force to keep herself suspended in the middle of the tube and moving forward. The sensation of swimming was very strong. She looked down through the clear bottom of the tube and felt a thrill as she realized that she was several stories above the ground floor of the colony.

After a series of tubes, Ianto pulled himself through a door in a nondescript wall. When Jass stepped into the room, she was struck by how warm it was, and hadn't realized how cold the rest of the city was. She flexed her hands; the motion of pulling herself hand over hand along the tubes had made her fingers begin to cramp. The rest of the crew arrived within a few minutes, and Ianto addressed them as a group.

You're scheduled to be staying with us for three days while the cargo is arranged and the science payloads are checked and exchanged. Your room assignments have been uploaded to your computers, along with the keypad codes for the rooms. Your ship is due for maintenance, which has been arranged for by your investors, so our crew will be checking your ship for any damages to the hull or other areas that could cause you problems on your voyage. We're aware of the threats to ships like yours, so Captain Stewart, we'll need you to check over the ship before we clear you for launch. In the meantime, you are free to move about the city. You'll find maps of the city have been uploaded to your computers, with information about where to eat, entertainment options, or exercise options. If you need anything, please get in touch with me. Welcome to the colony, and enjoy your stay!”

After Ianto left, Jass pulled up their room assignments. “Ok, guys, they have a little more room than Cybele, so we each have separate rooms. We're all down this hall here, so we're still pretty close together. You're all grown adults, so I'll leave you to your own business here, but so help me, if I hear of anyone causing trouble or embarrassing us in any way while we're here, I will see to it that you bunk in the cargo bay when we get back on the ship again. Be back on the ship five hours prior to launch to make sure that everything in your area is in order. Other than that, have a good time and relax a little. You've all earned it.”

Jass closed the door of her room behind her and closed her eyes. She could feel the weight of worry lift off of her shoulders; for a few days, the ship was someone else's concern. The burden would return, she knew, but for now she felt lighter than a feather, for reasons that had nothing to do with the minimal gravity of the asteroid.

She was tempted to try to sleep, but knew that unless she got a full day of activity, she'd be unable to rest soundly. She pulled up information about the exercise facilities on the colony; there were many more options than there had been on her last visit. She changed into clothes more suited for strenuous activity and headed back out the door.

Welcome to the Vesta Gym!” A young man behind a desk waved her over. “This is your first time here, right?”

Yeah, but how did you know?”

The man shrugged. “We've only been open for a year and I've worked here that whole time. I haven't seen you before, so I figure you're part of the crew of a ship making a stopover.”

Can't fault that reasoning.”

So, were you looking for anything special today? You know that Andronivi prides itself on working with the gravity we have and not trying to play by the old planetary gravity rules. Most of our rooms are pretty unique.”

Jass paged through the information on her computer. “I'm looking for something pretty active right now; I need to be tired enough to get a full night of sleep later.”

I know just the thing. Follow me.” Her guide turned and made his way down the hallway to a vertical tube in the ceiling. “Up this way.” After climbing a few stories into the air, he ducked into a short tube that lead directly into an empty room. The room was about five meters square, Jass thought as she entered and looked around, and the walls seemed to have some sort of padding.

This is a room for what we call 'space-restricted gymnastics.' I'll demonstrate.” He crouched and launched himself across the room, turning a somersault as he went. His feet hit the far wall, and Jass could see the panel bend under the impact before throwing him off in a new direction. He bounced around the room, slamming into the walls with feet, elbows, and arms until he stopped in front of Jass.

Get the idea? It takes some practice, but all the walls are padded so it's pretty tough to hurt yourself. Just throw yourself at a wall a couple of times, you'll get the hang of it.”

As he left, closing the door behind him, Jass eyed the room and tried an experimental bounce. When she settled back to the floor, she bent her knees and pushed off for the opposite wall. She soon discovered that it wasn't getting from one wall to another that presented the main difficulty, but remembering to hit the wall ready to head in a new direction; she was used to catching herself on walls, not bouncing off them. But the attendant had been right, it was a simple thing to learn. She pushed off again, and sailed toward the ceiling. With a simple flip, she positioned her feet to meet the panel. She felt her feet make contact and indent the panel. Just as the material began to rebound, she pushed again and headed for the far wall. Another contact, another bounce. Jass bounced until she lost balance or killed her momentum with a bad landing, then began again. By the time her session was over, she had ricocheted off twelve panels before erring.

Still hot from the gymnastics, Jass decided to go for a swim before finding food. The first sight of the pool took her breath away. As she moved from the equipping room and pulled the scuba mask over her face, she found herself in a large square room with a clear globe in the center of the room, almost filling it. The globe was filled with water, and swimmers darted through it, sending waves of water soaring so high that the tops of the waves separated and became individual spheres of water, floating near the top of the globe until they rejoined the main body of water again. Several clear chambers ran from the water globe to the floor, and Jass watched a swimmer enter one and press a button. In a moment, the water had been pumped from the chamber; the swimmer opened a door in the compartment and climbed out.

Jass entered the empty compartment, and saw a waterproof keypad. The touch of a button closed the door. “Please activate your breather,” said a voice over a speaker. Jass turned her gear on as water began pouring into the compartment. When it was full, a panel in the ceiling slid back; she pushed off from the bottom of the entry chamber and darted into the main pool.

For a few moments, she fought a sense of vertigo; in the pools back home, she had always been able to feel which direction was up very clearly, but the low gravity made it difficult here. After a minute, she oriented herself and began to move through the water with more confidence. The other swimmers in the pool appeared to be more accustomed to the water; several were having fun launching themselves out of the water with a kick and turning a somersault before they re-entered the water. She didn't feel brave enough to try something so dramatic, but enjoyed floating on her back on the surface of the water.

When she left the pool, Jass felt energized and stepped into the full-body dryer that lead from the pool area to the gym. Water droplets hung from her suit and body, detatching themselves and forming an aureole of vapor around her. She pressed the button to start the dryer. Warm air blew around her, whisking away the water droplets and drying her hair. She slipped into the clothes she'd brought into the chamber with her, and opened the door to the showers.

She stepped out of the showers, tying her newly-dried hair back in its usual braid. The exercise and shower had awakened her, and she felt ready to explore the rest of the colony. Her rumbling stomach made her aware of the fact that she hadn't eaten anything since the previous night. A quick consultation of the map on her computer pulled up several restaurants in the surrounding area. Jass instructed the computer to map her route, and begun pulling herself through the system of tubes that connected the colony. In twenty minutes, she felt her toes brush the ground and ducked out of the tube.

She was in a sort of plaza, the largest open space she'd yet seen in Andronivi. With the horizontal space so limited, and gravity so low, the city was mostly composed of vertical spaces, with little room to move side-to-side. The plaza was forty meters on each side, and lined with businesses and entrances to the tube system. The main paths across the space were marked with handrails to make crossing it easier. In the center of the square stood a pedestal, and it took Jass a few minutes to see what was on it. A small spacecraft was set into the top of the pedestal; it appeared to have long solar panels extending from each side like wings, but the panels had been folded and locked near the body of the craft to save space. The craft was six meters wide, consisting of a box, a dish, and the solar panels. Jass made her way over to the pedestal, and read the inscription on the plaque at the base of the monument.

Dawn. 2007-2016. The first craft to explore Vesta and send back pictures of the Snowman Craters. It orbited Vesta and Ceres, and went beyond its original mission parameters by nearly fourteen months. This monument was erected to honor the vision of those who worked on the mission and to inspire the dreamers of the future.”

She made her way to the other side of the plaza and entered a small restaurant with a blinking neon sign depicting a pair of chopsticks and a steaming bowl.

The restaurant was dim, but as her eyes adjusted, Jass could see several tables and a row of stools in the main room; each seat had a small harness to make sure diners could eat in comfort. A young man in the kitchen called out a greeting and, wiping his hands on a towel, made his way to the counter. From the sound his shoes made on the floor, Jass knew he was wearing some form of magnetized boots.

Hello! What can I get for you today?”

According to my computer, you're the only place for several million klicks that serves a decent phó.”

The young man grinned. “You heard right! What kind would you like?”

Chicken and vegetable, please.”

We have to add the sauces before we serve it: what would you like and how much?”

Jass thought for a minute. “Moderate amount of hoisin, and enough sriracha to turn the broth orange.”

You got it!”

He disappeared into the kitchen and Jass made her way to a small table and strapped herself into the seat. She looked around: the place would only hold perhaps forty people at once, and showed signs of constant use. A glance at her computer confirmed that she was an hour late for the lunch rush, which would explain the current emptiness of the building. The table had small insets of magnetic material, and she ran a finger idly around one of the circles.

The young man returned, walking with measured footsteps along the metal floor. He produced two clear glass dishes, each with a metal circle set into the bottom to anchor them to the table. One was a simple glass bowl, filled with steaming strips of chicken meat and vegetables. The other was a clear globe, with a small aperture in one side near the top. It was filled with a hot reddish broth. The waiter handed Jass a hard plastic straw, and pointed to the hole in the globe, which was sealed with a small piece of clear plastic film. “Phó is a little tricky with the gravity here, but you'll get the hang of it. Just push the straw through the plastic there to get a sip of the broth. The meat and vegetables are here, and they've already been seasoned with the basil and lime.”

With a smile, he returned to the kitchen; Jass picked up the straw and pushed it through the plastic, taking a small sip of the broth. The intense heat of the added sriracha burned her throat, but the flavor was excellent. The meat and vegetables were tender, and it didn't take her long to finish the meal. By the end of it, she found that her forehead had a thin film of sweat from the spiciness of the broth. She laughed, and wiped it clear with her sleeve. The waiter approached to take her dishes. “How did you enjoy the meal?”

I think it's one of the best I've had since leaving Mars. Better than a lot I've had on Mars, come to think of it.” She left a generous tip and made her way back out to the plaza.

She spent the rest of the afternoon getting a feel for Andronivi Colony by traveling through the transport tubes that ran over the city before returning to her room. She read through the latest news from Earth, Mars, and the various ships traveling through the Belt. There were no new reports of sabotage, but several fights had broken out when crew members of several ships had accused their coworkers of being saboteurs. Several private companies had begun to hire security forces for their runs, which was driving up the shipping rates. “Not a pretty picture,” Jass grumbled, turning from the news reports. “Enough of that for now.”

When evening came, she ordered a meal to be delivered to her room. She barely tasted the sandwich, and only stayed awake with effort. The hum of the air filtration system was hypnotizing, and she found herself dozing off while chewing the final bite of her meal. She managed to make it to the bathroom to brush her teeth before collapsing into the bed and strapping herself in for the night.

Chapter 18

Chapter Eighteen

Her quarters were quiet, and Jass considered slipping into her hammock for a little extra sleep, but decided that her mind wouldn't stop churning long enough to let her rest. Best to calm the mind, the rest would follow.

She locked the door and began her yoga routine, trying to clear her mind of everything but focusing on her breathing. She pictured herself floating among the stars, inhaling calm and exhaling light. When she'd first tried the exercise, she'd thought it was corny, but there was no question that it worked.

At the end of the routine, with her breathing measured and mind calm, Jass knew how she would spend the day.

But what do you want it for?” Merriam asked, unstrapping a box from a shelf in the back of the science lab.

Well, you know, there are only so many things you can really do with a high-resolution camera, Mr. Stone. I do believe I will be taking pictures with it.” Jass opened the box and inspected the contents. The camera was a compact black model made for carrying aboard ships with minimal cargo space. It was a standard equipment item for all ships, for documenting damage, notable moments, or other official business, but there was no reason that she couldn't use it for other purposes.

Is there a tripod for it?”

Merriam handed her a small metal contraption, a telescoping tripod that was folded into a block of metal arms and latches. “This isn't the best tripod, but it should do. The ends of the legs are magnetic, so they'll stick to the floor. Just don't point them at the computers.”

Jass signed the equipment check-out form and strapped the camera box and tripod to her back with a soft elastic strap. In a few minutes, she was in the main cabin, floating in front of the main window. Dani was strapped into her console for once, and gave her a strange look. “What are you doing?”

If I don't find a way to keep myself busy, I'm gonna be crazy long before we dock with Vesta. The rest of you can do whatever you want, but i'm going to do some photography.” She set up the tripod, smiling as the magnets secured themselves to the cabin floor with a clang. It took a few minutes to get the camera secured to the tripod, but soon she was scanning the motionless star field, looking for a target. She pointed the lens at what she thought was Orion and adjusted the exposure time on the camera. She took a test image, and frowned. Too bright. Another adjustment of the camera. Another image. Better.

Jass flipped through the folder of images she'd taken over the past few weeks. It had taken time to get used to the camera settings, but she had persisted, and her pictures had improved. She pulled up her favorite, a picture of the nebula in Orion, a glowing purple butterfly shape. The nebula had been difficult to capture, due to the long exposure time needed, but she was happy with the final result.

That's amazing,” Kara said, passing behind her. “Is that one of yours?”

Jass nodded. “Orion nebula. It's my favorite one to photograph; I love the colors. It's not professional quality, of course, not even particularly good for an amateur, but it's better than any other picture I've taken, so I'm happy.”

The weeks had passed slowly, and Jass had started a list of ideas for ways to make future trips more interesting for those who weren't occupied with experiments or other tasks. Having millions of digital books and movies didn't make up for the inability to walk out one's own door and experience something directly.

By the way,” Kara continued, buckling herself into her seat, “you might want to take a look at what's going on in the corridor. I'm not sure if you'll want to stop it or join in, but you do need to see it.”

Intrigued, Jass pushed herself away from her chair and made her way to the door. She burst out laughing at the sight that awaited.

Denjiro and Aaron had positioned themselves at either end of the main corridor, and had fashioned rough paddles out of used food pouches. A rubber ball ricocheted off one of the walls and headed for Aaron. He pushed off from the opposite wall and swatted at the ball, sending it tumbling back toward Denjiro. He turned just in time to throw up a hand to keep from crashing into the wall. Denjiro did a mid-air somersault and swatted at the ball but missed. Jass bent and snatched the ball up before it hit her ankle. Den groaned as Aaron cheered, “Ha! I'm up, four to three!”

What the hell are you two doing?” Jass demanded.

I think we're calling it reduced-gravity acrobatic ping-pong by now,” Denjiro said, straightening up. “It started out as just ping-pong, but we kept thinking of modifications to increase the accuracy of the name.” He glanced at a large scuff mark that had been left on the wall by the ball. “I guess we should stop...”

Don't you dare,” Jass said, passing by him to move down the corridor. “You're going to restart the game and I'm going to get you an audience.”

The whole crew was gathered in the corridor to watch the re-match. Denjiro and Aaron had been instructed to wear several layers of clothing to use as padding, and Jass had dropped the temperature in the corridor to compensate. She wore a warm jacket and kept her hands tucked in the pockets. Kara and Kristin each had a small blanket to keep warm, and Martina wore a pair of knitted gloves covered in bright stripes. Merriam hunched over in his coat, keeping his hands thrust deep in the pockets for warmth. He had started to grumble about the chill, but a look from Jass silenced him.

The opponents had chosen their ends of the corridor, and a piece of tape on the wall marked the “net.”

Let the games begin,” shouted Jass, tossing the rubber ball into the corridor and sending it bouncing off the walls.

Aaron lunged forward and gave the ball a swipe with his paddle; as it went careening toward Denjiro, he slammed into the wall and rebounded. Denjiro waited for the ball to approach before swatting it back down the hallway. The exchange continued for a few minutes until a hit from Aaron near the line of the net sent the ball soaring past Denjiro's reach and into the wall behind him. “One-nothing!” The crew cheered and laughed.

That was just not fair,” Aaron said, rubbing his shoulder where he had banged into the corridor harder than intended. Denjiro was somersaulting down the corridor to celebrate his victory. “His paddle was totally over the net on that last hit.”

Oh, be a good sport,” Kristin laughed, handing him a drink pouch. “Everyone had fun, and so did you.”

And you've invented a new sport,” Jass added, “though maybe not a particularly smart new sport, given the bruises you're going to have tomorrow morning.”

The crew dispersed and returned to their tasks; Jass made her way back up to the cabin. There were still lots of boring reports to read, but she could face the tedium now.