Monday, March 26, 2012

Chapter 20

When she woke, the room was dark and quiet except for the sound of the filters. Jass wiped the sleep from her eyes and squinted at her computer. 9:12. No wonder I feel rested, she thought, I should have been up hours ago! She released the straps and stretched, feeling the stiffness in her muscles. Another trip to the gym would be in order; it was important to get as much exercise as possible while in dock.

Yawning, she pulled up the morning's dock report; the ship had undergone routine repairs and checks, and everything was nominal. The new cargo would be loaded the following day. Everything was on schedule.

Her computer beeped, and Jass saw the incoming call. “Hey, Kristin.”

Good morning, captain! Ready for a day of fun?”

What?” Jass mumbled, trying to pull on her socks.

Jassmyn Stewart, it's been months since you and I spent any time together that wasn't related to the ship or this run. We've got two more days in dock, with nothing for either of us to do. I want to see Andronivi, and I don't feel like doing it alone like yesterday. So get your butt out of bed and let's go see the town.”

I just got up. It's going to take me a while to get ready.”

You've got ten minutes.”

Jass groaned.

No whining. It's my turn to be the slave driver. Also, I found a place a few minutes away that serves real coffee.”

Real coffee?”

And if you're not outside your door in ten minutes, I'm going there myself and not leaving you any.”

See you in ten.”

Jass ended the call and headed for the shower.

Ten minutes later, the two women were making their way through the tube system to the adjacent building. The tubes were full of other people making their way to the mining buildings and the business centers of the colony. Jass and Kristin made their way carefully, trying not to slow down the traffic around them.

I think this is the place,” Kristin said, taking a channel that branched off from the main line. The two women let themselves fall slowly through the tube, slowing their progress from time to time by grabbing onto a handhold. When they landed, they found themselves in a small entryway; pushing open the door, Jass inhaled the scent of brewed coffee, and felt her knees weaken. How many months had it been since she'd had a cup that wasn't reconstituted? Too long.

A small line snaked its way toward the front of the shop, and Jass and Kristin took up their places at the back, holding onto the nearby rail to make sure their feet stayed on the ground.

Given the difficulty of getting you to join me today, I assume you slept pretty hard last night?” Kristin said as they advanced a place in line.

Yeah, I didn't even dream. They've got an amazing gym here, you should try it. I did something called...I forgot what it's called. But they shut you up in this padded room and you bounce around the walls.” Jass could feel her muscles beginning to loosen up.

Padded rooms? Are you sure they didn't put you in an asylum instead?”

Jass laughed. “Thanks for the vote of confidence in my ability to remain sane. No some sort of reduced-gravity gymnastics or something. It was a lot of fun, but I could barely stay awake long enough to eat dinner when I got back to my room.”

She paused as they moved to the front of the line. The girl behind the counter smiled. “Good morning, ladies! What can I get you?”

Medium coffee, black,” Jass replied.

Same,” said Kristin, pulling out her wallet. “And Jass, this is on me.”

Oh, you don't--”

I want to pay, and it's fine, so shut up and get your coffee.” Kristin grinned.

The girl punched in their orders. “And do you have your own cups, or will you be needing to purchase one today?”

Seeing their confusion, she continued. “Most residents and frequent visitors have one of our cups; you can clip them to a belt to carry your coffee safely while you're going across town. If you're going to stay here to drink, you'll be fine with one of the paper cups.”

We've got the day to spend in town, I think we'll just drink the coffee here,” Jassmyn replied.

When they settled at a table, drinks in hand, Jass sighed and wrapped her fingers around the cup. “That feels so good. No matter how good the heating systems are here, or even in the ship, my hands never feel quite warm.”

I know what you mean,” Kristin said, taking a sip of her coffee. “Warm hands, coffee that didn't come from a pouch... Life is good.”

This came from a pouch, unless they pay the crazy rates to import the beans. It just came from a bigger pouch with better prep.”

Let me enjoy my delusion.”

Jass watched the small crowd that moved through the coffeeshop. Most of them were local, denizens of Andronivi, and they all seemed to know each other. It was easy to pick out the visitors: they moved awkwardly in the low gravity, were unfamiliar with the menu, and didn't greet anyone. They're all like me, she thought, we all prefer being on our ships to being anywhere else. They're home now, more than any planet or asteroid.

Mars to Jass, are you receiving?”

Jass shook herself out of her reverie. “Sorry, just thinking! What were you saying?”

Kristin set her cup down and looked at her friend. “Never mind, it was nothing. I don't think I've seen you this stressed in a while. You holding up ok?”

Stressed? I feel pretty ok, actually. It was great to have a day off yesterday, and I'm looking forward to today.”

Jass, you're distracted, you've lost weight, and you look tired as hell. This has been a tough trip, there's no shame in being stressed. But I don't want to see you make any stupid mistakes just because you're too tired to think clearly.”

Jassmyn sat in silence for a moment before responding. “I always knew this run was risky. It's my chance to prove to the investors that we're a viable delivery company. It was going to be tough no matter what: asteroid runs are a long hard slog without much chance of assistance if something goes wrong. I was prepared for all of that. But this sabotage thing...You can't prepare for that. Wondering which of the people you've trained with for two years is stuffing explosives into control panels. Wondering every moment if today is the day your ship blows apart.”

I thought these saboteurs hadn't killed anyone, just messed up ships and cargoes.”

Explosives aren't exactly precise tools. Anything could happen. You're floating down the hall one moment, and breathing vacuum the next.” She sipped her coffee. “But I think the fact that it's one of us that's getting to me. I hand-picked this crew. I've known you and Aaron for years, and trained with the others for two. I can't imagine any of you jeopardizing us for money. But someone is doing it.”

They sat in silence, finishing their coffee. Jass wished she'd kept the conversation light; it wasn't often they had the chance to spend a day without worrying about anything on the ship, and she'd ruined it. With a sigh, she stood up. “I'm sorry, Kristin. I'll try not to think about it today. We all need a day off and I don't want to wreck yours. Let's go have some fun.”

What do you have in mind?”

Have you ever flung yourself at a wall in low gravity?”

Kristin lay on the floor of the padded room, laughing. “You're right, that was insanely fun. I think I may have to move here just so I can do this every day.”

Nope, not allowed. I don't make friends easily and I'm not allowing any of them to move off-planet. Captain's orders.”

You're going to have a mutiny on your hands then,” Kristin said, getting to her feet. Jass handed her a towel and she wiped the sweat from her arms and forehead. “I'm going to hit the showers. What do you want to do after that?”

Jass' computer beeped and she answered the incoming call. “Hey Aaron, what's up?”

I think I've done all the fun things this place has to offer. I need ideas.”

Kristin and I were thinking the same thing. I've got an idea. Meet us at the dock in a half-hour.”

Aaron was waiting as Kristin and Jass dropped out of the travel tubes nearest to the dock. “So what's this great idea?”

Jass smiled and pointed to a sign a few meters away. “Surface Tours: $200 for 3 hours.”

You've got to be kidding. We saw the surface of this rock on the way in. You want me to spend half of my budget on this?” Aaron glanced scornfully back at the sign.

We didn't see the ground from 200 meters above the surface. We only saw the equatorial regions; this tour takes us down to the south pole. Besides, when was the last time you saw some untouched wilderness?” Jass started toward the booth.

Kristin grinned. “Come on, she has a point. I don't know the last time I got out of a dome and really looked at the surface of anything. It'll be a nice break from a static starfield.

The three paid for their tour and were directed to a small ship that stood nearby. The pilot climbed in as they buckled their harnesses. “Y'all ever taken a surface tour before? No? Ok, here's the basics. Never ever unbuckle your harness, not even when we're on the ground. Wait for me to give the go-ahead. Second, you'll need to wear these headsets. Ship this small doesn't have much in the way of sound dampening, and the engines are noisy. You can talk through these. In case of an emergency, we're generally close enough to Andronivi to sit it out and wait for help. That's about it. Everyone strapped in?”

The three answered in the affirmative, and the ship began to hum as the engines spooled up. In a few minutes, the ship left the airlock and soared over the barren landscape, rockets flaring. Jass wrenched her attention from the vibrating ship and focused on the craterous ground rolling away below them. At first glance, it appeared to be a uniform gray, harsh in the distant sunlight, but after a while she began to distinguish slight color differences in the dust. Ahead, the tiny horizon seemed to drop off abruptly; she was about to ask the pilot about it when the ship shot over the edge of an enormous crater. In the center of the depression rose a mountain, higher than the terrain outside of the crater.

Welcome to Rheasilvia Crater,” the pilot called over the headsets. “Been here for a billion years. The hunk of rock that hit took about one percent of the asteroid's mass with it. Must have been a hell of a thing to see.”

Thanks, Vesta, for creating so many navigation hazards,” Aaron responded, pressing his forehead against the window to get a better view of the crater floor below.

Jass leaned forward as far as her harness would allow and fixed her attention on the strange vista filling the front window. The crater floor was rocky and uneven, pocked with smaller craters filled with dust. The peak in the center rose silently outside as they passed by, and Jass felt small beside it. The only other mountain she'd been this close to had been Olympus Mons, and that had been years ago. Mons had been surrounded by towns and developments; it was one of the major tourist attractions on Mars, and a whole industry had sprung up to cater to every need of visitors. This mountain was different; a sharper peak stood utterly alone in the middle of the crater, pocked with smaller craters.

As the small craft passed the mountain, the pilot fired the rockets that turned the ship back toward the city at the equator. Jass saw a glint at the bottom of a shallow crater; looking closer, she saw wreckage. “Is that a ship down there?”

The pilot glanced out of the window and nodded. “Yeah, there are a few wrecks around here. Mostly private ships, but there are a few mining ships and even a touring ship.” He grinned. “I don't usually tell people about that one before they pay for their tours.”

Aaron laughed, but Jass was silent. She could easily imagine that it was the Curious Machine strewn in twisted pieces on the surface.

Why are the wrecks left here?” Kristin asked. “Don't you need to clean them up, or get the...the bodies?”

We send retrieval teams for any human remains, but it's much trouble to get the ships. They're done for, anyway. Maybe when our operation here is bigger, but for now we don't have anywhere to store wreckage.”

Jass interrupted. “You said that people come for the bodies. What happens to them afterward?”

The pilot was silent for a moment before replying. “Depends on a couple of things. If the deceased had a will, and that will stipulated that their remains be disposed of in a certain way, then it's taken care of and expenses taken out of the estate. Most people don't bother: they just ask that their remains be sent out into space. Saves time, money, fuel. Standard procedure if there's no will is to chemically cremate the remains and send them to the next of kin on the next ship headed the right direction. It's not something that happens all that often, anyway. Most people are only here on a one-year rotation before moving on or going back to Mars or Earth for a few years.”

Jass settled back in her seat. She'd thought about death as much as any captain had to. It was something that had to be considered in any venture. But she'd never thought about the aftermath before, the sheer physical fact of dealing with corpses. If the damn saboteur blew up her ship in the middle of the Asteroid Belt or in orbit around a planet, who would get the bodies? Would they even bother, or would they let her corpse float until the orbit decayed and her frozen remains burned up on reentry? She shuddered, and wrapped her arms around herself.

That night, Jass sat in her quarters, paging through her personal information on her computer. Every form was backed up on the Mars federal computer system and was updated regularly. She found the form she was looking for: In Case of Death. She'd seen it before when updating other forms, but never taken the time to fill it out. Without a further thought, she began entering information.

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