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.

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