Friday, March 30, 2012

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 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.

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