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 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.
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.