Table of Contents
Books by Chris Gerrib
A Word on Names
About the next book
Excerpt Pirates of Mars
THE MARS RUN
Copyright 2006 Chris Gerrib
Books by Chris Gerrib
The Pirates Trilogy
The Mars Run
Pirates of Mars
The Night Watch
Re-released May 3, 2018 by Chris Gerrib. Formatting and editing of the 2016 edition courtesy of Cincinnatus Press.
When Raj stepped up onto the metal staircase leading into the vacuum chamber, neither of us knew he wouldn’t leave the chamber alive. At the top, he turned to look at me. “Hey Blondie,” he said, using his favorite nickname for me, “My place after the lab?” I felt my face flush, the curse of pale skin. Trainees were discouraged from dating each other. “Sure thing, study buddy,” I replied. We’d done many things at his place, but studying wasn’t one of them.
“Janet, Raj,” one of the instructors growled over the radio link. “Lock it up.”
We both acknowledged his instruction. Raj clicked off his radio transmitter and touched his helmet to mine. “Vacuum sucks.”
I managed to kill my radio transmitter before I started giggling. I shouldn’t have been laughing. We were partners for this exercise and responsible for each other’s safety. Even though we were still on Earth, vacuum could kill. It was only the second time we’d worn a spacesuit in real vacuum.
The vacuum chamber was a windowless concrete room, lit with industrial fluorescent light and studded with video cameras. As soon as we were inside, one of the instructors pulled the heavy steel door shut. With the alarms sounding and the yellow warning light flashing, the huge vacuum pumps quickly sucked the damp Florida ai; r out of the space.
“COMEX, COMEX,” one of the instructors, Riblisi I think, said, his voice harsh and crackling in our earpieces. This meant “commence exercise” and was just one of the many acronyms and abbreviations thrown our way, apparently solely to confuse people.
This was supposed to be a simple exercise, designed more to build our confidence in our spacesuits than anything else. Still, training time was valuable, so somebody had incorporated some basic Damage Control drills into the mix, which involved finding and patching a simulated hull leak.
The biggest problem with a small leak in space was finding the damn thing, or so our instructors said. Even now, ships were lost due to their crew’s inability to find and fix small holes. So, a crude mockup of a ship’s hull had been set up in the middle of the chamber. When the instructor hit a button, smoke, simulating somebody using a smoke candle, would be let out of tiny pinholes for us to find and patch.
It was surprisingly hard work. Smoke did not move in vacuum like you expected it to. Our instructors weren’t much help. Don Marsh, the lead instructor, was lecturing somebody at the far end of the chamber, his voice droning on over the common channel, and Reed had been busily texting somebody up until the minute we went COMEX on the exercise. I glanced up and saw him standing by the door aimlessly.
We were on our third set of simulated holes, a collection of pin-heads hidden under a mock radiator labeled “HVAC #1.” Given the crappy light and the way the smoke moved in vacuum, finding the little buggers was a problem.
“Found the hole, finally,” I said. “Pass me the sealsprayer, Raj.”
He didn’t respond, and I repeated myself. He’d been acting dumb since the exercise started, and I was getting a little bit tired of it. “Damnit Raj,” I said, “let’s get with the program here.” There was no response, and so I turned sideways. Where the hell was he, I thought? This was no time to goof off.
Space suits are clumsy and awkward at best, and not designed for a one G environment, so just turning around took a bit of doing. I finally located him, all the way behind me, and as I watched as he sat down in the middle of the floor. I ran to him as quickly as I could, and looked at Raj’s face in the helmet. Blood was streaming down from his nose, and he was moaning, patting his helmet with his hands.
Feeling suddenly sick with fear, I hit my suit control panel on my forearm and toggled to the emergency frequency. “Man down! Man down! Loss of suit pressure!” I screamed into the mic. There was a separate controller box on the sleeve of our suits with one big button on it. It activated an emergency repressurization system. I mashed the button, shouting over the emergency channel “Activating emergency pressure!” I saw two other students press their buttons. That was the drill – everybody hit the button.
All of the safety instructors converged on me. One of them pulled me clear, and two more bent down to work on Raj. The yellow warning lights went on, announcing the return of pressure, but nothing happened.
“We need emergency pressure now!” I shouted over the radio, nearly hysterical. “Why don’t we have pressure?”
“Emergency pressurization system failure,” Riblisi said. “Use the secondary evac door!”
I struggled free of the instructor holding me, and helped lift Raj up. Three of us carried his limp body to a side door in the compartment, and shoved him into a small airlock. Two instructors got in with him, and I slammed the metal door on them. As I did, one of the instructors, Ribilisi again, pulled me aside.
“Didn’t you monitor him, Janet?” he said, his voice harsh over the radio link. “That was your responsibility!”
I don’t think I responded. By the time they got Raj up to a safe pressure, he was dead. My knees gave out, and I fell to the floor.
“There will be an investigation of this mishap, of course,” the Safety Director said. “You understand that, Miss Pilgrim, as a subject of that investigation, you are not to discuss this matter with anybody.”
We were sitting in the Safety Director’s office. I was in coveralls, my too-long blonde hair still matted and sweaty from the suit helmet. The carved wood nameplate on her desk, out of place in the plain, almost generic office, said read Alison Hill. “Florida law requires a coroner’s inquest in these cases, and I’m sure you’ll have to testify.”
Raj was dead, and she called it a “mishap?” “Should I get a lawyer?” I heard myself ask. It seemed like I was dreaming.
“I would for the inquest,” the Director said. “NASA’s mishap investigation is confidential and can’t be legally used against you.”
“Thank you for your advice,” I said. “Can I go home now?”
“Unfortunately not, Ms. Pilgrim. You should meet with the mishap team. It’s best if these interviews are conducted as soon after the incident as possible.”
I have only a vague recollection of the next few hours. It seems I spoke to three or four different people, all asking the same questions. Did I notice that Raj was not responding normally? Did I check the hose connections from his backpack to his helmet? The training exercise had started at 18:30, and it was nearly midnight before the lead investigator, a kindly, gray-haired old man, finally told me to go home. “You should eat something,” he said as I left. The thought of food sickened me, and I involuntarily made a face. “Report to me here at 09:30 tomorrow.”
I was staying on Academy grounds, but my studio apartment was miles from the training center. To get back and forth we had to ride a rickety old monorail system. I lucked out, and got a car nearly to myself. The Academy sprawled over miles of Florida swampland, but it was still like a small town, and word got around. I don’t think I could have taken the sympathetic looks of my classmates right about then.
“Home” in this case meant the “Carlos X. Montoya Memorial Housing Unit,” on the south end of campus. Whoever Carlos was, I don’t think he would have been impressed. The unit consisted of a number of two story cinder block buildings arranged around a couple of hot and dusty squares of grass and mud. My unit was a tiny one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of Building 30. The main door opened onto a sagging concrete walkway, open to the air, which was the common access for all the other units. My unit was closest to the east stairway, so people were always walking by my windows at all hours of the day and night.
The apartment, number 3022, had a small living room combined with an eat-in kitchen barely big enough for a small, cheap dinette set. The bedroom was barely big enough for the built-in bed, and the tiny, moldy bathroom had a shower only. Everything was manual. Manual doors, a manual stove in the kitchen (apparently nobody ever heard of an auto-cook before) and one phone display, in the living room. It was a dump.
I rattled around the place in a daze for a bit, and finally found myself sitting at the dinette, staring at a plate of beans and rice. To this day I don’t remember heating it up, but steam was coming off of the plate, so I guess I had. I ate mechanically, surprised to find out that I really was hungry. I left the plate on the table and went back to take a shower.
The tears came in the shower. I’m short – 165 centimeters – and the shower head was at my face level. Raj was taller – 2 meters – and always bitched when he took a shower at my place.
When I got to the bedroom, another set of tears hit. He’d bought me a blue shirt “like your eyes” he said, and it was crumpled in a ball on the floor next to one of his. I
We’d met the first week of school, right after the “Ship Security and You” seminar. I smile as I write this. I’ve become an expert on the subject, unlike the old windbag of an instructor.
“Hey, Blondie,” he’d said as I walked out of the auditorium, “Wait up.”
I’d turned and shot him an exasperated look. “What did you call me?”
“Blondie. Worked, didn’t it?” My smart-alecky classmate was a tall, dark and handsome young man. Brown skin, straight black hair, small and neat goatee and moustache. He had a warm smile, and held out his hands disarmingly. Definitely a hottie. My irritation faded under his gaze. I wondered then what he saw in me. I’m way too hippy and chesty to be fashionable.
“My name’s Janet. And yours?”
“Raj.” He fell in next to me as we started to walk down the hall. “What didja think of Doctor Doom in there?”
I suppressed a snicker. “Every time he said the word ‘pirates’ I kept picturing somebody with a peg leg singing ‘Yo Ho Ho’.”
“Now here, young Miss, that was serious stuff,” he said, a stern look on his face.
“I suppose so,” I said mildly. Doctor Doom had told several stories of actual and attempted shipjackings.
“Good, then,” he continued. “Glad to see some of this valuable information is sinking in then.”
I busted out laughing at his parody. Doctor Doom had said the exact same words at least a dozen times in his short presentation. Raj was jerking my chain.
Raj mock-glared at me for a second, then lost it, and roared with laughter.
“You hungry, Janet?” He’d asked when he’d gotten his breath back.
“I could eat.”
“Great. I know this great little place that serves the best Indian food. You like Indian?”
Raj’s “great little place” turned out to be his off-campus apartment. Unlike my Academy-provided dump, his had a pool and air conditioning that really worked. He was a surprisingly good cook, and went easy on the spices out of respect for my palate. I ended up spending the night at his place, where he became my first lover.
I wasn’t raised to hop into bed with the first guy I met – it just happened that way. I mean, it’s not like in great-grandpa’s day, when people had sex all the time. To hear some of the stories from back then, you wonder how they had time to do anything else but have sex. Grandpa Pilgrim had a half brother, who was born when great Grandma Pilgrim was only 15, and nobody even said much about it.
Things were different at school. It wasn’t just that everybody was away from their parents, although that helped. We were, after all, learning a “dangerous trade” and, more to the point, one that would keep us away from friends and loved ones for months if not years at a time. There was a “get it now while you can” mentality.
Although Raj was certainly easy on the eyes, our mutual attraction wasn’t just physical. We were both people with a plan, and the United States Merchant Astronaut Academy was just a way station. We were both looking to be “one hop and out” astronauts – in my case make enough cash for college then quit. Raj’s plan had ended on a cold concrete floor that February night.
I called my parents early the next morning and told them what had happened. When they appeared on the phone’s tiny screen they were still in their housecoats.
“I’m just glad it wasn’t you,” Dad finally said. He ran a hand through his thinning hair, unruly from sleep. “Do you have money to get home?”
It wasn’t like he had any to spare. If it wasn’t for Mr. Afeef, I’d be working construction already.
“I still have to testify at the inquest,” I said.
“Tiger is hiring,” Mom said, referring to her boss’s company.
“Mom, Dad, I need to go,” I said. I was too tired to argue. Besides, depending on the investigation, I might have had to go home and work for Tiger. At the time, I’d rather have died than done that, or so I thought.
My Dad is a dreamer, and always has a sure-fire get-rich-quick scheme going. His latest grand plan had involved him becoming a sales rep for a liquor wholesaler. After all, he liked bars and knew the products he was selling well. But, there was a problem. With my dad, there is always a problem. Dad wasn't selling, or at least not selling enough to make any money. He'd had the sales job for about a year, and his boss had been making noises about “shaping up or shipping out” for months.
It was a tough time for us. Dad got a small allowance from the company, but the bulk of his money was supposed to come from commissions. Few sales meant few commissions. Most months he didn’t even break the “floor” or minimum sales requirements, and so didn’t even get the commissions for what little he had sold. Mom had been carrying the full cost of living for months, but her wages just covered the necessities of life.
We had a nice townhouse in the Printer’s Row area of Chicago, and everything was expensive. I was a high school senior at an expensive private Catholic school, and doing my part to add to the overhead. Christmas 2070 was not a very merry one at the Pilgrim house.
One day in early January, I came back from school to see Dad in the living room, staring blankly out the front window. It was a typical winter day in Chicago – the wind was blowing off the lake, kicking up little swirls of old snow and de-icing compound from the streets. I had run in the front door, and tossed my coat on the couch.
There was a drink on the table, and I remember the soft clinking of the ice as he held it. The coffee table was covered in ominous-looking legal papers. The room lights were low, and the orange light from the sim-fireplace, flickering from its recess, colored Dad’s face. Dad sat down on the couch, and held his drink in front of him, his hand resting on his belly.
“Janet,” he said, “I’ve got bad news for you.”
I sat down. “You’ve been fired,” I said. He was always surprised when he got fired, or one of his schemes collapsed, but I had figured it out long ago.
He nodded, then launched into his usual explanation of why it wasn’t his fault. He was winding down when Mom came in, shedding her coat with one hand and holding her lunch bucket in the other. Her jeans were gray with drywall dust, and flecks of it were in her hair, blonde like mine. She was wearing a tan shirt under her coat, with a gray patch proclaiming “Tiger Electric” and “Linda” all in red embroidery. She leaned over the couch, pecked Dad on the cheek, and set her lunch bucket on the table.
“How was work, honey?” Dad asked.
“Sucked. That damn idiot Sylvia’s got us in pulling the wiring, Juan’s crew is in finishing up some drywall and Nick is putting down tile. We were literally stepping on each other!” She turned and revealed a dusty footprint from somebody’s work boot on her butt.
Dad chuckled, then got up and gave her a hug. “Looks like you had a rough day, dear. Let me get you a drink.” He walked into the kitchen, where I could hear the glass tinkling.
Mom looked at my face, and said in a low voice, “He’s been fired.” It wasn’t a question.
“Like it’s a surprise?” I said in the same volume. I love Mom, but I don’t understand what she sees in Dad. I had asked her once, and she had been unable to explain it to me. It’s not like living with him had been easy. Dad had gone through dozens of schemes and jobs, and even when Mom got really cranked at him, she always came back. Maybe Raj and I would have had the same thing.
Dad returned, and handed Mom a drink. “I hear your day was worse then mine,” she said, in a tone reserved for misbehaving children.
“I was fired,” Dad said. He opened his mouth as if to explain, but Mom’s harsh expression silenced him. There was a long and uncomfortable silence, which Mom broke.
“Anything else I should know?” she said, gesturing at the pile of papers on the coffee table.
He stared into the fire, embarrassed. “We’re being forced into bankruptcy.”
“Bankruptcy?” Mom took a sip of her drink, her face flushed. For her, that was a lot of emotion. “Well, at least we’ll keep the house.”
Dad looked like he’d swallowed sour milk. “I’m not so sure about that, Linda.”
She glared at him suddenly. “You did file those homestead exception papers like I told you to.”
“Not really,” Dad said.
It took some time to extract any details at all, but apparently Dad had committed all our savings (not that we had much) and pledged the house as collateral in some investment opportunity with Grandpa Szymanski. The scheme had gone south, and taken our savings with it. It didn’t dawn on me for a while as to exactly how bad things were.
I walked out of the apartment at my usual time, and headed down to the monorail station. The conversation there was muted, and I felt like I was being avoided, like I had some contagious disease, and if they got too close, it would rub off on them. The seats in the monorail were benches, two people wide, and I got an entire bench to myself. I called up a newsfeed on my databrick and I pretended to read during the ride. I got out at the main campus, and walked to the Administration building. I ended up outside the Admin building way early, just before 0900, and sat down on a concrete bench overlooking a grassy quad.
“At least you’re early,” a gruff voice growled behind me, startling me. I stood up and turned.
“Mr. Afeef? What are you doing here?”
“Trying to protect my investment, of course.” He handed me a cup of coffee and gestured at the bench. “So, sit down and tell me what happened.”
Junaid Afeef was my sponsor at the Academy. If I graduated, I would be a paid crewmember on one of his company’s ships. He was, in short, my ticket to college.
He already knew most of what had happened, of course, so he was primarily interested in my version. After I finished, he sat silently for a minute. “Did any of the instructors notice his problems?” He finally said.
“Not as far as I could tell.”
“Reilly’s doing the investigation?” Junaid asked. I nodded affirmatively.
“Are they going to kick me out?” I asked. Raj and I were “safety buddies” and that meant that I was supposed to be looking out for him. If I couldn’t handle a simple B-level simulation, who would trust me on a spaceship?
“Depends on the exact cause of the accident,” Junaid said. “But Doc Reilly’s a good man, so you’ll get a fair shake.”
I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to stay. While I was waiting, I found myself thinking about home again. It had only been a few weeks since I’d been a typical high school senior. Sitting on that hard concrete bench, it felt like a lifetime ago.
The evening after Dad had been served with the legal papers (only lawyers still sent people physical paper anymore) we went to visit “Grandpa Nearby” – my Mom’s family, the Szymanskis, who lived out in the suburbs – Oak Brook to be exact.
I remembered pulling up into the driveway at Grandpa’s house. It gets dark early in Chicago in winter, and by the time we got out to Grandpa’s it was full night. His house was a two-story brick affair, on a quiet and dark cul-de-sac. Although you couldn’t see in the dark, it was tan, with a green copper roof. The back of the house opened on to a golf course, now buried under a foot of snow. More snow was coming down, or rather blowing in, on a sharp and biting wind. “Ah, the joys of Chicago – sideways snow,” my Dad muttered as we climbed out of the car and briskly walked up to the front door. The door was opening as we arrived, and the yellow light spilling out was very inviting.
Grandma was just inside the door, standing on the marble-slabbed foyer, hands out to take our coats. She was dressed in a smart blue dress, with brass buttons down the front. Her hair, blonde like Mom’s, was up in a bun. Her blue eyes twinkled, and she was smiling. It looked like she had gotten another skin treatment, because there were less wrinkles then when I had last seen her.
“I got rid of Jeeves, dears, so you’ll have to help me with your coats,” she said. When I was a little girl, they had had a real butler – a man named Alberto – who lived with them all the time. He had left – I don’t know why – and they had gotten a mechanical butler they called Jeeves. He wasn’t much smarter then a dog, and required a lot of training. He was constantly in the shop for repairs, and I guess they had gotten tired of having him fixed.
We went inside the house, and into the main living room, a two-story affair with cathedral ceilings. It was a study in beige – beige carpet, walls, and furniture. Grandpa was standing beside the sim-fireplace, a drink in one hand and the control unit for the fireplace in the other. He was fiddling with the controls, and the simulated orange flames kept changing from a low flicker up to a roar. I could tell he was also adjusting the heat output, because the temperature display – a bar of colored lights, from blue to red - was up on the glass front of the sim-fireplace. As we entered, he sat his drink down and came over to hug and kiss us.
Dinner was a simple affair. The Szymanski’s auto-cook was an older model, and not able to handle complicated dishes. Dinner was winding down when Mom said “You know Janet is graduating in May. She’s been accepted to Brown. We were going to look at the dorms next month.”
“Yes, well perhaps you should consider postponing that trip,” Grandpa said.
“How so?” Mom asked.
“Well, considering our financial situation...” Grandpa said.
“I thought you set up a trust fund for Janet’s college?” Mom asked.
“Yes, Linda of course we did. However, trust funds are normally invested, and in this case...”
Mom glared at her father. “I hope you’re not going to say what I think you are.”
Grandpa looked down at his plate. “I am the trustee for the fund, and as a trustee I make the investment decisions. Based on the information available to me, I put some of the money into Mr. Simpson’s deal. It seemed wise at the time.”
Mom continued to glare at him. “Dammit, Dad, for once could you just not screw things up?”
This was my money they were talking about! Valerie and I were to be roommates and we were picking out classes, for Pete’s sake.
“Just how much money do I have?” I asked.
“Well, technically it’s still in the trust,” Grandpa said.
“Just answer the damn question,” Mom said. “She deserves an answer.”
“Certainly not enough to go to a 4-year college,” Grandpa said nervously. “Perhaps a junior college, maybe College of Cook, for a few years. After all, many teachers started out there.”
Not any good ones – certainly none of my teachers! College of Cook County was no better then going to public high school. I couldn’t possibly accept that. As the discussion continued, I became convinced that even junior college would be a stretch. Dad was talking about moving us in with my grandparents! I couldn’t imagine a more embarrassing fate.
The ride home from Grandpa Szymanski’s after we found out about my disappearing college trust fund was deathly quiet. Mom’s temper had gotten the better of her, and harsh words were said all around. I decided that I would just have to find another way to go to college.
Doctor Chris Reilly’s office was a small, windowless cube deep inside the Admin building. Doctor Reilly, the lead investigator for the Academy, was an old man, gray and round, with a kindly glint to his eye. As we walked in, he stood up and shook our hands. He and Junaid made small talk for a moment. The office was scrupulously neat, and except for a wall-mounted photo display, empty of decoration.
“Well, Ms. Pilgrim, I guess we should get to the point,” Doctor Reilly said. “We are still conducting our evaluation of the incident, however, I plan on making a formal report to the Accident Review Board this Friday.” That was only three days away. “The county coroner usually waits for his inquests until after the Review Board has met. Have you obtained legal counsel?”
“I’ll arrange that,” Junaid said.
“Good. Well, pending the findings of the Review Board, you are cleared to continue training on a restricted status. No B- or C- level simulators until after the review. Any questions?”
I had a ton, but none that he could answer, so I said no. We shook hands and left. The whole meeting had taken five minutes. Junaid dashed off, promising to be in touch and come back for the Review Board. I was back on my own.
My class was in a “B” simulator until 1030, so I had some time to myself. There were three levels of simulators, A, B and C. The C-level simulators were the most realistic, and many of them were done during our training visits to the Liberty Spaceport orbital station. The level “A” simulators were the least realistic, and many were just computer games played on a desk. Obviously Reilly figured even I couldn’t get somebody killed on an A-level trainer.
I returned to class, uncomfortable under the stares of my fellow students. The looks they sneaked at me were a mixture of pity and curiosity. Nobody said much to me until we came to an “A” simulator – practicing radio communications procedures. The exercise took place in a soundproof booth, and you looked at your partner through a window. When the exercise started, the instructor would pull down a shade, blocking the window, and we would then talk like we were using a radio. I settled down at my usual terminal, then looked at the empty booth opposite. Raj wasn’t coming to be my partner.
“Janet,” the instructor said, “why don’t you work with Mindy?”
I nodded curtly, and ignoring the stares, sat down in the booth across from her. It was weird talking to people without seeing their faces, but a needed skill since space telecoms were all audio-only. I was getting good at talking to people without seeing their faces. As soon as I had the earphones on, the “COMEX” command came over the earpieces. We eventually came to the “free talk” portion of the exercise. In this part of the drill, the computers monitoring us didn’t care what we said as long as we used proper radio procedures.
“Lima Six this is Alpha Mike,” I said over the mouthpiece. Mindy’s call sign was Lima Six. Where’s Kevin, over?”
“Alpha Mike, this is Lima Six,” Mindy replied. “He quit. Raj’s – accident - really shook him up. I guess it’s bothering us all, over.”
Like it wasn’t bothering me? “Copy that Lima Six, over.” The “FINEX” (end or finish of exercise) command saved me from having to think of anything else to say. The rest of the class was heading to a “B” simulator. Since I couldn’t go, I slipped out of class quietly.
When my class was over, I checked my voicemail. Junaid wanted to meet – he had found a lawyer and was paying for her. We met for lunch in the Captain’s Lounge, the formal lunch spot on campus.
To this day, I can’t remember my lawyer’s name. I do remember thinking she looked terribly young.
“What will happen to me?” I asked her.
“You’ve got a good case,” Junaid replied.
The woman pursed her lips. “I don’t know about that,” she said. “You were Raj’s training partner.”
“Manslaughter has to be out of the question,” Junaid said, a concerned look on his face.
“Manslaughter? Doesn’t that mean jail?” I asked.
“They’d have to convince a jury that a raw trainee was responsible,” the lawyer said. “That’s a tough sell.”
“But not impossible,” I pressed.
“No,” the lawyer said.
“Enough of this gloom and doom,” Junaid said. “What’s a realistic outcome?”
“She gets kicked out of the training program. Maybe a lawsuit.”
I looked at Junaid. “Then I owe you a bunch of money.” He had fronted all of my training costs.
He looked away uncomfortably. “Technically, yes,” he finally said. “It won’t come to that.” He looked at the lawyer. “Right?”
“I believe you are correct,” she said.
Junaid shook his head forcefully. “I believe I should be a billionaire.” It wasn’t the first time he’d used that phrase, but she’d clearly never heard it before. It took the edge off of the confidence she’d been exuding. “Say shit like that at the Review Board and they’ll have your guts for garters. Wanna try again?”
“I’ll do my best,” she said.
“You’ll have to leave school,” Mom said. It was the day after our dinner at Grandpa’s. “To save money.”
“I know,” I said. “At least I’ve got enough credits to graduate.”
“Tiger might need some help around the office,” Mom said. I doubted it, since construction was typically slower in the winter. “I’ll check into apprenticeships at the shop Monday. Maybe you can work under me.”
“Good,” I lied. I had helped Mom with more than a few electrical projects before. Past experience told me that we’d be at each other’s throats within a week. We’d re-wired some old solar panels at a house in Kansas when I was a kid, and I nearly ran away from home over it.
Damn I wish I’d listened to her. Instead, after breakfast I took the El into the Loop. The ancient clattering train was calming. It let me off a block from the Armed Forces Recruiting Station in the middle of downtown.
It was a dreary place and packed full of people. I spent a good twenty minutes in line just to meet a receptionist. “I’m here to see somebody about money for college,” I mumbled to the elderly man behind the counter.
“What service?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “What would you recommend?”
He glanced at his desktop monitor. “Sergeant Czerneda has an opening at 10:30,” he said in a monotone.
“That sounds fine.” The selection of hard plastic chairs was full, so I ended up leaning against a dirty wall.
At the appointed time, I was ushered down a cramped hallway to a tiny office, its old-fashioned window overlooking an alley and a blank brick wall. Sergeant Julie Czerneda wasn’t what I expected. She was short, for one, a good two inches below me, and she wore her brown hair straight. She smiled warmly at me, and offered her hand, her eyes sparkling behind a pair of silver wire-rimmed glasses. The overall effect was more like a schoolteacher in a costume then somebody in the military.
“So you’re interested in the Army?” She said.
“Not really, Ma’am,” I replied. “I’m broke and want to go to college.”
I’m sure I didn’t make a good impression on the Sergeant, coming across as selfish and clueless. We talked for a few minutes, and I left with a collection of pamphlets and her email address. The Army had two strikes against it. Firstly, I had to commit to four years.
Secondly, and a deal-killer for me, was that I couldn’t ship out until July at the earliest. That left almost seven months of enduring the ridicule of my friends. As far as I was concerned, the sooner I was gone, the better.
When I left the recruiting station, the wind had picked up, blowing flecks of ice which burnt when they hit my skin. I decided to cut through the lobby of an office building on my way back to the El station.
The lobby, a long and ornate affair of marble and chrome, was nearly empty on a Saturday. I came to a bank of elevators halfway down the block-long hallway and a video display caught my eye. “Help wanted – no experience needed – start immediately.”
I stopped and waited for the screen to refresh so I could catch some contact information. It was probably some kind of come-on, but I was grasping at straws.
“He’s in today,” somebody said. I turned around. There was a little coffee and candy store, nothing more than a counter facing the hallway. The counterman, a kid not much older then me, gestured at the display. “He bought his coffee.”
“Thanks,” I said. The kid was clearly mentally handicapped, but that was no reason to be rude. “What does he do?”
“Something about space,” he replied. “He’s on twenty.”
I looked around. This was a nice building, not some fleabag place. What did I have to loose? That’s when I met Junaid Afeef.
“The Incident Review Board will come to order,” Safety Director Hill said. We were meeting in a large classroom in the basement of the Admin building. A series of plain Formica tables had been arranged in a U shape, and Director Hill was sitting at the bottom of the U, just right of center. Her boss, the Academy’s Commandant, Lucy Nagata, a shriveled old woman with an Asian appearance, was in the middle. Doctor Reilly sat on the Commandant’s left. The rest of the Review Board filled out that side of the U.
My lawyer, Afeef and I sat on one end of the U, facing the instructors from the simulator.
After some brief preliminary remarks, Director Hill turned the meeting over to Doctor Reilly, who promptly started to call witnesses. Reilly started with me first, asking me to “tell the Board what happened in your own words.”
I managed to get out a short and coherent story without breaking down, somewhat to my surprise. Then Reilly turned to the lead instructor, Don Marsh. First he asked if Marsh agreed with my version of events, which he did. The whole exercise was recorded on video, so there was little dispute about what had happened or when.
“Mr. Marsh,” Reilly then asked, “did you see anything unusual about the trainee, Raj Vajpayee, in performance or attitude, prior to the alarm sounded by Trainee Pilgrim?”
“No sir, I did not,” Marsh replied.
“When were you first aware of the trainee’s distress?”
“When Trainee Pilgrim sounded the alarm,” he replied.
“And when was that in relation to COMEX?”
“Approximately 20 minutes after COMEX.”
“During those twenty minutes, did you have occasion to communicate directly with either trainee Pilgrim or Vajpayee?”
I noticed a bead of sweat appear on his brow. Reilly knew the answers to these questions, and the only reason to ask them was to get it on the record.
“No, Doctor Reilly, I did not communicate directly with either trainee.”
Reilly made a show of stroking his chin. “What sim-level were these trainees at?” Sim-level was basically an indicator of how experienced we were. The lower the number, the less knowledge we had. There were ten levels, and since we could (presumably) walk and chew gum at the same time, we were assumed to be at Level Two when we started the program.
“I’m not sure, Doctor.”
Reilly continued to stroke his chin. “You’re not sure? Isn’t ascertaining that information required as part of NASA SafeTrain Pub Twenty stroke Four?”
“Let me help you out,” the Commandant interjected in a broad New Jersey accent. “These kids were at sim-level Three.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” Marsh croaked.
“That’s green enough to hear them photosynthesizing. Would you agree?” She continued. Marsh nodded wordlessly.
Reilly next asked him what the requirements were for safety checks in this trainer. Marsh “wasn’t sure” and the Commandant “helped” him out again, telling him, “The requirement is a personal check by a qualified instructor at least every ten minutes.”
Reilly grilled the other two instructors, Reed and Riblisi, on much the same vein. Neither of them had checked on Raj either. Riblisi at least had an excuse – he had been on the other side of the hull mockup.
After working on the instructors, Doctor Reilly then called one of his investigators into the room. She was a young woman, and appeared to be little older than me.
“Ms. Tanner,” Reilly began, “did you examine the deceased’s space suit? If so, could you summarize the pertinent findings for the Board?”
“Gladly, Doctor Reilly,” she said. She referred to her notepad and began to talk. “I examined the suit carefully, with especial attention to any potential leaks. On reviewing the helmet hose assembly, I discovered a faulty seal on the O2 feed hose, specifically on the H seal, going into the helmet. This seal was missing an O-ring, and so the hose was attached metal-to-metal.”
I stared at her in shock. Missing O-ring? Raj had died because somebody hadn’t installed a damn O-ring?
“What is the impact of this O-ring being missing?” Reilly asked.
“Immediately, nothing. The suit would appear to hold pressure until exposed to vacuum, at which time the pressure would slowly leak off.”
“Would there be an immediate alarm?” the Commandant asked.
“No, but you would notice an unusually high O2 consumption rate. Based on my calculations, Trainee Vajpayee’s O2 consumption alarm would have been on for at least five minutes prior to Trainee Pilgrim’s alert.”
“Mr. Marsh,” Reilly said, “had the trainees been instructed to report any O2 alarms?”
“Its standard practice to report any suit alarms,” he replied.
“Yes, well, but the question was did you or anybody address this issue during the pre-exercise briefing?”
I remembered that briefing. Riblisi had given it. He’d fumbled through it, struggling to read his notes. Reed and Marsh hadn’t even been in the room.
“It was included in the standard briefing form,” Marsh said.
“So you recall it being addressed?”
Marsh stared at Riblisi. “I believe so, Doctor Reilly.”
“Well, I believe I should be a billionaire,” Reilly said. The kindly old man had disappeared. I wondered if it had been an act. “Was it mentioned or not, sir?”
I sneaked a glance at Junaid, who was studying the table in front of him. He gave my hand a quick squeeze.
“Well, sir, I’m not sure,” Marsh finally said.
“Not sure?” Reilly asked, an eyebrow arched.
“I wasn’t actually in the briefing,” he said. “But it was on the sheet, I know that.”
The hearing went downhill from there. By the time Reilly had finished asking his pointed questions, all three of the instructors were blaming each other. After an hour or so, the witnesses were asked to leave, and the board went into executive session. The instructors fled to somebody’s office, leaving Junaid and I sitting on a bench outside the door.
“Something you want to tell me?” I asked Junaid. That “billionaire” phrase wasn’t exactly common slang.
“Let’s just say Doc Reilly wasn’t always just a safety weenie,” he replied. “And I wasn’t always just a ground-bound pencil-pusher, either.”
We were called back in after maybe fifteen minutes. Director Hill called us to order, and started to speak.
“It is the opinion of this Board that the proximate cause of Trainee Vajpayee’s death is the loss of an O-ring in the O2-H seal of his suit life support system. This problem was aggravated by the failure of the emergency re-pressurization system.”
“We are especially concerned, however, with the breakdown in discipline and safety procedures of Instructors Marsh, Reed and Riblisi. Had any of them performed their duties in a professional manner, this death might have been avoided. Specifically, the Board finds failures in the pre-brief, the ongoing monitoring, and the emergency reaction. This is not the first time an O-ring has gone missing or an emergency valve has failed.”
“It is further the opinion that Trainee Pilgrim, as safety partner to Trainee Vajpayee, failed in her initial duty to report potentially suspect conditions. This is mitigated by her inexperience and quick reaction once a problem became apparent. The Board makes the following recommendations.”
“Firstly, we recommend that the training certificates of Instructors Marsh, Reed and Riblisi be revoked immediately pending complete recertification. Secondly, we recommend that all instructors be retrained on operations in the vacuum chamber, especially with regards to safety. Finally, we recommend that Trainee Pilgrim be required to complete twenty hours of remedial training in safety. This meeting is adjourned.”
My emotions were definitely mixed. On one hand, I was relieved that I wasn’t being held to blame. On the other hand, Raj was still dead. But a part of me said that if I had been on the ball, Raj would still be alive. When we got outside, I said, “I guess your investment is safe.”
“I’ve heard people announce terminal cancer in more positive tones,” Junaid said.
“I fucked up,” I replied. “And Raj is dead.”
“That’s survivor’s guilt you’re feeling,” Junaid said. “Don’t wallow in it. The planets wait for no man.”
The planets wait for no man. That’s what Junaid had said when I found my way to his office, and I asked why he was working on a Saturday.
The twentieth floor was given over to small office suites, of which Midwest Ship Operators Limited was the only one open. It seemed as if everybody was in that day. One of the harried junior employees took me into Mr. Afeef’s office, a small wood-paneled space with plush carpeting.
“So you want to be an astronaut?” Junaid had said. He was a stocky man, with thinning gray hair and a salt-and-pepper beard, neatly trimmed. He wrapped my hand in one of his bear paw-like hands and ushered me to a couch.
“Not really, Sir,” I replied. “I’m broke and want to go to college.”
“I might be able to help you,” he said with a smile.
We talked, and the deal he laid out seemed, if not more reasonable then Sergeant Czerneda’s, much quicker. I would go to astronaut training at the Merchant Academy in Florida, starting immediately. He’d loan me the money for training. Then, I’d ship out as crew on a ship to Mars.
“You own spaceships?” I remember asking.
“Actually, no,” he said. “I operate ships for their owners. And I should warn you, young lady. ‘Astronaut’ is not a glamorous job. It’s the lowest form of spacefaring life. You do all the work, and the ship’s officers take the credit.”
“How long would I have to work for you to pay off the note?”
“One voyage, to Mars and back,” he said. “Just over a Terran year.”
“How much do you pay?”
He named a figure. “But except for a thirty-day turnaround on Mars, you’ll have no place to spend it,” he said.
My salary for the trip would be less then half what was supposed to be in my college fund, but if I worked during school, it would be enough. “I guess I’ll take it,” I said.
To my surprise I actually graduated. There was a subdued late afternoon ceremony held on the main Quad, and the Commandant, resplendent in her old-style NASA dress whites, handed out diplomas. We had a moment of silence for Raj, his picture from an official photograph projected on a screen. I didn’t even try not to cry. A couple of my friends arranged to sit next to me, and they helped me keep it together – help which included a hip flask of whiskey.
More surprisingly, Mom and Dad came, as did the Szymanskis. The school put on a reception and dinner for the graduates and guests, and we went there after the ceremony.
“Why do they call them ‘monkey lids?” Mom asked. Our (rarely worn) official training uniform came with a cheesy-looking black beret, which, on the command of “Monkey Lids – Remove” we had thrown in the air.
“It has something to do with the fact that the first astronauts were monkeys,” I said. I really didn’t understand it myself, and was just glad to get rid of a really ugly hat. The white and black cap that was part of the official “passed astronaut” uniform was still cheesy, but a big improvement.
“You look sharp in that uniform,” Grandpa Szymanski said, a fake smile plastered on his face. “We’re all proud of you.” He looked at my dad. “Right, John?”
“Oh, sure,” Dad said, looking at the buffet line. “I’m going to get some dessert.” He got up and left.
“I don’t understand your husband,” Grandma said. “This is a big day for Janet.”
“Not that big, Grandma,” I said. “College graduation will be the big one.”
“Mike was in the merchant space service,” Mom said. “He wanted his son to join too.”
“I think I understand now,” Grandma said.
Mike Pilgrim, my other grandfather, and my dad did not get along. Dad had moved to Chicago just to get away from him, and things were still tense. That was probably why Grandpa Pilgrim wasn’t there. Dad returned, a couple of dessert plates in his hands, which he offered to the group. I was not eating. Truthfully, the quicker the reception got done the quicker I could get to a ship and draw a paycheck.
“I’m just glad my daughter’s in one piece,” he said. “And I hope she stays that way.”
Junaid walked up, making his rounds. “We’ll do our best, Mr. Pilgrim,” he said.
“I’m serious, Junaid,” Dad said. He gestured at me. “Have you talked to her?”
“About what?” I asked.
Junaid looked uncomfortable. “Your father asked about groundside support positions.”
“It would be great for you,” Dad said. “You could work and go to school nights.”
I had mixed emotions. My training was entirely geared towards space work. There wasn’t a lot I could do dirtside, especially without experience. Besides, most of those positions were reserved for people who’d paid their dues. Also, it meant I’d be around Dad and Grandpa, the people who’d gotten me in this mess.
“If you had anything,” I asked, being polite, “what would it pay?”
“Well, not nearly what you’ll be making on a deep space run,” Junaid said. “And of course you’d need to have flexible hours.”
Midwest ran a 24/7 operation, so I knew what that meant. I’d be working nights, weekends and holidays and getting paid peanuts. Working like that, it would take forever to graduate from some second-rate diploma mill.
“I don’t think so, Mr. Afeef,” I said. “I want to get in and out.”
“Janet,” Dad said, “Don’t be stupid. This is for your own good.”
“You should listen to your father,” Grandpa said. “He knows best.”
“That’s rich,” I said. I felt thick-tongued, from booze or anger I don’t know. “I’m sitting here instead of at my senior prom because you two threw away all my money. No, I’m going to earn my own way, thank you very much.”
Grandpa opened his mouth to say something, but Grandma’s hand on his made him think better of it.
“You’re a true Pilgrim,” Dad finally said, “stubborn as a mule.”
I met up with Junaid at the Orlando Spaceport the next morning. “I thought I’d show you to your new home,” he said, as if yesterday’s argument hadn’t happened. Once we got to orbit, we transferred to the Liberty Station and proceeded to one of the space taxi docks. It was only my fourth trip to orbit. To save on docking fees the ship was in a trailing anchoring orbit a few clicks away from Liberty Station.
The ship was just coming into sunlight as we approached her from “above”, and was framed against a giant white storm marching ceremoniously over the blue Earth. “There she is,” Junaid said, pointing out the window.
The Windy City was a GR-30B Hercules, and had first flown in 2039. Built by General Rockets, when it was designed it had been a midsized workhorse for freight or passengers. They had recently stopped making 30s any more, having gone to a bigger vessel, but a lot of ships of this class were plying the trade routes.
It was a “fore and aft” ship, which meant that it traveled in the direction of its long axis. She was generally the shape of a long tin can with a pair of rectangular “fins” or radiator panels running lengthwise down the sides. Getting rid of waste heat was a problem in space, and her 20 megawatt nuclear reactor pumped out a lot of heat.
She was just over 100 meters long, and her smooth surface was punctuated by bumps, ridges and spars wherever needed. Not designed to operate in any atmosphere, she had a wide, flat bow, and measured almost 20 meters across at her beam.
“The original owners went bankrupt when she was halfway through SLEP,” Junaid said. “Our clients bought her from the Alabama Docks for little over what the overhaul cost.”
In training, they’d told us ‘SLEP’ stood for ‘Service Life Extension Program,’ which was a major overhaul of the ship. It was supposed to add twenty years to the ship’s service life. General Rockets had sold the first Hercules-class ship in 2031. When it came out, the ship was revolutionary. Fully loaded, a Hercules-class ship weighed just over 1000 metric tons half of which was the weight of cargo. It was the largest spaceship ever built up to that time, and the first commercial ship able to go to Mars and return.
Like almost all deep-space ships, ion engines propelled her. They didn’t have much thrust – a few dozen newtons on cruise setting – but in the vacuum of space it meant we were continually accelerating. Even so, it would take us six months to get to Mars. We carried only about 50 tons of rocket fuel, enough to maneuver in orbit or rendezvous with an asteroid.
“Pilot,” Juniad said, “do a flyby for us. It’s her first ship.”
The pilot, an elderly lady, smiled and nodded. “My first ship was a GR-30. It was a B-mod, just like this one.”
She gave us a slow fly-by along the port side of the ship at a close range of maybe 40 meters. As we approached the bow, I could see the bowsprit – all GR-30s had one. Mounted on the flat bow was a larger-than-life aluminum statue of a woman, her robes blown back by some impossible wind. The robes had slipped, and her right breast peaked out. She held a torch in her outstretched right hand, as if to illuminate the way.
“You ever crew one of these?” I asked Junaid.
“Yeah – the Condoleezza Hill, back in ’54.” He took a deep breath. “She was – is – a damn fine ship. Reilly was my captain.”
“Are you carrying passengers on this run?” the pilot asked.
“No – she’s going to Mars,” Junaid said. The small passenger capacity and cargo space of the GR-30 was ideal for crew rotation on an asteroid mine. In fact, asteroid miners referred to their bases as “one Hercs” or “two Hercs” depending on the number of people assigned. However, since the Hercules had come out, a number of new ship types had come on line that could carry more people and in more comfort. These bigger ships dominated passenger traffic to Mars now.
“It’s a pity they’ve stopped making these,” the pilot said, as we came by the box-like pilothouse projecting out of the cylindrical hull.
“All good things must end,” I said. General Rockets had announced that they would stop building the latest Hercules, the H series, back in February. Some at the Academy had considered it overdue – General Rockets had been selling the GR-40 Super Hercules, its replacement ship, for over a decade now.
We swung back from our flyby to dock. As we were riding in the space taxi (now approaching a docking on the Windy City’s starboard side), we were wearing space suits. Since we were in zero gee, it wasn’t that hard to move around, but still, suits were uncomfortable. But on this ride, they were mandatory, because of the risk of space junk impacts.
Man has been traveling in space since the 1960s. Every tool, nut, bolt, or piece of junk dropped, abandoned or lost since then was still in space, and waiting to collide with something else. With closing speeds of several kilometers a second, a tiny nut or washer or even a fleck of paint could be more lethal then a bullet. Liberty Station’s junkcatcher had been hit the day before we arrived, and a piece of the object had lodged in the wall of a docking bay. This was noteworthy not because it was infrequent, but because a piece of the object survived the impact and was identifiable. It was a pair of needle-nosed pliers, which were stamped with a hammer and sickle and the letters CCCP – insignia of a nation that had not survived the 20th century. So, space stations were fitted with junkcatchers, and space ships had double hulls, and steel covers to protect windows.
I can still hear the thump of the space taxi when we made hard seal.
“So, what’s your cargo?” The pilot asked.
Junaid chuckled. “The summary manifest runs to ten pages. How much time do you have?”
“Not that much. Well, here you are.”
Junaid drifted out first, and I followed. There were three people, the rest of the crew, waiting for us on the quarterdeck.
“Welcome to your new home, Janet,” the woman said. “I’m Kate Yergan, the Captain. This is my husband and ship’s first mate, Alex Yergan.”
Alex was a tall and thin man, with dark, curly hair close-cropped and a chocolate complexion. His wife Kate was slightly lighter in complexion, and wore her auburn hair in a tight ponytail, very practical in zero-gee. Both of them were wearing blue coveralls, each with their name embroidered in cursive with gold thread above their breast pockets. They had a patch sown on their sleeves, embroidered with a picture of the ship. They were a young couple, in their early thirties I guessed.
The third person was a white man, who I had a hard time guessing his age. His face was unwrinkled, but there were flecks of gray in his short black hair, parted on one side. He had a small, dark and neatly trimmed moustache. He was short for a guy, barely three centimeters taller than me .He was wearing a pair of green cloth pants and a gray short sleeved knit shirt, which bore the name of a ship chandlery firm above his breast.
“This is Ken Bell,” she said. “You’ll be working for him.” It was standard practice – all the astronauts reported to the Chief Astronaut.
“Glad to be aboard, Ma’am,” I said. Everybody shook hands. When I got to Ken I said, “Glad to be aboard, Chief.”
He smiled. “I’m just an honorary ‘Chief’” he replied. My rating is AA. Here, let me help you stow your gear and I can show you around.” He seemed very stiff, and spoke briskly, with a soft drawl.
I went to change out of my spacesuit, not liking what I had just heard. The US Merchant Space Fleet had standardized ranks. I was an Ordinary Astronaut (OA), or the lowest “non-licensed” (enlisted) rank. With six months’ experience and a simple test, I could be an Able Astronaut (AA). There were two grades of specialists above that, with the top grade being a Chief Astronaut. Then came the officer ranks. For Ken to be only an AA meant that he lacked either ambition or skill.
When I came out from the changeroom, Ken was waiting for me. We were in the quarterdeck area, so called because it was about a quarter of the way from the bow. This was where the main passenger airlocks were, as well as our two small orbital launches and a zero gee workshop.
With Ken leading, we proceeded forward down “Broadway” or the ship’s central corridor, drifting in zero gee. The interior of the ship, or at least the inhabited area, was divided into two rings, and inner and an outer.
All of the crewmembers had cabins in the “Crew Core”, a part of the inner ring that was spun to provide centrifugal force. Except for this small area, 90% of the ship was in zero gee.
As he took me to my cabin, he somehow ended up floating behind me, pushing one of my bags along with a finger. At the “jump”, or the space where we transitioned from the zero gee to the quarter-gee of the crew’s quarters, he helped by hauling one of my bags. When we arrived at my cabin, he hovered outside the door as I stowed my stuff.
“You move well in zero gee,” he said. There was a sly grin on his face, and a slight vibration in his voice.
“Thanks. I guess it comes easily to me.” Like I didn’t notice he had been staring at my ass the whole way up here. I wondered when he had last been laid. “So, where are you from?” I asked.
“Port Lowell.” This was Mars’s largest city, and our official destination.
“I didn’t know you were a Martian.” I almost said “greener”, Academy slang for a native Martian. Something to do about “little green men” or so I was told. “So, this trip will be a homecoming for you?”
“I guess so.” Not exactly a dazzling conversationalist.
“Where’d you train out of?”
Ken smiled. “OJT,” he said.
Great, I thought, another Melvin from Mars who thought on the job training could substitute for the classroom. Yes, living on Mars taught you about wearing a suit and life support, but it didn’t cover a damn thing about space ship operations. No wonder he was just an AA.
“What did you do before signing up?”
“I had gotten out of the space business for a while, and ran a welding shop back in Port Lowell. Didn’t work out, so here I am, back where I belong.” With that, he headed over to his cabin, which was next to mine.
I didn’t have much time to worry about it, as the next few weeks were a very hectic time. It was May 20th, and our window for Mars opened up on June 14th. Between then and the 14th we needed to get cargo loaded and hold all-crew training.
We ended up loading cargo first. Two days after getting onboard, we fired up the orbital rocket engine and cruised into Liberty Station for cargo loading. In one hectic day, we would take on 500 metric tons of cargo.
After we finished loading, we conducted “all-crew training.” It was a requirement of the insurance companies, which I was beginning to see were stricter than the government with regards to safety. Besides requiring the crew to have formal training, they wanted the entire crew to train together as a team before leaving.
It was a great idea poorly implemented. The requirement was to “train” together. There were no tests, merely a signoff by the ship’s captain that we had done the required drills. I had heard from my fellow trainees at the Academy that most ships just “gundecked” this requirement rather than actually do anything. It was Kate’s first command, so she made us run the drills. However, since we knew what was going to happen and when, I’m not sure that it did us much good.
I really liked Kate. She proved to be a very good ship driver, and did the bulk of navigational work. She had gone through the University of Illinois’s 4-year space management program, and so was as qualified as many of my instructors at the Academy had been. She also took me under her wing, and taught me a lot about navigation, ship handling, and operations.
When I wasn’t on watch, Alex and Kate had me completing any number of training tasks. For instance, Alex had me manually shift the ship’s electrical load from the #1 switchboard (to the #2. This could be and normally was done automatically, but Alex wanted me to know how to do it by hand “just in case”.
Another drill involved shiphandling. Kate put a “tomato” (a red balloon) out and had me drive the ship by hand to dock with it. Then, we’d don spacesuits “emergency quick” (2 minutes or less, vs. the 10 minutes we took in training) and go out to ‘rescue’ the tomato.
I’m glad she did all of this. I was morose and moody, grieving over Raj’s death, and the work kept me busy. Then, a week before we would depart, I got a call. It put me in the right head-space to stay alive later. I was in the charthouse, helping Kate update our navigation computer when the comm-call came in. I went to the pilothouse and answered up.
“Liberty Station, this is spaceship Windy City, Whisky November November Delta, go ahead.”
“Windy City, this is Liberty Station, shift and answer vidcomm channel 226 alpha, over.”
I acknowledged, and brought up the vidcomm channel. This was the same video circuit conventional phones used on Earth, but due to antenna and power constraints, we usually left them off.
As the picture was coming up, I started talking to the blurry image. “Station calling, this is Windy City, Astronaut Pilgrim, go ahead.”
As the picture cleared, I heard a familiar voice saying, “What? My Sport is only an astronaut! I figured you’d be at least a Specialist Two by now!” The picture cleared into the familiar face of Grandpa Pilgrim.
“Glad to see you!”
“I’m glad to see you too, Sport. How’s it going?”
“Hectic. A lot of checklists to punch and stuff to inventory.”
Grandpa frowned. “Well, if you forget to bring something it’s not like you can run out to the store and get it. Do you have time to squeeze in a visit from your Grandpa before you ship out?”
“You want to come up?”
“Don’t look so shocked. I was hauling ice to Armstrong City on Luna before your daddy was even a gleam in my eye,” he said. “I’ve got some gifts to bring aboard as well.”
“Well, I can meet you on the station.”
“Ask your captain if I can visit the ship,” he said, smiling. “I’d like to inspect it and see if it’s fit to clear the dock.”
Kate had joined me by then. “I’d be glad to meet him,” she said to me.
The next evening found us waiting by the quarterdeck for Grandpa’s space taxi to dock. We had been using the same taxi pilot for most of our runs, and she had him give Grandpa the same flyby I’d gotten on my last trip. Also on the taxi was Ken Bell, coming back from the last visit to Liberty City. Two workmen were standing on the quarterdeck with us, waiting to ride back after finishing Preventative Maintenance on our cooling unit.
After the taxi made a hard seal, the lock started cycling. Grandpa came out first, dressed in a pair of pressed jeans and a short sleeve gray knit top. He was wearing deck shoes with no socks, and he drifted into the quarterdeck as gracefully as a bird. “Permission to come aboard, Captain?” he boomed as he entered.
“Of course, Mr. Pilgrim,” Kate said.
“Call me Mike, Captain,” Grandpa said.
Kate smiled. “Only if you call me Kate,” she replied.
Ken drifted in behind him, pulling a large green canvas bag, gray with age. “I’m going to take this to the freezer,” he said.
Alex looked quizzically. “What’s in that?”
Grandpa answered. “As many good steaks as I could carry. I heard about your meal plans, and I thought you might appreciate some variety.” He waved some money at the taxi pilot, who was entering behind him with another somewhat smaller bag. “When I was on the Julie N we had a steak every Friday night. It’s a good tradition.”
“That’s very generous of you,” Kate said.
I gave him a tour of the ship, and then we had dinner with the crew in the wardroom. Grandpa was in fine spirits, regaling all with stories (most of which were new to me) about his spacing days, forty years ago. He had been in on the beginning of commercial space travel, and had served under Alan Lane, who went on to be the commissioning captain of the Hercules.
“I’d have liked to have seen Mars up close,” Grandpa had said as dinner was winding down. “I hear it’s a big place.”
“Too big to see much of,” Kate said. “We’re only staying for 35 days, including cargo unload and reload.”
“Talk about an in-and-out,” Grandpa said.
Generally speaking, about thirty days after you arrived at Mars, there was a window opening to return to Earth. So our plan was to “work the gap” between these windows, unloading and loading cargo, make urgent repairs, and head on back. I wasn’t on this trip for sightseeing, so it was fine by me.
After dinner, Grandpa and I retired to the port observation room. We anchored ourselves in the zero-gee space as Earth filled the domed window. Grandpa opened up the small bag he had carried. We had finished one bottle of wine during dinner, and the first thing out of the bag was a bottle of port with a zero gee siphon - very sweet going down and warm in the belly.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come to your graduation,” Grandpa said. “I didn’t want to be an uninvited guest.”
“You were invited.”
“I know - formally. I also know your dad. How’d he take seeing you in your dress whites?”
I grimaced at the thought. “Not well. He and Grandpa Close By tried to get me to take a dirtside job.” (Close By was what I’d called Grandpa Szymanski when I was little.)
“I wish your father would stop listening to that idiot Szymanski. That man’s pissed away more money on dumb ideas than either of us will ever see.”
Grandpa took my squeezeglass of wine and refilled it. “Your father,” he said, “has been a great disappointment to me.”
“I know, and so does he.”
Grandpa looked up at that. “Point taken. But just because somebody’s a disappointment doesn’t mean you don’t love them.” He handed me back my squeezeglass. “Here, I’ve got some stuff for you.”
Grandpa had bought me a number of gifts, mostly of a practical nature. To save weight, he hadn’t wrapped anything, and several gifts were stuffed into each other to save space. For instance, he gave me a pair of deck shoes like his, and inside one of the shoes was a flashlight, while inside the other shoe was a new multi-tool in a leather case. Everything was nice, of good quality, and practical. The deck shoes, for instance, were from L. L. Bean, and were also magnetic gripshoes. It was clear that a lot of thought had gone into the selection.
“Since your grandma died, I’ve had a lot of time to think,” he told me by way of explanation.
“I just realized there’s a lot I don’t know about you,” I said.
The smile faded from his face. “I was damn lucky, kid,” he said. “There were three or four times that some dumb thing I did or didn’t do shoulda killed me.”
“Things are different now,” I said. “We’ve got all sorts of redundant systems...”
“Yeah, that’s what we used to say too, Sport.” He took a long suck on his wine. “Murphy and his clan are alive and well. Besides, I had a lot more training than you did.” He tapped me on my chest, putting us both in a slight spin. “Don’t forget, a week from now you’ll be farther from civilization than I ever was.”
We passed through to Earth’s night side. The cabin, which had been flooded with blue light reflected from Earth, grew dim, lit only by a light over the door.
“Sport, I need you to promise something,” Grandpa said.
“Promise me you’ll come back alive.”
“Of course,” I said, and I meant it.
Almost as soon as Grandpa’s taxi cleared the ship, we lit off the ionic engines and started to accelerate out of orbit. The continuous thrust of our engine meant that our windows were days or weeks in length, and that ships of varying speed could leave at different times.
Unfortunately, ion drives did not generate much acceleration. It took us over a week to work up enough speed to break free of Earth’s gravity, during which we made a number of orbits of increasingly elliptical shape.
This meant that we were continually cutting in and out of both orbital and translunar traffic, and so a continuous high traffic or “condition two” watch had to be maintained. To make matters worse, there were a number of other ships also leaving for Mars at the same time, so we were continually stepping on each other’s toes. With four crewmembers, we were in two watch sections, or “port and starboard,” standing watches six hours on and six hours off. Kate and Ken were in one section, Alex and I were in the other. While the officers stayed in the pilothouse and tried not to get run over by shipping, the enlisted watchstander acted as their runner.
After about two weeks of this, we finally cleared the Earth – Moon system, and got into deep space. Then the traffic consisted of a bunch of ships all heading in the same general direction, to Mars. We were able to stand down to “duty watches.” This meant I was only on watch for six hours out of every 24, instead of 12. Basically, I had to look after ship’s operations, answer the radio (rarely) and any alarms (even rarer). As the junior member of the crew, I had the least desirable watch, from 0000-0600, and so my periodic sweeps of the ship were very lonely.
A typical day for me started around 2300, with me microwaving a plate of leftovers for a lonely dinner. I’d get up to the pilothouse, all the way forward, around 2330, and get a turnover from Ken, then call Kate and let her know I was on watch. Then the boredom set in.
Every hour, I had 15 minutes of required log entries, and another 15 minutes of night rounds. That left 30 minutes of staring at the stars and the console lights. Doctor “Headshrinker” Heidegger back at the Academy had called it “sensory deprivation”, old-timers called it the “timewarp” and my shipmates and I called it “the stares.” Basically, the brain would shut down. Time would go by, and suddenly you’d come too. According to what I learned in Headshrinker’s class, this was caused by a lack of new things in your environment, and it was a serious problem, because you could miss alarms or indicators of trouble, or end up skipping maintenance tasks. It also tended to screw with your sleep cycle, either requiring more or less sleep. This was already happening - I would go several days without sleeping at all, while Ken needed more.
So, to fight the stares, Kate and I took to studying the ship’s systems minutely. We would trace out pipes and wires hand over hand, and manually stop and start practically every piece of gear on the ship. It was boring as hell, but it was something different.
Kate reminded me of Mom – a capable, confident woman. As far back as I could remember I had been Mom’s little helper in all sorts of household repairs. When we’d lived in Kansas, the two of us had spent the summer completely rewiring the house we’d bought, including replacing the old (2004) solar array on the roof with a modern unit. I told Kate that story and she laughed – her Mom and Grandma had run companies that installed those solar panels.
It was a typical slow watch, about 30 days out from Earth. The nearest contact, the freighter Jade Forest, had just moved out of radar range, some 10,000 kilometers ahead of us. I had just gotten off he radio, recording messages to my parents, when an audible alarm went off. The pilothouse of a spaceship is literally wall-to-wall with controls, and to aid a watchstander in determining where to look, each group of systems had a different tone for its alarms. This alarm was the warbling note of an Engineering alarm.
The ship’s computer wasn’t shouting out an alert or sounding a general alarm, so I figured that whatever was wrong was a minor thing. I drifted over to the Engineering panel and looked for the indicator. It was a low coolant level for the “main” cooling unit. “Probably a bad filter gasket,” I said aloud. There was nothing else indicating a problem, and besides, it was time for 0045 rounds, so I grabbed a remote headset and display / control unit and went below to look at the problem. With this, I could communicate and monitor key systems from wherever I was.
Hercules-class ships have two independent cooling systems. One, relying on giant fins that run the length of the ship, cools the nuclear reactor. “Cool” being a relative term – the reactor runs at 700 degrees C. We call that the reactor cooling system. The other cooling system, called the main cooling, takes care of everything else, from electronics to the ion engines to crew quarters.
The main cooling unit is housed in the engineering deck, just off of the Engineering Control, and in the outer ring. This means it is aft of the quarterdeck, and as far aft in the ship as we normally went. We had access to the cargo bays, of course, but no reason to go in there. In fact, we kept life support off. The cargo bays had air and pressure, and with nothing breathing, no oxygen was being expended.
As I approached the hatch to the cooling room, another alarm sounded. My control unit displayed “general cooling failure.”
“That’s not supposed to happen – the unit should run for hours on low coolant,” I said to myself.
My next indication of a problem was when I got to the door. Like almost all doors and hatches on the ship, this was a pressure-tight door. Because the space was usually unmanned, the door was kept closed and dogged. When I got there, I noticed a dent in the door – a big one. The gray paint was flecked off around the dent, and paint particles were floating in the air.
When I touched the door, it was cold. Even though the passageway was cool and well ventilated, a bead of sweat popped up on my brow. That door was normally warm, from the heat given off from the cooling unit. Hot doors were a sign of fire, and cold doors, well, they didn’t mean it was the freezer.
There was another way to test my theory. There was an audible alarm in the room. I looked at my control panel and verified it was operating, then put my ear to the bulkhead. I couldn’t hear the alarm. I stepped back and took a deep breath. Then I hit the general announcement button on my remote unit and said, “Possible hull breach main cooling room, possible hull breach main cooling room, this is not a drill.” My voice cracked.
I was looking at my remote display / control unit which I had clipped to my belt to sound the general alarm when the ship sounded it for me. I heard the ship’s Voice announce, “pressure failure in compartment” and give a compartment number a deck forward of me, which was the quarterdeck proper.
I quickly backpedaled out and went to the compartment in question, manually closing doors and sealing vents as I went. I arrived on the quarterdeck at the same time as Ken, the alarm blaring in our ears.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I think the cooling room is completely depressurized. Did you see anything wrong when you were in there?” As I was talking, I grabbed a smoke flare from the repair kit on the bulkhead. My hands were shaking – this was the real deal – and I took a deep breath and tried to calm down. It didn’t help that the last time I’d been involved in a scenario like this Raj had died.
“What does the cooling room have to do with the quarterdeck?”
“They share a bulkhead, don’t they?” I noticed that he hadn’t answered my question. “Kill the ventilation please.”
Ken did so, and I lit the flare. As I did, the general alarm stopped.
“Why didn’t the pressure alarm in the cooling unit room go off?” Ken asked. I turned and glared at him. That was a really dumb question.
“What pressure alarm? It’s an unmanned space.” It was tiny as well, and the hatch opened out, so you couldn’t accidentally open the door if there was even a small pressure difference.
It was also supposed to be checked each watch, so Ken, who had the previous watch, should have been in the space at least once. “Hey, Chief,” I said. “Let’s worry about this leak – the door’s holding.” He nodded his assent.
The smoke flare worked as advertised. Ken and I were able to follow the smoke aft to the bulkhead between the quarterdeck and the cooling room. There was no visible hole, not even a pinhead, on the bulkhead. Ken had a bottle of quickpatch in his hand, which he sprayed at the area anyway. After covering an area the size of a dinner plate the smoke stopped flowing, so we figured we’d got it.
By this time Kate was calling me from the pilothouse over the announcing circuit. “What’s the status of the leak?” she asked.
The ear bud for the remote unit had fallen out of my ear. Rather than look for it, I drifted over to the wall phone – a voice only unit – and dialed the pilothouse. “The leak is under control, captain,” I said, trying to sound calm. “The quarterdeck leak is patched, and the hatch to the cooling room is holding. We probably need to kill some systems, though.”
“Understand. Head down to Engineering Control – I can’t get the auxiliary cooling unit to start remotely.”
I headed to Engineering Control to troubleshoot. For some reason, Ken followed me, as I told him what Kate had said. The small room was buzzing with alarms and flashing red lights. Ken tried to remotely start the auxiliary cooling unit, but it wouldn’t go. He kept hitting the remote start button, and glared at it as if getting angry would make it work.
I keyed the wall-mounted speaker box. “Captain, I’m going to load shed from here. Request you power down the high-gain antenna and the radar before they overheat.”
“Acknowledged,” Kate said.
“Lose something?” Alex asked from behind me. I turned and saw him, wearing a spacesuit, drift into the compartment, the remote unit ear bud in his hand. He pulled a laminated checklist out of a bin. “I’ll run the ECC checklist for loss of coolant,” he said. “Ken, go start the aux unit manually.” Ken nodded and left. Without coolant, most of the critical systems, like life support and long-range communications would quickly fail.
“Somebody should go out to inspect for damage,” I said. “Since you’re suited up...”
“You’re not engineer rated,” he said, cutting me off. “Go suit up for a damage assessment EVA. By the time you’re in the lock, I’ll be done here and can be your safety.”
I didn’t reply for a second. Alex pivoted weightlessly and put his hand on my shoulder. “You’re doing fine, Janet.”
“I can’t believe how calm everybody is,” I blurted out.
“Who said I’m calm?” He turned back to the console. “Go get suited up.”
“Aye, aye sir,” I said.
“Be careful, Janet. Now is not the time for a suit malfunction. And don’t go EVA until I get there.”
He didn’t need to remind me of that – Raj’s death was still fresh in my mind. I suited up quickly, and by the time I was done, Alex was just floating on the quarterdeck. We gave each other a quick once-over, then stepped into the lock together.
The coolant unit was in the shadow of the ship, so I turned on my helmet light as I stepped out. I had come out of the ship facing aft, and only a few feet from the cooling room. Earth was visible in the distance, a small ball not much bigger than a pea. This was only my sixth spacewalk, and like the previous ones I had no time to stand and admire the view.
The problem was immediately obvious, as my lights caught the glimmer of frozen particles just aft of me. The cooling unit was on the outer ring because it needed to have a large, finlike radiator to act as a heat sink.
“Whatever hit us must have been huge,” I said, whistling under my breath. “Maybe like a rice grain or something.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if this wasn’t a double or triple strike,” Alex said. “Still, we got lucky.”
Alex was right. Besides the fact that the space was unmanned, the main impact had occurred on the base of the radiator, where it flared out to meet the hull. This was the strongest part of the whole thing. If we’d been hit in a weaker area, the meteor would have gone right on through the whole ship. I reported my findings over the commlink.
Lucky or not, repairs would be difficult. The impact had produced lots of shrapnel, and these had poked dozens of holes in the radiator and the hull. GR-30s were double-hulled ships, and debris had gone through both of them. The inner layer of Kevlar between the hulls was also ruptured. When we finally got into the cooling room, we found that a major feed pipe had ruptured, and shrapnel from that had dented the door and sprung the leak into the quarterdeck.
Ken’s voice came over the link – apparently he was using the remote console ear bud. “As soon as we get cooling stable, I’ll come out and look at the damage. We’ll probably need to weld it up. Sounds like a one-day job.”
“I’m not a welder, Ken,” Alex said, “but I think one day is a tad optimistic for the amount of work.”
“Nice bead, Janet,” Ken said, his voice crackling in my headset.
“Thanks,” I said.
Alex had been right – this was no one-day job. After a day acting as Ken’s second during the EVAs, I asked to help out. This wasn’t entirely an unselfish thing to do. Without the primary coolant system, the secondary system was devoted to keeping the engines operating. Radar and radio were run on a limited basis, and the crew, well, we sweated. Kate decided to reduce the cooling load further by killing excess lights, so we sweated in the dark. The sooner we finished, the sooner we were back to normal.
Ken and I ended up pulling eight-hour shifts, with Alex as our safety for both. We then had other work to do inside the ship. Everybody was pulling a sixteen-hour day, even Kate. She was literally living and sleeping in the pilothouse, leaving only to eat and pee. We ran that way for over a week.
I got good at welding, especially in vacuum. That skill saved my life.
Once we got the main cooling system back on line, we had a little celebration in the galley.
“Nice job, people,” Kate said, as she placed a bottle of whiskey on the wardroom dining table. “Here’s a little extra reward.”
“We are getting overtime pay for all our work, right?” Ken asked suspiciously.
Under union rules, we were only required to work eight hours a day. Considering we stood watch for six, almost any non-watch-related task was overtime. I had already accumulated quite a stash of overtime pay before our little crisis with the meteor.
“Of course we are,” Alex said. “And we’re getting hazard pay for our EVAs.”
“Sweet,” I said. Any EVA was an automatic 25% bonus on base pay. “Well, let’s hope this is the worst Mother Nature throws at us,” I said.
“Amen,” Alex said. He drained his glass, and planted a sloppy kiss on Kate. “Captain, I think a little debriefing is in order.”
We all laughed. It was clear what kind of “debriefing” Alex had in mind.
“Now Mister,” Kate said, laying a finger on Alex’s nose, “we have to set an example to the crew.”
“Yes Ma’am,” Alex said. “We’ll take copious notes for them.”
Kate and Alex headed off to the bridge, ostensibly going on watch. Ken and I finished off the bottle.
“Wanna help me look for home?” Ken asked.
“Can you see Mars yet?” I replied.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Come on, it’ll be fun.”
“If you say so, boss,” I said. I suspected his intentions were other than honorable, but I had had enough to drink not to care.
We ended up in one of the observation rooms on the outer ring. Ken made a bit of a show of trying to pick out Mars in the window. Somehow he maneuvered around me, and his hand ended up resting on my ass. I thought about pushing him away, then decided against it and kissed him.
“Why’d you do that?” he asked.
“I’m not stupid,” I said. “I’ve caught you checking me out.”
“Now, I’ve been a perfect gentleman,”
I kissed him again. “I know,” I said after I came up for air. “I’m trying to say that you don’t have to be – not tonight, anyway.”
“Well, if you put it that way,” he said, his hand sliding down the back of my pants.
Maneuvering in zero gee is not as easy as it looks, and being drunk didn’t help. Of course, when you’re drunk, you don’t care if you get where you’re going or not. I was having a real problem getting my shirt off – the movement of my arms kept putting me in a slow spin. Ken solved the problem by pinning me to the bulkhead. I finally got my shirt off over my head as he was overcoming my pants in a manly struggle.
It would have been a weird scene on Earth. Ken had one leg splayed out at a very awkward angle, and was holding on to a cabinet latch with his big toe. He was using the force of the leg to pin me against the wall – not very hard, just enough to stop my actual spin – as opposed to the alcohol-induced spin. As soon as my face was clear, he planted a big kiss on my lips, and tried to stick his tongue back to my tonsils.
We had sex right there in the observation lounge, banging about in zero-gee, a few meters from the pilothouse. If Kate and Alex heard us, they didn’t say anything, although I suspected they were doing the same thing.
Sex in zero-gee is harder then it looks and somewhat overrated. Still, even bad sex is good, and he was a considerate and experienced lover. What he lacked in emotional attachment he made up for in skill and effort.
Sometime in the early morning, after our passion had subsided, we had a little conversation.
“You really are a lovely young lady,” he said, as he ran a finger down the cleft between my nose and mouth. “Thanks for putting up with my fumbling around.”
I suddenly realized that I had a bad case of “rookie’s disease.” It was a common problem – newbies straight from the Academy tended to act like they had received the wisdom of the world. I had also been down on him because he wasn’t formally trained.
“You’re welcome. Besides, don’t sell yourself short.”
“I know you don’t really like me. I’m not a very likable guy.”
“You’re alright,” I lied. Besides, I had been acting like a bitch, so I guessed we were even.
“There’s certainly no future between us. I’m way too old for you anyway.”
This was where I was supposed to disagree with him. “I suppose you’re right.”
He shifted around next to me. The nice thing about zero-gee sex is you could get into just about any position and hold it indefinitely. Right now, I was using his forearm as a pillow. “I know I’m right.” Well, that was a surprise. His next statement was not. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy each other’s company on the way back.”
“Isn’t sleeping with the boss a bad idea?”
“You don’t have to. Besides, I’m not really your boss – this ship is too small for that shit.”
“Now may not be the best time to ask this, is there a Mrs. Bell?”
I had been in his cabin before, and had never seen a picture of a wife or girlfriend. The only pictures in the place were of his two boys, at various ages. “Yes. Her name is Patty,” he said, grimacing and turned away to stare at the far bulkhead. “Let’s just say our relationship is, well, complicated.”
“When I married her, I was young and stupid, and madly in love. She was beautiful, but...well, brittle. I thought she’d change. I was right. She’s 30 kilos heavier and twice as brittle.” He sighed heavily. “We’ve been married 15 years now.”
“What, you get married at age 10?”
He smiled and turned to look at me. “How old do you think I am?”
“Lighter gravity does that for you. Also, we get less exposure to UV radiation. Today is my 40th birthday – in standard years.”
“Happy birthday. I’m glad we could celebrate it with a bang.” He nodded. “I’d figure you’d get more radiation – less atmosphere.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, if you stood out naked on the surface. Of course, if you did that, radiation would be the least of your worries.”
“Were you born on Mars?”
“No, I was like 5 or 6 when we emigrated.”
“How long have you been a spacer?”
“Fifteen standard years, off and on. I’d work at something dirtside for a while, then when I got fed up with the wife, I’d ship out on whatever was sailing.”
She must have something going for him to stick around. “So, why’d you stay with her?”
“The kids, I guess. I love my boys, and wanted somebody to take care of them. I suppose, now that they’re old enough, I might ditch the bitch. Still, it’s kinda nice to have somebody waiting for you when you make port. I’ve seen a lot of old farts in this business who’ve got nobody.” He shuddered a little. “Man, that kinda life sucks.”
There was nothing to say to that, so I didn’t. I was getting cold, so I rounded up my clothes and, still naked, headed back to my cabin. I tossed the bundle of clothes into a corner and crawled into my bed.
On the surface, we settled back into the usual routine after the meteor strike. I mean, we stood the same watches and did the same work as before. Underneath, there were a lot of changes.
The first change was between Ken and me. I had had my required shots of course, so getting pregnant wasn’t a problem. Sleeping with the boss could be.
The second change was between the crew. I realized that during the first part of our trip that we had been feeling each other out. Obviously, the Yergans knew each other, but Ken and I were both unknown quantities. There had been some distance, and we had both been under evaluation. Now that was over.
“Morning, Ken,” I said. He was unshaven, and dressed in paint-stained khaki pants and a faded pullover. The pilothouse was quiet.
“It’s night to me,” Ken replied, stifling a yawn. He gestured at the radar repeater. “Let’s start with traffic, shall we?” In a few minutes, it would be Friday, September 11, 2071, and I was taking the watch.
“We have traffic?” I said. We were 89 days out of Earth, nearing our halfway point, and there hadn’t been a blip on the scope for days.
“Just popped up maybe twenty minutes ago,” Ken said. He grinned wolfishly. “You’re looking sexy this morning,” he said. I had on a pair of oversized coveralls and my hair pulled back into a loose ponytail. In short, about as unsexy as I could get. “How about we slip into the charthouse for a quickie?”
“No thanks,” I said. I was definitely regretting ever sleeping with him. “Let’s focus on the contact,” I said.
“All work and no play makes Janet a dull girl,” he said, trying to grab my boob. I dodged his hand.
He mock-pouted. “If you insist.”
There was only so much information to turn over with him, and eventually we finished and he headed down below. I called into Kate and reported in, ending up with the contact.
“Give her a call on the radio when we get closer,” she told me.
We slowly overtook the ship during my watch. “Slow” was of course a relative term. We were both traveling at over 40 kilometers a second, but because we were both going to the same place and thus the same general direction, that really didn’t matter. What mattered was our relative speed, which in this case was only a couple of hundred meters per second. Not even supersonic.
The ship didn’t answer my radio calls, which really wasn’t that unusual. If they were a small ship like us, the watchstander might be some lowly astronaut like me. Although the ship’s officers were all supposed to speak English (and I’d heard some really mangled stuff passing for English on the radio) the watch astronaut might not. Unless they heard a ‘Mayday’ they’d probably ignore me until an English-speaking crewmember was available.
When I took the watch from Ken, the ship was just over fifteen hundred kilometers away. When Alex relieved me at 0600, she was at five hundred kilometers.
A very solid clunk on the outer bulkhead awoke me from my after-watch nap. This was immediately followed by the general alarm. The ship’s Voice was reporting all sorts of problems, and as I rolled out of my rack the lights flickered off, and a second later about half of them came on again. As I listened to the Voice, I heard three alarms, any one of which was serious. First I heard a “loss of communication” alarm, then a “ reactor coolant leak #2 radiator” and finally a loss of pressure alarm for the #3 greenhouse.
The reactor coolant leak scared me the most. Our reactor was a pebble-bed unit, so it couldn’t melt. But if it got too hot, it would automatically shut down. No reactor meant no propulsion which meant we’d sail past Mars and out of the Solar System. Some uncounted tens of thousands of years later some unknown alien would find our bones. Maybe.
I jumped into a pair of coveralls and raced to the greenhouse. Everything seemed to be in slow motion, but it was really only a few seconds before I was at the pressure door to the greenhouse. As I looked in through the observation port, still struggling though sleep and shock, I couldn’t understand at first what I was seeing. Maybe I didn’t want to understand.
Practically all the plants had been sucked out of the compartment, and what few remained had been sucked clean of leaves. A couple of the water sprays were running, and the water coming out was boiling and freezing at the same time. I looked shipdown towards the outer hull. Something had cut a gouge almost the entire length of the compartment, slicing through the twin hulls like a hot knife through butter. There were scorch marks along the edges of the gash, which must have immediately vented the compartment to space.
A flash of red caught my eye. I blinked and saw Kate, drifting lifelessly against the far bulkhead. I stared at her in disbelief. There was a red streak of blood down her face from her nose, and her hair was matted with blood, whether from her ears or a skull wound I couldn’t tell. There was nothing I could do. I only hoped that she had passed out quickly from the loss of pressure. I pounded on the hatch for a minute, out of frustration more than anything else.
“Kate, where are you?” Alex said, his voice booming out of the announcing system.
I picked up the nearest ship’s phone and dialed the pilothouse. Ken answered. “Kate was trapped in #3 greenhouse. The aft bulkhead and hatch holding.” It took me a minute to notice that there was no answer. “Ken, status?”
“You’d better get up to the pilothouse fast, Janet.”
I hustled up Broadway as fast as I could, running into Ken on the way. The ship was yawling and rolling, which didn’t help movement. Alarms were blaring, and the ship’s Voice seemed stuck in a loop of bad news. I entered the pilothouse, and asked what hit us.
Alex gestured at a magnified image on the main console. “They did, I guess.”
“They” was a Mitsubishi Type-17 freighter, which, according to the display, was about 100 clicks on our port shipdown bow. I stared at the freighter, usually nicknamed a “Flying Beachball” for its spherical shape.
Alex grabbed me, his eyes wide. “Where’s my wife?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, my mouth full of ashes. “She didn’t get out.” He released me, stunned. He drifted away in the zero gee, staring blankly at the far bulkhead.
“Alex,” I said, trying to keep the tension from my voice, “what’s going on? What should we do?” I had to ask twice before I got a reply.
“Fuck if I know,” Alex said, still not looking at anybody.
The ship bucked again, and the image in the main console swam out of view.
“Does anybody know why we’re pitching around like this?” I asked.
Alex answered. “They fired on us – must have been a laser ‘cause I didn’t see a rocket launch –and hit the high-gain array.”
“We must be off-gassing from somewhere,” Ken added.
Yeah, #3 greenhouse. We didn’t have time for that now. I knew that some ships on the Mars run were arming themselves with mining lasers for self defense. Apparently these guys decided to go on offense. “Somebody turn off the goddamn alarm!” I said. Things were happening way too fast. I felt dizzy and sick to my stomach.
Ken hit the switch, and the ship fell silent. He glanced at the radar display, and announced that we had a small blip inbound. “Well, that’ll be the boarding party,” Alex said.
The bridge to bridge radio crackled, and a male voice with an Australian accent said, “Windy City, prepare to be boarded. Leave one watchstander on the bridge, and assemble all other personnel in the quarterdeck.”
“OK,” Ken said, and left the pilothouse.
“OK what?” I said. “Alex, sir, your orders?”
“What?” Alex turned, a blank look on his face. “Where’d Ken go?”
“Who gives a shit!” I said. “What should I do?”
He didn’t answer me. After another minute or two, the bridge-to-bridge set crackled again. “Windy City, did you copy my last, over?”
The ship jerked again, so I sat down at the helm controls and tried to stabilize it.
“I’m going to find that idiot Ken,” Alex said. “You’ve got the bridge.”
Great – what the hell was I supposed to do? I picked up the bridge-to-bridge radio handset. “Station calling, this is Windy City. We copied your last, over.”
“Captain, is your crew mustered, over?”
“I don’t know. Things are a bit confused over here, over.”
“I suggest, captain, that you get unconfused right quick if you want to keep breathing, over.”
“The captain’s dead. You killed her, you son of a bitch,” I barked into the radio.
The reply was a long time coming. “Understand, Windy City. I suggest you cooperate if you want to save the rest of your crew. How are you doing on the muster, over?”
By then I had gotten the ship more or less level. I picked up the mic for the announcing circuit and paged Alex. The phone rang a second later. It was Alex, telling me he was with Ken on the quarterdeck. I picked up the radio.
“Everybody’s on the quarterdeck, over.”
“Roger, how many people should we see, over?”
I saw a brief glint of light outside the pilothouse window, which must have been the boarding craft. I tried to remember what I was supposed to do according to that stupid Ship Security seminar we’d had back in Florida. I was pretty sure “sit there like a bump on a log” was not recommended, but I didn’t have any other ideas. Kate and Alex were supposed to do this kind of stuff. They were officers, after all.
A few minutes later, I heard a solid thump aft, and the ship’s computer informed me that a vessel had just made a hard seal on the port docking hatch. As I sat there I heard the main port airlock door cycle.
I went to the command console, and called up the quarterdeck cameras. There were two, both motion sensitive and wired for sound that had been installed as a “security upgrade” during the SELP. As far as I was concerned, they were useless. Alex and Ken were standing there in the middle of the deck, their hands at their sides. As I watched, four space-suited figures entered, all of them holding guns. I heard one of the suited figures say “Where’s the other crewman?”
“Damned if I know,” Alex said, shrugging
One of the pirates fired, hitting Alex in the shoulder. Alex started to spin, blood gushing out. Ken yelped and launched himself backwards.
“Hold fire!” a woman, one of the pirates, shouted.
Alex had spun back and hit a stanchion, from which he pushed of and toward the pirates. There was more shooting, mixed in with screams to “stop running!” and “stop shooting.”
It was all over in an instant. Red globules of blood drifted across the field of view. A few seconds later, another body, dressed in Ken’s plaid shirt and with a red stain on his back, drifted across the room. I saw the attackers talk among themselves briefly, but too low for the mike to pickup.
The radio crackled. “Windy City, is your watchstander still on the bridge, over?”
“I am, over.”
“Stay put – our boarding party is coming to you, over.”
A few minutes later a spacesuited man with a sawed-off shotgun floated onto the pilothouse. He had his faceplate open, and I could see his grizzled and weary face.
“What’s your name?” he asked, in a weird European accent.
“Janet Pilgrim. I’m the only one left.”
“We’ll see about that, Janet,” he said. He waved his shotgun at me. “Let’s go.”
“To the quarterdeck. You go in front, and no sudden moves.”
We floated down the central passageway to the quarterdeck, me in front. As we got close, my guard shouted, “Don’t shootm you fucking moron!—it’s Boris.”
“Come on,” a woman’s voice said. We entered the quarterdeck, and a woman, her faceplate up, said, “John, tie her up.”
“Only if he…” the man said.
“Do it or I’ll fucking shoot you myself,” she replied. I noticed that he didn’t have a gun.
The man, John grabbed me, and quickly tied my hands behind my back and then tied my ankles together. He finished this by running a rope from wrist to ankles. Lastly, he took a loop of rope and attached me to the bulkhead by my waist. “Boris, go help Rachel search the boat,” the woman said. “John and I’ll stay here.”
We sat there like that for quite some time. I couldn’t see where they had put Ken and Alex’s bodies. After a few minutes, the woman who was their leader took off her helmet. She wore a red bandanna over her brown hair, and she scratched it with one gloved hand, casually holding the shotgun with the other. Her face was angular and thin, with pinched, pale lips. She was quite tall for a woman, almost 1.8 meters, I guessed. Her eyes were green, and there were quite a few “smile lines” around the corner of her eyes. Somehow I didn’t think she got them from smiling.
The other figure, John I assumed, stood next to me. You were the idiot who started shooting.
I watched as he removed his helmet. He looked like he was barely sixteen. He was tall and thin, almost gangly, like he’d just had a growth spurt. His hair was long and black, and he wore it pulled back in a ponytail. His face was also angular, and his lips were fuller then the woman’s but also pale. I noticed a gold chain glinting around his neck. He was staring at me with hungry eyes.
Periodically the woman put her hand to her ear, and listened on her headset. She briefly acknowledged the report each time, but otherwise said nothing. Eventually she smiled, took her hand out of the trigger guard of the shotgun, and held it by the barrel. She changed channels on her forearm suit controls, and said, “Ship’s all secured. Three dead crew, one survivor secured.” She listened to the reply, and then looked at John. He came close and she whispered something in his ear.
“But Mom...” he said.
“Goddamnit, do what I fucking tell you, boy!” He whined. Again he whispered something in her ear. They had a brief conversation, too low for me to hear. Boris returned, and leered at me as he went by. “Gus is coming over,” John’s mother said. “Lock this shit up.”
Gus proved to be a short and skinny black guy with wild gray hair and a strong Australian accent. He came directly to me in the quarterdeck.
“She the sole survivor?” he asked.
“Yes.” The boss woman replied.
“Kelly,” Gus said, looking at her wearily, “what the hell happened?”
“He went for a gun!” John blurted out.
Gus, holding onto a handgrip in the zero-gee space, glared at John, then swept his free arm around the compartment. “What gun? Anybody find a damned gun?”
The room was silent. John looked at Gus as if pleading for his belief, or his blessing. The other pirates looked downcast. Gus was not in a believing mood.
“He thought…” Kelly, John’s mom said, very quietly.
“No, he didn’t think, Kelly. He got scared and went off half-cocked.” Gus shook his head disgustedly. “How’s my ship?”
“A bit crispy.” This from another redheaded woman, only a little older than me, but thinner a