Tuesday, September 20, 2011

SPACE IS A DEADLY SISTER: II

by Gil James Bavel


Mission Day 647: 19:22 hours
Ganymede Base mining station
Third Shift




Dr. Devon Berkshire was out on the plains of Ganymede, performing routine survey work with Dr. Marquis Williams and Dr. Lisa Obermeyer, when the Friday Run ship came into view. They looked up, and waved, as the shuttle came in toward the bay of the installation. A small mining base, the only social interaction that the miners and terraformmers got other than each other was when the Friday Run ships came to deliver replenishables and take away waste. The crew continued their work; they knew they’d be able to interact with the pilot and navigator from Earth when they got back from their shift. They’d be done in a couple of hours.

The ship kicked up very little in the way of grit coming into the landing bay. As the sleek, white shuttle cruised in and came to a smooth, skidding stop, the radio inside the cockpit came on.

“Hey, you guys, welcome back!” said John Biggs, the installation’s radio operator. “Gave me a heart attack; why didn’t you radio ahead?” he asked. “Over”.

Sondra Lawton, Navigator on board the Company shuttle came over the squelching radio in the control room. “We thought we’d surprise you today. Not like you didn’t know we were coming. Over.” Sondra looked over at her pilot and commanding officer, Jim Stanton, with a smile. “Think we should tell him about the new radio?”

Stanton eased out of the controls and shut the ship down, clicking off switches and making last minute checks. “Nah, he’ll find out about it soon enough. He’ll be like a kid on Christmas morning”. Back to work. Stanton queued up the mic. “Ganymede Base, this is shuttle Alpha, we’re in and down, hit the garage door and power up your life support so we can disembark this bird, willya? Over.”

“Already on top of it, Jim, over,” said Biggs, and indeed, the bay door began closing and the atmospheric distribution tanks powered up. Within thirty seconds, the door was down, the bay was filling up with atmosphere and the heaters had it warming to a balmy 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Sondra Lawton unstrapped from the safety harness and began her post-landing checks. Everything seemed to be in order.

Pilot Jim Stanton handed her a checklist, still on paper after a hundred and sixty years in human spaceflight. “Why don’t you tag ‘em and I’ll bag ‘em?” said the handsome, swarthy, fortysomething pilot, his helmet already off and flight suit unzipped to the waist.

“You got it, Cap’n,” the navigator replied, accepted the small pad from him, tossed it in her lap and removed her own helmet, letting down a long shock of brown hair. Co-pilot Second Class Sondra Lawton was about medium size, with bronzed skin and sharp features, which she downplayed. A few years in the Space Corps will teach a good-looking, twenty-six year-old girl to be as dowdy as possible. She wore no makeup and usually kept her shoulder-length hair in a regulation ponytail when she wasn’t in a spacesuit.

Lawton stowed her helmet at her feet, and took down the pertinent after-action data on the pad with a number two pencil.

“Pressure check,” Stanton said.

“Roger that,” Lawton came back, finished her checks and tossed the completed checklist into her helmet.

Checking a dial, the pilot cracked the seal on the shuttle’s door, and unlatched up the canopy, which raised up, looking like a huge metal bird yawning.

“Okay, we’ve got air, you ready?” Captain Stanton asked.

“Am I ever! Let’s ditch this bitch!” Lawton replied, putting one arm to the fuselage and getting ready to make the jump to the deck. It was a big drop, but in one-seventh gravity, they were used to it. Both of them hopped down, their magnetic boots making loud CLICKs on the metal floor, and stretched their legs. The flight from the Company Mars base took most of a solar day, and from Moonbase, an entire one if made in one shot. They were ready for some R and R. But first, the shuttle needed unloading and refueling.

The shuttle bay was nearly as long as it was wide, and housed fuel storage space for the shuttle’s return trip. The bay was a little greyer than the rest of the base, from the regolith of Ganymede’s surface that came in each time a shuttle did. Even with regular cleanings and electrostatics, small particles of grit managed to stick to the inside of the hangar. Repair tools, drums of hydrogen fuel and the base’s rover were stored inside.

The outer airlock door from opposite the bay door breathed out with an audible hiss and in popped John Biggs, the station’s primary engineer and radio operator, and Will Jensen, computer systems analyst and communications/mechanical engineer.

Biggs and Jensen wore white jumpsuits, flagged and stitched with smart-looking Company insignia. A well-built, M.I.T.-educated black man, Biggs was genuinely happy to see the shuttle crew. Jensen, of Danish extraction, was about the same age as John Biggs, in his late twenties, and was likewise enthused about seeing their friends.

“Long time no see, Kemosabee!” said Biggs, walking over to the pair. He gave Sondra Lawton a big hug, lifting her off the ground with a double CLICK. She squealed.

“Cap’n.” Jensen said with a smile, and offered a firm handshake to the pilot. “What have you got on the bird for us this week?”

Lawton turned from Biggs and gave Jensen a terse look. “You’ll have to wait like everyone else. But I will say this—you’re gonna be surprised!” She ended this by looking back and forth at both Biggs and Jensen, pointing at them with her mouth open, taunting them.

“Okay, kids, let’s get this show on the road. We’ve got to unload this cargo and get inside. While aerobraking through Jupiter, we discovered some micrometeoroids coming in about an hour out, and I want to get in and have a lie down for a while. And the Director wants Devon to send in his status report as soon as we’re done here.”

“Aw, the old man’s got a backache again,” said Biggs, and slapped “Big” Jim Stanton on the back. At over six feet, Captain Stanton was lucky to still be flying in the corps, even outer system missions. Although he wasn’t yet middle-aged, he was too tall to be a pilot but had enough influence back home to have had strings pulled. It was understandable that he’d be cramped in a cockpit made for shorter men.

“Okay, let’s git ‘er done,” he intoned with a false drawl. The crew proceeded to the cargo bays of the shuttle and began fetching the cargo containers from the ship. In one-seventh Earth gravity, hand trucks were hardly ever necessary. If you couldn’t lift 700 pounds on Ganymede, you couldn’t cut the muster.

“Be careful with this one,” Lawton said to Biggs, handing him a specially marked box. “This is your surprise this trip. Wouldn’t want you to drop that.”

John Biggs sized up the box he was holding. “Okay, Sondra, I’ll be careful.” He smiled, and moved over toward the airlock where he set the box down. “Kinda feels like a radio set,” he guessed.

“Dammit!” said Stanton, genuinely frustrated.

“Oh, cool,” said Will Jensen as he moved freight. “It’s the new backup, right?”

Lawton laughed at her commanding officer and shoved him. “Hey, I didn’t say anything”.

Captain Stanton wrinkled his nose at her. “No, you just gave it completely away.”

The crew of the shuttle and the two of the base moved the rest of the cargo inside, and sealed up.

Outside, on the icy, pebble-strewn surface, the survey crew flounced along to their new positions. Flouncing was what they called their movements outside, a cross between floating and bouncing. In the partial shadow of vast Jupiter, Drs. Berkshire, Williams and Obermeyer were now just beginning the final survey for the day. “Okay, give me a reading on this conditional line from the first station”, Berkshire called out.

Marquis Williams peered through his optical instrument at the designated merestone. “It’s off true, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Williams agreed, “by a declination of ten degrees, almost exactly.”

Obermeyer piped up. “Marquis, is it almost exactly ten degrees, or exactly ten degrees?”

“It’s exactly ten degrees off. Christ, you’d think it mattered. We’re not putting a drilling station here and you both know it.”

Dr. Devon Berkshire put his gloved hands on suited hips. “Actually, that’s my call, if you don’t mind, Marquis. But you’re probably right. Let’s—“

Perimeter alarm sounding. Micrometeoroid storm approaching,” droned the automatic computer in their helmets. The Jovian Deep Space Array was never wrong.

“Okay, let’s wrap it up, people. It’s a moot point now. Time to get back.”

Lisa Obermeyer made for the beat-up rover nearby, flouncing over to it. “You’ll get no argument from me”, she said, stowing her gear in the rear compartment and sitting in the front passenger seat. The power gauge on her suit read 26%, and that was enough margin for error, but she’d rather not take any chances. If something should happen to the rover on the way back to the station, they could have problems. It wasn’t the first time the rover had served as cover during a micrometeor storm; it was evident from all the dings and pock marks on it.

Williams got into the shotgun backseat and Berkshire into the driver’s seat. They made good time on the way back, in relative quiet. Micrometeor Storms were serious business; a speck the size of a grain of sand could end your career out here, if it were traveling fast enough, and even your life if you weren’t careful. So far they’d been lucky.

The team of planetary geologist, mining specialist and medical doctor/planetary surveyor made tracks back to Ganymede Base station the rest of the way in nervous silence.

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