Woo hoo! I’ve taken the plunge and published my new book as both an ebook and a print-on-demand paperback. I had to learn a lot about several software programs to accomplish this, but since I don’t do cross-word puzzles, my brain needed the exercise.
Look for electronic editions of my books on Amazon for Kindle, Barnes & Noble for Nook, Smashwords for all major electronic formats; and on Apple, Kobo, Flipkart, Inktera, and Versent. If you don’t see one of my books at your favorite site, please check on Smashwords.
Join an international crew as they ferry their commercial space station to an enigmatic anomaly in Mars’ orbit. Here our solar system touches the Helios star system, a portal that was discovered decades ago and may be lost.
Harry joined the mission to escape loneliness on Earth and to indulge his obsession for gardening in space. He finds relationships grow like gardens, though not always as expected.
Along their journey, they mine a dangerous comet and visit the small colony on Mars. Tensions flare among the crew, threatening their mission. Things don’t go as planned and the crew must act to save their mission and their lives.
A story combining adventure with life aboard a space station. Read an excerpt now:
Dozens of flags circled the edge of the plaza, snapping in the ocean breeze, as Harry Gordon waited to leave Earth. Somalia provided the perfect location on the equator, so her star on a sky-blue field flew over the plaza, but it took Qatari money to build the space elevator, so white and maroon flags flew next to the blue.
Harry frowned at the high walls surrounding the plaza, hiding the town beyond. The space elevator brought prosperity had come to this African shore with, and Harry had seen patches of well-tended greenery from the plane window as he’d flown in to join his crewmates. After a year of training and PR appearances for the Institute, today their journey into space began.
If there had been time, Harry would have visited the local Somali gardens. A walk through a well-designed landscape would have calmed his nervous stomach. He was about to seal himself away with a small group of people he barely knew, who were key to his success or to his failure.
Harry and the rest of the international crew were about to fly a new commercial space station to her permanent position, deploying client projects as they went. At the end of their journey was a decades-old mystery from the First Space Age. Finally the world was prosperous enough to launch a New Space Age, and that included rediscovering the space glitch that led to Helios.
While the possibility of great discoveries motivated their clients, Harry had more myopic concerns. His official title might be “Life Support Specialist”, but Harry was dedicated to the onboard garden. The crew needed air and water to survive, and Harry was trained to maintain those systems, but his real interest was gardening. For a small group thrown together for several years in tight quarters, food should be as fresh, varied, and comforting as possible. It might sound unlikely to visionaries with their eyes on the heavens, but psychology showed that a limited, monotonous diet would eventually leave any crew obsessing over food. In addition to life support systems, Harry was in charge of growing produce onboard and he had won most of his arguments with Institute experts over what to grow. In the course of this mission, he was determined to prove he was right.
Their departure was an event and the Institute media team was scurrying around, setting up a video recording. For the past year, unmanned launches had blasted the station up to construction teams in pieces. Today the fragile human crew would take a gentle elevator ride into space.
Even in the early morning, Somalia was hot. Harry rolled his shoulders uncomfortably inside his blue uniform. The leather creaked as he shifted his weight, and Harry silently cursed the design firm who had decided on leather. His crewmates looked handsome in their uniforms with sponsor patches across the back and down the arms like race-car drivers. Harry, on the other hand, just felt silly. He creaked again.
The Institute’s media team arranged the crew artfully on the steps of the tower’s main entrance. In a moment they would start the live stream, and then the crew could enter White Pearl Tower and escape the tropical sun.
On the highest step stood the Chief Officers of the Institute, beaming into the robotic cameras. Pilot Rolf Hagne stood beside Chief Physician Lia Cooper on the step below them. Where Harry stoically tolerated the PR trips, both Rolf and Lia enjoyed the attention. The Scandinavian pilot was tall and blond. He would have been at home, Harry imagined, on one of the Viking ships of his ancestors. Lia was also tall, her hair fashionably short and spiky, and athletic; her Institute profile said she played tennis.
Mission Commander Matt Taylor stood on the next step down. It seemed odd to Harry that the Commander wasn’t on the top step, but at least he had a step to himself. Finally, the rest of the crew stood in a line below Matt; Harry next to the station engineer, then two lab specialists, and the Brazilian mining engineer, Vera Lago. Harry leaned forward to steal a glance at her smooth brown skin and dark eyes. He quickly straightened up, catching his breath, when she glanced his way.
At the media team’s signal, Harry smiled and waved to the fans watching over the global link. Like his crewmates, he had earned a place as a candidate with his technical skills and, also like his crewmates, had won a fan vote to be on the first crew with his public appeal. A quirky appeal in his case, Harry thought.
Harry had been an awkward kid, but working at the market booth for his family’s urban farm gave him a chance to study people and how they interacted. He became skilled at public appearances. Luckily, delays in his reactions, as he figured out the proper response to a question, were seen as thoughtful, and occasional loss of eye-contact as modest.
Candidate competition had been a stressful process. The Institute appealed to the public to bridged funding gaps between client payments, and the public was fascinated by the crew. Only the mission commander had been chosen entirely by the Institute’s officers. Crew candidates were chosen by the Institute, but fan subscriptions to the final selection process had been sold worldwide.
After the media team was satisfied with the vid on the tower stairs, they all stepped inside the air-conditioned lobby. Harry shivered. Now the leather uniform felt clammy.
The Institute group by-passed a hundred floors of up-scale shopping, hotels, and businesses, and took a glass elevator with spectacular views of the Indian Ocean straight to the roof-top White Pearl Sky Lift Spaceport. For decades, people argued over how to rate tall buildings: did antennas count? Or just inhabited floors? What about observation decks? Sky Lift broke the record no matter how it was judged. It climbed beyond the edge of Earth’s atmosphere to Zenith Station, sixty thousand kilometers high, and the counterweight that balanced the whole structure was higher still.
A party had been arranged in the Sky Lift’s main lounge and the Institute’s Chief Officers hurried towards the delegation from Spaceport Brazil. Harry watched them greet the Brazilians with enthusiasm.
The space station’s first mission had been predicted to lose money until a wayward comet saved the day. The sad little rock was too dim to interest the public, but after swinging past the Sun, it would parallel the space station’s planned trajectory and so, fortunately, be within reach. The station would carry a Brazilian spacecraft to mine the comet, but timing was a problem. The station would leave Earth orbit months ahead of the original schedule to reach the comet and there was a big penalty clause in the contract if they failed to make that rendezvous. Harry had heard rumors that some of the command candidates withdrew in protest at the accelerated schedule, but construction had kept pace with the new timetable.
A server pressed a flute of champagne into Harry’s hand. He sidled over to the bar to exchange the champagne for orange juice. A model of the Institute space station hung above the bar, a gleaming white tube. Photon collectors that would provide their power surrounded one end like shimmering fans. Harry paused for a moment below the model, staring out the windows before wandering into the crowd to dutifully mingle.
This early in the morning, the control rooms and passenger lounges that ringed the White Pearl Sky Lift cast shadows across the launch pad. In the center sat the capsule, which was shaped like a donut rather than a pearl.
The lift pad was tiled in an elaborate mosaic of looping designs. Three laser stations were concealed in faux-stone carvings like fountains and their corresponding receiver arrays hung below the capsule, hidden from view in a hollow below the pad. Ground-based lasers powered the lift early in its ascent, then, once clear of the atmosphere, dedicated orbiting power stations would beam microwave energy.
A twisted ribbon of nanotubes extended from the lift pad through the capsule’s center; a baroque column spiraling up and disappearing into the sky. Somali stevedores wearing round embroidered caps were hurrying to fill the capsule’s tiny cargo compartment for the ascent to Zenith Station.
“It is very thick to be called a ribbon.” Kesa Lagrand, the mission biology specialist had walked up behind Harry. Red, blue, and yellow stripes ran from her forehead to the nape of her close-cropped, tightly curled hair. He glanced away quickly, afraid to be caught staring. She laughed and ran a hand over her head.
“I could not resist taking a detour to visit my home on Reunion Island for the Festival of Colors.” Like most Africans, she spoke English with meticulous precision. “We creoles celebrate everyone’s holidays. You are a bit of a creole, too, are you not?”
Harry had trouble reading faces, so he paused for a moment. But Kesa didn’t seem to be teasing him; her smile was open and sincere. He mirrored that smile back to her.
“I’m American; Scottish on my father’s side and Japanese on my mother’s.” The combination worked to Harry’s advantage. Everywhere the Institute had sent him on the PR tour, Harry’s features were viewed as pleasantly exotic. People expected the exotic face to contain a hypnotic personality. They expected it, so even his occasionally uncertain efforts came across as striking.
“Well, excuse me, Harry. I should return to the party.”
Kesa strolled over to a small group around the mission’s physics specialist, Ryan Boyle, and easily joined their conversation. The crew had only been chosen a year ago and, with all the individual PR trips, Harry didn’t feel like he knew his crewmates yet. Most of their training had been in virtual space, which worked well for training but not for getting acquainted.
Weather conditions favored an early departure, so no one was surprised when the Director pointedly wished them a safe journey. They walked out onto the lift pad and up the ramp.
Without further ceremony, the door closed and the capsule climbed, revolving leisurely as it followed the twist of the ribbon. It was anti-climatic. The capsule left the pad so slowly that Harry didn’t feel any movement under his feet. Fifteen minutes later, when the Institute officers stepped onto the pad, the crew easily waved to them from the capsule windows.
Harry stayed at the windows to watch the White Pearl Tower shrink and the ground steadily recede. He could hear a gentle flow of air from the vents above him, but if the climbers made any sound, it didn’t penetrate the hull. He laid a hand against the window, which still felt hot in the equatorial sun. A power cable from the ground fell away; they were on laser power now and would gradually gain speed.
The capsule was the size of a snug coffee house, and had been furnished with small sofas and cafe tables. Harry peeked around the large central pillar that surrounded the lift’s ribbon and found a row of recliners with seat belts, to deal with the changes in apparent gravity they’d encounter, and a spiral staircase down to the utility level.
Seong was standing nearby. She pulled out her link and opened a message flashing “urgent”.
“Our ground support team has finished their evaluation of the preliminary acceptance tests.” She held the link against a wall, projecting the report for Matt to see.
“All of them?”
“Yes, Commander. All fifty-six thousand.” She swept a fingertip through the projection, scrolling down the complicated tables.
“Here’s good news. They already turned most systems over to the station’s intelligent controls. Ambient lighting… ventilation… internal station communications.
“Here’s a chart of problems the construction team is still working. And the acceptance tests we need to witness.”
Seong’s charts were color coded and there was a lot of red.
“Hey guys,” Matt called to the crew. “Our immediate goal is to certify the station as ready to break orbit, and we don’t have any slack time. You’re all assigned systems and you’ll have to hit the ground running. Let’s not waste this three-day ride. I want a crew meeting each morning to review status from the construction teams you’ll supervise. Get familiar with this latest report, eh?”
“I’ve been talking with my team,” Rolf said, waving his link in the air while still watching the ground slip away. “I’m good.”
Matt frowned at his back for a moment. Rolf never simply did as he was asked. He had the swagger expected from bold pilots.
“The last shipment of control circuitry is delayed,” Seong said. “The Chinese scramjets are supposed to sling it up into space before the week’s out.”
Harry couldn’t see Matt’s face, but Seong looked worried.
Chapter 2: Collins Dock
The Sky Lift capsule arrived at Zenith Transfer Station at the end of a sleep period. Harry pushed out of his recliner, swung his personal duffle bag onto his shoulder, and fell over as the bag careened past his head. He bounced off the floor and tumbled up the wall before regaining control.
“Whoa. Take it easy.” Lia, their Chief Physician, was strapped in the recliner next to Harry. “Dizzy?”
“No, I’m fine. I…” Harry was now floating back towards his recliner, still towing the duffle in one hand. He grabbed at the arm rest to anchor himself and hid his embarrassment by fumbling with his bag. “I guess, overnight, we stopped accelerating up the ribbon.”
“We’ve stopped altogether.” Lia chuckled, more amused than concerned by Harry’s topple.
“Hey, everyone, look at the view; the Earth is beautiful from here,” Kesa said. She was floating at the windows.
“I think I can make out Madagascar, but Reunion Island is too small.” She hugged herself. “I have worked hard to join this crew, but I will miss my home.”
Ryan, the physics specialist, drifted over to Kesa and said something that made her laugh. Ryan was a thick-set man with hair going gray, but his plump face looked fresh with enthusiasm.
The Sky Lift had carried them out of Earth’s gravity well, but they were only a third of the way to their destination. Instead of exploring Zenith Station, they glided directly to the tug that waited to take them to the space dock.
The tug consisted mostly of engines and fuel tanks with a small cabin with acceleration couches packed together in rows behind the pilot. Harry’s nose practically touched the back of the couch in front of him. Only one person at a time could fit in the tiny galley behind them, and they all politely ignored any sounds from the john at the far end. Fortunately, the tug was fast and delivered them to the Collins Dock the next day.
The Collins Lagrangian Space Dock was positioned where gravity from the Earth and Moon balanced. Anything left near that point, including spacecraft, tends to stay put. With its construction platform supported by a lunar base, the Collins Dock was a key part of the emerging New Space Age.
Lia extracted herself from her couch and peeked around the pilot’s chair, out the forward window. The Institute station hung in space, a gleaming white tube with smaller tubes bundled against it.
“That thing’s too small to generate much centripetal force when it spins, which is a shame, cause gravity is good for us. When I first heard we were building a space station, I was hoping for a donut ring a kilometer across.”
“Seong and I followed the station’s on-ground construction phase.” Matt pulled himself to the window when Lia pushed away. “We audited the fabrication of the modules whenever we could take a side trip from the PR tour.
“I could walk across one of those modules in a dozen steps as it sat upright in Earth’s gravity,” Matt said. “But in space we’ll run around the inside curve of the cylinder; just like you saw in training.”
“No matter how good the simulations, they’re never quite like reality.”
“Well, there she is for real.” Matt’s smile reflected in the tug window. “The Inner Solar System Commercial Space Station.”
“Yeah, we call her Izzie,” the tug pilot said over her shoulder. “For ‘ISS-SS’, you know. Anyone else want a look before I decelerate?”
“Swap seats with me, will you?” Rolf asked Seong. “I want to watch the docking.” He eagerly strapped in next to the tug pilot.
“Not much to see; it’s all automated.”
“But you can take the controls if you want. And you’ve got these cabin windows.” Rolf reached out and touched the window. “The Institute didn’t put windows in our station. It’s all imagers and screens.”
“There’s a window in the Labs space drawer,” Ryan reminded him.
Rolf snorted in disgust. “Not a proper window.”
“The construction platform is the shape I’d imagine for a proper space station,” Lia said as she fastened her harness. The Collins Dock platform was attached to the station’s aft end during construction; a dozen cylinders arranged around a central spine housing power stations, shops, and quarters for the construction team.
“We’re clear to approach the platform docking port,” the tug pilot said. “So if everyone is strapped in…” She maneuvered the tug so the hatch above their heads faced the port and executed the controlled collision with a reverberating thud. The seal hissed as the door slid open.
“Welcome to Collins Dock and your new space station. Straight ahead and then forward,” she said, handing a pair of down-boots to each of them as they disembarked.
Rolf was the first one out the tug hatch. He glided down a tunnel no wider than the hatch, kicked off to his right with a flip, and into the station’s Launch Bay.
The bay was nearly empty with just a few tool boxes still strapped to the deck. Two dozen members of the construction team were waiting, ready to split up and accompany the Institute crew for the final phase of construction: acceptance testing.
“Hi guys.” Rolf called to his team as he slipped on the boots. “Let’s go forward to Command.”
If the module had been on Earth, lying on its side, Rolf would have walked from one end to the other in a dozen steps. In space, he simply kicked off towards the main passageway and rocketed across the bay. He paused to open the airlock’s blue door, grabbed both sides of the hatch, and launched himself through. His Collins team followed him, grinning appreciatively.
Matt’s team was hanging on grips in the bay’s forward bulkhead, and their chief gave him a wave.
“I’ll be on Command, too” Matt said. Irritated at Rolf’s showy departure ahead of him, Matt shot across the bay and through the open hatch.
With a whoop of delight, Lia kicked off from the tug and tumbled down the center of the bay in a series of off-kilter somersaults. One of the Collins team, who was tethered half-way down the bay, caught her.
“Wow. Thanks,” she said. “It’s so good to be out of that little tug.”
Harry stopped at the hatch, holding firmly onto the frame. The bay was divided into four quadrants, each enameled a different color. Harry plunked his new boots against the blue quad and walked slowly down to the blue deck, pausing as each step thunked securely against the bulkhead. The others followed, walking down the bulkhead or drifting from grip to grip like slow-motion monkeys. The Collins team watched indulgently. Newcomers needed some time to play in zero gravity before any work would get done.
Finally everyone moved forward to the Cargo Bay, where the passageway became a tunnel through equipment crammed into the bay. Vera stopped to inspect her mining craft, but Harry was happy to continue through the next airlock to Engineering.
On one side of the passageway, tanks and racks followed the curve of the deck to loom over his head. The other side was fairly open, and a utility chase, which ran down the axial center of each module from Engineering forward, gave the comforting impression of a ceiling as Harry stood with his down-boots firmly planted on the deck.
Seong hopped to a set of control consoles that circled the module. Consoles offered high definition displays and manual over-rides, so they were the best place to run tests. Harry knew there was another, elaborate set of consoles in the Command module at the station’s forward end. But the station’s systems were fully distributed; anyone could easily operate the station by voice command from the crew lounge. They had a pilot and a commander, but Harry knew that he could probably fly the station by himself, at least if nothing unusual happened.
Despite that, psychologically it seemed right to have command centers.
Ryan Boyle, the physics specialist, came into Engineering behind Harry and glided across the module to the additive fabricator, which would print parts for use onboard. He had a series of test shapes to print here before he headed forward to the Labs module.
The next module would become Harry’s Kitchen Garden. It was a repurposed fuel tank from the heavy-lift engines that carried the modules to the Collins Dock, but now was empty of everything except the overhead utilities. Harry continued forward; his immediate task was acceptance testing in Life Support. He and his Collins team would be working there, cycling every valve, running every pump, and sending test-signals to every sensor.
At first impression, Life Support was chaotic. Layers of tubes and cables surrounded tanks, ducts, pumps and fans. Despite a vibration canceling system, the air seemed to hum. Harry laid his hand on a nearby duct and could feel the throbbing. Combined with the dense array of equipment, the throb gave him a feeling of sensory overload. The lingering smell of oil didn’t help.
“Lia and I will be certifying the food printer.” Kesa’s voice sounded flat against the hum of the equipment. “Hand me your personal bag and I will take it to Quarters.” Harry passed the duffle to her and she continued through the next airlock.
One of the Collins team handed him a universal link. The uni-link was mounted on a crew cap so the components didn’t float away in zero-g: a display visor, audio transceiver, and supplemental lights for the camera.
Harry felt for the comforting shape of his stick-link in a sleeve pocket. He preferred working on a stick-link, a practical electronic dowel about the length of his hand. One edge clung to surfaces electrostatically, so he could slap it on almost anything. Like any link, it had a speaker, mic, and camera, but Harry appreciated the virtual keyboard and screen it projected. While clearest against a white background, both looked pretty good floating in midair. Harry used the keyboard when he could; he found talking, even to himself, distracting.
But today he had to talk to the Institute’s Mission Control, and record videos of the tests. He set his jaw, ready for a long, tiring shift. Harry pulled on the uni-link cap, felt for the dangling transceiver, hooked it over his ear, and adjusted the mic. Then he flipped the visor down from under the cap’s bill until it snapped into place.
“Uni-link, on. Mission Control, are you receiving okay?”
The transmission lag was short, hardly long enough to draw a breath.
“We’re receiving. Ready when you are.”
Chapter 3: Izzie
At the end of the shift, Harry walked forward to Quarters. The Institute crew would sleep onboard while their teams slept on the construction platform and the Collins second shift worked on problems testing had uncovered.
Harry watched his crewmates glide in. Vera popped through the airlock last. They sat around a dining table adjacent to the lounge, held in place by their down-boots against the red deck or twisting their feet around the chair legs.
“I’ll need everyone’s shift reports before tomorrow morning,” Matt said.
“Is the Earthnet link up?” Kesa asked. “I want to check in with my family.”
“Yes; except for the transmission lag, it’s just like home.”
“Are we ready for supper?” Lia placed a box on the steel tabletop, securing the handle straps to the legs with carabineers.
“The kitchen won’t be available for a couple weeks, so we’ll be picnicking for a while. Supper tonight will be protein bars and squeeze bottles of water. I call dibs on the cookie-dough bar.”
“I’m less worried about the kitchen than I am about the plumbing. Is the flush operational, Harry?” Matt asked. Harry nodded; showers, sinks, and toilets were all located in his Life Support module for efficient recycling.
Lia passed out supper and moved the picnic box so Matt could project their schedule on the tabletop.
“She needs a name,” Rolf said, running a finger across the long title above the schedule. “And not an Institute tongue-twister. International English isn’t everyone’s first language.”
“The tug pilot said they call her Izzie. I like that; sounds friendly.” Lia tipped her chin quizzically.
“What do you say, Matt?” Ryan asked politely.
“Izzie; fine. Now let’s get on to tomorrow’s plan.”
“Hello, Izzie,” Rolf called out, interrupting Matt. “Okay if we call you Izzie?”
“You may call me Izzie.” The station replied in a neutral, vaguely female voice, transmitted over the module’s audio link. “She doesn’t sound very happy to meet me,” Rolf said with a joking grin.
Matt cleared his throat.
“Okay, let’s focus. We’re on a tight schedule. If the Institute has to send any of the back-up crew to help us certify this station, you can bet we won’t be the crew that takes her out of orbit.”
Lia frowned. “I thought we were all set, a qualified crew endorsed by a fan vote.”
“If we can’t make the schedule, that won’t count for beans.”
“Geeze. I wonder what Mission Control will say to this?” Ryan opened a pocket and pulled out a shape from his printing tests.
Lia reached for the spanner wrench. “What? Oh.” It was only half a wrench thick. She held it out to Matt, but he waved it away and tapped some notes into his schedule.
“Don’t look so worried.” She handed the half-wrench back to Ryan. “You’ve got all of twelve weeks to fix it.”
After Matt’s meeting, they were scheduled to sleep. Bunks were mounted along Quarters’ central axis, three sets of five tubes surrounding the cables and ducts in the central utility chase, enough bunks for an eventual crew of fifteen.
“We’ve got extra room,” Matt said. “Let’s leave the center group of bunks empty. Once we’re in space we’ll split into two shifts, so it makes sense for those of us in the command crew to take one group of bunks.” He pointed forward. “Science crew, you guys take the aft group. See you in the morning; promptly at oh-six-hundred.” Matt popped his down-boots off the deck and pushed out of his chair with his arms, and floated up to the bunks.
“Yah, sure, we need someone to tell us which bunks to use,” Rolf grumbled, but he pushed off after Matt with his personal bag in tow.
Harry was awake, but still strapped tightly into the sleeping web in his bunk. As he waited for the wake-up call, he fiddled with the cuffs of the coveralls that replaced his leather uniform; they were remarkably breathable for self-cleaning, hydrophobic cloth. Despite the vibration canceling systems on Izzie, a soft hum permeated the bunk and he was drifting back to sleep when something changed.
Harry loosened his web and pushed away from the bunk wall. It wasn’t a sound as much as a new vibration; then he felt a bump.
“Izzie, what’s going on?”
“The dock crew is installing fuel tanks for my vector thrusters,” the smooth voice replied. “The tug pilot reports a problem.”
“Put the tug channel on audio.” Harry was trying to brace himself so he could pull on his down-boots.
“Dammit.” The tug pilot grunted. “Oh, hell.”
That couldn’t be good, Harry thought as he tugged on his uni-link cap.
A piercing wail sounded through Quarters.
“Pressure drop, isolation protocol,” Izzie announced in her soothing voice. Harry shoved himself out of his bunk tube, aiming his down-boots for the deck. Izzie was slamming the airlock doors shut.
Matt was already on deck.
“Izzie, mute alarm.” He held up his stick-link, a diagram of Izzie shimmering in the air, all her modules colored green. “Our airlocks are closed and pressure is normal. Everyone know their module assignment? Okay, start checking for leaks and report on the internal crew channel; leave the Collins channel for emergency coms only. Go.” Rolf kicked off for the forward airlock; Kesa and Ryan followed him, leaving Lia to survey Quarters.
Harry followed Matt and the others to the aft airlock. As he watched Matt double check the pressure and manually open the door, Harry felt his chest tightening and his vision narrowing down.
There were two Collins workers from the second shift in Life Support, where Harry stopped as the others continued aft.
“The tug was installing a hydrogen fuel tank. It got away from them and a bracket pierced the tank. Rocketed off and hit our platform.”
“Anyone hurt?” Harry asked as he pulled squeeze-bulbs from a maintenance cabinet.
“Don’t know.” Their voices were tightly controlled.
“Izzie, shut down the module’s ventilation,” Harry said. He could feel the hum in the air change as the fans stopped. “We show Izzie’s pressure holding, but let’s look for signs of a leak. With none of the robots active, we’ll have to do this by-hand.” He passed out the squeeze bulbs. “I’ll take the green quad.” The Collins guys nodded and split up.
Harry puffed out a cloud of fine powder from the bulb, sweeping his arm as he did. With the ventilation shut down, even a small leak would suck the powder out and he’d see it. Starting to work loosened the tightness he felt inside.
They scanned to the Collins channels as they worked; silent except when the Collins lead called role and the two workers with Harry tersely replied. Talk on the channel was a confusion of short reports and calls for equipment.
“Matt to crew, here’s an update.” Matt’s voice was crisp. “A loose tank hit the Collins platform at the shop module. The impact must have torqued the whole platform; the seal to Izzie popped. Our Launch Bay decompressed along with the platform’s spine, but only scrapes and bruises reported so far. How’s Izzie? Rolf, you report first.”
One by one, Izzie’s crew reported no signs of damage.
“Finish up your leak surveys, then stand-down the emergency.”
Harry returned to Quarters with his two Collins workers; a dozen people floated there, listening to the chatter on their uni-links. Everyone turned towards Matt when he popped through the aft airlock.
“It could have been worse,” he said. “There’s some damage to the Collins shop, but the only hull breach was the seal between Izzie and the platform. No significant injuries.”
“You guys did a great job,” Matt said, nodding to his crew. “Letter-perfect response. The Collins team is repairing the seal now, and they’ve already ordered a replacement tank. This will only cost us a few days.”
“Surely an accident like this requires a full structural analysis,” Ryan said, his blue eyes widening.
“We’ll restart acceptance testing from the top; that’ll cover everything.”
Ryan looked uncomfortable, but nodded.
The seal was repaired before the shift ended and testing resumed. Systematically the crew went through Izzie’s systems: air and water recycling, power and signal cables, temperature control and kitchen operations. The days flew by. They worked long hours and deferred unpacking the station’s internal equipment, and met the aggressive schedule.
There was only one significant problem when they sat down for Matt’s last acceptance-test meeting.
“The controls for the aft thruster ring are still giving intermittent readings,” Seong reported, scowling.
“What’s the issue?”
“When I send the test signal, occasionally I get different readings back. We’ve replaced all the quantum tunneling relays from Command aft to the Life Support.”
“Well, we have plenty of spare relays,” Matt said. “Replace the rest of them, eh? We’ve got to break orbit in two days to make the comet rendezvous.”
“But there shouldn’t be a problem at all,” Seong said, still frowning. “I might believe one or two relays were bad. But every relay in the chain? I don’t like details being rushed. Each one is a possible failure point.”
“Look Seong.” Matt spoke with exaggerated patience. “The aft thrusters are a secondary system, anyway. We weren’t planning to activate it on this mission until the comet mining popped up. If the comet doesn’t yield any fuel, we just continue our cruise past Mars to the Helios anomaly using the vector thrusters.”
“That would turn Izzie into one slow boat.” Rolf shook his head glumly.
“I have to slow Izzie down and match the comet’s path to support the mining mission. If the aft system doesn’t provide a velocity boost when I leave the comet, the trip will take our entire tour onboard.”
“That would still meet all our required mission goals.” Matt folded his arms across his chest. “The next crew can worry about the aft system if it doesn’t work.” Matt ground his teeth together. He could leave the aft system for the crew that would relieve them in thirty months, but he’d score more points with the Director if he got the thrusters running on comet fuel. And that was only possible if they achieved the comet rendezvous. He had to make the best of it.
Rolf huffed out an exasperated breath, but said nothing.
“You’ve got the problem handled anyway, eh Seong? You’re checking each relay, right? Replace the bad ones and let’s go.”
“This is the relay,” Seong continued quietly, as if she were talking to herself. She laid her stick-link in the center of the table to display a holograph. It showed an exploded diagram with layers of stacked chips, each the size of a fingernail, installed between two flayed fiber bundles. Harry poked the image and it rotated, one fiber bundle snaking upwards, the other fading into the tabletop.
“I’ve worked with a lot of quantum relays,” Harry said. “My family uses fly-bots to monitor the reforestation projects we manage, and I’ve used them at the Institute, too. These connections… something is wrong. Like the relay’s wrong for the fiber bundle.”
“What?” Matt sounded impatient. “Experts on quantum relays designed these.”
“I notice things. Something’s wrong,” Harry said. He poked the holograph again. “I notice details.”
“The relay is correct,” Seong said. “Here is that same relay in the simulation we trained on.” She tapped her link controls and a second image popped up next to the original. They were identical.
“Just replace the relays,” Matt said. “If we don’t break orbit on time, we’ll miss a rendezvous with that comet. If we’re not close enough to deploy the damned Brazilian mine…” Matt interrupted himself. “Not that we’re not pleased to have the mine along.”
Vera, the Brazilian engineer, seldom said anything in Matt’s meetings and he’d forgotten she was there.
“You don’t offend me,” Vera said in her soft Portuguese accent. “Is just business.”
“Well, the contract says if we don’t deploy the mine at Comet Hobbs, the Institute is on the hook for a financial penalty.”
“Why’d the Institute agree to a penalty, anyway?” Seong pressed her lips together tightly in frustration.
“Because without Brazil there’s not a chance they’ll break even. And if they don’t break even, it’ll delay construction of our relief ship.”
“Surely, the Institute would not leave us stranded so far from home?” Kesa looked alarmed.
“Well, no. No, of course not.” Matt shook his head.
“Seong; how about the vector thrusters? That’s the primary system and we can run the whole mission with them. Did they check out okay?”
“No problems there; they check out one hundred percent.”
“Then the aft system is just a bonus. Will you sign off on it?”
“Not until tomorrow. Not until the relays are replaced.” She was still unhappy.
“Good. You’re good, Seong. I have confidence in you.” Matt was smiling now. “I’ll tell Mission Control to have their sign-off ready, too.
“Now, let’s get some rest everyone,” he said firmly, ending the meeting. “Tomorrow the Institute will formally accept delivery of Izzie by the Collins Dock and she’ll be ours.”
Harry sat at the table after the others had left, fiddling with his water bottle. Then he noticed Vera was still standing behind him.
“You were right to speak up,” she said. “The commander should not be dismissive.”
“Thank you, Dr Lago.”
“Please call me Vera.” She pushed her stick-link onto the table and opened the station’s design prints.
“My job is mining, but I’m also a member of this crew.
“That is the right part number, Mr Gordon,” she said after scrolling through the specifications.
“Everyone calls me Harry. And thanks for checking the relay. Vera.” She had checked the specs, so she must not think he was stupid, but Seong had the right relay after all. Harry felt his face flush warm and fiddled with his water bottle again.
Vera slipped her link back into a sleeve pocket. “I’m going to my bunk now. Good night, Harry.” She pushed off from the table straight to her bunk overhead.
Harry preferred to pull himself up the ladder, hand over hand.
In Izzie’s last two days in Dock, the Collins team pulled a cradle with three engines up against Izzie’s aft module and Rolf adjusted attitude so Izzie was aimed for departure. On their final morning in orbit around Earth, Izzie’s crew made their way forward to Command. The acceleration would not be strong enough to require special couches, but they would feel the push. The padded bulkhead in Command made a fine place to strap in for the ride.
While Rolf and Matt selected their favorite keyboards on the control consoles’ desk-like tops, everyone else fastened themselves into a restraining harness. Matt pulled up flat projections of Izzie’s key systems on the console’s back panel, but Rolf preferred holographs floating above his entry board. He had several holos going at once, moving them with a touch here and there as he worked.
Harry scanned the module curiously as he waited, comparing it to his mental image from training.
Command was cavernous compared to most of Izzie’s modules. There were no utilities hung in its center to block Harry’s view; here utilities emerged from the deck to run up the backs of the consoles: ventilation, power, and lights that aimed straight up to illuminate the opposite side of the module. Consoles were laid out in three rings with wide aisles between them.
Matt sat at the first console off the passageway. He slipped his shoulders into the two straps that hung from the chair back and twisted his boots into the ring that circled the chair’s pedestal support. He checked that the rest of the crew was strapped to the bulkhead.
“Okay Rolf. The crew is secure,” Matt said. He glanced to his left. Rolf had chosen a console in the center of the red quad, which put him above Matt’s eye level. From Matt’s perspective, his head jutted out and hung lower than his feet. Izzie’s curved deck created some weird illusions. Of course, Rolf sat as comfortably as Matt did, strapped to his chair with his down-boots flat against the deck.
“This is Collins Dock Tug Baker. Are you ready, Izzie?” A tug would accompany them through the engine burn, and then gently pull the engine cradle off to tow it back to the dock.
“Pilot ready,” Rolf replied, pulling his uni-link cap down snuggly on his head and flipping the visor into place with a click.
“Releasing dock power tether.”
“Izzie’s now on internal power. Ready for engine ignition.”
“Activating the forward imagers.”
The displays were breathtaking. The entire front half of Command was covered in screens; it was like the cupola had disappeared and the module opened to space. Rolf hadn’t switched the holographic projectors on. When activated, a holo would fill the cupola and tower over anyone who stood on the deck.
Earth jutted out from under the deck in one quadrant and the Moon in another. But most of the cupola was filled with the black space ahead of them; the glare of Earth and the Moon washed out the stars. It was like floating naked in space.
Harry shivered and tightened his harness straps.
“Countdown underway,” Matt said. He didn’t bother with his uni-link visor; all the read-outs were visible on his console. Precisely on zero the engines fired. Since Izzie was already in orbit, they didn’t need the acceleration required to blast off from Earth’s surface, but after so long in zero gravity, even the gentle acceleration felt uncomfortable. Everyone stayed quiet, listening to Rolf and the tug pilot exchange reading.
“Everything’s fine,” Rolf said at last, relaxing back in his seat. “We’re on our way.”
Two hours and forty three minutes later, exactly as planned, the engines shut down. The tug pulled back on the engine lugs and Izzie slipped gently out of the cradle.
“Good journey, Izzie,” the tug pilot said as she pivoted for the trip back to the Collins Dock. “You’re on your own now.”
“There go my only proper engines,” Rolf said with a sigh.
“Thrusters are all we need,” Matt muttered. “Izzie’s a commercial platform, not a spaceship.”