I’m sitting on the bed watching Pops pack his overnight bag. His face is freshly shaven, his straight, black hair neatly combed. He smells like soap. He’s wearing a blue sport coat and a white collared shirt that I ain’t seen before. I’m used to seeing him in a casual, collarless shirt. He knows exactly what he needs as he whisks around the room, gathering and folding clothing. He packs it all into his bag, along with a big electronic pad, with crisp efficiency.
“Where ya goin’?” I ask, swinging my crossed feet off the side of the bed. My socks have fallen down from my ankles and my shoe laces are untied but so what, I don’t care. I’m little.
“I’m going to a big meeting,” he replies as he looks over at me with a smile in his eyes. He lays down a clean shirt on top of the pile in his case. “It’s with a whole bunch of important people. I’ll be right under the Mountain of Eternal Light at Malapert Crater. Isn’t that fun?”
“Wow Pops. Is that the mountain that’s always on fire?”
“That’s right Straker. It’s always daytime up there.”
“How come you’re going?” I ask. I ain’t used to him being gone. I don’t much like it neither.
“Because your father needs money; lots and lots of it,” he says, smiling. “We’re going to change things. Everything is going to be much better for all of our friends here in town. Mining big space rocks is just a start. So I need to be at my very best for this meeting.”
“You gonna leave me here?” I ask. I know the answer already but I just like to hear him talk and I want to keep him here as long as I can.
He sits on the bed next to me and looks me straight in the eyes with that look he has—the one that puts a lock on your soul. He puts his hand softly on my head. “I would never leave you Straker. I’ll be back tomorrow in time for dinner. You’ll have fun here with Mister Doctor and Missus Doctor. They going to take you to see the sheep.”
Well why didn’t you say so. “Yay! I love the sheep!” But I don’t want to give in too easy. “Will you bring me back something?”
“Maybe, if the Kapoors say you’ve been good. I’ll bet there are some pretty cool toys over at Malapert. Maybe something a boy would like. But you have to do your part, little man.”
“Yay! Will you bring a bracelet like you have?” I ask, fingering the silvery bracelet on his wrist.
“Well,” he says, tilting he head and inspecting the bracelet. “This bracelet is special.” There won’t be one for sale at Malapert, but maybe I’ll make you one someday.”
“Promise? Promise you’ll make me one?” I’ve wanted one like it forever. I want everything he has. I want to be just like him.
“Oh what the heck,” he says, and unfastens the clasp that holds the bracelet. “You can hold on to this until I get back. It’s very special, so don’t take it off OK? I don’t want you to lose it.”
“Wow, thanks Pops.” This is the best moment of my life, I’m thinking. He wraps the cool metal around my skinny wrist. It’s way too big: even with the clasp fastened, the heavy bracelet just falls off my arm. But Pops is an improviser; he pulls a piece of wire out the junk drawer by the bed and twists it into the bracelet, tightening it up. “You did it!” I exclaim in utter admiration.
“When I get back I’ll see about getting you one of your own. Now you need to be a good boy for the Kapoors, OK? You need to promise me.”
I nod. “Yes, I promise Pops.” I’ll be good I guess. As long as they take me to see the sheep. I love animals, and sheep are the best animals in the world. They don’t mind being petted, unlike the big rabbits with the mean teeth and mean eyes. I still remember other kinds of animals on Earth and someday I’ll go back and see them too; I can’t wait.
“Good.” He puts his hand the handle of the case, but them releases it and turns to hug me. “I’ll be back tomorrow. I’ll miss you son.”
I hug him back. “I’ll miss you too Pops. I ain’t happy when you’re not here.”
“I love you Straker. And don’t talk like a miner. Say you aren’t happy, not you ain’t happy.”
“OK, I will. I love you too Pops.” He holds me. I feel his warmth. I rub his bristly face.
Then I wake up. My wristy is lit up with the alarm—I tap to shut it off. Time to get ready for my watch.
But part of me is still in the dream. I finger the bracelet, still on my wrist after all these years. The warm feeling lingers and I slowly realize in my groggy state that it wasn’t just a dream, it was a memory. From a time in my life when I had family. Of my Pops who never returned. Before Pops rid himself of his snot-nosed, needy kid. Me.
Down in my guts I still don’t know why he left the way he did. The thought of it burns my insides every day. But I can’t do nothing about that now. I rub the bare spots on my wrists where the duct tape has pulled off the hair and slowly my head comes back to the world of now. I sigh and stand up from my bed and ready myself for another grim day.
* * * * *
“I know he’s got a thing for me,” says Katya, pointing the probe into the metal casing. The probe sounds little tones as its laser measures the shape of the inside of the casing. She looks beat. She’s already fixed the attitude thrusters and worked with Louis and Nastez to replace both turbopumps on the port engine. Just as Katya has guessed, one pump was completely smashed by space rocks, the other was dented. The dent in turn caused damage to the turbine.
The damage is fixable so that’s what we’re doing. Without it, we’d have no spare pumps.
Katya and I are in the engineering area. Like Katya, I’m wearing a white ‘clean’ jumpsuit, hairnet, and surgical mask. The mask covers my nose and mouth, making it so I’m breathing back a little of my own breath. I’m wishing I hadn’t eaten canned tuna with onions for lunch. But all this clothing is required when the turbopump casing is open.
“Does it need another whack?” I ask.
“Yes, I think so,” she replies. “One or two more should do it. Mea, mark the high point.”
“OK,” replies Mea.
MEA, the Mechanical Engineering Assistant, is a multi-armed robot able to reach anywhere within the room. It’s not a very strong robot, but it’s versatile and very precise. One of the spindly arms moves over us and rotates its multiple joints to lower the arm down into the interior of the turbopump casing. Its tiny paint gun sprays a little dot on the part of the casing that I haven’t yet sufficiently hammered down.
The big work surface in front of us—which holds the casing—is actually part of the robot. Up to now it’s been used mainly to hold down boxes of oranges and potatoes, but now that the area is needed, we pushed all that foodstuffs over to the other side of the room and fastened them down with bungi cords. The metal clamps hold and turn the big pump casing to whatever angle we need. The only thing the robot can’t do is swing a hammer. Finally, there’s something I’m qualified to do. Not standard operating procedure, but when you’re in space sometimes you have to improvise.
“But aren’t you interested in him?” I ask, readying the ball-peen hammer in my wrist, squinting at the sprayed dot as the robot arm moves out of my way. I rehearse the motion of hitting the dot without touching it, yet.
“No…no. I can’t really say why. It’s like he doesn’t have…substance or something. And he’s so beefy. To be honest, he’s kind of frightening.”
I pull back my arm and let fly with the ball side of the hammer, hitting the dot dead on. “Check again,” I say.
Katya scans the spot again, then wipes it down with a solvent-soaked sponge. “I think that’s good enough. Thanks Straker.” She looks up at the arms above us. “Mea, install the turbine and check the clearance.”
The robot responds and starts an elaborate set of movements. Katya and I each take a step back as a pair of Mea’s arms swings the big, multi-bladed turbine assembly over to the casing, rotate it to a horizontal orientation, and slowly lower it down, precisely centering the hub over its mating shaft. Earlier we had replaced a half-dozen of the turbine blades and balanced it out.
“I can’t put my finger on it,” I say, “but I think there’s more to Louis than he lets on. It’s like he’s holding back or something.”
“Why would he do that?” asks Katya.
“Don’t know,” I say. “He must have his reasons. Like when we had that fight—it was like he was holding back. He was angry but he never hit me. I think he coulda kicked my ass. And sometimes I catch him and the captain having private conversations. When I come by, they shut up.”
Katya shrugs. “Well, if he’s got some secrets or hidden reservoir of ambition, I’ve never seen it. Everything about him just screams ‘dumb jock’.”
“Clearance is within specifications,” announces Mea.
“OK good,” says Katya, nodding her head. “Mea, seal the case and attach the manifold.
“OK”, replies the robot.
I step to the right as the manifold—looking like a huge twisted knot of fat metal pasta—comes trundling up beside me. The arms whine and click as they fuss with the assembly: lifting, placing, rotating nuts and bolts.
“Well I ain’t here to advocate for Louis…” I continue.
“I know what you’re doing,” interrupts Katya, her hazel eyes looking at me over the edge of the white surgical mask on her face. “It’s all right. I don’t dislike Louis. I just don’t feel that way about him. I mean, what has he been doing with his time? He’s been out of high school for years, so why doesn’t he have a degree? And as I said before, he’s kind of…unsettling.”
I shrug. “Well, I gotta say I’ve been around some bad boys. I know the way they look at you. I don’t see that look in Louis. At least I don’t think so.”
“You don’t sound very certain. Plus I think he works out too much. It’s weird.”
“It’s good to know that muscles ain’t everything,” I say, holding up my own arms as if in a bodybuilding contest.
Katya chuckles as she puts her probe away in one of the cabinets. “Mostly I just don’t need a man in my life right now. I’ve spent years getting to where I am. I want to have my own ship someday, and then how could I have a family? I’ll be spending most of my time in space.”
“Yea, I get that,” I say. “It’s just that…well, I grew up without a family. I guess I’ve always been jealous of anybody who had one.”
Katya frowns. “I never thought about what it must have been like for you. But tell me the truth, didn’t your dad leave you a fortune?”
“Not a dime,” I say. “Honestly. I mean, there were some assets but the city sold them off to pay for my care.”
“What about your mom?” she asks.
“She’s in an AFP prison somewhere on the Marble. Not sure where. Convicted of unauthorized science.”
“What? That’s barbaric. ‘Unauthorized science’; who makes up these crimes?”
“The Alliance does, I reckon. They clamped down on the seastead pretty hard; lots of people went to jail. I’ve seen the videos but of course they’ve all been sanitized by the AFP.”
Katya shakes her head. “Does she ever mail you?”
“Don’t think she’s allowed to. Or maybe she don’t care; I can’t say. Anyways, I haven’t heard from her.”
Katya sighs. “Sorry Straker. Stick with the Corps. Work your way up. Things will get better for you.” She reflects for a moment, then pulls off her mask and strips off her gloves. “We can take the clean suits off now. The casing is closed.” She looks over at one of the robot’s cameras. “Mea, mark this unit as ‘emergency use only’ and place it in the unpressurized stores. Put the other broken turbopump in the junk pile for recycling.”
“OK,” replies the robot.
I pull off my mask and take a deep breath. “Much better,” I say.
“Throw your gear away. We’ll print new suits if we need to do this again.”
“Glad to. Not the most comfortable outfit.”
“Just be glad we only had to replace a couple of water pumps. If the injectors had been hit, we’d be dealing with uranium hexafluoride. We’d have to work in full radiation gear. Just bending your elbow would make you sweat.”
We both pull off the clean suits, bundle them up and throw them in the burn bin. Katya is back to her black officer’s jumpsuit and me in my khakis. I actually feel sorry for Louis. He’s mining for water in a dry crater. But I sure ain’t gonna be the one to tell him.
* * * * *
We’ve been living with this pimple of a patch on the galley bulkhead for the last 30 hours or so. It’s a serving platter covered by a plastic trash bag held down by pressure, and augmented with copious interlacing strips of duct tape for good measure. The captain and Nastez had made the patch with what they had on hand and this is what they came up with. Nobody likes it. It’s a constant reminder of how vulnerable we are out here, so far away from everything and so exposed to random rock storms. The crew take their meals in the galley in silence, watching the patch all the while, vigilant for any sound of movement that might indicate that it is about to give way.
So while the captain and Katya work on reenergizing the port engine, Louis and I are helping Nastez make a permanent repair to the hull. Nastez pulls on his loose-fitting EVA envelope as I hand him the chest piece. Nastez connects the suit to the chest piece and powers up the fabric, causing it to undulate for a few seconds for calibration, then it steadies out and forms to his body. Nastez backs up into the rigid backpack with its electronics and life support systems and rescue jets, then runs diagnostics. Louis hands him the helmet; Nastez pulls it on and latches it down. He wriggles his hands into the gloves, and straps on his tool-strewn utility belt. Louis and Nastez patiently go through the checklist while I listen. Everything is AOK. Finally, Nastez steps into the airlock and gives a thumbs up.
Louis closes the inner hatch and dogs it down. We watch through the airlock porthole as Nastez pulls the end of the fat umbilical from its feeder mechanism and plugs it into his hip connector. The headlights on his helmet light up with the umbilical’s power.
“Comm check,” says Louis to his headset. I’m wearing a headset too but just so I can monitor—I’m not supposed to talk unless spoken to.
“Five by five Louis,” replies Nastez. “Everything checks. Lights all green.”
“You ready to open up?” asks Louis.
“That’s affirm; go ahead,” replies Nastez. He grabs the foam gun from his belt and waves it like a semaphore flag.
Louis holds down the yellow button on the panel next to him. I can hear the chime of the annunciator and hum of the pump sucking the last of the atmosphere from the chamber on the other side of the porthole. Then Louis presses another button, and the loud clunk of a latch arm sliding back makes me jump. Nastez unlatches his side of the hatch and pulls the door towards him. The hatch opens in its rounded rectangular jam to reveal the endless blackness outside. Turning slightly sideways to clear the umbilical past the hatch door, and with the foam gun in his hand, Nastez flips down his dark visor and steps out into the nothingness as if striding off to an office meeting.
“There he goes,” says Louis, his nose to the porthole glass.
“What’s it like out there?” I ask.
Louis’s eyes light up. “It’s…big. Everything is big. The ship is big, the sky is big. Billion stars. You really gotta know the EVA suit inside and out because you have to trust it. We’ll get you trained up.”
I nod. I’ll be in one of those suits soon enough. We stand there watching the open outer hatch door for a few minutes. Nastez is lost from view. The jerky sliding of the umbilical from its spool is the only testament to the fact that there’s a man out there.
“How did the pump repair go?” asks Louis.
“OK, I reckon. We repaired one unit and scrapped the other one.”
“Did you and Katya talk?”
Oh. That’s what he really wants to know about. “Yea, we did. I don’t know Louis…”
“Don’t know what?”
“I don’t know if you’re maybe not barking up the wrong tree.”
“What? Barking up a tree?”
“Sorry. Got that expression from a movie. I guess dogs bark at trees; not sure why.”
“Did she talk about me?”
I sigh. “Hate to tell you this, but I think you got your heart set on a career woman. She’s just not looking to mate up. Not with anyone.”
Now it’s Louis’s turn to sigh. He puts his big hand to his head and runs his fingers through his hair. “I know she’s a career woman, dammit. That’s fine with me. I don’t know how to get through to her.”
“Well, don’t give up,” I say. “I hear persistence pays off with women.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“Another movie I think.” With that, I leave Louis at his panel and shoot myself towards the flight deck. I got no good advice to give him. What do I know about women?
* * * * *
Right now, all hands are awake and on duty; the first time since we left Luna. It’s not really procedure to do that, but everybody is still wound up from the meteorite strike and no one wants to miss the excitement of the final repair. Most of the displays in the flight deck are showing Nastez’s progression towards the hole in the hull, with different perspectives coming from different cameras. I plant next to Katya’s station. She can see Nastez’ health telemetry as well as his helmet camera. His heartrate and breathing rate are elevated but you can’t hardly blame him. Louis floats in and stands behind us. He and Katya don’t exchange any words.
“Are you watching this, Louis, over?” Nastez asks.
Louis keys his headset; I listen in on mine. “Roger First Officer, Louis is here.”
“Do you see what I have in my hand?” asks Nastez.
“The foam gun, over?” replies Louis.
“Yea, the foam gun. I want you to watch how I apply it. And when I tell you to, I want you to remove the serving platter from the hole. Do you copy, over?”
“Aye, I copy, will stand by, over.”
Nastez uses a couple of carabiners and some webbing to fasten himself to the side of the ship outside the hole. From his helmet camera I can see the extent of the damage left by the rock storm: a long dark slash lacerates the skin of the ship where a rock hit. It evidently impacted at a shallow angle and bounced off into space, but not before penetrating the hull. The steel lip around the hole is a perfect ellipse; symmetrical and smooth as if it had been designed that way, attesting to the tremendous speed and impact of the meteoroid.
“What you must be aware of Louis,” continues Nastez, “is that this foam expands its volume by a factor of about 10, so you don’t want to use too much. Start with a minimal amount—you will have time to add more if you need to.” Nastez injects the dark foam in a thin circular bead around the inside periphery of the hole and pulls back. The foam expands rapidly, as if inflating, or like a blood sucking insect growing more engorged with each passing second.
I stand there amazed, wondering when it will stop. The foam eventually slows down after completely filling in the hole. Nastez touches off his sculpture by adding another dab in the center where the foam is the thinnest. “It’s still tacky,” he says, “but it won’t be for long. Once this compound dries, it will be almost as hard as the steel of the hull. So go pull that platter off the wall now or it’s going to be there forever, over.”
“Pull the platter, aye, over” Louis replies, and pushes off towards the galley. I follow.
The duct tape-garbage bag-and serving platter construction that adorns the galley bulkhead is already bulging inwards from the pressure of the foam. I unstick the tape and ball it up, Louis pulls off the garbage bag—which shreds where the foam has already bonded with it, and then pulls off the platter, although it takes a good bit of effort. He hands the plastic and the platter to me. I get a little bit of the foam on the side of my hand.
Nastez is right; that stuff dries in seconds and it’s mighty tenacious—it holds the atmo like a champ. Just the thing to repair a spaceship hull mid-mission. But the smell of the stuff is something else. I stings my nose like snorting acetone, worse than the solvent back at the mine, making me sneeze like a howitzer. “You didn’t warn me about the smell,” I say to Louis.
“What are you talking about? I don’t smell nothing,” says Louis, sounding like a wounded duck while holding his breath.
“How do I get this crap off my hand?”
“You’ll need a grinder.”
Oh great. Louis keys his headset: “First Officer, Louis. Air pressure holding steady, good fix, over.”
“Copy that Louis,” replies Nastez. “Captain, Nastez.” he continues. “The repair is complete. I’ll go ahead and inspect the rest of the hull if that’s all right with you, over.”
“Nastez, Captain. Copy that Number One. Continue at your judgement. Nice job, congratulations. Captain out.”