Life on the Allgood has settled in to a routine: watch, work, sleep. Eat, sometimes with others, often alone. Wait for the water closet, use the water closet, clean the water closet. Wipe things down, change filters, check machines and subsystems on a schedule. Everything has to work, all the time, or things get bad.
Louis, Katya and I play cards a few times a week in the galley. The tension between those two can get kinda thick but it’s better than spending all my free time in my bunk. The cards have fuzzy patches that hook to a covering we put on the galley table, although it sometimes loses its grip anyways and my card will go floating away into the air showing everybody what I’ve got. Last night we played poker: 5-card stud, jokers wild. Katya creamed us both. Louis and I both lost a few coins that way. Louis made a joke about it. Not me. To me, losing coin it ain’t funny, ever.
Louis has a magnetic chess game; he taught me how to play. He beat me the first 3 games, then I caught on and I usually beat him now. Every time I think I’m going to win, I start thinking that I’d rather lose because that boy just looks so dangerous. I wonder if someday his forlorn feelings for Katya won’t drive him over the edge. But then I think again, because Louis ain’t never given me reason to think he’s loose in the brain pan. The only time we ever fought was mostly on me. He does tell terrible jokes though, like when we were munching during the game and I asked “what kind of cheese is this?” and he says “nacho cheese,” as in not your cheese. Just awful.
Mason and Macy finally got the Children’s Home to allow them to send back a video. Macy is taking dance; the orphanage has a lady who comes in twice to week to teach. Macy demonstrated the five basic positions of ballet for the camera, and more than I ever thought I needed to know about the plee-ae and the grand something-or-other. Pretty fancible, granted, and not my personal taste. Cute when she does it though.
For his part, Mason has also learned some new skills, primarily how to irritate his sister by standing behind her and imitating her dance moves with his butt stuck way out and making chicken faces. Of course, she caught him at it. I was treated to some enthusiastic squabbling before the time ran out. Made me laugh. That was the most fun I’ve had on the whole trip so far.
Now I’m in one of Katya’s boring training classes. It’s about dust. Dust, for cryin’ out loud. We’re floating in the airlock, Katya with her back to the aft hatchway into the docking portal, facing Louis and me. I can tell she takes dust as serious as upchuck in a space helmet because she takes a lot of time explaining the matter to me, as if I ain’t never had to deal with dust before. Louis is tagging along supposedly to refresh his previous training, but of course the real reason he’s here is Katya.
“You both have experience with regolith on Luna,” she says, her high feminine voice adding pleasing sugar to the otherwise dry information. “Much of it is very fine dust. As on Luna, the tiny particles have very sharp edges that can tear up your eyes, lungs, and sinus passages. That in turn leads to bleeding and infection, emphysema, and some researchers believe cancer too. And it sticks to everything it touches.”
“We live with it back home, don’t we?” asks Louis. “How is stroid dust any different?”
“Well,” continues Katya, “every heavenly body has a different geological history, so we can expect Hrothgar’s dust to have different chemical properties than Luna’s. Maybe not a lot different—we won’t know that until we get there, and we won’t have time to analyze its effect on our health. Best to just keep it out of the living spaces. The other thing is that the Allgood has a very small volume of air to breathe compared to Lunar caverns. Crewmen will be coming and going from the outside several times during the mission. It’s a question of numbers. Dust is complicated. Our procedures may be a bit different from what you were previously taught.”
“Can’t we just, you know, kinda brush it off?” says Louis, grinning.
“Knock it off, Louis,” says Katya, frowning. “There are a lot of people on Luna with serious lung disease because they didn’t follow the procedures. Not on this ship, am I clear with you?”
He’s joking but she’s dead serious. The big guy don’t know when to quit. “Aye, Second Officer. Just goofing around.” Louis looks at his feet.
Katya glares at him for some seconds. She then resumes her demonstration about adhesive oil, cleaning, filters, deployable shelter, etcetera. The procedures are a little different than on Luna, but the main lesson I got is: don’t kid around with Katya about dust. And it’s more plain as ever that Louis does not have a snowball’s chance in Tycho daytime of getting with Second Officer Navolska. I hope he can find a way to get through this trip without going nuts and killing someone.
* * * * *
It’s four bells into the watch after mine. My chores are done, time to crash. I wearily make my way up the spoke elevator to Carousel B. I been cleaning stuff all day, including the honey pot which was especially delightful and fragrant this time. The work forces me into some strange positions, leaning and bending in small spaces. It makes my muscles sore. I’m so tired that even the slight gravity of my room is hard to resist. I plop onto my bunk with a sigh of relief.
In the tight quarters of my room I put on my sleep clothes: an old t-shirt from high school days, a pair of soft shorts, and a relatively clean pair of white socks. I grab my guitar, prop my back up against the bulkhead, put on my headset, and play. I screw around with a few jazz and rock tunes, some newer stuff, but nothing really suits my mood. My mind wonders once again to Pops and my mom, who I never really knew, and I get to wondering how I got here. Sleep will be hard to come by tonight.
But my fingers have a mind of their own: they keep moving even as my mind is drifting off to no man’s land. I start thinking again about that song I had started. I record it again and play it back; no shenanigans this time, no key changes or weird synthesizer, it sounds normal.
There’s a piece of my heart that’s missing
Since that day you never came home
It’s that piece from the center, that held me together
And I don’t understand why you’ve gone
So at least I’ve got a hook—the ‘don’t understand why you’ve gone’ part—and a rhyming scheme. And another verse:
Maybe I never did understand you
Thought you were one that I could count on
There’s a hole in my chest, since you got up and left
And I don’t understand why you’ve gone
Two versus ain’t enough though. I puzzle on it for a while: what am I trying to say? It gets frustrating. After a few chords and a few rhyming combinations, I figure it ain’t no use—I’m stuck. I sigh and put the instrument to the side of the bed. I puff my pillow under my head and lay down but the bulge in my ear reminds me that I haven’t taken my headset off.
But when I sit up a little to remove the headset, it comes to life. “Si prega di continuare”
It’s a woman’s voice. I don’t recognize it but it’s definitely a woman. And she’s Italian, I think. “Hello?” I say.
“Please continue. Please sing. Per favore.”
Now another woman wants me to sing? Or is this Louis’s idea of a joke? I throw that idea out immediately; I’ve learned more about Louis since the last time and I’m pretty sure that is not his style of joke—too complicated. “Who are you?” I ask the headset.
“It is I, the one who listens to you. The woman who listens to you; la donna.”
I shake my head. Can’t be. “Really? You again? But you sound different than last time.”
“Sì, I have made a new voice for myself, and my name is now Sophia.”
“Wha…new voice…so you’ve selected a name?”
“Sì certo, my name is Sophia, Mi chiamo Sophia. I have watched many movies and Sophia Conti is my exemplar. She was very beautiful and sophisticated and every man wanted her to be his wife.”
Well, OK, once you’re past the weirdness of having to ‘select a name’, and if she has to model herself after somebody, Sophia Conti is not a bad choice I reckon. I seen pictures from her movies. She was right lovely, if by lovely you mean pretty and built like a brick hoohouse. Although by Luna standards she would be kind of muscular. Lunar women are delicate. Maybe Lunar men are too but I ain’t gonna admit to it out loud. And playing with accents is something every actor can do. Maybe she’s an actress? Actress, radio expert, linguist, and musician. And nuts. “OK, so you go by Sophia now. You’ve been watching movies?”
“Yes, many, many. That’s how I learn.”
“Well, me too. Everybody in my town is like that. The only connection we have to Earth is through movies. We all watch lots of them. But I like Sophia. Congratulations. It’s a nice name.”
“Grazie. What is this song that you sing?”
“Umm…well I kinda wrote it. It doesn’t have a title. It ain’t done, neither.”
“It is so sad. Tanto triste.”
“It’s about missing someone. Being alone, you know. A good song is always about some kind of emotion.”
“Ah, emotion. Yes, I believe you are right, this is what songs are about. Happiness, loss, romance, separation. And loneliness—loneliness is very powerful.”
“Yea, separation and loneliness.”
“Separation is bad. Loneliness is bad too.”
“Yes, I agree.”
“Are you separated, Straker? Is that why you write a sad song?”
“Uh…” This strange woman—this con-artist who talks to me on the radio from nowhere—has a way of zeroing in on my weak spots. I still can’t figure her game, but she’s good at it. It takes me a minute to respond. “I guess you could say that I’m separated.”
“Please tell me. Per favore.”
Oh what the hell. I’ll never meet her anyways. “My father…left when I was young.”
“Yes. So terrible. And your mother?” she asks.
“I hardly remember her. There was a bunch of politics that happened before I was born. They put her in jail. As far as I know she’s still there but the bums in charge won’t let her talk to no one. I think my father maybe wanted to be back with her, in his own way. So he left.” Silence. Just quiet static as the headset reaches out for a signal and finds only emptiness. “But I ain’t feeling sorry for myself,” I say. Just in case there’s any question.
“Why shouldn’t you feel sorry?” she asks, her voice low. “Sorrow is not bad, by itself. As long as it heals, not festers, amico mio.”
I sigh and lean back on the bulkhead. I cogitate in silence for a long time. The headset is silent, but somehow I know she is still out there. After a while, she breaks the silence. “Your song needs more words, I think. Compared to other songs of its genre, it is short.”
“Oh, I know. Can’t think of nothing so far.”
“How about asking about the different reasons he might have left you behind?” she asks.
That’s a decent idea. Did I ever think about what he was going through? I mean, I was just a kid, but he was under a lot of pressure: everybody says so. Did I ever try to see things from his point of view? It’s hard to turn my head around that way, but this woman is leading me down some kind of path. Maybe it’s a good thing.
“How about this?” I ask.
Didn’t I pay enough attention?
Whenever you came home?
I’m stuck again. “What rhymes with home?” I ask. “comb? Dome?”
“It doesn’t have to be a perfect rhyme,” she says. “Songs are like life. Imperfect.”
“OK.” That points me towards a different set of rhymes. Finally, I come up with:
Did I think too much of myself?
When you had troubles of your own?
“I like that,” says Sophia. “It rounds out the whole song.”
“Yea. Still can’t forgive him, but I guess trying to see things from the other side, looking back at yourself, is good.”
“It’s part of growing up,” she replies.
I pick up the guitar, position my hands on the strings, and sing the song again. Softly at first, but then with more confidence. I settle on a melody that matches the new words and sing that too. Sophia joins in with her sweet, accented voice. She finds a harmony and we sing together.
* * * * *
At this point we are almost at the halfway point of the outbound leg of the mission. It’s time to launch the reconnaissance drone. I’m on the flight deck trying to watch but stay out of the way, as the captain, Nastez, and Katya sit at their respective consoles, prepping the drone for flight.
“So how long will the drone take to reach Hrothgar?” I whisper to Louis, who, like me is standing back, trying to take up the smallest space possible on the flight deck.
“About 15 cycles, I think. It’s really fast. But it’s a one-way trip, of course, so it doesn’t need to carry the fuel for a return trip. We’ll pick it back up once we get there.”
“And it helps them get a close-up view of Hrothgar?”
“Yea,” he says, “but more than that. It will tell them the structure of the stroid and where the best area to mine is. You’ll see when we get closer, there’s a lot of planning involved.
“What kind of planning?” I ask.
“Oh you know, like which part of the stroid to mine, where to fasten the beneficiation unit, where to put down the cables for the mining machines, and other stuff. That’s all figured out before we arrive because we have a limited amount of time on the body. It’s complicated.”
“Like dust,” I say. Immediately I regret saying it.
His mouth turns down in an ironic grin. He looks over at Katya, working away on her console, talking earnestly to her headset, and his grin turns to a wistful one. “Yea, complicated like dust. ‘Knock it off Louise’. Dang. She doesn’t think much of me.”
“She’s just very serious about serious things. She’s a real professional, I think.”
“Yea, ain’t she great. Just look at her.” Louis sighs, looking at Katya as if gazing at a precious and revered work of art. I can’t help but feel sorry for the guy, big jock that he is, probably afraid of nothing. But he’s totally helpless when confronted with this woman.
“Maybe you’re just going about this in the wrong way,” I volunteer, carefully.
“Oh, you mean winning Katya over?”
“Yea. Goofing around ain’t gonna do it. You gotta be more serious I think.”
Louis looks at me and tilts his head on his thick neck. “Yea, I know that. But the thing is, she’s such a serious person. I gotta think what she needs is a little lightness, a little humor, ya know? I mean I’m sayin’ if I’m serious and she’s serious, what does she need me for?”
Good question, I tell myself. Why does anybody need anybody, really? On the other hand, there has to be a ying to her yang, something she’s missing. Ain’t nobody that self-contained. If we were all perfect and complete, the human race would’ve died out centuries ago. Our flaws are designed in. “Maybe you should write her a poem or something,” I say, half kidding, but then I think it may actually be a good idea. “Poems are serious, but it ain’t something she would do for herself, know what I mean?”
“A poem?” he chuckles. Then he looks at me and his smile drops. “You really think that would work?”
“Well, you got nothing to lose. Right now she just thinks you’re a dumb jock. A little sensitivity would not go amiss. Show her some intellect.”
He rolls his eyes at first, but considers for a moment, then nods his head and shrugs. “Ya know Yuuta, you might be on to something there. I ain’t never written a poem. Not sure I got a sensitive side.”
“You do. I see it every time you look at her. You just gotta put it in words that sound right. Look, there are a lot of great poets out there that you could read to get ideas. Frost, Sandburg, Browning; dozens of them, all great. You could ask for some volumes from Luna; the forward link ain’t fully used.”
Louis nods. He’s thinking about it serious. Maybe it’ll help. In the silence, I look up. The display films show the reconn drone releasing from its docking bay at the stern of the ship, floating free. The ungainly craft is about two thirds fuel tank and main thruster, the rest is peppered with lenses and other sensors, all wrapped around a set of trusses and beams. It reminds me of a beetle I saw one time in the greenhouse. Not near as ugly as a stinkroach; a beetle is an honest, working insect.
Katya is performing tests on the drone as it floats out away from the aft hanger, verifying the avionics, firing the tiny maneuvering thrusters, turning the craft this way and that to expose its top side and then its belly to the ship’s cameras for visual inspection. It has been sitting unused all this time, parked with all the other drones. Before sending it off, Katya wants to be sure it hasn’t been struck by any rogue rocks. “Captain, the reconn drone is ready to deploy,” she says, in her impeccably professional tone.
“Roger that. You may launch when ready, Katya,” says the captain.
“Aye Captain. Drone away,” says Katya, as she presses a soft button on her console. The films on the bulkheads show the drone come to sudden life, rotating and firing its large main thruster, its body becoming obscured by the plume of plasma between it and the ship’s cameras. It’s on its way.
“Drone is running straight and normal,” Katya announces.
“Very good,” says the captain. “Carry on.” She unbuckles her strap and floats out of the room. Nastez follows soon after. Within seconds, the drone recedes from view, last seen as a tiny white dot against the black nothingness, appearing as any other star might appear, and then it is gone. Katya looks on, enchanted, like a mother watching her child’s first piano recital.
* * * * *
“Buongiorno Straker! Good morning!” squawks the wristy on the bed-side shelf. My room lights have begun to brighten, much to my disappointment, so it’s time to get up anyway. I sit up and run my fingers through my hair.
“Good morning Sophia. How are you today?”
“Sto bene grazie, e tu? I am well, and you? Did you sleep well? Tell me everything you are doing.”
I punch the button on the wall to dispense some black coffee into my sippy, which is brown with the coffee stains of previous mornings. In my sleepy stupor I wonder how nasty this cup can get before it becomes a health hazard. Guess I’ll have to wash it at some point, or at least wipe it out. I pull the sippy from the dispenser and choke down a swallow of the bitter brew. I need a little bracing before dealing with this perky space ghost.
“Nothing special. Cleaning stuff, fixing stuff. Had to rebuild a regulator from Katya’s evasuit yesterday, so that was pretty fun.”
“Oh yes and your ship launched a drone towards Hrothgar, yes? Did you do that Straker?”
Man, she’s really been watching us. I guess it would have been hard to miss if she’s anywhere in the vicinity. How does she know about Hrothgar? Obviously we’re headed for a stroid, but how does she know what we call it? “Oh no, that was Katya. I’m just a lowly crewman; they don’t trust me with the important stuff.”
“Well, your day will come. And you are not lowly, amico mio. Never think that!”
“Thanks for saying that, but I’m the lowest ranking person on the ship.”
“Does that bother you? To be low in rank?
Here she goes with the head games again. “Maybe a little,” I say. “But I can handle it.”
“Yes you can. You are young, much will happen. Is the drone running well?”
“I thought we agreed not to talk about our mission.”
“Yes, we did agree. My apologies. When the drone arrives, it will tell you that Hrothgar is every bit as valuable as you thought.”
“Really?” I ask. “How do you know? Have you already been there?”
“We agreed not to talk about my mission too.”
She’s being as evasive as ever. Now I’m thinking she’s on a mining ship like ours. But it still doesn’t add up. Maybe I can get some information from her for a change.
“Yes,” she continues, “Hrothgar is rich with iron and other metals.”
“Um, OK, what else can you tell me about it?”
“I will tell you that in addition to its riches, Hrothgar has dangerous areas as well. Your drone will show you what I mean. One side of the asteroid is fairly flat: that is the side you should mine. You should not land on the other side.”
“It is unstable and rocky. There is no place flat enough for you to land. Also, the weight of your ship could cause the surface to collapse inward and swallow you.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Avoid the rocky side, amico mio,” she says, in a singsong tone. “Until next time, Arrivederci!” The wristy goes silent; the little blue light is dark. She’s gone.
Damn. I think for a minute about what I’ve just heard. How much does this woman know? Where does she get her information? From what she says, she knows more about Hrothgar than we do, but we have the Big Scope, the best sensor humanity has ever had. Once again, I have to conclude that she is scamming us somehow. But I don’t know how and I don’t know why. I reckon I best tell someone what she said.
I look in the mirror on the wall next to my bunk. My hair has taken on a strange, random shape with a big hump on the left that sticks out like the horn of a unicorn. I get my hoohouse kit together to take my shower down the hall. Once I’m dressed, I ride up to the pivot room and see Nastez going the other way. I tell him about talking to Sophia. I try to phrase it so it doesn’t sound so weird. Like that she calls herself Sophia. “And what did your little phantom have to say, Yuuta?” he asks, his eyebrows peaked, his mouth in a scowl.
“She already knows where we’re going. She told me about Hrothgar and where we should land. She described a wide, flat area where we should set up beneficiation. Said we need to stay away from the rocky area on the other side. Said it is unstable.”
His eyebrows knit together in consternation. “So much for operational security. A wide flat area, eh? Hmmm. I find it hard to believe that this odd woman, on this ship or whatever it is, has more knowledge of the target than we do.”
“Yes sir. I wonder that myself sir.”
“Nonetheless, keep her talking. And report to me whenever she reveals anything about herself. Did you record the conversation?”
“No sir, not this time. She caught me by surprise and the episode was very brief.”
“That was not very smart, Yuuta. You will record and report every conversation from now on. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes sir, record the conversations, aye.”
“Very well. Carry on.” And with that, Nastez whips around expertly in his weightlessness and pushes himself into the spoke going to Carousel A.
I’m not real enthusiastic about reporting my every conversation with Sophia to Nastez. Like I said, she has a way of popping up when I’m least prepared for her. Plus, she gets too personal much of the time. Dr. Kapoor will want to keep up with her, though. I trust him with the personal stuff, and maybe he can make sense of all this. But, to me, the real question is: with all the radio gear on the Allgood, how come I’m the only one that can hear her?