Chapter 13

We’ve been aboard Allgood for over 2 months now.  Weeks have gone by since we sent the reconnaissance drone.  With each passing day, we get closer to Hrothgar but farther from Luna and Shacktown and only home I can remember, crappy as it was.  Sometimes I look out the portholes in the galley and gaze at the star-sprinkled black that surrounds us.  When I’m alone I turn the lights down low so I can see better.  But Luna is a ways behind us now—a mere speck of light—so the only way to see her is to zoom in with one of the aft cameras.  Sometimes Louis, Katya and I do that together, just to see Luna in its different phases.

There’s no feeling of speed.  It feels like the ship is holding still while the moving diorama of stars and galaxies in the portholes slowly creep aft as if driven by some kind of clockwork mechanism.  That’s when I get this feeling in the pit of my stomach, a ball of dark and nasty that festers in my insides: Is it fear?  Loneliness?  Or is it that I got no idea what’s going to happen to me?

On the one hand, I’ve developed a sort of easy friendship with my crewmates—except Nastez of course, who’s a jerk at all times.  They’re good people, but knowing that I’m spying on them for the government makes me keep my distance.  I don’t want to get real attached.  I’m on the edge of a new life and I gotta discard these people like a snake sheds his old skin.  I’m committed.  So that’s how I feel, day to day—as I do my chores, keep my watch, study the learning materials, sleep, eat, and do whatever they ask me to.  Here, but not completely here.  Never really at ease.  At least nobody is beating me up.  That’s a nice change from Shacktown.

But after all the monotony, finally there is a buzz around the CM. Today’s the day the reconnaissance drone sends back close-up telemetry.  I’m on the flight deck, my sticky boots planted behind Katya’s station, with Louis taking the console’s other saddle.  Katya is making softly spoken progress updates into her headset, keeping the captain and Nastez up to date.  Mostly critical telemetry items from the drone such as distance and speed.  It’s been a waiting game, but today the drone will park itself beside the asteroid and tell us what it’s made of.

We watch the video streaming back from the drone as Hrothgar looms large in the screen.  Nastez is in control of the multiple camera views from his console, switching back and forth between visual, infrared, and radar-mapping views.  Katya has got maneuvering, although at this distance the bird is pretty much on its own.   We watch as the drone decelerates to the speed of Hrothgar and begins skipping around it, like a hummingbird over a juicy flower, using its thrusters, photographing and analyzing and mapping the surface.  This part goes on for hours.  Finally, the drone moves in close enough for the its robotic arm to reach out and touch the stroid, taking itty bitty samples and chucking them into its internal lab for a chemical breakdown.

It’s fun to watch at first but it takes a long time and frankly I get pretty bored.  I’m about to make some excuse to go back to my bunk when Katya announces that the analysis is complete.  Then, without a word to the rest of the crew, the captain and Officer Nastez retire below to the captain’s ready room.  “Why are they going below?” I ask Louis.  This is the first time I’ve been through this.  I don’t know the routine.

“Beats me.  Probably a planning session.  We’ll see in a little while I reckon.  They have to make a bunch of executive decisions at this point.”

Makes sense.  I nod.

“Hey, you wanna grab some joe?” asks Louis.  “I’m having a hard time keeping my eyes open.  My watch was over hours ago.”

“Sure,” I say, and I pull my boots off the floor and push off towards the galley.  Louis follows me there and we gather up around the coffee maker.

“This is all new to me,” I say.  “I’ve read all about it but whoever wrote up the training stuff left out a lot of details.”

“Yea, I thought so too on my first mission,” he replies between sips from his cup.  “But I’ll tell ya, this Hrothgar is nothing like our previous target.  It’s huge!”

“Looks to me like a smaller version of Luna,” I say.

“There’s enough there to fill up our cargo boxes and then some.  Last mission we had to hit three asteroids before our cargo holds were full.  But for this monster, we could have used a bigger ship.  I mean, compared to what my daddy drove, Allgood is huge.  But she’s only designed for the average sized asteroid, not this baby.”

“Your dad was a spaceman?” I ask.

“Yea…funny story.  He drove some of the early commercial ships; tourists, mostly.  But he was also a part time rodeo clown; grew up in New Mexico.  He was just a cowboy riding a new kind of horse.”

“How about your mom?”

“She grew up in Australia on a big cattle station.  Worked as a government sharp shooter for a while.  She could shoot the nuts off a dingo at 1000 meters.”  He smirks; I get tickled and nearly spurt coffee out my nose.

“Well, you know about my dad,” I say, once I get my breath back.  “Everybody does, the bastard.  Maybe I’ll take my share from the trip and go to Earth and find him.  Not sure what I’d do if I located him, though.”

“Yea, that musta been bad.”

Well, no use going on about that.  “So did you start the Corps training right after high school?” I ask.

“Yea, right after high school.  Got busy doing extra stuff—medical stuff like I said before, so it took me longer to get through than most.”

“What kind of medical stuff?” I ask, thinking that maybe he’ll open up about it.

But it’s pretty obvious he don’t want to answer that.  “Just a medical thing,” he says.  “I sat out a couple of years.”  Louis is such an open book.  It surprises me that he just don’t come out and say ‘I had a drug addiction’ or ‘I had clinical depression’, or whatever it was.  It must be pretty embarrassing, but I can’t help but wonder.

“Hey,” he says, suddenly changing the subject and speaking in a low voice, “Will you listen to my poem?  I want to read it to Katya but I wanna get your opinion first.”  Without waiting for my reply, he pulls a folded piece of paper from his arm pocket.

“Paper?” I say.

“Yea.  Seems to me that a poem ought to be written on paper, proper like.  See, look.”  He unfolds it and holds it for me to see.  It’s all printed, longhand.  Most people don’t know how to do that; some ain’t never even seen a pencil or pen.  But this is very readable.  The big jock is full of surprises.  He’s got culture.  “OK, here it goes,” he says, holding the sheet down under a spotlight.  “I took your advice and read some old poetry.  Ya know, I actually kinda liked it.  People had a lot of heart back then.  This one is a rip-off from a Robert Browning poem.  Anyhow, this is it.”

He stretches the paper out flat and reads in a conspiratorial whisper.

“Ancient craters, watching stars

A blue planet hangs in the sky

And the thousand boulders in my way

A million subtle shades of gray

Step by step through fields so dry

As must be on a far-off Mars

 

Through your airlock chamber doors

Spacesuit doffed, hatch is cleared

Tap at your room, that welcome sight

Of you there, clicking on your light

And a voice less loud, through joy and fears,

Than two hearts beating, mine and yours.”

He looks at me, expectantly, a lock of his hair dangling over one eye.  At this moment he looks like an excited little boy.  A large little boy.  “Wow, Louis…that’s really…it’s really good,” I say.  “You got something there.  If that don’t get to her, nothing will.”

“Yea, that’s what I’m afraid of.  It’s kind of an all-or-nothing thing.”  As if on cue, Katya enters the room from the flight deck.  She looks tired, her eyes sunken and red, her high black ponytail floating above her head like a mesmerized cobra.  Somehow she makes it look good.

“What are you guys doing?” she asks with a weary smile, filling her sippy with coffee and injecting sugar creamer.

Louis look at me with a nervous smile.  He eyebrows arch up one time, saying it’s now or never.  I nod my encouragement.  “Can I show you something, Katya?” he asks.

“Um,” she sips and shrugs, “sure, OK, what?”

Louis tilts his head towards the corner of the galley.  “Can you come over here?”

I can take a hint.  “Actually I’ve got some stuff to do,” I say, as the two of them meander towards the far corner of the room.  But as I push off to leave, I bump the coffee maker with my elbow and accidently pop open the filter compartment.  Liberated coffee grounds go bounding throughout the galley in happy little globs.  Mortified, I grab a cotton bar rag from a cabinet and swoop around trying to catch the coffee grounds before they make an even bigger mess and distribute themselves throughout the ship.

I see Louis reading to Katya, his voice drowned out at this distance by the hum of the ventilators.  I grab a wobbling black ball of gritty fluid in my rag and move to the next one meandering over towards the microwave.  Now Louis is looking up from his paper and over at Katya; I guess he’s finished.  I close in on the soggy ball, trying not to disturb its path by coming in to fast and creating air currents that might change its trajectory.  I surround it with my cloth.  Katya kisses Louis.  On the cheek.  Ouch.

“What in the world are you doing, Yuuta?” demands Nastez, who has just come up from below decks and caught me in my guilty clean up act.

“I had a mishap sir.  Sorry sir.  I’ll have it cleaned up in a few seconds.”

Nastez scowls.  “You’re sorry all right Yuuta.  You are a one-man hazard area.  Come with me, I’ve got a job for you.”

*       *       *       *       *

The water reclamation system is a refrigerator-sized rack of tanks, tubes, filters, and instrumentation located in the utility area, aft of the docking chamber.  It collects water drained from all over the ship: sinks, urine from piss-pots, and sweat from the air conditioning system.  The system purifies it.  No crew traveling more than a few days can survive without a system like this.  But it needs to be cleaned out every so often.  And it stinks to high heaven.

“Put your face into it Yuuta,” says Nastez.  “Get down into the drum and scrub.”

The smell is hard to describe; it’s like the sweatiest locker room you’ve ever been in, located next to the nastiest restroom you’ve ever seen, inside a hazardous chemical plant, and you’re standing in the doorway between the two rooms in the chemical plant taking a big wiff.  Except it’s worse than that.  .  Louis had disassembled the whole system and strapped the parts down onto the floor.  Nastez, nice person that he is, figured it was time for me to take over from Louis.

I plant my boots, breathe through my mouth and jam my gloved arm down into a drum, scrubbing with the plastic brush as hard as I can.  Flakes of disgusting organic junk flake off, but they don’t come easy.  “I’m going to be back in 30 minutes Yuuta,” declares Nastez, floating above me with a self-righteous scowl on his face, “You need to finish this drum and the other drum, change the filters and clean out the tubing.  Don’t put it back together.  I want to inspect it first.  I don’t trust you to put it back correctly.  Now get to it!”  With a single pull of his arm, Nastez, in his spotless jumpsuit, glides off towards the docking portal.

So here I am, stuck with the vilest job on the ship, the sleeve of my jumpsuit getting slimed with filth, cursing under my breath as I scrub this stupid tank.  It seems like I need a better tool: the flimsy plastic bristles of this brush are no match for the sweat-pee gunk that lines the inside.  I scrub and scrub, then dump the gooey flakes into a little plastic bag, then scrub some more.  I still have a long way to go when Katya floats in, a large blue plastic bag in tow.  She immediately coughs from the odor and covers her mouth and nose with the sleeve of her forearm.  “Oh, Straker, that really stinks!” she says, her voice muffled by her arm.

“Oh really?” I say, “I hadn’t noticed.”

“Aagh.  I don’t know how you stand it.  Here, put this on your face.  It’ll help.”  She hands me a surgical mask that’s been dripped with eucalyptus.  It smells wonderful compared to the piss stink; I strap it on.  It’s an instant relief.

“Thanks,” I say.  “That helps a lot.”

“Nastez should have given you one already.  Nobody does this job without one.”

I shake my head.  “He’s got it in for me.”

“Well…yea, I think he does.  But he’s a good officer, really—today has been a bad day for him.  I think he’s worried about his family back home.”

“Why what’s the problem back home?” I ask, as I dig in to the slimy drum with renewed vigor, now that I’m being watched.

“It’s all financial stuff that’s going on,” she replies.  “It could hurt everybody in Shacktown.”

“What financial stuff?” I ask.

“Haven’t you been paying attention?  All the newsblogs get refreshed on the servers, you should read them.  Shacktown is in real trouble.  They defaulted on their bonds.”

No, I ain’t been reading any newsblogs from Shacktown.  I don’t give a trench-rat’s patooty about Shacktown.  “Sounds like a problem,” I say, pulling on a particularly stubborn wafer of crusty goo with my gloved hand.

“They’re going into bankruptcy,” she continues.  “And Malapert is demanding full payment.  It’s bad, really bad.”

I act like I care for Katya’s sake.  “So what’s going to happen?” I ask, using my concerned face.

“It’s all in the courts.  Provisional Government will make some kind of ruling in a few weeks and there’s going to be an auction.  Shacktown could lose the Big Scope, and that would pretty much shut down the whole city.”  I look up at her.  She’s floating above me.  Her dark ponytail flutters above her head like a fan, reminding me of peacock pictures I’ve seen.  She’s got one arm wrapped around the big plastic bag.  Her other sleeve covers her face, but her dark eyebrows are scrunched together in concern.  As for me, Shacktown can go hang for all I care.  They deserve to suffer.  “But we’ll fix it Straker,” she continues.  “We’ll come back with our holds full of good solid ore!  Then Shacktown can pay its debts!”

I smile behind my mask.  She’s lived in Tycho all these years, an environment at least as harsh as Shacktown, but has remained a sweet person in spite of it.  I can’t help but like her.  But I like Louis too.  Somehow, those two need to get together.  “If you say so,” I reply.  I give her a thumbs up.

“Oh by the way,” she says, strapping the plastic bag to the bulkhead, “here are the replacement filters.  The captain is going to have an all-hands meeting in about an hour, so you need to be done by then.”

“Aye, aye,” I say.  “Officer Nastez has already told me I need to be done in a hurry.  I’ll be there.”

“OK.  See ya.”  Katya waves with her free arm, then pulls herself out of the chamber just as Nastez pulls himself in.

“Are you done yet, Yuuta?” he asks.  He looks over my work, squinting down the feeder tube, checking for deposits.

“Almost done.  Just need to rinse the filter chamber and screw it back in.”

“About time.  Buzz me when you’re all done.  You’re going to clean the backup system too.  It hasn’t been refreshed for a year, so this unit was a good warm up for you.”

Jeez.  “Clean the backup, aye,” I say.

“Until then, I’m leaving.  It stinks in here.  And hurry up—there’s an all-hands in an hour.”  He turns to leave and my brush thinks it might like to fling out of my hand accidently and pop Nastez on the back of the head with a satisfying pop.  Or is it me thinking that.  I sigh and just try to accommodate myself to the smell of eucalyptus and stink.  Might as well; my whole body will smell like this for who knows how long.

As I’m rinsing the last chamber, I reflect on what Katya had said.  Shacktown is depending on us to save the day.  Now that’s funny.

*       *       *       *       *

The captain clears her throat.  She’s planted in front of the largest display film, holding a pad in her hand.  The rest of us are her audience, on the mess deck, gripping hand holds or seated on saddles.  “All right everyone,” she announces, “here’s what we are going to do.”

Katya moves up close to the display, looking intently at the image of the asteroid.  Louis is back by me, looking positively dejected, only halfway paying attention, probably because of Katya’s dismissive peck on the cheek earlier.  The film shows a virtual, three-dimensional model of Hrothgar.  The captain holds a remote control that turns the model any way she directs it, finally settling on an angle to highlight the flattened side of the asteroid and zooming in.

“Reconnaissance confirms that Hrothgar is the richest body we have ever encountered, by far,” says the captain, beaming.  Katya responds with a little clap of her hands, and looks around at the rest of us with a smile.  “The surface is incredibly dense with good ore,” continues the captain, “primarily iron and nickel, but also including platinum-group metals just as we thought.  Low in silicates, which we will reduce even further when we put it through beneficiation.  There is even some frozen water if we decide to go after it.  But the plan right now is to fill our holds with feedstock ore and not go after the water.”

Nastez pipes up.  “I’m sure you’ll all want to know what the reddish mineral is—it’s covering the mountainous side of the asteroid,” he says.  “Honestly, I’m not sure what it is right now.  The drone took a sample of it but the mechanism seems to have dropped it somehow, so we were unable to analyze it.  Once we land, I want to take an expedition out to recover some of it…”

“Hold on, Alonso,” interrupts the captain.  “We talked about this.  We explore only after our holds are full and if we have time within the return launch window.  No guarantees.  This is not a scientific mission.”

Nastez nods reluctantly.  “Aye, Captain, understood.”

Louis perks up.  “I got a question…”

Nastez nods at him.  “Sure Louis, what is it?”

“What the heck is that red stuff?”

Awkward silence.  Nastez’s eyes narrow into a squint.  “We’ve been covering that.  Aren’t you paying attention Louis?”

“Uh, sorry…my mind wandered.”  Louis’s gaze sinks even lower.

Nastez moves on.  “The mineral—whatever it is—is intriguing because given the mass density and angular velocity of the asteroid, it should just fly apart.  My hypothesis is that the reddish mass is somehow holding Hrothgar together.  So it’s interesting from that standpoint.”  He points up at the film.  “But to continue, the body is rotating about its primary axis at about once every 45 minutes.  That’s slow enough that we should have no trouble docking to it.  The flat side is quite cohesive and stable, and it has the richest content.”

He takes the remote from the captain and zooms in on a portion of the flat side.  “We have established a coordinate system, thus.”  Nastez presses a button on the remote and a curved grid graphic overlays the image of Hrothgar.  “We will first fasten the beneficiation equipment here,” he says, pointing with his hand, “anchor the CM here, and lay out tracks for the mining drones in a standard interlocked spiral configuration.”

“Where will the tailings go?” asks Katya.

“Good question,” replies Nastez.  “We will direct the mining waste towards this area,” he says, pointing the area out on the model with a sweep of his hand.  “We believe this location will minimize interference with ore uptake, as well as take advantage of Hrothgar’s rotation to mitigate the dust that operations will inevitably produce.”

“What’s on the other side of the asteroid?” asks Katya

Nastez turns the model to show the other side.  Its tall jagged boulders are apparent right away; Hrothgar reminds me of a porcupine with a spiked back and soft, smooth belly.  “As you can see, it would not be desirable to land on the other side.  In addition, reconnaissance indicates that this area is a loose rock-pile.  Not cohesive enough to hold our anchors.”

Just like Sophia said.  I wonder if Nastez even remembers when I told him how it was going to be.  Anyways, that’s the meat of the briefing.  Louis has already slinked out of the room, looking like he lost his best friend.  Katya continues to ask questions—I think she’s working a little too hard to stay there and away from Louis—but I tune out.  Nastez keeps droning on and on.

With all the excitement today and the drama between Louis and Katya, I can’t keep my eyes open.  It’s been a long, nasty day for me and I’m looking forward to it being done.  I’m off watch and we’re due for a long retro burn in a few minutes.  I sneak back to my bunk to catch some sleep.   Won’t be long now.