I’m in the hanger cave. It’s wide and tall and dimly lit; thick cables striped in red and black snake along the floor, technicians buzz this way and that. Every voice, every clank of metal, every rrrpppt of a distant power tool echoes against the rocky walls. The place smells of batteries and hydraulic fluid. I navigate past one big vehicle after another, each parked in its striped yellow space, some fresh from the outside and still dripping with dust-wash, some in partial states of repair with open hatches, some being cursed at by frustrated technicians.
My wristy guides me to the mustering station; I should be right on time. I’m still sleepy on account of it’s a mite early but I’m pretty excited too. Most of the few things I own are in the tattered backpack that I lug over my left shoulder.
True to their word, the Corps gave me a duffel bag with coveralls, grooming supplies, diapers, training chips and a bunch of other stuff. Ain’t had time to read any of training. They also loaned me a ‘casual’ suit: a sort of basic spacesuit. I’m wearing it now. It ain’t new, but looks to be in good shape, with relatively few scratches on the helmet, working electronics, trusty-looking tanks, and tubing that don’t leak. It’s basic protection in case of a pressure breach and for that it’s good enough.
I hold the big duffel bag in my right hand, feeling like a pack critter, wondering if I should shift my load as I walk. The suit’s heavy gloves make it harder to grip. But before long I find the right station and present myself to the man in charge.
“So, you are the Yuuta kid,” he says. He’s a tall and skinny man of sallow complexion. He studies me with a frown. “You quite resemble your father. I am the first officer. My name is Nastez.” Curly hair peeks out from under his open visor; his hands are in perpetual motion. He’s wearing an officer’s black casual suit. Grim face—one of those faces that signals contempt even when at rest. His eyes turn down to the pad in his hand as he is talking to me. “You will receive instructions later, Yuuta. Right now, up the ladder and into the tube. Bags first, then crawl through. Use your elbows. Get going.”
“Aye,” I say, trying to sound authentic.
The vehicle before me is tall and imposing. I’ve ridden in rovers before but this thing is much bigger and complex than I’m used to seeing. And it’s a convertible: from rover to launch vehicle. I stumble up the metal ladder, sliding the duffel bag on the hand rail best I can. When I get to the landing, I lift the duffel bag past the open hatch into the docking tube. The tube is the passageway into the pressure vessel of the vehicle.
Somebody on the other side grabs the duffel bag. I push in my backpack. Someone grabs that too. Finally, I crawl in and like Nastez said I pull myself through like a commando because there ain’t enough space in the tube to get through any other way. I bang my big helmet against the side a few times; that’s probably where the scratches came from.
I make it to the inside: the tunnel opens into the cabin between the pilot and co-pilots seat; the walls curve in over a couple of rows of padded seats a little farther back. The captain—the lady I recognize from yesterday—is already seated and busy at her console. The chamber is hushed and well-lit and smells pleasantly of old plastic.
I am ushered to a seat in the back by a young woman in an officer’s black suit. Can’t see much of her with her visor half down but she’s very business-like. What I do see don’t look half bad. She shows me how to strap into the seat and plug in the umbilical. The suit puffs out a bit when I connect and sends a stream of air across the back of my neck, which I don’t much care for, but it cools the stuffy suit down pretty quick. Up to now it’s been hard to talk or hear with the helmet on, but now my headset comes alive with chatter between the captain and Nastez. Nastez dogs the hatch up front. He plops into the co-pilot’s seat up front beside the captain. Together they start stepping through their pre-flight testing. The building noise of pumps and actuators and whining gyros comes through the hard plastic of my helmet.
My back is against the rear wall of the crew compartment; all the bags are stashed in the cargo area behind the wall and strapped down. The meds bottle that the marshal gave me is in my bag—I’m hoping that nobody takes too much of an interest in my stuff. There ain’t no windows but the interior walls are covered in display film. The film shows the outside of the rover as if the entire top of the vehicle were glass. I expected to feel claustrophobic but I don’t at all.
A guy straps into the seat beside me. He glances over at me and nods but don’t say nothing. I study him: he’s wearing a khaki casual suit like mine so he ain’t an officer, and from what I can see of his face he’s got a few years on me. Judging by the bulges in his form-fitting suit, he’s big, beefy and thick-necked. Maybe an Earther. From the patch on his shoulder, this ain’t his first flight.
I don’t got patches. I ain’t been off Luna since I was a kid so this is all pretty new and strange to me. New and strange and, if I’m honest with myself, kinda scaresome. Not everybody can take it. Hoping hard that I can.
“OK, everyone, visors down and seal up,” says a woman’s voice through the intercom; I figure it’s the captain. “It’ll take a couple of hours to get to the launch site. You can buzz me with questions if you like but otherwise keep the chit-chat to a minimum.”
I pull down my visor like she said and feel the air pressure pushing my ears. I wiggle my jaw to clear them but even when they’re clear I can’t hear much that ain’t coming in over the intercom. We’re rolling now; I feel the uneven wobble of the big wheels and the rocking motion in my seat as the rover lumbers into the airlock, waits for a few minutes for the air to drain out, then rolls outside when the lock’s big outer door opens up.
The big wheels churn through the dust. Soon the hanger is out of sight. It’s still night at this corner of the crater—there ain’t much to see excepting the blue lights that mark our path. If I crane my neck, I can see a patch of sunlight reflected from tippy top of the crater wall above us. A billion stars, like suspended diamond chips, pepper the black sky. And the big machine plods along through the rocks and dust. It’s exciting at first; I can hear my own breath in the helmet and feel my heart pumping as I think about what’s coming.
The guy next to me is concentrating on his wristy. In front of me all I can see is the shiny back of the young lady officer’s helmet. It’s warm and quiet inside the cocoon of my suit. Everything is bobbing pleasantly along. My exhilaration soon turns to boredom as I watch blue light after blue light meander past us. Now I feel the lack of sleep. I end up dozing off.
* * * * *
I wake up when my helmet lurches forward from the rover braking. We’re at the launch facility—I can see the strobe lights flashing on the long rails that stretch out to a vanishing point at the distant horizon. I feel more movement as a big yellow robot arm pulls the entire crew cabin smoothly along on rollers off of the rover chassis and onto the space chassis, which is an open frame bristling with rocket thrusters. A few more minutes pass as one by one a series of clamps grip the cabin onto the chassis, each ramming home with a loud clang. The intercom crackles loudly with a voice I don’t recognize. “Consortium transport, this is launch control South-One. You are at the head of the line. The system is charged and ready to initiate on your signal.”
Then another voice. “This is First Officer Nastez to the crew. Check your seals and straps. We will launch immediately.”
I try to relax and breathe steady like I was taught in class. The instructors described this moment but they also said nobody can really tell you what it’s like; even with the simulations, they say, you just have to experience it for yourself. A loud buzzer sounds, and then the acceleration comes on—and it comes on fast. One second I’m thinking back on my instructions, the next second it’s like a big, invisible spatula is smashing me back hard into my seat. What a punch in the gut.
The launcher screeches horrendously loud even with my helmet on. Tall white girders rip by with increasing speed until they blur to an even gray—even inside the cabin, everything looks fuzzy on account of the vibration being so strong that it’s about to shatter my teeth. In my imagination I see the whole cabin shaking apart and I’m being instantly torn to small bloody pieces and I would blow chunks right now if I could and don’t panic; remember to breathe…
We’re free. Just like that, gliding along smooth as silk. The launcher vanishes behind us. My stomach ain’t sure it’s too happy; could be butterflies or could be weightlessness. My arms feel light and floaty so I reckon it’s both. The guy in the next seat looks over at me and pushes his talk button. “You gonna be sick? Oh crap you better not be sick.”
“No,” I say. “I’m settled. Are launches always that bad?”
“Ha. Oh that weren’t bad. The last one I did was bad. That weren’t bad.” He shakes his head and goes quiet again, a sly grin on his face.
Easy for him to say. For me, that was the worst launch of my life. Also the best. Now all I hear are occasional swooshing sounds from the attitude thrusters. I watch the pockmarked face of Luna recede in the displays around me, just like the simulators but more so—I can see Shackleton and Malapert and Haworth and Shoemaker; all craters I’ve worked at one time or another in my life. So big when you’re in them, but so small from here.
The craters shrink to little bumps as the surface of Luna rounds out and turns beneath us, revealing landscapes unfamiliar to me. I can just make out the headlights and strobes of a solitary rover making its way in the blackness far below. The intercom comes alive. “We’ve achieved orbit,” says Nastez. “You can loosen your straps if you want to, but stay sealed and stay put. We’ll dock in a few minutes.”
Within a half hour we’re turning around and I catch my first glimpse of the ship, bathed in brilliant sunlight. Wow, I say to myself. No photograph can really capture the size of this thing. The captain and first officer exchange technical comments in quiet, calm tones as we inch towards the ship’s docking ring. I hear a thud as we bump the mechanism, which responds by bringing our little craft to a quick stop, robbing us of our last little bit of forward momentum. The impact pushes me gently into my straps. The short mechanical arms of the docking ring bring our cabin in closer, as if in a lover’s embrace. The romance ends in a machine kiss as metal clunks against metal. There is a loud hissing as the transport and the ship open valves to share gasses. True love. We’re docked.
This ship is long. The display films above me show an industrial-looking craft, the expanse of its trusses and tanks and antennae and the big rocket motors stretching far off to the right, blocking the stars. Big steel boxes to hold the enriched ore neatly line the trusses on all sides. The carousels, in which the crew will bunk under simulated gravity, rotate majestically on long tubular spokes, intermittently blocking the sunlight across the displays with a lazy strobe-light effect.
I can see the CM—the Command Module—at front of the ship out the left display, peppered with portholes and studded with antennae. That’s where the flight deck and most of the weightless areas are. So we’re docked amidships, close to the bow. I look right and see drones scooting around hovering over the CM and back aft, like hummingbirds over an especially juicy flower, topping off the consumables and delivering last minute supplies.
“We have good atmo. You can open visors and free up.”
I open my helmet visor. The guy next to me has already floated out of his restraints, his shoes uncomfortably near my face as he pulls bags and supplies from the rear compartment and hands them to the others in the aisle way. I unstrap. It’s a very strange sensation—weightlessness—now that my arms and legs are free to experience it. I follow the rest of the crew out of the cabin, floating single file through the tube, past the docking hatches and into the ship.
The first chamber I come to is the docking bay cluttered with heavy and complicated evasuits and other Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) equipment. A stainless steel plaque on the wall displays the letters L.S. Allgood. There are little paintings of cratered balls on the bulkhead under the plaque; I count nine. Nine stroids visited so there must have been nine successful returns. A fair, sturdy ship that takes her spacemen and spacewomen far, far away and then returns them all the way home, alive. Hopefully I’ll be that lucky too.
I rush to keep up as the group pushes through the next hatch into an airlock big enough for two or three fully suited crew members; it ain’t used for much right now but will be the main entry to the CM once we land. We continue on into another cramped room where spacesuits are fastened to the walls and overhead, large and pale and ghostly like corpses at a funeral home, impatient to be embalmed. We float through the next hatch to the mess deck—a much larger room.
The captain is at the forward end of the room with two women wearing light-blue jumpsuits, holding her helmet in one hand and a tablet in the other, scrutinizing the ship’s inspection report. The rest of us form an uneven semicircle and wait. The captain signs off and shakes hands with the two women, who smile politely as they pass by the rest of us on their way off the ship. The captain turns to us, her body floating at a slight angle from her sticky boots in the weightlessness. Her penetrating eyes slowly survey the crew, her black-suited figure silhouetted against the open hatch to the flight deck, and its massive front windows showing the spectacular view of Luna beyond. Everyone gets quiet.
“Welcome aboard the Allgood everyone,” says the captain. “Not everyone here has sailed with us before so we’ll begin with introductions.” A few long strands of gray hair have broken free from her bun and float above her, backlit from the windows, making her look both angelic and devilish at the same time.
“I am the captain of this vessel. My name is Freya Jemison and I was born in Nittedal, Norway. I flew for the Royal Norwegian Air Force, later became a commercial spacecraft pilot. That’s how I joined up with the Consortium.” She pauses. There is no sound except the quiet rushing of the ventilation system and the slow swooshing of the carousel amidships.
“You may know that I was one of original founders of Shacktown, after the Alliance decided to cut the budget on the Big Scope and put the facility up for sale. So yes, I am that old. I am a grandmother. But I am not your grandmother. By law I am the master of this ship. I expect your obedience. No questions, no hesitation, no exceptions. In return I promise to get you safely to our target and back to your homes.” Finally, a small tight smile. “And if things go well, we will all make a handsome profit. Now let’s go around and introduce ourselves. Start with you, First Officer,” she says, nodding to Nastez.
“Aye Captain. I’m First Officer, and as you all know by now my name is Nastez, Alonso Nastez. I was born on in a suburb of Boston and am a graduate of both Harvard and MIT. I currently live in Shackleton with my wife and two children, both girls.”
I unconsciously smile; he just seems a mite too spiffy for Shacktown. But I catch myself and stifle it quickly. Any officer can make your life hell if he decides he don’t like you, so I’m told. And Nastez has already given me the stink eye.
“I started as a lunar geologist and moved on to asteroids a few years back when that became the hot new thing. That led me to my current position in the Corps. I have a PHD in this field, so some people call me Doctor Nastez, but to you I’m First Officer. I’ll do the analysis work as we get closer to our target, but it’s also my job to run the crew for the captain. You will provide your best work at all times. There will be no sloppiness; this is a spaceship: people can die here. Next.”
The young woman who had guided me at the hanger clears her throat. With her helmet off I can see she’s not much older than me. Her dark hair is striking against her pale skin and light eyes. She has to push a bit to make her quiet voice heard over the background noise; I strain to understand her. “Hello,” she says. “My name is Katya Navolska, third in command, so I’m formally Second Officer Navolska but I guess you can just call me Katya unless the Captain or Officer Nastez object.”
She looks sheepishly over at the other officers but they give her no feedback, verbal or otherwise. She continues, a little unsure. “I was born and raised on Luna; my parents immigrated to Tycho from Ukraine on the big planet. My primary job is ship’s engineer, although like everybody else I do a whole lot of other things. I am a medic first class, so let’s say if you need something for a stuffy nose, and that’s pretty common, I got a stash. And I’m happy to share.”
That got her a smile from the jock. “If something breaks let me know. I know where all the tools are and how to use them. Last thing—I hate dust. Don’t bring dust on this ship. We’ll be covering that in the training exercises on the trip out for the Spaceman Apprentice and Recruit.” She shrugs. “That’s all for me.”
I look over at the other guy in khakis; he looks back at me. I guess he’s next in the pecking order and he apparently thinks so too. He lets himself drift a little more towards the center of the semicircle of people, halfway blocking my view of the others. “Hello, I’m Louis, Louis O’Neill. This is my second trip so my rank is Spaceman Apprentice, but it’s my first trip on the Allgood. I just want to say that I’m real happy to be part of this crew, and I am especially honored to serve under you, Captain Jemison.”
He looks hopefully at the captain. Her expression does not change. “Um…so like I said I’m the Apprentice. I’m four years out of Tycho high school, where I was president of the student body and captain of the tunnel-soccer team. I like play lo-G roller hockey whenever I get the chance. I really like staying in shape and being in space and I think I’ve really getting the hang of moving around in weightlessness like a real spacer.”
Louis smiles and looks over at Katya, who acknowledges his look with a wan smile. There’s something going on between those two but I decide right away I’m gonna stay out of it best I can. “Anyhow I guess that’s all I got to say. Any questions about me?”
Officer Nastez frowns and tilts his head, looks around at the others. “Apparently not. Thank you Apprentice O’Neill.” He looks my way with unblinking eyes.
Oh crap—it’s my turn. Louis drifts back into the semicircle, which means I’m no longer looking at his butt but also means everyone can see me. There are few things I hate more than talking about myself. I take off my helmet like the others and push down my hair, which comes off kinda awkward because I’m also trying to hold on to a table to keep myself from floating away.
“Um. OK. I’m Straker Yuuta,” I say. “I just graduated high school a few days…two lunar days ago; so it’s been two months by Earth timing I reckon. I’ve been working as a water miner off and on but I been taking Corps training for a year. Um, maybe I’ll go to college over at Tycho, I don’t know, but for now I want to give the Corps a try. I’m here to learn.” I honestly can’t think of nothing else to say. I know I sound stupid but I don’t talk enough to be good at it. The deck is dead silent. It is excruciating.
I’m about to end my little speech when Nastez pipes up. “Wearing the bracelet I see. Heard from your dad, Recruit?”
My face flushes. I look over at him, not knowing how to react. Louis is whispering to Katya. The captain cuts in. “Hiromi Yuuta is not a part of this crew.” She pauses; the mess deck is silent again. “And Straker is not responsible for what his father did. Each of you will maintain proper decorum and respect for all crewmates. That is all.” She flashes a disapproving look at Nastez, then releases her boots from the floor and pulls herself off to the flight deck with practiced ease.
I been on this ship only a few minutes and already the crap is flying about Pops. Ain’t that the way it always is? I was hoping to get away from it for a while. If signing on to a mining ship don’t give me a clean slate, what will?
Nastez steps forward in his sticky boots. “All right. We are on ship’s time as of now. The watch schedule is posted outside the pivot room and it will be broadcast to your wrist instruments. Next will be evening watch, starts at 1730 hours: one bell will sound. Two teams: Second Officer Navolska and Apprentice O’Neill are Green Team; you will take the next watch. Red team is myself and Recruit Yuuta. Captain stands watch by herself for now.”
Louis O’Neill is looking plenty pleased with himself. He’s on watch with Katya Navolska. Apparently he finds the thought of spending time with her agreeable. He’s trying to be subtle but he ain’t good at it; his face is beaming.
“A couple of things,” continues Nastez. “When you hear the Klaxon horn it means that the main thrusters are going to fire. You hear that, you grab on to something.” Nastez presses a yellow button on the control panel and the distinctive aoooga sound reverberates through the ship, accompanied by flashing yellow from the situation lights.
The sound makes me forget my embarrassment. It reminds me of the old submarine movie Run Silent Run Deep, which I’ve watched I think three times. Das Boot is another good one. Growing up in space gives you an empathy for submariners since they, like you, spend their lives inside one kind of metal can or other. But mostly I like watching the movies because of all the water. Just incredible.
“The acceleration from the main thrusters will only be about a quarter-G, but it will knock you off balance if you’re not prepped,” he continued. “We will not need to use the main thrusters more than a couple of times a week, but the first burn is in a few minutes and it will be a long one. The other sound you need to worry about, is this one.” He presses a separate button, this one red, and a loud, frantic gong sounds, so loud I plug my ears with my fingers. The lights on the bulkheads flash red this time. Thankfully, he only keeps that going for a quick burst.
“That sound means drop what you are doing immediately and head for the redoubt right away. This sound means we’ve detected a rock or a group of rocks on a collision course. As you know meteor showers can puncture the ship’s hull in a microsecond. The redoubt is the area of maximum reinforcement and safety. Or the alarm may sound because of an impending solar storm. Usually we have enough warning of those that we don’t need to hit the alarm, in which case we’ll just announce it on the intercom.”
Nastez drones on with his instructions, reading from a pad. He takes questions, and finally winds it up with: “Go find your quarters, stow your gear, and report for your scheduled watch. There will be more to come. Mission briefing at start of mid-watch. Dismissed.”
Everyone’s talking and grabbing their stuff. I wait for the butts and elbows to clear the mess deck, then grab my own bags. They’re a whole lot lighter than they were on Luna but even more ungainly. I check my wristy—it knows where my bunk is. I head aft to the pivot room and wait for the door to Carousel B to come around. I enter the spoke and turn feet first, putting my feet lightly a platform on the elevator belt, sticking my forearm through one of the hand-holds.
I ain’t accustomed to zero-G so I don’t move around as gracefully as the others, but I manage to enter the moving spoke on the first try. Riding the elevator is boring and takes a while; it goes slow and the spoke is long. Even though I weigh nothing at first, as I go down I get heavier and so do the bags. It’s a strange feeling.
Eventually I get to the carousel and wander the short, narrow hallway until I find my chamber. It’s just a bunk with a light and a storage cabinet, but it has a pocket door that I can shut for privacy. It ain’t much worse than my cell in bachelor’s quarters back at Shacktown.
I close the door and put my bags on the bunk. They stay there. It’s nice to be in gravity again. But, I’m careful how I move around—I don’t want to get sick. A carousel only makes pseudo-gravity and if you’re not careful your inner ear can go cattywonkus and you can spew. They say you get used to it.
I have six hours before I’m on watch so I better sleep. I hear the Klaxon and feel the throbbing of the big engines taking us out of orbit. The gentle acceleration pushes me on the bunk against the wall. I unzip my personal bag and pull out my meds bottle. I pop a pill that should keep me from getting nauseous and help me sleep.
The meds are real. The bottle ain’t, but you’d have to look at it mighty close to tell. I tap the code onto the bottle that I’ve been told to use when we leave orbit. I can only hope Marshal Baumann’s people get it; there’s no way I can be sure. But they have satellites listening for me and they must know what they’re doing.
While I’m at it, I log into the ship’s servers and find out how to send a message home. I put together a note for Macy and Mason back at the Children’s Home, trying to sound as excited and upbeat as possible. Mostly I want them to know that I haven’t forgotten them. I remember how lonely that place can be. I feel a pang of guilt for leaving them, but on the other hand I know there’s not much I can do for them anyways.
After I send the message, I stow all the stuff except for my guitar. I sit cross-legged on the bunk with the guitar on my lap and put on the headset from my wristy. The guitar don’t make much sound of its own so I hear it better when I use the headset. I pluck the strings slowly. I feel my shoulders relaxing; I feel my mind clearing.
Tomorrow will start my new routine in the company of total strangers. I’ll be with them for months. I’m feeling a mite apprehensive. But my guitar is my sword and my armor. I chills me down as I play it over the muffled roar of the engines. I wait for sleep.