Chapter 5

“This is our target,” announces the captain.  She points to the display on the bulkhead behind her.

The image is fuzzy, obviously taken from very far away.  It’s a sphere, unlike many asteroids that are shaped like a banana or a peanut or somesuch.  The asteroid has been banged around a good bit judging by the pockmarks on its surface.  In fact, it looks like a much smaller version of Luna with a slightly darker color.

“The Big Scope discovered it only a few weeks ago,” she continues, “and we believe we’re the only ones who know about it.  The provisional name is Hrothgar, although Doctor Nastez has thus far declined to register it officially.”  She nods to Nastez.

Nastez clears his throat.  “This mission is turning out to be quite possibly the most rewarding for the Allgood to date.  Hrothgar was a legendary Danish king who showered the hero Beowulf and his men with great treasures after he defeated the monster Grendel.  I expect that this asteroid will reward us in a similar manner.  Hrothgar is classified as an Ordinary Chondrite asteroid and judging by the spectral analysis and other techniques we’ve developed, it appears to be, by far, the richest body we’ve ever encountered.”

Katya speaks up.  “Why haven’t you registered it?”

“Because we don’t trust the provisional government to keep our secrets,” replies Nastez.  “Registering requires us to reveal what we know about the target.  Past history has led the captain and myself to believe that it is in our best interest to keep a low profile and simply get there first.”

Louis raises his hand.  “So, what’s it made of?”

Nastez replies in his professor’s monotone: “Near infrared spectroscopy indicates iron and nickel for the most part, platinum-group metals almost certain, and hopefully some water, although we won’t know the proportions until we get close enough to send a drone.”

“Which is both good and bad,” says the captain.  “It means a big dollar haul for us.  Iron and Nickel get high prices, platinum metals even more.  But if there’s not much water; that will set the amount of time we can spend there.  Our return trip will be limited to the amount of water we have on board.”

“Since water is our fuel!” says Louis.  Always eager.

“Yes,” continued the captain, “in a manner of speaking.  We’ll have to work extra-long shifts to harvest as much metal as we can in the shortest possible time.”

Nastez breaks in: “We have had some trouble determining Hrothgar’s orbit but we believe it will be about a 2-month trip out.  We will rendezvous and ride it for a few weeks, mine it until its closest approach to Luna, then get off at the latest possible window.  By then our cargo holds should be full.”

There’s some small talk, then Katya interrupts. “You said there was a problem figuring the orbit?” she asks.

“Yea,” replies Nastez, “we have some inexplicable bugs in the software I’m afraid.  We’ve reported the problem to our people; it’s being looked at.”

“Can you tell us more?”  Her eyebrows are peaked—the inquisitive engineer.  Louis is looking at her like she’s the center of the universe; it’s obvious he’s more interested in her than in the software or the mission.  She, on the other hand, is ignoring him.  On purpose I think.

Nastez continues with an amused expression. “Well, it’s a problem in the analysis software we haven’t seen before, but you know how that goes Katya.  Remember we’re looking at this thing over an incredible distance; it’s at the limits of what even the Big Scope can see.  The software extrapolates speed and direction from successively timed sightings.  At first it was saying that Hrothgar was approaching at about a quarter the speed of light. That was, of course, absurd. Later sightings proved it to be moving at a more realistic speed.”

“But we know enough to land on it?”

“Yea, we know its trajectory but it’s unlike anything we’ve seen before.  We believe its origin to be quite distant—from beyond the planets, beyond the Kuiper Belt. Its orbit is vast, so it’s going to take time for fully characterize it.  We know just enough to begin the mission.”

More chatter among Nastez, Louis, and Katya.  The captain chimes in.  “It’s now first bell. Red team is on Mid-Watch.  The rest of you can go on to your other duties.  Complete information about Hrothgar—at least as much as we have—is now available for access on the ship’s servers, so you can learn more as you have time.  And remember, information about the target is proprietary.  It’s not to be discussed with the folks at home.  That is all.”

Everyone scatters goes about their business.  I look out at the blackness outside the windows and just think about what I’ve heard.  This thing is coming at us from so far away, and we’re going to go and land on it.  I know that’s what I signed up for but somehow growing up in Shacktown I’ve taken so much for granted.  It seemed so ordinary until I actually signed on to a mission.  Thinking about it gives me chills; I rub my arms to chase them away.  In spite of myself I can’t wait to strap on a suit and explore this thing. What will I see?  What is out there?

Katya grabs my arm and I pop out of my dream state.  “You look lost,” she says.

“Um, I was just thinking about it…all of it.”  I shrug.

“I know that feeling,” she says, “I still get it.”  She looks at the window with me.  “This is all still pretty new.  There’s so much out here and people are just beginning to travel out from the Marble.  No telling where it will lead.”  She pulls back and looks at me.  “But nobody’s going anywhere without the stuff we bring back.  Iron, nickel, and water…that’s what makes it all happen.  C’mon, lets head to the flight deck, I’ll show you around.”

We duck through the open hatch onto the flight deck.  It’s just me and her.  The cockpit is roomy and Spartan but just lit up enough that you can find your way around. The thick front windows and the starry scene beyond dominate the far bulkhead. Display films are arranged throughout the cabin to give the illusion of transparent walls.  I feel like I’m standing out on a platform in space.  It gives me the willies at first but I get over it.

The consoles are lit with graphics and soft buttons to control the ship’s systems.  There are only a few physical switches, but they are big and important, colored in combinations of yellow and red.  Most have safety covers to prevent them from being activated accidently.  They have labels like control module disconnect and emergency power off.  In other words, don’t touch.

The seats in here, like in all the weightless areas, are really more like saddles than chairs.  They don’t need to support any weight most of the time; they just hold you in one place so you can work.  I flash back to the movie Blazing Saddles, which I watched years ago on a whim, wanting to see a western movie.  Turns out it wasn’t much of a western.  Race jokes, beans and farting mostly.

The captain’s and first officer’s consoles are at the front, left and right respectively.  Katya and I float over to the captain’s console.  She sits on the saddle and walks me through the vast set of screens that can be brought up on the displays.  She explains that the captain’s station is the only one with a slot for the command token: a small chip that the captain inserts when she boards the vessel and takes with her when she leaves.  The brief tour makes me appreciate the sheer complexity of the Allgood’s many systems.  I got a new respect for Captain Jemison and First Officer Nastez.

“So are you ready to drive this thing?” jokes Katya.

“Not yet ma’am.  Maybe someday,” I reply.

“Well don’t let it intimidate you.  I know you’ve learned all about spaceships in your coursework; now you just have to learn how it’s put into practice.”  Katya has just come off watch so she can’t spend much time with me.  She heads out for her well-deserved rest.

It’s Red Team’s time for the watch, which is me and Nastez.  He sits at the co-pilot’s console while I explore the instructional screens on the engineer’s console.  Sometimes I’ll ask a question, sometimes Nastez will lower himself to answer; most times he just gives me a look like are you kidding?

A few hours go by.  Nastez is upside down on the ceiling with a light strapped to his head, digging into an electrical chassis pulled out of its rack.  He had said that the chassis got broke last mission, taken out by a solar flare.  He’s having a quiet talk with his diagnostic meter as he probes the circuitry. He’s good at talking to machines.  Seems to prefer them to people.

Finally, between him and the meter, they find what they’re looking for.  “Hey Yuuta,” he says, looking down at me from above, “go get me one of these.  There should be some in the electronic stores in the wayback; just this side of the redoubt.”  He flicks down a small plastic bag; I reach out and catch it.  I pull the tiny chip out of the bag and use my wristy to magnify it and read the number.  The chip is brown and burnt and the numbers are yellowed but still visible.

I float my way back past the galley, docking chamber and pivot room to the stores area and quickly find the part; I’m back on the flight deck with the replacement inside of ten minutes. Nastez has the new part installed in the chassis within another ten.  But he can’t slide the chassis back into the rack.

“Yuuta, come here,” he says, “I can’t get this unit to slide back in. Get over on the other side and tell me what you see.”

I release my strap and push off towards him, positioning myself on the other side of the chassis.  I don’t got a headlight but I peer into the rack anyways as Nastez tries again and again to push in the chassis; each time the chassis is stopped by something that makes a clacking sound.  I look around behind a strut where the sound was coming from.

“I see it,” I say, “there’s a washer wedged in here.  Give me a second.”

I snake my hand in behind the unit and try to get a grip on the washer; I can’t see in the tight space so I have to go by feel.  The washer is too far in to grip but after a few tries I’m able to pry it from its tight little nest by using the fingernail of my index finger.  Getting the washer all the way out is the next step but at least it’s no longer wedged in.

“Ah, good, OK,” I say, happy to finally get the thing moving.

Thinking I mean OK you can push it in now, Nastez gives the heavy chassis a shove on its railing.  It slides in all right, right into the palm of my hand, jamming it between the edge of the cabinet and the back of the chassis.

“Yeow,” I cry out, “Not yet!  Damn!”  My hand is bleeding like a sheep on harvest day, launching a steady stream of big wobbly spheres of blood into the air.

“You really should be smart enough to not say OK unless it is OK,” he says, contempt on his face.  He pulls the chassis back out, then hands me a clean rag to soak up the blood.  He keys his wristy: “Katya, come to the flight deck ASAP with your med kit.  Recruit Yuuta has a bleeding laceration on his hand.”

I wrap my hand in the rag while Nastez floats around to catch the messy gobs of blood that have been blooming from the cut.  Caught in the slight but chaotic breezes of the ventilation system, the blobs gleefully lead Nastez on a chase around every nook and cranny of the cockpit.  After many expletives Nastez perseveres and catches each one in a cloth.

Katya arrives on deck within minutes, obviously pulled out of a coma, her eyes sleepy and her hair askew from its usual tight bun.  It’s actually a good look for her.  No way am I gonna say anything about it.  Nastez explains what happened to Katya, somehow making it sound like it was my fault.

“Hmm, nasty,” she says, pulling back the rag to expose the wound on my hand.  The bleeding has slowed down but the blood globs continue to the grow from the cut and threaten to break free.  “You need stiches.  Let’s go back to the clinic where we’ve got some gravity. With all this blood, working on it here will make a mess.”

We float back to the pivot room, me pulling myself along with one arm and her following behind like a protective mom.  We take the spoke that leads to the clinic, with me awkwardly lowering myself down onto the elevator belt with only one functioning hand.  It takes a while but we get there.  The clinic is small but well equipped.  It smells like medicine. Katya’s tells me to lie on the table.  She lays out her equipment and sticks me with a syringe to numb my hand.  Her long fingers are gentle inside their purple plastic gloves.  Within seconds I can’t feel nothing from my hand.

“Officer Nastez cut you pretty badly,” she says, as she pulls the needle through my skin in the first in a series of tiny stiches.

“It was my fault.  I said OK when I freed up a piece of metal, kinda to myself, and he was thinking I meant to push the drawer in.  Just a dumb mistake.”

She looks up at me.  “No, it wasn’t your fault.  You shouldn’t take the blame unless you deserve it.”

“Well, I…”

“These things happen, just an accident.  Nastez doesn’t strike me as a person who would intentionally cut someone, but I don’t think he’s a very good listener either.”

I nod, happy for the change of tone.  “Or he could be Jack the Space Ripper,” I say.

“Ah.  It’s a good theme for a melodrama: The Curse of the Cutting Cosmonaut.”

“That makes me the damsel in distress, I reckon.”

She giggles.  “This hand is probably going to hurt for a while; there are lots of nerves in this area.  I’ll give you meds that will help with the pain.”

“OK, no big deal.  I won’t need much.”

“Well aren’t you the brave one,” she says with a little giggle.  Her teeth are perfect.  She should smile more often.  But I ain’t going to tell her that.

“Me? No, not hardly,” I say.

She finishes up by tying off the stiches and pressing some biotape in a neat little line on top of the wound.  She feathers the soft but tough tape in so finely that it almost seems like part of my hand.

She hands me a small bag of pills and a sippy full of water.  “One now, then one every six hours.  These should last a couple of cycles.  If you need more than that, talk to me, OK?”

I pop a pill and take a sip.  “Yea OK but like I said, no big deal.  It’s just a little cut.”

She grins.  “Carry on, Recruit.”

I head out of the clinic and up the belt, smiling.  It’s nice to get the attention of a pretty woman, so hurting my hand weren’t all bad, even if she is way out of my league.  Most every woman is.  By the end of the mission she’ll probably hate me anyway.

The biotape protects my palm so I can use my hand OK but the ride up the belt is still awkward because my brainpan thinks there ain’t no hand there.  Like my arm ends somewhere around my upper wrist.  Weird.  But I manage, and after a bit I hit weightlessness and everything gets much easier.  The pill Katya gave me is even making my last souvenir of Shacktown–my bruised ribcage—feel better.

I have a little time left on my watch so I head back to the flight deck.  But on the way back to the cockpit, Louis is waiting for me in the docking chamber.  He’s ain’t his usual goofy self.  He’s actually giving me the stink eye.

“Sounds like you and Katya really hit it off,” he says.

“She bandaged my hand.  See?”  I hold up my bad hand.

“Yea well I could hear you two laughing up a riot from here.”

“Uh huh.  So what?”

“I have my own plans for Katya, that’s what.”  He moves up close to me, in my face.  “And I don’t need you meddling.  So stay away.”

I know I should keep a low profile and just him blow off steam.  I know if I had time to think this over I would do something different.  The boy is large.  But I’ve got steam of my own and it erupts faster than I can think to stop it.  Growing up in Shacktown, dealing with the tunnel gangs all my life, I’ve had to learn to fight to survive.

“Meddling?  You think getting my hand sliced and stitched up is meddling? You’re as flatline stupid as anyone Earth or Moon.”  I push him on the shoulder, hard.  That got him going.  He’s red-faced angry and he looks like he wants to crush me but he don’t.  He just takes it, looking like Satan on a hot day.  That surprises me.

My move was pretty stupid though, since we’re both weightless.  Louis falls backwards towards the far wall.  As for me, my body rotates and slams into the bulkhead behind me—I try to protect my face from the hard steel wall with my injured hand but wouldn’t you know the anesthetic chose this moment to wear off.

Ouch, ouch, and ouch.  I say a few other words too.  But I’m all revved up so the pain don’t stop me—I bring my hands under me and push hard as I bounce off the bulkhead.  Louis is already heading back towards me.  He looks like he might hit me.  I been hit by big guys before and I know what it feels like—I brace myself.

But he don’t strike.  He stops himself.  What’s up with this guy?  But I ain’t waiting for him to change his mind.  I have the momentum and my legs are out between us.  My kick catches him on the chin.

Once again, he don’t try too hard to defend himself.  Louis twirls ass-over-head and slams back into the far bulkhead as his feet catch an EVA helmet fastened there.  The helmet jumps off of its hook and flies through the open hatch into the galley where it hits a row of ceramic sippies like a bowling ball hitting a set of pins.  Bowling is a sport that is really only safe to do when you’re in gravity.

The racket is deafening as the sippies shatter.   Ceramic shards fly off randomly in every direction.  The liquids from the containers form up into gooey blobs that scattershot into the air and splatter on every imaginable surface.

“Nice work dumbass,” I say.

Louis hangs there, wordless: me angry and ready to fight, him angry and not fighting and not avoiding fighting.  I don’t know how to read him.  Actually to be truthsome I’m feeling stupid.  There we are, eyes locked but not saying nothing, until Nastez pops in to see about the commotion, shouting questions and floating this way and that to survey the damage.

The chamber goes silent when the captain shows up and everyone is like hoo boy.  Her piercing eyes survey the scene, taking in every blob and splatter and shard and blushing male face. She’s not saying nothing, just quieter than anyone should naturally be.  I decide to get it over with.  “It’s my fault, Captain.  Things got out of hand.  I pushed Louis.  The rest was kind of a…kind of a chain reaction.”  Louis looks at his toes, blushing.  The captain looks hard at me.  Everything, everyone is frozen.  It’s a least a half-minute before she speaks.

“Recruit Yuuta, go to your quarters and confine yourself there, after which you are promoted to Captain of the Head until further notice.  Not a good start for you.  Apprentice O’Neill you also are confined to quarters until further notice.”

“Aye, Captain,” say Louis and me in unison.  Louis avoids my eyes.

“First Officer Nastez, front and center,” says the captain.  Nastez floats in to the chamber and plants himself with his sticky boots facing her.  “You are the officer of the watch, correct?”

“Aye, it is my watch Captain.”

“You are aware that having two young males unsupervised and fighting, to say nothing of the danger that flying debris and unsecured equipment in a pressurized spacecraft presents to the lives of this crew, is completely unacceptable, correct?”

“Aye Captain, it is unacceptable.”

“I would confine you to quarters also if I could afford to.  As it is, I will have to settle for a reprimand to your record and a penalty levied against your profit share.  You will submit a report on this incident to the ship’s server by next watch.”

Nastez blanched.  I recon that’s pretty serious, especially the penalty against share.  Katya floats in after being interrupted from her sleep yet again.

“Officer Navolska,” she continues, “you will assist Officer Nastez in cleaning up this goddam mess.”  She looks around at all of us with cold fury and shakes her head.  “That is all.”  She rotates crisply and zips through the pivot room into a spoke with the agility of someone who has been in space a long time.

Nastez clears his throat, clearly shaken.  He glowers at me, now with an actual reason to hate my guts.  “All right.  We’ve been given our duties.  O’Neil and Yuuta, head to your confinements.  I’ll be interviewing each of you later.  And honestly, what were you thinking?”  He shakes his head and sighs.  “Katya, you and I will get started with the cleanup.  You other two, get out of my sight.”

This is how I end my first watch aboard the Allgood.