Human Enough, Chapter 2

This whole thing is on me.  If I had been there in Shacktown, watching over Alia, she would be home today.  If I’d have stayed there to help her, she’d be safe.  If I had been the friend to her that I should have been, ain’t none of this would have happened.  Alia and Sophia would both be home; troubled, as always, but safe.  Mitsue would be alive.  But I couldn’t have gone to anybody else for advice.  Nobody has been involved with a woman like Alia, ever.  I’m mixed up and alone, working only from intuition.

Three cycles ago I got the call.  It was September 27th.  I remember because I get a treatment every Thursday cycle, and it was early the next morning, on Friday, when my wristy buzzed.

I was recuperating in my apartment in New A.  It had been an especially tough treatment.  Taking the treatments is the only way we can travel to Earth.  Everybody in the Good Health Club hates them, but everybody has to take them.  The injections and exercise and centrifuge build muscle and bone mass in our pathetic Luna bodies.  I’m seriously sore for days after a treatment.  So, I was still in a coma from the Thursday treatment when the wristy on my bedside rang.  It was around oh-three-hundred hours.

I popped open an eye.  “Uh…who is calling?”

“Venecia Kapoor is on the line,” responded the girlish machine voice of the wristy.  “It is an urgent call.”

That was unusual.  Right away, I knew something was up.  My head popped up from the pillow and I waved on the lights.  I couldn’t remember the last time Missus Doctor had called.  She wasn’t angry at me exactly, but we hadn’t spoken for a while, and besides we had both been busy.  “Ask her to wait one minute,” I croaked.  “then accept.  Go big.”

The wristy beeped its compliance.  The origami-like display film unfolded above the instrument.  By the time Mrs. Kapoor’s face appeared, I had a shirt on and had plastered down my crazy hair to something that wouldn’t frighten the nice woman.

“Hello, Missus Doctor,” I said.  Both she and her husband are doctors, she the physician and her husband with multiple Ph.D.’s.  So, you can’t just call her Doctor Kapoor.  It’s Missus Doctor and Mister Doctor.  At least that’s how it is in Shackleton City, which everyone calls Shacktown, where she was calling from.

“Oh Straker,” she responded.  “Oh, oh thank goodness you are there… I don’t know what to do.  Alia is gone!”

The news hit me like a hammer to the face.  “What?  Gone?  Where has she gone?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know.  Oh…I don’t know what to do!  We were shopping at the new Lady Amazon in Corridor D.  I went to try on a skirt they had made for me..  Alia was waiting, she said she would wait, sitting right there outside the door to the changing room, she was just fine she said, and then I come out and she’s gone.  Just gone!”  Her hand went to her mouth, hiding her quivering lips, her dark eyes big and reddened with fear.

“Have you told Mister Doctor?  Have you called the marshal?”

“Yes, yes, Surya is on his way home from a conference at Aristoteles.  He’s coming fast as he can but right now I’m all alone and I don’t know what to do.”

“What about the marshal?”

“Oh, well, he said they have to wait one full cycle before they could even investigate.  One full cycle, 24 hours!”

“How long has she been gone?”

“A little over two hours.  I have searched the store, I’ve searched up and down the corridor.  The clerk said they saw her leave with a dark-haired man that he didn’t recognize.  My Alia would never just leave like that, she’s a good girl.  I think… Straker, I think she’s been taken!”

I heard screams in the ventilation vent next to my bed but it was only the whistling of the rushing air.  I stared stupidly at the display and the face of this distraught woman.  She had always been so kind to me.  I thought about her daughter, helpless in her condition, going through God knows what.  Then I thought: could this be a mistake?  Another part of me said no, it ain’t a mistake, Venecia Kapoor is a level-headed woman; if she thinks Alia has been taken, then Alia has been taken.  I didn’t know what else to think.  My heart was cranking up, my jaw quivering with the tension.  I ached to do something, but what?

“I’ll see what I can find out,” I said, not having any idea what I was saying.  Then my thoughts caught up to my mouth.  “I’ll ask Paul.  Maybe he can help.”

Missus Doctor studied my face, unblinking.  Her face a palette of pain blended with fear blended with the tiniest flicker of hope.  “Paul Raphael?  Really?  Do you know him well enough to…”?

“We are both plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Malapert Resort.  We’ve had a few meetings.  He knew Pops.  He ain’t actually a bad guy.”

“Oh, my, well, if you think there’s any possibility…”

“I’ll get a message to him right away.  I’ll call you back as soon as I know something, I swear.”

She wiped her eyes with a tissue.  She took a few seconds to speak.  She was finally able to whisper a thank you.  I said bye and we hung up.  I left the display film up, took a breath, cogitated on what I was gonna say, and had the wristy call.

Paul wasn’t available—didn’t think he would be, he was surely asleep and besides people at his level are always going somewhere or involved in something.  But the system took a message and I knew he would get back to me.  Paul is a rich, important man, but he’s solid.

Now I had to wait.  Alia’s face filled my thoughts.  I had seen her work through so much pain.  I remembered her struggling with her skeletal body.  The way she squealed in triumph when she took her first steps—the first since her mind was reconstructed.  I watched her grow angry and violent as her mental illness took hold.  She had moments of clarity, beautiful moments when Sophia took control.  Those were the times I lived for.  But there were two minds living in that one body and Sophia was usually mute.

Now Alia had been taken, forced to…what?  Why would anybody take her?  I could only think of one reason, and it horrified me.

I paced the floor of my little room, making a narrow oval track in the carpet between my bed and bathroom, limping from the pain in my leg muscles.  I was still sore from treatment but wanting the pain, welcoming it, welcoming the distraction, the punishment, but it wasn’t enough.  Maybe a shower would help.  I could go out.  I could hit the gym, find Louis, do something, anything.

I went into the bathroom and waved on the light.  My haunted face stared back from the mirror then the mirror was smashed and I screamed and knelt with my head on the hard floor and screamed in rage and squeezed my bloody fists and screamed and cried.

Then my wristy chirped with the return call.

*       *       *       *       *

When I lived in Shacktown,  my days were spent in corridors and caves with low ceilings and dim lights.  That’s how I grew up.  I rarely saw anything more than a few meters from my face.  Even when I was outside, I was really still inside a suit.  But New America is vast and open.  I was waiting for the meeting to start, looking out the thick glass from Paul’s apartment in the weightless central sphere of the colony.  People were walking along the distant streets of the habitation ring.  It was disorienting.  The people look like moving flecks of pepper from that height.  It was morning on New A, and the reflected sunlight cast crazy long shadows.  But from a kilometer up, everything is small, even buildings.  It’s hard to fathom what you’re seeing.

I wasn’t there as a tourist.  A formal Council meeting was starting.  It had only been 4 hours since Paul returned my call, but this group was not Provisional Government and they didn’t need to wait 24 hours to act.  There was a quadrant representative from each colony.  There were a couple of Consortium lawyers.  They’re ever-present whenever foreign relations are involved.  At the other end of the table was a gaggle of serious-faced investors.  Doctors Surya and Venecia Kapoor were seated next to my saddle, both looking worried and ragged, with their panicked night and having just flown up from Shacktown.

Captain Freya Jemison was there too, and I was hoping she would take my side.  She was lacking, for the moment, her trademark well-chewed Plinius Quesada cigar.  A few of her tattoos showed.  She has lived every one of them.  She was the legendary and hard-bitten grandma who, by sheer force of will, got the Astronaut Corps off the ground.  Before that she was a Norwegian military pilot, flying sorties in the European theater of the big Earthen war fifty years ago.  The Hrothgar mission is where I met her: I was a recruit, she the captain.  That was a couple years ago now.  There were rumors about other, secret missions.  They aren’t discussed.

She was chatting with Colonel Musselwhite, who sat to her right.  The Colonel looks about 50, balding, with pleasant face.  He is a real fitness fanatic.  On a run, he can keep up with any of the younger men.  His rank is a carryover from his days in the Canadian Armed Forces, part of an engineering brigade there.  He can be a hard-ass sometimes, but I reckon maybe he over-compensates on account of he ain’t never seen combat.

When the Consortium formed the Fleet Protection Force, the Colonel was tapped to head it up.  He was one of the few people in the Consortium with any military experience.  It was his idea to come up with the cover story of the ‘Good Health Club’.  The cover provides a public rationale for the comings and goings of the men and women of the Force.  We call ourselves the Club most of the time, even in secure areas.  Force of habit.

At the head of the long, fuzzy table sat Paul Raphael.  Paul is famous.  Everybody calls him ‘Paul the Small,’ but not to his face.  He’s a dwarf, and he’s been in space so long that his bones are bendy as rubber.  Started out collecting junk from low Earth orbit; getting paid by Earthen governments to clean up their mess and reselling the metal to Luna when the economy there got hot.  Made a mega-fortune.  He’s old as the Sun and nearly as important.  New America is his baby: he personally designed much of it.  I’ve heard rumors from the workers that his designs are crazy, putting metal where it ain’t needed, planning for stresses that could never happen, strange moving sections.  To me that’s all hogswallop.  Paul is the sharpest guy in cislunar.  The central sphere is where Paul lives, and the only place where he’s comfortable.  It’s where the movers and shakers come to move and shake.

Paul finished his side conversation.  Everyone was seated and waiting.  Paul cleared his throat.  “Yes, let us begin,” he said.  “I believe you all know Lance Corporal Yuuta,” he gestured towards me.  “Tell us, Straker, what has happened?  And why are we here?”

I felt my knees shaking even though we were in weightlessness.  “Yes Sir,” I said.  “First, I want to say thank you very kindly for this meeting.  The Kapoors and I believe this is important.  But the information we’re going to discuss is real sensitive.  I think we should go black.”

Paul’s eyes peaked with interest above his antique spectacles.  “Very well,” he said, speaking to the room.  “As of now this meeting is to be considered secret.”  There was a clatter of wristies shutting off, being laid on the table.  I took mine off too.  Tiny gripping hairs held the instruments to the fuzzy table’s surface.  The room’s curved door swung shut and latched with a solid, reverberating thud.  A set of blue lights, ringing the table, lit up.

I swallowed hard.  “Um, so, Alia is a resident of Shackleton City, about my age, dark hair, very light eyes, frail.  She has disappeared.  Her parents and I believe she was kidnapped.  But this ain’t just a kidnapping.  Alia has mental problems she is working through.  But she also has mutations that could be important.  We believe she was taken because of her mutations.  Her kidnapping could impact the colony.”  I was threading a needle with every word.  There were things I wanted to say and other things I didn’t.  I looked over at Venecia Kapoor.  We had agreed to tag-team this.

Venecia stood, her voice calm and professional as she could manage.  “We look at our daughter’s differences as blessings.  She had advanced neural degeneration, the so-called ‘crater rot,’ as we have seen in other cases on Luna.  Her father and I performed a procedure two years ago which saved her life but which also brought challenges.”

“Challenges?” asked Paul.  “Can you be more specific?”

“Yes, of course.  She changed physically in subtle but significant ways.  Her eyes are the most obvious.  In childhood, her eyes were dark brown.  Since the procedure, they have gradually turned a hazel color, with reflective facets in the irises.  She can see in extremely dim light.  Her retinas have structures we’ve never encountered.  There’s a new type of photoreceptor cell: not rod, not cone.  She also has an amazing ability to heal when injured.  She cut herself one day near the eye socket—uh, an accident—and within a few hours, the laceration had disappeared.  There is no scar; it is new skin.  The least obvious change, revealed only through scans, is that her brain mass increased.”

“Brain mass?  Is this a tumor?” asked Paul.

“No,” interjected Surya Kapoor, “not at all, these are normal cells.  Her brain has reconstructed itself, larger than before her illness, but essentially normal.  Still, she’s had to learn everything anew.”

“Like a baby, she is,” added Venecia.

Paul steeples his fingers and leans in.  “These seem like good things, wonderful things for your daughter, aren’t they?”

“Well, no,” interrupts Venecia, “it has not all been positive.  She suffers from a mental disorder, ah…”

“Dissociative identity disorder,” says Surya.  “She presents herself as two distinct personalities: the dominant one fearful, the other—which we rarely encounter—is gregarious and fun-loving.  This second personality has an affinity for languages and an incredible ability to, um, uh, while the dominant personality remembers only the trauma of her illness.”

Surya glances over at me sheepishly.  We rehearsed this, I’m thinking.  Remember what we practiced.  Mister Doctor doesn’t have a liar’s gifts.  It goes against his grain.

“We’ve tried medications,” says Venecia, taking the conversation in a safer direction, “but none of them seem to have had any effect.  Still, we love her and we are grateful for her progress.  We are optimistic.”

“Have you published your findings?” asked an intense but pretty, middle-aged woman lawyer.

Venecia looked at Surya, then responded.  “My husband has written a paper but he has not submitted it to any journals.  I asked him not to.  Alia is fragile, and we, all of us, we needed time.”

“But this is remarkable!” exclaimed the lady lawyer.  “You’ve possibly cured crater rot!  Have you applied for a patent at least?”

“And there is the question of ownership,” interjected the other lawyer.  His face reminded me of a lizard I had seen years ago in one of the Shacktown greenhouses.  “Haven’t you both signed the standard intellectual property form with the Consortium?”

I liked the way the meeting was going at that point.  The lawyers were getting wrapped up in how the procedure might profit the Consortium.  Of course, the Doctors Kapoor could not reproduce what they had done to Alia.  And it hadn’t occurred to either lawyer to ask where the technology came from.  The doctors weren’t going to volunteer that information.  Neither was I.

“Let’s not get distracted,” said Paul.  “There will be time later for these discussions.  I wish to constrain the conversation to the girl’s disappearance.  Everyone, this is Zane Canney from the intelligence team.  At least, I think that’s his name.”

Paul gestured towards a man who had been sitting only two chairs down from me, but I hadn’t noticed him until then.  Skewed brown hair, spectacles that didn’t line up right, down-turned mouth, double chin.  Dressed in a plain brown jumpsuit.  Zane Canney.  He has a face you wouldn’t notice in a crowd.  A face that blends in.  He wasn’t dressed to impress, that’s not his style.  His style is no style, the better to blend in.  But at that moment I studied him.  His small eyes had a steady, unflappable gaze that made him look smart.  I wasn’t wrong about that.

Canney stood and faced the Kapoors.  “We do know a few things.  We know your daughter was kidnapped, because the suspect stole an earthship and left an ionic trail.  The ship is headed for Earth.  By its trajectory, the ship is projected to land in Alliance territory.  We can’t say exactly where, not yet.  We also can’t say what motivated the kidnapper.  Possibly, they discovered Doctor Surya Kapoor’s paper on the system.  The Alliance may be trying to steal your procedure.  That would be consistent with their past behavior.  Finally, we have determined that the perp was posing as a medical technician on New America before flying down to Shacktown.  He had recently escaped from Earth and was granted asylum.”

My heart fell at the mention of the med tech.  I knew exactly who Canney was talking about.  The tech’s name was Malachi.  And I knew how he learned about Alia.  I told him.  I’d been hating myself ever since.  Alia would still be with her mom and dad if I had kept my stupid trap shut.  There were so many secrets flying around that I couldn’t keep them straight.

“They are taking her to Earth?” gasped Venecia.  “She was born on Luna!  She is so delicate, oh my God…”  She hid her eyes.  Surya reached over and stroked her back.

“There are ways to transport our people to Earth without injury,” replied Canney.  “Alia will only be valuable to them if she is healthy.”

“He’s right,” volunteered Surya, “she’s probably fine.”

“She’s suffering!” replied Venecia.  “She’s suffering right now!  We have to get her back!”

“Now just a darn minute,” said the lizard-faced lawyer.  “Are you suggesting a rescue mission?  Do you have any idea of the cost?  Or of the risks involved?”

The lady lawyer faced her lizardly colleague.  “Wait Todd—this girl has value to us.  Perhaps the mission could be combined with some of the other, eh… vicinity operations to reduce the incremental expenses.  We still have a few million in the discretionary budget for this fiscal…”

“Oh, come on!  This will blow away the budget and you know it!  And how about our relations with the Alliance, what about the lawsuit?  Things certainly won’t improve if they catch us roaming around on their territory.  We do the other operations as an investment and humanitarian gesture, but what’s the payout on this?  We have to be realistic here.”

“Hmm, yes,” the lady replied, sighing and nodding.  “I take your point.  It’s unfortunate, but the risk-reward just does not add up in the case.”  She turned to Venecia.  “I’m sorry, Venecia, truly I am.  But under the circumstances we’ll have to try for some kind of diplomatic…”

“Stop this!” exclaimed Venecia.  “You’re going to just abandon Alia?  You’re just going to…”

Surya’s fist interrupted, slamming into the table, nearly sending him flying, but his strap held him.  The sound made me jump.  I ain’t never seen Mister Doctor angry until then.  “We are citizens dammit!” he said.  “We have contributed more, more to this enterprise than almost anyone.  I insist, I demand…”

Paul, flustered, put up his small hands.  “Wait, Surya, wait Venecia, mes amisS’il vous plaît—please—let me speak.”

Surya’s face was red as a beet, but he swallowed his anger and sat back.  Venecia’s dark eyes bored in on Paul.  She refused to look at the lady lawyer.  Both Doctors Kapoor were shaped charges waiting for ignition.  I was one too but I kept a cover over the boil.

“Thank you, Todd and Bethany,” Paul said, facing the lawyers.  “Your logic is impeccable.  However, there are greater issues at stake.”  He turned to Colonel Musselwhite.  “How soon can you prepare a mission?”

“We’ve been planning,” he responded, not missing a beat.  “With triple shifts, we can have a ship prepped within 48 hours.”

Paul turned back to Venecia, Surya and me.  He eyes were serious.  “Now think about this.  Young people may die on this mission.  Alia may not come back alive.  Are you prepared to deal with that?”

Surya nodded.  Venecia, no longer trying to hide her tears, choked as she whispered, “She’s our little girl.”

Paul looked back at Venecia.  “Yes, she’s your little girl.”  He turned to me, looking directly into my eyes, giving me a chill.  “And perhaps more.”

How much did Paul know?  He surely knew about the materia, the red goo the crew had encountered on the Hrothgar asteroid.  I had reported how the strange substance had saved my life.  He had told me he read the report.  But I didn’t report everything.

There was a moment, just a beat of silence, and I felt the gravity of the grim decision being made.  People would live or die from the outcome.  My arms tingled with dread and anticipation.

Paul broke the quiet.  “The mission will proceed,” he said.  He turned to the colonel.  “Thank you, Colonel, please launch as soon as possible.  And keep me apprised.”

The colonel nodded to Paul, then leaned in towards me.  “You’re on the team.  No outside discussions.  Get to the med center ASAP for your immunizations.  Meet back at Mission Ops at fourteen-hundred hours.  We’ll pre-brief then.  If you have any letters to write, write them.  That is all.”

“Aye Sir, fourteen hundred,” I said.  The weight of what I had done hit me.  A mission to Earth.  I couldn’t believe it.  All my training, all the physical conditioning, everything I’ve learned—I was gonna need every bit.  I hoped it was enough.

The group dispersed.  On the way out, Captain Jemison put her arm on my shoulder.  “Good luck, young Straker.  This is a big step for you.”

“Thanks, Cap’n.  Are you coming?”

She shook her head.  “No, sorry Lance Corporal, this party is for you and your macho Club boys and girls.  Besides, I have my own fish to fry.  You’ll do great.”  With that, she pulled a cigar out of her chest pocket and gripped it in her teeth.  She winked at me and pushed off for the door.

I was disappointed.  Having the captain along would have given me confidence.  I started to leave when Paul got my attention.  “Straker, if you please, stay after.”  Surprised, I nodded and waited with him, making small talk until everybody else had cleared out.  I had grown used to working with Paul on the lawsuit, and although I knew in my mind how powerful he was, I felt a friendship with him.  But this was something different.

With a flick of Paul’s wrinkled little hand, the room again closed its door.  I was just him and me.  “I’ve been reading your military fitness reports,” he started.   “You are shaping up to be a fine soldier.  Beau travail.

“Thanks, Paul.  Coming from you, that means a lot.”

He looked intently into my eyes.  “The Good Health Club needs good soldiers.  And the Consortium needs the Astronaut Corps and the Club.  But I want more from you.”

“Huh?”

“You and I know that the procedure performed on this girl used unknown technology.  Technology that is extra-terrestrial in origin.  Alia could be the key to many things.  We must not allow the Alliance to keep her.”

That’s the argument I hadn’t wanted to make.  The post-voyage report from the Hrothgar mining mission had laid out the facts but had not speculated about extraterrestrial involvement.  Paul had figured that for himself, or maybe it was obvious.  He saw the connection between Alia and the materia.  But he didn’t know I had brought some back.

“I want something more from you,” Paul repeated.  “More than being a warrior.  Do you understand me, mon ami?  This mission must not fail.”  He looked directly in my eyes.  He lowered his voice, as if anybody could have heard us.  “If you must be a bad soldier, Straker, to finish this mission, then I want you to be a bad soldier.  I will stand beside you.”

I must have been turning white by that point.  “Uh…”

He smiled grimly back.  He knew I would do it.  “Bonne chance.  Now go.  I have other meetings.”

*       *       *       *       *

The team gathered up at Mission Operations later that cycle.  Mission Ops is in the habitation ring, where there was gravity.  A big stainless steel door with a complicated combo keeps visitors out.  Big room, dim lights, high ceiling, and quiet except for the hum of a hundred machines.  Men and women on duty sit at desks cluttered with displays and pads, wearing virtual reality spectacles and speaking quietly into their headsets.  Only others on the net can hear them.

Their hands were busy on their pads that day as they surfed through tsunamis of data.  A three-dimensional projection of Earth, reaching to the ceiling, dominated the room.  The image was swaddled in the elliptical yellow traces of a hundred satellites and touched by long green arcs of spaceships coming and going.  There weren’t many green arcs.  Travel to and from the Marble has been restricted since before my time.  As far as the public is concerned there ain’t no travel.  The people in that room knew the truth: the number of flights was small, but it wasn’t zero.  And the Ops Center watched every ship.

“Here’s an update,” said Zane Canney, nearly disappearing in the glare from the big projection.  The five of us on the fireteam gathered in a semicircle around him.  “The earthship is headed for the southeastern United States.  Our target will be somewhere within a few hundred klicks of where the ship lands.  So, your team must first discern her exact location, then affect the rescue and fly the girl home.  The Colonel has that plan.  Are there any questions for Intelligence?”

“What about the locals?” I asked.  “Will they be hostile or friendly?”

“I’m not sure, Straker.  Probably a mix.  You should avoid contact with the locals if you can, just to be safe.  But please keep your eyes open and report back what you see.  The Intelligence team has noted a marked decline in energy usage within Alliance territories over the past few years.  The cities were much more illuminated at night than they are now.  We believe the population is dwindling but of course, the Alliance doesn’t share census data with us.  We don’t understand what is happening.  Whatever you can find out may help us put the puzzle together.”

“What about their defenses?” asked Mitsue.  “Will they detect our ship?”

“We’ll be spoofing your signal on the way down,” replied Canney.  “We’ll get you past the Alliance grid, at least the orbital segment.  Beyond that, well…we can’t be sure.”  Everyone nodded.  At least in this area, our tech is a little better than theirs.

“I won’t lie to you,” Canney continued.  “Even once you’re past the satellites, the Alliance has drones in the upper atmosphere.  Drones with upward-looking radar and optical detection capabilities.  They don’t appreciate Consortium ships flying in their air.  They tend to shoot first and never ask questions later.”

“Do we have intelligence assets on the ground?” Mitsue persisted.

“Perhaps.  That information is need-to-know.  Other question?”

“What about their computer network?” asked Quianna.  “Can’t we just scan it from here and find the girl’s location?”

“Good question,” responded Canney, “and that is discussed in the written plan.  The days of a global, open Internet have been over for 30 years.  The Alliance has regulated, hardened and segmented their network.  They control all communication down there.  Unfortunately, our capabilities at this distance are limited.  The hacking gear we’ve supplied should enable you to get in once you find a hardwired connection.  You may have to get creative.”

Colonel Musselwhite stepped forward.  “Thank you, Zane.  All right.  Here’s the battle plan.  Your ship will fly low enough and slow enough for your high-altitude jump.  The equipment you need will parachute with you.  The ship will automatically return to low Earth orbit without landing.  When you hit the ground, you will find a network connection point and locate your target.  You will inform Ops when you do.  We have supplied you a wheeled vehicle.  Also, a Charlie Horse if you must go on foot.  You will rescue the girl and go to the landing zone for exfiltration.  You will destroy and abandon the ground vehicle and the horse.  You will fly home with the girl.  You will not carry military markings.  Nor will you carry identification.  If you are caught, the Consortium will take no responsibility.  The Consortium will not acknowledge you in any way.  Questions for me?”

Louis raised his hand.  “What about the details?”

“Already sent to your wrist instruments, encrypted.  Read them as soon as you can.”

“Combat pay?” asked Quianna.

“Of course,” replied the Colonel.

Vasily met my eyes.  He had a dubious look.  Louis had the look too although he was trying not to show it.  I knew how they felt.  The plan seemed mighty sporty.  Jumping into the atmo was going to be crazy, no matter how good the gear and training.  But we were committed.  We had to trust that the Colonel and the chain of command knew what they were doing.  It was going to be hard to get any sleep that night.

*       *       *       *       *

It was two more cycles before our earthship was ready.  That’s two whole days on Earth.  By now I was a zombie from stress and lack of sleep, worried about the mission and worried that Alia might be suffering.  We had spent the last 48 hours in briefings and meetings, scrubbing the plan, memorizing the plan, checking gear.  In a quiet moment, I placed a call to the Children’s Home in Shacktown.  I always tried to stay in touch with a couple of kids there.  I sent them some sweets too, along with extra to share.  But this time I couldn’t tell them much about what I was doing.

When launch-time came, the five of us met in the weightless room located just off the big hanger.  We received the final briefing from Colonel Musselwhite.  After the briefing, the fireteam clustered around, waiting to load onto the ship, making small talk.

A floor-to-ceiling window overlooked the hanger.  The view gave me chills.  I had never seen an earthship up close before; the few times I had caught one flying, it had always been a far-off glint gliding serenely above Shacktown, a regal ghost that would never touch the gritty regolith haze in which we lived our lives.  But now there was a ship only a glass partition away.  She was big—much bigger than we needed—and streamlined, shaped as Earthen things often are, like a bird or a fish.

“Cool, huh?” remarked Mitsue.  He had sidled up beside me, holding a sippy-cup of coffee.  He looked crisp and military in his flight suit, his name and rank absent, as all of ours were.

“Yea,” I said.  “Why is it shaped like that?  Like a…”

“Like a wedge?  It’s called a scramjet.”  He pointed to the shovel-shaped nose.  It was the only part of the ship that wasn’t shiny white; it had a blackened, burnt look.  “The blunt tip and curved fuselage help her engines run,” he said.  “She uses atmospheric oxygen when she can, but pure rocket power in space.  That’s how she can launch from an ordinary Earth runway and make it all the way to orbit.”

“Instead of big bloody flaming stacks of rockets,” interjected Quianna, who had walked over and slyly tuned into the conversation.  “I would never climb up on one of those barmy things.”  She was standing next to me, closer than I wanted, leaving a smear of bright red lipstick on her sippy cup.  Her dark eyes looked at me for a reaction.  I shrugged.

“Yup,” replied Mitsue, shaking his head.  “But you have to admire the guts of the people who did sit there.”

“You could call it guts,” she replied, with a sardonic grin aimed in my direction.  “I have other words for it.”

A freckle-faced woman in a white bunny suit and hair net floated up from the trapdoor in the floor to our left.  She waved to us.  “We’re ready for you now,” she said.

“OK, this is it,” announced Mitsue.  “Everyone grab your duffel bags and move out.”

We descended the stairs single file, sticky boots sounding every gluey step, to the tunnel beneath the floor of the hanger.  We walked on a white floor alongside white walls under a low ceiling.  Long parallel runs of yellow-and-black striped conduit and ductwork crowded us to one side.  The space was loud with machinery and so narrow that we had to squeeze against the wall when a technician passed the other way.

There was an alcove just big enough for us to gather, directly under the ship.  Colonel Musselwhite was waiting for us, pad in hand, looking imperious with his buttoned-down flight suit and short-cropped gray fuzz clinging to the sides of his bald head.

“I just wanted to see you off,” said the Colonel.  He looks us over.  “You are a very capable group.  If anybody can pull this off, it’s you.”

“Copy that, Colonel,” replied Mitsue.  “It’s what they pay us for.”

He nodded.  “This team is lucky to have Major Yamasaki as the leader—do what he says and he will bring you through.”  He smiles briefly.  “Good hunting, and good health.”

“Good health to us all,” we replied.  We saluted as a group.  The colonel snapped a return.

We pushed off, one by one, our gear bags up before us into the narrow, brightly-lit hatchway of the humming earthship.  Inside the cabin, we stowed our gear and settled into the big seat pods.  Mitsue came by before the launch and personally made sure I was strapped in safe.  He gave me a smile and confident slap on the shoulder.  His eyes were alight with anticipation.  “In two days, you’ll be on Earth!”

Mitsue sure was a good guy.