Authors: Allen Steele
“Nice going there.” Rain came up beside me. “Maybe you should leave diplomacy to the pros.”
“Is that what Ash is? A diplomat?”
A moment of hesitation, then a sly smile stole across her lips. “You could say that. If I were you, though, I'd steer clear of him. He could make life hell for you if he really wanted to.”
I remembered how I'd seen him standing outside my jail window, and the strange mental episode that I'd experienced a few moments later. I'd pretty much written off the incident asâ¦well, I didn't know what it was, only that it was something that I'd felt compelled not to explore. Before I could ask, though, Rain pushed a pad into my hands.
“Here's the manifest. I've checked it out, and everything looks okay. All you need to do is sign it, and we're good to go.” I found the blank space marked
and used my fingertip to scrawl my signature across the bottom of the screen. “Thanks,” she said, taking it back from me. “Now let's see if you can get through the rest of the day without screwing up again.”
“Hey, now wait a minute.” I thought I'd made my peace with her, but there she was, busting my chops again. It was really getting on my nerves. “I'd appreciate a little respect, if it's not too much to ask.”
“Respect is earned, not given.” There was enough frost in her voice to turn a warm summer afternoon into a cold day in hellâ¦which apparently was when she'd have anything kind to say to me. “Get us into orbit without killing everyone aboard, and I'll take it into consideration.”
Then she walked off, leaving me to wonder once again whether this job might be more trouble than it was worth.
was aptly named. The cockpit looked as if it had been retrofitted at least twice since the shuttle rolled off the assembly line, with new control panels installed beside ones that probably had been in use when I was in high school. The first thing I did was to check the control panels; the layout was slightly different from the one I'd learned to use in the tutorial, but otherwise it was nothing that I couldn't handle. The pilot's couch creaked noticeably as I sat down, though, and the left armrest was wrapped with frayed duct tape. I'd been in flight simulators that were in better shape.
As pilot and copilot, Ted and I were the first to climb aboard, with the rest of the crew following us through the hatch to take seats on the couches arranged around the passenger compartment. There were eight in all, with one remaining vacant; that would belong to the chief engineer, who was waiting for us aboard the
. I noted that one of the couches was different from the rest; on closer examination, I saw that it had been designed to fit a
. As I watched, Jas settled into it, hisher short legs and long torso comfortably finding room in a space that would have been painful for a human.
From his seat beside me, Ted quietly watched while I went through the prelaunch checklist. Satisfied that I knew what I was doing, he turned to make sure that everyone was strapped in. Rain was the last aboard; she had waited on the ground until she was certain that our freight was safely stowed away before closing the cargo hatch and climbing the ladder up to the flight deck.
As soon as she was in her seat, I ordered the passenger hatch to be sealed. Once
was airtight, I pressurized the compartment, then got on the comlink and requested gantry rollback. Bright sunlight streamed through the cockpit windows as the shuttle emerged from beneath the tower's shadow; through my headset, I could hear the crosstalk among the ground crew as they cleared the pad. A few minutes later, traffic control informed me that airspace was clear and I had permission to launch.
One last check of all systems, with Ted making sure that I hadn't forgotten anything, then I entered the flight program into the nav system and initiated the final launch sequence. At this point, I could have just as easily switched to autopilot, but I didn't do this.
was new to me, and I didn't know how much I trusted her. Besides, I wanted to show my new captain that I wasn't some rookie who'd leave everything to the comps.
So I cranked my seat back into reclining position, pulled the lapboard closer to my chest, and grasped the yoke with my left hand and the throttle bar with my right. When I had green lights across my console, I flipped open a candy-striped panel and pushed the big red button beneath it.
might be an old bird, but she was no turkey. She rose from the pad quickly and smoothly, g-force pushing us back in our seats. The hull shook and rattled a bit as the shuttle began its ascent, but the noise quickly subsided as I shoved the stick all the way forward, replaced by a loud roar as the main engine went full throttle. The clouds above us leapt toward us, then the shuttle punched through them.
The sky gradually grew darker, blue fading to black, until stars began to appear. And then we were in space, on our way to orbit. I throttled back the engine, then fired the RCS thrusters to roll the craft to starboard.
Through the forward windows, Coyote hove into view, a vast hemisphere of white-flecked green, the Great Equatorial River visible as a broad blue band that stretched to the distant horizon. Beyond the limb of the moon, Bear rose as an enormous crescent, its rings jutting out into space. A hell of a sight; I found myself wishing that I wasn't a pilot, so that I could simply sit back and take it all in.
I didn't have that luxury, though. Using the nav system to get a precise fix on our target, I found the
Pride of Cucamonga
right where it was supposed to be, parked in stationary orbit several thousand miles above the equator. I could have shut down the engine and simply allowed
to coast the rest of the way to her mother ship, but that would have meant that we'd have to orbit Coyote a few times, adding six to eight hours to our trip. The gauge told me that we had more than enough fuel for a direct ascent, so I kept the engines throttled up one-quarter percent, and programmed the comp for a trajectory that would get us there in just a couple of hours.
Once I was satisfied that everything was copacetic, I switched to autopilot, then returned my seat to upright position. “Everyone okay back there?” I asked, glancing over my shoulder. “Wasn't too rough, I hope.”
A mumble from Rain that might have been a complaint, but I couldn't quite make out her words. “Gordon passed out,” Emily said, “but otherwise he's all right.”
“Gordon? Who's Gordon?”
“She means Ash. That's his first name.” Ted cranked his own seat to horizontal position. “Good flying, kid. You can keep your job.” He looked back at our passengers. “Mr. Goldstein? Jas? How are you doing?”
“Fine. Just fine.” Judging from Morgan's tone of voice, I didn't have to see his face to know that it was probably a pale shade of green. “Jas isâ¦”
“I am comfortable.” If there was any emotion in hisher voice, the translation device of hisher suit masked it. “Thank you, Mr. Truffaut. I compliment your skills as a pilot.”
I liked that. If the Prime Emissary didn't have any complaints, then Rain was in no position to argue. As usual, Ali remained stoical, although I wouldn't have expected otherwise. Pilots respect each other when they're behind the stick; if he had any criticism to offer, he'd tell me once we were out of the cockpit.
“Thank you, Jas. I appreciate it.” I checked the comp again. “ETA in about two hours, thirty-six minutes, folks. So just sit back and enjoy the ride.”
Two and a half hours later, we rendezvoused with the
Pride of Cucamonga
Perhaps I was spoiled. The
Robert E. Lee
, after all, was a streamlined beauty to behold, and even cycleships like the
possessed a certain elegant symmetry. By comparison, the
was as ugly as a crowbar. About four hundred feet in length, the freighter was comprised of cylindrical subsections arranged in tandem, with the hab module at the bow and its massive fusion engine at the stern. Two enormous cargo modules, each resembling a giant drum, protruded at perpendicular angles from either side of the hub just aft of the hab module, giving the ship a cruciform appearance. The service module at the midsection was jammed with maneuvering thrusters, auxiliary tanks, and radiators, while the deflector array stuck out from the prow like an immense wok.
As we drew closer, it became clear that the
was a spacecraft with more than a few billion miles to its logbook. In places along its hull, I spotted plates that were of a slightly different color than the ones surrounding them, an indication that the ship had recently undergone a major refit. There were blackened scorch marks beneath the thrusters, and the telemetry dish appeared to be a replacement.
I wasn't the only one who noticed these things. Ted studied the ship as I matched course with it, then looked back at Morgan. “Tell me again why we didn't rate a new ship.”
“For its class, it's the best one currently available.” Morgan unclasped his harness and pushed himself out of his couch. “Everything else in the Janus fleet is currently committed to other contracts. Besides, my engineers told me that it would be easier to refit an older vessel than build a new one.”
“Refitâ¦you mean repair, don't you?” I didn't look away from my controls.
“No, I mean refit. There were certain modifications that needed to be made for this missionâ¦particularly to the navigation system.” Taking hold of the back of my couch, Morgan pulled himself closer to the windows, inserting himself between Ted and me. “Once we show a profit, the company will have the capital to construct a new ship specifically designed forâ¦”
“Mr. Goldstein, pleaseâ¦” Ted reached up to gently push the boss away. “Give us a little breathing room, okay?” He glanced at me. “How are you doing there?”
“So far, so good.” Keeping one eye on the lidar and the other on the comp screen, I fired the pitch and yaw thrusters to put
on a direct line with the main docking port, located on the hub between the two cargo containers. Once I was holding station about five hundred feet from the ship, I touched my headset wand. “
Pride of Cucamonga
, this is
. Do you copy?”
A moment passed, then a gruff male voice came through.
Have you in sight, and you're clear to dock.”
That had to be the chief engineer. I guessed that he was on the bridge. Obviously a man of few words. “Roger that,
,” I replied. “Thank you.”
“Need any help?” Ted asked quietly.
“No, thanks. Got it covered.” To tell the truth, I was nervous as hell. Everything about both
gave me the uncertain feeling that neither craft was one hundred percent dependable, regardless of whatever Morgan had to say. Too late to chicken out now, though, so I opened the nose fairing to expose the docking collar, and once I had the
's hub port lined up within the crosshairs of the forward radar, I fired aft thrusters and gently moved in.
I shouldn't have worried so much.
was a good girl; she behaved herself as I coaxed her toward the docking port. Even so, I didn't breathe easy until the forward probe slid home and I felt the telltale thump of the flanges being engaged. An enunciator buzzed, confirming that we'd made a solid connection.
“Nice job,” Emily said. “Couldn't have done better myself.”
“Thank you.” I safed the engines, then reached up to pressurize the forward airlock. “We're here, ladies and gentlemenâ¦um, no offense, Prime Emissary.”
“None taken.” Again, the short, catlike hiss that I'd learned to recognize as the
equivalent of a chuckle. “My kind answers to both.”
That earned a couple of laughs from everyone except Rain and Ash. I didn't have to look back to know that she continued to be unimpressed with me. As for Ashâ¦well, he probably either needed to throw up or have a drink, whichever came first.
“All right, we're here.” Ted unbuckled his harness, then pushed himself out of his seat. “So let's go aboard and see what this tub is made of.”
Doc at the airlockâ¦
Rain in spaceâ¦
a definition of the bluesâ¦
great minds think alike.
Pride of Cucamonga
looked a lot better inside than it did on the outside. For a freighter that had put in plenty of time on the Jovian run, it was in pretty good shape. Nonetheless, with the chipped iron grey paint of its bulkheads and exposed conduits running across low ceilings, no one could have mistaken it for a passenger liner. The
was a workhorse, plain and simple.
One of the luxuries it didn't have was artificial gravity. Since the ship wasn't equipped with diametric drive, it also lacked a Millis-Clement field generator. And although the hub could be rotated to provide centrifugal force to the cargo modules, since we weren't carrying livestock, the modules would be locked down for the duration of the journey. I was glad that I'd brought along a new pair of stickshoes; all the ones aboard had been used by the previous crew, and their insoles looked like fungal colonies.
The chief engineer met us at the airlock: Doc Schachner, a stocky gent in his midsixties who'd lost the hair on top of his head but made up for it with a thick white beard that went halfway down his chest. Doc knew Goldstein and called him by his first name, something that Morgan seemed to tolerate only barely; I'd later learn that Doc had a history of disagreements with his boss that might have gotten him canned a long time ago were it not for the fact that the chief was almost always right.
And for good reason. I eventually learned that Edward J. Schachner had earned his nickname along with the doctorate in astronautical engineering he'd picked up at the University of Edinburgh. After spending a decade designing spacecraft for Janus, he'd eventually decided that he'd rather fly spaceships than a drafting board. The
was one of the ships he'd built, and there probably wasn't a wire or rivet aboard that he didn't know like the back of his hand.
Doc wasn't one for small talk. A brief self-introduction was all we got before he escorted us from the airlock to the central access shaft that led through the ship's core. As he led us from the hub into the hab module, Doc paused every now and then to open pressure hatches leading from one deck to the next. As the last person in line, I quickly learned what it was like to be on the receiving end of his temper; when I neglected to close a hatch behind us, he made me go back and dog it tight, and after that made sure that each hatch was shut before we moved on. Ted might be the captain, but the
was clearly Doc's ship, and he didn't leave anything to chance.
Deck Two contained the crew quarters, but before we got there, Doc stopped at Deck Three. Opening the hatch, he asked Jas to accompany him; during the
's refit, a separate cabin specifically designed for
passengers had been added. So we waited in the shaft while Doc showed the Prime Emissary to his stateroom; when he returned a few minutes later, he took us the rest of the way to Deck Two.
Our quarters were located along a ring-shaped corridor that wound its way around the inside of the hab module. They were larger than the first-class cabins aboard the
, but not much; instead of bunks, we had sleep-sacks that could be strung up to form hammocks, and lockers instead of closets and shelves. No furniture, of courseâa chair was unnecessary in zero g, a desk worse than uselessâbut at least I had my own privy, even if the toilet had vacuum hoses and the bath stall was equipped with hot and cold running sponges. As luck would have it, my cabin was located next to Ash's; noting that the walls weren't very thick and that there was a vent between our rooms, I hoped that he didn't snore.
I didn't get much of a chance to make myself at home. I'd just swapped my boots for my stickshoes when Rain knocked on my door. Time to unload
, and she needed me to fly the cargo pod. So off I went to earn my paycheck.
And that's when my troubles began.
Never take a job if you know you're going to be working for someone who has less experience than you do.
was a civilian ship, nonetheless there's a certain hierarchy aboard merchanteers that's quasi-military in nature. In this instance, the quartermaster outranks the shuttle pilot when it comes to taking care of the payload. Therefore, Rain was my boss for this particular chore. Under any other circumstances, that wouldn't have been a problem, but from the moment we suited up for EVA, I knew working with her would be difficult.
's secondary airlock was located on the opposite side of the hub from where
was docked. Before you cycled through it, you entered the ready room where the EVA gear was stowed. Prepping for a spacewalk isn't for the modest; it entails stripping down to your birthday suit in order to put on the one-piece undergarment that, among other things, collects your sweat and urine to be distilled and recycled as coolant water and oxygen for the life-support system. If nudity is a problem, then you can always keep your back turnedâ¦but nonetheless, in a compartment little larger than a closet, it's hard to keep from bumping into the other guy.
Rain wasn't willing to trust me, despite my promises that I'd keep my hands to myself and not sneak a peek. Can't say that I blamed her; in zero g, it can be hard to be gallant, especially since you're having to use both hands to pull on the overgarment while attaching all the necessary lines and hoses. But she'd have nothing of it, so I had to wait outside while she suited up. That was my first indication that she had precious little experience, because nearly an hour went by before she let me inâ¦and then, as soon as I saw her, I noticed that she'd missed a couple of steps, not the least of which was neglecting to close the zipper on her left wrist, something that might have caused a blowout.
Rain didn't like it very much when I pointed this out to her, nor was she appreciative when I properly attached the electrical line from her backpack to her chest unit. In fact, she squawked as if I was trying to grope her, until she realized what I was trying to do and why. Then she insisted on waiting for me in the airlock while I suited upâ¦a violation of safety protocols, since the buddy system calls for no one to enter an airlock alone.
Prude. I took my time getting into my gear, meaning that I was ready to go in twenty minutes. A final check-out of each other's suits, followed by a comlink test, then we put on our helmets, pressurized our suits, and voided the airlock.
The cargo pod was docked on the hub's outer hull. It was almost identical to the one I'd operated on Highgate, so nothing about it was unfamiliar. Nonetheless, I waited until Rain attached her safety line to a hook just outside the airlock, then made her way hand over hand along the outside of the hub until she reached
, before I climbed into the cockpit. She spacewalked well enough, but nonetheless I couldn't help but notice a certain clumsiness in the way she moved. It was obvious that she hadn't spent a lot of time in EVA.
Rain wasâ¦how old? Nineteen, maybe twenty? I had time to think about this while I waited for her to find her way to the shuttle. How much previous experience could she have had before Morgan hired her? Probably not very muchâ¦especially not since the Federation Navy only consisted of a handful of small ships, plus the
. So how come someone so young got the job of quartermaster aboard a freighter, particularly one vested with such an important mission?
A bad sign, indeed. And it only got worse.
The way we were supposed to work was that, once Rain opened
's cargo deck and climbed inside, she'd untie each bale and, one at a time, push them to the hatch. I would then use the pod to transfer the bales to the cargo modules, alternating between Cargo One and Cargo Two, so that the mass would be evenly distributed on either side of the ship. Once the bales were aboard, Rain and I would enter the modules and tie them down, making sure that they were securely lashed to the inside decks before we closed the hatches.
It should have been a simple operation, one that would've taken a few hours at most. If I'd been working with a seasoned grunt, that is. But Rain seemed to have little idea what she was doing. She struggled to untie lines, tumbled the bales toward the hatch and swore at me when I had trouble catching them with the pod's manipulators, and frequently forgot the order in which we were supposed to reload them aboard the modules. Three times, I returned to the shuttle only to discover that she'd already pitched out another bale; on one occasion, I had to chase after a bale that had floated away from
, barely managing to retrieve it before it drifted too far to be rescued.
None of these problems were her fault. They were always the result of my incompetence and stupidity. I was an oaf, an idiot, a doofus, an amateur, a complete zero, and God only knew how she'd been saddled with the likes of me. Even after Ted, overhearing her more unkind remarks over the comlink, told her to calm down and cooperate with me, she continued to insist upon doing things her way.
It wasn't until Emily suited up and came down to give us a hand that we finally managed to get the shuttle unloaded. I docked the pod, but instead of helping them secure the bales, I went straight to the bridge. Didn't bother to take off my suit; simply shelved the helmet, plugged the backpack into its recharger unit, took off my gloves, then hauled myself up the access shaft to Deck One.
The command center was a circular compartment ringed by rectangular portholes, with a pentagonal control console dominating the center of the room. A hologram image of the
floated above the table, with close-up views of the ship displayed on flatscreens suspended from the low ceiling. Ted was at the engineering station, peering over Doc's shoulder as they ran through a systems check; on the other side of the table, Ali was seated at the helm. Everyone looked up as I entered through the floor hatch. The women's voices were coming through the ceiling speakers, so no doubt they'd heard everything that had gone on between Rain and me.
“Something on your mind, Jules?” Ted turned to me as I used a ceiling rail to make my way across the compartment.
“Damn right.” I was trying hard to keep my temper in check, but I wasn't succeeding. “I can't work with her, skipper. She's insane.”
“Hmmâ¦yes, I think I see your point.” He thoughtfully stroked his chin as if pondering a solution to the problem. “Well, I'd hate to lose you, but I suppose Emcee can do double duty as shuttle pilot.” He reached to his earpiece. “I'll put in a call to New Brighton, have someone bring up a skiff to take you home.”
“Whoa, wait a minute! That's not what Iâ¦”
“You just accused one of your crewmates of insanity. Since I picked Rain myself, I suppose that means that you lack respect for my judgment. And if you're unable to work with either of usâ¦”
“Just a second! Iâ¦”
“I'll give you”âTed glanced at his watchâ“sixty seconds. But that's all. We're rather busy just now.”
He wasn't joking. Ted Harker might be an easygoing chap, but no one questioned his authority on the bridge of his ship and got away with it. I took a deep breath, started over again. “Sir, I have total respect for your judgment. Andâ¦all right, maybe she isn't insane. But you heard what happened out thereâ¦”
“I did, indeed. All of us did. That's why my wife went down below.” His eyes narrowed. “Which is where you should be right now. Why aren't you?”
“Becauseâ¦Captain, how much experience does Rain have with this sort of thing? Seriously?”
“Very little. In fact, this is only her third time in spaceâ¦and her first assignment as quartermaster.”
I stared at him. “Her firstâ¦what did she do before then?”
“She worked groundside at New Brighton for eight months before signing on with Janus. After that, two orbital sorties aboard cargo shuttles, unloading freight from the
. True, she hasn't logged as many hours as you have, but she takes her job seriously, and I have complete confidence in her. I'm sorry that you have problems working for someone younger than you, butâ¦”
“No, sir, that's not it. It's just thatâ¦look, she's been on my case ever since I met her. I've been trying to get along with her, but it's gotten to the point whereâ¦” Again, I hesitated. “If you really want me to leave the ship, then I will. But I can't work with someone who carries a chip on her shoulder all the time.”
Ted didn't say anything for a moment, and I wondered if I'd just talked myself out of a job. Behind him, Doc was quietly shaking his head. An old pro, he knew how petty feuds among crew members could escalate if left unresolved.
“Very well,” Ted said at last. “I'll have a few words with Rain once she gets off duty, ask her to calm down. If she continues to harass you, I want you to let me know. As for nowâ¦since you're here, I have a small errand for you.” He glanced over his shoulder at Doc. “Can you get along without me for a minute?” The chief nodded, and Ted unstuck his shoes from the deck. Grabbing hold of a ceiling rail, he pulled himself around the console. “Come along, please.”