Science Fiction Theater Magazine
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R. G. Currell
THE SEMELE PROJECT
© 1998, Science Fiction Theater, R. G. Currell
THE VEGA COLONIES.
SIXTH PLANET, FORTUNA. THIRD MOON, SEMELE.
NEW CALENDER YEAR: 2185 A.A.
The Protagonist does get excited.
Young Ensign Jennifer Bova's first assignment out of Cadet School, where she majored in Command Training and minored in Mining Engineering, was to head up the Semele Project on the third moon of Fortuna, so, she set out to make the best out of the hind end of Space. What that translated into being was to make Captain Jerry Paterson happy. That's all. And all she had to do to accomplish that feat was to meet the mining quotas for sodium and potassium. That's all. And all she had to do to fulfill that was to get the most out of the Three-jaw Tractor Miner. After all, their quotas were based on their capacity. Still, it seemed to raise her blood pressure.
The trouble was that Semele was only 2,310 miles in diameter, roughly a little less than a tenth that of the Earth. Also, Semele has a mass of 1.22 that of the moon, so the weight of the Tractor Miner is roughly what it would be on the moon. And that's important for moon mining because the traction of the Tractor Miner is dependent upon its weight and its weight, of course, is dependent upon the gravity of the planet. So, the gravity was much less and the difficulties were much more. At roughly one sixth Earth gravity, the Tractor Miner worked roughly one twelfth as well.
Ensign Jennifer Bova was presently telling all this to Captain Paterson in non-technical language, via a tight-beamed transmission:
"The fucking thing just doesn't work, way the hell out here in the hind end of space." Jennifer wasn't the most poised of women. "Sir." She had grown up in a mining camp back home on Earth and did hands-on work with her father, Tom Bova, who had ram-rode the outfit.
The Captain tried to suppress his smile, as he regarded the snowy figure of the rough-hewn woman on the vidcom. She seemed to be getting more and more irritable, the longer she stayed on the moon, the Captain thought. But he also thought the men down there wouldn't work for anybody else. So, he was more or less willing to put up with a lot. "Earth-made things often don't, Ensign. But we try to improvise and adapt, way out here in the hind end of space. Now. Nobody cares about the detours along the way, Ensign, just as long as you reach the destination. And I don't care about the details. Just the results. You have the problem, Ensign. You solve it. Questions?" the Captain asked rhetorically.
"None, Sir," she said.
"Good. Paterson out." And the screen on her vidcom went from snowy to snow.
Ensign Jennifer Bova pounded her fist on the desk top so hard that the monitor jumped. Her stone-hewn office was cluttered with stuff. Mining stuff. Not all the Admin stuff they'd sent her. Crates of hardware were stacked against the walls and covered them almost completely. A sampling pick was propped up against one, near a pile of on-site analyzers and spare diamond tips for the Tractor Miner jaw bits. Jennifer took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. At least the place was beginning to feel like home.
She popped up onto her feet, decision made. "Fuck," she said. Some Officers would have just picked up a communicator and told someone else to look into it or just to fix it. Some Officers would have done exactly what the Captain had done to her: call somebody lower and have them solve the problem. Not Jennifer. She stripped out of the pressed uniform she wore when talking to the Captain on the vidcom, and then she slipped into her dark blue coveralls, the ones that were all stained by soil and smelled a week's grease. She stuffed a flashlight into a pocket, put on an old miner's head lamp, tore the last set of seismic readings from off the printer, and headed out through the door.
In the hallway, she abruptly stopped. She turned and stepped back inside, where she grabbed the sampling pick and went back out again. She flipped it into the air and caught it by the handle and smiled. Her initials were just above her fist. They always were. She had carved them there years ago.
Jennifer's father had never been without his pick, when he was in a mine. She thought about it. That's where she got the habit. As a girl, she'd wanted to be just like him. As a girl. Back then, she wondered why he always had it with him. She found out, one day. They were in the deeper levels of a mine, when a rock slide almost buried them alive. He picked their way out. And from that day on, she was never without it. And this was the one he'd given her way back then. She was fourteen. And she wondered if he would have ever have guessed that it would one day be circling Fortuna, inside a moon called Semele, in the hind end of Space.
It was now tucked up under one arm, handle back at an awkward angle. Jennifer was reading the seismic graphs now, as she walked along this narrow stretch of hallway, cut by hand-held jacks. Crude. She studied the graphs, just the way her father used to study them on the job. "Fuck," she griped. "I could never read some of this shit!" Her father had taught her to read them, but she could never get all of it. He taught her a lot of things back then, before he disappeared. Before he left. "Shit head," she said.
Two Tractor Miner specialists who were walking toward her parted ways, so that Jennifer could walk between them. They saluted. But she didn't see. They grinned, as she passed them. They didn't have to salute, of course. The miners were all civilians and she was the only one in the Service on the whole planet. But the miners had already learned that Little Jennifer was a big woman. And they had learned that she could carry her weight around here with the best of them. And the men agreed that this Officer was one they could finally look up to, even if they had to look down on her.
Ensign Jennifer Bova stopped, almost in mid-stride, as the starred at the graph. What caught her eye was kind of an anomaly. At least she'd never seen anything like it. "What the hell!?" She walked a little farther to stand under one of the biolights. "Damn lighting down here," she complained, as she squinted her eyes. The light boxes above were filled with organisms that glowed while digesting. They reproduced spontaneously and ate each other regularly, so there was always some digesting going on. But while the light was steady, it wasn't very bright. She leaned against the stony wall and felt the vibrations of the atmospheric circulators. Then, a greenish glob of substance splattered onto a corner of the print out and she jumped. "Oh, crap," she exclaimed. And she made a face. A disgusted looking face. "This stuff smells like shit." Turning, she smeared it onto the wall of the hallway. She walked on and took out her communicator from a pocket. "Bova to Maintenance."
"Go ahead, Bova," a voice said.
"Informal, aren't we, Davis?"
"Who the fuck's down here to care? Davis here."
"We have a shit-smelling biolight leak down here in the hallway leading to my office. Get right on it, would you? I don't want to have to savor this shit every time I'm down here. And check the wall. There's some of this crap-splatter on it."
"Right on it, Ensign Bova, Ma'am."
"Stuff it, Davis."
As Jennifer moved on, she was thinking that there were some advantages to being in the hind end of Space for Cadet-graduate Officers. Junior Officers. "Where the fuck else can a shit-stinking new Officer be the Commanding Officer of anything?" She nodded, as she considered what that would look like in her Service Record. She smiled, "Not too damn bad."
The hallway opened into the main tunnel dug by the Tree-jaw Tractor Miner. She saw it sitting in a pool of light just ahead. "A ship dead in the fucking water," she said.
But she had to hand it to them. They'd sent the new model. Reactor core. Steam-driven turbine engines. Self-contained Emergency-Evac Compartment. The latest. Non-pollutive. Not like the older models. The only thing that ever came out of this Tractor Miner was steam. Not like the old ones equipped with internal combustion engines and exhaust pipes "that farted every kind of crap," she thought. In sealed mines like this one, where life support systems were strained to the max anyway, she couldn't abide with the fumes and poisons. And in the danger of depressurization, it had alarms that automatically cut in its life support systems and recalled the Crew by communicator for immediate boarding.
A small Crew this size could live in it for a week. More than enough time to chew its way to the surface for evacuation.
"Ah! There you are, you brand-new piece of shit-machine," she mumbled as affectionately as she could. And she started walking toward the thing she called the Monster Milk Carton on Tractor Treads. "What an ass," she exclaimed, as she looked at the big 20 by 20 foot back end, with a pair of troughs coming out of it that she referred to as its double-poop shoot. Double dunga. The ground up and separated sodium and potassium ores would come out and fill the steel, self-propelled cars at the rear and would shuttle it all back down the tracks that were laid down by the undercarriage of the Three-jaw Tractor Miner. The Mining Control Room would re-route them and send back empty cars. A slick operation -- when it worked right. Right now, it wasn't.
Jennifer tore off a corner of her print out and let it fall to the floor, as she folded it up. She stuffed the graphs into a pocket and began to flip the sample pick into the air and catch it when the handle came around. The old habit she'd picked up from her father. She was staring through inspector's eyes, as she walked along the sixty foot length of the Tractor Miner. She looked closely at the stack of rails that were held snugly to the side of the Machine. They would be lowered, gravity-fed, and slipped over the protruding Tractor treads until they disappeared under the Machine. A track arm would grab them, bend them as needed, place them on the ground, and hold them for the hydraulic rams to drive the spikes through a set of pre-drilled holes. This process repeated itself every forty feet. The track length.
Finally, she was up to the stairs that led up to the port side Pilot's cabin and Crew entrance. There was a gasket around it for Emergency Docking for surface Evacuations. The cab was empty. It was dead it the water.
The front end of the Tractor Miner held the pivoting yoke that supported the rotating arms of the Three-jaws for the Diamond Screw Bits. As the arms turned, they made a hemisphere pattern so that the bits chewed enough ore for the Tractor Minor to pass through. And the bottom of the pattern was flat, so the rails for the self-propelled cars could be driven into place. The jaws turned so that the ore was thrown through a center core onto a conveyer that shifted the material to the starboard side, up and over the Crew's Quarters below and then rattled down into the Ore Processor inside. Inside, it was ground up and separated and finally shot through the shoots into the waiting cars controlled by radio from Mining Control.
Jennifer rounded the front and walked astern along the opposite side that was equipped with rail guides, too. She flipped her pick in the air and caught the handle without even thinking about it. She looked up and saw the wood beam constructed Mining Command Center. Two men were inside, Galveston and Fallen, presumably going over some perspective mine lay-outs. If they were actually doing what she'd asked. But they never looked up.
She rounded the back so squarely that she almost tripped over a pair of legs that were sticking out from under the Tractor Miner. "Is that your fat ass under there, "Thompson?" she asked.
"Did you ask some other poor son-of-a-bitch to do this, job, Captain? If you did, just let me know and he can have at it. It's me." Thompson was an old miner, not the kind who would say, "It is I."
"Drag your filthy ass out of there for a minute, Thompson. I have to talk to you."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. 'Thompson, get under there; Thompson, get out from under there; Thompson, get back under there.' I'm coming, Captain," he said.
The auto crawler rattled and buzzed and brought him out. Thompson was the new man on the job. But he said he knew about Tractor Miners. So, as far as Jennifer was concerned, he was the new resident expert on them. At the very least, it qualified him to be crawling under one.
"What the fuck do you want now, Captain?" He demanded.
"The same fucking thing I wanted five hours ago. I want this piece of name-brand shit to work." Jennifer told him. "Now, what can you tell me beside some line of shit?"
"Everything works, Captain. Everything checks out A-Okay. It's just that nothing works here. It's on the wrong fucking planet to work, Captain."
"Make it work, Thompson, you're the new fucking Three-jaw Tractor Miner Operater/Mechanic around here." Jennifer said.
"I'm up to my elbows in pig shit out here, and all you can think to do is drag your little ass out of your office and nag me about it. Unless you can multiply the mass of this ball of shit by six, there's nothing I can do for you."
"You're as useless to me as a pecker. If you can't give me anything better than that, Thompson, then get the fuck out of there and find something to do in Mining Control. I'll look at this piece of mining shit myself." Jennifer pointed her thumb toward the cabin of timber wood and said, "Get off that crawler, shit head, and let a real man do the job."
Jennifer rolled, as she fell right onto her back on the top of the auto crawler. She stuffed her papers into her pocket and took out the flashlight with one hand and turned on the miner's head lamp with the other. Then, she placed the sample pick across her ribs so its handle rested between her legs and she took a deep breath. "I hate this shit," she complained. She craned her head so she could see where she was going, then worked the controls so she was moving at slow crawl between the laid rails. She was inspecting the rail layers and the rams and said, "Shit. No wonder." Jennifer could see at least a part of the problem. Every time the rams drove the spikes through the rails, it made the Tractor Minor that many tons lighter. "Why couldn't the fucking engineers back on Earth see far enough ahead to know this would happen!?" On Semele, the Tractor Miner was a sixth its intended weight already. With the force of the rams, it could easily get down to a twelfth -- for moments anyway. No wonder it couldn't sustain adequate traction to bore its way through the Ore! Of course, that didn't matter on Earth. At six times the weight, it wouldn't. She moved on.
Further up toward the front, she was inspecting the tracks, where they ended. She inspected the Tractor Miner treads. They just couldn't push themselves forward. If only they had something to pull them toward. Or against. Or down. Or all at the same time.
"Fucking eh!" she said. "That's it!"
Quickly, Jennifer shinnied around and used her sample pick to turn herself around -- head to the rear of the Tractor Miner. She smashed at the controls and bumped along, as fast as it could go. Until she was finally out. She turned it off with a fist of abuse, stood, grabbed her Communicator and snapped into it, "Thompson, where in the fuck are you?"
"You told me to go to Mining Control, Captain," his voice said over the air waves.
"Thompson, anybody with half a brain would have known I didn't mean that literally! But since you're there, stay put."
"And Thompson. Pull the drawings for the Tractor Miner. Undercarriage drawings. Can you do that?"
"I'm on my way. Stay the fuck there. I don't want to come looking for you, when I get there." There was no response. Jennifer ran over to Mining Control and hopped over one of the track spurs that let the extra self-propelled cars onto the track after the full ones had passed the point. It was a Safety Regulation that allowed cars to be dispatched only from one location. But at their speed, it was a matter of loosing only a couple of minutes. Ensign Bova let herself into Mining Control and tossed her pick against the wall, where it clanked into one almost identical to it. But she didn't think anything more about it.
Mining Control was just a big, single room equipped with a number of large Computer Aided Drafting Tables in the center with drawer files to one side that held all the prints. Along the opposite wall there was the viewer that traced the whole operation in real time. By the time she came up to Thompson's side, he had just found the under carriage prints of the Three-jaw Tractor Miner and flattened them out. "Here we are, Captain," he announced, as though giving a status report of some kind.
"And it's about time, shit head. I figured you'd have the piece of shit memorized by now," the Ensign jabbed the man in the ribs. Ribbing him. She fussed with the wad of hair that she always had bunched up there, even though her hair was far too long for it. Then, she leaned over and glanced first at the drawing, then at the man standing on the opposite side of the table from her. "You can read these fucking things, can't you?"
Thompson's Dark brown coveralls and synthetic boots were stained with the salts he'd been crawling around in. Sodium and potassium salts. More complex than table salts, of course, but a necessary staple out in the Vega Colonies. They could always be broken down. The salts. His hair was matted down and neon yellow in the light of the bio lights. His beard was longish white, probably the color his hair should have been. What Jennifer could see of his roundish face was red, so she inferred that he liked much wine.
Ensign Jennifer Bova looked at the drawings again and asked, "Do you use a cutting torch and arc welder?"
"Fucking eh, Captain. Chastity belt maintenance, you know."
"Smart-ass civilian. You're going to get a chance to use them, too. And, by the way, Thompson, I am an Ensign not a Captain."
"Well, I'll remember that, Captain."
"Stuff it, Thompson. Now, here's what I want you to do," Jennifer Bova pointed to the undercarriage print. "I want you to change the angle of these piss rams, here. I want them to push sixty degrees aft, instead of straight down. That'll give us a forward motion instead of an upward thrust. Got that so far, you ugly sack o' shit?" As she looked up, Jennifer became aware of the fact that the front of her coverall top was flopping open enough to show most of her breasts. And she noticed he wasn't looking. He had a redeeming quality, after all, she thought. Then it struck her as odd, as she pushed it closed. The rest of the men would have looked. So, she wondered what was the matter with him. "Got that?" she repeated.
"Right. Good plan. What else?"
"Then," she pointed to another section of the drawing, I want you to re-figure the fucking Tractor Brake Clampers to grip the rails and not the tractor treads. Extend them like this," she made a few scribblings. "That way, when the tread moves, it will pull The Tractor Miner along the rails. The brakes will pull the fucking tractor, instead of stopping it. Got that?"
"You can do this, right?" Ensign Jennifer Bova asked.
"How long will this shit take you, Thompson?"
Thompson thought about it and ran his fingers through his gray-white beard. "I can do it in three days, Captain."
It was Jennifer's turn to ingest and consider. Judging from what the Captain had said, that was too long. So she shook her head. "Fuck that," she concluded.
"Shit! I'd have to work around the clock! I'm not going to slave like that for nothing, Captain. Maybe you people in the Service work like that for King and Country. But I don't. I'm nobody's fucking slave."
"Thompson. Do it in a day and test the fucking thing. If it works, then take two days off. With pay."
"All right," Thompson said. "A deal. I'm still getting screwed, though. I just know it."
"Don't bore me with your sex life, Thompson. Just get your ass in gear and get the fucking job done."
"All right. All right. I'll have to thumb through the Tech Manual for a few details, though. I'll hit it right after Supper and be done by Supper tomorrow. Now, what in the fuck is that awful smell?"
"This crap," Jennifer took out the roll of seismic print out and unfolded it. "A Bio light shit on it," she said as she started looking at it again. She picked up a highlighter and drew a circle around it.
"What in the fuck is that? I've never seen seismic lines like that!." Thompson leaned further over the drawing table to get a better look at it.
"Unknown, Thompson. You read this shit?" Jennifer looked up into his eyes.
"Fucking eh, but not when they look like that. Let's see, here," he said as he ran his arm across it and followed a pattern of lines. "Here's the fucking tunnel. We're right about here," he tapped a spot with a finger tip. Then, he started counting little lines between their location and the location of the circled anomaly. He started counting clicks and ticks, as he placed two fingers on the paper, then he placed three fingers and a thumb on another. "Three ticks and four clicks," he announced. "That's about fifteen degrees to the right and twenty degrees down for about two kilometers. That makes the heading 015 mark 340, Relative."
"I could never read those fucking things in 3-D. My father could, though. Shit head. He tried to teach me, but I guess I was just too young at the time to grasp the concepts. Shit head," Jennifer Bova said.
"An old art, sweetheart. A dying art, I'm afraid. I can run through it again, if you like."
"What the fuck is holding you back? A Meter Snapper got you by the ass?"
"I can crush a Meter Snapper with one hand tied behind me, Captain," Thompson tapped the table top with his fist for emphasis.
"In the fucking water?"
"Hell no. On dry land, what do you think?"
"So can I. My father showed me how, when I was fourteen. Shit head. Show me."
Thompson looked a little sad for some reason, but he diverted her attention back to the seismic drawing. "Look here. Just think of a clock. Tick tock: right left. Click clack: down up. Fingers times ten divided by two. That's all you have to know. And don't ask me why the fucking thing works. I haven't a clue."
For a brief moment, Jennifer could almost see her own father's hands making the same motions. Well, they were the same motions. The same system. The system made sense now. But the thought of her father made her shutter. "Shit head," she breathed under her breath. "I see how this shit works, now!" She nodded with the air of finality and turned on her heel and headed toward the door. "Thanks. That shit'll come in handy." She took up a pick on the way out and closed the door behind herself. Things were finally getting done, she thought, as she flipped the pick into the air and caught it by the handle. But it didn't feel quite right. When she looked at the hickory handle, the initials whittled into it weren't hers. The initials were TB. Her brow creased, as she turned military style on her heel and went back into Mining Control.
"I think I took the wrong fucking pick," she announced, as she stepped in. "This your's?"
"Ah! Yes," Thompson said as he took the thing and slid it into a hand-made leather holster obviously made for it. "Thanks. Never go anywhere without it."
"What the fuck does TB stand for, Thompson?" Jennifer asked, as she leaned over and picked up her own.
"Well, ah, Thompson - Budry's Mining. Went belly-up a few years back," he was saying, as he noticed how she was looking at the leather holster. "You like the holster, don't you?"
"I'll have to make one," Jennifer announced. It should be easy enough, she was thinking.
"Nah. You just take this one. I have a spare," Thompson took it off and held it out to her.
"No. I couldn't."
"Sure. I want you to have it."
"But your initials are on it."
"Just turn the T into a J, Sweetheart. And you'll be all set."
"Well, okay. Thanks, Shit head."
"Don't mention it," he said, as he reached over and ruffled her hair with his big hand.
Later, in Jennifer's office, she took out a knife and was whittling the T into a J, when her memory pealed back the years like the layers of an onion. Pungent, eye-stinging.
Tom Bova, her father, had just noticed how she was looking at the sample pick he always carried. "You like it, don't you?"
Jennifer didn't say anything, she just nodded. Who wouldn't, right?
"You just take this one. I have a spare," Tom held it out to her.
"No. I couldn't."
"Sure. I want you to have it."
"But your initials are on it."
"Just turn the T into a J, Sweetheart. And you'll be all set."
"Well, okay. Thanks, Daddy."
"Don't mention it, Penny Jenny," he said, as he reached over and ruffled her hair with his big hand. And he walked out through the door. For the last time.
Ensign Jennifer Bova looked down at her new pick holster and saw the new initials engraved into it. The T had a slight hook on the bottom, just to the right of the arc that finished the J. Of course, it had been made from a T. It looked identical to the one on her sample pick handle. She looked back and forth between them. An eye brow rose. And she shook her head. "No," she said. "Fuck no."
The Crew's Barracks was simply a forty foot tunnel cut about twenty-eight feet semi-circled, which is the standard swath of a Three-jaw Tractor Miner. A heavy curtain was drawn over the entrance to resemble privacy. Eight bunks were situated in the rear, four to a side and a few tables were symmetrically placed in the front half -- for meals, such as they were, letter writing on lap tops, and general recreation. And about midway back on the right a hand carved area had been cut into the wall to accommodate the recycling showers. The desalination was tough here. The light was pretty good from the bio lights overhead. That was a plus. But they never went out during sleeping hours. That was a minus.
After their cold meal of miner rations, some of the men were loitering about talking about the cold day in hell when they'd finally get their promised food synthesizers. Thompson was trying to concentrate on his reading, but his ears perked up. He looked up from the thick book he was studying. He was the new man on the block, having arrived just yesterday.
A voice was asking, "When do you think they'll come?"
"What, the food Synthesizers?" asked a big man by the name of Tennyson. "Oh, I suppose about the time this ball of salt is a hollow shell, with about an eight foot crust left, and we're all still digging it with a Tractor Minor on maneuvering thrusters." The Tractor Minor Reactor Operator looked up from his card game with Bryson, the Separation Controller. "The Ensign's edgy these days, you think?"
Thompson looked over, but didn't say anything.
"Life's just one crisis after another with her. High strung. They must really be puttin' the screws to her on the quota thing. Just building up the pressure," Bryson remarked. "Have to hand it to her, though, she can out mine most men I know."
"Knows her stuff like she was raised into it," Tennyson agreed. "Hey! Isn't he supposed to be fixing the fucking Tractor Miner instead of reading some book?"
Thompson looked over even more toward their table, "Even slaves get a meal and a shower, I'm told. And this fucking book," he said as he held it up, "is the Technical Manual for the Reacter-equipped, Three-jaw Tractor Miner. I have a few more details to look up before I can modify the fucking thing." But to himself, he thought how he'd never even seen a Tractor Minor before yesterday.
"Thompson, if you're such a hot shot Tractor Miner Mechanic, why in the fuck do you have to read a Tech Manual to fix one?" Tennyson asked.
"Tennyson, you ever work on the old models?" Thompson kicked back.
"Well, I never worked on the Reactor-equipped one."
"But they're identical. Except for the Drive Train."
"Uh huh," Thompson grunted in that condescending tone that says you know better than that. "Now, if I can get back to my reading, I can get my ass started working."
Davis, Galveston, Fallen, and Bennett all came in. Davis was being kept at a respectful distance ahead of them.
"Burn your clothes, Davis. And take a shower. Alone," Galveston was saying, as he made shooing motions with his hands. Nobody knew Galveston's real name except for the Administrators in Personnel on board the Command Ship, Fortunian I. All anyone down here knew for sure was that he was from someplace called Texas. At least that's what Galveston said.
Tennyson, the Reactor Operator, looked up and made an ugly face -- well, an uglier face -- and he said, "Davis, how could you do this to us?"
"Smells like he's been playing in the Bio Bath again," Bryson said as he pointed an accusing finger.
Bennett just kept his distance. A leper would have been no more repugnant.
The Maintenance and Miner Control Operator just stripped down, threw his clothes into a Decontamination Bin, and walked stark naked into the shower.
A big, burly man by the name of Randall walked in and came to an abrupt halt. "What in the fuck smells in here?" he demanded.
"Davis and the Bio Bath," somebody informed him.
"You must be Thompson. The new man on the block," Randall snapped. "The Ensign says you should be working on the fucking Tractor Miner -- until it's fixed. Why in the fuck are you in here?"
"Stuff it, Randall," Bennett said. "Thompson, don't pay any attention to him. He just thinks he's in charge of everyfuckingthing around here."
Randall ignored that and stomped over to the new man. "When I ask you a question, Fuck Head, I expect an answer." For emphasis, he pounded both his fists on the table where Thompson was sitting. "And I don't like to repeat myself," he said.
"Then don't," suggested Thompson, still ignoring him. He kept his eyes on the printing page.
Randall reached over and grabbed Thompson at the base of the neck, where it joins the shoulder. Then he dug his strong fingers in deep.
"Uh," Thompson grunted with the surprise of the pain. Suddenly, his right hand reached across himself and he grabbed a hold onto the handle of his sample pick, where its pounded into the pick head. With one fluid motion, he brought it out of its leather holster, crossed his own body, and then rammed the flat top of it right into Randall's groin. And with a second motion, Thompson rammed the flat top of it right into the underside of the Minerman's jaw. The Minerman went back. He went down. He was groaning in pain. He blew bubbles of blood through his lips. And Thompson stood over him.
"Well! Looks like we've got ourselves a fucking Medical Situation here. What a hell of a fall you've taken." Thompson looked around the room at all the faces. He was nodding. "What did this ass hole do -- before his disability?"
"Fuck if I know," said Bennett.
Then Tennyson spoke up, "I think he was the Foreman -- before his disability." And then he went back to his cards.
Thompson grunted. Then he suddenly swung his sample pick over his head in a wide arc and pounded one end into the ground near Randall's one ear. "One word about this out of you, dumb fuck, and you're going to be just another closed chapter of history." Thompson pried the pick loose and warned him again, "There's a lot of closed chapters in history." He picked up the Tech Manual and headed toward the curtain, "Well, back to the old salt mines."
Thompson was carrying the equipment he figured he needed out of the store room just down the hall from the Ensign's Office and was loading it onto the anti gravity skit. Not like the old days, he was thinking. Back then, you had to make trip after trip, carrying it all by hand. The anti gravity wave skits were new and they worked well only in low gravity environments. Like this one. It was a mindless task, so he was thinking about other things. Like the past.
Thompson had just had some trouble at his last mining station. A man pulled a knife on him. He pulled his sample pick. The man threw his knife. Thompson had thrown his pick first. So, he'd won. Of course, no one had said anything. The Code of Silence of the Mines. But the man had friends. It was just a matter of time. Before revenge. So, when Thompson saw the opening here for a Three-Jaw Tractor Miner Operater/Mechanic, he bought a Technical Manual and Read it, he applied for the post, passed the test, and was transferred. He'd arrived just yesterday and already he'd disabled the Foreman. But things seemed to be different here. What's-his-name didn't seem to have any friends.
Thompson wondered how many more mining colonies he would see in Space.
It had all started with Wilma-Jean, he thought, as he loaded the arc welder. She had said that Kentucky wasn't big enough for the both of them. In fact, she had said the whole planet Earth wasn't big enough. She had asked, "Why don't you just pack your stuff, leave, and go to Space?" He did. Of course, she'd promised to tell Penny Jenny, their daughter. But deep inside, Thompson doubted she would. And now that he thought of it, she probably hadn't. The cutting torch was the next thing he loaded. He collected the tubing and hoses he'd need to fit out the brake line extenders he'd have to make. Brake fluid. He'd need a lot. Steel stock for the extension arms. He gathered those up, too.
"Oh, Thompson, there you are," Ensign Jennifer Bova's voice rang out behind him, as she walked out of her office.
"Yeah?" he said mechanically.
"Looks like we've just lost Randall, our Foreman," she informed him.
"Where have you looked for him, Captain?"
"No, no. Fucking Medical Emergency. Not loss."
"Life is a series of casualties: the Big Picture," he said, as he mustered up his most innocent look.
"Yeah, I guess. Nobody's saying anyfuckingthing, about it, though."
Thompson shrugged his shoulders. "Miners usually don't. What's he saying?"
"Not a word. You wouldn't know anyfuckingthing about it, would you, Thompson?"
He shook his head, "U uh."
"Somehow I thought you wouldn't. The fucking MEDEVAC will be here in a few hours," she said off-handedly, as she regarded him for a moment. There seemed to be something familiar about him. But she couldn't exactly put her finger on what it could possibly be. "You know, Thompson, I have a feeling sometimes we've met somewhere before. But I just can't remember where?"
"I always thought that was the kind of thing men said, not women. But I can tell you this, Captain: if I'd ever met a girlie like you, I'd remember," Thompson told her.
"Where you from, Thompson?"
"Lot's of places, Captain. And the place I'm supposed to be right now is under a fucking Three-jaw Tractor Miner." He stood straight up and grabbed the anti grav power controller. "If there's nothing else, Captain, I'd better get on it if I'm ever going to get this fucking thing done by Supper time. Well, see you around, Captain."
Under the Three-jaw Tractor Miner, Thompson drained all the brake fluid out of the system into a large flat pan that was sitting on the extra auto crawler he'd brought in with him. It was full. Next time, he'd drain it half at a time. It was really full. Thompson programmed the auto crawler so that it would stop after sixty feet. That would put it out of his way. He pushed the start button and watched as it receded. He waited for it to stop. But it didn't. It just kept right on going down the tunnel -- all on its own. Thompson shook his head and said good-bye to it, "Fuck you, anyway." Maybe it's still going.
Thompson looked at the drawings again in the Technical Manual. Then, he put on his safety glasses and started cutting and sawing and pounding and hacking and generally destroying the brake system. "This piece of shit'll never stop with these again," he mumbled to himself.
Hours later, he started the modifications and then the assembly. He made eight brake extensions on either side, reinforced beams that carried the brake fluid to the brake clampers that would grip the rail, so that the Tractor treads would pull the Three-jaw Tractor Minor forward. Then they would release when the got to the rear. And finally it was done. He filled it with brake fluid and bled the air out of the lines. It was beautiful, he thought. Well, it worked anyway, he hoped. The final test would be when the Tractor Miner was under way and the Three-jaw rotary bits were cutting at capacity.
Thompson laid back, tired, sore, sleepy. He almost dozed off. The rude awakening was that he figured that only the easy half was done.
That meant he had to do the harder half before Supper. Food. He thought about food. Thompson needed food. Even if just Miner Rations. He turned the auto crawler around and headed aft. Toward food.
After two cans of cold, unrecognizable, victimized -- Oh, vitamized -- Miner Mash, Thompson was heading out of the Barracks, "Grumble, grumble," he said to himself. Then something almost hit him from the side. But at the last moment it turned away. Then, like a lost duck it waddled away and turned down the hallway leading to the Ensign's Office. It was the auto crawler, still carrying its flat pan full of sloshing brake fluid. Thompson laughed at it. If he weren't so tired, perhaps he'd catch it or something. Not now. Now he just laughed at it and said, "Fuck you, anyway."
At the end of the Tractor Miner, Thompson was down on his back on top of the auto crawler. He pulled the Technical Manual onto his chest and started up the auto crawler. He was heading under.
"Extendable Ram Driver," he read it the index. "Just what in the fuck is an Extendable Ram Driver?" He stopped the auto crawler and looked at one on the under side of the Tractor Miner. "So, that's what the fuck it is! Is this going to be easy!"
The ram drivers were built into blocks of steel, roughly cubical. And the rams themselves were extendable bars. They were actually each a series of steel pipes inside one another so that long rams could be put into small spaces. As he looked at it, he could see that all he had to do was to weld thirty-sixty degree non-corrosive plates between them and the underside. A snap. Not at all the complexity he'd first thought the job would entail. "You just don't know how simple this is going to be, Penny Jenny," he said.
Thompson turned the auto crawler around and started out. Off to the Machine Shop.
Ensign Jennifer Bova was finishing her morning coffee when the automatic door to her Office opened. She glanced up from behind her desk to see, but nobody was there. Yet she heard something rattling over there and the room filled with an odd aroma. And she said, "What the fuck!"
Quickly, she sprang to her feet and vaulted around her desk. As she rounded the corner of it, she found her foot in the middle of a pan of some kind of oily substance. She moved back and slipped. It slipped forward and sent gallons of the reddish black liquid everywhere. The pan that was on the auto crawler jerked away and flipped up and then jumped off, sending a wave of the oily stuff her way, just as she landed square on her bottom. And suddenly she was drenched with the stuff from the waist down. "Fuck!" she said again. Then the door on the other side of the room opened again and she heard the clatter of the auto crawler leave the room. Then it headed down the hall and the door closed. "Fuck you, too!" she snapped at it.
She stood up and looked down at herself dripping wet with the smelly oil. "Thompson," she whispered under her breath. "This is all Thompson's doing." So, Jennifer stripped off her coveralls and hopped over the spreading pool of brake fluid. She stepped into her sleeping room and took out another jump suit. She slithered into them then hopped out the door, taking her communicator with her.
"Davis," she called into the communicator.
"Davis. Drop whatever you're doing and get over to my Office. A fucking auto crawler just came into my Office and spilled gallons of oil or something all over. Clear out the Office. Put everything in the store room. Clean the fucking place and put it back together. I'm going to get to the bottom of all this. And Davis. Be on the look out for a run away auto crawler. If you find it, kill it."
"I'm on it, Ensign Bova. Davis out."
She was stomping down the hallway saying, "Where in the fuck is Thompson?" She was looking around through eyes that had lost their mercy. "The Three-jaw Tractor Miner. That's where Thompson should be. He'd better fucking be there." Jennifer Bova was tromping along the port side of the Three-jaw Tractor Miner, when she thought she heard his voice from underneath. She stooped down to yell through the Tractor Treads, when she heard him talking to himself, "Extendable Ram Driver. Just what in the fuck is an Extendable Ram Driver? So, that's what the fuck it is! Is this going to be easy! You just don't know how simple this is going to be, Penny Jenny," she heard him say.
Then, Jennifer's head swam, as though through blood pressure. Rising. Dangerous levels. "Penny Jenny," she whispered to herself. "I haven't heard 'Penny Jenny' since ...."
Ensign Bova heard the scrapping and rattling of the auto crawler underneath the Three-jaw Tractor Miner. It was heading aft, so she walked along, abreast of the noise.
As it was, Ensign Bova reached the rear of the Three-jaw Tractor Miner first. She leaned against it with one arm and was standing there cross-legged when Thompson appeared and rose off the auto Crawler. He smiled down at her and nodded his head.
"How are you, Captain," he said while stifling a yawn and surveyed her unsmiling face.
"You never did say where you were from, Thompson," she snapped at him.
"Well now, I didn't think it was that important. I thought we were just making some polite conversation for a change, Captain. Everywhere, I guess. I suppose I've been in just about every fucking mining colony in the Home Solar System, and now out here," he nodded again. Probably hoping she would accept that and just let the topic drop.
But she didn't. "How about on earth? You were born on earth, weren't you?" Ensign Bova pushed herself away from the Tractor Miner and stood her full height.
"Sure, Captain. Everybody my age was born on Earth. Did you think I was a alien of some kind?"
"Whereabouts on Earth?"
'This woman just doesn't give up,' he was thinking. "Oh, California. Alaska. Nebraska. West Virginia. South Africa. Most places where there's a mine, I guess," he remarked, as he fidgeted.
"How about Kentucky? Ever been to Kentucky, Thompson?" Jennifer kept pushing, as though she would never give up.
"I was in Kentucky, Captain."
"Not anymore, Captain."
"What happened in Kentucky with your family, Thompson?" Jennifer kept narrowing down the past. Like wood being whittled.
"Shit happened, Captain. Sometimes, two people just drift apart. They never mean to, of course. They always mean to go the distance -- at first. They just drift apart. Maybe they were never meant to get together in the first place. But some people like that get together anyway. Against the odds. Against Nature. Against Destiny. And by the time they realize they weren't meant to be together in the first place, they've brought others into the picture. Children. But someone has to go. And someone has to stay. And someone gets hurt in the process. They don't want it to be like that. But that's the way it is, anyway." The big, gray man leaned against the Tractor Miner and his eyes looked far away. "And sometimes their children get hurt in the middle."
Ensign Bova stood even straighter. Even taller. "You mean somebody like Penny Jenny?"
When Thompson looked at her, his eyes grew sad. It was a sadness that wanted to heal but couldn't. Didn't know how. His head nodded slightly. "Like Penny Jenny. Not just any Jenny, but Penny Jenny." His voice turned soft with the tones of remembrance.
Ensign Bova took a quick step forward and slapped him on the side of the face as hard as she could. "You Son-of-a-bitch," she yelled at him. "You are a real, fucking Son-of-a-bitch, Thomas Bova! You just walked out. And you never even said good-bye." Jennifer turned her back on him. She just couldn't stand to see the wavering sight of him through the watery layer on her eyes.
"Your mother wouldn't let me see you before I left. Wilma-Jean said she'd tell you. She promised. I guess she never did," the older man's voice cracked, as it squeezed out through the emotions.
"Don't you ever say my mother's name again with that filthy mouth of yours. She started to walk away.
"Why wasn't your mother surprised when I didn't come back, Jenny? I know she wasn't. A woman who doesn't know is surprised. Any woman. And she's anxious. Why wasn't your mother surprised? Why wasn't your mother anxious? She wasn't. Was she?"
Jennifer Bova was trembling. And she thought back. All the way back. Her mother hadn't been. She wasn't surprised. She wasn't worried. She wasn't sad. "So what!?" Jennifer blurted out. She was still facing away from him, but she could still feel him close by. "You left me! And I was hurt. I don't know why I ever wanted to be like you, anyway. Finish up with the Tractor Miner. But I don't know you. Thompson. You're just Thompson."
Jennifer started walking. She couldn't go to her Office. Davis would be there. So, she just walked.
And as she walked, she cried the kind of tears that percolates the past.
It wasn't quite Suppertime. Ensign Jennifer Bova put her cup of coffee down on her desk, plopped into her man-sized chair, and waited impatiently for them to arrive.
Paterson and Vox were just about to come. Something was up. Something Big. Had to be from the sound of it. But they gave no indication over the vidcom what it was. 'Something really Big must be up,' she thought. Paterson had just been given a promotion to Commodore and Commander Vox was a full, four-pip Captain. Things don't happen like that without a cause, she was thinking.
"Commodore," she said out loud. That was a war time rank. Or some equivalent to war. Something truly Big must be up.
But she was still too emotionally drained to give it too much more thought. Yes, she figured she would get the few crumbs of information that Commodores feel Ensigns deserve and perhaps she would be better off for it. Soon enough, though. The Brass had already checked through the air locks and were on their way now.
Ensign Bova looked around her Office as she sipped more of her coffee and smelled it more than tasted it. And she was pleased that Davis had done such a good job of cleaning up after that thing. It was an Office now instead of a second stock room. It even had the office furnishings they had sent down. And the tile floor was shiny. The first time she could recall. File cabinets lined the wall on one side of the room and secretly she hoped they wouldn't open them while they were there. Everything was on floppy disks and hard drives. And nothing was on paper. So, the only things in the file cabinets were the alphabetical dividers organizing the air.
Jennifer finished braiding her long hair and flung it back over her shoulder so that it draped down almost to the floor behind her chair. Next to her computer/communications terminal on her empty desk was her communicator. She had been avoiding it, but she really should have an update on the progress on the Tractor Miner, in case the Brass asked for it. And to get that, she would have to talk to her father. NO! To Thompson!
She picked it up and keyed it, anyway, "Thompson."
"Here, Captain," he said in a muted tone.
"Give me a fucking report. And make it short. I don't want to talk with you any longer than I have to," she snapped.
"Finishing up now. Packing the gear on an anti grav wave skit. I'll have it all back in the store room before Suppertime, Captain."
That was good, she thought. Even if it were Thompson. "Good work. Bova out."
And she sipped more coffee, as she looked impatiently at the open door. She was still airing the place out. The filtration system wasn't doing any good now.
Still she waited. Her starched uniform was too stiff for her liking. The single pip on her uniform collar that marked her as (a mere) Ensign felt out of place after wearing coveralls for so long. But she supposed she could get used to it all. After all, that was the reason she went to Command School. But just now, all these things were distancing her from the reality of being in the mine, of being a part of the mine. They distanced her from the reality of being who and what she was -- what her father had made her into being. Now, her hair was braided the way it used to be when she was a girl. Before she had been a miner with her father. Before she became like her father. Now, she was sitting behind her desk sipping coffee, dressed in the starched uniform of the Service. And again she wondered why she ever had wanted to be like him.
Jennifer heard a man clear his throat and she looked up to see two men standing just inside the room. Jennifer Bova sprang to her feet and almost spilled her coffee. "Come in," she said awkwardly. "Please, come in. Have a seat."
"As you were, Ensign," Captain Vox said.
Both the Senior Officers were looking around the Office. They had never seen it like this before on their previous visits. Paterson and Vox exchanged glances.
"Coffee?" Ensign Bova asked.
"Yes. Black for me," answered the Commodore.
"Double cream for me. Thank you, Ensign." Coffee was especially popular out here in the Vega Colonies. It was one of the very few things that was here what it was back home. Everything else had a synthetic nature about it. And for good reason.
As Ensign Bova busied herself with the task of ordering and extracting the cups from the synthesizer, Captain Vox walked around the Office looking at various things. He paused by the file cabinets and ran a finger across the top of it and seemed pleased.
The Ensign was pleased that he didn't open any of the empty drawers.
"So," Ensign Bova started, "what brings the Top Brass all the way down here to -- Level Seven?" She walked over and set the cups down on the desk top where they would be sitting. "Have a seat, if you like."
It was Captain Vox who spoke first, "The reason for our visit, Ensign, is primarily to discuss certain facets of the Critical Situation that has developed in the Vega Colonies most recently and how this situation relates to your Semele Project in general and how it relates to you in specific with regard to establishing Security Procedures for the Project."
The Commodore broke in, apparently a little impatient, "We don't want you to think that anyone believes that what has happened is in any way your fault. Or the fault of anyone for that matter. It's a Procedural Problem, rather than a Personnel Problem, you understand, Ensign."
"No, I don't understand, Commodore. Now, just what in the fuck has happened. All fucking eloquence aside." Bova said in point-blank words.
The two Senior Officers traded glances again, but said nothing.
"What has happened, Ensign," Captain Vox went on to explain, "is that shortly after your transmission to Fortunian I, regarding the anomalous seismic readings you took, three wings of unidentified interplanetary craft left their orbits around Callisto and are heading this way at moderate light speed. Our Intelligence Division believes they intercepted your transmissions, decoded them, and are on their way here to investigate."
The Commodore cut in again, "Intelligence believes the reason for their leisurely velocity may indicate their unwillingness to alert us as to their intentions."
"Or simply that they are making technical preparations for scanning Semele," Captain Vox said, then sipped his coffee.
"In any case," the Commodore said, "their course is definitely the vicinity of Fortuna. Which by Interplanetary Law is completely within their rights. All orbits around Fortuna are free space, as you may know."
Ensign Bova nodded. She thought, then she said, "So, just what the fuck are we going to do about it?"
"What we have done, Ensign, is we have sent for a Diplomatic Corp that has recently been stationed at the Orbital Base Demeterian I. They will deal with the situation Diplomatically," the Commodore said.
"If they can." Captain Vox took over. "In any case, they are bringing a force that will balance the power here at Fortuna. We also have two newly promoted Wing Commanders coming in from Earth via auto shuttle within the next day or so. Capable men. Veteran Commanders of the Moon Conflicts. Decorated for valor and all that," Captain Vox explained.
"In any case, Ensign," the Commodore picked up where Captain Vox breathed, "both forces should be arriving in the vicinity of Fortuna in two days. At about the same time. Now, Captain Vox will fill you in on what this all means to you and to your Project. Captain Vox."
Ensign Bova turned in her seat to face Captain Vox. Her heart was racing faster than it should have, but she thought it was simply the situation taking shape. Her mind was buzzing.
"Since, in all likelihood, our encrypted, tight-beamed transmissions are not only being intercepted but are being decoded as well, Regulations clearly stipulate that this situation had to be discussed with you in person. It seemed to us that this would be accomplished more discretely if we came to you than if we had sent for you to come to us. The transmission would have been monitored. We are now initiating Communications Security Level Ten, which calls for Crypto Coding to be changed hourly, in accordance with the pre-determined pattern presently under seals. You may authorize the breaking of the Security Seals immediately, Ensign," the captain finished. Finally.
"Yes, Sir," Jennifer said, but she thought that he had something in common with the old Reformer, John Calvin: they both said a few important things in many words. Not that she was a Calvinist, of course. She leaned back in her chair and pressed two fingers along the side of her neck.
"Is there something wrong, Ensign?" the Commodore asked in almost a fatherly sort of way.
Fatherly, she thought.
Thompson stepped into the door frame and stood there thinking for a moment.
"No, Commodore," Jennifer answered. "It's just my heart beat's pounding a little. Just the situation, Sir."
"It's the salt," Thompson corrected her.
Ensign Bova snapped around to see him standing in the door. "Just what in the fuck are you doing there, Thompson?" She was on her feet. She was turning red with anger.
"It's the salt, Captain. I should have known! How stupid of me. Have you ever thought that your horrible disposition is due to your salt intake?" Thompson pointed a finger straight at her.
The Senior Officers were nodding about her horrible disposition, anyway.
"Salt can raise the blood pressure," thought Captain Vox out loud.
"I've been watching my fucking salt intake!" the Ensign snapped at Thompson.
"Have you now, Captain?" Thompson asked.
"Get the fuck out of my Office, Thompson," she yelled.
"No, no," said the Commodore. "He seems to have a point, as Captain Vox just pointed out. If the man has something constructive to contribute, then let him contribute it. Come in."
"Thank you, Captain."
"I'm the Captain. He's a Commodore," said Vox.
"Thank you, Captain. When Jenny was a little girl, we used to have to watch her salt intake. If she got too much, her blood pressure would rise, she became irritable -- impossible really -- and we couldn't do a thing with her. She'd take action then, let me tell you! But look at her: Is she getting worse the longer she's down here?" Thompson motioned toward her.
"I already told you I'm watching my fucking salt intake," she screamed at him again.
Thompson walked slowly over to the wall, took out his sample pick, whacked at it and took a chunk in his hand. Then he tossed it to Jennifer. "What's that, Captain?"
"Chemical composition, Jenny."
"Potassium. So-di-um," she said.
"Complex salts," Captain Vox concluded.
"Precisely, Captain. Salts," exclaimed Thompson in triumph. "Poor Penny Jenny. No wonder you've been all wound up and strung out! Think about it. You would be a whole lot calmer if you weren't living inside a salt shaker. And you would be taking a lot of issues more in stride, too."
Ensign Jennifer Bova sat back into her chair and let out a long breath of air. She was nodding her head. She dropped the rock of salt complexes on the desk.
Captain Vox asked the question, "Having all of this information in mind certainly does shed a different light on things, does it not? The only reason you have been allowed to continue this long is the fact that you are the only one for whom all of these civilian miners will work. The questions are now, of course, where do we go from here and what should we do about this latest development now?"
"What we do now is simple. It's an insult that just jumps up and slaps us in the face. We do what we've always done: get Jenny away from the salt and then flush out the salt."
She hates that," Thompson explained.
The Commodore looked back and forth between the two, "So, you are father and daughter"?
"Thompson nodded, "That's right, Captain. Now listen. We won't be mining for about sixty hours. That's enough time to take her up to that Orbital Base of yours to get her away from the salts for a while. And while she's there, just have her drink gallons of Gatorade. You do have Gatorade up there, don't you?"
Commodore Paterson looked over to Captain Vox and lifted an eye brow. Vox made the slightest nod, so the Commodore said, "Of course we do."
"Good. Have her drink gallons of Gatorade and that'll equalize her electrolytes. In two days, you might even like her."
Both men smiled. They tried to be noncommittal about it.
"Well, inasmuch as we have things pretty well wound up and under control around here, I don't see too much cause for any further delays in...."
"As Charles Dickens was want to say, 'In short then,' there's no time like the present," the Commodore broke in.
"I agree," said Thompson.
"Although there does seem to be one loose end to be tied, now that I think about it. We still have a matter that deserves our due consideration and determination. Regarding the recent disability of a Foreman for the Semele Project, how will all the details be taken care of, while the Ensign is recuperating aboard the Fortunian I?" Captain Vox asked.
"Oh, Daddy can do that. He's ram-rode mines before."
"We'll be ready, Captain," Thompson said as he smiled.
"Let's go, then," the Commodore said. And they all headed toward the door.
"Oh, Captain," Thompson called after them. When Vox walked back to him, Thompson said quietly, "I'd be much obliged if you would wrap this and give it to Jenny after she's calmed down." He'd reached into his pocket and took out a small maroon pouch with tie strings on the top. Thompson handed it to the Captain, "It'll mean a lot to her. I hope, anyway."
"Coming along, Captain Vox?" the Commodore called from the door.
"Consider it done," Vox told Thompson.
"Thanks, Captain." As they left, Thompson picked up the hand-held communicator from Jennifer's desk and keyed it, "Now hear this: All staff will meet in the Barracks in fifteen minutes. Foreman Thompson, out."
Thompson was surprised to find everyone present by the time he arrived. "Sound off," he said, more to reenforce his position than anything.
"So, you're the new Foreman?" Tennyson accused.
"Right. Now listen up," Thompson ignored the implied challenge in the man's voice. "The Captain has gone up to the Orbital Base. The salt down here raises her blood pressure and sends her straight up a wall. So, they're going to desalinate her. Flush her out with Gatorade," there were a few snickers all around. "She'll be back after two nights. So, on the morning of the third day, we have to rise to the occasion."
"So, that means you're going to be pushing us until she gets back down here -- to make sure we get everything ready." Tennyson argued.
"Wrong, Tennyson. You all know your jobs. And I don't know what the fuck you high-tech people are doing anyway. You all know what needs to be done to get that piece of shit out there ready for the Captain. None of you needs a baby sitter. And I don't know what the fuck to tell you to do in the first place. But I do know the assignment, 'that which I have received, I deliver also unto you': do whatever needs to be done to start mining in sixty hours. If you have fifty hours work to do, then work fifty hours. If you have ten minutes work to do, then work for ten minutes. Do what it takes to make the Captain happy. If the Captain's happy, then I'm happy.
"Tennyson, in two days at 08 hundred hours, put the reactor on line. We all run tests from then. At 10 hundred hours we lay track and mine ore.
"No questions? Good. My repairs are done. I will shower. I will eat. I will lie down in my office right over there," he pointed to his bunk, "and I will sleep. If anybody has any questions -- ask somebody else. See you in sixty." And with that, Thompson stripped down and hit the shower.
"Hey, Tennyson?" Bryson called over to him.
"What do you think of our new Foreman?"
"With an attitude like that? Why, there's a man I can really work for.
Ensign Jennifer Bova was sitting in the Officers' Lounge drinking a cup of coffee and looking out through the transparent steel observation window at the majestic sight of the planet Fortuna below. She smiled, as she watched the shadow of a moon playing with the demarcation line between two of the cloud belts. She was thinking how the bands of mass moved at different speeds from one another and made them look that way. An interesting planet. An interesting view. After the mines, she thought, just about any view might be interesting. Then, she wondered if this particular shadow was being cast by Semele.
Jennifer hadn't even noticed Captain Vox's approach until he sat in the chair opposite her. "Enjoying the view, Ensign?"
"Oh, yes, Captain," she said with much enthusiasm. More than she'd felt in a long time. "It's a gorgeous planet, all right. We never see anything like this on Semele. In fact, in the mines, we never see anything at all but rock and each other."
"I'm afraid I have been down in the mines rarely and seldom. Certainly not for any duration of time exceeding a couple of hours. Although I can sympathize with you, I'm afraid it's more on an intellectual level, as opposed to an emotional one. I can see that it must rob you of some of the grandeur of Space that some of the more Modern Poets and Authors write about. Although I must criticize most of them on some of the details they choose to present to their readers. I doubt that what interests some Authors simply leaves readers out in the cold. Especially real Space travelers, like ourselves. Take the Modern Space Poet, Mansfield Cowart, for example. He displays a complete lack of personal knowledge of Space, because he treats space like a subject and not as a life. And -- get this -- he thinks we run on fusion:
The destination and the mission
But just how the ship can run of fission
All he really knows to say
I just as soon keep it that way
And when the long shift's work is done
And there's no orders from anyone
"I do like the ending, though. It does seem to sum up a good deal of my own experience of Space.
"However, some of us consider that where we happen to be is the 'hind end of Space'," Captain Vox said. "Personally, I feel that there is no such place."
Jennifer laughed. Perhaps she meant to prove Socrates right when he said the last thing said is the thing best remembered. "You could say that. The hind end of Space. Well, at least that's the way I viewed it until now. It used to be a little salty hole in the ground. Now it's becoming the center of attention. In fact, I can't wait to get back down there. To see this thing. That's what Space is all about to me. Finding new things. Seeing new things. Exploring the unknown. Does anyone have any idea what it is?"
Captain Vox turned away from Ensign Bova and looked out through the observation window. "I believe that I have read every single report that has been turned in on the subject. To date, of course. I've looked at all the graphs, not that they are all very meaningful to me, though. And I've reviewed all of the columns of data generated by the computers. Every report I have read has said the author of the report does not know, although s/he uses different arguments to prove it. Speculation abounds, though. Quasi-scientific words that are vague are used to describe its form and substance. Personally, I am convinced that some of this is intended vagueness. Science Fiction words creep up in some of the reports and make for interesting reading. Rifts-in-space theories that lead to other places, times, dimensions, alternate histories abound. Worm holes. White dots. Anti Nature. Anti Reality. All of these are described in vaguer language. One report postulated that the fabric of Space has developed a wrinkle in it, like material pressed wrong and that the energy emanating from Semele is where two folds of the fabric touch one another. The only thing that seems consistent between all of the reports is that there is a concentrated source of pure energy where none should be. But in the final analysis, we'll have to ask you when you see it."
"Theories and exploration," Jennifer said dreamily, "Now that's what Space is really all about. At least to me. That's why I applied for Bridge Duty on the new Starship."
"Ah, The Starship Ebony."
"Yes, The Ebony," Jennifer confirmed. "Now that is the Avant Garde, the Aventine of Space. That's the kind of duty I went to Command School to get. To be a Command Line Officer on an exploratory vessel. Well, at least here I'm a big fish in a tiny pond. There, I would be a little fish in an ocean."
Captain Vox settled back into his chair and Jennifer could almost feel a lecture boiling up inside the man. "The fish-pond metaphors you use are, of course, correct ones to choose. They do seem to correspond to the machinery that operate the whole world. Within the military itself and outside it in the civilian population, at large. Nevertheless, even the President began as a Junior Senator. And when she was a Junior Senator, that was a vast achievement over her successes in the Private Sector as a Senior Partner of a Law Firm. And so you see, Ensign, life may be viewed metaphorically as a series of tanks or ponds into which and out of which move the fishes of the world. We must choose the kind of pond we will be the most comfortable in, prepare for it and then jump into it. But if you really think about your present situation, Ensign, you may well find it to be a transitional period, when you are evolving from one pond environment to another. If things were to work out for you in this present circumstance with this anomaly thing, you could write your own ticket, as they say." The Captain reached into his pocket and took out a small, gift-wrapped box with a ribbon on it. "Your father wanted you to have this, after you calmed down, which you have done, Ensign."
Jennifer just looked at it for a moment. She took it from him and looked at it from all angles, half afraid to open it. "From my father?"
"Yes," the Captain said with surprising brevity.
"I said some horrible things to him down on Semele. I don't know if he could even forgive me for them," she set the box down in front of herself. Perhaps ashamed to open it.
Captain Vox smiled in the understanding way that parents have, in the way that only the fathers of daughters can do, "I have a daughter myself, Ensign. And I know that my love for her is unconditional. There is nothing she can do to deserve it. There is nothing she can do to destroy it. I love her regardless. Even when she doesn't reciprocate. I love her even then. Of course, apologies are always healing things. But they're not always necessary things. Depends upon the basic relationship. Even when that relationship is listing in a stormy sea, the love is always there as the ship's righting arm. I'm sure it's like that with your father."
"You're suggesting I apologize?" Jennifer asked the Captain.
"I'm not suggesting anything. I'm just hoping to supply you with some raw material for consideration. Beware of advice from those who have no investment in the issues. They don't have to live with the consequences of the actions that their advice provokes. The only thing I would presume to advise you on, as a father, is for you to open the gift of your father who has given it because he thinks it will be meaningful to you. Beyond that, I would not advise you in your personal matters," the Captain smiled and made a small hand gesture toward the little box.
Careful, Ensign Jennifer Bova pulled on the ribbon and untied the bow. She unwrapped the paper with the same care that had gone into wrapping it in the first place. Then, she lifted the lid off the little box and took out a small maroon, time-worn bag with a draw string on the top that kept it closed. And Jennifer peeked inside and smiled. "My Daddy's old penny pouch," she said in a whisper, as she poured a few of the antique coins into her hand. "When I was a little girl, I used to ask him for a penny. So he always had a few in this little bag. He'd take one out and give it to me. And he'd say, 'Not for just any Jenny, but for Penny Jenny.' I know, this must sound silly to you, Captain."
"Not at all, Ensign, not at all."
Jennifer drew the little bag close to her face and pressed it against her cheek. It somehow made the years of hurt emerge from their chrysalis and flutter away like butterflies. It somehow made her not just any Jenny, but Penny Jenny again. "Oh, Daddy," she whispered.
The Captain didn't want to break the spirit of the moment, but he did have one final thing to say, "We leave for Semele in the morning at 07 hundred hours." He rose and left the room.
Due to some technical difficulties, it was nearly 10 hundred hours when the three Officers walked the fifty meter distance from the air locks to the rear end of the Three-jaw Tractor Miner and found everyone standing around and looking down on the ground. Ensign Bova saw everybody except for Thompson -- Tom Bova.
What's up," she asked as she fiddled around with the fitting of the filtration mask she'd been assigned to reduce her salt intake.
She heard Thompson's voice coming from under the Tractor Miner, "Davis, I'll take that Pilot Sensor, now."
"Be careful with it. It's the last one we have in stock," Davis cautioned, as he bent over and handed it under.
"Right, right. Good thinking."
"What's going on?" Ensign Bova asked, as she walked around the small tangle of Crew.
"Last Minute repairs. One of the Pilot Sensors Thompson installed went bad. Equipment malfunction, Ensign," Tennyson explained, since he was standing close by. "The good news is we should be in full operation in a few minutes -- Earth Standard," he threw in unnecessarily.
"Good, Tennyson," she said, then noticed the Commodore standing aside and motioning for her to join him. "Yes, Sir?" she walked over to him and stood at attention. Or what might reasonably pass for it.
The Commodore asked, "How long before you reach the anomaly?"
"Well, it's about two kilometers distance. We estimate it'll take one Standard Earth Week per kilometer. Ten-hour days. Two weeks, Commodore," she answered. "That's if there are no unforeseen problems, Sir."
"Very well, Ensign. You'll have to keep me informed on your progress. Make daily reports at the end of each shift. I want Progress, Projections, Recommendations, anything pertinent, anything unusual." The Commodore was beginning to pace back and forth, as he marked each point with an added finger.
"Yes, Commodore," Jennifer Bova responded. As she listened to the sound of her voice locked inside the filtration mask, she thought it sounded as though she were standing in a small enclosed tunnel.
"And, Ensign, when you reach the anomaly, get in touch with me in person," Commodore Paterson was saying as he looked like an impatient boy. "Get in touch with me immediately. Anytime. Any hour. I want to know about it right then. Even if it appears to be nothing. Understood, Ensign?"
"A lot is riding on this. More than you know. Right now, there are three wings of hostile ships orbiting this moon from the Demeterian Colonies. They won't identify themselves. That makes nine hostile ships up there. But we do have three wings of our own. So, as of now, the balance of power is being maintained. But we need to keep them informed so they can do their jobs, as well. And that's why it's so important that you keep us informed."
"Yes, Commodore," Jennifer said crisply.
Together, they moved back over to the Tractor Miner, where Thompson was just crawling out from under it. "Saddle up," he said and the men all filed down the port side to the cab.
"Stations," Ensign Bova ordered in military style. "I'll keep you informed, Commodore." She caught up with the men and climbed up into the cab after Thompson. As soon as the door was closed, Jennifer turned to Thompson -- to Tom Bova. "Okay. What do I call you now?"
"How about Tom. Probably better than 'Daddy'."
Tom Bova turned to her in that brief moment, "Did you get it?"
"Uh huh. I think the world of it. Can you ever forgive me for...."
"Misunderstanding," he said. "Nothing to forgive, Jenny."
Ensign Bova smiled under her mask. "Circulators on, Tom."
"Circulating -- now. The air is clear of salt trace elements -- now. You can take that damn thing off now," her father said. He put on an earphone set with a tiny microphone bending around in front of his mouth.
As soon as Ensign Bova did the same, she said into the voice-activated circuit, "Stations report in and give status."
"Thompson. Pilot. Powering up now. All systems in the green and standing by."
"Tennyson. Reactor Operator. All rods in place. Power curve steady. Temperature readings normal. Standing by."
"Galveston. Turbine Control. Steam pressure normal. Super heated temperatures are normal. RPMs within standard limits. Ready to take a load now."
"Fallen. Integrated Systems Monitor. All system cross-connections are in the green. Electronics diagnostics showing negative malfunctions."
"Bennett. Three-jaw Mining Controller. Systems diagnostics showing no malfunctions. Standing by to monitor input/output ore ratios."
"Gleason. Communications Specialist. All systems are standing by."
"Bryson. Separation Controller. Standing by monitors to separate potassium from sodium during mining."
"Bova. Command. All Departments report ready. Gleason, contact Miming Control and get a status report from Davis."
"Contacting now, Ensign. Davis is on Station and standing by."
"Gleason, tell him only one car per track this time. We don't need any more pile-ups," Jennifer told the Communications Specialist.
"Will do, Ensign."
Ensign Bova leaned back in the Command Chair, which was also the co-pilot's chair and looked through the windshield into the darkness ahead of them. "Forward lights," she ordered. The three yoked arms of the bit jaws reached out before them. They looked huge, considering the fact they were ten feet off the ground at the center line. "Jaw bits," she said and watched as the diamond rills started to rotate. "Arm rotation," she commanded, and the Three-jaw yoke turned them in a semi circular pattern with the flat on the bottom. "Integrated Systems," she called back to Fallen, "give us some vacuum."
"You should have it -- now."
As Jennifer watched. the fine dust in the air moved toward them in a rush and disappeared. And the air looked perfectly clear.
"Tom, I want you to go down slow and steady. An easy turn. We don't want the mining cars to have to slow down to make the bend."
"Right, Captain," Tom Bova said, even though he knew enough to know the on-board computer made provisions for that automatically -- he'd read about it in the Technical Manual.
"And Tom. Remember the bending rams have to bank the tracks to fit the curvature," Ensign Bova said as to remind him.
"Right. Standing by."
Ensign Jennifer Bova took out her seismic graphs and looked at them. And she read the notations. "Tom, plot in a course that'll take us to bearing 015 Mark 340, Relative at two kilometers. Nice and easy."
Tom Bova reached around and activated the plotting system and watched as the small monitor moved around on its supporting arm and came on. He entered the digital headings and distance and watched as the computer drew a slow curve that met the conditions. "Course plotted. Standing by to lay in."
"Connect ore cars."
"Ore cars connected," a voice came over her earphone.
"Tom," she said, "Lay in and engage."
Tom Bova smiled, as he hit the transfer that laid in the plotted course. He engaged the primary transmission and a centrifugal clutch began to bite down to transfer the load. "Here we go," he said. And the Three-jaw Tractor Miner moved ahead. Its giant arms were rotating in front of it. Its diamond bit drills were spinning in the air.
"Looks good, so far," said Ensign Bova. And then the bits hit the wall of rock and ore.
And everything was white out.
Ore was being ripped off the surface of the wall ahead of them and spun back into the shoot so fast that clouds of dust were unmanageable.
"Increase vacuum," Ensign Bova said into the mike.
"Vacuum presently at maximum now, Ensign."
"Shit," said Ensign Bova.
"Computer," said Tom Bova. "Tactical Display." In front of them, a viewer screen slid up from the other side of the control panel, until it covered the complete windshield area forward. When it came to life, it gave them a computer generated graphic of everything ahead of them.
"Wow!" Jennifer said, as she looked at everything from side to side, from top to bottom.
"New with this model. You can read all about it in the new Technical Manual," Tom explained.
"No thanks. I'd rather read poetry. All right, listen up," she said to everybody, "we are now under a full load. Keep a sharp eye on everything. Report any abnormalities." So, Jennifer Bova settled back to enjoy the ride. Unless anything went wrong, there would be nothing for her to do.
"Ensign Bova. Gleason on Communications. Davis reports seeing an auto crawler going by on its own power. He asks if he should kill it?"
"Gleason. Tell him: Let it go. Do not leave your post."
"Relaying message, now."
Ensign Jennifer Bova was showered and changed and drinking hot coffee at her desk. She was also preparing the daily Production Report with Projections and Recommendation for the Commodore. He would be happy with it, she thought, as she picked up her coffee and took another drink from it. At the very least, they were ahead of their initial estimates.
Jennifer reached over and activated the vidcom. "Computer."
"Working," it was one of the older models.
"Encrypted, tight beamed transmission. Security coded, Level Ten. Specifications: The Semele Project. To: Fortunian I. Subject: Production and Projection Report with Recommendation."
"Establishing Contact -- now."
Commodore Paterson's face came on the screen. He smiled. "Good evening, Ensign."
"Good evening, Commodore."
"Report," he ordered.
Effects: eliminate down time between car switches.
Estimated Production Increase: 25%.
Submitted: Tom Bova, Foreman, The Semele Project."
Jennifer Bova looked up from her actual hard copy, set it aside, looked directly at the vidcom and smiled, as she waited for the Commodore's response.
"Excellent report, Ensign. Excellent, indeed. Considering the problems you've had to overcome, that is most excellent. We have had more experienced Officers down there, but the men wouldn't work for them. And they couldn't solve the basic problems. And the smallest one comes along and does both. Excellent." The Commodore's words didn't match the way he said them or the way his face appeared. "The Recommendation will be forwarded to the Mining Division of the Interstellar Space Program."
"Is something wrong, Commodore?" Jennifer asked sincerely.
"Unforeseen complications, Ensign."
"I'm a good listener, Commodore."
"I'm sure that you are, Ensign. Tell me, have you told your men about the Diplomatic Situation out here?"
"Of course not, Commodore."
"Because you are in command down there. And you are doing a commendable job of it, too. But Command must bear some things alone. I'm sure you understand," he said.
"Two thousand meters, Captain," Tom Bova reported. "We should be coming up on it at any time now." He turned in his seat to see her. And he watched the adulthood in her face drain away as the child came bubbling to the surface. His daughter was a young girl again, waiting for the wrappings of Christmas to come off.
During the past ten days, the crew of the Tractor Miner watched them work together side by side and they grew accustomed to the fact that they were father and daughter, even as they grew used to it themselves. And the change of attitudes in general was noted and appreciated. Not everything was a crisis anymore. Life was beginning to settle down into routine. And routine has a way of making them comfortable with day-to-day life.
The view on the Tactical Display looked just as it had for the past ten days. The graphics showed the yoked arms turning in a wide arc from the lower left hand corner to the top, where they moved slowly down to the lower right hand corner and then moved straight across the bottom in a flat line. Ore was spit out of the chucks and jaws and came up to the right side of the Tractor Miner, where it slid in for grinding and processing. And the solid wall was ever there, even though it was ever moving back by being chewed apart. Gray matter was being drilled in the graphics.
"Discontinue track laying," the Ensign said. "Did you see it?" she asked Tom.
"No. Discontinuing," he said as he entered the commands into the computer. A rumble reverberated through the Tractor Miner.
"What was that?" Jennifer asked.
"Discontinuance of track laying," Tom answered. "Normal." He hoped. He'd never discontinued while running before.
"Gleason, have Davis recall the ore cars," she said.
"There!" Tom Bova shouted, as the Tactical Display started to change the attributes of the graphics. The colors started changing from a dull gray to glowing orange and red. Suddenly, it flashed into full view. The monitor was filled with the light.
"All stop," the Ensign directed. "Back off a couple of meters and prepare to Round House. Just in case we have to move back anytime soon. I'll alert the Commodore and get my gear."
"All stop, Captain. Backing off." Tom replied. When she had exited into the back, Tom reached for the Technical Manual and said, "What in the fuck is a 'Round House'?"
He found it in the index. He looked it up in the text. He read it and studdied the diagrams: Disconnect the Three-jaw yoke. Swing the Carriage to a forty-five degree angle. Engage the Round House Motor. Replace the restraining pins. ROUND HOUSE: Left tractor treads forward, Right tractor treads reverse. He saw that it would cut a half circle to the starboard side in a turn-around and would pack the material under the treads. Okay, he thought. He grabbed a light and an adjustable wrench and a pair of pliers for the job.
"Computer, disengage Tactical," he said. The screen lowered and the scene before them came into view. It was -- amazing.
There was a clear wall of energy all across the field of view. It looked rather like a curtain with vertical lines running across the length of it starting from the center and moving slowly to each side. It turned color. A dot of pale blue appeared in the center and started to spread out, rippling its way across the folds of energy. The spreading color wavered, the way refraction wavers in rainbow patterns on the surface of bubbles. And then the color burst the way bubbles burst and the veil was clear again. More translucent than clear, though. But he could see to the other side. But everything wavered like the air wavers above scorching desert sands at noon. A yellow dot appeared and spread out until it touched an edge. It burst, too. And it was beautiful to watch. A natural kaleidoscope. Something moved out there behind the veil. A shadow. Something. Behind it. The veil turned orange and popped.
"It's beautiful," said Jennifer's voice from behind him.
"Yes, it certainly is."
"Let's get that Round House dug. Just in case. The Commodore is on his way. He's bringing Captain Vox and a couple Science Officers from the Fortunian I.
Jennifer put on her filter mask and then they went outside together.
Ensign Jennifer Bova walked up to it, but kept a respectful distance from it. Then, she saw what looked like a shadow moving behind the veil over to one side. It wasn't very clear. It wasn't very close. Then it walked over and stood about a meter from the veil on its own side. A yellow color floated through the energy and burst and Jennifer said, "Hello." And she wondered if she were being silly.
The form behind the energy shield stepped closer. So, Jennifer did, too.
A violet spot appeared and fanned out until it popped in a soundless burst. And Jennifer was visibly delighted.
"O'gal," the form said. He said. It was definitely a male voice. At least by human standards, Jennifer thought. He took out what was most probably a communication device and spoke strange sounds into it.
Jennifer took out her own hand-held communicator and keyed it, "Commodore."
"We have a First Contact Situation. Exchanged friendly but untranslated greetings. Present: Ensign Bova; a single alien. Appearance: one adult male. Attire: possibly a military uniform. Subject is communicating with a type of hand-held communicator. All for now."
"We're on Semele now, Ensign. We're heading your way in an ore car now. Be there in a few. Observe all you can. Learn all you can. Paterson out."
Ensign Jennifer Bova stood there and looked through the veil, trying to decide what kind of machinery she was seeing over on the other side. Where ever the other side was. She put her communicator away and looked from side to side. The two of them regarded one another for a few moments in silence.
A scream from behind her made Jennifer turn. It was a scream of pain. On the ladder rungs that were welded up the front of the Tractor Miner stood her father with his shoulder being crushed by one of the swinging arms of the Three-jaw yoke. In the next moment, Jennifer was bounding toward him. Closing the distance in fast, long strides. The light gravity was a blessing now. Jennifer was in motion. Jennifer was in the air. She was on the ladder and her hand struck the emergency release lever by the Round House Motor. And he was free. Her father was free. And she helped him down to the ground in the light gravity of the Fortunian moon.
Jennifer's father was in her arms. He was in terrible pain. Jennifer's father was in her arms bleeding. The communicator found its way into her hand and Ensign Bova was ordering her men, "Emergency First Aid Response. On the Double! Internal injuries. Bleeding. Man down. Location: Forward End of the Tractor Miner."
Ensign Bova tried to lift the fabric of his coveralls near the wound and saw profuse bleeding and a crushed shoulder. And she listened to his moaning. She listened to his suffering. And she wondered how he was going to live through it.
Gleason rounded the corner of the Three-jaw Tractor Miner on the run, with the First Aid kit in his hand with its red heart symbol on the side. He saw them there on the ground. Ensign Bova and Tom. He turned and ran even faster. It looked more serious than he had thought it would be. He pressed on toward them. He was coming up to them. "Just about there. Hang on!" he said as he was almost there. And then they were gone. They were there. He had seen them. But now they were gone. Nothing.
When Ensign Jennifer Bova looked up, the Three-jaw Tractor Miner was gone. It was replaced by a wall of instruments, panels of electronics, and bio beds. Everything was colored off white with a dull beige overtone to it. She felt hands touch her shoulder gently. They were soft hands with controlled strength to them. When she looked up, there was a man standing there behind her with a concerned look that smiled down. Footsteps accompanied other men, as they came into view. They wore off white uniforms covered by longish white coats that reminded her of lab coats. They knelt down and took her father from her and laid him on top of one of the bio beds, which immediately activated itself and moved a scanning bar over him from head to foot. It was obvious that Tom Bova was still in critical pain. On the wall behind and above Tom appeared a 3D internal image of him. She could recognize right away how serious much of the damage actually was.
Ensign Bova was helped to her feet and she moved a little farther out of their way. She felt a surge of trust inside herself, after all, these people were doctors and they were doing what they could to help her father. Besides, she considered, what were her alternatives? She took off her filter mask and watched them move around her father, as they spoke in low tones to each other. Then, they turned and said something unintelligible to the man beside Jennifer. Obviously, it was about her, since they were pointing to her, as they spoke. Ensign Bova turned to her escort and looked questioningly at him.
For the first time, she noticed her escort was dressed in a uniform of some kind of wrinkle free fabric. It had straight lines and was beige in color, and there were three gold stripes on the sleeve cuffs. She assumed he would be the equivalent of a Commander in the Service.
He turned slowly, unthreatening, and walked to a counter, where he opened a drawer and took out what appeared to be old-style head phones. Then, Jennifer noticed that his skin was much pinker and smoother than hers and that his features were more delicate. He put on one set and handed her the other. She put it on so that one of the ear pads were over one ear and the other was pressed against a temple, just the way he had.
"Hello," she heard the man say, as he smiled at her.
"Hello," Jennifer responded, with a smile.
"The doctors want you to be scanned, so they will have a control for their treatment of your comrade. Are you in good health?" he asked. His voice was definitely masculine.
"Yes," she said, as she followed him over to one of the bio beds.
Her escort asked her, "Why is it that you wear a mask and your companion does not?"
"The moon we were on is composed of complex salts. Salt causes my blood pressure to rise and I become irritable and sometimes irrational, because of it. Salt does not effect him in the same way," she explained.
One doctor stayed at her father's side, while another came to her's. She smiled up at him, but she still heard her father's groaning from the pain of his shattered shoulder. As soon as she was up on the bio bed and lying down on it, its mechanisms came to life and the scanning bar moved down her whole length from head to foot. And a 3D image appeared on the wall beside her.
"Give me a data transfer," the doctor watching Tom Bova said to the doctor now looking after Jennifer.
Her doctor took down a rectangle data recorder, pulled a cord out of the back of it, plugged it in and addressed the computer.
"Computer, transfer bio data star dot star from unit two to unit one." The recorder was about eight inches tall, six inches wide, and about four inches thick, with a heavy strap on it for shoulder carrying. When its green light came on and the computer announced it was complete, the doctor disconnected it, allowed the cord to retract, and tossed it gently over to her father's doctor.
When her father's doctor had transferred the data, her picture appeared just above her father's. And both doctors were now examining and comparing them.
Jennifer lifted herself up to one elbow, as the watched them run the comparisons and tests. It was really so quick she found herself duly impressed and she noticed the Commander watching her responses to everything.
Then one of the doctors gave Tom an injection that relaxed him immediately. Jennifer was nodding her approval, when the other doctor turned and motioned to the door. She understood without having to be told that they wanted her to leave. She saw how peacefully her father was in their hands, so she stood and left with her escort.
Ensign Jennifer Bova came to an abrupt halt, as she looked out through a huge transparent steel observational port inserted into the hull of the ship. "Oh, I thought we were on a planetary base," she said.
"Why did you think that?" asked the Commander.
"On our ships, we can always feel the vibrations coming from the engineering decks. Here, there's nothing at all."
"I see. We use no moving parts in engineering. It is all energy transference. I am called Krom. What are you called?"
"I am called Bova. What planet is that?" She was looking at a blue-green colored gas giant planet with several obvious moons and a wide ring band in orbit around it. She took note that the lights of the ship were dim.
"It is called Adlog. It circles a star called Holloway." And he said with a certain amount of pride, "The Holloway System is the newest member of the Imperial -- family"
"Thank you, Krom. This must be ship's night cycle."
"This time is our ship's day cycle. At least the later hours of it," Jennifer said, off handedly.
As they walked along the wide, beige corridor, Jennifer watched a man walk into a small booth on the inboard side of the corridor. It had a screen of some kind on the wall showing a computer generated graphic display of a solar system. Evidently this one, she thought. "This is not your own star system, then?" she asked as she watched the man in the kiosk, without seeming to watch him.
"No. This is not our home star system, Bovo."
"Bova, Bo-va" she corrected with an accent on the final a. The man in the kiosk picked up a stylus looking instrument and circled one of the planets on the graphic display. Its view enlarged itself, so that only it and its satellites were on the screen. He said, "Labels," and identification data appeared. He circled one of the satellites and its enlargement filled the screen, showing a system of small red dots, which Jennifer assumed were possible destinations. He chose one by poking it with the stylus, put the instrument back in its holder, pushed a green button to the lower left hand side, then simply disappeared. He was gone. It was then that Ensign Bova noticed the cylinders to each side of the kiosk and thought they must be some kind of Space Transducers, which power ships for C Drive.
"Where is your star system from here?" she asked, as she thought about the Space Transducers. She'd seen them only in the engine rooms of C Drive ships. If they could be made to work on such a small scale, then persons or things could be transported at tremendous C Factors. Matter at C velocities is not in Newtonian-Quantum Space, strictly speaking, and therefore cannot collide with Newtonian-Quantum Space matter, while passing through the same Space as C matter. She thought to herself, 'What a transportation System!'
"The Home World is farther out in the next galactic arm from here," he answered.
"In another arm of the galaxy?" she asked.
"You ask, as though this is beyond your ships' capabilities."
"It is. Presently. We are mostly interplanetary. First-generation interstellar." Then, she thought about the Starship Ebony presently under construction, but said nothing about it.
"I see," said Krom. "Perhaps your people may one day join us in the Emperor's -- family. We have much to offer. You see how much we offer a new Member by way of Space support," Krom motioned with his arms to include the whole of this vessel.
"Perhaps. We are anxious to make friends in the galaxy. Krom? Do you know where we are in relation to the moon we came from? To the other side of the door?" Jennifer asked, as she took a sideways glance toward him.
"No. I am presently taking you to the Star Chart Room. Perhaps you will be able to show us."
Ensign Bova thought that the Star Chart Room was like a tiny Bridge, with only a single station as the Center Seat with a small utilitarian table standing next to it. In front of it was a huge viewer that took up a complete wall. Jennifer was impressed, but she did not allow her face to show it. 'Control,' she thought to herself.
"You will examine the Star Charts on this viewer," Krom began. Suddenly, he turned to her, as though he'd just thought of something, "You do feel up to this, don't you?"
"Yes, of course. I'm as anxious to find it as anyone."
"Excellent. We have programmed the computer to scan each sector of our Charted Space. Our Charted Space includes all Imperial-Family Members. The scan pattern will begin at this star system and work itself around in an ever expanding spiral. It will show you one frame at a time.
"We will voice-print three commands into the computer for you, so that you can use this program:
"1. Advance: To advance to the next Star Chart.
"2. Present: To mark presents of familiarity.
"3. Previous: To view previous Star Charts.
"Is that clear to you, Bova?"
"It is clear, Krom. What is your name of the moon we came through the Energy veil on?"
"The moon is called Proxi. It is the first moon in the planetary system, Bova. We are ready to begin our Pin Wheel search," Krom said, as he faced the computer to address it. "Computer: Voice-print Commands for the following operations:
"1. Advance: To advance to the next Star Chart.
"2. Present: To mark presents of familiarity.
"3. Previous: To view previous Star Charts.
"Bova, the Computer is standing by to take your voice prints. Proceed."
"Computer," said Ensign Bova, "Voice-print Commands for the following operations:
"1. Advance: To advance to the next Star Chart.
"2. Present: To mark presents of familiarity.
"3. Previous: To view previous Star Charts.
The Computer came back with its answer, "Voice-print Command Codes and Commands are recorded and activated."
"Computer, begin search pattern."
"Beginning," the metallic voice of the speakers said.
The view on the screen that appeared was an almost black background of Space with white dots in patternless arrangements. None of it made any sense to Jennifer. "Krom? Can you have the computer augment the planetary systems with orbital lines?"
"Of course, Bova. Computer, Planetary and satellite orbit lines."
"Thank you, Krom."
"What does that mean? It does not translate well," Krom asked seriously.
Jennifer stole a side ways glance at him and said, "Well, 'Thank you' means I am 'Grateful' for what you have done for me."
"Grateful. Full of Greatness? What I have done for you is not Full of Greatness. If I had killed a man for you, perhaps to uphold your honor or to guard your youthful virginity, then my actions would be Full of Greatness." Krom stood tall, as though he had done these things many times, but that he had just not done them today.
"I am ready to begin, Krom," Jennifer said, not caring to deal with any more details of the subject.
"Then, begin, Bova."
"Computer, Advance," she said. A star field appeared. There were no planetary orbits present. Nothing vaguely familiar. "Computer, Advance." From the right hand edge of the screen, a line slowly moved across, wiping away the old Star Field and pressing on the new, so-to-speak. "No planetary lines. Nothing familiar," she said. Krom nodded his approval. "Computer, Advance," she said again. She was studying the new Star Field that shoed a small planetary system at the bottom left, when she heard the door whish open and closed behind her. She was vaguely aware that Commander Krom had left. "Computer, Advance."
"Computer, enlarge Planetary System," she said.
"Voice-Print Command invalid: not on record. Use a valid Command within your Voice-Print File."
"Computer, Augment Planetary System."
"Voice-Print Command invalid: not on record. Use a valid Command within your Voice-Print File."
"Computer, Galactic View."
"Voice-Print Command invalid: not on record. Use a valid Command within your Voice-Print File."
"Computer, Advance." Jennifer shifted in the Center Seat of the Star Chart Room, as she watched the line move across the screen and give her a new section of the Imperial World. 'Wouldn't the Admiralty love to see what I'm seeing!' she thought, as she looked at the wall screen a section at a time. "Computer, Advance."
After a while, the changing of the Star Charts was making her stomach twist and turn and growl. Growl? Ah, perhaps she was merely hungry. How long had it been? She had no way of knowing. The one instrument that was alone on a back wall behind her, which she assumed was their equivalent of a clock, was unreadable. It was an erratic thing. Jennifer had watched it while resting her eyes a couple of times. It had a series of steel balls being pushed up tiny tubes. For the life of her, Jennifer couldn't establish any particular pattern controlling the whole works as a mechanism. As far as she knew, the closest she ever got to guessing the function of it was that it was a solar system time keeper, with each of the tubes representing one of the planets or moons. Far fetched, though she had to admit.
"Computer, Advance." As Jennifer looked at the dense Star Field being wiped off the computer chalk board and a new Star Field being speckled in, a wave of vertigo splashed over her like luke warm milk in an old glass. She wondered what it could possibly be. Hunger, maybe.
Still, as she watched the Star Chart, she knew how uneasy she was at having a mere three word access to the Computer System. She sighed. She swallowed down the pill of reality. "Computer, Advance." Jennifer only half paid attention now to the charts. This is the way it was and it wasn't going to get any better. She would just have to learn just what could be done with the few things to which she did have access. "Computer, Advance." Jennifer was thinking that she had to work within the limits under which she found herself. "Computer, Advance." They had taught her that in Command School. "Computer, Advance." Improvise and adapt. These were the things about which she had to think. There weren't any miracles. There weren't any opportunities. There were just more Star Charts. "Computer, Advance."
It must have been a couple of hours later when a young man came in with a covered tray. Immediately, something smelled good and spicy. It was as though real food had been brought in after months of eating synthesized meals.
It wasn't Krom who brought in the tray of food, but a younger, shorter man who appeared to be a good deal redder than Krom. He wore the same color uniform made of the same wrinkle free material, but he had only one stripe on his sleeve cuff. But he did wear a universal translator on his head. That was good, Jennifer thought, at least she could communicate with him.
"This will nourish you," he said.
Jennifer kept glancing at the single stripe. Something was formulating in the back of her mind, but she really wasn't sure what it was. Perhaps she would just have to play it by ear, as they say.
"Am I glad they sent an Ensign," Jennifer said to him.
"Why is this?" he said, as he attached the try onto the side of the Center Seat.
'Hooked,' she thought. "I need to use some other Computer Options and I have Voice-Print clearance for only three commands. So, when I need them, you are here to give the Commands. You have full Voice-Print Files, don't you?"
"Of course. But I have other duties."
"It's too bad that they'll have to wait, Ensign. Krom wants these reviewed immediately. You understand that, don't you Ensign?" Jennifer knew how the use of rank could sting. And Jennifer, in repeating it, knew just how to sting.
"At what level?" he asked.
"At Star, dot, star."
The young man sighed and addressed the computer. "Computer: Voice-print Commands for the following operations:
Star, dot, star.
"The Computer is standing by to take your voice prints. Proceed."
"Computer," said Ensign Bova, "Voice-print Commands for the following operations:
Star, dot, star.
The Computer came back with its answer, "Voice-print Command Codes and Commands are recorded and activated."
Jennifer would have thanked him, but she thought better of having another lengthy discussion. So, she smiled at him. "Computer, Advance." And the Star Field changed, as the young man turned on a military heel and left the room. And as he left, Ensign Bova started eating the food on the tray. Meat and vegetables. If it weren't the real stuff, Bova thought, she didn't even want to know about it.
"Computer, Galactic view from this star system location. Augment. Graphics."
The same line that she had been watching for hours moved across the screen, erasing the Star Field as it went. But this time, the Star Field was replaced by a computer generated view of the Milky Way Galaxy. She was looking at the galactic plane horizontally oriented with a bulbous center in the middle of it. She looked at it. She looked at it some more. But the more she looked at it the wronger it appeared to be. It wasn't what she had expected to see.
"Computer, Delete all but Galactic Globular Clusters." The line rolled from right to left and erased all of the stars and dark matter, except for what is in Globular clusters. They generally followed the Galactic Plane. And she found what she was looking for. But it was on the left side of the Galactic Center and not on the right, where she had expected it to be. Still, it was about forty degrees north of the Galactic Plane, judged by eye, anyway. "M13," she said. The Globular Cluster was about twenty-five degrees to the left and not twenty-five degrees to the right. 'What does that mean?' she asked herself.
"Computer, Rotate thirty degrees, north view." It tilted toward her, but the top half was missing, the far half of the Galaxy from the Empire's perspective.
"Computer, Augment symmetrical Galactic Spiral View." And the Spiral arms grew on the screen, until the Milky Way was a complete Spiral Galaxy. A Globular Cluster was sitting above the Galaxy. And that was good. To Jennifer, it was recognizable.
"Computer, extrapolate the position to this Globular Cluster: Observation References: forty degrees north; twenty-two degrees to the right; twenty-five thousand light years; seventeen thousand light years to the Galactic Plane."
The Milky Way Galaxy rotated until Jennifer's line of sight was the point of reference. Then, a line formed from the Globular Cluster to a point where those observations are valid. A red light flashed there.
"Computer, mark that location with a nine planet solar system symbol. Label it: Terran Solar System.
"And there it is," she said out loud, even though there was no one around to hear.
On the Main Bridge of the Imperial Flag Ship, Krom watched the Main Viewer as it moved from one Star Field to another. Nothing changed for a while. Then, a Galactic view came up on screen.
"Resourceful -- for a woman, Your Majesty."
"I agree, Commander Krom," said the Emperor, dressed in a Four-striped, Captain's uniform.
The full Galaxy view was erased, taking everything but the Globular Clusters. The Galaxy rotated thirty degrees, showing a north view, vacant top. The uncharted areas filled in with symmetrical galactic arms. Then, the whole Galaxy rotated one hundred eighty degrees and a line formed from a Globular Cluster to a spot, where a blinking light flashed. Data Labels appeared:
40 Degrees North 25,000 Light Years
22 Degrees Right 17,000 Light Years
Terran Solar System
And then a small planetary system symbol appeared at a precise spot and was Labels: Terran Solar System.
"So, that's where she's from," Krom mentioned.
"A nice location for a Base for your Emperor, wouldn't you say, Commander Krom?"
"Indeed, I would. Computer, save file."
"Yes, Your Imperial Majesty."
"How long before we're able to sent the Starships through the Rift in Relative Space?"
"The first could go through in two cycles."
The lights in the ship's corridors were much brighter now, Jennifer observed, as she followed the young Ensign to the Officers' Lounge, where she was to meet with Krom again. And Krom said he would introduce her to the Captain of the Flag Ship. For her to give a progress report on the Star Chart search, she presumed.
What Jennifer wasn't expecting to see when she walked in was her father, who was in conversation with Commander Krom. The table at which they were sitting was set for four. There was no food present as yet. The observation window that was behind them was filled with a view of the ringed gas giant, Adlog. It was as breathtaking as ever.
As Ensign Bova approached Krom and her father, who sat opposite each other, a ship pulled into view. It was the biggest ship that Ensign Bova had ever seen. She froze in her tracks and just stood there. Her eyes were double open and she had stopped breathing for the moment.
Krom was watching her very carefully and smiled.
The ship looked like a big, gray wedge. Huge by any Standard she knew. It was now at Station Keeping, abreast, gigantic, hanging there threatening and menacing.
The men stood, as she approached. "Good morning, Bova."
"Good morning, Krom." Ensign Bova was still distracted, as she starred at the Imperial Starship.
"Bova," Krom said, "Your reaction to the Dorn tells me you are impressed with him. He is one of our Light Cruisers. A patrol ship. Peace Keeper. When we leave this Sector, the Dorn will be staying behind to guard our new Protectorate," he explained unnecessarily. Krom studdied her face for a moment, "Tell me, how is it that both of you are called Bova?" He motioned toward Tom. And indicated the seat beside him was for her.
"Bova is our family name."
"Then, you are related?"
"Yes. He is Tom Bova and I am Jennifer Bova. He is my father and I am his daughter."
"Then Crews of your people are comprised of family members to insure loyalty. Honestly, I think it's a good idea. I imagine it keeps down the number of assassinations. A problem we are just beginning to face seriously ourselves. We loose a good number of effective Officers that way," Krom said.
Ensign Bova hugged her father and whispered, "Talk little." But louder she said, "How is the shoulder, Daddy?"
"Just fine, daughter."
"But still a matter of serious concern, Bova," Krom said. "You are still under the care of the doctors."
"Just for observation," Tom added.
"Yes, of course," agreed Commander Krom. "But tell me," he began as they all took their seats and made themselves comfortable, "Do you have many ships like the Dorn, where you come from?"
Tom Bova laughed. "Except for the Orbital Bases, Captain, you could fit half the fleet in the hanger bays over there."
The Ensign Jennifer Bova shot him a hard look and Tom knew he'd been hit by it.
"Forgive me," Commander Krom said smoothly, "I didn't mean to pry into any sensitive areas of your Military Security. But you should bear in mind that we do provide Light Cruisers like the Dorn to the Imperial Member Systems for Security purposes. A deterrent, of course. Knowing the Dorn is here will deter many potential problems. That's something to keep in mind for future consideration, you know. Since your System is low on Security Counter Measures, the Empire may be able to balance the scales in your favor."
"Something we will definitely keep in mind, Krom."
Suddenly, Krom stood. "The Captain of the Imperial Flag Ship Khas approaches."
The man who was walking up was smiling. "As you were," he said, as he slipped on a head set universal translator. He surveyed the woman in particular.
Jennifer wondered whether his steel blue eyes were seeking out intellectual or sensual curiosities. She finally ruled out the latter as she considered their power driving intensity. She decided that they were seeing one in a military uniform that was different from his own. They were regarding her as a possible threat. And then she wondered if he knew just how low-ranking an Officer she really was. Everyone at the table came more to 'at ease' than to 'as they were'.
"Please, sit," the Emperor said amiably. "Please forgive me for not having introduced myself to you before now. I am Captain Kon and you are the guests of the Emperor Khas. Although the Emperor is not presently in attendance, I have spoken to him about you and he sends his greetings.
"Now, it has come to my attention that our respective ships' time cycles are running different from one another. This is not unusual for us. To compensate for this, do either of you have any objection to our having a morning meal, while you have your evening meal?" The Captain asked.
Ensign Bova and her father indicated that they had no objections.
Commander Krom clapped his hands to signal the men standing by the door that the table was ready to be served. And they left the room.
"So, this is the Imperial Flag Ship, Captain?" Ensign Bova asked.
"We are proud to serve aboard the Khas. The Khas is the Emperor. It is," he answered.
Jennifer motioned to the Dorn, still at Station Keeping outside the observation window, "Is this ship as big as that one?"
The Captain laughed. "The Dorn is a mere Light Cruiser, Bova. This ship is easily four times its size and ten times its capability," the Emperor bragged. "Our new-generation shields aboard Khas can easily withstand a flotilla of Heavy Cruisers." And then Ensign Bova was really beginning to wonder why they were becoming so free with information that could well be considered Highly Sensitive. And then the Emperor went on, "Commander Krom tells me you have been studying the Star Charts to locate your own Home World, with relation to our present position. Have you had any success?"
"Our home world was not on any of the Star Charts I have studdied so far, Captain," she responded, as a server placed a plate before her. The Supper was laid out on an oblong platter of ceramic substance. Short strips of red meat were lined up in perfect rows with a white sauce over one end and a red sauce over the other. The smell of inviting spices drifted up to her in mouth-watering waves. Green and yellow vegetables were fashionably placed on the other end of the platter with various yellow sauces poured over them. A glass of red liquid looking suspiciously like wine was placed next to her and Jennifer licked her lips. After all that synthetic food she'd had, this was promising to be the culinary delight of her entire career. So far, anyway.
The Emperor bid for their attention, "All that is before you has been certified as being healthful for you. Although we cannot be certain it will be appetizing to you, we have our hopes, of course."
"You can tell all of that from your scans?" she asked.
"Of course. Can't your doctors do the same?"
Jennifer shook her head and was feeling angry with herself for putting herself in the position of giving away yet another piece of information. "No, they can't," she said. A lie at this point would have been most blatant.
"I see," the Emperor responded.
"If the Captain will permit me to speak," Commander Krom asked. When the Emperor nodded, Krom said to Jennifer and Tom, "Your people's Membership in the Emperor's Family will bring them new heights of medicine, it would seem, yes?"
Ensign Bova nodded. "That it would."
The Emperor smiled and picked up where he had left off without preamble. "Perhaps you may yet find the location of your Home World for us. We must know its location, if we are ever to return you there, mustn't we?"
"Well, Captain, we could just return to the Moon Proxi and return the way we came," she offered.
"That is one possibility, of course. But in all fairness, it would be most inadvisable," he was saying as a light meal was placed before him. It looked suspiciously like a giant orange-yoked egg fried on both sides, with bread of some kind. He was saying, "The way you were brought here was through an emergency measure on a commercial grade transport wave. To complicate matters, it was through an energy field we haven't even begun to understand. Just because it succeeded in bringing you here doesn't mean it will succeed in sending you back. No. We just can't take risks of that magnitude with lives of ultimate value."
Commander Krom spoke up, "If you believe at all in the Divine, as we do, I don't see how we can tempt his hand a second time. Besides," he nodded to Tom Bova, "the doctors still have your father on observation. They want to see him every morning for at least five mornings."
"Regulations," the Emperor insisted. "I'm sure you can appreciate our position there."
"Certainly." Ensign Bova regarded the two Imperials. "It interests me that you so freely about religious matters. Do all the peoples in the Empire believe as you do?"
"As we do?" The Emperor, Captain Kon, spoke up. "Not as we do, but many in their own ways."
Ensign Jennifer Bova was chewing some of the tastiest meat she'd ever eaten and observed he didn't say they approved. "We believe God came down to us and died for us. And Rose again, Of course. Are there any parallels to this in your knowledge?"
Commander Krom answered. "We find such beliefs among many. We view them as being Provincial."
"Can you tell me more about it?"
"I'm afraid it would be heresy for me to speak of such things."
"I see," said Jennifer. "Then, perhaps you could tell me about them -- from the perspective of their being heresies."
Commander Krom glanced over to his superior, who nodded slightly as he was eating.
"Many believed as you do. Then they met others from other worlds who held similar beliefs -- that their God had come to them. And during this trade of information, they became more Cosmopolitan about it. And listen to this," he said in that sophisticated way that talks down to things. "They changed their belief system. They all concluded that their God had come to them. And had died for them. In all places at one time for all peoples. Can you imagine a belief like that?"
"Yes, Commander. I can. It answers many questions for me." Ensign Bova took another bite of divine meat and smiled.
They had all been eating in silence for a while, when Ensign Bova decided to do a little more information gleaning. "You know, I haven't seen a very large cross section of your Crew, Captain, but I haven't seen any females at all aboard her."
"Him. Our Starships are referred to as him, not Her. Females aboard the Khas? No. Actually, we were somewhat surprised to find you in Space, on Proxi. What was your function there, may I ask?"
"We call it Semele, Captain. I am the Commanding Officer of the mining facility there," Jennifer said. Then she took another bite of the meat and almost swooned from the flavors mingling in her mouth. She was thinking that it was better than even French cooking. And she thought French cooking was the height of culinary delight.
"Commanding Officer? My! We thought you were perhaps a functionary of some sort. Like these," the Emperor indicated one of the servers who just looked over and offered her another glass of wine. "No. In the Empire, we all have our own roles to live out. We are born into them and it is an honorable thing to be the best we can be to fulfill those roles. It is an honorable society, Commanding Officer of the moon. Our way is quite natural, really. Nature picks us and makes us what we are and we are proud of it. Honor is everything. We honor our women. We protect our women. We provide for our women. It is a dishonorable man who does not provide for his woman or his off spring. I suppose we just have things better defined in our society than you have in yours, Commanding Officer."
'I just bet you do,' Jennifer thought to herself. And she was now glad that her father had taken her warning to heart and was exercising the good sense to keep quiet. "In our Society," Jennifer said after she swallowed, "we choose what we want to do and what we want to become. We do with our lives what seems best for us. Individuals count. Nothing is pre-determined."
"I see," the Emperor said. Then he paused, as though to evaluate the way the conversation was going, to decide whether or not his goals were being best served. "There are many Members in the Empire who believe as you do."
Jennifer nodded to him and he smiled. But she took note that he did not say he approved of this.
When they were finished, Commander Krom escorted them to their adjoining rooms. He showed them around and explained what things did. How the toilets and the sinks worked. How the intercom worked. How the beds and the lights worked. How the food and drink dispensers worked. How the Ship's Entertainment Files worked.
"This is our standard recorder unit and it has been programmed with the Entertainment Files. As you see, we have it plugged into a universal translator double-coupler patched into the monitor. Turn it on right here, in case you want to read our literature, see our theater, hear our music, view our arts."
"And it keeps us off the Main Frame," Tom Bova remarked.
"Security precautions are a consideration, naturally. I'm sure you understand. Now, if there's anything else you need, just call and a Duty Officer will respond," said Krom.
He turned to Tom and said, "For you, it's the doctor after your sleep period."
Then he turned to the Ensign, "and for you, it's back to the Chart Room after yours."
They both agreed and he left the room.
"Nice people," Tom Bova said, after Commander Krom had left the room.
"The fuck they are! You can't be serious! Nice people. We just spoke to the nice fucking Emperor." Jennifer snapped at him like a gaiter at meat.
"And just what in the hell have you been into?"
"I've been eating salted meat. Salted vegetables. Salted wine. Salted water. Salted fuck."
"I didn't notice much salt in mine," Tom protested.
"They're not feeding you salt. They're just feeding me salt."
"Why would they do that? What possible motive would they have to do that?"
"When we came aboard, they needed to know my health as a control so they could treat you. I told them what salt does to me. They want information and they think giving me salt will make it easier to get. That's why the fuck they're giving me salt."
Tom didn't say anything. He was thinking about what had happened so far and what was happening now. "You may have a point, Penny Jenny."
Ensign Bova didn't even hear him. She was thinking. "They're not going to let us go."
"Now, what makes you say a thing like that?" he turned and watched as his daughter started pacing back and forth.
"Why do you think they're showing us so much? The Ship. The technology. To see our reaction to it. Did you hear what the Captain said? The nice fucking Emperor. They're not sending us back through the Rift. Where in the fuck do you think we are? The next star out? No. In the Chart Room, I discovered where we are. We are on the other side of the fucking Galaxy from the Terran Solar System. And when I pin-pointed the Terran Solar System, the computer saved the file. Where is that file now? Well?" she challenged her father.
"I don't know."
"In their hot little fucking hands. That's where."
"They know, then?"
"They know. But they don't know that we know that they know. We've got that little advantage. While we've still got it, we've got to get the fuck out of here."
"Now?" Tom asked.
"Every minute we spend here lessens our chance of getting back and increases their chance of launching a full-scale invasion through the Rift. I have a plan."
"I didn't go through Command School for nothing, you know. Now listen...."
Ensign Jennifer and Tom Bova opened their respective doors at the same time and stepped casually through out into the hall. They startled the two posted guards they figured would be on duty there. Tom kicked his man in the groin and he went down and dropped a pencil-looking instrument onto the deck. Ensign Bova stepped forward and stabbed a kick at the guard in front of her room, but he was just too fast and he knocked her into the wall. Jennifer raised her knee at the rushing man and connected, while she barely dodged a slender instrument that was in his hand, too. They both fell onto the deck in a clatter. Tom had recovered the instrument and was just about to stab his man with it, when Jennifer hollered over to him, "No. It might work only one fucking time."
According to plan, they both dragged their victim into their room and tied him hand and foot and gagged them. Jennifer took up the Standard Recorder and threw the strap around her shoulder. "Follow me," Jennifer said and they both sprinted down the hallway, looking into empty staterooms. "There," Ensign Bova said, as she pointed to a computer terminal. They crossed over to it and Jennifer plugged it in.
"Computer, erase Entertainment Files, star, dot, star."
She snapped her fingers and then said again, "Computer, transfer Technical and Manufacturing Specifications for the Starship Khas."
"Computer, transfer Star Chart Files."
She unplugged the recorder and threw the universal translator into a pocket. The Recorder dangled on its strap over her shoulder, as she leaned over and addressed the computer for the last time. "Computer, erase all hard disk files, Star, dot, star, in two minutes."
"Confirm: erase all hard disk files, Star, dot, star, in two minutes."
"Confirmation: erase all hard disk files, Star, dot, star, in two minutes."
"Confirmed," the computer said, "two minutes and counting: erase all hard disk files, Star, dot, star, in two minutes."
"Let's fucking bogie," Jennifer snapped. They ran back into the hallway and sprinted down it, until they came to a kiosk. "In here, Daddy."
Ensign Bova studied the Solar System graphic. It didn't mean too much to her. "Labels," she commanded. Undecipherable data and names came up on the screen. "Fuck," she said.
"Fuck is not a valid destination. Enter a valid destination."
She turned to her father with a nod, a smile, and a high-sign. "Proxi."
A moon appeared enlarged in the screen with red dots all over it. There was one blue line and Jennifer pointed to it. "That's it."
Unexpected arms grabbed Jennifer from behind and started to drag her out. "Fuck you!" she yelled, and the man flinched. She kneed him and then poked him with the devise in her hand. And the man just vanished in a flash of light.
"Effective," said Tom.
Ensign Bova took the stylus from its holder and popped the red dot by the blue line.
She glanced over to her father to make sure he was in the booth. "When we get there, fuck everything else and charge that energy door. It's the only chance we've got. One try is it. Ready?" Before he answered, she pushed the green button.
And the kiosk was gone.
They were in the room now that was just on the other side of the Energy Field from the Tractor Miner. They saw it still sitting there. It was waving from the effects of the translucent energy veil. "Go," Ensign Bova yelled and they dashed for it, as a violet color began to take over the surface.
The man who was in the room by the computer console took a couple of quick steps toward them but froze, when Jennifer showed the instrument. So, he turned and bounded to the control panel and started punching in commands.
Ensign Bova and her father were almost to the energy field when the man smiled and punched a pressure pad. Then the smile went away. He looked down at it and tried to reenter his commands, but the computer wouldn't take them. He pounded on it in frustration, but nothing worked. Not even the tried and true bang on it technology discovered in the Neanderthal enlightenment. And he pounded on it again.
The Bovas struck the solid violet energy field together and it bent with resisting force, but burst like a liquid. They were sprawled on the ground in a tangle and they fought their way to their feet. Looking back, the energy field was still there and fluctuating.
"Fuck you, too!" Ensign Bova yelled back through it. "All right, let's stuff this thing up his ass! Maybe we can close it in the process."
"Will it work?"
"Sure," she said, as she wondered the same thing. Who knows? "Reset the jaw yokes for forward cutting. Carefully, this time. I'll get everything fired up and ready."
"Right," Tom Bova said.
They were on their feet and running. Tom went up the rungs of the Tractor Miner and Jennifer ran around the side and climbed up into the cab.
Ensign Bova settled into the Pilot's chair and took the strap from off her shoulder. She had the instrument held in her left hand and cradled the recorder over it. She punched the communicator pad and said, "Is everybody in?"
"Everybody -- plus one," said a soft, silky voice from behind her. "You are too resourceful for your own good, Commanding Officer of the Moon. Soon, we will be flying whole Starships right through the Rift there in Relativity Space and there's nothing you can do to stop us."
"Well, Commander Krom," Jennifer said, as she half turned and looked up at him.
He was looking down at her and laughed a merciless laugh. "And I had such nice plans for you, Commanding Officer of the Moon. You would have lived out a nice, long, comfortable life in exile. You loved the food. But now, you've cut it all short, haven't you?" Commander Krom pointed to the recorder with the instrument in his right hand. He sighed, "Hand over the Recorder now, Commanding Officer of the Moon. It records everything. So, we'll be able to find out what you did to our computer aboard the Imperial Flag Ship. That was no mean feat, Commanding Officer of the Moon. Too bad all your efforts were wasted. Hand it over, now!"
"Here," she said, as she moved it toward his right hand as nonchalantly as she could. "I just have one thing to say to you."
"What's that, Commanding Officer of the Moon?"
"Fuck you, Commander Krom."
"That does not translate very well, Commanding Officer of the Moon. But it does have the ring of carnal disrespect to it. I'm almost sorry I'll have to terminate you and all your people, Commanding Officer of the Moon."
His hand reached toward the strap of the recorder and Jennifer said, "I'll see you in Hell first, Krom," then she lunged and plunged her instrument into his arm. He winked out of existence in a flash of light.
"No, Commander Krom. It was too bad I had to terminate you. I thought you were charming. You had such promise."
Ensign Bova pushed the Communications pad, but it was already on. "Everyone here?" she asked.
"Everyone but Tom," Gleason said.
"Tom's forward, working on the Three-jaw yoke. Power up. But don't forget he's up there."
"No can do," he said.
"Just what the fuck do you mean by that?"
"Just what I said, no can do. Murphy's law is universally valid. It works up here, too. Blown fuse. Cheapest fucking part broke the whole thing down."
"Replace it," Jennifer ordered.
"I'm on my way back. Tom, get your ass in here, as soon as you can."
"Right," he responded.
In cramped quarters in the rear, Ensign Bova squirmed down to see. She had to look over Fallen's bony shoulder. It looked all -- electrical to her.
"Talk to me, Fallen," she said.
"Three hours to bypass it with a jumper cable. Minimum," he said.
"We don't have three minutes, Fallen. We have to get this fucking thing running so we can shove it up their corporate Imperial ass!" Jennifer wasn't about to take impossibility for an answer.
Shaking his head from side to side, Fallen said, "No can do. Not unless somebody has an old antique penny. And that's not too fucking likely, though."
"I could short the system open with a penny. We could never stop it, though."
"I'm not worried about stopping the fucking piece of shit. Just getting it going!" Ensign Bova reached into her trouser pocket and pulled out a small bag with a tie string holding the top closed. She shook out a tarnished old penny and handed it over to Fallen.
"Where in the fuck did you ever get one of these?"
"Daddy never called my Penny Jenny for nothing. Now, do your fucking magic and let's get this show on the road."
"Bless you. I'll even call you Captain," he said.
"All right! Power up and get ready to abandon ship. Gleason" she called, "have Davis inform Fortunian I we need Emergency Evac. Immediately. There's a whole fucking Empire over there that wants to come in and make us a part of their family. We're going to ram this thing up their ass and try to close this thing off. We'll be traveling on foot to the air lock. Just relay it. Daddy, talk to me."
"I'm finished now and taking the Pilot's seat."
"Good. Start her up when you can. I want the Tree-jaws running. Then stand by."
Already Ensign Bova could feel the vibrations running through the Tree-jaw Tractor Miner. Tom called back, "Standing by."
"Abandon ship. Now. All but you, Tom. As soon as we're clear, give it full power ahead and jump. No heroics. Remember, 'let some other bastard die for his country'."
"The whole crew filed out and Jennifer heard her father saying the name Patten, as she slipped by him. 'Patten what?' she wondered.
Tom engaged the transmission. He grabbed their two sample picks from the floorboard. And then he jumped. No heroics, she had said. "Look who's talking," he mumbled. Tom turned and leaned against the wall and watched. Sparks flew everywhere, as the Tree-jaw Tractor Miner plunged through the energy veil. And it continued for about twenty-odd feet before it came to an abrupt halt. Something sounded like it exploded from the other side of the energy curtain and the light ceased. Light from the veil. The sound of sheering metal and the smell of burning steel filled the air in a wall of smoke. And then there was nothing left there but a solid wall of rock. Only half a Tractor Miner was left. The other half still on their side. The front half of the Tractor Miner was totally gone.
"What took you?" Jennifer asked, when Tom arrived at the rear, where they were all waiting.
"I was just watching the front half of a Tractor Miner vanish. The Energy veil is gone."
Things started to vibrate all around. They could feel it rattling through the floor of the tunnel. "Let's get the fuck out of here," Ensign Bova said.
Tom handed his daughter her sample pick and they all turned and started trotting through the tunnel at a slight incline. They were led by the light of the bio lights, spaced about every forty feet.
Ensign Bova called ahead to the Mining Control Station, "Davis."
"Everything's vibrating like hell down here. How about where you are?"
"Started just before you called."
"Notify the Emergency Evac Unit. And tell them if it keep escalating, everything could collapse down here," she instructed.
The eight of them kept a steady pace. Rattling was getting worse and there was more and more dust in the air. "Cover your mouths, everyone," Jennifer told them. So, they all took out their miners' bandannas and tied them up.
After a while, small pebbles started falling off the walls and overhead. The walls started to look like someone was scratching the surface with fingernails.
"We're about half way," Tom informed her.
"Davis. You still there?"
"Still here, Ensign."
"We're about half way out. We've got pebbles falling from the overhead and crumbling of the walls. Major dust, too. What's your status there? And word from Emergency Evac?"
"Conditions not that bad up here. Yet. Emergency Evac ETA five minutes. Repeat. Emergency Evac ETA in five minutes. They report a moon-wide disturbance."
Ensign Bova told Davis, "Inform them the energy veil is closed. We drove the Tractor Miner through it to avoid an immanent invasion by a hostile Empire on the other side."
"Ah. Relaying now."
Larger pieces of the roof were falling and the eight of them had to hold up their arms to protect their heads, as they trotted along. As they jogged the incline.
"How much farther, Tom," Jennifer asked her father, though sorry to have to use the breath.
"Estimate: two hundred meters. We're now in the tighter bend that we cut first."
"Davis," Ensign Bova called on the hand held communicator, "be advised we are about two hundred meters from your position. Report."
"Emergency Evac is standing by at the air lock."
"I read you, Davis. Get out the hard suits. We may be wearing 'em out. If we have to break through the air lock."
"I'm on it."
Tom Bova stumbled. He fell. "I just can't go on. Take everyone else out." He gasped as he fell limp on the floor of the tunnel.
"No! I'll carry you myself, if I have to. If anybody feels like lending a hand, now is a pretty good fucking time!"
Everyone grabbed onto some part of him and they all moved along like a drugged centipede, wobbly and slow. More rocks rattled and fell and the walls of the tunnel were cracking and breaking and spitting. They moved on another ten yards.
Bryson yelled, "What in the fuck is that?"
"It's an auto crawler," Tennyson snapped, as he reached over and stopped it. "Where did it come from?"
Galveston asked in his slow, Southern speech, ""Who the fuck cares? It's here. Let's get Thompson on it."
They did. Face down. And they gathered around him to keep the falling rocks off him and his feet scrapped against the ground as it moved along at full speed. At that speed, the crew had to hold back their tired pace a little. And finally, the wood structure of Mining Control came into view.
Inside, while suiting up, they listened to the rocks falling onto the roof. They were getting larger. "Davis. You're the freshest. Give Tom a hand there. He's your responsibility from here on out."
"I'm on it," Davis said, as he jumped over and helped the man into the hard suit.
"Fifty meters to go to the air locks," Ensign Bova said. "Only fifty meters. We can't give up now! Move it." She grabbed the sample picks and led the men out through the door then jogged her way over the rolling ground. "Hustle, hustle, hustle," she snapped back to them. "We've had our break."
"Some break," complained Tennyson.
They were just coming up on the air locks when the roof caved in and partly covered it. Then they could see the dust clearing as the air rushed out. "Close helmets," Ensign Bova said. "Emergency Evac, Ensign Bova here. The air lock is breached and we're going to dig our way out in hard suits."
"Acknowledged. Emergency Evac standing by to receive you. Make it snappy. This moon is coming apart at the seams."
Ensign Bova started pounding her way through the piles of ore with her pick. Trying to clear the way. "Davis...."
"I'm already on it, Bova. Just don't back up."
They cut through the rock together and heaved and moved small boulders. Then finally a rush of air tore at them from behind, which meant they had cleared the way.
"We're coming out. Davis, get back there and help Tom."
"I'm on it."
Ensign Jennifer Bova sat stiffly at a small table, as she looked out through the transparent steel observation window to see Fortuna below. Although she couldn't tell, she knew there was one less moon out there today. It had taken Semele nearly two days to totally break apart and soon it would be just a small band around the planet. She'd asked a Science Officer aboard named Dysart what effect it would have on the system and was a little surprised to learn that it would have virtually no effect at all. The mass of the moon was still in its orbit, Commander Dysart had said. It was simply transformed.
The Officers' Lounge was sealed off, when Commodore Paterson and a woman Captain walked in, both carrying a number of file folders. Jennifer noticed how young a face the woman had for having so much gray.
The woman Captain seemed to be all business, thought Ensign Bova, as she stood. Jennifer's initial reaction was that she was possibly a bureaucrat of some kind. Ensign Bova nodded her head in greeting, as the Senior Officers approached the table.
"Captain Vox is heading the debriefing for the civilians," Commodore Paterson said without preamble. "Probably in the most minute of detail. The conference room is taken, so forgive the location. This debriefing is more or less informal. Captain Belinda Ivory will be sitting in for Captain Vox. Due to the delicacy of the subject, it is mandatory to have a second Senior Officer present. Have a seat. Feel free to help yourself to your coffee."
They all took their seats and Jennifer Bova felt a wave of discomforture scorch her when she looked over at the dark eyes of this woman. They were hot seats of inquisition. 'Bureaucrats are not like that,' she thought. The woman Captain was as erect in her seat as she was silent.
The Commodore opened one of the file folders in front of him and read it for a short time before he spoke. "Initially, your Final Report was dismissed and rejected as being totally preposterous by the Admiralty, Ensign. But after they received the initial findings of the Science Board regarding the Intelligence Information you procured, they reversed their decision. Your report is substantiated by physical evidence." Commodore Paterson looked up and said, "That's good. The Technical and Manufacturing Intelligence Information you procured were authentic Science. The Star Charts are valid, in so far as they can determine. They are invaluable contributions to our Astronomical knowledge. The Universal Translator will prove to be invaluable tools for us from this time forward. On the face of it, you have performed a most important mission to the Service and its Intelligence Division. You have been awarded The Service Intelligence Award, Ensign. It is the highest Intelligence Award the Service has to offer. Congratulations."
The Commodore closed the folder and traded it for another. "With the preliminaries out of the way, then, we go into the debriefing itself. As you know, debriefings are organized so that you will know what information is Classified and what information is not. This Intelligence Mission is Classified. All matters relating to it are Classified. This information is distributed on a need-to-know basis. Is this clear?"
"Yes, Commodore," Ensign Bova said.
"So advanced was the bulk of the Technology that the construction of the Ebony at First World Space Dock has been discontinued. The original ship has been scrapped. An all-new Starship is being constructed. It will bear the name Ebony, of course. Due to the New Manufacturing Technologies, it will be a better Starship, and be of a higher overall quality than the original design. It will be completed in two standard earth years.
All of the particulars you observed while on the other side of the energy veil and/or what you have learned or surmised are Classified. Did I say that before? Well, it's Classified."
"Very well. Finally, Ensign, during the conflict over the orbit rights to Semele, we lost one of the ships. One of the Wing Command Ships. This, too, is classified information. This concludes my part of this debriefing. Now, Captain Ivory has a small number of issues to discuss with you concerning your report. Captain Ivory."
Ensign Jennifer Bova shifted noticeably in her seat. She hadn't expected that the woman Captain would be actually participating in the proceedings. She found it somewhat ironic that she was at ease with this Commodore, but petrified of this Captain. She turned toward the woman and regarded her.
"Ensign Bova. Positive point out of the way first. It is very complementary that an Imperial Commander who was your adversary said that you were too resourceful for your own good."
"Thank you, Captain."
"Never thank me, Ensign. 'Welcoming' wastes my time. That was the up-side of the coin. The down side is that a more experienced Officer recognized a potential problem in you. Do correct this."
"Yes, Captain," Jennifer said almost under her breath.
"The next point I will address is the fact that you spent five pages dealing with the Intelligence Information the Imperial Commander gained from you by both inference and implication. Did you not consider the possibility of a Court Marshall when you went into so much detail to build a case against yourself?" The Captain looked at the Ensign with drilling eyes.
"Yes, Captain. I did. However, I felt it more important for my Superiors to know what the Empire knows and how they learned it than my safety."
"It was, Captain," Ensign Bova said more sharply than she had intended. But at least she felt some satisfaction for it.
"The third and final matter, Ensign, is that in your report you described scenes where you used fatal force. I did not see any remorse for these actions indicated. Would you care to respond to that?"
Jennifer Bova had just about had it with this woman who had just crawled out of some regulation or another. "Yes, I do. My report was written to describe what happened. My report was not written to describe how I felt about what happened. Captain. My report indicated clearly that there were no alternatives to using fatal force."
"There are always alternatives, Ensign," Captain Ivory said, as she looked at the other woman across the table.
"My report clearly indicated, Captain, that there were none."
Captain Ivory looked over to the Commodore with a look that was passable as unbelief. Then, she looked back at Ensign Bova. Somehow, she had found reserves of added hardness from which to draw. "Ensign. Did I hear you correctly? Are you, an Ensign, contradicting me, a Captain? Here's the scenario: Captain says to Ensign, 'there are alternatives'. Ensign says to Captain, 'there were no alternatives'. Are you contradicting me?" Captain Ivory slid up out of her chair and leaned over the table menacingly. "Think carefully before you answer, Ensign. Careers are made and broken at moments like these." Then, she sat back down and looked through the Ensign with steel-hot eyes.
"I have Command Training, Captain. Command Training teaches us there are hard decisions that have to be made. And it teaches us to stand by those decisions, when they are made. I was in Command. It was my decision to make. And I made it. Now, I may be just a piss-ant little Ensign to you, Captain, and maybe you'll flush my career right down the toilet, but if I don't stand by decision now, then I didn't deserve to be in command then." Jennifer took in a long, deep breath, a pain-ridden breath. She sat back as erect as the Captain facing her. She steeled herself for the worst.
But the Captain never responded to her. She just studdied the resolve of the Ensign. And Jennifer thought she was giving her the gracious opportunity to retract. But Jennifer would die first.
After -- forever -- The Captain opened a file folder and looked inside. She shook her head and switched it with one underneath. She extracted two sheets of printed paper and signed them. She handed them to the Commodore, stood, turned about face, as military people do, and walked straight out of the room. She never looked back. The doors opened and closed. And she was gone. And the Commodore was reading the signed pages.
"Well", said the Commodore, "She has certainly mellowed with time."
"Mellowed, Sir?" Jennifer asked.
"Yes. Ever since she received Command of the Ebony."
"Captain Ivory Commands the Ebony?" Jennifer asked, like a balloon loosing air.
"That she does."
"I had requested the Ebony."
"She knows that. Well, I have to discuss these with you now. To make all this official. I'm sure you understand."
"Yes, Commodore," Jennifer said, like a prisoner awaiting sentencing.
"Here, Captain Ivory has authorized your immediate promotion to full lieutenant. That's a two rank promotion. And here, she has approved your transfer to the Command Crew of the Ebony."
"The Command Crew? Of the Ebony?"
"You're one of the Senior Staff Officers. Congratulations."
"Captain Ivory did that after I talked to her like that?"
"No, Lieutenant. Because you stood your ground and stood by your decisions. She's going to be way out there, you know. We can always just replace people, here in the colonies. She won't be able to afford that luxury. She can always teach you what decisions to stand behind. But she can never teach you how to make a decision and stand by it. Besides, you are a First Contact Officer. And she feels that may be an invaluable asset to her on an Exploratory Mission. So, Lieutenant, you are out of uniform."
"Thank you Sir."
"You're welcome. But don't say that to her. And if I were you, I wouldn't keep my new Captain waiting."
"She's waiting?" Lieutenant Jennifer Bova stood and walked over to the door and joined her Captain.