Thursday, November 1, 2012

Chapter 2

As Joanna had predicted, Montse Cordero, the young robotics specialist on crew, stopped by an hour later. Montse was twenty-two, a recent graduate of an Earth-based university, which was rare on an orbital station. Joanna and most of the crew had been born on Mars, and had a higher tolerance for zero-gravity environments. But the agency had no qualms in picking talent over experience, and there was no question that Montse was one of the best robotics specialist Joanna had worked with. She was short, which was always an advantage in cramped station spaces, and had medium length brown hair. Dark brown eyes looked out from behind glasses, and she had an open smile. She’d arrived on the station a month before.

“Nothing looks off in any of your equipment,” Joanna said, pulling over the large robotic probe that would deliver Eric’s sensors to the upper atmosphere of Venus. “But I thought you’d probably want to check it for yourself.”

Montse plugged a small cord into a jack on the robot, and looked at the data streaming to her computer screen. “I like to run some quick  tests each time. Better to lose a robot than a life, but I’d rather avoid losing the bot, too.”

As Montse entered commands into the computer, the bot twitched, servos whirring, and several complex metal parts moved. Joanna wasn’t familiar enough with the design to be sure what actions the bot was performing, but the motions were smooth with no hesitation, which was always a good sign. Montse seemed satisfied, and signed off on the release check-up. “Everything looks good. Do you want to come watch the drop later?”

“I don’t know if I’ll have time, but I’ll try. I haven’t seen this bot in action yet.” Joanna made notes in her system and marked the equipment as checked-out. “That should do it. So, how are you adjusting to life on the Haephestus?”

“I’m doing alright,” the young woman replied. “I did some zero-g work in college, of course, but nothing more than a week or two. Sometimes I just want to feel the ground under my feet. And sleeping in Mars gravity is weird; I keep feeling like I’m going to fall off my bed. But I love living where something’s always happening, and being able to look out of the window right into space.”

Joanna smiled, remember her first deep-space job on a supply run around the Asteroid Belt. She’d felt the same way, often spending hours just staring out of the window at the unmoving star field.

“Glad to hear you’re settling in,” she said. “I’ll try to stop by the dock later to watch the drop.”

The rest of the morning was full of mundane tasks, equipment checks, and the constant stream of paperwork that every job required. She had just finished filling out a checklist for equipment that had been returned when the sound of the door opening made her look up.

Though the hormone suppressants had been working for hours, seeing that tall frame step through the door still made Joanna’s heart skip a beat, and she swore under her breath. “Hello Carson, what can I help you with today?”

Archivist Carson Reich would have fit in any library in the pre-digital age, except for the tablet computer that was constantly clipped to his belt. He notoriously disliked the standard jumpsuit that most of the crew wore for ease and comfort, preferring to wear a simple button-down shirt and pants. In spite of a larger-than-average figure, he moved through the cramped station corridors with a certain grace.

He smiled and raised a hand in greeting. “I wanted to check and make sure everything is set to send copies of data to my files for this afternoon’s drop. I’ve had some trouble with data getting corrupted lately, and I want to make sure I get everything on record.”

Joanna moved away from the desk to get a diagnostics computer. “Sure, but isn’t every thing recorded on Montse and Eric’s equipment anyway?”

“It is, but I hate relying on only one source. Better to have the backup if something goes wrong.” He unclipped his computer and unlocked the screen, handing it to Joanna to hook up to the diagnostics computer. She plugged it in and began running the program.

“That’s reasonable,” she commented, desperately trying to find something to say that wasn’t restating the obvious. “I was thinking of watching the drop this afternoon; Montse seems really excited about it.”

“I’d be excited, too, if I was twenty-two and had a big deep-space job dropping robots into the atmosphere of that hellhole of a planet.”

“And at… not twenty-two?”

“At forty, I am glad I have a job that does not require me to ever look at the upper atmosphere of any planet.” The machine beeped, and Carson peered over her shoulder at his computer’s screen.

“Everything looks fine,” Joanna said, trying to hold her breathing steady. “All the connections to the main system are solid, and you’re receiving a strong signal from the atmospheric equipment. You should get all of the data without any problem.” She unplugged the computer jack, and handed the device back.

“Excellent.” He clipped the computer back to his belt and checked to make sure that it was secure. “Maybe I’ll watch the drop myself. It’s not often I see the day-to-day operations here, except as raw data to store in the archives.” He smiled and pushed off against the floor, sailing neatly through the open doorway. As soon as he vanished, Joanna buckled herself into the chair at her desk and rubbed her temples.

To distract herself, she pulled up the news feed on her computer and began to scan through it. Nothing much new on Mars. Spirit City dome was under maintenance, but that wasn’t unusual. It seemed they were always repairing some part of the dome, making travel difficult in certain sections of the city. A new dome was going up in the southern hemisphere, and the development was being protested by some group. Someone always took offense to any development or improvement. Joanna sighed, and tabbed over to Earth news.

She rarely checked Earth news; Mars was home, and often, had the more interesting news. Earth news always seemed to be full of protests, fighting over resources, and celebrity scandals. But on a station financed by and supplied from Earth, it was a good idea to have a basic idea of what was happening.

Sure enough, the news feed was dominated by coverage of a new protest that had erupted in the past week. One of the videos was an on-site interview with a protestor. The young man’s eyes blazed with purpose as he shouted into the reporter’s microphone to be heard above the din. “All these off-world colonies take too many of our resources, we need to stop spreading ourselves through space! We’ll just wreck those other worlds the way we destroyed this one! Keep people away from other planets, keep our resources here!”


Joanna looked up to see Eric floating towards her. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you come in.”

He shrugged. “Just stopped by on my way to drop the probes. Earth news?”

“Yeah. Same-old, same-old.”

“Mars has been self-sustaining for nearly fifty years now, when do you think they’ll ever catch on? Hell, Mars sends the supplies for most of the asteroid colonies now, Earth only supplies a few deep space missions that are close by.” He grimaced. “Not that I should be talking; I believed some incredibly dumb stuff when I was that old. I never went to any kind of protest, but I certainly made a fool of myself all over the internet.”

Joanna laughed. “Don’t we all?”

“Not that badly. You see, I was…well, I called myself an ‘independent researcher’ but a more accurate term would be ‘conspiracy theorist.’ I was absolutely convinced that there was evidence for ancient alien civilizations spread throughout our solar system. Artifacts on Earth, funny marks on other planets, the whole shebang.” He looked sheepish.

“I thought the ‘pyramids of Mars’ groups died out after the Sorenson expedition to Cydonia?”

Eric shook his head. “Rationality is not a big part of these ideas. They insisted that the evidence had been there once, and the Sorenson expedition actually went to destroy the evidence, not uncover it. They shifted their focus to Venus. It’s much harder to disprove things here, because it’s so damn hard to see the surface.” He checked the time. “And I will have to finish that story another time, because I have an appointment with the atmosphere in a half-hour.” He waved as he sailed out the door.

Joanna’s eyes flicked back to the frozen video on her computer. It was hard to picture mild-mannered Eric as a young firebrand, determined to believe whatever he wanted, even in the teeth of the evidence. It was hard to picture. She debated finishing the video, but decided that she’d heard enough and scrolled past it to the accompanying text.

“New organization KERR, Keep Earth Resource-Rich, claims that they have a wide-ranging protest planned. KERR officials state that they are a peaceful organization, and that all protests will be violence-free, but police in protest areas have been put on alert.”

Twenty-five minutes later, Joanna sailed down the corridor outside the equipment room; there were no more schedule equipment pick-ups for the day, but she’d left a message on the locked door with information on how to contact her. The corridor was quiet, since most workers were at their posts and shift change was hours away. Other sections of the station, those with paid travelers, might be more lively, but those customers never came to the main corridors. Joanna was glad she didn’t work in a section of the Haephestus where she would have to interact with the “tourists.” Of course, most of the paid travelers were visiting scientists, doing temporary work aboard the station, not real tourists, but Joanna didn’t see much difference. Visiting somewhere was different from living and working there.

 The docking and launching area was at the very center of the station; Joanna had visited several times to supervise equipment in use, but tried to avoid it when possible. As she neared the airlock, she unconsciously traced the scar over her eye.

She checked the airlock schedule to see which one would be used for the drop, and made her way to the correct airlock. Montse and Eric were already inside, with the probe hooked up to a series of cables dangling from the ceiling. Montse waved excitedly, and Joanna smiled and waved back. The young woman made a final adjustment and exited the lock, followed by Eric. “You’re just in time, we just finished hooking Spark up for the drop.”

“Spark?” Joanna raised an eyebrow.

Montse blushed, and nodded. “Just my nickname for it. Scientific Parachute And Recovery Kinetics, technically. But, Spark, like from an anvil, because Haephestus was a blacksmith…” Her voice trailed off as she finished the convoluted explanation.

“It’s a good name,” Joanna said, moving to the thick window in the airlock door. “Are you ready for the drop?”

“All systems go for the probes,” Eric said, tapping his computer. “Signal strong, winds are within normal range.”

“Spark’s a go,” Montse replied.

“On your mark then.”

Montse reached out and punched a command into the airlock keypad. With a whoosh, the air was sucked out and the small room turned into a vacuum. Another code, and the doors in the floor slid open. Through the window, Joanna could see the upper atmosphere of Venus roiling brightly beneath them. It looked almost soft and fluffy, but it covered one of the most hostile environments in the solar system, more hazardous to the human body than deep space itself. Joanna shivered and turned to look at the robot as it released itself from the cables that restrained it.

In the zero gravity environment, the robot seemed to hover in the airlock; Montse tapped a command into her computer and a small series of jets fired on the bot, sinking it slowly through the doors and out into the space between the station and the planet.

Joanna grabbed her own computer and pulled a view from one of the station’s public external cameras. She could see the bot silhouetted against the bright atmosphere, sinking slowly. The jets fired occasionally, increasing its speed.

Montse concentrated on controlling the robot. “I swear, this planet is so weird. The winds are insane.”

“If there’s a hell, Venus is it,” Eric agreed. “Just be glad I’m not asking you to land anything on the surface yet.”

“I have a surface landing next week, actually. Got a set of three rovers to go down. It’s a tricky mission. Don’t remind me.”

Joanna let the chatter fade into the background as she watched the camera. The robot was just a dot now. The jets had been stripping it of the lateral speed that it had while aboard the station, and slowing it so that it wouldn’t get crushed by entering the thick atmosphere of Venus. Finally, it was lost to the view of the Haephestus’ camera, and she looked at Montse’s screen. The video feed was from a small camera onboard the robot. It was hard to tell much from the images, but she could see the view slowly grow murkier as the robot dropped through the atmosphere.

“Ok, we’re at the top of the drop range now,” Montse said, turning to Eric. “Releasing the first probe…now. Second probe…now. Third probe…now.” With each count, she tapped the screen, and the robot’s camera jolted with the ejection of the probe capsules.

Eric was focused on his own screen, tapping commands. “All three probes are clear of Spark, signals still strong. Activating parachutes…1…2…3… All chutes are deployed, systems nominal. Descent rate is nice and slow. Receiving data.”

“Anything interesting?” Joanna asked.

“Can’t really tell, it’s just numbers for now. When I get back to my workstation, I can sort it all out and put it into context, and find out.”

Joanna pushed aside a thought of the same data flowing into Carson’s archives, and focused on the screen. “How long before the probes drop past your target area?”

“About fifteen minutes. They’ve got big parachutes, and the atmo’s getting denser, so it’ll take a little while.”

Eric fell silent, watching his screen; Montse punched commands into her computer, summoning the robot back. “I have to stay here until our next orbit, so I can retrieve Spark,” she said. “But you guys don’t have to stay. It’s going to be another hour and a half.”

Eric didn’t move, but Joanna nodded. “I need to get back to the equipment room. Thanks for inviting me, Montse, let me know when you’re ready to check Spark back in.”

She turned and pulled herself back down the corridor towards the equipment room, but paused. There had been no calls in the hour she was gone, and no check-ins scheduled until Montse brought Spark back in a few hours. Another half-hour of the equipment room would make no difference. She ducked into a smaller corridor and made her way to another part of the station.
It was the only part of the “luxury” section of the ship she didn’t avoid. All station crew were permitted access to these areas as part of their pay, but Joanna rarely took advantage of the privilege. Zero-gravity swimming and gymnastics didn’t interest her, but this section of the station had the media rooms.

Joanna found one of the smallest rooms and locked the door behind her. A computer near the door displayed a touchscreen menu, and she flipped through it quickly, looking for something that suited her mood. As she made her selection, the lights in the room dimmer, and she let herself float freely.

The hidden speakers in the walls whispered to life, and for a moment, Joanna was suspended in an active silence; then the music swelled around her, surrounding her floating form. The choir on the recording belted out, “Freude, schöner Götterfunken Tochter aus Elysium, Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!” She felt the tenseness leave her back and shoulders, and stretched out in the darkness as if trying to touch the music.

“Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele, Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund! Und wer's nie gekonnt, der stehle, Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!”

For the first time all day, Joanna relaxed.

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