This may not end up the first chapter but it’s where I started. Just 3K words. No working title yet. Raw copy – not edited at all – nobody has seen it.
The sun was very dim but sufficient illumination to work once your eyes adjusted. If they had been back at Home the glare off the ice would have required him to drop the polarizing filter and gold coated glare screen that rode clipped back from his clear faceplate. Here he’d only used it once, when he’d used it as an expedient welding mask. He’d never welded anything before. It wasn’t the first specialized skill he’d had to fake and probably wouldn’t be the last. At least they’d requested a short video demonstrating vacuum welding for him to watch first.
The result wasn’t anything of which Barak was especially proud. It looked more like a keloidian scar than an expert weld. He’d laid two more overlapping beads on top of the first line so he was pretty sure it was strong if not pretty. The brace wouldn’t have been bent and cracked if his boss, Harold Hanson, hadn’t tried to force it into the ice instead of waiting patiently for the heater to do its work. He found he was spending a great deal of his attention anticipating his boss doing something stupid, and staying out of the way so he wouldn’t get killed too.
He’d tried to tell Harold to slow down and think through every move working in vacuum, but the man rejected his suggestions and was easily irritated with him. He’d explained his problem to Deloris his friend in the privacy of his cabin and she hadn’t been surprised.
“You don’t owe Hanson any instruction. He’s supposed to be supervising you, not the other way around. If you keep irritating him I predict he’ll complain to the captain that you are insubordinate. I know you plan to work for your close friends in the future, but a bad report in your job file may be a problem fifty years from now. You just have no idea what may come back on you, so let it go. You didn’t hear it here… but jackasses take care of each other, so if he complains to the captain guess who is going to get the blame? Just… stifle it.”
“It’s surprising,” he explained. “The man is so precise and careful in the lab. Showing me how to help him there he is thoughtful and cautious. But when we get outside he is anxious to get it done and back inside. I suspect he thinks it is beneath him doing manual labor, but it certainly isn’t menial. You’d think he’s being asked to wipe down corridor walls and scrub out the toilets.”
“Uh huh,” was all she said. Indicating to him she was done talking about it and said all she intended to.
Today they finished up anchoring the last ion drive. There were nine of them in a circle around their ship, the Yuki-onna, which was anchored nose first into the center of the circle. Three guy lines from the tail braced it in place. Each engine in the circle had a feed line and controls frozen in a shallow trench radiating from the ship. They were each marked with a sprayed line of bright yellow paint to make them safer from accidental damage. Barak pushed the data cable in the last motor until it locked with a snap he could feel even with double gloves and tugged on it to make sure it was seated. The insulated water feed he inserted in the port and twisted to lock. A big cotter pin went through the flange to made sure it wouldn’t work loose. He bent the end over and put the pliers back. He checked that no tools were missing and folded the tool box closed and clipped it to his suit. “And… done,” he said. “If they all run smoothly we shouldn’t have to come back out here until we are back in the Moon’s shadow,” He said, satisfied and a little relieved they were done and Harold hadn’t busted anything new today.
“They’re pretty simple reliable engines,” Harold said. “I’ll be surprised if any fail.”
That was true, but Harold was far more trusting of equipment than he was. April’s grandfather, Happy Lewis, had couched him on working in vacuum back when Jeff and Happy were working on a ship together in the Lewis cubic. Happy didn’t trust anything. Barak intended to live a long time and keep all his extremities just like Happy.
Harold held on to the post for the safety line that ran back to the ship’s lock and kicked it with one boot and then the other. The ice tended to build up on the boots. They were insulated but still warmer than the ice and it melted when compressed. Barak chipped it off carefully with a screwdriver. It might not be lethal, but if the mooring post for the safety line cracked off and sailed away from being kicked it would make it that much riskier to get back to the ship and they’d have to retrieve it and reset it. The slight gravity of the ice moonlet was actually more irritating than helpful working. Things fell but in slow motion. You couldn’t get enough traction to really walk or even hop well. It was borderline whether you could jump off the ice ball, but for sure you could throw something over the escape velocity.
Harold unclipped his safety line from the closest brace that ran down into the ice for the ion engine mount. He started back to the ship along the line hand over hand. Barak stopped and let him get ahead a bit. He took the moment to look at Jupiter. It still took his breath away filling half the sky. He didn’t hink he’d ever get used to it. Then he reclipped on the line and followed Harold. He said nothing to him about working untethered, following Deloris’ advice.
When they got to the ship Harold waved him past. It was a work rule the supervisor came in last, responsible for knowing he’d brought all his crew in. With just two of them Harold had ignored the rule as silly for a two man crew, but been reminded of it by the captain, so he was diligent about that one point now. He’d accept instruction from Jaabir, if not graciously. Harold grabbed the line post again to knock the last of the ice off his boots. It had a bit of ammonia dissolved in it, which was a bonus for value, but when it melted in the lock it stank and Harold hated it.
Barak leaned around him and got a good grip on the line strung down from the lock to the first post before unclipping and reattaching to it. He had to push off crooked to get around Harold and then pulled himself back on course for the lock with the taunt line. The hatch was open to facilitate quick entry from their side if there was an emergency. He grabbed the take-hold beside the opening where the line terminated and twisted to rotate in. There was a brief odd sound on the radio like somebody blowing on a microphone to test it. He transferred his grip to the inside take-hold and leaned out to unfasten the safety line so they could close the hatch. When he looked down Harold wasn’t there.
He looked along the safety line running back to the engine they’d just finished working on, thinking maybe he went back alone to retrieve something forgotten. That would be stupid to do without telling Barak, but only too believable. The line was visible and taunt, the posts on both ends secure. There was no sign of him along the line or at the engine sixty meters away. He leaned out and looked to each side… nothing. He called on his suit radio. “Harold? Where are you? What are you doing?”
The bridge monitored their suit radios, so Captain Jaabir came on com and inquired, “Is there a problem?”
“Possibly. We returned to the airlock and I entered. When I turned around and looked back out Mr. Hanson is not in sight, and he doesn’t answer a radio call either.”
“Well then I suggest you go back out and look for him,” the man said, like it was obvious.
“I will, when somebody suits up to go back out with me. You don’t send somebody out alone if there is anybody at all available to partner with them. That’s basic rule one.”
“Yes, but Mr. Hanson is partnering with you,” Jaabir insisted.
“Not any more he isn’t. I have no idea where the hell he went, but I’m not going to descend to the ice without a partner in the airlock ready to drag me back in on the end of a safety line if whatever befell him gets me.”
“Why isn’t Mr. Hanson on a safety line for you to pull back inside?”
“Because he unclips himself any time he feels like it and flaunts the rules. He unclipped at the engine a few minutes ago and came back to the ship hand over hand untethered. He does it all the time and I gave up telling him about it because he’s the supervisor and he got all crappy about me telling him what to do. When he started saying ‘Yes, Mother’ in a sarcastic voice I stopped telling him anything. ”
Jaabir didn’t say anything for a moment. Barak was waiting to hear him challenge that, but he didn’t. “Nevertheless, I’d like you to go back out and look,” he insisted. “I don’t have a camera that can see in close to the anchored nose of the ship.”
And why didn’t you set one up one of the drives looking back at the ship? Barak wondered, but didn’t say it.
“I’m sure tormented souls in hell would like raspberry ice cream too, but they’re not going to get it.”
“Are you refusing my direct order?” Jaabir asked.
“Damn right. You are master, but we are not under military discipline. Nor are we underway. You are ordering me to take actions off your vessel. You can order me to take my helmet off and breath vacuum right now too, with as much chance I’ll do it.”
“Some would argue the entire snowball became my vessel when we outfitted it with the means to move it.”
“Then fire it up and move it,” Barak challenged. It wasn’t ready just yet and Jaabir damn well knew it. His silence spoke volumes.
“If there is an inquiry later and you are asked if you know the safety rules for vacuum work and why you failed to monitor and see they were followed it will be bad enough. If you actually order them to be ignored it isn’t just passive neglect, it’s actual felonious breach of duty. I’m not going to give them two dead crewmen to charge you over. One is quite sufficient.”
“You… do not know Mr. Hanson is dead,” Jaabir said. But his voice was very unsteady.
“Missing in vacuum and doesn’t answer the radio? I’ll bet you three Solars at even odds he’s dead.”
“It’s unseemly to make bets over a man’s life,” Jaabir protested. “I have the watch and can’t leave to suit up. I’ll have Ms. Keynes suit up and join you,” he said, singing a different tune now.
“Do you have somebody to run a suit check on her?” Barak asked, knowing the answer coming.
“No, everyone has vital duty.” He didn’t reveal what his XO was doing or why he didn’t pick Deloris.
“Then tell Alice I’m going to pressurize the lock and she can join me. I’ll do an external suit inspection on her while we are pumping down and then I’ll go out.”
“She’s on her way,” Jaabir said.
Barak used the time waiting for her to unclip the line hanging out the hatch, flood the airlock at a normal pace and record his radio log for the whole shift on a private memory stick. He had his whole log on it from day one. He didn’t trust the ship’s log and archives wouldn’t have a catastrophic failure. Happy Lewis had told him that beam dogs knew from long experience official video and radio logs seemed to be subject to sudden failure. “Probably due to being provided by the low bidder,” he’d said with a wink.
Alice looked grim when she came in the lock. She went through the check list with him confirming air and battery charge and turned and twisted in the cramped lock to let him examine every joint, seal and pressure port.
“You check out,” Barak verbally confirmed. They were done well before the pressure pumped down to a dangerous level. That was technically a violation right there, but a common one.
“What happened?” she asked. “The Captain informed me Harold is missing. Where the hell can you go missing on a snowball no bigger than some buildings back home?”
“Well the horizon is really close. I’d guess about three hundred meters here. I suppose if he jumped he could be somewhere on the ice still. Or if he jumped straight up hard enough he’d take a long time to come back down. I didn’t look up. In this suit I’d have had to lay on my back with my helmet hanging out the hatch to do that. Even then he might not come back down straight. It would be easy to land beyond our horizon.”
“I don’t see Harold for a jumper. He might push you, but he had entirely too good an opinion of himself to ever be self-destructive. Captain, you on circuit?” Alice asked.
“Yes Ms Keynes, of course.”
“Is it possible to check with the radar and see if Harold is nearby but off the snowball?”
“No, I’m sorry but with the nose of the ship anchored we can’t use it and it is integrated into the ship so thoroughly it was deemed impractical to remove. It has so little range it wouldn’t have been of use navigating so they decided not to provide an auxiliary system.”
“OK, thank you. It was just a thought.
“You want me to go down or watch over you?” Alice asked.
“I’m used to the surface here. I know how the ice is supposed to look. Just monitor my radio and watch out the hatch so you can haul me back in my line if I get in trouble. I may go out of sight. The line is long enough to go around to the far side of the ship. But if I do I’ll keep up radio chatter so you know what’s going on.”
“OK, Your rebreather numbers all check good?” she asked. There was no external monitor for that unless she jacked in. The bridge had telemetry, but she wasn’t counting on that. Barak appreciated it.
“Numbers all good. I have a week before I need new packs. I’m purging at ninety five percent pump-down.”
There was no objection from the bridge. They had a huge margin on air supply.
The ice under the lock was packed hard from their foot traffic. He didn’t expect to see any marks or debris there and there wasn’t anything. He turned and scanned all around slowly, looking hardest where he couldn’t see from up in the lock hatch.
“There’s something under the overhang,” Barak told Alice. “I’ll be out of sight just a few seconds.”
“Oh shit… ”
“You OK? You need reeled in?” Alice asked worried.
“Just fine. Coming back in sight. I have retrieved the… object. I’m sorry but Harold is dead.”
Jaabir on the bridge said nothing. He had the camera feed from Barak’s suit helmet.
Barak pulled himself back up the line and swung in the lock. He handed Alice the boot from Harold’s suit. Not the insulated over-boot but the pressure boot. The flange with locking lugs was fractured half way around and the one lug that was not cracked bent over when the pressure blew it off. The suit would have emptied itself in a heartbeat and propelled Harold off the surface like a rocket.
“What a horrible way to go,” Alice said.
“There isn’t any good way to go,” Barak insisted. “I can’t blame the suit maker. Harold has been kicking the ice off his boots for the last two weeks. Space suits are not designed to kick things. Cold metal gets brittle and this was simple abused until it failed. If you made a suit you could treat like that the thing would weigh as much as a ground car and be impossible to move in.”
“Why don’t you come in and de-suit. I’m going to declare everybody take a rest day to recover from this… shock. We’ll discuss how this affects us and what accommodations we’ll have to make later. I’ll send word back in the daily report,” Jaabir said.
“Alright,” Barak agreed. “There wasn’t anything else visible out there. It wouldn’t really make any difference if I found anything else now. We are bringing pressure back up in the lock and will help each other unsuit. If you need any details not in the radio log let me know,” Barak offered. “If I’m to be off duty for a full shift I’d like to have a drink and sit and decompress a bit. But if you think I’ll need to suit back up I won’t drink anything.”
“No, no. Feel free. I may have a medicinal dose too,” Jaabir said, although it wasn’t his custom. “After I review the log and write a report.
Barak guessed there was little chance he’d be asked for a formal report or written response. Jaabir was going to be happy to do the whole thing, putting himself in as positive a light as possible. Fact was, even if he’d been a stickler for rules and rode Harold hard, the captain always caught some of the blame when things went this badly wrong.
When they were out of their suits and everything stowed properly, including the lone boot, Alice turned and hugged him hard.
“Do you think Jaabir will tell Deloris?” she asked him.
“Jaabir isn’t thinking about anything but covering Jaabir’s butt right now.”
“Then I’d like to come tell Deloris with you and stay with you guys tonight.”
“Of course,” he agreed. But they stood there silently holding each other for a moment before they went to the cabin. Neither wanted to clean up and change in the suiting room. They just wore suit liners back to the his cabin.
It was a good thing the motors were in place before this happened. He’d have dreaded working with Jaabir or one of the women to try to drive anchors and position them. Harold hadn’t been his favorite person but he was fairly big and strong enough. It would have seemed a terrible and selfish thing to say out loud and he never really considered it. Six people was just not enough for this deep a voyage he decided. It was going to still be a hardship going back shorthanded. He’d talk about that later between just the three of them before having to hear Jaabir’s take on it. No, not tonight. He might still say things he’d regret. Tomorrow, he decided.