— by Ted R. Blasingame
“A bit yet, twenty-eight-point-five thousand miles.”
“We’ll cut the trans-ion drive at six thousand and then coast in.”
“Aye to that.”
The captain of the interplanetary supply carrier arched his back and felt a subtle pop from two lower vertebrae. The relief caused him to sigh aloud and then he had to suppress a yawn. It had been a long flight from the company base on Mars to supply the various mining communities in the asteroid belt, and the mines of Ceres was to be the first stop; travel from the rusty red world to the current location of the dwarf planet was nearly one hundred ten million miles.
He consulted a frequency list from a monitor and then looked up at the backlit instrument panel above his station where his fingers picked out the communication controls more out of habit than from reading the labels. He changed the settings and then plucked a small headset from an overhead clip.
Placing the mic in front of his lips and the tiny speaker bud into one ear, he adjusted the head strap slightly and then touched the green-ringed transmit pad above him.
“Calling Ceres Control, this is TSC carrier RN3705 on approach at 46K. Captain Alabaster calling. Do you read?”
“Roger RN3705, this is Ceres Dispatch,” replied a soft and sultry voice. “Welcome back, Captain; you are scheduled to dock at the Piazzi Crater Center in Bay Seven. When can we expect your arrival?”
The commander glanced down at the monitor screen flush with the curved console before him. “Good to hear your voice again, Beverly. ETA is approximately 600 tomorrow, local Ceres time, give or take fifteen.”
“Roger that. We’ll be ready for you.”
“Thanks, Bevy. Do we have any messages?”
“Just one. Your crew is due for company-mandated physicals and fresh inoculations.”
“Lovely, the guys will be so happy to hear that,” the man said dryly.
“They probably will be once they see our new doctor.”
“Oh? What happened to Dr. Wickam?
“He finally decided that space didn’t agree with him and retired back to Earth.”
“About time. What was he, about ninety?”
“He celebrated his one hundred third birthday a day before he left and then hitched a space-available ride on a water transport that would rendezvous with a long-range cruiser.”
“Space is probably what gave him such a long life. He’ll probably be unable to walk and placed in a nursing home as soon as he gets within the gravity well of Earth.”
“So who’s the new doc?”
“Dr. Lockwood. She’s a young, pretty thing, but knows her business.”
“You know her?”
“Did she come in from Quirinus on Mars?”
“That’s right; so you do know her.”
“Relative of mine, one of many. I’d heard she left Mars last year, but didn’t know where she was headed.”
“Imagine that. How’s she related?”
“My mother had four brothers and three sisters, all of whom prospered and multiplied. Dawn’s an offspring from one of those, but I lost track of who belonged to whom a long time ago.”
“What about you? Why haven’t you prospered and multiplied?”
“It’s just the two of us, my brother and I, and we’re both confirmed bachelors.”
“All that means is that neither of us has found the right woman yet. I’m not against the idea of marriage, and neither is he, but finding someone I’d want to stay with the rest of my life just hasn’t happened.”
“I could have been that woman,” the dispatcher murmured, the sound of a pout in her voice.
“Not while you already have a husband, sweetheart.”
There was a chuckle. “If I’d hooked up with you after my last husband and before this one, I meant. However… it’s not too late for me to trade up, you know.”
“No, thanks. You’d just trade me off for someone else later.”
“You think you know me so well, don’t you?”
“What number is your current?”
“Uhm, five… no, six. I guess you do know me well.”
“Keeping that in mind, what part of ‘for the rest of my life’ did you miss?”
The captain laughed aloud. “You keep dreaming about me, Beverly, and I’ll keep searching for one of my own.”
A giggle came across the connection. “Fine, be that way. I’m looking at your cousin’s schedule right now and she only has one appointment today. Want me to set up appointments for you and your crew with her aide?”
“Sure, set them for this time next year – on our next return.”
“Nice try, but you know your company rules state you can’t be cleared to proceed on to your next destination until you’ve been certified clean and vaccinated by the local physician.”
“In that case, go ahead, but nothing within 2-3 hours of docking so we’ll have time to unload our cargo.”
“Easily done and plenty of time.”
“My guys should be happy to be examined by cousin Dawn anyway; she’s better looking than Doc Wickam, although she’ll probably use an old fashioned metal needle on me out of spite, just because I’m family.”
“Aww, poor dear. My heart bleeds for you.”
“Yeah, I can tell. Listen, if you and your husband want to meet me for dinner tomorrow, you can insult me some more then.”
“I’d love that, Al, but it’s our first anniversary and he insists on cooking for me.”
“Another time, then. We’ll only be on Ceres for four local days.”
“You do remember that a day on Ceres is only a hair over nine hours?”
“I do. We’ll have to depart in about thirty-six hours after landing in order to make optimum trajectory to our next supply. We’ve got another long haul to Vesta.”
“Not much of a shore leave, is it?”
“That won’t matter to my guys. They’ll likely save up their sleep for the next leg out just so they can spend all their free hours roaming around the interior of Ceres. All but one of them has been there before, so they know what they can do to fill their time. We have to look at one another and the inside of this ship for weeks at a time. Just a few hours to see other faces and eat different food can be all we need for a refresher.”
“Well, then, enjoy your stay, Captain.”
“Happy Anniversary, Beverly. I’ll see you when I can.”
“Thank you. Ceres Dispatch out.”
The captain tapped the com pad and closed the connection. His first officer turned in his seat to look at him. “Al, hearing just one side of your conversation made for an odd discussion,” he muttered.
Captain Alabaster removed the headset and snapped it into its overhead clip. He shook his head and then idly scratched at the dark brown sideburns of one cheek. “We’re due for our physicals while we’re here and old Doctor Wickam has retired, replaced by a cousin of mine.”
“And how does someone’s husband figure into this?”
“That was just Beverly flirting again, offering to trade her current husband in for me.”
“One in every port, Al?”
The captain gave him a smirk. “That might have been true when I was in the Navy, but these days I’m lucky if I can find a woman anywhere on our route that isn’t married, too old, too young or otherwise spoken for.”
“So, would you choose Beverly if she wasn’t married?” the other man asked. Peter Warren had worked with Alabaster in one capacity or another for so long that neither of them remembered how many years it had been anymore. Both were in their mid-thirties and neither had ever married, but Al was more private in his occasional affairs and almost never told stories on himself.
Due to the nature of their business, Pete was as familiar with some of the dispatchers and other contacts they worked through on the various stops on their routes and he knew of Beverly himself. He’d never met her in person, but had spoken with her often enough over the years. He hadn’t known of anything going on between her and his friend; Al had kept such a relationship quiet in the Terran year since their last visit to Ceres.
Alabaster shook his head. “The poor fellow she’s with now is number six, and if she’s been through that many, that tells me she’s either hard to live with or she tires of her boys too quickly. She loves to tease me anytime we’re in close proximity, but it’s never been more than that between us.”
Pete snorted. “That makes me wonder why she even bothers getting married.”
“I asked her that one time and she said it was the way she was brought up. She refuses to just sleep around and requires legality to any union she’s involved in, so she makes anyone interested in her go through the ceremony. That doesn’t mean it will last, though. I don’t know what they go through when it ends and she moves on to someone else. I just don’t want to be another number.”
“I don’t blame you,” mused Pete. “I met up with a clinger myself the last time we were here. She was one of the local miners that came in with her family as a child, but she grew up while here and was looking for a husband.”
“I remember that. What was her name? Suzanne? Sherry? Something with an ‘s’…”
“It was Sandi. We’re never here very long whenever we come through, but she acted as if one evening floating out in the dance room together was enough to inspire a commitment on my part.”
“If I recall correctly, you tried to lose her in the mine tunnels but she’d grown up here and knew them all.”
“Yup, she had the home court advantage. I finally just retreated to my cabin here on the ship to avoid her clutches. Listen, if you are looking for a wife, perhaps I can introduce you to her.”
“Nothing doing, Pete.” Alabaster tapped a few controls on his instrument panel and then pushed up from his swivel chair. “Watch things for me,” he said, stretching again.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to go inform everyone about the impending physicals and show them Dawn’s picture.”
“That’s your cousin, the new doctor?”
“How old is she? Is she cute?”
Alabaster pulled a palm-sized slate unit from the breast pocket of his jumpsuit. The device was a smaller version of the slateboard tablets everyone used on a regular basis that were all tied into the ship’s computer. He tapped a couple commands and then brought up an old photo of a family gathering held on a sunny summer day on Earth. He handed it over to Pete and pointed out a thin blonde woman who stood behind another relative, smiling and mussing up the guy’s hair with her fingers. Alabaster himself was on the back row of the group.
“That’s Dawn, about four years ago.”
“Didn’t anyone ever feed her?” Pete mused with a frown. “She’s nothing but a twig!”
Alabaster laughed aloud. “You wouldn’t believe her appetite. She was usually the last one to leave the table and always went back for seconds and thirds. Her metabolism could handle anything she ate and she never seemed to gain any weight. Some of the family thought she had bulimia nervosa, but that wasn’t the case. She could just out-eat anyone around and never gain.”
“Did she ever get any bigger?” Pete asked, handing the slate back to his boss.
“I haven’t seen any pictures of her since that time, so it’s anybody’s guess what she looks like now.”
“So that photo’s supposed to convince the others to report for their physicals?”
“Even skinny, she’s better looking than Doctor Wickam was.”
“Yeah, I’ll buy that. If you want to show her off to the guys, why bother visiting everyone in person? Couldn’t you just send a message to their slates like you do all your other announcements?”
“The internal network is on the fritz again and only random messages are getting through. Kistler’s reconfigured the signal three times this voyage but it keeps falling out. He’s going to see if anyone has a replacement circuit while we’re down.”
“I doubt he’ll have much luck. We have more stuff in the hold than what Ceres will have in their tunnels.”
“He wants to look anyway. You never know what he might find in his scavenging.”
“Ah well, go poke your nose in on the others and show off your cousin. I’ll keep watch until you get back.”
The captain nodded. “Thanks. I don’t want to approach Ceres on autopilot as we did coming from Mars; even if we’re still thousands of kilometers away, our speed will eat that up fast.”
“Understood. Now go – I’m going to check out the dwarf planet’s personnel roster to see whether or not I’m going to have to avoid Sandi’s clutches again, and then I need to double-check the manifest before we arrive.”
“You think she’ll still be there? It’s been a Terran year since we were here last, and if she was that desperate for a husband, she might have captured one and moved away by now.”
“That’s possible, but she might still be there and still looking. I don’t want to take the chance. She could be like your friend Beverly and be in the market to trade up even if she already has someone now.”
“Good point. Okay, I’m going.”
Captain Alabaster swept the small command center with his gaze briefly before turning to go. There were only three stations, but each was surrounded with a half circle of instrumentation with more above each station on the low overhead ceiling. The only light came from all the instrument controls, which provided sufficient illumination to read a book, but even so the room seemed to be perpetually in darkness. Three large insulated window panels provided a view outside the ship and each was equipped with nearly microscopic circuitry so that they could double as large vid screens which could also be polarized if they approached anything too bright for the eyes.
The captain stood only five foot six inches and his chocolate brown hair just brushed the instrument panel above him, but others on the crew who were taller had to stoop while on the bridge. The small patch of greyish-white in the hair above his right eye fell down into his slate blue eyes, so he brushed the bangs aside and turned to go, idly wondering if he could find a barber in the short time they would be there.
Although he possessed a pair of broad shoulders, he was relatively slender and had no trouble negotiating the narrow aisle between stations toward the aft door to the compartment while barely touching the floor in the nonexistent gravity. He didn’t have a mustache like Pete did, never seeming to have the ability to grow one, but he was rather proud of his sideburns. Without a mustache, if he ever decided to forego shaving and try growing a beard, he’d probably wind up looking like the stereotypical Amish farmer.
The corridor outside the pressure door of the bridge had more head room and could accommodate anyone on the crew, but it was almost as dark as the room he’d just left. Small glow panels were spaced about ten feet apart in the ceiling and gave just enough illumination to keep one from running into anything. The narrow corridors often reminded the captain of a submarine he had once served on, with everything compacted into as small a space as possible.
Although he was her captain, Alabaster did not own the vessel. He was just one of twelve captains in charge of making supply runs to the various mining colonies throughout the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, with occasional runs to the outposts around the outer planets, their moons and the dwarf planets beyond. The Tillan Supply Company was contracted to deliver necessary consumable goods that the miners could not get on their own. Regular orders were tendered to the company once a year, but the ship could also be considered a mobile general store while docked since they often included many general-usage items in the event something was forgotten or a special need came up after the orders were submitted.
He floated along the corridor with practiced ease, peeking into the Infirmary and the small gym without a soul in sight. There was often someone on the exercise equipment at odd times so they might all keep their muscles from atrophying in the absence of gravity, but the room was empty.
There were only five crew cabins on board the vessel, if they could be called that. They were made in the fashion of single-occupancy capsule hotel rooms, being nothing more than a hollow, hexagonal tube eight feet long by five feet in diameter with padded walls on all but one of its six sides. The sixth wall was adorned with climate controls for personal comfort, lights and music that interfaced with their slateboard tablets for entertainment and a section of the panel could unhinge and fold out for a flat surface if needed. Some of the other padded walls had storage areas behind them for clothing and personal belongings.
Without gravity, there was no bed so the occupant would simply float in the middle of the room inside a sleeping bag type sling. The iris door at one end was sealable and each insulated and shielded capsule could serve as a small, self-contained escape pod with air and survival rations for a terrestrial month if it was necessary to eject them in the event of an emergency. Unlike a capsule hotel, however, they were not all grouped together but spaced apart along one long corridor between the bridge and cargo bay.
There were no private lavatories, instead there was a shared head on the opposite wall from the capsules with three zero-gee toilets, two zero-gee showers with full body driers and a vacuum sink. Life aboard a ship without the luxury of artificial gravity deck plates could make things interesting at times, but it was something that everyone adapted to well enough. The largest compartment in the living space of the vessel was the galley and it was there that most of the small crew loitered in their spare time when not in their cabins.
The hold of the Trinity-class interplanetary cargo carrier took up two-thirds the total volume of the vessel since that was what housed the purpose of the ship’s very existence. The drive engines occupied another quarter and everything else was crammed into the remaining space. Life aboard the RN3705 was close quarters with little extra to spare.
From the outside, the ship resembled nothing to brag about, designed to be practical and functional without much in the way of aesthetics, and was only marginally aerodynamic when it was required to enter an atmosphere. The RN3705 rarely ever made it all the way back to Earth, as its base was on Mars, and its design was optimized to handle the lower gravity and thinner atmosphere of the red planet. The cargo bay door was located at the aft end of everything, just below a triad of engine pods. Since the dominant delivery ports were in zero-to-low gravity areas, they often simply backed up into universal docking rings to pressurized compartments so the cargo could be loaded and offloaded in shirt sleeves without suits. Overall, it was not an elegant ship, but it had served its purpose for years.
The captain went to each cabin, tapped on the rim of the iris door and then waited for anyone to answer. Only one berth was occupied at the moment and a bald head emerged from the tube as the door dilated open.
“Hullo, boss,” a heavyset man said sleepily. Like the captain, he wore a light blue, short-sleeved jumpsuit, though considerably more material was involved in its construction. “Whatsup?”
“Internal com is down again, Darin, but I wanted to let you know we’re on final approach to Ceres; we’re also all required to undergo an annual physical there before the company will let us proceed on our route.”
Darin Talbot nodded and then brushed a hand across his face, still trying to wake up. “M’not fond of physicals,” he murmured, “but I’ve not had much energy lately. Mebee the old doc can ‘scribe me with something.”
Alabaster looked at him critically and noted dark circles beneath the man’s eyes. “When’s the last time you were in the gym compartment?”
“Three, four days, mebee.”
“That’s too long. They have a new doctor on Ceres. I’m sure she can find out what’s wrong with you.”
The ship’s supply officer’s eyes refocused on his captain. “She?” he repeated. “I don’ like female doctors pokin’ round my male body.”
Alabaster held up his mini-slate with the image zoomed in on his cousin. “This is her a few years ago.”
Darin peered at it for a moment and shook his head. “She’s too skinny,” he muttered, “but mebee she can give me somethin’ to perk me up.”
“Perhaps. Sorry to bother you, but I wanted to inform everyone about the physicals.”
“Ah-kay, thanks. Can I go back to sleep? Tired…”
“Sure, rest now; you’ll need your strength when we unload the cargo. I’ll have Sid check in on you later.”
“Thanks, boss.” The man retreated into his capsule and the door quietly closed. Since no one else had emerged, he assumed they must be elsewhere in the ship. He turned in the air, grabbed the recessed door handle of the head, and slide the panel aside. He didn’t go in, but just poked an ear inside to listen. The stalls within were quiet, so he shut the door and moved along the corridor in search of the other two members of his crew.
He found Sidney Seralle in the galley eating a carrot; there were also a couple of stalks of celery and a drink packet hanging in the air in front of him. “Hi cap’n,” he said after swallowing. “Fancy a vegg? Not bagged, these are fresh from hydroponics.”
Alabaster shook his head. “Maybe later, but it looks like you’re eating healthy. Good timing, too.”
“Yeah?” the ship’s medic asked with interest, his pair of bushy brown eyebrows pushing up toward the curly hair on his head.
“After we handle the cargo, we’re due for annual company physicals at this stop.”
“Yeah, I knew they were coming up soon. Most of us should slide through the examinations okay, though Darin might squeak by with some friction. I’ve been keeping tabs on everyone and I don’t think he eats anything that’s remotely healthy.”
“Has he said anything to you about a loss of energy?”
Sidney shook his head and plucked a celery stalk from the air. “No, why?”
“Evidently your tabs haven’t been very close,” Alabaster said dryly. “Darin just told me he’s been under the weather for several days.”
The medic frowned. “He hasn’t said a word to me, but I thought he seemed a little quiet during yesterday’s meckers game.”
“He just told me he doesn’t have much energy. We’ll need him when we unload at Ceres, which we’re coming up on fast.”
“I’ll look in on him, see if he needs anything.”
“Thanks, Sid. Have you seen Kistler? I need to tell him about the physicals too, as well as about the infernal com again.”
“He was in here earlier, but I believe he was headed aft to the engine room. I think he spends more time in there than his own quarters.”
“More room, no doubt. Okay, see you on Ceres.”
Sid saluted with his celery stalk and Alabaster pushed himself back out into the corridor. He traveled aft until he came to a vertical junction in passageway and he paused at the airlock door leading to the hold. He peered in at the numerous crates securely netted for delivery, but the primary lights were off in the cargo bay and he couldn’t see much.
He grasped a handrail paralleling a set of stairs to the side that rarely saw use outside the influence of a gravity well and pulled himself up to the engine room that sat atop the hold.
Again, he paused at the airlock leading to the next compartment and peeked in through the narrow window. There was no one directly inside, so he cycled the chamber and opened the door. Although the interior of the ship was all pressurized to an Earth-normal atmosphere, the airlocks to the cargo bay and the engine room were both sealed at all times in the event of a breach. The process had become an old routine so long ago that no one ever seemed to complain at having to go the extra steps to get into either compartment.
Before he could call out to his chief engineer in an effort to find him, he heard a loud clang followed by a string of curses in Germanic. The captain followed the profanity, floating cautiously between the pipes and components of the engine that comprised the thrumming trans-ion drive that powered the supply ship.
When he eased his nose around a corner, he saw a thick-armed, barrel-chested, bearded man dancing a pirouette in the absence of gravity, holding one hand in the other with grimaces of pain and anger across his features. The engineer’s long blond ponytail hopped around in the air behind him, whipping around crazily. Various tools and miscellaneous parts floated around him.
When the man ran out of expletives in one language, he switched to another and continued without missing a beat. Alabaster lightly held onto a hydraulic pipe to keep himself in place and simply waited him out.
Erik Kistler finally wound down after a few minutes and huffed in embellished frustration. He rubbed his fingers for a moment, and then noting that all the digits were still there and he hadn’t spilled any blood, he began gathering up his tools.
“How long have you been hanging there?” the man asked in a gruff voice without looking at the captain.
“About the time you started dancing,” Alabaster replied dryly. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen moves like that. You should enter a contest.”
This time, Kistler did look at him and gifted him with an annoyed glower. “What do you want?” It didn’t seem to matter that the one he addressed thusly was his boss, but neither did it seem to bother the commander.
“The internal network is down again,” he said, “so I came aft to tell you that after we’ve unloaded the portion of cargo meant for Ceres, we’re all due for our yearly physicals before we can depart.”
This only deepened Kistler’s scowl. “What? Again?”
“Yeah, I agree. It’s only been a year since our last ones. On the bright side, they have a new doctor and she’s prettier than the last one.”
The engineer snorted. “As if that makes a difference,” he grumbled. “All right… I’ll look at the network calibration again, for what good it will do without the proper circuits.”
“Do you need any help?”
“I always need help, but you never get me any so why do you even ask?”
“Force of habit,” Alabaster retorted, unperturbed. Such discussions with this colorful individual were so routine that thoughts of insubordination never entered his mind. Kistler was a good mechanic and good man, even if he didn’t seem like it at times like these.
“So, what’s going on back here?” the captain asked, sweeping a hand toward the detritus that floated about.
“The atmospheric inferpexomagnometer came up with issues during a diagnostic, but the contentious thing wouldn’t listen to reason and refused to go back into alignment.”
“From what I heard, it sounded like you were the one giving it issues.”
Kistler nodded without argument. “We’ll go a few rounds and then the pugnacious thing will see things my way. It always does.”
“Is that going to cause us any problems when we dock with Ceres?”
“No, I can still knock heads with it later on the way to Vesta. It’s a needed component of the system, but it’s not critical. I suspect I’ll have to grow another crystal circuit.”
“In that case, I’ll defer to your wisdom on dealing with it.” Alabaster reached out casually for a tool that floated toward him, but Kistler actually growled at him.
“Don’t touch my spanner,” he warned. “I’ve got it set just how I want it and you’ll put it out of calibration.”
The captain withdrew his fingers before they could grasp the object and he turned to go without another word, leaving the engineer to his domain.
RN3705 coasted toward Ceres and the dwarf planet grew visibly larger as the captain and his first officer watched it through the forward window screen. They were in luck that the crater where the primary docking rigs for receiving ships was visible within the waxing crescent facing them. The regolith covering the majority of the surface was moon-grey, but a pair of bright spots within the sunlit area marked their destination, Piazzi Crater.
Discovered in 1801 by Sicilian astronomer Father Giuseppe Piazzi, Ceres was named for the Roman goddess of the harvest, though it harbored no actual life upon its surface. At just under six hundred miles across, the embryonic planet had only three percent of Earth’s gravity, although it comprised twenty-five percent of the asteroid belt’s total mass.
It had been discovered to contain various usable minerals, but its primary value lay in the subterranean water ice first discovered as geyser jets seen in long-distance photographs from Earth. The commodity was of no use to the Earth itself, but was a needed resource among the various mining communities scattered throughout the asteroid belt. The largest pockets of water ice were located deep within its mantle wrapped around the dwarf planet’s solid core but other, shallower chambers also filled with the needed substance riddled the sphere.
As a result, many tunnels had been bored into the interior and pressurized in search of such bounty, and the local ice miners of Ceres made it their livelihood to find and sell this product. They were too far from Mars for export there, but mankind living among the asteroids depended upon it, whether for oxygen generation, human use and consumption, or for the production of hydrogen for a myriad of uses and its demand was great. This largest object between Mars and Jupiter was the jewel of the asteroid belt.
“Time,” the first officer announced at a small pip from his console.
“Coming about,” intoned the captain. “Adjusting yaw one-eighty.” It only took a moment for the thrusters to rotate the supply vessel on its central axis so that its nose was now pointing away from the dwarf planet; RN3705 would approach Ceres tail-first so that it would land straight down upon the universal docking rig.
“Reducing velocity,” said the captain, his eyes fixed upon the speed and distance indicators on his board. Ever more the vessel slowed and Pete glanced out the forward windows as the crater rim came into view. A stylus that had been floating in the air near him gently moved toward the back of the bridge compartment under the influence of what little gravity Ceres generated behind them now.
“Ceres Control, we’re ready anytime you are,” said the captain into the tiny wire mic near his lips.
“Taking control now, RN3705,” replied a rich baritone voice in his ear. “Sit back and enjoy the ride to bay seven.”
Alabaster removed his hands from the control board; the Ceres computer system interfaced with his ship and took over the docking process to guide them in to perfect alignment with the docking rig. He had brought them close already, so the rest of the ride took less than ten minutes. There was only a slight bump and then the rig behind them clamped down and the airlock seal adhered around the ship’s bay doors.
“Docking maneuvers complete. Welcome to Ceres.”
“Thank you, Ben,” replied the captain. “Who’s the dock master this time around?”
“Chief Jeremy Nighstep. He’s already looking at the manifest for your delivery.”
“Have him give us ten and then we’ll be ready.”
“Granted. Ceres Control out.”
The captain tapped the intraship com and was rewarded with a metallic chirp that it was working again. “All hands, all hands,” he broadcast, “report to Mr. Warren in the cargo bay for detail. We have arrived.”
“I guess that means I have to do some real work now,” Pete said, rising from his seat with a grin.
“Time for everybody to earn their pay,” Alabaster agreed. He allowed his officer to depart while he finished shutting down the systems of the interplanetary vessel.
By the time he arrived at the cargo hold himself, the large aft bay doors were open to the warehouse beyond and Pete was just giving direction to the three other members of the five-man crew. Kistler and Seralle picked up a large crate together in the negligible gravity and started moving it out. Although the container had very little weight in this environment, it still had mass and the two men had to be careful conveying it to the location where Chief Nighstep directed.
Alabaster slid on his work gloves and then proceeded to help Talbot with another crate. He glanced over at him before he disappeared on the other side of the large fiberluminum box and noted that the other man still looked as if he hadn’t slept in weeks.
“How are you holding up, Darin?”
“Sid gave me some super vitamins for energy, but I haven’t felt them kick in yet.”
Alabaster frowned and waved toward Pete, who pushed himself toward them. “What’s up, boss?”
“I’m putting Darin on the light stuff. I’ll need you to help me with the larger crates in between your direction.”
“You got it.” Pete pushed himself over to the opposite side of the crate and tapped Darin on the shoulder. “Al wants me to spell you for this. You get those twelve smaller boxes I’ve unstrapped over there and then take them out to the Chief out in the warehouse.”
“Bless you both,” Talbot said gratefully. He was known as a hard worker when it came to loading and unloading the ship, often pulling more than his own weight, so to see him this tired was almost disconcerting. He moved where directed and then the others resumed the task. There was a lot of freight tethered in the huge cargo bay, but only a fraction of it was designated for Ceres. The rest of it would be distributed to other mining communities along their route.
Two hours later, Alabaster followed a twin pair of red stripes painted along the wall of a tunnel that had been blasted and bored into the rocky interior of the dwarf planet, pushing himself through the air in the miniscule gravity using only the tips of his toes or his fingertips on available handrails. At three percent of Earth-normal gravity, the captain only weighed about five pounds on Ceres, and while that was enough to keep him from floating up off the ground when not in motion, it only took a gentle push off to send him airborne.
There were glow panels attached to the ceiling amidst a myriad of power cables and ventilation ducts bolted overhead to the dark rock. The lighting used very little energy, and there was growing ivy in occasional planters that assisted in air production. It would be easy to get lost within the kilometers of labyrinthine tunnels beneath the surface of Ceres, and this part was no exception as he crossed numerous intersections.
The cargo earmarked for the dwarf planet’s community had been off-loaded without incident and the captain had released his crew to their own whims for the short duration of their stay. There were no other vessels due in for weeks and there were six other bays, so the ship could remain parked where docked.
It didn’t take long for the red double stripes in the corridor to terminate at an open pressure door that was decorated with a large red cross, indicating the infirmary. Just inside was a larger compartment that contained a small desk and a solitary admin assistant strapped in behind it.
“May I help you?” the bored-looking elderly man asked in monotone. He looked as if he’d been in that spot for decades and had lost all enthusiasm for his job ages ago. There was dullness to his eyes and he only vaguely studied the visitor to his domain.
“I just arrived on a supply ship and was notified that I and my crew are to have TSC mandated physicals before we can launch for our next destination.”
The old gent nodded. “Name?” he asked, turning to the monitor fit flush into the surface of his desk.
“Alabaster. Jiran Alabaster. No middle name or initial.”
“Registry and/or name of vessel?”
Without looking up from the touch keyboard in the surface of the desk, he gestured by nodding his head in the direction of a rack containing lab coats clipped to the wall next to a receptacle of data crystals. “Take one of those and go to examining room five to wait for the doctor. She will be with you momentarily. Good day, sir.”
The captain frowned at the dismissal and turned without a word. He grabbed a white lab coat, slid it over his clothing, and then propelled himself along the corridor, counting the number of doors he passed. When he reached the fifth door, he pushed it open and pulled himself inside.
Momentarily floating as he was above the floor, he was unable to stop right away, but once he’d seen what was inside, he gulped and turned to make a hasty retreat. He managed to snag the door handle and slide his feet against the floor to halt his progress before he went too far.
“Excuse me!” he said in a rush.
Seated lightly on a medical bed with straps across her legs to keep her in place was a thin, unclothed woman in her twenties with short ginger hair, grey eyes and freckles across her cheeks. Although she was clutching a white towel over her chest and lap, it was apparent she didn’t have much of a figure and she was so pale skinned it seemed as if her naked form had never seen a sun; considering she was likely a resident of Ceres, that probably wasn’t far from the truth, though that didn’t account for all those freckles. She didn’t say anything to his abrupt intrusion, but merely watched as he entered the room and then abruptly turn to go back out.
Alabaster grasped at the door and looked at the small text just above the door handle. He had counted five doors, but the label declared that he had entered Examination Room 4. Feeling his ears reddening, he pulled himself back out into the corridor, but not before he heard her voice behind him.
“Uh, Doctor?” she asked.
Alabaster swallowed and chanced looking back at the woman. She was still seated and modestly covered, but she looked at him with a puzzled expression. “I’ve been waiting for nearly an hour,” she said. “Am I going to get to leave soon or was there a problem with the test results?”
“Doctor?” he repeated with wide eyes. “Sorry, I’m just another patient who apparently went to the wrong room.”
Her eyes narrowed at this. “If you’re not the doctor, why are you in a lab coat?”
“The guy at the front desk told me to get one and go to an examining room.”
Her expression turned to amusement. “Not the lab coat,” she informed him. “He meant for you to grab one of the data crystals in the box on the wall.”
“Oops.” He looked down at himself and began to shimmy out of the white garment. “My apologies,” he said without looking at her. With the coat draped over one arm, he pushed off with a toe on the floor and left the room. He closed the panel quietly and then spotted room 5 across the corridor.
He stopped at the door, but then retreated back to the reception desk instead. Without a word, he put the lab coat back on the clip where he’d found it, picked up a data crystal, and then pushed himself back toward the exam room.
Hesitating at the door, he pushed it open and found an empty room identical to the one the redhead had been in. He smiled foolishly to himself and shook his head, wondering if he was supposed to strip down too, or if the woman had been there for a different examination. He decided to take a seat upon the medical bed and merely wait for instruction. There was just enough gravity to keep himself in place upon his perch if he didn’t move around too much, but he found himself tossing the data crystal from hand to hand with nervous energy.
Alabaster didn’t like hospitals, infirmaries or sick bays. He wasn’t necessarily squeamish, but he’d spent enough time in them while in the Navy to have a personal dislike for them; especially the smell of antiseptics.
The door pushed open and he looked up to see a young, dark-haired woman pull herself in with practiced ease. There was a brief moment of surprise when she looked up and instantly recognized him.
“Jiran!” she gasped.
“Hello, Dawn.” He slid down off of the bed and then waited for her to approach him. There was only a slight family resemblance between them, though she was a good sight prettier. She was shorter by a head, but she had plenty of curves to please the eye and her chocolate brown hair was caught up in a short ponytail behind her; she was no longer the skinny “twig” from his family photograph.
She put out a tentative hand and touched his shoulder. “Of all people floating around the solar system, how did you wind up in my infirmary?” she asked.
“I was here first,” he replied with a chuckle. “My ship has been resupplying Ceres for years, but I understand you just replaced aging Doctor Wickam. Congratulations!”
“Thanks. I’ve been here six months but this is the first I’ve seen you.”
“Yes, and it’s been a Terran year since I was here last.”
She nodded and patted his shoulder. “I see, well we seem to bump into kin in the strangest places. I met up with Uncle Joey on the transport out here. It seems he was on his way out with a mining group to Triton to harvest some of the rare minerals expelled from its cryovolcanoes. I hadn’t seen him since the last big family reunion and you know what? He still smells.”
Alabaster laughed. “I’m hoping you aren’t as averse to seeing me now.”
“Nah, you were one of the better behaved relatives,” she said with a bright face. “Now tell me, why are you here? Have you broken something again?”
“Nothing so dire. My company requires annual physicals and our arrival on Ceres coincided with that requirement.”
“Which company?” she asked, pulling a slateboard from a large pocket of her lab coat.
“It’s the Tillan Supply Company. We deliver replacement supplies and goods to the mining colonies of the asteroid belt, and some of our ships do the same with the outer planets.”
“Ah yes, I’ve already examined some of your shipmates. Which one of them is your captain? I’ve got some news for him or her.”
“That would be me.”
She glanced up from her slateboard. “You’re the captain?”
“Are you surprised to find me in a command position?”
“Not really. Weren’t you a commander in the Navy?”
“I was captain of the USNS Leconte, a Fast Combat Support Ship for two years, and the XO on a sub before that.”
“So you got out of the Navy and then got a job on another supply ship?”
“Something like that.”
She frowned and gestured for him to return to the medical bed. “Well, Captain, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.”
“You haven’t even examined me yet!” he reacted with alarm.
Dawn shook her head. “Not you, it’s one of your men.”
Alabaster pursed his lips. “What’s happened?”
“Darin Talbot has coronary heart disease; he’s got so much plaque buildup in his coronary arteries that he’s facing an imminent heart attack. He’s way too young for something this major.”
The captain nodded. “I can’t say I’m surprised,” he muttered. “I don’t think he’s eaten a healthy meal in the four years I’ve known him. What can we do for him?”
“Jiran… he needs surgery now or he could be dead before you reach the next destination on your supply route.”
“Have you told him?”
“Yes, I’ve got him lying quietly in a room down the hall. He almost went into shock when I informed him of his condition and I was almost afraid that alone would trigger the heart attack.”
“What should I do?”
“I can give you all the medical information, but as his captain you will need to contact your company’s insurance representative so we can get him prepped for surgery as quickly as possible.”
Alabaster fell silent for a long moment. “I’ll take care of it, but the hard part will be telling Darin he’ll lose his place on my crew. The surgery, his recovery and rehabilitation will take much longer than our schedule will allow us to stay near for him.”
“You’re going to fire him for getting sick?”
The captain shook his head. “No, the company will grant him paid sick leave for all this, but he’ll be out of commission for a while. It’s standard procedure, so when he’s ready to get back to work, TSC will assign him to another ship that’s out this way; whether or not it’s mine will depend upon the delivery schedules. We’ll only be here for a few hours, so I’ll have to pick up his duties myself when we leave.”
Dawn nodded, making notes on a file. When she finished, she pulled a folded white towel from a cabinet and then handed it to him. “Your turn,” she said. “I need the data crystal you were given and then you will need to disrobe.”
“Have you already examined the young woman in the next room?” he asked, handing her the crystal. “She said she’d been waiting a while.”
His doctor-cousin narrowed her eyes at him. “How do you know who’s in the next room?” she asked.
“I burst in on her by mistake. Wrong room.”
“I’d already examined her and she was only waiting for the results. I just looked in at her a moment ago to clear her to leave.” His cousin paused. “She… wasn’t dressed when I talked to her just now.”
“Neither was she when I stumbled in.”
Dawn tsk’d at him and then gestured to his clothing. “As you should be now. This will be a comprehensive exam.”
“Isn’t giving that kind of examination to a relative inappropriate?” he asked her, pulling the seam apart on his jumpsuit.
The doctor gave him a wry smile. “It might be if I had a PA to help me out, but here it’s just me. You and I were never kissing cousins, but it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen you naked, Jiran dear.”
Alabaster stopped what he was doing. “Oh really?”
“At the last family reunion, you brought your girlfriend with you and snuck away to make out in the woods behind Aunt Jean’s house. My boyfriend and I had the same idea and we almost picked the same little clearing you two occupied.”
Dawn laughed. “Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me. Whatever happened to that little tart?”
Alabaster resumed taking off his jumpsuit, stepping out in navy blue boxer briefs and a plain white tee shirt. “She latched on me at a party we’d both attended and then we met up a few more times for about a month before she zeroed in on someone else at another party.”
“How’d that make you feel?”
He shrugged. “She had some habits I didn’t care for, so I didn’t mind that she’d moved on to someone else. I’d almost forgotten about her until you brought it up just now.”
“Sorry about that.” She checked her slateboard impatiently. “You’re the last one I need to examine from your crew. If you’re in good health, I can sign off on your company requirement and let you go so I can give my full attention to Mr. Talbot.”
Jiran Alabaster rested against the seat back of the pilot’s chair on the bridge of his vessel and closed out the com circuit. He had composed a detailed message on Darin Talbot’s situation with a copy of the doctor’s report and he had just sent it off on its way. The signal would take approximately forty-five minutes or so to travel from Ceres to Earth, so it might be a while yet before he had a response. His slateboard would alert him to any incoming messages, so he didn’t have to be on the ship if anything came in. Likewise, he could have relayed his outgoing communiqué through the slateboard itself, but he’d preferred the quiet and relative privacy of the ship’s bridge for an employee’s personal matter.
He rubbed his face with both hands and then relaxed for a moment, doing nothing more than peering out the forward windows at the rim of the crater that was visible around them. His stomach let out a small rumble and he nodded silently to himself.
“Okay, time to see what there is to eat,” he said aloud. It seemed that each time he was on Ceres, there was some new little restaurant or diner that a luckless miner had decided to try running instead of boring through rock for water ice. Such places came and went on a regular basis, some good enough to keep a clientele to continue operation, while others floundered and went out of business as soon as the money credits dried up.
There was one small place he hoped was still in business. They made the best baked penne of anywhere he’d ever eaten, and that included the places on Earth that he’d not been back to in years. He supposed it was because the proprietor was a full blood Italian who had immigrated to Ceres and had the practiced culinary skills that others could only wish they had.
If his memory hadn’t failed him, the name of the place was Angelo Gencarelli’s and it was only a kilometer down the main tunnel from the Piazzi Crater Center where his ship was docked. There had been several hundred bags of flour within the goods they had just delivered and it wouldn’t surprise him if they were all earmarked for the man’s restaurant.
The food at Gencarelli’s was just as good as he remembered. Considering that all the ingredients had to be imported, Poppa Angelo’s prices for his food were reasonable and the small place was packed, a testament to his service. The man’s wife Marianne kept trying to over-feed him and Alabaster left the place filled full and fulfilled.
He pushed himself out into the tunnel and looked around the shopping district, wondering if he could find a bookstore somewhere so that he could transfer a few titles to his slateboard. He’d already read everything he had with him several times and he was ready for something else for the next leg of their journey.
He hadn’t pushed off far when someone called to him from nearby.
“Excuse me!” said the voice. “Excuse me, sir!”
The captain turned his head and saw a willowy woman with short red hair approaching with her tiptoes on the flooring to keep herself going where she wanted.
“May I have a moment of your time?” she asked in a rush. “My name is Deidre Rennerfelt. We met earlier today.”
Alabaster looked back at her and didn’t recognize her at first, but then he realized it was because this time she was wearing clothes. He felt his ears redden as he recalled having seen her naked in his cousin’s medical exam room. He cleared his throat and nodded. “I’m sorry Ms. Rennerfelt. I thought I apologized already for bursting in on you like that.”
She smiled. “You did, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about, so let me get straight to the point. I've heard that you just arrived, but will be leaving soon. I need to get off Ceres and you’re the first likely candidate I’ve seen in nearly a year. Please, help me. Give me a job.”
Alabaster looked at her in quiet surprise. This wasn’t the first time a stranger had sought employment from him out of the blue, but this woman has just set a speed record in asking. Nevertheless, he studied her critically for a moment. She was slender, on the thin side and having almost no figure to speak of in spite of the tan form-fitting coveralls she wore. However, regardless of the negligible gravity inside the dwarf planet, she did seem to possess a few muscles in those skinny arms, proving she must make use of the available gym equipment in the place at the least.
“What can you do?” he asked cautiously.
“I’ve been stuck here mining ice with the family, but I am also a mechanical engineer. I’m a good mechanic, I have a good aptitude for learning new skills, and I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty.”
“I already have an engineer to keep my ship running.”
“Does he ever complain of having too much to do?”
He nodded. “Frequently, but that’s a common attribute of every engineer I’ve known. Our Trinity-class interplanetary cargo carrier is definitely not top of the line and she has many a million miles on her, so things tend to wear out on a regular basis.”
The woman smiled. “There you go! He can split up the duties with me, I’ll cut his workload in half and you won’t hear him complain about that anymore!”
“Perhaps, but he’s also rather possessive of his tools. Do you have your own?”
“No, I’m afraid not, but then I can be your cook! I can whip up tasty meals for everyone so no one needs to fend for themselves. I’ve helped cook for a family of five many times.”
“No one has ever complained having to fix their own meals.”
“Captain, please!” I can do most anything I set my mind to. If I don’t know how to do something, I’m willing to learn!”
Alabaster shook his head. “That may be, but we really don’t have room for you,” he said. “The ship has only five berths. They’re all occupied and they’re too small as it is. I have no place for you. There are no other women on board either.”
Deidre changed tactics and pushed herself up close to the man, well inside his personal space and gave him a coy look. “I don’t mind doubling up,” she said in a quieter voice, putting her fingers on his arms to stay in place. “I could sleep beside you, and as you can see from my size, I wouldn’t take up much room.”
Alabaster felt his cheeks redden and she giggled, looking up into his slate blue eyes with a hopeful smile.
He cleared his throat, gently pulled her fingers from his arm and pushed back away from her to reinstate his personal margins. “As intriguing a prospect your company might be, I don’t think the others would let us get away with that.”
She shrugged. “In that case, I could double up with all of you, a few nights at a time with everyone so no one feels pressured to claim responsibility for me. I don’t have to play favorites.”
He stared at her incredulously, but then shook his head. “Living space is not the only issue,” he muttered. “The company pays us per-voyage in a lump sum that’s split between the five of us. I’m not sure the guys would agree to take less pay to allow you on board, even if you agreed to trade sex for it.”
“Who said anything about sex?” she responded with a laugh. “I said I could sleep beside you, not with you; I’m willing to snuggle with anyone, but I do have boundaries, Captain.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I can’t vouch for the boundaries of my guys, though.”
The small woman put a hand under her chin in thought for a moment. “Where’s your next stop after Ceres?”
“Vesta and then to a few other asteroid communities. They rely on the supplies we bring in. Not everything we carry is dropped off here on Ceres.”
“Where is your company’s closest supply base?”
Alabaster frowned. “It’s at the Quirinus settlement on Mars at the southern base of Mons Olympus. It’s supplied with regular shipments from Earth for our company ships to transfer to the asteroid mining communities and outer planets.”
“Okay, how about a trade? If you can’t pay me, then let me work for my passage. Let me ride with you until you get to Mars and then I can get out there. Surely they will have a paying job for a skilled engineer.”
“Again, we have no spare berths and it will be about a Terran year before we’re back there anyway.”
“Do you have artificial gravity on your ship?”
“No, we’re free-floating.”
“Who needs a berth then?” she asked. “I can sleep floating in the cargo bay if there’s no other place for me! All I need is a sleeping bag and I have my own.”
Alabaster stared at her for a long moment. “All right, let me think about it,” he said at last. “I may want to discuss it with my crew first.”
“Why? Aren’t you the captain, able to make decisions that affect your crew?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“Have you always had the same personnel on your crew?”
“Do you have to get their permissions before you can make such changes?”
“No, but a passenger would impact their lives as much as my own!”
Deidre nodded. “All right, I can see that, but be sure to let them know that if they have duties or jobs that they don’t like, they can feel free to put them off onto me since I will be working for my passage. As I said, I don’t mind getting my hands dirty — I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get off of Ceres!”
“What’s the rush? Do you owe gambling debts or something?”
“It’s nothing like that at all. My family’s gone, I’m on my own and I want off Ceres as quick as I can. The rest is personal.”
Alabaster took another long look at her in silence, and although they’d only just met, she could see the resolve slipping in his expression. She purposely kept her own expression neutral as he stared at her.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said in a quiet voice. “We aren’t scheduled to depart for another twenty-seven hours, but I can give you a brief tour of the ship after I’ve gotten a haircut.”
“Really? I’d like that.”
The man’s frown shaped into a wry smirk. “After you see how cramped things are, you may change your mind about wanting to spend months aboard her.”
“When you put it that way, I’m surprised that any of you are still there after prior voyages.”
“I’m a little surprised at that myself sometimes.”
“Okay, let’s go see your ship.” She looked at the bangs he kept sweeping from his forehead and nodded toward him. “If you want to save your credits, I can cut your hair for you.”
“Look, I just met you so I’m not sure I want to trust you with a sharp object near my head,” he remarked with a suspicious look.
“Oh, don’t be silly. I’ve cut the hair on many heads when a barber wasn’t available. I’m from a family of miners, remember?”
“Hmm, okay, but I don’t have the proper shears for you to use.”
“We can go back to my place. I have everything we need.”
“So, what’s her name?”
“Her… who? Is that your way of asking if I’m married?”
“Your ship, silly. What’s her name?”
Alabaster narrowed his eyes and grinned at her. “Rusty Bucket.”
Deidre blinked and then pursed her lips. A small whistle came out. “Tempting fate with a name like that, aren’t you?”
He gave her a wry smile. “Probably. It’s just a nickname, though. She’s registered as RN3705 and doesn’t even rate an official name. It’s the same with the other eleven ships in the company fleet. No names, just numbers. Kistler started calling her a rusty bucket after his first voyage with us, but it’s nothing more of a description than a name. The rest of us just picked it up after hearing him use it so much.”
“That’s still tempting fate, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask you. Now, are you going to cut my hair or not? The days are really short here and I don’t have a lot of them to waste.”
“Sure, follow me. I don’t live far.”
“If you do a decent job, we can go see my rusty bucket.”
“That sounds ominous. Even if nothing comes of it, I could always use a good laugh.”
“Nice. What did you say your name was?”
“Deidre Rennerfelt. I’ve lived here on Ceres since I was six years old.”
“My name is Jiran Alabaster. I don’t use my first name much, so many of my friends just call me Al while others call me Captain.”
“Nice to meet you, Captain. With luck, we can soon be friends.”
Alabaster ran a hand over his head and examined it in the hand mirror Deidre held for him. She had done a good job cutting his hair and she had even given it a bit of style. She’d asked if he wanted the white patch of hair in his bangs over his right eye dyed to match the rest of his natural hair color, but he had declined; it was part of his look and he was used to seeing it in a mirror.
“Well done,” he said, handing the mirror back to her, though his ears were still ringing from the hand vac she’d used to keep the clippings out of the air.
“Thank you, sir,” she said politely. She busied herself for a moment putting away her instruments and he looked around the small but cozy living space she called home. The walls, the floor and the ceiling all had earth tone carpets attached to them to provide a modicum of warmth from the bare rock it had been carved into, and although the gravity was negligible, there was a definite up and down orientation and there were a few bits of furniture about the place.
“Do you live alone here?” he asked in casual conversation.
“This was my family’s place, but it’s just me now. I spend most of my time here in this room when I’m not mining for ice. Jonah keeps trying to buy the place from me since it’s larger and has more rooms than his does.”
“Is that your boyfriend?”
Deidre snickered maliciously. “There’s not a woman on Ceres who would have him, even if he looks like he could be a movie star.”
“Why? What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s a lecherous troll who thinks the world of himself and believes everyone else should too.”
“How does someone like that wind up as an ice miner?”
Deidre looked at him and shrugged. “No man knows… no woman either. I’ve never bothered to get to know him more than I have to.”
“You said you’ve lived on Ceres since you were six,” Alabaster remarked, looking at a family photo clipped to a wall carpet.” Did your folks go back to Earth?”
“No, they’re still here, dead and buried,” she replied in a tone that was almost too casual.
“We came to Ceres nineteen years ago as water ice miners,” she explained without emotion. “We’d done as well as anyone else, but I was sick with a stomach bug one day and stayed in bed while Mom, Pop and my two brothers went to work on a promising fracture in a tunnel we’d discovered earlier. Unfortunately, the place was structurally unsound and there was a cave-in after they got in a hundred meters. There were no volunteers who would risk going back in to retrieve their bodies, so it was considered a burial to leave them there.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
She nodded and shrugged again. “Thanks, I miss them, but if I hadn’t been sick at the time, I would have been there right with them and would have died too. That was eight Terran months ago and is the primary reason I want off Ceres, Captain.”
Alabaster looked at her. “I don’t want to sound insensitive, but if you’ve been here since you were six and have been mining with your family, how can you be the mechanical engineer you claim to be?”
The woman glared at him for a moment before turning and pushing herself into a back room. She emerged a moment later and shoved a picture frame into his hands. He looked down at it and saw the certificate of an engineering degree with a photograph occupying a lower corner of the frame. Looking only a little younger than she was now, Deidre was standing with two men and a woman, all of them wearing a uniform of military design, but he was unable to read the mission patches.
“Uhm…” was all he could say.
“My family made enough to send me back to Earth to get an education and while there I made use of my training serving on the SS Scott Kelly for two years. After my time on the spatial patrol ship was up, I left as a Staff Sergeant and returned to Ceres, hoping to use my mechanical engineering knowledge and experience doing something other than mining. Unfortunately for me, those types of jobs are scarce here and I’ve never been able to get into one of those coveted positions, so I rejoined the family mining water ice.”
The captain handed it back to her with a nod. “Well then, Sergeant, would you like a tour of my rusty bucket?”
A smile returned to her face and she gave him a mock salute. “Aye sir, I would. Thank you.” She slid the framed certificate carefully into an empty slot on a bookshelf and then gestured toward the pressure door of her place.
Deidre was quiet during the excursion through the old cargo carrier. She hardly said a word, responding only when Alabaster asked her a direct question. As he led her into the crew compartment, there was a small smile on his face that she couldn’t see with him turned away; he was sure that her enthusiasm for joining his crew had dampened considerably seeing the condition of the vessel.
Entering the capsule compartment, they saw a bald, heavyset man floating down out of one. When his feet touched the deck, he reached up into his quarters and pulled out a box overloaded with personal effects he had difficulty keeping in it. ‘Down’ was behind them toward the aft end of the ship, but the attraction was so slight it was still easy to plant his feet on the rubberized cover over the flooring.
“Darin, what’s going on?” Alabaster said, putting out a hand to hang onto the wall. Deidre bumped into him from behind and looked over his shoulder at the other man.
Darin Talbot turned to look at him with a sour look. “I jus’ got a personal message from headquarters, boss. They’ve authorized the surgery I’m sure ya already know about, and this means I hafta leave th’ ship. This here’s my stuff.”
The captain nodded. “Yes, I’ve heard and got a similar message on my slateboard a few minutes ago, but I didn’t realize they’d contacted you directly. I’m sorry to hear about your health issues, but the surgery will help you stick around for a few more years. It’s for the best.”
“I s’pose. I’ll do my recoverin’ here and then they’ll crew me on ‘nother ship when it’s time. At least I’m not losin’ mah job. The doc here’s gonna let me find a place t’live first before I go under the knife.”
Deidre looked as if she was going to say something, but then stopped herself. She put a hand on the captain’s arm to remind him she was still there.
Before Alabaster could say anything, Darin shifted his box to one arm and then stuck out his free hand toward his captain. “It’s been good knowin’ ya, Al. Perhaps we’ll see one another ‘round the routes again som’time.”
Alabaster took his hand and nodded. “The best of luck, Darin. Do you need any help with your things?”
“No, I gots it all here in this box. I wasn’t much’f a packrat, not like Sid anyways.” He sighed aloud and seemed to notice the visitor for the first time. “Pardon, ma’am,” he said politely as he pushed passed her toward the aft end of the compartment.
Alabaster watched him go with a frown and it wasn’t until Deidre touched his arm again that he snapped out of his reverie and looked down at her. He gave her a half-hearted smile and then gestured toward Darin’s empty quarters.
“You’re in luck,” he said in a quiet voice. “I have a vacancy. Do you have any experience as a supply officer?”
Deidre nodded. “I’ve ordered supplies from Mars for my family many times. You’ve probably delivered some of it here in the past yourself,” she answered. “It can’t be too different for a ship.”
“If you’re willing to do the same for my vessel, you can fill Darin’s position right away. This means I won’t have to search for a replacement and you would get his associated pay.”
“What happened to him?” she asked curiously, not yet accepting the job.
“He’s clogged up his arteries with all the bad food he could eat and now the local doctor thinks he won’t make it to our next destination without surgery to relieve the problem. As you heard, our company has agreed to pay for the surgery and recuperation, and when he’s better, he’ll join the crew of one of our other ships when one comes through at that time.”
“Now, do you want to continue the tour or have you seen enough?”
The shorter woman looked up at him quietly for a moment. She seemed uncertain for a moment, but then appeared to have reached a decision. She nodded and turned to the capsule Darin had just vacated. She grasped the handles mounted on both sides of the opening and then hoisted herself up inside.
She turned around to face him and then said, “I’d like to continue the tour, Captain, but I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
“There’s not much left to see,” he told her. “Just the galley, the head, the gym and the bridge. You’ve seen the rest.”
She didn’t say anything else, but turned back around to take a look inside what would become her quarters if she joined up. It still smelled of the previous occupant, but then he’d only been gone a few moments.
“Okay, time for an answer,” Alabaster said as he and Deidre pushed off across the warehouse outside the aft airlock of his ship. “You’ve begged me for a job without knowing I would have a vacancy, and now that that you’ve seen my bucket of rust, I need to know if you want to fill the empty position or if I need to continue looking for a crewmate in the few hours I have left to me on Ceres.”
They stopped near the far wall in the entrance of a large pressure lock that led to the interior of the dwarf planet and she turned toward him with her fingers on a hand rail.
“I admit that seeing the insides of your ship was less glamourous than I expected,” she said, “but when I remember the reason why I approached you for the job, I have to swallow my pride and accept poor Darin’s position.”
Alabaster gestured back to the vessel they’d just left. “Yeah, the ol’ rusty bucket isn’t the nicest hunk of metal in the solar system, and neither are any of the others in the supply fleet, but despite her image and her problems she still gets us where we need to go, and that is to supply places like Ceres where natural resources aren’t available. It’s a job that someone needs to do, and that happens to be us. Joining our company doesn’t take a lot of contracts, just your thumbprint on one square on my slateboard, and then I will contact headquarters for them to set up an account to transact your pay. They’ll contact you directly with further documents for your thumbprint for things like insurance and other sundries.”
Deidre surprised him by sliding both arms up over his shoulders around his neck and then she kissed him warmly on the lips. It had been a while since he’d last been kissed, but for the moment he simply enjoyed it and leaned into her. When they parted, he grinned at her with an amused expression.
“That… wasn’t necessary,” he muttered, “but it was nice.”
She laughed aloud and then pulled herself away from him with the hand rail. “Don’t get used to it, sir,” she said. “That’s just my thanks for getting me away from Ceres, not a promise for more.”
Alabaster cleared his throat, pulling the small slate from the pocket of his coveralls. “Yes… well, then. I’d better get your thumbprint before you change your mind and then go let headquarters know you’ve joined our merry little crew while you settle your affairs.”
After she thumbed the appropriate screen, she looked up at him. “Captain, is your… our company going to pay for a place for Mr. Darin to live while he’s here?”
“I believe that is the usual practice.”
“Since I’m going to take his place on the ship, maybe he’d like to live in my family’s home. I won’t need it anymore as I doubt I’m ever coming back here and it will give him plenty of room. Your company can either buy it from me or rent it from me for him. I’ll have to get rid of it one way or another anyway if he doesn’t want it — probably sell the place to Jonah.”
The captain pursed his lips. “Hmm, I’ll put it to them when I make my report. What are you going to do with all your things? You’ve seen how small your new quarters are. We do have storage lockers in the hold, but they aren’t big enough for everything you’ve got in your home.”
“Mr. Darin can have all the furniture and I’ll take the personal items I want to keep, which won’t be much. He can shove everything else into the incinerator or he can give them away to his new neighbors.”
Alabaster looked at a local digital clock displayed within a nearby panel on the wall of the carved tunnel and made some mental calculations. “Looks like I’m going to be spending all my time on Ceres on this.”
“Sorry…” Deidre muttered.
“No, I’m not blaming you,” he assured her. “As Darin’s captain, I would be responsible for taking care of all this even if you and I had never met. He’s been heading toward a heart attack for a long time and this just happens to be the time and place where someone is getting him the care he needs.”
“Ah, I see.”
“At least I got a good meal at Angelo Gencarelli’s while I was here. Okay, go take care of what you need to do. We will cast off at 700 hours in three Ceres day cycles, but I’d like you on board no later than two hours before departure. That way I can get you introduced to the others before we have to start our pre-flight checklist.”
Deidre took the captain’s slate from him and tapped on its screen to open a simple memo file. “Here is my contact number. If you get a response back from headquarters about my family’s place, let me know as soon as you can so I can figure out what to do with it. I’m going back there now to pack up what I want to take with me and clean it up a bit.”
She handed his slate back and then gave him a sincere smile. “Thank you, Jiran Alabaster,” she said. “I appreciate this opportunity.”
The captain snorted. “Don’t thank me yet. You may wish you were back on Ceres before we get to Vesta.”
“We’ll see, Captain. We shall see.”
With five people inside the galley, the compartment was full. Four of them sat strapped in around the single circular table while the captain stood with his back against the aft wall facing “up” at them.
“Gentlemen, this is Deidre Rennerfelt. She will be taking Darin’s position since we’re having to leave him here. His surgery was completed three hours ago and word has it that he came through just fine. He has months of recovery ahead of him, so we’re not going to see him for a while.
“What?” Kistler grumbled loudly. “You hired a woman to take his place?” He glared at the captain without actually looking at the person in question.
“What do you have against women?” Deidre asked tersely. “The notion of women as bad luck on a ship went away over a century ago!”
Kistler bristled and shifted dark eyes toward her. “That’s not what I’m talking about!” he growled. “I’ve served on ships with women before!”
“What then?” Alabaster interjected.
“If you haven’t noticed, dear heart,” the engineer directed at Deidre, “we’re a group of men. The head and the showers aren’t separated for gender and I don’t feel like trying to make and remember a schedule on who gets time in there, how long and when!”
The woman surprised them all when she unstrapped her seat harness and stood up, holding onto the tabletop to keep herself in place, but her eyes never left Kistler’s. She released her hold on the table and then without preamble unzipped her coveralls all the way to the crotch to their stunned looks. She peeled the garment down past her waist and stood in front of them in her undergarments, a white tee shirt with nothing beneath and pair of green cotton panties.
“Get used to seeing this, guys,” she said hotly. “My thumbprint is already on file, your company has already authorized my hiring, and I’ve already moved in. I’m not an exhibitionist and I don’t plan to walk around naked all the time, but I’m not modest either.” She hooked her thumbs into the elastic waistband of her shorts and added, “Just say the word and I’ll show you the rest of me right now just to get your shock out of the way!”
Kistler gulped and Sidney looked like he was having trouble breathing, but neither said a word. Pete was grinning openly at her tenacity and the captain had a hand on his forehead. It was plain to see that Deidre had nothing to hide through the thin fabric of her undergarments. She wasn’t ugly by anybody’s standards, but neither was she a beauty.
“Ms. Rennerfelt,” Alabaster said in a low voice, “I think you’ve made your point. Please put your clothes back on.”
Deidre zipped her coveralls back up and then sat back down. “My point, gentlemen, is that my sensibilities aren’t going to be compromised by sharing the facilities with you, so you may as well work on your own. I’m not going to demand any special treatment just because I have a different gender than the rest of you do and I’m not going to be panting after you if I happen to see you coming out of the shower! I’m here to do a job and I’m capable of moving cargo with everyone else when we reach our destinations.”
There was a long moment of silence before Kistler finally growled beneath his breath and crossed his arms, sitting hard against the back of his chair. Sidney cleared his throat and finally gave the newcomer a nervous smile.
“As a physician,” he started slowly, “I’m well used to seeing the human anatomy, but I admit your little exhibition surprised me – in spite of your claim that you aren’t an exhibitionist. However, I’m afraid that I will need to give you a medical examination before you can contaminate our on-board environment with anything you might be carrying – if you haven’t already.”
“That’s not necessary, Sid,” Alabaster said. “Doctor Lockwood has already given her a complete physical and has transferred her medical files to your directory. She’s clean and healthy – a good sight healthier than Darin, too.”
“Speaking of Darin,” Pete spoke up, taking the opportunity to change the direction of the conversation, “I went by to see him a little while ago and was there when he awoke in recovery. He’s tired out from the whole process, but it was good to see that he’ll eventually get better.”
“Why’d you go see him?” Kistler asked, thankful for the shift in topic away from the unwelcome newcomer. “You and Talbot were never friends.”
Pete looked disgusted. “I don’t think Darin has any real friends, but — friends or not, he was an associate, a coworker. It was a matter of courtesy to tell him good luck and good bye. That’s something the rest of you should have done too.”
“What’s he going to do here?” Sidney asked with a frown. “Where’s he going to stay?”
“What he’s going to do is rest and recover,” the captain answered. “The doctor will make sure he gets the exercise he needs when she feels he’s strong enough to do it and get back in better shape. As for where he will stay, he can thank Ms. Rennerfelt here for that.”
“What do you mean?”
Alabaster looked over at Deidre, who nodded back to him. “Since she’s going to be here with us on the Rusty Bucket, she decided she didn’t need her place to live here on Ceres. She offered the place up for Darin, and the company agreed to rent it from her for him. They will deposit a rental fee into her account on a lunar monthly basis until such time as when he no longer needs it. Once Darin has later transferred to the crew of another ship in the company fleet, she already has someone lined up to buy the place from her outright.”
“That was awfully nice of you,” Sidney remarked, having recovered from his initial shock.
“Mr. Talbot and I had mutual needs,” Deidre replied. “Aside from my family’s mining operations, he and I have basically swapped places – or at least living arrangements. I will be assuming the duties he had on this crew, to make sure we have the supplies we need on our year-long outing, and help out the rest of you as needed.”
“You’ll help as needed, eh?” Kistler said mockingly. “What if I needed someone scrawny like you to make repairs in a place to squeeze in where I can’t get to myself? You might get dirty!”
Deidre gave him a feral grin. “Try me,” she suggested. “I dare you.”
Kistler narrowed his eyes at her. “Accepted. We’ll see what you’re made of after we’re on our way to Vesta, when we’ll have plenty of time to tackle it. If I hear you whine about anything we need to do I promise that I will never let you forget it!”
“No doubt you will. Just keep it fair,” she said, pointing a friendly finger at him. “If it’s help you need, I’m willing to give you that help — but if you just invent things to try my resolve and I find out about it, I promise you that I can be vindictive in my retaliation. There will be no place for you to hide from me on a ship this small.”
The engineer glared at her for a moment and then nodded. “Fair enough,” he agreed. “There are enough things wrong with the old Rusty Bucket that you’ll get your wish. There’re a sure number of them that I can’t get to simply because of my size and where they’re located, so I don’t have to make up anything!”
Deidre looked around the room at the others, finalizing her gaze upon the captain. “You’re all witness to our agreement and it applies to the rest of you as well. I will help anyone who wants my help as-needed, so long as you keep it real.”
“Agreed,” said Pete.
“Agreed,” Sidney echoed.
“Done,” said the captain with a glance toward his engineer. “Now that we’ve established that she is a part of our crew, how about some formal introductions?”
Vesta, or ‘4 Vesta’ as it was officially known, was the largest asteroid in the belt. It was often considered a minor planet, though it was not large enough to fit into the designation as a dwarf planet as Ceres was. The relaxed oblate spheroid was only a little more than three hundred miles in diameter, but despite this, it had been found to be rich in magnesium-rich orthopyroxene crystals and platinum-group metals, so it had become a target for spatial mining.
Initial studies of the asteroid had not revealed this latter resource, but a later discovery had prompted a virtual land run. Due to this, it had attracted its own small community that needed regular supplies contracted through the RN3705’s company. Part of the payment for such goods was in the form of a percentage of the materials mined.
Unlike the vid movies of old, the asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter were not close together and the dangers of navigating such a region were not astronomical odds. In fact, the distances between them were spread relatively so far apart that it often took weeks at time to travel between them at trans-ion speeds. Since the two bodies were in different parts of the asteroid belt, the voyage between Ceres and Vesta would take RN3705 approximately four weeks at top speed.
Deidre performed a slow pirouette in order to fit through the tiny crawlspace behind the atmospheric inferpexomagnometer unit located deep within the framework of the main drive propelling the RN3705 through space. All the hairs on her body felt as if they were standing on end from the raw energy permeating the air within the engine field, but it was merely a gentle prickling sensation.
Her way through the darkness was illuminated from greenish-yellow glow-strips sticking to the shoulders, elbows, hips and knees of her coveralls, as well as the tool belt she’d borrowed from the engineer encircled her waist. He was so possessive of his tools and equipment that he’d been unwilling to let her use them at first, but she’d patiently explained that she couldn’t do the work with her bare hands, so he could either let her use what she needed or he could get in there to do it himself. He’d grumbled for so long about the lack of help he’d had working on the old ship that he had to give in grudgingly to accept that very help he’d needed.
Spotting the X-Y-Z access location stenciled on a bulkhead she neared, the woman knew she’d reached her work area. She was grateful she hadn’t had to crawl into the place, but the ship’s lack of artificial gravity had been beneficial to her task. She pulled her slateboard from a leg pocket, thumbed through two screens and then brought up the proper schematics she’d loaded onto it. She consulted the information for a moment on the backlit screen and then returned it to the pocket.
There wasn’t much room to maneuver, but using a sonic spanner she had an access panel open within a moment, exposing the crystal circuit board that needed replacing. Using a pair of insulated clippers, she popped out the board and then let it float in the air beside her while she retrieved the replacement from another pocket. She removed it from an anti-static pouch and oriented it into the proper position. The new board was not actually new, but was one that had burned out earlier that Kistler had repaired for reuse. The one she’d just taken out would be reworked for the same reason. There were no new components to be had until they got back to Mars and this one had burned out after the vessel had departed the red planet on its way out for its annual route around the asteroids.
It didn’t take long to change out the boards, but Kistler would have had to take apart several sections of the drive in order to get to this place and he would have needed to shut down the engines in order to do so, letting the ship continue on momentum and inertia in the meantime. Having the slender woman worm her way into the section without taking it apart had saved the engineer many hours of downtime.
Deidre gently pushed the replacement crystal board into its slot and was rewarded with a gentle pop as it snugged into place. There was already a slight change in the frequency of the sounds around her, a result of a working circuit. She reattached the access panel, returned her equipment to the tool belt and then stowed the bad board in a pocket.
Probably the hardest part would be retracing her way back out again. There was no place to turn around, so she would have to make her way backward, hoping she wouldn’t take a wrong turn and wind up even deeper in the system.
Sometime later, her feet emerged into the open air of the engine room as she wriggled out of the cramped passageway. She looked over at the engineer, who was intently studying a monitor several yards away and lightly cleared her throat as she reached for a grease rag attached to a nearby clip.
Kistler turned to look at her and noted the oil and grease streaks in places on her coveralls, arms and across her nose, but the woman seemed unconcerned that she’d gotten dirty along the way into the system. She made sure her hands were grease-free before she removed the tool belt and handed it to him just as the captain entered the area.
“Well, Erik,” Alabaster said with a sly smile, “do you think she can give you the assistance you’ve been griping about for months?”
Kistler frowned for a moment as he studied her and then his expressions softened. “Aye,” he admitted with a nod. He looked at the captain and let out an audible sigh. “I think she can be useful to me. Not one word of complaint and she didn’t even whine about what she had to do or where she had to go. No one else on this bucket of rust has ever lifted a finger to help me, so if she’s willing, maybe we can actually keep this rattletrap running well enough to do our job and return to home base.” He said the last with an imploring look back at the woman in question.
“As I said before, I’ll help as needed,” she assured him, “that is if you can get past me sharing your shower.”
Kistler looked alarmed. “You can help me with the repairs,” he said in a sudden huff, “but you are not sharing a shower with me!”
Alabaster and Deidre both laughed aloud at the man’s words. “I am not showering with you,” the woman countered. “I’ll just be sharing the shower compartment just as you do with the others on board!”
The engineer deflated quickly and his lips quirked up in a partial smile. “Ah, well… sure. Just cover up when you’re getting in and coming out and I won’t have a reason to be flustered by it.”
“Agreed,” she told him. “Now… if you’re done with me for the moment, the shower is just where I’m headed.”
“You’re done for now.”
“Thankies!” Deidre gave both men a smile and then pushed off toward the door.
Once he was certain she was out of earshot, the captain looked at his engineer. “Okay, tell me how things really went,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper. Kistler looked at him with a puzzled look.
“What do you mean? I directed her through a narrow crawlspace too small for me to fit through these days,” he said, patting his belly, “and once she got to where she needed to be, she changed out a crystal circuit. It was a task that needed to be done, but I gave her a relatively easy job just to see if she would balk at what she’d have to do to get there or how dirty she’d get in the process.” He shrugged and examined the condition of the tools he’d loaned her to make sure there was no damage. Satisfied they were in good shape, he glanced sideways at the captain.
“I’ve asked you and others on this ship for help from time to time, but everyone’s always busy with their own duties or hobbies so I’ve had to do everything myself. You hear me grumble a lot, but you probably aren’t aware of just how many things on this old ship are wearing out from the millions of miles we’ve put on her. At least Deeds is willing to give me a hand!”
“Deeds?” Alabaster repeated with a laugh. He wasn’t daunted that Kistler had just told him that he, himself, had been of no help.
“Deidre,” Kistler explained. “She remarked that her brothers often called her that.”
“So you thought you’d do the same?”
“She didn’t complain when I used it.”
“So what did the repair do for us?” the captain asked.
Just around the corner of a bulkhead, Deidre smiled to herself while Kistler detailed the effects the working circuit was already making. She’d not gone as the men had assumed and waited to see if they might discuss her after she’d gone. Human nature never changed and she’d eavesdropped just long enough to feel pleased with her contribution to the ship. Kistler had been the biggest challenge. With luck, the others would be more accepting of her presence on the formerly male-only vessel.
The story you have just read was written for no other purpose than for me to keep in the habit of writing so my skills don’t get too rusty during my retirement. There were no events of consequence in the story and nothing to mark it as a memorable tale. It’s just writing practice. I have no plans to continue the adventures of the RN3705 as a new series, but if I feel inspired later on to write more with these characters, this will likely be counted as an introduction.
RN3705 © 2015 Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.