The Losnay, a support ship for one of the mass-drivers of the fleet, was stranded, forlorn, orbiting a class-A asteroid well-suited to Project Selene. When the distress call arrived at Mars, a salvage team was sent as well as an investigation team.
The trip took almost fifteen cycles; when the teams arrived the crew of the stranded ship had run out of supplies and was very weak. Thus, after docking, the rescue team rushed into the ship while the investigation team donned space suits and floated to the mass driver.
Iset, who was leading the investigation team, looked into the distance. She could see how its structure was lost in the distance. She started the communication sequence with the mass driver’s station to check its status, but she got no response back. The path from the ship to the mass driver through the void felt longer than it actually was, and she started to become uneasy, although her colleagues where right behind her. She turned her sight back to the mass driver. Far away in the distance, she could see some blinking lights.
“I can see some lights in the distance, but I cannot start the status protocol.”
“Yes, these blinking lights show the position of the ribs” added Harz, one of the engineers of the party “and they seem to be totally open.”
The ribs... she still smiled at the name the engineers gave to the gigantic structures that, separated from each other hundreds of standard tails, propelled the asteroids and that looked like the ribs of an animal. In fact, all the structure, from the beginning, where the station was, till the end, recalled that of a dismembered vertebrate animal. The station could be the head, followed by the vertebra that went down until they bent and then continued for a huge distance till the tail. The engineering behind mass drivers was fascinating.
Iset, changed the view panel on her helmet so she could see behind her. The Ilargy was trying to stabilize the damaged ship and in one of her spins, she could clearly see that one of the modules was almost gone. She shuddered and wondered how it could have happened.
As they approached the mass driver's station, they saw that it was dead, but still spinning. They got inside after opening a big hatch, but they couldn't remove their suits since the entire station had lost its air. They headed to the control room. It was dark inside, only their suits illuminated the place. Some saurians were found over their positions, others lying across the room with a strange rictus on their faces and some of them, those who were closer to an adjacent room where the emergency suits were, were found lying on the floor. All were dead.
After an interval of shock, one of the engineers said: “I think we should call the Ilargy and ask for security.”
At first, nobody seemed to have listened; finally, Iset muttered: “You are right, Nyasa. Attica, call our ship and ask for security and someone from the rescue team.”
Nobody wanted to wait on the control room, so they moved to the observatory at the center of the station. At least they could see the stars. Iset, wanting to remove the image of her dead colleagues from her mind, gazed upon the asteroid. After playing around with her helmet, she could clearly see how the spinal-cord-like structure of the mass driver was aligned with that floating rock. It was huge. How many settlements of saurians could it hold? But she could not answer that question as images of her fellow saurians came to her mind. She had barely known them; maybe she had come across some of them back on the Martian land base. She was very sad. What had happened here?
She turned to the rest of her team:
“We need to start the investigation. Isère, Harz, Kolenté –” her voice sounded a bit harsh through the inter-communicator – “see if you can find why the station has no air and fix it. Tinée and Ailette, get into the main computer and check the logs. I hope we can find something there. The rest of us will spread across the wheel and look for survivors and some clues. Let's go.”
“Iset –” Attica's voice coming from the inter-communicator was quiet – “the captain is sending some members from the rescue team. Two members of security are coming as well to see if they can help.”
Had it been an act of sabotage? It surely looked like one. But in that case, where was the saboteur? All crew members were dead. Weren't they?
She rushed back to the control room while the rest of the team was slowly moving across the station. A station this size had normally around ten crew members and maybe one or two more resting. She counted the shadows: 1, 2, 3... 8.
“Isère, any news? We need the control room back.”
“Harz is outside taking a look at the energy connectors. I'm inspecting the air system with Kol. Nothing so far.”
“Thanks Isère. Taurion, do you want to join them?”
“Yes ma'am, I was waiting for that.”
So, eight saurians...
“Attica, do we have a line with the Ilargy? Hail the captain.”
“On my way,” said Attica. Some tap-tap from her inter-communicator and the captain was online.
“Iset?” The captain looked tired. His suit was not as free from wrinkles as it had been when they left the ship.
“Is it possible to have access to the mission logs? I want to check that the information we got from the base fits. Even better, do we have any of our fellow engineers from Losnay recovered?”
“I'm sending you the ship's main data. All crew members of Losnay are very weak right now. I don’t think they can answer any question. You will have to wait. How are things going?”
“Well, we have not found any survivors and the state of the station is a mystery, everything is switched off, airless and cold...”
“I don't like mass drivers, they are uncanny. Now that we are almost over, some members of the rescue team will join you soon. Athi has asked to remain with you...”
“OK, thanks. No problem. I’m sure he will be of great help. Over and out.”
Iset started to scan through the images and text that were being displayed in her helmet. Twenty-five saurians for the ship's crew, plus twelve engineers and technicians for the station. So, if no stowaways were hidden somewhere the count fit... well, providing the four members of the station that were not in the control room were found.
Suddenly the lights came back, but went away again, as suddenly as they came.
“Iset?” Isère's voice was relaxed, only some white and tousled feathers accounted for the stressful situation “Harz has found a problem with the main energy pathway. Apparently, the energy is not flowing through. Taurion is trying to redirect the energy paths. But we already know where the air leak is coming from. Check this out.”
Video was showing up in front of her. Through Kolenté's suit camera she could see a hole the size of a hand. The view started moving up and she could see another hole roughly the same size on the other side.
“Buah. I would not call that a leak!”
“It seems the hatch did not fully close.” Kolenté's view was showing Isère inspecting the hatch, which was halfway open. “I'm going to manually close it. Kol, could you do the same on the other side?”
The view turned to the other hatch, which was also open, although not much. Kolenté opened a small compartment and turned a crank. Isère did the same on her end. Both hatches started to go down. After several minutes Isère’s breath could be heard with more intensity. Finally, her hatch reached the end. The module was sealed.
“When you are done, join Taurion and Harz.” Isère disappeared when Iset switched off the view. “Try to find why the power is out. I'm joining you too. Has anyone found any survivors?” She did not want to ask for corpses, although at this stage she only expected dead bodies.
“Not yet. We are halfway. However, everything looks good, there are no signs of damage.” This sounds like Elgon, thought Iset.
Before she could reach Isère's squad position, the lights came back again. Then, they were gone. And back again. Iset was expecting them to go away, but fortunately they held.
“Iset: Harz and I have successfully redirected the energy from the station rotation system to support. We need to fix this issue before the station stops spinning and we lose gravity. Kol and Isère are going to manually restart the air flow from the main tanks.”
“Will that be en...?” Elgon's voice halted and a sound of something hammering a wall filled the inter-communicator.
“Elgon? Are you all-right?”
“Yes, I just opened a door and I was blown away by the air coming out from there. Luckily, I had the helmet on. I'm now getting into the room...”
“So somehow some of the rooms had air. That gives us some hope.” Attica's voice interrupted Elgon's description.
“The room is empty.”
The control room was back online. Lighting was stable and the air breathable. The rescue team sent from the ship had come some time ago and they had taken their dead colleagues with them. And while security was inspecting the station searching for some evidence of a sabotage, Iset had grouped the team together in a meeting room. They had all removed their helmets and were breathing not without some unease. She looked at them. Some were resting on the desks, others in chairs. Her team was assembled in a rush and, except for Attica, she barely knew them. But after fifteen cycles working together on the Ilargy she was confident. It was also an interesting team, a good mix of both species: nine of her own and eight of the other. They were so different. Attica, herself, Isère, Harz, Ailette, Tinée, Taurion, Nysa and Gélise had their bodies covered with feathers of different colors and sizes, bigger in males and shorter in females. Except for the head where all had feathers of roughly the same size. On the other hand, Elgon, Nyasa, Ihosy, Athi, Kolenté, Taukhe, Rokel and Mara, although also wearing space suits, had their bodies covered by tough plates of brownish or greenish color. But the eyes were what made the difference in them. Kolenté, for instance, had two light green eyes whereas Elgon’s were of deep blue, like the ocean.
“We are all here. Let's put in common what we know and share some opinions. Isère, you go first.”
“Yes, thank you.” Isère stood up and turned to her colleagues. She was wearing a white space suit with a black belt attached to her waist. She took a flashlight that was hanging on her belt and started playing with it. “As you already know we have been working on reestablishing the energy to the station. The power is still coming from the rotation system as the other pathway is probably severely damaged.”
“Indeed.” Harz joined the conversation after a small pause from Isère. “I've been outside taking a look at the holes that sucked the air out of the station. We've been doing some calculations and running some simulations and the trajectory of the object seems to come from somewhere near the spinal cord. We have yet to verify this hypothesis.”
“So now we have a new question: who or what set this object in motion?” Elgon was thinking aloud. He gazed at Iset looking for an answer. But he just got another question.
“We have another one: why did they not fix the issue as we have just done?”
“Maybe it happened too quick and they run out of air.”
“But that brings up another question: why was the damaged section not hermetically sealed?”
“Well, Tinée and I have been reviewing the computer logs and we have been unable to find anything since the black-out.” Ailette paused while she caressed her head’s blue feathers. “That might explain why the doors did not automatically seal.”
“Yes, we still need to figure out why the back-up system did not back up.” Tinée followed Ailette's thoughts.
“A failure on the back-up system is very unlikely, given its redundancy. Our next step is to investigate it so we can confirm or reject a malfunction...” Tinée looked at Ailette who nodded at her.
“OK. Tinée, Ailette and Taukhe you can continue working on this hypothesis. Isère, Harz, Kolenté and Taurion get some rest. Elgon and Rokel go to the control room and see if you can view the status of the asteroid's launch. The rest of us will inspect the mass driver and see if we find the root cause. Let's meet again in the next cycle.”
Everybody left the room and headed to their respective work zones. Iset's squad took another space suits from the charging units, donned them, and went to the center of the wheel. Weightless, they floated to the exchange zone. Nysa, one of the technicians, pressed a red button and all the air of the area went away.
“Let's move.” Iset led her team and pressed another button, close to the hatch, to open it.
A short distance in front of her she could see a wheeled structure. They moved forward and opened its back door. Nysa went in first and headed to the operation panel. She waited for every saurian to be in and activated it.
“We are running on accumulators; the power from the rotation system does not get here.” Nysa's helmet was illuminated by the panel.
“How much distance could we travel with it?” Athi, who was part of the salvage team and wanted to remain with them to help, approached Nysa and looked at the vehicle's status. “Humm. No more than 150.”
“I hope we find the issue before that.” Mara, another saurian of the same species as Athi, was gazing with her reddish eyes from above his head at a distance as if searching for something.
“I'm going to switch the fissure detector on.” Nysa was going to push the button, but she stopped when she heard Iset.
“Let's wait till we reach the first reactor of the spinal cord to save some energy. We are going to do a visual inspection on this section. I've the feeling that we are going to find something big.”
The eight-wheeled car moved at a constant speed across the neck. Nysa and Athi, the ones that were on the cabin, were looking at its walls, their eyes wide open. The rest of the squad used the small windows of the car.
From time to time the car stopped, now because someone had seen something strange on the wall, now because what looked like a hole was yet another structural deformation. But then, after what it looked like an eternity, Athi blurted something unintelligible out and Nysa stopped the car.
“Have you seen something?” asked Mara while approaching them. “Oh my...”
All the saurians were moving forward to the cabin. But only Nysa, Athi and Mara could see what the problem was.
“Hey, hey. Let me see,” frowned Iset. The rest of her squad let her into the cabin and then she was finally able to perceive what had happened.
“No wonder why there is no power on the station. Let's go out do a closer examination. Nysa wait here.”
They got out of the car. One by one they floated to the security rails on both sides where they attached themselves. Once secured, they moved forward to where the damage was. Two big holes the size of feathered saurian had been pierced, one in front of another, as if something had traversed the vertebra.
“Be careful, the security rail is broken on both sides.” Ihosy, the first engineer to have come out of the car was looking at the rail's bent.
“What do you think?” Iset jumped a little bit so she could see over Ihosy's head.
“This looks no good.” Athi was evaluating the work to be done. “The easiest thing to do would be to replace the entire vertebra with a new one, but we have not brought any. We can also remove this one.”
“Also, let's take some pictures and videos so we can try to deduce what happened.”
“We can bring all the material we brought from the base and try to repair that.” Mara was letting her thoughts fly while she recorded the damage. “I think it would be quicker than removing it.”
“Yes, we can start by replacing the sheathing at least on one side and then weld a cover.” Ihosy was approaching the hole to take a closer look.
“Be careful, Ihosy.” Iset and the rest of the squad were getting nervous at the sight of Ihosy leaning against the breach. “No, please don't, the spaces suits we are wearing are not designed for extra-vehicular operations. It would be better to use an Explorer. Could someone go to the car and get it ready?”
“On my way.” Gélise turned over to the car and approached it.
“According to the on-board computer, the Explorer is functional.” Nysa was checking the status on the cabin's control panel.
Gélise opened a panel on the left-hand side of the car and took a vehicle the size of a small and feathered saurians that predated on insects. It was a very old model and she could easily see where the replacements had been set. It was a bit ugly with its rectangular shape and some protuberances getting out of the front. It looked like a tailless, legless herbivorous. She smiled. She connected the cable to the car on one end and to the Explorer on the other, took the telecommand and switched it on. As Nysa had said, it was fully functional. A quick check run automatically. The gas-compressed bottles were almost full. The camera was sending images. The sensors reported OK.
She pressed the level forward and the Explorer started gently moving towards Ihosy's position. She had learned and worked with such instruments before, albeit not as old as this. Gélise directed it through the breach. She activated its camera and started to record. Through the viewer's telecommand, Gélise could see the spinal cord stretching at a great distance. Lights were blinking across all its section.
“Can you turn the Explorer around so we can see the hole?” Athi was following the video from his helmet.
The small vehicle turned around and Gélise set the focus over the external hull. It was quite damaged, but the vertebra had resisted the impact. Somehow.
“Could you move it backwards? Let's take a look at the structure from a distance.” Iset wanted to be sure that the other modules were fine.
As the Explorer moved backwards, the damaged module started getting smaller until they could all see its connected upper and lower modules.
“They look fine.” Nysa was also following the video from a display on the car.
“Yes, but better take a closer look at those later.” Gélise said. “We are reaching the cable limits; I cannot go further.”
“Bring it back then. Do some more recording on this breach and on the other one, so as not to miss anything important. Ihosy, help Gélise with that recording and the images. Nysa, could you check the integrity of this module from the car? Mara and Athi, come with me to the next module. Let's do a quick evaluation.”
They carefully moved to the next security rail and proceed floating forward. They quickly reached the connector.
“What do you think?” Iset was looking at it.
“I'm surprised this thing has hold together.” Athi was pressing over the inner hull as if he was about to find a hollow section.
He took a hull scanner, switched it on and moved it across all the connector. Iset did the same thing on the other side. They ended one in front of the other.
Mara arrived. She had had some problems with the security rail.
“Did you find something?”
Iset and Athi quickly looked at their respective scanner panels. For some instants neither said anything. Finally, Iset spoke:
“My scanner is giving normal readouts. What about yours, Athi?”
“Eh hum. They look fine too.”
“Cool. Should we inspect the rest of the module? If so, I'd need some help. I'm a bit useless with the security hook.”
“Let me help you.” Athi offered. “Hold on here. I'm going to cross to the other module.”
Iset was looking at them, lost in her thoughts. Suddenly, she shook her head and quickly crossed to the other module.
Iset was alone in the kitchen trying to eat something, chewing some protein stuff. She was fed up of that. She started dreaming about her homeland. She would give all her feathers for a piece of meat of those furred and small animals. She remembered her mother cooking them over a fire when she was young. There were sooo tasty. She missed that. She had left home a long time ago and had not seen her family since the last time she was on vacation. She also missed them. Suddenly, she remembered when she was a kid. How she looked at the sky full of stars, eagerly waiting for the total appearance of the satellite that, cycle by cycle, increased in size. She did not understand why it always took 27 cycles to show its full splendor. And then, cycle by cycle, it dwindled till it disappeared. Project Selene. She swallowed a piece of that thing. They tried hard to make the flavor seem like that of an animal, but to no avail
“May I have dinner with you?” Athi's voice made her come to the reality of the station.
“What were you thinking about?” Athi went to the kitchen to prepare something for dinner.
“Nothing important. I was remembering when I was young and I looked at the sky, waiting for Selene to show up fully. And when, rarely, we stayed till late looking at the spectacle of its construction.”
“Did your parents let you?” Athi finished preparing his dinner and sat in front of Iset.
“Yes. My mother said that it did not occur as often as before, when she was a kid, and that we should watch it. Back then I did not know why it happened so rarely. Now I know.”
“Yes. Project Selene is ending.” Athi looked down at his dish. “Again eh?” He was staring at this food the same way as Iset, but he swallowed a bunch of it. “Let's finish it up before the taste reaches our brain.”
Iset smiled. She remembered coming across him at home, then sometimes on Mars. And of course, on the Ilargy, where they spend almost fifteen cycles studying the station and doing extra-vehicular exercises. He was quite big and strong. He had no feathers at all, and his skin was covered with brown plates. His eyes were yellow with some green touches. She spotted something that looked like a scar at the beginning of his neck, but it was covered by his overall. She wondered how old he was. He looked young though.
“What do you think?” Athi had almost finished his meal.
“About what has happened here.”
“I don't really know yet. The impact on the vertebra is strange. I hope we can fix that soon. Do you have any news? I've not checked the status of the team yet.” Iset looked down at her dinner and took a spoonful of it. She ate it without passion.
“Yes, Isère is coming back from Ilargy with some spare parts and Kol is taking a look with Taurion at the warehouses of the mass driver.”
“Cool.” Iset swallowed her last portion of proteins. “Let's go to the control room.”
Athi had also finished his stuff. They got up and went to the control room after tidying the table up. They didn’t speak during the walk and when they got to the control room Attica was already there, looking at one of the panels showing all the sections of the mass driver. According to the panel, the mass driver was dead. Attica turned to face them.
“Isère should be docking right now.”
“Athi, can you go and help her?”
As Athi went out of the room, Tinée and Ailette came in.
“Morning.” Tinée and Ailette approached Iset’s desk.
“We have been examining the backup logs.” Tinée sat on a chair. The color of her overall matched that of her head’s pinkish feathers. She crossed her arms. “The backup system is quite old, and it has been upgraded several times during its life. Ailette has found that one of the redundant batteries was marked as to be replaced, but it had never been. We don’t know why. That, in turn, might explain why the station did not seal the air leak. Morning, Elgon.”
Elgon had entered the control room. Iset, Attica and Ailette turned around and nodded at him.
“Morning. I've been reading through the technician guy's blog, the one in charge of replacing it.” Elgon joined the conversation to answer Tinée's doubts, his deep blue eyes looking at her’s. “Apparently, they were quite busy retrofitting the station and the mass driver and running the security tests. According to his check list, the battery replacement was going to be done soon, maybe the day of the accident. If an accident it was.”
“I thought the redundant system is composed of three subsystems. What about the other two?” Iset was a bit perplexed but this new piece of evidence.
“You're right, Iset. Three subsystems plus the main one. But this is the way we do things now. This has been one of the last mass drivers, if not the last, to be upgraded. Old models had redundancy consisting of two subsystems. As for the other subsystem, well, it was in process of being replaced.” Elgon shrugged. He was wearing a brown overall that did not cover his tail.
“What a coincidence! Well, let's fix that issue as soon as possible too. Tinée and Ailette you are the chosen ones. After that you can continue with the investigation and try to find out what seems to be an upgrade mess.” Iset looked at her desk's panel. “Isère is here. Attica, could you remain? We are going to the meeting room and contact Kolenté and Taurion.”
“Good morning. Before going on I've an announcement to make. Yesterday I received a message from Headquarters. They have requested us to oversee the station and the mass driver until a new group of engineers and technicians are assembled. Which might take... well, a long time.” Iset looked at her colleagues and she could tell that they were not happy. “Luckily for us they are decommissioning one of the remaining mass drivers of the belt, the oldest one, and when they are done its crew will be able to replace us, after some rest on Mars of course. Any questions?”
“What about the ships?” Isère was the first to break the silence. She looked calm, as usual.
“The Losnay needs to be towed to Mars for repairs. You have seen how damaged she is. Ilargy will do that...”
Elgon interrupted her, “Are you saying that we are going to be on our own?”
“No, no... they will depart as soon as another ship comes. That shouldn't take more than 21 cycles. They are getting it ready.”
“So, what's the plan then?” Kolenté's voice made them turn to the main room display. She had her video on and everybody could see Taurion inspecting one of the breaches and taking measurements. A bunch of discarded material was seating on one of his sides.
“Well, first of all we need to fix both hull breaches. Priority goes for the breach on the vertebra. The investigation must continue, so I'll go to Ilargy and interview the crew resting there. And after the repairs are done and the cause of the accident is discovered, we must proceed with the asteroid launch. We are still inside the Mars' reception window.” All her colleagues nodded. “Ailette, Tinée, Taukhe and Nyasa see that the backup system is online. Isère, Rokel and Harz inspect the breach on the station and get a plan ready. Attica you will remain here with Elgon and myself. We are going to take a look at the status of the asteroid's launch. As for the rest, join Kolenté and Taurion and start working on the main hull breach. Let's go then.”
All saurians went out of the room and headed to their assigned positions. Iset and Elgon soon joined Attica and started to gather data about the asteroid. Elgon explained what Rokel and he had found before.
Sometime after they started, Kolenté and Taurion came back from the breach and stopped at the control room to give a first report to Iset.
“Hi.” Taurion looked tired. He had his suit on but carried the helmet on one of his hands. All his brown head feathers had been flattened by the helmet, but one. “We have been cleaning up the mess and although we have not totally finished, Ihosy's team will finish it up soon and will be able to start working on the repairs.” Iset had a hard time to take her eyes out of that lonely feather.
“Yes.” Kolenté had removed both her helmet and her suit. She was only wearing the overall who was also brown. “We are confident enough that in no more than two cycles the main energy pathway will be restored. Then it's a matter of some more time to weld a cover over the breaches. Also, we have found something you might be interested in.” She turned her red eyes to Taurion who nodded at her.
“While cleaning up the mess we saw some leftovers of the object that impacted.” Taurion looked at a sealed bag he had hanging outside his suit.
“We are going to the lab and start analyzing it. But for the looks of it I would say it was a small asteroid.” Kolenté looked at his colleague’s bag and caressed it as if contained a fragile stone.
“Take some rest first, then go to the lab and prepare a report of your findings.” Iset got up and approached Taurion. She took the sealed bag and inspected it. “Indeed, it looks like asteroid dust. I cannot wait to see the results. As for us, we are looking into the asteroid’s status. Apparently, it was totally aligned with the mass driver, so I guess they were performing the final tests before the launch when the accident happened.”
“Humm. Could it be a piece of the asteroid that got somehow into the driver and was accelerated?” Attica’s eyes looked sparky and she started scratching her chin. Her fingers provided some chaos to her otherwise perfectly combed turquoise feathers.
“It cannot be possible.” Elgon had left the keyboard when Kolenté and Taurion came in and now joined the conversation. “The part of the ribs up the spinal cord do not generate a magnetic field as they are disconnected.”
“But according to the logs, the mass driver was functioning when the power went off.” Attica looked at some notes she had taken. “What if it generated a magnetic field?”
“Elgon –” Iset was looking at him. She caressed her feathers as if thinking – “can you take a look at this mass driver's specs? Let's verify your assumption. This mass driver is not the last model and it may have some surprises waiting for us. Kolenté, Taurion, take some rest and come back to me with a report on that asteroid dust.”
Kolenté and Taurion went out of the control room heading to their modules.
“The thing is getting interesting, isn't it? I'm eager to go to the lab.” Kolenté looked at Taurion. “Don't you?”
“Yes, but better get some rest as Iset suggested.”
“OK, OK, but I'm a bit excited. If I cannot rest, I'll go directly to the lab.”
When they reached the lab, they got into and Taurion took the sealed bag and put it into a protected chamber.
Iset was alone, seated at her desk, in the control room. Attica and Elgon had gone to the kitchen to get some dinner and then they went to sleep. Kolenté and Taurion had not yet issued their report. Ailette, Tinée and Nyasa had repaired the backup system. The rest of her team had been working all this time to fix the energy pathway. They were close to completion. She hoped to bring the mass driver online soon so they could launch the asteroid. She decided to have some dinner and take a rest too. She headed to the kitchen where she found Athi looking at his dish.
“Did the taste reach your brain?”
“Haha. Indeed.” Athi smiled at her. “My neuronal pathways have collapsed!”
“Where were your thoughts?”
“Nahh, I was thinking about the accident, about how I am going to hold so much time without a breath of fresh air, without seeing the skies... I had even got used to the sky of Mars... and to its air...”
“Yes, I've been thinking about that too. How can we keep our mental health if we are going to be here for so long?”
Iset went to a drawer and took a pack of proteins and some liophilized plants, put both on a bowl, poured some hot water and mixed them all. It looked hideous.
“Another day in paradise.” She sighed and sat in front of Athi. She stuffed several full spoons of that manna into her mouth. “We cannot go to Mars but maybe we can get down on the asteroid and do some exploration.”
“Humm?” Athi finished his dish and took his dessert, a bar with small parts resembling bits of insects. “Yes, but we can only do that during the next 15 cycles or so. After that...”
“What is that that you are eating? It looks like a bar made of insect pieces.” Iset had never seen anything like it. “May I take a look?”
“Strange. Since I've been away from our home, I've been sharing rooms and canteens with your likings and I've never seen that.” She turned the bar in all directions. She touched the bar with one of her fingers. Then she chopped off a small piece and pressed it with two of her fingers. The chunk fell apart into the table. She played with the little pieces. “Is it good?”
“Yes, if you close your orange-like eyes and imagine that it's a big myriapod. Of course, you don't have to munch it much.” Iset gave the bar back to Athi who bit a big chunk out of it. “Do you want to try it?”
“Why not? But only a small piece.” After some hesitation Iset took the piece offered by Athi and chewed it. “Buaj! Horrible thing! And I thought that nothing was worse than the protein preparation we have as a meal.” She gave the rest back to Athi, took her napkin and discretely left the remains there.
“You chewed it too much.” Athi smiled. “I think you are one of the few saurians I've met of your species that has eaten it.”
“I'm glad I have not yet finished my mélange. I hope its disgusting taste will camouflage the hideousness of your bar!” She took a sip. “And regarding your point, you're right, we need to find another way to enjoy ourselves while we are here.” Iset finished her bowl, left it at one side, crossed her arms and looked at Athi. “By the way, where are the others?”
“They went directly to their rooms after eating something. I was not as tired as they. I'm used to this hard labor.” Athi gobbled down the last piece of his bar. “But I think I'll go to my room too, to have a rest and think about your proposal.”
Athi got up and left the kitchen after taking a last look at Iset, who granted him a smile. She got up and went to the dessert drawer and took some flabby stuff. She removed the film and ate it slowly. It tasted better than Athi's bar.
Iset woke up, cleaned herself and dressed up. Today she had a tight agenda so she put on an overall and her boots and arranged her feathers as quick and as fancy as she could. Then she scanned over her messages and saw that Kolenté and Taurion had sent her an abstract. No messages from Headquarter nor from her family. She missed them. Now even more. She sat down close to her small desk and wrote a message to them explaining their situation and that it would take more time than expected before she could go back. Then, she started writing a draft of the report she had to send to Headquarters. She was thinking on how to continue the draft when someone rang on her door.
“Morning.” Kolenté was wearing a coveralls, open from her neck to half her torso. Iset could see some necklace, but she could not figure out the shape of its ornament. “Taurion and I sent you an abstract yesterday. Have you read it?”
“No, I'm sorry. I was busy with the report. Could you give me a quick summary?”
“Sure. After taking a short nap, we went to the lab and started taking samples to analyze them. We found a big concentration of iron; thus, we think it's coming from an asteroid. So, no surprises here. The spectrometer also reported a spike on iridium which might help us identify where it was coming from.” Kolenté had her necklace’s ornament on her hand and was playing with it.
“Humm. It could come from our asteroid. We can send an expedition there and do some research.”
“Shouldn't all that information be on the station database?”
“Sure. But we can contrast our findings with the ones in the database. Besides, yesterday I was chatting to Athi about enjoying ourselves outside the station so as to not go mad. We can see that as an opportunity.” Iset smiled.
“I won't say no to a little field work on...” She was interrupted by the doorbell.
“Morning Iset, morning Kol.” Elgon was wiping out his sweat from his head. He had his overall also open by the chest and it looked wet. Iset was amazed by all this moisture. How would it feel? “I was on my way from the gym to my room and I thought I could give you a little summary about my findings. Yesterday I studied the specs of the station.” Elgon continued after a quick nod from Iset. “And Attica's point could be real. I did not remember that the mass drivers as old as this one had not that feature. So, what she said could actually have happened.” Elgon entered Iset’s room and approached Kolenté who looked at him.
“But it's difficult to believe that the designers had not foreseen something to avoid this kind of issue...” Kolenté started closing and opening her coveralls, closed her eyes and opened them again. “Like a detector or similar device.”
“Indeed.” Elgon answered her implicit question. “There is an UOD integrated in each rib, so theoretically, when it detects something traveling between the spinal cord and the ribs, the magnetic field halts and then changes polarity to stop it.”
“UOD...” Kolenté was trying to remember them. “I don’t remember reading anything about them. What does it stand for?”
“Unidentified Object Detector. It is an old device. Only old mass-drivers have them. So, it’s not easy to find some specifications unless you know what you are looking for or where to look.” Elgon smiled and put the towel he used to clean up his sweat over his right shoulder.
“Well, it seems we have a new question: why the UODs did not work?” Iset had a small moment of desperation. “It seems this investigation is not going to end, ever.”
“I'm going to check the logs of the UODs, but I will need some help to speed up the evaluation.”
“We will talk about that in our all-hands session this morning. See you in a bit.”
Kolenté and Elgon quit her room. She continued with her draft by adding this new information: a possible failure in one or more of the UODs. The failures were piling up. When the time for the all-hands was about to come, she left the draft aside and went to the meeting room.
When Iset entered the room every saurian was already there. Some were seated, others standing. She looked at them. She was happy she had a good team. They were friendly and professional, and no issues had arisen between them. Or at least she was not aware of any. She hoped that her team could hold together during the rest of the mission. She didn’t want to deal with resentments, quarrels or what have you:
“Well, today we are going to start working on fixing the power outage. We are already losing some gravity. So, a first team with Isère and Taukhe will work on the leak here at the station.” She looked at them, who nodded. “The second team going to the main hull breach will consist of Harz, Ihosy, Athi, Rokel and Gélise.” Again, she looked at them and after a short pause, she continued. “Elgon might have told you that the ribs have the unexpected ability to generate a magnetic field in all their sections, so someone will have to go and take a look at them to see if there is something wrong. Mara, Tinée and Nyasa will join Elgon. Ailette, you can help them from here by looking at the computer logs. Let's see if there is something hidden. Kolenté and Taurion will remain here as a backup and Nysa will drive you all around. Attica will be our connection between you and me. I'm leaving for the ship to see how our colleagues are doing. Any questions?”
“Are we going to launch an expedition on the asteroid?”
“Kolenté, I knew you were going to ask that question. Not yet, but while we are here, we can check in the database the information they collected about the asteroid. No more questions? Then go.”
Iset sat down and waited for all to leave. Then she went out and headed to the control room. On her way she joined Attica, Kolenté and Taurion.
“Keep me informed about your findings. Attica, could you send me an oral report of the advances on the repairs every now and then? Also, call the captain and tell him I'm going now.”
“Will do, Iset. Take care.”
She smiled at them and headed to the exit module. She donned the space suit and approached the hatch. She opened it and attached herself to the security cable restored by the rescue team some cycles ago. She propelled herself. The black sky was full of stars. It was a magnificent view. She saw the brightest one on her left and visualized her home planet. Thoughts about her family and friends crossed her mind. She felt lonely in that void. When she was close enough, she looked at the Ilargy and then at the Losnay. The Ilargy was a very fine ship. She was big too: two rotatory sections, one bigger than the other, were set apart by 3 long modules. The white hull looked brand new and plenty of blinking lights saluted her. On the other hand, the Losnay only had a small rotatory section and was also smaller. The hull was grey, like a cloudy day over Galvannia, but without the relaxing sound of the waves caressing its sandy shores. She zoomed over the Losnay and could see some saurians working on the hull.
“How are you doing?” Attica's voice woke her up from her daze. “I've let the captain know that you are going to get there in no time.”
“Thanks Attica. I'm fine. I'm happy that they have restored the security cable. I don't like doing that all on my own anyway.”
A small last impulse with the propellants of her space suit and she reached the entry hatch. She opened it and got into the decompression area. She removed the space suit and entered the ship. Two saurians from the ship's crew were waiting for her floating around. They were wearing the Fleet’s suit: an overall that covered them entirely from their tails to their necks and from their ankles to their wrists. It was all light blue, with two small drawings in their chests. One depicted a corundum with a feather in it. The other showed an eye inside a ruby. Their heads were not covered by any piece of cloth and she could see their feathers: one had really long red feathers with shades of white and his companion was caressing her small white black-spotted feathers.
“Good morning Iset.” Both saurians saluted her by bringing their right hand into their chests, a very formal salute she was not used to.
“Good morning.” Iset did the same thing. She always felt strange if not ridiculous. “How are the captain and the crew?”
“We are fine, thank you. Come with us, the captain is waiting for you in his room.” They turned and escorted her through the ship's modules.
After flying across a couple of modules they reached the smallest of the rotatory sections. No one spoke neither during the flight nor during the walk.
“Have a nice day Iset.” Both saurians saluted again and went away.
Iset rang and the door opened.
“Good morning Iset. Come in.”
“Good morning captain.” Iset took a quick look at him. He did not look tired anymore, but relaxed. His feathers were clean and had a great look. They were of deep blue, with some black and white points on them. From a distance they looked like a myriad of eyes looking everywhere.
“It's good to see you again.” The captain waved his hand. “You can sit at my desk's chair. I'll be standing.”
“Thanks.” Although she had been in the ship for almost fifteen cycles she had never been in his chamber. It was not much bigger than hers when she was on board and had a spartan decoration. Just a photograph of what looked like his couple and three little kids. She sat on his chair. It had a utilitarian design but was comfortable. The desk was almost bare too, only some empty papers disposed in front of her. “While I was approaching the vessel, I saw some members of the crew working on the outside of the damaged ship...”
“Yes. Something traversed the hull between the engines and the warehouse module and almost splat the ship in two. They lost everything they had on the warehouse. So now we are removing that module and will connect their ship with ours. Do you have an idea on what happened?”
“We are still investigating, but it seems a small chunk of the asteroid somehow entered the mass driver when it was functioning and got accelerated. Have you checked their ship's logs or spoken to its crew about that?”
“Not yet. I wanted to wait for them to fully recover. Moa has been inspecting the logs though, and the ship apparently detected an object approaching at high speed. But nothing could be done. That matches your hypothesis.”
“Could you ask your crew to take some samples of the damaged module? We would like to see if they find some asteroid dust on it.”
“Will do. How is your colleagues’ morale? And yours?”
“So, you also know.”
“Yes, they've told me.”
“Well, they have not complained much, but we have no other choice. We will make heart from guts. They are busy now, so it's easy not to think about it. When are you leaving?”
“We will wait for your support ship and then depart. Probably in 20 cycles.”
“We will have plenty of time then.” She stood up. “I'll go to the medical module and see how they are doing. See you captain.”
This time captain Donegal saluted her and waited for Iset to depart before sitting in his chair.
The medical module was not very far away, so she headed directly to it with the hope to see all the crew members of the Losnay fine. And maybe she could be lucky enough to interview some of them.
Iset put the space suit on. Before opening the hatch, she turned back; Captain Donegal was still there with two other crew members. They saluted her and she tried to do the same, but the suit made her clumsy. She turned again, opened the hatch and went out slowly. She attached herself to the security cable and propelled herself into the void.
She had seen almost all the crew members of the Losnay and had spoken with one of them. The communications officer, whose name was Aulné, told her about the crazy moment after the impact. How they tried hard to bring the ship under control with the stabilizers and the desperation they felt when they realized that they could not do anything but wait. They tried to hail the station but got no response. They couldn't send a team either because they had lost all the space suits together with the chances of repairing the damaged module. But they were lucky after all because the accident did not cause any radioactive leak. With these thoughts in mind she reached the station, opened the hatch and after detaching herself from the cable she got inside. She closed the hatch and when the pressure and the air filled the module, she started to slowly remove the space suit. A sudden voice frightened her.
“You scared me. Attica, why are you still awake? Not waiting for me, I hope?”
“I got a message from the ship that told me you were coming. So, I got up and monitored you from my room. Just in case.”
“Oh, thank you. I've not had the chance to read any report nor message yet. How have things turned out here?”
“Pretty neat. Isère and Taukhe with the aid of Kol and Taurion have repaired the leak on the module. She is quite confident about it and tomorrow they will open the hatches.”
“Good news. What about Elgon's and Harz's?”
“Elgon has been giving a crash course on these detectors, the UODs, so they can split the investigation. There are a lot of them. Harz's team have successfully restored the power lines and almost completed the repairs on one of the breaches. Tomorrow they will finish it and start with the other one. What about you?”
“I've been visiting our fellow comrades. I had the chance to interview Aulné, Losnay's main communication officer. She was in a good shape.”
“Fine. Anything interesting?”
“They've had a painful experience. I've been examining the status of their ship and following the repairs. I can tell you that they have been lucky. But I'm quite convinced that what has happened here was an accident. Well, Attica, I just reached my room. I'm tired, it has been an exhausting day.”
“No worries. See you tomorrow.”
Athi woke up with the noises of Venusian forests. He had gone there, a long time ago, it seemed an eternity. They landed on one of the few bases the saurians had there, on a small island, not very far from the north pole. At the beginning he did not like it. Everything was very different to what he was used to. The sunlight was different, the air he breathed had a strange smell, sometimes even a bizarre taste. The rivers were different, the sky too. Sometimes he could not see the sky for ages, always covered with clouds, that were also different. When he was acclimated, he went out with a couple of his colleagues. He then had to stay on the base for a very long time due to some virus or bacteria or whatever. He recovered, he went out and again became ill. He was not the only one suffering from that recurrence of recovery and illness. Some adapted, some did not. Eventually he adapted and was able to stay there for quite a long time. He was doing some research on Venusian ecology, studying the strange mix of life forms, some carbon-based, some silicon based. Their genetic codes differed so greatly that he could barely believe they had evolved on the same planet…
The sound of his doorbell brought him back to reality.
“Come in.” Athi got up.
“Do you always sleep naked?” Harz entered his room and did a quick scan on him. Athi looked back and smiled. He never got tired of their feathers; each member seemed to have a different set of them. And although Harz was wearing his usual blue coverall, his head showed purple feathers. No wait, he could also perceive some shadows of blue.
“Just sometimes.” Athi reached his wardrobe and picked up a green overall. “Tell me Harz, do you have the same set of feathers all over your body?”
“Yes, they are all normally the same. From head to tail. Why are you asking?”
“I ask that because I’ve never seen a naked member of your species and I was just curious.”
“Do you want me to undress?” Harz smiled “I'm going to the kitchen to eat our exquisite breakfast. Are you joining?”
“Yes, go ahead. I'll need some time.”
Harz headed to the kitchen and the door closed. Athi put the overall on, washed his face, did some quick stretching and went out. This time, he took the shortest path and found Isère looking at a panel.
“Morning, Isère. I guessed you'd be here. Are you going to open the hatch?”
“Morning Athi.” Isère, who has wearing a simple space suit, turned her face to him. “Yes, I was carrying out some final checks. Everything seems OK. I'm going to close this module before opening the other one. Taukhe is on the other side doing the same thing. I think it's better if you stay on the other module, just in case.”
“OK. I can close the hatch and wait.”
“Thanks.” Isère's voice dimmed as she put her helmet on. “I'm ready.”
Athi went to the other module and closed the hatch. He heard the other one opening, but nothing seemed to happen. He waited some time. He checked the hatch's panel. No flashing colors, no strident noises. Suddenly the hatch he had closed opened. Isère was removing her helmet and he could see the other module. The curvature did not allow him to see Taukhe.
“The module is holding.” Isère took her helmet on one hand. “Will you join us for breakfast?”
“Sure. Let's go.” Athi inspected both sides of the module, looking for the damaged section. He saw nothing. “You did a good job.”
“Thanks. It was easy. These modules are equipped with some anti-leak stuff. It did not get deployed automatically, probably due to the power outage.”
“But the power came when Elgon diverted the energy from the rotor.”
“True, and when we evaluated the damages during the last cycle, it was already deployed. But we were making sure the thing was properly working. We also fixed the damages and replaced the missing stuff.”
“Everything seems alright. Ah, morning Athi.” Taukhe raised his head when he heard them. “I'll wait here running some checks. I'll take breakfast later.”
Isère nodded and went to the kitchen with Athi.
Iset had sent Isère, Taurion and Gélise to the asteroid to retrieve some samples and Athi joined them so he could get out of the mass-driver station. After helping the small team to mount the drill he went to explore. It was a pity they did not bring any land vehicle with them.
The asteroid was huge and after some time he started to be tired by the effort. He stopped. Although he had been working on mass drivers for the last part of his life, he had never been on an asteroid before. And he had done quite interesting things. He had gone from Venus to Mars. He had explored the deep forests of never-dying leafs of the Scorched Continent, as they called the huge continental plate on Venus’ equator, where temperature and humidity were so high that explorers needed special suits to survive. He had been frozen to the marrow on the big Southern Sea, at home, where he had explored its bottomless depths close to the point where the magnetic field radiates. And now he was doing something he had not yet done before: standing on an asteroid. One of the last pieces of Project Selene. Maybe the last one. Some day he would say to his kids: I once stood on one of the last pieces of Selene. And they would ask him what he did. And he would answer: I made a great jump and, before I went down, I made a shout of joy.
He smiled and made a big jump and he screamed. But it was not a cry of happiness, but one of fear, because, for an instant, he thought he would stay there, without going down.
“Athi, are you OK?” He hadn’t remembered the communicator. It was Isère's voice.
“Yes, sorry for that cry. I made a stupid jump.”
He touched the surface after some time and continued the walk until he reached the edge of the bowl depression he had seen before landing. He looked down at its center. It was rather far away. He switched on the telemetry of his suit and started taking measurements. The bottom, in which center stood a huge rock, seemed polished.
He looked down and saw a small black rock standing out among the cone of debris built up on the edge of the crater. Although the space suit limited his movements, he could get down on one of his knees. He took the rock. It was almost perfectly rounded. Maybe molten iron?
He looked up, at the mass driver. The ribs were almost full open, or at least it looked like that when looking at their blinking lights. He looked back at the rock he was holding.
“Maybe we could try to throw a rock onto the mass driver to see what happens...” He was speaking to himself, but Gélise gave her opinion.
“What for? Humm. I see... Not a bad idea.”
“Yes.” Taurion joined the conversation. “We could drill a small chunk out of the asteroid.”
“And bring it closer to the upper ribs and propel it so it enters the magnetic field.” Gélise was pulling up a cylinder with the help of Taurion.
“And see if the UODs detect it.” Isère finished the conversation. “Let's take the sample to the shuttle and speak about that to Iset. But I'm not sure we have the right equipment nor the time to get a chunk of a proper size.”
“I've one right in front of me. You can take a look.”
“Good finding!” Gélise had stopped to look at her screen's helmet.
“Yes.” Isère helped Gélise and Taurion to place the sample on the platform. “Athi, could you help us dismantle the drill?”
“Sure. On my way.”
With all the pieces on the platform, Gélise and Taurion started pushing it. Isère was leading the way to the space vehicle and Athi closed the party.
“I'm thinking about your idea Athi –” Isère appeared on Athi's helmet, all her small white feathers surrounding her face were pointing to him – “and I believe that we should try it using several sizes, just in case.”
“Humm. Yes, I agree. I've picked up a small rock that might be helpful once we know its composition.” Athi stopped and opened one of the pockets of his space suit. He looked again at the rock and stored it inside. “Maybe two or three sizes would be enough.”
As the party approached the shuttle, a door opened, and a platform started going down. Nysa emerged from the hatch and saluted them.
“Hi there. Do you need help?”
“It's OK.” Gélise's voice was a bit broken by the effort. “We are almost there. We should have picked the electric assisted platform instead of this one.”
“Sorry Gélise. I did not realize.” Nysa went down and helped them with the drill.
Once inside the space vehicle, Nysa went to the cockpit and started the engines. Slowly the shuttle started to break free from the asteroid and after a small amount of time, it was heading towards the mass driver's tail. Nysa docked the vehicle safely into it. Then, while Gélise was taking care of the core, the rest of the team arranged the drill and the platform into a warehouse. Once they finished, Nysa drove them back to the station.
Iset was finishing writing the report she had to present to Headquarters. The cause of the accident was quite clear: the mass driver had been built long time ago and when the team retrofitted it an error was introduced that lead the UODs to dysfunction. Attica, Ailette and herself had been reviewing the historic documentation about past accidents and had not found anything of the like. Accidents were in fact rare and happened mainly because of small errant asteroids impacting on the mass drivers, but the literature did not show a death toll that high. She advised Headquarters to review all current retrofitted mass drivers and run tests on them. She sent the final draft to her team for review. Then she called Elgon.
“Morning.” Elgon appeared in her video. He was dressing up, putting on a couple of old boots. His long tail was only covered by small brownish plates. “How are you?” He finished with the boots and picked up what looked like a dark green shirt with shadows of brown.
“I'm fine. I just finished writing the report. I've sent you a copy for review. Tell me, could you look for all recently retrofitted mass drivers? I'd like to send what we have found here before they get the information from the official channel.”
“Sure. Will do after the party, if you don't mind. How do you like my costume?” He circled around his room. The dark green shirt was completed by some brown trousers that did not fully covered his legs. His old boots had seen better times. A long bow and a brown hat completed the costume.
“Haha. Very convincing. I thought Mara or Kolenté were going to dress up as Atlas.”
“We did a raffle and I got the number. Who is Varisca on your side?”
“Attica for sure, maybe someone else too. Well, I've to dress up as well. See you at the party!”
Iset closed the com and got up. She went to her wardrobe and picked up a box. She opened it. Since she hit adulthood, she had always dressed up as Garonné, one of the artists that accompanied Varisca during the crossing of Galvannia, the south shallow sea, and the exploration of its islands. She took her clothes off. The dress was quite simple: just a pair of leggings made of the skin of small furred animals, a brown tunic made from wood fiber attached with an insect skin belt, a red rucksack made from a herbivorous skin and a pair of gloves made from her own feathers. After putting on the dress, she applied some make-up and took the dress accessories: a tablet with some paper sheets on it, a pencil and two small pots with tint that she carried in a small bag hanging on her belt. She opened the door and went to the party.
The door slid open. She was the last one. The party had already begun. She looked at her fellow saurians. She could see a couple of Variscas and one Atlas. She was the only Garonné of the party.
Athi was floating on the observatory pointing one of its telescopes to the newcomer. Gletty, the ship that once took him to Venus, had arrived that very dawn. He recognized her because she hadn’t change much since then. Only one module looked new, white with blinking lights everywhere, standing out among the two dull and greyish modules that were joined to it. Like Selene stood out among the sky full of stars back home. The rest was the same: a big rotatory section, one of the biggest he had ever seen, and a big and ugly nuclear section on her end. He wondered who the captain could be. Maybe Iona, at that time the second in command, had become captain.
The ship was closing in on Ilargy. Athi zoomed in and could see that the big rotatory section of Gletty did not allow for a closer gap between both ships. After some initial stabilization, a security cable was thrown from Gletty, which hooked nicely to the Ilargy. A hatch opened in both ships and Athi could see some space suits crossing from one side to the other.
“Let's hail them.”
He went to the control room where Attica was sitting. Her small turquoise feathers where surprisingly wild and many were pointing at random directions as if someone had inspected her head looking for something.
“Morning Attica. How are you? Your feathers are a bit messy today.”
“Morning Athi. I'm OK. Yeah. I was following the communications between both crews.”
“Do you know who the captain is?”
“Her name is Iona. I've briefly spoken to her this morning. Do you know her?”
“If it's the same Iona I was thinking about, then yes, I do. We were close friends.” Athi smiled remembering those times.
“Very close. The trip from home to Venus is long. Anything could happen.” He smiled again.
“Let's contact them.” Attica smiled back and pushed a button after combing her feathers with her hands. “This is Attica from MD0005 to Gletty.”
“Hello Attica. This is Thabana on shift. How can I help you?” Only a soft voice could be heard. The video was off.
“Is Captain Iona available? I've someone here who would like to speak to her.”
“She is in a meeting with Captain Donegal at this moment. They will board the station after that. We'll let you know.”
“Did not know about that.”
“Yes, sorry for this short notice. It was decided on the spot and they just let me know. I was going to contact you soon.”
“No worries. See you later.” Attica closed the com and turned to Athi.
“Sorry Athi. You'll have to wait.”
“No problem. Thank you anyway. Does Iset know?”
“I don't think she does. Let me call her.” Attica pushed another button. This time an image of an empty room appeared on the screen. “Iset? Are you there?”
“Yes, morning Attica. I was just combing my feathers. They are rebelling.” Iset approached the camera so they could see her. “Oh. Athi is with you too. Morning. How are you? What happened to your feathers?”
“I got up with the wrong foot.” Attica smiled and pressed hard her hands over her feathers, but to no avail. “I just spoke with one of Gletty's communication officer. She just told me that Iona and Donegal are in a meeting and that they will come right after that. Did you know?”
“I was not aware of that.” Iset kept fighting against one crimson feather that was not complying. “Thanks for letting me know. So finally, Ilargy and Losnay are leaving us. I hope Gletty will prove to be a good companion.”
“Athi here is the lover of Captain Iona.” Attica glimpsed at him.
“She is not my lover. And we still don't know if she is the Iona I once met.” Athi complained a little bit. “But if she is, she used to be nice.”
“Do you know when they are coming?”
“She said that right after the meeting. It could easily take time.”
“Fine. Now I have an excuse not to wear this overall. I'm fed up of it. Attica, I'll join you in a bit. Bye Athi.” The screen was black again.
“I think I'm going to change my clothes too. Shouldn’t you do something about your feathers?”
“Want to cause a good impression, right?” Attica roguishly smiled at him and ignored his question.
“Haha. Who knows! See you later!”
It was later than Attica had foreseen, but both captains were entering the decompression room with a couple of other saurians. Iset was waiting for them outside that room, holding into a rail and looked how they helped each other with the space suits. Once removed, the hatch opened.
“Morning Captain Donegal, morning Captain Iona. How was the trip?”
“Morning Iset.” Donegal was putting some order into his feathers after having removed the space suit. He was wearing the Fleet uniform, the light purple one.
“Morning Iset. The trip has been long and fortunately without any incidents. Let me introduce two of the officers that are in Gletty. These are Giessen, security officer, and Thabana, communications officer.” At first sight, Iona looked naked, but a second check showed that she was also wearing the Fleet uniform, the brown one. Her blue and green dotted eyes looked at her.
“Nice to meet you.” Giessen and Thabana nodded. Iset studied both saurians. She was surprised to learn that Giessen was the security officer because she looked delicate compared to Thabana, who was taller and sturdier and looked stronger than her colleague. Had she had to guess who the security officer was she would have chosen Thabana. Thabana was wearing the same Fleet uniform as Iona’s and the brown plates of her face contrasted with her blue and violet eyes. Giessen, on the other hand, was as tall as herself. She was not wearing the Fleet uniform and her chest was naked. Her lower body was covered by green trousers with a brown belt from which a baton hanged. Curiously the color of her feathers matched that of Thabana’s eyes: blue and violet. “Follow me. Attica, Athi and Ihosy are waiting inside.”
They floated until they reached a hatch. Athi opened it from the inside and the party got into the station. Giessen was first, followed by Donegal, Thabana and Iona. Iset was the last one and closed the hatch.
“Athi is it you? I was not sure! It has been a long time!” Iona approached Athi with a big smile in her face.
“I was not sure either.” Athi approached Iona too and hugged her. “You look fantastic. We have many things to talk about.”
Iset went down. And, as Giessen, looked at them.
“Shall we meet the rest of the team?”
“Sure, sorry for that.” Athi looked a bit ashamed and let Iona go. Attica, who had tamed her feathers, winked at him.
Iset led the way to the meeting room.
“I'll show around after meeting the rest of us. They want to know who the new captain is.” She turned back and smiled at Iona.
Athi was in his room writing a message to his brother when a beep from his com made him turn his attention to the screen. Attica's face showed up.
“Night Athi. You have a com request from Gletty. I think it's Iona. You take it, I guess.”
“I do. Do not spy on us eh?” Athi smiled.
“Of course not!” Attica's face was replaced by that of Iona.
“Sorry for calling you so late Athi.”
“No worries. How are you?”
“Fine. And you?”
“A bit tired. I was writing a message to my brother. He has moved to Medr Facility and is performing some research on the volcanic activity there.”
“Trying to link it with the loss of biodiversity?”
“Well, the link is pretty clear to many of us. The amount of toxic gases released has been more or less steady for at least the last hundred million cycles or so.”
“He is afraid of an extinction event caused by that uninterrupted eruption. He is trying to link this eruption with one that occurred long time ago... But let's speak about you. Where have you been all this time?”
“After meeting you I moved back home where I lived for some time.”
“I thought you wanted to pursue your career on the Gletty.”
“I did, but I had to take care of my little ones.”
“Your little ones? How many, if I might ask?”
“Just three. Two females and a male. They are growing fast!”
“And how did you join Gletty again then?”
“After that, I joined the Laumay as second in command. It was a freighter, so we were transporting supplies and passengers from Earth’s orbit to Selene. A boring job, but I was able to walk on our satellite and met many saurians that were directly working for the project. Did you know they want to build a leisure complex on Selene once the project is finished?”
“Really? I did not know! I think I would like to go, although I’m not sure it will be better than Galvannia.”
“Nothing is better than Galvannia.”
“What did you do afterwards?”
“I asked Headquarters for a transfer to Gletty. I was lucky and here I am. Well, I'm happy we have met. I'm going to have some rest. We will probably see each other quite a bit in the following cycles. Good night, Athi.”
“Good night, Iona.”
She had received a message from Headquarters with the final confirmation. The asteroid they had launched was heading towards Selene and was going to be the last one. And so, after hundreds of thousands of cycles it finally came to an end. All that effort, so many issues and problems found and solved, so many dead saurians and so many sacrifices... but at the end this massive achievement would be seen in the sky for ages and it would be remembered for posterity and future generations would show gratitude and praise the effort. How many asteroid impacts have already been avoided? Maybe hundreds. And many nights were no longer as dark as before... Still, Selene had brought some issues of its own, specially the increase in the tidal force over the oceans that had caused the coastal settlements to be rethought.
Maybe it was time to change job. She could try to join one of the many new projects that would arise over Selene's surface. The new astrophysics lab on its far side looked promising. Or maybe something more mundane like a protein farm… or she could go back home for a little while.
However, she needed to finish first and, since the news they had received several cycles before, she knew that it was going to take longer. Because, although the team that was decommissioning MD-0003 was close to completion, they were behind of schedule, so the replacement crew would not arrive when expected but much later. On top of that someone on Headquarters had the brilliant idea of doing the same thing on Mars, albeit smaller. And here they were, on a trip to retrieve a new class C asteroid not very far away from where they were. She wanted to kick someone. Maybe she could go to the gym.
“Yes, that's a good idea. Let's go.”
Iset got up and put an overall on, the first one she saw when she opened the wardrobe. It was orange, with a big pocket on the front side, a bit ugly but functional. She did not care. She quickly smoothed her feathers and headed to the gym to kick something. Apparently, she was not the only one to have had that idea.
“Ah, morning Iset.” His breath was broken by the effort. “How are you?”
“Fed up. I wanted to kick something.” Iset examined him for an instant. “Do you mind if we fight?”
Harz stopped and turned to her and she could see a trace of surprise in his face. He studied her.
“Yes…, why not? It has been a while since my last fight. Weapons?”
“Bare hands, and you?”
“Same here. Let's make some place.”
They started moving some furniture until they made room to an arena-like space. They pulled back and started looking at each other. They moved in circles. Harz was the first one to move forward. He was quick and Iset barely dodged him. She pulled back and evaluated Harz.
“You dodged me. I thought I had you.”
Iset smiled and launched her body forward, but at the last moment she got down and tried to kick Harz's feet. But he saw the feint and jumped. Iset hit a wardrobe instead, but she quickly got up and attacked Harz who had just landed on the floor. Iset punched him and Harz got her with an elbow strike. They both fell into the ground.
“What's all this noise about?” Athi had just entered the module. “What has happened? Why are you fighting?”
“Iset here wanted to kick something.” Harz got up and approached Iset. He offered her his three fingered right hand. He did not take his eyes away from her.
“Yes, I had some accumulated stress from the latest news. I came to the gym and found Harz” Iset took his hand and got up. “I'm fine now. We should do this more often.”
“You feathered saurians do strange things.”
“Hey Harz, what about you and me against Athi?”
“Oh, come on. I'm stronger than you two together. You are not rival.”
“He fears us.” Harz added with a mischievous smile. “Let's do a pack attack Iset.”
Athi readied himself.
“You are worse than my children” Iona was angry, although Athi knew she was enjoying it. “The module is a disaster, and someone has to clean up your mess. You are going to do it after you recover, of course. How much time do they need to stay here?”
“At least 3 cycles for Athi, and 2 for Harz and Iset.” The doctor was examining some x-rays. “How did you break your tail Athi?”
“Sorry I bit him. I let myself go, as if I were in a hunt.” Iset was laying on an elevated platform. Her overall was ripped and some red stains covered it. A feathered saurian was applying some bandages.
“Powerful jaws. You should hate someone.” The doctor looked at her. “You don't have any broken bone, but I see some fissures in two of your ribs. Harz, you are also OK. Nothing is broken, but you have a nasty wound. I don't think any feathers will grow back in the resulting scar.” He approached him an examined the wound. “Yes, a good scar. Athi's I guess?”
“Yes. He jumped straight into me.”
“You're lucky you have your plates with you!” Harz started laughing, but suddenly stopped due to the pain. “You don't have something for that pain, do you doctor?”
“If I were the doctor, I wouldn't give you any pain killer.” Iona was still a bit angry. “You could have had very serious injuries. The next time you will have to wear some protections.”
* * *
Attica woke up with the sound of the main control room com. She had fallen asleep on duty. She didn’t feel proud about that, not that it mattered at this moment. Everything had been calm for the last cycles and since they departed for the class C asteroid, which now was not very far away, nothing had really happened. Both Gletty and the mass driver were travelling at a good speed and were about to start decelerating. She shook her head to wake her up and put the headphones on. A voice was speaking. She opened her eyes wide and a shudder went over her body and all her feathers got bristle.
“No, no, no, no. It cannot be possible. Must be a joke” She verified the sender and was authentic. She listened to the repeating message again. Three, four times, as if by hearing it many times she could change its content. With tears in her eyes and a trembling hand she tried to reach the com to call Iset.
“Come on Iset, wake up...” Time seemed to pass very slowly.
“Hi Attica, what's up? It's very early.” Iset, still sleepy, looked at Attica. “Are you ok?”
“We've just received a message from Headquarters.” Attica was still sobbing, and some tears were falling down her cheek.
“Calm down, Attica. Pipe me the message.”
“Sorry. I'll do that.”
Attica's screen turned black, she dropped her arms at her side and stared at the screen’s com as if she was miles away. Finally, she shook her head once more and called Iset. Her trembling had disappeared, and she had regained control of herself as though, by sharing that dire news, a load was taken off herself.
“Iset, are you still there?” Attica’s voice had also recovered her normal pitch.
“I am.” Iset's face reappeared. Her eyes were also covered by tears. “Do you have any news from Gletty? It's strange they have not yet contacted us. Look for Iona. I'm going to join you.”
“Yes. See you.” Attica closed the com and hailed Gletty.
“Gletty here.” A feathered saurian appeared in the screen. “This is second communication officer Yser on duty.”
“This is Attica from the station. We have received a disturbing message from Headquarters. Iset needs to speak with Captain Iona.”
“Captain Iona is sleeping at this moment. Is that urgent?”
“You have not listened to the message from Headquarters, have you?” She sounded harsh and she could see how Yser was taken aback. “Sorry, I did not mean to be rough, but you must listen to it and wake up Captain Iona as soon as possible.” Attica was still surprised by the apparent lack of knowledge of her fellow saurian.
“Let me check. I just started my shift.” Attica heard the noise of his keyboard. “Yes, here it is. Let me watch it. Strange there is no image...” Attica could see how his face was changing from calm to horrified. He buried his face under his hands and for a long time he did not utter any word and looked stunned. Finally, he raised his head to face Attica. “I'll call Iona.”
It was early in the morning when Iset summoned up all her colleagues in the control room. They were all sleepy. She looked at them as she was used to, but with different eyes. She had been thinking about how to communicate them the fatal news and she had decided to go straight to the point.
“Please seat down.” Her voice was very sad. When all her colleagues were on their chairs, she faced them and continued. “We have received a transmission from Headquarters.” She paused, looking for the words she had to say. “Yesterday when it was midnight at Galvannia...” She paused again, choked by emotion. Instead of words, some more tears flowed down her eyes. She wiped them away with an already too wet handkerchief she had hanging from one of her overall pockets. She gave a quick glance at her colleagues and could see how they looked at each other and then at her. She looked at Attica, who had her head down. She raised it to look her back. Then the words finally came out “MD-0015 had a mayor failure, we do not know where yet because it has been destroyed…” Another pause.
“Any survivors?” Athi was the first one to quickly break the silence.
“No, as far as we know.”
“Destroyed like that? An explosion? A failure on the reactors?” Elgon followed eagerly.
“No, by an asteroid, our asteroid...” She couldn't handle it and more tears felt down her chin again. She thought she had no more tears left.
“Then... does it mean what I think it means.” Isère's face was stuck with horror.
“It does. The asteroid has stuck a yet to be determined place in the western continent…” Iset continued when she could master her sobbing. “Headquarters has sent a distress signal. All ongoing missions have been canceled and all ships, mass-drives, space stations, everything, need to go back home to try to salvage all we can. We are going to move to Gletty as fast as possible, and we'll have this mass driver set a course to the main libration point.” Silence fell again on the room. Finally, Ailette stood up from her chair, approached Attica and broke the silence:
“I'd like to listen to the message...”
“Yes. Go ahead Attica.” Iset answered Attica’s implicit question when the latter looked at her. But when she was about to play the message, an incoming transmission from Gletty got her attention.
“We have Iona on.” Attica put the video on the main screen for everybody to see.
“Morning.” Iona looked awful. “I guess Iset has debriefed you. I've managed to get some footage taken by an orbital pod. The images are apocalyptic. I will send them to you. We need to depart as quickly as we can. With a bit of luck, we are going to be able to save someone.” Iona terminated the com.
“I don't know if we need to watch the video.” Iset was caressing her feathers. “But Attica, please, play the message.”
When the voice stopped the room was quiet. Finally, Taurion spoke.
“I'd like to watch the video. I need to watch it.”
“Me too.” Ailette and Ihosy agreed at the same time, and many of their fellows nodded.
“Yes, you are probably right Taurion. Anyway, if someone does not feel like watching it now, they can leave the room. There will be plenty of time for that later.”