New problems may require rethinking who's the right "man" for the job. . . .
Owen had thought about smuggling up a can of Krylon and cobbling together a miniature paint booth in a storage locker, to paint the little air tanks. Safety orange or international orange would have worked, but even by rigging an air scrubber he could never have kept it secret. And likely by the time he had painted the first sphere the vapors would have looped his brain.
So, he improvised.
“Oy!” Monty said from the next compartment, “Where’s the duct tape?”
Owen pushed away from the bench and floated to the hatch. Monty had one hand in a storage bin, rummaging.
“What’s wrong with the roll you’ve got by your ear?”
Monty reached up with casual indifference and set the roll on a lazy course toward the hatch. Owen, one hand and one foot hooked on the hatchway to keep steady, caught it and twirled it on his finger. The roll looked perfectly fine, hardly used. “Careful,” Owen said, “you’ll mess up my inventory system.”
“You got no system,” Monty said. “And I don’t need the grey tape, I need the high-viz.”
“Oh,” Owen said. “How much do you need?”
“Don’t know yet. A meter, maybe. Re-doing the flashing on my suit, so they know it’s me when I’m out on the spokes.”
“Here.” Owen tossed the grey roll to him. “Put that back where you got it, and close everything up tight. I’ve got the pretty tape in here.”
Monty came through the hatch a minute later. Owen had set the roll of orange tape spinning in the center of the bay where not even Monty could miss it. He looked up briefly as Monty sailed in, and went back to setting up his CommPact to query the S-band downlink subsystem; he needed to coax out what was wrong with it before the telemetry mavens down below went into data withdrawals.
“Christ, there’s hardly any left,” Monty said as he snagged the tape out of the air. “What’ve you been about?”
“Wait for it,” Owen said, verifying the last parameters for the query from the checklist screen and then paging back to execute the command. He clamped the CommPact back to the bench and pushed past Monty to one of the bins that ran longitudinally along the bubble habitat’s interior wall. He waved Monty over, and spoke in a low tone even though he knew no one was in earshot. Someone might be listening through a pickup.
“Can you keep a secret?” Owen asked.
Monty did something that combined a squint and a smile, which only served to accentuate the plastiskin graft on his forehead. He at least had the good grace to keep his voice low. “Hell, no,” he said. “Not for you.”
Owen clamped his lips together to keep from questioning Monty’s parentage. It wouldn’t matter; call Monty a bastard and he’d just claim to have been fathered by three different men, one of whom was a Duke of some far-off Welsh county. “Okay, I won’t tell you, then.”
A hiss interrupted them, and a SEAGULL—a Station Environment And General Utility Loader/Laborer—maneuvered through the compartment. It looked nothing like a bird, of course, more like a wire mesh soccer ball with a few extra bits hanging off of it, but the aerospace world was nuts for acronyms. Stabilized by miniature reaction wheels mounted in a tetrahedral pattern on the frame, its external rib structure reflected the cabin lights as it flew down the long axis of the habitat. This one was a hauler, with about a half load of trash; Owen guessed it was going to off-load what it had collected.
Monty turned to follow the gull’s movement. It flew true from one hatchway to the next, with just the barest hint of course-correction, but Monty pulled himself toward the bulkhead to give the device as much room as possible. Owen chuckled.
“What’s so funny?” Monty asked.
“The way you hustle out of the way when a gull flies by.”
“Well, don’t want one hitting me, do I?”
“They’re better than that, and you know it. Unless you’re afraid it might mistake you for a piece of trash.”
“Watch it . . .”
Owen laughed. He thought of the SEA-GULLs almost like his own pets, rather than as consortium property. Without them, bits of trash would float around, settle, and collect until every corner of the station would be a miniature garbage dump. He raised a hand. “I’m just joking. No reason to be skittish around them, though.”
“Just because you trust the mechanical beasts, doesn’t mean the rest of us have to.”
“Whatever,” Owen said, and pushed himself back toward the workbench.
“Hold on, Summers, aren’t you going to show me your whatever-it-is?”
Owen settled in, his back to Monty. “Nah, you said you couldn’t keep a secret.”
“Oh, come on—”
“Not for me, you said.”
“Aw, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Summers—”
Owen sensed an opportunity for a bit of fun. He turned to face Monty. “No, not unless you apologize.”
“For your blaspheming backtalk, that’s what.”
Monty’s face went slack, as if he’d just taken a hit of a very powerful narcotic. “You’re off your nut.”
“Be that as it may.” Owen crossed his arms, holding himself in place with one foot.
“Okay, I’m sorry.”
“No, not to me,” Owen said, and put on his best Southern Gospel accent. “Apologize to the Lord.”
“Are you mad?” Monty pulled his arm back as if he might throw the roll of duct tape at him.
“Verily I say unto you, heathen,” Owen said, “raise your right hand and say, ‘I, Montague Irwin Prevas’—”
“What are you—”
“—beg the Lord’s forgiveness for disrespecting His name and the names of His family—”
“You’ve cracked completely now, haven’t you?”
“—and promise to keep Owen’s secret on pain of eternal damnation—”
“Which would be eternally listening to you, you sod.”
“—so help me God.”
“Are you quite finished?” Monty asked.
“I think so,” said Owen.
“Then wipe that silly grin off your face and tell me your bloody secret. Or don’t. I’ve got things to do.”
Owen tried to control his facial muscles, but failed: he actually smiled bigger, but Monty didn’t say anything. Owen crossed the compartment again and opened a small bin. He withdrew one of his in-process jack-o-lanterns and spun it in the air in front of him.
Monty raised his eyebrows. “Oh, yeah, there’s a secret worth keeping. What, you used a whole roll of tape to make that? Is it like that giant ball of twine that’s somewhere in the States?”
“No,” Owen said, gesturing for Monty to lower his voice. “It’s the prop tank for a gull—see the stem here, for the fill valve and the plenum connection? I just covered it in tape.”
Monty whispered, “So that’s under pressure?”
“No, it’s ambient. I won’t charge it with air again until I put the gull back together.”
“Okay,” Monty said. “So why did you need to make it orange?”
“What other color would a jack-o-lantern be? Of course, I haven’t drawn the eyes and mouth on this one yet.”
“Uh-huh.” Monty reached toward the spinning orb, then drew his hand back without touching it. “So, why then?”
Owen snatched the tank out of the air and tucked it back in the bin. He felt his grin shift to sheepish. “I heard Susan say Halloween was her favorite holiday . . .”
“And now we learn why your fuse is blown,” Monty said, all pretense to quiet gone. He looked at the remainder of the orange duct tape roll, and back at the orange globe. “All right then, Summers, you carry on, you colossal great fool.”
Owen’s jack-o-lanterns were not as big a hit as he’d hoped.
He thought they looked okay. He’d drawn eyes and mouths and vertical lines like pumpkins had, rigged a little flickering LED in front of each one, then arranged them in the galley just before the party. Linn Schumacher had praised them, but she was the kind to give you an enthusiastic thumbs-up if you did your assigned blog entry with only a few spelling errors. A few of the others nodded politely or said nice things, especially when Linn prompted them.
Susan Davies, though, only came to the party for a few minutes on her way to a construction shift. The schedule had been changed on the 30th, after Preston DeCapo puked inside his suit and got pulled off outside duty; Susan was assigned his shift—with Monty as her partner, of all people—installing the next section of a spoke toward what would eventually be the hub of the station. As she breezed through the galley, she barely nodded at the decorations and pronounced the jack-o-lanterns “cute.”
Jonas—Commander Dixon when he was in that sort of mood—disagreed.
Mostly Jonas was okay, but when he was under stress he became a “by the book” tyrant who had written the original book and was happy to rewrite it before your eyes to fit what you’d done. The man could twist safety rules and operating procedures until they were nearly unrecognizable, and turn them into grimoires that he consulted like some crazed orbital high priest.
Owen’s decorations caught Jonas on a bad day.
Yes, Owen knew that the SEAGULLs were needed for a wide variety of tasks, not the least of which was maintaining station hygiene. (How could he not be aware, since he maintained them?) Yes, Owen was aware that all of their supplies, even of a mundane item like duct tape, were strictly limited. (How could he not be, as the station’s de-facto garbage man—which made him king of recycling, as well?) Yes, Owen understood that replacing that duct tape would come out of his pay and, more than that, out of his mass allowance for luxury items.
Owen was really glad he hadn’t tried painting the things.
To make matters worse, Monty called while Jonas was winding down from castigating Owen. Owen tried to ignore his buzzing CommPact, until Jonas brought it to his attention.
“Oy, Summers,” Monty said, amplified more than necessary, “Susan told me about those pumpkins you made. She said they came out fair nice. Take a snap and post it so I can see.”
“I’ll get right on that, Monty,” Owen said. “Can’t do it right now, though, Commander Dixon is talking to me.”
“That so? Did you tell him that you wanted to call them Jonas-o-lanterns, and how I talked you out of it?” Owen closed his eyes and pretended to be elsewhere as Monty laughed and added, “I hope he likes them. Anyway, if you don’t get a picture, make sure someone else does.”
Shortly after Monty’s call, which elicited more disapproval from Jonas, Owen went to the observation bubble to hide out and ponder why he so often made a fool of himself when it came to women. Let someone else take pictures, if they wanted.
After a little reflection, Owen had to chuckle: the jack-o-lanterns wouldn’t be his last awkward attempt to impress a girl, he was almost certain. Whenever a pretty girl glanced his way, he was off and running on whatever he thought would attract her attention. Even being here on the station had started out as a way to get a girl’s attention. And where was Wendy Robinson now? Spinning around twenty thousand kilometers below him, with her new husband and, last Owen had heard, a baby on the way. Meanwhile Owen, in orbit, was in a way still revolving around her . . . and always would be.
But at least the view was spectacular.
He looked up, toward the spoke work that Monty and Susan were doing: building the connecting struts toward what would be the hub of a complete, rotating station. Each of the station’s inflated habitats was a round-ended cylinder, but when the modules were connected end-to-end by slightly-angled junctions the assemblies formed gentle crescents. Eventually the crescents would grow to form an arc, and then finally a ring which could be spun around the hub to provide enough quasi-gravity to counteract the bone loss and other debilitating effects of zero-G.
That wasn’t all, though: At the moment four inflated but uninhabited modules were connected to the station’s current crescent assembly by short trusses that kept everything separated. Over the next few weeks Owen and crew would test how the inflatable habitats behaved when they were tethered together side-to-side in a bundle. Ganged together they would be able to share basic utilities—especially air and water—and form a larger ecosystem that should have survival advantages in case of problems in any one habitat.
The aim was to have seven habitats in parallel—one in the center, with the other six in a hexagon around it, forming the “tire” portion of the rotating station. An outer shell of solar panels, radiators, and protective insulation would complete the station’s rim. Analyses and small-scale tests had been run on material compatibility, heat transfer, electrostatic build-up and discharge, and many other factors, and concluded that the arrangement should be stable and safe.
One day the machinery and techniques would be available to build truly large space structures, instead of the piecemeal approach they were using. Owen wondered if he would stay that long. He guessed that a lot would depend on whether anything got moving with Susan . . . or the next girl that interested him.
For an hour or so Owen waited for the partygoers to disperse, and satisfied himself with looking up at the nearest spoke, where Monty—his garish duct-tape job making his suit unmistakable—and Susan were installing a new section toward the still-in-the-CAD-file hub. Then he retrieved his fake jack-o-lanterns and took them to the shop to fit them back into working SEAGULLs.
That’s when he discovered just how badly he’d screwed up.
From the inside, the ten-meter-long habitats seemed cozy. Outside, Owen was reminded just how big they were. They reminded him of oversized Japanese lanterns; he thought of himself as a lightning bug come to investigate this new, bulky source of light and heat, even though he knew the size differential wasn’t that great. Maybe he thought that because the space inside his suit seemed so very small.
“Okay, Monty, I’m about five centimeters away on my end.”
Monty’s reply transmission was crystal clear; they weren’t that far apart, after all. “Mine’s about that. What do you think about the clocking?”
“Reference mark on the MICA looks good—in tolerance, anyway—so I don’t think we should rotate it any,” Owen said. “I’m afraid inertia wouldn’t be our friend. Don’t want any angular momentum when they touch, either, so I’d call it good.”
“Let’s haul it in, then.”
Owen sipped a little water from his reservoir and verified that the fine control on the winch was still selected. He triggered the winch, which pulled the habitats together against a damper system to keep the motion slow and steady. Monty counted down the distance, and he and Owen called out “Contact!” almost simultaneously.
The next one was trickier, because it would be laid against the first two—like a barrel stacked atop two others—and meant that two Multi-system Insulating Conduit Assemblies had to be maintained in place at the same time. The MICA pads were supposed to prevent static build-up between the habitats, and were fitted with utility trunks that ran down their lengths. The utility connections tied in to the habitats at various points: too many points, as far as Owen was concerned, since every pass-through was a potential leak. But he hadn’t designed the things.
As he maneuvered between the modules, hooking up the various systems, Owen could almost believe he was caught inside a fluffy white cloud. His suit lamps reflected off the surfaces in unexpected ways, and he and his tools cast crazy shadows.
Owen took longer than Monty to hook up his set of connections, but overall they finished in good time. Once they were stationed back on either end, the spreaders, winches, and rotors worked fine to bring the behemoths together. Owen grinned at the reference marks; they were close enough that even Jonas couldn’t find fault with the placement.
When that part of the job was done, Owen looked down the interstitial space that ran longitudinally between the habitats. Roughly triangular in cross-section, with inwardly convex walls, the space was maybe a meter and a half wide at its widest point. It looked like a high-tech rat hole. He flashed his suit lights off and on a few times, and a moment later Monty responded in kind.
“I think,” Owen said, “we’re going to need a couple of kids.” Monty laughed.
The rest of the shift, Owen and Monty stepped through more of the connection procedure while Preston DeCapo did the same inside. Together the three of them made the final electrical connections and opened the switches and valves and vents that would allow electricity and water and air to flow between habitats.
They got as far as opening valve R-3896 when an unexpected pressure drop brought the procedure to a halt.
They closed the valve, recycled to the previous safe point, verified the conditions of the other valves in the system, and tried again.
They considered many different possibilities: a bad sensor, a valve somewhere that read closed when it was really open, a manufactured system that didn’t match the specification or the checklist they had on their computers. While Preston checked interior connections and compared notes with engineers in the corporate office down below, Owen and Monty went back over every step they’d accomplished to ensure they hadn’t missed something—and compared each step to the schematics to verify that the procedure itself wasn’t the problem.
Three hours later, Owen and Monty were back inside, the hang-up with R-3896 still unresolved. Jonas waylaid them shortly after they shucked out of their suits, and gave them only enough time to wipe off a little sweat before he called them in to debrief the day’s results. Susan and two other flight engineers joined in to listen.
Preston said his piece and left; he was scheduled to conduct remote training for a new group of station candidates. The rest of the debriefing seemed as if it lasted three hours, but according to Owen’s CommPact it had been just under one when Jonas called a break and let them fix something to eat. The talk continued amid microwave dings and slurping of null-gravity food packages.
They had almost finished eating when Jonas finally said, “That’s it, then. At least power is regulated throughout the three-habitat construct, even with the water valve issue. You bookmarked that procedure when you ended your shift?”
Owen nodded, and Jonas tapped something into his CommPact. “Okay. You two are on rest status and you’ll pick up where you left off tomorrow.” Then, as if it pained him to say it, “Good work today.”
Owen smiled, and felt his eyelids flutter. If he let himself relax, he might just fall asleep where he was—loosely strapped to a galley console—but he didn’t want to do that. It wasn’t fair to the others, since he smelled like sweat and the ripe inside of his suit. Their audience began to disperse, until Susan spoke.
“I want to go back to something you said a few minutes ago,” Susan said, her tone as friendly as hard vacuum. She held a drinking bulb in her left hand and gestured with her right. “You said it while you were outside, too. You can’t seriously be suggesting that we employ child labor up here.”
Owen smiled a little, happy that Susan was talking to him; but when his fatigued brain registered that she seemed irritated, he fought the temptation to squirm. It would just look weird. He shrugged, instead.
“I don’t know,” he said. “If we can’t figure out what’s wrong with R . . . thirty-eight-whatever, somebody’s going to have to go in there. I’m not a big guy, but it looked awfully tight to me. If we had bulky old suits, nobody could fit.”
Monty swallowed the last of the pasty reconstituted potato soup they had been eating, and said, “Summers is right—either kids or midgets, doesn’t matter.”
Jonas, as imperious as ever, said, “I think they like to be called ‘little people.’“
“Call ’em what you like,” Monty said, “call ’em all King William for all I care, just hire a few. When you think about going in there and doing any sort of work, small is beautiful, mate.”
“I wonder how small they’d make a pressure suit,” Jonas said.
Owen said, “Yeah, and kids grow, so either they’d need to be adjustable or you’d need to store different sizes.”
Monty snapped his fingers. “Adjustable suits, or adjustable kids?”
“Wait a second,” Susan said. “This isn’t funny. Are you seriously advocating that we bring children up here to work in those spaces?”
Owen blinked a couple of times. Susan had one foot hooked in a tie-down strap, the other artfully placed next to it; Owen guessed she must have been a dancer. Again, he brought himself back to the moment.
“I don’t know,” he said again, wishing he had a better answer. “It definitely looks too tight to turn around in there, and it might be too tight to do much useful work.”
“But, still,” she said, “children? Aren’t we beyond the need for child labor?”
Owen’s head started to pound, a slow rhythm above his eyes. Why couldn’t she leave it alone? “Everybody has child labor,” he said. “Some kids clean the house or take out the garbage—hell, that’s a lot of what I do now—and some work real jobs, paying jobs. My dad always said he had kids so he wouldn’t have to mow the grass.” He felt himself warming up, coming to a conclusion even if it wasn’t the one Susan wanted to hear. He drank a bit of water in a vain attempt to cool down, and continued, “I hear about how I shouldn’t buy a Justin Timbershirt because they’re made with child labor in some backwater nation. So I buy something else, and if everybody did then would those kids be better off, or would they starve?
“I mean, we had our own time of child labor in the U.S., and I’m pretty sure the U.K. and other countries did, too. Just nod, Monty. Sure, the conditions were horrid and I’m glad I didn’t have to work in them, but it seems like every economy goes through that. A time when anyone who can work needs to work, just to keep things going.
“So it comes across as sort of condescending to me when people complain about kids working, like it’s the first world telling the third world, ‘We know better than you.’ Who knows? Maybe it’s a natural part of economic evolution.”
Monty said, “Do a few buggers I know a right spot of good to have to work a bit. Make ’em appreciate what they’ve got.”
“Oh, I can’t believe you two,” Susan said. “How can you even think that? Jonas, tell me you’re not really considering this. Children ought to be playing and learning, not working for a living.”
Jonas said nothing, so Owen said, “Maybe so, but only affluent societies can let kids get away with not working. I figure there’ll be kids up here one day, breathing the air and drinking the water—”
“And fouling the plumbing,” Monty said.
“—and why shouldn’t they have jobs to earn their keep?” Owen paused, and wondered if the turbulence in his stomach was an artifact of the potato soup. He dismissed it and said, “My granddad was a farmer, and I worked on the farm almost every summer from the time I was eight. I don’t think it did me any harm. Learned a thing or two, too.
“And even though this place is high-tech, as an economy it barely registers . . . and won’t, until the asteroids start producing. Maybe not even then, if what the fabricators come up with turns out to have an Earthbound source after all. This is all a huge gamble, but if you think of it as an immature economy then having children work as part of it makes sense. Only mature economies have the surplus to let children just be children.”
Susan narrowed her eyes and shook her head. “I can’t believe you would try to justify child labor as an economic necessity. That’s Dark Ages thinking. Far be it from you to think of economics as . . . I don’t know, as if people actually mattered as people.”
Monty said, “He’s not talking about slavery, Susan—”
“He may as well be!”
“No, that’s unfair,” Monty said. “Summers is cruel, yes, but he’s not heartless. He’d treat the kids well. A bowl of gruel a day,” he lifted his package of soup as if he were a lawyer exhibiting evidence, “and every other Sunday off.”
“Thanks, Monty,” Owen said.
It was clear from the set of Susan’s jaw that she wasn’t amused. “Children already begin life with enough problems,” she said, “and you’d just add to them. And just because they’re small—”
“That’s a good point,” Monty said, “and why I suggested midgets. No child labor mess. Or, do they still have Pygmies in Africa?”
Susan let out a roar of frustration.
Owen said, “You, Monty, are a bad man.”
Monty grinned. “Truth, but no one takes me seriously so it’s okay.”
No one said anything for a moment—Owen was afraid that he might trigger another outcry from Susan—and the tension began to dissipate like a bad smell: it was still there, but gradually became less noticeable.
Jonas turned toward the hatchway, but turned back when Susan asked, “Well, what about the SEAGULLs? Couldn’t a couple of them be fitted to work in those spaces?”
Owen was aware of everyone’s eyes on him. He suddenly wished for escape more than he wished for a shower. He spoke slowly, to give himself a bit more time to think.
“They could, I suppose. It’d take some refitting, since they’re designed to operate in here, indoors. Too cold or too hot and they won’t work—valves would freeze, seals would leak, that sort of thing. Of course, they fly around in here by compressed air, so all the air stays inside . . . if they flew outside, we’d lose that much air. Then again, once we complete the ring and spin up some gravity, the gulls will be grounded except for working in the hub itself.”
“But it could be done,” she said.
“Maybe. Probably wouldn’t want them to use compressed air, though. Even minuscule amounts of water vapor would freeze . . . oxygen could dissociate and react with the surfaces. Probably best to use GN2.”
Monty scoffed. “Not a lot of gaseous nitrogen to spare around here.”
“Well, the asteroid survey found a vein of ammonia. Some of it could be cracked into nitrogen and hydrogen.”
“I’m not sure it’s as simple as that,” Monty said.
Owen said, “You wouldn’t need much. The gull tanks only hold a few liters—”
As if it knew it was being talked about, a SEAGULL flew into the galley. It rotated and then zipped up over their heads to vacuum up an errant piece of cracker. The whine of its vacuum fan wound down as the gull flew into the next compartment.
“Speaking of the SEAGULLs,” Jonas said, “it’s been a week since Halloween, Mr. Summers. Would you care to explain why that one’s tank still looks like a jack-o-lantern?”
Owen glanced at Monty, primarily to avoid looking at either Susan or Jonas. Monty put on a don’t-you-dare-drag-me-into-this expression.
“You noticed that, did you?” Owen asked.
“Actually, someone pointed out to me two days ago that more than one SEAGULL still has a vivid orange propellant tank, whereas before they all had black tanks.”
“Yes, well, I ran into a little problem,” Owen said. Jonas said nothing, and Owen glanced at him and saw malign curiosity on the commander’s face. “You probably noticed that I used high-visibility duct tape and black markers, since I didn’t have any paint to paint the tanks, but when I went to remove the tape . . . well, those are filament-wound composite tanks, and . . . I hadn’t counted on the tape sticking to them quite so well.”
“You mean you can’t get the tape off of them?” Jonas asked.
Owen found that the smell of the potato soup was making him a bit nauseous. At least, he blamed the smell. “Not exactly,” he said. “More that the tape started to pull off the outer layer of resin—”
Monty laughed, but cut his laugh short at the look Owen gave him.
Jonas’s voice held nothing close to laughter. “Do you mean that these SEAGULLs are operating with flawed propellant tanks?”
That made it sound so much worse than it really was. “No, I took that one tank out of service until I can pressure test it,” Owen said, “and I’m using the cage and other pieces of that unit as spares. The other gulls are fine, they just . . . have a little more mass than they did before.”
Owen risked a look around the galley. The curious onlookers had departed. Monty was turned toward the bulkhead and was wiping down his supper utensils. Susan was sipping from her drink bulb and appeared to be trying to ignore the conversation.
Jonas was staring right at Owen.
“Mr. Summers,” Jonas said, “If I find that you have endangered us by making those devices faulty, I will be sorely tempted to toss you in the next capsule down. But I’d rather deal with a problem than transfer it to someone else, so I wouldn’t do that.
“In other words, I hope you like it here. At this rate you will be indebted to the Consortium for a very long time.”
Be sure to read the exciting conclusion
in this month's issue,
on sale now.
Copyright © 2012 Gray Rinehart