Thousand Words a Day for August 9, 2017

Jed worked methodically, using his rubber hammer to nudge the plates into alignment and then passing the inch-diameter bolts first through one hole then diagonal to the next. He attached the nuts finger-tight before inserting the other two bolts, then he twisted on those nuts to finger tightness. He reached in his bag for the no-recoil electric wrench, confirmed that the tension was set correctly, and used the wrench on the nuts.

As he was tightening the last one, his headset crackled. “Jed, where are you?”

He activated the push-to-talk and responded. “I’m on top of Old Smokey, where are you?”

“Very funny,” the voice responded. “How’s it going?”

“I’ve got {i}Taft {/i} done. I’m connected to {i}Hoover {/i}now,” he said. “I was just about to move on to whichever one is below {i}Hoover{/i}, I think it’s {i}Van Buren{/i}.”

“Yeah, okay. Before you go on, check the temperature in the tank, will you? Bobby says his tank is getting too cold.”

“Rog,” Jed responded. “Which one is Bobby on?”

“{i}Morgan{/i},” she said. 

“Okay, I’ll be done here in a moment.” He clicked off and put the wrench back in his suitbag. He floated above the top of a stack of small spacecraft called scoopers which were designed to be launched from Mimas Station, make the short trip to Saturn under freefall, then fly in the thin upper atmosphere, capturing and compressing the thin gas for processing back at the station. 

Each was named for a former US President, and each had its own personality. In theory, the ships were simple—ion propulsion, nuclear-electric power for the atmosphere pumps and crew support. But they were heavily and sometimes roughly used, and the scarcity of spare parts meant that somewhat creative means of keeping the scoopers going had to be used. For instance, after {i}Truman {/i}had had its ion tensioner on the left side damaged in a hangar bump, it was fixed–sort of–with some aluminum tubing from one of the hydroponics and a warning to pilots to ‘take it easy on the left side.’

{i}Buchanan {/i}had its induction ports wired backward; the life support on {i}Quincy Adams{/i} chugged out either pure oxygen or pure nitrogen; {i}Clinton {/i}wouldn’t pressurize the atmosphere tanks all the way. But the crew did the best they could with what they had, and continued to shoot those little containers of 34-percent-pure Helium-3 on their long automated trip back to Earth every four hours, and as long as the stream of helium was unbroken, nobody was much interested in fixing the scoopers. 

Jed reached down for the joystick on his left suit boom–an arm that came from around the back of his suit and which contained a number of controls–and jetted forward, up and over the smooth surface of {i}Taft {/i}until he was clear, then he allowed himself to fall gently toward the hard rough surface of Mimas, outside the protective dome that enclosed the habitat portion of the station. He touched down and flipped the jet off. 

“Mim Four, EVA Seven, I’m down,” he said into his headset radio.

“EVA Seven, Four, down,” the controller responded. 

Suddenly, the earpiece in Jed’s helmet sounded a piercing tone, and he reflexively slapped with his right hand at the mute on his left forearm. Then the station’s computer’s voice, strangely calm and feminine, replaced the alarm: “Alarm blue, all personnel report to recovery locations. Alarm blue, all personnel to recovery locations. This is not a drill. This is not a drill.” The tone sounded again, and then Jed punched his push-to-talk.

“Mim Four, what the hell’s happening?” He released the switch and voices overlapped each other on the channel. He waited, reviewing procedures in his head. He had a recovery station to which he was expected to report in his position as a scooper pilot, but that applied while he was inside the dome of the station’s habitat. If on a scoop, then his job was to establish control of the ship, evaluate and maintain life support, and then stabilize the ship’s location and await further instructions. But he wasn’t inside the hab, and he wasn’t onboard a scooper–he was standing on the surface of a moon of Saturn outside the dome, a place the Company didn’t really expect him to be.

“EVA Seven, comm check,” he heard one of the voices on the channel say. It was Mimas Control.

“Mimas Four, EVA Seven, comm check,” he answered back.

“Stand by, Seven,” the controller said and then he heard the channel smartly click off. Jed had been facing away from the dome, but now he turned toward it, and what he saw immediately bothered him. The sun was shining in from the other side, and he could see that the dome was filling with a foggy green substance, thin, but quite definitely there. As he watched, the fog floated across the flat grey surface of the inside of the dome and then thickened as it began to fill the dome. 

His helmet speaker crackled again. “EVA Seven, Mim Four,” the controller said, “Can you give us a visual from your location?”

“That’s affirm. I see fog filling up the dome.”

“Say again, Seven.”

“I say, I see fog filling up the dome,” Jed repeated. “Thin green fog, it’s running across the ground inside the dome and starting to fill it from top to bottom. What the hell is going on?”

He could hear the controller’s voice muttering, muffled, to someone–he immediately knew that the controller had cupped his hand over the microphone at the end of his headset boom. The incomprehensible muttering he heard was only one side of the conversation, that was apparent from the long pauses, but he waited patiently. Then he heard the voice clearly again. “Seven, say your distance from the dome.”

“Ah, I’d say about fifty yards.”

Again, a conference intervened, of which Jed could hear only one side, muffled and muttered. 

Then the controller came back on. “Okay, Seven, approach the dome and report your perimeter location.”

“Mim Four, EVA Seven, confirm permission to approach dome.” Jed wanted a double-check on this. Approaching the dome on foot was strictly prohibited and there were a variety of defensive measures in place to prevent someone–or something–from approaching it. 

“EVA Seven, Mim Four,” the controller coughed, once lightly, then more heavily. Jed heard that muffled too, as if the controller had had the presence of mind to cup his headset microphone before he coughed to avoid an explosion of sound from emanating on the other end. “Your approach to the dome is confirmed, countermeasures and protective devices are off, repeat off, you are cleared to approach.” The end of the controller’s sentence trailed off into a coughing fit, which itself was truncated by the end of the controller’s transmission. 

What the hell is going on in there, Jed thought. “Roger that, I am approaching the dome.” He took a few steps in preparation for the large step that would launch him above Mimas’ surface before he activated his jetpack, but then thought better of it. It was only 50 yards, not even that far; he’d just hoof it. 

He had walked about 10 yards when another voice came on the comm link, a feminine one. “EVA Seven, Mim Four,” she said. “Report position.”

“I’m twenty yards from the dome,” he said. “I’m walking.”

“Roger,” her response was immediate. “Continue, approach, and report perimeter station ASAP.”

“Approach and report,” he repeated. He closed the distance and stopped at the point where another step would bump him into the glassy, clear-plastic surface of the dome itself. The dome was made of a plastic ceramic impregnated with radiation-filtering particles and some other high-tech devices–its purpose was to protect the habitat from cosmic radiation, errant magnetic pulses from Saturn, and particle stream spikes. Jed looked down and just to the left of the ends of his suitboots a metallic spike projected from the bottom of the dome parallel to the ground. On the spike, the number K343 was embossed.

“Mim Four, Seven,” he said into his microphone. “I’m at K343.” 

Silence.

“Mim Four, Seven,” he said, trying again. “K343.”

Silence.

He looked up to see that the entire dome, as far as he could see, was entirely filled with thick green foam.

Author:

Banjo player bringing the banjo to your town, hamlet, burg, village, and whistle-stop!

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