[NB: I’m been a day ahead of myself lately for some reason; today, not yesterday, is the 22nd. Whatever.]
As Van Buren approached the alien globe, Hadrey and Celia crowded around the small window, craning to see something through the thick yellow-green haze. “How far, Davey?” Celia asked.
“Forty miles,” he said, his eyes focused on the controls. “I’ll slide us in closer.”
“Is that it?” Hadrey jabbed a stubby finger at the glass and held it there, backing away so that Celia could get her face close enough to see.”
“You see it?” Davey asked. “Thirty four now and slowing the approach.”
Celia stepped away from the window, sat down in the seat next to Davey, and started buckling in. “Spin down the yaw there,” she said, pointing, and Davey moved his hand to comply. “Sit down, Hadrey. You can’t see anything out there.”
“No, I can see it,” Hadrey countered, his face close to the small port.
Celia reached forward with both hands and lifted the artificial vision helmet off of its stand. She tossed her hair back and put it on, clamping it closed and activating controls on its side and front. The whirr of the cooling feed came on, and then the cool air was circulating through the helmet, exiting out of a vent in the back. “Okay, I’ve got it in here,” she said. “Distance is under 29, let’s null out that pitch now, Davey.”
“Roger,” he responded, manipulating controls. Davey had a flat-panel view of what Celia was seeing inside the helmet, but her view was much more impressive–and useful. Inside the helmet, Celia was floating in a clear environment, the mass of Saturn rotating in full color below her and the green alien globe clearly visible in front of her. It appeared to be only yards away, close enough to touch, but this was a result of the lack of anything in the display to give the view some scale. She pressed a button on the side of the helmet and a three-dimensional image of the Mimas Station complex appeared next to the image of the alien globe. It was a tiny, barely recognizable speck of yellow next to the massive green globe.
“Damn, this thing is big,” she said. “Twenty five now, slow to 14.” She manipulated the helmet controls again. “Hey, Davey,” she said, her hands working. “You see that?”
“See what?” he responded.
“That–that movement on the surface.” A pause, and then: “Davey, there’s something orbiting around it,” Celia said. She moved her relative viewpoint inside the helmet, inching closer to the globe. “I can’t really see, it’s too small.”
“At fourteen now,” Davey said. “Distance is under 22.” Both of them were conscious of the twenty-mile restriction, and neither would risk his or her license by violating it–alien ship or no alien ship. They were scooper pilots that had signed on to scoop helium, not edge their ship up next to some alien balloon. But it was there, and Artois wanted it investigated before the competition got word of it. Everybody knew that Micha Staven, CEO of Sosiot Partners, would fund his own sleeper mission to get a look at an alien ship. Staven might come along for the ride himself.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Celia said. “Null approach.”
“Approach nulled,” Davey said a moment later, and Van Buren hung there 20.7 miles from the huge yellow-green mystery. The crew was quiet for a few moments, Celia examining the globe and the exterior of Van Buren through the helmet, Davey looking at his own display, and Hadrey staring at it through the window, where it was now plainly visible.
Only the periodic ping of the ion engine was audible, until Hadrey broke the tension: “Damn, that sucker’s big.”
“Yeah,” Celia said, still inside the helmet.
Davey flicked his press-to-talk. “Mim, Van Buren. We’re 20.4 at null and ready to proceed.”
“Veebee, Mim,” came the response. “Is Dr. Martin under the hood?”
“Mim, I said we’re ready to proceed. Let’s get this over with, I’m burning gas here.”
“This is Martin,” Celia broke in. “I’m ready to roll, Mimas. You should have my feed now.” She tuned a frequency so that the station could see what she was seeing under her helmet.
“We’re negative on your feed, Doctor,” the controller returned in a few moments.
“Boosting now,” Celia said calmly. “How’s that?”
“Negative. We’re not getting that feed.”
“Hadrey, what’s the flux density out there?” Celia asked, but he was still looking out of the window. “Hadrey?”
The man seemed to come to, nodded, and turned toward his station. “Yeah, density,” he repeated, triggering displays on his own panel. He didn’t sit down, and when he had the number, he stepped toward the small window again. “Density is 88 now, near maximum. They won’t be able to receive for a while, just record it all,” he said.
Celia activated her push-to-talk. “Mimas, Veebee,” she said. “Flux density interfering with transmission, will record.”
“Record, roger that, Veebee,” the controller returned, his voice staticy and rough with interference.
Celia was moving around—virtually—under the helmet, getting closer to the alien globe, verbalizing her observations so they would be recorded as she did so.
“Object consists of two main pieces, a large globe and a smaller rectangular body. The surfaces are rough. There’s small round objects moving around the globe, orbiting,” she said. “No,” she corrected herself. “They’re not really orbiting,” Celia said. “They’re touching the surface, moving around on it.”
“What?” Davey responded. He was occupied with trying to keep the ship stable–and to respect that all-important twenty-mile limit. It hung over their investigation like a Sword of Damocles in the razor-thin margin of four-tenths of a mile. That was less than 1000 yards.
“The balls, they’re rolling on the surface of the globe,” she said. “Wait a minute– Wait a minute–something’s happening.” As Celia watched, the surface balls began to wander closer and closer together, spinning around each other, and slowing down as they did so. Celia suddenly realized that although the balls appeared to have complete freedom of movement, none of them had touched any of the others. They began to gather more closely now, arranging themselves into a hexagonal pattern. Once the pattern was complete, all was still. “Davey, I got–” The rest of her thought: —a bad feeling about this–was cut off by what happened next. Simultaneously, the balls collapsed in on each other, forming a solid sheet, and Van Buren shook in a series of very fast, very unnatural, very short shakes. Davey’s vision blurred for a moment, and Hadrey was nearly surprised off his feet.
“What the hell was that?” Davey muttered as he manipulated the controls. “Full reverse, I’m going to back us out of here a bit.” The ship pitched downward sickeningly, or appeared to.
Hadrey grunted. “Jesus Christ, we’re falling!” A stream of curses spewed from him as he grasped for something to hold on to.
“We’re not falling, Rookie,” Davey said. “The goddam artificial gravity just died.”
Celia had already unbuckled and removed the helmet and she let go of it. The helmet remained where it was, hovering in mid-air, gently rotating as her hands flew over her panel. “Diagnostics are negative, the grav should be working,” she said.
“Grab on to something, back there, I’m backing us out.” Davey applied the front thrusters and the ship lurched backward. Hadrey hadn’t had time or sensibility to grab on as he had been instructed, things were happening too fast. He crashed into a side panel next to the main display–or, more accurately, it crashed into him–and again he grunted as his mass was accelerated.
“I’ve got enough data here,” Celia said, still working her panel. “Let’s get back on the path.”
“Back on the path, right.” Davey repeated. “Hey! Rookie! Get back there and get on the pumps. We still got to fill up them tanks.”
Hadrey turned and nodded, his face impossibly green. He started making his way toward the back, hand-over-hand, pulling himself by this handhold and that strap, making progress. Davey and Celia were occupied with their panels, but both recognized the sound he made–neither one had to look. “Just stop right there, Rookie,” Davey said. “You vacuum that up right now. Use the vac in the medical stores. If that ball of puke hits me in the head, I’m going to put your ass in the tank.”
“Get the vacuum. Do it now,” Celia added her voice. “Don’t let it get on the equipment.”
Hadrey couldn’t answer, but they both heard the sound of the medical stores closures ripping open, and them the whirr of the vacuum and the sucking sounds that the vomitus made going in to it.
“You be damn sure to get all of it, Rookie,” Davey said. “I don’t want your goddam breakfast on my panels.”
“I’m working on the generators here,” Celia called as Davey unbuckled his shoulder straps and wiggled out of them. He released the lap restraint and floated up and out of his chair. “What the hell are you doing?”
“The feed from the fuel cells is interrupted, I ran the diagnostic already, you can’t fix it from the panel.” He was floating up to the ceiling, then he bent his body in half, rotating, and touched the ceiling with his feet, gently pressing against it.
“Where did you learn that?” Celia said, genuinely surprised at the older man’s nimble and effective movement in zero gee.
He moved to a prone position over her panel. “See here and here?” He pointed at her displays. “The spinners are slowing down. If they stop, we won’t be able to get them going again.” He flipped over, dolphin style, and kicked toward the back of the ship, where Hadrey was clinging miserably to the side of the wall.
Davey saw him there and had a rare–and transient–moment of sympathy. “How you doing, Rookie,” he asked in passing. “Don’t you puke on me, goddammit,” he continued talking over Hadrey’s weak response. As Hadrey watched, Davey flew through the passageway and landed precisely on a circular hatch that was held in place by wingnut-like locking devices with heavy twisting handles that extended half an inch or so from the panel. “You guys are always bitching about these handles,” Davey said. “Now watch and see why things are made the way they are on a scooper.” As Hadrey watched, Davey twisted the first one. “See? No recoil. Get it? I don’t need a special wrench.” Davey deftly twisted the other five and lifted the circular cover out, letting it float across the passage toward Hadrey. “Make yourself useful, will you?” Davey said, his attention already on the equipment inside the wall. “Catch that cover.”
Then something happened and three crew members had the same thought: Something’s wrong with my vision. Each of them lifted whichever hand was available and rubbed their eyes to bring the world back in to focus.
And in the next instant, the world did come back in to focus.
Without having moved, Davey was again strapped down in his seat, Celia again had the helmet on, and Hadrey was again looking out of the small window. And the gravity was on.
“What the hell…?” Davey said.
“What just happened?” Celia said. Her wide eyes met Davey’s.
“Oh, now that is weird,” Hadrey said.
Davey’s hands were clutching his chest as if to assure himself that he was whole. He half-expected the crushing pain of a broken bone or a gash in his flesh to crash into his brain at any moment, but none did. Then he looked up. “How close are we to that globe?” He asked as his hands moved to activate the proper screen–but it was already active and displayed the proximity readout, which clicked from 26.7 to 26.6 as he watched. It only took an instant for him to decide. “Full reverse,” he roared, and Celia was moving on her panel, even before the order. “Hadrey, you buckle down in the back,” he continued as the ship started to respond to his commands.
“Return numbers are in, and we’ll be ready for the burn in–” Celia waited for the calculation. “Eighteen seconds!”
“Hadrey, you tied down back there?”
“Aye, don’t wait for me.”
“Well, I wasn’t planning to, Rookie,” he muttered to himself as he worked his own panel, preparing for the engine burn that would push them away from the alien ship.