What follows is an excerpt from the opening chapters of my upcoming Sci Fi Novel, "Breaking Orbit, vol1 of the Titan Run Trilogy"
Please read, share, and keep an eye on this site and my social media for when the book becomes available -- later this Fall, in both eBook and Paperback!
Excerpt from vol1 of the Titan Run Trilogy
She gasped for oxygen but drew only hydrocarbons and carbon dioxide into her lungs, the cold and toxic mixture preserving her flesh while taking her life. She could not hear her team leader shouting at her over the alert channel.
"Hit your Panic Button! Marcie, your Panic Button!" Hugh sucked down his own precious oxygen as he yelled and stumbled over the uneven Martian mountainside, desperate to reach Marcie before it was too late. He fumbled with the flap on the pocket that held his repair kit for the roll of tape that might save her life, fighting back the voice in his head that told him it did not matter how fast he moved; he was already too late.
Marcie took a few clumsy steps in Hugh's direction, but ultimately stumbled and collapsed to her knees. Her body spasmed reflexively, diaphragm pumping, lungs sucking at the atmosphere for oxygen that was not there in defiance of what millions of years of evolution had come to expect. She dropped to all fours, chest still heaving, slowly grateful that the intense cold had taken away her ability to taste the air as the darkness closed in around her.
Hugh pulled a length of patch tape and tore it roughly from the spool. Half the piece became hopelessly coated with red dust as it dragged across the ground. Now useless, Hugh tried to shake it from his gloved hand only to find it stuck there. He managed to tear another piece free from his spool and turned to face Marcie. She had finally stopped sucking at the air and instead lay slumped on the ground with her helmet’s faceplate against the regolith.
He to her and slapped the dangling length of tape over the hole in her suit, mumbling about how she would be okay, she just had to hold on.
"Hang in there Marcie, I have the patch right here; we'll get you back to the dome and the docs will have you fixed up in no time," but when he rolled her over and looked into her face plate he noticed that her chest was not moving at all. Nothing that was Marcie was moving.
Behind the dusty plastic of the face plate her skin was purple and blue, her eyes horribly frosted over already; the heating element in her suit had been unable to withstanding the onslaught of Martian cold from both sides.
Then her eyes moved and locked with Hugh's. She reached up and grabbed his arm and stared at him accusingly with her impossibly cold eyes and purple skin. She shouted at him, and he slowly realized it was his own name:
"Hugh!" Rose shouted as she shook his shoulder with increased urgency. Hugh Saracen blinked and looked around him. He was not out on Tharsis at all. He was in his lab, safe and warm. He was staring at the results of the survey that had cost them all dearly; Marcie had been a great researcher and a better friend. Her notes from that day were up on his tablet, superimposed over the data. The notes ended at a time stamp that Hugh knew was only moments before she had fallen. The last words she spoke on the official record were to do with the growth rates of the Areophilic bacterium they studied. When he had first realized this days ago, Hugh knew that Marcie would have liked that her last words were to do with science.
"Oh no," Hugh said as he rubbed the bridge of his nose, hoping Rose had not heard him.
"It happened again, didn't it," Rose asked; she had heard Hugh mumbling to himself and she had recognized the reverie for what it was.
"Yeah, but ... I'm okay, Rose, I promise. I just need to finish checking Marcie ... Marcie’s ... I need to finish checking these field notes against the survey data and then I promise I will go home. I told Dalton I would cook for us tonight, anyway."
Rose sighed and offered Hugh a sympathetic look. She had lost people before to field accidents — everyone had — but Marcie and Hugh had become close in their years of working together at the research lab. "Why don't you go ahead and take off now?
"In fact,” Rose continued, “I want you to take a few days. I know you didn't take the time off you had coming after the accident. Take it now."
"But I'm fine, I swear."
"You are not fine. I've had to recheck your results twice already this week and I can't have you jeopardizing our grant funding," she hated having to use tough love. "Look, I know it's rough. We've all lost someone out in the field. The surface of Mars is..."
"...is more dangerous that being in space," Hugh recited. "I remember the safety training."
“You damn well should,” Rose replied.
“Why do you think it was nothing but robots for seventy five years before any humans arrived to explore this place? It’s not because no one wanted to come.
“Go get some rest. In fact, get some rest and call Dr. Jimenez; make an appointment if you need to see him in person. The work will be here when you're up to it. Mars won't be terraformed in a week."
Hugh sighed. ”I guess you're right,” he conceded.
“Thanks Rose — I’m sorry about the screw up with the results; Marcie and I used to check each other's numbers before submitting the reports."
"I know; it's one of the things that made you two a great team. Now go on before you get me worked up, Saracen. I have a lab to run and I'm now down two of my best researchers. By no one’s fault,” Rose added when she saw the look forming on Hugh’s face.
"Thanks; look, I'll try to make it in tomorrow. I'll take the night to think things through and clear my head..."
Rose held up a finger and shook it at him and then pointed that finger firmly at the door. "You'll take as much time as Dr. Jimenez says you should take, and I'll be calling him to make sure you've spoken with him. You have the time, Hugh — take it — because I can't have you working here if you don't."
Hugh nodded, knowing that the conversation was over. He gathered some of his personal effects from his desk and with a nod to Rose he left the lab. The flashback about the accident and then the conversation with Rose had drained him emotionally, leaving him exhausted and even more sad at the loss of his friend than he remembered being right after it had happened. He decided that some fresh air would do him good and so he walked the hour home rather than suffer the already packed trams that would have had him home in fifteen minutes.
Away from the lab and down on the streets where buildings and trees blocked most of his view of the Red Wilderness, Hugh's mind mercifully drifted away from thoughts of Marcie and by the time he was home he was planning the night's dinner menu. He would call Dr. Jimenez in the morning.
Built in to the human psyche is the need to meander, and the newly-minted Captain Dalton Simmons of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Explorers felt a deep-seated need to do just that. Plus, he thought as he walked along the boulevards while briefly considering the evolutionary logic of the purposeless meander, I need some more time to figure out how I'm going to share all this news with Hugh. It’s going to be a lot for him to take in at once.
The streets and boulevards of most Martian domes were laid out in a logical grid that made meandering more of a challenge than what evolution had prepared him for, but in the fashion of a man worth his new rank he solved that problem and turned a five minute walk into a thirty minute stroll in the general direction of home. He only crossed his own path once. Quite the navigational feat, Captain, he thought. He smiled inside and out, but for so many more reasons than just his clever walking skill. This day was special. He had earned his promotion years before he thought possible, and more! But how to tell Hugh?
His long had settled him down somewhat, but Dalton had still failed in his secondary objective, which had been to determine the best way to deliver his bounty of good news to his husband, who himself was suffering the loss of a dear friend; in truth they both were. Marcie had been Dalton’s fired as much as she had been Hugh’s, and the memory of her death was in sharp contrast to the fresh news of his own promotion. Dalton stopped for a moment at the top of the stairs that led into their apartment building, and turned at what he remembered — ever since Hugh had shown him — to be the perfect spot. He could see a strip of the Red Wilderness from between some elm trees. We miss you, Marcie, he thought. She would have been ecstatic for Dalton over his promotion, and she would have been a great comfort to Hugh for the rest. But she was gone, and Captains did not shy away from their duty. Not to the Benevolent and Protective Order of Explorers, not to their friends, and certainly not to their families.
As he walked down the hallway, Dalton's smile slowly faded as he approached the apartment door and his hand hovered over the entrance pad. Hugh knew that this planet-side assignment had been temporary. They had been apart before, ironically most of their time together had been apart as Dalton served for months or years at a time on BPOE vessels. But Dalton also knew that sometimes Hugh chose to ignore the facts in evidence when they did not match his favored viewpoint. This thought made Dalton chuckle darkly, because he knew damn well that Hugh was adamant about getting the facts right in the lab. No matter what his initial hypothesis had been. Dalton had even chided Hugh more than once about having used up all his objectivity on the soil samples in the lab, leaving none for his own husband. Yet too many loud nights over too much wine and Marcie's take on Martian mushroom casserole had passed between them, Hugh and Marcie hashing out results for hours while Dalton enjoyed their company and their peculiar microbiological theater, seeking the truth in the facts they had pulled from the regolith. Marcie’s face would have been a welcome presence, but that was not to be.
Still standing outside the door to the apartment, Dalton fixed a small supportive smile on his face and decided that the direct approach was the best.
Meanwhile Hugh fidgeted at the table, nudging the flatware and making minor adjustments to the placement of the glasses. He had already made three circuits around the apartment, straightening things that had not been moved in years and generally trying to be productive with all his restless energy. He checked the time again. Dalton should have been home a half hour ago, which meant that either he was working late (he would have called) or he too had decided to walk at least part of the way home. Hugh went back into the kitchen nook and made adjustments to the various cook settings so that dinner would still be palatable for them when Dalton finally did get home, damn him for not calling! Why was it so hard for him to offer a little common courtesy?
Hugh shook his head and put down the towel he had been wringing. He took in a deep breath and blew it out slowly, slumping against the sink. He knew it was nothing to do with Dalton, in fact, Hugh had every reason to be happy; content even. They had built a good home together (late getting home), and they had finally been able to see each other every day for the last Martian year thanks to Lieutenant Commander Simmons’ latest assignment, stationed planet-side to oversee the design of a new class of ship.
Then there was Hugh's work; exciting, meaningful work, but then part of that excitement was due to the danger of working outside the dome. And there was the rub. The danger that had jumped up from nowhere and stolen a close friend and an even closer collaborator. Hugh took another deep breath and this time held it for a moment before letting it go slowly. He made another mental note to call Dr. Jimenez, just s he had promised Rose he would. He had every intention of calling the therapist, but after Dalton was home and they had a chance to talk.
Dalton, who for so many years of their time together had been stationed on one ship or another on patrol cataloguing the flotsam and jetsam of the Solar System. His letters were always about the exciting rescues or dangerous pirate interdictions (that had almost always already been shown on the news before the letters would arrive), but Hugh knew about the long stretches of routine and boredom aboard a BPOE patrol vessel. Forgetting about the documentaries and the articles and the conversations that Hugh had shared with BPOE veterans and active-service spouses alike when they would compare notes, he could see it in Dalton's eyes whenever he would come home. For all the millions of objects in strange orbits that the BPOE kept an active record of, space, even interplanetary space, was unbelievably empty.
So when Dalton would be planet-side and home, Hugh made an effort to stretch his culinary muscles, ensuring that he did his part for the Order; however, when Lieutenant Commander Simmons was deployed on a mission, Hugh normally just chose to eat one of a few pre-programmed favorites from the protein synthesizer. The irony of this entire arrangement was not at all lost on Hugh as it was Dalton who had come to their relationship with the gourmet skill.
Dalton spent their first year together cooking increasingly extravagant meals for Hugh, until Hugh one night told him they had to talk.
"Oh no," Dalton had said. “You hate my cooking.”
Hugh realized too late that this was what he had intimated to Dalton, and decided that he needed to say what was on his mind quickly before his simple request grew out of control. "D, No! It's not like that. I ... I mean, I love that you put so much effort into cooking for me, but,"
"But you don't see us going anywhere? Is it that I put in for space duty? We talked about this --"
"Lieutenant Simmons!" Hugh had interrupted, knowing that addressing him by his rank was the one sure way to get Dalton's attention and quiet him down.
"D," he continued, “I love that you put so much effort into cooking for me, but I don't need or expect it! I am plenty happy eating from the synth most nights! It's you I want to spend time with, not your cooking!"
"Oh," said Dalton, not sure whether to be happy that Hugh was not in fact rejecting him, or sad that he was being asked to dial back his culinary adventures a few notches. He chose to be happy, and smiling he said "Well then, I guess I'll just have to donate the ingredients for tomorrow's dinner."
"I give, what were you going to make tomorrow?"
"Crab cakes with quinoa salad."
This was Hugh's favorite dish from Dalton’s culinary arsenal.
“Well,” Hugh replied, “let's not be too hasty about this. You do have a fairly established pattern of behavior here and I don't want you to have to just quit over night and find yourself without an outlet for your creativity. How about you make that meal, and then we can discuss what we will do with all our free time on synth nights?”
Dalton laughed as Hugh tried hard to keep a straight face.
Thinking back on that memory lightened Hugh's heart, and he snapped back to the present as he heard the door to their apartment. Moments later Dalton stepped into the kitchen, just a bit too casually.
"So when do you leave?" Hugh asked, feeling his light mood fade a bit in light of what long experience had told him was coming. Dalton had walked into the kitchen like that more than once in their time together.
"You know me too well, Hugh," Dalton said. “It’s not tonight, or tomorrow," he continued, "it's still a few weeks out, actually, but, Hugh -- AHHHH!" Unable to contain his excitement any longer, Dalton clapped his hands together and grinned broadly before grabbing Hugh into a big hug, in the midst of which Hugh finally noticed the shiny new rank insignia on Dalton's collar. That emblem caught the light like only a captain’s rank could.
"D! Is that what I think it is?! You got your promotion! That's great! We should go out and celebrate!"
"But you went to all this trouble," Dalton said as he indicated the well laid table complete with opened wine bottle with a sweep of his free arm. The other still held on to Hugh. "And I don't want to share this moment with anyone but you, because I didn't just get promoted, Hugh…”
"What?" Hugh pulled back to arm's length, wondering what other news his husband had yet to deliver, though he had a bad feeling. "The Order doesn't promote all of their officers to captain; especially when just this morning they were Lieutenant Commanders,” Hugh observed, "what other honor have they laid across the shoulders of their newest captain?"
"Well of course a captain ought to have a ship, D."
"Not just any ship, Hugh -- they gave me the Phoenix!"
"And you always swear you're paying attention," Dalton teased, “The Phoenix is the project I've been overseeing for the last half of my planet-side assignment. She's the newest multi-purpose platform! She scans, rescues, and is armed to handle the worst that the Trojan pirates can deal out, and baby she's mine!”
"Which Trojans?" Hugh asked, unable to resist the urge to tease Dalton with the most irrelevant question he could think of.
"The Jovian Trojans, of course."
"They are the worst," Hugh said, nodding in solemn agreement for a moment before his face cracked into its own huge smile and he grabbed Dalton and kissed him. "My captain," he said with his own arm sweep of the table, "dinner is prepared."
"There's more, Hugh.”
Hugh pulled away and fixed Dalton with a questioning look.
"Damn, D,” he said, “What have you been up to for the Order to heap all this on you?"
"No, this is about the ship. We need — I need a ship's biologist on my crew. I'm going to be in space for at least a year on this shakedown cruise, Hugh; and I want you to come with me. This cruise isn't another old Soviet-era bolt count in solar orbit, this is going to be as much about science as it is about proving what my ship can do. Plus, it would be nice to have someone on my side in the staff meetings.”
“Other than Gonzo,” Hugh said, “I can’t imagine you’d accept your first command without that pirate masquerading as an engineer on your crew.”
“You know me too well, Hugh, but reputation aside, Gonzo is just one man. Join us!”
For a moment Hugh thought it sounded great, but he then felt it would be running away from his problems rather than facing them, so he said "You can take perfectly good care of yourself, Captain Simmons, especially with Gonzo there to keep you from falling out of the sky. Also, not to blow holes in your eloquent speech, dear, but I'm not BPOE. I'm a civilian biologist with a pile of surveys and six teams who couldn't find a core sample with two hands and an auger without my guiding them waiting for me back at the lab. A lab that is currently located on the surface of Mars.
“Plus, I'd be the captain's man, and that’s just weird,” Hugh said with a smirk.
"But Europa, Ganymede, Io, Callisto!” Dalton countered.
"Will be nowhere near your sphere of action,” Hugh finished.
“I know the Order well enough to know that. No, D; I love you and the thought of serving on a BPOE ship — especially with you — does have a certain romantic appeal, but I need to keep my feet firmly planted on Martian soil."
"You always said you wanted to work off-world,” Dalton said.
"Right, after all the challenges on Mars had been met, and it's still a big red ball of puzzles out there,” Hugh countered.
“Now let's eat!” Hugh said, closing the matter.
“Speaking of the challenges of Mars,” Dalton said, “How was work today?”
“Not great,” Hugh confessed.
“Not another flashback?” Dalton asked, concerned.
“I wish I could tell you that it was just a broken core sample, but yeah; it was another flashback,” Hugh said.
He walked over to his place at the table and sat down hard. He poured them both a glass of wine and then took a long draught from his own. Then he refilled it.
“Oh Hugh, are you okay? Did you call Dr. Jimenez?”
“I have not yet called the therapist yet, but I’m under orders of my own to do so before Rose will let me back in the lab.” Hugh said.
Dalton pulled their dinner from the protein synthesizer and placed it on the table, spooning out portions for both of them as he joined Hugh in sitting down.
“The Phoenix doesn’t leave orbit for a few weeks, Hugh. I can take a few days if you need me here with you,” Dalton offered.
“No, Dalton,” Hugh said as he looked up from his plate, ”I know you’re here for me, but you have your orders and this is something I have to work through with Dr. Jimenez.
“I wish Marcie were here,” Hugh continued as he pushed his food around his plate. “She’d have been thrilled with your news.”
“I know, she’d be more excited that either of us,” Dalton agreed.
“Are you sure there’s nothing I can do for you?” He asked.
“No; seriously, I promise. I’ll be fine,” Hugh said. He then patted Dalton on the hand and said, “Hey, dinner’s getting cold, let’s eat.”
"Ann, come here please," Susan Bell called from her room at the far end of the apartment she shared with her daughter.
"Coming mother," Ann replied as she finished the page she had been reading. She then put down her reader and walked down the hallway to her mother’s room. The one with the view of the park.
"What's up, mom?" Ann asked as she walked into the room. She automatically glanced at the medical readout, it showing that her mother was in as good of health as could be hoped for a terminally ill person.
Susan looked at Ann with an expression that had never before resulted in good things for Ann, and then she spoke.
"I'm bored, Ann, and when I'm bored it hurts more,” Susan complained.
Ann fought back both the urge to grace and the urge to finally tell her mother what she really thought. Instead, she fixed a concerned look on her face and said "Mother, you have access to every MarsVid channel as well as 600 years of human literature from three worlds to read. How are you bored?”.
She clipped the last word a little harsher than she had meant to, and ground her teeth together, knowing what her mother would say next.
Just as Ann predicted, Susan’s expression changed to one of curiosity.
”How are you doing, dear?” Susan said. “I know this can't be easy for you; the other girls settling into their careers and families, building, publishing, nurturing the future of Mars while you're stuck here tending to your poor old mother.”
Susan had found something — make that someone — to play with after all.
"No mom, it's okay,” Ann lied. “I want to be here, and I'm glad I can help."
"Oh Ann, I'm glad to hear that,” Susan said convincingly. “I'm not just bored, it's the pain. I can't stop thinking about it, even when I do have something to occupy myself with.
“I try not to turn the pain dampener up too far, but sometimes I do and then I just fall asleep. I don't want to spend my last days sleeping, dear. Did Rachikov ever release that novel? I promised it I would review it for him."
"He's still at it, mom," Ann lied. The novel had come out two months prior, about the same time they had moved her mother home for good to begin the wait. Had Susan been well enough to publish one of her too-honest reviews, old Rachikov might not be enjoying his first commercial success in twenty years.
"Damn him. I need something to take my mind off this damned aching. Everything hurts, Annie. The only parts that don't hurt are my fingernails and eyelashes. It's too much sometimes…I…I…" Susan thumbed the control that increased power to the pain dampener she wore like a tiara.
Or a crown of thorns Ann thought, and then immediately felt guilty.
Either way, Susan Bell the literary critic finally crowned; a lifetime of modest notoriety brought to a slow end by an unfixable genetic anomaly. "I think maybe I'll rest for a few minutes, Ann dear."
"Of course, Mother," Ann said as she turned to leave her mother's room.
"If your father were still with us, he'd take care of me so you didn't have to,” Susan pointed out.
Ann smiled at her mother as the pain dampener worked its magic and the older woman fell into a medicated sleep, but as soon as she saw her mother's body relax the smile on Ann's face likewise relaxed. Her father's care had been a roof, a bank account, and periodic visits when he was on shore leave from his BPOE patrols in the Asteroid Belt. Petty Officer Chester Bell had been by all accounts a decent man and 'one Hell of a non-com,' but never what she would have called a father.
Ann returned to her chair at the far end of the apartment and picked up her reader. She failed to get lost in the story she had been reading as she had been earlier. Her mother's complaints about the pain were becoming more … real. Susan Bell had always been a complainer — it is what made her a natural as a professional critic — but there was more to it this time. Maybe it was the tone she used, the nostalgia for her husband who had joined the asteroids a dozen years back; or maybe it was her willingness to use the dampener so liberally, no matter what she told Ann. Better Living Through Direct Brain Stimulation was the joke they had all made in the certification course that all home caregivers had to complete before the Martian government would allow them to be used outside of a professional care environment.
Ann's thoughts, still unable to focus on the fiction in her hands, wandered back to that course.
"There are any number of ways someone could abuse a PD," the instructor had begun as she then enumerated the increasingly clever ways people had employed a pain dampener before and after the government stepped in. There were the thrill-seekers, the torturers, and the suicides. There had been others, but Ann could only recall those examples.
"And all of these are dangerous and stupid because one minute you think you're having the time of your life and the next you've fried your brain,” the instructor had said.
“Unless that was your goal all along, in which case mission accomplished, I suppose,” she had finished with a shrug and a thoughtful frown.
Two months turned to four and Susan Bell kept an increasingly heavy thumb on her pain dampener. She slept more often and longer, and she crashed between anger and sorrow when she was awake. She would beg Ann to show her how to overload the dampener, to end it all like the people from Ann’s cautionary tales. She would turn nasty when Ann refused, no matter how gentle or tear-filled the refusal. Susan had convinced herself that the instructor had been offering a hidden tutorial in ending a loved one’s suffering.
"Damn you, Ann Genevieve Bell,” Susan would yell, “I raised you to be too damn stubborn. Stop this obstinate shit and show me how it's done. Never mind! I can find out how to do it my damn self on the Net, you ungrateful little bitch. I'll just do it myself like I've always done, no help from you or your absent asshole of a father. Glorious death in service to Humanity my ass!
“Aaahhrrrrrr…" and then at the end of another tirade that had stung Ann with just a pinch too much of truth, Susan would writhe in pain until her thumb found the control. She would give in once more to the effects of the device and sleep. In some people the dampener caused strange dreams — electric sheep, they were called — but not Susan. Each time Susan turned up he dampener it was as if she were rehearsing for her death. It was as though she thought her final act would be subject to criticism as she herself had criticized so many in her life. At least that was how Ann saw it.
By the middle of the fifth month, Susan’s anger was spent and she no longer writhed in agony or yelled in anger. She had accepted her fate, even as her life lingered on. On a day much like that day three months past she called out to her daughter. There were tears on Susan’s face. In all of her fits of rage and sorrow to date she had never shed tears.
"I know it's coming — it's inevitable, Annie. I'm going to die."
"Oh, mom, no," Ann said reflexively.
"I am, Annie. You'd have to be stupid not to think that and I didn't raise you to be stupid. But I think I'm ready for it. Yes, I'm definitely ready for it. The pain — I thought I'd get used to it, like a hangnail or a broken arm — but this, Annie, it never stops as long as I am awake. If I'm only away from the pain when I sleep, then please, please help me sleep? I'm so tired, Annie. So tired. Please help me sleep?" Fresh tears rolled down her face as she quietly begged her daughter to help her one last time.
It was the same request she had made many time before, but it had always been with anger and accusation. This time Susan was asking her daughter with a sincerity that not even she could fake. This was no expression of frustration with her lot, no clinging to life.
Uncomfortable with her mother’s plea, Ann glanced habitually at the dampener's display unit and noted the level of the PD; it was at its maximum setting. The device could not do any more for her mother -- not in its regulated and unmodified form. Susan's sincere and tear-filled plea had finally broken through Ann's hardened heart. Ann remembered from the training class the quickest way to hack the dampener, just as they had been told not to do. All she would need as a screwdriver.
Gently touching her mother’s forehead Ann said, ”I’ll be right back, mom."
Now crying herself, Ann rummaged through the kitchen junk drawer to find the tool she needed and turned it over in her hands as she returned to her mother's side.
Susan's pleas for relief had turned into pre-emptive thanks as she realized what her daughter was about to do for her.
Ann gently worked the case of the control module open, careful not to mark the plastic housing. She found the calibration screws and she turned all three of them with the same screwdriver until they too were at their maximum setting.
After snapping the halves of the plastic shell back together Ann handed the modified controller back to her mother, who thumbed it again automatically. Susan’s relief was instant and obvious. And deadly. Before too long Susan would slip into a coma and their final shared ordeal would come to its end.
"I love you, mom," Ann said as she kissed her mother on the forehead and cheek. She took the controller from her mother's hand, pressed the button, and held it as tears rolled down her cheeks.
"I love you too, Annie,” she said. “And Annie? Thank you,” were Susan Bell’s last words before losing consciousness. Her breath slowed and finally stopped. Alarm bells called out from the monitoring equipment and a computerized voice reassuring Ann that the medics were en route.
When she was certain her mother had passed, Ann pried open the controller's case again and reset the modifications she had made. She returned the controller to her mother's still warm hand and the screwdriver to its drawer, and finally returned to her mother's side. Ann wept openly.
What felt to Ann like only moments later the medics used their universal lock override and burst into Ann's apartment. They rushed down the hall and into Susan's room where they confirmed that Susan Bell was indeed dead. The rest of the day passed in a blur for Ann as the medics made sure she would be okay, took custody of her mother’s body, and made arrangements for the dome’s Medical Center to retrieve the room full of now superfluous medical equipment. You have to be careful with these pain dampeners, one of the medics had told her.
That night Ann drank herself to sleep and dreamt of her mother floating before her. In this all-too-real nightmare Susan blamed Ann for cutting short her life.
In the days that followed Ann only found herself alone when using the bathroom or sleeping. Cousins, friends, acquaintances, admirers of her mother; they all stopped by Ann's apartment with kind words and food, with several variations of Martian Mushroom casserole and every kind of dessert.
People Ann had not seen since she graduated from secondary school came and expressed their condolences. To everyone — family, friends, her mother's colleagues — she said the same thing, "Thank you; I think in the end it was for the best. She had suffered so much for so long. It was a blessing she went in her sleep.”
And then the people consoling her would smile their best compassionate smile and pat her on the back of the hand; often they would pull her into a hug. They would mistake the guilt in her eyes for grief and ask if there was anything they could do for her before making their excuses and returning to their lives, duty to the grieving discharged. No sooner would one set of people leave when another would appear at her door, ready with compassion and a casserole dish for the woman suffering from her guilt.
Eventually Ann stopped accepting visitors. The well-wishers and admirers were thanked by her automated assistant and any food those same people brought was in turn donated to the dome's orphanage. She spent her time alone thinking over what had happened — what she had done — to her mother. The strange dreams came back and in them her mother would shift from damning Ann for killing her to thanking her for releasing her from her pain. Ann found that the dreams did not come if she drank herself to sleep and so she ended each day with a bottle, usually of something strong and brown.
Everything in the apartment reminded Ann of her mother. She soon thought about moving, but the stipend she had been paid to be Susan's caregiver was not enough to pay for a move. Having become her mother's caregiver so soon after graduating college Ann had never taken the internship she had needed to start her career. Now she would have to wait another year before applying and so she was stuck, living with the ghost of her mother and her own guilt.
The combined stress of joblessness, guilt, and the ever-growing amounts of alcohol she consumed nightly drove Ann to fits of paranoia. She was increasingly worried that the regulators would examine her mother’s dampener and readily discover her clumsy modifications. They would determine that she had in fact killed her mother in the very manner she had sworn not to do. They would charge her with a license violation, abetting seeking behavior, and worst of all: murder.
Ann could not have trusted her mother to hold the button long enough to administer the fatal dose, so she had held the button herself and she knew — she knew — that the regulators would find out. Stray DNA found inside the controller that could only have got in there via tampering … something. They would find her out and her punishment would be to join her father in the asteroids, but mining the very rocks her father had become a permanent part of. She would thus serve her sentence and then undergo re-education. The more she thought about it she realized that leaving Mars altogether was her only option. She would, however, do it on her own terms.
After another week of paranoia and liquor Ann sobered up enough to access the job boards to begin her search for off-planet work. She thought of signing up with the BPOE, but knew that when her crimes were discovered they would locker up in the brig of whatever ship she found herself on until her sentence was carried out. She needed something more remote. Something away from the rest of humanity. Then she found it: a hydrocarbon miner would be leaving in a week to make the Titan run and they were looking for hands. The most important part of the posting: No Experience Necessary.
Ann waved her hands and spoke at the terminal to send off her application as quickly as possible and rewarded her own effort with a stiff drink. Twelve hours later she received a request for an interview. She promptly accepted the offer and booked herself passage on the morning train to Socketton.
For the rest of what she hoped would be her last night in that apartment she stuffed some sensible clothes and a few personal items — like her reader that was loaded with the small library of books she had meant to read and also with family photos, should she want to see them — into a monogrammed duffel her father had given her three months after she had turned eleven. He had missed her birthday while on patrol but had brought her the gift on his next leave. In addition to his chronic absence, he had also been maddeningly practical.
The next morning Ann locked the door to her apartment. She left behind most of her things and a lot of memories. The guilt had packed itself between her shoulders weeks before. She refused to look back as she walked down the tree-lined street of her neighborhood to the tram station. There could be no looking back and certainly no going back; only upward and outward. Now all she had to do was get to Socketton and figure out what she would tell her interviewer. The truth would not do.
Gus Swenson, Chief Engineer of the mining ship Krakken sat in the office of the Zhong Hydrocarbon Mining Company. As ninety-nine percent of the ZHMC was done several hundred million kilometers away from Mars, the office was located in one of the several less glamorous sections of Socketton, not that Swenson cared much one way or the other. His true home was on the other side of the growing Martian atmosphere.
This did not, of course, mean that he failed to appreciate gravity when he was on Mars to experience it. While waiting for the rest of the Krakken’s senior crew to arrive at the office Swenson repeatedly dropped a stylus onto the table that also served as the CEO’s desk and conference table for their small company.
At times it also did duty as a foot rest.
Swenson continued his little game even as he heard someone enter the building and approach the office’s wood-grained plastic door. John Zhong, First Mate of the Krakken promptly walked through the door and took in the familiar scene before him.
“Gus,” he said to the engineer.
“John,” Swenson replied in greeting.
“Don’t you ever get tired of playing with gravity?” Zhong said.
“Do you ever get tired of the gravity my engines simulate for you when we’re in deep space?” Swenson replied.
"Where's the captain?” Zhong asked, changing the subject.
"Isn't she with you?” Swenson asked.
"Do you see her with me?” Zhong retorted.
"She could be hiding behind you,” Swenson observed.
"That joke never gets old, Swenson,” Zhong said.
"Mr. Zhong, sir, I like to amuse you,” Swenson said with a friendly smile at his old friend and former rival.
Gus Swenson's bearing then changed subtly as a tall woman with western eyes appeared behind John Zhong. She stood in the doorway quietly, her presence filling the room she had yet to enter.
"Captain," Zhong said with an almost military tone to his voice as he recognized the shift in Swenson’s demeanor. He was suddenly respect with a hint of polish, and instinctively stood a little straighter.
"John, so formal," Captain DB Zhong replied with a smile in her own voice, enjoying the privilege of her rank.
Hearing her good mood, Zhong turned crisply to face her and promptly stopped smiling when he saw that her expression was blank.
"Aye, Captain," he said as he felt himself slipping into old Order habits.
The captain held her composure for a beat before breaking into a lopsided grin and punching her first mate in the shoulder.
"How are you, Deb?" Zhong asked, laughing with relief while rubbing his shoulder where she had punched him. "What's it been, a year?"
"A week, John. I know it's hard to believe but sometimes I need a vacation from you."
"Not so hard to believe," he said, wiggling his bare left ring finger at her.
"Good First Mates,” she began.
”Make bad husbands,” Zhong finished. “I know, Deb, I know; you've told me a thousand times."
"You should hear what she says about engineers," Swenson said right on cue.
"Too much time with your machinery, not enough with mine," the captain answered with a pointed look.
"They need me more than you do, oh captain of my heart."
"Cut it out, Gus, geez," the captain said as Zhong groaned in agreement.
"You and I both know," Swenson said to Zhong, "that our good captain likes a few days occasionally where her only order is 'Yes, I'll have another!'"
"Saint Gustav Swenson, are you accusing your captain of having a taste for liquor?"
"I was at our wedding reception, dear,” Swenson observed.
Zhong nodded in agreement to the sad implication, "our poor Diane Beulah," and then his sad look shifted to the evil grin only shown to the closest of friends, which was just as quickly swapped for a pained expression as the captain punched him again, this time in the solar plexus.
Coughing, John Zhong caught his breath, stood straight, and adjusted his tunic, suddenly all business. "Captain, Engineer, as first mate of the fine ship Krakken, I must report that we are short two able crewmen for the collection team and cannot depart on The Run until these positions are filed."
"Aw crap,” Swenson said.
“Two greens on this run? I wish you had warned me, I would have laid in additional spare parts for when they shred my equipment," he complained.
"Who was it that quit this time? Mac and Maxwell finally decide to settle down and make babies?"
"Nope; Mac and Max are back for another Run, thank the stars; it's Smith and Moore. Smith said he couldn't handle another round of the boredom —“ Zhong said.
"I told him to bring more to read,” Swenson said.
“Gus,” the captain admonished.
"Sorry Deb,” Swenson said.
“— and Moore said she does want babies, so there's that,” Zhong finished.
"I expect you'll find us two able replacements?" asked the captain.
"You know me, Deb,” Zhong replied.
"Only too well, John; only too well,” she shot back.
“Gentlemen,” the captain continued, “other than our two empty berths on the collection crew, how is my ship? Did we find a medic?"
"Well," Zhong said, glancing at Swenson, "We did, but,"
"But what?” the captain asked.
"She's augmented,” Zhong said.
"And rich," Swenson added.
"I don't follow," the captain said, confused.
"Selene Nirgal," Zhong said, stressing the family name.
"Of those Nirgals?” the captain asked. “Claim to have come over on the Peacock? More money than Marineris has branches? What's the problem?"
"She's a little weird is all,” Zhong confessed. “If there was a real problem I wouldn't have hired her, obviously. I just wanted you to be aware that we had nobility on the crew."
"There's no such thing as Martian nobility, John,” the captain pointed out.
"They think they are,” Zhong replied. “Well, her family does. She's not as stuck up as the rest of the family from what I've seen, but she's still weird."
"Augmented," Swenson repeated.
"How?" asked the captain.
"She has a brain implant that interfaces with the Qi Comms to give her instant access to the Solar Net.” Zhong explained.
“I think that’s oversimplifying it a bit,” Swenson interjected.
“It's impressive. She can teach herself new medical procedures just by thinking about it."
“Well, either way I'm glad she's signed on to the Krakken,” the captain said.
“Doctors should be a little weird. She could have two heads and snore as long as she can run a sick bay."
"Should be fine, like I said,” Zhong offered.
"Anything else to report?” the captain asked.
“There’s Marsten," said Swenson, "The kid is getting itchy to run his own engine room."
"Can he?” the captain asked.
“Is he going to be a problem eight months out when deep space starts getting to all of us?"
"Nah, The kid will be alright.” Swenson said.
“This will probably be his last run with us, though. He'll listen. If anything, I think we should give him more responsibility. Let's see if he wants to find his own engine room after this run."
"I like it,” the captain agreed.
“John,” she continued, “make a note of that and let's give Wally some extra duties. Some overnight command, maybe.
"What about the ship herself?”
"All green, Deb,” Zhong reported for both of them.
Okay, so other than our personnel issues, all greens. Damn. John, find me some new hands. Sitting in orbit costs me fuel and fees and makes me no profit. If we're under burn, at least there's money to be made."
"If there's nothing else then gentlemen, meeting adjourned. Let's meet again before Gus and I head up the elevator, say two weeks? Is that enough time to find our new collectors, John?"
"I really hope so."
"So do I. Gentlemen, I apparently have an appointment with a bartender," and winking at her two ex-husbands, Captain DB Zhong stood up, made her goodbyes, and was gone as quick as she had appeared.
"I'll always love that woman."
"Me too, John, me too."
"Let's get a drink ourselves, Gus."
"Aye, sir; let's."
It was the return leg of their last run, and Captain Zhong floated at the entrance to her collection crew chief’s quarters. Pradesh Stevens invited her in, even though the quarters themselves belonged to the captain as much as the rest of the ship.
“I know you report to Chief Swenson,” she said by way of greeting, “but I spoke with him and I’d like to talk to about this with you directly, Pradesh,” the captain had said.
“Of course captain. What can I do for you?” he had asked.
“There’s a planetary alignment coming up, Pradesh, and I’m sure you know that means a short turnaround once we reach Mars,” captain Zhong had explained. “Being able to use Jupiter as a slingshot is going to save us a lot in fuel. Gus says he and Wally can have the Krakken ready to fly, but can I count on you to have her pumped out and restocked in that short time frame?” she had asked.
“You can certainly count on me, captain. I will not let you down,” Pradesh had replied.
Since that conversation with the captain a year ago he had been planning this short turnaround. All the preventive maintenance that could be done before Mars Orbital Insertion Pradesh had assigned to the last crew on their return voyage. He was fairly certain that was why Strath and Moore had chosen not to sign on for another run.
Together with Max, Mac, Rich they had all worked three times as hard as any crew normally did on the return leg of a run This was normally a period of rest for the collection crew to allow them to recover from the stresses and long hours of collection on the surface of Titan. Both Strath and Moore had let everyone on the collection crew know how much they did not care for all the additional work. Even though their quitting the crew meant there would be two greens on the next run, Chief Swenson had been pleased with the progress of the maintenance when they pulled in to orbit and he had let Steven know. Swenson’s words were appreciated, but still Stevens took it hard whenever members of his collection crew chose not to sign on for another run.
"Come on, Pradesh," Chief Swenson had said to him as they docked with the elevator station, "you've accomplished more with a tired crew and depleted supplies in the past three months than I've seen done in six months with full access to Mars orbital resources. Hell, we could turn around now if we had to; your crew did a damn fine job. Take a week planetside."
"Thanks, Chief, but I must insist on staying aboard Krakken while we are in Mars orbit. There are many tasks to accomplish, starting with pumping out the slush, which I must confirm has been successfully completed so that we can all receive our payment. Never mind the fuel savings from transferring all of that mass from our holds,” Stevens explained.
"Good point, Pradesh. It'd be nice to get paid. After that, then. Take a couple days leave,” Swenson offered.
"Sorry, Chief, but once we are paid I still have many tasks to complete,” Stevens indicated.
"Well, dammit, at least think about it, Pradesh, okay?” Swenson asked.
"I will Chief, thank you,” Stevens said, genuinely touched by the Chief’s offer, but very much focused on his own responsibilities as a Chief. The captain was counting on him.
That had been two weeks ago, and as Stevens looked at his list of remaining tasks he knew there was no way he would get them all done. He spun slowly as he floated in the Krakken's galley, sipping his morning tea bulb and muttering angrily to himself in the only Hindi he knew which were admittedly mostly swear words. These small, familiar comforts focused his mind and a plan began to form. He had some calls to make.
“Mr. Zhong," Stevens greeted his superior.
"Mr. Stevens. Calling for the new crew manifest? How goes your list?"
"I am actually calling about the second item, sir."
John Zhong detected some irritation in Stevens' voice. "Everything okay up there? Swenson told me you haven't taken any leave. You need a day or two planetside?"
"Precisely the opposite, sir. I need," Stevens paused, angry with himself that he had to say this, ”I need some help, sir. Permission to call back Mac and Max some days early to assist in my list completion.
"I have pallets of supplies arriving on the elevator in five days and I should like them to accompany these supplies,” he explained.
"Very good, Pradesh. Proceed; but are you sure you won't come down? Even for a day?” Zhong asked.
"Respectfully, sir, There is too much work remaining for me to take any time away from the ship. I promise to take extra leave after this next run,” Stevens said.
"In three years?” Zhong replied, somewhat surprised.
"Yes, sir,” Stevens replied honestly.
"You're something else, Pradesh,” Zhong said with a chuckle, “My best and my thanks to Mac and Max; if I know them as well as I think I do, I’m sure they’ll say yes. Something tells me they'll be plenty happy to get back to the Krakken themselves."
"Sir," Stevens said and closed the call before taking two deep breaths to calm himself. Planetside! There was too much to do and of all people John Zhong should understand! After all, Captain Z would hold him personally responsible if her ship was not ready to leave on schedule, not Stevens.
Stevens, having floated away from the communication console, launched himself through the microG back over to the console and placed his next call.
"Mac," he said, wasting no time with pleasantries, "Can you and Max please report to Krakken in five days with the supply pallets that are coming up the elevator?"
"Hi Pradesh. Um, sure, we can wrap up our leave early. What's up?"
"I need assistance with completing my list," the collection crew chief answered. The words came out easier this time, tinged with relief that help was on the way.
"Sure, we're glad to help. We couldn't really get into anything long term with the three week turnaround as it is, so Max and I were just knocking about Socketton as it is. See you in about a week?"
"Yes, see you in five days," Stevens said before cutting the link again.
Planetside, Mac broke the not unwelcome news to Max. She immediately insisted they go out for a nice meal before returning to ship-based fare.
Back on the Krakken, Stevens revisited his list, even though its contents were by now burned into his retinas. He began the process of delegating the remaining items among a three person team, still struggling with the conflicting emotions of embarrassment and relief. After working through the list three times and confirming that everything would be handled in time for their launch date, he filed his updated plan with Chief Swenson and First Mate Zhong. They both acknowledged receipt within a few minutes of Stevens’ sending of the plan.
John Zhong in turn updated the captain that they were back on schedule. She smiled at the news when it appeared on her screen. Somehow Pradesh had come through for her again. When other captains would ask about her crew chief, she would smile cryptically and say no more than "he came with the ship."
"Are you sure you want Robinson's tonight?" Christopher MacGuillicutty asked his wife as they stood at the entrance to Robinson’s Fine Cuisine.
"Yes, I'm sure. Kim told me it's the best place in Socketton these days and I want to try it before we go up and out again," Janine Maxwell replied to her husband.
"Fine, but Kim's idea of good food and my idea of good food are rarely the same."
"You'd be happy eating hydroponic carrots and protein pouches as long as the salt held out, Mac,” she shot back with only partially false disgust.
Mac threw up his hands and said, ”Guilty, my love. I am a man who has chosen his work based on the culinary offerings."
"Thank God captain Z is a good cook,” Max replied.
“Hey, is that Rich coming out of that bodega over there?” she said, pointing across the busy street.
"Yup; let's say hi,” Mac agreed, shielding his eyes from the sun glare off the dome struts as he peered in the direction of Max’s fingers.
"We just saw him two weeks ago and we'll see him again in a few days,” Max admonished.
“Can’t we let the man shop in peace?” she asked with her hands on her hips.
Mac gave Max a look that she had long ago learned meant "Not a chance."
"Rich!" Mac called out while waving his arms wildly, the result of which was for Rich Theming to notice the crazy person with the familiar voice that had called his name.
He spied Mac and Max making their way through the crowd and crossed into the street to meet them. When they came together he placed his armful of bags down on the pavement.
"Hi guys," Rich greeted them, "What's got you in this end of the city?"
"Robinson's, apparently," Mac answered, rolling his eyes for Max’s benefit.
"I hear that place is pretty good; Classic Earth Jazz, vaulted ceilings, and grown food. In dirt even; no hydroponics.”
"Yeah," Mac said with a tone that indicated he was not entirely sure that was a good thing.
"So, Rich," Max said after giving her husband a look that everyone who knew them likewise knew all too well, "doing a little shopping?"
"Just stocking up the house for Serena and the kids before we have to head up and out. I try to help out as much as I can while we’re planetoid, but it never feels like enough. You know how it is; she loves the paycheck but hates losing me for 3 years at a hitch."
"Ouch, yeah," Mac said, "and our quick turn-around this time must not make her very happy."
"You know it, Mac. I've had to cram three months worth of chores into three weeks. Getting back into space is going to be like a vacation, but don't tell Serena I said that,” Rich paused for a moment, thinking.
“Hey, you guys haven't been over this time,” he said after a few moments.
"We've all been so busy," Mac said.
“Plus,” he continued, “we figured that Serena would want you to herself as much as possible.”
Rich chuckled at Mac and nodded at his shopping bags.
“You could say that,” he replied.
“Seriously, though,” Rich continued, “you guys want to come over tomorrow evening? The kids asked about guys and they're all so big since we were last planetside; you won’t believe it!”
Mac turned to his wife with raised eyebrows and said, "Max?"
"Well, we're booked up the elevator in two days and I can't think of a better send off than Serena's cooking,” Max said.
"Why are you guys heading up so early?” Rich asked.
"Stevens wants us to help him with all the systems checks because of Captain Z's short turnaround,” Mac explained.
"Don't believe that nonsense for a minute, Rich. Mac is pining for Gus Swenson's finest protein packs. Don't let him tell you it's all about duty and sacrifice,” Max corrected.
"I like the taste," Mac shrugged.
“Right. Rich, it’s a date. We can’t wait to see Serena and the kids tomorrow,” Ma said with a smile.
"Great! We'll see you guys there," Rich said as he picked his bags up from where he had put them on the pavement.
"I'd better get these things home and tell Serena the news,” he said, his mind already thinking ahead to when he got home.
"See ya, Rich,” Mac and Max said in unison.
"Bye, guys,” Rich said with a small wave from one bag-laden hand.
Mac and Max made their way back across the busy street and into Robinson's, which as promised featured the strains of Louis Armstrong coming from somewhere in the almost criminally high ceilings. There was atmosphere everywhere.
"My bank account," Mac said with a pained expression on his face.
"Quiet you. We make plenty and this is on me,” Max shot back while poking him in the arm.
"Well then in that case, let's eat!” Mac said, rubbing his hands together.
After being led to their table they shared a wonderfully prepared meal, delighting Max to no end. As the meal wore on the conversation wound its way back to the Theming family, and more generally about children.
"Jessica and Thad are good kids," Max said.
"Yeah they are. Serena is a saint and an amazing parent, too,” Mac agreed with his mouth full.
”She is. What do you think?” Max asked.
"About Serena? I just told you,” Mac replied, a little confused.
"No, kids,” Max explained unhelpfully.
"Jess and Thad?” Mac asked, still confused.
"No, ours, jerk,” Max said.
"We don't have any kids,” Mac replied, no closer to understanding what Max was trying to say.
"You want to?” Max said, finally clarifying the entire conversation for Mac.
“Sure,” Mac said, “some day, when we're tired of flying off to high adventure for years at a time and we’re ready to settle down."
"Good point. Kids and the Run don't really mix,” Max agreed.
"Maybe we get our own ship and do the Venus Run? Raise the kids en route? Take them to Earth so they can see the home world?” Mac said.
"Spacer kids? And Earth? I dunno, they can be weird,” Max observed.
“Which?" Mac asked.
“Either,” Max replied
"Yeah, but people do it, Max. Think about it: our own ship, a quicker turnaround…” Mac said.
"Less pay,” Max replied.
"More trips,” Mac agreed, pointing his fork at her for emphasis.
"Ship upkeep, crew, rad shielding,” Max said, holding up a finger with each point made.
"Fine, but think about it,” Mac said.
“You too,” Max replied.
"Agreed. So what does Stevens need us to do, anyway? Count slush bags?” Mac asked.
"Probably that and a hundred other things that he usually takes a month to do by himself,” Max said.
"Awesome. Rich is right — actually getting under way is going to be like a vacation,” Mac said as he contemplated the work waiting for them.
"For you and your palate,” Max teased.
"You said it. This real-cow beef stuff is so…"
"Expensive?" Max said, looking at the bill that had appeared on their table somewhere in the course of their conversation.
"Animal-tasting," Mac finished.
"Well eat up, space man, because we're getting dessert,” Mac said as she motioned for their waiter.
Mars rolled by slowly underneath the Krakken. It glowed red and orange, with the occasional sparkle as sunlight glinted from the domes when they hit the right angle. Meanwhile other ships also held their station above the planet or moved from one position to another per the whims of Mars Orbital Control, but none of this was visible from Wally Marsten's quarters aboard Krakken. Not that it mattered to him, since he normally only ever saw his quarters long enough to strap (or fall, depending on their current acceleration status) into his bunk and sleep. Which he was doing at that moment, with gusto.
Wally had spent the better part of the previous day working with Chief Swenson to tear down and rebuild their main propulsion generator. They usually had a month to do the job, but with captain's demand of a quick turnaround at Mars, they had somehow done it in two weeks. If Wally had been any less exhausted he would have been concerned that they had forgotten to tighten a bolt or three. As it was, he snored away in a deep, honest, and weightless sleep. Until his screen began to beep with an incoming call.
Without truly waking up he reached out with a practiced hand to the place where he always secured his screen and stabbed it with a finger to accept the call.
"Hello?" he said groggily, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
"Wally dear! It's your mother," said Wally's mother’s voice from the screen’s speaker. "Can you turn on your camera?"
"Sure mom hang on a second," Wally mumbled as he unstrapped himself from his bunk to maneuver into position.
He blinked and shaded his eyes from the brightness of the screen as he activated the camera. An image his mother and father sitting in their living room in the same apartment where he had grown up on Earth appeared on his screen.
"Hi dad," Wally said to his father.
"Hello son," his father replied, "still tinkering away at those spacer's toys?"
"Yes, dad. I'm still playing an integral part in humanity's conquering of our Solar System. Pick any flowers today?” Wally shot back.
"Wally! George!" Wally's mother interjected.
"Sorry, mom. I've only had about…" Wally checked the time on his screen. "About two hours of sleep in the last forty-eight. I'm too tired to listen to another lecture about coming home and tending the Garden,” Wally said, careful to pronounce garden with a capital ‘G’.
"We're preserving humanity's home for when those spacers you pal around with wreck it all and have no where else to breathe,” Wally’s father replied.
"Okay, Dad, okay. Thank you for keeping the lights on, on behalf of all humankind. Anyway … what's up?” Wally asked.
"Do parents need a reason to call their son? We hadn't heard from you in awhile and wanted to see how you were,” Wally’s mother said.
"I meant to call when we made orbit, Mom, but captain has us on a quick turnaround this time and Gus and I got right to work on maintenance as soon as we hit our parking orbit," Wally explained.
"Just five minutes…" his mother replied, pretending not to understand any of the terms her son used, even though he had explained them to her on multiple calls over the years he had spent in space.
"I'm sorry Mom, I really am. But I'm awake now and I don't have to be back on duty for 12 hours. How's the building? Any freak storms blow through lately?"
Wally and his parents then settled into a familiar conversation that was more for the comfort of sharing one another’s presence than it was for the sharing of any meaningful information. He chose to ignore (as he always did) his parents' sad confusion at his choice to turn his back on what they considered his solemn duty as a son of Earth to care for their home world.
Until the end of the conversation, that is, when Wally's mother said, "Wally, Alex Johansen has an opening for a senior environmental engineer over in Hazelton. You could stay here until you find a place and you wouldn't be out there waiting for a stray rock to blow you to bits.”
Wally’s mother had not tried to lure him home in a very long time, so this sudden suggestion gave him a moment’s pause. It was off script for their usual course of conversation. He thought he had finally convinced them it was a waste of their time, and Earth’s precious oxygen.
“Is everything okay at home?” Wally asked, “Are you or dad sick?”
“No Wally,” his mother replied, “we just thought you might miss the blue skies and real air.”
"Mom, no. I mean, thank you and I know you think it's dangerous out here, but you also know that the BPOE is tracking anything and everything big enough to do any real damage to the Krakken. We're perfectly safe up here," as long as I remembered to tighten those bolts on the generator housing, he thought but did not say.
"And besides," he continued, "After this run I think I might have an offer to run my own generator room on a ship doing the Venus run. Then I could come visit you guys every now and then."
Wally saw the pride in his father's eyes. It was an emotion that he knew the man would never admit to feeling; especially when it was about what his son was doing on the wrong side of Earth's atmosphere. But the pride was still there.
They spoke with each other a little longer before exhaustion caught up with Wally again. He could feel his eyes beginning to close and despite himself he yawned broadly.
"Oh my, Wally. You look beat," his mother said.
No kidding, Wally thought.
”Yeah,” his father said, “go get some sleep son. You're the only Earth-trained engineer on that wreck. They need you sharp."
That was the closest Wally’s father would come to praising his son’s work, but Wally took the compliment for what it was. It was something.
"Okay," Wally said through his hand as he tried to stifle another yawn. "I love you guys. If I find time before we break orbit I'll give you a call."
"We love you too, son. Good night," his mother said.
"'Night," Wally said and ended the call. He rolled back over to and strapped himself back into his bunk and soon was once again snoring, warmed by the approximate praise his father had shown him. If only most of the people he met out here we that nice to Earthers.