I Got You
by Lou Antonelli
“I tell you, I felt something!”
The comlink crackled. “Your imagination is running wild facing the deep vastness of space.”
“This is no time for sarcasm! I tell you, your scan is wrong!”
“We don’t see even the teeniest, tiniest micrometeoroid out there,” the Chief said evenly. “You got the space boogies.”
“I’ve been doing this for ten years now. I think I have pretty good instincts.”
“Perhaps you’d like a slight amusement. I can punch up your personal music playlist.”
“I don’t need any distraction. It’s my ass on the line out here, so go upload yourself!”
“Are you hung over?”
“I’m as sober as a Raelian. I’m just about done.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“I tell you, I keep feeling little hits.”
“Alright, I’ll adjust the sensitivity of the scan.”
“Thanks. It’s about time.”
Travers let loose of his spanner. It whirled out into space.
“What does that mean?”
The Chief’s tone changed. “Umm, come back in — now.”
Before he had a chance to reply, Travers felt a punch in his thigh. A shrill whine and a hissing sound told him his suit had been compromised. The entire consistency of the suit changed as sealant flowed to close the puncture.
He let fly a cacophony of obscenities, culminating in an explosive “shit!” as he realized he was bleeding inside his suit. He looked over and saw the air lock was already open.
The Chief barked. “John, get in here now.”
He punched the button to disable his mag clamps and pushed off with his fingertips from the hull of the ship. As he drifted back, he engaged his mini-jets, grabbed the steering lever and lowered his head.
He entered the airlock so fast he bounced off a wall and skidded across the floor. The door closed with an emergency drop and he saw crew members swarming through the far door in their decontamination suits. He passed out.
* * *
“Welcome back, you old hull banger. How do you feel?”
John Travers opened his eyes and smiled as he recognized Engineering Chief Jim Reid. He opened and closed his fists.
“Actually, I feel pretty good.”
“They let you come up normally. They had plenty of time, they didn’t need to pump you up.”
“How long have I been out?”
“Three months, bud, the maximum. You had Wagram’s.”
The blood rushed to his head as the realization hit him. That’s why the scan didn’t show anything. He wasn’t being pelted by micrometeoroids.
The Chief saw what he was thinking. “It was a cloud of organic material. We only saw that at the last minute, and by then it was too late.”
Man had known for hundreds of years, from the composition of the meteoroids which reached earth, that the planet which once occupied the orbit of the asteroid belt mirrored earth’s composition.
The vast majority of the material which reached the surface of the earth was metal from the planet’s core. Then there was the occasional limestone or other sedimentary rock, fragments from the planet’s crust.
Only when ships had passed Mars and ventured into the asteroid belt did man find the material which indicated that not only had the planet been similar to Earth, but also that it had possessed abundant life.
For years now, ships had passed these occasional clouds of mostly organic debris, the remains perhaps of lost oceans or forests.
The flutter of organic debris from the topmost layer of the planet’s crust did not possess the density and substance to show up on a standard scan, which is why it was missed when External Engineer John Travers went out for a routine repair.
“Just my luck, heh?”
“Count your blessings,” said the Chief. “That little fossil that came down in your thigh bone only carried Wagram’s.”
When the fossil remains of “Minerva” — the name of the lost planet, taken from the writings of a 20th century science fiction writer — were first examined, the spores of an obviously genetically engineered virulent pathogen were quickly uncovered. The common supposition was the race which inhabited Minerva had destroyed itself and its planet in a cataclysmic conflict. “I know. Thanks for being here.”
“Hey, it’s the least I can do. I’ll go tell them you’re finally awake.”
Travers lay there and thought. “Yes, I guess I am lucky. Lucky it wasn’t Andiamo. Or else I wouldn’t be awake.”
There was a cure for Wagram’s Disease. That’s why he was still here.
Soon after discovering Wagram’s, another even more virulent pathogen was uncovered. Wagram’s was named for a scientist; the same scientist supposedly named Andiamo’s Disease as a bitter joke in a language neither The Chief nor Travers knew.
Wagram’s was germ warfare. Andiamo was a doomsday bug.
Only three ships had ever suffered contamination or a hull penetration by Andiamo in the two centuries since ships began passing through the belt. All three were quickly depopulated and subsequently destroyed by the fleet.
The Chief returned with a medical server that plugged in and downloaded from Travers’ capsule.
“We’ll upload your med records and transmit them so you be cleared to return to service.”
“I’m ready to get back in the swing, if you know what I mean. Ummm, is it me, or do I feel vibrations? Haven’t we docked on Callisto Station yet? If it’s been three months, shouldn’t we be in port?”
“Mission has been changed. We’re going back to Columbia Station for a ship decom. There are indications there might be fossils imbedded in the hull. If everything checks out, we can hop down to earth for some R&R and then we’ll be heading out again.”
“Damn, couldn’t we have gone on to Callisto Station? We were only a week away.”
“You forget, that scale of decontamination survey can only be done in an earth-orbit station.”
Travers was obviously distressed. The Chief laughed.
“Cheer up, you’ve already slept through a quarter of the trip!”
* * *
After fumbling through his private quarters and putting on some decent off-duty clothes, Travers headed towards the Engineering Section Lounge. As he came down the hall. He thought at first it might not be open because the lights looked dim, but he saw as he approached he was mistaken, and the drone of the normal chatter turned to cries as he came through the door.
“Hail the bonkering hero!”
“Don’t touch him! Don’t shake hands!”
Everyone at the bar and the tables turned. Some raised their glasses, others clapped. A few hooted. He saw Tim Stevens gesturing for him to sit down next to him at the bar. Travers walked over, flashing a few universally understood hand gestures as the tumult reached a crescendo, and pulled out a stool.
The holographic bartender popped up in front of him. “What’s your pleasure?”
“A Cape Codder.”
The holo flickered. Stevens leaned over. “Access Sea Breeze.”
The holo smiled. “Got it. The cranberry juice is artificial. Is that OK?”
Travers held out his forefinger. “No problem.”
“No need for a scan. He’s buying.”
Travers went to clap Stevens on the back. He dodged clumsily.
“That’s OK, buddy! Don’t touch me, you may still be buggy!”
“Screw you!” Travers laughed as he swung his arm around and raised his glass.
“Kidding aside, it’s good to have you back. We were worried about you.”
Travers sipped his drink as he leaned back and looked around the lounge. “Where’s Jeannie?”
Stevens looked down into his glass like he was peering into a black hole. “Umm, I need to tell you something.”
Travers spun around. He knew what he was about to be told.
“Three damn months! She couldn’t hang on for three damn months?”
“Sorry bud, she’s high maintenance. Somebody put the right moves on her while you were in la-la land.”
Travers downed the rest of his glass and snapped his fingers for another, which quickly appeared.
“I kinda sorta been hanging out here because I knew you would be coming and I wanted to be the one to tell you.”
“I should have known something was up, when she didn’t come by the infirmary after I woke up. I told myself she was probably on a job.”
“Well, actually she’s...”
“Shut up. I don’t want to hear more.”
“Sorry. Please don’t shoot the messenger.”
Travers went to nudge him in the ribs, but Stevens got up quickly. “I’ll be back, I have to use the facilities.”
After he left, Travers hopped over to his stool to get a better look at the exterior view screen on the wall at the end of the bar. He was quickly distracted by an unexpected sensation, and he stood up and patted his hand down on the stool.
“That’s strange,” he thought. “Why is he wearing an insulated suit in the lounge?”
The stool was cold.
The bartender popped up in front of him. “External Engineer Travers, you have to report for your duty roster assignment, now.”
“It’s just as well I get back to work, it’ll keep my mind off things,” he muttered to himself as he drained his second glass. “Tell Tim what happened. I’ll catch up with him later.” The hologram nodded and disappeared.
As Travers walked away down the hallway, the sound of the chatter in the lounge quickly receded.
* * *
“I’ve run into everybody since waking up two months ago, except Billy Longbrake. Where the heck is he?”
The Chief looked up from his console. “I didn’t know you had any tech friends.”
Travers checked the clamps on his suit. “We’re not really friends, I just enjoy visiting with him sometimes. You know he’s always cheerful and smiles that big smile.”
“Yes, and he’s always willing to help.” A thought seemed to flicker across the Chief’s face. “That’s why you haven’t seen him. He’s been working in the cargo module controls. He volunteered.”
“Volunteered for what?”
“Well, you know we had a few small breaches. One rock handed in middle of the cargo module memory block. The system shut down automatically. It’s taking him months to bring the whole system up.
“Doesn’t he have any help?”
“He said it’s easier for him to do it himself, as far as the coordination is concerned. Besides, we’re not in a rush. He’ll have it done by the time we enter Earth orbit.”
“These sub-light flights stink.”
“Well, we can’t exactly ride the bubble in the solar system.”
“Sorry, I’m just out of sorts.”
The Chief gave him an understanding look. Travers shook his head. “I know, don’t tell me, on-board relationships never work out.”
“You’re not the first one.”
Travers swiveled his frontplate into place and dropped the glareguard. “Probably not the last, either.”
The Chief snorted. “Ya’ think?” Travers followed the handholds out the airlock and down the side of the Starship Jarvinen until he came to the fillstile where an oxy tank was supposedly loose.
“You think they’d have a damn bot with a little AI sense to do these shit jobs.”
“Temper. Temper.” The Chief’s voice was level. “Is the tank loose?”
Travers tried to rotate the valve of the tank with his fingers. “No. It’s tight and clamped. Wait, I see the problem.”
He nudged a small red rectangle and saw it move slightly on the surface of the locker where the tank lay.
“The sensor’s loose. That’s why it gave a false reading. This’ll only take a spot of solder.”
“See, it’s that kind of trouble-shooting and problem solving a bot can’t do, or at least, do quickly.”
“If I’m going to have to weld, I expect a tall one when I get back.”
When Travers stepped out of the lower half of his suit, the Chief handed him a glass of ’cranberry juice’.
Travers took a sip and smiled. “Damn, love these high-potency cranberries.”
“Now would a bot appreciate that?”
After a few drinks together, Travers’ declared, “Jeannie’s been avoiding me. I think it’s time to go see her.”
A look of concern flickered across The Chief’s face. “Heck, why look for trouble?”
“She should at least have the courtesy to tell me herself, instead of avoiding me and refusing my messages.”
“She probably doesn’t want to hurt your feelings.”
“Oh, like they’re not hurt now. Dumping me for somebody else while I’m in a med stasis.”
The Chief looked down and shook his head. “Shit, I was afraid this would happen.”
“What do you think, I’m going to get in some kind of trouble?”
Well, yes. You’re going to lose your temper.”
“Don’t worry about me.”
Travers turned to go.
“OK, listen to me. Will you make me one promise?”
“Don’t go to her quarters. Visit with her someplace public, like the lounge or the library. That way both of you will hold back from making a scene.”
Travers knitted his brows. “OK.”
“I’ve been around longer than you, hull banger. That counts for something.”
Travers nodded slightly as he walked into the corridor.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Lou Antonelli