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Homebrew - A Blog Science Fiction Novel

Hand-tossing pizza in micro-gravity is an art. For one thing, even the slightest push to the side causes the spinning dough to drift away, far more rapidly than it sinks back down.

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Location: Citrus Heights, California
Near Space Press presents Net Assets



Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I know. I know. I know.

This isn't a post of chapters.

However. I'm working on expanding Chapters 10 and 11 and hope to have the new stuff up by this weekend.

It would be nice, if you like what you're reading, if you would make a small, say $1-$5 donation to me. That way, I'd get a better feel for how many people are reading this. You can find the donation button on this page as well as my main blog page and my "With Hesitant Stride" chapter snippets page.

I WILL keep track of who donates and each person who reaches $35 will, upon publication, receive an autographed copy - even if I self-publish through Amazon's ClearSpace program in trade paperback format. Something to look forward to, yes?


Monday, December 14, 2009

Homebrew - Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven
That’s why They’re called Enemies

When choosing allies there are two criteria which must be considered: Can they shoot straight? Will they shoot at your enemies?
- "Crystal Dragon", Steven Miller and Sharon Lee

With four simple keystrokes, Xian Sheng wiped the purchase request out of the queue; his controller would be happy he'd managed to snag the order off the system before his employer, Fernando Brothers Expanded Packaging could process it. It bothered him that he couldn't understand why cancelling a simple order for the constituent chemicals used to make expanded foam should be a matter of national security, especially as the order came from a small business up in orbit -- the resulting foam products would be too light and fragile to cause damage should they fall from orbit -- still, his actions resulted in a nice addition to his bank account and that meant he and his family could afford the new car he'd been eyeing. No doubt his wife would demand a better child safety seat for Xian Jr.

* * * * *

"Did we ever get the foam from Fernando Brothers?"
"Nope. And I've sent them an email with a copy of our purchase order," Dora replied. "They still haven't gotten back to me even though I've left three voice-mails with their international orders clerk."
"We've got to have it! Without it we can't ship the first orders down to our distributor. Have you told either Patrick or J'Shawn about the holdup?"
"I was going to bring it up tonight when we have dinner."
Ellen sighed, "I can't make the meeting. I'm pulling an extra shift because one of the construction apes broke his arm. Third shift is short two men right now."

Homebrew - Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten
I’ve had it up to Here!

Enough is enough! I've had it with these m*****f***ing snakes on this m*****f***ing plane!
-Samuel L. Jackson in "Snakes on a Plane"

The object glistened white where sunlight painted it's surface, where not, it appeared more a near invisible dark gray ghost. Along the darker region, small lights twinkled, marking views into its interior. Drifting silent beyond or trailing behind, as it traveled its endless voyage, three others held formation. One other gave forth the same friendly lights upon its darkened flanks. The remaining two did not.
A smaller object, shiny silver where illuminated by the Sun's rays struck, swam closer, circling as might a shark studying a much larger whale it had chosen as prey. It slowed as it moved closer, slowing as it approached one end of the larger object. As it came closer it took on the appearance of a calf seeking to nurse from its mother. At last, it made contact with the larger, and the lights shining from within it shut down.
"Yee-Haw!" the cry bounced off the corridor walls, echoing around the bend and far down three other passageways. "Mommy, I'm home!"
One of the two people sharing a workroom glanced at her co-worker, "Oh good. Our wandering fly-boy has found his way back to us."
"Now, now. Jealousy does not become you. I'm sure Patrick will get over here as soon as he can get away from the station. Let's just hope that my man remembered to pick up dinner. I'm starving!"
"Grumble, grumble. It's not so much I'm jealous as I resent management sucking up so much of his time as they make ready for Madame Mishkova. You'd think she was God coming to smite the wicked." Ellen replied, then, teasing, she added. "And I suppose I'm worried that J'Shawn's bellowing will be heard as far away as Bigelow's LEO Hotel. Damn, your man has a set of pipes in him. He should try out for town crier."
"I does at that," the object of their conversation said as he flung himself into the room, "Momma kept begging me to join the church choir, but alas, my bold voice could not hold a tune well enough to please our preacher. A sad day for music, I tell you."
He came to rest with his hip bracing against his lover's desk. With a bold sweep of one hand, he shoved their notebooks and papers to the far side of each desk and plopped a large carry-pack in the now-empty space. "Ladies, you work too hard. That message comes straight from my fearless roommate, and your light o'love, Patrick. I'm just the messenger so please refrain from killing me. I also come bearing wondrous gifts, unimaginable delights, all designed to tempt you from the battlefield." As he uttered the words, he snapped open the case and proceeded to lay down over a dozen hot-pack containers, platters and eating utensils. Last, he removed and placed before them two bottles and a half-dozen drink bulbs. When Dora attempted to take one of the drink containers, he slapped her hand, but gently.
"Unh, unh, unh. They're not filled yet. Didn't you listen, Babe? I come bearing wondrous gifts."
"They better. Or you get payback for that slap." Her eyes twinkled, daring him to protest. She continued, "If you've got liquid refreshment to pour, then pour. Your love, that would be me, is thirsty."
"So am I," Ellen added. "So am I. Completing the paperwork for all your crazy projects is hard, tedious work. I hope you brought more for yourself, because this might be sufficient for the two of us girls."
"Ladies. Ladies." he said, reaching for and opening the first bottle and snapping in a pour spout, "It's not the quantity of food which will please you, but the delicacy and richness found within." He filled three drink bulbs from the bottle and re-capped it, handing two of the bulbs to the women. "Methinks you will be satiated before you sample even half my wares."
"But first, a toast." He held his bulb high and waited for them to raise theirs. "To Homebrew Tour Agency and Taxi Service!"
The women sat back, stunned, failing to even take one sip. Finally, Dora spoke. "We got it? It's official? UN-OPS got off their collective hind ends and issued a contract to us?"
"Yep. Now is that worth toasting? Or are you two fine ladies gonna make me drink all this brandy all by myself?" Once again he held up his bulb. This time his partners joined him, tapping the bulbs together before tasting their drinks.
"Whoa! What is this stuff!" Ellen gasped. As she did so, Dora coughed, pounding her chest.
"Yeah, Big Guy... This is way stronger than any brandy I've ever had - not that I have tasted brandy all that often, Mom and Dad were beer and tequila types." She coughed again, and waved J'Shawn away. "Not that I'm complaining. This is smooth stuff, but far stronger than I expected."
"I told you, this is the good stuff. Spoor has a friend who can get all sorts of quality liquor up to the station. If I understand correctly, this one from South Africa, called Oude Molen VOV; it's 14 years old."
"South Africa? I didn't know they made brandy in South Africa." Dora looked off into the distance. "I wonder. If Patrick makes his farm and brewery idea work, would there be a market for his brews down below?"
"That's what he wants to know." he replied. "Sure, he and I both figure our main base of customers will be the people up here in orbit, but he thinks some groundside customers would pay the premium for a beer brewed and bottled in space." He glanced back at Ellen who had finally stopped coughing; she continued to drink from the bulb, taking much smaller sips. She flashed him a thumbs-up.
"I don't know, but that seems like a lot of work before we start making any money. And what about bottles? We would have to have bottles shipped up here; we'd have to find a way to ship them down without breakage; then there's the cost - bottles are heavy."
"So we don't go with bottles. We give them zero-g drink bulbs."
"And we can package them in an 'egg-crate' just like we do up here. Foam's cheap!" Dora added, excitement tinging her voice.
"That may well be a workable plan."

Homebrew - Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine
Fusing Cold

Why is everybody waiting for America when it comes to research?
-Martin Fleischmann

The paperwork to bring the shiny, new device up from Earth had been enormous. It filled nineteen 3-ring binders (mandated by the UN, as it refused to accept the 'permanence' of optical storage media) and weighed more than the reactor itself. And completing the paperwork had taken another month - a month in which the four partners chafed under the boredom of waiting for the VIP guests to show. Once again, problems had arisen groundside and the initiation ceremony delayed. Even now, rumors circulated that yet another delay would be announced.
On the one hand this gave the workers at OPS-1 a chance to finish the entire basic array, not the minimum necessary to deliver power to the receiving rectenna array. Only five work days, six at the outside, and the basic power arrays would be complete.
It also meant the group of pilots agitating for a guild had a month more time to convince their fellow pilots to organize and demand changes. Management knew about the lobbying efforts, but had not yet found cause to fire the agitators. They issued new regulations every day, trying to force the troublemakers to make an actionable mistake.
But these efforts, from both sides, had caused another problem. The regulations and petty rules changes also began to wear on the other workers. Some had started to discuss creating another guild or union for beam-walkers and sub-module assembly workers. Others were agitating to form a union for the clerical, medical and support workers. And the food preparation workers were talking about bringing up a representative of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union.
Dermot had been approached by other workers from three of the groups, each wanting to feel him out, trying to find out if he would support their efforts to unionize. And he wasn't alone, Ellen was cornered by people from all four groups, although neither of them could figure why the food prep staff felt she would want to join HERE. Dora was the most fortunate, only the beam-walkers had approached her for support, although she felt slighted she had been denied the opportunity to heap her scorn upon the representatives of the other three groups. He smiled as he remembered the breadth and inventiveness she had demonstrated as she flayed the proposal and the people making it.
He shook himself. Daydreaming about past events was no way to get the present work done. His task for today was to help J'Shawn install this generator in Bigelow Aerospace Sundancer, hull number 392-B. And then fire it up and test out the power generation and the circuit breakers.
"Hey, J'Shawn," he called. "Are you ready yet? I've got this baby up and humming. The meters are pegging at six megawatts of available power and the viewport is giving me a great light show."
"Keep your pants on." his friend replied. "I'm just about to dump the air in this chamber. Don't want to have a spark start a fire. How about you? Is your room at no atmosphere still?"
"You bet. And before you ask, I've got my suit on, or I wouldn't be having this wonderful conversation with you."
"All right, smart-ass. I get the message. Hey, I'm down to vacuum. Hold on a bit..." Dermot waited through the silence.
"There. That's got it. Okay, on the count of three, I'm going to throw the switch. You copy?"
"Is that on 'One, Two, Three and throw the switch' or 'One, Two, throw the switch, Three'?"
"Very funny. One. Two. Three." At three, Dermot saw the 'in use' light on the circuit breaker box mounted next to the reactor begin to glow a steady green.
"I'm showing power being pulled from the system at this end. How about you?" He waited for a response. "J'Shawn? Are you all right?"
Just as he turned to rush to the other room he heard, "Bojemoi," whisper from his speakers. Then, "Patrick, you must see this."
Dermot slowed his rush to the other chamber. At the hatch he stopped, stunned by what he saw. The magenta-purple glow danced across his helmet's faceplate, broken only by the silhouette of his roommate's outline.
"Where did you get that?"
"It's my Dad's old plasma ball. I had him ship it up when we decided to install these reactors. It's a real power hog for what little it does, but I figured with the amount of juice we have available, what would it hurt?"
"It's beautiful. I think I want one. Does it come in other colors?"
"I think so, but we might have to shop around. And I think it came in other shapes as well, if you dont' want a ball."
"No, no. The ball is fine. If we could get it in green or blue, I'd prefer one of those, but I like the ball shape. Imagine how impressive one of those would look on a shelf by my desk."
"Now you're thinking. Always impress the clients, Dora says."
"Hah. She's going to have you thinking like a marketing guru any day now."
"Not me. I'd rather work with my hands. And fly. Flying is great." J'Shawn turned and looked at him. "What about you? Are you going to be happy working a desk?"
Dermot thought about it. Finally he answered. "No. I'd rather grow plants or raise animals. And if not that, I'd rather brew beer."
"Brewing? Do you mean that?" The vehemence in J'Shawn's voice startled him. "Would you brew beer up here? Hell, could you brew beer up here?"
"Of course you could. They're operating a vodka still up here aren't they?"
"Yeah, but that's not the same as brewing beer. Don't you have to use yeast and some kind of grain? And, and... what's it called? Oh yeah, hops! Don't you need hops?"
"Of course, but you don't need that much hops. So that could be shipped up, as could the yeast. That leaves water and the grain. Most of the cheap commercial beers use rice, but the original brews called for barley or oats, both of which have been successfully grown in space. I suppose with the right planting mixture and lighting, it would be possible to even grow hops up here." He became silent as thoughts whirled inside him.
"That would be awesome! If we brewed it ourselves we wouldn't have to have it shipped up here." said J'Shawn.
"If you just brewed it here, you'd have to pay to have the grain, yeast and hops sent up. Better to grow everything here. However, the first batches would have to use purchased ingredients as it would take too long to harvest what you needed." He grinned at his friend, "How much do you think we could charge for a space-brewed beer?"
"They're charging ten bucks a bottle for the cheap stuff we can get sent up, so I wouldn't pay more than that."
"No, that's not what I meant. Or rather, it is, but I also want to know what you think a groundhog would pay to for a bottle of beer brewed in space?"
"Whoa! You mean market it down below? How would you do that? And where would you grow the supplies?"
"We've got two additional habitats, don't we?" Dermot's mind reeled with potential opportunity. He wasted no time whipping out his notebook, where he jotted down the ideas he and J'Shawn had discussed. When he was done, he asked his friend, "Do you think you could come up with a catchy name for it?"
"We've got to use 'Homebrew' in the name, but we could do something which ties into space, such as Low Earth Orbit Lager, or Aphelion Ale, stuff like that."
"Low Earth Orbit, or LEO, Lager sounds good. I don't know about Aphelion Ale. Keep thinking and I'll do the same."
"We should get Ellen and Dora in on the name, 'cause they'd know what would appeal to women. Dora was telling me that women form fifty-one percent of the consumer market Earth-side. We don't want to alienate half our market."
"Good idea." Dermot added the information to his notes. Then he had another idea. "Could we raise bees? Bees would do well for pollinating the grains and hops. And if we added clover or some of those miniature citrus trees, we could, maybe, collect honey."
"Honey? Why honey? I don't seem to remember any honey shortage in the cafeteria."
"Yeah, but they have to ship it up. And I was thinking that if we fit out one of the habitats as a truck farm, produce fresh vegetables and fruit that doesn't cost as much because it's grown in orbit, then we're going to need to pollinate those plants. And bees are natural pollinators. And since we'd have the bees up here for that job, why not also harvest the honey? Sort of a multiple streams of income approach." He could see J'Shawn considering the possibilities.
"Man, that's crazy enough it might work. Of course, we'd probably have to pollinate the first generation by hand." He continued, "And getting the seeds wouldn't cost near as much to bring up here, they're so small and light. However, I think we'd be better off buying already-started trees for the miniature citrus. I suppose we could even try our hands at raising grapes."
"Why grapes?"
"Because if we brew beer, we might as well try our hands at making wine. Give some class to the operation. The idea is growing on me. We'll have to run it by the girls, see if they can improve on it."
"I was thinking the same thing. And we could serve the beer and wine at that pizzeria you were talking about. Do you think we could get enough customers to make it worthwhile? After all, once the arrays are completely finished and running, most of our workers disappear, on to the next station."
"That's not as much of a problem as you think." J'Shawn stopped for a moment. "Patrick? How far would you travel for a decent meal? Would you take an hour or two, if it was good food?"
"Sure. I've traveled for three hours, over two hundred miles, to try out a fancy restaurant. But we're going to be halfway around the world from OPS-2. Will people come that far?"
"It's not that far. Not for an OTV or OCV. It's about a four-hour journey, but that's well within the range of one of those craft. And making the trip is far less expensive than dropping down groundside. Don't forget that OPS-1 is going to be the main orbital office for the entire UN-OPS program. That means we'll be getting all sorts of visitors up here; remember how they were talking about putting up an orbital hotel up here to house visitors? They'll want something different than what OPS will serve them. And let's not forget all the guests making the trip up to Bigelow's LEO Hotel. We're the same distance from them as we are from OPS-2. It would be quite a treat for their guests to say they ate at a private restaurant and drank beer and wine made right up here in orbit. Right now," he said, turning back to the glowing plasma ball, "we need to get this reactor checked out. If we don't have power for these habitats, we don't get any business."
"And no business means no money," Dermot finished the sentence. "It was funny the first time Dora said it. Now I have nightmares about not getting business, nightmares where people keep saying this to me as I stand helpless under a spotlight. Do you think we can talk Dora into using another comment?"
"Naw. And you better not tell her about your nightmare. I guess this is one of those things she learned at Daddy's knee. I get nightmares a lot like yours and I mentioned it just once. No sir! Not gonna talk about it to her again." He followed Dermot back to the chamber containing the SPS 6000-H. Together they finished testing the rest of the circuit connections and brought more of the habitat's environmental systems online using the new reactor instead of the built-in fuel-cells and solar-arrays. In another three hours they were back in 'Vuffie' and on their way to OPS-1.
"Say, roomie, besides tomato sauce, dough, veggies and herbs, what else do you need to make a decent pizza?"
"Obviously, you need cheese. And unless you're feeding only vegans, you're going to need meat. Those will be expensive. Meat and cheese are dense items, they'll cost a lot to send up here; I don't see a way around the expense though, it's not as if we can raise our own animals or make our own cheese." J'Shawn waited for a reply. As the silence dragged out, he began to worry. "You're NOT planning to raise animals are you? Patrick! Tell me you're not getting a crazy idea! There's no way to raise animals up here!"
"Why not? Oh, we probably can't raise pigs or cows, they're too land intensive, but a few goats would give us milk to make cheese, and chickens would let us add our own meat toppings. We could even farm shrimp, clams, lobsters and crawfish in tanks. They've done it Earth-side."
"Damn! When you think big, you think big, don't you?" He went on. "Are you totally bug nuts! Goats? Chickens? Lobsters? Who would buy them? Even more important, who's going to take care of them? I don't know anything about raising animals. Hell! I don't even know if lobsters, chickens, shrimp or goats can handle being in space!"
"We will find out." Dermot said, striving to be calm. His friend's outrage puzzled and angered him. Weren't they taking risks with all the other plans? Still, he was right about one thing to the best of Dermot's knowledge, no one had studied whether shellfish, poultry or goats could adapt to living in a micro-gravity environment, although he thought he remembered of several studies using bees - and if his memory was working right, they were successful.
"Okay. You have a point. We don't know how most animals would react in a micro-gravity environment. I'm pretty sure bees will do fine, maybe other insects, which means we should be able to raise perennial plants. Looks like we will just have to experiment." He grinned. "And maybe we can get a grant to help defray the costs. Are you willing to give it a try if someone else pays for it?"
"Now you're talking my language. I'll do just about anything if it's legal and someone else is willing to pay me."

Homebrew - Chapter Eight

Section Two Chapter Eight
Power! My Kingdom for some Power!

There are powers inside of you which, if you could discover and use, would make of you everything you ever dreamed or imagined you could become.
-Orison Swett Marden

Within a few days, facts started dribbling out to the OPS workers. First, and most important, the event date was delayed for two reasons, the distribution station needed more work before it could be brought online, and the Deputy Undersecretary required more training and acclimation in weightlessness. Rumors still bounced around claiming the groundside people were having difficulty making her skinsuit. As a result, the four partners and friends, and their company, Homebrew, Inc., had eight more weeks to train on their tow boats and OCVs as well as make a formal bid to provide intra-project transportation services to OPS-1.
They needed every extra day.
The first stumbling block they ran into was finding time for Dermot, Ellen and Dora to train on tow boat operation. They had requested to be trained together, however, the work crews were facing overtime work on scheduled break days in order to finish the first extended power array modules for the dedication ceremony. And after learning the size of the staff and media groups that would be arriving for the event, management chose to attach and activate three new habitat modules to accommodate them - tasks which had not been planned for when the dedication ceremony was added to the schedule. The three could not be spared, en masse, from their shift work.
It turned out Ellen took to piloting as if she had been a bird in an earlier life. Scheduled for training by the end of the first week after they made their plans, she finished the class in one long day. She went on to OTV training on the recommendation of her tow boat instructors, which recommendation meant UN-OPS would cover the cost of her training, rather than charging Homebrew, Inc. As she literally flew through OTV training, Dermot and Dora worked hard to make it through tow boat school.
A second roadblock popped up when they submitted their bid to provide transportation services. While UN-OPS regulations allowed for the bid, each person licensed by Homebrew to pilot OTV/OCV class orbital craft had to have a background check performed on behalf of Homebrew, Inc. before the bid could be submitted. They were not allowed to reference the background check performed on each of them by UN-OPS. It took three weeks to find and hire an investigation firm, have the check performed, receive the reports and re-submit the bid with the attached documentation. And, a friendly clerk in the procurement offices informed Dora, before she submitted the revised bid, that the licenses issued by Homebrew had to be tamper-resistant, RFID-embedded, 'smart' ID cards - the OPS offices could provide the ID cards as long as Homebrew provided the artwork for them. Yet another expense as well as a scheduling challenge. Both J'Shawn and Ryk could drop into the station management offices any time they could fit into their very busy schedules. However, Ellen's license could not be issued her license until she completed OTV training.
Even as they worked at their OPS jobs, the four had to find time to go to the habitat modules and prep them for use. With the time constraints as well as the need to maintain a 'buddy system', they chose to fully activate only habitat 384. With eight floors divided into four to seven chambers, they were faced with checking the controls of forty-three rooms. However, they concentrated on finding collapsible desk and chair modules for the five chambers they chose for the Homebrew, Inc., main offices. The only thing that went smooth during the entire process was unloading and installing the furniture into the selected offices. Seventeen rooms had environmental controls that either experienced software faults or had sustained physical damage to the control panels. The hatches to twelve chambers, including two of they wished to use as offices, had jammed hatchs - one of which held a crack across it's lower right quadrant as well as a severe dent. That hatch needed to be replaced, the others just had to be re-aligned - by trained maintenance workers working 'under the table' for untaxed pay.
As the weeks blurred by, none of the four friends, now two couples, spent more than a few minutes in the intimate privacy such relationships required.
"Big Guy," Dora sighed, leaning against him as they sat on her bunk in her cabin, "I"m bushed. All I want right now is a goodnight kiss and you beating feet to your room. Are you okay with that?"
"No Babe. I'm not. However, I don't think I can give much more than that and I hate to make promises I can't keep." J'Shawn reached up and lifted her face to his for a tender kiss that ended far too soon for either of them. He lifted off the bunk, stretching. "They are shooting Madame Deputy Undersecretary for Space Affairs up to us tomorrow. So the pace will slow a bit for the next five or six days. Maybe we can have some 'us' time in a couple of days."
"Sure, Big Guy," she yawned and stretched out on her bunk, pulling the security netting over her. "Could you turn the main light off as you leave?"
As he exited, he looked back in time to see her eyes had already closed.
The hatch to his cabin opened before he finished keying in the entry command and he stumbled back as Ellen stormed out.
"Elle!" Dermot's voice preceded him out the hatch. "Wait. I didn't mean it that way." He slammed into his roommate heading into the room. "Oof! I gotta get around you. Could you move?"
J'Shawn planted a hand on Dermot's chest and pushed him back into the room, closing the hatch behind them. He shoved Dermot hard, hard enough to send him flailing to the bunks.
"Bro. You have to wait. Stormin' down the corridor, shouting at her and finding yourself standing outside her closed door and making a fool out of yourself is not the way you want this to go down." As he spoke the words, he could see Dermot slump in a lump of hurt and anger.
"She doesn't understand." Dermot finally got out. "I'm not trying to tell her what to do, I just don't want her taking the risk-"
"In other words, you're telling her what to do." J'Shawn could see the bitter realization wash across his friend's face. "Look, you may be right. Perhaps whatever she wants to do might not be a good idea. But having a fight about it right now, when you're both angry and tired... well, I've seen stupider ways of hashing things over. And every time I've done it that way, I've ended up losing the respect of the person I tried to convince, and their friendship. Calm down, catch some z's and give yourself, and her, time to calm down."
Dermot stared at his roommate. "You don't want to know what we talked about?"
"It can wait. You're tire, I'm tired. Hell, the girls are tired. Right now I just want to get a good night's sleep. We finally are far enough ahead of schedule here that management is giving us full off-shifts, and tomorrow is ours. We can talk about it, whatever it is, tomorrow. Go to sleep. Or stay up. I don't really care. Just... do whatever you want to do but do it with the lights off." During the entire conversation, J'Shawn had stripped down and pulled himself up to his bunk. With his last words he stretched out and drew the sheet and safety netting over himself, reaching above his head to thumb the light switch to the off position.
Dermot also laid down, trying to follow J’Shawn’s advice. However, sleep evaded him. Instead, his argument with Ellen replayed again and again. On the face of it, her plan made sense, if she took the assignment to haul completed panel assemblies from the assembly areas to the panel arrays, she’s soon log sufficient hours to be acceptable by OPS rules to be one of the pilots ferrying the soon-to-arrive visitors. However, flying an OTV with a cargo in the rear bay was not the same as pushing around a large, thin, awkward-shaped solar panel assembly by grasping onto one edge with a manipulator arm attached to the nose of the OTV. Accidents had happened – all too often the accidents happened to the less-experienced pilots, those with fewer than one hundred hours of piloting time. He and Dora had been inside the main docking bay, waiting for a ride out to their assigned assembly area one shift when the red alarm lights had started strobing. In less that a minute, an OTV, one with it’s rear cargo bay filled with a passenger module, swooped in, thrusters blasting to slow it before it collided with the rear bulkhead. All the while, the Bay Safety Officer’s voice had chivvied the occupants to the side walls, away from the bay’s outer hatches. As he and Dora had watched, the main doors closed and the bay began to pressurize. Within seconds, as their skin collapsed under the increasing air pressure, two paramedics rushed forward and entered the passenger hatch, one carrying an equipment case, the other a stretcher board and an emergency pressure suit package – little more than a clear plastic baggie shaped much like a thick gingerbread man when inflated.
Before the bay finished pressurizing, they were out again, hauling the stretcher between them. Strapped on it, encased in the emergency suit, lay another worker. Dermot still remembered the frozen purple-red icicles of blood standing out along the shattered stump of her leg. The woman’s pale face, almost bluish white in the light, flashed into his mind.
She had survived the emergency surgery. He remembered hearing she had been rushed down to a groundside hospital where they operated to clean up and close her stump. Even now she was undergoing intense rehabilitation therapy to get her used to her new prosthetic leg. However, she would never be allowed to rejoin the crew working at OPS-1.
It had been a stupid accident, from all the stories he had heard. The OTV pilot pushing the panel in place saw a tow boat appear from one side, coming from his blind spot. He had twitched in surprise, snapping his craft’s joystick in the opposite direction. The woman who had been injured was at the wrong place at the wrong time, waiting with her partner for the panel to be nudged into position, talking to her partner rather than watching the panel. In one instant, the panel, instead of moving down into the proper position, slammed into her leg, crushing it, in truth, severing it against the frames already in position.
And the OTV pilot required counseling just to be able to suit up to go outside. He could not endure the though of Ellen experiencing either trauma. He had to find a way to convince her…
He woke to the room lights glaring into his eyes. "Oooohh… What time is it?" he moaned, his head aching and his muscles stiff with soreness. "And kill the lights. My head isn’t ready for them."
"Time for you to get up and face your doom," Ellen responded. "You've got ten minutes to drag your sorry butt out of there and meet us where 'Muffie's' parked. If you are late, you'll have to hitch a ride with one of the tow boats. You're in for a treat. I'm driving." She spun around and left the cabin before he could do much more than gape at her retreating form.
He made it to the airlock closest to 'Muffie' with seconds to spare. The others were already entering the lock as he came into view. "Wait up! I'm here!" he cried as he hooked his arm on the hatch rim using the leverage to slide inside. He caught J'Shawn's look of sympathy and Dora's smothered laugh as he tried to not bend over and put his hands on his knees in exhaustion. Ellen stayed facing away from him, focused on the outer hatch, her helmet already on and secured.
"Bro, what took you so long?" his roommate teased. "You must have had, what, eight, maybe ten whole minutes? And you sure were dead to the world this morning. I called your name at least five times and you wouldn't wake up. Not even when I poked you."
"He's telling the truth. You were snoring loud enough to wake people two cabins over when we got to your room. I wanted to put my helmet on right then and there. But I forgive you for the noise. I already got my payment just watching Big Guy trying to get you to wake up."
Through this banter, J'Shawn, he and Dora completed their suit-up and checked each other out. He pointed at Ellen, but Dora, concern in her eyes, shook her head. As soon as their status lights shone green, Dora said, "We're all suited up and ready to go when you are."
Once the airlock depressurized, they exited and moved over to 'Muffie', which Ellen had claimed as her own, leaving 'Vuffie' to J'Shawn - at the request of OPS management, 'Vuffie' docked on the other side of the station. Surprising Dermot, the conversation between them was limited to the minimum necessary for the task at hand.
Further surprising him, J'Shawn took the copilot's station, allowing Ellen to take command; she wasn't just flying 'Muffie' from the copilot's chair under J'Shawn's watchful eye. Dermot stifled a groan. If she was flying command, then she already had approval from both J'Shawn and Ryk Spoor. No wonder she had been so upset the previous night.
He attempted to open a dialog. "About last night..."
"You'll have to wait," she interrupted, "I'm going to be very busy." He saw Dora's wave out of the corner of his eye. When he looked her way, she held up five fingers indicating he should switch to channel five on his reserve radio.
Upon switching he heard, "... you trying to really piss her off or did you take stupid pills before you went to bed last night?"
"Um... Neither. But I need to tell her I'm sorry. See, I..."
"Not another word." For the second time in under five minutes he was interrupted. "Look. No, not at me. At her. Do you see what she's doing? She's flying this crate. And doing a good job at it, compared to how some of the pilots up here handle their ships."
"I know. She was right and I'm wrong. I can see that."
"But she's not ready to hear you. After you sit back and stay quiet for the whole flight, not commenting, not twitching, not doing anything but sitting back in your seat and relaxing, then, when we get to Homebrew headquarters, you can apologize all you want. And throw in some groveling and sniveling your abject stature. That's the frame of mind she's in."
"I did bad last night, didn't I."
"You could say that." Dora grouched at him. "And I had to listen to her tell me about it for three hours." She sniffed. "I almost didn't get my beauty rest. A girl needs her beauty rest, what with all this micro-gravity puffing out the face. I wouldn't be surprised if I find bags under my eyes next time I go downside. And you, Dermot Patrick Hardin, deprived me of three hours of my beauty sleep! Now sit back and enjoy the ride in silence, blessed silence."
"Yes Ma'am." he replied, trying to only allow meekness to color his voice. She snorted at his efforts.
With her chastisement ringing in his ears, he forced himself to relax. As the minutes passed, he noticed that J'Shawn made no move to take over control, nor even to challenge any of her decisions. He also realized her flying was very smooth, with no hesitation or constant adjustment of velocity or thrust vector. In fact, the closer they approached the habitat they had set up as headquarters for Homebrew, the more he realized just how much better Ellen flew compared to most of the OPS orbital pilots. He kept revising his grovel-meter higher. He might even have to fall back on the standby excuse that he was a man, and therefore fraught with emotionalism.
By the time they reached the habitat, he decided to admit he had judged without any factual basis for it and throw himself on the mercy of her court. Not once during the entire flight had she spoken to him outside of strict professional need.
As they left 'Muffie' and entered the habitat, he signaled J'Shawn to switch to channel three. Once J'Shawn nodded, he said, "Could you divert Elle into the small break-room? I've got plenty to apologize for and I'd rather not do so in front of you guys."
"Sure thing. But she's in a towering state right now. Are you sure you don't want us around to keep the peace?"
"No. She's right to be mad. And I'm just going to have to take my lumps." He sighed. "But thanks for offering."
"No sweat, Bro. That's what friends and roomies are for."
As they approached the conference room, J'Shawn keyed open the hatch to the break-room and blocked Ellen's path. She started to speak, but then sighed and went into the smaller room. Dermot scooted in behind her and flashed a smile of gratitude to his friend, then closed the hatch behind him.
When he turned around he saw Ellen in the center of the room, arms barricaded across her chest.
"Whatever you have to say, say it." she stated. "And I don't want to hear a bunch of excuses or rationale about how I can't handle the work."
"You won't get that from me." He spread his hands in surrender. "First, I knew I was wrong even before I came on board 'Muffie'. Not because I had seen your flying, but because I've seen all the other things you've done. I know how hard you work. I know you always do the very best you can. What I said last night was wrong. Stupid and wrong. And then I saw you just now, flying 'Muffie' and..." He paused, holding up one hand, searching for the right words, "Look, what I said last night, I said it because I don't want to lose you. All I could think of was that woman I saw being pulled out of the passenger pod, with the blood forming icicles... I didn't, and I don't, want that to happen to you. But what happened to her was an accident. It could just as easily have happened to you, or me, while we work securing the panels to the power array. That I don't want to see you injured like that isn't a reason to jump down your throat over you work. It's just fear.
"And after seeing you handle 'Muffie', I can't say as how I've seen many orbital pilots who could do better." He shut up. And he waited for her reply. And waited.
"All right then," she said, biting the words out past her lips, "Apology accepted." Then she swam into his arms. "Now kiss me, because I need to know."
Some time later, the wounds bandaged and the healing begun, they entered the conference room.
"Glad to see you could finally make it," Dora said as Dermot and Ellen joined them at the table. "Are you two okay now?" she asked. When Ellen nodded, she continued. "We've got a problem, right here in Homebrew city."
"What kind of problem?"
"A power problem," J'Shawn answered. "Something you and I forgot about, Bro. Seems that we're already soaking up more power than the system can handle. It's old and it's not as efficient as it once was."
"So what do we do about it?" Ellen asked.
"We're good for a while as we can always shut down the lights and other non-essentials in most of the office spaces. But we will need much more power if we start renting out office space to customers. And therein lies the problem." His grimace told them it was a difficult one.
"Are you saying we won't be able to simply add a few fuel cells? I mean, if we do, can't we just keep on adding as many as we need?"
"Yes and no. We can add enough fuel cells to power the projected needs of all the equipment on this habitat three times over, if we want. However, to do so, we'd have to use up almost a quarter of our rentable office space." He looked at the others. "Anyone want to throw away twenty-five percent of our possible revenue?"
"Goodness no!"
"I thought not. And there's another problem with fuel cells, they're expensive to ship up here. Oh sure, they last dang near forever, but we'd end up paying about twice what we paid for all four habitats just to get this one fully-powered."
"Why not use solar panels?" Dora asked. "After all, that's what OPS-1 is doing."
"We can do that. However, to meet our needs we'd have to put out about five times as many solar panels as we already have hanging out there. They take up room and they tend to catch the solar wind. That means we will need more fuel for the positioning thrusters. And we get similar problems with a combination approach using more solar panels and more fuel cells."
"This is beginning to sound like a Catch-22 situation. Please tell me you have another, cheaper, smaller solution in mind." Dermot said.
"I do. A Bussard-Farnsworth sonoluminescence reactor. It's small - measures about three feet by three feet by three feet. It's lightweight. And it's not too expensive. Plus each load of fuel is pretty cheap and lasts a long time." The other stared at him.
"Did you say 'reactor'? As in 'nuclear' reactor?" Ellen asked. "No way. We're not putting a radioactive pile on board this habitat! I'm not about to share my home with a bunch of plutonium or uranium! There's got to be another way!"
"Calm down." he replied. "This doesn't take plutonium or uranium. It's not a fission reactor, it's a fusion reactor. And it puts out light and heat, not tons of unstable radioactive particles. Plus, as it's not trying to blow up the atoms, we don't have to worry about it turning into a bomb. This design can't blow up."
"Can we just 'buy' one of these?" asked Dermot. "Off the shelf? I'm asking because I haven't heard of a portable reactor that small."
"If you searched for a fission reactor of that size, you'd have to add in the ton or so of shielding the unit would require. And if you went looking for one of the Bussard-Farnsworth reactors more than a year ago, you'd only find their outdoor-placement home units. Those were about the size of a small shed. They've done a lot of work these past two years getting the size and weight down. The model I've read up on is about the size of a dorm room refrigerator, and it's about as complex to operate." He brought up a website on his notebook, "Smart Power Solutions", and navigated to the product page for the package he wanted them to consider. Twirling it around so they could see, he said, "This is the one. It's the Smart Power Systems SPS 6000-H. It will put out enough power to meet the needs of eight 1,700 square foot homes. And this habitat uses the electricity of about six such homes. That means we'll have about thirty-three percent more capacity than we need. As for fuel, it takes deuterium. And we can get a big enough tank to run the reactor for a year shipped up here. I won't lie to you, the tank of deuterium is about two-thirds of the entire expense of this generator."
The reactor in question rotated on the screen as they examined it's technical specifications.
"But what about hooking it up to our habitat?" asked Dora. "Can we interface it as-is, or will we need special equipment?"
"And where would we put it?" Ellen added. "I don't want to be too near this thing. I'm a woman and I'd like to have children some day - healthy, normal children."
"Our office is at the opposite end of the habitat from the main power distribution junction for the current fuel-cell/solar-array system. I figured we could install this in the chamber next to that one and drop a line from the reactor's output to the distribution center."
"I thought you said our power sources can't handle the load? If that's true, then won't we have the problem of too much power and not enough capacity in the power lines and junction boxes?"
"No. I've checked. The whole habitat is wired to support the current load. The habitat's internal grid can handle twice this generator's maximum power output. However, we should consider setting up additional circuit breakers and load balancing systems. We can even get what we need in parts and equipment rated for use up here, without adding significantly to the total cost." J'Shawn paused, then asked, "Are you all willing to sign off on this?"
Ellen spoke up immediately. "If we can put this down at the other end, I agree. Otherwise, I want us to find another solution."
"I like the idea of having a solid power source," said Dermot. "We need to know we won't be shut down by recurring power outages. I'm all for it."
"We need to have this if we are to have any hope of getting customers to rent office space from us. Big Guy, I think you're right. This is a good choice for us," said Dora. "However, have any of these units been used in orbit?"
"I don't know. But I would think they would have mentioned that in their literature or on the website."
"So do I," she replied. "And that is one thing we have to verify, that it's space-worthy. However, that's not my main point. If we are the first, we should be able to get a hefty discount if we agree to let them use us as a test case and for publicity purposes. I'm thinking if we pitch this right, we might save enough per unit to get two of our habitats equipped with these reactors."
"Wow! I hadn't thought of it, but you may be right," Dermot said. "And that means we can move our schedule for activating our other operations up a bit. J'Shawn, Dora, could you give them a big push to accept such an idea? With two, no three, licensed OTV pilots, we could start asking for jobs repairing satellites."
"My thoughts exactly."

Homebrew - Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven
A little Paint, Some new Furniture

“Science is a first-rate piece of furniture for a man's upper chamber, if he has common sense on the ground floor.”
-Oliver Wendell Holmes

December 25, 2011

"Merry Christmas!" Dermot bowled through the hatch, followed by J'Shawn, who closed the door as he passed by. Ellen, coming out of the shared bathroom, had to stop to avoid their charge.
"And a Merry Christmas back at you guys." she said. "Now could you cease this thundering around our cabin and sit down! Some of us are still trying to dress!" She snatched her suit from the hook by the bathroom door with one hand, the other keeping firm grip on the towel surrounding her, backed from where she came. "Talk to Dora, while I get..." the closing hatch cut off the rest of her words.
"Yes," Dora took up the conversation, waving her friends to the chairs, "please take a seat. But before you do, I want to see those hands, boys. Empty hands mean empty seats. Come on,” she said when neither man brought his hands into view, “this is Christmas. You know… the day when person is supposed to shower gifts upon his favorite female?”
“Ummm…” Dermot temporized.
“Well, you see…” J’Shawn followed suit. “It’s not really a gift I could just bring to you. You’re going to have to come to where it is.”
“Unh Hunh. I’m not buying what you’re selling, my man.” She transferred her tinder-dry gaze to Dermot. “And I know Ellen feels the same way. Especially after you both bailed on us. We had a date-night, dinner and a movie, last night… all four of us.”
“Honest. He’s telling the truth. And we just couldn’t tell you why we missed the date; it would have spoiled a surprise.” He sputtered to a stop, as Ellen re-entered the room.
“Surprise? Did someone mention surprise?” She turned to face Dora. “I don’t know, Dora. It better be a great surprise to get back into our good graces, don’t you think?”
“Oh absolutely. I was counting on bling, around my neck, dangling from my ears, clasping my wrist; I’d even settle for a tiny piece fit on my finger.” Here she waggled her left ring finger at J’Shawn. “But I don’t see any bling. So this better be a spectacular surprise.”
“Baby, you can have all the bling you want. But first I want to show you our surprise.” He continued, his voice mirroring the smugness written on his face, “And then I don’t believe you’ll want any bling this Christmas.”
“Hush. Dora, don’t cry. He’s a man and can’t possibly understand. And don’t even think of agreeing with him, Patrick, or you’ll lose something near and dear to yourself – for at least a week.”
“What? Me put my foot in it that badly? Sweetie, if you say the moon is hot pink, I’ll agree.” Dermot turned to his friend, “You’re on your own on this one. I’m not about to jump in and help you dig that grave you’re so eager to finish. But before you do, may I remind you we have people to go, places to do, things to be?”
“Pax.” pleaded J’Shawn. “Baby, I will never again even hint you don’t need bling for either Christmas or your glorious birthday.”
“See that you don’t. I’m a woman of refinement and discriminating taste. I need to be pampered. Now come over here and give me a kiss.” J’Shawn complied.
As he did so, Ellen sank into Dermot’s lap, draped her arms around him and asked, “Would my strong, handsome man happen to have a stocking stuffer for me?” She snuggled close, molding herself to his hips.
“Um…” Dermot tried to focus on her words, rather than the warmth of her body. “Stocking stuffer?”
“Yes,” She reached one arm behind her and trailed her fingers up his inner thigh, leaning closer and whispering, “Stocking stuffer.”
Unable to form words, he took the only option available and, diverting her hand from further passes, he wrapped his arms around her, his lips met hers in a passion-filled kiss. Once again, he experienced the time-dilation physicists stated could only be noticed in objects whose velocity exceeded a significant fraction of the speed of light. Without warning the wave-front collapsed and he found himself back in the cabin.
“That stocking stuffer,” he managed to force out. “What were we talking about?”
“You said you two had a surprise for us. What is it? And if you didn’t bring it with you, where is it?”
He shook his head to clear it. In the background, at a low volume, he could, with difficulty, make out the broadcast over the main communications channel.

“… Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.
And that concludes the non-denominational service on this scheduled holiday.”

“Did I just hear them give the Agnostic’s Prayer as part of the Christmas Service?”
“Yep.” he responded. “And it’s nice to have you two back with us. Elle wants to know where we are going. She even wants us to spoil the surprise.”
“Not likely. Not likely at all. For once we have the advantage; you ladies are going to have to wait. I will tell you we have to get suited up.”
“That reminds me. J’Shawn, girls, I asked for a special set of box lunches for us. They should be ready and waiting in the cafeteria.”
It took them a little more than fifteen minutes to gather their meals and don their breather packs, the helmets hanging from the neckline of the packs. Then Dermot and J'Shawn led the others to another access hatch closer to the post-orbital power array.
"We'll have to suit up here because there's no access tube on the other side of the outer hatch," Dermot said. "But J'Shawn and I laid on a line to the ship."
"Ugh!" said Dora. "Not an OTV! Those things are so cramped, even if we are in a micro-g environment."
"Wait and see." With that said, J'Shawn waved the two women ahead of him into the airlock. After Dermot had entered and closed the inner hatch, the four of them donned their helmets and checked for suit integrity. Once each suit's status lights flashed green, J'Shawn held up three fingers followed by two, indicating he wanted them to set the reserve radio to it's second channel.
"Got it." said Dermot
"I heard that."
"Me too."
"Good," he replied. "Dora, could you dump the air?"
She reached out and punched the code sequence to initiate the process. They heard the thump of the pumps and the steady whistle of air for a short while until the chamber neared a vacuum. When the red lights on all eight corners flashed, they knew the dump was complete and they could open the outer hatch.
Pulling herself outside, Ellen went first, her sealed meal tucked into her shoulder bag which was secured to the shoulder of her suit. At first, she couldn't make out the dim shape in front of her. Then her eyes adjusted to the lower light levels. She paused, blocking Dora from following.
"What is that?" she asked. "It's not an OTV, but I've never seen a ship like that before."
"Move out of the way and let me see," Dora protested behind her. She grabbed the safety line and pulled forward, assisted by a push from behind. "C'mon, girlfriend. I still can't see... Whoa! That's new." Dora followed as Ellen pulled farther out, heading for the ship's hatch.
"Dora! Look over there!"
"Over where?" Dora first glanced at the hatch, then when she couldn't see anything that caught her attention, she shifted back to Ellen and realized her friend pointed at the bow of the craft. "I can't make it out, that module box is blocking part of my view. Is that 'ffie'?"
"No, it's 'Vuffie'," Ellen snorted. "Who in the world came up with 'Vuffie'?"
"Now who do you think! Only one man I know has read the complete works of L. Neil Smith. Am I right big guy?"
"Girl. You wound me. I would never just read L Neil's stories; I have them burned into my computer's permanent memory - and I have them in old-style book format." He came out of the hatch and snagged the line. "Could you move forward? Patrick's still stuck in the lock."
"Yes I am. And it is rather boring in here."
As the last person to exit, Dermot closed the airlock's outer hatch and unclipped the safety line, rolling up as he followed his friends. Within minutes they had reached the OCV and entered the main cabin. Once the four found seats and strapped in, J'Shawn taking the pilot's position and Dermot the copilot's chair, J'Shawn started the power-up checklist.
"Wait a bit," said Dermot, "and we'll bring up cabin pressure."
"This thing has a pressurized cabin?" asked Ellen.
"Sure does."
"You never got around to telling Ellen and me what kind of ship this is? I mean, we both saw the name, but what type is it, and where did it come from?"
J'Shawn paused his power-up activity. "It's an Orbital Cargo Vessel, Series B, hull number 1875B. Mitsubishi made them. They're up to Series D now, and I hear they're about to release Series E. Where it came from... It's ours, Babe. We bought it; we own it."
"When did we buy this!" Dora said, shock and worry evident in her voice. "I know I didn't place an order for one!"
"You sure did. And you paid for it, along with it's identical sister ship. hull number 1876B. Remember the line item for two orbital transfer vehicles?" He kept working, bringing more of the OCV's systems on line. Soon the bloated feeling, caused by their skin ballooning out against the tension of their skinsuits when in vacuum, began to fade as the cabin pressurized.
"I remember, but those were OTVs, not this OCV!"
"Wrong. The receipt clearly stated they were 'orbital transfer vehicles', not OTVs. And these are, generically speaking, orbital transfer vehicles. And they're all ours. Vuffie and Muffie."
"But if you have these, does that mean...?" curious, Ellen asked what Dora wished to know.
"Yep, they're here! Four massive marshmallows of inflated, kevlar goodness. We thought you ladies would like to see our new property." He reached up and released his helmet, saying, "We're under pressure, everyone. You can remove your helmets."
As the cabin had filled with air, the shadows softened. Finally, he turned on the main cabin lights, allowing them to see more of the inside of the OCV.
Unlike the smaller OTV, the interior of the OCV presented a finished appearance. Most of that came from smooth walls with flush-mounted locker doors, so different from the webbing and wire-frame bins that crammed an OTV's cabin. And the OCV seats spread out for three rows, including the pilot and copilot stations, with a central aisle separating the seats; the OTV craft used a single fixed seat frame for the pilot with a fold-out jump seat built into the hatch on the rear wall. Then there were the viewing ports; Renault's design used a single flat plate for the front port and placed three, much smaller, round ports above, and on either side of the pilot, putting a severe limit on the pilot's visibility. Combined with the minimal radar and video imaging available on the OTV's main piloting display, the OTV took careful attention and concentration to operate.
Mitsubishi had chosen a different approach.
While the OCV had a divided front port as well as side and top ports aligned with the pilot and copilot stations, it also had cameras mounted along the lower edge of each of the ports - and between the upper ports. It also had cameras mounted facing to the rear and along the bottom of the craft. The operators wore a monocle over the dominant eye which showed a virtual external 'windowless' image in any direction, as if the ship were transparent. A separate display panel to the right of the two main panels, one for each pilot's station, could be set, with the flip of a switch to either repeat the current 'view' the pilot saw, or it would slowly cycle through the images from the individual cameras.
The craft had four other viewports along the sides of the craft at each passenger station. Thus each person in the main cabin could see outside the craft. According to the documentation provided with the OCV, this helped alleviate the tendency to claustrophobia, something which the passenger in the Renault OTV cabin could experience.
Ellen did not know the reason behind the design of the Mitsubishi OCV, she only knew it felt more comfortable to her than the Renault OTV.
"I don't know about you, but I am glad for our luck," she said. "I hated riding in those OTVs. If it flies as well as it looks, I think I could get used to this ship."
"Yeah," added Dora, "Riding in a Cadillac instead of a Smartcar. That reminds me, did we get the basic tow boats, or are those different as well?"
Dermot answered. "Sorry, but we're stuck with the standard tow boats. However, these OCVs are even more of a blessing than you may think. J'Shawn showed me the figures on it's performance envelope."
"Envelope?" Ellen interrupted. "What's that?"
"How it handles under different conditions, what stresses it can take, what it's top acceleration, velocity and engine burn time on a full tank of fuel. Also, what accessories can be attached to it and how much it can haul."
"He's got it right. Baby, this bird can sustain three times the acceleration of the OTV. It has enough fuel capacity for four times the total main engine burn time. It's twice as agile; that means this ship will roll, yaw and pitch faster. In old-fashioned terms, our ship will fly rings around the competition."
"But we're just using this to make trips back and forth to the station? Do we need all that capability?" asked Ellen.
"You're forgetting our idea to go out and retrieve those worn out and broken satellites." J'Shawn said.
"Yeah, I remember, but don't we just boost to get started and then coast the rest of the way?"
"Sure do. However, the power in this means we can boost to speed faster. And if we boost at the higher acceleration for the same time as we would in an OTV, we'll make the trip faster. You have to figure that as soon as we start doing this, someone else will try the same thing. But our better ships means we'll be able to do the job faster - or we'll be able to go farther on the same consumable supplies. That means we'll be able to reach more satellites and be able to do the job for more customers."
"And that translates to more income, which I can support." added Dora. "Okay. So this OCV is a good thing for us. Will we need special equipment to fully utilize them? If we will, getting them up here will drain our bank account."
"Yet another surprise gift. We got the whole expansion package for each of them. That means we will be able to handle larger cargo loads. And we got the rear-cargo-bay passenger module - for each of them. So we can shuttle up to eight people around in a pressurized environment, above and beyond the four passengers we can stuff in this cabin. I'm thinking either a taxi service, a backup ambulance service or even a tour shuttle service for VIPs who come up to check out OPS-1."
Dora pondered Dermot's words. "Wow. You've given some thought to the whole 'taxi service' idea. Would UN-OPS management hire us? And how are we going to do this if J'Shawn's out picking up a satellite to repair? Neither Ellen, you or myself are certified to pilot one of these."
"J'Shawn has some ideas about that. His fellow OTV pilot, Ryk Spoor, is certified as an OCV pilot and he has experience in training people to fly. Furthermore, he's willing to hire on with us even after he trains one of us on the OCV."
"Why would he do that?" Ellen asked. "If he's a pilot and instructor, he's got to be making some good money working for UN-OPS. So why dump out and go with a small start-up."
"There are reasons, good ones, for him to find another home." J'Shawn answered. "This stays between us, but some of the pilots, both tow boat and OTV, are agitating for better working conditions - not money - it's about safety. And to gain those concessions, they're trying to form a guild, an Orbital Pilots Guild. Management has heard about it and there will be a confrontation soon, with the probable likelihood that all those involved will lose their licenses and their jobs. Spoor's not part of that group, but he's got plenty of friends in the thick of it. When you add in that he's got a mild case of gambling addiction, he's most likely looking at being fired right along with the rest."
"So? Where do we fit in? We can't hire him. We don't have ships for him to... Oh! We do have ships, don't we."
"Okay, I get what you're saying, but Elle forgot one thing. He's going to have his license pulled. Without a license, he can't fly. How do you propose to get around that obstacle?"
"May I?" Dermot asked. Without waiting for J'Shawn's permission, he responded, "But we are a valid corporation, licensed to own and operate a fleet of orbital vessels. And we have a Chief Pilot. J'Shawn said Spoor pointed it out, so I took the time to research the regulations. What it boils down to is this: we have the authority to issue a pilot's license to any qualified pilots for the operation of vehicles in our possession. What Spoor is asking is we license him on the OCV and the tow boat. Then, as Chief Pilot, J'Shawn can assign him the position of instructor-pilot. As instructor-pilot, Spoor can then train us and any others as pilots for the OCVs and tow boats."
"That sounds way too complicated!" Dora protested. "I'm not going to agree to this until I can review those regulations. And which one of us gets the training?"
"I think all of us should be trained on the tow boats, Dora. Then maybe Patrick can train on the OCV and both our men can run them. That would leave the tow boats for us to use as scooters if we needed to make a run to the station."
"Fine. Assuming the laws will allow it, I'll give my tentative support. Say? When are we going to start up and get going to those habitats you wanted to show us?"
"We're already on the way. Stop talking and look out your viewport. Off to the starboard side, you will see the glory of the Post-Orbital Power Array. Notice the beautiful rainbow of color as the Sun reflects from the solar panels already installed." J'Shawn said, intoning the words with a deeper vibrancy of a tour guide. "And off to port you will see stars. Many stars."
"We're moving? Already? J'Shawn, honey, I want you to drive all the time. Doesn't matter what Dora says."
"Girl, you already have a man. Now how long until we get to our property?"
"About fifteen minutes. We have to take it slow until we get past the work zone. And since we don't have that far to go, I decided, as pilot and captain of this fine vessel, to make the entire trip at this velocity."
"And as chief cook and bottle washer, I support my Captain. You ladies sit back and enjoy the ride."
For the remainder of the trip, they pointed out constellations to each other.

* * *

One final burst from the forward maneuvering thruster ceased their motion, leaving OCV 'Vuffie' drifting alongside Sundancer III unit 384, with a mere ten meters separating the ship from the habitat. Inside, Dermot followed along as J'Shawn completed the shut-down of the OCV. After de-pressurizing the cabin, J'Shawn and the others unbuckled from their seats and made their way to the port side hatch.
"Remember, I'll go first and take the line with me." J'Shawn said, "And someone make a note that we need to pick up three more hand-thrusters. Once the line is secure, I'l give it a double tug and call you over the radio."
"Aye, aye, Captain!"
"Good one, Dora. Just remember to wait 'til I give the signal."
With that said, he clipped one end of the safety line to the hull of 'Vuffie' and gave himself a light push with his legs, drifting to the habitat. He used short bursts from his thruster to pull himself to the main personnel airlock and he then clipped that end in place. After he double-checked the connection and tightened the line, he gave two sharp tugs.
"Okay, you can come on over."
He didn't wait to see if they started. Instead, he turned to the control panel set next to the airlock's hatch and keyed in the Open Outer Hatch command. Inside, the warning lights flashed red, and he felt the hatch pop open under his hand.
Before he could turn around, one of them tapped him on the shoulder, startling him. He hadn't thought they would come over so fast.
"Boo!" Ellen's voice came through his speakers. "Did I scare you?"
"Naw, girl. But you did startle about two months off my life. I figured you three to still be pulling across." He pushed back against her, pulling the hatch out. "Back up a bit so I can get this open all the way."
"You got it Bossman. But you better hurry. They weren't that far behind me."
"No, we're not. Say, can you hurry up? I'm starving here. And I can't imagine the girls are any better off."
They crowded into the airlock by Dora and J'Shawn orienting to one floor while Ellen and Dermot moved to the other end, their helmets almost overlapping. J'Shawn managed to pull the outer hatch shut and secured it. Then Dora, facing the inner hatch, initiated airlock pressurization. The red lights continued to strobe until the lock's air pressure reached Earth-normal, at which time they switched to green. On that confirmation, Dora opened the inner hatch and they moved into the main cargo bay.
"Wow! Dora, look at this place! I can't believe how huge it is. We could put four of our cabins inside this place."
"You got that right. Say, Patrick, what are those things in the corner over there?"
"Those are the various attachment arms. We mount them on the bow of 'Vuffie' so she can grab onto objects too big to shove into her cargo bay. If we know the object is small, we can use one or two of the arms. Or all four if it's very big. And we can switch between five different clamps, claws or hooks, depending on what attach points the item has." J'Shawn replied. "But that's not the big surprise." He pointed to the opposite wall. "That is."
"What? The wall? And why is it so lumpy?" asked Dora. "Aren't bay walls supposed to be smooth?"
"That's not a wall. That's the passenger module for 'Vuffie'."
"Oh my god. You're kidding! Tell me you're kidding."
"Dora, I don't think he's kidding. That's a top hatch." Ellen drifted over to the detachable cabin and inspected its exterior. "But why does it have two sections?"
"J'Shawn explained that to me yesterday. When the original specifications were made, they asked for the ability to transport people in quarantine, because some of the downside officials were afraid we might discover bacteria or viruses up here which could infect us. Renault just made it impossible for the people inside their passenger transport module to move into the OTV cabin without exiting the module into space. Mitsubishi decided to add the ability to seal two people into the rear quarantine section, flush the chamber to space and hook them up to an independent air supply."
"What a scary and depressing thought. Not something I wanted as a surprise on Christmas Day. How about you, Dora?"
"Me neither. And while this is all well and good, it remains a cargo bay. I've seen plenty of those over at OPS-1. I want to see the rest of our new habitat."
She turned back to Dermot and J'Shawn. "Can we see inside? Is the power up and is the environment good?"
"More important," Ellen added, "can we take off our helmets? As Patrick said earlier, I'm getting hungry. You guys didn't feed us breakfast, remember."
"There's air in here and the rest of our new home." With that, J'Shawn unlocked his helmet and let it drop down his back, hanging on its retaining strap. The others followed suit.
"C'mon." He moved to the more distant of the two inner hatches. "We want to go this way."
As they entered the hallway beyond, Ellen noticed their breath didn't fog. She nudged Dora and demonstrated.
"It's warm in here." Dermot said, noticing Ellen's action. "That's one of the things we did yesterday, bring its environmental controls fully on line. And we brought over extra air and propane tanks. We topped off our reserves and filled the fuel cells. We have enough to power this module for about five months."
"Don't forget. We also replaced several worn-out light bars and changed out the CO2 scrubbers. But Patrick wants to bounce an idea off you gals." As they went down the corridor, J'Shawn pointed out various other features, including the emergency oxygen supplies and the power switching modules. After moving up two levels, he led them into a darkened chamber.
"Surprise!" he and Dermot shouted, as he flipped on the lights. The two women found themselves facing an elongated table behind which a series of round-cornered trapezoidal viewports looked out on the nearby orbital power station. Around the solar power arrays, skinsuited workers crawled, looking more like miniature aphids on rose petals than humans, while tow boats and personnel scooters flitted like mayflies. The nearer power array shone with reflected sunlight, throwing out a rainbow off it's panels.
"Oh my god! This is wonderful! You guys made a great gift!" Ellen threw herself at Dermot, crushing him in her embrace.
Dora followed close behind, wrapping herself around J'Shawn. "My Big Guy! Thank you! You sure know how to give a girl a gift worth keeping." She laid a passionate kiss upon him.
"Don't I get a kiss? I helped." Dermot pouted.
Ellen did not reply, save to pull his head to hers, relying upon her own wet and noisy lips to show her feelings.
After some time, the two couples came up for air and separated enough to move to the table. There, Dermot pulled up the bags containing his burden and opened them, spilling the contents to drift across the table's surface.
"Patrick!" Dora said, diving across the table to snatch two thermal packs before they had a chance to bounce off the far wall and ricochet under the table. "Those two are hot! That means they might bust open if they hit too hard!" As she moved past the rest of the items, she used one hand to push the other hot pack boxes towards Ellen. She barely had time to snag the errant boxes before her other arm touched the wall. She let her elbow bend slightly to absorb the recoil, tumbled to face back the other way and grabbed the edge of the table and pulled herself to the other three, frowning at Dermot.
"I managed to prevent a food disaster. The least you could do is say you're sorry."
"Yeah." Ellen agreed, elbowing him. "Say you're sorry. Or no goodies for you."
"Ouch! Okay. Okay. I'm sorry Dora. That was careless of me. Please chalk it up to exuberance and hunger." He grinned. "Now can we eat? I'm still starving."
"And you'd be even more starving had you wasted the food. I'm okay with eating; can we agree to discuss our plans while we do so?" Ellen waited for everyone's approval, then she helped Dermot set forth the meal. Dermot had sweet-talked the kitchen staff to prepare several containers filled with generous amounts of stuffing, gravy, candied sweet potatoes and jellied cranberries as well as rolls - all taken from what was being prepared for the special 'holiday' meal. On top of that, he convinced them to make eight large sandwiches, filled to overflowing with turkey, lettuce, mayonnaise and more jellied cranberries - and four slices of pumpkin pie. All the ingredients had been shipped skyward, at great expense, to provide the work crews with a taste of home as most of them had not visited Earth in more than six months - missing most of the groundside holiday celebrations.
As they laid the feast out in front of the others, Dora exclaimed, "How did you two manage this! Did you bribe one of the kitchen staff? J'Shawn? Answer me, I have got to know your secret! I've never been able to wheedle more than an extra ration bar or meal pack."
"Girl, don't go snoopin' for my secrets. A man has to have some tricks up his sleeve."
"He bought a couple of bottles of sipping bourbon for the head cook. The woman told him she wants to fix something special for an upcoming birthday." Dermot revealed.
"Damn, Bro'. You weren't supposed to tell anyone that. At least you said it over here, not back on the station."
"You're smuggling booze?" asked Ellen. "You can get in serious trouble smuggling booze. Singhman is death on alcoholic beverages up on station." She turned to Dermot. "You didn't help him did you? No. I don't want to know!"
"It's okay. If these two bums get caught and fired, we'll just find a smarter pair." Dora's smile at the two men held wicked promise. "Now let's enjoy this fine repast."
"Only if I get dibs on Patrick's slice of pie." Ellen snagged a second piece, pulling out of Dermot's reach. Dora mirrored her example, snatching J'Shawn's away from him before he could pull it to safety.
"Aw, Babe. Now that's just cruel. I'm a growing man; how do you expect me to maintain my fine-tuned physique if you go stealing all my food? Besides, you know I don't want you spoiling that beautiful figure of yours." He turned to Dermot. "Aren't you going to help me here?"
"Not me. I've learned my lesson; what say we enjoy what they left us?"
For a few minutes they tucked in and ate in silence. the only sounds that of hungry people savoring rich food. Finally, nothing remained but the desserts. Dora examined the two slices of pie in front of her, then glanced at Ellen.
"Can you really eat both slices of pie?" she asked.
"Not on my life. And my man has behaved himself during dinner." She slid her second slice to J'Shawn. "Here. I wouldn't want my sexy guy to get too weak on me. You need to build your strength." Dora placed hers in front of Dermot as well, motioning him to eat as she bit into her own.
As they ate their desserts, the men wolfing their down, Ellen asked, "Now what were you hoping to do with the OCVs? You mentioned providing 'taxi' services?"
"That's exactly my idea." J'Shawn replied. "Ryk Spoor was talking to me these last few days about how management has been getting requests to schedule in time and guest quarters for visitors - VIP visitors to start, but even some business types might come up."
"I've been hearing similar rumors," said Dermot. "The first groundside receiving rectenna is complete and they're going to have a ceremony when the power grid distribution substation comes on line. Supposed to have one of the bigwigs up here 'throwing the switch' - all captured on video, of course - at the same time as one of them cuts a ribbon down below."
"Okay," said Dora, "I've read about the groundside ceremony - it's all over the news sites - but I didn't know about the upper-level management person or the camera crew coming topside."
"That's great! All of you have heard about this and I didn't have a clue. I have to listen more to the chatter around me. You guys must think I'm not pulling my weight."
The other three gaped at her.
"Not pulling your weight?" Dermot responded. "Where did that come from? We all have seen how much work you put into learning about and then straightening out the legal aspects of our purchase. You're doing what you're good at, just as we do what we know."
"Still, I want to do more. I want to do something that gives me hands-on work, not just all the legal mumbo-jumbo. Yes, I know I work right alongside you guys assembling the power arrays, but that gets so mind-numbing after a while."
"Whereas I'm perfectly happy putting tab A into slot B all day. And I think Dora is as well. I guess you're a bit like J'Shawn."
"If you are, girl, maybe you should let Ryk teach you how to fly one of our OCVs. We need to have another one of us trained on them. Of course, that brings up the issue of finding time to train all of you on the tow boats. When can we do that? It will only take two days to do if you can schedule the whole class at once. If we have to break it down, there's about an extra four hours you'll have to do as a refresh of the first half, before you get into the heavy stuff in the second half."
Dora asked, "Are the bigwigs coming up within the next two weeks? Or do we have time to get one of us trained on the OCV? Because if we can't get OCV training, we have to decide whether we hire Spoor as our second pilot, even for a short-term contract, or accept we will not have use of the OCV for trips out here while J'Shawn is running them around."
"Good point, Babe. Patrick, are you hearing the same timeline as I am?"
"I'm hearing they should be up here in two to three weeks. It won't be sooner because while the camera crew has passed skinsuit training, the VIPs haven't. Plus, one of the VIPs has to have a custom suit made - something about girth. Or so I hear." He grinned as he told them.
"Which one is he?" Ellen asked.
"She. Definitely she. And I'm hearing she's Deputy Undersecretary for Space Affairs, Ekatarina Mishkova." he added. "She would have been fine with the regular suits, but she's about forty pounds over weight for a woman who only stands four feet, eleven inches."
"Ouch! How did she manage to pass the physical? I had a hard time and I was only five pounds over their chart weight." Ellen sleeked her hands down her sides. "Not that I have a problem any more."
"Elle, sweetheart. You were never overweight. They simply wanted to give you a hard time."
"Patrick, you are so forgiven for the booze."
"Thank you. No, Ms. Mishkova's problem is that she was a weightlifter, champion in in the Olympics in 2008. They never proved anything, but she's got the massive chest and abdomen of all serious heavy lifters, and I understand her chest augmented after she had and nursed four children."
"Bro'. Why am I visualizing a battleship?"
"You wouldn't be far off the mark, " Dora said. "I have read a lot of her public comments and position statements when I was working for my dad on the skinsuit development and marketing. She's a real hard-case. And if she's as vocal in private as she is in public, she's going to be a problem for everyone.
"That might work as an advantage for us. If we get J'Shawn hired as an outside contractor to ferry her and her entourage around, we will allow on-station management to distance themselves from any of her complaints, and management will find it easier to keep the dissident pilots away from her.
"When you put it that way, Patrick, you may have a point. J'Shawn, baby, can you keep your mouth shut about their issues?"
"I can. None of the pilots who are actually involved have talked to me about the guild. I can play dumb and happy. Ryk might have a problem doing so, because he just loves shooting off his trap whenever he gets a chance."
"Then we hire him to ferry the camera crews or other VIPs around and to train us to fly the rest of our wonderful new ships. That keeps him out of the way of management and gets us the training we need." said Ellen. "And I want first crack at OCV training. Do you two mind?"
"No sweetheart. I want to learn, but as long as we get me up to speed on the tow boats, I can wait."
"And I really need to dig into more of our paperwork and bookkeeping for the next few weeks. Go for it roomie. What about pay for Spoor? How much does he get from OPS?"
"Same as I do, plus ten percent additional for being a qualified instructor. And he's already told me that if he gets the same basic pay for any flight time, he'll waive other bennies. He already gets them on his UN-OPS contract, same as we do."
"But we will have to figure those in to our fee estimate to OPS management. They will expect the additional charges." said Dora.
"You know what's best."
"Is there anything else we need to discuss?" Ellen asked. "If not, I'd like a more complete tour of our habitat."
"I have a request." Dermot said. "We need to find more furnishings. Chairs, desks, other equipment, maybe even some extra computers. I know we haven't examined the other three habitats. Still, as we've already brought the environmental controls full-active on this one, I think we should make it our 'office'. Is that all right with everyone?" He could see agreement from everyone. "That's all I have to say."
The business meeting broke up on that note.

* * *

"We're home. Everyone awake and shake a leg." J'Shawn's voice woke Dermot from the nap he'd been taking.
"People." Spoor's voice broke into their conversation, "could I have a moment of your time?" His tension came through very clear.
"Ryk, my man. Could it wait? I just got done shuttling Patrick and our two fine ladies out to our new offices for a Christmas surprise. We're all stuffed and tuckered out."
"This won't take but a moment. Please, I'm just outside the airlock. May I come aboard?"
J'Shawn and Dermot twisted around to look at Dora and Ellen. The two women shrugged approval.
"Sure, come on over. Patrick will meet you at the hatch."
Once inside, Spoor said, "Hi everyone. I had to know, quick-quick whether you people had a good time." At the same time he held up his finger to where his mouth was behind his helmet, in the time-honored signal for quiet. Then he pointed at his radio antenna and indicated they switch to channel four on the reserve radio. After they did so, he continued. "Okay, sorry for the spot of bother, but I needed to let you know. If you're going to bid on providing those taxi services we discussed, do so quickly. I've overheard from my friends that the OPG instigators are planning to brace our Very Special Visitor about the Orbital Pilots Guild and their request for changes in the working conditions when she gets up here."
"No! We were just discussing that, and we think it would be crazy even if she weren't here. She's known for taking harsh action against those she considers troublemakers," Dora said.
"That may be, but they will do it. They've voted unanimously in favor. I tried to explain to my friends it wasn't the right move or the right time, but they wouldn't listen. And I have no doubt that Singhman will lump me with the sods for quick dismissal."
"That won't be a problem." she replied. "We're going to hire you as one of our pilots. If that meets with your approval?"
"Bloody Hell! That's the best possible news for Christmas Day! You'll never regret this."

Homebrew - Chapter Six

Chapter Six
It ain’t Much to Look At

It's dependable and not much to look at but it's mine, it's paid for and it's the only way I can get to work!

December 23, 2011

Points of hard light scattered across his vision, as if a careless jeweler had tossed a bucket of diamond dust on a jet floor. Random specks of red, orange and even blue brightness lent a variety to the image. A white, puffy cylinder drifted into his view. Despite being only eighty-feet by forty feet in size, he couldn't shake the feeling he was staring up at a giant Sta-Puff marshmallow ever so slowly falling down to crush him as he would an ant.
Unlike working out on the OPS power arrays, which were so large as to stretch from one edge of his vision to the other, as J'Shawn approached the closest of the four Sundancer III orbital habitats he and his friends had purchased so many months ago. Out here, he had discovered during O2O flight school, where nothing could block the vastness of space, he felt the loneliness so many of the writers, poets and the older astronauts spoke of. This is where he most felt displaced, unsure, as if he didn't belong. He had been raised in apartments, had been crammed into a dorm room for years. Even on his own, he'd found a single bedroom apartment. Small quarters and tight spaces had defined all of his life, walking or driving outside, he had rarely left the canyons of the city in which he'd been born.
Here, the emptiness, the magnitude ripped from the depths of his mind a fear, and a drive for self-examination he'd never quite known before. The fear came from seeing and understanding the total lack of anything within range of his orbital transfer vehicle. At times, he felt a desperate need to talk to whoever was listening on his assigned channel; he'd even experienced an occasional inability to engage the OTV's engines, to leave the docking bay. Each time, he had managed to calm down by re-doing his voyage checklist, focusing completely upon the task, not hesitating to run the 'execute' command.
Once he was moving, the fear disappeared. But the nature of orbit-to-orbit transfers was such as to ensure plenty of time for introspection. With the sheer simplicity of the OTV design, it could be handled by a single operator/pilot. And UN-OPS chose to specify all but the longest trips be conducted by one pilot, unless the cargo required special handling, in which case a technician rode 'shotgun' in the fold-out jumpseat.
On this trip he was the 'mission specialist', the technician hitching a ride. Along with the four habitats and their attached booster units and storage/garage modules, the sale price had included four older, but quite serviceable crew towboats and two OTVs. According to the manifest transmitted by the sales agents, this habitat held one OTV inside, complete with two grappling arm units. The OTV bringing him out here also carried fuel for his OTV. They would unload the fuel tanks and their shade screen, haul out the OTV and do whatever else was necessary to bring it online. They would also check the habitat's environmental systems.
"Coming up on your new home." Ryk Spoor's voice crackled through his helmet speakers. "Sure is pretty. Say, what do you guys plan on doing with these things? Weren't they part of that orbital hotel that Bigelow Aerospace runs?"
"They were. But Bigelow stripped all the furnishings and most of the room dividers out of these before they let us have them." He paused, wondering just what else he could safely say. Dora had cautioned him against letting people know their plans. "We haven't really decided what we're going to use them for. We've got a few wild ideas, but until we get a better look-see inside, we don't really know."
"Well, if it involves doing a little orbit-to-orbit work, I wouldn't mind picking up a few hours on the side," his fellow OTV pilot said, "strictly cash, if you can afford that."
"Is that you talking... or your bookie?" Ryk was well known for his habit of betting on any professional sports event - and losing so regularly as to leave him borrowing money from any fellow worker who he could badger into it. He had even bet on the outcome of a curling match.
"My bookie, of course." For all his abysmal judgment of sports teams, he was a skilled OTV pilot. They docked at the storage module docking port with the barest of jars. "All out for space habitat G-III 384. Please fold your chairs into the stored position and take all personal luggage with you. Thank you for flying OPS Space Lines."
"Dude, you must have been saving that one for years. If you happen to have any more, please remember, they're not helping your chances of moonlighting for us."
"Duly noted and logged." Spoor completed his shutdown and followed J'Shawn through the top-mounted hatch. "Do you want to check everything out on the hab first, or do you want to pull the fuel tanks and get them stored?"
"Let's get them stored. We'll want them offloaded before I fuel up my OTV, so it makes sense to move them into position now."
"You're the customer." With that, they floated over to the open-frame cargo bay and hooked the pallet containing the fuel canisters out with the articulated arm. Working slow to minimize the probability of damaging the canisters, OTV or habitat, they finished moving and shading the fuel can in a little more than forty-five minutes.
By then, both their air tanks had dropped to less than half of rated capacity. It had been a major design change, but the first work crews had demanded, and got an external connector and an internal pressurized air canister on the later model OTVs. Both Ryk and J'Shawn topped off their breather pack tanks before moving to the individual-entry hatch mounted in the cargo bay hatch. It was a matter of minutes for each to pass through into the bay.
"Wow. This is dark squared." J'Shawn whistled softly as his external helmet lamp painted a small circle of light on the bay's far wall. The rest of the bay, except for the wandering circle formed by Spoor's lamp, remained black, sucking the photons from their lights into the pitch darkness.
"I hope you remember where they put the light switch, because I don't see one."
"Yeah. It's over here, about two feet to the left of the hatch we just crawled through." He turned, scanning the cargo bay's hatch frame. "Here it is, one standard keypad and environment control panel. Lights are now..." he keyed in the correct code, flooding the chamber in harsh brilliance, "on!"
"Geez! You could warn a guy before doing that! I'll be seeing spots for the rest of the trip ho... holy crap!" At that, J'Shawn whirled around. And stopped, facing the object which had caused such eloquence from Ryk.
"Man. Punch me, quick! I'm not seeing what I think I'm seeing am I?"
"If you aren't, J'Shawn old man, you must be delusional, because I'm looking at a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries OCV 800, Series B, I think."
UN-OPS had chosen to accept the bid from Renault for the construction of the two generations of OTVs. Renault had created a very basic orbital transfer vehicle, capable of hauling approximately 1 metric ton of cargo in the open rear bay, room for a pilot and mission specialist in the unpressurized cabin and having two bow attach points for articulated arms and tow claws. Pushing a five metric ton object, it could thrust for 240 minutes at it's max Isp.
The Mitsubishi OCV 800 resting before them had room for three times the cargo in it's rear bay and had four attach points on the bow. It also featured a command and passenger cabin capable of being pressurized and carrying four passengers plus the pilot and mission specialist. Further, the cargo bay could hold a separate-environment passenger cabin with life-support for 72 hours for eight passengers. And it could boost at max Isp for up to 960 minutes. Looking past the OCV, which held the closed-environment cargo insert, J'Shawn could see one of the passenger modules.
"I don't think you asked for enough fuel."
"No, I didn't, did I?" J'Shawn floated over and ran his gloved hand along it's flank. "I'm going to need a new paint job."
"Paint job? Why in Hell would you want to mar that pristine beauty with a different color?"
"Not color. Colors. I want flames. And an eagle's beak." He rounded on Spoor. "You're not looking at OCV 800 - 1875B."
"I'm not?"
"Of course you're not. You're looking at Screaming Eagle One." J'Shawn turned back to the craft. "And you're mine, all mine. Aren't you baby?"
Ryk's cough brought him back to the present. "That's all well and good, but we've got to get it out of the bay, fueled and we've got to check out the habitat. And we don't have that much time before we both have to return to OPS-1. Are you still planning to fly that one back to the station?"
"Yes, so we better get started."
Opening the cargo bay's main hatch took far less time than they anticipated as the main power system had been in sleep rather than completely powered down. The power meters on the batteries read 143 hours capacity at full load. Which was good because that meant J'Shawn could expect over ten weeks of capacity in sleep mode, plenty of time to install and fuel the fuel cells they had purchased.
Once outside, the two of them drained all the fuel from the canisters into the OCV's tanks.
"Can I watch as you work through the power-up checklist? I've never seen the inside of one of these babies."
"Sure. In fact, I was planning to ask you for help. I figure if you do end up working for us, it would be better if you were checked out on our orbital craft." He opened the hatch and pulled himself inside, saying, "Welcome aboard Screaming Eagle One."
J'Shawn was relieved to see the control panels layout was the same as the OTV's. He'd heard Mitsubishi had submitted a bid for the OTV contract, but now he had confirmation.
"I wonder why UN-OPS didn't go for this vehicle? It clearly meets the needs of the OPS crew."
"J'Shawn, you haven't lived in Europe, so I can understand why you've never experienced this. The UN doesn't like giving contracts to the 'big boys' based in Japan, the US or England. And the only other serious bidder was from France. France is a big deal in the UN, despite everything it does to frustrate the UN's basic goals."
"Then they're stupid."
"How long have you worked for UN-OPS? And you're just now realizing that the UN is stupid?" J'Shawn heard the humor in Ryk's voice. "But there's hope for you. You have me to explain everything."
"Good thing. Because I've never understood the European mind."
"And I've never understood how you Americans can drink American beer. I guess we all have our personal ideosyncracies."
"Go ahead and keep complaining. Keep complaining. Need I point out you guys drink your beer warm?" He kept working his way through the startup checklist. So far all the indicators had come up green, The cabin interior glowed with the emerald light, rendering the reds and magentas of their suit controls a darker gray against the pale blue of their breather packs.
"Beats all Hell out of chilling down near zero just to disguise the lack of character. A real beer doesn't need to freeze the taste buds, it has a character pleasing to the bloody palate. Something you colonials never figured out. Say, could you go back a step?"
J'Shawn reversed his last step, which brought the main display to one of several nested menu screens. "What did you see?"
"There, that last option. Do you see it?" The choice read 'Defensive Systems'.
"I see it, but I don't believe it. Why would anyone put a defensive system on an OCV?" He selected the menu choice. Another screen of options appeared. "Electro-static Discharge Anti-theft System? Kinetic Energy Anti-Intrusion System? Thermal-Optical Collision Elimination System? Automatic Collision Avoidance System? Just what did Mitsubishi expect this thing to have to deal with?"
"Did you notice all but the anti-theft and collision-avoidance systems are listed as 'inoperative/not installed'? Those two are showing up as 'disengaged'. Old chum, I think that means you could turn them on. I'd dearly love to see what that Electro-static Discharge Anti-theft System does, but I'm volunteering you to test it. As for the anti-collision system, it probably acts the same way as the avoidance systems on airliners, or so I would presume."
"You may be right. But I'm not going to turn either on until I've had a chance to read the manuals - thoroughly!" He resumed working through the startup checklist. "I think for now it will be better to get this puppy ready to fly and get some time behind the controls bringing back to OPS-1. You have to admit this is a much nicer crew cabin than on your bird."
"No doubt," the other pilot replied, "but do you think it's wise to bring this close to the station? We don't know what the systems are capable of."
"Yeah, but I have no plans to install either of the two 'inoperative' systems. And I'm not going to turn on the others anywhere near the station. They may be nice options, but have you noticed the rest of the controls and programs are what we have on the OTVs and use the same switches, joysticks and execution commands? This shouldn't be that hard to fly. What do you say to a short flight around the habitats? I'll even let you have some stick time."
He could hear Spoor's breath in his earphones. Long seconds passed. "I'm less worried about rules and regs than many of the other pilots, but we've a bit of a long hike back if anything goes wrong. Still, everything checked out green, and by the gauges we've got enough fuel, even with the paltry bit we dumped in, to go to OPS and back twice. I'm game."
"Great! Then let's do it!" J'Shawn reached for the control yoke.
"Hold on. You didn't let me finish. You colonials are always in a bloody hurry."
At that comment J'Shawn stopped. "What now?"
"How much time do you have flying these crates? The OTVs, I mean?"
"You know I've only the 100 hours they allowed in flight training."
"And have you ever flown aircraft?" Spoor continued. "I'm not trying to be insulting; my questions are relevant."
"No. I wasn't rich enough to afford to pay for lessons," he said, not quite able to hide his resentment at the direction the conversation was taking.
"Well I have. I've got my ticket punched for rotary, single and multi-engine craft and I'm both visual and instrument flight rules certified. The last I looked, I've logged over 2,000 hours down below, in several different types of aircraft. And that's on top of my 1,600 hours of OTV flight time."
"Look, I'm not trying to spoil your fun. But I'd really rather be the one to take us away from your big marshmallow over there. While neither of us has flown one of these crates, I'm the only one who's had real experience in flying different craft. I promise, once we're clear, I'll gladly relinquish the controls to you."
J'Shawn listened through the pulse of his anger. This was, after all, his craft. Still, what Spoor said made sense. And the others would not be happy if he damaged their property the very day they received it.
"Okay. You're right. So why don't you take us out a few hundred meters and get us a bit of elbow room to practice in?" He removed his hands from the controls and watched Ryk ready himself to take control.

* * *

The OCV slowed its tumble, ending the skew-flip maneuver with the engine bells facing along its path, the vibration of the thunderous deceleration burn reaching through the control yoke into J'Shawn's hands. Before he could react to the zero-count flashing onto the main screen, by mashing the cutoff switch, the engines went silent. The sudden cessation of deceleration threw him against the safety harness."
"YEOW! What a blast!" he shouted, staring out the cabin's pilot-side port at the nearby inflatable habitat, now hanging motionless 100 meters from the OCV. "What a rush! This thing can stop on a dime! Did you feel the deceleration? We were pulling almost three-tenths of a G!"
"Do tell. Good thing I wasn't taking a sip of tea, now, wasn't it? Two things. First, I believe you have the hang of flying this beast. Second, I strongly recommend you not attempt any of these high-delta-v hijinks near OPS-1. They'd surely take your ticket away from you. And fire you. And ship your arse back groundside. Now please allow me to catch my breath, slow my heart rate. I'd like a calm, genteel trip back to my ship, if you will."
"One slow, gentle, calming trip coming up. You know, you didn't do so bad yourself. If you decide you still want to moonlight for us, and if any opportunities come up that we can offer you, I am willing to convince the others to hire you. Are you still up for that?" J'Shawn turned to watch his passenger. Once again, the seconds ticked by. While he waited, he set up a course back to the OTV.
"Did you know a group of tow-boat and OTV pilots have been agitating for better working conditions?" Spoor asked. "They're trying to form, of all things, an Orbital Pilots Guild. More emphasis on safety, fewer 12 to 14 hour shifts, better monitoring of flight paths, certain training courses not currently being taught, that kind of thing."
"No. I hadn't heard about this. But then, I just finished flight training two weeks ago and I haven't really gotten to know my fellow pilots. You, on the other hand, have been flying those tow boats and the OTVs for months. If you're not involved with it, I'd still bet you know all about it." While talking, J'Shawn initiated the trip instructions stored in the flight computer. With a soft push, Screaming Eagle One began it's voyage back to the first habitat and the OTV.
"I do. And I support the basic concept. The problem is, management doesn't want it to happen. Which means it won't happen. Or I should say, it won't happen without some sort of fight."
"I'm not one of the organizers, and I haven't formally signed on, but I'm friendly enough with those who are part of the movement that management may well decide I'm not worth keeping around. After all, they know about my wee gambling issue."
"Yeah, but from what I've seen, you keep it under control. You may be a bit short at times, but it's not like you're dropping tens of thousands beyond what you make."
"But I do occasionally drop several hundred beyond my income." Ryk sighed. "And that will be enough. I made the mistake of telling Singhman, in front of about a dozen others, that he was a bloody, hypocritical prick for his judgmental attitude about my gambling. Which means that when, not if, this Orbital Pilots Guild nonsense comes to a head, I'll be run off with them. He's done this to others."
"But that's a side issue to the point I was going to make. You, Dora, Dermot and Ellen are the sole legal owners of those puffy orbital marshmallows and the attached vehicles. You are a licensed orbital pilot, duly certified. And as one of the owners of this bloody wonderful ship, you're the Chief Pilot of your concern."
"So?" J'Shawn couldn't see where this was leading. "Big deal. I'm still a rookie orbital pilot. Machs nichts."
"There's where you're wrong. As owner and Chief Pilot, you have the authority to license other pilots - including myself. Which means you can certify me on this OCV and issue a license, independent of the one I hold through UN-OPS. I rather like the idea of having an orbital pilot's license that can't be pulled by OPS management."
"The Hell you say! It can't be that easy! And you are forgetting I'm not an instructor-pilot."
"But I am. And I just gave you a check flight on an orbit-to-orbit transfer vehicle. Oh sure. It's a bit hincky, but if you and your fellow owners accept the validity of it, your company can issue a license based upon my certification."
Silence descended in the cabin. For the remainder of the journey, each man pondered the words spoken.
As they neared their destination, Spoor spoke up again. "One other pertinent fact. As a duly registered corporation, with offices, personnel and vehicles in orbit, you could also hire yourselves out to OPS. Look it up, it's in the regulations. That puts the onus of meeting safety and training requirements on you, but it also means you can, if things go the way I believe they will, charge whatever the market will bear for services rendered. If possible, I'd like to complete a transfer from employment under UN-OPS to you before the pilots guild idiots get OPS management all stirred up."
After easing to a stop, J'Shawn unbuckled and followed Spoor to the hatch. There, his passenger stopped, hand on the hatch release handle. "Just think about it," he said.
"I will, and if we decide to follow your advice, you'll be the first one we call."
With that, Spoor exited the craft and shot over to his own ship. Once inside, he called out to J'Shawn, "I'm in. Would you hang around a bit until I get this bloody crate fired up?"
"Sure thing. I figured it would be less surprising to flight control if I followed you back home."
"Like some bloody great puppy, you mean?"
"Exactly. And I expect you to go all gushy and wide-eyed-innocent-child on them. Remember, you're trying to win a job with us."
"Right. One sodding innocent waif act coming up. May I assume you're not going to tell them your ship's new name? I do believe 'Screaming Eagle One' has a rather, violent, connotation to it. Not that it's any of my business, of course, but that might make the gushiness sound somewhat... contrived, wouldn't you agree? How about I call it 'Fluffy'?"
"Fluffy?" J'Shawn couldn't restrain a guffaw. "Fluffy! I like it. No. Wait. Call her 'Vuffie'!"
"Vuffy? What the bugger is a 'Vuffy'!" Outraged curiousity echoed in Spoors voice. J'Shawn made his way to the pilot's seat and strapped in as he laughed.
"You mean you've never read the classics?"
"Classics? I've read every single one of Shakespeare's plays, all of Dickinson's works and even Mary Shelly's writings. Nowhere have I ever heard of 'Vuffy'."
"Wrong classics. You need to have read from L. Neil Smith's stories. Specifically, you have to find a copy of "Their Majesties' Bucketeers". And it's spelled 'Vuffie'. That's 'V', 'u', 'f', 'f', 'i' and 'e'."
"Effing colonials. They'll always suprised you. Are you ready? I'm all warmed up and set to go."
"Just finishing setting up my flight plans. There. You can proceed at any time."
"Before we proceed, you might want to check out the reserve channels, make sure they're working. How about we test Reserve Channel Two?"
"Sure." J'Shawn hadn't thought of testing the reserve radio channel. It was most often used by the pilots to chat between themselves during multi-ship operations to relieve the traffic on both the main station-to-ship channels and the standard ship-to-ship channels. "Switching to Reserve Channel Two, now." He activated that radio and set it to channel two. "Can you hear me, Ryk?"
"Loud and clear. Say, while we're hanging out here with no one listening, how about you keep your ship's special features quiet? No need bragging on them, what?"
"You're coming through five by five. Vuffie out."

* * *

The trip back to OPS-1 was uneventful. However, after the powerful acceleration they had put his OCV through during the shakedown flight, the sedate initial push and slow drift to home mandated by UN-OPS regulations left him frustrated. Still, the snail's pace as well as the hint from Ryk to not discuss what he had shared left J'Shawn a great deal of time to review what he had heard, and to make plans.
It took them forty-five minutes to accelerate up to maximum prescribed velocity, travel the five miles to OPS-1 and decelerate down to one-half meter per second, the allowed velocity for close-in maneuvering, that being any maneuver performed within 200 meters of the station. After another six and a half minutes, J'Shawn successfully docked the OCV at his assigned mooring clamp. Before he shut the bird down, he recharged his air supply from the on-board tanks. Then he fished the technical manuals out of the locked cabinet where they had been stored, placing them in a net shoulder bag, called the 'purse' by one and all. Damned if it didn't look like a shoulder purse, he thought, not for the last time.
As he exited the locker room where he had stripped off his helmet and breather pack, he was hailed from behind.
"Williams. J'Shawn Williams." He recognized the voice; it belonged to his shift supervisor, Aaron Solomon.
Turning he replied, "Yes, Aaron? Do you need me?" He hoped this wasn't about an off-schedule flight. The excursion had left him tired and hungry. Solomon pulled even with him.
"I was wondering if you could explain, Williams, that craft you have hanging off the mooring clamp. You stated in your request you would be bringing over an OTV. From the chatter I overheard, it's an OCV. Where did you get it?"
"To tell the truth, Aaron finding it was as big a shock to me as it was to you. The receipts we received stated two orbital transfer vehicles, one of which bore the hull number 1875B. And when I opened up the cargo bay, there she was, an orbital craft, a Mitsubishi OCV class, Series B ship, Orbital Cargo Vessel 1875B. I scanned back through all our records and she's definitely ours."
"We'll have to revise our agreement with you as this is a much more massive vessel than we agreed upon. We may have to change your docking point."
"I'm good with that, even if it means a slightly higher docking fee." He watched Solomon stare at him, expecting a reaction which J'Shawn couldn't begin to guess at. Finally he asked the man, "Is that all? I've only got ten hours until my shift starts and I'd like to catch a meal before I go to sleep."
"Yes. But stop by my office this week so we can make other arrangements."
"Sure thing." He turned and walked away, heading straight for the cafeteria. According to his watch, he had five minutes left to scrounge up his meal.
Later, as he showered in preparation for sleep, he thought back on how Solomon had acted. It was almost as if Solomon expected him to pull a 'better-than-thou' act, simply because he now owned his own ship. And there may have been a bit of fear in the man's eyes. Like he expected J'Shawn to refuse to move to a new docking point or pay higher fees.
The more he pondered, the more he wondered just how bad the feelings between the Orbital Pilots Guild agitators and management had become. Could Ryk be correct? Were the guild people ready to push for greater power?
On the one hand, it could present a wonderful opportunity to hire out his orbital ships to OPS. And that meant better money for all four of them. On the other hand, he sympathized with the pilots. Even with what time he'd spent these past two weeks, he could agree that some of their ideas - they really weren't 'demands' yet, were they? - made sense. And they'd resent him if he 'took' their jobs away by doing 'work-for-hire' for OPS. Still, they would probably already have been fired if OPS decided to throw contract work his way.
The only thing he knew for sure was that either way, he needed to get Dermot, Ellen or Dora up to speed on the OCVs, and he didn't have enough experience to teach them. Which meant they might well take Ryk Spoor up on his plan to be licensed as one of their OCV pilots, an instructor-pilot. Ryk could probably handle the job.
"Damn." he said out loud. "'Vuffie'! That's gonna spread all over the station! May as well make it official." He called up the flight control office on the com line built into his notebook.
"Flight Ops."
"I need to register my ship."
"Your ship? What do you mean? They aren't private property. All ships are owned by UN-OPS. Thus, they're already registered."
"Not this one. It's owned by me and my friends. And it's not one of the OTVs. Look in your records for an OCV, Series B vessel, hull number 1875B."
"I heard rumors about it." the woman continued. "Let me see... Nope, you're already registered. Don't need to do a thing."
"What name does it show?"
"Name? Why would it need a name?"
"Because we own it, not UN-OPS or one of the big multi-national corporations. And I like the idea of it having a name."
"Well, we usually don't, but it appears there is a place on the form for a name. What do you want to call it?"
"Vuffie. That's spelled 'V', 'u', 'f', 'f', 'i' and 'e', Vuffie." He heard a sharp laugh from the other end.
"Are you sure you want to call it that? And not something more noble, like Mighty Emerald Dragon of the Eastern Dawn?"
"Nope. My mind's made up."
"Then 'Vuffie' it is." The woman paused. "Um... Could I take a look sometime at this ship you felt inspired to call 'Vuffie'?"
"Sure thing. Just not tonight. Good night." And he cut the connection.