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."
"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.
"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."