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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
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Monday, December 14, 2009

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."


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