Chapter ELEVEN

Did you enjoy the little training exercise Flashdance laid on for her pilots?

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And now, the next chapter. We’re starting to move things around!

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Artemis Space

 Getting from the surface to Lunar orbit and the transit hub was via a jump ship. Jump ships looked like inflated versions of the lunar landers of the 20th Century, spindly legs poking out of a base, with an irregularly-shaped more-or-less sphere perched above it. Antennae jutted out at seemingly random spots, angles met awkwardly, and the whole thing looked like it had been crumpled by a giant’s hand instead of being deliberately created. It could never exist within atmosphere, that was clear.

Inside, function followed the form. There were three levels within the upper hull: cargo and mechanicals on the lowest level, an array of acceleration couches on the second level, and the control cabin perched in the tiny third level. Passengers entered through an airlock on the second level, which, given that the jump ship platforms were recessed into the surface, aligned nicely with  a retractable pressurized walkway.

Davie had been aboard jump ships before, usually when attempting to make a clandestine inspection of an Artemis Navy ship. She could have availed herself of one of the cutters or packets that regularly shuttled between the surface and the orbiting ships, and usually did, but that would make her visit official. Sometimes she had needed to have a quiet word with certain captains and admirals, strictly off the record, and a jump ship was the only way to achieve it.

But then she’d had her assistants, and maybe a deputy or two, instead of being crowded in with two dozen tourists who seemed acutely aware of the fragility of their transport, and rather uncomfortable with that knowledge.

“Everyone, please settle down,” the ostensible tour guide was saying. His name was Tony, she thought, although given that he’d identified himself as being from something called ‘OutLook’ she couldn’t even be sure of that. Her life was in his hands though, so she listened and tried to look like she didn’t know what she was doing. It wasn’t that tough; she’d been lunars stuck in the undercity, by Titania’s crown, and, well, she’d had assistants.

“But Tony, is this thing safe?” asked one of the other tourists. Not tourists, she reminded herself. Agents from OutLook.

She found it hard to believe that anyone would want her so desperately to spend the pile of cash it must have taken to put this whole excursion together. She knew that MinSec routinely monitored all tourist visits to Luna, after giving every participant a thorough vetting. Any cover had to be well-nigh foolproof to survive their scrutiny, and since she’d never heard of any excursion of less than a half-lunar’s duration… She added up the costs in her head as Tony went from couch to couch, adjusting straps and reassuring the passengers, just as a real guide would do.

“How are you doing, Ms. Zednanreh?” he asked when he got to her couch. He checked the straps to ensure they were properly tightened as they spoke.

“I’ve told you, Tony, that if you insist on being ‘Tony’ then you have to call me Julissa. It’s just not fair otherwise.” She had decided to play the role of The Tourist Who Flirts With The Guide; there was always at least one of those in any group. Besides, Tony was kinda cute. Not the type she usually went for, but then again it had been quite a while since she’d had a chance for any type.

“You did the straps up just right,” he said instead, side-stepping the question with practiced ease. “Is there anything you need?”

She looked at him with wide, innocent eyes. “Nothing right now,” she said with a little lift of her eyebrows.

“Then I’ll just finish checking the rest of the passengers.” He stepped away, seemingly intent on his job.

Jump ships were nothing if not punctual. Time was money, after all, and time on the surface was time they weren’t earning their way. In only a few minutes more the pilot was counting down, then they were crushed beneath six times Luna’s gravity. It only took four minutes for them to reach escape velocity, 2.4 KPS, but those four minutes were torment for Davie. The others found it comforting after their sojourn in Artemis; it was what they’d been born to, after all. Still, she gasped in relief as the engine was shut down and they were suddenly in free fall. It was blissful. For a moment. Then…

Oh, Maeve wept! she cursed as the more weak-stomached passengers succumbed to spacesickness. She unstrapped enough to lower the visor on her suit’s helmet, turned the air onto high, and tried to block out the sounds around her. She didn’t envy the pilot trying to clean this mess. If I were him, I’d open the airlock and space the lot, but who knows what else we’d lose.

She endured, rather than enjoyed, the twenty-minute flight. The major civilian transfer station was in orbit above Artemis City, 2900 kilometers up. There wasn’t any such thing as a selenostationary orbit; the motion of the moon around Earth, the Earth-moon system around the sun, the other major planets, all contributed to massive instability in the orbital mechanics. A lower orbit would have made sense for convenience, but wouldn’t have been economically feasible given the need for constant corrections. Additionally, the Artemis Colony was most protective of its circumlunar orbits, retaining strict control over who, and what, could occupy them at any given time.

Eventually, and in Davie’s opinion far, far too late, the ship was approaching the station. There was only the slightest bump, almost unfelt, as the airlocks connected, and after the routine checks that being in the black required the hatch was opened. Being unaffected by zero-g, Davie was the second person off and into the clean air of the station. Well, clean for values of clean.

The transfer station itself was an old-fashioned type of habitat. It was a cylinder, two hundred meters long and forty wide, with the long axis pointed towards Luna. At each of the lower ten levels a pair of arms extended outward from the center on opposite sides; these were the docking arms, fifty meters long, to which the various craft connected. Each level’s arms were offset from the ones above or below by sixty degrees, giving the station a helical appearance. Above the arms were the habitat’s residences, operations, solar panels, environmental systems, and so on. At the far end were the communications systems, positioned to get the best possible signal to Earth.

And it was in microgravity as well.

“Root and branch,” she muttered. She looked around for any information displays, found one, and checked for the departure time.

“Eighteen. Oh joy.” It was only just past sixteen. She just hoped that the unfortunates who had succumbed had emptied their stomachs on the trip up. Sighing, she found a quiet corner, pulled a padd from her bag, and started to read.

Surprisingly, Tony started moving them to their departure lock as soon as he’d ensured all his charges had cleared out of the jump ship. She fell in place next to him, swimming her way up the corridor easily.

“We have to leave already?” she mock-pouted, still playing her self-assigned role.

“Sorry, Miss Zed – Julissa,” he corrected. “You seem to be at home here, but some of the others aren’t quite as comfortable. The Michael Browne isn’t fancy, but she does have an internal grav field.”

“And what gravity do they use?” she asked. It wasn’t the idle question it seemed. Julissa Zednanreh was a native of Earth, born and raised in the Sonoran Republic; this was her first trip off-Earth, a present to herself for her birthday. Davie Whitmore, though she knew everything she could about Julissa, was a native of Luna. She’d been off-planet many times, but had never had to live in a gravity field six times birth normal, and she was worried.

“The ship is kept at ¾ g, and each cabin is individually adjustable.”

Well. An adjustable cabin would have to do, and she supposed… But he wasn’t done talking.

“Many of our guests experience some difficulty with adjustments back to Earth’s gravity, so we’ve an entire protocol worked out. These half-Lunar trips, you wouldn’t think they’d do much, but you’d be surprised at how much conditioning and bone mass people lose. You’ll have everything you need, from our proprietary blend of nutritional supplements to electrical stimulation of muscles to a full exoskeletal support suit. And it’s already included in your fee, so there’s no extra charge!” He finished his recitation with a big, cheesy, salesman’s grin.

“Thank Titania,” she said. “I was a bit worried about that. I’d heard just the most terrible stories! I should have known that you’d have everything worked out.”

Checking in to the Browne was swift. Outside the tunnel leading to the ship was a bored-looking crewman. She passed over her ID and had her fingerprints scanned. He handed back her ID, said, “Welcome back, Ms. Zednanreh. Please proceed down the tube. Your cabin is ready for you,” and turned to the next passenger. That was it. She did her best to look confident.

Oberon’s balls! Cabin. Where’s my cabin? I should know this! Stop it, Davie! Well, when in doubt, confuse the issue.

“Tony, did I hear something about our cabins being changed?”

“Huh? Oh. Yes, they did have to make some adjustments, Miss – Julissa. Thank you for reminding me. Hey, everyone!” he yelled to the milling group. “Listen up! This is a different ship than the one that brought us to the moon. Your cabin assignment may have changed. Don’t worry, any luggage that you left aboard the Crawford has been transferred over. If anything’s missing, let me know, and if you have any questions you can me before you head to your room!”

He looked to her with a smile. “Thanks. I mean that. It would have been a mess, whoops! Gotta go, but wait, I’ll bring you to –“ And he was gone, swept away by the tide of tourists.

Instead of moving toward the ship, she hung back, out of the way, waiting for Tony to finish herding his cats. Her mind kept returning to the question which had been plaguing her: who was OutLook, and why did they want her?

It’s an Earth outfit; that’s obvious. It doesn’t sound like a government agency, so it’s probably not part of the UE. The name is familiar, though I can’t place it. Sweet Titania, I wish I could figure this out!

Her musings were interrupted by Tony’s voice. “Last boat to Earth, Julissa. Time to board.”

She looked around. The boarding area was clear, except for them and the now impatient-looking crewman.

“Come on. I’ll show you to your cabin.” He gracefully floated next to her down the tunnel, stopping at the orange-bounded airlock. “Let me go first; the transition can be tricky.”

He grabbed the bar above the hatch and swung his body in an arc. She could see when gravity caught hold of him, and he smoothly released the bar and dropped to the deck. Turning to face her, he said, “Can you do that?”

“I can manage the bar,” she said. “But I’m not sure about the landing.”

“Then forget the bar. Ground yourself and just step forward. Don’t worry, I’ll catch you if you stumble.”

She grinned; he knew as well as she that a stumble was guaranteed. She positioned herself at the edge of the hatch, feeling the tug of gravity just beyond, so much stronger than she was used to, took a deep breath, and stepped.

The pull was as fierce as she had feared, and she fell forward. Her drop was arrested by arms coming up under hers, then gently bringing her vertical again. Her head was too heavy, but she tensed her neck and managed to focus.

“Thank you,” she said with great sincerity.

“You’re welcome. Your cabin isn’t far; let me help you.” She was disinclined to argue.

He was right, the cabin wasn’t far away, and he guided her to the bed. Horizontal is a little better, she thought. Still feels like there’s a two-person compartment on my chest.

“You said the gravity’s adjustable?” Her voice was raspy.

“Of course,” he said. “Luna standard?”

“Please.”

He moved to a control mounted on the wall, tapped it a few times, and suddenly she could breathe again.

“Sweet Oberon,” she gasped, taking in great lungfuls of air. “How do people live in that?”

He dropped next to her on the bed. “Feeling better?”

“You have no idea,” she said. She sat upright. “You said something about supplements and other expedients. That’s going to help me?”

“Well, what we have in mind for you is a little more involved,” he admitted.

“Is this Tony the guide talking, or Tony from OutLook?”

He looked around, suddenly panicked. “Don’t say that!”

She waved off his panic. “MinSec doesn’t touch the tourist ships. They worry that they’ll get caught, and while they don’t care if anyone outside Artemis knows they’re snooping, it would be embarrassing. And embarrassment can be fatal if the Primus hears about it. So, unless you know of any plants in here from someone else, you can relax.”

To her surprise, he did relax. “That sounded very professional. I haven’t heard that from you before.”

“Old habits die hard, I guess,” she explained. “Now. Involved? How?”

“Give me a few minutes and I’ll explain. I’ve got to be Tony the guide a little longer.”

He couldn’t have been gone more than ten minutes before her entry signal sounded.

“Come in,” she said automatically. After all, Julissa didn’t fear anyone. Fortunately for her it was Tony, and he carefully crossed the boundary into her reduced-gravity room.

“How are you doing now?”

“Much better. I think you were going to answer my question before you suddenly remembered you had something else to do.”

He laughed as he sat down in one of the room’s chairs. “I really did have things to do.”

“Come on, Tony. Cards on the table time. How much would you have to do? You said these are all agents of OutLook, though Oberon only knows what that is.”

“Yes, but we don’t get many off-Earth jobs. For this assignment, they really were tourists.”

“Tell you what. Start from the beginning. Assume I know nothing, and explain.”

He looked at her skeptically. “This might take some time.”

“This ship have room service?” He nodded. “Then I’ve got nothing but time.”

Two hours later, with the Browneunderway on her leisurely return to Earth and a meal inside her, she felt that she had a handle on the situation. Maybe.

“So OutLook, HLC, and the Terran Federation, they’re all controlled by these two women.”

“The Cassidys. Yes.”

“I knew that OutLook sounded familiar; it was part of a dossier I read, several lunars back. And Admiral Cassidy is the one behind this particular mission?”

“Yes and no; she told Director Montana to get more HumInt on Artemis, so that’s what she did. Mistress Karolina reports to another agency, I can’t tell you who because I don’t know.”

“And Marc?”

“That was just pure luck on your part. He’s not part of any organization I’m aware of.”

“A genuine altruist? Hard to believe.”

“Well, not so much an altruist. Opportunist, maybe. He wanted a bounty for you. We paid, of course.”

“What do I owe you?”

“Huh?”

“TANSTAAFL. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. This OutLook is a business, so you’ve got to make the books balance.”

“We don’t work like that. Well, we do, but not like you think. It’s really above my pay grade, but I’m sure someone can talk to you about it once we’re back.”

“I really don’t like owing,” she said. “It rankles.”

Tony shrugged. “Like I said, above my pay grade. Now, once we get to Capricorn Station, you’re going to have to be up to being mobile.”

Her face fell. She’d forgotten that detail. “How long is that?”

“We’re taking the slow boat home, literally. Two weeks. Officially, that’s so they can enjoy a tour of the inner system, but really it’s so that tourists can get used to near-Earth gravity again.”

“Two weeks! There’s no way I can be mobile in Earth gravity in two weeks, and I don’t care what kind of supplements and powered supports you have!”

“Whoa, whoa, back up. Yes, that’s what I said, but remember I told you it would be more involved?”

“Ye-es,” she said.

He reached into a pocket, came out with a small package. “Take this. You probably should have had it before dinner, but it probably won’t make a difference.”

Taking the plastic pouch, she said, “What is it?”

“What do you know about nanobots?”

“Nanobots? Bloodcell-sized machines?” She’d opened the pouch to reveal what looked to be a medicine capsule.

“And smaller. Yes. That capsule contains several thousand nanobots and enough essential raw materials to build a full body-load –“

“Sweet Lady Maeve, you want to turn me into a cyborg?”

“No!” Seeing the reluctance on her face, he continued in a gentler tone. “No, not a cyborg. But it’s the only way we can figure out for you to cope with higher gravity quickly.”

She looked suspiciously at the capsule, still in her palm. “What will they do?”

“First priority will be to enhance your skeletal structure, then your musculature. Don’t ask me for the technical details, but you’re going to have a surprisingly large appetite for the next couple days before it tapers off.”

“And what else?”

“That’s all I know,” he said, not quite answering her question.

“And if I refuse?”

“Then we blow your cover as soon as you hit the habitat and take our chances. I know that this ship’s clean; how sure are you that MinSec and MinInt don’t have agents on Capricorn Station?”

Of course they do, she reflected glumly. There aren’t that many transit points off-Earth.

“And if I take it? What happens then, can you control my thoughts?”

Tony sighed. “No. There’s no thought control. Look, I’ve got nanobots, so do the other agents on this mission. It’s standard equipment for OutLook, so will you take the capsule? Please?”

She examined him minutely. She’d spent enough years climbing her way to the pinnacle of her career reading her opposition, and she didn’t see any deception in Tony now. Decision made, she popped it into her mouth and swallowed.

“What’s the plan for the next two weeks?” she said after the capsule settled.

Published by gaffen620

Author of The Cassidy Chronicles. Lives in Colorado with many dogs, cats, and one very patient wife.

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