The Impossible Dream - part 7
By Chakat Bluestripe (a.k.a Joe Prescott)
As I pull on my blouse, I look around the room. Everything is packed and ready to go. Last night I got home with a whole box of supplies and a few gifts for my family on Amaethon. I am sure I forgot something but hopefully it is not important.
I will need a little help getting it all to the ship since I have no vehicle. A quick call and all is fine, the taxi will be here in 15 minutes. I carry my bags down to the lobby and check out of the room. The taxi pulls up and I begin carrying the bags out to the vehicle. Three trips later, and I squeeze into the seat. I donít know why I keep lugging my body armor around with me but it gives me an odd sense of security and some comfort. The ride to the ship is short and I unload my bags in the secure zone, a tip for the driver along with payment and now the security check. I grab a pushcart and pile on my bags and gear and then head over to the ship. I report in at the ship and Iím immediately put to work loading supplies and stacking boxes.
The ships at Utgard are replaced on rotation also and are returned to Terra for maintenance. I notice them already loaded in the cargo hold, two long distance shuttles and four fighters. I walk into one of the shuttles just to check the seat for compatibility. It is equipped with the standard convertible seat and back support, not the most comfortable setup for chakats, but it works. I look around at the controls and try to check the logs before I notice that the ship has been completely powered down for the trip. I head back outside and continue loading supplies.
Finished, and it is still only 10:15 am. Everyone is told to "Hang-loose" until 11:30 so I decide to jog the three kilometers over to where Buster works and check up on my request. I trot into his area and look around for him. There are a few shuttles and PTVís parked around so it takes me a few minutes before I see him. I pad quietly over to him and watch for a moment. I canít help but to start giggling, Buster hears me and slides out from under the landing gear of the shuttle. He knows why I am giggling but is used to it by now. Buster rolls over and stands up. He shakes off a little and looks at me.
" HehÖ Damn chakats, always poking fun while I am trying to work. Like you are any different when you lie on your backÖ"
"Poking? I never did any such thing, though I was severely tempted to."
"Well it is a good thing you didnít. Look here; see this scar on my forehead? That was from the last time someone poked me while I was under a ship... And after I was through with them, I doubt that they will ever think about poking someone like that again."
"Okay, Iím sorry for even thinking about it, next time I have the urge to poke you, Iíll ask first." I hug him gently and look up at him.
Buster smiles and laughs, "Chakats, you can always tell when they want something. Iím kinda busy right now, but if you come around at lunchtime, maybe I can talk a little more."
"Sorry, I canít wait, I am leaving in about an hour, wonít be back for 18 months."
"Yikes, OK, follow me."
Buster leads me over to his workstation and rummages around a moment, pushing odd parts and greasy hoses out of the way. He lifts up his coffee cup and finds what he is looking for behind it. "I put all the information and directions, part numbers and costs on this data chip. If you do locate the ship, let me know and I can assemble the power supply here and ship it out to you."
I smile happily and hug Buster tightly, "Thank you, I am going to try my best to make this happen, Iíll keep in touch with you and let you know how it goes."
"Okay, now you be sure to bring the ship to me so I can check it out and make sure it is still safe after these years. I can tell you right now that all the seals will need to be checked"
"I know, but Iíll worry about that when the time comes. Bye! I have to hurry back. I'm short on time."
Buster smiles and nods as I turn to leave, I playfully poke him with my tail tip and then start jogging back to the ship.
I arrive at the ship at about 11:20 and board a little early. I check my cabin and make sure all my gear has been stowed in the closet. I head back out to the launch seats and make the necessary adjustments, rotating two seats to face each other and then relocating the restraints to fit my upper and lower body.
My mind races as I try to check and recheck everything I need to do. I still have a feeling that I have forgotten something but I canít remember what it is. It must be a little nervousness tickling a thought of doubt.
The ten days en-route to Utgard will give me plenty of time to rest and write letters to long neglected friends. It should be a nice restful trip.
Everyone else walks in and soon they are all strapped down in the launch seats and we are ready to depart. The large ship rumbles to life and I can feel the sense of acceleration and the pull of gravity as we gain altitude. I look across at the others and they are nervously looking back and around. There are no windows here and not much to look at except each otherís expressions. I can feel the acceleration pulling us back in our seats for a several minutes and then the weightlessness as the engines power down as we reach orbit. We all look around for anything that may not be secured. The ship orbits for a few minutes before the engines power up again and we break orbit and head towards our destination. I am going over the flight standards in my head, guessing what the pilots will do next. The engines power down just as I expect in preparation for the Faster-Than-Light drive to engage. The artificial gravity slowly powers up to about 1/3G. There is the moment of queasiness as the ship transitions to FTL and then the odd feeling of calm as we get underway.
This feeling of standing still will last the rest of the journey, I already feel a little anxious for some sense of movement. I notice something else; it is an odd feeling, like I am alone for the first time. I donít know how to explain completely but it is kind of like walking into a silent room from a noisy street. I look around at the others. They all seem somewhat relaxed. This feeling bothers me so I decide to walk around a little, at least that is a sensation of movement.
This ship is by no means a luxury cruise, it is a Military Transport and our cabins are more like jail cells. At least we have a desk and Comm terminal as well as a bunk. I walk down the hallway, through a few auto-doors and my nose tells me I am nearing the eating quarters. I enter through another auto-door and quickly discover that someone had not secured their plates after their meal. I quickly become very familiar with the room as I search all the cupboards for cleaning supplies. Several minutes later the mess is cleaned up and I begin thinking about what I would like to eat. Antonio walks in the door and looks around.
"Hello Antonio, looks like great minds think alike, us finding the galley first."
"Oh Hey, Artemis, just call me Tony. Yeah, I could use a little lunch. This low-G atmosphere makes me a little dizzy for a while. I think my body confuses it with being hungry."
"Oh? I havenít had that feeling, I just looked at the time and decided lunch would be a nice distraction, and you can call me Blue also."
Tony nods and looks at the menu selection on the screen. He selects lasagna and after a few moments, the glass door slides open and he takes his food.
I look closely at the instantly defrosted and heated meal as he inspects it also.
I smell it quickly and smile, "Well it doesnít smell too bad, I might try some of that my self."
Tony nods and sits down to eat.
I select the same lasagna and a moment later I am sitting across from Tony preparing to eat.
"Hey, donít get your hopes up, it smells better than it tastes."
I nod and smell my plate again. I can detect some hint of the freeze process that might taint the flavor. My first bite is cautious as I slowly chew and test the flavor. I nod again to Tony and continue eating dispassionately. I finish my meal sooner than he, and after putting away the dishes, I wave and leave the room. Heading back, I see the others wandering around too, I wave and then enter my room.
"Ten days" I think to myself as I look around the room. I sit at the Comm and spend the next hour making a list of every one who I should write a letter to.
I bring up Utgard on the terminal and start reviewing the information.
It is a standard "Outpost" built at the main manufacturing facility in orbit around Mars. It was taken to the Bedawang Asteroid Belt, which orbits the star Batara Guru. It was then attached to one of the largest planetoids in the belt to assist the artificial gravity mechanisms. The relatively high density of mass on the asteroid provides about one-ninth the gravity on earth. The asteroid and the outpost were then named "Utgard". The size of the star and the location of the asteroid belt as well as the orbital rotation of the asteroid all combined to make a relatively friendly environment for an outpost. The temperature differential from day to night as well as the nineteen-hour rotation rate makes the outpostís life support and environmental systems operate at peak efficiency.
The next closest solar system centers around the sun Iubdan and the only two habitable planets are Amaethon and Dagda. They are very close to Utgard at FTL speeds. I turn off the screen and lie down on the bunk. This is going to be a long trip after all.
Day three of the trip, I have written all the letters and messages that I could possibly think of. I have studied the log information from the Utgard computer and I have thought and re-thought my plans. I have wandered every damn centimeter of the ship and have spent hours talking with the others in the group. My feeling of being alone has become less noticeable; it is still there in the back of my thoughts though. I have noticed that I have been able to focus my empathic sense much better on this ship yet I donít know why.
Day five of the trip, I am noticing that everyone is beginning to lighten up towards each other. I can sense that Tony is curious about me in several ways. He is easy to talk to and is somewhat of a jokester. Eric seems to have accepted his fate and is actually not too bad to talk with. Ross seems to be a little tight-lipped but not really in a snobbish way. Jenna and David seem to be perfectly happy together. They are usually smiling and cheerful, even when bored stiff.
Day Seven of the trip. Boredom has become unbearable and I decide to do something just for a change. I send a note to the pilot saying that I intend to do a little training in the living quarters and he acknowledges the note. I put on all my body armor; my helmet and my tail sheath and quietly slink out into the hallway. I can hardly keep from giggling. I am feeling energetic and playful as I power down all the lights in the compartment and quickly take a position in the dark. I can hear everyone grumbling about the darkness and I see Ross starting to make his way to the circuit panel. I quietly take in a deep breath and release my best ROAR!! The night vision in my helmet lets me see every detail of the room and the expression on Rossís face is priceless. Everyone starts shouting and David comes out with a light. I quickly pounce towards him and grab the light. I turn it off and hide again down the hall.
"That is cheating! No lights!" I playfully shout to the group. "I am cheating," I think to myself.
"OH! Is that how it is!" Ross shouts down the hallway.
I can sense that some of the others are starting to understand the game but I can also sense that Ross is a little apprehensive. He hasnít quite gotten over the roar.
I slink as quietly as I can towards David. He is listening intently and makes a lunge towards me as I get close. I dodge as best as I can but the low G makes me slip and David grabs my tail. He shouts that he has caught me and the others start feeling their way towards us. I giggle a little as I wrap my tail around Davidís arm and roll over on my back. I grab him with my handpaws and squeeze him in a kind of bear hug. He struggles and curses as Ross gets near. I reach out and grab Rossís leg and toss him back a couple meters. He lands and trips Jenna and they both roll back a little. Eric starts heading for the circuits to turn on the lights as Tony sneaks down the hallway towards us. I easily use my hindpaws and handpaws to push David a few meters down the hall and quickly roll over and prepare to pounce on Tony. Eric turns on the lights just as I pounce and for a split second I am blind as my night vision system switches to day vision mode. I miss grabbing onto Tony but slam into him with my full body weight. We both tumble over and Ross and Jenna leap onto me as I am still sliding. Tony rolls over and grabs my hind legs as Eric runs back to help. David jumps in and soon everyone is doing their best to hold me down. I struggle powerfully but soon give up, "Okay! Youíve got me!"
"Sure we doÖ Iíll bet that you are just waiting to attack again." David says sarcastically.
"We all know the drillÖ we get off you and you pounce againÖ no way." Jenna says a little playfully.
"I thought chakats were supposed to be tougher than thisÖ You are just a big housecat." Tony says playfully as he tightly holds my hindpaws.
"Well, I donít want to hurt you. You have caught me because I donít want to use enough strength to try to escape, thoughÖ I could probably escape even without hurting you much."
Ross smirks to the others and then smiles, "Okay, lets see you do it. We can take a little abuse if you think you can get away."
Ross doesnít have time to rethink his dare as my tail pokes Tony firmly in his sensitive area. Tony lets go of my legs in defense and I kick him and David a few meters down the hall. I curl up and wrap my tail around Jennaís neck. She releases me and grabs for my tail, my handpaws and hindpaws quickly toss her down next to Tony and David. Ross puts a tight chokehold on me as Eric holds my arms. I curl up again and wrap my tail around Ericís neck as my handpaws grab him powerfully around the chest. I toss him back towards the others and then quickly curl up and over and end up on top of Ross. His chokehold is tight but my two sets of lungs keep me going long enough to twist and firmly plant my handpaws on his chest, my hindpaw locates his sensitive area as my tail wraps tightly around his legs. He still hasnít released his grip so I slowly begin extending my claws. Ross quickly gets the hint and releases me.
I step off of him and jump a few meters away. I start giggling and for some reason it keeps building until I am laughing loudly. Everyone is looking at me and smiling nervously.
I walk back towards them as I calm down, "That was fun! I hope I didnít hurt anyone, are you alright?"
Ross smiles a little but he looks a little annoyed too, "Well it surprised me, look at you, you are all dressed up in protective gear and night vision and I was just in there reading and all in the sudden the lights go out and then `ROAR!!` You didnít give us any chance to get prepared"
"Well, since when do the bad guys make appointments? I was just posing a little drill for you to break up the boredom. It is something that we would do from time to time back in the Force."
I can sense that everyone feels relieved now that I explained it. They were probably wondering if I had a case of "Space-Paranoia" and had flipped-out on them.
I smile and then hug each one of them, even the reluctant ones.
"I am sorry if I frightened anyone and I hope you arenít angry."
"No, it is okay this time. I was really bored and it did prove a thing or two about our abilities. ButÖ If you ever do that at UtgardÖ Iíll lock you outside in an environment suit overnight and weíll have to chisel you out of the ice in the morning. Understood?" Ross stands close and looks me eye to eye.
"Yes, I understand." I smile playfully and leap up. I touch the ceiling and then land easily. The 1/3 G is fun to play in.
Day 10 of the trip. I am very anxious. The boredom has been bad even though I have gotten to know the others fairly well over a few games of poker. It didnít take them long to realize just how well developed my empathic ability has been honed. Their best poker face could not hide their emotions and I usually did very well in the games though I doubt that now I will be playing poker very often with them. I usually have to play against the computer for a real feeling of anticipation.
There is 3 hours left until we arrive at Utgard. I have already packed up all my gear and placed it in the shuttle. This transport ship is too large to dock at the outpost. After we arrive, we will have to fuel the shuttles and other ships and use them to transport the gear and supplies. It shouldnít take too long since the other team that is leaving will be helping with their ships also.
The pilot instructs us to get strapped in for the deceleration from light speed and my excitement leaps as the anticipation grows. A moment of dizziness and then we feel the ship responding to course corrections. The engines power up and the acceleration pulls us back into the seats. A while later we feel the engines power down and the ship coasts into the Bedawang Asteroid Belt.
It sounds much worse than it really is. The asteroids are very far apart in this area and all of them are precisely mapped.
The navigation thrusters decelerate the ship as it gets close to the outpost and finally takes a stationary position a few kilometers from the outpost. The positioning thrusters are automated to counter the slight gravitational pull of the area.
We waste no time getting the shuttles ready and loaded. Any change of scenery is welcome at this point and we all work together to get everything done. The crew that we are relieving feels the same way and everyone seems to be in a hurry. It takes us almost 8 hours of shuttle flights to get the transport unloaded and the ships that are returning secured in the transport. The old crew moves into the transport for the night as we move into their old rooms. They will stay for a couple of days to get us caught up on any known issues and to help us with any questions.
Finally, I have some time to look around the outpost and to actually get a feel for the place. I am too excited to sleep at the moment and I have been so busy that I had little time to think about the smell of the place that hit me when I first arrived. Outpost Utgard has a certain "scent" which seems to be something like an old pond or stagnant water. It comes from the ventilation ducts and there is no escaping it. I had asked the others in my group and they can vaguely smell it but it doesnít seem to bother them. I wonder around a little but finally decide that it is late and this issue can wait. It is time to try out my new bed for the night. As I lie down and roll over, I feel an odd sensation, it is like nothing I can quite pinpoint but something has changed. It isnít the change in gravity or the odd smell. No, it is something in me. I am a little confused as I close my eyes and quickly fall asleep.
The wind in my face smells odd as I climb up to the ridge. The sun rides the mid-morning skies and warms my face and lower back. The red earth of the Grand Canyon passes quickly under my paws as the trail winds around. The many switchbacks seem never ending as I look down at the trail below. I look ahead as I get nearer to the plateau. I breathe easily and my pack feels light. I am here! The top! I stand on the edge of the plateau and look out over the distance. The river flowing far below reflects the sunlight and the wind gusting in my face brings whispers of change. The trees move in the breeze and speak with cryptic voices and the rocks echo their words. I look around.
I feel alone.
I am alone.
I wake up from a deep sleep and my dream still flows through my thoughts. I lie there on my bed and think.
Something is different.
I am different.
How am I different?
I just am and I donít understand.
Since I got off the ship, my feelings have changed. I feel less alone and more comfortable but still, I am missing something.
I look at the clock with confusion; the numbers donít seem to register in my thoughts. It canít be right, have I really overslept 3 hours?
I start to get up but my body still resists waking up. I lie there for a while until I hear others walking past my door. I force myself to stand up but my body feels heavy as I walk to the bathroom. I wake up a little in there and feel better as I get dressed and walk out to find the others.
I see Jenna and David sitting at the rec-room table and they look a little surprised as I walk in.
"Blue, are you feeling Okay? We decided to let you sleep since this is the first day off the ship, but still you missed the roll call."
" I do feel tired today for some reason. I also have been trying to figure out an odd feeling, it almost strikes me as an empathic issue. I have an odd sense of being alone. It has lasted over a week. I donít really know what it is but it seems real to me."
David stands up and motions towards the sickbay.
"Would you like us to give you a quick checkup with the "Cat-Scanner?"
"Very funny, yes... That was very funnyÖ But maybe it might help figure this out."
David walks towards the hallway as I follow him; Jenna follows close behind.
I feel a little anxious as I climb on the table to the scanner. Jenna swings down the scanner sensors and sets it for "Chakat."
I lie still as it makes the pass from top to bottom and back to top. David waits for the results to be displayed.
Jenna leans in close, "Do you have any idea what is wrong? I know chakats have an inner awareness about their bodies but I donít know if it works with empathic issues also."
" I donít really know if it is a condition or a symptom. It might just be my isolation. I have been on a planet with billions of live creatures. Now I am on a rock in the middle of nowhere. I am starting to suspect that I am having some kind of empathic withdrawal symptoms."
David looks over at me with an odd expression.
"Well that is something that I never learned to diagnose or treat."
Jenna looks at David and nods.
The scanner beeps and David looks at the display.
"Well it looks like the results from the scan are all within the normal healthy chakat settings. You just keep us informed about your condition, if it gets worse then maybe we can contact a specialist on Chakona. If it is just some kind of withdrawal symptoms, then they should begin to fade quickly."
"I think you are right, Iíll just wait and see how I feel after a week or so. Thank you."
I smile and nod as I leave, I only hope it doesnít get worse.
I locate some of the old crew, they are showing Tony a small issue with one of the metal window shutters. When I get an opportunity, I ask them about the smell in the ventilation system. They look oddly and one of them says, "What smell?"Ö
I walk around the outpost, making myself familiar with the place and looking into all the rooms and cabinets. Eventually I locate the Atmosphere Generation room. I walk in and look around. The smell of pond scum is fairly strong and I use my nose to track it down. I find that the smell is coming from the well. This system uses the ice content of the asteroid as the source of oxygen. It separates the oxygen and hydrogen from the water and then separates the excess CO2 from the air and vents it into space. The Hydrogen is used with a catalyst to generate electricity and the oxygen is stored and used for the life support system. A well was drilled into the ice and laser heaters melt the ice into water, as it is needed. I think that algae must have started to form in the well and that is causing the smell in the outpost. I have no clue what the procedures are to fix the issue so I head back to the rec room.
Ross is sitting and reading the news as I walk in.
"Hey Blue, I hear that you are feeling odd today. Do you feel well enough for regular duty?"
"Yes I feel much better and I could do with a little work to keep me busy, but first I am trying to get the oxygen generators cleaned out. There is a smell in the air that my nose can detect much better than a human nose. It is coming from the well in the Atmosphere Generation Room. I need to find a way to sterilize it."
"Okay, that sounds like a good use of time, maybe David or Eric could help. They are familiar with sterilizing equipment and things."
"Iíll check the maintenance programs and see if there is a solution in there. It must be a regular issue with this type of system. If I canít find anything then Iíll let you know."
"Sure, just keep me informed." Ross watches me for a moment; I sense that he is looking to see if I appear normal.
I sit at a terminal and locate the maintenance section. I query the Atmosphere Generation system and run the self-diagnostic. The report comes back normal so I decide to bring up the system overview and look for ideas.
After a while of reading through the system processes I find a note about using the lasers to boil the water in the well to sanitize it. There is also a mention about the ultraviolet lamps that normally keep the well sterile. There is an automated script in the display to start the sanitization process so I decide to apply it. The system reports back that a sanitization process has started and will be complete in 30 minutes. I am happy that I found the answer and I hurry down to inspect the well. The well is making bubbling and boiling noises and the smell of steam and algae is much stronger. It is a smell of satisfaction to me. I will have to check the ultraviolet lamps after it is done.
I spend the rest of the day checking out the duty list and looking over the outpost for any issues that may need to be addressed with the old crew before they leave.
I get to bed early and lie there thinking about the day and how I feel. I think about the next 18 months and I think about Noko and Summer. I miss them already. Sleeping alone seems to be against my nature but it has been the norm lately. I finally close my eyes and sleep.
Time moves slowly at the outpost. In the last month I have taken the shuttle around a few times to get familiar with it. The environment suit for me fits well and I have spent a little time walking around on the planetoid surface with it. The air in the outpost smells much better and I have gotten used to the other smells that seem to be prevalent in closed life support systems.
I have decided that I feel normal again, or at least I have adjusted. I do feel different here but I guess that it is normal for the location.
I have innocently asked for some time to train with the automated space probes. Today I am finally going to start my search. I enter the location of where the old ship should be as well as a search pattern if it is not there. The probe acknowledges the program. I am very excited as I send the launch command and watch the probe leave.
"This shouldnít take too long," I keep thinking to myself.
Tony walks up and stops a few paces away. I turn to him but he looks oddly at me.
"Hey Tony, whatís up?"
"Oh not much, I saw you launch the probe. Are you Okay?"
"Yeah, Iím okay. WhyÖ Do I look sick?"
"Ummm, no, But I have never seen your tail twitch like that."
I look at my tail as it slowly stops twitching. "I guess I am a little excited, I just sent that probe out to look for something."
"Oh? What is it?"
"Well you know that I grew up on Amaethon, I was orphaned. Someone from this very outpost rescued me from pirates after they attacked my parents ship. As far as I can tell, their ship should still be out here somewhere."
"Whoa, that is like some strange karma that you are working at the same base as the guys who rescued you. What are you going to do if you find the ship?"
"I donít know. I think I would like to go and find answers. Growing up not knowing who you are is an empty feeling. I guess I just want to see for myself."
Tony nods and looks at the computer display for a few moments and then his expression lights up, "OH! You mean you have been planning to search for this ship all this time. You even volunteered to be stationed here just so you can go on some hunt for answers? Wow! Ö This is cool! Ö Can I help?"
"Well, if the probe doesnít find anything, then there will be nothing to help with. I have a copy of the transcripts from when I was rescued. From that I was able to somewhat calculate where the ship might be. If it isnít in that area then I will never have a chance to find it."
"Yes. But if you DO find it, can I help go there with you? This is like some search for hidden treasure. It will be fun!"
I look at Tony. I can sense his excitement. He is sincere in his eagerness. Maybe it would not be bad to let him help.
"Okay, you can help me, but you have to keep this secret for now. I donít want to get in trouble for using government equipment on a personal project, okay?"
Tony smiles happily and nods. I feel better somehow that he will be working with me on this, If I do find the ship I will need help to board it.
I hug him close and he doesnít resist. Now all we have to do is wait and hope the probe can find the ship.
Time goes by painfully slow. The probe has started its search pattern after not locating the ship at the calculated area. My hopes are sinking as the time draws near to return the probe.
I am thinking and trying to come up with my next options as the probe begins its return back to the post.
I was so excited, the ship had to be thereÖ Now I am at a loss. I canít think straight. Tony is thinking hard next to me and I can sense his mind looking for a solution.
"So Blue, just how did you come up with this location to search? Was it from the old logs?"
I tell him how I used the computer at the school to calculate the course and ran the program several times to make sure.
Tony looks off into the distance as he thinks.
" Well what if there were too many unknown variables for the school computer to calculate. I mean, what if the gravity influences were off, or the mass of the ship was off, or the velocity. Any of those could have thrown the results way off after this many years."
"Yes I know, but I only have the old probe logs. I thought the velocity and course would be accurate."
"Yes, but what if the other factors were a little off. What if we send a probe to the exact last known location and take readings on the gravitational fields and then try to plot an active course by having the probe continuously update the variables as it flies the route. We can program it to react as if it is a big heavy ship, floating dead in spaceÖ but it could do it at a high velocity by applying the new readings and changing the course accordingly."
"That sounds great! ButÖ I am not that good with programming the probe; it might take a while to get the right settings. I guess I could have the computer help me."
Tony looks smug and points to himself. " I can help you program the probe. Programming is one of my talents and probes are fairly basic. You just have to tell them whoís the boss."
I hug Tony happily as I begin feeling much better. I have a plan and a direction, and renewed hope.
To be continued in Part 8.
Return to the main story index page.