Back in Sol Again: Part 2

2.

Homer

Having recovered from his temporary madness and properly cleaned the multitude of messes he’d made, Simon finally returned Homer’s engineering compartment to work. It was only one section of the otherwise half-ship level, but arguably the most important. From here, the engines could be commanded and troubleshooted, repaired and maintained. From only a few, lone consoles, Simon or another engineer could diagnose and locate problems, shut down the engines, or even override their Bridge connections. That was the last thing in the galaxy Simon wanted to do, but it was possible.

Like so many other things aboard Homer, Simon knew the engines inside and out. Even if he hadn’t designed them, he would’ve committed their every schematic and component to memory. Partially, he was dedicated, but also partially, he was paranoid to occasional nervous breakdown. Not usually. It just happened sometimes.

Then again, nothing about Homer, its mission, or its design was usual. Simon might’ve relaxed more had he not designed so much of it. Given his propensity for making an ass of himself though, he preferred safety to regret. As a result, he kept Homer monitored, obsessively and thoroughly.

The ship itself was flawless though; the culmination of several years of work for all involved, and a century of Solsian rocketry R&D. More than that, Homer was the first Solsian ship to fly between solar systems without requiring generations of cryo-sleep or eons between departure and destination. Mostly, it did this via a new drive that folded space for interstellar jumps.

From there, its plasma sub-light engines engaged, and within hours or days, transferred it across the target systems. The jump drives, also know as Fold-Drives of F-Drives, were as much magic and voodoo to Simon as his sub-light plaz-drives to laymen. Unlike most laymen however, he didn’t mind. As big as his brain proved to be at times, and as small as his mouth made it seem others, he didn’t care to understand the infinitely complex mathematics of multi-dimensional physics.

So far, that mentality had served him well. First, from his birth to doctoral work on Earth. Then, to his irreplaceable position as head of the ISC’s Plasma Propulsion lab. Now, to his place aboard Homer that represented the summation of the aforementioned.

Only a few years ago, Simon discovered how depraved the allure of Deep-Space colonization could make certain parties. Even as he sat before his main console, currently arranged for Human use, he recalled Josie’s gratified purr at being rescued. The rescue, and the foiling of the anti-Humanist forces involved, had afforded Simon a momentary fame. It had since faded to obscurity but not before giving him all the command he’d ever want or need over his career.

Simon didn’t mind the fading. He’d never been one for crowds or being ogled by them. All he cared about, really, was his work and his little hemisphere of the universe containing it.

Currently, that hemisphere was headed toward Proxima Centauri B on-rendezvous with an outpost deployed some months before. There, they would stop for a short time, activate the outpost, disgorge some scientist-passengers, then scan and map PCb’s surface. After their layover, they would continue onward toward Gliese 876 to scan its exoplanets, then activate another research outpost before continuing on.

Had it not been for the events initially affording Simon his fame, he might never have mustered the courage to go so far from Sol. Then again, he was never certain he would go until he’d boarded the ship andmade their first jump, leaving Earth, Sol, and everything else he knew far behind. Hestill wasn’t certain he’d done it.

Though he’d never know or admit it himself, his decision to go was cemented on discovering Lina was attending. Niala’s decision to go put him on the fence, and though his best friend outside Rearden, even their attachment hadn’t been enough to drag him from the safety Phobos and the ISC.

But Lina’s decision coupled with Niala’s, and the minor hint of pride at his hand in the ship’s design, and eventually convinced him to go. Only after the F-Drive charged and deposited them outside Sol, did he realize he’d made the decision without being a party to it.

Yet, in spite of everything, he still found himself hopeful. He washeaded for PCb, monitoring the sub-light engines, and reflecting on his idiocy in the break-room and its meaninglessness in the scheme of things.

Before delving too deep, Donnelly patted his shoulder, drawing his head to the side.

“Bit manic-depressive today?”

“Huh?”

He realized the apparent shift in his mood again and managed a chuckle. In truth he’d remained quite giddy. At some point in the near future, he and Lina would be alone together. He had no designs beyond that, but he wouldn’t lie about his hopes.

Donnelly heard the chuckle, “I’ll take t’mean yer a hundred percent.”

Before he could answer, an alert sounded on the console. Readouts from instrumentation and the code of ship’s systems scrolled past. Beside them, a bit of comm software flashed. Simon finagled the touch-screen and a fierce-looking lizard appeared.

Captain Ingstrom was one of the few Leaf-tailed Geckos left in the universe. He had granite-colored eyes with slit pupils that stared through someone as if they were insubstantial, mist-like. To Ingstrom, they might very well have been.

“Contact,” had accelerated the growth of the latent, Humanoid genes in species bearing them, not all reacted the same to the process– or even well. Some, like the Chameleons (MeLons), gained the ability to completely transform their appearance in an extension of their previous, appearance-changing abilities. Others gained more subtle advantages, some were left entirely unaffected. An unfortunate few though, like the Leaf-tails, had absolutely withered.

Contact had effected not only those benevolent, latent genes, in some species, but others best left alone as well. In response, some species became outright pariahs among the diverse, Solsian life due tovarious defects or adaptations. Others, and Ingstrom’s people, became irreversibly sterile.

The inability for Geckos to carry or bear offspring was the result of a poor, genetic mutation that might well have disappeared from their DNA given a few dozen more generations of natural selection. Contact came with the latent gene still present in nearly every Gecko subspecies and individual therein.

For a species not known to last much more than a decade or two, the Geckos’ numbers quickly dwindled. Even the fables of the odd, fertile individuals were almost entirely vanished now, lending credence that Ingstrom was one of the last of a sad, remainingfew. Like him, it was assumed they’d given up hope of ever changing that.

All of these things meant Ingstrom was an unhappy creature. His species was dying off and he knew it, and he never let anyone else forget. So when his face appeared on-screen, it was only due to this sentiment beneath his bitterness that Simon didn’t lapse into manic-depression. Even Donnelly found it difficult to avoid. To both men’s credit, anyone would have.

“We’ve entered the Proxima Centauri system and are currently en-route to PCb. ETA is twenty minutes to Geosynchronus orbit and R-V with Oribital platform Alpha-One. Keep your asses glued to those chairs and your eyes on your readings. Inform me the second anything changes.”

Simon acknowledged with a reply, carefully containing what joyremained in him for fear Ingstrom might do his best to rip it out with the least effort possible.For the next while, he did as instructed remained focused. He kept his eyes glued to his readouts on the large touchscreen.

There, an electronic masterpiece was continually laid out by a master from the thousand sensors, cameras, mercury switches, and other minutiae ship-board. It worked in tandem, as one entity, producing the most ethereal scene the universe could: a star-system.

Proxima Centauri was magnificent. It was a system not unlike his, but entirely new, foreign. He knew of every bit and piece of Sol’s noises, its composition. Although he recognized the information fed to him from the panel, he didn’t know it. Not like he knew Sol.

But Neither did anyone else, and that was the important part. He was the first one seeing this system in such detail. The first one watching the stellar winds shift. The first one charting the dips and spikes of the cosmic rays, the planetary approaches and their micro-asteroids and surface refuse.

Somewhere inside of Simon there had always been a little boy staring at stars, thinking of Mars and Phobos, its rich history. Within that little boy, was the dream of something even bigger, more distant. Outside them both, now, it was here. There was no containing his giddiness.

When the ship finally docked at the outpost above PCb, it took all of Simon’s strength not to sprint to the airlock and into his space-suit. Somehow, he managed to stand, fidgeting, at a setof outer-airlock doors with Niala beside him.

The pair carefully fitted their tailored space-suits; the body-hugging cloth, like a neoprene wet-suit, was airtight and warm. Small, copper lines ran through it in scores and grids, a small pack stitched to the back thatpiped fluids through an electric heating and cooling unit.

The envirosuits were as useful for volcanology as for EVAs, with about as much research in them as the F-Drive. They were as near to perfect as Earth-descended creatures could attain, their only issue that they required tailoring. If one attempted to use another’s suit, it left them feeling too constricted, or as if floating, not the best idea in the cold vacuum of space.

The helmets were another story. Like the suits, they could be used for multiple purposes, and often were. However, they were interchangeable between members of the same species. Simon thought about this as he locked his bubble-faced helmet on and fitted his small O2 tank. They wouldn’t be needing much air now, he hoped. Then again, he’d never hoped to go to Ganymede, or foil an anti-Humanist conspiracy either, but that happened too.

He found himself standing in the airlock beside Niala. The gourd-shaped Rearden beside them. The bot was as much a friend as an automaton could be, but it was also insurance. The outposts had been deployed ahead of Homer and assembled by service bots. Those bots, many not dissimilar from Rearden, were now dormant and awaiting re-activation to sweeping and monitor the outpost. Among other things, Rearden could facilitate that.

The lights in the airlock flashed red and white over distant mechanics, then idled at red. The sealed, outpost doors parted to utter darkness. Rearden’s flexible optic-sensor flared with an LED to illuminate a second, un-powered airlock. Niala muscled a switch beside the doors and manually forced them apart, then space-walked in after the others and sealed them shut. The process was repeated on the inner-doors to grant access to the narrow passage beyond.

Slow, magnetic steps, carried them forward. Control was dead-ahead. Niala and Rearden could activate everything there, but first Simon needed activate the hydrogen power-plant in the station’s bowels. Only then could the other systems be activated.

Midway down the hall, the last of Simon’s excitement was replaced by fear of the eerily empty station. He veered left to a flight of stairs whilethe others continued forward, Rearden’s light silhouetting their progress. Simon took a deep breath, switched on his helmet and shoulder lamps, and started downward.

Flood-lit brilliance from his suit’s lighting all but erased the darkness, but could do nothing for the eerieness. He took the steps slowly. Several floors below, they let out in a small foyer before continuing downward. A few paces forward, another set of sealed doors waited to part down their middle. He reached them, hesitated.

Niala’s voice sounded in his ear, “At control. Awaiting your signal.”

“Give me a minute,” he said, trying to force the doors apart. He grunted and strained over the comm, as obviously trying to pry the doors manually as could be possible.

“Forget the keycard?” Niala snarked.

He found himself glad the Lioness wasn’t there to double over in laughter again. The urge to sever an oxy-line would’ve been too great.

He sighed, “Card. Right.”

A deliberate silence signaled a dead comm. He felt her laugh seven floors overhead and yanked the plastic chain from his waist to slot the card. The battery powered door-lock flickered, a light flashed, and the doors began to part.

More safe-guard then anything, the locks and hydrogen batteries were used on certain, vital areas to discourage outside tampering before station-activation. Simon still wasn’t sure who it was protecting the areas against, but given the hydrogen-plant’s destructive capabilities, and the control room’s general opportunities for mischief, it made sense to err on the cautious side.

The doors opened to a realm of darkness. His light just barely fell over and past giant, encapsulated generators, panels of old-fashioned lever-switches, and deactivated touch-screen consoles. Near the center of the room, he knew, a combination keycard-lever panel would ignite the plant.

He headed over in slow motion, surveying the bus-sized generators and water-vats, and the multiple-man-sized panels of levers and knobs. The vats’ verticalty made him feel small, but he batted it away; the plant served a dual purpose and was required to be immense. By harnessing the hydrogen-plant’s H2O output, the station could create, reclaim, and purify water as well as generate power. Apart from food, the station was entirely self-sufficient.

Between two rows of vats were control consoles similar to those aboard Homer. At one edge, specifically, was the panel he sought. Simon put himself before it and radioed to standby. He slid the keycard through the slot, let the light change, then began the power up sequence:

A few gray switches were thrown. A vibration like someone in the distance driving a jackhammer into a steel sounded. A pair of yellow levers were thrown, gave way to a twisted knob that turned like a key. Industrial ignitions ground to life. The vibration was more jarring; a giant, jack-hammering nearby, with an equally giant jack-hammer. Instantly Simon was heavier, stuck in place by his mag-boots and now weighted by artificial gravity.

“Generators running,” Simon said.

“Beginning oxygen production now,” Niala radioed in response.

Moments later, Simon was standing in front of a newly-awakened console, watching the gravity and oxygen numbers rise to green. When it finally reached Earth-normal, Simon radioed Homer.

“Flight, this is EVA-1, we have atmo across the board. Welcome to Proxima Centauri, and outpost Uruk.”

“Roger that, EVA-1. Take some time to let your hair down. We’ll see you soon. Flight out.”

Simon couldn’t help but stand before the console to gawk at yet another electronic masterpiece. Like before, this was different, even moreso than aboard Homer. This was the masterpiece Solsians would be viewing for years to come.

Viewing, and remembering, as long as they existed, as their first foray into interstellar colonization.

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