First three

A1

The air was wrong – lighter with aromas of fire, food, stale sweat and metal instead of home. A home deep under miles of igneous rock that did not smell of sweat and bleach. Home smelled of gasses, ventilator grease and old rubber; the sensation of wrongness gnawed at the edge of dreams where they lapped at the shore of waking; like dreaming of a place far from home, warmer, redder.

Under a strange sun.

Warmth was joined by the sound of someone snoring, echoing close from steel and alumaplast. Not an echo from rock. The soft susurration of ventilation and the hisses and clicks of another nearby bio-creche. Just one creche. Not three. Beneath him lay his Evercool sheet, blanket and pillow, inviting him to stay in his dream of comfort, luxury and decadence. He began to note the sounds. Hiss. Click. Snore.

This is not home.

He opened his eyes and whispered, “Where am I?”

Above his head rose-painted alumaplast ceiling tiles refused to answer. He propped himself on one elbow to survey the environment while holding down panic as it rose in the back of his throat. It was all terribly wrong. Completely different from the room he slept in. The bunk room of an Alpha One Oh Seven Courier was designed to hold one to eight occupants. He saw one, his brother, who should have been on the bridge instead of snoring in his bunk with the curtain half-drawn. Another creche, in the opposite corner, was closed and running. The silvered lid had “4” stenciled on it’s top and sides.

Which brother are you? Four?

I had no idea what an A107 ‘Courier’ class ship was when I went to bed. I wonder what else I just learned. Base cargo-cap, five thousand seventy tons. Base accommodation four two-tier bunks, table and chairs. Minimum bridge crew, two. One point one eight gee. Thanks to the mobius generators.

This isn’t fair,” he whispered cautiously, “bed angle sixty.” The bed portion of the stasis rig tilted silently to the specified angle. He hoped from there to assess the depth of whatever crisis he had dropped into. His usual morning health report popped up and he swept it aside with a flick of his wrist. The room had twin two-tier bunks and four personal effects trunks magged in place on the steel rail and alumaplast deck.

I bet Four doesn’t know yet. If he did, he’d be screaming.

To his left was a table with three dull plastic chairs two of which were draped with reddish gray coveralls, silver skin-suits, and gray snareboots. In front of each seat, on the table, were sets of ID papers. In the center, a deck of cards and cartons of deep-sleep-teaching chips. He stood and tip-toed through the open hatch to the bridge, where he found three seats with consoles and the typical forward holovid of most spaceship design. Home was six hundred ninety-two and three tenths millions of kilometers away.

Ugh,” he bit his tongue, and now I can pilot too.

The consoles were arranged in a classic triangle of Nav to the left, Com to the right and Pilot in the center. The Com seat hung lazily at an angle, as if in conversation, and the Nav faced stiffly forward at a badly worn console. The holo, focused ahead of the little ship, showed a freighter, the Floyd Henderson, outbound and two passenger ships inbound outlined against a background of stars across the inky black of deep space. Each pinpoint of light had an overlaid information icon that would provide type, velocity and vector when queried. He scanned the rest of the bridge, assuring himself that the emergency side ports, and circuit-management panels matched his new memories.

Knowing Five, I’m mostly just glad to be alive. Fifty kilometers deep to outer space in a blink.

He continued his silent tour, back through the bunk room, stopping briefly at the table for clothes. A check of the IDs offered him a choice of being Jeremathy, Rust, Liam, Jian, MeDano, or Nash. All with the last name of Zebros. He left the cards on the table, finding the word play on their lab designation of “Lab Z, Brothers” held little humor. He shrugged into one of the sets of clothing as he surveyed the aft hall. It hosted a wall-galley where the counter had been turned into a repair bench and the microwave was covered in something brown and sticky. Across from that was the shower and personal waste system. Further back, the creche marked Two, containing another brother, partially blocked the hall. One of the standard language labels stuck on the medical console was lit from behind, Sys fail. He shook his head and whispered, “Dammit.”

Everywhere, hatches stood open, unwashed dishes were piled and other safety regulations had been ignored. Fortunately the overhead airlock was double-locked for travel. That was unsurprising, the engines wouldn’t fire unless the lock safety was engaged or a complex set of instructions were entered to override safe-mode. He slipped around the creche on the elevator/lock and looked right and left through the cargo hatches. The holds were each partially filled with crates. Further along the hall he found a handful of maintenance panels. It smelled vaguely of cleaning products, metal and well-done meat. A few little fluffs of fabric stuck to the air return in the ceiling.

Examining the floor, he found two incongruous tiny rust-colored spots on the deck below the recycling plant access panel. He crouched to look at them closely and decided they were dried blood. He stood and turned to the right cargo hold where it stank of sweat and something pungent, chocolaty. It contained crates marked as titanium parts, a mail packet data center and the discarded packing material from the three creches.

He dogged the hatch closed and crossed to the second hold where he found crates of nitrogen-stabilized fruit and two unlabeled crates. In the corner he found a highly illegal claz’r turret strapped to a pallet. He closed the hatch and returned to the galley where he counted the dirty aluminum plates and flasks proving not only that the sleeper was Five, but that he had worked for at least three days before going to sleep.

He ran the dishes through the outside hatch on the head, part of the algae recycling system, and stowed them properly in the galley. He paused for a fraction of a second before putting away the chef’s knife. The work table had a vise and metal micro-mill where he found a small container of fresh metal shards. The tiny locker of tools and repair items was open. Sitting unsecured on the ledge was a broken switch and switch cover which he also stowed before examining his food options.

The galley menu was enormous. It was well-provisioned and had all sorts of great recipes that could be ordered from based on the remaining foodstuffs and biomass. He had no clue what half of them were, but settled on eggs and juice and skipped the “Real Kaffe” the description of which was “A bitter hot beverage containing caffeine, frequently consumed with soycream and/or sugar syrup.” It sounded more like a drug than the kaffe they had back in the lab.

He took his breakfast to the bridge, closing the safety hatches in his wake, where he applied his new knowledge to the consoles. It took him only two tries to get logged in and open the pilot and navigation programs on the captain’s console. There was a vector check and analysis he could do and a vlog he could review. The vector had been sent from Majin traffic control and verified both automatically and manually by the pilot. He repeated the calculus anyway.

The ship was outbound from the Majin refueling station, accelerating at two gee toward a point in space where the local gravity wave intersected an M-space string. He recalled from watching holos that the point was called a twistor due to its n-dimensional appearance as a super-spatial tornado. They would reach it in forty-three minutes for transit to the Al Sharab system.

Headed to the worst hell possible.

He popped open the ledger for a quick look at the ships owners. Drago Corporation. Employed as a courier/signatory for their business interests. Typically the ship carried specialty medical parts and medicines, short haul items as needed, whatever paid the fuel and any local mail from point to point. The ledger also had some questionable entries. Apparently a few black-market parts made their way aboard as well, finding their way into the hands of people with questionable funding.

Don’t think I like that.

One checked all the life-support systems for anomalies and viability. Five had never been good with details, cleaning or proper discipline. The soda filter sensor indicated the filter had been installed at Majin five days ago and the usage-estimator indicated that it had been in use for seven days. He checked the particle filter system to verify its viability and found the same service date and time, but its estimated use was eighteen days. He queried the life support system for explanation, but it wasn’t robust enough for a detailed analysis. Then he found the recycler was overloaded by two hundred sixty one kilos.

He considered the situation for a few moments. Then he checked the readouts for biological pathogens, finding several potentially deadly germs. He shuddered with dread at that news and hoped the creches had enough antibiotics to keep them alive. He was surprised to see only twenty-three days of semi-stasis had passed instead of their usual twenty-seven. The price of skimming time, looking for a cure. Artificial youth and health might be maintained, for a long time, for the five boys, but no medical intervention could be found for their severe immunodeficiency. The four still surviving were approaching their twentieth birthday. He dreaded going over the report of all the gene sequencing every year and it’s inevitable slide.

Multiple germs, aromas, fabric fluff, stressed filters, a broken switch, blood on the deck and overloaded solid waste. It doesn’t look good. Looks like Two is Now, flying off in a coffin.

He chuckled quietly at the rhyme and began reviewing the logs for information on how they had made it into deep space. The vlog was adequately labeled with weekly and daily titles that indicated the 2/3 Drago had docked five days ago at Majin station, dumped the mail packet, accepted a transshipment of fruit bound for the Federation military facility on Kohnor, exchanged waste material for O/H2O, and replaced their filters.

The bridge seats had been occupied by Draveth Par, Olo Fayed and Vachs. Just “Vachs” – no other name. They were worn in a pattern that indicated years of use. Olo, who had handled all aspects of nav data, including vector mapping, appeared to have turned toward Captain Par most of the time. The chair turned easily when he pushed it, but always came to rest one hundred five degrees away from the forward display. Vachs seemed to have been a nervous communicator and trader, his console was scratched and the holo-key characters were nearly worn away.

Captain Par’s seat had molded completely to his buttocks. The left armrest pad was cracked and shiny from many hours of his large elbow wearing through it. He felt the worn spot with his elbow finding he was taller than Par based on the wear points. He could imagine the captain sitting here day after day, chin propped on the heel of his hand. He might even have cat-napped through the flight from in-system to transit points – many days of boredom spent waiting for the Minkowski field generator to eventually stop and drop them back into real space. Hopefully where they had aimed.

The vlog indicated that on the second day in dock, a man identified as Jian Zebros contacted them to move some critical medical equipment toward Earth through the next two legs of their route. He agreed to pay point-to-point charges as well as passage for himself. The captain made note to search him thoroughly before un-docking. Zebros hadn’t given him the opportunity.

He skipped forward through normal activities until he saw a large, pod-sized crate being lowered into the ship, followed by Vachs moving it to the hold. This was followed by a second crate. When the third arrived, someone was standing atop the crate, visible from the waist down. Vachs looked up, “Where’s Fayed? What the hell are you doing? No!”

He strangled on his own blood, sliced by beam of coherent light as the unseen assailant killed him with a blaz’r. As his lifeless body dropped to the deck the masked figure landed, cat-like, blaz’r outstretched toward something under and behind the camera. He fired again twice. On the second of the three camera screens, the recording of the bridge, the captain jumped from his seat and turned toward the airlock. His movement blocked the view of the camera through the bunk room but in an instant he crumpled to the deck.

The killer, moving like Five, stalked forward through the three camera views to the bridge. He pulled off a pair of gloves and imprinted his thumb on the open command console taking command of the ship effective immediately and, assuming Fayed was dead, sole control over it. He stuffed the blaz’r in his waistband and pulled off the mask, yep – Five, dropped it on the captain’s seat and began tidying up.

A2

One watched the screen where his youngest brother, Little Five, stripped and stuffed both the captain and the com officer into the recycling system and disappeared out the lock. When he returned, the disposal process was repeated for Fayed, the navigator. He shredded their uniforms, filled a bucket with organic cleanser and water and swabbed the decks clean. Then he climbed out the lock, apparently to continue removing all evidence of the three deaths. Throughout the process he stuffed evidence and soiled materials into a burn-bag. It was horrible, bloody work that took three buckets of cleanser. When he was finished he activated the burn-bag, destroying all the evidence.

Then he turned to the creches, removing and stowing the packing from the creche on the elevator, checking the controls and moving it to the bunk room. Within minutes he had repeated the process with the second creche, dragging it from the hold to its place opposite the first. He returned to the cargo hold where the camera showed him checking and working more extensively on the third.

He worked at a brisk pace in the chilly cargo bay on the controls. The set of his shoulders indicated a disaster of some sort had occurred. During his labors, he retrieved drinks and food from the galley, leaving the dishes on the counter. Finally he sighed and his shoulders slumped at the dismal outcome. “Bye brother. Sorry you didn’t make it. Now we are three.”

After standing in thought for a minute or more, he retrieved and epoxied four electromagnets to the corners of the base and used a crew communicator as an actuator. Standing up, he staggered and shook his head, “Whew.”

After wrestling the creche back to the airlock with frustrated brute force, he sank heavily into the pilot seat where he began the pre-flight routines, filing a new flight plan, and setting basic course parameters. Numbers scrolled across the bottom of the main screen replay, each indicating a system coming on line. The nuclear power plant began a speedy power incline, he checked them all off, and the docking umbilicals retracted.

External cameras showed the 23 Drago moving smoothly out from the docking ring of Majin, avoiding the few ships moving locally and rotating its nose away from her original flight plan to the Federal space station at Kohnor. She was a small corporate courier, mostly tanks and drive in a compact “Dub-dubya” configuration, no external containers were mounted so it moved with the graceful precision born of the abundance of excess power. Attitudinal ion jets course-corrected perfectly with no wasted energy as Majin control continued sending vector information to her helm. The station suddenly shrank to a pinpoint as he fired the mains to insert into the fast-lane heading to the local M-string. The automated on-board flight control winked green as each local referent, velocity and known string entry points checked out.

The man who called himself Jian Zebros sat back in the pilot chair and reviewed the display, exhaustion evident on his face and in his shaking hands. He manually accepted the course after the Drago matched and verified the vector and location as required under Majin station-traffic safety regs. He smiled grimly at the anti-AI vericode and entered it correctly. He checked off items from a list on the main console, entering the names of his recently deceased new acquaintances. Systems verified each of the three names and credentials necessary for string entry. He accepted the news packet and encrypted government files to be forwarded to the Central Mail Agency at Earth and checked off on final payment for dock fees and station charges.

It seemed he had left nothing to chance, leaving behind no iota of evidence that could be used to determine that he had hijacked the ship. All the correct filing was done, thanks to the unwilling participation of its former Captain. In a short time, the ‘clear’ chime rang indicating that the ship was in the assigned outbound lane and on course, demonstrating that the luxury of advanced automation allowed him to fly solo. The Drago Corporation had spared no expense when it bought their fleet of seven courier ships. Without the autopilot, artificial gravity, autochef and other redundant systems, Jian could never have pulled off the hijacking.

The mapped Al Sharab M-space string terminus was well beyond the Kohnor inner system, seventeen hours away from the planet at its closest orbit. Satisfied with his perfect planning and execution, and with the vector and programming locked in, Jian didn’t stay on the bridge as the regs insisted, but strode aft to attend to more tasks. As he passed the two functional creches, he patted them lovingly. “To freedom, brothers. To freedom.”

One paused the playback, stood and stretched while he thought. That HAS to be Five. Who else would just take us. The great explorer, plotter, risk-taker. He even created IDs. We never had “real” names before.

He tried each of them under his breath. “Jeremathy, Liam, M’Dano-Nash, Jian, Rus.”

In the bunk room he selected the ID for Rus Zebros and read all the date stamps for planets and stations he had never seen. He found a coverall, put it on and put his ID in the breast pocket. The uniform had no ship name, or marking; a blank slate. He refilled his flask before returning to his review.

The vlog had faithfully recorded the entire, sickening process of stealing the ship. No information, being a ship vlog only, on how he had brought them so far from home. From their labs deep beneath the icy surface of Kohnor. He wondered how much killing had been done in his name to bring them billions of kilometers into space. Jian had donned another dull reddish gray coverall, eaten a second meal and laid out the clothing and IDs before crawling into bed for a nap. According to the chrono, he had been asleep for over fourteen hours.

Rus” shifted the view back to real-time to see what type of Jian-induced disaster might exist. His virtual display of all three boards showed all clear and all systems registered in the green or above. Vector information indicated they would be on-time at the transit point. He found one yellow attention icon on the communications board – someone had been signaling at fifteen minute intervals.

He queried the console for header information and found it had been sent three hours prior from a Federation naval warship. While he pondered this, the message repeated which updated the header with the current time. When he opened it, a holovid of a severe-looking woman, uniformed as an Admiral, ran in conjunction with a text transcript. She sounded cold and emotionless as she addressed them. Sort of pissed.

:23 Drago

:FNS Daedalus

:Critical

:Heave-to and prepare to be boarded

:Will fire upon you if non-compliant

:Respond ASAP to avoid probable severe damage

:Admiral Ra’u, Fleet Command

::

FoShik.” Rus cursed under his breath. Another screw-up by Five.

He checked the distance and vectors and found the Daedalus was closing the gap from behind at 32,000 kpm and certainly within missile range. The Floyd Henderson, a massive cargo freighter, had corrected course upward from the ecliptic, slowing to allow the smaller warship passage. Daedalus would pass the Floyd in one hundred two minutes and could easily interdict them at the twistor.

This is his problem. He should have solved it. If they intend to match velocity, we may reach the string before them. It all depends on how aggressive they are.

He considered the three most probable outcomes and wished the decision hadn’t fallen to him. Being captured wouldn’t be the end of the world, just a return to more studies, testing and being locked in the sterile lab. The worst case scenario of dying in a blaze of nuclear fury was unacceptable; He was too attached to living to just let that happen. Cutting the main engine or even decelerating would at least cause Ra’u to cut her own thrust, decelerate and probably maneuver to avoid collision. At the very least it would buy them some time.

His fingers flew across the floating holo-board, making several adjustments and entering seat-of-his-pants navigation numbers. Ahead of them was another cargo freighter laboring outward on the slow-lane vector and a single inbound passenger ship on a registered course directly for Khonor-p.

He cut thrust and the ship rotated on its gyroscope one hundred seventy-four degrees to face his pursuer on a direct intercept, re-tuned the main engine to thirty percent efficiency and fired all engines in a burst to indicate the ship was slowing. The reduced burn efficiency meant most of the fuel wouldn’t actually translate to thrust. Several of these de-tuned bursts later, his plan bore better fruit than he expected.

The Daedalus flipped on its axis and started firing long bursts to reduce the difference in velocities. This effectively blocked the warship’s view and sensors with ionized propellant. Rus’s plot showed she was angling away on an inside orbit toward the twistor to cut them off and draw alongside for her boarding party to jump the gap between ships. He let the numbers tick down as he fired the engine repeatedly, spewing flaming hydrogen plasma like a comet-tail. He waited a few more agonizing minutes.

Just a bit more and we’ll be completely in the blind spot.

Jian entered from the bunk room, “Where are we? What’s going on?”

On a ship. Several billion kilometers from home. Don’t you remember? You’re the one that got us into this mess.”

Why are we decelerating?”

There’s a warship overhauling us and hailing us to heave-to for boarding.”

Don’t stop. Please. I’ve sacrificed too much to get us this far. Get to the string and we’re home free.”

I’m aware of the situation. I took the ID for “Rus”.”

Yeah. You were One.”

Don’t interrupt me right now.”

He entered all of the parameters from their previous flight plan, including one hundred percent efficient thrust and flipped the Drago back toward the twistor. She leapt forward under her full eight gee thrust. “If I timed this right, we’ll be pulling away before they see us.”

I hope so.”

Rus wiped sweat from his eyes as they watched the distance from their pursuer slowly begin to increase. He could feel Jian at his back, steadying himself on his backrest. The Drago began to slowly make headway as the minutes ticked by, steadily increasing the distance. Just as he sighed in relief, the Daedalus flipped over to begin accelerating and the baleful com light winked again with an incoming message. The same Admiral, looking aggravated spoke.

:23 Drago

:FNS Daedalus

:Critical

:Accept live feed

:Admiral Ra’u, Fleet Command

::

Well?” Five asked.

Get on the com let’s talk to her. Voice only.”

Got it.”

Rus addressed the forward screen as the astrogation display split with the feed. “This is Captain Par of the 23 Drago. After consideration, we do not recognize your authority to board our ship. You have no probable cause…”

She cut him off with a snort. “You are not Captain Par. Show me a live feed of your bridge. When you altered the original flight plan, one which had been followed many times in an established circuit, you triggered a flight review which not only aroused your client’s suspicion, mine too.”

We have been called on an errand elsewhere.”

Elsewhere being Al Sharab which is not one of your usual ports. Your shipper has filed a complaint of breach of contract. I intend to enforce both civil and criminal law by taking custody of your ship.”

We will gladly reimburse our shipper for any loss but we are required by Drago Corporation to proceed on this course.”

Heave-to and prepare to be boarded. You have sixty seconds to cut your engines and place them in idle. Your next warning will be a disabling ballistic strike. I await your reply,” Rus heard her add, in a whisper, “This is going to be fun. Target the scum.”

B1 Astrid

Deep in the belt, the catamaran mining ship Neffi was parked on its home claim, engines idle as the last strain of the funeral procession through the internal loudspeakers faded. Gripper legs kept ship and rock stable for the rectangular hole two and a half by one meter. It was punched neatly down two meters below the surface. No headstone marked the grave in accordance with their custom. She lowered the shrouded body with one of the twenty-meter dadoes into the grave and squirted pri-poxy at the head and foot of the corpse.

Astrid Neffi, the sole remaining pilot -provisional- and captain due to the untimely death of her father Loba, stood on the bridge staring straight ahead as she struggled to control her emotions. She tried to measure her breathing, the rhythm of her heart, and everything to the pulse of their ship. Over the past hours, visibility had been dropping steadily as the belt-wide dust storm approached. The dust was a byproduct of the battle for ES-5. When the refinery it served blew, half the habitat was blown out as well, leaving a massive hole and debris that ranged from tiny particulates up to helmet-sized rocks.

With the edge of the micro-meteoroid just a few days away, she and Father had worked feverishly to tether the latest find to their home, a flat-sided M-0.9 asteroid with traces of molybdenum. Many of the giants the family had tagged were towed here to be broken down into manageable loads. This was especially true of the ‘tracer ore’, rocks that didn’t pay the rent, but filled out a load before heading in. The total value had been estimated, at current rates, to be nearly one hundred sixty million credits. In the ship’s cabin, Astrid finished stowing the remote dado boom and cutter and paused to evaluate her work. Looking outward from the laser-smooth plain, Father’s grave faced spinward through the wall of tethered, ore-bearing rocks where they were lowest.

The wall had been started, using FeNi boulders by Great-grandfather Neffi over one hundred years before in a ring-wall to protect the planar surface he had prepared for the dome footings. Both Grandfather and Father had devoted ten percent of their time and income in the project for decades. Many asteroids had been added to a solid wall using foamed alumarock to create the castle-like rampart surrounding the smooth surface of the Neffi habitat site.

She knew she was going to work harder than ever before in her fifteen years just to keep the centenarian ship running and wondered how she would find time to continue building their dome. The ship, the operation, this home, would still be the Neffi’s greatest accomplishment since Great-great-great-grandfather emigrated to Al Sharab to start mining. The ship had been repaired and rebuilt four times in its life by the Neffi men and was approaching another overhaul. While she was confident in her ability to manage repair and any updating, the prospect of overhauling the twin engines was daunting, and the cost would be astronomical.

Nearly as much at the dome will be, she thought. Whenever I can get us back to break-even.

I need more time.”

Serish evidently heard her. “You have all the time in the world. Time is wasted on the young.”

A pack of Father’s awful nic-sticks was still in the webbing where he had left it when he went out to harvest some palladium-rich ore from his favorite find. It out-massed the ship twelve to one but it was tethered securely where they could carve it up at their leisure. The cut he set up would yield a kiloton. Maybe not enough for a refit, but enough to continue operations.

I meant I need more experience.” She spoke to the mural on the ceiling, “I’ve never found a good rock on my own and now I have to get through the Blowout.”

We have time.”

As long as nothing critical pops up. Loaded up, Father would say.

She pulled herself into the seat and webbed herself in, looking over the familiar boards. He had taught her roll, pitch and yaw; Her alignment and vectoring were rated pretty high as well. She initiated the thruster pasted on the backside of the asteroid to perform a six-minute burn parallel to the belt. Faster meant out-orbit, where she was heading, the autopilot for Neffi.dome would correct the orbit gradually. She opened the loudspeakers to announce departure, “Time to get the ore to Edge 7.”

With only a slight tremor in her hands, she initiated the firing sequence that lifted-off her father’s tomb. She checked the posterior camera of Neffi.dome to see that the asteroid ‘migration thruster’ was firing hydrazine. Normally it moved autonomously to stay synchronized with the Neffi’s ‘home’ refinery thousands of kilometers inward.

With Mother stuck in secluded mourning for one hundred thirty days, how Astrid managed the ship was entirely up to her. She left the ship-wide communication system open just to keep her company through the lonely hours of piloting. She recorded the final resting place in the logbook and the system registration file naming herself captain and turned to the astrogation console.

She checked her fuel levels and decided for a semi-efficient vector that would take them in a slow curve above the belt. Despite being an eight day trip, it was much safer than weaving through the field and risk getting caught in the coming storm. The belly thrusters ran at an acceptable eighty-four percent efficiency ratio and cycled up to their max in less than three seconds as she leapfrogged away from home. In the first room of the family suite, a few meters behind Astrid’s right shoulder, Salaam bounced in his crib and crowed in his high-pitched toddler voice, “Fly ‘way. Fly ‘way. Fly ‘way, back another day. Cut da ore, Cut da ore…” One day he might be ready to pilot the ship but, since he was three, it would take at least twelve years. Astrid mourned in silence not only for Father, but also the years of hard work ahead of her.

According to the comp, her pitch was off. She adjusted with the methane instead of the pricey hydro and ran actual calculations instead of her usual seat of her pants style. She knew it was a bad habit picked up through years of watching Father. If she couldn’t pilot better than that, she would never run the operation effectively. They had fifteen days of air, before she had to tap the backup oxy, well within their usual margin.

She recalculated their mass and found it off, higher in the thrust-ratio by eighty three point four kilos. Oh. Father massed eighty three. I forgot to adjust.

She tried to blink away the tears while she reset the standard crew mass to the new constant and saved it in navcon. She felt the loss her father more acutely, having to adjust even the ship’s basic mass to reflect his absence. The new mass and adjusted thrust ratios sent them on the first four day leg of the pre-calculated parabola over the field. She sat back and closed her eyes in exhaustion.

The tears would wait no longer and spilled down her cheeks onto her work suit. She drew her legs up into the huge chair and tried to hold on while her small frame was wracked with sobbing. 5516 Words