Victor floated, using just occasional fingertip pressure to raise himself from one bank of relays to the next. When he felt he was in the perfect position, he took hold of the chromium handle beside the panel he wanted and drew a fine filament, with his other hand, from the cuff of the green jumpsuit he was wearing and inserted the jack into a socket below the handle.
Twisting his hips a little, the empty legs flapping in the slight resistance of the air from the movement, he gauged his proximity. Satisfied this was the optimum position for his work, he depressed the small stud on the cuff. A few milliamps raced up the filament and along the seems of the suit. Instantly, Victor was stationary: line, seems and even the empty legs were static – now held to the wall as though he was a steel stanchion welded there.
He chinned the right side of the block collar and both sleeves opened, as though unzipped along their lengths by an invisible hand. Now with his arms free, he pulled off the inspection panel and fastened it to a clip on his belt. From the breast pocket of the jumpsuit he extracted his small laser probe/light metre, and a bonding rod – each about the size of small pencils.
Frowning and holding his tongue between his teeth, Victor began routing through the fibres in the aperture and testing the flows of light through them and the crystalline boards. So involved was he in his work – his fingers and instruments dancing with practiced ease between the spaghetti and plates – he did not notice the figure sail through the open hatch on the opposite side of the 300 meter tube in which he floated.
Silently, the newcomer drifted through the air towards him. The only disturbance was in the small amount of dust particles suspended in the zero-G, being agitated by the body displacing air as it glided with intent towards the technician’s back.
Creeping up on him, purposely making no sound, the figure drifted off course and had to push away from the curved wall to Victor’s right. Alarmed by the dnk sound the push made resounding through the small panel, the head of the interloper snatched around and wide-eyes stared at his back; but still he made no reaction. The intensity and consistency of the light issuing through the fibres and boards harnessed every iota of his mind. A slight adjustment here, a replacement strand bonded there: Victor was intense in his work.
Now just a metre away, the figure reached forward, twitched flippered feet for propulsion, and used fingertips to stay the movement against the wall above Victor’s head. Directly above his back, the figure grinned; the hand shot down, wrapped around the technician’s face, covering his eyes.
With a gasp, Victor tried to push away; the shock of the assault had made him lose hold of the instrument, which now tumbled freely through the machine’s interior, and he grabbed the hand over his face with his, trying to pull it aside, as – with mad glee – a voice hissed in his ear:
Braced by the filament, Victor was unable to move away, but he now rotated on the spindle of the line coming face to face with her.
“Marylin!” he gasped, half angry, half happy to see her. “You crazy wench! What do you think you –”
“Ah, shush up, you big grouch,” she giggled, and covered his mouth with hers, using the hand to pull him closer, tighter.
Captain Sven Pendersgaad tutted, sighed, turned off the monitor on which he had been viewing Victor at his work, and tutted again. As the image of the two technicians blinked off, he twisted his big bearded head around towards the ensign’s post, prepared to tut again, but the post was vacant.
‘Oh, right,’ he remembered, ‘I sent the boy to bring the Chief.’
At that moment, the iris beeped and the very man he had just thought of pivoted over the knee-knocker, gave the captain a perfunctory salute and ambled over. Ensign Meriwether – a shiny faced youth, not yet capable of growing facial hair except in clumps – snapped to attention inside the doorway as the iris hissed closed behind him , and snapped off:
“Ensign Meriwether reporting with Chief Engineer McSwaine, as instructed, SIR!”
“Very good, Ensign,” Pendersgaad sighed, bored with the youth’s “by-the-book / fresh-out-of-the-academy” manner, idly flicked his finger to the far corner and added: “return to your post, mister.”
Meriwether snapped another academy-perfect salute and marched to his place, snapping into “at ease” behind his console.
Thinking how nice it would be to snap the boy’s neck, the captain twitched his head, indicating for McSwaine to follow him. Without waiting, he turned his chair and wheeled to the door in the corner of the bridge, beside the monitors. “You have the bridge Mr Meriwether,” he called back, hearing the salute snapping behind him, and groaned. The doors slid aside at his approach, and the lights in the Captain’s Cabin rose to a mellow yellow. Pendersgaad did not stop when he entered but continued across the floor, the maglev of his chair making his glide eerily ghostly, and only stopped when he reached the sideboard at the rear of the room. Without looking around, he asked:
“Mishaum’s for you, Chief?”
“Aye, that’ll be fine f’ me Sven,” the Chief answered, dropping onto the small sofa without ceremony.
McSwaine stared out of the window adorning one entire wall of the quarters, a gleam in his eyes as he watched the solar collectors twist and sparkle in the blackness beyond. He did not jump when the captain spoke, but the gleam coruscated for a millisecond.
“It is one of the most beautiful sights in the universe,” he said, handing the gruff engineer his tankard of thick golden alcohol. “Like an exotic dancer’s arms, the way you have them twisting out there, picking up the energies and cherishingly squeezing them into our palm.”
“So, how goes it?”
“Aye, all in order,” the stocky man replied, took a massive swallow of his drink and belched contentedly. “Working to thirty five percent above industry standard.” With a wink, he chucked back the other half of his drink, gasped out foetid breath and wiped his mouth with the back of his greasy and torn sleeve.
“I have no idea how the hell you got through the academy with your manners,” he said, taking the tankard from the engineer and steering back to the bar. “But, old bear, I am glad you did.”
He returned with their glasses refilled – his own a quarter the size of the one the chief quaffed from, holding an expensive liqueur – and raised his glass in a toast to the man who worked miracles with the station’s equipment.
“We need to requisition some stuff though, Sven. I am not happy with the central tube being laced with that stuff, you know. Soon as we can get the plasticonductor-flex, the sooner I can rip that stuff out; the sooner I’ll be happy.”
“I know, Chief; but unless we can show necessity, you know the governments will never agree to it: they’ll begrudge the expense of the material, when what they gave us is working fine, and they will not appreciate the effect having the energy offline – for however long it takes you to do the work – how that will affect the voters. You know.”
McSwaine grunted. They’d had this debate many times, and the end was always the same: if there was no problem, there was no need to make any changes. No matter that they were constantly in danger: the money and prestige NOW were what was important.
Turning his chair so he was looking out of the window along with his chief engineer, the captain watched as the many-petalled scoops opened to the solar rays, like roses to the dawn, twisted and closed about their food: pressing the energies into their arms, which would carry it along to the mass storage devices at the top of the station, where it would wait to be fired down to their home.
“How are things with the transmitter, itself?” he asked.
Grunting, McSwaine quaffed back the last of his drink, leaned forwards and put it on the deskage at the front of the captain’s chair.
“Seems t’ be fine,” he said, slipping off the sofa and stretching out his back. “All systems within parameters and the targeting system seems spot-on. We’ll continue doing a small 10 kiloton shot first, before sending the whole package: just to make sure. Better safe than … toasting the planet.”
Sven nodded. As he could see his friend was preparing to take his leave, he decided to broach the issue he had really brought him all the way from the engineering section for.
The Chief turned a yellowed eye on his captain.
“I .. well, that is… Look, each member of the crew is allowed to take time planetside; and so far, for the whole of the thirty-three turns we’ve been running, you have forgone your allotted time. When this turn comes, I want you to – ”
“Now you look here!” bellowed the greasy man. “I came ’ere to do a job, and I’m still doing it!”
“Hold on there, James: it is my duty –”
“DUTY? Y’ duty be damned, man! I will not leave this ship until it is perfect. You want it perfect, you get that plasticonductor-flex, let me replace the magnesite core conducer and get this place perfect!”
The Captain sighed. No use arguing, he knew.
“Anyway,” McSwaine continued, “what is there down there for me? Gravity? Well you know what you can do with gravity! Bad enough being here, on your deck, with the quarter G you keep.”
“You know I have to have that here, James: this section of the ship is centrifuged because –”
“Aye! I know. But I know you prefer to be in the hub area, where you can get out of your little car there: and y’ know how I feel about the looks on people’s faces when I have to go out in public. Maybe you don’t get it, Sven, but this place is more home to most of us than what we left behind.”
The captain knew all this, and agreed: but as captain he was duty-bound to make sure his crew got some “R&R” each down turn. When the station was on the darkside and the energies had been shot down to the planet several thousand kilometres below, into the collectors there, the station had five days when nothing was happening – down time – and the crew were given the opportunity (in rotas) of getting down with the supply ship, to see family and enjoy the fresh air.
So, he nodded, and threw the chief engineer the last half of the bottle of Mishaum’s Leg Melter to take with him. They were old enough friends that no farewells or anything of the sort was needed: McSwaine took the bottle, tapped it off his brow in a salute, and left.
Sven had worked with the stocky fellow before; when he was captaining the space liner on the Andaries route. He had been surprised when he had first met the fellow: the roughness of him! But he rapidly forgot his own academy training and relaxed in the company of the gruff engineer. Now he smiled at how crisp he used to be; so much like Meriwether. It was McSwaine’s influence that had crumpled the starch from his lip.
He actually laughed, seeing himself in his mind’s eye – the stuck-up little snot he had been! He laughed even more at what Meriwether would make of being in the Chief Engineer’s company for any length of time.
With a wicked glint in his eye, he raised his voice to the required level and said:
“Here Captain,” a voice issued from a grill in the ceiling.
“I will be needing a temporary new ensign on the bridge.”
When the voice confirmed a new subordinate was being assigned, Sven went to tell boy on the bridge of his new posting in engineering.
Idly, he wondered if the boy would snap.