Chapter Five: LAUNCH PREP
As he headed out of the SRS offices down to the docking bay, David couldn’t shake the feeling of unreality that had entered his world. One of the founding reasons for the SRS’ entire existence, the loss of the Icarus… And it had been found. And now they wanted the captain of their newest vessel, Him to be the one to bring her home. Of course, the first priority would be the Icarus’ pilot. But still, the first vessel to have carried a living being faster than the speed of light… And that being herself… It was a weighty responsibility. With a shake, the human cleared his mind, and headed for one of the service locks into the Hub area.
The central Hub of Gagarin Station was kept pressurized via massive magitech atmosphere shields, backed up by the currently open blast doors. It eliminated the need for heavy airlock systems, and allowed the entire internal volume to be used as dock space. Safety rails edged clearly marked pedestrian walkways, and it was only these places that maintained localized gravity fields. Off the path, or even three meters above it, there was only zero-G. The open space reeked with every odor imaginable, from spent thruster propellant, to hot metal, oils, greases, and the faint tang of unwashed bodies that even the most sophisticated filters could never fully scrub out.
It was a brisk ten-minute walk from the access hatch to Tessa’s shop, and David could feel a small grin threatening to break across his face. Tessa was a friend, and she was always working on something or other. The fact that she was more than willing to talk for hours on whatever her latest project was didn’t hurt either, but this time David knew he would have to keep his visit short.
Opening the pressure door, an antiquated bell chimed, announcing his presence. The shop was surprisingly empty for this time of day, but the hastily scrawled sign on the wide counter on the back wall provided the reason: “Special Order in Progress”. Fortunately, the more mundane gadgets the gremlin produced could easily keep a potential visitor occupied, these arranged neatly by type. Power system components on one set of shelves, environmental components on another. An entire wall devoted to weapon components and upgrades, the opposite one for suit parts. David could easily have spent an hour browsing, but he had a job to do.
Approaching the counter, he rang the old bell in the corner, its clear tone sounding in the quiet shop. After a bit, the back door opened, and a pair of fuzzy green ears were revealed.
“Oi, didn’t you read the sigh- oh, it’s you.”
“How’s it going, Tessa?”
“Better now that you’re here.” The gremlin replied, as she made her way behind the counter space, and hopped up onto the stool by the point of sale. “So, you got the creds to pay for the job I just did?”
“Didn’t Mitch pay you already?”
“He did, but I’m assuming you’ll need a professional to install the stuff, right?”
“I think we can handle that ourselves, thanks…”
Here the gremlin made a small grunt of disappointment, as she wiped greasy fingers on her coveralls. “I figured, but it couldn’t hurt ta ask.”
“You just want a closer look at the Knight’s internals, don’t you?”
“Curses, foiled again,” Tessa sighed theatrically.
“You know, all you really need to do is ask. I have no issues letting you into even the classified areas, if your clearance is up-to-date, which I assume it is if Mitch even contracted you for the job.”
“But where’s the fun in that?”
“I swear, one of these days, your curiosity’s going to get you in trouble.”
“Who says it hasn’t already?” the gremlin replied with a wink and a toothy grin.
Just as David was beginning to pinch the bridge of his nose, Tessa leaned across the counter, and laid a hand on his arm. “Look, I understand you’ve got a big job you just got dropped into your lap. Trust me, between Mitch, the Knight, and my upgrades, you’ll get it done.”
“How much do you know?”
“Enough that I both envy you, and wouldn’t wish your job on anyone.”
“Geez, how fast did the rumor spread?”
“Probably faster than it took to reach the Admiral’s office, if we account for the fact the info really isn’t all that classified.”
“As if I didn’t have enough misgivings about this mission already,” the human sighed.
“Look at it this way: you’re going to be a part of history! I’d drop everything an tag along, but I’ve got a couple juicy contracts that need to be filled, and If my theory’s correct, I think you’ll be a bit… occupied on your way back.” The waggling eyebrows gave away what exactly was on Tessa’s mind.
“Seriously, is that the only thing you spend your spare time thinking about?”
“No, maybe about twenty percent of it,” she replied unashamedly. “But seriously, you need a partner. Mitch is great an’ all, but a physical companion is essential out in the black.”
“I agree, at least on principal. But between the budget committee, and the lack of qualified personnel, we’re stretched pretty thin.”
“All the more reason to ask her to join when you pick her up!”
“You really think someone stuck in stasis for five years will be all that keen to jump right back out here?”
“Hey, skeletons are an odd bunch, maybe you’ll get lucky. And on that note…” Here Tessa jumped off her stool, and reached under the counter, withdrawing a large wheeled case, which she then set on the countertop with a thump. “Here’s the stuff.”
“Thanks,” David replied gratefully. “Mitch has been working on the designs for a week, and I’m just a little eager to see how they work.”
“Don’t mention it, you two’s credits are always good here,” she said dismissively. “And on that note, you really should get going. Just one more thing.”
“Hmm?” the human asked as he swung the case to the floor.
“Keep an eye out for raiders.” Tessa admonished, as she walked back into the machine area. “An’ don’t forget ta call!”
Shaking his head in friendly resignation, David took the case in tow, and made his way back to the service lock he’d entered the Hub from. He was just about to cycle it when a female voice intruded on his thoughts:
“Hey! Hold the door!”
Startled, the human did just that, as a vac-suited kakuen bounded into the airlock, and gripped a handhold while she struggled to catch her breath.
“Thanks,” she panted, wiping her brow with the back of one hand.
“Don’t worry about it,” the human replied.
“So, what brings you out here?”
By this time the lock had cycled, and David was rolling his case down the corridor, with the kakuen now following curiously. “Assigned here. I assume you’ve just come aboard?”
“Oh yes! I’ve got to buy supplies for the ship. The captain said it was an important job!”
“I see… what kind of supplies did they send you after?”
“Fresh food, mostly. And information too! You know anything about the latest rumors?”
“Can’t really say that I do…” David replied cautiously. “I’m not all that plugged in to the grapevine here. Too busy, and I’m usually off on assignment.”
“Aww, but that’s fine. Can you point me towards a good produce vendor?”
“Sure, just follow the signs to pylon two, and from there take a pod to the Ring, and follow those signs to “Supply Depot Two”.”
“Hey, thanks! Have a nice day!” Mindy exclaimed, before bounding off in the direction David had indicated.
The human shook his head slowly in bemusement, before making his way to pylon six, and from there directly back to Bay 31 without further incident. In a way, he was grateful that he’d be launching during the station’s “nighttime”. Along the way, a couple things stuck in his mind: While Mindy had been friendly enough, he’d seen her subtle reactions to both his shipsuit, and the tags on the right breast… Shaking his head again, the human dismissed it as paranoia, and opened the entry lock of the Knight’s launch bay to a scene of controlled chaos.
There were colored jumpsuits everywhere, as the bay techs, roused or recalled after the day’s end, prepared the Knight for launch. Bay 31’s Chief, a devil bug in a yellow-suit by the name of Drusilla, spotted him almost immediately and strode over.
“So, boy, yer plannin’ on rescuin’ the First, are ya?”
“Seriously, does everyone know about the mission by now?” David asked, rubbing the back of his neck.
“How could we not? She’s almost as famous as the first human in orbit, or the first earthborn living armor!”
“Well, when you put it that way… I suppose you’re right.”
“But enough about that fer now, we gotta get you ready to launch. Is there anythin’ yer needin’ that isn’t already on the to-do list?”
“Just the main line items, and this,” here David hefted the case with Mitch’s upgrades to the Bussard collector. As they made their way over to the Knight’s launch cradle. All the while, there was constant activity: a beelzebub in a green-suit monitored a set of hose connections on the ship’s starboard hull, and another devil bug in a purple-suit did the same for a second hose cluster at the ship’s belly. Two forklifts carrying pallets of missiles, driven by two more devil bugs in red-suits drove past, followed by a pair of large mice also in red-suits, each carrying a case of fuzes.
“Just that? Sure, we can squeeze that in. Oi! You lot! We got a spare ammo tech to get this stuff mounted?”
At the chief’s shout, one of the red-suits on foot handed her case off to the other ordinance tech, raised a hand, and strode over. “What’s the job, chief?”
Drusilla gestured to the rolling case David was towing. “Need these mounted to th’ Bussard. Upgrades.”
As the human handed over the case to the tech, he heard Mitch connect to her headset. ”Greetings technician Cassandra. If you could follow the lights on your HUD, I will instruct you on what must be done.”
“Sure thing. Chief, Captain,” she nodded to them both, and left.
Up on the hull, a pair of kakuen in green-suits with cleaning cloths were giving the ship’s optical heads one last polish. It was at this point that the full weight of David’s Captaincy began to settle upon him. He really was in charge of one of the most powerful ships ever built, and about to embark upon a historic mission to boot…
“Hey, no need to get the jitters just yet, boy, yer not even out the bay doors.” Drusilla said calmly, clapping him on the shoulder.
“Thanks Chief, I’ll keep that in mind.”
From there, it was a whirlwind, as David boarded the Knight, and Chief Drusilla got everything loaded, upgraded, and ready. By the time the human had signed off on the last electronic form, and handed it back to the red-suited mouse who’d been installing the Bussard upgrades, it was time to launch.
Bay 31 was cleared, and all the techs, plus the chief, were standing in the bay control room, as the internal access hatches locked down, and the Knight was released from her launch cradle, her a-grav coming online, and the massive clamps retracting into the floor. The warning lights around the edge of the outer bay doors began to rotate, as the massive portal ground open.
“This is the DSRV Richard T. Knight requesting departure clearance from local control.”
“Roger Knight, you are clear to exit the launch bay, upon which you will transfer to Gagarin Actual.”
With a flare from her maneuvering thrusters, the massive craft, from her squared-off afterbody to her wedge-shaped prow with its underslung scoop, seemed to wake up, and almost stalk out of the launch bay. As she passed the threshold, her running lights lit, and the spotlights on her flanks proudly lit up her name.
“Good luck, and Godspeed.” With that, Drusilla and all the techs saluted the departing vessel.