“When did your tracker start working?”
Adelaide looked up at the chief engineer of the Kerwood. Her hair cascaded like a weeping willow, and she was forced to part it with her gloved hands to see the concerned look on Jeremy’s face.
“Hey, ChEng,” Adelaide greeted him when their eyes met. “When I was monkeying with the EXT during our escape last week, I brushed against a fiber optic bundle and burned the slag outta my coveralls. Might’ve jolted it back to life.” Her eyes focused briefly on the piece of equipment she was repairing, and she returned her attention to Jeremy. “Those were my favorite coveralls.”
Jeremy smiled. “You get zapped?”
Adelaide nodded. “Almost bit my slagging tongue off.”
“What’re you working on?”
Adelaide made no attempt to reveal what she was working on. Jeremy tried to peer through greasy locks of hair to see what she hunched over. He squinted and stared at Adelaide through narrowed eyes.
“Fine!” she declared with a huff and a sigh. She swept her hair aside and leaned back to reveal a series of pipes and fiber optics.
Jeremy looked at the amalgamation of technology, and he couldn’t hide the fact that he had no idea what she was working on. “What is it?” he whispered.
“Well,” Adelaide began, and then looked over her shoulder to the open doorway to Main Engineering. “When we burnt the thrusters out-”
“‘We?’” Jeremy retorted.
Adelaide leaned back and crossed her arms over her chest. Jeremy waved his hand for her to continue.
“They burned through the chemical store we, uh, borrowed from the Matsue.”
Jeremy nodded. “We don’t have an easy way to decelerate when we get home.”
“We only depleted our supply of fluorine,” Adelaide explained. “We still have plenty of LOX and LH2.”
“Right,” Jeremy replied, “we can use the liquid oxygen and hydrogen we have for the environment to burn off the last of our acceleration once we get to Earth orbit.”
Adelaide rolled her eyes. “We’d be better off getting someone to kinetically decelerate us. I have another plan for some of our remaining LH2.”
“Better than keeping us from overshooting the Earth and wandering the inner planets until the food we stole from the Matsue runs out?”
“It’s more of an adaptation of an old side project, ChEng.”
“Why are you avoiding the question, Adelaide?”
“Because,” Adelaide hissed, “I don’t want the blue suits to get wind of this.”
Jeremy eyed the device on the tech bench. “Explain,” he demanded.
“It’s better if I just show you,” Adelaide whispered.
Jeremy crossed his arms and took a step back. “Maybe you should just tell me now.”
Adelaide smiled sheepishly. “I built a shower.”
Jeremy blinked. Once, twice, thrice. “A shower?”
“Yeah, um, Erika and I convinced Jessica and a few others to build it in in secret.”
“Why?” Jeremy demanded.
“Well, water is so strictly rationed, and we have so much LH2. Even storing it in storage pods on the outer hull to keep it cryo, we still loose some of it. No one notices that some of it gets diverted elsewhere. Sanitary wipes don’t always cut it, ya know?”
“Slag it, Adelaide, I know why you kept it a secret.” Jeremy rubbed the heels of his hands against his eyes. “What I want to know is why you didn’t you clue me in? I thought we were on the same team here.” Jeremy flailed his arms, stopped mid-gesticulation and stared at his grimy skin below his rolled-up sleeves. They had run out of sanitary wipes a week ago, and a certain funk was permeating the ship. It wasn’t as bad as that slagging contract to Titan, though: Eighty bodies stinking up the Kerwood led to more than one crewmember to not renew his contract. The dozen or so bodies on the Kerwood now didn’t stink quite as bad, but… “Where is it?” he asked.
Adelaide mumbled something.
Jeremy narrowed his eyes. “Come again?”
“Aft Xenon storage tank.”
“Adelaide, I was in that space when we were repairing that tank, there’s no shower there.”
Adelaide sighed. “Not in the space, ChEng, the tank.”
Jeremy leaned against a panel to gather his thoughts. An alarm sounded when his hip made contact with an open control app. He sighed, and tapped the panel to reset the alarm. “How long has it been there?”
“Well-” Adel started to say, but she couldn’t meet Jeremy’s eyes.
Jeremy felt his blood pressure rise. “How long, Adelaide?”
“The dirty snowball contract.”
“When we were harvesting that comet?”
“Yeah, I got the idea when we made the cargo bay water tight. I liberated some of the sealant we used for the contract.”
“Adelaide,” Jeremy shouted, his anger overcoming his better reason, “that was two years ago!”
Adelaide looked around Main Engineering, and once again to the passageway outside the space. “There’s a reason why the Kerwood has a predominantly female crew in an occupation that is usually a total sausage fest.”
“Showers?” Jeremy demanded.
“Well, there are a few of us that leverage a portion of contract credits to offset the cost of-”
“Are you slagging telling me that you sell these showers?”
Adelaide shrugged. “It’s not like we get paid well on this tin can.”
“If you wanted a slagging shower, why didn’t you join the Matsue or Everest Conglomerates?”
“Come on, ChEng,” Adelaide retorted, “I’d never be an MPA on one of those boats.” She stood from the tech bench and stared at Jeremy. “Let alone the possibility of me being a Chief Engineer.” She looked around at the patchwork of metal and plastic in Main Engineering. “Although, that ain’t gonna happen now.”
Jeremy seized the contraption on the tech bench and waved it at Adelaide. “How about you focus your attention on decelerating us into Earth orbit instead of extorting credits from your crewmates?”
Adelaide blew a raspberry. “That’s easy,” she retorted, “we blow the Matsue’s thrusters.” She stepped forward and relieved Jeremy of the device. “And you’re trying to break the one thing that can make that happen.”
Jeremy stared at Crazy Ade for a long, hard moment. “Explain.”
“We take all our LOX and LH2, and we burn it.”
“That’ll strip off the outer hull,” Jeremy pointed out. “And we won’t survive the deceleration,” he concluded.
“We will if the cargo bay is flooded and we go for a swim in the hybrid suits.”
Jeremy closed his eyes and imagined the logistics of flooding the cargo bay. Everything would need to be preprogramed. If her plan worked, the Kerwood wouldn’t be spaceworthy, but it was unlikely that the Kerwood would end up anything other than scrap anyway. The core of the ship would be salvageable – Main Engineering, Sickbay, and some of the spaces in between would survive. Some of them would even still hold an atmosphere.
“It’s crazy.” He said after he opened his eyes and locked them on his MPA.
“Look, ChEng, we have to start decelerating in four days. Four days. Two weeks of deceleration in a tin can that has barely half a week of food left. If my plan works, we come in hotter’n hot. Slag decelerating for two weeks. We can do an assisted brake in the atmosphere and cut our deceleration from two weeks to about a day and a half. Do you want to be home in eighteen days, or eight?”
“If we even survive your crazy plan.”
“ChEng,” Adelaide sighed, “we run out of food in three days, we can stretch that to seven or eight if we starve ourselves. The human body can subsist for what, two weeks without food? We make it home in a metal coffin full of dead bodies. The Kerwood Corporation salvages the boat, sells the rock and the metal and offers our families a pittance as a death benefit.” Adelaide took a deep breath. “Some of us don’t even have a family! Cha-ching! More profit for Kerwood. I didn’t risk my ass stealing this hunk of junk just to die as I round third base on my way to home plate.”
“Really?” Jeremy sighed, “A sports metaphor?”
Adelaide stuck her tongue out.
Jeremy held up a finger. “We could get assistance from someone once we’re closer to Earth.”
“What? Someone like the Matsue Conglomerate? That worked out real well the last time. Besides, we’re not going to the Earth.”
Jeremy stepped back from Adelaide. “We’re not?”
“Come on, ChEng, you of all people know that there’re too many variables to aerobrake in the atmosphere. We’d likely just bounce off, or get shot down, and even if we did, we’d probably kill ourselves and anyone unfortunate to be in our LZ.”
“The Earth is mostly water. Water landings have been used since the space program was founded.”
“It’d probably be easier to bleed off our acceleration in Earth’s atmosphere and pick a final destination less likely to cause a panic if it all goes sideways.”
“Where else could we go? There’re only two targets, the Earth, and the Luna Five station.”
“We could land on Luna,” Adelaide replied, her eyes blazed with intensity. She continued in a lower, conspiratal tone, “I have some friends on Luna that could help us out…”
“Who?” Jeremy demanded.
Adelaide walked to the COMs console and entered a key sequence. Alarms intoned as the communications system failed and the Kerwood computer tried to reestablish the appropriate circuits. “I wasn’t born on the Earth,” she confessed.
“You’re a-” Jeremy gasped. “You’re a lunar baby?”
“That’s offensive,” Adelaide replied through gritted teeth. “I sure as slag ain’t no alien if that’s what you think.”
Jeremy held up his hands in a placating manner. “I’m not insinuating anything, you just caught me off guard, that’s all.”
“Huh,” Jeremy mumbled after a few brief seconds of silence.
Adelaide rolled her eyes. “What?”
“You’re rather tall, Adelaide,” Jeremy offered. “For a woman,” he clarified. “I guess being born on Luna would explain that…”
“Cute, Lieutenant. It’s a good thing you survived Lone Pine to deliver that wonderful insight so many years later.”
Jeremy blinked. That was the second time that Adelaide Bähr had left him speechless in such a short amount of time. “How did you-”
“You’re not the only one aboard the Kerwood with secrets, ChEng,” Adelaide replied with a smirk.
Jeremy looked around for something to defend himself with. There was a hard look in her eyes that he had all but forgotten since his days in the Australian Defense Force. His eyes darted around Main Engineering and settled on his Main Propulsion Assistant. Adelaide smiled, oblivious to the roiling thoughts behind the stoic mask of a former drunkard ADF veteran. Her eyes twinkled, and she tilted her head. A wave of déjà vu washed over Jeremy. He strained to place the familiar situation.
“Relax, ChEng,” Adelaide declared. “My sister told me about you before I signed on the Kerwood as an engineer.”
“The woman who recruited you? Sapphire Sullivan.”
“Your sister?” Jeremy sputtered again.
Adelaide’s eyes widened. “You didn’t know…” she said, and her voice trailed off.
Jeremy looked at the woman standing in front of him. He had only met Sapphire the one time when she recruited him. He was considerably inebriated when that happened. He wracked his brain to summon the brunette in the blue dress. That was an expensive hangover, he thought. He remembered escorting Sapphire to her suite at the hotel, and her inviting him in. Even though back then the Kerwood Corporation was in a better place financially, Sapphire’s hotel room was opulent. He had remembered flashes of their liaison the following morning, but Sapphire was gone, only the lingering scent of her vanilla perfume proved to him that the encounter had actually happened. Well, that and the enormous bill for the room and the bottle of the single cask at the bar. He was forced to accept the position with the Kerwood Corporation when they offered to cover his expenses that night. He never saw Sapphire again, and Adelaide signed on about a year and a half later. The similarities between the women were now apparent. He might’ve been able to piece it together when Adelaide first joined the crew. She had been promoted rapidly, but he was so wrapped up in his new position as Chief Engineer. He barely had time to notice any of the engineers, let alone one that looked so much like her sister that he had only met once.
Jeremy breathed in deep remembering the smell of… What the Hades? he thought. He detected a faint smell of vanilla from Adelaide under the overt smell of engine grease and sweat. His eyes snapped open and locked on the wide face of his MPA. A question tried to wriggle out from the tip of his tongue, his better angels demanding that he not. Fortunately, a chime on the 1MC stayed his question.
“Bähr!” Captain Hayes voice demanded over the communication circuit. “What the Hades happened to my COMs?”
Their eye contact terminated, and Adelaide turned to a speaker hidden in the overhead. Not really hidden, Jeremy thought. The flat duplex speaker hung down from the overhead with a ribbon cable preventing it from succumbing to the artificial gravity that the Kerwood’s spin generated.
“Sorry, Skipper,” Adelaide replied in a sickeningly saccharin voice. “It’s just a bear keeping all the systems up.” She fixed Jeremy with an icy glare. “It was pooh’d for a moment there, but I think we have it under control now.”
“Acknowledged, Hayes out.”
Jeremy watched an indicator on the COMs panel blink out as the temporary connection to the bridge ceased. He turned to Adelaide, who was looking at him the way a hawk might watch a mouse out for a morning forage. “What happened to Sapphire?” he asked.
Adelaide’s face fell. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Jeremy nodded. “Fine, then we can return to your clandestine water manufacturing scheme.”
Adelaide smiled and placed her contraption back on the tech bench.
“Will burning our atmosphere even work?” Jeremy asked.
“It won’t matter unless we can flood the main cargo bay, the ancillary passageway, and both airlocks.”
Jeremy looked again at the device that she was working on. “Can’t we just mix our LOX and LH2?”
Adelaide sighed. “Just mixing the gasses together isn’t enough. We have to do something to get the chemical reaction started. The problem is that mixing LOX and LH2 directly creates an explosion.” Adelaide clapped her hands. “Poof, no more atmosphere.”
“This,” she declared, “siphons the LH2 and mixes it with atmospheric oxygen, using Xenon as an intermediary. That mixture is ran alongside a catalyst and electrified. Instant H2O. It’s like twenty times faster and more efficient over burning hydrogen, then collecting the water vapor.”
Jeremy narrowed his eyes. “How safe is it?”
Adelaide rearranged the tools on the tech bench.
“Adelaide?” Jeremy insisted.
“Remember that breach in the aft Xenon tank we repaired?”
Jeremy gaped. “The crack in the half-inch thick Nano carbon weave?”
Adelaide sat back down at the tech bench. “Yeah, that one.”
“This thing,” he pointed at the device in front of her, “caused that breach?”
“That’s the idea behind it, ChEng, it can only siphon off so much LH2, and allows it to expand before the chemical process starts. That keeps the LH2 supply safe from backflow. Works the same way our thrusters do.”
“Do you know what caused the thruster explosion?”
“Fatigue,” Adelaide declared.
“From you or it?”
“Well, Erika did our light-off thruster inspection, and uh, well, we’re kind of an item.”
“I thought you were with Jessica.”
Adelaide winked, “Her too.”
Jeremy sighed, stared up into the overhead, and shook his head. “Continue your story,” he demanded.
“I’m not entirely sure, but I think her oxygenator or something was malfunctioning. She was giddy just before launch.”
“I saw her laughing it up in the passageway.”
“But, you know, ChEng, that’s not what she’s all about. When have you ever known Erika to not be perfectly paranoid before a launch?”
Jeremy nodded. “It did seem out of character. She almost seemed drunk.” Jeremy paused and looked at Adelaide. “You’re not running a distillery somewhere on the ship are you?”
Adelaide scoffed. “Alcohol makes people stupid. And in the black, stupid means dead. It was as if she was suffering from inert gas narcosis or something.”
“The bends?” Jeremy asked. Adelaide refused to meet his eyes. Jeremy had a sixth sense when someone was lying through omission. It had made him an excellent officer in the ADF, and even better as the chief engineer of the Kerwood. He could spot slackers and malingerers a mile away. He turned to Adelaide and placed his hand over her gloved one. “What is it, Adelaide?”
“I checked the logs from the Matsue diagnostic module we kept, and the thrusters were in a diagnostic loop before the explosion.”
“If they were in a loop, then we wouldn’t’ve been able to launch from Egeria-13.”
“ChEng, you know as well as I do that a good engineer can make this tub do much more than she’s supposed to be able to do. I seem to remember someone engaging the EXT without the ion targeting aperture functioning. That person saved our bacon last week. Who was that masked engineer?”
Jeremy rolled his eyes. “What modifications would’ve been needed to launch with the thrusters locked in diag?”
Adelaide frowned. “The RL10 valves would’ve needed to be welded open, and the TEMS sensor would need to be overridden.”
“The Thruster Engine Monitoring System is checked and rechecked before launch. Kind of what it’s there for.”
Adelaide met his eyes. “Yes, checked by Erika. And she has access to chemical welders that operate in a zero-oxygen environment.”
“Like the one that Siebert always carries around with him?”
“Aren’t you supposed to verify the TEMS and sign off on it?”
Adelaide shuffled on her stool. “I met with Erika before launch, and I uh, didn’t actually do the verification. Pooh Bear moved up the launch, and I ran out of time.”
“Adelaide!” Jeremy fought to control his anger. “If what you’re saying is true, that one procedure could’ve detected the sabotage, and prevented everything that has happened since. When did you discover this?”
“While operation homeward bound was under way,” she admitted.
“Then what the slag was that nonsense with that Rebecca woman?”
“I was trying to get corroborating evidence.” Adelaide looked away. “Maybe she had a Matsue accomplice?” she offered.
“Unacceptable!” hollered Jeremy. “Did you pull up transponder movements?”
Adelaide sighed. “ChEng, we’ve been masking our transponders for two years now, to keep the shower a secret. Doing the same to hide that she’s been somewhere she shouldn’t is a walk in the park.”
Jeremy ran his palms down his face. “What can you tell from her movements?”
Adelaide mumbled something.
“I think she could be our saboteur.”
“So now we have a suspected saboteur loose on our ship?”
“She’s hardly loose,” Adelaide made air quotes around the word. “She’s missing a hand, irradiated, and blind. I don’t think she’s a threat anymore.”
“Unless Gauge is in on it too,” Jeremy said.
“We barely have proof that she’s done anything. Pooh Bear and the bridge monkeys think Old Vicky’s the one to blame.”
“Regardless, she needs to answer for her crimes.” He held up his hand to placate his odd engineer. “She may not be able to see, but she can probably hear us talk about her.” He pointed at the device in front of Adelaide. “You get that thing working, and I’ll personally share your findings with Captain Hayes.”
Adelaide returned to her task, and Jeremy hustled out of Main Engineering. They had less than four days left to decide on and execute a plan.
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Next: Chapter 19