The scent of pines filled the air, a welcome change from the old gym shoe odor that pervaded the moonbase. Smuggling a Christmas tree aboard a lunar resupply mission had been a running joke ever since Peter Caudell had joined the astronaut corps, but it was unlikely anyone could have gotten something that big past the program managers. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be that hard to slip a few vials of pine oil into someone’s personal kit. Then it’d be just a matter of introducing a few drops at a time into the air recirculators and the whole place would smell like the evergreen forests of his Rocky Mountains childhood.
Too bad I didn’t think of it. Peter’s second astronaut specialty was life-support systems, which made it even easier for him to get access to the relevant equipment.
At once he knew why–as a pilot-astronaut, he had a lot to lose if some NASA bureaucrat decided to make an Issue out of it. Things had tightened up a lot since the wild and wooly days of Project Mercury when those hotshot test pilots pitted their egos and intellects against one another and their civilian managers as much as they did against the technical challenges of spaceflight.
A tap on the door pulled Peter out of his thoughts. He reached over to open the door, an easy task in a room the size of his walk-in closet back home in Houston. "Hi, Marty."
The older astronaut gave him an odd little smile, the sort you see when someone wants a favor. "Colonel Kittering wanted to know if you could give us some special music for Christmas."
Peter suppressed a wince. With all the trouble the Second Mars Expedition had been giving on their return trip, he’d been too busy to keep in practice. But when the base commandant made a personal request… "Can’t very disappoint the boss. Especially not with the Ares II crew getting back from Mars for their quarantine period." Peter shot a significant glance at the newspaper clipping that hung over his desk, of the mission commander floating in the middle of the habitation module and holding up his two-star flag, his ear-to-ear grin crinkling the burn scars from the accident that had nearly ended his career before it could get off the launchpad. "The world’s first space admiral deserves a celebration."
"I’ll tell the colonel the good news." Marty Hollywell started to leave, then turned back. "Think you can have something new for the celebration, or is it going to be all old standbys?"
"I’ve been working on a piece."
"Great. I’ll let him know."
Alone again, Peter mentally kicked himself for being so quick to make that last offer. He’d been working on all three songs ever since he’d gotten up here, and not a one of them wanted to gel. Which is proof of the old joke that Navy stands for "Never Again Volunteer Yourself."
Nothing to do now but pry loose the necessary practice time to get his skills back into presentable shape in time for the Christmas party. Peter set aside the paperwork he’d been struggling through, all NASA bureaucratic stuff rather than actual engineering problems, and pulled his guitar from its cubby.
He hadn’t gotten half a dozen measures into his basic warm-up exercises when he was rewarded with the soft spoing of a string breaking. With a sigh of annoyance, he leaned over to rummage around in his guitar case for spare strings. He was sure he’d packed a number of them when he came up here. Estelle played mandolin and viola, so there’d been no reason to leave any guitar strings behind for her.
Except all his efforts were coming up null, even checking his gear bag in case he’d slipped them in an odd pouch there. He did recall having broken a couple of strings when he was first up here, before things went crazy. Could he have used up his spares and forgotten to ask Estelle to send more in his next personal package?
Peter gave a resigned nod to no one in particular. As fast as things had gotten hectic, he could see the most probable sequence of events. And now there would be no time to get any more shipped up to him before the party.
In the meantime he’d have to talk to the materials lab. As long as the machinists could fabricate a reasonable approximation of guitar strings, he’d be able to get through the concert with reasonable aplomb and not have to choose between begging off and trying to perform a capella. But it’d still be wise to keep alternate fingerings in mind to avoid that string as much as possible.
Explaining the construction of a guitar string to the tech proved harder than Peter had anticipated. He’d never really thought that much about guitar strings, not since his financial situation had reached the point that a trip to the guitar store to replace them no longer meant sacrificing his lunch money.
"It might help if you could give us proper specifications." The tech was trying to rein in his irritation, recognizing the difference in their relative social status in the astronaut corps, but it was still coming through.
Peter decided not to remark upon it. Especially considering he was asking a personal favor, he didn’t want to antagonize this guy to the point of hostility. Although Peter was pretty sure he could quash any questions of diversion of NASA resources by pointing out he had been asked by the commandant to play for the moonbase Christmas party, he’d rather avoid the issue altogether.
Still, the whole idea of formal technical specifications for a guitar string left him fighting the urge to laugh. No doubt the manufacturer had them, to ensure a consistent product, but as a musician he’d never handled them and had no idea how to obtain them.
But as a pilot-astronaut with an engineering degree, he wasn’t going to admit it to a technical specialist. "I haven’t found any in the technical library, and I doubt Houston would be overly happy to have them faxed up here, considering the bandwidth limitations we’re working under." He reached into a pocket. "I do have the broken one, if that’d help."
As he handed it across, the lights flickered once, twice, then went out altogether, plunging the lab into heart-stopping darkness. Peter had been so focused on the guitar string that it took a moment to shift gears to emergency procedures.
And then the lights came back on, albeit still shaky. Variations on "what the hell was that" came from half a dozen places up and down the long row of workbenches. From the sound of it, the lights weren’t the only thing that had gone down.
Yes, something had gone seriously wrong. As a pilot-astronaut with a mechanical engineering degree, Peter had specific responsibilities in such an emergency.
"See what you can do with it when things settle down. Gotta go." He tossed the broken guitar string to the tech and hurried down the corridor to his duty station.
"Well, that was a complete waste of a perfectly good hour." Rhonda Mittland glowered at the partially disassembled control panel.
"Actually, no." Peter kept his voice as level and calm as he could manage. As a pilot he ranked any tech, but rubbing their faces in it was never good for morale or team cohesion. "We’ve discovered three things the problem isn’t. With them definitely eliminated, we can concentrate our time and energy on examining a much smaller range of equipment."
"Not to mention that we now know we’re not in immediate danger of a life-support failure." Thank heaven for Gordy. The older tech made Peter think of the best NCO’s he’d worked with while still on active duty. "That means we can take the time to investigate what’s at the root of the failures instead of needing to focus on keeping ourselves breathing right now."
Rhonda pulled her chin up and down in a curt nod. She might still be frustrated, but she wasn’t going to argue against that logic. Pilot or specialist, they all knew the stakes up here – if they had any question, they needed only look outside, to the neat row of graves just beyond the landing field. Or a couple hundred miles to the northeast, to the wreckage of the Russians’ first effort to establish a permanent base up here.
"Yeah, this way we have time to get help from the Japanese or the Russian base if we start running out of options." No, she wasn’t doing as good a job of putting a good face on matters as she thought she was.
But Peter didn’t feel inclined to make an issue of it. Better to keep focused on the positive, keep his team moving forward on the problem at hand. "Exactly. Even if we can’t solve the whole problem right now, every hour we can buy gives all of us that much more time to work on it. In the meantime, we need to get this panel closed up and move on."
Getting the panel back in place took all three of them working together. It wasn’t that heavy, not in lunar gravity, but the sheer size of it made it awkward. Not to mention all the different connectors that needed to be put back in place, a tricky task even for Rhonda’s slimmer, more dexterous fingers.
By the time she got the last one in place, she was in better spirits. Of course success, even in something small, always went a long way to improve a person’s mood. After the three of them had spent the last two hours trying to get any kind of lead on the source of the intermittent failures and outages that had plagued the moonbase for the last day and a half, it was small wonder their tempers would be fraying.
And it’s not helping your own frame of mind that Estelle took your e-mail about the guitar strings as a criticism. Just recalling the morning’s angry e-mail made Peter’s guts tighten up.
He took a deep breath, recalling the advice of a long-ago voice instructor before an important recital. As team leader, he needed to set the tone, keep everyone calm and focused.
"Let’s get going. We’ve got a lot more things to check, and it’s going to be more complicated the closer we get to the oldest parts of the moonbase."
Now there was something all three of them could agree on. The earliest parts of the moonbase had been little advanced beyond the extended-habitation Lunar Modules of the last few Apollo missions. Built on Earth, those prefabricated modules had been interconnected with collapsible tubes, then buried in lunar regolith for radiation protection. More recent expansions had utilized lunar materials in their construction, and the connections with the oldest parts didn’t work as well in practice as they did in all the simulations back dirtside.
Their next stop was an access panel near the juncture between the new lab complex and the Martian Receiving Laboratory. Peter considered the irony. "We’re going to be in a real pickle if it turns out we can get everything else working, but don’t have a functioning quarantine facility."
"Yeah, that would be embarrassing." Rhonda wrinkled her nose as if smelling something foul. "Especially since this module is getting old enough that parts could be a problem. Even if they were willing, would the Russians or the Japanese be able to help?"
"I’d put my money on the Japanese." Peter recalled his training in Japan, when it looked like he might have to fly on a Japanese Blue Gemini while NASA struggled to sort out the loss of the orbiter Constellation. "We gave them most of their spaceflight equipment, so they’re a lot more likely to have compatible parts."
"Not to mention that the Russian political situation is still shaky." Gordy was an old Cold Warrior, and just because the Soviet Union had rather spectacularly melted down a few years back, it didn’t mean he trusted the new government or the Tsar. "I’d just as soon not put ourselves in debt to them if I can help it, thank you very much. Especially considering Marshal Gruzinsky may still be out there somewhere, just waiting for a chance to lead another Communist resurgence."
"We’re supposed to call him Prince Leonid Alekseevich." Rhonda gave Gordy a very stern look.
"Like it makes any huge difference." Gordy’s voice hardened with anger. "He’s an unrepentant Commie, as far as I can tell."
"It’s supposed to emphasize his ties to the Imperial Family and undermine his authority with Communist sympathizers." Rhonda shrugged. "I really don’t see how his being some kind of nephew or cousin to the tsar makes all that much difference, but then the whole cloning business is still pretty crazy–"
She broke off, her pale freckled face turning red. "Uh, sorry, Peter, I forgot."
Peter waved it away with a self-deprecating laugh. "No offense. It’s not like I go around making a big deal about being a clone of one of the Mercury astronauts."
Rhonda managed an awkward laugh, but Peter could tell that the embarrassment of her gaffe had upset her more than she was letting on. Enough to hamper her judgment, especially if she were in a difficult situation.
One that Peter could see ahead of them as soon as they got the access panel off and took a look at the area behind it. Instead of a shallow equipment closet, it was more like a tunnel with equipment on either side. Probably an artifact of the way earlier and later construction fit together, and the engineers’ need to have connections to whatever had been on either side when it went up.
Rhonda’s slender build would’ve made her the logical person to go crawling up that tunnel to examine everything. However, right now he didn’t want to put her under the pressure of having to twist and squirm her way up that passage–but neither did he want to do it in a way that implied he didn’t consider her up to the task.
"I want to eyeball some of that equipment up there. Peter worked his way into the narrow passage, aware of what a tight fit his broad gymnast’s shoulders made.
It wasn’t entirely a lie. There were some things he would be able to recognize better by looking at it, and someone without a mech-E background wouldn’t necessarily even notice as significant and think to relay back to him.
Like the junction box up ahead. Since this was a closed-off area, it had been left open for easier access to the wires within. Whoever had put them together had done a piss-poor job of it. Some of those wires had been slopped together so badly they were downright frayed. There were even little black pellets of insulation lying on the bottom of the junction box.
Could that be the source of all their problems? It certainly fit with the history of spaceflight disasters. If there were several problems like this, scattered all over the moonbase, it would certainly explain the pattern, or more correctly, lack thereof.
Right now he wanted to look a little further down the tunnel, make sure there weren’t more problems. Especially considering the odor that was getting stronger the further he pushed down the tunnel. Not the ozone odor he would’ve expected from electrical equipment, but more of an ammonia odor. He tried to remember the schematics he’d seen, whether there might be any chemical runs back in here.
Gordy picked that moment to shout down the tunnel, "You finding anything in there?"
"Some pretty lousy wiring." Peter shook his head, trying to clear it. "Damn, it sure stinks."
The next thing he knew, he was lying on the floor outside the access tunnel, Gordy beside him while Rhonda was calling medlab for help. "Yes, he’s coming around now, but I think you really need to take a look at him."
Be grateful the flight surgeon only grounded you for three days, not three months like he could have. Try as he might, Peter just couldn’t seem to make himself feel better with the thought.
It probably didn’t help that he was stuck monitoring the comms when he should’ve been making the run over to the Japanese base at Aristarchus. Right now that meant having to sit and listen in on the radio circuit while Houston apprised Ares II of the current situation.
He cast a sidelong glance at Dr. Takamura, the planetary geologist JAXA had sent up here to debrief the crew and examine the samples they’d brought back. He was a pleasant enough man, but there was a certain reserve about him that made it difficult to get a conversation moved beyond the basic small-talk subjects.
It would’ve helped if their specialties had more overlap, since it would’ve opened a lot more possibilities for shop talk. But neither of them knew enough about the other’s work to really get the ball rolling. Which meant there was nothing to do but sit there awkwardly while he listened in on the reports from Ares II, since radio protocol didn’t allow him to talk directly to the astronauts.
"Peter?" That was Royce Vornholt, under whose command Peter usually flew.
Not exactly the person Peter most wanted to see right now. He knew it wasn’t rational, but seeing Vornholt right now made him feel like he’d let the man down. Of course they all trained to work with their backups, just in case of situations like this. But it was never quite the same as the smoothness of working with your usual team.
Not trusting himself to chat, Peter took refuge in formality. "Yes, sir."
"No need to stand on ceremony." Vornholt gave him a wry smile. "Although I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, what with them having you on the comm circuit. Anything new?"
"After Houston’s done briefing Ares II on the situation, we’re supposed to be getting a bunch of instructions the big brains at Johnson have for fixing things. And since the latest power surge fried the fax, I’m going to have to take it all verbal."
Vornholt gave him a look of sympathy. "I guess I’d better let you get back to it. We’ve got two more days until Ares II arrives in lunar orbit, and we’d better have that quarantine facility ready for them. It sure wouldn’t do to leave the last active member of the Fourteen with nowhere to go."
Peter forced a laugh. "No, it wouldn’t do at all." Still, it felt like Vornholt had set the weight of the world–of three worlds–on his shoulders. He cast an awkward look up at the image of the Ares II mission patch with the American eagle and Japanese crane flying together toward Mars and the four crewmembers’ names written in English along the top and in Japanese along the bottom.
Peter had known something had gone very wrong when he got the summons to meet with the commandant and it felt like getting called to the principal’s office. Now, the awkward interview completed, he couldn’t decide whether to feel sad or angry. Kittering should have enough sense to know better than blame the messenger for delivering an unworkable solution cooked up by chair-warmers back at JSC who might have a bunch of degrees behind their names, but didn’t necessarily have the experience to understand how the lunar environment affected machinery.
Unless he’s more worried about looking bad in front of his former boss, and wants to find a scapegoat.
Except that in the absence of strong evidence, such suspicions weren’t just uncharitable, they were disloyal and dangerously close to insubordinate, unworthy of an officer of the US Navy. Right now everyone needed to pull together, which left no room for resentment.
But it’s so damn hard to keep from thinking about it, especially when everybody’s looking at you like you’re the kid whose mischief made everybody have to stay in for recess. Peter fought down the urge to glare at the guys tearing down a damaged ventilator fan. No, a visible display of annoyance would be no more productive than it would’ve been to argue back when Kittering was dressing him down. An aviator who got a reputation as thin-skinned and defensive didn’t last long, and neither did an astronaut.
All the way to officers’ quarters, he’d been looking forward to the refuge of his room. But as he entered and closed the door behind him, the tiny chamber which served him as both office and sleeping quarters felt more like a prison cell, walls and ceiling pressing down on him.
He checked the life-support indicators. No problem there–oxygen, nitrogen and water vapor were all at normal levels for a habitation module. So it’s just psychological.
Right now it would be so much better if he could have someone to talk to. Except he didn’t trust himself to discuss matters anyone on the crew without starting in on his frustration about Kittering’s handling of the failure of Houston’s solution. Especially when I can’t shake the feeling there’s something everybody’s missing.
Looking for something to busy his mind, he woke his computer. Maybe take a look at some of those new designs he’d been studying before all the trouble started. There were people dirtside still waiting for his evaluations, assuming they hadn’t given up on him and gone on with the redesign.
Peter decided to check his e-mail first, just in case there was news from Santa Monica. No, just one from Estelle.
What now? Apprehension tightening his guts, he opened it.
Except it was just routine home-front news: Dani losing a tooth, Ray in trouble over some mischief at school, the cat leaving half-eaten mice in her slippers again, wondering if they were having an infestation. At least she’d calmed down about the guitar strings. With luck, a new set would be in his personal packet on the next flight up here. Not soon enough for the Christmas concert, but he had another month up here and he’d really like to get back into practice again.
He dashed off a couple of lines, thanking her for the note, telling her not to worry about what the news was saying about the problems up here. He had work he really needed to do, and quite honestly a direct e-mail link with family was an extraordinary luxury. Even the first few moonbase crews had made do with the occasional note slipped in on a supply run.
He was just opening the files for those tech specs when he realized what the odor in the service tunnel had been. He’d assumed those little black pellets were crumbled insulation because he’d never thought of the obvious. Especially since we do have a fair-sized mouse colony over in the bio-labs, big enough that they might’ve gotten careless about accounting for every single individual.
The bio-labs were on the other side of the moonbase, but right now Peter didn’t care about how many people gave him nasty looks as he passed. Not when he knew what was causing those intermittent problems, and what they had to do to get them stopped.
With a resounding clang the docking collars of the two spacecraft mated. Now the astronauts needed only run the final checks on both sides and they could open their respective hatches for the formal welcome-home handshake.
Peter couldn’t decide whether to be amused or annoyed at getting the tap as pilot for this mission. There was no doubt in his mind that Col. Kittering was still annoyed at him, but had to acknowledge the man who’d just saved the moonbase by recognizing the signs everybody else had missed that some of their lab mice had escaped and gone feral in the service passages. And given how great an honor it was to crew the lander that would bring down the Ares II crew, Peter could hardly complain about having to join them in quarantine.
At least all the necessary checklists gave him something to occupy his mind. And then they were finished and it was time to open the hatches. Much as Peter wanted a good look inside the spacecraft that had made the trip to Mars, he knew it was the mission commander’s prerogative to greet his opposite number.
After all the trouble they’d gone through over the past month, Peter half expected some awkward and embarrassing fumble. Instead, everything went picture perfect, from that initial handshake to the invitation into the Ares II habitation module to help the astronauts get their personal possessions and scientific samples loaded into the lander before the Mars spacecraft was sent to a parking orbit in the Earth-Moon L5 point to be available for future scientific study.
Except for his utter astonishment at the moment Admiral Chaffee actually pulled himself through the tunnel and into view, that sense of my god, he’s old. Not just the way his scars pulled the laugh lines at the corners of his eyes, but how he’d gone completely gray, even those famous shaggy eyebrows that had remained dark long after his hair had gone salt and pepper.
That moment of astonishment had lasted only a moment before the admiral had turned directly toward him, greeted him with effusive warmth. "I understand you have a problem."
"We’ve all had quite a few these last few weeks–"
"Not those. I’ve been told that you were specifically requested to provide some special music to celebrate our return amidst the holiday season."
"Well, yes." Peter did not want to sound like he was complaining, not in front of a man who’d surmounted troubles that would’ve felled most other men. "I’m pretty sure I can finger around the broken string on my guitar, or sing a capella."
"No need for that." The admiral extended a hand to one of his crewmembers, who handed him a small coil of wire. "When we heard about your problem," a wink to Vornholt, "we put our heads together and figured out a way to use our on-board machine shop to fabricate a reasonable approximation of a guitar string for you."
Peter stared at the unexpected gift, determined not to fumble it and have all of them chasing after it in freefall. "Uh, thanks."
"It’s you we should be thanking." Admiral Chaffee reached across to slip the guitar string into Peter’s sleeve pocket and zip it firmly closed. "You made sure we had a place to return to."
The quarantine facility wasn’t as unpleasant as Peter had been expecting, but he’d always seen it empty, sealed off since it was vacated by the First Mars Expedition. Now that it was occupied again, it was a busy, even lively place, full of energy, of shop talk by scientists and engineers alike. A place that could be a tolerable home for the next several months.
Of course it had helped that some thoughtful soul had moved his possessions from his regular quarters, set them up just the way he liked them. Maybe getting the tap wasn’t a punishment disguised as an honor after all.
And yes, they’d even brought his guitar. Which meant it was time to put on that string the Ares II crew had gone to so much trouble to fabricate.
A few minutes later he was tuning it against the other strings. For a makeshift produced on equipment intended to make emergency repairs on a spacecraft, it was surprisingly good. The chords shifted into a song that had been forming in the back of his mind over the past several days.
"The lunar regolith is cold and gray,
"And Earth seems so very far away…"
And then he realized that the other astronauts were humming along with him. When he finished, he was surrounded by applause.
The admiral rested a hand on his shoulder. "The first lunar Christmas carol. You will of course play it for the Christmas party tomorrow."
"Of course."