The Discovery

16 07 2010

Olaf Speckman is a First Watchman at Piazzi Decom. It is quite a privilege, although it seldom seems so after a long weekend. If he were a Second or Third Watchman, he would have more time to sleep off the weekend before he starts his shift. This Janusday is no different than any of the rest, however. It is time to start the work week. He carefully pulls back the Velcro edge of the comforter and extracts himself from the bed. No matter how slow or deliberate he is, the ripping sound inevitably induces an unhappy moan from his wife Kendra. But thanks to the low gravity, the rest of his movements can be done in relative silence. The ease with which Olaf moves is a testament to the ability of Mankind to adapt. It certainly took him several months of practice to acclimate himself to the 3 percent Standard Gravity available on Ceres, but now he moves effortlessly.

His preparations for work are finished when he pulls the heavy down parka around his shoulders and exits the apartment. His complex consists of several squat buildings which he hardly gives a second thought to. He propels himself forward, breath condensing in the still air. The climate is carefully controlled in the underground city of Piazzi and hovers just below freezing. The reason has to do with the composition of the dwarf planet of Ceres. Piazzi had been dug into the thick mantle of ice that covers the clay core of Ceres. The ice is very thick. In fact, there is more frozen water on Ceres than there is fresh water on Earth despite the fact that Ceres is one sixth the diameter of Earth.

As Olaf presses forward to the ped complex, he absentmindedly looks up at the ice dome ceiling that acts as the sky. The sky has the same white glow it always does. His destination, the lift tube, is visible in the distance, a gray metal shaft rising to the heavens. At the ped complex, he attaches his tether and rides one of the moving walkways towards the tower. Walking, or the leaping that approximates walking on Ceres, is discouraged in the almost shoulder to shoulder crowds at the ped complex. Mid-air collisions can turn pedestrians into billiard balls of broken limbs during a commute. Olaf is used to the convenience of letting the sidewalk do the work for him. It gives him the chance to catch up on the news.

Commuters are boarded on the lift in the order they arrive. The kilometer long ride to the surface doesn’t take long. The acceleration is not quite enough to give the feeling of a full Standard G, but is enough to remind Olaf of the Earth he left behind years ago. The light from Piazzi disappears for a moment as the lift passes through the tunnel and is replaced by the unadulterated light of the sun at the surface. Although the sun looks about a third the size as seen from Earth, it is still nearly as bright. Watch turnover always takes place with the sun at its apex in the sky. That way the station hub is only peopled when it is the warmest, thus conserving heating resources. Even at the warmest time of watch, the average temperature is still negative 40 degrees Celsius on the surface. Each Standard Ceres Day, or SCeD, is made up of three watches consisting of one planetary revolution each. At 9 hours per revolution, First, Second and Third Watch are almost equivalent to Day, Swing and Graveyard Shift on Earth.

When the lift doors open at the top, he and a third of the peds catch the covered walkway marked Decom and begin the final stage of their commute. Olaf tries not to think about the thin membrane separating him and his fellow workers from the even thinner atmosphere. He is eager to get to work today and as he glides along on the moving walkway he can see the object of his anticipation coming into view. It is the Pytheas. Boasting the latest in propulsion technology, it had been the first Earth ship to breach the Oort Cloud, the halo of comets that crown the Solar System. Unfortunately it had never gone back. The view of it quickens his pulse. After so many freighters and system cruisers, he considers a starship a welcome change of pace.

Olaf arrives at the embarkment area and enters the torch shop hang-out. Many of the men had already arrived and were in various stages of dress in front of their lockers. His arrival does not spark much interest until Frank sees him.

“Olaf,” Frank approaches him with his hand firmly on a young man’s shoulder. “We got a new apprentice I wanted you to meet.”

“Nice to meet you, sir,” the man says, gripping his hand firmly.

Olaf regards him coolly, his expressionless eyes boring into him until he looks away. “Ceresian or outsider?” he asks.

The younger man stammers under the scrutiny. “Uh, I was born on Vesta, sir. My family moved to Ceres when I was five.”

Olaf turns and opens his locker, seemingly uninterested in the reply. After an awkward moment of silence, Frank says, “This here is Jonson’s boy, Timothy.”

“Jonson, eh?” He smiles, but the smile does not reach his eyes. “I was on his crew before he retired. I expect he taught you all about the ins and outs of torching. Did he? I thought so. You know you are pretty lucky to get on this crew. Have you heard of the Pytheas, son?”

“Uh, yeah, it’s the ship we’re cutting up,” Timothy says.

“It’s more than a ship, son. It is the ship, or it was anyway.” Olaf waves his hand dismissively. “You ever hear of the Aurora mission? She’s it. Only ship to break the light speed barrier, transit the Oort cloud and travel in interstellar space.”

“Why are we cutting it up then, shouldn’t it be turned into a museum or something?”

Olaf’s smile finally spreads to his eyes. “Why has she been parked in orbit around Triton for decades before coming here? Same answer, radiation.” Olaf’s smile grows bigger in parallel with the young man’s eyes. “Wasn’t it obvious with all the radiation training you doubtless received before you were issued your suit?” Olaf lowers his voice. “She encountered something out there, something nasty. Why do you think we’ve never been back?”

The conversation stalls and Olaf starts pulling on his anti-contamination suit. He watches the new apprentice out of the corner of his eye as Frank fulfills his role of mentor and continues talking with him. The conversation is distracting enough to Timothy that he struggles with his ANTI-Cs. The conversation begins to become engaging, but Olaf keeps himself aloof.

After everyone is dressed they stream into the briefing room for the daily safety briefing, helmets under their arms. They come in groups of twos and threes except for Olaf. He comes alone. Olaf finds a place next to Frank as the supervisor starts the briefing.

“Alright, let’s get started. The third watchmen pretty much got the Probe Bay job finished, there are just a few components left that need to be cut down. Olaf, I’m going to assign you and Timothy to finish that job.”

Olaf raises his eyebrows and nudges Frank in the side, “Ouch, man. Can’t say I didn’t see that coming.” He says it loud enough to get a sour look from the supervisor. Frank does his best to ignore him.

“I just want you to fill in for Frank this evening while he’s at his physical. What’s left is relatively easy so you should have no problem showing him what you do. Frank will be back after lunch and I expect to be able to close that job before then.” The supervisor says this while staring at Olaf until the latter looks away. “That area’s been cleared from radiation controls so it should be a good place for Timothy to start. For the rest of you, we are going to be starting on the Forward Wardrooms.” Olaf’s interest in the rest of the briefing wanes as the supervisor continues. He shows relief when the meeting adjourns and hurries out to his assigned job. Timothy has a difficult time keeping up with him, but Olaf fails to notice.

Timothy finds Olaf in the assigned space and joins him staring into the room. Olaf puts his hand on Timothy’s shoulder and abruptly pulls him toward him until their helmets are touching. “Those third watchmen are second rate, look at this mess!” Olaf chuckles when he sees Timothy’s reaction. “You haven’t spent much time outside of Piazzi, have you. The old man can monitor our radios. This way we can talk without someone looking over our shoulder.” Timothy starts pulling away, but Olaf’s grip keeps him close. “I don’t know what your pappy told you about how we do things here, but pay attention and maybe you will learn something useful today.”

Olaf releases the apprentice and starts his torch. After several rude gestures with it, he starts carving up the closest piece of equipment. “See that? Now you try.” Olaf shows Timothy how to start the torch and gets him started on one of the launching mechanisms.

He works methodically for most of an hour attempting to include Timothy in the work. It is a frustrating process for them both and Olaf finally loses his temper when the apprentice questions his techniques. “But in class they told us to do it this way,” Timothy says.

Olaf pulls Timothy’s helmet close again. He speaks through clenched teeth, giving his voice a menacing quality. “Those posers don’t know how to do this. Why do you think they are teaching instead of out here doing the real work? This is where you get the real experience.”

Olaf pushes himself away. “Let’s try this again from the top.” He has Timothy make a few more cuts until he trusts him enough to let him work on his own. He leaves him cutting apart the last remaining launching mechanism and turns his attention to the Probe Conveyors.

He starts with the foundation and cuts a clean line through the closest conveyor foot. The conveyor shifts suddenly and an object rolls out onto the ground. Without changing position, Olaf reaches for the object and examines it. It is cylindrical, about three centimeters in diameter and ten centimeters long. One end of the cylinder is cut in at seventy-five degrees while the other is at a right angle. It is heavy for its size considering the low gravity and this is somewhat fascinating to Olaf as he hefts it in one hand and then the other. After several moments, he slides it into his pocket and looks over his shoulder toward Timothy.

Timothy has his back to Olaf and is making a jagged cut through one of the last launching mechanism supports. Olaf decides to continue ignoring him and gets back to his task at hand. He is relieved when the lunch buzzer sounds.

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