Fifty kilometers above the moon, inbound from Earth on US 1, Bill Hardy looked down and saw the lights of Fryed Station fading into the advancing terminator and knew he was right where he was supposed to be, right when he was supposed to be there. As always, this knowledge eased his mind a little, as he began the capture burn.
Down below, Monica awoke to find that Eclipse was doing a cat dance on her stomach. The dim glow of the skylight told her that the limb of the sun was over the rim of Age Crater. She rolled her head on the pillow until she could see the glowing numerals on the clock: 171.5 hours, local solar time. Official sunrise was 167.9 and Fryed Station was supposed to be open by the time the sun angle was three degrees. She had an hour and a half to get ready.
Monica sat up, causing Eclipse to push off from her stomach and go sailing toward the door of the sleeping compartment in a slow ballistic arc. Monica reached for the light control and raised the illumination to a level that would allow her to get dressed without waking the man who had slept beside her. The cold nipped at her bare legs as she swung them out of the bed and touched the mat, but Denver Jack liked it cold for sleeping. She felt beneath the tangled blanket for her nightgown and slipped it on with a shiver. Denver Jack liked to feel naked flesh while he slept.
The iron steps rang faintly as Monica descended the spiral shaft to the lower level, trying to be quiet. She did a cat dance on the steel plates in front of the control panel while the cold nipped at the soles of her feet. The heat pump had to be changed over from night to day cycle and that meant she had to turn that big red handle, just as she did each Lunar day at sunrise and sunset. That done, she quickly statused the rest of the systems, then climbed gratefully back to the habitation
Eclipse rubbed her bare ankles as she moved around the kitchenette clearing away the debris from the last supper. Monica fed the cat and started the eggs and coffee. She stepped across the compartment to her console and picked up the hand mike. "Tango-november-four-seven-seven-two," she said. "Tango-november-one-niner-seven-four-one calling on ground point eight."
Monica turned up the volume on the console speaker and waited. The reply came quickly, "Go ahead seven-four-one."
"Good morning, Linda," Monica said. "Any traffic this morning?"
Linda Cassian looked after the Sholes Station, just fifty kilometers eastward down Amundsen valley. Monica had never met her in person, but she was her nearest neighbor and confidant. "The shuttle from Columbus Space Station is about to do a capture burn," Linda said. "That's up at 50 K, pilot is Bill Hardy. He said to tell you thanks for leaving the porch light on. And, I got an Amalgamated Ore Lifter on the field on her way to Copernicus. She'll be crossing to the north of you during boost to orbit. Otherwise, not much. Give my love to Denver Jack. Seven-seven-two."
"If I see him, I'll tell him," Monica said. "You have an ETD on that Ore Lifter? Seven-four-one."
"No, they are still asleep over in the crew hab," Linda said. "Honey, there was a marathon poker game here that started at sundown and didn't break up until the last night resper. That was some game. Seven-seven-two."
"How did you make out?" Monica said.
"Well, I dropped out early," Linda said. "But I came out a few credits ahead. Did you hear about the two murdered prospectors up at Spline Curve Ridge? Seven-seven-two."
"I'll copy that one later," Monica said. "Breakfast is on the cooker; I'll call again at one-seven-five hours. Tango-November-one-seven-four-one, clear."
"I'll be monitoring ground point eight. Tango-November-four-seven-seven-two, clear."
Monica popped the circuit breaker on the field lights. They weren't needed now. She switched to her assigned air-ground frequency and announced in the blind: "Fryed Station now above minimums for daylight operations. Approach services resumed. Contact approach on AG-1, AG-2, and AG-3. If unable, contact Chappel Station on AG-1 or Sholes on AG-2 for assistance."
When Monica brought the coffee and eggs, Denver was sitting up in bed, staring at the far wall. Eclipse now occupied the spot where she had slept, licking the back of his paw. "What are you brooding about?" Monica said, as she placed the tray on Denver's lap.
"Sixteen thousand," Denver said. He looked down at the tray. "What's this?"
"Scrambled eggs," Monica said. "What sixteen thousand?"
Denver picked up the coffee and held it carelessly, letting a big glob surge over the side and ooze toward his plate. "If I could get my hands on sixteen thousand credits," he said, "I would have enough to get my own outfit together."
Monica grabbed the napkin from his tray and intercepted the coffee before it landed on the eggs. "It seems to me you ought to save that money," she said. "All of it."
He continued on his train of thought as if he had not heard her. "I have learned a lot working at Barker Rille," he said. "I know what good ore looks like. I can spot a likely outcropping with my eyeball. All I need to find minable minerals is a pick and my brain."
"What is all the money for?" Monica said.
"I need a moon buggy. I already got everything else I need."
Monica stared at him in alarm. "Denver, not all of your savings?"
"I located a vehicle up near Chappel station," he said. "It's old, but it's in good condition and the owner wants only sixteen thousand."
"Denver, answer me! Did you spend all of your savings on a bunch of second hand prospecting equipment?"
Denver put down the coffee and picked up a fork. "Not exactly. I mean, I haven't actually bought the stuff yet. But I have commitments."
"Then it's not too late to back out," she said.
Denver picked up a forkful of eggs and blinked at her. "Monica, there's huge areas up there in those ranges that nobody has walked over yet. The orbital surveys have been laying there for years, but nobody has used them. I have to move soon. There is going to be a swarm of prospectors coming up from Earth when the new fare structures go into effect next year. There are fortunes laying there for the first man to come in and pick them up." He guided the eggs into his mouth.
Monica sat down beside him on the bed and pressed her hip against his thigh. "I am serious, Denver. I think it is time for us to make some plans."
"Exactly," Denver said. "I don't intend to drive that damned crawler for Barker Rille Mine until they bury me in the slag heap. No Ma'am. There are big things ahead for us." The taste of the eggs seemed to trigger his appetite, for he began to eat more rapidly.
"Listen, Denver," she said. "Dreams are fine, but you don't have to be rich to be happy. I know you hate your job, but you can quit anytime you want. Let us go ahead and get married and you can move in here. I always thought it would be great to be half of a his and her station team. I know the habitat is small, but there is an abandoned unit at the old Clovell Station that we move here and attach to this one. Then we would have twice the room. There would be room for a nursery and a library."
Denver nodded and chewed. "Mmmmm," he said, and swallowed. "Look, baby. We will do that someday, but there is no hurry. We are both young. First, we need a real nest egg. Something substantial."
"This station will support both of us," she said. "And it's going to grow. There are going to be opening up new mines around here for years to come."
Denver's mouth curved in a sly grin. "I intend to own several of them, too."
"That's a long shot," she said. "Why not grab for a sure thing. I am talking about a long and happy life. With me. We won't be rich, but we'll always have air, food, water, and energy. The medical coverage is excellent."
"What about the child's education?" Denver said. "There are no schools on farside. We'll have to send her away to boarding school. That is going to be expensive."
"We'll manage," Monica said.
Denver put the tray on the side table and turned to her, his arms crossed over his heavy chest muscles, hardened by five years of construction work back in earth's high gravity. "I can't think of anything more fun than spending the rest of my life with you, Monica. And if it means living at this station for the rest of my life, that's okay. But what I can't accept is not trying for something better when the chance is right there. There are still riches laying on this planet waiting for someone to pick them up. I intend to go after my share. I may fail, but at least I will have tried. If I fail, we can always do as you want."
"Not if you are dead."
"There's a lot of ways to die, Monica," he said.
"I would prefer old age."
He swung his feet out of bed and grabbed his bath robe from a locker. "We can settle this later. Its already 172 and I should have been gone at first light. I'll be back around 500. Old man Barker is going to give me a thorough chewing for getting back late. If I had that sixteen thousand credits right now, I would tell him what to do with his job." He was out of the bedroom and into the water closet.
Monica buttoned her coverall and hurried out to the forward compartment which served as a combination kitchen, workspace, and control center. She switched on the UHF scanner and started cleaning up the breakfast things. As she stood over the sink, Denver came out of the bedroom. He had his spacesuit liner on and he a had handful of dirty laundry. "What do you want me to do with this?"
"Stick it up your ass," she said.
The scanner picked up a routine transmission from a shuttle passing high overhead and blasted it through the loud speaker. Denver leaned over the console and reduced the volume to a whisper. "I can see your in a bad mood. Look, I'll take it back with me and have them done at the mine laundry. I'll be back around 500 hours. Well before sunset."
"Next trip you better plan to spend the night in the crew hab," she said. "You are never going to sleep here again."
She turned around, her jaw thrust out. "You better move your stuff out of my bedroom before you go. Otherwise I'll dump the whole mess out the airlock."
Denver laughed. "You wouldn't do that," he said. "We'll talk later." He went to the airlock, verified the pressure was correct, opened the inner door, and stepped inside.
Monica followed him to the airlock and saw him suiting up with a smirk on his face. "You self-satisfied son-of-a..." She grabbed the handle of the inner door, slammed it shut and snapped the security locks. She pulled the safety pin from the handle of the outer door release and waited for the pressure to drop inside the airlock, indicating Denver was ready for egress. It suddenly occurred to her that if she were to pull the handle before Denver finished putting on his suit, he would be permanently and irrevocably dead. She took her hand away from the door release, and put the safety pin back in place. She did not like the idea of holding Denver's life in her hand while she was angry with him.
The bastard can let himself out, she thought.
Monica sat down at her console and activated the robot which was parked down on the lower level. While the robot was warming up, Monica could not help smiling as she thought of the surprise that she would have waiting for Denver Jack the next time he came high balling into Fryed Station. She watched through the closed circuit TV cameras as Denver trudged out to the ore crawler in his heavy spacesuit, then she turned to finish cleaning up. A few minutes later, she glanced at the screen in time to see the solar arrays tilt to catch the early morning sun, then the crawler moved slowly away along the dusty road that led to the Barker Rille Mine. It took the crawler six hours to get out of radio range. There was plenty of time for Denver to apologize, but he did not even bother to call in. The crawler moved up a ridge, sank down the other side, and was gone.
Damn the man! Monica swore. That does it! Not even a kind word to ease their parting! She put all of Denver's clothes and his toilet articles in a pressure-tight container and gave it to the robot. The robot, which was remotely controlled from Monica's console, carried the container to the crew hab and left it just inside the airlock so Denver would be sure to find it.
* * *
"Don't be nervous," the instructor said. "It's just a routine check ride."
"Hank said I was ready for the long solo," Richard said. "Why do I have to do this?"
"The school requires a sign off by the senior instructor before the long solo," she said. "Itís just a formality, don't worry about it. If Hank says you are ready, then you are ready." She grinned, exposing perfect white teeth. "Got to fill in all the squares, you know. Let's go. What do you do next?"
Richard keyed his microphone and said, "Copernicus control, Charlie sierra five-eight-three-eight request clearance to lift."
The tower controller's voice came back, crisp and calm. "Roger, eight-three-eight. Standby for immediate lift as filed."
"Thank you tower, eight three eight ready to lift on final clearance."
When he released the microphone button, the instructor snapped, "You are not ready to lift." She keyed her mike and called the tower. "Copernicus control, eight-three-eight, cancel request for clearance."
The tower sounded disappointed. "All right, but it may be awhile before I can fit you in, eight-three-eight."
The instructor was a small, wiry woman, not much older than Richard. The softness that had characterized her seemed to have suddenly vanished. "You missed something, Richard. Something critical. Now go back through the check list and figure out what it is."
A few seconds later, he turned to the instructor, feeling embarrassed. "I forgot to turn-on the backup tank pressurization," he said. He looked down at the controller in his left hand. "Is there any point in flying the rest of it?"
"You haven't flunked yet," she said. "Get back on the profile and let's get this done."
Richard told himself it was not the end of the world to fail a check ride, but he had a strange dull feeling for the rest of the flight. When she signed him off back at the flight school, he was incredulous. "Don't worry about it," she said, grinning. Suddenly she was a young woman again, soft and graceful. "Everybody gets a little nervous on a check ride. I know I do."
Richard looked at the signature in his log book and his heart lifted off. One more resper and he would be on his way for the big adventure: the long solo.
"Don't get overconfident," she warned. "The long solo can be tricky. You have to boost to orbit, make a change of plane maneuver of at least 40 degrees, land at another field, then return direct to your point of origin. And don't be nervous, either. Just concentrate on what you are doing, get it right, and you'll have no problems."
Richard grinned and took the hand she offered. "It's going to be a piece of cake."
She laughed. "That's a good one."
* * *
Like all days, it had it's peaks and valleys. As the only attendant at Fryed station, Monica was always on call, during daylight hours, but she tried to monitor the radio during respers as long as she was not asleep. About 240 hours, the airlock bell rang, rousing Monica from a light sleep. She went to the airlock in her pajamas and switched on the full duplex talk box.
"Identify yourself, please."
A rough male voice replied, "I need help Ma'am. I am low on air and fuel."
"Identify yourself," Monica repeated.
"The name is Johnson, Ma'am. My buddies and I have been prospecting in Norville crater. There was an accident. I need shelter and medical attention."
"How many in your party?" she said.
"Just me, Ma'am. The other two are dead."
"You'll have to go to the crew hab," she said. "I can't let you in here. It is against the rules."
"I am hurt, Ma'am. My arm is broke."
From the window over the console Monica saw a moonbuggy she did not recognize. Like most such vehicles, it was a spidery contraption with huge wire wheels, but the identification number had been obliterated.
"What were the names of your two partners?" she asked.
The man hesitated, then said, "Uh ... Lewis."
"Both of them?"
"Yeah, they were brothers."
"Go to the crew hab," she said, into the talk box. "I'll do what I can."
"There isn't time, Ma'am," he said. "It's my arm. The bone splintered and broke a blood vessel. I am bleeding real bad. I need help quick."
"Why didn't you radio ahead about your problem?" she said. "I could have had emergency medical personnel dispatched."
"No radio, Ma'am," he said. "It's broke. Please, pressurize the air lock. My suit tank is almost empty."
Monica peered through the inspection port into the airlock. She could see only the bulky white moonsuit filling the narrow space. It told her nothing to look at him. "You sure got a lot of problems, Mister," she said. "I think you got too many problems."
"I am not lying, Ma'am," Johnson said. "I just had a run of bad luck. Please, I am desperate."
"Just a minute." Monica opened the valve which allowed air to fill the lock from her supply. It took a little over a minute for the pressure in the lock to reach normal. Even so the temperature was still close to freezing in the lock. "Remove your helmet," Monica said, into the talk box.
Johnson said, "I need help with that," he said. "My arm is broke, you know."
"You can manage that much," she said.
He opened the releases on the helmet ring with his right hand, fumbled for a moment, then worried the helmet off his head. The face beneath was rough, about thirty, dark hair and beard. Monica stared at him for awhile, trying to make up her mind. The man did not seem to be in shock as one might expect a man with an aggravated broken arm. "Thanks, that's enough. You'll have to leave, Mister. Put your helmet on and egress the airlock."
"Please, Ma'am!" Johnson begged. "Don't turn me away! I'll die without help!"
"Put your helmet on," she said. "I am going to pop the outer door in five minutes, ready or not." She watched while Johnson one-handedly started struggling back into his helmet. Could she be wrong? She went to the radio and called Linda.
"You heard of an independent outfit up this way? A guy named Johnson and some brothers named Lewis?"
"Lot's of miners named Johnson," Linda fired back. "I don't recall hearing of any Lewis brothers. What's up?"
"There's a guy in my airlock who wants to get in," Monica said. "Says his name is Johnson. Claims he was hurt in an accident that killed his partners."
Linda's voice dropped as if she feared being overheard. "For God's sake, Monica! Don't let him in! Did I tell you about those two murdered prospectors?"
Monica suddenly recalled the early morning when she had first talked to Linda. "I think you mentioned it. That's all."
"Somebody killed them and left the bodies in the habitat. Their moon buggy was taken along with everything of value that was portable. Guns, tools, instruments, cash, everything."
Monica heard a rush of air. "He's depressing the lock," she said. "I think he is trying to leave."
"Don't try to stop him, Honey," Linda said.
Monica looked at the airlock controls. She could shut off the bleed valve. That way he would not be able to get the outer door open. If the man in the airlock was a killer, she would prefer that he would leave, but she was not sure what he would do once he got outside. A habitat is a fragile pressure vessel and a miner's moon buggy would have drills, explosives, and cutting equipment. "What am I going to do, Linda?" Monica asked, squeezing the microphone till her knuckles turned white.
"Just be calm," Linda said. "I'll send help. There's got to be a deputy somewhere in the valley."
It would take time for help to come to her from anywhere. Monica had to act. She entered the robot and started walking it back from the crew hab. She was half way to her habitat when Johnson pounded on the inner air lock door and announced over the intercom: "Open up, little chicken. Open this door or I am going to crack this egg and make an omelet out of you."
Monica was controlling the robot, full visual and audio, but she could hear Johnson's voice faintly through the VR helmet. She stopped the robot, pushed up the helmet and spoke into the intercom microphone on the console. "You better look outside, traveller. There's a robot heading toward your moon buggy and if he gets there before you do, I can't guarantee the safety of your property."
"Shit!" Johnson said.
Monica pulled down the helmet and she was instantly back in the robot, just in time to see the airlock door pop open and Johnson step out. Monica started the robot moving toward the moonbuggy as fast as it would go. Johnson seemed to study the slowly moving robot for a moment, then he started loping toward his buggy making thirty feet a jump.
Monica sent the robot after Johnson, but the mechanical remote could not keep up with a man, even in a massive moon suit. Johnson clambered into his buggy, closed the door, and quickly drove away. Monica followed him in the robot for awhile until it was clear that Johnson did not intend to come back. Monica stopped the robot by the trail and slipped out.
Monica picked up her console mike and pressed the button. "Seven-seven-two, seven-four-one."
"Go ahead seven-four-one."
"Linda, you won't believe what just happened!"
* * *
It was six hours till sunset, but Fryed Station was still operational. Monica yawned, more from boredom than weariness. It had been a slow Lunar day, except for the scare about that bum Johnson. Only one ore lifter had been in and had picked up the load that Denver Jack left the day before. Monica was not sleepy, having risen from resper only a couple of hours ago, but neither was she rested. She slept lightly during the long lunar day, always ready to answer a call on the radio. The clock dial spun slowly around toward 500 and she new that beyond the ridge, Denver Jack must be making his way slowly down from Barker Rille Mine in the big solar powered crawler. The thought filled her with anticipation. A long Lunar night alone in the crew hab would be good for Denver Jack's character.
The radio spoke. "Seven-four-one, seven-seven-two. Chappell Station wants me to relay a call."
"Patch him through, seven-seven-two."
Monica learned over the mike, eager to find out what Frank Cluny at Chappel Station wanted to talk about.
"Seven-four-one, three-three-seven," was said in Frank Cluny's calm, baritone which was easily recognized even on the narrow band UHF voice channels.
"Go ahead three-three-seven," Monica said.
"My goodness, Monica, always good to hear your voice," Cluny said. "My goodness."
"What is on your mind, Frank?"
"My goodness. I was expecting a student pilot in here this evening on a qualification flight," Cluny said. "He filed from Copernicus field to equatorial, then a change-of-plane maneuver with a landing at Chappel station for refueling and direct flight back to Copernicus field. I haven't heard from him and he is four hours over due. Oh, my goodness. Copernicus sent me a message to the effect that he did not return to his departure point and has not called in. His call sign is charlie-sierra-five-eight-three-eight. He should be monitoring at least one of the air-ground channels. My goodness! You want to try contacting him? Three-three-seven."
"Standby, three-three-seven." Although Fryed Station was small, it had some of the best radio equipment available, including the ability to broadcast on many channels at once. Also, the highlands location gave Monica a longer line of sight range than many of the isolated stations. Monica set her transmitter to cover all the air-to-ground frequencies at once and called. "Charlie-Sierra-five-eight-three-eight. Tango-November-one-niner-four-seven-one. Do you copy?"
Immediately a youthful male voice came back. "Station calling eight-three-eight. Who did you say you were?"
Monica identified the channel on which eight-three-eight had replied and turned off the transmission on all others. She repeated her identification, then added, "Eight-three-eight, what are your intentions? Are you still planning to land at Chappel station?"
There was a long silence. "I have not been able to contact Chappel radio," he said. "But that is my intended destination."
"Roger, eight-three-eight. What is your present location and heading?"
Another silence came, then a hesitant. "Actually, Ma'am, I don't know. I think there is something wrong with my INS."
Monica was puzzled. "Don't you know? Are you fail operational?" All spacecraft were supposed to have three functioning inertial navigation systems before lift-off. It seemed impossible for all three to fail in succession.
"Uh...you see Ma'am, I think I forgot to align the inertial sensors at lift-off. I have a good horizon and altitude, but I have no idea what my heading is."
Monica leaned back in her chair and drew a deep breath. He could be anywhere within a thousand kilometers! She leaned forward. "Haven't you declared an emergency?"
Eight-three-eight emitted a nervous laugh. "Well, actually, no. I thought I could find my way back to Copernicus on my own. I didn't want to bother anyone."
"You are hours over due, eight-three-eight," she said. "What have you been doing?"
"I have made three orbits," he said. "I was hoping I would be able to contact Chappel Station if I kept orbiting. I guess that was a stupid idea."
"All right, give me a hundred count," Monica said. "I am going to get a doppler fix on you." She had three tall antenna towers arranged in a kilometer sided triangle. A few seconds of carrier phase tracking would allow her to nail the orbit of the wayward pilot precisely. She had the answer before he finished his hundred count and she had to wait for him to release his mike key so she could call him back.
"Eight-three-eight, seven-four-one. I have a good orbit on you. You are heading two-two-five. You will need to do another change of plane to make Chappel station. Stand by, I'll compute the burn for you." She started setting up the solution on her computer.
"Minimum fuel," he said. "I can't spare the delta-vee. Give me the earliest landing opportunity."
"Standby." Monica ran the pilot's ground track forward an entire orbit and made a note of the landing fields he would pass close to. There weren't many. "Eight-three-eight, next field is Sikorski Terminus in fifteen minutes. Current sunlight none, however, the field is equipped with visual approach and landing lights."
"No way," was the too emphatic response. "No night landing."
Monica whistled. That ruled out the following two fields. She followed the orbit all the way across nearside to farside and back to Fryed station. "Your best lie is Fryed Station," she said. "That's me. We still have six hours of sunlight here, but you'll have to wait until next orbit."
Eight-three-eight cleared his throat. "That's almost two hours more." His voice wavered just a little. "It's dark again."
Monica felt sorry for the young rookie. It must be terrifying to be up there all alone. Why had he waited so long to ask for help? she wondered. She went back over the daylight ground track looking for something sooner. "You might try for the Simmonds Station at Cosmic Observatory. It involves about a hundred kilometers of crossrange to fly out, but you'll be there in only fifty-five minutes."
"Is it straight in at Fryed?" said eight-three-eight.
"Almost," she said. "You'll be in a better line next orbit than you would have this time."
He cleared his throat again. "I think I'll go for the Fryed Station landing."
"That settles it, then," Monica said, deliberately keeping her voice confident and cheerful. "You could not have made a better choice. I got the best radio navigation facilities on farside."
"Your starting to fade on me, seven-four-one," he said, his voice tightening up. "Stay with me!"
"Your moving out of my line of sight," Monica said. "Stay on this frequency, eight-three-eight. See you next orbit. Seven-four-one out."
The next transmission was barely readable. "...seven-four-one....'preciate the......"
Monica watched her single analyzer display go flat. He was over the horizon and out of contact. Linda called in on ground point eight. "Oh, God! The poor kid! He sounds scared to death! Can you talk him down Monica?"
"Me? I don't know how to fly a spacecraft," Monica said. "I can't talk him down."
"My goodness, Monica," called in Frank Cluny at Chappell. "I wouldn't be in your shoes for anything! My goodness!"
"He's really rattled," Linda said. "You could hear it in his voice. He can't think straight, he is so scared."
Monica began to feel uneasy about the return of eight-three-eight. It would be up to him to fly the visual approach and land his vehicle. If he wasn't up to it, if he needed something extra in the way of help, was she up to it? She looked around her console at the array of electronic gear she had at her disposal. She had everything in the way of ground support equipment she could ask for. She could give him maneuver pads, navigation data, landing sites, lighting and traffic conditions anywhere on the moon. But what eight-three-eight needed most of all, she realized, was nerve. How could she give him that?
* * *
Her life included a lot of waiting, Monica reflected. She waited for a call on the radio, she waited for Denver to come and then she waited for him to get out of the bathroom. She waited for the long lunar nights to end and she waited for the long days to end. She waited for ships to land and she waited for them to take off. She waited for the radio and she waited for the airlock. She waited for Denver to marry her. At least that was over. That was finished.
She was now waiting for the digital clock to count up to the time when eight-three-eight should come up over the horizon. Maybe he got help on nearside. Maybe he is already down safe somewhere and getting a well-deserved lecture from his instructor. Maybe he attempted a desperate cross range approach at Simmonds and didn't make it.
At the appointed time, Monica made her first call. "Sierra charlie-five-eight-three-eight. Tango-november-one-niner-seven-one, Fryed Station. Do you copy?" She released her mike button and waited. The channel remained silent.
"Monica, he is on his way," Linda said, on ground point eight. "I heard him talking to stations up track. It was heartwarming the way everybody has been reaching out to him, trying to reassure him. You would be proud to hear what the other girls are saying about you, Monica."
Monica tabbed the ground channel and hissed, "Shut up, Linda!"
"Seven-seven-two clear," Linda said, and went off the air.
Monica called again. "Good to hear from you, seven-four-one," was the instant reponse. His voice sounded calmer and more confident than before.
"It's time to get lined up for the landing," she said. "I can feed you the guidance corrections, if you like. Just give me your mass data and engine numbers."
"Sure, that would be fine." After he had voiced down the information she needed, there was a brief waiting time before the powered descent should begin. "I heard somebody call you Monica," he said. "I wish I had met you in person. You have a nice voice."
"We'll be shaking hands in twenty minutes," she said. "I should warn you. I am fat and I have buck teeth." She grinned at her own joke as she keyed the guidance information into her data processing system.
"Are you married, Monica?"
"Why not, Monica? It must be lonesome a lot of the time."
Monica wanted to tell eight-three-eight to mind his own business, but she remembered the poor kid was probably scared, no matter how calm his voice sounded. "I would like to be married," she said. "I can't seem to arrange things the way I want them, though. How about you, eight-three-eight?"
"My name was Richard," he said. "I wasn't married either. I planned to wait until I had a good job lined up. Now I can forget about that."
Everything appeared to be ready, Monica decided, looking over her displays. The computer was configured to track the incoming ship and compute throttle and thrust vector commands all the way to touchdown. There were still a few seconds before ignition time. "Don't feel bad about getting lost, Richard," she said. "You won't be the first pilot to have that happen."
"You are not allowed to make mistakes in this business," he said. "Even if you live through them, you can't live them down."
"Think positive, Richard," she said. "Thirty seconds to powered descent initiate. I'll give you a count down."
"Okay. I am ready."
Monica counted down the seconds and Richard confirmed that the descent engine was running. On her tracking display, the speed of the ship was dropping down the projected velocity profile curve, indicating everything was going according to plan. "Looking good," she said aloud. "Now pitch up five degrees to sixteen. Hold it there. Good." A few seconds into the descent, Monica was feeling good and the tension she had been feeling was gone. She was at one with the system, a mind in the loop, monitoring multiple streams of data and finding it good.
About half way through, something started to sound an alarm. "What type of vehicle did you say you were flying?" she asked.
"It's a Mitsui 410," Richard said. He apparently read something in her voice. "Is something wrong?"
"I was just wondering about the mass computations, that's all," she said.
"Oh, that," he said, and laughed.
Monica continued to give the guidance corrections automatically, but she found it harder and harder to avoid thinking about the mass read out. The bare numbers did not add up right. A standard Mitsui 410 trainer with one pilot should mass 2000 kilograms dry and eight thousand wet. The current mass estimate was 2700 kilograms. The engine was consuming about ten kilograms of propellant per second, which meant that it would all be gone in seventy seconds. The guidance time-to-go was one hundred-forty seconds.
There was not enough fuel to land! Monica stopped calling out the guidance corrections when the fact sunk in.
"Are you there, Monica?" Richard said. "Stay with me."
His voice jarred her out of stasis. "Break off the approach, eight-three-eight," she said. "Abort to orbit!"
Richard laughed. "So, you finally got wise. Sorry Monica. It's too late for that."
"You knew?" she said in an angry voice. "Why did you start the approach? Why didn't you call for an on orbit rescue?"
"I have been dead for six hours, Monica," he said. "This was my last orbit anyway. The air is nearly gone."
"But why didn't you--" she twisted off the question she had started to ask. It was useless to second guess the pilot now. She turned her attention to the displays again, desperately searching for some idea, some way out of the trap. Richard was still on the nominal powered descent profile. If he went to full throttle, he could shorten the profile and save a little fuel. That would bring him down short of the station but she could send the robot out for him. How much fuel would it save? It took too long to calculate. Maybe she was wrong, maybe there was enough fuel. The descent profile called for a gradual reduction in throttle setting as he came down to the pitch up point, the average fuel consumption would probably be less than the ten kilograms per second. Maybe there were more than seventy ... now its down to 55 seconds! The remaining seconds of fuel were slipping away! No, there was no way to get that bird on the ground under its own power.
"Fly forward," she said into her mike. "Pitch over and fly forward. Buy some time."
"No use, Monica," Richard said. "I going to do this right. Give me the guidance corrections. Bring me right to the middle of the field."
Monica bit her lip, but she felt no pain.
"Monica? Do you copy?" The voice showed rising anxiety.
"Okay, Richard," she said. "Come right five. Down two. Throttle back to eight-eight." She silently noted the ballistic impact point was now on the field. She rose out of her chair and peered out the view port to the spot where the ship would hit.
"She is starting to misfire," Richard said abruptly. "I am shutting the engine down."
"Rock the vehicle!" Monica pleaded. "Get some fuel in the sumps! Emergency boost pumps on! Use reserve tank pressurization!"
The voice on the link was flat and professional as the pilot worked his way through the engine shut down checklist. "Fuel and oxidizer pumps off, igniter is off, preheater off, engine purge pressurization on. Safety on. Override disabled. Engine gimbaled to zero. Gimbals locked. Gimbals actuator power off. Okay, that does it. Engine shutdown and safed."
Monica looked to the north east where a small but bright pinpoint of light was rising like a star. She could not breathe and her heartbeat was like a hammer in her chest. She wanted to say something, but the mike hung in her limp fingers.
"No use abusing the equipment," Richard said. "It's bad for the rotor blades and seals to run the pumps dry. Are you there Monica?"
"I am here, Richard," she said.
"How much time left?" he asked.
She glanced at the display, but before she could answer, he said, "Never mind, I can see the field. It looks like a nice place, Monica. I see two habs, a container park and a nice roomy landing field. It looks like I am headed for the south east corner. At least I'll be out of the way. Which hab are you in?"
"I am on the left," she said. "The other is the crew hab."
The star rose in the view port, reached a maximum elevation of ten degrees, then started to sink as it arrowed in toward the field. "Talk to me Monica! Monica! Talk to me!"
Monica turned her eyes away from the view port and closed them hard. The mike switch was in her hand. What could she say to a man with just seconds to live? She could think of nothing so she started to babble, saying the first thing that came into her head. "I am here, Richard. You did a good job and we are all proud of the way you have conducted yourself. That goes for me and all the operators up the line. You did your best and you have nothing .... " Her jaw would not move. The Mitsui 410 was big and plain in her window. She could see the struts and the external auxilliary nitrogen tanks around the waist. There were only seconds left now.
"Is it all for nothing, Monica?" There was a plea in the question, a prayer for reassurance.
"It all counts, Richard. It all counts."
She put down the microphone and closed her eyes for just a moment when she felt the vibration in her feet. Her eyes went to the console, carefully avoiding the sight on the field. She looked for some scrap of signal from the space craft. The air was silent, but only for a few seconds, for suddenly a dozen stations were calling in, including Linda Cassian and Frank Cluny. Monica ignored them all and entered the robot.
* * *
By the time Denver Jack had finished unloading the crawler and was unsuiting in the airlock of the habitat, Fryed Station was buttoned down for the night. When Denver stepped out of the airlock in a cloud of vapor, he looked at Monica in her satiny evening dress and then at the dinner she had set on a folding table in the middle of the compartment. He noted the wine, the rarely used silver ware and china imported all the way from earth.
Denver regarded her with a questioning look as if seeking a clue for how to behave, but she held eclipse in her arms and regarded him in silence. "I'll go get out of this suit and wash up," Denver offered.
"First, I want you and I to drink a toast," she said. "To our partnership." She let the cat down onto the floor.
A wary look came over the face of Denver Jack. "What partnership is that?"
Monica smiled. "I have decided to stake you to the sixteen thousand you need for the moon buggy," she said. "That makes us partners."
"All right!" Denver Jack said, and he wore a big grin. "I knew you would see my side of it eventually. You won't be sorry, sweetie!"
Monica helped Denver off with his suit gloves, then she handed him a bottle opener. "For the wine," she said.
While he opened the wine, Denver's face turned serious and he said, "I notice you have a new crater out in the southeast corner of the field. Was it anybody we know?"
"Just some rookie," Monica said. "He got lost and ran out of options."
"It must have been rough for you," he said, looking intently at her face. "You want me to go out there and do something?"
Monica shook her head. "I took care of that, with the robot." She did not mention that after burying the dead pilot she had walked the robot over to the crew hab and retrieved Denver Jack's clothes which were now back in the drawers where he had left them.
Denver poured two glasses of wine and handed one to Monica. "Here's to our partnership," he said, lifting the glass. "May it live long and prosper."
"There is a condition you must know about first," Monica said.
Denver's eyes narrowed. "A condition? What is that?"
"There is something you will have to do for me first," she said. "It shouldn't be difficult but you have only three hundred thirty six hours to get it done." She pointed to the bedroom.
For a long moment, a befuddled expression lay on his face, then his eyes slowly widened. "You mean..."
Monica nodded. "It's my best and final offer, Denver Jack."
Denver Jack's face was solemn. "That's the only condition? No time limit on the venture? You won't get after me later to give it up and become a station manager?"
"No time limit," she said. "Partners, till death do us part." She raised her glass. Denver touched his glass to hers, and they drank.
Denver Jack put down his glass and headed for the shower. Just as he closed the compartment door, Linda Cassian came up on ground point eight. "Monica! Have you heard?"
"Go ahead, seven-seven-two," Monica said into hand mike. It was a subtle rebuke for Linda for not using proper radio procedure.
"They got him! They got the bastard that murdered those two prospectors!"
"That's good news, Linda," Monica said. "Is that it?"
"They never would have done it without the information you gave them," Linda said. "You are quite a heroine, you know."
"Yeah, thanks, seven-seven-two," Monica said.
"Give Denver Jack my love," Linda bubbled.
"If I see him, I'll tell him. Seven-four-one, out."
Monica switched to the station air-to-ground frequency and announced, "Fryed station now below minimums for daylight operations. Approach services suspended, land at own risk. Fryed station, out." She pushed back the microphone and shoved in the circuit breaker on the field lights.
Fifty kilometers above the moon, outbound for Earth on US 1, Bill Hardy saw the lights of Fryed Station spring into existence just beyond the terminator. That meant he was right where he was supposed to be, right when he was supposed to be there. As always, this knowledge eased his mind a little as he began the departure burn.
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