Ch 2. Waiting for the Rockship

  1. Waiting for the Rockship: Nov 11, 2117, 2 PM.

 

I had woken up, just one week to the day from today, and I had gone to breakfast and work as usual. Not a care in this world.

 

After my shift, I went over to the shuttle room to wait for the new people to come in – a favorite pastime and a defensible function of my part time job as legal officer.

 

Of course, we don’t have docks here, and we are just not big enough for a spaceport or a terminal. We do have a reception room that is on the ground level next to the shuttle landing pad and it does have a wall-size displayscreen fed by images from one of the low powered orbital scopes that follow the inbound and outbound ships and give an astounding view. But you can see that from anywhere, even over the nets on Earth, if you want.

 

Living in a big tin can as we do, seeing the same people in the same rooms (no matter how expansive and luxurious) for years on end, primes a person for new experiences. And so, the arrival of a ship with new people is important. To me, anyway.

 

Looking around, I could see that most people had resisted the impulse because there were only a few of us waiting, and from the expectant looks on their faces, the others were there with a specific purpose, either to meet one of the two passengers coming off, or to receive the freight that was shortly to be downloaded.

 

There are usually a few who sidle into reception to eyeball the scene when the Rockships come or go, but not today. Maybe because it is mostly cargo now that we are in a consolidation phase with colonists.

 

Nonetheless, there are usually a few people; replacements, and even temporary research assignments (a physically challenging placement with partial gravity, and no Crispr enhancement for temps), who come and leave along with the freight. Also, occasionally, a few celebrity tourists. They are objects of curiosity in a small community like ours.

 

The Rockships they travel in are like no spaceships that have preceded them. No chemical burners, they use the elements of nature to make their way, and the power of the sun to propel those elements at a speed that has enabled safe and reliable transportation between planets. You can even buy a flight insurance policy on the trip if you want to – mostly a publicity stunt, of course, but supported by some insurance companies somewhere as practical merchandise that won’t bankrupt them. No one has ever before been able to buy one of those for the explosive firecrackers chemical rockets are.

 

I’m not going to go on to describe it and its functions in detail, because if you are at all interested, you have already looked it up, and if you haven’t, well, you aren’t.

 

For those who aren’t, the critical point is that because of the power of the plasma[i] engines they use, the Rockships can afford the mass to protect their occupants from solar wind and cosmic rays with effectively thick shielding of the special concrete that gives them their name, and can still accelerate close to the one gee that approximates normal gravity, even though they rarely do. People can get to the moon in ten hours (even faster actually, but they don’t need to rush) and can get to Mars in 10 days in reasonable comfort, making scheduled interplanetary travel practical for the first time. Of course, on the way back, they go slower for the comfort of passengers who might be returning from low gee[ii]. It’s tough to cope with full gravity after being in partial gravity for a while. And way easier to adapt to the gravity in measured steps.

 

The Rockship needs to accelerate to the midpoint of its journey and then flip to decelerate for the last half of the trip. The ship’s length (a kilometer) protects its passengers from the intense local radiation the reactor generates, but it must turn slowly to present the other end to slow down and yet avoid tearing itself apart despite the strength of its pure lunar-refined iron frame (ahem! – one of our best products). The passengers are supposed to secure themselves during the flip, but five hours, while unpleasant, does not present the immobilizing health risk that prolonged weightlessness has now been proven to be. The Rockship is not why we are here in space, but it is the reason that we were able to get so many people here healthy and in one piece.

 

So, I was watching for the ship to come in. This time I arrived early and watched the landing from the shuttle that comes in using magnetism to slow them down – no rockets needed.

 

I saw two people get off the shuttle and come in through the access tube under the radiation hood that shields the access hatch. They cycled through the air lock (even though the access tube was pressurized – it’s hard vacuum out there), and after they stripped their transit suits you could see they were a man and a fem[iii]. The guy was dressed in company uniform, gray with the twin ellipse, and the fem was in science garb, blue with the ellipse. No celeb richies this trip (they often come to see the sights – and there are sights, at eye-popping cost).

 

She was tall, with pale porcelain tinted skin, tightly stretched over prominent cheekbones, stocky, like we all are (Crispr[iv] tweaking for micrograv tolerance, disease resistance, etc. etc. etc.) but as close to slim as a powerful, muscular, body can be. She moved a bit awkwardly as if she was not quite used to her new physique yet, not quite sure how much room it needed to move or how to get it there.  Her skull was reddened with recent shaving (for hygiene), and she unconsciously ran her hand over it as soon as she got out of her suit.

 

She was frowning as she talked to the man, a Filipino, around thirty, extraordinarily handsome, his strong wide face formed in solid regular features matched by a short, square, stocky body with chestnut skin and prominent black eyebrows on heavy bone. It was an athlete’s body, graced with extraordinary physical gifts – balanced, competent and capable. His shaved skull was smooth and regular. He was some specimen of manhood.

 

The reaction of the young man was striking. In mid phrase from the fem, he just turned away, shutting her off, not responding at all to her conversation, and walking away after twisting off the helmet of his transfer suit in one fluid motion – a difficult feat even for a spacer.

 

She followed him and walked over to the suit rack where he had headed, and she had removed and stored her helmet, stripped her suit, and was in her grey under suit, walking away from the rack. She took a step, and slipped backwards, caroming off the suit rack, but cushioned by the suits. Even though he was standing right beside her, and now finished unsuiting, the man did not even look to help when she announced her fall with a gasp. She fell, unceremoniously, in the light gravity, with plenty of time to cushion her fall with her hands. She got up with a surprised look on her face as the man walked away from her, and then her expression turned to an ironic smile.

 

Falling is common on the Moon. The first steps of the Earthborn on the moon are commonly slips to falls. It’s mass versus weight and it takes getting used to. At one-sixth gravity you just don’t have the same frictional forces underfoot. So, many newcomers fall, but just off the ship they have bones at still full strength and no harm is done except to pride.

 

Later, when osteoporosis is a factor, it’s more serious. We supply soft, rubbery, shoes to all residents and the floor is also a non-slip rubberized material – but the leading cause of injury here is still broken bones from falls. Electrical regeneration stimulation is standard therapy, but it hurts to take it.

 

The young man, however, seemed immediately to adapt to the change in gravity and didn’t miss a step. He looked entirely at home and comfortable at once. Alicia, the administrator’s prickly assistant, had come in while I was diverted by the action and, unaffected by the commotion, promptly had spirited him away. No check-in and registration for him.

 

After the brief fuss was over, and the fem had righted herself, I walked over to her. She may have seen me watching her from across the room – as I said, not many people were there except for one staff person to secure the entry.

 

As I approached her, she started talking, vocalizing thoughts I could hardly believe I was hearing, a tap from her consciousness – fragmented and almost mechanical, the consonants punching, the words cascading out, the hands clenched ‘til the finger tips seemed bloodless. She was upset, and there was a prominent red welt on her neck.

 

“The ship was automated, so the ‘Captain’ disappeared and was probably just watching vids in the control room while the autopilot flew the ship on.

 

Only two of us and, nominally we were each assigned a suite, but it’s hard to stay out the common room with the view on the big screen showing the views, so both of us were in there.

 

I was excited with the prospect of going to the moon. A protected space where I didn’t need to be watchful all the time. He was charming, talkative, and I thought he was harmless. He was going to the moon too.

 

Everyone is vetted for it. He’s a hunk, and he is thirty years younger than me. It didn’t occur to me that I could get into trouble. I still like men despite it all. It was nice to have a young man come on to me.

 

But I never did anything. I didn’t suggest anything to encourage him. Never any relationship with unknown men – that’s the rule. But maybe he thought I did, I don’t know. I know I’m still attractive. But mostly I hate it and I wish they would just leave me alone.

 

He moves close to me, way too close for me to mistake it. On an almost empty ship. He tries to make conversation. He is charming and funny, and his eyes focus only on me.  Like I am the center of the universe. Powerful stuff! Then he starts the hand gestures. They lead to taps and casual touches. All the while telling me is he coming to the moon on an important job.

 

You know, when something like that happens, you always think you’re overreacting. You want to think it’s nothing, but you know it is. Men who don’t want something don’t do that.

 

He waited for the flip maneuver in mid-journey when they reverse the engine. When we were in free fall, he made his move. He just leaned over and pulled me to him by my neck. He squeezed just a little. I was panicked. I bit his lip and pushed back. He put his other hand down to my crotch. He started rubbing hard, so it hurt, no expression on his face. He just looked at me, hard-eyed, I was an insect, and he was waiting to see what I would do.

 

I was trying to convince him that I didn’t want to do it because I was feeling ill from the freefall. I was hoping he would be repulsed if I looked like I might upchuck. But he didn’t buy it.

 

And all the while he is holding my neck. Not so hard as to choke, but hard enough to suggest what would happen if I resisted.

 

He seemed to be enjoying my discomfort. I think he would have gone on in different circumstances without hesitation.  But then, with me repeatedly telling him that there was surveillance video being taken, and pushing hard, he gave up.

 

He pretended that I had encouraged him and let me push him away. After all, I was an old hag and who would believe me that I had rebuffed handsome young him?”

 

And then with a ferocious twist to her voice, in an even harsher tone: “Him.”

 

I did not know immediately what to say. Was she even talking to me?

 

She solved that problem for me. Her voice softened and her hands relaxed and she settled her wide blue eyes (yes, blue) on me, and started talking again, now consciously, directed at me – not dumping data. “I am Marion Kobayashi and I am the new IT manager”. She smiled at me entirely without embarrassment, except for the hand that again touched her skull, rubbing it nervously until there was a red mark where she kept rubbing, and asked – “and who, pray, are you?”

 

Finding my tongue at last, I said “Sorry about the reception. We are usually a bit more welcoming.”

 

Lamely and apologetically: “I’m Boris Levski, Legal Officer and sometime x-ray diffraction tech. I’m sorry you had such a tough time. I think you should report your complaint. They’ll probably send him back on the same ship.

 

We can start an investigation now if you want, and we have some rape kits in the Constables station.” This last, pointlessly, just to say something partly relevant, because she had just told me there was no penetration.

 

And then I plunged further on, gamely trying to give some consolation.

 

“But I have to tell you that this is our first criminal investigation – aside from the odd drunken fight and some pointless vandalism.” Why tell her that? Calming, perhaps?

 

Then she replied: “Well, imagine! I guess I must have shocked you. Your face is all pink. It looks like I staged my mental blowout in front of the right person. It was like someone else was saying it. Strange… The sheriff”. Then she gave me an amused, critical look.

 

“No point in that. I just told you I didn’t let him do anything. My reaction is my problem. It’s ancient history for me.”

 

I didn’t at all mind that she considered my appearance amusing. Considering the word waterfall she had just dumped off her own personal sluiceway, she needed a little bit of comic relief.

 

Certainly, I embodied the joke, such as it was. I am tall, reedy, and sheep-faced, with big ears, nose, and lips, looking much more than a schoolteacher than a sheriff. There was a gaping disparity between me and an avenging angel. I was not unhappy to grant her a laugh at my expense. It seemed to help her, and it didn’t bother me.

 

That seemed to bring a change of tone. “Sheriff, I was supposed to meet someone from the administrator’s office here, and you now seem to be the only remotely official person left. Is it you?”

 

Ill at ease with her revelations and feeling somehow responsible for the events she had just described, I stiffened up in the way I can’t help in disturbing situations, talking formal.

 

I could only manage what must have sounded like unsympathetic condescension – something very like:

 

“The Director’s assistant has come and gone, and I am just here as an idler “ (idler?), “but I will be glad to take you over to his office find out what suite assignment has been made for you and help get you settled. And I’m not the sheriff. We don’t have one, but I am the closest we have to that.”

 

Then partially recovering and still trying to say something useful “Are you tired? Do you want some tea or coffee? The trip is not punishingly long, but it is stressful, and more so for you, obviously.”

 

She sounded relieved and simply responded “no refreshments, but thanks for the offer of guidance. I just want to get to my suite and lie down. And I can’t really make a complaint against the guy because even though he scared me, he did stop when I asked. You know, I was once as normal a girl as is. I had a positive relationship with my father. We loved each other and even lunched together as adults; I had male friends. I didn’t fear men, until it happened to me. Damaged people, like me, are fearful and sometimes it’s because of their history, and not just the situation. So, leave it. Unfortunately, I know how to cope.”

 

Me: “Okay, you decide. But just keep it in mind. I could say something to him. No criticism, but my experience is that a lot of fems take the blame for a lot they didn’t do. What you look like is not your fault. And you are not responsible for the actions of others.

 

To tell the truth, I’m not totally convinced that we are even ultimately responsible for our own actions, – but that’s not for today. If I don’t say something to him he may assume that he can get away with it and other fems may pay for what we don’t do.

 

There may be background and corroboration for this. Maybe he commed something or spoke to a handler or has a history. There may be a lot behind this. So, think about it, I may be able to do a lot to add context and build a case even though you think it is a simple thing. People will listen to you – this is a community here and you’re now a part of it.”

 

Reply, almost spat out at me. “No, I don’t want to start out that way. I said that I have been coping with stuff like this all my life and I can handle it. Besides he told me he was a temp anyway. It will all blow over and he will go back to Earth and it will be done.”

 

What could I say? “Okay, okay. We can leave your baggage here for the time being. The auto cargo handlers will take the rest from ship’s storage and put it in the holding area over there – both radiation protected and general category stuff.”

 

Trying to comfort her in my clumsy way, I put my hand on her shoulder to guide her gently to the air lock exit, but she twisted her body away from my touch and instinctively contorted her face like my hand was burning her.

 

I was caught, what could I do but withdraw my hand and awkwardly point at the door?

 

Then her demeanor abruptly changed and she showed the perspective and sympathy that she was to display over and over. She actually apologized to me, and her eyes started to tear over, “I know you’re just trying to be kind, but I just can’t bear it. That’s one of the worst things about it, I cut myself off. I just can’t help it.”

 

I just didn’t know what to say, so I just kept silent. Not the time for this anyway, right here in the open.

 

I led her away from the racks and through the airlock, showing her the routine for sealing as I did, comforted by its inane familiarity. ‘You get used to it. And now I don’t think I would feel comfortable leaving a room without it. Its prescribed procedure. Vacuum kills fast.”

 

Being a bit embarrassed with the administration’s failure to meet her and flustered by her revelations and strong rejection of my offers to help, I continued a little more heartily than I usually do – “I don’t know why they just didn’t pick you up with the other guy and take you to the office, but, if you will allow me, I would be glad to fill in and get you settled.”

 

She responded, again with an amused smile, back to normal. “They must consider me quite a catch. Thanks.”

 

The reception room lock let out into the elevator lobby which descended to the Commons floor. On the other side of the door were two elevators. A large hydraulic freight elevator and, on the right, a much smaller passenger elevator that was cable driven. We used it when we could because it was much faster. If had just taken the earlier passengers down so it took a few minutes to come up when I signaled it. I just waited awkwardly with Marion and when it came we entered for the short ride down, the elevator door closing noisily after us.

 

When we got to the bottom, the door again opened screeching in its tracks, and again closed loudly again after us. I think some anonymous environmental designer engineered it to make that loud noise because it reflected off every firm surface of the Commons, giving you the impression that you were entering an exceptionally large space. Since we had very few of such spaces on the moon, I guess it was meant to remind us that, even though we were inside a box, it was an enormous box.

 

So, we both walked, she treading carefully, into the side of the Commons near the far end from the offices, and I, leading her across the room to the pegpole[v] scaling up to the opposite side mezzanine containing its offices, all the while explaining the purpose of the room and letting her admire the one of the few big rooms we have (except for the sealed lava tube used for soaring, at the Rubin town site being built). The Commons are high – three stories, and long – 200 meters with a vaulted roof simulating a skylight and a huge cathedral window, filigreed cutouts feigning panes, with another view on the displayscreen behind the lattice. It was showing a forest on earth and the trees were waving in the wind with the radiant heat of the displayscreen simulating the sun through the trees.

 

In low gravity, we don’t need stairs. Saves a lot of space. I just started up, expecting her to follow. She did. No hesitation.

[i] Plasma is activated, charged atoms that can be magnetically accelerated to great speeds and therefore, to great power in a reaction engine.

[ii] Short form for the attraction of normal earth gravity. Smaller satellites, like the Moon or even Mars, have, for an Earthie, only partial gravity.

[iii] We only use woman rarely for emphasis, the usual word is fem.

[iv] Gene snipping techniques that allow insertion and tweaking of desirable characteristics to be inserted in every gene in the body. Developed early in the last century, becoming a boon immeasurable.

[v] Vertical ladder, a tube with pegs for rungs, practical and space-saving in low gravity.