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[ Read more about author James Grayson & Kathy Ferguson ]

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The lead novella in Analog SFF in June 2006, Puncher's Chance is the story of an ill-fated mission to Mars in the near future, where the crew of the McAuliffe have to battle against time- -and each other--to rescue a doomed colony. "Sometimes playing it safe is not an option."

Puncher's Chance

by James Grayson & Kathy Ferguson

*Puncher's Chance******** * David gazed out the station window, searching for a glint of sunlight off the Low-Earth-Orbit MagBeam platform. It would be impossible to spot from this distance, especially against the mottled blue and white backdrop of the Earth, but he searched nonetheless. He could just make out the shape of North America through gauzy clouds. Three years before, on a day much like this, his father had perished down there, an infinitesimal speck of humanity buried under a mountain of volcanic ash. He turned from the view to see Gin Fukazawa on his desk monitor. He grinned at the sight of the Space Transit System's LEO supervisor, more than twenty years his junior, and shuffled through the piles of tools on his desk for the connection switch.

"Hey, Gin, couldn't wait four more hours to see me?"

"Don't you wish. Looks like three weeks before our paths cross again."

David sighed. "Let me guess. Your boss wants some Martian ice to cool wine at some political function?"

"We all have to please our masters, which is why you'll be spending today pleasing me by conducting an inspection tour of the High-Earth-Orbit MagBeam platform with a top official from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy." Gin wagged a finger at him. "And you'll be on your best behavior."

David groaned. "Another VIP shuffling through? Do I curtsy before I kiss his shoes, or afterwards? I can never remember."

"I'm serious, David."

"So am I. How often do I get to do real space work these days? I signed up to be an engineer, not a desk jockey or a nursemaid. At least give me something worth doing while I'm up here."

"Well, I'm very sorry your work's not all fun and games, David, but this is important. This woman is out to tank the appropriation budget for the new colonization shuttles, trying to catch us doing something wrong and use it as an excuse to shut down the Mars colony. Why else the surprise visit? She appeared out of nowhere, stuck her nose into every nook and cranny, requisitioned our manifests, copied all our incident reports. She's looking for trouble--and the way she's looking, she'll find it."

Gin's serious brown eyes glowered at him from the monitor. She never looked better than when she scolded him. The prospect of weeks more away from her made him frown. Soon enough, her promotion to Mars Colony Coordinator would take her from him permanently. David didn't want to think about spending his retirement on Earth without her.

"You run a tight ship, Gin. I'd sail anywhere with you."

Gin frowned. "Yeah, well, if today is any indication, we're all about to drown."

"Do share. What's up?"

"The incoming transport is having difficulty with its computer, so we're bumping the _McAuliffe_ from the maintenance schedule." Gin raised a hand to stop his protest. "It's not like the old boat doesn't get regular maintenance. You spend half your time on platform tinkering with it."

"Damn it, Gin, this is the third time! What's the point of having an emergency rescue ship and then letting it rot? Tinkering's one thing, but she still needs proper maintenance. Surely the Mars shuttle can wait a day or two while the _McAuliffe_ gets a thorough overhaul?"

"No can do. I need to turn it around pronto. There's been a little accident on Mars. We're sending supplies and personnel as backup. Your VIP should just squeeze in before all hell breaks loose on you."

"Running the MagBeam's just button pushing; the control room crew don't need me there for it. Or much else, either. What's the matter on Mars, anyway?"

"A check valve malfunctioned, and some water from hydroponics siphoned back into the potable water supply. We're shipping some meds just to be safe. If we wait a day now, it'll cost us a week in arrival time."

"Thank you, Gin. I think I remember reading something similar in Orbital Mechanics for Dummies. All right, the _McAuliffe_ can get her make-over some other time. God forbid I should prevent the colonists getting their aspirin."

Gin's shoulders slumped. "Sorry you won't make it to LEO today. There was a bottle of wine cooling in my quarters. " She sighed. "Run along now; your VIP will arrive in about two hours." She cut the connection.

David left his office and tramped along looping metal corridors. Outside, the Earth and stars wheeled dizzyingly as the station's false-gravity centrifuge revolved slowly. David ignored it. His inspection produced its usual array of irritations, bugs and blemishes, but nothing threatening life or limb. The whole station needed a damn good overhaul, but as usual no one dared put their head above the parapet. With space-hating bureaucrats like Gin's woman from OSTP sniffing everywhere, only a madman would request a budget increase, leaving David to waste his few precious days in space on janitor's work. His father would laugh; he'd left the old man's wrecking yard behind for the thrill of space exploration.

He made his way into the final sector, and caught sight of a young woman poking inside a wall panel with a voltage probe.

"Ellen! Anything going on I should know about?"

Ellen Francis smiled at her supervisor. Almost impossibly beautiful, the young redheaded engineer carried herself as if she was completely unaware of it, leaving lovestruck astronauts in her wake wherever she went. He smiled paternally.

"Hi, David. No, just glitches. I'm finishing the weekly rundown on the air circulators. Nothing worth bothering maintenance about."


Ellen proffered him her portable toolkit. "It's the flammable gas sensor. It flatlines for concentrations over 0.4%. It's not really a problem: 0.4%'s well past the alarm concentration."

David poked around inside a maze of wires and circuit boards. "I used to have the same problem with these things in F15 engines when I was stationed in Saudi a thousand years ago," he said. "Turned out to be sand contamination of the pellistor sensors. Chances are something's got into this one and decatalyzed it." He kept probing around, occasionally holding out a hand for a new tool.

"So how did Timmy Weaver get along last night? It was his title fight, wasn't it?"

David nodded. "Yeah. Wyoming Junior Light-Flyweight Championship. I haven't checked in at the gym, but he ought to have walked it. Kid's got talent like you wouldn't believe."

"Better than you?"

"Way better. Big and strong was plenty in the Air Force championship, but Timmy's got the fastest hands I've ever seen, and instincts to go with it. Pride of the gym, he is."

"And all thanks to you," Ellen said, fluttering her lush eyelashes.

David fixed her with a look. "That's very nearly insubordination, Ellen. No, it's good to help those kids. I don't know teaching them to box helps so much, but anything's got to be better than spending all day in an orphanage, right?"

Ellen said nothing. It was clear enough what was going through her mind, though: _aren't you an orphan of Yellowstone too?_

Delicately holding a pasta-spoonful of tangled wires out of the way, David extracted a tiny bulb of plastic and ceramic. "Christ on his cross!"


"Serial number 223-BR2Z," David said. "No wonder it's flaky; these sensors were discontinued back in 2011. Ten bucks they cost, but will the government give us the budget? No, they prefer to give us equipment nearly fifteen years out of date."

Ellen yawned and massaged the back of her shapely neck. "You're on the mission crew for this medicine run to Mars, aren't you?" David said.

She nodded.

"Well, go get some sleep, for God's sake. I'll finish the maintenance checks."

"No, sir, it's all right, really--"

He cut her off. "Don't make me order you, Ellen. It makes me twitch. Go catch some Zs. You should be able to get a few hours."

She scurried off. David shook his head. More work he'd bought himself. Still, at least it wasn't paperwork, and at least the outgoing shuttle would have someone competent and wakeful on board. He pushed the toolkit into his pocket and continued his inspection, wondering how much of his time this VIP would demand.


David tried to mask his exasperation from the woman on the opposite side of the desk. He'd shown her around the platform and behaved as politely as possible. In return, she'd spoken barely two words, treating his offer of coffee to a cold stare. Instead, she spent their meeting alternately nodding and snorting at his explanations of how things worked, and taking notes on a handheld computer. Not even the window's magnificent space-scape served to soften her, since she refused to look at anything except her handheld display. Now, after five hours, David could feel a headache building.

Her name was Dr. Victoria Porter. The severe bun into which she twisted her dark hair gave her an older, all-business air, but only the tiniest of lines showed at the corners of her large dark eyes and small, pouty mouth, and David guessed she might be in her mid-forties. High cheekbones and a straight, aristocratic nose echoed her tall, willowy figure. With different hair, David could have imagined her gracing the home page of a fashion magazine. He could have thought her attractive until she'd spoken to him; now he only thought her a nuisance. A malignant nuisance. He'd rather have been helping with the repairs to the Mars shuttle, not stuck in an office with a bureaucrat firing pedantic questions at him.

"Dr. Porter, occasional minor discrepancies in bookkeeping are unavoidable in any large organization. I can't tell you why July's manifest from LEO differs from the manifest of what was loaded onto the Mars pod, but I'll be happy to look into it. Most likely, a breakage occurred and the schedule didn't allow time for a replacement. It's not economically viable for us to transport replacements for non-vital equipment on an emergency basis."

An incoming message alert flashed on David's monitor.

"If you'll excuse me a moment, Dr. Porter, I need to take this call."

Porter made no move to leave. She continued scowling at her handheld screen, her posture stiff and upright.

Gritting his teeth, David keyed the message. Gin's face appeared, worry lines creasing her brow. "Gin, good to hear from you. I'm with Dr. Porter. What can I do for you?"

Her expression tightened. "David, I've just seen a maintenance report from the Mars shuttle. The navigation system has an intermittent short. All the technicians can do is swap out parts and keep testing to nail down the faulty component."

David swore under his breath. "A sequential fault check on a navigation computer? It could take days. No other indication of the origin?"

Gin shook her head.

David understood her frustration. A few days' delay on this end would mean arriving almost two weeks late as the distance between Earth and Mars lengthened. "Looks like someone else will have to take the colonists their aspirin. What's your plan?"

"We've no choice. The only other suitable shuttle is twenty days out on its return leg from Mars. We'll need to send the _McAuliffe_."

"Wait a minute. Six hours ago you bumped the _McAuliffe_ from the maintenance roster, and now you want to send her on an emergency mission? What's wrong with this picture?"

"Come on, David, this isn't an emergency, but we can't afford several days delay. The _McAuliffe_'s in good enough shape, isn't she?"

David snorted. "No thanks to the maintenance teams. Who's going to fly her?"

"We're transferring the command crew from the Mars transit shuttle. Karl Masters would be flying the front chair."

"Masters?" David exclaimed. "Give me a break, he's never even been inside the damn ship. Just because he's a good hand on transit shuttles doesn't mean he knows how to fly an old tub like the _McAuliffe_. At least send someone qualified."

Gin's brow creased further. "I've contacted Earth. Ben's down with the flu, and they can't find Seamus. He's vacationing somewhere remote and apparently didn't take his phone. As soon as they locate him, they'll send him up to take the _McAuliffe_ out. I'd like you to get her ready to fly."

"Seamus? A man who once quit a vacation on Easter Island because it was too crowded? You'll be lucky to find him in a week, and if he's vacationing within a thousand miles of a launch site, it'll be the first time. Why not let me take the _McAuliffe_ over to Mars? I'm the best qualified, anyway, and I can have her space-worthy inside two hours."

"David, is that sensible? How many flight hours have you logged since your last assessment?"

"I designed half the ship, Gin. Do you think I've forgotten how to fly her? Come on, it's a milk run. The planetary alignment couldn't be better, so every minute you spend waiting for Seamus to drag his ass out of the waves is about three lost at Mars." David glanced up at Dr. Porter, still grimacing at her computer. He leaned close to his monitor. "Let me do some real work for once. It might be my last chance."

Gin threw up her hands. "All right, you've convinced me. I'll change the crew roster, but you be careful out there. And you'll deliver your report to me _personally_ the moment you get back."

David kept his voice low. "I'm sorry, Gin, okay? But you did say lives were at risk, right?"

She nodded. "A couple of the colonists are in a bad way. Go on, David, get to work. I'm sending you the Mars incident report now. I'll see you on the return run." She gave a weary smile and cut the connection. A document flashed up on the screen in her place.

David scanned it. "Dr. Porter, I must apologize, but a situation has arisen requiring my attention. We can continue at a later date, or you can address the remainder of your questions to one of my colleagues. If you leave immediately, we can beam your shuttle down to the LEO Platform before we begin the acceleration beaming of the _McAuliffe_. Otherwise, you'll have a four hour delay before the beam is available again." David rose from his desk, hoping to steer her toward his office door.

She gave him an icy stare. "Mr. Longrie, has the White House been informed of this `little problem' on the Mars colony?"

"Dr. Porter, my understanding is that someone in the colony has spilled a drink, and they need us to deliver them some paper towels, nothing more."

"`Lives at risk'?"

David sighed and sat back at his desk. "There's been a minor chemical leak ; just the kind of incident you could encounter in any lab around the world. Some fungicide siphoned into the water supply of the new dorm, and a few people bathed in it. A couple of the scientists have a rash, and the colony medical center doesn't have the specific medication it needs, so we're shipping it over as a precaution. It's just a routine supply mission with a tight time-limit, so if you'll excuse me--"

David keyed the number for the Mars transit shuttle crew station. After a few rings, Ellen Francis' Botticelli countenance appeared on-screen. "Ellen, you've heard the news?"

Ellen nodded. "Karl's picking out a bunch of flowers for you, I think."

"What about you?"

She smiled. "I've always liked riding in vintage cars. I didn't realize we were getting a vintage driver as well."

"Thanks a lot. You'll be hearing about that one in your APR. Look, we've got a launch scheduled in three hours, so can you get your stuff over to the _McAuliffe_ and pack her up? The cargo came on station with the maintenance crew, along with some lander pilot or other. God knows why; sounds like they're playing belt and suspenders on this one. I've got to go through the preflight checklist, so I'll see you at the loading bay. Okay?"

Ellen nodded. "Sure. I didn't plan on spending this run in a flying toolbox; I'd better be getting time-and-a-half. Guess you must be mad as a snake."

David glanced aside at Porter, whose foot tapped impatiently. "Yeah, of course. Look, I've gotta go. I'll see you in a few." He cut the connection. He wanted to call the gym to check on Timmy's fight, and he knew he should call Anna to apologize for missing the birth of his first grandchild, but right now he couldn't spare the time.

Porter glanced pointedly at her wristwatch. "If you don't mind, Mr. Longrie, I'd like to check in with the Director. Perhaps he can give me a more detailed explanation of exactly what's happening on Mars. It may have some bearing on my inspection of the transit platforms and overall evaluation of the program."

"Certainly. Feel free to use my office. If you'll excuse me, I need to see to the flight preparations."

When David arrived at the docking bay an hour later, the first sound he heard was a smooth male voice grousing about pulling loading duty. His hackles rose; Gin hadn't mentioned the name of the replacement lander pilot. Threading between random piles of net bags holding supplies from dehydrated fruit juice to circuit boards, he made his way to the _McAuliffe_'s loading bay doors. Ellen, her arms full of bags, frowned up at another man dressed in a commercial airline uniform sporting captain's bars on the collar. A shock of blond hair topped six feet and three inches of muscle and sinew, and a whiff of pungent cologne pricked David's nostrils. The man stopped in mid-sentence to glare at him through narrowed eyes.

"David Longrie, this is Capt. Xavier Beaume--"

"Yes, thanks, Ellen. The captain and I have already met." Neither man extended a hand. David pulled his eyes away from Beaume's and swept an arm around the chaotic bay. "What is this?"

"We're loading the supplies," Beaume replied.

"Loading? It looks like my room in college. Why aren't you using the pre-packed pallets like we always do?"

"Think the new shuttle pallets would fit on this archaic rust bucket?" Beaume smirked. "Worthless piece of trash should have been scrapped years ago. I suppose they're sending up some old geezer to fly it."

Heat rose in David's cheeks. His hands curled at his sides as he thought about busting the captain in his arrogant, twisted lips and pearly white teeth. One shot was all it would take, he was sure. Beaume was built like a wrestler, but David would have bet a month's wages he was hiding the glass jaw to end all glass jaws. What had Gin ever seen in him?

"This ship might be old, Captain, but if you treat her with respect you'll find she's more than capable of doing her job. And if you look, you'll find her cargo bay is already stacked to the roof with empty pallets made to fit her. I suggest you get a power loader and bring some of them out; otherwise, those bags'll shift so much during acceleration we could end up on Jupiter."

Beaume's color rose, but he cut off his retort when Ellen slapped his arm.

"Sorry, David. I should've thought. Come on, Beaume, let's get to it."

As his two crew members trudged off, David passed a despairing eye over the chaos of the loading bay. Heaven knew how much time the idiot pretty boy wasted creating it. Behind him the access door hissed open, and Dr. Porter swept her steely gaze across the piles of supplies. Cold before, she was Arctic ice now. The sooner she was out of his hair, the better.

"Dr. Porter, your shuttle is waiting in Bay 7. You can depart any time."

Her face set hard, and her eyes locked on his. "I won't be leaving on _that_ shuttle, Mr. Longrie, I'll be leaving on _this_ one. I'm coming along as an observer."

"You're what?"

"You heard me, Mr. Longrie."

David looked at the sprawling pile of supplies, then at Porter's elegant business suit. "Dr. Porter, forgive my asking, but are you space-qualified?"

A genuine smile almost curved her lips. "Mr. Longrie, my office reports directly to the President, and she has personally assigned me to this mission. If you don't believe me, feel free to check with her."

"The _McAuliffe_ isn't a pleasure barge, Dr. Porter. She's not got faux-gravity or mod-cons, and it's a sixty day journey to Mars and back. It isn't like taking the Atlantic tunnel."

"I am aware of the difficulty, Mr. Longrie. If you wish to protest, feel free to contact Miss Fukazawa." She gave a disdainful sniff and stalked away.

David unclenched his fists with an effort and marched to the nearest communications point.

Gin answered quickly. "I know, David, I know. Instructions just came in from way over my head; there's nothing I can do."

"Does she really think the _McAuliffe_'s equipped to haul a passenger to Mars and back? Sixty days alone with her is not what I need in my life right now."

"Then this should cheer you up--Seamus was at the London spaceport the whole time, held up by a flight delay. We can get him back on station in eight hours. He says he'll fly the mission if you want."

David looked at Porter poking around among the supply pallets, while Ellen and Beaume struggled to repack them. "Do you really want to leave Seamus alone with Dr. Porter for two months? If she wants to can the program already, I'm not sure Seamus `Bungee Jump From An Airplane' O'Brien is the best person to bunk her with. Tell him to enjoy his vacation."

"You're sure?"

David nodded reluctantly.

Gin frowned. "Okay, I'll tell him. Did you call Mike at the gym yet?"

"Next on the list. Thanks for keeping quiet about the crew assignment, by the way."

Gin rubbed her eyes. "I'm sorry, David, it slipped my mind. If it makes you feel better, Xavier's a jerk when I see him, too. Just ignore him."

"I'll have to. It's either ignore him or commit the first murder in space."

She didn't smile. "Save the jokes, David. Make your call to Mike, then get back to the loading. There's a launch schedule to keep." The screen washed white.

David searched through his wallet, looking for the call code of the Orphans of Yellowstone Gym. He waited several minutes before Mike Parry's lived-in face filled the screen, almost blocking out the punching bags and sparring ring behind him.

"Dave," said the big black man, "you still in orbit?"

David nodded. "Yeah, something's come up. I've got to fly a rush mission to Mars, so I'm going to be off the map for a couple of months. I'm sorry to spring this on you, but it just fell on me this afternoon."

Parry grimaced. "Well, I can reschedule some of the other volunteers to fill the training roster, but the kids are gonna be awful sorry. Especially Timmy, after last night."

"Why? What happened last night?"

"You haven't heard?"

"I've been up to my ass in alligators ever since I fell out of bed this morning. What happened?"

Parry shook his head. "Kid just wasn't there. Started badly and lost his confidence--never came back. Got knocked down twice in the first round, and I stopped it in the second. Got cut under the eye when he leaned into a right hand lead he'd normally slip blindfolded. You know the kiddies' rules when there's blood on the canvas."

"Damn!" David exclaimed. "Timmy should have taken that kid to the cleaners. What did you tell him at the end of the first round?"

"Not to go toe-to-toe with the other kid, keep to the center of the ring and not get caught on the inside."

David shook his head. "Timmy's not a technical fighter; he's heart and instinct."

"What else would I have told him?"

"Go forward, bet it all on one lucky shot. Take the puncher's chance. It's what I would've done."

Parry goggled. "He'd have got his head knocked off!"

David shrugged. "Maybe. Or maybe he'd have won. Bet your life he'd have preferred going down swinging to trying to ride it out and not get hurt, though. How is he?"

"Not too hot. Feels like he let you down, I guess. I tried to talk him up, but he went back to the shelter pretty unhappy. I haven't seen him so depressed before."

"Christ, I should've been in the corner with him. He's got all the talent in the world, but he needs someone to help him focus. Tell him--" David looked aside as Ellen gave him a piercing whistle from the cargo hatch. "Look, just tell him he didn't let anyone down, and I'll see him when I get back from Mars. Tell him I'll bring him back a Martian rock, okay?"

Parry nodded, and Ellen whistled again.

"Damn. Look, Mike, I've gotta go. I'll see you when I get back."

"Good luck, man."

David killed the connection and jogged across the bay to Ellen. Concerns about the mission crowded out the vague sense he was forgetting something.


David watched the clock count down to the end of their acceleration phase. The mission clock ticked quietly alongside it, depressing red figures announcing a twenty-six day wait until their arrival in Mars orbit. David, restless after nearly four hours in his seat, checked the voltage and current gauges attesting to the condition of the acceleration magnets at the _McAuliffe_'s rear. They all registered normal, and the propellant and battery levels glowed green. With the ship's attitude controlled by the navigation computer, David felt like a fifth wheel, but he kept his hand hovering near the manual override, just in case.

His earpiece crackled. "HEO to _McAuliffe_, prep for beam shutdown in five minutes, over."

David thumbed the transmit key. "Copy that, HEO. How're we looking?"

"We show you at thirty-eight point four clicks per tick, _McAuliffe_, trajectory five by five. Mars concurs. Range passing two hundred and seventy six thousand kilometers downrange. Right on the money, over."

David touched the data onto the navigation computer screen in front of him. "Copy that, HEO. Remind us to duck when the Moon comes along, over."

Laughter rang in his ear. "Will do, _McAuliffe_. Prep for beam shutdown in three minutes twenty. HEO out."

In a little over three minutes, the MagBeam--a three hundred thousand kilometer long bolt of lightning connecting them to the distant HEO station--would shut down, ending their four hours of acceleration. The cloud of argon gas ionized by the MagBeam glowed faintly in their wake, probably too faintly to see, but the thrust it imparted on the _McAuliffe_'s acceleration magnets pushed David down into his seat with almost a fifth his normal weight. It would be the last time any of them felt weight for a long while. The Earth's heartbreakingly beautiful blue and white disk receded in the viewer; Mars still lay invisibly distant somewhere ahead and to their right.

Beaume grimaced in the copilots seat, his muscular frame too bulky for the cramped cockpit. David wrinkled his nose at the overpowering smell of the man's cologne and pondered which of the women he meant to impress. Even Beaume must have realized Porter was way out of his league, and David smiled as he wondered how long it would take him to discover that the preternaturally beautiful Ellen was also gay. He'd warned a few optimistic young astronauts off her in the past, but looked forward to Beaume finding out the hard way.

David would have preferred to have Ellen in the cockpit, but if Beaume was going to stand regular watches during the long flight to Mars, he needed to get acquainted with the controls. Besides, Ellen was still orienting their unwanted `observer' to the vagaries of life on the _McAuliffe_. So far Dr. Porter hadn't stayed out of the lav for more than about fifteen minutes at a stretch, and they weren't even at zero gee yet. If she didn't stop heaving soon, David would order her drugged up until she adjusted. He was tempted to order it anyway, just to keep her out of his way. He ran a hand through his close-cropped grey hair and tried to relax the muscles in his neck and shoulders. His head throbbed.

"Past your bedtime, gramps?" Beaume jeered.

David shot the athletic lander pilot a savage look. "Do you intend to do _any_ work on this flight, or are you just gonna park your ass in front of the vidscreen all day like you do on those lander shuttles?"

Beaume grinned and stretched expansively, his shoulders muscles rippling.

David ducked aside, grimacing. "And put your damn restraint belt on, will you? I don't need you bouncing around the cockpit when they turn the beam off."

"Ooh, sorry," Beaume said, not moving. "Just imagine what could happen if I got a jolt at a whole point-two gees. It could crush my eyeballs to jelly and snap my spine."

_No, asshole, but_ I _could._ "Put the damn belt on, or it goes in your performance report as a safety violation."

Beaume clenched his fists. "You threatening me, old man?"

David looked at the pilot's stance. Left hand too low and right too far advanced, shoulders too side-on to sway aside. One southpaw left hook over the top was all it would take. His restraint belt gave him a few inches' play; he wouldn't even need to get out of his seat.

"HEO to _McAuliffe_, come in, over."

David toggled the radio. "We read you, HEO, over."

"HEO to _McAuliffe_, prep for beam shutdown in one minute, over."

"Copy that, HEO. Initiating shutdown procedure, over." David thumbed the 1-MC control to transmit across the whole ship. "Longrie to all crew. Brace for transfer to zero gee in forty-five seconds." He slotted his headset into its receiver.

The overhead speaker crackled. "HEO to _McAuliffe_. Shutdown proceeding in ten, nine, eight--"

David took hold of the jolt bar above the instrument panel and looked levelly at Beaume. The lander pilot held out until six, then reached for his restraint belt and slotted it home over his chest. On zero, a slight jolt forward signaled the shutdown of the _McAuliffe_'s thrust. David flicked controls to deactivate the acceleration magnets and propellant feed, set the batteries to begin recharging from the solar panels, then unbuckled his restraint belt.

"Gin said something about you being too cautious," Beaume sneered. "Guess that's why she asked me onto the crew: girl needs a bit of excitement in her life again."

David stopped, one hand clenched white into the back of his seat. Restraining himself, he reached for the communications panel. "Longrie to all crew. MagBeam shutdown complete and propulsion secured. Out."

David shot along the narrow aisle toward the galley area, anger making him push off harder than he intended. He wanted an aspirin and a bulb of coffee. By now he should have been six hours into his sleep cycle, lying next to Gin in her quarters on the LEO platform. Maybe Beaume was right. Maybe he was an old geezer flying a hopelessly outdated bucket of bolts on a pointless, cover-your-ass mission. Thirty years as an astronautical engineer, and here he was, reduced to flying suitcases of itch ointment to Mars with Gin's jerk of an ex-boyfriend. He could have been mopping the decks on the platform for all the good he was doing.

Snagging the edge of the galley door, he swung into what served as the _McAuliffe_'s kitchen and common area. He glided across to the far wall, hooked a foot into a toehold, and popped the lid on the first-aid kit. A series of carefully labeled racks held an assortment of medicines in single-use packets, all filled to the top--except the aspirin rack, conspicuously empty. Cursing, he slammed the lid closed.

"That didn't sound good." Behind him, Ellen guided Porter into the cramped space. The two women glided to the table, and Ellen propelled Porter into a seat. The Assistant Director of Space and Aeronautics at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy looked decidedly green.

David rolled his head around to loosen the tension in his neck. "Damned aspirin supply got left behind," he said.

"Just hook a foot under the bar down there." With her charge anchored at the table, Ellen glided smoothly from the room. She returned a minute later and handed David two aspirin. "I always carry my own, just in case."

"Remind me to give you a raise when we get back. Better go keep an eye on that idiot Beaume. At the least, he needs to learn how to stand a watch. And make sure he doesn't accidentally fire off the thrusters or jettison our water supply."

Ellen gave him a grin and a mock salute. "Yes, sir! And did you remember to call Anna to tell her you'd miss the big day?"

David released a string of profanity. He'd promised his daughter he wouldn't let space prevent him from attending one of the most important moments in her life this time. So much for promises.

Ellen arched an eyebrow at him. "I'll enter that in the log book as a negative response."

As she floated away toward the cockpit, David rummaged in a supply cabinet, eventually extracting a bulb of coffee. Sleep would have been better than caffeine, but Beaume's taunt rang like a bell in his head, precluding any chance of rest. He glanced at Porter.

The good doctor hunkered over the table, her knuckles white from gripping the surface. The dark, rich chocolate of her hair accentuated the paleness of her skin. Not even her peach lip gloss could mask a bloodless face. She stared vacantly at the wall, her pupils bare pinpricks.

"Can I get you some coffee, doctor?"

She grimaced and shook her head without looking up. David tossed his bulb into the galley's microwave. He twisted the dial, and muttered in frustration when nothing happened. He was damned if he was going to spend twenty-six days on unheated STS reconstituted food, so he snatched up a screwdriver and levered the back off the microwave.

Porter finally moved her eyes, watching him as he probed around. "If Beaume isn't qualified, why are you letting him fly the ship?" Worry tinged her voice.

David left the screwdriver hanging in midair and glided across the galley in search of a soldering iron. "I'm not. We're on an inertial trajectory; just coasting. We can't even change our course without a MagBeam powering us. Nothing much to do now but monitor communications and life support and watch the batteries recharge."

He returned with a handful of tools. After a few moments poking inside the microwave, he replaced the back, reconnected the power, and smiled as it hummed and burst into life. "I take it you haven't spent much time in zero gee?"

"It doesn't take a space jockey to decide whether a system is running safely and efficiently, or whether it represents the best use of taxpayers' money. And I do have a postgraduate degree in physics."

The microwave pinged, and David extracted his coffee. "If the politicians were worried about safety and efficiency, we wouldn't be sitting in a geriatric ship headed out on a mission to Mars at twelve hours' notice. We'd have a modern, properly maintained shuttle with a dedicated crew on permanent standby for emergencies."

She took her eyes off the wall and met his, avoiding the galley's tiny porthole. "Another expensive toy needing tens of millions of dollars to maintain, just so a handful of `special' people can play at being pioneers. You say colonization's going to save the world, but what has your Mars colony done about global warming? How will it protect us from a volcanic disaster? It could happen any day, and it could be a hundred times worse than the Yellowstone eruption in '21."

"The Mars colony is run for the benefit of everyone, not just the people in the space program."

Porter snorted. "What nonsense. How many people does it house? A hundred? What about the billions at risk on Earth right now; will _they_ be able to run away to your colony? What would you say to all the people dead in a catastrophic event because the government was too busy indulging your pipe-dreams to build safe shelters on Earth? `Sorry you died, folks, but we just had to see whether there was life on Mars'?"

_What would I say? How about `Sorry I abandoned you, Dad'. Maybe space_ wasn't _worth it._ David threw the aspirin down his throat with a swallow of STS coffee substitute. "My shift's over. If you're too sick to go to the exercise suite today, you can skip it, but you'll need to be in there by tomorrow at the latest. I'm going to get some sleep."


David swore as the edge of the circuit board sliced his index finger. He shoved his finger in his mouth to contain the blood. Nothing worse than droplets of blood floating around the ship and staining whatever they drifted against. The first-aid kit probably wouldn't have any bandages either. With his free hand he scrounged a rag from his back pocket and applied pressure to the cut. Like every ship, the _McAuliffe_ boasted a thousand different subsystems. Half of them he'd upgraded himself at some time during his years of tinkering, but the rest were as reliable as politicians in election year. He'd spent almost every waking hour in the fortnight since launch fixing niggles and glitches.

Ellen glided up and offered him a beverage bulb. "How goes the repair?"

He took a swig and gave her a black look. "What the hell is this?"

"Sorry, boss, it's the only caffeine we have left. It's tea with cream, just the way you like your coffee."

"I take my coffee with cream and _sugar_."

"Not on this boat. And you'll be taking it black tomorrow."

David sighed. No coffee, no sugar, but enough chicken soup to feed an army. What else had been left behind between Beaume's junk sale and the mad scramble to make room for the exalted Dr. Porter? At least she had the good grace to stay out of his way. Usually. He spotted Beaume swimming along the corridor toward them. _If only we could have left that idiot behind instead of the coffee._ His shoulders tensed as the pilot drew closer. He wasn't sure he could make it another eleven days without slugging the guy.

"Ship still falling apart faster than you can put it back together, Longrie?" Beaume didn't quite stop in time to avoid bumping against Ellen, no doubt deliberately. She wrinkled her nose at his cologne and slid away.

"Anything else I can get for you, boss?" she offered. "Need any parts from stores?"

"Babe, there aren't enough parts in the whole system to fix what's wrong with this tub," Beaume gibed. "Worthless piece of junk. Gin's crazy thinking this thing will get us to Mars. I sure ain't taking it on the return trip."

"You want to jump ship early, the airlock's just behind you," David growled. "Anyway, aren't you supposed to be on watch in the cockpit?"

"Yeah, but I came to tell you Gin's on the horn."

David glowered at the pilot. "You could have used the intercom."

Beaume raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. "You mean it's working again?"

Ellen gave him a disgusted look. "Give it a rest, you idiot. You broke it in the first place, trying to wire in your stupid music system."

David gave the petite engineer a glance, wondering if Beaume had finally made his inevitable pass at her.

The pilot snorted. "Don't talk dumb. I've done it a thousand times on landers, and it's never caused trouble. Must've been something one of you two did with your tinkering."

David pushed himself upright and glared at the taller man. "This isn't a brand new commercial lander. You can't just jump into the wiring and have things work the way you expect. This ship needs care and experience, not some cowboy fumbling around where he's not qualified to go."

Beaume stiffened. "Hey, who the--"

David cut him off. "Just keep your damn fingers out of systems you don't understand, all right? I've got enough to do without cleaning up your messes."

He finished tidying up the circuitry and pushed himself in the direction of the cockpit. Beaume eased a shoulder against the companionway wall, pushing himself into David's path. With no handhold to grab, David cannoned into him and spun away from the pilot's greater bulk, rolling over and bouncing painfully into the wall.

Beaume laughed. "Help you into your stairlift, old timer?"

David's patience snapped. He checked his spin with an outstretched hand, braced his foot against the wall, and thrust himself towards Beaume, right fist first. With two hundred pounds and an amateur heavyweight's technique behind it, the uppercut sank in under Beaume's ribs and doubled him up. David took a wild left hook easily on his guard, and responded with a sharp double jab to the bridge of the nose. Beaume's head went back, setting him up beautifully for the crunching right cross that followed the jab like night followed day.

The hook didn't land. Ellen seized his arm on the backswing and, her foot anchored under a trip bar, pulled him around to face her. "Enough, both of you! David, stop acting like a kid and go get Gin's message!"

Beaume recovered his balance, coughing. "Yeah, go see what your night-nurse wants."

David tried to lunge for him, but Ellen kept him pinned back. "Shut your face before it gets damaged, Beaume," she snapped.

David, still breathing heavily, pushed off and shot forward to the cockpit. A wall panel gaped open below the intercom switch, and a knot of wiring draped across the deck, vanishing into the back of a homemade stereo box. David yanked the wires unceremoniously loose, booted the stereo roughly into the companionway, and set about reconnecting the intercom. The few minutes' work gave him time to compose himself before he played the message from Earth. Gin looked years older. Dark half-circles discolored the skin under her eyes, her mouth seemed pinched, and her hair, usually full and lustrous, hung slack and dull.

"Bad news, David. We have more colonists exposed to the fungicide leak than we originally thought, and new cases appearing by the hour. Apparently some of the contaminated water was used to brew coffee. When it's ingested, it doesn't produce symptoms until weeks later, but then it has devastating effects on the nervous system and eventually the liver and kidneys. Two of the early cases are comatose. We're sending additional antidote and relief personnel on the outgoing Mars shuttle, but she won't arrive until at least two months after you do. Once you dock at the Mars orbital platform, get the antidote to the surface as quickly as possible. Hopefully there'll be enough to tide them over until the relief shuttle arrives. You'll need Capt. Beaume to fly the station lander down. Both Mars colony pilots are grounded now."

Surprised as much by Gin's appearance as her news, David took a moment before sending a reply. "Message received, Gin. Don't worry--we'll get the supplies there for everyone who needs them."

David swiveled up from the pilot's chair and came face to face with Dr. Porter, drifting silently in the cockpit doorway.

"Still think it's just a milk run?" she asked.


David tossed his soup bulb into the galley disposal and drifted toward the door. It was his turn on the exercise wheel, and he welcomed the diversion. After twenty five days, the crew were all on a short fuse. Porter remained sullen and uncommunicative, Beaume obnoxious and cruising for another fight, and even Ellen's determinedly cheerful humming was stretching David's nerves to breaking point.

"David?" Ellen's voice crackled over the intercom.

"Yes?" he barked. _What's broken now?_

"You have an incoming message."

He pushed off from the galley and cruised forward to the cockpit. Ellen started to unbuckle from the pilot's seat, but David waved her down. She snatched her handheld as it drifted away. He could make out enough of the screen to recognize a graphic novel. _What happened to the days when people read real books written with real sentences and paragraphs, requiring the reader to bring some imagination? Now it's all picture books with captions_.

Strapping into the copilot's chair, David switched on Gin's recorded message.

If anything, Gin looked worse than a few days earlier, when she'd told him about three more colonists slipping into critical condition, bringing the total sick to thirty. But this time a wan smile played across her lips. "Congratulations, David! You're a grandfather! Jodie Melissa Smith was born at 1:42 this morning, weighing in at eight pounds three ounces. Mother and baby are both doing great. I sent a balloon bouquet in your name. Take care. I miss you."

Ellen whooped and punched his arm. "Congrats, old man! This calls for a celebration! And I know just how to do it. Follow me."

She led him back toward the galley, pounding on Beaume's door as she passed and disappearing inside the cabin where she hot-bunked with Dr. Porter. She emerged a moment later with two Hershey's chocolate bars and Dr. Porter. Beaume, rubbing sleep from his eyes, drifted sullenly behind them.

They all crowded into the tiny galley, where Ellen announced the happy event. She passed out bulbs of juice, and proposed a toast.

"To Jodie on her birthday. May she have a long and happy life, and follow in her grandfather's footsteps." Grinning from ear to ear, she rapped her bulb against David's and the others followed suit. After taking a sip, she tore the wrappers from the chocolate and distributed halves around the group.

"Chocolate," breathed Porter, popping a piece in her mouth. She closed her eyes and a seductive moan issued from her lips. David tucked his own morsel of chocolate into his pocket and watched in amusement while Porter savored the treat. Finally swallowing, she opened her eyes to see them all gaping at her. Flame red shot up her face.

Ellen coughed. "Well, I'd better get back to the cockpit. Still my watch."

"Don't forget the battery level check's due this shift," David said. "Earth'll want to know how much we've got in the tank."

Ellen nodded and drifted out of the galley.

Beaume followed hot on her heels. "Hey, it's my turn with the reader, and I'm claiming it."

Ellen's sharp retort and Beaume's angry reply faded away as they argued their way through the length of the ship. David shook his head. Good thing they were only twenty-four hours from the Mars platform, or they might have their space murder yet.

Porter cleared her throat. "If they're any indication, we won't arrive a moment too soon. Now I've made this trip, I can't understand why anyone would put up with it."

David finished his juice. "It isn't all like this. Sure, the travel can be a bit uncomfortable, but I warned you the _McAuliffe_'s not a pleasure barge. The vista on Mars will be worth it, though. It's like nothing you've ever seen before."

"The cost for us to admire that vista is astronomical. How can you defend that when so much remains to be done on Earth?"

David sighed. "It's not just about admiring the vista on an alien world. People called Kennedy's space race a waste of money, but it sparked one of the biggest boosts in innovation for centuries. They said the trans-Atlantic tunnel was a waste of money, but look how much it helped cut carbon emissions from airplanes. The world's a dangerous place: war, famine, disease, global warming, asteroid strike, supervolcanoes like Yellowstone. You look at the figures, you see that the human race hasn't got a guaranteed lease on planet Earth. We're just tenants, and the landlord could evict us any time he likes. The rent's been rising for decades now, and it's time we took the hint."

Porter raised an eyebrow. "Is there a point to this poetic aside?"

David crumpled his juice bulb and tossed it into the disposal. "When we move people off Earth to permanent colonies, we ensure that humans as a species can survive the kind of global catastrophe Yellowstone warned us about. With self-sustaining colonies on the Moon and Mars, we can ensure the human race continues, regardless of whether Earth is swept by another plague like AIDS or the '09 flu pandemic, or a catastrophe like the second coming of the Yellowstone supervolcano. Like you said; the '21 eruption was a wake-up call to remind us Earth isn't the safe and friendly refuge we tend to think it is."

"And how many human lives will be saved in your colonies? A few hundred? A few thousand? What about the billions on Earth who'd be better prepared for a disaster if we spent the resources there?"

"I don't buy that argument. First, the expenditure on space isn't enough to save billions of people on Earth. MagBeam's cut costs enormously. Second, arcologies aren't foolproof. We still can't build a structure to withstand the blast of a volcano at close quarters, a really massive earthquake, or a nuclear explosion. And arcologies can't protect us from contagious diseases if they spread before we recognize them. My mother always taught me never to put all my eggs in one basket, and that's what the colonization program's about. Sure, it's not ready yet: it needs time and money if the colonies are to become self-sustaining. But if we put the effort in, put distance between self-sustaining pockets of humanity, we create an untouchable reserve, a cache of life and knowledge to build from if the worst happens. Besides, the struggle and sacrifice necessary to conquer space makes us better, stronger human beings."

Porter laughed. "You really believe that?"

"Yes, I do, and so do a lot of other people. People have put their lives on the line it."

"Maybe you space cowboys want to risk your necks out here, but ordinary people don't give a damn whether we have colonies on Mars."

David waved his hand at the walls around them. "Ever wonder where this ship got her name? Her launch name was just some six-figure project code, but years ago I rechristened her with a tiny red ribbon and a champagne miniature, all on my own. Do you know who she's named for? A school teacher of mine, Christa McAuliffe. She wasn't an astronaut or an adventurer. She was just an ordinary teacher with a husband and two children, and an understanding of how space could open doors of possibility for a kid like me. Her support and vision convinced me to give up tinkering with cars in my Dad's wrecking yard and go to college; her inspiration pushed me off the planet and out of a dead-end career in the Air Force. She was one of the seven people who died when the Challenger space shuttle exploded after launch. She never saw space, so I brought her name with me."

Porter opened her mouth and closed it again. For the first time, David saw her hostility melt, saw a soft, vulnerable woman emerge, felt his own pulse quicken. Her shapely shoulder drifted so close to his that he could feel her body heat.

Ellen's leaden voice spoke over the intercom. "David, we have another transmission from Earth. One of the Martian colonists has died."

David's heart sank, and Porter's frosty look returned.

"We don't belong out here."


David came convulsively awake, adrenaline bursting through him as the raucous blaring of the Master Alarm shattered the silence. The lights flickered, and the rotating amber of the alarm indicators turned the cabin into a chaos of shadow and fire. David wrenched at his sleeping belt, and lunged for the door. The ship lurched violently, throwing him to one side, and his head hammered into the bulkhead. Ears ringing, he seized the door and hauled himself into the corridor. The ship stopped shaking, but the lights continued to wax and wane at half their usual intensity. As he dragged himself toward the cockpit, the other cabin burst open to reveal a half-dressed and disheveled Dr. Porter, naked terror in her eyes. David ignored her, pulling himself hand over hand to the cockpit door. He wrenched it open to find the cockpit empty, its darkness punctuated only by a flickering aurora of emergency warning lights, flashing urgently in myriad colors.

"What's happening?" Porter screamed, her mouth only inches from his ear. Her eyes were wide and white, and her hands shook.

"Christ knows!" David yelled back. "Some kind of power failure. Any sign of Ellen or Beaume?"

She displayed enough self-control to shake her head, at least.

David wormed his way into the cockpit and plucked up an emergency headset. Its power lights remained unlit. "Damn it! Communications are down. Follow me!" He shouldered past her and thrust himself along the main companionway in the direction of the engineering spaces. At the first connecting hatch, he turned to look back. Porter clung to the cockpit door, transfixed by the play of warning lights across the control panels.

"Porter! Move your ass, damn it!" he shouted.

Shocked out of her inaction, she followed him, fumbling clumsily along in his wake.

As David thumped to a halt against the engineering hatch, a claxon burst out, fast and insistent, louder even than the Master Alarm. It was unnecessary: the flickering through the hatch's porthole told him all too obviously what was happening beyond. He seized a fire mask from the wall and pulled it over his head, then grabbed an extinguisher and opened the hatch.

Banks of hulking battery cells stood in rows, with electrical relays and monitoring equipment sandwiched alongside. At the far end of the compartment, from between two batteries, fire poured out into the central walkway. Unconstrained by gravity, it dipped and whirled, spreading and splashing outward like a liquid, bright oranges fading to blue. And over the banshee screeching of the alarms a more primal sound issued: the scream of a human being in agony and terror.

Horrified, David thrust himself forward, arrowing along the central walkway with the extinguisher held out in front. A quick burst of halon dashed away the drifting droplets of flame without slowing him, and he thudded home against the side of one of the batteries. He sucked in a deep breath and pushed off again, this time aiming straight for the fire. As he arced toward it, he sprayed the extinguisher indiscriminately before him. He hammered into something solid, and felt choking heat below him. A globule of liquid fire splashed onto his hand, and he roared in pain, his skin searing away.

Another extinguisher opened up, bathing him in freezing white clouds of halon, and the heat subsided. David spotted Porter anchored a few yards from him, extinguisher in hand and a mask over her face.

Over the blaring of the two alarms, he shouted to be heard. "Porter! The fire's out! Just inside the hatch there's an emergency venting control--a red handle. I can't see a damn thing in here."

She nodded and dragged herself away. David pulled himself down to the deck. Billowing clouds of gas masked everything, forcing him to search by touch, not knowing what he might find. The screaming had stopped. A sudden howling of fans announced the activation of the emergency venting--_thank God it's got a stand-alone power supply_--and the clouds whirled away up to the extraction port in the ceiling. After a few moments, the room cleared enough for him to see again.

"Porter! Get over here! We've got people down!"



Copyright © by James Grayson & Kathy Ferguson . All rights reserved unless specified otherwise above.

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