The Unexpected Satellite – Part 4

After several hours of discomfort for all of the crew members, the Chronos had finally reached a velocity more suitable for making contact with the stranded asteroid miner. Alan had switched the centrifuge in the main crew compartment back on, but it would take several minutes for the motors to defeat the inertia of the heavy disc that comprised that part of the spacecraft. In the meantime, the Commander and Vice-Commander traded reports about various navigational and scanning issues. The evidence was becoming clearer: There certainly was a metallic object of substantial proportions proceeding on the trajectory that the ECSA had predicted for the asteroid miner, large enough to be a spacecraft and, to the relief of all, appearing to be in one piece.

As Alan rolled up his reading screen and placed it into his pocket, Gerhard, the mathematician on board the Chronos, pulled himself out of his seat and floated over to Alan.

Is the crew compartment almost prepared?” Gerhard asked, in a German accent which Alan perceived with his paltry knowledge of German to have been tempered somewhat by years of speaking English.

Yeah, Gerhard,” Alan replied. “Just waiting for the centrifuge to spin up fully. Do you have those read-outs handy?”

Yes, yes,” Gerhard said with an air of reassurance. “They’re on my tablet.”

Right, then, Gerhard. I’ll see you in the recreational room, then?”

Gerhard raised his hand in a salute, turning towards the hatch in the centre of the room and pushing himself towards the ceiling to grip a handhold. Alan checked his wrist computer to check the rotational speed of the centrifuge, seeing that it was close to full speed, and unstrapped himself from his chair. He shouted over to Gerhard, telling him that he could pass through the hatch, then pushed himself up to the ceiling, pulling himself over to Andrew’s chair.

Andrew, by this point, was slumped over his chair in a deep slumber. Alan knew all too well the exhaustion that was inflicted on inexperienced spacecraft crew members, but there was work to be done. Gingerly, Alan pushed himself down and gently prodded Andrew in the shoulder with the toe of his boot. After a few attempts, Alan finally elicited a response as Andrew groggily shook his head and murmured some barely understandable words, “Whadda you want?”

Time to wake up,” Alan replied, “We’ve got work to do.”

After a few seconds’ pause as Andrew awkwardly fumbled with the straps of his chair, he managed to free himself and push himself out of his chair. Alan, not content to wait for Andrew to wake up properly, pulled himself towards the central hatch and plunged into the tunnel beneath him.

A couple of minutes later, he made his way back into the crew compartment and proceeded towards the recreational room. Once he arrived there, he saw Gerhard sitting at one of the tables, looking inquisitively at his tablet. As Alan opened the door, Gerhard raised his head, waved his hand and took another brief glance at his tablet while Alan found a seat on the opposite side of the table.

Where’s the computer expert?” Gerhard asked as Alan adjusted his chair.

Andrew? He’ll be down in a few moments. I just woke him up a few minutes back.”

While Alan and Gerhard waited for Andrew to arrive, they briefly discussed some of the technical details that they had arranged the meeting about. “I’d like to get as close to the asteroid miner as possible on autopilot,” Alan said. “That entry hatch looks awkward to get into, even if you’re a confident shuttle pilot.”

Well,” Gerhard replied, “we can go for a preliminary approximation here and try refining our guess when we have more information on the situation, right?”

Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. We’ll have to agree on the loadout on the shuttle here and now, though. I’ll take on some extra fuel just in case, but adding extra inertia doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time.”

Suddenly, the door slid open. Andrew stepped into the room, with a rather dishevelled look and bags around his eyes. “Sorry for keeping you,” he apologised as he sat down beside Alan.

Don’t worry about it,” replied Alan and Gerhard in unison. “Now that we’re all here, we can begin,” Alan continued once Andrew had made himself comfortable.

After some preliminary discussion of the mission profile, with some of the details reiterated for the benefit of Gerhard, Gerhard began to speak.

So, we’re basing this on a one-hundred kilometre round journey with some additional fuel for manoeuvring around the asteroid miner, correct?”

That’s correct,” Alan replied. “We’ll also have to take into consideration the mass of our payload, including myself and Andrew, my toolkit, the computer nodes and whatever other equipment and ephemera we need. Andrew, do you know off-hand how heavy each of those computer nodes are?”

I think about 10 to 12 kilograms,” Andrew replied. “The specification sheet says 11.2 kilograms, as far as I remember, but that’s for a certain standard which the ones we have on board don’t conform to.”

Well,” Alan asked, “that’ll do well enough for an approximation, won’t it, Gerhard?”

Replying in the affirmative, Gerhard proceeded to enter some preliminary data into his tablet, drawing up the framework of an equation in the process. Stopping occasionally to ask questions, Gerhard continued his work in relative silence while Alan and Andrew discussed and occasionally argued about the equipment that they would need.

Are you sure that we need to bring all thirty-six nodes at once?” Alan asked as Gerhard continued on with his calculations. “I mean, we don’t even know if the power is on in the asteroid miner, and we don’t have anywhere to put them on the other spacecraft if we need to come back to get the equipment to work on the generator over there.”

We don’t need to bring all thirty-six,” Andrew conceded, “but I will say that I’d prefer if we brought the lot in one go. It’ll save us time later in terms of going back and forth.”

Right, well, you’re bringing that equipment down to the shuttle bay then. I’m going to need to get the plasma cutter out of storage anyway.” Alan paused for a second, then continued with a sardonic undertone, “I’m pretty convinced that the power in the asteroid miner’s gone, and that we’ll have to cut our way through the doors.”

Andrew ignored him, and the room remained in silence for the next few minutes while Gerhard continued to calculate. Suddenly, Gerhard raised his head and said, “Alright, gentlemen, I have all the information I need so far. Alan, I’ll discuss this with you later. Andrew, thank you for the assistance. Good day!”

* * *

The following day saw Alan and the rest of the crew of the Chronos almost swept off their feet with work. The spacecraft was close to its objective, and the engines had been set to act at a slow but consistent rate to slow the spacecraft to a constant velocity in respect to the stranded asteroid miner. In the meantime, the crew of the Chronos were making sure that everything was in order, with Alan’s subordinates in the maintenance department taking over Alan’s duties while Alan helped to prepare the shuttle for launch.

Andrew, for his part, was providing ample assistance, quickly proceeding to place the computer components neatly into the cargo bay of the shuttle, and once Alan had managed to wrestle the plasma cutter and its large gas cylinder from the storage bay, Andrew gracefully agreed to carry down the cutting equipment while Alan lugged the gas cylinder through the narrow corridors and tunnels leading to the shuttle bay.

After a few moments of wrestling the cumbersome cylinder around door edges and corners, Alan lifted the gas cylinder up the rear-mounted ramp of the boxy, bluff-nosed shuttle and dropped it with a clatter in a corner of the rear compartment. Alan could see Commander Jackson and Vice-Commander Matthews controlling the refuelling cycle of the shuttle from a remote terminal on a raised platform, while Gerhard could be seen through the door leading to the cockpit, programming the flight plan into the shuttle’s computers.

Resting for a moment against one of the side walls of the shuttle, Alan briefly considered the upcoming shuttle flight. The one-hundred kilometre distance between the Chronos and the asteroid miner wasn’t far off touching distance in interplanetary distances, but was a bit further in terms of the shuttle he would be flying. Most of the distance would be covered under the control of Gerhard’s flight program, with Alan and Andrew just passengers until the end. It was the final five hundred metres to a kilometre that Alan had to fly, and the most potentially fraught with danger.

Almost as soon as Alan had returned to work, carefully strapping the gas cylinder to the side of the spacecraft with an aluminium chain passed through a set of wall-mounted loops, the doors of the shuttle bay opened. Alan looked over his shoulder and saw Andrew walking in, arms filled with the box with the plasma cutter equipment.

Hey Alan, where should I leave this?”, Andrew shouted as he continued towards the shuttle ramp.

On the ground here, beside the wall,” Alan replied loudly. “Don’t worry about being exact – I’ll secure it to the shuttle while you get the computer components.”

Once Andrew had ascended the ramp and placed the equipment box onto the ground, Alan started dragging it over to the wall, where he began feeding another chain through the handles and wrapping it around a few loops on the wall. As Andrew was walking down the ramp, Alan suddenly called out, “Hey, Andrew, have you got a container for those computers, something I can secure to the wall?”

Uhh… no,” Andrew replied. “I still don’t get why you need to fix everything to the wall anyway.”

Keeps everything from being thrown about during acceleration, of course,” Alan replied. “There should be some appropriate boxes in the storage area – go for the lighter plastic ones. Don’t want to add more weight to the equation.”

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The Unexpected Satellite – Part 3

After several hours of discomfort for all of the crew members, the Chronos had finally reached a velocity more suitable for making contact with the stranded asteroid miner. Alan had switched the centrifuge in the main crew compartment back on, but it would take several minutes for the motors to defeat the inertia of the heavy disc that comprised that part of the spacecraft. In the meantime, the Commander and Vice-Commander traded reports about various navigational and scanning issues. The evidence was becoming clearer: There certainly was a metallic object of substantial proportions proceeding on the trajectory that the ECSA had predicted for the asteroid miner, large enough to be a spacecraft and, to the relief of all, appearing to be in one piece.

As Alan rolled up his reading screen and placed it into his pocket, Gerhard, the mathematician on board the Chronos, pulled himself out of his seat and floated over to Alan.

Is the crew compartment almost prepared?” Gerhard asked, in a German accent which Alan perceived with his paltry knowledge of German to have been tempered somewhat by years of speaking English.

Yeah, Gerhard,” Alan replied. “Just waiting for the centrifuge to spin up fully. Do you have those read-outs handy?”

Yes, yes,” Gerhard said with an air of reassurance. “They’re on my tablet.”

Right, then, Gerhard. I’ll see you in the recreational room, then?”

Gerhard raised his hand in a salute, turning towards the hatch in the centre of the room and pushing himself towards the ceiling to grip a handhold. Alan checked his wrist computer to check the rotational speed of the centrifuge, seeing that it was close to full speed, and unstrapped himself from his chair. He shouted over to Gerhard, telling him that he could pass through the hatch, then pushed himself up to the ceiling, pulling himself over to Andrew’s chair.

Andrew, by this point, was slumped over his chair in a deep slumber. Alan knew all too well the exhaustion that was inflicted on inexperienced spacecraft crew members, but there was work to be done. Gingerly, Alan pushed himself down and gently prodded Andrew in the shoulder with the toe of his boot. After a few attempts, Alan finally elicited a response as Andrew groggily shook his head and murmured some barely understandable words, “Whadda you want?”

Time to wake up,” Alan replied, “We’ve got work to do.”

After a few seconds’ pause as Andrew awkwardly fumbled with the straps of his chair, he managed to free himself and push himself out of his chair. Alan, not content to wait for Andrew to wake up properly, pulled himself towards the central hatch and plunged into the tunnel beneath him.

A couple of minutes later, he made his way back into the crew compartment and proceeded towards the recreational room. Once he arrived there, he saw Gerhard sitting at one of the tables, looking inquisitively at his tablet. As Alan opened the door, Gerhard raised his head, waved his hand and took another brief glance at his tablet while Alan found a seat on the opposite side of the table.

Where’s the computer expert?” Gerhard asked as Alan adjusted his chair.

Andrew? He’ll be down in a few moments. I just woke him up a few minutes back.”

While Alan and Gerhard waited for Andrew to arrive, they briefly discussed some of the technical details that they had arranged the meeting about. “I’d like to get as close to the asteroid miner as possible on autopilot,” Alan said. “That entry hatch looks awkward to get into, even if you’re a confident shuttle pilot.”

Well,” Gerhard replied, “we can go for a preliminary approximation here and try refining our guess when we have more information on the situation, right?”

Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. We’ll have to agree on the loadout on the shuttle here and now, though. I’ll take on some extra fuel just in case, but adding extra inertia doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time.”

Suddenly, the door slid open. Andrew stepped into the room, with a rather dishevelled look and bags around his eyes. “Sorry for keeping you,” he apologised as he sat down beside Alan.

Don’t worry about it,” replied Alan and Gerhard in unison. “Now that we’re all here, we can begin,” Alan continued once Andrew had made himself comfortable.

After some preliminary discussion of the mission profile, with some of the details reiterated for the benefit of Gerhard, Gerhard began to speak.

So, we’re basing this on a one-hundred kilometre round journey with some additional fuel for manoeuvring around the asteroid miner, correct?”

That’s correct,” Alan replied. “We’ll also have to take into consideration the mass of our payload, including myself and Andrew, my toolkit, the computer nodes and whatever other equipment and ephemera we need. Andrew, do you know off-hand how heavy each of those computer nodes are?”

I think about 10 to 12 kilograms,” Andrew replied. “The specification sheet says 11.2 kilograms, as far as I remember, but that’s for a certain standard which the ones we have on board don’t conform to.”

Well,” Alan asked, “that’ll do well enough for an approximation, won’t it, Gerhard?”

Replying in the affirmative, Gerhard proceeded to enter some preliminary data into his tablet, drawing up the framework of an equation in the process. Stopping occasionally to ask questions, Gerhard continued his work in relative silence while Alan and Andrew discussed and occasionally argued about the equipment that they would need.

Are you sure that we need to bring all thirty-six nodes at once?” Alan asked as Gerhard continued on with his calculations. “I mean, we don’t even know if the power is on in the asteroid miner, and we don’t have anywhere to put them on the other spacecraft if we need to come back to get the equipment to work on the generator over there.”

We don’t need to bring all thirty-six,” Andrew conceded, “but I will say that I’d prefer if we brought the lot in one go. It’ll save us time later in terms of going back and forth.”

Right, well, you’re bringing that equipment down to the shuttle bay then. I’m going to need to get the plasma cutter out of storage anyway.” Alan paused for a second, then continued with a sardonic undertone, “I’m pretty convinced that the power in the asteroid miner’s gone, and that we’ll have to cut our way through the doors.”

Andrew ignored him, and the room remained in silence for the next few minutes while Gerhard continued to calculate. Suddenly, Gerhard raised his head and said, “Alright, gentlemen, I have all the information I need so far. Alan, I’ll discuss this with you later. Andrew, thank you for the assistance. Good day!”

The Unexpected Satellite – Part 2

Two days later, Alan had just finished his shift, handing the reins over to one of his subordinates. He was about halfway through the repairs on the damaged maintenance drones by this stage. It had taken him several hours of poring through inscrutable sensor readings to find out what had gone wrong, and eventually, he had tracked it down to a faulty optical sensor assembly. Now, at least, he was making progress and could leave some of the work to the rest of the maintenance crew.

After a few moments, he had reached his destination: the on-board gymnasium. After eight hours spent carefully fitting together the innards of a drone, Alan felt like stretching his muscles a bit. In any case, in the slightly lower gravity inside the spacecraft’s gyroscopic section, Alan knew that he had to make sure that he didn’t let his muscles deteriorate. Stepping into the gymnasium room, which was stocked only with those pieces of apparatus that could easily be secured to the ground, or at least attached to something else, Alan headed straight over to his locker, taking out a pair of scuffed black trainers and proceeded to sit down and take off his heavy black boots.

Once he was ready, Alan stepped onto one of the treadmills and started jogging along with metronomic footsteps that sounded out through the empty room. He kept going for twenty minutes, by which time he felt slightly more sweaty than before. He was about to seat himself on a hand cycling machine when he saw the door open. Turning his head, he saw the spacecraft’s Vice-Commander, Paul Matthews, entering the room.

Hey, Paul,” Alan shouted over to the entrance of the room.

Oh, hey, Alan,” Paul replied as he retrieved his kit from his locker. “How are things?”

Pretty good, thanks. I’m getting there with those drones – they should be up and going in a couple of days at most. How about you? Have you had any success tracking the space miner?”

I think so,” Paul replied hesitantly. “We’re tracking a large metallic object on the approximate trajectory that we expected, but without the thermal signature, we’re a bit lost.”

By this point, Alan had begun to get up to speed on the hand cycle, while Paul was still struggling with his trainers. “So,” Alan said, “how much ore do you reckon is on that spacecraft? Andrew said something in the region of one hundred million euro.”

I don’t know,” Paul replied. “I’m not an economist… or a geologist, for that matter. Andrew’s probably had a lot more briefing than us anyway. I know I’m just here to pass the saw to Andrew and whoever’s working with him.”

Alan stopped pedalling for a moment, grunting and replying, “That would be me, then. It wouldn’t be so bad, if it wasn’t for the fact that I have to pilot the bloody shuttle as well.”

Paul laughed, replying, “Ouch, unlucky!” After a pause, he continued, “Actually, it makes sense now why they’d bring in somebody else from the outside for this mission. I just reckoned that they’d get somebody who could pilot a shuttle themselves to do the job.”

Somehow, I don’t think that the two fields align all that much,” Alan replied. “In fact, they probably had a hard time even finding a maintenance-path Technical Specialist who could pilot a shuttle.”

That’s a fair point,” Paul replied as he stepped onto a treadmill. “Anyway, you don’t have to worry about it now. I’ve heard you’re quite good at Territorial Conquest. I’ve been looking for a bit of competition for a while now.”

Alan raised his eyebrows and asked, “Where did you hear that?”

Some of your crew mates told me when we were both holed up in Station Lisbon. Peter, I think, and Claude.”

Alan chuckled. “I think it’s more of a case of them being utterly predictable. But I’ll accept your challenge. Meet you in the rec room around 1800?”

You’re on!”, Paul replied with a smile.

* * * * * * * * * *

The end of the journey was approaching, and Alan was making sure that everything was in order for the reverse burn from the engines. Everything that was loose had to be secured to stop it from being chucked against the walls at high speed, while all of the maintenance drones had to be in order and working before Alan and the rest of the crew made their retreat to the rather smaller piloting station closer to the nose of the spacecraft. Alan was checking off lists, making sure that everything that he needed to take out was soon replaced, while most of the others on the spacecraft were rushing about with their own jobs in mind.

Paul and the Commander had managed to confirm to within acceptable accuracy that the object that they were pursuing was the stranded asteroid miner, which had given Andrew some relief. Andrew had confided to Alan that he was worried about getting the asteroid miner back in commission again, because a failure to do so would look like a waste of time. Unlike Alan and the crew members of the Chronos, Andrew spent most of his time either on a space station or planetside. The crew members of the ECSA’s armed spacecraft were expected to spend long periods with very little going on around them, and apart from the neophytes that hadn’t yet learned when it was necessary to work hard and when they could sit back and relax, nobody was overly concerned if there wasn’t a huge amount of activity. For Andrew, things seemed different – or at least, that was Andrew’s perception.

In fact, Andrew’s eagerness and enthusiasm to help had occasionally annoyed Alan. No amount of “I’ll sort that out later” seemed to be adequate to satisfy Andrew, who went through myriad details which weren’t yet of significance, ranging from the initial load on the shuttle to the layout of the systems in the spacecraft. Alan, for his part, had already studied the spacecraft schematics extensively, while things like the load on the shuttle would not be important until they had verified that the spacecraft hadn’t been damaged beyond repair, for instance.

Alan looked down at his open toolbox and turned his mind back towards making sure everything was secure. He was looking for a set of Allen keys which he had used recently, and had left somewhere in the maintenance room. All of the maintenance drones had been programmed and checked, and were ready to go as soon as Alan sent out the command. He was almost ready for the end of the first leg of the mission. This was the easiest part, especially now that they were reasonably sure they weren’t chasing after the spacecraft to no avail. Getting the asteroid miner working again, Alan considered, might be a considerably more difficult job.

* * * * * * * * * *

Once all of the preparations had been finished and everything set in its place, Alan climbed the long shaft leading to the piloting station. Without the centripetal force experienced in the main crew compartment, Alan felt the floating sensation of zero gravity making his movement more awkward than before. Once he reached the top of the shaft, he pressed the switch to open the hatch into the piloting station, pulling himself into the room and floating to the ceiling. A brief set of acrobatic manoeuvres helped bring him to his seat, where he promptly pulled on the five-point harness and sat back into his seat.

The rest of the crew members were seated in their usual positions, Commander Jackson and Vice-Commander Matthews seated in the centre along with Alan and the mathematician, Gerhard Schneider, while Alan’s subordinates in the maintenance department, the doctor and medical specialist were all seated closer to the periphery. Andrew was here as well, taking the seat that would ordinarily be occupied by the on-board horticulturist and hydroponicist.

After the Commander and Vice-Commander had performed their routine tasks, the Commander asked loudly, “Is everybody seated comfortably?”

There came no answer, but the Commander didn’t need one. Alan could see that he knew, along with the rest of the crew members, that the next few hours weren’t going to be comfortable at all.

Engines prepared, ready for initial burn,” the Vice-Commander said to Commander Jackson.

Initiating engines. Setting for 3G initial acceleration,” the Commander replied while tapping a number of items on his screen.

Alan felt a deep rumble that seemed to come from the bowels of the ship. Slowly but surely, he was pushed harder and harder into his seat as the spacecraft’s engines started to accelerate the spacecraft in the opposite of their direction of movement. Soon, Alan and the rest of the crew were being subjected to three times the force of gravity, with very little to do except grimace and bear it.

Over the course of the next two hours, the piloting station remained mostly quiet, aside from the occasional status report given by either the Commander or Vice-Commander and the usual sounds of movement from the rest of the crew members. Alan had taken out a scroll-like object, unrolling it into a visual display on which he was reading a technical journal on the field of spacecraft design. Occasionally, Alan looked up to observe what the rest of the crew members were doing. Some were fidgeting or reading, others were just sitting back and trying to relax, while Vincent, one of Alan’s subordinates had found the time to take a quick nap.

Eventually, Commander Jackson started to become a bit more animated. A series of status reports were shared between the Commander and Vice-Commander Matthews. “Engines prepared for disengagement,” Paul replied after a brief pause.

Disengaging engines,” the Commander confirmed. “Have them ready to fire up in half-an-hour, Paul.”

After looking around the piloting station, the Commander spoke with a resounding voice, “We’re disengaging the engines for half-an-hour, if you want to stretch yourselves out. Be prepared to go as soon as I call, though!”

Alan rolled up his visual display, putting it into a pocket on his uniform, then proceeding to unstrap himself. Pushing down on the seat, he allowed himself to drift towards the ceiling, trying to shrug the fatigue out of his muscles. There were quite a few more of the engine burns to go, but each one would slow the spacecraft down that little bit more. The Chronos was approaching its destination. It would simply take a bit more time.

The Unexpected Satellite – Part 1

Editor’s Note: This is the first piece of fictional writing that I’ve done in about two years. I don’t regard myself as a particularly good fiction writer (although, to be fair, I’m not fantastic at non-fiction either), but I wanted to file off some of the rust and see whether I could bring a science fiction story with relatively hard scientific elements to completion. Any constructive criticism would be appreciated.

It was difficult enough at the best of times to make your way through a military spacecraft, Alan Hargreaves thought as he staggered through the corridors of the ECSA Chronos. At about 175 centimetres in height, Alan was at the upper reaches of what would be considered “comfortable” on a spacecraft, which meant that he only occasionally had to bow his head to get under the various pipes and conduits protruding from the ceiling. At this moment, though, he was being further impeded by a large collection of various electronic components lying on the floors in piles against the walls, causing Alan to have to take a rather more winding path to his destination than he would have preferred.

After completing his Master’s degree in aerospace engineering, Alan had promptly joined the European Commonwealth Space Agency, the quasi-military wing of the European Commonwealth which controlled the Commonwealth’s dealings in space. In their service, he had quickly progressed up the technical ranks to become a Chief Technical Specialist by the age of twenty-nine. In truth, Alan spent more time as a precision mechanic than he did as the sort of applied mathematician he had trained as, but the pay was respectable and Alan didn’t mind the hands-on approach.

By now, Alan was thirty-three years old and had spent ten years in the job. He had long been regarded a candidate for fast-tracking into the position of Commander on board one of the ECSA’s military spacecraft, even before the notable incident three years earlier where a group of rogue Chinese taikonauts had attempted to cause an international incident by firing on the ECSA Hephaestus. Along with the rest of the crew and some unsung sensor observers on a far-flung ECSA space station, he had conducted his actions with composure. This composure had brought him to the attention of his superiors even as the incident had been swept under the carpet and explained to the general public as a mistake in a training exercise.

Officially, Alan was still assigned to the Hephaestus, although right now it was laid up for repairs after an unfortunate collision with a poorly-piloted civilian shuttle. Alan had not officially been placed on leave, though, so when his current mission had been announced with the requirement for an experienced set of technical staff, Alan had been temporarily reassigned to the Chronos for the mission.

As Alan was sidestepping one of the piles of components, a door opened up to his left-hand side, distracting Alan sufficiently to trip into another pile located in front of him. As he struggled to keep himself upright, a figure exclaimed through the door, “Hey, watch out for the equipment!”

Alan recognised the voice as that of Andrew Donovan, a computer expert also temporarily reassigned to the Chronos. After ensuring his footing, Alan replied, “Oh, hey, Andy. Sorry about that. You distracted me a bit.”

Andrew walked over to the pile of components and looked closely at them, before replying, “Just hope they’re not damaged. If they are, the Commonwealth will have my head!”

Don’t worry about it, Andy. If they’re designed for spacecraft use, I’m sure they can take a gentle boot tap every so often,” Alan replied. “Actually, I was going to ask you: Did you really have to bring the entire set of computers for that spacecraft along with you?”

The spacecraft that Alan was referring to was an asteroid mining vessel, designed to automate the laborious, repetitive task of pulverising asteroids and collecting the loose material for processing for metals rarely found on Earth. Normally, the system worked well, operating more quickly and cheaply than placing a human into the spacecraft for control purposes. This time, however, things had gone wrong, and the asteroid miner in question had dropped off the sensors somewhere in the Mars-Jupiter asteroid belt, not giving off any radio signals, nor any infra-red traces.

Well, the spacecraft did cost Brahms Space Mining eighteen billion euro,” Andrew replied after some consideration, “and it’s got a cargo on board projected to be worth one hundred million euro, some of which is earmarked for the Commonwealth itself. I felt that it was better to be safe than sorry.”

Alan grunted. “Right, of course. Well, if you can, try to keep the piles on one side or another. I mean, we’re used to being cramped in the ECSA, but we prefer not to have to walk like crabs to get from one place to another.”

Andrew nodded. “Understood, Alan. I’d best be off now anyway – I don’t think the Commander will want to wait too long. I’ll try to sort things out a bit more when I’m done.”

Alan grunted again, replying, “That’ll have to do. It’s not like we have any free space around anyway.”

The two men shared a brief, firm handshake, before saluting each other and progressing onwards in opposite directions. As Alan continued towards the maintenance bay, still winding his way through the assorted electronic equipment, he wondered if Andrew had underestimated the amount of space available on an ECSA military spacecraft, or if he was simply more comfortable with cramped space than Alan himself.

* * * * * * * * * *

Before long, Alan had settled back into his job. At that moment, he was resolving an incident that had occurred with a couple of the maintenance robots earlier. The robots in question, marked clearly in white paint with the serial numbers C11 and A15, had collided during a seemingly routine set of maintenance instructions, necessitating one of Alan’s technical assistants to climb through the tight maintenance pipes to clear the blockage before any other robots got clogged up in the same pipe junction.

Alan began looking closely at the robot marked C11. This robot, which went up to Alan’s waist, was shaped in the form of a rough sphere, with two rotating electromagnets used to “crawl” through the pipes and a set of optical sensors fitted around the two axes of the sphere. There also happened to be a big dent on one side of the robot, presumably from the collision. Alan thought of the lengthy repair job that he would have to do before the robot would be once again fit for service and sighed. First of all, he thought, he would have to figure out the cause of the collision.

Alan walked over to a nearby desk, picking up a large tablet computer and a diagnostic cable. Walking back to C11, he crouched down beside it, looked for the port for the cable and plugged the cable into the port, placing the other end into the tablet computer. Using the tablet, he loaded the command program which had been assigned to the robot and the sensor readouts onto the screen and took a cursory look at them. His quick glance didn’t reveal any glaring problems, so Alan proceeded over to another robot of similar construction which was sitting ready underneath an entry pipe into the maintenance network.

Shortly after loading the control program onto the undamaged robot, the robot pulled its way into the maintenance network, soon disappearing out of sight. Pulling up a few windows on his tablet, Alan aligned a view of the maintenance robots already in the network alongside a couple of views of the control program in both symbolic and text-based source code formats. After submitting a few commands to keep the other maintenance robots out of the path of his test, Alan sat down and watched the path of the robot as it made its way through the pipe network.

As the robot turned its way through each bend, Alan compared each turn with the corresponding instruction in the control program. Each time, the movement corresponded exactly to what was expected, and after twenty minutes, Alan was no closer to figuring out what had caused the collision. If the problem was with C11, Alan faced a slog through near-incomprehensible sensor readouts and a laborious examination of multiple components to find the problem. Before trying that, though, Alan thought that it would be better to test A15 first to either confirm or eliminate it as an obvious cause.

A15 looked somewhat similar to C11 in that it was spherical and contained electromagnets as a propulsion system, but on A15, there were two sliding hatches which contained a modular array of precision tools for repairing everything from cracks in the pipe network to miniscule electronic components. The optical sensors were also of a different model and arranged differently to the ones on C11.

As Alan was about to plug the diagnostic cable into the port on A15, he was disturbed by a tone from his earpiece. He looked down at his wrist and the screen of his wrist computer to see that he was being called by the Commander. Pressing down on the screen on his wrist, Alan answered, “Yes, Commander. Alan speaking.”

Hello, Alan,” the Commander replied. “Are you in the middle of something?”

Nothing that can’t wait,” Alan responded. “Just investigating a robot collision in the maintenance network. Routine work, although it looks like one of the robots took a heavy smack. It’ll be a bit of a job to fix it.”

Right. Anyway, I want you to come up to my office. Andrew was going through the details of the repair job on the asteroid miner, and he says that he needs a second man for the job.”

And I suppose then that I’m the second man?”

That would be correct. We need to discuss this plan in detail before our arrival.”

Yes, Commander. I’ll be up shortly.”

Pulling the diagnostic cable from its port on the tablet computer, Alan laid the tablet back in its place on the desk before walking over to the door of the maintenance bay and waiting for it to slide open. He had a feeling that he was going to have to spend quite a while later on figuring out the cause of the robotic collision, but for now, a more important task was at hand.

* * * * * * * * * *

A few minutes later, Alan was standing around a desk along with the Commander and Andrew. On the desk, there was a computer display of the blueprints for the asteroid miner, with a few areas of interest highlighted on the screen. Alan had studied the blueprints extensively before the journey, as, presumably, had Andrew, so the blueprints were there more for the benefit of the Commander, whose role was more to supervise the running of the Chronos and ensure that the crew got to their destination and back safely.

Alright, so you understand the plan, Alan?”, the Commander asked as Alan took a closer look at some of the dimension markings.

Pretty much, yes. We fly the shuttle over to the asteroid miner, enter through this entrance hatch,” Alan replied, pointing on the blueprints to a small hatch in the side of the spacecraft, “then replace the computer systems, the communications array, the power generators and anything else that could have been damaged.”

That’s the gist of it, yes,” the Commander replied.

So, just a standard repair job then. I’m sure that any of the technical staff on the ship could do it, given enough time. I’m just wondering what role I play in all of this. I mean, I don’t mind being transferred over from the Hephaestus; all I would have done is sit down and twiddle my thumbs until the repairs on my craft are finished. Still, there has to be a reason for having your own Chief Technical Specialist sit out of an apparently routine mission.”

Yes, I believe you were picked for a reason,” the Commander replied. “We could only acquire a two-person shuttle from Station Vienna. Neither I nor the Vice-Commander were trained as maintenance technicians.”

Alan raised his eyebrows in surprise, then replied, “Well, things are starting to make sense then.”

Andrew raised his hand timidly, and as the two other men turned their heads towards him, he asked, “Forgive me for interrupting, but I’m not sure I understand.”

Alan laughed. “It’s nothing, really. I’m guessing I’m the only maintenance technician on board who is officially rated to fly the shuttle in question. I can’t fly particularly well, though – I need to make that clear from the start. All I can promise is that I probably won’t fly into the side of the asteroid miner.” He paused for a second. “Probably.”