David L. Burkhead
CHAPTER TWO (Part Two)
When he released the news of what had happened back on Earth, Schneider expected at least some panic, but there had been none. He had not seen any sign that they were too shocked to even panic. Instead, his people waited for instruction in what to do. Schneider had never been prouder of the people working for him.
Julia installed a large viewscreen in the cafeteria at Schneider's request. It tied into both the computer system and video circuits. Currently, it displayed a view of the Rock around which the construction shack circled.
"Okay," Schneider said, "What is our situation?"
Julia set her compad aside. "Those idiots back Earthside have finally done it. They've gone to war." She reached for the viewscreen controls and paused, catching Schneider's eye. At Schneider's nod she tapped a switch. The starfield filling the viewscreen vanished to be replaced by a transcript of the broadcast they had received from A. C. Clarke less than an hour ago, the broadcast that had caused Schneider to call the meeting.
"You've all seen the preliminary report," Julia said. "The missile defenses worked better than even the most optimistic estimates. Only about a dozen warheads got through. Denver's gone, as are Tripoli and Minsk along with four of our military bases. That, while tragic, is not our immediate concern. Both major powers, plus half a dozen smaller nations, are using their defenses to deny the others access to space. That leaves us cut off." She frowned. "And I don't think everybody will lower their defenses long enough for us to evacuate."
Schneider nodded. "What about the other stations and outposts? What's their status?"
Julia shrugged. "I've been too busy with our own problems to look into it."
"Anybody?" Schneider asked.
Keith Moreno, a fifty-year-old polymath, leaned forward to answer the question. "The other stations are pretty much in the same fix we are," he said. Although Moreno worked in the computer department, he did not set up networks. He explored networks to find information and do research.
Rebecca Curie, a physicist by trade, placed a hand on Moreno's arm. The ink had hardly dried on her doctorate and she did not have Moreno's breadth of knowledge but her understanding of the physical sciences went much deeper. They worked together in a partnership that extended into their private lives as well.
"None of us," Curie said, "are self sufficient. We've barely begun construction here. Lunaville still relies on shipments from Earth, and the GEO stations require regular resupply of just about everything."
"What about the stations in low Earth orbit?" Schneider asked. Most of the government-owned stations, except the German’s and the Japanese’s, remained in LEO as did the privately owned station, C.A.M.P.E.R.
Moreno shook his head. "There's been no contact with any of them since the fighting broke out." He sighed. "My guess is that they were destroyed in the first attack."
Schneider winced. More than two hundred men and women...dead. He felt their loss more than he felt the loss of Denver. He had known some of those people personally.
"What about communications Earthside?" he asked.
"None since the war started," Julia said. "We've tried calling but nobody replies." She nodded at Schneider's surprise. "That includes Mauna Loa. We've picked up some groundside chatter and noted an encrypted call to Lunaville, which just goes to prove that Earth can reply if they want to. They’re just not talking to us. I don't know why."
Schneider sat in silence a long time. Finally, he said, "All right. Bottom line. How long can we last."
Julia shook her head. Moreno looked over to Curie who said, "Six months. The GEO stations about the same. Lunaville can last maybe eight. The Troy mission can hold out the longest, a year."
Moreno shrugged. "I guess we just hope the war's over before then."
"A forlorn hope at best," Julia said. "Since neither side succeeded in blowing the other up, it looks like they've settled down for a nice, long siege. I would have expected a cease-fire or something so folk can sort that out but they keep on fighting. It could go on for years."
"There has to be an answer." Schneider stood up, a little hastily in the low gravity and he bounced off the floor. By keeping one hand on the edge of the table he recovered easily. He continued, "Get together with your departments. I want an assessment: what we have, what we can do without. Keith, I want you and Rebecca to try to figure out what's going on Earthside. We need information since they're not talking."
He paused for a moment. "I'll meet with each of you over the next few days, then we'll get together and see if we can hammer out a plan. All right?"
Without waiting for an answer, he turned and hurried through the door.
Millhouse intercepted him in the corridor.
"What do you think, John?" Schneider asked.
"I think we're in deep shit," Millhouse said. "However you look at it, we just don't have the supplies to stay up here for more than six months. It's hard to live off the land when that land is nearly four hundred thousand kilometers away."
Schneider nodded then peered more closely at Millhouse. A haggard look, very unlike him, dulled his eyes. Further, frown lines just creased the normally smooth brown expanse of Millhouse's forehead, making him look much older than his thirty-three years. "Something's wrong, beyond just the obvious. Care to tell me about it?"
Millhouse bit his lip as all pretence fell away. "Rick, I'm worried. Hell, I'm scared."
Schneider considered for a moment. "John, there's an answer here. There has to be. We'll find it. We'll pull through."
"It's not us I'm scared about," Millhouse said. "My wife is still down there. And our house is right next to Mauna Loa. That's got to be a target."
Schneider swore softly. So. He understood. Schneider had been driving himself in work to try and keep from thinking too much about his own children still on Earth. How much worse it had to be for Millhouse who had only just returned from his honeymoon when he had joined Schneider on this tour. Of course, his wife's safety worried him.
"I know what you're feeling," Schneider said. "Don't worry overmuch. I left good people in charge of the company Earthside. They'll take care of your wife. If it looks like there's danger, Lincoln will see that they're evacuated."
"Dammit, John," Schneider said. "I need you. If we're to come out of this alive ourselves I'll need every man and woman here at full potential. That includes you."
Millhouse jerked at Schneider’s rebuke then nodded. As Millhouse walked away, Schneider released the breath he had been holding. Schneider had not meant to snap at Millhouse like that. Still, his words had made Millhouse think about something other than his worry. Good.
#Schneider returned to his quarters. He did not see Marie. His oldest son, William, sat bent over the computer workstation.
"You know," William looked up from the terminal. "I could get used to this low gravity."
When did he grow up, Schneider wondered. One minute, Schneider was bouncing William on his knee and the next William was in graduate school, working on his PhD in mechanical engineering.
"You could, huh?" Schneider said.
"You bet." William waved at the cane leaning in the corner. "Can you imagine how good it feels to be able to walk without that thing?"
Schneider grunted in response. The same auto accident that had killed Schneider's first wife had also done permanent damage to William's right knee. An allergic reaction had prevented him from accepting an artificial joint replacement and his leg would no longer support his full weight unaided. Schneider looked over William's shoulder and peered down at the computer screen. "What are you working on?"
"It's a simulation," William said. "I'm trying to develop a small, closed cycle ecology using those German high-efficiency plants. So far, only huge systems remain stable. Small systems tend to die out without constant adjustment."
"Making any progress?"
"Some." William scrolled through the lines of code on the screen, stopped, and pointed. "Here I tried to run high on green plants. Ordinarily in a system like this, the plants use up the available carbon dioxide. The new plants are more sensitive to low CO2 levels. They go dormant. CO2 levels shoot up and, before the plants can recover, your animal life dies off. If you have a large enough system, the changes occur slowly enough that you don’t have the problem, but I'm looking at small systems. A space station rather than a colony."
"Sounds nasty," Schneider said.
William nodded in agreement. "I put in a routine that adds carbon dioxide when the amount falls below a preset level. When I run the simulation with that change, it lasts about twice as long before collapsing, and even then the collapse isn't as catastrophic. I'm looking for other factors I can adjust, trying to build a system that I can keep running indefinitely with only minor adjustments. I would like to keep those adjustments to simple things that could be done automatically in a real-world system."
"That's good," Schneider said. "Do you have any idea how much we’re going to need that?"
"Oh?" William looked up at him. "Are things that bad?"
"They're not good. Six months and we have a disaster as catastrophic as anything in your simulations." Schneider sank back onto the room's couch. "Worse, because it involves real people dying."
William pivoted his chair to face him.
"Where's Marie?" Schneider asked.
"Down in the galley. She said she was going to try to teach the cooks how to make coffee."
"Best of luck to her." Schneider forced a smile. While the coffee brewed at O'Neill tasted like mud in Schneider’s mouth, the cook resented any intrusion into his territory.
"What are you willing to bet she has her way?" William asked.
Schneider laughed. "Sorry, Will. I'm not making any sucker bets today. Remember. I've known her longer than you have."
A thumping sounded at the door, low down as if someone were kicking it. Schneider placed fingers into the recessed door latch, pressed, and slid the door back into its pocket.
Marie stood in the doorway, laden with a heavy tray. A round, glass, coffeepot sat near the center of the tray. Steam drifted from the fluid that filled the pot, carrying to Schneider's nose the scent of better coffee than he had smelled, let alone tasted, since leaving Earth. On one side of the pot sat a pile of sandwiches, on the other, three bowls of soup.
Schneider caught his breath and stared. Sixteen years they’d been married and he still could not get over how any room brightened when she walked into it. Other folk might think her rather plain, with her oval face and light-brown hair but when she smiled the world lit up. When his first wife had died, the need to care for his son had given him a reason for not dying. It had only been when Marie had come into his life that he found a reason for living.
"Well?" she said.
"Are you going to get out of my way, Mr. Schneider, or am I going to dump this on you? Careful how you answer. It's hot."
Schneider stepped to one side, bowed, and waved her inside with a sweeping gesture.
Marie kissed him on the cheek as she passed him in entering the room. She set the tray on the room's single table. "So, how did the meeting go?"
"You don't have to do that," Schneider said as she began to set the table.
"It makes me feel useful." Marie turned to face him. "Considering where we are and what our situation is, well, no one is asking me to balance books or perform an audit. Besides, this will probably be our last good meal before you put strict rationing into effect so I wanted to grab it quick.
"And don't change the subject. How did the meeting go?"
"We have some problems," Schneider said.
"Meaning that until the war's over we're cut off. We can't get to Earth, nor can anybody reach us. We either starve or suffocate when our supplies run out." She smiled wanly. "The rumor mill is already active."
"Dad," William said, "you should know better than to try to 'protect' Mom that way. I think she's tougher than both of us put together."
Schneider laughed. "That she is."
As they ate lunch, Schneider told them both the details of the meeting.