David L. Burkhead
CHAPTER TWO (Part One)
"Colonel." General Thaddeus Russell, head of NASA Lunar Operations, nodded at him. "I have to inform you that the United States is officially at war."
Mason drew a startled breath. "Did the North Africans...?"
"They did," Russell said. "Unfortunately, it's worse than we thought it would be. We've had a communications problem, a bad one. We're still trying to find out where it happened. When we retaliated against the North African confederacy..." He sighed. "There’s no point in going into the details. The upshot is that a number of missiles flew to incorrect targets. Somehow they got orders from, well, plans for other contingencies." He sighed again and shook his head. "Six missiles headed for targets in the Russian Federation. The Russians retaliated with surprising restraint. They launched a somewhat larger missile strike then stopped. Nobody's launching any more missiles at the moment, thank God, but we've tightened our defenses as much as we can just in case.
"After the missile strike, several military leaders in Russia took the opportunity provided by the chaos to seize power. They reinforced their conventional attack in Europe. Our analysts think this is an effort on their part to retain power. No one, on either side, is willing to stop the fighting long enough to sort out the mess. Once a war gets started, whether by mistake or not, it can be very hard to stop."
"I...see. What are our orders, sir?"
Russell smiled. "Just sit tight. There's nothing you can do up there. Analysts at the Pentagon tell us this will be a short war. We have the same technological edge we had in Iraq. Having to split our attention between Europe and Africa will slow us down some, but we already have forces in Europe. Our analysts are talking six months...eight tops. Plenty of time to get relief to you."
"That sounds reassuring, sir, but are you sure...?" Mason let his voice trail off.
"No, I'm not sure, but that's what I've been told to tell you." Russell’s voice softened. "They'd better be right, Dave. Just about all the participants in this war have missile defenses of one sort or another. Everybody's denying everybody else access to space. Until the war's over you're on your own."
Mason mulled that over. He had been a fighter pilot, had fought in the Middle East, before transferring to NASA. While he was no stranger to risk, the idea of calmly waiting to starve to death while others fought sent shivers down his spine.
"Six...months." Mason mouthed the words. "The war will be over in six months." If he told himself that often enough, perhaps he would believe it.
"Dave, are you all right?"
Mason jerked his attention back to the screen with the camera lens above it. "Yes, sir. How much of this can I tell Lunaville personnel?"
Russell laughed. "Tell whoever you want. None of them are in a position to reveal secrets to the enemy. You may also want to consider contingency plans. Just in case."
Mason smiled. What contingency plans could they develop besides an attempt to raid other stations for food? Oxygen they could obtain from lunar rock and water they could recycle. They would need food if they had to be out here for very long.
For a moment, Mason considered the possibility of such raids. He as quickly discarded the notion. Whatever he might think of Schneider, the idea of piracy repelled him. Besides, Schneider possessed the only ships in space. Excuse me, Mr. Schneider. Would you mind loaning me a ship or two so that I might launch an attack on your stations to steal food? Mason did not know whether to laugh or cry.
"I'll look into what we can do," Mason said. "I'm sure you're being overcautious. The analysts are certainly right."
Russell gave him an odd look. "If they are, it will be the first time."
Mason laughed. "Lunaville out." He shut off the circuit. Six months. Please, dear God, please let those analysts be right.
#"So that's where we stand, Brian," Mason said a quarter hour later.
Angel blew a deep breath through pursed lips. "It looks like we're in deep trouble."
"Nonsense." Mason waved aside the concern. "As soon as the war is over, six months from now, maybe less, they'll send a relief ship." Perhaps if he told himself that often enough he would believe it. "With new supplies and an end to the North African problem we can get going the way we should."
"Six months?" Angel's eyebrows rose. "We're locked in a war with the Russian Federation and you say six months? Never mind the Africans. It's likely to go on for...."
Mason slapped a palm on his desktop forestalling whatever Angel had been planning to say. "Six months. That is the direct word from the Pentagon."
Mason's eyes narrowed and his lips pressed into a thin line before opening to respond. "I said six months. Now I don't want to hear any more about it, not from you, not from anyone."
Angel skipped back a step. "Yes, sir."
"Easy, Brian," Mason said. "I shouldn't have snapped. Do try to remember, though, the last thing we need is a panic."
"I'm not sure I understand."
Mason sighed and sank deeper into his seat. "Most of the people here are civilians. In a crisis like this we need to keep the coolest heads possible. Just let rumors get started and we'll soon have people claiming that we're being abandoned. That kind of thing we don't need."
"I don't think we'll get a reaction anything like that," Angel said.
"Maybe not," Mason said. "But we can't take that chance. Now, the Pentagon says that the war will be over in six months, eight at the outside. They have a lot more information than we do to make an assessment. Unless and until we get better intelligence we'll just have to rely on what they say."
"If...you say so, sir." Angel looked dubious.
"I do." Mason nodded at the door. "Now, why don't you pass the word, and keep an ear open for wild rumors. We'll have to squash them."
"Oh, and Brian," Mason said as Angel's hand fell on the door latch. "Remember. Six months."
As Angel left, Mason wondered who he was trying to convince--Angel or himself--but only for an instant. But he needed to guard against the panic issue. If he, with his experience in combat, felt on the verge of panic how much more would the others feel it?
He poured himself a drink from the bottle in his desk. After a while, the nagging worry at the back of his mind went away.
#Karen Gold waited in the Troy mission's command center for the regular transmission from A. C. Clarke. It arrived on schedule.
The small room most resembled the flight deck of a large airliner with computer screens where the windows should be. In the front were two stations--one monitoring the drives and navigation systems, the other handling communications. On the right wall a large panel monitored the ship’s internal systems. In the rear left corner sat a small chair with a single computer screen and simple panel of buttons that hovered in front of the chair on a swing-away boom. The screen would let whoever had the con--Gold at the moment--check any of the key ship’s systems. An intercom system connected to that simplified computer system, allowing Gold to give orders to those responsible for any system she monitored.
"Uh, Captain?" Crewman Mark Prentice looked up from the communications station.
"We're getting a warning signal for an incoming, real-time video." He shook his head. "Rush immediate priority."
Gold gnawed on her lower lip. "Routing?"
"Just the ship."
Gold swung the computer monitor from in front of her chair and stood. "My office, then, but record it. I'll decide what to do once I've seen it."
"And get Harry. Whatever it is, he should see it too."
A few minutes later the image came up on her office screen. Gold watched in growing horror as Walter Terrence, commander of A. C. Clarke, described the war on Earth. She felt sick to her stomach. She had a cousin who lived in Denver. Had lived in Denver.
The message came to an end.
"Oh, my God," Jordan whispered.
"So, what do I do with this?" Gold said. "Do I tell the crew?"
"Captain, that's your decision." He stood up and shook his head. "That's why you have the rank, not me."
Gold sighed and nodded. "They have a right to know. Besides, we couldn’t keep it secret too long anyway. She pressed the intercom switch on her desktop, "Prentice?"
"Play the recording of that message. Shipwide."
Gold sat through the message as it played a second time, then stood, up. "Well, lets go brave the lions' den."
All sound ceased in the command center when Gold stepped into it.
Prentice looked back at her, his face white. "What are we going to do?"
Gold shook off her own budding panic. "We cope," she said. She turned to Jordan. "I want an assessment of our resources. The resupply mission won't be coming as scheduled so I'll need to know what we can do on our own."
"I can tell you right now what our critical needs are going to be." Jordan held up three fingers. As he named each item, he folded a finger. "Food, fuel, and drive electrodes."
Gold nodded. "That's about what I thought. Those are the three things we can’t replace readily."
"Readily?" Jordan cocked his head to one side. "We can't replace them at all that I can see."
"We're going to die," Prentice said.
"That will be enough of that," Gold said. "Before we have even begun to consider our options is not the time to be giving up."
"But there's nothing we can do," Prentice said.
"Oh?" Gold raised one eyebrow. "I can think of several possibilities off the top of my head. Our drive electrodes are tungsten and copper." Her wave indicated their general direction of travel. "We can probably use iron if we have to."
"Less efficient," Jordan said. "It would cut into our thrust, but it would be workable. Oh, iron would erode like fury, but I suppose we could double or triple up on spares."
Gold nodded. "Fuel is gallium. I don't know if it's available in those asteroids but I don't know that it's not either." She drew in a deep breath. "As for food, we do have the algae tanks. I don't know if we using them as food would provide any nutrition, but again I don't know that it won’t either. Unlikely? Perhaps. Impossible. No. I for one won't give up until we've exhausted every avenue. Not even then."
She leaned toward Prentice. "Have I made myself clear, Crewman?"
"Yes, ma'am," Prentice said in a very small voice.
"Right." Gold looked around the room. No one else seemed to want to say anything. "If I'm needed, I'll be in my cabin."
A cluster of people swarmed around Gold the moment she stepped off the bridge.
"What's going on?" someone asked.
"Are we stranded?" someone else asked.
"Is it hopeless?" a third put in.
Gold held up her hands in a calming gesture. "Please. I won't kid you. Our situation is serious. We can be certain that the resupply mission will be, at least, delayed, possibly stopped entirely. Unless we can find some answers of our own, we will be stranded out here until we run out of food."
The group went silent at her words. Gold could feel the tension in the air. She schooled her face into the most confident expression she could muster and poured all the conviction she could into her words. "However, our situation is far from hopeless. To return to Earth we will need fuel and new drive electrodes. We'll be looking at ways to manufacture both of them right here, using material from the asteroids we're approaching. As for food, we'll be examining ways to convert our waste back into nutrition." Her smile changed of its own accord into a wide grin. "Right now we're changing our waste into algae and we dry and store the excess. The logical next step is to see if we can convert that algae into food."
The tension, while still strong, diminished noticeably.
"Now," Gold continued, "I've given orders to Mr. Jordan. He'll be in touch with you about individual assignments."
As she watched, the crowd dispersed.
Gold paced the corridors to her cabin. Several times she ran into groups of individuals, some as small as three, one as large as twelve. Each time they stopped her and she had to repeat herself, calming each group and reassuring them that the situation was not without hope. She had not kept count, but thought that by the time she reached her cabin she had spoken to everyone in the ship.
When she closed the door of her cabin Gold looked down at her hands. She clasped them together in a vain attempt to stop their shaking.
Gold dug into her cupboard and removed a flask of scotch from the clips that held it secure against changes in acceleration. She fit the dispenser nozzle to the fill valve of a drinking bulb and squirted herself a strong drink. She held it up and stared at it for several seconds, then squirted it back into the flask. She wanted--needed--a clear head.