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The ARGO EPIC Mission

©2018 Levite

      "Roger. No, Houston, I want to start an unofficial commissary. With stuff that isn't on the regular commissary list. Think 'black market'. Everything on the regular list is so bland. And in the most efficient packaging ever made. It's been six months already and we need some variety. Think about it, if you were up here until you die, wouldn't you want a real drink and a bite of really sticky candy that wasn't in a vacuum bag once in awhile? And maybe some spices or something for your preformed protein burger? Over."
      There was the usual nearly half hour delay, and growing daily, from when I finished my message to when they got it, and responded with the traditional "Roger" which indicated that they heard whatever I said. Then there was an even longer wait while whatever ninny was on the other end composed a message and responded.
      It was exactly forty eight minutes and forty three seconds from when I said "in awhile" to when I got their response back with the code indicating it was for me. But what I got back wasn't what I expected.
      "Roger T-5. Message received and understood. We'll put those items, and a few specials on the next courier out to you. It's the least we can do. Mission Control out."

The ARGO EPIC Mission Log By

Livia Tremblay Cote
Mission Specialist Biomechanics
l'Agence Spatiale Canadienne
Joint Venture Ship: The Argo Epic

      I've been trying to decide how to write up my addition to the unofficial, informal, unmandated, and perhaps even uncalled for journal of our mission, as versus the official, and boring, Mission Log, and this is what I came up with. I'll tell you something about me and how I ended up here, and then I'd tell you something about the mission, and then more about myself. And I'll write some when I'm on duty, and dictate some to be transcribed later when I'm not. And then I might go back and change something, or not. And so on. Until I get tired of it. Then I'll take a break and do some more later.
      Maybe a lot later. And I might not send parts of it back to Earth until I want to.
      And that's how it will go.
      If you don't like it, there's several other mission logs like this out there from those of us that were both still alive and coherent enough to do it, not counting the Captain's. Read those. Or even, read his.
      Nine of us. Out of ten that launched, what? Three years ago or so. One of us can't do it for one reason or another, and another is, well, to us, he's officially missing. We knew dying was a risk, and he did. But. There it is, and here we are.

1. "Why?"

      The ground coordinator for our journals has helpfully come up with headings for us to use. That's the first one. "Why did you want to go on this particular mission knowing what could happen?"

      We all knew what we'd signed up for.
      We'd all survived endless psychological profiles and debriefings with NASA and the ESA. We'd been through everything from dream analysis to long term stress studies.
      I know for a fact that three starched-shirts from some alphabet soup agency even talked to the elderly woman that had been my first grade teacher back in Canada. And let me tell you, even then, over twenty years ago, Mrs. Griffith was old. Or at least she seemed to be ancient to us then. I'd even forgotten her name, that is I did until she called my mother, who then emailed me while we were still in training in Cologne in Germany to tell me that my early childhood was evidently of utmost interest to CSIS, as she put it.
      Another thing was that I got the impression that because I was a woman they were being even tougher on me and my background than the men. I mean, we had all agreed to be permanently and irrevocably sterilized before launch. But the six of us women that were picked to go were all put through an extra round of questioning demanding to know why we didn't want to bear children, which seemed to be more important to them than the fact that for most of my college career I barely pulled a B average in my 'space science' minor in human biological adaptability and a bit that I spun into being technological assistance for helping that along. Yes it sounded strange, but it worked!
      My first internal response was, "it's none of your damned business", but I didn't say it until we were safely out of Earth's gravitational field and there was no going back. While undergoing their evaluations, I always spouted some graduate school pablum about how the greater interest of science was more important to me than my own progeny.
      But in the end, I made the cut for the group from Canada, I got through an almost two year bout of training and then more debriefings, and another round of cuts. Finally, after two other finalists either dropped out or were cut for various reasons, ten of us suited up and boarded the two launch vehicles that would take us out to the mission vessel. Five men out of nearly four hundred qualified and accepted candidates, and five women out of two hundred equally vetted individuals that had met all the criteria including speaking more than one language, which, oddly enough, included at least being passable in English.

      The mission was simple: We'd go out into space. And probably never come back.
      Well. There was an end date and a supposed return plan. Some ten to twenty years down the road. In the mission briefings when they began talking about sending out an automated vessel to pick us up and bring us home we'd just look at each other. According to some of the boffins that would talk to us off the record, nobody had done any more than propose some 'blue sky' plans to begin to design the return vehicle.
      The Bare Minimum of time we'd be in space was seven years. And that was if somebody somewhere decided we'd do an "out and back" trip and nothing stupid happened. Go out beyond Jupiter as fast as the ship can fly, take a few tourist photos, then come back kind of thing. But that wasn't likely to happen and we knew it the day we launched from Earth.
      In any case, perhaps two decades later, if any of the ten of us were still breathing, we'd be given a hero's welcome home as had never been seen before anywhere on the planet. We'd been promised a parade that would make the grandest processions of everybody from Caesar to the moon landing crews seem like homecoming at some third rate high school.
      In the mean time we'd study the really long term effects of near weightlessness on the body, endless exposure to whatever space threw at us, total restricted confinement, recycled air and water, the monotony of close quarters and the same food all the time. We'd learn about the psychological effects of long duration missions, and all that. We would also have the dream jobs of closely examining everything beyond Mars, including potentially capturing some small asteroids as we passed through them on our way out. And so on.
      And then sit out there for years and years and years....

      "You're a young attractive woman with your whole life ahead of you. WHY on God's Earth would you want to do this?" The review board asked a version of the same question seven different times. I mean it, I wrote it down in my journal when they asked me in the first interview. Then again when I went back. A different screening board asked me pretty much the same thing when I went to New York for a follow up, then again in Houston after the second medical screening.
      I was asked again, this time through a translator, in Germany.
      And then here it came again in the final two reviews, the last time after I'd been named to the launch team as the ranking member of what would amount to the third shift on the ship.
      From what I understand, although I never talked to her directly after she left, it was that question, and that pressure, that led Mio and the other female candidate from Japan to pull out before the final cut was made. But maybe if she hadn't left, they would have cut me, so, I might be better off not knowing all the facts.
      My friend Erendira, who we all call "Dira" said they asked her the same question even more because they thought that a young Spanish woman would want to have a family more than anything else in life.
      "Once, they even cut me from the program because the Spanish member of the panel thought I was more valuable to Spain if I would marry and have kids," she shook her head, "I knew how to appeal, and I won."

      What took me longer to get used to than the idea that I might leave Earth and never really see it again was that I was going to be one of the officers for the crew.
      I'm convinced that I was going to be the 'third officer' for the mission because either everybody else had convinced Mission Control that whatever they were doing would occupy every waking second of their life on board ship, or that they would rather spend the next dozen years working at a check point at the airport than being in command of this crew and that ship. Or maybe I was just the last one they asked to do it.
      In any case, when I was asked in an interview if I would take command training, I said, and these were my exact words, "yes, of course, why wouldn't I?"
      There was one advantage to it... It got me out of having to do some of the other duties on board because, 'I had to get ready for my command shift.'

      The first time I went into command when we were in space and had a chance to look out I couldn't believe it, and I almost panicked.
      The command deck was a large hexagon, because whoever designed this ship had a thing for multiples of three, with six enormous windows that had to be the largest pieces of unbreakable glass ever launched into space. All arranged around the central passage that was the center corridor of the ship. That glass was so thick, and so many layers of it, that the inside was cool to the touch. Just cool. On the other side of that glass it was something on the order of two hundred degrees below zero.
      The last time I'd been up here just after we came over, the 'impact shields' had all been closed, like petals of a flower folded in over the pistil, so you couldn't see out.
      But now.

      I had gone up to command to turn a system on so it could be checked for the final time before departure, and I almost forgot to do it because I stopped to look out. I hit one of the com buttons and told everybody that that system should be live now.
      Then I floated from one window to the next and just looked out.
      I didn't have to look up or down, like I had to elsewhere, the Universe was right there in front of me.
      The only thing I couldn't see out the front windows was Earth, because even then, just hours after us coming on board, the Argo was already pointed out and moving toward NOTHING.
      Earth was behind us. I could see it through the smaller rear facing portals. Earth, our moon, and the rest of the ship.
      I cold see the final transfer pod that had brought us over was still docked on the docking ring. In about an hour, it would detach and head back to Earth with the last of the boffins that had been here for a couple of weeks making sure we knew how to do what we'd been training for over a year to do.
      When the first part of the readiness crew left a few hours ago in the other pod, there was a moment when we all had to make the decision, if we didn't really want to do this, we had to say so and go back with them. And then spend the rest of our lives being "the one that stayed behind". We all remained on the Argo.
      The second pod was smaller and only had room for the handful of technicians that were supposed to go back to the space station. I suppose one of them could have been convinced to stay, but, then there's be all sorts of hell to pay.
      I stayed in command to monitor the rest of the final operational sequence.
      At least that's what I told everybody I was doing. In reality, I was getting chills that started in my feet and went all the way up my spine. I didn't trust myself to go back that way where that pod was.
      It undocked and headed back right on schedule, and the Mission Commander came up and we fired up the engines, and, left home.
      Possibly forever.

2. Our Space In Space
      This chapter title is mine because my both Canadian aunt and my two aunts in Michigan sent letters wanting to know what 'my cabin' was like on the ship and do I have any privacy and things like that.

      Even though the Argo has a living and working area with full life support that is just over sixteen hundred cubic meters, which doesn't include specialized areas like the docking ring and storage pods that have their hatches closed unless we're using them, it still seems small when you realize that this is all we have. But even then, the designers had a formula for how much 'space' each person would need to live on the ship. How much work area, how much recreational area, and all that. Well, OK, that's fine for them. I don't think they thought through it all and multiplied by the time we'd be on board.

      Be that as it may, we each have our own small cabin that is ours exclusively. Although to call it a cabin is being generous. Ulric, our sole German crewmate and the assistant engineer, said with some seriousness that our rooms are about three times the size of a standard coffin, without the mattress that comes in one. And when you think about it, that's about it because you don't need a mattress in what is effectively zero G because in them there isn't enough rotational force to generate any artificial gravity.
      The spin of the ship gives just enough apparent centrifugal force to mimic just over a third of the gravity felt on Earth in some parts of the vessel. So it's enough that if you drop something in the large ring of work pods, it falls. Rather slowly, and sometimes with comedic effect, but it does fall.
      However, as our bunkrooms are along the central spine of the ship, there is no artificial gravity, so the stuff in our rooms tends to not stay where we put it, and every so often a course correction will redecorate our cabins and we'll spend the next several cycles trying to find our stuff, especially if we forget to secure the door to our cabin and it pops open when the thrusters fire. Then you are liable to find some of your personal stuff anywhere on the ship, sometimes several cycles later.
      Another thing about those doors. If you don't like to sleep tethered to the wall, and some of us don't, I know I don't, and you don't get your door double latched before you fall asleep, you're liable to wake up someplace else. Something that can make for some epic practical jokes. After the second time of waking up in command, I learned to use my tether to keep my door shut.
      The ship was designed with a dozen sleeping compartments, in three symmetrical rows, but there's ten of us. Which is just how it worked out.

      And those cycles I keep talking about are not days. At least they're not twenty four hour days like we had back home.
      For the first several months, we tried to keep up with the 'day' and 'night' thing. Turning the lights in the workspaces up for day, and then down at night, and doing the other things that would keep our circadian rhythms in tune to life on Earth. But, after several months, it became tiresome, and then it was a pain in the ass because nobody was keeping to it, and finally, we just gave up before we even got to Mars.
      We settled into a routine of twelve to fourteen hours on duty and somewhere between six and eight hours off. If you needed more sleep for a couple of cycles, you slept, if you got to where you didn't, you stayed on and worked through, and maybe catnapped while waiting on data to upload or something. All the essential jobs were covered, the science got done, and the housekeeping was tended to as required, which was what was needed.

      As the 'third shift' commander I was part of the rotation in Command. Well, it didn't take me long to figure out that the ship was on autopilot, did its own minor course corrections, and NOTHING happened suddenly or unexpectedly for weeks on end. Since I could monitor the primary ship's systems from my lab, I hijacked a spare monitor and stuck it in one of the "for future expansion" slots along one wall, then I re-arranged things a bit there and used my command log in to re-purpose one of the consoles to interface with command, and I effectively created an auxiliary control room.
      The thing that upset Captain Merrick more than my not telling him about it for almost a month after I'd done it was that he hadn't thought of it. Then I pointed out something else, "the designers didn't think about it either. The only other command center is in engineering."
      He nodded and agreed that I could use my command 'deck' unless something serious was going on.
      Nothing serious happened until we got to the Asteroid Belt, and then everybody was always on duty. But we'll get to that later.
      From my lab I could work what was supposed to be an eight hour command shift that was in reality sometimes up to about eighteen hours until I was relieved by whoever decided to go up front and run the place. The scheduled shifts didn't exist except in the legacy scheduling program in one of the computers. We decided to leave it running just in case we needed to revert to it for some reason.

      The same sort of thing went with eating. I was down to about one meal and a couple of light snacks a day. Doctor Dira says she hasn't eaten a meal in two years, but she does nibble what she calls her favorites almost the entire time she's awake.
      According to the body scanner, she's lost exactly one point five kilos since launch. I was up almost two full kilos for awhile, but I've managed to knock one of them back off and I've been holding steady since then. And that's not from being on some sort of diet or spending more time in the exercise suite, it's from growing really tired of the same food, which is what gave me the idea for the black market commissary.
      I mean, really, somebody's idea of variety was to switch out their idea of 'pepper steak', with 'hamburger steak with onions', then comes 'ground beef patty with gravy', and then rotate to 'beef and mushroom burger' all in the same seven day, three meals a day, pack.
      You really don't want to know the atrocities they committed with chicken.
      It could have been worse, but they'd decided not to send too much of our supplies as freeze-dried vacuum packed stuff. We had some, but not a lot, and that was OK with us.

      Not that there isn't already something of a black market on board.
      We were still turning the lights on and off for day and night when Ivan, our Russian Mission Specialist and the American Engineer had figured out a way to turn some of our basic bulk supplies into something that was either moonshine or vodka, depending on which of them was telling the story. It started out really rough, and it still was, but they'd gotten better, or at least more efficient, at making it in a spare storage bay in Engineering, and we'd gotten better at drinking it.
      As for what we traded for a sip or three, or maybe a liter, of their brew, we'll get to that.
      There was also a black market for everything from laundry processing to communications time.
      I was lucky on both of those. My duties gave me more than enough access to the communications array so I could sneak a personal message or two into my official transmissions, and I didn't sweat hardly at all. On the contrary, I was usually just comfortable or even a little chilled in most of the ship, so I didn't need to get my uniform cleaned as often as the others, some of whom went through an outfit a shift, and I could barter a run through the clothing processor for, say, a liter of hooch, now and then.
      Another thing. Some of you have indicated at various times that you think that the Argo was a rocking boat of drunken fornication and debauchery. And to tell the truth, there has been a bit of fraternization, of every variety you can imagine, and perhaps a few that are beyond your imagination just as our situation is. But, as the mission has gone on, that too has slowed down to a bare vibration of innuendo. Yes, there's a few that occasionally have a bit of a throw at it, but it's even been awhile since I've even heard of that happening. When you come down to it, we're all just a bit tired of each other. To the point that we even let a couple of our traditional "hundredth day" mission marks pass without everybody joining in a naked solar party in the observation pod. When somebody noticed that another hundred days had passed, nobody really seemed to care. And when we did have the party, it wasn't much of a party.
      It used to be fun for me to turn the pod heater up a notch and work my shift in my birthday suit. I'd turn off the work lights because stars through the portals would give me enough light to do what I had to do, and just think about where I was and what I was doing and kind of commune with creation as I really was. When we did our flyby of Mars, I laughed and saluted the God of War in the name of the Goddess of Love when we were at just about our closest approach. We should have been quite a bit closer, but our launch had been delayed, but even so, we were still amazingly close to the red planet. Then I went back to monitoring the incoming data from the various sensors and making sure the infra red camera didn't aim itself at the sun, again.
      But after, well, after Rob's accident, I didn't do a naked shift for a long time. Then I did it once in awhile on a whim or just because I could sometimes. But even that got old. Yes, I still look at the stars, and sometimes I still eat or sleep nude. But it has lost something.
      ... ... ...
      I'll make sure I edit out that deep sigh before I copy this back to Earth.

      We didn't make any major discoveries at Mars. There had been more than enough close inspections of the planet over the years to discover the majority of what could be discovered without landing on the planet to make our trip by at I forgot how many millions of kilometers interesting but not Mars-shattering. But, like we were told, it was a live subject that did matter, and a good chance to make sure we really did know how to do what we said we could do.
      We did.
      Our photos and other data on the planet and its moons, and the various objects of human origin that we caught in the act, did confirm some minor ideas on the interaction of the two moons and the planet itself. So we earned a mission citation from various science groups, and a great "that'a'boy" from Mission Control, and a day off from the Captain.
      If I remember correctly, I spent my day off with Rob and a couple of bags of the hooch in one of the spare cargo containers.

      I'll just move on.

      Narda, our multi-national female with ties to America, Greece, India, and apparently half of South America used to be our most conservative female crew member. It was almost two years before we even saw her feet.
      Most of us shed our shoes as soon as we got got on board for the shake down period. They were hot and tended to get in the way while moving about inside the ship and when using the foot rails to hold yourself in place with those socks with the grips on the tops and bottoms just work better than shoes.
      It wasn't long before I found that in the bio-metrics and xeno-studies lab where I worked most of the time, I could operate various panels and controls with my toes almost as well as my hands from where I was semi-seated at the main console, and I never really used the foot rails anywhere else. So I just got used to being barefoot all the time.
      Narda not only wore her socks, she kept her rubber soled 'astronaut sneakers' on for ages.
      When we had our two hundredth day out solar party, which was also the first nude one at Candice's insistence. Narda was the only one in full uniform and with her hair up, but she seemed to have a good time anyway.
      Narda was also the first one to go what we've called 'spacehappy' and was the first one to need the psych protocol with the talking machine, and the special mood lights and all that. Fortunately, after a long time where I don't think she slept at all, she came out of it and didn't need the medication. Since then, not only have we seen her feet, we've seen a lot more of her, to the point that you had to make sure she wasn't in the pod when you set up a video link back to Earth.

      I know I say "another thing" far too often. I always have. And I still do. If you don't like it, come up here and tell me you don't like it. It'll only take you a year and a half in a supply pod to get here to tell me. And if you call to tell me you don't like it, like I said before, right now, let me check, it is taking 43 minutes, at the speed of light, for your call to get to me. So, I say when I said "another thing" again, just laugh and keep going.

3. 'I don't know what to call this section'

      As the ranking officer on what Mission Control still identifies as our third shift it was my responsibility to give a report for various aspects of the ship and mission.
      The first shift's reports included overall ship's status, a general personnel report, and other important data. Second shift supplemented those with more specific data, and the reports from the other science sections. My shift was left with my own science reports, and whatever wasn't important enough for the other two to transmit to Earth. The opposite was true for the incoming messages. I received orders and recommendations for everybody else, family photos and short videos, and everything else. The incoming stream almost never stopped.
      If you sent a message to Earth that, for whatever reason, you needed a computer file for your work on the mission, whatever it may be, if it can be reliably transmitted, it will be, eventually. If it is a larger file, it might be sent in bite size bits, and then parts may have to be re-transmitted, and it may take a month for you to get it, but you will get it. Otherwise, physical mail and other stuff that isn't time critical will be sent on a cargo pod, and you'll get it in a year and a half if you're lucky. Things like music and movies came on the cargo pods. Some were in the personal mail, some were in the general stuff for the entire crew. And some just showed up and we were never sure how or why some of it got into the outbound container on top of a rocket.
      For instance, there was a bundle of newspapers that arrived awhile back. No note, no explanation from Mission Control, nothing, just an entire month's worth of a daily newspaper from Birmingham, England. Complete with advertising inserts for groceries and cars. We had them send a message to the paper asking about it, they had no idea how every issue, weekday and Sunday, including the special magazine 'Summer Happenings', for the entire month of June of last year ended up over six hundred million kilometers from Birmingham on a rocket launched from Virginia in the USA, but they were happy that we had enjoyed them.
      Another package ended up here after being launched from the ESA facility in South America. But the container had been packed and sealed in Belgium. So how a case of twelve bottles of Portuguese wine and a note written in French that said it was 'for the crew' ended up here is a mystery. That only one bottle had broken from being a below freezing for so long was a miracle. But, it was pretty stout wine, and well appreciated.

      Another thing, even if they sent my commissary package on the day I talked to them, and I mean as soon as Mission Control signed off they went out and put it on the courier ship and sent it. We wouldn't know if it was going to make it for almost a year, and that request was sent while we were just their side of Mars's orbit, so might catch us before or maybe just after the Asteroid Field transit, which was a nightmare all its own when it was supposed to be a cakewalk.
      It would be at least eleven months before we would receive the telemetry from the incoming cargo pod so it could correct its course to rendezvous with us. And then it would be about three months before it got here because while it is chasing us, we were still burning our engines to get to our mission orbit outside of Jupiter.
      Something the people on Earth don't realize is that some of the older cargo supply containers are still on their way out here. It was last week that we got one that had been launched years ago that had taken the old unpowered route, flying by Mars to get a gravity assist to get to us having been launched when Earth was on the other side of the sun to where we were Supposed to be sometime later. The newer pods, with their low power ion drives, fly a direct route from Earth to where we're supposed to be at such and such time, and accelerate for almost the whole trip out here. In fact, sometimes they're going so fast they use up all their fuel in the braking maneuver and we have to either refuel it to go back, which will use up a lot of the fuel they sent for us on it, or ditch it and hope the next one is better.
      It was a messy and, so I'm told, corrupt, bidding war between the builders, but the result is that they've cut the mail delivery time down from something on the order of forty months to, on a good day, about eighteen.
      And even now, just as it was before, some of the cargo shipments out to us from Earth simply vanish into space and, if we're lucky, we get to watch what was supposed to be the Mission Commander's birthday dinner go on to become one of the fastest Earth probes ever launched on its way out of the solar system.

      I just checked that out to make sure I was right. Right now the old New Horizons probe is bucking along at something on the order of sixty thousand kilometers an hour, or about twice the speed we're maintaining. If the container with Captain Merrick's dinner in it doesn't run out of fuel anytime soon, and it shouldn't for another six months or so, it will break that speed record and may even eventually pass it. Which means that some alien culture may get to enjoy the Swiss Steak Dinner we missed out on because somebody or something somewhere in the programming department missed adding .12 to the trajectory of the cargo container when it adjusted its route after booster separation.
      Ever since then, the programming is done by three different groups and the computer compares all three for errors before it does anything irrevocable.
      It was an expensive lesson for the conglomerate of governments, universities, industries and even charities that came together to get this mission off the ground and us out here. (you didn't think I could do a pun did you?) But they learned it well, and we were assured that there was funding and equipment in place right now to send us a container on an average of every three to four months for at least the next seven years, and they were working away behind the scenes to extend that through the prescribed end of the program, and they were hammering away at the way to bring us home.
      Which was good to know.

      It's been a couple of months. I thought I should finish that bit about the cargo pods before I moved on to something a lot more serious and that I haven't talked about yet.

      What's in those containers varies from the mundane but essential, such as oxygen canisters and protein powder, to odds and ends and even surprises for the crew. We get one in about every third month, when things work out correctly, and then less often when they don't. Once, we got three of them within two weeks. Two as scheduled with attachments for the ship for us to install some new experiment, and one of the old style one way pods that had taken its sweet time getting out here with supplies.
      And as communications with the things are spotty at best, and at times non-existent for months on end because of any number of factors, there are huge gaps in their tracking and telemetry so NOBODY is really sure if a cargo container is still on its way, or if it's suffered a massive failure or collided with a meteor or something and will never arrive.
      The two way pods are something special. They are our chance to send anything that we want or need to send back home, back to Earth. They also give us a sense of not being Totally cut off. We sent several of the small asteroids we captured back. The complete data on several long term experiments. A toasted infra red camera and its controller went back after the robotic mount insisted on pointing it at the largest heat source in the sky. And yes, they want blood and hair samples from us sent back every so often, sometimes we do it. We even sent some of Rob's personal effects back for them to give to his family. And while the trip out takes sometimes a year and a half, the trip back, bucking against the solar wind which got noticeably stronger the closer you got to the sun, and having to catch one of the not so clear safe routes through the asteroids, And there is no 'gravitational assist' from any of the planets to take advantage of, now takes just under two years.
      There's a small box or package on each and every container for each of us. And we got used to the idea that for over a year after a death we'd get boxes for the deceased. After that first one that joined Rob in space, we decided to go ahead and open them, if there were any personal things from friends or family, we'd put them in a container with some of their possessions from their cabin, then send it back the next time a cargo runner was going back to Earth.


      I still find it hard to talk about Rob. But I'll tell you something about him anyway.
      He was the only redhead on board, and the only one I've ever really gotten to know well. He was born and raised in Ireland in a town that I'd never heard of and can't remember right now, but he only had the tiniest trace of an accent, unless he was tired or something, then it surfaced. And he came to us by way of the UN's medical division.
      OK, that was Doctor Robert McCarthy.

      We were still heading for our opposition orbital path between Jupiter and Saturn and had adjusted our speed to match Earth in its orbit far back toward the sun to make communications and the route of the cargo ships easier for at least a few months as the planet 'caught up to us' and then passed us. But as Earth is moving at over a hundred thousand Kmh, we'd have to be pulling several times that to match them. So we couldn't stay with it. But, for now, and for the next couple of months while still outbound toward our goal, we'd be OK.
      During that transit through the Asteroid Belt just outside of Mars, it had been too dangerous for any EVA with the engines running at full power and odd bits of rock and sand flying by even faster in every direction. The command deck impact shields had sustained several significant hits, but it held. We had to retract the solar panels and the reactor booms until we'd gotten through the Belt, or they would have been destroyed by the abrasion of the microscopic dust that we ran through. So we weren't able to operate at full power for that part of the mission.
      Once we were clear of that mess they were able to ease up on the engines, and extend the solar panels and the reactor booms, and then bring everything back up to normal operating capacity.
      And we could all relax for the first time in ages, and see to the damage the so called 'clear path' had caused.

      OK, I'm ready to talk about it. One shot, all the way through.

      I wasn't on duty when it happened, but I heard the alert call and rushed from my cabin to the control room, then to the main science lab because everybody else was in control. I switched the monitors to the auxiliary feed and then to his helmet cam, and there it was, the cable clamp that had failed and in doing so, had propelled him far enough away from the ship and at such an angle backward that we couldn't go get him because the ship itself can't maneuver like that, trying to make a sharp turn or to suddenly decelerate would have ripped the lab ring off the central spine of the ship even if our maneuvering thrusters could push that hard, and he had no way to get himself back to us.
      Baxter was outside with him, but within moments of the accident, Rob was out of reach of even the robotic arms on the docking ring.
      Rob was amazingly calm about it, and even prayed for our safety just before he ... But I could see in the telemetry from his suit that his heart was racing and his body temperature had dropped, he was almost in shock, but he was maintaining his composure for our sake and even giving some medical insight into what was happening to him and commenting about the general condition of the rest of the ship from his all too unique point of view.
      They tried to reach him with two of the camera drones that were outside watching their work, but their tiny CO2 thrusters and limited range just didn't work. All it could do was send us back a final picture of Rob, his face framed in his red hair that had almost gotten too long for the cap inside the helmet. And that was it. We lost one of the drones that day as well, it went spinning out of control, and is still spinning along out there someplace. It sent back a dizzying video of deep space and the ship before we lost contact with it.
      We all talked to Rob a lot before the end, and he told me how wonderful our times together had been for him and how he was going to miss me even though I wasn't Irish.

      The video signal from his helmet cam faded in and out, but the audio feed stayed readable for the duration.

      The air supply in his suit failed before the battery on the telemetry unit ran out of power, and I watched him die.
      The readings got very low, then unsteady, and then, stopped.
      I am enough of a trained scientist that I saved the final set of readings before I started crying.

      He's still out there. Now he's too far away to see with the telescopes any more, but we have charted his orbital course and in about hundred years he will fall into Saturn and either burn up in the giant planet's atmosphere or crash into a moon and stay there as a memorial forever.
      The investigation was massive and took forever as everybody had to sit in front of a camera and explain why they didn't hate Rob. But, as I had a personal interest in the case, I did my own investigation. I went back and enlarged the pictures from his helmet camera of the failed clamp.
      Then I went and looked at the other clamps we had on board, then I stuck one of them under the scanning microscope in the science lab.
      There were microscopic cracks in it.
      It took me about seven seconds after I saw them to get on the com and demand everybody on the ship come to the main science lab "on the double quick" as I put it.

      The guys tested a couple of the other clamps in space and got one of them to fail in a similar way as Rob's had once it'd gotten cold.
      Then we went screaming to Mission Control.
      Eventually the problem was traced back to the low bidder on a supply contract from three years before any of us were named to the crew. The cast aluminum clamps weren't the same ones presented to the space agency with the bid as the ones that would be sent out with to the Argo, and had been made with substandard metal.
      The kicker was that there wasn't even anybody left to hold accountable at the company that had supplied them. They'd gone out of business before we launched, having been sued by somebody else for selling crappy parts that got somebody else killed. Several agency employees were severely reprimanded for failing to individually inspect the parts, but that didn't do Rob, or us, a lot of good. We were stuck inside the ship, with things needing attention outside every now and then, until replacements could be launched from home.
      Several weeks later when the next regular cargo container came in, and, as usual, there was a package for Rob on it, Baxter took it to the air lock without a word, and jettisoned it out into space. We all agreed with him.

      I spent a lot of time in the lab or the observation dome after that. Looking at the stars.
      My first thought was that I wanted to go home. But that wasn't an option.
      One of the jokes we told each other was that the only way home was in one of the two-way cargo pods. And even if your air held out, and you didn't freeze to death, you'd still be stuck in that box for two years or so, then you had to hope it actually reached Earth because if it missed, you'd eventually fall into the Sun or be lost in space.
      Like Rob.

      So I vowed on those stars, and on Rob's body, wherever he was out there, that I would live through this, and then I'd make them bring me back home.

5. Hard Science is Easy, routine is hard
      It's been awhile since I sent a personal log back, so I'll do it now. And I'll back up a few months.

      During the transit through the Asteroids we were all up to our ears in science, and damage control, and watching the radar and other sensors in case one of the larger rocks wasn't where it was told it was supposed to be to stay out of our way.
      This was the most harrowing part of the entire trip out to where we were going. Yes, we all knew that even that region of space is mostly empty space. We'd been told that Even In The Field there are very few clusters of rocks that one would even call a swarm. It is mostly the void, although a lot of it is perhaps a bit dustier space than the rest of run of the mill space. But as we passed Mars and began looking at our path through the telescopes and watching the high intensity radar, we began to notice something. We could see several larger asteroids right where they were projected to be, a couple of them even had names on the registry. Then there were a lot of smaller ones, some that appeared to be about the size of a delivery van and some of those were in groups just like they were told to be. But then ranging down from that to things too small to give an individual radar return but could still punch a hole in our ship... there were untold hundreds of them on the screen. Everywhere we looked ahead of us.
      Other probes and space craft had been sent through the asteroid belt and came out intact. But the Argo was, in respect to even the largest automated probe, enormous. Whereas even the larger of the Jupiter and Saturn probes were maybe three meters in diameter, our command deck was more than three times that, and the lab ring itself was several times larger than that from side to side. Not to mention the overall length of our ship compared to a robotic probe. And if the probe took a couple of dings, it just shook it off and kept going, it didn't have to worry about losing all of its air!

      "There's our passage," Captain Merrick said a couple of months later, "right where we were told it would be."
      "Not much of a gap," somebody said as we all looked at the chart of the three denser belts of rocks that made up the field. The 'passage' was a slightly less crowded course that went more or less straight through all of them.
      "No, it's not, and it isn't completely clear of debris, but I think we can make it."
      "You're the mission commander," Baxter the engineer said.
      "Yes, but if any of you have any other ideas or concerns, now is the time to voice them while we can still drop back and catch the next one."
      "Sit here and wait how long?" Lynn asked.
      "About ten to twelve weeks before the Bosporus passage will advance far enough for us to use it," the captain answered. "It is either that or go over or under the worst of it, and take a chance on losing every cargo pod that's been launched because they can't make that big of a course correction." He looked around the room as we floated around the perimeter.
      Rob answered for us, "Let's go for it, right through your passage." I noticed that when he said it, there was just a trace of an Irish accent, meaning he was feeling a lot of stress over it.
      We all were.
      "It's going to require everybody on their toes every minute of that trip through. Some of those rocks out there are moving like bullets. We may not get a lot of warning before one comes our way."
      "We'll give it our best, sir," Narda answered.
      "There's a scan protocol with predictive algorithm to pick out troublemakers already running," I said, which was the first time I think I'd ever spoke in a crew briefing. "It compares radar returns with visual and infra-red tracking of targets over...." they were all looking at me, "Well, it does. I looked at it because it was running on the other work station when I tested it. Lynn asked me to monitor it for her when she's not on duty."
      She nodded and said that I'd been doing a good job as well.
      "Will it alert us if something is going to get too close?"
      Lynn answered for me, "Yes, visual and audio alerts both in the lab and in command."
      "Good. Make the alerts loud."
      "Yes, sir," we both answered.
      "Anything else," he paused, "OK, then this is it. About this time tomorrow we begin the turn and aim for what they've been calling the Dardanelles."
      "Because both of the closest passages through are narrow and treacherous and always changing," Baxter muttered.
      "Because either would be a challenge to even a well experienced crew in a proven ship."
      "Know any?"
      "When we come out the other side, that's exactly what we'll be," Captain Merrick said with confidence. "So if you need to make any preparations, now's the time, when we start the run we'll need to seal all the interior doors and get ready for a rough ride."
      "Yes, sir," most of us replied.

      I didn't leave my lab for more than a trip to the head for about two months all told. Lynn and I arranged it so either she was staring at the screens in Astrometrics, or I was down here. And sometimes, when things got really interesting, both of us were watching for bogies that might come too close, like when we were in the center belt where even the clear passage was full of stuff that we didn't want to run into.
      We even slept in the labs, so if the alert went off, we were there to verify what it was.
      I was even in my lab pod when a small bit of rock that was part natural glass and some sort of metal came through the outer hull, smashed through the side of the console that was inside, bounced off the door leaving a dent in it, and finally ended up embedded in the control panel on the other side of the room.
      While I was startled by the sudden noise and the banging around and the hiss of escaping air as the outer double skin of the ship tried to fix the hole with its internal liquid filling stuff, I knew what to do and I grabbed the can of expanding foam that was in every compartment just for emergencies like this, and then I aimed it at the hole I could see and where the air was going and just emptied the can into it. After a few moments, the hiss slowed down, then it stopped. Then I could inspect what had done the damage.
      The bit of space rock showed some wear and tear from its encounter with us. But after some testing and photographs, I got to keep it because several of its kindred had paid similar calls on the ship in other sections. A few had even managed to lodge themselves in odd places outside on various masts and other projections here and there.
      The ones that had done the most damage were like mine. A combination of metals, rock, and a bit of natural glass. The ones we had managed to intentionally capture and analyze were mostly rock and a little ice.
      And there was an official note in the analysis of the material from the captured asteroids, they stunk.
      "It's a combination of the organic compounds thawing out, they probably haven't been above freezing for a million years, so they're ripe," Baxter said as he filed the report, and stored samples for their trip to Earth in one of the two way pods.
      "They're ripe all right," several of us agreed.

      But we made it. Obviously.
      There was some other damage, and, like I said, there were several space walks to fix things like the antennae that had been damaged, and some of the holes in other sections that hadn't sealed completely from inside.
      And the solar panels had taken a beating and our outside robots would be busy for a long time changing out damaged components.

      My mission specialty was supposed to be how human strength and movement were affected over time by the weightless and nearly weightless environment and all that comes with it. Well, as things go, that expanded to include dexterity and evaluations of eye-hand coordination. And that expanded to include cognition and the ability to adapt to the unexpected. And then it just kept expanding, and now, it seemed to include just about everything else. So much so that I'd taken to signing my shift report as 'third shift science officer', and nobody here or on Earth argued about it.

      We do have recreation besides practical jokes, a certain level of 'fraternization', and drinking rot gut hooch made in the engineering pod. We do.
      I would say that the exercise pod is part of that, but then again, it's not. We all agreed to maintain a basic level of fitness during the mission, and, to a point, Captain Merrick and the medical staff encourage us to comply. There's a couple of different variable resistance workout machines... I almost said 'torture devices' because on both of them you really need help to be let out of the thing once you get strapped in. Then there is the jogging path around the ring's passage that has the bulk of the work pods and supply rooms off of it. My own lab isn't part of that section and is closer to the ship's center axis, which means I don't have as much gravity to keep stuff where I put it, but I also don't have to listen to whoever is being forced to 'run the space 5k' today grunt and wheeze every time they go by because 'walking is NOT allowed'.
      I've done it, and I know I'll have to do it again sooner or later. And I've been told than while I'm hoofing around the padded path around the 'rim of the wheel' that there are those on Earth doing it at exactly the same moment because they signed up as well. But it is still the longest and most painful forty minutes ever. The last time I did it some ex-cheerleader, I'm NOT kidding, she did five kilometers in just a few ticks over twenty three minutes. For some inexplicable reason Mission Control thought that I would see that as a challenge and the next time I did it that I would better her time. No. I was happy to finish my own five kilometers of torment around and around the path, don't even ask me how many times around it is because I don't know nor do I care, but I knocked a whole two minutes off my time, and the last time I did it I just about equaled that, and that's good enough. When they make me do it again, I plan on trying to better it by maybe a minute, TWO if I can smuggle a drinking pouch of our starshine in my jogging suit.
      Oh, yes, another thing, our record for the nude 5K in space is almost thirty minutes flat. And, no, I didn't set it.

      Back to the recreation.
      As our ship was supposed to have at least one Japanese crew member, we have a good selection of Japanese language movies and TV shows on our entertainment server. Some have English, or Spanish, and even a few have French subtitles, some don't. There's also a good bit of Japanese music. But even without a Japanese person on board, it seems by the number of times they've been played, and replayed, and so on, that the Japanese programming is by far the most popular choice for background noise on the ship. It is always playing in the main corridor, and one of the movies, with and without monsters, used to always be on on one of the big panels in the medical bay, and so on.
      I even asked Rob about it one time.
      "It's great," he answered, "I've never even checked to see if there is English or Spanish dialogue or subtitles. It doesn't matter. OK, now watch, there, see, the guy is the white shirt is upset because the older guy is dating his sister."
      "Is that what it's about?"
      "I have no idea. The menu said something about 'the cook's drama' and this is episode six. See, the older guy is trying to pay him off so he will let him date his sister."
      And, it did look like that. "So now there's going to be a karate fight?"
      "Not in these, those are the other ones. I don't like them as much. These might end up in an argument and maybe a bit of a car chase, but that's it. And there's never any sex in them at all. I'm not sure I've even seen anybody kiss in this one. They do spend a lot of time standing around talking to girls, but that's all they do."
      "So why do you watch it?"
      His answer was enough that I kissed him in the medical bay, and did so without any sensors hooked to my body.

      We also have an almost endless selection of video games because one of the technology sponsors for the mission was one of the companies that made high end video processing chips, and just so happened to contract with game producers to develop things to put on their chips.
      You had your choice of immersive virtual reality, standard or enhanced 3-D, or traditional implied deep field perspective, and just about every other incarnation of the things ever since the original electronic ping-pong was out, and we had that too! I liked a couple of the VR games where you could turn the bad guys off and just explore caves or a castle or something without fighting for your life ever two minutes. For 'shoot'em up' adventures I was still enough of a traditionalist to not want to have to decide if something was friend or foe, if it appeared in front of me, I shot it, so some of the more involved, story-driven adventure games weren't my first choice. And when I got talked into being part of a group game I made an effort not to shoot my own team mates or those in game characters that were bringing us food or weapons, but sometimes I did tend to get a bit trigger happy.

      There were also strategy games we were to play against a computer AI in the rec pod that were supposed to help us keep our higher mental faculties in tune, but it seemed all they did was go from being so easy they were stupid to being so difficult you either had to be a genius or a total flakeout to get it right, and they did so in about five turns. The worst part was the unit talked to you when you entered the rec pod. And you couldn't tell the Artificially Intelligent thing that you didn't want to play, it started its routine and kept talking until you made a guess. Only then could you pause it so it would shut up. The kicker was that it had been programmed on the ground to do exactly that, so there was nothing we could do about it except tape a towel over its motion sensor so it didn't see you come in.
      That is, there wasn't another option until Ulrich and Lynn got into the system and through a series of commands and a few tense moments 'repurposed' that AI so now its sole function was to play a game they called "track the desiccated waste blobs that are following us through the solar system". Which freed up a good bit of other game processing power, and memory, and allowed them to dump several gigabytes of stored strategy game data that nobody was ever going to use.
      And if you happened to want to see where last week's dried out and highly compressed slug of poo was, all you had to do was turn on the monitor that used to play "logical sequence Lamedh" where it would name a series of God only knows what, starting with three items and then more and more, with some microscopic similarity ranging from the seventh letter of their official name to that their inventors were all related at the level of great-great-grandparent, and you had to guess it in a limited amount of time. Yeah. Nobody ever did. I mean, nobody had played 'logical sequence' in ages, and nobody really cared where our poo was going. So I'm pretty sure the AI ended up being the loneliest thing on the ship.

      We also had various challenge games we played against each other. And there were several members of our crew who were playing REALLY long distance chess against various members of the ground crew. I had been playing a couple of games against Rob, but since, then, I've let it sit idle. Eventually I'll check to see if he ever made a counter move before he went out, or I might delete it as is.

      But, between the games, and the music, and the movies, not to mention a several libraries of books in all sorts of languages, and the view that is always the same, but then again, is always different in subtle ways, I don't see us getting overly bored with that side of things for, years.
      Which was the point, wasn't it?

6. It's been awhile since I wrote anything and I was told to talk about the ship.
      That's my chapter title and I'm sticking to it.

      It took them over twelve years to get this barge into space. Three years of dedicated top level design, another two or three years of testing and modeling, then two years of squabbling and bickering, and finally four years or so of actually building the components and getting them ferried into orbit for assembly, which took a year or so by itself.

      I would give everything I've got in storage back home for just one of those pencil necked white shirt bastards to be up here for a month and have to live and work on this thing.

      I've read some of the conference briefing notes from when various parts of the ship were previewed for the taxpayers that felt ripped off by the contractors who built them. And I've highlighted in my own personal mission log the exact wording from the conference when they said "you'll get used to it" about the vacuum assisted head for what we occasionally call "10-200".
      No. There is no "getting used to it". If the vacuum system is having a bad day, you end up with... with THAT floating around the compartment with you because all of the heads are in the low-g central axle section of the ship. But if you turn the vacuum up to avoid that, it tries to suck your insides into the waste processor and you have to pry yourself off the seat before any permanent damage is done.
      As far as the "10-100" function. It's not elegant by any stretch or the imagination, for either the men or the women, but the 'cup thing' we have to use works pretty well. And if you try not to think about what's actually happening, it's ok.

      And then you have the idea that a good bit of your container of coffee is reclaimed water. That is, water reclaimed from everything and anything that goes into the waste unit. Anything. Or, supposedly, anybody. Which was a line we have not, and will not, cross. Ever.

      Speaking of coffee. Most of us eat in the rec pod because in there you don't have to chase your food around. There's enough gravity that you can have a real meal, and eat it with real metal utensils, and drink from a cup instead of a bag. And if you drop your toast, it will fall and land on the floor instead of floating around and then hitting you in the back of the head.
      Of course, you have to go all the way back to the storage units by engineering and get your meal, unless you want to take your chances with whatever is in the cooler that was brought up by whoever had restocking duty today. But you could eat it like humans had been having lunch since lunch was invented.
      I either ate there or in my lab, even though we're not supposed to eat in the labs. Very seldom did I eat in my quarters. I just didn't like having my food, and bits thereof, floating around me. Even though the lab only had less than a quarter of a G of gravity, it was enough that if I put my sandwich down on the counter, it stayed there, and if I was really careful, I could drink out of a cup. If I laid my food down in my room and there was the slightest puff of air or vibration from the ship, as there always was, it would shift a little then start drifting away. Just that little bit of artificial gravity made that much of a difference.

      We have plenty of fresh water on board because of a bit of trickery and perhaps bullying by Captain Merrick, but, we still run the reclamation unit because, like he has said many times, ferrying water up here is one of the most expensive things there is per kilo of mass. So, what we left orbit with is likely to be all we have for a long time.
      The original specifications talked about liters of water. Liters, or, litres, of water, one thousand CCs of H20. Captain Merrick knew that as sure as he knew how many toes were on his left foot. But he was able to convince some wienie at Vandenberg that when a series supply rockets were going up with the final provisioning runs that where the manifest said "1000 L of potable water in freeze proof containers", it really meant 1000 Gallons. So three of the nine cargo pods that locked into place around the stern of the ship were crammed full of boxed bags of fresh water. And that was on top of the usage tanks that were already full. That was also why those three rockets took off from the California desert were packed until they had trouble getting the hatch closed and sealed and each was way over their listed take off weight. One liter of water is one kilogram of weight on Earth. A Gallon is almost FOUR kilos.
      Oh, well.
      I've since been told that the American Air Force knew exactly what they were doing when they did that, and it was a favor to the Captain. But then again, they've all played dumb about some of the other stuff that's found its way out here, and I believe most of them about that, so, with the water? Who knows. But we've got it, and as we've already used enough out of it to prove it was needed, it's a good thing it's there.

      The largest specialty area on board is the medical department with over half of the pods around the ring devoted to that in some way. Which is just as well as That Is the core of the mission as much as anything else. And, yes, at least part of my own mission specialty was technically under the medical umbrella.
      They can do everything from check your heart rate during your laps around the ring to perform minor surgery in those pods. There's all sorts of testing equipment for blood and bone and even hair samples. And there's even some long running experiments involving things that don't involve poking us with needles or gluing wires to our heads!

      We had two medical doctors on board. The senior medical professional, Dira, was both a DO and an MD. And as you may have gathered, Rob was the second medical officer. But unless they were in the medical bay on duty, you'd never know either of them even knew how to open a bandage.
      Dira spent almost every waking moment in the primary medical lab pod testing or monitoring or observing something. Sometimes you knew when it was you, sometimes you didn't.
      Like it or not we all wore a 'tube top' next to our skin around our chest that monitored almost everything worth monitoring in the human body, and sometimes we had to swallow a capsule that monitored other things, until it passed that is. She could, at a glance, tell you your heart rate, your blood pressure, how much oxygen was in your blood. She claimed she could even tell if what passes for our lunch had upset your stomach more than usual, even without the capsule.
      There were times when my com would beep in my quarters or in my lab and it would be Dira telling me that I needed to drink more water or go get a protein shake or something. And she didn't just pick on me, she said that the system automatically monitored everybody on board all the time and if something was amiss, no matter how minor, it alerted her.
      Well, it did for the first six months or so of the mission.
      Then, one by one, we all got tired of being told that if we consumed extra liquids during the day that various biological functions would be less difficult and we'd set off the alarm in medical less often.
      I think Narda was the last one to shed her wired tube top at least once in awhile.
      I still wear mine, for at least one shift a week or so to keep Doctor Dira happy. Occasionally for awhile, it was all I wore. Then, like the sensor belt itself, doing that just because I could got old as well.

      For the other sciences, we've got a selection of various types of equipment ranging from stuff you'd see at a good high school science fair all the way up to a prototype neutrino detector that I even get to play with once in awhile!
      Some of that stuff runs itself and sends its own reports back to Earth and we only have to intervene with it when something doesn't work, or, as with a Malaysian experiment involving crystals, it has to be physically unhooked from the wall and flipped over just in case the ALMOST zero G in the storage closet near the docking bay isn't zero G enough for it.
      One of those other self running experiments is a fancy atomic clock that is monitored by a computer next to it in one of the permanent storage bays up front. Back on Earth in some town in France there is another one, and they talk to each other once in awhile over the side band, and then one of the displays will post a notice about what it all means.
      The one thing it has proved is that Albert Einstein was smarter than the rest of us. Well, that, and that as we are now four years or so out from Earth, we're now about seven minutes behind the clock in France.

      OK, the Ship.

      Beginning at the very front of the ship you have the command section with its multiple stations and sections that, so we were told, were designed so there was no 'top' to the ship. It didn't work, but that's how it was designed. We all thought of the Commander's station as the top with two of those huge thick windows right in front of him so he can see where he's going, and everything else radiated out and down from it. So you literally went 'up' to the Command station, instead of a 'captain's chair'.
      What I thought of as the oddest part of command was that it was laid out around the central access point so when you came out of the connector you were looking at the tops of everybody's heads. So if you were 'sitting' at a work station in the low gravity, out along the outer work area it was about a quarter of a G, and somebody came in, you had to look straight up at them floating above you!

      Then there was a short connector and you came to the hatches to the three longer sections that were passages out to the ring with the various labs, the rec area, the observation dome pod, the one dedicated plant biology lab and what passed for our hydroponics section since our plant biologist was still on Earth, the medical section, and all that. Think of it like this, if the rec room was on top at twelve o'clock, the hobby shop is at six. Between them going one way will be almost all medical on both sides of the ring passage with its jogging track all the way around the ring. Going the other way you'll have several of the science labs, the observation dome, and a bit of science storage.
      Back further along the center spine of the ship, there is the larger girthed section with the computer equipment, the life support for the front half of the ship, power regulators at the base of the solar panel booms, and some storage. This section also has a couple of heads and one bathing cubical.
      Then there was the very center of the ship with our cabins on three sides of the passage and our own private storage compartments between the rooms. Three identical sets of four, all lined up. Well, they were identical, now they've been somewhat, shall we say, customized.

      Just behind that was another set of three connecting sections that went out to three lab pods that were just far enough out that the ship's rotation gave us enough gravity that we could sit down, or put something down on a counter or ledge and it actually stayed there. One of those pods was mine, the other belonged to Pyotr, I mean, Ivan, whose sole reason for being out here was to discover new stars and planets to name after himself with his series of deep space telescopes.
      The third one of the set was where all the stuff the two of us and several other sections used lived with a mostly unused lab and work station. It was where several of Ivan's telescopes were, and the high intensity radar unit that I monitored the asteroids with. And some of the other junk that didn't really belong anyplace else because the one that was supposed to be using it was still on Earth.
      Behind us was the other set of heads and another bathing cubical, then came the first set of long term storage bundles with the consumables that launched ahead of us, like his water. Then was the smaller ring used to dock the incoming cargo pods and which held the two that captain Merrick decided that we'd keep as extra storage. His plan was to always have at least one docking access open in case a pod showed up unexpectedly, which has happened, but as it worked out, we usually had at least two or three of the nine available open. On the outside of that ring were the six fixed mounted manipulator arms used to capture incoming pods and get them to where they needed to go, then, when we were done with them, to extract them and either aim them at Earth for their return trip, or to send them off into deep space as litter.

      Behind that ring was the second set of storage units, then the largest single section along the center of the ship, engineering and all that goes with it, including cargo pods that came in every once in awhile that were nothing but flying gas tanks (literally) that docked there to transfer their fuel to the ship, and the three short booms for the reactors that angle out and away from the rest of the ship. And last at the far end of it all was the engines themselves.
      And that's our ship. It isn't the prettiest space ship ever imagined, but it is doing what it was designed to do.
      I did like one thing about our ship. It wasn't like the old International Space Station. Yes, it was, to a point, but then again, it wasn't. The one thing I liked that was different was that there were areas that weren't absolutely jammed full of junk. I mean... Valuable Space Station Equipment.
      In every photo you see of the inside of the ISS, almost every square centimeter of the inside living space is solid equipment. There were monitors, and knobs, and buttons and switches and wires and more Everywhere.
      On the Argo, you have that in the labs, and in the command section and engineering, but you're supposed to, there. Here, in the center section where our cabins are, there's a panel at each end to control the lighting and heat and air flow, and a speaker for the com system, and that's it. And inside our compartments, there's a similar unit, and another one that will play music or turn on the monitor so we can watch a movie or even view a video file that was sent from home.
      In that corridor, if it were laid out differently, and there was gravity, you might think you were in one of the old sleeper cars on a coast to coast train. Except our rooms are bigger than most of those compartments were. But maybe not by much.
      In fact, that corridor is so dull there are times when we come out of our rooms and, if you're not paying close attention, you could end up at the opposite end of the ship from where you wanted to go in short order. Somebody had put up a couple of signs that said "bow" and "stern" with arrows that pointed the right way. However, that soon fell prey to various practical jokers including my own addition to the growing collection of notices that said "down" with an arrow that went all the way around the corridor and ended up back where it started.
      Finally, somebody took them all down and we never did find out what happened to them, although I suspect they were ejected with a trash filled cargo pod.

      I found out that the cargo pod with my 'special package' was running ahead of schedule because of an update the contractor made to the boosters on it, and, as this unit was their 'proof of concept' run, they were making damned good and for sure that it shaved enough off the transit time to justify the extra expense. Well, either it'd make it in record time or it would end up as a small oddly shaped moon of Neptune in a few years.
      So I sat about converting one of the officially unused spare bunk compartments into my black market commissary. Yes, I know for a fact that bunk 5 had been used for a certain amount of fraternization since not long after we left orbit. I left that one alone. The other empty room, 8, and its storage unit had begun to accumulate all manner of junk, and most of it actually belonged elsewhere, so that's where I put it. There was also a good bit of trash, empty food containers, ruined uniform parts, ONE shoe, and stuff like that. That all went into the cargo container that was due to be jettisoned just after the new one arrived.

      And then a month later, and almost three months early, the cargo container arrived.
      It showed some wear and tear on it, and in fact, wouldn't hold air pressure when we went to unload it. So everything had to be ripped out of it as fast as we could move it, then the thing was filled full of garbage and tossed into space.
      While the new engines were faster, and it did get out here in record time, and the new heaters had managed to keep it just above freezing inside for the trip. The speed it reached through the dust in with the Asteroids had almost shredded the supposedly indestructible carbon fiber, and whatever else it's made from, outside skin of the container doing so. It had also had a few dents in its recycled bleach bottle and fiberglass inner shell. No, I'm not kidding, the inside skeleton of the things was recycled junk canoes and detergent bottles. It really was! From what we saw the engineers here and back home judged that it was lucky to have made it in one piece, and that to keep doing that with the existing pods would be just asking for a catastrophic failure.
      The word we got later was that the new hyper speed engines would be turned down a notch or two for the next test run. While it was nice to get the high speed delivery, and another set like the ones on the shredded pod would be kept only for emergencies. But for routine delivery, maybe a little faster than the old style would work, but there were limits to the design capability of the existing pods, of which they'd already built over a hundred from recycled cleanser bottles and sports car fenders.
      Then we found out why they had chosen the cargo that was in that pod to test the new booster system. There was some of the usual stuff for the mission, like a new memory card for one of the medical devices because the one in it was causing an error once in awhile. And a tank of fuel for the outside drones. Stuff like that. But the container was mostly other stuff. Personal stuff.

      We called it the 'Contraband Delivery', and it was appropriate that it arrived when we were in retrograde from Earth's perspective.
      There was stuff in that pod that wasn't supposed to be sent into space at all.
      Besides several large totes with my name on it that would fully stock my black market commissary for some time to come, there was stuff for everybody else.
      The package that was in there with Rob's name on it I took and added to my commissary and put his name on the door as co-owner. His contribution more than doubled the available selection of movies and music that wouldn't otherwise have passed the censor's review on the ground.
      I thought he'd like that.

      What was great was that everything that everybody else got, I got several items of to put in the unofficial commissary for them, or somebody else, for later.
      There was some hard liquor. Real stuff, not that literal rocket fuel that came out of engineering. Several of my ship mates got a couple of bottles of their favorite tipple. And I could resupply them when they needed some more.
      There was enough candy to give every dentist and nutritionist on Earth nightmares. Narda was known to have a sweet tooth, and if she saw the boxes I stashed in the back corner of the commissary, she'd break the latch if she had to to get to it.
      Lynn and Candice, our resident fashionistas, both got packages from a boutique of clothes and accessories never before seen anywhere above where passenger jets fly. And I have to admit here, although I'm was not overly fashionable or trendy with what I wore back home, I did enjoy dressing up sometimes, and they both got a couple of outfits that would answer that urge. So I thought maybe I'd try on some of the items from the commissary package that was from another shop.

      My own special package was the smallest of the lot, but it meant a lot to me.
      On Earth I collected those small stuffed animals. Not just bears, but everything, I even had a stuffed giraffe that I liked a lot, but it didn't look anything like a real giraffe except for the pattern on its skin. Now, I had a veritable zoo of the things. There were a dozen of them in that little box, including the saddest giraffe I'd ever seen, all from the gift shop at one of the biggest zoos in the US.

      Lynn was reading the note that was in her box from the shop in Switzerland. "We are so proud of your contribution to the mission. Please accept our gift and enjoy it," she held it up, "everybody in the shop signed it, and I think some of them are customers," she said in English with a lot of east European accent.
      "Had you ever shopped there?" Somebody asked her.
      "Shop there? I used to work there when I was at university!"
      Candice has a similar note from the clothing store that sent her package. And she had been a regular customer at the store when not on duty or in space.

      We all got notes. I looked back in my zoo box, and there was a note there. "We look forward to your coming to see our real animals. Best of luck," I read off it. "It's signed by a lot of the staff at the zoo."
      "Had you ever been there?"
      I shook my head, "No, but one of the girls I went to school with works in the veterinary clinic there. I guess that was enough of a connection for them to call her."

      Captain Merrick spoke when there was a prolonged silence, "Let's go watch the video."
      "What video?"
      He held up a small memory stick with a note on it.

      The video opened with a bunch of politicians standing around in a room that had to be an old European castle. In the background were a couple of banners in different languages that said "G-21" on them with a date from last year.
      One of them, I'm told it was the current PM of Great Britain, stepped forward and said something to the effect of how proud they all were of us and how they hope we enjoy the items that had been sent.
      Then the video cut to short clips from those that sent the gifts.
      "We all remember how you liked to try on the things that came in," the boutique owner said to Lynn. "They sent your size and Carol remembered what colors and styles you liked the most, so we hope you enjoy it and can wear it on your mission. We're proud of you."

      The personal messages were all about the same.

      About a week or so later Captain Merrick looked at the dates on the images and the letters, then he checked the loading manifest on the cargo container, then he came to me. "They did all of this within about three weeks from when you asked for your commissary supplies. Somebody took that idea and ran with it."
      "I'm glad it worked out, they could have just said I was going space happy and left it at that," he laughed with me. "Have you taken your pajamas off since you got them?" I asked referring to what he was wearing as his uniform of the day.
      "Yes. I changed into my uniform shirt for my official communique."
      All I could do was laugh.

      Later I lined all my critters up along the portal window in my lab and took a picture. Then, when I was sending a data stream back to Earth, I sent a high resolution copy of it back with a note to forward it to the zoo. About two or three weeks later I got a small image back of a blown up print of my picture above the rack selling the animals in the gift shop of the zoo, with some sort of note about it below the picture and what had to be my official astronaut photo next to the note.
      It started something.
      It wasn't long before I started to get small and sometimes a bit grainy images sent back from people who bought some of the critters and then took a picture of them in all sorts of locations. Including one sitting on top of a scale model of the Argo.
      In a way, it made remembering the crew mate whose package couldn't be delivered a bit easier.

      That was one heck of a long section, but I did it. And I'm not redoing it.

7. "By Jove!"
      It's not my title, but I stole it fair and square.

      It was, I don't know, six or eight months after the menagerie arrived in my lab. I do know that that sense of long running routine had settled in again, and some of us were just going through the motions of duty as something to do when we weren't asleep.
      For me, Rob was gone, and as routine became drudgery I missed him more and more.
      But, I told myself I was a professional. I had signed up for this and made the cut before I even knew Rob existed. This is where I had wanted to be, and I knew it was going to be like this. So, I forced myself to stick to it and not go space happy.

      Whereas the trip through the Asteroid Belt was hair raising, this part of the mission was simply awe inspiring. Especially after being bored for so long recently.

      Jupiter was a magnificent sight. And it was still a long way away.
      Slowly. And I mean agonizingly slowly, the giant planet got larger and then still larger in the portals with its spots and bands and collection of bright specks that were moons, some of which were larger than Earth's natural satellite.
      Because of its massive and somewhat unpredictable magnetic field, not to mention its gravity, we would stay well away from the great planet and its huge collection of moons. But we would be the closest anybody probably would ever be to it, and we would be for over two months as Captain Merrick violated orders and slowed us down considerably for our flyby, which meant our schedule for this Earth closest pass would be off schedule, again. But given what we were doing, he was willing to take the heat for it.
      And we had all sorts of scientific instruments at our disposal to study the planet and its system in detail.

      Even though I am not an astronomer or cosmologist, I was caught up in the excitement. And there was plenty of excitement.
      Ivan got a high quality portrait of every single one of Jupiter's moons, almost a hundred of them by our best count. A dozen or more of them weren't even suspected of existing before we started our run by the planet. And to his great glee, he got to name most of them, after himself in one way or another. One that was an odd shape and that had a decidedly red tint to it he named for Rob and his hair. Which we all thought was a great idea.
      We found another set of rings as well. Broken, scattered, and well beyond the current ring system, but there was no doubt that they were there.
      And we found even more magnetic and radiometric weirdness with the planet that raised far more questions back home than it answered.
      And then, all too soon, we were looking out the rear portals watching the planet and all its friends recede into distance as the Captain powered up the engines and got us back to where we were supposed to be.

      The next month or so was spent correlating the data and images and other readings we'd taken and trying to offer some sort of insight into what it all meant, then transmitting what we could back to Earth and sending the rest of it back in a cargo pod.
      As the cargo container arced away from us heading toward Earth, which we could only catch a brief glimpse of once in awhile as a tiny dot out there in the blackness around the sun, we got the sense that a huge step of our mission was over. We'd made it out here, we'd mourned a friend, and now we'd made immense discoveries about the largest planet in our solar system.

      And then came the part of the mission we were all dreading, not because of what we'd be doing, but of the time spent waiting for it to happen. So far, there's always been something on the calendar within a few months to keep us engaged. First the fly by of Mars which was kinda a non-event, but it gave us a chance to practice the hard science of planetary observation which we put into good use both in the Asteroid Field and with Jupiter. But now. We had to simply kill time and wait.
      The only one happy about it was Doctor Dira. "Now, you don't have any choice but to spend time in medical being tested," she said to us.
      It may have been my ears playing tricks on me, but I thought I heard murmurings of a medical mutiny afoot.

      We were to 'bump' our orbital path out and, in a year or so, perform the same sort of flyby of Saturn and its rings and moons.
      Yes, it would be at least a year. No matter how hard Captain Merrick and the others pushed the ship it was going to be somewhere on the order of fourteen months before we'd even begin to approach the famously ringed planet.
      And even worse, it would add several months more to even the new and improved cargo pod trips, and make having Earth at "closest approach" almost meaningless.
      "But Saturn's right there," we'd say and point out the portal to where we could see it, and its rings, just as clear as day.
      The Captain would just shake his head and float away.

8. what is your impression of your crewmates?

      That's how the suggestion for this section was put when I had nothing else to add to my journal. It went on to suggest that I start with the person I knew the least well and then move on to the others and close with something about myself that I hadn't mentioned before.

      Well. To be honest. I really don't know Captain Merrick as well as I do any of the others. He's very private and keeps to himself when he's not on duty. And even when he's off duty he is liable to either be on the command deck or in the science lab where he has taken over watching what exposure to deep space does to all sorts of single celled and other microscopic plants and animals like his new friends the tardigrades that are in small containers scattered here and there around the outside of the ship.
      I didn't even know the captain had taken over Rob's experiment until some time after the accident when I wondered if anybody had been tending to the critters and somebody told me that they were being well looked after.
      One of the robot drones that operated outside the ship had various microscopes mounted on it and could feed high resolution photos of several types and real time microscopic videos to the labs.
      So far, most of his microscopic friends had been doing just fine. Some of them seemed able to survive being frozen solid at several hundred degrees below zero and subjected to every sort of radiation you could think of, then being brought in after a year or more, thawed out, and observed. Some of his subjects didn't make it, others picked up where they left off and made more test subjects for him to put in other containers and ship back out for another round of, in some cases, being directly exposed to the vacuum of space only clinging to a bit of gel on the bottom of their dish while passing their time attached to the outside of one of the reactors.
      It was on several of those dishes that Rob obtained samples of asteroid dust that he sent back to Earth, complete with the dish's compliment of single celled whatever they were.

      I know the Captain is oldest crew member on board and that he was married at one time to a woman that lives south of London. She sends him messages now and then. I think they have a couple of kids. He was in the British Army before he switched to the Air Force, then he got himself loaned to the American space program, and, somehow, landed his job here even though he'd never been in space before.
      He likes the way I run my shift, which is to say, I am capable of making a decision and letting whoever has been assigned to assist me on the shift do their job and not bother him with the trivial and mundane, like needing the Commander's permission to dump the solid waste unit when it's full.
      He's also a big fan of classical music and usually has something by some orchestra playing in the command deck, and he despises some of the reconstituted fruit and vegetable juices the ground crew said were the healthiest thing ever launched from Earth. He says they are only acceptable when mixed half and half with the engineer's liquor.
      And that's about all I know about him.
      Oh, and he's in bunk compartment 1, of course.

      So, I'll go that way. By bunk number.
      In bunk two is Dira, who is also our CMO and my closest friend on the ship, after Rob, but, you know.
      Dira is one of the most interesting people I've ever met in my life. If it is possible for a Spanish woman to do it before she was thirty-five, Dira has done it and she just turned thirty-three before we left, we had a birthday party for her as our last outing before our grand departure. She's even been to Medina in Saudi Arabia. She was there on some sort of medical mission and it took almost a year for her to get permission to go. Then they wouldn't let her leave the hotel without wearing all the robes and veils and she had to be escorted, and the only time she got to see any patients were when some women who needed treatment were smuggled into the hotel. The only thing she said about it was that it may be the only thing in her life that she wouldn't do again.
      "And yes, that includes this mission. I don't know about you, but I never imagined I would do something like this."
      One of the things she is looking into is the affects and effects of being in space for a prolonged period on our intestinal tracts, and how both our digestive processes, and the various microorganisms that call our bellies home react to everything from the food to the heavy particle radiation that make it through the skin of the ship. There were some predictions that after about two years we'd slowly starve to death because we wouldn't be able to properly digest our dinner no matter how many probiotic capsules we took. Well, it's been longer than that, and here we still are, and, if anything, some of us are having the opposite problem.
      Since Rob's death, Dira is the one of the few people on board that understands that sometimes I need to 'sleep with somebody' and most of the time that is EXACTLY what we do, sleep. We'll lay in one or the other's compartment, and talk for awhile, then go to sleep. I find it very comforting being close to somebody from time to time, without other complications that is.
      And no I'm going to say any more about that.

      Bunk three is Narda.
      If Dira is one of the most interesting people I've ever known, then Narda is one of the most beautiful women I've ever been friends with. And I mean it like this, she is not only pretty, she has a pleasant personality, is an expert in her field, and is one of the few of us on board who has any musical ability at all.
      "Yes, I play it, but not very well," she said after we were on our way and she tried out the mounted electric keyboard in what's been called our 'hobby pod' on the polar opposite side of the ring from the rec center. To me, she was good enough that I didn't mind listening to her play.
      Her 'space science' was something along the lines of stellar sciences and solar dynamics. She would spend hours in her science lab in the big ring making sure one of the spectrum analyzing cameras stayed pointed at some little dot of light untold billions of kilometers away. Either that or she had another camera pointed at the reflection of our own sun's light off one of the outer planets or its moon or something. And if you asked her about it she would go into ecstatic poetics about spectral lines of carbon and argon.
      Like I said before, I like Narda, even though she spent the first year or more of the mission being very self-conscious and shy. But when she finally did let her hair down, and I mean literally, she wore her hair in a tight bun for the longest time, and then showed us a lot more. And for awhile we thought she was 'space happy', but then I heard through the ship grapevine that she had been somehow worried that 'her sponsor' would 'recall' her if she didn't maintain some ungodly level of professionalism. I guess it took her watching Mars going by before she realized that being 'recalled' wasn't an option.
      Another thing, Narda was the last one to decorate the door of her quarters, and whenever I got a glimpse inside, her compartment was so neat it might be passed off as the model for what the designers had in mind for one.

      Compartment four is Candice's. It was supposed to be Ivan's but she wanted to swap, so they did.
      Candice is the one true first and last astronauts of the whole crew. Others have been with the ESA or NASA for some time and such, but Candice is one of the two of us who had been in space before, she had been on the current Space Station when they started sending up components for the Argo. She is overall second in command and runs the second shift from Command, she is also an assistant in Medical as a certified EMT, she's also an assistant ship's systems engineer, and has her own science project studying the long term effects of cold, stress, and radiation on various metal alloys. There's a bin on the outside of the big ring with a large assortment of rods and bars of different metals. Every so often she'll have one of the robots go get unit 7-B or 21-R and the robot will put it in a machine that's part of the outside of her lab and she'll run all sorts of tests on it, then the robot will put it back.
      So far the only thing I think she's proven is that testing metal parts like that is a really dull way to spend the day, so she's usually in Command or Medical.
      I was surprised to learn that she is the oldest of the female crew, and is only a year or so younger than the Captain. She doesn't really look or act it.
      "We weren't supposed to get naked on the station. The mission commander didn't even want to know that I completely undressed in the bathing cubical for my sponge bath. She said she didn't because as soon as she did there would be a priority video call come in for her from Houston or Paris." Candice laughed and shook her head, "I told her that's why I didn't want to be a mission commander."
      The naked solar parties were Candice's idea. When it was pointed out that a meaningful milestone of days out was coming up, that was her excuse. Not that she needed much of one. I also think that Candice was the first one of the women on board to begin that certain level of fraternization with some of her fellow crew mates. But I have never asked her about it.
      Oh, another thing about Candice. She was our OFFICIAL "First Contact Officer".
      IF, and that's the key word right there, 'if' an Extra Terrestrial Species approaches the Argo Epic and attempts to make contact, She is the one that will answer for the ship. And, for that matter, for the Human Race.
      There is a whole First Contact Protocol. When I'm on duty and get Really Bored, I'll open that file and read through it. They've thought of everything. There's even a procedure to follow if an alien battleship pops up and starts shooting at us. We are to attempt to make contact, and surrender.
      Yes. This ship is absolutely unarmed. No missiles, which the aliens would simply dodge. No chain guns, which they might think were funny. No lasers, "ooohhhh, light show!" And nothing else that could be considered any more offensive than some of the dirty laundry that somebody left in the processor without running it.
      If the aliens are hostile, they would probably either feel sorry for a big slow moving target like us, or, they might see what a bunch of human slaves will bring on the open market and what the going price was for however many tons of space junk at the recycling center. No matter what, our resistance would consist of shouting loudly and threatening them with handfuls of reconstituted chicken casserole.
      Come to think of it. The fresh water we have on board might bring more than either the crew or the ship.
      One last thing about Candice and her role as our ambassador to the aliens. Captain Merrick had posted a standing order that she HAD to make First Contact In Uniform instead of in a prom dress or naked.
      She puffed herself up with her chest out and nose up and answered, "well, unless the alien commander likes his women naked."
      Captain Merrick shook his head and floated away.

      Bunk 5 has been empty since we left Earth. It should have had a crewmate from Japan or China or Taiwan in it, but the Japanese man pulled out of the mission at the very last minute and we still don't know why and I inherited some of his experiments, and the invited members from the other two countries became politically unworkable. So both were cut, most of the plants they were supposed to work with have long since died, and bunk five is empty.
      Well, it hasn't stayed empty. I have it on good authority that it has been used for some other sorts of recreation that aren't SUPPOSED to be done in the rec or hobby pods.
      But that's enough about that.

      No, I'll add another thing. That sort of recreation HAS to be why we spent so much time prior to launch being subjected to every blood and tissue test they could come up with. I guess they didn't want somebody leaving Earth with the clap or something. Well, so far, nobody had infected anybody else with anything more interesting than a migraine headache.
      I've been told that I'm a carrier of that particular illness.

      Ivan is in Bunk 6.
      And Ivan, whose real name is Pyotr is our Cosmonaut. And he is also the living proof that the compartments we sleep in are as sound proof as the engineers on the ground said they would be.
      When we were in final training we were all together in a big facility at Marshall in Huntsville where we were doing some mission training. And it was the first time we all had to sleep together in a dorm. One of those otherwise plain looking buildings with a number instead of a name that you couldn't tell what it was for from the outside, inside, it was simply one big bedroom with a large bathroom at the far end.
      And that was when we found out that Ivan snores louder than any human has any right to.
      They even did some medical testing on him to make sure he didn't have sleep apnea and would die in his sleep on the second day on the mission. He didn't have anything wrong with him other than he snored until you thought somebody was testing the engine brake on a diesel truck in the next bunk.
      That was when we wanted to know if the sleeping quarters were soundproof.
      The engineer nodded briskly and said, "Oh, yes indeed. You can run a jackhammer in bunk one and bunk two right behind it will never know."
      And we all looked at Ivan.
      To his credit, when he wasn't snoring, he had photographed more individual bodies in our solar system at high resolution than any single astronomer ever had, including Earth orbiting telescopes. The reason was simple, he was here, and the instruments he had at his disposal were at least the equal of anything launched up till now, and he really didn't have anything else to do out here. He was one of the few with one mission on the mission.
      Off duty, he helped keep the distillery running, and he translates any incoming messages that are in Russian into French, or maybe English if you sweet talk him enough. And he snores. That's about it. Oh, and another thing, he is the one man who has made a point of shaving ALL of his body hair off. He did it on Earth before we left, and he's kept it that way. He hasn't got a single body hair on him south of his eyelashes.

      Rob was in Seven

      Eight was the other empty bunk. And it had collected all sorts of odds and ends, including stuff that nobody knew where it came from or even what it was, and it turned out that bunk 8 had also been used for storage while the Argo was being assembled in orbit.
      I found a massive bungee cord net with locking pliers at several points and large metal hooks on thick elastic cords coming out from the center in the bunk. It wasn't supposed to be here because it was one of the things used to help guide the separate components and hold them in place while robots and space suited workers inside and out lined them up and made them fast to each other. I had only seen one once before. Back on Earth, when they showed us how our ship was being built for us.
      The bungee thing became part of the decorations in the hobby pod and was actually useful to hold things in place so you could work on them.
      Other items included slightly more understandable bits like a spare air tank that had been left somewhere by the work crew and not discovered until later. There was a cardboard box with numbered cards and stickers and sticky holders that had been used when they were installing and testing various components. There was also a dirty laundry collection, some of which had been worn when we launched from Earth, and then instead of being sent out with the trash, it had been stuck in here. And stuff like that.
      I got it and the footlocker storage assigned to it all cleaned out and ready for the shipment. And nobody missed any of the junk that had been in there. And now, 8 is the FUN commissary.
      The Official Commissary in one of the small partitioned rooms near the medical pods in the big ring is one of the least used rooms on the ship. I mean that. Somewhere around Mars Ulrich had been doing a unit check, something that was supposed to be done at least once a week but had somehow slipped off the duty roster, anyway, he checked the gauges on the door and saw it was pressurized, which is something we have to do before opening any sealed compartment, then he opened the hatch to the compartment. And found out that somebody had turned off the heater inside and everything in the room was frozen solid.
      It was lucky nobody had had a sudden craving for a real maple syrup flavored granola cluster or a spicy protein bar because they would have broken their teeth on them.
      We thawed it out, and set the unit to auto, and closed the door and forgot about it again.

      The American Engineer Baxter is in bunk nine. Except he is seldom in bunk nine. All I've seen him use it for in ages is storage for stuff for the still. He has rigged a sleeping bag in one corner of engineering and spends most of his time back there. If he's not there, he's either in Command talking to the Captain, or in medical being tested. He does pretty much everything else, including eating and playing a video game he admits to being addicted to in engineering.
      As there are no washing facilities for either us or our uniforms in engineering, just how he does that, or IF he does that is a mystery I won't even attempt to solve.
      Baxter had been with the US Air Force, and with NASA, and with one of the contractors that built the orbital facility adjacent to the space station that built the ship, and I have no idea which one of those got him his assignment to our mission. There was open speculation that while he was an amazing engineer and carried the information on how all this stuff works and why around with him in his head, he was also one of the most disagreeable people every spawned. Baxter's advantage was that he knew he got along better with machines than people, and he was OK like that. And I think he is the only one of us except the Captain who goes by his surname instead of something else. Come to think of it, I'm not sure I even know his first name. While we all know the Captain's first name, we never use it.
      Baxter really respected Captain Merrick and would go to command to report in, and he tolerated Ulrich well enough to let him help out in engineering but he didn't talk to him, he only liked Ivan because Ivan helps him make booze. But other than that, and the occasional leering stare at Candice who he openly had a crush on, and I think he looks at all of us women like that in turn, but she gets more of his attention than the rest of us combined, besides that, Baxter stayed away from us.
      But when you come right down to it, and they were outside together and Rob's safety line broke. Baxter risked his own life to try to save him. But even with his line played all the way out, it was too late. Rob was out of reach. And if Baxter's own clamp had failed at that moment, both of them would have been lost. That says a lot about the man doesn't it?

      Compartment ten belongs to one of the enigmas of the crew, Lynn. Her real name is something so Polish I will never be able to pronounce it, and she is also doing something on the mission that I don't even claim to understand for half the universities on Earth. And to do it she has an entire server with extra processors to do it, and instead of sending data back to Earth, she sends a summary, then puts gobs of information on memory cards and sends them back on the cargo runs.
      She is a PhD archaeologist, a stellar cartographer, has some kind of degree in theoretical cosmology, and has a certification in, believe it or not, classical astrology, and is also our Space Weather Officer monitoring disturbances from the sun and elsewhere that, as I've heard it put, "can raise hell with the ship and crew". She decided to call her lab Astrometrics, and the rest of us agreed with her.
      Let me put it like this, let's say you wanted to know where the planets and stars were on your birthday, five hundred years before Christ, and what the sky would have looked like from your home town that night, she'd have it worked up before lunch.
      She's out here to both predict where the various bodies in our solar system and the local neighborhood of stars and assorted rogue bodies are going for the next however long, and where they've been for the last million years or so. She's also trying to put to rest the theory that Venus is a relative newcomer to our system and either started out outside or was created by a massive impact event with one of the giant planets, possibly within the lifespan of humanity. She doesn't believe the theory although there is some historical documentation about it, and when she mentioned it to me, I'd never heard of it.
      Lynn was also collaborating on something a couple of others of us were working on, but in a more serious way than the rest of us. The electrical properties of the Solar System. In particular, the interactions of the flow of energy from the sun, the Solar Wind, with everything else, including our ship. I had a part in that gathering data and feeding it to her from my lab, so over time I did get to know her.
      I've been around academic people most of my life and have been able to hold my own with them. Until now. With Lynn, I've taken to smiling while she tells me about what we're doing, and just enjoying her accent, and then I agree to do whatever she says, and go on my way. Because any of the rest of it not only went over my head, it kept right on going.
      Lynn is odd in another way, her sleeping compartment is almost empty, but her storage 'under' her bunkroom is packed tight. But, as is her way, it is carefully organized and she can quickly find what she wants or needs even when the light in the passage is off.

      The person in 11 isn't a total slob, she just doesn't care if Candice or anybody else comes and conducts a 'snap inspection' of her quarters and storage or not.
      The Captain requires us to keep our quarters clean enough to not stink, organized enough that the door can be opened without stuff jumping out, and he'd prefer it if we don't anything too outrageous to the compartment itself in case we decide to swap rooms with somebody else. And the resident, or maybe the Occupant of 11 agreed to those conditions while we were still on the ground.
      And that's all I'm going to say about my bedroom.

      Ulrich Schulz is in Compartment 12. And he's said, in his very German way, that he likes his compartment, and he spends most of his off duty time in it. He has outfitted it with multiple video displays and a sound system that would make any car stereo enthusiast envious. Which I guess is OK because he was on the design team that put the compartments together in Germany. You see, Ulrich has had two jobs since he was old enough to work. When he was much younger he delivered advertising fliers door to door in his home town. When he got too old to do that, he went to work for the European Space Agency.
      He is still working for the ESA.
      With our engineers, Ulrich looks after the ship while Baxter keeps engineering running. Baxter makes sure the rest of us have light, heat, water, and air, and that the waste processor is doing what it is supposed to do. He keeps the ship rotating to provide most of it with some gravity, and he keeps the solar panels facing the sun. Which I'll come back to in a minute. Everything from the docking ring forward is basically Ulrich's problem.
      That is, if it is INSIDE the ship, it is Ulrich's problem.
      The solar panels and reactors are both of their problems. Especially the solar panels. if one of them jams as it moves to track the sun as the ship rotates, and they do, one or the other either has a robot go over and kick it, and if that doesn't work they suit up and go out to work on it with a big hammer.
      And sometimes they need help out there. Like that one time awhile back.
      Rob volunteered to go out and check it out with Baxter while Ulrich monitored their progress from engineering. He said it would help him gain a medical understanding of what happens during an EVA.
      By rights, it should have been Ulrich out there and both of them blamed themselves for it not being one of them that drifted away when the piece broke instead of Rob. But after awhile, they realized it was just an accident.
      We have all been outside the ship in suits at one time or another. Me, when I did it... I've never been so sick, and so scared in my life. But I did it. And there may come a time when I have to do it again. And when the time comes, I'll be sick and scared again. It could have happened to any of us. But it happened to Rob.
      Ulrich took it harder than anybody and for a several shifts he didn't come out of his compartment except to use the head. And, rumor has it, he had some plastic bags in his room that he used for that as well for awhile.
      Finally, both Captain Merrick and Baxter ordered him to either go use the counselor thing or get back to work.
      He got back to work.

      And now for the bit about myself that most people on Earth won't know. Well, my father is a French Canadian salesman who fell in love with a young black girl from Michigan, and I grew up spending a lot of time in both countries. Which may explain why I've always been able to read French better than I speak it, which is one reason why this was dictated in English. In fact, in high school in Michigan I was able to get into the second year French class because I wasn't able to hold what the teacher thought was a reasonable conversation in the language. That and the novelty of having a half black girl who could read and write the language like a native was probably a factor as well. Of course, half the class was about reading and writing it, as were most of the tests, so I aced the class. It did help me out later in life, to the point that the selection panel members from the ESA thought me a shoo-in because they liked the idea that I could talk to them in a mainland European language.
      So, there you go.

9. Questions from kids

      Some boffins from the ESA came up with the idea to send us a bunch of questions from school kids for our next mission anniversary. To cover as many kids as they could in schools all over Europe, they combined similar questions and supplied us with how many ten year old kids from where asked that basic question.
      We each drew three of them at random. I got: "How do you cook your meals?", "They said there's robots on board, what are they like?", and "What happens when you go to the bathroom?"
      Captain Merrick said we could not swap questions with anybody else, but that he DID have a couple of spare questions if we wanted to answer four instead of three. But he still wanted videos of between two and three minutes, which meant a couple of hundred words for each, back in time for the outbound transmission the next day. I said "no, thank you, sir, three's enough" and took my questions and went back to my lab to see if that spare bag of engineering hooch was still in its hiding place behind the command systems monitor.

      It was. And aging it doesn't make it any better.

      So, Now I needed to concentrate and tell the forty seven kids from five countries that asked about how we cook our meals that we really aren't supposed to cook our meals, but that we sometimes do.

      Hello, I'm Livia, I was born in Canada but I grew up in the United States, and I'm going to tell you a secret, we're really not supposed to do any cooking, but we do. Now I'll tell you why and how.
      Most of our meals are pre-packaged, and are designed to meet all of our nutritional needs. But sometimes they don't taste very good, and really, there's not a lot of variety with them. So we've figured out ways to take the meals apart, and, say, pull all of the onions and mushrooms out of the vegetable blend and use them in other things with some of the spices and sauces we've been sent from home. We do have both liquid eggs and powdered eggs, so I make myself a cheese omelet once in awhile. And most people don't know that we make fresh coffee as well, we have to use instant or make it with a French Press that can be messy but does make pretty good coffee.
      The problem is that even in the recreation pod out on the rotating ring where there is enough gravity to keep the eggs in a pan, there's no real stove, so we have to put everything in one of the pouches and cook it with either the microwave or in a hot box with radiant heating. But we've all had long enough to learn a few tricks on how to make what we have better.
      Captain Merrick has even worked out a way to make a sort of meat loaf by breaking up several of the patties, adding a lot of spices, and mixing in the eggs and onions, then letting it cook on low in the box for a long time. It's really pretty good. Thank you for your question.

      Hello, I'm Livia, I was born in Canada but I grew up in the United States, and I get to tell you a little about the robots we have on board. They're not robots like you'd see in the movies with arms and legs, they're more like the ones you see in videos from inside factories or even some hospitals. And we have them both inside the ship with us, and outside in space.
      Inside some of them help keep the ship clean by being like those automatic vacuum cleaners like some people have in their houses. Others move equipment and supplies from one section to the other on mounted tracks built into the passageways. There's a few that are portable cameras and microphones, like the one I'm using to record this message, it looks just like this one that is out of service for right now because one of the propellers that it uses to hold itself in place in the low gravity in most of the ship is broken.
      We even have some robots that can monitor our life signs during our exercise time or if somebody gets sick.
      Outside the robots keep our solar panels clean, and do the service that has to be done on the reactors, and even help dock the cargo pods that we get in from Earth in case the docking latch on them was damaged by a meteor collision during its long flight out here. You can learn a lot more about them on the mission's website. Thank you so much for your question.

      I sat and stared at the card with the third question on it for a long time, and consumed a lot of the engineering vintage vodka-shine. Then I finally had an idea.
      Luckily, early in my life my mother signed me up for a series of 'little miss' something pageants where I learned to smile a totally charming but completely fake smile. It is the only thing I learned from that part of my life that I retained. I can still smile that smile.
      And smile it even after consuming a good amount of that swill from engineering.

      Hello, I'm Livia, I was born in Canada but I grew up in the United States, and thank you for the question that so many have found interesting all over the world. What happens to our waste up here, and are we really polluting space?
      We have several different kinds of waste that we have to get off the ship. The only waste that we eject directly into space is our own physical waste from our bathrooms. That is very nearly totally dehydrated and compressed, and then it is ejected as a solid pellet that freezes in seconds and will stay in orbit around the sun for thousands of years. And because space is so big, and our waste pellets are so small, about the size of a large soup can, nobody will ever see them again.
      Other waste, such as the packaging from our meals, or even broken parts from equipment on board that can't be used for anything else, goes into one of the spare cargo containers that is sent from Earth, when it is full we program it to fly itself out into deep space where it will never come into contact with any of the other bodies in the solar system.
      But everything that can be is reused or recycled, including the water that is reclaimed in various ways, and, believe it or not, it doesn't stink at all and comes out of our dispenser cleaner than most household water on Earth. Even our air is recycled and the carbon dioxide we exhale is fractured and the carbon reclaimed for other uses, as is the water vapor we add to the air by breathing. Nothing goes to waste up here. And thank you very much for your interest in our mission.

      They were done. I reviewed what I recorded and saved the files to the Captain's folder on the command server.

      Yes, our waste reclamation systems were a work of art. And I knew enough about it all to keep it running when it kicked out some sort of error and needed reset during my command shift without bothering Ulrich.
      There were several heads along the center spine of the ship, each isolated normal liquid human waste from what was more solid. Then each of those was fed back into desiccating units where most of the water, which was a good bit of the mass of each, was removed. What was left of the liquid waste, a good bit of which was nitrogen based, was then further separated into constituent parts, some of which were useful in engineering for various purposes. The solid waste, now down from nearly eighty percent to about ten to fifteen percent water, was fed into a digestive tank where some bacteria worked their magic on it and produced usable gasses and other substances which were collected for re-use. What was left of both processes was what was fed into a compression unit to be rendered into fairly solid cylinders, and then ejected into space. The best the older systems could do was to reclaim about two thirds of the water used, ours would occasionally hit ninety percent reclamation.
      There was a couple of vacuum chutes into the solid waste processor for things like food scraps, odd bits of paper, and anything else organic that would fit in the chute. For example, if you were 'space sick', and we all had been at one point or another, you were to vomit into one of the wax paper bags that were in a holder in almost every section on the ship, then, when you were done, you were to put the chute and add it to the mix in the processor where it would be shredded and processed just like uneaten bits of your lunch.
      The last time I threw up into a bag I carried it back to the docking ring and added it to the garbage pod. And I'm sure that everybody else did as well.
      Supposedly, back in engineering, there was a hatch door into the central unit into which a human body can be passed where it, too, will be reduced to constituent parts, and what can't be otherwise used ejected. Both of our engineers said they had no intention of ever even finding out how to unlock the hatch and whoever it was would just have to have some other arrangements made for them.
      We all agreed.

      My videos came in about average for the crew.
      But we weren't done.
      He wanted another video with all of us in it, at least mostly in uniform, in the rec pod, facing the camera, to introduce ourselves and say something like "Well, we're very proud, very happy, and we're thrilled."
      Captain Merrick glared at me, and for the first time in the mission, I think he was actually seriously upset with me.
      "I know which movie that's from, and if you, if any of you say that, I'm going to send you home in a cargo container." He paused and looked back at me. "And I Mean It." He said very slowly.
      "Yes, sir. Sorry. Captain."
      "I think Miss Livia here should open the video and read the welcome as our Third Officer. All in favor."
      I didn't vote.

      They spread out around me and faced the camera. Then I smiled my pageant smile once again...

      "Hello On Earth. My name is Livia Cote, I'm the third officer on board the Argo Epic. And right now I'm speaking to you from over four times the distance the Earth is from the sun, we're very nearly 700 hundred million kilometers from home, just outside the orbit of Jupiter but in line with the Earth for right now. You've all heard that the Argo is the most advanced spacecraft ever designed by humanity, and it's true, but some of your questions were more about our day to day lives and some of the less well known systems on the ship. Which is great. And we'll each take turns and answer some of those questions."

      The one thing the Captain didn't tell me was that even with the best file compression we could do, and sending them in steady stream on the secondary communications array, it was going to take several days to transmit all the videos. And when I went on duty on the next cycle, we were still tying up half the systems on board sending the stupid things back to Earth, and less than a quarter of the total had been sent because they had been assigned a very low priority compared to ship's status, mission logs, and test results on microbes.
      I made a command decision without checking with the Commander.
      I stopped all communications and told Mission Control to stand by for a priority data dump on all com bands. Then, after a suitably dramatic pause, I fed every stinking second of the kid's videos into the main communications server and we broadcast nothing but videos about poop in space, how you ride a stationary bicycle or run a 5K with no gravity, how we do laundry, do any of us have any tattoos (the answer was yes, several, but you have to watch the video to find out who!) and all the rest of it, including my opening false smile and canned speech. With every available byte per second across every frequency we had, main, auxiliary and even the computer's side band, even with automatic data-checking on the ground that compared this download with an identical one two hours later so it could fill in the frames that had fallen out of the stream between here and there, it was finished before anybody even knew I'd done it.

      "So, Captain, did that make up for my being out of line the other day?" I asked him when the first shift relieved me several hours after it was over and our link to Earth was back to its normal housekeeping routine.

10. "How weird does it get when you've been in space for five years?"
      After I saw the suggested question I had to look at the mission record. Yes. We've been out here now for almost five years.
      We had been planning a major anniversary party, but it began to seem like a lot of work, so maybe we'll just have the dinner they're sending for us and let it go at that.

      It hasn't been a bad time. Yes, there's been a death, and a temporary insanity, and a couple of fights, and all that.
      But, overall, I think we've done pretty good.

      But, the suggestion was to cover some of the weird things that have happened, and I'll go with the most recent example that lasted about eight months or so.
      Baxter stays in engineering, that's simply a fact. I'm pretty sure his record for not coming forward beyond the docking ring is close to a year. I'm also pretty sure we could close off the hatch on the section with the connectors to the three labs to the one that is part of the storage area and then separate the rest of the ship from engineering and it would take him a week to even begin to wonder why it was so quiet now.
      Anyway, Baxter had had one of his fits where he swears the ship would run better if it weren't for the human crew, and he thought of an odd way to prove it that wouldn't be fatal for us. Unpleasant, but not lethal.
      He stole all our uniforms and other clothes, even the Commander's pajamas, and put them in a cargo pod, and undocked it, but left it attached to one of the robot capture arms, and then locked down the controls for the arm.
      All we had to wear was what we had on.
      THEN, to prove his point, he disabled the clothing processors built into one of the storage pods off the main corridor just outside of engineering.
      It wasn't long before even my own uniform was starting to get somewhat nasty to wear.
      We tried washing them in the bathing cubical, but that barely made them wearable for another shift or two. And it used a LOT more water than we wanted to use for that. The processor, through a method that I only barely understand and can't explain, used a micro mist of water under very high pressure with a couple of chemicals and blasts of air to get our uniforms clean. It was a bit rough on other clothes, like a women's designer blouse from Earth, but it did clean it. And it used basically a couple of coffee cups full of water, endlessly recycled in the system, to do it.
      Captain Merrick had a long talk with the engineer and came back saying that Baxter had almost convinced him that he was right. Ulrich said he wasn't getting involved and didn't even try to override whatever his boss had done. So it was up to the rest of us.
      We talked about it, and decided to wait him out.
      It became the Argo Epic Standoff.
      You had an anti-social engineer who was only allowing the Captain to occasionally process his uniform to avoid a court-martial, against the rest of us.
      Me and Candice made sure we had a suitable uniform shirt that was at least wearable in case we had to send a video message back to Earth while we were on our command shifts. She had indicated that she had a special way of getting him to let her clean some of her special outfits over and above her regular allowance of processor time, and that on occasion Lynn had used a similar technique before, but right now, he was even refusing THAT bargain, "So he's really gone off the deep end."
      That didn't sound like good news to the rest of us.

      It went on for so long that we got used to it, and had to turn the heat up in some sections. Which made him even angrier because it used more energy from the reactors.
      Then one day on my command shift I noticed the robotic arm holding the container with our clothes in it was moving. It was bringing the purloined box back to the docking ring. Then, I saw the readout change that the container was attached and pressurizing.
      So I went back a couple of sections to the docking ring to see what was up.
      And there was Baxter, opening the hatch to the container.
      "I just got tired of it," was all he said.
      Except everything in the container was frozen solid and crinkly when we tried to unload it.
      "Maybe we'd better let it thaw for awhile," I said to him.
      He nodded and went back to engineering.

      Even Captain Merrick was subject to the occasional bit of space happiness. But his went in phases, and for very short bits considering how long Baxter held our clothes hostage or how long we had to put up with Narda dashing through the ship looking for God only knew what today.
      For instance, about every six months or so you know you're going to have to put together a full uniform and stand, or float, at attention, for inspection. And everything, from your hair to your socks with the sticky stuff on them, had to be neat and orderly, with proper badge of rank and specialty.
      After the second time he made us do it, I got my complete uniform together, had it cleaned, then put it in a sack and stashed it in a corner of my storage locker. Everything, right down to the socks that I didn't like to wear. So the next time he announced an inspection, I was ready.
      And because he had inspected us, Candice would then decide that as Second Officer she should inspect our quarters. But I had a trick for her. When she announced the inspection, I threw everything in a big tote box and pushed it into the equipment pod. She'd be upset that my compartment looked like I'd moved out, but there's nothing in the regulations about your bunk being empty, so she had to live with it.
      Then they both would get on me about needing to inspect something.
      OK, I can play.
      He inspected people, she inspected bunks, I inspected duty stations.
      And I made sure I found enough wrong with something somewhere to prove I did my job.
      The Captain would transmit the results of our inspection and then we'd all get back to usual for a while.
      And there wouldn't be any more than a 'drive by' or rather, 'float by' inspection of anything for a long time.

      There was a protracted bit of silliness which we solely blame on Lynn and Captain Merrick because it ended up being their fault.
      We were in an excellent position to observe Comet Chalmers-Chin-Carthosborg when it was outbound from the sun. We didn't even have to modify our orbit all that much. In fact, they were projecting that the tails of the thing, both the dust and ion tails would begin to pass over the ship in the next few weeks and we could sample then until our hearts were full, or at least until we ran out of sample containers. And that the core, the infamous snowy-dirtball, would pass just about three or four million kilometers away from us.
      And so that's what we did.
      We got great samples, endless photos and video, and even captured some wayward particles that may have erupted off the nucleus as it passed by the Sun.
      And we also all got superpowers.
      Well, we did for a week or so.
      Those two were discussing if passing through the dust and gas from the comet had done any damage to the ship or crew. Word spread that they were looking for signs and symptoms of anything unusual.
      Candice was first, she said that since the comet had passed that she could read minds. And according to her, everybody was either thinking about booze or sex or getting out of a cleaning detail somehow. And she was right most of the time!
      I decided that I could fly, and proved it by 'flying' from the command deck all the way back to engineering. Ulrich and Ivan became super strong and started moving stuff that didn't need to be moved. Dira gained x-ray vision. And so on.
      It made an entertaining diversion after doing hard science for the duration of the passing of 4C.
      But then, like almost everything else, that got old too.
      Oh, and for the damage to the ship from the comet, there was nothing that the outside robots couldn't cure by wiping cometary 'goo' off the solar panels and portals, and knocking dust off the docking seals.

      One other bit was not long after we'd left Earth. In fact, we were still maintaining the day and night routine with the lights and all that. When something really weird happened with the power grid.
      The Argo Epic is a huge, long, complicated, and somewhat awkward metal Thing moving through the solar wind and various magnetic fields, with stuff sticking out at all sorts of angles here and there.
      Which was evidently a problem as we accelerated to our mission speed, and was one that even the best boffins on Earth hadn't anticipated.
      Everything, and every Body on board the Argo suddenly became charged with static electricity.
      It began slowly and almost unnoticeably. Like when you were wearing your pajamas at your grandparent's house and touched the doorknob to the bathroom. At least that's the first time I remember it happening to me. Except on the ship every square centimeter of the thing is metal, or very nearly so, and unless you were constantly touching something, you got shocked. Even if you just let go for a few seconds.
      "We're working on it," was all Baxter would say.
      In the mean time, we spent our free moments not touching the ship for a moment or three and then reaching out to zap somebody who was trying to concentrate on whatever they were doing.
      I think that's the first time me and Rob 'got personal' when I went to shock him and he turned quickly and kissed me so the kiss was electrified.
      The solution to the larger problem was to accelerate the ship as quickly as possible through that 'sweet spot' that was our interaction with the charged particles and whatever wake we were causing in the flow until the static build up slowed and finally ceased.
      The only one who was absolutely delighted with it all was Narda. Not only was she absolutely thrilled with our discovery of a previously unknown and unexpected phenomenon, she worked up a theory and made a prediction that it could very well happen again, but not until we were on our way back home and hitting the stream bow on at such and such an angle.
      Captain Merrick wrote himself a note to avoid that.

      Rob had been as much the ship's chaplain as anybody wanted or needed. And he was one of the few on board that even tried to keep track of holidays on Earth. He wasn't a certified minister or anything, but he was religious, and saw creation through the eyes of a believer, which he passed on to me through our time together. And it has been something I have tried to keep up.
      In the regular cargo pods we got birthday gifts, sometimes a month or more early, or late. And Christmas gifts, usually early, but once they didn't arrive at all because the pod went missing. And Candice or Ulrich will occasionally decorate something for one reason or another. But as it is just us, and we're all in the same boat, holidays just don't seem to be that important.
      Until, that is, my original sponsors for my being here, the Canadian Space Agency, wanted me to show them and the world what I was doing to celebrate Canada Day on the Argo.
      The first thing I had to do was to look it up in our reference server, what we all call the "library computer" in spite of being repeatedly told NOT TO during training, and remind myself that Canada Day is 1 July. Whatever I was doing, I had a month to prepare and then transmit it back for them to broadcast that day.
      I had no idea what to do that would sufficiently impress them back in Saint Hubert so they would leave me alone for awhile again. At a loss, I started trolling the others for ideas.
      "I know," Ivan said. "I'm supposed to do something for Russia as well, for National Day. But they didn't like my first idea, so now I have to make a speech instead, they want it live from here. It is in two weeks."
      "What was your first idea?"
      He told me, and I loved it. Then we told the rest of the crew, and while most of them thought it was silly, they agreed to play along as long as I would return the favor if somebody asked them for something similar.
      And here's what we did.
      As we had the national flag of every country that had somebody on board, or had contributed significantly, or, as we suspected was really the case, the Mission Team included every flag they could find in case some country ended up being involved in some way and we could show their contribution with a flag in the background with the Commander thanking them for their whatever it was.... anyway, we had TWO Canadian flags on board. So we put one inside a rigid frame and sent it out the airlock where one of our larger outside robots picked it up and carried it all the way to the front of the ship and held it up.
      Then up on the command deck, I led those of the crew who wanted to do it in a rousing rendition of "Oh, Canada" featuring Narda on keyboard while two of the camera drones took video of the event from inside and out.
      I cut it together with the audio, and sent it home during my command shift.
      From what I've heard, it was well received with the Agency, and when broadcast it later it also made several other countries and sponsors angry because they thought Canada had hijacked the mission.
      If it did nothing else, it reminded those other countries that we were still out here and doing stuff. Even silly stuff.

      After I sent it Ivan floated into my work pod and asked me something he had never even hinted at before.
      "Miss Livie" he always called me Livie instead of Livia.
      "I know you still miss Doctor Rob terribly. But, do you think it would dishonor his memory if you were to have a drink with me? I need help on my speech." He hung there by the hatch for a moment. "Please."
      I wrote his speech for him in French, which he then translated into Russian. And he read it word for word to a camera that transmitted it, delay and all, to Earth, two days later on 12 June.
      With the transmission time to Earth, he had been done talking for about fifteen minutes before they even saw the opening test shot of him and the Russian flag with the observation dome and the stars beyond all around him.
      But later, we got back a glowing review of his address from all sorts of dignitaries. And nobody claimed the Russians had hijacked the Argo.

10.5 The Day It All Got Quiet
      I just remembered this.
      It happened while we were still en route, before we got to the asteroid field.
      We had been 'on our way' for about ten months, but somebody had forgotten a very important date in the life of the ship.
      The main computer on the Argo had been ground tested and programmed a year or so before being launched. Then it was installed on the ship in the orbital bay attached to the space station, and re-initialized while the ship was being built around it. Then it 'went live' when the ship was undocked for final assembly and outfitting a couple of months before we came on board for a month or so of intense training with the techies on board before we left Earth orbit and headed out.

      Well, there was a bug.

      Here's my view of what happened.

      I was in the rec center eating a light meal before my command shift while watching Dira and Rob torture Lynn on the running track when everything just went dark and quiet. The main lights and most of the monitors and indicators went out. The only light was a dim glow from the mounted 'night mode' LED lights that we really didn't use any more and some scattered monitors and control boards.
      And when I said quiet, I meant nearly total silence. The ship always had background noises, the engines and air handlers, and the equipment, all made noise. Now. Nothing. I could hear the people in the corridor breathing.
      I found the quiet spookier and more unsettling than the dark.

      I sat there for a moment then I heard Rob say, "That can't be good."
      I thought about it for a moment, "You're right. It can't. Stay here and I'll check in command."
      "Com's dead," Lynnn said coming around the ring at a walk because she couldn't see to run by the night lights, "what happened?"
      "I don't know, but I'll go find out."
      I climbed up the access corridor to where I could start float-swim-crawling like we did in the center of the ship and ran into Captain Merrick who was also on his way to command. There was only a handful of the night lights and the occasional control panel here and there, otherwise, it was pitch black.
      "I couldn't get through to command or engineering. You head back to engineering and see if Baxter is still with us and find out what's happening back there. I'll go up front and find Candice. If you can't get the com to work, come up and report."
      "Yes, sir."

      I pushed off and kind of dove back toward the stern of the ship, guiding myself along with my hands and just keeping myself moving with my feet. It was just light enough that I could see that the hatch between the docking ring and engineering was open so I didn't have to fight it open without the power assist.
      "It's the main computer server," Baxter said, "It went into fail safe mode because it didn't get its annual update."
      "Wasn't that supposed to have been automatic?"
      "It would have been, if we were still docked to the space station or it was in a hanger on Earth."
      "Can you do it?" There was enough light I could see the look he threw at me. "I've got to go report back to the Captain."
      "Tell him I have no idea, yet. It's not letting me in, even into test access. If you see Ulrich or Narda, see if they can log in at the core, I'll be up there in a few. I'll try to get the air and lights back on in emergency mode."
      "On my way."

      I ran across Narda and Lynn on my way back to command, they agreed with Baxter's idea and opened the panel that gave her access to the programming station for the main computer server.
      "Oh," Lynn said as we stared at the screens above the interface terminals. "That's what it is, it's gone into survival mode. I've never seen this before, but we'll work at it." She picked one of the keyboards and keyed in her access code. "Well, that didn't work, let me try this," she did something else and the monitor to the left of the set of three changed to a system's status report.
      "That's something."
      Narda almost laughed, "All it means is that the system will work, but the main computer is still off line."
      "I'm coming!" We heard Baxter shout from the dark behind us. "The air should be back up in a couple of minutes, Ivan's watching it power back up."
      "I'll tell the captain you're all working on it."
      Narda was keying away at the other panel, "we're working on it."
      Baxter floated up just as I was turning to go, "What did I miss?"
      I didn't actually hear what Lynn said to him but he chuckled at it so it must have been a good one.

      In Command they were doing much the same thing the others were in the corridor, but with less success except for Ulrich who had a flashlight in his mouth and was half inside another panel trying to get the lights on.
      "OK, watch yourself," he shouted, then "Now." And about half the emergency lights came on.
      "Why didn't they come on when the others went out?" I asked him.
      "The system didn't see an emergency notice from the computer."
      "Remind me to kick an engineer when we get home," Candice said.
      "Yes, ma'am."

      In a few minutes we had a full ship's status compiled from whatever information we could get out of the few systems that were working, which was mostly tertiary backups run from the auxiliary server in engineering.
      "We can't steer, our navigation information is already over an hour old, the air and heat are just enough to keep us alive, waste recycling is, well, is it up or down?"
      "I think it's down, but I can't check because the monitoring equipment went dark," Ulrich answered. "And even our rotational thrusters are out, so eventually we'll quit spinning, which means we'll start to wobble."
      "And then bad things start to happen, I know," Captain Merrick muttered.

      The engineers and system specialists worked for a long time, everybody else ended up in Command, sitting around the perimeter of the six sided room, waiting, watching the stars go by.
      "I've got news," Lynn said from the main corridor. "We think we can fix it. But it means going completely dark for about an hour. Then we do a restart, and as it comes up, we give it a new update date of, say, a hundred years from now. Then we have to run all the information we've entered into it off the backups and let it chew on all that. It'll take maybe a day before everything is back up and working again. Baxter said the air will get a little stale, and it might start to get cold in here, but we'll be all right."
      We all looked at Captain Merrick in the dim light. Finally he asked the crucial question, "What happens if it doesn't work?"
      "Then we hit it with a hammer."
      I think she was serious.
      "The other option is to transfer whatever we can to the engineering system until we figure out how to get the main server to come out of safe mode. The only communication we have with Earth right now is the sideband, and it'd take forever to get the new programming that way, and that's what it is looking for. But that will keep us alive until it comes back up on its own."
      He looked around, "Everything dark?"
      "Everything that is tied into the main system in any way, because we're going to disconnect it from all three power supplies and let it go cold for a couple of hours. Longer would be better, but then that raises problems of its own."
      "How long until you can do it?"
      "It'll take some time to get in there and isolate it. Say, give us half an hour or so, we'll let you know."
      "I'll need to shut down most of medical, the main system monitors all that," Dira said.
      "Labs too." Narda added.
      Rob was nodding enthusiastically, sending his red hair in every direction, "We'll take care of the ring, you guys handle the rest of it."

      We had it all unplugged and turned off well before Baxter started hollering that he was taking it off line.

      I thought it was quiet and dark before.
      Now the only light really was the night lights, and the rechargeable flashlights we had all been issues. Until then, I didn't even know where mine was. It was in my storage locker 'under' my bunk. And it was about half dead from sitting in storage since the day it had been issued to me.
      Fortunately, Rob had his, and the way we spent the next hour didn't require a lot of light.
      From in my lab with every artificial light source in the pod and those on the outside of the ship off, the light from the stars and planets around us was intoxicating.
      An excellent way to spend almost exactly two and a half hours and now, even after what happened to him, I am smiling as I think about it and I am grateful we had that time together like that.
      And now, as I dictate this, he's been gone longer than we were together, and I still miss him.

      OK, I'm getting back to it....

      Then they spread the word, "Get ready, we don't know exactly what will happen or when."

      Nothing happened for a long time, it seemed like ages, then I pointed to one of the command monitors that had been as black as it could be, now there was a blank white rectangle in one corner and instead of coal black, the screen was a really dark gray. Then the little box began to blink. "It's working." I whispered to Rob.
      After several minutes the blinking rectangle began to spell out words like "loading" and "reading source - loading data", then the whole screen flashed several times and the command overview display came up.
      "Look at those," he pointed to a row of indicators that were supposed to be green. Right now, they were a dim red, then a few changed to an ugly orangish-yellow. It was a while before any of them turned green.
      When they did, Rob said he needed to get back to medical and bring it back online. I nodded and said I'd better get to command now that we were back in business. We both bounced up my lab's short access and then did the swim-crawl forward.

      The ship came back to life slowly.

      As I had been on the command deck during a big part of the final checkout, that's where I was this time too. The view was still awesome.

      The engineers said it was almost an exact duplicate of the way it was brought online during final readiness testing.
      "Except instead of expecting the major update one year from today, it will wait fifty nine years. That's the largest number it would accept."
      "I'll leave a note for the next captain."

      It took several days before everything was back up and running.
      We were off course by far enough that we all spent the next several command shifts baby-sitting the autopilot until it got us back where we were supposed to be.
      We also had to convince Mission Control that we were still here and alive because everything from the ship to Earth had stopped except for the telemetry on the side band through engineering. And all it was telling them was that there was an error with the main computer system. That was all it had said for about four hours, then Lynn got it to transmit some basic information, then it went off during the power down, then during the restart it told them the system was restarting. Then nothing for awhile... and so on. Then abruptly, it was back to usual with the data stream it usually sent.

      The first thing I did was to make sure my emergency flashlight was fully charged.

      In another few cycles, it was like it never happened.
      Later we got to watch a bit of the hearing they had as everybody involved with the main data processing units and the software on them blame each other for the oversight. But in the end somebody at Mission Control said it was a simple oversight and that they'd add it to some checklist or other for the next mission.
      Then we all got various commendations and awards for simply doing what we had to do.

11. Shore Leave!
      Well. Not really, but close enough.

      I've forgotten to mention a few things. We do have live plants on board.
      I've been told that I am one of the only people on Earth who has ever successfully killed a plastic plant. No, I didn't kill it, I just put it on a table where I thought it looked good, and it turned out that direct sunlight isn't the best thing for things like that. I have about the same luck with real plants.
      However, even without a plant biologist on board, several of the crew have managed to keep most of the plants in that lab, and the few scattered here and there throughout the rest of the ship alive. Well, we've kept some of them alive anyway. There were a couple of fancy orchids that were supposed to be studied whose 'care and feeding' instructions were far to fussy for the rest of us, and a couple of types of ivy that didn't make it. But on the whole, we did OK. As far as being able to sustain ourselves growing produce under lights in a 'growth slurry' of nutrients and water? Not a chance. And we knew it.
      However, it was nice to be able to stop by that pod once in awhile and just look at something that was green and alive and just remember a place where we could walk outside and see a real plant under a real sun.

      Imagine our surprise then when TWO pods showed up within hours of each other, one was our regular supply pod that was supposed to have our anniversary dinner in it, the other was. Something else.
      "Look at the paint job!" Candice announced over the com from command as the robotic arm swung the second pod toward the docking ring.
      All of the other pods that had come out had been one or another shade of gray, depending on which outer coating had been used on it.
      This one was painted like an airliner like the named carrier from some tropical island.
      "What's up with that?" I asked her over the channel.
      "No idea, we didn't even know this one was coming until yesterday, then we thought it might be a communications glitch with the pod's telemetry. That's happened before."
      "Yeah," I answered.
      One time last year a supply pod with a malfunctioning notification program kept telling us it was about to arrive, complete with coordinates, even while docked. Baxter finally got inside the thing and simply yanked the power supply out of the unit to keep it off the channel so we could hear if there was another one coming.
      With this one, there was no telemetry from it at all until the first one had docked. Then we figured out that the second one had simply been riding the first one's signal in. Which also meant that if the first one had decided that it really wanted to go out and join the Oort cloud, the second one would be right there with it.
      "Hey. That's new. This thing even has arrows on it for which way to dock it. Hang on, let me turn it over."
      "Does it really say 'this end up'?"
      "Something like that, it's in the cam feed from arm three, check it out."
      I did, and there it was, written in three different languages with arrows next to the words, "Dock Inboard" and "Dock Outboard".

      Once it was docked, things got even more interesting.
      "Full atmosphere inside, and it's warm! It's showing twenty seven degrees in there, that's hot for one of these things," Baxter said over the com from the docking ring.
      "Is it on fire inside?" Somebody asked.
      "Not that I can tell, we're equalizing pressure, we'll know in a minute."

      And then.

      "Hey!Everybody, You Have Got To Come See This!"

      The beach scene that had been painted on the outside was recreated on the inside. Including three Live Palm Trees, some funny looking grass, and all the rest. There was even a tiki hut with coconut cups in a rack and more bottles of rum and coconut water than I could count.
      The only thing it really didn't have was ocean water and loose sand. The sand it had was a grainy flooring that felt like sand to the touch, and the 'ocean' was painted on the far wall.
      With the gentle gravity from the spin of the ship, we had just enough weight that I was able to actually walk around the outside of the hut and look at the fake thatching and holiday lights. It looked every bit the part of a cheesy tourist trap bar at some cruise ship port.
      "Hey, look," Lynn said from over by a set of beach chairs that were bolted to the deck next to a really tacky umbrella. She held up a small box with a button on it. "It says to push the button when everybody is here and the pod's on ship's power."
      Captain Merrick looked around, "OK, push it."
      Several things happened at once. A blindingly bright sun lamp came on from one far corner over the painted ocean scene, then from the tiki hut came a barrage of obnoxious steel drum music, then a projection lit up on the wall opposite the hut near the beach chair where Lynn found the button.
      The projection was most of the ranking members of Mission Control and several people that looked like civilian advisers from the various countries. Rather belatedly I recognized Doctor Gagnon who had been the chair of the Canadian committee that accepted me to the program in his trademark three piece suit that was at least twenty years out of fashion.
      "Greetings crew of the Argo Epic," a cheerful voice said first in French then in English. "We would like to congratulate you on your five year anniversary!" The group in the image cheered and applauded. "In celebration of this accomplishment, you are hereby authorized shore leave. Enjoy the beach. You may delay sending the confirmation message until after you've taken a prolonged break in the sun." In a second the same message was repeated in Spanish and Russian.
      The group in the image were all now wearing Hawaiian shirts and holding similar cups with stalks of celery or tiny umbrellas in them. Even Doctor Gagnon was wearing a straw hat and one of the shirts.
      I went back to walking around the hut, and then I saw a cardboard box that had been tied to one of the posts holding up the hut's roof. I pulled the tape off it and looked inside. "Hey, we get shirts!" I said and held up a handful of colorful, and unbelievably gaudy shirts. "AND!" I shouted after everybody laughed, "grass skirts," because there were several packages of party style fake grass skirts in the bottom.
      "It's a clothing optional beach." Candice said, "somebody make me a drink, I'm going to get a tan."
      "I'm going to do the hula in a grass skirt!" I said.
      Ivan applauded as he volunteered to be the bartender for the day.

      There was party food in cases under the various bushes and even up one of the trees. And other gifts here and there.
      Everybody had a chance to adopt some hermit crabs from one of the boxes, the others were destined to find out just what happened to the crabs that were moved into one of the other biology labs, not mine!
      The tiki hut did play something besides steel drum music, and after blinding us for about ten hours the sun went off and the moon, or at least its animated cousin, came out and created a night scene. There was even one of those electric campfire setups in one of the boxes. You turned it on and it was warm, and had dancing plastic flames, and even made crackling noises.
      Overall it was nice.
      But all it did was make some of us homesick.
      "The first time I'd ever been to a real beach on an ocean was when we were all in Florida," I said. "That's it. Now if they'd sent one of those lakes in Michigan or Quebec..."
      "And then they'd have to send some apples or those fries with the gravy and cheese curds," Captain Merrick said.
      "Yeah, and, so?"
      "Excellent point." He looked into his coconut cup, "you know, I'd almost forgotten I don't like tropical drinks with pineapple juice in them."
      "How many did it take for you to remember that?"
      "What's next?"
      "Is there any lime juice left?"

      We kept the beach, and used it as they intended in the instructions. The instructions also included a very detailed section on the way to keep the palm trees and beach grass alive.

      It was about a month later, on the actual five year anniversary, that we had the special meal, and we all had to dress up... no nudity, grass skirts, or T-shirts with surfers on them... and after dinner we each had to say something meaningful about the voyage so far.

      I didn't realize that it had been over a year since I did one of these. Sorry.

      I looked at the last personal log that I'd sent home and it ended just before my words of wisdom about our five year anniversary.
      It ended almost four hundred days ago, and now I don't remember what I said and nobody recorded the speeches.

      Well. To be honest, there hasn't been much to talk about recently, until now. We did our duty, and me and Ivan were 'a thing' for awhile, and me and him and Lynn did a lot of observations establishing the parallax of features like some of the dimmer stars and more remote galaxies and what not that weren't as visible from Earth, and all like that and compare our images with those from ground based and orbital instruments.
      Well, I did get a notice that as I was being listed as a full partner in their research that I would be honored with an honorary doctorate from one of Lynn's universities. Which is nice I guess. Something to show for sitting in the equipment pod making sure the compound lens telescope doesn't go all cross-eyed again while staring at GN-z10.3 for so long. It was nice and warm and cozy, but it was also as boring as hell, until the errors started showing up because lens 5 wasn't tracking with lens 2 and so on. Then you had to do stuff, and if what you did didn't work, you had to get the equipment tender robot to climb up the shaft and bop it one with the soft hammer to unstick it.
      I did develop a routine so that before I started a shift of babysitting the thing I'd have the robot go up there and simply hit the frame around the lenses just to wake it up and let it know that I was on duty. It usually worked.

      Another thing. We had a bit of fun, if you'd call it fun, studying the bundle of rocks that make up the leading group of Trojan Asteroids in Jupiter's orbit.
      There was a similar group behind the planet, but we'd missed them on the way out. Intentionally. They were a fuzzy blip on the long range radar and a bit of gray in the photos from the telescopes. Oh, well.
      Now, even though we were quite a bit further out on our way to Saturn, we could see the leading group fairly clearly, and, guess what. They looked just like the larger mess we'd gone through in the Belt on our way here.
      Then we had a collective idea. If they were in Jupiter's orbit, maybe there were some in Saturn's. We had months of radar and other images to sort through, and a lot of time. So we started looking at what should be the Lagrange points for Saturn in its path around the sun.
      It took longer and more effort than we'd expected. But then we got some results.
      There was a good handful of rocks and dust in the right position behind the planet. But the group appeared to be smaller and somewhat more widely scattered than the ones that kept Jupiter company.
      But even then, we'd made another important discovery, so we called it a success and had a party.

      It was exciting things like that, you know, mission stuff, but then really dull otherwise. So busy and dull in fact that our 'virtual world avatars' in a make believe computer generated town seemed to go on strike.
      I'm not kidding.
      What seems like ages ago, and in fact was three years ago, Ulrich and I and a couple of the others had created an interactive world with somewhat idealized versions of ourselves in it who lived in a somewhat unrealistic small European mountain town, and set it to run semi-autonomously on one of the servers. It was a nice diversion for a while.
      But then some of the others got tired of the fact that every time they checked in on themselves their cartoon doppelganger would be demanding to be fed, or complain that they hadn't allowed them to change their clothes or something, so the fun wore off. I got into the settings for my own character and made her as autonomous as I could, and simply turned her loose for the most part. Then I could sit back and watch as she did all sorts of odd but entertaining things in their world. Like the time she took off in a trolley car and kept driving it around the downtown of their world without stopping to pick anybody up which annoyed the rest of the crew's characters and especially upset the non-player computer controlled people. It did seem like something I would do.
      Then we got busy with the parallax thing, and when I went back in to check on myself, she was hoarding stuff in a fenced off area and the other characters were standing around as if frozen. I had to work at it to get my own avatar to respond to my commands, then I asked Lynn and Ivan to check on theirs.
      It took us about two days to get our second selves to talk to us again. And once they did and everything in the 'other world' was back to usual the real us discussed it and decided to put the virtual world in suspended animation for awhile, and maybe pick it up again later.
      I didn't tell my game self that she was going to take a long nap.

      Then we went back to work on the next parallax comparison target, a galaxy that was slightly closer to us, and perhaps a bit younger, but still ten billion light years away and one of the dimmest ever photographed by humans.

      And a few more months passed, and then we noticed something. Saturn was getting REALLY big in the windows.

      And then we got some news.
      We were beginning to make our approach on Saturn, and the boffins on Earth were promising that once we pass Saturn we could make the turn and head home, and they have a way of getting us off the Argo and back to the surface without having to try to maneuver the Argo back anywhere near the space station.
      We're supposed to park this thing somewhere out by the Moon and they'll come and get us in some new passenger pods that even have a head built into them so we didn't have to wear diapers to go home!

      But for right now, that beautiful planet that we've been staring at for so long is now so close it is lighting up the ship from outside. There is enough reflected sunlight off Saturn to shine into the portals away from the sun to read a printed page by. I know, I've done it.
      We've already discovered a handful of new moons, and detected a previously unknown wave pattern in several of the rings, and we're still a couple of months from our closest approach.

      We were good at this stuff now. Yes, we'd been a little rough at it when we did Mars, but Jupiter made us masters of close planetary flybys. We'd even done a "Long Distance" flyby of Uranus. And even as far away as we were, we found a couple of new moons and rings and got high definition photos and even video of the cloud bands on the bluish planet with the odd tilt.
      So we were ready for Saturn.

      Boy, were we.

      After Jupiter we spent a lot of time looking at our images and data and thinking about how to get more information out of the instruments we had. We got to try out some of that on Uranus and that last comet that went by. Now we put it to the test.
      With the Jupiter flyby, we were able to map the interference patterns of the planet's magnetic and gravitational fields on the solar wind. Now we were able to predict those patterns and test for variations depending on the positions of various moons and the planet's own rotation and test those predictions during live observations of Saturn and its orbiting friends.
      It was a step further on the planetary science ladder and something we could be proud of because we did most of the theoretical work and then made the adjustments to the equipment to do it. And because now there was an eighty minute delay between us and Earth over the radio link because they were on the other side of the sun from us. It's really hard to hold any sort of conversation when it is over two hours from when you finish talking and you hear the answer from whoever is on the other end.

      I fell absolutely in love with Saturn because it was different every time I looked at it.
      Yes, Jupiter had bands and spots and even rings, but Saturn took those same features and made them into art.
      I know, the storms, or circulations, eddies, whatever you want to call them are not individually as spectacular as the Red Spot and its cousins on Jupiter. But Saturn has them, you can trust me on that, I've seen them, and their interactions are more of a subtle dance than what we saw at Jupiter.

      After our pass I spent my time watching every second of high resolution video of the planet. I stared at every photo and read the raw data on the charged particle scans. By the time we got a few REALLY long distance photos of Neptune and even some of the Kuiper bodies whose names I can't keep straight. I was told that none of them were Pluto because the old ex-planet was on the other side of the system.
      "But if you want to stay out here another two years, we'll get close enough to it to get it as well," Candice said to me when I asked.
      "No, thank you, ma'am. You don't have to adjust the schedule for me."

      And so we had a party at the beach, and then everybody made their way all the way to command and Captain Merrick adjusted our course and told Baxter to kick the engines up a notch.
      "We're going home," he told the engineer.

      We all knew that it would be at least twenty months before we'd get there. But we had one advantage working in our favor, we were accelerating all the way in, and for the last half of the trip, Earth would be coming toward us, which meant our closing velocity would be outrageous, but everybody has assured us that we'd be able to use the maneuvering thrusters hard enough for long enough to slow us down enough to enter orbit just out from the Moon.

      Lynn let us enjoy the change of perspective for awhile, then she came up with another study for us to help her with.
      And there was that bright speck of light that had always been to one side of us that was now more or less dead ahead of us that we could now use to get some fantastic silhouettes and spectrums of whatever was between us and it.
      Which also meant the solar panels didn't have to constantly adjust to catch the most light all the time and Baxter was finally content with our energy figures.

      Well, I guess that's enough of an update. I'll do another one when I do another one.

-- --


AUTHOR'S NOTE: There are two endings to this short novel.

The proverbial 'happy ending' called "Home"

... "not"

The Desk Fiction Collection

[Note: All rights reserved, including the right to further publication. Distributed copies to proofreaders and editors remain property of the author. No infringement of copyright is intended. All persons are fictitious, all other planets and similar bodies are actually there or may be presumed from available data.
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