“Let’s face the facts here. It was always going to come down to this, wasn’t it?” Suzi Bonner wasn’t trying to be flippant; naturally, she just sounded a bit flippant. It was part of her charm, her mother had told her, numerous times, not always in a reassuring tone. She gazed across her instruments,so fast it made a blur of the panel, and she shook her head. “I know we’ve had our few, very minor complaints — okay, you’ve had them, but…strewth, life rhymes, doesn’t it? Where are you, anyway? Sentry Five, acknowledge?”
The ETS-4 lunar vehicle was nominally a two-seater; not intended for loose cannons, wishing to take it out for a stroll, above the craggy lunar surface. Oh, but this was an exception, because lives were at stake, manpower was at a premium, the usual noise. If anyone would be comfy, hovering close to the surface, all by her lonesome, it would be Gin. Suzi had found it to be a difficult ride to master — even with her new, unasked-for mentor warming the command pilot’s mesh, ready to pounce on each trivial error she made.
Accidents happened, of course. It wasn’t very long since an accident nearly happened to her, on a routine reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Now that an impartial panel of supposed experts had cleared her of wrongdoing, it was her gloomy task to prove herself worthy of the long-range planetary flights that were the loftiest assignments, the cream of the crop the Global Space Organization handed out to its pilots. Correction — to prove it, again. And, who wanted to supervise her redundant training?
The job had been straightforward, as all complicated things start out to be, she mused. Pyroducts, literal tubes carved out of the lunar soil by traveling lava, were useful, in the construction of living and working quarters, on the Earth’s companion. Many a survey team had departed from a launch pad at either Clarkesville or nearby Celine, the two most prosperous lunar villages in operation,bound for vast plains on Luna’s so-called dark side. Suzi found the idea of looking for places to hide, inside the desolate terrain, hilarious, because who — what — would be looking for the locals?
Human beings were living on other planets, thanks to people like Gin Best—and Suzi, to be sure, though it was not the latter's style to boast. Best, on the other hand, was far too successful to need to blow her own horn — she had a small army of “volunteer trumpeters” to do it for her, it seemed. The road to Jupiter, Saturn, to each of the outer planets,ran right through Gin’s office. At least, for Suzi, it looked that way.
She would not have been surprised to learn that Ginnifer Best had changed her last name for effect. If so, it had worked. She lived up to its promise, as a teen scholar and a champion swimmer, as a vacuum pilot, as a bonafide poster femme of the Global Space Organization. She was, at thirty-one, five years to the north of Suzi’s own age, but she had accomplished… more like twenty years’ worth of notable feats in that time — judging by her public-ity, that is. Gin could have asked for a list of available pilots for the upcom-ing lunar mission, and taken her pick of anyone in the uppermost sliver of their ranks.
Instead, Gin asked to be paired with, well, Suzi Bonner. No one else in the whole of the GSO, judging from her inquiries, considered Suzi to be a post-er subject. She liked being employed for financial gain, however, and her job satisfaction, of late, was somehow… less than it should have been. Gin Best was a name bandied about at social functions, mentioned in the GSO’s press releases to the worlds. She was not famous for her easygoing nature, as far as her younger colleague could tell —
Suzi had suffered less anxiety meeting with the headmaster of her private school, back when she was a youth growing up in Gisborne, New Zealand, than she did with Best, almost two decades later. “We’ll be doing touch-and-goes, flying with reduced instruments. Simulating on-board malfunc-tions, that type of thing,” Gin told her. “I’m leaving all the driving to you, as far as nominal duties permit. Does that strike you as fair, Bonner?”
It struck Suzi as just fine, until she met Gin at the Liberty Launch, an area to the southwest of Clarkesville’s central core. They suited up, boarded the ETS-4 and ran through preflight. Suzi didn’t start to feel nervous, until she had heard Gin’s sharp, reprimanding voice, correcting something she had done — “Too much throttle”; “Level off those landing pods”; “Don’t ignore your T.F.S.” (terrain-following sensors). That A.I., with its cold, reproving voice, would have been welcome company; at least it told Suzi where she stood. Best kept her own counsel, unless she was acting in the moment.
There were some cracks in the wall, sure. Suzi had to suppress a grin at the news of where they would be flying: Mari Ingenii, Sea of Cleverness—“Why do I get the feeling that’s going to suit you, Bonner, just fine?” It suited her, all right; Suzi chuckled softly, knowing that Best would be sure to deduct a few more points for the levity from her imperiled rating. Space flight was a somber, dangerous business; if anyone knew that, she did. Best continued:
“We’re on the hunt for these underground tubes, caused by lava flows, back in the Late Imbrian time, a couple of billion years ago, so the selenologists tell me. The pyroducts make dandy spaces, housing new villages for all of the new lunies who want to live here, so they’re a top priority, for Global. You may not know, Bonner, but you’re doing more than just getting me to sign off on you, ace. This could be a boom time, for the folks arriving. So when we’re hovering, out there, the objective is—”
“Not to bollocks it up?” Suzi grinned, feeling a bit like an adolescent who wanted to rebel, for the sake of doing so, nothing more. “I’ll put that one right at the top of my to-do, chief.” She tried to brace herself for scolding words, but that didn’t help her to overcome her shock, when Best laughed. It went by quickly, and she was all business again, but Suzi was sure it had happened. Could the famous-and-perfect pilot also be a regular person?
The silence was excrutiating, even worse when Suzi would try to steal a glance over at her shipmate’s face, try to read her expression. Gin was a sphinx, as far as betraying her sentiments. Was no news, in this context, really good news? This was about more than just not piling into a crater, dying under the Earthlight; Suzi was confident of avoiding that fate…
How many square kilometers of airless rock could someone need for an emergency forced landing, anyhow? Even a vaccuum-suited pilot of, well, modest means should be able to pick a mild spot in which to set down, if fuel or life-support or a medical emergency, necessitated doing so. Suzi did not consider herself to be modestly gifted, of course, which made recent days and nights in her life so unnerving.
Gin would do it, she felt certain. She would argue to pull Suzi’s clearance, deny her employment in long-range missions. The GSO would act on her suggestion, based upon who she was. That would just wreck Suzi, in a not-entirely-metaphorical way. In her guest quarters in Clarkesville’s tertiary habitat tunnel, she would lay in bed and brood. But then, the days turned into a week, then two. Gin Best began to talk about herself, in-flight, and it turned out to be a good subject matter. They were both “island girls” — Gin hailed originally from Barbados — which, somehow, reassured Suzi.
“I do what I do,” Gin divulged, as Suzi put the ETS-4 in a controlled desc-ent, above one range of igneous basalt, “because it’s always sort of come to me. Like swimming; I just remember to keep breathing. It’s great training, for this astronaut business,remembering when you can breathe. And, when you can’t.” Suzi spotted an indicator light, about to blink a warning red — and nudged the spacecraft out of harm’s way. Best seemed to approve of Suzi’s handling of the controls. Was she warming up to Suzi, and… why?
It got easier, after that, for Suzi to fly under the watchful eye of her copilot with the famous name. There was one time, when Suzi questioned a move Gin suggested that she make, to conserve their metallic hydrogen fuel, and she expected Gin to override her with a sharp glance, but Gin just sighed — Suzi didn’t know what to make of that reaction, so she stayed the course at her console. Was it boring, she wondered — to be an overachiever? Maybe, I’m the in-flight entertainment, Suzi speculated.
All of her worries came to a head, on the nineteenth day of the probation, or whatever it was called. She needed to impress upon Gin, and the others, how reliable she was, in the pilot’s mesh. Then, of course, a crash took over the whole program. Nobody, but nobody, was supposed to take an ETS-4 out onto the lunar surface solo. Unless, of course, it was an illustrious pi-lot… a proven asset to the Organization. Correct? A screwup would just be flushed.
Suzi was about to seal her helmet shut and switch to her personal oxygen supply, when the console bleated its alarm. She was about to head back, a defeated ex-employee-in-the-making, when she got a lock on the metallic shell of the other lunar vehicle. “Clarkesville Tower, this is Sentry Eight,” Suzi radioed. “Have confirmation on hard target.” Gin was unable to radio back, so Suzi resorted to dropping a couple of high-intensity flares, from her vehicle, as visual aids. Gin’s Sentry had sustained minor damage; Gin, herself —
Suzi set her Sentry down as softly as she could, alongside of Gin’s vessel, and suited up for an EVA. Once she had walked across the lunar soil, she pounded with a gloved fist against the other ship’s hull, radioing: “This is Sentry Eight. Come in, please, Gin. It’s your problem child, and how did I do?” Gin opened her outer airlock door, and Suzi didn’t need an invitation to clamber inside.
© Eric Wolf 2022.
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