She was determined to catch her death, out there! To her team, that is how it must have appeared. Nothing new, really; people in the spatial industry had been expecting Suzi Bonner to die for many years, without result.
Malice did not inform this expectation — a belief in general physics, vehicle mechanics and human imperfections did. Crewing vehicles to the planetary bodies of this solar system required no ordinary portion of human courage, deftness and plain luck; but whereas Suzi Bonner possessed these qualities in abundance, it seemed, in the minds of her flight instructors, copilots and passengers, that her luck was a quality most often pressed into service. She needed it “early, and often,” as the payload specialist of her newest mission couldn’t help but point out to her.
“I must tell you, mademoiselle," admitted Stéphane Monette, as if it were an unsavory thing to have to admit to her, "of my concerns.” He was nearly her father’s age, with white hair and a piercing, unsentimental gaze. “This mission requires precision to achieve major objectives. The Adventuress — I believe that’s your honorific? We will be on a close approach to the planet, where solar radiation will be formidable” — he chose the French pronunciation — “to a degree even a veteran of Venus cannot anticipate, and not even an… ‘uncontrolled rolling of your craft’ can spin you out of that danger. I heard it was a dozen full spins?”
So, he had cared enough to read her file! Suzi’s grin, and her comeback, were swift to arrive. “Two-point-seven-four, adjusted, for inflation, but: nobody can say you’re not an ace at the numbers, mate. Look, Doctor, it’s like my dad likes to say, ‘It’s the struggle, what keeps things interesting.’” A peculiar thing: Suzi said it in such a breezy way that the physicist couldn’t decide whether she was being insubordinate, or just cheeky. She left out of her retort an admission her surface calm did not telegraph: she had fired the port maneuvering rocket in a spasm of impatience, and then scrambled to recover her control of the craft. It was not a winning display for her first approved mission into the solar system.
“Then, it is perhaps fortunate that Ms. Bonner will not be our primary pilot, for the outbound leg,” remarked Nasrin Jamshidi, with impeccable timing. As the junior payload specialist, she was supposed to assist Doc Monette, and with a flash of diplomatic sensibility, she had done just that. Though younger than he was, Jamshidi was at least fifteen years Suzi’s elder, but she proved to be a far more amenable sort, when not discussing flight business. She demonstrated a sense of humor that could have done him some good, as she expressed her frequent nausea during micro-gravity situations, and her hopes that Suzi would, if the platform taking them to Mercury would “miss”, commandeer their craft, in a desperate moment of inspired lunacy, “because that seems to have worked in the past, if what we have read about you is accurate!”
"We won't miss," Deondre Willets declared. He was the captain of their delivery vehicle, the G63 Waterman; he was a rising success story within the GSO, with several planetary missions to his credit. Suzi’s official title was that of flight engineer — which meant that, as a fully qualified pilot, she had drawn the straw of securing the service ship’s onboard systems, while Willets did the actual driving. She knew to view it not as a punitive action, a demotion, because of her colorful work history, but she hungered for the main ship’s controls, a reward she would be granted on their Earthward flight. Rounding out the ship’s crew: flight surgeon Charlene Yu, a rookie space traveler on her first mission; she was the second-youngest person aboard (Suzi was the youngest), and was something of a prodigy, earning a full medical degree in her early twenties, and a full GSO post soon after that.
Monette’s fussing was mostly professional. His charge, to supervise placement and activation of a new magnetic-survey satellite, would have been of a severe importance, to their paymasters, if it had taken place above Earth or its moon. This specific satellite, though, was going to be deposited above Mercury, a tiny fireball that circled the Sun from a mere thirty-six million miles away. A crisis, of life-endangering impact, was expected, in such a dangerous region of space-time. It didn’t help that an unpolished, not-green-not-yet-gold, pilot was a part of the excitement, regardless of Jamshidi’s difference of opinion.
Then again, the Global Space Organization did not assign postings lightly, nor did it apologize for those postings. The solar system was a big piggy bank, just waiting to be cracked open. Suzi accepted the job, and Monette accepted that she did. He could have filed a formal protest, and the mission would just have been postponed, or reassigned to another payload team — excluding him, too.
The bygone era of months-long injections of a spacecraft from Earth’s orbit to another world’s had been over since Suzi’s infancy. Burning a mixture of meta-stable metallic hydrogen with almost no exhaust, owing to its main drive’s efficiency, Waterman ferried the crew and passengers of the Sentinel-launching mission, a distance of almost three-quarters of an astronomical unit to bring the ship to a meeting with the planet closest to our Sun. The yellow glare from the star is intense enough at that distance to require heavy shielding of both vehicle and spacesuits, and Willets flew much of the pre-orbital approach on instruments only, no direct visual, as it would have been blinding, to him and Suzi alike.
“Decades ago,” Monette divulged to the ship’s crew, as Jamshidi nodded along, “a space probe discovered something worth noting. The local magnetic field is porous — it ‘leaks’ force, and this drives magnadoes on the planet’s surface.” A dramatic pause, while he searched their faces for signs of puzzlement. “By the portmanteau ‘magnado’, of course, we mean ‘magnetic tornado’ — we’re going to be in a position to observe this, once we have implanted Sentinel-14, into a low circumpolar orbit.”
On the planet Mercury, tornadoes were of a magnetic, not gaseous, nature! A fact that elicited minimal interest in Suzi, at first, became more gripping once Jamshidi mused, “The scientific value of this is incalcuable, but it includes the means to predict these storms. As for technical applications, we may spin off something that improves simulated gravity, on board this ship and others.” It was a valid observation; to preserve bone density and muscular strength in a long-term exposure to microgravity, GSO employees wore magnetic suits, for a mild form of physical resistance, that simulated the pull of gravity upon the human body. What a thing it is, Suzi marveled, that we get to do, out here.
She put her gaze where it belonged, on the vessel’s onboard systems readouts, trying not to express an exasperation with her limited role in order to impress paymasters back on Earth who might be using this mission to evaluate her for an increase in stature later. Yu monitored the health of her shipmates, and her own, on a medical display, occasionally humming a pretty but unfamiliar tune under her breath. Monette and Jamshidi, in the aft launch bay, hovered — not literally — over their precious cargo, the magnetic-survey Sentinel, keeping to themselves, presumably for security reasons, though none of their ship’s crew were likely to be any threat to a patented device or procedure.
The fleet-footed messenger of the Roman gods, Mercury, lent his name to the first planet in our solar system for good reason, as Suzi figured: “He’s running all the time, trying to find a shady spot, because it’s so insanely hot out here!” Waterman was able to overtake the burning planet, inserting itself into orbit from south pole to north and back again. As it circled above Izquierdo crater, from an altitude of “not enough miles for comfort” (Suzi, again), Monette and Jamshidi boarded the SBC-2 orbital workhorse, which housed the Sentinel in its own “Sunroom” airlock.
Throughout the transit to Mercury, Suzi made it a secondary mission to keep onboard spirits high. She observed, “We’ve got folks from all over one world here, heading off to another world,” which brought a smile even to Monette’s distracted visage. “Makes us downright cosmopolitan—literally,” she added. It was still amazing her, the people she met from all over the Earth, going off to Venus or Mars, and now, this newest orb; their ship’s newest complement had members from France, Iran, China, the United States and, in her case —
“I know tornadoes can be a problem in Australia,” Jamshidi said during a meal break. “Have you ever seen one, Suzi?”
“Seen them? Sure,” Suzi shrugged, “in holograms — but you see, I’m originally from New Zealand?” It was an honest mistake, and she did not even feign any offense at the mixup, which would have been an expected thing for any proud Kiwi to do: Confuse me with those ‘convicts’, will you?! Just the same, Jamshidi did appear worried that her flight engineer had taken umbrage, but Suzi was quick to dispel that notion with a broad, crooked grin that left no doubt as to her amiability. Her mood did not even falter when, a few hours later, she was fighting for her very survival, in the vacuum of space.
Suzi could scarcely wait, for Waterman to open its bay doors, before she jetted the SBC-2 into the void. The vehicle was no more difficult for her to pilot than was her favorite bicycle back at home. She felt comfortable piloting any aerial craft, no other place seemed as familiar, as cozy to her, as did the flight cabin. In minutes, the workhorse had reached its preferred orbital position. Monette said, “I think we’ll give our little jewel a push, now, dames de l’espace,” sealing the line on his helmet to his atmo suit, and Jamshidi “followed suit”.
Suzi nudged the workhorse with a second’s burst from their maneuvering jets and set the controls to maintain station, in effect, setting the parking brake on the craft. She brought up the rear, sealing up her own suit and helmet, just the very second that Monette triggered the airlock door to open. A sudden yelp from Jamshidi caught Monette off his guard, and Suzi was barely able to avoid being struck in her faceplate, by one of the ship’s Fullerene tethers. Open to vacuum, the Sunroom displayed the magnetic survey satellite, taller than any person, a couple of meters distant.
The Sentinel skewed away from the floor of the craft, at an undesirable angle, as if it meant to collide with the inner-side hull of the Sunroom. Suzi didn’t pause to consider the possible ramifications of what she did next, taking two running steps and then pushing away from the floor with all of her might, launching herself into the void. The tether whiplashed into her midsection and drove her against the side of the satellite, to which she was pinned as it spiraled away, into space.
Mercury looked like an object about to open itself up, like a black flower that responded to sunshine. “Suzi!” yelled Jamshidi, and perhaps Monette, too, as she flattened upon the satellite, arms and legs splayed, helmeted head resting upon the outer skin, which almost glowed with the heat of the sun, which was enormous and… a funny thought occurred to her then, that nobody expected her to get killed as the passenger, instead of as a pilot. Of course, she laughed.
Willets in her headset, his voice crackling with tension: “Workhorse — do you copy? We’re informed and are monitoring your progress. Suzi, damn it… do you copy? We can assist, if you can hang tough ’til we get there.”
“Copy you, Waterman,” Suzi said, wondering why she suddenly felt less than scorched, why her squeezed-shut eyes didn’t burn. She cracked them open; the satellite’s turning motion had brought up the darkness of the galaxy at large before her gaze. Before she could rotate back around to face Mother Sun, she added, “Never imagined it would wind up like this. A spin got me into this fix, and now it’s a bloody spin that’s going to take me out. Nothing against your medical skill, Doctor Yu! You’re diamond.”
“I’ll prove it to you, too, once we get you back on board,” Yu claimed, as if such an event were already in the cards. Suzi stood up, projecting herself sideways, outward from the skin of the satellite, and suddenly, with a blush that nobody could possibly see in all of this radiance, remembered to fire her maneuvering thruster to starboard, just a brief burst that set the satellite to turning leftward so that once again, it faced the planet, as it cooked in Mother Sun’s ferocity.
The Waterman became visible, just beneath her, approaching from what she guessed, based on where the visible rays were on the horizon, was the west. One of the tethering lines, snaking out from the still-opened launch bay, was like a string fluttering in a strong wind, but it soon found Suzi’s gloved grasp. She was able to spacewalk back to the Waterman, and the satellite went on its merry way, in orbit. “Sorry about that, folks,” Suzi said back aboard, feeling… a bit chagrined, and looking it. “About the satellite, I just wanted to make sure it got free of us, without doing any dam—”
“We know,” Willets said, “but you did more good that that. Tell her, Doc,” he said to Monette, which startled Suzi. “It’s one for the books.”
“It turns out,” said Monette, “that when you ‘collided’ with the jewel, Suzi, you adjusted its trajectory to make it slightly better than the one we had planned. I believe you made an impressive contribution to the success of this launch.”
“That’s amazing,” Suzi confessed, her smile arguably brighter than Mother Sun at that revelation. “I was just doing what I do, putting my spin on things.” True to her nature, she did not stop smiling, the whole way back to Earth. She was driving, this time.
© Eric Wolf 2022.
[Join the Global Space Organization: https://vocal.media/fiction/a-venus-story.]
About the Creator
Ink-slinger. Photo-grapher. Earth-ling. These are Stories of the Fantastic and the Mundane. Space, time, superheroes and shapeshifters. 'Wolf' thumbnail: https://unsplash.com/@marcojodoin.
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