Amelia had never enjoyed space travel. The drama of leaving Earth’s orbit, linking up to a long range traveler ship, the same boring orientation talks over and over again. Then three weeks of living in a cramped, steel labyrinth being hurled through the stars by a multi billion dollar Phase Jump engine that was only ever a few degrees away from becoming ground zero for a nuclear explosion. It could be worse, she supposed, it could be an extreme long range trip, the kind where brave frontiersmen and women are placed in stasis for five years, trusting some super computer to not guide them into the heart of a star or the middle of the Lawless Void, to be picked apart by pirates and worse.
Still, she reflected as she watched a close knit team of engineers drink ad be merry on the next table, it would be nice to be able to use her skills somewhere on Earth, or at least Luna or Mars. Her work kept her floating about in space for weeks at a time and she never really got to meet anyone, catch up with friends or even see her own family very much. Indeed the only thing keeping her in this job was the paycheck, which covered her apartment and bills back home.
She was about to finish off her third gin and tonic of the evening and retire to her room when another engineer came over from the food line and placed his tray down opposite her, sloshing some apple and custard flavoured goo over the brim of it’s cup as he did so. Amelia had seen the fellow around, a bearded Swedish man with intricate tattoos down his arms and on his neck. He didn’t really hang around with the other engineers, so why was he willing to hang around with her?
“Mind if I sit here?” he asked, his voice accented and surprisingly gentle for so imposing a figure. Not really seeing any reason why he shouldn’t, Amelia shook her head and the man sat.
“So, you must be our Atmos Technician, am I right?” he asked after a mouthful of suspect lasagna, “I’m Nils, company’s attached me to you for the terraformer repair job”
So that explained it, she thought. Nils was an engineer that dealt with terraformers, not this ship, hence why he didn’t mix with the others. He was an outsider, like her.
“Yeah, that’s me. Amelia Williams,” she replied, offering Nils a grubby hand, which the big man shook wholeheartedly, a smile on his friendly looking face. Amelia had never been much of a people person, she preferred a good book and the companionship of a cat or a classical piece of music playing in the background (sadly her tony cabin aboard this ship only had the music aspect covered). Still, she supposed that striking up a little rapport with her partner for this job couldn’t be a bad thing. Besides, he wasn’t such an offensive creature, as far as spacefarers went.
“Well it’s great to meet you, Miss Williams. You ever hear about a malfunction like the one we’re going to be looking at? Sounds crazy to even attempt a repair, don’t you think?”
Nils certainly wasn’t wrong, the company tended to abandon new colonies if their terraformers became dangerous, the one they would be looking at was certainly that.
“Maybe, but I guess they really like this colony. Not like they didn’t take hours coming up with a name for it, huh?”
Nils laughed at that, either he enjoyed lame sarcasm or he was evidently insane.
“Yeah, tell me about it! Zeus, wonder what could’ve inspired that name?”
Lightning storms, thought Amelia bitterly, that’s what. Zeus’s terraformer had malfunctioned from the moment it had been dropped from orbit and, instead of calming down the uncharted world’s tempestuous atmosphere it had worsened it. Thunder roared pretty much constantly on the planet’s surface and great forks of primal electricity struck the colony’s many lighting masts once every few seconds. The spacecraft’s landing shuttle wasted no time from entering the planet’s atmosphere to reaching the landing pad, firing out clouds of iron filings to absorb the lightning forks and hitting the landing pad like a military troop transport rather than a civilian vessel. Amelia and Nils were quickly ushered inside, along with a few other company staffers who had arrived on shift rotation. Another line of people, all looking relieved to be leaving, passed them by and boarded the vessel, looking forward to a few weeks off to spend their well earned wages. Rain came down in sheets, forcing Amelia to pocket her large framed spectacles and hold on to Nils for grim death as he led her to a waiting truck, it’s panels painted with rubber so as to not attract the lightning.
“All aboard folks, it’s only a few minutes to headquarters!” shouted a company man dressed in a heavy looking rubber poncho, helping the new arrivals up into the back of the vehicle before joining them himself, rain pouring off them in puddles.
Safely under the tarpaulin of the truck’s loading bed, Amelia dried off her spectacles on a handkerchief and balanced them back onto the bridge of her nose. The colony on Zeus was a sad sight, a town barely holding on against the onslaught of rain and lightning. The main strip down which the truck drove was flooded, water up to the vehicle’s wheel arches, many of the initial pre-fabricated buildings stood abandoned due to flood water, the only habitable ones up on stilts and vehicles were abandoned all around, their engines flooded. The last thing she saw, before the company man in the poncho closed the curtain door, was the shuttle that had dropped them off flying Hell for leather back up into the low, black clouds. Good for them, Amelia thought.
The headquarters building was a grey metal and concrete prefab structure that sat at the northern end of the colony, the malfunctioning terraformer looming above it like an ancient monolith covered in a forest of antennae and lightning rods. The truck came to rest in a ground floor garage space the size of a football field, the grateful yet pensive travelers offloading and trudging off to their assigned areas. New to the colony and unaware of whether they could access the terraformer directly, Amelia and Nils stood and waited for the company man, now divided from his heavy poncho, to send the driver off for his break.
“Hey folks, guessing you’re our miracle workers, here to stop this damned storm?” he asked, his voice weary, matching the bags under is eyes. The guy must only have been in his thirties but he looked much older from his posture and defeated appearance.
“That’s right friend, Miss Williams and I are here to stop this crazy weather” Nils answered for the both of them, saving Amelia the effort of being sociable. She couldn’t help but wonder if that was the idea, especially as he flashed her a sneaky smile as they fell into line behind him. Was her social awkwardness really so apparent? ‘Antisocial bookworm’, her stepfather had always referred to her as. Whatever people may think of her socially, her peers at least lauded her abilities at repairing two hundred foot high, 300 tonne terraforming machines, a job that took most people a lifetime to master and had taken her five years. Starting from 12 years old.
After another (thankfully brief) foray out into the storm, the docent, the engineer and the terraformer expert finally arrived in the monolith’s control room, which was essentially a tony office with a metal desk and swivel chair at its core, a computer sat atop it. Once the docent left, promising to bring Amelia and Nils a cup of coffee, the expert sat at the computer and started the boot-up routine.
“This won’t be easy, you know. I’ve never seen a terraformer misaligned so badly,” muttered Amelia after a short silence, “you’re going to be in the firing line if you have to go up top”
Nils just laughed at that, already pulling on a thick, rubberized survival suit, “Oh, I was expecting that, Miss Williams. Not to worry though, can’t be as bad as clinging onto the hull of a cruiser during a firefight,”
Amelia looked up from the dusty monitor at that, curiosity flickering in her eyes, “Really? You did that?”
Nils just laughed, waving a hand dismissively, “Well, not voluntarily! The hangar bay was hit by a barrage of rockets, we all got spaced or blown up. I was lucky that the bridge had ordered spacesuits on for the mission really!”
“I had no idea that you were in the Navy, let alone actually in a battle. I’d be way too scared for anything like that” Amelia admitted, feeling a newfound respect for her engineer.
“Well, I didn’t really have a choice. I’d far prefer to be a civilian engineer but hey, when you’re from the Republic you don’t get that kind of liberty”
“You’re from the Republic? I thought that these big multi-colony companies were their sworn enemies?” Amelia pressed, now completely distracted from the job at hand. The Republic of Free Colonies was a pretty terrifying corner of space, a wealth of planets that had either overthrown corporate rule and joined them by choice or else loyal company worlds that had been absorbed by conquest. The Republic had started caring for the little man, calling out companies for their greedy practices, yet over the years it had slowly become more militaristic, avaricious and therefore hypocritical. Nils didn’t really fit the stereotype of a Republic man, she couldn’t really see him clad in body armour, his grinning face covered by a stark black mask.
“Well, they’re certainly not fans of this kind of outfit! But I’m no die hard loyalist, I’ll go where the really interesting jobs are,” Nils explained reassuringly, rigging up the suit’s survival computer and emergency air tank. Amelia understood that, why waste time on things as tiresome as politics when the world was full of labyrinthine machines that needed sorting out? Nils was a tech head like her at the end of the day, the thought was reassuring.
“Same,” she said warmly, “making these things work properly is my life, so let’s get it done”
An awkward but heartfelt high five later and the job to stop Zeus’s cataclysmic storm began in earnest.
“Control room, can you hear my voice?”crackled Nils’s voice through the weather proof radio that lay on the desk in front of Amelia. The technician snorted a laugh at her partner’s unusual radio check, as if he were sending a message from light years away as opposed to the doorway to the top of the terraformer.
“Loud and clear. You ready to earn that danger money?”
“Come now, control room, I was born ready! Just let me know where you need me”
Amelia shook her head, how was this guy so chipper all of the time? If it were her about to dance among forks of lightning atop a storm swept metal monolith she doubted she’d be so happy.
“Will do, Nils. Stand by”
With the radio check out of the way, the technician began to compile the billions of lines of code that were supposed to allow the terraformer to make hundreds of tiny adjustments a second. Those adjustments were, in turn, supposed to simulate a sensible weather pattern over the colony and, in the long term, the entire planet. Yet the lines of code were full of corrupt patches. She had heard her less experienced (and talented) colleagues freak out over this in the past, blaming the corruption on some nebulous enemy, Hellbent on sabotaging the company’s new worlds.
The truth was a little less terrifying. During orbital drop, the terraformers went through a lot. Radiation, heat, maybe even some debris just outside planetary orbit. So they were outfitted with energy shields, just like the ones on warships, and they dealt with all of those problems and also things like railgun rounds, rockets and laser weapons to boot. The problem was that these civilian versions of the shield technology were, in Amelia’s educated opinion, total trash.They kicked off so much electrical disturbance during planet fall that they very often scrambled electronic systems, hence why engineers like Nils and technicians like her were in such high demand.
The amount of corrupted data was heavy in this case, it would probably take her and her assistant pulling an all nighter if they were going to save Zeus.
The first hour went by slowly, it took that long to even make sense of what the problem was and rebuild the terraformer’s database.
“Nils, you still awake up there?” Amelia asked into the radio. There was a brief silence, then the device crackled to life, “Roger that control room, I was just reading a particularly gripping thriller, in fact. How can I help you?”
Even when he was bored, he still sounded happy.
“I believe I’ve located our first hardware fault. It’s in section four, ID code is 347-AD5, did you get that or are you still trying to work out who done it?” she replied, feeling a little self conscious for a second. Had she just actually cracked a joke at somebody? She hadn’t tried to make a joke since the third grade.
“Nah, worked it out by chapter three. It’s the journey, you know? I’m on my way to our troublesome component now, I’ll keep you posted” chuckled the engineer in response, almost as if her joke was funny.
The next few hours, to Amelia’s pleasant surprise, flew by. Her flurried of number crunching and reprogramming the terraformer’s code were kept from being boring by Nils’s constant chatter from up on the summit, comparing books that they enjoyed, trash talking one another and even keeping each other updated on the giant machine’s actual repair process. Nils was hit by lightning once, which was a scary moment, but the environmental suit did its job and nullified it, resulting in the Finn just laughing it off and calling himself Hephaestus for the rest of the job. Then, during hour nine, Nils sent the message that she was most looking forward to hearing, music to her ears:
“Job done up here control room, can I come down and watch the reboot or what?”
Amelia punched the air with joy,almost knocking over a plastic cup half filled with cold coffee as she did so,
“If you must, but you’re buying the drinks at the spaceport bar”
“I was going to recommend the same thing myself. Bet you’re a wine drinker!”
“Wine tastes like hydraulic fluid, you’re buying me beer!” she replied with mock severity.
“Works for me, beer’s cheaper” the engineer called from the elevator, which had silently descended behind her without her noticing. Nils’s environmental suit was dripping with rainwater, the paintwork on the glass fronted helmet blistered where the lightning bolt had struck. She was completely unsurprised to find the man smiling as he removed the headpiece, placing it on a nearby worktop,
“Hope I don’t have to pay for the helmet, I already have you rinsing me for beer money,”
The view outside was truly something to behold. Gone was the storm, the newly reconfigured terraformer wasting no time in getting to work, and already beams of pale sunlight were starting to break through the heavy cloud cover. Colonists had already taken to the street, wading knee deep through the standing water and pointing up at the clearing sky. A gang of children were playing nearby, splashing each other joyously as their parents watched on.
“Sometimes I see the result of our work,” smiled Amelia, “and I think to myself: do I even need the money?”
“But then you remember that you have bills to pay and stuff to buy, right?” Nils teased in reply, enjoying the sun on his face.
The job that they had just completed had saved the colony and all of the folk living in it, as well as allowing the company to send in yet more colonists to start a new life here. Nils was right, the money was necessary, of course it was, but then the bonus of a big hit of mental well being certainly couldn’t be denied. Amelia had actually enjoyed spending time with the impish ex-Republic soldier. He wasn’t demanding, understood her social ineptitude and was willing to give her plenty of space.
“So then, Miss Williams, are we swimming over to this pub or should we wait a couple of days for the water level to lower?” her companion teased, wading out into the street and, much to her surprise and amusement, actually doing the backstroke toward the recreation building nearby.
“You must be kidding me, I’m thirsty!” she shouted to him, descending the metal steps of the command building and wading after him,
“And anyway, my name’s Amelia!”
As the two off-worlders made for the alcohol, the clouds finally split altogether and the entire colony was lit up with sunlight, reflecting from the surface of the water and making it look like a river of gold.