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|Title: The Marathon Never-Ending Story 1: CRIST of Mars
The machine was made of the hardest and finest steel you could find anywhere on Earth. It could lift thousands of pounds with ease. The large square shaped solar panel looked like a giant dark ice-block, with it's smooth surface reflecting it's surrounds. The solar panel was just one of ten segments that made up the gigantic CRIST Sol Orbiter's solar sail. The old sail was almost exhausted after the CRIST's many years of service.
But the sail wasn't the only part that had to be replaced on the huge ship. The whole ship needed a lot of maintenance work. It would still take many years to get the ship airborn, and ready to go back to transporting resources between Earth and Mars.
The heavy solar panel was swaying gently back and forth as it was transported from one side of the maintenance hall to be mounted in the right place as a vital part of the solar sail. The machine was driven by pneumatic power and made next to no sound as it's long robotic arms were transporting the solar panel.
Ralph had a worried look on his face. He was the one in charge of getting the whole sail replaced. Things hadn't gone very smooth. The first solar panel had been mounted slightly in the wrong place, and while testing it, the crystals inside the panel had been damaged. The fifth panel had been defect and refused to function properly. This was the last panel finally, but with his luck lately, things were bound to go wrong.
He sighed. For now, he could do nothing but watch and hope that his crew was up to the task of mounting the last gigantic panel. He heard the sound of metal on metal and looked up. The arms carrying the panel had reached the gap in the sail where it was to be mounted, and the men were bringing it in to be clamped and bolted on to the rest of the sail assembly. This process, which involved inserting several hunderd heavy titanium bolts and fastening four large machanical clamps only took about thrity minutes when done by a well trained crew like Ralphs. But the speed made him nervous. "take your time!" He shouted into his radio. "I don't want anything to go wronge this time, ok?"
He frowned when none of his men groaned in the good natured manner of mechanics who were being paid by the hour. Edidently the snafu's had gotten to then as much as they had to him.
Ralph was an experienced engineer. His father had started his own work-n-repair shop for space cruisers and smaller vessels. By the time Ralph was born his father's company had grown to become very successful and well known.
It was a a running joke in his family, that he had learned how to replace a cruiser engine well before he even had learned how to walk. Ralph had a burning interest in cruiser engines and vessel design, and he always tried hard to impress his dad in everything he did. He had worked daily in his father's shop since he was five years old. His family had always assumed that he would of course some day take over the family business when his dad retired.
But when Ralph was in his mid-twenties he had decided that he wanted to make his own luck. His father didn't say a word the day Ralph told him he had decided to take a job offering working for UEG's own space division. He didn't have to say anything for Ralph to know that he was furious. His dad had always seen the U.E.G. as a rival.
Things hadn't been good between Ralph and his dad since that day. They hardly even spoke with eachother anymore, something his loving mother had a hard time tolerating. Never the less, Ralph was, as his dad very successful at his work, and only five years after having started working for the U.E.G. Ralph had his own team of engineers to supervise.
Despite Ralph's good reputation and success, these recent mishaps had him a bit nervous.
Not though these mishaps were totally unexpected; this particular CRIST vessel was reaching the end of its useful life. There are only so many maintenance overhauls you can perform on a ship before the original structure is gone and all that's left of it is a bunch of patch-ups. Good shipmakers know by gut when a bird can still fly and when its time to clip her wings, and Ralph knew this ugly bird still had a few trips to make, though it was likely her last major overhaul.
He knew this not only because the CRIST was getting so old, but because there had been talk around the shipbuilding circles that the UESC had something big planned for Mars. He'd heard the rumors same as everybody else, but he didn't pay much attention to them. There was no point believing it unless it came from UESC brass themselves, and even then it had a spin to it. Some of the possibilities he'd heard were pretty far out there: that the UESC wanted to make a "super-CRIST" for a colony ship, that there were plans to construct orbiting "pacification devices", or that -ridiculosuly enough- they were going to hollow out one of the Martian moons and turn it into a colony ship.
He didn't enjoy always guessing what his next assignment would be, and had he been running his own shop that wasn't something he'd ever had to worry about. But at least with the UESC there was stability, and the success or failure of his career didn't depend on the sensitive economy of Earth's fledgling colonial period. As long as there were CRISTs and they were breaking down, he'd be just fine. Maybe that was the difference between Ralph and his dad: one was more buidler, the other more businessman. Plus, the CRISTs were necessities for the Martians; he'd rather be working to keep the Martian lifeline alive than constructing yachts for rich spacefarers or maintaining the useless Martian orbital guard.
Metal screeched and sparks flew high above him as several bolts strained and snapped. The main crane assembly was failing. Luckily no one had overlooked erecting the secondary clamps, and the panel slowed and stopped. Immediately other cranes starting moving into position to support the clamps.
"Shit" Ralph whispered under his breath. This would set them back a couple of days. "All right, let's get this mess cleaned up. Eddie, as soon as it's safe get the metalworkers checking the panel. Frank, I want to know what the hell is wrong with that number one crane. Anika, get an order cut for some more bolts, I don't want to have to wait any longer for spares from the depot." Ralph learned you can't act fast enough when trying to get anything done. Indecision took too much time, and that wasn't something they had. Each day the CRIST wasn't cruising was a day Mars was going without resupply.
"You got it chief." "Sure thing Ralphie." "I'm way ahead of you boss."
They were a good crew, they just needed to learn to pace themselves a little better. The radio chatter increased as the platform supervisors barked commands to their techs.
Ralph took off his helmet and rubbed his forehead. He was going to have a hard time explaining this to the Admiral.
"Chief Engineer Cameron?" a voice asked behind him. Ralph turned around to face the attractive young technician. "Yes?" he asked, trying his best to look suave smiling. She didn't smile back.
"There's a UESC man waiting in your office, sir." Speaking lower she added, "I think he's an officer, and he doesn't have a rank insignia."
Ralph's smile diappeared. Officers without patches. Spooks.
Ralph broke into a slow stride towards his office. The door slid open to reveal a UESC spook sitting comfortably in the corner chair, looking clean and professional in his black uniform, sans insignia.
Before formalities could be exchanged, the spook spoke. "Mister Ralph Cameron. Have a seat. We have a proposition for you."
Ralph knew his life would never be the same again. A spook with a proposition. Great. He decided to play it cool.
"What if I refuse?"
There was a faint smile on the spook's face, but it quickly disappeared.
"Mr. Cameron, you're working for the UESC. I like to call it a proposition, because in a way, that is what it is. On the other hand Mr. Cameron, I'm your superiour, and if you refuse, you can pack your bags and look for a job elsewhere."
Ralph pondered this for a moment in his head. What he really wanted to do, was to take out the spike-pistol in the cabinet behind him, and fire the whole load right through the spook's head.
"Ok, I'm listening, but make it quick. I'm very busy getting a CRIST ship up in the air."
The spook leaned back in the chair. He was staring at Ralph for a brief moment before he started talking again.
"You've probably heard rumours about something big... something really big going on in the UESC. You have a good reputation in the company Mr. Cameron. I want you to come and work on this project."
Ralph hesitated for a moment. Ralph wanted nothing more than stay right here and work on the CRIST's. He knew that the Marsians were doomed if the CRIST vessels were taken out of service.
But on the other hand, this other project might be something else to help the Marsians.
"I'll think about it. Now if you excuse me, I have a lot to do here."
Ralph turned around and started walking away.
"Wait a minute! You don't understand... There's a vessel waiting outside for you Mr. Cameron. I know of your strong sympathy for the Marsians after what happened to your wife. But the CRIST's will only prolong the Marsians suffering, their doom is inevitable. Either you get on that vessel with me right now, or pack your belongings and kiss your job goodbye."
Ralph froze instantly. These guys had been doing their job well to know about Eve.
She had been born on Mars, but by working odd and sometimes less then savory jobs, she had been able to scrape enough money together to leave the poverty behind. She took all she had, which was very little, and left only a promise to come back for her mother. Her method of transportation was a lonly rich man whom she had cajoled into taking her to earth. The man was expereancing some problems with the cilmit control, and just happened to take his boat to Ralphs father. Ralph was working that day and, being the young man he was, feel head over heels trying to do everything he could to help Eve get set up in her new home. They were friends for years, and when Ralph announced that he was going to work for the UESC, she let him stay on her couch when his father put him out. Romance finaly sparked and they were married 10 mounths later.
About a year into this marrige, Eve remembered her promise to her mother at about 11:30 at night. Since Ralph had good connections, he was able to get her to Mars a week and a half later without breaking the bank, but he wasn't able to come acompeny her. She had only enough money on her to make one short radio call and to get her mother back. She saved the call for three days untill she found her, and ralph was overjoyed for her when he heard the voices of both women. Then a distirbing thing happened; another voice came over the speaker, a third woman. "Please help me. I've had notheing to eat in days, and now that I've found something, they're after me!" Then sobbing.
Before Ralph could hear another coherent word, he heard a crash fallowed by screaming "Eve!" Ralph shouted, "Eve! Plea- Damn!" The radio had died, and he never heard from her again. He began a frantic search through every source of Martian news, anything was better then uncertinty.
After three harrassed days without much sleep a friendly client in high places on mars pulled some corporate levers and he got a report of the martian security force and a videofeed of one of their sec-bots. The report was dry, harsh and to the point. A tiny mob, no more than a dozen people were chasing the neigbours wife who somehow had gotten an armfull of vat-grown food. In panick she had busted in on Eve's surface-compartment, the mob also entered and in the strugle a faulty wall was breached. The explosive evaporating atmossphere launched the interior's furniture into a maelstrom and while most people escaped back into a secure tunnelback a few were hit by debris, among them Eve. She was knocked unconsious and could have survived if the air was breathable. It was not.
The videofeed was after the body's had cleared. The chalked outlines combined with the trajectories of the furniture confirmed the tale.
Ralph still had the report and vid, all closed up and double protected in his private mem-sphere. Once a year he got stone-drunk, looked at it in silence and went barhopping, looking for a fight. His crew knew about this, and while allowing him to pick a fight they made sure nothing serious happened after a drunken brawl. Then they made sure he got in his own quarters relatively unharmed.
The triggering of memories by Eve's name had made him bitter in an instant. The UESC spook could go to hell trying to get to him on an emotional level. Which had worked. He was ready for a brawl right now.
"You will give me an hour to clear matters with my crew", Ralph said.
"No Mr. Cameron, I must insist..."
"Eat vacuum, I'm not much of a shipbuilder if I don't hand over the command to the boseman with the yards sec-files and keyes, am I? I'm not a diplomat, so if I say I need an hour to transfer protocols, I need 60 minutes of them".
"Ok Mr. Cameron, the 60 minutes starts now. At 14.45 exact I will have you onboard the vessel Archangel Michel Bravo or your shipbuilder years are over."
Ralph exited the office with forced determination, putting the radio to his mouth: "Crew chiefs and platform supervisors, I want you and your leads in the conference room in ten minutes." His radio chirped and clicked and his crew sent back confirmations. They liked using the old radios, seeing as how the P-coms never seemed to have enough range and were prone to software glitches; when you're in a pinch there's nothing like good old reliable radio waves to get the messages across.
Ralph holstered the radio and started towards the conference room.
"You're doing a wonderful thing for the Council, Mr. Cameron." Said the officer, his hands clapsed behind his back, following behind Ralph. "If you're as good at shipbuilding as we've heard, you're going to go very far. You should consider yourself lucky you've been considered to be a part of the U.E.S.C.'s most ambitious program to date."
Ralph punched the arilock release opening the door, as they exited the platform into the main corridor. "Ambitious how? As ambitious, as, say, feeding several million Martians? Or what? Another useless battlecruiser to protect us from an invisible fleet of aliens? Or how about a great big colony ship to start another settlement Earth can't support? Then I suppose I'd end up back here working on CRISTs again..."
"Mr Cameron, I understand the mindset the death of your wife has put you in, but the designs of the Council-"
Ralph stopped the officer dead in his tracks. "You want to know something? Fuck you and your beloved Council." Technicians passing in the corridor stopped and stared at the big engineer speaking down to the little black-uniformed spook. "Look, it's enough I'm coming along with you on this, but if I have to hear you parrot the whole time about our glorious Council and their amazing exploits and grand schemes for the future, then we're going to have a problem. Your black uniform and slicked back hair mean about shit to me, if you don't think everyone here can see you're nothing but a little man with a big ego then you're fooling yourself as well. You know why? Because we produce. We work. We use our hands to make a goddamn difference. Blood, sweat, and tears. You spooks sit on your asses and intimidate, wasting good air and good food." Ralph swung around, out of the officer's face. "Let's go." They started back towards the conference room.
The little man tagged behind, quiet, scowling at any passing tech or crewman that dared look in his direction.
Most of the crew were in the room by the time Ralph got in, making them early. Like Ralph, they hated wasting time. If he told them to be somewhere in then minutes, they were usually there in four. This made Ralph smile, his crew and the CRIST were, after all, what he lived for.
Ralph looked out into the group of yellow, green, and blue coveralls and helmets. "Okay everyone, I want to make this short and sweet." Ralph addressed them, standing with arms folded at the front of the room. "The situation has changed a little. We still have millions of tons of shit sitting in depots planetside waiting to go; we still have millions of Martians needing that shit pretty bad, we still have politicians all over our asses, and we've got less time to do more things that need to happen to get that CRIST up and going."
Ralph knew they knew the importance of what they were doing. They had the fastest turn-around time of any CRIST repair and refitting team in the past 100 years. They were the best welders, structural engineers, and equipment operators between Earth and the Moon.
"What has changed is me. I'm leaving today. The most important thing is that you stay to the schedule and get back on track after today's mishap with the cranes. I don't want anyone getting sentimental. All these years you've all been able to remember that this isn't about us, and it isn't about me. I know that all of you would cut off your hands if it meant a CRIST could leave dock the same day it came in, and that's is why you're the best. You've got heart and you always have." Ralph shot a glance to the spook while he said that final sentence. The officer was staring through Ralph, beyond the wall, out into space.
Ralph knew a lot of his crew had family on Mars. They'd gone without sleep before, and without comfort working on the ships. They'd go without pay if it came to that.
Ralph took his helmet, radio, and P-com and handed them to Eddie. "Eddie's the new CE as of right now. He knows what to do and so do you. I know you're itching to get back out there so..." Ralph paused, wanting to say more.
Instead of jumping up to return to work, everyone sat staring at him.
After moments of silence, Eddie stepped forward, removing his helmet. He looked Ralph square in the eye and gave him a good handshake. His goodbye said, Eddie put on his gloves and new helmet and starting walking back to the platform, back to work. Frank did the same. Then the crew chiefs and sup's one at a time took off their helmets, standing in line to say goodbye to the best boss, the best leader they had known. Ralph's eyes misted as the line grew, giving handshakes and hugs as they filed past to go back to work.
After all was gone, Anika was the last to say goodbye. As supply coordinator she had made sure they always had everything they needed; work had never been delayed due to shortages or late shipments. She held out to him a white paper box. He regarded her and then slowly opened the package, smiling as he pulled out a silver bolt. Since the early days of the CRISTs it had been considered luck for the cheif engineer of the refit to keep the last bolt of construction. The old engineers and captains said it kept them running longer and out of Earth's spacedock.
Anika kissed him on the cheek and walked out to join the others.
Ralph stood there in the empty room, his helmet and tools gone, with nothing but the silver bolt in his hand, turning it over, his eyes wet, a lazy smile on his face.
"You're a lucky man, Mr. Cameron." The officer in black said quietly from the corner of the room.
"Yeah." Ralph pocketd the bolt. "Let's get out of here."
Ralph went to his quarters, stuffing piles of dirty laundery into a duffel bag, leaving the empty bottles and food containers to the next occupant.
By 14:45 he was on the Archangel Michael Bravo, sitting down and wishing for a drink.
"Michael, finish launch, destination unchanged", the officer spoke sitting infront the pilot's chair.
Without touching anything on his console, he looked over his shoulder to Ralph who was clearly unimpressed. "Hmph, damn AI's are everywhere".
The sleek vessel manouvered smoothly out of the bay and made a wide half-circle around the shipyard which looked dwarfed next to the almost finished solarsail of the CRIST, the ion-thrusters started heating up and there was a slow rumble noticeble while the ship accelerated.
"Well Mr. Cameron, we're about to have 45 hours of doing nothing before your new assignment comes in view and the first briefing is scheduled right after your 'first contact'."
"45 hours before visuals..." Ralph was doing some quick calculations, but the outcome didn't make any sense. What on Earth was going on around Mars? They had a lot of big orbital satelites around the planet and a few miner-bases around the moon Deimos. The little Phobos had one of the larger military bases. But there was nothing like a shipyard or anything remotely interesting for an tired ship-engineer like him. The orbital satelites had been finished a long time ago, so qualified personal was abundant and he was not the type for fuzzing about posh interiours, fancy colourscheme's and other rich geo-sat playgardens.
Most likely he was taken to another bigger transportship, and that ment going deepspace for months, maybe years. He was not happy.
"Ah, screw them." Ralph thought to himself. He was not gonna let it get to him too much.
He kicked back in the chair and produced a small bottle from his left overall pocket. He unscrewed the cork and let the strong aroma from the bottle fill his nostrils. Even though he was used to it by now, he winced slightly at the strong smell.
"Mr. Cameron, I must remind you of UESC policy; no liquor of any kind allowed."
Ralph looked up at the spook. The disapproving look on Ralph's face made the spook look away.
Ralph took a mouthful of the liquid and held it in his mouth a few seconds before gulping it down. He surpressed the urge to cough as the strong liquid burned down his throat. He corked the bottle and put it back in his pocket.
He remembered the day he had told his dad he wanted to create his own destiny. Seemed almost laughable now, as he sat onboard a vessel to a location unknown to him. He could only guess what his next assignment would be, and he hated guessing games.
A phrase his mom had told him once popped into his head:
"Whatever you do, whatever your occupation, excel in everything you do"
His mom was a devoted Christian, and she had told him that the phrase was from the Bible. He wasn't very religious himself, but he had deep admiration for his mother's strong faith and he had lived by that phrase his whole life.
He took out the silver bolt from his pocket and caressed it gently in his big palm. Whatever they wanted him to do, he would excel, he would always live by his mother's words.
The starport shrunk behind them, until it was only a tiny dot surrounded by the void emptiness of space. And suddenly it was gone, too far away for the human eye to see, only surrounded by pitch black darkness, the vessel continued it's journey towards it's destinated coordinates. The bright green letters on the vessel's console spelled out the name of one of Mars' moons, "Deimos".
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