KSK

First Flight (Chapter 103 - Coming Home)

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Heh. :)

Thanks for the heads up on the docking. I've added another line to (hopefully!) clear that up.

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Looks good, thanks. That's more understandable.

I have tons of trouble sometimes wrapping my head around describing some stuff in space. Lack of definition of 'front' or 'rear' when you've got multiple things docked. Confusion between what you're talking about sometimes when everything is 'ship' *chuckles* Find myself re-writing things a lot to make it more understandable. It's damned tricky.

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Not got much to add at this point, but it's still as good as ever. And the 'boldly go' pun made me laugh.

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Cheers Jake!

Next chapter and the one after that are both about half done. The rest of the current chapter - needs to be started. Was at a conference last week (in San Francisco curiously enough) , so evening and weekend time has been limited lately. I did manage to get a fair bit done on the flight over though. :)

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Both eagerly awaiting it, and willing to wait. Just get it the way you want it KSK. You've done well by us so far! :)

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Geep, it's been a while since the last post. Sorry folks - for various reasons I ended up working on more than one chapter in parallel - and it was the next but one chapter that got finished first. Not a great plan for keeping a steady pace of updates but on the plus side there's a lot of new stuff coming right up, starting with where we left off with James and Sherfel aboard Endurance.

So without further ado.

Docking - Part II.

“What kind of a problem, Sherf?"

“The boost cover over PV-B is stuck. Looks like the bolts fired but one of the dampers is only halfway open. Seems that's enough to trigger panel deployment though."

James swore under his breath. “Well at least that explains some of these warning lights," he said. “How much panel can you see?"

“Not much from this angle," said Sherfel, “but enough to see that it's trying to unfold. Looks like all six sub-panels have started to separate cleanly anyway, which is something."

“I guess," said James, “You'd best get back through here, Sherf. We'll both need to be on the loop with Mission Control."

-------------

“What have you got for me, CapSys?"

The Mission Control room was crowded with kerbals. Nelton could barely hear herself think over the babble of controllers conferring with their teams and calling suggestions to each other across the room. Both shifts of controllers were huddled around their respective consoles, Hanbal and Danfen stood behind Nelton's console and Joebal, head of electrical and environmental systems was standing at the CapSys console, conferring with the systems team.

Obler looked up. “We need to shut down the..."

“Quiet at the consoles!" Nelton shouted. The room fell silent. “Say again, CapSys."

“We need to shut down the power to the PV array motors before they burn out, Flight," said Obler. “Then we can work on freeing PV-B."

“PV array motors, CapSys - not PV-A array motor?"

“That's correct, Flight," said Obler. “Both sets of motors are powered from a common circuit, so unfortunately we don't have any way of leaving the PV-A steering online if we shut off PV-B. Not without re-routing most of the power network anyway. He coughed. “We might want to change that design in future."

“We can worry about that later," said Nelton. “Right now I need a shutdown procedure for the array motors - then I need numbers for the reserve batteries. Then I need options for PV-B."

“Tell the crew to toggle PVM 1 and PVM 2 to OFF, Flight. That'll disable the primary and backup power supplies. Reserve batteries are good for three orbits with all systems powered up. I'll have my team pull out the time limits at current draw levels but we do have time to work this."

“Understood, CapSys. Options for PV-B?"

“Two options, Flight. EVA to release the boost cover manually, or we can try applying transient loads with the RCS and hope we jerk it loose that way."

Nelton nodded. “CapSys, Telco - I'm going to need an EVA plan. Flight Dynamics - we're going for the RCS solution first so I need a run-through. Can we do this without breaking anything else?"

“That's affirmative, Flight," replied Lemgan. “Too little force is going to be our problem here rather than too much."

“Understood, Flight Dynamics. Just do what you can."

------------

James tapped the controls and watched the rate indicators drop to zero.

“Rates nulled," he reported. “Still nothing happening with PV-B. Hope you've got another plan, Flight because we've spun this ship every which way now and this is just not working."

“We concur, Endurance," said Nelton. “We think it's time you took a little walk."

“That's about what Sherf and I were thinking too, Flight. So what's the plan?"

“CapSys has the procedure, Endurance. Stand by."

The two kerbonauts listened wordlessly to the stream of instructions from Mission Control. James muted the radio link and turned to Sherfel.

“That's the best they can come up with? We spend Kerm knows how much on this temple to technology and they want me to go outside and poke it with a stick?"

Sherfel shrugged. “It's not ideal but I can't think of anything else to do - can you?"

“No," said James heavily, “not really."

“Look on the bright side," said Sherfel, “poking things with a stick is a long and noble engineering tradition. But you'll be the first to do it in space."

James scowled at her and clicked his microphone on.

“Copy that, Flight. We have the flight plan and we're suiting up."

------------

James peered down into Endurance's cockpit one last time. Sherfel scanned the instrument panel, tugged on the umbilical and then tipped her head up to face him. He could see her nod inside her helmet. She clasped his calf for luck - not that he could feel anything through the layers of insulation - before giving him a solemn thumbs-up. He reached up over his head, took a firm grip on the edge of the hatch and slowly pulled himself out of the capsule.

He immediately sensed the blue glow pouring through the top of his visor but kept his gaze resolutely fixed on Endurance's hull. Carefully, he worked his hands around the hatch rim, grabbed hold of the nearest handrail and made his way slowly down the spacecraft, hand over hand, until his boots were level with the first pair of foot loops. Blinking the sweat out of his eyes, he swung his body sideways from the ladder, hooked his boots into their restraints and straightened up.

The whole of Kerbin hung over his head.

Spellbound, James stared up at the azure expanse of Great Tranquil Sea. A scattering of islands off the coast glowed jewel-like in the sun, girded all about with the rich turquoise of shallower water. The Kolus coastline itself was picked out in a thousand shades of green and brown and fringed with shining white sand.

“James?"

“I'm here, Sherf," he said softly. He tore his gaze away from his homeworld and cast his mind over the checklist. Suit systems were looking good, no kinks in the umbilical, suit to ship comms loop was working. Time to get this done.

“Okay, time to go to work. Patch me into Mission Control please, Sherf."

“Patching you in now, James."

His headphones crackled. “Do you read me, EVA-1?"

“Loud and clear, Flight," he said. “I'm out of the capsule and heading aft towards the busybox."

“Copy that, EVA-1," said Nelton. “How's the suit?"

“Hard work, Flight," said James. “Range of movement is acceptable but maintaining joint flexion is tough, especially in the gloves. Suggest we add a wrist and hand exercise regime to the flight training."

“Noted, EVA-1."

“Okay, Flight, I'm passing the first set of windows on the hab module."

“Understood, EVA-1. The busybox should be aft and left as you face the hull."

“I see it, Flight. Moving off the main ladder. A little more umbilical please, Sherf."

James' boots rebounded off the hull and he cursed under his breath as the abrupt change in momentum swung his torso away from the ship, threatening to tear him free of the ladder. Straining against the stiff fabric of his spacesuit, he shook his head to clear the sweat from his eyes, clenched his hands around the ladder rung and twisted. By the time he'd brought the unwanted rotation under control his wrists were aching with the strain and he was panting hard inside the confines of his helmet.

Nelton watched in alarm from the Mission Control room as the readouts for James' heartbeat and temperature spiked upwards. His increasingly laboured breathing filled her headset.

“Secure yourself and take five, EVA-1," she ordered.

“Copy...that... Flight," came the halting reply. “Let me just....okay... got the foot loop. Sherf - could you turn up my air supply for a moment please - need to demist my helmet."

The cool air blowing through his helmet slowly cleared the fog from his visor. James wedged both boots firmly into a foot loop and hung against the ladder, head swimming with a combination of stress and increased oxygen flow. So much for the suave kerbonaut - here I am clinging to this thing like a spider on a tin can.

“Looking clearer now - thanks, Sherf. Air supply to nominal please and lets see if we have more luck with this box than we did with PV-B."

James inspected the busybox whilst the air washing over his face subsided to its usual comforting trickle. He leaned back to get a better view, glanced down to make sure his boots were properly secured and then cautiously took one hand off the ladder rung. So far so good. Fingers in here... good thing they left plenty of space, think my gloves have expanded a bit in the vacuum. OK...squeeze and lift.

The box lid pivoted smoothly open. James automatically lifted his elbow to stop any free floating equipment from escaping but, somewhat to his surprise, everything was still safely clipped down.

“Whoever stowed this gear did a good job, Flight. CapSys was right too, looks like the wrench is about the longest thing in here. Securing it to my belt now. Closing the lid... okay, Flight, EVA-1 confirms successful equipment transfer. Proceeding to PV-B shroud."

“Nice work, EVA-1. Copy you in progress to shroud."

The wrench bumped against a ladder rung and began to swing back and forth, ricocheting between the ladder and James' leg. He was barely aware of the impact through his spacesuit padding, although the extra mass pivoting about his waist was an unwanted distraction. Ignore the damn wrench and keep going. Just take it easy around PV-B.

“Okay, Flight, I'm in position. It's going to be a stretch but I can make this work."

“Copy, EVA-1. CapSys is asking whether you can get any closer."

“That's a negative, Flight. Available foot restraints won't let me get any nearer from this angle."

“Understood, EVA-1."

“Tell CapSys that I have visual confirmation of bolt release but the damper is jammed. I'm going to see if I can free up the joints some."

“Just go easy on the percussive maintenance, EVA-1."

James grinned inside his helmet. You had to dig deep sometimes but Flight had a sense of humour if you knew where to look. And on that note - initiating percussive maintenance. He wriggled his glove through the safety loop attached to the wrench handle and pulled the bulky tool free from his belt. Stretching forward as far as he could in his foot restraints, he reached out and gingerly tapped the damper mechanism.

Okay that didn't do much. Maybe the centre pivot?

Not even the thick, many layered fabric of his spacesuit arm could prevent James' hand trembling as he withdrew the wrench slightly and aimed it carefully at the pivot. Not enough wrist movement to give this a proper swing - probably just as well. Standing on tiptoes, boots barely in their restraints, he thrust the wrench delicately forward.

The two levers sprang a little way apart before jamming again. James tapped the pivot one last time and hastily pulled the wrench back as the damper mechanism unfolded in a smooth mechanical ballet. The blue skies of Kerbin shone through the sudden gap between the open boost cover and the partially unfurled photovoltaic array.

“Flight, this is EVA-1 reporting PV-B cover clear!"

“We see it, EVA-1 - excellent work."

--------------

The instant the cabin pressure warning light blinked off, James lifted his helmet off with a sigh of relief. Sherfel handed him a squeeze tube of sapwood juice and he took a long swallow of the sweet milky contents before handing it back.

“Thanks, Sherf. I needed that."

“Let's see if this bucket of bolts was worth all the trouble," said Sherfel. She stowed the squeeze tube and pushed off towards the lower hatch. James pulled himself back into his acceleration couch, happy just to be back inside the capsule and content to float free and follow the conversation between Sherfel and Mission Control.

“Flight, Endurance. All warning lights cleared."

“Confirmed, Endurance. PVMs 1 and 2 to ON."

James flicked both switches. A shadow drifted across the cabin window as PV-A began to rotate, hunting for sunlight once again.

“PV-A is tracking," he called, “we have visual confirmation."

“Copy, Endurance. You're Go for full power up."

A pair of green lights glowed on James' control board and two dials swung firmly over, twitched briefly, then settled into place.

“Flight, this is Endurance. PV-B is online and we have steady draw though buses A and B."

Sherfel's amused voice cut in over the air to ground loop. “Well don't just sit there staring at the pretty lights, EVA-1. Come and take a look at your new home."

 

<< Chapter 27:     Chapter 29>>

Edited by KSK

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Very good, the atmosphere of the technical stuff comes across particularly well, without being too detailed. Good call! :)

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Hey folks!

First off, a big thanks to Skykooler and the Jedi Master for your enthusiasm! Thanks also to Patupi - looking back, I reckon I went a bit overboard on the technical stuff for the Moho 4 flight, so it's good to know it came across well without being too detailed this time.

I've been on holiday the last few days (so tablet only) and the week before that was something of a charlie-foxtrot for many reasons. End result - the writing took a back seat for a while. Now though - the next two chapters are up...

And Rendezvous.

“Moho 6. Come in, Moho 6."

Before we do anything else in Kerbin orbit, thought Richlin, we need to figure out a better comm system. More ground stations, or maybe Bill could put together a couple of relay satellites. Whatever. But having to wait nearly a full orbit to tell whether we've even made it to orbit is getting ridiculous.

Flight seemed to share his feelings.

“It's the waiting that always gets me," said Jeb, “Not knowing whether the orbit is high enough to bring the capsule back into radio contact, or whether we've just managed to parachute a pilot into some Kerm forsaken wilderness on the other side of Kerbin."

Or worse, thought Richlin. “I was just thinking the same thing, Flight," he said, “You think Bill's team could knock together a couple of relay sats some time?"

“Depends how the KSA meeting goes next month," said Jeb, “and how much cash we have left after Muna 3. Don't forget the new link to Wakira either - that helps too. But yeah, it's past time we got a proper comms network in place."

The radio crackled.

“....oho 6, repeat... Wakira Station - Moho 6. Come in, Wakira Station."

“Moho 6 - Wakira Station. Good to have you with us Joemy."

"Copy that Wakira. Moho 6 confirms booster separation. Platform alignment is green, RCS checks out on all axes.

Geneney's voice broke in on the ground to air loop.

“Thanks, Wakira. Barkton confirms ground to ground telemetry link is good. Moho 6 - we copy all systems Go. Moho 5, status please."

Richlin grinned and scanned his own control board. Welcome to the trip of a lifetime Joemy - let's get this show started! “Platform and RCS are Go, Flight. Consumable reserves are acceptable. I have a filter blockage in number two air cycler but CO2 levels are holding steady. Backup systems are Go, two reserve cartridges available." And this fortified sunfruit juice is foul - but that can wait till I get home.

“Copy that, Moho 5," said Geneney. “OK, people, we all know what we're doing. Ornie, Edsen, Ribory and Bill, please switch your headsets to channel one, Wernher, Lucan, Seanan and Neling, you're with Jeb on channel two. Wakira station, please go split loop. Sigbin you have Moho 6 with me, Doodlie, you have Moho 5 with Jeb. Six team, please give me a Go / No Go."

One by one, all of Joemy's controllers reported in.

“Thank you, Six Team." Geneney toggled his voice loop, bringing up a private channel with Jeb. “You all set, Jeb?"

“Five Team confirms Moho 5 status report," said Jeb, “We didn't hear your people check in, Genie - how's Joemy doing up there?"

"Doing fine Jeb," said Geneney, “Moho 6 is Go. Looks like Tomcan finally worked the bugs out of the dual loop comms too - we didn't hear you either."

“Just give me a shout if you need anything, Flight."

Geneney smiled. “Will do... Flight. Moho 5 - you're the target. Moho 6 will begin rendezvous manoeuvres on the next orbit."

--------------

The tiny single pilot spacecraft circled Kerbin, their dark hulls invisible to even the most dedicated and keen eyed stargazers. By radio however, the two ships were shining beacons sailing across the night sky. Fercan reflected that the Kerbin Interplanetary Society's fledgling space program had probably done more for Kerbin's amateur radio enthusiasts than any other single event in kerbal history. Although Ademone's crowd aren't doing a bad job either. The TV footage from inside their space station was incredible!

The radio began to crackle. Fercan caressed the fine tuning knob, eking out the last few seconds of transmission time before the signal faded into impenetrable static. Behind her, the pilot's voice dissolved into white noise too.

..py that B...kton. See y..... xt orbit. .

Fercan reached up behind her chair and clicked the secondary receiver off, fingertips unerringly finding the right button amidst all the paraphernalia crammed onto the narrow equipment racks that occupied most of the room. Fans whirred overhead, straining to expel the humid, ozone tinted fug inside Communication Room Number Three At times, Fercan swore she could almost see the fresh outside air swirling in through the ventilation grilles. She frowned at the green trace still scribbling its way across the main display. Hmm - second one isn't switching off it's telemetry either. Corvan will be happy though.

Fercan tapped at her keyboard, instructing the computer to save the incoming telemetry into a new file, before blanking the scribble from the main display and calling up the extended tracking data from the radio telescope. Okay, lets cross-check the frequency shift data. Numbers blurred up the screen. Point oh one three delta. Hmmm. Her fingers flew over the keys. Keep the telescope tracking data in the primary buffer, store telemetry in secondary buffer... extract channel data into new file...

By the time the telemetry feed faded into background noise, Fercan was reasonably confident in her predicted trajectory for the second spacecraft. She pulled on her headset, leaned forward and clicked the quick dial button for Beta station.

A familiar Spierkan brogue filled her ears.

"Beta station here. Tracking and comms."

"Hi Corvan, Fercan here. I'm tracking a second Moho - should be with you in fifteen minutes or so."

"Another Moho?" said Corvan skeptically,"You sure about that, Fercan?"

"Pretty sure," she said, "Telemetry streams look almost identical, orbit is more or less equatorial. Can't see where else it could have launched from other than Barkton and we'd have heard something if they were launching anything bigger."

Corvan whistled. "Sounds like another Moho then. Their flight director must be doin' his nut trying to follow two flights together."

"Either that or they've scraped together two flight control teams," said Fercan. "Wouldn't want to fit both of them into that bunker though."

"Me neither," agreed Corvan. "By the way, don't suppose yeh got a recording of that telemetry?"

Fercan rolled her eyes. "Yes I got a recording. Here - file's on it's way now. Luckily for you, the KIS seem to broadcast their telemetry to whoever's listening."

"No reason not to," said Corvan. "Not like anyone can do anything with it and I'm not thinking the pilots can be bothered switchin' it on and off as they go. Hey, Fercan - how much do yeh reckon a Moho weighs?"

Fercan blinked. "How in the... how should I know, Corvan?"

"No reason," he said equably, "Just trying to figure out how efficient their maneuvering rockets are. I'm pretty sure I've untangled enough of their telemetry to pick up their propellant levels and I think I've figured out which bits of the stream match up to burn times..."

Fercan interrupted him incredulously. "Corvan - they're coming to visit next month. If I ask them nicely, they'll probably tell me what every beep, burp and whistle in that data feed matches up to."

"And don't yeh dare spoil all the fun by sharing it with me, girlie!" Corvan chuckled at Fercan's patient sigh.

"As if I would, Corvan. Besides Sheldun and the rest of your gang would never forgive me for taking away their little puzzle."

Corvan laughed, "Nope - and you don't take Sheldun's puzzles away. Tis terrible to see a grown kerbal sulk like that. Yer file's here in one piece by the way."

"Should be plenty more coming your way in a couple of minutes," replied Fercan. "I've got a couple of calibrations to run, so I'll let you enjoy it in peace."

"Got it." Corvan paused, "What do yeh reckon they're doing up there, Fercan?"

"Only one thing I can think of," said Fercan, "and that's an orbital rendezvous."

"Makes sense," said Corvan slowly, "Now that Rockomax have done it, KIS won't want to drop too far behind. You say they're both coming to Alpha next month?"

"As far as I know," said Fercan. "You planning to take a bet on them both joining Lodan's scheme?"

"Och I never bet against a certainty," said Corvan, "Specially now they're both working on rendezvous and specially now that Rockomax have got a decent sized crew cabin in orbit." He paused. "To be honest, I couldn't see either of them doing much more than orbitin' Kerbin with their one or two kerbal capsules. But if they can start joining stuff to the capsules in orbit - well I reckon things are about ter get a lot more interesting. Ahh - sounds like that second Moho is comin' into range! Speak soon, Fercan!"

------------------

The flickering light on Joemy's control board brightened into a reassuring green glow as the rendezvous radar found it's target. The flight computer beeped and it's screen lit up with range and bearing data. Joemy glanced at the tiny display, nodded and toggled his microphone.

"Flight, Moho 6. Radar is locked on and I have a good transponder return. Moho 5 dead ahead, range three two dot five kilometres, closing speed negligible."

"Copy that, Moho 6," replied Geneney, "Five Team confirms lock on to you, range three two dot five. You are Go for computer check."

"Checking now, Flight."

The flight computer keypad was enormously simplified in comparison to a standard general purpose keyboard but it was sufficient for the task of flying and navigating a spacecraft. Privately, Joemy preferred it that way although he knew that not all the engineers back at Barkton shared his opinion. As a pilot though, fewer buttons to worry about was just fine with him, provided that they were enough for the job. He reached out and tapped in a manoeuvre request. The computer display blanked out and then produced a string of numbers.

"Okay, Flight. Closing speed ten metres per second. Attitude and burn numbers are as follows."

Geneney waited whilst Joemy read out the manoeuvre data. Bill and Edsen were both busy at the consoles next to him, entering the data and cross-checking it with their own tracking information. They both flashed him a quick thumbs up.

"Moho 6, Flight. Flight Dynamics confirms, Guidance confirms. You're Go for approach to holding point two."

"Understood, Flight. Orienting for burn."

Geneney heard the distant thump of relays in his headset as Joemy fired his thrusters. Bill and Edsen watched their console screens intently.

"Good burn, Flight."

"Flight, Moho 6. Approach burn complete, closing speed ten metres per second."

"Copy that, Moho 6. Please hold at five kilometres. We'll check over the RCS telemetry on the next pass and get you set up for final approach. Three minutes to loss of signal - good luck."

Geneney leaned back in his chair and toggled his headset over to his private channel.

"We're on our way, Jeb. How's Richlin getting on with those cards?"

"Got the numbers right here, Genie. They look about right to me but I'm no computer."

Geneney clenched his fist in triumph as Jeb read out the simulated burn data. "I think we each owe Bill a bottle of Jorful's finest," he said, "Those are pretty much the exact numbers we got from Joemy's computer."

"Astronavigation by pen and paper," replied Jeb, "Still seems like a crazy way to run a space program, Genie."

"That it does," said Geneney, "but I'm glad to have another backup option on board."

------------

The two spacecraft soared over the Great Tranquil Sea, flying a bare handful of kilometres apart. They were too close for the limited resolution of the main tracking screen and Geneney watched the single spacecraft icon drifting along its orbital track, flickering as the computer tried in vain to display both spacecraft at once. In cosmic terms Geneney knew the two ships were practically touching. In practical terms, they were still light years apart. The culminating moments of Project Moho were about to begin.

"Moho 6, Flight. Your telemetry is green and you are clear for final approach."

Joemy's voice was steady in Geneney's headset. "Copy that, Flight. Proceeding to one kilometre, maximum closing speed four metres per second."

Geneney switched to his private channel. "We're moving, Jeb. Holding at one kilometre, max approach speed four metres per second."

"Gotcha, Genie. I'll have Richlin keep an eye out of the window."

Joemy's eyes flickered in a constant loop from the radar display to the flight computer to the navball and back again. He could hardly resist the temptation to look out of the capsule window even though he knew it would be a waste of time at this range. Just focus on the instruments Joemy, he told himself, no point trying to eyeball the manoeuvres either at this range. He toggled the air to ground loop.

"Flight, Moho 6. Range two kilometres, closing speed two metres per second."

"Copy, Moho 6. Any sign of Moho 5?"

"I haven't been looking, Flight but I doubt it at this range." Joemy paused. "Tell the truth, Flight, this orbital mechanics stuff takes some getting used to. Retrofire to speed up and all that good stuff. Right now I'm just watching the instruments and trusting the maths."

"It's working so far, Joemy."

"That's what the radar tells me, Flight. Okay, RCS to FINE, correcting residual plane alignment. Range one point eight and closing."

-------------

Richlin stared out of the window, scanning for any sign of an approaching spacecraft. He shook his head in disgust.

"I'm not seeing anything, Flight. Radar has them holding steady at one zero two one metres - I should be seeing something by now but I just don't have visual contact."

"Understood, Moho 5. I'll have Six Team put their capsule in a slow spin - give you some movement to track. Flight Dynamics also recommends a plus two degree yaw."

"Copy, Flight." Richlin nudged the thruster controls and the starscape outside drifted ever so slightly to one side. "Still not seeing... hold that, Flight! Correction - I have an intermittent light source in the upper half of my window!"

"Good work- and now?"

"Gone again, Flight - just one more star amongst thousands."

"That's one star that's going to get a lot closer, Richlin. Six Team reports Moho 6 on final approach!"

Looking back at his first spaceflight, Richlin would always compare the last minutes of rendezvous to landing onboard an aircraft. The same sense of almost imperceptible change, without any true impression of changing scale, followed by an abrupt shift in perspective as the ground rises up to meet you and the sudden realisation of quite how close you really are to the ground.

Similarly, the Moho 5 seemed to hang in space, slowly but surely swimming across the stars towards him. And then suddenly - it was there, with sunlight glinting from its windows and brief tongues of flames licking out from it's manoeuvering thrusters as it came to rest. One final burst of flame as the nose swung round to face him and then the unbelievable sight of Joemy waving at him through the capsule window. Two kerbonauts separated by nothing more than a few centimetres of bulkhead and a few metres of hard vacuum.

"Good to see you out there, Richlin. Thanks for waiting!"

Richlin's face split into a huge grin. "Good to see you too Joemy. Thanks for not scratching my paint!"

The two spacecraft soared over the Great Tranquil Sea, now flying a bare handful of metres apart and their pilot's ears ringing with the sounds of celebration from Mission Control.

-------------

Two green figures stood on top of a makeshift concrete bunker and watched a pair of orange parachutes float serenely towards the waiting ocean. Geneney's thoughts floated too, drifting back to another pair of parachutes marking the safe return of Jeb, Bill and Bob. Thirty five kilometres up - not even close to the edge of space. But it was enough. The launchpad for Kerbal 2. The crucial technological stepping stone for our satellites around Kerbin - and the Mün. The inspiration that set other kerbals on the road to the stars. And the prelude to Project Moho - kerbalkind's first true journeys into space.

As always Jeb seemed to sense his mood. "Not bad for a bunch of volunteers working out of a junkyard, Genie."

Geneney smiled. "Not bad at all, Jeb - not bad at all."

Jeb stared out to sea. "Still seems like a dream sometimes to tell the truth. Crazy, magnificent, but still a dream."

"Sometimes they're the best ones," Geneney said gently, "Don't stop yet old friend - we've got a long way to go."

Jeb looked at him wryly. "I like it when the money guy tells me to keep dreaming. Seriously though, Genie - its gonna take more than that to get Eve 1 into orbit."

Geneneys eyes shone. "We'll get there, Jeb." He swept his arm out, flicking his fingers at the Space Centre buildings around them. "With the team we've got now, I honestly don't think there's much we can't do if we decide to give it a try!" He grinned. "We'll get that last picture for your office yet, my friend - just you wait!"

 

<< Chapter 28:     Chapter 30>>

Edited by KSK

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The Cords that Bind

"Gene - where in my mother's Grove are we?" said Jeb. He switched off the motor, breathing heavily as he stared out at the dusty white rope, marking the boundary between road and roadside. "I have no idea where this blighted stretch of hardpack is taking us but I am conspicuously failing to spot so much as a gronnek-biting road sign, let alone a state of the art tracking, research and general wonderfulness centre."

Geneney fought to keep the irritation out of his voice. "You tell me, Jeb," he said, "Last turning but one according to the map - like I said at the time."

Jeb growled. "First order of business at this meeting is to politely find out why a damned space agency can't find anyone to draw up a decent map. For Kerm's sake, a 'facility for all of Kerbin' and they hide it halfway up a mountain and give us a kerblet's treasure map to find it."

"So you've already said - many, many times already,"

"Maybe that's the first test," said Neling cheerfully, "A place at the table but only if you're smart enough to find it first."

Jeb looked over his shoulder. "Perhaps," he said through gritted teeth, "they should lead by example by being smart enough to put up a snake kissing signpost. to their precious table." He grabbed his water bottle from under the dashboard and took a swallow, grimacing at the lukewarm, faintly metallic taste.

Ribory knocked her head against the window. "Look," she said, "why don't we turn around, go back and at least have a look up one of those turnings. I'm with Jeb - this way is taking us nowhere. Forget the last but one junction though - it was far too small."

"Small?" asked Geneney.

Ribory sighed. "Think for a moment, guys. You don't build a space centre with spades, dust and bad language. Whatever road we're looking for has to be big enough to get a good sized truck up at the very least."

"Last but two then you think?" said Geneney.

"Only one that looked likely," said Ribory, "unless we're even more lost than I thought."

"We could well be," said Geneney. “but that's good enough for me. Jeb?"

Jeb's only reply was to start the motor and jab the accelerator. The little car bumped awkwardly over the marker rope and shot off in a cloud of dust and flying gravel, leaving the high pitched whine of an overstressed drive train hanging in the air behind them as they rounded a bend and disappeared out of sight.

------------------

"Should be about another hundred or so metres after the corner, Jeb."

Jeb nodded and eased back on the accelerator, searching the road ahead for the first sign of turning. "Okay - I see it, Genie. Still not convinced but we'll give it a try." He slowed the car to a walking pace and cut across the road, trying not to wince at the sharp jolt of wheel hitting pothole.

"Stop the car!"

Startled, Jeb automatically slammed on the brakes. Ribory threw the door open and dashed over to the side of the road. Geneney blinked as she bent down to pick something up out of the gravel and then his face split into a cheerful grin as she waved a dusty, weatherbeaten but above all, signpost shaped piece of wood over her head. All three kerbals caught a glimpse of a faded image of Kerbol rising over a curved horizon with the letters KSA emblazoned underneath. Ribory propped the signpost against a nearby rock, hopped back into her seat and slammed the door.

"Let's go!"

Two kilometres later the rapidly improving mood inside the car became positively cheerful as they swung around yet another shallow bend and came face to face with as convincing a collection of roadbuilding machinery as Jeb had ever seen. The construction crew waved at them enthusiastically from their vehicles as Jeb bumped over a ragged asphalt apron and onto the road proper. Ribory and Neling leaned out of the rear windows and waved back at the yellow-hatted kerbals.

"Thanks, Ribory," said Jeb, "Should have had you in the front here instead of, Genie!"

Geneney shrugged. "What's a kerbal supposed to do with a map like this?" he said equably. "Especially when it looks like a gronnek had been chewing on their signpost."

Jeb's laugh was cut short by Neling's excited cry. "Look - over there on the hill!"

Geneney whistled as he spotted it. "Now that's what I call a radio telescope. What do you reckon, Ribory?"

"I reckon that's one beast of a tracking system, Gene," said Ribory, "Probably long range comms as well. Doesn't look like it'll have much a problem following the Muna 3 anyway."

"That's about what I thought," said Geneney soberly, "Not if they've got the other two up and running as well."

"Yep" said Neling, "and I'm guessing they've probably got plans for more than just the Muna 3. I think you're right, Gene - nobody builds something like that on the off-chance that it might be used."

"Works for me," said Jeb, "I'm more than happy to fly stuff to the Mün if they're happy to keep paying good money and sharing good data for the privilege." He slowed down as they approached a pair of bollards blocking their way and blinked as they sank smoothly into the road. "And they certainly seem to have plenty of good money."

Looking around, Geneney was inclined to agree. The radio telescope sat atop the hillside, surrounded by well cared for lawns that were artfully dotted with trees and clusters of outbuildings, all sprout profusions of radio antennas and other communication equipment.The main roadway led up to a generous parking space in front of a large, elegantly proportioned building. Two wings swept out from a central portico, one adorned with the flag of all Kerbin fluttering from a tall cream coloured pole and the other flying the same Kerbol-over-the-horizon emblem that he remembered from the fallen signpost.

Jeb pulled up in the nearest parking space with a creak of brakes and a rumble of wheels over close set paving blocks. He pressed a button on the dashboard and the steady persistent hum of the motor died away. The four kerbals looked at each other.

"Well," said Jeb, "we're here."

"Here just in time too," said Geneney ruefully, "although I could do with a moment to unwind before the meeting."

Neling bent over with a muffled groan and rummaged around between her feet, emerging with a plastic box. "No idea how cold these are any more," she said, popping the lid off the box and handing round a set of wet flannels, "but they might help a bit."

Jeb wrapped a flannel around his neck and sighed as the cool dampness trickled down his back. He mopped his face briskly and wadded up the now less than pristine cloth, dropping it into the proffered box with a grin.

"That's the second time you've kept me cool in a crisis."

Neling laughed and opened her door. All four kerbals sniffed happily at the herb-laden scent of fresh mountain air. Geneney's back popped as he stretched. "Fresh air, cold water on the neck - you havn't got any coffee back there have you, Neling?"

"Fraid not, Gene."

"Not a problem," said Jeb cheerfully, "You did say this place was for research?"

Geneney nodded. "It's kind of an all purpose research centre, HQ and tracking station."

"They'll have coffee then," said Jeb, "Rule 1 of science - where you get scientists, you get coffee. The place probably runs on the stuff."

"In that case," Geneney said firmly, "I think I'm about fit to be seen in public again. Let's go."

-----------------

Golden afternoon sunlight poured in through the skylights, casting a lambent glow over the foyer as Jeb led the way through the main entrance and strode up to the reception desk.

"Good afternoon. We're here to see Director Lodan." He stuck out a hand. "Jeb Kerman, Kerbin Interplanetary Society. Here with my colleagues; Geneney, Neling and Ribory Kerman?"

The first receptionist visibly pulled himself together. "Uh, of course, sir. K-kerbin Interplanetary Society. I have your name badges here. Yes, yes, Jebediah, Geneney, Neling, Ribory." The box rattled in his hand.

Jeb looked puzzled. "Is everything all right?" he asked, "We have got the right date yes?"

"Oh yes, sir. It's just, just we never..." The receptionist lunged beneath his desk, surfacing with a tube of paper which he hastily unrolled. Jeb was astonished to see a poster of Geneney, Wernher and Lucan standing in front of the salvaged Kerbal 2. He dragged his attention back to the receptionist's nervous chatter.

"Couldn't get one of the Kerbal 1. Tried to - for my boy you know - but they'd, you'd that is, sold out. But a signed poster ... that would just make his birthday." He thrust his pen into Jeb's hand and looked at him hopefully.

Jeb grinned. "What's your lad's name?"

"Uh, Bobney. He's a real KIS fan you know. Actually, he's more of an all over spaceflight fan. Anything to do with rockets or kerbonauts."

Jeb thought for a moment, then quickly wrote something on the poster and signed his name with a flourish. He gestured to the rest of the team waiting behind him.

"You lot want to sign this as well?"

Ribory smiled at the receptionist. "Sure, why not." She looked over Jeb's shoulder. "Hmmm, 'To Bobney - See you out there some day! Your friends, Jeb....'. Not bad, Jeb!" She took the pen and signed her name underneath Jeb's, where it was rapidly joined by Geneney's and Neling's signatures. With a faraway look in his eyes, the receptionist stared at his newly signed poster and then rolled it up, taking great care only to handle it by its edges.

For a moment there was silence. Jeb coughed.

"So - where should we find Director Lodan?"

The receptionist blinked. "Director Lodan? Oh of course. The meeting room is in the south wing. Just down that corridor there, you can't miss it."

"Thanks," said Jeb, "and a happy birthday to Bobney when it arrives."

"Oh it will be now, sir - it will be now!"

Once the KIS team were safely out of earshot, the second receptionist turned to her colleague and raised her eyebrows.

"So congratulations are in order then, Bob? Good thing you're not the superstitious type - giving your son your own name and all."

---------------

Ribory eyed the rack of laboratory coats. "You guys reckon we need one of these?"

"Maybe later if we get a proper tour," said Neling. "I'm not going to bother for now."

Geneney tore his gaze away from one of the posters adorning the corridor walls. “Me neither," he agreed, "but if this summary is anything to go by, I'd love to get a look through that door. Anyone got any idea what MIR stands for?"

"Not a clue," said Jeb, "and I'm not feeling LOST yet either." He gestured down the corridor. "Space Radiation Laboratory seems pretty obvious though. Come on - l..."

The door to the MIR lab flew open and a small bespectacled kerbal dashed out, narrowly missing Jeb. She blinked at the newcomers and then her eyes widened. Stammering an apology she bolted back through the open door and slammed it behind her.

Geneney laughed. "Losing your touch there, Jeb," he said.

"Getting a chance to say something would have been a start," said Jeb. "Anyway, as I was saying - let's go find this meeting room."

As they walked down the corridor, the four kerbals heard door after door opening around them, together with snatches of whispered conversation.

"No - Jeb the janitor. Of course I mean 'that Jeb', sponge-brains..."

"...recognise, Geneney too. Wow..."

"Don't know either of the ladies but I'd sure like to..."

"Oh that was classy, Lim..."

"Yeah - you should apply to Rockomax. I hear they're looking for someone to grit-blast..."

"Lim's so smooth he wouldn't even need the grit..."

"Where have you been people - that's Neling..."

“Neling?"

"Yeh, the controller that saved Jeb's ... on the Moho 1..."

Ribory bit her lip, shoulders quaking as she tried not to laugh. Neling stared at the floor, flushing dark green as Geneney clapped her on the back. Meanwhile, Jeb was in his element, waving at the rapidly building crowd, offering a quick word here, a bright grin there and even shaking hands with one or two of the bolder scientists. A tentative handclap rapidly turned into enthusiastic applause and then became a standing ovation from the dozens of kerbals crammed into the corridor behind them.

-----------------

The door closed with a soft thud, cutting out the commotion behind them. The group sitting around the large round table in front of them stood up politely although some of them looked rather bemused by all the noise. A grey eyed, balding kerbal stepped forward to greet them.

"The KIS team I presume? It seems a little superfluous after your... enthusiastic reception but nevertheless - welcome to the Kerbin Space Agency."

Jeb shook his hand vigorously. "Pleased to meet you - Director?" Lodan dipped his head and Jeb looked relieved. "This is Geneney, our flight director and head of systems integration, Neling, flight control, guidance and electronics and Ribory, flight control and spacecraft systems. I'm Jeb and I help fill in the gaps around the rest of the team."

Lodan looked momentarily confused at Neling's name. "Forgive me but I was expecting another member of your team - Bill I believe?"

"Ahh - allow me to present Bill's apologies, Director. I'm afraid he was needed to oversee the final equipment installation and checkout of our next spacecraft. We had hoped to have that finished in time for the meeting but..." Jeb looked apologetic, "unfortunately it all took a little longer than expected."

One of the kerbals around the table stepped forward and shook Neling's hand. “Nelton. Flight Director and head of crew operations at Rockomax. Just wanted to say that was a solid job with the Moho 1!" She turned to Lodan. “I'm sure Neling will be a perfectly competent stand in, Director."

Lodan coughed. “I think we can take competence as a given in this room," he said dryly. “Perhaps we could finish the introductions and make a start?"

A tall, female kerbal in an elegantly fitted suit came forward and shook Jeb's hand. “Ademone - founder and company manager of Rockomax Corporation. You've met Nelton already but allow me to introduce Joebal, our head of electrical and environmental systems and Professor Melvey, flight control, spacecraft systems and..."

“Discoverer of the Melvey Radiation Belts," said Jeb with a smile, “Pleased to meet you all and it's an honour to meet you in person, Professor."

“And likewise to meet you, Jebediah," said Melvey.

Jeb opened his mouth but was interrupted by Lodan. “And I'm here as Director of the KSA, alongside my colleague Fercan - our chief telecommunication and systems engineer. Please take your seats everyone."

Everyone sat down amidst a general fussing with water glasses and shuffling of notes. Lodan tapped the table for attention.

“Good Kerbals, we are here today to discuss opportunities for mutual benefit and cooperation between the Kerbin Space Agency, Rockomax Corporation and the Kerbin Interplanetary Society. Specifically, we are here to discuss the creation of a Kerbin wide tracking, data and communications network to support future spaceflight efforts. It is my fervent hope that we can create a global resource that avoids unnecessary duplication and waste, whilst providing common facilities for the common good."

Lodan took a sip of water. “It is our equally fervent hope that by pooling our expertise with that of Kerbin's two spaceflight pioneers, we can define the data exchange protocols necessary to make that global network work and that those protocols will then become the de-facto standards for any new entrants onto the spaceflight stage. I therefore call upon the KIS to start the discussion off by presenting an overview of their current systems."

Ribory stood up. “Good afternoon, everyone. I'd like to start by giving you a 'console side' view of our systems from a flight controller's perspective. At present we have two tracking and communication sites, our main facility at Barkton and a second smaller station at Wakira. Our primary communication links are..."

By the time Ribory finished her presentation, Geneney thought he had a good idea of where the differences between the KIS and Rockomax systems were. Assuming that I'm reading the body language right. A lot of our stuff didn't seem to surprise them much but I think we're going to have some interesting discussions ahead of us on some points. By the time Nelton finished her overview for Rockomax, most of his ideas were confirmed. Okay, I think we can deal with most of the technical details but smoothing out two sets of procedures is going to take some work. I wonder who's going to get that job.

Both the KIS and Rockomax teams listened intently to Fercan's presentation on the KSA tracking systems and the communication links between their three main sites. By the time she finished, Geneney's mind was quite made up. He glanced across the table at Jeb and wasn't surprised to see him nodding slowly to himself. Looks like I'm not going to get any arguments from Jeb either. He's not big on working with the government but he can see sense when it's written in big enough letters. Be interesting to see if Rockomax are reading those letters too.

The discussion moved on to a general brainstorming session and it wasn't long before Geneney noticed both Jeb and Ademone subtly siding with Lodan on some issues and equally subtly steering the discussion away from a KSA agenda on other issues. More importantly he quickly noticed the two company managers quietly backing each other up on various items whilst offering carefully phrased suggestions to defuse the more heated areas of contention or set them aside for later talks. Geneney rested his chin on one hand, carefully concealing a smile. You two would make quite the politicians, although I doubt either of you would thank me for saying it. Looks like you are both reading the same letters.

At long last, Lodan tapped on the table again. “Thank you everyone. Lets take a break and reconvene in twenty minutes. There's coffee and drinks in the next room and the washrooms are just down the main corridor outside."

There was a general surge in the direction of the drinks. Geneney set aside his wistful visions of steaming hot coffee urns and fell into step alongside Ademone.

“Could I have a word please, Ademone?"

Ademone stepped aside to let Melvey and Jeb past. “By all means, Geneney," she said. “What can I do for you?"

Geneney waited until everyone had left the room before quietly closing the door behind them.

Ademone raised an eyebrow. "A private conversation, Geneney?" she said.

“I think that might be best for now,"  said Geneney, “At the very least, I'd prefer to keep these... business proposals out of earshot of the good Director."

“We're going to be working with the good Director," Ademone pointed out. She smiled faintly at the carefully blank look on Geneney's face.  “Please don't bother telling me that comes as a surprise. I saw you watching Jebediah and myself at the meeting."

He shrugged. “I think it makes sense. We could certainly use the facilities and unless you're a lot further ahead than we think, I imagine that you could use them too. Incidentally - how are the Endurance crew? They must be nearly ready to come home by now?"

“They're doing very well thank you," said Ademone, “but come, Geneney - what are these business proposals that we need to keep secret from Lodan?"

Geneney looked at her. “We've got two...collaborative projects in mind," he said. “We think the first one makes sense, in much the same way that Lodan's proposal makes sense. The second one is a little more speculative."

“Lets put the speculation to one side for now," said Ademone. “What does your first project involve?"

“Jeb and I call it the CORDS programme," said Geneney, “Short for Common Orbital Rendezvous and Docking Systems, although I'm sure the media won't miss the obvious jokes about tying Rockomax and the KIS together. I'll be blunt Ademone. We've both worked out the details of orbital rendezvous, you've developed systems for docking and that's probably going to be our next step too. Rather than charging off and building our own systems, why don't we both sit down together and hammer out a common set of standards that we can both use."

“Standards, not designs?" said Ademone.

“Not unless you want to share them too," said Geneney.

“Common standards would make sense," Ademone conceded, “but with respect Geneney, we're not ready to hand over our designs just yet. She paused. “I presume you're thinking about emergency options?"

“Yes," said Geneney, “I think you know as well as I do that it's only a matter of time before something goes wrong for one of us up there. Speaking personally, I'd feel a lot more comfortable having another rescue option - or the possibility of another rescue option at least."

“Agreed," said Ademone, “I'll need to speak to my Board but I think they'll be amenable. So what's your speculative proposal."

Geneney took a deep breath. “A joint Munar landing programme."

Ademone's mouth quirked upwards and then froze at the look on Geneney's face. "You're serious aren't you?" she said.

Geneney nodded.

“Well then, allow me to be blunt in return, Geneney. What on Kerbin would Rockomax get out of such a ridiculous idea apart from the chance to spend a lot of money and take on a lot of extra risk?"

"Do you want the business reason or the other reason?" said Geneney calmly.

Ademone raised an eyebrow. "There's a business reason?" she asked.

"We think so," said Geneney. "Confidentially, Probodyne have offered us a contract to put a second satellite in orbit around the Mün. We're not precisely sure what it's for but it's a lot bigger than the Muna 2. Based on the specs we've been given for stability and control, Bill's best guess is that it's for detailed mapping of some kind."

"Interesting," said Ademone, "but I'm not sure I see your point."

"Well why bother with a detailed map unless you plan to do something with it?" said Geneney. "I mean there's curiosity and scientific interest but another Muna 2 style probe would be enough for that. No - we're thinking that this could be the beginning of something much bigger - and probably something that will eventually involve putting hardware on the surface. Now we could do that ourselves given time but we could do it a lot faster in partnership with Rockomax. Fast enough to corner the market before anyone else gets a chance to even compete."

He leaned forward. "Think about it, Ademone. We give Probodyne - and whoever is backing them - exactly what they want. No need for another Probodyne Prize when they can just use our ready to go Munar transportation system!"

Ademone looked thoughtful. "Confidentially?" she said.

"Of course," said Geneney.

"We've been offered a contract too," she said. "Long duration LKO satellite for mapping the Melvey belts."

"They start quite far out don't they?" said Geneney. "We sent up a couple of counters on the last Moho flights but didn't see much off-background."

"Professor Melvey has the detailed numbers," said Ademone, "but yes they start well outside low Kerbin orbit."

"And even then, they didn't noticeably affect Satellite 4?"

Ademone grimaced. "We don't think so. There was some lasting noise on the camera images but everything still seemed to be working when we got out to the Mün. We did wonder whether the guidance systems were damaged but Melvey thinks that any radiation strong enough to do that would have caused more damage to the cameras."

Geneney nodded. "And without wishing to salt old wounds, we didn't have any major problems with the Muna 2. We might just have been lucky though - sneaked through a gap in the Belts or something.

"Possibly," said Ademone, "but in that case we've managed to sneak all our communication satellites through the same gap. No - the more I think about this, the more I'm inclined to believe Nelton's theory."

"Which is?"

"That we're being hired to check whether the Belts are..."

"Safe for crewed flights?"

Two pairs of eyes met across the table. Ademone shook her head and leaned back in her chair. "Anyway," she said, "What was your other reason?"

Geneney steeled himself. "Because we can," he said quietly. “The first kerbals to walk on another world, Ademone - and we would put them there. It could be the dawn of a new era or we may get to the Mün and never go back - it doesn't matter. What matters is that we tried. What matters is that future generations will be able to look back at a time when we dared the impossible, when we braved the unknown and journeyed to a realm beyond the dreams of kerbalkind!"

He paused.

“At a time when we were magnificent."

The soft applause from the doorway startled both kerbals. Geneney looked up and saw Jeb standing quietly in the corner.

“Couldn't have put that better myself, Genie. So what do you say, Ademone? You want to join us crazy interplanetary characters on a voyage for the ages?"

------------

“It's all blurry, Daddy!"

Footsteps crunch on the frozen grass and her father takes her hand in his, guiding it over the telescope barrel.

“No, no, this one here. Twist it.... like this."

She peers into the eyepiece, tries not to blink. How are you supposed to look through this stupid thing with eyelashes! Despite her best efforts the grey blob swims maddeningly before her, refusing to come into focus. She lifts her head from the telescope, wipes her eye and tries again, fingers clumsy in the cold.

Ohhhh!

“I can see them, Daddy! I can see the craters just like you said!"

------------

“Did you get the picture, Ademone?"

“Oh I got it, Jerdo. Took forever though and nearly as long to print."

“Yeah, we need a better way of doing this than wirephoto. That last one you sent me of the Mün wasn't half bad though."

"Maybe we could send them by radio. Dot code maybe - send a dash for a white pixel and a dot for a black pixel."

“Hmph. Typical ham - every problem can be fixed with a radio."

“Well it could work."

“I guess - if you want to spend a week or so doing it."

---------------

She sits at her desk, listening to the radio whilst she works away on a stack of invoices for the Speciality Fireworks Company. The radio suddenly beeps and plays what she assumes to be a joke message from the 'Kerbin Interplanetary Society'. As jokes go, it's not bad.

Later that evening, she stares out of her office window at the night sky, the smell of fresh coffee filling her office, trying to persuade herself that taking a Mün watching break would be a good idea. She grins, remembering the joke message. Perhaps Bill, Bob and the rest of them could make her a map of the Mün instead...

--------------

“Ademone?"

She blinked the memories away.

“I still say its risky and expensive, Jeb. "Ademone smiled slightly. “But - a successful CORDS programme would go a long way towards mitigating those risks. Kerblet steps, good kerbals, kerblet steps - let's see if our teams can work together first before I take this to my Board." She raised a finger. “I will need Board approval for this... scheme and I can't make any promises about getting it."

Geneneny leaned forward, gripping the edge of the table tightly.

“But you will..."

“Yes, Geneney - I will ask. I can promise that much."

------------

Jonton sat on the edge of his porch staring at nothing in particular. Beneath him, Joenie squatted on the lawn, tallking to herself and poking at something in the grass. Jonton couldn't see exactly what she was playing with but it certainly appeared to require a great deal of concentration, along with a large number of different coloured stones. Behind him, the door creaked open and he heard Gerselle's small, precise footsteps on the leatherbark planks as she padded over to join him.

“Still no sign?" she asked quietly.

Jonton rested his chin in his hands. “Not a thing," he said, “I should go in and try again."

Gerselle put her arm around him. “You've been cooped up in that room all week," she said, “You need to take breaks too, hon."

“I suppose so. I just wish I knew what was happening is all."

“I'm worried too, Jonton - and well you know it - but I'm more worried about you killing yourself finding out. You're barely eating and you could carry Joenie in those bags under your eyes."

As if on cue, the kerblet giggled to herself and pelted away across the lawn. In spite of himself, Jonton smiled.

“What is she playing at down there?"

“It was 'sailors and rafts' last time," said Gerselle, “but goodness knows what the latest game is. You could always ask her at dinner," she added pointedly.

Jonton looked at her sheepishly. “Or I could go and see if Daddy can play too?" he said.

Gerselle squeezed his shoulder. “Why don't you go and do that, Jonton Kermol. And why don't I see if I can find some milk and cookies for the intrepid sailors. Or explorers. Or whatever it is this week!"

Jonton laughed and climbed to his feet. “All proper explorers need cookies," he said and went out to join his daughter under the Kerm tree.

“What have you got there, popkin?"

“Leaf!" exclaimed Joenie, offering her father a fistful of crushed foliage.

“That's right - and what kind of leaf is it?" said Jonton, kneeling down beside her.

“Potty leaf!"

Jonton blinked. “That's nice, Joenie," he said cautiously. “Can you find another potty leaf for Daddy?"

Joenie skipped away across the grass. She crawled around outside Jonton's sleep room window for a minute before bounding to her feet and hurtling back towards him. Giggling, she tumbled to the ground and waved the leaf at him.

“Potty leaf, Daddy!"

“Oh spotty leaf. Clever girl - that is a spotty leaf."

Then Jonton got a closer look at the spots.

Oh no. No nononono.

He scooped up Joenie and ran.

The back door slammed. Gerselle looked up in surprise as Jonton burst into the kitchen, thrust Joenie at her and turned and ran for the sleep room. Joenie's face puckered up in an all too familiar way and Gerselle hastily popped a cookie into one small green hand.

"What's the matter with Daddy, sweetheart? Is he not playing with you any more?"

“Daddy not like leaf."

“Well you just show the leaf to Mummy instead then."

Joenie sulkily threw the leaf onto the table and Gerselle froze. A page from the Records came back to her with dreadful clarity. A page with a picture of an identical black spotted leaf and a brutally short, two word translation scribbled alongside it.

Help.... Dying....

She dropped the leaf and fled after Jonton. Joenie scampered after her, still clutching her cookie. They both got to the sleep room door just in time to hear the screams begin.

-----------

Jonton thrashed wildly on his bed, back arched almost to breaking point. The thick clump of Kerm leaves wrapped around his head did little to muffle the awful throat tearing noises ripping their way out of him. Joenie took one look at her father and threw herself past Gerselle, tears streaming down her face.

“Bad Tree! Bad Tree!" she screamed, hammering on the Kerm trunk with both tiny fists. Leaf clusters lashed back and forth, trying to reach her. Jonton's eyes rolled back into their sockets with the strain. His fingernails dug into the palms of his hands as another spasm nearly wrenched him off the bed but he forced himself not to cry out.

“Joenie. Joenie! Listen to Daddy!"

Joenie's fists flailed uselessly against the thick bark.“Bad Tree stop!" she sobbed.

“I'm all right, popkin... I'm all right. So help me - how do I explain this. “Tree hurt too. Tree hurt lots."

Joenie turned her tear streaked face towards her father, who was now lying still on the bed.

“Tree hurt too?"

“That's right, sweetheart. Tree hurt lots. Daddy needs to make it all better."

Joenie eyed the Kerm tree suspiciously for a long moment. Jonton held his breath. Then she flung her arms around the trunk as best she could. “No more hurt, Tree," she said in a muffled voice. “Daddy make better." She backed away and to Jonton's awed surprise she wagged her finger at the Kerm. “Daddy make you better so you not hurt Daddy."

Jonton's shoulders twitched. “I need to talk to Mummy, popkin," he said, “Can you be a good girl and go and play with your bricks while Daddy makes the tree better?"

“Bricks!"

Jonton offered a silent thanks for the easy mood swings of kerblets. As soon as Joenie left the room, he called to Gerselle.

“I need you to summon Donman, love."

Another convulsion tore through him and he clenched his teeth against the pain. Gerselle shook her head. “If you think I'm leaving you like this, Jonton Kermol..!" The look in his eyes made her stop.

“Please, Gerselle. I think I'm through the worst of it ssssss now but I don't how long this is going to take."

“How long what is going to take?!"

“I'll explain everything, Gerselle - trust me. But I need to explain it to the Chief Ambassador too - and quickly."

Jonton saw the doubts flickering in her eyes. “He'll come Gerselle - he'll have no choice," he said softly and Gerselle reflexively drew herself up at the sudden note of authority in his voice.

“Stand, Gerselle Kermol. Stand and bear witness, for I invoke my Right of Conclave."

Gerselle turned and ran for the telephone.

 

<< Chapter 29:     Chapter 31>>

Edited by KSK

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Well, now that's interesting. All of the orbital mechanics and docking and the big meeting, and yet I'm most captivated by the last handful of lines in the Kermol story, yet again.

Still, really good work on the story, and again, I can't wait to see how it plays out. Rockomax and the Kerbin Interplanetary Society working on a common set of docking standards... That could be interesting.

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Well, now that's interesting. All of the orbital mechanics and docking and the big meeting, and yet I'm most captivated by the last handful of lines in the Kermol story, yet again.

Still, really good work on the story, and again, I can't wait to see how it plays out. Rockomax and the Kerbin Interplanetary Society working on a common set of docking standards... That could be interesting.

Thanks!

Glad you're still enjoying the Kermol parts and without wishing to give too much away you might find the next chapter interesting... :)

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Interesting that they got the rendezvous mechanics right the first time. I know NASA managed to get it all quite backwards the first time.

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Thanks!

Glad you're still enjoying the Kermol parts and without wishing to give too much away you might find the next chapter interesting... :)

With that in mind, I'll let my mind draw some conclusions and try to play the same game I do when I read a good mystery novel. I'll also be evil and not mention any of them here because that would be a bad idea, as it might actually spoil things. Now I'll be spending the next few hours of the next day reading over the Kermol parts to try figuring out what information I need to know, and from that, start making the puzzle pieces.

So now I eagerly await the next chapter to see whether my rough guesses on what will happen end up being accurate.

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Semi-completely unrelated to the story...

Hey KSK, Ornie's truck doesn't happen to look anything like a millitary truck, does it? Because I have something that I think might fit the job... :)

RIfLQls.png

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You know what - it does now!

Not sure how possible this but move the round tank forward a notch and take out the rearmost vertical panels (to give Ornie more of a load bed to work with) and that would be about perfect. Forget about the quibbles though - that is one awesome truck.

On some related notes. Macdjord - the KIS managed to mess up their rendezvous mechanics too first time out. Moho 4 was supposed to be a rendezvous mission but it turned out to be harder than expected. Madrias - I'd love to see your conclusions after the next chapter is posted - which, fingers crossed, won't be a First Flight equivalent of 'aaaand - the butler did it!' :)

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KSK, when I'm not commenting withing 6 hours after you posting a new chapter, it just means I'm stunned.

Would you have objections when I bundle all of this in an ebook?

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OK folks this is it. It's not the end of the story by any means but it's a part that I'm a bit nervous about, simply because I've been wanting to share it for a long time. For anyone who has posted comments or questions about the Kerm and the Kermol - this one is for you.

For better or for worse - the next chapter is up...

Echoes of Time

Donman hurried up the hill towards the Grove. The village lights twinkled in the dusk and the first stars of the evening were just coming out over the tree tops. So far as he could tell, everything was perfectly normal - which was definitely at odds with the urgent call from the local Keeper. Correction, thought Donman, the local Keeper's partner. Who was also rather reticent about letting me speak to the Keeper in person. He furrowed his brow in thought as he walked briskly through the village, winding up the hill towards the Keeper's hut. The light was too dim to get a proper look at the Kerm tree growing up through the centre of the hut but the sheer size of its trunk told Donman that it had to be very old indeed.

The door swung open as he approached and he was greeted by a very nervous looking kerbal.

“Ambassador. Thank you for coming so quickly. I'm Gerselle - Jonton is just through in our sleeping room."

Gerselle led Donman through her home. He could feel the tension in the air as she tapped on the sleeping room door. What's going on here.

“Jonton - the Ambassador is here."

She pushed the door open and stepped through into the dimly lit room. Donman's eyes watered at the sudden intense smell of Kerm leaves that gusted out from the doorway. Blinking furiously, he peered through the gloom, coughing as he tried to make out more details through his tears. He was dimly aware of a pair of luminous orbs floating amidst the great profusion of foliage around the base of the enormous Kerm trunk, Somehow they seemed almost ethereal in the muted dusk of the room.

Donman wiped his eyes and the room slowly swam into focus. Breathing deeply to calm himself, he glanced at the foliage and bit back a startled cry as the orbs resolved themselves into a pair of kerbal eyes. The rest of the kerbal was almost completely hidden by leaves and - to Donman's horror - roots that burst up from the ground and twined about its legs, binding it securely to the trunk. From his vantage point by the door, Donman couldn't see where the root tips went but at that moment he decided that he really didn't want to know.

“Welcome, Ambassador. We are Jonton."

For a minute, Donman was deeply relieved. It can talk. Whatever's happened in here, I'm still standing next to a living kerbal. Then he shivered. The voice was almost as unsettling as its owner. It was oddly cultured in its way but echoed with hidden undercurrents that spoke directly to the darkest corners of his mind. The ones that it didn't normally pay to re-examine too closely, especially not in the half light before nightfall.

Then he realised. Old - it sounds very very old.

He frowned, “We are Jonton?"

“It would be easier to show than to tell. Please Ambassador - make yourself comfortable on our bed and join me. There is a great deal you must see."

The voice contained none of the usual deference that even a Keeper would normally show a chief Ambassador. Under the circumstances, Donman did not feel inclined to take issue with the lack of courtesy, nor to point out that sharing a Kerm would be a gross breach of etiquette and tradition. He looked over at Gerselle and was surprised to see the pleading in her eyes. Trying his best to control his sudden nausea, he lay back on the bed and braced himself. The leaves dipped towards his head and swiftly coiled around his temples.

A torrent of incoherent images blazed though his mind, like an old fashioned film strip accelerated beyond the point of sanity. Sounds, smells and even textures cascaded through his brain, threatening to sweep his fragile consciousness away altogether. Distantly, he could feel the convulsions, the ligaments in his back stretching as he arched off the bed, throat clenching around a silent scream.

Mercifully the deluge began to subside. The odours of hot tin and cinnamon drifted away into the background, the chaotic shriek of sound faded into a rushing of wind through the branches and then into the faint rustling of leaves. The torrent of images slowed and swirled into blackness. His stunned mind latched onto the rustling sound, finding in it a precarious mental ledge to cling to.

“I'm sorry, Ambassador. Believe me I know what you've just been through but there was simply no adequate way to prepare you." Somehow the voice seemed much less threatening, almost apologetic. “If it's any consolation, it was far worse for us." Jonton did his best to sound reassuring. “Hold on to the sound of the leaves, Ambassador. Hold on and watch."

The blackness faded into a grainy twilight grey shot through with streaks and whorls of washed out pastel colours. The colours coalesced into a faded image of a Kerm sapling surrounded by a group of kerbals. Or I don't see what else they can be. They're odd looking though - smallest heads of any kerbals I've ever seen.. The grainy picture made it difficult to tell for certain but they also looked...coarser than most kerbals, with ragged, almost twiggy tufts of hair sprouting from their heads. With a shock, Donman noticed that the nearest figures to him were also carrying crude stone axes.

“My apologies for the picture quality Ambassador," said Jonton, "but as you'll have noticed, they are rather old. They're also filtered through the perceptions of one of the other kerbals in the group and unfortunately, at this point in history, those perceptions aren't terribly acute." He paused. “Although neither were ours for that matter."

Donman couldn't take his eyes off the axes. “Are those really..."

“Stone axes? Yes, Ambassador. Late Stone Age I believe, although you'll understand I hope, if our own memories are rather vague on that point."

“Your memories." said Donman in disbelief. “That's impossible!" He snorted in disgust. “If those are late Stone Age kerbals then that would make you..."

“Many thousands of years old." Jonton said calmly. “Come, Ambassador - this should come as no surprise. Have you never grafted a new cutting onto the stump of an old departed sire? It is true that all trees will pass on in time but properly cared for, the Kerm will still endure."

“Well yes, but not for thousands of years." A thought struck Donman. “Besides, if this is true, then why is it not common knowledge amongst the Keepers? Surely there are other Kerm as ancient as you claim to be?"

“There are - but even for us, memories this old are hard to retrieve. The only reason why this one is quite so clear is because it's rather personal. You see, Ambassador - we are that sapling you see before you."

Donman frowned, “You keep referring to yourself as we. Am I speaking to Kerm or kerbal here?"

Jonton's voice sounded strangely sad. “I promise you that all will be revealed in time," he said. "In the meantime, welcome to the Kerbin of your far distant ancestors."

Donman recoiled from the series of grainy images flickering past his minds eye. A group of prehistoric kerbals curled up around the foot of a Kerm tree, all with their heads wrapped in a leaf cluster. The same group in pitched battles with other armed kerbals, leaving nothing but bloodied earth and mutilated corpses behind to rot amidst swathes of wilting and sickly vegetation. Worst of all, kerbals chopping down other Kerm trees, straining to uproot the stumps with their primitive tools and then planting something deep inside the scarred and muddy sockets left behind.

Jonton sighed. “Kerm and kerbals, both guided by little more than co-dependency and brute instinct. In a sense though, nothing important has changed over thousands of years. The Kerm still talk to us, they still provide us with food and shelter and still heal us when we are sick. And in return we spread their seeds for them as we have always done."

Donman was still trying to take it all in. “But why the fighting? Why the cutting down of other Kerm?"

“Because in many ways Kerm are not so very different from any other plants or trees," said Jonton. "Almost all plants compete with other plants for space and nutrients and many of them rely on animals to distribute their seeds. The one crucial difference is that Kerm are sentient beings - and so too are their chosen seed carriers."

The flickering images slowed to a halt as Jonton went on talking. “However a single Kerm tree by itself is barely sentient and at this point in history - or prehistory - our kerbals were only marginally more so. True, they were intelligent enough to use tools but they were still guided more by instinct and obedience to us than by any real awareness of the future."

There was a pregnant pause.

“It was not a pleasant combination," said Jonton at last. “Kerm are intensely territorial and a new Kerm sapling was simply another competitor to defeat. In such an environment, the saplings are naturally highly aggressive - they must be in order to survive. The adult Kerm respond in kind and even worse, their constant struggle to survive triggers an instinctive response to reproduce as quickly as possible. The result was a vicious, unending cycle that only intensified with the steadily increasing intelligence of both Kerm and kerbal."

A note of savage pride tinged Jonton's voice. “But we survived. Our roots were the more cunning and our kerbals were the stronger!"

Donman swallowed. “But what happened? Something must have happened."

“Oh yes," said Jonton softly, “Something happened. Such a simple thing but it was enough to bring about the end of an era. Watch, Ambassador."

A new image swirled into place. A single kerbal stood by a stick, planted upright in the ground. In the distance, a young Kerm tree stood silhouetted against the sky.

“It doesn't look like very much does it, Ambassador? We'll probably never know why but a single kerbal decided to plant a stick in the ground and leave it. But that was the pivot on which the entire history of Kerm and kerbal turned. Indeed, it was the reason why there is such a history and why we're here today watching it."

“You see, Ambassador, Kerm are also like other trees in one vitally important way. Plant a cutting from one Kerm tree in the ground and in time, it will develop and grow into a new tree that is identical to its parent. And that is the crucial difference. The parent tree recognises the other as self - and rather than fight, the two trees join and become a single larger being."

Jonton paused and his voice shifted subtly. “We weren't truly aware of the difference to begin with but I did know that it felt good. And because we knew it was good, my kerbals also knew that it was good and planted more cuttings in response. Dropped branches to begin with but later they grew quite adept at cutting off parts of us whilst causing the least amount of damage."

The images started moving again, although now they were much sharper and less grainy. Donman watched the kerbals plant their sticks and saw them grow. He saw the surrounding vegetation take on a more ordered aspect and watched the kerbals grow stronger and more numerous amidst the increasing harvests. As the generations flickered past before him, Donman saw the cuttings planted in many different arrangements and spacings until the kerbals found a pattern that would be familiar to any modern day Keeper. He also began to see an entirely different sort of pattern emerging. The kerbals would plant their cuttings, the cuttings would grow and then beyond a certain number they would abruptly die back.

Donman had a sudden suspicion. As the next generations of planters paraded before his eyes, he made a careful count of the number of cuttings planted before the dieback. Suspicion crystallised into stunned certainty. Each and every time the number of cuttings exceeded thirty seven, everything seemed to go wrong. And as Donman well knew, thirty seven was the exact number prescribed in the Records for founding a new Grove.

It was as if Jonton could read his mind. “Indeed. The Records do set a limit of thirty seven - and for a very good reason, as I recently found out. His voice shook slightly. “As I mentioned, a Kerm is a collective organism Ambassador - a web of many trees. As each cutting grows it adds to that web and the whole organism develops greater intelligence, more complex feelings and instincts and much greater control over it's surroundings. However, even a full thirty-seven tree Kerm is not really self-aware in the kerbal sense. It has a great breadth of memory and experience but very little of the depth necessary to develop a true conscious personality."

Jonton paused. “But add another cutting and the Kerm crosses that final barrier - with disastrous consequences. You experienced a little of it yourself when you joined us. Now imagine an entire lifetime of sensations dropped into your mind in a single overpowering burst. You might barely be able to handle it but only because you've had - literally - a lifetime of practice and a brain that has evolved for the task over hundreds of thousands of years! The Kerm has no chance at at all. At best it gets one brief moment of self awareness before its newly awakened personality shatters under the strain."

Donman was thunderstruck. Dimly he could hear Jonton's voice in the back of his mind.

“Gradually though, some of the kerbals learned. Slowly and painfully, they learned the Law of Thirty-Seven and finally they learned the Law of Territory and started planting their Kerm seeds far enough away from the older Kerm. And with that, the ancient cycle was finally broken."

“Not broken," said Donman slowly, “so much as reversed."

Jonton smiled. “Indeed. The new peace blunted the old instinct to reproduce at all costs, which led to fewer new Kerm, which helped to prolong the peace, which further blunted the urge to reproduce. It was far from an overnight change but within a relatively short span of generations, the modern pattern of dispersed, slow breeding Groves was well on the way to becoming established. It did help that a Grove of secure, well fed kerbals, with time on their hands to plan and build, tended to be more than a match for any that still held to the old ways."

The images began to shift again. Donman caught glimpses of crude fortifications, earthen walls and wooden palisades. The kerbals patrolling the the fortifications seemed to be rather better equipped too. Metal weapons and even pieces of armour began to make an appearance and quickly diversified into an inventive array of suitably lethal looking implements. To his surprise though, away from the walls, groups of kerbals sat in communion with each tree of their Kerm.

“Unfortunately, with peace came arrogance and overconfidence in their developing civilization. Many kerbal generations later, when the seeds started to drop again the memories of conflict had faded and the Law of Territory had been all but forgotten. Rather than setting forth to wage war on nearby Kerm, the kerbals decided to plant the seeds within their groves. To their credit, some of them did at least remember to uproot an older tree first but..."

Donman interrupted. “They were not self?"

Jonton nodded. “Even in those groves which enforced the Law of Thirty-Seven, the sudden introduction of a foreign Kerm caused chaos. For the Groves - such as ours - that did not remember, the result was tragedy. Rather than destroy the 'invader', we tried to assimilate it. It fought well but in the end, our thirty seven were able to subdue it. But then the thirty seven became thirty eight."

Donman had a sudden awful premonition.

“Believe me, Ambassador," Jonton said quietly, “The pain you experienced joining with us today is nothing compared to the agony of a Shattering mind. But even that agony pales into insignificance at the searing realisation that you just Shattered yourself by killing your one and only child."

His voice turned bitter. “As if that wasn't enough, the backlash from that realisation was enough to break the minds of our kerbals too. All of them that were communing with us went berserk. They couldn't be reasoned with because there was nothing left of them to reason with. The only thing left to do was to kill them. For the first time since the Breaking of the Cycle, kerbal was forced to murder kerbal in order to survive."

Gradually Jonton regained a measure of control. “They did survive but at a terrible, terrible cost. By the end of the Age of Madness, the kerbal population had been cut in half and hundreds of verdant groves had been reduced to smouldering wasteland."

--------------

Gerselle watched fearfully as the body of the Ambassador twitched and thrashed on the bed. Suddenly his eyes snapped open revealing a face that was haunted and drawn.

“Please, he croaked, “Please let me drink and rest a while."

Silently, Gerselle went through to the eating room and came back with an earthenware mug of water. Donman sipped at it slowly, gathering his resources. Then he put the empty mug to one side and with a look that was equal parts resignation and resolve, he lay back down on the bed and let the Kerm leaves wrap around his head again.

-------------

Even though he was better prepared the second time, union was still a wrenching, nerve shaking experience. The last of the explosions faded from behind his eyes, leaving him flailing helplessly in the darkness, with the sound of rustling leaves in his ears.

The leaves... focus on the leaves.

Jonton's voice was sympathetic. “We're sorry, Ambassador," he said. “I truly am. Believe me, this is a painful lesson for us also - and it's one we desperately need to master if we are to share these memories with others."

“Show me something," Donman pleaded, “Please. Anything for a distraction from this."

The pounding in his temples splintered into dozens of fractured knives which coalesced into a dull hammer beating at his skull. The whispering leaves became a susurration of kerbal voices flowing past him. Colours swirled before his eyes and resolved themselves into a picture of muddy streets and half finished clapboard buildings. The image lurched sideways and Donman felt a momentary sense of nausea that the clean salt air swiftly washed away. His viewpoint shifted upwards and he caught a glimpse of a slate grey sea, streaked with lacy white foam.

“Where are we?" he said.

“A long way from home," said Jonton, “at least for that Age. And the last journey our first Keeper took before returning to the Grove to take up his duties."

“Hold on, hold on," said Donman, “your first Keeper?"

“Yes, Ambassador," said Jonton. “Let us see if we can... ahh."

The muddy streets and building sites vanished abruptly and were replaced by the more familiar vista of the early Grove, complete with walls, guards and....

Groups of kerbals, thought Donman. A whole group communing with each tree.

Jonton sounded pleased. “This seems to be getting a little easier," he said. “Anyhow - observe..."

“I can see," interrupted Donman, “There must be at least a hundred kerbals communing with... uh, with you."

“I think so too," said Jonton grimly, “and all of them doomed to insanity. That was a lesson that the kerbals learned all too well, Ambassador. A vocal minority advocated complete separation from us but even the more rational majority were scarred by the knowledge that communion with the Kerm bore a terrible terrible risk. Eventually, a handful of brave leaders volunteered to take that risk for their followers and from that day forward, they and only they would commune with their Kerm. That tradition has remained unbroken ever since."

“And says everything about the Age of Madness," said Donman soberly. “Bad enough to scare us - us kerbals that is - into a tradition that's lasted for centuries. What happened to the separatists though? Did one of the new leaders take them in? That would be a pretty big gesture towards a group of miscreants that wanted nothing to do with the Kerm they volunteered to Keep."

The image of the Grove shimmered back to a view of muddy streets and half finished buildings.

“No, Ambassador - they sought a new life here. I don't remember if any of the new leaders did volunteer to take them but it wouldn't have made any difference. After the carnage and the chaos of the Age of Madness, they were determined to build a new kerbal society. They called themselves the Kerm-an, which in the language of the time meant literally 'outside the Kerm' or 'outwith the Kerm.' And just in case that wasn't enough, they called their new capital Bar-Katon, which translates roughly to 'freedom from the forest.'"

“Barkton," whispered Donman.

“Yes," said Jonton. He sighed. “For a place called 'freedom from the forest', they certainly used a lot of the forest to build it."

“They built well though," said Donman. He frowned. “And yet, modern day kerbals are all born in the Groves. What happened to the Kerm-an?"

“Nothing happened to them," said Jonton, “Come now, Ambassador. Even today, a kerbal that chooses to live outside the Groves calls himself - or herself - a kerman, although as a practical matter, 'male' and 'female' are mere labels. You see Ambassador, just as we Kerm have evolved to be entirely dependant on our kerbals to disperse our seeds, so too are the kerbals dependant on us to disperse theirs." He coughed, “In a manner of speaking."

He sensed Donman's next question. “And before you ask - no I don't know how. Some scent compound or other I expect - a kerman equipped with modern technology could probably work it out but all the original Kerm-an knew is that they couldn't bear children outside of the Groves."

“Another historical tradition then," muttered Donman, “and yet it works. Groves are good places to raise kerblets after all. Must have been galling for the Kerm-an though, forced to come crawling back to their Groves."

Jonton stayed tactfully silent but the image in Donman's minds eye flickered rapidly through a succession of scenes. Some of them were more a sketch of an idea than anything else but they still made their point. A second hand memory perhaps? Something that a Keeper heard rather saw?

A lone kerbal making the trek from the Grove to the city...

Kerbals hauling carts of gravel and other quarried stone...

Muddy tracks being replaced by metalled roads...

A huge throng of kerbals watching the final stone being set in place, on what Donman thought, would have been an impressive building for it's time...

A great meeting, kerbals up on their feet, shouting and gesticulating wildly...

The ebb and flow of kerbal couples going back to their Groves and then returning home with kerblets in their pouches...

Ever more numerous trains of wagons, ferrying goods between Bar-Katon and the surrounding Groves...

The parade of images slowed and settled on the interior of a large but plain wooden hut. A row of kerbals sat behind great desks, pens in hand and heads bent over heavy parchment scrolls. Jonton resumed his narrative.

“The Kerm-an didn't give up easily though. If they couldn't live apart from the Kerm, they could at least warn future generations about the perils of associating with them. The first scrolls in the great Archive were... controversial... and apparently included rather more Kerm-an propaganda than was thought to be strictly helpful. To their credit though, the first Keepers eventually recognised the value of an accurate - and permanent - record of the Age of Madness and the errors in Grove Law that caused it. In time, they also became the repository of accepted Grove Law and all new knowledge about the Kerm and their effect on the local plant and animal life."

“ 'Controversial' is a favourite word of diplomats," said Donman dryly. “It can cover so many situations."

“Fortunately," said Jonton, “memories of the Age of Madness were still too fresh for anyone to want to spill blood over it. My Keeper remembered a lot of shouting and hollow threats but very little of substance."

“I imagine the possible loss of trade stopped things getting out of hand too," said Donman.

“Not really," replied Jonton. “It helped a little but both communities were fairly self-reliant at this point in history. Trade was for exchanging luxuries rather than staples of life. However, the communities diverged over the next several generations - kerbal generations that is. Agriculture without Kerm support is hard, Ambassador and eventually, even the most die-hard kerman found it much easier to trade for most of their food rather than grow it. Meanwhile, the Groves grew increasingly attached to the quality of life improvements that the kerman kept inventing. Our second Keeper was particularly fond of her new eyeglasses for example." He sighed. “She was a good kerbal - worked hard to really embed the new ways in popular thinking."

“And so our modern system arose," said Donman wonderingly.

“Yes," said Jonton, “The kerman of the time called it the Age of Prosperity. We don't have many memories to show you I'm afraid Ambassador, because our Keepers only travelled so far. But believe us when we say that thanks to rigorous enforcement of Grove Law, Kerm, Grove and Kerman all flourished. It was about this time that Grove dwelling kerbals began to refer to themselves as Kerm-olia, or 'protectors of the Kerm.' The modern rendering is kermol of course."

A thought struck Donman. “Forgive me but we must be getting close to the history I know by now? The Age of Sail and the Bill of Land, Jebediah Kerman and the First Council? Everything that I learned as a kerblet."

“We are," replied Jonton, “but your lessons missed the most important part. Hardly surprising really since the older reaches of the Archives are now obscure to the point of gibberish. But humour me for a minute, Ambassador - what is the Bill of Land?"

Donman thought for a moment, choosing his words carefully. “It's a treaty," he said at last. “It's the bedrock of all international law and it was designed by Jebediah Kerman himself to ensure a fair and equitable allocation of land to Kerm, Kermol and Kerman alike."

Jonton nodded. “At least one of your teachers knew his law," he said. “So why was the Bill necessary?"

“The Age of Sail opened up new lands for Kerm and kerbal," Donman said mechanically. “The proto-nations of Kerbin saw great opportunities across the oceans and raced to exploit them. What began as harmless competition threatened to become armed conflict as each nation vied with the others to secure their land holdings. The Council of the Twelve Pillars was formed as a peacekeeping force but it's first leader, Jebediah Kerman, recognised that the only long term way to stave off conflict was to create a Bill that all could agree to." He coughed. “So my history lessons and reading of the Archives tells me, although I'm getting the distinct feeling that you're about to overturn them."

“Again, your lessons and researches are quite accurate as far as they go," said Jonton. “In many ways, the formation of the Council was the defining moment for the kerman and Jebediah was undoubtedly a gifted and far-sighted leader of the Council. We only wish that we could list him amongst our Keepers. However, I fear that the true reasons for the Age of Sail have been lost."

Jonton gathered himself with an effort. “Picture it, Ambassador," he said. “The Age of Prosperity. Groves and Kerman spreading across the land in waves, each wave driven by a new generation of Kerm. The great Seedings came more and more slowly with time and in truth, the last Seeding of the age was as much a surprise to us Kerm as it was to our kerbals. Only this time, there was no ready room left to expand into.

The void around Donman flickered and he found himself staring at curiously geometric swathes of browned and dying vegetation. These look too stylised to be real memories. More second hand information I assume.

“It's hard to believe, Ambassador," said Jonton, “but this time all of us were lucky. Each area of scarred land you see marks a battle between a new Kerm sapling and the Kerm of the surrounding Groves. Only this time, the Law of Thirty Seven was indelibly stamped into kerbal culture and the Keepers were able to prevent their Groves from assimilating the new Kerm. By this minor miracle alone, did we avoid the catastrophe of a second Age of Madness."

The geometric scars swirled away and were replaced by a view of a large Kerman city. Donman was impressed in spite of himself. Clearly Kerman architecture had come a long way from the days of clapboard houses and log cabins and many of the newer buildings wouldn't have looked too out of place in a modern city. He grinned to himself. The buildings might look the part but dear Kerm the fashions would stick out. Why - why did anyone think that eyebrow wigs were ever a good idea?

The viewpoint swam through neatly paved streets, through leafy squares where ornate fountains sat amidst elaborate mosaics and finally down to the dockside. There, a small army of kerbals swarmed over, what seemed to Donman, to be a rather rickety looking sailing ship. He frowned. Something about the view out to sea looks familiar.

Jonton resumed his story. “The Age of Sail was a heroic time but no romantic wanderlust called these beings onto the waters, Ambassador: desperation drove them."

Something clicked in Donman's memory. “Barkton," he said, “that's Barkton again surely?"

“It is," said Jonton, “The kerman of Barkton already had a reputation as fishermen and seafarers, so building a shipyard there was a natural enough decision. Building the ships was another matter entirely. A small coastal cutter is one thing, an ocean crossing vessel something else altogether."

Donman eyed the ship. “I see what you mean," he said, “I'm no sailor but that craft doesn't look particularly sturdy."

“Most of them weren't," said Jonton shortly, “A lot of Groves lost a lot of good kerbals."

And a lot of inconvenient Kerm seeds too, thought Donman, then silently rebuked himself. Would you be so callous if it were shiploads of kerblets going to a watery grave Donman.

Aloud he said, “Those battle scars you showed me looked strangely familiar but I'm not sure why."

“They should do," said Jonton grimly, “Here's our memory of a KBS news broadcast from a few weeks ago. You might recognise it."

The emergency team stared around in horror. The village itself seemed to be largely intact but the surrounding fields and orchards were ruined. Most of the villagers wandered aimlessly, or sat outside their huts gazing blankly into space.

The hut door swung open and the medical team emerged, carrying an elderly kerbal on a stretcher. Sallow skin drooped off his emaciated frame in slack green folds and his eyes rolled wildly in their sockets as he thrashed against his restraints.

“They're coming! They're coming!"

One of the medics held up a syringe and raised his eyebrows. The senior doctor shook her head sharply and bent closer to the old kerbal, murmuring into his ear. Whatever she said only agitated

her patient still further. Specks of foam spattered against his chin as he screamed.

“The sparks are coming! They're still coming! They'll kill us all!"

Donman shivered uneasily. “I think I missed that one," he said, “What are the sparks that he keeps talking about."

“We hope to Kerm you never find out personally, Ambassador," Jonton said. “From personal experience, I believe they're a Keeper's eye view of the battle between two warring Kerm."

Donman hardly dared to breathe. “Personal experience?" he said quietly.

“I'm very much afraid... yes, personal experience," said Jonton. For the first time, Donman thought the Keeper sounded nervous. Keeper, Kerm, who or what am I talking to here. He listened silently as Jonton described the discovery of the new Kerm seed, the misconceived planting and finally the battle between themselves and the new Kerm.

This can't be happening. And yet... something doesn't sound right here. I think he / it dammit they are hiding something.

“What happened after the battle, Jonton?" he said.

Jonton's voice shook. “Nothing for a while, Ambassador, “ he said. “Gerselle and I tried our best to talk to our Kerm but they wouldn't talk, or if they did, nothing made any sense." He took a deep breath. “So I decided that if thirty seven Kerm weren't enough for an intelligent reply, then maybe, just maybe thirty eight would be."

Donman's head jerked upwards in shock and ripped free from the Kerm leaves.

“What did you do?!"

“We planted another cutting in my Grove," said Jonton.

“Stop it - just stop it with all this talk of 'we' and 'us' shouted Donman."Who are you? What have I been talking to for the last Kerm knows how many hours?!"

The eyes in the undergrowth looked miserably back at him. “We...I don't know, Ambassador. My Kerm Shattered but somehow I was able to help. I don't know how - maybe it just trusted me after we fought Gerselle's Kerm together. Right now though, I think my mind is the only thing holding the fragments together."

Donman's head jerked round at the sudden tremulous voice that spoke up from the corner of the room.

“What do you mean, Jonton?"

Jonton began to weep. “I think if I break the communion then we, the Kerm will die. I'm sorry my love - I'm so, so sorry."

 

<< Chapter 30:     Chapter 32>>

Edited by KSK
Typos and general tidying up.

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O....kay. That explains a lot. Nice world-building!

And... eyebrow wigs? Brilliant. And so very... Kerbal.

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You, my good sire, are not a science fiction author. You are a worldsmith. And I await restlessly for another peek into the world you've crafted.

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