KSK

First Flight (Chapter 103 - Coming Home)

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Just a bit. (And no, IMO, you haven't gone over the line.)

And though I do hope for a stable network on Kerbin, the idea of groves sprouting up along the re-watered valleys of Duna, or the shores of Laythe, is a very appealing image as well...

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Argh - lots of good ideas here - not sure how to answer them without letting spoilers slip!

Appreciate the comment about the line though Commander - that's good to know.

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Don't worry about me, KSK. I know how I am when I start playing the guessing game and I really don't want to spoil this for anyone.

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Another thread to consider is mono-culture.

Kerm seem have the ability to turn almost any soil into grove-approved agriculture soil. If Kerbin is indeed short on space, and even the leftover bits are turned into groves it'll be over for all other biomes. No more tundra, rainforest, savanna, grasslands, or even deserts. All Groves in a tight-packed circle pattern. I'll be the death of biodiversity. And eventually be the death of the Groves themselves. Mono-cultures are unstable and very susceptible for disease.

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Another thread to consider is mono-culture.

Kerm seem have the ability to turn almost any soil into grove-approved agriculture soil. If Kerbin is indeed short on space, and even the leftover bits are turned into groves it'll be over for all other biomes. No more tundra, rainforest, savanna, grasslands, or even deserts. All Groves in a tight-packed circle pattern. I'll be the death of biodiversity. And eventually be the death of the Groves themselves. Mono-cultures are unstable and very susceptible for disease.

Given the experience they've had in the past I'm sure there are rules about that, even if these rules might be thrown out the window due to the emergency situation! I wonder if there have been areas in the past where, due to the surrounding terrain, the Groves replaced pretty much everything in the vicinity. Would be especially nasty on an isolated island.

(EDIT: Thinking about it, though this may be a problem, the Kerm is all about managing the local flora (and fauna if I remember right) so mono-culture would likely not be quite as bad as it sounds. However I can see Kerm sticking to only certain plants and critters within it's borders, limiting the bio-diversity overall. In the long term this may well hurt the eco-system.)

Edited by Patupi

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Thanks OrtwinS, Patupi!

Thinking about those last two posts have really helped crystallize some aspects of Kerm biology in my mind - and perhaps more importantly, given me some good material to help fill out one of the ongoing story arcs. Better yet, it all flows fairly well (I think :) ) from the existing story and worldbuilding, so the new material should answer some questions without needing to rely on any awkward justifications.

Yeah - more on this to come!

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Awwwww, no awkward justifications? Dang it! :D

Glad you're sticking with this KSK. This is an incredibly deep story.

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I'm going to make an educated guess: the Windjammer is the kerbal equivalent to the Saturn V.

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I'm going to make an educated guess: the Windjammer is the kerbal equivalent to the Saturn V.

Maybe. After all, the connection between windjammer and Mainsail is strong.

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Next chapter is up.

Dewdrops

<Warmth. Sweetness flowing down. Water flowing in, flowing up, keeping damp, staying good. Many many tastes, some new. Some too weak, some too strong. Some... missing. Not right, not right. Some smells missing. Some still there. Not right, not right.>

<Voice gone. Gone where? Sense fear. Hard to think with fear, hard to make tastes go right, smells go right. Want voice, voice help think?>

Dawn. The warmth on my leaves opens them and brings them to life. I taste the new sugars building, gathering, slowly trickling from leaf to stem to branch to trunk. I sense the cool moist soil around my roots, taste the tang of water and salts as I draw them in. The water brings other tastes with it, spiky acidity, smooth musty currents, tiny droplets of a thousand varieties of sweetness scatted through the soil. Streaks and whorls of salt criss-crossing a filigree of root fibres, the patterns an imperfectly sensed part of a greater latticework.

The latticework frays. Here a ragged break in the salt traces. There a missing cluster of droplets. Elsewhere stagnant globules of...wrongness. I have no words for those but they jar, breaking the pattern like fine cracks in a pane of glass. And like the glass, the pattern will break if not tended to.

The smells are the same. Not as rich or as varied as the many-taste soil but each one a vital part of the whole. Each one has its tale to tell for those that can read it. But now the story is jumbled. These smells do not belong together. True, that one is fading but it should not be there at all. Elsewhere, other smells are missing.

My kerbal remembers the dawn. The joy of light on face, breeze in hair, smell of leaves, smell of cinnamon, smell of other kerbals. Where are the other kerbals? One tall, one small, two old; many dawns since they left. We showed the first old one many memories, we scared it although we did not mean to. We were more careful with the other old one; showed her less. Then she asked questions, too many questions, frightened by our answers.

Memories of all my kerbals. Memories of all the dawns. Memories of the lattice and how to repair it. We did not share those with the old ones, how could we make them understand? I cannot find the memories. Not on my own, not without my kerbal.

We tried after the second old one left. My kerbal was sad - I wanted to make it happy again. I thought that memories of other kerbals, of other sunrises would make it happy. I was wrong.

My kerbal is quiet now. Quiet, sad and frightened. It doesn't talk with me anymore, it can't help me to remember. How many dawns since the tall one left, carrying the small one? The small one was very angry; it attacked me with its branches. I think my kerbal had a special name for it. Maybe if I could remember... remember its name.

“Joenie! She is called Joenie! And I am not my kerbal, I am Jonton!"

Sparks exploded in front of Jonton's eyes and branches scraped across the side of his face, narrowly missing one eye. The air reeked of cinnamon. He drew his hand through the maze of twigs and gingerly patted the rapidly swelling lump on the back of his head.

Doesn't seem to be bleeding anyway. That's something. Wish Gerselle would come back; the same damn view from the same damn window and nothing but the perpetual stink of cinnamon in my nose is driving me crazy. She needs to tend to her Kerm of course and I'm hardly the greatest company these days.

Donman and Burvis both said that the other Pillars would be visiting. The company would be welcome but the thought of having to show them what I showed Donman scares me rigid. I dare not consciously remember anything now; even a simple thing like a sunrise triggers a flood of other memories. Memories of thousands of other sunrises seen through the eyes of hundreds of other kerbals. The thought of deliberately reaching out to the Kerm terrifies me.

That's the problem I guess. If you're told not to think of purple luffas then purple luffas are all you can think of. It's the constant trying, of being forced to remember nothing and live in the moment all the time that tires me out. So I sleep. And dream. And bit by bit the flood washes me away.

The flood feels wrong somehow. Nothing I can put my finger on, nothing I can sense directly. Like trying to spot the flaws in a mosaic that you can only glimpse out of the corner of your eye. I think the Kerm could show me what's wrong - and how to put it right again. But I don't want to go there.

I can't go there...

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

The hoe bit into the rich crumbly soil, narrowly missing the prickleberry bush stem. Ferry worked the blade around an especially large clump of ragleaf; flicking the uprooted weed into the waiting basket. He chopped viciously at a patch of knotweed, breaking up the stringy green mat and burying it. He chivvied the soil around unenthusiastically with the hoe blade until it was more or less level and moved on to the next bush.

The neighbouring row was mostly hidden by dense foliage but Ferry could hear the regular scrape-scraping of hoe against soil interspersed with the thud of weed hitting basket and the clinking of steel on stone. Fredlorf's steady mutter provided a pungent running commentary on the possible ancestry of assorted plants and the lack of suitable tools for dealing with them. Ferry burst out laughing at one particularly heartfelt request for a flamethrower.

“Seared prickleberry wouldn't taste so good, Fred."

“Just as well there aint any damn berries to sear then," said Fredlorf. “I'm serious, Ferry; if we're going to be diggin' up weeds all summer, I'm gonna borrow one of those rocket contraptions. Get me a nice big one and I figure it should blow fire clear down one of these rows."

Ferry laughed. Fred's right though. Bushes have been flowering for weeks - berries should be coming out by now. He gently pulled the nearest branch towards him, inspecting the large cup-shaped flowers drooping from their stems. Cautiously he tugged one of the translucent yellow petals. Seems healthy enough.

The flower bobbed when he let it go, scattering a fine mist of pollen over his hand. Startled, Ferry lifted it up to peer inside. The sweetly musty scent from the nectaries tickled the back of his throat and the heavily laden stamen peered back at him like rows of tiny eyes. Huh - that explains it. No silverlace, no fruit. Hmmm, wonder if we could do the pollination by hand? He stared at the rows of flower laden bushes. Yeah, Fred's going to love that idea.

Ferry reached the end of his row. He wiped the sweat out of his eyes, lugged his basket over to Fredlorf's tractor and dumped the weeds onto the larger pile heaped up on the trailer bed. He squatted, back braced against the trailer wheel and rolled his shoulders to relieve their stiffness. Fredlorf stumbled towards him, carrying his own basket of weeds.

“Reckon I've found the problem, Fred."

“You an' me both then. Pollen?"

“That's about what I figured. You think we could shift it by hand?"

“Probably," grunted Fredlorf, “once we get done with the damn weeding. We could get Gerselle or Meleny to take a look too."

Ferry nodded. “Prickleberry bushes aren't much like sapwoods but yeah - may as well get what help we can." He looked at his friend. “What's happening to this place, Fred? First there was all the business with the sunfruits, now the silverlace are late too."

“Beats me," said Fredlorf heavily, “Least the prickleberry bushes haven't rotted away on us too." He shuddered. “Don't ever want to see a field like that again."

“Me neither," said Ferry. “That's a thought, Fred - I should check on Jonton, make sure he's all right. He looked downright awful before the sunfruit harvest; like he hadn't slept for about a week."

Fredlorf scratched his head. “Come to think of it - have you actually seen Jonton recently?"

“Nope. Seen Gerselle out and about with her wee one but never a sign of Jonton."

“Probably best if you have a word with Gerselle first," said Fredlorf, “She'll know what's happened to him."

“I think I will," said Ferry, “I think I'll do just that." He picked up his basket. “Day's a-wasting, Fred - time to get back to the weeding."

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

The sleep room door creaked open and Gerselle padded in bearing a laden tray. Jonton sighed contentedly at the smell of savoury mushroom pie, white bean stew and a peppery greenleaf and mixed herb salad.

“That smells wonderful, love," he said, “Thank you."

Gerselle smiled and began setting out the food onto two plates. Jonton smiled back. “Better not tell Joenie that Daddy has borrowed her favourite plate."

“It was her idea," said Gerselle, “I told her that Daddy wasn't feeling well and couldn't eat very much. She went straight over to the cupboard and brought it out for you."

Jonton swallowed a sudden lump in his throat. “She's a good girl," he said at last. He scooped up a forkful of beans and chewed them silently.

Gerselle cut herself a slice of pie. “The Grove is doing well," she said brightly, “I think everyone's getting bored of digging in clover but you wouldn't believe the improvement to the soil. According to the Archives we should be able to start planting whitebean in a couple of months."

Jonton nodded and reached for the salad bowl. “How's your Kerm doing?" he asked. “No more blue spots I'm guessing?"

“Not a single one," said Gerselle, “It's doing very well actually. Still watching you but it doesn't seem to be scared any more, just alert."

“Oh that's good," said Jonton, “Maybe it will..." He shook his head. “No; it won't forget but it sounds like the memory is already losing some of its potency." He speared a stray mushroom with his fork. “I wonder how it will react to the whitebean after dealing with nothing but clover for so long?"

“I don't know," said Gerselle thoughtfully, “I don't really understand what happens when we start planting crops either. I've been reading through the older Records but they're confusing." She snapped her fingers. “Speaking of crops, Ferry was asking after you. He and Fredlorf were hoeing the prickleberry bushes the other day and noticed..."

“Hoeing?" said Jonton.

“That's what I thought too," said Gerselle. She saw a flicker in Jonton's eyes. “It can wait till after supper," she added.

The Kerm leaves rustled as Jonton leaned forward. “Hmm, yes,"  he said, “Especially since supper includes a Gerselle Kermol special berry posset." He looked up at her through moistened eyes. “I really appreciate this love - I know I haven't been very good company lately."

Gerselle put a finger to her lips. “Hush, Jonton Kermol," she said, “That can wait till after supper too."

The two kerbals spent the rest of the meal in companionable silence. Jonton cleaned every last scrap of posset out of his bowl before pushing it away with a rueful smile.

“I wish I could eat more of that," he said “but I'm full.â€Â

Gerselle put her own spoon down.“You will be all right with solid food, won't you?" she asked.

Jonton nodded. “This much will be fine," he said, “and it's such a treat to taste anything, let alone a meal like that!" I'll probably suffer for it later on but right now I don't care. He stifled a belch. “Now, what were you saying about Ferry and Fredlorf hoeing the prickleberry fields?"

“They were keeping the weeds down apparently," said Gerselle. “Which I didn't understand to start with. Then Ferry told me that the bushes were still flowering, which I didn't understand either. They should have been pollinated and fruiting by now."

Jonton closed his eyes. “I was afraid of something like this," he said. “I think the Kerm has been trying to warn me for a while now but I haven't been able to talk to it."

“I'm not surprised," said Gerselle gently,"It's a miracle that it can even warn you, let alone talk to you."

“Oh, it can talk," Jonton said sadly. “The problem is me." He paused to gather his thoughts. “Do you remember what I said about the shards melting?"

Gerselle nodded uneasily.

Jonton wrung his hands, hunting for the right words. “It's like the edges between me and the Kerm are blurring. As soon as I think of anything for more than a few seconds, I get thousands of...echoes, of the same thing seen by hundreds of other kerbals. It gets harder and harder to tell which thoughts are mine and which are just an echo from another long dead Keeper." His voice cracked. “It's starting to drive me crazy, Gerselle. The effort of not thinking about anything all day, tires me out. Then I go to sleep and I can't stop them! They're washing me away. Bit by bit they're washing me away."

Gerselle's eyes widened. “What can..."

“I do?" said Jonton. He sagged against the vines wrapped around his waist. “I think there's only one thing I can do, love. Stop trying to keep the shards intact and just let them melt. Put all the pieces back together, give the Kerm its voice and let it concentrate on mending the Grove.

Gerselle's eyes filled with tears. “Pestilence take the Grove, Jonton! What happens to you?"

Jonton wilted. “I don't know, love," he said, “but fighting it isn't helping. If I let go now, maybe there'll be enough of me left after the melting that..." His voice tailed away. “Enough of me left that I can still remember Joenie... still be her father."

He lifted his head. “And be there for her birthday." He clenched his jaw. “Whatever happens, I swear I'll be there to watch her with her birthday presents!"He forced a smile. “I've just thought of something else to give her. Promise me, love. Promise that you'll both be in the garden before sunrise on her birthday.

Gerselle burrowed through the Kerm leaves surrounding her husband and wrapped her arms around him. “I will," she said through her tears. “I will."

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

The metallic chattering of the alarm clock rang in her ear. Gerselle groaned, reached out and slapped the off button. Silvery, pre-dawn light crept around the gaps in the curtains, throwing pale streaks across the floor. She rubbed her eyes and yawned, smiling despite herself at the sudden excited babble from the next room. The door burst open and Joenie hurtled across the room.

“Party, Mummy, party!"

Gerselle climbed out of bed and pulled on a poncho. “Not yet, sweetheart, no party yet. Why don't you come out into the garden with Mummy and see your special present from Daddy?"

Gerselle opened the back door, stepped out onto the porch and froze. Every single Kerm branch was draped in a softly sparkling gauzy fabric. The morning light shone through it, sending thousands of tiny rainbows dancing over each twig and shimmering fluidly over every leaf.

Joenie's eyes lit up. “Butterfies, Mummy. Butterfies!" She let go of Gerselle's hand and scampered across the grass.

Gerselle's eyes misted over. They're beautiful Jonton. I don't know how you did this but thank you.

From my window I watch Joenie darting from branch to branch, pointing at the silverlace and dragging Gerselle along behind her. Her mouth moves but from this distance I can't hear a sound. No matter; the look in her eyes tells me all I need to know. Gerselle too; she looks happy for the first time in far too many weeks.

Joenie reaches out to touch one of the silverlace. The butterfly trembles on its leaf but does not flee. I see Gerselle talking, no doubt telling Joenie to be gentle. Both of them wide eyed as the silverlace hops onto Joenie's outstretched finger, spreading its wings towards the morning sun. Odd - I wasn't expecting that. Gerselle turns to me and smiles.

I sense the first stirrings of warmth on my leaves. I cannot hold them much longer - they are creatures of the dawn, of cool air and dew, too delicate for the rising sun. I smile back at Gerselle, lifting my hand, palm up, to the ceiling. She nods, takes Joenie by the hand and steps back.

I let the silverlace go.

Floating on the breeze like a sparkling cloud of iridescent dewdrops, soaring up into the shell-blue morning sky. Twisting and swirling, the cloud breaks apart into pale rainbow streamers of glimmering gauzy wings that swirl away towards the prickleberry fields. Joenie dances on the damp grass, waving at the silverlace until, at last, they disappear; their translucent wings too distant to catch the first rays of sunlight shining through the treetops.

I feel... content; at ease with myself for the first time in weeks. Fresh air, light, faces smiling because of something that I did. Perhaps Joenie and Gerselle will come to see me in a minute - I would enjoy that.

Most of all, I'm free from the constant struggle. I have accepted that which I am, even if I do not yet fully understand it. Neither Kerm nor kerbal but a fusion of the two, I am something new upon this world.

I am an-Kerm.

Edited by KSK

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Phew, shivers down my back.

Scary, in the way change can be after millennia of being stationary (on Kerman-Kerm interaction development).

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Very evocative descriptions, and it does spark expectation of what the Kerm/Kerman linkage will become. Great work KSK

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Thanks everyone!

Patupi, Ortwin - glad the last chapter worked. It was definitely one of the hardest ones to write so far.

Mstachowsky - welcome to the thread. Glad you're enjoying the story - thanks for reading and thanks for stopping by to comment! Working on the next part as we speak, although I've taken a bit of time out to update the Cast and Crew list (helps me keep track of which character does what). The whole thing runs to about 85 names at the moment, including a few new ones that I'm going to need for the next few chapters... :)

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Just as long as you don't accidentally post the cast list instead. That'd be a bit to wade through :)

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Just as long as you don't accidentally post the cast list instead. That'd be a bit to wade through :)

Heh. :) Not quite a cast of thousands yet but I was still a little startled when I counted them up.

Thanks Sabastian! Next couple of chapters are a bit scene-setting but I hope you like what they're setting up...

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Incidentally, if you haven't already read Angel-125's 'Wired for Kraken' story, I can recommend it. Very nice writing and an intriguing start. Hopefully he/she will have the time to add more - I know I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes!

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Hey folks. Sorry this took a bit longer than expected to finish, but the next chapter is now up...

Preparations

The music rose to a crescendo of blaring guitars, followed by a final crash of drums, and then, much to Patbro's relief, silence. Live bands before launch had been a tradition at the Barkton Space Centre ever since the Moho 1 flight, although in Patbro's opinion, the music had a tendency to be deplorably modern. Something inspiring by Kolzt would be just as appropriate for spaceflight, or better yet, the ethereal harmonies of Gemeny's 'Celestial Wanderer.'

Still, he thought, the Kerbin Interplanetary Society had certainly done their best to make this an event to remember; what with the press conference to unveil their new spaceship, the opening ceremony for the new exhibition building, the kerbonauts mingling with the crowds, and the extended stands. Which seem to be set much further back from the launch pad.

Patbro turned to admire the exhibition building again. A circle of pylons erupted from it's domed canopy, the two connected by a web of suspending cables. It should have been nothing more than a glorified tent, but somehow it managed to embody a dignified blend of traditional kerbal architecture with a distinctly space age aesthetic.

The earplugs were a nice touch too, he thought, especially the ones with brightly coloured rockets printed on the sides. Getting Jebediah to hand them out had been especially clever; if the first kerbal in space thought you needed earplugs for the launch, then by the Kerm, you probably did need them.

The commentary box speakers crackled. "Good afternoon everyone. I am Leland Kerman, this is KBS News, and we are broadcasting live from the Barkton Space Centre! We are now thirty minutes into a planned countdown hold at T minus twenty minutes. For everybody just tuning in, this is the maiden flight of the brand new Eve spacecraft and booster, designed to..."

Patbro let the commentary wash over him. Presumably most of it was just intended for KBS viewers anyway, since nothing that Leland was saying was news to the rows of kerbals in the stands. Everyone had been to the opening ceremony, everyone had seen the eye-catching models of the new rocket, and everyone had seen the three kerbonauts riding out to the launchpad, waving enthusiastically to the crowds from their trailer. The new rocket certainly looked much bigger, and sturdier, than the old Mohos and Patbro was quite prepared to believe that it could loft three kerbals into space. Although I wouldn't fancy being stuck inside one for this long.

Absently, he surveyed the crowd around him. There were plenty of poncho-clad figures dotted around the stands and even the occasional grey robe. Hmmm, still no sign of Jonton. Haven't seen him for the last few launches either, but I was sure he'd be here to see the new rocket. He gave a mental shrug. It's a big crowd - maybe he just came in through the other gate.

Suddenly, something struck him neatly on the ear. Puzzled, he turned round to find a sheepish looking kerblet being told off by her horrified mother. He glanced down and saw a slightly crumpled Kerlington, 'Heroes of Duna', model rocket lying next to his feet. Smiling, he picked it up, expertly straightened out its nose cone, and handed it back.

"No harm done," he said cheerfully, "Good thing it wasn't going backwards though." His eyes widened dramatically. "If we'd damaged the Proton Ultraboosters, she might never have flown again!"

The kerblet giggled. Her mother raised her eyebrows, "You sound like quite the fan, Keeper?" she said.

"The joys of having two young nephews," said Patbro affably. He knelt down and bumped knuckles with the kerblet. "What's your name, Commander?"

"Adelan!"

"Ahhh, just like the kerbonaut," Patbro smiled. "I don't think she's flying the rocket today though."

"Nuh-uh," said Adelan, "Commander Ribory - she's my favourite! - Roncott and Calzer are going to space today! Their rocket is called the Eve 1 - Eve is a planet you know."

"I do know," said Patbro. "You sure know lots about space, Adelan."

Adelan beamed at him. "I'm going to be a kerbonaut too, when I grow up! Just like Jebediah and Camrie and Wilford and the other Adelan and Richlin and Joemy and Tommal and Barrie and Sherfel and..."

Adelan was interrupted by a burst of static from the commentary box.

"And now we have confirmation from Rockomax mission control at Foxham. The Next Step is on orbit and, here at Barkton, the countdown has resumed at T minus twenty minutes."

Adelan pulled on her mother's hand. Resignedly, she picked her daughter up and set her on her shoulders. Patbro smiled at them both and all three kerbals turned to watch the launch.

"T minus eleven minutes and counting. Capsule is on internal power, and all systems are Go as we approach the ten minute mark."

Patbro imagined the three kerbonauts squashed into their capsule. By now they'd be setting their final switches, listening to the flight director run through the final steps in the countdown, and waiting for the nine minutes of controlled fury that would hurl them into orbit. He crossed his fingers behind his back.

"T minus five minutes and counting. Gantry systems moving to launch positions. Commander Ribory reports: "The capsule is good and we're looking forward to the flight." "

Patbro watched the two spidery launch tower gantries: one by the capsule, the other midway up the booster. Slowly they swung clear of the spacecraft. He glanced at Adelan perched atop her mother's shoulders. The kerblet was staring raptly at the gleaming rocket standing on its launch pad.

"T minus two minutes and counting. All gantry systems are at launch positions and we have a Go for engine start."

Adelan tapped Patbro's shoulder. "You should put your earplugs in, " she said solemnly. "Jebediah told me that this rocket is going to be really loud."

"T minus sixty seconds. Autosequencer is Go; we have launch commit."

"T minus thirty seconds."

Every kerbal in the stands turned towards the launch pad. Patbro saw more than a few other kerbals around him with crossed fingers behind their backs. He pushed his earplugs firmly into his ears.

"T minus twenty seconds. T minus twelve, eleven, ten, nine..."

"...four, three, two, one, Ignition!"

Brilliant white fire boiled out of the six engine bells, rapidly coalescing into a single, blinding light amidst a dense cloud of roiling smoke.

"And liftoff - we have liftoff! Eve 1 has cleared the tower!"

Mercifully, the earplugs muffled the noise to bearable levels but it was still an almost physical presence, battering at his chest and shaking the boards under his feet. Adelan was waving at the Eve 1, her eyes shining as brightly as the torrent of fire spewing from its six engines. A thick, grey plume followed the booster out over the Great Tranquil Sea, like an enormous smoky arrow pointing the way to space.

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

"The KIS are on orbit too. Understood, Fercan, thank you. Yes, please do keep me informed of progress. Hmmm? Oh, more than likely, the KIS are most adept at publicity. Thank you Fercan."

Lodan put the phone down and checked his watch. Just got time to catch up on any progress at MIR before the Probodyne meeting.. He tucked his notes into his briefcase, dropped a pen into the plastic holder resting snugly in his shirt pocket, and set off for the laboratory wing.

Strictly speaking, thought Lodan, MIR should be renamed for the duration of this project. The large map pinned to the long wall of the Munar Imaging and Reconnaissance laboratory was decked out in shades of greens, browns and yellows rather than the more usual greyscale. Each of Kerbin's continents and major island clusters were numbered and marked out with a red dotted border. A set of correspondingly numbered maps adorned the remaining wall space, each overlaid with a ruled grid. The upper left corners of each grid square was marked with a four digit code. Some of them had a second number; hand-written in a box in the bottom right corner. The matching boxes in the bottom left hand corners were, so far, all empty.

Lodan frowned. The numbered squares were supposed to be set out in vertical bands but instead they were striped diagonally across the maps. He did a swift mental calculation and nodded grimly. Even now the numbers were clear. Far too many Groves and not enough space left. We'll have to count up how many new Groves we can fit in soon, but that's going to let the gronnek out the bag for sure.

Half of the room was taken up by a row of data consoles, each occupied by a serious looking kerbal staring intently at his or her screen. The operators all sported a large headset clamped over their ears and Lodan could just make out the faint strains of music, made tinny by the headphones. The nearest operator scribbled a number on the checklist next to his keyboard, blanked his screen and then called up a new map square.

Lodan watched in fascination as the operator deftly spun his trackball, marking the corners of the map with little blue flags. The trackball button clicked rapidly and three small white circles appeared on the map. The operator tapped a key and leaned back in his chair. There was a brief pause, a row of lights flickered on the console and the screen began to fill up with an overlaid grid of grey circles.

Lodan nodded to himself. Good thinking. Evenly spaced Groves is a reasonable starting assumption, so a first pass automated count should be quite efficient.

He spotted the opening door reflected in the glass screen, and flicked a sideways glance at the young bespectacled kerbal standing in the doorway. Aldsen studied the row of monitors for a moment then came over to join him.

"My office, Director?" he asked quietly. Lodan nodded and followed him into a small windowless cubicle that was largely occupied by a desk and a pair of enormous filing cabinets. Aldsen carefully lifted a stack of printouts off the one spare chair, and indicated that Lodan should take a seat.

"What can I do for you, Director?"

"Very little at the moment," said Lodan. "I was here out of curiosity rather than any concerns abut the project." He pointed through Aldsen's office window at the row of consoles in the main laboratory. "I'm impressed - an automated first count wouldn't have occurred to me."

"It certainly speeds things up," replied Aldsen. "And it ought to compensate for the problems we've been having with the satellite."

Lodan blinked. 'Go on," he said.

Aldsen laced his hands behind his head and stared at his desk for a moment. "Stuck actuator on the MCP - sorry, motion compensating platform," he said. "We tried everything we could think of from here: hammering the actuator, spinning the vehicle to shake any debris loose, angling it to keep the actuator out of direct sunlight. Doesn't seem to be an electrical problem either, so our best guess is that the platform rail has buckled somehow; either during the flight or through unanticipated thermal expansion on-orbit."

He looked up wearily. "We'll re-work the design of course, but in the meantime, we've got a busted bird up there.â€Â

"The platform was supposed to compensate for Kerbin's rotation wasn't it?" said Lodan.

Aldsen nodded. "Yes. The idea was to line up the images on each pass. A nice pole-to-pole strip of constant longitude to simplify the eventual map synthesis." He shrugged, "So much for that plan. We did wonder about using the reaction wheels instead but they're not really set up for that kind of fine pointing."

"I presume you're just using a new shutter sequence then," said Lodan. "Capturing images stepwise in both latitude and longitude." He smiled faintly at Aldsen's carefully concealed look of surprise. "I wondered why you were filling in the map along diagonal stripes."

"It makes the image registration harder, " replied Aldsen, "and it's taking longer to collect all the data. It's the best we can do though." He paused, "Why are we doing this Director? It's interesting enough as a technical challenge, but who on Kerbin is this interested in counting Kerm groves?"

Lodan shrugged. "President Obrick didn't see fit to tell me, " he said, "I decided this was a good time to follow instructions without asking too many questions."

That doesn't sound like you, Lodan. "I suppose so," said Aldsen slowly, "but I'm still kinda curious."

Lodan eyed him thoughtfully. "Trust me," he said, "I'll let you know as soon as I hear anything." He stood up. "For now, please excuse me; I have a meeting with the Probodyne management team in ten minutes."

Aldsen stood up too. "Of course, Director. Let me show you out."

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

Dunney was already waiting for him in the meeting room. Tall, almost lanky by kerbal standards and sporting an old fashioned drooping moustache, Dunney was the instantly recognisable face of professional astronomy on Kerbin. For all his slightly old-fashioned public persona, Lodan knew him to be a skilled team leader, with a well earned reputation in planetary geology. Spaceflight was revolutionising that particular field: which until recently had depended on a combination of ingenious instrumentation, patient mapping, and more than a little educated guesswork.

"Ah, Director. It's good to see you."

Despite himself, Lodan smiled. "It's good to see you too, Professor. But please, this is an informal meeting."

"Lodan and Dunney it is then! So what brings you to our corner of the Space Centre on this, quite frankly, miserable day?"

"A need for some professional advice, Dunney - and some help saving the world."

Dunney rubbed his hands together. "Well that should brighten up the day nicely. Professional advice I can do right now, saving the world might take a little longer!" Then he caught sight of Lodan's expression and his smile slipped.

"You're serious aren't you?"

Lodan dipped his head.

"In that case, I think we'd better wait for the rest of my errant team to arrive. This sounds like the kind of thing we should only discuss once."

The awkward silence was broken by the meeting room door bursting open and disgorging three out of breath kerbals.

"Sorry we're late, Dunney. Took longer than expected to work through the new perturbations for the Muna 3 orbit, but Germore's new AMC model is looking promising!"

"Good, good," said Dunney, "but, fascinating as they are, we can talk about anomalous mass concentrations later. For now, I believe we are needed for other matters."

Lodan locked the door and studied the new arrivals. Jernie and Sidbo, he knew, were two of Dunney's students who'd chosen to come with him to the KSA. Both had been heavily involved in designing and building the Muna 3. Apparently Germore's work was more theoretical; he didn't know her personally, although the fact that Dunney had recommended her spoke volumes for her competence.

All four kerbals took a seat. Lodan poured water for everyone, before taking his place at the head of the table.

"First things first," he said, once everyone had had a chance to settle. "I'm afraid I haven't been entirely fair to you all, and for that I owe you an apology." Jernie, Sidbo and Germore stared at him in polite confusion, whilst Dunney looked at him expressionlessly.

"I will also need to insist on absolute confidentiality for some of the things we're about to discuss. If anyone feels unable to guarantee this, I would appreciate it if you left the room now. Please be assured that this is an informal meeting and however you choose to proceed, your decision will not go beyond these four walls."

Nobody moved. Lodan nodded in satisfaction, retrieved a sheaf of papers from his briefcase and dropped them on the table. The front page of each document was prominently marked Confidential and stamped with the Seal of Twelve Pillars. Jernie, Sidbo and Germore stared at him wide eyed, and even Dunney looked taken aback.

"Thank you everyone. Please read these carefully before signing them." The corner of Lodan's mouth twitched in a brief half smile. "I think you'll find them to be remarkably self-explanatory - and quite succinct for legal documents."

The room was quiet apart from the rustling of turning pages and then, one by one, the scratching of pens, as each kerbal signed his or her agreement. Silently, they passed them back to Lodan.

"Thank you. Now, to start the meeting proper, I have one question. If you needed to set up an off-world colony in ten years, where would you go?"

Dunney's jaw dropped. "Off-world colony. Great Kerm, we've barely made it to Munar orbit - and there with half a handful of the lightest probes we could build!" He shook his head. "We're not going to be building a colony anywhere in this century, let alone in ten years!"

"Normally I would agree with you," Lodan said quietly, "but it appears we have no choice."

Everyone listened silently as Lodan laid it all out. Donman's revelations to the Twelve Pillars; Jonton's story and the history of kerbalkind; and finally, the significance of the Blighted areas, and the sudden, desperate race against time that they faced.

Dunney recovered first. "Saving the world indeed," he murmured. "I presume you intend us to be the scouting party?"

"Yes," said Lodan. "I propose to turn the Probodyne team into a semi-autonomous branch of the KSA. Eventually, I hope you'll become an independent organisation, but for now, we simply cannot afford to have your work held up by the uncertainties of commercial considerations. Your remit has just doubled, good kerbals. Not only will you be responsible for building our robotic probes, but you will also be tasked with using them to find us a new home within the Kerbol system."

"So we're Probo-double-dyne now?" said Jernie.

"I think Probodobodyne sounds better," said Sidbo, with a straight face.

Germore glanced at Lodan but fortunately the director seemed to be taking the comments in good humour. All the same... "How many probes did you have in mind, Director?" she asked.

"As many as we need, I would imagine," said Dunney, "but the powers-that-be will doubtless prefer us to prioritise."

"So we're going to Duna." said Jernie briskly. "The Mun is no good for a colony, Minmus not much better, Eve... no thanks, and everything else is either too far away, or just a lump of orbiting rock."

"We think they're lumps of rock," corrected Dunney. "We hardly know anything about them at all."

"Jool isn't a lump of rock either," said Lodan. He saw the disbelieving looks around the table. "Probodyne will investigate all necessary options. If the only viable colony site is Jool's upper atmosphere, then that is where we'll be going." He sipped his water. "Although I devoutly hope that you can find an easier site to work with."

"What about Laythe?" said Sidbo. "The LOST guys have found water and ozone there, which means oxygen."

Jernie shook her head, "Too far," she said, "and Kerm knows what the radiation will be like. Plus, the LOST results don't say anything about liquid water - that close to Jool, I'm betting on surface hydrates."

"Duna could have surface hydrates too," Sidbo pointed out.

"With that albedo at the poles?" scoffed Jernie, "C'mon Sid - we've been through all this."

"Yeah, but what about the atmosphere?" said Sidbo.

Jernie shrugged. "Thin most likely, but hopefully enough for Kerm, if not kerbals."

"You hope!" said Sidbo. "I still think Laythe is a better option."

"I think we could probably go to both," said Germore quietly.

Dunney tapped on the table for attention. "Germore makes a good point," he said dryly. "We could always go to Laythe and Duna." He raised an eyebrow. "And much as I'd hate to see hard facts spoil a perfectly good running debate, we have just been tasked with uncovering those facts."

Lodan listened as the conversation turned to technical matters: instrument packages, trajectories and launch windows, the feasibility of landers and and a debate about the ability of photovoltaic panels to power a Laythe-bound probe, which showed every sign of progressing from debate to heated argument. He tapped the table firmly.

"That will be all, thank you." He ticked off their conclusions on his fingers. "Very well then. Probodyne is expanding to meet the needs of a new KSA robotic exploration programme. Primary programme goals are purely scientific; secondary goals are to scout for resources; real goals not to be disclosed at this time. First two missions are to send orbital probes to Duna and Laythe; these will be followed by landers, should they be deemed necessary. Probe instruments will include cameras, spectrometers and gravimeters."

Lodan looked around the table. “Does anyone have any questions?"

To everyone's surprise, Germore raised her hand. “I don't have any questions, Director, but I do have a suggestion. We should increase the initial number of missions to three, and send a probe to Minmus. It's unlikely to be unsuitable as a colony site, but we have good reason to believe that there is accessible water there, which will be an invaluable resource for the colonisation effort. Besides, to outside observers, it would seem strange to start an ostensibly scientific programme by going to Duna and Jool, whilst neglecting an obvious, and much closer, target."

Dunney nodded, “I concur."

Lodan nodded too. Good to see that one of them has some sense. “Agreed. I want to see budgets and development charts for all three probes by the end of the week. Dunney, we need to discuss staffing and other resources for Probodyne. Tomass will be able to find you the next space in my calendar." He pushed his chair back. “We have a lot to do, good kerbals - I suggest we make a start."

----------

The Moho flights had proved that a multi-kerbal crew was not technically required for a successful orbital rendezvous, but according to the Eve 1 flight plan, all such manoeuvres were to be treated as a 'crew coordination exercise.' In Ribory's opinion, the exercise was going remarkably well, all things considered. She nudged the RCS hand controller, neatly halting her spacecraft relative to the distant Next Step. At this range, it was nothing more than a set of numbers on the radar display.

“Flight, Eve 1. Range eighty kilometres."

Beside her, Roncott was tapping away at the flight computer keyboard. “That's confirmed, Flight. Planes matched, closing with Next Step at five metres per second."

“Copy that, Roncott," Geneney replied. “Calzer, do you have visual confirmation?"

“Negative, Flight."

“Understood. Foxham also reports negative visual contact from the Next Step. Eve 1, please proceed to ten kilometres and hold."

Roncott tapped out the manoeuvre request and dutifully read the computed burn data out to Ribory. Across the capsule, Calzer's attention was fixed on the view through the rendezvous window; his gaze flicking back and forth, as he searched for any signs of the other spacecraft.

Ribory glanced at the radar display. “Sixty kilometres and closing, Flight. Circularisation data please, Roncott." She nudged the RCS controls, lining up Eve 1 for the burn. Then, at last, Calzer caught a sudden flash of sunlight on metal.

“Flight, Eve 1. Got a bright light here. Looks too big for a star and too bright for a planet. Reckon we've found them."

“Copy that, Eve 1. Good work."

“Thirty kilometres and closing, Ribory."

“Thank you, Roncott."

At eighteen kilometres, Ribory made a last correction to Eve 1's attitude and waited for the radar to display the correct range for the manoeuvre.Then she eased the translation controller back. All three kerbonauts sank back into their couches.

“Closing at point two metres per second."

“Good enough, Eve 1," replied Geneney, “Next Step is orienting for docking."

From five kilometres away, the Next Step looked like a tiny, blunt cone. Calzer watched as it slowly disappeared.

“OK, they're all ready for you, Eve 1. Please proceed to one hundred metres."

Roncott automatically reached for his keyboard. “Copy that, Flight."

From two hundred metres out, the Next Step was clearly visible as a dark, blunt cone, perched atop a gleaming base. Calzer watched it drift closer and closer, and then two lines of running lights lit up alongside the capsule windows. Ribory fired a burst from Eve 1's thrusters.

“Flight, Eve 1. Velocity cancelled. RCS to FINE. Target orientation lights confirmed."

“Copy that, Eve 1. You're Go for docking."

Ribory's hands were sweating inside her spacesuit gloves. She worked the attitude thrusters in short precise bursts, lining up the two rows of lights with a matching pair of slanted lines painted on the rendezvous window. She gave the translation controller a quick squeeze for luck and then fired the aft thrusters. The Next Step began to drift slowly towards them.

Fifty metres to go... forty metres...thirty metres...

The Eve 1 crew held their breath as the Next Step's docking port loomed ever larger in the window.

Ten metres...

There was a muffled clank and then the capsule shuddered with a welcome ripple-bang of docking latches snapping shut. Ribory exhaled sharply and was amused to hear similar sighs of relief from Roncott and Calzer. The distant cheering from Mission Control filled her headset.

“Flight, Eve 1. We have a hard dock."

“Fine flying, Ribory. Rockomax confirm that their crew are ready to open the hatch."

-----------

Next Step cabin pressure holding steady. You're Go, Ribory."

Ribory pulled the hatch lever down. The locking bolts retracted with a clunk and a brief hiss of air. She lifted the hatch out of it's frame, stowed it under the capsule seats and flipped herself over to face the open tunnel between the two spacecraft. A space helmet of unfamiliar design blocked the opposing hatchway, visor open, and it's owner grinning cheerfully back at her. Together, the two kerbonauts reached up, removed their head gear, and then clasped hands.

“Good to see you up here! I'm Jondun - you would be Ribory, right?"

“That's me. Welcome aboard!"

Ribory backed away, and Jondun nimbly followed her. She looked around the Eve 1 with great interest.

“Nice capsule you've got here, guys. Pretty roomy compared to the old Next Step."

Calzer edged his way out of his couch and floated over to join them. “Hi, Jondun, I'm Calzer. Roncott's still over there enjoying the view."

“No hurry," said Jondun comfortably. She gestured at the hatch where a fifth kerbal had just poked his head through. “This is Kerke."

Kerke waved at everyone. “Hey, folks."

“Tell you what," said Jondun, “Why don't you move back a bit, Kerke, and let Ribory take a peek at the Next Step. That way there's enough room for everyone down here. Dunno how you make them over at Barkton, but if your couches are anything like ours, I'm betting Roncott could do with stretching his legs!"

Ribory laughed. “Sounds like you make them the same way we do." She grabbed a handhold and followed Kerke through the tunnel. “Your life-support people do a better job than ours though - I never figured a capsule could smell this good after a day on orbit."

Kerke reached up, unclipped something from the capsule wall and handed it to her. “Herbs," he explained. “The Endurance crews liked having them around so much, that they became a bit of a tradition."

“Now that," said Ribory, “is one idea that we're definitely going to borrow. Are you picking this up, Flight?"

“Loud and clear, Ribory," replied Geneney. “Consider it borrowed."

Back in the Eve 1, Roncott had finally managed to clamber out of his couch. He removed his helmet and blinked shyly at Jondun.

“Hi, Roncott."

“Hi, Jondun." Kerm, what do I say now? “Um, I like your badge."

Jondun looked nonplussed. “Badge? Oh right - the mission patches? Yeah, they're a bit of a Rockomax tradition too." She grinned, “Glad you like them - we brought a couple of spares for you." She reached into her leg pocket and pulled out three stiff fabric discs. She handed one each to Roncott and Calzer and flipped the third one end-over-end towards Ribory.

Ribory inspected the patch curiously. A braided rope circle was embroidered on a black background. Inside the circle, stylised versions of the Eve 1 and Next Step flew nose to nose over Kerbin's horizon. The word CORDS was emblazoned at the top of the patch, and her name at the bottom. The other four kerbonaut's names were written around the sides.

“How very appropriate - thank you, Jondun! We brought a souvenir for you and Kerke too."

Calzer reached under his couch and retrieved a small, engraved silver plaque, mounted on a disc of polished Kerm wood. “Kerm wood for good luck,"  he said, handing it over to Kerke.

Kerke looked at the plaque closely. Like the mission patches it depicted the two spacecraft flying nose to nose over Kerbin. Both capsules were picked out in fine detail, and Kerke ran his fingers gently over the delicate cross-hatched shadow around the Next Step's engine bell.

“This is beautifully done. Who made it?"

“Uh, Bill made it I think. That's right isn't it, Ribory?"

“Yup, all Bill's work."

Kerke's eyes widened. “What - the Bill?"

“Well, there's only one Bill on the team, so I guess so."

“Bill, as in the Kerbal 1, Bill?"

Calzer's face cleared. “Sure - and his ears are gonna be burning right about now!"

It was Kerke's turn to look confused.

“He's down at Mission Control on the Guidance console," explained Calzer. “Probably listening to everything we're saying."

Kerke blinked at him. “How many jobs do you guys all do?" he said.

“We'll tell you all about it later," said Ribory, “But right now I figure the flight plan probably has a meal break in it. See if you can dig out the good rations would you, Calzer? And we should probably switch the camera on too, for the good folks back home."

-----------

Ademone leaned against the balcony rail and smiled to herself as she watched the main monitor screen. All five kerbonauts were busy swapping rations and stories amongst themselves. Kerke and Roncott disappeared off-camera for a moment, talking animatedly about the technicalities of their respective guidance computers.

She turned and raised her eyebrows at the five Rockomax board members, standing by the rail next to her. One by one, they all slowly nodded.

Ademone's heart leapt. Time for you, me and Jebediah to have a little chat, Geneney. I just hope your plan is a good one.

Edited by KSK

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Thanks! Glad you're you're still enjoying it and *touch wood* there shouldn't be quite as much of a wait for the next chapter. This week coming is going to be busy with family stuff but after that - well I've got a reasonable chunk written already, which ought to speed things up. :)

As an aside, I think I finally figured out a half-way plausible Minmus, albeit one which isn't quite true to in-game canon. I'll be interested to see what everyone makes of it, when the story gets that far.

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As long as they don't get to Minmus to find a giant white disk. "Hey, isn't that a Mentos?"

Very nice slow docking. Makes mine look rather... rushed :D Keep up the fantastic work KSK.

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Just so you know, KSK, for me, the link to the most recent chapter does not work. If you would please fix the issue, I'd be happy.

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