KSK

First Flight (Chapter 106 - The Sage of Barkton)

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Yup!

Following on from my last post, chapters 43 and 44 are done bar the polishing. I was hoping to have 41 done and posted last night, but it's not quite finished. Watch this space... :)

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Question, KSK:

Since the next few chapters are already written, what's the "release schedule" going to be like? Once a week? Once a month?

Or will you do the awesome thing and release them all at once?

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Happy to go either way but the plan was: release 41, indefinite but hopefully not too long a gap whilst I write 42, release 42, 43 and 44 together.

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Next chapter is up...

Training Days

James lifted his bag off the rack with a grunt and stepped to one side to let in the next kerbal in the queue. The arrival hall echoed with shrieking kerblets, free to run around at last after too many hours cooped up in an airplane. Their parents stood resignedly in line, keeping half an eye on their hurtling offspring, and listening to the steady thump, thump, thump of luggage dropping onto the collection racks. A slowly moving stream of passengers marked the way to the exit, shuffling one by one past a row of placard carrying kerbals and out through the revolving door.

Sherfel had managed to commandeer one of the few remaining trolleys. James dropped his bag onto it and looked around. "They did say they'd send someone to meet us didn't they?" he asked. Sherfel nodded. "By the door I thought," she said. "Hopefully somebody we'll recognise."

James squinted at the row of placards. "Not so you'd notice," he said. "Lets go anyway - this place is giving me a headache."

“James? Sherfel?"

A cheerful looking kerbal waved at them from amidst the placards. James watched him take something from one of the throng of kerbals surrounding him, quickly scribble something on it, and hand it back with a smile. The rest of the crowd looked around, trying to see who was attracting his attention. By the time he and Sherfel made their way to the door, a disconcerting number of kerbals were waving pieces of card, notebooks, and what appeared to be three ring binders, at them.

“Steady on, folks! Give them room to breathe!"

The kerbal thrust out a hand. “Pleased to meet ya both. I'm Ornie."

James shook it. “Ornie...Eve 2, yes?"

Ornie grinned. “Yep. No need to introduce you two. Reckon everyone here knows about..."

“Endurance!"A burly, heavyset kerbal pushed his way through the crowd, clutching a binder. Suddenly tongue-tied, he riffled through its pages before shyly offering it to James. The bemused kerbonaut, was astonished to see a picture of himself and Sherfel floating inside Endurance's habitation module. An elaborate, and as far as he could see, surprisingly accurate, cutaway diagram of the module took up most of the opposite page. He blinked as Ornie handed him a pen.

“Hope you don't mind signing an autograph or two?"

“Uh, no. Not at all," said James, “Er - what's your name?"

“Eldrin," came the mumbled reply.

James thought for a moment, then wrote a short message under his picture. He signed it neatly and passed it over to Sherfel.

Eldrin stared at his feet. “That spacewalk - Kerm, that was... I mean, climbing out and just fixing the PV panels, in space." He looked up at Sherfel hopefully. “I don't suppose...pictures? Even just one or two?"

Sherfel shook her head. “Afraid not," she said gently. “Not on that EVA - we didn't really have time to unstow the camera." She signed the picture and handed it back. “I'll get our PR department to send over a couple of our flight packs though - they've got some pretty good photos in."

“Oh I already ordered one of those," said Eldrin. “Jus' thought...never mind - sorry to trouble you."

“No trouble," said Sherfel easily. “Good to meet you, Eldrin."

Eldrin nodded sadly, and stepped back into the crowd.

As quickly as James and Sherfel could sign one of the multitude of pictures, albums and other items of space memorabilia being thrust at them, another one took its place. Ornie saw Sherfel's jaw clench around a stifled yawn and clapped his hands for attention.

“OK, OK folks. We need to be gettin' back to the Space Centre, so I'll tell yeh what we’re gonna do here. Everyone who's already had somethin' signed, take a step back. Everyone else - pick out whatever you want signed, and scribble yer name and address on the back. I'll make sure everyone gets their gear back in a day or two."

Some of the more eager autograph hunters took him at his word and handed over large stacks of material to be signed, only to take most of it back after one look at his raised eyebrow. Ornie gathered the rest together into a neat bundle, and retrieved his, now rather battered, placard, which he hoisted in a polite farewell to the crowd.

“Thank yeh, everybody. Like I said, I'll make sure you get all of this back. Reckon I'll be seeing some of yeh at the next lecture, and I'll mebbe see you all at the next launch!"

“Next lecture?" asked Sherfel, as they left the airport terminal and crossed the car park.

Ornie nodded. “We run them a couple of times a month at the Space Centre," he said. “Bob's idea, but they turned out to be more popular than he expected, so he pulled a bunch of us in to help. We tend to do 'em in pairs, general stuff the first week, getting more technical in the second week."

“What do you talk about?" asked James.

“Bit of everything," said Ornie, fishing his keys out of his pocket. “Basic engine design, orbital mechanics, tracking and astrogation, overview of Mission Control, sometimes we get one of the pilots to come along and do a kerbonaut's diary slideshow for one of the flights." Ornie grinned. “Those are always popular. Climb in folks."

Sherfel clambered up into the truck cabin, closely followed by James. Ornie slammed the door behind them, before jogging round and swinging himself up into the driver's seat. He touched the starter button and the motor purred into life.

James frowned. “I remember Bob," he said, Flew on the Kerbal 1 obviously, one of your heads of engineering?"

Ornie nodded, both eyes on the road. “Yup. And heading up the lander project with your fella Danfen."

“That's what I thought,“ said James cautiously. “Isn't he a little bit, well - busy for lecturing too?"

“His idea," said Ornie calmly. “Guess he finds the time from somewhere." Across the junction, another truck flashed its headlamps. Ornie waved at the driver and pulled out onto the main road. “Good idea if yeh ask me. Anyone in the team who can't stand up and talk for an hour about basic stuff that they should know back to front and upside down..." Ornie shrugged. “It hasn't happened yet is all I'll say. Plus we get a load of goodwill from the good people of Barkton - seems only fair to give somethin' back."

Cars and other vehicles whirred past them on either side, many of them sporting long, fluttering pennants, adorned with a tilted rocket trailing a stream of flame behind it. Sherfel stared in astonishment at an old fashioned camper van decorated with a mural of Kerbin floating in space. Another, more modern, van lumbered past, flanks painted to resemble a Moho capsule on its booster, driver waving frantically at them. Sherfel saw his beaming face glance in their direction, a red cap perched jauntily on his head. Ornie flashed him a thumbs-up as he drove past.

“That's a new one," he said cheerfully. “Reckon he could do an Eve paint job for me?"

James shook his head. “How many lectures have you given?" he asked.

Ornie smiled. “A couple, “ he said, “We do guided tours too, but most of it is down to Jeb. Back before the Kerbal 1, him and the rest of the KIS would do their flight planning in a local bar. Anyone could listen in, or come and watch the tests, even if most of 'em thought he was crazy. These days, old Jorfurt gives us a private room for the planning meetings, but you'll still find a good few of the team down in the bar afterwards, talking to folks, answering questions..."

“Signing autographs?" said Sherfel.

“That too," agreed Ornie. “Point is though, that Jeb hasn't changed much since he was running his junkyard. Goes to the same places, mixes with the same folks. He's pretty good for business these days too, which doesn't hurt."

Ornie put on a local accent. “Sure, when do you need them for? Oh right. That could be tricky I'm afraid - we've got a big job on for Gene at the Space Centre. We could do the first third now...Yes, that Gene. Jebediah - you mean Jeb? Quite well actually. Look, we've got a guest box at the Space Centre for next week. Why don't you come over, we can sort something out over lunch, watch the launch, maybe have a word with Jeb afterwards..."

Ornie checked his mirrors. “If we've got any room in the training schedule, Jeb sometimes runs private tours, complete with a ride in one of the Whirligigs." He saw James's puzzled look. “Sorry - our name for the simulators. He'll usually leave an RCS unit on the test stand too." Ornie grinned. “Most folks like to fire a real, honest-to-Kerm rocket engine, even if its only a small one. And riding in a genuine spacecraft trainer next to the first kerbal in space - well I reckon more than one major deal has been sealed in a Whirligig cockpit."

The truck rumbled down a side road past a row of warehouses. Clusters of clean, new, wood-and-brick housing stood in neat rows, conspicuous against the older, squarer industrial buildings. Here and there, Sherfel saw more pennants fluttering in the breeze, their bright colours vibrant against the domed, slate rooftops.

Inside the cab, James was puzzled. “But why?" he asked, “I get the need for good PR - and the pennants and paint jobs are very neat - but you're all putting in a lot of effort here. More than Rockomax's PR department, and that's saying something."

Ornie gestured at the rows of houses. “Because we owe them," he said quietly. “Those new places out there? All for KIS workers and they didn't cost us a thing. Richlin and me joined right after Kerbal 1. We were there when Bill showed the the rest of them his pictures from the flight. I went home to pick up some parts - by the time I got back, the place was overrun. Folks putting together new workshops, scraping the rust off old equipment, sorting through the oily, greasy depths of Jeb's old stock bins. Even more than most big projects, our space program depends on volunteers."

“Too many other kerbals to mention from the great town of Barkton," said Sherfel suddenly.

Ornie looked at her. “Exactly," he said. “Anyway - we're here. Welcome to the Kerbin Interplanetary Society."

James climbed out of the cab. Sherfel leapt down after him and looked around curiously at the nearby warehouses. She blinked at the sign boards on the roof and their, now familiar, tilted rocket logo. James read the boards and rolled his eyes. Seriously? We're planning to launch a spacecraft to the Mün, but they're still calling themselves a junkyard and spacecraft parts company?

Two kerbals stood deep in conversation by the door to the nearest warehouse, both sipping from large tin mugs. One of them looked vaguely familiar, although Sherfel couldn't quite remember where she'd seen him before. Behind her, Ornie slammed the cab door, whistling to himself as he locked up. The second kerbal glanced up at the noise and suddenly James and Sherfel were staring at the most recognisable face on Kerbin.

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

Jebediah Kerman...

An unwelcome flutter tickled the back of Sherfel's ribs. Steady girl - he's just a kerbonaut like you. Nothing he's done that you haven't done too - and you've done a lot more on top of that. Beside her, James had frozen in place.

Yeah. Except that he was the first. And he got there in a rocket built right here by a junkyard and spare parts company.

Ornie coughed tactfully. “Expect you two could use a coffee too?" he said. “Water too if you're anythin' like me. Flying passenger class always dries me right out."

James nodded gratefully. “Both sound good," he said. Sherfel shook herself mentally. “Yes please, Ornie," she said. “To both."

“We can do that," said Jeb cheerfully. “I'm Jeb Kerman by the way, and this here is Wernher. Welcome aboard."

Wernher smiled. “Looking forward to flying with you," he said. He eyed the stack of autograph books in Ornie's arms. “We were starting to think Ornie had gotten lost, but I guess he just got waylaid."

“The rocket-spotters struck it lucky today," said Ornie equably. “Had to rescue James and Sherfel from the eager mob. You left enough coffee for three, Jeb?"

“Just about," said Jeb, leading the way around the side of the warehouse. “Jug's in my office."

More of a den than an office, thought Sherfel as she took in the scuffed chairs, the low, shop-worn table, and the refrigerator under the desk. She stared at the picture of the Mün rising over Kerbin, a shiver running up her spine. Except for that. Surely that has to be the original, and dear Kerm, being the first ones to see that view out of your window."

“Take a seat, folks, and help yourselves to whatever you want."

The table was laden with fruit, a full jug of very fresh-smelling coffee, a tray of hot rolls, and a plate of bite sized, mud coloured cubes. Sherfel stared at them curiously as she bit into a roll. Ornie noticed them too.

“More of Derny's experiments, Jeb?"

Jeb helped himself to a roll. “Yep. SRCs, version...whatever number he's up to now. Not quite as good as version six, but I'd still pack 'em for the journey." He gestured at James. “Go ahead - they taste a lot better than they look."

James took a cautious bite from his cube. A surprised look crossed his face, and he took another one from the plate. “Hey - these are pretty good - but what are they?"

“Savoury Ration Cubes,†said Ornie. “Space rations. Derny figured that giving 'em letters would make them sound more like proper kerbonaut supplies. Not to be confused with Sweet Ration Cubes, Spare Ration Cubes or Surprise Ration Cubes - Derny hasn't really got the hang of acronyms yet."

“And never, ever to be confused with Spicy Ration Cubes," added Jeb. He winced. “The snack that only Lucan could love - and he's been destroying his palate with smoky sapwood for Kerm knows how long."

Ornie lifted his hands defensively. “Don't blame me," he said. “I just told him that food can taste a bit bland in zero-g. I didn't know he'd take it as a personal challenge."

“We noticed that too," said Sherfel. “Herbs help a lot.“ She coughed. “Smoky sapwood doesn't taste too bad in space either, but you never really get the full flavour."

Ornie laughed at the dismayed expression on Jeb's face. “You'll definitely have to have a word with Lucan," he said, “He's got a collection of smokes from different Groves, probably different years too."

James chose a slice of redfruit. “I think I'll stick to spicy SRCs," he said dryly. He raised an eyebrow at Sherfel. “We should ask Ademone to hire a chef for the Rockomax crews though."

“Oh, Derny's not really a chef," said Wernher. “He was one of the rocket-spotters as a matter of fact. Until he managed to talk Jeb into giving him a job."

“Hard to turn down somebody who actively volunteered to mop floors and make coffee," said Jeb. “I still remember him telling me that he didn't know much about all those rocket engineers but that he was betting that none of them knew one end of a mop from the other. He probably wasn't far wrong and besides, having somebody to keep up with Bob's caffeine habit has been a real help."

Ornie smiled. “Turned out he's also a real fine cook, with a knack for making snacks that hold together in zero-g. We'll head down to the kitchen later - he'll want to know what sort of things you folls like."

Jeb rubbed his hands together. “Thought I'd take you on a general tour of the place this afternoon," he said, “Show you around, introduce you to everyone. Then, if you're still awake, we can run through the training schedule over dinner. I gather that Genie's been talking to Nelton, so he should have some idea of how you run things at Rockomax. We can figure out the rest at Jorfurt's tonight."

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

The young breadfruit vines were looking healthier than they had for weeks. Row after row of neatly staked, green striped stems rustled in the light breeze, dotted with newly sprouted buds and thick with tightly wound clusters of waxy leaves that gleamed in the afternoon sun.

Under the vines though it was very different. Knotweed ran riot, sprawling across the soil in a tangled, stringy mat. Hookwort clawed its way up the breadfruit stems like curly strands of barbed wire. Star poppies, yellowjackets and rustbells erupted from the soil in bright rafts of unwanted colour. Butterflies swarmed in droves, as if the rafts were fraying at the edges and blowing away on the wind. Their larvae infested the breadfruit leaves, leaving them ragged and brown edged.

Gerselle carefully dug around the base of the nearest green striped stem, exposing the root system. The coarse, stunted fibres were still black and rotted at the tips but, to her relief, rot near the tips was finally being balanced by new growth near the main root. She scooped the soil back into place and gently tamped it down.

Joenie bounced happily around the vines, chasing the butterflies, scuffing at the knotweed, chattering to herself all the while. Gerselle watched her peering at one of the leaf clusters, pleased to see her keeping her hands clear of whatever had caught her attention. She got to her feet, brushing the loose soil off her poncho and called to her daughter.

“Joenie! Joenie! Come and help Mummy with the flowers!"

Joenie raced over, flinging her arms around Gerselle's knees in an enthusiastic kerblet hug. She reached up, proudly displaying both muddy palms. Gerselle kissed the ugly, ridged weal still scored across her daughter's fingers, a fading testimony to an encounter with a particularly nasty species of caterpillar. “Good girl," she said. “You were a good girl and didn't touch them!"

“Where are the flowers, Mummy?"

“They're by the gate, sweetheart."Gerselle tapped Joenie on the shoulder and jogged away. “Tag!"

Joenie giggled and ran after her.

The carefully geometric, relentlessly monochrome flower beds stood in stark contrast to the anarchic exuberance of plant life under the vines. Each bed was fenced in by a low wooden palisade hammered into the soil. Gerselle surveyed them with satisfaction.

Star poppies, rustbells, cornshakes, yellowjackets. Hookwort, knotweed, damsonwire, clover...She pulled a notebook out of her pocket and flipped it open. Kerblets fingers, gingergrass, broadweed. Hmmm, the springfern is looking a bit bedraggled, but the rest of them are growing -  well, like weeds.

Whilst Joenie amused herself by leaping over the planks, or pulling up handfuls of flowers, Gerselle slowly worked over each bed, carefully uprooting the occasional windblown intruder and tossing it to one side. Hmph. Weeding the weeds.

It didn't take too long for fence jumping to lose its appeal. Joenie flopped onto the ground disconsolately, and began to kick the nearest plank. Gerselle picked a large handful of the thick-stemmed star poppies and sat down beside her.

“I tell you what. Why don't we make a pretty necklace for my pretty girl."She showed Joenie how to split the poppy stem with a fingernail and thread the another stem through the gap. Before long, Joenie was sitting cross-legged on the grass, tongue poked out in concentration and a ragged chain of flowers slowly piling up in her lap.

“Look Mummy!"

Gerselle looked up and smiled. Joenie sat amidst a ring of petals and torn flower heads, the finished chain draped round her neck.“That's beautiful, sweetheart. Come over here and let Mummy finish it for you." She tied the ends of the flower chain together, and held up the finished garland for Joenie to see. “There you go, sweetheart. Can you play with your necklace for two more minutes while Mummy finishes the weeding? Then we can go to Adbas's house for tea."

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

Gerselle pushed open the gazebo door and stepped into the cinnamon scented gloom. The canvas roof rattled in the wind, the thick padded collar at its peak creaking as it shifted about the slender young Kerm trunk that poked out through the top of the small enclosure. She lay down on her bed, wrapped herself snugly in her heavy woolen cloak and propped a pillow under her head. The Kerm leaves barely even tickled as they brushed against her scalp.

<kerbal back> <pleasure> <happiness> <good-right>

Gerselle smiled, letting the familiar cascade of aromas wash through her mind. Deftly, she rode the torrent of sensations, artfully placed mental stones diverting the raging flood into well practiced channels. The channels contained the torrent, letting the individual threads of meaning swirl through her mind, buffeting her but not sweeping her away.

Buffeting...slowing...seeking...

...allowed to find.

Gerselle twitched under her cloak as her awareness exploded. Her vision shrank down to a pinprick, senses of hearing, touch, taste and, smell expanding exponentially to compensate. In a discomforting wrench of perspective, the proprioception evolved for one small, bipedal body was suddenly stretched vertiginously through hundreds of cubic metres of soil. Before she could pause for breath the pinprick yawned open over a vast, ever-shifting landscape of colours. A vista of Kerm perceptions filtered through kerbal sight to create a single, sanity-saving perspective for her to view its world from.

Gerselle soared over the mindscape, searching for the breadfruit field. It didn't take long. The grid of flower beds was as distinctive here as it was to the naked eye, each bed a bold splash of colour against the dappled complexity of the surrounding soil. She sensed her Kerm's curiosity, felt it tentatively probing the tiny monocultures.

<puzzled> <many-things-all-the-same>

Here goes...

Gerselle stared intently at the first bed, holding its hues in her mind, memorising their patterns and subtle shades before turning her attention to the bewildering riot of colour that marked the breadfruit field. Slowly but surely, she began to make sense of the apparently random swirls of clashing colour that gradually revealed themselves as intricately cross-linked mosaics. Methodically, she began to isolate the mosaics, disentangling them in her mind's eye, picking out the dominant pattern , searching for one particular set of colours.

Then she found them. A small part of the mindscape snapped into sharp focus, the other colours fading slightly, merging into the background. Gerselle stared in delight at the rainbow fringed dapples scattered over the field.

Star poppies - the Kerm's eye view! But they're not so important. Deal with the knotweed and hookwort first and see how that works out.

On the surface, both weeds were indistinguishable from the background clamour. Gerselle concentrated and shifted deeper down, through the noise. Beneath the surface the twisting carpet of knotweed roots tangled with the hookwort roots, both standing in stark relief against the rest of the soil. Gerselle held the image in her mind and reached out to the Kerm.

<curious> <these-things-those-things> <all-the-same>

The mindscape shifted out again and this time Gerselle could pick out the subtle knots of colour blanketing the ground. The image flitted back and forth.

<see> <here-here-same-thing>

Gerselle bit her lip and sent a new image.

<puzzled> <things-gone> <why why why why>

Carefully, visualising each image as clearly as she knew how, Gerselle tried to explain.

The roots appear, accompanied by a picture of a sad kerbal. They disappear and the kerbal smiles. The roots appear - sad kerbal, and disappear - happy kerbal. The image fades out.

A sunlit field, with nothing but row upon row of ripe breadfruit vines as far as the eye can see. Smiling kerbals picking the breadfruit and eating them. Other kerbals carry buckets, watering the vines.

The same field but choked with weeds and stunted vines bearing hard green fruit. Sad kerbals walking between the vines but not picking the fruit.

No roots. Smiling kerbals picking ripe fruit and watering the vines. The roots appear. Weed choked field and sad kerbals.

<sadness.> <things gone. happy kerbals> <sadness> <things gone not right.>

Gerselle frowned. So now what do I do? Although Jonton's Grove - the fields around his village always...oh. Of course! Quickly she reached out to the Kerm again.

The field seen from above the mindscape. The roots appear, accompanied by a picture of a sad kerbal. They disappear from the middle of the field, leaving a thin border around the edge.

A sunlit field, filled with row upon row of ripe breadfruit vines and fringed with a border of weeds. Smiling kerbals picking the breadfruit and eating them. Other kerbals carry buckets, watering the vines.

<Things there now> <good-right> <happy kerbals and things>

Gerselle smiled. Happy kerbals indeed if this works. Now what else was I going to show it.

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

“What on Kerbin is taking him so long!"

Sherfel shrugged. “No idea," she replied, “Could be almost anything - he is their chief engineer after all."

James ground his teeth. “Yes - and he's our flight engineer. Not that you'd guess from this farce of a training programme. Checklists changing every week, communications with Foxham flaking out - Kerm's sake, this is the first day they've actually managed to get the simulator working and yet the great Chief Engineer barely deigns to set foot inside it for more than five minutes at a time!"

Sherfel eyed the glowing light on the comms panel but decided not to mention it. Besides, he has a point.

“I tell you, Sherf - unless things start shaping up, they can take this flight and shove it in a tree, because right now I trust this lot about as far as I can spit a gronnek."

The hatch swung open. Wernher climbed into the simulator capsule and took his seat at the engineering station. “Sorry to keep you waiting. We were at the pre-staging aborts yes?"

James nodded tersely. Wernher spotted the open comm loop and pulled his headset on. “So, shall we get started?"

The cabin tilted abruptly, pitching up to a simulated launch attitude. Wernher looked bemusedly at the comms panel and tapped his earpiece. “Calzer - can you hear..."

He was interrupted by a sharp explosion from outside, followed by an unpleasantly oily splattering sound. Sherfel looked up and saw a stream of viscous liquid running down the window. The simulator ground to a halt, sagging forlornly in its frame.

Slowly and calmly, James removed his headset, climbed out of the capsule, and walked away. Wernher leapt out of his seat. “It's not a problem, James, we can fix..." Sherfel rested her hand on his shoulder. “Don't" she said quietly. “Give him five minutes, and I'll go and find him."

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

Jonton put down his mug of water, wrapped his vines a little more securely about his ankles and waist, and relaxed their grip on his calves and upper legs. Yawning, he braced himself against his trunk, and began his morning exercises. As always, the image in the mirror looked slightly ridiculous, a solemn kerbal face peering back at him from out of his leaf clusters, and a pair of kerbal legs twitching and dancing underneath. I could do with some of those bungee cords that the kerbonauts use. He stretched, branches rustling in the morning air, droplets of sweet dew tickling his leaves.

The sun crept over the horizon painting the sky with streaks of watery scarlet. Jonton sensed the first faint warmth on his leaves and closed his eyes, letting his consciousness diffuse outwards, along his root fibres, through the soil, up through his many trunks.

The sun rose above the tree line, lifting the Kerm out of the dawn shadows. Jonton drank in the light, tasting it, feeling sweetness build in his leaves and trickle down his branches. Sunrise there so north is over there, which means the rest of the village is over there. Prickleberry fields over here, breadfruit here, sunfruit there of course. Forest around them all. He pushed the taste of sunlight and slow tides of rising sap to the back of his mind, letting the rough mental map fill his awareness.

Unbidden, flecks of colour began to appear. Broken trails of orange meandered across his mindscape, fuzzy and faded at the edges. Dense blue specks gathered around a blob of green, each of them trailing out a thin blue thread behind them. Diffuse clouds of iridiscent multi-hued flecks, too small to see individually but visible through sheer weight of numbers. The map blurred, zooming in towards a single speck.

No. That's kerbal thinking. Feel, smell, or taste only. Seeing is a crutch - slow and clumsy.

Unnoticed, beads of sweat popped out on the kerbal's face, as Jonton struggled to close his mind's eye. With an effort, he tore his gaze away from the mindscape, pushed its myriad details away and focused on the void around him. Slowly and deliberately he cleared his mind and, relaxing into his old Keeper training, allowed himself to sink into placid receptivity.

One by one, sensations tickled the back of his mind. Tiny threads spun into strands, which twisted into threads. The threads wove themselves into a misty tapestry, perceived for a fleeting second and then gone. Suddenly, Jonton was aware. Aware of the kerbal feet and which way they were pointing, without having to look at them. Aware of the weight of his branches and the way they bent in the wind. Aware of the worms wriggling through the soil around his roots, following the pheromone trails that he had laid down. Trails to draw them, to guide them to where they were needed. Guidance provided subconsciously now, with no more need for thought than his kerbal would require to pick up a pen and start writing.

Finally building some muscle memory here. Hold the balance, Jonton, hold it...

There. That's the problem there. Too many bacteria. Or too many of those bacteria. Those ones are harmless and those other ones are vital. OK, I remember how to deal with this. Release the attractant here, pull in these nematodes to control the bacteria. Not too many though, need these other nematodes too to keep the others in check. Fungi here, here and here to control them both, release this effector to kill those bacteria, to let those ones thrive and release more of that nutrient..."

The tapestry began to swim into view, threads unwinding and acquiring colour.

The kerbal was almost hidden behind a lashing screen of leaves, legs shaking and sweat pouring down its face.

NO! Do. Not. See. Steer the patterns, Jonton - don't unravel them!

The kerbal stared blankly across the room, blinking perspiration out of its eyes. Suddenly it stiffened, limbs clenched, back arched against the Kerm trunk. Then it slumped, like a puppet with cut strings.

Jonton felt the shimmer of changes ripple across the field and sensed the field begin to change in response. It would, he knew, take time to adjust fully, but even now the myriad food webs, the delicate chains of prey and predation were beginning to quiver at the edges, edging towards a new balance.

The kerbal's head lifted. Jonton blinked and reached for his mug of water.

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

James and Sherfel stood in the doorway and stared. The early morning sun shone in behind them, dispelling the gloom within.

The Whirligig hatch was propped against the nearest wall, surrounded by a stack of spare parts. The projectors and screens that normally stood around the capsule were lined up along the opposite wall. The table in the corner was littered with crumb-strewn plates, a coffee jug and other remnants of a hasty breakfast. Under the table a tottering heap of takeaway cartons threatened to spill across the floor. The room stank of leftover food, stale coffee and the metallic tang of grease and hot hydraulics.

Calzer squatted by the open hatch, toolbox by his side, methodically plugging in cables and closing cable clamps. Tomcas perched on a ladder, screwdriver in hand, peering intently at the main wiring panel fixed atop the capsule roof. Two other kerbals that James didn’t recognise, clambered over the simulator frame, checking the hydraulic lines. Meanwhile, Lodan sat in his usual place in the control booth, headset on and eyes on his screens.

“All set?"Jeb emerged from behind the capsule, closely followed by Bob. Both kerbals were dressed in grease-smeared coveralls, Jeb wiping his face with a rag as he walked.

“Yup!" Tomcas scrambled down the ladder and dragged it clear. The two other kerbals jumped down from the framework and joined Jeb and Bob by the control booth door.

“Just a minute guys." Calzer consulted a notebook on the floor in front of him, nodded to himself and picked up a spanner. “Just need to tighten these down. And done." He grabbed his notebook and joined the others.

“OK, Bill - fire it up!"

The capsule jerked, tipped down and then swung smoothly upwards to launch attitude. Jeb watched it start to swivel about its long axis, before walking over to the two Rockomax pilots, oblivious to the streak of oil across his forehead.

“Morning." He gestured at the simulator. “Just need to run the calibration sequence and replace the hatch. By the time Wernher gets here we should be good to go."

Edited by KSK
fixing tags and stuff

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Something tells me James Kerman's culture shock is going to get a lot worse before it gets better...

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Yes. He is definitely going to either adapt, professionalize the KIS a bit or simply not go to Mun this time. ^^

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Yes. He is definitely going to either adapt, professionalize the KIS a bit or simply not go to Mun this time. ^^

I hope all three, KIS could use a bit more discipline, James needs some valium, and I wouldn't be suprised if this process will delay his space flight.

KSK, excellent.

Beware, even though there is no such thing as too much world-building; it can drag down the story telling pace. Remember tWoT books 6-10? Don't worry, you're not anywhere near that swamp... yet.

*grabs über-critic hat*

I just hope you are going somewhere with those in-depth Kermon-Kerm interaction descriptions. I love them, but this particular episode doesn't seem to progress much in either of them.

You spend near a dozen paragraphs on Joenie playing around and Geselle worrying about the weeds. This is NOT a bad thing per se! Beware of slipping and sidetracking so much that it drags away from the story you want to convey.

Same goes for the 'space fan autograph' section and the first two blocks of text describing the work on the Whirligig.

An even more specific example:

The sun crept over the horizon painting the sky with streaks of watery scarlet. Jonton sensed the first faint warmth on his leaves and closed his eyes, letting his consciousness diffuse outwards, along his root fibres, through the soil, up through his many trunks.

The sun rose above the tree line, lifting the Kerm out of the dawn shadows. Jonton drank in the light, tasting it, feeling sweetness build in his leaves and trickle down his branches.

Your describing the same thing twice, which kills the flow.

And again

The kerbal was almost hidden behind a lashing screen of leaves, legs shaking and sweat pouring down its face. Slowly, the trembling legs stilled, the thrashing leaves steadying to a gentle flutter. The kerbal stared blankly across the room, blinking perspiration out of its eyes.

The eyes began to twitch. The kerbal stiffened, limbs clenched, back arched against the Kerm trunk. Then it slumped, like a puppet with its strings cut.

There is great power in being able to convey a complex mix of environment, emotion and direction in one or two paragraphs, or even a handful sentences. Which you have done often for over 19(!!!) months. I feel horrible for saying 'write less', that is not what I mean to say, I'm just not good enough with words to refine my criticism. Sorry 'bout that.

PS

Try this http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/description.shtml, I do believe the author of this article takes a too stern stance on descriptive texts. Balance is key, the second point is IMO the primairy: Make description an active part of the story.

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Oh good grief. If I show any sign of 'going Jordan', please do say! I well remember buying book 10 in hardback - and then resolving never to buy another WoT book in hardback.

General point - fear not, The Kerm interaction stuff is definitely leading somewhere! There's a couple of ways it could go though and I'm not quite sure which way will work best yet. The idea for this chapter (not sure how well it came across) was to compare and contrast the standard Keeper-Kerm relationship, where both sides are separate minds, with Jonton's situation as a single entity.

Left to its own devices, a Kerm improves the surrounding soil for its own ends which tends to improve conditions for all surrounding plants (unless they start getting a bit too competitive but that's a different matter). The Keeper's role is to guide that process so that it favours certain plants (kerbal crops) over others (weeds). But to do that, the Keeper needs to be able to recognise the weeds as sensed from the Kerm's perspective. The way to do that is to have control plots of the different weeds that Gerselle can spot from within communion and then ask the Kerm to get rid of anything that looks like the control plot. Maybe that was over-thinking things slightly :) but the notion of planting markers in the real world that can be detected within communion is something that will definitely come up again.

Jonton, on the other hand, is trying to get his head around the idea of effectively being Kerm and Keeper in one. Loose analogy - its the difference between programming in BASIC and programming 'next to the metal' in assembly code. One is relatively easy, the other much less so but ultimately far more powerful. I'll just leave that hanging there... :)

Specific points: The Whirligig work was supposed to be part of the 'KIS does stuff differently' theme. More on that to come, as folks have correctly guessed, but suffice to say that having the boss pull an all-nighter to fix a balky simulator is probably not something that you'd see very often at Rockomax. :)

Double description: Good point, those paragraphs could easily be merged.

The sun crept over the horizon painting the sky with streaks of watery scarlet. Jonton sensed the first faint warmth on his leaves and closed his eyes, letting his consciousness diffuse outwards, along his root fibres, through the soil, up through his many trunks. He drank in the light, tasting it, feeling sweetness build in his leaves and trickle down his branches.

Final part. Hmmm. Might make more sense if I swap that around a bit. How does it read now?

Cheers,

KSK

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I think I'm going to wait for chapters 42, 43 and 44 to land, and then go back and read it from the beginning. I started reading "training days", and then very quickly realized I couldn't remember who James and Sherfel were. I'm almost to the point where I need some sort of reference list to keep track of all the characters. :blush:

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Not helped by only getting new chapters sporadically. On the other hand, that's twice that's come up now, which is probably a sign to go easy on introducing new characters willy-nilly. Also, I can easily post a Dramatis Personae if that would help?

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I would appreciate that, if it's not too much trouble. While keeping track of the individual characters is nice in its own right, the way First Flight is set up most of the characters are also guideposts that let the reader know which faction/organization is involved in a particular scene or event. When I can't remember which organization a character is attached to, it's harder for me to follow the narrative.

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OK, here we go. Eventually, I'll add this to the first post before the contents section but, for now, I think it contains a few too many spoilers.

Only the major KIS characters are included (you'll be glad to hear :) ), although the organisation is very much larger than this. I've listed the various 'hats' for the main characters for ease of reference. Names in brackets are backups or deputies for those roles, when the principal is on a flight.

Dramatis Personae

The Kerbin Interplanetary Society

Propulsion team

- Wernher, Ornie, Malmy, Hando

Logistics and systems integration

- Geneney, Roncott, Camrie

Electronics

- Bill, Neling, Edsen

Life support and capsule systems

- Joemy, Ribory, Lowise, Seanan

Tooling and Manufacture

- Richlin, Ordun, Adelan, Ordrie

Engineering

- Jeb, Bob, Seelan, Lucan, Wilford, Lowise

Flight Director

- Geneney, (Lucan, Jeb)

Controllers

- Wernher (Ornie) - Propulsion

- Lucan (Edsen) - Flight Dynamics

- Joemy (Ribory) - Capsule Systems

- Neling (Bill) - Guidance

- Sigbin - Wakira Station

- Doodlie - Wakira Station

Mission architects

- Jeb, Bill

Trajectory planning

- Lucan, Edsen

Pad Crew

- Richlin, Geneney, Bob, Lucan

Catering

- Derny

Mission Trainers (The Booth Crew)

- Lodan, Calzer, Tomcas

Moho Pilots

- Jeb, Camrie, Wilford, Adelan, Richlin, Joemy

Eve Pilots

- Roncott, Ribory, Calzer : Ornie, Ordrie, Edsen

Pioneer Pilots

- Wernher (+James and Sherfel from Rockomax Ltd)

Rockomax Ltd

Company Manager - Ademone

Flight Director - Nelton

Head of Structural Engineering - Danfen

Head of Propulsion Systems - Hanbal

Head of Electrical & Environmental - Joebal

Controllers

- Melvey (Payload)

- Lemgan (Flight Dynamics)

- Orbald (Guidance)

- Jerdo (Tracking and Trajectory Planning)

Pilots

- Sherfel, James, Kerke, Tommal, Barrie, Jondun

The Kerbin Space Agency

Director - Lodan

Head of MIR - Aldsen

Head of Space Radiation Lab - Shermal

Head of Kerbin Mapping - Joefen

Head of LOST - Nelfred

Telecoms and Systems Engineering - Fercan

Engineering & Estates - Kelney

The Kermol

Keepers

- Jonton, Gerselle, Patbro, Ludvis

Kermol

- Ferry, Fredlorf, Meleny

Kerblets

- Joenie, Adbas

Stratus Inc.

Director of Engineering - Shervin

Head of Business Development - Thomplin

Business Development Manager (Space Systems) - Halnie

Probo(dobo)dyne

Programme Manager - Dunney

Project managers

- Jernie, Sidbo, Germore

Engineering

- Mitfred, Henbin, Mitrie

C7 Aerospace

Research Director - Al

Test pilot - Enley

KBS News

Section Head - Jonbo

Anchor - Leland

Outside Broadcasting Technician - Donbart (Don)

The Twelve Pillars

President Obrick

President Enemone

President Chadlin

President Lanrick

Chief Ambassador Burvis

Chief Ambassador Aldwell

Chief Ambassador Donman

Others

Sambus - Aide to President Obrick.

Harsen - Bodyguard to President Obrick.

Kerm investigation teams

- Obrett, Gerrigh : Jonburry, Kirman

Politicians (Regionality of Kolus)

- Ambassador Gusemy, Envoy Neilbin.

Jorfurt - Bar owner and manager.

Lemdan - Rafter, sea captain.

Erlin - Berelgan Institute researcher.

Gusden - Logistics manager reporting to Envoy Neilbin.

Edited by KSK

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Oh good grief. If I show any sign of 'going Jordan', please do say! I well remember buying book 10 in hardback - and then resolving never to buy another WoT book in hardback.

General point - fear not, The Kerm interaction stuff is definitely leading somewhere! There's a couple of ways it could go though and I'm not quite sure which way will work best yet. The idea for this chapter (not sure how well it came across) was to compare and contrast the standard Keeper-Kerm relationship, where both sides are separate minds, with Jonton's situation as a single entity.

After rereading the entire thing: it works as intended, my first read was split in two due to some travelling (in between the KIS-Jonton sections). Causing me to completely miss this parallel. (could have been fun to alternate those to perspectives in a more movie-montage-like structure? Not sure how well that would work in writing though).

... the notion of planting markers in the real world that can be detected within communion is something that will definitely come up again.

Hmmm, didn't catch that one, it's completely logical though. In a continuous monolithic book/story it might have been more clear.

"Gerselle stared intently at the first bed, holding its hues in her mind, memorising their patterns and subtle shades before turning her attention to the bewildering riot of colour that marked the breadfruit field. Slowly but surely, she began to make sense of the apparently random swirls of clashing colour that gradually revealed themselves as intricately cross-linked mosaics. Methodically, she began to isolate the mosaics, disentangling them in her mind’s eye, picking out the dominant pattern , searching for one particular set of colours.

Then she found them. A small part of the mindscape snapped into sharp focus, the other colours fading slightly, merging into the background. Gerselle stared in delight at the rainbow fringed dapples scattered over the field. ..."

I find this the confusing/unclear part. I suggest a more specific mention she searches for the weedbeds, holds one of the weed-patterns, and then tries to subtract that pattern from the breadfruit field.

Specific points: The Whirligig work was supposed to be part of the 'KIS does stuff differently' theme. More on that to come, as folks have correctly guessed, but suffice to say that having the boss pull an all-nighter to fix a balky simulator is probably not something that you'd see very often at Rockomax. :)

Nowhere does it say they pulled an all-nighter... could've been 15 minutes since the previous KIS scene ;). Might want to mention when James and Sherfel enter the sim-room it is early morning of the next day. And in that light the Whirligig work is spot on. It felt a bit random, unless you consider it is actually the next day.

Final part. Hmmm. Might make more sense if I swap that around a bit. How does it read now?

No idea what you changed, and that's a good thing :D. Smooth read.

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Dramatis personae now updated and formatted.

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This story is really good!

Amen to that. Fascinating background. Good characters. Slowly evolving, deep, hidden storyline. I love it :)

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Dramatis personae now updated and formatted.

Perhaps something that might be useful is a short little description of each group.

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Thanks folks!

Hey Excalibur - welcome to the thread. Glad you're enjoying the story and thanks for dropping by to say so! Briansun1 - I can certainly do that, although some care will be needed to avoid spoilers. Probably best if I leave it until the next few chapters are out if you don't mind - you'll see why. :)

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Thanks folks!

Hey Excalibur - welcome to the thread. Glad you're enjoying the story and thanks for dropping by to say so! Briansun1 - I can certainly do that, although some care will be needed to avoid spoilers. Probably best if I leave it until the next few chapters are out if you don't mind - you'll see why. :)

I hate teasers....

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Anyone think it's worth making this whole story into a nicely formatted PDF? It'd make reading it a lot easier....

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Something I plan to do eventually, if nothing else to have a single, clean, portable version rather than a mishmash of forum posts, Pages files and .rtf files. The early chapters will need quite a bit of formatting work though. In the meantime, if you haven't already been there, there's a nearly up-to-date version on my forum blog which might be a bit easier to read.

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Next chapter is up...

The Best Laid Plans

Jeb scratched his cheek. “In the meantime, I'm heading back to the office. You two want to take a walk?"

James opened his mouth to speak but Sherfel stepped smoothly in. “Sure, Jeb. We're not doing much anyway until Wernher arrives."

Jeb led the way out of Shed 2 and across the road. He shook his head as Sherfel veered towards the main warehouse, “Side door." He unlocked his office door and gestured towards the chairs in the corner. James opened his mouth again but closed it as Sherfel gave a tiny, almost imperceptible shake of her head. They both sat down and waited whilst Jeb peeled off his coveralls and hung them on a peg by the door. He straightened his shirt, pushed his hair back from his forehead, and sank into a chair beside them.

“I don't know about you, but I'm thinking we need to rework this training schedule."

Sherfel nodded cautiously. “I'd say so. I know you run things differently here, Jeb, but we're honestly not going to get anywhere if Wernher keeps being called out of training sessions like he has been. I know he's your chief engineer, but he's Pioneer 1's flight engineer, too."

Jeb closed his eyes, “I'll get Gene and Camrie to talk to with Ordrie and Ornie and have them re-jig the construction schedule to free up Wernher's afternoons. We can push the Pioneer 2 timetable back a month if need be." He laced his fingers behind his head. “We're still going to need Wernher most mornings though - no way around that that I can see."

“So what do we do in the mornings?" asked James bluntly.

Jeb's eyes flicked open, “Whatever you like," he said, “Pick a team you can work with and find something that needs to be done."

James's expression darkened, "Are you trying to tell us..."

“I'm not trying to tell you anything," said Jeb. He sighed. “Look, outside of the training schedule, I can't make you two do anything. But if you'll take a friendly suggestion, it would be very good for team morale if you got your hands dirty with everybody else."

James leaned forward angrily, “We're not your employees, Jeb!"

“I know you're not!" snapped Jeb. “Nor is anybody else in this building - and most of them are still waiting to fly!" His voice softened a fraction. “I thought Ornie had explained all this?"

“He mentioned that you depended a lot on volunteers,“ said Sherfel, “Showed us your new housing and told us about the early days of the KIS. We thought that was the kind of volunteering he meant."

Jeb pinched the bridge of his nose. “That's part of it,“ he said at last, “but...Kerm. Okay, the original KIS was strictly volunteers only, for the very simple reason that we couldn't afford to pay ourselves anything. Any cash we scraped together we put towards the next project - ingenuity and scrap metal will only get you so far." A brief smile flitted across his face. “We gave Genie fits most months, but he usually managed to keep something back for bills and food rather than letting us blow it all on rocket fuel."

Jeb pointed at his office window and the factory floor beyond. “We're in much the same place today. Volunteers only, everything we earn gets swallowed up by the next capsule or booster or piece of kit for Mission Control, or... you get the picture." He cocked an eyebrow at James, “The projects have expanded a bit though."

James sat back in his chair, “Everybody working here is a volunteer?" he said skeptically, “I mean, sure - show me a company that doesn't have them, especially at management level. But everybody?"

Jeb nodded, “Not all of them full-time of course," he said, “but yep, they get paid in food, lodgings if they need 'em - and the chance to be a part of something extraordinary."

“We all build them, we all fly them," murmured Sherfel.

“Exactly so," agreed Jeb.

Sherfel watched James struggle to absorb Jeb's story. Oh, Kerm take it - when in Barkton and all that. “In that case," she said brightly, “I'd say you could use some extra hands with comms and sims maintenance. I can help there."

Jeb winced, “Touché." Then he grinned, “Thanks, Sherfel - Neling'll be more than glad to have you aboard. How about you, James? Any thoughts?"

James looked at him blankly, “Not really. Rockomax hired me as a pilot, not a greas...engineer."

“Not a problem," said Jeb, “The blasting and painting team can always use a good kerbal, Hando and his gang would definitely be glad of a hand lugging gear down to the new VAB, although that's probably..." He snapped his fingers, “Better yet, you could do the rounds with Derny." He raised a finger warningly at James's apoplectic face. “Trust me, Derny's sharper than he looks. Think of this as the real guided tour."

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

The alarm jangled shrilly in James's ear, jolting him awake. The sleep room was still dark, the single, curtained window barely visible as a dim grey blur against a black background. Yawning, he aimed a vicious swipe at the alarm clock and fumbled for the light switch, screwing up his eyes at the sudden glare. The thick wool rug tickled the soles of his feet as he climbed out of bed, retrieved his poncho from its hook and stumbled off to the moss room.

By the time a scrubbed, refreshed, and far more alert James sat down for breakfast, the conversation had already turned to the day's work. Wilford stood behind the oiled wooden kitchen counter, slicing cold vegetables and pickles. Camrie and Sherfel sat at the matching table, sipping from bowls of steaming hot djeng. Sherfel smiled as she passed him the natas pot and turned back to Wilford.

“And if it passes the last round of vibration tests, we should be able to start installing the tanks!" Wilford scooped the choppings into an earthenware bowl, and put it on the table in front of Camrie. “What about you, Sherf?"

“I'll be helping Neling upgrade the data feed to Alpha site," said Sherfel, “Maybe taking a look at the connections to Whirligig 2 if I get a minute."

Wilford nodded, “Yeah, Calzer's been talking about that for a while. Be good to have a spare sim up and running."

Camrie snorted. “You volunteering to scrape the crust off the joints and see what else needs fixing?" she said.

“Might just do that, once I'm done with the tanks," said Wilford cheerfully. “Propulsion won't be finished with the 909 testing until the end of the week anyway."

James added a handful of vegetables to his bowl and ladled the thick grainy natas over the top. “909?" he asked.

“Service module engine," said Wilford. “According to Ornie the main systems passed the stress testing without a hitch, but they're still qualifying the backup plumbing. Vibration, thermal and hot-fire tests next week, once its integrated with the thrust frame and hooked up to the tanks."

Sherfel peeled the rind off a pickle slice. “Full duration hot-fire?"

“Yup," said Wilford. “for both your main burns. Going to be the most thoroughly tested piece of machinery we've ever launched by the time Ornie's done."

“Glad to hear it," said Sherfel neutrally. “Anyway - what about you, Camrie?"

“Just flying a filing cabinet this morning," said Camrie, pouring herself more djeng. “Packing up all the blueprints and manuals for taking down to the VAB. Afternoon - more fitting out work at the VAB I'm guessing, now that we've got the crane working."

James ate his breakfast silently. Sure. Just gonna be another big happy day down at the junkyard. He looked up as a shadow passed by the window. Wilford stood up just as the doorbell rang.

“Morning! You folks all set?" Edsen poked his head round the door.

“Just about," replied Camrie, lifting the djeng jug. “Bowl while you're waiting?"

“Don't mind if I do," said Edsen. “Cold out there this morning."

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

Edsen threaded his car expertly into the parking bay and switched off the motor. His four passengers scrambled out, Sherfel bending over to massage her cramped calves, her breath steaming in the crisp morning air. Kerbals milled around outside the gates, chatting and greeting friends as they arrived. Periodically, small groups broke away from the crowd and headed towards the main warehouse. James checked his watch. This is ridiculous - it's only eight in the morning for Kerm's sake!

“See you all later!" Edsen locked his car and hurried over to Bill and Neling, waving at three more kerbals who had just arrived.

“I'd better go too," said Sherfel. “I'm supposed to be with Neling's team. She squeezed James's shoulder, and with a murmured "good luck", strode away after Edsen.

Wilford loosened his scarf. “I don't know about you," he said to James, “but I could do with a coffee to get me started. Coming?" He hugged Camrie. “See you at lunch, love."

He and James made their way through the crowd, angling towards the staff canteen where they were greeted by a cloud of steam and a very peculiar odour. Derny lifted a pot off the stove and set it down on a chopping board. Frowning, he prodded at it's contents, absently scratching his head.

“Morning, Derny," said Wilford. He eyed the cluttered worktop curiously. “We can come back later if you're still making breakfast."

“You're welcome to this horrible slop, Wilford," Derny replied, “I wouldn't bother though. Freeze-dried tuber sounded like a great idea but it tastes like wet plaster and I just can't figure the consistency out at all."He brightened up. “Anyhow - what can I do for you and James?"

“I'm just here to grab a coffee," said Wilford. “but James'll be standing in for Jeb this morning."

“Starting at the top are you?" said Derny. He gestured at the two water heaters fixed to the wall. “Those should be boiling by now, urns are on that trolley over there, everything else is in that cupboard to your left. Biggest urn is for coffee, you'll be surprised to hear, other two are for djeng and greenleaf. If you could crack on with that, I'll dump this mess in the bin and clean up. Kettle's all yours, Wilford."

“Thanks." Wilford flicked the kettle on and began rummaging around for a mug. James stared at him expressionlessly, and walked over to the trolley.

By the time Derny put his drying cloth down, steam was rising from the three urns and James was waiting for him, expressionless look still fixed in place. Derny lifted the lid on the coffee urn and sniffed appreciatively. “That'll do it," he announced. “Machine shop first, while it's still fresh, Assembly and Fitting next, then a refill, then Propulsion. The tank teams prefer their coffee with a bit more character, so we'll leave them till later. Could you get the doors? Cheers."

The machine shop was crowded, noisy and redolent of cutting oil, hot metal and overheated kerbals. The smell of hot drinks and the squeak of trolley wheels on concrete still managed to cut through the din with ease. One by one the machines spun down, their operators hanging up their goggles, grabbing a mug from the rack and joining the queue at Derny's trolley.

Bob...Ordrie...Adelan...Richlin...James realised he was staring blankly at the first kerbal in line. “Sorry?"

“Coffee for me please."

“Uh, sure."James took the proffered mug, filled it and handed it back to its owner.

“Thanks, James. Catch you later!"

“A djeng please, James. Is Jeb busy then? Bob handed over his mug. Eyes narrowing, James filled it with the fragrant brew. “Milk?" he managed.

“Not for me." Bob sipped his drink, “Ahhhh, that's a good cup. Thanks, James."

James glanced suspiciously at Bob's cheerfully guileless face. Beside him, Derny was chatting away to Adelan about the previous night's net-ball scores. He blinked, automatically taking the next mug being thrust at him and filling it with coffee.

On their way out, Derny snapped his fingers. “Nearly forgot about Roncott." He swung the trolley round and set off up a narrow corridor of concrete block wall and echoing metal ducts. “Next door on the right, James but for Kerm's sake knock first. I never know what's going on in here."

Cautiously, James rapped on the plain steel door.

“One minute!"

There was a heavy, trolley-shaking thud, followed by a rattle of chains. The door creaked open and a long haired kerbal peered out, face hidden by a heavy welding mask.

“Oh. Hi, James, hi, Derny. Come on in."

James followed him into a long corrugated iron shed. An unwieldy collection of tubing and hydraulic cylinders squatted on a test stand which had been set up at a discreet distance from the door. A large, tattered diagram was taped to the opposite wall and a motley heap of spare parts occupied most of one corner.

“How's the new gadget working out, Roncott?" asked Derny, handing him a mug of greenleaf tea.

Roncott sighed. “Well it's working after a fashion,“ he said, “but it's still far too complicated." He noticed James's curious look and gestured at the test stand. “It's supposed to be a hydraulic separator. In theory it should be more reliable and safer than explosive decoupling." He sipped his tea. “In theory. I've made some improvements to the original design but I'm starting to see why they gave it up as a bad job before Kerbal 1." He looked at James hopefully. “Have you got any ideas?"

Me. What on Kerbin do I know about hydraulics? James shook his head. “Not at the moment," he said carefully, “but I'll have a think." His heart sank at the happy look on Roncott's face.

“That would be great! We should have everything we need here to build any prototypes. Hey, Derny - could I get a top-up before you go?"

Derny looked at James sidelong as they walked back along the narrow corridor. “You could ask around at lunch," he said. “Somebody can probably think of a way to help the poor lad out and I doubt they'd mind if you pinched the odd idea."

The bustling main assembly area provided a welcome distraction. The nearly completed Pioneer 1 capsule nestled snugly in its protective scaffolding. The surrounding bench tops resembled a high technology slaughterhouse, the electronic and mechanical guts of the spacecraft spread out for all to see. Two kerbals were perched on the scaffolding, installing subsystems in the nose assembly. Others were working at the benches or carrying finished components over to the open capsule hatch.

Nearby, another team of workers were busy applying insulation to Pioneer 2's crew compartment, the raw metal and exposed frameworks a stark contrast to Pioneer 1's streamlined exterior. Some distance away, a skeletal cylinder was beginning to take shape, fuel tanks and other systems stacked up on the surrounding storage racks.

Derny tapped James on the shoulder. “I'll do the trolley work here. You'll be wanting to have a look around I expect."

James just nodded, his attention already caught by an immense dish, placed well away from the two capsules. Closer to, it resembled a giant piece of honeycomb, the very centre of which was inexplicably decorated with a shaggy fur disc.

“Resin."

James spun round and found himself face to face with yet another familiar face. Oh come off it. Point made Jeb, point made. No need to wheel out every last kerbonaut on the roster! He blinked. “Sorry - Ribory isn't it?"

Ribory grinned “That's me. And it does look furry doesn't it? More spiky actually - we fill the cells under pressure and the resin tends to spurt out the top. We machine it down of course, before fitting it to the capsule."

“How do you do the filling?"said James curiously.

“By hand," said Ribory, “Well sort of. Electric caulking gun, twin reservoir, fixed stroke."

James knelt down to inspect the heat shield. Kerm - they do all this by hand? He sighed to himself. Better than serving coffee for the next umpteen weeks. “That's still a big job," he offered quietly. “I could lend a hand if you've got a spare gun?"

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

Jerfun stamped the snow off his boots and hung his heavy, fur-lined jacket on the nearest peg. He tossed his gloves onto a chair and hurried through to the sleep room. The Kerm branches overhead rustled listlessly at his approach, leaves hanging limp in the gloom. He shivered, neither the fur mosaics decorating the walls, nor the thick drapes across the window helping to dispel the chill.

“Ambassador."

The sour, layered scent of dried sweat clung to the shapeless figure on the bed. Bloodshot eyes gazed steadily at him from a mound of blankets, matted brown hair so entangled with Kerm leaves that it was impossible to tell where Kerm ended and kerbal began.

“Keeper," he replied, “You have news?"

“Truly, Ambassador."

An unwelcome chill swept through Jerfun. “Tell me."

The figure sagged. “Another Kerm, Ambassador. Near the Valley, perhaps further. It is hard to tell."

“You are sure?"

The eyes glared at him. “Truly. The patterns are recognisable - twisted, mark you - but recognisable. More to the point, the intruder observes and learns. Unless you know of another learning tree on Kerbin, Ambassador?"

“I do not. I mean no offence, Keeper, but I will need to verify this."

The blankets lifted briefly. “Of course, Ambassador. And what then?"

“If you are correct, I see only one possibility," said Jerfun, “Even were I minded to ignore the violation of our borders, my duty is clear." He scowled. “Neither am I inclined to entrust this to the interminable deliberations of Conclave. No, Keeper - if needs must I shall claim the ancient right of all kerbals."

The figure nodded. “Truly, Ambassador. I would join you were I not so...required."

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

The wind howled around the ridge, driving thick flurries of snow before it. Jerfun stopped to tighten the drawstrings on his hood. He reached under the lip of his goggles with one gloved finger, scratched his cheek, and settled them back into place. So much for tracking. His rifle bumped awkwardly against his back. And so much for lugging that around. Any scallan, on this hill or the next, will be den-bound by now.

He scowled. Which means that the nearest caves are probably occupied. Which means that I'm stuck in this Kerm-forsaken snow unless I'm minded to gamble with finding shelter. Which I am not. He looked around to get his bearings then, head down, he plodded on, his skis alternately scraping over packed ice and digging into loose drifts of snow with a knee-jolting jerk. Behind him, the snow was already hiding all traces of his passage.

A large boulder marked a fork in the trail although by now the path ahead in either direction was completely hidden. Jorfun retrieved a handful of trail mix from his pocket and chewed on it thoughtfully, weighing up his options. To the left, the upper slopes of the ridge stretched out before him, bleak and exposed against the skyline. To the right the path narrowed as it wound down and around the side of the hill.

No choice really. Doubt that anybody's watching but the tops will be too exposed anyway in this wind. He bent down and fumbled with his skis, kicking the toes of his boots out of their bindings before lashing the skis together and slinging them over his back. He unhooked a set of crampons from his belt, leaning against the boulder for support as he tied them on. Then he set off down the path, leaning on one ski pole as he went and cautiously probing at the ground with the other.

The deepening snow lay like a bedspread over the village, deadening all sound. Low slung buildings, built from greystone and slate, hugged the valley floor, thick walls impervious to the inclement weather, heavily shuttered windows keeping in the warmth and the light. Terraced rows of dwellings had been dug into the hillside, front doors protected by stout overhanging eaves. Lamp-posts dotted the terraces, their warm yellow light all but swallowed by the billowing flakes tumbling from the leaden sky. Spindly trees dotted the landscape, skeletally thin branches standing stark against the grey.

On the hillside above, Jerfun lay flat on his stomach, sweeping the valley with his binoculars. Thought they looked too regular. She was right - that's a new village for sure. An ugly, blocky, Kolan village to boot. He clenched his jaw Breaking our borders, stealing our land and despoiling what few fields we have!

That last thought brought him up short. Need to prove that first. Although I cannot conceive of a new village without a new Kerm. He panned back across the valley, looking out beyond the village buildings. Then he stopped, fingers tightening in a death grip.

No. She was right about that too. Painstakingly he scoured the valley, searching for more saplings. Twenty six...twenty eight...hirty two...one over there makes thirty three, and three more in a line over there. The binoculars tilted down, focusing on the village. And one last one in the middle.

Jerfun got to his feet. Coldly and deliberately he put his binoculars back in their case, brushed the snow off his jacket and started back up the path.

-----------

James wiped his cloth over the section of composite and peered critically at the oily film it left behind. He pressed the snub-barrelled ultrasound probe against the surface and squeezed the trigger.

A warning buzzer sounded, accompanied by the usual flashing red light. James swore to himself, marked the faulty cell with a vicious swipe of his pen, and moved on to the next one. The buzzer sounded again and James threw down the probe in disgust.

“Ribory! This Kerm blighted probe is on the blink!"

Ribory hurried over. You sure, James? I only calibrated them this morning. Let me try mine." She unhooked a spare probe from her belt and plugged it into James's analyser box. “Coupling film looks OK." She pushed the probe against the panel and pulled the trigger.

Bzzzzzz.

Ribory studied the grainy black and white image on the analyser screen. “Ahh - there's your problem. She pointed at the screen. "Got a bubble in the middle there. Not a big one, but big enough." She gave James a sympathetic look. “Drill time I'm afraid. Don't worry about it - it gets easier with practice." She grinned. “Reckon I wasted at least a year's worth of bad language on the Moho 1 shield, but Eve 1 was OK."

James frowned. “You built your own heat shield?"

Ribory looked at him strangely. “I built - or helped to build - all of them, James, from Moho 1 upward. Why would I skip over Eve 1? Building your own shield certainly keeps your mind focused on the job, I'll grant you that, but building one for your best friend or your boss does that too."

James digested her words. “Must have been reassuring to have the quality control team checking over it," he said at last.

Ribory blinked. “What quality control team?" She waved her ultrasound probe in front of James's face. “Why do you think we're messing about with these? I suppose I could run a probe over your panel once you're done - and if your probe spits out any readings that you're not sure about then give me a shout. Apart from that though." She shrugged, “You're checked out on the gear, your test piece was fine and you know what you're doing. You wouldn't be on the team if I thought I needed to watch over your shoulder the whole time."

A cold lump settled in the pit of James's stomach as Ribory picked up her caulking gun and went back to work. Tommal - he's first in line for Pioneer 2.

He stared unseeingly at the analyser screen picturing the superheated plasma hammering at the ablative resin. Just under the surface, the bubble swells, bursts, weakened fragments of resin torn away by the hypersonic slipstream. More plasma rushing in, carving out larger chunks of heat shield, melting the underlying bulkhead. Tommal's horrified expression as the window buckles, shatters, rips free. The capsule tumbling out of control, breaking up..."

At least I'm not working on the aft shield. Not that it would make much difference.

James swallowed hard, carefully marked the defective cell and picked up his probe.

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

Well now - there's something you don't see too often.

Dondrin stepped out from under the sheltered portico that guarded the entrance to the Capital building. Northern Wakiran ceremonial garb I would say, and very traditional it looks too. He inspected the ornate fur collar more closely. Poor fellow must be melting under all that.

“Good afternoon, Ambassador. Dondrin Kerman, Capital News. May I have a moment of your time?"

Jerfun narrowed his eyes and kept walking. “You may not."

Dondrin blinked. Surly fellow aren't you.

“I have an audience with the Twelve Pillars," Jerfun continued. “Which I intend to put on the public record. For the benefit of all news outlets," he added sardonically. He strode towards the reception desk and, after a brief exchange with the receptionist, marched briskly out of the lobby with Dondrin following at a discreet distance.

Once he'd assured himself that the aloof ambassador was indeed heading for the Council chamber, Dondrin took off for the press gallery at a run. He burst through the door and threw himself into a chair as the Chamber doors thudded shut below. Chief Ambassador Burvis waited at the podium, the remaining Pillars sitting silently around the Council table. Jerfun stood impassively by the door.

“Misters President, mesdames President, honoured chief Ambassadors. We are assembled here today to grant the ancient Right of Conclave. I have answered the petitioner and I deem his request worthy and to be made in sound mind." Burvis inclined her head towards Jerfun, “Let the record note that Ambassador Jerfun stands alone, and that I, Burvis Kermol, beg that the Twelve Pillars give his petition all due consideration and support."

“I now call Jerfun Kermol to the podium."

Burvis took her place at the table, facing the empty podium. Jerfun walked to the front of the room, bowed to the assembled Pillars and stepped up to the lectern. Burvis cleared her throat.

“Do you, Jerfun Kermol, wish to place your petition on the public record?"

“Madame President, I do."

The twelve kerbals at the table sat up a little straighter. One or two of them exchanged brief looks. Up in the press gallery, Dondrin leaned forward intently. Burvis kept her face carefully impassive.

“By order of this Council, a petition so placed shall be deemed accurate and inviolable. Any false statement made therein, whether purposeful or inadvertent, does constitute a betrayal of these Twelve Pillars, punishable consecutively, to the fullest extent possible by law, in each of the Six Regionalities of Kerbin."

“Does now the Petitioner, in full and complete knowledge of the consequences of his actions, wish to place his petition on the public record?"

Jerfun didn't hesitate. “Madame President, I do."

There was a sudden silence. Twelve pairs of eyes stared unblinkingly at Jerfun.

Unseen, Burvis's hands trembled. “Then we beg the Petitioner to speak."

Jerfun bowed. “Madame President, Mesdames President, Misters President, honoured Chief Ambassadors. I, Jerfun Kermol, thank you for granting this Right of Conclave."

He gripped the edge of the lectern. “I claim this right that I may bring the gravest of news to this Council. I For I have witnessed a breach of the sovereign borders of the Regionality of Wakira, and a breach of Grove Law." Jerfun paused. I refer specifically to the Law of Territory..."

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

"Anyway, g'night, guys. Try and get some sleep - Gene'll get nervous if you yawn your way through the countdown."

The door clicked shut, leaving James and Sherfel alone. James stared into the lamplight, his chair creaking as he rocked back and forth. Sherfel scrunched herself deeper into the couch and picked up her book. She stared unseeingly at her page for a long moment and then put it down again. James's head tilted towards her.

"Wonder if anyone else is still awake?"

Sherfel didn't need to ask where. "Jeb will be," she answered. "According to Wilford he never sleeps the night before a flight. Gene too probably and I doubt they're the only ones. What about you, Jim? Restless night ahead?"

James propped his chin on his hands. "If you'd asked me that a couple of months ago... but right now I've got a pretty good feeling about it. I still think Jeb runs a strange crew and they can still be..."

"Haphazard?" suggested Sherfel.

"Infuriating was the word I was looking for." James was silent for a moment. "After working on Tommal's heat shield though - yeah, I don't have any worries about their engineering."

Sherfel laughed softly. "You get used to it don't you?" She chuckled at James's questioning look. "Tommal's heat shield you said, Jim. Not Pioneer 2's."

James looked at her thoughtfully. "I did, didn't I? That personal touch sure makes all the difference though." He shook his head. “That's what their whole program depends on when you get right down to it."

Sherfel rolled her eyes. "I thought pilots were supposed to be observant. You missed the part where every kerbonaut they've launched either works in Mission Control, or builds part of their spacecraft or does something else in the program..."

"Including making coffee and mopping the floors," said James. "That really threw me that first day. Nobody seemed the slightest bit amused - or even surprised - that I was trailing along behind Derny with the coffee trolley."

"Speaking of Derny," said Sherfel, "I think I've finally figured out what to do with his freeze-dried tubers. Remind me to tell him next week."

James grinned. "You get used to that too, don't you? That's one thing I do like about being here - if you've got a problem, you can guarantee that somebody else is working on it too - and won't stop until its fixed. Not that Rockomax is any different of course, but it's something else that feels more personal here." He leaned back in his chair. “Which is probably why I'm not worried about sleeping tonight."

---------

"... and we'll be bringing you more on this story as it develops. This is Capital News at Ten."

Jeb switched off the television and stared wide-eyed at Geneney. "So what do we do now, Genie?"

Geneney ran his fingers through his hair. "I don't know," he said at last, "If this is what they think...it could get ugly, Jeb. Really, really ugly."

"And then some," said Jeb, "It'll be the end of the program, Genie, if things get that bad. Who's going to care about spaceflight if their Groves are going up in flames or down with the Blight, or..." His voice tailed away.

"Oh I think plenty of people will, Jeb," said Geneney grimly. "Except that the rockets won't be going very far - and they won't have capsules on top either."

Jeb sat bolt upright. “Well they can pillage those rockets from some other spaceship parts company," he said flatly. “Decision made, Gene. I'll ring Ademone now. If Rockomax are still in, we call a general meeting first thing tomorrow morning. Anybody that wants to go back to their Groves, or bail out for any other reason, goes with our sincere thanks and best wishes. If enough of the team are left - we launch! Too bad we never got to build the lander but If this ends up being our final flight, then lets give them all a glimpse of what should have been."

Edited by KSK

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A Voyage for the Ages

Apart from the last minute furore, thought Wernher, the launch preparations had been surprisingly similar to Kerbal 2. The lines of KIS members outside the warehouse to see them off; the ride to the Space Centre in Ornie's truck; climbing onto the back of the truck out of sight of the crowds; waving to those same crowds as they drove past the stands and out to the launch pad.

And here I am again, standing on the gantry outside a three kerbal capsule, waiting for Bob to give the word.

He stared down over the gantry rail at Pioneer 1's gleaming white flanks, which as usual were resplendent with sponsor's logos. From this height, only the chunky blue R and stylised silver engine nozzle of Rockomax's new logo were visible, proudly emblazoned on each lateral booster. The remaining letters and the tail end of their “Think Better - Think Bigger!" slogan were hidden by perspective and distance. Far below that the engines waited.

In the distance, the Space Centre buildings stood silhouetted against the cloudless morning sky. Sunlight twinkled off the corrugated steel cladding of the Vehicle Assembly Building, squat and blocky at the end of the newly laid strip of asphalt linking it to the launch pad. The pad itself was deathly silent. By now, most of the engineers were safely ensconced within the launch bunker, and even the flocks of birds that usually made the gantries their home were nowhere to be seen, or heard.

I wonder if they know something I don't.

The ring of work boots on steel brought him back to the present, as Bob climbed out of the hatch and joined him by the rail. The rest of the pad team stood back at a respectful distance. For a moment the two friends gazed silently across the deserted launch site.

Bob cleared his throat, “Wernher?"

Wernher gestured at the nose cone far beneath them. “There are three LV-T20s down there, Bob. The breakthrough that launched Jeb into orbit and we'll be discarding them less than three minutes into the flight." The chief engineer stared down at the distant launch pad. “You know the LV-T30 is more powerful than the entire Moho stack?"

Bob nodded patiently. “And Pioneer needs three of them just to get off the ground. I know, Wernher." He grinned at a sudden memory, “I'd rather be sitting on top of three LV-T30s than one LV-15 and a pile of Trashcans though."

Wernher snorted. “Indeed." He shook his head. “Dear Kerm - what were we thinking? Putting you, Bill, and Jeb inside that contraption."

Bob squeezed his shoulder. “Or you, Lucan, and Gene, for that matter." He tapped his headset. “Jim and Sherf are all set, Wernher. Time to go join them."

Wernher nodded resolutely, handed his spacesuit helmet to Bob, and strode over to the open hatch. Gripping the hand rails tightly, he swung himself down into the capsule, manoeuvring his bulky spacesuit through the narrow gap. Sherfel grinned at him through her transparent helmet. James turned his head, nodded briefly, then turned his attention back to the instrument panel.

As soon as he'd settled into his acceleration couch, Bob climbed into the capsule after him. Wernher watched him work, quietly shifting from side to side in his seat to let him reach all the assorted ports, plugs and sockets of the life-support and communication systems. He grunted as Bob tightened the couch harness, checking that the straps were all lying flat. Satisfied, Bob lifted Wernher's helmet into place, and locked it in place against the neck ring of his suit. He rapped on the transparent bubble for luck, flashed Wernher a quick grin, and plugged his headset into the auxiliary comms port on the side of capsule instrument panel.

“You're looking good, folks. Wave at the Mün for me, and we'll see you all back here next week."

“We'll write you a postcard, Bob," said Sherfel cheerfully, “Can't guarantee it'll get to you before we get home though."

Bob laughed. “Sending it Pioneer class will be fine," he said, “I'm closing the hatch now. Good luck."

The hatch swung shut and locked with a clunk. Wernher switched his headset on and surveyed the the profusion of switches, buttons, dials and other readouts laid out in front of him. Defining a logical structure and arrangement for the myriad controls had been the hardest part of designing the Eve capsule that Pioneer was based on. Even so, Wernher thought, the pilots and the capsule systems team managed to hammer out the basic layout remarkably quickly. Another point in favour of Jeb's management style.

He stretched his legs out, nodding in satisfaction as his boots hit the capsule bulkhead. Good legroom. Compared to Kerbal 2 at any rate. A sudden draft from the capsule fans riffled the pages of his checklist book, as the environmental systems kicked in, purging the cabin atmosphere and replacing it with a flight ready, oxygen-nitrogen mix.

He clicked his microphone on. “Flight, Pioneer 1. Purge complete, atmosphere composition is good. Monitoring capsule pressure."

Gene's voice was as matter-of-fact as always. “Copy, Wernher. CapSys reports clean contact on all hatch bolts - please confirm."

Wernher's eyes flicked to the hatch and back to the control panel. “Confirmed, Flight."

“Thanks, Wernher. Sherfel, please go to Loop Two and give me a Go/No-Go on the SAS and guidance platform."

At the commander's station, set after set of warning lights flashed up on James's indicator panel. Wernher saw his lips moving behind his bubble helmet as he paged through his checklist. The main air to ground loop cut in with a burst of static.

“Advisory panels one through three are good, Flight. Standing by for pre-staging and abort-to-orbit checks."

“Understood, Pioneer," Geneney replied. “Wernher, please go to Loop Three, and confirm engine telemetry status. CapSys is on-loop."

“Copy, Flight."

Bob's voice broke in over the main loop. “Capsule pressure is Go, Flight. Pad team proceeding with boost cover closure."

“Thank you, Pad Team."

Page by page, the Pioneer 1 commander and navigator worked though their checklists, whilst Wernher monitored the booster status indicators. The capsule was quiet, his acceleration couch had moulded itself comfortably around his suit, and the droning fans of the environmental system were almost soporific.

Wernher shook his head sharply, hoping that Sherfel and James hadn't seen him. I'm sure Jeb would be highly amused if I fell asleep atop of a fully fuelled Mün rocket, but I doubt that my two colleagues here would be too impressed. Nor Gene for that matter.

“Pioneer 1, Flight. CapSys says we're Go for the reentry battery test."

Wernher sighed inwardly at the undercurrent of dry amusement in Gene's voice. The joy of suits with medical sensors.

“Understood, Flight," he replied. “Buses A and B transferred to batteries. Ready for external power off."

The fans stuttered, and the capsule lighting flickered briefly before settling down again. Wernher scanned his system readouts - beside him, James and Sherfel checked their own sections of the control panel. All three kerbonauts reported a successful test.

“We see it too, Pioneer. Reconnecting external power. Guidance is ready for the SME gimbal test."

Wernher flipped a pair of switches, disconnecting the reentry batteries from the capsule power systems, turned to the Service Module Engine panel and threw another set of switches.

“Gimbal motors drawing power. Confirm hand controllers to TEST?"

James gripped the two controllers. “Controllers to TEST, SAS override ON." He carefully tested their range of movement, watching his nav-ball tilt and roll in response. After each deflection, he waited whilst Pioneer 1's onboard computer attempted to re-centre the gimbals.

“Yaw gimbal tracking confirmed...pitch tracking is good...roll tracking confirmed."

“Copy, Pioneer," said Geneney. “OK guys, break until KDS confirmation from Foxham. Moving gantry systems to standby and holding countdown at T minus thirty minutes."

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

Geneney drummed his fingers on the edge of his console, willing the phone to ring. Around him, fidgeting flight controllers flicked through logbooks and swung back and forth on their chairs, sneaking surreptitious glances at his console. The open communication loop to Pioneer 1 filled the room with a faint hiss of static, the crew as quiet as their controllers. Above their heads, the countdown clock was poised at T minus thirty minutes.

A controller coughed. Geneney paged his headset from one loop to the next, eventually settling on the public link from the KBS commentary box. Leland was busy running through the countdown, explaining the current hold to the crowds in the stands and, Geneney noted, describing the Rockomax payload as a docking target.We did a good job keeping this flight quiet but Leland is pretty sharp. Maybe he's just playing along. He clicked his headset back onto the air-to-ground loop. Still nothing from the capsule unless you count heavy breathing. He switched over to the Life Support console.

“Life Support, Flight. Everything OK in there, Ribory?"

“They're fine, Flight. Picking up elevated heartbeat readings for Wernher - nothing serious - but the other two could be tucked up in bed."

“Yeah, Jim and Sherf are pretty level headed. Keep an eye on Wernher though - he'll be fretting about his engines. Thanks, Ribory."

“No problem, Flight."

A shrill jangle jerked everyone's attention back to their consoles. Heart hammering, Geneney picked up the phone.

“Barkton Control. Gene here. Yes, we wondered what the delay was. No open tickets now, though? Understood - we'll hold until then and pick up our countdown at T minus thirty. Thanks, Nelton - Barkton Control out."

He raised his voice above the sudden babble from the consoles. “We're up, people! Flight Dynamics, Guidance, you're on Loop 2 - lets get that trajectory data updated! Booster, give me a fuelling status! CapSys, we'll be picking up RCS and SME pressurisation in twenty two minutes!"

Geneney clicked his microphone on. “Pioneer 1, Flight." He paused. “KDS-1 is on orbit, and waiting for a driver. We're Go for countdown restart at T minus thirty."

At the life support console, Ribory watched Wernher's pulse rate jump.

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

“RCS and SME pressurisation confirmed, Flight!" Wernher called. “Bringing service module batteries online."

“Copy that, Pioneer. APU disconnect, Go."

Wernher scanned his instruments and glanced up at James and Sherfel. Both nodded. “Looking good, Flight. Capsule on internal power."

“Copy, Pioneer. Pad Team, are you clear?"

“Clear, Flight. Gantry systems at launch positions."

“Understood, Pad Team. Flight Team, status report please. FD?"

Lucan's voice caught in his throat.“We're Go, Flight."

“Guidance?"

“Go, Flight!"

“Booster?"

“Ready, Flight!"

Aboard Pioneer 1, Wernher's blood pounded in his ears. Sherfel lifted both hands from her couch, palms facing out. Wernher and James slapped their gloves into hers.

“Spacecraft?"

“GO!"

Now, even Geneney's voice was on edge. “Booster on internal power. First stage gimbals, Go. Primary and backup controllers, Go. Clear for engine start."

Wernher's eyes were fixed on the engine readout panel. He nodded tersely as the final status reports came over the air, thoughts racing over the engine schematics, trying to remember the slightest problem during manufacture.

“Sixty seconds, Pioneer. Guidance is internal. Auto-sequencer, Go."

Ludicrously, it occurred to Wernher that none of them had sent a launch message for the crowd. Leland will take care of it. He's heard enough of them by now.

“Forty seconds, Pioneer. Go for launch."

“T minus thirty."

Wernher swallowed hard, sweat beading on his brow.

“T minus twenty."

His mind was back at the main test stand, LV-T30 fixed in place, a complex assembly of pipes, valves and turbo-pumps that suddenly seemed far too fragile for what was about to be asked of them.

“T minus twelve...eleven...ten...nine...eight..."

Ignition sequence starts.

“Six...five...four..."

The six first stage engines lit with an earsplitting roar, almost drowning out Geneney's voice. Green lights flicked on across the control panel, the entire rocket shaking with barely leashed fury.

“Two...one...and Liftoff! All engines running!"

“Clock started!"

“Tower clear!"

The engines thundered out a throbbing two tone disharmony; the deep bellow of the LV-T30s beating against the higher pitched bass growl of the smaller LV-T20s. Inside the capsule, Wernher lay flat on his back, swaddled in a discordant, shrieking cocoon of sound.

Now this is what I call a rocket ship!

His head sank back into his acceleration couch, eyes still level with the control panel, which was reassuringly free of warning lights, despite the shaking.

And I can still see the instruments.

Above his head something began to rattle. The broad grin on his face slipped a notch and he reflexively searched the capsule for loose equipment. Then the engine noise abruptly shifted pitch, before everything went suddenly quiet. James's unperturbed voice filled his ears.

"Flight, Pioneer 1. Vehicle is supersonic, lateral boosters throttled back."

"Copy, Pioneer. We read you through max Q. Guidance is green, pitch and roll is Go."

Wernher heard the couch frame creak and grunted under the growing weight on his chest, squinting at the blurred displays on the vibrating instrument panel. The flight clock clicked past the two minute mark, and he slowly lifted one arm, fighting to hold it steady against the g forces, finger aimed at the LB-JETT button.

"Decouplers A through C armed. Go for T20 shutdown and detach."

The LV-T20s flamed out. Wernher's stomach lurched as the sudden drop in acceleration flung him against his harness. Three lights blinked out in front of him, a curiously muffled bang marking the departure of the lateral boosters. Relieved, Wernher let his arm drop back onto his couch. The capsule was still shaking but now the vibrations were smoother, a deep seated, soothing rumble replacing than the bone jarring discord of launch. A distant part of his mind noticed that the mysterious rattling hadn't returned, and was glad.

The velocity and altitude displays on the instrument panel raced upwards. Wernher felt his weight shift, harness straps pulling on his shoulders as Pioneer 1 gradually heeled over along its pre-programmed flight path. Then his heart soared at the sudden announcement from Mission Control.

"Thirty-six kilometres. Pioneer 1 - your trajectory and guidance are Go!"

If James was surprised at the unexpected altitude check, it didn't show in his voice. "Flight, Pioneer 1. Go, at thirty-six kilometres." Out of the corner of her eye, Sherfel saw Wernher's head jerk upwards. She glanced at him and smiled at his exultant expression.

Shadows slowly drifted over the Kerbal 2as it coasted onwards, lit from beneath by the bright glow of Kerbin's atmosphere. It rocked slightly as it reached the top of its thirty-five kilometre high arc and started the long descent. Wernher could hear a gradually increasing thrumming noise from outside the capsule as it dropped back into thicker air.

“Not today we don't"

Wernher snapped out of his reverie thankful that neither the rest of the crew, nor Mission Control chose to comment on his outburst. Flushing, he checked the instrument panel, nodding in satisfaction as he keyed his microphone.

"Flight, Pioneer 1. Tank pressures nominal, upper stage chilldown started."

"Copy, Pioneer. Decoupler D armed. Go, for staging."

The main engines shut down, sending waves of flame rolling up the booster. Seconds later, the spent first stage and interstage detached and tumbled slowly away.

"Second stage ignition confirmed!"

Pioneer 1 exploded out of the fire, accelerating hard on its way to orbit.

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

"KDS-1 acquired. Range five-zero dot two kilometres and closing. Requesting braking burn check."

Heart still pounding with adrenalin, Wernher forced himself to breath in through his nose. Raw, unfiltered sunlight washed through the capsule side window and over the legs of his spacesuit. The view through the smaller rendezvous window above his head was a uniform inky black, and for a moment he wished he was in James's seat and able to snatch a glimpse of Kerbin outside. Experimentally, he lifted his arm and grinned in delight as it hung effortlessly in front of him.

"Good burn, Pioneer. Go for plane alignment at FET five four dot three zero."

Wernher glanced at the flight clock, currently showing a flight elapsed time of just over eighteen minutes. Solenoids thumped open and the sunlight drifted slowly over his legs as James manoeuvred Pioneer 1 into position.

Plane matching on the first orbit. These guys aren't just good in a simulator. Suits me - the quicker we hook up with the departure stage the better.

Pioneer 1's thrusters spat a long burst of fire, tilting it's orbital plane by a tiny fraction. Shorter bursts of flame tipped it back over, pointing its nose along its direction of flight and aiming it squarely at a shining point of light in the distance. The point drifted closer, first becoming a disc and then gradually resolving itself into a slender, gleaming tube. Pioneer 1 slowed, thrusters flickering as they delicately edged the capsule into position.

“Pioneer 1, Flight. Go for docking."

James nudged his hand controllers. Outside the window, the immense silver tube drifted towards them. There was a faint bump, followed by the staccato rattle of docking clamps slamming shut. Readouts lit up across the instrument panel and James sighed with relief.

“Flight, Pioneer 1. Hard dock and connection to KDS systems confirmed." He toggled his headset to their private communication loop.

“OK, we've got two orbits in our TMI window. Plenty of time, so lets take it steady and do this right first time."

Sherfel nodded, fingers tapping away at the flight computer keyboard. Wernher grunted in reply, already busy at the engineering station. Satisfied, James turned to his own section of the instrument panel and flipped his checklist over to the next page.

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

Wernher looked up from his instruments and glanced at his fellow crew members. Sherfel stared straight ahead through the rendezvous windows. James glanced back at him and nodded fractionally. For a moment, there was silence, each kerbonaut all too aware of what that silence meant. Then Wernher cleared his throat.

"Everything looks good from here."

"Guidance platform is Go," replied Sherfel quietly.

James simply leaned forward and clicked a single switch. "Flight, Pioneer 1. Our board is green; requesting telemetry check."

The response from Mission Control was similarly subdued. "Understood, Pioneer. Stand by."

Everyone in the bunker silently watched Geneney push back his chair and beckon Jeb over to the console. He stood up, took off his headset and handed it over.

"This one's all yours, Flight."

Jeb raised one eyebrow. Geneney just dipped his head and deliberately stepped back from his console. Jeb nodded in quiet thanks, and took his place.

"Pioneer, this is Jeb. We copy your board is green. Standing by for controller checks."

Aboard, Pioneer 1, James ground his teeth in frustration. This is really not the time for more KIS surprises.. He looked over at Wernher, and was surprised to see the engineer staring calmly back at him. As if he'd been expecting this all along?

Jeb gazed slowly around Mission Control, locking eyes briefly with each controller. One by one, each of them raised a thumb. He braced himself, made a note on Geneney's flight log, and clicked his microphone on.

"OK, Pioneer, I've got a roomful of kerbals here telling me you're looking good." Jeb paused, shifting into Geneney's formal flight director's tones.

"Pioneer 1, you are Go for TMI."

"Copy, Flight. Go for TMI. KDS ignition in twelve minutes and counting."

Jeb began to work the flight director's console, pulling up engine telemetry in preparation for the long burn out of Kerbin orbit. Behind him, Geneney wasn't at all surprised by the two ink-rimmed blotches spattered across the page of his logbook.

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

"Eight dot two kps. KDS tank pressures holding steady, guidance is nominal. Clear telemetry links through primary and backup channels."

"Pioneer copies, Flight."

Fercan looked up from her terminal, frowned briefly, and returned to the lines of code filling the screen. She tapped a key, waited a moment for the compiler to run, and then swore under her breath at the screenful of error messages. It'd be quicker to re-write this myself than spend any more time untangling this mess. Yeah, yeah, keep it compact, but overflow loops in this day and age? Give me strength! Someone should tell Corvan to comment this junk, too.

"Ten dot one kps. Ten dot two, Ten dot... and shutdown! We're running the numbers, Pioneer but that looks like a good burn."

Fercan's head jerked towards the radio. Ten point two kilometres per second? What the...? Her fingers rattled across the keyboard, clearing the compiler report and starting up an orbit analysis program. OK, assume a circular starting orbit, call it three hundred kilometres, final velocity, ten thousand two hundred metres per second."Her eyes widened. That can't be right. That apoapsis would put them way beyond...Oh sweet Kerm." She grabbed the phone and dialled Corvan's number, fingers stumbling over each other in her haste.

“Beta Station. Corvan here."

“Corvan - it's Fercan! Are you following this?"

“Fraid not, Fercan," said Corvan glumly, “Yeh know how it works during a flight - tracking stations are full of Rockomax or KIS controllers."

“Have you not got a radio?"

“Aye, but I switched it off," replied Corvan, “Sounded like that KBS fella had it right - just another docking and rendezvous practice."

“Corvan - I think they finally got around to joining stuff to the capsules in orbit."

Corvan's voice was suddenly, studiously casual. “Oh aye? What d'yeh reckon they stuck on it?"

“Another rocket," said Fercan simply, “Unless you can think of any other way they could boost up to ten kps."

“What?!"

“No joke," said Fercan, “I'm going to rough out a trajectory before calling him, but I think the Director needs to know about this."

“Och, come on," said Corvan, “There's only one place they're going."

“I know," said Fercan softly, “Still want the rough numbers before going to Lodan though. We've got their final speed, launch time, and when they started the burn. That should be enough to tell us whether we're both reading too much into this."

“Hmph. Time to call in that favour from Germore's team I reckon. A bit of time on their dish should help you firm up those numbers."

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

Fercan stared at the plots on her screen. Too many unknowns for a proper calculation, but yeah - there's only one place they're going. She grinned, as she picked up the phone and started to dial. And I've wanted to do this for a long, long time!

The phone rang.

“Lodan."

“Fercan here, Director. We're tracking an outbound spacecraft from low Kerbin orbit."

Lodan sat up straight. “Outbound?"

“Yessir. Trans-Munar trajectory." A pause. “We're picking up voice comms, sir - it's Pioneer 1."

Lodan took a deep breath. “Thank you, Fercan. I shall be down at Tracking shortly. Please keep me informed of any developments in the meantime."

“Absolutely, sir!"

The phone dropped onto its cradle with a faint click. Lodan looked at it curiously for a second then slammed both fists down onto his desk.

“Dammit, Ademone! I gave you that funding to keep those KIS idiots in check: stop them pulling any more damn-fool stunts!"

The waste paper basket ricocheted off the wall, scattering its contents across the carpet. Lodan threw himself back in his chair, making it creak in protest, “I hope to all the Kerm that you bring your ship of happy fools home in one piece, Ademone! Kerbin needs this program and sending three corpses around the Mun is not going to help!"

---------

Leland frowned. Why switch flight directors before a burn? That doesn't make any sense. He watched all the controllers slowly give Jeb the thumbs up. And neither does that. What on Kerbin is going on here?

“Pioneer 1, you are Go for TMI."

Leland frowned. Something about that sounded familiar. Then his jaw dropped. He shoved his microphone at his astonished camera operator and bolted for the press room door.

“Get this, Don! If you love your job, get every last minute of this!"

The press room was empty: no smell of day old coffee from the stove, nobody asleep on the threadbare couches, nobody on the phones or sitting writing up their articles. Leland hurled himself across the room, grabbed the nearest phone and punched in a number.

The phone rang.

“KBS News. Jonbo here."

“Jon - it's Leland! No time to talk - need to get back to Mission Control, but I'm gonna need a second crew here! And send another one over to Foxham - get them to Rockomax before anybody else does! And a research team on those kerbonauts - we'll want the family interest angle!"

Jonbo's voice sounded dangerously calm. “And why would I want to do that, Leland? You don't think that maybe, just maybe, we've got other news to cover right now?"

“Jon - have you been watching my broadcast? Didn't you hear what Jeb said?!" Leland's voice cracked. “We've got a hero story here, Jon - and that's exactly what everyone needs right now!"

Jonbo sighed. “I'm watching you, Leland, but for one damn moment, just pretend that I haven't been following the space program, and that I have no idea what Jebediah was talking about. It shouldn't be too hard. Now for the love of your mother's Grove, will you please tell me what on Kerbin is going on?"

“That's just the point, Jon. This isn't anything to do with Kerbin." Leland paused. “TMI. Trans-Munar Injection. The Mün, Jon - they're going to the Mün."

Edited by KSK

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