KSK

First Flight (Chapter 98 - Written in the Starlight)

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5 hours ago, superstrijder15 said:

The realization hits hard, doesn't it?

Tell me about it. :) 

I give myself a solid 10/10 for perseverance and a big fat 0/10 for managing feature creep. :wink: 

Edited by KSK

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I saw this first when the newest chapter was "the thin red line."  At that point, I binge-read whenever I could, and got caught up within a few weeks, even to the chapters that came between the first sight and then.  So much has changed, but the questions raised this have not.  This sounded like a deeper statement in my head.  Keep up this great work, even though I probably said that quite a few times.

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Only just hopped on to reading this like yesterday or the day before. At page 27 or so but its very good so far. Also realize this thread has been quite quiet for a while.....

Edited by qzgy

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34 minutes ago, qzgy said:

Only just hopped on to reading this like yesterday or the day before. At page 27 or so but its very good so far. Also realize this thread has been quite quiet for a while.....

*stares meaningfully at @KSK ಠ_ಠ*

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Yep - this story has been a bit of a swan lately. Not much happening on the surface but much furious paddling beneath the waterline.

I had hoped to have a quadruple bill of new material ready for last weekend but real life dealt me another curveball, so that didn't happen. However I've been talking plenty of the talk over on the writers-talking-about-writing thread, so I figure its about time I started walking the walk again.

How does a triple bill this weekend and (touch wood) a fourth chapter soon thereafter sound? :)

 

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Right then - let's get this party started. Besides - there's only so long a man can take a meaningful stare if he knows what's good for him. :)

Next chapter is (finally) up.

 

 Grass Roots

Joemy stacked the last crate of produce on its pallet and checked that the marking on its corner was firmly stuck down. Behind him, a pressure washer started up with a hissing roar, sluicing an evil-looking slurry of decomposing plant matter out of the back of the refrigerated trailer parked in its inspection bay. The aseptic tang of hot sterilising fluid joined the fetid stench of rotting greenleaf, making Joemy cough. Pulling his mask up over his nose, he checked off the cargo on his order tracking form and looked around for the truck driver he and his team were helping.

Another white car marked with the paintbrush-and-tree-stump logo of the White Cross Company was parked in the next inspection bay next to a larger trailer, wisps of vapour wreathing its back doors. Joemy watched a pair of boiler-suited figures, one of them with her hair scrunched up under a blue plastic cap, unloading a crate of greenleaf and mentally wished them luck with the cleaning up. Behind them, another truck rumbled out of its bay, another one taking its place almost immediately.

Outside, the queue stretched down the road and out of sight. Joemy noticed several smaller vehicles dotted in amongst the big trailers and nodded to himself in satisfaction.

“Ah, there you are. Everything checked off?” Joemy spun round to face an elderly kermol dressed in a traditional poncho.

“Everything’s repacked and tagged,” he answered, handing the other a clipboard. “Could you sign here please, by your company name and…”

“Company name, the kerbal says. That’s just the name of my farm, son. Ain’t big enough to bother any of the big haulers with - I just hire a truck come harvest and move it all myself.” A wiry, corded arm waved at the row of vegetable pallets. “This lot’s all second pickings - we sell the best stuff right at the gate. Finest greenleaf for kilometres around.” The farmer shot Joemy an appraising look. “Tranquility Shores, Melfrey’s - all the fancy sea-view restaurants. All of ‘em send their vegetable chefs out to us.”

“I’ll be sure to remember that,” said Joemy. He smiled. “Not that I’ll be eating at Melfrey’s anytime soon, I’m sure. One last thing, sir - if you could make sure all the marked crates stay marked until they get to Bolfactad, we’d appreciate it.”

“For quality control?” The farmer nodded sagely. “Heard all about that from a couple of the other smallholders round my way. Not a problem, son.” A movement by his trailer caught his eye and he turned his head to watch one of Joemy’s team passing a compact piece of equipment out to her colleague before winding up a reel of hose. He peered at the collapsed plastic sacks strapped against its sides and scratched his head. “I’m guessing that would be your compressor? Never seen one like that.”

Joemy grinned. “You wouldn’t have. Our office is on the next unit along from the old KIS assembly building, back when we… uh they, were working out of Jeb’s place. We got a couple of their engineers to put something together for us. Completely portable, water sacks on the side don’t carry enough water to flush out a trailer in one go, so we carry enough spares to make sure the job’s done properly. Battery powered, pressurised by compressed air stored in a surplus thruster propellant tank, heated with a couple of propellant line heaters from the same thruster. Or so they told me anyway.”

The farmer gave him a crooked look. “Or so they told you. It wasn’t your old rocket ship they borrowed all their bits and bobs from by any chance?” He saw the expression on Joemy’s face and chuckled. “Thought I recognised you from somewhere, son. Got a good memory for faces still, even if that’s about all it’s good for. So tell me - which rocket did you fly? And what in the name of my old mother’s Grove is a kerbonaut doing out here sorting through greenleaf bushes?”

“Moho Six,” said Joemy quietly. “Orbital rendezvous with Richlin aboard Moho Five. Didn’t manage to get onto the roster for any of the Pioneer flights, so I figured I’d move sideways a way and go into engineering full time.”

The farmer nodded. “I do remember that one. All the folks on the news talking about you sending up two rockets at once and wondering whether you’d pull it off.” He frowned. “Not that there’s been much about rockets in the news lately. You all are still planning to take us to Duna aren’t you?”

“We’re working it,” said Joemy, trying his best to sound cheerful, “but it’s a big operation. Lots of stuff to build and test first before we can think about sending kerbals out there.”

“Well you’d better get a move on. President Obrick had it right, I reckon.” The farmer made as if to spit but thought better of it. “Kerm crisis he said - well that’s what I’d call it too and it’s going from bad to even worse. Seems there ain’t going to be enough room for all of them trees down here, so we need to get busy shipping some of them off to the next planet over. Not that I’d fancy the farming up there - going to take a Kerm or three to turn that orange dust into anything like soil.”

Joemy looked at the old kerbal incredulously. “I wish it were that…” A thoughtful expression crossed his face. “Although…” He moved in a little closer and lowered his voice. “Between you and me, sir, we’re having the same problems that you are. Food going out to the factories, rocket parts coming back from the factories - everything’s taking too long to shift and it’s slowing us right down. That’s if we can get the parts made at all - government money has mostly dried up because of the fighting.”

The other scowled. “So what’re you wasting your time for packing greenleaf, son? I remember when you lot were just starting out. Building all your own gear and folks falling over themselves to help. Engineer like you should be back at those factories lending a hand.”

“Because we’re going to need more than that.” said Joemy quietly, wondering at the farmer’s suddenly intent expression. “Hard for people to build spaceships if they’re worried about feeding their families. We started the White Cross Company to fix that for them.”

“But now we need more,” the farmer echoed. “Reckon that’s another thing that the President got right. Engineers and agronomists, young and old, kerman and kermol. I ain’t no agronomist but, sure as luffas sit by the sea, I’m a kermol. And I’m thinking it wouldn’t take so many wagons of greens and beans to feed all your rocket engineers and their families.” He gave Joemy a toothy grin. “We wouldn’t be feeding them on greenleaf soup, son - don’t look so worried. I’m not the only fella round our way wondering what happened to the rockets and plenty of us have had it up to here with the blighted inspections.” This time the farmer did spit. “You help us get the trucks past those seffleks, son, and we’ll make sure your engineers get what they need. Can’t promise them any meat but beans and mushrooms never hurt a kerbal and they’ll fill you up just fine.”

—————

Geneney steered around a pothole in the road and, muttering imprecations to himself, pulled up at the set of bollards blocking the road into the factory grounds. A uniformed guard emerged from his booth and approached them, three security passes clutched in his hand, lanyards spilling over his fist. Geneney climbed out of his car, closely followed by Jeb and Lucan. The guard eyed them at length, eyes flicking back and forth between their faces and the laminated photographs in his hand Lucan frowned for a second then relaxed at the sight of Jeb and Geneney's blandly polite expressions.

"Your security passes, sirs. Please wear them at all times whilst on the premises. Guest parking is on the right, bay five has been reserved for you. If you could stay by the car, somebody will be down for you shortly." The guard flashed Jeb an apologetic look before retreating to his booth and flipping a switch on his desk. The bollards sank into the road with a muted whine. 

"Let's do as the good kerbal said then," Jeb slipped his pass over his neck and climbed back into the car. Geneney twitched his eyebrows at Lucan, who managed to hide his confusion behind an impassive stare. Check your repeaters and keep quiet...? His gaze flicked across to a sudden movement from the booth roof and the confusion turned to chagrin. Oh. Receiving you loud and clear, boss. Pulling his own pass over his head, Lucan got into the car and jerked the door shut.

"Careful with that," Geneney said without rancour. "Too many inspections, remember?"

"Sorry," Lucan buckled his seatbelt. "Cameras at the gate? Seriously?"

"That's what I saw," agreed Jeb.

"Well it explains why the guard was keeping himself to himself. I figured he wouldn't recognise me or Gene but I thought the first kerbal on the Mün might get a bit more attention."

Jeb shrugged. "Compared to the blocks of wood they employ at the inspection points he was downright chatty." He exchanged a look with Geneney. "It does make me wonder what Stratus are up to though."

Geneney gave a non-committal grunt and started his car. Lucan frowned at the half-empty car park as they drove past and turned right into the, almost deserted, guest parking spaces. Geneney swung into bay 5 and switched off the motor. They waited in silence, each wrapped in his own thoughts, Lucan staring at the factory building ahead of them. He was about to suggest going back to the security post and asking the guard to check whether anyone was actually been sent to meet them, when the door to Reception opened and a familiar looking figure strode towards them. Jeb nodded in satisfaction and unbuckled his seatbelt.

"Afternoon, Halnie."

He was answered by a warm smile. "Hi, Jeb. Hi, Gene - good to see you again. Hi, Lucan." Halnie's eyes dropped to the security passes around their necks. "Sorry - force of habit. How was the journey?"

"It went," said Geneney. "Inspections were no worse than usual." He shook Halnie's hand, noting the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and the skin drawn over her cheekbones. "You're looking well, Halnie."

"Well it's good of you to say so," said Halnie dryly. "Come on inside - we shouldn't keep Thomplin or Shervin waiting."

"Shervin? I thought he was due to retire?"

Halnie shook her head. "There was... a change of plan," she said. "He was kept on to personally manage a number of new clients." She glanced at Jeb. "As part of that, he was also promoted to vice-chair of the Board. Whatever you're trying to sell us, he'll have the final say on it."

Jeb nodded. "Appreciate you setting this up for us, Halnie. How's Thomplin doing, by the way?"

"Still with us," said Halnie with a smile. "and recently sent upstairs to be our VP of sales and marketing. He'll be in the meeting too." She led everyone through the Reception area and up a flight of stairs, leading to a long corridor with large safety glass windows along one side that overlooked the factory floor. Lucan craned his neck trying to get a better view but couldn't make out any details beyond the factory machinery and a row of kerbals with their backs to him working at one of the production lines 

"It looks quiet down there," he commented.

"We're only fully open three days a week at the moment," said Halnie. Lucan saw the sudden tension in her shoulders. "The space program contract is on hold as you know, and the rest of our business has been having the same problems as everyone else with the inspections."

"What about those new clients?" Jeb asked casually. 

"We value their continued custom and they appreciate our efforts on their behalf in these difficult times." Halnie led them through an archway before zipping her pass through a keypad on the opposite wall. A door unlocked with a faint snick and she held it open. "After you, good kerbals."

Lucan stepped through into a carpeted corridor, a row of dark wooden doors leading off in either direction, each sporting a small brass plate. At the end of the corridor a cluster of leather armchairs had been arranged around a low table, scattered with journals and magazines. Framed certificates and photographs lined the walls and Lucan was startled to see one picture of a group of kerbals, including a rather younger Jeb, Geneney and Halnie, all posing by a partially completed Moho upper stage.

"Conference room is the second on the left," said Halnie. "Coffee should have arrived by now, so please go in and make yourselves comfortable."

Much to Lucan's surprise, the coffee table sported a selection of bottled soft drinks, including a high quality brand of smoky sapwood. He popped the top off a bottle and poured the contents into a glass, sniffing appreciatively at the released aroma of peat-and-woodsmoke.

"Always good to meet an engineer with taste." Lucan looked up to see a silver-haired kerbal decanting a second bottle into a glass. He waited for the other to take a sip of his drink and set it aside, before offering his hand. 

"Shervin. It's been too long."

"A long time since the old Moho days," Shervin agreed. "What's Jeb got up his sleeve this time?" He snorted at Lucan's raised eyebrows. "Don't give me that. The last time Thomplin got a call out of the blue from that scoundrel, it was to invite us down to Barkton to watch him being shot into space. This time he has the nerve to request a private meeting with, and I quote, 'an appropriate decision maker'. He's up to something."

Lucan nodded. "He is. Although from what I saw on the way up, it should benefit both of us."

"That's what he said the last time too." Shervin retrieved his glass. "Although, in fairness, he was right. The kerbal won't have any luck begging any more free tanks off us though, I can tell you that now. Hey now - take it easy."

"Sorry." Lucan's voice was strangled. "Sapwood went down the wrong way is all." Coughing, he reached for a napkin to blot his jacket sleeve. "Ow, that woodsmoke is hard on the lungs."

"Just like the real thing," said Shervin. "You all right now?" At Lucan's answering nod, he strode over to the conference table. "Right. Let's get started. Bring your drink over and take a seat." He waited for everyone to settle themselves before tapping on the table. "We're all busy people, so I'll get straight to the point. I understand that you good kerbals have a proposition for Stratus which you believe will be beneficial to us and presumably to the KSA?"

Geneney glanced at Jeb and Lucan. "We do," he answered. "And before we get started, please be aware that we have the backing of Director Lodan in this matter." Geneney took a sip of coffee. "Project Starseed has stalled for reasons that we're all aware of. We need Stratus Inc to help us get it back on track. To that end we propose an informal, non-financial, exchange of services. In return for resuming your supply of parts and systems to the KSA, we can expedite movement of goods to your other customers."

Shervin burst out laughing. "Of course you do. I'll wager that this was all Jeb's idea too - it has Jebediah Kerman brass neck all over it." Around the table, Thomplin looked faintly disappointed whilst Halnie just looked thoughtful. "I'm sorry, but with all due respect to Lodan, you'll have to do better than that."

Unperturbed, Geneney took another sip of coffee. "So how can we make this work?" he asked. "If the inspection points around here are anything like the ones at Barkton, then I can't imagine you're having an easy time getting materials in our out of here?"

"That would depend how much of it is for border security," said Jeb. 

Geneney braced himself for an outburst but apart from a tightening around the jaw, his friend's face remained calm, matched by three studiously inscrutable looks from the Stratus team. Jeb raised an eyebrow. "It wasn't difficult to work out. Security cameras on the gates, a very nervous guard, a mention of new clients whilst carefully avoiding talking about them too much." Jeb smiled at Halnie. "I've been out of comm range for a while but I'm pretty sure I'd have heard about a new aerospace startup. Especially one ambitious enough to be ordering significant quantities of Stratus parts."

"And if our new client was an existing player?" said Shervin.

"Then we'd have heard about it through Director Lodan." Jeb exchanged looks with Geneney. "I haven't forgotten our chat before Pioneer One, Gene, but I think this works out rather well." He turned back to Shervin. "Whatever work you're doing for your new client, it's left you with plenty of capacity. We help you smooth out your logistics problems and get you back to full production. You set aside some capacity for KSA use. We both win."

"How many other companies have signed up to this kind of arrangement?" said Halnie.

"None yet." Geneneny leaned forward in his seat. "At the risk of sounding trite, Stratus have been an irreplaceable partner to us since before Kerbal Two and, to be perfectly honest, without you on board, we'll be facing an uphill struggle with everyone else."

"And no doubt we would get some free advertising and our logo on the Starseed ships," said Thomplin blandly. 

Jeb grinned at him.  "Well it worked the last time but I think it would be a little too corporate for Starseed, don't you? Besides, we can do better than that. You're going to need some background first though." 

The Stratus team listened as Jeb outlined the pivotal meeting with Rockomax, Lodan's realisation that he had the theoretical legal standing to relaunch Starseed but without the practical authority to go with it, and his conclusion that a grass-roots volunteer effort would be required instead Thomplin's mouth quirked in a half-smile that was quickly replaced by an intent look as Jeb described the founding of the White Cross Company and its mission. "We thought that we'd be in for the long haul there," Jeb admitted. "Building trust, helping the haulage companies reduce their backlogs, getting everything moving again." He gave Shervin an abashed look. "Turns out we'd forgotten about the kermol in all of this - but they hadn't forgotten about us. More to the point, it seems that a lot of them are taking President Obrick's speech to heart."

"Ohhh," said Halnie, eyes suddenly shining. She saw Shervin's politely confused look. "But now we need more. Engineers and agronomists, young and old, kerman and kermol.

"Exactly," said Jeb. He looked Shervin straight in the eye. "We can't pay you - but we can feed you. You, your factory workers - and their families. No queueing, no hoping to Kerm that the next food convoy arrives. We can't promise anything fancy but, as the good kermol said, beans and mushrooms never hurt a kerbal and they'll fill you up just fine." Jeb eased back into his chair and watched Shervin mull it over. Then he took a deep breath. "I mentioned that I'd been out of comm range for a while but I didn't say why. It's a long story - and I'll spare you all the details - but the short version is that I was in a bad place." Jeb squeezed his eyes closed for a minute. "Kerm, this isn't easy." Shervin watched as Geneney laid a hand on Jeb's shoulder. "Thanks, Gene. Okay folks - bear with me if this doesn't go too smoothly." 

Haltingly at first, Jeb began to talk about the aftermath of Pioneer 4, about his growing despair as his beloved rockets turned from vehicles of exploration to weapons of war, and finally, about the training accident that claimed Ornie's life. Listening to Jeb recall his eulogy for his friend, Shervin's mind drifted back to his first meeting with a much younger kerbonaut on the eve of his first orbital flight.

...seriously though, Thomplin. I've got a lot of good friends on this team. How can I possibly let any of them fly a spacecraft that I wouldn't be prepared to fly myself.

"...apart from anything else, I never did like our village Keeper very much as a kerblet. Luckily - and not for the first time - Gene was able to talk some sense into me, so we set out for the Grove. And by all the Kerm, I can't tell you how glad I am that we did." Geneney listened as Jeb described his first Communion with Elton to the increasingly wide eyed kerbals around the table. 

"He wanted to learn all about spaceflight, so I figured that showing him the view from Moho One would be a good place to start, which it was. And I don't know whether it was sharing the memories with a Kerm or what, but preserve me, it brought it all back to me with in a rush." Jeb paused. "So I decided to show him the view from Munar orbit aboard Pioneer Four."

"Which just about brought the house down," added Geneney. "Literally. I never knew a Kerm's branches could stand on end."

Jeb nodded. "Mine too. Or they would have if I had branches. Or... oh Kerm take it, you know what I mean. Anyway, remembering those views of Kerbin in the darkness - and sharing them with one of the oldest beings on Kerbin - really hammered it home. We can make Starseed work. We have to make it work. And Elton agrees." Struck by a sudden idea, Jeb's head snapped round to face Halnie. "You never did join the KIS in the end - never got a chance to fly or really see Kerbin for yourself." Jeb swept his arms out, "But you could. With Elton's help, I could show you - I want to show you! Elton wouldn't mind, he said himself that everyone should see!”

Jeb sagged in his chair. "Sorry, getting carried away with myself." He looked at Shervin. "Anyway, that's what I think. Helping your customers and feeding your workers aside, we need to do this because it's right and because, frankly, we don’t have any other options left.”

Shervin nodded, before bowing his head in thought. Then he looked up at the three kerbonauts. Halnie caught a glimpse of his expression and her heart skipped a beat.

"That's quite a story. Any other kerbal, I'd be showing them the door about now." Shervin shook his head. "But... we followed you on one crazy ride before and that went places we couldn't have imagined. Kerm help me if we don't follow you on this one too."

———————

“That should keep you going for a week or two.” The truck driver slammed the trailer doors shut and locked them, before turning to Lucan with an angry scowl. “Soup kitchens and folks with kerblets queueing for food - they didn’t tell me it was this bad.”

“But thanks to your Grove, we can give them something worth the wait.” Lucan eyed the pallets of vegetables and neatly stacked sacks of dry goods. “Thank you so much - you’ve been more than generous.” The driver waved a dismissive hand.

“You’d need to thank the other Groves round us too but I’ll tell them you were appreciative.” He climbed into his cab and leaned out to grab the door handle. “You get the rockets flying again and we’ll keep the food coming. Deal?”

“Deal.” Lucan had a sudden thought. “And I’ll do you another one. “You get me the names of everyone back at the Groves and I’ll set them all down in a book. And if we ever get out to Duna, I’ll make sure the first ship to get there has that book on board. Deal?”

The driver gave him a sharp nod. “Deal - and I’ll hold you to it.” He thumbed a button on his dashboard and the truck motors rumbled into life. “Won’t be me bringing the next load but I’ll make sure whichever of the gang they send your way has those names in their cab.” Tipping his cap in farewell, he released the brakes and the truck rolled forward amidst a hiss of compressed air. Lucan watched him go, then turned to the first stack of sacks and began loading them onto a nearby handcart. Unheard, a door creaked open at the far end of the warehouse.

“Where are these all going, Lucan?”

Lucan straightened up. “Derny wanted tubers and mushrooms to go with the last of the greenleaf tonight, and he’s putting a bean and veg stew on for tomorrow. I’ve got everything for that all loaded up if one of you could trundle it out. Rest of the fresh stuff goes in the kitchen, anything dry goes into storage with the rest.” Lucan smiled. “Pretty sure I saw a couple of sacks of cornmeal in there, so if you ask Derny real nicely…”

“Cornbread?” The other’s eyes lit up. “Haven’t had any of chef’s cornbread for an age.”

“I was hoping for a good bowl of grits myself,” Lucan said straight-faced, “but each to his own.”

“Bah, what else can you expect from a kerbal who drinks smoky sapwood for pleasure. Right, I’ll take this lot out now while you load up the tubers and fungus.”

“Already on it. You want to sort out the greenleaf once you’re done?”

“Yep.” The other laughed. “If we ever need a decent kitchen porter or two out at Duna, we’ll not be short of offers.”

“Not something I thought the space program would ever need,” Lucan agreed. “Nor soup kitchens for that matter.” He looked pointedly at the loaded handcart. “Wouldn’t want to keep Derny waiting though, if you’re serious about that cornbread.” A cheerfully tuneless whistle and the receding squeak of rubber on concrete was all the answer he needed.

Precariously balanced on top of the tuber sacks, the mushroom trays were rather too large for the handcart, and Lucan decided to come back for them later. He wheeled his load out of the warehouse, blinking at the glare from white canvas catching the early afternoon sun. The last of the lunch shift were making their way back to the factory, leaving their families behind at the kitchen marquees and a familiar voice caught Lucan’s ear as he made his way over to the long trestle tables set up outside the tents.

“Put the knife down lad, before you lose any fingers. You, you, you, you and… you - you’re on tuber scrubbing duty. You three - watch those pots and tell me when they come to the boil.” Derny eyed a huddle of older kerblets. “You lot - find yourselves a pair of kitchen gloves each. The pepper cactus is over there - you can help me get the spines off. Everyone gets a go at pounding on them to loosen up the pulp.” Derny looked up at Lucan standing by his cart. “Excellent timing as always, Lucan. Sacks on that table over there if you please.”

“No problem, Derny. Mushrooms wouldn’t fit on the cart so I left them back at the warehouse. I’ll fetch them over with the rest of the tubers.” Lucan saw one of the kerblets looking mutinous but before he could say anything, the youngster had caught Derny’s eye.

“What are you waiting for? Gloves are over there, cactus is over there.”

The kerblet scowled at his feet. “Wanted to work in the factory, not cooking stupid cactus.”

Lucan opened his mouth to speak but Derny just nodded in understanding. “And maybe you will one day, lad. But right now we need you here, snapping spines and pounding pulp.” He gestured at Lucan. “Like we need Mr Lucan there. He’s been to space, walked on the Mün even, but right now?” Derny raised his eyebrows. “Right now, he’s organising truck drivers and hauling sacks of tubers for you lot to scrub.”

Lucan perched himself on the edge of the table. “Tell them what they’re making, Derny,” he suggested.

“Ahh yes,” said Derny. “Hadn’t thought about it like that but these are proper space rations we’re cooking up here. At least they would be if we freeze dried them and stuck them in a pouch. The cactus pulp thickens up the tuber paste and adds a bit of flavour too.”

“You don’t want sloppy food in space,” Lucan added. “We had a ration pack burst on Eve 2 - the crew spent half of their second day in space chasing vegetable mush around the capsule.” Two of the kerblets smirked at him. “So now we test all the new ration packs the same way we test the capsule,” Lucan finished. “We shake them up, put them in the vacuum chamber, and when we’re done, Derny gets to open them. So far he hasn’t ended up with space food all over his face.”

“Not yet,” said Derny. 

“What about the one that burst, mister?” asked one of the kerblets. 

“We kept changing the recipe until it worked,” Derny replied. “Me and kerbonaut Sherfel that is - she was the one who thought of adding cactus pulp to the tuber paste. Took us plenty of tries to get the vegetable stew just right and that was with both of us in the kitchen, peeling and chopping and boiling.” 

The rest of the kerblets started to look more enthusiastic about their chores. Lucan caught Derny’s eye before slipping off the table and walking over to the mutinous-looking one, who was still scowling at his feet. “You can come and help me, lad,” he said. “We could use a strong pair of hands back in the warehouse. It’s not factory work but its a start, and…” 

He was interrupted by a sudden commotion by the factory gates. The loading bay doors rumbled open and a truck emerged, towing a trailer emblazoned with the Stratus Inc logo. Escorted by a double row of workers in red caps, marching alongside, it blew a blast from its horn as it cleared the factory gates and swung left onto the main road out of town, heading for Barkton.

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2 hours ago, KSK said:

Escorted by a double row of workers in red caps, marching alongside, it blew a blast from its horn as it cleared the factory gates and swung left onto the main road out of town, heading for Barkton.

Awesome chapter once more! I was listening to a filk playlist as I was reading, and while reading this last sentence one of the songs had this nice horn blast. In my mind kerbal trucks now have manually blown, medieval style horns slung to the side! 

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And the next chapter is up! If you're just dropping in now, this is the second of three updates planned for the weekend, so you might want to skip up a post or two first. :)

 

Bridging the Gap

Lodan inspected the stylised cardboard cutouts on the break room wall and didn't even try to hide his satisfaction. He plucked one free and held it up against each of the other two before sticking it back in place.

"You made them to scale?"

"Yes, sir. It won't be possible for all the sub-systems of course, but we wanted to do all the larger components and modules to scale." The manager checked his watch. "We should step into my office - the first afternoon shift should be arriving shortly."

Lodan gave him a quizzical look and opened his mouth to speak, only for his words to be drowned out by a sudden clamour of voices. The dispatchers in the main office area snapped to attention behind their desks and began handing out clipboards to their colleagues pouring in through the front door. To Lodan's pleased surprise, several of them sported a White Cross Company patch on the breast pockets of their boiler suits. The throng of volunteers organised themselves into groups of four amidst much pushing and good-natured banter, each group taking a clipboard and leaving through the side door, shouted orders from the dispatchers following them out.

"Fresh leaves - main depot! It's been waiting a while so don't forget your washer!"

"Beans - main depot! Take a spare sorter in case your haulier forgets!

"Rockomax site! Dry feet for you today, Haymie!"

"Zaltonic! They're new to all this so be nice and don't play with the batteries!"

Lodan winced and followed the manager into his office. Cheap steel shelving, already cluttered with box files and other paperwork, occupied most of one wall. The other was taken up with a large map of Foxham and its surrounding towns and Groves and, under the window, an old computer and printer sat atop a worn plywood desk. Lodan eyed the equally worn chair in the corner with some trepidation before walking over to study the map, whilst the manager busied himself with kettle and mugs. "It's only instant I'm afraid, Director, but it's a decent enough brand."

Lodan took the proffered mug without comment, blew on it and took a cautious sip. Seeing the manager's anxious face, he nodded and took another. "Thank you." He gestured at the panoply of threads and coloured pushpins decorating the map. "This is all most impressive, I have to say. I presume this pin here marks a new office?"

The manager beamed. "Absolutely, Director! We began to see a lot more traffic from Kallahat after Jeb - I mean Jebediah's visit, so I started looking around for new office space out by the western depot. I put Helke in charge and gave her a couple of the more experienced dispatchers to get her started. Although if I know Helke, she'll have her own people in place soon enough."

"And the work crews?"

"Enough to staff a third office, once I find the time to scout one out. Stratus are a popular employer around here, Director - word got around pretty quickly that they were properly back in business, especially once we got their soup kitchen got up and running for them." The manager flushed. "Sorry, that's we as in WCC - I'm not trying to take any credit from Lucan or Derny."

"Of course not," Lodan rubbed his chin. "I know who to talk to about finding new premises for you. Do you have anyone in mind to run it?"

"Absolutely. He'll need office staff but that won't be a problem either."

"Very good. I'll leave that in your capable hands then. Is there anything else you need, or need to tell me about, before I leave?"

"Not that I can think of, Director. Thank you for your visit - the team here all appreciate it."

"You're quite welcome. I shall inform Ademone that she can expect more deliveries in the near future - I'm sure she'll be as pleased as I am to hear it."

-----------

Lodan tilted his head to one side and suppressed a faint smile. The immense structure nestling on its dollies reminded him of nothing so much as a gigantic kerblet's stacking toy glued together and set on one side. A latticework of stringers covered the surface of each cylindrical section, the widest cylinder at the back studded with equipment fittings, ductwork and protruding window modules which gave it a curiously insectile appearance. The narrowest cylinder at the front was almost featureless by comparison, although, as far as he could see, still more than wide enough to accommodate a pair of kerbals kneeling side by side. A tapered annular section sat around the middle cylinder like a collar, a webwork of struts securing it to the rest of the structure.

"Main pressure hull is to to the rear." Ademone's voice broke into his thoughts. " You can't see it from here but it's fitted with a CORDS-3 adaptor for docking to the main hub module. The cylinder at the front is the airlock and docking port, or it will be once it's finished. The forward gangway links them together and also provides access to the observation deck."

"One half of which will be the colony ship bridge in the production version," Lodan noted.

"Exactly," said Ademone. She gestured at a set of wheeled stairs parked in front of the airlock tube. "You're welcome to inspect it if you wish." The corner of her mouth quirked upward. "The assembly crews normally get in through the CORDS-3 but I thought you might appreciate the full experience." She watched Lodan make a show of checking his watch. "The launch isn't until this evening, Director. I'm sure I can find a few minutes in my schedule."

"Well, if you insist." Lodan walked over to the stairs and checked the brakes, before climbing up onto the upper platform. For a moment he stared into the open maw of the airlock, a circle of light illuminating the inner depths of the structure and glinting off a set of rungs set into the side wall. "I presume this will take my weight?"

"It will," Ademone replied. "We built it with enough of a margin to handle any less than perfectly judged docking attempts."

Lodan nodded. A thought struck him and he removed his shoes, setting them neatly to one side, before crawling into the airlock on hands and knees. Once inside, he straightened up, brushing one hand over his head and found plenty of clearance between himself and the smoothly polished ceiling. Working his legs out in front of him, he shuffled forward on hands and feet before easing himself out of the airlock and dropping to the floor inside the forward gangway. He walked forward and paused under the circle of light, staring up the access tube at the open space and curved metal surface beyond. The ladder rungs that he'd noticed from outside were sized with a space-suited kerbonaut in mind and he was able to scramble up them with ease.

He emerged into a wide, empty compartment. Light from the outside world shone through apertures of varying shapes and sizes in the outer hull wall and, much to his relief, a maze of temporary baffles had been bolted to the convex floor to prevent assembly technicians, or visiting dignitaries, from slipping. Every available surface appeared to be marked with stencils indicating, Lodan presumed, the mounting points for control panels or other items of equipment. Directly ahead, the outer hull angled sharply inwards to meet the forward bulkhead, creating a windscreen like effect which was accentuated by the round-cornered rectangular holes cut into the tapered wall. 

Lodan clambered forward and arranged himself in front of the nearest window hole. The outer surface of the airlock tube stretched out ahead of him obscuring the wheeled stairway beyond. A pang of doubt crossed his mind as the sheer size of what the KSA was attempting became awesomely clear. Two bridge modules back-to-back, the hub module sandwiched between them and supporting a great eight-spoked wheel. Lodan shivered. Which is nothing compared to the colony ship - the colony ships. But if we can pull this off... He shook his head. No ifs. When we pull this off. He closed his eyes and for a moment the bare metal compartment around him lit up with display screens and control boards. Radio chatter and status reports filled his ears and the view of the factory floor outside faded into the star dusted vista of deep space, broken by a single red dot.

——————

“Excellent. I very much look forward to seeing the flight article.” Lodan buckled his shoe and perched himself on the edge of the stairs. “Will the Type Six be enough to launch it?”

Ademone nodded. “We think so. Even our most pessimistic mass projections are comfortably within payload capacity. In terms of size, it’s too wide for our standard fairing but we decided that designing and building a new fairing would be preferable than waiting for the R7 to come online, especially as we now have a spare booster immediately to hand, courtesy of the Pioneer Seven team.”

Lodan nodded. “Indeed - and I think Bill would approve. I presume you’ve carried out what tests you can on the ground?”

“We have. All our modelling is telling us that the stretch fairing will work, that our guidance and control systems can cope with the new aerodynamics and that the booster airframe can handle the additional loads.” Ademone favoured Lodan with a half smile. “I understand that the flight dynamics and  structural engineering teams have a standing joke every time we fly a new rocket - ‘it worked in the wind tunnel, so I shouldn’t have been surprised’. We had hoped to have the actual flight test results ready for your visit but the launch was postponed due to high winds. You would be welcome to watch our second attempt with me this evening.”

Lodan looked thoughtful. “Tempting. If you could find me some office space with access to a telephone, I think I’ll take you up on that.” He paused. “What are you intending to launch inside the new fairing?”

“Just a standard test mass. Why?”

“There’s nothing more useful that could be launched? Under the circumstances it does seem a little  profligate to use an entire booster to put a lump of concrete into orbit.”

“It does,” Ademone agreed. “But even assuming we had the customers, we wouldn’t entrust their payloads to an unproven launch vehicle. In an ideal world, we’d be launching experimental Starseed hardware - an orbital refueling test most probably. But we don’t live in an ideal world.” She gave Lodan a sideways look. “A number of the propulsion engineers suggested that we launch Geneney’s old car into orbit but I didn’t think he’d be particularly impressed with the notion.”

Lodan's mouth twitched. "No," he agreed, "He's quite attached to that car. In any case, I suspect it wouldn’t make a very reliable test mass. After listening to Geneney grumble about the good inspectors stripping it down on numerous occasions, I wouldn’t be sanguine about it remaining intact during the flight.” 

He looked at the pressure hull assembly, head cocked to one side. “But back to the point. That’s certainly an impressive looking pressure hull but it’s a long way from a pressure hull to a functional spacecraft. May I ask how work is progressing on the internals?”

“Not as quickly as we’d like but a lot quicker than we hoped,” said Ademone. “If you’d care to follow me?” She closed the door to the assembly bay behind them and set off down the corridor, footsteps echoing on the polished floor. “Insulation panel and outer hull fabrication is going well. We’re using essentially the same insulation materials that we used for the Pioneer spacecraft, so we have all the manufacturing facilities on site.” She stopped by a window and stood aside to let Lodan look through. 

Inside, a profusion of silvery and copper coloured crinkled foils, cut to different shapes and sizes, hung from a maze of overhead conveyers. Rows of workers, standing at room-length worktables, unclipped the foils as they moved past and stacked them into what looked like curved, dull bronze frames. Lodan watched one worker slide a completed frame into a press at the end of her worktable before pulling a large lever. Another worker heaved his press open and inspected its contents before placing the finished insulation panel on another conveyer.

“The outer hull sections are fabricated separately,” said Ademone. “We’re in the middle of a manufacturing run at the moment, otherwise I’d show you inside the workshop. For now, lets get you suited up.” 

Lodan followed her along another stretch of bare corridor which ended at a locked door. Ademone zipped her pass through a card reader and the door unlocked with a clunk. Inside, Lodan was surprised to see a locker room with rows of white coats hanging from rails and pairs of white rubber overshoes on racks underneath.

“One size fits all, I’m afraid,” said Ademone. She reached into a box and pulled out a pair of translucent blue plastic caps. “You’ll need one of these too.”

Lodan donned his protective clothing without comment and followed a similarly garbed Ademone onto the factory floor. Pieces of partially assembled spacecraft, each with their attendant group of technicians, rested on a bewildering assortment of benches and stands. Many more pieces sat abandoned, like bizarre pieces of high-tech sculpture.

“As I said,” Ademone said quietly, “a lot better than we’d hoped. Persuading Zaltonic to contribute helped us considerably - until the transport problems began I don’t think we really appreciated how many electrical or electronic components they actually made.” She looked at Lodan. “She’d never admit it in public but I think even Nelton would concede that your volunteer program is working better than we expected.”

“Not well enough though,” said Lodan. “Not if the number of empty assembly bays out there is anything to go by.” He reached under his cap to scratch behind his ear. “Would it be possible to meet your team leaders this afternoon and have them draw up a priority list of subcontractors? The  White Cross Company’s efforts so far have, quite understandably, been targeted at former KIS suppliers, particularly those where Jebediah or Geneney have personal contacts.” He gestured at the nearest group of technicians. “Clearly that is helping but I think it’s time they shifted their focus a little.”

Ademone nodded. “I’m quite sure they’ll be able to find the time. Thank you, Director.”

——————

Lodan stretched, checked his watch and began stacking his papers together. He was just slipping his jacket on when there was a knock at the door and Ademone walked in. "Are you ready to go, Director?"

"I am." Lodan snapped his briefcase closed. "I presume the weather is being kinder to us today."

Ademone nodded. "Conditions at the Space Centre remain acceptable according to the latest meteorology update. The countdown is proceeding on schedule, so we should leave imminently if we're going to watch the launch."

Despite himself, a thrill of anticipation ran down Lodan's spine. "By all means, lets go then," he said. He waited for Ademone to lock her office door before following her down the corridor to the lifts. "I must admit that I've been rather looking forward to this. I don't get to see nearly as many launches as I might like." 

Ademone smiled. "Why do you think I chose an east-facing office? I don’t always have time to watch them from the launch sites but I try to make a point of looking out for any flights out of Foxham. The conference room is east-facing too for the same reason - a coffee break and a rocket launch has smoothed many a difficult negotiation."

"They do tend to get the point of the negotiation across," said Lodan. "I recall Geneney saying much the same about the Barkton Space Centre."

"I can't imagine Geneney or Jebediah missing that particular tactic," agreed Ademone. A bell chimed and the lift doors opened onto the lobby. “It’s my car or yours I’m afraid. I would have requested a driver but I believe that most them have thrown in their lot with the White Cross Company for the time being.” She caught sight of Lodan’s expression. “Which is greatly to their credit - and besides, I did give them the choice.”

“Ahh. Commendably public spirited of them.” Lodan held the door open for Ademone. “In that case, I think your car would be wisest - I’m not particularly familiar with the roads around here.”

“As you wish.” Ademone took her car keys out of her jacket and pressed a button on the fob. Across the car park, the lights on a modest two-seater runabout blinked on with a muted clunk of unlocking doors. Lodan raised his eyebrows.

“Encoded radio transmitter,” said Ademone. “I forget which spacecraft subsystem it was originally developed for but the licensing rights turned out to be quite profitable.” She gave Lodan a small, mischievous look. “You have to admit - it is rather space age.”

“It’s certainly more dignified than the plush kerbonaut bobble-head toys that the KIS came up with,” said Lodan. “The last time I visited Barkton you could barely find a car without one of those ridiculous things hanging from the rear view mirror.”

“One of Geneney’s more playful marketing suggestions,“ said Ademone straight-faced. She pulled her door closed and waited for Lodan to fasten his seatbelt. “Personally, I rather liked their collectable rocket part earplugs.”

As they drove away from the factory, Lodan was pleased to see a small queue of vehicles waiting to get on-site, including one truck hauling a heavily laden covered flatbed trailer. He didn’t recognise the company name on the tarpaulins but the satisfied grunt from the driver’s seat told him all he needed to know. 

The main road to Foxham was mostly free of traffic and Ademone was able to make good time to the Space Centre. Lodan found himself whisked efficiently through a security barrier, past a long row of warehouses and other, less identifiable, buildings and into a private car park. Inwardly sighing as Ademone waved her car keys over her shoulder, he followed her around the front of a modern-looking two storey office block and came to an abrupt halt. 

The evening sun threw long shadows from the buildings around him, casting the buildings around him in a soft, fulvous glow and glittering from the almost mirror smooth Northern Ocean to his east. Lodan squinted hard, just able to make out the Rockomax Type 6 sitting on its pad, the steel gantries behind it glowing like bars of solid fire. With a shiver of anticipation he followed Ademone inside and along to Mission Control.

——————

"...all controllers, please give me a Go / No Go for terminal count."

Lodan leaned against the balcony at the back of the Rockomax mission control room and listened to the flight control team reporting in. On the main screen, the Type 6 booster stood against the launch tower, plumes of orange-tinged vapour swirling around it.

"SK1 TVC verified. Starting first stage engine chilldown."

"Copy. Launch clamp release checks complete."

Lodan gripped the balcony rail just a little more tightly. Below him, auxiliary monitors lit up around the main screen as the unruffled cadence of status reports and system calls continued.

"T-minus two minutes and counting. All systems Go."

"T minus sixty. Launch vehicle is in startup."

"T minus forty seconds and counting. Decouplers armed, starting sound suppression systems."

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

Lodan's gaze flicked across to Ademone who was standing by the balcony with him, watching the monitors.

"...six...five...four..."

The image on the main screen shook, a colossal cloud of steam and smoke erupting from the flame trench beneath the booster and rapidly swelling to engulf the entire launch pad. Streaks of flame shot through the smoke and then blinding light erupted from the base of the rocket, the exhaust from its five main engines suffusing the steam and smoke with an unearthly glow before lofting it skyward on a torrent of golden fire. Lodan's eyes lit up in sheer delight, heart racing as the camera swung up to track the gleaming white booster arcing out over the sea atop an expanding plume of rocket fire.

"Stage one propulsion is Go. SKPs throttling back."

Beside him, Ademone tensed. Seeing Lodan's look of concern, she opened her mouth to speak only to be interrupted by one of the flight controllers below. 

"Vehicle is through max-Q. Go for throttle up.”

Ademone let out her breath with a faint whuff. “That’s the point of highest mechanical stress on the booster,” she told Lodan quietly. “According to our models, the larger fairing wouldn’t cause enough additional stress to be a concern…”

“But it’s good to see the models working in practice,” said Lodan, his eyes fixed on the main screen. 

“Yes.”

“Stand by for SKP staging.” For the first time that evening, Lodan thought that he could hear a faint edge of tension in the flight controller’s voice. Beside him, Ademone crossed her fingers behind her back.

“Shutdown…and staged.”

A different controller spoke up. “Vehicle attitude is stable, Flight. Guidance is Go.”

A ripple of applause ran around the room. Ademone nodded in satisfaction. “That was the one part we couldn’t fully model in the wind tunnel,” she murmured. “We stage the lateral boosters high enough that it shouldn’t have been a problem but it’s still a big in-flight change in vehicle configuration. Core staging and fairing deployment coming up in the next minute.”

The image on the main screen flicked to the launch site and then back to the orbital tracking plot. One of the controllers announced a successful main engine cutoff and then, almost immediately after, a successful separation and SK1 ignition. Lodan crossed both pairs of fingers and, catching Ademone’s eye, rested them on the balcony rail.

“Payload fairing deployed. Second stage propulsion is Go.”

With that, a more enthusiastic round of applause filled the room. Several coffee cups were hoisted aloft in salute and the flight director grabbed his towel from the back of his chair and blotted his face.

“Excellent.” Lodan turned to Ademone, “Please pass on my congratulations to everyone involved.” Ademone blinked at the sudden fire behind the KSA director’s eyes. “As Jebediah might say, you  fly them - but we all build them. We’ll get you everything you need to build that station - you have my word on it.” 
 

Edited by KSK

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And the next chapter is up. :) This is the third of three for anyone joining us here.

A Helping Hand

When the black spots came, they were ready.

The lowermost leaf clusters darkened first, the blemishes swarming upwards, jumping from leaf to thrashing leaf like a plague of malignant insects. Two of the robed figures, keeping vigil over the new Kerm, gripped their companion’s shoulders in a silent gesture of good luck, before taking their own places under the leaf clusters. The three medics sitting by their bedsides exchanged anxious looks as the leaves whipped around their patients’ foreheads, enveloping the not-quite-skin coloured bands around their temples.

The shards ripped through Erlin’s consciousness like broken glass slicing through flesh. Choking clouds of terror momentarily dulled the hot, bright pain before folding in on themselves, whetting fractured edges to a mirror finish. Unseen, his limbs spasmed, throat clenching around a silent scream. A terrified clamour of overlapping voices tore at him, the childlike tones of his Kerm echoing all around him, cascading from rage to fright to abject, terrified pleading; pieces of a shattered mind crying out for its Keeper to save it.

—————

“What the…Keep clear of his limbs - don’t hold them down! One of the medics passed his colleague a foam pad. “Hold that over his head in case his neck goes into spasm too but for the love of your mother’s Grove keep it clear of the leaf cluster. EEG?”

The third medic turned to him with wide, frightened eyes. “I…I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it! Two of them look like something between a normal Communion and a bad dream but the third is just a mess!”

—————

Erlin!

Somehow the tiny, familiar voice insinuated its way through the maelstrom threatening to sweep his own mind into the darkness; soothing, holding…

Erlin!

A second voice joined it, louder this time, steadying, comforting, a lifeline to cling to.

How in the seven smoking hells did Jonton ever survive this alone?

Never mind that now! Just hang on to him!

Images swirled down the lifeline, two white-coated kerbals in a room of complicated glass tubing and acrid smells, one looking despondently at a tarry residue in the bottom of a flask, the other patting him on the shoulder. The same two kerbals grinning out from a photograph, lab coats replaced by ceremonial academic robes. A cafe in a leafy park, two small cups of coffee on a tray next to a meagre handful of coins, the great arches of the Capital building filling the sky behind them.

Erlin?

The lifeline went taut, pulling Erlin back from the abyss. A second line snaked towards him, whipping around his waist and holding him fast. Shaking, Erlin hauled himself upright, climbing hand over hand towards the two blurred figures standing in the eye of the storm.

I’m here. Preserve me but I’m here!

The sudden release of tension hammered into Obrett, rebounding squarely into Gusemy. The mental lines tying them to Erlin shuddered, stretching almost to breaking point before she could damp them down. Easy… easy you both. A shard spun out of the maelstrom, stabbing Erlin straight between the eyes before melting into his skull, making him cry out in pain. A second shard darted towards him and Gusemy instinctively lunged forward to catch it, only for Obrett to knock his hand out of the way.

Don’t! Leave them alone! An image flickered before him; a limp, blank eyed female kerbal, head swathed in a Kerm leaf cluster. Horrified, Gusemy snatched his hand away. As if sensing his agitation, more shards swooped at them, then hung before them quivering. One of them brushed against his mind in an explosion of panic and disjointed, blotchy images that knocked him back on his heels. The shard shivered, questing towards him before flicking round and diving for Erlin’s prone form. Gusemy fought the urge to vomit as the two shards already embedded in his friend’s skull bulged out to meet it.

Get out of here, Gus. Erlin’s pain-wracked mental voice was barely discernable. You too, Obrett. I can’t…can’t hold them with you both here to distract them. He turned his head to face Gusemy. You’ve done all you can old friend… took…took the shock…pulled me back from the edge. Seeing his friend waver he forced himself to his feet, then fell to his knees as yet another shard slammed into the back of his head. Go, Gus. For pity’s sake, go!

Forcing down her own roiling emotions, Obrett grabbed Gusemy by the shoulders and spun him round to face her. Do you want to kill him? Come on, Blight you - do as he says! For a moment, Gusemy struggled in her grip, then with a look of utter despair etched into his face, he faded away before her. Choking back a sob, she turned away from Erlin’s sudden cry and withdrew, leaving the other on his knees amidst a gathering storm.

———————

“What the Kerm is going on in there?” the second medic breathed. A jagged EEG trace filled the screen before her, anything that might have resembled kerbal brainwaves buried under a dozen or more almost identical, wildly fluctuating traces.

“Exactly that,” her colleague said tautly. “Status of the other two?”

“N…n…normal Communion patterns,” the third medic stammered. “V…v…vigorous but within normal limits.”

Suddenly the centre screen turned solid white, snapped back to normal, then collapsed to flatline. An alarm shrilled, startling the medics to their feet, then abruptly fell silent, the horizontal line puckering into the subdued waveforms of a deeply unconscious kerbal. Two, perfectly normal sets of EEG traces whisked quietly across the surrounding screens.

Obrett groaned and rolled over, head slipping out from under the leaf cluster. Relieved to be doing something, the second medic hurried over to the bed and helped her sit up. 

“Water?”

Head in her hands, Obrett nodded. She heard Gusemy groan and then the snap of elastic against skin as he peeled his EEG band off. The medic pressed a mug of water into her hands and she sipped at it, unable to meet Gusemy’s eyes.

“Is he alive?” Gusemy’s voice was a hoarse rasp.

“Alive, yes,” the second medic said, “but unconscious.” She saw the look of dread on his face. “Not comatose though. More like an exceptionally deep sleep.”

Gusemy slumped against his pillows. “And thank the Kerm for small mercies.” He squeezed his eyelids closed. “Because small mercies are all it bloody well gave him.” The medic waited for him to regain his composure.

“Before he passed out, we saw normal brain function consistent with someone breaking Communion. We think…”

“So what triggered the alarm?” said Obrett flatly. 

The medic squirmed. “Before he passed out, he also flatlined briefly.” She held up a hand. “Recovery was almost instantaneous - in my experience, not enough to cause lasting damage.”

The first medic gently lifted Erlin’s eyelid and shone a penlight into his eye. “Strong pupillary reflex, pulse rate is depressed but steady, breathing is normal.” She got to her feet and gave Obrett and Gusemy a reassuring look. “We’ll continue to monitor him but his vital signs are consistent with deep, slow-wave sleep rather than neurological damage. Given the strain he’s just been under, that’s probably the best state he could be in right now.”

Obrett lifted her head and looked at Gusemy. “You heard the doctor. Leaving him was only thing you could have done. Gusemy ignored her, eyes fixed on his friend’s prone form, and she turned to the three medics. “Gusemy and I should prepare a report for Erlin’s case history. There’s no hurry - we’re not going anywhere until he wakes up.”

——————

A savoury aroma invaded the darkness. A wholesome, familiar aroma, redolent of time spent with kerbals… with other kerbals. 

Erlin stiffened, ignoring the sudden itching from around his waist. For a fleeting instant, a fading melange of scents assailed his nostrils, the knowledge of what each of them meant fading like a dream, melting like cream stirred into milky sapwood; lending texture and flavour but no discernible change.

Which didn’t seem quite right.

Erlin’s eyes rolled behind their lids, memories cascading through him. Two figures holding him fast against against the maelstrom. Shards and fragments of a shattered mind burying themselves in his as one despairing figure faded away from him. Turning his back on the broken remnants of his Kerm and allowing its essence to melt into his own.

Erlin’s breath caught in his throat and he coughed. A spoon clattered against a bowl; he heard the patter of running feet, sensed a warm presence kneeling beside him.

“Erlin?”

Light broke in past slitted eyelids. Erlin coughed again, eyes screwed shut against the sudden glare. Another patter of feet and another presence sensed beside him.

“Boss?”

Erlin forced his eyes open. Two faces stared back at him, wide-eyed with…

Hope? Concern? Fear?

Deep within him something gelled and the faces swam into focus. 

“Gus? Halsy?”

“Boss!” Halsy turned away and blew his nose loudly. “Preserve me but… its good to have you back.” He turned back to face Erlin, tears running down his cheeks. “By all the Groves, we thought we’d lost you.”

A worm of unease crept into Erlin’s stomach. “How… how long was I out for?” 

“Over two days,” said Gusemy thickly. “Even the vines didn’t take at first - just curled themselves around you without doing anything. That’s when we feared the worst. Even when they took, you didn’t so much as twitch.”

The sole medic in the room stepped forward with a mug of water. Erlin gave him a grateful look and  took a mouthful, sluicing it around his mouth before swallowing.

“Kerm, that’s better.” His face froze. “Is it…?”

Halsy wiped his eyes and took a deep, steadying breath. “The black spots have gone,” he said. “Not a blemish on any of the saplings. As far as we can tell they’re physically fine but…” he looked helplessly at Gusemy.

“Mentally?” Erlin finished. His face went very still. “I thought I remembered something before I woke up, Gus, but it’s gone now. The Communion is still clear enough - you and Obrett and… and everything else. Then I remember letting the shards go, feeling them begin to melt just before everything went black.” He paused. “I need to speak to Jonton. He’ll have the answers if there are any to be had.”

“We’ll call him first thing in the morning.” Gusemy checked his watch. “Barkton’s a couple of hours behind us so it’ll be just after midnight there now. No trains running even if he did set off now.”

“Two in the morning?” Erlin blinked. “We’re both long past being able to pull all-nighters, Gus - no wonder you look dead on your feet.” His voice softened. “Thanks for looking out for me, old friend. Out here - and especially in there. Now scoot. Get some sleep.”

To Halsy’s eyes, Erlin’s smile looked strained and weary but Gusemy just nodded. “I think I’ll do that.” He gripped Erlin’s shoulder, his knuckles turning briefly white. “You just stay awake till I get back. Don’t you get tempted to go back to sleep again.”

“I’ll stay up with him,” said Halsy. He forced a smile of his own. “I’ll even spare him the worst of the paperwork in case he nods off halfway through.”

——————

“Thanks for the lift, Ferry. It was good of you.”

“Well it saved Meleny or Patbro from another trip to the Medical Centre. You really should learn to drive sometime.”

Jonton sighed. “I know. In my spare time. Which reminds me - are you and Fred still on for Tiles night next week?”

“I managed to talk Fred into it,” Ferry replied. “None of the others were keen - Jerdin’s still halfway convinced that he’ll be impaled on a Kerm vine if you lose a box.”

Jonton stared straight ahead. “I’d hoped the village archivist…” He shook his head. “I suppose it’s no surprise, given that he’s been having to rewrite most of what we thought we knew about Kerm.”

“There’s only so much change a kerbal can handle in one go,” agreed Ferry. “And it’s been one thing after another ever since you planted…” He broke off at Jonton’s woebegone expression. “For too long now.”

“I just keep telling myself that the changes haven’t been all bad.” Jonton opened the car door. “Some days that’s easier than others. Thanks again, Ferry.”

“You’re welcome.” 

Jonton watched Ferry drive away, sighed and let himself into Gerselle’s hut. He found Enely and Meleny sitting at the kitchen table finishing their breakfast. Enely put his mug down as the kitchen door opened. “The Berelgan called for you, Jonton. The number’s on the pad - I said you’d call back as soon as you got in.”

Jonton froze. “Did you get a name?”

“Director Halsy Kerman.” Enely looked worried. “I hope Erlin is all right.”

Jonton was already dialing. He nodded at Enely and held up a pair of crossed fingers. “Good morning. May I speak to Director Halsy please? Yes of course. It’s Jonton Kermol returning his call.” Jonton’s heart thudded in his chest. “Thank you. Good morning, Director. Sorry I missed you earlier - how can I help you?” 

The top sheet of the notepad ripped free. “But he’s awake now? And the Kerm? No…no I wouldn’t expect it to be yet. Oh preserve me yes.” Jonton crumpled up the torn sheet of paper and tossed it aside. “No flights, I quite understand. The trains are still running though? Of course - I’ll call ahead with arrival times as soon as I have them. Thank you, Director.”

Jonton put the phone down with an audible click.

“You’re going to the Berelgan,” said Enely.

Jonton nodded. “Erlin went an-Kerm last night with the help of Gusemy and Obrett.” He saw the immediate concern in both his friends’ eyes. “They’re all recovering well. Erlin is sleeping now but he was lucid - and entirely kerbal, so far as Halsy could tell - when he came to last night.”

Enely blew out his cheeks. “He let the shards go?”

“He did. And Gusemy and Obrett both anchored him rather than…” Jonton swallowed. “Rather than trying to anchor the Kerm as well.”

“A small mercy is better than no mercy.” Enely gave him a sad look. “At least we were able to make sure it didn’t happen again.”

Meleny crossed the room and hugged him. “Are you going to tell Elton?”

Jonton let himself be held. “I don’t expect I’ll have a choice,” he said. “He’ll probably be watching over Jonelle and I have to Commune with her anyway.” He hugged Meleny back. “I’ll be taking Joenie with me of course.”

To Enely’s surprise, Meleny didn’t argue. “I think that would be best. She needs a break from that Kerm.” She sat down at the kitchen table. “I’ve given up trying to stop her Communing with Jonelle - and Adbas has too.”

Jonton didn’t miss the pointed undertone. “I know,” he said tiredly. He opened his mouth then thought better of it and shook his head. “I don’t know what we would have done without you - any of you. Where are the two of them by the way?”

Meleny inclined her head towards the sleep room door. “Joenie is in there. Adbas is out rafting with his father and two of his other friends.”

Jonton winced. “I’ll talk to her on the train. You’re right - it’ll do her good to leave the hut for a few days.” He walked over to the door. “Excuse me a moment.”

The white light of Communion faded into a vista of two neighbouring mindscapes, the silverlace draped Kerm tree still standing between them. Jonton cast his mind outward, searching for Joenie, and found her drifting over a densely woven tangle of coloured threads, engrossed in conversation with Jonelle. Frustration, overlaid with determination billowed out from both the youngsters, one doing her best to understand, the other doing her best to explain. The tangle shifted fractionally and a sudden sunrise of comprehension lit up Jonelle’s mindscape, followed by a blur of excited thoughts tumbling over each other almost too quickly for Jonton to follow. 

A quiet pride brushed at the edge of his consciousness. <good morning, Jonton>

Good morning, Elton. May I speak to Joenie for a moment please?

<of course> The Kerm’s mental voice came tinged with amusement. <if you can pull her away from my daughter>

Jonton watched Joenie dive towards the tangle, sensed her reaching out to it. That might be difficult, he agreed. His mental voice turned serious. I’m afraid I need to take Joenie away for a few days. I’ve been asked to go to the Berelgan and it wouldn’t be fair on Meleny or Enely to leave Joenie with them.

Elton caught the unspoken feelings behind Jonton’s carefully chosen words with ease. <Enely has already done much for us all and Meleny needs to spend some time with her own family> he said <and my daughter needs to learn that Joenie should also spend time with her kerbal family> Contentment and wonder swirled around Jonton swiftly pulling into a keen focus <the Berelgan? Professor Erlin has joined us?>

He went an-Kerm last night, said Jonton. I’m told that he, Ambassador Gusemy and Keeper Obrett are recovering well…

<but there is much that he will need to know. Go to him, First of my Keepers. He will need your help>

Jonton reached out to his daughter, who was still engrossed by the shifting colours around her. He studied them for a moment, remembered knowledge from his time spent an-Kerm still strong enough for him to sense their newfound balance. 

<Jonton>

Hello, Jonelle. Your tapestry is looking much better today.

<yes, is nearly mended. Joenie helps sometimes but sometimes gets in way too>

She’ll learn, Jonelle. You’re a good teacher. The young Kerm backed away from him shyly.

I do not get in the way! Joenie sent indignantly as she pulled back from the tapestry and turned to face her father. 

<not as much now. Not now you stop trying to touch>

Jonton chuckled. She’s been like that ever since she learned to crawl, Jonelle. An image of a purple-haired, juice-smeared kerblet sitting beside a bowl of mashed blueberries, flickered past, followed by a wave of embarrassment from Joenie.

Dad!

Sorry, sweeth… Jonton felt his daughter’s furious glare and relented. Anyway, much as I hate to take you away from your lessons, we’ve got to go I’m afraid.

The mindscape darkened. <Joenie wants to stay here>

I know she does, Jonelle but this is important. Jonton summoned up an image of himself, swathed in Kerm leaves standing against Elton’s trunk. Has your daddy shown you this?

<yes. Before daddy became daddy, you were part of him>

That’s right. So now we’re trying to help more kerbals do the same, so that we can have more Kerm like your daddy - or like you.  One of those other kerbals is called Professor Erlin and he needs my help - because I’m the only person who really knows what it’s like to be part of a Kerm.

<kerbals need help like Gerselle needs help? Gerselle is part of me but doesn’t talk any more>

Jonton went very still and Joenie sensed her father’s presence closing in on itself. No. Not like that. But that’s why I have to go, Jonelle. If Professor Erlin is…safe, then nobody needs to be like Gerselle ever again.

Joenie began to sniffle, rivulets of bleak grey leaking out from around her feet and turning the mindscape around them the same cheerless shade. Jonton tensed as one of the currents coiled around him, seeping through his mental barriers and tapping the wellspring within…

 The barriers crumbled, swept away by a tsunami of grief shot through by roiling black currents of despair and self-loathing. Joenie cried out as the bitterly cold torrent rolled over her, knocking her off her feet and sending her tumbling through the icy blackness…

… and into the branches of a Kerm tree, it’s leaf clusters all twisted shut. The silverlace erupted around her before settling on the higher branches, safely out of reach. Healing vines emerged from the surrounding soil, their tips clamped tightly shut as they crept towards Jonton.

<forgive the intrusion, my daughter>

Sparks flared as the gnarled vines wrapped themselves around his waist and tugged him over the line separating Elton’s mindscape from Jonelle’s. Jonton shuddered, clutching at them for reassurance. The black waters gradually drained away, leaving a stagnant grey mud behind on both sides of the line. Joenie clambered down from her branch and joined her father.

Dad?

Jonton put his arm around her wordlessly. The vines around his waist slithered back into the soil and vanished. Bending awkwardly from the waist, he bowed towards Jonelle’s presence. Please excuse us, Jonelle.

<you will go. Help other kerbal. Look after Joenie>

I will do all of those, Jonelle. I promise.

——————

The door opened. Meleny turned to see a red-eyed Jonton enter the kitchen followed by a very subdued Joenie. 

“Could you start packing, sweetheart? I’ll be through in a minute.”

Joenie nodded, eyes still downcast, and hurried back into the sleep room. Jonton looked at his friends. “We’re both going,” he said quietly. “No need to tell Elton - he already knows.” He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to trouble you again, Meleny, but could you give us a lift to the station? Enely - could you…?” Jonton jerked his head towards the sleep room door.

“My water is still yours, Jonton - and I’ll keep the speargrass from your fields.”

——————


The evening sun poured in through the vaulted steel and glass roof of Barkton Central Station. Joenie ran her hand over one of the ornately wrought pillars holding it up, tracing one of the many leaf cluster motifs worked into its surface. She tipped her head back, eyes following the pillar upwards until it splayed out into a set of supporting arches, each cunningly shaped to resemble a Kerm branch. With a flutter of wings, a bird tried to roost on one, squawking indignantly as it failed to find a purchase between the thin steel leaves decorating its surface.

“An ironic design really. Bar-katon railway station held up by Kerm trees. But you’d know more about it than me, Keeper Jonton.”

Joenie jumped, clutching her father’s hand and staring at the uniformed kerbal standing beside them. Jonton blinked. “I suppose it is,” he said. He searched for something to say. “I expect all that was long forgotten by the time they built this station.”

Another column of soldiers marched past, heading for a different platform. Joenie pressed herself against Jonton’s leg and stared at them. The uniformed stranger smiled at her reassuringly. “Don’t worry - you’ll have a compartment to yourselves.” He turned to Jonton. “Your seats have already been booked. One adult, one kerblet to Olbinad via Cabaralb and the Capital. We were asked to get you there as quickly as we could so you’ll be on the troop transport to Cabaralb tonight arriving lunchtime tomorrow.” He pressed an envelope into Jonton’s hands, “You’ll be on the first train out to the Capital the next morning. Accommodation vouchers - bed and breakfast, naturally - and onward tickets are all in the envelope.”

Jonton frowned. “Not that I’m ungrateful but this is all terribly organised. May I ask who…?” He was  unprepared for the look of awe in the other’s eyes.

“We don’t often get VIP orders from the President’s office.” The look of awe turned into an abashed glance. “Also - you won’t remember me but I Communed with you.” The station manager coughed. “Several times in fact and I’m far from the only one here. Even if you weren’t getting the official treatment, Keeper - well as far as the team here are concerned you’d be a VIP anyway.”

Ohhh-kay. “Why - that’s very kind of you. Please pass on my thanks to everyone who organised everything at short notice.” Jonton gestured at the soldiers lining up to board their trains. “Especially with all this happening.”

An unreadable look crossed the manager’s face. “Think nothing of it, Keeper.” He shook his head. “It’s ridiculous but I still have to take you through security I’m afraid.” He saw the puzzled look on Joenie’s face and turned to look at her. “Nothing to worry about, young lady. We just need to make sure that nobody has hidden a Kerm seed in your luggage. We don’t want anyone planting them where they’re not supposed to, do we?” To his surprise, Joenie’s faintly scornful look gave way to a vigorous shake of her head. 

“Well I wish all our passengers were as sure as you are.” The station manager summoned up a professional smile. “If you’d just like to follow me then.”

——————

“Please, there’s really no need.”

“We insist, Keeper. Jerl and me’ll be fine in the dormitory carriages with the soldiers. Wouldn’t be right to put you and yours in with them though.” The train driver pointed at the door to the front cab. “Bill and Rod’ll be fine too. We’ll keep the noise down at shift change as best we can.”

Jonton held up his hands with a smile. “Well in that case, thank you very much. It’s very kind of you. He and Joenie followed the driver along the carriage and into a small but homely cabin with curtains at the window and two already-made beds facing each other across a narrow folding table. After giving them a quick tour of the cabin amenities, the driver bowed to Jonton and left, sliding the door shut behind him. Whilst Jonton busied himself stowing their luggage in the storage racks over their beds, Joenie took her bag and disappeared into the adjacent moss room.

Jonton looked up from his book as Joenie emerged in her night clothes and felt a sudden pang at the sight of her wrinkled nose. So like her mother. “Everything alright?”

“There’s no moss in the moss room,” said Joenie. “Only paper. That’s disgusting.

Jonton stifled a smile at her indignant look. “I suppose it’s hard to grow moss on a train,” he said, “and dried moss would be worse than paper. Which side would you like?”

Joenie shrugged. “Don’t mind.” The carriage juddered under their feet and she grabbed hold of the table to steady herself. “This one’s fine.” She curled up at one end of the bed and stared out of the window, watching the station and then the scalloped buildings of Barkton town centre sliding by. Jonton put his book to one side and joined her at the window as streetlights and brightly lit windows gave way to and the setting sun, smeared across the horizon in bands of cerise and orange, and the distant firefly glow of Kerm Groves.

“How about a djeng before bed?” Jonton stood up and studied the miniature water heater set into the wall. He pressed a button and presently the rushing noise of water beginning to boil filled the little room. “Where do you suppose they’ve hidden the cups?”

Joenie peered under the table and found a tiny cupboard stocked with two cups and a selection of hot drink materials. “Here.” She handed the cups and two sachets to her father. The heater clicked off amidst a throatier rumble of water boiling in a confined space and a green light came on. Jonton clipped one of the cups into its receptacle and pressed the second button, filling the cabin with the fragrance of surprisingly fresh djeng. 

“Well this isn’t so bad. Fresh beds. hot djeng and when we wake up we’ll be most of the way to Cabaralb.” Jonton passed the full cup to Joenie before preparing his own drink. He sat down, watching his daughter rub her temples as she stared out at the darkening sky, a distant look in her eyes. Jonton nodded to himself and sipped his drink in companionable silence. When Joenie pushed her empty cup across the table and retreated under her bedcovers, he simply drew the curtains and dimmed the cabin lights.

“Peaceful night, Joenie.”

——————

The train drew up at Cabaralb station amidst a squeal of brakes and a clamour of voices from the next carriage as the soldiers disembarked. Jonton and Joenie followed at a distance, Joenie clutching her bag and sticking close to her father’s side as rifle-carrying, green and brown clad figures marched past her in all directions. They stopped by a large marble slab on the main concourse and Jonton looked around to get his bearings before studying the relief map of the town centre carved into its top. “It’s not far to the hotel, Joenie. We go out of the station, straight across the main road onto Ralador Avenue and then take the fourth street on the right.” He pointed at one of the taller buildings on the map. “That’s the hotel there, look.” 

The billboards outside the station were plastered over with curfew notices and the main road was crammed with drab green trucks parked end to end. Groups of soldiers stood by them, checking backpacks and unloading crates and heavier items of equipment. Jonton caught sight of the warning symbols painted on the sides of one stack of crates and pressed his lips together in a thin, hard line. “Come on, Joenie - I don’t think we should be here.” 

Joenie nodded and followed him across the road.

Further back from the station, the traffic noise diminished sharply, replaced by the sounds of birdsong and the rustling of wind through the trees. A solitary tik-tik whirred past, the clicking of its chain all but swallowed up by the silence. The few kerbals that they did meet hurried past, not stopping to apologise or even look up as they bumped into Joenie’s bag or brushed her aside. Jonton scowled and stepped around his daughter, keeping between her and any oncoming pedestrians.

The fourth street on the right led straight down to the harbour, the angular grey shapes of warships at anchor clearly visible in the distance. Jonton stared at them wordlessly, oblivious to Joenie tugging on his hand.

“Is that the hotel, Dad? Dad?”

Jonton shook his head and turned to see where Joenie was pointing. Three towers stood in a triangle, the hut-shaped buildings around their bases merging into a single structure. Circular windows dotted the towers, apparently at random, and a spiral of steel and glass walkways linked them together. A sign above the main entrance proclaimed the resulting edifice to be the Grove Hotel. Jonton blinked. “I guess so, sweetheart. It’s in the right place and its got the right name. But I think I preferred the version on the map,” he muttered under his breath.

“It doesn’t look very much like a Grove,” Joenie said critically, as they made their way across the road and in through a strange rotating door made of glass.

“No,” Jonton agreed. “It doesn’t.” He walked over the reception desk, pulling the envelope of vouchers out of his pack as he went. “Good afternoon. Do you have a reservation for Jonton and Joenie Kermol?”

The receptionist smiled at him, not bothering to check the leather-bound book on her desk. “We do, sir. Could I see your vouchers please?” She examined the embossed cards that Jonton handed her. “Thank you. Your room key is here, sir - will you be needing a spare?” At Jonton’s answering nod, she unhooked a second key from under her desk and handed it to him. “Breakfast is served from seven onwards, so you’ll have plenty of time to catch your train in the morning. If you need a wake-up call, just call reception from your room and I’ll arrange one for you. We have a cafe next door if you need anything for lunch and our restaurant opens at six for dinner.” An apologetic look flicked across her face. “We do have a list of local alternatives but I’m afraid I couldn’t say if any of them are still open.”

“I quite understand,” Jonton replied. “Thank you for all your help.”

“My pleasure, sir.” The receptionist smiled again. “Please make yourselves at home.”

The afternoon was not a success. After leaving their bags in their room and a rather meagre lunch, the two kermol set out to explore the town. At first, Joenie trotted along ahead of her father, staring up at the rooftops and more than once, Jonton had to pull her to one side as a lamppost loomed. Eventually though, even the birdsong and the shady, tree-lined boulevards weren't enough to break the oppressive silence or to make up for yet another, nearly-deserted street of stone buildings and stone underfoot. 

To Jonton it seemed that every second street revealed a spectacular view of the old harbour, now marred by gun emplacements and the predatory silhouettes of warships against the horizon. Turning his back on them, he led Joenie up a narrower street, lined with shuttered windows, fronted by long wooden tables and benches set out under striped awnings. They emerged in a leaf-strewn park, lined with unkempt flowerbeds and dotted with weed-choked rock gardens. Joenie stared at it all in dismay. "Don't they have Kerm to keep everything tidy? Jonelle would never let all these weeds grow."

Jonton's face tightened at the sight of a large, flattened-down patch of raw earth, its edges ragged with overgrown grass, gone to seed."I don't think they do," he said. "I suppose all the gardeners must have left when the fighting started. Come on - lets go back to the hotel." He breathed a silent sigh of relief as Joenie just nodded and turned away.

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

"We only have a limited menu at the moment I'm afraid," The waitress handed Jonton and Joenie a typewritten card each.

"That's quite all right," Jonton answered with a smile. "After seeing the town this afternoon, I'm surprised that you're open at all," He studied his menu. "Could we get a jug of water for the table please?"

"Certainly, sir. Can I get you anything else to drink?"

Jonton looked across at Joenie. "What would you like?"

"Um - could I have a redfruit juice?"

"Of course you can. Would you like ice and mint with it."

Joenie blinked. " I... think so."

The waitress smiled at her. "Why don't you try it with mint and if you don't like it, I'll bring you a fresh one."

"Um... okay. Thank you."

"Make that two redfruit juices please," said Jonton. "With mint and ice for me."

"Certainly, sir. I'll be right back."

Joenie watched the waitress go before looking at her card with a frown. "There's a lot of food here, Dad. I don't think I can eat all of this."

Jonton looked at her in surprise. "It's not all for us. Haven't you been to a restaurant before?"  He cocked his head on one side. "Actually, I'm not sure you have. The last time you went with your Mum and me, you'd have been too young to remember. Anyway - you just choose one dish and the people in the kitchen over there will cook it for you. And if you're still hungry afterwards you can have a dessert."

Joenie brightened up. "Could I have apple and sapwood?" She pointed at her menu. "It says they've got apple and sapwood."

"Maybe. If you eat all your first course."

At that moment the waitress reappeared, carrying two tall drinks on a tray. She set one down in front of Joenie, making the ice clink against the side of the glass. Joenie took a cautious sip and her eyes lit up. The waitress laughed. "I guess I won't need to bring you a fresh one."  She turned to Jonton. "What can I get for you?"

"The creva rakottka looks good." Jonton looked slightly abashed. "What is a rakottka exactly?"

"It's kind of a layered bake of smoked creva, sliced ploom and sour prickleberry mash. According to chef, it's an old Wakiran dish, from when their sailors used to keep salted meat in barrels of pickled fruit to stop it going off, 

"Well I'm not sure about salt and pickles," said Jonton, "but the smoked version sounds delicious. A creva rakottka for me please. With mashed roots rather than natas."

"Perfect." The waitress turned to Joenie, who had already drank half of her redfruit juice. "And what can I get for you, honey?"

"What's special cavalla?"

"Well now, cavalla is just a fancy name for eggs baked in a herby sauce but chef makes hers special by mixing in some grated mushroom and serving it over slices of grilled breadfruit."

Joenie looked at her solemnly. "That sounds nice - can I have some of that please?"

The waitress smiled. "Of course you can, honey. One special cavalla and one creva rakottka coming right up."

By the time their food arrived, the two redfruit juices were long gone and Joenie dug straight into her baked eggs before Jonton had even had a chance to pick up his fork. The waitress put a bowl of flatbread strips "for mopping up" in the middle of the table and left them to their meal. 

She returned to find Joenie wiping a piece of flatbread around an already spotlessly clean plate."Well now, I guess I can tell chef that you liked her cavalla. Can I get either of you a dessert?"

Joenie just nodded, her mouth still full of food. Jonton sighed. "Could I get one apple and sapwood and just a coffee for me please?"

"Certainly." The waitress winked at Joenie. "The apples are a bit wrinkly so we'll just have to give you more sapwood to make up for them."

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

The next morning, a fed, rested, and noticeably more cheerful Joenie, followed her father back to Cabaralb rail station. After being searched for Kerm seeds, they were whisked onto another troop train bound for the Capital. After a while, the novelty of watching the countryside go by began to wear thin and she retrieved a sketchpad and pack of coloured pencils from her bag and spread them out over the table in front of her. For a while Jonton watched her drawing, before turning back to the view outside.

The train sped northeast, following the Kolan coastline for a while, then leaving it far behind. Jonton rested his chin in his hands and stared out the window at a countryside speckled with sparse copses of Kerm trees surrounded by lenticular patches of Blight, each marking the site of a new Grove planted to make use of every last scrap of land.  Other, more overt signs of war, were clear to see: a convoy of camouflage painted trucks waiting at a level crossing, a backhoe loader escorted by a squad of armoured cars, a ragged pall of smoke hanging over a distant town or Grove. Jonton glanced at Joenie, relieved to see her still engrossed in her drawing. Then he took a closer look at the patchwork of shapes she was colouring in, and sighed.

"What are you drawing, Joenie?"

Joenie looked up. "It's a picture for Jonelle. I'm trying to draw all the colours she shows me when I'm talking to her."

Jonton nodded, suddenly very glad that they'd been given a private compartment again. "That's what I thought. I think Jonelle knows all about those though. Why don't you draw something else for her - maybe some flowers or that paper mallek you made with Enely, or Adbas's new raft."

A flicker of guilt showed in Joenie's eyes. "What new raft?"

"The one that Thombal made for him," said Jonton gently. "The one that he took his other friends to see the other morning when you were talking to Jonelle." He raised his hand. "I know that you like her - and I'm glad that she likes you too - but you need to leave some time for your other friends as well. Believe it or not, you'll even make Jonelle happier that way."

An all too familiar, mutinous expression appeared on Joenie's face. Jonton counted to ten under his breath. "Listen to me please, Joenie - not as your father but as a Keeper." He paused, collecting his thoughts. "A Keeper's job is to look after their Kerm. Which is a funny sort of job when you think about because they're quite capable of looking after themselves." Jonton rubbed the scar on his forehead. "So what do you think it means - how do you look after a Kerm?"

Joenie's brow furrowed. "Jonelle says she gets lonely," she said at last. "Do other Kerm get lonely too?"

"They do," said Jonton. "Not as much as Jonelle, I don't think, but they do. Even before Elton Awoke, it was always very easy to tell if he thought I'd been away for too long. But even more than that, he was always very curious about things that were happening outside his Grove. Do you remember the pictures of Grandma I showed you when I was still part of Elton?" He waited for Joenie's answering nod. "Where do you think those pictures came from? They couldn't have come from me - I was still in Grandma's pouch, remember."

"You looked grumpy," said Joenie. "Did the pictures come from Grandpa?"

"Exactly!" Jonton gestured at her sketchpad. "It sounds a bit silly but Kerm are trees - they don't have eyes. Their world is all about smells but kerbals aren't very good at understanding those." He tapped his head. "All those colours you see when you're talking to Jonelle aren't real - they're just your brain trying to make sense of all the smells that Jonelle is trying to share with you. Having eyes - being able to see things - is a very strange idea for a Kerm and it fascinates them. Even more than keeping their Kerm company, a Keeper's main job is to show them the world that they cannot see for themselves.

Jonton smiled. "I remember when the kerman first started flying rockets out at Barkton. They invited everyone - especially the Keepers - from the nearby Groves to go and see their factory and ask them any questions about the rockets and what they wanted to do with them, so Patbro and Ludvis and I all went. I came home late that night and stayed up for a while with your mother. You were only just big enough for her to take you out of her pouch and let me hold you..." Jonton shook his head. "Anyway, that night was one of the longest nights I'd ever spent Communing, Elton was so excited. I don't know how much he understood - I didn't really understand it all myself - but he wanted to see everything."

"I've never seen a rocket," said Joenie. "Well, only on television."

"If they start flying again, perhaps we could both go and watch a launch together," said Jonton. "But it doesn't matter - there are all sorts of other things you could share with Jonelle. Even if they're not very exciting to you, remember that she'll probably won’t have seen anything like them in before in her whole life."

"Does that mean I'll be Jonelle's Keeper?"

"If you wanted to be. Jonelle is a very young Kerm. I think you could be a good Keeper for her."  Jonton's eyes glistened. "As good as your Mum was." He bowed his head, hiding his face for a minute before looking up again. "It's a big, important job, sweetheart and you'd be by far the youngest Keeper I’ve ever met. If that's too scary then I'd understand." He looked at his daughter with pride. "You don't have to tell me now. If you want to talk to another Keeper who isn't your old Dad, then I'm sure Enely would be able to help you.”

There was a knock on their cabin door and a muffled "Anything from the trolley?" Jonton got to his feet. 

"Is it that time already? How about we see what they've got for lunch.”


 

Edited by KSK

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13 hours ago, KSK said:

Bar-katon

Cabaralb

Do I spy some Old Kerba here? Let us dissect:

Spoiler

bar-katon:

bar = Owner/possesion

kat = forest

on- = dependence on, used as suffix, independence of, not dependent on

 

Full meaning: Owner of independence from the forest, Cause of independence from the forest? (bal-katon would be better for that)

 

 

Cabaralb:

Cabara = to shelter

-lb = unknow n, probably the tense, possibly one of the yet unknown ones as it doesn't fit any know tense and future and past tenses are unknown so far

 

Full meaning: Place that shelters/sheltered/will shelter or something like that

Also added to the document I have for this: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1r0eDcf2dWf6_HwHZTgiDGwFXxOZ7Qxv-LyD2Jgpj8u0/edit

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On 6/3/2018 at 12:48 PM, superstrijder15 said:

Do I spy some Old Kerba here? Let us dissect:

  Hide contents

bar-katon:

bar = Owner/possesion

kat = forest

on- = dependence on, used as suffix, independence of, not dependent on

Full meaning: Owner of independence from the forest, Cause of independence from the forest? (bal-katon would be better for that)

Cabaralb:

Cabara = to shelter

-lb = unknow n, probably the tense, possibly one of the yet unknown ones as it doesn't fit any know tense and future and past tenses are unknown so far

 

Full meaning: Place that shelters/sheltered/will shelter or something like that

Also added to the document I have for this: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1r0eDcf2dWf6_HwHZTgiDGwFXxOZ7Qxv-LyD2Jgpj8u0/edit

You do indeed - good spot! :) 

Spoiler

 

You're correct with the first one. Bar-katon translates to possessing or owning freedom from the forest. Dates back to the ending of the Age of Madness when the split between kermolia and kerman happened. Freedom from the forest (and by extension the Kerm) was thus a very symbolic name.

As for Cabaralb - from the information you have that's spot on. Not sure if I've used alba (water) before, so that could have been a bit of a curveball, and I've also thrown in a contraction for good measure (linguistic drift and all that). The original name was Cabarad-alba, which translates literally to 'we shelter water' (cabarad = 1st person plural of cabara). That can either be taken very literally - Cabaralb is a coastal settlement (probably a fishing village originally) and harbour, so fresh water (rather than salt) may have been at a relative premium. Alternatively it can be translated to 'we shelter from water', where the 'from' is implied from context. Which would be an apt, if not particularly creative, name for a coastal town.

In a similar vein, Olbinat (now corrected in the text from Olbinad - thank you!) is a contraction of Bolad-binat. Having had a quick look at your dictionary I don't think you have any of those words, although you could probably guess what bol denotes, by comparison to bel and bal. :) 

Bol - place where something is accomplished. Bolad - 1st person plural form.
Binat - to understand.
Bolad-binat - 'place which we use to understand' or, more colloquially, 'place where we learn'. 

Olbinat is the nearest town to the Berelgan Institute, so calling it 'place where we learn' is another apt, if not especially creative, name! 

 

 

Edited by KSK

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Spoiler

Ooh, I had missed that last one, probably because indeed I missed all the needed words. The second one was indeed not guessable due to a lack of words for water and because contractions are really hard, but today marks a great increase of 4 words to my vocabulary list:

alba = water

bol = place of accomplishing

binat = to understand

bolad-binat = university/research complex (you didn't outright say it, but it is the translation that makes sense.)

But this raises the question 'How DO they do the past tenses in Old Kerba?' And of course 'What is the verb 'to accomplish?' if I had to guess, I'd flip a coin between 'bil' and 'bul' :D

 

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1 hour ago, superstrijder15 said:
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Ooh, I had missed that last one, probably because indeed I missed all the needed words. The second one was indeed not guessable due to a lack of words for water and because contractions are really hard, but today marks a great increase of 4 words to my vocabulary list:

alba = water

bol = place of accomplishing

binat = to understand

bolad-binat = university/research complex (you didn't outright say it, but it is the translation that makes sense.)

But this raises the question 'How DO they do the past tenses in Old Kerba?' And of course 'What is the verb 'to accomplish?' if I had to guess, I'd flip a coin between 'bil' and 'bul' :D

Spoiler

Good question. :) I can think of a couple of options.

1. The French (and probably other languages too) perfect tense construction of auxiliary verb + past participle, as a basic past tense. In French the auxiliary verb for most verbs is avoir - to have, so read literally, the past tense becomes "I have 'verb'ed, where 'verb' is obviously your action of choice. 

The past participle bit is easy - take the infinitive, remove the t and replace with dj. So soathat (to fly) becomes soathadj. The d is silent and j is pronounced like the j in judge in English or for that matter, like the dj in djeng or djan in modern Kerba. :) 

I havn't figured out what the verb 'to have' is in Old Kerba yet! I'll have a think about that because it would be nice to have another tense. I could also pinch the immediate future construction from French and use the verb 'to go' + infinitive to indicate future tense. Again, I'd need to figure out the requisite auxilliary verb first.

2.  Use a Latin style construction. Borrowed from this website, it would seem that I just need to think up a suitable verb ending to indicate each tense. So for example:

soathat (to fly) -  soathr (he flies) - soathrdj (he flew) 

Or something like that for a past tense. I'm tentatively leaning towards the latter, since being able to parse the subject and the tense of a verb from a single word fits quite well with other bits of Old Kerba grammar, particularly the lack of pronouns. Either way you can tell I'm an English speaker - I'm building a fictional language by mugging other languages and shaking them down for loose grammar. :)

 

Edited by KSK

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1 hour ago, KSK said:
Spoiler

 

2.  Use a Latin style construction. Borrowed from this website, it would seem that I just need to think up a suitable verb ending to indicate each tense. So for example:

soathat (to fly) -  soathr (he flies) - soathrdj (he flew) 

Or something like that for a past tense. I'm tentatively leaning towards the latter, since being able to parse the subject and the tense of a verb from a single word fits quite well with other bits of Old Kerba grammar, particularly the lack of pronouns. Either way you can tell I'm an English speaker - I'm building a fictional language by mugging other languages and shaking them down for loose grammar. :)

 

 

Spoiler

This one indeed seems the most fitting to Old Kerba. If you can also find a set of suffixes that would also work as prefixes, then with the established 'prefix = anti-suffix' method you have both a past and a future tense! For pronouncebility I advise you do not use something like -dj though, but something with a vowel in it.

Also, why are we still using spoilers? it made sense when we were deciphering things so others could read on and avoid spoilers, but now?

 

7 hours ago, KSK said:
Spoiler

'we shelter water' (cabarad = 2nd person plural

 

we = 1st person plural

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22 minutes ago, superstrijder15 said:
  Hide contents

This one indeed seems the most fitting to Old Kerba. If you can also find a set of suffixes that would also work as prefixes, then with the established 'prefix = anti-suffix' method you have both a past and a future tense! For pronouncebility I advise you do not use something like -dj though, but something with a vowel in it.

Also, why are we still using spoilers? it made sense when we were deciphering things so others could read on and avoid spoilers, but now?

we = 1st person plural

Oh - I like that idea. Works with existing grammar and wouldn't be quite so blatantly cribbed from Latin grammar. Yup - that's what we'll go with - I'll give some thought to a suitable afix.

Good catch on 1st vs 2nd person plurals - thanks.

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Quick question: why are you guys putting these grammar questions in spoilers?

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6 hours ago, GKSP said:

Quick question: why are you guys putting these grammar questions in spoilers?

Well, I started with a spoiler so others could try deciphering independently. Then I just continued with them for no reason whatsoever.

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Holy kraken krap I can't believe I missed 4 chapters

Here's the new download links for the volume 3 file, along with volumes 1 & 2 as usual

First Flight Volume I.pdf (1.76 MB)

First Flight Volume II.pdf (1.90 MB)

First Flight Volume III.pdf (2.21 MB)

As always, thank you @KSK for this incredible trilogy, which is now at 335,729 words! (according to MS word at least) Soon I'll have to make a 4th volume after Word starts breaking on me again!

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1 hour ago, Plecy75 said:

Holy kraken krap I can't believe I missed 4 chapters

 

Don’t feel bad. I probably nagged @KSK the most yet I’m still not done giving these a proper read.  :blush:

But yay, numbers! crap, did I just say that?

1 hour ago, Plecy75 said:

s always, thank you @KSK for this incredible trilogy, which is now at 335,729 words! 

So, for comparison, First Flight surpassed the longest Dark Tower novel many and many-a, (TDT @ 272k), beats all but the top four Wheel of Time books, has pulled ahead of Anna Karenina (349k) but not quite reached The Brothers Karamozov (364k), towers over The Fountainhead (311k), and is right smack in the middle of George R. R. Martin territory (please don’t start killing everyone and for Kerm’s sake, no weddings!). The Lord of the Rings, the One Epic to Rule Them All, looms ahead at 455,125.  :D That’s some respectable peers right there.

For further comparison, the title of longest novel ever remains with A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth @ 591,554 words. 

You’re more than halfway there. :cool:

Now, back to reading...

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5 hours ago, Plecy75 said:

Holy kraken krap I can't believe I missed 4 chapters

Here's the new download links for the volume 3 file, along with volumes 1 & 2 as usual

First Flight Volume I.pdf (1.76 MB)

First Flight Volume II.pdf (1.90 MB)

First Flight Volume III.pdf (2.21 MB)

As always, thank you @KSK for this incredible trilogy, which is now at 335,729 words! (according to MS word at least) Soon I'll have to make a 4th volume after Word starts breaking on me again!

Well the last three chapters did arrive in fairly quick succession. :) The next one is taking a little longer than expected (stop me if you've heard this before) mainly because it's turning out to be  longer than expected. A quick word count this morning put it at a shade over 6,200 words, so its one of my longer chapters and its not quite done yet.

And as always, thank you in return for your excellent work in keeping the downloadable versions up to date!

As for a fourth volume... We're approaching the next story milestone (as I think of them) or more likely two of them back to back. By milestone, I'm talking about a Moho 1 or Pioneer 4 or Elton's awakening sort of chapter. After that we really are into the final straight, although I don't have much of an idea how that's going to work yet, so it could be a straight littered with hurdles, pitfalls, gronnek traps, and probably a very confused looking RatSquirrelFish popping in from a parallel dimension. Don't take this last one too seriously.

So yeah, a fourth volume may be required. :)

4 hours ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

Don’t feel bad. I probably nagged @KSK the most yet I’m still not done giving these a proper read.  :blush:

But yay, numbers! crap, did I just say that?

So, for comparison, First Flight surpassed the longest Dark Tower novel many and many-a, (TDT @ 272k), beats all but the top four Wheel of Time books, has pulled ahead of Anna Karenina (349k) but not quite reached The Brothers Karamozov (364k), towers over The Fountainhead (311k), and is right smack in the middle of George R. R. Martin territory (please don’t start killing everyone and for Kerm’s sake, no weddings!).

Crikey - that puts this adventure into context. Although I'm now thinking that it's a...

Nice day for a... red wedding. It's a nice day to... start again.

4 hours ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

For further comparison, the title of longest novel ever remains with A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth @ 591,554 words. 

You’re more than halfway there. :cool:

And still livin' on a prayer. :) 

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You know, I was just thinking. Someone should really make this into a movie.

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Ah, what can I say here? So much good stuff!:D

On 6/1/2018 at 11:45 PM, KSK said:

He closed his eyes and for a moment the bare metal compartment around him lit up with display screens and control boards.

Lodan strikes me as a pretty severe pragmatist, one not easily taken to flights of fancy. If he can see the light at the end... :cool:

 

And the whole segment with Jonton and Joenie traveling, the scenes of the building conflict, the deserted town... expertly written, like a fellow who’s got a few hundred thousand or so words under his belt. :wink: Joenie is really starting to come in to her own as a character, and has grown up quite a bit I think, in more ways than one. 

Also:

On 6/2/2018 at 3:12 PM, KSK said:

The waitress put a bowl of flatbread strips "for mopping up" in the middle of the table and left them to their meal. 

More meals should include flatbread! ^_^

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On 6/6/2018 at 6:34 PM, Plecy75 said:

You know, I was just thinking. Someone should really make this into a movie.

:) 

Do you reckon we could persuade Denis Villeneuve to do it? I'm a big fan of his sci-fi films and he seems to have the directing chops in other genres too.  If anyone could do a historical spaceflight/war/First Contact movie it would be him. Plus after watching Arrival, I'm just plain intrigued to see what he'd do with the Kerm and all the various Communion scenes!

6 hours ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

Ah, what can I say here? So much good stuff!:D

Lodan strikes me as a pretty severe pragmatist, one not easily taken to flights of fancy. If he can see the light at the end... :cool:

And the whole segment with Jonton and Joenie traveling, the scenes of the building conflict, the deserted town... expertly written, like a fellow who’s got a few hundred thousand or so words under his belt. :wink: Joenie is really starting to come in to her own as a character, and has grown up quite a bit I think, in more ways than one. 

Also:

More meals should include flatbread! ^_^

Awww - thanks! :blush: Can't go wrong with flatbread.

As Ten Key noted, this isn't really a big character story, so I'm always glad when a particular character does chime with someone. The last chapter was very much intended to be a peek at Joenie growing up, so I'm doubly glad that worked! Oddly enough, she was singled out for comments (in a positive but slightly different context) by the folks over on Spacebattles too. They tend to pick up on very different aspects of the story than the comments on this thread, so having both sets of readers come out with character comments... 

Yeah. :) 

 

I'm hoping to have the next chapter out by the weekend . We've got guests over at the moment but Sunday afternoon is looking fairly free and the next chapter is about done. It might end up being a submit-post-and-go-to-bed job though.

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Next chapter is up...

 

Lab Coats and Lapel Badges

“Well, at least we got to see the Capital building.”

“I suppose.” Joenie rested her chin in her hands and stared out of the carriage window. “I wanted to go to the Grand Gardens too and see all the cactuses that Enely told me about. And I wanted to see the Wildlife Museum of Kerbin. And I wanted to go back to the cafe. There were people there - not like that other town.” Joenie made a face. “I’m bored of trains - when do we get to the Berelgan?”

“Not until this evening,” said Jonton. “I’ll be glad to get there as well.” He took a drink of tepid water from his bottle and grimaced. “I wish we could go back to that cafe too - one of their crushed ice sapwoods would taste really good about now.”

“With mint.” said Joenie, making Jonton smile.

“Not for me. We should grow some when we get home though. Fresh prickleberry juice and mint on a hot afternoon?” Jonton smacked his lips, sighed and took another mouthful of water. “I spy with my…” He saw the look on Joenie’s face and relented. “You’ll like the Berelgan when we get there. It’s not quite the same as the Grand Gardens - they have a lot of plants but most of them are for eating and they do quite a bit of research into how to make them tastier or better for you. But the really interesting thing they’re doing is working out how to grow plants on another planet.”

“What?” Joenie’s head snapped round. “The Mün?”

Jonton shook his head. “Duna. You can see it in the sky sometimes but it’s so far away that all you can see is a little red dot. The kerman have sent robot spaceships there already to take pictures and test the soil. As far as they can tell, it’s just looks like a big desert; lots of dust and dirt but no proper soil. The air is too thin to breathe properly and it’s freezing cold - so cold that there are places where you can find huge sheets of ice buried under the dirt.” Jonton rubbed his forehead. “So it’s a really, really hard place to grow plants but the scientists at the Berelgan are trying to work out how to do it so we can send people to Duna and not just robots.”

Joenie’s eyes lit up. “Jonelle could help them! She’s been showing me how to mend the soil in our garden - she could tell the scientists how to turn dirt into proper soil!”

“Maybe with some help from Elton,” her father agreed. “Do you remember when Professor Erlin and his friends came to visit? It was just after we made your sandpit and I showed you the worms?”

“With the yellow beads?”

“That’s right. I showed Professor Erlin the worms too and he got very excited because he thought I could help them.” Jonton tapped his chest. “They thought I could be a talking Kerm who could understand their experiments and tell them if they’d worked or not. But now they might be able to just ask Elton or Jonelle to teach them all they need to know.”

Joenie gave him a doubtful look. “I don’t know if Jonelle would talk to them.”

Unless you were there too, Jonton thought. Which I’m not so sure about. “Maybe not,” he agreed. “Perhaps they should just talk to Elton to start with.”

Joenie scrunched up her face in thought. “Hold on - I thought you were going to help Professor Erlin become part of his own Kerm. Couldn’t he be his own talking Kerm?”

“Probably,” Jonton held up his hands. “I don’t know how much the scientists already know, Joenie. If they still need to do a lot of experiments then having Elton or Jonelle to help them might make things faster, but I’m just guessing.”

“Okay.” Joenie took her sketchpad out of her bag and began doodling on it, a faraway look in her eyes. Jonton watched her for a moment before retreating back into his second book of the journey.

By the time the train pulled in at Olbinat station, both travellers were tired and saddle-sore. Joenie dragged herself out of her seat and followed her father onto the platform, scowling at the other passengers around her. She dropped her bag and clamped her hands over her ears at the sudden raucous announcement that the the train from the Capital had arrived on platform 2. Jonton grabbed the abandoned luggage and found a place by a pillar for them to stand and wait for the crowd to disperse. He looked down the platform and, much to his relief, saw a poncho-clad kerbal holding aloft a signboard with their names printed on it. He tapped Joenie on the shoulder and pointed. “This way, sweetheart.”

“Jonton? Joenie? Good to see you - I’m…” Their companion winced as another announcement blasted out of the speakers overhead. “Kerm’s sake. Sorry - I’m Mallas. I’ve got a car waiting outside, so if you’ll follow me, we’ll get out of this madhouse.” He led them along the platform and across the main concourse, nimbly avoiding the worst of the crowds. Looking around, Jonton noticed the absence of soldiers around the station although he cast a puzzled look at a group of workers by the exit, dressed in blue boiler suits, with what appeared to be a lopsided white cross emblazoned on the chest pocket.

“Whew, that’s better.” Fragrant blossom fluttered down from a single enormous sapwood tree planted on a grassy island in the middle of the car park and tall leatherbark trees shaded the parking bays from the the evening sun. “Wish they could plant more greenery inside the station too.” Mallas stopped by a dusty off-roader. “It’s a bit of a drive to the Berelgan I’m afraid but there’s a cooler in the back with ice water, bread and fruit in, if you’re needing a bite of supper. Hop in.”

By the time they’d left Olbinat behind, Jonton and Joenie were both onto their second bottle of ice water. Joenie held hers against her head, letting the beads of condensation trickle down her face. Jonton tore a hunk of bread off the loaf and chewed on it as he watched the fields roll by outside. 

They drove through a belt of woodland before emerging into fields again, these planted with a wider range of crops and laid out in neat grids. Copses of trees and the occasional low roofed building broke the monotony, and hedgerows large and small festooned the landscape, marking out roads and separating one field from the next.  Mallas pointed out one of the larger copses. “That’s our sapwood plot. One of the oldest parts of the Berelgan and very popular with the staff. Wild sapwood prefer marshes and wet soils - one of the first serious research programmes carried out here was to breed a variety that could thrive in drier conditions. Most of the sapwoods you’ll see outside the tropics are descended from our trees.”

Joenie’s eyelids began to droop as the conversation turned to root networks and soil types. She perked up briefly at a mention of worm trails but soon her chin dropped onto her chest and her eyes closed. By the time Mallas turned in through a turreted brick archway and stopped by the gatehouse, she was fast asleep. The lowered voices and muted clunks of carefully closed car doors didn’t disturb her, nor did the lowing of a startled creva, as it galloped away from their headlights. 

The next thing she knew was Jonton’s hand on her shoulder shaking her awake. “Wake up, Joenie,  we’re here.”

There was a soft crunching of gravel outside followed by murmured voices. The back of the car whooshed open, the cool night air playing across her face. Joenie stirred, squinting at the lights outside, sensing the looming bulk of buildings around her.

“We’ll get you folks to your rooms,” Mallas said softly. “Let you get back to sleep, Joenie, and I don’t expect your dad will be long after you. Long way from Barkton by train - don’t envy you that journey at all.”

———————

Sleeping in a proper bed and bathing in a proper moss room the next morning did much to restore Joenie's good mood and after a quiet word from her father to one of the catering staff produced a bowl of fresh mint leaves for her breakfast juice, she began to feel positively cheerful. She looked up at the sudden knock at the door before turning her attention back to her second bowl of cold natas and sliced fruit. Jonton put his mug down and wiped his mouth. “Come in.” 

His eyebrows shot up at the sight of a familiar figure in the doorway. “Obrett! It’s good to see you again.”

Obrett stepped into the small, private dining room. “It’s good to see you too, Jonton. Thank you for coming so quickly.” She sat down at the table and poured herself a small coffee. “Good morning, Joenie.”

Joenie swallowed a mouthful of cereal. “g’morning.”

“I’m sorry we couldn’t be here earlier,” said Jonton quietly. “How is Professor Erlin?”

“Tired but doing well, all things considered,” Obrett replied. She gave Jonton a look. “Or so he tells us. Neither Gusemy nor I have asked him to Commune with us yet, and so far he hasn’t offered.”

Jonton nodded. “It’’s… not easy the first few times,” he said. “If I’d known as much, I wouldn’t have been in such a hurry to invoke my Right with Donman. It took me a long time to pluck up the courage to Commune with Ger… with anyone else.”

 The corners of Obrett’s eyes crinkled in sympathy. “I can believe that.” She saw Joenie staring out of the window, drumming her feet on the table leg. “I think we’re all finished here. Shall we go?”

Joenie hopped off her chair and made for the door. “I thought we were never leaving.”

“Joenie,” said Jonton warningly. Obrett just chuckled. 

“Quite right. Easier if I go first I think - this building is like a gronnek warren.”

They followed her along one wood-panelled corridor after another, including a long portrait gallery that Jonton had no recollection of from the previous night. Finally, they descended an ornately carved staircase, into a marble-floored entrance hall. Jonton blinked at the unexpectedly grand decor as Joenie ran on ahead, shoes clattering on the polished stone. A set of double doors led out into the Berelgan grounds, down a flight of, no less ornately carved, stone steps. They found an open-mouthed Joenie at their foot, staring at the Berelgan grounds stretched out before her.

Jonton took a deep lungful of air, savouring the smell of dew on grass, the rich aromas of greenery from the surrounding fields and even the earthier scent of distant livestock. He joined Joenie at the foot of the steps and surveyed the fields and glasshouses, feeling himself relax for what seemed like the first time in weeks.

“Where are all the Kerm, Dad? There’s hardly any trees anywhere.”

“They don’t have many Kerm here, Joenie.” Jonton pointed at the belt of woodland on the horizon. “I think they’ll have some with the rest of the trees over there but apart from that, all the crops are looked after by scientists and farmers.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re trying to work out how the Kerm manage to look after so many different plants. So the scientists try to copy the soil around the Kerm trees and then they compare how well different crops grow in their copied soil compared to the ones growing in proper Kerm soil.

Joenie frowned as she thought it over. “I suppose.” She cocked her head on one side. “Where are they learning to grow plants on Duna?”

Beside her, Obrett sucked in her breath. Joenie looked at her in confusion. “Dad told me about it on the train. They are aren’t they? Learning to grow plants on Duna I mean.”

“They are.” Obrett pointed at five domed glasshouses arranged in a cloverleaf pattern and linked by tubular walkways. Each of the domes was built from panels of frosted glass and three of them were tinted in different shades of butterscotch brown. Three sturdier looking domes stood apart from the main complex. “In those glasshouses over there.”

“Could I see them?”

Obrett smiled at the enthusiasm in her voice. “I’m sure that could be arranged. I have to take your dad to see Professor Erlin first though.”

Joenie nodded sagely. “So that dad can help him become part of his Kerm.” She didn’t see the wondering expression on Obrett’s face.

“That’s right. They’ll probably have a lot to talk about” Obrett raised her eyebrows at Jonton.

“I expect we will,” Jonton agreed. “Especially if Professor Erlin wants to practice Communing.”

“I hope so,” said Obrett. She turned to face Joenie. “Either way, we should have plenty of time to visit the Project.” She walked over to the off-roader, left where Mallas had parked it the night before. “It’s quite a long way to Professor Erlin’s Grove though, so I think we’d be better off driving there.”

——————


Joenie stared wide-eyed around the dimly lit glasshouse. The frosted glass walls grudgingly admitted the bright morning sunlight outside, their yellowish tint diffusing it into a uniform ochre haze which turned her skin a lifeless shade of murky green. Half of the space inside was sectioned off with more glass walls, behind them, white-coated scientists worked at their benches; the brighter light from assorted display screens penetrating the gloom. The rest of the glasshouse was taken up with evenly sized plots of dirt and gravel, dotted with patches of scabrous grey-green growths, and separated by boardwalks and low wooden fences. Joenie sniffed at the air, surprised by the smells of flint and dust rather than damp and mould.

Another pair of scientists looking, she thought, rather ridiculous in short laboratory coats and knee length rubber boots, were hunkered down by one of the plots, scraping samples into small glass jars. One of them looked up and waved at her. Startled she recognised Mallas’s face from the night before.

“Hi Joenie! Welcome to Duna!”

Joenie blinked. “It’s very dark,” she said doubtfully.

“Well the real Duna is lot further away from Kerbol than Kerbin is, so it gets less daylight.” Mallas screwed a lid onto one of his sample jars. “So if you’re working out how to grow plants there, the first thing you need to do is get the light right.” He smiled. “You get used to it pretty quickly.”

Joenie leaned over the nearest plot and studied the vegetation growing on it. She reached out to touch the nearest patch of crusty grey then thought better of it and settled for bending over to study the growth up close. “Why are you growing lichen and not clover?”

Mallas’ companion gave her a startled look. Mallas put his jars in his lab coat pocket and came over to join her. “Clover would be better,” he agreed, “but lichens are tougher and good at breaking down rocks into useful minerals.”

“To feed other plants?”

“Exactly. We won’t have Kerm on Duna - not to begin with anyway - so we’re trying to work out other ways of turning sand and dirt into something like soil. And without a Kerm to control the whole system we need something as simple as we can get away with.” His companion snorted and Mallas held up his hands.

“Okay, okay, simple is maybe the wrong word.” He paused, looking at Joenie’s expectant expression. “Do you know about evolution?”

Joenie shook her head.

“Well the whole thing is a bit complicated but plants and animals can change over time to fit in better with their environment and help them live longer. Which is a problem for all sorts of reasons but one of those reasons is that the Kerm have been helping us grow crops for so long now that all the insects and worms and other things that live in the soil have got used to having the Kerm around to tell them what to do…”

“Like Jonelle’s tapestry.” Joenie interrupted. “She’s teaching me how to read it but it’s complicated too. Probably as complicated as evolution.” She saw Mallas’s confused expression. “I think the tapestry is how she tells everything in the soil what to do, like you were saying.”

Mallas blinked. “Jonelle is a Kerm?”

“Uh-huh. She’s my best friend. Well - after Adbas anyway,” Joenie added dutifully. “Dad thinks I need to spend more time with Adbas and the other kerblets in the village, so I can show Jonelle what they’re like.”

Mallas rubbed his forehead. “That sounds… right,” he said slowly. “But aren’t you a little… well young for all of that.”

“Dad says I could be the youngest Keeper he’s ever met,” said Joenie, “maybe the youngest that Elton has ever met too.” 

The other scientist made a startled noise. “You know Elton?”

“Uh-huh. He’s really old. I used to be a bit scared of him but he’s okay now that he’s got Jonelle. I think maybe he was a bit lonely before she woke up too.”

“Joenie is Jonton’s daughter,” said Obrett, throwing the two scientists a warning look. “I’m showing her around whilst he’s talking to Erlin.”

“She’ll have plenty of time to see everything then,” Mallas said with a grin. “Once the Prof get’s talking he’s hard to stop.”

“That’s what Elton says about Dad,” said Joenie. “Sometimes he complains that Dad can’t say anything without turning it into a long story but I think he’s just teasing.”

Curiosity burned behind Mallas’s eyes, but he contented himself with a rueful shake of his head. “A Kerm with a sense of humour? That’ll take some getting used to. Maybe when the Prof’s… never mind.” He smiled at Joenie, “How would you like to see the lab?”

Joenie nodded eagerly. Mallas disappeared inside and, much to her delight, returned with a white coat which he held out for her. “You’ll need a proper lab coat first. Let me help you with the sleeves - there you go. Hmmm - bit big still. He fished a handful of test tube clips out of his pocket and knelt down beside her. “Let’s see if we can pin this up a bit. It won’t look very elegant but it’ll stop you tripping over.” Finally, he removed a blue elasticated cap from his pocket. “Better put one of these on too. That’s it - tuck your hair up first.” He studied her for a moment. “Good enough. Right then Dr Joenie - if you’d like to follow me?”

After an interminable wait in the locker room for the adults to change their shoes and find a lab coat for Obrett, Joenie trotted into the laboratory behind Mallas, oblivious to the smiles from the other scientists. Her nose wrinkled at the unfamiliar smells as she stared in fascination at the row of microscopes on one bench, the strange instruments on another and the racks of test tubes and complicated tubing all laid out in their own glass doored cabinet.

“You can use my bench - up you get.” Mallas waited for Joenie to clamber onto his stool before busying himself at the fume cupboard. He returned with a slide, coverslip fixed in place and set it under his stereo microscope. “I’ve got some soil worms here. They’re only tiny but they’re really important. Take a look.” He guided her hands to the focus controls. “Use this one first until you can see something, then this one to make it clearer.”

Joenie peered into the eyepieces, forehead furrowed in concentration as she turned the focus knob. “There they are! Ewww, that one’s ugly. And that one’s only got a tail. Why is it still wriggling if it’s only got a tail?”

Mallas looked puzzled for a moment, before his face cleared. “You can move the slide, Joenie. Rest your hand here by these little wheels - this one moves it up and down and this one moves it from side to side.”

“Ohhh. I found it! I found its head! That one’s ugly too.”

“Is it the same as the first one?”

Joenie spun the stage controls back and forth. “I think so… no - that one’s got a pointy head instead of a round one.” She looked up, blinking water out of her eyes. “What colour are they?”

Mallas looked puzzled. “I’m not sure what you mean. I added a drop of stain to make them easier to see but apart from that I don’t think they really have a colour.”

Realisation dawned on Obrett’s face. “Not that sort of colour. You’re talking about Jonelle’s tapestry again aren’t you, Joenie?” The lab came to a gradual standstill, scientists abandoning their experiments to listen as Obrett described her long-ago Communion with Jonton and being shown the worm pheromone trails in Joenie’s sandpit.

“You can’t see the worms,” said Joenie, looking up from the microscope again. “Just the yellow beads they leave behind for other worms to chase. Dad told me they were playing,” she confided to Mallas. “but I think they wanted to make baby worms.”

There was a hastily smothered chuckle from another bench. Mallas did his best to keep a straight face. 

“She’ll know more about it than you, Mallas,” somebody called out.

“With two sapient Kerm to teach her? She probably does,” came the good humoured reply. “If you ask her nicely, she might be able persuade them both to teach you dunderheads too.”

Obrett saw Joenie’s eyes light up. “I think,” she said firmly, “that we’ll need to speak to Jonton and Professor Erlin first.” 

Mallas caught her glancing at her watch. “That would seem wise. Tell you what - I’ll go find Ambassador Gusemy and take him over to the Grove now, if he’s not there already. One of us can bring Jonton back here once he’s finished with the Prof, and we can have a quiet word with him then.” He smiled at the engrossed kerblet bent over his microscope again. “I don’t think you’ll have a problem finding something to do whilst you wait.”

———————

“Good afternoon, Director.”

“And a good afternoon to you also, Bill.” Lodan shook the proffered hand. “I presume you’ve received the news from Foxham?”

“About the test flight? Yes.” Bill smiled faintly. “It was the right decision, even if it wasn’t quite where we thought our booster would be going. Being able to start construction with the Type Six will save a considerable amount of time.” He held the door open for Lodan. “After you, Director. I believe you know the way.”

“Thank you.” Lodan waited for Bill to fall in alongside him. “Ademone informs me that the new fairing will be able to accommodate the bridge modules and the redesigned forward shelter module.”

Bill nodded. “And the spokes. We’ve been running extensive tests with the mockup sections and the mission planning team have reviewed Nelton’s latest EVA sequencing report. Geneney thinks it looks plausible enough, although, like Nelton, he’s not committing anything to the checklist until we’ve tested the basic sequence in the Pool.” Bill checked his watch. “I think we’ll start with the PAL if you don’t mind, Director. Roncott’s team should be ready for us in VAB-2 by half past three.”

Lodan crossed the road to the Assembly and Fitting building and looked up at a dark rectangle of fresh paint, standing out against the lighter warehouse walls. “I see you finally dispensed with your sign.”

“Yes. Shervin - vice Chair at Stratus Inc - made some pointed comments about it and it turned out that several of our other old contractors were of a similar mind, although they were a little more diplomatic out of deference to Jeb. We haven’t decided on a new name yet - Geneney and Bob were in favour of Kerman Aerospace Engineering, although between ourselves, I think it’s a little bland.” Bill looked at Lodan. “And not especially tactful given how much support we’re getting from the Groves.”

“No,” said Lodan thoughtfully. “I don’t think President Obrick would be particularly impressed either. I certainly prefer an aerospace engineering company to a  junkyard and spacecraft parts company but for the moment, I believe that something more inclusive would be in order.” He stopped at the side entrance to VAB-2 and waited as Bill retrieved a key from round his neck. They stepped through into a narrow, concrete block corridor, Bill locking the door behind them. He led the KSA director past a row of offices and through a heavy fire door into the main assembly area.

“Excuse me a moment, Director.” Lodan watched Bill speak briefly to a group of coverall clad engineers. One of them hurried off and returned with a spare laboratory coat and dust cap, handing them both to him with an apologetic look. 

“Sorry, sir but…”

Lodan waved off the apology. “I wouldn’t expect anything less.” Donning his coat and cap, he walked around the large cylindrical spacecraft on its dolly, noting the undersized engine opposite a CORDS-3 docking adaptor mounted on a flared collar, the ring of thruster blocks mounted on one end, and the tangle of exposed plumbing where another ring had yet to be fitted. An open equipment bay occupied most of its upper surface, with a stowed photovoltaic array mounted along each flank. Squatting, Lodan found a third array mounted to its belly.

“We call it the PAL,” Bill said, squatting beside him. “For Power, Assembly and Logistics. I’ll spare you Jeb’s joke about it being every kerbonaut’s best friend. 

Lodan raised an eyebrow and stood up, being careful not to touch the bundle of cables plugged into the underside of the spacecraft. “I presume you intend to launch it separately? It looks rather too large to fit into a fairing with the forward shelter module.”

“We do,” Bill confirmed. “The flight plan isn’t so very different to a Pioneer flight - and actually, you could think of the PAL as a modified Pioneer service module. Rockomax will launch the station module, we’ll launch the PAL, and we’ll dock them together on-orbit. Both spacecraft are controlled remotely - we’re working on a fully autonomous docking system but we’re not quite there yet.”

“And once they’re docked, the PAL will ferry its module over to the space station?” A thought struck Lodan. “How do you maintain control of the station module before docking?”

“It stays attached to the the booster,” said Bill. “The Type Six upper stage is already equipped with the necessary attitude control thrusters. Again, we’ll be borrowing from the Pioneer flight profile with the PAL executing the payload extraction manoeuvre rather than the CSM. Once the station module is clear, the booster stage can be safely de-orbited.”

Lodan nodded. “And the bridge module is equipped with its own thrusters if I recall correctly.”

“Yes.” Bill walked over to an equipment cart and checked the cables connecting to the PAL systems. “If you would care to join me at the console, Director, or anywhere behind the yellow line, we can proceed with the demonstration.” He waited for Lodan to move back to a safe distance then touched a button.

A bundle of thick tubes, wrapped in what appeared to be white cloth and linked by solid, disc-like hubs emerged from the top of the PAL and unfolded into a mechanical arm, several metres in length. Bill touched a sequence of controls and the arm went through a series of movements, its different sections flexing, twisting and bending about each other. 

“Assembly,” said Bill. He flipped open a protective cage on the control panel and pressed the button underneath. One of the PAL’s photovoltaic array covers sprang open, the hinged panel beneath slowly extending to its full length. “And power. A lot of our work has been focused on defining the range of movements available to the manipulator arm and writing failsafes into its control codes to provide a safety zone around the photovoltaics.”

Lodan walked round to the back of the spacecraft and sighted along his upright hand, tipping it back and forth in thought. “I can certainly see where your manipulator would be helpful in docking the spoke modules,” he said. “But unless it’s a lot more flexible than it seems, I can’t see how it would be able to handle more than three of them without repositioning.”

Bill nodded. “You’re quite right, Director. Allowing for that safety zone I mentioned, it can’t handle more than three spokes. We did think about putting the docking adaptor on a rotary joint but never progressed that idea beyond the early design stages. Far simpler and more reliable to simply undock the PAL, rotate it to the desired attitude and re-dock.”

“That makes sense.” Lodan frowned. “You’ve put this all together in a remarkably short period of time.”

“As I mentioned, Director, the PAL is largely based on the Pioneer service module - you’ll recall that it was already fitted with an equipment bay. The SPS was somewhat overpowered for our requirements so we used a lander ascent engine instead. Goliath Products built the arm for us - it was originally commissioned for Munar resource extraction in the post-Pioneer 4 expansion but was put on hold as the Kerm Crisis developed. Goliath were one of the first of our contractors that Jeb approached once Stratus were back on board.”

“Excellent. I look forward to seeing it working on-orbit.” Lodan glanced at his watch. “I believe you mentioned that your team in VAB-2 would be ready for us by 3:30?”

“They ought to be,” Bill took Lodan’s lab coat and cap before removing his own protective clothing and handing them over to one of the engineers. “Thank you, Edsen.”

On the way over to VAB-2, Bill described the planned PAL operations in more detail, to an attentive Lodan. “We’ll be monitoring its systems throughout station assembly, especially the thrusters and propellant tanks. Once - if - Starseed moves into the main production phase, we’re hoping to have a number of PALs permanently on-orbit as space tugs for shuttling colony ship modules to their assembly sites. We expect they’ll also be used as auxiliary power modules for the ships during assembly, fitting and provisioning. Wernher is designing the LV-Ns as dual mode systems, capable of generating electrical power and thrust as required, but we’d prefer not to be running the reactors with that amount of traffic around them.

Lodan glanced at Bill’s serious expression. “No,” he agreed, deadpan. “That would seem to be an unnecessary complication.”

“My thoughts exactly, Director. After you.”

A group of engineers, dressed in the seemingly obligatory coveralls, stood in a loose group around a curious looking device that reminded Lodan of nothing so much as a broad cylindrical stack of folded towels packed between two aluminium discs, one of which was tethered to the floor. A rather larger group of more casually dressed onlookers stood back at a safe distance. One of the engineers stepped forward and glanced at Bill, who gave him a reassuring nod.

“Good, um, afternoon, Director. My name is Roncott Kerman, team leader for the pneumatics group.”

Lodan racked his brains for something to say. “A pleasure, Mr Roncott. Would that be Roncott as in Roncott actuator?” He was answered by a delighted look.

“That’s me, sir! Although the actuator was an, um, team effort - these things always are.” Roncott took a deep breath. “Anyway, you’re here for the demonstration, yes? Some background first then - it may help to um… explain why we’ve taken this approach.”  He stepped back and clasped his hands behind his back. “We’d been thinking about the spoke modules for the colony ships - and for your space station, sir - for quite some time. Building them was never going to be a particular problem, although their length did present some, um, interesting challenges compared to other habitation modules that we’ve launched in the past.”  

Roncott shook his head. “No, the real problem was always going to be transportation. Each spoke module is mostly empty space you see, which makes them, um, inefficient to launch. We could easily fit a single module into a standard Rockomax fairing but even their, uh, enlarged fairing isn’t big enough to hold two. And at two modules per spoke and eight spokes for a wheel, launching enough modules for, um, your space station would take a considerable number of flights, let alone the three wheels worth that the colony ship design requires. So we started thinking about collapsible modules but couldn’t think of a way of making them, um, robust enough.”

“Until you had an extraordinary idea,” said Bill. Roncott flushed dark green.

“I should have thought of it much sooner.” He gave Lodan a sheepish look. “I remembered the Pioneer Four launch, Director. One of the entertainments provided for all the kerblets that came to watch, was an, umm, bouncy castle and the more I thought about, the more that castle seemed to have the, um, properties we needed. It packed down flat, it expanded to quite a considerable size and, best of all, that expansion was created by inflating a relatively small number of tubes, rather than the whole structure.”

Lodan eyed the folded cylinder as Roncott continued. “Obviously launching a bouncy castle into space wasn’t going to work, haha, so I decided to speak to um, Halnie here. She’s in charge of the, Portable Systems Division at Stratus, where our EVA suits were developed. I thought she might be able to suggest some better construction materials. Um… over to you, Halnie.”

“Good afternoon, Director. As Roncott said, I’m in charge of the Stratus Portable Systems Division and - as you might expect - we have considerable experience in designing, manufacturing and manufacturing with, space-grade fabrics.” Halnie gestured at the spoke module behind her. “Naturally, we’ve prepared a full technical specification for the KSA, together with details of our test protocols and outcomes of those tests. To cut a long story short, Director, we were able to devise suitable laminate materials which combine the requisite air-tightness, tensile strength and impact resilience.”

“We fully appreciate that it’s not an easy idea to get to grips with.” Halnie offered Lodan a faint smile, “even Jeb dismissed it out of hand the first time he heard about it, but we believe that our fabrics offer some significant advantages over conventional spacecraft construction materials. The module is inflated using an onboard compressed air tank - another area in which Stratus have considerable experience.” 

One of the engineers wheeled an equipment cart over, which held a spherical pressure vessel and its regulator valve, secured within a steel framework. Halnie unreeled a length of hose, attaching one end to the spoke module and the other to the valve. “We use a relatively low inflation pressure to prevent any damage to the structure during the unpacking process.” She checked that both connections were secure and opened the valve.

With a sustained hissing of compressed air, the module began to expand. Lodan watched in fascination as the uppermost aluminium disc began to rise, lifted on a slowly inflating ring. The ring rose, pulling a dozen protruding tubes out from the stack of folded material, which gradually extended to reveal the fabric panels beneath. Cross-tubing appeared, zig-zagging between the ring and a second ring, emerging from the folds of fabric. The resulting lattice structure reminded him of the pressure hull for Ademone’s partially completed bridge module. 

The structure wobbled. Lodan looked sidelong at Halnie, who looked back at him unperturbed. The last of the rings pulled taut, followed by the last sections of cross-tubing then, with a final quiver from the now fully-extended spoke, the hissing stopped. Halnie unplugged the hose and rolled the equipment cart to one side before turning to Lodan with a smile. “I’m afraid this is just a proof of concept model, Director - it’s not full-size and the endplates are just simple bulkheads, so there’s no way inside. The next prototype, and the production versions of course, will have an airlock at each end to allow access. Nevertheless…” Halnie gestured at the fabric tube towering over them all. “I trust you see the potential?”

“Indeed. I look forward to reading your report.” Lodan stepped forward and tapped the module with one outstretched finger, before gingerly leaning against it. “Interesting - it’s sturdier than I’d expect.” He raised an eyebrow. “Although I have to confess to some skepticism about building substantial portions of a space station - let alone an interplanetary spacecraft - out of them.”

“Oh goodness, no,” exclaimed Roncott. “We’d use a truss system to provide tensile strength and structural integrity. Imagine a very big cage with inflatable modules secured to the bars of that cage. It’ll make the assembly a little more complicated but it’ll be worth it!”

One of the engineers nodded. “Splitting out the load-bearing structure from the pressurised volume means we can specialise them both - make a lighter and stronger structure than if we tried to combine both functions into a single set of components.”

“And we can still get away with a significant reduction in launches,” finished Halnie. “According to the figures Rockomax gave us, we should be able to fit three inflatable sections into their upgraded fairing - or the equivalent number of truss pieces to go with them. So we’ll need at least a third fewer flights than if we were launching conventional modules - and that assumes that the conventional modules are robust enough not to need any trusses of their own.”

Lodan raised an eyebrow. “If your inflatables work as advertised.”

Halnie nodded. “Naturally. It’s not Stratus’s decision of course, but, if I could make a suggestion, the space station would be an ideal platform for properly testing them. From speaking to Jeb and Geneney about the colony ship design, I think the that you could use them for the cargo sections too. Even if the KSA would prefer not to use inflatables for the crew compartments, I think the savings would still be worthwhile.”

———————

As he left VAB-2 with Bill, Lodan saw a group of workers gathered around an extensive roped off area behind the Kerbonaut Training Facility. An excavator was parked inside the ropes, stabiliser legs deployed and bucket hidden behind a dip. A yellow-hatted kerbal stood by it’s front wheel, talking to the nearest worker and making notes on a clipboard. There was a glint of light as something exchanged hands and the worker walked away, pinning something to his chest pocket. 

Bill caught the direction of his gaze. “The Pool,” he said. “For EVA training. Or it will be when it’s finished. The idea is to put mockup space station modules in there and have the crews practice assembly operations underwater. They’ll be in full EVA suits, weighted for neutral buoyancy. The Endurance crews all seemed to think it would provide a reasonable simulation of zero-G conditions. 

“Ingenious,” said Lodan. “Do you intend to weight their equipment for neutral buoyancy as well?”

“One of the Endurance crews did suggest that to Nelton but was told, and I quote, that “picking your tools off the bottom might teach you not to drop them again. If it doesn’t, we’re not short of backup crews.”

Lodan walked towards the ropes, picking his way over excavator tracks and around various items of debris. Before the KSA director could climb over the rope, Bill glanced at his shoes. “Safety boots only inside the line I’m afraid, Director.”

Lodan stopped. “Of course.” He stared at the construction site taking in the gaping pit surrounded by a second set of safety ropes. Further back from the edge, a pair of temporary cabins rested on concrete blocks, beside racks of shovels and other tools. He frowned. “Shovels?”

Bill shrugged. “We’ve got more volunteers than machinery and it’s a lot easier to get a team of kermol with spades to the bottom of the pit than an excavator.” He smiled. “And I’m not sure that they’re any slower either. According to Seelan, one good kerbal was rather forceful about that, telling her that this old kermol might not know one end of a rocketship from the other but, by the Kerm, she knew which end of a spade to hold.”

“She wasn’t wrong. Tougher than a Kerm root that one and she keeps the younger lads on their toes too. None of them want to be out-done by someone old enough to be their grandmother. Good afternoon, Director - I won’t shake hands if you don’t mind.”

Lodan eyed the other’s dust caked gloves and weatherbeaten overalls. “Not at all. Although you appear to have the advantage of me?”

“Seelan Kerman. Went up on Prospector One, structural engineer before that.”

“Seelan was our lead engineer for the FLT series of propellant tanks,” Bill added.

“Yep. Might even get to build a couple more of them sometime soon.”

“I hope so,” said Lodan. He caught sight of the enamel badge pinned to Seelan’s chest. “That’s an optimistic badge, kerbonaut Seelan.”

“Please, Director - just Seelan.” Seelan unpinned her badge and handed it over. “I got my flight - don’t imagine I’ll be training for another one any time soon.”

“Sooner rather than later, if I have any say in the matter,” said Lodan. “Although, for now, I fear you may be correct.” He studied the badge, noting the stylised image of Kerbin rising over Duna, seen through a spacecraft window. He made to hand it back to Seelan, who shook her head.

“Keep it if you like, Director.” She pullled a bag out of her overall pocket. “Got plenty more of them -  everyone who takes their first shift in the pit gets one when they’re done, and we stick their name in the Book too.”

“Lucan’s idea,” said Bill, seeing Lodan’s politely enquiring expression. “We’re compiling a list of names of everyone who’s volunteered their time for Project Starseed. It doesn’t matter whether they’re KSA personnel, a White Cross volunteer, or a kermol farmer donating some of their crop to the space program, they go on the list. We’re going to have that list printed and properly bound, Director - on very thin paper if need be. After all, we won’t have much spare room for books on the first flight out to Duna.”

Edited by KSK

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