Chapter Four

The small shuttle sat on the runway, the early morning rays of sun glinting off of its silvery tiles. Six weary looking passengers and 2 pilot crew boarded her silently.

The team from Cosmic Cleaners were all clad in grey-blue overalls with the Cee-Cee emblem of two joined crescent moons on an embroidered patch on the left breast pocket. Jude sort of missed the cosy cocooning of her training suit – the fact that she was now dressed in corporate work wear sunk home that shit had got real pretty fast.

The cabin of the shuttle was fairly cramped, since most of the hold was taken up with vital equipment and specialised cleaning materials. There were also food supplies and personal protective clothing but very little in the way of home comforts, Jude suspected. In their final post-launch briefing before setting out on to the tarmac, good old Cee-Cee herself had graced them with her presence (this being the first time Jude had seen her since her initial interview, an event which now  seemed to her like ages ago in someone else’s life) and as well as telling them what a prestigious and hard-won contract this was, how very important it was that they did a most excellent job, what it would mean to the company, etc., etc., she also took great pains to stress emphatically to them that this trip was designed to make a profit, not cost her any more money than was deemed absolutely necessary. They had been allowed five weeks to get the job done but there would be a generous bonus incentive if they came in under time.

They took their seats .Unsurprisingly, Maxie and Kristof chose to sit together and began chatting away in which couples do when they are with other people around . Glass and Hennessey had taken one each of the remaining two pairs. Jude hesitated but as Wib slid past her and in next to the German (maybe he was taking keeping their assignations hush-hush a bit too rigidly), she had no choice but to take the last place beside Hennessey. It wasn’t that they had fallen out but he had been noticeably frosty towards her since she had shared the news she had taken up with Wib. She had never given him any indication of any romantic or sexual attraction during their time working together and she and Wib were (as much as they could be in such a small group) being as discrete as possible.

“Alright?” she said to him as she buckled in, hoping to at least make the short hop up to the space station  a little more convivial. To her surprise and delight, he turned and smiled. He’s excited, she thought, like a big kid on his first ever moonshot.

“Oh yes, Sadako (he had recently gone from called her by her first name to using her last and this gave her pause – maybe things were still chilly after all?). All set. I’ve done this a zillion times but it still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.” He ran his hand through his freshly shorn hair, trimmed from his usual mop. “Not that I have that much now.”

Before she could formulate an answer, a voice came on over the comm.

“Good morning folks. My name is Kimiko Goro and my co-pilot here is Ed O’Reilly and we will be your flight crew today. Our jaunt up to the CSS Tiandong will take  us approximately 4 and a half hours, give or take. We’ll be setting off in just a few minutes, once we get clearance.  Please remain buckled in to your seat once we take off and then until I or Ed give you the nod. Thank you.”

Hennessey pulled a pad out from one of his many pockets. He seemed to look to Jude for permission. “I’m just going to read a bit, if that’s okay?” he said.

“Carry on, “she replied and closed her eyes.

 

The first, and thus far only, Chinese Space Station Tiandong was launched in 2021 as a research facility into life support and further space exploration. It had been designed for use for up to a decade but had remained functional until 2043 when the Beijing government had set its sights on its burgeoning Mars mission. The craft itself was an old-style third generation modular station and sat in a low Earth orbit of 400 kilometres and at 43 degrees. The main module was the core cabin, which housed the station’s main life support and thus its crew living quarters. It was also home to control systems such as orientation and propulsion. There was also a small kitchen, toilet facilities plus the station computers, scientific and communication hubs. It was also where the shuttle carrying Jude’s team would dock.

From there were two laboratory modules with navigation and backups for the CCM (core cabin module) which also contained all the system cables and piping. The CSS garnered its electrical power from a large solar power array, one of each fitted to the three modules. The power was stored in photo-voltaic cells and back-up energy was stored in the station’s own mini power station to enable continuous station function when it passed into the shadow of the Earth.

 

The shuttle docked with the CCM airlock. The Cee-Cee crew all wore small oxygen masks.

“It’s been a good long while since anyone’s breathed up there, “Chief Dug Howe had informed them at one of the briefings. “So until Maxie here gets the station life support up to full speed, you’ll need to use portable back up systems.”

The CSS had been designed as a low-density grav environment, so all of the team swam in and around. Goro and O’Reilly were good enough to pitch in and aid with the off-loading of the supplies and equipment from the hold. Glass and Kristof coordinated the storage of the various crates and boxes while Maxie and Wib worked on getting the basic systems online from their dormancy.

Jude and Hennessey busied themselves with stowing the team’s belongings. In the aft of the CCM they found a door with the Standard Chinese characters that they had learned indicated sleeping quarters. To Jude’s (and possibly Hennessey’s) dismay, there were only three berths.

“Kuso!” she exclaimed. Where the fak were the half dozen of them supposed to sleep? The heavy schedule of tasks needing to be completed within the next forty days certainly wouldn’t take into account any kind of system where three of them could work while three of them slept – they had been contracted to take as little down time as was necessary to get the job finished.

“Looks like we’ll have to spread out into the lab modules.” quipped Hennessey. “Either that or double up.”

“I hear Glass is a heavy snorer,” Jude retorted, then regretted her remark. But it was too late – Hennessey had move on to inspect the other habitat facilities.

The other four members of the team were equally dismayed by the cramped facilities. The kitchen was equally spartan, so they would have no choice there but to take meal breaks in twos or threes. And the prospect of toilet facilities made Jude shudder. Fortunately, as they were there to work and not to experiment or have any leisure time beyond their minimal sleep and rest breaks. She just hoped that the next month or so would pass at hyper-speed.

The six crew member had each been allotted tasks according to their specialty. Maxie, as indicated by the work he was currently undertaking, would work on the modular systems, running diagnostics, installing updates and new hardware. Glass, with her more scientific background, would be assessing the experimental modules. The Tiandong wasn’t going to be repurposed as a research facility, more likely a habitat or stopping off point for lunar travellers. Hell, it could even be a private orbiting porno palace for all Jude cared! It wasn’t her job to ask. Her presence here was to provide support. As the least experienced and qualified member of the team, she knew she would be doing a lot of the grunt work. Probably assisting Wib with some EVA hull repairs – in training she had shown some skills in no-grav tasks requiring some dexterity and precision. Kristof’s main priority, he had told her, would be a station wide inspection and inventory so would no doubt call on her for help with that. She knew Hennessey wouldn’t probably be looking to her – his specialism in satellite technology meant the majority of his time would be taken up with updating the avionics and the latest solar-power grabbing tech. That suited her just fine – if he wanted to take the huff because she’d taken up with Wib that was his problem and not hers!

However, it hit home pretty clearly that Jude was going to be the one with all the dirty and boring jobs here. Thankfully a no gravity environment resulted in no dust or dirt. There were still 20 plus years of residue and human (and animal) detritus with the additional years lying empty for it to become ingrained. She would be primarily responsible for the hydration collection and recycling mechanics, not only sanitising and upgrading it to current intergalactic standards but also, in these early days, getting it and keeping it running to accommodate the needs of six hardworking souls. A system designed for 3 at a push would be bound to struggle with six. And, as Coop had gleefully reminded her on several occasions after she let it slip, she would be cleaning out human waste remnant that had accumulated for almost as long as she had been alive and using distinctly less efficient or sophisticated plumbing than the modern space traveller was accustomed to.

“You could be sitting on a goldmine though, love,” her former partner had joked. “I knew someone who was in the crew when they salvaged and dismantled the old International Space Station. Found a crystal of uric acid the size of your fist in a waste pipe. Made claims that it was from good old Chris Hadfield himself. Sold it on U-bay for half a million yen. Word is that the Canadian Queen wears a chunk of it in her tiara.”

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