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Fiction Page 6
A revisal: based on my very first paid story back in June 2001.  Enjoy.


CROSSING CASSINI

by

Lawrence R. Dagstine

Arthur Ronson knew that his mission was in trouble.  The big change had begun after his argument with Jensen about the valuable cosmic dust; it had increased swiftly day by day, culminating in the chat about his trip to Titan, and the recovery of an old earthen satellite dubbed Cassini.  It had been stupid, all of it, his own conduct as well as Jensen's, but calling the argument stupid did not keep him from knowing when it was important.  In the six and a half years NASA had been following the mission he had not had a serious word with them till now.  
He sat in his sweat-darkened jumpsuit in the chair of the cockpit, with its elaborately decorated walls of gleaming metal and shining red switches, looking at the sample of dust which NASA (Jensen in particular) had told him about a few days ago.  It must have been in his possession the whole time.  NASA felt that at this stage of the findings only an experienced astronaut like Ronson should be put onto it, and Jensen....Well, he just wanted to fund a retrieval operation.
Sure, why not.  The ship was capable of almost anything, and it wasn't a question of the equipment.  The only thing strange was Jensen's behavior.  He seemed to be plotting against the crew.  But was that good or bad?
Arthur opened the jar containing the sample of dust and looked at it carefully. "Now what properties could this possibly have?" he asked himself. "It looks like regular dirt from a comet's tail.  And why is Jensen so dogged on retrieving the rest of it?"
He turned from the ship's computer, looking up for assistance.  No one above.  Everyone must be sleeping, he thought to himself.  Without the crew he could not decide whether or not to perform an extraction or to go ahead with the mission as planned.  Usually outdoor jobs involving major hazards, like Saturn's low-density inner ring area, were left for the last minute so that the possible loss or injury of the man involved would not retard the mission.  Today, however, NASA forecasted a storm in the Titan region, when the storm was tentatively scheduled, using images from the Cassini probe and Hubble Space Telescope.  Not good for a solo space project, and definitely not part of Ronson's agenda.
Annoyance made Arthur fretful, and news of a storm did not help any.  Also, the crew was supposed to be on hand to discuss things of this nature.  But where were they now? He wanted, more than anything, to be relieved of duty, so he could get out of his suit, to have a bath, a shave, a drink, a meal, some sleep.  
It had been a tough day, and he was not sure whether getting word from Jensen about the dust made it tougher or easier; and he could not guess at the state of mind behind his last transmission.  Was Jensen following NASA's order? Or was he up to something on his own?
To start with, communication was delayed because of the storm.  Not the usual rockshower but a real whiplasher which woke the entire crew and had them running to their stations.  This was followed by a hydrogen scare near Saturn's inner ring that almost turned the gas giant a lifeless yellow.  Arthur would have bet his life savings that it was Jensen, using a remote antenna from earth to change the weather around.
Nerves were stretched tight and even the astronauts aboard the flight deck were turning surly when, to top it off, Jensen had switched off the communication link between them and earth.  The only line left open was Jensen's own personal link.  He could make the ship disappear any time he wanted, undermining the crew when they were in a state requiring immediate attention.  But what had happened in the last few hours was more than just friction between a top-ranking NASA official and a team of astronauts: Jensen had really shown spite.  
       The rockshower had left the ship disabled, and the crew doomed to wander space (a recklessness unusual in a NASA official).  By sundown the crew felt depleted, and they had retired to their quarters indefinitely.  
       Arthur had tried to coax his co-pilots back to work but ended by sending them right back to their rooms.  Things were currently at a standstill.  They each had complaints, and complaints were not a good sign.  They urged Arthur to perform an extraction, a procedure for collecting dust particles and minerals out in space, and to "end this madness between you and Jensen", but the ship's captain refused to comply.  He told the other astronauts the same thing over and over again: "Jensen is manipulating us.  Switching off our communication outlets was just one way of blackmailing the crew.  He knows we're almost out of fuel.  NASA launched a refill orbiter about a year ago, and I'm sure he'll blackmail us with that next."
       But for every answer came a hundred other questions, causing the crew to stir unhappily.  Arthur would reply again and again, "I'm not about to jeopardize the mission for some greedy director's wishes.  It's not NASA's bidding!"
       So he was left alone--blame it on perverse stubbornness--to take charge of the others responsibilities: a solemn, saturnine man whose mournful face and trim and wiry body were animated by a certain disposition, a puppyish anxiety to please, but only to an extent.  Not this time.  And his being trim and wiry was not a sign of weakness; he was like any other man, his strength came from true determination.
Arthur was tall--a little too tall, so he often banged his head when standing up.  His heavy head of hair was darker and slightly grayer than his fellow crewmembers, unbrushed and without any shine to it.  His unwary gray eyes followed almost anything, until it was no longer worth following.  His face was sometimes swollen like an outdated grape, sending the impression that he was forced to live with this horrible frown.  And he was liable to be pulled back into his shell between rare bursts of temper.
       Suddenly overcome by a tension headache, he got up and turned to the stairs. "I need some sleep," he muttered to himself. "Even an hour will do." It wasn't likely, of course, that he would rest, after fighting for control and not fighting; still, it was possible.  A lot of times you get used to unresting vigilance; danger becomes a part of your everyday routine.  Yet all he had experienced he could not explain.  Maybe NASA would have communication restored before the end of the week, so all his questions could be answered; also unlikely.
       As soon as Arthur reached the upper deck there was a series of earsplitting cracks, and a distorted picture appeared on a nearby monitor.  A second later a face became clear and a voice somewhat audible.  It was Jensen, his smile charged with a kind of infinite wisdom. "Ronson, are you there? It's me again, Mr Ronson."
       "Should I answer it?" Arthur hated that voice.  He was about to switch it off, but wondered if Jensen had anything important to say.  He stood there motionless, staring down at a pretentious little man on screen.  Jensen was a big somebody, a very big somebody who knew better than to ask for something he could not get.  Then a chill twisted Arthur's insides.  Jensen lit up a cigar and kicked back his feet, bringing them to rest on a very large desk.  He stared, uncomfortable and uncomprehending.  A top floor office with a view, and for a man who did not deserve it.  Arthur scowled at the monitor, and his eyes creased up with fury.  Jensen now laughed more boldly. "I know you're sitting by the screen, Mr Ronson.  Ignoring me won't solve the problem." Arthur had never hated a man as he did Jensen at that moment.
       How could you explain the wish for a man's death when the person was simply an easygoing, though impractical, vainglorious man who had been for years, through his sleazy connections, able to buy every big administrative head in NASA? Yet if it had not been for the director's cracked vanity, Arthur could have recaptured Cassini and been on his way home months ago.  Unfortunately, he reflected on those six and a half years negatively.  His hopes had been blasted by a happening which revealed an unsuspected savagery in NASA.  And Arthur was not a bad leader.  Jensen had just made an example of him out of spite.
       Following these thoughts he scurried over to the monitor. "I don't crack so easily, Jensen," he said in a deep throaty voice. "To cross Cassini for some space dirt would be suicide."
       "No, it would be a profitable venture," Jensen said with the air of one possessing discriminatory wit. "You're only fooling yourself, Mr Ronson.  If this silent treatment keeps up, I'll make sure NASA never finds you." And he was serious, too.  Leaning back decoratively in his chair, he added, "You remember the old Voyager missions, don't you, Mr Ronson?" Arthur kept silent. "You'll end up like them if you're not careful."
       "You better wake up and smell the coffee, Jensen, because I'm too used to your idle threats.  Voyager was a very long time ago.  It's 2070.  We are the future of space travel now."
       "Better off a pioneer of something than a planetary martyr of nothing, don't you agree?" remarked Jensen tonelessly. "So, have you considered?"
       "My answer's the same," said Arthur, his voice like concrete. "No."
       "That's a shame, Mr Ronson, because NASA's forecasting another storm in your region."
       "Really? Do they know that you're the one responsible for creating these storms? And do they know that you're the reason we're stranded here?" Arthur had to laugh. "I got to admit, using a remote antenna was a good ploy.  I haven't seen such destructive ingenuity since earth took out the Mars Global Surveyor with a self-made sand hurricane."
       "Well, we can control Saturn's weather pattern from earth," said Jensen. "Amazing what kind of technology money will buy." He was referring to his sleazy partners at NASA.
       "It seems your wealthy investments and superb administrative skills have taken you to the top of NASA's ladder.  What are you, their chairman now?" At one point, Arthur fished out a smile and looked at him with admiration.  But now he sought answers. "Why is the dust so important to you?"
       Jensen gave him a long stare, and then fished out a smile of his own; his eyes were blinking as they always did when his mind was working at top speed. "For centuries, scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and naturalists have been trying to piece together the origin and evolution of life.  I plan on being the first man to answer a 400 million year old question--how!"
       Arthur was slightly confused. "What are you saying?"
       "The dust is carbon-based," said Jensen, almost voluntarily. "Due to the Saturnian system's strange orbit around the sun, the rings seem to have enriched it with the five basic elements of life, including carbon dioxide."
       Arthur was impressed. "Cassini brought you back positive results.  Not bad for a satellite that was launched over seventy years ago."
       Jensen became modest. "I'd say not bad at all.  I'll make a fortune at the height of NASA's upcoming Mars colonization mission."
       "What do you mean?"
       Jensen patted himself on the back. "Just sprinkle a little Saturnian dust on Martian soil, and presto!--I go down in history as being the man responsible for making the red planet habitable.  It's amazing what some dirt can do, especially dirt containing the five basic elements.  A small pinch is enough for a soluble environment."
       Arthur's eyes seemed to pull close together.  If one man, like Jensen, boasted that he would soon spring life, the others at NASA accepted this, knowing that "new life" was the most positive thing in the universe.  And NASA had failed two colonization attempts to Mars before.  But Jensen did not say it, of course, as if he were planting an idea.  Yet, looking back on it, Arthur wondered if he had been.
       "It'll never work," Arthur said in exasperation. "The only form of life you could create is vegetation."
       Jensen laughed. "Ah, a skeptic I see.  Even the most primordial life must be based on carbon, Mr Ronson.  And we already know that Mars' ice caps turned up empty.  We're dealing with microorganisms here, ones that can metabolize and reproduce, and once they've passed through the hands of my colleagues, evolve through mutation and natural selection.  I'm so sure of myself, I've actually financed a lab to do the testing."
       Arthur laughed as if this was very funny, but it wasn't.  His pleasure in the NASA chairman's company seemed to decrease in direct proportion to the conversation.  It did not sound like anything he would have learned at a NASA hearing.  Carbon-based evolution was something he learned back in college, and Jensen....Well, let's just say he was taking it to a different level.  In some respects, Arthur felt like his intelligence was being insulted.
       Jensen, bone-thin, reserved and wary, remained seated and went on. "You probably know that the atoms of a life-forming element usually form stable chemical bonds with each other.  On the other hand, silicon bonds cannot support life.  That is why carbon bonding is necessary.  The combination of properties found in carbon make it the best element to serve as a basis for life."
       "I still have my doubts," said Arthur.
       "A very foolish way to think, Mr Ronson.  Life already exists within the dust.  It's just waiting to be tampered with…just waiting to give birth."
       "And what about Titan? Have you forgot our findings there, Jensen?"
       "A bunch of oxygenated gravel compared to this," Jensen said with some irony. "Carbon from other worlds are radioactive, and usually disintegrates quickly.  The only explanation is that terrestrial carbon isn't in the dust, but first entering it and multiplying at an expeditious rate."
       Arthur dropped his lip in surprise.  His last expression was pale in comparison to the one he had now.  The news had made him more excited than ever; so much, he was starting to get a stress pain in the back of his neck. "Are you saying there might be terrestrial carbon or oxygen within the dust grains?" A silly question, because he already knew the answer to that. "Because if it's entering the grains elements and multiplying, it's likely that terrestrial oxygen is doing the same."
       "Uniquely biological, isn't it?"
       "I hate to burst your bubble, Jensen, but this stuff is probably unstable in large quantities."
       "Nothing an astronaut can't handle," smiled Jensen wickedly, "especially one with twenty years experience under his belt."
       Arthur didn't like the chairman's tone of voice. "We merely a recovery mission, Jensen," he spoke firmly, "not a collection craft.  This ship was never meant for deep space mining projects."
       "You mean outer territory extraction."
       Arthur knew what he meant, and what he had in mind.  But his answer was still no. "Even if we were able to retrieve the dust, once we cross the inner ring area we're finished.  Have you forgotten about the hydrogen inrush? Between the planet's gravitational pull and the gas, we'll be sucked up like milk through a straw."
       "The Cassini Division? I wouldn't worry if I were you, Mr Ronson.  I was one of the pioneers of that ship.  I financed it from the beginning, when it was just scrap metal being built.  That ship can withstand 3000 times its normal atomic pressure.  A few gas clouds shouldn't deter you."
       Arthur felt a fierce yearning to scream.  He gripped the sides of the monitor hard, the harsh grooves in his face deepening.  But Jensen on the other hand sounded casual, as if the whole conversation were the most ordinary thing; his offensiveness made him sound more superior than he had meant to.
       After a brief moment of thinking, Arthur returned to the line. "You don't think I'm going to---"
       "You will, Mr Ronson," Jensen interrupted him. "You will.  Otherwise you'll float aimlessly through space and never see your beloved earth again." The sinister undertone in his voice had something to do with the refill orbiter, Arthur was sure of it.  It was a form of blackmail he had predicted.
       "They'll send a rescue mission," Arthur said.
       Jensen grinned. "Not this century."
       Arthur shifted a pace to the side as though tired of listening and standing in one position.  From that moment on he tried to conceal his anger as best he could.  He would take the job, of course.  Jensen knew this.  After all, he had no choice.  But how would he collect the dust with a faulty cooling system and a low fuel supply, and at the same time risk being pulled in by Saturn's gravitational force?
       Jensen suggested using the secondary exhaust pipe, as an alternative to using the main power reserves. "You'll have to cut even more power to your cooling system," he said, "but in the long run it's better, because your computer will do whatever it can to start a full course extraction.  I suggest using the main air lock to store the dust."
       Arthur looked at him with a quick, yet fragile understanding. "Without a fully-operational cooling system there's a good chance of implosion.  You do know that don't you?"
       "Then turn velocity over to your automatic pilot.  If I'm not mistaken, you should have enough fuel.  This will secure all possibilities of break-up.  Now, jot down the coordinates I'm about to give you." A series of numerals appeared at the top of the screen.  They were the strangest figures Arthur had ever seen. "And don't try anything funny, Mr Ronson," Jensen added. "I'll be watching your progress from the Cassini probe.  Good luck." The screen turned black, but the coordinates remained.
       "What should I do?" Arthur started to get panicky. "If I fly too close to the planet, there's about an eighty percent chance we could be swallowed by its gases.  If I ignore Jensen, he'll use the remote antenna to trap us in a storm and find some way of changing the refill orbiter's path.  Then we would be stranded here forever.  Either way we're screwed." He was saying it as if he were speaking to a good portion of the crew, yet no one was there, not even his co-pilots.  Had they lost faith in Arthur?
       He wrote the coordinates down in a handwriting which, like the rest of him, was well formed, a competency most other astronauts lacked.  Having completed this task, he put his marker in the loop on the clip binder of his star charts.  He returned to the cockpit and dropped the workbook into the canvas pocket on the side of his chair.  Then he closed his eyes and began to shake, and with good reason; the more he tried to keep still the worse the shaking got.  He handed speed factors over to his automatic pilot and, without the aid of his crew, maneuvered the ship along the central most part of Saturn's inner ring.  
       The ship, turned sideways by a gas wave or confused about its bearings, had circled around now and was flying parallel to the Cassini Division.  Arthur looked up at the computer.  There was a three-mile wide cloud of dust just within his sight, and it seemed to be traveling just as fast as the ship.  He switched on the secondary exhaust pipe, as Jensen had instructed, and pumped unnecessary air from the cooling system out through the main air lock, in an effort to prevent an implosion.  As he approached the innermost ring, he began to release certain hatches.  What was important and slightly incredible to him was that he was still alive.  Feeling it was probably bad luck to show surprise that a man was not dead, he stuck out his hand and patted himself on the back.  At no time during the course of the trip did he think it was going to stay like this.  There was something wrong, however, in the way the Division's clouds were holding up: Saturn's gravity should have reeled him in, like fresh trout on the end of a fishing rod, but the rocket engines pushed sideways once again instead.
       Arthur's creased face presided somberly over the computer.  He lay quiet, having already acquired the air of weary authority which dead men have.  All of a sudden he knew what he was heading into--and more than ever there was a great need for speed--some very serious trouble.  
       A few minutes away from certain death, he was now the crutch aboard a somewhat crippled ship.  Once again he looked up at the computer.  A single word flashed across the screen in red.  DANGER.  His only chance now was to abort the extraction and pull out--if he could even do that! "There's too much pressure in the air lock," he said under his breath, "and this gravity and gas mix is taking its toll on my ship.  It's hopeless.  If I try to push on, she'll break up."
       Why push his luck, he thought to himself.  Let Jensen retrieve his own dust.
       A second later he got on the main speaker: "All men and women report to their stations at once! We have a code blue emergency! I repeat, all men and women report to their stations at once." It was time to take charge.
       He sat in the cockpit, watching…waiting.  Surprisingly, the crew rushed upstairs to see what was the matter, and as they all glanced out the window it became pretty obvious to them.  Most surprising was that they went right to work on the problem and after some careful observation by their mission leader, it seemed they were doing their job right. The ship was being moved away from the ferocious hydrogen clouds of Saturn, and its even more deadly gravitational field.  For all ten of these astronauts, this was, in terms of their profession, a big responsibility, and a triumph for everyone aboard; Arthur was afraid to think now what would have happened if they had quit on him.  So in the long run, which was real...the way the astronauts had felt about Jensen, hating and fearing him, or the way they felt now, loaded with newfound pride?
       After the ship was pulled free of Saturn's grasp, Arthur shut down auxiliary power  and reestablished communication with Jensen, but the NASA chairman did not know that he had come back empty-handed.  Not yet, anyway.  Arthur waited before making his presence known.  Instead, he sat there and stared at Jensen, and realized something.
       "This isn't a big man, just a big phony.  So he's no longer a director, but now a space aviation mogul.  So what? This ship can get home just fine.  I forgot.  We don't need the refill orbiter.  I can use the plutonium from the Cassini probe to fuel the ship."
       Enough of the threats.
       Jensen finally took notice. "Ah, Mr Ronson," he said, "I was starting to get worried.  I lost reception for a couple of minutes, and I was beginning to think you weren't going to make it back.  Everything went well, I presume."
       "Just fine," said Arthur, definitely cool now.
       "And the dust?"
       "Where it belongs."
       Jensen was confused. "Excuse me?"
       "What's the matter, Jensen? Didn't you hear me the first time? The dust is where it belongs...in space!"
       It was now Jensen's face which began to crease."You're making a very dreadful mistake, Mr Ronson.  You know what I can do."
       "True," said Arthur, "but I don't plan on risking the lives of my crew.  I've found a way to out-race your storms.  I've found a suitable replacement for our fuel shortage.  Our good friend, Cassini."
       Jensen kept silent.  After all this, how could the space aviation mogul forget that? What could he possibly say?
       For Arthur, having this conversation was progress on his part as a leader, and as it went on it became sterner than he'd meant it to be (almost a goodbye in some respects) but not quite that simple.  He would be sure to remind Jensen on a daily basis to have a pen handy.  The NASA chairman would need it, for the sapinas and resignation papers that would be presented to him when Arthur arrives home.


                                                                                                                        END.