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Do You Trust Your Mechanic, Pt 1

Do You Trust Your Mechanic?

Barring an unlikely intervention, he figured he had a minute before he was rendered sterile. It was moments like these (if by 'like these' one referred to dangling above the exhaust thrust, being pelted with cosmic radiation, and hoping one's EVA shield holds up) that he finally felt he understood the vast, incomprehensible stupidity of his lifelong dream. Jupiter lounged in the star field, turgid and inviting. Something childish and primordial in his brain tried to convince him that is wasn't all that large and quite likely very soft, like a massive beanbag. A boost in that direction and who knows, he could be sitting in the first relaxing position he had in nine years.

The electromagnets wobbled in their moorings, millions of tiny craters dusting the ceramic and carbon shell of the exhaust assembly. Up close, the whole contraption looked slipshod, an amateur hack to keep the rocket looking stereotypically rocket-like. He pried the panel off and gave his helmet a moment to adjust to the blinding exhaust flame. The trick was spotting the leak in the nozzle field. Maizey figured that it was somewhere around here on her exhaust assembly, but Heisenberg, that principled prick, kept the specific cause and location hidden in a bath of plasma. Maizey's little helpers couldn't get close; the electromagnetic field wiped their brains with the subtlety of a hammer.

He extended his cable controlled ceramic pincers into the couplings, watched as ions tried their damnest to give him cancer. There, where the ice blue whorl of plasma escaped in eddying flickers, there's your problem. A pebble, about the size of a--well, a pebble, lodged with literally astronomical strength in the superconducting plates. Most every ferrous material was repelled by the field, but this nugget of whatever (probably uranium, the outer solar system was lousy with the stuff) wrenched their monkey but good.

He pushed off the exterior and spun to face Jupiter. It was like this: they either killed the engines for repairs and hope they had enough gas to avoid slingshotting out of Titan's orbit in nine months, or they did nothing and hope the escaping plasma didn't burn a hole through the nozzle and then explode. While the former seemed a better plan, he couldn't argue with the sense of closure the latter could provide. As ignominious deaths go, nothing beats spiraling out into the Oort cloud, getting pummeled to death as Maizey tried to bob and weave around a million asteroids a minute.

Jupiter did look inviting. How far off could it be? A million miles? Two? Close enough to risk a trajectory change and hang out around Io until they sussed out how to fix the nozzle. Far enough that getting there meant scrubbing the mission, which would put Maizey in a terrible mood. She'd be impossible to work with until she ran all the probabilities and come up with the same conclusion.

His skin began to burn from the cosmic rays. Lightning fired behind his eyes, pinpoints and halos as particles burnt through his retinas. If he ever got back to Mars base any babies he made would come out with flippers. Fatalism, he figured, was completely understandable for a man in his position. Maizey plucked him from the stars with a dainty appendage. His meteorite shield looked like the back of a cheap recliner, foam poking out from shredded foil. She opened her doors and placed him with mechanical precision into the airlock.

He floated into the decontamination chamber, stripped his pressure suit off like an especially cantankerous condom, and collapsed under the decontamination spray.

"Maizey," he rasped through raw and bleeding lips. A face extended from the wall-- not a physical face, but an illusion deviously mapped directly onto his retinas by the thousands of tiny projectors on the walls. It was cartoonishly matronly, the Disney-fication of some archetypal Chinese grandmother. She peered at him over her nonexistent glasses, a ridiculous affectation that no one was sure where she picked up.

"Wake everyone up," he continued, expecting to be interrupted at any moment, even though Maizey never interrupted anyone under any circumstance. "Tell them-- tell them the past nine years of their lives have been a total waste. Or tell them we're going to blow up. Your choice."

She harrumphed and vanished to her task. This would be the least pleasant conversation he'd ever have to have with his boss. But on the bright side, depending on the vote, it may be the last conversation he'd ever have with his boss. Either way, he crossed his arms and waited for the shouting to start.

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