1. TheBerto

    TheBerto New Member

    Oct 7, 2011
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    2013 Science Fiction Writing Contest (Audrey)

    Discussion in '2013 Science Fiction Writing Contest' started by TheBerto, Dec 5, 2013.

    Chapter 0 - Missing You

    “I miss you.” I say it to myself after remembering the one thing I needed to forget. It happens the same time everyday. I sit upside down, straight in my chair. My hair is tied back to stop it from floating in my view. Around me, many screens display charts, graphs and other important information. Switches and buttons align themselves along a giant panel surrounding my chair. Three-dimensional displays hover above me, always giving off a faint glow. Other levers, knobs and buttons congest my station most everywhere else. Even though I was alone in my chair, it looked very crowded at first glance. One might think it would be impossible to get out of this place. Knowing what everything did made it feel spacious enough to be a home. I'd been collecting water off Europa for fifteen years. We used massive one-man tanker ships to drill deep into the ice. The center of the drill was hollow, allowing the purest water to shoot up into the holding tanks. The inside was covered in geothermal pads that stopped the water from freezing. The high pressures within the drill did most of the work anyway. The pads were powered by heat created from the drill's own spinning. Each ship was larger than an average sized asteroid. While capable of holding seven hundred million kiloliters, not one person has ever brought near that much. Our task was tedious, time consuming and boring. Everything you wouldn't expect from a job in space. I was so thrilled with the idea before. I never lost that enthusiasm until I was actually out here for awhile. Now I have to keep remembering to focus on the task at hand. I could put the entire mission in jeopardy. Forgetting all that, today is a special day. I'll start from the beginning. Maybe that will solve my nostalgia problem. It's distracting. Dangerous. I know it is. But today, I can't help it. I want to relive it all. It was the only time I felt alive back then.

    Chapter 1 – Living Flow

    Just out of high school, my grades weren't very good. Studying wasn't a particular interest. Somehow, I was still eligible to attend college. If it wasn't for the complete disinterest, it might have even turned out that way. In the end, I didn't have much hope for a promising future. Not one scholarship. Not one way into any higher education. That was until the local paper started running announcements for some kind of job that was literally out of this world. They were sending trained astronauts to gather water off one of Jupiter's moons: Europa. It was to prevent the water shortage that would be happening in the next few years due to population spikes and pollution. Well, mostly pollution. The sea had slowly become tainted by a dark, unsettling green; destroying eighty-seven percent of marine life. The rivers ran blacker than ink and fresh-water habitats didn't fare any better. Lakes gave off the stagnant stench of death. A pure drop of water hadn't fallen from the sky in years. Our population had increased to over seventy eight billion. Our waste had begun to interfere with all natural habitats. It was expected that in thirty five years our population would nearly double. In order to slow our destruction, renown scientists from across the globe came together. They worked toward closing the technology gap with reliable, cheap purification of extremely diluted substances. Meanwhile, our best scientists looked for an alternate reliable source of clean water. This turned out to be easier said than done. Asteroids where too violent to mine and had only frozen water available. Taking frozen water was an inefficient use of space. Using energy to melt it takes ages and expends an unbelievable amount of resources. This meant the closest, most reliable source of fresh liquid water was Europa. So there it was; ''...a large need for astronauts.''

    The poster advertising the job was hanging in a window of the local super market. Apparently the job was too difficult or risky for most sane people to want to try. Fortunately, the World Wide Water Salvation Effort decided to open up the job to anyone at that point. All it required was passing a strict preliminary exam. The WWWSE would pay for the two year training program as well. Applicants were pressured to enlist for twenty one years, only then being able to retire. Three separate trips each lasted seven years. Heck, even the training pay is well worth it. A blinding amount of money went toward this. Some critical mission that the future of humanity itself relied on. It was, for the most part, a privately funded operation. This involved every fountain drink provider on Earth as well. It was for a good cause, facilitating plenty of donations and government funding to boot. I had always thought of myself as a bit of an adventurer. Someone who 'went with the flow.' I knew it seemed contradictory, but at times like that it seemed appropriate. It didn't feel like much had happened when I found myself in the first training class. At the age of twenty one, I flew with every person who passed the preliminary to a NASA base. It was home for the next two years. The test that got me here was easier than I had anticipated. It seemed to prove you weren't an idiot, knew basic algebra, practiced average critical thinking and problem solved. A basic physical made sure you were healthy. I found it surprising only around a thousand had passed when there were over eight billion applicants. I thought the training was going to be just as easy. Evidently, I was horribly mistaken. Every single day they had us cram important terminology and information that was absolutely necessary for completing our task. Never in my life had I been in such an efficient learning environment. The array of information painstakingly trimmed to include the most essential parts left me in awe. It required my full attention and commitment, allowing absolutely no room for error. The tests they gave us at the end of each week would determine whether we would continue on as a student. Each week I saw the amount of people attending the class dwindle. Eventually, they cut the amount of classrooms. Halfway into the second year, everyone who remained moved into one class of thirty one students. It started with a total of twenty five classrooms amounting to exactly 983 students. It was strange to still be here with the final class. I had never really accomplished anything in my life before. I had never tried so hard, either. I knew I deserved my spot in this classroom, however. That gave me pride. This way, anytime I faltered I simply reminded myself: “How many people are relying on my success right now? Humanity itself needs this water in order to survive.”

    Any doubt I had was immediately washed away. There was no way I could back down at that point. Even so, the training became harder as they included endurance and fitness exams that made the first physical a joke. They had warned us this was coming. We were instructed to train to get into the best shape we could beforehand. At least the homework loosened up a little bit. Still, I thought I wasn't going to make it. I was coming in last place during all the endurance and fitness exams. When it came to the g-force endurance training, I was throwing up during the test. There wasn't any part of my suit or face that wasn't covered in my own vomit. Somehow, I managed to keep my stomach under control the absolute last time they ran the g-force test. I got three chances, all fifteen minutes apart. It was strange, almost three weeks had passed and not a single person had been let go. This was the first time such a thing happened three weeks in a row. We were actually close upon the end of the fourth week now. This time I was the one who might be on the chopping block. With my stomach still in knots, I grab onto my side tightly as I walk out of the g-force training room. I pass by the weightlifting center and notice a girl with long brown hair, black eyes, and tan skin. She was fairly tall, maybe almost six feet. She clearly had no problem passing any of the exams this week. In fact, she was taking it upon herself to do some extra training by bench pressing 350 pounds in sets of ten. I had been so focused on my training I never gave too much attention to any of the other students. So there I was: feeling sick, distracted and happened to be passing by this particular spot in the gym. It was there I finally came to notice her. I was completely mesmerized by this woman, putting her all into training. Before I knew it, I was going to be late for the next physical exam. I had to peel my eyes away from her sweating body to start dashing to my next test. The upset stomach was somehow gone. That week, not one person was eliminated from the course once again.

    Chapter 2 Her

    It only took that single moment to start a habit of noticing her more. On my way to the training room, during breaks, lunch, even after hours I stole glances of her. Whenever she passed by, as long as her body landed near my field of vision, my brain would somehow alert me to it. Instinctively, my eyes would jolt toward her. It was never for very long. We were both very busy. Even though we were in the same class, we never even had a chance to say hello to each other. They made sure to give enough homework to keep everyone constantly preoccupied. When we weren't learning or training for something, I managed to learn more about her. For example, she likes to snack during her breaks and always chooses something different until she's tried all options from the vending machine. She goes through again in the same order, skipping the ones she didn't like. She must also enjoy her snacks somewhere outside where there aren't any receptacles. That's the only reason I knew any of this. She always threw her wrappers away in the classroom. She's usually covered in make up, but with or without it, I was sure she was beautiful. Too bad I had only seen her happy, agitated, confused, overwhelmed and my favorite: serious. I would have approach her on a number of occasions, but they limit our breaks. Maybe it didn't matter. She always went directly to her room after hours anyway. This is how my last year was truly spent here. Closely watching every chance I had while she kept surprising me time and time again. What I had learned about her didn't amount to much. It was because the last year proved to be one of the most valuable yet hardening experiences. I had never done anything more difficult than retain those seemingly endless textbook definitions, theory applications, and mathematical formulas. Not in that time frame. Before my friends and I had realized, the last week had come upon us. Thirty-one students remained. The surviving students were gathered for an announcement after class. For the first time, I didn't have anything to do but wait. Slowly but surely, the chatter started to fill the room. After a few minutes, everyone was releasing the tension they had built up over the last few years. Talk of anything and anyone seemed fair game. I suspect we were all just extremely happy to be talking. Especially her. I'd never seen her laugh or smile as sincerely as those few priceless minutes. It was short lived, though. The person we'd been waiting for had shown up. He was clean cut. A short man who carried himself with dignity, power, and pride. He came up to the podium at the center of class and spoke into the microphone. “Welcome to this groundbreaking ceremony, the first of its kind. I say that because you are the first graduating class of the World Wide Water Salvation Effort. You have proven yourselves to be the creme of the crop. That is why today I will be giving you the details of your mission. You will be piloting an SSJ-2x49. A one man ship with a unique water tank. It sports a drill, tailor made to tackle the surface of Europa. Basically, it's an extremely long tube that can navigate the varying levels of ice concentration. This allows you to bypass the formerly impenetrable ice and go as far as seventy kilometers into the ice. You must use these tools to navigate a maze of ice and find high pressure liquid bubbles. Drain them as fast as possible, because it won't last long. The miles of thick ice vary in density across the planet's surface, allowing for massive, quick changes with the pressures within. This will cause your bubbles to freeze, creating others in different areas. Because it's always on the move, we can't just plant a water tank and drain it forever. That's why this task will require your constant, totally undivided attention. Around the clock, all you will do is find. And. Navigate. All this while maintaining the systems that allow you to survive in space and search for water. That should be what you already knew. What you didn't know is that there are only twenty five ships prepared. To make this trip a success, each ship would have to mine five years straight. Each ship instead will support two people. Each person will work twelve hour shifts, allowing for optimal drilling time. NASA has been gracious enough to give up twenty astronauts for this mission. The pilots went through similar training. Because of their experience and education, they didn't have nearly as hard a time as any of you. Although they're shoe-ins, this class has one final test. A test that measures your ability to apply the knowledge and concepts you have learned the past two years to a hypothetical scenario. If you did the math, you should figure that one person from among you will not be going on this mission. Of course, that will be the person with the lowest score. This test will also determine who you partner with. The lowest twenty scores will each pair with a NASA astronaut. The top ten will pair with each other, highest to lowest, second highest to second lowest, etc. This gives each ship the highest success rate possible. That's it. You may review whatever information you think is most important for this test. Congratulations. Not only are you heroes at war, you are also heroes of humanity. Never forget that. Dismissed!”

    The unnamed man exited the classroom as quickly as he got there. No instructor ever came back in. It was the first time we had to figure out what to do for ourselves since arrival. Most of us were in shock, wondering how to proceed next. Since the physical exams were the only time we could compare scores, nobody really knew where each stood in overall ranking. She didn't hesitate long. Swiftly, she dashed out of the room. I bet she was heading for the library, where the most resource materials were. Some of the books were rare, having very limited copies. She was beating the rush. Unfortunately, even though I ran after her, I had to get on a waiting list. I didn't start studying until the next day. I spent the next few days after that with my head buried in various books. Looking over as much pertinent information as possible, I made sure I wasn't forgetting anything. As quickly as any other week, it came to an end. It was finally time to take our final. Not only was the test timed, it also dealt with hypothetical situations and a full virtual simulation. The simulations were expected to be the most difficult things we had done. The only way to survive any of it was to stay calm and remember everything you'd been taught. This was especially true for our final test: an emergency repair. It was accompanied by full duplicate control rooms with the same knobs, views and buttons. I was taken off guard when the windows and view-screens turned on. It was a simulation of space. The simulation began with the drill deep in ice, already closing in on a bubble. I was taking the controls and layouts in for the first time in person. Even though it was still just a copy, it was exciting to be able to start using the information I had learned. Everything seemed to be going smoothly just a few minutes into the simulation. Lights started flashing red and a new message became apparent. It was delivered by a soothing, digital voice. A woman's voice filled the small room. “Multiple Warnings: Altitude dropping. Orbit lost. High pressure to drill from the rear. Imminent danger of permanent hull damage.”

    Trying to keep my head clear, I recall the troubleshooting steps. I had to start with damage prevention. I shouted “Computer, detach drill from the surface and begin automatic drill retraction. Set speed to maximum!”

    “Drill pressure dropping.” The computer continued updating me to the ship's status. “All drill pressures are stable. Altitude continuing to drop at .6 meters per second.”

    “Run an electric continuity test on the EELAO and fuel injectors. Debug the orbital calculation, tracking and correction relay system.” I told the computer.

    “Processing...All clear. No error found.”

    “Oh no. Remember! What else is going to cause this? Think. Oh, that's right!” I thought to myself. Commanding the machine helped avoid the intense pressure this live simulation imposed. “Check each individual thrust output and compare to operation history!"

    “Thruster A-2 working at fifty percent efficiency. It has dropped .3% every hour for the last two days.”
    “My, my. How irresponsible we've been.” I rolled my eyes and sighed. “Launch the repair drone.”
    The computer responded by dropping the virtual control gear from the ceiling through a small hatch. I quickly slide the helmet and gloves on. I start moving the spider bot to the malfunctioning thruster. Europa didn't have much of an atmosphere, so there wasn't much resistance. “Entering extremely low altitude. Requesting use of main thrusters.”

    “Request denied.” I responded. I continued maneuvering the spider bot to the thruster. “Deactivate EELAO thruster A-2 for .5 seconds.”

    “Deactivating.” I quickly move the bot in and begin scooping out the 'Hot Ice' that forms behind the thrusters. It would block the fuel from getting to the combustion chamber. There are two reasons it is called Hot Ice. First, it was very close to the fire that burned at thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. Secondly, this ice is not water. It's actually made from a residue substance inside the fuel that freezes as it's released into the combustion valve. The substance keeps the fuel from naturally deteriorating, separating from the fuel just before it's used. This is to ensure maximum efficiency. As a result, the EELAO thrusters need to be cleaned every few days to prevent buildup. This simulation had overlooked such maintenance for at least two weeks. In only half a second, I managed to wipe away large amounts of residue.

    The thrusters reactivate after that half second, destroying the repair drone. I shout out again. “Acti-”

    The computer interrupts me. “Passing EELAO correction capabilities. Altitude dropping below fifteen thousand meters. Acceleration continuing at .6 meters a second. Passing point of no return in three seconds.”

    “Damn it!” I screamed. “Activate main thrusters!”

    “Activating.” The atmosphere is thin enough to carry the loud booming of the thrusters, slowing the ship's decent. They continued to erupt as the ship started moving away from Europa again. It didn't seem to make much progress before automatically shutting off. The smaller EELAO thrusters turn on, allowing me to finish moving the ship back into orbit. The lights suddenly fade, turning off. I'm left blind in this darkness. I became very aware of my breath. My shocked body sat still, catching breath. No perceivable sound existed for a few moments.

    “This simulation has ended. You may exit the Copy Control Room.” The hatch opened up to another room where the examiners were observing my attempt. Evaluating it. It was a much larger room at two stories high. The second story had another viewing deck. That room could see into this one via a window at the top of the wall in the far back. The entrance to this space faced opposite the Copy Control Room. The examiners had moved from there to the viewing deck above. Within the large group, one person had a microphone. He cleared his throat, stating “We have finished evaluating your score. You've earned a 45.72%”

    “Forty five percent? That's... that's low. TOO low! I at least completed the mission!” I tried in vain to argue my defense.

    “I'm willing to explain that.” The examiner replied. “You see, the time it took you to diagnose the problem was below average. It put you on a very narrow path for the remainder of the mission. You then put yourself in a harder position by denying the computer to use any HEP fuel when requested. You seemed to have forgotten to check status or import any information of your ship. You were too busy admiring how realistic it was. By the time you were in danger, it was too late. That is what those precious few minutes were for at the beginning. Had you realized, you would have known that you still had an extra .4% of HEP fuel left. We pack every tank in such a manner in case of emergencies. You were also six years into your mission! You didn't even bother to check what day it was. You should only bypass the computer's requests if you're absolutely sure about what you're doing. If you didn't have extra HEP fuel or were only at the beginning of your mission, only then might you hesitate to use it. Not then. Not only did you fail to notice this gaffe, you then fell past EELAO correcting capabilities. This forces you to activate main thrusters. By that time, the ship had too much force behind it's acceleration. You used .5% of your HEP fuel to establish your orbit. If that wasn't enough, you also failed to save the drone. If you'd checked, you would have known it was your last one. You have a mere three. If any emergency in the next year required the repair drones, well, all you could do was hope for a successful manual repair. In the end, it was still another failure. Why? Because then you also didn't have enough HEP fuel to get home! Considering all that, how can we possibly give you a passing score?”

    I left that room without being able to refute a single word. They were right. I had completely forgotten about the extra fuel in the heat of the moment. I believe I could have exceeded their expectations with more time. I didn't expect to have a few minutes to gather the complete status of the ship. In retrospect, it seemed logical. I understood their point, it's always possible to forget such small, important details. Checking them when necessary would be a good habit. By the time I even had a chance of processing such information, I needed to make a decision. I'm sure to be paired with someone from NASA. Maybe I'll be the one cut. Thoughts such as those swam through my mind until I could see the results in person. A ring from my phone told me I had new mail. I quickly open up the list, skimming what the E-mail had to say. Browsing the list, it showed the ranking of everyone in the class along with their ID number and first name. Starting from the bottom, I went up the list. I stop at eleven and didn't see my name. “What? Could it be? Was I really last?”

    I look through the bottom twenty again. I don't see my name. I contemplate the possibility of everyone tanking the exam. I look at the top ten. Moving down the list, I slowly make sure not to miss my name. My eyes started to swell up as I reached eight and nine. I started to think that after coming so far, I had failed the last step. I botched this terrific opportunity to turn my life around. It wasn't until I got to tenth place that my heart skipped a beat. I could see my name on the page. My tears had quickly turned to those of joy, beginning to roll my stresses away. It was such weight off my shoulders, I couldn't help but leap for joy. I had jumped about so long, I'd forgotten to check who my partner was. I pull up the list on my phone, remembering that first place would be paired with tenth to spread chances of survival out evenly. I was never too sure how that logic worked, but it looked like they had number 352. Audrey. Also looked like we got ship J7H. It was quite a walk away, but I'm expected to be there. If only to meet the partner I'll be spending the next seven years with. I started to wonder what kind of person she was. “I probably landed some super snob if they ranked first among the class. A recluse of a person. Probably couldn't hold a conversation for more than a second. To top it off, she probably isn't a looker, either. Not that any of them were really worth noticing, anyway. Well, at least they aren't stupid. I guess to get this far that's impossible.”
    I didn't think about it any longer as I walked to the J7H connection pad. From a distance, I could see my partner already waiting. As I drew closer, I finally noticed her finer features. She struck me as familiar. I walked a far more brisk pace. “That could only be...”

    It wasn't until I could see the shine in her silky, dark brown hair and tan skin that I was sure. It was her. Audrey.

    Chapter 3 – Launch

    I was speechless. I couldn't bring myself to near the pad. I stood frozen. Her arms were crossed, tapping an index finger on her left elbow as she shifted her weight to the right leg. She turned her head a number of times, impatiently waiting for my arrival. A minute passed before she turned, catching sight of me. She gave me a curious look, uncrossing her arms asking “Are you Brian?”

    “That's what some people may call me-” I didn't know where I was going with that. Why in the world had I responded that way? “-but you can call me Brian.”

    “What?” she asked.

    I try and pretend that was a joke with the most realistic laugh I could muster. “Ha ha ha...ha.”

    “Okay...” She replies cautiously, not bothering to play along. “So why are you over there?”

    “I was just getting here when I saw you turn around, honest.”

    “Really. Because even in my peripheral I recall you being perfectly still.” She replied.

    “Look, is it really that important?” I said strongly, becoming agitated.

    “It might be.” She says. “What if you're some sort of freak that enjoys creeping? Or peeping? Leering, even!”

    “What does that mean?”

    “It means-” She stressed, starting to walk toward me. “You could be someone I have to worry about.”

    “I don't really think that's going to be a problem.” I attempted to defend myself.

    “Okay, so can explain why you were like a statue for such an uncomfortable amount of time?” She continued her swift and steady pace.

    “No, I can't."

    “Then how am I supposed to trust you?” At that point she was very close to me, no longer carrying her voice through volume. With a much better view, she looked at me again. As if she was sizing me up. “You look a little familiar.”

    I tried to explain. “Well, we have been in the same class...”

    “No, I haven't really noticed anyone. That's why I find it strange you look familiar.” She interrupts me, then proceeds to think aloud. “I remember everyone I've talked to... Hm.”

    “I guess I just have one of those face-”

    “No, I remember!” Her interruptions become suspiciously intentional. “You're the one that was throwing up the entire time during the g-force exam. That's right! Your heaves were the loudest I ever heard. Even though a thick metal wall laid between us, I could hear you as if you were right next to me. Vomiting.”

    “Are you kidding? You heard that?” I asked, embarrassed. “How did you know that was me?”

    “I remember you stopping to look at me while holding that aching stomach of yours. I tried to pretend noticing a spot on the wall, since I needed some kind of excuse to not look at you. You looked way too into it is what I'm saying.”

    “Ha ha ha ha.” This time I believe I let out a more refined, believable laughter. It was the only kind of response I could think of at the moment. What I really couldn't believe was her being so honest or observant. “I guess that's one way to put it.”

    “So, that explains it.” She assured herself, relaxing gradually. “Well, in any case you don't seem a bad type.”
    I sweat a little, quelling an enormous need to ask what in Hell a good type in her eyes would be. I somehow manage “I'm glad we have that settled. Nice to meet you, Audrey.”

    “Good to meet you, too.” She said it with a smile on her face. Not much else was said for our first meeting. Maybe I was too nervous. For some reason I drew a blank. I wonder if she did as well. We waited for what seemed like hours for the scout to come. He'd make sure that we met and knew each other. After that, we parted ways, smiling. We said the same word: “Bye.”

    We would launch a week from that date. We could spend the last week with our families and friends. A last chance to make a few more precious memories for the long road ahead. Those moments flew by in an instant. As fun as they were, I still had to inform my family of the news before I left. It was hard to get a word in when we were all together. They're a never ending chatterbox. Finally, I summoned up enough courage to interrupt them. “I've been providing for a third of the bills while training. Once I'm done, I'll no longer continue doing so. You need to find a roommate. Some other way of dealing with the shortage of income you're going to experience. I have dreams. Ones I can still accomplish. This isn't where it ends for me. I can reach the success I want, it's so close. Only then can I come back and lend a hand. I need to stand on my own two feet first.

    There were more than a few moments of silence before my father decided to speak. “Really, you worry too much son. We want you to fly as high as possible. We'll watch from wherever we are. Reach for the skies; flap your wings as hard as you can. We will always support you. The son I've raised is now a man needing to see the world. Perhaps others as well. Ain't nothin' more important than that to either me or your mom. That's why you never need to worry about us. We're tougher than you think. We always figure it out together. Go out there and never look back.”

    It was the first time in a long while I've heard what my father was truly thinking. I felt peace of mind about financially detaching myself from the household. The last thing I uttered to them was “Goodbye. See you in seven years.”

    I was asleep during the trip back to Florida. I awoke feeling refreshed and ready. It was finally time to leave this planet behind. We each entered our launching pads the same morning we arrived back in Florida. Everyone made sure to try staying up late or early to avoid jet lag. Flights never took more than a few hours, anyway. Distance didn't matter. I recalled these airplanes using the same technology and fuel the EELAO thrusters did to get their speed and power. It's quite effective for speeds up to 3,000 kilometers per hour. It was relatively new technology. I remember it was the first fusion engine ever conceived. Although, by that point I was much more impressed with the EELAO itself. Useless thoughts as those that kept filling my head until reaching the launch pad. I thought it fortunate we weren't ordered to pack much. We suited up once we entered there. We definitely weren't allowed to bring something like a wallet aboard. If you absolutely needed it, the wallet would be provided for you a year later on first delivery of each individual's listed goods. That is to say that every year they planned to send us things on a list we provided them. A very efficient, yet small cargo ship would make the trip every year. Since space was limited, asking for a few items was all one could manage. The first year, we weren't allowed a single thing. Lack of space wasn't the problem. It was some moral principle I couldn't quite understand. Either way, I wasn't sure what to expect. I suited up and entered the cockpit. Inside, Audrey was already waiting and seated. “We're not leaving for another thirty minutes. Don't you want to see the mother ship's launch?”

    “I'm okay. I just need to concentrate on the mission right now. I'll make sure she's ready for launch, don't worry. You can go see the take off. It's a huge ship, I'm sure it'll look pretty cool.”

    “Nah.” I replied. “That doesn't seem fair.”

    “Fair?” she asked. “It's something I decided. It doesn't really concern you.”

    “Of course it does.” I said without any hesitation. “We're partners now.”

    She huffed to herself, sounding annoyed. “I hope you aren't trying to make me feel better. Having that kind of responsibility loom over me is only going to bog me down more.”

    “So you do admit you're feeling down.” I see I caught her off guard. “I can't allow you to properly verify us for launch alone if you're not at your best. Let's get the J7H up and ready together.”

    “Alright.” Finally, she smiled. “You're pretty nice, you know that?”

    “I get it all the time.” I smile back.

    “By the way, J7H is kind of a mouthful. How about we properly christen our vessel?”

    “Hmm.” I think about it. “That seems like a good idea. What would be a good name?”

    She started brainstorming. “It's round and yellow. Maybe Lemons or Light Bulb or Sun or... Pollen!”

    “Sun... like Sunday.”

    “Yeah!” She sounded delighted by the idea. “Or Saturday. I love Saturdays.”

    “Saturday.” I repeat back to myself. “Yeah, I like it.”

    “Ha ha, that's silly. You really want to call it Saturday?” She asked.

    “Of course.” I responded. “It's the name we both agreed upon. It doesn't sound half bad.”

    “Nothing round and yellow about Saturday.” She flatly points out.

    "I disagree.” Explaining, I said “My favorite Saturday's are filled to the brim with fun, like a balloon about to burst. Yet it can be gentle and warm like the sun's touch upon your skin on a clear, breezy summer day. You see, Saturdays can be full and bright. I always look forward to them being that way. So let's hope every day spent here is that best kind of Saturday. One that matches the description of our ship: Big, round and yellow.”

    “Pfft.” She broke out into a nearly hysterical laughter. “Ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha. HA HA HA HAHA. What are you supposed to be? Some kind of poet?”

    She was wiping away tears with her finger as she started to calm down. My face must have been burning red when I responded, rubbing the back of my head. “Sorry. It was how I felt about the name.”

    “Don't apologize.” She replied, still giggling. She smiled with her brilliant, perfect teeth again. It sent a shimmer my way. “It just really caught me off guard. You're right, it's a good name.”

    Through the speakers, a smooth, robotic woman's voice echoed through the ship. “Mother ship launch sequence initiated. Countdown: T-minus 35 seconds.”

    I look over the last few gauges to make sure they were within normal operating parameters. “We could still catch it if we left now.”

    “Do you want to see the launch?” She asked.

    “Kind of. I’d never seen a launch up cl-”

    “Well, this is troublesome. I guess I've got no choice since we're partners now.” She interrupted me, leaving the launchpad. “Let's go.”

    “Yeah.” I agreed. I don't know exactly why, but something inside me decided. From that point on, I would try to enjoy every moment I had with her. We stood atop the launch pad, only one fourth the way up the total height of our ship. It stood over a thousand feet above ground. Laying flat on the ground twenty miles away was a disk. It had the same yellow paint our ships were covered in, yet brandished the biggest logo ever conceived. An enormous blue WWWSE logo was visible when looking down over the top of it. The ship's behemoth mass easily took up a large portion of our field of vision, despite us being miles away. The diameter was easily over fifteen miles. At our height, we could see its entirety.

    “T-minus: ten...nine...eight...seven...” One question kept running through my mind: Could this continent of a ship really take off? I felt as if it was a final obstacle standing in my way. As the countdown drew closer to zero, I felt built up stress I hadn't noticed before being cleansed. Some part of me still needed one final verification that I was where I thought I was. That what I thought was about to happen was really about to happen. “...three...two...one...zero.”

    It started with an extremely bright light that blinded us in pure white. Moments later, a ferocious boom roared. It would've blown out our eardrums if we weren't wearing ear protection. It resounded through the empty sky just as it did us. Next, a shock-wave hit. We were strapped in for good measure, but I remember being frightened when my body left the ground. Ever had your legs blow in the wind like thick branches? Twisting and clashing during a ferocious storm? Then perhaps you could imagine the cracking that followed. It was loud. Like thunder, but louder. Through the explosion from the thrusters, one could hear the ripping of the Earth itself beneath the ship. It blasted into it's own symphony of cracks and booms that echoed for miles. The earthquakes that followed liftoff shook nearby facilities, along with any trace of scaffolding. The ship began to rise, gaining altitude and speed. Things started to calm down to a steady, hellish rumbling. The ship was meters away from us as it ascended, blinding Audrey and I. The rays were reflecting off the ship directly toward us. It was when I realized how thick it really was. A wide, blinding presence slowly passed and rose overhead. The flames off the thruster were somehow longer and just as bright. We could feel the heat almost burning the skin off our faces. Our outfits turned into hot-suits. Our eyes recovered once the ship was far enough overhead. It provided shade as it soared into the sky. If the thrusters weren't so bright, it would've been our personal solar eclipse. It had eight giant thrusters in all, exploding with energies you would find in a nuclear explosion. I felt as though I could stay here and watch it for eternity with Audrey. Headings locked towards the sky. On the brilliant display spinning overhead, eight stars slowly ascended to the heavens. Each on a journey to find a place they belong.

    “It wouldn't be so bad to do just that.” I thought to myself while welling up an urge to grab Audrey's hand. She was distracted by the massive, wondrous object moving into the sky. Listening to this temptation seemed so natural. Nothing could stop me. Almost.

    “Woah... That's amazing! I didn't think I would enjoy this moment today. I guess I have you to thank for that.” She turned to me with another brilliant smile. The urge became stronger. I thought I was about to kiss her. However, I knew better. I somehow kept myself from doing anything rash.

    “That's what partners are for.” I returned her smile. “Lets get ready for launch. Don't want to be late for the countdown.”

    “Yeah.” She said. It sounded so final and filled with regret. I could tell something was troubling her despite not truly knowing her. I wanted to ask why. My courage escaped me while preparing for launch.
    I convinced myself, “It's too personal.”

    Chapter Four – Final Training

    Forty five minutes after take off, we found ourselves in synchronous orbit with the mother ship. The plan dictated attaching our bodies to the framework of the ship. The tanks hung away around the ship. It was just large enough to hoist them all. The mother ship would then transport these ships to Jupiter. It was necessary for the first mission as the HEP tanks could only hold enough for a one way trip. A space station around the moon was necessary in case of emergencies. In the next seven years, it was expected that this flaw would be removed. Each ship could then carry enough fuel to take the tankard to and fro Jupiter. This time however, it was decided to create this monster of a ship to make such a trip. These equally enormous vessels merely accompanied it. I had learned during my time here that this whole operation was originally much simpler. It just so happens people foresaw this water catastrophe coming over one thousand years ago. Back then, Europa was completely different. It had a thicker atmosphere and large underwater oceans. These oceans carried equally large currents, all controlled by the spinning moon next to Jupiter. You might have even considered it a friendly place, where humans would thrive one day with little effort. It would have happened that way if it wasn't for a catastrophic event that reset our calendar. It did even more to the rest of the solar system. A dwarf star made of pure, solid iron passed in between Jupiter and Uranus. It's huge mass pulled on virtually every body in the heavens. It launched giant asteroids in every direction, smashing them into moons, planets and other asteroids. Nearly every orbit altered in some way. Some planets collided or were cast into the sun. We were fairly lucky, as it turned out. We were hit with a large asteroid, causing days to elongate one hour. It made years 7.25 days shorter as well, nearly wiping out eighty percent of the population. That's another story. What's important is that Europa was close to the dwarf star when it passed. It pulled the moon too far from Jupiter. It was bombarded with asteroids, disrupting the ocean's flow underneath. This created a chaotic event no one could have predicted. The violent twisting and turning of the tides combined with extremely low temperatures caused a very abnormal, rare storm to begin. It would be the first of its kind ever observed. While the moon moved far away from Jupiter, it's spin slowed to a crawl. The ocean's currents carried momentum from the asteroid impacts. The unstable pressures were caused by rushing water as it froze. The instability made the ice expand and contract, depending on the amount of pressure and ice above it. This started a never-ending pressure storm that permeated through the 190 kilometer thick layer of ice that covered Europa's surface. This mess of an operation was a last ditch effort to restore the dream we had long ago. We would have needed it sooner, but ironically this event bought humanity time. It was decided that Europa's situation required reinvestigation before considering relaunch of the effort. After that, there wasn't nearly as much interest. There were, however, discoveries beginning to be made. Daunting new challenges faced the people who worked on the effort at the time. It wasn't until recently that any of this become possible again. We were reminded of all this after we docked into the mother ship. We immediately met at a center hall where they would be serving our meals. From then on, any directions would be prerecorded transmissions. This made it impossible to ask questions or obtain clarity on details. After the brief history lesson, we were finally handed our orders. “We have prepared fifty separate CC rooms with hundreds of realistic simulations to refine your mining skills. We haven't had time to give you much practice, so we decided now would be perfect. Kill two birds with one stone as you continue your journey to Jupiter. Consider it a competition between you and your partner. At the end, your scores will be publicized and a ranking will be given. To keep you motivated, the winner of each pairing will decide the hours they work. This forces the partner to take whatever is left. This is how you will be spending twelve hours a day until you arrive at Europa. You have all been assigned a number which you should mostly recognize. You'll also find a small piece of paper underneath your assigned seat. If you aren't in your assigned seat, then hurry up and get your ass there. This isn't your sixth grade algebra class! The stations have been reassigned and have encrypted access. It can only be opened after whispering a password that has reliable voice recognition. You can set your password once inside your station. For now, it's 'cheese' and you better change it! Today you are scheduled for six hours. It's lights out at 10 PM. Breakfast is at 7:15 AM. A five and a half hour shift awaits, followed with lunch at 1:30 PM. A final six and a half hour shift leaves dinner for 8:15 PM. Finally, your rooms have been reassigned with the same number your stations have. There are several maps plotted throughout the station if you ever get lost. That is all. You're dismissed.”

    The giant apparition delivering the message at the front of the room disappeared. I ripped the piece of paper off from under my chair. It was a very light adhesive that didn't damage the paper. It read 'JH7-2.' The CC rooms were organized as the launching pads were, making it easy to find our station. Of course, Audrey's was directly next to mine. We would be walking to all of these places together. I was sure we would get a perfect chance to talk to one another. I thought I'd finally beaten her to our destination for once; I hadn't seen her. It was then I heard her CC room activate, realizing she was already inside. I yelled “Dammit! I won't let you get a head start so easily!”

    I run into the CC room, quickly activating a nearby panel. I started the first simulation. It wouldn't let me advance until I could pass with a score of at least eighty percent. The first seemed simple enough: Stabilize and drain the bubble. I quickly acclimate myself to the controls as I remember my training. I have to scan the varying degrees of pressure within the ice, navigating the map to avoid danger. I quickly moved through simulations until the alarm for lunch rang.

    “Eight simulations.” I bragged.

    She was already walking at a quick pace toward the dining hall. She yelled back to me. “Seventeen, loser!”
    “No way!” I yelled back, jogging to catch up to her. “What kind of score did you get on the final? I ask curiously.

    “Ninety eight percent.” She said flatly.

    “You're kidding me!” I was in total disbelief. “How could you possibly manage that?”

    “For starters, I resolved the problem before needing to use any HEP fuel. I was still close to my previous fixed location. I managed to synchronize the orbit with previous specifications. Without expending too much time or energy, I reattached the drill to the surface, stabilizing the water bubble before it had a chance to disappear. This allowed me ample time to drain it, of course. The only reason I didn't get a perfect score was because it was possible to complete all tasks two seconds faster than I had done.”

    “Two seconds!” She kept saying things that were hard to believe. “I guess it's pretty tough at the top.”

    “Tenth place isn't bad. You shouldn't be so down about my score. You're in the top, too.”

    “You can already tell when I'm feeling down, huh?” I asked, quickly changing the subject. I was trying to avoid having to tell her my score.

    She smiled. “We're partners after all.”

    “Well, thanks for cheering me up.”

    We made it to the dining hall without saying much else. Some off comments about what kind of food we liked were murmured. I feigned not already knowing about her particular tastes. We would have to enjoy this food now. In a year, we would be eating mostly out of tubes. We were the ones testing this mother ship of a space station. It was all a plan for future missions to have a higher chance of success. I expected many wouldn't be able to return from that first run. Those that did survive wouldn't have nearly enough water heading back. It all sounded nerve-wrecking. Twelve straight hours of the intensity I was subjected to in the CC room became a very unpleasant thought. You had to eat, shit and take power naps there to recover mental strength. You were allowed one half hour nap each shift after six hours had been logged. What we were doing now was only target practice. Like hunters who refine their abilities. We were in the last year of graduate school. It became extremely apparent I had nailed the mindset across the board. The lonely table we chose to sit at soon became crowded. Of course, others were only interested in getting to know Audrey. They were asking bold questions I would never have dared to ask. Still, I was happy to be within earshot of the conversation.

    “Audrey, you have such a long, full set of hair. You must be very young.” One of two girls who managed to find a seat at the table along with four other guys nodded their heads.

    “I'm not sure about that.” She replied. ”I feel pretty old.”

    “Oh, come on.” Said a big, white guy with black hair and hazel eyes who introduced himself as Rick. He was wearing jeans and a white t-shirt. He briefly sifted through her hair as he grabbed the seat opposite myself. “You couldn't be a day past twenty five.”

    “There's no way you're single.” His friend Jim said. He was a scrawnier man with a big nose and a uni-brow on his long, narrow face. Still, he had a warm smile and gentle eyes.

    “Someone as beautiful as her is probably married.” The second girl at the table called herself Carol. Her blonde hair ponytail tossed about behind her head. She was fairly fit while having a nose longer than Jim's.

    “Guys-” She sounded happy yet mildly annoyed. “-enough with the questions. I don't like to mix personal matters with work.”

    “Aww, c'mon! You have to let us know something about yourself! Work is home now.” The first girl pleaded with Audrey.

    “Please, you can't be a walking mystery the entire time you're here!” Another guy laughed, Hell if I could remember his name. He was tall, skinny with a long face and wide jaw. He had blue eyes and long, silver hair. He then said “Ms. Ninety eight percent with seventeen simulations in the first six hours.”
    “How did you know all that?” I had to ask this mysterious stranger.

    “Because I'm second place with a score of ninety seven percent.” He said it without any hesitation. “I figured she would be somewhere above that, obviously. That's how I knew you got a forty five percent on your final, Mr. Tenth place with eight simulations.”

    I was shocked to hear his guess. He even knew how many simulations I completed? I thought to myself “How-”

    “You're probably thinking 'How this is possible?', right?” He asked, once again he guessed the thought I was about to have.“Well, you do happen to be the partner of the only person an par with my skill. I'll tell you. You're in between ninth and eleventh place. I knew ninth's score because that's my partner. I also happen to know that everyone paired with a NASA astronaut scored forty-four percent and below. My partner, who is equally as useless, still scored forty-six percent. My guess once again was based on a ratio gap assumption. All of our current scores are based on simulation completion. If you would've checked before starting, you'd have seen that there are 942 simulations. Each one becoming harder than the last. It's a race to see who can complete them first. These scores are public and can be viewed at the scoreboard in the center hall.”

    “Yeah, but those must have been posted twenty minutes ago. It's a thirty minute walk from here.” I asked, confused.

    “I sent my mule, of course.” He responded, showing me a picture on his telecom. I'd been given this device as well. Too bad I hadn't bothered to turn it on, much less calibrate it. “He doesn't prove useful for much else. He ends up asking a million and one asinine questions, much like yourself.”

    “You picking a fight?” I asked. I could take some offense, but this guy seemed to be dishing it out every chance he got. Perhaps it was just a misinterpretation on my part. Either way, I couldn't take much more.

    “I have no reason to fight trash. It's simply a shame that such an amazing specimen would have to cooperate with scum.” He told me with a confident smirk that made me want to punch him right on his giant chin. A full power left hook. It would almost be too satisfying right now. As the urge started to take over, I had to clench my fist as hard as I could to hold myself back.

    “He's not trash or scum.” Audrey said under her breath.

    “What was that? I couldn't quite hear you, honey.” The man replied.

    “You know... you've been running your mouth quite shamelessly for awhile now. I was hoping to ignore you. You seem to be a little too persistent for that.” She said clearly and calmly. Her cold stare sent shivers down my spine. I didn't see it directly, but I felt a heavy and powerful atmosphere forming. A mere glance from the angle I had was enough. Somehow, it didn't seem to have any effect on this man's ego.

    “Oh, I like the feisty ones that play hard to get.” He tried to flirt.

    The attempt made her laugh. “You're far closer to the impossible area.”

    “Heh.” He pushed Audrey off her bench and onto the wall behind her. He used a butter knife to trace the nape of her neck. He pushed his left arm on her chest, pinning her. He leaned against her so hard it looked like she could hardly breathe. He whispered “You just haven't seen what I can do yet."

    I couldn't help myself any longer. I punched him in his broad, square jaw. A left jab landed after standing myself up. He immediately let go of her, starting to tumble in circles. He was dazed, his face covered in hair. He spat blood from his mouth. “You asshole! You physically damaged me? You'll hurt my score if I can't properly continue these simulations! How do you plan on taking responsibility for this? Even worse, if you did permanent nerve damage you could put this whole mission in jeopardy! Can't you realize that I'm an extremely important asset? You're nothing but a filthy, violent, foolish, inefficient mongrel!”

    “Relax, I held back quite a bit. You should be okay in another five minutes. I just wanted you to know a little something. If you ever touch Audrey like that again, I'll make sure you can't stand your ground or continue running that disgusting, arrogant mouth of yours.”

    “You are kidding, right?” He asks. “You think you can get away with aggravated assault? With possibly damaging humanities chance of success so easily?”

    “That's my line, bud.” I responded.

    “I didn't harm her.” He proclaimed. “I barely used any force to pin her up against the wall. She was being very obedient.”

    “I've heard enough from you today. We're already on our way to Jupiter. Every single one of us is just as important as any other. To tell you the truth, there's absolutely nothing you can bring to the table that Audrey and I can't. I bet we could both beat your score without problem.”

    “Hmm, that sounds interesting. I might let your offense slide if you make an appropriate offer.”

    “My position on Satur- I mean on the J7H team.”

    “Oh, you think your partner would actually agree to such a one-sided deal? Did you really think Audrey would really believe you could stand toe to toe with us?”

    “Yes.” Audrey stood back up. “We'll take your single score as the average. Then, we'll average our score. If our score average is better than yours, you'll forget what Brian did. If not, then I'll allow whoever you want from your team to switch places with my partner.”

    “Oh, you've gone and said it now. My partner and I agree.”

    “Your partner isn't even here.” I complained.

    “He signed a temporary lease on his power of attorney.” He pulls a contract out from his coat pocket. “In case of such scenarios, you don't have much of a chance to think it over. Aren't I well prepared?”

    “Well then, it's set.” I said, ignoring his pitiful self praise.

    “Very well.” He throws his pure, long white hair back. He looked quite young. Watching him from afar, one might mistake him as cute or catch a glimpse of his blue eyes. That would be before they got to know him. He stood up from the table, a full tray of food in his hands. “I have to feed my mule, anyway.”

    His presence silenced everyone at the table. The atmosphere at the table was thick. For a moment, everyone forgot why they had gathered in the first place. Even one of the girls there ran away. Carol on the other hand managed to speak first, breaking the silence. “That guy is totally creepy. Don't worry, Audrey. I'll protect you from people like that. No need to rely on weak, simple-minded idiots like him!”

    “Yeah, Audrey. You're taking too much risk. Have you thought about what living with such a creeper would be like?” Rick asked Audrey without holding back. Again, I rolled my eyes in response to how direct the question was. She didn't answer, but I saw her spine crawl as she considered the idea.

    “Don't worry, I won't lose.” I tried to reassure Audrey. She turned around, trying to muster a smile. She was obviously distraught about what she just imagined. I look her directly in the eyes. “No matter what. I won't let anything happen to team Saturday.”

    “Thank you.”

    “More importantly, you aren't leaving this table until you tell us all a little more about yourself, remember?” Carol asked again, trying to loosen up the built up tension.

    “Sorry, enough chit chat for now. I've got someone to train.” Audrey responded while chewing and swallowing a ton of food. She was about to shovel more into her mouth but remembered to look at me this time. She said “You too, c'mon.”

    I started eating as fast as I could, trying to savor it somehow. My jaw exhausted itself trying to chew quickly, so I gave into swallowing large portions instead. Jim teased. “That's how you do it.”

    “Alright, let's go.” She pulled on my arm, being fairly strong. Without much resistance, she easily tugged me along. I tried to finish the last of my water as we left the dining hall. “This morning I checked something. Found that there's a kind of training mode where you can practice simulations. It won't effect your time or score, but the mode is only available after hours. I'm hoping to work during lunch.”

    “That's kind of cool.” I responded. “Is retrying some courses really going to make me any better?”

    “No, I will.” She replied. “I can stream your practice simulations to my telecom, all live. I'll be able to give you pointers on how to improve your time. I just need you to sync your device with mine. What frequency do you use?”

    “I haven't had a chance to use mine before. Beats me.”

    “Are you kidding?” she yelled. “Pull it out! Right now!”

    “That's impossible.” I replied. “It's tucked away in one of my drawers.”

    “Okay, but don't you know you can seriously do anything on it?” She sounded agitated. “First thing tomorrow, we're waking up an hour early. Use your telecom to set an alarm. Make sure to have it prepared and handy. For now, I can watch the simulations from inside my CC room. I have to be in the middle of simulation to access the function. Even if I choose to practice the first mission, I can't give your attempt my full attention. I'd rather do it the other way. For today, we have no choice. Open up your channel to frequency...let's say 44.7.”

    “Alright.” I replied and shuffled into my own CC room. I set the channel immediately. I heard her voice again.

    “Can you hear me?” She asked.

    “Yeah, loud and clear.” I replied but remained confused. “I haven't even launched the simulation yet.”

    “You could do the same thing if I was still in the MOSI and you were already running the simulation. Instead of going there to choose, scroll down. You will see and see a test option. You can run tests on the code to make sure everything is running properly. If you remember, they said it's possible to go through the movements for in depth code testing. There won't be a grade. That's what I'll be doing instead. You can run any of the ones you've completed up to this point. I want you to start with the most recent.”

    It was a drilling exercise. Started off at a point where the drill was ready for launch and waiting for an input on path coordinates. The IPM had been filled with varying ice pressure in a 100 cubic kilometer area underneath the surface of Europa. I also had my eighty kilometer drill for the operation. The point was to get as many water bubbles in the time allotted. It was a test to see if you could quickly analyze the status of the IPM. Figuring out which bubbles to get when became a task of planning the most efficient path. The system gave a grade on how effective the plan was. Mainly through sheer volume of water attained and how well the operation was executed. There are also deductions for losing or damaging things. The IPM was completely different yet still had similar concentrations of impermeable ice and water bubbles. Without hesitation, I analyzed it. I find the bubbles that have the least amount of impermeable ice surrounding them. I move the tip of the drill down toward the surface to begin digging. I set the speed to maximum, making very subtle turns. All this before it was barely a kilometer in. I continued to drop the drill in swiftly from above. Almost a straight line down to the bubble. As soon as I got to the layer of impermeable ice surrounding the first bubble, I launch the diamond tipped drill. Gently, I drilled through the impossibly thick ice. The computer told me upon finishing “IIL has been penetrated.”

    “Launch the EPPBPS. 5 minute battery.” I told the computer.

    “Launching.” It responded after a a few seconds. It chimed in “Stabilization successful.”

    “Retract the SDTD. Expel the IIL piece into the bubble.” I demanded the computer. “Set drill speed to 200 SPS.”

    “Complying. Complying.” It repeated. “Thermal pads powered. IIL piece removed from drill's jaw. Pressure continues to stabilize.”

    “Set DVP to 200,000 PSI.”

    “Completed.” The computer replied quickly. “Estimated time until bubble depletion: Six minutes. Five seconds.”

    “Uh oh.” I realize the bubble was bigger than the original map's prediction. I forgot I should have rescanned the size with low energy echo-location signals. It could be sent from the drill face and echo inside the bubble. That would get the exact geometric size and composition. This differs from the IPM, which allows for accurate predictions of where ice bubbles will form near the surface. The IPM was populated using high frequency microwaves to measure small changes in the ice's density. It would go straight through the thin ice only bouncing off thicker impermeable ice. It collected enough information to create a rough, overall accurate map of the area beneath the surface.

    Thinking on my feet, I decided to change settings to save time. This would give it a better efficiency rate. “Set DS to 350 SPS. DVP to 150,000 PSI.”

    “Complete. Recalculating. Estimated time until bubble depletion: four minutes.”

    I had finally started to relax. “That's bet-”

    “Warning: Heat pads exceeding recommended temperatures at sections WZ-34. BH-12. AD-56.” The computer says.

    “Permission to apply water coolant.” I said.

    “Applying.” The computer replied. “Heat stabilized.”

    Sixteen other pads overheated in those four minutes. In that time, Audrey asked “How could you forget to check the size of the bubble with the LEEL signal? Lowering the pressure inside the drill can save time, but doing so can be very dangerous. Your thermal pads can't handle that much cooling for long periods of time. You could cause serious malfunctions later down the road.”

    “I'm just a little nervous being watched.” I tried to explain, hiding the fact I was in such a rush it slipped my mind. I was trying to get a score that would impress her. After the bubble emptied, I began retracting the drill. Unfortunately, a part of it had become frozen in impermeable ice as soon as I started. It would be impossible to recover any part of the drill past the point it was frozen.

    “Because you were so busy keeping the drill cool, you didn't have time to properly read your IPM. The low pressure inside your drill made it easier to freeze over. You should have realized that after the bubble was drained, the changes in the ice pressure would cause this.” She scolded me. “You lost about a kilometer of your drill because of that mistake. If you weren't in such a hurry, none of this would have happened. Now, you have to once again dig down into the ice. Don't make the same mistake again!”

    “Practically saw right through me.” I continue digging, draining bubbles for the rest of lunch. We used every last moment training until we had to start our simulation race. By the end of the day, I was in twenty-sixth place with twenty simulations.

    “Lets make it an hour and a half earlier, instead.” She explains. “Otherwise, I don't think we can make it. There are people clearing the simulations faster than you even though they did worse on their final. I didn't expect to see this much of a difference between us.”

    “Okay.” I could already feel the lack of sleep. At that point our lunch break was about ten minutes total. This included getting to the cafeteria, eating and getting back into the CC room. After class, we would immediately switch to training. We commit to our session until we're forced to go to bed. For two months, we never dropped the routine. I talked to Audrey, but it always turned to training, strategies, and practicing techniques. At the end of two months, I was in twenty third place with 122 simulations. Audrey was in first place with 340. Mr. Awful, as I liked to call him, was in second with 338. Not very far behind. I was the one that would lose us this competition if I couldn't pick up the slack. “I'm sorry, Audrey. I'm not quite grasping it as easily as you. I've only gone up three rankings in two months. I'll never make it at this rate.”

    “We'll figure it out somehow.” She tried to cheer me up.

    “It's me who can't figure it out. I should have known it was going to be impossible to win. Even if you can beat him, its meaningless if I can't.”

    “Maybe you're right. Do you honestly regret it that much?” She asked.

    I had to think carefully about it. I thought back to the day when I said we could beat him. That conniving, sinister man with the arrogance of a titan or god. There is no way I can regret standing up to someone like that. “I don't. You're absolutely right. I can't be giving up so easily. Especially for Team Saturday. I'll just have to go up three rankings every month instead!”

    “That's what I'm talking about.” She began to laugh. “I think it's about time I revealed my secret weapon.”

    “Secret weapon? What are you talking about?”

    “I learned this fairly recently: We can open our communication channels during live simulations. I can give you pointers as you actually try. Seeing you under the pressures of being scored might enlighten me as how to help in the future.”

    “Alright, sounds like a plan. Frequency 44.7 as usual?”

    “Why change it now?” she asked.

    The simulations continued to increase in difficulty. Detrimental can't begin to describe the problems lurking around every corner. The mission was always at risk of failure or at least imminent danger. For Audrey, it must have been far worse. She was hundreds of simulations ahead, all while helping me train without losing pace. Every once in awhile, I heard her complain about something I did. Taking too long doing this. Too much time spent looking at that. Decipher the IPM faster. There was a more efficient route over there. That's too risky. Complaints like that kept flooding my simulation and training session for another five months. None of it went to waste, as I was in twelfth place with 624 simulations. The gaps started becoming narrower for everyone. The simulation became excruciating. Leagues harder than before. Audrey was now in third place with 847. She had just started the Dirty One Hundred. The hardest of the hard. They didn't expect anyone to finish them in a whole year, let alone within five months. Mr. Awful was ahead by ten simulations. This was quite a large gap he managed to sneak in between Audrey and himself. Considering how long each of the Dirty One Hundred took, I couldn't help but feel surprised. Another month had passed and our score continued to worsen. Audrey was now tied with fourth place. I was stuck in twelfth. I couldn't hold in my frustration anymore. Right before going to bed that night, I decided to tell her “There are only four more months left. We've been training continuously, yet we still can't keep up. Since you've been training me while running simulations, your score has slipped farther and farther behind.”

    “You're right this time.” She agreed to our mutual problem. “What do you think we should do?”

    “I was hoping to get an answer from you.” I yawned. “I'm so tired. It's really difficult to think about this.”

    “You're right, again. It's the same for me. I think that's the problem.” She pauses to think about it. “That's it. Our extra training ends today. What we have to do is concentrate on increasing our score as quickly as possible in these last four months. Before it's too late.”

    “We'll have to do our best. Even though Mr. Awful only has forty two simulations left.” I was excited to get some genuine sleep.

    “You know you can just check the E-mail for his name, if you wanted to.” She reminded me.

    “I don't want to know his name. Do you?” I asked.

    “Hah, I'm glad you hate him just as much as I do.” She admitted.

    “Starting tomorrow, we have a full lunch hour. We don't have to wake early. We'll be getting seven full hours tonight. That sounds incredibly nice.” I stretched and tried to change the subject to something lighter. “Let's make sure to rest up well tonight.”

    Getting up with everyone else was great. Breakfast tasted fantastic, having the chance to savor it. The rest was what perked me up the most. When I started the simulation, I could hear Audrey's voice as clear as day. Her countless corrections and tips were fresh in my thoughts. All flooding my mind simultaneously. Instinctively, I corrected my mistakes sooner. I read my status information, maps and gauges much quicker than I had before. Even my troubleshooting time had dramatically increased in speed. I didn't know I was capable of such complex thoughts or maneuvers under these strict time-frames. Everything I had been doing finally seemed to click after that much needed rest. By the time lunch came around, I had completed six simulations. Compared to yesterday's two, it was a massive improvement. I could hardly believe it. I had gone up a ranking in half a day. I planned to tackle another during the second half. During lunch, for the third time ever, we sat down in the cafeteria to eat. Before, we would eat standing up near the exit. The place people leave their trays after they're done eating. Definitely more comfortable sitting at the table without having to rush. I knew that would be one of my favorite things about these last four months. Inside that mother ship, Audrey hadn't lost popularity in the slightest. She was once again surrounded by as many people as possible. Actually, only eight. You think I would warrant respect for being eleventh place of fifty. Nobody was paying me much attention. I wasn't sure what it could be, and I didn't care all that much. I was happy as long as I was talking to Audrey. Still, I was glad to be in earshot of the conversations she would have.

    “We've been waiting a long time for this, Audrey. We've been lenient because you've had to train that monkey. ” Carol never forgot to insult me, even during her greetings. “You can't get away without divulging something about yourself this time around.”

    She rolled her eyes, reluctantly buckling under the pressure. “Fine, I'll answer one question about me. Then leave this 'personal matter' stuff alone.”

    “What are your three sizes?” Rick asked instantaneously.

    “No way!” Carol smacked him over the head. “We have to vote on it.”

    “Is she married?” Jim cast his vote.

    “How old are you?” Rick asked another, slightly more appropriate question.

    “Do you have any kids?” The other girl from before managed to sneak onto the table, asking excitedly.

    “Ha ha. No way she has kids.” Jim said.

    “Look, I think I'd rather pick.” Audrey chimed in, looking nervous.

    “Alright then, that seems fair.” Carol agreed to the new rule.

    “Any other questions?” She looked around the table, a little hopeful. She was disappointed.

    “Looks like that's it, sweetie.” Rick tries to comfort her. He pushed toward an answer, probably hoping she would reveal her three sizes.

    “Okay, I guess I'll tell you.” She takes a deep breath as everyone freezes in anticipation, myself included. “I'm twenty nine years old.”

    “That's not possible.” Rick was obviously shocked. He wasn't the only one. Even I was surprised to hear it. Hell, she didn't look a day past twenty.

    Carol laughed sarcastically. “With that type of reaction, there might be some interesting answers to those other questions. Wouldn't you say?”

    “I think next time we should have a vote.” Rick demanded in a flat, disappointed tone. He was complaining, despite his question being picked.

    “So he really was after her three sizes.” I thought silently. I was lucky nobody heard me say that.

    “You guys should leave my future partner alone.” It was Mr. Awful. Just the sound of his deep, enchanting voice sent shivers down my spine.

    “Counting your hens before they've hatched, I see.” I tried to appear optimistic.

    “Nothing wrong with calling your victories every once in awhile. Not when they're this in the bag.” He replied as confident as ever.

    “Audrey managed to finish two simulations today in the first half.” Carol tried to defend her. “She'll beat you even if Brian fails. Which he likely will.”

    “Hey, I also went up a ranking in half a day.” I tried to remind everyone how close I am to the top ten.

    “Yeah, but the top ten are each leagues apart from one another. You'll never get close in four months.” She cried, then flatly stated “If Audrey fails, there's no doubt it'll be your fault.”

    “Either way. No matter how you squirm, it's already my win. Both of you can't hope to beat all of the simulations on time.” Mr. Awful laughed hysterically, his mouth watering. Drops of his saliva slipped down his chin and lips. His jigsaw teeth clenched into a wide, crooked smile. He sucked in the excess back to his maw, wiping away the rest with his sleeve. “Soon... I'll have you all to myself. For six. Long. Years. I simply cannot wait.”

    “Bring it, Jaws!” I taunted his giant mandible and crooked teeth.

    He cackled, continuing a dark, deep laugh. “I'm only forty five simulations from the end. I'm the one that should be saying 'Bring it'.”

    He left after that display. His presence changed the atmosphere at the table. You could cut it with a knife. The tension was palpable. These moments pushed me to continue keeping up the pace I had before. I couldn't let Audrey spend seven years with that creep. My speed from then on started to increase. The simulations became harder, keeping up with my pace at every turn. However, after one month I was in fifth place. Ninety simulations within the Dirty One Hundred. Audrey was two simulations behind Mr. awful, who was twenty simulations from finishing. During lunch that day, I heard an interesting conversation. Carol cheered on her favorite. “You're doing amazing, Audrey! You're going to beat that loser into the ground!”

    Jim added “You aren't doing half bad yourself, Brian.”

    “Still.” Carol pointed out, staring me down with her arms crossed. When she didn't insult me directly, her body language sure did. “They're going to lose the bet at this rate. Audrey will be forced to become friends with that creep!”

    “I'll never become friends with that man.” Audrey corrected Carol.

    “That's even worse!” She cried, tears forming in her eyes. “My poor darling. What are we going to do?”

    Rick suggested “Just say 'screw it' to his deal. Don't honor that crap.”

    "No way.” Audrey rejected the idea immediately. “We'd be dropping ourselves down to his level, or lower. I won't stand that!”

    “I said it once, I'll say it again.” I looked at Audrey. “I won't let anything happen to Team Saturday.”

    She smiled. “I rea-"

    Mr. Awful had heard the comment, interrupting her with almost trademark laughter. “You think you can do the Dirty One Hundred in three months? That's how long it took me to get to the last twenty simulations. You can't possibly finish in time. You're still ninety simulations from the Dirty One Hundred.”

    I proclaimed “I'll do it somehow. I'll find a way to beat you.”

    “Empty words from an empty shell.” He always found a way to insult me with every breath. Not even Carol was that consistent.

    “You're the one that's empty.” I responded to the soulless man.

    “Audrey will be mine in just a few months. There's absolutely nothing you can do about that.”

    “You know she's twenty nine and most likely married. Who's going to let that-” Rick pointed Audrey out. “-walk around for eleven years without laying claim?”

    Carol squeaked excitedly. “Is that true, Audrey?”

    She looked nervous again. “Actually, I'm not married. Bu-”

    “There you have it.” Mr. Awful interrupted her. “Nothing will stop me now. Nothing.”

    I couldn't believe she wasn't married. Her beauty at that age was a miracle of sorts. My skin tingled while my heart raced. The rush of blood to my head gave me a new-found burst of energy. Suddenly, I wanted to finish more simulations. This renewed motivation pushed me to finish the ninety simulations in half a month. Audrey had finally passed Mr. Awful as well. He was eight simulations behind while Audrey needed only five. Ideally, most of the Dirty One Hundred could be finished within a day when keeping failures to a minimum. Normally, it would take hundreds of attempts before one could handle the simulation well enough to attain a passing score. The second half of the day, I tried the first simulation of the Dirty One Hundred. It was on an entirely different level than the other simulations. Three consecutive times my tanker fell out of orbit, crashing onto the surface. I was less than half way through. It forced me to intuitively use the training I'd gained from Audrey. In the next two weeks, the intense training caused something to change in my tactics. Problems I had to think about before were no longer running through my mind. It was as though I had begun to naturally process information. I paid unwavering attention to answers that popped into my mind. Once again I was picking up pace. On the other hand, Audrey slowed to a crawl with her last five simulations. She was expected to finish before the end of the week. It took another two. By the time Mr. Awful was on the final five, Audrey had barely wrapped up the final simulation. I had completed twelve of the Dirty One Hundred. I was handling around one a day, despite the first few taking longer than expected. Mr. Awful began feeling the pressure of the final five. That much was obvious. After one week, he had only finished one simulation. My pace continued to increase after I took down another eight that same week. Mr. Awful didn't seem worried. It took him another two weeks to clear three more. I was down to the last fifty simulations. Even though I was closing the gap, it didn't matter. Mr. Awful's lethargic pace still let him finish before me. I was just too far away. I suspect this was the main reason Mr. Awful wasn't in a hurry. Then it happened. He finished the last simulation in the last week of the month. His score was set in stone. A harsh limit now shackled me. I didn't give up. I put forth all my effort into concentrating. Anything to avoid mistakes.

    “He's faster than you.” Audrey actually initiated a conversation with Mr. Awful. The only other person who didn't have anything to do that last month.

    “So, what? It won't be enough. He might not be making mistakes now. I could accomplish the same thing if I tried them again. As I am now, I stand superior to him. Plus, he won't be able to keep up that pace forever.”

    “You think so?” Audrey questioned his reasoning. “He's getting better. Even now. Who knows what these simulations will continue to do for his growth?”

    “That's a lot of hope you're placing into a forty five. You remember the final exam, don't you?”

    “You think that is really important right now?” Audrey defended me. “That was all just a test to see if we're able. It doesn't say anything about how capable we actually are. That's what these simulations reveal. That's why we're getting a drill rank at the end of this.”

    “He needs to complete twenty simulations in three weeks. It took me longer to do the last five alone. It was the same for you, too. It's an impossible struggle.”

    “You really haven't realized. Heh, Mr. Awful really is fitting.” She smiled. “He's already better than both of us. He's going to keep getting better. He won't stop.”

    He replied, insulted. “What are you blathering on about? Mr. Awful? My name is Corne-”

    “I don't care.” She interrupted him and muted him over the comm. “At this point, your only job should be to shut up and watch.”

    Two more weeks passed. I hadn't slowed down one bit; completing fifteen simulations. Now only seven days before we arrive on Jupiter. I was about to begin the final five simulations. Four hours into the first mission, the main thrusters imploded. A chain reaction left the entire ship in ruin. Without the ability to take water home, the mission was a complete failure. My second attempt didn't go much better. The first day of the final week ended without finishing a single simulation. It was the first time I had failed all month. I spent my free time thinking about what I could do differently to create a working strategy. The next day, I managed to complete it on the first try. The second simulation gave me more trouble than I could handle. I failed it three times before the day was out. The difficulty of the simulations forced me to grow. I could once again feel the changes in my training. The answers not only popped naturally into my head, I quickly picked the best suited for the scenario as well. My mind was quickly, naturally analyzing situations at a speed I had never experienced before. The next shift I was able to finish a simulation giving me trouble with ease, only to start on the next. Before the end of the same shift I managed to handle an additional simulation. There was a huge celebration for my accomplishment during dinner. I managed to beat two of the last five in a single day. The next simulation would take all day for me to finish. I thought to myself at the end of the day “Seventy two hours, two simulations left.”

    The only other people who touched the final five simulations were Audrey and Mr. Awful. They'd never completed them within a day or a few tries. I had failed each of them at least once, but I was correcting my mistakes. The second to last simulation took me two days alone. I made four very long, tiring tries. It was the end of the second to last day before we arrived on Jupiter. Of course I was sweating bullets. Outside the CC room at the end of the day, Mr. Awful was waiting. “Well, I've got to commend you for making it this far. I never expected such a close outcome. However, this last simulation is not only the longest. It's also the hardest. You failed yesterday's simulation four times. That's great, considering it took me fifteen tries. The last one took me twenty five tries and a whole week to complete. Even if you manage to complete it, unless you do it before 7 PM, you won't average a better score than mine. You'll have nine hours to complete a ten hour simulation. What can you do but accept defeat?”

    “Don't listen to him.” Carol was there to defend me. It seemed my achievements had finally earned me some respect. “I'm not too sure how you got this far, but you can't be giving up now!”

    Surprised about the compliment, I replied “Only two people have tried the simulation. It took them both a little over ten hours. There might be a way to shave more time off that.”

    “To do it on your first try is insane.” Rick had come by, offering his version of supportive advice.

    Mr. Awful decided to once again declare his victory, showing off that wide smile, thin lips and crooked teeth. “Go ahead. Squirm, maggot. My victory is assured. I'll enjoy your struggle to the end. Ha ha ha ha ha ha.”

    “Like Carol said-” Audrey, who had been idly listening, crossed her arms. She gave Mr. Awful that same wicked stare. “-listening to that fish won't get you anywhere. It's better to ignore it.”

    Mr. Awful yelled furiously “My name is Cornel-”

    “Like I care!” Audrey interrupted the announcement of his name for the second time. She grabbed my wrists, starting to run toward the dorms. “Let's get away from him before we know his name."

    “Yeah.” I agreed, grabbing onto her hand. We swiftly escaped the group of people within a few minutes. We stopped in front of our rooms to catch our breath.

    “Well, good luck tomorrow.” Audrey gave me a smile before turning toward her room. She was wearing a netted shirt with a tank top. She doesn't normally wear something so revealing. I took the chance to stare at her back. I noticed something in between the netting and stopped her.

    “Is that a tattoo?” I pointed out.

    “You mean this?” She touched her upper left back.

    “Yeah, I can't quite make it out.” I said.

    She tried sliding the netting around so I could get a better look. “Can you see it now?”

    “No.” I stated. She turned around and walked back toward me. Once in front of me, she turned around again. I pinched her shirt around the tattoo, moving the netted pattern. I can finally make it out. It said 'Believe.' The B was formed out of the world symbol for unity and prosperity. It represented an organization who's specific goal is to close the gap in technology that would otherwise destroy known civilization. The I in Believe was dotted with a series of birds that flew up and away. “Oh yeah, I can see it now.”

    I traced the tattoo with my fingers. She asked “Can you really see it?”

    “Of course, I can even make out the-” I spaced out as I continued tracing the tattoo. At that moment, the word I was looking for escaped me. I was staring right at it. My fingers moved up close to the nape of her neck as she pulled away from me. She turned back around to face me. Finally, I remembered the word. “-birds.”

    She wore the strangest expression. It was a combination of surprise, worry and something else. With that face, rubbing her back, she continued to stare at me. I had a new favorite expression. I would do anything to be able to look at it all day. That urge to go out and kiss her rushed back into me with an unrelenting force. This time I didn't think I could hold back. Yet once again, she managed to take control. “There's something I have to tell you.”

    “What is it?” I went to grab her hands, comforting the worried look on her face. She pulled away before I had a chance. Turning away, she broke eye contact.

    “I think I'd rather tell you tomorrow.” Something was off about the way she said it. She opened her door, looking back to me once more. “If you lose, you'll never hear it!”

    Chapter Five – Team Saturday

    The next day I crawled into the CC room. I'd been training in this room for a year. All the knobs, levers, buttons, switches and valves were ready to go. When I first saw this place, it seemed crowded. At that moment, every piece had become an extension of myself. With my eyes closed, I could point out every part and explain its function. As Audrey requested, I open up my communicator to anyone who cared to see my attempt. I took a deep breath, take one more look at where I was and without any hesitation boot up the final simulation. The IPM had not been filled, so I start with a scan. “Use the HFM on coordinates J213, D365, F867 through N465, H756, M453. And B219, F445, G756 through D879, R105, K019.”

    “Estimated completion time: twenty minutes.” The computer's familiar voice responded.

    I quickly gathered the status of the ship. It was three years into the mission with .2% extra HEP fuel and two repair drones at the ready. I had seventy four kilometers of drill available as well as all three SDTDs. It didn't even take one minute before the computer alerted me to the first problem.

    “Warning: Meteor storm incoming. Contact in two minutes.”

    If any impacts effect my position, it would throw off the HFM scan. “Activate LFL gun.”

    “Activating. Visual confirmation on thirty five objects with 100% chance of impact.”

    “Begin alternating their routes.”

    “Estimated time until completion: six minutes.”

    That isn't nearly fast enough. I would have to start the HFM scan all over again. “Redirect priority to objects that will effect our position.”

    “Twenty objects; three minutes.”

    That was a little better but still not quick enough. There was a visual map that showed the different meteors heading toward the ship. It was a little unnecessary for this threat. To save as much time as possible, I exclaimed “Launch HIMS over sector GX65 of the ship. Set LFL priority to anything that will still affect our position.”

    “Launching.” High pitched beeping fills my ears. “Ten targets: 1.5 minutes.”

    “Launch drill on coordinates N967, Q104, V056. Drill straight down five kilometers.”

    “IPM not yet populated. Drill danger: likely to incur damage.”

    “Override.” I replied. It was time to set my plan into motion. Before the drilling finished, my next challenge presented itself.

    “Warning: Fusion core destabilized. EELAO thrusters must deactivate in forty five seconds.”

    “Launch repair drone inside the fusion engine.” The control gear fell from above and I put it on. I didn't have time to run diagnostics. I would lose my current position, forcing me to start the scan over again. Usually, a crack in one of the fusion cells was the culprit. However, after looking at the fusion reactor first hand, no sign of cracks were apparent. The fusion cells are aligned around the reactor which draw energy for the thrusters.

    “EELAO deactivation in thirty seconds.” If it wasn't a crack, it was probably inside the reactor itself. I positioned the drone to get a look inside to see the problem. Inside the reactor, one of the energy suppressors was clearly inactive. Without it, that reactor's whole section would eventually detonate. I couldn't let myself cause another chain reaction that would make the reactor unusable. A forced deactivation was the only way. It would take a couple of minutes to fix, but I would have to drop the energy production of the reactor to get the drone close. The orbit decay would be a few minutes. So I didn't have that luxury. I needed to maintain my current position no matter the cost. At least another fifteen minutes. The reactor was made so that a part of it can fail without losing much efficiency. That's where my chance would come from. I needed to neutralize the explosion. “EELAO deactivation in fifteen seconds.”

    I suddenly had a preposterous idea. “Override fusion core deactivation.”

    “Warning: fusion engine explosion in ten seconds.” I positioned the drone as close to the energy suppressor as I could. Any closer and the drone wouldn't be able to handle the energy levels for more than a few seconds. I began to wait, hanging by a thread.

    “Ten, nine, eight, seven...” The computer continued the countdown. “...four, three, two...”

    “Now!” I control the drone to wrap itself around the energy suppressor. I lost my visual of the reactor.

    “Explosion localized. Fusion core stable. Repair drone lost.” I could go back and fix it later. It wasn't an imminent threat anymore. “Drilling complete.”

    “Detach drill from surface and set new drilling coordinates to T142, X079, F894. Five kilometers straight down. Continue unpopulated IPM override.”

    “What the hell is he thinking? Why would he drill blind then leave it behind?” Mr. Awful's voice blared through the communicator.

    “Shhh.” Audrey told him “Just watch.”

    “Drilling complete.”

    “Set new drilling coordinates to C937, W145 and F954. Five kilometers downward.”

    “IPM populated.” The hologram of the surface revealed itself. I finally had visual contact on water bubbles. Just as I'd hoped, they were scarce with low pressure all the way down. As deep as forty kilometers into the ice.

    “Warning: Large meteor shower incoming. Four minutes.”

    “Hah, with your HIMS already deployed, you're screwed.” Mr. Awful was waiting for this moment.

    I hated to admit it, but he had a good point. The LFL couldn't handle such a large threat in such a small amount of time. I looked at the radar of incoming meteors. The particular pattern of incoming objects gave me a flash of inspiration. I remembered I still had the .2% extra HEP fuel, giving me another idea. “Drilling complete.”

    “Turn drill thirteen degrees. Set angle to forty five degrees. Drill 3.6 kilometers.” I was moving in toward my first bubble.

    “Drilling complete. Meteor shower impact in one minute.”

    “Detach drill from surface. Begin retraction. Deactivate all EELAO thrusters except A2 through A5.” I ordered the computer.

    “Ship turning forty seven degrees. Orbit decay in twenty seconds.”

    “Deactivate remaining EELAO thrusters.”

    “Warning: Altitude dropping.” I need to wait just a bit longer. “Free fall acceleration reaching .6 meters per second.”

    “Activate main thrusters for 4.3 seconds.”

    “Oh!” Audrey realized his plan. “Instead of recovering the HIMS, he's moving the ship back to where it was deployed. He'll position it to cover the incoming shower.”

    “Reactivate EELAO thrusters. Set new orbit on current position.” I commanded the computer.

    “Meteor shower impact recalculated: one minute, forty five seconds.”

    “Set LFL to reroute any threat not covered by the HIMS.”

    “Five threats. Estimated completion time: one minute, twenty seconds.”

    “Somehow, it worked.” I sighed. “Reattach drill to coordinates C937, W145 and F954.”

    “So, he saved himself about thirty minutes so far.” Mr. Awful had never sounded so nervous. I continued drilling into the ice in the way I knew was most appropriate. After an hour of watching my drill paths, Mr. Awful look confused. “Those paths are extremely inefficient. He's going to lose all the time he saved!”

    “You haven't realized it yet?” Audrey decided to burst his bubble. “Why do you think he hasn't been retracting the drill from the ice? Normally, you would do so to avoid them being trapped in impermeable ice, right?”

    “Don't patronize me. Of course I remember the basics.” Mr. Awful replied.

    “The purpose of this drill is to collect five thousand kiloliters of water. Doing so in ten hours wouldn't be that difficult, even if a number of various problems arose. He figured the water would probably be scarce. That means the pressure is low enough that the risk of your drill becoming trapped in impermeable ice is also low. That's why he wasn't afraid to drill blind. Not only that, but with low concentrations of impermeable ice it becomes possible to predict where future bubbles will form. If he leaves the drill behind in the ice, he's going to save tremendous time getting the water. This includes the water that hasn't even formed yet. If it's saving time, he's already done it. He just needs to avoid choking.” Audrey explained.

    “I can't believe it. He's leaving his SDTDs in the ice! Could that be to save time on launching the drill bit?” Mr. Awful's voice had lost all its enchantment, becoming coarse. Just as Audrey predicted, I never once retracted the drill from the ice after my paths were set. Instead, I reattached at locations I drilled before. I can retract the drill from any point within the ice, just as I do from the surface. In the next seven hours, I dealt with hot ice, malfunctioning relay systems, unstable cores, lost three kilometers of drill, and almost crashed my ship six times.

    “Objective complete.” The simulation ended. I once again found myself in the darkness of the CC room. “Completion time: eight hours, forty seven minutes. Official score of eighty one percent achieved.”

    “I did it.” I couldn't believe it myself. On my first try I had finished a near impossible mission. I slowly crawled out of the CC room for the last time. Outside, Audrey was waiting for me. She immediately jumped into my arms to give hug me.

    “You actually did it!” I hugged her back. She was giddy with laughter. I could see tears forming in her eyes.

    “It's okay now. Team Saturday is sa-”

    “-ALERT: High pressure to drill. Unrepairable damage imminent.” The computer's warning rang loud in my ears. My partner sticks his head into the control room. “Imminent danger: five seconds until permanent drill damage.”

    “What the hell is going on?” He yells to me. It was Rick. He orders the computer, “Retract the drill from the surface. Set speed to maximum.”

    “Uh-” I don't know how to explain myself.

    “The ACON computer went down about fifteen minutes ago. If I didn't wake up to the warning, we would have lost our drill! Why weren't you doing anything?”

    “Sorry, Rick.” It's all I could say. “I was daydreaming. Guess I was distracted.”

    “Well see that it doesn't happen again. We just started this mission. It's your last run out here. I know it's a bit much to ask another six years of service, but you're already on the final stretch. Don't mess this up for yourself now.” Never thought I'd get a lecture from him.

    “You're right.” I agree coldly. “I'll try not to let it happen again.”

    “Good. Remember this mission will always requires your full attention.”

    The Artificial Command Operations Network is a super computer that had full control over the entire system. It was the newest addition to our tanker ships. Now we only needed to approve its actions. Our presence was necessary only because it required extensive maintenance and cooling. This is because it was a new, unreliable technology. Something like a blackout can be expected a day or two out of the year. I can't be distracted anymore now that the ACON was down. I'll have to remember the rest of the story some other time. I sigh to myself. “I miss you.”
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 5, 2013

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