Part 3: Aboard the "Atlas"
“I always forget just how old these Jupiter-Class freighters are,” said Van den Berg, who was struggling with the sudden lack of gravity in the bow hangar.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to get sick,” Osondu replied to his gunner’s comment.
“And miss out on our first meal in two days?” Van den Berg responded, feigned shock in his voice, “not a chance.”
Their next stop, after reporting to the officer responsible for docking operations, would indeed be the mess hall. After almost two full days on nutrient pills and water, even the gelatinous paste they served on interstellar vessels would be a welcomed alternative.
Meanwhile, Osondu himself was thinking back to his time serving as navigator on a Jupiter-Class. These ships had been in service for multiple decades and lacked some of the comforts of modern fleet units, artificial gravity being one of them.
The mess hall, located in one of the habitat rings, would have simulated gravity at least. This thought reassured him, as eating in microgravity was not on his list of favourite things.
After a short stop with the docking officer, who would also handle the transfer of the supplies that they would bring back to their mothership, they strapped themselves into the tiny seats of the coil-train.
This rickety-looking contraption ran along the freighter’s backbone and was the fastest way of reaching various parts of the ship. Even though the ride was a lot more thrilling than what they currently felt like, it was a better alternative than having to pull themselves forward along handrails in zero-gee conditions for over two kilometres.
A few minutes later, they reached the stop beneath the central habitat ring. After climbing out of the coil-train, they had to handle the somewhat tricky jump from the static backbone onto the rotating habitat ring.
The absence of gravity made this slightly easier, but there was always the risk of getting hit in the head by a fast-moving ladder. First Lieutenant Osondu managed the jump in one go, while his companions took several tries to get the timing right.
They then pulled themselves up the seemingly endless ladder that climbed towards the habitat ring through one of the spokes that linked said ring to the ship’s backbone.
As they came closer to the ring itself, the centrifugal forces started growing stronger, giving an illusion of gravity which would reach 0.8 gee at the top. Since this force was directed outwards, a person walking in the habitat ring would consider the spokes and the ladder as being “up”.
This presented a problem for Sergeant Van den Berg, who had climbed into the spoke head first. Lieutenant Figueroa pointed this out to him as he caught up with her, halfway to the habitat ring. She looked up from the ladder to find herself staring into the Sergeant’s face.
“You’re facing the wrong way, Van,” she said, a wide grin on her face.
“How so?” he asked.
“You’ve never been aboard one of these?” she wanted to know instead of answering right away.
“Nope, first time,” Van den Berg replied.
“Well consider this. On which side of the habitat ring do you think you will be walking?”
“On which side will I be...” the Sergeant said before realisation dawned. His eyes widened as he said, “oh crap. I’ll be coming head first out of the ceiling, won’t I?”
“You will indeed,” Figueroa laughed, “and it will be quite the show I’m sure.”
First Lieutenant Osondu was already waiting for her when she emerged from the access shaft. He held out a hand to help her climb down which she swatted away, grinning broadly.
“What’s so funny?” Osondu asked.
Instead of replying, her eyes travelled quickly to the ceiling where Sergeant Van den Berg’s head just emerged.
“Could you give me some space down there?” he said in a slightly trembling voice, “I really don’t want to hit anyone!”
“Just come on down,” Osondu replied, waving at him, “it’s not that far.”
Van den Berg carefully climbed down the ladder, head first, until most of his body had emerged from the ceiling. He then bent his knees to get his legs out of the access shaft, pushed off the ladder, holding on to it with one hand, managed to turn around mid-air and landed on his feet, facing the ladder. Osondu, Figueroa and a few of the Atlas′ crew that had stopped by to watch, applauded the Sergeant’s acrobatic feat.
After this entertaining distraction, the trio made their way towards the mess hall. Even though their meal would only consist of the same nutrient paste they were served back on their mothership, after two days on pills alone, actually getting something to chew would be a welcome change.
Walking along the rotational direction of the habitat ring was the strangest feeling. Osondu’s feet told him that he was walking on even ground while his eyes showed him a corridor that seemed to climb perpetually. The sensation brought back conflicting memories. He was reminded of the quieter days when he served aboard one of these freighters.
The never-ending conflict with the separatists had already been going on for a few years, but the slow and cumbersome Jupiter-Class ships had been kept away from any fighting.
This was due to the huge investment of raw materials and man-hours these impressive freighters represented. He had been one of the youngest civilian navigators back then, spending his teenage years in and around those massive ships.
On the other hand, the habitat ring brought back memories of his time on Zeta Station, during his officer’s training. Those memories were a lot less quiet. Every detail, down to the way the light reflected off the wall panels and the echo of his steps on the metallic floor, was a reminder of the terrifying hours spent aboard that training facility while it was being raided by the Tarhinans.
A hand on his shoulder brought him back to the present.
“Where are you going?” Figueroa asked Osondu, “the mess hall is right here.”
“Indeed, it is,” First Lieutenant Osondu replied, “sorry, I was lost in thought.”
“Hope she’s worth being late for food,” Van den Berg tuned in, assuming he had been thinking of a woman. Figueroa, on the other hand, had seen the look on his face and knew that he had not been thinking happy thoughts.
Lieutenant Figueroa did not press the matter further over their meal. She did not know the First Lieutenant that well and did not want to pry into what certainly was a very personal matter. Instead, she joined the teasing of Sergeant Van den Berg, who was experiencing his first meal taken on a rotating habitat ring. The experience tended to make anyone feel queasy who was not used to it.
She herself had been aboard these vessels on multiple occasions, but never for an extended period of time; she found that she could handle the feeling very well. Being aboard such a ring seemed like she was stepping into the past every single time however, as she definitely preferred the comfort of modern artificial gravity.
As she felt a slight fluctuation in the ring’s rotation, she thought that having the same gravity level throughout a ship was very convenient. It also made working and living aboard so much easier.
“Did you get to read the preliminary flight plan for the next operation yet?” Lieutenant Figueroa asked Osondu. She always liked to be prepared, especially since she was the one responsible for their flight plan.
“I glanced at it but didn’t look at it in detail,” the First Lieutenant shrugged while answering. He then added, “what’s it going to be like?”
“Barren rock with no atmosphere and no defences to speak of. Nothing exciting,” Figueroa explained matter-of-factly.
“Makes my job easier, not having to worry about entry heating,” the pilot stated.
“Makes my job redundant,” Sergeant Van den Berg added, looking up from his plate, his voice tight, “another mission with nothing for me to shoot at.”
“Would you rather have us fly through a barrage of missiles?” Osondu asked, laughing.
“Well if you put it that way...” the Sergeant pretended to consider this alternative before grinning and returning to his food.
They continued talking for a bit, while ingesting the colourful but rather tasteless nutrient paste. The main topic of discussion, besides the operation at hand, was what kind of plans they had for when it was over.
Osondu would be returning home for two months of leave. He was, as usual, looking forward to spending time with his family. But this time he had something else to look forward to. He had been making plans to propose to the woman he was in a relationship with.
His back and forth between home and wherever the war took him had been a huge challenge, but they had pulled through together and he felt that the time was right. As he spoke, his frown cleared and a genuine smile brightened up his face.
Lieutenant Figueroa felt a pinch of jealousy at this news. She knew that Osondu had someone waiting for him back home, but she could not help it. She had always had a bit of a crush on the man from the West-African Commonwealth. She sighed as she thought that it couldn’t be helped.
There had been times when she had wondered whether she should make a move or let him know how she felt. But that would have either meant to cause trouble in a happy relationship or make working with him extremely awkward, and Figueroa liked neither of those options. She snorted as she wondered whether Van den Berg would be a viable alternative, almost choking on a spoonful of nutrient paste.
Sergeant Van den Berg was still trying to convince his stomach to hold on to the “food” he was eating. The repeated doses of nutrient paste were, in his opinion, the biggest drawback of life in space. The risk of dying horribly was a close second. He would voice his views on the meals aboard interstellar vessels on every occasion.
It almost made him long for an actual combat mission, because traditionally the troop carriers served actual food made from real ingredients to the soldiers of the Outer Space Infantry. The flight-crews of their dropships usually managed to enjoy the same privilege.
This was not a combat mission however and even if it had been, the old freighter would not be wasting precious cargo space on frozen meat and vegetables, when nutrient paste was so much more efficient.
Suddenly, an alarm started blaring. The lighting in the mess hall changed to red. A ringing voice could be heard over the ship’s intercom, “All personnel to combat stations!”