Excerpt - Interplanetary Thrive
Interplanetary Thrive, book 3 of the Thrive Space Colony Adventures series, launches June 6, 2019.
Five months there. Five months back.
And seven months waiting for the planets to align. In a tiny ship never meant for deep space.
Denali is one hell of a trip.
But the leading mind in nanite medicine is stranded there. Captain Sass Collier wants him back, to cure failure to thrive syndrome in her own colony.
Each of the crew has a motive to embrace the risk. The lucky ones wish for adventure. Adventure is assured.
But Denali holds another prize beyond their wildest dreams.
Can Sass hold her fractious crew together, get the goods, and meet her launch window home?
Get Interplanetary Thrive now because you love a rollicking space opera with heart! Book 3 in the Thrive Space Colony Adventures.
Aloha Star System
“All hands ready for takeoff!” Captain Sass Collier announced over the ship loudspeaker. “Pretend it’s for real, crew. Not coming back for a year and a half. That might jog your memory on what to pack.”
Her business partner Abel Greer at the pilot console, and their young gunner Ben Acosta, both shot her grins and thumbs up. Standing behind them in the 2-seater bridge, she leaned on their chair backs.
“This is real,” her engineer Copeland griped over the damage control channel. “Drive gentle, Abel.”
“Can do,” Abel agreed. “Liftoff in 10, 9, 8.” He stopped counting. A quirk of navigation in the rubble-rich rings of the gas giant planet Pono, the gunner needed to commence hyper-vigilance at the start of the countdown, not the end. Beside Abel, 20-year-old Ben selected imaginary targets in the sky for a couple warmup shots.
“Mahina Actual,” Sass hailed the capital city of the moon Mahina, “this is Thrive Actual. Thrive departing.”
Alone among them in the bridge, Sass recalled the vast blast of power and sudden press of multiple gravities as she launched from planet Earth seven decades ago. Compared to that, launching from the low gravity of Mahina was trivial. The silent star drive worked a little harder according to the pilot console. The indicator for their new second-hand backup star drive blinked a slow blue heartbeat light, unneeded for this minor climb to orbit. The ship’s internal gravity remained a rock-steady 1 g as they accelerated at 1/3 g to counter the moon’s 1/6th. No throb of power.
The bridge offered no view of the city shrinking beneath them, either. They needed to watch where they were going.
“Copeland?” Sass inquired. “Ready for a turn?”
“Ready, cap,” he agreed. “Looks good so far.”
Today’s test was luggage, mostly empty, affixed to the bottom of the ship. The modest ship could only clutch four of the standard 12-by-2.5 meter boxes down there. The ship’s electrostatic defenses, the ESD field against micrometeors, only extended a few meters down from the hull.
But their upcoming trip to the planet Denali would take 5 long months each way, with a minimum 7 month layover waiting for the heavens to align again. And unlike the modest moon Mahina, Denali bore a fuel-hungry 1.1-g gravity well. The crew’s quality of life, and the profitability of the trip, relied greatly on how much stuff they could pack. A mere 4 containers could hold enough fuel to get there, but not back. And that would leave them precious little cubic for food, trade goods, extra water and atmosphere spares.
So today they bore 8 containers, two stacked layers of 4 below, to test Copeland’s anchor bolts and circuitry to expand the ESD field. Sass attempted her best approximation of a cheerful, confident captain. But the luggage test was in dead earnest.
“Veering now,” Abel reported. He turned to hit the moon’s complex ozone layer at an angle. This bubble-skin of chemical magic secured Mahina’s shallow atmosphere despite gravity too low to hold air at a breathable pressure.
Standing, Sass felt the sway. Only a tiny sideways tug, but she’d never noticed one before in gravity drive mode. The feeling vanished onto the new heading. “Copeland, I felt that turn.”
“Me too, cap,” he agreed. “On it.”
Sass worried a lip as Abel settled into an orbit just above the ozone layer. Even though the air was vanishingly thin at this height, at this speed the containers below took a pummeling from the front. Ben fired at a meteorite that ventured too close. She swallowed.
Sass was the one who suggested this was possible. The Gossamer visited Denali only a couple years ago. Gossamer was a skyship here in the rings similar to her own, but originally from Mahina’s sister moon Sagamore. The pirate ship captain, Pierre Lavelle, told her they brought only the 4 containers and nearly ended up stranded for life in Denali orbit. Lavelle himself came out ahead in the fiasco — he assumed the captaincy of the Gossamer on the way back. That was after they mutinied and shot their original captain for dragging them into such a predicament. The crew escaped the adventure with their lives, and limped home to the rings of Pono, near starving.
Sass needed this test to work. Preferably without mutiny.
Another noticeable jolt made her sway a few inches. Centimeters, she corrected herself absently. She blew out and bided her time, reminding herself not to annoy the engineer Copeland.
The jolt didn’t recur, but an edgy jitter of turbulence seemed to develop.
Her first mate and co-owner Abel asked softly, “Think I should head out of atmo?”
Sass shook her head. “Give him a minute to think.” Copeland hated it when she demanded answers while he was still trying to formulate the question.
“Do containers cost a lot?” Ben inquired. The guns were firing just then, but the automated system handled it correctly. His eyes remained glued to the targeting screens anyway, fingers splayed lightly at the ready on the firing buttons, thumbs flicking at the power level wheels, laser controls positioned like the home row and space bar on a keyboard.
“Not especially,” Sass assured him. “Copeland has his metal printer stock in one, though.”
“Do we have an emergency eject button?” Abel wondered.
“That’s an idea,” Sass murmured.
Copeland complained, “You realize I can hear you, right? And not Abel?” They were all tuned to listen to the damage control channel, but only the engineer and Sass were speaking on it.
“Sorry,” Sass replied. “Any thoughts yet on the turbulence?”
“You’re flying a giant brick through air,” the engineer retorted. “What did you expect?”
Sass sighed. “Guess we should save the Q&A for the ground.” She made a note on her tablet regarding air turbulence and an eject button.
“Good idea!” Copeland returned sarcastically. Suddenly the slight shudder stopped. “Huh. That worked.”
Sass wished he didn’t sound quite so surprised.
The engineer continued, “Stay at — whatever this is for a few more minutes. If we don’t get any more jolts, we can head up into the rings.”
“Just say when,” Sass agreed. “Abel, stay at current altitude, just above the ozone layer.” The latter comment was to clue in Copeland, in the unlikely event he was listening. Abel nodded.
On their recent trip to Sagamore, they’d learned more about the genetic modifications that Copeland and Ben shared. These didn’t so much increase their IQ or health, as grant them an extraordinary ability to focus. For Sass, this explained much about their more problematic quirks.
“OK, captain. Up,” Copeland requested. “Or out. Or whatever.”
“Abel, take a fairly sharp turn,” Sass directed, “and bring us out to the same radius as the orbital. No hurry. Ben?”
The younger man’s eyes remained riveted on his display. “Ready,” he breathed.
Aside from granting the aerodynamics of a brick, the containers also cut into the angles of fire on the guns. The Thrive relied on a newly trained AI — artificial intelligence — to do most of the shooting and dodging through the asteroid rings, with Ben and Abel sitting ready as backup. In theory, Ben had informed the AI of the obstructions.
Ben had qualified on guns and AI via simulators as a fun break from his university homework, until a few months ago. His father rented him a berth on the Thrive to get him out of the house and his small dead-end town. Sass squeezed his shoulder to reassure him.
The sharp turn outward from the moon was uneventful. The automated guns seemed to be doing their job. A couple minutes passed smoothly.
Then all of a sudden, the Thrive dodged and spun on its axis. A threat approached from below, and the AI had to spin the ship to bring the guns to bear. But the rotation overshot, and the guns missed.
Abel and Ben jumped in to override, Abel to get the ship to stop turning, and Ben to clobber a pair of rocks no matter what the ship was doing.
“What the hell?” Copeland demanded.
“Gun maneuvers,” Sass explained. “Alright down there?” Copeland stood watch by the main cargo door at the engineering control panel, a freestanding podium.
“Not entirely,” he grumbled.
The ship spun again, and again over-corrected. This time Sass swayed on her feet a good ten inches. Her brain didn’t cough up the 25 cm translation before they rotated again at the AI’s instigation, and again at Abel’s counter-adjust. Ben laid on with one gun and the joystick nonstop trying to continue firing at a moving target, from a rotating platform.
“Shut down the AI?” Sass suggested.
Ben continued firing, but he was better at queuing unwelcome questions than Copeland. He remembered to answer them when he had a moment. “Not yet.”
“Then when?” Abel inquired irritably, while correcting another over-eager roll. “Can’t wait til you miss.”
Ben flicked him a rock to dodge, too big for the guns to obliterate. “Soon.”
Abel dodged right, then suddenly counter-yawed left. That particular rock had cloaked a flock of baby menaces. On their control screen, Abel flicked a bevy of small rocks back to Ben to deal with.
The AI seemed to have gone into hibernation. All the laser shots now were initiated by Ben. Sass leaned in between the guys and pressed a couple buttons on the console to check the AI readiness, usually a rock-solid 100% they omitted from the status screen.
Under these conditions, the AI had decided it was only 98% trained. Sass waited until Ben was breathing a bit more evenly, then pointed. “Opinions, gentlemen?”
Ben didn’t wait for Abel’s thoughts. “Computer, tell AI to resume firing but not helm.” For Abel’s benefit, he added, “Divide and conquer.”
Abel pressed his lips in annoyance. “Alright.”
Sass rapped Ben’s skull with a knuckle. Would it kill you to listen to the pilot’s opinion first? Our first mate? Show some respect! Punk. But the kid’s manners weren’t a priority. “Any news, Copeland?”
“I’m thinking EVA,” Copeland reported — extra-vehicular activity, exiting the ship in a pressure suit. “The cargo’s loose inside the container.”
Off-channel, Abel complained, “His printer stock is a tenth the mass we plan to carry, Sass. Not even that.”
Sass touched him to acknowledge his concern, but she harbored a different one. “Veto. No EVA during maneuvers. Especially not to secure loose cargo.” Flying metal printer stock could amputate a leg, or a head.
“Well… Yeah,” Copeland conceded.
“Cope, do you have ropes and safety lines rigged out there?” Sass demanded. She knew he didn’t.
“No, sar,” he conceded. “But could we exit the rings? Find some open space for EVA?”
“Can we make it home safely without it?”
“We could. But then we’d need another test.”
“Without EVA,” Sass reiterated, “anything else to test before we return to Mahina Actual?”
Copeland was silent long enough that Ben chimed in. “Train the guns for a couple hours.”
Abel nodded. “Then swap off. Manual on guns, AI on helm.”
Copeland started speaking over the end of that. “I’d like to watch more maneuvers, put more strain on the container anchors. Nothing special, just change direction and dodge stuff, would be good.”
Sass had no trouble with the overlapping conversations. She served in the army on Earth as a teenager, then worked full time in pressure suits for the decade while the settlers built the atmosphere. For her, multiple channels was a way of life.
“Agreed,” she ruled, and set a timer on the console. “Four hours of maneuvers. Abel, let’s swap at the one-hour points.” She switched channels to ship-wide. “All hands, this test has been extended to six hours. Hope you didn’t have other plans for the afternoon. Everything is fine. As you were. Captain out.”
Everything was not fine. They touched down at Mahina Actual about 3 hours later and 3 containers lighter, with most of the crew in pressure suits. An anchor bolt tore a hole in the forward cargo hold floor.
At least we didn’t lose the printer stock, Sass consoled herself. As educational expenses went, a few empty boxes were cheap.
“We’ll get this right next time, Cope,” Sass encouraged him, squatting beside the engineer where he sat forlorn on the cargo ramp, glaring at his remaining five containers. Abel had to detach them to put the ship down. Otherwise the Thrive would have face-planted, trying to sit on the left rear box.
“Is Clay coming?” Abel asked. Sass, Abel, and Copeland met in the Thrive’s business office the next morning, right after breakfast.
Sass had just returned two days ago from a vacation with Clay to ‘work out their relationship.’ That vacation had been instigated by Abel. He demanded that she fix the fact that their other partner Clay kept failing to show up for business meetings. Like this one.
Sass licked her lip. “Today we’re talking about cargo. Not really Clay’s thing.”
Abel took that in blandly. “Is Clay coming to Denali?”
She hesitated. “Yes. I think so.” She sighed. “First item of business. Cope, what’s the word on damage from yesterday’s tests?” She’d heard no hammering, swearing, screech of rending metal — none of the reassuring telltales of this is getting fixed now.
“I’d like a second opinion before I decide what to do,” the engineer admitted. He perched on the corner of the display-top desk, there being only two seats in the ship’s intimate office.
He tapped up a schematic of the ship on the table-top, and rotated it slightly to show the bottom at an angle. “This giant rectangle is the cargo frame. Extra hard points here and there in the middle. I think that’s not strong enough. The hull tear is here.” He jabbed at a hull position on neither the cargo frame nor a ‘hard point.’ “I added some extra bolts. Good news, it held the container when the frame let go. Bad news, it wasn’t strong enough to keep holding it. We need a stronger frame.”
“Can we build that in time to make our launch window?” Abel queried.
Copeland turned his hand up. “Don’t know what I’m doing yet. Anyway, that’s the ask. I want to leave it broken so a consultant can see the way the metal tore. And I need money to hire the consultant.”
Abel frowned. “Your new buddy isn’t good enough? Markley?”
Darren Markley served as Copeland’s new mentor, advising the younger man’s quest to become a fully certified professional engineer, instead of the overextended glorified mechanic he was now. The deal came with an annual budget for Markley’s time, front-loaded to compensate for the expected year and half the Thrive was about to be off-world.
“Not really up his alley,” Copeland replied. “I already used up 10 hours of his time getting this rigged. And it failed. So he wants to bring in someone else. Need a budget for that.”
Sass nodded. “Makes sense. Agreed, Abel?” She growled a little on that last.
Abel scowled, but relented. “Two hundred credits.”
Copeland scowled at him and blanked the desk. “Let’s review the engineering triangle.” He sketched the diagram Abel hated most. “You can pick two sides, not three. We need it fast, or we miss our launch window. We need it good, or we die.”
“So it won’t be cheap,” Sass finished. “Let’s pre-approve a thousand, Abel. Cope, don’t offer that much up front. But you can go that high without asking us again.”
“Five thousand,” Cope countered. “Our lives are on the line. Abel, c’mon, Jules makes more than a grand a day from her fruit stand.”
“Five thousand!” Abel screeched in outrage.
“By the time it’s finished, yeah!” Copeland yelled back. “I need to hire skilled workers to get this done in time!”
“That’s fine!” Sass insisted, hands out to shut them both up. “Calm down! He’s right, Abel. Our lives depend on it. Custom engineering costs money. Cope, aside from fixing the frame, do you have the rest of your to-buy list worked out?”
He pulled up another spreadsheet on the desk. “This is the one if we’ve got eight containers. There’s that one if we can only manage four. But I may need to re-jigger things after I have a plan for the frame. Might need to buy spares for that.”
“Can we combine these into a single prioritized list?” Sass inquired, frowning at the documents. “What extra to buy if we have more space?”
“Not really,” Copeland allowed. “Because I’d need a different strategy for some things. And I don’t have a final answer yet from Abel on how much cubic I get for engineering. Versus food and trade goods. So this is prioritized for that question.”
“You look unhappy,” Sass observed.
Copeland took a heavy breath. “I don’t like going to Denali without enough fuel to get there, descend, climb back out of that gravity well, and return home. Plus a safety margin of at least 25%. I don’t like storing fuel inside the ship except in the hopper. Too dangerous. I can’t fix things if I don’t have the printer stock. Cap, I gotta tell you. We need 8 containers, or this trip just isn’t safe.”
“And out of those 8, how much of the cubic is yours?”
“He wants 60%,” Abel growled. “I told him to make it 40. Sass, we need to make a profit! That means trade goods.”
Copeland countered, “We can eat recycled. Got fresh vegetables and fruit to go with it. And ‘my’ 60% includes the water reserves. We make air out of that. I like breathing. Drinking, too. Abel, quit making it sound like I’m being selfish. ‘My’ 60% is propulsion, repairs, and life support! Which of that do you want to give up?”
The three considered each other dolefully. No one liked the idea of eating recycled sewage. But Sass had done it before.
“Protein stock can go inside the ship,” she declared. “And trade goods. Let’s plan on eating recycled every other day, or two meals a day. Jules can decide which. And only pack protein for 10 months, out and back. Eat local for the months at Denali. Does that help any?”
Abel made a face, but re-jiggered his numbers. “Yeah, alright. With half our food recycled, I can spare you 60% of the cans.”
“And we can’t go without all 8?” Sass prompted.
“Not safe,” Copeland confirmed.
“Not at a profit,” Abel asserted. “Yeah, alright, Cope, you’ve got up to 5 grand to make it work. More if you need it. But try not to.”
Much as it pained him to admit it. Poor Abel was the business manager of this partnership. Sass was in it for idealism. Clay had money to burn. He could afford to lose every credit he’d invested. At this point, everyone else on the ship was either paying rent or on the payroll. While Abel tried to single-handedly keep the company afloat as a business. At least his wife Jules shared his profit motive.
Sass shot Abel an understanding grimace. “Cope, that’s all I had for you. Unless you had ideas for trade goods?”
She meant that as a quip. But Copeland popped up another window on the desk and searched something. “Yeah, I thought so. Ice wands. We invented those here on Mahina.”
“Really?” Abel sat forward, diverted. “Why was that a priority?” Mahina didn’t invent much for a profit motive. Most of their educated talent worked in the city science labs.
Copeland scrolled down the report skimming for a moment. “Cracking rocks? Yeah, originally the refrigerants were developed for mining. But the inventor started playing with it. Refrigerators, ice wands, air cooling and heating. Might be worth a shot. You don’t need to buy the consumer goods. Just the refrigerant and some extra plastic stock.” He shrugged apologetically. “I don’t know what kind of price they’d fetch.”
“Do we make ovens out of this stuff too?” Abel asked. “You said heat.” He made a note of the refrigerants-and-plastic product concept.
“No,” Copeland replied. “Only cooling. The heat application — never mind. It’s used in the mines, not homes.” He considered another moment, then shook his head. “I’ll let you know if I think of anything else.”
“Thank you, Copeland,” Sass encouraged. “Extremely helpful. Let us know if there’s anything we can do to expedite the container frame.”
Dismissed, the engineer fled back to his preferred kind of problem. Sass rather envied him. She didn’t have a clue how to make a profit on Denali. But Abel deserved her time and attention, whether her ideas were useful or not.
“With limited space and the high cost of transport,” she mused, “the only viable trade goods are very small, or have huge profit margins. Far more valuable there than here. Luxury goods.”
“Too bad the rich guy isn’t here,” Abel suggested pointedly. “Clay knows more about luxury goods than we do.”
“Seeds?” Sass suggested. “Eli’s seed foundry is really pretty clever.”
Abel brought his cargo ideas sheet up and tapped a line near the top. “Already got parts and a couple years of reagents for two seed foundries on here. Help me make sure he doesn’t give them away for free,” he growled.
Sass chuckled. “Will do. Have we asked Denali yet about these proposed products? Offered the list and asked what would be most valuable?”
“I tried to ask your pirate, Lavelle, but he’s at Hell’s Bells. I’d try harder, but he’ll clear the rings in a few days to head here.”
Communications were dreadful between colonies around the gas giant Pono. Any electromagnetic wavelength bounced off the ice and rock cluttering the same rings that the communities dwelt within. Talking to distant Denali was slightly less obstructed, but not much. The problems there were time lag and culture. They had no idea who they were dealing with.
Abel continued, “Then I’ll talk to Denali. You’ll be available for those conversations?”
“Absolutely. Sorry about the vacation days. But I’m at your complete disposal until launch. Just tell me when and where.”
“Great!” Abel replied. “Tomorrow 18:00 hours, in the kitchen. With Clay. And Clay attends every owners’ meeting from now on.” He grinned.
That was the part she was supposed to have accomplished during vacation.
Words failed. “I’ll try.”
“Kinda need you to do, not try, Sass.”
Abel folded his hands on the table and attempted to look vulnerable and empathetic. Not a good look on him. “You want to talk about it? Relationship advice?”
Sass scowled. The lad was 25. He’d been married half a year to a 15-year-old, who more or less cheerfully obeyed him. “It’s complicated.”
“It’s not that complicated. Sex. Talk. Compromise. Be a good sport.”
“You forgot love,” she critiqued, eyes alight with amusement.
Abel shook his head. “Not how I was taught. Love is a verb. So do it.”