[You have eight months.]
The last four words of Councilman Allen’s message hung in the back of Gareth Clovar’s mind like the final lingering, oblivious guest to leave the party. There was no way anyone aboard The Arvad could take an entire inventory of the resources available to them, design an entirely new kind of smelter for low-gravity and vacuum with the supplies at hand, and build a functioning prototype in under a year. Scott Allen was neither a fool nor an optimist, though, so Gareth was sure that his request was in earnest and necessary.
He placed his head in his hands, rested his elbows on his table, and sighed. His engineering brain was already spinning, excited for the challenge, but his heart was sinking. The reactors and smelters his team had been training for and constructing would not work in Adalia. No amount of repurposing or creative engineering would change that fact unless Adalia Prime suddenly increased in mass nearly three hundred times and developed an atmosphere rich in nitrogen and oxygen. Without the means to refine the raw material, the citizens of the Arvad were sure to begin mining upon arrival, and their little piece of humanity among the stars would perish.
Enough pessimism, Gareth decided. The reality of their situation was well-established, and there was a job to do. Areanna needed him to solve this problem to live, so he would. He grabbed his Muse, the standard Arvad-issued PDA, and pulled up the contact information for his friend, Rutherford Andrews. Rutherford was the Arvad’s Quartermaster; if anyone knew what was available, it would be him.
As Rutherford picked up, sounds from another part of the ship reverberated through the Muse’s speakers. It never ceased to amaze Gareth how the echoing vibrations of the same engines could sound so different depending on where you were on the Arvad. The low-frequency hum from Rutherford’s end let Gareth know immediately that the Quartermaster was in his office, closer to the engines than the living sections and encased in thicker, structural metal. He knew from experience that on his end, Rutherford probably could not make out much of the softer, higher-pitched buzzing from Gareth’s quarters.
“Clovar, hey, what can I do for you?” Rutherford sounded tired, and his voice was tinny and distant as if the digital broadcast echoed the hundreds of meters that separated them.
“Rutherford, morning. You doing okay? You sound a bit… distant.”
“Yeah, yeah, sorry about that. Didn’t get much sleep the last few days. Working on a project for the Council, and it is not going well. Here, let me move closer to the mic, too. This better?”
Gareth winced at Rutherford’s mention of the Council. “Yep, you sound clearer. And I’m kind of in the same boat. Actually, that’s why I called. Just got off the waves with Scott Allen. You know Allen, right?”
“Mm.” Gareth could picture his friend nodding as he mumbled his affirmation, despite not being on camera. Rutherford was always mumbling to himself and nodding along as he worked on complicated tasks; Gareth assumed it helped him process otherwise difficult information and took it as a sign that the challenge on his plate was indeed a big one.
“Well, it turns out that the smelters we brought with us are nigh unsalvageable. I mean, some of them could work in carefully constructed closed systems with some sort of, I don’t know, spin gravity setup. But that won’t scale with all the raw material processing we’ll need to do once we get to Adalia, so-”
“So Allen is asking about redesigned smelters?” Rutherford interrupted.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Gareth chuckled. “Sounds like you’ve already had this conversation?”
“Mm. It was actually my idea. I called Allen the other day once I realized the mess we’re in and wanted to update the Council. I also suspect I’ll need a ton of resources from the Arvad once shipbreaking begins. So now I need to start planning the damn thing, and I wanted to get ahead of that.”
“That makes a lot of sense. Can I partner with you on this? I can also pull in a few other people from my team to assist, but I don’t think any of them will be much help until later in the design phase.”
There was a pause on the other end. “I need to call Allen and confirm it’s okay to partner up,” Rutherford replied after a moment. “Just to cover my ass. I don’t think working with you will be a problem; in fact, I’m a little annoyed he didn’t just come right out and tell you to give me a call. You’re the obvious choice to run the engineering piece and help me figure out the design. My guess is the Council still can’t figure out what the hell needs to be public or private information.”
“To be fair, the rumor mill has been running at full speed these last few months. I haven’t seen the stirrings of unrest reach quite this fervor in a while.”
“Not since that incident with the scrubbers, anyway,” Rutherford said. Gareth winced at the mention of the rebellion that took place eleven years prior but said nothing. “Let’s hope we’re not at that point yet,” Rutherford concluded.
“Agreed,” Gareth said. From behind him, the sound of the automatic door to his living quarters whooshed open and closed. “Rutherford, I have to go. Areanna’s home from class. Can I put something on your calendar tomorrow to connect in person? I’m happy to come down to your office.”
“Mm, my calendar is up-to-date. Grab an hour that works for you. See you tomorrow.”
He ended the call and turned in his seat just in time to catch Areanna walking carefully past the entry to the dining space where Gareth was working. His fatherly instincts kicked in immediately.
“Areanna, come tell me about your day.”
“Oh, that’s okay, Daddy. I have some homework to do.” “Daddy?” Areanna was an affectionate child, but in Gareth’s experience, she only called him “Daddy” when trying to charm him. Come to think of it, Areanna called him “Daddy” this morning, too.
“Come do your homework with me. I’ve been looking at spreadsheets all day and could use a mental break. What are you working on?”
Areanna glanced towards her room, then resignedly turned and came to the table. She recovered by the time she put her bag down, but something was clearly out of the ordinary. Gareth scrutinized her.
“What sort of homework are you working on tonight?”
“History! We get to write a report, my favorite. The topic was left pretty open-ended, so I think I’m going to write about the Prussian founding of the German Empire.”
“Haven’t you already written several reports on the Prussians?” He looked at her carefully, looking for any indication of what she might be hiding.
“I wrote one report on the Prussian Empire last year and another on the German Empire before that, but they focused on the 18th and early 20th Centuries, respectively. This report will be more about the period in the late 19th Century, obviously.”
Gareth smiled. He did not think many 8-year-olds in the history of humankind spoke quite as articulately as Areanna. She made him incredibly proud.
Of course, she could also make him quite angry, as was the case here. He spotted something he could hardly recognize. Her right shoulder was dusty, of all things. To his knowledge, fewer than 100 particles per cubic meter of anything above one micrometer existed in any occupied space of the Arvad. Dust was largely unheard of — even the machine shops had their air fully filtered and circulated a couple of hundred times per hour to catch all but the largest metal, rubber, and plastic shavings.
“Is the 19th Century where you picked this up?” he asked, brushing at her shoulder.
Areanna jumped, unable to conceal her surprise. “What?”
Gareth showed her his hand, which had picked up some of the dust from Areanna’s shoulder.
“Oh, uh, I don’t know what that is or where it came from.” She shrugged.
Gareth gave her a stern look. “Areanna. You’re too smart to lie to me. Where did this come from?”
Areanna’s eyes drifted around the room as if looking for a scapegoat. After a second, she met her father’s gaze. “Okay, please don’t be mad. You know how I need to find out how many rooms are in the Arvad before we get to Adalia?”
Gareth nodded. In the back of his mind, he could hear Rutherford mumbling, “Mm.”
“Well,” Areanna continued, “I found a new room. Maybe several new rooms. And today, I went into one of them, and it was covered in dust.”
After a pause, Gareth realized she had finished explaining. “That’s it? You didn’t take Natalie, did you? Your last adventure got you both in a lot of trouble.”
“No, just me. I wanted to see what was behind the door labeled ADMINISTRATION.”
Gareth’s blood cooled. He had managed to push that section of the living quarters out of his mind. Every day he was within fifty meters of it, and only through years of willful ignorance had he managed to forget it.
“Areanna,” he said quietly, sadness creeping through him. “Please don’t ever go back there.”
Areanna looked puzzled. He held her gaze in his, silently begging her to understand how important this was without requiring an explanation from him. After a moment, Areanna lowered her eyes.
“Okay. It wasn’t very interesting, anyway. All of the stuff in there was the same as we have in class, just dirty.”
Gareth sighed inwardly. “Thank you, sweetheart. Now, if you want to work on your report quietly with me here, that would be nice. But I have a couple of messages I need to send for work, okay?”
“I’ll work here.”
Areanna’s exploration of the old administration office rattled him more than he would have thought possible. Twice in the last hour, he had been reminded of the Scrubber’s Rebellion. While the events of that day took place almost nine years before, terror and sadness racked Gareth’s mind and heart as if it had been yesterday. He looked at his daughter, who was both a miracle born from and a constant reminder of that tragedy. It was the best and worst day of his life.
Gareth blinked away tears and looked back to his Muse. Smelters. Engineering. Survival. The past was behind him, Areanna was alive and well, and now the future demanded his attention. He pulled up blueprints and began to think about the problem at hand.