Authors: Aria Kane
A Titan For Christmas
By: Aria Kane
Copyright 2012 Aria Kane
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Cover Image via Ambrozjo (http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1384640)
Jenna took one last look at the monitors. "We're sure everything’s in running order again?"
"Yes ma'am," Henry said. "You're good to go."
Henry was the oldest, most experienced mining technician at Huygens Station, where Jenna had been working for 18 months. Despite all of her mentors and trainers and official manuals, she had learned a hundred times more from Henry. He wasn't afraid to tell her to crawl down in a grease-filled trench so he could show her how a certain coupling fit together. To Henry, she was an engineer. Not a female engineer, just an engineer who needed to learn.
Jenna looked at her watch and sighed, pulling on her long brunette ponytail in frustration.
"You miss your shuttle?" Henry asked.
"Yep," Jenna said. "And the one after that and the one after that, which I'm pretty sure is the last passenger shuttle out of here before Christmas."
Jenna had been scheduled to leave for Christmas vacation over thirty-six hours ago, but a hydraulic line on Drill #3 had busted forty hours ago. All of this advanced technology and the station was crippled by a system that had been perfected hundreds of years ago.
Out of all the Titan Energy Project engineering shift managers, she had the least seniority and no children back on Earth to worry about disappointing for Christmas, so she had "volunteered" to oversee the reparations. And now it looked like she'd be spending Christmas the way she had spent Thanksgiving, in the dining hall with Henry.
Her job had made her miss a lot of holidays, but this was different. In all his years as a mining mechanic, her father had never even missed a Christmas. It was
Holiday, as far as her family was concerned.
"What about the non-passenger shuttles?" Henry asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Passengers ain't the only thing that gets shuttled back and forth between the mining colonies and Earth. Sometimes private freight ships will take on passengers in need of a lift – for the right price, of course."
Jenna's eyes lit up with hope for the first time in forty hours. Maybe she would be able to make it to her family in time for Christmas after all. Her eyes filled with tears when she pictured her mom, dad, and two sisters sitting at the dinner table decorated with red bows and corny snowflake confetti, her spot empty. Bubba would be laying just close enough to the table so he wouldn't get yelled at, begging for scraps with those ridiculously sad puppy-dog eyes.
"Maybe," Henry said. "I don't want to get your hopes up too high. Just make sure you're careful about who you jump on board with. Those private pilots don't go through the same background checks our company and government crew do."
Jenna smiled warmly at Henry and gave him an almost work-appropriate side hug. Though she was technically his boss, she loved him like the grandfathers she never really got to know. In a mining and engineering environment of eighty-three percent men, having Henry to provide guidance without judgment was an often-appreciated blessing.
Henry waved his hand dismissively at her. So she planted a kiss on his craggy old cheek. He could pretend he didn't like the affection, but she knew better.
"Well, what are you waiting for, girl? A flight could be leaving for Earth at any minute!"
She squealed and crossed her fingers as she ran to grab her purse. "Thanks Henry! Hold down the fort for me while I'm gone?"
"Anytime, JJ. I hope you find a flight."
Jenna sped toward the docks in her TEP personal craft. The TEP employees liked to call them Penguins – partly because of their black and white color scheme, but mostly because the short-winged craft wouldn't have been able to fly in the thinner Earth atmosphere either.
The entire top half of the Penguin consisted of a clear fiberglass bubble, allowing for full visibility all around and above. Jenna leaned back in her chair and gazed up into Titan's dim, fuzzy sky. The craft basically flew itself once it had a destination programmed, plus there weren't any other crafts to worry about on the surface of Titan right now since everyone but a skeleton crew had returned to Earth for the Holidays.
How many times had she stared up at this same sky and marveled at the view? How many more times would it take before it got old? She hoped she would never know the answer to that question. The gentle gold of Saturn's surface was ever present like a muted eternal sun. The rings, with shades varied from the same gold of the planet's to a brown so dark it might've been black, swept across the planet's fluid surface.
As much as she hated being so far away from her family, she loved working on Titan. And not just because of the fantastic view. Her father had taught her all about machinery in such a way that she couldn't help but fall in love with it. Maybe it's an odd thing, to love pipes and gears and pistons, but the way everything worked together was perfection. Every piece, down to the washers and zip-ties, played an essential part in any machine. Everything worked together toward a certain goal and if it wasn't working, there was a reason that could be identified and fixed. It was clean, logical. Jenna liked that.
The apartment buildings flying by caught her attention and she watched them. Light shone from fewer windows than usual, but some of them featured sparkling colored lights, small artificial Christmas trees – she even spotted a menorah in one window.
The sudden darkness of the entry tunnel to the docks shook Jenna from her reverie. She dug through her purse as the Penguin cleared the first air lock.
A sigh escaped her lips when a hand mirror confirmed what she had feared. Climbing down to the hydraulic lines to test them had left as much grease smeared across her face and neck as was on her hands. Her clothes had been protected by the Tyvek jumpsuit, but everything outside of that was a different story.
As the second air lock opened, Jenna licked her fingers and tried to scrub away some of the grease, but the scrubbing just smeared the grease further across her cheek. What kind of pilot would take her on as a passenger when she looked like she had just crawled out of a grease trap? Hopefully, one who didn't have any issue with mechanics.
She stuffed the mirror back into her purse, giving up. Once she secured a spot on a flight, she'd run back to her apartment for a quick shower and to grab her already-packed suitcase. The orange-scented soap she had especially for removing grease would make quick work of the mess on her face, neck, and arms.
The Penguin automatically pulled into the next available parking spot and the engines whispered to a stop.
The Concourse for company and government vehicles was a shiny, white, sterile ghost town. No big shipments would come in or go out during the Holiday and all the passenger shuttles had already left.
Jenna speed-walked to the tunnel that would lead to the docks for private vehicles. She had seen the signs pointing that way dozens of times, but had never had any reason to walk through the tunnel. As soon as she got closer to the private Concourse than she was to the company Concourse, she knew why no one she worked with ever went down this way.
And why it was hidden from view.
Coming from the Company Concourse to the private one was like an elementary school lesson on the meaning of the word "contrast." While the former was clean, well-lit, and designed to ease passengers' traveling worries, this one was... functional.
But, Jenna thought, at least there were ships docked here. Five of them. In various states of disrepair. Fantastic.
In the middle of the concrete slab that apparently served any function that was needed, including storage, office space, and dining room, a group of men circled around a battered folding table littered with playing cards. They sat on metal lawn chairs, buckets, precariously balanced piles of pipe – whatever was available. More talking and drinking was going on than card playing, though.
Conversation ceased entirely when the men spotted Jenna and the room filled with roaring silence. She knew most women would turn heel and walk the other direction at this scene, and maybe she should, too. But years of hanging out in garages in high school and more years of crawling through the grease trenches with Henry had banished the prejudice that told a woman unkempt men were untrustworthy. In fact, usually, the very opposite was true. Grease-stained hands and sweat-styled hair told Jenna a man worked hard. The ones who didn't work hard were the ones she needed to worry about.
Jenna swallowed the lump in her throat. "Good evening, gentlemen."
"You'll be hard pressed to find a gentleman in this bunch," a forty-something guy with close-cropped white hair said, laughing.
The other men joined his laughter, and so did Jenna. There was an easiness among them that let her relax.
She walked closer to the group and held out her hands in apology. "Sorry, didn't mean to offend."
A round of laughter sounded again.
"I'm Jack. What can we do you for, sweetheart?" the guy said.
"I'm looking for a ride back to Earth. I had to fix a hydraulic line back at Huygens Station and missed my flight."
fixed a hydraulic line?" the man closest to her said, raising a grisly eyebrow. He wore a mechanic's shirt that said "Bo" inside of a little stitched oval.
"Yeah." Jenna placed a hand on her hip and dared the man to doubt her again. After a few beats of silence, she said, "Technically, it's old Henry's job but he says I'll never learn if I don't get my hands dirty."
Bo laughed, nodding. "That sounds like the old coot."
"And I can see you did," Jack said, looking pointedly at her hands and face.
Jenna fought the urge to stuff her greasy hands in her pockets to hide them. As much as the corporate culture of TEP would frown upon them, they were a badge of honor in this hangar.
"So," she said. "Anyone going to Earth who wouldn't mind a passenger? I'm quiet and don't get in the way."
A few seconds of silence passed.
"I can pay," Jenna added.
Jack pointed to the man sitting two seats to his left. "You're heading out soon, aren't you Willy?"
Willy took a huge swig of his beer, spilling more on his shirt and beard than he got in his mouth. He didn't look like he was ready to pilot a spaceship anytime soon.
"Really?" Jenna said, half hoping he would say no.
"Yelp," Willy slurred. "Leaving soon."
"Oh, that's... great," Jenna said. "Do you have room for me?"
"Sure thing, darling."
Normally, Jenna didn't let anyone call her darling or sweetheart – but she knew she was asking these guys for a favor and it wouldn't help to nitpick their choice of words.
"OK, when do we leave?" Jenna looked around the circle of men, hoping someone else would say they would also be heading out soon, but no one spoke up. Maybe Willy wasn't leaving for a few hours and had time to sober up before heading out into the vastness of outerspace.
"Two days," Willy said.
Christmas Day was in three days. "How long is the flight?" Jenna asked. She knew the passenger flights took one day, but freight flights weren't usually as fast.
"Two days." Willy sounded like a parrot who only knew three phrases.
Jenna's shoulders deflated. She guessed getting there the day after Christmas was better than not going at all, but she really didn't want to spend Christmas Day on a spaceship with an old drunkard.