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Jonathan Bartell Space Agent

Patty Jansen

Capricornica Publications

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A Capricornica Publication / 2017

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Copyright © 2017 by Patty Jansen
Cover by Patty Jansen

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Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

About the Author

Chapter 1

JONATHAN INSPECTED the buttons of his brand new uniform—check—the Velcro straps on his shoes—check—his shirt being tucked in—check—and his name badge on the pocket of his shirt—check. He knocked on the door with the sign that said, “D. White” and underneath that, “Orbital Launch Station Quarantine Officer”.

Somewhere inside the room, a female voice said, “Come in.”

Jonathan pressed his hand against the metal panel on the door. The tiny light next to the panel flashed green and the door rumbled aside. He stepped into the tiny office and felt like he was pushed sideways. He almost tripped and most unceremoniously landed into the chair opposite Danna White’s desk.

She looked at him over the rim of her reading glasses. Her hair was cropped short, with the pepper-and-salt curls cropped close to her head.

“I didn’t say you could sit down.” Her severe face was lit from below by her computer screen. Her expression held not a shred of humour.

“Um. Sorry.” He scrambled up, trying to keep his balance, but a little voice in his head kept telling him that he was on an invisible bus rumbling down an invisible street and that, at any time, this bus might swerve, or stop.

That said, he’d been feeling a lot better than on the shuttle—that had been plainly awful—but still, artificial gravity didn’t have a blip on the real thing, and trying to walk inside a bike tube that was spinning at 3.5 rotations a minute was an acquired skill.

A skill that all those people in the Orbital Launch Station’s corridors had acquired, but he had, evidently, not.

And that made him the butt of jokes.

He clutched his pad harder, determined not to stumble or—worse—run off in search of a place to barf. That would never do, facing a woman who was his new boss and old enough to be his mother.

“Sit down, Mr Bartell.”

Jonathan sat down again in the same chair, looking at her wrinkled hands. In space, fluids tended to accumulate in the body’s extremities and she should look less old than on Earth.

On second thoughts, maybe she was old enough to be his grandmother.

“Did you sleep well and are you rested enough to start your job?”

Yes.” And because yes alone was such a lonely word, he added, “Ma’am.” And then, because she was not military, he thought that was probably the wrong thing to say—

She laughed. “You’re very green, right?”

“Arrived yesterday.”

“So I’ve heard.” With the ghost of a smile on her face.

Jonathan cringed. Who had been spreading the story about him having his face buried in a barf bag for almost the entire journey? You know what happens when you barf in zero-g?

She turned to her computer and flicked through a couple of screens. “You’re a biologist by training?”

“Exobiologist.” He tried to sit in whatever felt the best definition of “straight” to him.

She rose and started rummaging in drawers set in the back wall of the tiny office.

A memory crossed his mind: it had been yesterday—or whatever passed for yesterday UTC—before boarding the shuttle. He sat in the shuttle departure hall amongst the passengers waiting to be let aboard the shuttle. Half of the passengers were military people of the shoulder-clapping, we’ll-get-the-fucking-bastards type. Friendly enough, in a threatening look-at-my-muscles sort of way.

He hadn’t really wanted to talk to any of them, but this buff dude in full uniform with a few decorations and polished buttons had asked him if he was going up to the station, which Jonathan said he was, and then he’d asked what Jonathan’s field of work was.

Upon hearing of Jonathan’s degree, Mr Shiny-buttons said, “So, we discover a few microbes on some godforsaken planet, and four years later, we got space-fucking-biologists coming out our ears. I hear some have to work in fast food joints. Space biology, huh?”

Pretty much a decent assessment of the truth and also a real damper on the prospect of intelligent in-flight discussion.

The five-hour flight was about to get boring.

A bit later, one of the other military guys sat next to him on the flight while waiting for take-off.

He asked, “I just heard you talking to Cresswell back there on the surface. Space biologist, huh? What are you going to do up at the Station?”

“Um. Work for the Quarantine Authority.”

Everyone had looked at him as if he were something stuck to the bottom of their shoe and had treated him like that for the rest of the flight.

Quarantine Authority was obviously the wrong answer. By the looks on their faces, it was possibly even worse than exobiology. Obviously the point of the Quarantine Authority was to stand in the military’s way, and make their jobs harder with annoying forms and regulations.

Pardon the sarcasm.

Jonathan jolted when Danna White held a data pad under his nose, a thin model. Flexible screen. “This will be yours. It contains all the netware you need to perform your job as Quarantine Officer. Read all of it through carefully. Come to me if you have any questions.”

He took the pad. “Is there going to be any on-the-job training?”

“This is the training. The job is simple. You check the forms that each ship will have completed and sent ahead. If they haven’t sent it, you get the Captain or a representative to fill it out. The pad contains the checklists of things you need to look at. Make sure all the fields are filled in for each of the crewmembers and that the captain of each ship signs off on it. I’d walk you through, but it’s insanely busy and we’ve got a lot of unhappy captains out there, because of the new regulations that came out of the Mars case. You do know about that, right?”

Jonathan nodded.

The settlement of Newton had been a case study in his last year of his degree. It consisted of a couple of dome-based or underground habitats interlinked by tunnels for vehicular transport. Population: four thousand.

Those who predicted Mars would harbour bacterial life had been right. Those who said that that life would be too alien to affect humans had been wrong. Requirement number one of survivability of alien life: a fluid, usually water. When microbes entered water, they multiplied. When humans drank the water, they got sick.

Fortunately, it had only been a gastrointestinal illness, and fortunately, the source had been found and eliminated, but not before a lengthy and costly lockdown of the base, all its people and a moratorium on visitors.

Danna White met his eyes. “At the Quarantine Authority, we are the first line of control against alien organisms. We’ve recently had to tighten the rules about ships entering Earth space without checks. As of now, they all have to come in here before we clear them to go into a lower orbit. If they fail the tests, we can investigate immediately. Make sure no ship leaves the station without having done the administration, made the declarations, and passed the three-point test.”

Jonathan flicked through his documents and found lists of checkpoints and a form with three questions. It looked pretty straightforward. All right. He could do that.

He was about to get up when a question came to mind. “What should I do when someone fails the test?”

“If they fail one question, use your judgement. If they fail more, you refer the case to me. But honestly, by the time a ship arrives here, they will already have sent us their details, so you’ll find a lot of sections of the application have already been approved. We will know where they have been. You’ll find that in the logs. The military ships provide less information, as you will appreciate, but they have assigned on-board quarantine officers who send us the forms. The smaller ships will have filed their information with the central quarantine log and our other staff will have approved it. There is not that much to the job, apart from making sure that the information is correct and logged for the right ship. Read through the files. It’s all self-evident and someone as smart as you should have no trouble following the instructions.”

Was that a barb?

“All right.” He rose and managed to negotiate the room without tripping or falling over.

“And Mr Bartell?”

“Yes?” He turned back to her, his hand on the door handle.

There was a grin on her face. “You can stop leaning sideways now.”

Chapter 2

JONATHAN WAS FURIOUS. So they thought it was amusing, right? Let’s poke this young upstart with a stick until he pops.

Just like those idiots on the flight yesterday, sticking their heads together and laughing and talking after they had all heard he was a biologist working for the Quarantine Authority. They thought he wouldn’t know they were making stupid jokes about him. They were just dumb. It was always the same. People laughed at him all the time. You’re not much they would say, or call him midget, or think he was a kid. He’d get overlooked in shops and ignored in the company of others.

Well, he had a surprise for them: he was not going to crumble. Not for his boss and not for any military hotshot. People had called him names all his life. He was used to it.

And he’d do this stupid job without proper training, and without complaint. And he’d do it well, no matter that nobody seemed to want him here.

While walking to the docking section, he looked through the documents on the data pad. He kept his noble intentions and a straight back for all of five seconds.

Forms, forms and more forms.

In the job, you will have some use for your biology knowledge, that daft Launch Station recruiter had said in Jonathan’s first interview for the job.

That had to be a joke. The only biological knowledge he needed to fill out forms was how to use the muscles for holding a pen.

Seriously, this looked like it would be the most boring job ever, with no friends and no support, surrounded by people obsessed with muscles and military brawn and nowhere to escape.

He’d signed up for a minimum of two years, and they looked like they would be the longest years in his life.

What had he done?

Not listened to his father, that was what.

Before leaving, he’d spoken to his dad on the phone, to say goodbye and maybe to get some last words of advice about the Orbital Launch Station, where his father had worked for many years.

“Going into space, huh?” His father had snorted.

Jonathan could imagine his father sitting at the dining table while admiring his collection of ancient coins.

“That’s what I always wanted.”

“Well, son, better you than me.”

“I was wondering if you have any last-minute advice.”

He’d hoped his father would be proud for once, or tell his son he was happy, even if he wasn’t, or say anything useful that didn’t involve bitter complaints. But he guessed it was hard to teach an old dog new tricks, as the saying went.

“I don’t understand you, son. After all the warnings I gave you, you still want to go.”

“I do.” And those warnings had been either too specific—such as avoid this, probably long since retired, person—or too vague to apply. The authorities his father had mentioned were no longer in existence; people had left. Rules were no longer the same. For example, members of the Quarantine Authority no longer needed to sign up for the military, and as Jonathan remembered, it was the military that was the source of a lot of his father’s displeasure.

There was a small silence. “What does your mother say about it?”

“She’s happy for me.”

Small lie, but not one his father would find out about.

Jonathan had only met his dad a few times recently, since he got his scholarship and moved back into his mother’s house. He could not possibly tell him of the discussions with her about his future across the dinner table.

That man left me for months at a time to look after you, and the house, and the bills alone, and then whenever he was back for Earth leave, he’d demand that I run for him at his beck and call. I do not want you to become like that. She was crying, but then again, she always did that. Making him feel guilty for nothing other than simply existing.

Truth was probably his mother had already grown tired of the marriage by the time his father had gone into space. She could have gone with him. These days, entire families went to the colonies. But she probably couldn’t stand any person making demands on her. She preferred ordering other people around.

Was there a name for the emotion you felt when you realised, as an adult, that neither of the parents to whom you looked up in childhood were nice people?

Jonathan had certainly decided that he was not ever going to get married.

He’d been happy to leave home.

And he didn’t know why his lousy relationship with his father should bug him so much. After all, his father had been military, and, as he had confirmed for himself, the military hated exobiologists.

The single ring of the Orbital Launch Station consisted almost entirely of docking space for vessels. One quarter of it was taken up by surface-to-orbit shuttles, but most of the space was reserved for the behemoths of deep space—clunky square things of huge mass, powered by reactors that were usually serviced at the station. That had been his father’s last job. Before that, he’d been a nuclear scientist for the Space Corps.

There were plenty of people about in the gravity-curved passage where Jonathan walked, clutching his pad.

Walking was quite easy as long as he didn’t turn his head while doing it; it felt like walking on a travelator. Piece of cake.

The large ships did not hard-dock but matched their speed with the station and used anchoring cables and flexible access tubes, plus power and fuel umbilicals. Each of those access tubes had its own airlock with a display panel on the wall next to it. This panel took its information straight from the ship, including readiness, crew and passenger number, type, designation, engine type and origin or nationality of its main registrant, if a private ship. Yes, there were Mars-born people starting up businesses now. But the vast majority of the ships were military.

Jonathan passed one military ship after another, all idling at 5% readiness, all with one or two crew members standing guard outside the tube, as idle as the ship’s engines.

They eyed Jonathan from the corners of their eyes, faces full of suspicion when they spotted his Quarantine Authority badge. They were impatient, waiting to get out-system, waiting to disembark their crew on leave, waiting to be assigned a lower orbit, or waiting for the OK to travel on to other stations.

He took his pad and brought up his list of ships. A couple had been marked grey, as “in progress”, so someone else was processing them. White had said nothing about colleagues, but he presumed there were some. It would have been nice to have been introduced.

Heavens, had some of these ships been hanging around here for as much as a week?

The first ship, which had been here for ten days, was a small merchant vessel that had arrived from one of the industrial stations in the asteroid belt and was bound for Luna Station.

The captain, a belligerent man looking like a sumo wrestler, complained loudly about the wait. He asked to see the supervisor, but he passed the three-point test and Jonathan recommended that he be approved to leave.

The next ship was a small military vessel that had been doing maintenance on satellites, and was also cleared.

Then he approved a military ship that, like other large military vessels, had already been approved for a lower orbit than the station and would send its own shuttles from there once it left the dock. The captain made no secret that he thought the requirement for them to come into the Launch Station was ridiculous.

“It only clogs up your process as well. We have on-board testing. We can send you all the data you need electronically.”

Jonathan told the captain about the need for personal checks if a ship failed the questions and that they would need to remain at the station and were not allowed to mingle with station crew until they were cleared. The captain grumbled about bureaucracy, but signed all the forms.

Hey, this job was OK after all.

Chapter 3

JONATHAN CAME ACROSS the military vessel SS Everbright just before his lunch break. Two military personnel in crisp uniforms were the only evidence that hinted at the behemoth on the other side of the access tube. The display screen next to the door blazed SS Everbright, crew 1041, 8% readiness.

So. They were impatient, right? Revving up the engines and way down the queue to be processed. Arrived only yesterday, full of military personnel. This was the first really large ship that he processed. Danna White had said that they should have sent pathology details to the base, but he couldn’t see anything listed in the box where those details had been provided for the previous military ships.

Jonathan went up to the tube.

Both soldiers regarded him with icy looks.

“My name is Jonathan Bartell from the Quarantine Authority. I need to complete some formalities. I need your captain or representative of the captain to sign a declaration.”

“Yessir,” one of the men said. “The captain, sir? The captain is very busy.”

“Or a representative.”

“Yessir. Wait here, sir.” He disappeared inside the tube. He could, of course, have offered to take Jonathan to the captain’s representative, but he guessed that was out of the question. One thing he had learned so far was that the military were pretty precious about their ships.

Jonathan waited, fiddling with his pad while eying the remaining soldier, who, in turn, glanced at him from the corner of his eye.

According to the database, the Everbright was a logistics ship, strengthening the front line for an alien menace which the military said was coming closer into the solar system.

A few years ago, military astronomers, mainly those stationed at Triton Base around Neptune, had identified several inbound objects moving towards the Sun. According to these military astronomers, the fact that these objects sent out radio waves of ever decreasing frequency meant that they were artificial. At first the Space Corps had been blasting communication at them, but there had been no reply. They had asked for massive increases in their funding in case the objects turned out to be hostile, and had gotten it.

Some scientists were now starting to say that there were no approaching bogeys and that the incoming objects had been artefacts of a mistake in calibration. They said that the failure of Space Corps to provide objective proof of the existence of these bogeys was because the military wanted to ensure that their funding was maintained at the current level.

Something was happening on the dock now. The single soldier at the tube entrance straightened, and the access tube to the Everbright moved with the rhythmic thuds of footsteps.

A moment later, the soldier reappeared in the company of a woman in military uniform with more service decorations on her pocket than there was space for.


Jonathan nodded. How did one greet military hotshots. “You’re Captain Farrell of the military vessel Everbright?” She was a stout woman, shorter than him with a round face and short, spiked-up hair.

“Yes—what’s up?” She glanced at the board next to the door. “If our name on there gets any brighter, it’d be visible on the damn surface of the damn Earth.”

Jonathan ignored her jibe. She hadn’t needed to come herself. She could have asked one of the staff to do this for her.

“I need you to complete and authorise these forms.” He held the pad under her nose.

She frowned. “What for?”

“You need to make a quarantine declaration prior to entering Earth space, ma’am. Station regulations.”

“Quarantine regulations, the fuck. We have on-board pathology.”

“I know that ma’am.” He swallowed. “But I don’t have those results.”

“Then ask the station management for the results. We sent them.”

“Sure, ma’am. I still need you to complete and sign a declaration.”

Her eyebrows bristled with a frown. “Declaration?”

Behind him, a couple of tech crew walked along the dock, and they glanced at his pad and then at him. Raising their eyebrows. “This is a new regulation, you know, since that scare we had with native bacteria on Mars . . .” He was melting under her glare.

“No, I don’t know.”

“. . . the native micro-organisms contaminated the water source and caused the entire population to suffer gastro. I only have to ask you a few questions. It won’t take long.”

“Well, it had better not. I don’t care about the bowels of the colonists on Mars.”

She took the pad from his hands. A button on the screen said begin procedure so she pressed that, casually, with her thumb, flicking her eyebrows in a look-at-me-I’m-doing-your-stupid-questionnaire gesture.

Jonathan did his best not to squirm. He didn’t think he was successful. She had to be twice his age, twice his width and with twice his experience.

She was asked for ID and designation; she entered that. That brought up the first question, which she read aloud. “Have you or anyone in your vessel had contact with an alien body, including, but not limited to, a planet, an asteroid, or an artificial satellite not installed by your vessel on the current trip?”

She snorted. “Hell, yeah. How about: made out for Europa to investigate a signal coming from under the ice, but were disturbed by an emergency beacon. Pushed on to Titan. Rescued locals from impending freezing to death by realigning their solar reflection mirrors. Stopped on the way out from Saturn to take in some ice from the rings? Young man, sometimes you people here seem to forget that something out there is trying to push into the solar system. They don’t listen to our communication, don’t reply to anything, and we won’t rest until the bastards are defeated.”

Her eyes met Jonathan’s, and he felt like it was his father looking out through them. A military man who never had much truck with all this touchy-feely bacteria stuff.

She pressed next. “Do you think I’ve wasted the past few months with silly questionnaires about the bowels of the Mars colonists?”

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