For the record, I love Harvard Blight's name; don't expect me to change it no matter how hard you criticize it.
The vocabulary words I had to include were aggregation, congenital, perpetrated, ascertaining, obscurely, edification, taciturn, unobtrusive, impedimenta, umbrage, caricatures, indigenous, monosyllabic, diminutive, prowess, venerable, facade, obstreperous, gastic, habiliments, vapid, uncouth, overture, rectitude, auspicious, mollified, predilection, and ambidextrous.
* * *
Harvard Blight's mission had hardly been auspicious to begin with.
Governments were going wild back on Earth, throwing soldiers at each other for obscure reasons in wars that did nothing but leave more bodies for medical robots to care for. It was all for power, Blight had been told by others; power, venerability, and a thirst for both.
But Blight could only see it as more political impedimenta.
In the midst of chaos, Space Miners Co. had been hired by the United States government to mine the Asteroid Belt for precious minerals -- perhaps they were building weapons, or they just wanted to solve their energy problems. But Space Miners Co. was hardly ambidextrous in Earth's infighting; its founder, CEO Kristopher Wilkins, was American, and so the rest of the world probably wanted to hurt him for his predilection. Hurt him badly.
The Chinese newspapers passed around by a miner returning from vacation featured caricatures of not only important rival political figures but Wilkins. In the picture he stood in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean as missiles streaked about his head, shaking Uncle Sam's hand as Russia and China looked on with crossed arms. All who looked at the drawing remarked that Wilkins's mustache was spot-on. That had been while the Royale launched from its lunar base.
Blight had figured that at least his crew would be in space, away from the fighting; the century-old Space Treaty of 2258 had confirmed that no separate territories were to be marked beyond the bounds of the Earth. Russia was still miffed that the U.S.A. had claimed the Moon before the treaty, and China hadn't any occasion to claim anything at all.
He still couldn't get over the fact that either country would turn to such backhanded techniques as sabotage.
One second, the mining cruiser Royale was descending upon the asteroid Beta 1-38 on Blight's command, like a mother bird lowering over her nest; in the next second, a brilliant firework display of orange, red, and gray had engulfed the ship, dead silent in the airless expanse of space; the Royale had shot out of the cloud spinning, the stars swirling through the forward viewport like a demented kaleidoscope, and only with Blight's quick application of the stabilizing thrusters did it come to a (relative) halt. Blight had his space legs so he felt fine, but he couldn't help wondering if the cruiser's medical bay was filled with greenhorns complaining of gastric troubles.
Now all that remained was to check the damage and make sure no enemies were descending upon the cruiser. Praying, Blight had said to his crew, was optional, and could not be done if it would interrupt normal duties. He still did it, if only for mental edification; right after he did, the ugly backup lights had shut off, and the normal lights had brightened again, so apparently praying was good for something.
He was sitting in the bridge when his wrist comm beeped.
The screen flashed and displayed a headshot of Louise Jones, the Royale's head engineer; her dark eyes and stern face seemed robotic even in miniature. He pressed the Answer button. "This is Blight. Jones?"
"Yes sir. The ship is banged up, Blight; the thrusters don't work. We're dead in space." Louise Jones's vocabulary was normally ninety percent monosyllabic, but now her voice had also acquired a curt edge. She was annoyed; Blight could not blame her.
"It's fine. Upload your digital report and c'mon inside -- I want you to look over the diagnostics with me."
"Yes sir." The comm clicked and Jones's face picture disappeared.
Blight looked out the front viewport of the bridge, at the aggregations of stars and debris that danced beyond the foot-thick glass like butterflies in a breeze. The only other souls aboard the bridge were the navigators and scanners, four total; the other crew members were at their stations, most likely working feverishly to restore systems and conversing about who had planted the explosives.
Blight sighed and keyed for Earth-Space Transit's comm ID. At least this trip wasn't as vapid as the others.
* * *
By the time Harvard Blight finished his distress call, Jones had returned, lips compressed in her most extreme gesture of irritation. She was the closest Blight knew to a cyborg, if only because she acted like one: generally taciturn, never inordinate or obstreperous in her actions, and her diminutive physical appearance belied her mental prowess.
Her spacewalk habiliments were still donned; she had hurried to the bridge, Blight reckoned. So she was as worried as he was.
"This is the first time I've seen the diagnostic report, myself," Blight said, "so don't be surprised if I'm surprised." He pressed a button on his desk and a hologram appeared in midair, white text loading against a dark blue background.
Jones's eyebrows rose beneath her dark bangs as Blight muttered a few particularly uncouth words under his breath. The diagnostics list was long, very long, and mollification seemed just as far from the Royale. Perhaps it hid in the Chinese government, or the Russian government; their facades of venerability fooled no Americans, least of all Blight, who hated politics anyway.
Jones spoke first. "A friendly overture to the U.S.A., you think, sir?"
A moment passed before Blight realized the head engineer was being half sarcastic. He acquiesced with a nod and remarked with umbrage, "I think the thrusters'll be the hardest part to fix; the Royale is fresh outta the shop, you know, and I didn't think to carry spare nozzles."
"Without them the thrust will spray out -- no direction," Jones remarked.
"Right. So we don't want that to happen." He looked through the rest of the list, eyes narrowed, mouth tilted in anger. "What else is important...?
Jones pointed. "The fuel lines are ruptured. But Jacobs can fix them."
"And most of the stabilizers are damaged, but the ones still whole can suffice for now."
"So we need to fix the thrusters. How?"
Jones crossed her right arm over her chest and propped her left elbow atop her right hand so her left hand held up her chin: her characteristic thinking gesture, so natural it seemed congenital. Blight watched her face closely, certain her mental gears were spinning at top speed.
Her ascertaining halted abruptly when she looked up, her dark eyes meeting Blight's lighter ones. "The blast holes in the Royale's outer shell," she said.
Blight blinked. "What?"
"The metal is peeled back in places, mainly around weld lines. We can take the metal and fashion it into new thrusters."
Genius, it seemed, was indigenous to Jones. Harvard Blight was of the more common breed of humans; he blinked again and robotically repeated, "What?"
"The Royale's metal outer shell is made of the same material as the thrusters," Jones explained, the perfect image of patience. "We have welding and forging tools; we ought to easily bend the metal to make new thrusters."
"Wouldn't that open us to harm?"
"Not if we avoid the asteroids, sir."
More sarcasm. Jones was probably full of it, but she nevertheless stood silently, military fashion, true to her perfect rectitude. "Go ahead with your plan, Jones," Blight said finally, leaning back in his supervisor's chair. "Gather all the people you need."
"Cameron, Verne!" The two navigators turned in their seats to face Blight as Jones left in a hurry. "I want you to plot a course out of the Belt. Take into account that most of our stabilizers are on the fritz; according to the diagnostics only four remain operational."
"Yes sir," they said in unison and turned back to their displays.
* * *
By the time Jones returned, a course back to Earth had been programmed and double-checked. Any asteroids near the course proved unobtrusive, and the Royale still carried enough fuel to fly to Venus, let alone Earth. Blight's kaleidoscope of emotion had already slid through dark gray stress before the explosion, bright orange shock during it, and more, grayer stress after; now it stopped on the bright but dull blue of cautious optimism.
Blight had known Jones long enough to know most of her emotions were displayed through her eyes. Her mouth almost never moved; Blight had never seen her smiling or frowning. Cyborg-esque, indeed, he thought. Aloud, he said, "Have the thrusters been fixed?"
"Then let's go home. The EST Defense Department will be here soon to examine the explosion site; we'll let them handle the dirty work."
Blight pressed a button. Foot pedals extended beneath his feet. The ship's hand controls slid out from his desk; they were simplistic, just a joystick and several buttons. Even after years of piloting the Royale, Blight found the control layout reminiscent of antique video game controllers from the twentieth century.
"Here goes nothing," he said, and gently pressed on the accelerator. Jones had moved closer to him, her eyes glancing from the controls to the infinite blanket of space beyond the forward viewport in uncharacteristic nervousness.
"Too soon," she muttered.
Suddenly she rammed sideways into the supervisor, jamming her foot onto Blight's and, by extension, the accelerator, while simultaneously pushing the joystick all the way to the right so the Royale spun crazily. The metal snapped as the ship shuddered twice and started spinning down as well as to the right; the thrusters' nozzles had blown, and the throttle was wide open.
Jones? Jones was a double agent?
Blight didn't hesitate; he shoved Jones. She stumbled backward, the navigators and scanners stood up, and Blight pushed the Emergency button.
The klaxons didn't wail.
"There are computers all over the ship," remarked Jones. Her dark eyes drilled into Blight's. "I've been here long enough to learn the codes."
Blight could only stare in shock.
"You're the perpetrator?" he said.
"Of the bomb rig? No."
The crew members on the bridge charged at Jones. She didn't laugh, didn't even smile; in her usual cold, emotionless, militaristic fashion, she ran through the exit. The door slid shut; the navigators and scanners stuck the cold metal and jabbed the door release in vain.
The door intercom beeped. "You'll notice," said Jones, "the bridge's intercom won't work. You can't get out of the room. EST won't be here for another day. Your crew doesn't know you're trapped." Even in this situation, Blight couldn't help but admire Jones's brilliance.
Blight grimaced, pulling on the jammed joystick in vain. "Some friendly overture."
"Quite," she said. "Russia sends its greetings."
With that last half sarcastic remark, the intercom clicked off.
Blight's mental kaleidoscope shifted to a bright, full red.