The shuttle bus bounced along rutted concrete, motor whining. It was a type of vehicle Jack was familiar with, an all-terrain transport used by mining companies. This one had probably been salvaged from an abandoned site somewhere, and seemed to be shaking itself to pieces, along with its six occupants. The ride smoothed out only as they came to the clean pearl-white walls at the base of the habitat. Its immense scale was hard to judge until a few tiny figures emerged, just visible at this distance, waving energetically from an upper tier. Their vehicle accelerated and charged through a dark, square opening and down a dimly-lit service tunnel. It emerged at the bottom of an atrium, and came abruptly to a halt.
Jack looked up into a space that rose perhaps twenty floors, impressive in scale, but crossed by beams and ducts that gave the impression of a work in progress, a place lacking the final touch of stylish decoration and artwork. Allowances had to be made, however, for a habitat established less than ten years. Piped music started up and a small party gathered on the balcony above, watching expectantly as an elevator pod descended to the ground level. The pod opened. A group of about a dozen smartly suited men and women were wedged inside, and jostled their way out though the narrow door. One man stood in front, and Jack recognized him as Hogin Astrith, President of Greenshoot. Hogin looked like a genial character, with a prominent nose, a dainty mouth and chin, and a mass of iron-grey curly hair that was never entirely under control. He offered the visitors a slow, respectful bow. Then he began to speak in a thick, languid European accent.
“It is an honor for me, as President, to welcome your delegation to our colony. I wish to extend the finest hospitality that we can offer. I feel very strongly that we are all one family here. You might say that our small colony is a child, the offspring of the great civilization of Earth. Despite our differences, we feel obligations to you, to extend a hand, to trust, to work together, and to care for you. So we welcome also your trade mission, as an enterprise that will unite this family, and we offer you our support, and wish you well in your work on Greenshoot.”
A short round of applause followed, and the welcoming party moved forwards. The President clearly recognized Irwin, and the two soon came together and began an intense but discreet conversation. Jack milled around for a while around among the group of Greenshoot luminaries, all identified by their large lapel badges. Many were politicians of ministerial rank, titles which seemed odd in a community of just a few thousand, less than the construction crew for a starship. Jack found himself with a man identified as Alan Pont, Assistant Director of Engineering. He was a tall, angular figure with a beard and a stiff toothy smile.
“I’m the pilot of the Beluga, Jack Buffalo. I’m pleased to meet you, Alan. Thanks for this reception, it’s warmer than I usually get. But then I have been to some pretty rough places.”
“As you can see I am the assistant director of engineering, but that is really just a fancy way to describe a janitor. Welcome to the colony, but the President has already said that. He’s been elected five years in a row, which as you can probably work out makes him our longest serving president.”
“I guess you must have a contented population here then ?”, Jack asked.
Alan leaned forward a little and lowered his voice.
“I think you’ll find quite a few malcontents actually. The number of complaints about the habitat is going up every day. I am, frankly, struggling to deal with it.”
“This place looks great from above though, I’ve not seen anything quite like it”, Jack said.
“The whole concept really, is starting to worry me. Having residential, entertainment and government in one place has some benefits. It’s efficient. We don’t need a transport infrastructure. But then put in medical, hydroponics, water and sewage. Now you have competing requirements. They are all demanding more space and saying there’s going be a disaster if they don’t get it.”
Jack nodded and was starting to sympathize with the overworked technician, who seemed to have found in Jack the only person willing to listen to his complaints.
“You do it that way for one of two reasons”, Jack said. ”Either to make the best use of limited resources, or to create an eco-bubble in a hostile environment. I would guess for you, given what I know about Greenshoot, that it’s just about resources.”
“Basically we are short of materials and components and there is only one type of structure that we can build. Apart from a crude log-cabin of course. There are a few people living out there in cabins, and frankly, most of them lose their heads after a while. You take a look round and if you see someone carrying a battery-pack that’s a woody in here for a charge. Talk to one and I’ll bet you they will start ranting. Literally foaming at the mouth ! But they’re not my problem. My job really is the structure and I have recommended that we reinforce more with diagonal beams, but to put those beams in we have to move some people out of their cells. We are really at the practical limit for a building of this type, I believe. The number of pipe bursts, for example, is a concern.”
“When the President’s cubicle floods, then they will listen to you, Alan.”
Jack chuckled, but Alan continued with growing urgency.
“Compared to most places, Jack, this is an egalitarian system. You can have double or triple spaces but there is no executive mansion. I’ve seen the President’s apartment and it’s really nothing special - the fittings are all standard. But people don‘t want to live in these identical cells any more. Frankly, I think it could lead to depressive contagion.”
Alan took a nervous, sideways look in the direction of the President, who was now coming towards him. Hogin gave Alan a gentle pat on the back, then greeted Jack with a small, polite bow.
“You must be Jack. Welcome. Your ship, the Beluga, it was a fine sight as it came in and I watched it from my window. As it came towards us I had a moment of worry. It seemed to be heading straight for my office ! But thank you so much for this speedy flight. Only twenty days from earth, that is extraordinary.”
“The Beluga is one of the fastest ships in the fleet, Sir. I’m only sorry we have so little cargo space. There was a scientific shipment though, just a couple of tons.”
“That shipment will be of immense value to us here. So Jack, I want you to come straight to me if there is anything you need, if we are deficient in any way. The trade mission is vital to us.”
The President bowed again, and returned to his conversation with Irwin. He and Irwin seemed to be bonding, nodding vigorously and soon deep in their discussion. Jack looked round the lobby but there was no sign of Daff and Moby.
“Well Alan, I’m due to spend a night here before I return to the ship. Our driver Barney said something about a hotel complex ?”
“I should run up the stairs to level six - don’t bother with the elevators - and then turn left. Look for the people in green uniforms.”
Jack went up a couple of steps but his thigh muscles were trembling with the effort. This was feeling like a 300kg leg press, and from a quick calculation he reckoned he’d lost half his strength on the journey from earth, a much faster deterioration than normal. He wondered if he was still up to this job, whether age, drink and all that time in space were catching up with him, and looked back with an embarrassed smile at Alan who was watching his progress.
“Alan, do you have a gym here ? I’ll need some time to get back in shape after a few weeks in micro-g.”
Alan ran over and spluttered an apology, and he walked Jack to the shiny hexagonal elevator pod with its panoramic windows. It seemed to be bouncing a little on its cables as it rose, but it gave a intriguing glimpse into the pale-colored cells on each level, where colonists seemed to be working away like insects in a hive amongst a spaghetti of pipes and cables. At level six the landscape of the habitat opened out and an eager-looking woman, dark and voluptuous in a short green tunic, was there to greet him.
“Are you just arriving sir ?”
“Yeah I’m looking for a comfortable place to stay for the night, a good hot bath, and a big soft bed. You know - what we all look forward to when we‘ve been traveling for a while.”
It seemed like a fine place to be as the hostess, her backside swaying attractively, led Jack down a corridor. The room though, small and drab, came as a disappointment. Jack had become an expert at pressuring staff for the very best room and service available when stopping over, but he looked at the young woman standing at the door and her expression of keen anticipation, and he suddenly felt sorry for her, as she proudly showed off the half-built plastic container she and the other colonists inhabited, and he offered a few generous words of appreciation.
A window extended right across the wall opposite the bed, but the view was only of more stacked cells in close proximity. Night was falling, and the lights in the opposing room illuminated the resident inside, a middle aged woman with ragged hair, who sat forlornly in her chair staring straight out of the window towards him. Perhaps he was just over-tired, but he felt there was something sinister about her. Her face was gaunt, drawn in the frightful way of someone who has endured long suffering and is close to death. Her look and expression had the emptiness of an individual facing oblivion. Wondering if she could see him even in his dimly lit room, he flicked a switch on the window sill to darken the glass. He was much too tired now to bother with the bath he had been looking forward to, and spread out on the bed. Closing his eyes he thought of his encounter with Hogin Astrith, for it was not often that he had seen a President face to face, and he was impressed by the man’s humility and decency, but he wondered now why the leader had said the instruments from earth were so vital. Were the prospects for Greenshoot really as bright as their publicity suggested ? Another wave of tiredness hit him, and this thought was forgotten as he began the first long deep sleep since leaving the security and comfort of his own bed on earth.