Chaotic would wipe his brow if he could – though luckily, the suit’s foam support that pressed against his forehead wicked the moisture away easily enough. He’d been working as a contractor on the Johannesburg-Mandela Orbital Tether project for nearly six months, and it was… slow going.
The hardest part, funnily enough, was the exact problem the tether aimed to solve – movement of heavy material into low orbit over this part of the planet was logistically, and economically, a nightmare. Heavy lift rockets only took things so far, and with the sheer amount of carbides and steel being moved up the towering edifice a single load at a time the company was projecting a completion date nearly twenty years into the future.
Kept him in a job, though.
The raccoon went back to welding a joint in section C50, carefully following the lines highlighted on his suit’s ops HUD. Sixty hours a week for a pretty handsome check every two weeks wasn’t the worst gig he’d taken, not by a long shot. Still… sometimes he wished the load was a little lighter. Burnout was a constant danger up here, even if the views were incredible.
Somewhere far below Johannesburg sprawled, the ruddy browns and greens of the Cape of Good Hope outlined against the cloudy ocean. A lift balloon drifted by, dragging another ton of material along with it as it ascended the length of the tether to the capstone station at the tip – likely loaded with electrical equipment for interior work.
For a moment, the raccoon wondered what it would be like to be a lift balloon. Probably easier, right? Just carry stuff, all big and tight and…
He shook his head, forcing the pink tinge away from his cheeks. Focus. Just a few more hours and he could return to the hab level for some shuteye.
Chaotic blinked as his radio crackled, and the familiar canine face of the tether project’s ops AI appeared – scruffy, and stained here and there with… motor oil? Clearly an attempt at a “worker” appearance, if nothing else.
“Good afternoon, civilian contractor #32001! Your medical readouts pinged a heightened heart rate?”
“Are you in danger? Can I be of assistance?”
“N-No, I’m… fine. Just working… hard, you know?”
“I don’t!” The AI replied cheerfully, holding their holographic paws up. “Can’t hold things, after all.”
“…Ah. Well, I’d better get back to welding, so…?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that stuff! You’re being reassigned.”
Chaotic blanched, grip on his welder slipping and letting it drift away slightly before he grabbed it again, tapping his helmet with a gloved finger. “Reassigned?! I’ve worked this gig for months!”
“Oh, you’re still going to be helping,” The AI shrugged, pushing a shipping manifest and tracklist to the raccoon’s visor. “We’ve got sixty three tons of molybdenum waiting dirtside for a heavy-lift platform, and the company’s estimates for shipping us a new set are a year at best. So, I’ve decided to make do with what we have on-site, and make one.”
“…I’m going to be making a heavy-lift balloon?” Chaotic frowned, confused. “I’m not exactly an engineer-”
The raccoon was cut off, quite suddenly, by the emergency oxygen supply’s breathing hose shooting out of the helmet’s chinrest and stuffing itself straight into his mouth, clamping against his muzzle. REMAIN CALM, the visor helpfully read in bright blue text. ADMINISTERING EMERGENCY O2.
“I’m going to be making a heavy lift balloon!” The AI giggled, just as the raccoon’s cheeks began to round out. “Thanks for volunteering!”
Chaotic flailed, welder spinning away into space as the work suit’s substantial oxygen supply rushed into his mouth! He felt light-headed, tummy already starting to expand ever so slightly inside the form-fitting material, giving the raccoon first the appearance of a paunch, then a gut – and beyond, the loud hiss filling his ears suddenly the only thing he could focus on!
“MMPH,” Chaotic protested – trying his best to grab on to the tether’s metal frame – and managing after a few tries, despite the insistent stretching and groaning of the suit’s material as he began to fill out into a more pear-like shape.
Something clamped onto his back as he clung to the tether, squeezing his… surprisingly squishy frame as the subtle vibrations of something being attached to the rear of his space suit momentarily distracted the raccoon from the building pressure. Help, maybe?
…a hope that was quickly dashed as the flow doubled, an autonomous work drone jetting away to its next assignment on tiny RCS directionals as Chaotic continued to strain and press against the suit, tummy finally spilling out as it tore along a seam! For a moment he panicked even harder – after all, space was generally bad for exposed skin – but the tummy that had broken free was… inflated fabric. Taut.
“Coming along nicely!” The AI sing-songed, watching the raccoon’s tail swell from base to tip, shrinking in slightly along with his limbs as he began to round out properly, entirely lost in the ever-building pressure as even his ears swelled up against the interior foam of the helmet…
After what seemed like an eternity, the drone returned – clamping onto the massive ball of a raccoon-turned-lift-balloon with the care of a dragonfly landing on a leaf. Tethers were attached to the raccoon’s feet and hands, and, with one last quick spray of instant-hardening space-rated paint, the words HEAVY LIFT were scrawled across his tummy.
“There!” The AI cheered, assigning the drone to drag the new lift balloon down to the worksite for his first job. “Let’s get started!”