Saturday, February 22
Earth hovered, almost at full phase, breathtakingly magnificent. Distance concealed the works— and blights—of man, and the globe seemed pristine. Its oceans sparkled. Its cloud tops and ice caps glistened. And it was huge: the natural moon, had it been visible, would have appeared only about one- hundredth as wide.
Earth seemed close enough to touch through the exercise room’s tinted dome, but Gabriel Campbell held firmly to the handles of the stationary bicycle. Not that he relied on the strength of his grip: he wore a seat belt, too, and straps bound his feet to the pedals. This world had too little gravity to notice.
His eyes alternated between the vista overhead and the image of Jillian, his fiancée, which he had taped to the bike’s digital readout. Strawberry blond hair cascaded down her neck and shoulders. Freckles lay scattered across that most adorable, pert little nose. Her clear green eyes— and more so, her smile— all but outshone the Earth.
He was here, on Phoebe, to make a future for both: the Earth and the love of his life. In just one more month, he would go home. Then he and Jillian would marry and they would never be apart again. Basking in earthlight, his legs pumping furiously on the bike, Gabe was pleasantly tired, professionally fulfilled, emotionally satisfied—
Unaware that before two hours had passed, he would be dead.
* * *
Phoebe completed an orbit around the Earth in just less than six hours, and as Gabe pedaled darkness crept across the face of the world. The changing phase of the Earth told him he had been working out for almost two hours.
Sweat soaked his Minnesota Twins T-shirt, and still ahead of him was a stint on the not- quite weight machine: the resistive exercise device. Without exercise, muscles atrophied and bones lost mass in Phoebe’s miniscule gravity. Four hours of daily workout were mandated, but he would have worked out anyway. He patted Jillian’s picture. “I’ll be plenty fi t for you when I come home.” Fit, and horny as the devil.
And with no way up here to spend a dime, he would have banked six months’ salary with which to build their future. The pay was damned good, too, much higher than anything he could get on the ground. He tried not to think of the premium as hazardous- duty pay.
The bike whirred. A damper rattled in the ventilation system. Voices, indistinct, blended with dueling music players. And then, from the comm unit clipped to his sleeve, soft chimes. Gabe tapped the unit. “Campbell.”
“We’ve got a bot in trouble,” Tina Lundgren said, her voice throaty. She was deputy station chief of Phoebe base and in command on the night shift. Not that day or night had any meaning here. The station followed Eastern time for the convenience of folks on the ground. “In sector twelve.” “And it’s my turn to go outside.” Hell, Gabe was happy to go out. Only a handful of geologists had ever left Earth, and he was one of them. Had there been any way to get Jillian up here, he would want to stay forever. “What’s the problem?”
“Stupid bot tangled itself up in a rock jumble. Otherwise, it’s healthy.”
Likely a thirty- second task, after an hour or so to suit up and trek halfway across the moonlet. Good deal.
Tina contacting him meant that he was in charge of the excursion. But no one went outside alone—too many things could go wrong. Gabe asked, “Who else is on call tonight?”
“Thaddeus and Bryce. Shall I give one of them a holler for you?”
“I’ll take Thad. Newbie could use the practice.” Gabe eased off his pedaling. “And no, don’t call. I’m in the gym. I need to cool off first.” Outside was not the place to get stiff and inflexible.
After winding down for a few minutes, Gabe unstrapped his slippers from the pedals, unbelted, and, carefully dismounting, firmly planted a slipper on one of the deck’s Velcro strips. Trailing damp footprints he crossed the exercise room, the Velcro pads on the soles of his slippers zip- zipping with each step.
At the hatchway he took hold of the handrail that ran along the corridor ceiling. The Tarzan swing was the quickest way through the station. Many of his crewmates would be asleep, and he kept a Tarzan yell to himself.
Thaddeus Stankiewicz was not in his quarters, the tiny common room, or the even tinier sanitary facilities. When Gabe tried the machine shop, the hatch squeaked on its hinges.
Thad was new to Phoebe and micro gee; his surprised twitch launched him from his stool and scattered whatever he was working on. Gabe saw cordless soldering pistols, metal tubes, metal rods, wire coils—and, writhing free at the end of its oxygen and acetylene hoses, a cutting torch tipped with blue flame.
Gabe leapt, catching the torch by a hose and with his other hand giving Thad a firm shove clear. The push— equal and opposite reactions—brought Gabe to a near halt at mid-room, above the deck. About a foot: call it thirty seconds hang time. That was plenty long to give Thad a tongue-lashing for his carelessness.
Newbie looked so flustered that Gabe relented. He killed the torch and merely glared as Thad, who by then had grabbed a bench edge, began gathering parts (of what?) and cramming them into his pockets. Stankiewicz was short, broad shouldered, and intense. His thick black eyebrows and deep-set eyes made him seem perpetually brooding. He wore a standard station jumpsuit, the royal-blue version, with its integral Velcro slippers.
Finally touching down, Gabe slid his foot until it engaged a Velcro strip. “What are you working on?”
Thad shrugged, looking uneasy. Embarrassed? “Personal project.”
The station offered precious little privacy, so Gabe let it go. “A surface rover got stuck. You and I are up to extract it.”
“Okay.” Thad kept grabbing and stowing the scattered pieces of his project. “Almost done.”
“Leave that, Newbie. We have a job to do.”
They made their way to the main air lock. The closer they got, the more dark streaks and splotches marked the gray metal panels that lined the corridor. You couldn’t help but track Phoebe’s dust and grime into the station, and once inside the stuff found its way everywhere. The crew vacuumed endlessly, but it was a losing battle.
Their spacesuits were filthier than the interior halls and no longer permitted in most of the station. Once you couldn’t change in a closet-sized cabin, bracing yourself between opposing walls, the best place to suit up was inside the air lock.
In the air lock, back to back and studiously ignoring each other, the two men stripped. Even more studiously they ignored jostling and brushing into each other.
The body suits fit snugly against bare skin. Donning a very elastic body suit in the all- but- nonexistent gravity was like squirming into a sausage casing—underwater. Every nudge and bump sent them careening off bulkheads and decks and each other. Still, these mechanical
counterpressure suits beat the hell out of bulky, pressurized spacesuits. Gabe had tried an old- style suit once in training. It was easier to get into, but way more massive. Inertia varied with mass, not weight, and fighting that much inertia was exhausting.
Gabe finally wriggled into his suit and helped Thad finish getting into his own. “Check me out,” Gabe said. He launched himself, with a bit of practiced footwork, into a slow, midair pirouette.
“You look fine,” Thad said.
The answer had come too quickly. Anywhere that the suit failed to settle securely into place, fluid would pool beneath. Gaping was the major issue with the skin suits, with the crotch area especially problematical. It wasn’t as if Gabe wanted another guy checking out his crotch, but he wanted even less to have blisters down there from an ill- fitting suit. “Check it again,” he snapped.
Done properly, spacesuit checkout took time. Eventually, though, their suits were wrinkle- free and without sags or pouching. They mounted and sealed the compression neck rings to which their helmets would attach. They slipped on their backpacks and checked readouts for everything: oxygen, heating, sensors, radio, batteries. Their helmets and air hoses were locked into place.
They stowed their indoor clothes, Thad’s pockets clanking, in lockers near the air lock, buckled on tool belts and tether reels, stuck emergency maneuvering guns in their holsters, and pulled on gloves and boots. Ready at last, Gabe configured the air- lock controls for surface access.
“Oscar, end-to-end system check,” Gabe said. Status messages, the text all green, scrolled down the inside of his helmet visor. He had named the voice-activated user interface Oscar as a nod to the suit in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, a book he had loved as a child—and because, crammed into this suit, he knew how a sardine must feel.
“Comm check, Thad,” Gabe radioed on the public channel.
“Back at you,” Stankiewicz said.
Gabe called, “Tina? Two robot wranglers set to go outside.”
“Happy trails,” Tina answered, yawning. “Stay in touch.”
“Roger that.” Gabe tapped the air- lock control panel. Pump noises faded as air was sucked into holding tanks. He felt the first stirrings of warmth from the heating elements in the thermal layer of his suit. Light poured inside as the outer hatch opened. Shrunken to a crescent, the
Earth still shone more brightly than a full moon. For now, the moon itself remained hidden behind the Earth.
Newbie gestured at the ladder. “Age before beauty.”
“Pearls before swine.”
Gabe grabbed the ladder rails and climbed. He paused on the third rung, with only his head and shoulders above the surface. The horizon was freakishly close. Despite earthlight, the landscape was only a dim presence, less reflective than asphalt. Without its coat of rocks, soot, and hydrocarbons, Phoebe’s ice— the ice they were here to mine, the ice that could change everything— would have streamed off as a spectacular comet tail.
His grandparents still talked about where they were, what they had been doing, when they first heard that President Kennedy had been shot. For his parents’ generation, and even for some of Gabe’s own, the event seared into the collective consciousness was 9/11. The World
Trade Center towers crashing down had marked Gabe, too—he had been sixteen that day— but the news that had truly marked him, had changed everything for him, even more than 9/11 or the Crudetastrophe, had come a mere five years ago.
As though it were yesterday, he remembered: a rumor at first, run rampant on the blogosphere, then the hastily called presidential address. A space rock, a big one, was headed Earth’s way. It was not dinosaur-killer-sized, not quite, and the likelihood it would hit Earth was only one in a thousand—but no sane person would leave home against those odds, let alone bet the future of civilization. The rock had to be deflected, and despite its many woes only the United States had the capability to tackle the job.
But the excitement, the game changer, was this: rather than deflect the rock away, NASA would undertake to aim it more precisely at Earth. To ensure capture of the object. To exploit its resources and forever change space exploration.
And to hell with whether anyone else thought this was a bad idea. Gabe had never encountered much in the way of presidential leadership. It was exhilarating.
He had long ago lost his youthful interest in the space program. Decade after decade of pointlessly circling the world, scarcely skimming the top of the atmosphere: what was the point? No one cared anymore.
But suddenly there was a reason. Saving the planet. Maybe, in the process, pulling the country out of an economic abyss. And to be honest—adventure. Faster than the president could finish speaking that night, Gabe had vowed he would be an astronaut. Somehow.
That rock— only it had turned out to be far more complex and interesting, a dormant comet—was now Earth’s second moon. Was Phoebe. And once again, he was about to explore its ancient surface.
“The view here is less interesting,” Thad radioed from the bottom of the air lock.
“Sorry.” Gabe unreeled four feet of tether, clipping its carabiner around the staked cable labeled SECTOR TWELVE. He clipped a second tether to the guide cable before grabbing handholds outside the hatch and pulling himself up and out. He waited ten feet along the cable until, gopherlike, Thad’s head and shoulders appeared.
“Two tethers,” Gabe reminded the newbie.
It was easier by far to fall off this toy world than to cross it. Phoebe was roughly a sphere a mile and a quarter across— where rough better described the body than sphere. It was round in the sense that a popcorn ball was round, with stony lumps taking the place of popped kernels and veins of frothy ice— and in spots, only vacuum— taking the part of molasses. And in the sense that a popcorn ball remained a ball after it had been whacked a bit, dented here, flattened there. Phoebe was less a single object than a rubble pile loosely bonded by its mutual gravity. If its orbit had dipped much lower, the tidal forces from Earth’s gravity would have ripped the little moon to shreds.
“Two tethers,” Thad repeated. “Done. After you, Pearl.”
Gabe pulled himself hand over hand along the cable, coasting above the inky surface. His eyes insisted he was soaring up a cliff face. Gravity’s feeble tug told his inner ears he was falling into the cliff face. His gut wished eyes and ears would come to some agreement.
After twenty yanks Gabe stopped pulling. “Coasting,” he radioed the newbie.
“Thanks. The view from behind is unattractive enough without climbing up your butt.”
Gabe slowed with gentle hand pressure against the cable at the first glint ahead of a piton anchored in the rock. Carefully he unclipped one carabiner and snapped it back onto the cable on the opposite side of the ring. He did the same with his second tether. He made sure the newbie followed the same fail- safe procedure before resuming the trip to sector twelve.
The surface lights, antennae, and trash dump of the station dropped behind the too-close horizon. But a status icon in his HUD shone a steady, reassuring green, confirming connectivity with Tina and the command center. The metal guide cable did double duty as an antenna.
Every hundred or so feet a piton interrupted their glide, and in such short increments they made their way toward sector twelve. After ten minutes Gabe checked in with Tina. Twice he saw survey robots—their silvery, octopoid shapes unmistakable—creeping along the surface. The second bot’s instrument suite must have sensed a buried ice seam, because the machine was staking a radio beacon. Had Gabe cared to tune to the proper frequency, he would have heard soft beeping from the marker.
Ice meant water. Water meant oxygen and hydrogen. And water, oxygen, and hydrogen already in near-Earth orbit—not lofted from Earth’s surface or the permanently shadowed polar craters of the distant moon, in either case at the cost of thousands of dollars per pound—were dearer than gold or platinum. So, too, whatever mineral wealth could be wrung from the rocks of Phoebe. On scheduled outings, he continued to survey for exploitable resources.
It was said: Low Earth orbit is halfway to anywhere in the solar system. That was a metaphorical truth, almost poetic. Half the work of going anywhere in the solar system was expended fighting Earth’s gravity. Building powersats with Phoebe’s mineral resources, beaming down solar energy to an energy- starved world, would be only the beginning. Phoebe would be the gateway to the planets.
Away from the station the moonscape dissolved into a shadowy sameness. They passed the pi lot distillery sited at a safe distance from the habitat. Parallel glints revealed pipes snaking across the dark surface, delivering water, oxygen, and hydrogen to the base.
Gabe played tour guide, pointing out the little world’s interesting features. “On our left, the thermal nuclear rockets that nudged Phoebe into orbit.” He glanced at his Geiger counter, even though workers had long since recycled the uranium fuel rods in the base power plant. No matter how many powersats got their start here, Phoebe, forever behind its sunshield, would stay nuclear. “And on our right, the Grand Chasm. It’s no great shakes by Earth standards, but relative to Phoebe, it’s huge.”
“Uh- huh,” Thad said.
Newbie had been moody since they left the station. As for what preoccupied him, Gabe could only guess. Maybe no more was at work here than that Thad—like most of the crew—was an engineer, without interest in Phoebe itself. When Thad deigned to interrupt the travelogue, it was always with practical questions. About pressure suits, their related gear, and how soon anyone would come after them if comm should break down . . . .
Fair enough. Knowing the limitations and vulnerabilities of the equipment could save a person’s life. Although Gabe wished he could share the excitement of discovery, the rocks were not going anywhere. Maybe Newbie would lighten up after he got more comfortable with his equipment.
They glided past the infrared telescope. Good, Gabe thought, we’re halfway there. About all he understood about IR astronomy was that hot objects emitted infrared, so you wanted your infrared instruments kept cold to minimize their own intrinsic thermal noise. Behind its sunshield, Phoebe was about as cold as anywhere in Earth’s neighborhood ever got. The ’scope’s cryocooler, powered by the base nuclear reactor, kept the IR sensor colder still.
He slowed or stopped whenever a surface feature caught his eye, but even a cursory look said most of these rocks were yet more carbonaceous chondrites and silicates. Two bits of stone he could not immediately identify went into his sample bag, for tests back at the station.
He was curious about this tiny world, even if there was no point in discussing it.
Isotope dating of previous samples said Phoebe was more than four billion years old. So why did it still exist? Its desiccated, rocky crust was not that impressive as an insulator. Had it always followed the orbit in which it had been discovered, swooping inside Earth’s own orbit, Phoebe’s ice would have sublimated long ago, its rocky remains dispersed into a short- period meteor shower. Of course if it had always followed that orbit, the Near- Earth Object Survey would have spotted Phoebe years earlier. Or Phoebe would have smacked Earth before anyone even knew about death from the sky.
So: Phoebe had had another orbit, an orbit more distant from the sun. Planetary astronomers had yet to work out Phoebe’s original path and what planetary close encounter might have sent Phoebe diving at the Earth. Gabe guessed there was a Nobel waiting for whoever figured it out.
As the Earth waned and the landscape faded into darkness, he had Oscar project a topo map on his HUD. The blinking red dot had them most of the way to the green dot representing the stranded bot. Pits and ravines, ridges and rocky jumbles leapt out of the map image. He tugged his tethers once, twice for reassurance.
“Let’s stop for a minute,” Gabe called. New Earth was imminent, and Newbie was in for a treat. “Watch the limb of the planet.”
Earth’s crescent became the thinnest of arcs, then disappeared.
A pale, shimmering arch—part rainbow, part oil slick—emerged from the darkness. Phoebe’s sunshield. The free-flying Mylar disk that hovered above Phoebe warded off the sunlight that might yet boil away precious ice as boots and robot tentacles and, eventually, mining operations scraped through the insulating surface layers. The shield’s sun-facing side reflected most of the light that hit it. What little sunlight penetrated the shield—the bit they could see—was scattered by the backside’s granular coating.
For an endless moment the arch, large but faint, was the brightest
object in the sky. Then the trailing edge of the shield, too, slid into the Earth’s shadow, abandoning the sky to stars like chips of diamond.
Now the sole clue to Earth’s presence was a hole in the star field. Even with eyes fully adjusted to the darkness, from this altitude Gabe could not spot any city lights. He could pretend that all was well below, that the world was not divided between energy haves and have-nots.
“Show’s over,” Gabe said. He switched on his helmet lights. An instant later, Thad activated his own. “Pretty cool, though, don’t you think?”
Thad only grunted.
“So, Thad. What were you making in the shop?” Gabe was just making conversation. Skimming the pitch-black rock face in the near darkness was eerie.
He felt a tap- tap on his calf and twisted around. Thad had only one hand on the guide cable, waggling his other hand. Two fingers were raised.
“Oscar, private channel two,” Gabe ordered. “Okay, Thad. What’s going on?”
“Private channel two,” Thad repeated. Finally, he added, “You’ll keep this to yourself, right?”
“If that’s what you want.”
Hand over hand, they went. A rim of sunshield reappeared just before the Earth returned as a new crescent. Gabe doused his helmet lights. On his HUD the red and green dots were converging. Another few minutes and they would veer from the guide cable.
Eventually Gabe prompted, “Well?”
“Okay. I put my life in your hands.” Thad sighed. “I have a thing for Tiny.”
Tina Lundgren was big for an astronaut, even a male astronaut. The nickname was inevitable—and you used it within her earshot at your own peril. Gabe had to admit that, in an Amazonian kind of way, she was sexy. And she was one of only two women, and the only unmarried woman, on Phoebe. Gabe understood Thad wanting this conversation on a private channel.
Having bared his soul, Thad went on and on about Tina’s womanly charms.
“Uh-huh,” Gabe finally interrupted. “And you were cutting pipe as an outlet for your unrequited love?”
“Not exactly.” A rueful laugh. “I’m making a still. Whether or not homebrew appeals to her, I figure it won’t go to waste.”
“Does she know how you feel?” Gabe asked.
“Not from me! Not yet. Frankly, the woman scares the crap out of me. Maybe that’s why I have to have her.”
To their left, a ghostly plume: an ice pocket flashing to steam bursting from the ground.
Behind its sunshield Phoebe should be colder than the night side of the moon: for two weeks out of four, every part of the moon but a few deep polar craters felt sunlight. But shield or no, some sunlight did reach Phoebe. No software was perfect, and occasionally the sunshield—tugged by Earth, moon, and Phoebe; pushed by the solar wind and by sunlight itself; balancing the many conflicting forces with its own feeble thrusters—drifted out of position. Whenever that happened, sunlight beat directly on the surface. Even when the shield balanced perfectly, the traces of sunlight penetrating the shield scattered in unpredictable ways. Earthlight and moonlight were, in the final analysis, echoes of sunlight. And heat leaked from the underground base and its nuclear power plant. All that energy mingled, meandered, and reradiated in unpredictable ways.
And so, seemingly at random, little geysers. The vapor was too diffuse to do any harm. Most times. If you were unlucky, a geyser could sweep you right off Phoebe.
“A still,” Gabe repeated, his thoughts divided between the plume, already trailing off, the topo map on his HUD, the landscape sliding by inches beneath his visor, and the conversation. Ethyl alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, so alcohol fumes waft up a still coil before water vapor. You separated out the early condensate. But up comes of having gravity. “Will a still even work in Phoebe’s grav—”
Too much happened at once, the sequence unclear:
—A sharp tug on Gabe’s backpack.
—Thad saying, “Wrong answer.”
—A power alarm.
—A second yank.
—Helmet lights and HUD going dark.
—A hard shove forward.
Gabe twisted around. Earthlight showed Thad a good twenty feet away, receding. Just staring. And bulging from the mesh pouch of Thad’s tool belt: two battery packs.
Without power for his suit’s heating elements, Gabe would freeze within minutes. Already the cold seeped into him, body and thoughts turning sluggish. He got his feet beneath him, even as he ripped lengths of tether from their reels. He leapt.
His right foot slipped on loose gravel and he sailed far to the side.
The shorter tether pulled him up short. Its yank started him spinning even as the tug started him back toward the surface. Too slowly. He took the maneuvering pistol from its holster— but it slipped from fingers already numb with cold. As he drifted down he managed to grip a rock outcropping.
All the while, maintaining his distance, Thad watched. Stared.
“Why?” Gabe screamed. Not that his radio worked without batteries. Not that his shout could cross the vacuum. “Why are you doing this?”
Maybe his murderer read Gabe’s lips. Whatever the reason, Thad shrugged.
Gabe advanced. Thad retreated.
As cold became all, as consciousness faded, the last thing Gabe saw was the waxing crescent Earth.
Earth no longer seemed close enough to touch.
Copyright © 2012 by Edward M. Lerner