The Man Who…
Boost is boost. So it takes a while to register that we’re not still accelerating, but braking.
Evidently, Sylv has found something during my downtime.
Could be good, could be not so much. Sylv’s not much for the on-topic, on-mission stuff. Too prone to digression, too given-over to the wild hypothesis, to the conspiracy theory, to the crazy idea. Too fond, by half, of the secret plan.
Not me, no chance; but there are a few like that, like Sylv, out here. The Kuiper, vast, and dark, and all-but-empty, is the last vestige of the unexplored, the scoundrel’s last refuge. It draws them, that type , like flies to meat-rot. There could be anything out here, out there, in the Kuiper’s depths. There isn’t, of course; but there could be.
Whatever’s been found, there’s no hint on the system. Bron has no knowledge, or at least professes such: s/he is presumably under orders not to disclose to me. (I rue the day Sylv found that backdoor.)
And that, too, is Sylv all over: devious, if you’ll let her. Always been that way, even while we were growing up. Does it bother me?
Sylv’s down, now, of course. ‘Beauty sleep’ </snark>. Which leaves me either having to rouse her, or to go on puzzling for the next several hours just why it is that here, hardly even on the Kuiper’s inner fringe, Brontornis III is currently ass-frontwards and partway through a protracted i-drive braking burn. The temptation to pull rank, such as it is, is strong—we’re not exactly overendowed with either time or fuel, and quota’s the killer—but stronger still is the reticence. I refuse to buy into my kid sister’s games. Which is not to say I’ll be satisfied by anything less than an iridium-standard reason for whatever mad-eyed stunt this turns out to be …
I’ve given Sylv plenty of rope, over the years. (Here, have some more.) Seems like every other month, our first snowflaking tour, she’d be claiming some sort of sighting. And she’d go on to expound on how this sighting (which was inevitably anomalous, of course, because lots of things about the outer system are anomalous if you allow them to be) would prove, in some suitably arcane but incontrovertible fashion, to be an ET artefact or something similarly implausible. On the occasions when I opted to humor her, the artefact would invariably turn out to be an entirely mundane chunk of ice or rock, more often than not one which was already comprehensively catalogued. I mean, if there was evidence of a sometime ET presence in our solar system, surely it would have been found, already, in a hundred and fifty years of space exploration?
In an earlier century, I reckon, Sylv would have been a UFO adherent, a SETI searcher, or a Face-of-Mars believer. She’s mellowed, thankfully. But the undercurrents are still there.
I run through some just-as-easily-automated navigational and inventory tasks, as is my habit, and get Bron to run through today’s vocabulary exercise with me.
Brontornis III’s big enough, which is to say it’s cramped as. Sleeping cubicle (room just for one), ops cabin, head, exercise sarco. A scarce-more-than-three-meter bubble in a brutalist warehouse of a ship, most of which, of necessity, is plant and sensor.
Why they call it ‘space’ I can’t fathom.
* * *
“We’re slowing for Pluto?” I ask. “Why?”
“Just want to check something.” Sylv’s stonewalling, of course—I know it, and she sure as hell knows I know it—but I also know there’s no way to compel her, before time, to give up what’s rattling away inside that cranium of hers.
“Trace, we’re not stopping,” she reassures me. “Just slowing a smidge. And we’ll get to snowflake-hunting again, soon enough. I’m just curious, is all.”
“Curious won’t make the payments. Dammit, sis, you know we’re way behind on B3.”
“Don’t call me sis, bro.”
“No joke, Sylv. Davide’s lost even the pretense of patience. We don’t bring in a snowflake, and a big one, at least ten klicks diameter, by—”
“Davide? Don’t make me laugh. Man has a mind like the world’s smallest steel trap.”
“I don’t see that his character flaws help us any. The contract—”
“Relax? ‘Relax’ sees us lose the ship …” I let it trail off. It’s an argument we’ve played out before, and we both know exactly where it goes. Sylv’s angry that I didn’t—somehow—negotiate us a better contract, as if Herriman’s has ever shown any degree of flexibility on that front, to anyone. My own mad is that I’m still waiting for Sylv to grow up, to take things with an appropriate quantum of seriousness.
It’s been a long wait.
These times, four hours in twelve, the lifebubble isn’t just cramped, it’s crowded. Sylv solves the problem—for her, if not for me—by virting, retreating into some Bron-assisted fantasy, her private world. Me, I brood.
Sylv has a point. The contract’s a real short-and-curlies number. We’ve been more successful than most, thus far: two juicy snowflakes in ten years, which means we still have Brontornis III—for now. But quota says we should have made four, which as Davide delights in pointing out is only half the haul his father managed, with Mystery Tramp, in his first glorious decade as a comet-hunter. If we manage another, next couple of years, we’ll hold off default. If.
It’s crazy. This should be a lucrative concern: Mars is thirsty. But the Kuiper hasn’t turned out to be the prime cut it was made out for. Prospectors have ended up squeezed by the penalty clauses in Herriman’s contracts, and by the Saturn ring miners (the ice moons, like all named bodies, are off-limits, but the anonymous rubble of the Ring is there for the taking). Bottom line, Mars doesn’t pay enough, anymore, for anyone else to break into snowflaking, so Herriman’s enjoys a monopoly. It works for them; it works for Mars. Why worry about anyone else?
* * *
An hour in the exercise sarco, subjecting myself to its sadistically-precise taffy-pulling, twisting, and pressing, hasn’t helped. Hasn’t defused my disgruntled exasperation with my sister’s petulance, her caprice, her spite. (Always this way.) And the strong suspicion that there’ll be a good reason, to be unfurled at the moment of my greatest frustration, my pinnacle of pique … that doesn’t help, either, any. And so, poster child for cabin fever that I feel myself becoming, I take the sole available remedy: EVA. The same machined claustrophobia, for sure, but made the more palatable by just a soupçon of sweet mobility.
Still feeling a little of the post-exercise nausea, I tell Bron to pressurize the lock. S/he doesn’t ask why. Which is good, because I’m not fully sure what reason I could offer.
Lock’s air is cold, dry, less than fresh, but I’m only in it for a couple minutes before I’m ensconced in the perfumed, prurient plumbing of the suit. (I won’t need the plumbing, I’ll be back before there’s any urgency in that area, but the suit lacks the imagination to see it that way.) I pause to wonder, for the umptieth time, why the lock’s as big as the life-bubble …
Purge the lock, crack the hatch. Push through. Clip the tether.
Although I’m now, in a topological sense, outside Brontornis III, my surroundings still have a decidedly interior feel to them: I have, in essence, emerged into a cylinder of latticework, pillared by the six bulky linacs for the ship’s big Dzugashvili-de Sitter i-drive cluster. The linac columns, kilometers-long to provide the electromagnetic traction required to accelerate their streams of ionized nanoparticles to near-relativistic velocities (and thereby to provide Brontornis III with the grunt needed for fast outer-system travel, heavy pushing capacity, and everything else that’s part and parcel of the snowflaker’s wish list) are studded in turn by the dozens of demountable nacelles that contain the nav drives for our cometary quarry. Forward of the life-bubble, it’s sensor central, arrayed around the blunt prong of the ship’s comet-pusher. The sum total of all this hardware (which I’ve heard Sylv describe memorably as a scaled-up version of the world’s least well-designed bowling trophy) makes the ship a pig of a thing to maneuver, but distances out here are so huge it’s hardly a drawback—any comet we detect, with the appropriate mix of mass and velocity credentials, we can make rendezvous well enough, and all that tech provides ample shielding, for Sylv and I, from cosmic rays. The only sense in which we’re disadvantaged is on the human timescale: snowflake hunting is slow.
First couple of EVAs, I’d sightsee. But out here at the edge of night, there’s nothing to search for, naked-eye, other than the annoying spotlight of Sol: bright enough still to blind but too feeble to put much of a shine on the plutoids and other KBOs. Besides, that’s hardly the purpose of this exercise. I’m simply taking space, partaking of a solitude that, within Brontornis III’s lifebubble, just isn’t available. Ever. Sylv copes by a retreat into virtdom; I cope by placing myself one suit’s thickness away from cold, unforgiving oblivion. It seems to work.
Bron niggles me after, it turns out, forty-three minutes. I’d been hoping for an hour, at least. But Sylv has a complaint.
* * *
“Problem? I ask, not bothering to disguise the edge in my voice. I still grip the helmet in my hand, to emphasize the sense of intrusion I feel.
“Erebus,” Sylv answers.
“It’s not where it should be.”
“Pluto’s fourth-largest moon. Well, third-largest moon of the Pluto-Charon system, really. Bron couldn’t find it for a bit. It’s there, but it’s almost a quarter-orbit back from where it should be.”
“We’re talking what size body here?”
“Twenty-eight km on its longest axis.”
“So, really, nothing to panic about? Just how is this a problem? More specifically, how does this come to be our problem?”
“It’s a puzzle. These things don’t just move of their own accord, Trace.”
“I’d put it down to a tidal effect. Or maybe even an inaccuracy in the records. I mean, jeez, Sylv, we’re pretty much in the back-of-back-of-beyond out here. When was the last time anyone even sent a probe here?”
“Over fifty years,” Sylv concedes. “But P-C was visited several times, first half of the 2100s, before it moved too far above the ecliptic. It’s been mapped, Trace. It’s been measured and weighed and analysed for composition, and the orbit’s been nailed down to plenty of precision. But here and now, it’s not where it’s supposed to be.”
“I do not see, at all, why you’re letting yourself get sidetracked by this. We’re supposed to be snowflake hunting, not scoping out orbital anomalies.”
“Check Bron’s almanac, you don’t believe me.”
“It’s not a matter of belief, sis—Sylv—it’s a question of priorities. We need to make quota, and this … diversion won’t help us with that. File an ISU report, hells, pass a message to the Reinstate Pluto League if it’ll keep you happy, and let’s be done with it.”
“I take your point. I guess.”
“Good. I’m going to get some sack. How ‘bout you get this bird beak-forward and back on the hunt, while I’m down?”
“I guess. Any particular heading?”
“What’s wrong with the one Bron had us on, before … this? S/he seems to have at least as good instincts as you or I.”
“I guess. Good downtime.”
* * *
Sleep’s not brilliant, but the meds help. What doesn’t is the gradual realization that the boost profile we’re on is still a decel. “Sis?” Three meters; there really isn’t any need to raise my voice. But on the other hand …
“Look, I know you’re going to take this as a betrayal of trust, but—”
“You think? Jeez, Sylv, I thought we agreed.”
“No, you agreed. Like you always do, and just expect me to follow.”
“Don’t make this about me. You know damn well I’m acting in both of our best interests. We don’t make quota—”
“Yeah, well, what if we don’t make quota? What then, Trace? We lose the ship. There. Say it. We lose the ship. We’ll find something else. And it could all happen whether or not we go the extra mile, like you’re always pushing for.”
“Sylv …” She’s got me outflanked, somehow, and I still can’t figure out how. I forgot my own Rule Number Three: never start an argument before coffee. “You just need to focus. We both need to focus.”
“What, you’re still pushing this? So it’s in the wrong place—report it, and move on. Jeez, Syl—”
“No, it’s not in the wrong place—I mean it is, still, but that’s not … it’s not right. There’s something not right about it.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“The spectrum’s all up the spout. And Bron can’t be sure, yet, still two AU away and all that, but it looks like it’s the wrong size, or the wrong shape, or both.”
“It’s had a collision, most likely. Shit happens. Look, Sylv, we really need to keep—”
“It’s keeping orbit, just back from where it should be. And if it’s missing a significant chunk, a collision that big would have totally knocked it out of whack. And Bron says the models all suggest it’s held orbit for the past four-plus billion. Trace, I think we’re on to something here. I have no idea what, but—”
“What do you mean, missing a significant chunk?”
“That’s what it looks like. What the light curve suggests. Bron’s still having trouble gathering enough photons, we’re too far out to be sure. Another day or two, we’ll have a better idea.”
“Another day or two?”
“Please, Trace. It really does look like there’s something off-whack with Erebus—I know it’s a detour, but …”
I sigh. “Two days. No more.”
* * *
One day. Two days. Three. We’re still, despite my previously stated opposition, en route to a Pluto flyby. Because now the anomaly of Erebus has got me hooked, to a degree. Sylv’s right: everything about the moon, other than the fact of its orbit between Nix and Hydra, is wrong. Wrong position, wrong spectra, wrong albedo, wrong mass, wrong rotation rate. It’s as if a cosmic cuckoo has pulled some kind of unfathomable switcheroo.
We’re still five days out. Closest approach, we’ll pass within twenty thousand kilometers of the satellite, travelling at sixty klicks per second. Sylv is still pushing for a full orbital insertion around Pluto, but the flyby’s as much of a compromize as I’m willing to countenance. Schedules. Quotas. And others of Sylv’s least-favorite words. (Reality.)
Five days, with Sylv playing irresistible force to my immovable object. But see it my way: we’re already significantly above the plane of the ecliptic, Pluto’s useless for grav-slingshot purposes, and there’s nothing in the forward sensors that looks even remotely promising. (At least the sensory cluster is once again looking ahead, rather than the counterproductive riding-shotgun attitude of the past few daycycles.)
And it’s not just a matter, once we’re done here, of finding a comet. Out here in the Kuiper, there are plenty of comets. We detect a new one every other month, close enough. But it’s chancing upon something small enough—thirteen point five kilometers diameter, no more; Mars is fussy about the maximum allowable size of impactors—and with orbital parameters sufficiently close to an inner-system trajectory to be worth the effort of velocity-matching, i-drive boosting, and aiming for the fringes of Hellas. (And all the time hoping that, in the meantime, the vested-interest brigades and the Martian politicos haven’t just decided to go back to the lower-volume, more dependable supply chain of Saturnian ring-chunks.) Two in a decade, like I said, and most other snowflakers haven’t managed that well.
When I’m not arguing with Sylv, I’m learning Finnish, because, well, why not? And submitting to the exercise sarco’s ministrations, and eating and sleeping—or at least what passes for such in the cramped low-impulse environs of the Brontornis III. Sylv, I have every reason to suspect, is spending each waking minute in contemplation of the planetary mystery towards which we’re heading. Whatever she’s thinking, I’m not buying in, because at least one of us needs to stay level-headed if we’re to come close enough to quota.
* * *
“No!” Sylv yells, loud enough that I’m awoken from downtime at least an hour ahead of schedule.
I’m on my feel in seconds, heart hammering, primed by instinct for flight. “What?” I ask, dry-mouthed, waiting for sleep’s morphing rorschach patterns to evaporate from my field of vision. “What is it?”
“This,” she replies, and directs me to the image on the wall. It’s a grey cylinder, looking almost black against the photon-multiplied glare of a grainy ice-dominated surface. I have no idea, really, what it is that I’m seeing.
“Uh … a little context, huh, Sylv? Take pity on the guy who’s just—what time is it, anyway?”
“This is Erebus. One hour ago. Taken three minutes out from closest approach.”
Something about Sylv’s manic intensity, the shock of being awoken, the look of whatever this object is: I’ve got goosebumps. I’ve missed out on anything from an hour to seven-and-a-half of downtime, and half of my mind is still mistaking this for REM time. The other half is wired. And whichever portion of my brain is yet capable of semi-rational processing is skidding back to the realization that Sylv only gets excited when she finds proof of the things that don’t exist. “What scale?” I ask. “Jeez, Sylv, that’s clearly a manufactured object.” I swallow. “We should brake, thread back, check this out.”
“I wouldn’t bother,” she replies, scribble-tracking a plectrum across Bron’s comm slate. The image sashays, enlarges. There are markings, angular, linear, lost almost to shadow across the clinder’s blunt end.
“Not bother? Why?”
“Erebus,” she hisses back. “That absolute, filthy, bottom-feeding little son of a lizard-fondling son of a bas—”
“Sylv, calm down. Breathe. What are you going on about?”
“Herriman. The bastard.”
“I’m still not with you.”
“I can magnify it enough for you to read the serial numbers, if you want. This is one of the boost-modules from old man Herriman’s ship,” she says. Has the audacity to roll her eyes when I’m still obviously none-the-wiser. “You really don’t get this?”
I shake my head.
“Erebus, one tenth the mass it’s supposed to be, and in the wrong place. Herriman finds a clutch of comets on his first tour out that no-one since has been able to emulate, and that’s formed the basis of the quotas Mars and Herriman’s have imposed on us ever since. And a stray booster from the Mystery Tramp, out here, well away from where Herriman claimed to have made his strike.” Sylv is white-knuckling the comm slate, breathing fiercely.
“You’re saying Herriman calved off Erebus, somehow, and passed the chunks off as cometary, to sell to Mars? How?”
“I’m not sure. But a surface-mounted i-drive would make a formidable cutting tool, and the Tramp had several demountables. And Erebus had pretty much accreted from a bunch of smaller pieces—it wouldn’t have been disintegration, so much, as disassembly. It might well have taken a week or two, but if nobody was keeping a close eye on Pluto at the time …”
“But the fuel needed to manouevre that much mass into a Marsward trajectory—”
“High, but not prohibitive. According to the sims Bron has run, it would have been doable on the resources aboard his vessel. Remember, the Tramp was the first of the big soot-drive ships, it would’ve had grunt to spare. Hell, so would we.”
“Actually, he probably engineered most of the breakup after the fact … left one smaller chunk hanging in orbit, used a Uranus slingshot flyby to shake the larger chunk into fragments small enough for Mars to accept. Would’ve been fiddly, but it could’ve made for a more straightforward boost task overall.”
“Yes, I know,” Sylv replies, saving me the trouble of figuring just what, exactly, it is that I think about all this. She stares.
“Sylv, we’ve got to beam this to the ISU … there’s got to be six or seven separate violations could be pinned on Herriman for something this—this underhanded. Treaty breaches, heritage-status strictures. I mean, you can’t just go ransacking the solar system like that …” And then, I guess, we’ll have bite the bullet and throw our lot back in with the ring-miners. Wonder who’ll end up with B3?
“Already on it,” she replies. “You want I should keep the beloved Davide in the loop?”
“No. Why spoil the surprise?”
She laughs at that. And something occurs to me. Hell, so would we.
“This whole … diversion. Just why did you want us to change course to bring us by Pluto-Charon?”
She moves her eyes down to the comm slate, and keeps them there. “Doesn’t matter,” she replies.
Simon Petrie is a New Zealand-born researcher in computational chemistry, now living in Canberra, Australia. His short fiction has previously appeared in Aurealis, Murky Depths, Sybil’s Garage, the Anywhere But Earth (Coeur de Lion, 2011) and Destination: Future (Hadley Rille Books, 2010) anthologies, and several other places; much of it has been gathered in his debut collection, Rare Unsigned Copy: tales of Rocketry, Ineptitude, and Giant Mutant Vegetables (Peggy Bright Books, 2010). He’s won NZ’s Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best New Talent, scored a Dishonourable Mention in last year’s Bulwer-Lytton awards, and is an active member of the Andromeda Spaceways publishing co-op, the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild, and the SpecFicNZ collective.