by Justin Stanchfield
(originally appeared in Colonies magazine)
"All hands...Brace for touch-down."
Jason Dahl knew the command. He buckled his shoulder harness so tight it hurt and grabbed the communication console. He closed his eyes, anticipating the hard landing ahead, but re-opened them at the last moment. Real spacers weren't scared of a few bumps and bruises. Four months aboard Pelican had taught him that much.
Numbers danced across his screen, meters dropping fast as the scavenger vessel made a controlled crash against the slowly rotating comet. One thud per landing gear, three in all. A low rumble tickled the seat of his pants as the anterior jets fired, driving the spiked legs deeper into the icy core of rock and frozen gas. Three seconds after touchdown, Captain Pellas was already calling for systems reports.
"Engines, all green."
"Communications," Jason replied, a little too loud. "Standing by." He knew the drill. Open the links with Mars and Earth and report the landing across the net. Routine. He could send the commands in his sleep by now. Captain Pellas sped past his station, pulling himself along the hand rail. This comet provided some gravity, like the others they had landed on, but not enough to permit normal walking.
"Alpha team, suit up." Pellas hung above the air-lock ladder. "Bravo team, get your gear ready. We've got a lot of lost time to make up." He fish-tailed, head down towards the lower deck. "Dahl?"
"Sir?" Jason's stomach jumped into his throat. For one shining moment, hope flared.
"Get on the background search. I want this rock claimed and filed before the shift is over."
"Yes, sir." Disappointed, he turned back to the comm-boards, angry with himself for letting his emotions shine through. The sound of harness buckles clicking open filled the air. Vic Perez, three years older and raised in space, slipped past.
"Have fun, Grounder." He kicked away, using Jason's own chair as a push-off.
Jason's face burned. "If he calls me that once more..."
"Take it easy, Jase." Amber Lord sailed by, soft, coppery hair billowing like a summer sunset. "You'll get your chance to go outside."
"Yeah? I've heard that before." Jason sank into his chair, ashamed for taking out his disappointment on the only friendly face aboard. "I'm sorry, Am. But I didn't give up a semester of school just to sit in front of a computer."
"Don't worry. This is the biggest comet we've hit so far. It's going to take a long time to break this one up. You'll get your turn. Promise." She crossed her heart before darting down the hole, leaving Jason alone on the flight deck.
The air was cold and stale, the stink of nine bodies cooped up too long inside a ship too small. Pelican was built with one purpose in mind. Finding comets and braking them up. Comfort was not a priority. Jason launched the search queries to determine if this core was, indeed, unclaimed by other miners. Message sent, he waited, annoyed for the millionth time how long it took radio waves to travel across empty space.
"Two unbreakable laws," he muttered. "The speed of light, and grounders don't go outside."
Grounder: Spacer slang. A person born on Earth or Mars. Alternate usage: One afraid of darkness or free-fall. A coward.
Jason hated being a grounder. Hated being the youngest aboard. Hated being the outsider among the close-knit crew. Three years of hard work and study, enough red tape to wrap an asteroid, and months waiting for a slot to open on an out-bound ship. All to sit a computer fourteen hours a day.
A light flashed on screen, incoming messages finally arriving. "'Bout time." Jason waited while the files loaded. "Come on, how long does it take to download one lousy comet?"
The screen-saver winked out, leaving a long, scrolling list of data. Numbers rolled, text jumping into separate windows. Jason had never seen so much information from a single reply. Obviously, Object EC1303 was no ordinary ball of ice. He read closer, something tugging at his memory. Then he saw it. This particular snowball had a name. His fingers trembled as he switched on the comm-link.
"Alpha leader, Pelican," he transmitted. "Captain, I've got the data on the rock."
Pellas's voice came back, clear and cold. "Please don't tell me this one is filed already?"
"No sir. She's free, but..." Jason tried to frame his next words. "Maybe you should have a look at this?"
"Just give me what you have."
"Yes sir." Jason swallowed. "This is a major comet, Captain, or at least it was. Before it broke apart in 2211, it was called Halley's Comet. It's one of the most famous in rocks in history."
"But it is unclaimed?" Pellas finally asked.
"Carry on then. Make sure you dot every i. I don't want it contested.. Pellas out."
Jason stared at the screen. The thought of braking up something this famous for reactant mass and helium unnerved him, as if they were robbing a tomb. The airlock cycled, pumps and motors shattering the flight-deck monotony. Someone on the deck below swore as they struggled out of their excursion suit. A few minutes later Amber floated through the hatch, a long blue t-shirt and fuzzy slippers over her thermal underwear.
"What's wrong, Jase? You look like somebody just stepped on your head."
"Did you hear what I told the Captain? About this comet?"
"Maybe he didn't understand." Jason said. "Maybe he misunderstood."
"I doubt it." She moved closer. Her hair was damp with sweat, plastered against her scalp. "If he said claim the rock, he means claim the rock."
"But, Amber...Don't you get it? This is Halley's comet.."
She drifted toward the galley. "Just the way it is. Sorry."
"Yeah, me too." His voice echoed on the empty fight-deck. "Me too."
No day or night aboard Pelican, only on-shift and off. Sleep in a net, a thin blanket pulled round your shoulders, trying to ignore your crew-mates. The music of the drills outside, droning against the rock, never ceased. Jason gave up and unclipped his sleep net. He shrugged into his rumpled blue fatigues, swearing under his breath as he tried to untangle the twisted sleeves. The numbers on his watch showed 03:37, a full two hours before he was scheduled to go back on shift. He pulled himself towards the head, half the ship away.
"Whoa, Grounder. You're up early." Vic Perez sailed out of the galley, coffee bulb in hand. "Ready for another fun filled day?"
"H,i Vic." Jason resented the confident way Perez moved in free-fall, resented his dark good looks and natural sense of humor. He especially resented the easy way Perez could talk to Amber without getting tongue tied. At twenty-one, Vic Perez was everything Jason wanted to be and knew he never would. Reason enough to dislike him.
"Hey, I hear we're breaking up a celebrity this time?"
Jason nodded. "Yeah. Halley's Comet. You ever hear of it?"
"Who hasn't? It was the one Edmund Halley predicted the orbit for way back in the paper and telescope days."
It annoyed Jason that Perez had down his homework. "Doesn't it bother you?"
"Should it? Just a big chunk of dirt now. Not enough volatiles left to leave a decent tail anymore, right?" Perez took a sip from his bulb. The aroma of strong black coffee washed through the chill air. "I'd rather break it up than see it smash into a ship or a station. Remember Aphrodite."
No spacer forgets Aphrodite. Venus's largest orbital settlement had been destroyed almost eighty years before by a chunk of broken comet falling sunward. Not a single telescope had picked it up before it slammed into the massive space station. Twelve hundred dead. No survivors. No spacer forgets. Jason sighed. "I still think there's got to be a better way."
"Hey, it's what we do for a living, remember?" Perez slipped towards the main deck. "Talk to the Old Man. See what he says."
"Yeah, right." Jason sighed. "I might as well try breathing vacuum."
"Somebody want to give me a hand down here?" Amber's voice rang out from the cargo hold. Jason bolted out of his seat, happy for a chance to move. He found her, hidden behind one of the massive thrust cones that would soon be anchored to the comet body. He dived next to her, braking his fall against the cold wall. Together they pushed the bulky engine towards the cargo lock. The engine might float for hours above the deck, light as a feather, but to move the ton and a half of steel and titanium required force. And at the moment, the only force available was Jason and Amber.
"Thanks." Amber wiped the sweat off her forehead, tiny droplets spinning away, perfect spheres in the low gravity. "Help me strap it down, okay?"
"How's it going out there?"
"Right on line," Amber passed a sinewy cord over the top of the engine. "We should start blasting sometime shift after next. My guess? We'll be falling home in about three weeks."
Jason thought about the numbers. He knew the procedure. Find the comets, blast away the loose portions that could break off in transit, then attach engines near the center of gravity. Wells drilled deep into the ancient ice would tap the gasses trapped inside, using them for fuel. Slowly, year after year, the comet's orbit would be changed, sending it towards refineries orbiting Earth's moon or Venus. Pelican's work would be done in a matter of weeks, but it would take the core more than twenty years to reach its ultimate doom inside the huge smelters.
"Amber? Do you think what we're doing is right?"
"Chopping up Halley's Comet?" She tended to look away when she was thinking, as if she could see through the walls. "I don't know. I mean, it is a big piece of history. But the solar system is getting crowded. Comets like this get pretty erratic once they start breaking up. Sooner or later it's going to hit something." She shrugged. "Guess I'd rather save lives than history."
He slumped against the wall. If there had been one person aboard he might have won over, it was Amber. "I suppose you're right." He headed back for his solitary exile on the flight deck. "If you need me, just yell. You know where I'll be...forever."
"Thanks Jase." Her laughter followed him up the stairwell, holding back, for the moment, the darkness building inside him.
A plan was hatching. More of an idea really, a tickle in the back of his mind. But the longer Jason thought about it, the more it made sense. If the comet was for sale, why not sell it to someone who didn't intend to boil it off or smelt it down. Nervous as a cat, he drafted a message:
>From: Pelican-November Sierra Seven Zero Echo.
>Currently landed on ECO1303<
>To all concerned:<
>Have found Comet Halley, portion Bravo.<
>Will sell intact to highest bidder.<
>End of Message<
His hands shook, over shooting as he highlighted the long list of addresses. Addresses like the Martian Historical Society, and the Planetary Preservation League. Names like NewsNet and System Wide, the loudest of the info-networks flashing copy from planet to planet. He'd grown up on Earth. He knew what kind of hornet nest he was about to stir up once this hit the news.
He moved the pointer above Send. His index finger bounced on top of the button, a cold burst of indecision slithering down his spine. It left him hollow inside. His eyes darted around the empty flight deck. Everyone was either outside, sleeping, or working in the equipment shop.
He took a deep breath and repositioned the pointer.
Something banged the panel above him. Jason jumped, the stylus flying out of his nervous grip. He spun in his seat, his stomach doing flips. No faces lurked behind him, no prying eyes invaded. He relaxed as another thump reverberated through the cabin. The auxiliary fuel tank was doing an automatic stir of the cryogenic fuels. Laughing at his own fear, he retrieved the stylus and sent the message. Nothing to do now but wait.
Heart pounding, Jason spun his chair around. The Captain hovered less than a meter away. "Sir?"
A glint of something resembling humor lurked in the Old Man's eyes. "Why don't you suit up. I've got a lot of paperwork to catch up on, and they could use another hand outside."
Jason was inside his excursion suit before it dawned on him. In his excitement at actually going out he had forgotten the messages he'd just sent. If he wasn't manning the boards, someone else would be...and if someone else received the replies, there was going to be serious hell to pay.
Sick, frigid dread stole the thrill from his first space walk. Worried beyond caring, more nervous about the messages than thousand things that could go wrong outside Pelican's safe shell, he stepped into the airlock.
His helmet banged the low hatch-frame. His chest was tight, every breath a conscious act. He slammed the wide, red button marked EXIT. The air inside was sucked away, leaving only a trace to rush out like tiny cirrus clouds as the door slid open, framing a picture straight out of his dreams. A final check of his suit, and Jason Dahl stepped onto the uneven surface of the cold, dead comet.
"What have I gotten myself into."
Jason couldn't remember working so hard in his life. Rivers of sweat poured down his forehead, pooling on his nose. Crate after crate of explosives were waiting to be carried from the ship to the line of holes being drilled in the loose matrix of primordial ice. Trip by trip, Jason strapped the crates to his drag sled, pulling himself along the network of safety line strung across the tiny world. The horizon stretched in front of him, so close he could almost look over the top at the unshielded stars beyond.
"How are you doing, Grounder?" Vic's voice sounded in his head set. "You need some help with those?"
"Nah, I'm fine." Jason tried to hide his ragged breathing. With exaggerated care, he began unloading the sled, strapping the explosives down with a stakes and netting.
"Hey, don't worry about the C4," Vic said. "It's the detonators that'll blow your hands off."
"I'll try to keep that in mind. Where do you want the next batch?"
He waited for a reply. None came. Concerned, he turned around, clumsy in the stiff excursion suit. It took a moment for his mind to process the data his eyes were sending. Vic hung above the drill, slowly revolving. Something was wrong with his faceplate. It was silvered, reflecting the distant sun rising above the far side of the comet. Realization stormed through Jason's brain. Vic's neck seal was leaking.
Hurrying faster than he should have, he shoved Perez away from the dangerous drill, nearly bouncing them both into deep space. They tumbled together, snapping against the safety lines. Jason gathered Vic's tether and wrapped it around his own belt.
Vic banged against him, hampering his movement as Jason strained hand over hand on the thin cable, rushing towards the airlock more than eight hundred meters away. Jets of compressed air spurted from Vic's faulty seal, condensing directly into ice on his helmet.
"Hang on Vic! Hang on!" He heard a mumble, a frightened moan in his headset. Jason pulled harder, struggling to remember the thousand different items on the emergency check-list. Switching his frequency to Pelican's, he blurted out a fast transmission. "Pelican, Dahl. Mayday, mayday, mayday! Man down."
Captain Pellas's voice came on line, worried but rock steady. "Dahl, what's your location?"
"Uh, lee..." Jason fought for breath, arms aching with the strain of pulling both himself and Vic. "Lee side of ship, three hundred meters from main lock."
Shapes moved into range, crew mates rushing to assist. Floodlights from the ship picked them out, brightening the path. The airlock cycled open, a soundless blast of atmosphere escaping in a glittering cloud of ice crystals. Lungs burning, Jason shoved Vic into the cramped lock, crowding to the side to make room. The outer door sealed, the inner one opened. Stronger, more experienced hands pulled Vic inside, scrambling to peel off his excursion suit.
It was crowded inside the staging deck. Jason stayed out of the way, hiding in the shadows. Every breath came hard, his faceplate fogged so badly he couldn't see. His own O2 gauge, a thin line of LEDs inside his visor, glowed red. He had almost emptied his tank in the effort. Shaking like a child, he undid the helmet seal. Warm, fresh air rushed in. Sweat drenched, he approached the crowd working on Vic, hovering nervously out of the way.
"Is he...is he alive?"
Amber looked up. "Yeah. He's breathing fine. Must have been just enough air flowing through his regulator to keep him alive. Another minute, though..." She let the words sink in.
Captain Pellas straightened and rubbed his neck as Amber and the others led Vic off to Pelican's med-station. He turned. "Well Dahl, how does it feel to have saved a life?"
All hands turned out for supper, crowding the galley beyond capacity. Vic arrived, face and neck spotted with frostbite, weak but otherwise healthy. He let himself drift through the crowd, taking the good natured teasing he deserved for having been careless. He stopped his slow flight next to Jason. Smiling, he put out his hand.
Amber appeared from the galley, a transparent drinking bulb in her hand. A chalky beige liquid roiled and fizzed inside. Captain Pellas took it from her, handing it with great ceremony to Jason. "Drink up Dahl. Consider this your initiation."
"What's in it?"
"You'd rather not know."
Every eye followed the uninviting concoction towards his mouth. Jason hesitated before tipping the bulb, finally taking a swallow. He almost spit it out. "That's the worst stuff I ever tasted!"
"Welcome to space, Grounder," Vic said. Everyone shook his hand or clapped his shoulder, welcoming him into the exclusive family called Spacers. For the first time in four long months, Jason belonged. He crawled into his sleeping net that night satisfied with the universe in general, and fell asleep dreaming of the unshielded stars, the messages he'd sent already forgotten.
Amber roused him out of a deep sleep. "Jase? Wake up. The Old Man wants to see you."
Groggy, he sat up, trying to sort out the situation. The ship was quiet, the normal hums and rattles comfortably present. "What's wrong? Is it the ship?"
Amber wouldn't meet his gaze. "Get dressed. He's on the flight deck."
He scrambled into his clothes, pulling his slip boots over cold feet. His head was fuzzy, sleep starved eyes squinting as he entered the flight deck. Captain Pellas waited in front of the communication console, rigid as steel. Amber hung by the stairwell, refusing to say a word. Nervous, Jason approached Pelican's commander.
"Sir? You wanted to see me?"
Pellas turned. His arm moved slowly, deliberately, pointing at the monitor. "Mister Dahl, did you send this message?"
Jason didn't need to look at the screen. A blank, dead weight settled over him, crushing him from the inside. "Yes sir."
"Yes sir." His voice was on the edge of breaking. "I sent it last shift."
Wordless now, the Captain touched the keyboard. Another window opened. A stark white fax, the seal of the Planetary Commerce Commission emblazoned across the top, filled the screen. Miles of legal terms scrolled past, ending with a single, bold typed word printed in glaring red: Injunction.
"Do you know what that is, Mister Dahl?"
He nodded. "It's a Stop Work Order, isn't it?" He wanted to throw himself to the deck and beg. Instead, he clenched his fists, steadying himself against the handrail, desperate not to float away. "I'm sorry, Captain. I never thought this would happen."
The Captain's words were deadly calm, softer than silk, more terrible than thunder. "Consider yourself relieved of duty. You are confined to quarters for the duration of this flight." A single vein pounded below Pellas hard set jaw. "Ms. Lord, escort Mister Dahl to his berth."
Amber led him away. She stopped outside the barren, coffin sized cube he'd been assigned when he joined the crew. "You're allowed to go the head unescorted. You are also allowed one hour of unsupervised exercise on the treadmill per shift."
Jason was nauseous. His stomach threatened to burst out his throat. He shivered, never having felt so cold in all his life. "Look, Am, I wasn't thinking, okay? I was just trying to keep a piece of history from being chopped up for scrap. I never thought they'd go so far as an injunction." His eyes blurred. "I'm sorry."
Her eyes met his, bitterness and hurt stabbing deep. She looked like a child just told that her kitten had died. "A little late for sorry, don't you think?" She drifted away, leaving him in hell.
Time hung, not in minutes or hours, but in thousands of broken strands, twisted like a shattered spring. Over and over, Jason ran through his actions until his head throbbed. He tried to sleep, tried to relax, tried to find any distraction. His reader sat untended next to him, the books and magazines he'd loaded before the trip long since finished. Somehow, he didn't think anyone would be willing to loan him any of their own discs for a while.
Knuckles rapped against the open doorframe. Vic Perez hung upside down, a ration box in his hand. "Figured you might be getting hungry." He grabbed the doorsill, pulling himself over like a gymnast. "Amber sent this for you."
Jason sat upright. "Amber sent it? Think it's safe to eat?"
Vic laughed. "Aw, she'll get over it. We all will I guess, sooner or later. Thought you might want to know, a university on Earth bought out our claim on the rock for ten percent over market price."
Jason's hopes raised. "That's good, isn't it?"
"We won't get rich, but yeah, it's okay."
The box felt solid in his hand, the food warm from the microwave. He lifted the lid. The scent of brown gravy drifted out. To his surprise, he was hungry. "I don't suppose Captain Pellas is going to change his mind and let me rejoin the crew?"
"I wouldn't hold my breath." Vic leaned against the door. "Point is, out here all we've got is each other, see? We can't be going behind somebody's back every time things don't go our way. And we take the Captain's orders at face value. We have to."
"I know. I didn't think it through all the way." Jason set the box aside, clipping it to the wall with a velcro strap. "Guess I really screwed myself up, didn't I?"
"Probably." Vic's mouth twisted into a grin. " Just ask yourself one question. If you could do it over, would you?"
He turned the question in his mind, twisting it around. "Yeah, I guess I would."
"Well, there's your answer." Vic pushed off from the wall, speeding aft. "See you around, Grounder."
"Right." Jason smiled sadly. "See you around."