ELUL 21, 5820
TORUS, SECTOR 30377, DATUM 43812
I love turbulence.
I also love undercooked beef, sand that gets into my bathing suit, long lines at spaceports, and fissionable nuclear material in the hands of interplanetary terrorists.
"How much longer?" Lynn shouted.
"Just a few more minutes," Marvin replied.
"You said that half an hour ago!" Lynn wailed. "Are you flying this ship or aren't you?"
"Dust cover's not thick enough." Marvin tapped at his console, only dimly aware of the people lying next to him. "We have to find a solid patch before launching."
I asked, "So we're going to wait for the worst turbulence, and then drop right into the middle of it?"
"I love you, Marvin," I said. "I want to have your jicking children."
Since leaving Luna, we had been traveling inside Hermes 549, which, as far as anybody outside U.N.I.A. knew, carried no passengers. But we couldn't fly a cargo ship outside ferry lanes without arousing suspicion. That's what our loneboat, Gary Indiana, was for. And that's why we had flown into one of the biggest dust storms in the solar system.
The rocks and dust now battering Hermes had been dumped half a century ago, industrial waste from early mining operations in the Torus. The clouds of debris which hadn't disintegrated or crashed into something had eventually clustered together and settled into stable orbits. They might form planetoids in a few million years if left alone. In the meantime, people had taken to calling them "dust storms", since that's what they look like.
Thanks to U.N.S.F.'s ongoing cartography, everyone knows where the "storms" are and where they're going. Most ships avoid them -- it's generally a bad idea to fly directly into a large collection of sharp rocks. But if you have a sturdy enough vehicle, interplanetary dust clouds can be very good places to hide.
Of course, that still doesn't mean it's a good idea. I don't know how many times U.N.I.A. had tried this particular stunt, but I knew Marvin had never done it before, and though I had every confidence in his ability as a pilot, I was still scared witless.
"Eighty-eight percent," Erika said.
"All right," Marvin said. "Rock and roll."
There was no air in Hermes' cargo bay, but we could feel the metal creaking as the loading doors opened, and the dust impacts vibrating through the hull. The jittering grew more violent.
Gary lurched backward, falling toward the open cargo doors and stopping with a jolt. I winced as the safety harness bit into my shoulder.
"What? What was that?" Lynn yelled.
"Sorry," Marvin said. "Mooring's loose. Hold on --"
Peter lifted his arm and placed a hand on Marvin's shoulder.
"Let's go," said Peter.
"Yes!" Lynn agreed. "Let's jicking go! Go!"
Marvin looked over his console and exhaled. His finger lifted, barely a millimeter off the console, then fell again. I saw light shining through his fingernail. Something beeped above my head.
The shaking stopped. My stomach surged into my chest.
Gary Indiana was falling free.
On the vid, I saw the inside of Hermes' cargo bay moving away from us. Then the engines kicked in, and I felt my eyes flattening against my frontal lobe. I had to blink a few times before the vid image came back into focus.
We were now pacing the cloud as it orbited the Sun. Hermes accelerated away from us, its engines kicking dust back in lazy spirals. All the other rocks around us were frozen in place against the stars and the void. Like gems on black velvet.
"Pretty," I said.
I looked at my fellow passengers. Everyone was frozen in place, disoriented by the sudden silence. Lynn opened her eyes, one at a time, and sighed.
"I need a drink," she grumbled.
It was hours before we started moving again, leaving the storm, and I was glad to be going. A mist of very small rocks floating around you may seem magical at first, but after a while, it's just weird. I even took some comfort from the sound of dust pounding away at Gary's hull. Noise may be obnoxious, but at least it's familiar. Sound means air; air means life; life is good.
Slowly, like a fading thunderstorm, the pinging and clanging subsided, and the vid image once again showed more black than bright. We were back in open space. Marvin made the formal announcement, and Lynn practically flew out of her seat, ignoring Randall completely.
I had unbuckled myself and was following Peter below when I saw Erika leaning close to Marvin, pointing at his console.
"We came out a bit steep," she said quietly.
"Nothing to be done now," he said. "Besides, if anybody killed us at this range, it would be over before you could blink."
Erika scowled. "Thanks for the good news."
After another day in the accursed Tank, we were decelerating on final approach to Target Alfa.
"Think we'll find anything out there?" Randall asked, staring at a live vid image of the asteroid.
Marvin shrugged, nursing a cup of coffee. "A big rock."
"Mostly nickel and copper, with trace amounts of other metals," Peter read off his hand 'puter.
Randall shook his head. "I mean, anything the aliens left behind."
"No radiation. Normal surface albedo," Peter continued.
"Frankly, I'm not sure I believe all this talk of aliens," Marvin said.
"What do you mean, you don't believe it?" Lynn said.
"I mean I'm not convinced. I admit the possibility of extraterrestrial life, but without any evidence, I can't make a positive determination."
Peter said, "Belief precludes proof. Believing in this mission doesn't necessarily mean you believe its premise. It just means that you believe you're doing the right thing."
"You're such a killjoy, Peter," Lynn sighed.
"Enough sanctimonious philosophizing. To work, my friends!"
A couple of hours in a simulator is never enough to prepare you for anything. Not driving a car, not shooting a gun, and definitely not piloting your untethered, spacesuited self around an asteroid using pressurized gas jets. Which is why Marvin went solo on Alfa. A rock that small doesn't have enough gravity to walk on.
"Looks pretty ordinary so far," he said.
"Keep looking," Lynn replied.
Randall watched, mesmerized, as Marvin piloted his jetpack over the rocky surface. Lynn cozied up to Randall, intensely interested in whatever he was babbling about. Erika, piloting, kept Gary at station-keeping. Peter and I scanned the radar screens.
"So Marvin, how much would you bet against us finding some aliens out here?" Randall chirped.
"I can't take your money, Randall. It wouldn't be proper."
"What kind of odds are you giving?" Lynn asked.
"Are you using the Drake Equation?" Peter asked.
"With what value for the cosmological constant?" Erika asked.
Lynn gave Peter and Erika a strange look.
After three hours of fruitless searching, just as Randall was about to suggest blasting Target Alfa in half to get a look inside, the communications console began squawking.
Gary had picked up a broadcast on the astro vehicle emergency channel, and the 'puter was programmed to auto-play any radio transmissions received at that frequency. Lynn spoke the language: Japanese. The message was a distress call.
"Okunaka Maru," she translated, holding a headset to her ear. "It's a supply ship ... commercial ... carrying potable water." She glanced down at a navigation display, tapped a few buttons. "They're about half a million kilometers away." She read off some coordinates.
"What are they doing way out there?" said Randall.
"Skyscraper," said Erika. Quintex and Ariane's bright idea -- build a space station outside of the ecliptic plane and avoid traffic. That's what they said about ground highways back in the twentieth century.
"Yeah." Lynn nodded. "They're six days out of Star Hayakawa. Ninety minutes ago, they were struck by two fast-moving objects that ruptured their main engine bell and cargo hold. They're drifting now."
Randall frowned and looked at me. "Why would you need people on a water freighter?"
"It's probably a multipurpose shuttle," Erika said.
"Life support undamaged. They've got air and water, but no navigation or propulsion control. Twenty hours of air left. The message repeats." Lynn put the headset down. "What's our E.T.A.?"
Erika started to reply, but Peter cut her off, saying, "We're not going."
There was a pause. Then Marvin's voice, hissing over the loudspeakers: "What do you mean, we're not going?"
"Nobody knows we're out here. Nobody is supposed to know we're out here. This is a Top Secret field trip, remember?"
"This is a distress call," Lynn said. "Those people will die --"
"Those people may die." Peter's eyes had grown hard and glassy. "If we try to rescue them, we will compromise the security of this mission. Someone else will hear that distress signal."
"Who the hell else is close enough to do anything about it? We can't just ignore them," Marvin said.
Peter paused, walked over to the comm panel, and spoke clearly into the microphone. "Don't make me leave you out there, Marvin."
In another situation, we would all have laughed. We might even have moved the ship away, pretending to leave Marvin behind, then come back for him ten minutes later. Lynn has been known to talk people into doing far more outrageous things.
"Understood?" Peter asked.
May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble; may the name of the G-d of Jacob defend you, send you help from the sanctuary, and grant you support from Zion; may he remember all your offerings, and accept your burnt sacrifice.
"Understood," replied Marvin's voice.
"How much longer are you out there?"
"There's nothing here."
"Time to go, then."
Copyright © 2000 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.