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7: We Happy Few

ELUL 25, 5820
0900 ZULU
TORUS, SECTOR 81162, DATUM 00725

I love coffee.

It took nearly three days to get from Target Bravo, where we had found nothing, to Target Charlie, where we expected to find more nothing. Everyone was starting to cramp up, physically and mentally, by the time we got out of our respective Tanks.

We had each developed distinct "morning" routines. Randall did calisthenics, stretching and flexing in his underwear. Lynn hung around Randall, asking for fitness advice and no longer making much of an effort to disguise her advances. Randall didn't seem to mind.

Peter went straight to the telecom station to send a vid message to his family. Erika sat next to him, coding our report to Othello. And Marvin and I made coffee. Lots of coffee.

Now, it's not like I'm addicted to caffeine or anything. I don't need it to wake me up. I can stop any time I want. I just don't want.

What some people don't understand is that coffee isn't just a drink. It's got history, culture, a palpable human spirit behind it. Every bean has a story to tell. Take one sip, and you can feel the warmth of entire civilizations.

In our cramped little spacecraft, coffee was the only thing that felt like home, and I clung to it.

While Marvin complained about the poor quality of the first pot of coffee, the rest of us sucked down the ritual bitterness. When Peter was done sending his message, he switched the monitor over to the receiving antenna array.

It had been five days since the Europa massacre, said the news reporter on our vid. U.N.S.F. had rescued what survivors it could -- less than a hundred -- and was still trolling the region for bodies. Almost three hundred people were unaccounted for. The confirmed death toll stood at over five thousand U.N. personnel and civilians.

Several survivors gave tearful accounts of their experiences. Another, who refused to appear on camera, had provided a written record, which was read aloud with great gravity by the anchorwoman. Unnamed sources indicated that U.N.I.A. had reconstructed footage of the battle from a U.N.S.F. corvette's black box, but were not making it available until the military could finish analyzing it.

"I wonder if Abby Maitland's working on that," Peter said to himself.

Marvin's pocket started beeping. He tacked his coffee grinder to a velcro strip on the galley wall and pulled a hand 'puter out of his flight suit. He had it set to echo most of the displays in the cockpit.

"Proximity alert," he said, without even looking at the screen. "Welcome to Target Charlie, ladies and -- whoa."

He had finally looked down at the display in his palm, and now his eyes widened, then narrowed under a frown. He tapped at the 'puter with determined fingers.

"What is it?" Randall asked, floating up behind Marvin to look over his shoulder. "Whoa! Is that the radar?"

"That's the radar," Marvin said.

Lynn waved her hands to get their attention. "Okay, boys, time to share."

She had started calling Marvin and Randall "the boys" based on their extreme and often uncalled-for excitability during the past week. Every time the ship's computer made a noise, the two of them zipped to the nearest console to see what it was. I suspect they had different reasons, though -- Randall because he was genuinely hoping to meet an alien, and Marvin to make sure we weren't about to get blown up by a hostile attack or a stray rock.

I covered my smile with a bulb of coffee and sipped. Seven days ago, any of those occurrences would have seemed nearly impossible. Now I wasn't sure which one was most likely, and therefore most deserving of my worry. I figured I'd just have to multitask between dreading each of them in turn. I'm Jewish. It comes naturally.

And always, in the back of my mind if not the front, there was my family. It wasn't that I didn't love them and want to see them once a year; I just sometimes wished they wouldn't make things so complicated. There were enough demands on my time and attention without wondering how many embarrassing questions my mother would dump on me within five minutes of my stepping through their door. No, Ima, I don't have a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend. No, I like my hair the way it is, thanks. Yes, I'm watching what I eat.

Marvin pulled himself down to the communications console on one side of the galley and docked his hand 'puter to the data port. The newscast on the wall screen dissolved into a false-color image of the asteroid we knew as Target Charlie, floating in a black void and bordered by coded numbers and letters.

The asteroid itself showed up in a few different colors, from red to orange to yellow, indicating how much of the active radar signal those parts of the rock were reflecting. But almost directly in the center of that colorful blotch was a perfectly round, blinding white dot.

"What is that?" I heard myself asking.

I'm not a radar technician, but even I know that natural formations tend to scatter or absorb radar because of their irregular shapes and porous material composition. Artificial objects reflect much more radiation, which is what makes them easy to distinguish. But even manned spacecraft, which are required to have a certain minimum surface albedo, didn't shine as bright as what we were seeing.

"That," Peter said, "is what we've been looking for."

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here....

Marvin maneuvered Gary Indiana down to hover just a few hundred meters from the surface of Target Charlie, matching our velocity and rotation to the asteroid. He turned on our ship's exterior floodlights and trained them on the area where the radar had seen a round, reflecting blob. It seemed like we were hovering above it, not flying through space at who knows how many millions of kilometers per hour.

The sphere looked like a polished silver marble. Gnarled fingers of rock curled around it, as if some giant had bent the asteroid around the sphere to hold it in place.

"Nothing," Randall said, looking through our only optical telescope. "Not a scratch or a dent. How is that possible?"

"Probably means it hasn't been out here that long," Marvin said over the radio. He and Erika were in the airlock, preparing for their EVA.

"But there should be something," Randall protested. "This rock is spinning, and there's debris and dust flying all around the Torus. Even if it was put here yesterday, it should show some signs of wear."

"Unless the material is damage-resistant," Erika said, "or self-repairing."

"What kind of material would that be?" Randall asked. "This is it, isn't it? We've really found an alien artifact!"

"We'll see," said Peter.

"Be careful," Lynn said. The airlock indicator turned from yellow to green, and we saw Erika waving to the security camera before she turned and followed Marvin out. Their life support umbilicals unspooled behind them.

I checked Gary's attitude settings again. I didn't want our ship to suddenly fly away and drag Marvin and Lynn off the rock. The tethers fed them oxygen and electricity, allowing them to wear less bulky spacesuits without backpacks, but it meant we had to stay at stationkeeping until they came back in. Peter and I hadn't said anything out loud, but as the two best pilots on board, we both felt a responsibility to keep an eye on the controls.

I could see Randall out of the corner of my eye, bouncing all around the back of the cockpit, from telescope to scanner and back. His energy was infectious. The problem was that the rest of us were expressing it as anxiety rather than excitement.

I turned back to the controls, then looked at Peter. He had a huge grin on his face, and his finger hovered over the radio controls.

I knew what he was going to do. I grimaced theatrically and said, "Please, have mercy."

"In a time of war?" he said, hit the transmit button, and started making noises that could be generously interpreted as singing. "Giant steps are what you take, walking on the moon..."

Lynn covered her ears and howled, trying to drown him out. The expression on Randall's face was priceless. I was laughing so hard, I almost couldn't hear Marvin on the radio.

"I'm turning off my radio now," he said, "because, you know, if my ears start bleeding, it's going to make a terrific mess inside my helmet, and then I won't be able to see, and it'll just be a scene."

"Walking on, walking on the moon," Erika sang, trying to harmonize with Peter. It wasn't easy, since he didn't stay in the same key for more than two or three notes at a time.

"You're not helping," Marvin said.

They shut up when Marvin and Erika touched down on the asteroid, and Lynn reminded Peter that she was carrying a loaded sidearm. Randall switched the main screen in the cockpit to a split feed from Marvin's and Erika's helmet cameras as they approached the sphere.

"Unbelievable," Erika said, holding up her portable radar unit so we could all see the readout. "That's nearly one hundred percent. Perfectly reflective. It's got to be artificial."

"And it gives us a problem," Marvin said. "How do we cut it out of the rock? I'm not firing a laser anywhere near that thing."

"Let's not do anything yet," Peter said. "Not until we know a little more. Erika, can you tell if that's a solid surface or some kind of energy field?"

Lynn frowned at me. She wouldn't say anything to contradict Peter, but she had to share her disbelief with somebody. I shrugged.

"There's one way to find out," Erika said.

From Marvin's camera, we saw her rummage through the equipment bag slung across her torso and pull out a collapsible cane. It was telescoping steel rod, with a "T" at one end for a handgrip and what looked like a miniature meat tenderizer at the other end, to probe and catch into terrain that might be uneven.

She extended the cane to its full length, just over a meter, and stepped forward slowly. She and Marvin had to move carefully in the asteroid's low gravity to avoid going too far too fast, or launching themselves off the surface.

Nobody said a word as Erika reached her left hand out to Marvin, who grabbed and held it with both arms, and extended her right arm with the cane toward the silver sphere.

The steel probe at the tip touched the mirrored surface and stopped. She bent one leg and leaned forward, pressing the cane into the sphere. It didn't move. The surface of the object didn't dimple or show any sort of physical reaction. All we saw was the curved but otherwise flawless reflection of Erika's spacesuit.

She pulled her arm back, and Peter leaned forward to say something. Erika raised the cane and smacked it against the sphere four times in quick succession.

"What the jick!" Marvin yelled, pulling her back.

"Just checking," Erika said.

"Please don't do that again," Peter said. Lynn looked like she was about to faint.

"Sorry," Erika said. "I should have warned you all, I guess."

"You think?" Lynn squeaked.

"It seemed like the next logical thing to test," Erika said. "It didn't react to an application of static force, so..."

"Okay, we're not in a hurry," Peter said. "Let's talk this through. What do we think we're dealing with here?"

"This rock's definitely been melted," Marvin said, running his own portable scanner over the edges of the sphere. "Somebody put this thing here."

"That's a good start," Peter said. "So, why did they put it here?"

"It certainly wasn't to hide it," Randall said. "The sphere reflects radar like crazy. I'm surprised nobody found it before now."

"There's something else," Marvin said, and tapped at his scanner.

"Enough with the dramatic pauses! Just tell us," Lynn said.

"Sorry. I just want to make sure I'm reading this right." Marvin held up his scanner so Erika and her camera could see it. "This is the edge of the rock, where it meets the sphere, and the surface a few centimeters to the right. Look at the texture of the rock."

Now I was getting impatient. "Yeah, it's been bombarded by dust and debris for as long as it's been out here. What's unusual about that?"

"The hits are evenly distributed," Erika said. "Right up to the edge."

I looked closer at the vid image. It reminded me of the surface of the Moon, but on a smaller scale and blackish-brown instead of gray. I saw tiny pits and craters, densely but randomly placed all over the rock, and -- like Erika had said -- evenly. It took years for all those individual impacts to create the Swiss-cheese texture of the surface, and melting the rock around the sphere would have removed it.

"What does that mean?" Lynn asked. I suspect she knew the answer, but needed to hear it from someone else. It was pretty hard to believe.

"It means this sphere has been here for a while," Peter said, more calmly than I would have.

"Quite a while," Marvin said. "We're talking decades, maybe even centuries. This rock is igneous, which means it was thrown out of a volcano, probably from Io. It started out hot and would have cooled smooth in zero-gee. It takes a lot of micrometeoroid hits to produce that." He jabbed a finger at his sensor display.

"Or a lot of work," I said, before realizing I had even opened my mouth.

Peter turned his head to look at me. I felt a sudden rush of warmth under my flight suit collar, toward the back of my neck just under my ears. I took a deep breath and didn't look at Randall or Lynn or Peter.

"What was that?" Erika asked.

I rolled my eyes away from Peter's gaze and decided I might as well get it out of my system. My encounter with McBride had apparently affected me more than I cared to admit.

"This could still be a hoax," I said. I wasn't sure if I should be addressing the people in the cockpit or on the radio more, but I wasn't feeling enthusiastic about eye contact, so I just stared at the vid. "It's not that hard to punch some holes in a piece of rock."

"Fair enough," Peter said, his voice quiet and even. I was suddenly glad to have him in charge, and I wondered if we were much worse than his toddlers at home. "But that still doesn't answer the question of why someone would put this out here."

"Like Randall said, they wanted us to find it," I said. "Or -- not us specifically, but someone. That's why they made it radar-reflective."

"So who's 'they?'" Randall asked.

I didn't say anything.

"Okay," Peter said, "I think that's enough speculation. Whatever this thing is, it hasn't exploded yet or turned into a bug-eyed monster, so it should be safe for us to try and get it out of that rock."

Lynn reached her hand forward and muted the radio. "You're serious? We're going to bring that thing aboard?"

Peter gently grasped her wrist and moved it away from the console. "That's why we're out here." He looked straight at me. "To get some answers."

"We'll need better digging tools," Marvin said.

"I think we have some rock hammers and pickaxes in storage," Erika said.

"We could also use another pair of hands," added Marvin.

"Roger that," Peter said. "Natty, why don't you get suited up for a closer look at our mysterious artifact?"

I swiveled my chair and nodded at him in acknowledgment and thanks.

I hope my legs don't break
walking on the moon...



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Last modified: 13 Jan 2009