Chapter 14

We are here. Hrothgar is below us. It dominates the view from the portholes and the front windows, because, like Louis said, it’s pretty big for a stroid; over 25 kilometers on its longest side. Its color is a lighter gray than Luna, but of course the sunlight is dimmer out this far, so I don’t have to shield my eyes as I gaze at it from the galley portholes. And then there’s that crazy red part. Nastez and Louis are in the galley with me, pointing and remarking at the unfamiliar features of this strange little world.
We’re oriented ‘upside down’, with our topside facing the surface of the stroid, our solar wings deployed from the bottom side and pointing towards the distant sun. Hrothgar is rounded and cratered, with a big smooth spot right where we would want it to be. From here it appears that there’s a patchwork of ditches or rilles off the periphery of the big smooth spot and some dark spots that look like the mouths of caves. Who knows what could be in those caves? Probably nothing but more rocks. But maybe not. I feel goosebumps on my shoulders and an anxious feeling in my chest. It’s an alien world. We’re about to land on it. Let’s get this show on the road, that’s what I’m thinking.
“Hold on to something,” says Louis. “The prop drone is about to attach.”
I grab onto handholds with both my right and left hands. The thing about stroids is, they ain’t really zero-G, but the gravity is so weak that they’re mighty close to zero-G. Any vigorous motion, like walking or digging, will send you flying off into space with no hope of getting back unless you got a jet pack or something. We’ll be using special boots to hold us down, with a jet pack for emergencies.
I jerk involuntarily as a metallic thud reverberates in the room; the propulsion drone has attached to the CM. There are other sharp noises as the big robot completes its iron grip but none of them startle me like the first one. Katya is controlling the drone from the flight deck; we can hear the calm back-and-forth between her and the captain over the speakers in the galley.
Nastez, Louis and I go into the airlock and close off its outer door. From now on we’ll have no access to our gravity bunks in the carousels, or anything else aft of the airlock. All that will be left in space, to wait for us until we’re done with the stroid and re-mate. The CM is our lander and our home for the next couple weeks. Once the airlock is sealed, we undog the CM from the cargo section by pulling down big mechanical levers under Nastez’s direction. We coordinate our turning of the last two levers, and once they’re down, I can feel the floor move under my boots as the whole CM floats free.
“All right now strap in,” says Nastez.
“This part gets a little hairy,” Louis mentions to me, as he mounts his usual saddle in the galley and pulls the strap across his lap. He wears a little grin, which is nice to see because he ain’t hardly spoken to nobody since getting kissed on the cheek by Katya.
“Remember to keep your spine straight and your head up high,” barks Nastez. “You’re going to feel a few G’s, and we don’t need to nursemaid your sprained back.” He heads back to his co-pilot’s seat.
I’m against the wall next to Louis, strapped to my saddle. I feel my stomach drop and the whoosh of the thrusters as the prop drone pulls the entire CM away from the rest of the Allgood. Then I feel a spinning, as the room literally rotates end over end to match the orientation of Hrothgar’s landing zone. We can only see the surface of Hrothgar in the films now since it’s below us. The captains voice is as calm as ever, as she and Katya guide us over the pockmarked surface, lowering the ship to a carefully calculated altitude as we wait for the landing zone to rotate to a point beneath us.
All I can see through the ceiling portholes now are the big trusses and robotic arms of the prop drone and the darkness of space through the haze of its thrusters. Hrothgar hangs below us, looming bigger and bigger in the display films. Soon all I can see are rocks and dust. We wait in anticipation for the final plunge. The time comes soon enough. “Land now Katya,” says the captain.
“Land now aye. Max thrust.”
First my stomach pushes up into my throat, then falls down to my lap as the drone slams us onto the surface of the stroid. We hit and bounce once, then hit again and the big shock absorbers settle us down. The CM is planted on the surface but vibrating strongly from the roaring thrust of the drone’s main engine, keeping us on the surface by pushing down.
“Harpoons, Katya.”
“Harpoons aye. Pyro sequence initiated.”
Bang! A barbed harpoon of hardened steel is fired into the stroid. My saddle rocks with the aftershock; for a moment my mind goes to rodeo movies I’ve watched in idle moments. I really feel like I’m riding a horse, if this is what riding a horse feels like. I’ve never seen a horse. Five more pyros fire in quick succession.
“Captain, the CM is secure,” says Katya’s voice over the speaker.
“Roger Katya. Release the prop drone.”
“Release prop drone aye. Drone exit sequence initiated. Drone away.”
And just like that, the thundering stops. There is a brief silence, then a few more screeching metallic noises, some hissing from small thrusters, and I see the big structure flying away from the portholes above me. I feel the floor rise a little under my feet as the CM’s shock absorbers react, then steady out.
Everything gets totally quiet. Quietest quiet I believe I’ve ever heard. Nastez looks at Louis, Louis turns and looks at me. Without a word, Nastez is up first, followed by Louis, as I fiddle with my straps. All of us are grinning, even Nastez. Once I’m free, I follow them onto the flight deck. We’re walking now, not floating. It all feels very strange and different. It’s real gravity again. Less than Luna, of course, and less than a carousel even, but it feels good.
The five of us are looking, silently fascinated, in the same direction—towards the windows. Outside, there’s a horizon that no one has ever seen before. The dim sunshine beaming from the starry sky casts bright glints and dark shadows over a silvery, uneven ground. A moving haze of mustard-yellow dust raised by the landing swims outside the window in amorphous tufts that reflect the sun and drift lazily through one another like a gathering of ghosts.
“Lady and gentlemen,” announces the captain, turning towards the rest of us. “Welcome to Hrothgar. We’re on a new world.”
* * * * *
We’ve all been clapping and standing and sitting in awe for several minutes, shaking hands and congratulating each other. “What do you think?” asks Louis. He’s looking at me with a knowing smile, not a trace of his usual moodiness.
“Pretty intense,” I reply, “This is amazing!”
“You’re an adrenalin junkie like me,” he says. We both laugh a little. Nastez is the one who breaks out the champagne—believe it or not—which is actual French champagne brought up from France on the Marble. I ain’t never had it before, can’t say I care for it, but it sure goes down a whole lot easier than the whiskey the captain drinks. We all toast and gab until the captain decides we’re done.
“All right,” she announces, still smiling but putting her own sippy down on the bulkhead. “Enough talk, enough drink, enough sightseeing. We have limited time here. We need to get started right away.”
The rest of the day is consumed with setting up our beachhead on Hrothgar. There are a lot of big pieces involved in mining an stroid. The CM is fastened firmly to the surface but everything else is still hanging off the cargo section, which is faithfully keeping station in the sky above us, well out of any danger of being hit by Hrothgar as it rotates. I watch in amazement as the huge beneficiation unit is flown down by the prop drone. Beneficiation is what separates the waste material from the pure ore. The unit—which is larger than even the CM—uses a big spinning drum and grinders and a whole lot of power. It gets planted about 500 meters away from us, then it blasts its own harpoons into the surface just as the CM did. A smaller drone lays out the long tracks, blasting each one into the ground with another series of pyrotechnical charges. I can’t hear the blasts as I watch the films but I can see the plume of dust that each little explosion raises.
I lean on the engineer’s console and watch as the prop drone brings down the first cargo hold and the ship’s reactor core. Finally, the drone brings down the three big mining rovers and fits each to its track, attended and assisted by the smaller drones. Katya checks out the wireless power beams that the reactor core transmits to all the other units, including the CM. It’s fun to watch—like a ballet performed by big robots. Should be done to music. Within a couple of hours, I am ready to take my first step onto this small world.
For this, Louis will be my instructor. He’s been teaching me all about EVA equipment and especially the evasuit during the trip out, plus I’ve studied the literature and passed the tests. Now we sit in the dressing room as he supervises my final check out with the evasuit envelope, breastplate, backpack, and especially the hiking boots. He holds up the envelope as I slither into it, fit the breastplate, and energize the fabric. He helps me fasten my wristy on the outside of my sleeve and put on the rest of the stuff. It all would weigh a ton on Luna, but here it’s not bad at all.
Finally, we get to the footgear. “These boots will be your best friend,” says Louis. He holds one boot up for me to examine. The body of it looks fairly typical, although a bit bulkier than regular EVA boots. It’s the curving fangs poised out to the sides of it that catch my eye.
“So, those are the special blades I read about,” I say.
“They hold you down,” replies Louis, “like a fly holds onto a wall. The blades have little hairs that are designed to exploit irregularities in the rocky surface. They analyze the path ahead of you, pick out gripping points, then when you step down the blades rotate and hold you down either with the opposing pressure of three or more blades, or if the surface is too smooth for the blades, the hairs will find smaller irregularities. It’s easier to show you than to explain.”
He helps get the boots adjusted on my feet, puts on a pair of his own, and we head to the airlock. We latch down our helmets, do a comm check, evacuate the atmo. Louis opens the outer hatch and calmly jumps down and out on to the vast, open surface of the stroid. He turns towards me, his visor glinting in the daylight. He’s grinning ear to ear. “I’m staying on an umbilical for a bit,” he says over the radio. “The boots need to calibrate to the texture of this surface. Stay put for a minute while I walk around.”
I keep my feet inside the airlock but lean on the open hatch with my helmet outside. The visor gives excellent visibility; I can see the entire horizon, as well as the big mining machines in the distance. Louis stomps around on the surface, waiting for each boot to slowly figure out its grip with each step, trying different surfaces and angles. He feeds the umbilical along behind him with one hand.
The distant but bright sun is already falling towards the ground and the shadows are getting long. Daytime don’t last long on Hrothgar. Louis looks up and studies the sky for some reason, but when he does, his boots lose their grip. He floats up above the ground a meter or so.
“Whoa!” he exclaims, surprise but no panic in his voice. He waves at me. “The jets on your backpack,” he says, “only have a few charges. The boots should keep you down as long as you’re careful and you take your time. If you have trouble and use your jets more than a couple times a shift, you’re doing something wrong.” A puff of gas shoots from Louis’ backpack and he’s back on the surface. He walks around some more, but doesn’t slip again.
“What were you looking at?” I ask. “Up in the sky?”
He shrugs. “Just keeping an eye out,” he replies. “You never know what’s going to come at us from up there.”
Not sure he really answered my question, but Louis is Louis and at least now I know more about the jets, should I ever need them. Louis walks around a few more minutes, then declares the task complete. “OK,” he says, “I think the boots are about as good as they’re gonna get. I’ll transmit the parameters to all the other boots. Now everybody should be able to walk as good as me.”
I see the activity lights on my boots blink as they get updated. “OK for me to step out now?” I ask.
“Yea, but stay on the umbilical until you feel secure. Remember to take on step at a time, and wait for the tone in your headset before lifting your other foot. If you don’t get a tone, don’t lift your other foot! Re-plant the boot you stepped with.”
I drape my umbilical outside the hatch. It’s a big step down onto the ground, but I steady myself against the jam and let my body fall slowly to the surface. I step with my right boot onto the hard, shiny face of the stroid. It’s an odd feeling as the blades nestle into small cracks in the ground and the tone sounds. It’s like there’s a living thing on my foot that ain’t my foot. But as I pull up a little with my leg, I can tell that the hold is secure. Amazing. I plant my other boot and soon the tone sounds again, this time in my other ear. My heart is pumping like a sonuvagun and I know I’m breathing up my atmo way too fast. I take another step, then another—slowly. It’s exhilarating. I let out a squeal of excitement that I didn’t even know was coming. It echoes loudly inside my small helmet.
“Ha,” laughs Louis. “You’re a real spaceman now, Yuuta!”
He looks at me, grinning broadly behind his visor. He holds up his umbilical, reaches down to the carabiner hook that holds it to his breastplate, and pulls it off. He holds the hook end of the umbilical up and looks at me with a dare on his face. I pull mine off to. We hold each other’s gaze and drop our umbilicals to the ground at the same time. We now stand free under the fading light of Hrothgar.
“C’mon,” Louis says, “we got work to do.” He snaps on his helmet lights, reaches up to close the outer hatch of the airlock, and heads to one of the external equipment bays. I turn my lights on too and follow, one careful step at a time. Together we pull out the collapsible decontamination tent and hook everything up under the beams of the floodlights shining down from the top of the CM. The tent works kinda like the plug back at the mine in Shacktown, with the same kind of oil to capture the dust but a better solvent, I’m told, which don’t burn you or make you want to puke when you sniff it. After the external ladder is in place and the tent is up, we start our hike out to the rovers. It takes a while to go that far but by now I’m getting used to slow-walking with the boots.
I hadn’t appreciated until now just how big these digging machines are. For the longest time I’m thinking we were almost there, but we keep walking and the nearest rover just keeps getting bigger and bigger. When Louis and I finally reach the it, it towers over us—even its wheels tower over us. Louis opens an access hatch and pushes some buttons to begin the start-up sequence. “The thing is,” he says, as he’s clicking away at the control panel, “robots are great. But if they was perfect, they wouldn’t need us. Stuff happens and you need someone around to fix things when they do. Robots ain’t much good when something unexpected happens.”
“So what kind of stuff?” I ask.
“Oh, you know, it’s mostly rocks getting stuck in the mechanisms, or a fuse burning out. I saw a rover slip off its rail and get stuck in a ravine last trip, which is usually not a big deal but this ravine had a crazy shape and the rover couldn’t figure it’s way out. Kept going round and round. I had to take manual control and drive it out myself. Pretty fun.” He pauses, then says: “Better step back.”
I take a couple of steps away from the machine. Louis punches a fat green button and hops back as the huge machine jerks to life, lighting up and lifting its digging shovel high into the dark sky, its cameras scanning the ground around it. The big laser collector slowly flips at the back, ready to receive wireless power from the ship’s reactor core. Louis and I walk across the spiral towards the next rover. I feel a shaking in my feet and glance back to see the big brute we just started already digging furiously into the crusty ground.
* * * * *
My wristy goes off. I reach over to the little table beside the cot and shut off the alarm. Another day on Hrothgar, another shift. We’re all hot-bunking during the off times in the few cots that have been set up below decks. I miss my little chamber in Carousel B, but my room and most of the rest of the Allgood is still floating above us, high in the sky but a majestic sight when Hrothgar is rotated her way.
I shuffle out of bed and use the head down the hall, then come back to my chamber to get my shaving kit to take my shower. The wristy comes alive with Sophia’s accented, cheery voice.
“Buon giorno Straker!” she says. “How are you today?”
I jump a bit from the sudden sound, but it’s nice to hear her voice. I guess I’m getting used to her. “Oh hi, Sophia. I’m just waking up. Got a shift in a little while.”
“Oh yes, and how do you like Hrothgar? Is it everything I said it would be?”
“Yup, it sure is. I told the cap what you told me about where to land and where to mine and all that. She came to the same conclusions you did. So here we are.”
“Eccellente! Are you mining lots of valuable material?”
“Yup, progress is going good. We figure our holds will be full in a little under two weeks, which is just about the time we gotta blast off and head home anyways, due to vectors and delta-V and stuff. Cap says it’s gonna be the biggest haul ever.”
“I am happy for you,” she says. “You will surely be a hero when you return.”
“Well, I don’t know about that, I just…”
“And you will stay away from the rocky side of Hrothgar, yes?”
“Well, yea, but we may send an expedition over that way.”
“Oh, no, amico mio, you must not! It’s dangerous on that side!”
“But there’s some kind of red stuff that Nastez wants to check out.”
“Straker, you must tell him to stay away from this red material. It is very dangerous to all of you.”
“Really? How do you know all this?”
No answer. That’s what I figured.
“Well,” I say, “I’ll tell Nastez. But you don’t give me much to go on.”
“Promise me you will tell him?” she asks. She sounds genuinely worried.
“I told you I would, didn’t I? I promise.”
She stays quiet after that. I halfway expect that she’s done, so I grab my kit and start to head back to the showers, when she pipes up again. “Have you been practicing your song, Straker?”
“Oh uh, yea, I have. Between shifts, usually right before bed. I think I got it down pretty good but I’m still working on the guitar fills between verses.”
“Oh, I would like to hear that. Can you sing it to me?”
“I really got to get going…”
I sigh. I guess I have a few minutes. I grab the guitar from its perch against the wall, put on the headset, and sing it through. She listens quietly. When I’m done, she’s full of praise for the song, but also has a few suggestions to make it better. I listen and try what she suggested, and it actually works pretty good.
I still don’t know who she actually is. And I don’t know why I want to please her. I just do.
* * * * *
After I get cleaned up, I head up to the galley for strong cup of joe and a lamb burrito before I gotta head out for my shift outside. Katya has just finished hers and I almost bump into her as she’s coming in from the dressing chamber. Her hair is still sweaty and smashed down onto her head from her helmet. She’s wiping her face. Her eyes are bloodshot. She looks beat.
“How was it out there?” I ask.
“Exhausting. Broke a tooth on one of Rover 2’s planetary drive gears. Had to weld a new one back on. Sure wish we had two man teams instead of one man teams.”
“I hear ya,” I say. “But I don’t think the Captain and First Officer want to work shifts.”
“I don’t either,” she replies. “Can’t blame them. They’re really too deep in the busy anyhow. Nastez stays busy with his core drilling and science projects and Cap stays busy with business and politics.” She reaches into a cabinet and grabs a sippy, then pumps it full of water. I watch, drinking my own coffee, as she downs the whole sippy in one long drink. “By the way,” she gasps, catching her breath and looking around furtively to ensure she’s not overheard, “I had a talk with Louis.”
“What kind of talk? I ask.
“I told him to back off, that he’s sweet but I’m not interested. That kind of talk.”
“Oh,” I say. I didn’t need to know that.
“Well,” she continues in a low voice, “I’m only telling you because he didn’t take it very well. You might want to stay clear of him for a while.”
“Roger that,” I say.
“I don’t mean to hurt his feelings, but we’re a small crew in a confined space and we all need to be clear with one another, don’t you think?”
“I reckon.”
“You don’t think I did the right thing?”
I sigh and shrug my shoulders. I ain’t the one to judge either of them. I just wish I didn’t have to be in the middle. “I dunno,” I say. “It’s what you had to do, I suppose.”
Katya nods with a resigned smile, then walks over to the fridge and starts poking around for a snack. I poke my head through the hatch to the flight deck just to see what’s going on. There sits Louis, facing the engineering console, swiping through the displays with an almost angry speed. His face is drawn and his eyebrows are set low over his eyes, with his teeth clenched. He looks back over at me before I can duck back out of the hatch.
“Yo Straker,” he says, almost in a grunt.
“Hi Louis,” I reply. I don’t know what to say, but I feel like I need to make some conversation before I can leave. “Checking out the telemetry from the cargo section?”
“Sort of,” he replies, turning back to the console. “Looking at long range scans.”
“Really? Do you think we’ll get hit by another meteorite shower?”
“You never know. Just curious.”
Well then. Don’t understand that answer, but it’s all I needed. “Well, OK, got to start my shift. Have a good one.” He don’t answer. I head to the changing room, breathing a sigh of relief.
* * * * *
It’s when I get back off my shift that Louis really starts to worry me. Like everybody else, the first place I go after taking off my suit and hitting the head is the galley. Three hours in an EVA suit will wear anybody out, no matter how good their conditioning or how good their suit is. It is stressful. Still in my socks and thermalwear, I forage in the fridge and grab a bottle of nutrient-water and chug it down. The cool liquid flows down my throat like water from the Fountain of Youth—which I just saw a movie about a few weeks ago—and I immediately feel much better.
But I don’t see Louis nowhere. He’s supposed to take the next shift. We try not to leave the rovers unattended for more than a few minutes at a time. I look in the dressing room and check the airlock—he ain’t in neither of those places. Must be below decks. I head down the ladder and tiptoe past the avionics bay. Katya is still sleeping on one of the cots, so I’m trying to be a quiet as possible. No Louis. I poke my head in past the half-closed door to the captain’s ready room.
Louis is there, working on something. It’s something shiny in his hand. He holds it up—it’s a damn gun. I didn’t think we had guns on board. The gun is a zero-gravity type from what I can see. Not that I know much about them, but zero-G guns are pretty distinctive looking. Louis checks the chamber, examines the magazine in his hand, methodically counting the rounds, then jams the magazine back into the gun with a solid chunk. He has a brooding expression on his face.
Oh no. I’m frozen in place, not knowing what to do. I’m afraid to alert him that I’m here, afraid that he might go ballistic and shoot me. He has that look. I figure I’ll just mosey back out there and do a double shift today. It’s the healthy choice. I start to back quietly out of the doorway, but my stupid knee cracks when I move. Louis whips around, the gun still in his hand. “Ho! Straker, you startled me!” he exclaims. He shoves the gun in a cabinet; I hear the combo lock click solidly as he pushes the door shut.
“Uh, sorry,” I say, “I just popped in to tell you it’s time for your shift.”
Louis looks sternly at his wristy. “Oh, crap, you’re right.” He looks up at me. “Sorry, Straker—I’ll head out right now. I was just doing some…maintenance.”
“Sure,” I say. Just doing some maintenance. At least he’s a bad liar. Louis whips past me without another word on his way up the stairs to the dressing chamber. I look back at the locked cabinet. Does the captain know that Louis has a gun on board? In her own ready room? She must know. Why would he have a gun? What’s he planning to do with it? The memory of Louis joyfully bouncing around on the surface when we first got to Hrothgar comes to my mind. This Louis—the one with the gun—was a different man. An unhappy man. I’ll be watching him more closer from now on.