Read Asimov's SF, January 2012 Online

Authors: Dell Magazine Authors

Asimov's SF, January 2012 (8 page)

A burst of static. Then: “We're fine,
Copperhead."
The voice sounded energetic. It belonged to a young male. “Looking forward to seeing you. Who am I talking to?"

"Priscilla Hutchins."

"Nice to meet you, Priscilla. I'm Ollie Evers. It'll be good to have some company. We don't get many visitors out here."

"How long has it been?"

"Since the last supply ship?"She heard him turn the question over to someone else. Then he was back. “Seven months, Priscilla."

"Well, Ollie,” she said, “the glories of working for the Academy."

"Absolutely."

"How's the weather?” She was referring to flares. The station maintained a satellite in geostationary orbit to monitor Groombridge.

"You're clear. If we see any problems, we'll let you know post haste."

"How reliable are the predictions? You get a reasonable advance warning?"

"Usually. Shouldn't be a problem. We've never lost anybody."

"Glad to hear it."

There was a long pause. She was about to ask if he was still there when he came back: “When you get here, Priscilla, we'll have a surprise for you."

Jake was signaling her, pointing back into the cabin. The meaning was clear enough. Invite Eddington and the others to participate in the conversation.

"Hold on, Ollie.” She activated the allcom. “Guys, we have Acharius on the circuit. Anybody want to say hello?"

Eddington took over and immediately began asking questions about genealogical strains in local amphibians. Hutch shut off the mike and turned down the sound. Jake folded his arms and sighed. “He
does
like to talk."

Hutch nodded.

Jake was quiet for a minute. Then: “What made you decide to do this for a living, Hutch?"

"I don't know,” she said. “Why do you ask?"

"Idle curiosity."

She considered the question. “My dad's an astronomer."

"Oh,” he said. “
Jason
Hutchins. I should have realized. “

"Yes. He's pretty well known."

"He's the guy who heard the artificial signal."

"It's a lot of years ago now."

"And that's what got you interested in piloting interstellars?"

"It helped."

"But nothing ever came of it."

"That wasn't the big thing."

"What was?"

"When I was about six or seven, he took me to the Moon. That was before the signal came in."

"You must have enjoyed that."

"I
loved
it. Never forgot it. I remember standing out there with him on the rim of a crater. How old's the crater, Daddy? Millions of years, kid, he said. I don't think I knew what a million was, but he described a place that never changed. I still remember his saying that time stood still out there. And I could
feel
it. A place where clocks didn't run. It was incredible, Jake. When I got home, I kept thinking about it. You know, the other kids, they played ball and sat on swings and never looked above the rooftops. Later, they were all talking about becoming lawyers or getting degrees in business management. Me, I never wanted anything other than what I'm doing right now."

Jake smiled. “I think you're going to find it's not as romantic as it sounds, Hutch."

"How do you mean?"

He shrugged. “You ride for weeks or maybe months inside a sealed container. You take archeologists to Quraqua, or carry supplies out to Palomus and hope you don't get radiated in the process. Then you go home and do it again. Don't misunderstand me. I wouldn't change a thing. But it isn't what it looks like in the movies. No space pirates or green aliens or anything like that."

"You make it sound boring."

"It can be."

"Well, I can live with that part of it."

He was quiet for a minute. Then: “When I get back, I'm going to take a vacation on the Moon. Shaira has been after me to do that for a long time."

Shaira was his girlfriend. “Might as well. You get free transportation."

He frowned. Read something in her tone. “You don't think it's a good idea?"

"You been there recently?"

"Last year, Hutch. The place is perfect. We'll stay at the Liberty. Hang around the pool. Take the tour up to Copernicus and stroll around the rim like you did.” He shook his head. “That's more sightseeing than I get sitting in here."

Hutch's eyes closed momentarily.

"What's wrong, Hutch?"

"Nothing, really."

"Something's bothering you."

She took a deep breath while she considered how to say what was on her mind. “They're ruining the place, Jake."

"In what way?"

"Well, I'm probably going overboard on this. But, hotels. Pipelines. All kinds of construction projects. Copernicus is more than eight hundred million years old. Recent by lunar standards."

"What's your point?"

"You go there now and they have hot dog stands. There's a lift to take you out over the crater. They have a souvenir shop. Jake, you don't
feel
the age of the place any more. It's like going to Atlantic City, except there's no ocean. And you don't weigh as much."

He looked at her sympathetically. Smiled. “Well,” he said, “everybody to his own."

"Hutch."Benny's voice was subdued. Unusual for him.

"Yes, Benny?"

"We're getting a picture from the smaller moon."

"Okay."

"Take a look, please."

The planetary image on the navigation screen blinked off and was replaced by a rockscape. Something that looked like a giant flower stood in the middle of the image. Long petals rose in all directions. Hutch increased the magnification. “Jake,” she said.

"I see it."

"What is it?"

"Don't know."

She opened a channel to the ground station. “Ollie, you still there?"

"Affirmative, Hutch. What do you need?"

"Have you guys been working on the smaller moon?"

"On Lyla? Negative. I'm sure we haven't been anywhere near it. Why do you ask?"

She was about to explain, but Jake shook his head and drew his finger across his throat. Break the connection. “Just curious,” she said. “Thanks.
Copperhead
out.” Then she turned to Jake: “What's the matter?"

"Let's get a better look so we know what we have before we start talking about it."

She went to maximum magnification. It was
not
a flowering plant. “You know what I think it is?” she said.

He nodded. “A monument.” She squeezed her eyes shut and wanted to scream. But Jake held a hand up, cautioning her. “Relax,” he said.

"I don't believe it, Jake.” She opened the allcom.

He shook his head and turned it off. “What are you doing, Hutch?"

"I was going to let our passengers know."

"Not a good idea."

"Why not?"

"If that really
is
a monument, and they become aware that it's down there, who do you think will get the credit for the discovery? Us? Or the Professor?"

Hutch thought about it. She might not have been that anxious to get the score for herself, but she didn't much like Eddington. “What are you suggesting?"

"We look at it on the way out. Meantime, say nothing. And we make sure it stays off our passengers’ screen."

* * * *

It's difficult to judge the size of a world when you can only look at it through images on a display. The
Copperhead's
ports, including the bridge wraparound, were completely covered, sealed against radiation.

Hibachi's World was named for the biologist who'd predicted life could be found in such a place. It was moderately smaller than Earth, with gravity at 84 percent standard. It had jungles or forests or something, but they were like nothing anyone had seen before. They resembled a vast tangle of hair that was purple in some places, blue in others, and gold in still others. It covered the half-dozen continents and the various islands. In some areas it stood stiff rather like a crew cut. In most places, however, it was simply a colorful limp confusion. These were not pieces of vegetation competing for sunlight. Rather, as Larry had explained to her, they were hiding from the periodic flares and they were also sucking energy from each other and, occasionally, from unwary animals. It was not a place where you wanted to go for a walk in the woods. Much of the water had an overlay of matting, turning substantial areas into sinkholes.

The larger of the two moons occupied the inner orbit. It was retreating gradually, but its pace was slowing. In time it would pause and begin to fall back toward the surface. Eventually it would come down. But that was millions of years away.

The other satellite was Lyla. It was only a few hundred miles across, and it sailed through the night in an erratic orbit that took it out almost a million miles.

Normally, the AI would make the orbital approach. “But,” said Jake, “your AI is down, Hutch. You'll have to do it manually.” Later in the mission, she'd undoubtedly have to exercise control over the
Copperhead
after her engines blew out, or operating from the auxiliary control room aft when power on the bridge had failed. She'd be required to deal with a series of emergencies, probably including a runaway AI that refused to allow a shutdown. But this was the first stop. Just show that she could handle the
Copperhead.
Compute the gravity index and get the approach velocity right. Don't go skipping off into space; don't bounce around in the atmosphere.

Hutch had done this any number of times in simulation. And she'd brought training vehicles smoothly into Earth orbit. No problem at all. Just pay attention. Here, of course, the gravity was a bit different. And that changed the game slightly. But all she needed to do was follow her instincts. And she knew she'd have had no problem had Jake not been sitting there watching her every move.

"It's okay,” he told her. “You're doing fine."

Maybe it would have been better had he said nothing. As it happened, she came in at a slightly higher velocity than the situation called for. A more experienced pilot would have eased back, just touched the braking thrusters, and slipped into orbit. But Hutch overreacted, braking too hard. She heard a couple of surprised cries in the passenger cabin.

"Damn,” she said.

"You're all right. Just back off a bit.” She was well above the atmosphere. Taking no chances with that.

She came off the thrusters altogether, then had to apply them again. Only slightly, and had she spent more time on the bridge she'd have thought nothing of it. But at the moment the maneuver seemed horribly clumsy.

"Orbit established,” said Benny.

She exhaled. “Okay, everybody, you can get out of your restraints now."

* * * *

The shuttle was packed with supplies and replacement parts. It was currently about twenty minutes before sunrise at the ground station.

She contacted the complex, and heard a woman's voice this time. “Acharius,” Hutch said, “this is
Copperhead.
We're on schedule."

"We'll be waiting,
Copperhead."

She and Jake got up and wandered back into the passenger cabin to make sure the passengers were ready to go. Jake glanced at her, and she understood. She would continue to function as captain.

"We'll be leaving in a few minutes,” she said. “The ride down to Acharius will take about three-quarters of an hour. Make sure you have everything you need. This would be a good time to check your compartment.” She smiled. “It was a pleasure to have you along. I hope you enjoyed the flight."

Larry and Isaika took a last look around to be sure they had everything. The professor remained placidly in his seat, his restraints still holding him in place. Then, finally, it was time to go.

Hutch led the way down to the launch bay, which also served as the cargo area. Like the ship, the shuttle was heavily armored. The pilot would not be able to see directly outside, and would be dependent on a display screen. “Best,” said Jake, “is to let the AI take us down."

She had no problem with that.

They stowed the luggage in the cargo bin, and she opened the hatch. Interior lights came on. Everybody climbed in. “Snug,” said Eddington.

Hutch, without lifting her eyes from the gauges, nodded. “The sacrifices we make for science,” she said quietly.

Jake elbowed her gently. No smart remarks.

Eddington didn't reply.

"We've started decompressing the launch bay,” she said. “We'll be leaving in about three minutes."

"How can you see to fly this thing?” asked Larry. “It's like sitting in a box."

* * * *

The Acharius Complex was, for the most part, underground, buried beneath a lead shield. The shield, of course, had long since been covered by windblown dirt and vegetation. Four small modular blockhouses were visible. They served primarily as entrances. Two shuttles were on the ground.

As they descended, someone came out of one of the blockhouses and waved. Eddington, who also had access to a display, said, “That should be Abel."

There were nineteen people in the complex. Theodore Abel, Hutch knew, was the director. She didn't know what he looked like, however, and in any case the figure seemed too far away to identify. But she knew Eddington pretty well, even though the flight had been a short one. He'd have expected to be met by the head guy.

She magnified the image, and heard Larry confirm that it was indeed the director.

* * * *

Pilots generally claim they like a zero-gee environment. It's common wisdom that anyone who prefers the tug of gravity isn't meant to operate a superluminal. It makes sense, but Hutch didn't know whether there was any truth to it. Nevertheless she played it safe, always pretending to feel perfectly at ease floating around in the
Copperhead,
but the reality was she would rather have walked. Two feet on the ground is good. There'd been reports for years that physicists were close to creating a mechanism that would generate an artificial gravity field. She hoped it would happen during her lifetime.

In any case, it was a relief to stand in the shuttle checking everyone's oxygen mask, and then, last in line, to climb down onto solid ground.

By then another guy had joined Abel. He was eye-level with Hutch, who was not especially tall. But he had a big smile and she guessed, correctly, he was Ollie. They all shook hands and Abel took them through the airlock. “It's good to see you,” he said, removing his mask. “How long will you be staying?” The question was directed at Jake, who passed it to Hutch.

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