Authors: Gregory Frost
Tags: #Science fiction novel
THE PURE COLD LIGHT
The Pure Cold Light
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 2013 by Gregory Frost
AvoNova edition May 1993
ROC Penguin edition (U.K.) 1994
eBook edition January 2013
The author wishes to thank: Steve Mohl of AVI for technical support; cartoonist Mark Tatuli, Ed Sherry, and Peter Lollelman for imaging; Steve Beuret for items of the console; Bill Kent for the lunches that launched “License to Teach”; and, in far too many ways to name, Michael Swanwick, whose sagacity forever enlightens.
For Barbara and Captain Wow
Prologue: Covenant of the Arc
Heffernan would never appreciate that magnetism was what killed him.
The alarm klaxon honked twice in the tiny lunar shack, so loud that he fumbled his coffee cup and seared a stripe across his thighs. He hopped to his feet, shouting,“Son of a
!” and prying the wet pant legs away from his skin. He had been absorbed till then in a movie on the monitor—a Betty Davis film called
—but shut it off, cut the overheads, and pressed his face against the cold window. Outside, an empty hopper came sliding smoothly by, silent as a ghost.
The mass driver on which it rode looked like the track for the world’s dullest roller coaster ride: two aluminum rails stretched straight to the horizon like a big zipper closing the lunar surface. Every couple of seconds a magnetically levitated payload—what everyone called a cannonball—shot off down the length of the right rail and out of sight, to the far end of the driver, where it finally launched its payload at just over two kmps into space. The empty hopper rode the left rail back around, past the modular shack to where it loaded up again. Heffernan thought magnetic levitation was just swell—at least, he had till now. Once launched, the cannonballs traveled on a precisely aligned trajectory for 60,000 kilometers to a collection point near one of ScumberCorp’s orbiting factories, where they dropped right into a funnel-shaped net as broad as the whole lunar facility. The process was computer controlled, and everything depended upon the precise instant that the hopper hit the switch and ejected its payload. But lunar soil had a slight magnetic charge to it; twice previously within the last five years, despite the system’s built-in damping, a charge had built up in the hopper, a magnetic tug sufficient to throw off its speed just the tiniest bit. With mass driver propulsion, any variation in speed meant that instead of those cannonballs zooming straight into the net, they peppered the black sky like a shower of meteors. That was why Heffernan lived eight hours a day in solitary confinement—to monitor trajectory and correct any problem before it became a problem. It was a cushy job and he’d had it for nearly two years. He couldn’t remember the last time he had spent more than ten seconds of any eight hour stretch monitoring the arc of the cannonballs. Nothing had ever gone wrong before. “Why is this happening on
shift?” he asked the sterile landscape.
Another hopper ripped silently past him. He followed it as best he could, watched the tiny speck of its payload shoot into the sky. Without glancing away, he toggled the monitor switch along the sill; blue numbers appeared in the window glass—a precise measurement of the payload’s trajectory. The wrong numbers. “Skewed,” he said bleakly. “Gone to hell. It’s skewed, and I’m screwed.” He turned to the console, started running the recorded disk back … and back … and back, seeking the point at which the parabola returned to normal, counting the number of mis-guided launches with growing alarm. As the disk ran on without change, James Heffernan began to grind his teeth together. When the parabolic arc shifted back, he stopped the disk.
Two-hundred-eighteen of the twenty kilogram ilmenite cannonballs had been flung into the wrong part of the void. The trajectory had begun to drift about the time he had sealed up his dry suit and gone down the tunnel for his first cup of coffee. He’d gone for two more after that, all without noticing anything amiss. Why hadn’t the alarm gone off
? This thing had been out of whack for hours without a beep. What sort of margin of error had it been
for? Already he was trying to put together a defense. He would need a good one.
He had no choice but to shut down the mass driver. Somewhere, in other rooms of other buildings in SC’s lunar factory, more alarms were now going off.
The speaker on the wall popped to life. Goertel, his shift director, shouted, “Heffernan, what the fuck is going on out there? You’ve shut down!”
He explained about the belated alarm, the parabolic angle that had slowly drifted from true. He named the number of off-target shots. “The balls just got by me, is all.”
“Did I hear that? ‘Got by you’?” Heffernan could picture Goertel’s face gone grape with anger. “Well, let’s just see if you get your balls by
.” The speaker popped dead. He sank down into his chair. If he could have, he would have melted through the floor.
The whole length of the track would need to be inspected. The lost man-hours on this and the other end were—for him at least—incalculable; budget projections sucked into the vacuum. Somebody had to take the heat. He knew already who it would be. Goertel had to answer to the
—the suitboys who had never set foot off Earth and who thought a mass driver was the Catholic who parked the choir bus. The only way to save his job and his ass would be to take a lunar skimmer and chase down the errant ilmenite by himself, on his own time, for no pay. Volunteer work. Right now…before they ordered him to do it anyway. Wearily, he got to his feet and reached for his suit.
Four hours later he had retrieved eighty-two of the cannonballs—about all that the skimmer’s bay net could handle.
He was coming in on automatic when he found the site. He never would have noticed it at all except that something flicked past the windshield while he was daydreaming about suitboy murder. Whatever the glittering thing was, it had zipped out of sight by the time he pulled himself up against the glass. Not a sign of it.
Seeing his own blue-lit face in the glass, he decided it must have been an optical illusion—light from the maneuvering system display reflecting off the white of his eye, which in turn had reflected in the windshield and created the falsely perceived object. Happened all the time with his helmet faceplate, which was enough to convince him; he didn’t want to report anything in the first place. But, as the impression was of something shooting up and over him, he naturally gazed down to see where it had come from.
Beneath him lay the moon’s backside. Craters like lunar acne spotted the surface below as far as he could see—a thousand times more than on the face. Craters.
And one anomaly.
Unable to believe what he saw, Heffernan mashed his face up against the glass to peer over the nose of the skimmer just as the anomaly twinkled out of sight. Grabbing the control stick, he thumbed off automatic and nudged the ship down for a closer look.
In the shadow of the Cordillera Mountains stood a cluster of objects—he wanted to call them buildings but they looked more like enormous budding flowers. “Flowers in a vacuum?” he muttered at the preposterous idea. He couldn’t say just what they were. Lights dotted the edges, running in sequence. He circled the structures, and decided that they kind of reminded him of shiitake mushrooms, too.
Not far to the north were the landing pad lights of a second installation, which he knew to be the site where Stercus Pharmaceuticals refined raw Orbitol. The flower-buildings below had to be brand new. He couldn’t figure how there hadn’t been a whisper of scuttlebutt about them.
Abruptly, he realized that the people below would have been tracking him all the while. He was going to catch hell for being there instead of hauling his payload in. Now there would be even more trouble if he didn’t report something. They would want to know what he was covering up. He trembled at the thought of an interrogation. The bastards would try to link him to some rebel subversion—they always did.
He hastily put in a call to Goertel, who was in the shack, supervising the check on the mass driver. Heffernan babbled a description of the weird structures. Goertel responded oddly. He didn’t get excited; he didn’t get angry. He got very quiet, which he’d never done before, and gently told Heffernan to wait.
Five minutes passed without a reply. He’d begun to sweat harder than his suit could handle. If he’d put his helmet on, the faceplate would have been flashing red. What was Goertel doing? Going through the corporate ranks with this?
A curt voice he didn’t know made him jump when it spoke. “Pilot of SCS one-niner-five, return to colony base instantly. Acknowledge.” He swallowed. “Fuck me,” he muttered, then replied dully into the mike, “Copy.”
“Land at cargo dock E to unload. Repeat, cargo dock E as in Edgar. Acknowledge and repeat.”
Heffernan acknowledged the instruction. He imagined the corporate chucklehead who would meet him in the dock—a pink-faced suitboy who hadn’t gotten to grind anyone into protein paste lately, who would read him the riot act, then slap him with a fat fine for deviating from his course. Christ, they
send him down for this; the structure had to be an SC operation, something experimental, part of the infamous “black budget” that everybody pretended didn’t exist.
If he’d had enough fuel, he might have tried for the closest Ichi-Plok
. As it was, he didn’t have a prayer.
The landing pad lights flashed on and off in sync with computer display number three; the landing was automatic. Heffernan sat with his helmet on, ignoring the red square flashing in the lower right corner of the glass. He stared at the horizon indicator, his brain shocked to numbness, his stomach gurgling like an aerated drinking fountain.
Cargo Dock E lay at the farthest point from the main colony enclosures. The building itself, covered by a thick layer of lunar soil, looked like a buried cheese log on the moon’s surface.
By the time the skimmer set down on the circular pad, the doors to Cargo Bay E had opened. Its crew would have been rudely rousted from their normal off-duty pastimes to unload the ilmenite he’d recovered. On top of everything else, the dockers would now hate his ass. He wanted to die.
He pressed the pads at his wrists to seal the drysuit, then bounced back to the belly of the skimmer. A conical mesh bag twice his height contained the retrieved payloads, each one big as a packing crate.
He opened the hatch and cranked down the gangway. The ramp into the open cargo dock lay empty before him. There should have been a half dozen or more people there. There was no one. The inside of the dock glowed golden. The hatches stood snugly sealed. A vertical stack of canisters stood just at the edge of the ramp, where the floor flattened out.
“Son-of-a-bitch, son-of-a-bitch,” he muttered in furious despair. The corporate motherfuckers were going to make him haul the payloads all by himself.
He walked down the short gangway, grumbling fearfully. He could see one electric cart, parked up behind the canisters. He slogged up the ramp to get it, feeling like a third-stage Orbitol junkie—shunned, rejected, and all but invisible. His faceplate flickered crimson with information about his blood pressure and adrenalin level, which he ignored. The sweat breaking out everywhere told him everything anyway.