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Low Arc

by Sean Monaghan


When Colin Bertelli heard Johnston's scream over the comms he dropped the pyroprobe and headed back up the small gray scarp.

"Randy?" Bertelli said. "Status?"

Silence.

Schröedinger was vast. Now he was going to be in trouble for straying too far. He was a hundred and eighty meters from the ridge.

Four minutes walk.

"Randy? Come in."

Bertelli far preferred the science secondment over his old job. But the suits were flimsier. You couldn't afford to fall down. Not at a full run.

He'd lived at the moon's south pole for three years. Ice mining.

That was where he'd picked up bad habits.

Running his suit empty. Pushing tools beyond their rating. Running across the mare or up crater walls.

Valerie was glad he wasn't doing that anymore.

He called for Johnston again.

Still no response.

Johnston wasn't where he was supposed to be. Bertelli should be able to see him from here.

"Orion?" he said. Suze Baldwin, up in the module should have been monitoring all their comms. "Come in Suze."

Ahead Bertelli saw a smooth area. He jumped across. Another bad habit.

Clearing fifteen meters he stumbled when he landed. He kept his legs going.

"Copy you," Suze said.

"Randy's gone silent."

"I heard him yell. I was pushing cycles on the scrubber."

The Orion capsule had been running on a gammy CO2 system since they'd broken Earth orbit. That was the trouble with old technology.

NASA really needed to retire the Orion and figure out the next thing.

"Can you spot him?"

"I'm just over the rim. I'll run the scopes."

"Just pull the video."

"His feed's offline."

Bertelli kept running. The capsule was in a high elliptical orbit. It ran out long and slow over Schröedinger so they had maximum contact time.

When she whipped around the other side--facing Earth--she was so low she practically stirred up dust. If there'd been an atmosphere.

Suze joked that on pericynthion she had to aim between the mountains.

"Where are you?" she said.

"I'm getting there." His knee twinged. He'd rubbed in liniment before they'd come out. Randy had complained about the stink. Surety was a pretty confined space.

Suze swore. "Are you off-table again?"

"I saw some likely rocks."

"And this is the kind of thing that happens when you do that."

"It would have happened no matter where I was."

Randy was on a different grid. They wouldn't have been near each other even if Bertelli had stayed on the grid.

Still, Randy Johnston did some stuff on his own. Liked to think he was the one in charge. The one who knew everything.

On the flight up, Bertelli had woken to find Randy running fuel system checks. Bertelli's responsibility. Another time Randy had checked and corrected Suze's flight vectors. Without asking.

No, Bertelli didn't feel bad for stretching out what he got up to.

"I am never flying with you again," Suze said.

Bertelli came up over the ridge. He saw the landing site and realized no one was ever flying with him again.

The Surety pointed at the wrong part of the sky.

One of her three legs had failed. She was leaning at a twenty degree angle. Maybe twenty-five.

Very bad.

Bertelli started down the slope. He called Suze again. Gave her the news.

"The leg failed?"

"Are you getting my video?"

"Gimmee a second."

As he drew in he could see the leg hadn't failed completely.

The grid work had collapsed in on itself. Part of the lower section had jammed into the upper frame.

It looked like it was barely holding.

"That's bad," Suze said.

Understatement, Bertelli thought.

The Surety was stuck.

Her maximum take-off angle was a shade over nine degrees. Not much wiggle room.

And as he closed the distance he could see that it was even greater than twenty-five.

Running in he passed the broken rover. The new one. A real example of why not to go with the lowest bidder.

On the first day they'd driven it a half-mile before one of the wheels had frozen. Bertelli had tried going back and forth to dislodge it. He succeeded only in digging a shallow trench.

"Reminds me of that Mars rover," Johnston had said. "Spirit. That little guy still did a lot of good science."

"Well, we're not doing any good science with this piece of-"

"Sure we can. Let me debug the system."

"Great. You debug." Bertelli had clambered out. "I'm hitting it with a hammer."

Johnston hadn't replied.

The hammer hadn't worked. Neither had the debugging. Now the rover was just another piece of abandoned hardware stuck on the lunar surface.

A three hundred million dollar piece of junk.

"Gotta call Houston," Suze said.

"Make it quick," he said. "Then start running scenarios."

"What do you mean 'scenarios'?"

"I mean figuring out how to get us out of here."

He knew it was out of reach.

The moon was developing fast. There were plenty of people working up here now. But they were all an awful long way off.

With a surface area more than four times that of the continental United States there was a lot of ground to cover.

There were probably two hundred people up here. Half of them were on the near side--facing Earth. And most of the rest were at the poles.

Commercial mining.

Exactly what he'd been doing.

That was supposed to be the high-risk stuff. Eighteen lunar fatalities in thirty years of continuous occupation.

Seventeen of those in the mines.

The other had been an ESA suicide. Afterwards they'd all looked at her psych profile and scratched their heads.

The moon was unpredictable.

Bertelli had pulled two of the miners out himself. A burst hydraulic line had flicked a stay cable like a whip.

One man had been almost cut in half. The other had gotten just a cracked helmet.

And a crack was all it took up here.

That was when he'd given mining away. But he couldn't give up the moon.

More than once there had been talk of linking up all the various commercial and government installations in a kind of mutual rescue web. Nothing ever came of it.

It always came back to money. The mines had plenty, but siphoned it all back to Earth. The science installations had none.

"Colin? Are you still there?"

"Yes. I mean figure out who's closest to us. Has anyone got a working rover? Or maybe a lander? See if there's anyone about to land and can divert to our location."

"That's going to take a while."

"Then get to it."

"Copy that."

The Surety was less than fifty meters away. With every step he took the damage seemed worse. The lower tips of the landing nacelles had touched the dusty regolith. Cables connecting the ship to solar gatherers had ripped out.

He still couldn't raise Johnston.

"Suze? Any luck?"

"Houston's sending us alternates."

Protocols, he thought. "Nothing from your end."

"I'm waking people up. Working through the list. Sirius haven't got anything ready to fly."

"Too far away anyway."

"Likewise ModCon and ESA. The Virgin Hotel's got gear, but they're plum in the middle of nearside."

"What about something in orbit?" Bertelli stopped and looked over the Surety's exterior.

Parts of the outer skin had buckled. Right around the leg frame. It was just the landing base--the part that got abandoned--but it was still concerning.

Surety was basically just an over-scaled Apollo LEM. A crew module and a disposable rocket base with legs, just twice the size.

The base became the upper module's launch platform for departure.

Assuming the base stayed level.

He walked around and couldn't see any sign of why this had happened. Except for the leg, everything seemed nominal.

The suit air was getting hot. He could hear the dim whine of the regulators trying to keep up with his exertion.

Completely different to a mining suit. With some of those you had to keep moving or freeze to death. The moon was cold, but mining ice at the poles made Antarctica seem balmy.

"Sorry Colin," Suze said. "There are five vessels in orbit. None of them has landing capacity."

"Okay. I'm going to have to climb on board and see what's up with Randy."

The most recent footsteps led right to the access ladder. Randy had gone back?

The internal comms might have broken down when the ship went over. Maybe he'd just stumbled and busted his radio.

There were redundancies though.

Bertelli didn't like to think of any reasons why Randy didn't use the alternatives.

"Are you sure you want to do that?" Suze said.

"Got to find him."

"What if it tips right over? With you on it."

"Risk I've got to take." He started doing the sums in his head. If they had to leave, there was spare oxygen on board. They could refill their tanks.

Once.

The supply was built into the Surety. If he could bring that with him he could just about walk to a rendezvous point.

On a single tank his range was no more than fifteen kilometers. Maybe twenty.

Assuming he wouldn't be walking back.

The capsule itself was very low volume. Cramped. Like the Orion, it didn't have an airlock.

They'd taken two excursions so far. It was rated for fifteen swap-outs. But if they stayed in there they had a couple of weeks of breathable air. Without counting the scrubbers.

It would be stinking inside by then.

Still, technically they could wait it out.

Bertelli put his hand on the ladder.

He didn't want to spend two weeks inside. Not with it at that angle. Suze was right; it could tip over at any time.

He put some weight on the ladder. It seemed firm.

They needed another solution.

He started climbing.

The ladder shook under his foot.

"Are you on?" Suze said.

"Two rungs up. Seems stable now."

He kept moving up. The normally level rungs angled down at the right and his boots slipped against the upright. He could feel the crushing.

"How's your oh-two?" Suze said.

"You tell me. I'm concentrating here."

"Your telemetry says seven point five liters. Nominal."

"Twenty minutes then."

"You shouldn't go out so far."

Bertelli sighed. He was almost at the top. "Tell you what. Why don't you give me the dressing-down when I'm safely back on Orion?"

Silence for a moment, then, "Copy that."

At the top of the ladder he nestled his feet into the exit step. There was nothing there to brace the side of his foot against. He gripped the vertical rungs beside the hatch.

There was a dinner-plate sized viewport in the hatch. Bertelli peered in.

And jerked back.

His feet slipped.

As he scrabbled for balance one of his hands came loose.

He got it on the other rung. With some pulling he managed to get himself on again.

"All right?" Suze said. "Heard you yelp."

"Got a fright. That's all." He wasn't going to tell her just yet.

Peering in the window again, he saw Randy.

He lay against the sample return locker. In the narrow space only his head and torso were visible. He was in his suit, but his helmet was off.

He wasn't moving.

Unconscious. Or worse.

Bertelli swore.

"Language," Suze said.

"Problem down here."

"I know that."

"What's your telemetry on Randy? Has he still got his medical sensors on?" A holdover from old NASA. Voluntary now, but Randy was a stickler for it. Liked to contribute every bit of science he could.

"Everything's nominal," Suze said. "Heart rate, breathing. BP's a bit low. Like he's sleeping."

Unconscious then.

Bertelli tapped on the window. With his glove on it would be as loud as a butterfly kiss.

Taking the rock hammer from his waist he knocked it on the hatch.

Silent to him, but it should ring through the capsule like a gong.

Randy didn't stir.

Trying a couple of times more, Bertelli figured what had happened.

Randy had been standing at the download console when the leg failed. He'd stumbled back, maybe hit his head.

But why did he have his helmet off?

Why was he even inside?

Where he was supposed to be was halfway between Bertelli's waypoint and Surety.

Protocols.

"He's down," Bertelli said. "Like maybe he's hit his head or something."

Suze didn't reply.

Bertelli tapped again. "I think he's not coming to."

What had Randy been doing in the module at all?

Activating the dumb door panel, Bertelli tried to query the system. It didn't give a lot of information. The interior was pressurized. Seals were good. Power was good. Gyros were shot.


* * *


That was all he could get.

"I can't get inside," he told Suze. He wondered what he'd do if Randy had already been dead. Depressurizing the module and opening the door wouldn't make any difference.

Remembering what Suze had said about Randy's low BP, Bertelli looked in again.

Yes. There was some blood on the locker.

Randy needed medical assistance. Someone had to get in there.

Fast.

The only way in, without subjecting him to vacuum, was to dock with the Orion.

But there was no way to launch from this angle.

And no way for Orion to come down to them.

If Randy was going to survive they had to get Surety back up to orbit.

Bertelli realized that applied to him too. Just that there was no way to get inside. No way to tend to Randy. To open the hatch was to kill him.

"Suze?"

"Yeah."

"I need you to pass something on to Valerie."

"No you don't. You'll be seeing her in a couple of days."

"Sure. And if I don't, you can tell her from me that I'm sorry."

"Okay. And I've got a message for you from Valerie."

"Huh?" How was that possible?

"She says that you need to make sure you come home. Whatever it takes."

"Johnston's got kids." Jaimee was three and Samuel was nine months. On the way up both Bertelli and Suze had gotten sick of seeing the photos. Cute kids sure, but who needed to see the seven hundredth photo of the baby asleep? Suze did better with that than he did.

"Yeah. Valerie's pregnant."

Bertelli smiled. "You were doing okay until then."

"Well, she could be."

He let his smile fade. There weren't going to be any kids for them. Plumbing problems on both sides. There was only Valerie.

Bertelli sucked in his breath.

Valerie.

He focused back on his task. Licking his dry lips, he stepped back down. Standing on the moon's surface again he took another sip of water.

If he had power tools and six hours, he could cut the other two legs off. The whole thing would settle down onto the open landing nacelles. Nice and level.

If he had those kinds of tools.

And if he had the luck of that lottery winner from a couple of years back.

Two billion dollars. With a ticket bought on the spur of the moment. Minutes before the cut-off for the draw. And the ticket was lost for a month. And went through the laundry.

When she went to get the prize--just before the money would have been declared unclaimed--the ticket was barely legible.

That kind of luck.

Bertelli wasn't going to be setting Surety back upright. Not with the best will in the world.

"Suze? Except for the angle, Surety's still in good shape, right?"

"You can't launch. If the landing section collapses further you're going to turn into a fireball."

"But everything's in reasonable shape, right?"

Hesitation, then a curt, "Yes."

"Okay. Can you launch her on remote?"

"Yes." The same curt tone.

"Start the procedure."

"I've got four minutes left in line-of-sight. Then you're going to lose me."

"Route the signal." Surely there was a lunar satellite she could bounce off.

Suze tsked. "Bad coincidence there. Nothing to route from. Schröedinger's in a bad spot. Those satellites I guess you're thinking about? Nothing high or local."

Bertelli thought fast. He needed to get her to send him control.

He could fly it out himself using the suit's command systems. They were pretty primitive, but it was just launching. Suze could chase them down in Orion later.

That's what the command ship was built for.

"Also," she said. "I've run launch scenarios. Assuming the landing section actually doesn't collapse under you, the Surety will burn too much fuel trying to compensate for the angle. Even if you didn't rip out the gimbals, you're not going to have enough fuel after that to make orbit."

"This is the moon we're talking about." The escape delta-v was only 2400 meters per second.

But of course the module only carried enough fuel for that and some maneuvering.

Bertelli whacked his hammer against the side of the lander. There was still plenty of extra fuel in there. Randy had made a pinpoint perfect landing. Not a drop wasted.

Of course there was no way to get it siphoned over into Surety.

"Sit tight until I come around again," Suze said. He could hear the concern in her voice. Worried that they wouldn't live long enough.

"Sit tight," he said.

"I'm still working with Houston on alternatives. We're bound to come up with something."

"I bet. Listen. Download the remote control system to my suit." He would figure this out.

"Can't do it."

"Start now. I'm in charge here."

"I mean it'll take three minutes to just sync. I don't even know if your suit's got enough memory for it anyway."

"Start. Just start."

Suze sighed. Bertelli saw a tell-tale light on his helmet's inner rim. The download had started.

"What are you going to do with it? You can't launch."

"See if I can scramble something from the code."

"I don't follow."

"Don't worry. Now get me a link to Cooper P mine. I need to talk to someone."

"The Australians?"

"You've got a minute and a half."

"All right."

Bertelli unrolled his palm screen and started deleting data. Geology. Temperature. Lux.

Gigabytes of stuff.

He hoped it made space for the remote console.

If that rover had been working he could have driven a few hundred miles in it. Maybe. If the battery held out.

That might have put him within walking distance of one of the bases.

With lunar gravity he could easily cover a hundred miles on foot. Probably more. Even with the suit.

Perhaps it was just as well the rover was frozen. It meant he didn't have to make that difficult choice of abandoning Johnston.

There were just thirty seconds left before silence when Suze came back.

"Colin?"

"Go."

"All right. I've got a link to the Aussies."

"Thanks. Who's there?"

"Colin Bertelli!" He recognized the voice right away. Brian Thorpe. One of the old-timers. He'd been at the south pole for years before Bertelli had even arrived.

"Brian. Can you-"

"So," Thorpe said. "What's the news? I hear you're still single. I-"

"Listen," Bertelli said. "I've got a situation here. I'm about to lose my contact."

"I'm listening."

"I'm at Schröedinger. Busted launch vehicle."

"Copy that. Got nothing can reach you."

"Yeah. Can you get something to..."

Static hissed at him. Faded.

Suze had gone over the horizon.

Bertelli cursed. He was on his own.

Once communications would have been continuous. Lunar excursions were just too routine now.

Bad luck for him.

He looked up at Surety again. Her white faceted cone glinted back at him. The sun's stark white light could be blinding.

At least that was something that was going to be reliable. With 360 hours of continuous daylight the moon was tough. Well-lit, but harsh.

He would be dead long before the intensity of light was a problem. He moved into the Surety's shadow anyway.

Taking out his slate display. He looked at the data Suze had sent. Reading through the download, he saw there was crucial information missing.

Her download was incomplete.

He had start and ignition sequences. Unlatching. Gyro and gimbal control. Load balance.

No attitude retros.

All this data was just a couple of meters away. Locked up inside Surety's computer. Inaccessible from here.

With what he had he could launch Surety and have a fair shot at keeping her upright. But without those retros--which were really only for docking maneuvering, not a launch at all--he would struggle.

Really struggle.

This was going to take a physical mod.

He looked up at Surety's external locker. Their stupid rover had been stored in there.

Quickly he got back up the ladder. The rover's locker had been designed to take return samples and some of the science packs that had arrived on the base.

Plenty of space for him to squeeze in and find the internal connections.

Or not plenty of space. He found that out as he attempted to get inside.

Too narrow.

The rover locker was never meant to accommodate an astronaut.

He was going to have to remove his backpack. Slim as it was, the life-support system added too much width.

Working fast, he sealed and uncoupled the main tube. The system was integrated into the suit. It took two people to get it off. But it did have an emergency release. Just in case one member of the crew had become incapacitated. Designed to be used inside the main cabin. Pressurized.

Not in the vacuum of the moon's surface.

Bertelli got it shucked off. The internal reservoir gave him about fifteen minutes. Enough time to get hooked up again.

He stuffed the pack into the locker. Right away he followed. It took some shimmying. He had to slide along into the space. His faceplate bumped against the top.

That would confuse them, he thought. If it cracked and he depressurized, the whole situation would confound the investigators.

He needed to concentrate. The suit was starting to stink of his own exhalations.

Getting the hoses back in place was tough. He had to work by feel. He was used to gloves. Thick, stiff. No feedback.

He got the oxygen tube in first.

Nothing flowed.

With his left arm crushing against his neck, he adjusted the connection. The electronics synced. His headset gave a quiet bleep.

Cool air washed in.

He still had red lights at the helmet rim. Disconnecting the pack had cost him radio and main telemetry.

Worry about that later. At least he had oxygen. He needed to focus on getting the ship out of here.

Just as well Suze was behind the moon. Nothing in the manuals sanctioned what he was about to do.

With the rock hammer he chipped at one of the aluminum joins. There wasn't much reach. He couldn't get anything like a good swing. It took about fifty blows.

The join split.

He wedged the chisel end in. Twisted.

The hammer vibrated in his hand as the aluminum tore.

Just as well he couldn't hear it.

Bertelli kept tearing. Wires and conduits inside. He caught a couple of cables with the hammer's tip and stopped.

What he needed was a USB port.

But that would be far too convenient.

He was just going to have to look for a data cable.

Taking care not to snag wires, he kept tearing. The aluminum folded out of the way.

Reaching in he felt around the wires. The internal hull was just inches away. He reminded himself to be real careful not to puncture that.

The whole reason to do this was to give Randy a chance. If he wasn't dead already.

Bertelli reminded himself that Suze had seen Randy's bio telemetry. He'd been alive twenty minutes ago.

If he could just find something useful, Bertelli knew might be able to get them both out of here.

Back in training they'd been over the whole schematic. Theoretically he'd seen every part of Surety diagrammed out. Every connection, every switch.

He knew there was something somewhere here.

He kept on tearing.

The suit bleeped again. Oxygen level.

Breathing too hard. Too fast.

Sweating too.

If their situations had been reversed he was sure Randy would have had some Zen calming technique to extend out his air. To focus on the task.

Bertelli was far too practical for that. He wondered if Randy would have ripped holes in a spacecraft looking for a way to override the system.

Bertelli laughed.

Sweat dripped into his eyes.

"Valerie," he said. "Sorry. I tried."

The suit bleeped again.

"I really tried."

He blinked, but more sweat just came. Spacesuits weren't designed for horizontal work.

All he needed to do was wipe his forehead. Too bad about the faceplate.

There. He saw a data cable.

A black plastic sheath. Thicker than the others.

He grabbed it.

Quickly he traced it through the maze of others.

Followed it all the way to its plug.

Not compatible with his slate. Well, he hadn't expected that, but he could wire it up. At least he knew the order of the pins.

When he pulled the plug it didn't budge.

He twisted around, tried again.

The suit gave a double bleep. He needed to replace his tanks.

Soon.

Another go at yanking the plug.

"Valerie," he whispered. He needed some kind of motivation.

Sticking the hammer's chisel in against the plug he wrenched.

Nothing.

Great, he thought, something with a quality build. Kind of reassuring really.

Too bad the landing struts hadn't had the same kind of attention.

Three bleeps.

He flipped the hammer around and hit the plug with the striking face.

The hammer bounced back.

With a grunt he hit it again.

He was going to die here. Ignominious. Stuck on his back in the rover locker.

Better to die out on the surface. Kicking at the regolith. Stamping his boot prints into the dust. Looking up at the stars.

That was how.

He slithered out a foot.

With a smile he thought he could write Valerie's name in the dust. She knew anyway, but then she would really know.

Valerie.

She was the reason he couldn't get out and do that. He owed it to her to try everything. Not just Valerie, he thought. He owed it to Randy as well.

Twisting, he swung at the plug again.

It shattered. Plastic shards shot around the space.

The cable dropped down.

Bertelli grinned. Great workmanship succumbs to geology hammer.

He grabbed the cable.

The plug had completely shattered. The pins were bent and twisted. Some had sheared off entirely.

This was going to take some work.

Holding the slate beside his faceplate he prized the casing open. The bezel flapped away.

Don't crack the screen, he told himself.

He slipped the multitool from the belt and opened the pliers. With a squeeze the cable gave up its sheathing. He splayed the wires out.

Guesswork, he thought.

And years of experience jury-rigging equipment in the mines.

Using the corner tip of the hammer's chisel again, he eased some wires out from the docking jack.

That was easier.

The suit's bleeping had become continuous now. He tried to shut it out.

Fifteen wires.

Four connections in the slate's socket.

Almost like a lottery. He hoped he didn't fry everything on his first attempt.

It was tough work. His heavy gloves were okay for working with wrenches and hammers. Not so great for delicate electronics.

Using the pliers he got the first connection made. Twisted them together.

Second connection. Third.

When he got the fourth connection in the first one came apart.

Cursing, he tried again.

When he got it back on again he tried the slate. The de-framed screen came on all right. No sign of the external connection.

He pulled one wire and connected the next.

This was no way to fly a spacecraft.

Still nothing.

Breaking and making new connections, the screen stayed blank. He wondered how many possible combinations there were.

Something like thirty thousand possible connection variations?

"Really a lottery," he said.

The air stank now. Hot and humid.

What he was counting on was that the systems were more fluid than that. So long as one connection was right, he hoped, the whole thing would work.

He pulled off one wire, connected the next.

Rinse and repeat.

On his twelfth try the Surety's system came up on the slate. He would have whooped but the air was like treacle.

Careful not the damage his connections he worked through the access levels. He found the launch controls quickly.

Very limited.

Nothing like the helm inside.

With this he had no gimbal control. No retro rocket control. No throttle.

Ignition. Shut-down.

That was it.

"Just one break," he told the ship.

Bertelli knew the ship would manage its own gimbals. It was programmed to fly upright. Assuming they made it clear of the lander, the Surety would swing its way upright and aim for space.

The problem was, if she did that her fuel reserves might deplete much too fast. And she would know. The ship would fly an abort course and attempt a soft-landing. She was flat-based enough to probably stay upright. Her center of gravity was lower than the landing stack, the framework was strong enough to hold.

It was an emergency protocol only. It assumed that all other options were exhausted. Land with a reasonable degree of safety. Sit tight and wait for rescue.

The protocol assumed that the crew were safely on board.

There were sufficient supplies to wait it out. Rescue might take a couple of days. Might take a week.

Only he wasn't in the crew compartment. He couldn't access any of that. Life support. Food. Water.

He was stuck here in this little compartment, hacking his way into her.

With next to no air.

He was tempted to try another combination of wires. Maybe if he got it right he could access the whole system and override those contingencies. Actually fly the thing.

He sighed. He could feel his vision blurring. His breathing rate increasing.

Sure he could fly it like this. Lying on his back in an eighteen inch high gap. With a slate spliced into Surety with twisted wires.

And if he did nothing, at least Randy might survive. The air circulation in the cabin would continue. Someone might get to him in a day or so.

Bertelli looked at the slate.

Ignition. Shut-down.

Or, he thought, ignore.

That's it. Good luck Randy.

Good luck Valerie.

"I'll miss you," he whispered. He felt sleepy.

As he went to pull out the wires, Bertelli remembered the maps. His old mining set. Back from the south pole.

Those were the days.

Roughnecking and being real makeshift.

The guys would be proud of his attempt here. He hoped someone told them.

The maps. Something about the maps.

Almost unconsciously he opened up the set.

The south pole. Schröedinger. Aitken. Zeeman. Such a beautiful landscape.

That's right, he thought. He didn't want to die stuck inside the can like this. He wanted to look up at the stars.

Staring at the map, he felt his concentration going.

The south pole was only five hundred kilometers away.

Lunar escape velocity was 2400 meters per second. He wasn't going to get that out of her.

But what if he didn't try to escape?

Ignition. Shut-down.

He tapped back up two menus. Found navigation.

Destination.

Locked out. It only wanted to get to orbit.

"I'll fix you," he said. His voice sounded like a wheeze.

He pulled up the map overlays and some old mining data.

Bertelli grinned.

The old systems didn't have the formal niceties of NASA.

Worth a shot.

With a couple of taps the map loaded through the destination system. Surety didn't like it, but she accepted the data.

Destination: south pole.

This was, he thought, the last time anyone would ever be able to do that. NASA would plug that software hole with fifteen hundred lines of code. And cover that with another fifteen hundred lines.

As he felt himself blacking out, he squinted at the slate.

Destination: south pole.

Ignition. Shut-down.

His finger wavered. He felt punch-drunk. This is what it's like to die, he thought.

He tapped Ignition.

Surety shuddered. Light blazed around him and he thought of Valerie.

Smiling. Laughing.

"Valerie," he said. "I did my best."

The light faded. He wasn't sure if it was from lifting off or from dying.

Probably dying.

He didn't feel heavy at all. He felt light.

Airless or weightless.

The world shimmered around him. He hoped Randy made it.

He hoped Valerie did okay.

Haze.

Black.

Haze.

That was surprising.

He could feel the shuddering again. But it wasn't Surety.

There were lights overhead.

The air felt cool and crisp. He smelled pineapples. Weird.

Someone speaking.

"Got him," they said.

Male. An Australian accent.

Bertelli blinked. He wasn't in his suit any more. But he was still lying on his back. Moving. They were carrying him. More voices, jabbering and yelling. Something about cutting into the capsule.

His vision felt constricted, like he was looking through a dark tube. He bent his head up and someone pushed it back down.

Taking another breath of the sweet air, he let them. After a moment they set him down. He was in a small room with a poster of the Sydney Opera House and SuperSpire on the wall.

Aussies.

Someone looked down at him. Brian Thorpe. "Sheesh. Did you come screaming in at us?"

"You look older," Bertelli said.

"Back at you." Thorpe grinned. Toothy.

"Thanks. How's Randy?"

"Alive. We're getting him out, don't worry. Put a bubble over the hatch and we'll get a helmet on him. Are you going to tell me how and why you pulled that?"

Bertelli blinked. "Pulled what?"

Thorpe shook his head. His raggedy blonde hair shivered. "So. Here's what I know. You called me up. Some problem. So I start figuring your location. You were close but not that close. Comms went down, but I knew you had a busted ship. We were going to send Scooter over in a wagon but then you took off. The monitors tracked you coming in. You'll want to see the footage."

"Footage?" Bertelli was only half-listening. He was glad it had worked. Glad he would see Valerie again.

"Video," Thorpe said. "You came in fast. On a low arc. Not even trying for orbit. And you swung the ship around somehow. Landed on her engines. Like she was always built to do that."

"How about that?" Bertelli said.

"And we found you in the sample locker. Gutsy. NASA's been on the horn to us. I think they're going to give you a medal and fire you."

Bertelli laughed. "Did you talk to Suze?"

"Sure. She wants to punch you then take you out for a drink."

"Well," he said. "I'll let her hit me, but I've already got someone who might take me out for a drink." A drink and a meal and a walk on the beach. In the moonlight.

"You?"

Bertelli sighed. "Yes me. Her name's Valerie. And actually if you let me use to radio I'd like to give her a call. Tell her that I'm coming home."



Copyright © 2014 Sean Monaghan


Sean Monaghan has studied and worked around the world and currently lives back in his native New Zealand. His stories have appeared in Asimov's, Perihelion and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, among others. Website: seanmonaghan.com


© 2017 Baen Publishing Enterprises