. That Undiscovered Country by Nancy Fulda - Baen Books

That Undiscovered Country

by Nancy Fulda




The Gary Hudson Exospheric Laboratory rotated lazily against an expanse of brilliant stars. Sunlight glinted off its blockish airlock, accentuating the trellises that joined its three concentric rings.

Norma Jean Goodwyn, cofounder of the laboratory and currently its chief administrator, stood with her back to the habitat's medical office and glared into the star-spattered void.

She was not usually one to gawk at viewports. She'd been alive for twelve decades and spent three of them in orbit; by now, the scenery was routine. Comfortable. Like the feel of a socket wrench between her fingers, or the sound of laughter from a nearby room.

Like a friend who hasn't betrayed you yet.

An amused voice drifted over her shoulder: “I see you've spoken with Akash.”

“I am not,” Norma said without turning from the window, “letting him put some glitchy mechanical contraption into my chest.”

Boney knuckles nudged her aside, and Nkiruka Azikiwe joined her at the railing. Wiry and wizened, but far from frail, Nkiruka moved with sprightly precision. She cast a calculating glance toward Norma. “A mechanical heart isn't the end of the world, you know.”

“The things aren't reliable.”

“Admit it. You're scared.”

“Of course not! I just—it's just. . . ”

Norma faltered. How could she explain? Artificial hearts were common enough, nowadays, but they were still sadly lacking. They seemed somehow a desperate woman's ploy—weak fingers snagging to hang onto life, any sort of life, for just a few moments longer. She knew where that path led, and she refused to follow it.

Norma's hands, withered and leopard-spotted with the passage of time, kneaded the support rail set into the window. “I suppose Akash has already placed the order?”

Nkiruka hesitated, as though party to a secret and uncertain whether to reveal it. “It's coming up on an emergency payload tomorrow.”

What?” Norma's head spun around. Gravity seemed to evaporate, and she was grateful for the support rail beneath her palms. “He can't. . . That idiot! . . . ” Nkiruka was watching her with thinly veiled amusement. Norma took a rigid breath. “Do you have any idea how much it costs to expedite a payload through the space tether?”

“I don't, actually. I prefer to concentrate on my microorganisms and leave the finances to you administrative types.” Nkiruka's grin faded. “But I know Akash, and if he says your heart won't last until the next scheduled payload, then it won't.”

“He didn't say it won't last. He said it might not last.”

“He said you need a new one, and speaking for myself, if getting it here causes a little negative publicity, that's a price I'm willing to pay.”

Negative publicity is all those fools on Earth need to snatch this laboratory out from under us.” Norma gripped the cool security of the railing. It was her imagination, surely, that made her breath seem to come in such desperate bursts.

Nkiruka's brows drew down in concern. “Norma, is there something you haven't told us?”

“Yes. No. I don't know. . . Now that the lunar activists have agreed on a schematic, a moon base is looking like a real possibility. And Hudson Exospheric is perfectly situated to serve as a way station.”

Nkiruka cocked an eyebrow. “You think the lunies want to steal our habitat?”

“Why not? It's sturdy, self-sufficient, and commercially viable.” Norma's fingers drummed the railing. “Remember the scuffle over the International Space Station? Everyone knows the lunies bribed at least two officials.”

“Well, yes, but that was an abandoned piece of junk. The lunies may not have been legally entitled to it, but nobody else wanted it. This station is United Earth's leading institution on space biology and zero-gee manufacturing.”

Norma leaned toward Nkiruka. “You know that. And I know that, and so do a handful of university professors who follow research in those fields. But to the masses on Earth, this place is nothing but a big cemetery in the sky.”

“Now you're being paranoid.”

“I'm being realistic. It takes more than money to build a space habitat. Chad and I worked for ten years to get Hudson Exospheric's structural diagrams approved, and that was after we had funding. If the lunies can cut corners by snatching someone else's accomplishments, believe me, they'll try.”

Nkiruka's grunt was skeptical, but Norma felt the familiar, cold weight of certainty in her gut. Public support for Hudson Exospheric had never been strong. Politicians may have seen the logic of permitting senior citizens to establish mankind's first permanent settlement in space—how better to avoid the perils of low-gravity conception and a generation of children who could never return to Earth?—but the typical man on the street still had reservations about allowing the elderly to handle such a delicate task.

Norma had no doubt that the lunies could peddle her expensive heart delivery into a fiasco of public scrutiny and inevitable inquiries: How had Norma's deteriorating heart tissue gone undetected for so long? When had Hudson Exospheric's technicians last been evaluated by an accredited source? Might the colony's residents be growing—dare one say it—dangerously decrepit in their waning years?

Norma leaned into the window's indentation, her pale eyes studying the stars. “To the folks on Earth, we're nothing but a bunch of doddering cripples. Old people waiting to die.”

“That's nonsense. We built this place, rivet by rivet — and those EVA suits get awfully sweaty after a while, I must say. If anybody's qualified to keep Hudson Exospheric up and running, it's us.”

Us. The e-generation. That group of citizens who'd ridden the wave of technical innovation ever since biomeds boomed in the 2030s, and who as a consequence had spent half their lives pushing against other people's expectations of age.

Norma's late husband, Chad, had said it best. “Face it,” he'd growled after being forced into retirement for the third time. “We're the oldest generation on the planet, and it's going to stay that way until we die. It doesn't matter how good our résumés are. As long as we're mired in a bureaucracy run by people younger than we are, we're going to have to prove and re-prove our worth every decade.”

That had been the beginning of Hudson Exospheric. The idea had been a joke, at first: a way to show those uppity mid-lifers that being a senior citizen didn't automatically render you incompetent. They used to laugh about it with their friends, evenings, and then—

Then the space tether finally got up and running, and the idea didn't sound so ludicrous after all.

Norma's fingers continued to drum against the support rail. The speckled backs of her hands rose and fell with the rhythm of her thoughts.

This emergency heart shipment might be precisely the break the lunies had been waiting for. The image of a multibillion-dollar space habitat squandered in the name of geriatric sovereignty raised hackles all across Earth. The lunies need only build on that fear to wrest Hudson Exospheric from her.

And if the lunar activists won, Norma and every other member of her generation would be branded as senile old coots, unfit to build a space station, unfit even to live on it. They would be back fighting uphill battles every time they applied for a job, back arguing with relatives over whether they could safely live alone in a house. No one would entrust them with anything, ever again.

Norma's hands froze, clamped like ice around the railing. A stubborn, uneven line formed at her lips.

So help her, she was not going to let it happen.


#


Norma arrived in her office to discover five urgent messages from Earth. The first was a letter of inquiry from her insurance company, requesting confirmation of her physician's current standing with his nation's medical association.

The second was a courtesy call from the adjoint secretary of the United Earth Assembly, notifying her that Hudson Exospheric's colonization charter had been called for review according to section 12, paragraph 14 of the United Earth Constitution, the inquiry to be directed by the Department of Public Health.

The third, fourth, and fifth messages were automated notifications of newsworthy events related to Hudson Exospheric. Norma's expression hardened as she read.

“Of all the—Maximilian!” she shouted, startling workers up and down the corridor. Living constraints aboard an orbital habitat being what they were, Norma's "office" was actually a cubby hole along a heavily crowded walkway that served both as the colony's administrative headquarters and as a convenient shortcut between the drop chutes and the cafeteria.

Maximilian appeared from the spinward direction, head ducked in deference to the shallow ceiling. His hair hovered about his skull in a wispy halo. A resonant thump sounded each time the base of his gnarled hickory walking stick struck the floor.

“That's it,” he grunted, propping his elbow on the back of Norma's chair. “I want the legal offices moved closer to the doorway. I'm too old for all this stooping.”

“Blame the engineers,” Norma said. “On second thought, thank them for making the industrial levels, at least, higher than two meters. Take a look at this.” She gestured towards her work screen. “Can they do this?”

Maximilian scanned the open message, then reached past Norma's shoulder to scroll through the others.

“Hmph,” he said finally. “That happened fast.” He stretched his vertebrae, and his voice took on a professional timbre. “Yes, they can do this. The United Earth Assembly may review—and revoke, if necessary—any charter for orbital habitation granted by that body.”

“I know all that,” Norma said irritably. “But they can't possibly have amassed enough evidence for a charter hearing so quickly. I expected public outcry, or a call for independent auditors to inspect the station. Not. . . ”

Not. . . whatever this was.

Norma had the unpleasant feeling of being outmaneuvered. She'd walked into her office ready to begin an aggressive public relations campaign: Interviews, press releases. . . enough bravado to convince the public that one expedited payload did not constitute a health crisis. Instead, the rug of public opinion had been swept out from under her, to be replaced by the far more dubious soil of political repartee.

Norma disliked the new playing field. Public opinion could be swayed. Political opinion, now. . . Political opinion could only be purchased, and Hudson Exospheric didn't deal in the right currency. They didn't even have a voice in the United Assembly.

“If United Earth revokes our charter,” Norma said slowly, “then Hudson Exospheric and all its equipment becomes unclaimed territory, which United Earth can reapportion as it chooses.”

“Yes, that was one of the provisions of the initial research grant. Although the habitat rings have been expanded since then. We might be able to contest a reapportionment on the basis that the colony is partially privately owned.”

“Not good enough.”

Norma's mind raced. She'd been blindsided, robbed of any political leverage. Oh, she had friends in the United Assembly, good ones, even. But they couldn't push her cause effectively without a few days to prepare, and the hearing was scheduled to begin in five hours.

Rushing into a hearing was, Norma conceded, a brilliant decision on her opponents' part. The hideous logic of it made her want to weep. Or fume. Or something.

She rose and began to pace.

“How do we fight this, Max?”

“There's nothing to fight yet. They've scheduled a closed hearing, we've no way to access the meeting's minutes or even know which consultants they've called in.”

In other words, they were blind and deaf.

And out-gunned.

Norma's pacing grew vigorous. In the narrow confines of the corridor, the effect was much like a tiger prowling its cage. “Our opponents' game hinges on demonstrating that we've violated our charter. Since the inquiry is being conducted by the Board of Public Health, they'll have to show that medical care in this colony does not meet United Earth standards.

“Which it does. Akash is the most competent doctor I've ever met. And I've known quite a few. When will those fools on Earth stop doubting our intelligence just because we're old?”

Norma's heart was pattering. She placed a hand on the back of her chair and paused to catch her breath.

Maximilian watched gravely. “Norma,” he said. “About your heart. . . ”

“Oh for—is there anyone on this habitat who doesn't know about that yet?”

Maximilian's wrinkles deepened. “There may be a few fellows on sanitation duty who haven't gotten word.” He sobered and arched his eyebrows in an authoritative expression. “Now, young lady—and I'm allowed to call you that, seeing as I'm twelve years older than you are—you listen to me. You couldn't have stopped this. No one could have. So don't you go chewing on Akash because he ordered that heart without consulting you first.”

“Who says I'm going to?”

Maximilian held up a hand to forestall further protest. “He's a doctor. He did what was best for his patient, and politics be damned. It's one of the reasons I like him. But even if he hadn't ordered the heart, our charter would have been called into question soon enough. There are too many space agencies jostling for power right now. One of them would have found an excuse. Or made one.”

Norma exhaled heavily. With a slight grunt, she settled into her chair and swiveled it to face Maximilian. “You know what's ironic about all this? I don't even want the heart.”

“You'd better rethink that.”

For a moment, Norma thought she hadn't heard right.

“Beg pardon?”

“I'm not talking about your personal preferences,” Maximilian continued. “Heaven knows, we've all got a line, and I'll not fault anyone for refusing to cross it. But if this hearing comes out badly, we're going to spend up to two years mired in appeals process.” He rested his weight on the cane and leaned inward. “I don't pretend our chances are good. But without you, we've no chance at all.”

“Don't be silly. I'm not the only person capable of running a habitat.”

“I'm not suggesting that you are. But you have thirty years of experience in this position, plus a hefty set of political connections. I'm not asking you this as a friend. I'm asking as a member of this colony. Take the heart. Don't make us fight this battle without a leader.”

Norma stared, dumbstruck, as he turned around and left.

The tap of Maximilian's walking stick receded down the hallway.


#


With nothing to fight until the results of the hearing were announced, Norma was forced into a waiting game. Once she'd placed calls to her contacts in United Earth and set Maximilian working on a formal appeal—just in case—the day vanished in a flurry of trivia. Messages, staff meetings, and local disputes all required attention. Nkiruka stopped by to report a case of patent infringement. A chemical spill in the synthetics laboratory threw off work schedules station-wide.

That evening, long after the other office workers retired to their beds, Norma flipped off her screen and stood to water the spider plants crammed around her work area. Her vision blurred as soon as she left her chair. Heart hammering, lips compressed against a sudden rushing breathlessness, she placed a wrinkled hand against the doorframe for support as she completed her evening chores.

Dizzy spells had plagued her throughout the day, a continuation of the pattern which had driven her, finally, to Akash's office for that long-overdue checkup. Now, traveling alone along the darkened corridor, Norma was forced to consider that Maximilian might be right: If she intended to aid Hudson Exospheric through the current crisis, she was going to need a mechanical heart.

The thought disturbed her. Norma had spent much of her childhood at her grandmother's bedside, watching nurses scurry in and out of the room, listening to the labored breathing of a woman who'd once had more gumption than the rest of the family combined. Near the end, Grandmama was not even allowed to get out of bed; the nurses were afraid she'd slip and break a bone.

Norma had sworn, all those long decades ago, that she'd never go that way: propped up on a heavily pillowed mattress, forbidden to lift anything heavier than an orange juice tumbler; dependent on others not because her body was too frail, but because their fear was too strong. Made smaller than she should be by their well-intentioned stifling.

It was late, and the hallways were deserted. In the faint glow of the floor lights, the ivy was nothing but shadows dangling from wall alcoves. Norma's feet whispered against the floor on the way to her sleeping cubby.

Snugly in bed, Norma stared for a long time into the dimness. Eventually she tabbed the laboratory's intercom and left two messages: One to the colony's work force coordinator, offering to join the volunteer crews preparing for tomorrow's emergency payload.

The other message was to Akash, telling him she'd report for heart surgery the next evening.


#


“Ready!” Norma called.

With a grating scrape, the man clinging to the ceiling unhinged the safety clamps and let the cutting torch drop.

Its descent was more amble than plummet; acceleration here on the inner ring was barely a quarter of earth standard. Norma adjusted for the coriolis effect, careful not to overexert herself, and intercepted it before it reached the floor. Her dizzy spells were a bit worse this morning, but she wasn't going to let that stop her from doing her share of the work. It was her heart that today's payload capsule would deliver, after all.

She loaded the cutter onto the transport cart and dusted her work gloves on her overalls. It felt good, moving around, working with her hands instead of sitting trapped at her desk. Like changing brake pads in her father's auto shop on Earth or welding heat radiators onto the habitat rings. Good, honest work, without political scuffling.

The next tool dropped—a massive metal-bender. Norma stowed it with the others. “That's it,” the man on the ceiling called. “Be sure to bring 'em back when you're done.”

Norma waved a polite farewell and pushed the cart into the drop chute. She clipped the gloves onto her tool belt and rode to the outer ring, ignoring the queasiness that plagued her stomach whenever she shifted acceleration levels.

The drop chute opened. Norma pushed the cart into the cramped corridor. Windows rolled past as she trundled along, mere centimeters bridging the space between the cart's edge and the wall. The ceiling, too, seemed to press against her.

Maximilian had once called these hallways claustrophobic, an appellation she had never agreed with. "Claustrophobic" to Norma Jean would always mean cramped hospital rooms and the smell of antiseptic, and your grandmother's frail hands clutching yours so tightly that your fingers go numb, because you're the only one in that whole bubbly, doting, Southern-bred family who knows your Grandmama isn't helpless, and so you're the only one she dares rely on for support.

And Grandmama died anyway, dammit.

Yet the tragedy hadn't been the death itself. Chad had died, too, and Norma had never resented it. He'd died on his feet, in an EVA accident helping add a new module to the habitat, not smothered to nonexistence by relatives desperate to shield him from every possible injury.

Norma was panting by the time she reached the airlock. She locked the cart's brakes into place and rested against the handle while she waited for the world to stop spinning.

Across the room, volunteers were sliding potted plants away from the airlock doors, cautious not to scuff the paneling. The windows here were floor-to-ceiling, made of transparent ceramic. Through them, Norma watched colonists in EVA suits inspect the free-flying grapple that would match momentum with the payload and maneuver it to the airlock.

“There you are!” Nkiruka waved a cheery hello and rested both forearms against a massive peace lily planter. Her face crinkled in a well-accustomed smile. “I forgot to bring the extension cables, so I sent Akash to fetch them. I mean, it's possible to dismantle a capsule without them, but — having tried once to get a good angle for the cutting torch with only five feet of cable—I can tell you it's really not worth the trouble.”

Norma smiled at the decades-old complaint. “Perhaps we should have built the drop chutes large enough to cart payload capsules down to the machine shop wholesale. The metal would be just as useful, and we'd save the trouble of cutting it up.”

I say we just start chucking the things down to low-earth orbit. This colony doesn't need to get any bigger.”

“Costs too much fuel,” Norma said automatically. Hudson Exospheric had, occasionally, sent a pod back, when there had been hand-written letters or other physical gifts to be delivered to the residents' relatives. The amount of fuel needed to get a capsule down to low-earth orbit just wasn't economical in most cases.

Nkiruka brushed the grit from her hands. “Not really. Fuel's only costly if you have to ship it from earth. We're sitting on five tons of liquid hydrogen that every resident in the colony would rather die than use.”

Norma opened her mouth to object, but thought better of it. Nkiruka had a point. In Hudson Exospheric's early days, it had seemed prudent to have an evacuation plan in place lest the bioregenerative systems fail and leave the inhabitants literally gasping for air. Rather than weighing down the habitat with emergency transport pods, they had elected to make the colony its own lifeboat, stocked with enough fuel to shift all three rings to near-earth orbit for rescue and salvage.

Apparently deciding she'd won the argument, Nkiruka moved to the next planter in need of repositioning. “What's the latest from Earth?”

Norma shook her head. “Nothing. They haven't said a word.”

Nkiruka frowned, a sentiment Norma agreed with. The charter hearings had concluded hours ago, but the Assembly had not yet announced the results. Could this strange silence be a positive sign?

“We've confirmed that the lunies are behind it, though?” Nkiruka asked.

“We think so. Maximilian traced three money trails to their organization. Not that it particularly matters.”

Norma's gaze drew inescapably to the windows, and to the delicate globe hanging in the darkness. Somewhere down there, too thin and fragile to see, the space tether whirled like a bolo, snatching payloads as they breached the atmosphere and flinging them into higher orbits. Right about now, if Norma made her guess, it was transferring momentum to the capsule which would deliver her artificial heart.

“Well,” Nkiruka said philosophically, “If it's gonna blow then it's gonna blow. I suppose they'll get around to telling us what they think eventually. Give me a hand with this rhododendron, will you?”

Norma complied, a decision she regretted when, a moment later, Akash entered the far door with a handful of cable. His physician's eye took on a critical gleam as he watched Norma straining to move the hip-high pot.

“Norma. . . ”

“Don't coddle me, Akash,” she said testily. “We're replacing this heart tonight, so there's no point squabbling over whether I'm mistreating it. I'm fine.”

Norma's body gave the lie to her words. She couldn't keep herself from snatching extra breaths between each sentence.

Akash's gaze grew, if possible, even more stern, but he either decided this wasn't a fight he was likely to win, or his mind was distracted by more pressing matters. “You should come over to the observatory,” he said abruptly. “Bernadette has a line-of-sight on the payload capsule.”

“And. . . ?” Norma prompted, mystified. She wasn't in the habit of viewing payloads through freefall telescopes.

“Just come see.”

#


Hudson Exospheric's observatory resembled nothing so much as an overfilled computer cubicle. The telescopes themselves drifted out there, stably situated at Lagrangian orbits respectively ahead of and behind the habitat. The data they broadcast was displayed at a cramped tangle of screens and keyboards shared by Bernadette and three other astronomers in a space large enough for only two people at a time. Indeed, the observatory was affectionately referred to as the "broom closet," and on one memorable April Fool's Day someone had gone so far as to stuff it with mops and dustpans. Bernadette had been livid, Norma recalled.

Bernadette seemed more perplexed than livid this morning, however. Her stout fingers skimmed across the keyboard with alacrity that defied their arthritic knobbiness. “There,” she said, a few moments after Norma, Nkiruka, and Akash had crowded behind her in the observatory's doorway. “That's the best view I can get; any more magnification and the optimization subroutines will break down.”

The dull oblong of the payload capsule hung near the center of the observatory's largest view screen. Even accounting for the pixilated haze of algorithmic magnification, Norma could tell that it looked. . . wrong. The smooth outer shell of the capsule was broken at three points by nodes that looked very much like thrusters, and an array of antennas clustered near the nose suggested that. . .

“That's a Human-Transport module,” she said suddenly.

Unlike the usual payload capsules, H-T modules were equipped with thrusters for the return to low-earth orbit and a communications relay for passengers traveling inside.

“Of all the. . . ” Nkiruka's voice was appalled. “Why didn't they notify us?”

Akash said: “Perhaps they were afraid we'd reject the passenger. So they sent the capsule without asking.”

“Well, they can send him or her straight back,” Norma said firmly. “Those modules carry enough air for a round trip. If we don't send the grappler to pick it up, they'll have no choice but to head home.”

“And take your artificial heart with them,” Akash pointed out.

Norma hesitated.

“How many people could fit in a capsule that size?” Nkiruka asked. Her voice was thoughtful. “Because it wouldn't take more than five or six armed men to seize control of the entire habitat.”

“They wouldn't dare,” Akash said.

They'd better not, Norma thought. Because Nkiruka was right. The colony had no firearms and no trained security personnel. She and Chad had discussed the possibility, in the early days, but in all the years they'd lived in orbit, their hand-picked, peaceable senior citizens had never proved to need a police force. Crime, it turned out, was for the young.

Or at least, Norma amended to herself, violent crime was. Hudson Exospheric had hosted its share of research fraud, to her regret, and one particularly nasty embezzlement case that had resulted in the perpetrator being sent back to Earth.

Bernadette was tapping at her keyboard again. “Based on the acceleration records. . . there can't be more than one or two people aboard. Otherwise it would have picked up less speed coming through the tether.”

“Two SWAT officers would do well enough,” Nkiruka muttered.

“They couldn't,” Norma said firmly. “It would be illegal entry—assault if they harmed anyone—and would start a political and public relations tangle that I can guarantee you no one in the United Earth bureaucracy wants.” She thought about it some more. “We'll seal the receiving area from the outside, just in case.”

No one seemed satisfied with that half-solution, but nobody offered any better ideas, either. Norma stared at the payload capsule, growing imperceptibly larger against the sleek blackness of the computer screen, and frowned.


#


The man who exited the capsule was. . . young, was the first thing Norma noticed. Hardly more than forty, his black Asian hair showing the merest speckle of gray. He stumbled slightly has he pulled his girth over the capsule's edge, clearly disoriented by the station's simulated gravity, and nearly knocked his head against the low ceiling of the airlock chamber.

Norma, Akash, and Nkiruka waited for him in the corridor. The rest of the colony's residents were watching the exchange by video feed, safely ensconced behind the sealed bulkheads at either end of the hallway. Safely, Norma decided wryly, but perhaps unnecessarily. The man edging his way through the narrow space between the wall and the capsule had a distinctly bureaucratic figure, and the heavy manila package tucked in the crook of his arm bore little resemblance to a weapon.

He reached the corridor, still looking off-balance, and straightened his spine for a formal greeting. “Mrs. Norma Jean Goodwyn?”

“Yes, that's me.”

“Joseph Hwang, UE Medical. I've been assigned to evaluate conditions here on Hudson Exospheric, and to deliver some rather important correspondence from United Earth.”

Norma ignored his proffered handshake.

“You are trespassing, Mr. Hwang,” she said coldly. “This habitat is private property, and you have not been invited aboard.”

Hwang's congenial expression faded. “I'm afraid the documents I carry change that situation, Mrs. Goodwyn. United Earth has rescinded Hudson Exospheric's charter. As of yesterday, this laboratory is no longer approved for habitation. I'm sorry—” To his credit, his contrition seemed sincere—but you'll need to maneuver the station down to low-earth orbit. From there, United Earth will arrange transportation to the surface.”

In the silence that followed this statement, Norma Jean became acutely aware of the gentle thrum of the ventilation system, the rustle of rhododendron fronds, the reflected glare of the sun through the corridor's windows.

“That's. . . a very serious set of claims,” she said finally.

Hwang hefted the manila bundle with both hands. “I assure you, the documents are all here, with all the proper signatures. United Earth's administrative offices are prepared to corroborate every statement. Under the circumstances, they felt it was better if I delivered the news first, in person.”

“Spineless, sneaking, mid-lifers,” Norma growled. “They knew if they told us any earlier, we'd never have let you aboard.”

Hwang almost smiled. “Probably. Look, I know this must be hard for you. For all of you. But please realize that I'm not the one who made the decision, and I don't have any power to change it. I'm just here to—”

“Snoop around in our business,” Nkiruka cut in. “Study our medical records, nitpick about whether we've all been given proper medical care. . . ”

“And especially, to look for evidence to justify United Earth's decision ex post facto,” Norma added softly. “They know they're on shaky ground, and they want you to find reasons why this habitat's residents aren't fit to operate it. Isn't that right?”

Hwang looked uncomfortable.

Norma was tempted to send him back into his capsule that instant, but sanity prevailed. Hudson Exospheric wasn't properly situated to launch a capsule back toward Earth, and it would be inhumane to make him wait in cramped confinement until the next launch window.

She sighed.

“Well, come along then, but don't expect to be given access to anything private. We'll review your paperwork and get back to you.”

At Norma's signal, the residents on the far side of the bulkheads released the seals. Hwang followed Norma through the crowded corridor, clearly uneasy at edging past so many bodies in the narrow hallway. Akash gestured for his attention.

“What about Norma's heart?“ Akash said. “Is it still in the payload capsule?“

Hwang's discomfiture increased. “United Earth didn't send it,” he said after an awkward pause. “They felt it would be better for you to have your surgery at the recreational space station in low earth orbit. Where it would be easier to provide follow-up treatment, if necessary.”

It seemed to Norma as though time froze for an instant before slowly thawing back to its normal rhythm.

“Of all the sick manipulations,” Nkiruka whispered. “They're holding your heart hostage to make sure we leave the habitat.”


#


Norma delegated Akash to show Hwang to the cafeteria and after that, if he wanted to stretch his muscles, to the gym. He gave her a concerned physician's glance as they departed. She gave him a glare.

As soon as they were out of sight, she leaned against the support rail and let her panting lungs catch up with her heart's insistent demands for more oxygen. Beside her, Nkiruka hefted the manila bundle she had collected from Hwang. “I'll take this to Maximilian. If there are loopholes in the paperwork, he'll find them.”

“I doubt he'll find anything,” Norma said. “Whoever's behind this will have made sure it's all official and proper. They've probably had the paperwork drawn up for months, waiting for the right opportunity to pounce.”

Hwang's arrival had changed everything. Norma had expected United Earth to revoke the charter, but she'd presumed there would be formal announcements, a chance to contest the decision. . . Not this steel-plated eviction notice.

With a sinking sensation, she realized she had been outmaneuvered again.

“We can still fight this,” Nkiruka said, sounding almost vicious in her determination. “Appeals procedures, lawsuits. . . ” Her voice trailed off as she thought it through. Any recourse they took would cost them time.

And time, right now, was Norma's enemy.

Norma would have fought anyway—and damn her heart and damn anyone who tried to tell her otherwise—if she'd thought Hudson Exospheric would come out victorious. But she and her colonists were trapped between hopeless choices: Surrender, or be defeated.

This isn't fair, Norma thought bitterly. This isn't how it should work. I don't want to fight and lose.

I need a way to win.

Nkiruka adjusted the package in her grip, seemed to be searching for something more to say, gave up the attempt, and headed off at a brisk walk.

Alone at last, Norma headed—not towards the drop chutes and the community areas where everyone else seemed to be congregating, but spinward, towards the agricultural ramp. The slope seemed to drag against her feet as she ascended. She stepped off the ramp, passed through the humidity lock, and entered the wheat fields.

Vast, Norma reflected, could be a surprisingly relative term. Like the colony's other agricultural areas, the wheat spanned the full width of the ring—nearly four meters from one wall to the other—and was hemmed by a ceiling of trellised, semi-opaque panels that left barely enough room for Norma to stand. But the field ran spinward and antispinward for nearly half a kilometer, far enough that the rippling grasses vanished into the curvature of the ring.

The ripening seed heads rustled pleasantly as Norma traversed the footpath, and the sunlight, redirected by an array of external mirrors, warmed her shoulders through the ceramics.

What would it be like, she wondered, to walk on native soil again? To wander through fields that stretched farther than the eye's capacity for sight?

Not worth the price.

There was no point in deluding herself. There would be no cheerful walks through sun-drenched fields, no daring hikes up steeply sloping mountainsides; not when thirty years of orbital living had reduced her bones to half their previous density. Earth had nothing to offer her—nothing to offer anyone on Hudson Exospheric—except hospital beds and dinner trays and potted Begonias viewed through window panes.

Norma's jaw grew tighter. Her hip pained her, and she was beginning to wish she'd taken time to fetch a walking cane from the tool rack next to the humidity lock. Yet she would not turn back.

Five minutes of exertion brought her to the edge of the wheat. Beyond, tomatoes and peppers sprouted in ordered rows, followed by soya and lettuce farther down the ring. Here and there between the lines, agriculturalists knelt to spread their fingers in moist soil, or inspected stalks for signs of malaise, or measured acidity levels. Norma greeted them as she passed, exchanging cheery pleasantries which, on this day of uncertainty, were likely as feigned on their part as they were on hers.

Norma was proud of this colony. She was especially proud of the bioregenerative system. Hudson Exospheric replenished its own air, recycled waste into biomass, produced its own food. . . it had been decades since they'd required supplements from Earth.

Because, of course, Hudson Exospheric had always been intended as a one-way trip. That was one of the reasons they'd limited residence to post-octogenarians in the first place. Dragging this marvel of self-sufficiency back into the stifling gravity of earth seemed a most hideous betrayal.

And yet—what else could she do? Norma might be able to stall United Earth for a month, or even a year. But they were outmatched in this little game of politics, as her opponents had already demonstrated twice.

She could refuse to comply with United Earth's edict, she supposed. But that would only bring peacekeeping forces to breach the habitat and compel the residents to leave.

She was halfway through the soya now. In the quiet warmth of the biome, Norma imagined she could hear the soft scrabbling of harvester ants as they traversed fresh stalks and delicate white blossoms. Something skittered between the rows. Norma glimpsed a sturdy, inch-long carapace, and smiled.

As she approached the next humidity lock, to her surprise, she encountered Akash and Hwang coming from the other direction.

“Yes,” Hwang was saying, “but cockroaches?”

“They're hardy, nutritious, and easy to breed,” Norma interjected by way of greeting. “And they snuck out of the tropical biome again. Pierre's going to be furious.”

“You saw one, too?” Akash's relief was apparent. “Mr. Hwang and I aren't the ones who let it through the humidity lock, then. Or at least,” he amended, “not the only ones.”

“Touring the habitat?” Norma asked with polite effort. She did not wish to converse with Hwang, but reminded herself firmly that he was as much a pawn in this power scuffle as the rest of them.

“Yes. Akash said it would take the local lawyer a while to finish reviewing the documents, so I asked to be shown around. I confess, Hudson Exospheric isn't. . . anything like what I expected.”

“Most things aren't, once you look closely.”

Hwang cocked his head in acknowledgement. “I. . . hope you understand. I was assigned to this investigation because United Earth needed my skill set. I didn't ask for it. I don't necessarily approve of it.” He paused, a hint of iron creeping into his voice. “But I will carry it out.”

Norma sighed. “No one expects any different from you.” She glanced sidelong. “Are you required to report your private conversations to your superiors?”

“Are you kidding? At United Earth, if it's not on paper, it didn't happen.”

Norma chuckled. “I take it that means 'no.'”

She joined Hwang and Akash in walking back along the route she had come. Hwang studied everything—the crops, the soil, the ventilation system, the overhead trellis—with the air of a man who'd expected to enter a police box, and walked into a garden instead.

His astonishment did not surprise her. Space habitats had a reputation as sterile, metallic structures, but Hudson Exospheric was dominated by organics. Two-thirds of the walkspace was devoted to bioregeneration, and in the residence regions, wood and wallpaper made far more pragmatic paneling, given the cost of shipping heavy materials up from Earth, than steel.

“Do you know what convinced me to join the colony?” Akash said conversationally. He spread his hand to indicate the crop fields. “These. The plants. The engineering diagrams were of interest, but the biomass projections. . . When I saw that men could live, untethered from the nourishment of Earth. . . That is when I knew I must come into space.”

“Interesting choice of words,” Hwang said quietly. “Because it's the space tether that shackles you. If it wasn't so easy to lob payloads up here, no one on Earth could afford to enforce the evacuation order.”

Norma stopped walking.

“Akash,” she said slowly. “How far can the tether fling payloads?”

Akash shrugged. “The original plan was to launch payloads to Mars. But the funding floundered and the project remains incomplete.”

“That's what I remember, too. Given the current length and speed of the tether. . . ”

Norma glanced at Hwang. Was it safe to discuss this in front of him?

Too late. He'd already caught the drift of her thought. “Hudson Exospheric marks the edge of its range,” he said with an enlightened expression. “At least for payloads of any significant weight.”

“Akash,” Norma said urgently, “this habitat stores over five tons of combustible fuel. Instead of using it to take us to near Earth orbit, let's go farther out.”

“To the Earth/Moon Lagrangian?”

“Why not? We'd have built the station there in the first place if we'd known how to get materials out that far. Easier access to asteroids, and to the Moon, too, someday.”

“Norma—it won't work. The space tether's not the only way to launch a military force into high orbit.”

Norma waved a disparaging hand. “I know, I know. . . But: If we use most of our fuel getting out there, how are they going to bring us back in, hm? And we can use electromagnetic tethers to maintain position there.”

“That's no good,” Hwang said suddenly. He cringed under Norma and Akash's combined stares. “Earth's magnetosphere is too weak at the L4/L5 orbits. You won't get enough drag for orbital adjustments.”

“I was thinking of the L1 orbit, at the gravitational balance point between Earth and the Moon,” Norma said. Her gaze on Hwang intensified. “But that was a very astute observation.”

Hwang shrugged. “United Earth made a point of assigning this job to someone with a basic education in astrodynamics.”

“Hm.” Norma began, despite herself, to raise her opinion of their unwelcome guest.

Akash was ticking out more objections on his fingers. “No way to build new solar panels, no manufacturing capacity for silicon chips, no backup support if we collide with an asteroid.”

“No earthquakes, no tsunamis, no flooding. . . ” Norma smiled wryly. “Natural disasters happen everywhere. Our risks aren't so much worse than any other domicile. We can mine silicates from passing asteroids; carbon, too. At least one or two will pass close enough for the grappler to intercept, over the next few years.”

Hwang added, eagerly, “And the tethers could provide supplemental energy when they're not being used for orbit adjustments.” He hesitated, seemed to remember his official capacity, and glanced at the dirt. “Um. Not that I support this idea, or anything.”

Norma nodded in approval. “And if anyone comes after us, we'll disrupt the orbit and slingshot out past the Moon.”

“It's. . . not the worst idea you've ever had,” Akash said diplomatically.

“It's pure genius and you know it. Besides. . . ” Norma's voice softened. “We've nowhere else to go.”

“The recreational space station in low Earth orbit. . . ”

“Doesn't have the capacity to take all of us. Most of our people would end up on Earth. In wheelchairs.”

From Akash's pained expression, she knew he agreed with this analysis.

“I suppose,” he said finally, “that only leaves the matter of your heart.”

An uncomfortable silence settled over the trio.

“My heart. . . ” Norma said slowly. “Will take care of itself. Or not. The colony comes first.”

She paused for breath. “Mr. Hwang. Hudson Exospheric will give you access to our medical records, our personnel, whatever you require to complete your investigation. However, what we choose to do after you leave the habitat is our own business.”

Hwang nodded, looking far more comfortable than he had when he'd boarded the residence ring.

Norma grew breathless on the long trek back to the habitation areas, during which she and the others bantered, plotted, and nearly trod on three cockroaches. As they neared the habitat ramp, Akash strode ahead to fetch her a walking cane.

Norma contemplated the burnished chestnut of the cane's handle, extended from Akash's hand. She had always been afraid of crutches. Always feared that to accept aid was to lose a piece of oneself.

Perhaps, she thought, extending a gnarled palm to accept the gift, it wasn't necessarily so.

Perhaps one might find a piece of oneself, instead.


#


Norma called for a vote, of course. The colony's residents professed her scheme to be everything from utter madness to sheer brilliance, but when they finally cast the ballots, although nearly a quarter of the colony abstained, not a single voice was opposed.

By the time she and Maximilian had completed the text of Hudson Exospheric's formal secession from United Earth, Hwang had completed his official inquiries. Norma's cane thumped against the hardwood as she escorted him back to his Human-Transport module.

“I'm sending you home to an unpleasant greeting,” she said. “I do apologize for that. I trust United Earth will understand that there was no way you could have stopped us.”

“I've been in worse situations,” Hwang said dryly. “Any news on your mechanical heart?”

Norma hesitated. Should she tell him? He looked so hopeful. . . .

“There won't be a heart, Joseph,” she said slowly. “United Earth announced a trade embargo two hours after we seceded. Earthbound companies are no longer authorized to send us supplies.”

Hwang seemed taken aback. “That. . . seems rather drastic.”

“They were afraid some of the other orbital facilities might follow our example.”

“Ah.” Hwang's distress increased. “There's, um. . . room in this transport module for one more.”

“No,” Norma said gently. “There's not.”

Hwang glanced in confusion at the capsule, which was equipped for up to three passengers. A blank-stared moment later he seemed to catch her meaning.

Her soul could not squeeze into that capsule, nor into any of the fancy wheelchairs that awaited her on Earth. Something would break if she tried.

Hwang accepted this with a nod. He swung his legs into the capsule and glanced once more along the corridor. “I'm going to miss this place. To be honest, if I didn't have a wife and kids back home. . . well. . . It's a beautiful station you've built up here. You all have a right to be proud of it.”

He vanished into the opening. Norma abandoned her cane long enough to help seal the capsule from the outside and bang on the shell by way of parting. Supported again, she watched with a strange, unfamiliar sensation in her gut as two teams of residents closed the airlock.

The floor rumbled; the outer door popped open. Hwang's capsule drifted into view beyond the windows. It receded rapidly, flung toward Earth by the habitat's rotation.

“All readouts clear,” Hwang's voice carried over the tinny radio from his communications array. “I'll start the burn for Earth once you're under way.”

Norma nodded. Within minutes, she felt the soft vibration of the station's propulsion mechanisms beginning the long, slow process of expanding its orbit. Hwang's capsule, now almost too small to be visible, ignited its thrusters as if in a final salute.

On the planet below them, the Aurora Australis flared to life in the solar wind. Somewhat closer, but too delicate to see, circled the whirling bolo of the space tether. And far beneath both, amid the bustle and lights on the dark side of the globe, a roomful of stuffy politicians was in for a surprise.

Norma smiled grimly. On impulse, she keyed the wall switch that activated transmission. “Mr. Hwang? Check back with us in a few decades. We may have openings for immigrants.”

A puff of laughter crackled through the speaker. “I may do that. Any last messages for Earth? Something I should relay to your families, perhaps?”

“Yes,” Norma said. “Tell them. . . ” She hesitated, groping for the right words. “Tell them we're not afraid to die. No, more than that: We're not afraid to live.”


Copyright © 2011 by Nancy Fulda