“Bagala Devi Objective” by M. T. Reiten
Melody Varnam pushed into a gentle arc away from the RB240 explosive applied to the rock inside her asteroid, Bagala Devi. Mel yanked the tether on the drilling laser and let it drift to her gloved hand, satisfied with her preparations. Suddenly the hollowed-out chamber went blurry under her suit lights. Dust hissed and pebbles pinged off her helmet from every direction. On reflex, she checked the explosives planted at the bottom of the chamber. Pristine. A massive shockwave had just passed through Bagala Devi and she hadn't caused it this time.
Mel thumped into the far side of her fresh excavation. She felt another shock and scrambled across the handholds sunk into the chamber wall. The open hatch above was rimmed with red and yellow hoarfrost, the frozen byproducts from her hollowing effort.
She was alone on this rock floating at the L4 point between the tug of Earth and the Moon. If her cargo had somehow detonated, her mission was over. If her prospector ship was damaged, she was dead. No one, except the Objectivity Project, knew she was out here. Mel pulled herself through the open hatchway.
Mel's ship, anchored several hundred meters away, sprouted plumes of gas and tumbling white fragments of ceramic hull. Above her ship lurked another ungainly prospector, holding station and launching rockets toward her ship. A goddamn claim jumper! But why? Bagala Devi had nothing worth mining. The Objectivity Project had staked out this useless lump of rock and iron for that precise reason. To go unnoticed. Mel immediately dimmed her suit lights.
Another ship, flat black and menacing, rose over the very near horizon. The newcomer blotted out stars and reflected little solar light. Tiny flares of attitude jets rotated the silhouette. A bulbous turret on the nose of the conical ship made it look like an evil badminton shuttlecock. The turret rotated toward the attacking prospector and Mel thought she was being rescued. Then the turret fired lasers that perforated her attacker and her own ship without discrimination.
Mel ducked into her hole and listened to static on the radio. Harsh flashes, like silent lightning, came through the open hatch. Mel pushed to the interior wall, where she might be safe, but that was where the explosives were. She shook, suddenly cold, and tried to slow her breathing, ragged gasps inside the helmet. She had been compromised. And now she was going to die here. Alone.
Mel tried not to cry, but there was no one here to judge her as weak. And, goddammit, what better time than this to cry? She blinked at the distorting lenses of the tears clinging to her eyes and shouldered the drilling laser. The laser was focused to punch holes in rock within a meter of the barrel, next to useless at range. But she needed the illusion of protecting herself, so she pointed it at the open hatch anyway.
That hatchway would hold atmosphere once she had finished venting the excavation byproducts. As soon as she established a sealed environment, she was supposed to declare sovereignty and protection under UN law. But construction sites had no protections. She had filed no trajectory plan, so she couldn't accuse her attackers of piracy. And her long-range comms were being blasted as she hid like a gopher at the bottom of her not-too-deep hole.
No one should have noticed a lone prospector ship. Everyone's eyes were turned toward the massive construction of the generation ship Station One at L3. Mel thought about Station One with engineering jealousy. The billionaires' consortium did it right. Big power budget to melt huge quantities of asteroid metal and feed massive extrusion printers. Hundreds of contract astronauts and fabrication specialists. Someone to help when you needed it.
Mel was solo because it was economical. This job required at least two crew, but that meant more life support and propulsion mass. She used explosives to burn up the rock, because it was cheap. The Objectivity Project had far deeper ideals than pocketbooks. All so they could get their new quantum computers into a microgravity environment out of Earth-side jurisdictions.
What exactly about the Objectivity Project had seemed like a good idea again? Mel's fear and self-pity burned into anger as she rested against the explosives, stared through the drilling laser's sights, and waited for imminent death.
Gustavo Santos’ wrist console buzzed an alert. 0440 Greenwich. Madre de Dios. He staggered off his cot in Station One’s Mission Control and replayed the distant lights on the big screen. Nobody in here but him, a human backup to the security programs that monitored near space for possible hazards.
Blink, blink, then a blur of blinks. He disliked those little bastard lights over at L4. Everything was black there now, so probably no danger to Station One. Only junk was left at L4, dust and scattered asteroids.
Gustavo yawned and sat in the boss chair. He moused up the magnification on the overhead screens and replayed the suspicious lights, watching them bloom and die again. There was separation in time and distance between the pixels of that second blur. If it was mining, it was damned sloppy. Combat, probably. He’d seen enough of that chaos. He directed Station One’s cameras and spectrometers to where the lights had been.
"What operations are current at L4?" he asked the console.
The display covered the blips of light from minutes ago, an unregistered operation. Six months before that, two white zigzag lines traced by small West Coast Conglom vessels on sampling runs. West Coast schedules showed nothing at L4 now, but that didn’t mean someone wasn’t still out there.
Anybody else watching? Gustavo checked Moonbase feeds. Nothing.
He scanned L4 again at the highest magnification, looking for reflections from nearby rocks, but nada. He dove into Station One’s database, scrolled the timeline back to August, yawned, and found a reflection marking an unremarkable Type C asteroid in the correct place.
A place where someone in the small hours of his watch was blowing things up.
Was this the beginning of something or the end? Gustavo leaned back and rolled his head from side to side, feeling the creaks and pops in his neck that hadn’t been there five years ago. He got out of the boss chair and started fresh coffee.
The flashes subsided. Mel placed her gloved hand against the chamber wall. The staccato tremors faded from the rock. Something sped outside the open entrance hatch. Too fast to identify. Parts of her ship? Chunks of the asteroid? An attacker searching for her?
This ambush was not a random claim jumper. But two bad guys at the same time? How was that even possible? Mel recalled her crash course in orbital mechanics after she volunteered for this mission. If Mel had been compromised by a single leak, the available fast trajectories from Earth would dictate that the bad guys would appear about the same time. Not only possible, but probable.
Mel bit her lip in frustration. She really wanted to beat her head against the inside of her helmet, but the ergonomics of the suit kept her from smacking her forehead into the faceplate.
This mission had seemed so ideal like in the old dramas, standing against impossible odds for truth and justice. The Objectivity Project had wanted her to establish Bagala Devi, named after a Hindu goddess of truth, and get their quantum computer running. The cryogenic temperatures and microgravity available on the asteroid would enable what they told her was a "polygraph for the Internet." They had to get it off Earth for the ultrahigh performance computing it required and to keep it out of the crosshairs of various nation states that subsisted on lies and propaganda.
So Mel took off alone in a Belt prospector loaded with computers, cryogenics, and explosives, to the Trojan asteroids stuck in L4. She welcomed solitude for a while, but now . . . There was a difference between solitary and alone. Solitary was alone by choice.
Mel approached the frost-rimmed hatchway to assess the situation. But that might get her head shot off. At least that was faster than slowly asphyxiating. Definitely more painful. Not much of a choice, was it? She took a deep breath, futile but reflexive, and poked her head out, sweeping the drilling laser muzzle from curved horizon to steeply-curved horizon.
The battle was over. Only the sharp points of stars and blinding sun lit her hunk of damaged rock. Mel saw the attacking prospector ship receding sunward in an uncontrolled tumble. That meant it was totally disabled, since no pilot would let that happen to her ship. The other ship, the black one, drifted overhead at the same rate as Bagala Devi rotated, parked in a mutual orbit. The black ship also seemed out of action, although with less visible damage.
Then she saw her own ship and whimpered. Her ship had remained anchored to the rock. But beyond that it had become a mess of tubes and wires holding shattered eggshell bits of fuselage. The control cabin was a gaping wound smeared with carbon. Not the sort of puncture a meteor patch could seal. Shards of viewports and slivers of ice glinted around the remains of her blasted ship.
Before she could curse her rotten luck, she realized that if either attacker had shown up alone, they would have destroyed her unopposed. But they got kicked right in the karma instead. Immediate retribution.
Why didn't that make her feel better? Because her own poor ship, the only habitable environment on this asteroid and her home for the past few months, was squashed like a bug.
Mel scrambled from the hatchway, shattering the chemical hoarfrost. The route to her ship was more of a climb than a walk. She pulled herself along a line held in place with pitons, using the reinforced toes on her boots to keep from bumping into the surface as she glided over the uneven rock. At her landing site she inspected the damage.
Her ship had been holed with expert precision. The oxygen tanks were blasted. The hull had vented. The water reservoir that doubled as radiation shield was ruptured and sublimating. Missiles had trashed the propulsion. The high gain antenna, her only way to call back to Earth, had been sliced away by the black ship's laser.
The experts at the Objectivity Project had not developed protocols for this situation. Why the hell hadn't they? What they planned was in the legal gray area of space exploration. Hadn't they considered someone might try to stop the Project? People with money and power and a vested interest in the status quo? It was as if the Objectivity Project hadn't planned her mission to succeed.
Mel entered through the sprung airlock and maneuvered into the cockpit. What did she have? The portable reactor had managed to survive, so she would have power. The ship's Wi-Fi worked and the omnidirectional antenna hadn't been cut. The omni-antenna was meant to relay from the excavation site to the ship. Not enough gain to reach back to Earth, at least not with the Project's limited receiving capability.
Screw secrecy. Mel needed help. She keyed her mic and cleared her dry throat. "This is Prospector Seven Six. Mayday. Mayday."
"Go ahead, Seven Six."
Someone could hear her! That meant they were nearby. She grew giddy with hope. "Request rescue. My status is red. Low on O2. Hull breached. Located on Trojan 2295, L4. Over."
"Hold tight, Seven Six! Help is on the way!"
"Oh god, thank you." Mel sighed.
"Ha, ha, no. I'm kidding. You're going to die."
Gustavo looked for reports from Moonbase or other stations about the explosions at L4, but nothing.
"Show all info on Trojan 2295, L4," Gustavo asked the Station One systems. The sparse results showed that that particular rock had never piqued anyone’s interest—or no one had admitted it publicly if it had.
Gustavo stared at the projection of black-on-black space where the lights had flared, stray photons now augmented by algorithms from near-Earth satellites and whichever of Station One’s cameras were rotating past L4, adding information pixel by pixel. A halo of gas surrounded the black lump of 2295. Analysis columns grew on his screen, nitrogen, O2 and H20, traces of iron and some longer chain hydrocarbons.
Station One always needed volatiles, now that the embargos were enforced. Even a trace could imply good stuff and the consortium would alert companies who could mine them and haul them over rather than up from Earth. However, this didn't look like natural outgassing or a mining operation. Drones didn’t need molecular oxygen. Someone had just lost their breathable atmosphere.
Gustavo sipped his coffee to relax that tight spot in his throat, the one that made him smell burned dust from long-ago desert battles. Station One's computers sifted through weak archived signals, mostly resulting in random noise.
Then Gustavo caught a Mayday broadcast, garbled and reconstructed, from a frequency band used for short range comms. Someone was out there and in trouble. Moonbase should also receive the signal, unless the crew operating at L4 was purposely avoiding detection.
Time to wake his boss.
Wensley McDougal, current Charge of Station, looked stern on Gustavo's screen, but the pillow behind his head softened it. "Do I need to come over there?"
"Yeah. Somebody’s exploding a rock over at L4. Somebody’s inboard atmosphere is now smeared all over it."
"Okay," McDougal said skeptically.
"Who is this?" Mel demanded.
"Just another contractor." The guy at the other end of the radio had trouble breathing when he laughed at her.
Mel stared at the black ship through the gaping hole in her own vessel. Her attacker must still be up there. It stood to reason that he was unable to do more than verbally taunt her, otherwise he'd be shooting.
A flash of blue in her peripheral vision reminded her that she was unshielded. The stray gamma had passed through the liquid in her eye and scintillated. The water blivit on her ship had been the main radiation shelter while she clung to this asteroid. But now it was empty except for evaporating frost and offered no protection. She had to get on with surviving long enough for rescue. Dammit, think! Where to start? O2, duh!
"What do you hope to accomplish?" asked the raspy voice.
"Outlive you," Mel said. The snark felt good. The mercenary pilot was getting what he deserved. Then she imagined him trapped in a disabled ship, slowly dying. Alone. She felt a pang of empathy. No one should die like that. Not even murderous human scum. But if he was talking, he had atmosphere. If she could get his air, maybe she didn’t have to die, too. He might also have a high gain antenna that could reach to Earth.
She wriggled around and pushed aft. The emergency storage was intact and she yanked out the escape bubble by its handles. The tough polymer would inflate into a ball to rescue someone who didn't have a functioning suit. The little tank of O2 would last a few hours. She clipped the escape bubble to her belt. So now all Mel had to do was get to the black ship, save the merc pilot, and steal his life support. She could use her rock chamber for shelter and perhaps even make that broadcast claiming sovereignty. Then await rescue.
"You still down there, little rabbit?"
"Yep." Mel realized the merc pilot, instead of welcoming her rescue attempt, might try to finish his job if she got face-to-face with him. Mel dug through the scattered tools and found the titanium crowbar. Ideal for rescues or defending herself in close quarters.
"So," the merc pilot said with menacing joviality. "What brought you to this bit of the solar system?"
"As if you don't know," Mel scoffed. She hauled her gear out of her ruined ship and tilted backwards to see the black ship above her. "I'm busy."
"Busy doing what? Saving the world? That's my job, little rabbit. Saving it from terrorists like you."
"I'm not a terrorist," Mel objected, but she could tell from his utter self-assurance that the merc pilot was a true-believer. Too late for him after a lifetime diet of lies and propaganda. "The Objectivity Project prevents the spread of misinformation passed off as truth."
Mel scrambled hand-over-hand to the aft landing gear. Its clawlike grip had broken free from the rock and dangled listlessly as she hefted its mass. The landing gear doubled as harpoons to snag smaller asteroids or reel her ship to the larger rocks, holding her fast to the surface. Right now, Mel needed a harpoon.
The merc pilot nattered on in her ear. "You all mean to generate weaponized information. Destabilize the situation on Earth into full anarchy."
"No." Mel shook her head as she muscled the landing gear free. Slow and gentle. "We want a veracity scrub for the Internet. Flag fake news and propaganda, so people can make up their own minds based on objective facts."
"Veracity scrub? Oh, that's rich, little rabbit. Read that in their brochure?" He wheezed out an approximation of a laugh. "No one that naïve deserves to live."
"What do you mean?"
"You'll find out."
More words resolved into coherence now that Station One’s phased-arrays had a focus on their source. No reason to re-transmit the conversation just yet, Gustavo figured, not until he had an idea of what the fight was about. Help on the way; that sounded good.
"Ha, ha, no. I'm kidding. You're going to die," a male voice said.
"Bastard!" Gustavo shouted as McDougal slid into the chair beside him. "Not you, boss."
McDougal nodded, his weathered face devoid of emotion.
"There’s two vessels out there." Gustavo listened to the reconstructed feed. "One shot the other to pieces."
"One of ours?" McDougal muttered a command to the computer to replay what had happened so far.
"No. Something mentioned about the Objectivity Project." Gustavo tapped his keyboard, querying for information. Specs on the Objectivity Project appeared. Earth-based and modestly funded. Why did an information campaign need an asteroid?
"Objectivity Project won't mount a rescue," McDougal said, peering at Gustavo's screen. "It’s a pissant little company, no resources and not responding."
Gustavo checked for vessels who might answer a Mayday near L4. None with registered trajectories. Indie prospectors had picked over L4 long ago. Gustavo requested stats for a shuttle from Station One, L3, to 2295, L4, minimum transit time. The answer was three days out, four days back. "Yeah, L4 is in the wrong direction for a fast Moonbase orbit and nobody is closer than we are. No response to the Mayday. No one has heard this but us."
Gustavo pushed off the desk and got to his feet.
"Going somewhere?" McDougal asked.
Gustavo pointed at the screen. "Someone’s alive on that asteroid."
"Itching to get out there?" McDougal gestured for Gustavo to sit.
"Yes, sir." Gustavo sat.
"What are the odds the pilot is still alive? Hulled vessel? You’ll arrive in . . . ?"
"Three days," Gustavo said.
"Three days. Possibly into hostile territory. A bunch of folks don’t like us, remember? That's why we keep a constant lookout. That’s why someone sits here around the clock." McDougal waved at the screens in front of him. "They see us as stealing money, materials, and seed stock that could be used right now on Earth and will go to extremes to get it back."
"There’s been no activity on that asteroid since that first exchange," Gustavo said. "They aren’t shooting anymore because they can’t."
McDougal nodded, his eyes absorbing the streams of data on the displays. "And you figure there’s something interesting there?"
"Otherwise no one would be blowing it up." Gustavo pushed his chair back.
"You’re thinking Earth would love one of our shuttles going on a rescue mission. You’re thinking the PR from the drama might draw positive attention. Maybe we could sell more lottery tickets for a chance at a life on Station One, because we’re good guys."
"No, you’re thinking that," Gustavo said. "But it sounds right to me."
McDougal frowned. "We’re scheduled to kickstart the fusion torch in four days. This is a critical time for Station One. It’s a lousy time for a rescue mission."
"There’s never a convenient time for a rescue mission."
"It'd be different if she were one of ours," McDougal offered.
Gustavo stood and made it to the hall before McDougal called out, "Where are you going?"
Gustavo slumped his shoulders. "It’s time for real bed. It’s your shift now."
Mel aimed the landing gear claw at the black ship. She had to make the capture on the first attempt. Without puncturing the hull. That would really suck.
The claw shot away in a puff of reaction gas. The nanotube braid spooled out behind. The remains of her ship shuddered. Mel tried not to hold her breath, keeping the steady rhythm she thought would minimize her oxygen consumption.
"What are you doing?" the merc pilot demanded.
The claw made contact near the laser turret and clamped down. The line went taut. Mel sent the command to reel in the ship. The claw slipped, then tightened its hold. Mel backed off the motor.
"Come on," the merc pilot said. "I've got a surprise for you."
Mel ignored his needling chatter. She managed to ignore him all of two minutes.
"So how bad off is your ship?" the merc pilot asked in an irritatingly conversational tone.
"Can't gauge your own handiwork?" Mel stared at the straining line. The vibrations from the electric winch ran along the line and changed their sinewave dances under the flicker of her helmet lights. She kept the torque agonizingly low, because the line could not break and her own ship could not lose its anchor on Bagala Devi. Mel had nothing as backup. Her only hope for survival moved imperceptibly closer.
Gustavo watched Station One fall away behind him, a partially completed habitat ring with a graceful central spire. She would start her interstellar journey in the next decade, a seedship to preserve life from Earth and get it to a new home. Gustavo was a fool to risk his slot on Station One for any reason, much less on rescuing a stranger nearly half an orbit away.
Gustavo itched for the engine burns to throw him toward L4 before he could get recalled. After that he was committed to the fast trajectory. He had rations, water, air, a med rescue pack from stores. He’d return with something, one way or another, to justify his disobedience. Or he’d come back with nothing and face the consequences. If he'd pulled something like this back in the desert, he'd have been court-martialed. But he'd also have fewer ghosts haunting him today. Station One was supposed to follow a different way. A better way. And McDougal hadn’t ordered Gustavo not to do this. Well, not exactly, anyway.
The faint signals coming from L4 were relayed to the shuttle's displays.
"Gustavo," McDougal said over the flight control channel.
So much for claiming he was in his rack. "Go ahead."
"Tell me you got lost on the way to your quarters." McDougal snorted bull-like into his microphone as he waited for Gustavo to take the offered way out.
"No, sir. I’m exactly where I need to be." The main thrust kicked on. The pilot’s chair gimbaled to distribute the acceleration. No turning back.
McDougal lowered his voice. "Why the hell are you doing this?"
"Because we are the good guys," Gustavo said.
"My handiwork?" The merc pilot wheezed and then sighed. "Not making excuses, but I was preoccupied with the interloper. Seems you got popular, little rabbit."
"Heavens knows why," Mel said.
"It's the quantum computers."
Mel knew she paused too long before she said, "What computers?"
"The ones that the Objectivity Project stole from my employers."
Mel paused, this time from genuine surprise. "Stole?"
"Did your handlers tell you they were their own design? A bunch of techno-anarchists came up with a better crypto-hacking unit than a well-funded spy agency?" He didn't wait to hear her answer. "Nuh-uh."
"I don't know what you're talking about." Mel stuck to her cover story, but wondered how much of what she believed as truth was just another story. Lies and propaganda. "I’m a prospector trying to hit it rich."
"Selling ore to Station One, right?" The merc pilot sounded weak. Fading. "Just tell me if the quantum computers are destroyed or not. Is that so hard?"
"What have your handlers told you?" Mel sniped back.
"They won't write off that high-end tech. National security level. They'd rather have them destroyed than captured. Connect the dots, little rabbit." The merc pilot grunted in pain. "So are they down there with you?"
"I didn't leave them in my ship," Mel replied.
"Hmm." Grudging approval. "So, you're not completely stupid."
Mel concentrated on the black ship. The mutual orbit between it and Bagala Devi hadn't been a perfect match. It had seemed directly overhead when she fired the claw, but as the line grew shorter, the black ship fell further behind her position. She tweaked the grappling motor, bleeding extra angular momentum into the asteroid's rotation without tearing everything free. She only hoped Bagala Devi wouldn't break apart with the additional strain.
Eventually the black ship bumped onto the asteroid's surface. Her eyes felt dry and Mel forced herself to blink. She knew it was her imagination—her suit scrubbers were cleaning out the CO2—but her helmet felt stuffy as she clambered toward the captured black ship. The asteroid surface gave her a curious mixture of agoraphobia and claustrophobia. The star-filled sky was overwhelming, yet the horizon was tiny and cramped. Everything felt dreamlike as she put gloves on the sinister vessel.
The merc pilot startled her when he spoke. "So, what are your plans for me?"
What was she going to do with the merc pilot? Mel had avoided that thought. "What do you mean?"
"If you kill me, you'll have twice the life support. Only fair, right?" His mic was close to his lips. Wet ragged breathing. His question posed the basic calculus of survival. "I did try to kill you."
"I'll decide when I get there." She had wanted to sound menacing, but she only came across uncertain. Her grip on moral superiority slipped as she realized she dreaded finding the merc pilot alive and actually having to decide.
Mel examined the dark exterior of the stealth ship. No airlock? Only instrument ports and access panels. Mel rammed the crowbar into a large radar-absorbing panel. She pried it open exposing tubes and wiring. The crowbar ripped into another panel. Just the guts of an autonomous drone sent to kill her ship. An unmanned drone. No life support whatsoever to salvage.
The merc pilot snickered over the radio. "Heh heh! Wish I could've seen your face."
Mel looked up at the tumbling silhouette of the distant prospector ship receding toward the sun. Of course, the merc pilot had to be in there. He had led her on even when his death was inevitable. He'd played to her assumption that he was in the less-damaged black ship to waste precious time and even more precious O2. Her chances to survive were now close to zilch.
The hard burn of the shuttle’s drive left Gustavo feeling uncomfortably heavy. When it ended, he flexed his fingers and maneuvered the displays to the positions he liked. Shuttle Three observed the tumbling dot of a disabled ship departing 2295 L4. It was extremely unlikely to be a threat on that out-of-plane trajectory.
Gustavo muted flight control to concentrate on the signals from the asteroid prospector. He caught a broken conversation between the female voice and the bastard tormenting her. So they were still alive for now. Then he heard a reference to "quantum computers" and "national security" and the woman admitting she had them. His hunch had been right. There was something worth fighting over on that asteroid.
Microgravity, near-absolute cold. Station One had those on the docking spire. An array of quantum computers—currently export controlled from Earth-side—could improve the odds of Station One making it to the next star. Gustavo would claim salvage rights.
"2295 L4, this is Gustavo Santos in Shuttle Three out of Station One, responding to your Mayday. En route to your location. Update status, please?" Gustavo increased the volume on his headset and waited.
The pilot might be dead. There was nothing he could do about that. Gustavo put the message on repeat. He’d been awake too long, and he drifted off amid the hiss of the universe.
Mel sat in her ruined prospector. She should get into the shelter of her "rabbit hole," but the rads she soaked up on Bagala Devi's surface would take years to kill her. More immediately, she had sixteen hours of O2 including the bottle on the escape bubble. If someone could get a fast courier out toward her, it would take three days to arrive. But that required the Objectivity Project to receive her distress signal. They wouldn't be actively listening, to keep unwanted attention off the asteroid. The only other people who knew she was out here had tried to murder her.
Mel found nothing to scavenge from the black ship. Propulsion mass vented during the brief combat. Batteries drained to power the laser weapon. No communication antennas that she could recognize, probably guided by an AI with orders to shoot anything that looked like her prospector ship. Now, it was a spent bullet, fired, forgotten, and dead. A husk pulled down to Bagala Devi.
Enough worrying about the things she needed but didn't have. What did she have? The cryogenics. Maybe she could freeze herself and then get thawed when they rescued her? She giggled and then checked her CO2 levels when she realized it wasn't funny. Not hypoxia, just stress and morbid humor. She had RB240 explosives—a rock burner formulation—stuffed in her rabbit hole. More of a hazard than solution. Then there were those quantum computers in a nearby crevasse, to be set up in Phase II of the plan. What would she calculate anyway? How long until she suffered permanent brain damage from rising CO2 levels in her bloodstream?
To hell with that. Mel was a survivor. She had been when she ditched her ex and finished her degrees. She had survived through the Belt prospector training. Mel would survive this somehow.
Maybe. Just maybe. She could use the explosives as rocket propellant. Or rock propellant. Maybe blast off rock as reaction mass to shove Bagala Devi into a retrograde orbit? Let the Moon catch up so someone could receive her distress signal? But that could take months if she considered the asteroid's mass and the total chemical energy stored in the few tons of explosive. She didn't have days, let alone months.
Her transceiver bleeped.
"Gustavo Santos . . . en route to your location . . ."
"I don’t believe you."
The defiant voice in his headset startled Gustavo. He’d given up on getting an answer.
"Damn it!" Gustavo shouted. "I mean . . . Hello. I’m glad you’re alive."
"I don’t believe that, either," the woman said.
"Look, I received your Mayday. I’m Gustavo Santos on Shuttle Three off Station One. I am incoming and I will get you out of there. Give me your status. Are you hurt?"
She took longer than six seconds to reply. "No."
"What’s your O2 reserve?"
Gustavo chewed on that a little. "I was on watch when your Mayday came into Station One."
"You are sounds coming out of a speaker."
"And the last guy you talked to tried to kill you," Gustavo said.
"You caught that?"
"I didn’t catch much on Station One," Gustavo said. "If anyone else heard, they haven’t said so. For practical purposes, no one is listening except me. How much life support do you have?"
He waited for a while.
"Tell me how many days to get here!" she demanded. "You know I've got next to nothing left, so why ask?"
"I’m trying to save your life. What’s your name?"
"My name?" the woman asked. "What difference does it make?"
"Well. Actually. I’ve got a plan that might keep me from being kicked off Station One for rescuing you. But I need your resumé."
Gustavo realized how ridiculous that must have sounded. "I can pull your resumé from Earth-side. I want to get you a job on Station One."
"Oh. My. God. Offer me false hope, I promise I’ll kill you when you get here." The noises Gustavo heard sounded like a mixture of sobs, laughter, and sniffles. In a helmet, that was hell. "I'm Melody Varnam," she admitted.
"I’ll be there in sixty-six hours, Melody. More or less," Gustavo said. "I’m trying for less."
"Call me Mel." Her voice was hushed. "I don’t know if I’ll make it that long. Gotta go now."
Mel had under fourteen hours left, including the escape bubble’s O2. She kept still as she thought. How could she stretch fourteen into an extra fifty hours? The new voice—Gustavo—seemed earnest and as panicked as she was. Not what she’d expect from another assassin. That gave her a speck of hope.
She moved toward the rear of her wrecked ship and rechecked the atmosphere tanks, clearly punctured, and took stock of what she did have. Two shipboard scrubbers had survived. Maybe she could suck out the residual O2 in them? She’d have to be careful not to release the trapped CO2. The nitrogen buffer would still be in there, too, so not as useful as pure oxygen. O2. CO2. N2.
She took a sip from her drinking tube. H2O. "Melody Varnam, you are an idiot," she whispered. She already had tons of gas in a very compact form. Her rock burner explosives would detonate into O2, N2, CO2, and H2O. Of course, the extra O2 was intended to consume the rock during excavation. She called up the energetic materials handbook and scrolled to RB240. This formulation would yield 70 percent N2 and twenty percent O2 plus water and CO2 and proprietary trace chemicals. She had solid atmosphere and lots of it!
"I’m good. I’m good," she repeated in relief. But how did one turn explosive into a breathable atmosphere?
Gustavo accessed Melody Varnam's CareerNet site and downloaded her official resumé. Belt prospector course, middle of her class. Engineering degrees, but nothing spectacular.
How could he make this work for them both? McDougal had been right. Melody wasn’t Station One’s problem. But Gustavo was determined to make her part of Station One's solution.
The lag in data comms to Station One annoyed Gustavo. But his network access hadn’t been revoked. Yet. Not completely out of luck. He slotted Melody into the org chart to justify her immediate hire. He filled in the forms as they popped onto his screen. Resourceful and capable of independent work. Unique skill sets. Normally these were just buzz-words. Gustavo hoped he’d get past the automated filters on the Human Resources system.
Who would have thought a rescue mission would depend on paperwork? He had to wait when he wanted to charge ahead.
"Gustavo?" Melody asked. "Are you still inbound?"
"Yes," Gustavo replied. "Um, fifty-five hours ETA."
"You sound distracted. All okay on your end?"
"The irony of the universe is taking a toll. That’s all."
"I wanted to warn you. You might see more gas plumes from Bagala Devi. My asteroid."
"Are you under attack?"
"No. I am going to do something scary-crazy. But it's my best shot."
"What can I do to help?" Gustavo asked.
"Get here faster." Mel chuckled. Gustavo heard a hint of mania at the end. "I'm going to explode an atmosphere down the hole I've been digging."
"Is that possible?"
"The chemistry mostly works out. I'm worried about the CO2, but I can rig scrubbers to drop it to breathable levels."
"Wow." Gustavo knew his reply was insufficient, but honest.
"Still going to hire me on?"
"Without a doubt," Gustavo replied.
"This is the worst job interview I've ever had," Mel mock-grumbled. Gustavo heard scraping in the background. "Sorry. I've got to conserve my suit O2. So I'm not going to talk."
"Understood. Want me to keep talking? Keep up your spirits?"
Mel powdered a kilo of RB240 in the galley of her wrecked ship. The handbook said RB240 was resistant to friction. She hand-crumbled the yellowish explosive in a plastic bag and then minced the bits with a titanium fork. It reminded her of playing with Play-Doh.
The volume of her rabbit hole was close to a 2.5 meter sphere. If she released enough gas to get to one atmosphere pressure, that volume would be about 65 cubic meters. She'd need 16 cubic meters per day to survive, so that would buy her another 95 hours. More than enough time for rescue.
However, detonating RB240 would produce a shockwave that would burst the hatch and vent the gas. If she deflagrated it—burned it in little crumbly bits—it wouldn't produce a shock. But the hatch on her rabbit hole was rated for 1.2 atmospheres. If she burned too much, she'd still pop the hatch off and she'd be dead when her suit O2 ran out in four hours. Too little pressure and she'd have to start over. And probably die in four hours desperately trying to get another batch ready.
She took the crumbled RB240 to her rabbit hole. The shaped charges from the perforated walls were stashed in her wrecked ship.
"This is Gustavo checking in."
"Roger," Mel mumbled as she moved with slow precision. The rabbit hole hatch cast a cold shadow. Mel glided inside cradling the bag of RB240 against her belly.
Mel taped the bag at the bottom of the rabbit hole on a curved hunk of ceramic hull from her ship. The two scavenged scrubbers were positioned along the sides with more hull fragments protecting them. Check. The portable reactor to power the scrubbers was attached to fresh bolt holes near the entrance. Check.
The black crates holding the quantum computers were tucked inside as well. Check. Her insurance policy if rescued. They were worth two missions to kill her, so those might buy her way back to Earth or, if she dared think it, onto Station One.
Mel closed the hatch and her rabbit hole went black. Only the status display from the reactor twinkled. Her suit light shined on the yellow-brown mass on the white ceramic. Incense in a porcelain bowl. She poked the detonator into the bag and climbed to the top, spooling fiber as she went. She clung behind the reactor for protection. If her estimates were off and the RB240 detonated, it wouldn’t matter where she was in the sealed chamber. She would become a particularly sticky patch along one wall.
"Wish me luck," Mel said to Gustavo. But he didn’t reply, because she couldn’t broadcast out when the hatch was sealed. She should have anticipated that, but she was down to less than an hour of life support.
She gripped the remote firing unit. She flipped the safety catch and hit the toggle. The chamber lit up and an expanding sphere of flame enveloped her.
"This is Gustavo checking in." He waited. No response. Melody had always answered. Not with many words, but right away.
The prompt from Flight Control flashed at him. It had blinked continuously since he launched from Station One. Gustavo finally answered it. "This is Shuttle Three, go ahead."
"You want me to authorize a hire package for this Melody Varnam?" McDougal didn’t even sound mad, just incredulous. And tired.
"A five-year contract earns her free passage to Station One," Gustavo said. "She'll be one of ours."
"She’s still alive?"
"Yes, sir." Gustavo embellished Mel’s future as a valuable Station One colonist. He hoped it would be true. If not, he'd deal with it later. "I’ve also confirmed top-grade quantum computers to be salvaged on 2295. Computers they've embargoed against us from Earth-side. That’s what the fighting was about."
"Hmm? Is that so?" McDougal would be leaning back in his chair as he considered the options. "Okay. No survivor’s benefits until she sets foot on Station One."
"You’re all heart, boss."
"You think it's better to beg forgiveness than ask permission?"
"That’s only true if you succeed,” McDougal warned. "Let me speak with her."
"About that, we’ve got a little problem."
Mel’s suit sensors read 0.96 atmospheres. She had done it! Mel clambered through the smoky mist and turned on the scrubbers. The air—most definitely air!—began to clear. She heard the fans inside the vibrating scrubbers. Water vapor condensed into droplets on cold rock walls and the computer cases. She wiped her visor with her glove. Oily marks smeared her suit.
The CO2 levels dropped, but then remained steady. The scrubbers ran full blast, but the CO2 levels hadn’t changed in ten minutes. It was over six percent. That would kill her even though the O2 was pushing eighteen percent. So much for her brilliant plan.
She ran the scrubbers' diagnostics. Only two of the ten cells were flowing. The smoke residue had clogged the adsorbent. The scrubbers were designed to pull half a liter of CO2 per hour from a small prospector ship. This was a significant portion of a kilogram delivered in microseconds that, judging from the residue, hadn't combusted fully.
Unless she dropped the CO2 below four percent, the air she had created was lethal or, even if rescued, would produce severe brain damage. What did she have left? She looked at the quantum computers.
Mel took the drilling laser to the thinnest rock near the hatch. She bored a narrow hole to the surface. A whistle of escaping atmosphere reached through her helmet, but it lessened as she thrust her external suit antenna through the hole.
"Gustavo. I’ve got an issue." Agonizing seconds passed.
Gustavo jumped in. "Do you accept the job?"
"I need a verbal on this now."
"Yes," Mel said to shut him up. "Now, my problem, okay? I’ve got atmosphere, but I can’t bring the CO2 down. I’ve got comms for the moment, but I’ll have to remelt the hole. This is the last you'll hear from me. I’ve got one last idea."
"What is it?"
"You’ll have to rescue me to find out." Mel sealed the hole by fusing her antenna to the rock with the drilling laser. She had minutes left.
Forty-eight hours of tedium and agony. Gustavo heard nothing from Melody. Nothing. But she was sharp and resourceful, so she had to be alive. He didn't want to reach the site of the firefight and find everyone dead this time. This was a different desert. He had a different mission.
Gustavo stared at 2295 L4 on the screen, a misshapen rock under harsh solar light. Hyperspectral displayed the false-color red of infrared in scattered hot spots. Missile impacts? No discernable movement among the wreckage of not one, but two ships. A standard issue Belt prospector and the other a stealth craft Gustavo couldn't identify, but its military design was obvious. More salvage. Near the civilian prospector’s hulk, he saw the glint of a metallic disc, like a coin wedged in the surface. A hatch!
"Flight Control, descending to surface of 2295 L4."
Gustavo brought Shuttle Three down on clamp landing gear near the hatch. He suited up and snagged the rescue kit. He clipped an escape bubble to his harness and cycled through the airlock.
The military ship and the smashed prospector on the too-near horizon made for a surreal post-combat scene. 2295 had only the vaguest sense of down. Gustavo tethered himself to Shuttle Three and crawl-climbed his way over the surface.
Gustavo reached the hatch. A standard size for mating, but only half an airlock. The Objectivity Project had really skimped on Melody's mission. He banged on the hatch and pressed his faceplate against the bare steel. He strained to listen. Melody had atmosphere inside, she had said, so she would hear him.
Nothing. Gustavo banged again.
He had tried to warn her. He prepared to move fast. If she was at full atmosphere inside, the chamber would vent before he'd be able to close the hatch. Gustavo popped the hatch.
Gas whooshed out, buffeting him, yanking the hatch out of his grip. Gustavo nearly lost his toeholds, but pushed inside against the weakening rush. He yanked the hatch to reseal it.
The spherical cave was pocked by hundreds of tiny holes sprouting ice crystals. The interior was lit by the control panels of a trash-can size reactor and high-end computers, an array of black gravestones. Halos of white frost rimmed cryogenic elements jutting from inside the computer cases. The chamber hovered at -75 C and would have been brutally cold when it had atmosphere seconds ago. Suits were designed for vacuum and had a hard time with convective losses.
Then Gustavo realized the ice on the cryo-elements was solid CO2. The CO2 gas had condensed into dry ice on every cold surface, but Melody had kept her cavern warm enough to not have the other gasses liquefy.
Gustavo found Melody curled in her own escape bubble, next to the reactor. The seal had popped into place as designed when the chamber depressurized. But the little tank of O2 was missing, so she only had that limited volume to breathe. He moved her bubble gently. Her visor was up. Her lips looked bluish and her face was ashen. Then her eyelids fluttered and her teeth chattered. She managed a smile.
"Let's get you home to your new life." Gustavo snapped his spare O2 cylinder to Melody’s escape bubble and hoisted her out of the chamber. He returned her safely to Shuttle Three.
The newcomer barely stumbled after the days in transit under microgravity as he located the entryway to Customs. Tall and slender, disheveled hair, haunted eyes, an enviably straight and narrow nose. Over one shoulder, he carried a reinforced backpack typically found in warzones.
"You are . . . ?" Mel asked from the Contractor Entry desk as he approached. His name and picture were already on her screen. A routine formality and a body language check.
"Bastiaan VanderOort." He handed over his crypto-data card with a flourish. He raised a skeptical eyebrow at the extruded-metal walls. "Fairly austere. Thought billionaires would demand luxury."
"A work in progress." Mel downloaded his card. "What is your business here?"
"I program computers."
"You must be quite good to be brought in so late." Mel watched his micro-expressions.
"Quite specialized." VanderOort met her gaze intently to convince her of his sincerity. Nothing touched his eyes when he gave her a lopsided smile. "What do you know about quantum computing?"
"Only delivered some."
VanderOort nodded and attempted to redirect the conversation. "Did you buy in as crew or on long contract?"
"Not lottery either." She tucked her hair behind her regrown ear that she had lost to frostbite seven years ago. "I’m a rescue they decided to keep."
Mel slid his card across the table and waved him on. "Welcome to Station One."
After VanderOort departed to baggage inspection, Mel looked down at the console window where Gustavo's expectant face appeared. She frowned. "He's hiding something, boss."
"We'll monitor him for now."
"Roger." Melody Varnam had fought for the truth and found a way to the stars. No one would take her new home from her.
Copyright © 2020 M. T. Reiten
This story is the winner of the 2020 Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award given each year in conjunction with the National Space Society. JBM winning stories highlight a positive vision of humans taking to space. M. T. Reiten served in the military, with deployments to Bosnia and Afghanistan, and works as a scientist at a national lab, proving that there is such a thing as too much research for writing science fiction. He practices aikido, makes pizza, and lives in New Mexico with his beautiful wife and daughter. A Writers of the Future winner, he has published stories in several anthologies, including S. M. Stirling's The Change. He placed third in the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Contest in 2017 and 2019 before winning the Grand Prize. His website is www.mtreiten.com.