Taking the High Road

by R.P.L. Johnson

Winner of the 2012 Jim Baen Memorial Award competition for best forward-looking original science fiction story.


Personal Log: Lori Childs - Senior Planetary Scientist

Date: 12/04/2037 (+4 Months 7 days)

Distance From Earth: 1.19AU

They waited two weeks to tell us about the accident.

I guess they had to be sure. There was no point in making us worry unnecessarily. But it meant that when the announcement came, it seemed there was no way out: no wiggle room, no chance of a second opinion.

I was in the Deck 3 Lab when the call came through to meet in the storm shelter. Beth Young was behind me, almost back-to-back in the small compartment. She was checking the readouts for the solar array: something to do with a power drain in the aeroponics lamps. Anyway, she was looking right at the data. If there was some kind of solar storm, some unpredicted event that could force us into the storm shelter she would have seen it in the data. She just looked at me and shrugged.

I was never a very good astronaut. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mars: I have done ever since I can remember. I used to dream about walking on that red dirt, and my whole career has been about making that dream a reality.

But getting to the red planet takes a different set of skills. I never triggered any red flags that would have seen me bounced me from the mission, but neither was I comfortable in space.

We were two decks down from the storm shelter. Not far, not in a ship like the Liberty, but far enough when you’re expecting radiation or pressure alarms to start sounding any second.

Some people say they can feel the difference in gravity between decks, but I think they’re just fooling themselves. The Liberty looked like two grain silos connected by a tether five hundred metres long that was essentially one huge carbon molecule. One silo was the crew compartment, the other housed the reactor. And the whole thing was spinning through space to give us the illusion of gravity as we hurtled between Earth and Mars. At the centre of rotation was a small unmanned module that housed the communication gear and solar array mounted on gimbals so that they always pointed where they were supposed to despite our rotation. On that scale, the three metre difference between decks means next to nothing.

Commander Campbell looked like hell, as if he hadn’t slept for two nights although I had seen him at breakfast and he’d been fine then. He didn’t say much, he just played the message that had come through at the start of the morning shift.

I don’t remember much of it, just snippets like how the file was marked MC+ meaning it was for the Mission Commander’s eyes only. I remember wondering if Campbell was going to get into trouble for showing it to us. That was before I realised that rebukes from Mission Control were the last of our worries.

There had been an accident on Mars: an ‘Unexpected Environmental Event’ in the Agency’s typically understated parlance. Even two weeks later they were still working out exactly what had happened, but the best guess was that higher than expected winds had forced enough dust inside a joint on the fuel farm to clog a pressure valve. Shortly after that initial fault an explosion had devastated the site. All telemetry from the fuel farm ceased and reports from other systems all pointed to a massive systemic failure. Now, two weeks later, the only data they were still getting were temperature readings and they were showing Mars ambient.

The fuel farm was dead, and with it had gone all the other modules intended to support us during our time on Mars.

I don’t think I realised at first what that meant. I remember turning to Beth and seeing tears in her eyes. The Liberty had finally spun down to Martian gravity three weeks ago, and great globes of one-third-gravity teardrops clung to Beth’s lashes until she blinked them away.

The fuel farm was our ticket home. It was a self-contained chemical plant that mixed hydrogen with carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere to produce methane. It had been sent to Mars on an unmanned probe along with the habitation modules twenty-six months ago during the last launch window. Making fuel on site spared us from hauling that mass all the way from Earth. The fuel farm was what had made a manned mission to Mars a reality and now it was gone.

There was not so much panic as anger. Less shouting than I thought the situation warranted, but what there was echoed off the aluminium walls. Campbell held up his hands for quiet which was a long time coming. Eventually he said, “As of now, I am activating the emergency response plan. Now I realise it’s been a while since you’ve read it but it’s in your kits and it’s on the network so dig it out and get to know it. There will be a meeting of section heads in five minutes. For everyone else, remember that there is no immediate danger. Our biggest enemy at the moment is panic, so I expect to see everyone at their stations. That is all”

You are going to die, but don’t panic and go back to work. That is all.

The shouting started up again even before he had finished speaking. He let us carry on, like an angler letting out line for the fish to tire itself out before reeling it back in.

“I know this looks bad,” he said eventually. “But we’ve got months of consumables, more if we’re strict about it, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend that time with my thumb up my ass watching the O2 gauge and waiting to die.

“We have a ship full of PhDs. Everyone here is a certified genius and I’m going to ask you to prove it. We’ll find a work around: something they’ve missed. section heads, you now have two minutes.”

Eventually, we did go back to our stations. For one thing, although the storm shelter was big enough to hold the entire crew, it didn’t do so in much comfort and I found that comfort was what I needed right now more than anything. I needed my seat in the lab, my music: the consolations of the familiar.

We were all in shock I suppose. There was a note blinking on my terminal when I got back to my workstation: something about grief counsellors being on stand-by back on Earth in case we wanted to pour out our hearts in an e-mail. But the twenty minute round trip for messages didn’t seem appropriate. In the end we were alone.

“There must be something they can do,” Beth said. “A new orbit, slingshot around Mars and build up speed for a fast trip back—that sort of thing.”

“I don’t think so. If there was, they would have told us.”

Fumi Mashimo and Claire O’Brian had followed us back from the storm shelter and we sat together, knee-to-knee in the cramped compartment.

Beth tried again. “Perhaps they could send a rescue mission,” she said. “It wouldn’t have to be manned, just a heavy lift rocket with a care package of consumables. That might be enough to last until a window opens up for a return orbit.”

Fumi shook his head, long locks of snow white hair swaying in the reduced gravity like a slow-mo video from a shampoo commercial.

“It would take too long,” he said. My youthful years watching old kung-fu movies imbued his accented words with a wisdom they probably didn’t merit. Fumi was a palaeobiologist, not flight crew. He knew as much about Hohmann transfer orbits and Oberth manoeuvres as I did, i.e. not much.

“If it wasn’t manned they could send it at higher acceleration,” Claire O’Brian said. “That must open up some new orbits.”

“Unless it is on the launch pad now, it won’t get here in time. And if it was, they would have told us.” Fumi shook his head again. “There will be no rescue from Earth.”

“Then it’s up to us,” Claire said sounding almost chipper. "Like Campbell said, we have a ship full of geniuses. We just have to figure out a way to harness that."

"Unfortunately," Fumi said, "-gravity is not swayed by academic credentials. There are realities that we must face."

"Realities, yes, but not certainties. Beth, how long would it be until we could harvest crops from aeroponics?"

Beth looked shocked. "We're not set up for that. The aeroponics labs are basically just keeping the seedlings alive until we reach Mars. We don't have the capacity to start farming on board ship."

"What if we made capacity? We're carrying spare parts and lamps ready to be set up on Mars. What if we doubled or tripled the capacity of the labs? What then? We could supplement the food stores and the extra plants would take the load off the CO2 scrubbers."

"That won't get us home," I said.

"No but it enlarges the window for a rescue mission."

"Water," Beth said. "The recyclers aren't perfect, and the more water we use to grow plants, the less we have for ourselves. I'd have to do the numbers, but if we doubled our crop my guess is that we'd all die of thirst before we saw a harvest."

Claire was undaunted. "Then we'll just have to increase the efficiency of the recyclers. Come on, we have to try!" She looked around the small group. Beth was quiet, probably doing the calculations in her head. Fumi was typically inscrutable, but he was the type to dress for dinner and go down with the ship rather than fight for survival. And me? I just wanted to go home.

Personal Log: Lori Childs - Senior Planetary Scientist

Date: 23/04/2037 (+4 Months 18 days)

Distance From Earth: 1.201AU

Just when I thought we were beginning to accept our situation, our little community started to tear itself apart.

Our mission plan included a fly-by of comet 10P/Tempel. We were never going to get closer than five hundred kilometres, but that would have been close enough to view it with the naked eye. There had been robotic missions to comets before: even impacters and landers, but this was to have been a first for the manned space programme.

The problem was, the manoeuvre would use fuel.

"I don't see why we should stick to the mission plan when it's going to dramatically reduce our options later." By virtue of having the loudest voice, Ed Carradine had become the unofficial spokesperson for the ditch-the-mission-plan faction.

Craig Rowe took a deep breath. As pilot and second in command, he was responsible for internal ship matters including quelling a nascent mutiny.

"Our trajectory has been locked in since we left Earth. Yes, there will be a course correction both to finalise the fly-by and also to put us back in the groove for orbital insertion at Mars. But changing the trajectory to avoid the comet will also cost fuel."

"But it will save some."

"You don't know that.”

"Where exactly do you want to go?" Tom Barischoff the Chief Engineer said. "We can forget both burns if you like. Just carry on the way we're headed now. It won't mean anything. We'll die with full fuel tanks, that's all."

There it was: the "d" word. Up until now everyone had been talking about efficiency, optimum use of resources, avoiding the obvious objection to all these plans which was that none of them would get us back to Earth.

We were in the storm shelter again. It was even more crowded than usual now that a third of the space had been given over to Beth’s expanded aeroponics racks. The crew had split right down the middle. From day one there had been two distinct groups on the mission. Mission Control had even fostered the split with friendly, morale-building softball matches on the Antarctic tundra during our training.

On one side were the scientists: the guys who were going to study Mars. We were not so much payload specialists (as we would have been called in the shuttle era), but payload. We were the reason for the mission: to get our hands and eyes and brains to the surface of Mars.

On the other side were the flight crew and engineers, professional astronauts whose job it was to deliver us safely to Mars and keep us alive when we got there.

By a few days after we were told about the accident, you could run your finger down the roster and by looking at each person’s job description you could tell which side of the debate they would come down on.

The flight crew argued that we would best honour our memories by following our mission plan to the last breath. A few even argued for an attempted landing on Mars. The arguments had started with the hope that enough of the base would be salvageable to allow the mission to continue. Later some expressed a wish to at least stand on the red planet before they died.

But there were difficulties even in dying. Along with the fuel farm, the habitat and all the solar panels, we had also lost the transponder that would guide the lander in. Finding a nice spot on Mars to sit down and just let your air run out had a certain tragic beauty to it. A forced march across the landscape with a broken collar bone and a ruptured suit because the unassisted landing was a bit too hard was less attractive.

But the scientists didn’t have the same response to authority as the flight crew. Absolute obedience to the chain of command wasn’t drummed into us the way it was into them. We had all had years of training, but we were still scientists first and astronauts second. And guys like Ed objected to following the plan, not because they had any particular notion of what to do instead, but out of a more general inertia.

With every gram of fuel and litre of air being precious, the reluctance to utilise any of it was paralysing.

And Claire? Despite being one of the most vocal of the science department, she never aligned with either camp and instead attacked all ideas equally. Tom joked that talking to her for five minutes was like a stress-test for ideas. She probed every problem from multiple, simultaneous fronts. Some of the things she threw into the discussion were fanciful to say the least, but they were always novel and her scientific knowledge was prodigious extending well outside her specialty in geophysics.

I had spent hours in deep discussion with Claire. Indeed, in the days following Campbell's announcement it seemed that everyone on board had spent hours with her.

Our predicament seemed to instil in her a fervent energy. For most of us the adrenaline produced by fear was a short-lived reaction. In the face of such a gradual catastrophe as ours, no one could sustain the flight-or-fight reaction for long.

No-one except Claire.

I remember that we had talked about the concept of functional immortality: the idea that if you could increase the functional life of something, be that an engine part or a human being, by just a small amount, even as small as one day. And if you could keep doing that day-in day-out, then the part would never wear out. It would perpetually be one day away from failure, but if that day could be pushed ever further into the future then it would never come, and immortality of a sort could be achieved.

Claire was convinced that the concept could be applied to our situation. If we could solve the problems of the day, and keep doing that day-after-day, then the final collapse would never come. To that end she worked tirelessly. She helped to increase the efficiency of the waste recyclers, she brainstormed with Tom and Beth and together they managed to increase the yield from aeroponics. At her insistence we even started eating together, all fifteen of us in one large sitting in the storm shelter, so that the sharing of food became easier and less was wasted. Everything she did helped to push that final day a little further into the future.

Her refusal to align with either camp made her something of a lonely figure, and her manic energy had gained her the reputation of a bit of a kook. But we all ate together anyway. And when she spoke, dissenting voices on both sides of the argument yielded the floor.

“Could we match orbit?” I asked. Fourteen pairs of eyes turned in my direction.

“I mean, its ice isn't it. That's what we need.”

Claire was beaming at me. Oh crap! Whatever faction Claire was in, it looked like I was in it too!

"Lori's right," Claire said. "The question is not whether we should go look at the comet; it's what we do when we get there. Do we just watch as it flies past the window or do we try and use it?"

"Now hang on," I said. "I wasn't-" but I was drowned out as the chamber exploded in furious debate.

"We're headed away from Earth like a bat outta hell and you want us to accelerate?" said Ed Carradine.

I didn't want that, I didn't even know if catching up to the comet was possible, I just knew that Beth needed water for the crops and we were going to pass within a few hundred kilometres of megatonnes of the stuff. Like Claire said: solve a day’s problems and keep doing that every day and you can live forever.

Craig Rowe hadn't stopped staring at me since I'd first spoken. It was like he'd just seen a hamster whistle the star-spangled banner and was wondering if it would do it again. Then he smiled and started making some calculations on his pad.

"Look at it this way," Claire said. “We're victims of a shipwreck and a lifeboat is floating right past us. It’s heading away from shore, but if we don't climb aboard we're going to drown."

"Tempel has a period of what, five years?” said Ed Carradine. “You're signing us up for a five year joyride out of the solar system."

"Better that than choking on carbon dioxide within five months," someone said from behind me.

"More than five years,” Tom said. “The next orbit won't bring us any nearer to Earth. But she's right. The one thing we need right now is water. With water ice and sunlight we can make all the atmosphere we need. With water and dry ice we can make fuel. We have enough phosphates and nitrates to grow food for years. All we need is ice and time. If we can catch that comet we'll have both.”

The vote was carried eleven to three with one abstention, mine. I left as soon as the result was announced. That night as I lay in my crib, I turned the noisy little air fans up as high as they would go so that no-one would hear me cry.

Personal Log: Lori Childs - Ice Miner

Date: 2/08/2037 (+7 Months 28 days)

Distance From Earth: 0.87AU

I'm becoming a pretty good welder. There's not much to it, ice is a much more forgiving material than steel and the new welding lances and hot knives coming out of engineering are much easier to use than the clunky first generation tools.

The Liberty is starting to look more like a snow capped mountain than a ship. We used the Mars Lander as a kind of manned grappling hook for the initial contact with the comet and then brought the bulk of the Liberty in by reeling in the tether. Soon after the ship was secured to the surface, we started to clad it with ice.

The ice was Claire's idea. Not only does it act as shielding against cosmic rays, but it also protects against micro-meteorites. With this extra armour we're less reliant on the storm shelter. The whole ship has become as safe as the shelter--safer even.

In the original layout, the storm shelter was an additional pressure hull inside the ship. An air-tight cylinder shielded both by our limited supply of heavy metals and also by the water tanks that encircled it. By adding the ice we have essentially taken our water stores, frozen them and fixed them externally to the hull. That's freed up a lot of internal space. There is already talk of cannibalising the storm shelter's metals and its triple-redundant, self-contained life support. It was supposed to be our last resort in an emergency, but as Claire pointed out in the last Union, every day is an emergency.

The extra space is mostly given over to aeroponics. Living in the Liberty now feels like living inside a greenhouse. The loss of gravity has allowed Beth and Chris Mendenhall to start farming the walls and ceilings. Sometimes you float into a chamber and its like being on the inside of a kind of biological geode. All around you are the tendrils of Soya plants and the broad leaves of ferns.

At Union last week, Beth and Chris announced that they were engaged. Commander Campbell ordered that the last of the chocolate pudding be served and joked that he was saving the ice cream for the birth of the first child in space. At least I think he was joking.

Tom and the engineering crew are working around the clock taking the sensors, vents, antennae and all the Liberty’s other external hardware and extending them out on a forest of ducts and conduits, metres long. Then we grunts come along with our lances and the ice blocks as big as pool tables and make with the igloo building before the engineers reattach the hardware on the new ice.

It's hard work. At close to absolute zero, ice is as hard as steel. And even in microgravity the big blocks of ice still have mass and inertia. Getting them going is hard work and manoeuvring them into position even harder. We've had a few injuries. Muscle strains and one nasty crushing. Fumi was only saved from a broken ankle by the bulk of his suit. Even then his foot swelled up like the pulp of a blood orange.

God, I miss blood oranges!

When I go to sleep at night, my forearms are burning with fatigue and I sleep like the dead. There is talk of modifying some thruster units to help manoeuvre the ice, but it was voted down at Union. We need the exercise.

I'm glad of the work. This week marks the closest approach of Earth as its tighter orbit means it catches up with Tempel. Soon we will leave the plane of the ecliptic and start our journey out into the black. When we failed to make the orbital correction burn that would take us away from the comet, we started on a whole new mission. One that I am responsible for. Even though Commander Campbell is still nominally in charge, this joyride was my idea. Fifteen people's lives bet on my blurted out suggestion.

Personal Log: Lori Childs - Ice Miner

Date: 17/06/2038 (+1 year, 6 Months, 12 days)

Distance From Earth: 4.265AU

Some of us make more sacrifices than others.

I saw Tom Barischoff in the flight deck today. With no need for course corrections or any hope of landing on Mars, the compartment is now given over completely to storage. The only instrument of any worth is the radio which is the only reason the space is not given up to the wet warmth of aeroponics. I sometimes go there to escape the pervasive heat. Tom, it seemed was there for different reasons.

"Talking to my wife," he said. His eyes were raw like wounds. In his hands he clutched a scrap of something that glittered even in the low cabin illumination. He caught my stare. "I coated it with some of the diamond monofilm we were supposed to test on Mars." he said. "I was worried it would fade."

It was a small photograph of a size easily tucked into a wallet. As he turned it in his hands I saw the faces of a woman and a child pressed together in a shared hug and smiling at the camera.

I felt instantly ashamed, both for intruding on his privacy (and God knows that's hard to come by on board ship) and also for forgetting that Tom was married.

Back when the vote was taken to hitch our fate to a speeding comet, it was Tom’s vote that had settled it. Tom with the unofficial voting block of his engineering team, and his affable matter-of-factness that brought along many more. Tom with his casual competence that comes from years of getting real machinery to work in a real world that cared nothing for appearances and politics. Tom and his selfless action against interest.

I realised then that although I had forgotten about Tom’s wife and child, others had not. They saw this man with so much to go home for vote to take a ride out of the plane of the ecliptic and they figured that was the only way to go.

And so here he was... weeping in front of a radio while his words made the thirty five minute trip back to Earth. Plating family photos with abrasion-resistant film and looking in vain in his engineer's tool kit for a tool capable of mending the broken jagged lump in his chest.

The speaker crackled with a woman's voice as raw as Tom's eyes. I left them to it.

Personal Log: Lori Childs - Engineer’s Mate 2 Class

Date: 12/02/2039 (+2 years, 2 months, 7 days)

Distance From Earth: 3.486AU

I'd almost forgotten what gravity feels like. We're spinning up slowly: barely half a revolution per minute at the moment on a five hundred metre tether. That's enough for about 0.15G. But after acclimatising to Mars gravity and then spending nearly eighteen months weightless, believe me fifteen percent is plenty.

The halls of the Liberty ring with curses as all manner of stumbles, trips, drops, and falls have painted us all in a palette of bruise-purple.

But it had to be done: Diana is pregnant.

She told us at Union two weeks ago. She was concerned about the effect of weightlessness on the unborn child and so petitioned the group for the construction of a centrifugal exercise chamber.

Claire suggested one better. She announced that she had been studying the mineralogical maps of the comet and had found what she called a possible counterweight: a large mass of ice that was thoroughly marbled with useful minerals that she believed could be cut free relatively easily.

Claire proposed freeing the mass and using it as a counterweight to set the Liberty spinning again. It would mean free flight and so we would have to use fuel to hold station with Tempel. But that wasn't so much of a problem. We’re now producing kilogrammes of methane and free hydrogen every few days. Barely enough to coat the inside of the fuel tanks and not nearly enough to take us home, but more than enough for station keeping.

And so it was back on the lances. More detailed work this time, and more dangerous. The counterweight massed close to half a million tonnes. Over a period of weeks we cut away at the surrounding ice and placed shaped charges around its remaining supports.

We were all aboard ship and in pressure suits, helmets on but visors raised when Tom Barischoff fired the charges. It was a supreme anticlimax: the explosion, buffered by half a million tonnes of ice was little more than a ripple to bend the fronds of our aeroponic walls.

Amy DeLuca never got to fly her lander down to the Martian surface, but she did get to pilot a comet, or at least a fragment of one. The explosion had set us moving away from Tempel at the rate of a few centimetres a second. The Liberty--never a sportster at the best of times--was a sluggish tugboat hauling a half a million tonne barge. It took hours to rise clear of Tempel.

Over the next few weeks we slowly started to set the giant mass spinning. We used mirrors to vaporise chunks of the surface, forming a fog of out-gassing volatiles that slowly became a mini comet’s tail as the counterweight started to move.

We were aiming for 0.52RPM: enough to give us our 0.15G at full tether extension. 0.52RPM was not much. It equated to a speed on the surface of about nine kilometres per hour.

Once that magic number was achieved, we gathered again in the storm shelter. Everyone except Claire was in spacesuits. She had opted for comfort and wore shorts and a t-shirt with the NASA logo that read, STOP THE WORLD, I WANT TO GET OFF!.

We all listened in on the intercom as Craig Rowe took the left-hand jumpseat in our underused bridge and slowly let out the tether, leaving the lander attached to the counterweight while the bulk of the ice-clad Liberty eased away at low thrust. We must have looked like a spider extending on a gossamer thread from a slowly spinning globe of muddy ice.

There was an embarrassing flatulent chorus as our internal organs negotiated for space inside our bodies. And with that fanfare, gravity returned.

Personal Log: Lori Rowe - Engineer’s Mate

Date: 21/08/2042 (+5 years, 8 months, 16 days)

Distance From Earth: 0.835AU

Today we had the first death in the manned space programme since Columbia and it was all my fault.

It was a routine operation. My team was on the counterweight, mining a particularly rich seam of aluminium oxide dust. Grunt work, nothing that we hadn't done a score of times before. Fumi was helping secure the power cables for my lance. One minute he was fine, the next I turned round to look at him and saw the inside of his visor splattered with vomit. A light blinked on his chest plate, low oxygen.

It took us forty minutes to get him back to the Liberty. His body was limp: limbs splayed out like a human starfish by the internal pressure of his suit. We had to manhandle him inside the small airlock like we were bringing in a chunk of ice, which in a way we were.

Fumi was dead.

Diana read out the autopsy at Union that evening. He died peacefully, she said. A bad regulator in his suit slowly asphyxiated him. So slowly, he never even realised there was a problem. He would have just felt a bit light-headed and fainted inside his suit. The vomit I saw was just a reflex, he was probably past saving even then. There was nothing we could have done, but Tom suggested a thorough overhaul of all the suits to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

There is an unspoken convention at Union: everyone attends and everyone stays until the end. Dinner is a politics-free zone, but after that comes a town hall meeting. If someone is criticizing you or your department, tough. You get the right of reply, but no-one dodges the issue. Everyone gets a chance to be heard. It’s worked pretty well so far.

This time, I just couldn’t do it. There were other people crying, but what I felt was more than just sadness. It was as if everyone was looking at me. I was the one who had dragged us out here. If I hadn’t suggested catching the comet, Fumi would never have had to make a single spacewalk. I remember nothing of the eulogy, I just remember a rising sensation of smothering and cloying warmth as if my regulator had malfunctioned and I was the one who was asphyxiating.

I fled.

Claire found me in the ready room where the suits were kept between shifts. The casing on Fumi’s suit was open, the faulty regulator exposed. I was staring at it.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Claire said. “These suits were never designed for the kind of punishment we put them through.”

“If we hadn’t landed on the comet, we wouldn’t have needed to use them at all.”

Claire took my hands. With a maternal gesture that I found at once intensely invasive but also reassuring, she smoothed a lock of my hair back behind my ear. The look in her eyes was one of almost beatific kindliness and calm.

“Then his death was as much my fault as it was yours. I pushed for this just as much as you: more even.”

“Don’t you ever worry that it was the wrong thing to do?” I saw in her eyes that she didn’t.

“We’re five years into an eight month trip,” she said. “If we hadn’t landed on Tempel, Fumi would probably have died long ago along with the rest of us.”

She hugged me and her voice was a whisper against my ear.

“Don’t think about one death. Remember his life and the fourteen other lives you saved.”

She said it with such conviction, such assured passion that for a moment I almost believed it.

Personal Log: Lori Rowe - Assistant Astrogator

Date: 7/03/2054 (+17 years, 3 months, 2 days)

Distance From Earth: 3.022AU

Jessica was almost uncontrollable today. The pressure testing of the new habitat wasn't even complete and she already wanted to move in. I tried to reason with her, but the confidence of teenagers, along with the mass of the electron and the speed of light, seems to be as constant out here as it was on the Earth of my youth.

"Oh Mum!" she said. "We don't have to wait. If the ice held the overpressure during mining, then it's bound to hold up under one lousy atmo. Even if there is a pipsqueak leak, we can just find-and-fix after we've moved in!"

A pipsqueak leak! She was talking about a hull breach. It was the kind of thing that would have sent the engineers at Mission Control into paroxysms of activity and my fourteen year old daughter talked about it as if she was discussing the colour of the drapes.

We were one of the last families to move over. The counterweight already held the new aeroponics garden, the pool, sick bay and suites for four families. A warren of chambers had been melted into the muddy ice and lined and clad and lit and pressurised. There was more enclosed volume over there now than there was in old Liberty.

Our ship now resembled a flying barbell of glittering ice. I'm sorry that I haven't chronicled this better, but Tom will have catalogued the changes in exhaustive technical detail. Where once we were an ice-armoured tin can being spun around at the end of a tether from the spinning ball. Years of mining, building and tunnelling, had distributed the mass almost evenly. The tether that once connected us was still there, but its carbon nanotubes were mostly used for data cables now. The structural work was taken up by the shaft, a fifty metre thick column of reinforced ice enclosing the transfer tunnel. At the barycentre a slight thickening held not only the old comms array and sensors, but also the zero-Gym and sort of parish hall-come-nightclub where Aaron Rhodes traded his home-brewed beer and which the youngsters had named the Centrey-Bar.

We didn’t eat together anymore, but we still held Union once a week. Sometimes we premiered new movies beamed straight from Earth. Other weeks were taken up by ship business or celebrations.

We had shed a lot of mass: sloughed off the looser, friable material and sent it back to the main body of the comet where we could pick it up any time. The Liberty was now a sprightly twenty five hundred tonnes, five times her launch mass and more massive even than the orbital shipyard where she had been built.

Now each family had a suite of rooms to itself and the tunnelling was still ongoing. Maria Cosatti, Diana and Frank’s daughter, was nearly sixteen and she had been going steady with one of the Mendenhall twins for nearly two years. This first generation of born spacefarers had grown up quickly. The smart money was on a marriage as soon as the next apartment was ready and a third generation soon after that despite the protestations of Diana, the soon-to-be first grandma in space.

Personal Log: Lori Rowe - Assistant Astrogator

Date: 7/01/2059 (+22 years 1 month 2 days)

Distance From Earth: 2.36AU

Claire’s will left specific instructions on how to deal with her remains.

We’d had a couple of deaths so far, Fumi’s accident and Kristen Bradfield’s tragic death during childbirth, but Claire’s was the first death that we had time to prepare for.

I read out her instructions at Union and tried to remember when she first told us about the cancer. It was about six months ago. This letter was dated two years prior to that--hand written on pages from a NASA notepad a quarter-century old. She had known for some time, but had kept it from everyone.

I have transcribed it here in its entirety:

Do not grieve. That’s the first thing. Death itself is nothing-only a cessation of things, an end to pain. The anticipation of death is only somewhat more frightening, but only because of what I fear for my loved ones. I do not fear the end, but I do tremble at the thought of being the cause of sadness. So do not grieve, I could not bear it.

I would like my body to be placed in the biome for recycling. By the time you read this, I will have gone. All that remains are chemicals pressed into my form. If that is too much for you, then let the children do it. They understand. They see this final sacrament for the gift that it is and are not encumbered by the mawkish sentimentality of what once was. Their mythology is one borne of looking forward. They tell tales of what will be. No campfire yarns of the deeds of ancient heroes for them. Their heroes are yet to come and indeed may be closer than any of you realise.

I don’t want to say I told you so

So do not grieve for me. I out of all of us, gained the most from our prolonged detour. I signed on for a three year mission, thinking that was the closest I would ever get to life lived among the stars. I sometimes feel guilt. Guilt at having enjoyed my life so much. It was almost as if the accident was my fault: an act of karmic sabotage to bring about what I wanted more than anything else.

Look at us now. Comet riders and spacefarers: a pocket sized nation of citizen scientists with a unity of purpose not seen since we left behind the subsistence farming of medieval village life and yet with all of space before us. No longer limited to our fields, our herds and the banks of our river--we can now take these things with us and there is no limit to our wanderings.

So do not grieve. Pick me apart and set every molecule to work. This ship is my dream and I have worked all my life to see it come to fruition and I’ll be damned if I let a little thing like death intervene.

Ad Astra


Personal Log: Lori Rowe - Assistant Astrogator (retired)

Date: 24/06/2062 (+25 years 6 months 19 days)

Distance From Earth: 0.01AU and closing!

There it is, our first view of our home planet in twenty-five years. A few of us gathered in the observation bubble once word got around that Earth was now a recognisable sphere rather than just a cluster of blue green pixels.

It looks odd. No, that's not right. It looks exactly as it should look, exactly as it has always looked from this distance. It looks like it looked from the Moon in Apollo, like it looked from the Liberty during those first days. It looked exactly the same as it had always looked: it is my perception of it that has changed.

At one time I would have given everything I had to see that old ball again and to know that I was coasting towards it. All I ever wanted was to go home. And now, faced with the planet of my birth, I realise that I will never again call it home.

It has not changed, but I have. My parents are gone and I never had much of an extended family or even friends outside of my career. My family is here now.

Maria Cosatti is commander now and she has a shopping list as long as the tether. We can do a lot on board ship, but some things just need manufacturing clout or technical expertise that we just don't have in our potted population of twenty-seven souls.

Although we don’t have money, we're not short of things to barter with. We have a hold full of magnesium and titanium. Nothing too spectacular, no asteroid-sized diamonds or alien artefacts. But every tonne of mass we leave in orbit is a tonne less to be lifted out of Earth's gravity well. Factoring in that mark-up, we are all returning Earth as billionaires.

There is an ulterior motive too. Every plate and pressure vessel, every kilo of water ice we leave in orbit is an invitation. Like a cookie held out to a wary child it says come on, we won't bite. Come and play.

The fact is that we've had a hell of a run of luck. We set out in a fragile tin can hurled like a bolas at the blackness but we are coming back in a glittering spaceship under our own power and with fuel to take us anywhere in the solar system.

But we're lonely. Our little community can't last forever. Parts wear out, people too.

Along with the refined metals, the pre-manufactured solar cells and tonnes of water and methane ice, we are also returning to Earth with a lifetime of experience. This you can have for free. Along with these excerpts from personal logs, all the technical specs of the Liberty along with all the other manuals, drawings, routines and algorithms that we've used to turn the old girl into the ship she really wanted to be will be transmitted to the net... Probably they seem a bit old fashioned to you. Sure, we've had twenty-five years of hands on experience in spacefaring, but our materials science and sensor and propulsion tech is now a quarter century out of date. I'm sure you can do better.

We'll be swinging by just long enough to drop off Tom and a few sightseers and arrange for the trade of those items we need. After that who knows? Perhaps a few months in a pole to pole orbit mapping Venus, or a trip to the Jovian system if we can work the bugs out of the magnetic shielding.

We'll be back in a few years. No-one fancies another quarter century between refills of chocolate, steak, penicillin and morphine. But it will be as visitors, traders. We are not Earthlings, not any more. And space is too interesting to watch from the bottom of a planetary gravity well.

I thought I was coming home, but this is my home now as one day it could be yours.

That's about all I have to say. No doubt as well as my humble account, you'll want to read the logs of some of the other crew members. I understand that Claire's video diary has already gone viral. Some of you may even be interested in Craig’s mystery trilogy that he insists on including in the upload. But don't spend too much time reading. It's a big system out here. Enough for thousands of ships, millions even.

Come on up... We'll be waiting for you.

Copyright © 2012 by R.P.L. Johnson

R.P.L. Johnson grew up in Lancashire, England and now lives in Australia where he is an engineer and writer.