The sky is black. But there are thousands upon thousands of bright stars hanging in that blackness. From the Earth, under a blanket of air, those stars shimmer, and twinkle, and shine. But from space the stars are clear and unmoving. Silently, the stars are there, like tiny diamonds hanging in the sky.
The year is 2209, as measured in Space Time (Earth standard). At the far side of the asteroid belt, in the darkness, Ice Station 4 is waiting for the arrival of the next ice ship. The fourth, and last-known source of water, this Ice Station has less than a 10-year supply of ice remaining. After that, the people of earth will be reduced to hoarding and purifying whatever water is left. In the previous century, a significant part of the earth’s water supply was lost to the furnace of global warming; and, it must be admitted, to the use of the hydrogen from water as a fuel for nearly everything, including space travel. That was a mistake. Because once you take the hydrogen and oxygen into space, it doesn't return to the earth after it burns.
Out of the blackness and silence, a tiny reflection of starlight appears to be moving. The Ice Ship is coming. --- Manufactured by many companies on earth, these tiny ships had originally been launched by the thousands to search for water. The theory was that comets would have crashed into, or been trapped in, the asteroid belt. Only four sites with water from comets were ever found. But thousands had died, hoping to strike it rich with a fortune in water. Eventually, these ships evolved into slightly larger units, each holding a maximum of six people, for the sole purpose of moving a small mountain of ice back to the bottling plants on the visible edge of the moon. But by then, there were only two companies left in the space-water business: Coke and Pepsi.
The sunshine was warm,
The banana-split cold.
The sound of the waves on the beach was soft.
The sand was warm,
Fresh strawberry sauce on vanilla ice-cream.
The sound of the waves like a voice in his ear.
The breeze was warm,
Chocolate ran over the cold ice-cream.
A tiny voice saying…
The butterscotch syrup was warm.
The ice-cream on top of banana felt cold.
The tiny voice saying, "Five hours to landing."
Billy went "Hhmmmmph" as the tiny computer voice woke him out of a dream where he was sitting in sunshine, eating ice-cream.
The computer voice continued: "Five hours to landing on asteroid at Ice Station 4. Five hours to landing on asteroid at Ice Station 4. Five hours to landing. ..." The voice shut itself off as Billy sat up.
Billy stood up in the tiny bunk-room and stretched. Standing a hand shy of two meters tall, he could lean over in any direction, reach out and touch a wall. Turning around, he lifted the near edge of the bunk, looked in the space underneath, and pulled out a fuzzy Ship-suit in a charcoal gray color. Tops and bottoms, the Ship-suits looked like padded footy-pajamas. Then he pulled out a pair of black leather Ship-pants and closed the bunk top. Billy weighed not quite 100 kilos on earth, but at this moment, in space, He weighed only a quarter of that amount. He was somewhat middle-aged. His light brown hair had a few gray highlights, but he usually looked thinner than he actually was whenever he wore the dark gray Ship-suit and black leather Ship-pants.
"Thank you Sarah, for inventing Ship-clothes," He thought. "Or we would all still be running around in just our Ship-suits." Ship-pants opened at the outside of each leg. Each side had either a spot of Velcro at the waist and mid-thigh, or a zipper from waist to thigh with a big fob at finger height. This allowed the wearer to pop them off with one quick pull. Ship-clothes, worn over the Ship-suits, had to be quickly removable in case they had to put on Pressure-suits in an emergency. In Billy's opinion, the greatest advantage of the Ship-clothes were their pockets.
Billy opened his bunk-room door, which had all the electronics for Control Station One on the side of it facing the central cabin. Then he took three steps to the right, through the central cabin, just past the Airlock door, to reach the toilet facilities. He had less than thirty minutes to finish with the bathroom before the next member of the crew would be waiting for it. Then he would see about breakfast. Breakfast was mostly a do-it-yourself trip to the tiny kitchen in the stores level, through the hatch in the center of the cabin ceiling.
Captain Billy Caulfield shook a slight cramp out of his hand, and bent again to finish writing the latest entry in the log book for the Ice Ship Janus. Billy hated writing anything by hand. You would think the company would have allowed for enough energy and weight to run a printer from the computer. That would have satisfied them, even if a complete disaster had destroyed all the electronic records. “Hmm, in that case they could go ahead and terminate my dead self,” Billy thought, and smiled to himself. He supposed that he would keep on filling out the log, on the off chance that he didn’t die.
2209-04-13 10:15 S.T. --- I.S. Janus on Approach to Ice Station 4. On board: Capt. William Caulfield,
Billy sighed, and thought, “If only I wouldn’t keep forgetting that Sarah's gone, then I wouldn't have to cross out her name. "Hmm. Only April in year 2209," mused Billy. "That would make me 2209 minus 2164 equals 45 years old." It was a hazard of middle age, that you remembered the year you were born much easier than how old you were. After all, the year you were born never changed, but the current years seemed to fly by. "At least the rest of the crew doesn't have this problem," thought Billy. "After all, you never forget your age when you're only 12."
His musing was interrupted when Linea came out through the door which had the Pilot's console built into it. He was surprised to see her wearing a blue denim, wraparound miniskirt over the peach-pink Ship-suit that she often wore. It was obviously a fashion statement, because it didn't have any pockets. "Wait a minute," said Billy. "We have been traveling together in this three-meter cabin for months, and you have never worn that before! Why have you been hiding it?"
Linea, brilliant and somewhat Swedish, shook her blonde hair briefly, and said. "Sarah and I were saving it for Landing day. We wanted to wear something new, something special."
"Well," said Billy. "I guess that qualifies as special."
Directly across from Billy, the door with the engineering console built into it, opened and Dave came into the cabin. He was wearing his usual light-brown Ship-shorts with cargo pockets over a brown Ship-suit. Dave was about the same height as Linea, slightly taller than Billy's shoulder. He did not notice or comment on Linea's change of wardrobe, even though he was standing only two steps from her.
Linea said, "Good MORNing, Dave." But Dave just mumbled a sleepy "Hi." and looked at his console.
In between Linea and Dave, the Communications console door opened, and Joe came out of his bunk-room into the central cabin. Joe was half a head shorter than Dave, and almost stocky. Partly Mexican and American-Indian, he was wearing a sunset gold Ship-suit under a Sarape like
cloak that had many pockets on the inside. It was woven with narrow horizontal stripes of different colors, and hung down to mid-thigh.
Joe said, "Good morning, all. Wow, Linea, that's really different." Then he backed up against the Communications console, as he looked up to see Andy coming down through the stores hatch.
Andy was somewhat Polynesian. She was almost as short as Joe, with long black hair and dark eyes. And she was showing off, again. With a "good-morning-to-you" fanfare, she jumped down through the hatch, pulling sideways to put herself into a spin. This would not have been too interfering to the others, except she was also wearing, over her cream-colored Ship-suit, her round cloak. It was printed in pink flowers and green leaves, and had a long fringe all around the bottom. So, as she spun, the cloak flared out, and her black hair flared out, and the fringe brushed everyone as they stood close to the wall, to give her room to land. Fortunately, in the low-gravity, landing was slow and easy.
"Today is the day," Andy said. "We're landing today. Finally, after months of being in this ship, we can land and go outside to stand on an actual other world. Other than the Moon, of course. So the sooner we get down the better. Are we all ready for landing? How about it Dave, is everything working okay?"
"I'm still checking," said Dave.
“Five minutes until the official check before landing,” said Billy. Then he turned to watch his crew double-check the on-going readouts from their stations. The control cabin itself was eight-sided. Each side held a door into a small room. There were six bunk-rooms in a row behind the control-panel doors, then one door to the facilities which held a toilet and Mist-bath, and another door with a window into the Airlock. The central cabin was just over three meters across.
Billy currently had to handle both the first and second control consoles. Clockwise, toward his left as he faced the center, Linea re-checked the course computer and entered a last minute correction in preparation for landing. Joe was at the communications board. He finished locking the radio frequency and relaxed, leaning back against the tether that allowed him to almost sit in the quarter gravity maintained by the ship’s drive. Dave, with light skin and dark, wavy hair, finished scanning the exterior hull. He had a talent for mechanics and engines of all kinds. He leaned over to Andy’s console and checked the air pressure. Andy pulled over halfway without even looking up, politely avoiding contact. Andy continued checking the gauges that showed her some of the life-support measurements, like the ratio of nitrogen to oxygen, oxygen to carbon-dioxide, and the rate of change for various gases in the last hour.
“They are the best,” Billy thought. He couldn’t think of any other crew, ever, who could have pulled it off, stayed together, and reached their goal, given the circumstance of losing, in their opinion, the most loved, and lively, member of the crew. And they were still kids. Billy shook his graying head in amazement, and turned back to the command console.
"Final check, Astrogation---" Billy said.
“On course to set-down in 58 minutes … mark,” Linea replied. She sometimes enjoyed being terse. It seemed to give her a feeling of being more in control.
“Final check, Communications ---”
“The channel is clear and locked. They’re expecting a call within 10 minutes. Whenever you’re ready.” Joe paused. “There is a slight background interference with the signal, but not enough to block anything.” He turned to look at Billy and smiled, but Billy was facing the console and didn’t see him.
“That’s good. Final check, Engineering ---”
Dave turned away from his console to face the rest of them. “The hull is still mostly tight. The pinhole leak is steady. We can replace the oxygen, but we need more nitrogen from the station before we get back. We have plenty of fuel to reach the station, but not enough to return to Earth. And we’ll need a lot more than we came with, if we want to run the Hyper-Sleep units on the way back.”
“Thank you.” Billy replied. “Once we’re loaded, we’ll have all the fuel we could want. “Final check, Life Support ---”
Andromeda started repeating the conditions reflected in the many dials on her console. All of them seemed to be normal. Only someone looking closely would have seen the nervous tremor reflected in the slight shimmer of her black hair, as she looked from one dial to the next. She finished by stating what they already knew, “Stores are down to twenty percent. If we can’t stock up at the station, we’ll have to use the Hyper-Sleep units on the way back. Otherwise we’ll pretty much die of starvation.” With those words, she not only stopped speaking, but appeared to have stopped moving, or even breathing. She was waiting.
A long ten seconds passed, then Billy said, “Thank you. All of you please wait while I call for landing clearance.
Billy turned on the broadcast microphone, and said, “Ice Ship Janus to Ice Station 4.” He waited through several breaths, and then repeated himself. “Ice Ship Janus to Ice Station 4, come in please.”
“Ice Station 4.” The growly, deep voice crackling out of the speaker, seemed to them all to be slightly less than friendly. The all waited a few seconds, looking for a more welcoming response, but the brief statement seemed to drift off in the following static.
“Ice Ship Janus to Ice Station 4, We are on approach to our scheduled landing in …,” Billy paused as Linea whispered to him, “fifty-one minutes. We are looking forward to meeting you.”
“Ice Station 4 to Janus. Roger landing in fifty-one minutes. Out.” The crackling from the speaker went suddenly quiet.
Billy reached for the video-log switch, “Approach Protocol log, off.” He flipped the switch, and the soft sound of the recording equipment stopped.
For almost a second, the only sound was the hum of the ventilation equipment, then several of them took a breath and started talking at the same time. “How rude.” “You would think he hadn’t been stuck here for over a year.” “Why didn’t he say anything?” “What is going on, out here?”
Linea said, “He makes me sound like a chatterbox.” Then she frowned slightly. Something was wrong, and she didn’t know what it was. She didn’t know what to expect, and she didn’t like not knowing. She looked up to see Billy looking at her, his eyebrows raised in a question. She just shrugged in reply. She didn’t know enough to make a guess.
Joe closed his eyes, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He could almost smell the apprehension, the anxiety, the not-quite-fear. He reminded himself that there was no enemy, no real danger … yet. He opened his eyes to see Billy turn from Linea to look at him. He shook his head, no. He didn’t know what to think.
Dave, a usual advocate for blind reason over feelings, was saying, “That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it. I mean, maybe we interrupted his favorite video, or maybe it was time for tea, and he was choking down a scone or something. Although, I personally would have asked about a new video library, or how our trip went, or something. What do you think Andy?”
But Andy had stopped talking when a feeling of dread had started growing in her heart. By now, it was already up to the level of fear. Her mind was scrambling with rational and reasonable arguments to figure out why she felt this way. Was this a panic attack? Or a chemically induced imbalance in the brain? What did she eat last; was there too much sodium? Was this a fear of change, after being in the same tiny room for months? There seemed to be no rational explanation for the feeling; just a growing sense that something was coming, and it would be very bad.
“I’m afraid,” she whispered. Then she looked around, and realizing that she had actually spoken, she jumped up in the light gravity, and pulled herself through the overhead hatch to the stores level. After a few seconds, she came back down chewing what smelled like an ounce of chocolate.
“I don’t have time for this,” she said around the chunk of chocolate. “We have a landing to do.”
Everyone looked at each other with questions in their eyes. They had never seen Andy eat chocolate before. And they had all, necessarily, been very close to her for many months.
“Okay...” Billy said, “Last time, it took us just over eight minutes to do the new landing configuration procedure. Let’s see if we can beat that time. Is everyone in place? Then, go!” And he pressed the button to start the timer.
Immediately they all went into action: Control panels were rotated into a downward facing position. The lower parts of the doors folded down. Bunk units slid toward the middle of the cabin, directly under the control panels. As everyone worked, there was very little talking. Billy knew that they were all trying to remember the new procedure. Originally, they had practiced the standard procedure once a week, but after the accident they had been forced to rearrange all of the procedures.
As the last one into his launch-bunk, Billy snapped shut his restraining straps and stopped the timer. “Seven minutes, forty-five seconds. A new record. Okay, we have twenty-five minutes to go before the actual set-down procedure starts. One at a time, check your stations, and go use the facilities.”
Two bunks to his upper right, Linea went “Hmm.” Then she said, “Loo.”
“Loo. Facilities has four syllables. Loo has one. It ‘goes’ better.”
Billy turned to his right and looked up to see the impish grin on her face. “Isn’t that rather old British,” he said.
Linea's smile grew. “Not if we’re ‘using’ it.”
Billy paused, thinking about what she had said. “Too soft,” he said. “A pun needs to be sharper or harder. More obvious, don’t you think so?”
“Only if you mean to ‘flush’ out the meaning, instead of letting it lie there to be picked up later.”
Billy said, “Hmm. Why do I feel like I’m walking a dog, and scooping up after it?”
Linea chuckled. “If you were quicker, you would ‘get it’ before it fell.”
Billy laughed, and replied, “Hit the head.”
"What?" Linea said.
"Head," Said Billy. "A ship's toilet. Originally, old sailing ships would have the toilet at the front of the ship, so the wind, coming from behind, would blow the smell out to sea. It's about the eighth or tenth definition down the list in a dictionary."
"Oh," said Linea.
Twenty minutes later, they were in the process of landing.
"Landing on an asteroid is such an anti-climax," thought Billy. Unlike the thundering pounding that might have been involved in taking off or landing through earth's gravity, landing on an asteroid was like slowly stopping. It was moving from the constant quarter gravity of the ship's drive into near weightlessness. He sighed.
"I wish Sarah could have been here," he said. "She would have loved this."
As they lay there, listening to the whispered changes of the thrusters, they were all thinking about Sarah Monroe.
"A year ago," Joe thought. The sunshine had been hot during the day, but the nights were cool. He had seen her around the streets for a week. Bright as a new penny, naïvely happy, talking to everyone, looking for something. He had avoided her, just like he avoided anything unfamiliar.
Then one night, a voice drifted in through the duct into the cool darkness of his abandoned room. "Hey, kid, She wants to see you. Just to talk. Noon tomorrow. Outside the Taqueria. You show up. You order, you eat, you listen, she pays. Anytime you want, you're on the outside, you can leave, or run." Joe recognized the voice, and relaxed a little. He would not have delivered the message if he thought there was any danger in it.
She was sitting in the backside of the picnic table in the shade of the awning outside of the Taqueria. That was safer for him because she couldn't jump up or get out quickly. Joe drifted up, and sat sideways on the outer bench, just out of reach. The waiter came, and when Joe ordered, she added, "and make a second order of that to go in thirty minutes." It was an obvious bribe to get him to stay and listen. Joe thought to himself that she could have been a cheerleader at any high school, anywhere. She was wearing a stylish-enough sun-dress. Not new, but it looked good on her. Then she smiled, opened her mouth and the words just poured out of her."
"Hi, my name is Sarah Monroe. And I want to offer you a business proposition. It will take a year of your life. It is perfectly legal. When it's over you will have earned enough to pay for food and housing for the rest of your life. It is, however, somewhat dangerous. Only the lucky or the smart and careful can do this. I'm both lucky and smart, and since you are both smart and careful, I want you on my team."
Joe thought to himself, it's no wonder they thought she was safe, she didn't have a deceitful bone in her body.
Sarah continued, "I love the stars. I'm going into space, and I'm putting together a crew to man an ice-ship. We don't have to know all the technical stuff ahead of time because they teach us everything we need to know during the first three months of quarantine on the moon. Then we fly to the asteroids. That's another three to four months. We pick up a load, and come back. If we use autopilot and hyper-sleep on the way back, we wouldn't even miss the three to four month return trip. Then there's another month of debriefing, decontamination, quarantine. During that time we'll be working in the bottling plant, giving the regular shifts time to rotate back to earth. And after that, we come back to earth with enough money to retire on, assuming you didn't want to be rich.
Joe thought to himself that she really had a vision, and enough charm that she could convince anyone to help her with it. But he still had to ask. "Why me. I'm just a kid. I'm not even in high school."
Her blue eyes narrowed slightly. Then she said, "No! You are never 'Just a kid.' Intelligence doesn't start with high school. The only thing adults have that we don't is years more experience. I've done my homework Joseph Torres. I know that you can build a radio from just about anything, and that you can fix just about any radio. You understand how they work. Where we're going it's not likely that anything will go wrong. But if our radio stops, I don't want to be stuck out there with someone who only knows how to turn the knobs. Besides, when we get back, you can go to any high school and college in the country. They will be lined up to accept you."
Joe said, "Okay, but I still don't see anyone letting us do this."
Sarah looked aside, as if thinking. Then she looked back at him. "The path of least resistance. Electricity always has to follow the path of least resistance. Isn't that right?"
Joe nodded yes.
Sarah continued. "It's the same way with everything. Not just electricity, but people, companies, everything. Everyone almost always follows the path of least resistance. I'm just going to show them that we, our crew, is the path of least resistance. It will be the best thing for the company. They'll let us go. So, are you with me? It will be a few months before we're ready."
Joe believed that she believed that this was going to happen. And he believed that she would be able to convince other people to help. So he said, "Okay."
She leaned across the table, held out her hand and smiled. "Joe, where we're going, we'll be safe enough. But a lot of people will end up having to touch us pretty-much everywhere. We just have to make up our minds that it's going to be all right. Do we have a deal?"
Joe reached out and shook her hand. "We have a deal."
Sarah leaned back and said, "Good. Here's my web-page. Check it at the library. I know you use the library. At least a week before, I'll post your name with a date and time. At that date and time, I'll be back, right here in a car to pick you up. And you might want to leave behind anything you don't want to lose. I don't know how strict they are with the quarantine. I'll see you then."
Joe smiled as he remembered. He listened to the ship's thrusters, slowly changing. Sarah had been the most amazing person. And she had been right, people do follow the path of least resistance. Most of the time, anyway.
Linea remembered that it had been the absolute worst day of her life, when she had met Sarah Monroe. She remembered the warm afternoon having cooled off. The clouds had come in to hide the sun, and a slight breeze had started blowing. She was standing on the side of a hill, wearing an ugly black dress, looking down at the brown grass trying to grow near the side of the tombstones with the names and dates of her parent's birth and death. Everyone else had already gone, except for the lawyer.
Then he said, "Don't bother going home, kid. The bank owns the house now, and they already changed the locks. Everything is gone, cleaned out, hauled off and thrown away. You're on the street now, kid." Then he turned around and walked away.
Linea had listened as his footsteps faded. Then a car engine had started and the car had driven away. Then it had been quiet. As the late afternoon was shading into early evening it seemed like a black pit of darkness had opened up in front of her feet. Her future was a black pit. There was nowhere. There was nothing.
Then the breeze had caused her to shiver, and a warm arm wrapped itself around her shoulders. She looked over at this beautiful girl, not too much taller than herself. And Sarah had given her a sad smile and said, "I'm sorry I'm late. Would you please stay with me for a while?"
Linea smiled sadly, and remembered how Sarah used to hold her in the night, whenever the black pit would appear to try to swallow her up. Sarah had been her best friend ever. It was only two months later that they were all together, at the company on earth, listening to Frank lecture.
"Earth has lost ten percent of the water that it had only one hundred-fifty years ago." Frank was saying. "This is due to both global warming, and to the fact that we are using hydrogen from water as fuel for nearly everything, including space travel." But Linea was looking at Andromeda Dyson, sitting in the desk next to her. She was such an interesting person. How did she ever inherit the name Andromeda?
Linea sneaked a sidelong peek at David Stevens, who was taking pages of notes. Joe had said that Dave was some kind of genius with hydrogen engines. He looked nice enough, but she had only known him for two weeks.
Frank was saying, "At the far side of the asteroid belt, Ice Station 4 is mining the last know source of ice from a comet. There is only a 10 year supply of ice remaining on that Asteroid."
Sarah, sitting in front of Andy, looked back at Linea and winked. Then she raised her hand.
"Yes, Sarah?" Said Frank.
"How do we know that there aren't other asteroids out there with comets on them?" She asked.
"Because," Frank replied. "In the last hundred years, thousands of small ships were launched into the asteroid belt, looking for water. Only four sites were ever found. But thousands died, hoping to strike it rich with a fortune in water. Now, we just have the six-man Ice Ships to move the ice back to the bottling plants on the visible edge of the moon. Today, there are only two companies left in the space-water business: Coke and Pepsi."
"But how do we KNOW that there aren't other asteroids with ice on them?" Sarah repeated.
Frank sighed, "You're right, Sarah. Until we have explored every last Asteroid out there, we can't know that there is no more ice to be found."
"Thank you," murmured Sarah. But she tossed a brief smile in Linea's direction, letting her know that she could sidetrack Frank's lecture at will.
"Ship-suits," Frank continued. "The fuzzy long-johns with booties are worn at all times in space, just in case you need to jump into a pressure suit on a moment's notice."
"And now, here we are," Linea thought. "Wearing Ship-suits. Flying through space, in an actual Ice Ship" Then she rechecked the progress of the ship's position on the computer landing simulation.
Billie was right. Sarah would have loved this.
Billy lay on the padding, watching the clock and altimeter count down the minutes and meters of altitude left in the process of landing. The week before he had first seen Sarah, back in the office on Earth, Frank had called him in for a meeting one sunny afternoon. "Something's going on, Billy. In the last two weeks there's been this snowstorm of opinion pieces on the internet and in the news that we should be using children to fly these ice ships--- Something about them being lighter and smaller."
Billy said, "Do the news pieces all track back to the same source?"
"I can't tell," said Frank. "They all sound alike. They're saying the same things, but they track back to at least a dozen different pseudonyms."
A week later Frank came into Billy's office and said, "Billy, I need your help with this interview. You've been out to the Ice Station, four times now, twice as captain. I need you to listen to this proposal and tell me why we can't do it." Then they went into a conference room and sat down across the table from a very pretty girl. Then she opened her mouth, and in the next twenty minutes she proceeded to tell the both of them why this was the best idea for the company in years.
Sarah was saying, "Aside from the fact that this crew is smaller, lighter and would therefore eat less, creating a savings in needed stores, there is the issue of liability. If anything goes wrong and you lose the whole ship, we have no family. Our beneficiaries are all tax-free charities. You can self-insure, and if we all die, then you can make a sizable donation to charity and take it as a tax write-off. You can keep this crew a secret until we return. If we fail to return, there's no bad publicity, but when we do return, you can do a ticker-tape parade and the value of the bottled water would at least double. So, gentlemen, when may I expect your answer?"
Frank sighed, "Tomorrow at the latest. Please leave us your email address, and I will let you know."
After Sarah had left, Frank turned to Billy and said, "You know, she does make a lot of sense. But it's absolutely impossible. The company cannot make a contract with, or hire, a group of underage kids. It isn't legal. They should all be home in bed.
Billy said, "Frank, they have no homes."
"They should be in school," said Frank.
Billy said, "Frank, they have no home address. The schools cannot register them."
"It's just not done. We don't send kids into space," said Frank.
Billy paused. "You know, Frank, that's not quite true. We send family members, over the age of seven, to the moon to stay with their parents who work in the bottling plant. So, there is a legal precedent for sending family members into space." Billy looked at the five photographs that Sarah had left on the table.
"What are you thinking, Billy?"
"Have the lawyers draw up the paperwork, Frank. I'll adopt them all. As Captain, they can be on my crew if they're family members."
"But Billy," said Frank. "You haven't been out there for six years. Why now?"
Billy smiled. "I don't have a family, Frank. And this may be my last chance to do something really interesting. Tell Sarah we can pick them up in three weeks. The first month will be spent here in training, And the next three months on the Moon. Then we'll take the Janus into space."
And the Janus had, indeed, carried them all into space. Billy checked the clock and altimeter again. Another ten minutes until touchdown.
Andy lay in the launch-couch on the far right, next to Dave. Occasionally she glanced at the cabin pressure gauge to make sure they weren't leaking air any faster than usual. She glanced up, straight across from her bunk, to the empty place between Linea and Billy. She missed Sarah so much. She was remembering some of the fun times that they had during their training on the Moon.
At lunch one day, Sarah slammed her tray down next to Andy's---as much as you can slam a tray in light gravity---sat down, looked her in the eye, leaned her head against hers until their hair, white-blonde and black, was coming together, and said, "Help me out here, Andy. The drabness of these Ship-suits is killing me, they are all dishwater gray, and very ugly. What can we do to change the colors?" And a week later, they had come up with enough vegetable-powder dye combinations from standard ship-stores to be able to dye the suits every basic color of the rainbow.
A few days after that, Sarah had motioned to her, and they sneaked down the hall to listen outside of Billy's door where their instructor was having a rant.
"They won't stop talking," he said.
"Have they learned all the material," asked Billy?
"Yes, yes. They know all the material and more, but they won't stop talking. And those suits! They came in looking lime-green and bright orange. It's against regulations."
"I like the blue," Billy said. "And there is no regulation against dying the Ship-suits. You just have to be careful to set the color and rinse it, so it doesn't dye your skin."
"But they won't stop talking," he whined.
"They are only twelve, Jim. It's their job at this time of their life to learn to talk and communicate with each other. It's part of their development. Just relax and try to let them be who they are, Okay?"
She and Sarah had sneaked away.
The very next day, she and Sarah had put up a makeshift basketball hoop four meters up the wall, at the empty end of the staging warehouse. They had played for a good fifteen minutes, pretending huge loopy dribbles, and practicing slow-motion jumps to slam dunk their "ball", a knotted-up sweatshirt, through the hoop. Someone eventually came and yelled a lot about how "someone might get hurt." But no one ever took the hoop down. And many people continued to toss paper balls at the hoop.
A few days later Sarah said to her, "Andy, this is totally ridiculous. Everyone is running around wearing only Ship-suits, when we could be wearing some actual clothes over them. Let's go talk to some of the women working the bottling plant. I hear that they have access to a sewing machine, and they can get some clothes and material shipped up here in a week."
A week and a half later, Andy watched as Sarah walked toward their instructor, Jim, in a hall. Sarah was wearing a light pink Ship-suit under a light three-layer peasant skirt wraparound, held together by two Velcro patchs on the right side.
As expected, Jim stopped her and said, "You can't wear that. The rules are that everyone has to wear Ship-suits in case we have an emergency which requires us to put on a Pressure-suit in a hurry."
Sarah said, "How long?"
"What?" said Jim.
"How many seconds do I have, to be able to take this off, before putting on a Pressure-suit?" Said Sarah.
Thinking he had her in a corner, Jim quickly said, "Two seconds."
Sarah reached across with her left hand, and grabbed the skirt where it overlapped between the Velcro patches. Pulling it open and off in one motion, she said "One."
And as it floated slowly to the floor, Jim blushed very pink.
As he turned around to walk away. Sarah asked, "Jim, how many seconds would it take you, from here, just to reach a Pressure-suit to put it on?"
Jim stopped, sighed, and said, "Ten." Then he walked away.
Andy hurried up, and said, "Yes! We have it. The rule is two seconds. We can wear anything over the Ship-suits that we can take off in less than two seconds."
A week later, they had Ship-pants, and cloaks, and vests, and skirts, and shorts. Most of them had pockets which turned out to be very handy. A month later everyone was wearing something over the Ship-suits, including Jim.
"Sarah was so great," thought Andy. "She was always looking for a way to make things better and have more fun."
Dave, lying at an angle between Joe and Andy, listened to the soft hissing of the jets while he watched the gauges which measured the rate of burning hydrogen and oxygen by the ship's engines and thrusters. He thought about breathing in, and breathing out, breathing in and breathing out. He smelled the air. He was never good at noticing what the air smelled like. Usually he didn't even think about it. But it seemed to be fresh enough to him. Maybe there was a hint of something in it; some outdoorsy fragrance. But Andy would never have put anything in it strong enough for him to tell immediately what it smelled like.
He still didn't understand why it had happened. For the first few weeks after launch, Sarah had been totally happy---playing games, singing songs, telling stories. Then gradually, it seemed like she drifted away. A few minutes here, an hour there, she was quiet. Weeks later, it was obvious that something was wrong. She sometimes panicked for no apparent reason. Or, she would flinch if anyone touched her when she wasn't expecting it. Then there were times when it seemed like she couldn't breathe. She kept saying that there wasn't enough air, that everyone was breathing all the air. When she slept, they had discussed what they could do. But there wasn't anything---They didn't have enough fuel to put her into hyper-sleep, it would have killed them all to run out of fuel. So, mostly they let her stand in the airlock, looking out at the stars. That seemed to help.
Then it got to where she would want the inside door to the airlock shut, so she wouldn't be breathing the same air as everyone else. They could still see her through the window on the inside door, so that was okay. Then one day the red alarm light flashed on over the inner airlock door. Dave took one step toward it when a loud whump shook the whole ship and brought him to his knees. Dave leaped to the inner door and looked through. And he saw the stars through the open outer door. The stars kept appearing, like they were turning on, first on one side and then another. Surrounding something dark, and growing smaller. Gradually, in less than a minute, he blinked, and Sarah was gone.
Dave turned around and saw the rest of the crew frozen in disbelief. But Billy had tears running down his face.
"I should have thumb-locked the controls," Dave whispered.
Billy cleared his throat and said, "No. We can't unlock it with a pressure suit on. And if anything had happened to you, we would have had to haul you over there to unlock it. But when you have time next week or so, please work with Linea to program a voice recognition lock to work for any of us."
They had held a memorial service for Sarah, the next day. Dave remembered that Billy had played an extremely old recording of a bagpipe playing "Amazing Grace." He said it was traditional. Then Billy had said, "Sarah, of all the stars in the sky, you are the brightest. You taught us to dream with our hearts and follow our dreams. We will never forget you." But he had a lot of trouble saying it.
Dave breathed in. It smelled a little bit like a forest, maybe with a flower or two somewhere nearby. Andy was good at scents. But Dave still missed Sarah's laugh.
Dave sighed and turned on the video-cam to see what he could make of the landing field. From ten-thousand meters and three minutes out, it looked pretty small, and … , and … , cluttered? Dave pushed the zoom on the camera to maximum, and was startled to see a number of other things already sitting in the landing zone.
"Billy, we have a problem. There's already something in the landing zone. You'll need to take over.
Billy switched on the zoomed camera view, took one look, let out one very fast breath, and started switching landing control from automatic to manual. There wasn't supposed to be anything on the landing field. Why hadn't the Ice Station warned them about this?
Linea started reading off the remaining meters of altitude while Billy concentrated on avoiding a collision with what looked like, yes, five other Ice Ships, already sitting in the landing field. It was a good thing that the field was a kilometer across. There was still plenty of room to land without hitting anything.
2209-04-13 11:25 S.T. --- I.S. Janus has landed at Ice Station 4. On board: Capt. William Caulfield, Pilot Linea Iverson, Comm. Joseph Torres, Engineering David Stevens, Life Support Andromeda Dyson. There are five other unidentified Ice Ships on the landing field!?
After he finished the entry in the ship's log, Billy looked around at the others standing at their control stations.
Joe said, "There aren't any signals coming from the ships on any frequency."
Linea was saying, "They're all dead, I can't get a ping from their ship's computers.
Dave was looking at the video display. "I don't see any ship numbers or any other marks. It's like they've been scraped off."
Andy came down headfirst through the overhead stores hatch, holding a net bag in one hand. She turned over as she fell in the very low gravity, and landed lightly on her feet. As her black hair settled down past her shoulders, she handed out small sippy-bags of dark purple liquid. "I'm proposing a toast," she said. "This is grape juice. Well, grape flavored anyway, and I want to make a toast. This is Sarah's dream, to be here. And we made it." She raised her bag. "To Sarah's freedom."
The rest of them responded, "Sarah Monroe." "To Sarah." "Sarah's Freedom." "Sarah's dream." And they drank the slightly-sharp liquid.
Billy's eyebrows went up. "A touch of fermenting in this, Andy?"
Andy said, "Maybe. Besides," she continued, as she gathered up the empty sippy-bags. "You all need a bit of sugar in you."
Billy took a breath and started talking. "Okay, this is beginning to look like a bad situation. Those other ships weren't here seven years ago, when I was here. We need to find out what's going on. Joe, open a line to the Ice Station."
Joe turned and adjusted the communications panel, as Billy turned on the flight recorder and leaned toward the microphone. Dave looked over at Andy, just as she shot a questioning look at Linea. Then they waited quietly.
"This is Ice Ship Janus, calling Ice Station 4, come in please," said Billy.
"Ice Station 4," crackled the speaker. "Wha'dye need?"
"I'm captain William Caulfield. I have several questions. The first one is, what are these other Ice Ships doing in the landing field?"
"Those scrap heaps? They've been there for ten or twenty years. Just ignore 'em."
Billy turned around and looked at the others, raising his eyebrows at this obvious lie. "Okay, we need several tanks of nitrogen, and maybe extra food rations if you have any to spare."
The speaker seemed to crackle with irritation. "Wha'dye think this is, a grocery store? Do you think the company transports anything out here just because you might want it? Go scavange those junk ships for nitrogen. There isn't any spare food, you'll just have to use the hyper-sleep units on the way back like everyone else."
Billy frowned at the speaker. "Okay, when can we move the ice onto the launch field?"
"Set up your engines and then come to the station in four hours. Not before! Ice Station 4, out."
Billy reached out and turned the flight recorder off. Then he turned and looked at the rest of them, like he was considering whether or not they were big enough to handle this situation. He started out by asking, "Joe, can we send a message to earth from here?"
"No," Joe replied. "We're on the back side of the asteroid. A signal won't reach earth until we're clear of the asteroid, about six hours after takeoff. But by then, we should all be in hyper-sleep."
Billy closed his eyes in thought for two slow breaths. Then he said, "Listen up. I know that those ships were not here seven years ago. But the Station Master, whose name is Eric Harmon, doesn't know that I know. So, I am going to keep pretending to be someone who has never been here before."
He continued, "There's something very wrong going on here. On the one hand, I want to find out exactly what it is. But I'm also thinking that the faster we leave this place, the more likely it is that we will live through this. Usually we would spend a whole week out here, just walking around, getting the ice set up, visiting and whatever. But now I think if we can leave in the next 24 hours, our chances of survival might be greater. So, here's what I want us to do---"
"Joe and I will set up the engines and go get the ice. Linea and Andy, I want you to suit up, take a battery, and go to those five ships. See if you can power up their computers and make a copy of their ship's logs. Dave, you can suit up and go with them, but try to find a couple of full nitrogen tanks that we can use. And when you get back, try to find that leak and stop it."
Dave said, "I can take the infrared scope outside and find it pretty quick by looking for the escaping heat."
Linea said, "Andy and I can scan the information from the other ships to see what happened to them."
"Don't forget," said Billy, "There's almost no gravity on this rock. So don't make any long jumps. You might never come down if you jump too high. Be careful, and let's get going."
The sky was black, but freckled with ten thousand stars. The Ice Ship faintly reflected the starlight, looking like a giant cylinder, about 20 meters tall and 12 meters wide. The outside of it was white, with black serial numbers running up the sides. Six smaller black cylinders were attached to the outside, each one about one meter thick. Halfway up the side, The outer air-lock door opened, and two figures came out. They seemed to float down, holding on to the ladder next to the door as they went. Then the airlock door swung shut.
Joe reached the ground first. He could feel, and barely hear, the gritty crunch of the sandy surface, the residue of millions of small meteorites crushing into the surface of this large asteroid. He turned on the headlamps mounted on the upper sides of his helmet to help light his way in the dark. Billy came down next to him and turned on his headlamps as well. Billy was head and shoulders taller than he was.
As they started disconnecting the first thruster, Joe asked, "Billy, can I ask you a personal question?"
Billy said, "Sure."
"Why did you do this? Why did you adopt us and bring us out here?"
"Well," and Billy paused. "There are at least a couple of reasons. One has to do with opportunity. There are many things in life that you may only get one chance to ever do. I was lucky enough to have been out here four times before. But I hadn't been back for seven years, and it was starting to look like I would never again be able to do this. When Sarah came in with her proposal to send you all out here, I realized that this was my last chance."
"I love space." Billy said. "It may be an extremely hostile environment, but it is also extremely beautiful. It may be merciless, but it's also impartial. Space doesn't hold grudges. It doesn't deliberately try to kill you. If you die, it's usually due to your own carelessness."
"Another reason is," continued Billy. "I really liked Sarah, and she really liked you. Since I had no family of my own, I trusted her enough to be willing to agree to a legal adoption even before I met all of you. And Sarah was right. I do really like all of you, and I've really enjoyed working with you. Maybe another reason is, because we're family now, I wanted you to experience this with me, and I'm hoping that you will enjoy the good parts of it as much as I do."
As they slowly carried and guided the large cylinder into place, in the almost zero gravity, Joe asked, "Why did you want me to work with you? I'm mostly a radio expert. Dave is the expert with engines and mechanical things." He looked across the landing field to see Linea, Andy and Dave bouncing slowly toward the Ice Ships. The lights from their headlamps bounced up and down with their jumps, ten meters for each step. Linea's pressure suit was painted with zebra stripes. Andy's had a large flower on it, and Dave's just had his name printed across the back.
Billy said, "I know. Actually, there are two reasons. One is security and the other has to do with learning. Dave is taller than you are, and in their pressure suits, Dave and Linea might be mistaken for somewhat short adults. That might keep them somewhat safer from a distance. Also, it's always good for us to learn new things, and do things we aren't necessarily good at. Not just for you, but also for Dave. I really don't think there is anything significant left in those ships. But if they do find something, Dave's mind will refuse to admit that there is anything to be afraid of. After he thinks about it later, maybe he'll realize that there is more to life than what he can see in front of him."
Joe and Billy came back and started disconnecting the second thruster from the Ice Ship.
The ground seemed crunchy under foot, as Andy followed Linea across the field. Her headlamps created white light against the ground and against Linea's back, but black shadows behind the rocks, and cast in front of the others. Approaching the Ice Ships, Andy felt like the ships stood against the background of surrounding ridges, and against the starlit sky, like giant tombstones. They stood out, a dark gray color, and looked like they had been sandblasted over where the serial numbers would have been.
Andy said, "Linea, this is creepy. These ships still have the extra thrusters attached to the sides. If they were derelicts, wouldn't those have been lost somewhere?"
Linea's voice came softly over the radio. "I agree, they look creepy. What happened to the crews? And why didn't anyone back home know about these ships?"
Dave said, "Oh, really. They aren't creepy. They're just here. Maybe the crews were taken back by other ships. Maybe these ships just broke down or something." Reaching the first ship, Dave immediately went up the ladder to the airlock door. After opening it, he went into the airlock to look inside.
Andy and Linea looked up at the door from the ground. Dave stuck his head out the door, his headlamps flashing down into their eyes, and said, "It's perfectly empty, but there's no air inside. You can come on up."
As Linea entered the dark cabin, she saw Dave pulling his way out of the room through the overhead hatch. She immediately went to the computer panel, and pulled out the wires and attached them to her battery. The computer lit up as usual, so she plugged in a memory drive and began to copy the data from the computer into the attached memory. That was the nice thing about electronics, unless they were physically damaged, you just had to apply electricity, and they usually worked.
Andy was searching the cabin, rummaging through all the spaces where things could be hidden, but it seemed useless. "There's nothing here," she said. "It looks like someone has cleaned everything out. It's totally empty."
"Score! One full tank of Nitrogen." Dave's voice came through the speakers in their helmets. Then he came down through the hatch and slowly guided the massive tank through the low gravity, across the cabin and into the airlock. "I'm going to leave this just inside the door, and pick it up on our way back." He said.
Then they left the first empty Ice Ship, and moved toward the next one.
Three and a half hours later, Billy and Joe were nearing the Ice Station's base. They had opened their comm.-links to include secure channel two, so Billy could talk to Linea.
"Linea, this is Billy. Can you hear me?"
"Yes, we hear you."
"Joe and I are done with setting up the thrusters around the ship, so when you come in be careful not to trip over the connecting cables. We already stopped at the ship for lunch, and we're about to go into the Ice Station to make arrangements to pick up the ice. It will probably be several more hours before we have the ice in position over our ship. How are you guys doing?"
"We're starting with the last ship," Linea replied. "Dave actually found five tanks of Nitrogen, but we're only going to pick up two of them on our way back. We did get computer data from three of the four ships. Two of the ships still held air, and had usable facilities. We'll be done here in little while. Then we'll head back."
"Okay, " said Billy. "We'll see you when we get back with the ice. Keep your eyes open for anything unusual." Billy shut down his connection to the channel two comm.-link.
"Joe?" Billy asked. "Eric Harmon, the station master here, has been acting like he's hiding something. I don't trust him. So, when we go in here, we are just here for the ice. Remember, we've already had lunch, so don't eat or drink anything he offers. Whatever he says, don't get angry, just pay attention to what he's doing. Don't shake hands, just smile. And try to keep me between the two of you at all times. Can you remember all that?"
Joe thought it over, sticking the points into his mind. "I can do that." He said.
On reaching the station, Billy reached out and pressed the switch on the outside of the ground-level airlock, announcing their arrival. A voice came over the universal comm. channel. "Come on in, straight down the hall to the central cabin."
Billy pressed the switch which locked the doors, and pulled the air out of the airlock. After 30 seconds, the outside door unlocked, and they entered, shutting the door behind them. Then Billy pressed the switch on the inside of the airlock which locked the doors and pumped air into the airlock. After another 30 seconds, the inside door unlocked, and they entered a hallway which extended straight away from the airlock. The walls were white.
Billy released the pressure in his suit and opened his faceplate. Joe, slightly behind him, did the same. Almost floating down the hall, they passed a closed doorway on the left. A few steps further on, they passed an open doorway into a bedroom, with a real bed instead of bunks. The end of the hall opened into a cabin shaped space that seemed to be furnished like an office but with couches and overstuffed chairs as well. The furniture must have been bolted to the floor to keep it from being pushed around.
The man, sitting on the large chair across the office, was fairly good looking. He straightened up with one hand on the chair to keep from floating up too high. He was several inches shorter than Billy, about 30 years old, with wavy brown hair. He smiled with his mouth, but the smile did not reach his eyes, which looked like he might have a headache or something. He said, "Hi, I'm Eric Harmon, the Station Master."
Billy said, "I'm Billy Caulfield, captain. This is my Communications Officer, Mr. Torres."
Eric Harmon's eyes narrowed somewhat as he looked at Joe. But he said to Billy, "Can I offer you a drink? I have quite a selection here."
Billy said, "No thanks. We just ate, and drinking too much in low gravity leaves me kind of uncomfortable."
"How about you, son," Eric asked Joe. "Would you like something to drink?"
Joe, standing somewhat behind Billy, decided it might be time for the innocent little kid routine. "No thanks," he said. "But I'm really looking forward to seeing the huge blocks of ice. Is it true that it's all mined by robots? I can hardly wait to see it. We want to set a new record for getting the ice back to the moon in the shortest time."
Eric, looking for a moment like the thoughts were changing in his head, muttered, "Hmm. That would work." Then he said, "Okay, go on ahead, back out the airlock, and I'll meet you there just as soon as I put on a pressure suit. Then I'll give you the instructions for moving the ice out of the mine to the landing field.
As they exited the Airlock, Billy said, "Thanks Joe. That was quick thinking."
Linea and Andy stood at the base of the last Ice Ship, waiting for Dave to come down the ladder. Linea, shining her headlamps into a gap in the nearby ridges, saw something slightly different. Usually the ground was a uniform gray color, but it looked like there was a slight orange streak on the flat ground between two ridges.
"Andy, do you see that color?"
Andy swung her headlamps into the gap, and the orangey color faded into small gray shadows. Linea bounced toward it as Dave reached the ground.
Dave said, "Where are you going? If we're done here, our ship is across the landing field, in the other direction."
But in the time it took him to say this, Linea reached the gap, and looking down at the ground said, "Guys, come here, you have to see this."
They came and looked. It was a set of footprints from a pressure suit, heading into the gap, away from the Ice Ships. But no other footprints appeared to be returning to the ships through the gap.
Linea said, "Let's give this a half hour. I say we follow the footprints. If we don't come across anything in that time, then we come back. Agreed?"
Andy almost whispered, "All right."
Dave said, "Yes, but I think this is really a waste of time because any number of people could have been wandering around out here. They probably just returned by another path."
The footprints lead them along a flat path, which wound back and forth between several ridges of up-thrust stone. After about fifteen minutes, the gap opened up and they were facing another wide flat field. The pebbled surface of the field looked the usual grayish brown color under the light of their headlamps. Linea followed the footprints to the left, around a corner, then she stopped with a gasp.
Sitting on a low shelf, leaning back against the ridge, was a pressure suit. Or rather, Linea thought to herself, a body inside a pressure suit. It didn't move, and it had no lights. But it was sitting upright, as if on a chair, or a throne.
Andy said, "Linea, could they still be alive?"
"No. It's been many months since those ships landed. Whoever this is, has been dead for a long time." Then Linea moved forward, toward the body, because she had seen something interesting.
Dave said, "Linea, what are you doing? That person is dead. We need to get out of here."
"We need to find out who this is." Linea crouched down and shined her headlamps directly into the faceplate of the pressure suit. She saw the face of a woman, still and motionless in death. Her brown eyes were still open, and the tears which had run down her face were frozen on her cheeks. Then Linea noticed the papers under her hand, in her lap. Slowly, Linea reached out, and pulled the papers out of the grasp of the woman in the darkened pressure suit. Then she stepped back, stood up and turned away.
"What does it say, Linea?" Andy's voice came over the comm.-channel.
"The very last thing it says is, "My God, it's so beautiful. Above that is her name, Janice Belmont, of the I.S. Hawthorne." Linea looked out over the nearly flat field. With the light of their headlamps, it looked like the same dusty color as everywhere else on the asteroid. "Maybe she was talking about the stars. Or …"
"Wait," Linea said. "Turn off your headlamps for a minute." As the headlamps went out, the starlight seemed brighter, but there was also a kind of glitter, or reflection coming from the ground.
"Close your eyes, hard, for half a minute," Said Andy. "It will help the night vision cells in your eyes to see better."
As Linea opened her eyes, it seemed like the stars in the sky had fallen into the open field. They were being reflected by something on the ground. Linea moved her head from side to side, and the sparkles on the ground winked out and came on in different places.
Andy said, "Ooh, it looks like the mica flakes that they put into sidewalks or floor tiles. It sparkles when you move your head. My God. It is beautiful."
Dave said, "Maybe it's mica, or maybe just ice chips, or agates or something. With this, we almost don't need the headlamps."
Linea looked back down at the papers she was holding. She was barely able to make out what it said. Slowly, she flipped back through the papers, scanning for information about what had happened. She stopped. Then pulled the papers closer to her faceplate. She started breathing rapidly, and looked up suddenly.
"We have to get out of here! Now!" She said. "Don't turn your headlamps on. If we can see well enough to make it back without them, we don't want to be seen.
Andy said, "But what about the shiny rock things?"
Linea folded the papers and tucked them into a pocket. "Ten seconds. Take two handfuls and put them in your cargo-pockets." She knelt and scooped up two handfuls of the small pebbles and dust, and dropped them into the pockets on the front side of the legs on her Pressure-suit. "Now, we really have to get back to the ship. Let's go, and keep a sharp lookout for anyone else out here."
Dave said, "I'm not putting dust and ice chips in my pockets. It will just melt later. Remember, we have to stop for the Nitrogen tanks. I can carry one, but you two will have to handle the other one. And when I get back, I'm going to eat a lot before I go back out and weld shut that pinhole."
The ice block was huge. Like a squat six-sided pillar, flat on the top and bottom, it stretched over 100 meters in every direction. A dirty-white color in the light of the headlamps, it was floating two meters above the ground, held up by small thrusters on each of the six sides.
Billy looked again at the handful of copied papers containing the directions for moving the block from the mine to the landing field. They were coming up on a sharp change of direction, but to Billy it looked like there was a page of instructions missing. The ice was moving about a meter every two or three seconds, directly toward a sharp ridge of rock over 60 meters high. The next page said to fire the thrusters to push the block in the new direction. But there was nothing about slowing down, or stopping the block first.
"Shouldn't we stop this first," said Billy?
"No!" Eric almost shouted. "Just follow the instructions and fire the thrusters. If you fire them soon enough it will swing around to the new direction."
Billy fired the thrusters, as the next page instructed. But, as he expected, over the next two minutes, the ice block didn't change direction nearly enough. The ground shook, as the block slowly crushed itself against the rocks, grinding off a good third of its mass, and crumpling to the ground on either side of the ridge.
"Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha." Eric doubled over in laughter.
His amusement over the crushed load seemed almost criminal to Billy, as he thought of the five million bottles of water that was now undeliverable.
Eric laughed, "That's OK, every single crew since I've been here has dropped their first load. The robots always have two or three blocks ready to go. We can just go get the next one. Come on. I can have a crew re-melt that pile into a deliverable block, next month." He turned and headed back to the open pit of the mine.
Billy and Joe followed him, carefully.
. . .
One hour later, the ice block blackened the sky over the ship. Held up by the small thrusters, it was slowly lowered into place. When the block was within one meter over the Ice Ship and the six rockets spread out around it, small flames were fired into the ice block, melting holes for the rockets and the ship to fit almost halfway into it. In effect, the ice block itself became the body of a space vehicle, and the Ice Ship and the rockets would be its engines to push it through space.
Billy and Joe spent an extra couple of minutes in the airlock of the Ice Ship, stripping off their pressure suits; even though they were going out again in another hour. Billy opened the inner door and stepped into the cabin of the Ice Ship to see Linea, Andy and Dave standing still, staring at them. Linea made a small move toward him, and then she pushed forward and grabbed him in a big hug, with a sharp sob.
"I thought we lost you," she cried. Then she took a deep breath, and said more calmly, "I was afraid we lost you, until the ice came." She let go of Billy, and gave Joe a hug for good measure. "I was so afraid."
Billy looked at Dave and Andy. They looked like they were in shock, or something. "What happened?" Billy asked.
Linea appeared to not want to talk about it, so Andy explained. "We found a crew member from one of the Ice Ships. Dead. And she had written a record of what happened to them." Then she held out a handful of pages covered with writing.
Billy reached out and took the pages. After looking around at the others, he looked down and spent the next couple of minutes reading. The papers rustled as he turned them over. He started muttering as he read. "Everyone gone … followed to the Ice Station … locked out … helmet against the wall to hear… screaming … sobbing … I'm hiding … "
Billy lowered the papers and looked at the others. He was looking pale, and somewhat shaken. "He must have killed them," he said, quietly. "We need to get out of here as soon as possible. But we still have to get the navigation module from the Ice Station. He doesn't know that we know this. It seems like he is just willing to let us get out of here."
Billy straightened up and looked at the rest of them. "Here's what we'll do. Joe and I will suit up and go back to the station to pick up the navigation unit. Linea, I need you to program everything we know, including digitized copies of these papers, into a message which will automatically transmit back to earth, seven hours after we take off. Set it to repeat every hour after that, for six hours. Dave, I need you to suit up and put video cameras on the top and sides of the ice block, to let us see around us from in here. Andy, We'll need the cabin to be converted to be ready for takeoff, and to administer the hyper-sleep mist some time after take-off. Linea and Dave can help you with the conversion when they're done."
Linea said, "Do we really need the navigation unit? Can't we just reverse the path we used on the way out here?"
"No." Billy replied. "The asteroids shift position all the time, and only a navigation path programmed from this side of the asteroid belt, and programmed in the last couple of months, will give us a safe passage back to the Moon. We have to have that unit, because we'll be asleep while we travel. Okay, Joe. Let's go."
Once again, Billy hoped, and for the last time, he reached out and pressed the button on the announcer to the Ice Station. Billy and Joe waited. Two minutes passed.
"Just a minute." Sounded the voice over the universal comm. channel.
They waited another two minutes.
"You're early." Sounded the voice. "Come on in."
After cycling through the airlock, Billy, followed by Joe, moved up the passageway toward the office. The door on the left side of the passage was still closed. The bedroom on the right was still empty. Stepping into the office, Billy said, "Sorry to disturb you, but we need the latest navigation unit. Here are a couple that we brought out to be programmed." He set the replacement units on the desk.
"Oh, right," said Eric. "Still trying to set that speed record I see." Eric went over to a bank of electronic units, and unplugged one of them. He paused with his back turned to Billy, put that unit back, and unplugged a different one. Then he turned around, smiled and reached out to hand it to Billy.
Billy smiled and took the unit. He hoped his face wasn't displaying the mistrust he was feeling. "Thank you." He said. "We'll be on our way." He motioned for Joe to go ahead of him down the hall away from the office.
Five seconds later, as Billy passed the closed door on his right, he stopped, and sniffed. With a quick step back, he opened the side door and motioned Joe into the room ahead of him. The room was empty, except for the woman sitting against the far wall with one arm handcuffed to a catch-ring. She was wearing a dirty gray ship suit. She had dark hair and dark skin, like she might have been born in India. She appeared to be about thirty, but it was hard to tell because there were bruises on her face. She appeared to be asleep.
Billy crossed the room and knelt beside her. He shook her slightly, and then opened one of her eyelids. She wasn't asleep, she was drugged.
Eric Harmon came yelling down the corridor. "Stay out of there. Stay away from her. She's got space madness. She's extremely violent. I have a ship coming next month to take her back to Earth.
Billy looked around, and saw a pressure suit hanging in the back of the room that looked like it might be hers. He motioned for Joe to hand it to him. "What is her name?" He asked.
Eric, standing in the doorway, looked at the woman blankly. Apparently, he didn't know. "Uh, Sanjay Singh, I think. Those foreign names always confuse me."
"Give me the key." Billy said. And, as Eric looked reluctant, Billy slid his right hand along his leg. He reached up and put his hand over the handcuff attached to the wall, and pulled down quickly. The handcuff popped open, and fell away from the wall.
Billy slid his right hand down along his leg, and repeated himself. "Give me the key."
Joe's eyes were wide with amazement. It looked as if Billy had just grabbed that steel handcuff and pulled it right off the ring attached to the wall.
Eric's eyes were wide with fear. He immediately pulled a key from his pocket and tossed it across the room to land next to Billy. He appeared very reluctant to come into the room, or get close to Billy.
Billy unlocked the handcuff, and started putting the pressure suit on her, zipping it closed as he went. "We'll take her to earth with us." He said.
"You can't." Eric started. "She'll go mad and kill you all."
"She'll be in hyper-sleep." Replied Billy.
"But your ship only holds six. You have to leave someone here. I've seen pictures of your crew. They're all kids except for that Sarah Monroe. You can leave her here. I have a ship coming next month that can take her back."
Billy sealed her pressure suit and turned on the pressure. He stood up, and picked her up, holding her in the low gravity as if she were a child. He moved toward the door of the room.
Eric Harmon backed up into the hall, away from Billy, but started yelling with anger. "You can't take her unless you leave Sarah Monroe. I can't have any kids left here at the station. It's against the rules. They shouldn't be out here anyway.
Behind Billy, Joe closed his faceplate, pressurized his suit, and stepped into the airlock.
Billy turned an expressionless gaze at Eric Harmon, and stared at him. "I understand." He said. "I'll transfer Sarah's records to the other ship." Then he closed his face plate and backed up into the airlock.
As they started back toward the Ice Ship, Joe said, "How did you do that? It looked like you just pulled that handcuff right off the wall with one hand."
"Leverage," replied Billy. "I always like to carry leverage with me at all times. In this case, it was a small pry-bar in the leg-pocket of my pressure suit. I just kept the bar in my hand where he couldn't see it, and when I pulled down, I was actually prying the cuff open. But leverage usually works best when you keep it secret. When your opponent doesn't know what you actually have, his imagination makes it much bigger than it actually is."
As they approached the Ice Ship, Joe said, "Do you think she's really as crazy as he said?"
"I don't think so," said Billy. "I started to say, 'At least she's alive,' but now that I think about it, maybe there are worse things than being alive. I hope she'll be all right."
As soon as the inner airlock door released, Billy opened it and stepped into the cabin, still carrying the lady and wearing their pressure suits. As he looked around, he released the pressure in the suits and opened the faceplates. The cabin was already set up for takeoff, leaving only a small circle of space in the center. Linea, Dave and Andy were already lying down in their positions under the control panels. Joe, still in the airlock, was removing his pressure suit.
"Dave." Billy said in his command voice. "Fire the engines and get us off of this rock. With as much mass as we're pushing we won't even feel it for at least an hour." As he said this, he laid the lady down on the edge of the floor, next to Andy and the Mist-Bath unit.
Dave, raising one eyebrow in mock surprise, said, "Aye, aye, Captain." And immediately began touching the controls to begin firing the rockets and the ship's engine. They started to feel the slight vibration through the ship, but their weight increased very little.
"I'm trying to prevent any unwanted interruptions to our departure." Billy said, as he pulled off his helmet and unzipped his suit open far enough to get his hands free. "Help me out here, Andy." He said, and then took the helmet off of the figure lying on the floor.
Andy gasped, and crawled out of her bunk. "Linea, It's Cindy! Cynthia Roland, the captain of the Hawthorne." She started helping Billy unzip her pressure suit. When Billy looked at her quizzically, she explained: "We went through the ships logs after we got back. They had pictures of the crews, and I recognize her. They landed here nine months ago. All of those ships appear to be in our list of ships lost in the last five years. They were launched about one year apart."
Cindy's eyes opened, and closed. She stirred, as if trying to wake up.
"I think she's been drugged," said Billy. "I'm sorry to ask you to do this, Andy, but do you think you can stand her up in the shower? Or maybe just sit her in it? I don't think she's been in one for a week or more. Turn the volume to full water, with the exhaust on high to keep her from breathing it. Then, when she's cleaned off, put her into one of Sarah's suits? Thank you."
Billy stepped out of the pressure suit and turned to Linea. Pulling the navigation module out of the pocket, he handed it to her and said, "Linea, can you take this, and double check the course list? I think it may have been tampered with, and I want to check the course before we use it."
By this time, Joe had crawled into his bunk between Linea and Dave.
Billy said, "Joe, can we raise the computer on the Hawthorne, or is it totally dead?"
Linea interrupted. "Oh, I left the battery connected to the Hawthorne's computer on the way back, when we stopped to pick up the Nitrogen tank. I wanted to download everything I could get from them."
"Excellent." Said Billy. "Joe, transfer a copy of Sarah's records into the Hawthorne's computer, and send a record over there, transferring Cynthia Roland from I.S. Hawthorne to the I.S. Janus."
Shortly afterward, Linea started talking. "I think you're right, Billy. The navigation module looks like it was tampered with, but the course appears to be correct. I can't find anything wrong with the course itself, but the cross-checks for the program as a whole just don't add up."
Billy said, "Let me look at it." Billy plugged the module into his console, and began reviewing the instructions. "You're right." He said after a minute. "The course instructions look perfect. But I can't see why it's not adding up. I think it must be one of those unexplained glitches that doesn't ever cause trouble."
Andy brought Cindy out of the shower unit, dressed in one of Sarah's hot-pink ship-suits. She lifted her in the near-zero gravity, and carried her over to Linea and Billy. Linea reached up and helped Billy push Cindy, still asleep, down into the First Officer's station. When she was settled, Cindy struggled to open her eyes, and said, "Don't. Leave. Anyone. Here."
Billy said, "We didn't leave anyone." And when she heard that, her eyes closed, she breathed out, and appeared to go back to sleep. Billy thought to himself that she would probably not even remember having said anything.
Joe said, "The Hawthorne still has some fuel left. So, I had the computer start up the generators, and lock the doors. It will look like someone is inside."
"Great," said Billy. "Linea, since the course is correct, I think we'll have to go ahead and use the module. Okay, is everyone ready? Navigation module running? Hyper-sleep ready to start? Let's go home."
And with that, the hyper-sleep mist released into the cabin, and after two breaths they all drifted into an extremely deep sleep. Almost like death, but not quite.
For ten hours the ship continued under full acceleration on a precise course toward Earth. But then, inside the cabin, the navigation module blinked. Outside, in the dark, surrounded by thirty-thousand visible stars, the main engines and rockets slowed, then stopped. And the ship continued on course, drifting through space.
There was a voice speaking. Billy could hear it, but he didn't understand it. It was a computer voice saying something. And yet again, it said, "Twenty-four hours to landing." Billy breathed in, and out. The blackness passed. The voice said again, "Ice Ship Janus. Twenty-three hours to landing." What? Billy struggled to move. He felt like he had been buried in sand. The weight was like having bags of sand on top of him, and everything smelled like dust. He heard moans and groans and coughs from the others in the cabin. Hyper-sleep had never ended like this before. What was wrong? Billy opened his eyes after unsticking his eyelids. He looked across the cabin and saw Andy come out of the Mist-bath unit, and pull herself up through the hatch to the stores level.
Joe, Linea and Dave all had their eyes open, barely. They were stretching and starting to check the controls on the panels in front of them.
Next to Billy, Cindy, Cynthia Roland, stretched her arms over her head and said, "Oh, I've just had the most horrible dream." She opened her eyes and looked to her right, at Joe and Linea. She was smiling. Then her smile faded, and she said, "You're not my kids."
Then she looked around at the control panels, and the cabin walls. Coming to realize that she was in an Ice Ship, she looked to her right, past Joe, Linea and Dave. She seemed suddenly aware that she was not in her accustomed position on the far left. She quickly turned to her left and stared at Billy. "You're not my crew."
As her memories returned, and she realized that perhaps it had not been a dream, the color faded from her face, and a look of terror began to appear. Immediately Andy appeared above her head, and put a sippy-bag of hot chocolate to her mouth.
As he accepted a hot chocolate bag from Andy, Billy said, "This is the Ice Ship Janus. I'm captain William Caulfield, call me Billy. This is Life Support, Andromeda Dyson, Andy. Pilot Linea Iverson, Communications, Joseph Torres, Joe. And Engineering, David Stevens, Dave.
Cindy held up her left arm and looked at it. Then she looked down to realize she was completely covered in hot-pink. "I'm pink," She said. And realizing that she was wearing someone else's ship suit, and was lying on someone else's bunk, she said in a whisper, "What happened to your First Officer?"
"Claustrophobia." Linea said, next to her. "Four weeks before we reached the Ice Station. Her name was Sarah Monroe, and she was the most wonderful person I ever knew."
"Oh, no," said Billy. "It wasn't the course that was wrong in the Navigation module. There was a bit of a Trojan Horse hidden in its programming that turned off the engine and thrusters."
The computer said, yet again, "Ice Ship Janus. Twenty-two hours to Landing at the Moon Base Station."
"Aarrgh," Billy said. Then he coughed. It's not supposed to feel like this. We have to get moving again."
Andy said, "Use a hot steam setting in the Mist Bath. It really helps to clear out your lungs. Then you'll feel much better."
"Okay," said Billy, as he crawled out of the bunk. "I'm next."
. . .
2236-05-19 09:22 S.T.
"What?" Billy said, "Linea, there's something wrong with the computer clock. Can you re-sync it to a time signal from Earth since we're this close to the Moon?"
Several minutes passed. Linea said, "It's re-set now, but I don't think you're going to like this."
"Oh, no. You have got to be kidding." Billy said.
2236-05-19 09:27 S.T. --- I.S. Janus on approach to landing at the Moon Base. On board: Captain William Caulfield, reporting, Captain Cynthia Roland from I.S. Hawthorne, Pilot Linea Iverson, Communications Joseph Torres, Engineering David Stevens, Life Support Andromeda Dyson. We are now 27 years late!???
Billy, standing at the captain's console, put down the ship's log book and chewed thoughtfully on the top his pen. "This changes everything." He said. He looked around the cabin at the rest of them. "Congratulations partners. We are now the co-owners of this ship, and the entire shipment of ice, by right of salvage. They will have declared us all dead about twenty years ago. And this ship, and its cargo, will have been written off as lost. So, because we found it, we now own it."
"Okay," Billy said. "While you're all speechless, take a few minutes to find out everything you can about where we are and what our condition is in this world. As they used to say, in the wild west, I'm going to rustle up some grub." He then pulled himself through the overhead hatch into the stores level, looking for food.
Fifteen minutes later, Billy came back down and started serving up scrambled eggs to everyone. It was one of the few foods that didn't create a hazard if it floated off of your plate. "Sorry about the powdered eggs," he said. "But we don't seem to have anything fresh at the moment. So, what have you found? Andy?"
"Well, as you probably noticed with the food, everything we had that used to be remotely fresh, is now kind of a crumbly powder." Andy replied. "Of course, everything that started out as a powder, is still a powder. We have plenty of water. The air ratios are all right, and everything else looks okay."
Dave said, "The ship is still holding up well. No air leaks. We have lost two of the outside cameras. And about twenty percent of the ice that we started with is gone--- I think from the effects of erosion due to the solar wind."
Joe said, "I can't raise anyone at the bottling plant on the moon. It's like no one is there. Earth broadcasts are still running. The company still exists. At least the commercials are still selling their products. The same countries still exist. But I didn't see evidence that anyone is still doing space exploration."
Linea added, "I raised the computer in the bottling plant on the moon. The records show that the plant was shut off about fifteen years ago because the supply of ice ran out. They hit the bottom at Ice Station 4, and without a new supply, everything was just shut down. The good news is, everything was left intact, ready to be restarted. I had the computer on the base start up the generators, and turn on all the equipment to be ready for the ice when we get there. All we have to do is design a label for the bottles. And that's something we can transmit from here, so as soon as we land, the bottling process will start. Then we can start selling it.
Cindy looked at the others, and appeared slightly embarrassed. "After Linea connected to the computer on the Moon, I linked through it to the internet. Well, barely. The transmission time is very slow. But I found my two children. They have a website. And I now have seven grandchildren, and one great grandchild. I didn't know what to say, so I didn't contact them yet."
Billy said, "Let's wait until we reach the moon base. Then we can announce ourselves from there."
Looking at Cindy, he said, "Cindy, there's going to come a time when you will have to tell everything you know about what happened at the Ice Station. That will be very hard. But until then, if anyone asks, you can just say, 'It was very bad.' Until then, try to think of the good things, like your children and grandchildren."
Looking around at everyone, Billy said, "This applies to all of us. In general, the things that we know but others don't know, may sometimes be used as leverage. But once everyone knows it, then that advantage will be gone. So just be careful about what you tell people."
Looking around, and seeing that no one had anything else to say, Billy said, "Well, let's get ready for landing."
2236-05-20 06:02 S.T. --- I.S. Janus has landed at the bottling station on the moon. Disembarking: Captain William Caulfield, Pilot Linea Iverson, Communication Joseph Torres, Engineering David Stevens, Life Support Andromeda Dyson, Captain Cynthia Roland from I.S. Hawthorne. Ice has been loaded, and the bottling process has begun. Ship's log closed.
The gray-filtered sunlight cast large squares of light across the cement floor of the empty warehouse on the moon. At one end were a row of tables with computers and monitors on them. Billy was leaning back in a padded chair, with both feet up on a table which held two computer screens. On top of the two screens were two cameras. One of the cameras was feeding a live image to the internet. The other was connected to an Earth-side conference room, and also to one of the screens on the table. Billy was making a video call to the Earth-side office. Cindy was sitting at the next table over, using another computer, and waving to her grandchildren over the internet.
One of the screens in front of Billy showed the camera's view---In the foreground was Billy, or the top half of him. In the background, out of focus at the other end of the warehouse, Andy was saying to the others, "Look, it's a real basketball hoop, with a little plaque that says, 'In memory of Sarah Monroe.' And a real basketball. Let's pump it up."
The other screen in front of Billy showed a man in a suit, in a conference room on earth. He was saying, in a very loud voice, "I'm a lawyer and an officer of this company, and I'm telling you that you have no right to be there. You are trespassing on company property, and we will prosecute you to the full extent of the law…blah, blah, blah." Billy started remembering how the stars looked from space.
Billy stretched back, and looked up at the sunshine coming through the skylight. The man in the screen was saying, "blah, blah-blah, blah-de-blah-blah, blah … What's all that racket?"
Billy looked over his shoulder in time to see Linea coming down to jam the basketball through the hoop, with a shout that echoed through the empty warehouse, and the others involved in the game yelling and lamenting the goal. He turned to the camera and said, "That's just my kids, playing ball. Here, I'll introduce you."
He called out, "Linea. Andy. Can you take over for me here?" Turning to the camera, he said. "This is Linea Iverson, and Andromeda Dyson. They're going to negotiate for us." As Billy stood up he turned to Linea and Andy, and winked at them. They had already rehearsed this together, having decided that it would throw off the other side to have two kids doing the negotiating.
As Linea and Andy sat down in the local screen, the earth-side lawyer said, "Wait. Come back." Then he spluttered and turned red like he was unable to decide whether to yell louder, or not. So he started over. "You can't be there. You're trespassing on private property."
Linea said, "We were hired by the company to bring back the ice and we brought back the ice. Do you have the authority to negotiate a business deal for the company?"
But he just kept ranting, "I demand you bring back Mr. Caulfield. You shouldn't even be there. We're going to sue you for trespassing …"
Seeing that he wasn't listening to her, Linea turned to the side and said, "Cindy, can you handle this for us? I think he needs a private conference on lawsuits." Then she and Andy got up and moved to the side, out of camera range, as Cindy appeared in the screen and sat down. Cindy reached out and turned off the public feed to the internet.
The lawyer had again stumbled to a stop, and restarted with, "I'm an officer of this company…"
"And I'm Captain Cynthia Roland of the Ice Ship Hawthorne." Cindy interrupted. "This company, in violation of company policy, left that monster out there for five years, where he proceeded to murder about 28 people, including my crew. As an agent of your company, he tried to kill us as well."
"You, and every other officer of this company can be criminally prosecuted as an accessory after the fact, for covering this up, and because the officers of the company are responsible for the actions of their employees when performing company business. I am a survivor and an eyewitness of these crimes. And when the details of this comes out in court, You could end up in prison, while the company pays us billions of credits in compensation. Remember, there is no statute of limitations on murder."
"Now go away, and put someone else on the line who can negotiate a business deal." Then she got up and went back over to the other computer, where she continued smiling and talking to her grandchildren.
Billy, standing off-camera, turned to see that Joe had come up to listen. He nodded toward him, and whispered, "leverage."
Linea and Andy returned and sat down in front of the camera. Andy reached forward and turned on the public feed to the internet again. They were broadcasting live to the "IS Janus Returns" website, where there were currently over 400,000 viewers. "Sorry about the delay," said Andy.
There was a bunch of talking in the background at the Earth-side conference room, and the lawyer got up and left, with much yelling, to be replaced by an apparently calmer middle-aged woman in a nice-looking cream-colored suit. "Hello," she said. "I'm Dayna Severensen, Vice President in charge of operations. You can call me Dayna. I understand you would like to do some business."
"Yes," Linea said, as she looked down at the list of things they needed to cover. "First of all, we would like for the company to agree to bottle, sell and deliver this water in exchange for a percentage of the gross proceeds." Linea leaned over and whispered in Andy's ear, "That’s such a funny word. Gross just sounds so … gross."
"Wait," Said Dayna, on the screen. "The company owns the water."
Andy interrupted. "I'm sorry, but no," she said. "This ship and this water have been lost in space for 27 years. We found it. We salvaged it. Therefore, it belongs to us." Part of their negotiation practice had been to take turns speaking, so the other side would have a harder time focusing on one person.
"But you work for our company," said Dayna.
"Again, no." said Linea. "We were declared dead over twenty years ago, so we can't be working for anyone."
"But you were already in the ship, so how can you have found it?" Dayna said.
"Yes, that was really convenient," said Andy, "Now, instead of mass-marketing, our new campaign is to sell these bottles of water one at a time, every 30 minutes using G-Bay. So far, we have sold 10 of them for more than fifty-five thousand credits each. The sale price, by the way, has continued to climb. So, we were thinking that the company could afford to bottle, sell and ship the product for about five percent of that selling price."
Dayna turned to one side on the screen and said something to someone else. There was a sound of keystrokes and printing, then an arm appeared from the side of the screen, pushing a piece of paper toward Dayna. She looked at it, shook her head and looked up. "I'm sorry, but that is only about forty-eight million credits a year. We would need almost twice that to be able to transport and ship the product from the moon, and still make a profit on it."
"Ten percent it is then, or 96 million, whichever is higher," Said Linea. She nodded at Andy, because they both knew ahead of time that the company would need nearly 10 percent at that price, and would have demanded fifty percent or more if they could get it.
Andy said, "The first load will be outside ready for loading as soon as you can come and get it. How soon can we tell the buyers to expect delivery?"
Dayna turned to listen to her unseen advisors. Then she said, "We'll pick it up in two weeks, and deliver it four weeks from today. We'll have our lawyers draw up a contract, and bring it to you when we pick up the first shipment."
"That's Okay," said Andy. "We won't need the written contract. We've had 400 thousand witnesses to it on the internet, so it's been recorded. Which, by the way, we have to leave now. Bye bye everyone." Andy waved at the camera, and then reached forward and switched the live internet feed over to Dave and Joe, shooting very slow baskets at the other end of the warehouse.
Linea, reading from her list, said, "Privately speaking, as a favor to us, we would like the company to provide the following services: One, an immunologist and doctor before we return to Earth. Two, lawyers to have us declared legally alive and to set up trust funds for all of us, including Sarah Monroe, and Cynthia Roland. Three, a real-estate agent to find us a place to live. And four, probably mental health services. In exchange for this, Billy has some information that may profit your company. Billy?"
Linea and Andy stood up and left the conference, to be replaced by Billy.
He said, "I think your lawyers can use this information. I was talking to Eric Harmon yesterday, well twenty-seven years ago.---I'm sorry. What ever happened to him anyway?"
Dayna turned to one side, and was handed a sheet of paper. Looking at the paper, she explained, "Twenty-seven years ago, they received your transmissions and notified the next ship to arrive there. They found Mr. Harmon, but he seemed insane. He kept babbling on about Sarah Monroe being there, but of course, she wasn't. The I.S. Hawthorne was locked, but pressurized as if someone had been there. And they found the record transferring Cynthia Roland to your ship. They found and identified the remains of each of the crew members from the empty ships, except for the one. They were all buried in the back of the ice mine. They left Janice Belmont where you said she was, considering it far enough off-site to qualify as a burial. Mr. Harmon ended up on earth in an asylum for criminals, but he died soon after that."
"Oh," Billy said. "Well, Eric Harmon said to me that every single crew had smashed its first block of ice coming out of the mine. But he also said that he would have a crew re-cast the broken ice for shipment. But none of our crews ever returned with a re-cast block of ice. So, how was it that the other company was still bottling and selling space water for years after Ice Station 3 had been closed down?"
Two seconds later, Dayna's face on the screen lit up with understanding, and she said, "That's it. They were receiving water from the only source available: Ice Station 4. The other company was bottling and selling our water, stolen from our Ice Station. We can sue them for that."
Billy added, "Also, that means that Eric Harmon was acting as agent of the other company. Which means that your company is not quite as legally liable for what he did."
Dayna said, "Thank you very much, we will contact you later today about the other things you asked for." An arm came into view on the screen, pushing a piece of paper toward her. She looked at it in surprise and looked into the camera. "This says that if the price of the water remains this high, your trust funds would be receiving over one hundred million credits each, per year."
"Oh, yeah," said Billy. "About that? Please limit the trust funds for my kids so they can't use more than half of that income from each year, until they're over twenty-one years old?"
Dayna looked surprised. "You're giving them access to fifty million credits a year?"
Billy smiled. "I think they can handle it."
After Billy shut off the video conference, Cindy, Linea, Dave, Andy and Joe all came up and gathered around him. Linea said, "We wanted to give you the first bottle, Billy." And she handed him a clear glass bottle with a twilight-blue label covered with white stars.
Billy, his voice rough with emotion, said, "Thanks guys." And he looked again at the bottle. The front of the label read, "Sarah's Tears: the last water ever, from Ice Station 4." And on the back label was a picture of Sarah Monroe, smiling forever.
Linea looked up from the book about identifying minerals and looked around the lab. It only had one table, but it did have a wall full of books, and a lot of equipment on the shelves. Andy, sitting next to her, was swiveling back and forth on the lab stool, her black hair flying out away from her shoulders, and then falling back again. "I think I have it," Linea said. "We just need the corundum scratch plate. When we scratch the rocks they will leave a colored trace that will help to indicate what type of mineral it is."
Linea went over to the shelves labeled, "Geology Equipment," and started looking. "Here it is," she said. She brought it over to the lab table and put it down. "Okay, lets have one of the rocks."
Andy, pulled out a black bag, about ten centimeters wide and unzipped it. She pulled out a rock about two centimeters across and handed it to Linea. "What color are we looking for?" She said.
"I don't think we care, but we'll soon find out," said Linea. Then she scratched the rock across the plate leaving a dusty white trace.
"White. What does that mean," said Andy.
"Wait." Linea brushed the dust off of the corundum plate to reveal a significant scratch in the surface. She looked closely at the rock. "There isn't a scratch on the rock. But the Corundum was scratched. That means that the rock is harder than the corundum."
"What's harder than corundum?" Andy asked.
"Diamonds," said Linea. "These are diamonds! Do you remember having a unit in school on world resources and economies? The mines for natural diamonds were mostly played out over fifty years ago. That means this bag is worth millions! Maybe even fifty or one hundred million! Do you think we should tell someone?"
"No. Not yet." Said Andy. "It should be our secret for a while, but I have an idea. We should super-glue metal eyelets on them and make a couple of necklaces out of them. Then we could wear them as our secret. If anyone asks what they are, I'll say, 'They're my diamonds.' I'll be telling the truth, but they totally will not believe me. They will assume that they are agates. And if they insist on an answer, I can say, 'I can pretend they're diamonds if I want to.' Then they will assume that I'm just pretending, and that they're not diamonds."
"So, what do we do after that?" Linea asked.
"Anything we want to." Said Andy. "Anything in the world."
"I want to be the Captain, when I go back someday," said Linea.
Edited by Ari-san, 06 May 2008 - 06:23 AM.