Tubo starts awake in his gravi-chair, Earth impact alarm screeching. He has fallen asleep. Yawning, he aborts the autocorrect three seconds before burn initiation. He then fingers the controls, feels the Walter Scott awaken and move beneath him, the deep volcanic throbbing, a dragon stirring under the floor. The timer starts and he targets a trajectory in the naviscreen that will bring the ‘roid back to an orbital approach. He also keeps a close eye on stress indicators in the docking piles, for they weren’t built to withstand the repeated strain of these corrective burns. Walter Scott’s engines are among the most powerful machines ever built, powerful enough to rip the Walter Scott apart should a single docking pile fail. Each pile is sunk 500 meters into the ‘roid and fixed directly to the structural frame of the ship. If one pile were to break, the engines could rip the other pile out of the ship before Tubo could even react, leaving it imbedded in the ‘roid with the ship’s guts still attached and dangling, like a bee sting ripping out of the bee. Tubo remembers being stung by a bee; he has not been on Earth in 37 years. Three seconds have passed. He lifts his finger off the trigger. The engines power down and the ship shifts slowly back onto its support coils, gradually settling in the .1G pull of the ‘roid’s gravity. He checks fuel reserves, mentally calculates how much that one cost him, then glances at the naviscreen.
In the screen, Mars is a left parentheses in 12-point font, a bloody fingernail clipping, the old warrior god with his back turned. Earth hides behind Sol, that bright point of light to the left and a little lower than Mars. Below this, a long irregular gray tongue of carbonaceous chondrite stretches out into the uniform blackness of intrasolar space. Already, it has drifted .01 points back toward an impact trajectory.
At the bottom of the naviscreen, a small fossil is visible poking up out of the pockmarked meteoric stone. It looks like the flare of a hipbone. Other shadows suggest a skull, legs, possibly an arm, and part of a tail. Tubo has been looking at them long enough that the surprise has worn off. Now they are merely puzzling, and a little frightening. He noticed the bone as he swung around the backside of Jupiter and the shadows cast by the rising sun gradually resolved into these suggestive features.
Tug captain Tubo Prohng shifts his weight in the gravi-chair. His ‘roid is the size of Manhatten, a fat haul, but it is displaying some unusual gravitational potentials. Every hour or so, wakened by the Earth impact alarm, he makes small adjustments to its trajectory, but even these require the expenditure of vast amounts of fuel. And this eats away at his profit margin. Every three-second burst of the momentum engines of the Planetary Hauler Walter Scott burns 314,159 units of fuel. At current market price, that’s close to a million EUs. He keeps a close eye on the Belgrade fuel markets through a DeepSat node, but it usually depresses him beyond words. This one is going to cost him, but it is too late to withdraw. He could radio for help, but that would cost even more. It is his ‘roid. He captured it and steered it into Earth orbital approach.
Seventy-three years ago, amateur astronomer Maxwell Franck catalogued this unremarkable piece of rock and named it Delilah. Mr. Franck never explained why. According to modern science, which hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years, Delilah had been in a regular orbit within the Asteroid Belt near the Trojans Resonance for nearly ten billion years, until Tubo Prongh drove the docking piles of the Walter Scott into its stony heart, fired up his ungodly engines, and nudged her into a slingshot trajectory around Jupiter, some 337 days ago.
Between the hourly burns, Tubo Prohng has time to study and meditate and form his own inexact theories about the history of the solar system. But he has no time for sleep, nothing beyond these brief naps. He has not slept longer than an hour in 744 hours, and he cannot, not if he doesn’t want the Walter Scott’s navigational computers to initiate their own indelicate corrective burn and ruin his fortunes. The strange gravitational potentials working on Delilah have him puzzled, but he doesn’t care to think of them. If he wants to make a profit, there is nothing he can do except to keep firing up Walter Scott’s engines for brief nudging burns. He is not ashamed to admit that he is not the equal of gravity.
But this bone, this curious arc of hip shadow thrown across the bottom edge of his naviscreen, almost like an afterthought, an oh-by-the-way, a wrinkle in the rug over which he trips. There was life here once, even here where no life should be, life so long that it could lay down its bones and turn them to stone. Such thoughts people the 3º Kelvin shadows outside his ship with very real ghosts. Tubo Prongh has never been to Mars and seen its phantoms, though he has passed it seven times, and is approaching his eighth.
His grandfather could never have imagined such voyages. There was a gentle old white-whiskered man whose three great loves were pigs, children, and wives, in that order. He cared little for the world beyond the rice fields of his village. Tubo Prongh often thinks of his grandfather on these voyages to the Asteroid Belt, for he is fast approaching the age at which his grandfather died. But at eighty, his grandfather had been a beaming toothless monkey with one foot in the funeral pyre, while Tubo is still in the genetically-manipulated prime of his manhood. He has a boy at home, two years old, and a wife of twenty-three (the law still only allows him one of each). Tubo is wealthy and still considered handsome; he has all his original teeth. He has a 2,000 square meter geodwelling inside a rock in space above the dying Earth. He has a New Antilles bank account filled with digits.
Yet he cannot bear the clamoring of home life, the shrieking demands of wife and child. He prefers the dark empty spaces of his thoughts and his studies and meditations. He prefers the humming muscle of the Walter Scott, the Zen simplicity of its stark interiors juxtaposed with the extravagance of Io off his starboard bow passing into the shadow of Jupiter. He loves running the Kirkwood Gaps in search of asteroids of suitable mass and composition to sell to the military and habitat developers back in Earth orbit, like the whalers and ivory hunters of olden days. He likes his mercenary selfhood. Only he is alone, bleakly alone, on a ‘roid that won’t behave.
He leans forward in his seat and stares at the left edge of the screen. There is a boulder visible on the ‘roid’s horizon. He hasn’t noticed it before. It concerns him, because it might indicate the ‘roid is actually a conglomerate bound together by weak gravitational forces. This might explain the gravitational potentials he’s been fighting. But his initial geological survey indicated solidity with only minor faulting near an impact crater on the opposite side. He is sure the boulder wasn’t there before. It casts a rather long shadow across the surface, reaching almost to the ship. Tubo drags a navigational marker line across the screen so he can note any movement or change in either the object or its shadow after he performs the next correction. Then he calls up the Lisbon fuel markets on a com screen.
Tubo starts awake, Earth impact alarm screeching. It seems only a minute has passed. He reaches for the autocorrect abort button, but his hand pauses twenty centimeters above the board. The seconds continue to click down to burn initiation. Tubo stares at the naviscreen. The boulder has moved. Its shadow has reached the ship. It isn’t a boulder, it is a man-shape, bipedal, thick brachiated arms, large round head. Tubo blinks. His hand drops with .31 seconds to go.
Still watching it, he fingers forward the controls, the engines wake. Out on the ‘roid, the man-thing staggers, pauses, then starts to walk again, slowly, with the exaggerated movements of someone wearing gravitational boots. It is pulling something behind it on a type of travois. Its face is hidden in shadow. Tubo powers down the Walter Scott. He turns to the communications screen, pulls up a broad band com channel, initiates a scan.
A sound crackles low in the FM band range. The computer pauses to examine it, tunes, filters. A voice emerges into the empty air, speaking English “…inside the ship. Hello inside the ship are you reading me?”
Tubo waits a moment before touching the com. He takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly. He looks at his tongue in the reflection of a dark screen, grimacing. It occurs to him that he might be hallucinating, or insane, or asleep. He feels fine, just a little tired. He touches the com, but still he doesn’t speak. He lifts his finger without making a sound, unsure what to say.
“I heard that. Who are you? What’s that ship?” the voice says, a little out of breath. It is a male voice, English accent.
Tubo leans forward, trying to see closer into the navigational screen, to see a face. The head turns slightly as the figure stumbles. A glint of gold flashes where the face should be. tubo touches the com switch and says softly, blankly, “This is the Planetary Hauler Walter Scott.” He lifts his finger.
“Bloody wog. You sound like a bloody wog. Where are you from, woggy?”
Tubo touches the com, calmly, “Identify yourself.”
“Identify your fucking self.”
Tubo touches the com, repeats, “Please identify yourself.”
“Grover Nuttbalm, you wog bastard.”
Tubo laughs, fingers the com, “Please identify yourself.”
“My name is Grover Nuttbalm. Doctor Grover Nuttbalm. Look it up, wog.” He never pauses in his progress toward the ship. He is close enough now for Tubo to see what he is dragging on the travois – two small metallic canisters, flat, like old satellite battery casings. He wears an old-fashioned environment suit, once white but now dirty gray, patched, bulky, late 20th century NASA vintage, with a gold-visored helmet.
Tubo pulls up an archive search on the communications screen, enters NUTTBALM >ALT NUTTBAUM, GROVER, DR. It takes a few seconds for the information to arrive via the old NASA Deep Space Network. He reads it.
He reads it again.
Tubo touches the com. “Dr. Nuttbaum, it has been some time.”
“Not long enough, wog,” the figure responds as it disappears at the bottom of the nav-screen.
“I’m afraid there isn’t any way for you to get inside this ship, Dr. Nuttbaum,” Tugo says. “Not from where…” he pauses, his finger still on the com. It is impossible. Impossible for a man to survive this long along on an asteroid in an environment suit. “How…?”
“...survive?” the voice asks, laughing. It grunts, and he hears the gurgling of the environment suit through the com. “How did I survive? You’d like to know, wouldn’t you? Make yourself a fortune back on earth with my technologies, wouldn’t you? Fountain of youth, all that rot. To hell with you, capitalist pig.”
“How did you get all the way out here, Dr. Nuttbaum? We weren’t sending anything but robots out this far when you disappeared.”
Laughter over the com. There is a strange quality to the doctor’s laughter, even over the com. Tubo cannot identify it. He touches the com, his lips hang open, breathing the stale recycled air through his teeth. It is air that has been off Earth longer than he has. He has breathed it so many times now, it feels like a part him. A part of him that fills the entire ship, a part of him running like blood through the ducts to the recycling plant deep in the ship’s bowels. Suddenly, he feels something is wrong, an imbalance in his extended chi, a blockage of fiery yang.
Then an anchoring pile indicator flashes yellow. He removes his finger from the open com, and panting laughter again fills the small speaker. He punches up a ship diagnostic, initiates it, leans into the chair and without relaxing the sudden tensing of his back, waits, his brows furrowing over his dark eyes. While he waits, the anchoring pile indicator switches to red. The diagnostic returns with a volcanic stress reading deep in the pile’s bore chamber. Impossible. It is impossible. He reminds himself of this. He runs the diagnostic again. The ‘roid has been cold for ten billion years.
“You’d better pull out or you’ll lose it,” the doctor says over the com.
The indicator light winks red once more, then stays lit.
“What are you doing?” Tubo demands now. A warning appears on the nav screen. “You couldn’t cut through that pile, not even if you had a plasma saw.”
“Do you know how the pyramids were built?”
“The pyramids? What do the pyramids have to do with anything?” Tubo barks without touching the com. His fingers dance across the boards in front of him, pulling up stress projections, running simulations, calculating trajectories, fuel and engine readings. A geological window opens on his screen.
A shudder passes through the ship, rattling the little plastic container of dietary supplements sitting next to the naviscreen. “What was that?” Tubo asks no one. The geological window scrolls off a seismic recording of the event, showing epicenter and magnitude.
“I’ll bet you are wondering what the pyramids have to do with anything.”
Tubo slams the com with his fist. “Whatever it is you are doing, you had better stop. If you damage that pile, do you realize what will happen?”
But the doctor ignores him. “The pyramids have everything to do with everything. I’ll bet you think I’m suffering from paranoid delusions. Space madness, we used to call it.”
Another ‘roidquake shakes the Walter Scott, almost tossing Tubo from his gravi-chair. The geological window dutifully records the event. Meanwhile, stress indicators on the damaged pile reach critical, while the secondary pile is now showing non-fatal damage. A metallic groan echoes up through the ship. Tubo runs a repair schedule, inserts the mean estimate into his navigational calculations.
He sits slowly back in his chair, his eyes rising to the navigational screen. .5 outside safe orbital trajectory, and increasing. “Do you know what you’ve done?” he whispers. His fingers fumble along the buttons on the arm panel of his gravitational chair, thumbing through various monitoring cameras affixed to the ship’s hull. One shows him the intrasolar comdish hanging from a bent bracket. He clicks through several more images, finds the orbital antenna array. It looks operational, but its range is limited to .1 light minutes. Not powerful enough to call for help.
He leans forward and presses the com. “Do you know what you’ve done?” he asks softly.
“Do you know, no one has solved the mystery of how the pyramids were built. Oh, they think they know, simply because they know a way to do it. But there are always other ways.”
Tubo continues flipping through the monitoring cameras. He finds the port docking pile camera. A grainy gray image appears, showing the doctor in his suit sitting on a rock beside his travois. The two battery casings lie beside him. The pile is sheared almost in half, is guts spitting magnesium sparks. A spiderweb of fracture faults spread several dozen meters across the ground in all directions.
“Just because you have a solution that works doesn’t mean the mystery is solved.”
“Do you know what you’ve done!” Tubo screams.
“Of course I know what I’ve done, you stupid wog. If you light up those beautiful momentum engines of yours without uncoupling from this rock, you’ll tear your ship apart. So unhook and leave. I haven’t compromised your safety unless you do something stupid. This is my home. You’ve no right to steal it.”
“This rock is headed into an impact trajectory with Earth!” Tubo cries shrilly.
“So how can we expect to solve the mysteries of space if we don’t even know how the pyramids were built?”
“Shut up about the pyramids, ok?” Tubo shouts. He keeps his finger on the com. “Just shut up. The pyramids aren’t important. I need to contact Earth and get help, or else this rock is going to destroy everything down there. Do you have radio equipment able to contact Earth?”
“Great,” Tubo sighs. He punches up the undocking procedures and initiates them.
The doctor says, “I’ve been monitoring Earth broadcasts since I arrived here. I hear all about you bloody capitalists from your bloody capitalist media, twenty-four bloody hours a day. I don’t know how you stand it When the BBC went private, I knew it was time to leave Earth. I had more money than I knew what to do with selling back nuclear waste to the various space programs. The funny thing is, my family became wealthy leasing storage space for nuclear waste in the first place.”
With the remaining docking pile withdrawn, the Walter Scott rides lightly back on its support coils. A brief burst from two steering rockets is enough to lift it free of the .1G pull of the asteroid. The pocked surface of Delilah begins to draw away.
“Then, when I invented the momentum engine,” the doctor continues, “I intentionally used nuclear waste as its fuel. Thought it would make for a good way to get rid of the stuff, don’t you know, quit poisoning the earth. Instead, I created a market. Nuclear plants built everywhere just to produce waste, not even making electricity. I wanted to become a hermit. But there weren’t any mountains left that didn’t have an advertisement painted on their slopes with genetically-altered trees. So I came out here in a ship I financed myself, the first man to visit the Asteroid Belt, and I didn’t even get a write up in Science/Nature.”
As the Walter Scott continues to rise, Tubo switches through several cameras until he finds one pointed directly down. The doctor still sits in his environment suit beside the severed docking pile. He is already tiny, insignificant.
“You know, if early rockets had used fossil fuels instead of hydrogen and oxygen, we’d already be living among the stars. You might have been born under a different sun, wog. But capitalists can’t make money selling what can be had for the trouble of dipping your hand in the nearest ocean. That was the beauty of burning nuclear waste. It was a finite resource made suddenly valuable, and mostly in the possession of poor countries that had agreed to accept it from large industrialized countries for the sake of a little cash injected into their outmoded and uncompetitive economies. But there wasn’t enough to meet consumption demands, and now they’re destroying the earth, making it uninhabitable, just to make more of waste, so bastards like you can come out here and drag back asteroids for rich capitalists to build houses on safe and high above the clouds spewing from your reactors. You bastards have even used up your nuclear weapons making waste to burn. Now, militaries keep arsenals of asteroids ready to de-orbit and drop on whoever isn’t playing the game according to the rules. We’ve gone back to throwing stones at one another.”
Tubo thumbs the com. “How long will it take you to reach your communication equipment?” he asks.
“I can’t contact Earth,” the doctor answers.
“What do you mean? You said you have the equipment…” Tubo’s voice trails off.
“I do. I use it to melt water ice.”
Tubo sits stunned for a moment, his finger prodding at the com.
“I’m not going to call someone in to help you steal my home to make weapons for your capitalist military.”
“You’ve destroyed the Earth,” Tubo whispers. “You’ve done a million times worse that all the militaries in the world.”
“No I haven’t.”
“Yes, you have,” Tubo whispers. He thinks of the green fields of this grandfather’s farms, the pigs in the mud, the women young and supple and old and hoary, and a naked child standing in the doorway of the house. He is the child that he sees, a silvery streak running from his nostrils to his lip. He has been crying, wakened from a nap by a dream. This dream.
“No I haven’t,” the doctor taunts.
“Yes, you have,” Tubo insists.
“So what if I have? What possible difference could it make?”
“Everyone will die. By the time I reach com range, it will be too late to divert it. A dozen planetary haulers couldn’t divert it.”
“Do you know how the pyramids were built?”
“Shut up about the pyramids! Shut up about the pyramids. I don’t want to hear about no damn pyramids! All life on Earth will be destroyed.”
“When has all life on Earth ever been destroyed? You think you can destroy it with one asteroid? And yet you take it upon yourself to control the destiny of the entire world, all for a little profit?”
“It’s perfectly safe. It’s been done hundreds of times,” Tubo says.
“No it isn’t. Look at the situation you are in now.”
“You aren’t supposed to be here!” Tubo screams. He grasps the control, fires a steering series to turn the Walter Scott around and slow the ship’s ascent.
“Yet here I am. I could just as easily be a flu virus, or a faulty processor board, or a weak docking seal, and the same space rock would be hurtling along the same collision path and all life on Earth would be destroyed. You take for your own uses without consideration for the people who can’t get out of the way. The Earth deserves destroying if it allows capitalists like you to exist.”
“I’m just a small businessman, trying to make a living. I’m not a statecorp,” Tubo says. He punches up a trajectory projection, then begins running simulations. “You’ve no right to judge me, Doctor Nuttbaum. You don’t know me at all.”
“I’ve every right to judge you, wog. You tried to steal my home.”
“I didn’t know you were there.” He watches the simulations play out, with Earth impact the inevitable result each time.
“You think that just because it somebody’s name isn’t on it, you can take it? How does that make it yours?”
“Standard salvage law, Doctor. You know that.” He looks up at the naviscreen as the last simulation plays itself to an inevitable conclusion. The screen then snaps back to forward view, showing him the bloody fingernail paring of Mars. A thought occurs to him. He enters adjustments, then initiates a new series of simulations.
“The law of the jungle, you mean. The law of the scavenger. Finders keepers losers weepers, you mean.”
“Is that any less noble than intentionally steering a Manhatten-sized asteroid into an Earth impact?” Tubo asks, a grim smile spreading across his face as he watches the simulations play out.
“I haven’t done that, wog.”
“Yes, you have, Doctor.”
“No I haven’t.”
“Yes, you have,” Tubo says. He compares the results of the projections produced by the simulations to his available fuel supply. He then pulls up the stress specs of the Walter Scott’s spaceframe and hull.
“No I haven’t.”
“Look, Doctor Nuttbaum, I don’t have time to argue with you,” Tubo says. There is only one thing to be done. It isn’t to ram the ‘roid. That was his first idea, but the Walter Scott doesn’t have enough mass to counteract the ‘roid’s odd gravitational potentials. He grasps the controls and fires a steering sequence which takes him slowly across the sky of Delilah. In his screen, he sees the doctor stand up and watch him pass overhead.
“What are you doing, wog?” There is a note of concern in his voice.
“I’m going to push this rock into a Mars impact trajectory,” Tubo says calmly, victoriously.
There is a pause, then the doctor says gently, “What’s you name, captain?”
“You don’t have to do this, Tubo,” the doctor says. “How old are you? Are you married?”
But Tubo ignores him. “The force of the engines will probably crush the hull of this ship. But at least it can be done. There’s only a few small communities on Mars. The chances of an impact near one are negligible. It’s a chance I’m willing to take. To save Earth.”
Tubo steers the Walter Scott nose-first into a soft descent, aiming for a point three meters in diameter directly over the ‘roid’s adjusted estimated center of gravity. The push must be a direct push with the nose of the ship, as the remaining docking pile isn’t strong enough to withstand the force.
“Have you had your child yet?” the doctor asks. Tubo can no longer see him in his monitors. The doctor is beyond the ‘roid’s horizon, almost on the opposite side.
The blunt nose of the Walter Scott nuzzles up against Delilah with a scraping noise that echoes through the ship. She looks so close in his screens, Tubo feels like he could almost reach out and touch her.
“You don’t have to do this, Tubo,” the doctor says. He is running now, almost, if you could call running – a prolonged forward fall. Tubo cannot see him. But he can hear his voice in the com and know that he is running.
“Why not? Will it ruin your fun? You won’t get to die knowing you destroyed the world that you hate?” Tubo asks as he powers up the engines. The structural frame of the ship groans as the engines begin their inexorable push.
“Power back your engines, Tubo. Listen to me. This asteroid isn’t going impact Earth unless you keep trying to steer it into an Earth orbit. I came here to stop you, but I knew you wouldn’t stop unless I made you.”
“It’s too late. I don’t believe you,” Tubo says. “How can you possibly affect this ‘roid’s trajectory? You’re old momentum engines weren’t powerful enough.”
“Do you know how the pyramids were built?” the doctor asks. He is huffing into the com speaker of his helmet.
“I’m not listening to you anymore, Doctor. In a moment it will all be over, and you’ll be on your way to Mars,” Tubo says.
“You saw the fossil, didn’t you Tubo? You saw it. It was right there.”
Tubo pauses. The ship shudders throughout its frame, rattling. He hears bulkheads buckling. The air suddenly grows oven hot. “Yes,” he says.
“Haven’t you ever noticed the relatively low amount of crater density visible on most asteroids? You’ve been to the Belt a few times. Have you ever noticed it?” He is still running.
“Yes.” The ship lurches to starboard, and Tubo fights to keep the ship upright, its forces aligned in a vector which will guide the ‘roid into Mars impact.
“Planetary geology says that this is a result of an impact breaking the planetoid-body into smaller asteroid bodies, exposing surfaces to cratering relatively recently. But my analysis indicates a low amount of impact fracturing in this ‘roid’s crystalline substructures, while surface samples show that the surface of the ‘roid has only been exposed to sunlight for some 200,000 years. If you search planetary geology databases, you’ll find that most asteroid theory was formed and set in concrete a hundred years before the first visit by a craft capable of making a detailed analysis of an asteroid within the Belt.”
“So,” Tubo says, his teeth grinding. He is nearly blind from cryogases bursting from environmental systems. The nose of the ship is crushed, and his board is glowing with hull stress warnings. He blinks away the film to check the naviscreen and finds that the ‘roid is almost within a Mars impact trajectory.
“Listen to me!” the doctor shouts. He stops, gasping, bent over with his hands on his knees.
“Power down and listen for one moment! The 200,000 year old event, coinciding as it does with catastrophic changes in the Martian atmosphere and the emergence of modern homo sapiens on Earth, can only mean one thing. There was a fifth inner planet, and something had happened to it. Maybe it was some kind of catastrophic event, the planet exploding, but that really isn’t the way things happen in Nature. Likely it was something less spectacular if not less violent, a simple sheering of tidal forces as it passed through the Roche Limit of some large wandering body. There isn’t enough mass in the Asteroid Belt to form a planet because most of it was pulled away by whatever destroyed it.”
“Almost there,” Tubo hisses.
“The residents of that planet sent their children in escape pods to Earth, but those children arrived without their parent’s culture to guide them. They adopted the most advanced technology available on Earth – stone tools. But not all their knowledge was lost. Some passed it down. Some never forgot it. They built the pyramids, Tubo, using the same theories that allowed me to use the weak solar energy all the way out here to outmuscle your momentum engines. I discovered writings here on this asteroid, Tubo, writings that explain…”
In one wracking scream of metal, the Walter Scott’s three momentum engines tear through the ship’s superstructure in less than a microsecond and gouge their way sixty meters into Delilah before exploding. The now-hollow hull of the Walter Scott and a 200 hundred meter diameter of rock are blown free of the asteroid’s gravity. The pieces spray out into space, mingling, twinkling like fairy dust. Doctor Nuttbaum watches it a glittering arc appear above the ‘roid’s horizon, spreading and dissipating, a colorless rainbow, even as the shockwave passes beneath his feet, tossing him like chaff a dozen meters high. His gravity boots float him back to a surface jumbled and broken.
Delilah gradually returns to its original trajectory, a trajectory that will bring it past Earth and back into its original place in the Trojans Resonance, 12.3 Earth years from now.
©2002-08 Jeff Crook