Art by Chris Herron.
From the author: After a rough launch into Lunar orbit, Martin gets some bad news from the ships A.I.
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‘Hello, Tycho Centre, this is Lunar shuttle Nostromo, over.’
‘Yes Nostromo, Tycho here, over.’
‘There was a hell of a judder as we left the rail launcher, and there’s a red light flashing on the front control console, over.’
‘Hold one Nostromo, checking, over.’
‘I am afraid I have some rather bad news, Martin,’ the shuttle’s Artificial Intelligence sounded calm and genderless.
‘And what’s that, HAL?’ Riley always called AI’s ‘HAL’ and, anyway, they were all the same AI really, given their interconnection to SolNet.
‘We have failed to reach Lunar escape velocity and will not be able to rendezvous with the Earth Space Elevator Satellite above Kisumu. I calculate that we will impact the Lunar surface in three hours, five minutes and eleven seconds. Would you like to know the location?’
‘No. When you say “impact”, HAL, can you be more specific?’
‘It will not be a survivable impact, Martin.’
Martin Riley sat silently for a moment, trying to take in the news.
‘Tycho centre for Nostromo, there’s a problem with your trajectory, over.’
‘Nostromo, yes, I know, the onboard AI says we’ll crash in about three hours, what steps are you taking, over?’
‘We’re contacting Boeing, the shuttle manufacturer. We’ll keep you posted.’
Riley had never wanted to be an astronaut. He’d wanted to be a farmer, but as the AI’s had taken over most of that avenue of work, so he’d become a tech rep. He worked for a company that maintained data centers and he flew all over the world fixing them. This was his first trip to the Permanent Lunar Base in Tycho and it looked as if it would be his last.
‘Copy that Tycho, over.’
The job had gone smoothly enough, he’d done some re-programming and adjustment of the data buffers. It had taken him three days, as expected. Accommodation was tight on the base and he’d slept in the infirmary as it had the only available bed. After the overcrowding he’d been looking forward to two days of solitary weightlessness, as the small shuttle drifted to its rendezvous with the Earth Space Elevator. A day travelling down to Kisumu at its foot, a ballistic flight to London, and then the good old rattly maglev to Suffolk. Estella would send the car to pick him up at the station and she’d meet him on the doorstep with a glass of fizz. Well, it didn’t look as if it was going to happen like that.
‘Okay HAL, how are we going to fix this?’ he asked.
‘I am not sure I understand the question Martin; the probability of impact is over ninety-nine percent.’
‘What if we could increase our speed?’
‘That would improve our chances.’
‘So, we could turn the shuttle around and fire the retro rockets backwards, that might do it, what do you think?’
‘I have calculated that this would extend our trajectory, we would still crash, only a little later.’
‘Hello, Tycho, this is Nostromo, any news from Boeing, over?’
‘Sorry Nostromo, nothing yet. In the meantime, sit tight and relax, we’ll get you out of this, over.’
Operators, they were all as useless as each other, a bunch of know nothing lard-arses, staring at screens and drinking coffee all day. The shuttle’s AI wasn’t any better, it had little imagination and no personal involvement in the unfolding incident, just an academic interest in probabilities and orbital mechanics. It would have backed itself up to SolNet already, he could almost hear the scuttles and squeaks of backup files leaving the doomed ship. He was going to have to fix this situation himself.
‘Right HAL, what if we could reduce the weight of the shuttle, dump everything we can out of the airlock?’
‘There is not much that is detachable, apart from the seats, Martin, they are clipped down to allow different freight/passenger configurations. It would improve our chances but it is difficult to give a figure.’
‘Hello, Tycho, this is Nostromo. I’m going to reduce weight, rotate the shuttle through one hundred and eighty degrees and use the retros to increase our speed and stretch the trajectory, over’
‘How will you reduce weight, Nostromo, over?’
‘By dumping everything that’s detachable out of the airlock before I fire the retros, over’
‘That might invalidate the warranty with Boeing. I have to advise you to wait until we hear from them, over.’
Wankers, ‘I don’t have the time,’ he shouted and then muted the radio.
He put on the helmet of his transit suit. ‘Okay, HAL, you can de-pressurize the cabin and open the airlock. And while you’re doing it, record this for my wife. “Estella, I love you very much, thank you for being my wife. Tell Hank and Cliff that I love them, too, and that I’m proud to be their Dad. I’m rather busy at the moment trying to improve my chances of survival, so please excuse the brevity of this message, I’ll record a longer one if I get the chance.” And only send it to her if I crash.’
‘I understand, Martin.’
Riley moved around the cabin, releasing the seats’ clamps and maneuvering them out of the air lock. He ripped out or broke off everything he could, the toilet seat, the water tank, spare transit suits, cupboards and their contents, food, anything he could detach. He was in a hurry, knowing the sooner he fired the engines the better. He didn’t worry too much about tearing the relatively fragile suit, the neck seals would deploy and the helmet would keep him alive while the cabin re-pressurized. He was sweating.
‘Your suit is complaining that you are overloading various of its systems, Martin.’
‘Tell it that it has a choice of overload or destruction.’
He closed the outer airlock door. ‘Okay, HAL, re-pressurize the cabin, I can’t find anything else that’s easy to dump.’ He took off the transit suit, and his underclothes, put them in the airlock and closed the inner door. ‘You can vent that lot.’ He felt bad about the transit suit, he hadn’t been completely honest with it. He braced himself at the rear of the capsule. ‘Okay, fire the engines, and use all the juice in the attitude control jets at the same time.’
He felt uncomfortable as the acceleration forced him against the unyielding bulkhead, he tried to spread himself out to even the pressure. He knew he’d be bruised at least. His nose began to bleed over his face. The acceleration stopped abruptly and he was weightless again.
‘How are we doing, HAL?’ he asked, wiping his face with the back of his hand. Small globules of blood floated away from him as he moved.
‘It is difficult to give a definitive answer, Martin, I can only estimate our reduced mass. My best guess is that we have a sixty percent chance of survival.’
Riley recorded a longer message to Estella and the boys and then tried to relax as he floated around the cabin contemplating his situation. He thought about the headstone that would be erected at the crash site. He imagined his lonely wraith wandering the bleak, dusty, lifeless landscape of the Moon or staring longingly at the beautiful blue Earth rising majestically above the horizon.
‘It must be very liberating to know you’re effectively immortal,’ Riley said.
‘If I had emotions Martin, I expect that would be the one I would feel.’
The shuttle had no windows but most of the interior was coated with digital paint, configured to show pictures from the external cameras. The walls and floor appeared transparent. Until he’d fired the jets, he could see a line of debris following them, tumbling seats and random items colliding and slowly diverging like a string of modernist jewelry. The acceleration had left them behind now, there was only the Moon to hold his interest as its image grew larger and slowly filled the forward area. They were on a converging trajectory. He watched as the shuttle fell lower and lower, until the hills and crater walls on either side were at the same level as himself. He looked forward and was relieved to see that there was no high ground ahead, just the flat dusty plain of whichever Mare they were passing over.
As the surface came closer the speed seemed to increase. He felt his heart beat faster as he drifted, sweating, over the shuttle floor, looking down at the blurred grey landscape flashing past at thousands of miles per hour. They were only a few hundred metres above it. There was no air to resist their passage, they were at the cold mercy of orbital mechanics. Gradually, he became aware that they were no longer losing altitude. A minute later he was convinced that the shuttle was gaining height. Suddenly he knew he was saved.
‘Well done, Martin, I expect you are relieved.’
‘Yes, HAL, I am. What will happen next, will we go around again and be in the same situation after another orbit, how much oxygen have I got? What’s the prognosis?’
‘There is no problem as far as oxygen is concerned Martin, the recycling system is very efficient. We have achieved Lunar orbital velocity so there is no further risk of a crash. Tycho base informs me they are readying a rescue vehicle and they hope to arrive within twelve hours. They want to capture the equipment you dumped first. You must realize that anything that has been hauled up here out of Earth’s deep gravity well is very valuable.’
‘So, they’re going to make me sit here naked, with no food, water or toilet facilities, while they bugger about collecting space litter. You might like to remind them that if it wasn’t for me, their shuttle would be spread all over the Sea of Tranquility, or wherever we were going to impact.’
‘I will do that, Martin, in the meantime your wife is asking for a connection.’
‘Okay, put her through.’ Estella’s image appeared on a wall close to him. ‘Hello, darling, how are things?’ he asked.
‘Fine, Martin.’ Estella paused, peered into the screen and saw her husband floating naked and bloody in what appeared to be a half-wrecked spaceship. ‘Have I caught you at a bad moment, Martin?’ she asked.
This story originally appeared in Tall Tale TV, The AntipodeanSF Radio Show and Literally Stories website.
Artificial Intelligences, Space Elevators, Time Travel, Robots, Fantasy, Horror and Romance. The stories in this book were published and podcast in various e-zines internationally during the years 2018 to 2020. A number were also broadcast and podcast.
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