Monday, November 23, 2015

Stars of Heaven: Chapter 2

Chapter 2: The Girl at the Well

Mary Kate Riley  maneuvered toward the ice moon which was only a couple of hundred yards ahead.  Ice moon is what they called it anyway.  It had been a piece of ice orbiting Jupiter at a great distance and it was made of ice, mostly at least.  She had made this trip numerous times before, and during the lonely work, she had considered the various aspects of the case.  As it was no longer in orbit around Jupiter, was it still a moon?  As it was orbiting the sun instead of a planet, wouldn’t asteroid be a better term?
“Mom,” she spoke into her microphone, “what are we going to have for supper? Going for water always gives me a big appetite.”
Her mother was an old-fashioned farm wife that still made everything from scratch and “supper” was a big family affair.  She and her five brothers and four sisters and often any number of their friends would be there.  
“Quit worrying about supper,” her mother answered. “You’d think that we starved you.  You’ll eat whatever is put before you and be grateful for it.  Stop worrying about your stomach and keep your eyes open for scavengers.”
She smiled at her mother’s gentle scolding.  She was about to tell her mother not to worry that there hadn’t been any scavengers seen in these parts in a month or so.  Then she saw it. The moon was slowly rotating, and something that couldn’t be good news came into view. Something was moving against the dirty ice of the ice moon in front of her. She hit her gas retros and brought her craft to a near stop.
Her breath came a little quicker; her face felt a little hotter.
Her family at great expense and greater risk had retrieved this ice moon from far away Jupiter and had brought it back nearer the sun so they could farm using water from it.  No one had been using it before. No one had helped them, sure as hell not the government.
It was theirs.  And it was a valuable commodity.  You needed it for drinking,sure.  You needed it to water your crops, certaining.  But you absolutely had to have it for propulsion.  This you did, essentially, by getting it very hot and pointing it the opposite way you wanted to go.
The scavengers, as her mother called them--much to politely in Mary Kate’s opinion--didn’t care how much effort Mary Kate’s family had gone to to secure the ice. In their minds, perhaps, they were just doing what Mary Kate’s family had done.  They sneaked in from time to time and stole or attempted to steal a couple of hundred tons of ice.   They took it out in roughly cylindrical chunks about 20 feet in diameter and 20 feet thick..
Typically they had lasers to cut 20 feet deep along the circumference of a circle on the surface.  Then they used the laser to dig a bigger hole in the middle. They then lowered the laser into the hole in the middle and, turning it at a right angle to the axis of the cylinder, cut loose the back side.  They tried to do this last part as quickly as possible to cause a small steam explosion to dislodge the block. If all went as planned, they attached an engine directly to the ice and  flew it to whatever cockroach nest they were staying in.
If they were closed to being finished, there wasn’t much she could do alone.  If she called home for help, it would take the better part of an hour to get out here.  As far as dealing with it herself,  the closest thing she had to a weapon was the laser she used for her own ice harvesting. Since they were similarly equipped and she was outnumbered, she had no desire to get into a laser fight.
She considered calling her father for help in spite of the time it would take for her dad to get there, but then she had another idea.
Mary Kate was in one of her family’s forklifts. It was a general use piece of equipment used on the family farm. It looked liked the piece of earthly equipment which sported the same name with some appropriate exceptions. In addition to the fork on the bottom there was a matching fork on the top. This was to help her grip the ice chunk, the retrieving of which was the purpose of her trip.  On earth you can count on gravity to hold down your load, but not here.  She also had a powerful spotlight.  The was very useful in illuminating some of the shady places in which she worked.
They hadn’t seen her yet and probably wouldn’t. Her forklift was small, gray, and had no reflective surfaces and the vast blackness of space surrounded her.  Her plan was to maneuver to within a 30 yards of them, putting the body of the moon between them and her until the last minute, and hit the with the spotlight on its highest setting.  She thought that this should scare them off. And  as her parents monitored radio traffic habitually on their scanner, they would pick up on what was going on, and hightail it out here.  She couldn’t risk a message to her family now because that would alert the scavengers and they might work faster.
She would be careful as she didn’t have much water for maneuvering; that was one of the reasons she was out to bring home more.  While they did drink water and use it for their farming, the vast bulk of that was recycled. In order to move around, they heated water with a small atomic reactor, and blasted the water out in one direction at a high speed.  Because every action yields an equal but opposite reaction, whatever craft you were in moved in the other.  This particular means of travel did not lend itself to high-speed chances among people who were frugal with their water.
She was moving along in short bursts when she came over the hump on the side of the moon, and saw her quarry not 30 yards away but more like 30 feet away.
Damn. She cursed to herself.  She didn’t want them to get this close of a look at her.  She hit her spotlight as quickly as she could in hopes of blinding them.
“Halt your illegal operations,” she said in as stern a tone as she could muster.  “You are under arrest by the authority of the Allied Federation Farmstead protection act. Drop your weapons.”
She was broadcasting on all frequencies, so they should have heard her.They stopped the work they were doing to look up, so they must have.  
It appeared to her that they had already cut around the circumference and were drilling in the middle of the cylinder.  If they still had the back to cut, it would be more likely they would run.  If they could, run that is.  It now occurred to her, that if they were out of water and counting on the water they got here to get back, they would have no alternative but to stand and fight.
Oh, shit.
One of the men--and she was guessing they were men because they were in suits--turned towards her.  His faceplate was reflective and obscured his face.  His suit was tattered, in some places there was more patch than suit.
“You don’t look like a Fed to me,” came his response.  “There aren’t enough of you.  Fed’s are too shit yellow to come after anybody without two dozen backup.  I think you are just one of Farmer Riley’s daughters.”
In situations like this, the human being’s natural response falls into three modes.  Freeze, fight, or run, with the wisest opting for the last of these in cases such as this.  Mary Kate knew she was in no position to fight, and it was not in her nature to freeze, and while if she lived beyond her current age of sixteen she would gain wisdom, such had not developed in her yet.  She was thereby forced into fourth mode of response.  She lied her ass off.
“You are absolutely right there,” she said, her voice strong, clear, and unwavering in spite of her fear.  “There are 50 Federal Marines on there way and they will be here momentarily.”
That provoked a laugh, a hearty, healthy laugh.
“Fifty Federal marines?” he said.  “There aren’t they many Feds this side Mars.”
What happened next not only surprised him, but also stole ten years of Mary Kate’s growth as well. As suddenly there was a blinding spotlight coming down on the site from almost directly overhead.  Then accompanying it on all frequencies in a synthetic voice: “Desist from all activity and set your weapons and tools aside.”

Jethro was somewhat disappointed at not being chased.  But not really. He made himself comfortable within his escape vehicle, which meant he nestled himself close to his computer console.  Being somewhat old school, his favorite means of interfacing with his computer was the command line, but that was so quiet.  Having just left his home in a rush, he felt somewhat lonely.  He decided he you use speech mode.
“A.I.,” he began.  “What is the probability of my being chased at this point in time?”
“Chased by who, Jethro?” the voice replied.  The voice itself was not of Jethro’s design.  It was an off the rack voice he had found stored on unsecure server.
“The Feds,” Jethro said. And then to clarify, “The Allied Federal Police.”
“There is a less than 2 percent chance of the Feds following you,” A.I. respond.  Jethro noted with pleasure it had learned to replace “Allied Federal Police” with “Feds.”
“How long until we rendezvous with rendezvous with the engine ring?” Jethro asked.
“We will rendezvous with it in 17 days, 10 hours, and 42 minutes with a margin of error of plus or minus 20 minutes due to the uncertainty in the position of all massive objects in the region,” A.I. answered.
“A.I.,” Jethro said,”round out calculations such as this one to about 17 and a half days when you are reporting them to me.”
“Yes, Jethro.”
They continued through the 17 and a half days without incident.  Jethro spent his time much the same way he would have at home and truth be told didn’t interact with humans much less than he did at home. It was somewhat ironic that he spent much of his time programming A.I. to interact with humans.
The actual linking with the ring was the riskiest part of the whole trip. While he had retros to slow down, to turn, and to stop, he had nothing that would get him going with any real speed.  The gauss guns had gotten him up to traveling speed but all that energy would be gone once he stopped. If the linking didn’t work, he would either have to call for help and thus get caught or starve.
Jethro let A.I. handle all of that and so it went without the slightest hitch or uncertainty, because computers are really good at that sort of thing.  Once the process was completed, he had to engage the engines to begin pre-warming the water before they begin.  He also needed to tell A.I. where he was going.  He had kept that information even from A.I. up to this point for the safety of those to whom he was going to flee.
He told A.I.
“How long will it take us to get there?” Jethro asked.
“The answer depends upon how much water you would like to have left when we arrive,” A.I. replied.
“I would like half of the water left in case they don’t want to hide me and I have to go to my second choice,” Jethro said.
“In that case,” replied A.I., “it will take about 37 and one fourth days.”  
“Thank you.”

Thirty-seven and almost one fourth days later, even such a solitary soul as Jethro was about to lose it. He’d thought that by training the A.I. to speak to him it would give him company it.  That was true to a certain extent, but the company was somewhat flat.  And the part of it wasn’t flat was like a version of himself who knew an incredible amount of trivia.  This was enough to make him barking mad.
He’d taken to monitoring radio traffic to use listening into conversations a form of company.  There was one set of conversations that was getting louder as time passed.  It appeared to be a family farm. There was a welter of voices.  
At first he had trouble discerning them as masculine and feminine, but as time passed and the signal grew stronger he could not only tell masculine and feminine but also by age.  Clearly some were children, but others were adults.  There was a mother and a father, and one or two he would classify as young adults.  One of these in particular was a favorite.
He’d always been an only child and his family life had been mostly about him.  This family had several children in it that were required to do chores that required EVAs. Apparently they went out in their spacesuits tethered by lines; this seemed dangerous to Jethro. They did things that it seemed to Jethro the parents could’ve done more easily themselves but were insisting the children do. Jethro wasn’t quite sure of the point of it.
But then there was his favorite voice.  Sweet but strong and confident.  Humorous but respectful.
Today the sound was so clear he could almost reach out and touch it.  He’d thought it for several days, but now he was sure: these were the people to whom he was fleeing.  This was the family of the farmer Samuel Riley.
He had scanned them with his radar discretely over the last several days as well.  Their farm consisted of a cluster of habs which were all fairly close together and then an object that appeared to consist of mainly ice that was a bit farther away from the rest.  If they used it for its water, he wondered why it was so far away.  It must take an round trip of a couple of hours to get water from it.
His favorite voice, whose name he has learned was Mary Kate, came over the com.
“Mom, what are we going to have for supper? Going for water always gives me a big appetite.”
He used his radar and that transmission to get a fix on her while her mother answered her.  She was fairly close to the object that was made of ice, so apparently it was used for water.  
Jethro saw something on the radar the other side of the ice source.  It was in a radar shadow from the direction of the Riley’s main hab, but it wasn’t from Jethro’s angle of approach.  It was a ship what was parked about 100 yards from the ice object.  
He noticed that Mary Kate had momentarily stopped as if she had seen something she didn’t like. She wasn’t saying anything over the radio.  That might mean she was afraid to.
“A.I.,” Jethro began,”what is the probability that the ship 100 yard from the ice asteroid is involved in criminal activity?”
“Given that the ship is stationary, near the habitats water source, and has not communicate with the habitat’s owners, the probability approaches 95 percent.”  
Since Jethro’s father was a smuggler--and a very rich, successful one--the ship he was in was all but invisible to radar.  It looked like nothing more than an asteroid, as long as he didn’t accelerate or decelerate in an unnatural manner. He had been planning to begin his deceleration soon, but he changed his mind.  He decided that perhaps the best place to meet the person who belonged to that wonderful voice was near that asteroid.
“A.I.,” Jethro said, taking on a determined tone. “Bring us to a stop as close to the equator of that asteroid as soon as possible without danger to us or the ship.”
He felt the ship speed up slightly, but shortly thereafter it began to brake.  He was pulled against his harnesses.  He began to worry.  He thought he might throw up; then he thought he might pass out; then it was over.
He was within fifty yards of the asteroid.  He was listening to the com as the asteroid rotated below him.
It was Mary Kate’s voice. She was trying to bluff her way through.  He could hear her beautiful voice:
“You are absolutely right there,There are 50 Federal Marines on there way and they will be here momentarily.”
There was laughter. Then a male voice:
“Fifty Federal marines? There aren’t they many Feds this side Mars.”
It was about that time that the rotation of the asteroid brought all of them into his view.
“A.I.,” Jethro said. “Turn the spotlight on the group and repeat the message that I am typing in. Sound stern.”  
A.I. complied: “Desist from all activity and set your weapons and tools aside.”

And they did.


Ossian said...

Wouldn't it be "deactivate your weapons" or suchlike? If they have farms and big families out there, there must some sort of social life among other suchlike settlers, I guess. It might be nice to hear about some of that, and how they come to know about the others, like how Jethro knows about the Rileys. A lot of typos. :)

Bobby Winters said...

You are something of a mind-reader here. I've got this all in my mind, but I keep rushing toward the conflict. Maybe I should just slow down to smell the settlers, as it were.