Monday, November 30, 2015

Stars of Heaven: Chapter 3

Chapter 3: Mr. Smith

Jethro picked up the new-born crab and looked it over.  It looked fine.  He set it down on the surface of the asteroid and it began to scuttle around. It found a spot that looked like any other spot to Jethro, and it began to dig.  After a while it stopped and then it began to drill.  This was happening all around Jetho with hundreds of other crabs, some of them new-born, some of them not.
Sam Riley tapped Jethro on the shoulder of his suit and pointed out into the blackness.
“What do you think of the herd?” he asked.
Jethro squinted into the blackness and was having trouble seeing anything.
“A.I.,” he said. “Project radar onto my helmet.”
A.I. complied and  and soon Jetro saw the tiny dots appear on the interior of his helmet. There must have been thousands. They were jetting from the asteroid Jethro and Sam were on, now fully occupied with crabs that were engaged the the act of mining, to the neighboring one.  The two were probably the remnants of a single larger asteroid that had broken up for some reason a long time ago.
These asteroids were mainly metal, and the small robots which were universally referred to as crabs by denizens of the Belt, were extracting it.
“Okay,” Jethro said, “there sure are a lot of them.”
“Yes,” Sam said.  “But those are just a fraction of what I ahve.  I’ve got several other herds working different clusters of asteroids here and there.  But all of my herds started from just one crab that was given me by a guy in return for a favor.”
Jethro had heard this story quite a few times over the course of the few months that he had been living with the Riley’s.  The crabs not only could mine, but also had 3D printers.  They could print their own parts and assemble another crab.  When a crab had been created in this way, it was referred to as new-born. Often this process had to be spread out in space because you not only had to have the metal and silicon for the parts, but you also needed uranium for the little atomic engines and a water source for propellent.
“Yes,” Sam continued, “I took that thinking it would take me forever to get enough of them to do anything, but I came upon an abandon hab.  There had been an explosion and there was a hole in it two men could float through.  If the explosion had killed the folks, it must have blown them free, because there was no sign of them.  No message they were coming back. Nothing.  Well, nothing but the metal of the hab, the water supply that had frozen rock solid, and the reactor.  I turned my crab loose on it. It started making crabs, and the ones it made started making crabs, and before long there was nothing left of that hab but the hole the explosion had made. It only took day and I had a herd of a thousand. Having all of the stuff close together really helps.”
“A.I.,” Jethro said. “How long until all of the crabs are full?”
There was a short pause.
“They will be full in about 45 minutes,” A.I. replied.
In 45 minutes, the crabs would begin to congregate.  They would fit themselves together head-to-tail in groups of fifteen, and go towards a refinery that was in an orbit not far from here. There they would deliver their loads and it would be credited to Sam’s account.  He would then be able to pick up a portion of what he’d delivered to the refinery as some processed good, such as sheet metal for a new hab.
Jethro noticed that Sam had turned and faced him dead on, not looking at the crabs anymore.
“I suppose you are wondering why I brought you out here,” Sam said. “I mean the crabs more or less take care of themselves. We only ever come out if they report a problem back.”
Jethro hadn’t actually wondered about that.  He didn’t know enough to wonder about it.  Sam didn’t even give Jethro the time to say “uh” before he continued.
“You’ve been a good guest for us, and you’ve been pulling your weight, rightly enough, but you strike me as the sort of man who’d like to be independent, am I right?”
“Uh, yes,” Jethro managed to say. Where was this going?
“Good,” Sam replied. “I thought so. What I am going to do is to loan you one of my crabs.  You can start your herd with it.  It might take a while. But when you get your herd going you can give it back.”
“Uh, thank you,” Jethro managed.  He’d never considered himself a herder.  He’d never thought about settling down to the life of a farmer.  He’d never thought much about anything but computing until he met Mary Kate.  Then he could hardly think of anything but her.
Sam now spoke into his com, “Herd, cut out one and send it here.”
For a few minutes nothing happened, then a crab arrived and set down at Sam’s feet.  He picked it up and handed it to Jethro.
“Remember, this is a loan,” Sam said. “I will want it back.”

Jethro had had an idea.  It was either brilliant or awful and he wasn’t sure which.  He couldn’t talk about it to Mary Kate and he couldn’t talk about it with Sam either.  He couldn’t mention it to any of the rest of the family because they would immediately tell Mary Kate, Sam, or both.  There was only one other entity he could talk with and that was A.I.  He waited until the evening and was alone.  Actually, he was in the room with  Mary Kate’s brothers who were asleep and that was as alone as he could be.  He typed his question into his console and listened for the response through his head phones.
“Given those parameters, your plan would produce ten thousand crabs,”A.I. responded.
Jethro typed some more.
“Assuming a uniform distribution of the required materials throughout the Belt which is reasonable as there has been sufficient time for topological mixing, it would require seven earth years for a small hab.”
Jetho was somewhat disappointed by that reply as it was a much more pessimistic estimate than he had hoped.  He typed some more and again A.I. responded.
“Assuming enough uranium could be found, a two person vessel would only require another 7 earth years.”
He typed once again.  This time he was even more surprised by the response.
“It depends Jethro. Do you love her?”
He slept on that question.  The next morning he left the hab without breakfast.  He removed the computer system from it that housed A.I., and he set his crab loose on it. In relatively few hours, that computer system was the only part of the ship left.  He stayed out in his suit the whole time watching it disappear.
After dispatching his crabs off in search of asteroid fields to graze on, he returned to the hab.  Mary Kate, who had been watching through the hab video monitor uncomprehendingly, met him at the airlock door.  
“What in the hell did you just do?” she asked. He had never seen her so furious. No, furious was not the right word.  Anger was there, but confusion as well.  He hoped what he said next would clear up the confusion.
“Mary Kate Riley,” Jethro began.  “Will you marry me?”   He had taken off his helmet so in some sense he was prepared for what happened next, but in another sense taken completely by surprise, as Mary Kate answered him with a kiss he felt in his lips, in his toes, and all other pertinent points in between..
Afterwards he made his way from the hub of the hab to its rim to talk to Sam.
“I have a herd of crabs now, and I will have a hab in seven years, and a two person spaceship seven years after that,” Jethro said.  “May I have your daughter’s hand in marriage?”
“Before we go any further,” Sam replied.  “You need to sit down. Quite frankly you standing there with your knees knocking is making me nervous.”
Jethro looked at his knees and they were trembling somewhat noticeably, so he sat down.  He noted that Mary Kate’s mother, Frances, had left the room and returned with a couple of glasses that were almost instantly filled with an amber liquid.  Jethro acknowledged his with a thanks, took a drink, and proceeded to cough profusely.  Frances brought him a glass of water and by the time he had finished coughing Sam was halfway through his own glass and looked as if he had composed some thoughts.
“So you say you want to marry my daughter, right?” Sam said.
“Yes, sir.”
“And you’ve sacrificed your ship to make your own herd of crabs?”
“Yes, sir.”
“So will you be able to support my daughter?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Given your ingenuity and willingness to sacrifice,” Sam said, “I would tend to agree with that.  There is one thing more though.  You are going to have to be willing to support my daughter spiritually as well as physically, so I am setting a few conditions.  You may marry her as soon as the hab is completed on the condition that you will then take her to Mars on the next approach where you will be baptized and then have the marriage blessed.  If you promise me this, I will give my blessing.”
Jethro agreed.

The years passed as years have a habit of doing. Jethro devoted himself to learning about his new life, but he also continued his work with A.I.  Jethro, who had been aware before the engagement of being chaperoned, grew all the more aware of it as time passed.  He transformed his annoyance with this supervision to work.  And this was continued until the days were accomplished so that the wedding could occur.
The marriage ceremony was different than anyone Jethro had ever seen portrayed in the movies.  There was no priest; there was no minister.  The family was gathered in the biggest room of the Riley’s hab, the dining room.  Sam had set up a camera to broadcast the event to the neighbors who would be coming to pay their respects over the next week to the new couple.  It would be a, more-or-less, continuous party at the hab over that interval of time.
“Mary Kate,” Sam began.  His voice was gruffer than maybe it needed to be, but his eyes were shining with emotion. “Is this okay with you?  Is it of your own free will?”
“Yes it is, Dad,” she replied. “No one is forcing me.”   She looked at Jethro with a look he couldn’t understand.  Sam, looked at his own wife and smiled.
“Jethro,” Sam said, turning to talk to him. “I want you to say outloud now what you agreed to before.  You will go to Mars the next time it’s orbit brings us close enough to be baptised and have this marriage blessed by a priest.”
“I agree to that,” Jethro said.
Sam now began to speak to the community: “Those of you who have been watching this from a distance confirm that you heard it by saying ‘Roger.’”
The receiver was flooded by a multitude of “Rogers” in various accents.
Sam then turned to the couple.  “The community now recognizes what has happened in you two.  We now present Mr. and Mrs. Jethro....” Sam stopped midsentence, appearing to be at a lost for words.  Those present began to become uncomfortable.  Then he asked Jethro a question, “Okay, what in the hell is your last name?”
For a moment, it appeared that Jethro, too would be speechless.  But there was another voice that spoke up.
“Smith,” it said. “Jethro Smith.”
“That’s right,” Jethro said, visibly relieved. “My name is Jethro Smith.”
“We now present Mr. and Mrs. Jethro Smith.  You can kiss her now.”  
There was more than one person smiling at this.  Smith was by far the most common name in the Belt.  Some of the people there had even been born with it. There were lots of people there who were hiding from something else, and they were happy to add to their number.
The source of the name Smith had added to the mirth of the room.  Only the people in the hab personally could discern where it had come from, though it was a voice that was familiar to all of them.  No one but Jethro had been surprised at the source.
It was A.I.  Jethro knew his own name was not Smith and he had no idea how A.I. had been able to come up with a suitable substitute on its own initiative.  But Jethro hardly took the time to mark this as there were more pressing things on his mind.  It was day afterall.

That day Jethro and Mary Kate got their marriage started and set their newly completed hab to rotating to maintain the customary one G of gravity at the rim.  The hab was not a complete wheel like the Riley hab.  It looked like nothing so much as a baton with a trailer house at each end.
Jethro and Mary Kate, dressed in spacesuits, stood in the airlock that was located at the hub of the hab and pressed the buttons firing engines at either end of the baton  The engines were firing in opposite directions so as the set the hab in rotation.  The airlock in which they were standing was designed to rotate freely. This was so spacecraft that weren’t rotating could dock with them.
Not that Jethro had a ship at this point, but his crabs were working on that.  It would take approximately seven more years for that to happen.


Ossian said...

Could do with a bit of detail about the looks of the characters and surroundings, perhaps, and something to indicate time passing, whether changes or visitations, general news from earth or something, illness, something to give a sense of all those years passing, perhaps just a paragraph. Old Riley would be older, etc.

Ossian said...

Also, sorry to take two bites at this, and it's a bit rude to comment again before someone else has a chance, but ... I was thinking maybe some colours and sounds and smells, or let's say fragrances, would be welcome. Those crabs must make noises, I guess, and so on. :)

Bobby Winters said...

Ah, you've answered a question that I asked later. Reading these in the wrong order is about like the Dr and River's relationship, eh?