Exile

15 06 2010

Cane

We detected the beacon in the last hour of the dust storm. Mierhof thought that the beacon might be one of the many transponders scattered about the crater in which the Colonies were situated. But I knew that our crawler had ventured farther than that ring of transponders before the storm had hit.

I’d parked the crawler facing into the storm, which presented a smaller profile to the wind and the regolith it whipped so furiously. When the sky lightened, Mierhof checked the plastic sheets attached to the chassis behind the eight, all-terrain wheels – these sheets were a field modification, meant to keep the regolith from the axles and brake pads.

The eastern horizon was a wall of mahogany brown. The high pressure front was moving away to the east, leaving behind a featureless plain of soft, stirring dust. Above us, the sky was a faded grey-brown, and the ring barely discernable through this haze. The finest regolith was now suspended in Fram’s thick atmosphere.

Mierhof’s e-suit was layered with regolith when he squeezed through the airlock. “Right, let’s see what this thing is.”

He began geo-caching, feeding the beacon telemetry into the GPS.

We headed north-north-west for ten kilometres. Here we found a sharp-edged crater, its walls steep and inaccessible. I circled the crawler around the circumference of the crater. On the western side, the dust storm had deposited a bank of regolith which had lessened the outer incline. I worked the crawler laterally across this regolith ramp, angling toward the rim.

Beneath the crest we disembarked and continued on foot. We hiked upwards through a series of switchbacks. From the crater rim, I watched the dust storm receding to the east. Mierhof oriented himself toward the north, and looked from the GPS readout on his handheld to the horizon and back again.

“There,” he said, and pointed toward a knot of darker regolith about fifty meters below us and away to the north.

I thought that what he had pointed to was a bolide, perhaps of basalt but more likely a nondescript silicate, ejected from any number of impacts that scarred Fram’s surface. But as we drew closer, we saw the glint of sunlight on metal, and made out the shape of a Sprat.

The Sprat was leaning at an angle, and drifts of regolith had built up by its western side. I saw that the dust storm had begun to weather the paint from the edges of the frame. The buggy had been here for some time; even on its leeward side, the regolith had built up past the hubcaps.

Mierhof walked around the far side of the Sprat. He pointed at the ground but made no noise over our intercom. Where he pointed I saw a dark purple shape: a torso, the back of a head, and an arm, dusted by rust-red particles. The rest of his body was buried.

“Huh,” Mierhof said. “This must be that guy who killed that woman.”

“Cane.”

Mierhof pulled at the body’s right arm. On the inside of his arm was his wristpad. He brushed a gloved finger across the screen, and woke it from hibernation.

Mierhof read aloud from the screen:

“My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou has drive me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face I shall be hid; I shall be a fugitive and vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.”

I was instantly reminded of something I had read once, long ago: that when community was synonymous with survival, exile was an especially lethal threat. How more true could that be, than here on Fram? I suddenly felt very far from home.

Mierhof unceremoniously dropped the man’s arm.

“I will not miss him.” He spoke with venom. “Let’s see if we can get this Sprat working. Head back to the crawler and get some digging equipment, will you?”





Green

15 06 2010

Stohlberg held a lettuce frond delicately between his fingers.

“I appreciate you taking the time to come down here,” Lindenmeyr said.

Stohlberg shook his head slightly. “Not at all. Truth be told, a lot of our digging equipment was seconded by the Stephenson Project. There’s less work for us now, out at the open-cut site.”

Lindenmeyr and Stohlberg each wore light-weight, long-sleeved ponchos. Lindenmeyr explained that metal halide light lit the hydroponic bay; metal halide emitted more light in the blue spectrum, which accelerated plant growth, but was a carcinogen to exposed human skin.

“We light each of the bays for eighteen to twenty hours each day,” Lindenmeyr said. “Between the halide light and the lengthened days, we’re producing crops in greater yields than on the Quoqasi. The hydroponics facilities in Alphas One, Three and Four are together producing a sufficient excess to feed the population of Alpha-2.”

“I see,” Stohlberg replied. “I feel drunk.”

“That’s the cee-oh-two. We keep the levels pretty high in here, again, for the plants. It’s not dangerous, but it takes some getting used to.”

He looked up from the lettuce and saw, stretched a hundred meters ahead of him, row upon row of plants, aglow in the artificial blue-white light. The greens were simply breathtaking. Lindenmeyr remarked that it was not a colour seen outside the hydroponics facilities; not in the Colonies nor on Fram itself. She spoke of a psychological study done on the journey to Alpha Centauri that had shown that the botanists who worked in the hydroponic labs were on average happier than their peers.

Stohlberg nodded, and asked her, “What is grown here?”

“Lettuce, pak choi, asparagus. Carrots, tomatoes. Mushrooms. Spinach. Plants with high levels of vitamins and minerals. Our staple is soy, of course. Those versatile, little beans pack a lot of nutritional value for the space it takes to grow them.”

Lindenmeyr explained the process behind the hydroponic crops. She called it Soilless, Controlled Environment Agriculture. The plants existed on a nutrient solution that flowed constantly past their roots; she pushed back the overhanging fronds of a head of lettuce and pointed to the bank in which the plant sat. Here there was a shallow channel of water, running through a bed of clay aggregate pebbles upon which the roots rested. The pebbles were not entirely submerged by the solution.

“Thus, the roots are well oxygenated while still fed by the nutrient solution.”

Stohlberg watched the nutrient solution move past the roots of the plants in this bank. Lindenmeyr rattled off a list of elements made soluble and dissolved into the water: essentials like iron, manganese, magnesium and zinc; and macronutrients like potassium nitrate and calcium nitrate. There were also sulphates mixed in for the sulphur.

“I didn’t realise until now just how much of what we dig up in the mines goes into our bodies,” Stohlberg commented. “From the Earth we come, to the Earth we return.”

Lindenmeyr frowned. “An anachronistic adage.”

“Yeah.”

Lindenmeyr pointed to the banks arranged in long rows along the length of the bay. Each of the rows was inclined at an angle, which allowed the nutrient solution to run easily and prevented the solution from pooling. Stohlberg noticed that these rows were not continuous, but that the banks were segmented every ten to fifteen meters; this, Lindenmeyr replied, was to prevent the depletion of nitrogen which occurred when too many plants were nourished from a single nutrient feed.

“There are plant rooms attached to each of the hydroponic bays,” Lindenmeyr said. She pointed to the wall on their right. “Enormous carbon filters through which we run the nutrient solution. There we can monitor pH levels, salinity, flow rate.”

“And top up the solubles?”

“Exactly.”

Stohlberg lowered his nose to the lettuce frond and sniffed deeply.

“Sera, this is wonderful. But I don’t know how a geologist could help here. Fram is thousands of years away from having soil – maybe tens of thousands. Sure, the regolith has magnesium, potassium, sodium, chloride. But there’s no nitrogen, and it’s completely unable to retain moisture.”

Lindenmeyr looked up at Stohlberg with an amused grin. “I’m a botanist. I know that!”

Again, she carefully pushed back the lettuce heads and scooped a handful of the pebbles from the nutrient channel. They were a variety of rich colours, Stohlberg saw now: brown and red and terracotta. Lindenmeyr described how the pebbles had been baked from the clay of Earth and Mars – the rusty red pebbles were clearly Martian – and had been carried with us on the journey from Sol. After each crop rotation the pebbles were washed in a solution of hydrogen peroxide.

Lindenmeyr cracked open a pebble; Stohlberg saw that it was porous, and criss-crossed by tiny lines invisible from the exterior.

“Are those fracture lines? From firing in the kiln?” he asked.

Lindenmeyr shook her head. “No. This is root growth. From thousands of generations of crops grown in the same clay aggregate. For almost six years.”

She explained that this root growth did not have a detrimental effect on subsequent crop yield, but only if the pebbles were sterilised in hydrogen peroxide after each harvest – an enormous investment of hydrogen and oxygen.

“If we were to use a local product as a medium,” Lindenmeyr spoke enthusiastically, “we could further tighten down the life-support loop by cutting out the hydrogen peroxide wash completely.”

Stohlberg nodded. “But there’s no clay on Fram.”

“There’s basalt.”

He grinned. “I’m a geologist. I know that!”

He listened while Lindenmeyr explained the need for a mixture of perlite and vermiculite – fusions of basalt and granite – superheated until expanded into glassy pebbles. If produced in sufficient quantities, the hydroponics facilities of the Colonies could simply discard the clay aggregate and use the disposable perlite/vermiculite mix.

She asked, “Do you know how many tonnes of H and O that would free up?”

“You won’t get much from the open-cut site,” Stohlberg continued, oblivious to her question. “The tails are being ransacked for uranium. And the Yom Kippur site is well past the bedrock. Actually, I think the Stephenson dig sites are the most promising – they’ve had a lot of trouble with basalt sheets around Charlotte Station.”

Stohlberg smiled, leaned down and kissed Lindenmeyr on the cheek.

“I’ll get to work!”





Cello Sonata No. 1, in E Minor

7 06 2010

And then, one day, I simply…gave up.

I couldn’t tell you why. I couldn’t even leave a note. But I could no longer bring myself to imagine her; nor her cello, nor her smile, nor eyelashes, nor skin. I could no longer look at our photograph. The memories of her, always painful, became somehow asinine, forgettable – and for the first time I wanted to push all of it away.

It wasn’t resignation or surrender so much as a renunciation, and it seemed an alien thing, after so long. What had the last six years been but a single, brave face? There had been a certain triumph in solitude. As though I’d kept the brave face only for her, my arresting, distant lover. But that triumph was now gone, and the cold comfort gone with it. Even the first sip of hot soya, the last of my pleasures, felt utterly empty.

My feet crunched through the duricrust, with a sound like stepping in soft snow. I thought of that French psychologist. I looked back over my shoulder – my footprints trailed away and below me, into the crater basin; and, diminished to the size of my clenched fist by the distance, the abandoned skeleton of Alpha-2. I could see the flash of magnesium-white welders across the surface of the colony pod, and, occasionally, a cascade of sparks. The pod was still being dismembered, picked clean, all its most useful parts stripped from it and carried away. The pod would one day soon be alone and forgotten, and then it would understand the tyranny of distance as I did.

These thoughts saddened me not at all.

Here, beneath the lip of the crater, the ridge flattened into a bench. I knelt down, dug my hand into the regolith, cracked a delicate sheet of frozen methane which began to sublime once exposed to the dense atmosphere. These vespers were remarkably beautiful. I thought of the history of those atoms, stretching over billions of years, from a protoplanetary nebula to meet my gloved hands at this moment. I desperately wanted to touch the world that had taken me from my Home; I pulled away my glove and slipped my fingers into the cold regolith.

I reached up to the clips around my mask. I paused a moment, looked at my wristpad, thought to write a note or leave a hint but realised anything I communicated would now be meaningless; I then realised that there was nothing left to do.

I flicked the clips, ignored the warnings of the computer, pulled free the straps and peeled my face mask away.

The pressure was strange and uncomfortable. I felt like I was drowning, so thick was the air. There was a feeling like weightlessness, a dislocation I couldn’t identify until I realised just how much carbon dioxide I was breathing. And then a rapid wave of dizziness, and I fell sideways.

I lay on my back and looked up into the sky.  I saw a thin, wispy cloud stretched apart by the winds. The cloud caught the light of one of the stars and was lit yellow and orange in a sky the colour of port. But then it was no longer a cloud, it was the outline of Amundsen, lost in the daylight glare. I looked closer, and Amundsen became Earth’s Moon, and I could see the lights of all the colonies, and my lover lying at the basin of Mare Crisium looking toward Alpha Centauri.

I imagined the sound of pianos, sweeping movements of music: grand, orgiastic, Wagnerian. Then the baroque sound of a cello and keyboard, mournfully working through Brahms’ sonata.

No belongings, no friends, no love, no memories. Everything seemed so simple and so exquisite. I was a child of the Universe, free from all that had prevented me from existing among the other protons and neutrons and electrons.

For the first time since I had met her, my cellist, I’d felt a beautiful moment without her.

Tears now spilled from my eyes: nucleons surrounded by electron shells, and formed into hydrogen, oxygen, sodium. I felt like falling.

I smiled, briefly, before –

 





The Mysterious and Wonderful Universe

1 06 2010

Mysterious Universe

“I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Elzette leaned over Stepan’s shoulder and stared at the line graph on the screen of his terminal. The line crept along the X axis before jumping sharply up along the Y axis, peaking at a short plateau, and then almost as quickly dropped away. The line flickered every few seconds, and its shape changed almost imperceptibly. Data was still coming down from the satellite and being uploaded through the network; Stepan’s terminal continuously updated the fields displayed by the graph.

“It’s a light curve, Stepan. You see a dozen a week.”

“But not like this,” he insisted. He ran his stylus along the crest of the line graph. “Look at this plateau. Have you ever seen a GRB that didn’t spike?”

Elzette rolled her eyes and returned to her own terminal. “You know better than anyone that light curves from gamma-ray bursts are never the same. What was the duration of the emission?”

Stepan ran his stylus along the bottom of the graph, reading the measurements on the X axis.

“Only a few microseconds.”

“Now I don’t know much about GRBs,” Elzette sardonically replied, “but that would fit just right for a short gamma-ray burst, yes? Less than two seconds?”

“Maybe. Short GRBs are usually around point three of a second in duration. But, look at the energy levels…”

Elzette smiled to herself and shook her head. She focussed on the spectroscopic data on her own screen and let Stepan talk aloud.

“…less than 20 million electron volts! I’m surprised GLAT even detected it. GRBs are of much higher energies, in the order of tens of billions of electron volts. How else could we detect such things across the observable universe?”

Stepan muttered to himself in MeV and GeV and orders of magnitude of hertz.

“And this wavelength,” he said louder. “On the far end of the gamma-ray scale, close to ten picometers. Seriously, Zet, this is strange. We need to turn the satellite on the afterglow.”

Elzette sighed, and spun in her chair to face Stepan.

“You know better than I that it’s spectacularly difficult to spot the afterglow of a short GRB – ”

“ – I don’t think it’s a GRB, Zet.”

“Solar flare? There are three stars nearby, two of which are thermonuclear furnaces pouring out gamma rays.”

Stepan shook his head. “Alpha B has set, and there’s been no surface activity on Alpha A.”

“Well, what else? A neutron star? Blazar? Seyfert galaxy? It might well be the cosmic microwave background.”

“No. No, the wavelength and duration and energy levels are all wrong.” He checked the data still coming down through the network. “17.59MeV. About the same amount of energy released when tritium and deuterium nuclei fuse to form alpha particles and high-energy neutrons.”

Stepan’s terminal announced that it had completed downloading the information from the satellite. The line graph froze in place, and more information scrolled through the margins of the graph. Stepan trawled through this data.

“What is it?” Elzette asked.

“The GLAT didn’t detect this incident,” Stepan explained. “Like I thought, the pulse wasn’t powerful enough. The Large Area Telescope is designed for bursts in the range of 30 MeV to 300 GeV. The Gamma-ray Burst Monitor package picked it up. GBM has banks of silicone detectors, organised in successive layers; from the data each of these detectors gives us, we can work out where the burst came from…wow.”

Elzette stood and again leaned over Stepan’s shoulder. On the graph, lost among the other marginalia, the computer calculated the origin:

288.7827 +71.3917

“That’s FL Virginis B. That’s practically next-door.”

Elzette held Stepan’s eyes for a moment, and then threw her hands up in defeat.

“Alright! Fine. Realign the satellite for the afterglow. That’s what GLAT is there for, right?”