Excerpt from The Snodgrass Incident

Snodgrass_Cover_1

Cover by Linda Foegen of American Book Design Copyright 2014

Description: It is 2136, and Earth has survived an environmental catastrophe and is colonizing the solar system. Mars and Luna have growing populations. Ceres is a long-standing outpost. It is time to go further, and The Snodgrass is the ship that will make that possible. It has a new engine design, and its mission is to test that engine by going to Enceladus to investigate the formation of a new Tiger Stripe. But in space, anything can happen. A new invention sidetracks the mission even before it begins, and once they’re underway, they have to face the hazards of alien environments, company bureaucracy, and political intrigue. Then they have to get back. . . .

The genesis of this novel were three short stories that I wrote about the crew of The Snodgrass, each of which has been published. “Stranded” was published by The Fifth Dimension in June of 2013; “Fishing on Enceladus” was published in the 2013 edition of The Martian Wave, and “Contagion” in the 2014 edition of The Martian Wave.

Nancy Jane Hansen (no relation) gave an astute review of this novel on Amazon:

This is the first “hard” SF novel I have read in a long time. It reminds me of the stories I cut my teeth on many many years ago before ugly came to dominate SF and Fantasy took over the rest of the genre.

The Snodgrass Incident is competently written. There is an adequate overall plot with many mini-stories providing lots of action throughout. I don’t know if the science/technology is sound, but I found everything believable.

This is a good buy for the price.

As for her question about the science, I did quite a bit of research and am confident about the accuracy of the technical information about the places they visit and their environments. However, I couldn’t find anything about using superconductors in space, so I extrapolated from how they work / are used on earth. I think it is a plausible extrapolation, but I could also easily be wrong….

Here are the first chapter:


 

Moles

I

“Patty?” her assistant said as he leaned through the open entryway.

“Yes, Albert?” she replied without looking up from her desk console.

He came into her office, approached the desk, and held out a small slip of paper—a rare and unnecessary commodity on Mars. “There is a messenger waiting in my office for a response to this,” he said.

Patty Valentine held out her hand, glanced at the note, and frowned. It was cryptic:

P—

Need ship, pilot, and
M-Type asteroid.

“I wonder what Jasmine is up to now,” she muttered.

“Jasmine?” Albert asked. “Isn’t she that hermit at the Bacalor Crater Lab?”

Patty nodded. “We don’t hear from her often, but when we do, we listen,” she said. “Send in the messenger.”

While she waited, she set the note on the flat surface of her basalt desk, turned her attention to the console, and brought up the list of ships currently on standby for Cartel use. They were all small passenger ships, and she scrolled through them until she found the ones orbiting Mars. She tabbed the icon to put a temporary hold on The Argyle, a four-passenger luxury cruiser. It was piloted by Jack Arnstaadt, a pilot she had used before, and she was confident he had the patience to deal with Jasmine’s eccentricities.

“Patty,” Albert said, ushering in a prim young woman in standard lab apparel—a dark gray jumpsuit, soft black boots, and emergency air packet. She was a stark contrast to Albert’s tall, lanky form hovering beside her. “This is Regina Wallander.”

Patty smiled, “Reggie.”

Regina, a recent young graduate from The Academy, smiled back. “Hi Mrs. Valentine,” she said, her voice lilting as if it were about to float away in the light gravity. She shifted slightly to the right and absently rubbed her left thigh.

“Relax, Reggie,” Patty chuckled. “I thought you were in the computer bay.”

“I was,” Regina nodded, her shoulder-length black hair fanning slightly outward and slowly settling back into place.

“Was?”

“I was reassigned to Jasmine Oribi a few weeks ago.”

“Oh?” Patty said, raising her eyebrows and turning to her console. She keyed the sequence for staffing and frowned. “Jasmine doesn’t seem to have filled out a personnel requisition form.”

“It was a temporary assignment, Ma’am. She said she didn’t need to worry about it.”

“She never does,” Patty said, shaking her head. “It’s not the first time she’s borrowed people without telling us,” she added, picking up the note. It crinkled a bit, and she relaxed her grip as she waved it toward Regina. “What’s this about?”

Regina straightened up, bouncing slightly in the process, and locked her hands behind her back. “I don’t know, Ma’am,” she said. “Jasmine didn’t tell me.”

“Well then,” Patty said after a moment. “Why don’t you have a seat and tell me what you do know. What did she have you do for her?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Regina said, moving forward to sit on the light brown, upholstered, air-cushioned, stone-framed chair. “There isn’t much to tell.”

“Nevertheless,” Patty said, “I’d like to hear it.”

“I’ve only been helping her for a few weeks, like I said, and all of that time I’ve been programming sequences for her. They don’t make any sense to me, though. From what she has said,” Regina continued, “the programs will ‘process sensor data to discriminate among a variety of spectral wavelengths in order to single out specific ones to target.’ I’m not sure what that means.”

Patty leaned forward and looked at the note again. “If I show you those wavelengths, can you identify them?” she asked.

Regina shrugged. “Probably not. I only wrote the code.”

“Let’s try it anyway,” Patty said, turning to her console. A half minute later, spectral wavelengths hovered above her desk, each one lingering long enough for Regina to shake her head no.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” Regina said a few minutes later. “I just wasn’t paying much attention to them. All I needed were the numbers.”

“Numbers?” Patty repeated, smiling. “Let’s try this, then.” She manipulated a few tabs and the images of the wavelengths were replaced by a series of numbers representing the peaks and valleys of particular wavelengths, the numeric equivalent of the spectrographic readings.

“Hey! That’s one of them,” Regina said a few seconds later. “The ratios—”

Patty nodded, “It’s the wavelength pattern for iron. What about this one?” She brought up nickel and got a similar reaction. A few others also elicited recognition from Regina, but most did not. After several minutes, Patty shut off the hologram. “Okay, Reggie, I think I have enough information to form an educated guess. You can go.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Regina said, rising. She stood still for a long moment and gestured at the note on Mrs. Valentine’s desk. “Ma’am?” she asked hesitantly, “I was told to bring your response back with me.”

“Of course,” Patty said, smiling. She tabbed for the private intercom connection to her assistant and said, “Albert, would you bring in the stencil?”

The door opened almost before she had finished her request, and Albert walked in. “Here it is,” he said, handing the archaic writing implement to her when he reached the desk.

Patty looked at the note from Jasmine, gripped the stencil tightly, and carefully added a √ and P next to the J. She handed the note to Regina. “Give her that when you get back.”

“Yes Ma’am,” Regina said, turning briskly.

Patty held out the stencil for Albert’s waiting hand.

“I’ll put this back in the safe,” he said, turning. “If you’ll come with me, Miss Wallander, I’ll show you out.”

“A moment, Reggie,” Patty said, stopping them at the doorway. “Who was your pilot?”

“Deidre Maddox,” Regina said, “of The Fifth Wheel.”

The Fifth Wheel,” Patty repeated.“That’s the new prototype, isn’t it?”

Regina shrugged. “I wouldn’t know Ma’am. I don’t travel much.”

“All right,” Patty said. “Albert, I’d like to see you after you’ve shown her out.”

He nodded, gesturing Regina out of the room ahead of him.

A half minute later, Albert returned, alone, and asked, “Yes?”

“Two things, Albert,” she said. “Give me fifteen uninterrupted minutes, and then I want to talk with Deidre Maddox of The Fifth Wheel.”

“Yes Ma’am,” Albert said, quietly closing the door as he left.

Once it was shut, Patty went through the sequence to initiate a direct, secure link from her console to the Mars Base Astronomic Computations Department.

“What can I do for you, Mrs. Valentine?” came the prompt reply from the young man on the other end of the connection.

“I need you to locate an M-Type asteroid near Mars.”

“That won’t be easy,” he said. “All the M-Type asteroids in the vicinity have either been mined or towed into the orbital processing facilities.”

“Try,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be very large.”

He turned away for several seconds to talk with someone Patty couldn’t see. He had a lovely profile—the usual short-cropped hair of base personnel, a thin nose, strong chin—he reminded her of a younger version of her husband. Or Albert. When he turned back, he said, “The nearest available M-Type asteroid not currently slated for mining or towing is an unnamed 20x8x5 meter rock in an extreme orbit that will come closest to Mars in four days.”

“How long will it take to get there?” Patty asked.

“Depends upon the ship and departure time,” the young man said.

The Argyle,” Patty replied, “departure any time within the next three days.”

He nodded to his side and said, “It will take a moment to run some calculations. Is there anything else I can help you with while we wait?”

“No thank you,” Patty said, leaning back.

Half a minute later, he listened to someone off screen and said, “Travel time is three weeks, if The Argyle leaves in seven hours sixteen minutes. Longer if it doesn’t.”

“All right,” Patty said. “Send the departure time and coordinates to The Argyle, please.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said, nodding to his side again.

“Thank you,” Patty said as she end the connection.

She sat quietly for several minutes, and then Albert connected her with Deidre Maddox. After a short conversation, she had arranged for The Fifth Wheel to transport Jasmine Oribi and her equipment to The Argyle, once she had ferried Reggie back to the Bacalor Crater Lab.

II

Jasmine nearly dropped the vacuum-sealed titanium container when her communications console suddenly sprang to life and announced: “Patty Valentine for Jasmine Oribi. Patty Valentine for Jasmine Oribi.”

“Damn,” she muttered as she carefully set the container on the bench near the communications console. “I disabled that,” she added, reluctantly reaching up to press the tab that would complete the connection. “Where did I put that footstool?” she muttered, looking on the floor around the bench. After a few seconds, she gave up her search and returned to stand on the toes of her feet in front of the communication console’s video receiver.

“What?” she demanded of the wrinkled, gray-haired man who appeared.

The old man lowered his gaze to the bottom half of the screen and asked, “Jasmine Oribi?”

She took a step back for a better view and nodded.

“Incoming transmission from Patty Valentine, Chief Scientist for The Cartel. Transferring.” His image was quickly replaced by Patty Valentine’s matronly gaze. Today, her long, straight blonde hair draped her shoulders, the ends curving inward like wooly mammoth tusks.

“What?” Jasmine repeated.

“Good morning, Jasmine,” Patty said, smiling. Patty’s smile had an infectious quality to it; it always ran up her face to the eyes and brought down the furrows of her forehead in a way that Jasmine usually found quite amusing. “Your memo was succinct, as always.”

Jasmine nodded, trying to bolster her indignation at being interrupted.

“Am I correct in assuming you’ve built something that will facilitate our efforts to mine asteroids?”

Jasmine frowned and nodded again.

“Nanobots?” Patty asked.

Jasmine’s frown deepened, and she said, “Of a sort.”

Patty tilted her head and prompted, “Oh?”

Jasmine shrugged. “Microbots would be more accurate.”

“I see,” Patty acknowledged. “You are ready to test them?”

Jasmine glanced at the titanium container and said, “Yes.”

“Will they work?”

Jasmine shrugged. “They have functioned as designed in laboratory conditions. They need to be deployed in their proper working environment before an accurate assessment can be made.”

“An M-Type asteroid,” Patty said.

Jasmine moved over to the container and pushed it a little further from the bench’s edge, its base grating lightly on the smooth stone surface. When she returned to the communications console, she said nothing.

“I assume you have schematics?”

Jasmine nodded.

“Send them to me.”

Jasmine shook her head. “I only have one copy,” she said. “Here,” she added, pointing to her short black curls.

Patty frowned, paused a moment, scrunched up her eyebrows, and then shifted the conversation. “I’ve asked The Fifth Wheel to remain at your location after it drops off Reggie. They should arrive shortly. It will ferry you—”

“Me?” Jasmine protested, slumping until the camera only captured the top of her head. “My assistant can—”

Patty shook her head, sending her hair whirling about her face in the low gravity like the slow, gently swoosh of a horse’s tail. “You are the only one who knows how they work. I want you there in case something goes wrong.”

“It won’t,” Jasmine interrupted, lifting her head.

“I also want you to conduct detailed scans, retrieve data, and report any developments as they arise. Take whatever supplies you need from the lab with you.”

Jasmine flexed her fingers but said nothing.

“You don’t have much time to get ready,” Patty continued. “The Fifth Wheel needs to rendezvous with The Argyle in Mars orbit within five hours to make the optimal window for the nearest available M-Type asteroid. Unfortunately,” she paused, then gently finished, “it will take three weeks to get there.”

“Three weeks,” Jasmine squawked as her knees buckled. She reached out to grab the edges of the communications console to steady herself.

“I’m sorry, Jasmine,” Patty sympathized, “but Mars has already mined all of the M-type asteroids that come near the planet.”

Jasmine shook her head. “No,” she said firmly. “I won’t do it.”

“But—”

“They have rocks in orbit waiting to be processed. We can use one of them.”

“What if the nanobots get loose?” Patty asked. “What if they get into the mining facilities or even make it to the surface of Mars?”

Jasmine took a deep breath, glanced at the container again, and exhaled slowly. “Does The Argyle have the capacity to generate an electromagnetic pulse?” she asked, her lips trembling.

Patty raised her eyebrows until they disappeared beneath her bangs. “It’s a passenger ship.”

Jasmine looked back at Patty and tilted her head downward, pressed her crossed her arms across her chest, and clutched the NeoChristian ankh dangling between her breasts. “There is a slim possibility the Moles will go off-mission,” she admitted. “The programming is … unique.”

“Moles?”

“Microscopic Ore Extraction System.”

“M-O-E-S? Where’s the L coming from?”

“The nanobots act like moles,” Jasmine replied. “They burrow into the rock, use their sensors to locate specific molecular compounds, and employ their claws to harvest those molecules. Once they have done so, they manipulate the collected ore into small nodules and deposit those nodules on the surface for further processing. Moles.”

“It sounds more like ants,” Patty said.

Jasmine shrugged. “I like Moles.”

“All right. If they go off mission,” Patty asked, “what do you think will happen?”

Jasmine forced herself to loosen her grip on the ankh and ran her fingers along the base of her chin. After a few seconds, she shrugged again and said, “If any got loose on a ship, they would treat it and the people on it like an asteroid.”

“Oh,” Patty said.

“I’ve programmed in several safeguards and an automatic termination sequence that causes them to deactivate in two weeks unless they receive a specific binary sequence to reset the clock,” Jasmine said in a rush. “There is also an emergency self-destruct sequence I can implement electronically. Still,” she continued, “it would be nice to have an electromagnetic pulse generator, just in case these precautions fail.”

“That would wipe out the ship’s electrical components,” Patty said.

Jasmine shrugged. “They can be replaced.”

“A strong magnetic field—”

“A very strong magnetic field,” Jasmine interrupted. “They’re shielded from the levels of magnetism normally encountered in Mars orbit.”

“Oh.” Patty paused for a moment. “Containment, then,” she said. “We won’t risk testing them on an asteroid already in orbit.”

“I’ve rigged something up for remote deployment to avoid unnecessary exposure.” Jasmine looked at the container again; it was an elegant design, simple and easy to use. “Anyone can deploy them,” she pleaded. “I can observe them from here.…”

Patty shook her head. “Sorry, Jasmine.…”

Jasmine took a deep breath and scrunched herself up, dipping below the console’s camera altogether. “Fine,” she barked at last.

“Good,” Patty said, gently. “Let me know when you reach the asteroid.”

Jasmine reached up and terminated the connection just before she sagged to the floor and began to cry.

III

Jasmine hated space.

The cabin walls pressed in against her.

The Evac suits were uncomfortably confining.

The weightlessness left her disoriented, nauseous, and dizzy.

The Cartel’s medical department had spent a week designing a drug to help her cope with the symptoms of spacesickness, but it only masked them; it didn’t eliminate them. Every now and again, when she floated too quickly down a corridor or turned just so, there would be a brief moment when the world spun like a desynchronized gyroscope. The sensation would pass quickly, but it always left her unsettled. That feeling lasted for hours. But the drug made it possible for her to work, and that was what mattered.

Mostly, she hated being around other people.

The Argyle was a luxury cruiser, and, aside from the Moles, she was the only passenger. Jasmine’s equipment and luggage took up the other three compartments. The pilot quickly learned to leave her alone.

It had been seven years and three days (Mars time) since she had been outside her lab or living quarters for more than a few hours, and it didn’t take long for her to suffer withdrawal symptoms. She’d have an idea, move to pursue it in the lab, and suddenly realize the equipment she needed was tens of thousands of kilometers away. At best, all she could do was jot down a few notes to remind her of the idea and hope that it was still interesting enough to pursue when she finally had a chance to do so.

On the third day, she had an idea that didn’t need any equipment other than a computer console. She had one of those, a secure console connected to The Cartel network, and she thrust herself into it.

It started with a simple question: If the Moles are successful, what next? She was idly curious about why she hadn’t thought about that question before, but she always had thrust herself into solving puzzles without worrying about their consequences. It had served her well so far.

It was an interesting question. The first answer was easy: use them on a large scale. A very large scale. Asteroid mining was time-consuming, and the Moles would make it much faster and far more efficient. Drop the Moles on an asteroid and come back a few weeks later to pick up the ore they had harvested. Refinement? Unnecessary. The Moles harvested individual molecules, so there would be no impurities in the nodules they produced. Seed a thousand asteroids.…

What to do with the metal? Build things. What kind of things? The kind of things we need most. What do we need most? Water. Harvest water directly? A few modifications to the Moles, and they would mine water instead of iron or nickel.

Water. Next to oxygen, it was the most precious commodity in the solar system. Mars needed water; the ice mining was inefficient and required extensive purification. Ceres was better, but its ability to transit ice to Luna and Mars was limited. Asteroids are difficult to collect, process and purify. Comet captures had all failed; there was too much debris to navigate through. Earth has plenty of water, but it hoards it, claiming the desalination and transportation costs were too high. It was easy to believe; lifting water from the surface to space used up a great deal of fuel and other resources, resources that could not be spared.

Where is water readily available? Enceladus? Too far. Too much ammonia. Maybe after the Snodgrass mission. Europa? A liquid ocean covered by kilometers of ice. How to get at it? Laser drills. How to transport it? Build a ship. A big ship. Need metal to build a big ship. Lots of metal. Moles mine metal.

While she suffered through the three weeks it took to get to the asteroid, she delved into the project, outlining rough schematics, designing the siphoning system and laser drill apparatus, running calculations—anything to keep her active mind under control until she could actually do something.

Then they were there.

Luxury passenger ships have top-of-the-line Evac suits with all the perks and safeguards. Any idiot can use them. They claim “One size fits all!” but they don’t. She was far shorter than the average woman and always had to make an unappealing choice: Either she squeezed into a suit made for a child that never quite fit her ample bosom; or she was dwarfed by the size of an adult suit. She didn’t like either option, so she decided not to go into space. She sent the pilot instead.

The deployment mechanism was simple: set it on the surface of the asteroid, pull out a handle, turn it clockwise, and push it back in. The container’s anchor would secure it to the asteroid, and five minutes later (the time delay was another necessary precaution) the nanobots would be injected into the asteroid’s crust.

The first few hours after deployment, there wasn’t much apparent activity, but that was to be expected. The nanobots were relatively few in number, and they were designed to tunnel through to the other side of the asteroid first. Once through to the other side, they would enlarge the passageway until a pair of two-centimeter-diameter nodules could be passed through it side by side. Then, and only then, the ore processing would take place, expanding outward from the central burrow until it hollowed the asteroid out. The iron, nickel, and carbon would be separated from the rest of the asteroid’s contents and deposited at the burrow openings.

After five hours, the nodules began to emerge, building up like tiny bits of dirt deposited around an anthill. Nickel clustered at the far end of the tunnel, iron was clumped around the edges of the deployment container, and carbon nanotube threads randomly streamed out from the surface of the asteroid. Although she couldn’t see them, she knew the nanobots had formed interlocking chains down which they passed the nodules to the growing mounds from wherever they had been harvested.

At the ten hour mark, the surface of the asteroid began to look like a lop-sided clump of hairy Swiss cheese. New tunnels frequently emerged from the interior and the two piles of nodules rapidly grew into small mounds.

After three days, the last nodule was deposited, and the rest of the asteroid was little more than a sponge-like residue, a fibrous mass of interlocking arteries composed of the unused portions of the asteroid that did not contain iron, nickel, or carbon. When it was clear the nanobots had finished mining the asteroid, Jasmine sent the sequence to recall them to their container, waited an hour, and then sent the pilot to get them. Then she began revising her schematics.

It would be a very big ship.…

IV

Talia Masters, middle-aged representative for the Eurasian Conglomerate and Chair of The Cartel for over a decade, sat at the head of the conference table and stared at Patty Valentine. Patty, the head of The Cartel’s science division and representative for The Americas, placidly waited for her to compose herself. With an effort, Talia kept her voice relatively flat as she asked, “What?”

Patty held up the small cup of water and took a long drink from it. Then she looked at the other three members of The Cartel’s board—Victor Windsor, the wizened old man who had served on the board as the European Union representative from The Cartel’s inception; Xing Wu from the Indo-China Corporation who ran the PR department; and Helena Dionopolis, the non-voting liaison to the Confederation of African States. “In five years,” she repeated, “water rationing may be a memory.”

“So, I did hear you correctly,” Talia said as the others watched. “Explain.”

Patty ran her fingers through her hair, even though she knew it would take a few seconds for it to settle back into place, and said, “Jasmine Oribi has an idea.”

“Jasmine?” Victor mused, toying with his gray goatee. “She’s the one who made the nanobots you told us about, right? Moles, I think you called them. Those things will undercut the entire mining industry in one fell swoop.”

“Undercut?” Patty asked. “Is that what innovation does?”

Victor nodded. “Innovation makes other things obsolete,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’ve seen it many times before. It also tends to make life better in the long run. The miners, ore processing plants, and construction crews will become obsolete. They won’t like it.” He paused, lifted up his own cup of water, swirled its contents and studied the eddy it created. “Nevertheless,” he continued, lifting his soft blue eyes to meet each of their gazes in turn, “if it eliminates the water shortage, they’ll understand.”

“They aren’t obsolete, yet,” Patty said. “But their role will be gradually reduced over time. The manufacturing process for the nanobots is taking longer than we anticipated. Jasmine is rebuilding them from memory, and she seems to have forgotten a few things. I’m confident she will remember the rest of it, once she fully recovers.”

“Why don’t we use her specs—” Xing began.

Patty shook her head. “Jasmine is a bit peculiar,” she said. “She generally doesn’t use computers when she designs things; she does it all up here.” She tapped her temple, half-smiling as she realized she had the same peculiarity. “It’s more efficient.”

“What is she recovering from?” Victor asked.

“She has an extremely rare, debilitating form of spacesickness, one that is resistant to the normal medicinal interventions. Testing the Moles was quite arduous for her, since she had to be in space for two months; she needs time to recover from the ordeal.”

Talia shook her head. “How long?”

“A few days,” Patty said. “Once she recovers her planetary balance, I’m sure she will be able to think more clearly. Another week or two to fill in the gaps of the nanobot design. Once we have the hardware schematics, we can copy the programming from the prototypes. After that, it will take a few months to build the facilities for mass-production. Then the mining industry will be affected. We will also need to enlarge our orbital construction force significantly, which should off-set that loss. In the meantime, all we have at our disposal are the ones she’s already created. It seems wasteful not to use them.”

Talia nodded. “What’s her idea, then?”

“The Moles were a phenomenal success. The asteroid they devoured was small—about three times the volume of this room—and the Moles refined all of the iron, nickel, and carbon in three days. Other than transport, no other resources were used. The nodules that were produced are 100 percent pure iron or 100 percent pure nickel, and the carbon nanotube fibers are flawless. Based upon projections from the data we have received thus far, we will have a dramatic increase in the availability of these resources in a short amount of time, even from the limited supply of Moles we currently have available. The processing facilities orbiting Mars would have deconstructed the asteroid more quickly, but the energy expenditure to do so would have been much greater and the end product would have been less pure. Since Jasmine had a lot of time to think while she traveled to and from the asteroid, she developed a proposal for using this new abundance of resources. It’s only a rough sketch, but I think it is worth pursuing. She suggests we build a vessel thousands of cubic kilometers in size, siphon water from the subsurface ocean of Jupiter’s moon Europa, freeze the water, and use that ship to transport the ice to Mars and Luna. A single trip will bring enough ice to supply us with water for generations, provided the population growth remains stable and we continue to improve upon the efficiency of our recycling techniques. We could even take baths.”

Xing raised her eyebrows. “Baths!” she almost spat. “Those are a luxury for Earthers, not Offworlders!”

Patty nodded, “Only because Offworlders have to ration water. Ceres has a surplus of it, and the outpost personnel stationed there take baths. If we had a surplus on Mars, there would be a lot of people who would take baths. I would. The same would happen on Luna.”

Xing’s long black ponytail swished about her shoulders as she shook her head in dismay.

“Perhaps,” Talia interjected. “Go on.”

“I’d like to put a team to work developing her design. If it’s feasible to build it before the next Jupiter conjunction passes, we should do it. The logistics are complicated, though. The construction of the hull partitions will be done en route to Europa, provided we are able to seed enough asteroids with Moles while the ship’s core and engines are being constructed. In order to do that, we’ll need to conduct a survey to identify appropriate M-Type asteroids to mine.”

“Why not use Astronomical Computations?” Victor asked.

Patty shook her head. “They can help us identify M-Type asteroids, but we need a more accurate reading of their composition. In order to construct the hull partitions, there needs to be a certain percentage of carbonic compounds, as well as the nickel-iron core.”

“What about the rest of the ship?” Xing asked.

“The construction of the ship’s core and engines will be comparable to that of other ships. The siphoning mechanisms will be based upon those used on Earth to purify the oceans, but they will have to be modified for the environment on Europa. The laser drill schematics will be modeled after those used on Ceres, but they will need to be enlarged significantly.”

“Projections?” Talia asked.

“We haven’t even gotten through the preliminary planning phase,” Patty said. “However, if the project is approved and if we don’t encounter any serious difficulties during the design or construction phases, I think we can have the ship completed for the next Jupiter conjunction in mid-2139. Assuming, of course, that we begin soon.”

“Two-and-a-half years?” Victor scoffed. “To construct a ship of that size?”

Patty nodded. “It’s not an ordinary ship. The hull doesn’t have to be solid or shielded; only the core compartments for the engines and maintenance crew. The water we harvest will be frozen into one-hundred-meter cubes, and the hull only needs to secure those cubes into place. The hull partitions will provide a grid-like skeletal framework around each cube, and the carbon nanotube fibers will be woven into a mesh-like latticework surrounding the whole. Think of it like a cargo net holding the ice in place rather than a ship’s hull. The Moles will have the materials ready to be fabricated into partitions when the ship gets to the asteroid. These sections will be secured during transit and deployed as needed while the water is being harvested.”

“So,” Talia asked, “the outlay requirements are relatively low, considering the size of the project?”

“For the most part,” Patty answered. “The ship itself will be relatively easy to construct, thanks to the efficiency of the Moles and the availability of existing technology. Aside from seeding the asteroids with Moles, the survey will be routine. However, there is one other aspect that I haven’t mentioned. We will need to establish an outpost on Europa to study the moon and determine the optimal location for siphoning the water. The thickness of the icy crust varies considerably.”

“That,” Talia said, frowning, “is a helluva way to deflate the conversation. Do you know how expensive it was to build Ceres Outpost?”

Patty nodded. “That was decades ago. We’ve come a long way since then.”

“I can vouch for that,” Victor said softly. “What would be involved?”

“Not as much as you might think,” Patty said. “We already have a considerable amount of information from the probes that have passed by Europa and from Jasper’s landing seven years ago. Also, if things go as planned, The Snodgrass will be passing through the Jupiter system about a year before our ship will arrive. They should be able to provide us with a great deal more information.”

The Snodgrass?” Xing asked.

“It’s the ship Mars Base is building to study that new Tiger Stripe on Enceladus,” Patty said. “It will also test the prototype for that new magnetic drive system they’ve been developing.”

“Ah,” Xing nodded. “Europa is on its way, then?”

“Yes,” Patty said. “I’ve looked at the schematics, and I think we can build a supply canister for Europa Outpost. The Snodgrass can drop off the supply canister before it straddles Jupiter’s windsock on its way to Saturn. It won’t interfere with the propulsion, nor should it delay their mission in any significant way.”

“In other words, we treat the most sophisticated science vessel Mars Base has ever built as a cargo ship,” Victor summarized.

Patty smiled, “You could put it that way, but we can also have them deploy seismic sensors to determine both the degree of subsurface turmoil and the depth of the ice. We can use that information to identify the drilling site.”

“All right,” Talia said. “We have an opportunity to supply an outpost on Europa, but how do we man it?”

“That,” Patty said, “is the easiest part of all. A small number of permanent outpost personnel can be ferried to Europa with the ship, and we can use the ship’s construction crew as supplement staffing to help construct the outpost. If they encounter any serious issues, they can return with the ship when it brings back with the ice.”

“Let me see if I can boil this down for us,” Talia said. “If we build this ship, Mars and Luna will have the opportunity for water independence, and the only question we need to ask is whether or not this objective warrants the expenditures you’ve outlined.” She looked around the table and received nods and gestures of agreement. “In order to answer this question, we need to know one more thing: What is the likelihood of success?”

Patty frowned. “Until we have a more detailed plan, I cannot say. However, based on the limited information I currently have, I think we are at least justified in going through with the initial planning stage.”

“I agree,” Victor said.

“Yes,” Xing agreed.

“How long will it take to complete the planning stage?” Helena, who seldom spoke, asked.

Patty turned to her and said, “Two months at most. We should know at that time if it will be doable. Keep in mind, though, that projects of this sort frequently evolve as they undergo changes during the construction phase, particularly when we encounter difficulties.”

“All right then,” Helena said.

“Good,” Talia said. “That’s settled. No dissenters?”

“There is one more thing,” Patty said, drawing their rapt attention. “If this works on Europa, we can do it on Titan, too.”

“Titan? It has water?” Xing asked.

Patty shook her head. “Not water, methane.”

“Methane?”

Patty nodded. “Titan is cold enough that it has a number of lakes on its surface composed of methane and ethane. There is also the potential for a subsurface ocean of methane, but we haven’t been able to confirm it.”

“Why is methane important?” Xing asked.

“It’s the main component of natural gas,” Victor said. “And earth’s supply is dwindling.”

“Oh,” Xing said.

“Draw upon whatever resources you need for the project,” Talia said. “I’ll set up a meeting with Admiral Ashcroft to discuss the role Mars Base will play in it.”

“I’ll get started on it,” Patty said. “When we’re ready to begin construction, we’ll need access to the orbital shipyard, construction materials for the core components of the ship, an experienced construction crew willing to go to Europa, Europa Outpost personnel, and recommendations for the asteroid survey pilot. Mars Base can help us with these. For now, I will work directly with Jasmine to design the ship’s general characteristics and put her in charge of overseeing the building process when we’re satisfied with the schematics.”

“We can’t keep calling it ‘the ship’,” Victor said. “We need to give it a name. I think we should call it The Empty Bucket, since that’s what we’ll be using it for.”

“‘The Empty Bucket,’” Talia repeated. “I like the sound of that.”

“Project Empty Bucket it is, then,” Patty said.

“Keep us posted,” Talia said. “Regular updates when the situation warrants it.”

“Will do, boss,” Patty said, smiling.

“Until next time,” Talia finished, nodding to the others as she rose to leave.

V

Talia Masters lingered at the window of the conference room and idly scanned the Martian landscape. It was a drab view—dust and more dust, the jagged lip of the crater, the cliff face opposite, desolation upon desolation, a dead planet—but it was one of the few views available on Mars. The Martian colonists were tunnelers. But she was from Earth, and she longed to be out in the sun, jogging through the park, birds singing.…

She turned abruptly and moved briskly back to the conference table. It was carved from the native basalt, like most furniture, and inset with consoles. She took her seat. It was upholstered and amply padded for the light gravity. “We need to make the final selection,” she said, pausing to let the conversation settle down. “We’ve narrowed it down to three candidates: Lilith Greenberg, Jack Arnstaadt, and Deidre Maddox.”

“They are all good pilots,” Patty said, resuming her seat at the far end of the table. Her blonde hair was wavy today, and as she talked it undulated like the lapping waves of a pond on a breezy day. “But I think we need more than just a good pilot.”

“Yes,” Victor said from Talia’s left. He was thin, tall, and frail—the hallmark of someone who had lived for decades on Mars. “If it were just their piloting skills, Deidre would be the best choice. She’s made a significant name for herself over the past few years, and Admiral Ashcroft has personally vouched for her abilities.”

“But her last deep space jaunt was during the Ceres/Mars conjunction of 2135,” Xing said, shaking her head. She was young for the Cartel Board but had a well-earned reputation image manipulation. There were skeletons, there, Talia was sure, but she had never been able to find them, and this merely enhanced her reputation. “Since then, she’s been on the Mars shuttle service.”

“The pilot will have to land on the asteroids to take samples,” Victor said, “and her experience landing on Mars and Ceres will help her do that.”

“Not much,” Patty corrected him. “The asteroids are much smaller, have much swifter rotational periods, and don’t have landing platforms.”

“True enough,” Victor said. “What about Jack?”

“Personally,” Talia said. “I like him for this mission. He took Jasmine out to test the Moles, and that experience will be helpful on this survey.”

“I agree,” Helena said. “He might have had my vote if I had one, but I’m concerned that The Junket and The Argyle are completely different systems. Also, can he really handle the isolation of a survey ship?”

Victor shrugged, “Someone will have to deal with the isolation.”

“I wonder,” Xing asked. “Would Jack be on the list at all if he hadn’t piloted that test mission?”

“He’s a good pilot,” Patty said. “All of them are. It’s his other training that troubles me. He doesn’t have any scientific background; his ancillary skills focus on catering to the needs of passengers as they arise. His first aid training will be useful, but leisure and social skills won’t be needed on a solo mission. Also, his report on the Mole test included a rather pointed comment about how Jasmine’s antisocial behavior frustrated him, particularly in contrast with his normal passengers’ needy behavior.”

“All right Patty, why don’t you tell us why you like Lilith Greenberg,” Talia said.

Patty looked at her, nodded, and said, “As I’ve been saying, it isn’t about being a good pilot; it’s about their other skills. I know Lilith doesn’t have as much experience as the others do, but her training included a month-long survival exercise in the asteroid belt. She flew a survey ship for it, one very much like The Junket. Her instructors noted she was methodical, structured, cautious, occasionally daring but not without reason, and, more importantly, she was comfortable asking for assistance when she needed it. Finally, this mission seems to require a competent scientist, and even though she is not a specialist in any particular area other than navigation, she does have a broad general grasp of the basics of several sciences.”

“Why do you think the pilot needs to have a scientific background?” Xing asked. “All she’s going to do is deploy the buoys and activate the Moles. The ship will be on autopilot between asteroids.”

“You make it seem simple,” Patty replied, “and it will be, if everything goes well. But what if there is a problem with a buoy? We need someone who can fix it on the scene, and I don’t see Jack or Deidre being able to do it without extensive instruction. Due to the time constraints, we need someone who will be able to make any necessary adjustments to the devices without having to report in or, at the very least, someone with a scientific foundation that we can draw upon to work her through it. Lilith is the only one of the three who qualifies.”

“Jack or Deidre would no doubt be able to learn,” Victor said.

Patty shook her head. “It would take too long for them to catch up to where Lilith is right now.”

“You’re set, then?” Talia said.

Patty nodded. “Lilith has my vote,” she said. “The mission is too important.”

“Yes,” Victor said. “All right, then, I’ll defer to your expertise. I vote for Lilith Greenberg, as well.”

Talia paused for a few seconds to allow for dissenters to voice their views. “Xing?”

Xing frowned before nodding curtly.

“Helena?”

“I’m still concerned about the isolation,” she said. “Lilith is married; how is she going to deal with the separation from her husband? After all, they’ve had six renewals already; she may be more dependent upon him than we realize. Deidre would be able to deal with the isolation better.”

“Perhaps,” Patty agreed. “But not with technical complications. Deidre is a pilot, through and through; Lilith is considerably more than that.”

Helena shrugged, “I can’t stand in your way,” she said, “but I prefer Deidre. What about you, Talia? You haven’t said anything yet.”

Talia leaned forward and rested her fingertips on her narrow chin. “When I came in here,” she said, “I was leaning toward Deidre. But Patty has a compelling argument. We all know how things can go wrong in space, and this mission is too important not to prepare for that contingency. She’s convinced me. My vote is for Lilith. I’ll notify her personally, once we have finished here. Patty?”

“Mars Base has calculated the coordinates for the survey, and it is scheduled to begin in six days. The asteroids we’ve chosen are the likeliest candidates to have the approximate balance of metals to carbon for constructing the partitions for the hull of The Empty Bucket. Based upon the projected harvest, it will be somewhere close to a ten kilometer cube. If we had more time, it would be larger. As it is, we won’t be able to collect all of the metals we harvest. The core of The Empty Bucket—its engine, maintenance compartment, personnel quarters, and construction platform—are on schedule and should be leaving Mars Base six weeks after Lilith plants the first buoy. By the time it arrives at the asteroid, the Moles should have their work done.”

“Has Mars Base selected the Europa Outpost crew?”

Patty shook her head. “They have a lot of overlapping interest between The Snodgrass mission and Europa Outpost. They’ve postponed their decision until next month, about two weeks before The Empty Bucket will leave. They want more time to decide which Mars Base personnel can be spared for both missions and which ones will work best together for each one.”

“What about our input?” Xing asked.

“Minimal,” Patty said. “Jasmine—despite her protests—will be the commander for The Empty Bucket.”

“I thought she was antisocial,” Helena said. “Is it wise to put her in charge of such a critical mission?”

Patty shrugged. “The ship design is mostly hers, the Moles were created by her, and, short of taking charge myself, I wouldn’t trust anyone else with this type of scientific mission. Her genius is profound.”

“What about the crew? How will she deal with them?” Helena insisted.

“As little as possible, I imagine,” Patty said, smiling. “Her crew has already been exposed to her eccentricities during the construction of The Empty Bucket, and Edgewood, the chief technician for the project, will make sure she doesn’t make any serious mistakes. The others have had enough time to adapt to her peculiar management style, and I’m not concerned about them. However, I am concerned about the outpost personnel who will be joining them on the trip to Europa; they won’t have a chance to adjust to her before leaving Mars.”

“Will she treat them like she did Jack?” Xing asked.

“Probably,” Patty answered. “I suspect she will spend most of her time working in her cabin, like she did on The Argyle. Edgewood will be in charge of normal ship operations, but if anything goes wrong, she needs to be there to fix it.”

“What about her spacesickness?” Xing continued. “It will take at least a year and half to get to Europa.”

Patty sighed. “The medical staff has re-designed the drug she uses for it. It seems to be working far better than the old one. She hasn’t complained once since she got it. She’s been given a five year supply for the mission.” She paused for a few seconds before adding, “I share your concerns, Xing; Jasmine normally wouldn’t be chosen to command a ship—or any other mission, for that matter—but there isn’t any way around it for this one. She has to go, and she has to be the one in charge. No one else understands the mission the way she does, not even myself.”

Xing frowned and was quiet for a few seconds. “That may be true,” she finally agreed, “but that doesn’t mean she has to be in charge of the ship. Can’t she just be in charge of the mission? Someone else can command the ship.”

“The ship is the mission,” Patty reminded her.

Xing fell silent at that point, and Victor muttered, “The best of all possible worlds.…”

“Pardon?” Talia prompted when he didn’t continue.

“Sorry,” Victor said. “I was just thinking about an old philosophical doctrine. Something about some evil being necessary in order to produce the best of all possible worlds. Jasmine might be the necessary evil, if you will, for us to have the best possible mission.”

“That was in Leibniz’s Theodicy,” Helena said. “It was properly ridiculed by Voltaire in Candide.”

“That’s right,” Victor said. “I had forgotten who said it—and why. It was his response to the problem of evil, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” Helena smiled. “That was long before the NeoChristian movement blended together science and religion. Today, few people believe—”

“I don’t mean to intrude,” Talia said, “but perhaps you can discuss philosophy after we’ve finished with board business?”

Victor chuckled, “I thought we were finished. We’ve decided on the pilot and received updates on The Empty Bucket and crew selection. Is there anything else we need to discuss?”

Talia looked at Patty, who shook her head, and said, “Unless any of you have something to add, it looks like we’re adjourned.”

“Now, Leibniz believed in an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent deity.…”

© 2014, all rights reserved.

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