Table of Contents
The Golden Apple
The answer, once they had it, had only generated more questions.
Regrettably, they were a people for whom it had become difficult--because they'd been taught the hard way--to ask and answer questions.
"Front and center, EVA team, you're about to earn your pay."
The familiar voice crackling over the intraship comsystem was that of Brigadier General Horatio Z. Gutierrez, commonly referred to as "the Captain" by virtue of his appointment as expedition commander.
"Aye, aye, Commodore!"
The source of this facetious reply was the team's geologist, Dr. Piotr Kamanov, one of a few token Russians participating in what, in due course, would be advertised at home--provided they could stake a claim to anything resembling success out here--as an international undertaking. It was accompanied by a characteristic grin, and a wicked twinkle which contrasted with the icy and penetrating blue of the eyes that had produced it, neither of which the remark's intended recipient was present to appreciate, separated, as the two men were, by 250 centimeters of hard vacuum and a pair of aluminum-epoxy-graphite bulkheads.
From several others who were present, a ripple of nervous laughter followed. Despite the technical fact that he rated it, Gutierrez, a career Aerospace Force officer, had admonished them all, with an identical grin, just after the voyage had begun, that any crewperson addressing him by that irredeemably naval title would be immediately ejected from the air lock. Since this was precisely the fate now awaiting the EVA team, perhaps it had seemed worth the risk.
"Major?" Technical Sergeant Toya Pulaski whispered. "The EVA team's about buttoned up--everyone but Dr. Kamanov, of course--would you like some help with your suit-seals?"
The gloves, with their knurled lock-rings, were the hardest part to finish by yourself. Pulaski was one member of the EVA team who wouldn't be venturing outside with the others. To anyone who'd given it a thought (no one ever had), it wouldn't have seemed in character for the hesitant-voiced young woman who offered every appearance, deceptive though it must be, of frail timidity. It was her job to see that those suiting up got through their checklists without skipping items that might cost them their lives.
In many ways a perfect contrast to Pulaski, Marine Corps Major Estrellita Reille y Sanchez, the EVA team's nominal leader, blinked and shook her head at her subordinate, a bit chagrined to be caught wool-gathering at a crucial moment. The multilayered bulk of the vacuum-armor enveloping and disguising her full, feminine form (one of several differences between the major and the less-endowed sergeant) failed as yet to conceal her thick, wavy red hair, trimmed just short of shoulder-length. Giving the fabric an overly positive tug, she pulled the suit's upper torso flap down over the waist ring and reached for the soft helmet which the yellowed NASA manuals labeled "communications carrier," but which everybody else called a "Snoopy cap."
"No thank you, Sergeant, I believe I can manage."
Reille y Sanchez faced the forward bulkhead, every meter of which was bedecked with storage lockers, shelf grating, and gear attachment points. The bulkhead stood between her and, across a narrow gap of empty space, the flight deck of the refitted and rechristened shuttle Honorable Robert Dole . Once the property of NASA, it now served as flagship to the little fleet it was a part of. The major's small, space-booted feet were tucked into nylon stirrups projecting from the curved wall of the cargo bay passenger insert, a twelve-faceted cylinder, four meters by fifteen, which had been home to more people, for a longer time, than she liked to think about even now, when at long last they'd reached their destination. Her sense of smell alone, she felt, would never be the same for having made this journey.
Others, flight crews, scientists, engineers, mining and ag specialists, refinery technicians, the Vietnamese-American physician whose name she always had to struggle to remember--Rosalind Nguyen--forty-two individuals, had been just as cramped, dirty and uncomfortable. This and the other two eighty-year-old vessels, the Honorable John McCain and the Honorable Orrin Hatch , had never been intended for flights of this duration, let alone interplanetary travel. They were fourteen souls per shuttle, seven forward in crew quarters, seven aft in Hell for 349 days, 11 hours, 7 minutes. She was grateful that consumables were stored in an emptied auxiliary fuel tank, fastened in Earth orbit under the flattened belly of each ship.
Tucking an intransigent auburn strand into her cap, the major settled the phones over her ears, plugging their leads into a receptacle just under the gasketed neck-rim of her suit. Peering over the rim, she adjusted her oxygen flow and reached for her gloves, detaching them from the bulkhead with a ripping noise. The nylon thumb loops fastened to her cooling undergarment had already begun irritating the soft webbing of her thumb, but the gloves went on without a hitch. She snapped the lock-rings together and turned them from the OPEN position to CLOSED without Pulaski's help, smoothing the cuffs back over her wrists.
She reached for the bulky helmet which invariably reminded her of a gumball machine she'd been fascinated with as a child. It still stood, she imagined, in a dusty corner of the grimy Trailways station in the central Texas town where she'd been born. One of her earliest memories was of wondering what it had looked like, full of the multicolored spheres it had been placed there to dispense by the McQueenie Kiwanis or some other long-gone local pillar of a now-defunct establishment.
Reille y Sanchez had never seen a gumball, let alone tasted one. This had failed to strike her, even then, as any great personal tragedy. In a global civilization reeling into the second quarter of an already ragged twenty-first century, small children everywhere had at least been as equal as possible in their deprivation. At that age (twenty years ago, she mused; she must have been all of eight or nine the last time she'd been home) she couldn't appreciate the desperate situation in detail, but even then she'd understood, to some small degree, how a nation locked into a collapsing international economy couldn't spare resources on trivialities.
She wondered why she was thinking about it now. Perhaps it was something to do with that same nation's eleventh-hour gamble (things hadn't improved since she'd grown up) employing obsolete machinery, mothballed for decades, which had never been that good to begin with, to explore and exploit the swirling belt of flying mountains circling between Jupiter and Mars....
Before she was entirely aware of it, the air lock ready-light had turned green and the lid swung aside. She squeezed into a compartment beyond the bulkhead, allowing herself to be sealed in. Across from the hatch she'd come through, another led to the crew compartment mid-deck. Her helmet brushed a third hatch, pierced with a tiny porthole like the others, leading outside.
She just had room to extract her EAA Witness, a high-capacity semiautomatic pistol of Czech design and Italian manufacture chambered for 11.43x23mm Lenin (the original ".45 ACP" designation having been dropped when all American gun companies were nationalized) from an insulated pocket on her right thigh and give it a final check. It was an awkward task with the gloves, despite the special oversized trigger guard, yet one she'd been reluctant to perform in front of the others. When she'd satisfied herself that the chamber was loaded, the magazine full and locked in the grip, and three spares were in their places in her left thigh pocket, she reholstered the weapon, smoothing the Velcroed flap. Clanking and hissing noises faded as the machinery which made them reclaimed precious oxygen from the compartment, replacing it with nothingness.
Instead of looking up, as might be expected, into the starry depths of space (Gutierrez was preparing a hasty getaway and a view of the major's real destination, a kilometer aft, was blocked by the bulk of the passenger insert, the cowled OMS pods, and the tail assembly of the shuttle), Reille y Sanchez peered back through the thick transparency at her companions, soon to follow, she hoped, despite a mixture of less than enthusiastic expressions--nervousness, anxiety, uneuphemized terror--on their lens-distorted features. She wondered how her features looked to them.
Again before she knew it, this being a calculated result of countless Earthside simulations and endless drilling afterward in space, which had taught her body what to do while rendering it independent (in these matters, at least) of her mind, she'd observed the second ready-light, opened the overhead hatch, and was outside the free-falling craft with the lock dogged shut behind her. Nylon tether clipped in place and space-gloved fingers laced into one of several handholds at the rear of the flight deck, she waited for the rest of her team to emerge. Through paired windows high in the after bulkhead, she could discern human-shaped silhouettes. Too much yellow glare interfered to make out whose they were.
The air lock hatch swung open. First came Kamanov, his tanned, handsome face framed in his helmet, his grin belying not only the birthdate in his dossier (the geologist would turn seventy before his feet touched the Earth again), but the silver of his beard, mustache, and thick, unruly hair. Nor was the major ever altogether unaware of the Russian's broad shoulders and flat stomach, even concealed beneath the unflattering bulk of his suit. Clipping his tether to a ringbolt, he pivoted in "midair" and dogged the hatch. With a gentle kick at the stubby cylinder of the lock, he floated up beside her, giving her a friendly pat on the arm before turning his attention back where he'd come from.
This expedition, the major thought, represented a triumph of some kind for senior citizenry. After Kamanov came Colonel Vivian Richardson, the seams in her black face softened by reflections in her visor, just as the salt-and-pepper of her close-cropped hair was hidden by her cap. Expedition second-in-command and captain of the Hatch , she was also Gutierrez's emotional surrogate, since he wouldn't be obeying his strong personal inclination to accompany them on the initial EVA. Displaying none of Kamanov's athletic grace, Richardson closed the hatch (she'd often wished that someone had chosen a different name for the expedition's second vessel) and joined them aft of the flight deck, well out of the way of the air lock.
As they waited, the major squinted against what seemed to her a blinding glare. It was less actual light, she'd been informed, than a moonlit night back on Earth. At the Dole 's stern, the inexplicably featureless surface of a miniature planet shone like a golden apple in the sun. Training for this expedition, no one had been able to tell her why the astronomers had taken so long discovering 5023 Eris, bright as it was compared to most bodies like it, nor why it displayed this particular shade of yellow. The odd color had drawn them, that and a spectrographic signature rich in hydrocarbons, lifestuff which promised to make establishing themselves here possible. Observations made closer at hand every day told them the hue was that of the same residual minerals which lent color to the fallen leaves of autumn. Yet the answer, once they had it, only generated more questions, and they were a people for whom it had become difficult--because they'd been taught the hard way--to ask and answer questions.
The expedition's political officer, Arthur Empleado, was the last to squeeze out through the lock, his sweat-beaded scalp glistening through his thinning hair. To the major, he looked incomplete, somehow, insecure without the complement of "associates" who normally followed him everywhere, an oddly assorted lot of, well ... "thugs" wasn't quite the right word. He looked uncomfortable without them, even through the vacuum suit he was bundled up in. Like Kamanov he was a civilian, rare among the crew. Short-winded and overweight like most of his professional brethren, he had nothing else in common with the perpetually youthful geologist.
Clever of Gutierrez, Reille y Sanchez thought, and daring, to place all of his rotten eggs in one dangerous basket. Expendables (including the major herself as chief of security) would take first risk. For many reasons (not the least an undeniable yearning for every personal advantage that footnotes in their records like "heroic" and "historic" might earn them) none of them could do a damned thing about it.
Empleado joined them at the bulkhead. Now it was time to make their mark on history, whether for the greater glory of their individual dossiers, their nation's honor, or perhaps a hungry world. Even if the bay doors hadn't been spread wide--superconducting solar panels sucking up the feeble sunlight--the major's team was at the wrong spot to look back along the foreshortened hull and read the blue block letters stenciled there, a meter high. Each of them already knew what they spelled out. Once the team had tethered itself together and begun drifting aft of the shuttle's stubby, swept-back wings--propelled by the reaction pistol their leader accepted from Kamanov, who helped her plug the rabbit-eared device into her backpack--the letters would be legible.
First they'd see the flag decaled on the fuselage to the left of the lettering, the same familiar banner a dozen generations of Americans had known, with thirteen horizontal stripes of red and white and a blue field in the upper left-hand quarter. Yet, rather than staggered rows of five-pointed stars, one for each state in the Union, the field contained a stylized yellow hammer and sickle.
And the lettering would say:
American Soviet Socialist Republic
The United World Soviet--what Madison Avenue, on the air and in the pages of American Truth , would be calling (as their Russian predecessors had, three quarters of a century earlier) the "Cosmic Collective"--had come to the Asteroid Belt. Or at least its latest, and in whispered opinion, most important dominion had.
Copyright © 2000 L. Neil Smith. All rights reserved.