Elevator to the Sun

Tomner lay in his cocoon of bedding, strapped vertically to the wall. His eyes had opened on a blob of moisture floating a few feet above his head. Something had energized it with a contradicting force, as it flowed and twisted around several loci. A liquid arm would extend on one side and then another, pulling in opposite directions before collapsing into their respective valleys, only to spit out more arms in hydra-like fashion. A rumble spread through the hull of the tugboat, the kind of vibration that could only be caused by firing the afterburners. Jerla must have activated them. It was a waste of fuel, very unlike her.

He scratched at his left thigh, working his fingernails down toward the amputation line. His prosthesis hung on the rack beside him, which compounded his sense of indecision. He had not yet committed to getting up, facing the day, until the leg was clamped on and powered up. Then he could do anything: run across a gymnasium, jump to pick an apple from a tree, ride a moon bike up a sim-mountain. Always riding. He would never get off, never let up…if he had a moon bike, and a sim-gym membership, and a day off. If he could afford a day off.

A doorbell sounded, followed by the words, “Mail call,” spoken in a tin-plated recording. Tomner felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle.

“San Deep, please protect me and make me strong,” he recited, making the sign of the bull with his fist. “Against evil forces that do me wrong.”

After a few moments, a different computerized voice addressed him. “We received another message from the Better Body Corporation, Tomner. The bill is three months overdue, and they want back payment on your leg.” The message was made more grating by the erratic tone, as if the device was trying to enunciate each letter in the words separately. “This is their final notice. If we don’t pay, they will deactivate it.”

Tomner always felt irritable upon waking, but this information compounded his foul mood. “Dungeon fat! How can I get the money to pay their bills if they turn off my leg?”

In the corner, several large dragon trees grew in pots; their thin trunks crowding together at soil level, they rose to spread out three feet or more, giving their spearhead-shaped leaves room to capture as much light as possible. Now the foliage on one of the plants in the center vibrated as if it had become irritated, too. A pair of delicate hands gripped vertical branches and pushed them aside to make way for a small face, its fur splotched with white and gray, whiskers twitching on the pointed nose. Jerla belonged to the species rattus norvegicus, although she referred to this group as couches.

A blue helmet conformed to the shape of her skull. Delicate wires extended underneath this carapace, making surgically precise connections to the neurons controlling language cognition. With the device intact, Jerla could form her words in the electro-chemical signals of the synapses; the helmet amplified these sparks and projected them to the computer, where software converted them to oral speech, into a language understood by her companion.

It always seemed remarkable, Tomner thought, how articulate the creature could be, how intelligent, how commanding, given the vagaries of electrical linkage and software applications. Somewhere along their evolutionary line, rodentia had craved such a device to make known their perspicacity, their distinctiveness, their taste. For if anything, his companion had a refined sense of the quality of food—and beyond this, of any material good, including salvage. She made an ideal partner in an operation such as theirs.

“It is a Catch-22,” Jerla said. “That is what it is called. This indicates an ironic situation…”

“I know what that is. It bunches.”

“The deadline is in two weeks.”

“What? That’s impossible! I might as well drive straight into the sun with this load.”

“Jump into the sun yourself. Leave me to pilot the boat back to Luna.”

“You’ll starve without me around.”

Jerla gave this jibe an abrupt sniff, letting silence hang in the air for a moment. Then she spoke. “Why do you give up so soon? A couche never gives up.”

“Look where that’s gotten you.”

The rodent swayed in the branches of the tree, shaking its leaves. “Do you mock me?”

“Sorry. I’m just bunched. What a situation.”

“That’s the life of a freelancer for you.”

Tomner had no answer to that. “I guess I better go out and have a look at the junk while I still can. Maybe something we can salvage.” He opened a cramped metal locker, taking out pieces of a pressure suit at random and putting them on. Boots, tunic, gloves, overalls, cowl: each zip-sealed together as he went, forming a solid barrier against raw space, against the cold vacuum and radiation.

“Something small, and not smelly,” Jerla reminded him.

“I won’t know if it’s smelly when I’m out there, will I?”

“Why do you always manage to choose something smelly?”

“Maybe because your nose is too good.”

“Just choose wisely. Communicate with me before you bring it in.”

“OK, boss.”

“You are mocking again. I might have to dock your pay.”

“That’s all I need.” He raised the helmet over his head, pausing to ask, “Anything else?”


Tomner zip-sealed the helmet to the cowl, completing the costume. Then he stamped to the airlock in the heavy mag-boots. He waved once and stepped through the door into a low, narrow chamber painted a grotesque yellow, since darkened with sooty smears; dull, weathered metal poked out in gray patches where the color had chipped away. In a moment, the chamber had sealed and depressurized; a panel light flashed in anticipation of the opening: “Brace for suction.”

“Brace for suction,” Tomner spoke the phrase aloud. “You tease.”

The portal dialed open, shutter blades fading into the wall, and his body flexed outward against the restraining straps.

After the initial depressurization, he flexed his mechanical foot against the wall to float out the door and eased himself down the port side of the tugboat by hand holds and magnetic boots. About twelve feet down, he reached the junction where their pilot boat clamped to the trash container, nothing more than a simple rectangular frame made of metal pipe covered with wire mesh. The cargo box reached down another 50 feet below the junction point, and it stretched fore and aft twice that length in each direction, every square foot of it stuffed with waste from Earth, two space stations, and Earth’s orbit. The tugboat rode the container like a bug might cling to an elevator, and very nearly just as helpless.

Having reached the level of the cargo, Tomner attached the tether from his suit’s pulley to a swiveling metal ring on the tug.

“Bless me, San Deep, with an effortless shift, and grace my unworthy self with your gifts.”

“The prayer doesn’t help, you know.”

Tomner ignored her. “Forgive her, San Deep, her disbelief is not disrespect.”

“Yes it is.” She had no respect for his faith in the cargo god whose name appeared in huge letters on a sign at the sanitation depot. The humans’ ignorance of their own language always appalled her.

“Don’t jinx it, Jerla. I need this salvage too bad.”

“Sorry. Just be careful.”

Now he rappelled down the side of the mesh container, investigating the contents as carefully as he could under the helmet’s dim, shaking spotlight. Barrels of nuclear waste comprised a good portion of the contents. Orbital debris, such as expired satellites and rocket engines, was also classified as hazardous; all of these materials had been isolated at the far ends of the container. His suit screened out some radiation, but Tomner avoided those areas to limit his exposure. Although the company discouraged salvaging, it couldn’t prevent it once a tug was out in space, and the windfall provided extra profit and supplies which kept the freelance pilot boats in business.

On this trip, much stuff seemed to have been enclosed in nondescript corrugated cardboard or black plastic. He reached in with a knife to slit the bags, pulling the material aside to scan the contents. He saw junk and more junk: broken metal and ceramic, dead hard drives, dysfunctional machines beyond repair, plastic sacks that once held nutritional liquids, like vitamins, edible semisolids, juice, and alcohol. Covering a span about the width of his outstretched arms, Tomner made it to the vertical end of the container without success. He recalled the tether with the push of a button, kneeling to reattach it at the new edge, then started along the bottom.

The young man lost track of the distance he had traveled to the fore, but the search had become tedious an hour or two ago. Then a square corner reflected his headlamp. Ninety degree angles were unusual in salvage work. This one had a nice tight covering of black plastic and had been pushed up against the mesh. Tomner measured it visually—roughly three by two feet, possibly three feet deep as well. His knife sliced the plastic, and he saw writing on the white carton beneath; he struggled for a moment, but the letters were familiar to him: C-H-E-E-S-E, then C-R-A-C-K…Unopened cartons of cheese crackers!

“Good eatin’!” he whooped.

“What have you got, Tomner?” Jerla asked.

“You won’t believe this, Captain. I think San Deep sent you a personal message. It’s cheese crackers. A whole flat of ‘em! Fresh air, sister! I know this brand, too. They just changed the packaging, and this is the old design. And guess what? They still have a year of shelf life!” Now he pieced out the rest of the writing to impress her. “Track the flavors here. C-H-E-D…Cheddar. Uh, Parm. Ess. Ann. Parmesan. This one’s white cheddar. Yeah! And bll-you? What’s that? And here’s nack-ohs. I see, gotta be nacho. Just brand new!”

“Great score, boy! Can you cut ‘em out?”

“Should be easy. They’re right by the mesh. San Deep couldn’t make it easier.”

“Can you bring ‘em in by yourself?”

“I got this, captain! Can’t wait to get my snack on!”

“No, if they’re minty like that, we’ve got to save them for sale.”

“Aww! No fair!”

“Just bring them up safely now, boy.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

His wire cutters clipped out one side and then another. On the third side, his light hit a little round radio marker. Just like they were supposed to find this salvage. Even San Deep wouldn’t be so obvious. Tomner puzzled on it for a moment. He even checked his catalog, but the cargo wasn’t on his list of previous finds.

He shrugged. No matter. Cargo was cargo. He finished clipping the wire and wrestled the container loose. It came out smooth, too smooth, like they were being tempted and tested.

He wrapped the flat in tape and got a tether on the package, which allowed it to float a safe distance from his belt. He’d anchor them up top and retrieve them on the way back.

After three more hours, he had covered the length of the boat and no more. Now halfway down the starboard side, below the tug’s rear rockets, his light flashed over an arc of rubber, catching his eye. He focused the beam on a distinctive knobby surface—tread pattern, width, the meatiness of the object, told him it had to be one thing only: the front tire of a moon bike.

“San Deep be praised!”

“What do you see, Tomner?” Jerla asked. Her voice had a sweetness to it, a gentleness, that would have seemed unusual if his mind wasn’t so focused on his discovery.

“A moon bike! Its tire, at least.”

“Show me.”

Two photographs flashed on her computer screen, depicting the tire from different angles.

“It must be flat.”

“It looks inflated to me.”

“What could you do with a single tire, assuming you could retrieve it? Which looks impossible.”

He studied the junk pile. “I couldn’t get it from here,” he admitted. “Not with a little hole. It’s too impacted.”

“Better forget about it.” For once, Jerla sounded kind.

“Yeah.” Just in case, he tagged it with a homing marker and cataloged it. “Anyway, I’m coming back now. Too tired to go on. Bringing back a few things. And your crackers.”

“Good. Be careful. We’ll have a snack when you get home.”

A Diamond in the Mind’s Eye

Smears of cryogel stuck to the explorer’s eyelids, the back of his neck, his genitals. A single shower never got rid of it all, but in his rush to resume scanning for the diamond planet, Maitch Esso hadn’t taken time for the second or third he’d really need to get clean. He noticed a stray patch of gel on his left forearm; taking a greasy towel, he rubbed at the goo, gradually releasing it from his skin. Underneath, a part of his personal scrapbook came into view: a red rose with the name Achelle, his wife, and a simple diamond formed from a few crude lines. The first, he remembered, he’d paid for after their first date; she had a matching one with his name. He wondered if she had kept it, after he had left. The second he had done himself, at fourteen, poking out the shape with a needle wrapped in thread and dipped in India ink. Somehow, it had lasted as long as the professional one.

“Refocus, buddy!” Maitch stared at the flat-screen, punching up the 3-D view. Stars leaped about with the change in perspective. Nothing looked right as yet.

This time he felt sure. He could feel it more strongly than any of the previous twenty-six times. When he found the diamond planet, the first one to do so since Earthmen had been talking about, searching for and believing in this one precious object, he, Maitch Esso, would be a legend among legends. To speed his search, he had created a unique algorithm, processing centuries of myths, tall tales and observable facts, along with geology, chemistry and the astrophysics of solar energy fields. Each factor had its own alphanumeric in his formula. As a result, he was searching for a binary star system that had captured a passing white dwarf. Together, this trio would have applied pressure and heat for a millennium to cook down a nondescript carbon planet into the largest, most valuable jewel in the universe.

Cosmological analysis had yielded a catalog of points jumbled across the constellations, and Maitch had tracked them one by one. They had all proven dead ends. Next on the list of likely targets, the algorithm pointed to an area just inside the Capricornus Void. That alone comprised a massive territory, but he had programmed the trip anyway. One more stop on a long series of stops.

Now, the ship’s computer had woken him from the sleep freeze again. “How long have I been down?” Maitch said aloud.

In response, the computer flashed a chronometer on the screen. It would have read him the time, except he had turned off its damned voice a long time ago. Too irritating. The vocal circuit had developed a fault, so it dragged out certain vowels and one consonant in particular: “s.” The drifting thing sounded like a giant anaconda, hissing and sputtering away. One day, the fault would spread to the other circuits, and then he would be bunched into the fourth dimension.

Maitch stared at the clock. Thirty-eight years of freezer burn.

“Danglers,” he swore. “My whole life passing before my dreams.” Twenty-six times he had woken like this, sometimes after five years, sometimes after decades; more than fifty, once. All in all, probably five or six hundred years, give or take a few. The computer would know; none of it would matter once he found the diamond.

Back to work. The computer had divided the area into blocks one astronomical unit per side. He pushed the scanner’s viewplate across the current cube, examining every celestial body from dwarf planet on up. Maitch took on the search himself. When you’re hunting for something that doesn’t exist, like Atlantis or Lemuria, you have to drift with your intuition rather than navigate by fact and figure alone.

After days at the scanner, loneliness dragged at his mind. Maitch could make it a couple of days without hearing a human voice, especially when he had something to busy himself. Now the work had become rote. Luckily, he had saved all Achelle’s voicemail messages when she was contacting him to find out where he’d gone, to get him back, to make him feel guilty for abandoning their life together. Needing to hear his wife talk, Maitch set the computer to continue scanning before taking the speaker bot from the cupboard where it lived during his cryosleep periods.

The robot, simply a cheap, generic android with limited functionality, had a blank plastic face and rubber lips. The lips, he noticed, were cracked and crumbling from dry rot. The plastic skin had yellowed. Its eyes had been installed so they moved to add expression, but they seemed dull, blank, lifeless. The paint on the molded hair had faded, and much of it had flaked away.

Maitch touched the magnetic key to the back of its neck, and the bot jerked briefly, masticating its lips in a parody of facial exercise.

“Talk to me,” Maitch said. “Play the recordings. Start with number C-sixteen.”

“Maitch! This is your wife again,” the robot’s lips moved in crude approximation of the words. Achelle’s voice, musical, warm and soft despite her frustration, came through a speaker hidden behind the rubber flaps. “Remember me? Please call me when you get this message. Dacta has been asking about you. I think you should tell him yourself where you’re going. Old Sol knows I don’t understand.”

“I’m close this time, Darling,” Maitch said, speaking to the robot. “This is it. I’ll bring back proof, and then I’ll be famous. Book tours. Speaker’s fees. Exhibitions of stones and photographs. We’ll be rich. You’ll be famous, too. I know you’ll like that.”

“The money’s running out, Maitch.” The tape continued. “You didn’t leave enough for the bills. My job alone can’t cover them. Your clients are threatening to press lawsuits. What am I going to do?” Her throat caught in a sob, pinching off the words.

“I know. I’m sorry. I had to do it. I had to follow my dream. You always said I should follow my dream.”

“You said forever. We’d be together forever. Life’s adventure. The shop, a home, a family. That would be enough for you. What happened? Wasn’t I enough?”

“Yes, darling, I know. You were enough; you were great. I don’t know why I did it. But here I am. It will be over soon. Then I’ll come back.”

Now his heart had clotted with a thick soup of grief and loss; his mind ran through all the regrets. He’d had enough of the old words for now.

“Stop the tape,” he told the bot. “Voice circuit activate. No recording.”

The robot turned its head from side to side and pursed its lips. “Hello, Maitch.” It was Achelle’s voice, taken from snips of the recordings and stitched together into new words, new sentences.

“Hello, Darling. Come with me to the kitchen.”

The android stumped after him. Its left foot dragged; its left arm dangled, useless.

“How’s your arm?”

“It’s okay today. My foot doesn’t want to cooperate. I’m sorry I’m moving so slow.”

“I’m sorry I messed you up. If I hadn’t left that floor hatch open, you wouldn’t have stepped in it.”

“You tried to fix me.”

“But then I messed it up. I didn’t know what I was doing. I disconnected the wrong circuit and disabled your arm.”

“You did your best with what you had. The manual wasn’t clear. At least you cared enough to try.”

They made it to the kitchen at last. “Have a seat,” Maitch said. “Would you like a nanny block?”

“No, thank you. I don’t know how you can eat those things. Nanny blocks are for little kids.”

“What’s not to like? Sweet, milky, chewy. Like treacle, but with all the nutrients a man needs. I’ve always liked ‘em.”

“They’re gross.” The cracked lips approximated a rictus of disgust.

“Nanny blocks are perfect for space travel. Never spoil, never lose flavor.”

“They never had any flavor.”

Maitch ignored the remark. “Besides, they take me back to the days of my youth, good times. Simpler times. That’s important in a long voyage.”

“It didn’t have to be so long.”

“That’s the way it happened. I might have found it in the first year. But it didn’t happen that way.”

“You look tired.”

“I am. I need some jet-nap.”

“You should get some real sleep. The computer can monitor the scanning process.”

“This is too important. I can’t spare the time.”