by Tom Jolly
Aleja Martinez, a refugee from the molten blob of rock that used to be Cuba, could barely believe she was alive in her little bubble of welded steel. Near the end, people had started referring to the shells as “pirate pods” or “leeches” since there was no way that the low-end designs could last more than a few weeks in space, even if they managed to avoid running into the massive globs of lava drifting everywhere or survived the varying gee-forces during the ring wave that threw them off a doomed Earth. The less optimistic called the pods “steel coffins.”
So I’m a pirate now, Aleja thought.
There were several versions of pirate pods. At the lowest end of the quality spectrum was a welded steel enclosure with a radio beacon on the outside, no windows, some padding on the inside to keep the high gees from killing you, and a removable door-plug large enough to climb out of. The hinged door-plug came with a small vent valve to equalize pressure so that it could actually be opened, and a rotating handle to secure the door against its silicon rubber seal. The year before impact, these were being sold as kits, with about fifteen centimeters of frame you could weld onto your own structure. All you needed to do to install it was maintain a good bead while welding. Most of the jury-rigged pods also had a source of breathing air, usually a few tanks of oxygen and a carbon dioxide scrubber so that you would last at least a few days after the ring wave threw you up into the vacuum of space.
Scaling up from there, reducing the likelihood that you would die in the first minute from the acceleration, was the addition of better cushioning; a heavily padded seat or net that would protect you from the g-forces no matter which way you were pointing. You also needed to hope that nothing inside would break free during launch and scramble you inside your eggshell.
These minimalist configurations depended on the beneficence of someone with a large surviving habitat that might pick you up out of the goodness of their heart, hearing your prayers through their steel shell and generously offering you their shelter, food, air, and space, thus reducing their own likelihood of survival.
Aleja’s family had opted for a design that would keep her alive for a month. It was what they could afford. She felt despair when she thought of the number of steel balls drifting around in space with corpses in them, battered to death during launch, or suffocating as their air supply leaked out some small crack, or boiled alive when they got too close to a lava ball. A lot of it was just the luck of the draw. She wore her own bruises and cuts from the rough flight, but she lived.
Her family had also acquired one of the millions of inexpensive spacesuits that had flooded the market, getting a mid-level quality suit with perhaps one bell and one whistle; a suit radio and some position control jets. They pressure tested it before sending off Aleja in her own steel coffin.
She remembered her brother Luis and her Papa discussing the engineering details, with some additional suggestions from an auto-mechanic welder, Ernesto, that they’d hired to help them build the pod. “There will need to be thrusters,” Luis had said. “Her ball will most likely be spinning after she enters space.”
“We can’t afford rockets,” her Papa said. “We spent all our funds on the air recycler and solar panels.”
This wasn’t exactly true. Aleja smiled when she remembered. They stole the thin-film solar panels from a farm a few kilometers away.
“Not rockets,” Luis continued, “but air-jets. Directional nozzles on the outside that she can turn on and off, using the air pressure inside the ball. Flush with the outer surface.”
“The air she needs to breathe?” Ernesto said.
“Yes. We will need to install some air bottles or oxygen tanks in addition to the recycler. And a rack for the bottles and solar panels and everything else.” Luis said. “And a feed-through to the outside so the solar panels may be mounted and feed power to the batteries.” He was sketching in a notebook.
Aleja, the only one in the room with an actual engineering degree, said, “We will need to put all the weight in one end, with my acceleration couch. So when the ball accelerates, the couch will always point the same direction.”
Papa nodded. Her mother was cooking in the kitchen, looking in on them occasionally to make sure they weren’t fighting. Half the town they lived in believed the death-asteroid was a hoax. The other half were making life-pods like their own, planning on how to get the large steel pods to the optimal ring area, or finagling for a position on one of the big spheres, the ones that were still recruiting.
They had discussed the issue of heat and cold the day before. A lot of money could buy you one of the active heat-pump radiator systems, but that was money they didn’t have. Slowly spinning the sphere could equalize the temperature across the surface, but eventually it would heat up or cool down too much. They could control how much sunlight radiated onto the shell by using the solar panels as sun screens, but only if the same side of the sphere was pointed toward the sun all the time.
As far as air was concerned, ultimately they’d opted for a Cuthbert Environmental Control System, the Volkswagen of air recycling technology. Scrubbed carbon dioxide got dumped overboard, along with the hydrogen that the electrolysis subsystem generated. The high-end systems combined the two ‘waste products’ together to get methane and water, but that luxury wasn’t as useful if you only expected to live a month on your food supplies; a hundred liters of water didn’t take up a lot of space, and the water provided useful shielding against solar storms and cosmic radiation. Where they could pack extra water, they did.
Aleja drifted in her three-meter-wide crypt in space, with no window to give her a clue as to what awaited her outside. Ideally, her food and air would last nearly a month. The rest of her family was certainly dead already, she the sole survivor. The ball had started out as a slowly spinning sphere closely surrounded by billions of tons of boulders and dirt, fortunately all headed the same direction, but slowly spreading out as orbital dynamics took over. By chance, the huge globes of lava and oceanic spheres of water and mud she expected weren’t anywhere in the vicinity of her own steel ball as it began to coast away from what was left of the Earth. Eventually, when the elliptical orbits of the ejected debris crossed again, Earth-orbit would become a shooting gallery.
She had launched while wearing her suit, breathing air from a tank welded with steel straps to a wall. After unbuckling herself from her seat, she made her way over to the vent controls, trailing the breathing-air line behind her. Manually venting a small amount of gas, she halted the ball’s slow rotation.
by Susan Pieters
The thawing was more painful than they’d led Rosemary to believe, but InterSpace Agency had been right about one thing. “No dreams,” the tech had said. “That’s the weirdest part. It’s like you get turned off.”
Now she was being turned back on. The shell of the Eleazar series cryo pressed warm against her, a three-dimensional laser tanning bed. The gastric tubes down her throat felt like she was swallowing scalding coffee. She was impossibly cold and hot at the same time as blood pumped into her arteries to push out the antifreeze serum. Parts of her swelled tight as a balloon, and her nerves were needles that screamed as they came back to life.
She tried to blink away the dark, but her eyes weren’t working yet.
An alarm went off. She didn’t know if it was her alarm or Cheng’s. She pulled out her tubes and hit the release. The alarm got louder.
She stumbled out of her cradle and crawled on all fours to the second unit. Half blind, she found the emergency lid release and reached inside.
Cheng was still cold. Her hands got lucky and found the kinked hose, put his lid back down.
The alarm went silent. She sat in a pool of her own condensation until he emerged.
“Cheng? You alive?” she asked.
“Almost.” Cheng’s eyelids were swollen. “Have you taken a look outside yet?”
“No, I’ve been waiting for you. You had a blocked hose.”
“What if someone’s already knocking at the door?”
Rosemary stood up, using her hands for support. The gravity wasn’t so bad. She went to the console and flipped switches.
The screen came on. Four cameras showed similar views of an open plain lit by an enormous rusty sun. Orange-tinged rocks stretched in all directions.
“No welcoming committee yet.” Rosemary didn’t see any structures, either. “We landed in the middle of nowhere.”
Cheng tipped his head and winced. “That’s good. Gives us some time.”
Rosemary half-smiled back, one side of her face still stiff. “You’re not ready to play ambassador yet?”
Cheng opened his eyes a little wider and then shut them tight. “It might be a good idea for us to get some clothes on before we meet the aliens.”
* * *
When Rosemary’s grandmother was a girl, early in the twenty-first century, the nearby Proxima Centauri system had been written off as a viable host for life. Even when Proxima’s only exoplanet had surprised astronomers with a ten-hour rotation—a fast spin that had anchored a substantial atmosphere—it had been assumed no life could have evolved under the flares and radiation of a Red Dwarf sun.
That assumption changed when passing probes picked up the planet’s local radio signals.
“It’s not as beautiful as a humpback’s song,” InterSpace experts said. “But it’s a definite series of whistles and clicks. The computer recognizes a complex rhythm.”
Earth had gone wild. In the aftermath of the extinction of African elephants and the depletion of the Ghawar oil field, it was the glimmer of hope everyone had been waiting for.
The dire “Hawking prophecy” was ignored. Humans clamored to make contact with alien life, the consequences be damned. And they didn’t just want to send a radio reply. The plan was to put Earth’s best foot forward and show up in person.
The voyage would be prohibitively expensive, so logistics were worked out for a bare-bones two-person crew. As InterSpace accepted applications from elite astronauts around the globe, the only question was who would help with the trillion-dollar price tag. EnergyCorp stepped up to the plate with matching funds, and with a fever akin to the Olympics, twenty countries entered the ring to pledge support and sponsor a candidate for the most expensive mission ever conceived.
Thus began the intensive screening process to select the first interstellar ambassadors to Sol’s nearest neighboring sun, Proxima Centauri.
* * *
Rosemary and Cheng followed protocol. As much as they wanted to don their suits and explore, they rested for two Earth days, taking turns watching the screens for visitors while they waited out the aftereffects of cryo.
“I wish they’d thought to give us an extra sweater.” Rosemary had felt chilled as soon as the giant red sun had dipped beyond the horizon.
“It’s a perfect 21C in here.” Cheng still hobbled as he crossed to the consol. “But why do I feel like I’m suddenly an old man?”
Rosemary stretched her stiff legs. “We’re actually fifty-five now.”
“No,” Cheng said, stopping typing. “We’re still only thirty.”
“Technically, cryo years count,” Rosemary said. “I was born fifty-five years ago. I could get a senior’s discount.”
Cheng rolled his eyes. “If we have to go back, you can enter a marathon in the octogenarian category and set some records.”
Rosemary smiled but didn’t push the joke too far. Whether or not they returned home depended on what they found outside.
Cheng turned back to the console. “Our landing report’s ready to send when we’re in position. They’ll get it in 4.3 years, if the laser relay works right.”
Rosemary leaned back against the wall, then stopped herself. Every spare surface in the cabin was decorated with artwork and relief carvings representing scenes from Earth. “I wish they hadn’t used real gold in here. I feel like I shouldn’t be touching it. Like I’m out of bounds inside a museum exhibit.”
Cheng didn’t seem bothered. “It’s good shielding against radiation. They would have had to use a whole lot more if we had been in orbit around the planet first. But I like the gold. The aliens will be impressed that we travel first class.”
“They may have a different idea of first class.” Rosemary put a careful finger over the etching of a famous skyscraper. “Do you think they’ll understand these engravings?”
“Do we understand cave paintings?”