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.
There was enough air in the chamber and air tanks to allow her roughly thirty EVAs, that is, since any excursion vented the atmosphere in the chamber, she had enough to refill it thirty times before she ran out. On the plus side, venting the air in the chamber after using her plastic-bag toilet every day would be a good thing. Thirty days, her father had told her, to figure out some way to live, to find refuge somewhere else.
“There will be many deaths,” he’d said. “Many enclosures will be too large and ungainly to survive, and will be structurally damaged during launch. The occupants will be dead. You must find one of these in thirty days, and patch it.”
A pirate. A scavenger. A vulture.
For now, she had to install the solar panels. They powered a small air-jet manifold that would keep the pod rotated for maximum insolation, keeping the panels perpendicular to the sun’s rays. As long as the debris field around her pod was thin enough, she could keep her batteries charged. After that, she’d be in business. For a month, anyway, until her food ran out.
She suited up, did a careful pressure check to make sure her seals were good, and then, past the trauma of being flung into space and the shocking realization she was still alive, the fact that her entire family was dead finally struck her like a second meteor, and she floated and cried inside her steel bubble, one of millions that tried to escape Earth’s destruction by riding the ring wave. After her sobs subsided, she got back to work, knowing there was little time to waste and limited resources to spend. The inside of her helmet was spotted with dried tears, and droplets still floated in her helmet, but she couldn’t be bothered to remove her helmet to deal with them. The air currents from the suit’s rebreather would evaporate the droplets, eventually.
She turned on the suit radio and switched slowly through the forty channels available. There was nothing but static, which she had expected. Dense clouds of dirt weren’t a particularly good transmission medium. Eventually, they would disperse, and the radios would become useful. Channel nine was supposed to be the emergency channel, which made her laugh, thinking about it. Millions of people, stranded in space. Was that an emergency? It was all relative; she wasn’t dying at the moment, not today, so it wasn’t an emergency. She turned off the suit radio to preserve her battery, saving it in case she actually saw someone she wanted to talk to.
She hoped that all the other devices crammed into the pod would work without fault. There was no way to repair them and no backup.
Aleja opened the vent to evacuate the pod, then cautiously pulled open the hatch. She stuck her head outside and looked around the pod. Sunward, there was a broad field of millions of objects, some glistening like diamonds and too round to be anything but water-ice, and others haloed by the sun’s rays. And lots of dirt. A dark haze, like a mourner’s black veil, obscured much of what she could see, but a lot of that was mixed with smaller balls of ice, shining like little sequins on the veil. On the spaceward side, the gray field of haze looked more like a blanket covering half the universe, interspersed with bright spots of boulders and sparkling globes of ice reflecting the sun’s rays. Most of it was slowly spreading apart, and most was moving the same direction. The random rocks that entered the field of debris too quickly rapidly collided with others and slowed, soon matching the velocity of the rest of the field.
There had to be molten rock somewhere. The surface would harden quickly, but it would still be hot. She would have to be careful.
A strange-looking object drifted nearby, crusted with a white coating, with a long neck and a cluster of white tufts at one end. It took a moment, but Aleja finally recognized the structure as a branch from a tree and reached out to grab it. At her sudden touch, many of the flash-frozen leaves broke off in a white haze. She held the twig for a few seconds, then sighed and released it, watching it drift away.
Looking closer at the debris field, she could see three other pods about the same size as her own. That wasn’t a surprise; when the ring wave flung them all into space, there were nearly three hundred in close proximity to her own. When the various completed pods were moved to the ring, the smaller ones naturally grouped together to prevent land-pirates from stealing their lifeboats. Nearly everyone there was armed with some sort of gun, and as the meteor got closer to Earth, there were more desperate pirates attacking the pod-owners. The large majority of the pirates went after the big family and corporate units, objects that would last more than a few weeks, which, in a way, protected the smaller, less survivable pods. The really large structures, over one hundred meters wide, had their own armies to protect them. And, of course, they were sequestered behind the steel walls of their structures. It was difficult to breach such walls. Wall thickness and launch weight weren’t a limitation; the launch was free, powered by the meteor. It didn’t matter how much you weighed as long as your structure was sturdy enough to survive the gee-forces during launch. You just had to be able to get your ship or your habitat to the ring perimeter after it was built, or build it in place.
Aleja attached her tether line to an external recessed lug. She drifted around the outside of her pod, looking for any damage. There were no projections; being thrown into space with tons of rock would have stripped anything off the surface, but there were several threaded and recessed connection points. Except for gouges and dents, the ball appeared to be intact.
The open door to her pod looked like a glowing eye staring out into the darkness. Despite the circumstances that put her here and the unimaginable amount of death, there was an eerie beauty to the destruction. The shadows cast by the boulders through the debris field looked like black columns of obsidian, while balls of ice sparkled like diamonds. So much beauty and so much death.
From the corner of her face shield, she caught movement and turned that way, expecting to see another rock come tumbling through. Instead, she saw a figure much like her self near another pod. Their pod was slightly larger, shaped like a cube with the corners trimmed into triangular shapes. It was at least five hundred meters away, one of the three she’d seen when she first exited her own. They would have to be preparing their own pod for survival just as she was.
The person in the suit gave a friendly wave, then drifted closer. The exhaust from the suit jets was invisible, so it was difficult to tell immediately if the person was actually coming toward her. And what purpose would they have? Borrow a wrench? A cup of sugar?
She glanced at their pod. Blue light poured out of the open door, illuminating the dust surrounding everything, and another thin blue line shone through at a seam. Their pod was cracked. So they needed a welder, perhaps. Or a new, uncracked egg before their air ran out, one they could take without too much trouble.
One hand was hidden behind the person—or pirate, she was thinking—as they neared and Aleja fumbled her own gun from its Velcroed pouch on her tool belt. As the pirate got closer, a gun appeared from behind the suit, and the pirate struggled to point and shoot at Aleja. The trigger guard on the pirate’s gun had been removed so that they could still shoot using the fat fingers of the space suit.
In the moments before Aleja shot the pirate and ended his or her life, she thought about her father.
“You will need a gun,” he had explained to her. “First, to protect yourself and your pod before the asteroid strikes. And again, when you are in space and someone decides that their life is more important than yours.”
He’d acquired a U.S. surplus M1911 .45 pistol for her, and she’d learned how to strip it down; mandatory because everything in the gun had to be lubricated with molybdenum disulfide to keep the moving parts from cold-welding together in the vacuum. Even the ammunition needed a good coat to keep the casings from cold-welding to the inside of the chamber.
He took her shooting once a week while they prepared. “Your aim is improving. That’s good,” he’d told her.
“But aren’t the sights set up to account for gravity?” Aleja had asked.
“Yes, of course. The bullet drops as it travels.”
“But in space it will go straight. So adjusting the sights here will mean that it will miss in space.” Aleja thought to herself for a moment, imagining the trajectory. “The bullet will go above the target.”
Papa was silent while he considered that. “Then . . .” he started.
“I need to remove the sights when I’m in space and aim along the top of the gun. Or aim low.”
“Or practice on a target in space and adjust the sights then.”
She pursed her lips and didn’t tell Papa what she thought of that idea.
Now, however, she was in space, and the damned sights were still adjusted for Earth gravity. Was the pirate aware of the problem? The pirate got off a shot before she grasped her own gun, and she could see the red flame blossom from the muzzle of the gun. The shot missed. She aimed at the pirate’s feet and fired, the red flash of her own gun temporarily blinding her. The sound of the gun in a vacuum registered only as a soft thump inside her suit as the grip slapped against her palm. The gun jumped from her clumsy grasp, trailing a tether that she suddenly realized wasn’t attached to her suit. “No, dammit!” she shouted, grabbing ineffectively for the trailing end of the thin cable. She tumbled slowly end-over-end from the recoil until she reached the limits of her lifeline tether and was jerked to a halt. She jetted gas to stabilize herself. When she could finally look around, she couldn’t see the other person or her own gun. The slug had pushed the pirate too far away, assuming it hit. Or perhaps he’d escaped? Maybe gas escaping from his own suit propelled him—or her—away. She frowned in frustration, unclipping herself so she could try to recover her gun, jetting in the direction it had flown, but it was already lost in the cloud of rocks and dust.
She probably could have used some of the parts from the pirate’s suit as spares; the mass production of pod systems and suits over the last few years made available parts highly interchangeable. She turned slowly, venting gas miserly, checking for unexpected enemies. And now, unarmed. She fumed, angry with herself for not securing the gun’s tether to her suit. It might mean her death.
Five hundred meters away, she could still see soft blue light coming out of the pirate’s pod. Still open, and now vacant.
She was shaking, but knew she had to finish what she was doing. She removed the solar panels from the storage rack in her pod and secured them to the sun-facing side of the pod. A control line from the inside of the pod could move an actuator that would allow the solar panels to act as adjustable sun shields to control heating in the pod.
While she worked, she continued to look around for other intruders. After her solar panels were secured, she removed her safety tether and used the suit jets to visit the pirate’s pod.
As she approached, the crack in the side of the pod became more obvious. With no way to weld it, the person would have been stuck in their suit for as long as they could last. A few days, perhaps. Killing Aleja for her pod probably looked like a pretty good strategy.
What if the person had come with open hands? What would she have done then? She shook her head, confused and unsure, and was almost glad the decision had been made for her.
Inside the other pod Aleja found a streak of blood spattered across one wall. It took her a moment to figure out that the blood didn’t belong to the pirate. She wouldn’t have been his first victim; the original owner of the pod was, before they ever left the ground. Her sense of guilt evaporated.
There was almost a month’s worth of food stowed inside, an air rebreather and hydrolysis system, a water recycler, and a fresh set of solar panels, poorly secured in a rack. Two were cracked, but the extensive push toward standardized and interchangeable systems in the last few years meant she could almost certainly use the remaining panels as spares for her own array, if needed. Spares were good. There were other expected supplies; a zero-gee toilet with plastic storage or disposal bags and wipes. Extra clothing, though there was no real way to wash it. From the clothing, she guessed that the pirate she shot was probably male. Much of the gear matched what she had. It would help.
Aleja examined the vent ports and eventually figured out how to move the pod closer to her own. Slow, but steady. The pods weighed a few tons each; light enough to maneuver by hand in space, but heavy enough to do serious damage if they got out of control. She positioned the pirate’s pod close to her own, then went back inside her own pod and fetched a roll of thin steel wire, which she ran through recessed tie-downs on the outside of both pods to tie them together, positioning the new pod on the spaceward side so that her solar panels would be unobstructed. When the module showed no signs of drifting away, she finally took a breath and looked around.
Papa had told her that she would need to find a large, damaged module and take it for her own. With the addition of the pirate’s module to her booty, she had potentially extended her life by a few weeks, maybe as much as a month. She tried to remember if the oddly shaped module belonged to someone she met before they had all been thrown into space, but she couldn’t remember any module of that design in the field surrounding her on Earth. Just as well; it would be easier to forget the murder of a human if they remained faceless.
* * *
Aleja knew that she would have to get as much done on the outside as possible each time she went out, since each EVA cost her all the air in her pod. There were still two other pods within sight of her own, but no one had ventured outside either of them in the four hours since their launch. Beyond the two other pods she could see nearby, rocks and clouds of debris obscured most of the sky. There could be a thousand more pods within a kilometer, but she couldn’t tell. Some light penetrated the debris, but it would take a day for the field to spread out enough for the solar panels to do much good, before the pods systems could start treating the air and water at a useful level. She’d be living off the main battery pack until then.
She knew she had to check out the other two pods. At the risk of acting like a threat herself, she jetted air to visit the smaller of the two. When she reached the sphere, she could see it was spinning slowly, so she just waited in place until she got a complete view of the outside. There was no window. She knocked on the outside of the sphere, then realized that even though the person inside could probably hear her, she was unable to hear any return signal. When the door came around, she quickly examined it, but there was no way to get inside. As her father had pointed out, if someone was outside of your pod and wanted in, the chances were good that they were an enemy. There was no pressure release on the outside, and the handle on the door would have been locked on the inside. The door couldn’t be opened anyway if the inside was pressurized. But if the person hadn’t come outside yet, there was a good chance they were dead. If the module hadn’t been positioned right during the eight-gee peak at launch, then it wouldn’t have gone well for them.
She was halfway to the second module when she saw a red glow from the corner of her visor and turned to see a deep crimson splash of color appear behind a large boulder, a glowing umbra of red droplets. She stared at it curiously until she saw another red glow from another impact, then a dark ball flit past her at some high velocity; too round to be a normal rock. Then what?
A nearby boulder took a glancing hit from one of the spherical rocks, which spread out in a glowing red cloud around the boulder, and Aleja finally realized that a wave of lava balls had overtaken her own leading ring wave and was crashing through her local debris field. The surface of the blobs had cooled to a thin black shell, but the core was still molten. She jetted gas furiously, aiming for the bright yellow opening of her pod, and fell through the hole just as a hot ball of molten rock glanced off the steel sphere, spraying deadly red pellets and crushing one of the four solar panels hanging off the sun-side of her pod. A small pellet landed on the arm of her suit and sizzled, then popped off as the internal pressure of the suit pushed the pellet away, venting air. She gritted her teeth and slammed the door shut, cranked the handle then crouched there panting, waiting for impacts, hoping that her little pod wasn’t going to be engulfed in an ocean of molten rock.
Her suit was still venting. She put her hand over the small puncture to no avail, cursed, and reached for the valve to repressurize the inside of the module.
Aleja sat back and listened to the hiss of air, angry that she hadn’t been in space for even six hours, and her suit was already damaged. She had hoped that she’d never have to use the repair kit.
So there were overlapping waves from the ring wave; different velocities. She should have thought of that beforehand. Should have planned for it.
* * *
Papa had told her a story about the man behind the ring wave concept. He did that; he would take an explanation, or tedious historical fact, and turn it into a story. “A story is easier to remember. Someday, you might tell it to your children.”
“I don’t want children. Mama says they use up all your time.”
Papa smiled. “You might change your mind someday. You are young.”
Aleja shrugged, not committing or arguing. Beyond the issue of bearing children, there was the additional problem of doing it in a makeshift space colony.
“So, the story of the ring wave. There was a man named Abe Jensen.
“One day, he stood on the beach and watched the waves roll in. He liked to surf the waves and had an old, waxed, fiberglass longboard. It was a heavy antique, but he wanted to get a few good rides in before the Earth ended, and it was the only board he’d ever ridden.
“He sat and watched the younger surfers dance on the faces of the tall waves, the white crests hiding the long view of the ocean. Seagulls drifted overhead, unaware that soon there would be no sky to fly in, no ocean from which to pluck their lunch, but the surfers knew; there was nothing so important to do during the next few years that it would keep them from their waves. No last notes to write, nothing to clean up or organize for the next generation of children. Just the waves, giving up their last gift before the meteor came.
“The announcement had come two weeks before; a true monster of an asteroid, over twenty kilometers wide, a chunk of nickel-iron worth trillions of dollars if anyone would be alive to mine it, headed straight for the center of the Earth. It wasn’t going to graze it. It wasn’t going to be deflected, it was just too big to do anything about. At best, they could only move the monster off-center by two hundred kilometers. It wasn’t enough to make any difference. The leaders in every space-faring nation swore to get as many humans and equipment shipped off to Mars as they could within that five-year period, since the Moon and Earth orbits would be bombarded for years with debris from the collision. It was not going to be enough. They could only get tens of thousands of humans onto a hostile planet. Not really enough to start over, only enough to delay the inevitable.
“Abe knew this and sat and watched the waves. He picked up his board and walked down to the edge of the water, where foam drew pictures on the sand. Death was not that far away, just five years, but he would enjoy life while he could. He would avoid the riots, stay at home, read some books, and pretend that nothing had changed. But Abe Jensen watched the way the water swelled, taller and taller, accelerating forward, carrying the surfer up, faster and faster, until the surfer twisted to the side to seek out the next wave. Abe stared into the green and blue waters, and wondered. Would it work? Would five years be enough to prepare?
“With his thin thread of hope, he presented his case to other scientists that he worked with, and they talked to others, and the idea rolled forward like a fresh new wave, overcoming obstacles. The meteor, when it hit the Earth, like a pebble dropped into a pool, would create a wave of rings from its center, the thin, hard mantle flexing like a fluid. There was an ideal place along the perimeter of the impact, a giant ring, where the Earth’s lifeblood would accelerate up and out, slowly at first, an unstoppable wave, then accelerating faster and faster as it rose higher, carrying any ‘surfer’ along with it, riding the ever accelerating wave until the crest was flung into space.
“They did not need to worry about fuel to fly into space,” Papa said. “The meteor would provide the fuel. All they had to do was build airtight metal houses that would survive the ride. New homes in space. Instead of thousands, millions could go. Perhaps tens of millions.”
As it turned out, with all of mankind fighting to put large, sturdy modules along the edge of the predicted ring, eight hundred kilometers from the center of the impact, over ten million humans took the perilous ride. How many of them survived was a very good question. The fluid dynamics calculations for the planetary ring wave were educated guesses, at best. Aleja thought about the four pods within her local purview. As far as she could tell, she was the only survivor. It was only one data point, but if she could read anything into it, then three-quarters of the surfers were dead now. Competition for the reclamation of damaged spheres would still be fierce.
The sound of pebbles pelting the outside of her shell, like hail on a tin roof, subsided. She carefully took off her helmet. It felt cold inside the pod. She checked the inside temperature of the sphere and found it to be a chilly ten Celsius.
The solar panel output still seemed to be functional, even after the one was damaged, though the current was low. The ship’s battery was slowly charging. She activated the actuator that moved one of the solar panels to expose more of the of the pod’s surface to the Sun. She was rewarded by the hum of a motor turning. After ten minutes, the temperature crawled up to 10.1 Celsius. She stared at the temperature gage for another ten minutes, listening to the soft whir of the air processor keeping her alive, and fell asleep in her suit.
Copyright © 2018. Ring Wave by Tom Jolly