Short Story Excerpt—“And Miles to Go…”

“Hey, Walter.  Come look at this.  I think we’ve got something on HL51-8.”   Jordan looked up at me from his perch at the analysis station.

“Which one is that?”

“It’s that weird little moon we tagged with the anomalous mass reading.”  He looked down again to check his readings, “Radius of around fifty-k, and mass and surface gravity way too high for something that small.”

I pulled at my beard, and said, “I remember that thing.  Almost spherical, isn’t it?”  Susan, my ex, hated the beard.  She also hated the time I spent out on surveys, but that was my job.  She especially hated the down-time with me sitting around the apartment doing a whole lot of nothing.

“That’s the one.”  He made a small gesture with his free hand, and the little holo in his field of view changed.  His eyes narrowed a bit, “Albedo is up there as well.  Probably accounts for the lower than expected surface temperatures.”

I don’t like anomalies.  Give me good old boring routine any day.  Probably why Susan finally gave up and walked out.  Can’t say I blame her.

Spinning the ring on my finger as I thought, I said, “Mark it for further study in the database.  I’m ready to turn this can around and head home.  This shift has already leaked into overtime, and you know how the Corps feels about that.”  I nodded toward the countdown clock by the main screen, “You don’t want another lingering charge on our records, do you?”

He shook his head, pointedly watching me fiddle with the old wedding band, and said, “I think we’re obligated to check this out, Walt.  From the numbers I’m getting here, there’s a butt-load of rikenium on that little rock.”

Wonderful.  Element 124 was on the “confirm it now” list for decades.  Normally found in very small amounts–from nuggets a millimeter in diameter all the way up to a centimeter–it was the only naturally occurring element able to create a stable Jump field.  There was a pea-sized mass of the stuff right now waiting to be used in this very survey ship.

I sighed and turned to face him, “Define ‘butt-load,’ please.”  I didn’t relish the idea of spending time on that mobile crematorium in search of something so small, regardless of the bonus money.  Our percentages were so tiny that even a larger than average haul of something as rare as rikenium would net us only a day’s pay each.

He looked down at his instruments, then back up at me, “Um… the needle’s pretty much pegged out here, Walt.”

I’m not an optimist by nature–far from it–but the hair on the back of my neck snapped to attention at the tone of Jordan’s voice.

“All right,” I said, “take us down.”

He smiled that huge, goofy grin of his, and barked “Brace for impact!”

He was only half kidding.  I think my spine had shortened three or four centimeters over the last year from his landings.


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