Unselfish Gene: Chapter 1 sample


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About a half hour before the explosion, Kristen Norman was weeping uncontrollably and had no idea why. Was it the date? The eve of Buddha's enlightenment day was a traditional time to become depressed, either because of sentimental reasons or because it coincided with perigee, when the Moon was closest to the Earth.

But Kristen did not think of herself as the religious type not the weepy, hero-adoring kind, anyway and besides, no one really knew the time and the date of the Buddha's enlightenment. All that aside, there was the perigee syndrome, but being in a controlled environment, on an ion-propelled shuttle somewhere between the Earth and the Moon, made it unlikely that a slight change in the Earth's gravitational pull or the amount of Earthshine reaching the Moon's surface would have much effect on her serotonin levels.

Meditation sometimes worked, but she found it hard, if not impossible, to meditate in a weightless environment. Vipassana, insight meditation, the technique she practiced, required some level of discomfort lest she become too relaxed and fall asleep or just let the mind wander at least that's the way it was at her level of practice.

She was bi-polar, true, but she had taken her usual dosage of Somatau, hadn't she? More dependable than any human relationship, the psychotropic drug always made some hidden part of her brain roll over on its back and purr like a contented cat. But not today, obviously. With all her willpower brought to bear, she launched herself across the Sick Bay to a wall-mounted cabinet. Rummaging through the various vials, she found eureka! a Diazepam emulsion in a 10mg auto- injector. Diazepam. Valium. An ancient drug, it was on hand for seizures, but it ought to do the trick.

In less than a minute the weeping stopped, and the air took on the feel of brushed velvet. The despair vanished. The relief was worth the dry mouth and mild fatigue that followed.

Seen this movie before, she thought, but her mind was too foggy to come up with a title.

Now then, what had gone wrong with her usual medication? Somatau had always worked. She'd taken it since her teens when the bi-polar disorder had first manifested itself. She and about twenty percent of Lunar citizens took Somatau or a similar drug. Could it be something to do with the microgravity environment? Unlikely. Weightlessness affected many bodily functions she'd had a backache since departure as her spine stretched, and she had to make constant trips to the bathroom to get rid of excess body fluid the usual stuff, all to be expected as the human body wasn't designed for a weightless environment. She tried a quick search through the medical records database to see if there were any recorded Somatau/weightless interactions well, not so quick, as the Valium slowed thinking. The search came up nil.

No, wait. A relaxing of the search parameters brought up a reference to one of the active ingredients in Somatau boiling out of the tablets under hard vacuum. A quick check of the ship's log showed the medical module had been evacuated prior to mission start to rid it of vermin. She'd been taking Somatau from an unsealed vial from ship's stores. The Somatau in the sealed vials should be okay.

While she waited for the Somatau to take effect and for the dulling effects of Valium to wear off she took care of housekeeping that didn't require too much intellectual wherewithal. First she flushed the worthless Somatau down the vacuum toilet, then gathered up the loose vials that were floating around the cabin. Her earlier tears had coalesced into large globules, and she sucked them up with a miniature vacuum.

Left with time on her hands, she could run the standard daily blood tests on all the crew. In weightless and low gravity environments, the bones of human beings turned to chalk, and their immune systems became unresponsive. Modern drugs counteracted many of the physiological effects of weightlessness, but like most drugs, they had their own side effects and required careful monitoring.

Her lab procedures were interrupted by a beep on her head comset.

"Yes, Norman here," she said. Bookmark and Share

"Kristen, Dr. Taylor here."

"Yes, Doctor, how can I help you?"

"I'm just checking in to see that everything is all right over there."

"Fine, Doctor, except for a minor problem I've identified," she said, hoping her voice wasn't slurring from the Valium. She briefly outlined the problem with the corrupted Somatau, but didn't mention her near-breakdown.

"Who of the mission complement is prescribed Somatau?"

She told him. There were three of the forty-five crew members, plus herself.

"Glad you caught this, Kristen. I'll give them a heads-up."

"Thanks, Doctor."

"Don't mention it, and I'm sorry you can't join us for the party Kristen, but protocol says we must have a medical officer on board the Ark at all times."

"That's just the luck of the draw," she said. But the truth was that like everyone lacking an advanced degree, she was relegated to second-class status. With few exceptions, advanced degrees for Moon-born were more inherited than won. Her being here on the Ark, missing the party on the Anita, had been fated twenty-eight years ago. The lottery had taken place at her birth.

Taylor cleared his throat. "Well, this mission may change things for you. The Cloister is talking about honorary degrees for all non-doctorates on this mission."

"Yes, Dr. Taylor, they're talking about it," she said, but she knew how these things went. Talking was one thing; promises were something entirely different.

"And Kristen, one other thing."

"Yes?"

"There's no need to use my formal title, at least not while we are talking privately. Call me Ted."

"Yes, ah, Ted," she said. The Valium had made her slow-witted. She now realized Dr. Taylor was a bit wasted himself.

"Oops. I've got to sign off now. Praise Buddha, I'm the doctor of ceremonies, you know."

"Have a good time, Doct I mean, Ted."

He had disconnected before she finished the sentence. The party must be a good one, a near-orgy for some, as the party's theme was "We Who Are About to Die, Screw You." She idly wondered if Dr. Taylor's familiarity had been a prelude to a pass or just alcohol and drugs talking. Dr. Taylor Ted wasn't a bad guy as the tenured went, but he was well above her station, as her parents had been NASA technicians and lacked doctorates. Her role in an affair with him would be more that of a concubine than a lover.

She removed her earbuds and virtual visor and logged into one of the external view cameras. It took her three tries to find one that gave her a view of the Anita. For some reason the first two cameras weren't working.

She wound up with a partial view from an aft-mounted CMOS camera, all she could see was the foreshortened forward section of the Anita, the dumpy heavy lifter that was going to get her and the rest of the crew off the surface of the Earth. That was the theory at least. Nothing like the Anita had ever been tried in an atmosphere. Smaller versions were used to ferry processed ores back to Luna from the asteroid belt, but setting off nukes in a planetary atmosphere Earth's was a whole different wad of possibilities.

Basically, the Anita was an atomic bomb machine gun. Small fusion bombs, ranging in power from one to five kilotons each, would be ejected from a port in the rear like eggs and then detonated about a hundred meters from the ship.

The whole concept seemed insane. What if one detonated prematurely? Or lodged in the interior launch tube?

Maybe it was all the frigging Valium, but when the flash of the explosion erupted from behind the Anita, and the shock wave knocked her flat against the far wall, she was only mildly surprised.

* * *

Shortly before the explosion, Jorge Blanca, the youngest member of the mission, wasn't where he was supposed to be on watch but in the head, reading the instructions for the zero-G toilet for about the umpteen-thousandth time. He read the instructions not because he couldn't remember them and not because he had nothing else to read. No, he read them because he had to, was compelled to. In fact a secret, not to be told to anyone he had started visiting the toilet when he didn't have to go just to read the instructions. The act comforted him. If he didn't read the instructions several times a day, he would spend every waking moment feeling as if he was forgetting something important, like not putting on his pants before he went out on the public decks. He sighed. It was another strange manifestation of his obsessive/compulsive syndrome.

Again, maybe it wasn't so compulsive. Maybe it was just operant conditioning. The Reading of the Instructions relaxed him, un-wrenched his intestines.

Who was he kidding? The compulsions were getting worse, possibly because of the stress of this mission, and maybe he wasn't sure about this excessive beating off. If he couldn't master the compulsions, he would soon have to go to Kristen and ask for either a larger dose of DeComp or a new medication altogether. She was almost a psychiatrist. Would she ask him about masturbation?

The only good news was that it wouldn't harm his career. The powers that be the powers that were couldn't ground him. No one knew whether it was because of low gravity or the Moonbase's shallow gene pool or a combination of both, but more than fifty percent of Moon citizens had some sort of mental tic, syndrome, phobia, depression or compulsion, or whatever. In a true democracy, the majority rules, and it had become illegal to discriminate against those with a mental disorder.

Something inside him relaxed at this thought. It would seem he wasn't just here to read the toilet instructions after all.

Reluctantly, he pushed the start button and, as before, the seat ring latched onto his buttocks like a huge leech. Worse was the urine catheter that's what it was called, though it was more like a prophylactic as it slipped over rather than inserted. As most young men have done since the dawn of time, when faced with boredom and stress for more than a couple of minutes, his thoughts turned to sex.

He had secretly named the vacuum toilet Anita, but he needed a fantasy focus, a real woman to think about, not just a bitch of a space ship.

First and foremost on his thoughts was Kristen. With her green eyes and ponytail of auburn hair threatening to be red, she was quite a package. Curvaceous without being voluptuous in her tight blue military coveralls and little standard issue booties, she wore an oversized rodeo buckle on her utility belt, a real Earth heirloom, giving her a kind of Texas cowgirl, quirky sexy thing. The fact that she couldn't have children and therefore wasn't constantly pregnant, as were many Moon women, was, of course, a plus. He had made a pass, but gotten some remark about robbing the cradle. She was probably nearly thirty, but hey, that was only ten years difference.

Then there was Gayle Ring, who also wasn't pregnant, would also never be pregnant, but who had somehow made it clear that she was inaccessible. He first expected she was a lesbian, but now he felt she was one of those people who, out of some idealistic philosophy, stowed away as unneeded thoughts of the crude act of sex, like religious devotees. He thought about unfastening the front of those one-piece overalls she wore. Betcha there was nothing underneath. Just smooth, unblemished woman flesh. She was tall, taller than he was by about eight or ten centimeters, and skinny. Some women could still make curves on the fourteen-hundred-calorie diet that everyone but gestating women had to live on, but Gayle, who always seemed in motion, wasn't one of them. And if Kristen thought she would be robbing the cradle, then Gayle, who was at least thirty-five, maybe older, would probably try to burp him. Old or not, tall and lanky, there was still something really sexy about Gayle. Really sexy. Really, really sexy. But she could put him down with just a look, a chilling glance that made him feel as though he was a piece of primordial slime. The memory of that cold glance unfastened the fantasy, leaving him feeling like a limp adolescent.

Crap! But the erection persisted. The toilet was a perverted thing; this toilet it had forced him to pitch the bivouac of sex in the house of excrement. And, now that he thought of it, curse his father for making him read Yeats as a child.

He started reading the instructions again, hoping it would take his mind off his mental image of Gayle, slowly orbiting him in micrograv, but letting him know with one of those looks that he would have more luck breathing vacuum than getting inside her coveralls.

Then the hand of God or something nearly like it slapped him off the toilet. He would have gone flying across the room except for the urinary sheath. The catheter stretched to its limit, and he threatened to rebound bungee cord fashion, but fear had made him lose his erection, and the sheath snapped off. He drifted leisurely back toward the toilet.

The lights blinked, then went out entirely, immersing him in total darkness. Something wet and slimy bounced off his face. When the emergency light came on, he could see the turds disgorged by the toilet floating weightless around his head like brown trout circling a stream's eddy. Something had hit the ship. Was he going to die, floating among turds?

* * *

A few minutes before the explosion, Jimmy Olson, who some said looked like Santa Claus on steroids, was lamenting the loss of hard-copy books. There were, of course, lots of reasons why books weren't convenient in space: their harboring dust and bacteria, their weight, their just being big and bulky and in the way. But Olson was old enough to remember and miss them. Besides those same characteristics described him everything from harboring germs to being big and difficult to read. That didn't mean he should be relegated to obsolescence.

Or did it?

So, what was he going to read today? Shortly before the days of independence, when Earth governments were on the verge of collapse, the Cloister declared itself a sovereign lunar state. It had also ruled Earth copyrights null and void, and an entire static copy of the Internet had been uploaded to Moon servers. Olson had at his fingertips, as did every other Cloister citizen, virtually all the important literary, scientific, and even pornographic works especially the pornographic works of mankind up to 2040, about twenty years ago. Practically every movie ever made was there in one form or another, which had turned many of his brothers and sisters into the space-bound equivalent of couch potatoes. With little entertainment and strained resources, they watched everything from film classics, to sitcoms (Cheers was particularly popular; the Twilight Zone was not) to old news broadcasts. Radiation was widely blamed for the widespread deterioration of Cloister citizens' mental states, but he suspected the terabytes upon terabytes of television and movie archives had as much to do with it as anything.

But for readers, the purloined Internet archives were a godsend. He could carry the full works of practically any author in the pocket of his utility pants, along with a fold-out wi-fi keyboard that could project this data onto any of the many networked displays in the Ark. The Cloister-to-ship bandwidth was a bit narrow, but within a few seconds he could have the full text of any book he could think up displayed on screen.

Still, he missed the tactile quality of books, of being able to fold the corners on cheap paperbacks, of the sense of ownership of rare volumes. Or even of being able to throw the book in the trash when he found it trite or ill-thought out.

He missed a lot of things from Earth, things which were now only forty-five-year-old memories.

He glanced out the porthole. Because the Ark habitat slowly revolved to supply a tenth of a G, the Earth wasn't always visible. Instead, he was treated to a slide-by view of the Anita Ekberg. Connected to the Ark by a hundred-meter truss, the Anita looked like nothing else he'd ever seen in space. The basic design was not that much different from what nuclear- bomb physicists turned-spaceship designers had developed in the 1950s. The ship's name came from another engineering marvel of the mid-twentieth century, the underwire bra. A pointed cone, reminiscent of the "Anita Ekberg Maidenform bra cup" that's how one of the 1950s team had described it.

"A fossil, but a man after my own heart," Olson thought, "Maybe I'm a fossil too."

The Ark, the ship he rode in, was much more conventional. Ion propulsion units with hydrazine thrusters and a fragile skin made of thin layers of carbon fiber and plastic, the Ark was the tug boat, slowly pulling the Anita into an area where its bombs could be detonated without adding a further dose of radiation to the Moon environment.

The Anita's tiny aft portholes were unshuttered and dark, but Olson saw that the hanger deck ports that ringed the Anita amidships lit it up like Christmas tree. Exactly like a Christmas tree, for that's where all his privileged crewmates were right now: Partying in zero-G, a we-salute-you, pleasure before we die revelry, a time when one of his female crewmates would have probably laid him out of sympathy. Was he there, with the other party makers? No. No sir-ee. All because of that little indiscretion with the pretty little ensign, Parvani, he was stuck here on disciplinary duty in the Ark with the rest of his fellow losers: Jorge, the obsessive compulsive knight, Kristen, the sob princess, and Gayle the ice queen. And himself? Where did he fit into this royal court? Jimmy, the mad King Lear or the broken down, lecherous court jester?

Bored and depressed, Olson pulled out the keyboard, which was the size of a deck of cards before he unfolded it, and pulled up a short little video postcard of Parvani from his personal data storage. The nearest network display was the porthole window itself, so he played it there, semi-transparent, letting the real time display of the Anita be layered from underneath.

"Hi old man," Parvani began. "Sorry I got you in trouble. I think this whole segregation, academic caste thing is stupid, and I miss you, hairy old nasty body and all."

Parvani was one of those girls who was pretty in the right light, not so pretty at certain angles. But she was cheerful and bright, had a firm, young body, and had been spared so far of many the health problems so many Moon-born suffered.

She smiled into the video lens and smoothed her short, coal-black hair from her eyes. She wore a half-dozen silver rings on her fingers, heirlooms passed down from her mother like her doctorate degree.

What Parvani had ever seen in him was a mystery to Olson. When a young perhaps not beautiful but young and fit, twenty-two-year-old woman makes it clear she's willing to be more than just friends, a fifty-five-year old man doesn't ask questions; he just give thanks to the gods that be, whether Christian, Muslim, or Hindu, for the manna that comes his way. For Olson, who lacked any faith at all, this was ironic, that he would feel thankfulness for some unseen higher power because of the affections of a young woman.

But the relationship promised to be short-lived, as Parvani's parents disapproved of her relationship with Olson. They had objected, not so much because of the age difference, but because in the academic caste system of the Cloister, Olson was, if not an untouchable, certainly beneath their daughter's status, as she was the child and hereditary heir of both their earned doctorate degrees. Though it was possible to become degreed without family support and therefore enjoy full citizenship, it promised to be an ordeal that would consume the remainder of his life. Of course, Parvani's family connections would greatly facilitate the process, but he didn't want it like that.

Olson found it ironic that to keep the very relationship he wanted to remain uncluttered of Cloister politics, he would have to play politics.

"Jimmy, I know you don't like to kiss ass except mine, maybe I think you just need the proper incentive to do so and get you to continue working toward advancement. Did you know that in Hindu my name means full moon festival?" Parvani said.

With this fact she turned from the camera, pulled down her pants and presented him with a glimpse of beautiful young behind.

"Get out your binoculars, dirty old man," she said. "I'll be at the little porthole near the loading dock at midnight. You can play your favorite game of voyeur."

Olson switched off the video. Parvani didn't know the whole story. She didn't know he had made too many enemies in the Cloister Administration and would never see promotion. Despite the little thrill the video had given him, Parvani was forever out of his reach, and he might as well get used to the idea.

The Anita gradually swung out of his field of view and was replaced by the blue marble of Earth. The porthole was augmented, of course. And when he said "FOV one-half degree," the Earth immediately filled the porthole. At this magnification, he could see, peeking out from a fine filigree of cloud formations, the striking blue silhouette of the Gulf of Mexico. The western United States, from the Rockies to the Pacific seaboard, was in darkness. Overall, the Earth didn't look much different from what Apollo astronauts would have seen with a small telescope from Lunar orbit a hundred years earlier with one important difference. A century before, the West would have been peppered with specks of light, evidence of the presence of human cities. Now it was largely dark. The city lights were almost gone, either wiped out by nukes, or the plague, or simply darkened because no one was left who could keep the local power grid running.

Olson felt a sense of loss whenever he looked at the new Earth and knew the big metroplexes were in shambles, and the world population was down ninety percent or more from when he left the planet. Which was ironic; he felt sad about the deaths of billions though he had hated crowds all his life. As a child on Earth, he had spent most of his time trying to get away from the madding crowds, away so he could think. He wasn't terrified of human congestion as his father had been, the fact that drove a high-salaried professional on Earth to migrate to a low-paying life of drudgery on the Moon. What was the word for that phobia? Ochla something or other. He didn't remember, didn't care much that he didn't. But he did feel better, had clearer thoughts, and could think about more important things when he was away from too many people. He preferred people in small numbers and yet needed a sense of family. A mining ship offered just that; plus there was a chance for the love of a woman once in awhile, admittedly a small chance now at his age, but a big chance at the time. A psychiatrist would probably say that he hadn't had enough love from his momma when he was child whatever the cause, Olson thought his love of women was probably the only reason he bothered to stay associated with the human species.

Speaking of which, he toggled his intercom switch.

"Gayle? Are you still with us?"

"Define us," came the answer after a moment.

"Us the living; the human race."

There was a pause. "Affirmative on the living. I'm not so sure I want to be too closely associated with the human race."

Olson chuckled. "I'm not a card carrying member of that club, either," he said.

"Now you're going to tell me it's your nature. It's in your genes."

"According to Dawkins, the gene is the basic unit of selfishness. We humans are just robot vehicles programmed to preserve the selfish molecules called genes. Altruism has no place in nature. It's an illusion we survival robots calm ourselves with," he said with what he hoped sounded like authority.

"Dawkins said that what passed as altruism in humans was a way of genes preserving themselves," Olson said, feeling cocky and intellectual. "Since many members of a small inbred community shared similar genes, it made sense for one individual to be sacrificed for the good of the group. That way, more copies of the gene would survive at the cost of only one copy."

"Sounds like Dawkins should have called his book the 'Un-selfish Gene,' not the 'Selfish Gene.' "

"Maybe, but it's still a matter of the gene sacrificing the hosts you or me for its own survival. It's still nature over nurture."

"Bullshit," Gayle said. "It's nurture as much as nature." She was outside the spacecraft, which now poised at the L1 Lagrange point. "Human nature is for shit, if you ask me," she added.

Olson, sitting in the relative security of Deck D, amidships from the ion-jet and navigation on Deck A, had called up the entire script of "The Selfish Gene" on his monocle display and had run a find on "altruism" so he could sound like he was quoting Dawkins from memory. Gayle probably wasn't impressed. She knew about his monocle hack.

She wasn't supposed to be doing such a dangerous exercise, particularly for space tourist photos, but then that was just Gayle. She did what she wanted and told whoever would listen what she thought. And of course, he hated to admit it, but he was having geezer fantasies about her coming to his hammock the next sleep shift. Maybe that's why he ran interference for her and had temporarily reprogrammed the spaceside surveillance cameras so she could have her walk.

"Relax. I'm here. The little telescope is acting weird. It almost got away from me. If I let it point itself toward the sun, the CCD will fry."

"Tell me you're coming back in soon," he said, sounding like a nagging parent. The reprogrammed surveillance cameras kept her from being busted, but if she got in trouble out there, she could die before he or anyone else got to her.

"You worry too much," she replied. He could hear her breathing heavily, a kind of sexy, feminine version of Darth Vader. He imagined her on the far side of the ship, with her space-suited legs (space-suited, though elegantly long with a generous butt in his imagination) wrapped around the lump of the camera, fighting its inertia with an occasional bump and grind of her hips, like a cowgirl riding a mechanical bucking horse.

That was more fantasy, of course. The telescope Gayle had appropriated had its own miniature propulsion system and was a cylinder about twenty centimeters in diameter.

Before he had hooked up with Parvani, he had entertained the idea of enticing Gayle into his bunk. And though he was monogamous by nature anything else would make him a male whore in his opinion there was a simple knee jerk flirting reaction he had around long-legged, aloof women such as Gayle. Men with active libidos were like dogs. They were always thinking about getting in good with any attractive women they met, making points in hope at some semiconscious level of getting laid. He knew this and felt a little ashamed but knew what little virtue he had was safe. Gayle had shown little interest in sex, either with men or women, and particularly not with broken-dick old men like himself. (Buddha only knew what Parvani saw in him.) But flirting was fun; one could have a good conversation with Gayle, made all the more fun knowing it was merely a fantasy that would never be fulfilled, thereby avoiding any performance anxiety. And she was standup enough to know he was just flirting to be flirting; that it wasn't some sexual harassment thing. Hell, in a few years all he might have left would be fantasies and memories of better times. He knew that the current affair with Parvani was doomed, either by parental decree or the inherent Shangri-la nature of spring/fall relationship. He would grow older sooner, more tired, if he didn't succumb to some sort of debilitating disease first. Parvani, on the other hand, in the next few years would not so much age as mature. Now he was a novelty, a young-natured old man. In a few years, he would just be an old man who slept too much and farted too often, and she would be looking elsewhere for a soul-mate.

He shook off the feeling of gloom and made a resolution for about the hundredth time to enjoy the relationship while it lasted and not dwell on the fact that when she left him, or when she began looking at him with a mixture of boredom and pity and he left her, that it wouldn't break his heart. Of course, it might be said that if he truly loved Parvani that he would set her free because there was no long-term future in such altruism.

"Fuck altruism," he said, feeling selfish all the same.

"Excuse me?" Gayle said.

"Sorry." He hadn't meant to speak aloud.

"Didn't Dawkins talk about fish and how they expressed their altruism selectively?" Gayle asked.

"Well..."

"Run a search in Dawkins on sucker that's s-u-c-k-e-r for your information and see what you get."

She's gotcha, he thought and began entering the name on his keyboard when Gayle screamed, and the lights went out.

* * *

A few minutes before the explosion, Gayle Ring was breaking all the rules of ship safety by taking an unauthorized, solitary space walk. It would seem, Gayle thought, that a spacewalk would be virtually effortless compared to walking around on the moon's surface where a similar suit massed fifty kilograms. Microgravity should make things a snap.

Nothing could be further from the truth, she had discovered. Micro-gravity raised all sorts of problems. For example, when beads of sweat formed on her forehead, she instinctively tossed her head to shake them off. One flung-off bead caromed like a tiny billiard ball and bounced off the inside of her visor to strike directly in her right eye. The inside of the visor was coated with a film of detergent to prevent fogging, and the sweat droplet had picked up some of this soap, making it more a soap ball than a sweat ball. Ten minutes later, her eye still watered. In micro-grav, tears stayed in her eye. They didn't roll down her cheek as they did on the Moon for there was no down here. They just sort of squished out when she blinked, diluting instead of washing away the soap.

Fortunately, framing shots in the camera's viewfinder only required one eye. Unfortunately, the camera was rigged to be operated using the right eye. To use her left eye, she had to hold the camera upside down there was that gravity-born thinking again which meant she had to press the shutter release button with her left index finger, the tip of which she had lost to frostbite on a Moon excursion. So, she had to depress the shutter button with her left thumb which meant she kept jerking the camera and throwing off her composition.

Shit! How hard could it be to frame the crescent Earth in the camera? It seemed huge, hanging there in infinitely black space. The answer was pretty damn hard. When she turned off her helmet lights and her eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, the viewfinder filled with millions of stars. The stars were visible from the Moon, but here, for some reason, stars seemed closer than others as if she could reach out and touch them and it was easy to become disoriented.

And then there was the problem of momentum. As she continued to drift, she would come to the end of her tether and then rebound. She needed to take her shots at the end of the rebound, when the tether was stretched taut, just before it pulled her back.

The telescope she was using was another part of the bad mix. It hadn't been designed to be handheld, but to be fork-mounted on a tripod. Lacking any other megapixel alternative with good optics, she had salvaged it from the old observatory for just this purpose and had jury rigged a power supply for the CCD camera. Though it was a Schmidt Cassegrain, she had mounted the CCD in place of its secondary mirror. At a focal ratio of about f2, its field of view was more than three degrees wide, and as the Earth subtended about a half degree, it should, one would think, be relatively simple to put it in the camera's frame.

She was tempted to disconnect herself from the tether, but there were several good reasons not to do so, death by asphyxiation being the foremost. She checked the time display on the inside of her helmet. She had about ten more minutes of air, if she calculated correctly. It occurred to her that if she could brace herself against the ship, her camera aim would be more stable. After hooking the big Schmidt it was the size of a small trash can on her belt, she began to haul herself back to the ship hand-over-hand on the tether. She glanced again at the Earth. It was a glorious sight, a view spoiled only by the Anita, a grotesque ship, seventy-five meters in diameter, one hundred and fifty meters long. It resembled nothing so much as a huge squat bullet sitting on an upturned stool.

Bullet head. The sitting god of war.

She hated the thing. She hated how it looked, what it would do to Mother Earth when the nukes were detonated in the atmosphere. She hated the very principle of it, a thing born of genius but of patriarchal old world order genius and therefore twisted. A thing that should never have been built, that should be destroyed before it reached Earth.

It was an opinion she kept to herself.

The Ark, now that was something else again. The Ark, connected to the Anita by a long thin truss, was beautiful by comparison. Like the Anita, it had been built in space. Unlike the Anita, it was reusable. Unlike the Anita, it was never meant to go into a gravity well.

The Ark had drawn the ignominious job as space tug; it pushed the Anita from the L1 Lagrange point with its puny ion-jet engine, like a sparrow towing a Hindenburg size blimp.

She reached the Ark's hull and turned on her boots. There was a satisfying clank as the magnetic soles took hold. The Ark, a species of spacecraft adapted for deep space, was made of a fiber composite with ice sandwiched in between for radiation shielding. The outer composite hull was sheathed in a thin metal skin, just thick enough to make the magnetic boots work.

By comparison the Anita had to survive a fiery descent through Earth's atmosphere and was built of steel fifteen centimeters thick. Where the Ark was built like a butterfly, the Anita was built like a tank. The Ark looked so fragile that it could be damaged by a stern look, but the Anita was something else again. Designed to survive a kick in the pants from a five-hundred kiloton bomb, the Anita looked indestructible. Midships, the Anita was ringed with a series of portholes, squarish windows lit from inside. This area was the Anita's weakest point, a large recreation hall/aircraft hangar. The ports would be shuttered with the same thick steel plate during descent and ascent, whenever the nukes were detonated. Engineers considered the ports the ship's Achilles' heels if that wasn't snarling a metaphor, she didn't know what was. But the psychologists had won out, saying the little windows were needed to keep the crew's heads on straight. Now the port holes were lit as most of the Anita's crew had their Christmas party. She thought she could make out silhouettes of revelers as they passed in front of windows. They were doing a weightless waltz, it appeared, and for a moment she was filled with an overpowering sadness, of having lost some vital innocence which she would never regain.

Stupid twit, she thought, you're forty-one; you lost any innocence you ever had twenty years ago.

Sunlight glinted off the hull, further blinding her and reminding her to slide down her visor's protective polarizing shield. But she was too late. An impossibly bright light flared from the side of the Anita, momentarily blinding her. She was slammed against the hull of the Ark and rebounded to the limits of the tether. Some nerd part of her brain informed her that since there was no air and therefore no concussion wave in space, it was the ship that had slammed into her, not vice versa. From her frame of reference, the effect was identical. Her tether absorbed much of the energy and rebounded. She hung suspended in space. As her visor cleared she could see a cloud of frozen moisture as the Anita's atmosphere spewed from the ruptured hull.

Gayle tasted her own blood and wondered what had gone wrong.

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