“Cherry LP Cyclone” – glass art by Stephen Rolfe Powell
by Marc A. Criley
“STAY OFF GROOMED SURFACES” headlined the resurfacing status page as I skimmed alongside the track groomer, staying well clear of the hundred meter booms snowing frozen nitrogen onto the drag strip. Cockpit audio whooped, startling me, followed by “Vehicle Emergency Alert.” The nav system zoomed to a blinking red skimmer icon. I tapped it while coasting to a halt. An alert summary replaced the map: “Sputnik Trident System Failure. Beacon activated. Assistance required.” Sputnik Trident. Alonde’s skimmer. Out on the PERSPIRE iceway spur…and stationary. I’ve forgotten how to breathe. What’s happened to my husband?
“Starting line dead ahead!” Alonde shouted from the Sputnik Trident, two kilometers to my left. “Gonna be the race of your life, Jezendra!” He blustered like this every time we competed head-to-head; it was part of our rolling start ritual.
“You got to leave it all on the ice!”
The subsonic thrum of the skimmer’s twin VAXIMR thrusters friction-welded me to the cockpit seat. Status indicators, all green, softly illuminated the cockpit interior. I kept a feather touch on the control stick. Microscopic attitude and trajectory corrections maintained the knife edge contact between skis, ingester rasp, and ice as I hurtled a meter-and-a-half above Sputnik Planitia’s frozen nitrogen plain. The pie-shaped good luck charm hanging off the control stick buzzed in time with the harmonics.
“Powered by nitro! Plus! Plus! Plus!”
A horizontal green line marking the start of the course popped up on my HUD visor, along with a fast decrementing range indicator and a velocity edging towards twelve hundred kilometers per hour.
In my peripheral vision the parked skimmers, maintenance hangars, camera stands, other pilots, and a few vacuum-suited spectators were a jumble of dim shapes in the distance.
“Go at throttle up,” I whispered and amped the hell out of the VAXIMRs.
Alonde echoed: “Go at throttle up.”
The virtual green line snapped as I shot past twelve hundred kph. I sunk myself into the rhythm of perfectly balanced, perfectly tuned, perfectly merged pilot and machine. Every three seconds another of the drag strip’s twenty kilometers fell behind in a cloud of blue plasma and nitrogen ions.
Four kilometers to go, then three, two, one. The black and white checkered finish line flashed across the HUD.
“YOU ARE AWESOME!” Alonde screamed. I let off the amps, pushed the ingester rasp deep into the ice to start braking. “A perfect Diamond race, my love!” he shouted. “You destroyed the old record! I love you!”
I looked out beyond the heads up display, beyond the skimmer’s nose, across the starlit plain of nitrogen ice. I slumped back and sighed as the skimmer dropped through two hundred kph. The first words Alonde, newly arrived in Bowman City, said to me when he introduced himself at the post-race party after my first Tombaugh Unlimited Trophy Cup win were, “Out on that ice you and your skimmer shimmer like a diamond tear.” I cocked an eyebrow at him, thought this might be someone worth getting to know… and maybe I should rename my skimmer?
“So tell me dear husband,” I said, grinning, “what’s for dinner? Loser cooks, you know. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.” I flipped up the canopy, drifted into a slow sliding turn back towards the staging area and the rest of the racers.
Alonde laughed as the Trident curved around ahead of me. He’d raised his canopy as well; drag strip lights glinted off his helmet. “Well dear wife, it’s winner’s choice, what do you want?”
“No! No! Not that!” he howled. He gestured Time-2-Go at me across the ice, then pulsed his VAXIMRs.
I chortled as I took off after him. “You can run, Alonde, but the pineapple will find you!”
I flashed through my options:
– Let Bowman City Safety & Rescue handle it. No, I’m already an hour closer, not going to let that go to waste.
– Backtrack to the main Columbia Colles iceway, then rip down to the PERSPIRE spur. I zoomed out the map. The Trident was already a hundred kilometers down the spur. Power would be an issue. And I’d be dodging cargo barges and personnel transports along the way.
– Direct, across raw ice. Shortest, fastest, but only mid-rez ice maps. I glanced at the Diamond’s power level–had the range, barely. Pluto did a nice job resurfacing Sputnik Planitia a hundred million years ago, so us ice skimmers rarely run into any surface problems while out free skimming. Automation keeps the skis on the ice, but the pilot decides how hard to rasp the frozen nitrogen, playing off drag versus speed versus kinetic mass throughput. Rasp too heavy kills your speed. Too light starves intake–the thrusters run lean, also costing speed. Skimmer racing on Sputnik Planitia was all about balance.
I ordered the autopilot to plot a direct route, activate on my Go. I spun the Diamond, wound up the VAXIMRs, tore down the strip and crossed onto the freshly groomed surface. An encroachment infraction popped up on the HUD. Ignored it. Three point five gees in the cockpit. Out onto raw ice. Heading seventy degrees. Activate LIDAR scan. Set free skim mode, suspending surface contact rules. Autopilot: Go. The Diamond Tear glides, bounds across the ice. The lights of the strip vanish behind me.
“Pizza’s on hold,” Alonde said as he walked out of the bathroom, frowning. A damp towel draped over his “Sputnik Skimmers: Powered by N+++” sweatshirt. He was thumb-scrolling his tablet.
“What’s the matter?”
“Bowman City council is requesting”–he paused to make air quotes–“that I make an emergency run out to the PERSPIRE research station. To deliver some equipment. Tonight.”
“What kind of equipment?”
“I don’t… know…” He was still reading and scrolling. “Ah. Recycler. O2. Oh…that. Uh, you know that accident a couple weeks ago up on the Stern orbital transfer station? A cargo transport banged into it and broke open, spilling out a bunch of junk?”
“The Stygian something-or-other?”
“Yeah, Eel. One of the lost cargo containers had oxygen recyclers, some of which were slated for PERSPIRE. Their primary’s busted and the secondary has started faulting, so they’re going to swap in their one and only spare. Planetary alignments being what they are means it’ll be six months before they can get a replacement shipment out from Ceres and they really don’t want to run with no spare for that long. The council just now voted to loan them one of ours, so they’re asking…”–again the air quotes–“…me to make an emergency run tonight.”
“Well this is annoying, it’s been a long day. If they’re in such a hurry, can’t they railgun it?”
“Nope, can’t take the gees. Also, PERSPIRE stands for ‘Pluto something something Pristine Ice Research’, so they don’t want payload retros contaminating the area. They don’t want anything anywhere near them that ain’t natural.” He checked the tablet again. “As it is, the handover is twenty kilometers from the station to keep the skimmer at a distance.”
“That’s a pain. Think you’ll be back tonight?”
“Probably not, given the time. I’ll camp out in the Trident, head back in the morning. You okay with that?”
“Sure. I’ll pop some popcorn, crack open a box of Martian red, and VR a couple episodes of The Charonians.”
Alonda pulled a face of mock dismay. “You’d cheat on me? I love The Charonians! That’s my favorite emo! How could you?”
“All right then,” I said, laughing. “We’ll watch it together tomorrow.”
He grinned. “It’s a date!”
“I’m holding you to the pineapple pizza, though. Love you.”
Alonde mock shuddered. “Love you too.” He leaned down for a kiss. “I need about a half-hour to get ready. Walk me down to the hangar?”
“How ‘bout I do you one better? I’ll grab the Diamond and we can run tandem as far as the drag strip spur? Then I’ll cut over to check the track reconditioning.”
“Revisiting the scene of the crime, eh?” Alonde winked.
“You stole the record! Twelve hundred thirty-two kph, Jez!” Alonde grinned as he disappeared into the bedroom. “Left us all in a cloud of nitro!”
“Faster is better!” I said. While he changed I shot a request down to the hangar to unpark the skimmers and verify that Alonde’s was topped-off. A full Diamond Tear recharge needed a couple more hours, but I didn’t want to slow Alonde down; there was enough juice in it to skim with him and make a quick jaunt over to the drag strip, then get back home. I joined him in the bedroom and suited up.
In the hangar a half-hour later we did the walkarounds and diagnostic checks. All nominal.
“Suit check!” I called.
Holding out my arms, Alonde checked the suit seams, glove, boot, and helmet connections and made sure the power and air fittings were locked in. I returned the favor—goes much faster when someone does it for you.
“I see the recycler crate already got strapped into the Trident,” I said.
“Yeah, Logistics is very efficient with their…” -air quotes- “… ‘requests.’”
“Did you check the traffic?”
Alonde flipped down his HUD visor. “Typical it looks like… No new safety notices. I’ll put it on auto once I’m past the drag strip, cruise from there.” He pushed the visor up. “And no watching The Charonians!” he said. “If I can’t, you can’t either.”
I grinned and raised a hand, palm out. “Promise! Tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow for sure, love you.”
“Love you too.”
We climbed into the Sputnik Trident and Diamond Tear, sealed them up, and requested taxi lifts to the airlock.
Arrowing towards the Trident’s marked position, I keyed comms. “Alonde, come in, how you doing? Can you hear me? Please respond.”
I felt I’d shrunk, pulled in a centimeter beneath my skin; seeing through eye holes.
“Alonde, do a mike check if you can hear me.”
“Diamond Tear to Bowman Safety, I’m enroute to Sputnik Trident, where you all at?”
A few moments of silence, then the comms crackled. “Diamond Tear, this is Miche with Bowman Safety. Jezendra, we just slid Hemsi into the lock. She’ll be on-ski in five minutes. We’ve got your transponder, you’re gonna beat us to Trident by at least forty minutes.”
“Survival pod?” I said.
“The rail gun’s up and charging, load-and-throw in three minutes. Targeting twenty meters off his transponder location, two meters circular error prob. It’ll auto deploy once it touches down.”
“Thanks. Also, I’m…” I checked the power again. “Power’s under fifteen percent. I’ll need a tow back home.”
“No problem,” Miche said. “Uh, we’ll send a barge out for you. And Trident. You got enough power to keep warm? That’s not a short ride.”
“Racing suit only,” I said. “Running cold cockpit. I’ll be fine, we’ll hole up in the pod.”
A few moments of silence passed as I clocked past five fifty on the gentle swells and shallow kilometer-wide swales of frozen nitrogen.
“Good luck Diamond Tear. We’re all crossing our fingers. Let us know if there’s anything else we can do to help.”
“Will do, Miche. Thank you Bowman Safety.”
I raced under steady stars and a looming, gibbous, red-gray Charon. Speed versus power versus ice versus time. I commed out to Alonde again. Still silent.
Autopilot the mind.
Ride the ice.
Departing the hangar, we set tandem autopilot a dozen kilometers down the iceway and settled at two hundred fifty kph, about fifty meters separation. It was a little over a half-hour to the drag strip spur, so we talked about The Charonians, discussed upgrading Trident’s ice rasp yet again, and maybe going to the new art glass exhibit down at the Alice Bowman Arts & Education Center. We could VR it from home but they’d actually brought in some material reality pieces; I wouldn’t mind seeing those in person.
Coasting back down to one fifty as we neared the spur, I popped the canopy and turned up the cockpit lights. Alonde did the same.
“Drive safe, I’ll miss you! Love you!” I said on tightbeam, raising two fists and slapping them together at the wrist.
“Oh you betcha Jez!” Alonde stood in the open cockpit, arms and body swaying in a one-man wave. “Love you too!” He returned the gesture…twice.
“Sit down and drive!”
“I’m gonna drive fast and be reckless,” he said. “Go at throttle up!”
“Go at throttle up!” I reached the spur and veered off to the right. The Trident’s blue exhausts shrank and vanished as Alonde amped up the power and sped off down the iceway. The tightbeam connection sputtered out. I bumped up the amps as relativistic ions whispered into the darkness.
Twelve kilometers out the LIDAR locked onto Alonde’s skimmer and displayed a plummeting range indicator. At fifteen hundred meters I retracted the rasp, one-eighty bootlegged the Diamond and full-amped the VAXIMRs. Deceleration buried me in the seat, I watched the gee indicator climb past three…to four, to four point five. At zero velocity the thrusters cut out and I rocked forward. Under two percent charge left. I hit the canopy release and unsnapped the safety harness.
Vaulting out of the cockpit I raced towards the Trident, its port side lit by the inflated survival pod’s floodlights. “Alonde, Alonde, Alonde,” I whispered with each bound across the ice; my voice the only sound. Nearing the skimmer the glint of a jagged, fist-sized hole piercing the closed canopy seized my attention. My last leap hard planted me alongside the cockpit. Alonde was inside, still buckled in. I smashed my gloved fist against the exterior emergency release. Nothing happened, so I flipped the manual latches, flung the canopy up and away.
Alonde sat silent, fully suited, HUD visor down, unmoving–frozen in place. Frozen, oh God, no. A dark-red fist-sized wound punctured his suit just below the mangled Sputnik Skimmers patch on his left breast. I raised his visor. A thin layer of frost, sparkling in the helmet light, coated my husband’s face. His eyes and mouth were closed. I looked down—the pineapple good luck charm hung below his grip on the control stick. My mind snapped in two, half of which froze, shattered, and dispersed out onto the ice. The other half looked over the pilot’s shoulder into the rear hold. Shredded remains of a transport crate. A massive hole punched through the bulkhead. Tiny glittering ruby crystals rimed the interior. The remaining half of my mind extrapolated a trajectory from punctured canopy to pilot to bulkhead to ultracapacitor bank to the starboard VAXIMR. The fifty megajoule thruster was missing.
It took a moment to realize I heard sounds. From my comms. In my helmet. “Bowman Safety to Diamond Tear, are you getting this? Jezendra, this is Miche, are you there? Are you okay? Is Alonde okay? The Hemsi’s haulin’ ass! Jezendra, talk to me!”
I laid my glove alongside the pilot’s helmet. Keyed comms. “Bowman…” I said, paused. The suit circulation fan clicked off, suit warmth leached away. Sobbing overwhelmed me as my legs buckled and I slid down the side of the skimmer, collapsing onto the frozen plain. “Oh, Alonde…” I closed my gloved hands into fists and bumped the wrists together.
“Jezendra!” I barely heard. “Go to the pod! Hemsi’s almost to the spur, they’ll be there in thirty. I’m…I’m so sorry Jez, so sorry.” Crying started on the other end of the connection. I muted comms and sank into the cold, star-lit silence.
So many friends and racers here for Alonde’s remembrance; so kind, but my eyes never got a chance to dry. I slipped into one of the smaller exhibit rooms off the Bowman Center’s main exhibition and reception hall; just needed a few minutes away from it all. In the darkened room a dozen material reality Stephen Rolfe Powell glass bowls rested on pedestals, spotlit. I still couldn’t believe somebody had shipped two hundred-year-old glass all the way out to Pluto. For art. Each piece swirled together primaries and pastels; glass beads; burls, rings and ribbons. Stretched and twisted and frozen. Creativity frozen in glass.
I wasn’t quite alone. Miche, from Bowman City Safety & Rescue, wearing augment glasses, peered at one of the bowls. Not wanting to startle them, I whispered, “Beautiful, aren’t they?”
Miche startled anyway and tore off the glasses.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t see you! I just needed to…”
“It’s fine. I know; I know. I needed to step out too.” A narrow-waisted bowl drew my attention, its outer rim a band of dark red with interior concentric rings of sapphire and shadow, interspersed with thin bands of clear glass, darkening as they progressed to the center. Full-spectrum light down-projected through the bowl revealed rings within rings, embedded shades of blue, diamond white, rippling red. “These are beautiful. Alonde and I had planned to visit, which was, well, I guess, last week now. That’s why I wanted to have the remembrance here.” I leaned in to get a closer look. “These colors remind me of him. He was born on Triton, you know; told me about big blue Neptune hanging in the sky where he grew up; and that now he…we…lived under a big red Charon.” Indicating the bowl I asked, “Does this one have a name?”
Miche raised the augment glasses to their eyes but didn’t slip them on. “Uh, Cherry LP Cyclone.” They lowered the glasses, fidgeted with them, passed them from hand to hand. “It almost didn’t make it.”
“The exhibit. This was all on the Stygian Eel, the cargo transport that collided with Stern. It was lucky they weren’t damaged.”
A sudden flush left me lightheaded. I wobbled a little. “How did you know…?”
They waved the augment glasses.
I dropped my head and closed my eyes; steadied myself, tried to push the thought of lost oxygen recyclers and delivery ‘requests’ out of my head.
The daily Outer Worlds Transportation Safety Board briefings said the repercussions from the collision were getting serious. Lost cargo, debris from broken shipping containers, and even packing material were all moving at orbital velocities within Stern’s orbital plane, so OWTSB had commandeered every radar emitter in the Pluto/Charon system to track the hazards. There weren’t enough, though, so coverage gaps remained–it was all they could do to track the threat to Stern. One minor strike and several near misses had prompted boosting the station’s altitude and rotating its polar orbit through the available inclination margin. OWTSB issued warnings about the handful of projected ground impact trajectories detected so far, all of which lay beneath the debris’ orbital plane. Bowman City and the other settlements were all underground, protected by several meters of carbon-netted regolith, and none lay under the debris’ currently thirty kilometer wide ground track. Only recessed hangar doors and airlocks were exposed to any random objects that might rain down.
I felt a hand on my arm. “I’m sorry,” Miche said. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Yes, I’ll be fine.”
I hesitated. “Eventually.”
“I’m…I’m so sorry for your loss, Jezendra. I know I’ve already said that, but… The two of you were so good together, and…and…Alonde was always so full of energy and life. I miss him. We all miss him. A lot.”
I took hold of Miche’s hand and tried to stifle another round of tears. Sniffed—very wet, very loud. “Sorry,” I said. “Gross.”
Miche nodded and quietly chuckled as they squeezed my hand.
“I feel like I’m on autopilot, Miche. That I’m going through the motions, sliding by, trying to avoid any hazards. I don’t know when I’m going to race again. If I’m going to race. I’ve already thought about selling the Diamond Tear. The OWTSB accident report is supposed to come out in a few days–they said I can preview it. Maybe I’ll know what to do then. Maybe. I don’t know. I haven’t touched any of Alonde’s things yet and I…I catch myself talking to him sometimes and forgetting for…for a moment…that he’s not there.” I took a deep breath, started talking again before Miche could say anything. “The thing I didn’t realize I’d miss so much, Miche, is that our secret language died with him.”
They tilted their head, raised an eyebrow. “Your what?”
“You know how when you’re a couple, or a triad or poly or whatever, and you’ve got a history? There’s stuff only you and your partner know. You create a shorthand language without even realizing it. Personal phrases and gestures for things. Like ‘go at throttle up.’ Or doing this.” I started the hand gesture Alonde and I had parted with at the drag strip spur, then realized what I was about to do and froze. I flashed a different gesture.
A puzzled look stole across Miche’s face. “What was that?”
“Uh, this.” I slowly repeated the motion: left index finger pointed straight out, middle finger at a right angle pointing down. “T.” I brought the middle finger up alongside the other. “2.” Then wrapped both fingers around my thumb to make a loose fist. “G.”
Miche tilted their head. “T-2-G?”
“Time-2-Go. That was our signal for when we were out in public that one of us had had enough and wanted to go home.” I glanced at the door to the main reception hall, flashed T-2-G. The tears surged. Miche stepped in and gently stroked the small of my back. A few moments later I opened and wiped my eyes. A blurry Cherry LP Cyclone glowed before me. “All that’s gone now. I have all these words, and no one with whom to speak them.”
“So what do you think?” I said.
“It’s good,” Alonde answered, but the look on his face clearly showed it was not good.
“It’s…okay if you don’t like it. I guess not everyone likes fruit on their pizza. I should’ve asked first.”
“No, no, it’s fine,” he said, screwing up his face and biting off the tip of a slice. “It’s good. The pineapple’s…fresh.” He chewed, slowly.
“Should be, I commissioned it from Whole Hydroponics.” Alonde swallowed, nodded, contorted his face into a grin. I started laughing. “Okay, stop. My first home-cooked meal for my beau is clearly a bust.” I reached across the table and took his hand. “But thank you for trying. I’ll remember this for future reference.”
“Beau? Future reference?” Alonde cocked his head to the side as his eyes lit up above a this-time-unforced grin. I replied with an eyebrow lift and a half-smile.
A week after the memorial service, I was eating just to eat, late, when my portable chimed with a pickup notification from Srinivas Memorials. “Come by any time,” it said. I threw everything in the recycler and headed down. On the way back another chime notified me that the OWTSB’s preliminary accident report had arrived in my inbox.
Back home I carefully sat the printed cardboard box, unmarked but for the Srinivas logo on one corner, on the coffee table. Not quite ready for the unboxing or the report, I took a shower, put on a T-shirt and sweats and poured myself a glass of Syrtis Amore. It was after 9 p.m. Bowman City time, a few hours before solar dawn out on the ice.
I sat down, took a sip of wine, and pulled the box’s release tape. The sides fell away, revealing the urn’s custom-printed dark-red bands and sapphire-and-white rings. Baleful red for Charon, sapphire for Neptune, crystal-white for Sputnik Planitia.
I gazed at the urn, bit my lip. Though alone in the apartment, I still didn’t want to completely lose it. I focused on my breathing, in, out, in…out. Sometimes just taking a breath was hard. Crying’s okay, but don’t get carried away. The urn’s surface was satin glass to the touch. I shifted my attention back to the accident report notification on my portable and tapped it. The cover page bloomed up–too small to read. I went and grabbed Alonde’s tablet, sat back down, wrapped myself in an afghan and opened the report.
“Outer Worlds Transportation Safety Board (OWTSB) Preliminary Accident Report. Prepared by Dewayne Arnold, Investigative Specialist II”. I remembered Dewayne, he was very kind in the interview. Meticulous without being pushy. The OWTSB logo huddled down in the corner of the page. I swiped to the next screen. Boilerplate. Ignore. Swipe. Signatures. Swipe. Legalese. Swipe. Executive Summary. Factual Information. Analysis. Conclusions. Recommendations. Appendices A-D: Proposed Changes to Station, Debris Tracking, Surface Transport and Settlement Operations.
There were links to VR visualizations—that was never going to happen.
I skipped to the Executive Summary. There’d been rumors, mostly out of earshot, but I’d heard things. Debris on the ice that looked like smashed shipping containers; speculation that maybe something hit the Trident even though it was nowhere near the orbiting station’s ground track.
“An approximately 2.5 kg tantalum alloy ultracapacitor core, one of several originating from a damaged cargo container on the Balaenoptera Services cargo vessel Stygian Eel, traveling at an estimated 3.6 km/s, struck and longitudinally traversed the Sputnik Trident, resulting in catastrophic system failure and a fatality.
“The Sputnik Trident is an extensively modified HigherEchelon Industries model CFI-6 nitrogen ice skimmer hangared in Bowman City in Pluto’s Coleta de Dados administrative area.
“The very low radar cross sections (RCS) of the cylindrical 25cm X 4cm alloy ultracapacitor cores launched into out-of-plane orbital trajectories as a result of the Stern/Stygian Eel collision geometry significantly diminished the probability of detection (PD) by the radar resources available to OWTSB. Their origination as Stygian Eel cargo was confirmed by metallurgical comparison of recovered debris versus that of intact cores.
“The Sputnik Trident pilot was struck and killed instantly, while the kinetic energy of the tantalum core severely damaged the skimmer’s ultracapacitor arrays and retained sufficient momentum to dislodge the craft’s starboard thruster. An oxygen recycler being transported as cargo was also lost in the mishap.”
The apartment’s air circulation fans spun down. The only sound was my fingertip squeaking on the glass as I scrolled the report. There was a lot of detail about damage. I skipped to the Analysis section. It led off with a zoomed satellite image of Sputnik Planitia with a thin black line connecting a series of red dots and a black ‘X’. Captioned: “Least squares regression of identified tantalum core debris locations (red). X indicates intersection with PERSPIRE spur iceway and is co-located with the Sputnik Trident incident site.” I put down the tablet.
A battery fell out of space and randomly killed my husband.
Hefting the urn, I leaned back and cradled it in my arms, stared at the ceiling, hoping to drift off. Maybe I did, but visions of shattering canopies and disintegrating thrusters kept waking me up. Around 3 a.m. I gave up, pulled Alonde’s “Powered by N+++” sweatshirt out of the pile of stuff I still didn’t know what to do with and slipped it on. I stood there, eyes closed, for a minute in the silence and breathed in the scent–it felt like he was standing right behind me.
I exhaled and opened my eyes. Just me.
The corridors to the hangar would be empty at this time of night and I’d put this off long enough.
“How’s it handle?” We were free skimming a couple hundred kilometers out from Bowman City, me in Diamond, Alonde loosening up the brand new Sputnik Trident for its first test sprints. We couldn’t see each other, but the blue skimmer icons on the nav display tracked us about ten kilometers apart.
“Responsiveness is super smooth,” he said. “Though I’m not keen on the ingester rasp–it seems really…sloppy. I keep having to crank down on it to maintain throughput. I’m thinking maybe replace it with a Rylolan model?”
“Probably. Anyhow, I’m gonna go at throttle up, do some five hundred kph sprints. If I can wrangle the rasp, maybe faster.”
“Faster is always better,” I said. “I’ll spot.”
Two dozen middle-speed sprints later, with Alonde finally edging the Trident just above seven hundred kph, we swung around for the ride home. The gleaming sun hovered above the horizon, a diffuse silver tail reaching toward us across the frozen surface. “You wanna grab a bite before we head back?” I asked. “I brought sandwiches. Shouldn’t drive on an empty stomach, you know. Solar sunset’s in about fifteen minutes. Watch it go down?”
“Sounds good to me,” Alonde said. “C’mon over!”
We parked the skimmers side by side, depressurized the cockpits and popped the canopies. I grabbed the mini-chest and skipped over to the Trident. Alonde had already flipped down the jumpseats in the backseat cargo hold by the time I swung myself up and in. He closed the canopy and repressurized the cockpit with a nice warm air mix. Heaters built into the canopy kept it from fogging up. We flipped up the visors and faceplates, but left our helmets on.
“So what’s the verdict?” I said. “Gonna keep it?”
“It’s got potential. The rasp thing is annoying me, but we can get that replaced. And I’m sure there’ll be more mods once I get some hours in on it. Maybe even beat you and the Diamond one of these days.”
“In your dreams, dear.”
“Yes. And just so you know…those are nice dreams.”
We locked eyes.
“I’ll bet,” I said. “Eat something. Watch the sunset.” We slipped off our gloves, leaving them strapped to the cuffs. I handed Alonde a sandwich, stealthily retrieving a couple other items from the mini-chest and setting them beside me on the seat.
While we ate, the first hints of Pluto’s thin atmospheric haze appeared, gossamer bands bracketing the sun suspended above the cold horizon. Finishing the sandwiches a few minutes later, we held hands while gradations of sunset shadow formed behind the icy plain’s shallow swells, mottling the surface.
“I’ve got something for you,” I said, letting go of Alonde’s hand. I held up two small charms on short chains, one a pineapple and the other a pie slice. “Pick one for good luck,” I said.
Alonde started laughing. “Pineapple? And what’s that? A pizza slice? Really?” He nearly bent over double laughing. I leaned back, gave him the eyebrow and half-smile.
Recovering slightly, he straightened up and said, “I will take the pineapple. Of course.” He held it up in the glittering last rays of the nearly-set sun. I held my pie slice alongside.
“Together always,” he said. “I love you.”
“And I you.”
The sun set and the atmospheric haze soon faded away.
“Ready to head home?” I said.
Alonde nodded. “Yep. Race ya’!”
In a curtained-off section at the back of the hangar the Sputnik Trident rested on a set of skid dollies, the remains of the demolished thruster on another. A tarp draped the open cockpit. The canopy with its jagged puncture wound leaned against a wall. I slowly circled the vehicle. Once. Twice. Nearly pristine on its port side, but on the other the thruster mount and all the composite skin aft of it was torn off–I could see right through to the demolished ultracapacitor bay. At the cockpit I took hold of the tarp and flipped it up and back. Its shadow hid the worst of the dark stains on the pilot seat. I closed my eyes against fleeting dizziness and tightened my grip on the side of the cockpit. Inhale, exhale, slow breaths.
I opened my eyes, reached in and yanked the pineapple good luck charm off the control stick. The glossy yellow-gold paint was cracked and chipped, some of it flaked away.
But it was still in one piece.
The Trident, half shattered, was not. It wasn’t coming back. Nothing, no one, was coming back. I pulled out my portable, took a deep breath and thumbprinted the Salvage Conveyance form to hand it over for dismantling and recycling. I tucked the charm in my pocket, went back to the apartment and suited up.
After skimming two and a half hours up the Columbia Colles iceway and a hundred kilometers down the PERSPIRE spur, Diamond and I coasted to a standstill. Low fog rose and dissipated from shallow hollows forming beneath the radiating twin thrusters. Solar dawn was imminent; there’s the barest hint of haze on the horizon. This is the place where I’d spun and slammed to a halt a half-dozen rotations ago.
A first bead of sun crested the horizon, glinted off the white plain. In this moment of long shadows I saw my skid marks and other evidences of activity: track gouges; ridges of scraped powder; bootprints. A dozen meters away a flat-bottomed depression marked where the survival pod landed, inflated, and settled into the ice.
I popped the canopy and dropped the meter and a half onto the frozen nitrogen plain. Right here and now, there’s just me, Diamond Tear, an astronomically distant rising sun, Sputnik Planitia, and Alonde’s dark red, sapphire, and snow-white urn. I unbuckled the restraints and gathered up it and the warming square. My HUD guided me to the exact spot where the Trident came to a halt. Though it had been towed to the barge for the return to Bowman City, along with the Diamond, the depressions where its skis settled into the ice persisted. Ahead of the bow ski indentation I spread the warming square and laid the urn on it; with a puff of fog that quickly dissipated it immediately settled a centimeter or so into the ice. The diamond tear sun had fully cleared the horizon now, and the urn’s red bands and sapphire and white rings glowed warmly against the stark plain. I kneeled down, placed one gloved hand atop the urn, laid the other on the ice alongside. Within a minute the heat leakage from the glove sublimated enough nitrogen to leave a clear handprint.
“I loved you, Alonde,” I said. “Always beside me, at home and on ice…”
In some way I drifted off for a moment, not sleeping, not waking, not dreaming. I went elsewhere, somewhere quiet; where VR emos and celebratory pizza dinners alternated with open-cockpit skimmer runs beneath cold stars; where nitrogen snow settled onto infinite plains of ice; where all spoken words were in a secret language but one that everyone knew.
The suit’s circulation fan switched on, a warm breath on the back of my neck. I opened my eyes, activated the warming square. It produced just enough heat to sublimate the frozen nitrogen beneath it; by solar noon the urn will have sunk a meter beneath the surface. I stood up. My shadow stretched to the horizon and I remembered how to breathe again under the gaze of Charon and the unblinking stars. Returning to the skimmer I climbed into the cockpit and closed the canopy.
Firing up the VAXIMRs, I took one last look at the urn, aglow in the morning sun, and raised my hand.
I nosed the skimmer onto raw ice, aimed for the distant racing strip, shut down the autopilot, and amped up the twin thrusters. The pineapple and pizza pie charms hanging off the Diamond Tear’s control stick rattled. A fresh mist of triply-ionized nitrogen ions drifted onto the plains of Sputnik Planitia. “Go at throttle up,” I whispered.
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