by Jack Clemons
Wildcatter dropped onto Hawking a month ahead of perihelion. We slammed in after losing a brutal tug of war with the singularity that started when we closed to 60 klicks. I was in the cockpit running a spectrometry survey through the assayer ay-eye during our final approach. I’ve flown a lot of A.U.’s with McRae; he’s a damn fine pilot. I looked up from the display when I heard him curse.
“Geezus!” he hissed. His face was rigid.
“What is it, Curt?” I heard panic in his voice and it made me edgy.
“We’re dropping down one heluva’ g-cliff,” he said. “This baby could suck the numbers off a coin!”
I twisted around in my seat to glance at the forward screen. Hawking didn’t look very formidable, just another hunk of grey-brown rock. I turned back to look at McRae.
“We in any trouble?” I asked.
No answer. He was staring holes in the readout panel; he’d completely dismissed me.
I don’t think he took three breaths in the entire fifteen minutes it took him to keep from auguring in. I remember his face checker-boarded with colored light from the crazy flickering panel of displays. His hand was gripping the stick so tightly that his fingers were bone white from knuckles to nails. We collided, hard, and Hawking swiped once at us and missed. We bounced about 100 meters before the landing struts slapped the dustless rock again — and this time dug in.
McRae later liked to brag that he’d had it under control all the way. But I was there. McRae blew it. He’d underestimated the muscle of that sucker, and I guess the rest of us can be glad he was a better pilot than judge of character.
Not to say that Hawking was easy to judge. Nothing with axes that short should have packed that many gees. We had all read the reports filed by IGA several months earlier, just after the singularity was discovered wandering through solar system real estate. Star occultations, apparent albedo, etc., etc., all put Hawking at about the size ofCuba. Large for an asteroid (which is what it looked like) but tiny by planetary standards.
Then the early reports came in from the Chinese fly-by and the Korean drone lander, followed by extensive data supplied by the Japanese survey party made while Hawking was out beyond the Belt. All of them confirmed the same finding — this baby was not what it seemed to be.
Hawking had played a mean game of billiards with Sol’s family jewels as it screamed sunward. The goddam planets rocked when Hawking slid by them. Mars lost Phobos and Deimos permanently. They’re out there now, trying to solve the N-body problem by trial and error.
The Moon got nudged pretty hard when the singularity intersected Earth’s orbit. I heard that it played hell with the Terries: weather, agriculture, tides, even the length of the day. Several million killed;Paristurned into a beachfront city. Earth was damn lucky to be as far away from Hawking as it was when it passed.
Konstantine Station got tossed like a jackstraw — luckily, I wasn’t home at the time. Lots of injuries and a couple of deaths and several months of correcting burns to get back to L5.
Yeah the crew of Wildcatter had heard all about Hawking, long before we had caught up with it inside Venus’ orbit. All of that info was in our heads during that final approach, but we were staring at something that our intuition told us was no big deal. Then Hawking cast its vote and we were suddenly on a slip-sliding trajectory down at over 0.8 gees. Son of a bitch, that landing was scary.
I don’t know how well a full-auto system would have handled the landing. We all spent a lot of time kicking that one around during lounge time afterward.
“This is bullshit!” was Cal Bartley’s summary then. “Goddam Snyder and his goddam credit pinching nearly bought it for us.” Calhad an irritating habit of being loudmouthed when he was skittish.
Chan Singh shook his head. “And that’s your bullshit, Bartley,” he said. “Full-autos are out of the question on spec ships and you know it.”
“Flock ass, Singh!” Calhandled language like a bouncer.
“Old Man Snyder has more money than God. He could outfit this tub like the Constitution if he cared more for his crew than what lines his pockets.”
“Hey, I’m no cheerleader for Snyder,” Chan said. “But if he did things the way you say he should, we’d all be working for table scraps. He got rich because he understands this business, and you’ll get rich working for him for the same reason.”
“That’s easy for you, Singh,”Calshot back. “You’ve made yours.”
“And I did it working the Old Man’s way.”
“You were always a boot licker for Snyder, Chan,” Lou Williams threw in. “The Old Man’s a goddam horse’s ass and this trip proves it. We’re each paying a month’s expenses, and we’ll probably all wind up dead to boot — and for what? So that egomaniac can get his name in the books trying to bronco bust this worthless rock.”
“Goddam right,” Cal added. “We’ve got a fortune waiting for us on Titan and Snyder’s got us out here mucking around like scientists, for God’s sake.”
None of the crew, me included, was very happy about prospecting on Hawking.
But Chan was right. Wildcatting had always been a wing and a prayer proposition, whether in space or in the early oil days inTexas. Speculator’s profits were narrow and that meant cutting corners, taking risks. The industrials had all of the fancy equipment and plush living quarters — and the full-autos.
And they were the ones that went after the big strikes: mining the large asteroids, drilling the huge oil reserves on Ganymede (or whatever that stuff was they found there). If you wanted to be comfortable, join the industrials. If you wanted adventure, sign onto a spec ship: rotten hours, primitive equipment, spitting in the Reaper’s eye every day and hoping he didn’t spit back. Everyone, including Cal Bartley, knew that when they signed on. I couldn’t side with Calon that account.
I knew that Cal, like most of the rest of us, was intimidated by Snyder, and this was just his way of puffing up. Calhad already been with the drilling crew for more than two years when I joined on, and he was a full-timer too. I had heard that the Old Man had jettisoned him at least twice in the past for being insubordinate, but he hired him back both times. Calwas the best tool dresser to be had.
Snyder had this thing about his employees. He seemed to think that we had joined the Marines when we signed on. Of course once you got on ship there wasn’t a hell of a lot you could do about that. Snyder was commander-in-chief there, and emperor and Christ-almighty-god too.
There was a story going around when I first signed on that the Old Man had really spaced a driller once who had pushed him too hard. No one knew for sure if the story was true or just an invention of Snyder’s to keep us in line. In any case, it worked. None of us doubted that Snyder was capable of doing just that.
It was because of the Old Man’s ways that I never became a full-timer on the Wildcatter. You had to be a hard case, or desperate, to put up with his crap, and I was neither. But Snyder paid well — a lot better than any of the other spec ship owners. And I have to admit that his single-mindedness had made him the most successful independent in the business.
Snyder did have a few good points. His vessels were all spaceworthy. The crew quarters were warm and the life systems were doubly redundant. Even he understood that hungry, cold, or dead people don’t work very hard.
Why did we do it? For most it was the money. A contract on the Wildcatter paid a 3% share of discovery, less expenses, to every man and woman in a crew of twenty. And it didn’t matter if you were a pilot or a scrub-downer. That was better by tenths than the other independents offered. And like I said, the Wildcatter had a good record.
Hell, there were a handful of people around living damn fine after just one tour on board her. I’m talking about the crew who discovered that two ton nugget of molybdenum hiding in the Belt, of course. That was before I joined. In fact, it was during one ofCal’s forced absences. I don’t thinkCalever forgave Snyder for doing that to him.
Old Man Snyder could have cashed it all in then and been set for life. But he used the credits to outfit five more Wildcatters and went straight back out again. The stylized wildcat symbol on the hulls of Wildcatter Corporation ships were recognized throughout the System. I don’t know if it was greed or escape that kept him out there. Generally, no one got a chance to ask him about it. He pretty much stayed to himself in his private module when we weren’t on a work site.
Anyway, if landing on Hawking was your idea of lucky, Wildcatter earned her reputation for being at the right place at the right time this time out. Just a month earlier we’d come home dry after nearly a year of prospecting around Saturn. But I was convinced, and I had convinced Snyder, that the ay-eye had discovered a liquid biomass lurking beneath the sludge on Titan. He was determined to go back and have another look. The Ganymedean “oil” uncovered by the crew of the I.S. Exxon the year before had turned out to be a previously unknown hydrosilicon, and Exxon’s labbies back at L5 were feverishly analyzing the implications.
The Old Man had guarded his own claim like a hungry mongrel. He ordered Wildcatter IV outfitted with armament and sent her out to stand guard. We had to station-keep out there for four months before she showed up to relieve us. All of us were bone tired and just plain sick of free-fall when we finally got home. But to a person, everyone signed on to ship back out as soon as Wildcatter could be refitted for drilling. None of us wanted to lose our stake on that find. So there we were, scrubbed, dry, and smiling, and about to set sail from Konstantine for the Big Belted Beauty, when the Japanese survey data on Hawking came in.
Extra-solar in origin.
Anomalous lack of axial rotation.
Unusual heavy metal composition. Bore samples indicate hot central core surrounded by multiple accretion layers built up over extremely long interval.
Age between 10 and 13 billion years.
Tectonics of significant proportions, likely driven by extremely dense object at center surrounded by liquid mantle.
Probable candidate: Hawking singularity.
Hypothesis consistent with mass, size, gravitational and tidal effects, temperature, age, and interstellar origin.
Hypothesis inconsistent with stability of solid material surrounding object, and with apparent slow accumulation of accreted material.
No resolution at present.
There it was, a quantum black hole! A tiny — and damn heavy — cinder of nothing left over from the Original Fireworks. It was that Japanese survey report that gave Hawking its name.
The Old Man was on the bridge reviewing the prelaunch checklist when the news came in. McRae told us that he just stood there, eyes flicking back and forth across the infoscreen absorbing the report. His jowls were set; the cigar smoldered in his mouth; nothing showed on his face. He removed the cigar and stared at the ashes for a couple of seconds. Then he turned to McRae and said, “File a flight plan for Hawking,” and left the bridge.
We all got pissed when we heard the news. A lot of ships and lots of crew-hours have been wasted nosing around the asteroid belt, hoping to find one of these microscopic buggers hiding there. No one knew for sure that they even existed, though the theorists had predicted them over seventy years ago. It wasn’t just scientific curiosity that sent all those people on a snipe hunt though. If a quantum hole could be dragged back to earth orbit the Terries would have a power source that would allow them to air-condition the African Continent. There were even rumors that several countries were trying to synthesize one of the damn things.
But wasn’t it just like Mama Nature to confirm the theories by grandstanding. Nothing for seventy years and then the Big Muthah of quantum holes comes by to say “hello” at 170 decibels. The problem was there was no way to slow down Hawking let alone to cart it off to Earth. The singularity itself, hiding in the middle of its spaceborne haystack, was probably only a centimeter or so in diameter. But it massed in at several billion trillion tons — it weighed more than Mars — and with the amount of momentum it packed, it could have dragged the Earth off into the wild void with it.
Still, I suppose something that old, that massive, and that had spent its lifetime wandering around the universe, might have picked up some interesting lint in its coat. None of the survey probes had been equipped for more than shallow surface samples. My belief then and now is that Snyder got obsessed with being the first one to find out if anything was hidden in its pockets. It’s the only reason I can come up with to explain why he abandoned a certain gold mine for this risky, dangerous, and low-probability venture. Maybe he was a visionary, though we mostly thought he was just crazy. He certainly didn’t make any points with the crew — and he didn’t start out with many in the bank.
So we got there. Not just the first ones but the only ones. None of the industrials could be redirected so quickly. None of the other spec ships were prepared. And no one had much time to act. Frankly, I’m not sure any other commercial rigs even gave a damn — Hawking had been regarded pretty much as a scientific curiosity from the start.
Hawking had shown enough good manners to arrive more or less in-plane, so rendezvous was possible for a ship of our class. But the singularity wasn’t staying around for long. It was hustling toward Sol on a hyperbolic, gathering speed as it fell, and there’d only be a few weeks at the outside when the surface temperature would be within Wildcatter’s limits. We’d have just enough time to jump aboard, take a long sip with our straw, and get the hell out again.
Maybe someone could have caught up with it on the downhill side after perihelion, but apparently no one tried. The colony of Rockheads out in the Belt nearly took a direct hit on the outbound pass, but I figured most of them went scrambling for cover. A body of that mass, nudging the planets around like it did, made predicting its orbit a little dicey. I don’t know of any other outfit but ours who had the combination of speed, maneuverability, tools, and just plain rotten luck of being in position to reach her. I was just hoping that Hawking wasn’t filled with Confederate dollar bills.
We had the drilling site set up within six hours.
On the day of the accident, we’d been over the drill site for about a hundred hours. We had two teams working twelve hour shifts around the clock and the strain was just beginning to get to us. The tidal shear was making everyone dizzy, and the damned asteroid was earthquaking every few minutes. Not only were we stumbling around and bumping into one another, but Wildcatter’s hull screeched and moaned constantly. We had a hell of a time concentrating.
The site was set up directly beneath the ship itself. We had the shield walls down to keep the sun out and the atmosphere in, which added claustrophobia to the rest of our problems. But at least that way we only wore insul-skin while we worked, which was a lot more pliable than the vacuum suits. I know it sounds like I’m rationalizing, but it wasn’t the easiest assignment we had ever pulled.
The accident was Pat Talbot’s fault, no question about that. I have to give her credit though; she never made any excuses. She knew what she was doing, and she should have known better. Cal, McRae, Singh and all the rest had a dozen theories later to explain Pat’s mistake. I have a few ideas of my own.
This was Pat’s first tour on the Wildcatter. She had signed on with us at Konstantine Station, just after the news of Hawking came in. She had the credentials of an experienced tool dresser; Bartley had checked her out himself before he hired her on as his assistant. The Old Man had insisted on a second dresser on this crew because of the amount of drilling we would likely be facing.
No one else on board had ever met her before, though that was not especially unusual. She was reasonably good looking, in an unglamorous sort of way. None of us were much to look at, not while on tour. I guessed her age to be around forty. Her hair was mostly the color of ground coffee, though she had tipped the ends white in sort of a keyboard pattern. She wore it thick on top and cut close to her neck, like most spacer women did. Long hair tended to get in the way of things in freefall, and couldn’t be kept neat anyway. Her looks were standard issue Anglo and no imbedded cosmetics.
I could tell that she had a nice body under her jump suit, and that became more important to me as we coasted sunward on our intercept ellipse. This was the first time we had shipped with only one female crew member in as long as I could remember. Space tours, like long business trips spent in hotel rooms, produced horniness exponentially. I’ve always believed it was something they put in the air conditioning.
Shipboard sexism died a hasty death when commercial space ops started, even if it is still breathing on Terra and her children. But body chemistry isn’t suspended in space. I was hoping that Pat’s air conditioning was having the same effect on her as mine was on me.
Pat seemed to be a pleasant person. She was friendly enough on duty and during lounge time, though I don’t remember her talking about herself much. She spoke well. Although many of the crew had advanced degrees, education had been grafted onto her and had flourished. I relished having an intelligent conversation after listening to Bartley body-slam the language all day.
I hadn’t had a chance to talk with her before we collided with Hawking and we had been busy as hell since. It wasn’t until the night before the accident that I happened on her alone and not on duty. I’d come down to the galley several hours after the end of my shift to scrounge up some caffeine and carbohydrates. The galley was usually deserted at that hour; I liked having one meal a day in privacy.
Pat was sitting by herself at one of the tables, intently sorting through some stuff she had dumped out of a large plastic box; she didn’t hear me come in. It was hard to hear anything over the constant grinding and screeching of Wildcatter’s hull being assaulted by solar wind and tidal sheer. I spoke to her as I crossed over to the coffee dispenser.
“Hello,” I said, trying not to startle her.
She turned toward me in sort of a twisting motion, shoulders first, head reluctantly following, and eyes finally dragged along. It looked like the upper body motion in a golf swing, and for exactly the same reason.
“Oh, hi,” she said. “You’re Clarence, um, Stroemann?”
She was being polite, though she clearly was preoccupied with what she had been doing.
“Mowboata,” I said, “Clarence Mowboata. You’re thinking of Nick Stroemann, the drill suction operator. I only do surveys.”
She smiled at me and shifted the rest of the way around in my direction. I was encouraged.
“Glad to meet you — again — Clarence Mowboata.” She got the pronunciation and the inflection exactly right, not many do that. I smiled appreciatively. Her eyes widened a little in acceptance. I came over to her table and leaned against the edge, facing her. I wanted to be close enough to detect any pupil dilation; it’s important to read the signs early in this dance.
She offered her hand. “I’m Pat …”
“Talbot,” I finished. I shook her hand gently. “It was easier for me to keep you straight. What is it that keeps you so fascinated?” I gestured toward the odd assortment of rocks that were scattered on the table.
They were a jumble of shapes and sizes, all dull grey. Several were split in two or sheared at angles, and the exposed facets had an oily luster. A geologist’s mallet and chisel lay nearby. Pat looked back at them, almost exactly reversing her earlier motion.
“Well … I’m not sure exactly what these are. Hawking’s nail clippings, I suppose.”
“Hawking’s …?” My focus shifted to the rocks. I reached over and picked up one the size of a walnut. It was deceptively heavy.
“You picked these up here?”
She nodded and reached for one of the larger ones that had been cut.
“We drilled them out yesterday, actually. I found them in the effluent filter. They are each peculiar in their own way. I thought we might get some clues that the assay ay-eye missed.”
I put down the first rock and she handed the second one to me. I turned it over and studied the cleft face. It was a deep steel grey and was sealed with a natural transparent glaze. It felt dry and smooth like the inside surface of a shell. There were some imperfections in the underlying grayness; small yellow beads of what looked like fused glass were imbedded at random. They were multifaceted little fullerenes, spheres made up of flat hexagonal planes — like miniature soccer balls. Their color shifted in hue as I stared at them. There appeared to be some natural luminescence in the impurities. Crystalline sulfur compounds fused in muscovite, most likely, with a few phosphors stirred in. An unusual specimen, but probably not very interesting if the ay-eye had ignored it. I said so and handed it back to her.
“Mmm,” was her reply, then she said, “What do you know about quantum holes, naked singularities — that sort of stuff?”
“Things my mother never told me,” I said.
She didn’t react.
“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t know much. We covered that in Cosmology 101, I think. But there was this cute undergrad named Phyllis who sat next to me in that class — I was into the two body problem that semester. I saw the stuff that was on the vidpress just after Hawking was discovered.”
She turned the stone over in her hand and stared at the face with the little yellow soccer balls.
“There’s been a lot of speculation about them,” she said. “Physical laws inside of one are totally different.”
“Yeah, so I’ve heard,” I replied. I was getting a little bored with this subject and there were only five hours left in my off-shift.
“Listen,” I said, “I’ve been hoping I’d get a chance to meet you like this.” I’ve always had success with the direct approach.
“And things can get out too,” she said. She hadn’t been listening.
“Out too, hum?” I said half-heartedly.
“Yes,” she said. “A lot of people think stuff only falls into black holes — like the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. But with micro-holes like Hawking, the Mad Hatter can pack up his tea party and pay us a visit. Anything can come popping out of one — our laws don’t even make sense in there.”
This wasn’t going well. I tried another approach.
“Naked singularities, big bangs, black holes: cosmology uses a lot of sexual symbolism, doesn’t it?”
At least she smiled a little when she answered. “I think you’re pushing it a bit,” she said.
“Come on, encourage me,” I said. “Can’t we find something friendlier to talk about than a wind of improbability that comes whistling up a rabbit hole?”
“Very impressive,” she said. She paused a long time, and then she gave me this little impish look and said, “I suppose you’ve earned a change of topics — in return for being so poetic.”
This was going better. If only I hadn’t said what I did next. I never did know when to quit.
“Besides, I think if those rocks were the keys to fantasyland, the ay-eye would have been the first to know.”
Her pupils contracted.
“You keep bowing to that ay-eye,” she said. “Which one has the artificial intelligence, you or that program?”
Shit! I thought. I knew I’d blown it and should try to recover. But that crack had pissed me off.
“That program is my tool,” I said. “I underestimated it several times early on and it cost me dearly. Believe me, it knows what it is doing.”
“It infers from its knowledge base,” she said. “How can it be qualified to judge the unknowable? That’s one of the few remaining conceits of human beings.”
“It has very extensive knowledge. There is probably no human expert that could match its abilities in this field. I suppose that in the interest of being human I should ignore it and go back to my calculator.”
“You aren’t using it, you’re deferring to it.”
“I’ll bet you’re one of those ‘no computers in grade school’ fanatics, too,” I said.
“As a matter of fact I am. I happen to think it’s important for people to learn the why of things first, before they learn just how — like automatons.”
“If we all thought like you,” I said, “we’d still be sharpening wooden sticks so we could hunt down dinner.”
“Don’t resort to outrageous statements,” she snapped. “It makes you sound like you’re grasping at straws.”
She was right, I was, but I felt outraged.
“And what makes you an expert on geology, quantum holes and artificial intelligence?” I shot at her. “Aren’t those hobbies a bit unusual for a tool dresser?”
“They’re not hobbies,” was all she said. She turned her eyes back toward those damn rocks and fell silent.
I realized what I had done and I felt foolish.
“Pat,” I said, trying to sound apologetic.
“Uh, I was thinking of queuing up a movie in the lounge. Would you like to join me for Bogie, Bacall and buttered popcorn?”
She waved her hand a little in my direction. “No thanks,” she said. She didn’t look up. She started chiseling away at another of the stones.
I stood there for probably two minutes but she never seemed to notice me again. I had to hand it to her, the woman had concentration. I gave up and left.
An hour later, after I’d climbed into my bunk to get what sleep I could, I was still mentally replaying my blunder.
Pat was dressing the drill casing as I slid down from the crew quarters next morning at change of shift. I called out a “Good Morning” to her but she couldn’t hear me over the racket. Four solid days of boring with white-hot plasma had not made much of a dent in Hawking’s coat. But it was beating the crap out of the drill.
In the early Wildcatting days on Earth, a steel drill was raised by winch up a tall wooden tower erected over the hole, and then released to let gravity slam it into the dirt. The crew just raised and dropped it, raised and dropped it, slowly digging a well to the oil. The process was time consuming and tedious, and drill bits wore out quickly. The tool dresser was the person who stood by with a sledge hammer when the drill was withdrawn from the bore hole. He’d examine the bit, and hammer the cutting edge back into shape when it got dull.
In space ‘catting, a plasma gun had replaced the drill bit. The working end of the gun was surrounded by a double shelled foreskin made of a ceramic alloy. The inner shell provided a magnetic focal ring for the plasma stream, and the slag was carried away by suction between the inner and outer shells. The stuff we drilled through, and the energies we pumped, could distort the hell out of that foreskin.
The really expensive rigs had self-correcting nozzles. But like I said, this was a speculation ship, so we still carried our own tool dressers. On Wildcatter they were Cal and Pat, though they, like the rest of us, had several jobs on board. Their “sledge hammer” was a laser dressing tool — sort of a miniature version of the plasma gun — that they used to keep the nozzle trimmed and open. And in Texas or on Hawking, the tool dresser’s first commandment was the same: never do any work over the hole. A gee is a gee, as they say, and the only thing that must go into a well is a drill.
Anyway, as I came down through the access port into the work area, I saw Pat break that commandment. Proper dressing of the gun required that it be partially disassembled so that it could be swung out and away from the hole. It’s a lot of work, and a pain in the ass. I’ve seen a couple of dressers in my time take a shortcut and just slide the dressing tool out over the hole and underneath the plasma gun instead. That way they could get at the nozzle without taking the gun apart first. This is the first time I saw one not get away with it.
The dressing tool cart was balanced on its rear wheels at the edge of the four foot diameter drill hole. She had the rest of the cart suspended over the hole, front wheels dangling over a thousand feet of nothing. Pat had managed to partially cover the opposite edge of the hole with a slab of some heavy metal — it looked like a short section of shield wall material — and that provided just enough ledge to support the front lip of the cart. Pat stood on the slab like a shapely Atlas, legs spread wide straddling the hoses and lines, and was lasing the nozzle tip suspended directly over her head.
Calcame sliding down right behind me and when he saw what she was doing he was immediately pissed. He shouted at her in that booming voice he’d developed from years of working around noise. I saw her jerk her head down to look at him, and then she lost her balance. Instinctively she kicked off of the slab to keep from falling into the hole. The slab shifted, the cart tumbled, and Wildcatter lost an essential and irreplaceable tool down a 300 meter throat of rock.
All of us froze. Even Bartley was speechless. We stood there, not knowing what to say, staring like morons at that black, earthy mouth in the floor. Williams and Chan and several other members of the B-shift crew came on duty and as soon as they took in what had happened, they stopped their early morning chatter. All of us had been around rigs long enough to understand what this meant.
Finally the Old Man slid down to start his change of shift inspection. It took him only seconds to understand and he was the first one to break the silence.
“Get it out,” he grunted. That was all. He didn’t even glance at Pat. No frowns, no recriminations. Just that short command directed to all of us and then he turned and disappeared back up the ladder.
We all jumped as if we’d been goosed. We knew we were in trouble. McRae had computed that we had a week, maybe two at the outside, before Hawking’s velocity carried us too close to the sun for us to stay. After our first day of drilling we’d known it was going to be tight, since whatever Hawking was made of was not intimidated by our plasma drill.
The boring of the hole had been going very slowly, and we had to dress the tool much more frequently than usual. Our chances of tapping into Hawking’s veins before the sun turned us into prune juice weren’t very good. Now we had two new problems: a plugged well and an unreachable tool. There was no time to start a new well and no way to get very far without a dressing tool. We had to retrieve it, and in working order, or we might just as well lift off right then — which seemed like a better choice to most of us.
Everyone pitched in. Both crews stayed on the rest of the shift and more members of second shift came on early as word of what had happened reached them. We spent the first hour or so puzzling about ways to get at the cart. Of course, the first thing we tried was pulling it back up by its long power cable that trailed up from the well and tied into the primary power source in the ship. But a little tugging there and we knew that was hopeless. The cart had managed to wedge itself tight in the rough throat of the well andCalinsisted we leave the power cord alone. He was worried that we’d damage the tool beyond repair if the cable ripped out its guts, so we dropped that idea.
We spent most of the first day lowering hooks on long chains but couldn’t get them to engage anything that gave us much support. We hooked the cart handle first and immediately yanked it off of the cart. Murphy had been working overtime against us. Not only had the cart lodged upside down, wheel and flat base upward, but when Pat jumped off, the metal slab had shifted and fallen down there as well. It had wedged itself obliquely over the cart and there just wasn’t much exposed that we could get a hook around. We wasted a lot of hours with those damned hooks before we finally realized they just weren’t going to work.
The Old Man came down again at the end of the shift. He didn’t say a word to us after that first time. He just walked past us to the hole, cigar smoldering in his mouth, and shaded his eyes to look down past the flood lights we’d rigged over it. He saw we weren’t getting anywhere so he turned away and went back up to his cabin.
We went at it like that for three days: experimenting, huddling in twos and threes for ideas, sketching out and discarding all sorts of Rube Goldberg contraptions. Every member of the crew was giving it their full attention — Pat most of all. I’m sure she must have gotten some sleep but she was down there every time I came onto the site, and she was always there after I left. And I put in a lot of hours.
Somewhere along the way, the mood of the crew shifted too. Getting at that friggin’ dressing tool became a team goal now and you could sense the feeling of shared responsibility and participation growing every hour that we worked at it. Everyone chipped in an idea and I don’t recall that anyone’s opinion was dismissed out of hand by the rest of us. Someone would suggest an approach and we’d all stand around sounding it out, weighing its chances, and sometimes giving it a try. Then, as each attempt failed, we all regrouped and brainstormed some more.
Many times now when I think back on that week I spent on Hawking I feel that, in some ways, it was the most enjoyable tour I’ve served. Some close relationships were cemented there; people who before had been no more than co-workers have become friends I still value, and attend to, to this day. Several other members of that crew have expressed the same feelings to me since.
In the end though it was Pat who came up with the answer. Early on that fourth day someone, it may have been Nick Stroemann, the suction operator from Crew One, had rigged up a makeshift electromagnet. We all got excited about this idea, and worked like hell getting it suspended from a pulley and lowered into the well. It worked great too, except it couldn’t budge the damn slab, and we couldn’t angle it around the slab to slap it onto the tool housing. We fished all over that well with the magnet, guiding it remotely using the fiber optics monitor that we’d lowered down there the third day, but it just wasn’t going to work.
Everyone was feeling pretty low by then. It was like being stopped on the five yard line with time running out.
Then Pat shouted, “I’ve got an idea!”, and all of us dropped dead silent and looked at her. It was the most animated I had seen her since the accident. I’ll always remember that glow on her face as she beamed back at us.
“Pull the magnet back out of there,” she said, “and let’s turn on the dresser.”
We just looked at one another, not understanding what she meant to do. But she turned off the magnet’s power switch that Stroemann had rigged, and that dangled from a cantilever near the nozzle of plasma drill. Stroemann grabbed the chain that snaked over the pulley and pulled the magnet out of the pit. Pat saw it come clear and then turned toward the monitor screen. She slowly returned power to the dresser tool. As soon as the orange pencil of pure energy appeared, I understood what she was doing. The tool’s barrel was pointed generally up the well in the direction of the metal slab. The beam flecked over one corner of the plate and we saw it shift color, bubble, and then vaporize.
I grabbed one of the grappling hooks and shouted at Pat to switch off the dresser. She did and I lowered the hook back down the hole and then swung it and jiggled it past the newly cut gap in the slab. I fished for the dresser tool, guiding it by the monitor screen, and saw the hook loop around one of the legs of the cart.
“You can’t pull it up with that,” Williams shouted at me. But I just shook my head and gave a few tugs on the chain. After a couple of tries, I managed to rotate the dresser a few degrees so that the beam’s aim was shifted. Pat saw what I was up to and she flipped on the power again. Another section of slab melted away.
I heard a cheer and looked up to see that everyone was standing around us now. Their eyes were jumping back and forth from the monitor to the hole as Pat and I ran off our final series of downs. I twisted the tool a little further; she powered it on and burned away more of the blockage. Once she burned through the chain holding the hook and I tumbled backward as it snapped free. There was a bit of snickering as I landed on my ass. We had the end in sight now and the mood had improved considerably.
Before I could stand up Chan Singh had already lowered another hook into place and was signaling for Pat to turn on the power. I stood back, unceremoniously thrust into the role of spectator, and grinned. I saw movement to one side of me and saw that the Old Man had slipped into the work area unnoticed. He was standing silently, arms hanging loose at his sides and a thin streamer of white smoke was ascending from the tip of his cigar.
I heard Pat shout, “I got it!”, and everyone except the Old Man let out another cheer. With no words between them Chan jerked the hook back out of the hole and Stroemann powered up the electromagnet. He lowered it hand over hand until we all heard the snap as it kissed the metal slab — now sundered. Stroemann tugged and we could hear and see the section of slab break free from the wall of the well. Stroemann wheeled up the cable and the jagged fragment appeared at the lip of the hole. Several hands reached out to grab it.
Another cheer — we could all sense touchdown now. The magnet dropped out of sight again and the other section of slab was free. Pat called for Chan to lower the hook onto the cart and he did, snagging it easily the first time. I grabbed another hook and lowered it from the opposite side of the hole. Chan and I stood there like ice fishermen, with a catch too big to lose and too heavy to reel in. Then Stroemann dropped the magnet so that it snicked onto the dresser cart. The three of us began to pull slowly, and very carefully, and the cart shifted in the monitor. Several others grabbed one or the other of our chains and we all tugged together. Someone began to chant, “Go, go, go,” and we all joined in.
Finally, and grudgingly, Hawking’s throat disgorged its unwelcome lodger. Pandemonium broke loose. People were clapping, cheering, crying all at once. I hugged Chan and Stroemann and I guess just about everyone else in the crew. You would have thought we had just won the Super Bowl. We all went crazy and Pat just stood off to the side with a big grin on her face and tears streaming down her cheeks.
The Old Man let us carry on like that for maybe a couple of minutes and then he slowly worked his way through the circle of bodies and stood near the edge of the hole. As soon as we became aware of him standing there we quieted down. In a minute we were standing around with stupid grins on our faces, holding our breath and waiting to see what the Old Man would say.
He reached out and lightly touched the dresser cart, still hanging like a misshapen fruit from the end of the electromagnet. With a sudden chill I realized that no one had thought to get it down from over the hole. I saw a couple of heads jerk and I knew that thought was belatedly making the rounds. But with Snyder standing there none of us were too anxious to move. He looked at each of us one at a time, meeting each pair of eyes, challenging us. Then he turned to Pat.
“Talbot,” he said, staring at her, “come here.”
Pat looked at him uncertainly and hesitated. She let the smile melt from her mouth and she wiped at her cheeks with the back of her hand. I saw her tense as she crossed the space to where the Old Man waited. When she was next to him he said nothing at first, just continued to look at her through that wispy veil that rose from his cigar. When he finally spoke it was almost a whisper.
“Look at this dressing tool, Talbot. Take a good look. Do you see what your carelessness has caused?”
He raised his hand and touched the edge of the cart. “I want you to have this dresser, Talbot. I’ll make it a gift to you as soon as we are finished here. You keep it as a souvenir, a reminder of your incompetence.”
Pat was glassy-eyed now. She said nothing and didn’t move.
“Because, Talbot,” the Old Man continued, “you will get nothing else from me for this job. You are fired. If you can afford to pay, I’ll sell you passage back to Konstantine. If not, find your own way back. And I promise you this. You will never work for this or any other outfit again.”
The rest of us were dumfounded, unbelieving. The camaraderie had changed to outrage. I looked at Pat, searching for a reaction. But she stood staring at the Old Man soundlessly.
And then in a single motion that must have taken seconds but seemed endless, she raised her right hand to the power switch for the electromagnet. Her fingers lingered there for a moment, and she said just two words.
She turned off the power. I watched the dresser cart plunge out of sight down the well and I heard a gut-churning crunch.
Snyder’s cigar dropped from his mouth and followed the cart. I’d never seen a look like that on his face before. He was catatonic. Pat turned away from him and walked away.
Her movement seemed to shake Snyder from his trance. He became aware that all of us were staring at him; his eyes narrowed and he glared at us in turn. Then he looked at Pat, who’d reached the bottom of the ladder. He started to say something, hesitated, and turned toward me instead.
“Mowboata, you’re in charge of getting that dresser tool back,” he snapped. “I want it out by end of shift.”
He turned to go after Pat.
“No,” I said quietly. There was a gasp from several members of the work crew. Pat was nearly up the ladder now and I saw her glance back at me when I spoke.
Snyder was frozen where he stood. He looked at me, uncomprehending, as though he was witnessing a breakdown in natural law. A member of his crew had refused an order. I shied from the open fury of his stare, turned my back and walked away from him. Behind me I heard the sound of tools being dropped, and of shuffling feet, but not even a faint murmur of a human voice. I folded my arms across my chest and turned again to face him. I found that nearly half the crew had joined me. The others were standing immobilized like statues, as though some slight movement might shatter the fragile shell of restraint and invite destruction down on all of us.
Snyder’s eyes glazed over. Every filament of muscle in his neck, face and arms was stretched tight like a cobra ready to strike. His fists were balled into hammers and his chest was rising and falling with shallow breaths. We were transfixed in a tableau that could explode in an instant.
It was Pat who released us. She started climbing again and disappeared up through the access hatch. Snyder saw the movement and turned toward the ladder. He looked back in my direction once, and there was loathing in his face. Then he scrambled up the ladder and left us alone.
We stood around looking at each other for a while, making nervous noises. I had a gut-twisting like I’d just been told I had days to live — which might not have been too far wrong. I had to get away from the work site; I decided to go after Pat. She wasn’t in her cabin when I got there.
An hour later the word came down from the OldMan.
“Stow up and lift off.”
We did. It took several hours to stow and I spent as much time as I could searching for Pat. Williams said he thought Snyder had summoned her to his cabin. No one had seen her since.
I went back to her cabin just before lift off and it had been emptied out, though a few personal belongings were still there. She’d apparently taken her strange rocks with her too. I couldn’t find them and no one on the crew even knew what I was talking about when I asked around. Singh had thought to check the lifeboats and sure enough one was missing. One of the dinghies could hold three people and they were designed for a few weeks survival at most. Being alone and conserving her supplies Pat could stretch that quite a bit, but it wouldn’t do her much good. The boats didn’t have enough delta-vee to escape from Hawking and they sure couldn’t withstand being this close to the Sun for very long. I felt sick and mostly stayed in my cabin until we lifted off.
Two hours later we were burning away from Hawking. It disappeared toward Sol with Pat Talbot astride it and with its mysteries intact. We had scooped out a couple of tons of its surface, which would no doubt be of interest to the scientists. But the Science Salvage Act guaranteed the Wildcatter crew would get little financial reward for that. The venture had been a bust for the Old Man — and none of us were losing any tears for him. Snyder never mentioned his missing assistant tool dresser again.
That was the last time I served on a Snyder ship. When we got back to Konstantine the Old Man fired most of us and more than half of the rest resigned. I had a hell of a time getting work on any of the other spec ships for a long time afterwards. The Old Man saw to that. It took Snyder almost a month to sign a fresh crew. It turned out his find on Titan was the biggest one yet, but I never regretted losing my share.
That was nearly five years ago, and for a long time I couldn’t think about Pat Talbot without hurting. But I thought it was over, until yesterday.
Yesterday I got an anonymous packet in my e-mail. The packet was composed of three linked files and there was no note or other explanation attached. It’d been netted to me from somewhere here on Konstantine Station and the sender’s I.D. had been deleted.
The first file was a clipping extracted from one of the on-line weekly news publications. It was dated almost a year ago.
Tel Aviv 09/22/48 (UPI): Scientists at Israel’s Ben Gurion Institute announced today that, after several years of research, they have successfully synthesized a quantum black hole … Institute Director Dr. Mohinder Chopra stated that the breakthrough had come as a result of unexpected recent discoveries about the properties of these mysterious microscopic objects.
In a related development, U.S. Senator Gary Smith (R. Texas) today called for immediate international sanctions against Israel. “Tel Aviv’s attempt to monopolize the technology of the quantum black hole must be thwarted,” Senator Smith was quoted as saying. “There can be little doubt that this ‘breakthrough’ came as a result of illegal acquisition of discoveries from one of the independent speculator ships, yet another example of Israel’s open disregard for the Science Salvage Act.”
The second file was a prospectus for Wolfman Discoveries, Inc., a privately held trading corporation based inGenevathat had been formed two years ago. The company’s business seemed to be derived from an exclusive, and classified, contract with Ben Gurion Institute. The company’s officers were not identified. The prospectus included a formal offering allowing me to buy shares in the company.
The third file was a high resolution visual image. It was a photograph extracted from an old magazine, maybe National Geographic. It was a picture of a dead animal, its leg crushed in a steel vice trap, its body horribly mutilated. The animal was one of those cats that used to roam theU.S.western plains — a puma or cougar. A wildcat.
Jesus, she’s alive! Somehow, impossibly, she made it back and she’s coming after the Old Man. I don’t how she did it, or why she’s decided to let me in on this, but I’m not fool enough to bet against her again.
Today I sold my condo and bought ten thousand shares of Wolfman.
Tool Dresser’s Law © Jack Clemons. All Rights Reserved. Tool Dresser’s Law was originally published in the November 1989 issue of Amazing Stories and is reprinted here by permission of the author.
Jack Clemons has a Masters in aerospace engineering and spent most of his working career on the Apollo Moon Program and NASA’s Space Shuttle Program. He has appeared on the Science Channel in the series “Moon Machines” and has written and made numerous presentations on the space program, on the importance of systems engineering (for non-engineering audiences), and on leadership.