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Close Enough

“A hundred megameters, my ass,” Max Kepler grumbled.

He watched the string of C-class asteroids on his 4-D display. Kepler-Sterne-1, the asteroid where he and Rebecca had staked their claim, was at the center. Napoleon’s Comet had entered their fifty megameter boundary five minutes ago, and telemetry put Napoleon and Kepler-Sterne-1 on minimum separation in one hour and twelve minutes. The closest fringe vector indicated a collision; a glancing blow, perhaps, but who wants any kind of collision with a comet.

“Geordi, Patch me through to IWA.”

“One moment, please,” the base AI replied. “Connecting…”

Rebecca said he shouldn’t have gone with the government agency; she had pushed for a more reliable private firm, but she had already used almost all her dibs to override him for their ridiculously top-of-the-line suits, so he had won the right to choose the government’s free Intrasolar Warning Agency.

Won? There was no winning with Rebecca. The reason their Personal Relationship contract was stuck in Phase One was their inability to negotiate anything meaningful, each convinced that the other was the more stubborn. It was a good thing their business drives were in sync – they wouldn’t have been licensed to be on this rock together if their Commercial Relationship hadn’t already graduated to Four. But he was never going to get to Second Phase with Rebecca if she found out how close to disaster this looked to be.

Hell, the comet would probably get closer to her than he would.

“This is IWA. We’re a little busy here right now. What do you want?” the radio crackled.

“Who am I talking to?” Max asked.

“Who wants to know?”

“This is Max Kepler on Kepler-Sterne-1,” Max said. “Is this Kenny?”

“Yes, this is Kenny. What can I do for you, Mr. Kepler?”

“Kenny, yesterday, you told me that Napoleon was going to clear us by a hundred thousand meters.”

“Did I say that?”

“Yes, you did. I want to know why telemetry shows it on an intercept with us.”

There was a pause, then Max thought he heard Kenny muttering, followed by an expletive, and then, “Looks like you’re another one.”

“Another what?” Max asked.

“Hang on a minute.”

“Don’t put me on hold!” Max said, but an echoing click told him it was too late.

He watched the comet on his 4-D continue its approach for a couple of minutes until Kenny came back on line.

“I.T. says there was a data mismatch on the server yesterday, so the latest positions weren’t updated until they rebooted the system today,” Kenny said.

“Great! So now I have a comet barreling down my throat.”

“Yes. But it’s not a sure thing. There’s only a twelve percent chance that any of it will hit you.”

Geordi showed his distaste for rounding by rattling off, “twelve point four, nine, three…”

“Cancel, Geordi,” Max said. “Kenny has it close enough.”

“For government work,” Geordi pouted.

Max ignored him. “None of those numbers are good, Kenny.”

“That’s not my fault.”

“Not your fault?” Max huffed. “You’re supposed to provide me with timely warning of a situation like this so I can execute a contingency. What am I supposed to do now?”

“Look, it isn’t in the terms of your Service Level Agreement for me to advise you on a course of action, but I suggest that you evacuate,” Kenny said. “Napoleon will be there in an hour. You have plenty of time.”

“The hell I do. I’m in the middle of a maintenance tear-down on our shuttle. It will take me three hours to put it back together.”

“Three point four, one…,” Geordi said.

“Not now, Geordi.”

“Well, that was a dumb thing to do,” Kenny said.

“Not when you have an SLA to provide me a twenty-four hour warning.”

“Don’t you have another shuttle?”

“No, damn it!”

That was another decision that he’d gotten to make. Rebecca was going to be so pissed.

“Bummer,” Kenny said. “By the way, this call is about to exceed your complementary assistance limit. Unless you want to incur additional charges, I’ll need to terminate this session.”

“I can do that myself!” Max said, and broke the COM button when he slammed his fist on it. “Geordi…”

“Congratulations! You have successfully terminated the call,” Geordi said. “I will inform Ms. Sterne…”

“No, you won’t,” Max said.

“The situation demands that I report to Ms. …”

“Surprise override,” Max blurted out.

“Override accepted, starting seventy-two hour timer,” Geordi said, then Rebecca’s voice added, “Oooo, I love surprises!”

Max looked around quickly as he always did before he was certain that it was only Geordi’s mimicry of Rebecca. When they had first heard the A.I. do this, Rebecca had accused Max of programming it into the override sequence, and he had counter-accused her before they both realized it was Geordi’s doing. Max had suggested they remove it, but Rebecca decided it was cute. It was just as well – even though it was a little freaky coming from Geordi, Rebecca’s voice had always been a turn-on, and this was like getting an early bonus for his efforts.

Max was glad he had insisted on a mechanism to keep their AI from informing Rebecca of every little thing. She hadn’t seen the point in the override until Geordi spoiled one of Max’s attempts to surprise her by including some artificial flowers on one of their Fed-UPS deliveries. Rebecca could be militantly practical, but she was a romantic at heart, and relished the rare occasions when Max went the extra parsec in his attempts to woo her. The surprise override was only good for a short time, but long enough to cover him until the comet passed by – if he was lucky enough that Napoleon did pass them by.

“Geordi, is Rebecca still at Bottleneck Point?”

“Yes.”

KS-1 was oddly constructed, maybe the result of crust fragments from two asteroids adhering to each other after a collision, and resulting in a new asteroid – a sandwich of hard rock fused around an internalized layer of regolith. Bottleneck Point was at the tapered end, a site where they’d discovered the easiest entry point to the asteroid’s soft center. They had established drilling operations there, taking advantage of the loose interior layer to accelerate their drilling, heating their drill pipe to vaporize the trapped H2O inside. They drew this up through the conductor pipe, almost like sucking the water from a bottle through a straw into their waiting carbon nano-filament sacks.

They’d set up a prefab pod at the Point as a doghouse to make drilling easier on them. Neither one of them was truly claustrophobic, but no matter how good Rebecca’s suits were, people weren’t meant to be encased like that for hours at a time. Once they mined enough to afford some robots it would be a different story, but for now it was what it was.

“Shall I open a connection to Ms. Sterne?” Geordi asked.

“No,” Max said. “Let’s me think this out first.”

“Thinking is not your strongest suit.”

“Shut up! Zoom plus-four times,” Max said, then when the magnification didn’t change he groaned, “Please.”

“Fine,” Geordi said.

Max studied the enlarged image: Bottleneck Point was at the end of Kepler-Sterne-1 furthest from Napoleon’s approach. For the moment, the rest of the rotating asteroid’s mass was blocking Rebecca’s view of the oncoming comet.

“Advance two hours.”

The 4-D model only advanced one hour, and the comet scored a direct hit on KS-1, completely obliterating it.

“Bam!” Geordi said, proudly.

“Oh, come on! That result has to be less than ten percent likely,” Max said.

“Three point two…”

“Can it!” Max said. “Show me what happens if it passes by.”

The model restarted, this time with Napoleon staying on its central vector and missing KS-1, which continued to obscure the view from Bottleneck Point.

“I just have to keep her there, and she won’t see a thing. Could I be so lucky?” Max wondered aloud as he put on his helmet and set his suit to OUTSIDE.

“Luck is not something that can be accounted for,” Geordi said, “although yours does seem to be in need of an upgrade.”

“Geordi,” Rebecca’s voice crackled in over the com, “I’ve finished another sack. I’m shutting down and coming back to the shuttle.”

“No – don’t do that!” Max shouted so loud that the feedback overpowered the connection until the pitch compensators kicked in and the painful screeching receded.

“Dial it down, partner,” Rebecca said. “I’d like to keep the rig going, but I need a ration break, and we’re out of bars, here.”

“I’ll bring you something,” Max said.

“That’s nice, but I really…”

“It’s a surprise!” Max said, as he walked to the back of the shuttle.

“Oooo, I love surprises,” two Rebeccas said, in stereo.

“And you’re both going to love this one,” Max said as he opened the only locker personally coded to him and pulled out the Picnic Package cube that Fed-UPS had dropped off six months ago.

“I fail to see how you expect…,” Geordi began.

“Can it, Geordi!” Max said.

He had been saving this for a really special occasion, but there weren’t going to be any of those if he didn’t do something.

“Partner, you just keep drilling and I’ll be there in twenty.”

“Okay – I’ll set up the next sack. Don’t keep me waiting, partner,” Rebecca’s teased as she hung up. At least it felt like a tease.

“I fail to see how you expect Ms. Sterne to respond favorably,” Geordi began. “Your Personal Relationship is still at Phase 1.”

“Thanks for keeping track of that. I guess I’ll have to rely on my innate charm.”

“We are doomed,” Geordi said.

The gravboots wouldn’t allow it, but Max practically ran to Bottleneck Point. He fell to his knees partway there; thankfully, he didn’t lose his hold on the picnic cube, or it would have bounced off KS-1, and then where would he be? He bent over outside the opaque white pod for a moment and caught his breath before he opened the com-channel.

“Special Delivery.”

“That was fast. What did you do, run?”

“We aim to please.”

“I’m impressed,” Rebecca said. “Hang on a minute.”

Max watched the door-lock gauge as it swung from FULL toward VACCUUM. Rebecca had sounded pleased, but there was some tension in her voice too. She might know more than she was letting on. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, his coming out here. He thought about going back, but the gauge had reached VACCUUM.

“Come on in, partner.”

When Max entered the doghouse, Rebecca had her back to him at the drilling controls. He shut the hatch, and waited for the pod to repressurize. As the indicator went green, he removed his helmet, and then placed the cube in the center of the floor. Rebecca switched the drill to auto, then lifted off her helmet and shook her head so her long auburn hair swept out in a cloud around her shoulders.

“So, what did you bring m…?” she started to ask as she turned from the panel, but she became very still as she focused on the cube at Max’s feet, wearing a puzzling combination of genuine surprise and recognition that Max could only hope was a good sign.

“Just a little something I’ve been saving,” he said as he reached down and simultaneously touched the two red buttons on top of the cube.

The top and sides of the box folded down onto the floor, their red and white checkered interiors now facing up and looking like an old-time picnic blanket. A champagne bottle stood in a chill-sleeve at center, while the aroma of fried chicken and buttered corn wafted up in the steam coming from two insta-heat tins. A dozen rotating micro-spots lit the spectacle from the edges, and created a disco-ball effect on the pod’s ceiling.

When Max had ordered the Picnic Package, he had thought it looked disarmingly romantic, but now, as he stood across from Rebecca and watched her take in the deployed package, he worried that maybe this was way too much hokey, Rube Goldberg theater. He waited for Rebecca to unfreeze and reward him with one of her patronizing smirks, but she didn’t – she just continued staring, and when Max followed her line of sight, he realized why.

In his rush to come up with a distraction, he’d forgotten about the ring. It hung from a wire-loop six inches above the champagne bottle; its single diamond sparked in the focal point of alternating pairs of spotlights.

The picnic was bought in one of Max’s uncharacteristically hopeful periods when he believed the friction in their relationship would be smoothed away once they were stuck together on this rock with no distractions. It was going to take three months to arrive; surely that would be enough time to finish becoming soul mates, so of course he had ordered it. Things had not progressed as quickly as he had thought they would, and the ring had not been top of mind in the six months since he had stowed it away.

“I didn’t think you would ever have the nerve,” Rebecca whispered. She stepped forward and closed her glove around it.

“Uhmm,” Max began.

“The picnic is just as cheesy as I thought it would be,” she continued. “What made you pull it out of the locker now?”

“Well I,” Max began again, but then it dawned on him. “Wait. You knew about this?”

“Of course. Did you think Geordi could keep something like this from me for six months? Surprises only last seventy-two hours.”

“Geordi…,” Max said.

“Geordi is busy calculating disadvantageous vectors right now,” Geordi said.

“Why…,” Max began, then “How disadvantageous?”

“It is not good,” Geordi said.

“Twelve percent not good?” Max asked.

“Approximately.”

“How much time do we have?”

“Six minutes, seventeen seconds.”

“That’s not much time,” Max muttered.

“What is he talking about, Max?” Rebecca asked. “Geordi, what are you talking about?”

“A fragment of Napoleon is going to impact KS-1,” Geordi said.

“Napoleon?” Rebecca asked.

“It’s a comet,” Max said.

“I know that.”

“I screwed up. We never should have gone with the IWA,” Max said. “I’m sorry.”

“Really?” Rebecca asked. “That’s all you have to say?”

“You were right,” Max said. “What else is there?”

Rebecca gave Max an appraising look.

“Geordi, where will the impact be?”

“The Heel.”

“The far end from where we are. Good,” Rebecca said. “Will The Heel be rotating away from the fragment?”

“Yes,” Geordi said.

“That would be just our luck,” Rebecca said, and she smiled at Max as she said it – a genuine, happy smile. She shut down the drill. “Let’s get our helmets on.”

“What good will that do?” Max frowned as he watched her lock her helmet in place.

“I trust the suits’ integrity more than I trust this pod,” Rebecca said. “And I trust our luck more than anything else.”

“Our luck? We’re about to be hit by a comet.”

“Part of a comet, which will hit the furthest end from us – the end that will be rotating away from it. Because we’re lucky.”

“I don’t think…”

“But I do.” Rebecca picked up Max’s helmet and shoved it into his hands. “Put it on.”

While Max locked his helmet down, Rebecca grabbed a handful of bungees from a cabinet and used them to attach each of their suits’ harnesses to a separate railing.

“How do you think we managed to get together so quickly, even though the stupid compatibility tests still say no? How did we make it all the way out here on a shoestring, while our competitors were still looking for sponsors? How did we luck onto this particular rock full of ice?”

“Dumb luck?” Max asked.

“It may be dumb, but we have more of it together than alone,” she said, and then she hooked their suits together.

“Twenty seconds until impact,” Geordi said. “Shutting down.”

They had just enough time to lock arms around each other when they felt a sudden jarring, and then the floor of the pod dropped from their feet like a falling elevator as KS-1’s rotation accelerated. They both rose off the floor, and Max’s helmet hit the ceiling so hard it dented one of the pod’s seams. That started a chain reaction of out-venting gasses and popping rivets, and then Max’s wall and half the ceiling blew away. He was afraid the attached bungees would drag him into space, but he hit the release button on his harness as Rebecca held on tighter.

“You’re not getting away from me that easy, Max Kepler,” Rebecca said.

They watched the pod section spin off into space. The bulk of the comet appeared just above the far horizon before their rotation brought The Heel back up and obscured it.

After what felt like an eternity of shaking and rattling, they settled into their new orbital inertia and were finally able to let go of each other. Neither of them had any serious injuries, just minor bumps and bruises. Max’s helmet had gotten the better of its collision with the pod, and showed only a scratch.

They stepped outside to assess the damage. They would need a new doghouse, but the rig looked unharmed. The water sack Rebecca had just started had slipped from the drill nozzle, but the other sacks they had collected had remained secure.

A com-link opened as Geordi came back on line.

“I am alive!”

“How’s the shuttle?” Max asked.

“One hundred percent.”

“Of course,” Rebecca said, “it’s at the center of mass.”

“That is no longer true,” Geordi said.

“We must have lost a good chunk of The Heel,” Max said.

“No, we have gained mass there.”

“What kind of mass?” Rebecca asked.

“Analyzing,” Geordi said. “Forty-two percent H2O.”

“I’ve got to see this,” Rebecca said. “The suits still have three hours of recyke; let’s go.”

“You were right about these suits,” Max said as he followed along behind Rebecca.

She stopped and turned so suddenly that he almost walked into her.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” Rebecca asked.

“The suits,” Max said. “You were right.”

“Are you sure you didn’t crack your skull inside that helmet?”

“No. Why?”

“That’s two times in one day that you’ve told me I was right,” she said. “I was afraid something had knocked some sense into your head.”

“Well, don’t let it go to yours,” Max said.

Rebecca turned and they resumed walking. As they neared The Heel, they could see that the end of KS-1 had grown. Even though the bulk of the comet’s debris was on the underside, huge shards of refrozen ice were protruding around the edges of the rock.

“That will be tons easier to mine,” Max said.

“We’re going to be rich!” Rebecca said. “I told you we’re lucky.”

“Dumb luck.”

“Close enough,” she said, and took his hand. “Being Mrs. Max Kepler is going to work out just fine.”

*****

You can connect with William Mangieri, see the full list of his works, his writing blog, and links to his current promotions on his WordPress writing page at https://williammangieri.wordpress.com/    

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