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Chapter One: Gegenschein


Sixty-five million years ago, the last time Earth was struck by an asteroid, everything in North America died in seconds, every tree on the planet burned, three quarters of the species then living, plant and animal, were wiped out, and the shockwave, conducted through the liquid iron core, split the crust open on the opposite side of the world, creating a range of volcanic mountains that did as much damage to the environment as the asteroid itself.

Had that bit of rock been only a little heavier, or traveling only a little faster, it could have burst the planet open like a bullet striking an egg, and evolution would have had to start all over again.

With the recent, tragic event at Ashland, Ohio, in East America, a badly-shaken humanity has now had a forcible reminder of its own vulnerability, as well as that of the planet it was born and evolved on. The question before our species now is, what are we going to do about it?

—Dr. Evgeny Zacharenko
Addressing the Ashland Event Commission
Of the Solar Geological Society
Curringer, Pallas, August 9, 2095


Pallatians’ fear that their kids, grandkids, and great grandkids will become civilized, urbanized, and lose the values that made their culture uniquely wonderful. Someday it’ll just seem like too much trouble to maintain the “barroom justice” system that defends Pallatian individuals against governments and corporations. Too barbaric to hunt their own food. Too “macho” to carry weapons to defend themselves, their freedom, and their future. Personally, I don’t think it’ll happen. The asteroids offer too many new frontiers to conquer.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

Mud-pie planet.

It helped, sometimes, to remember that the broken, gray-brown surface that seemed to stretch endlessly before him, under merciless starlight, to a ragged horizon that was too far away, would be covered in lush green vegetation before another decade passed. That, the young construction worker thought, was the whole point to terraformation, after all.

Seventeen-year-old Wilson Ngu carefully examined the indicator riptabbed to the left sleeve of his envirosuit, found the spot on the asteroid’s surface before him—the exact spot—corresponding to the reading of the instrument, and reached back, over his shoulder, for one of the transponders he carried on his back like arrows in a quiver.

It was a tedious, unglamorous task, but absolutely necessary. He clamped the middle of the shaft into an object that looked a bit like a pistol, pressed the ion-hardened tip of the shaft against the dark, crumbly surface—it was often described as being the exact color and texture of a slightly overdone chocolate chip cookie—and pulled the trigger. Through his suit, and the bones of his arm, he could hear the tool whine and scrape as it screwed the shaft six inches into the ground. When he pressed a release button, the top of the tool opened like a clamshell and let go of the shaft. Wilson was now ready, for the thousandth time today, to look for the next exact spot to plant a transponder.

He was “walking the tops” between craters, or “ridge-running” as it was called on his native world. On so heavily-ravaged a surface, it was the only way that made sense, on foot or driving a ground vehicle. Travelling the narrow elevations between craters avoided the necessity of going up and down constantly, and it also afforded much greater visibilty. He would descend into a crater only if the survey called for it, and the survey had been designed not to, unless it was utterly unavoidable.

Nevertheless, it was important to be precise. In a just a few more weeks, once every acre of Ceres, largest of the belt of asteroids that circled the sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, had finally been dotted with a transponder like this, standing on its fiberglass shaft about three feet above the ground, giant factory ships already in orbit—he could see one of them up there right now, its running lights cheerfully blinking yellow, red, and green—would use the guidance the devices provided to cover the entire world with virtually endless sheets, half a mile wide, of tough, self-repairing “smart” plastic.

Even that much was a monumental task, dwarfing the construction of the Egyptian pyramids or China’s fabled Great Wall. Ceres had the same surface area as the Indian subcontinent on Earth. But what came next would be even more impressive. Just as there were thousands of workmen doing the same that job he was doing now, thousands more would follow, drawing the edges of the titanic plastic strips together, using tools any carpet-layer would recognize as giant versions of his own. The
strips couldn’t be more than inches apart, which was why precision in laying them was so important. The crews would weld them together with lasers and ultrasonic “torches”. In days, the fresh welds would “heal” by themselves, creating a seamless transparent covering over the whole

Although the materials and the technology had improved with time, the basic concept had been tested and proven three generations ago on the second largest of the asteroids, Pallas, which also happened to be the world of Wilson’s birth. Pallas “only” had the same area as the West American “Four Corners” states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, with about a quarter of Wyoming thrown in for good measure.

Wilson found the next transponder location—each of the devices had a distinct digital signature that could be read from orbit—and locked a shaft into the drilling tool. The light that fell on Cere’s surface was only a fraction of that which fell on, say, Earth’s moon, but it was bright enough to dazzle eyes adjusted to the Asteroid Belt. Boundaries between light and shadow were sharp. Once this atmospheric canopy he was helping to construct was complete, however, and filled with gases that human beings could breathe, things would be very different.

Green grass below, blue sky above, and shadows with soft edges. Farms. And cities. He wasn’t altogether certain he approved of either. He planned—or at least wished—to be gone from here by then. He had reasons for his wishes. What they amounted to was a perfectly
human need to leave the nest his parents had provided, strike out on his own, and make his own mark as a man. There was another reason, too, but he decided not to think about her just now—it was far too distracting.

For just a moment, Wilson looked up at the sky, grateful for the millions of microscopic nanoscrubbers that “lived” in his helmet and kept its transparent face from fogging up. The envirosuit kept him clean, too, fed him, quenched his thirst, and protected him from solar radiation. At least half of the hard little points of light he could see, hanging against the utter blackness of space, were familiar stars. Most of the other half were asteroids, all of them smaller than Ceres and Pallas, ranging from a couple hundred miles in diameter to the size of a grain of sand. They averaged about half a mile across, and about six hundred miles apart. Not one of them twinkled. But they all would, once the plastic canopy was up over Ceres, and filled with air.

There were planets out there, too, of course, and a hundred big factory ships, their highly-skilled, highly-paid crews already working in multiple shifts, manufacturing plastic for the canopy, rolling it onto impossibly huge spindles hanging in space beside the ships in orbit. He’d recently been aboard one of the vessels with his father—briefly, he wondered if it was the same one he was looking at now—and watched tender craft hauling raw material to it, in the form of boxcar-sized chunks of carbonaceous chondrite, the same substance that constituted most of Ceres itself. The ship’s machinery crushed these smaller asteroids, extracting kerogen (the stuff that made chondrites
carbonaceous) and a surprising amount of water—six to 22 percent by mass—that was used in the fabrication process, as well as for life support.

He’d enjoyed his brief visit to the factory ship. For as long as he could remember, spacecraft had been his real passion, and the camaraderie, the happy sense of a shared and worthwhile purpose among the men and women of the crew, was something you could almost reach out and touch. They might even have welcomed him, but he had more ambitious plans.

From orbit, it was easy to see that the entire surface of Ceres was densely covered with overlapping “impact features”—craters made by collision with other asteroids that would soon make it a world of a hundred thousand perfectly circular lakes, once the atmospheric canopy was finished. Ceres would also have a single perfectly circular ocean, 300 miles across, unless the Curringer Corporation found some other use for the one enormous crater that was the asteroid’s most prominent feature.

None of that could happen, however, until the plastic canopy was anchored, folded into colossal gaskets at the outer edges of the north and south polar craters. The presence of those craters at the poles was no mere fortunate coincidence. Ceres had been carefully “nudged”—employing nuclear explosives—until a pair of suitable craters were at theopposite ends of its axis of rotation. Its rotation rate had been altered the same way, to give Ceres a 24-hour day. His father had planted each and every one of those explosives, by hand, although a computer had been used to set them off in proper order and at the correct intervals.

The crests of the ring-walls of those craters were being drilled two miles deep, at 21,600 points—one hole for every minute of the compass. Gigantic steel and titanium piers, each twice as large as the tallest skyscraper Earth had to offer, would then be set into the holes with perfectly ordinary concrete. Attached to the piers, huge twisted steel cables—exactly like those used on Earth’s suspension bridges—would stretch hundreds of miles from pole to pole. When the plastic envelope was inflated beneath them, the cables would hold it in place.

While the rest of Ceres enjoyed a “shirtsleeve” environment, four seasons, sunshine and rainfall, even occasional snow, the floors of the two polar craters would remain exposed to hard vacuum and the bitter cold of deep space. They would become the spaceports of the little planet. Long tunnels, driven through the ring-walls of each of the craters (and between the piers), out onto the terraformed surface, and fitted with multiple heavy doors, would act as the asteroid’s airlocks.

Abruptly, Wilson glanced up from his task.

Something wasn’t right.

He wasn’t sure what it was. He thought he’d seen movement against the next crater wall ahead.

There it was again!

Not movement, a faint flicker of reflected light. The sun was in his eyes. The inside of the ring-wall of the crater immediately ahead of him should have been in blackest shadow. Instead, it had been weakly illuminated for an instant, then illuminated again. What it meant was that someone or something was in the bottom of that crater, moving around, bouncing sunlight onto the wall, from their equipment or envirosuits.

Odd, Wilson thought, and annoying. He took it personally. He knew he looked the part of an adult, tall, well-muscled, agile, with that characteristic tan that could only result from being a native of deep space. He carried himself in a manner that unselfconsciously conveyed confidence and competence unusual in someone of his age, anyplace but out here, along the frontier of humanity’s expansion into the Solar System.

Proud to be considered a full-grown man by everybody brought up in this pioneer culture, Wilson detested being introduced to investors’ representatives from the Earth or the Moon, who refused to believe him capable of accepting adult responsibilities, and treated him like a child only because their own seventeen-year-olds were still children. He’d been told he would be in solitary charge of planting transponders in an area the size of Rhode Island. However now he suspected that his father had sent someone—or even come here himself—to check up on him.

Suddenly, something arose from the crater on a pillar of fire and smoke, and streaked upward, straight toward the cluster of yellow, red, and green lights blinking overhead.

Someone was trying to blow up the factory ship in orbit!

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com


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