by Mike Combs
Copyright © 2006
I was eating lunch in my favorite restaurant when the word came that it was my responsibility to pluck a tumbling animal out of the sky.
"Void Walkers" is easily the most popular restaurant here in Bernal Alpha (yep, that's right; I have the honor of living and working in the system's first genuinely independent human settlement in High Earth Orbit). "Void Walkers" was started up by Manny Sinclair, who initially came up to HEO as a spacesuit repair technician.
The Alpha construction crew has gone through an astonishing number of spacesuits. At any given time, Manny's repair shop was filled with tens of complete suits and various components. Of course he cannibalized as best he could, but as the years went on he accumulated several dozen complete-yet-utterly-nonfunctional suits. Still, he never threw them out, insisting it just didn't seem right to casually toss something originally costing tens of thousands of dollars into a common trash bin.
When it came time to retire, he bought the entire lot from Franklin Enterprises for pocket change, and so had what he needed for the theme restaurant he had in mind.
The walls in "Void Walkers" were lined with recesses, in each of which dwelled a headless and well-worn spacesuit of one old-fashioned design or another. The lights which hung above each table consisted of a light bulb housed in a space helmet, throwing a circular pool of light onto the table-top. The holders for the menus were space gloves. The entire place was like a museum to the early days of the Space Industrial Revolution.
I was just fixing to take the second bite out of my bunnyburger when there was an unwelcome interruption.
"Mark Fairbanks, you are needed!"
I turned to see James Mondale, imperious in his gold-colored jumpsuit and thinning gray hair.
"Well, we have need of your unique skills," he said. "The idiots who built the fence for the pig-lot decided to save on materials by not fencing off the back-side of the lot."
Eventually, all farm animals will go into the exterior agricultural tori. But although they were very nearly finished at this point, the tori were not yet pressurized. In the meanwhile, some farm animals had been placed in pens in some presently-unused areas inside the main habitat sphere.
"Conventional wisdom was that there's no point in building fencing beyond the sixty degree slope because livestock can't climb a slope that steep," Mondale said with his characteristic irritation. "Well, as frequently happens, conventional wisdom was wrong. A pig has not only gotten higher than that, he's somehow made his way up beyond the windows, and got to a level where there wasn't enough centrifugal force to hold him against the landscape. He's drifted out into the air, and it's your job to go rescue him."
"You're kidding, right?"
"It's no joke," Mondale replied.
I set down my bunnyburger and reached up to pluck at the material of my jumpsuit. "I invite you to observe that the color of my suit is brown, not green. Brown means zero-G assembly. This is somebody else's headache."
We on the Alpha work crew all wore color-coded jumpsuits. Gold was senior management, silver was junior management, red was engineering, and green was life-support/agriculture. Brown signified my own profession of assembling enormous structures in free-fall. Just the other day, Reggie Deitrich had tried to drag me into some nonsense discussion to the effect that the color choices had been all wrong. Management should be maroon, engineering/ops gold, science/medical blue. Then he looks at me expectantly, like he's waiting for me to get some joke. I had to put up with Reggie's foolishness with good-nature, though, because word was he was in tight with the president of the corporation.
Mondale moved in, grinning devilishly. "We think your extensive experience with zero-G maneuvering, not to mention your skills with low-G hang-gliding and flying, make you uniquely qualified for this job."
"Why is this so important, anyway?" I asked. "So what if some dumb pig has gotten himself too close to the spin-axis and will eventually plop down on top of somebody's apartment? What, are you afraid he'll make a hole in the roof? I think Franklin Enterprises can afford the repair bill."
"Well, the problem is that the media are already all over this," Mondale explained. "The corporation which agreed to handle our livestock thinks this pig going splat on the ground somewhere in Alpha will be bad publicity which they insist they can't really deal with right now. There's already weird stuff being said in the animal rights groups about farm animals being brought into space. Our livestock company is threatening to cancel the contract if we don't take care of this in a way which doesn't kill or endanger the pig in front of all these video cameras. If we can't eat up here, then we can't stay up here. Get with Reggie and resolve this situation."
I looked down at my barely-touched bunnyburger, and, with a disgusted sigh, pushed myself back from the table. I bid Manny a farewell, and headed out into the sunlight and curving, green landscape outdoors.
I hopped into my little electric car, and set off in the direction Mondale was indicating. I drove to one of the six lifters and parked. The lifters were bowl-shaped vehicles which we used to get back and forth between the "equatorial" parts of Alpha where there was significant spin-gravity and the parts close to the spin-axis where there was scarcely any. I sat in the lifter and it began moving up the slope on a monorail. As the land steadily became steeper, the inner part of the lifter began to tilt, keeping me level. With increasing altitude came declining weight.
Bernal Alpha was illuminated by sunlight which bounces off enormous mirrors and in through ring-shaped sets of windows which encircle either "pole" of the spherical space habitat. The lifter now was ascending through a narrow gap between two of those sets of windows. A metal stairwell (built only for emergency use) flashed by me on one side.
Soon I had cleared the windows. The land continued to get steeper, approaching vertical. At about the 1/20 G level, the lifter began slowing and stopped at a platform which was part of the low-G entertainment facility at this "pole" of the habitat. This was familiar territory to me: the launching point for both human-powered flight and for hang-gliding.
Reggie Deitrich was waiting for me there. He wore the red jump-suit of the engineering staff. The short, stocky, dark-haired engineer was on temporary loan to us from the Lunar Launcher Project.
"Hey, Mark," Reggie said.
"Reggie, how are yah?"
"Over-worked and under-medicated."
We weren't alone on the platform. There were three or four video cameramen, along with several news crews and a number of assorted onlookers.
Reggie walked me a few degrees around the platform (the upward curvature of the surface we slowly bounded was quite apparent this close to the spin-axis). Then he points outward.
And there's the pig. He's drifted out quite some tens of meters already, and was currently a bit lower than our vantage point. He's slowly tumbling, and gives a tired thrash every once in a while. It looks to be a younger pig, but still easily outweighs me. I catch a sudden glint of light, and quickly realize it's a long tendril of pig snot slowly drawn out by the centrifugal force of the tumble. Nice.
"How in the world did he get up this high?" I asked while stroking my beard. "A person could probably get all the way up to the spin-axis on their own power, but then a person can grab onto vegetation and pull themselves along. How does an animal with hooves climb a landscape this close to vertical?" (But then I immediately thought of mountain goats.)
"Dunno," Reggie says. "Nobody saw him get up here. He wasn't spotted until he was already up in the sky. He'd only have to have gotten a bit past the forty-five degree slope before maybe finding one of the stairwells which run between the windows. One of those might've provided him the footing he needed to get above the windows."
Then he says, "Hey, you know all those improbable things people say will happen on the day when pigs fly? I guess today's the day. Just look at that, and think about all the people getting pay raises. All the politicians telling the truth. All the nerds getting laid."
"Hey," Reggie continued brightly. "Do you suppose Hell is freezing over, too?"
"Shut up shut up."
"Should we be on our guard about monkeys flying out our asses?"
"I'll pay you good money to shut up."
The path of the pig through the air was an enormous, shallow spiral with a period of thirty seconds: the spin-rate of Bernal Alpha. Unfortunately for him, it was an outward spiral.
If there was no air in a space habitat, and you were inside but not turning with it, you might hang there forever. There's no real gravity to speak of. But even if you depart from the spin-axis with zero rotation, as you move further away from the axis, you start to feel a breeze on your face. That's because the air is rotating with the habitat. This increasing breeze will try to gently push you around in the direction of the rotation, so you tend to slip down from the axis still further. It's a snowballing effect, and it won't cease for this stupid animal until he spirals down and comes crashing into something on the ground several hundred meters below us. Or someone.
I finally turn myself away from the mesmerizing spectacle of looping aerial livestock to face Reggie and ask, "So what's the plan on this?"
Reggie lifted a line he was carrying. "As near as I can figure, we tie this line to you, I hook my legs into this railing, and then I toss you at the pig. You grab onto it, and then I pull you both in."
"That's nuts," I protested, eyeing all the cameras around us. "Can't we make a lasso and try to lasso it?"
"Please observe that a pig's neck is bigger around than his head. I don't think one can lasso a pig."
"Maybe I could snag a leg…"
"Unlikely in the extreme," Reggie insisted.
I didn't even bother to propose going off to get my wings. With my arms strapped into them, I wouldn't be able to grab onto the silly animal.
"That pig will put up a fight when I come sailing through the air and grabbing at it," I began again. "Can't we, like, use a tranquilizer dart, or something?"
"Where, exactly, do you think you are? The African savannah?"
"Well, isn't there some kind of animal control service? Maybe they'd have something..."
"There are, what, like two dogs and maybe three cats in Bernal Alpha right now? Sorry, no Alpha Animal Control. Not yet, anyway. Just us."
Knowing I'd regret it, I let Reggie tie the line around my middle. Wrapping his legs around the rungs of the railing at the edge, he hefted me up in the air and held me over his head with both hands. He took aim and then launched me like a spear at the orbiting porker, all under the watchful eyes of the media.
I didn't even come close, though Wilbur did seem to react to my presence in his skies by squealing and giving a few vigorous thrashes. I came to the end of my slack and rebounded, picking up some rotation.
"You're not correcting for the Coriolis drift," I shouted back with some annoyance.
"Sorry, sorry," Reggie said as he pulled out the slack and began guiding me back in. I noted with approval that he didn't just haul in continuously on the line. That's an error I've seen rookies make, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Once he had me heading back to his location on the railing at a sufficient speed, he only pulled in enough on the line to take up the slack.
I grasped Reggie's outstretched hand, and he brought me to a halt. We repeated the procedure, this time coming a good deal closer (and making the pig more nervous still). Reggie was figuring out the physics of this, and I started to have a bit of confidence in our next attempt.
The next throw was still not dead-on. But by twisting my body as I passed by, I was just able to snag one hind leg. Wilbur immediately yanked his leg back, and I was quickly drawn to the pig as we tumbled and turned together. I struggled to improve my purchase on the animal, as all the while it shrieked as though I were attempting murder. As it thrashed in my grasp, I reflected on the fact that holding onto swine was much more difficult than with a dog or a cat. Those animals had long hair onto which you could get a grip. Porky presented nothing but smooth, bristly skin.
"You've got it! Just hang on!" Reggie shouted.
I embraced the hog like a zero-G lover, its little piggy eye centimeters from my own. I was close enough to its mouth to smell the last bit of slop it'd gobbled.
As we came to the end of our slack, Reggie managed to use the line to take away some, but not all, of the wild tumble we'd picked up.
Wilbur carried on with his hysterical squealing and bucking. I started to wonder if I was in danger of being bitten. "Smarter than dogs" my ass! This was just another stupid farm animal. He was utterly ignorant of the single most important fact: that I was trying to help him.
Then it happened. A hoof shot straight into my manhood. I reeled and nearly gagged with the horrible impact, but refused to loosen my grip. Not after all this. I just hung on, and tried not to look down upon the rooftops of the apartment buildings and shops gyrating by hundreds of meters below me.
While I attempted to maintain my grip on the squirming animal, it seemed to me the sun was suddenly growing hotter. Then, to my horror, I realized my problem.
The space mirrors which reflect sunlight into Bernal Alpha are slightly concave, concentrating mirrors. This light concentration makes it possible to illuminate nearly the entire interior of Alpha using windows which are much less than one-half of the surface area of the habitat. The light is at about 10x normal solar intensity when it comes in through the windows. The light rays pass through a focus up in the air about fifty meters from the windows, and then fan out to light up the opposite side of the sphere with the ordinary 1x solar intensity.
The pig had been slowly descending before, and my snagging him had brought him down even faster. We were moving in a wider and wider spiral, and were now losing altitude alarmingly. We'd strayed into the paths of the sun rays lighting up the far side of Alpha.
I twisted my head to look at the windows we drifted in front of, and quickly winced and turned back, my eyes throbbing from my brief glimpse of a far-too-large sun. It seemed inevitable to me that we would start to arc around downward on the end of our line. We might swing into the ring-shaped zone of the mirror focus, perhaps resulting in spontaneous human combustion (accompanied by fried pork). Even a long time before it got that bad, there was a serious danger of death by heat prostration.
Surely Reggie was starting to appreciate the peril I was in. By this point, at about 3x or 4x solar concentration, both Wilbur and I ought to be shining like the angel Gabriel. I couldn't tell because I could no longer keep my eyes open. But even tightly closed eyelids couldn't keep out a blindingly-brilliant orange glow.
A sudden, firm tugging on the line indicated that Reggie was indeed seeing the danger. We had descended so much that he had a fair bit of centrifugal force to overcome this time. The overly-intense light faded, and the fierce heat was removed. Slowly, my vision began to return.
Suddenly, we whipped around on the line under the platform, bouncing violently off its underside. I maintained my death-grip on the pig, his squeals of protest now nearly deafening.
And then Wilbur and I were arcing over the railing. Reggie and one of the bystanders grabbed us and helped us down to the floor of the platform. I still wasn't about to let go of this stupid animal. In this low gravity, he could easily leap away in a panic and go right back over the railing.
One of the media people (bless his heart) was actually making himself useful, putting a camera bag over the pig's head like a hood. Not being able to see did make Porky's wild bucking subside, at least a bit. A small cheer went up from the crowd.
We all picked Wilbur up, walked him back to a low-G dance studio behind us, and released him there. He immediately shrugged off the makeshift hood. At least here, indoors, he wasn't going to get away before the agriculture people could arrive to take him back to where he belonged.
As I wiped sweat from my eyes, Reggie bounded in front of most of the cameras and exclaimed, "Tha- tha- tha- that's all folks!"
"Reggie," I barked, "Quit hamming it up for the cameras."
Both he and the steadily-enlarging crowd groaned loudly.
"No," I grumpily cried out, "I didn't mean to pun! It was an accident!" But it was already out there, and on video.
Now Wilbur was amusing everyone with a demonstration of porcine gymnastics consisting of slow-motion back flips and somersaults. I was trying to wipe pig snot from the breast of my brown jumpsuit when Reggie soared over to pound my shoulder.
"Hey, good going! We did it!" he enthused, and then asked me, "Hey, where are you going?"
"Back to my bunnyburger," I answered, although I had to reflect that Manny had doubtless thrown it out by now. Maybe I could get him to replace it with a BLT.
Hickory Dickery Dare
The pig flew up in the air.
The man in brown
Soon brought him down.
Hickory Dickery Dare
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