posted on: Thursday January 28, 2010
Bobby Bretz ’10 / Portfolio Staff
Daybreak is a relative thing—especially here, 800 million kilometers from the sun. In fact, when the sun rose one morning over Amalthea, no one at the tiny mining outpost bothered to take notice. Most of the company’s employees were already hard at work. Besides, it was already as light outside as it was going to get, for the gas giant burned softly in the sky. From the surface of Amalthea, it appears more than 90 times larger than the full moon seen from Earth. It is always there. Tidally locked, the planet-facing side of the craggy moon is forever basked in a pale yellow-orange glow as Jupiter’s storms silently roar overhead.This particular morning—as the miners still called it by convention—there was more of a buzz around the company’s offices than usual. Next year’s shipment of food and supplies was due soon. In truth, it was due a week ago. After seven frustrating days waiting for any sort of communication from Earth or the merchant vessel, they received a message from local headquarters on Europa shortly before sunrise. There had been a problem. The ship was on its way, but it wouldn’t be landing. This meant that if they wanted their provisions, they had to go up and get them.The miners assumed a mere landing gear malfunction. They could meet the ship and then it could stop on Europa for repairs before the long trip home. The busy operator at the Europa office, however, failed to fill them in on the entirety of the situation, perhaps due to the kind of grim apathy or nihilism some men accrue during life on desolate natural satellites. The miners’ assumption was, in fact, a rather grave misconception.A small group of experienced men and women prepped the old utility vessel for launch. The moon dropped out from beneath them as they rose to intercept the approaching merchant ship, and it became obvious that something was amiss. First, the ship did not respond to their radio transmissions. Then, as the miners drew closer, they saw that she was rotating lazily as she advanced. They silently gained the merchant and drew up alongside. Long maintenance arms deployed from the utility vessel’s starboard side. With surgical precision, the miner at the controls maneuvered the arms into position and engaged the magnets. Tremors momentarily ran through the ship as it joined with a muffled thud and the merchant stopped spinning. It was then they got a clear look at her hull, and the gravity of the problem became apparent.Scars—all along the port side. Some unseasoned rookie must have been tasked with navigation through the asteroid belt. The ship was vitiated almost beyond repair, and there were several points where its thick skin had been breached. Another maintenance arm carefully cut open the main hatch with a large plasma torch. Instead of flying off the fuselage with a whoosh of air, the hatch calmly separated and drifted harmlessly away. The team leader of the mining crew knew what to expect, and bleakly volunteered himself for the spacewalk.He suited up and stepped into the airlock with a stony countenance. The hatch opened and the miner gently slid into the narrow alley of frigid and lonely darkness between the two spacecrafts. Grabbing the hull on either side of the gaping hole the torch left on the vessel, he cautiously pulled himself inside. He felt like a deep-sea diver exploring a mysterious shipwreck. It was pitch dark. He switched on his spacesuit’s flashlight and illuminated the small metallic corridor. He looked around. For a moment, he thought the corridor was empty. But he suddenly yelped in terror and leaped backwards—for he encountered the very thing he was expecting!— causing him to inadvertently float out through the hole he entered from and slam into the side of the utility vessel. He steadied himself on the outside of the vessel, a bit embarrassed by how startled he was, because his crew was watching him on the video feed. His suit’s camera hadn’t seen what surprised him, so neither did they. When his heart stopped pounding in his ears, he composed himself and reentered the merchant ship, this time more cautiously than before.The crew watched in open-mouthed horror as the miner oriented the camera towards the ceiling of the corridor, revealing a frozen corpse floating there, staring back at them. The dead man’s eyes were shut and his mouth was open slightly, as if he had simply fallen asleep. His face was smooth and pale blue from asphyxiation and subsequent preservation in the vacuum of space at 50 degrees Kelvin.The miner continued into the ship, heading forward to the main cabin. There were three more bodies within, completing the merchant ship’s four-man crew. One was spinning slowly around the chamber. He had a gash on his forehead and dry blood frozen around the wound—must have been injured when the ship went into its spiral. The other two were buckled into seats, one at a computer panel, the other at the ship’s controls. All three looked like the first: eyes shut in frozen slumber. The one at the computer panel held a picture of his family in his stiff fingers. When the miner touched it, it crumbled into several fragments that floated away in different directions.The one in the other seat must have been the pilot. He still had his hands on the controls. This young man, perhaps trying to redeem himself somewhat for dooming his shipmates, must have done everything he could to regain control of the spacecraft, which began spinning after a collision in the asteroid fields. Clearly, he failed to stop the ship’s rotation, but he somehow managed to adjust the autopilot and keep it on course, ensuring the shipment would arrive at its destination long after the last of the oxygen leaked out and they all suffocated.The miner noticed that the pilot’s jaw was clenched. There was a hard, almost dour look about his pallid face, having fought the ship’s convoluted trajectory until finally succumbing to unconsciousness. After an uncomfortable moment of silence, the miner moved aft to check the cargo hold, and somberly instructed his crew to get to work moving the supply crates from the dead ship to their own. When they had finished, they left the merchant drifting there and returned to Amalthea. The district supervisor gave them the rest of the shift off.The miners watched as the sun set behind the hills on the moon’s horizon. They were gathered in an atrium with large viewing windows to witness the end of the merchant ship’s journey. The derelict was now but a speck silhouetted before the bright leviathan above them. They watched in silence as it fell victim to Jupiter’s gravity well and the planet’s vast ancient tempests rose to meet it. After a while it glowed red-hot, then in seconds the metal tomb disintegrated in the dense and windy atmosphere. A trail of dust was all that remained, and they watched for a moment longer until that, too, was erased.The faint sound of a bugle playing taps resonated across the intercom system; someone had decided to play an old recording. It echoed through the dim facility with soft static underneath.