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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Sixty-one by Seventy

K.G. Jewell lives and writes in Austin, Texas. He has climbed a few mountains in his day: usually metaphorically, sometimes literally, occasionally both. (He's pretty sure a weekend snowed-in on Mt. Shasta's Casaval Ridge was a metaphor for his first novel manuscript.) His website, which is rarely updated, is lit.kgjewell.com. This is his fourth story on Daily Science Fiction.

"Fifty-Nine, baby! Fifty-Nine!" Ted chortled, chipping a chunk of rock off Fenrir's surface and dumping it into the sample bag clipped to the hip of his spacesuit.
He looked up at Saturn hanging overhead and flashed two fingers. Two moons to go. He was that close. He deactivated his ground anchor and stepped his aging, creaky bones towards the boxy tangle that was his ship.
His first step bounded him high above the ground. Fenrir was so low-G that walking was pretty much useless. He unhooked the propellant container from his waist and squirted it to guide him back down to the airlock.
The hiss of the gas escaping from the can vibrated through his gloves. It sputtered and slowed just as he reached the airlock. He grabbed the handrail and tossed the can up. It spun overhead, jerking from the last gasps of leaking propellant. It was worthless now.
Worthless, like folks had thought he had been when he retired. Old and spent.
He pulled himself into the ship. GIP closed the door behind him.
"I got it! I'm going to be first!" He was going to show them he wasn't empty of accomplishments.
"Yes, Winstead," GIP, the onboard computer, said in a British accent. Ted had never bothered to change the factory pre-set.
The floor vibrated, and the status light turned orange as air began to pump in to the small compartment.
"Return to Titan Base," commanded Ted.
"A launch is not currently possible due to an obstruction of the LSR drive."
"What's the problem?" Ted didn't like the fragility of the new LSR drive, but when the LSR tech became commercially available, he hadn't been able to pass up the speed.
"Your propellant container is currently disrupting the drive focal point and on its current trajectory will prevent launch for the next four minutes."
The fastest drive in history, and it could be blocked by a propellant can. Piece of junk, really. "Well, launch as soon as possible then."
"Yes, Winstead. Estimated travel time after launch will be forty-seven hours."
The airlock light turned green.
Ted focused on stripping off the environmental suit. He had unbuckled the last clasp and was wiggling out of the last boot when a lurch indicated the soft launch from Fenrir's surface. He strapped the suit to the wall and removed the rock chip from the sample bag.
Much of the soft rock was marred by his chisel's steel, but the outside edge, the one that had faced space for uncounted millennia, remained smooth and beautiful.
Ted opened the interior airlock door and carried the sample to the black vinyl captain's chair, the dominant feature of the ship's single cabin. He sat loosely buckled in the chair and dug through a drawer in the scuffed steel command console, eventually locating a crumpled sheet of paper and a ballpoint pen.
Scribbled on the paper were the sixty-one moons of Saturn. Fifty-eight had been crossed out. Ted ceremoniously clicked the pen open and crossed out Fenrir. Two names remained: Janus and Epimetheus. The co-orbital brothers.
"GIP, have I gotten clearance to approach the Janus-Epi orbit swap?"
"Negative, Winstead. Space-Com is still considering the permit."
"Set up a meeting for me with Ann when we get back to the base. It's time to go for the win."
Ted walked past his old cubicle enroute to Ann Gifford's office. The new guy--what was his name? Carson? Cargill?--didn't even look up when Ted passed his console. Two years into retirement, Ted still dreamt about that chair. When you sat there, things needed to get done, every moment purpose-driven and precious; casual chit-chat was not an option.
Ann's secretary waved at him from her station outside the Titan Base Commissioner's office.
"Ted! How have you been?"
The biggest problem with retirement was too much time for chit-chat.
"Fine, fine. Is Ann in? I've got a meeting with her." Ted checked his watch. He was a few minutes early.
"She's finishing up her last appointment, but you're on the schedule. What have you been up to? Are you still chasing those crazy moons?" The secretary flashed a smile.
"Yep. Almost there." His quest was common knowledge on the base. Even with the population now coming on five thousand, it was still very much a small town.
"I hear Rousseau's daughter is on your heels."
"She's still a few rocks down. The LSR drive tightened the race, but I had a head start on her." LSR technology had slashed inter-orbital travel times. Moons that had taken Ted weeks to reach under the Hack drive were now days away. When he had started, the key to his goal had been patience and perseverance. Now it was speed, speed, speed.
"She's a real go-getter. Did you know Elise was the high school low-G racquetball champ this year? She beat the best from Ganymede and Luna." The secretary shook her head. "I wouldn't bet against her."
Not in favor of a washed up hack like me. "I placed my bet when I started this chase. I still plan on being the one with the word first next to my name in the record books."
Ann's door slid open. A teenaged platinum blonde walked out, hair poofed in the low-G style. She wore a crisp blazer and clasped a bright pink leather portfolio under her arm. Elise Rousseau. Speak of the devil.
"Hello, Mr. Alders!" Elise smiled brightly at him as she passed.
"Hello, Elise. How are you?"
"Fine, fine. Gotta run! I've got some moons to check off my to-do list!" She didn't break stride.
"Good luck with that!" Ted called after her.
"The Commissioner will see you now," the secretary said.
Ted acknowledged the invitation with a wave and stepped through the still-open door.
Ann's office was relatively small, just large enough for her console and two guest chairs, but its prestige was marked by the exterior window. The glass revealed a rainy day outside--methane drizzled across Titan's sand dunes, clouding the landscape in an orange haze. Bleak, but beautiful.
Ann Gifford stood beside her console, gazing out the window. Her grey hair was pulled back, her business suit a sober black. Her slight stature belied her substantial heft in the base command structure.
He coughed discreetly, and she turned to face him. "Ted, how are things?"
"Not bad. Any progress on the Janus-Epimetheus permits?"
"As a matter of fact, word just came through this morning. Dr. Rousseau pulled the necessary strings, and they will be open to public visitation starting Monday."
Ted nodded. Dr. Rousseau was a hot-shot planetary geologist who had pull with the Earthside powers-that-be. His help with public access to the moons was the one upside to competition from his daughter.
"When are you leaving?" she asked.
Ann frowned. "We expect a solar flare to hit Monday. It's going to be a bad day to be cutting through the G-ring."
"I know, I'm not happy about that either." A solar flare could trigger a magnetic substorm, making the dust of the G-ring unpredictable and difficult to navigate. But he was so close, he couldn't risk a single day.
Ann stepped forward and patted him on the shoulder. "It will be over in a few days. Just push it back. What's the hurry?"
"You know Elise is right on my tail. Besides, I turn seventy next Wednesday. Finishing this would make a great present to myself."
"Come on, Ted. It's more important to make it to your birthday alive than to rush this."
You mean this is too dangerous for an old, feeble guy like me, Ted translated.
"Ann, I flew the rings during the electro-magnetic blizzard of '77. I got life-saving supplies to the low-orbit station when no one else could even get off Titan. I'm not going to let a small particle flurry get in my way now."
"Someday you're going to have to realize you're retired. Downshift. Relax. Smell the flowers." She sounded like his ex-wife.
Ted's voice turned cold; he knew when he was being asked to leave. "No thanks--all the good flowers are in Earthside cemeteries."
Ted tried to get his ship off early, but as Ann had said, the permits didn't clear until Monday and Space-com held his flight plan until it came through. No threats or bribes by Ted could move the largest bureaucracy in the solar system.
He left the moment they released the permits.
When the storm hit, he was ready. GIP had already given him the controls. GIP could plot a linear course from point A to point B, but throw a million randomly shifting dust and rock fragments into the equation, and mathematics failed. Those calculations remained in the realm of instinct and intuition.
GIP could barely match instinct, and certainly not intuition.
Ted had first touched a control yoke at age eighteen and had flown by the seat of his pants ever since. A life-long career flying had given him an impressive accumulation of experience in the cockpit. Ted had flying intuition out the wazoo.
He cashed it all in.
Tension built in his shoulders as he threaded the transport between vibrating chunks of rock and ice, gripping the navigation stick tightly in his hands. The dust bands were active: moving, shifting, fluctuating with each moment. The console lit up with hazards, their projected vectors, and the impossibility of the task.
An ice hunk the size of a school bus loomed, and Ted had a flashback to the blizzard of '77. He had been young, too young to know he was supposed to be terrified. He had aimed at the threats, angry at the interruptions of his flight, daring them to hit him. The ignorant panache of youth.
But they said he was in his second childhood--and he was crazy enough to believe them. He pushed the stick and dove towards the threat. Pulled by the storm's mysterious marionette cords, the ice hunk twisted out of the way. His ship cleared with centimeters to spare.
Ted threaded the rest of the ring, powered by the rush of near-death adrenaline pumping through his veins
"I've still got it! I've still got the magic!" he yelled. Let Ann see him now. Old and feeble my ass, he thought.
And then he was out. Janus hung before him, a small lump of rock and ice against the yellow backdrop of Saturn.
"Take her in, GIP."
"Very good, sir."
Adrenaline still seeped from his glands as he began suiting up for the surface walk. He stepped into the suit and snapped the buckles one by one up the side of the leg. He was halfway up the second leg when GIP spoke again. "Winstead, an unidentified spacecraft lies on the optimal approach. Do you wish to wait or land in an alternate location?"
Ted snapped the last three buckles and walked to the console to view the complication.
"Cassini's Ass!"
Elise Rousseau's sleek spacecraft sat on the outer face of Janus.
"Hello, Elise. Having a nice visit?" Ted had taken a few minutes to settle down before opening a RaCON line to Elise's ship.
"Why hello, Mr. Alders!" Elise chirped. "I was just about to step outside for a moment. I'll be out of your way in a second. Then I'm off to Epimetheus!"
"What's that, Fifty-seven and fifty-eight for you?" Last he'd heard, she was still short the inner orbiting P's--Pan, Pandora, and Prometheus. Pan was a real pain, smack in the middle of the A ring.
"Nope. I snagged those Saturday. I'm working my way back out. These are the last two."
He wanted to puke. He clicked off the comm before he did. Ted considered this development. If he didn't do anything he was going to lose. He didn't like to lose.
"GIP. How is the terrain aft of her ship?"
"The terrain is flat for over a hundred meters in that direction."
Perfect. If he landed just right, he could block the focal point of her LSR drive with his ship's heat shield, rendering her drive inoperable.
"GIP, give me manual control for the approach."
He clicked open the communications link to Elise. "I'll be landing near you. Stay fore of your ship."
No reply. Well, he'd warned her.
GIP threw an apoplectic fit on his approach, or at least as close to one as an artificial English butler could, but the computer wasn't authorized to override a mentally capable pilot, no matter how unconventional his technique. He aimed for a landing spot well within the distortion zone of Elise's ship, GIP helpfully painting his target with bright red warning labels.
Ted smiled as the ship gently bumped down and anchored itself to Janus's surface. He was a mere half-meter from Elise's primary drive prism. Perfect. Physically rotating her ship to activate her drive would be impossible.
He had worn his environmental suit for the final approach. He planned to dash outside, snag a rock, deliver a present to Elise's ship, and then head off to Epi while Elise ran diagnostics on her suddenly flaky drive.
Ted jumped up and pushed himself to the airlock. He snapped on his helmet. The familiar stale smell of the suit enveloped him. "GIP. Cycle the airlock and prepare for launch immediately upon my return."
"Yes, Winstead." If Ted didn't know better, he'd have thought GIP sounded sullen.
The door swung open on the port side, away from Elise's ship. The distant sun illuminated the landscape of smooth grey rock and ice. This was a barren moon, and nothing broke the uncomfortably close horizon.
He pulled himself down the railing of the exit ramp--gravity was one percent of even the light gravity at Titan base. At the ramp's bottom, he anchored himself and chipped off a small piece of the moon floor. He usually did a ceremonial walk on the surface before taking a sample, but there was no time today.
"Sixty," he said, dropping the rock chip into the sample bag.
He didn't like what he had to do next, but he wasn't going to come so close and then leave it to chance. If he adjusted the prism in Elise's LSR drive with a good whack from his hammer, it would take at least an hour or two for her diagnostics computer to calculate the proper compensation to the distortion. By then he'd be on Epi checking off his last moon.
All's fair in love, war,... and moon hunting.
Ted softly jumped over his ship, intending to land between his and Elise's. He realized in mid-jump that he had undercompensated for the low G and was going to end up somewhere on Elise's ship.
The jump was so gentle he saw the problem coming with enough time to ponder it. He was headed towards the one piece of equipment on the ship roof that was dangerous. The sharp crystalline blade of a RaCON antenna jutted directly into his trajectory.
The mono-molecular edge gleamed through his faceplate. It was great for small band resonance. It would be very bad for his health.
He reached for a low-G propulsion can to change course but came up empty. He hadn't replaced it after Fifty-Nine. Not so smart--he was slipping in his old age. He frantically twisted, trying to avoid the danger. Even with so little momentum, the antenna would cut through his suit like a cleaver in a side of beef.
Atmospheric decompression was a shitty way to go.
He drifted towards the blade, looking above it at the starry sky. He'd had a good life. He'd come so close.
He wanted to slap himself. Screw that, he wasn't going to end on "so close." Atmospheric decompression--that was the key. His fingers scrabbled on the buckles on his glove. Partial decompression was better than death. The escaping gas could propel him out of the path of death.
He succeeded in the releasing the first buckle, but the second would not give. He banged on it with his chisel; the antenna drifted closer, its promised death seconds away. Nothing.
He gave up on the buckle and aimed the chisel at his thigh. He punched through, pain bursting up his leg as the chisel cut his skin as well as the suit. A burst of air released, then the suit repaired the minor hole. He started spinning.
Spinning, but still heading towards the blade and its promised decompression.
Then a force slammed into his back and he was flying towards the stars. As he tumbled high away from the moon surface, he saw a figure tumbling next to him. Elise Rousseau. Her pink suit was just the fashion among the kids this year.
She grabbed his leg and matched trajectory. She pulled a propellant can from her waist and redirected them back towards her ship. He clicked on the suit-to-suit channel with his chin.
"Hey, thanks."
No answer.
The return to the ground was much more gentle than the exit. They both grabbed the handrail on Elise's airlock and reoriented themselves to the ground.
Elise leaned forward and touched her helmet to his. Through the tinted glass he could see her long eyelashes. Her trademark hair was pulled back, a few sweaty bangs stuck to her forehead.
"My suit radio antenna was damaged on impact with your back. Are you okay?" Her voice was muffled but somehow still chirped.
"Yes, I'm fine. Thanks for the save. Are you okay?" Ted owed her one. He'd be the shredded cheese on a Janus pizza if she hadn't arrived.
"I'm fine, but my YVES conked out when you landed--a total electrical loss. I'm locked out of my ship."
Ted chinned GIP's channel. "GIP. Can you raise Elise's ship? Are her systems active?"
"Miss Rousseau's electrical systems are not active, and her YVES system is not responding to my inquires."
Awesome. He could hit Epi while she dealt with her system issues.
Ted started to grin but then saw Elise's big eyes through his faceplate. She had saved his life--he couldn't just leave her here without a working ship. He sighed. Damn puppy dog eyes.
"Awwww... Let's look and see if we can get her going again."
Elise smiled so brightly Ted was glad his helmet was polarized. They pulled themselves along her ship to the external control interface. It was open. Ted wasn't exactly familiar with Elise's sporty model, but he'd rebuilt his a dozen times, and the technology was similar enough that some twenty minutes later he had started a cold system reboot of her ship. The process would take a few hours. He couldn't work out what had caused the problem, but it looked like it would restart just fine.
As he swung shut the panel, GIP spoke through the com system.
"Winstead, a low probability event has occurred. I have been impacted by a localized storm of low-velocity meteors."
"Damage report." The electromagnetic storm must have disrupted a piece of dust in the Janus/Epi orbit. Janus's smooth surface indicated this was not a common occurrence, but shit happened. That said, why did it have to happen to him right now?
"The LSR drive has been damaged by the impact. It will take me a few hours to recalibrate."
Oh, the irony.
Ted offered the captain's chair to Elise. He had long ago removed the passenger seating. He wasn't used to guests, but he couldn't leave her out on the moon's surface while her ship rebooted. He sat on a storage box, reinforcing the auto-repair in his space suit with vacuum-rated duct tape.
"GIP, can you show the countdown on the upper console?"
"Yes, Winstead." Two numbers flickered on the wall screen. One was the countdown for the LSR drive recalibration. The other counted down the system reset for Elise's ship. The timers matched within seconds.
"Mr. Alders," Elise said. "I wanted to let you know I've admired you for years. You were a role model to me, you know, since I first read about you in the paper. It's so cool that you got the idea to hunt the moons. How did you come up with it?"
After two years of hearing it, Ted had many witty answers to this question. But he was tired, so close to his goal, and facing the one person who might actually want to know. So he told the truth.
"When I reached the mandatory retirement age of sixty-eight, my co-workers threw me a farewell party. They all asked me what I was going to do the next day and I realized I didn't know. The day was empty. The entire rest of my life was empty."
Elise played with his console while he talked, flipping through the gossip feeds that had loaded when he left Titan. Ted glanced at the countdown. Forty minutes.
"Yeah, and so that night I made a list of the sixty-one moons of Saturn on the back of the drink menu and told them I was going to stand on them all. I've been knocking off the list for the last two years."
"So you were bored?"
"No, not bored. I needed a purpose. Something to show people I still mattered; I still had something."
"Yeah, that's why I'm doing this--to show I'm goal-oriented on my college applications."
He laughed.
Elise was a good girl. The way he'd played hadn't been fair. He stood and navigated to the aft port to look at the moonscape. He should get out of her way--out with the old, in with the new. The distant stars hung in the sky. He should let someone with a future take the record. She deserved it. She'd played fair.
He felt the recalibration servos whine softly through the hull. This port overlooked the LSR drive. He glanced down from the sky to the ground.
It was littered with small, red balls.
"Are those racquetballs?" Ted felt a flash of astonishment and anger. He spun around. Elise met his eyes and smiled. All Ted could think was, Who wears lipstick on a spacewalk?
Her voice was sharp. "I intend to be first on Epi. When you landed in my disruption zone, I knew I needed time to try to rotate my ship so that you weren't blocking my drive."
God damn it. She'd launched the racquetballs into a low orbit aimed at his drive prism. Her new suit's heads-up display could have calculated the angles for her, and she had the skills to pull off the execution.
She was playing the game by the same rules he was. Then it hit him: nothing had been coincidence. If she had invented a "meteor storm," then...
"And I suppose your electrical system just happened to lock you out of your ship so that I'd invite you in here." He had been so na´ve. He pointed at the airlock. "You best be getting back to your ship. Because when that clock hits zero, I'm heading to Epi."
"I'll see you when you arrive," she said, standing up.
He extended a hand. "May the best be the first."
She took it, and they shook.
Elise entered the airlock to suit up and cycle out.
"Yes, sir?"
"Did Elise enter any commands in your system?"
"Yes, sir. She programmed a drive override fifteen minutes into your next flight."
"Please delete any commands issued by Ms. Rousseau."
"Yes sir."
"And take off for Epimetheus at the first opportunity, full thrust."
"Yes, sir."
Ted glanced up at the airlock. Elise had closed the interior door but was still suiting up.
"And seal Ms. Rousseau in the airlock. Let her out ten seconds before launch."
"Yes, sir."
Ted ignored the banging on the airlock door as he donned his spacesuit. At t-minus ten, the airlock door opened and Elise dove from his ship in an attempt to block his drive with her body. But she was too late--the liftoff had already begun.
He just needed a minute or two headstart, and it would take her that long to reach her ship. He smiled.
He still had it.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 13th, 2012

Author Comments

Shortly before writing this tale, I climbed Mt. Moosilauke, a 4802' member of the White Mountains. On this hike, amid gorgeous scenery and perfect weather, I pondered the motivations of the members of the Appalachian Mountain Club's 4000 Footer Club. To join this club, one must summit all forty-eight mountains over 4000' in the White Mountains National Forest. That climb, and those thoughts, resulted in this tale.

- K.G. Jewell
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