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Denizens: 2 - Miner

...By the time he was sixteen, Zac was making regular dives into the caves under the farm, some of which went so deep that the excursions often took a whole day. Often he could be seen trudging across the fields in the twilight, tired but happy, his young shoulders weighed down with large coils of rope, his belt festooned with caribiners and pitons, still wearing his caver’s helmet and lamp...

Zac Brody, an Ohio farm boy who thrives on being in enclosed spaces, is aboard a space ship, heading out to help mine an asteroid.

Brian William Neal sets the scene for a long, gloriously entertaining space adventure. Settle down for a ride to places you never imagined.

Across the twenty or so miles of space separating the Chaffee from the mother ship, in one of the scout vessels mining engineer first class Zac Brody was anything but bored. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was a man in his absolute element, engaged in an occupation he had chosen almost from the day he had first learned to walk. If anyone could be said to have found his niche, it was Zac.

Ever since he could remember, Zac Brody had wanted to be a geologist. As a boy growing up on his father’s farm just outside the township of Middlesboro, Ohio, he had discovered early on that the life of a worker of the land was not for him. Some of his happiest days were spent repairing one piece or another of the farm’s machinery and, considering the precarious state of the Brodys’ economy in those days, Zac’s father was grateful for anything his son could do to lighten their load.

While the elder Brody was swallowing his disappointment at his son’s decision not to follow his father’s example, Zac was discovering another world. It existed beneath the surface of the farmland, a system of caves that honeycombed the property. While still at junior high school, he read all the books in the library on caving, or spelunking, as he found it was called. With money saved from the wages his father paid him for his farm work (he still had to do chores, whether he liked it or not), he bought some basic equipment. He was also fortunate enough to find that one of the teachers at school was also a keen spelunker, and from him he learned the most important lessons, those concerned with safety.

By the time he was sixteen, Zac was making regular dives into the caves under the farm, some of which went so deep that the excursions often took a whole day. Often he could be seen trudging across the fields in the twilight, tired but happy, his young shoulders weighed down with large coils of rope, his belt festooned with caribiners and pitons, still wearing his caver’s helmet and lamp.

When Zac first began his subterranean exploring, his parents had worried that he could be in some danger. However, after Zac took his father with him on one of his dives, the elder Brody saw for himself how thorough the boy was, both in the preparation and execution of the venture. After only one simple comment, nothing more was ever said on the subject.

“I guess I could go on sayin’ ‘be careful’ till I was blue in the face,” his father said after that day. They were sitting on the front porch of the homestead, watching the setting sun, the man sipping from a can of beer while the boy drank a fruit juice.

“But I suspect it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference,” he went on. “You’d still go, and I guess I’ve seen for myself how careful y’are. So I figure it’s better y’go with my blessing than without it.”

Not an educated man, Hal Brody, but a wise one, and Zac loved him for it.

*

Deep beneath the surface of the earth, Zac was in full command of his environment. He loved the dark, the quiet, the way the absolute blackness would slowly give way to a glow from a lode of phosphorescent ore, and all the immediate area would be bathed in a ghostly light. Often golden, or red, or even green or blue; all of these colors would be reflected by the light from his helmet lamp as he hung suspended in some narrow shaft, or in the cathedral like vastness of an underground cavern.

Most people crave the light, the company of others, sunshine and warmth. Zac did not spurn these things, but he loved their other side at least as much, and tried to spend as close to half of his free time as he could in each place. And in his heart, he did prefer the quiet, secret places best. He embraced the dark like an old friend, and wore the empty places like a favorite sweater, to be pulled on whenever he needed to feel their enveloping comfort.

Inevitably, Zac’s fascination with caves and rocks led him to what was to become his life’s work, and his all consuming passion. His father, acknowledging the fact that his son would never be a farmer, agreed to Zac’s wish to study geological engineering at Ohio State University in Cincinnati. They could never have afforded to pay for his tuition; however, such was the boy’s intelligence and passion for his subject, he earned a full scholarship to the college.

Once there, Zac discovered there were others who shared his passions, and he spent much of his free time exploring one hole in the ground or another. The rest of the time he devoted to learning all there was to know about his chosen profession.

Shortly after he graduated with top honors, Zac married his childhood sweetheart, a girl he had grown up with who had lived on a neighboring farm. They lived in a trailer on a small holding, part of the farm that his father had given them as a wedding present. It was close to the family homestead, and this meant they were able to take their meals there. As Zac’s mother said, “You might be happy livin’ on the smell of an oily rag, but by the good Lord, as long as you’re within spittin’ distance, at least you’ll eat properly.” ‘Good farmhouse food’ his mother called it: corn, potatoes, home-baked bread, bacon, pork, chicken; they might not have had much money, but they were never poor.

*

After graduation, and with the first baby on the way, Zac and two of his college friends started a small business, carrying out freelance exploratory work for the big mining companies. Zac turned down several offers of employment with these corporations, preferring to remain independent, and the firm quickly gained a reputation for expertise and honest work. Their net income, however, remained small.

When he heard about the asteroid mining project, Zac talked it over with his family and his partners, then applied. The money offered for six month’s work was far more than he had made in the past three years, and Zac was sure it was just what was needed to get the business off the ground. As he explained to his wife and parents one night over dinner, six months was as long as anyone could spend out there. Any longer, and the debilitating effects of zero-gee would start to be felt. Even though every ship had a centrifuge to produce an artificial gravity of sorts, each person could only spend a short time each day in it.

Taking another piece of fresh-baked cornbread and lathering it with a generous portion of home-churned butter, Zac’s father asked, “What if you did stay out longer, son? What would happen?”

Zac sipped from a glass of milk. “Well, your muscles, especially those in your legs, would start to atrophy, just kind of wither away, through disuse. No gravity, so they don’t have to be always supporting your weight. Use ’em or lose ’em, that’s what the company says. So, six months is it.”

Zac’s wife Jolene, a small, vivacious blonde, looked mischievously up from the table across from where her husband sat. “You bet you’re not spending more than six months out there, Zac Brody. If your leg muscles can seize up, who knows what other muscles might wither up and waste away.”

At this, Zac’s mother’s frown of pretended outrage was dispelled by the choking sounds coming from the head of the table, where his father was trying to simultaneously eat his cornbread and stifle his laughter.

So, leaving the company in the hands of his partners, and his wife and child in the care of his parents, Zac first took the crash course in basic astronautics offered by the mining company. Then, three months later, his head spinning from the pace of events, he boarded the shuttle at Kennedy Spaceport in Florida. As he did so, the enormity of what he was doing hit him for the first time.

He, Zac Brody, farm boy, was on his way, following in the illustrious footprints made by one of Ohio’s favorite sons, Neil Alden Armstrong, fifty-eight years before.


*


The shuttle’s engines, so different from the old-style chemically fueled rockets of the last century, lifted the three thousand-ton mass off the bare sand flats with barely a murmur, and with only a fraction of the flame and none of the smoke of its predecessors. Accelerating at a smooth one point five gravities, the vessel carrying Zac and the rest of the new intake quickly left Kennedy Space Center and Florida behind.

During the climb out of earth’s gravity well to one thousand miles, Zac tried to see as much as he could; unfortunately, there wasn’t all that much to see. Weighing half as much again as normal meant that movement was limited; in any case, he was well and truly strapped into his seat. The small observation port near him allowed only a tantalizing glimpse of the sky as it turned deeper and deeper blue, then finally black. My God, thought Zac excitedly, as individual stars slowly became visible; I’m in space!

Reaching their appointed orbit, the passengers transferred to a waiting deep space craft, bound for the Belt. Once aboard, a company rep welcomed them, and gave them the official line on what they could expect when they arrived. Then the ship’s captain gave another, shorter speech, which was by far the one more worth listening to, and they were shown to their individual acceleration compartments.

These consisted of a bunk set into the bulkhead at right angles across the body of the ship, and surrounded by a plastic screen that could be opaqued for privacy. There was a small light, a video screen for entertainment, and a small shelf that could contain personal possessions, such as books and photographs of loved ones.

Zac, like the others, gratefully peeled off the bulky environment suit they had all worn on the shuttle, and climbed onto his bunk. Staring at the smooth ceiling, he felt a pang of loneliness; more than at any other time, he missed his wife and family. Focus on the goal, he reminded himself. Eyes on the prize. The money from this trip would get them up and running; anyway, he thought, it’s only six months.

His thoughts were interrupted by the soft voice of the ship, actually its computer, informing them that they would be traveling at one gee for the duration of the trip. Looking out the portal next to his bunk, a much larger one than on the shuttle, Zac was not at first aware that they were under way. Then he realized he had weight again; gravity was returning as the ship increased its orbital velocity.

The spacecraft performed three orbits of the planet, each one taking less time than the one before. Then, with a final surge, the ship broke free of the earth’s influence, and began to move away.

Zac looked out of the portal again at the magnificent sight below. The earth was even now visibly receding, and he felt a lump in his throat as he once again thought of his family. His son would have his second birthday while Zac was away, and Zac would miss it by just two weeks.

Then the ship’s intercom intruded again, informing them that they would reach the halfway point of their journey, or “turnover”, in slightly less than six days. Once there, they would literally turn over, and decelerate to their destination tail first, still at one gee.

Finally, Zac tore his gaze away from the earth, and turned his thoughts to what lay ahead. The idea of traveling three hundred million miles had no real meaning for him; nor did it, if they were honest, for any of the others. Such a figure was as inconceivable as the weight of a star, as unknowable as angels on pinheads.

They had been told the trip would take thirteen days, and there had been the expected jokes about picking up a tail wind, but Zac was certain none of the other rookie spacemen understood any more than he exactly what was involved.

Even now, lying on his bunk and watching the earth recede, and seeing the ship’s velocity mounting on the counter over his video screen, Zac could still not fully grasp what such mind-boggling figures meant. So, in his typically common-sense fashion, he tried to put it all in a perspective he could understand and live with.

He, Zacary Halford Brody, Ohio farm boy, was about to travel further than all of his ancestors combined, right back to the first Brody off the third ship after the Mayflower into Plymouth Bay. And he would do it in less than two weeks.

During the trip, Zac got to know a few of his fellow passengers. They had all quickly discovered, once the novelty had worn off, that space flight was like any other form of long-distance flying: mostly boring. To pass the time, a group of them, including Zac, began holding regular bull sessions in the passenger “lounge”, the somewhat grandiose name that they gave to a small storeroom in the aft section of the ship. It was during one of these sessions that the talk got around to the rumored testing of a fusion-driven craft. One of the youngsters, whose older brother worked in Washington, added some new information that livened up the discussion.

“Word is they’ve given the test ship a nickname,” he said, as he passed around a half-gallon jug of fifty-fifty orange juice and medicinal alcohol liberated from sick bay by one of the medical orderlies who was now asleep in a corner of the room. “They’re calling it a lightship for some reason. Mike didn’t say why.”

One of the men, older than the others, whom they knew only as Happy, shifted his position against a wall and said,” I think I can guess.”

His companions looked inquiringly at him, and he warmed to his subject, refilling his plasfoam cup from the now depleted jug.

“See,” he said, after taking a healthy swig, “a fusion drive ship is supposed to be able to accelerate indefinitely; at least, that’s the theory. Apart from the one at JPL, no one’s put it to the test yet, but there’s a suspicion that the followers of Einsteinian doctrine are going to be more than a little embarrassed by the outcome. At least, that’s what I think the test’s about.”

Zac, fascinated by all this, asked: “But where do you suppose a ship like that would go?”

Happy took another pull at his drink, belched, and said, ”Not sure. Probably just point her towards deep space, maybe at right angles to the plane, and light the wick.”

There was a moment’s reflective silence, then Zac voiced what a few of them had begun to suspect. “They think it might get to lightspeed, don’t they? That’s why they call it a Lightship.”

Somewhere during the conversation, the nickname had acquired a capital letter.

Then one of the technicians spoke up. “But hang on a minute. Nothing can accelerate indefinitely. I mean, there’s always a limit to how fast something can go.

Happy smiled. “You’re forgetting, we’re not on earth, we’re in space. On earth, gravity and air resistance limits acceleration. That’s why you have terminal velocity, about two hundred and eighty miles an hour. But in space, there’s no gravity or air, nothing to resist the passage of the accelerating object. So, at least in theory, they should be able to get up to the speed of light.”

There were several nods around the room, then someone said, “For that matter, why should they stop there? If we accept that such a velocity is attainable, why couldn’t it be surpassed?”

Everyone tried to answer at once, but Happy’s gravely tones overrode them. “I suspect that is one of the things the test is supposed to determine.”

Zac eyed the veteran spacer. “What do you think will happen, Hap?”

The older man studied his drink for a long pause, stroking his handlebar mustache, then said, “Well, I used to agree with established theory, at least mostly. But I read something a while ago that really made me think, and the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Exceeding the speed of light could cause the ship to be transported outside our dimension. I mean, time is the fourth dimension, right? And time and light are very closely connected, each influencing and dependent on the other. They might find themselves traveling through time, or something like that.” Happy grinned self-consciously, then continued. “What I read was actually an old idea. Some guy back in the last century said that while we might not be able to travel at the speed of light, we may be able to exceed it. It’s got something to do with the idea that, as you approach light speed, time slows down, and stops altogether when you reach it.”

One of the others said, “But time can’t stand still, that’s impossible.”

Happy nodded. “So they say. Maybe that’s why you can’t travel at the speed of light. But I’d be pretty leery of using words like ‘impossible’ these days. But whatever, suppose you could just kinda skip over that part, go on to the next stage. Some say that time would start to run backwards for those inside the ship. To anyone on the outside, the ship would appear to vanish, literally entering another dimension.”

He paused for a moment, then went on. “The people on that ship could find that, after only a few days or weeks of ship time, hundreds of years had passed in the rest of the universe.”

There was a moment of shocked silence, then someone gasped, “Hundreds?”
Happy nodded. “Maybe thousands,” he added dramatically. “Y’see, current theory has only been postulated for a ship traveling at light speed, which it seems we are all agreed is probably not possible. But no one has the faintest idea what would happen if that ship were able to exceed one hundred and eighty-six thousand miles a second. They may end up God knows how far into the future. Or the past: if time does run backwards for them, maybe it works the other way, who knows?”

Happy took another pull at his drink, and one of the group, a young, fresh-faced idealistic type, said, “Well, whichever way they went, they’d sure have a story to tell when they came back.”

Zac then spoke up quietly. “Well, no, as a matter of fact, they wouldn’t.” The others looked curiously at him. They had come to respect Zac as a quiet man who only spoke when he had something to say, and what he said was usually worth listening to. Now, they were silent as he went on. “It’s something everyone, from new thinkers to Einsteinian die-harders is all agreed on. Time travel, if it is at all possible, is a one-way street. You may be able to go back, into the past, because the past, at least, has already happened. But the future doesn’t exist. There would be no coming back.”

An even more awed silence greeted this revelation, and then a young geologist from Australia expressed everyone’s feelings on the matter.

“Stick that up your arse for a joke! I wouldn’t be on that bastard for all the beer in Aussie!” He looked at his empty tumbler, and said, “Speakin’ of which, pass the grog, someone.” And so the subject was shelved as attention returned to the jug and the conversation to matters less cerebral.


***


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