Werner Locksmith and his team talked a big game about Jupiter to the press; old Jove’s mighty red eye and status as the biggest planet made it an easy sell for the layman. But any space nerd could tell you that the real reason to put a massive ship like the Von Braun in orbit around Jupiter was to get up close and personal with the four great jewels in the old king’s crown: the Jovian moons.
Oh, sure, there was lip service paid to the idea of mining single-H from the great planet’s atmosphere to power Earth’s shiny new hydrogen economy, but Locksmith’s gut told him it wasn’t going to pan out. Jupiter’s gravity well was so deep that dragging mass out of it was prohibitively expensive, tandem mirror fusion engine or no, and that didn’t even touch on the problem of the radiation belts, great swaths of charged particles held in thrall by Jupiter’s immense magnetic field.
Skimming hydrogen off the surface just wasn’t worth it. But the moons—ah, those moons! Boiling, volcanic Io, and chilly Europa with its frozen face and mysterious subsurface seas. Complex Ganymede with its own magnetic field, and furthest out, pockmarked Callisto. They danced around Jupiter in perfect orbital resonance, and each was fascinating for different reasons.
Yes, yes, they were all very interesting, and Werner Locksmith had been fascinated with them—even obsessed with them—five years ago. But the Von Braun was now in Jovian orbit and the moons were being explored, and Locksmith could never find it within himself to be excited about a solved problem. And Jupiter was now solved, as far as he was concerned.
But Saturn, now there was a challenge worth taking on. No radiation belts, abundant helium, and the tantalizing prospects offered by the moons of Titan and Enceladus. There were good reasons to establish a permanent human presence around Saturn, and with constant advancements in fusion rocketry and closed-system eco-engineering, there were no real technical barriers to doing so.
So Locksmith was now a year into full-tilt Saturnian obsession. He was well into the design process for the spacecraft, and even had tentative feelers out for the crew selection process, which this time would be a quieter invitation-only affair, in contrast to the reality-TV theatrics by which the Von Braun’s crew had been chosen.
So it came as no small annoyance to him when he received a call from Von Braun mission control at 4 AM one Sunday morning.
There had been a problem, they said. He had better get over there, they said.
Even at such an ungodly hour, the traffic in Sao Paolo could never be described as “light,” and it took Locksmith the better part of an hour to get from his apartment to mission control at a research park on the outskirts of the city.
Pulling his car up to the facility’s entrance, he flashed his ID badge to the guard at the gate, who let him in with barely a glance. By the time he was getting out of his car, he saw the leader of the groundside engineering operations team—an olive-skinned Brazilian engineer named Gilberto whose first name Locksmith had never bothered to remember—approaching him.
“All right, what happened?” said Locksmith. He wasn’t the type to complain about being roused from bed to come in—if they’d called, it was serious enough that he would’ve wanted to be called.
“Hoshino and Silverstone were in the JOVE en route to Europa orbit. We’re not sure what happened and neither is the Von Braun crew, but it seems like there was an explosion on the spacecraft.”
“Wait, which Hoshino?” Locksmith hated himself for not knowing, but he’d been so absorbed in planning the Saturn mission he’d stopped paying attention to the day-to-day minutiae on board the Von Braun.
“Hachirota. His and Silverstone’s EVA expertise was deemed nice-to-have for the Europa probe drop.”
They were winding their way through the corridors of the Sao Paolo facility and now finally arrived at the large conference room that had been set up to act as Mission Control.
“So what’s the situation?” asked Locksmith cooly.
“Put it on the big screen,” said Gilberto to one of the young postdocs that manned the many consoles of mission control.
There on the high-definition main screen appeared a telescopic image of the small JOVE craft. A full quarter of its outer shielding was missing, and it rotated slowly in what was obviously an uncontrolled spin.
“Is its orbit stable?”
“It seems to be. The explosion happened just after they made orbital insertion.”
“No power or communications?”
“Doesn’t seem like it. The Von Braun’s been trying to raise them on UHF ever since the craft went dark, but there’s been nothing.”
Locksmith stared at the image, his face a blank mask. With that much radiation shielding gone, the JOVE’s occupants would receive a fatal dose of radiation inside a day, and that was assuming the cabin was still heated and pressurized. The craft had obviously sustained major damage; the only question was whether its crew was dead already or merely doomed.
“So by now this happened… three hours ago?”
“About that, yes.”
“Did the Von Braun crew propose to take any action?”
“They honestly don’t know what to do. The mothership isn’t shielded against radiation of that intensity, so they can’t get close. They have fishbone-class maneuvering racks, but…” Gilberto trailed off.
“That’s not going to get them there fast enough, and even if it did, they’d be cooked before they got there.” Locksmith stared blankly past the big screen. “No power, no radio. You’re sure they haven’t tried to signal visually? No flashing lights, no morse code, nothing like that?”
“Not that we’ve seen.”
“Any perturbation to the JOVE’s orbit?”
“Minimal. Our guess is it’ll decay in a few weeks.”
Locksmith was silent for a moment before replying.
“All right. I’ll talk to the brass.”
It was a shame about the younger Hoshino. Locksmith had put Hachirota on his mental shortlist for the Saturn mission—had even begun trying to decide how to pitch it such that the younger Hoshino would look favorably upon the prospect of leaving his family and by-then 9-year-old child behind for another multi-year span—but such was exploration’s due.
The important thing now was to make sure the Von Braun situation didn’t jeopardize the next stage of that exploration.
Locksmith was still thinking about how to spin the accident when the call went through.
“I’m hearing things, Locksmith,” said the INTO Space Program director, a woman named Gutierrez who Locksmith sensed wasn’t especially fond of him.
“Yes, it seems there’s been a bit of a problem around Jupiter.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Werner.”
Locksmith cleared his throat. “Ah, yes. It seems very likely we’ve lost the JOVE vehicle, its payload, and specialists Hachirota Hoshino and Sally Silverstone.”
There was silence from the INTO director for a beat. “What do we know for certain?”
“That there was an explosion aboard the JOVE that damaged its radiation shielding and seems to have rendered the vehicle without power.”
“And just the two specialists were aboard?”
“What are the odds they survived?”
Locksmith paused. To someone unfamiliar with the way his mind worked, he would’ve appeared to be carefully considering the factors that would have affected the two specialists’ chances of survival. In reality, though, he had already concluded that even if they weren’t dead, they had received fatal doses of radiation and were thus not worth even trying to save. Locksmith was thus considering his answer carefully, but not out of consideration for the crew. No—this situation had to be managed such that it wouldn’t affect the Saturn mission.
At length, Locksmith answered. “Not more than five percent. And even if they are alive, they’ll be dead from radiation sickness inside a week.”
Now, carefully—so as not to sound callous, only realistic. “We don’t have another shielded vehicle that can reach them. It’s possible that something could be jury-rigged out of materials from the Von Braun, but even that wouldn’t have life support. Realistically speaking…” he paused for effect, then sighed. “I’m afraid they’re dead, and any resources we send after them are wasted.”
Gutierrez frowned. “It won’t look good, leaving them to rot in orbit. The public likes to see their heroes taken care of.”
“Then we’ll send an unmanned fishbone. We’ll have it do a close approach, and the on-board instrumentation will let us get a better sense of what happened there.”
Locksmith was not proposing a rescue mission, and a part of him bristled at having to make this ridiculous concession to sentiment. He’d just suggested what amounted to throwing away a multi-million dollar piece of non-replaceable hardware just to make people feel better. But it was an imperfect universe filled with non-rational actors, a fact with which he’d reconciled himself long ago. And this was a small price to pay to keep the Saturn mission on track.
“Fine,” said Gutierrez. “Do it.”
Locksmith had worked with the mission control operations crew to assemble the procedure for equipping the fishbone for its one-way trip to Europan orbit, and was now drafting the press release that would accompany the announcement of the incident. He was shamelessly cribbing from phrasing he’d used after the tandem mirror engine explosion on Luna, and despite the press fallout from that incident being among the worst things to ever happen to his career, it did not really occur to him to handle things otherwise. Space was dangerous. He was taking full responsibility. What more did people want?
He was nearly done when an icon on his computer’s display flashed, indicating a high-priority incoming video call.
It was from Ai Hoshino.
Locksmith gulped in spite of himself. She couldn’t possibly know yet. Strict secrecy surrounded the incident, and had since the beginning. She couldn’t know. She shouldn’t even have been able to contact him directly.
He accepted the call. “Ah, the younger Mrs. Hoshino. What can I do for you?” He tried to sound casual, or to sound like other people sounded when they were sounding casual. Such niceties made little sense to him, if he was honest, and did not come naturally.
“So you’re not even going to try?” said an irate Ai Hoshino.
She knew. Somehow, she’d found out. “I’m not quite sure I understand—”
“My husband is up there waiting to be rescued, and you’re just going to let him die? You’re just going to let them both die?”
“Ah—well—…” Locksmith had never been very good at handling Ai Hoshino. He’d become acquainted with her during the run-up to the Von Braun launch, and although he respected her relentlessness, he found her sentimentality impossibly offputting. “I suppose there’s no point in lying about it, is there? Mrs. Hoshino, Specialists Hoshino and Silverstone are almost certainly dead, and if they’re not, we still can’t do anything for them. I’m sorry.”
He wondered if he was being too callous—ah, well, it was too late to take the words back. He braced himself for the tearful accusations that always seemed to follow whenever he told someone the unvarnished truth.
But no tears came. Ai Hoshino was evidently made of sterner stuff. “You’re barely sorry, and worse, you’re wrong,” she snapped.
“I-I’m sorry, but I don’t see how—”
“I’m landing in Sao Paolo in 20 minutes, and I’ll be at mission control 20 minutes after that. First I’m going to tell you why I know he’s alive, and then I’m going into space to prove it.”
“I’ll see you 40 minutes, Mr. Locksmith. Goodbye.”
The video window closed.
It took Ai Hoshino 43 minutes to arrive at Sao Paolo mission control.
Locksmith would later learn that she’d gotten past the guard at the front gate by dint of her modest fame and sheer force of personality, but that it was the same inside source that leaked the news of the JOVE situation to her who’d escorted her through the building’s maze of offices and halls into the nondescript meeting room where Locksmith was holding court with a roomful of engineers.
She had her four-year-old daughter with her.
Before Ai said a single word to Locksmith or anyone else, she knelt down to address her daughter. “Sora, these people helped make Papa’s spaceship.”
“The one that broke?”
“Yes, the one that broke. And now I have to tell them that Papa’s just fine, and that they need to fix it. I might have to yell at them. But I’m not mad at you, okay, Sora? We just have to make sure they help us.”
Ai nodded to her daughter, touched her cheek, smiled, then then stood up.
“Hachirota and Sally are alive, and if you don’t bring them back, you’re never going to Saturn.”
“Mrs. Hoshino, I understand that you’re upset about this—”
“What exactly do you understand? Because I’ve never seen you say or do anything that makes me think you understand anything about human emotion. You know, Sempai used to say he was a man like you, who’d do anything to get into space. But he was wrong. He’s nothing like you.”
Locksmith was not, by nature, a confrontational man. It was true that he found the irrational sentimentality of the people around him frequently baffling, but he did not enjoy their outbursts, particularly when they were directed at him, in person. And now this woman was in his place of work, in the middle of what was potentially the worst crisis of career, yelling at him in front of his staff.
“See here, Mrs. Hoshino—”
“No, you listen to me—”
“No, you will listen to me,” Locksmith hissed. “Your sentiment is irrelevant! Specialists Hoshino and Silverstone will have received close to 10 Sieverts of ionizing radiation by the time we can get anything to them, and nothing we can get to them is shielded against that kind of radiation, not even the the Von Braun herself. I am very sorry to say this, but there is nothing that can be done!”
Ai Hoshino actually smirked at him. “For humanity’s most brilliant spacecraft designer, you’re awfully quick to give up.”
“I know when I’ve been dealt a losing hand, Mrs. Hoshino.”
“Hachi and Sally are two of the best EVA workers in the world. Assuming they didn’t lose atmospheric pressure instantly, what do you think they did after the explosion?”
Locksmith squinted at the woman. He looked to another engineer in the room, who shrugged.
“They got in their spacesuits.”
“Those suits aren’t shielded either, so that doesn’t change a thing.”
“They got in their spacesuits, they went outside, and they climbed into the JOVE’s payload bay. Which is shielded, and whose shielding is undamaged.”
Locksmith shook his head. “There is no way they could’ve gotten into their suits, gone EVA, and wedged themselves in the whatever space was left in the payload bay quickly enough to have avoided a fatal radiation dose.”
“There is, and I’ll prove it. I’ll be on a spaceplane in an hour. I’m going to show you it’s possible, and you’re going to go rescue them.” Ai Hoshino turned to leave. “Let’s go, Sora,” she said to her daughter.
“No, I’m sorry, I can’t allow your sentiment to endanger the remaining crew.”
Ai turned around. “If I prove that it’s possible they survived, and you don’t make every effort to rescue them, I’m going to tell everyone. I’ll show the world that two people died because you couldn’t be bothered to listen.”
Locksmith almost laughed in spite of himself. “Do I look to you like someone who cares about the press?”
“No, you don’t. But the people who write the checks to build your spaceships care. And they’ll give the Saturn check to someone else. I will personally make sure of that. And I’ll have Goro’s help.”
This stopped Locksmith in his tracks. He’d forgotten about Goro Hoshino entirely. If the famed engineer publicly turned against him, things could go badly.
Saturn suddenly seemed very far away.
True to her word, Ai Hoshino had left immediately after delivering her ultimatum to Locksmith, bound for ISPV-7. From the plane she’d forwarded Locksmith a meticulously-formatted mission profile (whose initial author appeared to be one Edelgard Rivera), which outlined a series of trials that Ai, along with a handful of other astronauts, would undertake in the next 24 hours to prove that her theory was plausible.
While Locksmith still felt Ai Hoshino’s insistence that her husband was alive was a sentimental distortion at best, he had to admire the rigor with which she proposed to prove her theory.
Her test was divided into two phases. The first, according to the document, would prove the feasibility of going from a pressurized “shirtsleeves” workspace such as existed in the JOVE vehicle’s cabin into Von Braun-issue spacesuits within the 3 minutes of useful consciousness they suggested the two EVA workers would’ve had following rapid depressurization of the environment.
The second, and much more difficult test, meant to prove that once suited, the astronauts could’ve navigated from the JOVE’s airlock out into open space, then back into the vehicle’s shielded cargo hold, where—if the theory were true—they even now awaited rescue.
Locksmith had to admit that if specialists Hoshino and Silverstone had managed to get into their suits, they might’ve had a fighting chance. The Von Braun’s spacesuits were state of the art; an astronaut could theoretically survive in one for close to a week, although the experience would be far from pleasant.
And the theory’s relative merit aside, he could afford to spare the 18 hours Ai needed to test it. Locksmith sat in his office and, in a rare moment, felt like a total fool. How could he have forgotten about Goro Hoshino? Ai was one thing, but Goro was a living legend and a hero many times over. If he publicly denounced Locksmith, it could very well end Locksmith’s career. And if mission control told Goro not to attempt to rescue his own son, he would have a good reason to hold a grudge.
The thought gave Locksmith pause.
After spending a few minutes reviewing the mission profile documentation that showed up in his inbox shortly after Ai’s departure, Locksmith slouched his way over to mission control. The large room was a wedge-shaped hall at the end of the building, a re-purposed auditorium that had been small for its initial purpose but once refitted and remodeled, served nicely to coordinate operations around Jupiter. Once Locksmith entered the room and let the door close behind him, he cleared his throat and spoke up.
“Ai Hoshino is insisting that specialists Hoshino and Silverstone could have survived. She’s threatening to publicly denounce the entire mission if we don’t give her time to prove her theory. As absurd as the notion is, from a game theory perspective there’s no reason not to let her play out this self-indulgent song and dance. So we’re going to let her.” Locksmith could hear himself speaking with the same detached nonchalance he always fell back on in times of crises. He looked at Gilberto, who was managing communications. “Has there been any further word from the Von Braun?”
“They’re continuing to check in, but the situation hasn’t changed. They’re, uh… getting pretty agitated out there.”
“No doubt. Tell them we’re working on multiple contingencies, including one that allows for the JOVE crew’s survival, and that we’ll have procedures for them within 18 hours.”
“In the meantime, Ai Hoshino’s running her proof of concept trials out of a ferry called the Toy Box, DS-12. Can we get the feed from that on the screen?”
“I’m on it,” said Gilberto.
Locksmith nodded mildly. “So…” he began, as Gilberto turned to his console and began lining up video and audio feeds, “…who was it that leaked the situation to Mrs. Hoshino? It had to be somebody on this project, and it was probably somebody in this room.”
He was greeted with a distinctly nervous silence.
“I just want to know.”
Several more seconds ticked by before a blonde, bespectacled woman sitting at one of the logistics and mission coordination consoles raised a hand. Her expression seemed to be a mix of defiance and rattled nerves.
“Ah yes, miss—” Locksmith couldn’t quite make out the name on the badge clipped to her blouse, so he waited for the name to flash to the forefront of his mind as it sometimes did, but the words were for some reason not forthcoming.
“Edel. Edelgard Rivera,” she finished for him.
“Can you explain yourself?”
“I… used to work with Ai Tana—I mean, Hoshino, and her husband. I thought she had a right to know.”
Locksmith arched an eyebrow. “Whether or not she did, you’ve put your career in serious jeopardy, and you’ve given Ai Hoshino the tools to jeopardize mine.”
“I’m sorry.” She didn’t look very sorry, although it was hard to tell.
“Quite frankly, I’m impressed with your nerve. Of course, if she fails, I’ll have to fire you. So let’s see how this plays out, shall we? It seems more than one of us has a lot riding on Ai and her debris haulers.”
Edel nodded stoically.
“The feed’s coming online now,” said Gilberto as several camera views blinked into existence on the big screen.
“Is there any audio?” asked Locksmith.
“I’ll put it on the speakers.”
A slightly static-distorted voice came out over the room’s monitors.
“—e’re go for timer start,” said a deep male voice with a hint of a Russian accent.
“I copy,” replied a woman—not Ai—in a rich contralto. “Starting timer. Three minutes and counting, on my mark. Three, two, one, mark.”
There were several camera views on the big screen—two angles of the pressurized cargo bay where the Toy Box crew was conducting the drill, helmet cam footage from the cameras built into the suits, and a view of the pilot up in the cockpit.
“Who’s the big one?” asked Locksmith vaguely, assuming that someone in the room would know.
“Yuri Mihailkov,” said Edel immediately. “He’s got a decade of debris hauling experience under his belt.”
Locksmith thought about what that meant. Ten years of daily EVA was a lot of time in space. Hachirota Hoshino hadn’t had that much, and he’d qualified for the Von Braun crew. Debris work was unglamorous and poorly-paid, but the people that did it, he suddenly realized, had to be some of the most capable space workers in the industry.
On screen, Yuri and Ai were rapidly opening the Von Braun-model spacesuits and making their way through the initial donning procedures.
“Wait, Mihailkov… isn’t that the guy that found that compass from the Flight 413 crash?” asked someone—Locksmith looked and saw it was a young man sitting behind the JOVE operations console.
Edel nodded. “The same.”
Locksmith shook his head in a gesture of nonrecognition. “What’s this?”
“Oh, the thing was all over the net a few years back. The guy and his wife were on Flight 413.”;
Here Locksmith interrupted. “That was pre-debris regulation, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, that was the crash that made INTO finally pass debris laws. Anyway, she died, he didn’t. He had this compass keepsake from her that wasn’t in the stuff collected from the wreckage, so he became a debris hauler to try and find it. And the hell of it is, he did. He found the damn thing in orbit. Pretty near died, too, the way I hear it.”
Locksmith furrowed his brow. That sounded absurd. “Let me see his dossier.”
“It’s in the mission profile I gave you this morning,” said Edel.
“Ah, er… yes,” said Locksmith, looking down at the tablet he held. A few gestures on its touchscreen confirmed Edel’s statement. “So it is.”
Locksmith began reading the document and sure enough, the story was true. Yuri Mihailkov had catalogued more individual pieces of debris than any other hauler in history in the process of finding a keepsake of his deceased wife. It was a matter of public record. He shook his head in mild disbelief. The odds against his success would have been literally astronomical.
A few minutes passed, then the Toy Box’s pilot came over the com again. “Fifty eight… fifty nine… time. Sorry, guys, you’re dead from decompression. Reset the suits and try again.” Yuri and Ai hadn’t made it, but they had a few hours left to solve this part of the test.
“I copy, Fee. Resetting suits,” said Ai. Locksmith watched her and Yuri’s cool professionalism as they reset their equipment with less skepticism than he’d come in with. Whether he agreed with her actions or not, Ai Hoshino and her colleagues were clearly skilled professionals.
His eyes flicked over to the video feed of the pilot’s cockpit, and he pursed his lips. “Fee Carmichael… where have I heard that name before?”
Several controllers coughed. One laughed out loud.
“Am I missing something?”
“She’s, uh, kind of a legend,” said Gilberto.
“It’s all in her dossier,” pointed out Edel.
“You, uh… you really don’t know about her?” asked Gilberto.
“As I said, the name seems familiar.”
“She’s probably the best space pilot who’s not currently on an exploratory mission. She’s got thousands of hours in LEO and HEO, she’s qualified for Lagrange insertions, she’s got a lunar transit license. Hell, she could probably captain a Mars trip if she wanted to. And she, uh—”
“—She saved space,” finished Edel.
“She was the one who stopped the Space Defense Front from destroying ISPV-7 and triggering a Kessler Syndrome event,” said Gilberto.
“Hah, that was her?” said Locksmith, now genuinely amused. “I always thought that was an impressive piece of space piloting.” He had a strange moment of wondering to himself what these people were doing in such a dead-end industry. Locksmith’s own staff—hand-picked experts, the best of the notional best—seemed to hold them in a kind awe.
He suddenly wondered if any debris haulers would be open to better offers.
“I heard she did it because she wanted a cigarette,” piped up one of the controllers.
“No way, who even smokes anymore?” said another.
Edel remained silent.
“Why don’t we ask her?” said Locksmith, his sudden idea to poach debris talent kindling his curiosity. “Gilberto, get her on the line and let’s clear this up, shall we?”
“Uh, copy that.” Gilberto typed a few commands into his console and spoke into his headset. “DS-12, this Sao Paolo Von Braun control, do you copy?”
Even on the screen, Fee’s mystified reaction to the sudden message was obvious. She frowned, but her reply came in that unflappable pilot’s drawl that anyone who spends time on the radios made it a point to master. “Copy that, Sao Paolo. This is DS-12. Go ahead.”
“We were hoping you could settle something for us. Remember the Space Defense Front attack on ISPV-7?”
“…Uh, say again.” On the screen, Fee adjusted her headset and checked her own monitors, which showed Ai and Yuri continuing to run the drills. They were faster, this time—Yuri was nearly suited up.
“When you chose to collide with the Space Defense Front’s projectile, was that because you wanted a place to smoke?”
There was silence for a moment. “Copy that, Sao Paolo. I, uh, can neither confirm nor deny that at this time.”
There was scattered laughter throughout mission control; the levity of the moment seemed to break the intense pressure they were all under.
“Understood, DS-12. Good luck out there. Sao Paolo out.” Gilberto punched a button and cut the connection.
Locksmith chuckled as he looked down at his tablet and opened up Ai Hoshino’s dossier, not wanting to give Edel another opportunity to roll her eyes at him. “And then there’s Ai Hoshino.”
“Speaking of legends,” said Gilberto.
“I heard she punched the INTO chairman’s kid in the face,” said one controller.
“I heard she went off-nominal her very first EVA.”
“I heard she once threatened to toss a recovered space coffin into the atmosphere.”
“Didn’t she, like, almost die trying to save that terrorist chick on the moon?”
And in that moment, surrounded by the chatter of his staff as they talked about the woman who’d cornered him into this operation, Locksmith understood.
Ai, Yuri, Fee—these were people. They weren’t simply obstacles to be overcome or managed, or liabilities to be damage-controlled. They were actual living human beings with histories and inner lives and connections to the crew of the Von Braun, whose tenuous filaments stretched over the billions of miles between them, straining but never breaking. And connections here, too, to the people in this room, and even to him. And as the Von Braun ground crew shared second- and third-hand Ai Hoshino stories, the truth of this realization reverberated in Locksmith’s head like a crystal bell. Those invisible filaments had lifted Ai Hoshino off of Earth and into space.
And for the first time, he felt their tug.
It took two hours for Yuri and Ai to prove the Von Braun’s spacesuits could be donned and pressurized in time, and another five to show that, having suited up, Hachi and Sally could’ve gone EVA and navigated back to the JOVE’s shielded cargo bay, wedging themselves inside to wait for a rescue.
In the end, Fee counted down the seconds while Ai and Yuri worked to maneuver into the large discarded fuel tank they were using as a stand-in for the JOVE’s cargo bay. The Von Braun ground crew watched silently, and when they succeeded, Ai’s triumphant whoop was echoed by the room, although it soon fell silent—this was not the triumph. This only proved that any failure might well be on their hands.
All eyes turned to Locksmith.
He was not looking at the screen; he was sitting at a chair in the back of the gallery, typing furiously on a laptop. He became aware of the silence and looked up.
“Ah, yes. Well, the way I see it…”—he tapped a few more keystrokes. “We have eleven hours to figure out how to get these”—diagrams of two Von Braun spacesuits appeared on the big screen—”from here,”—the view zoomed out to show the JOVE’s orbit around Europa—”to here,”—a dotted line plotted a transfer orbit that would intercept the Von Braun—”using only this.”—A long list of parts scrolled up the screen; it was the Von Braun’s cargo manifest: every item currently aboard the ship. “So we’d better get to it.”
And then, as an afterthought: “Oh, and someone should probably tell the press.”
In the end, the solution had not taken long to conceive. One of the many innovations involved in the Von Braun’s construction was a fully standardized and modular assembly system, such that nearly any removable component of the spacecraft could be attached to any other component, even if there was no obvious reason to do so.
While the Von Braun itself was not sufficiently hardened against radiation to approach Europa, it had sub-compartments that were. One of these was the Biological Asset Isolation Capsule, which would first be emptied, then equipped with four fishbone-class maneuvering racks and a manipulator arm. This would be sufficient for the cobbled-together spacecraft to thrust for Europa and conduct a makeshift docking maneuver with the damaged JOVE craft, all of which it would have to do autonomously, owing to the severe interference that continued to block radio communication.
Once the decision to proceed on the assumption that specialists Hoshino and Silverstone were alive had been made, Locksmith found himself in comfortably familiar territory. Here now was a simple engineering problem to solve, and he was the world’s greatest engineer. Could he design a self-piloting rescue craft in twelve hours?
Never a man given to self-doubt, once he was committed to the task, the fact that this was a challenge of unprecedented difficulty did not cross Locksmith’s mind. He would simply do it. The physical design of the vehicle was easy enough to finalize (owing to the modular nature of the Von Braun’s construction) so the bulk of the problem was writing the code that would drive the four fishbones in concert along with the manipulator arm. He assigned the problem of enumerating the vehicle’s assembly procedure to the engineering team, but felt that the responsibility for the code was too heavy to delegate.
So surrounded by the chattering engineering team in a meeting room adjacent to mission control, Locksmith opened his laptop and fired up his text editor. He took a breath, closed his eyes, and saw all the elements of the problem in his mind.
He began to type.
For eleven hours, he did not speak, eat, or look away from the display.
The data package that constituted mission control’s rescue plan was completed save for one last item.
Werner Locksmith pressed the RECORD button at the communications console. Having just recently emerged from his trancelike code-writing state, he had no idea how he looked; he would only see the footage weeks later when it was somehow leaked to the net, at which point even he, almost pathologically clueless about such things, would note that he looked like shit.
Hair greasy, dark circles under his eyes, left eye twitching every few seconds thanks to acute over-caffeination, Locksmith recorded his message for the crew of the Von Braun.
“Astronauts, attached to this message you will find Flight’s proposal for the rescue of EVA specialists Hoshino and Silverstone. It was my initial opinion that the survivability of the JOVE incident was very low, but Ai Hoshino and her colleagues convinced me otherwise. Flight’s consensus is that they are alive, and I agree with that consensus. As such, we must do everything we can to bring them home safely. The attached procedures represent our best efforts to that end.”
He paused, not sure whether to give voice to the unfamiliar thought that rose in his mind, but then felt the tug of those filaments, pulling against Earth’s gravity and lightening him by grams.
“And Chief Hoshino… you put a lot of trust in me and my ship when you signed on, and even more when your son made the crew. I… this is my best attempt to make sure that trust wasn’t misplaced.”
Another pause, but this time there was nothing left to say.
“Good luck to you all. Flight out.”
The project leader and chief designing engineer of humanity’s first manned mission to Jupiter slept until called back to mission control. The particulars of the procedure meant that success or failure wouldn’t be apparent until the makeshift rescue craft was within radio range of the Von Braun.
The speed of light meant that the signal was well over an hour old by the time it arrived in Sao Paolo. Whatever happened had already happened.
Mission control was crowded; the space was not like the early NASA facilities with their galleries for family and friends of the crew. It was not a room that was ever meant to host non-involved personnel.
But today it did; Ai and Sora Hoshino were there, having flown directly back from low Earth orbit to Sao Paolo. Sally Silverstone’s parents had been flown in, too, and the rest of the extra people in the room were executives from corporations involved in the mission, as well as a couple of INTO observers. The story was public, now, but the press had been relegated to their own room.
Conversation in the room had been low and tense. Locksmith instructed Gilberto to monitor the feed from the Von Braun and use his best judgement as to when to put it on speakers.
When he did, the room fell silent.
Goro Hoshino’s voice came over the speakers. “Confirmed, we have visual acquisition of vehicle. Trajectory looks nominal.”
So the makeshift life raft had made it to the JOVE and back. That was something. That was quite a lot, actually. The code had worked.
“Com, go ahead on suit band radio.”
Another, different voice—it sounded like Leonov Norstein, another EVA specialist on the Von Braun. The tension in his voice was evident even in the staticky transmission. “JOVE crew, this is Von Braun, over. JOVE crew, come in, over.”
A wavering burst of static, then, an unsteady female voice, hoarse with fatigue. “Von Braun, this is JOVE. Real good to—”
Locksmith would listen to the recording again later to confirm what Silverstone had said, but in that moment, her voice was drowned out by the raucous cheer that went up in mission control.
His face split in a grin that seemed wholly involuntary and reflexive. He exhaled a sigh or a laugh, he wasn’t sure which.
Hachirota Hoshino’s voice now came over the com. “Hope you’ve got the showers ready over there. We’re getting pretty damn ripe in these suits.”
Locksmith saw Ai laughing and crying at the same time. She met his eyes and the two shared a look of—actually, he didn’t know what it was. He saw her bend down to her daughter and whisper something into her ear, then point in Locksmith’s direction.
Ai’s daughter—Sora, was it?—came tottering over and tugged on Locksmith’s pant leg.
“Er… yes?” said Locksmith, awkwardly.
“Are you Mister Locksmith?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Mama said you, um, you brought my papa back to his spaceship so he’s gonna be okay.”
“Well… it wasn’t just me,” said Locksmith, nervously. How to explain it? “Everyone here helped me.”
Sora gestured with her tiny chubby hand, and Locksmith realized she was trying to get him down to her level. He knelt down, suddenly very nervous, his total lack of ability to deal with children looming large in his mind. But then the little girl jumped up and wrapped her arms tight around him.
Locksmith felt moisture in his eyes.
Kujukuri, like the rest of central Japan, got reasonably cold in the winter, but snow anywhere along the Pacific coast of Honshu was rare.
And yet the snow was coming down, and Locksmith tightened his overcoat around himself as he got out of the cab in front of the plain house. He’d been to Japan many times before, but always Tokyo, and always on business.
But this was not Tokyo, and this was not business.
He shuffled up to the door of the unassuming home, and was about to ring the doorbell when a wave of uncertainty crashed over him. This was a terrible idea; nothing more than an excuse for Ai Hoshino to teach him the “true meaning of friendship” or some similar nonsense. How much sentimental hectoring would he have to endure? Yet the reality was that he was in Japan, standing in front of this house, and it was cold outside.
Locksmith rang the doorbell.
He heard a faint “I’ve got it!” from a woman inside, and soon the door slid open and he was greeted by Mrs. Hoshino the elder—Goro’s wife, and Hachirota’s mother. “Why hello, Mr. Locksmith! Come in, come in. Can you believe this weather? We haven’t had snow in six years!”
“Er, yes, it’s quite something. A change from Brazil, certainly.”
“I’ll just bet! Well, come inside and we’ll get you warmed up.”
Locksmith stepped into the entryway, assiduously removing his shoes before stepping up into the house proper. A set of the strange little slippers common to every Japanese home was set out for him; he slipped them on and followed Mrs. Hoshino into the house.
“Ai! Mr. Locksmith is here!”
“Coming!” Ai Tanabe appeared around the corner at the end of the hall. “Mr. Locksmith! I’m so glad you could make it.”
“Please, Werner is fine.”
Ai smiled. “Werner, then. And you can call me Ai.”
“Everyone else does, anyway,” said Mrs. Hoshino. “Too many ‘Mrs. Hoshinos’ in this house makes things confusing.”
Ai giggled. “As though anyone calls you anything besides ‘Mom.’”
Just then, Sora came careening around the corner. “Grandma, Grandma, look!” She slid to a stop on the hardwood floor and beamed.
“Grandma” Hoshino gave Ai a warmly teasing look. “Need I say more?” She took Locksmith’s coat and suitcase.
Ai shook her head. “Well, anyway, Werner, please come in. Fee and Yuri are already here. I think Fee and Kyu are watching TV; Yuri was helping me in the kitchen.”
“I’m afraid I’m quite useless when it comes to cooking,” said Locksmith as he followed Ai into the house.
“Well, between mother, Yuri, and me I think we have it covered. You can watch Fee grumble about football.”
Ai led Locksmith to the living room, where Fee and Kyu—that would be Kyutaro Hoshino, Hachirota’s younger brother—were seated on a cushion at one of those strange heated hearth-tables the Japanese seemed to like so much. What were they called, again? That’s right—kotatsu. Fee looked up from the TV, which indeed had an American football game on. “Hey, Locksmith! Good to see you. Have a seat.”
“Ah, Ms. Carmichael, thank you…” said Locksmith, and sat down on a cushion in front of the kotatsu. He felt faintly silly pulling the hearth’s blanket over his lap, but had to admit to himself that it was very warm.
“Call me Fee, seriously. And this joker is Kyu,” added Fee, elbowing the teenage boy who sat dumbly at the table. “Just between you and me, he is a huge fan of yours.”
“Fee! Shut up!” hissed Kyutaro.
“Ah, ha ha, well…” said Locksmith, slightly at a loss. “It’s very kind of your family to invite me for New Year’s.”
“Not at all! The honor is ours!” said Kyu, practically yelling, which elicited a hearty laugh from Fee.
“So, Ms.—er, Fee. How are you?” said Locksmith.
“I’d be better if the damn Dolphins weren’t losing again,” said Fee, gesturing in irritation at the TV. “Can I get you a drink?”
“I don’t usually drink alcohol…” This was an understatement; Locksmith had imbibed alcoholic beverages exactly three times in his life, and enjoyed none of them.
“Aw, c’mon, Locksmith. Last week you and your guys pulled off the longest-shot, riskiest space rescue in history. You gotta drink to that.”
“Well, I… I suppose…”
Fee plunked a small ceramic cup down in front of Locksmith. “I don’t make you for a beer man, but Mama Hoshino keeps good sake on hand, and it’ll warm you right up.” She poured some of the clear liquid from small decanter into Locksmith’s cup.
“Thank you…” said Locksmith, nonplussed but strangely flattered.
“All right, here’s to the Von Braun!” said Fee, raising her glass.
Locksmith picked up his sake cup and raised it in return. “Indeed. Cheers.”
The sake was sweeter and smoother than he expected, and hot but not burning. It was delicious, totally unlike anything he’d had before, and his eyes widened in surprise.
“Pretty good, eh?”
“Yes, actually.” Locksmith took another sip. “So, Fee… some of my engineers were wondering if I could, ah, get your autograph for them.”
Fee guffawed. “Hah! Yeah, sure.”
Kyu gawped at Fee. “Werner Locksmith wants your autograph?” he said, awestruck.
“Well, technically my engineering team in Sao Paolo wants her autograph,” said Locksmith, but Kyu wasn’t listening.
“Not bad for an old lady, eh?” said Fee, winking at Kyu. She then glanced at the TV just in time to see a Dolphins receiver fumble the ball. “Goddammit, Johnson! What’re we paying you for?!”
Locksmith discretely refilled his cup.
The dinner prepared by Mrs. Hoshino and her sous chefs Yuri and Ai was spectacular; suddenly Goro’s constant refrain of how much he missed his wife’s cooking made much more sense. They ate and drank for several hours, watched an inexplicable and lengthy musical variety show, then quietly rang in the new year. And eventually, one by one, the family members—for it was clear that this was all one family, somehow—peeled off for bed, leaving Locksmith and Ai alone in the wee hours.
Conversation had gradually faded to silence, leaving his mind to wander. He wondered if Kyutaro would drop out of college if offered a job on the Saturn team. The boy was talented and driven; he was wasted on school, Locksmith had decided. He mulled the idea over, his mind that evening more given to flights of hypothetical fancy than it normally was.
Having been careful not to drink too much, Locksmith nonetheless felt about a degree warmer than usual, and strangely voluble.
“Mrs. Hosh—I mean, Ai. I thought I should say…”
Ai was looking out the room’s large window onto the snow-covered garden beyond. She turned back to Locksmith when he spoke. “Hm?”
“I’m… a certain kind of man, and that’s not something that is going to change. No one else could’ve built the Von Braun.”
“That’s probably true,” said Ai, her tone neutral.
“Still… I was wrong to dismiss you. I thought you were being foolishly sentimental, but your instincts were good. You were right. I would’ve made the wrong decision, and everybody would have suffered for it.” He stared at the table. “So thank you.”
Ai smiled her warm, open smile. “I can’t really change who I am, either.”
“Nor should you,” said Locksmith.
He looked outside. The snow was coming down in huge, lazy flakes, and it was very quiet.
Saturn felt close.