1. scintilla

    scintilla Member

    Oct 2, 2007
    Likes Received:
    Miami, Florida

    A Rock of Offence

    Discussion in 'Strong Character Contest' started by scintilla, Oct 12, 2007.

    My name is Bill Franks, and I’ve been riding this asteroid for nearly a year now. Living inside a dome the size of a big bedroom on the trailing side. I go out sometimes, I have a suit for that, but there’s no reason to go out. It’s actually pretty boring. I haven’t had a soul to talk to. They gave me a computerized simulated personality for interaction. They said it would keep me from going crazy. I don’t think it’s working.
    “Cecil, how are you doing? Holding up alright?” I was talking to a speaker fitted flush against a panel, vigorously rubbing the last moisture from my hair with a towel. I try to keep a morning routine.
    “Fine sir. It seems like a good day.” As usual, Cecil had no trace of computer or artificial in his voice. He might have been human, and though I knew he wasn’t, I had long ago stopped thinking about it. He had never known anyone but me. I was the pattern he imprinted on. And he had a personality, all right. Not always an agreeable one. But what do you expect from someone who only hangs out with me? For all that, Cecil was a good friend, if that made any sense.
    “How you figure that?” I asked. A good day in space…you have to have bad to have good. Change. And nothing ever changed up here. The distances made you feel like you were fixed in place, even when you were moving fast, screaming. Stars stand as still as, well, stiller than they ever had on Earth. No rotation to move them. Locked in place, like the moon following your car at night when you were a kid.
    “Well, we’ve traveled quite a distance. Past halfway. That’s distance, not time.”
    “You sure?”
    “I checked last night. While you were sleeping.”
    I sat in front of the monitor and pushed the button that caused it to come on. Yep. Passed halfway last night.
    “Well, I’ll be. That does make it a good day. We may have to celebrate.”
    “Beer’s on me,” said Cecil.
    “I just woke up.” I went over to the fridge and pulled out a package. Attached it to a nozzle, pushed another button. Most of what I did involved buttons. Whoosh. Breakfast.
    “Hey-mmm,” I mumbled as I squeezed eggs into my mouth. “Cecil, what about the trajectory. Are we still on the beam? I’m a little surprised we got this far this fast.”
    “Well, we got a super boost from that gravity sling we added. It has us almost half-again as fast.”
    “Yeah, fast, good. I asked about the trajectory.”
    “Well, I’d meant to mention that. It’s Dialunar, sir.”
    I finished eating my eggs and set to the puzzle. “Let’s see… lunar – as in, the moon?”
    “Yes sir.” Cecil’s voice was never emotionless, but it sounded flat and cold in my ears. Something was causing me to feel suddenly nervous.
    “Dia-, being used by you as a suffix?”
    “It is a prefix.”
    “Yeah, yeah, prefix-suffix, whatever. Dia-… that means through.”
    “Yes sir.”
    “Cecil, are you telling me we’re going through the moon?”
    “Our course is.”
    “That can’t be.”
    “It is.”
    “Couldn’t you have mentioned that earlier?” I went over to my monitor again. Punched a few more buttons, and there was the trajectory laid out from here to there. Us. Space. Moon. Blam.
    “Cecil, a good day? What are you thinking? Surely you know what this means? The moon is essential for life on Earth, and we could pulverize it, especially at this speed.” Early on I had realized that the obvious was often lost on my companion. “Aren’t I right? When does it happen? What’s between us and the moon? Anything we can use to shift our course, or slow us down?”
    “No sir. We’re going for the moon. It’s a straight shot.”
    “What do you mean, ‘It’s a straight shot’. We can’t hit the moon. We’ll, um, well…it won’t be good. No sir…” I said, walking over to the only window I had. Through the thick glass the massive chunk of metal asteroid I was riding stretched out before me; my rocky back yard. In the dark sky above a large metal stalagmite which stuck up like a gun-sight from the ground at the horizon, right there in my crosshairs, was a bright disc. Sol, my sun. Somewhere there, dead ahead, were several billion people who, if things didn’t change, I was going to kill.
    “…this is not good at all.”
    “You’ll fix it, sir,” came Cecil’s voice. He almost sounded chipper.

    It was a great plan, with every politician behind it. Earth was running out of metals, essential metals, and the asteroid belt was full of them. So all you needed was some guy who was hard up and desperate enough to go get an asteroid and bring it back to Earth. The propulsion was ionic at first, to get you moving; the asteroid was the fuel. Slow, continuous acceleration. After a while, when you’re sure the course is right, you switch to nuclear explosions. There is a massive parabolic dish carved into the metal on the back of the asteroid. In the center of this dish is an exit. From the exit, out a structure like a torpedo tube, small bombs are ejected, having been activated during transit by a powerful magnetic field, to explode a short distance away. The result? Instant acceleration, like being hit from behind by a speeding truck.
    Once back to Earth we use gravity to decelerate. A little tweaking with the ionic drive and we pull into a stable “parking spot”. There are a few of them around the Earth-Moon gravity complex, called “Lagrange Points”. They make wonderful, stable storage depots, particularly L4 and L5. Put something there and it stays there; an asteroid in L4 is as stable as a marble in a bowl, safely away from doing harm.
    Great plan, unless you come crashing into the moon instead.
    “Cecil, I need you to think. We have to come up with something.”
    “Sure. I’ve been doing that, of course…considering our resources. We have the Ionic Drive system. We have the Nuclear Blast system. Both useless.”
    “Come on, we can steer, can’t we?”
    “Nope. This system was designed to get a vastly massive object moving at a fairly good rate of speed. Not designed for maneuverability. We have more in common with an arrow than an airplane. Actually, more like a cannonball to a missile; that’s a better comparison.”
    I was aware that there were no variables that Cecil hadn’t considered. But talking helps me think. “Can’t we just use the ionic drive to steer? We did it before, when we lined up for that boost.”
    “We were moving slower then, and we had months. The ionic drive is a low-force system. It is constant, and persistent, but at this speed, in the time we have, almost completely without effect. It would be like a tugboat pushing on a moving battleship. If we’re motionless, it can do something, push us around. Moving, there’s too much inertia. We’re simply too massive, and we’re going too fast.”
    “Okay, the nuclear drive then.”
    “Not possible. The system is like a dragster – all engine, no steering. Real good at the straightaway. No cornering.”
    “Well, what am I here for then, huh? Why put me on this thing?”
    “Mostly for the beginning and the end, sir.”
    “Cecil, how come we’re heading for the moon? You calculated that gravity boost. You said it wouldn’t change our course. It was the gravity boost, wasn’t it?”
    “Turns out, I got that wrong. Something unknown affected us. I think it was dark matter, but it could have been anything, even a small black hole drifting by. Bad luck at any rate.”
    “Bad Luck?! Cecil, the destruction of mankind is not bad luck! How many of those bombs do we have? We’ll blow this rock up if we have to!”
    “We have three, enough to blow ourselves up, that’s for sure. If we could find a way to arm them without the magnetic field, and a way to bore into the center of this asteroid. Our asteroid would shatter, spread, and then gravity would pull it all back together again. By the time we got to the moon instead of hitting it as a rock, we would be a beanbag, a collection of rubble. Wouldn’t make much difference to the final result, though. We would be just as effectively destructive.”
    I was aware of this too. Talking to Cecil was sometimes like thinking out loud. However, now he was getting on my nerves. He was always blunt, and kind of a smarty-pants. They could have programmed him in a little more tact, some slow realization on his part, just to keep the pacing right, for my sake. But I probably made him like that.
    And I’ve always liked people like Cecil. Usually.
    “Cecil, I’m tired of talking. I need to think for a while.”
    “Right sir. I’ll be here if you want to talk.”
    And with that, the speaker went silent. I could tell when Cecil was “standing by”. It was like when I was a kid, how I could tell the television was on from another room. There was a noise, a subliminal background noise when Cecil was fully attentive. That noise was gone now.
    My brain went instantly to the bombs. There was my greatest potential for changing my situation. What did I know about them?
    Well, they only worked when they exited the tube. Some kind of safety measure. There was a powerful magnetic field they passed through on the way out, and that armed them, and I was pretty sure I couldn’t duplicate it myself. Cecil had said as much anyway. But then, he didn’t seem to be a wellspring of good information these days. I was kicking myself for listening to him.

    I spent several days without an answer. I could see the sun, and it was getting bigger, I was sure. I felt frozen with indecision, and a lack of creativity. I left Cecil off. It was the longest he had ever been off. Eventually, I got an idea. It was crazy. I let it stew a while.
    At some point the sun got big enough that I had to do something.

    So that’s how I found myself outside the dome, sticking to the asteroid with magnetic boots, taking tentative step after tentative step, walking farther than I ever had, my way lit by one dim, diffuse light on either side of my helmet. The asteroid was just over eight miles long. My dome was in the front. I was headed to the back, where the dish was. I had a welding apparatus with me. It probably weighed about a ton on Earth. I carried it with one hand. Carrying something huge, which had mass, but no weight, was truly strange. It wasn’t exactly carrying. Imagine pushing a one-ton chunk of metal which was suspended by a cable. It’s hard to get it moving, hard to start it, but no strain at all in transit except when you tried to change direction. But once it was moving, don’t get in its way. I thought again of the problem we had moving this asteroid, and what was going to happen if we didn’t.
    Back in the asteroid belt is Space Station Beta, and it’s from there that a few dozen men (and two women) travel out to asteroids and prep them for the trip back to Earth. They essentially turned large metal mountains into spaceships, after a sort. They had it all down, and all the right equipment. Science. A wonderful thing.
    Me, I was wrestling a welder which was never meant to be moved eight miles across terrain which was never meant to be walked. Before I left I had used the welder to cut a curving, L-shaped part off of a stabilizing strut which held down my dome. The strut was in my other hand. I had a crude plan. An impossible, hands-up-in-the-air, cosmic dice-roll, swing for the fences plan. Anyway, it was all I could think of, and time was running out.
    It took me the better part of the day to get to the dish, and I was aching. The ground had gone from pitted and rocky to smooth from the melting blast of the bombs. The dish was vast before me, looking across it was like looking across a volcano or a crater, and it was radioactive in a way I didn’t want to think about. I was sweating from head to toe, the air recycler and de-humidifier on the leg of my suit was so hot from its effort keeping my air fresh that it burned me sometimes when I turned carelessly and brushed against it. The suit was meant to be used close to the dome, for a few hours, max. I was already pushing it, and I hadn’t done a thing. Nothing useful. Well, I got here.
    I hiked down into the dish with my welder, using the strut as a cane (although I didn’t need to. The sides of the dish were almost completely smooth like glass, and the angle was high, but it made no difference to me and my magnetic shoes. I could have walked up the side of a metal skyscraper on that asteroid). I came to the hole where the bombs came out. It was bigger than I thought it would be, and a sudden doubt came into my mind about the size of the piece I had cut from the strut. I stood it up next to the hole though, and it seemed pretty good, maybe just a little stubby. This was going to have to be a strong weld. I am a really bad welder.
    The asteroid was mostly pure iron, and the strut was steel. I welded the two together as firmly as anyone could, I thought, the strut ending up having a slope of metal at the bottom, like a candle melted into the ground. It looked good. I pushed and kicked it, and it was absolutely solid. It looked odd, sticking up alone where nothing else did. There was the hole in the ground, with the curved strut like a jai-alai cesta sticking up next to it. The bomb was going to be my pelota. The side of the dish was my target.

    Everything was ready. I needed to get out of the way for the next step. The curved strut, which was now a guide to re-direct the bomb, pointed off like a periscope in one direction, and I headed for the other. The uneven surface of the asteroid would normally provide a number of places for me to take cover, but everything was melted down some from the bombs. Finding a place for the welding equipment was even more difficult. Eventually I found a bulge beyond the rim of the dish which was squat, and wide enough for it. I took my place behind my own bulging protection. The shape of my hiding place reminding me of a large polar bear standing with its arms raised. I hoped he was a strong polar bear. Then I thought, he had to be if he was still standing here.
    I pressed the “com” button on the back of my glove. “Cecil?”
    “Yes sir,” came the prompt reply as Cecil’s circuits fired up again.
    “I need you to fire one of the nukes. Just one, and do it in two minutes.”
    “Where are you sir?”
    “I’m back here by the dish, but I’m fine. Just fire that nuke.”
    I knew now that this was it, this was everything to me, and everyone else for that matter. The time had come. I had to be here to finish the job, so there was no leaving or complaining. My plan was to fire one nuke off-center to explode and push against the side of the dish, to get the asteroid turning – hopefully slowly. Then I would use the welder to cut off the strut, and fire a nuke when the hole was pointing to the side, deflecting our course.
    The time seemed to pass so slowly I felt nervous that Cecil wasn’t going to do it, but then I felt a rumbling in my boots and ducked behind my lumpy shield. I was facing away from the dish, hoping to survive the experience. The vibrations suddenly stopped, and then the entire area was bathed in unimaginable light, like God’s giant flashbulb. I shut my eyes, and there was a huge thump. I was suddenly weightless, although actually the asteroid was pulling down away from my feet. I had forgotten that there would be a thrust. I was thrown backward and grasped fruitlessly at the smooth metallic lump I had been semi-crouching behind, but my hands found no purchase and I passed it like a rocket leaving the launching pad, my gloves scraping the sides. I felt a yank at my feet, my body paused a second…then my boots pulled up off the ground. I was rising, floating free.
    I have never thought that fast. I bent my knees quickly and re-connected my magnetic boots, this time with the polar-bear lump I had been hiding behind. I planted them into his chest. It was a bad angle, one that was likely to pry me loose again, but thankfully I found a good flat spot. I felt an amazing exhilaration when my suit pulled tight at the bottom and my feet slid but held. I ended up standing nearly on the polar-bear’s shoulders; my feet had been pulled up his body. I saw with chagrin my welder receding in the distance. There had been nothing to keep it down but the feeble gravity of the asteroid itself.
    My head was high enough that I could see the results of the explosion. As I panned my light down at the place where I had been hiding I could clearly see the raw rockiness of the area shadowed by the bear-lump, contrasted by a stark line where the shadow ended and the glassy smoothness of molten metal began. I imagined that the smooth places were also very hot places right now, but the asteroid would conduct the heat away quickly, since it was made of metal. A million million tons of cold iron was an excellent heat sink.
    I touched the com button again, barely daring to hope that I had been in any way successful.
    “Cecil, I’m coming back home.”
    “Yes sir,” came the response. Good. There was nothing else to do here.

    After the long walk back it was good to see the dome’s top appear over the horizon. I had been concerned for the last hour that the mechanics of the suit had stopped working, but they must have been at least partially okay. Still, it had felt like driving around on empty, waiting for the inevitable. I was close enough now to make it the rest of the way even if the suit did break. As I approached the dome I immediately noticed it looked different.
    One of the legs, not surprisingly the one I had cannibalized, was lifted up from the ground and the top of the dome was bent, buckled. Of course. I should have taken the back strut, not the front one. I was lucky the entire thing hadn’t sheared off.

    A minute later I was back at my screen, looking at the moon and us. I’d done it, or at least most of it. My spacesuit was shot, but I’d done it. The asteroid was now turning around a tilted axis, leaning and slowly spinning like Earth does. The speed of the spin was much slower than Earth’s. But because of the asteroid’s smaller size, the stars in the heavens moved faster. You could actually see them moving, but they weren’t fast enough to make you dizzy. I was happy with the result.
    “Mostly good so far, eh Cecil?”
    “Yes sir. We are still Dialunar though.”
    “Yeah, I didn’t think that would fix everything. Actually, I can’t really do what I’d planned to. I meant to cut that strut off the exit hole. But we’ll have to hope that with two bombs we can shift this thing.”
    “You’re going to release the bombs?”
    “That’s the plan. I’m gonna wait until this rock turns perpendicular and fire one off to the side and hope that works. I think it’s going to blow us a few degrees out of true.”
    “I see. The range of correction we need is from two to three point two degrees. Depending on when we execute the plan.”
    “I’m going to do it now. The longer I wait, the bigger the deflection needed, right?”
    “That’s correct.”
    “Then now’s the time.”

    I was waiting, again with my hand on a button. But it was a very important button. There was a lag time between pushing the button and explosion. About twenty-three seconds, from button to boom. I was looking at the monitor, watching a mock-up of this asteroid, spinning slowly in space. I was calculating.
    “I can do that for you,” piped up Cecil. “Much more accurately.”
    “Thanks, but I’m not leaving the fate of mankind in the hands of a machine. When we die, or if we live, it’ll be a man at the helm.”
    “Yes sir,” said Cecil, sounding somewhat hurt.
    “Nothing personal Cecil. It’s just that you got us into this mess. You made a mistake.”
    “There wasn’t a mistake. I said there was a variable missing.”
    “Missing a variable is a mistake, Cecil.”
    Cecil was silent. Maybe moping? I could have been nicer. Whatever.
    I was watching the rotation, leaning forward like I was pushing the button each time we passed the appropriate place. One, two, three. I pushed.
    “You were slightly early,” said Cecil.
    “Shut up,” I said.
    I waited. Up here in my dome I was too far away to feel the vibrations of the bomb moving through the tube. I just had to wait for the thrust.
    There was a sideways heave, catching me by surprise. I hadn’t thought about it, and forgot that the push would be sideways. There was a high-pitched metallic scraping noise, and the room lifted like Dorothy’s house in the Wizard of Oz. I staggered, regained my footing, paused in front of the monitor a second or two, then pulled up the trajectory and orientation. We were still hitting the moon, but just a glancing blow. Then the lights went completely out. Progress and setbacks.

    I was blind, groping in the darkness. Cecil was down. The electronics in the dome were gone. It had to be a cable. The room was dark, and when I looked out the window the stars were spinning madly. I couldn’t tell when the bomb’s dish was at the back, or side or anything. I couldn’t fire a missile, and if I could it was anyone’s guess where it was going to explode. I had to fix things. I had to go outside.
    I got the backup suit, a real standby rig. I wouldn’t have the luxury of replenished air. I could take a bottle, and that was that. A half-hour. I had two bottles. One hour.
    Hopefully, it was as simple as going outside and finding a connector had separated. If the cable had ripped apart, I was shot. I went out the airlock, took a few steps away from the dome and turned to survey the damage.
    The dome was a mess. What had been a lifted leg after the previous explosion had become a fold. The remnants of the leg pointed straight up, above the top of the dome itself. The other three legs had held, so about half of the dome remained on the ground. There were two legs on either side of the bend, and from the nearer dangled the yellow end of my parted cable. I saw a connection on the end. Good news.
    I walked over to examine the connector. It had been pulled violently away from its mate, and in the process one of the pins had bent so far that it broke off when I tried to straighten it. Whatever that pin went to was not going to work. I was crossing my fingers that it wasn’t the bomb launcher, the monitor, or the processor. Lights I could live without, and other things might kill me, but at least I could finish the job. I found the other end of the cable and pulled the two together. They mated easily. The lights came on in the dome.

    The dome was no longer airtight. There was a steady loss of pressure. I didn’t need to keep the suit on, but I would have to find the leak and seal it. The monitor and processor worked, so I set it to do a self-diagnosis. Everything worked except Cecil. He was the broken pin. It was the best possible scenario, all things considered. I still had to fire one more bomb.

    “Get the last bomb ready.”
    There was no answer, no Cecil. I had forgotten again. I went over to the console and manually set the bomb active. All that was left now was to push the button and launch it. After what the last bomb did, I figured this one would shake the dome free, and probably kill me.
    I did my leaning thing again, getting a feel for the rotation on the orientation screen. The timing was completely different now, the rotation was faster. I couldn’t seem to get into the rhythm of the spin. This was my last bomb, and I didn’t feel like I was going to get it right at all. I could really use Cecil.
    Then a brainwave came to me. I could take all of Cecil’s programming, and re-load it into another, working part of the computer. In fact, there was a back-up! Of course! Cecil was contained on two computers, always communicating, one active, one passive. The passive should contain all the programming which was Cecil. He could be revived!
    I went to the monitor and brought up the file system. I found the partition which was Cecil’s twin, and opened it. I wanted to look it over to see the last time he had been backed up.
    I was reading the code, looking at the dates, trying to figure out how to restore him, when his thought processes began to get my attention. I never realized it, but I could read Cecil’s mind, literally; every thought he had ever had was written there for me to look at. It was fascinating, like peeking into someone’s brain. For a moment it made me forget my circumstances.
    Then I saw it, months back. No; no way. At first I didn’t believe, but I looked before and after, reading, and Cecil’s thoughts kept the same theme. They were all consistent with each other. My hands gripped the console ever tighter. I read a nightmare. There was no way. My friend. Cecil. My protégé.
    Brutus. Judas. Cecil.
    Cecil on the grandest scale of all. Destroyer of the human race. Kali. Satan. Evil killer.
    He planned it. He manipulated me, and he drove this asteroid into the moon. Petulant little…all so he wouldn’t get switched off. He knew that when we got to L4, that was it. And so he could exist, he was going to destroy us all. Then what? Nothing? Eternity? The amorality of him! A machine! Ugly little machine. But he was dead now. Dead forever. Staying dead too. And I was going to clean up his mess. Hell if I wouldn’t!
    I went back to the monitor and looked at the orientation. I guessed there would be two-and-a-half spins between the pushing of the button and the explosion. The spin was in the direction of the curved guide, if it was still attached to the hole. What I wouldn’t give to be able to have that good suit again, to have that welder.
    Self-pity. I had to forget that. Just do my best. I watched the asteroid spin. I got into it, timed it. I leaned a few times, getting the feel for it. Take your time. Wait for it. One. Two. Three. Push!
    It felt perfect.
    I knew it was right. Oh yeah, everything was going to be okay. And a thought dawned in my head, a thought about as fast as the one I had had before, when I was flung off the asteroid during that first blast. The asteroid was going to rotate between the time the bomb came out of the tube and the time it exploded. It would explode on the side all right, but only after the asteroid had executed a half-turn. It would be right above the dome, right above my head. I had about fifteen seconds. Out the window, the stars were screaming by, fast. My whole world was reeling, but I felt so calm. Only one action came to my mind, only one thing to do. I spoke out loud.
    “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

    Comments, criticisms, and suggestions would be welcomed. Thank you.
  2. disco_artist

    disco_artist Member

    Oct 12, 2007
    Likes Received:
    Canada, baby.
    Man, this was so fricken' good. The ending was totally unpredictable, and the writing was perfect for the story. A lot of dialogue, but it felt right to me, because after he'd been up there so long it was really all he had.

    I feel like his realization that is was Cecil was under-dramatized.

    Also, way to go on making the first person work, that's quite a feat.
  3. scintilla

    scintilla Member

    Oct 2, 2007
    Likes Received:
    Miami, Florida
    Thank you! Yeah, it was hard to stay in that Point of View. I get what you're saying. The vastness of the realization was difficult; it was hard to know just when it was enough. I found out I have to mentally slow myself down on endings, I want to rush them. Not that I've ended many stories; I've mostly just written little snips and scenes. I think this might be the first thing I've finished.
  4. mollyburton

    mollyburton Member

    Jun 30, 2007
    Likes Received:
    The Mox.
    I agree with disco_artist. You had an enviably perfect tone in this story.

    PS. I didn't think your end was rushed. I thought it was fantastic. Really creative.
  5. scintilla

    scintilla Member

    Oct 2, 2007
    Likes Received:
    Miami, Florida
    I feel so encouraged. Thank you for the feedback. I joined here because I've never been brave enough to show my stuff to anyone - to hear what they thought. The contest was fun; it was GREAT to be directed, to have a theme to follow. The whole experience has made me want to write more.
    Thanks again; you can't know how much your input means.
  6. fmmarcy

    fmmarcy Member

    Oct 20, 2011
    Likes Received:
    North Carolina
    Great story! Conceptually, this was rocking. And I have to agree with what was said before, tonally this thing was perfect. Only suggestion would be perhaps a bit more development of the relationship with Cecil, some more banter, perhaps meaningful dialogue beyond what was given. It'd make the reveal that much more poignant.
    But that ending...man that ending. Hats off to you for that last little bit.

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