Probably my last flash fiction of the year, and I give you a story of two characters that I have grown to love this year. I’m hoping I’ll see lots more of Big Pete and the Swede in the future. You can read their previous stories in the Orichalcum Library and On the Wings of an Angel.
An Orichalcum Christmas
Pete woke up because he was cold.
He climbed out of his bunk. The lights didn’t come on. The view from the porthole confirmed his suspicions. Even after his birthday celebrations, Pete reacted quickly to change in his living environment. The only reason they hadn’t noticed sooner was because, unusually, he and the Swede had slept at the same time.
During their “night” the miners’ spacecraft had drifted nearer the asteroid belt.
The orichalcum rich asteroid belt.
The orichalcum rich asteroid belt they’d been mining for months.
For some reason still undiscovered, orichalcum rich asteroids sapped all the power from any spacecraft that got too close. The bag of granulated ore they towed behind them had less effect, and they had enough to process and return to Pleasant Valley, the miners’ business planet closer to the sun, Viridium. The bag of granules had not caused the power failure. They had drifted closer to the belt and gravity, even the light gravitation the belt induced, had taken over.
Pete slipped into their work area and took his seat at the control panel. The Swede emerged right behind him. Sixth sense was vital in this environment.
Pete flipped the routine switches to confirm it wasn’t an ordinary failure, while the Swede pulled out an aluminium chest that fit neatly into the sidewall. He flipped the catch and took out an expanding wooden frame with a number of pegs sticking up from various points. He snapped a round object into its centre, stretched the wood this way and that as he looked from one peg past another and through the cabin window to a flashing beacon some way off. He looked at the round object, grunted, and repeated the operation through a window in the ceiling.
Pete took out two grey shiny pads each with a stick attached by string, and an assortment of hand tools.
“One nine seven, one four five, zero three zero,” announced the Swede.
“Damn,” was Pete’s reply.
“Space anchor’s still there.”
“Rate of descent?”
“Doubt it. Try though.”
Listening to the pair talk was hard work if you weren’t familiar with space talk. With these two, their specialist skills required for orichalcum mining made it even harder. The Swede had taken a position with an old fashioned triangulation method and worked out they were far enough round the asteroid belt for the solar sail to collect little in the way of solar particles from their sun to get them out of the way. Little, but worth trying, as the Swede had indicated.
Pete climbed into a full spacesuit and went out of the airlock to unfurl the solar sail. The Swede made a few more measurements, tapped a strange tube containing a silver thread of mercury, and shook his head. Then he swung himself down through a hatch in the corridor and crawled along the belly of the craft to check some flexible containers. He grabbed a lever, attached it to a junction of some tubes, and pumped for a few minutes. One of the flexible containers grew fatter, another deflated completely. Satisfied, the Swede pulled himself back to the corridor, suited up and went to join Pete upsides.
The pair had a complicated sign language for when the comms weren’t working. The Swede told Pete their air supply was good for now, Pete told the Swede the solar sail wasn’t working unless they could bring it round by sixty to eighty degrees, and they agreed they were far too close to the asteroid they’d been mining, despite having a mooring rope attached to it. The rope was taut, so it wasn’t the reason for their drifting. Their space anchor, which looked like a large canvas bucket on a long rope, stretched out behind them. The large asteroid ahead and to their left was the source of the gravitational attraction.
Despite their languid appearance, they were in serious difficulty. A non-miner would call it an emergency.
The Swede controlled the base of the sail while Pete shinned along a rope attached to its head. Not all the way along, since the sail stretched out for miles. Just far enough to attach a second coil of rope to the gossamer thin fabric and pull it out when he came back, walking to the back of the craft and then climbing some way along the space anchor rope. He looked back at the Swede and exchanged hand signals.
Pete tied off the rope where he was and shinned back to the Swede. They stood and watched for a while, then went back inside.
“Either it will or it won’t,” the Swede grunted. Pete just shrugged.
The frustration was that they had planned to process the ore today. Take the granules into the hopper as they went off on a long loop round the asteroid belt, well out of range of any orichalcum ones, sift the pure orichalcum into small bags, pack nuggets if they were good enough, and return to the rock they’d been working to put the powder back. Have fun aiming to pour it back down the hole they’d been working. Any that missed would accrete under normal space conditions anyway. Mining just undid a few millennia of planetary formation.
Afterwards they had planned to party on Pleasant Valley for Christmas.
“What’s that star?” Pete asked as he glanced out of the ceiling window.
The Swede picked up his frame and made some observations. Pete pulled out some star charts from the chest and smoothed them onto the table. The Swede jotted some figures on the grey pad and showed them to Pete. They pored over the star charts, using an extending piece of metal to follow along a line from their location.
“Maybe.” Pete pulled himself up to the window for another look. “Brighter.”
The Swede pulled himself up to join him. “Approaching!”
They swiftly secured anything loose in the cabin, then did the same in their sleeping areas.
“Miss the sail!” Pete pleaded.
“It’ll pull us away,” the Swede saw the brighter side of a near-miss. “Why bright?”
Interplanetary objects should not have their own light, they should reflect the sun’s light; this was between the miners and Viridium. Interstellar objects with their own light shouldn’t travel in this manner.
They watched as the object closed on them, and leapt from the ceiling to the side window to watch it sweep past the sail and loop away from them. The sail filled and pulled them away from the asteroid belt.
Pete threw the Swede one of the grey pads. “Draw what you saw!” he ordered as the lights flickered back on and the hum of their life support systems rebooting let their subconscious tension relax. Their conscious tension was another thing.
They showed each other a picture of what they had seen. They matched in essentials, although some details differed. Were there four reindeer or six? Was the light from the leading pair’s noses or from all of them? Had the fat man with the beard waved cheerily at them or made a rude gesture?
“Phew,” said Pete. “I’ll bring the sail in.”
“Yeah,” said the Swede. “Let’s get the ore processed and head to Pleasant Valley. Celebrate your birthday again.”
Pete grinned. People born on 23rd December usually get combined parties and presents. This time, he’d been given the best present possible. Survival.
(c) J M Pett 2013