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By Ben Bova
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1986 Ben Bova
All rights reserved.
The basic idea for this story occurred to me back in the years when I was an editor. For the better part of a decade I tried to get one writer after another to write a story for Analog or, later, Omni around this idea. All I ever got for my troubles was a series of blank stares and muttered promises to "give it a shot.?
When I finally stopped being an editor and began to write short fiction again, I tackled the idea myself. Sam Gunn is the result. Sam is a true Promethean — inventive and irreverent, feisty and tough, good-hearted and crafty. Ed Ferman, editor and publisher of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction not only bought the story, he published it in his magazine's 34th anniversary issue, which pleased me no end.
By the time I was finished with the story, it occurred to me that Sam is too good a character to drop. There will be more tales about Sam Gunn, and maybe even a novel about him. But that's for the future. Here's what Sam looked like when I first set my inner eye on him.
The spring-wheeled truck rolled to a silent stop on the Sea of Clouds. The fine dust kicked up by its six wheels floated lazily back to the mare's soil. The hatch to the truck cab swung upward, and a space-suited figure climbed slowly down to the lunar surface, clumped a dozen ponderously careful steps, then turned back toward the truck.
"Yeah, this is the spot. The transponder's beeping away, all right."
Two more figures clambered down from the cab, bulbous and awkward-looking in the bulky space suits. One of them turned a full three hundred sixty degrees, scanning the scene through the gold-tinted visor of the suit's bubble helmet. There was nothing to be seen except the monotonous gray plain, pockmarked by craters like an ancient, savage battlefield that had been petrified into solid stone long eons ago.
"Christ, you can't even see the ringwall from here!"
"That's what he wanted — to be out in the open, without a sign of civilization in sight. He picked this spot himself, you know."
"Helluva place to want to be buried."
"That's what he specified in his will. Come on, let's get to work. I want to get back to Selene City before the sun sets."
It was a local joke: the three space-suited workers had more than two hundred hours before sunset.
Grunting even in the general lunar gravity, they slid the coffin from the back of the truck and placed it gently on the roiled, dusty ground. Then they winched the four-meter-high crate from the truck and put it down softly next to the coffin. While one of them scoured out a coffin-sized hole in the ground with the blue-white flame of a plasma torch, the other two uncrated the big package.
"Ready for the coffin," said the worker with the torch.
The leader of the trio inspected the grave. The hot plasma had polished the stony ground. The two workers heard him muttering over their helmet earphones as he used a hand laser to check the grave's dimensions. Satisfied, he helped them drag the gold-filagreed coffin to the hole and slide it in.
"A lot of work to do for a dead man."
"He wasn't just any ordinary man."
"It's still a lot of work. Why in hell couldn't he be recycled like everybody else?"
"Sam Gunn," said the leader, "never did things like everybody else. Not in his whole cussed long life. Why should he be like the rest of us in death?"
They chattered back and forth through their suit radios as they uncrated the big package. Once they had removed all the plastic and the bigger-than-life statue stood sparkling in the sunlight, they stepped back and gaped at it.
"Christ, I never saw anything so damned big."
"Must have cost a fortune to get it here. Two fortunes!"
"He had it done at Island One, I hear. Brought the sculptor up from Earthside and paid him enough to keep him at L-4 for two whole years. God knows how many times he tried to cast a statue this big and failed."
"I didn't know you could make a glass statue so big."
"In zero gee you can. It's hollow. If we were in air, I could ping it with my finger and you'd hear it ring."
One of the workers, the young man, laughed softly.
"What's so funny?" the leader asked.
"Who else but Sam Gunn would have the gall to erect a crystal statue to himself and then have it put out in the middle of this godforsaken emptiness, where nobody's ever going to see it. It's a monument to himself, for himself. What ego! What monumental ego."
The leader chuckled, too. "Yeah. Sam had an ego, all right. But he was a smart little guy, too."
"You knew him?" the young woman asked.
"Sure. Knew him well enough to tell you that he didn't pick this spot for his tomb just for the sake of his ego. He was smarter than that."
"What was he like?"
"When did you know him?"
"Come on, we've still got work to do. He wants the statue positioned exactly as he stated in his will, with its back toward Selene and the face looking up toward Earth."
"Yeah, okay, but when did you know him, huh?"
"Oh golly, years ago. Decades ago. When the two of us were just young pups. The first time either of us came here, back in — Lord, it's thirty years ago. More."
"Tell us about it. Was he really the hero that the history tapes say he was? Did he really do all the things they say?" asked the young woman.
"He was a phony!" the young man snapped. "Everybody knows that. A helluva showman, sure, but he never did half the stuff he took credit for. Nobody could have, not in one lifetime."
"He lived a pretty intense life," said the leader. "If it hadn't been for a faulty suit valve he'd still be running his show from here to Titan."
"A showman. That's what he was. No hero."
"What was he like?" the young woman repeated.
So, while the two youngsters struggled with the huge, fragile crystal statue, the older man sat himself on the lip of the truck's cab hatch and told them what he knew about the first time Sam Gunn came to the Moon.
The skipper used the time-honored cliché. He said, "Houston, we have a problem here."
There were eight of us, the whole crew of Artemis IV, huddled together in the command module. After six weeks of living on the Moon, the module smelled like a pair of unwashed gym socks. With a woman President, the space agency figured it would be smart to name the second round of lunar explorations after a female: Artemis was Apollo's sister. Get it?
But it had just happened that the computer who picked the crew selections for Artemis IV picked all men. Six weeks without even the sight of a woman, and now our blessed-be-to-god return module refused to light up. We were stranded. No way to get back home.
As usual, capcom in Houston was the soul of tranquility. "Ah, A-IV, we read you and copy that the return module is no-go. The analysis team is checking the telemetry. We will get back to you soonest."
It didn't help that capcom, that shift, was Sandi Hemmings, the woman we all lusted after. Among the eight of us, we must have spent enough energy dreaming about cornering Sandi in zero gravity to propel each of us right back to Houston. Unfortunately, dreams have a very low specific impulse, and we were still stuck on the Moon, a quarter-million miles from the nearest woman.
Sandi played her capcom duties strictly by the book, especially since all our transmissions were taped for later review. She kept the traditional Houston poker face, but managed to say, "Don't worry, boys. We'll figure it out and get you home."
Praise God for small favors.
We had spent hours checking and rechecking the cursed return module. It was engineer's hell: everything checked but nothing worked. The thing just sat there like a lump of dead metal. No electrical power. None. Zero. The control board just stared at us as cold and glassy-eyed as a banker listening to your request for an unsecured loan. We had pounded it. We had kicked it. In our desperation we had even gone through the instruction manual, page by page, line by line. Zip. Zilch. The bird was dead.
When Houston got back to us, six hours after the skipper's call, it was the stony, unsmiling image of the mission coordinator who glowered at us as if we had deliberately screwed up the return module. He told us:
"We have identified the problem, Artemis IV. The return module's main electrical power supply has malfunctioned."
That was like telling Othello that he was a Moor.
"We're checking out bypasses and other possible fixes," Old Stone Face went on. "Sit tight, we'll get back to you."
The skipper gave him a patient sigh. "Yes, sir."
"We're not going anywhere," said a whispered voice. Sam Gunn's, I was certain.
The problem, we finally discovered, was caused by a micrometeoroid, no less. A little grain of sand that just happened to roam through the solar system for four and a half billion years and then decided to crash-dive itself right into the main fuel cell of our return module's power supply. It was so tiny that it didn't do any visible damage to the fuel cell; just hurt it enough to let it discharge electrically for most of the six weeks we had been on the Moon. And the other two fuel cells, sensing the discharge through the module's idiot computer, tried to recharge their partner for six weeks. The result: all three of them were dead and gone by the time we needed them.
It was Sam who discovered the pinhole in the fuel cell, the eighteenth time we checked out the power supply. I can remember his exact words, once he realized what had happened: "Shit!"
Sam was a feisty little guy who would have been too short for astronaut duty if the agency hadn't lowered the height requirements so that women could join the corps. He was a good man, a whiz with a computer and a born tinkerer who liked to rebuild old automobiles and then race them on the abandoned freeways whenever he could scrounge up enough old-fashioned petrol to run them. The Terror of Clear Lake, we used to call him. The Texas Highway Patrol had other names for him. So did the agency administrators; they cussed near threw him out of the astronaut corps at least half a dozen times.
But we all loved Sam, back in those days, as we went through training and then blasted off for our first mission to the Moon. He was funny, he kept us laughing. And he did the things and said the things that none of us had the guts to do or say.
The skipper loved Sam a little less than the rest of us, especially after six weeks of living in each other's dirty laundry. Sam had a way of almost defying any order he received; he reacted very poorly to authority figures. Our skipper, Lord love him, was as stiff-backed an old-school authority figure as any of them. He was basically a good Joe, and I'm cursed if I can remember his real name. But his big problem was that he had memorized the rule book and tried never to deviate from it.
Well, anyway, there we were, stranded on the lunar surface after six weeks of hard work. Our task had been to make a semi-permanent underground base out of the prefabricated modules that had been, as the agency quaintly phrased it, "landed remotely on the lunar regolith in a series of carefully-coordinated unmanned logistics missions." In other words, they had dropped nine different module packages over a fifty-square-kilometer area of Mare Nubium and we had to find them all, drag them to the site that Houston had picked for Base Gamma, set them up properly, scoop up enough of the top layers of soil to cover each module and the connecting tunnels to a depth of 0.3048 meter (that's one foot, in English), and then link in the electric power reactor and all the wiring, plumbing, heating and air circulation units. Which we had done, adroitly and efficiently, and now that our labors were finished and we were ready to leave — no go. Too bad we couldn't have covered the return module with 0.3048 meter of lunar soil; that would have protected the fuel cells from that sharpshooting micrometeoroid.
The skipper decided it would be bad procedure to let us mope around and brood.
"I want each of you to run a thorough inventory of all your personal supplies: the special foods you've brought with you, your spare clothing, entertainment kits, the works."
"That'll take four minutes," Sam muttered, loud enough for us all to hear him. The eight of us were crammed into the command module, eight guys squeezed into a space built for three, at most. It was barely high enough to stand in, and the metal walls and ceiling always felt cold to the touch. Sam was pressed in with the guys behind me; I was practically touching noses with the skipper. The guys in back giggled at his wisecrack. The skipper scowled.
"Goddammit, Gunn, can't you behave seriously for even a minute? We've got a real problem here."
"Yessir," Sam replied. If he hadn't been squeezed in so tightly, I'm sure he would have saluted. "I'm merely attempting to keep morale high, sir."
The skipper made an unhappy snorting noise, and then told us that we would spend the rest of the shift checking out all the supplies that were left: not just our personal stuff, but the mission's supplies of food, the nuclear reactor, the water recirculation system, equipment of all sorts, air ...
We knew it was busywork, but we had nothing else to do. So we wormed our way out of the command module and crawled through the tunnels toward the other modules that we had laid out and then covered with bulldozed soil. It was a neat little buried base we had set up, for later explorers to use. I got a sort of claustrophobic feeling, just then, that this buried base might turn into a mass grave for eight astronauts.
I was dutifully heading back for barracks module A, where four of us had our bunks and personal gear, to check out my supplies as the skipper had ordered. Sam snaked up beside me. Those tunnels, back in those days, were prefabricated Earthside to be laid out once we got to the construction site. Ithink they were designed by midgets. You couldn't stand up in them; they were too low. You had to really crawl along on hands and knees if you were my size. Sam was able to shuffle through them with bent knees, knuckle-walking like a miniature gorilla. He loved the tunnels.
"Hey, wait up," he hissed to me.
"Whattaya think will get us first, the air giving out or we starve to death?"
He was grinning cheerfully. I said, "I think we're going to poison our air with methane. We'll fart ourselves to death in another couple of days."
Sam's grin widened. "C'mon ... I'm setting up a pool on the computer. I hadn't thought of air pollution. You wanna make a bet on that?" He started to King-Kong down the shaft to the right, toward the computer and life-support module. If I had had the space, I would have shrugged. Anyway, I followed him there.
Three of the other guys were in the computer module, huddled around the display screen like Boy Scouts around a campfire.
"Why aren't you checking out the base's supplies, like the skipper said?" I asked them.
"We are, Straight Arrow," replied Mickey Lee, our refugee from Chinatown. He tapped the computer screen. "Why go sorting through all that junk when the computer has it already listed in alphabetical order for us?"
That wasn't what the skipper wanted, and we all knew it, but Mickey was right. Why bother with busywork? We wrote down lists that would keep the skipper happy. By hand. If we had let the computer print out the lists, Skip would have gotten wise to us right away.
While we scribbled away, copying what was on the screen, we talked over our basic situation.
"Why the hell can't we use the nuke to recharge the fuel cells?" Julio Marx asked. He was our token Puerto Rican Jew, a tribute to the agency's Equal Opportunity policy. Julio was also a crackerjack structural engineer who had saved my life the day I had started to unfasten my helmet in the barracks module just when one of those blessed prefab tunnels had cracked its airlock seal. But that's another story.
Sam gave Julio a sorrowful stare. "The two systems are incompatible, Jules." Then, with a grin, Sam launched into the phoniest Latin accent you ever heard. "The nuclear theeng, man, it got too many volts for the fuel cells. Like, you plug the nukie to the fuel cells, man, you make a beeg boom and we all go to dat big San Juan in thee sky. You better steek to plucking chickens, man, an' leave the electreecity alone."
Julio, who towered a good inch and a half over Sam, grinned back at him and answered, "Okay, Shorty, I dig."
"Shorty! Shorty!" Sam's face went red. "All right, that's it. The hell with the betting pool. I'm gonna let you guys all die of boredom. Serve you right."
We made a big fuss and soothed his feathers and cajoled him into setting up the pool. With a great show of hurt feelings and reluctant but utterly selfless nobility, Sam pushed Mickey Lee out of the chair in front of the computer terminal and began playing the keyboard like a virtuoso pianist. Within a few minutes the screen was displaying a list of possible ways for us to die, with Sam's swiftly calculated odds next to each entry. At the touch of a button, the screen displayed a graph, showing how the odds for each mode of dying changed as time went on.
Excerpted from Prometheans by Ben Bova. Copyright © 1986 Ben Bova. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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