A HELIUM-3 NOVEL
By HOMER HICKAM
Copyright © 2012 Homer Hickam
All right reserved.
Crater Trueblood was right where he wanted to be, and Petro Mountbatten-Windsor-Jones was right where he didn't want to be—although neither opinion mattered because both of them were right where they were. That was in converging lines of first-shift Helium-3 miners making their way through the busy corridors of Moontown toward the dustlocks that led to the scrapes. There was a hint of butterscotch in the air, the fragrance of the day. There was also piped-in martial music, appropriate to soldiers marching off to war, or, in this case, heel-3 miners off to do battle with the dust.
Like the other miners in the line, Crater and Petro were dressed in standard tube clothes of tunics, leggings, and plaston boots. Crater's tunic was a careful gray, his leggings the standard black, his boots an ordinary beige. Petro's tunic was an exceptional red, his leggings a unique diamond-patterned blue and white, and his boots a rare purple. Crater—at sixteen going on seventeen—was small for his age, just over six feet tall, while Petro, just turned nineteen, had topped out at six feet, five inches, an inch taller than the average adult born and raised on the moon. Lunar gravity did not compress the human backbone like the heavier pull of the Earth.
Fifteen minutes, the gillie on Crater's shoulder said while watching Petro with an amused expression, difficult since the gillie had no eyes.
"Your gillie is making faces at me," Petro accused.
"It has no face," Crater replied.
"It is also illegal."
"It knows that."
There were signs and arrows in the corridor pointing this way and that to the various hatches that led to the neighborhoods, dustlocks, foundries, tank farms, warehouses, depots, maintenance sheds, and company offices of the town. Crater and Petro didn't need directions to anywhere. They intimately knew every tube and hatch, having explored them all at one time or another while growing up in the tiny town beneath the dust.
Unlike Petro, who was scowling at anybody and everybody, Crater smiled and nodded to every miner he encountered as well as the tubewives and tubehusbands, many with their children out and about on their errands at the company store or the company doctor or the company dentist or the company chapel. Crater, by his very nature, was friendly to the core of his being. He had gentle eyes that saw things always in the best possible light and a sweet, round face, unmarred by worry lines. When people saw him, he made them feel better just for being who he was, an orphan who never complained and who worked hard at his job on the scrapes.
Petro, slogging along behind as if every step he took was a great inconvenience, saw life a little differently. He saw Moontown as gray and uninspiring. He saw the work outside as hard and boring and the pay far too low. He saw Crater differently too. Crater was a sweet kid, that was true, but if he was ever going to get anywhere in life, he needed to toughen up and recognize that not everyone was as nice as he was. As his friend and sort of older brother, Petro took Crater's education in the realities of life as one of his main goals. Accordingly, he called out to Crater's back, "We are better than this, Crater. We should turn around this instant, pack our bags, and be off to secure our fortunes in Armstrong City, perhaps even on Earth. And—will you please stop and listen? What are you now—sixteen?"
Crater sighed and turned around. "Almost seventeen. Come on, Petro. We're gonna be late."
"So what? Think of all the times we've been early. You've been working on the scrapes for three years, right?"
"I started on my thirteenth birthday so it's almost four."
"Almost four and you're still a scragline picker, the lowest of the low!"
Crater never knew what to say to Petro when he was in one of his "get out of town" moods, which seemed lately to be more and more often. Although they weren't related, he and Petro had been raised together and he thought of the older boy as his big brother. He didn't like disappointing Petro but just couldn't help it. "I don't want to leave Moontown," he said. "Anyway, what's wrong with being a scragline picker? Somebody's got to do it."
Petro lowered his head in mock despair. "Why I even bother to talk to you is a mystery. Look, Crater, don't you get it? The deck's stacked against us! You're an orphan and what am I? Yes, yes, I'm the Prince of Wales and all that, but no one will make me King of England anytime soon."
"If you left, wouldn't Q-Bess miss you?" Crater asked, referring to Petro's mother, who was also Crater's guardian and the manager of the Dust Palace Hotel.
Petro allowed a sigh. "This is not about my dear royal mater. Yes, of course, she'd miss me. Who wouldn't? But look, brother, this is about me and you. I am quite simply the best poker player on the moon, and I aspire to take my talent elsewhere and empty the pockets of those who should know better. You speak a dozen or more languages, you know math to the doctorate level, nobody can beat you in physics and chemistry, and you're an ace mechanic. Yet, with all that knowledge packed into your little brain, all you want to be is a heel-3 miner."
Crater couldn't disagree with the truth. "A heel-3 miner is a fine profession," he said. "I'm proud to be one."
"Stay here and rot, then!" Petro spat. "Just as soon as I save enough johncredits, I'm heading to Armstrong City where I will board a Cycler, play cards on the game deck, and win some big money off those rich tourists who fly here to see hicks like you."
The bank account as of three point two seconds ago of Philip Earl Thomas Reginald Osgood Mountbatten-Windsor-Jones aka the Prince of Wales aka Petro Jones amounts to thirty-three johncredits and seventy-two bits, the gillie said.
"I have a cash flow problem," Petro confessed, then glared at the gillie. "What are you doing crawling around in my bank account, you ugly blob of slime mold?"
"It is a bad gillie," Crater said, then spoke to it. "Don't ever hack into Petro's account again."
The gillie shrugged or would have if it had shoulders, which it didn't. "Into your holster," Crater commanded.
The gillie did as it was told, sliding into the holster on Crater's left arm, but first it said, In ten minutes, you will be late for work.
Crater, glad to end the unsettling conversation with Petro, turned and hurried through the tubes, pulling the older boy along as if caught in his wake.
* * *
To go outside onto the scrapes, Crater and Petro first entered a dustlock that contained rows of gray lunasteel lockers. Inside each were hooks and hangers for their tube clothes and also a helmet and a bio-girdle, sanitized and placed there by the dustlock crew. Petro came in, flung open his locker, stared with distaste, allowed a contemptuous sigh, then stripped bare, tossing his tube clothes on the deck, and began to strap on the bio-girdle, which provided him another chance to gripe. "Putting on this nasty thing every shift is yet another affront to my royal dignity."
"It is not nasty at all," Crater calmly replied. "It's a wonder of design and function that takes care of waste products throughout the day. As for your royal dignity, if you had any, you'd pick up your clothes off the deck and hang them in your locker. Recall the Colonel's rules on neatness."
Petro didn't like the Colonel's rules on neatness nor, for that matter, any of the Colonel's rules. As far as he was concerned, Colonel John High Eagle Medaris, the high and mighty owner of the mine and everything else in Moontown, made up his rules as he went along, every one of them meant to wring the life out of life and eliminate all possibility of fun. Recently, the Colonel had decided to remove all electronic games from the Earthrise Bar & Grill because a single miner—just one!—had been late to work and was found playing at one of the machines. Still, the old man couldn't stop the card games Petro organized. A deck of paper cards was the one unstoppable force in the universe.
Petro picked up his tunic and leggings and hung them in his locker, tossed in his boots, then slumped down on a bench and contemplated his toes, which he despondently wiggled. "If history were fair, I would be sitting on a throne, not a lunasteel bench in a smelly dustlock in the wayback of the moon."
"Count yourself lucky," Crater offered, hoping to cheer Petro up. "People here like you for what you are, not what your title is or was."
Petro snickered. "Since they would be bowing and kowtowing to my every wish, I would prefer that they like me for my title."
Crater decided to stop responding to Petro. There simply was no more time for meaningless talk. He finished strapping on his bio-girdle, then made certain Petro's was also properly affixed. A misaligned bio-girdle meant an awkward, uncomfortable day. Petro had managed to accomplish that feat a few weeks back, which meant not only a mess for the dusties but also that he got to quit early. Crater still wasn't certain if Petro had done it deliberately.
A scraper driver named Lonesome Larry came through the hatch and spotted Petro. "I have twenty johncredits riding on you in the race tomorrow, your royal dopiness," he said. "I hope your noble duff is ready to plunk down in a fastbug and race."
The fastbug race was held during the annual celebration known as Arrival Day. Petro had won the race twice before in machines Crater had fashioned out of junk and old parts. "Oh, I'm quite ready, Larry, my man," Petro said. "I'll win it again too."
"You probably will," Lonesome Larry replied, hanging up his tube clothes. "That's why nobody makes much money betting on you."
Petro took on a thoughtful expression. "What're the odds on my competitors?"
"Only one is given any chance against you at all. The Neroburg entry at ten to one."
"Ten to one? One johncredit wins ten? So if a fellow bets on the Neroburg entry and it wins, said fellow would make a pile, would he not?"
"That's the way it works, your lowness," Lonesome Larry said with a shrug, then began to buckle on his bio-girdle. "Say, you're not thinking of throwing the race, are you?"
Petro took on a righteous frown. "I'm a prince, Larry, not a charlatan! Shame on you for even thinking such a thing!"
Most of the other miners on the shift were already outside, so Crater grabbed Petro by his arm and hurried him along. The next dustlock contained the showers that applied the biolastic sheath that acted as a pressure suit and also provided warmth and cooling as required. The acronym used to describe it was BCP, for Biolastic Counter Pressure suit. Before BCPs were used, Moontown miners had worn ECPs, or Elastic Counter Pressure suits, made out of an elastic fabric that could wear blisters on a miner after a long day on the scrapes.
Crater and Petro drew on silken hoods that covered their faces and necks, then placed their helmets in a preparation unit. Crater unstrapped the gillie's holster and put it on a luna steel table, then entered one of the showers. Holding out his arms, he said, "Crater Trueblood. Scrape number eleven north."
The dustlock puter confirmed Crater's size and shape, then turned on the biolastic spray that came out of the nozzles in a silvery mist. The spray had a sharp odor and felt clammy and creepy on his bare skin. It took all of Crater's will every time it was performed to stand without movement and be coated by what was a cloud of busy microbes, genetically designed to form a pressure film on anything they covered, providing the equivalent of one Earthian atmosphere of pressure, or Moontown standard. They also threw off heat or absorbed it, keeping the body warm or cool, depending on whether the sun beat down on the scrapes or it was the two weeks of the long shadow. The mist finally coalesced into a shimmering film that covered his body up to his neck.
When the nozzles stopped spraying, Crater stayed very still while the macro lasers did their work, looking for even a molecule-sized hole in the biolastic sheath. Finding none, a green light came on, and Crater stepped out, donned his coveralls and gloves, then pulled on a backpack containing a microbial soup that provided oxygen to a mixture of nitrogen to approximate Earthian atmosphere. He next retrieved his helmet from the prep unit, which had supplied a biolastic ring around its base. Always hungry to join their mates, the microbes in the ring sealed Crater's helmet to their brethren, thus creating an impermeable joint. The lasers checked the seam and the green light flared again. After clicking the air supply hose to the port on his helmet and latching shut his helmet faceplate, Crater was ready for the next stage required to go into the big suck, as heel-3 miners called outside in the near-vacuum of the moon. He strapped the gillie back to his arm, then pushed Petro, clad also in a helmet, backpack, BCP suit, coveralls, and gloves, into the final airlock chamber.
Crater pulled the inner hatch of the airlock closed and punched in the proper code on the keypad by the outer hatch. An unseen valve opened, and the air inside the airlock was slowly expelled until the pressure reached zero to the third decimal place. A green light came on beside the hatch, and Crater turned the hatch wheel and pushed it open, then stepped outside, followed by Petro.
"That's one small step for a prince, one giant leap for a bunch of fools," Petro said as he made a boot print in the dust atop a thousand others.
Crater glanced upward, then drew his awed gaze across the river of stars. "Look, Petro. Aren't they glorious?"
"They're just a bunch of stars," Petro groused, not even bothering to look up.
"More than can be counted."
"So what? Lots of things can't be counted, like the dust in a scrape or the days you've got left in your life. You can't waste the stars or the dust, Crater, but you can surely waste the days."
Crater reluctantly dragged his eyes away from the magnificent stars. "You forgot to close the airlock hatch."
"I don't see why it doesn't close automatically."
Crater walked past Petro and pushed the airlock hatch closed. Since it had built-in resistance springs, it took an effort. "You know why," he said. "We have to use our muscles or lunar gravity will kill us. We may have been born on the moon, but our bodies are still designed for Earth."
"As if I don't use enough muscles with a shovel and pry bar every shift," Petro retorted.
Petro's foul mood was even wearing on Crater, who always tried to see the best in everyone. "Are you done complaining, your graceless?" he demanded.
"I've just started."
Any fool can complain, the gillie said, turning a pleasant blue, and most do.
"Hush now," Crater said. "You're not the least bit funny."
"I wish you'd get rid of that thing," Petro said. "It's an artifact that belongs in a museum."
"Maybe I'll save up enough for a modern do4u someday," Crater answered. "But right now, it works well enough as a communicator. Which," he said with emphasis, "is all I want you to do, gillie. Do you understand?"
"It is cheeky," Petro said when the gillie did not reply.
"It is only a biological machine," Crater answered. "With neither feelings nor intelligence." He felt the gillie stir within its holster. "Don't argue with me!"
Crater and Petro walked to the scrape, where they stood in front of the foreman who silently read the notes from the previous shift. The foreman, or blue banger as such were called, was Mrs. Liu Sho Hook, former puter-order bride and now widow of a heel-3 miner who'd gotten run over by a shuttle. She looked up from her reader and briefly pondered her crew. They looked tired, but who wasn't? It had been three shifts a day, six days a week for months, and the company was still behind on its orders. Besides Crater and Petro in their gray coveralls—gray designating scragline pickers—there were the scraper, loader, and shuttle operators in their navy blues, the red suits of the explosives experts (called devils), orange suits for the mechanics (called orangutans), and yellow suits for the solar furnace operators (called sundancers). Blue bangers such as herself wore navy blue coveralls with broad white stripes on the sleeves. Although there were none in attendance, white suits were for the managers and engineers, and green were for the medics. One glance on the scrapes and it was easy to figure out who did what.
Excerpted from CRATER by HOMER HICKAM Copyright © 2012 by Homer Hickam. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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