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Brown’s descent

by Geoff Hart

It had seemed like a good idea at the time, as so many things do in retrospect. Brown and I’d known each other for twenty long years, and though we’d never been lovers, we’d been closer than many lovers ever get—maybe 'cause there’d been less at stake. We owed each other big, the way you do when you’re pulled from your homes in the middle of the night by Navy pressgangs and thrown into the meatgrinder the service’d been back when we started. Friendships like that survive.

When our hitch ended, it seemed only natural we’d head off together to earn our stake on a new life. It was Brown's idea, buying drinks for the half-blotto survey team in the demob bar. I was more than half blotto myself, or I’d never have followed along to the Survey Office to file a claim with the last of our freedom money. Still reeling, we mortgaged what was left of our souls on a leased ship and mining equipment. Hangovers eventually gone wherever hangovers go, we were too far on our way to turn back.

That was six months ago. Six months spent in closer proximity than on any Navy ship, where at least you had space and duty to escape bunkmates. Six months living hand to mouth on a planetoid lying right where the Navy would need a refueling station, where free traders would follow soon as the Navy cleared out the pirates and other undesirables. Six months wearing away at all the emotional capital we’d accumulated in those twenty years.

Brown settled beside me, floating gracefully down into a chair. Twenty years told me exactly where her hands were headed, and I slapped them away from comm. I shot her a glare that should have knocked her off the seat, but she smiled guilelessly back.

Stop that!

“Stop what?” Her hands drifted casually towards the mike, and I drew the sidearm I’d belted on before scan confirmed it was a Navy ship inbound. Brown subsided, grin widening. With a shrug, I tossed the weapon, safety still on, towards the table by the door, missing by a good metre and a half.

I turned back to the viewscreen, resolutely ignoring her. The Navy tanker had risen part way out of Sine Qua Non Valley, below Bifrost Base, lifting sluggishly away from the fuel refinery on gravitics. In the shadow of the planetoid, its spherical bulk punched a star-free hole in the sky.

“He’s not going to make it, you know.”

“Brown, you think you're the only one can pilot a ship. Ain’t necessarily so.”

“You just watch.”

Gravitics are finicky at the best of times, but here… As the ship drifted out over the far side of the valley, the ground beneath it visibly compressed. All at once, the tanker slewed sideways, loose surface material spewing away from beneath it. I watched, resigned, as one stubby landing leg neatly clipped the downhill guy wire of our primary nav beacon and the pilot belatedly fought the ship back under control. It didn’t take much to hold an antenna erect against the planetoid's low gravity and slow rotation, but it evidently took more than the antenna had left. The uphill stay, recoiling under the released tension, accelerated the mast away from us through a graceful arc, disappearing over the crest of the hill.

"Told you she wasn't going to make it."

"Shut up, Brown."

“Sorry ‘bout that folks!” The pilot’s voice came breathless over comm, and I glared at Brown.

I took a deep breath, released it. “We'll add it to your bill.” I toggled the transmitter in time to cut off Brown’s expected followup. Wouldn’t do to antagonize our only customers this far out, with nobody to complain to and no one to witness any bad karma you brought down upon your head.

Asshole!” She kicked the console harder than I'd expected, then again for good measure. “There goes next month’s rent. At least while we were in the Navy, they paid on time.”

“They’ll pay. Eventually.”

“Optimist.” The shitkicking grin was gone now, anger plain in her eyes.

“A tax is a tax is a tax. A smaller one at that than we'd be paying in the main shipping lanes. At least they keep the pirates honest.”

“Bastards’ll still drain us dry if we let them.”

The tanker’s rise had accelerated, and the screen dimmed, protecting our eyes, as its fusion drive cut in. I exhaled, weary, not realizing I'd been holding my breath. “Get used to it, partner.”

“The traditional deal with the devil, huh? Free donuts and coffee to keep the cops parked in your lot?” Brown got to her feet and stretched, joints cracking and popping.

“Or hydrocarbon slush, yes.” I stared at the space that no longer held our antenna, then slumped back into my chair. "Want me to get it?”

“Naw. My turn. I need the exercise—getting fat and lazy pumping gas for civil servants. I’ll put it back up. You get the bug running and keep an eye peeled for other nonpaying customers.”

I sighed. “Yeah, I’ll do that. But—”

“—be careful. Yeah, yeah. Jeeze, Don, aren't I supposed to be the one with the Mother Hen genes?” She shook her head, then paused at the door to recover my sidearm. “Here: you dropped this." The gun soared through the air and landed dead center in my lap. "At least they missed the refinery!” she shot back over her shoulder.

At least. An antenna we could fix, but the refinery would have put us out of business. I switched on the remotes and began warming up the bug, running diagnostics. A wave of green status lights swept across the screen, and when their flickering ceased, I tapped the controls until the small ship responded, then set the bug to local control, ready for Brown. As the external cameras came live, their images popped into separate windows on the main monitor. Both windows showed the open garage door, and while I waited, I panned them up and back towards the base. Couldn't see myself behind the thick, tinted glass of the control room.

“She’s ready, Brown.”

A muffled grunt came over comm.

A tug at my overalls: Nanook, the cat who’d adopted Brown on Fimbul station. “Got a problem, cat?” The big tom bunched his legs and leapt for my lap, but miscalculated as usual and would have flown past onto the Board if I hadn’t snagged him from the air. One-handed, I reholstered my sidearm, then hauled him down onto my lap and began stroking him. The room filled with his rumbling purrs. Sometimes I think I’m doing his navigational skills an injustice; maybe he really just likes playing "catch the cat".

While I kneaded our furry little parasite into submission, I reviewed the other readouts. Nothing but the tanker, well on its way back to the Navy cruiser lurking at the edge of short-range scan, comm offline. No other ships anywhere close. A blip on deep scan might have been an inbound freighter, or maybe just a dead comet too small to be of interest to anyone; God knows there was enough debris around here.

Comm chimed. “Someone call for a repairman?”

“Funny gal. Just pay attention.”

“The bug?”

“Everything's nominal. Shall I take her across, or you gonna risk doin’ it yourself?”

“The latter. Much though I’d love to place myself in your hands under other circumstances”— she smacked her lips loudly. I watched the status lights dance through familiar sequences, and when the power indicators surged, I leaned forward, rousing a halfhearted complaint from Nanook. The bug lifted off with a jolt, camera images trembling.
I stabilized the view, then sat back and watched Brown swing Icefrog up, out, and smoothly across the near-perfect curve that fell away beneath us, making our valley’s name into the kind of strained pun Brown so relished. Brown had that instinctive grasp of forces and velocities that entirely eluded me. Icefrog reached zenith and fell downwards, coming to rest with a crunch that jarred the cameras. A few indicator lights flickered amber, then faded back to green. With anyone else, it would have been a bad landing; Brown was just embedding the landing legs in the unreliable surface material so the ship wouldn’t slide into the valley on top of her while she worked. I panned the cameras to cover the work area in time to catch her leaving the ship. Despite myself, I had to grin when she gave me the finger and clicked on her headlights, the display flaring white until the compensators cut in. I set the cameras to track, then sat back and continued massaging the semiconscious cat.

Brown's helmet light bobbed up and down as she walked jauntily along the length of the fallen antenna and the remaining guy wires, checking each for damage.

“Anything?”

“Seems fine. Say what you will about Navy surplus, the stuff’s rugged. Looks like I’ll just have to hoist her back onto her feet and tie her down again.” She walked back to the bug and removed a spool of wire from the belly locker, then returned to the antenna. I watched her struggle for a time with the clevis, tuneless whistling coming over the speakers, interrupted by a grunt of disgust. Vacuum-welded, probably. With a casual motion, she snipped it free with bolt cutters and flung the damaged cable back over her shoulder, its dark length sailing straight to the bug and at the last instant, wrapping itself around a leg.

Showoff!

It took less than a minute to attach a new clevis and weld on the new cable. That done, she tossed the spool back downslope, landing it right by the lower anchor point. It bounced slightly, propelling a few small chunks of debris downwards into the darkness, then unspooled a bit, coming to rest only a few metres downslope. Without pausing to check her aim, she walked back to the tip of the antenna, hoisted it, bent-kneed, high enough to get a shoulder under it, and carefully disentangled herself from the upslope guy wire. With a grunt, she walked towards its base, raising the antenna hand over hand as she approached the footings. The antenna blazed pure white as it intersected the bug’s worklights, then subsided again into a pale blur against the sky.

Brown held the antenna steady with one hand on the new guy wire, then braced herself, leaning backwards. A quick tug to test the connection, then she turned her back on the slope and, using the wire to belay herself, hopped backwards down to the lower anchor point, still whistling. With one last hop, she reached the anchor cleat. Bending, she wrapped the guy in figure-eights around it to hold the antenna up while she worked on the anchor point. This time, it was the turnbuckle that had been vacuum-welded, so she clipped that off and freed the remaining length of the original cable.
For the second time, she flung cable back at the bug—waste not, want not—and it wrapped itself neatly around one landing leg. Once was being a showoff; twice was being a damned showoff. I snorted, and Nanook dug claws into my thigh, reminding me I’d been shirking my duty.

The new guy wire took a bit longer to attach. Brown spent some time poking and prodding to confirm the anchor point hadn’t been damaged, and there was little enough sound rock here that this wasn’t something to take for granted. But when she was done, it was a matter of moments to loop the cable back on itself to form a bight and cable-clamp the end back upon itself. Brown wrapped her leg around a stanchion, clipped on a new turnbuckle, and began tightening it, punctuating her whistle with a grunt each time she applied force to the wrench. At last, she clipped the wrench to her belt. “Let’s go live, Don.”

The status indicators all read green, so I rebooted the antenna's controller and waited for the self-test to finish. The lights stayed green, and I exhaled. “You got lucky again, Brown. Time to come home.”

She bowed deeply, then straightened abruptly, letting the momentum propel her upwards, and it was only then I noticed: “Brown! Where's your damned tether?”

She chuckled. “Here's my tether!” She tugged on the guy wire as her feet touched back down, and the antenna flexed noticeably towards her. As I gathered breath to give her right proper hell for clowning around, the new weld gave way and the recoiling antenna flung her upwards in a gentle arc at the end of nearly 50 metres of cable.

Jeezus!” Her voice was loud enough to hurt my ears and scare Nanook off my lap, clawing my thigh for traction. The cat rocketed through the doorway with a precision that confirmed my earlier suspicions about his navigation skills.

“Let go, Brown!” I had visions of her pivoting through a wide arc at the end of the cable and smashing into something hard at the end of her trajectory, but she’d already anticipated that and let go. Even so, the momentum flung her a good half-dozen metres into the sky, briefly paralleling the antenna before its motion carried it backwards and out of sight.
“Under control, Don,” she called out, descending slowly, but couldn’t quite suppress the quaver in her voice.

“Don’t...” I bit my tongue, and settled back to watch. Even as she fell, I could see she was going to land downslope from where she’d been launched. There was fresh scree there, rocks and miscellaneous debris where ice had collapsed and slid into the valley, but what worried me more was the ice that underlay it: hydrogen, helium, water, methane, ammonia, and all kinds of other funky things that stuck together about as well as a bucket of same-polarity monopoles. I held my breath, watching her accelerate slowly downward and, at the last moment, bend her knees to absorb the impact and stop herself from rebounding into space. Above her, the antenna struck the ground a second time, hard enough to jar the bug’s cameras, and in the corner of my eyes, I watched its status lights go straight from green to red. I ignored them.

“You okay?”

Brown was obviously controlling her breathing with an effort; she’d stopped whistling. “Couldn’t be better, Don. I’m safely down on a spur of rock. All I’ve got to do is climb back out. Heck, I could probably jump up from here.”

I remembered the smooth ice slopes that fell away an uncomfortable distance beneath her. “Don’t even think it. Guess wrong and you’re going to end up at the bottom. Let me get the bug's winch going and I’ll haul you out.” Not waiting for a reply, I switched Icefrog back to remote and began running the preflight.

“Don’t sweat it. I’ll climb out, then.”

“Brown...”

But she’d already begun her ascent, and I couldn’t spare an eye for her while I watched the preflight count down. When I looked up, she was already partway back uphill. “Damnit, Brown, wait for the bug.”

“Thanks for the concern, Mother H—hell!” I glanced away from the preflight in time to see the slope give way beneath her and begin a slow slide into the valley. As the ground slumped, she leapt for safety, but the uncertain footing and the tricky footing betrayed her.

I pushed the throttle forward without checking whether the preflight was complete, hoping nothing had happened to damage the bug in the past half hour. The camera panned downwards, covering the slope, and the small ship hesitated as the gravitics fought to pull the landing legs free of the surface. Then all at once, with a dizzying sweep of the cameras, I was airborne. I swiveled the big searchlights downwards, hoping to spot Brown, but that was a mistake; dirty though the ice was, enough clear crystals had condensed there in the dark to coat its surface and dazzle me with reflected light. I killed the lights, and as the display cleared, spotted Brown’s headlamp accelerating downslope, trailed by a growing cloud of vapor from the snow and ice and preceded by the rubble that had given way beneath her. In the low gee, she was accelerating slowly, but with the same inevitability as the rest of the landslide.

Could I reach her before she hit bottom? Not without joining her in the landslide. I fought the urge to dive after her, and spent a few painfully long seconds thinking things through. Even at a tenth of a gee, she was going to hit hard when she reached bottom—too hard to survive, though thankfully she was up-canyon from all the sharp objects of the refinery and pipeline. Then I recalled the valley's shape and relaxed slightly: she wasn’t going to hit bottom after all! Sine Qua Non wasn't nearly as smoothly sinusoidal as its labored name suggested, but it was close enough that she'd shoot right up the far slope back to the top. Any old rocks along the way would have long since melted their way down into the snow, and the new debris ought to clear a safe path. I let go of the stick, and the bug stopped moving forward and hovered.
Part of me wanted to do the math to reassure myself, but the numbers weren't coming. I knew she’d continue on up the far side like a pendulum reaching the top of its arc, but she’d head right back down again. Somewhere in the middle, she’d be traveling maybe 100 klicks per hour, plus or minus 50, and if anything immovable got in the way, she’d hit it like a watermelon shot from a railgun. Hardsuit or no hardsuit, she wasn’t likely to survive more than a single round trip. I couldn't readch her before she reached the bottom, so I just had to hope she made it that far. I pushed the throttle forward again, angling the bug towards the far side of the valley. Brown’s headlamp traced an erratic arc downwards, already moving uncomfortably fast.

Yee-friggin’-hah!” her shout rang in the room. I ignored her, too busy trying to browbeat the nav computer into predicting where she’d come out on the far side of the valley if—when!—she made it across.

“You there, Don?” Her breathing came loud on the speakers.

“Shut the fuck up, Brown. I’m trying to figure out how to catch you on the other side.”

“Don’t let me interrupt you. Wish you were along for the ride!”

I snorted, and Icefrog shook, my movements transmitted to the controls. I bit my lip, trying to watch the small ship’s readouts and my partner at the same time. Brown’s headlamp was moving fast enough now to blur in the camera, and her breathing was punctuated by occasional grunts as bumps and surface irregularities shook her suit with increasing violence. Thank God she’d worn a hardsuit; the rough ice would’ve shredded anything lighter by now, and then it wouldn’t have mattered whether she struck anything. Nav pinged, finally acquiring a lock on her suit beacon, and a glowing orange line traced a schematic across of the valley, predicting her path. The line started out clear and sharp, then rapidly degenerated into an open-ended cone of amber fuzz as random variations in her path bollixed the predictions. The end of that cone covered a 200-metre arc. I aimed myself for the center of that arc, heart pounding.

“Brown?” The headlamp reached its nadir and raced up the far slope. She was going much slower than I’d estimated, and hadn’t hit anything hard enough to stop her. No response, but I could still hear hoarse, controlled breathing over the pounding in my ears. The glowing line sharpened and the cone narrowed as Brown curved sharply to one side, unevenness in the slope or flailing limbs dragging her off course. I swung the bug to intercept her new course, but by then, she'd already begun curving back the way she’d come. The line's progress slowed, the fuzzy cone narrowing sharply, as I maneuvered towards her final position, deploying the waldos so they'd be ready to grab her.

“Don, this ain’t so much fun anymore.” Her voice was weak, and I clamped down on a surge of fear.

“I suppose you’ll want me to pull you out then? Dunno. Another round or two might teach you a lesson.” The line being traced in the plot slowed, slower...

“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”

I glanced at the cameras, watching for any obstacles in my flight path, then pitched the bow downwards and extended the waldos to their maximum, brushing the slope and slewing to port, moving to intercept her. A green status light began flashing in my peripheral vision. Stabilizers. A bug's gyros wouldn't let it hold such a skewed attitude for long, and I didn’t want to contemplate the repair bill if they chewed up their bearings before I caught Brown. One camera went dark as I rammed it against some unseen obstacle, and the bug reeled as I fought to bring it back under control.

“Brown, you’re going to have to catch me. Can’t risk dropping Icefrog on you.”

“Piece of cake. Could hardly miss something that big.”

Brown had almost coasted to a stop now, close to where I’d guessed but too far to reach with the waldos; I pushed the stick forward, desperately trying to reach her without actually hitting her. The remaining camera caught her scrabbling at the slope, trying to hold herself in position but starting to slide again. I flung the stick sideways this time, hoping to get close enough before she slid away again, the view through one of the remaining cameras shifting so vertiginously I felt the ship’s yaw in the pit of my stomach. With a crunch that cost me the second camera, I buried the bug’s bow waldos in the dirty ice just beside her.

Brown?”

A shaky sigh came over comm. “Next time let’s try not dropping a ship on me, huh?”

Brown!”

“Just don’t move. I’m hanging from a waldo by my fingertips.”

I sat back against the chair, my shirt compressing squishily against the backrest, and took a slow, deep, breath, forcing my chest to expand and let the air back in. We’d made it! Then the console chimed.

The stabilizers' status light was flickering amber, moments away from turning red. “Brown? Pull yourself up now.”

Silence. “Brown? I’m rotating the ship now!”

A grunt came over the comm. “You try pulling yourself up one-handed. Good thing I’ve lost weight eating your cooking.” Another grunt. “Okay, Don. Get us out of here. Real gentle, please.”

I let the stick center itself, and the second camera revived enough to provide a ghost image of the slope, the stabilizers' light grudgingly returning to amber. Shaking, I brought the bug around and coaxed it back upslope, seeking level ground. By the time we made it, I was too frazzled to set the ship down. I released the stick so the bug would hover, and fell back into my chair, shaking harder, and let the tremors run their course.

“Uh, Don?” Brown's calm voice came over the comm.

I nodded my head, forgetting she wasn’t on visual. I cleared my throat. “Yeah, Brown?”

“You plannin’ on putting me down anytime soon?”

I laughed. “After what you just put me through? You can go hang!” I wrinkled my nose as I caught a whiff of myself. "Besides, I think my deodorant's on the fritz. You might not be in any hurry to get back here.”

“Never mind you. After that ride, the inside of this suit's going to give you a run for your money.”

"Always have to win, don't you?"

“Comes naturally. Meantime, just put me down. Can't keep hanging here forever, Don.”

There was pain in her voice I hadn’t noticed before. Maybe she wasn’t as okay as she’d been pretending. I brought the ship down, careful not to pin her beneath it. “Never mind. You down safely?”

A pause. “Yeah. You’re going to have to set my arm when I get back, maybe even cut this damn suit off me, but I’m okay.” She paused and drew a shaky breath. “Don?”

“Yeah, Brown?”

“It’s your turn to fix the antenna.”

Author's notes

"Demob" is short for demobilization, which is the term for when the war's over and it's time to stand down the troops and send them back home. Sine qua non (that without which something cannot be) is a tortured pun that only works in print; the Latin pronunciation (see-nuh or sih-nuh) and the mathematical pronunciation (sign) aren't close enough to make it work orally. A clevis is a U-shaped fastener attached to another part by a pin or bolt that closes off the gap between the two arms of the U. A "monopole" is a theoretical particle composed of only a north or south pole, unlike the familiar magnet, which has both; because like poles of a magnet (i.e., both north or both south) repel each other, like monopoles would too. A "klick" is slang for a kilometre (about 0.6 miles), so 100 km/hour is about 60 mph. "Waldoes" are remote manipulators, often the form of robotic arms and hands. "Gyros" are short for gyroscopic stabilizers, which use the inertia of a spinning object to resist changes in orientation.

This story was inspired by Robert Frost's poem "Brown's Descent, or the Willy-Nilly Slide", nominally based on a true tale.

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