Aphelion Issue 293, Volume 28
September 2023
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Can You Hear Their Triumphant Howl?

by John K. Webb

Oh, son--son! Look at me. Turn that freakishly thick skull around and look at your father. That's a good boy. You being just a young tyke at three doesn't preclude you from learning the family business. Though I barely know what I'm doing. Your father's learned a lot these past few years, but not enough. Not enough. Boy. Son. Come here. You see, there are two types of people in the world: the haves and the have-nots. The doers and the do-nots. Your mother and I--oh, God--I'm not crying, just give me a minute. Your mother and I made an executive decision. We placed our bets. Revealed our hands. Went all in. That's why we're out here in the first place. That's why I have to teach you this. That's why you have to learn this. Because this--it's all we have now. Well, presently, but that's subject to change. If our plan works, we'll be fine. More than fine. Just. Dandy. If our plan works, you'll have nothing to worry about. Neither will your kids or your kids' kids. We'll have three generations set for life. Son! Boy, come back here. To the window, look: follow my finger: that ugly red planet with the deep black trenches is Mars. Remember when we passed by Mars a year ago? What's that big, purply-blue planet over there called? Jupiter, not Juiciter son. Say it: Ju-pi-ter. Ter, not Tor, boy. Never mind, forget about the pronunciation. Where's the Sun? The Sun is always at our backs. The Sun is the wind in our sails. Good boy, you remembered.

Now, look here: you can't see them, but just in front of us are millions of asteroids caught between the gravitational forces of Mars and Jupiter. If our plan is to work, we'll have to extract one of those asteroids and mine it for minerals. This is a two person operation, son. I can't inspect the asteroid and operate the crane at the same time. Son, boy! It's time you learned your trade. You'll be operating the crane. Follow me and I'll show you the controls. You won't have to worry about using the crane for another four years, but practice makes perfect. Give me your hands: you put your left hand on the directional stick and your right hand on the clamper--clamper's not the technical term for it but we-we-I never figured out what it was called. Anyway, that will open and close the jaws. Oh, all right, you got it, good work. You're trying to clamp down on old Juiciter, hey boy? It's too far away, son. Son!--don't throttle the stick. Gently push the stick forward and back. Slow and steady. This ship is God-knows-how old, so try not to break anything. Look at you keeping the cross hairs steady on that big blueberry of a planet!

You're a natural. Son--son, I'm proud of you. You've done me proud. One of these days, I'll have to teach you how to really fly this thing. Just wait until your grandparents see you, once we're back on the colony--I know they'd be excited to finally meet their daughter's son. Sweet mercy, you'll be fourteen years old, and your mother! Your mother would be so proud of you. No, she's not here. I can't tell you where. She's sick. Sick of something incurable. Now, that's enough of this: let's have supper. What do we always do just before supper? That's right, good boy, the candle. I'll even let you light it tonight. Don't burn yourself. What else do we do? That's right--we incline our heads, just so, toward the direction of Earth, and remember our family.

* * *

"Shouldn't we be doing this at night?"

"Mr. Brandson, have you ever seen a launch at night? It's bright. Loud as in garish. It's a neon sign that screams, 'I'm right here! Come and get me!' It screams amateur. I'm not an amateur."

"What if someone sees us? Why are you laughing?"

"Because you have no idea what you're talking about! The ship is going to be seen no matter what you do."

"So what if we get caught?"

"So what if you get caught? Listen very closely, Mr. Brandson: the lunar colony is like the wild west. No one here respects the law, least of all me. What do you think is going to happen after you've launched? You think the police are going to give chase in machine-gun-mounted shuttles? You think they're going to scramble nuclear missiles and blow you to pieces? The police can't enforce the law in low orbit because of the law. Munitions Free Space Pact. Look it up if you don't believe me."

"They could still follow us. They could track us and arrest us as soon as we touch down."

"Theoretically, yes. That is a possibility, but what Joe Blow cop is prepared to follow you for fourteen years? When you return--if you return--you'll have been long deleted from their memory banks, trust me. Illegal launches that don't result in immediate casualties--such as hijackings--are considered cold cases as soon as you're out of sight."

"I don't know about this."

"Let me remind that I've been doing this for a long time, Mr. Brandson. I've sent more desperate Joes to the belt in rickety boats in the past twenty years than NASA in its lifetime. My scrapyard sees a lot of business. Allow me to also remind you that you have no choice. Especially considering I've already offloaded your debt onto several shell companies."

"What? Already?"

"Listen, hey--I work, but now I have to rely on you to pay me back. I have to trust your word. Is your word any good to me?"

"What if I decide not to go through with this? This would be an awful ordeal for my family."

"I'll answer that ill-advised hypothetical by saying that no one who's refused me has lived to brag about it."

"Then I really don't have a choice. Would you reconsider your initial offer?"

"Just because your wife's pregnant doesn't mean you can blow off the commitment you made to me, Mr. Brandson. You wanted the best mining ship I could find--it's right here, waiting. You wanted your debts taken care of--done. The impetus is on you, Mr. Brandson, to hold up the agreement."

"I gave you my home, everything we owned--"

"You also gave me your word. How far along is she?"

"Eight months."

"Due to pop. A kid growing up in microgravity, that's a tough one. The kid'll be deformed--big head, from the fluid accumulation--and brittle. Real, real brittle. Even with lunar gravity the freak might just collapse into a heap of goo once the ship touches down."

"Don't talk about my child. Or my wife."

"Fine. I won't. As long as you keep this in mind: the police will definitely forget, but I most certainly won't."

"Fine, I'll remember."

"Once you're back, you'll know where to find me. If I'm not in my usual haunts, like the scrap yard or whatever, ask around for Fitz. Now, if either of us expect you to succeed, I had better show you how to fly this thing. The first thing to mention is the solar sail--"

* * *

--which is like the sail you saw in the photo I showed you, you know the one son, the one of your great-great-great granddaddy on his sailboat, except--son, are you listening?--except that the sail's made out of alumina, not fabric. No, you can't see it from here. It's on the top of the hull, boy, so no you can't go and see the solar sail. It's big, way big, bigger than the ship, a wide rectangle of foil. Pay attention. Read my lips. The Sun emits microwaves which push against the sail. The ship gets pushed, son, pushed faster and faster. Which is the problem that we're currently trying to solve, boy. A few problems we're trying to solve, really: slowing down, making contact, extracting the material, and taking off again. So, yes, yes you can one-up your old man and say that everything is a problem. One step at a time. Anyway, this is why it takes years for humans to travel to and from the asteroid belt. No self-propulsion. The acceleration gained from the Sun's microwave bombardment is small but cumulative, so net speed evens out after a few years.

We're one year away from Celest-five, one year away from starting our return journey. I know it feels like ages to you, son, but I need you to hang in there. I've always told you that this is a two-man operation, haven't I? Broken ribs or no broken ribs I need you to contribute. No, I don't know how you hurt yourself. Maybe I sneezed on you by accident. Brittle. Made out of glass and spit. Don't look at me like that, boy--hey, you're my big man. I'm counting on you. Crying won't help either of us. Now, I need you to listen and--and--oh God, now you've gotten me started. Give me a minute. Just a second. Son--son, do you think about her when we're lighting the candle before supper? Do you talk to her? I do. Every night. Son. Boy. I don't tell you this enough, but without you I'd likely die of loneliness and heartsickness. Just breathe and relax and let's get back to work. That's it, wipe those tears from your eyes and get back on the horse. Oh Lord, you don't know what a horse is, do you? A horse is like a large, smooth dog. What's a dog? Stop with the questions and let me show you how we're going to slow down. Takes two to complete this maneuver, so I need you at your A-game, okay son? Okay? Okay.

There's a mechanism that inverts the solar sail. The inverse is made of carbon fiber, which is stronger than alumina. It can handle a continuous laser blast. Boy, no, we're not shooting anything. The laser is going to negate our acceleration and bring us to a halt. Now, listen: we have just enough power to bring us to a stop, but from what I've experienced the generator is sparky. I have to pump the generator. That's my first job. No, it's too dangerous for you. Besides, I need you to invert the sail exactly when I tell you to. You're going to push this button right here, see? Do not touch this until I give you the green light, understand? We have to time this to the exact second. Too soon and we won't reach the asteroid. Too late and we collide and most likely die. The maneuver will take a week to complete. Son? No, don't worry about me, I'm fine. Just a bad cough is all. Your old man is like a battleship, kid. We should come to a complete stop near the asteroid Celest-five. Well well, that's one problem solved. Son--boy, we make a good team.

* * *

"All these amateurs," Fitz was saying, a cigarette drooping down practically ninety degrees from his mouth, "they haul back the most useless material: chunks of hydrogen, frozen water crystals. Like what are they even thinking? Fourteen years spent living in a rust-bucket and you bring back propulsion garbage? How do they expect me to turn a profit with this junk?"

Outside the dome the sky was airless, still, and dark. Earth loomed high above and to Fitz resembled a glowing ornament; the southern hemisphere black, the lights of cities burning and twinkling like buzzing clouds of fireflies. They were standing at the very edge of the colony, Fitz and Marcus, in a quarter still under construction. Unfinished buildings in various stages of completion surrounded them, a ghost town of plaster and naked girders. Everything smelled like paint. They were staring past their thin reflections in the dome's plastic, looking at the gray, barren moonscape. Milky, glacial-looking hills were lined alongside the Sea of Tranquility like the vertebrae of a spine. The hills stood sentinel over great abyssal plains that sat shrouded in straight sheets of dust tossed high weeks ago by exploratory rovers that were just now beginning to settle and fall.

"Bunch of lunar-born straights that can't tell a feldspar from their asses, that's the problem." said Marcus, looking at Fitz's reflection.

Fitz took a drag of his cigarette, lifted up his foot, and stamped it out on the heel. The ashes drifted to the lunar silt slowly, the lightest snowflakes. "You're right," said Fitz, "and that's why I tell these new guys: bring me back something valuable. Aluminum. Iron. Palladium even."


Fitz nodded. "Diamond if they're that lucky."

"The problem is finding a good rock in the first place."

"That's already taken care of."

"Oh?" Marcus turned and leaned into Fitz, who was looking up at the placid blue Earth lording high above them.

"Yeah, 'Oh,' it's done. They sent probes into the belt a hundred years ago to document mineral composition. This was all pre-Federal, before the United Nations really sunk its teeth into foreign policy. The Feds sealed up the records and hid them from private industry, but I finagled myself a copy."

"So which rock is it?"

Fitz laughed. He turned to face Marcus, leaned in so that their faces were close, and said in a not-quite-whisper, "It's not a question of individual rocks, but a question of which class of rock. They classified them based on composition, after all."

Marcus smiled, "So which class is it?"

Fitz shrugged and turned back to watch the dust settle on the plains. "There are a few: Olympus, Jovian, Hercus, Celest--those are the big dogs."

"Earth's been mined out, stripped clean of valuable metals. We are going to make money."

"Marcus, you're the blandest man I know."

Marcus huffed. As night crept across the Earth's southern hemisphere, the clumps of orange lights flared in its wake.

"So, as I was saying, I started telling these guys to bring me back something valuable. So I give them a helpful nudge toward one of the tagged asteroids. I give them coordinates. Marcus, it's about more than money. It's a monopoly on information. We're all caught in the middle of a deep, dark wood, and we're the ones holding the map."

* * *

It is an opera of two performers. Asteroid and ship the principle actors. The asteroid a bulbous thing, trembling, wet with primordial moisture, tumbling in an uneasy uneven orbit. The ship at a standstill, enraptured, ensnared, captivated by the asteroid's pirouetting dance. The ship twice, thrice, four times, five times as large as the rock that's terribly pretty beneath roving floodlights. Stars and the distant swirl of other galaxies hang unfocused and hazy in the background.

Suddenly in silent monochrome, the harpoon unfurls from the ship's distended hull and quivers for a terrible moment before puncturing the asteroid. A winch begins pulling the two performers together, into one embrace, and the asteroid stops its coy turning and slows to a stop at the harpoon's draw. Perhaps, if the ship is large enough to support a hanger, a set of aluminum doors flutters open, and the ship proceeds to swallow the asteroid whole. Two bodies becoming one. Otherwise, the asteroid is pulled just close enough for a third performer to enter the scene.

Small man in a spacesuit that floats into view, emerging like a cockroach from hatch or window. A man with lifeline attached to some furtive place on the hull that proceeds to bounce ungainly to the harpoon's point of penetration. The floodlights spot the intruder but can do nothing. Maybe the man stands there on the asteroid's waiting body, stunned by its beauty--how to crack beauty with tiny cockroach legs?--and then maybe he gives a shout of victory and begins to skitter over her surface. More often and with increasing violence this man shouts; shouts and howls from within the pressurized hanger compartment, or from within the spacesuit squeezed by vacuum. Beastly hollers and exultation of invasive victory, the cries of Mongols coming over the Wall. Then this man waves back to the ship, and from the ship unfurls a second instrument, the crane and its claw, and man and ship become accomplices in this work. The claw fastens over the asteroid's fragile frame and begins to squeeze. A pickaxe rushes to its skin of frozen moisture. The man hacks and pounds while the claw's teeth grind and crush. At first, nothing gives way. Then heavy stones, rocks, pebbles, floating bright specs, breaking apart into smaller and smaller pieces. These fragments coolly collected by the man in his hanger, or by the man in his spacesuit, collected in gleaming bags stressed nearly beyond their capacity and fixed to the man's hip like trophies.

Then, their work complete, the claw unfastens and retracts. The man begins roping himself back into his hole in the hull. The harpoon unsheathes itself and is drawn back as well. A drained husk of itself, the asteroid begins to drift, delightfully unaware, and will continue to drift until a dwarf planet--like Ceres or Eres--or even a major planet like Jupiter itself rights its path with a steady, gravitating hand.

Always the men shout and howl with glee. A hundred men at a hundred asteroids, shouting and howling: "Fitz was right! Fitz was right! There's gold here! I knew he wouldn't let me down!"

* * *

The boy called Terry Brandson sat at the supper table, without a thought in his head. A candle burned and flickered and gave off a sick, sweet vanilla scent that Terry had long ago gotten used to; used to in the same sense as one becomes accustomed to their own breathing. This acclimation held true for the ship's undulating hum, and the whirring of the ship's CO2 scrubbers, and the tiny minute beeps that occurred every six hours--automatic adjustments to the solar sail. If something malfunctioned, Terry knew it by sound. It was like hearing and feeling his own heart become erratic. In a sense not understood by many, the ship had become an extension to his body. He could tell you how the top left corner of his quarters felt on his fingertips and distinguish that corner--that square inch--from every other top left corner on the ship. The ship was Terry's shield, the metal womb shepherding him across the same tract of space it crossed years ago but that Terry could hardly remember.

Terry's father, Isaac Brandson, sat motionless across from Terry, head slumped onto his own chest. He was floating millimeters above the seat, Terry knew. A thin string of spit or snot levitated under his nose.

"You eating, pops?" asked Terry, inclining his fork toward his father's plate. Isaac didn't move or respond.

"Pops?" Terry asked again. He couldn't take his eyes off the snot.

Terry had lately become accustomed to gently pushing his father out of bed and to the supper table to let the smell of food coax him awake. If there weren't food beneath his face, Isaac would simply refuse to rouse himself. The pain was just too severe. Under the circumstances, it hadn't come as a surprise. Terry figured that Isaac must have passed in his sleep. Even still, when Terry finally checked his father's pulse and found nothing beating beneath his cold skin, even though there was no surprise, Terry cried. The only person Terry had ever known had left him.

Terry draped a sheet over Isaac's body and straightened him out flat as a door. He wheeled Isaac through the ship's corridors, taking special care not to bump into anything. There were certain quarters that Terry had been forbidden from entering and that Isaac himself never spoke of or entered, but Terry had gone in and saw--

He slid the doors open and set his father adrift. The body floated, bumped into the unused bed, and came to a stop above the floor there. Something about this signified to Terry a lasting, spiritual bond between Isaac and Terry's mother. Terry knew where not to look, but he could never ignore the smell, spoiled rotting smell, and he could never erase or negate the memory of his first peek into these quarters, the bloated deteriorating bag--

Terry returned to the supper table to finish eating. Later he would exercise. Terry listened closely, listened deep into the ship, to hear if anything was amiss.

* * *

Colonial politics was, at first glance, obtuse and complex, but once the bureaucratic tape was cut--the bureaucratic tape being Earth's Federal Government, of course--anything could be accomplished. As an independent state of the United Nations, the colony under threat of dissolution was required to comply with Federal laws and regulations; but a politician, who merely said, "Your signal never came through, what was the message again?" could plead innocence and ignorance to whatever draconian decree echoed from down the grape vine. The colony's satellites are notorious for mysterious malfunctions. This excuse gets harder to swallow if one politician hears one thing and another politician hears something else, which is why cooperation between party lines is crucial. The lunar colony's general assembly has been called the most cooperative and demure in the entire U.N.

Normally, in order for a trade agreement to be struck between the Feds and an independent state, unions must be consulted and documentation of operations be presented to an assembly of nations. The colony circumvented these requirements by claiming that their unions (of which the colony has none) committed themselves verbally, and that the documentation must have been lost in transit. A hundred politicians saying the same thing can be fairly persuasive to an assembly. So when the colony drafted a trade agreement in regards to mineral procurement and distribution, no questions were asked and every lip was sealed. It is unknown which member of the colonial general assembly drafted the agreement. Where the money goes is anyone's guess.

"Governor," called the concierge from the doorway, "you have a visitor."

The Governor's office was ornate, spherical how every building in the colony was spherical (sharp corners in low gravity environments are especially hazardous); wall-sized murals depicting the colony's beginnings were arranged on the far wall, starting with the first shuttle launch from Earth and ending with a panorama satellite view of how the colony looked today, sprawling and radial. From behind a white desk whereon motes of dust floated in the light, the Governor looked up from his work.

"I always have visitors. Who is calling on me now?" he said, hand still gripping his pen.

The concierge stepped aside, revealing a young boy on crutches, arms and legs ballooned with bulky black braces. His skull was horrible, thick and alien.

"He says you might be able to help him."

The Governor set down his pen and nodded, leaning back. The boy hadn't waddled a foot beyond the door before the Concierge closed it and left the Governor's chambers. With pain and deliberation, the young man hobbled up onto a chair and, wincing, looked out the window.

"I see that you made it back safely. I heard about the crash landing. I do assume that was you?" The Governor smiled and folded his hands over his stomach, but the boy wasn't listening. The great eye of a hurricane over Earth's Atlantic Ocean had caught his attention. For all intents and purposes he vanished from the room as the storm's immense, slow whirl drew him into the maelstrom. The Governor looked at him curiously, then cleared his throat. The boy's head whipped back to meet his gaze like a frightened animal.

"Just what is it you want?" asked the Governor.

"I'm looking for Fitz," the boy replied.

For a moment there might have been a gleam of recognition in the Governor's eyes, and then it disappeared. The Governor smiled, leaned forward, and said, "Speaking, though I'm known as Cyrus since I became Governor. I remember your folks. Your father. It looks like he held up his end of the agreement after all. We're going to take good care of you. Can you tell me about the gold? Can you tell me how your parents passed--how they lived?”


2015 John K. Webb

Bio: Mr. Webb grew up overseas in the military community. He began writing at an early age, and quickly became fascinated with science fiction.

E-mail: John K. Webb

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