The Warm Equations
Welcome to the first, free-to-read Sunday Morning Transport story for August: science fiction from Michael Swanwick. Concise and epic, “The Warm Equations,” explores a different side of the choices we may make in space. ~ Fran Wilde, August 7, 2022.
The Warm Equations
By Michael Swanwick
People who say that any landing you can walk away from is a good one have never crashed a hopper into the side of a mountain. On Mercury. During a major solar flare. Osbourne, who had just done all of that, lay motionless, eyes closed, savoring the amazing fact that he was still alive. Then, with an involuntary groan, he sat up.
Or tried to.
Something had him pinned. He opened his eyes and saw that the overhead instrumentation panel had come crashing down on him. Blocking, incidentally, the forward instrumentation, though he could see most of the video screen. Dim red light meant that the power was out but the backup batteries were functioning. The fact that he could breathe meant that the hull hadn’t been breached. Together, they explained why he wasn’t dead.
There was crash foam everywhere. Also a lot of debris. Plus he was not lying flat but canted to one side, and the upper half of his body should have hurt like hell but didn’t.
From the waist down, he could feel nothing.
That made sense. The hopper was equipped with nerve conduction blockers for exactly such situations as this, where chemical painkillers would leave the operator groggy and ineffective. It was entirely possible that his injuries were painful but not serious. Though it was more likely that his legs were useless.
Well, so what? People had gotten out of worse fixes. And anything somebody else could do, Charles Magnus Osbourne could do better. “‘Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required,’” his father would say on those few times he was foolish enough to ask him for help. “You’re smart enough and strong enough and disciplined enough to do anything you need to do. You don’t require anybody else’s assistance. Take care of it yourself.” So he had.
“Minerva?” he said aloud. “Status report.”
“I am functional at reduced capability. Flight systems are down. Life support and cooling are functional for twenty hours. The emergency beacon has been activated. Communications systems are operative.”
“Turn on the radio.”
The sun roared, crackled, and hissed in his ears. No chance he could make himself heard through that mess. “Turn it off. How likely is it the distress beacon will be heard?”
“That’s hard to say. The research station has better receivers than I do. But the solar flare—”
It hardly mattered whether the beacon was heard or not. The hard radiation sleeting down from above would make any rescue operation appallingly dangerous. And if there was one thing he was sure of, it was that nobody was going to put themselves in danger to rescue him. Somebody else, yes. But not him.
* * *
When he first arrived at Gassendi-Harriott Station, all two dozen researchers had convened to welcome him with cheers and applause. It was a tradition, he gathered, extended to all planetary newcomers. A hermesologist he later learned was Sally Wu had grinned broadly and said, So, what do we call you—Charles or Charlie or Chuck?
You may call me, he had replied, Dr. Osbourne.
And a silence had fallen over all.
Almost, he regretted that moment. But if there was one thing he knew, it was that being respected was more important than being liked. Fortunately, popularity had never been one of his goals. He had applied himself to his work and the results were extremely good. They had to be to justify the expense of moving a human being over twenty-five million miles from the nearest human resources office.
Other than Minerva, he had only himself to rely on. Luckily, that was enough.
The first thing to do was catalog his assets: One first-rate brain. Half an intact body. Twenty hours in which to escape the prison that the hopper had become. A surface suit (he could see it, in pristine condition, out of the corner of his eye) capable of repurifying his air supply for weeks and recycling his water for days. No food, but that didn’t matter. He was less than eighty miles from the research station. If he could get into the suit, he was sure he could make it back long before starving to death.
“Minerva. The three robots I was ferrying to the construction site—what shape are they in?”
“One construction device has external damage that does not affect functionality. The other was crushed beneath the hopper. The maker device is fully operative.”
“Give me control of the construction bot.”
Osbourne released the magnetic clamps holding the bot to the outside of the hopper, then stood it up. A debris trail of equipment meant for the half-built observation site glittered down the mountain slope. But though it was all-purpose built and would cost a fortune to replace, his attention was focused on the airlock.
All hoppers had airlocks, of course. Oxygen was too precious to waste whenever someone got in or out. At his direction, the bot opened the outer hatch. So far, so good. The inner hatch looked functional. But the space between was too small for even the maker robot, much less the constructor.
Osbourne had studied the documentation for every piece of equipment that he had any contact with. The others thought him mad to devote free time to such dry materials rather than the ping pong games, pinochle marathons, and similar amusements that were so important to inferior minds. Sam Chakrabarti had taken him aside once and suggested he ought to take part in their entertainments. For morale’s sake, he’d said, before blowing his argument by adding, to show that you’re just one of the guys.
Sam was a helioseismologist and one of the few scientists in the station Osbourne had any respect for. He could easily imagine him receiving the Nobel someday. Sam was quiet and had a gentle sense of humor. He might almost have been one of the imaginary friends that, in lieu of real ones, Osbourne had invented to get himself through an otherwise lonely childhood.
Osbourne shook that thought from his head. Keep focused! “Minerva, give me control of the maker bot.”
The maker was all of a piece—remove one component and it would fall apart. But the construction bot was modular. So, using the former, Osbourne proceeded to amputate the legs of the latter.
It was slow, painstaking work, because if the bot was to carry him back to safety, he would need to reattach those legs once he got free of the hopper. Detaching them without damaging the connections was much like surgery. Also, like a surgeon, he found his brow beading up with sweat. Alas, there was no helpful nurse to wipe the sweat away. But . . .
“Minerva! Why is it growing hotter in here?”
“It is possible that there’s a coolant leak. I have no working instrumentation to determine if that is the case. Alternatively, outside temperature is currently six hundred fifty degrees Fahrenheit and rising as we approach local noon. It may be that the cooling system simply hasn’t sufficient power to handle that.”
Osbourne mentally erased those twenty comfortable hours of slack from his list of assets. “Turn off the distress beacon. Redirect its power to the cooling system.”
“That would be unwise, Dr. Osbourne. The beacon is your best chance of being rescued.”
“Nobody’s coming! They’re all back at the station, making popcorn and having sing-alongs. Playing charades! Making up childish stories about dragons and wizards!” Osbourne caught himself. It was pointless trying to reason with Minerva. “Just do it, okay?”
“As you say.”
Osbourne returned to his work. Work was his one consolation, his sole companion and his haven in times of distress. He tried not to think about his coworkers, safe at the research station. He tried to ignore the fact that the hopper was growing warmer.
An hour passed.
Then another. Osbourne felt himself growing woozy.
* * *
“It was my idea, my insight, my interpretation of the data,” Osbourne told the man he had dared think of as his mentor. “I wrote the goddamn paper from abstract to credits. All you did was sign off on it.”
“That’s the way things work in academia. As your senior, I get pride of place.”
“You listed me fourth among the authors. Fourth! After a pair of jumped-up grad students whose chief contribution was creating spreadsheets and entering the data.”
“I did it to wake you up. Science is a cooperative endeavor. You need to understand that. While you were being too good to talk to anyone, Sheena and Joel were playing the game, sharing findings, attending meetings, filling in time sheets. None of which you could be bothered with.”
Bitter words came to Osbourne’s lips. But, knowing they would do no good, he swallowed them back. Then and there, he decided that he was going to find a place to work so far out on the fringes that no second-rate minds could ever again steal the glory he deserved.
* * *
The temperature in the hopper was in the high eighties when at last the bot’s legs fell away with what Osbourne imagined would be a satisfactory clang, if only there were an atmosphere to carry the sound to him.
“All right,” he muttered. “Let’s see if you can fit into the airlock.”
The robot was humanoid in form because most of the tools it used had been designed for humans and because its designers had no imagination. Osbourne would have given it at least four arms and the torso would have scuttled into the airlock like a spider. As it was, he had to drag the top half of the constructor by its two arms to the hopper. He flung one arm up to catch at the rim of the airlock. Then the other arm.
It was hanging from the airlock. He pulled it up so that most of the bot was above the rim. Then he reached out an arm. . . .
The bot fell backward, lost its grip on the airlock, and slammed down hard on the rock.
By pumping against the rock with one arm, he managed to get a steady rocking motion. Then, with a sudden push, he flipped the constructor over. It crawled back to the hopper. It flung an arm over the airlock edge. Then the other. It was hanging from the rim again.
“Give me control of the maker robot.”
The maker placed itself behind the constructor torso. Then it gave a steady shove upward. The constructor moved higher. Now more than half of its mass was above the bottom of the hatch.
Osbourne adjusted the maker’s position and had it shove again, upward and outward.
The constructor tumbled into the airlock, nearly filling it.
The maker bot seized the hatch and slammed it three times hard, forcing the constructor farther in each time. The third slam shut the hatch. The maker twisted the exterior grip and it locked shut.
Sweat was pouring from Osbourne’s face and body. He didn’t have to check with Minerva to know the temperature had gone up at least twenty degrees. He switched to the constructor’s visuals.
The airlock light was broken. Okay. He switched on the constructor bot’s headlamp. The screen went white, then adjusted. It showed a small section of the airlock wall from inches away, all that the bot’s camera could see. The inner hatch would be above its head.
He tried to move an arm up to where the grip would be.
Nothing happened. The arm couldn’t move. He tried the other arm with the same results. “Minerva! Tell me there’s a way the bot can fit into the airlock and open the inner hatch.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dr. Osbourne.”
“I can get the maker bot to pull it out again. I can cut off one of its arms. Tell me it will fit in and open the inner hatch then.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dr. Osbourne.”
The interior of the hopper was as hot as a sauna now. So hot that he had trouble thinking. Not that thinking was going to solve anything. He hadn’t the time. He hadn’t the tools.
He was going to die.
So in the end it turned out that he wasn’t such a big noise after all. Osbourne had gone out despite the solar flare, against all warnings, because he knew he could do what lesser men could not. He had been certain that a little thing like the sun was no match for him. Now, like Icarus, he was going to pay for his hubris.
He had imagined himself arriving at the station cradled in the constructor’s arms, perhaps with one of his own arms wrapped around its nub of a head. Waving gallantly, while the maker bot trotted along behind, holding a slab of the hopper’s shielding over him like an umbrella. Now he could see that for the childish fantasy it was.
Osbourne could no longer keep his eyes open. It was time to admit that he had failed. But he could still make a good end of things. That wouldn’t be easy. But he could still die honorably and without self-pity.
Let that be his epitaph, then: He died honorably and without self-pity. Not as great a way of making his mark on history as he had hoped. But it would have to do.
“Minerva. Are you recording this?”
“Yes, Dr. Osbourne. It’s a standard black box function.”
“That’s good. Let everyone know . . . I died game.”
* * *
He must have lapsed into unconsciousness. Only gradually did Osbourne become aware of the clanging and clattering around him. Something slammed against the side of the hopper. For some reason, he could not open his eyes. But he knew what must have happened.
Against all odds, it seemed that the others had come for him. They must have come in the Big Dog, which was designed for exactly this kind of rescue, for there was the sound of metal ripping open and cool air blew into the cabin.
There were voices. “He’s alive!” and “Help me get this off him.” The overhead instrument panel that had fallen on Osbourne was lifted away.
“Jesus, look at his legs.”
“Shut up, Gerhardt, he’s listening. Don’t worry, buddy, we’ll get you out of this alive,” Sam Chakrabarti said. Osbourne could tell from his voice that he was far from sure of that. He could also tell that Sam wanted him to live. They all did. In the unlikeliest twist of all, they were his friends, or close enough. They’d put themselves in danger to rescue him.
He realized then that it didn’t matter if he lived or died. This moment paid for all.
“Osbourne, you crusty bastard,” Sally said, “don’t you dare clock out on us.”
“Please,” he murmured. “Call me Chuck.”
Thank you for joining The Sunday Morning Transport’s Journey this week!
Michael Swanwick has received the Nebula, Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards for his fiction. His most recent novel, THE IRON DRAGON’S MOTHER, completes a trilogy begun 25 years ago with THE IRON DRAGON’S DAUGHTER.
He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Marianne Porter.
“The Warm Equations,” © Michael Swanwick, 2022.
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