Story Excerpt Sunday: from The Pure Cold Light by Gregory Frost

The Pure Cold LightThe Pure Cold Light

by Gregory Frost

Heffernan would never appreciate that magnetism was what killed him.

The alarm klaxon honked twice in the tiny lunar shack, so loud that he fumbled his coffee cup and seared a stripe across his thighs. He hopped to his feet, shouting,“Son of a bitch!” and prying the wet pant legs away from his skin. He had been absorbed till then in a movie on the monitor—a Betty Davis film called Jezebel—but shut it off, cut the overheads, and pressed his face against the cold window. Outside, an empty hopper came sliding smoothly by, silent as a ghost.

The mass driver on which it rode looked like the track for the world’s dullest roller coaster ride: two aluminum rails stretched straight to the horizon like a big zipper closing the lunar surface. Every couple of seconds a magnetically levitated payload—what everyone called a cannonball—shot off down the length of the right rail and out of sight, to the far end of the driver, where it finally launched its payload at just over two kmps into space. The empty hopper rode the left rail back around, past the modular shack to where it loaded up again. Heffernan thought magnetic levitation was just swell—at least, he had till now. Once launched, the cannonballs traveled on a precisely aligned trajectory for 60,000 kilometers to a collection point near one of ScumberCorp’s orbiting factories, where they dropped right into a funnel-shaped net as broad as the whole lunar facility. The process was computer controlled, and everything depended upon the precise instant that the hopper hit the switch and ejected its payload. But lunar soil had a slight magnetic charge to it; twice previously within the last five years, despite the system’s built-in damping, a charge had built up in the hopper, a magnetic tug sufficient to throw off its speed just the tiniest bit. With mass driver propulsion, any variation in speed meant that instead of those cannonballs zooming straight into the net, they peppered the black sky like a shower of meteors. That was why Heffernan lived eight hours a day in solitary confinement—to monitor trajectory and correct any problem before it became a problem. It was a cushy job and he’d had it for nearly two years. He couldn’t remember the last time he had spent more than ten seconds of any eight hour stretch monitoring the arc of the cannonballs. Nothing had ever gone wrong before. “Why is this happening on my shift?” he asked the sterile landscape.

Another hopper ripped silently past him. He followed it as best he could, watched the tiny speck of its payload shoot into the sky. Without glancing away, he toggled the monitor switch along the sill; blue numbers appeared in the window glass—a precise measurement of the payload’s trajectory. The wrong numbers. “Skewed,” he said bleakly. “Gone to hell. It’s skewed, and I’m screwed.” He turned to the console, started running the recorded disk back … and back … and back, seeking the point at which the parabola returned to normal, counting the number of mis-guided launches with growing alarm. As the disk ran on without change, James Heffernan began to grind his teeth together. When the parabolic arc shifted back, he stopped the disk.

Two-hundred-eighteen of the twenty kilogram ilmenite cannonballs had been flung into the wrong part of the void. The trajectory had begun to drift about the time he had sealed up his dry suit and gone down the tunnel for his first cup of coffee. He’d gone for two more after that, all without noticing anything amiss. Why hadn’t the alarm gone off before? This thing had been out of whack for hours without a beep. What sort of margin of error had it been set for? Already he was trying to put together a defense. He would need a good one.

He had no choice but to shut down the mass driver. Somewhere, in other rooms of other buildings in SC’s lunar factory, more alarms were now going off.

The speaker on the wall popped to life. Goertel, his shift director, shouted, “Heffernan, what the fuck is going on out there? You’ve shut down!”

He explained about the belated alarm, the parabolic angle that had slowly drifted from true. He named the number of off-target shots. “The balls just got by me, is all.”

“Did I hear that? ‘Got by you’?” Heffernan could picture Goertel’s face gone grape with anger. “Well, let’s just see if you get your balls by me.” The speaker popped dead. He sank down into his chair. If he could have, he would have melted through the floor.

The whole length of the track would need to be inspected. The lost man-hours on this and the other end were—for him at least—incalculable; budget projections sucked into the vacuum. Somebody had to take the heat. He knew already who it would be. Goertel had to answer to the strungatz—the suitboys who had never set foot off Earth and who thought a mass driver was the Catholic who parked the choir bus. The only way to save his job and his ass would be to take a lunar skimmer and chase down the errant ilmenite by himself, on his own time, for no pay. Volunteer work. Right now…before they ordered him to do it anyway. Wearily, he got to his feet and reached for his suit.

***

Four hours later he had retrieved eighty-two of the cannonballs—about all that the skimmer’s bay net could handle.

He was coming in on automatic when he found the site.

********

Gregory Frost is a writer of best-selling fantasy, science fiction, and thrillers. He has been a finalist for every major sf, fantasy, and horror fiction award. His latest novel-length work is the duology Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet, a finalist for the James Tiptree Jr. Award in 2009. His previous novel, the historical thriller, Fitcher’s Brides, was a finalist for both the World Fantasy and International Horror Guild Awards for Best Novel.

Latest short fiction: “T.Rhymer”, a novella in collaboration with Jonathan Maberry, in Dark Duets ; “No Others Are Genuine,” a current finalist for the Bram Stoker Award.

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