The sun baked all the way through, to the warm deck beneath her. April felt she might melt, and slide off the arch of the bow into the sea at any moment, like a pat of butter on a hot roll. She was in serious danger of fully relaxing, physically and mentally. The latter being far more difficult of course. She’d been sleeping that deep dreamless sleep, from which she’d eased so subtly, she wasn’t aware of waking up. Nothing jolted her awake. Perhaps the steady breeze had shifted bearing a bit, or the rigging had whispered against the mast.
The tightly woven hat over her face had a pleasant scent when hot. She had never smelled a field of straw being cut, to know it’s richer form. The drift of fine salt spray, from the breakers outside the atoll, added a sharp note to the earthy odor. But the wind wasn’t blowing enough to make the ship roll, sheltered inside the ring of coral.
“Dummmm, dumm…dumm, dumm…dumm, dumm,” sounded low and ominously to her left. She should never have shown Jeff that stupid old movie. She refused to reward him by responding, but he must have sensed she was awake. When the strike came it was just above her hip on the left. Teeth far less savage than a Great White nipping her, right where he knew it tickled.
The first time he’d done it yesterday, she’d shrieked so loudly, the man on deck watch had run from the cockpit to see what was wrong. She wouldn’t give Jeff the satisfaction today.
“That’s a one-time funny joke, Jaws,” she said from under the hat. “Go away and find some other prey.”
“Heather got hungry and went below for a bite. I think I’ll have mine right here,” Jeff teased.
“I’m hungry too. Let’s go down and see what’s on the cold buffet.”
“You’re always hungry,” he accused. Which was pretty nearly true. He wasn’t gene mod, and didn’t eat near as much as April. “I’ll go the long way,” he declared. By the time April took her hat off and sat up, she just saw his feet disappearing over the edge of the deck, followed by a >sploosh < and a few drops of spray that managed to climb back this high. She got up, considered diving in herself, and just wasn’t in the mood. She just sauntered back along the rail of the ketch, on the narrow deck along the cabin, to the rear deck and sunken cockpit. Stepping down onto a bench that ran along the side behind the wheel.
Jeff’s wet footprints said he’d beat her to the cockpit and companion way below, despite having to climb up from the platform lowered off the transom for swimmers. She went in their stateroom and rinsed off with fresh water, stowed her hat, and put on a pair of shorts. Her mom had always been a bit formal about behavior at the table, and April just couldn’t bring herself to sit and eat totally naked, French boat rules or no. Jeff had no such problem, he had just splashed his face and hair with fresh water, and was drying it with a towel when she caught up to him.
April got to the food first, lifting the clear cover on the chill table and taking a cold plate. There were some cold salads, bean salad and potato salad, a pea salad with diced tomatoes and nuts, egg salad and ham salad, a beef roast and a block of white cheddar. Jeff caught up with her and started making a cold beef sandwich with horseradish and a pile of sweet pickles. April got a plate full of chilled prawns, with a cup of creamy hot sauce to dip them, a big dip of the pea salad, and a glass of the iced coffee.
Heather was already at the table, with the ship’s owner and one of the crew, eating a sandwich of some sort of fish salad. Not of canned tuna, rather leftover from the grilled fish that had been supper last night, pleasantly smoky. April hadn’t caught it, so she wasn’t sure what it was, except tasty. Heather was looking at the big flat screen, turned around to face the small upper galley from the main lounge. The atoll was a crooked circle in the middle of the screen, with white trim a couple places where surf broke on it. The Tobbiko was a white comma, off center inside. So small it was hard to tell bow from stern. The water varied from pale blue to green turquoise, and fell off into deep dark water outside the atoll.
“I’ve been sitting, watching the waves,” Heather informed them. “They aren’t simple. They especially aren’t just parallel, driven by the wind. There are interference patterns, just like you see with a laser in different modes. I had the drone open up the angle of view, and you could see there is a pattern of waves from the northwest and a weaker one from the south that mix with the main pattern of wind driven ridges from the west. I wonder why? Can there be wind on different bearings, off pretty far away, and the waves from that reach way beyond the wind?”
The owner, Lin, looked at Heather surprised. “The old Polynesians, so long ago we’re talking open canoes, used to read the waves to navigate. The islands both interfere with waves coming from behind them, and reflect waves striking the side near to you. A big storm far over the horizon can also send big rollers through the whole pattern, just as you thought. But the interpretation of them is complex. I’m shocked you’d see the patterns so quickly, and you with no experience as a sailor.”
“Oh, I don’t understand them,” Heather quickly demurred. “And I have the advantage of a viewpoint from above they didn’t have. But I can see there are patterns. I’ve looked at quite a bit of ocean from an orbital perspective, looking for ships, and the patterns disappear when you back off the view that high. You’d have to look closely at a bunch of different locations to start to understand it at the level you’re talking about. Those old sailors were pretty smart.”
“They had incentive,” Lin agreed, “The ocean is big, and the islands they were looking for pretty small. They couldn’t move against wind or current as easily as we can, and if they missed their landfall they might starve in the open ocean, or at least never make it back to where they were hoping for, driven to a strange land.”
“A fate we seem to be avoiding, happily,” Jeff noted. He took a bite of roast beef, piled so high on his sandwich he had difficulty fitting it in his mouth. “This is so good,” he said after chewing awhile. “I’ve had vat grown beef. They try to pass it off as better than beef on the hoof. It has good flavor, I admit, but there is something about the texture that is too uniform. It’s weird to say, but might be better if they actually made it a little tougher,” he decided.
“If we grow our own beef at Central it will have to be vat raised,” Heather reminded him. “I can’t imagine having enough cubic to raise cattle. With grass, like wheat, you can stack trays on conveyer racks, five or six layers deep, with lighting on the bottom of the trays above, high carbon dioxide levels, and grow it pretty efficiently. A cow is just too tall to layer. It isn’t the volume of rock you have to remove and seal, it’s the volume of air to fill it that would be extravagant.”
“When restaurants advertise beefsteak down here, they always stress it is tender,” April reminded them. “I bet they used the tenderest tissue, from the very best kind of cattle for that quality, to seed the vat. Maybe you should look into acquiring an inferior line, to give some of it a little more bite, for when you don’t eat it as a steak. My grandpa said he had some Argentine beef back, when he was in the USNA military, that had to be cooked to death, and still was pretty chewy. I bet it’s cheaper too,” she predicted.
“That’s a chuck roast,” the crewman Able informed them. “It runs around thirty dollars a kilo out of Australia. The same thing out of Japan costs four times as much. The filet mignon off the same animal tastes just like vat raised, but costs twice as much as the chuck, Australian or Japanese either one. The off the hoof filet is so much pricier than vat raised, just for the snob appeal. Rich people like to think they are gourmands, and know wine, even if they abuse their palate with hard liquor and smoke. They might be hard put to tell something is from grapes, but they will pay for prestige.”
“Well, I appreciate your cooking,” April assured him. “I don’t know enough to critique it, but if I had something I didn’t like, I wouldn’t choke it down to avoid hurting your feeling. So far everything you’ve sat in front of me has been good, even a few things I had my doubts about, until I tried them.” That visibly pleased Abe. Lin had added him to his crew from their new base in the Aci Castello marina on Sicily. He’d been chef at a nearby hotel, but the long hours in the kitchen, away from the sun, had turned something he enjoyed doing into a burden.
April and her friends had never seen the Tobbiko’s new home port. They might never, if the political climate was tense. Their space habitat nation, Home, recently removed itself from Low Earth Orbit, and took up station in a halo orbit, between the moon and the far Lagrange point, L2. They’d been attacked repeatedly since independence, by both the Earth Super Powers, and removed themselves from being a close easy target. Once relocated, they had announced no Earth power would be permitted to lift armed ships past L1 on the Earth side of the moon. The Earth powers were still sorting out their reactions to that announcement. April wondered how long it would be until one of them tried to test their resolve, and ability.
They’d made a water landing in the shuttle Dionysus’ Chariot to meet the ketch Tobbiko, waiting three days to do so, because their shuttle was heavily loaded, and they wanted very calm seas to unload, and transfer expensive cargo to the ketch. In the ship’s hold, down below right now, was a great deal of electronic chips, some specialized crystals that needed microgravity to form properly, and a number of drugs that benefited from the same environment. Those same products could have come down on returning supply shuttles from Home. However there were markets for these items, at well above normal prices, in several countries that embargoed trade with Home, including the two largest markets in the world, China, and the USNA. Jeff, and some of his associates, were happy to sell the items at a hefty markup, added for their skill in avoiding customs seizures.
Gunny and Barrack finally crawled out of their cabin. They had been up very late stargazing. It was funny that it was easier to view the heavens directly here, than Home. On Home they could see better, but it would be on a screen, remotely controlling a telescope outside in vacuum. There was a huge element of enjoyment that was missing, if you didn’t point the telescope at what you wanted to see, and focus it, peering in an eyepiece. Something near impossible to do in a pressure suit.
If you were going to view it remotely on a video screen, you might as well just take a feed off a professional telescope, that could see much more. There was more of those sort of fantastic images on the ‘net than anyone could sit and view. Looking at a speck of light in the sky and then aligning a scope on it, and seeing Saturn’s rings and the moons chasing around it real time, had a completely different immediacy and enjoyment, unrelated to image perfection.
Gunny made a face at the cold buffet for breakfast, and went to the tiny main deck galley. He waved Abe back to finish his own lunch when he started to get up. “I can scramble a couple eggs just fine, Abe.” But he actually scrambled half a dozen, and dumped a couple spoonfuls of salsa in them too. Barack made do with cold beef and hard boiled eggs, on a bed of pea salad. Good thing, because Gunny wasn’t sharing.
The cabin was cooled, but not too deep a chill. They wanted to be able to go in and out without too great a shock, from cabin to deck and back. It was maybe twenty-nine degrees. The boat had a generous surplus of power available, since it carried a fusion generator, designed and made by Jeff, but promised for past service by April. The fusion power package gave them a competitive edge on other boats that relied on Diesel for propulsion when there was no wind, and every sort of fueled generator, solar cells or wind turbines for auxiliary power.
“Do you enjoy taking the boat out like this for yourselves, or is it just work, and you are anxious to get back home?” Barak asked.
Lin and Abe exchanged a significant look. Abe gave Lin a nod that said it was his to answer. “We don’t talk to you about port life, because you are on vacation, and we didn’t want to bring up unpleasant things. Things are getting rough on land. We have to post a watch overnight if we are at dock. There are people from other countries where things are even worse, who come to Italy, English and Germans and Romanians who can’t find work. At least in southern Italy or Greece, they aren’t going to freeze to death in the winter. But they will steal anything that isn’t bolted down. They’ll steal that too, if you leave them alone ten minutes with a wrench.”
“Doesn’t the government give them a little something to survive?” April asked.
“A little is right. Most of them are young men, and fewer young women. The women tend to stay home. They get a small allowance deposited each month to an account. But if their card gets used outside their home area for more than a week they get cut off. It’s the place they moved to that’s now responsible for them,. There’s usually a six month legal waiting period to get new benefits in Europe, but if not, there is usually enough bureaucratic red tape and indifference to delays it as long or longer,” Lin explained.
Abe changed his mind and joined in. “A lot of them leave their card at home for their parents or their own family to use. They don’t bother to DNA lock them. Some families may send a little of it to them in cash, if they don’t desperately need it, but some have nothing but what they can steal or find work for cash. Such work doesn’t pay much, because there are more workers than there is work for them. Some will work in a restaurant just to be fed a meal on their shift, and maybe a sandwich to take home.”
Lin nodded agreement. “We could have a dozen hands on the boat for practically nothing, but finding them who have any boat handling skills, or even who are trainable for such things as a cabin steward is difficult. They will lie about their experience, and unless you try them out at dock, you won’t know it until you are a hundred kilometers offshore. I couldn’t send them into your cabin in good conscience, because they’d likely steal your things, and I’d be afraid if we had two or three of them, they might cut our throats in the night and steal the boat.”
“Sorry,” Lin said, seeing Barak feeling his throat and looking entirely too thoughtful. “It’s bad enough we tend to anchor off in the harbor at night rather than stay at dock. We still put a watch out, but it’s much harder to sneak up on us in the open water. The watch can see an approach and call for help much earlier than at dock. When we are offshore we are freer to use the laser you gave us,” he said glancing upward, since it was mounted high on the main mast. “It would raise entirely too many questions if we used it at dock, and it left visible damage,”
“There have been two different weeks this season we weren’t able to get a charter, and we all agreed it was better to do some open ocean cruising, instead of staying at dock. Once we were in Florida, and it saved us marina fees anyway, but another time it was in Sicily, where we pay to keep a permanent dock, even if we are not there. Standing a watch at the wheel at sea is much less stressful than watching the dock for boarders, or small boats sneaking up to us,” and we can do some serious fishing to fill up the larder.”
Abe spoke again, “Since we have plenty of power, thanks to you,” he nodded at April, ” we put two commercial freezer chests down in the hold. We are able to catch more than we eat usually, and we have arrangements with a couple farmers. We buy a bunch of chickens, and pay them to raise a pig or calf, and buy the whole thing, slaughtered and cut up. Sometimes we trade some of the frozen fish instead of all cash, it cuts our expenses and adds a little variety to both their diet and ours. On land there are a lot of areas now where it is too risky to keep a big freezer, unless you can generate your own power. If the public power goes down and you lose a freezer full it’s a huge hit.”
“We all live a little better than we could landbound,” Lin asserted. “Although we lost a crewman because he was married, and he worried too much about his wife and son when we were gone. He finally quit and moved them all up in the hills to his parent’s house. It’s not as comfortable as in the city, but it’s safer. There was no way I wanted to start letting crew keep family aboard. Pretty soon it would look like a refugee boat, with laundry in the rigging.”
“So, none of the crew is married?” Barak asked, thoughtfully.
“No, and the rate of marriage has gone down on land too. At least official, legal marriages. When the economy is bad enough people don’t want to make the commitment. Does that seem strange to you?” he asked Barak.
“Not especially, I’m just thinking about the crew from Home, who went out to Jupiter not long ago to capture a snowball. They are six unmarried crew, the oldest twenty-seven. They decided to either do all singles, or a crew of couples, but they couldn’t find three qualified couples who would agree to a three year voyage. They’re getting ready to send a second expedition already, before the first has returned, but it will be the same, all singles, and I thought I might apply if I can get my mom to agree.”
“How old will you be when it leaves?” Abe wondered.
“I’ll be fifteen, near sixteen,” Barak told him. “But the next mission will go faster.”
“In the Age of Sail, young gentlemen might be sent to serve as midshipmen, training to be officers at thirteen, sometimes even twelve years of age,” Lin informed them. “By sixteen they might be close to taking their lieutenant’s exam. They had to pass an oral examination before three captains, to demonstrate they knew how to handle a ship and command. It wasn’t easy, some never passed it to advance.”
“I didn’t get the sense things were so rough down here,” April said, concern written on her face. “I’ve done research for Jeff for our bank, and I’ve seen the numbers for sales and margins turn down, but employment has stayed steady, and pretty much everybody has the same thing as negative tax like North America, even if they call it something else.”
“They also all have price controls,” Lin said, “even if they don’t call them that. It always leads to shortages. Your negative tax may let you apply to the government distribution warehouse, but if you want oil it may be canola, instead of peanut or corn oil, and if you want milk it may be powder instead of Ultra. They may run out of wheat flour or rye and you have to take corn meal. It’s still listed as available, but they run out early in the month. If you get the prepared meals like in North America, then they can sneak the cheap stuff in even easier. It just slowly gets a little worse each year,” he said, frowning.
“It spills over to the commercial sales too. Last time we wanted to buy Diesel, when we were picking up some guests in England, it was fifty-seven EuroMarks a liter, priced higher for anything considered recreational use. The marina was limiting boats that weren’t based there to fifty liters. We were fortunate we had your generator and could beg off the sale at that price.
We made a show of waiting the tide, and taking her away from the dock under sail. There isn’t much on the water moving under power only, but military, and big freighters. A lot of the freighters now are fitted with sails or wings of some sort for auxiliary propulsion too. They’d rather come in a couple days later if the wind will let them save fuel.”
“But isn’t a lot of Diesel grown from waste bio-mass now?” Jeff asked.
“Yes, but if you add up the acres, there just isn’t enough waste to meet the demand. Even if you don’t factor in the energy costs to chop it up, take it to the tanks, and then to separate and filter it. Then you still need to transport it to where it is needed, although a lot is reused for agriculture, and never moves far,” Lin explained.
“Now, you can get a lot more feedstock in tropical areas. You grow directly for fuel feedstock, not just waste from food crops. But the Amazon basin, and Africa both seem to be in a perpetual state of unrest. You spend a fortune guarding your processing plant from attack, or paying protection money to every local thug and warlord, as well as the central government in power. You may guard the plant, but they can keep the growers from bringing the feed stock to the plant. I don’t see any changes to that very soon either.”
“How long can it keep getting a little worse each year, like you are describing, before it doesn’t work at all?” April asked. “I don’t want us to get caught by surprise. There are still things we need from Earth that would be very hard to do without.”
“Like what? Lin asked.
“Copper wire,” Heather spoke up for April, right away. “Especially the sort reinforced with bucky tubes. Solder and fluxes, anything with silver or fluorine or boron in it, plastics, lubricants, cloth and paper of all kinds,” she looked at Jeff.
“Anything with big glass. Ports and rigid display screens, a lot of medical things like dressings and instruments. Needles, gloves, and IV bags. A lot of those things we could make, but people who make few hundred thousand units a month can make them much cheaper than we ever could. Big pieces of steel, especially the high end stuff that has to be high strength. Anything with beryllium in it, and yeah, silver like you said.”
“They know techie stuff better than me,” April admitted.
“I don’t think it’s going to be one big dramatic crash,” Lin suggested. “Prices will just keep creeping up, and selection and delivery will keep getting worse. You’ll just reach a point eventually where you’ve had to wait for wire a couple times, the price is really a hardship, and they will finally quote you a crazy price, and tell you that you have to wait months for delivery, and it will kick you over the edge, to make dies and draw your own wire.”
“That means we still have to find sources of copper, and other scarce materials in the outer system,” Jeff concluded. “We already have iron and a few other metals, and soon all the volatiles we could want. Nobody can stop us from scooping nitrogen from Earth, but a lot of these things we have no idea where we’ll be able to find them, out past Mars.”
“What about Mars itself?” April asked. “Has the joint expedition found any serious ore in their explorations?”
“The participants appear to have quietly come to some sort of a gentleman’s agreement to not publicize any such finds,” Jeff informed them. “I have word searched every public document about Mars, with particular attention to multiple word searches of any dealing with geology, and field trips to volcanoes, and prominent dikes. Not a single one gets specific about any minerals, except generic descriptions of rock class. Indeed the only useful data is about the large number of iron meteorites to be found on some of the plains. I’m sure they mention those, only because they would consider it a desecration to see them as ore. A robot vehicle to follow a search pattern and scoop them up would be easy to do though. How many iron meteorites do they really need for scientific research? They’ll never cut and examine one in a thousand, but they act like each one is precious. It’s silly.”
“Well, couldn’t we go look for ourselves?” Heather wanted to know. “They don’t have any claim on the whole planet, do they?”
“There is a general treaty, signed back in the sixties, which basically says everything off Earth will be held in common. The moon has shown it is pretty much defunct. In particular trying to apply it to other star systems would be silly, and if we find planets with owners it will look as arrogant and short sighted as the Pope dividing up the western hemisphere of Earth, without a thought to the fact it already had indigenous owners. Mars base has sent out drones, but the furthest anybody has been from base is about two-hundred kilometers. They won’t take a flier beyond the distance they could be rescued in a rover.”
“You’d support prospecting there then?” Heather asked directly.
“I’d rather see if perhaps the pickings are better among the asteroids and satellites of the gas giants first, before we look for what we need on a planet with inhabitants. It is after all at the bottom of another gravity-well, even if not as deep as Earth. In particular I’d rather none of us make a commitment to Mars, one way or the other, as Spox for any of our companies, before we discuss it again. Is that agreeable?” he asked very mildly.
“Sure,” Heather agreed. April was nodding her approval.
Lunch had progressed to cold drinks on a bare table. It was the hottest part of the day, everybody was full, and nobody was in a hurry to go back on deck.
“What are our options to get materials, beyond the out system moons and asteroids, assuming Mars is out, and Earth no longer can lift what we need?” Heather mused.
“Well, Venus is useless at our present tech level. We don’t know much about Mercury. It’s been mapped, but the only rovers examined a tiny area at the poles. The solar flux there should make processing ore on site easy. Eventually, I think we shall visit other stars. If our technology is good enough to do that, then I expect high value cargo will be worth shipping, organisms if we find living worlds, things like gold, and indium, and iridium. It’s going to be awhile before we can synthesize them in quantity,” Jeff conceded.
“How about separating out the trace quantities of elements, like a few parts per million, in asteroids?” Barak asked.
“That might be possible, if we can vacuum distill an entire asteroid, or concentrate all the trace elements in one end of a bar by zone refining. That’s how a lot of semiconductors were first refined. Then there is mass spectroscopic separation, or chemically changing everything to various gasses, and reducing them by vapor depositation. Melting a free-floating asteroid shouldn’t be that difficult, but if you remove volatiles by raising the temperature past the boiling point of each element in stages, how do you capture the boil off?”
“Put it in a big ball and let it vacuum deposit on the walls?” Barak suggested.
“Possibly, but you have a dynamic system of a molten ball of metal that has to be kept at the center of a much lighter shell, or at least kept from touching it. And when do you harvest it? Do you stop after every major element is depleted and clean it off the shell? Or do you let them build up in layers and try to separate them later?” Jeff smiled at Barak’s look of concentration. “Think on it. If you come up with another obvious solution I’ll be delighted, and make sure it earns you some money too.”
“There’s all sorts of resources in Antarctica the Earthies aren’t using,” Gunny reminded them. “If they can’t challenge you militarily, and you need them bad enough you can just go take them.”
“As tempting as that is, I suspect it would precipitate a war, and not a short easy one. Getting a foothold is one thing, but conducting mining operations when you might get bombed at random integrals would be pretty tough. One hypersonic cruise missile every few months would be plenty to neutralize any profits. I’m not ready to be the monster who reduced the USNA and China until they couldn’t mount that much of a response. It would have to be a last resort, and it should be a matter of our survival before we even considered it.”
“We could do a lot to adapt new tech, based on different elements,” Heather said. “We have lots of calcium, which is just fine for structural use and wiring in vacuum. But here’s no legacy engineering data. We just need experience using it because the metal corrodes so easily. So does iron, but we have a couple thousand years of experience working around that. I’d love to know what we could do with say calcium – scandium alloys, or calcium – aluminum.
“There’s just one thing I want clear,” Barak spoke up at a lull in the conversation.
“Yes?” Jeff prompted him.
“If you are going to go out there and land on moons of Jupiter or Saturn, and see all kinds of interesting stuff, maybe get crew shares on big mineral finds, I want a berth on that trip!”
“Nothing is certain, we’ll just have to see,” Jeff told him.
“Well, if you know you are going to do that when I’d be away getting Snowball II back to Home let me know. I’d much rather do a real landing trip than a snowball. I’d die to get back and find out I’d missed out on a trip like that.”
“I promise, I’ll let you know the very same day I do.”