David L. Burkhead
Full Earth and Gibbous Moon shown in the sky
Richard Schneider, President and CEO of FutureTech Industries, pushed himself off the construction hauler. He clipped his brake to the tether that ran from The Rock, the small artificial silicate asteroid that served as an anchor, to the O’Neill Construction Shack. The Shack and the Rock each revolved around the docking fixture at their common center of gravity to provide a modest artificial gravity in the Shack.
The moon hung to one side of the rock appearing to pull slowly away from it as the rock moved through space. The Earth lay sixty degrees away from the moon--four times its size and many times as bright. In the distance, the partially completed space colony, O’Neill sparkled in the sunlight.
Schneider slid down the tether, his brake restraining his speed until he landed next to the airlock. When ships arrived, a pressurized tube provided a shirt-sleeve environment from the docking fixture to the Shack. When no ships waited, as none waited now, entry and exit proceeded as Schneider entered.
Julia Markham, commander of the O’Neill construction project, met Schneider as he finished cycling through the airlock. "Everything go well?"
Schneider nodded. He removed his helmet and took a deep breath of the fresher air in the construction shack. A slight scent of pine tinted the air, not strong enough to be annoying, just enough to kill the sterile scent of recycled air. Schneider welcomed the change after six hours in a pressure suit. The corridor stretched in each direction, narrow as a concession to the need to cram so many people, their offices, and supplies into a limited space. Pastel paints covered the walls in shades of blue and green. Coves along the upper corners of the corridor hid the lights, providing a soft, even lighting as they reflected off the ceiling. The chirping of crickets sounded at the edge of hearing from hidden speakers.
Schneider had told the people designing the construction shack to make it as comfortable as possible for the people working here. They would be facing long hours, far from home, in cramped quarters. Anything they could do to relieve the unpleasantness would help. The shack had to come out in one piece so the capacity of their ships limited its size, but other things could be, and had been, done to improve its comfort.
"I found a few problems that I think we can fix. They're mostly procedures and equipment that need updating. The few personnel problems I found are small and easy to fix. You've got good people."
Julia smiled. Schneider had hired her not long before beginning his inspection tour of FTI’s off-Earth facilities. When he looked at her resume he had been about to pass her over. She had no technical training at all. He never did no what had moved him to offer her an interview. She stormed into his office like a small hurricane, full of sound and fury signifying . . . everything. On reflection, he decided that he did not need someone with technical training to supervise the construction of the O’Neill colony. He needed someone who could herd cats. Julia Markham seemed that person. So far, she had not disappointed him.
"I always thought so. I'm glad you agree." She held the upper body of his suit while Schneider stepped out of the legs.
"I figure we'll have the hull completed in about a year and a half," she said, "the entire colony in about three. Ahead of schedule."
Julia's looked at Schneider with chocolate-brown eyes, wrinkles just starting to crease their corners. No gray yet touched her hair which she wore woven into a tight braid that wound around the back of her head.
"Officially--" Schneider grinned. "--I don't want to know about that. If I did, then the board would want me to revise the schedule and any problems that cropped up would make us fall behind the new schedule and we'd look bad. Let's just keep it at five years and if we come in ahead of that, we look good." With Julia’s assistance, he hung the suit in the locker. She handed him a bottle that contained only water, but it tasted pure and sweet and helped to wash the metallic taste of canned air out of his mouth.
"If you say so, sir."
"Good." Schneider stretched kinks out of his muscles. A bad knot ached just above his right kidney. It seemed every time he turned around there were new aches. Still, he thought that he was doing pretty well for a man in his sixties. "John been giving you a hard time?"
John Millhouse served as Schneider’s second on this inspection trip.
"He's been poring over our computer records. I think he's examined every bit personally." She shrugged. "He seemed a little put out that we don't have any problems in the software. The last I saw of him, he was mumbling something about streamlining."
"I'll have to have a talk with him. Programming's not his field and I know you've got eight top-flight programmers here. I hired them myself."
"Oh, I don't know," Julia said. The corners of her eyes crinkled. "It might do those eight programmers good to have Mr. Millhouse light a fire under them."
"If you say so."
A comppad at Julia’s belt beeped. She unclipped it. "Markham."
A moment later, she looked up, her lips tight. "Mr. Schneider. It's communications. They want to know if you can come down there right away. Mr. Cadretti needs to talk to you."
Schneider scowled. What could Lincoln Cadretti, FTI's executive VP, want? "Tell them I'll be right down. Also, have John called. If Lincoln’s problem is as important as it had better be I'll want him available."
"Yes, sir." She tilted her head to one side and waited, looking at him.
Schneider nodded. "You too, Julia, if you want."
"Yes, sir." She relayed the orders into the comppad.
A few minutes later, Schneider entered the Comm center. This small room housed the computer-controlled communications routing equipment as well as the stations where the communications technician monitored that automatic equipment. This room also housed the two-way video terminal.
Although the original design had called for computers to handle all the record keeping and scheduling for this room, that had not happened. Instead, plastic checklists and schedules clung to Velcro spots on the walls and marked in red and black with the grease pencils clamped in holders alongside the consoles.
"He's here, sir," the communications technician said into the microphone.
"Lincoln?" Schneider slid into the seat that the technician vacated. "What's wrong?"
The nearly three second lag required for Schneider’s message to travel to Earth at the speed of light and Lincoln’s response to return seemed longer to Schneider.
"Mr. Schneider?" Cadretti's voice came from the speaker at last, as his worried face stared out of the screen. "I've just got a call from the New York office. Things just went belly up at the U. N."
"Talk to me," Schneider said. "What happened?"
"We did as you said--our lobbyists convinced Congress and the President to support our position, at least at first. The Ambassador to the U. N. tried several compromises. We even offered cut back fares and assistance to less developed nations who want to go into space. The North Africans wouldn't buy it."
Schneider drew in a sharp breath. The North African Confederacy had unearthed old provisions of the 1979 Treaty on the Moon and Celestial bodies. They had reiterated the old claim that "common heritage" meant "common property" and the industrial efforts of private companies like FTI were in violation of that treaty. They denanded equal shares of all that production developed in space. Schneider had been watching the news with some alarm. Over that past several years President ibnAllah’s speeches, proposals, and policies slipped further and further from reality. In the last few months his comparisons came close to claims of divinity. Schneider shuddered. How could he, how could anyone, predict what someone like that would do. The last thing they needed was a holy war. That ibnAllah had pulled North Africa into the twenty-first century and tripled their standard of living in some ways only made things worse. It ensured that he had wide popular support for whatever he wanted to do.
"By themselves they wouldn't be much," Schneider said.
"No, not by themselves," Cadretti agreed. "But they've got a lot of support from the smaller nations. Even a couple not so small. I think a lot of people are just plain jealous of what we’ve done." Cadretti paused. "For some reason, the U. S. is dancing on eggshells around the North Africans. I don't know why. I know this guy’s nuts but...."
"I see. Go on."
"Finally, some fool diplomat undid all our work. America's U. N. ambassador made a counter-proposal where private industry would have to share their production equally with non-spacefaring nations, but not government activities like Lunaville."
"What!" Schneider levered himself half out of his seat. An instant later, he relaxed, collapsing back into it.
"I know," Cadretti said a long three seconds later. "It didn't do them any good though. The North African Ambassador laughed at the proposal. I mean he literally laughed. He got up out of his seat and laughed. He demanded that the U. S., and he named the U. S. specifically, give him everything they asked for or face the Wrath of God. He used those very words, I swear. Then he walked out of the hall. He spoke very calmly about it, but he seemed to be very serious."
"Surely the U. S. isn't going to give in to them?" Schneider asked.
"I don't think so," Cadretti said. "But this afternoon, less than an hour ago, North Africa withdrew all their embassy personnel from the U. S."
"That sounds ominous," Schneider said.
"Yes, sir. We think they're going to make a military strike somewhere. With that big army they've been building it seems obvious they intend to use it. I don't know if they plan to fight a drawn out war, or just do a little raiding. God, sir, the ground station for our SPS prototype is in Chad, right where the North Africans can get at it. If they intend to make us some kind of object lesson, they could kill or imprison our crew there--over two hundred people."
"Lincoln," Schneider kept his voice low. "I want all possible pressure put on Washington. Do whatever it takes but make sure that our people are protected."
"What if Washington won't cooperate?"
"Then hire mercenaries; I don't care. I want our people protected. If you can't protect them, then get them out of there. Whatever you have to do, I'll approve."
"Yes, sir," Cadretti said.
As Schneider shut off the radio, he heard Millhouse's soft whistle behind him. He looked up. "You heard?"
"Enough," Millhouse said. "So is FTI going to war?"
"I hope not," Schneider said. "Lincoln has enough sense to evacuate the plant if it gets bad. We've already proved the concept." He shook his head. "I'd hate to abandon the plant, though. We've got a chance to fix the damage of thousands of years of subsistence farming draining the soils in that part of the world and I’d like to be a part of that."
"I never expected anything like this," Julia said.
Schneider stood up. "Let's just hope that cooler heads prevail."