Chapter 1: Comet Cowboy
Captain Dimitri Chandler [M2973.04.21/93.106//Mars//SpaceAcad3005//*//]--or "Dim" to his very best friends--was understandably annoyed. The message from Earth had taken six hours to reach the spacetug Goliath, here beyond the orbit of Neptune; if it had arrived ten minutes later he could have answered "Sorry--can't leave now--we've just started to deploy the sun-screen."
The excuse would have been perfectly valid: wrapping a comet's core in a sheet of reflective film only a few molecules thick, but kilometers on a side, was not the sort of job you could abandon while it was half-completed.
Still, it would be a good idea to obey this ridiculous request: he was already in disfavor sunwards, through no fault of his own. Collecting ice from the rings of Saturn and nudging it towards Venus and Mercury, where it was really needed, had started back in the 2700's--three centuries ago. Captain Chandler had never been able to see any real difference in the "before and after" images the Solar Conservers were always producing, to support their accusations of celestial vandalism. But the general public, still sensitive to the ecological disasters of previous centuries, had thought otherwise, and the "Hands off Saturn!" vote had passed by a substantial majority. As a result, Chandler was no longer a Ring Rustler, but a Comet Cowboy.
So here he was at an appreciable fraction of the distance to Alpha Centauri, rounding up stragglers from the Kuiper Belt.
There was certainly enough ice out here to cover Mercury and Venus with oceans kilometers deep, but it might take centuries to extinguish their hell-fires and make them suitable for life. The Solar Conservers, of course, were still protesting against this, though no longer with so much enthusiasm. The millions dead from the tsunami caused by the Pacific asteroid in 2304--how ironic that a land impact would have done much less damage!--had reminded all future generations that the human race had too many eggs in one fragile basket.
Well, Chandler told himself, it would be fifty years before this particular package reached its destination, so a delay of a week would hardly make much difference. But all the calculations about rotation, center of mass, and thrust vectors would have to be redone, and radioed back to Mars for checking. It was a good idea to do your sums carefully, before nudging billions of tons of ice along an orbit that might take it within hailing distance of Earth.
As they had done so many times before, Captain Chandler's eyes strayed towards the ancient photograph above his desk. It showed a three-masted steamship, dwarfed by the iceberg that was looming above it--as, indeed, Goliath was dwarfed at this very moment.
How incredible, he had often thought, that only one long lifetime spanned the gulf between this primitive Discovery and the ship that had carried the same name to Jupiter! And what would those Antarctic explorers of a thousand years ago have made of the view from his bridge?
They would certainly have been disoriented, for the wall of ice beside which Goliath was floating stretched both upwards and downwards as far as the eye could see. And it was strange-looking ice, wholly lacking the immaculate whites and blues of the frozen Polar seas. In fact, it looked dirty--as indeed it was. For only some ninety percent was water-ice: the rest was a witches'-brew of carbon and sulphur compounds, most of them stable only at temperatures not far above absolute zero. Thawing them out could produce unpleasant surprises: as one astrochemist had famously remarked: "Comets have bad breath."
"Skipper to all personnel," Chandler announced. "There's been a slight change of program. We've been asked to delay operations, to investigate a target that Spaceguard radar has picked up."
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