|A Felony of Birds|
|Louisville's Silent Guardians|
I was in the middle of infinite blackness. A lot of
folks who've never left Earth, and even a few who should know better, think the
Belt is full of gigantic boulders rushing around like mad. In fact, it's almost
entirely empty space, with an asteroid every hundred thousand klicks or so to
add a little interest. From where I floated, all I could see were hundreds of
unblinking stars, their colors made brilliant by the lack of atmosphere. It was
like looking at God's own jewelry box, lined with black velvet.
The sun was somewhere behind me, along with Ocelot and the umbilical
cord that kept me attached to it. I kept staring into the void, trying to find
something that was worth a million Euros or so.
"O'Malley, this is Ocelot." Thorvald's voice was distorted by
my helmet's receiver into the whine of a low-level AI, but there was no
mistaking his old-fashioned NASA-style formality of address. Who the hell else
did he think I would hear out here? Buck Rogers?
"Go ahead, Franklin." He hated it when I called him Frank. He was a
pretty decent guy, so I tried not to get on his nerves. He had a wife and kids
back on Mars, and after a couple of months cooped up together in an ion-drive
tin can he hadn't even made one pass at me. Not that I would have minded.
"Any sign yet? The Doppler says you should be near it."
"Nope." He'd been asking me the same question every five minutes for
the last hour or so. Not only was I bored out of my mind, but I was running out
of air and I had to empty my bladder. If I ever found this damn thing, I swore
I would use some of the money to design an EVA suit which would allow a woman
to urinate inside her suit as easily as a man could.
I was about to quit and ask Thorvald to crank me back inside when I saw it. At
first it was just a tiny sparkle, slightly above my line of sight and to the
left. It looked the way a single dust mote might look in moonlight. I turned my
head to get a better look, and suddenly I could see it. A chunk of pure
hyperfullerene, about the size of a baseball.
It was as black as space, but with a high enough albedo that sunlight glittered
on its surface like diamonds. From what I could tell it was as lumpy as a
potato. As it tumbled, new sparks of light were born as others died. Watching
it was hypnotic.
"Got it," I said. "Give me a minute to seal it, then haul me
in." I activated my suit's starboard control jet, giving me just a tiny
little nudge in the right direction. A few seconds later it was in reach.
I aimed my right index finger at the hyperfullerene ball and pressed my left
gauntlet into my right palm, hard. That activated the platinum-doped polymer
spray. It came out of my finger like spidersilk, expanding as it hit the zero
air pressure of space. I waved my finger around the ball like a madwoman, until
the spray formed a shell around it. It looked for all the world like an ostrich
"Ready any time you are, Franklin." I held the thing in my gauntlets
as if it were as fragile as glass, which it wasn't, and as if it were worth its
weight in gold, which was a vast understatement.
Scientists still hadn't figured out how carbon atoms could bond together to
make hyperfullerene. Unlike plain old fullerenes, which were pretty stable,
hyperfullerene reacted like a demon with just about any other form of matter.
That's why you only found it in hard vacuum. Even the special polymer shell in
which it rested would only last for a few days; just enough time for us to run
it back to the Phobos research station and collect our reward.
And this one was big. The labs were paying heavy Euros for pieces of
hyperfullerene smaller than a fingernail. Once we turned this one in, I'd never
have to go running around the Belt again.
All this went through my head as I waited for Thorvald to respond. He was
taking much too long to answer me.
"Come on, Franklin," I said. "Do you read me?"
"Loud and clear, Judy." He never called me Judy. "I'm
I held back a curse and forced myself to speak calmly. "This isn't the
best time, Franklin. I'm low on air."
"I know." There was a long pause. "That thing's worth a lot of
money. A man could live in luxury for the rest of his life." Something in
the way he spoke so softly scared me. This wasn't the Franklin Thorvald I knew
and liked. In the Belt, not being able to trust your partner is a death
"Listen. I don't care about the money. Let me back in and you can have it
all. I swear to God." I tried to keep the panic out of my voice.
"Besides, you'll have a hell of a time getting this ball into the ship by
Maybe that's what convinced him. I felt the tug of the umbilical cord pulling
me back into the airlock. I sighed and let my bladder empty itself freely, not
giving a damn how big a mess I was making in my suit.
The airlock cycled normally, although it seemed to take a year. As soon as the
outer door was shut and the inner one creaked open, letting in a tiny
whirlwind, I unsealed my helmet and took a deep breath. The recycled air aboard
Ocelot, which had so often seemed stale and smelly, was like perfume. I
stepped through the inner door and pulled off the rest of my suit. It was the
first time I felt uncomfortable stripping down to my singlet in front of my
Thorvald stood in front of me with a steel tube in his hand, holding it like a
club. I recognized it as part of one of our bunks. Obviously he thought we
weren't going to need both of them on the way home.
"Give me the ball," he said.
I clutched it close to my body. I imagined I could feel the hyperfullerene
inside its shell, eager to burst out.
"Don't do this, Franklin. I'll sign away all rights to the profits, I
swear." I backed away, but I knew I didn't have anywhere to hide.
"A contract won't stand up in court. They'll know it was coercion. I don't
feel like spending years in a mining prison." He looked sad. "This
way it'll be just another accident in the Belt. I'm sorry, Judy."
Thorvald stepped forward and lifted the tube. He was as used to moving around
in zero gee as I was, but he was slow enough to give me time to throw the ball
at him as hard as I could. The tube smashed its shell, releasing the
hyperfullerene. In the bright interior light of Ocelot I could see a
distorted image of his face reflected in it.
I was lucky that the impact of the tube hadn't sent the hyperfullerene flying
back at me. Instead, it only wobbled a bit as it approached Thorvald. Its ebony
surface burned with a hundred tiny fires as it reacted with the air inside Ocelot.
In less than a second it hit Thorvald's arm. His screams mingled with the sound
of trillions of ultra-reactive carbon atoms eating away his flesh. It sounded
the way I imagined a herd of piranha might sound to their prey.
Thorvald leapt wildly away from the pain, banging his head into the wall. He
bounced back. The hyperfullerene hit him in the face. I ran into the airlock
and sealed the inner door. It took a long time for him to stop screaming, and
even longer for me.
By the time I was ready to go back inside, I was sane enough to make sure that
the hyperfullerene hadn't eaten a hole in Ocelot and that I would still
be able to breathe. The indicators inside the airlock told me everything was
normal, so I took a deep breath and opened the door.
There was no sign of the hyperfullerene. Whatever part of it hadn't died while
it was consuming Thorvald's flesh had reacted with the air to form a fine white
powder. What was left of Thorvald's body was covered with it. He floated inside
Ocelot with tiny spheres of blood surrounding his nearly headless corpse.
Only years of zero gee training kept me from vomiting as I made my way past
Thorvald's body into his bunkroom. I activated a distress signal and waited. It
only took a few hours for another pair of Belters to find me. Maybe they had
been tracking the Doppler echo of the hyperfullerene, too.
I still work the Belt. I found a new partner. It took me a long time to learn
to trust her. We haven't made any big finds yet, but I send what I can to
Thorvald's widow and children. The official story is that his death was
accidental, and I think I owe them something for that.
The scientists still don't know why hyperfullerene exists at all, but I've got
some guesses of my own. I've seen it in action. Maybe the astronomers are
wrong, and the Belt isn't just a bunch of scrap left over from the birth of the
Solar System. Maybe it used to be a planet. A planet with people on it. Not
people like you and me; not in looks, anyway. But maybe they thought like us.
Maybe some of them got greedy, and made war with some others. Maybe they
invented a weapon that could be made from something as simple as carbon atoms.
A weapon that could rip their planet apart, leaving only a few chunks of rock
and some tiny pieces of the weapon itself.
I hope I'm wrong. Maybe the scientists will never figure out how to manufacture
hyperfullerene. But I still dream about Thorvald's ghost, and I wonder if he'll
be the first and last human being to be killed by that beautiful, horrible
Read more stories by this author
I love it. Real good SF at last!
Not bad. I'd like to know more about the character, tho.
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