Thunderstrike! — An Excerpt
Tom Thorpe approached Admiral Farragut in Hopper Two. The ship was much as he had first seen her – power section, cargo module, and habitat sphere once again assembled into a functional whole.
"Be it ever so humble ..." he muttered.
"Agreed," a male voice echoed in his earphones.
The hopper cabin was crowded. Next to Thorpe sat Amber, her suit pressed firmly against his. Beside her, wedged into a bench seat designed for two occupants, was Cragston Barnard. In their final week on the nucleus, the three had not been out of their suits for more than a few hours. Earlier that morning they had watched as the last of the deep wells had been filled with water. Within a few hours, the water had frozen into a plug more than twelve kilometers thick. The only thing that penetrated the plug was a heavy control cable down which the detonation command would be sent.
They had drilled 28 wells in all, six more than originally planned. Each explosive device had been carefully located within a major fault. Unlike fission or fusion bombs, which release their full energy in nanoseconds, antimatter explosives required milliseconds to come up to maximum. The delay would allow the products of annihilation – pions and gamma rays – to penetrate deeply into the surrounding ice. The goal was to generate a cushion of high pressure steam under the whole of Ground Zero Crater. For this, a slow energy release was better than a quick one.
"It will be good to get clean again," Amber said as she gazed longingly at the ship. "Five days in a vacsuit is an endurance record I don’t ever care to break."
Barnard laughed. "It’s a good thing I’m sealed in here by myself. Even my wife couldn’t stand the way I smell."
"There ought to be just enough time to get cleaned up, get some hot food, and rest a bit before detonation."
"How long now?"
Thorpe glanced at his suit chronometer. "Four hours, seventeen minutes. Just as soon as Thunderstrike turns its Eastern Hemisphere toward Jupiter."
Amber and Barnard watched in silence as Thorpe guided the hopper toward the freighter. He brought it to a halt a hundred meters from Airlock Number One.
"I don’t want to get much closer," he explained. "Hate to smash anything when we’re this close to going home. You’ll have to jump."
"No problem," Barnard replied. The astronomer opened the hatch and clambered out onto the hull. Thorpe made sure that the attitude control jets were disabled. The ship’s airlock opened to reveal a figure silhouetted against the internal lighting.
Barnard jetted across the hundred meters to the ship. He landed feet first on the hull and was helped inside. As soon as he was in, the airlock door closed for a long minute, then opened again.
"Your turn, my love."
"I’ll see you inside," Amber replied as their gauntletted hands brushed. Neither could feel the other through the thick gloves, but somehow that didn’t matter. She followed Barnard’s example and floated out through the open hatchway. A minute later, she, too, disappeared through the Number One airlock.
"Well, old steed, I guess this is goodbye," Thorpe said as he punched instructions into the hopper’s autopilot. The words were a bit of dialogue from an ancient movie he’d once seen. For some reason they struck him as appropriate.
Thorpe moved through the portside hatch and lined up carefully on the ship’s habitat module. He pushed off the little flyer’s hull and drifted across the gulf of space. He landed head first, catching himself on outstretched arms to absorb the energy. He then grabbed for a handhold and levered his feet around to slide smoothly through the open airlock.
"Welcome home," Dieter Schmidt said.
Schmidt reached for the airlock controls, but Thorpe stopped him. "Wait a second. I want to see this."
The two of them watched the hopper for another half minute. Suddenly, its engine came to life and it began to move away from Admiral Farragut.
"Where did you send it?"
"I just gave it a short ten meter per second burst to get it away from the fleet. Okay, let’s go inside."
The outer door closed. Thorpe heard the sudden rush of air as his suit collapsed around him. He unfastened his helmet as soon as the airlock telltales turned green. The inner door opened slowly outward, revealing a helmetless Amber Hastings waiting in the antechamber beyond. Before he could move, she was on him, awkwardly throwing her arms around his neck. They kissed passionately until they were out of breath.
Amber let go and whispered, "I’ve wanted to do that for five long days. Welcome home, darling!"
"Welcome home yourself. Care to share a shower?"
Her nose wrinkled. "The sooner, the better."
The small fleet hung motionless in space a thousand kilometers above the nucleus. At that distance, Thunderstrike covered 30 degrees of arc, making it appear sixty times the diameter of a full moon as seen from Earth. The vantage point had been carefully chosen. It was far enough removed that the human eye could take in the entire nucleus at a glance, yet close enough that the fleet’s instruments would record everything in minute detail. It was also sufficiently distant that the ships should be in no danger from the explosion.
"T minus 10 minutes, and counting."
The announcement from the flagship echoed through Admiral Farragut’s wardroom where most of the expedition members had gathered to watch. Amber was wedged in beside Thorpe in a corner while the others crowded in front of the holoscreen. Captain Olafson, Engineer Stormgaard, and the two Barnards had chosen to watch from the control room. No one, it seemed, wanted to view the detonation by themselves.
"Happy?" Thorpe asked as he momentarily tightened his grip around Amber’s waist.
She thought for a moment, then nodded. "You?"
"I’m glad it’s almost over. Ten minutes more and we’ll be able to plan our lives again."
"What are your plans when this is all over, Tom?"
He looked at her for a long moment and said, "I thought I’d ask you to marry me."
"Are you serious?" she asked, searching his face for some sign that it was merely his warped sense of humor. He returned her look with a steady gaze.
"As serious as can be. If you’ll have me."
"You silly goon! Of course, I’ll have you. I’ve thought of little else these past six months."
"Well, then. I guess it’s settled. We’ll have the captain perform the ceremony right after the shot."
"Maybe she won’t want to be bothered."
He shrugged. "Then we’ll cross over to Gargantua and have her captain do it. I’m not particular."
"What about all of your friends and mine?"
"I’d say we’ve got everyone we need right here." Up until then they had been speaking in quiet whispers. Now Thorpe raised his voice. "How about it, folks? Care to attend a wedding this afternoon?"
There was a ragged cheer followed by a flurry of congratulations. Then someone shushed them as another announcement came over the intercom from the flagship.
"T minus five minutes, and counting!"
On the screen, Thunderstrike continued to rotate slowly, oblivious to what was about to occur. The region around Ground Zero Crater was invisible, having passed into night several hours earlier. Detonation was timed to take place the moment the crater was aligned with the nucleus’s velocity vector. That way, whatever mass was split off would be hurled back along the comet’s orbital path, giving the maximum forward impetus to the rest of the nucleus.
"Nervous?" Amber asked.
"About marrying you? Naw!"
"I was talking about the shot."
"Oh, that! Not nervous so much as excited. It’s kind of like waiting for Christmas morning when you’re a kid."
"Or getting ready for your first date," someone chimed in.
"Or finals week in school," Amber added.
"I haven’t been this nervous since my second wedding," Leon Albright interjected.
"What happened? Did she stand you up?"
"No, more’s the pity," the geologist replied. "If I didn’t have to pay her alimony every month, I would never have signed on for this crazy expedition."
The joke was met with more laughter than it deserved. Thorpe gazed over to where John Malvan had his arm around Hilary Dorchester.
"Sorry you came along, John?"
"Not me," the Lunarian replied. "I hated auditing. I think I’ll see what can be done to mine this little chunk we’re about to split off. It ought to be just the right size for moving into Earth orbit, don’t you think?"
"You know, it just might!" Thorpe agreed. "I’ll have to see if Mr. Smith is still interested in such a project."
"T minus one minute!"
The tension was suddenly a palpable thing in the air. Amber reached out and grasped Thorpe’s hand. Throughout the wardroom, no one made a sound.
"Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four ..."
"Here’s to luck!" she whispered, giving his hand a quick squeeze.
"three ... two ... one ... detonate!"