January 27, 2020

Free Fiction Friday: Helium Party Part 4

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Rogue clowns in space hungry for helium, what’s not to love? Here’s this week’s latest installment chronicling the further adventures of the Sons of Silliness. Be sure to start back on chapter 1, and read Helium Party and other works of original fiction by yours truly.

Helium Party

by

David Dickinson

Chapter 4

The vessel was tiny, a nod to the clown cars of yore. It came complete with an oversized windup key that served as the ignition for the anti-matter cascade, which seemed to always be Lanky’s job to get out and crank. The first Gemini astronauts probably had more space in their cramped capsule. The crew consisted of four, with Crunchy, Lanky, Tinker and I crammed into the good ship Laughing Stock. Of course, Crunchy was initially against my accompanying them, until I mentioned my skills handling a gas-giant skimmer as a kid growing up on Mimas. Plus, he’d softened a bit over time to the ‘get your poignant plight out to the people’ angle. I also knew that The Terran Solar News Miner was paying the Citizens handsomely for my service. I agreed not to disclose any tactical secrets, and we were off on an illicit hunt to smuggle in more helium.

The party must go on.

It was a bittersweet moment when we launched out of Tycho crater and picked up our fusion ring for the long outbound journey to Jupiter. I’d grown a bit accustomed to working with the Citizens of Silliness in their natural environment. Heading out into the real universe, I’d come to realize that clowning around was all they knew. I relied on Crunchy’s predictable misogyny and outdated mode of thinking, as well as Lanky’s tired jokes and much more. I could expect that we’d hibernate for a good deal of the journey, but a veil of seriousness now hung over the mission ahead.

“Hey, Tinker,” Lanky called out across the cramped cockpit, “Do you think men will ever land on YOUR-anus?” he panned, purposely drawing the syllables out.

“Maybe they’ll go when it’s at ‘greatest elongation’”   he replied.

I guess seriousness is a matter of perspective when you throw a Helium Party.

 

I know what all you avid readers of The Terran Solar News Miner are thinking: isn’t helium the darned most plain Jane common element (next to hydrogen) in the universe? You’re correct, of course, gentle reader; its common enough that astronomers like to think of the universe as three elements; hydrogen, helium, and everything else that they lump into the category of ‘metals’. But the truth is, while gas giants such as Jupiter and Saturn are swollen with helium, it’s just not that easy to get to. Jupiter has a fearsome radiation field, and the enormous gravity well of such a large planet is, to put it bluntly, a real energy hog to get into and back out of.  Sure, you get the occasional helium nuclei from alpha particle decay, but the Citizens run through the stuff quicker than the half-lives of most unstable isotopes, and recycling seems to be an alien concept to them. Their motto on their logo should read; “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Noble Gases!”

The Citizens seemed especially desperate on this run. We wouldn’t be slowing down for a leisurely mining operation; instead, we would be lowering fill drogues as we skimmed the atmosphere of Jupiter in a frantic slingshot maneuver. The inflatable drogues would sink and then rise, presumably to be snatched up on a later run at a position known only to the Citizens of Silliness. I knew from my own gas mining experience that this sort of maneuver was extraordinarily dangerous; aside from the terrific amount of heat generated on a pass, there was a fair amount of uncertainty in a “snatch & grab” at high speed. It’s much easier (and safer) to settle into a system and mine the upper atmosphere with descent probes, preferably while you’re enjoying a hot tub and a cocktail on an outpost resort on Europa. But such was the bravado of a borderline legal operation as carried out by the Citizens; what they lacked in smarts they more than made up with audacity, or so I sometimes thought.

Given the cramped quarters, it was a boon to be able to hibernate for most of the outbound leg. Jupiter was bloated and swollen as we approached, taking up half the forward view. I knew from my previous visits that we know had to be at least past the orbit of Ganymede and closing fast. Good, I told to myself. There won’t be time to hear Lanky run through his tired repertoire of jokes before the real work begins, but I’m sure he’ll try…

Tinker flipped open a comm channel. “Shall I raise Jovian control…”

Crunchy slapped him in the back of the head, almost hard enough to shake the tiny ship. “This is comms out, ya ignoramus… whadya think they’ll wonder what we’re here for?

“I dunno… Maybe we got a call for an emergency birthday party on Io…”

“Yeah, right, without our ice cream pods in tow… we’ll be in and out before they realize we were here.”

And with that, Crunchy made the universal sign, warning them against offering up a “That’s what she said” comment.

I saddled up next to Crunchy in the control pod. Jupiter seemed to almost be visibly growing moment by moment in the view ahead as we watched. We were coming in fast, and it took total control to not lose it when that primal fear stemming from loss of control arose. There’s just something about realizing that a massive body so incomprehensibly large was now rushing at you. I was almost thankful when our radiation shields lowered and we were severed from the magnificent, but terrifying view.

“You’ll need to trim the nadir ailerons,” I told Crunchy. Atmosphere skimming was akin to coming in fast like a sizzling badminton shuttlecock, only at a million screaming miles an hour. Crunchy grunted and flipped a switch. The whine of the ailerons could be heard thru the hull as they shuttered and snapped into place. Normally, Crunchy would argue with any suggestion I gave by default, but I sensed even he felt his own mortality now. Was I finally a trusted inner circle member of the Citizens of Silliness?

To be continued…

Read Helium Party and other original works of sci-fi by Dave Dickinson in their entirety.

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