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SNOWBALL IN HELL
by
Jonathan V. Post

a "Hard Science Fiction" short story of approximately 2,000 words
I saw my best friend die when our spaceship hit the ice. Chopping through dirty cryogenic rubble, sweat stinking in my spacesuit and the taste of blood still crusted on my tongue, I had to wonder if the North Pole of Mercury would be my grave too.


Just yesterday we were in polar orbit 101 kilometers above the hottest planet in the Solar System. Sunlight knifed through the viewport filters like oxyacetylene flame. Quanzhou tapped her turquoise fingernails on the computer screen, saying "I still don't like the lidar altimetry ranging on icefield gamma."


"Big deal. Second backup," said Ryotaro. "I'm in charge; I say we stick with penetrator data. Prime site's good, backups okay. C'mon, lady, you want to stick another footnote in your frigging thesis, or help the rest of us make history?"


History? Give me a break. Quanzhou was history now, two meters below a titanium cross. My best friend, buried under snow so poisoned with cyanide and methane that it smelled like rotting almonds. My fractured ankle throbbed through a haze of painkillers and exhaustion. My eyeballs itched from bad recycled air. A line of second degree sunburn sliced across my forehead where the faceplate filter cracked. But I would rather live another month, another damn day, puking from radiation than give up the ghost and join the million martyrs that make the milestones of history. I was going to survive. Survive, you hear?


Swollen sun crescent hung above horizon, burning lemonpeel on skewer, semicircular archway into hell. Elevation angles would never change, long jagged blue shadows only rotate like clock hands across the broken arctic plain. Mercury's axis was a fraction of a degree from perpendicular to its orbit, so there were no Earth-like seasons, no sunrise or sunset at the poles, only the slow rotation and the swinging closer to and further from the furnace sun.


Brutal sunlight always smashed straight down on the equator, hot enough for metallic tin and lead to flow like water, over 800 degrees Farenheit during the closest approaches to the Sun every 88 days. By the same geometry, sunlight skimmed across frozen poles, blinding light with negligable heat.


It was hot as blazes in the itchy spacesuit, no matter that flesh would freeze and shatter in seconds outside. Ryotaro's hateful voice echoed in my helmet. "Voss, you dummy. You're not out there to sight-see. Drill, man, drill!"


"Alright already, Captain. I've got two more boreholes, then I'll seal the charges on all of them. Just keep your finger off the button."


"Can't afford to blast you, but you tempt me, Voss."


I jabbed the drill bit into a blackened block of ice the size of a pickup truck, imagining that I cut a hole through Ryotaro's heart. Driving us like dogs. Double shifts until we dropped. Recycled water tasting more and more like piss. Yet none of us, survivors sick with circumstance, could think of an alternative.


I shoved explosive cylinders in holes, tamped filler, then dragged the tangle of hair-thin optic fibers to the detonation timer. Wiped tarry residue from overboots, wrenched off smeared galoshes, stomped to the outer airlock of the ship, grabbed the tiger-striped overhead bar to keep from banging my helmet again. Mercury is only 4878 kilometers in diameter, with uncompressed density 5.43 grams per cubic centimeter, so it had only 5% the mass of Earth. Low gravity helped me hobble about on my broken ankle, but it sure didn't make our landing very soft. They say any landing you can walk away from is a good one. Was it good for you, my darling Quanzhou?


Inner airlock whistled like a teapot; pressure sensor chimed. I hung up my helmet, same way I'd stashed my football paraphrenalia in a Brooklyn highschool locker for the last time on 24 May 2011, the day Bob Dylan died at the microphone on his 70th birthday, halfway through his "No Direction Home" tour. Now a continental holiday, grandchildren of original Dylan fans singing "he not busy being born is busy dying," which might as well be our theme song here on the North Pole of Mercury twenty years later.


I dodged around crates of drill equipment, refrigerated core stores, box after box of phototubes. The plan was so simple. Land. Plant flags. Photo ops. Phone calls with North and Central American Economic Union president, European Union president, Greater Russian CEO, East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere boss, UN General Secretary, UNISPACE administrator. Always kiss the sponsor's ass. Then, and only then, dig ten thousand holes in the polar ice, plant phototubes, and leave the Solar System's third biggest neutrino telescope running on automatic.


The procedure was tested in the early 1990s on the glaciers of Greenland, perfected by cursing grad student in Antarctica, streamlined for the first human landing at the North Pole of Mars, less than a decade ago. Not that the public gives a shit, compared to the fossils Eichbauer dug up at the Magala Vallis paleolake, or to the live telecast of the spouse-swapping soap-opera at the Pavonis Mons Marsbase.


"He not busy being born is busy dying" I muttered, peeling off a perspiration-soaked union suit, dinging my elbow on the magnetometer shelf, and clambering into stained fatigues. I squirted eyedrops into sun-dazzled eyes, blinked away tears, headed for the crapper, reflecting on the title of that song [(c) 1965, Warner Bros. Inc.], which wasn't far off the mark either. "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)."


Checked my exposure badge. Ionizing radiation here was fierce. A quadrillionth of an atmosphere's not much protection. A femtobar atmosphere dominated by atomic oxygen, vaporized atomic sodium, helium, ionized potassium, and hydrogen. Atoms spread so thin that pressure wasn't the right way to think of the gas, more like a swarm of ballistic atoms, rarely colliding, blasted loose from rock, flying on long parabolas, blasted into suborbital trajectories again. But when volatiles, including water molecules, landed at the poles, they stuck -- frozen fast -- in ragged patches and in the shaded bowls of craters. We had landed on the deepest polar crater, where the ice baked from rock or splashed from comet impacts had built up over millions of years to half a kilometer thick. That was where we planned to build the ice neutrino telescope. Now it looked as if we were more like one of those water molecules, hard landing down, little chance of ever getting up.


Maybe another Dylan title expressed my sentiments even better: "Ain't Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody." But I had, hadn't I? Now I just wanted to get home. Or die trying.


All my life they knew about the ice on Mercury. JPL's 70 meter antenna at Goldstone, California, beamed 500,000 watts of radio waves at Mercury for eight straight hours in August, 1991. I've been to Goldstone in August. Until I came to Mercury, that was the closest I had ever come to hell. Desert, sun, cactus, sun, rattlesnakes, and still more sun. My kingdom for a beer!


Prance across dust-coated ice, forehead blisters oozing. Stumble on unseen rock concealed in ink-black shadow; rank stench of unclean spacesuit; excruciating armpit itch impossible to scratch; profound inhuman beauty of cracks and craters, hills and hollows, gravel and graveyard.


The radar echo whispered down on 36 kilometers of prarie outside Socorro, New Mexico. Chili pepper country. The 27 antennas of the Very Large Array, each 25 meters in diameter, picked up the signals, attenuated to the power of a buzzing fly. Martin Slade of JPL and Caltech grad student Bryan Butler collected the signals and processed them into images, under Goldstone operations supervisor Raymond Jurgens and experiment designer Professor Duane Muhleman. All this before my daddy's sperm and mommy's ovum collided and stuck in an undesigned experiment in Brooklyn, to which I was the conclusion.


Protoplanet Mercury like a silicaceous ovum, five billion years ago, with meteors and comets raining down like sperm from space. Condense, grow, accumulate rock and metal. Blast furnace sun blows light elements away, leaves slag behind. Magnetic field freezes in as iron nickel sulfur core congeals, hard-boiled egg yolk in a thin shell of rock. Asteroids crack the shell again and again, molten magma filling impact basins. Oceans of melted rock glow in Caloris Basin for millenia, cool down, turn dull. All the time the sun screams overhead, white noise, white heat, against the black black sky.


"What's that bright structure at the pole?" said Marty.


"It's on both images," said Bryan.


"Could be sodium salts," said Duane, "or some pathologically rough landscape that just happens to be at the North Pole," but all three were thinking about exotic snow, the cold highly fractured ice of Mars and the Galilean moons of Jupiter, such powerful backscatterers of radar waves. All three were dreaming of a White Christmas. "It's ice," announced Duane in November, acknowledging that other explanations could be postulated, "but we regard these alternatives as farfetched."


Cough echoes in space helmet, rips throat raw. Swing drill pole into place again, ungainly pole-vaulter alone on glacier. Dig drillbit deep, dust flies from hole-mouth, ice shards click and ping against armored leg and kneecap. UNISPACE vessel Bruce C. Murray lies damaged on the ice. Not sleek streamlined dolphin shapes from Flash Gordon comic books under Smithsonian glass. Bruce C. Murray is a blunt wrinkled cone, unopened Hershey's Kiss in foil flung by careless boy-fingers onto ice-crusted sidewalk. Cold stars unblinking overhead. Fingers numb with cold in itchy mittens.


"Get your ass in gear," orders Ryotaro, ripping me out of boyhood memory, jerking me back to hell-reality. "If you don't make quota this shift, I'm putting you on triple-shift tomorrow."


Drillbit out, explosive in, unreel the fiber fuse, and stumble on. Landing gear crumpled on impact. Superficial wound. The critical injury was -- don't stop to think of that again. Stagger on, radiation-poison vomit burning, fire in throat. "Too much of nothing makes a man feel small," sings Saint Robert Zimmerman. "Too much of nothing..."
-- The End --

The rest of this story is lost, until such time as the author can reconstruct it. In summary (off the top of my head 12 years later), the hero digs, crushes, melts, and purifies some of the dirty ice. He uses the power supply onboard the ship to electrolyze the water into hydrogen and oxygen, which are used to re-fill the fuel and oxidizer tanks. So the survivors all are able to takeoff from Mercury, climb out of its gravity well, and launch onto a solar-orbiting Hohmann Transfer orbit back to the neighborhood of Earth, where they are rescued, and come home after all.


The story "Snowball in Hell" was written by invitation for an anthology entitled "DeathWorlds" edited by Harry Harrison. The author coordinated with the JPL experts listed in the story, often before results were scientifically published. The author also made a non-fictional article on how ice at the poles of Mercury enabled new types of robotic and human-crewed missions. Human and Robotic Precusror Missions to the Icecaps of Mercury


However the agent for the anthology apparently went nuts and lost or destroyed all manuscripts, including the last remaining complete manuscript of this story, and all records of which editors had received what letters or what manuscripts at what date. So the anthology was dead; dead and buried. Consider this a sample of alien archaeology, a relic of a vanished civilization just found underneath exotic cryogenic ice...
Copyright 1996,1997,1998,1999,2000,2001,2002,2003 by Emerald City Publishing. All rights reserved Worldwide. May not be reproduced without permission. May be posted electronically provided that it is transmitted unaltered, in its entirety, and without charge.
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