Nearside – Farside (1987)
As I stood on the surface, I couldn’t help but think back to an incident in my childhood which had shaped my future. I closed my eyes and thought back…
“Stan, you’ve thought of some crazy ideas before, but this one takes the cake!” He turned and faced me. I couldn’t see his face through the suit helmet, but I knew from experience that he was wearing his expression of total innocence.
“Whatever are you talking about, Ralph?”
“You know what I’m talking about! You can’t ride on the MAD!”
“Why not?” he asked. As I thought of 84,000 different ways to be annihilated while riding the rail, he climbed into a modified fuel tank he had made to launch himself from the Mass Acceleration Device. I ran after him as fast as 1/6 G would allow. Halfway there, I saw Stanley’s improvised projectile began to move. The first ring of magnets clutched invisibly at the metal container, throwing him forward into the grasp of the second set of rings which pushed him ahead even faster.
“STAN!” I screamed into my microphone, but there was no answer. Stanley had turned his ‘phones off. I watched helplessly as the tank passed ring after ring, gaining more and more velocity until –
“I’M FREE!” screamed Stanley. The burst of sound echoed around my helmet for several seconds and nearly deafened me. I looked up and saw the tank streaking across the black noon-day sky. Stanley’s weight instructions had been perfect; he had not gone careening into a mountain or crashed sideways into the rings. He had gotten away with something again. The tank disappeared over the horizon. Judging from his speed, I figured the tank would only go a couple of miles then crash-land into the dust of Mare Tranquillas. I didn’t know his exact position because I had lost his carrier wave the second he passed over the horizon. I cursed and began to hop across the dusty surface of Nearside. Half an hour passed before I found the fuel tank. I looked inside, but Stanley was not there. I began to search the landscape for a sign of him. Had he fallen out? Was he now somewhere in the dust? Was he hurt? Was his suit damaged? Suddenly, something popped out at me from behind a boulder. Instinctively, I jumped backwards. Unfortunately, my instincts had been developed by my simian ancestors on a planet with much higher gravity 240,000 miles away. Instead of landing in a crouch, ready to fight, I flipped end over end and bounced across the surface on my helmet. Through my ‘phones I could hear Stanley laughing.
“Had you worried there for a moment, didn’t I?” I got up and called him every expletive I could think of (and a few more I invented right there). This set off another burst of laughter. I stood proud and defiant in my dusty suit until he sobered up.
“Come on,” he cried, “it’s your turn now.”
“Oh, no,” I said, stepping backwards. “I’m not trying that and that’s final.”
Half and hour later, I sat inside the tank, running those words over and over in my head.
“Are you ready, Ralph?” Stan called.
“Good. Now I’ve set the acceleration at 2 G’s.”
“But that’s 12 L’s!” I protested.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “the Earthers do this all the time.”
“But I’m not an Earther!”
“Neither am I.”
“You should be.”
“Oh,” he laughed, “that’s gone and done it. Here you go!” The tank shook as it was aligned onto the track. I looked out through a hole cut in the metal and saw the first set of rings come by. There was a shudder and I was slammed backwards. The second set followed so quickly that it seemed to be just a blur. More and more weight piled up on me as I passed the rings. By the tenth set, I was twelve times my normal weight, almost 250 pounds. I struggled to breathe and my vision grayed. There was a great heave and suddenly I was flying. I looked down and saw I was passing over a low ridge. Behind me I saw the gleaming metal track of the MAD with its golden rings resetting. Near the MAD, I saw a minute figure in a spacesuit. This only lasted a few seconds and then I was over the horizon. Now I began to notice the landscape was no longer shrinking. I began to go faster and faster. The nose of the tank began to point down and the dusty surface of Mare Tranquillas came rushing up at me. I tried to brace myself, but to no avail. I sideswiped a boulder and began to roll. I was rattled around inside until the tank came to a complete stop several hundred yards away. I was so dizzy that Stanley had to carry me back to Firstport inside the tank. When we got back, he helped me into the airlock. I waited until the air pressure was 3/4 normal then I opened his faceplate. He yelled in surprise and clasped his gloved hands over his ears as they popped painfully. The air pressure went to normal and I took my suit off.
“That was a dirty trick, Ralph,” he said good-naturedly. “What are you trying to do, kill me?”
“Trying…” We began to laugh and we both walked back to the living quarters as best friends.
The next day, I found Stanley hard at work on his fuel tank. He had put in two seats and was adding rocket nozzles to the outside.
“What are you doing now?” I asked.
“I’m getting the can ready to be shot at Farside,” he replied.
I stopped in horror, “Farside?! Why you’ll be shot into orbit!” He nodded.
“We’ll go into orbit once at forty miles apolune then we’ll fire the retros and land,” he explained.
“Wait a minute. I’m not getting into that thing. Getting shot a couple of miles is one thing. A forty-mile orbit is something totally different!”
“No! I’m not going. Farside is dangerous. There are no seas of dust like Nearside has; it’s all mountains and rock!”
I turned to go, but Stanley stopped me.
“Ralph,” he started, “you’ve got to learn to take some risks, otherwise you’ll be stuck here for the rest of your life –” I got away from him and ran back to my quarters. Little did I know that that would be the last thing I ever heard Stanley say.
That night, I heard that Stanley had been killed on the MAD at Farside. The weight instructions had been off and Stanley had hit the rings at lunar escape velocity. The fuel tank had disintegrated and Stanley had been thrown out onto the harsh surface of Farside. His suit was torn to shreds. No one could understand why Stanley, normally very exact when it came to weight instructions, had added an extra twenty pounds in his calculations. The extra twenty pounds of force had made his tank fly off sideways. Everyone thought it was a computer error except me, Stanley’s best friend, who weighed in at twenty lunar pounds exactly. We had remained friends to the end.
“Hey, Ralph, wake up.” The captain brought me back to reality. Stanley has been dead for fifteen years. I never mourned his death; I didn’t even cry at his funeral. Still, his memory has followed me across the solar system.
And beyond. I have tried to follow the last advice he gave me. When the interstellar FTL drive was invented, I took a chance and got on the first ship. It’s paid off for both of us. I look into the night sky of Alpha Centauri IV, trying to find Sol in the constellation Cassiopeia. Finding it, I thank a young man who changed my life long ago. It’s cold now, so I turn to return to the ship, the living. The path is easy to follow in the illumination of AC-4′s moon, nicknamed “Stanley”.