Copyright © 2013
By Michael Litzky
The sky is made of stone
– Jimmy Webb
MacGregor on the hilltop stood as still as stone, telling himself there was no doubt in his mind. He knew exactly the path the asteroid would follow. He was as safe under this black sky as if he were back in his cubicle.
A bead of sweat tickled down from his armpit. The Living Cling which protected him from vacuum licked it off but couldn’t scratch the itch.
He winked his left eye and the countdown he’d created appeared in glowing pink numerals. Nine minutes, 58 seconds.
Two dusty grey miles away, the entrance to his office-bound world was invisible in the featureless plain. None of those skellers in there would think of standing exposed like this.
He didn’t even understand why he’d told Jimmy Farrell. Why had he wanted the approval of that arrogant young idiot who worked out on the Flux every day and whose healthy chocolate brown shamed Mac’s pasty pallor?
“Catch you an asteroid,” Farrell had teased him just this morning.
“Aw, quiet, would you now,” he’d shot back.
“Oooooohhhh!” Farrell had pretended to tremble. Then he’d raised both arms straight in the air and walked away, wiggling his fingers and laughing. MacGregor ground his teeth.
Technically, what he was doing now wasn’t illegal because nobody had ever thought about it. His floating holiday request had been routinely granted and he’d checked out a Living Cling from a bored clerk with bad breath and an ugly wen on her nose.
He’d done all his rule breaking last week with a logic branch here and a new subroutine there so that the approaching asteroid would not be deflected or brought to the attention of a human monitor. If his meddling was ever detected, he wasn’t sure what would happen to him. A huge fine, at least.
Wink the count on again. Less than eight minutes. Wink it off.
One of the faint hard points in the sky was the asteroid. He could have called for the Star System to pinpoint the exact star for him – no, he couldn’t have, he chuckled. None of Kesseldroan’s computers would even notice the thing, thanks to him. He picked out one of them, feeling the ache in his legs.
After fifteen clumsy minutes getting the slithery Cling to fit right, he’d panted through the climb to the surface. He hadn’t used the air lock in two years; he was badly out of shape (damn that sweat-fiend Farrell!). But at that, he’d been outside more than anybody he knew.
Under the naked sky he’d cringed for just an instant with no white stone ceiling. The sun blazed until the Cling got the filtering adjusted and he could see the unwinking stars. Straightening, white mustache bristling, he’d stepped briskly over pocked gray dust.
He was soon plodding. Kesseldroan was an old, tired world. The hill on which he intended to stand was a mild swelling bruise but it was the highest place in the whole hemisphere.
His feet had sunk into curves of dust on the smooth hillside. Higher up where bones of rock poked through the fine powder, he’d picked his way more carefully. But he’d reached the very top of the dingy brown pimple with over three hours to wait.
Now the waiting was over. The very star he’d bet on moved the width of a finger as he watched. It was coming. His fist clenched. Harlan MacGregor, ordinary wage-slave desk-jockey nobody, was going to do something unique in the history of all humanity.
I calculated its orbit precisely, he reminded himself. It is not even remotely possible that I made a mistake. He had written in vector form the equation of the hyperbola it would follow as it whipped around Kesseldroan.
The drifting point of light brightened into a first magnitude star, swelled from a sharp point to a small blot, an irregular blob.
Suddenly it was visibly a tiny world, an irregular lump of rock in the sky turning end over end and growing larger by the second. Because it was coming nearly straight at him, it still barely moved against the backdrop of stars. Mac steeled his nerves.
Slowly he raised his arms above his head as high as they would reach, fingertips straining, tingling.
The approaching world accelerated out of its little corner of sky. It passed across the sun, its shadow like the hand of death. Mac felt the danger thrill like a splash of acid.
And now! The asteroid hurtled directly overhead. For one timeless instant, he could see every crag on its iron surface, a world of stone filling the sky above him, a visible roar without a breath of sound pulling him in like the gold-black eyes of a panther, a deadly blur less than 3 inches from his straining fingertips.
Nothing could have saved his hands if that rushing stone had touched those fingertips.
No rush of air, no thunderclap of sound could affect him on airless Kesseldroan, but he still felt something from the gravity of the tiny world above him. It was gone before he fully registered the faint euphoric and terrifying feeling of falling upward toward the passing monster.
He turned and watched the body dwindle again until it was only a star. Soon it was gone from visible sight. With no other hill on the planet even half so high as this pathetic wen, the asteroid would whip in the tightest of hyperbolae around Kesseldroan, coming within a few hundred feet of the low ground at its closest, and then head back into endless darkness.
What man had ever done as he had done? What person, alive or dead, had nearly bridged with his own body the space between two worlds?
When he tried to start back he realized that his bones had turned to jelly. He sat down before he fell over, and trembled. But then he let out a whoop of triumph!
Let them catch him and fine him. He would grin at Farrell and raise his hands in triumph. That would be enough.
If only he could have leaped fast enough to catch that world of his very own and fly off with it!