A computer voice spoke: “You have reached Patroclus Control. A human has been notified. Stand by.”
Fling said, “They’re uploading a file about Hilco. The most recent entry is thirty years old.”
A macroblocking video of a man appeared in the Patroclus page. “Operator Timmins speaking,” he said. “We have no report of any change in Hilco’s orbit. We’ve filed a request with NASA for an update. Our computer looked at your orbital parameters and says we have no resources on hand that could reach you for a rescue. Sorry.” Then the voice became more personal: “Hey Sam, how are you, this is Bill Timmins, I haven’t seen you since the Icarus fiasco. Sorry to hear about your little problem. How’d you get into a jam like this?
“The job’s open until somebody gets here,” Timmins continued, “but there’s another other guy en route for it, Sam. You might even know him–remember Pete Farnsworth, back in our days at 951 Gaspra? I’ve got to have somebody to run the retriever bucket, and fast. But, you know, the attrition is still fairly high out here, and there may be some more openings.
“Oh, and are you still an outlaw? Not that the company cares, but I’m curious. The company paid off my bounty and I’m not an outlaw any more.”
Sam saw on their page that it was two o’clock in the morning on Patroclus–Greenwich Mean Time, Zulu time, like everybody else in space. They were 86 minutes out of Now with Earth. Sam’s daily schedule was clockless and he’d drifted out of synch with Zulu time.
“Yeah, I’m still an outlaw, Bill,” Sam said. “And there’s no more room for independent contractors in the inner Belt. I’ve been hanging out at Interamnia the last few years. Frankie Helix died, did you hear? He was fending NASA by sheer force of personality, and after he died things weren’t the same. “NASA bought out Consolidated, who took over the operation after Frankie died. NASA does not do business with independent contractors. They offered most of the other guys jobs as employees, but not me. I’m still an outlaw, yeah.
“The old gang drifted away, and then there I was, an outlaw, in an official NASA base. They didn’t try to come after me, but they shut me off from supplies. My money’s no good there. That’s why I’m coming to take your stinky job.
“When I heard about your opening at Patroclus I slung my way here as fast as I could. Fling found a path with nine rocks along the way for gravitational assists and we got up to 40 miles per second.
“I know, I know, it’s dangerous because it’s over the Solar speed limit.” The Sun’s escape velocity is 29mps. “I was counting on using that missing iron to bend my orbit right to you. My food printer is stuck and the toilet and chem sourcetank recycling is on the fritz. Other than that I’m in fine shape.
“Thanks for the Hilco update. See you when I get there. Go back to bed. Over.”
Hilco was still just a bright spot in the windshield. Sam said, “How much longer until our closest approach?”
“Sam, periapsis will be in four hours and twenty seven minutes.”
“What am I going to do until then?”
“You have not yet reached your daily goal of 20 bicycle miles.”
“Okay,” he said. He stood up. He had four hours to kill and he might as well do it on the beach in Santa Barbara. “Let me know when the Hilco file is all here.”
He went back to the living room and pulled out the bicycle again. He sat on the exercycle and started pedaling, and the mountainous skyline of Santa Barbara was once again outlined against the electric blue sky, and throngs of people surrounded him, many of them beautiful young women in the daring beach costumes of the long-ago 2020s. The full-sense illusion stopped if he stopped pedaling. It was a good incentive to keep pedaling, and you need that in micro-G.
Sam liked to keep the ship’s artificial gravity at 1G. It used more power, and most of the space rats Sam was acquainted with preferred a much lower G–just enough to keep the crumbs on the floor. But your body still gets mushy in that kind of gravity field. Sam had always been vain about staying strong, so the gravity field on the exercycle was a full one G. You never know when you might need strength to save your life. Such as at Patroclus.
If he ever got there. If the interaction at Hilco didn’t work, it could be many years before he could return to inhabited space.
Sam pedaled and steered out onto Stearns’ Wharf and pedaled in circles and looked at the Channel Islands thirty miles south across the Pacific Ocean. He liked to watch the ocean from here, but if he stopped, the scene vanished.
The hologram was a recording of one day on three miles of the Santa Barbara sidewalk bicycle trail from East Beach to Ledbetter Beach, from dawn to dusk on July 4, 2030. It had been a farewell gift from his friends on Interamnia. Sam was still discovering new parts of the sights and sounds on the bikepath. It was a classic recording that couldn’t be duplicated now that Santa Barbara was submerged due to global warming.
Sam had been in the asteroid belt since he was a teenager–ever since the beginning of the corium boom. He’d gone out with Frankie Helix’s gang in the early days and when they came back to Earth with tons of corium, Sam’s share was two hundred million dollars. He was 19 years old.
He re-invested the money into Frankie Helix’s plan. He bought the biggest, most luxurious Marchi Palazzo motor home ever built and put in a corium floorboard as a mag drive frame. He spaceproofed it, installed a life support system and cargo space and went into space again. He was going to become the youngest billionaire in history.
Well, that was the plan. Now Sam was a billionaire and things hadn’t gone as he had planned. There were forty thousand people in the Solar System living off-Earth now, and the inner Belt was played out. Oh, there was lots of ore still there, but it was all charted and owned and reduced to routine. And NASA froze his bank account and he couldn’t touch his billions.
“Sam, the files from Patroclus are now complete.”
“Okay, overlay them on the bike holo, okay?”
Fling projected the files onto the cloudlessly clear blue skies of the beach scene so he could study them while pedaling away the hours until the flyby.
He immediately crashed into a group of tourists on the path and the beach scene vanished. The bike’s system wouldn’t let him ride “through” people and he couldn’t steer off the ten-foot-wide bikepath. He could go slowly and steer around the people and other bicycles; that took a lot of attention, and that’s what he usually did because it almost was not like being alone in the depths of space.
“Set beach scene to six a.m.,” Sam said, and resumed pedaling. Now it was dawn, and he had the bike path to himself.
“The final portion of Patroclus ‘s transmission included a personal message from Operator Timmins,” Fling said.
The face of Timmins appeared in the Santa Barbara skies. “Sam, I just noticed that there was an old message for you in the system, nulled because you’re an outlaw. Somebody sent it from Earth. I took the liberty of assigning you a preliminary employee number and that unlocked the message, and I included it for you. See you when you get here.”
Fling said, “Do you want to see the message now?”