NEW LIGHT

Andy Southall

Bodie stared at the display, the ascent rate zero. He reached out for the wall, dizzy. He’d always hated elevators.

This was no ordinary elevator. No soft music, no mirrors. No floor or doors. He hadn’t walked in, but crawled with the others through an airlock. There was a radio, thank God. An alarm button too — a red one, just like in an old-fashioned elevator. He stared at it, wondering what would happen if he pressed it. Then he leaned forward, extended a long forefinger and pushed at the speak button instead.

“Control! It’s Bodie. We've stopped moving.” He kept his voice low, disguising his fear.

No reply. Only static.

“Hello, Control, are you there?”

Nothing.

He stared. Touched his face. Touched the wall. They'd warned him the ascent rate might change as the elevator encountered unforeseen hazards. The stop could be routine, like a train at a red light.

He stared at the alarm button again. Paused. Then jabbed it.

It glowed, but nothing else. No bells or siren. No disembodied voice asking what was wrong.

“Why you press button?” A woman's voice serrated the air behind him. The tiny woman, Klara. “You want room service?”

“We’ve stopped.” He pointed at the display. “Half-an-hour now. I was trying to find out why.”

“Maybe hamster tired, maybe battery flat!” She laughed, her mouth full of pointed teeth.

“Actually, it’s solar powered.”

“Then maybe sun flat!”

“I hope not.”

The walls pressed in. This must be how it felt inside a coffin. The elevator measured ten feet on each side, way too small for four people. A cube. Bodie ran his eyes around the space. Dull metal walls. A yellow light overhead that shimmered. He loathed small places at the best of times, and this was the worst. The car’s compactness. The length of time he'd been stuck in here. Rising nausea too. Strapped in a box that in turn slid along the slenderest of cables. A bubble ascending into the vacuum of space.

* * *

He wiped his forehead and stared at Klara. Behind her the other two passengers, asteroid miners by the insignias on their suits, muttered something in their own language.

Then a reedy voice from the radio. “Control to Elevator. What's your problem? Over.”

“We’ve stopped!” said Bodie. “The ascent rate reads zero, and the attitude's not changed for thirty minutes. Over.”

“Let me check.” The voice faded, returned. “Yes, I see. Automatic pilot has halted your ascent. Diagnostics indicate ribbon damage twenty klicks ahead. Please hold while I run a full check. Over.”

“Sure. Over.”

“What he mean?” Klara glared. “Ribbon damage? He make gift?”

“He’s talking about the elevator cable. It’s a ribbon. A very thin one.”

“What damage?”

“I don’t know. That’s what he’s checking. Sometimes it gets small perforations from space dust. Maybe that’s what this is.”

“No good!” Klara stamped a tiny foot. “I go big meeting tomorrow. No delay!”

“I’m sure it’s nothing they can’t sort out.” Bodie wasn’t going to argue. She was the Chairman’s niece. Despite her size, she came with a cosmic reputation.

* * *

“It’s micro meteoroid damage,” said Control’s monotone. “And not just the ribbon supporting your car, but the whole interconnection ahead. Probably storm damage. It was alright yesterday when the last car went up.”

“So what happens? Can you override the automatic pilot?”

“Have to bring you back down. Can’t send you over a damaged interconnection. The whole tether could break.”

"Hell!" Bodie felt a void open inside him. He knew well enough the consequences. Not only would their elevator car be catapulted off into a random orbit, but there’d be billions of dollars of collateral damage at Peary Base and Moon Port too. The ribbon might only be microns thin, but it was under tremendous tension and over sixty-seven thousand klicks high. If something like that whiplashed through space, it could gift wrap the moon twenty times over.

“No delay! We go on! Big meeting!”

“We can’t. It’s too risky!” Bodie turned to see Klara untying the straps of her harness.

“Go on! That order.” She lunged at the microphone. “You hear? Go on!”

“Sorry Ma'am, but we can’t.” Control didn’t ask who she was. “It’s against procedure. We have to bring you back down.”

“No procedure. Order! Go on!”

“It’s not just us,” said Bodie. “A broken tether could cause —”

“You no speak!” Klara struck his chest with her hand, then turned back to the radio. “You listen me. We go on. That order. Big meeting.”

“I can’t Ma’am, it’s—”

“No procedure! On!”

"Ma'am, I'm sorry, but—"

"You want speak my uncle? He listen, he tell you."

“I can’t.”

“You want keep job?”

“Yes, but—”

“On!”

* * *

She got her way. Control backed down, and with no jolt or any sense of inertia, the ascent indicator slid off zero. Ten klicks per hour. Twenty. Forty. Sixty. Steadying.

Bodie stared at Karla in disbelief. Doe-eyed and dark haired, she glowed like the image of a perfect woman. Until she opened her mouth anyway. Now he understood why people crossed the corridor when they saw her coming.

They would reach the damaged interconnection in twenty minutes. But it could snap at any point. One moment ascending, no sense of motion, the next, massive g-forces snatching them into space. Klara would do well to refasten her harness. He thought about telling her, but said nothing.

Instead he watched the display as the numbers moved upward. They’d be doing the same at Peary Base and shaking their heads. He should have taken the ferry with its spacious lounge and portholes looking onto the stars, but after the meteorite storm they’d all been grounded. Someone suggested he take the Lunar Far Side Space Elevator instead. Most of the time, it carried only cargo but they did send passengers occasionally. A couple of specially adapted cars: airtight shell, a rack of air cylinders, a portable bathroom. A notoriously long journey, five days in all, like mice in a trap. He should have known better, remembered his childhood fear of small places.

* * *

Ten klicks further up and their ascent slowed. Down to forty, then thirty klicks per hour. His eyes darted around the car again. Nothing new to see. No window to the outside. He missed having a view — of the stars, of the sun, of anything. He hated being inside a box.

The speed went down to twenty. Ten. Five klicks to the interconnection.

Then four.

Three.

Two.

One.

The whole car shuddered. A clicking sound. The display stuck at zero again.

“Why we stop?” Klara banged the radio. “Go on!”

“You’ll need to press if you want them to hear you.” Bodie pointed at the Speak button. “Or do you want me to press it for you?”

“Press! Press!” She jabbed Bodie with a sharp finger.

“Control to Elevator.” The same operator. “The automatic braking mechanism has deployed.”

“What he say?” Klara turned to Bodie.

“What’s the automatic braking mechanism?” he said into the microphone.

“A safety device. It measures the strength of the ribbon as you travel up and if it detects any significant weakness then both sets of rollers, top and bottom, clamp down hard. The elevator car acts as a kind of rivet to stop the ribbon breaking.”

“What he mean?”

“We’re the only thing holding the tether together.” Bodie glared at her. “We can’t go up any further.”

“Or down,” said Control. “Once it’s deployed, we can’t move you. We’ll have to send up a rescue car.”

“No good, no good!” Klara erupted, hitting the radio, the screen, even Bodie. “We go on! I order.”

“I’m afraid you can’t, Ma’am. It’s a safety device — irreversible. Designed to stay clamped until the ribbon’s fixed.”

“Then fix!” she screamed.

“I hear you, Ma’am.” The guy sounded like he was enjoying himself. “The priority now is to fetch you down."

"No!"

"And just so you know, there’s a small problem with that too. There's ten cars below you, all ascending with cargo. We’ll have to drop them first. That’ll take a day or so. And another day or two to send up the rescue car. By then we’re getting mighty close to night, which means no solar, no power, and no traction — not for cars going up anyway. It’ll be touch and go if we get to you in time. If you haven’t already Ma’am, you might want to say a little prayer.”

“No good! No good!” She stamped her foot. “You make better plan. Go up, for meeting!”

“He can’t!” Bodie stamped his foot as well, close to hers. “Didn’t you hear what he just said? We can’t go up, we’re stuck. And if you’d listened in the first place, and hadn’t overruled him, we wouldn’t be in this mess now!”

Bodie breathed hard. He was angry and scared, waves of panic swelling inside. Confined in a small space, now made smaller by the news they might never leave it. And if the elevator was swallowed by night, there’d be hundreds of hours of darkness until lunar dawn. The rescue car would have no power to reach them. Worse their own power — light, heat, air reprocessing — would fail too. They’d freeze and suffocate simultaneously.

“What is the problem?” Someone touched his shoulder gently. Not Klara, but one of the miners.

“We’re stuck fast, that’s what.” In simple English, he explained what had happened.

Unlike Klara, the miner listened calmly, nodding. Bodie guessed the guy was used to danger – and enclosed spaces too.

“Why not send a ship?” said the miner.

“Because there aren’t any. They’re all grounded because of the storm.”

“Later?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure a ship could maneuver this close, not without damaging the ribbon further, or getting tangled up in it.” He didn’t want to sound pessimistic. Yet he couldn't deny the peril of their situation.

* * *

They sat quietly. Bodie and the miners anyway. Klara flexed and banged and screamed, all at the same time.

Maybe Control’s plan would work: the rescue car arriving in the nick of time, a swift transfer though the airlock, then rolling back down to Peary Base under gravity, no need for solar.

Control gave them regular updates: the cargo cars on their way down, the replacement passenger car in preparation. Rays of hope in a tin of darkness.

“Why can’t you send a rescue car down? From Moon Port?” Bodie demanded at one point, his brain seizing on a new solution, unable to let the problem go. “It’d be quicker. No cargo to clear out of the way, no solar fade either, it’d run under gravity.”

“No passenger cars up there,” said Control. “And even if there were, we’d need solar to get it back up.”

“Oh no, of course.” Bodie turned up the music on his headphones, then tried to sleep but kept waking up, sweat running down his face. Checked the display, the radio, the six walls, then the display again. Inside his head something was tightening, like a hydraulic press, his personal space getting smaller and smaller.

He dozed. In his mind, he perched on his stool at the Space Observatory. No ordinary day as his colleagues hummed around him excitedly. When it came his turn to look in the eyepiece of the big telescope, he gasped too. Gone were the cluster of stars he knew so well, and in its place shone a new star to dazzle infinity. Except this wasn’t a beginning, but an end. One of the seven sisters incinerating her carcass.

He sighed and smiled, sad, yet elated too. So lucky to be seeing t his. The supernova they’d been predicting for so long — sixty-seven years now. In the right place at the right time. The best place in the world for a once-in-a-lifetime event.

A jolt and his eyes opened to dull walls. The radio flashing.

“Control to Elevator, are you there?”

He pressed. “Still here.”

“The rescue car is nearly with you. Just another five hundred klicks and a whole hour of light left. You're going to make it.”

“Thank God!” He nearly cheered. Then wiped his face although he wasn’t perspiring. The temperature was cooling. The sun must be fading. Already on the fringe of the umbra.

A beep, and the screen flashed yellow. Another alarm. Maybe the rescue car was here early, requesting permission to connect.

“Elevator to Control, what’s going on?”

“Slight problem, sorry.” A murmur of voices. “Night’s come a bit quicker than we thought.”

“What?”

“The Earth! It’s crossing in front of the sun.”

Hell, of all things, a lunar eclipse! How had Control missed that?

And suddenly it was too late. Nighttime arrived half-an-hour early. The rescue car stranded short.

“You can’t use battery power? Or laser transfer to move it up?” he shouted.

“Not now!” Control sounded frantic. “The cars work off solar. We didn’t have time to re-rig it.”

“So what now?” His voice came out hoarse.

“We’ll work the options.”

“How long will it be dark for?”

“Three hundred hours.”

"Three hundred!" That was thirteen Earth days.

“Why we not go?” Klara woke. “Why we still here?”

Because we are! Bodie wanted to shout Because you forced us to go on, when we should have turned back! Because you and your God damn meeting were more important than our lives! And now we’re going to die up here, never see the sun again, or the stars, frozen to death inside this crappy little elevator.

But he didn’t. He bit his tongue. Thought about the rescue car again. The supernova he had to witness. A plan.

“How far away? The rescue car?" he said into the microphone.

“Two hundred klicks. We can’t move it any further up, not without–”

“We can move down to it though, can’t we?”

“How? Your car’s immobile. The automatic breaking mechanism’s deployed and — ”

“I didn’t say our car, I said us.”

In a low voice, he explained his idea. Control inhaled. Then exhaled. Told him nothing like that could ever work, never, never, never. But Control didn’t have anything better, not in their timeframe.

“What you talk about?” Klara pushed her face in. “You get us out?”

“Yes,” said Bodie. “It'll be scary, but it’s a chance. Better than being stuck in here. Here’s what we do.”

The two miners listened to him. But not Klara, she waved and screamed. “No, no, no! You crazy! You off head!”

“You don’t have to come. You can stay here.”

“No! You no leave me alone.”

“Then you come.”

“No, no!” Klara wailed.

“You be quiet.” The bigger of the miners grabbed her by her midriff and lifted her out of her harness. “You stay with me. I take care of you.”

She sobbed but not quite so loud. The miners agreed to go first. They were heavier, especially the one carrying Klara. They put on their spacesuits, made sure Klara did the same, then exited through the moon-side airlock.

Bodie took one last glance around the empty car, then followed. It was a crazy plan and he was probably going to die. But at least it would be outside, in space, not trapped like a rat in a cage of darkness. He wriggled through the airlock, then pushed his head out into a caldron of light. Millions, billions of stars, surrounding him. And below, the dark disc of the Moon, Earth light sparkling around its edge.

Quickly he looped his harness around the elevator ribbon. Fired a burst from his suit’s propulsion unit and launched himself after the others, into the vacuum.

He was going to abseil down to the rescue car. They all were. Two hundred klicks of free-fall through space in only a spacesuit and with no safety rope. Risky, especially firing the propulsion unit in time to slow down. He’d die if he crashed into one of the others or hit the rescue car.

The old car vanished and the stars around him quickened. Sharpened into lines. His eyes wandered, then fixed on a familiar place where a new star blazed.

Matariki gone supernova.