An essay by Beth Cantrell, as provided by Robert Dawson
Art by America Jones
I’ve gone into space with some odd ducks, but let me tell you, Loreena Saunders was one of the oddest.
On those early missions to Mars, you got five fricking kilos for personal effects. A few pieces of jewellery, perhaps a favorite silk scarf, and a thumbdrive or two. And maybe some photographs and a lock of hair, if you weren’t smart enough to leave old memories behind.
Some people brought musical instruments. A couple people had pennywhistles, and there were a few lightweight electric violins and guitars, little more than fingerboard, strings, and pickup. “Mac” Duncan even had an electronic bagpipe, about the size of a big soda straw. Better yet, he had earbuds for practice.
But what sort of nut would take a baseball and a first baseman’s mitt to Mars–a third of an astronomical unit away from the nearest baseball diamond, even at conjunction? Loreena, that’s who. Back when she was a kid in Boston, she’d played Little League with the boys, and she’d been on the varsity women’s team at MIT. Here, she couldn’t even go outside and play catch: the glove wouldn’t fit over her p-suit. But if she minded, it didn’t show: when she had nothing else to do, she’d sit around the dome, slapping the ball into the glove, smiling blissfully, and occasionally picking an imaginary pop fly out of the air. The constant slap of leather on leather could get on your nerves.
So when I got sent up to Phobos to do the preliminary geological survey (I’ll go with “areological” for Mars, but “phobological” just sounds silly), my excitement was damped when I realized that Loreena was going to be my assistant. The orbiter we were going in was about the size of the minivan my folks had when I was a kid. The galley was a cupboard full of freeze-dried food in single-serving pouches and a gadget for injecting warm water into them. It had two tiny berths, with privacy doors so thin you could hear somebody breathe through them. I wondered if I could get somebody else, but Loreena was the only colonist with geological training who could also pilot the orbiter. I was stuck with her.
“You’re not going to bring that baseball of yours, are you?” I asked.
She grinned. “You’re bringing your Rubik’s Cube, aren’t you, Beth?”
I clenched my teeth. When I was twenty, I’d been the CalTech women’s champion, and in fifth place nationally for the “five peeks” event. I wasn’t quite that fast anymore, but old cubists never die, they just lose face. Of course I was bringing my cube. “I’ll try to keep it quiet,” I said.
“Don’t worry, probably neither of us will have time to actually use them. Have you seen the task schedule?”
Dammit, she was right. The schedule called for us to spend twelve hours per sol taking rock and soil samples, or measuring magnetism, radioactivity, and gravitational anomalies. After that, they estimated an hour for filing reports and another for habitat maintenance. A sol’s longer than a day, but only by thirty-seven minutes. There wasn’t going to be any slack time.
Just before departure, we were stowing our personal gear in the orbiter. Loreena pointed at a tell-tale right-angled corner pushing out the thin fabric of my tote bag. “Ha!” she said. “Caught in the act, Beth!”
“And I suppose you’re going to tell me you don’t have a baseball and glove in there?” I said, pointing at her bag.
“Why would I bring a baseball and glove to Phobos?” she asked, innocently. “Is there a pickup game scheduled or something?”
And that was all I could get out of her. I wondered if I could sneak my cube back into the dome complex, but it was too late.
The first thing you notice about Phobos is the gravity, one two-thousandth of a gee. Or, rather, you don’t notice it; it’s like free-fall with a very slight drift. It takes you about a minute to fall a meter; if you jumped off a kilometer-high cliff and didn’t die of boredom on the way down, you could land on your feet, unhurt. If the orbiter hadn’t had screw pitons to lock its legs down to the ochre regolith, Loreena and I could have lifted it up between us and carried it away. Jumping over it was easier than going around it.
On the first sol, we were out on the surface, working our way up towards the ridge on the edge of Stickney Crater that’s the high point of Phobos. Mars hung overhead, a huge orange beachball just out of reach. We carried fifty kilos of apparatus each, and still weighed next to nothing. Our eyes told us that were climbing towards a huge dome–Phobos is shaped like a lumpy baking potato–but it felt like spacewalking. We wore crampons with blunt five-centimeter spikes, but even so, we had no more purchase for our feet in the loose regolith than if we’d been on ice. We moved by slow careful hops, trying not to lose control or to slow ourselves down by going too high. In each hand we carried meter-long pieces of thick-walled aluminum tube with improvised wrist straps: sometimes we used them like ski poles to push against the ground, and mid-jump we used their mass to balance ourselves, like tightrope walkers.
For maybe the fifth time, we stopped to make our measurements. Once we were done, I began to lift the gravimeter onto my back–awkwardly, it was the size of a refrigerator and had every gram of that mass. Just then, Loreena tried to bend down. Her legs drifted upward, of course, and I laughed as she paddled her arms in circles to rotate herself. She began to somersault forward, and after a few seconds, was able to pick up the thing she’d seen. A light-colored rock, round, about the size of an orange. She reversed the paddling until she got her feet back under her, then she looked at the rock appraisingly, and plopped it into her sample pouch without explanation. She shouldered the gamma ray spectrometer, and we floated on upward.
When we got to the top of the ridge, Loreena put down her gear, hefted the rock, and grinned at me. I looked at the way she was holding it. Not an orange, I thought. A baseball.
“Watch this!” she said. Then she wound up and pitched it in the general direction of the flattened north pole, about fifteen klicks away. It was a lazy creampuff of a pitch, but pretty damn good for somebody in a p-suit. She regained her balance and watched as it drifted away. “Hope I got the speed right,” she said.
“Right for what?”
“Beth, you’ve just witnessed the birth of Phobos’s moon. Which I hereby name ‘Rivera.'”
“Rivera? You mean the Mexican painter?”
“Mariano Rivera,” she said. “He pitched for the Yankees. Back at the beginning of the century.”
For the next few weeks, Loreena tracked that rock obsessively. She set the lander’s telescopes to look for it every time it passed overhead. Because she’d used the highest point of Phobos for a pitcher’s mound, Rivera was too far above the lander to see with the naked eye, but our fifty-centimeter reflector could spot it easily. It passed over a different region every time, as Phobos spun beneath it, so sightings were irregular, but the computer kept watch twenty-four-point-mumble hours per sol. When Loreena made the computer display the orbit, it looked like a messy ball of string. And I mean messy–with that crazy shape, Phobos is all gravitational anomalies.
At first it was hit-or-miss, but the more data she gathered, the more accurate her predictions got, and eventually she’d pull me over to the monitor just in time to see Rivera pass overhead. Even better, it got to the point where little deviations could be measured and used to determine those local variations in gravity. After a while we were getting almost as much data about mascons from that rock of Loreena’s as we were from the million-dollar gravimeter. We wrote a paper about that technique; prospectors use it on asteroids now.
With only two sols left to go before our return date, I woke to Loreena pounding on the thin plastic hatch that was the door of my berth. “Hey! Beth! Get dressed! Rivera’s gonna pass low over the ridge next orbit!”
I was tempted to tell her to go to hell, but I turned my berth light on and struggled into my tights and p-suit. We went out onto the surface, and headed up the ridge, drifting over the powdery regolith in long bounds. Neither of us had anything along but our walking poles. Without our usual burdens, and with the benefit of three weeks’ experience of Phobian microgravity, we made easy progress.
“What are we doing?” I asked after a few minutes, uncomfortably aware that in my half-awake state I hadn’t cleared this with Mars.
“You’ll see, Beth. You’ll see.”
We sailed up toward Stickney for another few minutes, while I gradually grew more annoyed. “Dammit, Loreena, I’m in charge here, remember?” I said. “I need to know what’s going on.”
“Well, we’ve finished our gravimetric mapping of Phobos, right?”
Thanks to all that extra data from Rivera, we’d completed that part of the mission early. “Yes,” I said. “But what are we doing now?”
We were at the top of the ridge. Loreena turned to me. “You’ll find out in three minutes,” she said, like a little girl planning a surprise for her mom. She waited, quietly; I was too tired to argue. “One minute.” She laid one of her walking poles carefully on the ground, grasped one end of the other in both hands, and took a familiar stance.
“Oh, yeah? Watch me!”
There it was, a tiny white dot in the brilliant sunlight, drifting towards us. Loreena lined herself up, whooped, swung, and knocked it in a high trajectory, right out of the ballpark. Right out of Phobos’ gravity well, too–the scope never spotted it again. She regained her balance, put down her improvised bat, grinned, and raised her hand for a high five.
I couldn’t help myself: I began to laugh. “Nice hit, Loreena!” I said. “But why not leave Rivera as a moon?”
“He pitched for the Yankees, remembah? And I’m from Bawston.” She exaggerated her accent, as if to prove her claim.
“Well, Beth, where I come from, we root for the Red Sox–and whoever beats the Yankees.”
See what I mean? In a league of her own.
Beth Cantrell is best known for her award-winning paper “Simplified Passive Satellite Gravimetry” with L. Saunders. She holds the Mars, Phobos, Ceres, Vesta, and Pallas records for solving a Rubik’s Cube in a p-suit. She sometimes goes to baseball games, but only if somebody promises to supply her with sufficient peanuts and Cracker Jack.
Robert Dawson teaches mathematics at a Nova Scotian university. He has had more than seventy SF stories published in periodicals ranging from Nature to Mad Scientist Journal. He’d like to congratulate MSJ on a great run, and thinks the plan to commemorate the last issue by blowing up the Sun is a very appropriate tribute to the close of an era.
America is an illustrator and comic artist with a passion for neon colors and queer culture. Catch them being antisocial on social media @thehauntedboy.
“A League of Her Own” is © 2019 Robert Dawson
Art accompanying story is © 2019 America Jones