Perfect Partner, by Robert Walton
The moon is one intimidating climbing area. I've always liked it, but it gives the shudders to many. The climbing is on high standard rock in, of course, an airless environment. Most of the good climbing, too, is well away from moon bases and speedy rescue. The rock edges are beyond sharp. We're talking swords and razors. Climbers have lost their air often enough on lunar big walls. It's not the best way to go.
I watch Crystyl's suit lights swiftly recede above me. Her lead will end in 200 more meters when our monomolecular stressed ceramic line runs out. Don't ask me why it's so flexible, but, believe me, it's as soft as a baby's hair. It also retains its strength (7,000 kilograms, static) right down to a few degrees above absolute zero. Nothing less than an industrial grade laser will cut it. My suit instrumentation tells me that the current temperature is about minus 140 degrees centigrade.
A tug on the line calls my attention to my BD belay device - the Cobra. Crystyl's rate of advance has exceeded the maximum rate I set earlier. I adjust it and then check the automatic coiler. It's functioning flawlessly, but I've seen too many incredible tangles to trust it for very long on its own. I look back at the Cobra. Its lights are all green, small cat's-eyes of reassurance. Though more complex than the coiler, I trust it a great deal more. I've seen it hold 200 meter falls, absorbing enormous shocks, slowing the rope dynamically. The temperatures involved in airless climbing necessitate the use of the static, monomolecular rope. Shock absorption is entirely a function of the Cobra. The rope does pass symbolically through the space-gloved fingers of my right hand.
I look up. Crystyl has disappeared around a corner. It has been awhile since she put in any protection. The rock above is moderate, but low-gravity falls are deceptive. They start slowly. Then lethal velocities build up. Suit design limits can be exceeded by glancing falls of only a few meters. As I mentioned, moon rocks are shark's teeth, every one of them. Her voice sounds in my ear mike, "Off belay."
I disengage the Cobra and switch the coiler to retrieve. I pop out three spring-loaded camming devices and attach them to the utility patch on my suit. "Climbing."
I breathe cool, pine-scented air (I've got my suit's air unit set for Tuolumne in the autumn) and step into an off-width crack. What goes free on the moon would be impossible on Earth. This crack gets my full attention and it's not the crux. X-tee climbers' gloves are tough, and somewhat flexible. I'm used to their limitations and gain height by using a series of micro jams. I reach easier ground and look down.
Starlight and Earthlight bathe the plain below in a cold, voluptuous glow. The blue-silver is cut around its edges by knives of black shadow. I smile. I'm again stealing a peek at what humans were never meant to see. A tug on the line reminds me that Crystyl expects me to keep moving.
I join her without further difficulty or sightseeing. She's actually found a stance on a ledge. This climb, Moon Me, Please, has few of them. She locks her Cobra. "You're safe."
"The crux next?" I ask.
"Yeah. Here's the gear." She disengages one end of our monomolecular bandolier from her suit's left shoulder attachment point. I take it and plug it into mine. Only then does she unplug the right hip attachment and hand it to me. I make it secure and shrug the various loops and their assortment of cams and wedges into place.
I begin. The first bit requires the use of low-grav techniques - fingers opposed on crystals too small to mention. My feet smear other tiny crystals. There are no edges for many meters. Protection won't appear for some time to come. The rock curves out like a swan's neck. My breathing becomes stertorous over the open mike. Ten meters, fifteen, I grip a knob and pause. I pause and gasp for breath.
As my breath comes more easily, I look up. This is it, the crux, the notorious leap. I must propel myself up and out for two meters to reach the lip of an overhang and the sharp crack that splits it. The low-grav technique is called a thrust mantel. My only point of leverage is the rounded knob my left hand now grips. This is the moment I came for. If I extend it, it will only get harder.
"Going for it, Crystyl. Watch me!"
I take a deep breath, pull up with my left arm, straighten and thrust. My body surges out from the rock and up. My right hand is extended at full reach, ready to dive into that crack.
It dawns on me as blank rock rushes past my faceplate that I may have overdone it. Adrenaline again. My hand is almost even with the crack, but I'm a meter out from the lip. No problem. I'll just jack into the crack a few feet higher. Who would have thought that I'm that strong? My leap fades just as I come within range of the crack. I jab my gloved fingers into dark recesses.
And all hell breaks loose.
The crack disintegrates into shards of rock, one as large as a refrigerator. I curse as the shards and I begin our fall together. I yell to Crystyl, "Falling!" and "Rock, rock!"
I have plenty of time to think about what is going on. I should end up okay somewhere down the line. There's nothing solid within a half mile below me. The falling shards are spreading. I yell again as I pick up speed. "Rock!"
The big shard is below me, but others veer toward Crystyl. She's reeling in rope and staring at me as I pass her. I see a shard slice across her left arm just below the shoulder. She cries out.
I'm past her.
Crystyl is top of the line BD equipment. She can't be owned, only leased from BD on a per climb basis. I forget what the acronym stands for but the first letter is for Chouinard, of course. She's an auto-partner, strong, smart, programmed with all available climbing knowledge and absolutely cooperative, guaranteed not to irritate the most particular climber. Me. She's a cyborg and that's the problem now. She can die.
I come to the end of my fall. A hundred meters, more, and it's like falling into giant pillows. Crystyl's Cobra is still working. Is Crystyl still working?
"Can you pull me up?"
"Damage level 4. No."
"What's the matter?"
"Air leaking. Fast. I'm cold."
Suit emergency seals work within limits. Hers have been exceeded. I need to get up to her and get a patch on her damage, but I'm a yo-yo at the end of its string.
That gives me an idea. Walk the dog. My suit jets won't get me all the way to the cliff, but a power pendulum might. I look hard at both the dim, blue plain below my toes and the edge I want to reach. This is a life or death angle. I rotate my butt thruster to what I hope is the right heading and punch it.
I reach the cliff on my fourth swing. My quick-draw anchor, a low-temp moon-friend #3, is in my left hand already. I thrust it into a crack's welcoming darkness and release the trigger. Anchored.
I call up to Crystyl, "I'm on the rock."
I hope the failsafe on her Cobra will detect my motion and take in slack. I start to climb.
I reach her stance, slap a patch on her arm and plug my transfer tube into the emergency valve on her chest. I push the transfer button. I've got enough air for both of us. We'll be above 3,000 meters, but that's all right, I hope. A smear of red on her faceplate makes me cold down to the middle of my gut, but I can't do anything else for her until the air is transferred. I can activate our rescue beacon. I do. It's time for that A.A.C. insurance to kick in.
It does. Good old A.A.C.
Jocko slaps my arm, "Hey, how's your Crystyl?"
Jocko is a pretty good climber, but he talks far too much. I hang with him some. We never climb together. I smile, "She's not mine and she's better."
Jocko's curly blond hair looks like tiny bedsprings in moon gravity. "Hey, that saves you big bucks." He grins.
"Nah, it was covered." I turn and walk away.
He grabs my arm. "Where are you going?"
I turn back. "To see her in the hospital."
"Why? She's a cyborg, man."
I shake my head. "She's my partner."