We are the outriders of Quicksilver City. We ride ahead, sunward, forever maintaining a temperature thirty degrees hotter than the city that follows us. Our job is to scout out the Mercurial terrain for landslides, crevasses, and anything else that might hinder the city in its eternal journey around the planet. Ahead of us, the robot mines and smelters, factories and warehouses wake from hibernation as they fall out of the blistering heat of noon. After radio consultation with the autocomptrollers of Quicksilver City, they disgorge the raw materials the city will need this cycle.
Meanwhile, we blast, grade, and level. When we hit a scarp, out come the mini-nukes and down goes the rock. When we come to a crevasse, we fill it in. The city arrives to find a gentle ramp or level ground, and all of us outriders gone, long gone on our unending voyage into the sun.
Here are the plain facts. The maximum surface temperature on Mercury is 427° C. Because there's no atmosphere worth speaking of to retain that heat, at night the surface temperature plunges to a minimum of -173° C. Machines can sleep through the hot times and the cold. Human beings can't. So we have to keep on the move.
Mercury is roughly the size of Earth's moon and a day here, from dawn to dusk, is 176 Earth days long. Which makes it possible to move fast enough to outrun the sunset. But the planet's rotation is almost perpendicular to the orbital plain, so Quicksilver City can't just keep plodding the same circular path over and over. Every rotation is different, a new set of challenges, something unexpected to be overcome.
So we ride. It all comes down to us—the outriders and pioneers. We ride and blast and curse and sweat, and we know that we're the final and only hope that humanity has. That the human race is always and perpetually one day's bad luck away from extinction.
But when has it ever been different?
© 2003 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.