Jerem Wheeler adjusted his position in his suit’s thruster harness to keep the feeder aligned against the slowly spinning rock. The feeder connected Jerem to the ship’s bulbous cargo module by a twisted umbilical pulsing with liquid metal extracted from the asteroid. Exhaust vents near the feeder’s mouth sprayed rapidly-cooling rock and waste material into space, forming a cloud of debris like a halo around the tiny mining operation.
The ship, Making Time, squatted behind him, thrusters firing in all directions to keep station. Their claim was Alexhelios, a tiny satellite barely five kilometers across orbiting its parent 200 kilometers below, the bone-shaped, M-type asteroid, 216 Kleopatra. They spun slowly about their local gravity source in a complex, spiralling loop. Somewhere between their orbits, little Cleoselene pirouetted past, another shard flung off from her glittering parent body millions of years ago in some violent collision. Their next nearest neighbor was nearly two million kilometers away and invisible without optics.
Two weeks he and his father had been out here on this rock. Crammed into their uncomfortable space suits working the feeder for the max-spec, six-hour duty cycles. Two shifts on, two shifts off, alternating through each Martian day. At the end of a haul, all sense of time was blurred into a slurry of mining and sleep. The food didn’t rate remembering.
The work was monotonous and automatic. Keep the feeder running. Keep the mouth in position. Watch for blockages and keep the umbilical from getting too twisted up. You had a lot of time to think while running one of these machines. Jerem’s music helped. A constant soundtrack against the dull repetition kept him from getting too lost in his own thoughts.
He was currently thinking about Em as he often did out here when he was by himself. Remembering her last visit with him before he shipped up on the morning shuttle. How she’d bribed his sister to leave them alone for the night in his family’s apartment. Coming home after the evening briefing to find the living room lit with candles and Emma waiting there wearing his flight jacket and little else.
That was a good night.
A voice crackled over Joy Division’s “Dead Souls” on his headset, “we better pack up. Window’s closing.”
Jerem returned to the present. “Roger that.” He shut down the feeder with a hard snap conveyed up through his harness and control lines as the arc lost its power and the last of the molten metal shot down the conduit to the cargo module below.
Green light, tube’s empty, retract the feeder’s mouth into the blocky engine pod strapped to his chest, barely stowed before Jerem started to boost around, reorienting towards his ship. Thrusters fired from his harness, pushing him forward, away from Alexhelios for the last time, back to the grey white collection of machinery and electronics that carried them out here.
He boosted up, floating towards the cargo module, hanging ahead of him on the underside of the hab. He fell into the shadow of the starboard fuel pod blocking out the Sun and felt his suit’s cooling system shut down to compensate. Two meters per second… three, closing-in from twenty meters out, Making Time keeping station at minimum safe distance from the little metal rock. No need to rush it. He’d have to slow down before he hit. Five meters, then he carefully reversed his thrust direction and slowed. The thick matter conduit trailing behind caught up, piling into his back and pushing him forward into the skin of the cargo module.
Jerem was a pro at these maneuvers, having logged nearly six thousand hours in the suit. Sometimes he felt like he was the suit. If only it weren’t so damned uncomfortable.
Touchdown. Jerem stowed the feeder in its dock on the cargo pod, locking it down and fitting the attachments into their places, closing them behind the module’s panels. He wound the umbilical into storage beside the feeder, cables retracting it into a lumpy cubic meter of coiled tubing.
“C’mon, Jer,” the voice in his helmet urged as he disconnected from the feeder’s control lines and started hauling himself along the handholds toward the airlock, boosting with thrusters to speed himself up.
Jerem was looking forward to the trip home. Two weeks under full gravity was always tough at first but he’d have free time to read, catch up on his feeds, play games. “Teenage Riot” by Sonic Youth played him into to the airlock.
Jerem floated inside and hit the button to close the outer door. Air cycled in and his suit’s environmental controls started spinning as it compensated for the new pressure differentials.
“You got a pretty good haul today. Hold’s at nearly sixty percent.”
Hal Wheeler looked through the tiny window into the airlock, cutting the glare on the scratchy window with a gloved hand. He couldn’t see inside Jerem’s helmet with his visor still down, but he got the sense his head was bopping to some old tunes. He almost regretted showing him the late twentieth century stuff in the archives, but it could be worse. At least it’s better than what Tamra listened to. Jerem gave him a gloved thumbs up.
Hal had been working on the plot for their return trip while Jerem was outside. Pretty easy burn, straight fall into Mars orbit, two weeks away. Nothing dangerous. Hal’s approach to navigation was practical. He didn’t like risks out here in the belt. He was wearing a suit in case Jerem needed him outside if anything happened. He was glad to be able to get out of it now that they were both inside.
Pressure chimed and the lights came up in the airlock. The green light on the inner door indicating matched pressures with the cabin. Hal flipped the door open and Jerem floated through into the equipment room, snapping the seals on his helmet and gloves, helmet floating off his head with a hiss and pop. He directed it over to his locker and it bounced off the wall with a thunk, bumping into the spare suit at the end of the row of five lockers, the rest of them empty. The tinny sound of music leaked out of Jerem’s headset, earphones like black bugs nestled in his ears, wires looped behind his head.
“Your suit’s starting to look a little banged-up.”
Jerem pulled out his earbuds and looked at his arms, as he continued disassembling the bulky suit. The arms had dirty brown stains on them from the feeder’s ejector. Hard not to produce a lot of dirt and dust when you were chewing through an asteroid. He brushed some dirt off his right arm. “Little bit. No leaks though.”
“Just the same, you should get that checked when we get home. Probably time to send it in for a refit. You should use the spare.”
“Guess so, but this one’s broken-in nice.” He looked at the dust floating around him in the equipment room. “I’ll clean it up in the airlock when we’re underway. Should have sprayed down before coming in here.” The airlock had a couple of air hoses for cleaning materials and personnel before entering the ship. They usually didn’t bother.
Hal shut down his suit, backed into his locker and undid his belt connection. The locker lifted the torso and allowed him to kick out of his pants to freedom. Jerem was doing the same as Hal grabbed his flight suit from the hooks and pulled it on over his sweat-stained liner.
“Get started on the checks, Jer. I’ll meet you in the cockpit. Burn in thirty.”
“Aye, skip.” Jerem lifted his suit up over his head into the rack in his locker. He pushed up and floated up out of the suit’s legs into the equipment room, leaving his suit to recharge. He gathered up his gloves and helmet, stowing them in their bags in his locker. One last look over his suit making sure everything was secured and properly connected. He looked over at the spare suit and snorted. No way he was breaking in a new suit this late in the trip. He nodded and grabbed his flight suit off the hook, climbing into it and zippering up before kicking his way up through the decks to the cockpit.
New Providence: Nicola Tesla University, Room 315
Doctor Maude Richardson walked around the front of her podium talking about metallic composition in asteroids.
“The M-type is the third most-common type of asteroid, usually composed primarily of what type of metal?” A meaty hand went up on the left side of the small classroom. “Yes, Derek?”
“That’s right. Mostly iron. Any other common types of metal available? Hm? Someone else?” Another hand went up lazily from the back of the room, a couple more joined it. Doctor Richardson picked the far hand and the other students lowered theirs.
Richardson nodded and advanced the frame on her slide, a number of rocks super-imposed over a periodic table appeared on the screen behind her, the metals lit up in yellow on the dark background. “Very good. Indeed, the belt contains concentrations of nearly every type of metal we’d find elsewhere in the solar system in similar distributions. One nice feature of the asteroid belt is that these metals are frequently very near the surface. The rocky shells having already been knocked away by collisions with other bodies. Or they themselves are the metal cores of larger planetoids. It makes them ideal sources of material if you can just get out there.”
Emma wasn’t listening. She’d read all this before. The justification for asteroid mining had gone back as far as Buckminster Fuller and kept cropping up through modern history. Instead, she was writing a message to Jerem gone for nearly a month now, deep in the asteroid belt between Mars’ and Jupiter’s orbits. They’d been in constant contact, exchanging messages over the system’s network, but there was always delay. She thought of him as being twelve light minutes away. It made him feel closer than the one hundred and fifty million kilometers of an astronomical unit. He’d be coming home now and the delay would get shorter and shorter until his return. He’d have more time for writing to her too.
I’m sitting in class. Richardson’s droning on about rocks or something. Space rocks. Are you going to bring me a piece of one this time? I’m going to bring it to class and hope they’ll let me just skip the rest of the term. It’s so boring!
I can’t wait for you to get back. I have some really exciting news.
Emma frowned, deleted the last sentence. She didn’t want to give anything away and what she had was valuable. The kind of thing people would be very interested in if she was right. She was pretty sure she was.
Emma blinked, looked up. Dr. Richardson watching her with lidded eyes under her glasses, resting low on her nose.
“Er, sorry. What was the question?” Emma hurriedly closed the message she was writing and flipped back to class space on her tablet. The transcript still running, she skimmed back to catch up.
“If you’re just going to waste all our time here, you might as well stay home.”
Emma felt her face burning. Some of the other students giggled childishly, the professor of geology getting more annoyed.
“The question I shall repeat is: What are some of the signs of a metallic deposit in a rocky terrain?”
Emma paused for a second, and smiled. “Look for the shiny.”
More giggling around her. Doctor Richardson smiled despite her annoyance. “Can you elaborate, please?”
“Increased reflectivity can indicate the presence of metallic deposits on or beneath the surface of a body.”
“And what types of metals would those typically be, Emma?”
She smiled. “Precious.”
“Mars Control, this is MSS27. Commencing Mars burn in thirty minutes. Over.” Hal clicked off the transmit button.
“CO2 scrubbers… check. Battery power… check. Cargo module connectors…” some switch flicking. “Check. Moving onto engineering…”
Jerem had been through the checklist hundreds of times, in simulation and on their actual ship. He knew the routine by heart but still tracked through it on his console so they’d have it all logged. Captain Hal Wheeler, wanted everything by the book. Hal might have inherited Making Time from her previous captain but she belonged to him now.
“Engineering. Aye.” Hal began his pre-flight routine.
“Fuel module… check. Fuel delivery…” more switches “Fuel delivery… I’ve got a fault in line 4… no wait it’s green… check. Main booster… check. Reaction control thrusters…” the list went on until they’d covered all of their engines and controls. Jerem drawled through the items with sleepy dedication. The ship showing him schematics and control diagrams as he clicked through the routine.
Jerem’s muscles ached as he hunched over his console. His arm sore from fighting against the torque generated by the feeder. It was tough work, but at least it kept him in some semblance of physical shape out here in the gravity-free asteroid belt. He cinched down his belts, securing himself in his seat. Waiting out the clock as they checked and rechecked the ship’s engine and fuel systems.
Making Time was one of the first ships built for Mars after the colony was created. All of the initial materials for the colony’s space station came from the asteroid belt. It just wasn’t practical to send metal up from Earth – too expensive – and they needed everything they could get from Mars down in the city. So they’d build these machines to extract iron and gold from the rocks orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. There’d been a brief spate of robotic mining machines, but they had a high failure rate and the Colony Commission successfully lobbied for human-piloted space craft.
She was a big ship. Sixty tonnes of metal and machine built to carry another forty in her hold. Jerem ran through the schematics again, tracing the lines from the side-mounted fuel pods that ran back into the hab’s cylindrical support structure aft. The shiny metal fuel lines ran into a circular aperture in the massive engine shield mounted behind the hab section separating them from the engine module itself. The engine drew liquid heavy hydrogen from the fuel modules into its core and compressed it down to metallic pellets using a spherical array of super conducting magnets.
“Core is primed. Ready for compression.”
Hal flipped some switches on his board. “Power systems charged. Ready and waiting. Cooling system on standby.”
On cue, a message indicator lit up on Hal’s board and he played it. “MSS27 this is Mars Control. Godspeed, Hal. Control out.” Mancuso’s voice from Lighthouse. The station. Twenty four minutes to acknowledge their previous transmission informing them of their burn.
“Control, this is Making Time. Going quiet, switching to low-bandwidth. See you in two weeks, over and out.” They wouldn’t bother waiting for another acknowledgement. Hal pulled in the last blob of data from the network before shutting down the ship’s radios. They’d be transmitting and receiving only text and telemetry from here out. The gigantic ship engine’s interference severely degraded their ability to stay connected to the network while under power. They’d learned early on that analog voice transmissions over radio frequency were little more than a garbled mess when exposed to the emissions of a burning fusion reactor and the low-bandwidth didn’t give them enough data to encode the transmissions in anything but very crude digital sound. So they used text.
“Looks like we’re good to go, Dad.”
“That’s Captain to you, Ensign.” Hal smirked and straightened the photograph taped to the console of his wife and the two kids. The smirk faded. He still couldn’t get used to his wife being gone. He missed her so much. Sometimes he wished he could stay out here in space forever. It was peaceful. The work was important. Their ship was more of a home to him than his empty apartment. If it wasn’t for his daughter… Be home soon, Tam. He put his finger on the picture for just a moment, one more time. “Ignition start for Mars burn in 10… 9…”
“Board is green. Priming.” Another flurry of switches as Jerem sent power to the fuel compression system. The lights flickered as the core drew every available watt of power from the ship. He tightened his straps again and his father did the same. They exchanged a look as they waited for the engine to signal its readiness.
The cabin lights dimmed as power was transferred to the batteries, disconnected from the fuel cells that diverted all their energy to the super capacitors used to ignite the reactor that would power their trip across a hundred million kilometers of space. A low thrumming filled the cockpit as the engine crushed the fuel into fusible metal hydrogen.
“… 2… 1… Main engine burn.” Hal hit the switch and a tiny star ignited in the asteroid belt and began its slow fall through darkness.