By Tom Jolly
ROBERT LOAGHRIN WATCHED anxiously as Sherrie’s Asteroid closed with him. He leaked gas miserly from his thrusters to angle his boots toward the asteroid’s surface, then slammed into the rock, knees and servos straining to take the shock. He let out a held breath. “Rue, how was my jump?”
His suit radio crackled. “Was I supposed to be watching?”
“Rue, you’re always watching.”
“Hmph.” The robot sounded smug. “Your jump was about 0.88 efficient. Pitiful.”
Robert snorted. “Felt better than an eight-eight.” He stared up at Arvin’s asteroid, his final destination, waiting a few seconds for the slow rotation of Sherrie’s rock to give him a good vector, then jumped. The asteroid, dragged into place to join their cluster years before, was nearly a kilometer away, so he figured his drift would last close to ten minutes.
He had ping-ponged off six other asteroids to get this far. His own rock was too far away to make it on a single jump without wasting a lot of gas to correct his trajectory, but he sure wasn’t breaking any records on efficiency. RU12 would let him know right away if he had. It seemed to get a kick out of broadcasting the top-ten list in jump efficiency each week. Crazy robot. It fit in well with the rest of the nut-jobs who lived out here.
Radio traffic kept him occupied during his drift toward Arvin’s rock. About a thousand klicks up the belt, Coella Wilson and Chin Lee were yacking about the best nanites to use on her rock, and Chin was bartering to rent the most expensive ones out to her. Everyone bartered for everything. Their comm channel was encrypted, but Robert had the codes for nearly everyone living in the Cluster. He smiled. Everybody had their secrets.
Sunlight reflected off a suit, glittering like ice on the dark surface of Arvin’s rock. The suit waved. “Hey, Robert!” his radio crackled.
“Hey, Arvin. You didn’t have to come outside ... oh.” He saw a gray haze inside Arvin’s helmet, obscuring the face.
Arvin lifted one arm resignedly. The other sleeve was empty. Robert watched as the missing hand appeared behind the helmet’s faceplate, glowing cigarette clenched between thumb and forefinger. “Jennie still won’t let me smoke inside.”
“No shit. I thought you’d stopped that crap because of the cost of your suit filters.”
Arvin shrugged. “Old habits are hard to kick.”
“Uh huh.” He looked around Arvin’s suit. Apparently nothing was venting out to add to the mild haze around the Cluster. It was amazing how much stuff could leak out of a few hundred habitats, which wasn’t doing their optics any good. “So you wanted to talk?”
“Let me just filter this for a minute or two so Jennie doesn’t bitch at me. Then we can go inside.”
Robert hooked his lanyard onto the line next to the airlock and relaxed. They stared out at the scattered dots of light that represented this cluster of carved-out homesteads. We’re all lunatics, Robert thought. Happy, workaholic lunatics living our crazy little dream. The little beacon lights on every rock reminded him of lit-up windows at night back on Earth, and despite being surrounded by a killing vacuum, the view relaxed him.
Sunlight glared through the thin haze of gas that the hollowed-out habitats inevitably vented for station-keeping. The haze wouldn’t last long. The next solar storm would sweep most of it away and they’d start all over again. Not that the tenuous gas was helpful; if anything, it threatened the deep-space antennas and reduced the efficiency of the habitats’ solar collectors. On the other hand, it gave the comforting illusion of belonging to a world. A world of loosely connected rocks and gas.
“Okay, let’s go in,” Arvin said. Robert could see his scruffy, lined face clearly now. The suit filters had done their job, racing with Arvin’s lungs to see which would clog up first on tar and nicotine.
As they peeled off their outers, Arvin asked, “You jumped off Sherrie’s rock?”
Arvin pointed at Robert’s boots. “Then leave your outers in the airlock, if you don’t mind.” He coughed into his hand. Wisps of residual smoke drifted from his suit as he peeled out of it. “Sherrie’s lichen’s been sticking to clothing, getting tracked into places. Bad enough it can grow in a vacuum, harder than hell to get rid of that stuff once it gets inside a place. I wish she’d engineer something a bit more useful.”
Robert shrugged. He couldn’t tell Arvin about the juicy contract Sherrie was negotiating with the Mars colonies for the lichen she’d engineered. That was another decrypted conversation he wasn’t supposed to know about. New income always helped the Cluster, even if it wasn’t all from mining. Problem with knowing so many secrets was having to keep them. He’d have to figure out some way to legitimately weasel the information out of Sherrie so he could let everyone else know what she was doing. But why would the stuff start to stick to things? The lichen was dry as dust. “Sticking to things?” he asked.
“Yeah, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Eddy Schwartz has a leak in his septic unit. He’s three rocks upbelt of here, and he’s contaminating everything with his waste stream.”
Arvin opened the inner lock and they stepped into the living room. Jennie was there with two tubes of warm coffee. Robert grinned broadly. “Coffee! I haven’t had any in a month.”
Jennie smiled at him. “You say that every time you come over here.”
“I should grow my own beans.” He looked around. Like every asteroid, the inside of this one had plants in every open space, genetics tweaked for zero-gee.
“This is some Arabica from O’Henry’s farm.”
He sipped from the tube, letting the taste of the coffee replace the faint tobacco scent that permeated Arvin’s home. Seemed there was no amount of filtering that could get rid of human stinks; they could linger for years even after a rock had been deserted, vacked, and repressurized.
“Very nice.” He turned to Arvin. “So Eddy’s got a leak? What’s that got to do with the lichen?”
“That crap sticks to everything. There’s a thin film of biowaste on every asteroid within ten klicks of his, and it’s just getting worse. I told him about it weeks ago, but he isn’t doing anything. The lichen is absorbing it and getting sticky. Not Sherrie’s fault, but the stuff is still getting tracked inside.”
Robert nodded. “Yeah, that ties in to what I heard from the observatory. They said they were getting an oily film on some of the reflectors. And they’re twenty klicks from here, give or take.”
“So you going to talk to him?”
“You couldn’t ask me this by comm?”
“Figured you’d like some coffee,” Arvin said. “And we’re having fettuccini, cod, and broccoli for dinner. Want to stick around?”
Robert smiled. “Oh, yeah. You know how to bribe a man. I’d kill for a beer, though.”
“Tough luck. Rene’s next batch won’t be out for a week.”
“I’ve heard. Anyway, sure, I’ll talk to him if you think it’ll help.”
“You’re the mayor.”
Robert glared at him, then shook his head and sighed.
After dinner, he jumped back home. Going inside his rock was like going into an old library, minus most of the books. There were bits of wood stuck to every available surface, scraps that he had spent a small fortune buying from the other miners, traders and support people that came up here to make a living. Two dozen real paper books adorned a small shelf above his computer/comm station. They represented the profits from three months of laser-mining an iron rock two-thousand klicks downbelt from here. Those in the Cluster who didn’t call him The Mayor called him The Librarian. Not that he’d ever let anyone touch his books. They could go download something free to read, if that’s what they wanted. The smell and feel of a book, though, that you couldn’t download.
He sat in the chair at the comm station and strapped in. “Rosie, call Eddy please.”
“In work. Waiting. Waiting. Link request not acknowledged.”
“Is his comm system down?”
“Eddy Schwarz’s comm system is not responding to my interrogative. Your request is being blocked.”
“His system is functioning correctly. All local queries are being blocked.”
Robert sat back in his chair. Now that was odd. Maybe he should check in on the little prick. Eddy had quite a reputation for taking advantage of a situation, so there wasn’t a man or woman in the Cluster who’d trust him enough to share air with him. He was a real bottom-feeder.
“Rosie, call RU12, please.”
“In work. Waiting. Link established.”
“Hello, Robert,” a low voice rumbled out of the speaker.
“What can I do for you today, Mayor?”
“You have monitors floating all over in the Cluster, right?”
Robert sighed. When he was a kid, AI didn’t exist, and robots didn’t say things like “perhaps.” They were just computers with legs. “I’ve been told that Eddy has a problem with waste venting out of his rock,” he said. “Do you have recordings of that, and when it’s been happening?”
RU12 held up a digit. “Hang on. Let me just access some records.” It sat and stared at Robert for a moment. “Got it. What do you have for trade?”
That’s my Rue, Robert thought. “You know I’m doing this for the Cluster,” he said, “not for me. This benefits everyone.”
The robot rolled both orbs. “Well, then, what does everyone have for me?”
“Rue, you’re such a friggin’ mercenary. The leak is affecting you, too. You have a solar collector, don’t you? Is the efficiency down?”
RU12 sat still for a moment, checking numbers. Finally, he nodded. “Very well. If you offer to clean my solar collector and eliminate the effusion, then I can give you the information you need.”
Clean his collector. Great. “If you want, I’ll be happy to clean your clock at the same time.”
“Obscure cultural idiom noted. No, you need not clean my clock.” RU12 nodded at Robert. “I’m sending you data for the last month. Effusion has been continuous, and has been gradually increasing in volume, as though the breach is expanding.” An inset screen appeared next to RU12’s head with the data.
“Damn. That much?”
“Perhaps Eddy is dead.” The robot looked thoughtful, staring off-screen. “No, it appears that he took a jumpship upbelt ten days ago, most likely to the Ceres Cluster.”
“After the leakage started.”
Robert considered asking RU12 if it could monitor Eddy’s habitat control system, but even if it could, it wasn’t likely to tell him so. More secrets. If he was going learn why Eddy had abandoned maintenance on his rock, then he’d have to go inside and have a look.
“Rue, can you erase our conversation?”
“Not to be concerned. It’s highly encrypted.”
“Not on this end.”
“Yes, even on your end.”
Robert’s hair rose on the back of his neck. Bastard robot. “Okay, fine. Thanks for the information, and once this is cleared up, I’ll see about getting your collector cleaned off.”
“If you intend to enter Eddy’s habitat, I would suggest enlisting the aid of Coella Wilson. She is intimately familiar with the mechanisms for Eddy’s airlock, having repaired at least three of that type in the belt in the last four years.”
“So you read minds, too.”
RU12 barked an electronic laugh, reached out, and shut off the comm link.
Coella and Chin came in from her claim twenty hours after Robert contacted her. She met Robert on an uninhabited asteroid less than a klick from Eddy’s. Around her waist was a belt crammed with tools. She was about a foot shorter than Robert, but he knew that she could beat the crap out of any miner in the Cluster, providing considerable entertainment to the locals while unwinding at the Crystal Cup. Not that Robert thought she was unapproachable, you just had to understand that when she said she wanted to “take someone out,” she usually didn’t have dating in mind.
“How’s your new claim going?”
“That little turd Chin is going to take half my profits with those damned nanites of his.”
“So ... you have the rock, but the nanites are doing all the work?”
She glared at him through her shaded visor, not an easy task. “Yeah, whatever. Still my claim.” She pointed at Eddy’s home. “Is that haze around his rock what I think it is?”
“Yeah, unfortunately. I don’t know how we’re going to get the suits clean after this.”
“I’d say he owes us.”
“I just hope he doesn’t return while we’re inside.”
They both jumped to Eddy’s home, coming to rest next to the airlock. The habitat’s rocky surface glistened with a sheen of frozen slime, and the solar collector was darkened to near uselessness.
“Guess he wasn’t expecting to move back in soon,” Robert said.
“Let’s crack this nut. If this goo keeps building up on our suits, I won’t be able to see shit. Or, rather, that’s all I’ll be able to see.” Coella opened her tool belt and made short work of the airlock mechanisms. They moved to either side of the airlock as it opened to avoid the inevitable blast of air, but the airlock was already evacuated. It was dark inside.
She pulled out a flashlight and shined it inside. “His entry light’s burned out. Still has power, or the lock wouldn’t have opened.”
“I doubt the air inside is any good.”
“Probably not. Here, make yourself useful.” She handed him the flashlight and got to work closing the outer lock and opening the inner. Fifteen minutes later, they stepped inside into darkness. Coella pulled out another flashlight, sweeping it over the inside of the habitat. Dead, rotting vegetation clung to every surface. She jumped, grabbing Robert’s shoulder as a small cleaning bot zipped by her head, collected a piece of floating vegetation, and disappeared into a disposal cabinet.
“Aw, it’s nothin’”
“Coella, what is it?”
She looked away from him. “I downloaded the Aliens collection last month, and watched the whole thing. Never again, I swear.”
“You think that’s funny?”
“Aliens, right.” He pushed a switch on the control panel to bring up the lights, hoping that the batteries still had enough of a charge on them. The lights flickered on hesitantly, strobing the room into clarity. Coella gasped.
There was clearly still air in the room, but neither of them bothered reaching for their helmet release clasps. A few tiny bits of green struggled in the mass of black rotting plants, and a host of fungi covered the walls.
Robert stared, and took a deep breath. “Are those portabellas?” he whispered. Huge, white, round bulbs of fungus stood out like molars in the decaying mass of plants.
She slowly scanned the room. “Did Eddy do this on purpose?”
“Dunno. Let’s look around.”
“No need. I can see why his recycler is dumping waste into space. It’s probably jammed up solid with veggie-mass the cleaning robots have been feeding it, and the back-pressure blew out a seal. No wonder it’s getting worse. It’s not feces we’re covered with, it’s rotten plant scuz.”
“Oddly, I feel a little better for that.” He swept the flashlight over the dying mass of plants. “So the only mystery is why.” Robert sat down at Eddy’s monitor. “What do you want to bet that he doesn’t use a password on his communications console?”
Coella smiled. “No bet. Nobody breaks into someone else’s home.”
“Uh-huh.” He powered up the comm center and sat down at the computer. He wiggled his fat, suited fingers over the little keys of the keyboard. “This is going to be a bitch.” He logged on, bypassed the password screen by hitting return, and found himself looking at Eddy’s files. “Thanks, Eddy, for being such an obliging fellow.”
It didn’t take long to figure out that Eddy was getting a pricey habitat in the Ceres Group. MoleTech, one of the bigger and meaner corporations vying for control of most of the belt’s assets, had made him a ridiculously high offer on his existing rock.
“MoleTech? They’re the guys that bought out Jeremy’s and Charl’s rocks,” Coella said. “What are they after?”
Robert tapped slowly against the plastic of his visor, thinking. “I don’t think there’s anything special about Eddy’s rock. Before it was turned into a home rock, there was a pretty thorough assay done. Still ... if MoleTech is interested, something’s up.”
“Call one of the guys that sold out and ask. One of them is bound to tell you something useful. You trust any of them?”
“Not really. What else would make MoleTech interested in our cluster?”
“Maybe something besides asteroids?”
“No, seriously,” Coella continued, “if I remember right, when we joined the Cluster, we signed something that gave some percentage ownership to any patents we came up with.”
A flashbulb illuminated the inside of Robert’s head. “Ah,” he muttered, “the lichen.”
“No, I said lichen. It’s that flakey gray stuff that’s growing on some of the asteroids. A vacuum life form. A patented vacuum life form. The first.”
Coella nodded slowly. “That would fit the bill. So how does buying up Eddy’s asteroid give them control of the Cluster?”
“That’s what I’m not sure about. Maybe I can just call Eddy at Ceres and tell him he’s got a leak and milk him for information.” He shut down the computer and switched off power to the comm station. “We should leave this place the way we found it.”
“Like he’s coming back. He owes us two clean suits. I’m at least taking those with us.”
“Yeah, okay.” Robert looked around at the fungi-covered walls. “And let’s see if we can find a carrier bag. I’m taking the portabellas.”
By the time Robert got back to his rock, he’d decided to call Frank Jones, one of the eleven founders of the Cluster. If anyone knew the ins and outs of Cluster legalities, Frank did.
Frank frowned at him through the comm screen. “So you’re telling me Eddy sold out?”
“Yup. Jeremy and Charl, too.”
Frank counted up on his fingers. “And Ralla and Earl and Joey. Son of a bitch, they’ll have a majority with that weasel Eddy. Never could trust that lazy little prick.”
Robert’s breath whooshed out of his lungs. “That’s ... bad.”
“Yeah, well, no shit. Last time MoleTech took over a colony, most everyone in it was dead by the time the takeover was complete. That was the Whiterock Cluster, you remember?”
“Yeah, I remember.” Miners still occasionally came across bodies drifting in the belt from that event. He shuddered. “Are there any loopholes in the bylaws?”
“Let me send you a copy. You know any good lawyers?”
“In the asteroid belt?”
Frank laughed harshly. “Right. Never mind.”
“Can’t you guys just change the bylaws?”
Frank shrugged. “Sorry, changes need a two-thirds vote, and they can already block that. You find anything else in there, you give me a call and we’ll work it, okay?”
“They might be after Sherrie’s lichen patents, you know.”
“Oh. Oh crap.” Frank rubbed the coarse stubble of a two-day beard.
“Nominally, the Cluster gets twenty-five percent of her profits. But if she dies and has no heirs, they get the whole shebang.”
“And she has no heirs, I’m guessing.”
“You hit the vein with the first blast.”
“Great. Not likely she’s getting married this week.”
“Nope. She’s married to her research already.”
“Well, whatever MoleTech’s motives, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of us.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
They broke communications and Robert carefully read the file that Frank had sent him. There weren’t a lot of loopholes to jump into. Eleven owners, eleven rocks, one vote each, rules for transfer of ownership and thus voting rights. Some of the laws could essentially make corporate slaves out of anyone working in the Cluster, laws apparently never enforced or even mentioned by the original founders. The homesteads that had joined the Cluster could be treated as property of the Corporation. The founders probably never figured on the Cluster turning into a complete free-market community.
He sighed and drifted away from the screen. Maintaining residence in Eddy’s cesspool of a home would really be a trial for some poor front-man working for MoleTech, but not an insurmountable task. MoleTech could clean it up in a week, anyway.
There had to be a reasonable solution to this.
Vince Bloodwell, the CEO for MoleTech, sipped at his cappuccino and looked over the documents on-screen. “This is just a delaying tactic, isn’t it?”
Penwick, the company’s head lawyer, looked over his shoulder. “It’s a lien against the asteroid for damages that the leakage caused. If we decided to fight it in court, it could take months. I suggest we pay the money for the cleanup and get on with satisfying the occupancy requirements. In three months, the Cluster will be ours to do with as we please.”
“This does mean that they’ve figured out we’re after the Cluster, and if they aren’t idiots, they know why.” He rolled his fingers on the oak desktop, glaring at the document. “This Robert Loaghrin, he’s causing a bit of trouble for us.”
Penwick smiled. “Once we own the Cluster, we can deal with him as we wish.”
The best part of all, Robert thought, was that MoleTech was paying for this. Clean-up! One of the many accepted methods of cleaning dirty surfaces on solar arrays was to wipe them down or blow them off. Both of these techniques used up very precious materials, were labor intensive, and often had the same effect as using a leaf blower to blow leaves into your neighbor’s yard. But if you weren’t particular about damage to the surface you were cleaning, then heating up the contaminants to plasma temperatures worked very well, and assured that the contaminants would reach escape velocity from the Belt and thus not settle back down on someone else’s equipment.
Without optical filters, Eddy’s Rock looked like a fireball. They’d be able to see this from Earth. Better, the Ceres Cluster upbelt had to see it, too. Well, at least they would when the light arrived. They were over two light-minutes away. They’d likely figure it for one of the many ships zipping around the Belt; Robert had had the foresight to file a flight-plan for the Cluster’s biggest ship to cover for this event, though the ship would never actually move from its port.
“Rue, can you tell if it’s moving?” Robert broadcast.
“Oh, quite definitely. The plasma from Eddy’s waste stream is hitting an easy 10K. Eddy’s Rock is accelerating at about 0.1 gee. Between everyone’s reflectors and mining lasers, you’re pumping close to forty megawatts into the plasma cloud.”
Getting everyone in the Belt to agree to redirect their solar thermal reflectors and lasers hadn’t taken much arguing; they knew what was at stake. The individual directional controllers were all currently slaved to a master controller that RU12 had programmed to track Eddy‘s asteroid. Getting enough water to refill Eddy’s storage tanks had been a task, but was fortunately part of the standard maintenance contract everyone signed when they joined the Cluster. Otherwise, Robert knew, there wouldn’t have been enough reaction mass to do what he wanted to do.
Frank keyed in, “You can actually see it moving now.”
Robert tweaked the filters on his viewer to dim the view. “Yeah. It’s starting to rotate.”
“The thrust vector of the leakage is not through the CG. We knew it would rotate,” RU12 reminded him.
Robert nodded. RU12 was saying this for the sake of the other listeners in the Cluster. The rotation would get worse as the rock accelerated; fortunately the reaction mass spun away with the rotation, so the only real thrust-pulse the rock was getting was while the waste stream was pointed toward the rest of the Cluster.
“Twenty meters per second. Five RPM.”
“Sweet.” He grinned as Eddy’s Rock slowly accelerated away from the Cluster. The reflectors and lasers provided a spotlight for the new star for nearly fifteen minutes before beam divergence made them useless. RU12 shut down the lasers and redirected the solar collectors/reflectors back to the mundane task of keeping people alive.
The cherry-red ember of Eddy’s Rock faded into the stars.
The Crystal Cup was the only bar in the Cluster, and for that matter, the only one within 10,000 kilometers of the Cluster. It took substantial delta-vee (or time—your choice) to get to Carlton’s Space Bar upbelt, and the clientele weren’t nearly as friendly. The Cup hung at the end of multiple steel tethers, counterbalanced by another massive chunk of rock, orbiting each other just fast enough to keep the beer carbonated and in a glass. One of life’s little pleasures, cherished by all the miners.
William Becher stood in the middle of the common room, incongruously lacking a beer, and shouted at Robert. “Where the hell is my asteroid?”
Becher was large, ugly and imposing, and he could glare a hole in sheet steel, but Robert took his steady stare like he was basking in sunshine. Becher didn’t have to tell them who his employer was; he may as well have had MOLETECH tattooed on his forehead. Two weeks after MoleTech had signed the agreement for the Cluster to start the clean-up, Becher had showed up to move into Eddy’s rock, establishing legal residency. Robert had set up this meeting at the Crystal Cup, because it was the only place big enough to hold this many people. And the new batch of beer was ready.
“Eddy’s asteroid is no longer in the Cluster,” he said.
“I can see that, asshole. What I want to know is where it is.” Three other men stood with Becher, presumably the cleanup crew for Eddy’s Rock. They didn’t look like they were up for a fight, and glanced nervously at the crowd of miners bristling around them. Coella stood at the front of the crowd, just waiting for Becher to do something stupid.
Robert sipped at Rene’s latest beer and smiled. He was completely astounded that the secret had lasted this long, considering that everyone living in the Cluster knew about it. “We’re not entirely sure where it is. Some very hot gases exploded out of the side of it while we were cleaning off the surface and it accelerated out of the system last week. Really hot gas, just like a rocket. You should have seen it.”
“A big rocket.” Becher glanced around at his men. “You mean to tell us that that big-assed rocket that Ceres saw last week was Eddy’s asteroid?”
Robert nodded again and took another sip. For some weird reason, this batch tasted better than any he’d had in a long, long time. They’d be lucky to find Eddy’s asteroid and catch up to it in less than a year; it was covered with baked-in black carbon, making it optically nearly invisible, to say nothing of the fact that they’d boosted it into a hyperbolic orbit; it wouldn’t be coming back. Sure, MoleTech could probably take the optical data from the “launch” and figure out where it went, but they’d still have to figure out how to inhabit an asteroid that was now spinning at 80 revolutions per minute. Catching it and slowing it back down would be prohibitively expensive. Of course, if Becher couldn’t establish residency, MoleTech didn’t get their precious vote.
Keeping them from doing this again would be difficult though; they still only needed to buy one more vote for a majority, and right now the votes were tied up. But that was for the future. Today, there was victory.
“And where the hell did you get a rocket that size?” Becher shouted. “There will be hell to pay when we find out who mounted it on our asteroid.”
Hell to pay. Robert just smiled and lifted his pint. “That might be,” he said, “but in the meantime, cool your heels and have a beer. It’s the best in the Cluster.”
Tom Jolly designs board games and writes. His science fiction stories have appeared (or will appear) in “Analog,” “Daily Science Fiction,” “Something Wicked,” “Acidic Fiction,” “Penny Fiction,” and elsewhere. He is a retired astronautical engineer.