By Tom Jolly
RENE STARED AT THE ROCK, willing it to give up its secrets. Five years ago, an out-of-plane hyperbolic object had entered the asteroid belt at over twenty kilometers per second, but never left, and no one had ever found it. Most smart miners figured it hit another rock and was so much belt dust now; some belters figured that everyone had just missed observing the actual object’s exit from the belt, and that it was long gone. But could this be the object? Or was it just another rock? If this was that object, how did it slow down without getting destroyed in the process?
Speculation on its origin had run rampant among some of the nutjobs in the belt. The mystery object had been feeding the delusions of the “aliens are among us” crowd since it supposedly arrived.
Rene Cutler’s jumpship drifted about a hundred meters from the surface of the mottled asteroid. She was far enough from her ship for the gravity gradiometer to give her a good reading on the asteroid. “Jilly, what do you make of this?”
The jumpship’s AI responded instantly. “The pitting on the asteroid indicates that it may be a bit younger than most of the asteroids in the belt, suggesting that it was introduced well after the original belt was formed. The gradiometer tell us the object is very low density. Based on the relatively dense surface of the asteroid, I would speculate that the object may be hollow rather than puffy.”
“Did I teach you that, Jilly?”
“Do you see anyone else around?”
Rene snorted. The AI core was generic; the vocabulary and idioms were learned. It was just a shame that she had to put up with an electronic version of herself. “Run a GPR scan on it.” The ground-penetrating radar would verify whether the object was hollow or not.
The tether to her ship was over two hundred meters long and gave her plenty of room to maneuver, so she vented a tiny bit of her precious gas and moved slowly toward the object. She reached out to touch it through thickly gloved hands, which pushed her away from the asteroid. “It’s fairly rough, with some minor cratering, but nothing significant. Looks like solid rock, though. Not a gravel pit.” She pulled out a tethered steel wrench and held it to the rock. It stuck. “Very slightly magnetic. Plenty of iron here. Looks like a lot of silica, too.”
“Spectroscopy shows considerable presence of basalt, with patches of quartz and other silica compounds. Probably a V-type asteroid based on composition.”
“Basalt? So you think this came out of Vesta?”
“The odds favor it, but there is an unusual amount of silica and carbonate compounds. The composition doesn’t match any existing catalog asteroid. And it appears much younger than known V-types. The GPR has verified that the object is hollow,” Jilly said. “The skin varies from one to four meters thick.”
Rene’s heart pounded in her chest. “Really?” She used the wrench as a magnetic handle to pull herself across the rock’s coarse surface, dragging the wrench forward as she moved. At this rate, it would take her a good twenty minutes to circumnavigate the rock. “Looks less round from here. I think I see a small jagged section ahead.”
“Uh ... only since you asked, okay.” She moved closer to the rough area. “It looks like a chipped section. Maybe a transverse impact knocked loose some of the outer shell of rock.” Shell of rock, she thought. Now I’m thinking like there’s something wrapped up inside.
The bit of rock looked like a rough continuity of the rest of the asteroid, tilted slightly like a lid. She pulled out a small sampling hammer and tapped away at the edge until the plug of rock loosened. “Hah. Let’s get this chunk back to the ship for analysis.” She pulled at it and a large block, easily over one hundred kilograms, suddenly came loose and drifted away from the asteroid, its momentum jerking it out of her hands. “Crap, we’ll have to retrieve it. Reel me in, Jilly.” She chanced a glance back at the hole the sample left and shouted, “Wait! Wait!”
“Your internals look fine. Is there an emergency?”
Rene shuddered. “No emergency. I just can’t see the bottom of this hole in the asteroid.” Sweat beaded on her forehead, and every story about every alien artifact anyone ever made up came back to her. She took a deep breath and moved toward the hole. The light from her headlamp was swallowed up inside.
“If you attempt to enter the hole, we will loose communication,” Jilly said. “The tether is not currently active as a backup.”
Yeah, Rene thought, another wiring repair I have to catch up on. “I wouldn’t fit through the hole. It isn’t that big. And I’m not completely crazy.” Crazy like an asteroid miner, maybe. She pulled a flashlight from her belt and peered in the hole. The light was eaten by the darkness.
The edge of the hole wasn’t particularly sharp, but Rene hadn’t been around the belt for eight years without learning to be cautious. Whatever was inside could puncture her suit, but sure as hell she was going to stick her arm inside with the flashlight to see what was there, regardless of the danger. “Jilly, if you see the suit pressure drop, don’t instantly reel me in, wait a second for me to push off. I’m going to have my arm in the hole and I don’t want you to tear it off.”
She reached deep inside the hole, but the combination of her suit and arm blocked much of the view. All she could see were the sides of the hole. Ah, I’m going to regret this somehow, she thought, then let go of the flashlight, giving it a little twist as it left her hand. She already regretted it; the flashlight was top-of-the-line with all sorts of extra electronic gimmicks to maximize battery life. She pulled her arm out and stuck her faceplate up to the hole, where she watched the flashlight tumble slowly away from her.
William “Willie” Levant scrolled over the mining claims for the week. Being the CEO of the Ceres Group didn’t give him the right to do so, but bribes in the correct hands did. “What the hell is this one? They’ve submitted a claim for commercial development.”
“Rene Cutler’s claim. A bit unusual, yes.” The VP of Ops, Matin Guildsey, nodded to him and sipped at his whiskey. “The commercial and residential development requests usually don’t get submitted until the rock’s been mined out. We want to check what she’s got.”
They both sat in Levant’s main office, which doubled as a viewing gallery on the surface of Ceres. Though the gallery-office was a symbol of Levant’s power, it never really satisfied him. When the sun was visible, the stars were impossible to see, and when the stars were the only thing in view, then the light in his office created too much backglare. Either way, the view usually sucked.
Nobody ever noticed the heightened level of his irritability. It was a bit like dropping kindling into the sun to make it hotter.
“Have we sent out an assay ship? What if she’s got an artifact?”
“Alien artifact? Seriously?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“So what sort of artifact did you mean?”
Levant rolled his eyes. “Fine. An alien artifact. What if she’s found one?”
“Then we need to take it from her. Of course, she might be willing to sell it. If we want it.”
He stared at the claim on his computer. “The coordinates. This is about where that out-of-plane object came in a few years back, isn’t it?”
“By our estimates, it’s about 200,000 klicks away from that area.”
“But it could have moved.”
“I suppose so,” Guildsey replied. “If it could move. If it was an alien artifact. If it actually stopped in the belt for some reason, so a run-of-the-mill asteroid miner could stumble across it.”
“Don’t be a wiseass, Matin. If it is ...”
“It would be the most lucrative claim ever. Yes, I know.” Guildsey sighed. “We’ll send out a team next cycle to see what’s out there.”
The Ceres Group assay team kept their distance from Rene’s claim; no need to raise any unnecessary questions when it came to the inevitable legal dance required to steal it. But they had a full array of expensive remote monitoring instrumentation pointed at the asteroid.
Gil looked at the mass density indicator. “Oh, man, the thing is mostly hollow.”
Logan Smits smiled broadly. “You ain’t gonna believe this. I’m getting a weak electronic signature from the inside of the thing. We deserve a bonus for this one. If this isn’t an alien ship, my name ain’t Smits.”
Gil laughed sharply. “A bonus. Like that’s going to happen.”
“Maybe we can keep it a secret, you know? Make some money on this on the side?”
Gil shook his head, glaring at Smits. “I don’t know about you, but I like breathing air. How about you?”
He frowned and set his shoulders angrily. “Fine. But this could be the biggest thing ever, and we’re just going to get our regular paycheck out of it?”
“Better paid than dead. You know what Levant is like. Let’s go back. We’ve got all the data we need.”
The meeting room was just off the landing bay near the equator of Ceres. The three hundred meter-per-hour rotation rate of the surface made it convenient to land on one side of Ceres and take off in the opposite direction 4.5 hours later with a six hundred meter-per-hour differential sending you back home. It wasn’t much, but every little bit helped in the Belt. It all added up.
The meeting table was laden with the incalculable decadence of real coffee and real donuts. Rene breathed in the steam from her cup and delicately licked crumbs from her lips and fingertips. This was almost worth putting up with Levant’s presence. The chairs were plastic and the walls were grey flatfoamed, but you couldn’t expect Levant to treat a miner like royalty, could you?
Levant smiled at her, but not pleasantly. Her donut lost some of its sweetness. “That was very savvy of you, Miss Cutler, putting the patent rights up for public sale on your claim. What made you decide to do that?”
Rene smiled back. Without Logan Smits to clue her in, the thought would never have occurred to her. Just would have kept everything secret, and Ceres Group would have stolen her claim from her through their usual legal finagling. “I didn’t have the resources to develop the claim myself,” she explained. “Let someone with deep pockets hassle with the patents, and I can get back to mining. Or retiring, depending on what the buyers find.”
Guildsey smiled crookedly. “We’re willing to offer you a good price if you keep the rights off the auction block. No need to be getting too many people involved.”
“More people involved means a better price, though.”
His lips thinned. “Miss Cutler, the Ceres Group can make life very interesting for you if we choose to.”
Rene tried to keep her face from betraying any hint of concern, or elation at having set the hook. “What do you have to offer?” she asked.
“Basically, we’d like to offer you a three percent royalty on the net profits resulting from any technologies and patents created as a result of exploration of your asteroid, five percent on sublicensing and resale of patents and derivative tech.”
“You don’t even know what’s there yet.”
“Yet apparently you do. Have you been inside it?”
“Yes, you know, everything that isn’t on the outside.” He leaned forward. “The asteroid is hollow. We are fairly confident you already knew that, or you wouldn’t be offering patent rights, would you?”
She remained quiet for a moment, then said, “Okay, sure, it’s hollow. I think it is. I haven’t been inside. But if you’re wrong about what you think is there ...?”
“If there’s nothing there, then we’ve lost nothing.”
“And I’d gain nothing.” Rene leaned forward. “I’d like a million credit advance against future royalties.” Minus Smit’s cut, she thought. “And all the mineral rights if there’s nothing useful there. And five percent royalties across the board. You guys will probably try to weasel out of royalty payments anyway.”
“Miss Cutler, if we did that on a regular basis, we would be out of business. You can expect to get quite rich out of this, if we find even the remotest trace of unusual technology there. Ceres Group finds your terms acceptable. I’ll credit your account once you’ve approved the contract.” He glanced up at the ceiling. “Angela, see that the modified text of the contract is sent to Miss Cutler, along with the voicelock of our conversation.”
“I’ll do that immediately, Mr. Guildsey.”
Rene had carefully removed and reinstalled the plug of rock to retrieve her flashlight, sending in a microbot built for such fine tasks. She didn’t, after all, wish to be accused of salting the mine, even though there was no legal record of the unusual electronic signal inside. A suggestion from Smits led her to place a seismic thumper on the outside of the asteroid; if there was any question of what had caused the mystery electrical signature during the assay, the thumper could take the blame for it instead of her flashlight.
So the ceremony two days later of creating a hole in the rock big enough for a human to enter was just for show as far as Rene was concerned.
Willie Levant had actually suited up for the event, and hung in space watching anxiously as the robotic mining drills and autochisels dug out a pit on the asteroid, a hundred meters from the loose plug that Rene had carefully replaced. Rene and Levant had both agreed that mining lasers were out of the question, as they might damage the contents. A hundred microdrones zipped around the operation in a cloud, snatching and scooping tiny bits of debris as the drilling equipment did its job.
It only took a few minutes to make a new hole. Rene and Levant both jetted forward when the drilling rig was removed, but Levant pushed her suited form out of the way as he closed in on the hole, a high-intensity light in his other hand. He put his face next to the hole and shined the light inside, and stayed there for a whole minute. Rene could hear his labored breathing through the radio, and smiled.
He turned to look at her, though all either of them could see was a bright, reflective bubble of plastic covering each of their faces. “You knew this, somehow, didn’t you?”
“Knew what, Willie? You haven’t even let me look yet.”
He didn’t give her the lamp, but jetted back to the transporter. She watched him drift away. Her friend, Oscar Ramirez, twenty meters away and carrying a full rig for sampling ores, said, “No aliens, I’m guessing.”
“Shall we look and see for ourselves?” Rene said. She pulled her flashlight off her belt, secured the tether, and pushed over to the new hole, which was easily large enough for human entry, and jetted carefully inside. Oscar followed, and Rene heard him gasp as he entered.
He turned around slowly, jetting carefully so as not to disturb anything inside the asteroid. “It’s a goddamned geode! A two-hundred-meter-wide freaking geode! How the hell did something like this ever form?”
Rene laughed, and turned slowly to stare in awe at the chamber. Blue and green crystals up to three meters long reached up from the walls of the giant cavity, crusted at the tips and bases with delicate white crystals. Hard nodules of glittering black spheres clustered in other spots. The one end where she’d originally found the broken opening had been heavily damaged, the dust of crushed crystals glittering in the light. “I remember my geology course. This ain’t a geode. They don’t form that way. They start off as bubbles in rock, and water leeches in, carrying the minerals that make the crystals. You see any water outside?”
Rene shook her head. “Maybe it started with some dense solution inside, like an egg yolk, slowly leeching out instead of in, volatiles evaporating from the surface, crystals left inside, like salt in a pan. See that pattern? Thin crystal patterns on either end, thick in the middle, like this thing used to be rotating.” She stared at the forest of colored filaments and spikes. “Turn off your light, I want to check something.”
He obliged, and she fiddled with her own flashlight until it switched to UV, then her breath caught again. Orange and green lights glowed like veins in the crystals, purple halos fringing their frames. Oskar said, “This is unreal. This is, this is ...”
“This is a tourist stop,” she said. You didn’t survive long in the Belt without a solid foundation in economics. “The only defect is that damned bare spot at the end of the chamber.”
“Oh, Rene, you dumbass. That’s where your bar is going to be.”
Oscar could swear he could see Rene grin through the soft green-orange light reflecting from her helmet. “Oh yeah,” she said.
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.