“Control, this is EPV Chapel Perilous. Confirm trajectory to one-one-zero-mark-three. Tracking object A340e, inbound hot.”
“Confirmed, Perilous. You are cleared for pursuit. Be advised A340e is in a hot zone: mags only. Demolition is prohibited.”
“Copy, control. Perilous out,” Ramirez replied. With that, she keyed on the ship’s intercom. “Alright, people,” she began, “all hands on deck.”
Far beyond the gentle seas and verdant forests of Earth, beyond the habs on Luna and Mars, lay one of the most remote regions of the Solar System. A ring of rocky, icy bodies, irregular and pockmarked by eons of impacts, for billions of years it had held a vast, untapped supply of raw materials in trust. The Asteroid Belt: the mother lode of the Solar System. Once the inhabitants of the vital third planet had developed the necessary technology to tap it, the vast storehouse of resources had become the fuel that propelled human expansion into space. From short-range resupply craft to interstellar transports, to the massive ringed stations being built in the Solar System and elsewhere, everything began there: in the cold silence surrounding tiny worlds that might have been.
In the early days, asteroid mining was a costly, dangerous, haphazard exercise. Small drones and prospect craft had been sent out into the belt, lost in the icy vastness as they scoured the rocky bodies for suitable excavation targets. Those found to harbor useful minerals were bored into and blasted apart, showering the surrounding space with hazardous debris fields which were then combed for valuable materials. The payout for such endeavors was high. The mortality rate for the miners was higher still.
By the late 21st century, however, times had changed. With the advent of post-scarcity economics, asteroid mining had been transformed from a risky business to an efficient enterprise. The introduction of EM rakes had revolutionized the process, and the subsequent advent of Mond-funnel mining had rendered blast-mining obsolete. Now, the entire belt buzzed like a beehive, as drones flitted about as though metallic insects, boring through larger asteroids while towing others to their motherships. Mining operations were now directed by Mobile Resource Operations Controllers: the M-ROCs, enormous spacecraft crewed by hundreds, serving as mobile refineries. Their enormous funnels and extensive printing facilities had rendered the old prospecting vehicles obsolete. By 2100, only a few remained.
One such vehicle was the EPV Chapel Perilous. The Perilous was a relic of a bygone era: stark, battered, filthy and old. Her weathered spaceframe was dominated by a bank of six MPDs, eschewing faster VASIMR engines due to power constraints. A cluster of eight Stirling radioisotope generators strained to power her ion engines, which burned dirty with age. Even with all eight generators at full capacity, bathing the lower decks in radiation, she all but limped through space. The SRGs provided only sufficient power for the MPDs and mining laser; clusters of photovoltaic arrays that folded to the hull like the wings of an insect were required to maintain life support. Also due to power constraints, the three-person crew was confined to only seven hundred cubic meters of living space, all in microgravity. Breathing room and gravity were luxuries.
The cramped conditions had never bothered Ramirez. Tabitha Ramirez was a career prospector, one of the few remaining. As a young woman she’d taken to the stars, hoping to escape the hunger and poverty of the United States by signing on with the first prospector that needed a pilot. Back then, there was good money in asteroid prospecting. Now there was no money in anything, but even as the prospectors had been phased out she had survived, purely through her incredible skill and grit. Ramirez was good at what she did, and now in her fifties, her skill allowed her to continue living the only life she’d ever known.
Behind her, the hatch slid open, ushering forth the other two members of her crew.
“What’s it today, skipper?” Marx inquired, floating into the seat next to hers before strapping himself in. Rebel Marx was her flight controller: an African American man in his late twenties, as cocksure as he was the day she met him. “What are we chasing?”
“We’re not exactly chasing anything,” Callahan chimed in. Ward Callahan had been her science officer for years. He was a geologist by education, but in the belt science was science; geology blended seamlessly with physics, astronomy, cosmology, and a science officer needed to be able to put it all together. Ward was a bit of a know-it-all, but he had a right to be; he was the smartest person she’d ever known.
Marx rolled his eyes. “Call it ‘pursuit’ or whatever, but we’re inbound hot.”
“It’s a big one,” Ramirez offered, pointing. Ahead and off to the right, a point of light barely twinkled, just out of sight. It had been nearly a week since they’d left the Sirocco, but after endless scans they’d found something truly special.
“You should have called me in here sooner,” Callahan replied, engrossed in his console readouts. “Density is off the scale. I’ve never seen anything like it. Are we sure this is an asteroid?”
“A big, gray rock, floating around in the belt?” Marx shot back, sarcastically. “What else could it be?”
“I dunno…” Callahan replied, seemingly oblivious to the slight. “Snagged ESO? I mean it’s gotta be something. Mass readings like that on an asteroid would suggest a solid nickel core.”
At this, Marx turned to him, a mix of shock and maniac thrill on his face. “Have you thought maybe it could actually have a solid nickel core?”
Now Ramirez turned to him as well. Though largely abandoned on Earth and virtually useless in space construction, thanks to the recent need for solid structures on extrasolar colonies stainless steel was making a comeback. This meant that after nearly a century nickel was becoming a hot commodity. An asteroid composed of nearly solid nickel would be a tremendous find.
“I mean, it’s possible,” Callahan allowed, crossing his arms, “but unlikely. That object is big, but not big enough to be solid. If it has a solid nickel core, it could rewrite the book on everything we know about asteroid composition.”
Ramirez nodded slowly. He had a point; while the largest asteroids in the belt were solid rock or metallic ore, most smaller bodies were little more than piles of rubble clumped together by their aggregate gravity. Large asteroids were bored into or towed to an M-ROC for processing, but smaller ones were typically raked with mags to extract useful materials, leaving clouds of carbon dust and ice discarded in their wakes.
Still, if she’d learned anything in her decades spent working in space, it was there was always more to know. Humanity never stopped learning about the universe, and every time they thought their home star system held no further surprises for them, a new discovery changed everything. Perhaps this was their day to change the science texts.
“Throttle up,” she commanded, turning back to Marx. “Time to get to work.”
Contrary to most expectations, the Asteroid Belt was mostly empty space. A spacecraft moving aimlessly through the belt could travel for days, even weeks before approaching an object at random. Major mining operations required a defined target, and while all M-ROCs carried a vast array of scientific instruments to study the object around them, their mammoth size meant they were slow moving. Thus, they relied on either manned prospecting vehicles or drones to conduct deep scans and extract core samples before moving into range. For the past six years, the Chapel Perilous had been assigned to the M-ROC EMV Sirocco: a massive, two-kilometer framework of trusses and gravity wheels, built around a central electromagnetic funnel. As with the other prospecting vehicles, the Perilous would spend days or even weeks at a time on its lonely sojourns through the belt, determining whether various bits of cosmic flotsam warranted a visit from the flying industrial complex they called home.
The Chapel Perilous was twelve hours out when she began her pursuit of A340e. By the time they closed to within range of their antiquated sensors, eight had passed. Ramirez drummed her fingers on her console anxiously, her third cup of coffee empty and floating near her head. She was seldom this uneasy, but this was hardly a routine survey. Such a rich source of heavy metals would be a boon to interstellar construction efforts, and even if it turned out to be a red herring, no doubt they would help to rewrite the book on asteroids. By now, the distant twinkle had resolved itself into a lumpy, gray blur, as though a pebble left floating in space. Within minutes they’d closed to within range of their lidar array, and soon Callahan was hard at work compiling data.
For a time, Ramirez fought to remain silent, leaving Callahan hunched over his console in peace, his face illuminated in deep blue as he scratched his chin. Due to nerves, she barely lasted five minutes before asking, “So, what have we found?”
“Dunno…” Callahan replied, fretfully.
Ramirez scowled, but remained silent. Marx, however, piped in. “You don’t know? C’mon, you have to have more than that. That thing’s lit up like a damn city!”
Callahan sighed heavily, leaning back in his seat. “We have the data. I just can’t make sense of it.” Turning his chair toward his crewmates, he continued. “Look, this thing isn’t that big. Size estimates from the Sirocco were off by almost ten kilometers. But that just makes this more puzzling. Come here, see for yourself.”
Immediately, both Ramirez and Marx released their restraints and floated over to Callahan’s station. Ramirez grabbed hold of his seat back, steadying herself to gaze at his screen.
“Look at this,” he began, gesturing toward his readouts, “the size estimates weren’t the only thing they got wrong. Based on our measurements, this this is way more massive than reported by initial observations. I’m detecting up to seventy percent more mass. Which means there’s no way this thing is made of nickel.”
Ramirez cocked her head. That couldn’t be right. M-ROCs like the Sirocco were equipped with better scopes and sensors than some extrasolar vehicles. Mistakes of this magnitude simply weren’t made.
“So what is it?” Marx replied. “Cadmium? Tungsten?”
Callahan shook his head. “Even a core of solid titanium ore wouldn’t be this massive.”
“Then what would?” Ramirez demanded.
To her shock, Callahan merely shrugged. “Honestly? I have no idea. The only thing I can think is either we’re about to add something to the periodic table, or something inside that rock is turning physics upside down.”
While Marx looked toward her, clearly awaiting her orders, Ramirez stroked her chin, thinking. What had begun as an unusual survey mission had turned into something else entirely. If the asteroid ahead of them contained a new element, it could revolutionize human technology. If it harbored some form of unfamiliar anomaly, it could well be above their pay grade.
“Should we contact the Sirocco?” Marx ventured.
“What could they do?” Marx replied. “They’re out of visual range.”
“Pete’s right,” Ramirez cut in. “The Sirocco isn’t here. We are, and we have a job to do. Whatever’s inside that thing, we were sent here to find it. And that’s what we’re going to do. Everybody take their places. Time to set down.”
A few more hours of hard burn, and the Chapel Perilous was nearing A340e. From their vantage point, it seemed stunningly nondescript: a drab gray rock, roughly potato-shaped, pockmarked by craters casting eerie shadows across its surface. Callahan quickly mapped its topography – it was not overly large – and determined a deep crater on the facing side to be their best landing point. Ramirez killed the MPDs as Marx carefully reoriented the ship for touchdown.
“Landing” on an asteroid was nothing like landing on a larger celestial body. Even larger asteroids typically exhibited only tenuous gravity, barely enough to hold them together, and their surfaces were typically little more than a thin veneer of loose cosmic detritus. As such, vehicles designed to land on them like the Chapel Perilous were equipped with delicate landing struts, with sophisticated shock absorbers tipped with magnetized claws. Even then, the slightest miscalculation in velocity could see them bounce off the surface and back into space.
Fortunately, Ramirez and here crew were old hands at this, and Marx brought them to a gentle landing deep inside the crater. On approach, the PV arrays had been retracted, folding in against the fuselage as though the wings of a wasp. Without solar energy, and with the bulk of their power devoted to sensors and their mining instruments, the lights in the command module dimmed. As the temperature began to drop, Ramirez peered out through the latticed forward windows to survey their surroundings. The crater was deep, about as deep as was possible on an asteroid this size, and its lip cast a shadow that enveloped the Perilous in darkness.
Taking advantage of the most gravity she’d felt in days, Ramirez released her restraints, moving carefully so as not to bounce out of her chair. After a brief sigh, she turned back to Callahan.
“Report,” she commanded.
“Still having a hard time figuring out what’s down there.”
Marx now turned to him as well, incredulous. “We still can’t get through? We’re literally on top of it.”
“I know,” Callahan replied, “but our instruments are only as good as our computers. They can report all the measurements they want, but if our computer can’t recognize the signal, all we know is that there’s a whole lot we don’t know.”
“We should try taking a core sample,” Ramirez replied. “Can we get a read on surface composition, at least? How solid is this stuff?”
Callahan turned back toward his controls, squinting. “Looks like mostly dust. A few larger fragments, but nothing unusual. Just the usual clumpy stuff we see.”
Nodding, Ramirez turned to Marx. “Bring the drill online.”
Marx nodded in response, then keyed in a few commands. At once, the lights flickered, as a low hum emanated from the deckplates below their feet. Just below, their mining laser slid out from the fuselage, as though the mouthparts of a mosquito, prepared to bite through the rocky exterior of A340e and see what lay beneath.
“Hold on…” Callahan said, urgently, drawing her attention. “I’m reading…some kind of interference…”
“Interference?” Ramirez repeated, eyes wide. “What the hell kind of interference could we be getting from an asteroid?”
“I’m not sure…” Callahan replied, tapping away furiously at his console. “It’s some kind of radiation, I think, but-”
“Radiation?” Marx croaked. “Are you saying if we burn into this thing, it could explode?”
“I don’t know!” Callahan shouted back, frustrated. “Maybe? Look, it’s not ionizing radiation. If it was, we would’ve detected it.”
“If it’s not ionizing radiation, what kind of radiation could it be?” Ramirez demanded.
“I don’t even know that it is radiation. I’ve never seen anything like this. But it’s not ionizing radiation, so I’m pretty sure it’s not about to go nuclear under us.”
Ramirez sighed slowly, turning forward. She needed to make a decision. If the asteroid beneath them contained an unstable core, cutting into it with a laser could be catastrophic, but only if they used full intensity, and kept cutting even after a radiation spike. If worse came to worst, they still had their thrusters, their engines. A hard takeoff would blow up a cloud of debris in their wake, blocking at least some of the radiation. And even their aging, underpowered MPDs would be enough to clear the blast radius if the unthinkable happened. She took a slow, deep breath, steadying herself. She’d seen her share of close scrapes over the years. She could handle this, and so could the Perilous.
“Activate the drill on my mark,” she commanded.
“Seriously?” Marx shot back, appalled. “We don’t even know what’s down there, and you just wanna cut into it? We could-”
Knowing a confrontation would serve no one, she merely leaned toward Marx and laid a supportive hand over his, making firm eye contact. “We never know what’s down there. Not really. When you activate the drill, program the emitter for ten second bursts with a fifteen second cooldown. If anything goes wrong, we’ll have enough time to stop cutting and blast off.”
Hesitantly, Marx nodded. She’d known Reb for years, and she’d never seen him shaken like this. Now, she found fear in his eyes, but he trusted her. And so, reluctantly, he carried out her orders and programmed the drill.
“Ten second burst,” he began, a sweaty hand poised above his controls. “In five, four, three, two, one…”
A moment later the command module began to vibrate as the drill activated. Beneath them, a powerful beam shot out from the emitter, cutting almost instantly through the loose surface debris before barely grazing the core below. As the laser cut out, the Perilous seemed to stumble on its gear, her crew grasping their armrests as the loose rubble beneath them shifted slightly. Fifteen seconds later, the deck plates thrummed once more with the second burst. Another fifteen seconds, another burst. Then another.
After five, Ramirez ordered Marx to power down the drill for cooldown, then turned to Callahan. “Anything?” By now, no doubt they’d at least pierced the asteroid’s core, allowing their instruments to analyze its composition.
To her shock, Callahan merely shook his head.
“Did we even breach it?” she demanded, frustrated.
“I have no idea,” he replied. “If we did, I can’t make heads or tails of what’s down there. The interference is spiking though. I’d say whatever’s down there is-”
He stopped speaking. He stopped moving. In an instant he appeared to be frozen mid-sentence.
“Well?” she demanded. “Is what?” What’s…” she trailed off. Callahan still wasn’t moving. In fact he’d ceased all motion entirely. He wasn’t blinking. As far as she could tell, he wasn’t even breathing.
“Pete!” she shouted, pushing out of her seat and moving toward him. “Pete, speak to me! What the hell is going on?” She reached out to him, hoping to shake him, snap him out of whatever trance he’d fallen into, yet she could reach no farther than half a meter before she found she couldn’t move, either. Her hand was frozen, as was her forearm. Ramirez shrieked in horror as she pulled fruitlessly. Placing her other hand on her stuck arm, she fought desperately to pry her hand free from nothing. Yet it would budge. Stranger still, after several, agonizing minutes whatever held her seemed to simply let go. Suddenly free, she flew back into her seat, wincing in pain as the headrest dug into her back before she landed hard against the lattice beyond.
“-causing the interference,” Callahan finished, before turning as Ramirez whimpered in pain. “My God, what the hell happened?” he asked, quickly pushing free of his seat and rushing to her.
Ramirez lay crumpled atop her console. With effort, she righted herself, slowly easing back into her seat before checking her head for cuts. “You were frozen! You weren’t moving! So I tried to help, and I got…stuck…somehow. And then, it just let go!”
Callahan’s expression shifted from panic to befuddlement. “When did all this happen?”
“It…” she began, before a troubling thought occurred to her. “Wait…what do you mean?”
Leaning forward slightly, Callahan responded, “Tabby…I don’t know how all of that could’ve happened. One second I was talking, and then you were smashed against the window.”
“No,” she replied, shaking her head. “No, that was minutes ago…you weren’t moving, weren’t even breathing, for minutes.”
“What’s going on here?” Marx chimed in.
“I have an idea…” Callahan replied, “but I don’t see how it’s possible.”
“Looks like it’s a day for impossibility,” Ramirez retorted, weakly.
Swallowing hard, Callahan quickly returned to his console.
“What are you doing?” Marx asked, following him with Ramirez limping behind.
“Looking for the Sirocco,” Callahan replied.
“But they’re out of range…” Marx replied, confused. “What could they do to help us?”
“No, you don’t understand. I’m not trying to contact them. I’m trying to see where they are.”
“Where do you expect them to be?” Ramirez asked, unsure of where he was going with this.’
“Here,” Callahan replied at last, pointing at his screen. His readouts displayed the surrounding area of the belt, overlain with a series of trajectories, one highlighted in yellow. “See that? That’s the Sirocco’s reported trajectory. Now, we last reported in twelve hours ago, which means they should be here. But they’re not.”
Ramirez stared at the screen, incredulous. “Well then where the hell are they?”
“Here,” he replied, gesturing to a point much further along their trajectory. “Look at that. It would have taken them two days at full burn to make it that far. I was only able to find them because we have their trajectory. The last time we were in contact was only twelve hours ago.”
“So how did they make it that far in twelve hours?” Ramirez asked, voicing the obvious question. “No M-ROC is equipped with an ACD.”
“Well…” Callahan began, crossing his arms. “I can only think of one explanation: time dilation.”
“Time dilation?” Marx asked, incredulous. “How is that even possible? I thought that only happened around black holes.”
“Or objects traveling close to the speed of light,” Ramirez offered.
“Actually,” Callahan began, “time dilation happens all the time. Any movement is accompanied by time dilation. Even walking around. The effect just isn’t usually strong enough to notice.”
“Fascinating,” Ramirez replied, dryly. “But it’s noticeable here, so the question is: what’s doing this?”
“Well, that’s not a question I can answer,” Callahan replied, regretfully. “With more time to study this, maybe I could figure it out. But right now the best I can do is to say that whatever’s going on down there is something we’ve never seen before.”
“Wow…” Marx replied, a smile creeping onto his face. “Imagine that: the three of us making a discovery! And they bounced me out of the astronaut corps! Ha!”
Ramirez found she, too, couldn’t repress a smile. There was little fame or fortune to be had in asteroid mining. Not anymore, at least. In a way, this was far more satisfying than finding a mother lode of nickel.
“Well then,” she began, “what do we do next? How do we get a closer look at whatever is down there?”
She turned to Callahan, who appeared pained. “Honestly? I’m not sure there’s anything else we can do.”
Marx’s shoulders drooped. “But, our discovery!”
Callahan sighed heavily. “Our observations and sensor logs will have to be enough. Whatever happened to us, it happened when we drilled into the core. So, if we try it again…”
“We could get stuck again,” Marx finished for him.
Callahan nodded. “Action, reaction. It’s the most basic idea in science. Now, we could try it again, see if we get the same result…”
“But this time it could be worse,” Ramirez finished.
Again, Callahan nodded. “We lost a day and a half. Who knows how much we’d lose next time.”
“Obviously, it’s not worth the risk,” Ramirez decided.
“Well,” Callahan began, “we could at least stay and take a few more readings, analyze-”
He stopped as a sudden vibration rocked the ship. Ramirez turned to Marx, who held up his hands.
“The drill is off! Don’t look at me!”
As if to confirm, a second rumble rocked the ship, followed by another. And another. As the Perilous pitched and bucked beneath her feet, Ramirez grabbed the back of her seat to steady herself. As she did, it occurred to her that she hadn’t fallen against her seat, she’d fallen onto it. Gravity. At least one G.
Frantically, Ramirez turned back to Callahan. “Pete!” she shouted.
“I’m getting tired of saying ‘I don’t know’!” he bellowed back over the din.
“Screw it! We’re getting out of here! Reb, grab the stick!”
With that, the three crewmembers of the Chapel Perilous stumbled back to their seats and strapped in. With everyone secured, Marx wasted no time releasing the mags on their landing gear. Yet despite seeing his hands on the controls, Ramirez noticed they hadn’t yet took off.
“Well?” she demanded, wide-eyed. “What are you waiting for? Push us off!”
“I’m trying!” he shouted back, on the verge of panic. “RCS is at one hundred percent, but we can’t pull away!”
“What?” Ramirez shrieked, fighting panic herself.
“We’re at one G!” Callahan offered from behind her, shouting over the mounting din. “The Perilous was built in space! She was never meant to take off from a planetary body!”
Frantic, Ramirez turned back toward her display. The view through the forward lattice appeared to shift as the ship pitched left; the rubble beneath them was shifting. If they stayed much longer, they might find themselves buried beneath it. They had to do something, and fast.
“Reb!” she shouted, turning to her flight controller. “On my signal, fire up the MPDs, full burn!”
“What?” he croaked. “But the crater! If we hit the MPDs here, we’ll-”
“The crater is collapsing!” she shouted back. “Our ion engines are the only thing we have strong enough to break free! If we don’t leave now, we’ll be buried!”
Uncharacteristically, Marx froze up. His hesitation was costing them precious seconds: time they didn’t have. Lowering her voice as much as she could, she leaned toward him, making firm eye contact. “Keep your hands on the stick. Hard up along the Y axis and full burn. You can do this.” You have to she added, though not aloud.
Though clearly still uncertain, he nodded slowly, and with a few taps on his interface the MPDs fired up. At once, all three crewmembers were pushed hard against their seats, pressed by acceleration as their main engines roared to life. In an instant they were moving at full-tilt toward the crater wall, Marx with both hands on the control stick, pulling back with all his strength. At first Ramirez wasn’t sure they’d make it. She fought the urge to close her eyes as the wall approached, but with a spray of dust they managed to clear it, just barely. At once, the view of bare rock gave way to an unbroken starfield. They had made it.
As the Chapel Perilous hit full burn, her crew finally slumped back in their seats, catching their collective breath. From behind her, Ramirez could hear Callahan chuckling, no doubt almost giddy at having cheated death. But for her part, Ramirez flipped her monitor to watch their rear scopes, unable to repress her curiosity.
By now, the asteroid was beginning to break apart. Small bits of debris scattered off into space in all directions, as larger pieces drifted lazily away behind them. Yet halfway through the slow explosion, everything seemed to freeze: the bits of cosmic flotsam paused, as a bright flash at the center came and went. Moments later, the debris seemed to shoot off, scattering across local space and pelting their ship.
It was an awesome sight, yet something had caught her eye. It was brief, so brief at first she thought she might have imagined it, until she played back through the footage in slow-motion. Then, at last she saw it: just prior to the flash, the barest glimpse of whatever lay at the heart of the asteroid. It was long, angular, clearly metallic. The configuration was unfamiliar, but the shape was unmistakable.
In spite of all they’d been through, Ramirez found herself smiling. No matter how long humans spent in space, there was always more to know.