The surface of the rock slowly rolled in front of me, dark and forbidding, even in the brutal, ghostly white light of the isis. At this distance it was utterly featureless, matte-black velvet with an occasional diamond twinkle, like one of those expensive dresses in the interactives. My heart pounded, as it always did when I approached one of those monstrosities. Slamming into this thing head-on wouldn’t even leave a dent — on it. And not enough of me to feed the algae back home. I held my breath. The seconds stretched out into eternity.
Finally, the assist readout sprang back to life, a familiar web of vectors and traced contours soothing my tension, its beams caressing my retina in their reassuring golds and greens. The gear shutdown was a wachimbaji ritual: never, ever lose your respect for the stone giants. The difference in scale between our puny machines and the enormity of the rocks, and their speeds around the isis, made every mistake into an opportunity for a surprise funeral.
This time it wasn’t the size of the asteroid that made my nerves buzz with excitement. This five-by-eight-hundred-meter chunk of rock wasn’t the largest boulder I’d seen up close, not by far, but this time I felt like I was about to touch a treasure. The swing of its orbit turned it into an incredible stroke of luck for the Kumani. No wonder our Eldest Council christened it Kumani’s Hope: it would remain near our Residence for many months. Finally, our own asteroid to harvest. And Kumani would certainly try just about anything to keep working it for as long as possible; maybe we would even finally buy a freighter…
The bleeping of the analyzer brought me back to the present, and I focused my eyes on the data in front of me: rust, sand, manganese oxide… water and carbon! That stuff that the isis kept burning away from all the rocks in our neighborhood faster than we could blink.
If I had the numbers right, this asteroid might well be the best thing that had happened to anyone in the isis system for a long time: A normal boulder contains mostly sand, and maybe some aluminum oxide — and hundreds of times less than the fifty megatons of precious water estimated by the analyzer. Our asiari might even consider it worthwhile to build a defense system into that rock, since all of our neighbors would be just as keen on getting a piece of our cake. Neighbors like the Ellisons, just as dirt-poor as us and only a quarter of an orbit behind, coming near.
For the moment, though, we were safe, as far as the asiari knew it — and they sure knew plenty, being the Kumani security forces after all. Ellisons’ tech was just as bad as ours. Hope was so dark, they wouldn’t even see it for a while — and they certainly wouldn’t be in working range for months. By then we’d have something figured out. If we had a working mine set up by the time our jealous neighbors came around, what could they do? Steal unprocessed chunks of rock on a shift change?
The nerve-racking siren of the collision alarm painfully brought the point of the gear shutdown home — I couldn’t let the computer lull me into the false feeling of safety, I really had to concentrate on my job now, even though the warning came well in advance. I triggered the braking burn, and stopped almost dead in space, a few centimeters short of the dark surface, illuminated only by my position lights and the sparkles in stone thrown by the isis.
I touched down on top of the rock mere moments later — thanks to the incomplete burn. Had I let gravity take its course, the 20 centimeters to the surface would have taken me just as many minutes to travel. I wanted to be done with the job — people were waiting, and this part wasn’t that much fun anyway. The routine of countless working hours kicked in, and my sense of awe slowly faded. I wasn’t the sort to change my diapers after an asteroid touchdown and, treasure or no treasure, this was just another job.
Once engaged, the vibro-anchors slowly ate their way through the rock, their computed contours moving through my field of view as razor-thin yellow lines, shining through the rock above them, shifting numbers indicating their speed and depth.
The core drill appeared to slip from its holster and into my hand all by itself. I pushed it against the piece of asteroid right in front of me, waiting for the anchors to reach a reasonable depth before taking a bite out of “my” rock. The walimu from our science section were sure hot to see what the thing was really made of, so they could appraise it properly. They probably also wondered how badly our remote analyzers were miscalibrated. As they kept saying, we couldn’t afford the expensive Nguyen crap; we had to build our own cheap crap instead.
I waited a little longer than the gear told me was necessary, just to make extra-sure the vibro-anchors held properly, and then activated the drill. After all the boulders I’d handled, I knew the anchors’ depth and movement by heart. This time, though, they seemed to move too fast. Or was it just my brain getting rusty from the long wait since my last job?
With no warning at all, the rock gave in, and I fell forward, yanked by the vibro-anchors still working their way through the rock. The out-of-control drill churned me like an algae shake, and blew rock chips against my body, before I even thought of shutting it off.
Suddenly a something hammered me from behind, right into the asteroid. “What the …?” was all I managed to think, before I discovered myself afloat in a cloud of chips, anchors and cables, slowly drifting away from the rock, my delta-v readout blinking in a panicked red. I groped for anything worth grabbing, before the whole bunch’o’stuff drifted out of my reach, and ended up with a sizable piece of rock between my hands…
Continued in “Passing The Ball”