Stanley Trevaskevich kicked the blue mining robot that should have been cutting away at the asteroid. It didn't move, but the force pushed him up off his feet until an orange safety rope pulled taut. Without the rope, he would have been another piece of space junk.
He pulled himself in toward the machine. He instructed it to move away and he looked down at what it was cutting. His helmet lights were feeble and earth-shine didn't help. The sun would help. He pulled himself down to look at the rock.
This asteroid, when they found it, was a chunk of plain iron ore a kilometers across at the major axis and a less than eleven at the minor. Now it was six by three, shaped like an apple core.
He put a spectrography machine to the ground and pulled the trigger. Big cartoonish letters lit up, "AU."
"What? Really? Really?!"
"What is it, Stanley?" the radio said into his ear. That was Sinead, back at the main base, named The Leech. Commander Cohen, but they dropped referencing rank after the 3rd day out here. They were civilians. But all managers were "Commanders" now. That was the fad after some hack published a management book about how awesome the military was and suggested taking on the trappings of it. Stanley had been working under "Commanders" since he started working at a local burger chain. Technically, through stock ownership and subsidiaries, he still worked for that same company.
"I'm not sure. I need more light. I don't think this is right," but he didn't really believe that. "Waiting for the sun," he said and clicked off outbound radio. The asteroid rotated every hour. He watched Earth set, South America entire visible under clouds.
It was a simple plan, really: move the asteroid to one of the moon-Earth Legrange points, L4 in this case; strip-mine it; use the rock and iron from the asteroid itself to manufacture a heat-resistant cask; attach some equipment; and drop the items to the Earth or the moon or wherever. Repeat several thousand times. Then go home.
The sun peaked over the short horizon. It was unusually bright until he put down the visor.
He looked at the ground "How the hell did that get here?" he asked himself. "That can't be right. I mean. It can, but."
He turned back on the radio, "Cohen?"
He took a second. "It's gold, Sinead."
For a moment, there was nothing. Then: "Come in, Stanley. Beyond my pay grade. It's not going anywhere."
"One more thing."
Stanley looked around. For at least a dozen meters all around him was shining and hard to look at.
"There's a lot."
The Leech's air dock doors irised open into the rather large prep area afforded to them. In addition to the equipment neatly put away, this area quadrupled as exercise, relaxation, and sleep area. Trevaskevich glided in. Opie was waiting for him.
"We got Evans on speaker," Opie said. "Video in a minute on account of Earth weather. Come to the comm when you get your suit off."
"Okay. I'll just take a second," Stanley said. Opie left, which was fortunate because Stanley had gas. Would be rude to fart in the face of second-in-command.
The suit was designed to be able to be removed by one person via a password tapped into a keypad. on the forearm. He typed the password and he felt the magnetic seal release. The suit pieces started drifting slowly to the ground. If he left now, he could get to the other end of The Leech and back before they touched the grated floor. He let the pieces drift and start their slow tumble. He would come back for them soon enough.
Trevaskevich pushed and glided toward the comm, which another large room on the opposite side of dumbbell shaped The Leech.
Sinead Cohen, Opie, and Sherry King were all already in the comm, sitting in seats facing a screen in the "front" of the ship/base with Evans' face on it. Stanley could hear Evans over some speakers. "Well, it's an interesting vote. We'll have to see what tack the president takes. He's facing a tough challenge from his former VP." Political talk. It never ended.
Cohen noticed Stanley come in and sit down. So did Evans. There were a few cameras around this room.
"Stanley? Great. Let's get started. So don't we begin with what you found, Stanley?"
A couple seconds later, time enough for light to go between the Earth and them twice plus a little for processing, Evans said, "Yes, I think we have all established that. Anything further? Quantities? Qualities? So on?"
"Tons of it. I've encountered an area at least twenty meters across of unknown depth."
"Seriously," Trevaskevich said. "As a cardiac arrest."
"Yes, Evans, are you having technical trouble down there?" Trevaskevich asked.
"Tons? In your gravity?"
"Shut up. You know what I mean. Tons of mass."
Evans smiled. Opie floated off a little of his chair before grabbing and pulling himself down. He shook his big head and asked. "Well, what do we do with it?"
"I'm afraid that might be a little bit beyond my pay grade. I'll have to get back to you tomorrow. Okay?"
Sinead said, "Understood. We'll just wait until we hear from you."
"Yup, just sit on it, Leech. Take the rest of the day off. Out."
Evans cut out.
A console beeped. Three of them just sat and looked at each other. Opie floated around, pencil and paper in hand, scribbling. He had used a not insignificant portion of his mass allotment on pencils and paper. He only used the company's computer tablets when he needed information.
Trevaskevich looked around. Sherry shook her head. Cohen was looking at the blank screen. She swore.
"How much?" he asked. "How many tons of mass."
Stanley shrugged. "Pointless speculation. Could be a two-inch thick plate or a cube of significant size. We're near the center, where the heavier elements would be...so...who knows?" He started to get up, but stopped half-way, which caused him to continue floating slowly up. "It's very strange. It's not embedded in the iron like we see on Earth. It's just there."
"I think this is a bigger problem," Stanley continued. "We have only mined a handful of asteroids. Five. It's still fantastically expensive, but worth its weight, pardon, in gold-plated gold. This trip cost a quarter of the first one. And that trip was still worth it. We only first touched down on an asteroid less than 50 years--"
"Are you getting anywhere, Stanley?" Cohen asked. "We know the history of the program."
"Yeah, sorry," Trevaskevich said, "This type of mining is getting cheaper. These situations will happen again. Of the 5 previous missions, none have found anything like this. How we respond could set a precedent. The odds are just there, even if tiny. Like World-Wide Lotto. Chances are 1 in a billion, but nearly every week there is a winner. Sometimes two."
Stanley was silent for a second. "I think that's it. The point is that we're not going to be the last."
"Okay," Cohen said. "It's not in our hands right now. Just relax for the day. Tomorrow we'll have our answer."
At 0600 GMT, they woke and began their daily maintenance checks, then breakfast, then exercise. Around 0800, they were notified of an incoming transmission and moved toward the comm. Evans' face was translucent on the main screen, waiting for someone to acknowledge the message and start a return video feed. There were dark circles around his eyes, and the same tie from yesterday was still around his neck, loosened. The beard shadow was obvious even from millions of miles away.
The crew of The Leech all maneuvered into their chairs. Sinead waited until her crew were all in and settled before accepting the incoming feed. A little red light turned flashed on and off. The camera and mics were on.
"Evans," Sinead said, "Were all here. What have you got?"
"Package and prep, but don't send. As soon as you figure out how much there is, let me know as soon as possible. The market is going crazy. They didn't expect this. The price of gold has dropped drastically and is still falling. We're going to see how much of this stuff pans out." Evans showed a tired smile. "Pans out? Get it? Like panning for gold?"
"Get some sleep, Evans," Cohen said, "Your puns are showing."
"Good night, all."
The Leech was situated on the north pole of the asteroid and a small fusion reactor was on the south. This was so if any micrometeorites that struck the reactor, even if it caused a massive explosion, no harm would come to the crew directly. Unfortunately, with as much mass as had been removed from the asteroid, such an explosion had been theorized as being able to knock the asteroid out of the Lagrange point and into some other point in the Earth/Moon System. And that point might be headed for the surface of one of those two populated globes.
The power went through a massive cable and to The Leech. Additionally, there was another cable connected to a wireless power-transfer site near the mining operations proper, which was near what used to be the equator.
Trevaskevich looked at the robot's screen and lined it up against the gold and turned it on. The gold was cut with high-voltage sparks, collected a twenty kilos or so at a time, wrapped with a locally sourced iron band, and catapulted with a railgun just above escape velocity into a waiting cask almost out of sight above. With a communications tablet, King kept an eye on the ion drive on the cask that counter-acted the energy of the thrown chunks of gold. One person could do both jobs, but there were two for safety's sake.
The first missions used drills and mechanical means to cut off the material. Lasers were used for one mission until some careless fool took out a communications satellite orbiting Luna with a misplaced cutting stroke.
Stanley invented this technique and patented the machine that performed this work. That was why he was hired in the first place. This was known reliable tech based on old-school electrical discharge machining. It was faster and fewer replacement parts were required. Sometimes an electrode blew, but those were able to be manufactured out of the asteroid itself, which cut down on the load on the monthly resupply cargo drops.
Stanley yawned big in his helmet. Sherry saw him and yawned, too. They laughed. Yawned again.
When nothing went wrong, it was boring. And nothing went wrong that day, or any other day of the extraction.
When Sinead sent a secured text message to Evans about how much gold there was she wrote "approximately 100 tons."
Evans responded with "LOL."
A week later, Stanley and Sherry were outside of The Leech doing maintenance on the Colbert unit. Someone clogged the toilet. Badly. It was actually Stanley, but he was embarrassed and didn't want to admit it; so he blamed it on Opie.
"Shit," Sherry said.
"Shit. Everywhere. Just look."
And it was. And it floated everywhere. Some of it landed on the rock they stood on. A bit of it flew off into space. Stanley laughed.
"What?" Trevaskevich asked.
"Oh, sorry. Just childish potty-mouthing."
A handful of the casks now orbited in the Legrange point with them. These were sufficient to hold the mass of gold that had been found. Likely one of the casks would burn through and disintegrate in the atmosphere before the parachute and landing mechanisms could be deployed. The method had not been foolproofed, but it was profitable enough.
While they were returning to The Leech for break and lunch, Cohen called over the radio to them, "Trevaskevich, King, return to the comm. Evans is back with further instructions."
"On our way," Sherry said.
They made their way around to the airlock, entered, cycled, entered the main area, then undressed from their suits. They then made their way through the neck of the building. They were headed to the comm when they heard Opie shouting "No!" They started to hurry, but Stanley mis-judged the last turn and flew through the comm.
"Oh, crap!" he said just before Cohen plucked him out of the air while she held onto a hand-hold.
"No, not crap, shit!" Sherry yelled.
Evans laughed on screen. Even Opie smiled. Stanley re-oriented himself and went to a chair. As he sat down, he saw the gold price ticker King had installed on another screen showed steady downward progress.
"Everyone OK? Okay," Cohen said and looked at Stanley. He nodded. She turned back to the screen, "Sorry, Evans. You were telling us the company wants us to drop the gold into Venus."
"And I was yelling, 'No!'"
"And I was just about to say that the final decision had been reached. If there is some good science to be done by where you crash it on Venus, by all means, go for it, but the gold must be destroyed."
"It's an element. We can't destroy it, really," Stanley said.
"No," Opie said, like he didn't have an argument and just liked repeating himself.
They all looked at Cohen. She looked at one of the screens with Evans.
Cohen said, "As the material is yours, we will do what you ask. We just want some futures right now."
Evans smiled, teeth showing."
"Well, you're all already rich. The billions we've paid you and your families is--"
"Not relevant." She spoke over him, the time-delay quite annoying at this distance.
"--still not enough for--wait, what?"
"Not. Relevant," she said. "Futures for me and everyone aboard this ship. We haven't destroyed it yet. For all we know, someone won't be discovering an awesome use for all this metal tomorrow."
"Anyway, we all have some maintenance on The Leech's Colbert unit to perform." She paused. "Unless you want us to send actual feces down with the next shipment."
"Nope. Not at all. We have enough of that down here."
"We look forward to an addendum to our contracts. Out."
She pushed a button and the screen went back to the photo of her family back on earth, icons scattered over smiling faces.
"They will be destroying this gold if we send it down or not," she said as she closed her eyes and rubbed them with her palms. "It's just a matter of timing and getting what we want out of it."
"How?" Opie asked.
"Claim it radioactive. Smelt it and make it a giant block on the bottom of the ocean. Ocean is filled with gold anyway." She turned toward her crew. "Stanley, you were right, we all know that. What we do today will set precedent--"
King interrupted "Then why did you ask for futures. You want to destroy it to get richer."
"No. Not at all. Well, not quite. If we destroy it, we win, but...by demanding that, I indicated that I...we are part of the deal. We have the same goal as them. We can take a little more time, then. If we do or not, we still can decide. If we take orders, we jump; if we act like we're still in possession of the thing, we still have leverage."
They were all quiet.
"Listen, the company owns this rock. We're here because if them."
"But," Opie said, "Do they, whoever they are, have a right to destroy it?"
Another moment. Something inconsequential beeped.
"Because that's what we agreed when we signed the contract. Now, we need to figure out if we uphold that. What are the options?"
They spent an hour talking.
"So, where are we?" Sinead asked. "Recap."
"Destroy it, eject it from the solar system, put it in orbit somewhere hidden, or return it to Earth," Opie said.
"Well, good, see, we're getting somewhere. We thought there were two options. Now there are four. And if we multiply that by the number of rocks we got, that's twenty options."
Stanley, "Why are you doing this? Have you already decided? Is this just a ruse to make it feel like a group decision?"
"I do have an opinion, but I am open to compromise or changing my mind."
"And that opinion is what?" Sherry asked.
"Destroy the whole lot, as ordered."
A minute of silence.
Sherry said, "I think we drop it on Earth as we have been, but not all in one place, but scattered across the globe."
"To distribute the risk of one group monopolizing the whole lot for their own enrichment. The decent packages we attach can ensure it falls gently within a few hundred miles of a given point."
"Because it would be useful. Gold has plenty of uses, only some of which can be tapped because of the rarity. We have more here than is available on earth, pretty much. Everything else is locked up in current applications, jewelry, and other junk."
They were all silent for a moment, except for the console emitting small beeps
"Why shouldn't we take it all?" Opie asked. They all look at him, "It's a purely hypothetical question. Someone has to ask it." He had in his hand a pad of paper and a pencil, the paper covered in numbers.
"Well, I don't really know how we'd get rid of that stuff," Stanley said. "A fence? Like in the movies?"
"I suppose Guido 'The Fence' Salerno or whatever at Alpha Beta Base on Luna would give us billions--" Sherry said.
A new small sound came from other speakers. It was a new incoming video transmission. The screen lit up, video of Evans made translucent, waiting for them to accept the transmission. He picked at his teeth, looked nervous.
Sinead, "Well, I suppose we have to decide soon." She then made her way to accept the transmission. After she hit the button, Evans faded into full color. A few seconds later, he started talking.
"The contract addendum is en route for your review and e-signatures."
Sherry said, "And?"
"You look a little shaken, Evans."
"No. Just tired. When the signatures are confirmed on this end, we want you to destroy the gold. Set it on a trajectory toward Venus."
"Them," Sinead corrected him.
"Set them on a trajectory toward Venus. Whatever. Listen. You can read it in the contract, but you'll be now part of a strict non-disclosure agreement with the company regarding this. Even in the company you'll only talk to me. Understood?"
Sinead furrowed her brow. "I don't like the sound of that."
"Well, we don't want it to leak that we destroyed a fortune on purpose."
Opie said, from behind Sinead, "Wouldn't the gold be worth more to the company than the futures could possibly be?" He held up the pad of paper he had been holding to the screen, as if it contained all answers in the known universe.
And everyone looked at Opie and his paper. And Evans was quiet. And suddenly they understood.
"You bastard, you've been buying the futures and the company doesn't even know." Sherry said to Evans. "You're just going to destroy the lot of it and after the news hits and the prices go crazy, you'll cash in it all." He smiled a few seconds later. They saw him push a button out of sight below the screen, and his face blurred for an instant.
"Good thing you all have excellent life insurance or I would feel much guiltier for this," he said. The transmission ended.
Sinead immediately tried to bring up direct communications to Earth, but there was nothing. Not a single delayed word. Then Luna. Nothing. But this was only the most obvious problem.
King went to check on the power station. If they were stranded, they might be here a while. A few minutes later, she came back. "You need to see this," she said to Sinead. "That bastard."
"You keep saying that word, Sherry. I do not think it means what you think it means," Sinead said.
"Oh, I know what it means," and she brought up the screen she had been looking at on Sinead's tablet. A diagram of the reactor appeared and the critical readings were crowded together, but even a fool could see the problem. Another window was half-hidden underneath the diagrams and it displayed the a definition of "bastard."
"How long until it blows?"
"The numbers aren't moving in a predictable pattern. No more than an hour, but it could be 10 minutes for all we know."
"What will happen?"
"Well, the explosion will not kill us, which is fortunate. But what it will do is send us in the opposite direction of the explosion. In this case, because the process that put this asteroid in place mirrored the poles with the Earth so we could stay in constant contact, we'll end up in the approximate vicinity of Polaris in several thousand years."
Sinead thought about it. "Starting from this population, I would not want to deal with the inbreeding situation that far down the road."
"At least we'll have interstellar radiation mutating our descendants in new and interesting ways."
Sinead just half stood/floated there and thought. Then she said, "Seriously, though, can The Leech handle that?"
"The explosion is far enough away. We're still six klicks from the other end of this thing, and all the rock that remains is directly between us and it. I wouldn't want to do it on purpose, but we'll probably be fine. We wouldn't get into interstellar space, of course. What it'd do is it'd just kick us out of the Legrange point and we'd crash into Earth eventually. Or the Moon, hopefully. We'd never even have a chance to get out of that gravity well."
"Great," Stanley said as he came in, "another trip on a rocket, right?"
"Close. Just a rocket with one solid push."
"Can't we eject the power core or something like that?"
"Maybe if we were there we could release the materials, but this ain't Star Trek. We can't get there in time. The possibility of the power plant exploding is really actually quite small. Engineers didn't think of this scenario.
"You would think they might have."
"Do you think Evans knew? About crashing a giant asteroid into the Earth?"
"Perhaps. Probably not," King said. "As much as I'd like to think him terribly evil right now, he probably didn't think it through. Who wants to land a giant rock on their home planet which could kill millions?"
"Billions," King said. They all were quiet for a second. "Forget about it."
Sinead asked, "How long to coordinate the trajectory for a safe landing of the cargo?"
"Not long under normal circumstances, perhaps a half-hour on the outside for all five," Sherry said. The programs went through various paths to determine the most economic path for the rocks for the given desired landing site. Weather on Earth was even accounted for. Normally, some of this processing was off-loaded to distributed computer systems on the surface, but it would all have to be done here, as the communication lines were down.
Sinead looked at the log files for the communications. There it was. In the middle of the last transmission from Evans was a new program update for their fusion reactor and the communications. Damn pushed updates. It'd take days to hunt down either problem and undo the damage if it was something stupidly simple. Sinead was sure that it wasn't stupid or simple. Evans wasn't a physicist, but he used to be a programmer of notoriety and skill. It's where he started at the company, after all.
"Well, let's get that started. At least the bastard won't get rich before the world ends."
Sherry smiled and then stopped. Her face slackened and her eyes looked out at nothing. Sinead stared and wondered what was wrong. Then Sherry brightened and said, "What if we crash one into us?"
They were all strapped down into chairs in what was the comm. Now everything was locked down. Sinead had a tablet on her lap, as did Sherry. The plan was to run the casks into the asteroid, hopefully hard enough to turn the asteroid so that when the reactor blew, it would head toward Luna rather than Earth. They could set the reactor off on purpose, if they wanted, or wait until it went on its own. The Leech could not re-enter an atmosphere directly, so they needed somewhere airless to land.
They decided to do it anyway, even if it wouldn't work. It wouldn't work because the ion drives were not going to push the tonnage fast enough. They normally didn't have to hurry.
"Better to have some attempt to control destiny," Sinead said. "Even if it isn't going to work. We ready?"
"Yeah," Sherry said. "Got no choice but to be ready."
Stanley and Opie looked at each other. They had tablets in affixed to the sides of their chairs, but they were un-powered now. They were passengers on this particular flight.
"Can we use some of our landing rockets to assist with the turn?" Opie suggested.
"No fuel to do both that and land. Used it all on approach and landing with about a minute of it to spare. It's already a rough landing. Fuel to leave towards our re-entry station was due in two resupply cycles." She then looked at King. "Drop one."
"Too late," Sherry said.
They could feel it. The Leech held fast, but on the other side of their apple core, the fusion reactor exploded.
"Well, that's not going to be good," Stanley said.
And they waited in silence for a moment. Sherry punched at her tablet again and again.
They all looked at Sherry and she shook her head "No."