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November 2019
 
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Asteroid

by E.S. Strout



Eros is an asteroid with an elongated body measuring 28.8 miles (33.13 Km) in length. It has been in orbit for at least one hundred fifty years.

--NASA website


1.

Monday June 24, 2047, 0930 hours. Space Exploration Director USAF Lieutenant-General Andrew J. Shaw's office.

Shaw, a thin black man with graying sideburns, lights up an illegal cigar with a kitchen match scratched across a boot heel.

He kills the beep of the smoke alarm by tapping a computer key. "At ease, officers. Please be seated," he said to the two standing at attention in front of his desk. Both wore Air Force uniforms with a Space Corps patch over the right jacket pocket.

Astropilot Major Scott Meyer, a tall man with a dark brown crew cut and intense hazel eyes, sat with feet splayed out in a casual manner.

His copilot Lieutenant Laura Richmond was a red haired woman with green eyes and a sprinkling of freckles across her nose. She is a couple of inches shorter and three years younger than Major Meyer. She sat upright with boots together on the deck and hands clasped in her lap.

The General handed a thin plastic file folder with SECRET stamped on the cover in red to each of them. "This is your new mission. Please open the folders and read. I'll give you a few minutes."

Major Meyer was the first to respond. "I don't understand, sir. Lieutenant Richmond and I have flown around the asteroid Eros three times and photographed every surface aspect. It's just another big rock in space."

"I agree, General," Richmond said. "I've met with the extraterrestrial geology folks and they say its surface is identical to the surface of the Moon."

General Shaw nodded. "There have been some new findings. You will have a passenger along this time. Professor Tony Gibson has a Masters degree in extraterrestrial geology. He is EVA qualified and will land on Eros's surface to collect samples."

Major Meyer gave the General a skeptical glance. "Sir, Lieutenant Richmond and I are going to stick our necks out to land a person unknown to us. Shouldn't we have some idea of what's going down?"

General Shaw took another puff on his cigar and shrugged. "I went through the same contortions with Space Corps and liaison folks representing a number of foreign governments. It's big, way over my head. I'm like you, just following orders.

"How soon, General? Laura and I are on R and R from our last mission."

Shaw nodded. "Not a problem, Major. The mission will take a year to get organized. You will be doing a lot of practice on landing Professor Gibson on sites of his choosing. And get this. You may be eligible for the Space Corps Discovery Bonus if the Prof. finds anything useful down there."


2.

Thursday, 7 May 2048. Exploratory probe ENRICO FERMI.

"We're getting close," Lieutenant Richmond said as she peered through computer graphic imaging enhanced telescopic eyepieces. "Recommend reduce speed to 500 kilos per sec. Target in view on long range scope. Mars beacon verifies position."

"Confirmed," Major Scott Meyer said. He tapped a key on the instrument console. Inertial dampers screamed as the research probe ENRICO FERMI slowed from 30,000 KPS and hovered motionless over the asteroid's surface after a short burst of reverse thrusters. "Initiate stabilization procedures."

"Roger that, Richmond said. "I've got maneuvering jets on line. It's gonna take me a while for low-grav alignment,"

"Wake me when I can launch the cables." Major Meyer removed his helmet and leaned his head back on the cushioned headrest. He was asleep in seconds.


3.

Four hours later.

"Tether cables in place," Major Meyer said. "External visual scopes confirm. Nice job, Laura. Let's wake up the geek. He's been sacked out for almost ten hours."

Laura chuckled. "Don't be so mean, Scott. So he can't pilot or navigate an interplanetary spacecraft. We'll all be eligible for the Space Corps Discovery Bonus if he finds anything worthwhile down there."

Meyer yawned and stretched, arms behind his head. Cervical vertebrae gave gratifying pops. "Yeah. Three million Standard Buckeroos, a mil each. What's his name again?"

"Quit putting me on, you idiot," Laura said. "Henry Thoreau Gibson. Masters degree in extraterrestrial geology. He goes by Tony."

"Hmpf. Anybody who doesn't pilot or navigate is a geek."

Richmond gave him a sour glance. "Does that include everyone who developed and built the FERMI?"

"Geeks, Laura."

"Argh! You're impossible."

"Thank you."


4.

Thirty-seven year old Henry Thoreau Gibson scratched the three-day stubble on his chin, pushed strands of uncombed prematurely-graying hair from his face and gaped a cavernous yawn. "Are we there?"

Lieutenant Richmond slid back the inner shield on a side viewport. "Eros. Right on our doorstep, Tony."

Gibson's eyes were wide with wonder. "Wow! Impressive." He popped his iPod's earpieces in, touched a stud. An ecstatic grin. "That's better. Also Sprach Zarathustra. Richard Strauss. Opening theme for the video chip classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. I thought it fit the occasion."

He returned Major Meyer's uncomprehending stare with a timid smile as he shut the iPod down. "An old dead white guy. 19th-20th century German composer."

"Were there dinosaurs back then?" Scott asked.

"Ignore him, Tony," Laura said. "Our Astropilot has a well-known lack of class. I played Mozart's Fantasia in C minor at a recital once when I was a kid. Turns out I'm a better celestial navigator than classical pianist."

"I've got some Scott Joplin ragtime chips, Major. An old dead black guy if you would prefer," Tony said.

"Any Beatles oldies, Tony?" Major Meyer asked.

"Pay him no mind," Laura said with an exasperated sigh.


5.

"Eros looks different from here. No rotation."

"That's 'cause we're anchored in place. Right over that crater you wanted, Tony." Lieutenant Richmond said.

Gibson's raised eyebrows signaled surprise. "How did you get us stabilized so easily? The gravitational pull of Eros is less than one thousandth that of Earth. Must have taken some delicate maneuvering."

"Piece of cake, Tony," Major Meyer said with a disingenuous grin. "It only took Laura half a day to get the right combination of navigational thruster bursts to get us steadied up. You slept through all the fun."

"Shoulda woke me."

"What could you have done?"

Tony smiled. "Updated my geological data, Major. See if my findings correspond with the Space Corps readings. And enjoyed the view. "

"Skip the technology, Tony. It's your ball game now."


6.

"So you're sure those cables will stay in place while I'm down there?" Gibson asked. "Better yet, how do I keep from floating away in that minuscule gravity?"

Astropilot Meyer exhaled an exasperated sigh. "I guess you slept through the simulations at Space Corps's low-grav facility."

"I was studying electron energy-loss analyses and x-ray diffraction info on known meteorites and asteroids if you must know," Gibson said with a defensive shrug. "I'm the rock hound here, am I not?"

"Okay you guys, knock it off," Laura said. "Tony's the only expert in extraterrestrial geology who passed Space Corps's EVA quals. No Tony, no mission. No Discovery Bonus, no three million Standard Dollars."

Meyer hunched his shoulders and glowered. "What's so special about this chunk of interstellar trash? Moon rocks and samples from our local asteroid field were analyzed lots of times and all you found was a bunch of silicon and iron compounds. Pretty standard stuff."

Tony gave him an imperious grin. "I know a few things that you don't know yet, Major."

"Come on, you guys," Laura pleaded. "It's beginning to reek of testosterone in here."

Tony smiled. "Well, I guess it's time to clue you in. I apologize for the secrecy but I was under orders by your Pentagon and State Department. Some of our high-resolution transmission electron microscopy hits indicated some unusual crystalline carbonaceous structures. Configurations not present in other asteroids we've studied."

"Give us the English version, Tony," Meyer grumbled.

Navigator Richmond's eyes widened in sudden understanding. "Crystalline carbon? You're telling us there might be diamonds down there?"

"Bingo, Laura. Your briefing omitted that possibility for security reasons."


7.

"That figures," Lieutenant Richmond said with a muttered expletive.

"Canada, Great Britain, Germany. Even Russia and Israel have anted up for this trip. Unified Free China too. They all wanted in," Tony said. "Space Corps went a bit overboard on hyping this up. That crystallized carbon may just be a bunch of fullerene."

"Excuse me?" Major Meyer said. "Translation, please?"

"Carbon-60, Major. A third form of pure carbon. We once believed it could only be produced in laser laboratories. Now it's showing up in the spectography of red dwarf stars," Gibson told them.

"Is it valuable?" Lieutenant Richmond asked.

"No, sorry Laura. It's only use is as a superconductor in complex flight computers like ours. We can whip it up by the barrelful."

"Lotta folks are gonna be ticked if it isn't diamonds," Major Meyer observed.

"I agree," Tony admitted. "So let's go look."


8.

"Titanium steel cables have been anchored to the asteroid's surface with projectiles which open below the surface and expand, sort of like barbs on a harpoon head. That's what holds us in place." Major Meyer explained. "You slide down one of the cables, attached by a metallic safety line."

"So I'm not gonna float off into space, Major, right?" Gibson asked, his voice reflecting uncertainty.

"No problem," Meyer assured him. "See this?" He held up a second safety line and snapped its catch onto a steel ring on the back of Gibson's EVA suit. "Backup safety cable. Anything goes wrong, we haul your butt back up here."

"We're a hundred feet above the surface, right? And you're not gonna take off and leave me?" Tony asked.

"With this minimal gravity you'll float down to the surface like a feather. And we'll only take off and leave you if you keep asking us dumb questions."

Navigator Richmond rolled her eyes. "Come on, Scott. Let's do it." Gibson entered the airlock and secured his helmet's faceplate.

"Make us rich, Professor," Major Meyer said as hit the DEPRESSURIZE key.


9.

"Recorder on?"

"We've got everything, Tony," Laura said. "Helmet video too."

"Roger that... Did I get that right?"

"You're about two seconds away from having a permanent home here," Major Meyer notified him.

The calmer voice of Lieutenant Richmond broke in. "Scott is just jealous. And 'Roger that' was the correct response."

"That's okay, Laura. The hiss of interstellar cosmic particles in my headset is not nearly as discordant as our driver's noise."

"Just give us a progress report, Tony, okay?" Meyer grumbled.

"I'm kicking up a lot of dust, Major. It floats up, doesn't settle. Surface is sheet silicates. Confirms the EM transmissions. Starting down slope of the crater now. Stand by."

"See anything yet, Tony?" Laura asked.

"I've got some small rocks now. They have an obsidian component, volcanic for sure. Nothing carbonaceous yet."

"Diamonds, Tony," Meyer prompted.

"Why don't you join me, Major? That would speed things up a bit."

"I fly, you prospect."

"Wait one," Gibson said, his voice rising an excited half octave.

"I've got a large uncut diamond. Eighty to a hundred Karats There's a bunch more, too."


10.

There was a sudden burst of static. "Oh, hell..."

"Problem, Tony?" Lieutenant Richmond asked.

No answer.

"Respond please? Are you okay?"

Dead air.

"I'm hauling you up," Major Meyer said as he hit the cable retrieve switch. "If this is some joke, Gibson, I'll blast you into Mars orbit so fast it will..."

"There's no tension on the cable, Scott," Richmond said, her voice a panicked whisper. "I think we've lost him. Oh, God."

The titanium steel line rattled around the winch. It had been sliced through with laser-like precision.

"There goes our three million bucks," Major Meyer said, a trace of uncertainty in his voice now.


11.

"Scott? Laura? You guys copy?"

Static.

Tony tapped the side of his helmet, felt for the transmission antenna. "Gone. Dammit. Must have broken off in the fall. Do I have recording capability?"

"Affirmative, Professor Gibson," the soft feminine voice of his in-suit chip computer adjunct announced. "Date and time will record when you begin."

"Thank God. Can you contact FERMI?"

"Negative. Uplink lost"

"Keep trying. I'm beginning to not like this very much."

"I detect anxiety"

"I don't need a shrink, dear. Just keep trying."

"Understand."

"Good. Begin recording now."

"Yes, Professor"

"The base of the crater just collapsed and I fell, well, just floated in this weird gravity. Lights on my EVA suit picking up clouds of dust. I'm on a flat surface, like a floor or deck. Several raw diamonds around me. Dust beginning to settle. Can't see much detail yet. Wait one. Something odd."


12.

"What's happening, Scott?" Laura asked. "My star sightings just went crazy."

"Something with Tony's excursion into the crater," Meyer replied. "Gravity is so weak here any surface disruption can shift our cable alignment."

"I mean, really screwed, Scott. There's no period of rotation. Eros has just stabilized itself."

Meyer shook his head in disbelief. "Come on, Laura. That period of rotation hasn't changed on over two hundred years."

There was a sudden crunching sound. "Dammit, Scott. We're moving."

"This can't be happening. The stabilizing cables are pulling us toward the surface..."

11.

"I've just brushed away half a ton of interstellar dust," Gibson said. "It looks like... It is. A computer console. How the heck did that get here? There are a lot of odd symbols on it." "Ouch! Just got a shock. It's behind some sort of electrical or ionic shield. I can't touch it. Indicator lights just came on. It's booting up."

He squinted and gritted his teeth as bright bulkhead lighting revived. A warbling sound cleaved the silence. "Sounds like speech. Not English. Copy and enhance it for translation."

"Replicating now."

"Can you identify language? Sounds like Oriental or East Indian."

"Unknown, Professor Gibson. It is not a language or dialect that my programming recognizes."

Dr. Gibson dodged a shower of gravel and rocks from a sudden collapse of the cavern ceiling. When the dust cleared he blinked his eyes in disbelief. The FERMI settled to the deck, followed by a tangle of anchor cables. Major Meyer and Lieutenant Richmond stared through the forward viewport with wide, startled eyes.

"Laura? Scott? Can you hear me now? What just happened?"

Then Laura's voice came through, faint and staticky. "Are you okay, Tony?"

"Bruised and scared."

"We are, too," Astropilot Meyer's voice confirmed. "Still collating data, Tony. You'd best get back inside. External airlock opening now."


13.

"Can we get underway?" Laura asked.

"Too much debris," Major Meyer said. "Plus the antigrav baffles are damaged beyond repair. We're stuck. Velocity indicators showing forward motion, rapid acceleration. And now there's a panel closing over us."

"I see it," Laura said. "What is it, Scott"

"Hell if I know. This is not part of Eros. It's not natural. Good God, Laura. Impossible! We're inside a spacecraft. A very large one. Fire the emergency locator buoy before we're sealed in."

"Better include this, Laura," Dr. Gibson said. He handed her a data chip. "Everything from my suit recorder while I was out of touch. Maybe it will help."

"Got it. Launching beacon now.".


14.

"Status report, Captain Corey?" Space Corps Special Projects Officer Shaw asked. "I need some good news here."

"Four search crews are scouring the area, General Shaw," his aide said. "Still no sign of Eros or FERMI. No escape pods."

General Shaw scowled as he lit up a black market Marlboro. "You're certain about no life pods?"

"Yes, sir."

Shaw exhaled a cloud of aromatic carcinogens. "So I'll be going before the Joint Chiefs to admit I've lost a research probe, its crew and an entire damned asteroid?"

His cell phone beeped. "Yes? Right away. Thank you."

The aide handed General Shaw a computer printout. "The rescue team did recover data from FERMI's emergency beacon. It's been translated and encrypted. For your eyes only, sir. No visual, they said. Some kind of electronic jamming."

Shaw popped the chip into the AudioTrac.

Tony's voice was strained, but concise. The computer's was without inflection.

General Shaw listened, ground out his cigarette with a trembling hand, lit another. He opened a desk drawer, withdrew a pint of Glenlivet Single Malt scotch.

"Dammit to hell." He took a generous swallow, then another. Listened again, then a third time...


15.

Attention. Attention. Attention. Automated scientific recovery probe Zeta 411 reporting. Implant gem substance subterfuge successful. Asteroid simulation has lured three aboriginal lifeforms from third planet. Their development of primitive sublight interplanetary drive confirmed. My propulsion and celestial navigation systems revived. No loss in functionality of my systems. Return launch proceeds as programmed. Tachyon beam notification of Supreme Council and Security section sent. Xenobiology Science laboratories stand by for receipt and evaluation of specimens.


THE END


2013 E. S. Strout

Bio: Stories by E. S. Strout (M.D.), a.k.a. Gene or Gino, have appeared in Planet Magazine, Anotherealm, Millennium F&SF, Beyond-sf, Jackhammer (Eggplant Productions), Static Movement, and Bewildering Stories. And, of course, many of his stories have appeared in Aphelion (most recently Power, May 2013, and Dimensional Shift, June 2013).

E-mail: E. S. Strout (Humanoids: replace '_AT_' with '@')

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