Throwing Stones – A short sci-fi story…
Her voice lingered. The warning tone; the unanswered call for help; the sadness. Its timbre was a fading tendril.
He hated being awakened abruptly.
“Computer, repeat!” he said, now fully awake, or at least as much as possible. After surviving on ten-minute naps for the past three days, Ben wondered how effective he was anyway. He was glad he didn’t operate his survey ship anywhere near the space lanes, or he would be a danger to everyone out here.
“I said, ‘Proximity alert,’ sleepy head.”
Sometimes he regretted programming Gina’s personality into the ship’s AI. At times like this, when he was still waking from one of the dreams of her, hearing her voice being imitated was too painful. And yet, most of the time it helped him; made him feel better when he didn’t feel guilty. Then her voice became a torment.
For about the fiftieth time he made a mental note to buy a new simulator module for the ship. Then he could switch to a secondary personality. But eventually he would forget and have the same intention again. AI modules were expensive, and he couldn’t afford a frivolous luxury like a second persona. He would learn to live with the feelings this one resurrected.
“Identify,” he said.
“Feeling a bit testy today?” A hint of hurt was in its tone. The program was too damned accurate.
Before he replied, the AI said, “I detect a major body two thousand kilometres away on a relative bearing of 035 by 076.”
He brought the HUD in his nav-glasses online and looked out the cockpit window.
“I don’t see anything.”
“I’m not surprised. Its albedo is 0.04, and I estimate its diameter at two kilometres. Her mass is 227 trillion tonnes…”
“What? Why didn’t we didn’t see an alert sooner? Is this thing in the database?”
“I explained about the albedo, and no, it’s not on any previously plotted orbit. This appears to be a transient Trojan.”
Ben’s heart skipped a beat and his throat turned dry. Chasing the last one that crossed his path had ended in disaster. The smaller, more conservative voice in his head advised caution. The louder, more reckless one reminded him of the state of his bank account.
He swallowed hard. “With so much mass it might contain a lot of metal. Is it inside our claim?”
“At the moment, but its velocity is…”
“I don’t need the numbers. How long until it crosses the boundary?”
“Less than ten hours. I can give you an exact time estimate if you like.”
“No, thanks. Compute an intercept course and initiate burn.” He decided to be excited.
“How eager are you to catch it?”
“I want to reach the damned thing as soon as possible.”
“I calculate four hours are required to correct its orbit to remain within our boundary. Allowing for the time needed to set up our remaining trucking engines, I estimate with…”
“I understand.” Ben reached for his helmet, “What kind of gees are we talking about?”
“Based on your last physical we can do a three-minute burn at 50 G. We can reach the asteroid in two hours twenty-four minutes, leaving a one hour and thirty-six-minute contingency.”
“50 G’s? I used to be able to do 70.”
“You used to be younger and fitter. And for the record, the maximum you’ve done in the past ten years is 68 G for one minute.”
“Sorry, did you say something?”
“I said start the burn. Let’s go make some money.”
As the AI initiated the interception maneuver, Ben braced himself for the crush of G-force. He didn’t want to admit he was grateful for a reduced acceleration. At fifty-eight years old, he had spent far too many of the last twenty of them in zero-g conditions and his physical condition showed it.
Gina and he had the sense to limit their time in the belt. A few weeks in space followed by a couple of months on Terra maximized their time with Natalie and gave her some semblance of a normal family life. At least, as much as was possible for her from parents who owned an asteroid mining stake. If his wife had lived, the three of them would probably be working the claim together now.
“Gina, how much is that rock worth?” Shit, did I just call it Gina, again?
“The composition of Trojans varies. If assumed to be a typical M-class body, the nickel-iron content alone should net a significant profit at today’s price.”
Ben was grateful the AI no longer corrected him when he carelessly used Gina’s name. He didn’t think the computer was capable of embarrassment, but he was.
“However, I am not certain that is an outcome you should count on. The small albedo suggests a carbonaceous chondrite, possibly even basalt,” the Gina AI continued.
“Thanks for bursting my bubble. So, what is your estimated range for our take?”
“I estimate the net return on investment between one hundred thousand to two billion credits, with a most likely value of two point eight million credits.”
“Wonderful. Best case scenario, I retire rich beyond my dreams; worst, we cover the cost of the fuel expended to catch the damned thing.”
“You are correct, though I believe you underestimate our fuel expenses.”
“Thanks for cheering me up,” grumbled Ben.
“You are welcome.” The AI didn’t always recognize sarcasm.
Even though the computer had tried to temper his expectations, the prospect of retirement after this find excited him in a way he had not been in years. Even a couple of million would let him retire from the asteroid mining business. The two billion would purchase a Martian citizenship, an estate and anything else he might imagine, and would provide for Natalie for the rest of her life; maybe get her to talk to him again; give him the chance he needed to repair their estranged relationship. Perhaps money could buy happiness.
The press of G force vanished as the engine burn ended.
“I want to catch some shut-eye. Steady as she goes, and so forth. Wake me when we are on approach, or if anything interesting happens.”
“Gladly, Ben. Pleasant dreams.”
He hoped that was possible. Perhaps Gina would visit him again. Maybe Natalie would join them.
D.M.(Doug) Pruden worked for 35 years in the petroleum industry as a geophysicist. For most of his life he has been plagued with stories banging around inside his head that demanded to be let out into the world. He currently spends his time as an empty nester in Calgary, Alberta, Canada with his long suffering wife of many years. When he isn’t writing science fiction stories, he likes to spend his time playing with his grandchildren and working on improving his golf handicap.