David Cross laughed, shaking his head as he watched the computer monitor. "Imagine that! The first major success of our business is dropping its largest and most expensive asset into a hole and burying it. Good thing we didn't put that in the business plan!"
Elaine Norman, the sole woman of the trio, joined with her two partners in laughing. She turned serious a millisecond later. "The regolith looks like it has the consistency of cat litter. Works for cats."
"There's bound to be gold there someplace," the third person in the room quipped. "Although my daughter would probably prefer a pony." Sean Ferris tapped his finger on the screen, as he too got serious. "Elaine's right. Friable, but coarse grains. It supports the weight of the vehicle adequately, with only slight deformation."
"When I was a girl I watched the movie The Music Man." Elaine said, bending to look at another screen showing yet another view from the surface of an asteroid millions of miles distant in space; seconds away by radio. "I watched it twice, because I thought it was cool. I had to wait three years for someone to explain the scam to me.
"I never dreamed you could cheat people by making their dreams come true."
"We should be so lucky," Sean told the others. "I keep hoping this is practice at camouflage." He waved at the main screen. "Politicians are even more obsessive about covering up than cats. With luck, they will dig, find the surprise and quit, thinking 'Who needs this?'"
David Cross nodded. "That's the plan. Like Russian Matryoshka dolls, with another, smaller, doll inside. And then smaller and smaller ... Of course, being geeks, we put the larger ones inside the smaller ones."
"We're getting pretty far afield with metaphors," Elaine reminded them pragmatically. "We need to buckle down and get on with the program. Deploy the two rovers, and get them going."
The three were relatively young, David Cross the oldest at thirty-seven years and three months, ranging down to Elaine's far younger thirty-six years and ten months. The three had been friends since they were freshman together on their first day at Caltech, nearly twenty years before.
"Who'd have thought after all these years, we'd be back to computer games? Playing Bolo over the internet?" Sean asked, pushing controls, making things happen a hundred million miles away. After a few minutes his rover crawled out of its travel container, started up the slope of the crater the vehicle had landed in.
"The feed is still going out," Elaine reported, checking a small TV monitor. "No one is carrying this live, although NASA channel is thinking about it. I expect that some of the networks are taping the feed; we won't know for sure until we see them roll some of the tape later."
"I never thought we'd get this far," Sean mused while playing with the rover, running it towards a significant boulder about sixty meters from the crater rim. "I mean, this is like the biggest scam in the history of the exploration of space -- maybe the biggest scam of all time. No one is even curious; no one cares. I think we could tell people and they'd yawn and tune us out."
"Not if we told them the truth," David said bitterly. "Oh no, they would have ten million reasons why it won't work; they know it couldn't possibly work. They'd force us to stop, or failing that, won't let us send additional resources -- even if we have those resources bought and paid for, and the launches covered as well."
They were silent after that. In fact, that had been the first plan and hadn't worked for just that reason. "Sometime, someone is going to run the math," Sean had observed critically. "Just remember I picked the year 2023 for our pool of when the morons finally figure out what's going on."
Elaine giggled. "And you got pissed as hell when I insisted they'd never figure it out -- I wanted a 'never' option."
"Too many ways to get there; not to get there," David told them. "We could tell someone; we have to have people working with us. Someone will blab; I'm sure of it. The question will be if they are going to believed. I think I agree with Elaine. Likely no one will figure it out on their own, but someone we tap for help will spill the beans. Then again if someone does figure it out, odds are the discoverer will be someone with an above average curiosity and drive. Might work for them; it did for us."
They watched Sean's rover start a series of close ups of the large boulder. David sat down at his own console and began a second series of check offs; a few moments later a third rover "landed" on the asteroid.
General Andrew Kostias picked up the radio mike, looked at the tech who nodded that everything was ready. "This is General Kostias," he told the man on the other end.
"General, this is David Cross. I'm not sure how well you follow things down here, or up there before your tenure on the ISS began, but my company ran a deep space probe through the station a few months before you assumed command. I wanted to talk to you about that."
"It's your dime, Doctor Cross," the general told him. "What can we do for you?"
"We proposed an extension of our mission to NASA several months ago. They don't seem responsive; I thought I'd lobby you."
The general laughed easily. "Of course, Doctor Cross. What is it you need?"
David wasn't fooled at all. The man was a major roadblock to half the projects going on in Earth orbit. The stupid ones. The partners' project was something else again.
"Well, we'd like to resupply our asteroid base. We have two hundred kilos of this and that we'd like to send out to Eros -- basically some minor adjustments to our original payload specs. NASA doesn't even want to listen. I was thinking, perhaps I could bribe you."
The general looked at David carefully. "Bribe me?"
"So to speak, of course. In the beginning the ISS was going to electrolyze water to get hydrogen and oxygen; the powers that be decided not to do that, so you run an H2O surplus which you tank. You also have to import O2 from Earth. That's expensive as hell; a kilo per person, per day. Bringing that up from Earth ... well, $11,000 a kilo was the last number I saw of how much it cost to lift to orbit.
"I'd like to trade you water, which you have, for liquid O2, which we have. We'll offer to trade at a ten to one ratio initially."
The general laughed and shook his head. "You think I'm a fool? Ten kilos of water for a kilo of oxygen? Crummy bargain!"
"Oh no, General. Ten kilos of O2 for a kilo of water. I understand you have about 4 metric tons of surplus-to-needs water; we would deliver 40 tons of liquefied O2 to the station, in exchange. Metric tons -- 40 thousand kilos -- and we'll provide the shipping and packaging."
The general blinked.
That was, for the six people currently aloft, more than thirty years supply. And the cost of shipping that much oxygen to orbit was just a shade less than half a billion dollars.
David pretended that the general's pause to think about it was more significant than it was. "We would be willing to throw in the packaging with our part of the deal -- that's about ten kilos of chrome steel for each 100 kilos of oxygen. Oh, about ten percent of the tanks are titanium; you can have that too, but the titanium tanks only run about four kilos per 100 kilos of gas.
"Further, we'd also be willing to process your CO2 scrubbers, in situ. We can regenerate them; you could save on recycling those, too."
"And NASA turned this down?" the general asked, not very surprised.
"Yes, sir. They said that returning our probe to the vicinity of the ISS was too risky -- even though we told them we'd give op-con of the trajectory to you there on ISS. They said that they didn't see a need for four tons of high quality steel and titanium on the ISS; that they didn't see a need for processing the scrubbers in orbit; they can bring them down and send them back up, almost forever we were told."
Aside of course, from the fact that shuttling the scrubbers was about 5% of the cargo capacity of the lift to orbit. The oxygen was another 10%.
"How would you process the scrubbers?" the general asked, curiously.
"A two step process where we run potassium through the cells, then take the resulting carbonate and use process heat to break down the carbonate. Our probe has a solar mirror, the process heat comes from that." David's thoughts strayed -- and of course, if then had a solar mirror, they wouldn't need the partner ... but they don't.
"This won't do the plastic boxes the scrubbers are in much good," the general said drily.
"Well, we would exchange the plastic boxes for ones made of titanium. Not much heavier, but significantly stronger and immune to the heat involved. It's a pretty simple box and the temperature only gets up to about 175 degrees Celsius."
"Potassium, oxygen, iron, titanium. You have a little something out there on Eros, Doctor Cross?"
David looked at the man steadily. "As stated in our mission objectives, we are experimenting with industrial mineral extraction processes in solar orbit. We've had some success, yes, sir."
"And the cargo you want to haul out to Eros?" the general asked David.
"Well, the water of course is the major item, plus about a 70 kilos of calcium chloride; we've hardly found any halogens on the asteroid. Twenty kilograms of sodium nitrite, a kilo of platinum, a kilo of miscellaneous other catalytic metals; a raft of computer hard drives, CPUs and the like. Those are the bulk of the cargo -- about a hundred kilos. There is another fifty kilos or so of miscellaneous computer equipment."
.... There is more of this story ...
Science Fiction /