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."
"What percentage packing?" the general inquired, knowing what they went through.
"Well, into orbit, about 20%. We were going to donate that stuff to you. With the estimated payload mass our puller would crank about a hundredth of g heading out to Eros. That's not exactly pushing anything's structural limits; we won't need much in the way of packaging for the last, long leg of the journey."
"And fuel for your, ah, puller?"
"Well, the first time we used water from the station. That was an awful waste of the stuff. We've switched to regolith; we sifted about sixty tons of very fine powder; we took out the free metals and what's left is mainly olivine and pyroxene dust. We zap it with a strong electric charge and then shoot the resulting ions into a rhenium combustion chamber that has the solar reflector aimed at it. That heats the ions to about 10,000 degrees C -- we get an impulse around 300 when we kick the ions out the back. Nothing to write home about."
"Three hundred," the general whistled. "And this is the same vehicle that left here two years ago?"
"Well, more or less. It consists of a propulsion module on one end of a boom, a control and sensor module on the other end. We lengthened the boom, increased the area of the solar panels and added the solar reflector. A very simple design that we've made just a few small changes to."
"And for all of this largesse you simply want me to lobby NASA on your behalf?" the general questioned, turning brisk.
"Yes, that and of course, we really would like to make this deal."
"And if you don't make the deal?"
"Halogens are rare on Eros; it would add a year or so to our timetable without them. The water, well, we could parallel that a bit, run a few different branches of the production chain. Call it eight or ten months lost. We can parallel some of that.
"The big thing is the calcium chloride; that allows us to do electrolysis on a number of Iron Group metals. The sodium nitrite is used in electrochemistry of stainless steel; after waiting two years to get this far, it is -- painful -- to contemplate another two years before we can go to the next stage. This resupply cuts 75% of the process time from the plan over the next several years."
"I'll take a look at your proposal," the general responded. "I'll be back to you shortly -- perhaps a day, most likely, less."
The next day David took a call from the general. "NASA says, more or less, it's not going to happen," General Kostias told him. "They absolutely refuse to give you the lift." He shook his head. "I dunno what they've got against you, but it goes pretty deep."
"That's too bad, General. I'm sure you'll be able to get as much use out of the next several hundred kilos of high school science fair projects."
The general shrugged. "I don't know about that. I might have made things worse for you. I told them for that much O2, I'd sell my soul, not to mention let two years worth of science fair projects come up without further comment. Now they are unhappy with me too."
The general grinned. "I don't suppose you'd like to make a side arrangement? You send me a list of what you need; I assemble it here, one way or the other. We make the swap, as planned. Screw the ground."
"That would be acceptable. I'll email the list to you in the next few minutes."
"And when would we be looking at accomplishing this?" The general asked, obviously interested in finding out how long he had to get what he needed.
"I'm afraid we were a little previous with this, General. I mean, the probe was there on Eros, the stuff was there and ready; we launched about six weeks ago. Of course, the orbit is 192 days; so there's some time left -- about five months."
"Agreed," the general said quickly and positively. "I'll just show them the damn O2 in my inventory, and let them piss and moan." The general paused. "It is going to be another couple of years before we get that much water back."
David grinned; the man's statement was exactly what they'd been looking for. Sean and Elaine had already been trading high-fives. This was going to make them all dance the happy dance.
"Probably," David said mildly, certain now the bass would strike at the fly, "they'll decide that since you have so much oxygen, they'll send up some extra hands instead of supply, so that you can actually catch up on the experiment backlog. That way it won't take as much time to fill the water tanks."
"That would be nice," the general agreed. "Of course, downside of that, they might pooch the resupply. I don't suppose you have any more spare O2 in your process cycle?"
"Well, a lot of the processes we use entail oxides that we reduce to metal plus O2. We're pretty much surplus to needs on about 95% of what oxygen we produce. Since we don't have anyone up there to breathe it, we thought about just venting it. But that would screw up the local region. Heh, it might even be a fire risk releasing so much oxidizer near all that powdered rock. So we decided that tanking it was a lesser nuisance. We figured that at some point someone out here could use it.
"We have begun work on another puller; but we'd need another fifty or sixty kilos of materials not on the current wish list to complete it. Sensors, CPUs, that sort of thing. Process control really sucks up the cycles; we never seem to have enough process heat either."
"I think we could do something like that. How soon could we get another dollop of O2?"
"Well, to be honest General, there's a window about seven months from now for a quick return to Eros, if we were willing to wait a bit. The puller would mass considerably less on the return trip. We could probably sustain about a tenth of a g on the outbound orbit. We figure, perhaps two or three weeks on the return.
"We could turn the current puller around fairly quickly. Call it eighteen months from now we until could deliver another load to you. Perhaps double the first batch. Obviously, we'll be using Moore's law; probably we won't need nearly as much water next time either. Maybe a hundred to one swap; maybe even a better ratio than that for you."
There were a few technical details, but afterwards the three partners were sitting in the darkened meeting room, just themselves. "He's going to buy into it," Elaine whispered in disbelief. "Gosh, you were right, David."
"Simple Economics 101. We can make the stuff for practically nothing. We do have a long pipeline, and in truth we're still about two years away from the time we can reliably deliver a few tons a couple of times a year. But the technical hurdles are out of the way," David reassured the others.
Sean leaned back. Even here, even now, no names -- they all knew it. "Marduk and Dagon say they can get the special stuff loaded in lieu of a couple of science fair projects." With the unspoken knowledge amongst them that Dagon would also be in position to get those materials actually out to the puller at the ISS. Another hundred kilos; this time top grade machine tools, if a little small.
David knew what the others were thinking about. "NASA has done so many stupid things over the years. They kill experiments because they don't want to store the data. They could have kept the NEAR probe -- instead they landed it. Or rather they crashed it so they could get a couple of really close pictures of the asteroid. So many experiments that they've shut down!"
Sean smiled. "And if it was still in orbit? We'd never be able to hide what we're doing. As it is, there's a risk someone will try to bounce some radar beams off Eros. If they do it at the wrong time of the year, and they are going to be a little surprised."
"But they won't," Elaine said, shaking her head in sorrow. "They aren't interested."
General Kostias turned to Fran Saunders. "Well, Saunders, you're the fuckin' genius. What have they got? Are they bull-shitting me?"
Fran was short, a little heavy; with long straight hair that had to be kept in a damn plastic bag all of the time. She met the general's eye. "The numbers they quote -- that provides a baseline on what they've done, and that tells us what they can do. The single most revealing number is that the stuff is already going uphill. I checked the orbit; Earth was uphill from Eros at the stated launch date -- but it was at a very low value -- about four a half kilometers per second.
"The tonnages involved, the time frame..." Fran stared at the general. "They are understating what they can do. They practically have to be."
"How can they afford so much metal? They aren't stupid -- they have to know that that stuff is like gold up here."
She shook her head. "I looked up the composition of Eros, from the NEAR data. All they are doing is refining regolith; odds are they are using magnets to sift iron from the dust..."
"They said they did that," the general said, interrupting her.
"Yes, sir. You have to wonder, General, just what it is they are hiding, when they told us so much about what they are doing."
"Maybe they are stupid, just telling us what they've done."
"Oh yeah, stupid people send a mining probe out to an asteroid, succeed beyond anyone's wildest dreams and start offering to share a cornucopia of goodies with us. Sure, they are stupid, stupid, stupid."
"Oxygen and steel? Titanium? And they need water ... That doesn't sound that successful."
Fran Saunders sniffed in derision. "You know what they want? The stuff on their wish list. That stuff is like gold at Eros; at least until we get out to the far belt, out close to Jupiter's orbit."
She stopped and grinned. "I bet they don't give a rat's ass about the water." Another pause, then, "I'll be damned! I bet that's what's going on!"
"What's going on?"
"Well, the stuff they want -- they told us they want to make another puller. I listened, General. They never once said they were going to send it here; the one they've got is going to give us more than we need for a long time to come.
"Even with two year turnarounds, we'll be getting more supply from them then we do from Earth. Certainly more O2. No, the new puller is going on a long mission. How far, I can't say. But, if they're smart, and I have to say they are, that puller is going to get close to Jupiter's orbit or beyond. Where volatiles aren't evaporated by the sun. Jeez, then they'd have everything. Those asteroids have a lot of chlorine and fluorine. Everything. Carbon, water..." She shook her head, thinking.
She blinked. "That puller! Jesus! He snuck that right past us!" The general looked at her in surprise. "He said it aloud, in pieces. Christ on a crutch! They're bringing us forty tons of oxygen; couple tons of tanks, potassium. -- and sixty tons of rock dust for fuel. Jesus! A hundred and twenty tons of space ship! That's something like five or six semi truck loads!" She sneered, "Oh yeah, pretty much just like when it left here. A longer boom!" she sniffed in derision.
She was silent for several more minutes. "I wonder..." Fran whispered, "I wonder." She looked at the general. "Is there any way we can sneak a peak at Eros with something large?"
"The numbers don't add up. The processes they talk about, to get that much oxygen, they would have had to produced a lot more iron than oxygen. A lot. If they have 40 tons of oxygen, they have to have about twenty or thirty times that of iron. Probably short of carbon, for steel making..." She was staring into space, her lips moving. "That's why so much titanium, they don't need to alloy it." She met the general's eyes. "Odds are, there is something a whole lot bigger being built in Eros orbit than a simple cargo puller."
"They want a lot of computer equipment," the general reminded her.
Saunders nodded. "Yeah, they'd need it. I think they are running remotes, too. A human brain, even if applied for a few hours a day, can replace a prodigious amount of silicon. Prodigious."
"Then why all the CPU's?" the general asked, curious.
She grinned. "Humans can deal with unexpected situations -- all sorts of things. But put a human, day in and day out, fitting round pegs into round holes -- they can't keep it up for very long. They get bored, they get fatigued, and they lose concentration. Teach the job to a computer and it won't get tired, it won't get bored and won't lose focus. Day in and day out. Not stopping for days or weeks at a time." She shook her head. "It takes a while to get it right, but once it's right..." She sighed. "We really need to look at Eros, General."
There was a sudden intent look on her face. "Oh, cool! Really, really cool!" She murmured.
"What?" The general asked, stumped.