chapter 4

"If you haven't already spotted it and want a first look, your ship is on the starboard side, down thirty degrees, and twelve kilometers ahead," the shuttle pilot stated.

Stryker looked up from his book and stared out the window. He recalled the first time he was in space. Then the view of the stars was so magnificent; now it was ordinary. He was jaded, but this time he felt the tingling on his skin that acknowledged he was to see something very important. Down below, standing out from the black and scattered stellar points of light, was a small glistening but narrow circle enclosing black, but as the shuttle approached, the disk-shape became clearer. Since the motors were off, the disk of the Defiant was oriented so the disk received maximum sunlight for the hydroponic sections. The shuttle was approaching from the rear of the ship, so all he could see was the outer edge of the large circular black shape of the disk, but as the shuttle cleared the disk edge, there was the command part of the ship shining with the brightness of new metal untouched by space weathering and micro-meteors. There were huge titanium struts along the side, while forward of the ring-bearing collar, the ship broadened due to the presence of the new fusion motors, together with tanks that contained the fuel: heavy water and dust, the former to provide deuterium and absorb unwanted neutrons, and the latter to provide more mass in the plasma to be accelerated through the magnetohydrodynamic drive.

"Like it?" Despite the fact that Stryker knew that getting up here must have taken a huge toll on him, Nordstrum had the attitude of a small boy with a new toy.

"You weren't wrong," Stryker nodded and gave a broad smile as he said. "She's a beauty."

Even Mitchell, sitting behind them, gave a gasp when he first saw it in the light, but to Stryker's dismay, he said nothing.

"There are two sets of titanium struts," Nordstrum informed them. "One set is fixed to the command module and helps strengthen the ship for the power of the fusion motors. The second lot are currently fixed to the collar, but can be used to adjust the length of the other struts to help push irregular shaped bodies."

"And if we disconnect the command module?"

"The struts on the collar fold up onto the ring," Nordstrum said. "The command module, besides having the motor, also has a cargo bay with two small mobile buggies, as I call them. You also can't see them from here but there're also two shuttles attached for travel to space stations, or for that matter, Earth."

"And this shuttle?"

"Will return to Gamma Station," the pilot said with a grin. "You do not pass go and collect it."

After a smooth docking, a surprised Stryker watched the weightless Nordstrum drift with some skill toward the hatch and "swim" through. Being weightless suited him. Nordstrum invited them to meet the rest of their crew, and before they could object, he drifted off to a small room.

The rest of the crew were human-like androids, and when Nordstrum introduced Mitchell and Stryker to them there was no evidence from their blank expressionless faces that the androids had registered their presence, but Nordstrum assured them they had.

"They are security androids," Nordstrum explained, "which is why you had to be introduced. They will also do heavy lifting and any outside repair work, and of course being androids they can interface with the ship's computers so in an emergency they can fly the ship." Left unsaid was the question of whether orders were required for them to do so. Stryker was concerned how much initiative they had. If his inner fears were real, he might be the least necessary person on board.

"They will normally remain here and maintain their energy levels, but right now the shuttle needs unloading." He keyed in some instruction on a small controller, and immediately two androids disconnected and drifted off towards the shuttle. "The androids can control the movement of massive objects far better than you," he added. "I'm going to see certain things of mine go where they should. Yours will go to your designated rooms on the ring. In the meantime, would you and Mitchell please familiarize yourselves with the bridge, and commence the routine for starting the motor." With that he drifted back through the hatch towards the shuttle. Stryker smiled to himself. Weightlessness was beneficial for him.

As they made their way to the bridge, Stryker noted a sullen attitude and an absence of enthusiasm, or for that matter, gratitude from Paul Mitchell. He looked nervous, but was that because he had sold Stryker out, either at the trial or now, was unclear. He might be merely afraid that Stryker might think he had, and wanted revenge. Stryker acknowledged to himself that when he recruited Mitchell, he had avoided any signs of friendliness and had reminded Mitchell he would remain a junior officer. Mitchell had accepted that with a grudging "Aye sir," said while avoiding looking Stryker in the eye.

"There has to be a chain of command," Stryker explained. 

No response.

"I'm sure we can make this work," Stryker continued, although a level of frustration was building. "At the end of this expedition, I promise to give you a good reference, assuming you do well, and in the meantime, you will have a generous transfer to your bank account. At least you leave with far better prospects than you have now."

Mitchell gave an involuntary scowl as he mumbled, "Why you want me? You don't think much of me, do you? There's something else, isn't there?" 

"What else could there be?" Stryker's speech was a trifle hard and sharp. Of course there was a clear reason, and Mitchell should be able to guess it.

"I don't know." This was said almost as a whimper.

"Then let's try to get through this flight as well as we can."

Mitchell gave a grunt, and a nod of acceptance. 

Mitchell had then done his best to discard any association with the military. His dark brown hair had always struggled to comply with the required short and tidy look, and this lack of compliance had always given him a boyish look. Now he was out of the military, it had got longer and untidier. He had started cultivating a stubble, which as far as Stryker was concerned did nothing for him. He was slightly built and significantly taller than average, which in the training academy had given him the nickname Stringbean. He hated that, and Stryker had made it clear to anyone they encountered while they were together in the Space Corps that anyone who called him that would earn a roll of five. That name had faded away.

Mitchell had maintained his despondent look the whole time so far, and Stryker decided he had to do something about it. "Mitch, look more enthusiastic. When this is over, you'll need good references or you'll never find a job in space again, or anywhere else, for that matter."

"And maybe I won't after this anyway."

There was no answer to this. The fact was, there were very few jobs for new space pilots. While private space flights were quite legal, the ships were extremely expensive so such flights, apart from certain scheduled ones, were rare. There were the freight flights to Mars, but they had experienced crew who comprised the best Space Corps pilots with exceptional records. There were the asteroid collectors who made money from the asteroids they delivered to the L4 station, but they were decreasing in number because it was becoming more obvious that as an activity it was more designed to lead to impoverishment than riches. The bars and casino always had rumours of asteroids that would make someone extremely rich, but nobody was making big fortunes. The huge cost of provisioning an expedition and the capital cost of a space ship with a powerful fusion motor involved astronomic numbers. Fortunes were not being made, and asteroid harvesting had not made economic sense so far.


*   *   *


Stryker wanted to find something a little better than a lump of basalt, but that was what most asteroids in this region of space were. To his surprise, he seemed to be getting on reasonably well with Nordstrum. At first he had feared that space would be too much for him, but instead it seemed to have given him a second wind. Although Nordstrum was paying, he was always deferring to Stryker, and while that was good, sooner or later he would want progress. Maybe now, Stryker thought, as Nordstrum made his way onto the bridge.

"Any luck yet?"

"Sorry, but no," Stryker said. "Space is a big place, and, well, I haven't pushed this ship in deference to your health, and –"

"That's fine," Nordstum replied with an almost childish smile, "but I want you to try harder." The friendly attitude and the soft voice did not disguise the clear command.

"I also have to test the ship fairly rigorously, because once we get somewhere near an asteroid, if it doesn't do exactly what is required of it, we may very well die."

"And is it doing well?"

"So far, yes. When you are properly resting in bed later, I shall try a few more extreme moves."

"Then I shall go now, so we can get on with finding an asteroid."

"I'm not deliberately going slow," Stryker said, "but I don't want to make things any harder for you than –"

"I know I'm not very healthy, but I am a little sturdier than I think you assume, and I'm not going to get healthier. I'll go straight to a bed to ease your conscience, but –"

"Understood. I shall give you a quarter of an hour, then there will be about twenty minutes of tough going, but after that we shall be heading as fast as desirable for where I hope to find an asteroid."

"Excellent," Nordstrum nodded, and disappeared through the hatch.

When Stryker put the Defiantthrough a more stringent test routine, it performed very smoothly. Nordstrum was not exaggerating; this was an extremely good ship. He set a course for deeper space, ramped up the speed, then informed Nordstrum through the ship's com system that the ship was performing very well, and they were on their way. The flight for now would be smooth, at least until they detected an asteroid.


*   *   *


The rock being thrown up from the Moon was either basalt or anorthosite. The first would provide the bulk of the rock to make the giant shell, while the anorthosite, with appropriate treatment could be converted to a good cement. The lunar dust, or regolith, was probably the most valuable because it contained very fine particles of iron, which in turn were good absorbers of microwave energy. Anything with this iron could thus be strongly heated and surrounding silicates could be melt-fused into strong blocks, panels, or most desirable shapes. While some of the volcanic moon-rock had this iron, most did not. The problem with moon rock was it had limited variation. The moderate rotation of the finished station would prevent too high of temperatures in the rock, as well as provide an artificial gravity, but an adjacent space factory also made a silicone elastomer that would absorb thermal expansion and contraction on he outside. Some asteroids provided necessary components absent from moon rock. Earth-crossing asteroids were the easiest for delivery to the under-construction space station because they required the least energy if they were close. Unfortunately, as was often the case, the easiest were also often the least desirable.

Stryker was surprised to see the bridge of the Defiantnow had four crewmembers on it; one of the androids had decided to watch proceedings. Given that they could watch any information in electronic format from their station, Stryker guessed this one was here to watch the humans. Mitchell seemed not to question their presence, while Nordstrum had probably ordered it there. What did that mean? Stryker had swung the Defiantaround after the long deceleration, and a tiny spot could be seen in the distance: their target asteroid.

The rocky asteroids were not that valuable, largely because of the huge amounts of energy needed to break them up, and the cost of the equipment to do it safely. While the new space station needed a huge amount of rock for an outer shell to protect it from meteors and to add insulation, it was far cheaper to throw it up from the Moon. However, some things were needed that were absent from lunar rock. 

Besides the usual silicates, the carbonaceous asteroids contained carbon compounds, nitrogen, and water. These materials were essential components if human habitation was to survive. The carbonaceous asteroids originated on the outer part of the main asteroid belt, and since they were about twice as far from the station as was the sun, they would be essentially falling down the stellar gravitational field if they were to be brought to the space station. Falling that far would give them a very high arrival speed. There were occasional reports of one that had been knocked inwards and had had its orbit modified to become a near Earth asteroid. So far nobody had delivered any, and some recommended granular salt when reading about them.

Some asteroids had a nickel-iron core, which was valuable as a source of metal, which was absent in a metallic form in Moon rock, although the lunar soil did contain very small particles of iron. The metal-cored asteroids were not common, but they were more common inside the Earth's orbit, that is, with a semimajor axis closer to the star.

Stryker had picked one that could be iron-rich, and it would shortly be at apogee, where its orbit was the farthest from the sun and its speed the slowest. Nordstrum was as happy as a child with a new toy because Stryker had informed him that of the ships currently collecting asteroids, only the new motors on the Defiantwere capable of handling an asteroid this big, provided the external braces held up.

"Mitch," Stryker said, "I'm going to offer our boss a chance to go outside. Make sure his suit is put on properly, far a piton onto the spun-down asteroid do give him something to hold on to, help him if he needs it, and keep an eye on him."

"Why me? Is he up to it?"

"Mitch, he may not want to, but if he does, do it. No arguments on this one. He's paying you far more than you'd get anywhere else, and remember, one good reference from him will be worth twenty from anywhere else, so get yourself noticed for all the right reasons. Now, get to the suiting area."

When Mitchell moved off, Stryker knew things remained strained, but if he was being paid that much, he could damn well earn it. Of course, Nordstrum might not want to go outside, but he rather thought he would. He then called Nordstrum and offered him the opportunity to come to the bridge and see the asteroid. Nordstrum made a response that indicated he would be right there.

"Morning duties done, Cap'n," Nordstrum said as he came onto the bridge. One of the things Stryker had noted was that Nordstrum was very happy even to be doing the menial duties. He knew nothing about navigation, and he knew the actual operation of the ship had to be left to Stryker, but he happily accepted looking after the hydroponics. These produced the oxygen they breathed, they cleaned up the waste after it was sterilized, and they provided food. It was very important these were done properly, and Stryker was pleased to note he was both a willing and a quick learner.

"Good morning, Leif." Morning had no real meaning on a space ship, but it was useful to maintain customary habits. "How do you fancy a space walk?"

"You'll let me go outside? What for?"

"There's a small asteroid that will come up front shortly, and we should be able to nudge it towards the Lagrange construction site. However, if we want cash for our efforts someone has to embed one of these claim units. I'll do it if you want to stay inside, but I gathered you wanted to have space experiences, and this is one way to get them."

"Sure. What do I have to do?"

"First, make sure your suit is working, and Mitch'll help you with that. What we'll do is spin the asteroid down, then park beside it. We fire the claim unit at the asteroid and it will stick there, but your job is to attach it more firmly. You go out with a hammer, and you will see two pins tied by plastic thread. Don't untie them, but –"

"Why not?" Nordstrum was puzzled.

"The escape velocity of this asteroid will be a few centimeters per second. Here, I'll show you what that means." Nordstrum watched a slow moving finger cross his face. 

"You cannot hypnotise me," Nordstrum responded in a dead-pan toneless voice. "My chequebook is secure."

Stryker burst out laughing. "Good one, Lief. Anyway, if I gave something a flick like this," and he gave a lazy flick from a flaccid left hand, "that would be enough for the something to escape the gravity of the asteroid. The problem, though, is it would take the asteroid's orbital velocity and its eccentricity. It could hit someone or something later at several kilometers per second, which makes bullets seem slow."

"OK." Nordstrum nodded to show he understood.

"So," Stryker resumed, "you put the pins in the holes in the footer plate and hammer them in, and while you are doing that hold on to a piton. When the pins are in, press the red button you will see near the top of the unit. It does the rest, and you come back. You'll be at the other end of a rope so you can't drift off helplessly into space."

"I thought they had little rocket packs?"

"Yours won't because you haven't had practice yet. There's a small training unit where you can practice virtually, but until I'm confident you know how to use the unit, you don't get them live."


Stryker was pleased there were no arguments about this. When he had started this exercise he had wondered how a man who was always boss would respond when he had to accept what he saw as undesirable instructions, but so far there were no signs of trouble. Nordstrum seemed happy to accept he was the beginner.

"Right. Come over here and see what we have."

The seeing was via electronics, but it looked very small, very lifelike, or perhaps more accurately, dead-like, with a smooth and grey surface, apart from a couple of small impact craters that made Stryker happy because they showed the asteroid had good mechanical strength. An asteroid that broke up on being accelerated was both a pest and a potential disaster.

"Right, we have to sneak up on it," Stryker said, "but to aid the spin-down I am going to point the exhausts at it. That won't fully spin it down, but it will help. At the same time, we shall give it a nudge, and we might as well give it a nudge in the right direction, so that means going around it a bit. Sorry, but this gets boring."

The lump of rock appeared to veer to the port side and dip below, then it disappeared from the screen. 

"I've programmed in the manoeuvre," Stryker explained. "Now we wait."

Finally the screen came alive, and there was the asteroid, now considerably bigger. It was still spinning, but only at about a third of is original angular momentum.

"It looks like a potato with warts," Nordstrum remarked. The overall shape was a bit like a potato, not that potatoes had a definitive shape. The surface had a few small sharp-edged rocks attached to it, and as it rotated, a small impact crater appeared at the port end. 

"Well, let's see what we have," Stryker said. "Time for the feather test."

"You brought a feather?" A deeply puzzled expression was fixed to Nordstrum's face.

"The expression means we are going to check its gravity," Stryker said. "In space feathers drop at the same rate as cannon balls, and since feathers do not on Earth because of air resistance, this test has picked up this nickname. No, we don't use feathers. We use a somewhat special accelerometer."

"And why do we want to know its gravity? You think I'll fall off?"

"Not at all, as long as you anchor yourself, and Mitch'll help by firing a piton into it for you to hang onto. You would if you relied on its gravity, but that's not the reason. Measuring the gravity is to see what sort of asteroid we have."

Stryker played with some dials, then keyed in the computer, and finally said, "Its relative density is a little under two. I'm afraid it's just a silicaceous asteroid."

"Which is?"

"It's a bloody big rock."

"Is that bad?"

"It's not good, because most asteroids are just rock, so we don't get big money for it, but it's here so we might as well take it. It's certainly a bit porous, but don't get your hopes up." 

"Hopes for what?"

"Porous means there are spaces inside it. Sometimes they contain water, which would make it more valuable."

"But you don't think so in this case?"

"No. Water is fairly rare in these asteroids. Now, we're going to fire a device at its equator to complete the spin-down and help it onto its new trajectory."

"What say the unit lands on sand, and the pins aren't long enough?"

"Good question," Stryker said. "Can you see why it won't?"

"No sand there, I suppose."

"Correct, and you know why?" When he saw a blank expression, not wanting to embarrass the boss he explained, "Remember the spin rate? If there were any sand, the spin at the equator would have exceeded the escape velocity. It would have flown away. Now, I have some tricky calculations to do, so you might as well go down to where Mitch is and suit up, if you still want to do this."

"You're going to shoot the claim unit at it?" There was real fear in Nordstrum's voice.

"More or less, but that will be all done before you go outside. Don't worry. Mitch will go outside with you, and he won't go until he knows the asteroid is spun down and there is no danger." 

Nordstrum nodded, and as he left the bridge Stryker played on the control panel to send a small missile that attached itself to the asteroid, then it re-oriented itself. The missile then gave a small blast of energy, and the asteroid slowly began to extend its rotational period. Before long, it had spun down.

Stryker spoke into a radio that transmitted to Mitch and Nordstrum. "Right, you two. The asteroid has spun down. Time to go and claim it."

Stryker was slightly nervous as he watched the suited figure make a gentle jump towards the asteroid. Nothing bad could happen because Nordstrum was attached to the Defiant, but it was still nerve-wracking because he had so little training. Mitchell followed, but he was not going to the claim device unless he had to. His job was to retrieve the missile, which could be refuelled and reused. 

Stryker watched Nordstrum make contact and grasp the claim unit, which had been fired onto the asteroid from one of the weapons ports. It would have a moderate attachment to the asteroid, but it needed much more. Nordstrum placed a "nail" into the hole on one of the feet, and he got out his hammer. Please, Stryker thought, hold on tight and don't hit too hard. He let out a breath as Nordstrum made his first hit, and his hold on the piton was strong enough to prevent him flying off the asteroid. It took a number of further hits, then the small light on the device indicated it was secure. This was repeated with a second nail, then Nordstrum gave a wave of success, and triggered the device that would slowly wind his rope back into the airlock.

Meanwhile Mitchell had secured the missile inside a containment net, and when he saw that Nordstrum had made it back safely, he too returned to the Defiant.

When Nordstrum returned to the bridge he was almost like a small boy who had just got the goal that won the match for his team. His smile was so infectious, even though Stryker knew that his health was such that he had little to be pleased about.

"That OK?"

"You did an excellent job," Stryker assured him. "One last step. We have to plan a trajectory to deliver the asteroid to the Lagrange Station with the least velocity that is reasonable, then we have to nudge the asteroid onto that path. Naturally we have to take advantage of as much of its current momentum as possible. So, let's go to the computer, and I'll guide you into doing as much as you can." 

"I don't think my maths will be up to that," Nordstrum warned.

"Nor would mine," Stryker laughed. "You don't calculate. You tell the computer what you hope to do, the computer calculates and gives you options. You tell it to refine the best option, and it does it all, and tells us how to nudge, and will guide us through the manoeuvre. Come on and have a go."

"Suppose I get it wrong?"

"You can't, in the sense you are thinking. Just try. Remember, what you're doing has no effect at first. Until you key the instructions into the ship and the motors, nothing happens."

Stryker was amused to see how tentative Nordstrum was when he brought up the necessary program. "First," he said, "you ask the computer to show where we are, and then ask it if it recognizes the asteroid."

"Why would it recognise it?" Nordstrum was clearly puzzled.

"We don't know it will," Stryker said with a laugh, "but many asteroids have their orbits known. If you know when and where you are, if there is an asteroid there with a known orbit, the computer will know what it is, and will give you its current orbit."

"And if the orbits aren't known?"

"Then we have a problem, but first off, try it."

Nordstrum followed instructions, and to his delight the asteroid was known. He turned and looked at Stryker, and said, "You knew that this was here, didn't you?"

"Actually, yes," Stryker said with a smile. "What makes you think I did?"

"Because you came here and there it was," Nordstrum said. "No searching. You knew where to find it."

"Exactly right," Stryker said. "There are thousands of these known asteroids, so why not go straight to one?"

"No reason at all," Nordstrum said. "It's good you know what you're doing."

"This was one of the easiest to get hold of," Stryker said, "and since it will still take a while to get it to the L-4 station, and, well, since your health might be an issue, I thought it desirable to give you a win in as quick a time as possible."

"Thank you," Nordstrum said with a nod of appreciation. "My guess is, you suspected this would be one of the silicaceous ones?"

"Only to a point. You can't tell what their density is if they are single objects, especially if they are small. We shall escort this to L-4, then if you feel up to it we can try for another one that has a smaller semimajor axis, which means it is closer to the sun most of the time. That one would have a better chance of having a metal core."

"I'm sure I'll be OK."

"It'll take a good bit longer, so don't say so if you aren't sure –"

"Jonas, I've told you before I really don't care. It's a lot easier trying to do something than just lying around waiting to die. Now, what do I do next?"

Stryker took him through the procedure, and again Nordstrum felt like a little boy as he engaged the Defiant's motors. They decided to accompany it because at the other end they had to guide it to the catcher, and preferably slow it. When it was safely delivered their claim was registered whereupon they stated they would try for another before going to the Moonbase for payment.

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Nice chapter Ian. I was on the ship and involved with the Nordstrum and Stryker as they interacted. This could do with some editing to tighten the conversations and maybe build on the characters. I am discovering that I enjoy the other 'world' you are creating.

Agreed, Suraya, but editing for me comes after the whole has a first draft, because then the structural part of editing can make major cuts/changes.

Sure. Terry Pratchett would agree: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

I find that once the story is written, I go back many times and shift things around, add information and take other extraneous material out to tighten it up. Good to have a framework to work with though.