“I don’t like this.” The uncertainty in Althea’s voice carried clearly over the communications link. “There’s something wrong here.”
Aboard the Jemima, Marlis frowned. It wasn’t like her partner to give way to vague misgivings. They might be due for some time in port, maybe even a visit to Sunset Strip. That was supposed to be the best liberty port for spacers in this quadrant. She shook herself. No good thinking about heading dirtside until they finished what they were here for. They needed to score something big if they wanted a vacation. Marlis spoke into her comm unit.
“I’m not sure, Mar. Just…it’s wrong. The whole thing feels dead.”
“It’s an asteroid. They’re all dead. Nothing can live on an asteroid.” Marlis thought that the sensitivity that made Althea good at her job could work against her sometimes.
“I know. So why does it feel weird that this one is dead?”
That wasn’t the sort of question you could answer, so Marlis didn’t try. “Is there anything there worth mining?” The pair were asteroid miners, not orichalcum like the top guys, but pretty much everything else. They did well, mostly because they were willing to put in the effort to harvest the stuff others bypassed.
“I’m not getting readings for anything familiar,” Althea reported. “Not even iron.” That was odd. Pretty much every asteroid had iron.
“But the computer said to walk it.” Walking was what they called landing on an asteroid and assessing its minerals.
“Maybe the computer needs a vacation, too.”
Marlis fiddled with the sensor controls. “I’ve got nothing. If you aren’t getting anything, come on back in.” She pulled the hood of her own suit closed, and propelled herself along the passage to the airlock, to spot Althea on her return. That was the dangerous moment, and the spacers never did it alone.
Later, in the control room, Althea tried to explain to her skeptical partner. “Maybe it was because the computer insisted we needed to mine that one. Maybe I was just disappointed that there was nothing there.”
Marlis nodded, but she didn’t believe it. Althea was too old an asteroid miner to be thrown off by a dead scent. It happened. The computer sensed something they couldn’t reach, or contaminants in the sensor gave them a false reading. Althea had never been bothered by it before.
“I wonder why I thought it was dead,” Althea mused.
“All asteroids are dead,” Marlis said.
“That’s just it. They’re supposed to be lifeless, so they don’t feel dead. This—remember that time we found the ghost ship?”
Marlis shuddered. She remembered. They’d found the ship drifting, no responses, no life signs, no machinery working. They had boarded it only to find the crew, so long dead they were mummified. No idea what had killed them.
“It felt like that,” Althea said. “Like something that should have been alive.”
Marlis was fiddling with the computer. She stopped, read something, turned back and read it again, and turned to her partner. She wore a puzzled expression.
“I ran the spectrum analysis. It’s not anything like the other asteroids around here.”
Althea asked, “some kind of interloper, then? Not part of whatever broke up and created this asteroid belt?”
“Yeah.” Marlis continued to stare at the computer. “’Thea, what feels alive when you walk it?”
“Planets. Ships, except when all sources of power have shut down,” she added, remembering that drifting tomb. “Not sure what else there is.” She thought and counted them off on her fingers. “I’ve been on ships, planets, and asteroids. And that thing out there,” she knew it now with a certainty that had no knowledge behind it as yet, “that thing is none of those.”
“And what else is there in space?”
“Space junk. Human detritus. I guess that’s what that ship was, except it should have been alive, so it felt weird. This wasn’t human, I’m sure of it. Not space debris.”
“What else?” Marlis prompted.
Althea thought for a minute. “Comets,” she breathed, seeing it. “That thing is a comet. But…” she hesitated. “I thought those were just in Sol System.”
“They’re bits of rock and ice, left kicking around after the formation of a planetary system. As far as I can tell, they can happen in any planetary system. They orbit the sun, spewing bits of themselves all the way.”
“This thing isn’t spewing anything,” Althea protested. She knew it wouldn’t appear to be moving. The whole asteroid belt was in orbit, albeit a slow one, and the Jemima with it. But the tail should have been visible.
“It’s dead,” Marlis said. “Stopped moving, except with the whole asteroid belt.”
“Doesn’t that just make it another asteroid?”
“It should. You tell me.”
It didn’t. Althea remembered what it felt like to stand on the dead comet. It made her want to leave, to get far away. “Why did the computer want me to go there? What does it have that we want?”
Marlis studied the computer some more. “Aha! It has things that were frozen into it at the birth of this star system. There are scientists that will pay for an artifact like this.” She looked closer and whistled. “Pay a lot.”
“Did I miss something?” Althea asked. “Why would they pay so much? There must be something of value in it.” She was wondering if they could mine it after all.
Marlis looked at her partner. They’d worked, lived, and loved together for more decades than either of them wanted to remember, but some things never ceased to amaze her. “It contains knowledge, Althea. We just have to get it to the people who can decode it.” She could see that Althea didn’t really understand, but loved an engineering challenge, and was already working out how to capture and tow the comet without it melting or breaking apart.
If they could pull this off, they could have a long holiday dirtside, maybe retire.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2017
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