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Denizens: 3 - Strike

...The outer door of the lock slid open, and Zac looked out at the blackness of space. It was a sight he had never tired of, even though he had seen it all day every day for the past three months. The stars glittered against a backdrop of black velvet, like diamonds in a jeweler’s case. Zac stared in wonder at the grandeur of the cosmos, and grinned behind his faceplate...

Zac and his Aussie good buddy Digger are about to make a discovery while mining the asteroid belt which will make them extremely rich men.

Brian William Neal's gripping space adventure conveys the drama and loneliness of working beyond Earth's confines.

The massive bulk of the Hudson slid away as Zac piloted the two-man scout ship towards the waiting asteroid, which hung motionless in the lee of the ore carrier. Stars filled his vision, and on his screens he could see two “Lobsters” and three other scouts working his section of the asteroid field.

The scout was basically an easily piloted space tug which, along with two others, had nudged and shunted the rock into its present position. Now, Zac’s ship would work on it alone, performing exploratory work, probing and digging with the lasers and cutters, analyzing with the mass spectrometer to determine just what materials made up this gigantic piece of space debris.

Zac turned control of the ship over to his companion and co-worker, Australian geologist Harry “Digger” Buchanan. The next phase of the operation involved several hours of trial-and-error graft, and Zac would be out of the ship for long periods at a time.

Some of the people Zac had traveled out with had already returned to earth. Not everyone could take the isolation of deep space; Zac, however, seemed to be born to it. As with his spelunking, he could spend hours outside the ship, chipping away at a rock, happy as a sand boy.

He opened the suit locker, stripped to his shorts and tee shirt, and stepped into his suit, which hung from the bulkhead, secured by Velcro pads. Next, he fastened the seals and ran through the checklist. Digger, who had put the ship on auto, joined him for this. A spacer could get very dead very fast if he didn’t exercise extreme caution and follow procedure, and Zac had far too much to lose to be anything but a very cautious spacer.

Satisfied, he stepped into the airlock and waited patiently until Digger announced they were in position. “O.K. Digger,” he said over the suit radio, “you continue with the probes, and keep me informed about this beauty.”

The Aussie’s nasal tones sounded in Zac’s helmet. “Shall do, mate. Soon’s I find out what we’ve got here, you’ll be the second to know.” He consulted the panel before him. “Depressurizing in five seconds.” Pause. “Airlock opening now.”

The outer door of the lock slid open, and Zac looked out at the blackness of space. It was a sight he had never tired of, even though he had seen it all day every day for the past three months. The stars glittered against a backdrop of black velvet, like diamonds in a jeweler’s case. Zac stared in wonder at the grandeur of the cosmos, and grinned behind his faceplate.

“Here there be dragons,” he said as he stepped through the door, and he had the now familiar, momentary feeling that he might somehow fall, and go on falling forever. He thought it was a feeling no spacer would ever completely overcome, an odd combination of exhilaration and vertigo, terror and wonder, but it passed quickly and he anchored his safety line on the recessed ring, one of many built into the outer hull of the scout.

Following the information fed into his suit computer by Digger, Zac moved, by bursts from his CO2 propulsion tank, back and forth between the rock and the ship, ferrying any samples he felt worthy of analysis to his partner. After several hours, he returned to the rock one last time to retrieve some equipment he had left there. Then he started back, and spoke on his radio.

“O.K. good buddy, what’ve we got?”

On board the scout, Digger frowned at his equipment. “Dunno, mate. It’s similar to a lot of things, but not exactly like any of them. Give me a few minutes.”

Zac continued to propel himself with bursts from his CO2 gun across the gap between the rock and the ship, aiming for the airlock door. Then Digger spoke again.

“Hey mate, this is really weird. I’ve run most of the standard tests, and this bastard doesn’t fit any of them. Don’t wet your knickers or anything, but I think we could have a Grogan here.”

Zac struggled to fight down a surge of excitement. To find a Grogan, a new element, was every space miner’s dream. In the early days of mining in the Belt, an American miner named Pete Grogan had discovered an asteroid containing an ore that did not conform to any known criteria. He had taken samples which, when analyzed, were found to contain seventeen percent of a totally new substance, one not in existence on earth. The mining company had set up a profit-sharing scheme based on the value of any such find, and Grogan had become a very rich man.

The arrangement served as an incentive for the miners to last out their tour, out in the loneliness of space. Throughout history, men had sometimes been required to live apart from their families in order to find work, but usually only relatively short distances had been involved. The psychological trauma caused by being three hundred million miles from home was, for some, overwhelming.

As Zac ran through the procedure by which he stripped off his suit, he thought of the rock they had discovered. Of course, he rationalized, you have to be realistic about it. The Belt may look crowded in the animated schematics they show on the vid; they make it look like the Belt is an almost solid field of rocks circling the sun. The reality was that there were huge empty spaces between each asteroid. The chances of finding a lode such as the one that made Pete Grogan a household name were about the same as winning the lottery three weeks running.

Grogan’s strike had happened five years previously, and although there had been the occasional small find, nothing of that magnitude had occurred since. However, the possibility was always there, at the back of the mind; for a moment, Zac allowed himself to think of it. Grogan’s rock had been less than one-fifth the size of this one, yet his one- percent share of the profits had enabled him to retire in luxury for the rest of his life. If this asteroid were to contain even a small part of what his had… Zac thrust the daydream away with an effort. Whoa, boy, he grinned to himself, that way lies madness. Better wait and see what we’ve got, if in fact we’ve got anything at all. When he was back inside, then they would see what they would see.

*

“I don’t believe what I’m bloody well seeing,” breathed the burly Australian. “This is in-flamin’-credible.”

Digger was hunched over the mass spectrometer while Zac floated behind him, bobbing and peering over his shoulder and trying to see what was happening.

“What is it, Digger?” he asked. “What’s up?”

The garrulous Aussie was becoming so agitated, he began to rise out of his seat in the zero-gee atmosphere of the tiny, cramped scout.

“Oh, mate,” he said, his voice shaky with excitement, “you’re not gonna believe this.”

“What, for Christ’s sake? Have you found some trace Grogans?”

This sometimes, if rarely, happened, but only minuscule quantities had been found to date. Nevertheless, their finders had received a tidy sum; not enough to retire on, perhaps, but tidy all the same.

Digger leaned back from the machine, pushed back his Australian bush hat, and turned to look at his American partner. For once, there was no trace of the mocking, don’t-give-a-shit look in his eyes; he was more serious than Zac had ever seen him. They gazed soberly at each other for a few moments, then Digger drew a deep breath.

“No, mate. We haven’t got any traces.”

As Zac’s heart sank momentarily, Digger continued. “What we have got is a one hundred million ton rock that appears to be made up of lava base, iron, tin, bit of copper, what have you…and about forty percent of something this bloody machine’s never bloody well heard of.”

Zac gaped at him, not daring to take in what his friend was saying. Digger leapt to his feet, forgetting in his excitement their zero-gee environment, and grasped Zac by the shoulders.

“We’re rich, mate!” he roared. “We are just so fucking rich!”

He began to laugh, and the two of them embraced in the weightlessness of the tiny scout, their heads bumping on the ceiling, oblivious to the radio that was calling them to acknowledge the latest communication.

When they had regained some of their composure, Zac pulled himself to the front of the scout to answer the radio call, and he laughed aloud when he heard Digger say, musingly: “I wonder how much the Aussie government wants for Queensland?”

*

Digger’s assessment of their financial state turned out to be accurate to a degree that neither of them could possibly have imagined. After the asteroid was transported to earth orbit, broken up and smelted in one of the orbiting foundries, it was discovered to contain 38.75% of the unknown ore. The mining company immediately offered the two men a sum which, while not quite what they would have received if they had been prepared to hold out for a share of the profits, still made them extremely wealthy.

Digger retired to Australia, to his home state of Queensland, to lie on the beach at Surfer’s Paradise, much of which he subsequently purchased.

Zac returned to his family in Ohio, and paid off all the notes on his parent’s farm. The elder Brodys then moved to a smaller holding, on which Zac built them a new house. They would never give up the rural life, even though they could have lived anywhere they wished. However, Zac’s father did accept his son’s gift of a new Mitsubishi– Cadillac, which he drove into Middlesboro once a week for the rest of his life.

They were all very happy people.

***


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