Published: December 9 2018

    Armor was a peculiarity of Teton Sector culture. Few others made it a habitual form of dress for anyone other than soldiers or law enforcement, if even they wore it. After their spat with the Temorran Kindred Joseph and Tyrone had planned to wear theirs more often, and Joseph had been less consistent about it than he knew he ought to be.
    Fortunately Rebecca silently reminded him. She wore hers almost all the time aboard Great Mandan Laker. Her close shave with death on the Comet must have made the protection of armor plates, instead of just a sealed jumpsuit to withstand vacuum, a comfort for her. With her example, he began to wear his more frequently.
    Joseph was a little concerned what the miners would think when two members of the freighter crew showed up in body armor, but he needn’t have worried. The man who emerged when they showed up outside the control room also wore an unusually heavy style of armor, and barely seemed to notice theirs. He introduced himself as Rhett Acker and promptly began their tour.
    “I don’t need to tell you we hollowed most of our facility out of the asteroid,” he commented as he led them toward the living quarters. “I’m sure you could tell that much from outside.”
    Joseph noted as well that most of the walls in the hallways were just the native rock, without any effort to spruce them up. This condition didn’t prevail everywhere. Rhett let them into his and his wife’s set of rooms to show them what the interiors were like. Here plaster had been applied to even out the rough spots left when the rooms were carved. White, blue and green paint in nice, if rather uniform, shades had been applied to make it look very much like the inside of a planetary house or station apartment.
    “So far we’ve managed to arrange things so every set of quarters or public space has an actual exterior window.” Rhett gestured to the wide one in his family’s living room, smaller only by a little than that in Great Mandan Laker’s lounge. “I’m sure that won’t last forever, as much as I like the idea. There’s only so much surface area on this rock. Still, I’ll keep it going as long as possible. I never liked station apartments that I couldn’t see out of.”
    “They’re not so bad if you’re never in them,” Nathan commented. “They’re the kind of place for unwed starmen. You just need someplace to sleep when you’re on your home station. If you ever wind up home for more than a week you notice how boring that is.”
    “Exactly,” Rhett agreed. Out of the quarters, they started back toward the operations areas of the station, but he led them up a single wide staircase for a side trip first. “This is the part I’m personally the most proud of.” he said as he reached the top and stopped before a set of double doors. “We didn’t start work on this until everything was operational, and we still aren’t finished, but it’s fairly impressive already.”
    Inside the doors was a church sanctuary with a high, vaulted ceiling. Joseph’s eyes widened in astonishment as he stared around the place. Pews complete with hymnal racks, the pulpit, the baptismal font, and most of the other fixtures were in place, carved meticulously out of the stone. Occasional bits of the asteroid’s valuable metal ores were visible in many of them, left behind as decoration rather than plucked out to sell or covered over as they were in the quarters.
    At first Joseph didn’t see what made it unfinished. Once he’d given the place a solid minute’s examination, he realized that the alter wasn’t supposed to poke out of the wall in their design; it was only half carved, with still more work to do behind it. Still, it was very close to a finished place of worship.
    “Impressive,” he murmured. The rest of the crew nodded.
    “Thank you.” Rhett grinned. “We don’t have enough people on the station to call a pastor yet, of course. We’ll get there one day though, and we wanted to be prepared. We play recordings of the service from our old church on Tuesday mornings, when they reach us in our ultralight transmissions. We watch them in here now, even though it isn’t finished yet. Maybe it’s just us, but it always felt weird to watch them in the lounge or the cafeteria.”
    “I get what you mean,” Joseph agreed. “I’ve watched recordings in the living room of our ships more Sundays than not for years now, and it still feels a little off.”
    Their next stop was the active mining areas of the asteroid. These corridors were much rougher, and Rhett explained why as they walked through. “We’re less careful about the dimensions of our cuts right now. We follow the ore as much as possible. Since the immediate living and operational areas we need are already cut, we don’t know exactly what we’ll have to turn these tunnels into. We try to limit the width and space them well apart in case we have to dig into the sides.”
    “Doesn’t that mean you leave behind a lot of useful ore?” Rebecca wore a confused frown.
    “We certainly do. The metal isn’t the main point of these efforts though. Well, it isn’t supposed to be,” Rhett corrected himself. “It would be better not to mine further into the asteroid until we know what to build back here. The realities of business demanded otherwise.
    “Material to finish the Cup and revenue are both things we need, otherwise we probably wouldn’t mine in the interior right now. Better to tow in smaller, equally metal-rich asteroids and break them apart. Until the Cup was usable that wasn’t an option. Now that it is we’ll slow down in here. Of course, we need water first.” He sighed and spread his hands.
    Joseph laughed, familiar with the frustrations of running a business. “Always something to go wrong, isn’t there?”
    Rhett nodded. “The change in our timetable is a pain, but we’d all like to keep drinking so there isn’t much to do but deal with it. Our tug is out fetching a water-ice asteroid for us right now. It won’t be nearly as big as the Cup could contain. Just enough to fill the storage tanks we built, and then we can get started on metal-bearing asteroids. Come on, I’ll show you the ore storage deck and then we can see the Cup up close.”
    The ore storage deck was up several levels and further down the asteroid from the living quarters. As they got closer Joseph realized the reason for the distance. The noise and vibration got louder the closer they came. Rhett stopped to open a cabinet when they reached the main doors.
    “You’ll need these on the deck.” He distributed hard hats, earplugs and safety glasses to everyone who didn’t have armor on. “You two will want your helmets on.” Joseph and Rebecca reached to unhook theirs from their tethers. “It’s too loud in here to talk other than by radio, so just take a look around. Once we’re across by the Cup and can hear ourselves think again, you can ask any questions that occur to you. Ready?” At their nod, he put on his own helmet and mashed the button to open the doors.
    On the ore storage deck, three loaders worked to move massive piles of ore across the room into giant holes, the two hoppers that fed Great Mandan Laker. The operators wore armor similar to Rhett’s, which must be a type specific to the dangers of mines. One operator who wore steel gray armor with blue accents raised one hand to wave at the newcomers as the loader drove past them. Joseph waved in return.
    The deck was huge, the ceiling over a hundred feet above them. Its size wasn’t a surprise, since it would eventually have to hold enough ore to load several ships the size of Laker. Piles of ore were stored in a dozen high tunnels cut deep into the asteroid, separated by type. Other pieces of heavy equipment were parked here and there around the room.
    After the long walk across the deck they passed through another door and Rhett motioned that they could remove the protective gear. They ascended several more levels to reach the Cup, where Rhett took them as far as the airlock that would provide access to the structure.
    Once they had seen the outside, he led them back about a hundred feet to the Cup’s control center. Cameras all around the Cup sent video to the screens that covered the room’s walls, providing a view of the structure’s every angle. There were over a dozen control stations around the room that looked not unlike
    “How does this thing work exactly?” Rebecca asked. “The others may know already, but I rarely even thought about mining until I was aboard Laker.”
    “You’re not alone there.” Nathan examined one of the large masts displayed on a monitor. “It’s pretty much all new to me as well.”
    Rhett stepped over to the screens with a smile. “It’s complicated to do, but not so complicated to explain.” On one of the monitors he pointed out the booms at the ends of the masts. “These open outward so that our tug can lower an asteroid into the Cup. Once the tug has it positioned correctly, we close the cup and anchor it to the masts.”
    He walked to a different screen and pointed out a much larger door on the surface of the Cup. “Tools on remote-controlled arms operated from here cut the asteroid into manageable pieces that we put through that door.” It was large enough to be a docking bay for a passenger shuttle. “We have equipment there to process it further, depending on what’s needed. With the material from the base, we crush it down into small pieces and feed it into more machines that separate useful material from worthless rock.”
    “We saw the beginnings of a skin on the Cup when we were flying in,” Gregory said. “Will the interior be pressurized once it’s finished?
    “No, we don’t plan on it.” Rhett shook his head. “We would have to build it a little differently for that, make a little more effort to seal every last crack. Atmosphere to fill it is another consideration. It’s mainly intended to prevent escape of chips of rock or pieces that split in a way we didn’t expect. There are always a lot of those to drift around.”
    “Miners would need armor to work in there even if it were pressurized, right?” Joseph commented. With the weight involved, he could hardly imagine otherwise.
    “Right,” Rhett nodded. “The material sections we cut have a mass of at least a few tons each. If you didn’t notice, the armor suit I wear is exceptionally bulky.” He pulled on his collar a little to show the unusual thickness.
    “Mining armor is powered, and emphasizes protection from crushing. The pieces of rock we cut off the asteroids still weigh several tons, and they’re no joke to work with. Even at a slow speed, there’s so much mass involved that they could easily kill someone who wasn’t protected properly. Even the little pieces I mentioned are a hazard.
    “We do most of the work from here anyway.” Rhett gestured at all the control stations. “If anyone actually has to go into the Cup, we’ll shut down while they’re inside. They still have to wear the armor though. Accidents happen, and we’re not going to risk lives in there.”
    “A good sentiment for an employer to have.” Gregory nodded approval.
    “I’ve always thought so myself. Of course my ‘employees’ at this point are exclusively friends and family.”
    “That sounds familiar,” Joseph said. “It makes some things easier.”
    “Others, much harder,” Rhett laughed. He checked a clock on one of the screens and made a face. “We should probably head back to the habitation section. I need to get back to the control room and check on our tug.” The freighter crew trooped obediently back into the hallway.
    “You’ve mentioned the tug a couple times,” Rebecca said as they marched back toward the storage deck. “From the context, I take it that’s a ship that’s designed to move asteroids to the station? Nobody else has asked, so I’m guessing they were already familiar with it.”
    “Got it in one.” Rhett nodded and gave her a smile. “It’s not a big ship, but its drives pack a lot of power. They anchor onto an asteroid and more or less become an engine for it. Ours isn’t returning as fast as I’d like, but that’s mainly because we sent some of our grown kids out so they could learn how to operate it. Slower today, but it’ll pay off in the long run.”
    Joseph wanted to ask how many of the various owners’ children worked on the station, but they reached the storage floor again and the noise there cut off any discussion. He’d hold the question for later.
    “I’ll head back to the control room,” Rhett said when they returned to the living areas of the station. “You’re welcome to spend some time in the cafeteria and lounge areas if you like.” A hopeful look appeared on his face. “No obligation, but I’d appreciate it if you would. There’s barely forty of us here in total, and it’s rare now that we get a chance to talk to anybody new.”
    Joseph glanced at his crew quickly to see what they thought. Nobody showed a negative reaction to the idea, and several seemed inclined to oblige. He wouldn’t mind it himself. Four Machines was the one station on their schedule so far that he thought it advisable to disembark on, they ought to make the most of it.
    “I don’t see why not, there isn’t much else for us to do,” Joseph said. Smiles broke through on the faces of several of his crew. “Let’s talk to Charlie and set up a rotation to man the bridge, and anyone who doesn’t need to be there can come aboard for a while.”

Chapter 46: Tour Of An Asteroid

By Stephen Schamber

In A Starship's Wake

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© 2019 by Stephen Schamber