Shane used a power hammer to drive a stake into the hard metallic surface of the asteroid. When it was finished, he moved the hammer off to the side, which floated for a moment before lazily drifting downward. He attached a loop of cable to the stake that ran from the nearby coring drill. Unlike a traditional drill that pulverized everything in its path, this type had an opening at the center of the drill head. Essentially, as it drilled, it created a cylindrical rod made out of whatever material the drill had pushed through. Then it was a simple matter of pulling the rod of material out before continuing the process.
A rover moved past with Archie in the driver’s seat. The readings from the seismic imager had revealed a vein of platinum a little farther away from Shane’s site. The vein was close enough to the surface that a small drill made for hand use was all that was required to mine it. He had already dropped off his first load at the conveyor belt behind the lander.
“Drill Master,” John said. “I know there’s really no need for us to be in a hurry to get this done, but as XJ gets closer to the sun, the levels of solar radiation steadily increase.”
“My team’s well aware of the danger,” Shane said. “And we’re working as fast as we can. Over. Kula, let me see what we’re up against.”
“Alright,” Kula said. He stepped over to Shane and held up his tablet. The screen showed the asteroid with several different colored pockets of material. He pointed to one deep inside the asteroid. “The readings from this pocket here indicate a high concentration of rhodium.” He indicated another pocket above it. “This here is a vein of gold that’s in the way of the rhodium, and we’ll need to go through it.”
“This is the first time I’ve ever thought that finding gold was an inconvenience,” Shane said with a laugh. “Gold is pretty soft, so I wouldn’t expect us to have any trouble with that.”
“That was the good news, boss. The Bad news is this here.” He indicated a layer above the gold near XJ’s surface. “That’s made out of solid iron-ferrite.”
Shane cursed. “This part couldn’t have been easy, could it. Well, we knew this whole rock was made out of one big chunk of iron, so we shouldn’t be surprised. But we came prepared for this possibility. Go ahead and load up the diamond tipped drill.”
“You got it, boss.” Kula handed him the tablet and walked over to the second rover.
Shane studied the tablet as the other crew member moved the rover closer to the drill. Kula used the robotic arm to place a diamond tipped drill into the drill housing. Next, he stepped out of the rover and started securing the drill. Shane turned his attention to what Kula was doing. When everything was ready, they fired up the drill. There was no sound as it spun up to speed, but beyond the display on the tablet, a strong vibration was the only indication that it was working.
Several blinking red arrows appeared below the representation of the drill, indicating it was having trouble piercing the iron-ferrite. “She’s having a hell of a time punching through this junk,” Shane said. “Keep an eye on that heat gauge. This might take a while.”
He reached down and picked up a rock. It was covered in the square fractals of silica material, but in places, he saw the grayish specks of iron. He let go of the tablet that was strapped to his waist, grabbed the rock with both hands, then pulled them back into the stance of a baseball pitcher. The rock flew into the blackness, reflecting the glare of the Sun like a strobe light as it pulled away. Soon, it disappeared from view.
He returned to the tablet, swiping through the various readouts on the drill. It struggled to chew through XJ’s tough metallic surface, but it was steadily making progress. Shane and Kula milled around the drill while it worked, waiting for something to happen or for the need of them to fix something.
Shane spotted Duncan walking down the lander’s ramp. The astronaut walked around the lander, presumably checking for hull damage to the craft. Above, near the top of the Midas, he saw the distant shape of a white spacesuit attached to the AMU. The shape drifted across the hull before disappearing around the other side of the ship. Archie motored past him on the asteroid with another load of platinum. Shane activated the private circuit on his comms, so only Kula could hear him.
“Lucky bastard,” Shane said indignantly. “He got the easy job.”
Kula chuckled. “Yes,” he agreed. “But we got the important job, my friend. What we’re after is much more valuable.”
Shane nodded his agreement. The words, clear apparatus, flashed angrily across his tablet. He tapped a key on the tablet to shut down the drill. The vibrations ceased, and the drill steadily spun to a stop. Shane climbed on the nearby second rover and used the robotic arm to start pulling the rock core from the drill. Kula stood beside the drill spotting him. A strong vibration suddenly started building. Confused, Kula moved closer to check the drill. A thrill of fear shot through Shane when he realized what the vibration was. It was a blowout! He scrambled off the rover and rushed toward Kula.
“Kula,” he yelled. “Get back!”
A cloud of steam erupted from the drill. The rock core shot away from the asteroid. The steam engulfed Kula, sending him flying towards space. Shane grabbed a loose cable attached to the rover and jumped toward Kula. He sailed away at a disconcerting speed but managed to grab Kula when the crew member reached out with his hand. Shane grasped him by the forearm as tightly as he could, bracing himself for the cable to go taught. He felt the yank on his arm, but it was much softer than he was expecting. It was too soft! The amount of force his arm should have absorbed should have dislocated his arm or at least felt like it. The only explanation was the cable wasn’t anchored to anything. He held a loose cable that wouldn’t do him any good. His moment of heroism had doomed him along with Kula. Their bodies would drift between stars forever.
There was an extremely painful yank on Shane’s arm that pulled them back toward the asteroid. Gritting his teeth, Shane looked down to see the robotic arm on the other rover holding the cable. Shane cursed in admiration.
“I’ve got you, Drill Master,” Archie said. He steadily pulled them toward him.
“What’s going on down there,” John called over the comms. “Report. Drill team, report!”
“Lander, status,” Janice said.
Kula heavily breathed as he spoke. “Thank you, my friend,” he said gratefully. “Thank you, thank you, oh, thank you.”
“No problem,” Shane said, almost in disbelief while he was still partially in shock from the pain and almost meeting an unimaginable fate.
Duncan arrived at the rover, moving quickly with dangerously long strides that threatened to throw him off the asteroid. He grabbed a length of cable and started pulling on it. Soon, Duncan and the arm on the rover had arrested enough momentum that Shane and Kula were safe from flying away. Duncan grabbed Shane’s leg and guided him to the surface of XJ. Shane felt a flare of pain through his shoulder when he landed.
“Flight, this is Duncan,” Duncan said eagerly. “Situation safely resolved, will report when capable. Over.”
Archie stepped out of the rover. “You okay, boss?” he almost yelled.
“Never better,” Shane said. She gasped when Duncan moved his arm while checking for injuries.
“Yeah, that’s definitely out of its socket,” Duncan said. “I can give you something for the pain when we’re back at the lander.”
“This is a story I’m sure no one will soon forget,” Kula said.
“Remind me about that once I get some painkillers in me,” Shane joked.
“Lander, be advised,” Janice reported. “Solar output monitoring satellites detected a CME from the sun. That was nearly 15 hours ago. The orbital alignments of The Moon and Venus disrupted our communication with Earth, and we just now received the warning. We estimate you have approximately seven minutes to reach shelter before it hits. We’re commencing shutdown procedures for nonessential systems to avoid damage to our systems. We’re disconnecting communications now. Good luck.” A burst of static followed her final word.
CME stood for Coronal Mass Ejection. It was essentially a solar flare but on a massive scale. CMEs flooded the solar system with high-energy particles and would kill an unprotected person in a matter of seconds. People on the earth and those in orbit were protected from this phenomenon by the earth’s magnetic field. But those far away from planetary bodies were vulnerable to such events. However, the Midas and its lander were designed to shield the crew from the deadly radiation of a CME. The crew members just had to make it the shelter of either.
“Nothing can ever be easy, can it,” Shane said.
“I’m sorry for this, Drill Master,” Duncan said empathetically. “But we’ve got to move.”
Shane sucked in a breath as Duncan lifted him to his feet. Kula helped support him as they helped him onto the back of a rover before driving back to the lander.
“What about the equipment?” Archie said.
“Leave it,” Shane commanded.
“We’re just going to leave it out here?”
“I said leave it! Unless you want to be remembered as the first person to be fried by a CME.” Archie climbed into the other rover and road after them.
They flew up the lander’s ramp. Archie darted over to the button that retracted the ramp. He rushed over to help Shane out of the rover to free Duncan to initiate shutdown procedures. Duncan dashed into the cockpit through the cargo bay door. The cockpit section was the most shielded part of the lander, and they would be safe there to ride out the storm of particles. Kula and Archie hurriedly deposited Shane into a chair.
Duncan flipped switches in a flurry. He thrust his finger at the back hatch. “Get that door closed and re-pressurize this section. We don’t want to risk suffocating in our suits if those systems go off-line.” He glanced at a computer screen. “30 seconds until it hits.”
Shane counted off the seconds. The lighting of the cockpit dimmed, and Duncan switched off the remaining screens. Everyone waited with bated breath, but there seemed no change when the timer counted to 0. Shane couldn’t help laughing. What were they expecting to happen? A violent impact? They were dealing with particles imperceptible to human senses.
“Okay, gentleman,” Duncan said. “We’re stuck here until this passes. Do any of you know how to shuffle cards?”