“No,” Sam said. “I don’t know anybody on Earth. What’s the story with Hilco?”
“Hilco is the property of the Hill Corporation,” Fling said.
Hilco’s web page appeared on the screen with an extremely outdated look.
“The Hill Corporation launched a large-scale mining expedition thirty years ago. It’s not clear what their intent was. There is no record of Hilco ever buying or selling any corium through the major trading centers at Ceres, Mars, Luna, or CircumTerra.”
“That’s what happened to most of those early exploiters,” Sam said. “They went bankrupt and vanished.”
“Patroclus Control comments that Hilco has an unusual orbit.”
“Dang right it’s unusual, that’s why we’re using it,” Sam said. “It was the only iron available for us in the outer Kirkwood Gap.”
There are two million asteroids in the Belt larger than a mile in diameter, and another hundred million asteroids smaller than a mile. Nobody knew how many of them were under development. There wasn’t really any way to find out if any particular asteroid had corium except by going there and looking. Companies sent drone probes to rendezvous with rocks for a robotic inspection, and the companies did not share that information. If you reported that your probe located a huge deposit of corium on Asteroid 1023253, slingship rats who heard that report might get there first and pick it clean before a bureaucratically scheduled harvester fleet could get there.
“The last recorded check of Hilco’s position was seventeen years ago and no orbital deviations were noted,” Fling said. “The asteroid was won by William Anders Hill in the AstroLotto game. He was engaged with CoreMetalsInc to develop the property.”
“Is there anybody still there on Hilco? Can we send a message to their site?”
“Hilco has not responded to any inquiries in thirty years.”
Sam pedaled past a couple of bums rummaging in a trash can. The morning sun felt good on his face–the holo included full solar wavelengths for natural vitamin D production. He flipped through pages of cautiously guarded hype on the Hilco site. It was self-congratulatory and aspirational and had nearly zero factual content. “What do you think happened to the iron? Did they mine it all? That doesn’t seem likely, if they’ve never sold anything. Maybe they docked it with Hilco A?”
“Telescopic examination has not revealed any such docking. However, Hilco A’s rotational rate differs from the value in the ephemeris, which was one rotation every 11 hours and 42 minutes. It now rotates only once every 16 days. Perhaps the corporation used a mag drive to transfer the rotational energy to Hilco B to transfer it into a new orbit.”
“All the companies that tried that went broke,” Sam said. The refineries orbiting at Ceres and Mars were clustered with captured irons now–and most of the companies were now bankrupt and forgotten, in the wake of the immense oversupply of nickel and iron and gold and platinum. Only corium had held its value in space commerce.
“Whatever their plans were, there is no record of any result,” Fling said. “Hilco has not responded to any contact attempts. They announced a restructuring of their mission statement seventeen years ago, that’s the last thing in the records that in the data supplied by Patroclus Control. ‘In recognition of changed factors in the economic environment,’ et cetera. It didn’t explain what its previous mission statement was nor what the new one was.
“There is no further discussion of the Hill Corporation’s plans. Operator Timmins forwarded a personal email to you from Earth. It was sent several years ago but has been available only on official NASA.com bandwidth.”
“Yes, I know, that’s what Bill Timmins said. I said I don’t know anybody on Earth.”
“It is from your grandmother. A birthday greeting.”
“Nana Flandern? Huh. Okay, let me see it.”
“Hi Sam, I know I’ll never hear from you, but I wanted you to see what I’m doing on my one hundred and tenth birthday,” she said. The video selfie was from inside an aircar, Sam could see. “I’m still fighting the good fight and you’re still bringing poison to Earth.” Nana’s car was twenty feet off the ground, typical for an aircar with a corium floorboard, and down below, out the window behind her, Sam could see costumed men in conical helmets and leather jackets with chain mail sewn in, carrying spears and swords and kite-shaped shields. They were hemmed in on every side by protestors.
“We aren’t letting them put on their show,” Nana said. “I’m here at the Decacentennial protest in England. They’re proud of a thousand years of royal oppression and we’re here to shame them.
“I know better than to expect you to understand. The royals are the ones profiting from corium technology but they don’t care that it is slowing the Earth’s rotation. It’s a catastrophe!”
Sam knew that the Earth is naturally slowing its rotation. In the early days of the dinosaurs, the Earth spun faster–the day was under 23 hours long. The rotational energy is transferred to the Moon via the tides, which push the Moon it about two inches a year farther from the Earth. In the far future the Earth will stop rotating compared to the Moon and one side of the Earth will be perpetually locked to face the Moon, just as the Moon right now has one face locked to the Earth.
That’s billions of years away, but Nana Flandern’s protest group thought it was going to kill our grandchildren. Besides disrupting the reproductive cycles of every living thing in the world!
Earth’s rotation has slowed down by about 1.8 milliseconds a day in the last 100 years. Nana was concerned because the rate has hit 2.1 milliseconds. Maybe that sounds insignificant, but over a couple thousand years, that adds up to over seven hours. And it’s a permanent loss! And it’s all from corium converting Earth’s rotation into electricity!
“We’re making progress! The corium boom is over. NASA’s new regulations are going to put an end to you guys.” Sam paused the video and checked the Comex reports forwarded by Patroclus: shipments of corium to Earth continued to set ever higher record highs.
“It’s my 110th birthday, and I don’t look a day over 50. And it’s because of good science, not your evil space crap.”
“I know I won’t hear from you,” she said, “but I wanted to let you know I’m doing okay. And I know how dreary your diet is in space and you’ll never have anything as nice as this.” As the aircar settled to the ground she took a bite from a vanilla fudge ice cream cone dipped in chocolate chopped peanuts, and the video ended.
That reminded Sam that he was hungry. He stopped pedaling and got off the exercycle and went into the kitchen to check the food printer. Sam’s food unit was ancient and provided only one item: food loaf, a burrito with all necessary nutrients. Even though the unit was ancient it was better than the food printers NASA allowed into space these days.
Sam opened the lid of the food printer and saw that four inches of poop in a blanket was ready. It didn’t smell good.
The slingship’s life support system included a large tank of organics that recycled input from the toilet and garbage. The whole ship stank because the organics tank should have been flushed months ago.
“I can’t believe this might be my last meal,” Sam said.
Fling said, “You have 13,234 MREs in the cargo hold.”
Enough for three meals a day for about 12 years, if the food printer totally conked out. Sam thought about the savory tastes of the Asian beef strips in an MRE-22. But MREs were too valuable to eat. They were his personal fortune, far more valuable than gold under the conditions these days in the Asteroid Belt.
He looked down at the food loaf and said, “Oh, the hell with it,” and closed the lid and went to the airlock door and went out into the cargo hold to get an MRE.