Slingship Sam chapter 6

     “Good morning, Sam, it’s time for you to get up. We will return to periapsis in thirty five minutes.”

     There’s no morning in space, just a clock setting. Astronauts in the old Space Station in low-Earth orbit saw 16 sunrises a day. Sam hadn’t seen a sunrise since he was 21.

     Sunrise was not an event in his life, but he stayed in a regular 24-hour day–even after all these years he was still on Pacific Standard Time.

He had a morning routine. A slab of burrito from the food printer and a cup of instant coffee, as usual, and Fling displayed news stories from around the Solar System–there was a lot more news than the usual trickle Sam got relayed from his Interamnia connection, because Fling had downloaded the datastream when linked with Patroclus.

But it was mostly Earth stuff, many weeks old, besides being 85 minutes out of now with Earth, and Earth had mutated far out of Sam’s understanding. Most of the news stories made no sense to him. Stupid news programs about events on Earth, and Sam had no idea what they were talking about.

Most of the entertainment programs were in Chinese and Hindi and Spanish. Fling could auto-translate them if Sam wanted, but the stories were impenetrable.

     Plus, because of the technological advances on Earth, Sam didn’t have the right playback equipment to view the newest entertainments. Sam had a copy of every movie, TV show, song, book, ever recorded. Up to the time he left Earth. Everything coming from Earth now was beyond his ken.

     It wasn’t so much that the new stuff was in Chinese–Fling could translate it on the fly for him.

     It was the cultural transformation that didn’t translate. Sam was unable to identify the social strictures that the characters in Earth videos were responding to.

     He finished his coffee and turned off the news as Hilco loomed larger and larger in the viewplate. The details came more and more into focus. A big lumpy potato pocked with impact craters, about as big as Phobos, mottled dark gray. A junk asteroid, not the kind a slingship herds.  

     It was a leisurely approach. Fling’s velocity relative to the rock was only 23 miles per hour at periapsis. Yesterday’s close approach lasted less than a heartbeat. This time it would take 15 minutes.

     “How big is this rock, anyway?” Sam said.

     “Hilco’s diameter is fourteen miles on the long axis,” Fling said, “and twelve miles on the short axis.”

     The closer they got, the more details become visible. He began to see arrays of solar power panels on the cratered surface, acres and acres of them.  

Sam told Fling to go into Full Record mode.

     They were coming in on the sunlit side; Sam could see Fling’s shadow moving across the craters below. The rock slid slowly underneath and appeared to rotate, but it was an illusion caused by their close approach and orbit. It looked just like Phoebos, the port at inner Mars orbit.

     A human life support dome hove into view, a geodesic dome. They were at the closest point now, only a mile above the surface.

     “Fling, use line-of-sight frequencies:

     “Hello, Hilco, this is Sam Flandern, my ship is damaged and I’m seeking a scrap of corium for repair.”

     “Broadcast that on as many frequencies as possible.”

     “Yes, Sam.”

     Next to the dome was a cargo freighter. “Let’s see a closeup of that freighter,” Sam said, and the image magnified. “Maersk!” he said. It was a Maersk container ship. That made sense.

     “Yes,” said Fling, “it’s a Maersk Quadruple E Orbital.”

     Sam saw two more smaller structures–chemical storage tanks, most likely–and a dozen shipping containers strewn between the dome and the cargo ship.      “Strong magnetogravitic readings indicate the presence of corium,” Fling said.     

     “How much corium? Is there enough for our repair? Is it on the surface?”

     “Sufficient quantities.”

     “Can we interact with it now? Can we maneuver using life-support energy even though the main propulsion battery is offline?”


     “Slow down our orbit. Let’s land next to that dome next time around.” Sam heard a change in the background thrum of the mag drive as Fling’s low orbit rotated the station out of view beyond the horizon.

     “Okay, let’s look at the video,” Sam said. “Show me a closeup of that cargo ship. A Quadruple E, you say?”

     “Yes, Sam, 1,300 feet long, 194 feet wide. It is apparently nuclear-powered.” The view expanded and Sam saw radiation hazard symbols near the rear of the Maersk. That was a remnant of the early corium era, before the engineers figured out how to tap constant power from the Sun’s magnetic field.

      Very expensive at the time, built before the engineers knew how to get the last drop of efficiency out of corium. A brute-force method that was used for a few years to ferry large amounts of cargo to the belt. You didn’t see many refitted container ships in the Belt these days; bulk cargo ships built specifically for space were the norm.

     It was fairly common back in the early days of the corium boom. You could wait seven years for a built-for-outer-space cargo ship to be constructed, or you could jigger together something fast and dirty. The Maersk Triple E container ships were too wide and too long to fit through the Panama Canal. They were available at the scrap metal price. And they were available now.

     They were designed for carrying standard containers, huge amounts of containers. There was plenty of room for installing a pressurized life support capsule.  The Hill Corporation would have been able to buy it for practically nothing; it was the corium keel that would have been stupendously expensive, back when corium was new.

     Fling said, “Analysis reveals many tons of corium embedded in the asteroid, along with a larger amount of steel.” Fling displayed a graph. “As you can see, the acceleration went asymptotic at our closest approach. Calculations show it must have been 12,000 tons of corium. If it had been iron, the graph would have plateaued.”

     Fling displayed a wire-frame model of the asteroid. “Electromagnetic detectors identify a network of corium tubing inside the asteroid. This is what we unexpectedly interacted with yesterday.”

     Fling’s wire-frame model showed a winding-yarn array way just under the surface, wrapping around the asteroid for hundreds of miles. “So it’s corium rebar to distribute the acceleration force throughout the body of the asteroid,” Sam said. “They wouldn’t have been able to accelerate the iron companion just with a mag drive perched on the surface.” It would have required a large solid framework embedded into the asteroid to withstand the equal and opposite reaction to the ejection of the mile-long iron companion.

     the entire body of the carb to support the structure of the corium tubes that would generate the gravito-magnetic conversion strong enough to give the necessary acceleration to the iron,

     Sam pulled back the magnification to include both the dome and the Maersk. “Run it backwards,” he said. “Where are their slingships? Did they all pack up and leave? Are they riding the iron now?” 

     “No communications have been received, no acknowledgment of our message,” Fling said. “The Hill Corporation base appears to have been abandoned.”

     “What’s that long thing on the surface between the ship and the dome?” Sam said.

     Fling increased the magnification: “A radio tower, fallen to the ground. No repairs appear to have been attempted.”

     The place seemed in disarray–the tall antenna had fallen across one of the empty containers surrounding the dome.

     “The Hillco folks packed up and rode their iron somewhere else and left their base behind?” Sam said. “With a project this big, how come I never heard about it?”  

     Well, the Belt is huge. There were all kinds of groups with ongoing plans. Frankie Helix had a thriving colony on Interamnia, but after he was killed the colony unraveled and fell back into supplication to NASA.

     The Hill Farm project was a secret. Well, not a secret, just non-communicative. Anybody who researched could find out about the carb with the iron satellite, but there were ten million asteroids in the Belt and a lot of them were claimed and under development. You could work on somebody else’s asteroid as an employee, or you could claim your own asteroid and work it all by yourself.

     “United Orbital Materials Corporation attempted an ejection of a companion ten years ago,” Fling said. “Their mag drive exploded and there were no survivors.”

     With all the corium Fling’s graph was showing, he should be able to scrape up enough to replace the burned-out connector rod. Maybe he could still make it to Patroclus in time to get the job.

     Nobody expected corium. Sam wasn’t even a teenager yet when the first sample came back. A seven-year NASA robotic mission brought back to Earth thirty ounces of scrapings from the surface of an asteroid, at the cost of two billion dollars. A little more than a billion dollars a pound. At the Johnson Space Center, researcher Nadine Stallard was in a lab testing the electrical conductivity of a sample from the asteroid, a pebble of metal the size of the tip of your thumb.

     She touched an ohmmeter’s probe to one side of the pebble, and when she touched the other probe to the other side, there was a huge explosion. Ms. Stallard was seriously injured. It took them a while to figure out what happened. There was no trace of the pebble left in the lab. They found a thumb-sized hole in the wall–and an identical hole through the wall on the other side of the next room, and a series of identical holes punched through the walls of seven more rooms. Beyond the seventh wall was the Armand Bayou and although NASA searched the bayou for several weeks, no sign of the pebble was ever found.

     The pebble had accelerated so fast it generated a sonic boom as it punched through the walls, and also through Dr. Stallard. She luckily she survived and was able to explain what she’d done.

     NASA cautiously performed the same test on another sample and duplicated Stallard’s results, but with extra safety procedures in place and with a far smaller voltage.

     Science headlines reported that the metal was a previously unknown allotrope of iron. Allotropes are different forms of an element. Graphite and diamond are two allotropes of carbon, for instance. The same element, but radically different crystalline structure. The atoms of the element are bonded together in a different manner.

     Creating this allotrope of iron required pressures found only in the core of a planet. Scientists dusted off an old theory: perhaps the asteroid belt was the debris from the explosion of a planet millions of years ago, and perhaps these chunks of allotropic iron were from the core.

     Compressed into a higher density and with a much different crystalline lattice than ordinary iron, it demonstrated amazing characteristics. It was a superconductor.  It was an interface between electromagnetism and gravity: it could convert electromagnetic energy into gravitational energy. It could convert motion into electricity, and vice versa.

     Sam was ready to rendezvous on the first return orbit. The sound of Fling’s mag drive changed as they slowed even further and descended to the asteroid’s surface a hundred feet away from the dome. You couldn’t call it a “landing,” it was more like docking.

     Sam pulled on his transparent graphene vacuum suit, like putting on a nylon stocking except it was a full-body stocking. Sam was highly experienced in using his vacuum suit. Corium-harvesting often called for surface work: bounding around on the surface of an asteroid. He’d had plenty of practice maneuvering around on small asteroids. It was like mountain climbing: you consider the entire surface to be a vertical face.

     He strapped on his surface belt with pitons and a hammer and went through the outer airlock. Sam clipped his safety rope from the piton belt to the grommet at the airlock’s exterior.

     Fling had landed him directly at the front door of the dome’s entrance tunnel, an eight-foot-diameter tube made of the same geodesic hexagons as the dome. The tube connected the dome to the airlock of the Maersk.

     He was about six feet above the surface. He stepped away from the ship and looked around as he fell.

     He wasn’t going to need the pitons: stanchions with guide ropes were all around the dome. There were lanes leading to the cargo doors on the dome–the Hilco people must have taken the containers off the Maersk and dragged them across the surface by hand. It wouldn’t do to get them going very fast, not in the low-g environment. You wanted to able to stop the damned things before they went entirely through the other side of the dome.

     The surface was powdery dust. The asteroid has been pummeled by meteors for millions of years and the impacts have powdered the surface.

     There were thousands of footprints in the surface, but they could have been thirty years old: footprints were immortal in the vacuum except for meteorite impacts. None of which were evident in the footprints.

     The surface gravity of the asteroid was so low that the escape velocity was only 25 miles an hour. A man could almost run fast enough to leap into orbit. But you couldn’t run: your first step took you out of contact with the surface for long seconds. If you can do a two foot high jump on Earth, then you can jump a half mile straight up on Hilco, and your trip will take about 26 minutes (13 up and 13 down). Sam weighed 3 ounces on Hilco.

     Sam needed to find a chunk of corium that he could machine into a replacement electrode for the ultracapacitor battery. Fling’s scans had showed that there was no corium onboard the Maersk; Sam would have to enter the abandoned dome. He had about half a mile of safety line–plenty enough to cross the couple hundred feet of surface to the dome.

     He got to the dome and pulled himself around the five cargo doors but couldn’t find any way to open the doors. He went to the opposite end of the geodesic tunnel. Before he got there, a naked woman emerged, a good-looking blonde, her long hair visible inside the clear globe of her air helmet.     Her blond hair was tied by a blue checkered bandana inside the clear globe of her air helmet. Other than the air bottle connected to the helmet, she wore nothing else. Sam noticed that she was a natural blonde. And then he noticed she wasn’t completely naked: she held a taser pistol. She fired the taser at him and he went into a painful paralytic shock.

     He felt his body stiffen like a board, and lost all motor skills, but remained completely cognizant of what was going on: fully aware, completely conscious, and totally unable to move on his own. He could only make spasmodic jerky motions as the naked blonde grabbed him by the harness and unclipped the tether rope connecting him to Fling and pulled him into the entrance airlock of the geodesic dome.